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Thursday, May 23, 2024

The Mary Whitaker Murder Case

     In the summer months for 35 years, 61-year-old Mary Whitaker played violin for the Chautauqua Institution Symphony Orchestra in western New York. She lived in a one-story home outside of Westfield. During the rest of the year the New York City resident played for the West Chester Philharmonic.

     On Tuesday night, August 19, 2014, someone drove 43-year-old Jonathan Conklin and Charles Sanford, 30, from Erie, Pennsylvania to Westfield, New York. Both men, with long histories of crime, had met a few months earlier at an Erie homeless shelter. After their driver dropped them off, Mr. Conklin broke into an apartment near a bar and stole several guns that included a .22-caliber rifle.

     From the site of the burglary the two criminals walked to Mary Whitaker's rural home on Titus Road. With Jonathan Conklin hiding nearby, Charles Sanford rapped on her door. When Mary Whitaker responded to his knock, he said he had run out of gas and needed to use her phone. After she handed him her cellphone Conklin came out of hiding with the rifle in hand and said, "This is a robbery." A moment later he shot Miss Whitaker in the chest. The victim screamed, and when she grabbed Conklin's rifle, the gun went off again. The second bullet entered her leg.

     Following the shooting the robbers dragged the bleeding woman into her garage where they left her to die while they ransacked her house for items to steal. Upon returning to the garage Conklin ordered his accomplice to kill the victim. Charles Sanford complied by stabbing the wounded victim in the throat.

     As Mary Whitaker bled to death in her garage the two cold-blooded killers drove back to Erie in her Chevrolet. They had also stolen her checkbook and credit cards.

     Upon the discovery of Mary Whitaker's body, police in Chautauqua County, aware that Jonathan Conklin had been in the area, immediately suspected him of burglarizing the apartment and murdering the violinist.

     On Friday morning, August 22, 2014, after using Whitaker's credit cards to buy a flat screen television and some clothing at a Walmart store, Erie detectives took Conklin and Sanford into custody.

     On the day of their arrest the suspects appeared before a federal magistrate on charges of interstate transportation of a stolen motor vehicle, carjacking and federal firearms violations. In Chautauqua County, New York, Conklin and Sanford faced state charges of first-degree murder, burglary and robbery.

     A Chautauqua County grand jury in January 2015 indicted Conklin and Sanford on charges of second-degree murder, burglary, robbery and criminal use of a firearm. Four months later the Chautauqua County district attorney announced that the suspects would be tried together in January 2016. Mr. Conklin was represented by an attorney with the local public defender's office while Sanford had a defense lawyer from Fredonia, New York.

     In September 2015 Charles Sanford pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and agreed to testify against Jonathan Conklin. Conklin, facing a sure-fire conviction, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder a month later.

     In May 2016 the judge sentenced Charles Sanford to fifteen years to life. Jonathan Conklin received a sentence of twenty-five years to life. Both men should have been given the death sentence.

     Cases like this remind us that we live among predatory, cold-blooded killers who should be behind bars but are not.

Wednesday, May 22, 2024

The Woodrow Karey Murder Case

     Over the past several years places of worship have become places of sudden, violent death. Preachers, a church organist and a handful of congregants have been murdered inside their churches. Most of these homicides occurred during religious services. Some of the killers belonged to the church while others were outsiders. All of these murderers were caught, and most of them were pathologically motivated.

     None of the church murders involved acts of terrorism. Notwithstanding these bizarre incidents, inside a church on Sunday or any other day is still one of the safest places to be. This is not true in many middle eastern countries as well as other places around the world where there is religious persecution and terrorism.

The Killing of Pastor Ronald J. Harris

     Lake Charles, Louisiana is located in the southwest part of the state. At 8:30 Friday evening September 27, 2013, 53-year-old Woodrow Karey, armed with a shotgun walked into the Tabernacle of Praise Worship Center in Lake Charles. Pastor Ronald J. Harris was standing in front of the church preaching to sixty revival service congregants when Mr. Karey blew him off his feet with a blast from his shotgun. As the preacher lay bleeding on the church floor Woodrow Karey stood over him and fired a second shot into his head, killing Reverend Harris instantly.

     As congregants, including the pastor's wife, mother and daughter scrambled for cover, Woodrow Karey walked out of the church. Shortly thereafter the shooter called 911. He identified himself and informed the dispatcher of what he had just done. Kerey said he wanted to turn himself in and informed the 911 dispatcher where the police could find him.

      Shortly after Woodrow Karey's 911 call, deputies with the Calcasieu Parrish Sheriff's Office took him into custody without incident. Before being hauled off to jail the shooter took the officers to a wooded area where he had hidden a .22-caliber pistol and the murder weapon.

     Detectives believed that Woodrow Karey shot Ronald Harris because the pastor and Karey's wife Janet were having an affair.

     A parish prosecutor initially changed Woodrow Karey with second-degree murder. He was held on $1 million bond at the Calacasieu Corrections Center. According to reports, Mr. Karey did not have a criminal record. The authorities did not reveal if he had a history of mental illness.

     In December 2013, pursuant to a plea agreement, a grand jury indicted Karey for the lesser offense of manslaughter. The judge reduced his bail to $500,000. In Louisiana, manslaughter carried a sentence of 10 to 40 years. The defendant's trial was scheduled for late 2014.

     In June 2014 a second grand jury indicted Karey for the more serious homicide of second-degree murder. However, in January 2015, Calcasieu Parish Judge Clayton Davis, on the grounds the prosecution reneged on their promise only to pursue manslaughter in the case, threw out the second indictment.

     In June 2015 an appellate court reinstated the second-degree murder charge. The Karey defense appealed that decision and on September 7, 2016 the Louisiana Supreme Court granted Mr. Karey a stay, further delaying the resolution of this so called "open and shut" case.

     Woodrow Karey finally went on trial in April 2018. The defendant's wife Janet Karey took the stand for the defense and testified that Pastor Harris, over a period of 14 years, had repeatedly raped her. The defendant took the stand on his own behalf and said he had killed the minister after learning of what the victim had done to his wife.

     Following the closing arguments the case went to the jury. After deliberating three hours the jury stunned virtually everyone in the courtroom with the verdict of not guilty. After five years behind bars Mr. Karey was a free man.

Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Kurt Cobain's Sudden Death: Suicide or Murder-For-Hire?

     Kurt Cobain was the lead singer of the band Nirvana. Married to Courtney Love, he had a history of heroin addiction, clinical depression and bipolar disorder. In April 1994, following a stint at a drug rehabilitation facility, Courtney Love reported him missing and suicidal. She hired celebrity private investigator Tom Grant to find him.

     On April 8, 1994 a worker hired to install security lighting at Kurt Cobain's Seattle estate found the 27-year-old dead in the space above his garage referred to as "the greenhouse." The lighting installer found Cobain lying on the floor with a severe head wound and a shotgun (purchased for him by a friend) resting on his chest. Cobain's left hand was wrapped around the barrel. Nearby lay a one-page handwritten note.

     The King County Medical Examiner, Dr. Nicholas Hartshorne, determined the cause of death to be a point blank shotgun blast to the head. The forensic pathologist estimated that Cobain had died on April 5, three days before the discovery of his body.  According to the toxicologist, "The level of heroin in Cobain's bloodstream was 1.52 milligrams per litre." Dr. Hartshorne ruled the manner of Cobain's death a suicide.

      Sometime after the manner of death ruling Courtney Love told an editor from Rolling Stone that Cobain had tried to kill himself in Rome by taking 50 Rohypnol pills.

     Tom Grant, the private investigator hired to find Cobain, along with a pair of true crime book writers, believed that Kurt Cobain was the victim of a murder-for-hire plot orchestrated by Courtney Love for his inheritance. Grant and his supporters believed the killer drugged Cobain with heroin, shot him, then staged the suicide. They thought the physical evidence in the greenhouse and the findings in the toxicology report made murder a more plausible manner of death than suicide.

     The Cobain murder theory proponents argued that the death scene did not contain the amount of blood one would expect from a point blank shotgun blast to the head. (Several forensic pathologists have noted that a shotgun shot inside the mouth often results in less blood.) In support of this theory, Tom Grant pointed out that Cobain's latent fingerprints were not found on the death scene shotgun. (People do not leave identifiable fingerprints on everything they touch. Therefore, the fact that Cobain's latents were not lifted from the gun doesn't prove anything. Crime scene investigators could have bungled the job.)

     Regarding the death scene suicide note, the private investigator and his supporters also subscribed to the theory the document was really a letter written by Cobain announcing his plan to leave his wife and the music industry. Tom Grant theorized that the last few lines at the bottom of the page had been written by Courtney Love. Five forensic document examiners hired by the TV shows "Dateline NBC" and "Unsolved Mysteries" examined a photocopy of the note. One of the handwriting experts concluded that the entire document was in Cobain's hand. The other four weren't sure if the last lines were added by someone else.

     Those who believed that someone had murdered Cobain argued that he had been so heavily drugged he couldn't have pulled the trigger. Of the five forensic pathologists who considered this issue, two believed that Cobain had built up enough tolerance to have the strength to kill himself. The other three forensic pathologists were not sure.

     In anticipation of the 20th anniversary of Kurt Cobain's death, a cold-case investigator with the Seattle Police Department spent weeks in February and March 2014 reviewing the case file. On March 21, 2014 a Seattle police spokesperson announced that while the cold-case detective discovered four rolls of undeveloped death scene photographs, the investigator found nothing that sustained the conclusion that Cobain was murdered.

     The newly discovered death scene photographs did not depict Cobain's corpse but rather syringes, a tainted spoon, a lighter and other personal items strewn across the floor near his body.

      The weight of the evidence in this case supported suicide. The fact Mr. Cobain was gripping the barrel of the gun (referred to as the death grip) suggests he was the shooter. If someone had shot Mr. Cobain the killer would not have been able to place the dead man's hand around the barrel in such a tightly held fashion. 

Monday, May 20, 2024

The Michael Barbar Murder Case

      In 2009 51-year-old Michael Barbar, a native of Lebanon, lived with his wife Maysam and their two daughters, ages 10 and 6, in a two-story house in Perris, a Riverside County town of 70,000 in southern California. Michael had a 19-year-old daughter from a former marriage who didn't live with him and Maysam.

     In mid-August 2009 Michael learned that his 43-year-old wife, at the time attending cosmetology school, had not been faithful to him. According to information that had come to his attention, Maysam, over the past six months, had been with three other men. He also learned that the 6-year-old Tamara, the child he had helped raise from birth, had been conceived as a result of Maysam's affair with a man in 2000.

     Some time after receiving this disturbing information Michael Barbar checked Tamara out of school early one day and took her to a McDonald's where he swabbed the inside of her mouth for a DNA sample. On November 6, 2009 the paternity test revealed that she was not his child.

     On the night of November 13, 2009, after handcuffing his wife behind her back during sex, Michael Barbar wrapped an electrical cord around her neck and strangled her to death. He then placed her nude body face-down on the master bedroom floor and covered it with a blanket.

     In Tamara's bedroom Mr. Barbar coiled a television cable around the girl's neck as she slept. When the 6-year-old awoke and struggled he bashed her head against a bedpost twenty times, crushing her skull. In a third bedroom, Tamara's 10-year-old sister heard Tamar's cries and the sounds of violent death. After Tamara's murder the terrified girl heard her father carrying what sounded like trash bags out of the house. The next morning Michael Barbar's surviving daughter discovered her sister's body. The door to the master bedroom was locked. She called 911.

     Following the double murder Michael Barbar drove to nearby Cabazon, California where, at the Morongo Casino, he played the slots. The next morning he drove east to Deming, New Mexico, a border town 60 miles west of Las Cruces. His plan was to enter Mexico then fly to his homeland of Lebanon. On November 15, 2009,the police in Deming interrupted his escape by taking him into custody.

     In early June 2012 Michael Barbar went on trial in a Riverside County Superior Court for the murders of Maysam and Tamara Barbar. Because he was being tried for a double, premeditated murder, the defendant, under California law, was eligible for the death penalty. Barbar's defense attorney, while he didn't deny that his client had committed the homicides, argued that the killings had not been premeditated. According to the defense version of the case, when Michael confronted Maysam with the paternity test results she had mocked him with a smirk. So enraged by the victim's smirk Mr. Barbar snapped and killed his wife and the 6-year-old who was not his daughter. As a result this was a crime of involuntary manslaughter. (Sometimes defense attorneys are paid to embarrass themselves. This was one of those cases.)

     Prosecutor John Aki offered the jury of seven women and five men a wealth of evidence that showed the defendant's preparation and planning for the killings. Mr. Barbar, in anticipation of his murders, had acquired a set of fake identification, rented a car, researched flight schedules between Mexico and Lebanon and had withdrawn $30,000 from his bank account. On July 13, 2012, after only three hours of deliberation, the jury found the 54-year-old defendant guilty of two counts of first-degree murder.

     On July 30, 2012, the penalty phase of the trial before the same jury got underway. For Michael Barbar the two possible outcomes involved life without parole and state imposed death. On August 10, 2012 the jury recommended that Judge Edward Weber sentence Michael Barbar to death. The judge imposed that sentence.

     Crime scene investigators on the morning after the murders, had found among Michael Barbar's possessions a copy of Truman Capote's nonfiction novel, In Cold Blood. In that book, the two men who murdered a Kansas farm family in 1959 were hanged. Mr. Barbar, however, would not end up dangling at the end of a rope because in California, regardless of the wishes of a jury and the law, they do not execute anyone. 

Sunday, May 19, 2024

Dr. Michael Berkland: A Disgraced Forensic Pathologist

     On Friday July 20, 2001 at 8:10 in the morning, a constituent entered the Fort Walton Beach, Florida office of U.S. Congressman Joseph Scarborough. Inside, the constituent discovered Lori Klausutis, a 28-year-old congressional aide lying dead on the floor. No one else was in the office. Klausutis's car was parked outside, the lights in the office were on and the front door was unlocked. 

     Two hours after Joe Scarborough's aide was found dead near her desk detectives at the scene told reporters that while they wouldn't know her cause and manner of death until the autopsy there was no sign of a struggle or evidence of a break-in or robbery. According to the investigators they had no reason to suspect foul play. 

    On the afternoon of Lori Klausutis' sudden death Dr. Michael Berkland performed the autopsy. The fact this particular forensic pathologist would be establishing the cause and manner of this woman's death was problematic. Dr. Berkland was not a qualified or credible practitioner.

    Dr. Michael Berkland, without specific training or experience in forensic pathology, entered the field in 1994 when he began working in the Jackson County Medical Examiner's Office in Kansas City, Missouri. To get that position Dr. Berkland lied about his experience and training in the field. He had been on the job less than a year when local prosecutors began complaining that Dr. Berkland was not writing up reports on all of his autopsies. There were also reports that the forensic pathologist didn't take notes within a timely period after doing an autopsy. In response to this complaint Dr. Berkland assured his critics that he had a good memory.
     Dr. Berkland's colleagues at the Jackson County Medical Examiner's Office voiced concerns about his scientific objectivity. In trials where he had testified for the prosecution he seemed to treat homicide convictions as personal victories. He became an advocate for law enforcement and a member of the prosecution team. This was not the role of a forensic pathologist.
     In February 1996 the Jackson County Medical Examiner, Dr. Michael Young, fired Dr. Berkland. In reviewing Dr. Berkland's work Dr. Young and others discovered that 39 percent of Dr. Berkland's autopsies were in one way or another incomplete. In eight autopsies he had incorrectly sectioned the corpses' brains. As a result of his sloppy work and incompetence, nine criminal cases he had worked on were at risk of being overturned on appeal.
     In January 1998 Dr. Berkland was barred from performing autopsies in the state of Missouri on the following grounds: "Dr. Berkland poses a substantial probability of serious danger to the health, safety, and welfare of his patients, clients and/or the residents of Missouri." The judge ordering Dr. Berkland's autopsy injunction characterized Dr. Berkland's work as "fraud, misrepresentation, and unprofessional conduct in the practice of medicine." A year later the state revoked Michael Berkland's license to practice medicine.
     By the time he lost his medical license in Missouri Dr. Berkland was in Florida performing autopsies in the Fort Walton Beach area. He did not tell the medical examiner who hired him in Florida that he lost his medical license in Missouri. Had that been known Dr. Berkland would not have been hired.
     The day after performing the Lori Klausutis autopsy, Dr. Berkland, at a press conference said, "Based on physical evidence, I feel comfortable moving the time of death back to the previous day." He said the young woman's death was accidental due to natural causes, noting a past medical history that was significant. Because the sudden death of a young aide in a congressman's office was potentially a big news story, reporters were disappointed with the vagueness of Dr. Berkland's presentation.
     Following Dr. Berkland's press conference the story of the congressional aide's death, as shaped by the police, Dr. Berkland and perhaps staffers in Congressman Scarborough's office, featured Klausutis' history of bad health. 
     On August 6, 2001, two and a half weeks after Lori Klausutis' sudden death, Dr. Berkland held another press conference to announce his findings. During that press conference he revealed that Lori Klausutis had sustained a "scratch and a bruise" on her head. This new information prompted questions as to why he had initially reported no signs of physical trauma. Dr. Berkland explained that his omission had been "designed to prevent undue speculation about the cause of death." Apparently Dr. Berkland thought it was his job to prevent speculative thinking, a role far beyond the scope of forensic pathology. Dr. Berkland told reporters that the last thing he wanted "was 40 questions about a head injury." Once again, this forensic pathologist had abandoned his role as an objective scientist and destroyed his credibility in the case.  
    According to Dr. Berkland, Lori Klausutis, due to a valvular condition in her heart, fainted and fell, bumping (italics mine) her head on the corner of her desk. So, pursuant to his analysis, her death had been either natural or accidental, or perhaps a combination of both. When a reporter asked Dr. Berkland if Lori Klausutis had ever been treated for the heart problem, Dr. Berkland responded that to his knowledge she had not.    
     Because Dr. Berkland had misled the media regarding the condition of Lori Kalusutis' body, reporters demanded to see a copy of his autopsy report. On August 29, 2001, bending to pressure from the media and a lawsuit, Dr. Berkland released his autopsy report to the Northwest Florida Daily News. The paper published the document's shocking contents. 
     Lori Klausutis had not suffered a head scratch and a bruise as initially stated by the forensic pathologist. She had, in fact, suffered a massive (italics mine) head injury that included a seven-and-one-quarter inch fracture across the top of her skull, an "eggshell" fracture inside her skull above her right eye socket, a scalp contusion on the back of her head and a subdural hematoma on the left side of her brain that caused it to swell and herniate--break out of--the left side of her skull. 
   Dr. Berkland interpreted the subdural hematoma--called a contracoup injury because it was on the opposite side of the head from the point of impact (causing the brain to slam against the other side of the skull)--as evidence that Klausutis' moving head had struck a stationary object. He chose this scenario over one more suggestive of foul play such as the possibility that a moving object, such as a baseball bat or metal pipe, had struck the victim.

     According to Dr. Berkland's postmortem analysis, Lori Klausutis had suffered a "cardiac arrhythmia that had halted her heart and stopped her breathing." On the way to the ground her head hit the desk and that "blow to the head had contributed to the death because blood pooled at the point where the fracture occurred." The victim, however, had continued to breathe after falling to the floor, a fact supported by the presence around her mouth and nose of a "foam cone," a bubble of froth made up of mucus and blood.

     Although Dr. Berkland had ruled Lori Klausutis' death accidental, it was hard to know from his report if the manner of death was accidental or natural. Photographs of the death scene would have depicted blood and hair on the corner of the desk. If such photographs existed they were never made public. Moreover, no death site sketches were attached to the autopsy report. So, the public, in trying to understand what had happened to Lori Klausutis, had to take Dr. Berkland's word on this. But just how good was his word? If history was a guide, not very good.

     Two years after Lori Klausutis' sudden, un-investigated death, Dr. Berkland was fired for failing to complete more than 100 autopsy reports during the period 2001 to 2002. The Florida Medical Examiner's Commission suspended his license to perform autopsies and fined him $5,000.

     In August 2012, the 57-year-old former medical examiner was arrested on charges of improper storage of hazardous material in the form of human hearts, brains and other body parts. The organs were discovered by a man who purchased a storage unit once rented by Dr. Berkland. Dr. Berkland was arrested then released on $10,000 bond. He later pleaded guilty and was fined. 
     In 2019 Dr. Berkland, a forensic pathologist for a Pensacola, Florida company called Forensic Puzzle Investigations, testified for the defense in a Florida attempted murder case. The prosecutor in that case, in challenging Dr. Berkland's professional qualifications, brought up his 2012 arrest for the improper storage of body parts. The defendant, Michael Reuschel, was found guilty of trying to murder his wife. 

Saturday, May 18, 2024

Football Coach Philip Foglietta and the Poly Prep Country Day School Cover-Up

     The Poly Prep Country Day School is an elite nursery to 12th grade private boy's academy located on two campuses in Brooklyn, New York. Poly Prep's middle and high school buildings are located in the Dyker Heights section of Brooklyn while the lower grades are on the Park Slope campus. As is often the case in schools where the sports program plays an important if not vital role in the institution, faculty member and renowned football coach Philip Foglietta enjoyed icon status during the years 1966 to 1991.

     In 1966, Coach Foglietta's first year at Poly Prep, a male student accused him of sexual molestation. A school administrator informed the boy's parents that an internal investigation revealed the accusation to be false. Moreover, if this student continued to make slanderous claims of this nature the boy would face "severe consequences." The administration's handling of this case not only silenced the accuser, it became the school's modus operandi in such matters.

     After 25 years as Poly Prep's most successful football coach, Philip Foglietta unexpectedly retired in 1991. In honor of his legendary coaching career and important contributions to the institution the school hosted a gala celebration held at the Manhattan Athletic Club. Members of the Poly Prep community and the public at large were not told of the real reason behind the coach's "retirement." He had been forced to quit as a result of accusations of "sexual misconduct."

     Following Coach Foglietta's death in 1998, Poly Prep established a memorial fund and solicited donations in his name. Four years later, in a letter to all alumni, the Poly Prep administration revealed that for years Coach Foglietta had been suspected of sexually abusing his students. According to this 2002 letter, administrators had "recently received credible allegations that sexual abuse had occurred at Poly Prep more than 20 years ago by a faculty member/coach who is now deceased." Everyone familiar with the school knew that coach was Philip Foglietta. The author of this revealing letter promised a thorough internal investigation of the accusations. (If the school actually conducted such an inquiry, no report of it surfaced. Moreover there was no indication that these "credible" accusations were ever passed on to the police.)

     In 2004 a Poly Prep alumnus named John Paggioli, alleging that as a student he had been sexually molested by Coach Foglietta, filed a lawsuit against the school. A year later a judge, citing New York State's statute of limitations on such claims, dismissed the action. (In New York a sexual abuse claimant must file suit within five years of his or her eighteenth birthday.)

     On October 26, 2009, twelve Poly Prep alumni, claiming sexual abuse by Coach Philip Foglietta, filed a Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) suit against the school in the Brooklyn District Federal Court. The plaintiffs alleged a 40-year criminal conspiracy to quash and cover-up student complains of sexual abuse allegedly committed by Poly Prep's greatest football coach.

     According to court documents, current and former Poly Prep headmasters knew that Coach Foglietta had sexually abused "dozens if not hundreds of boys." The plaintiffs alleged "Poly Prep administrators had...knowledge of Foglietta's sexual abuse of numerous boys at or near the school, but condoned and facilitated Foglietta's criminal behavior because he was a highly successful football coach and instrumental in raising substantial revenue for the school."

     In filing a RICO action, a technique the FBI used to cripple the Mafia, the Poly Prep plaintiffs were using this federal law as a way around the statute of limitations. These lawyers were asking the court to consider a sexual abuse defendant's repeated misrepresentations and deceitful conduct as a legal justification to override the application of the statute of limitations. These attorneys were attempting to create a legal exception to the doctrine that bars legal relief in older cases.  

     On August 28, 2012, in a 40-page decision, Judge Frederic Block of the Brooklyn District Federal Court allowed two of the twelve plaintiffs to go forward with their RICO claims against current and former Poly Prep administrators. If these plaintiffs prevailed under the RICO statute, other institutions like universities and churches could be faced with a flood of sexual abuse lawsuits previously blocked by statutes of limitations. For this reason future sexual abuse plaintiffs and their potential defendants were closely following the the Poly Prep RICO suit.

     On December 26, 2012 the school settled the landmark lawsuit out of court. As a result, there would be no legal precedent for other victims in old cases. In February 2014 the school issued a formal apology to all of the students sexually abused by the iconic coach and serial child molester.

Friday, May 17, 2024

The Andres Ordonez Murder Case: Sudden Death in Gangland LA

     Because of heavy gang activity no place was safe in the neighborhood surrounding the Iglesia Principe de Paz (Prince of Peace) Church on Beverly Boulevard and Reno Street in Los Angeles' Westlake District. Members of the Pentecostal storefront church were immigrants from Guatemala and other Central American countries. When these congregants settled in this part of Los Angeles they probably had no idea they would be living in such a dangerous, lawless place.

    On November 4, 2012, during a Sunday evening service, a male parishioner while checking on the food being set up in the church parking lot saw a teenage girl spray-painting gang graffiti on one of the church's walls. The churchgoer approached the girl and asked her to stop defacing the place of worship. She responded by shoving the man to the ground.

     After assaulting the churchgoer the teen continued tagging the wall. Two other worshippers came out of the church and saw their fellow parishioner lying on the pavement. As the men ran to help, a male gang member who was with the young church-tagger climbed out of a parked car and began shooting.

     One of the gunman's bullets struck and killed 25-year-old Andres Ordonez. Another member of the church, a man in his 40s, was seriously wounded. The girl with the spray-paint and her murderous companion drove off as stunned members of the congregation knelt over the victims sprawled out and bleeding on the church parking lot.

     Andres Ordonez and his pregnant wife Ana were parents of a one-year-old son. Andres had come to the United States from Guatemala as a young boy. He had worked long hours as a cook in a local restaurant and had attended this church since he was ten. His widow was the pastor's granddaughter.

     Police believed the gunman and the girl were members of a  gang who were tagging in enemy gang territory. As a result, when the church member approached the girl, the gunman, on edge, exhibited a hair-trigger response. Investigators familiar with gang-related crime knew that witnesses in these neighborhoods, out of fear of reprisals, were reluctant to cooperate with the police. LAPD homicide detective Jeff Cortina told a reporter with the Los Angeles Times that "we need the public's assistance. This wasn't gangster-on-gangster. It [the murder of an innocent citizen] could happen to anybody..."

     At a press conference on November 8, 2012 Mr. Ordonez's young widow asked witnesses to come forward and help the authorities. The city of Los Angeles posted a $50,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the gunman, his female companion and a third subject who had been in the car with the killer. The vehicle in question was described as a red four-door compact. The gunman was a Latino man in his early twenties with a muscular build and short hair.

     The senseless murder of a family man attending church on a Sunday evening by a trigger-happy gang member sparked public outrage and demands for more aggressive anti-gang policing. This came at a time when the LAPD was stretched thin and out of money. Because this case received a lot of local media coverage there was a good chance these gang members would be identified and brought to justice.

     In November 2012 Los Angeles detectives arrested 24-year-old Janeth Lopez, the woman suspected of spray-painting graffiti on the church wall. Officers booked Lopez into the county jail of charges of murder, attempted murder, vandalism and gang related offenses.

     Police officers, in February 2013, took 25-year-old gang member Pedro Martinez into custody on charges of first-degree murder, attempted murder and gang and gun related offenses. Officers also arrested the suspected get-away driver, 33-year-old Ivy Navarrete, on the same criminal charges. If convicted, all three defendants in the Ordonez murder case faced up to life in prison.

     Martinez, Navarrete and Lopez went to trial in Los Angeles Superior Court in November 2014. On December 19, 2014 the jury found the shooter, Pedro Martinez, guilty of first-degree murder, attempted murder and several gun and gang related charges. The jurors, however, deadlocked on the murder and attempted murder charges against Navarrete, woman in the car, and Lopez, the spray painter who assaulted the church goer. They were found guilty of the lesser charges

     On January 30, 2015 the judge sentenced Pedro Martinez to life in prison without parole.

     A Los Angeles Superior Court Judge, in April 2016, sentenced the spray painter, Janeth Lopez, to 40 years to life in prison. The judge sentenced Ivy Navarrette to 60 years to life behind bars for her role in the murder, attempted murder and assault. 

Thursday, May 16, 2024

Kenneth Douglas: The Morgue Employee From Hell

     First you are murdered, then your corpse is sexually abused. This represents the ultimate victimization. Having sex with a dead person, while a relatively minor crime, reflects behavior that is beyond deviant, and worse than bad. It's disturbing to know the world is populated with sexual deviants like Kenneth Douglas who can commit their disgusting acts for years without detection. While dead victims cannot speak, advances in forensic science has given them a voice. It's that voice that brought Mr. Douglas to justice.

     From 1976 to 1992 Kenneth Douglas worked the night shift at the Hamilton County Morgue in Cincinnati Ohio. According to his wife who reported him several times to his morgue supervisors, when he'd undress at home after work he "reeked of alcohol and sex." Eventually morgue officials told Mrs. Douglas to stop calling. Apparently they were not interested in knowing if one of their morgue employees was abusing corpses and contaminating evidence. When the 38-year-old left the morgue in 1992 it was not because officials fired him. He simply stopped showing up for work. The situation at the Hamilton County Morgue reflected a typical example of governmental inertia.

     In 1982, ten years before Kenneth Douglas left the morgue, door-to-door salesman David Steffan confessed to beating and slashing the throat of 19-year-old Karen Range after she invited him into her home. The forensic pathologist found traces of semen in the murder victim's body. Mr. Steffen denied that he had raped the victim. (This was before the science of DNA identification.) The judge sentenced David Steffen to death. (In 2016 a federal judge re-sentenced Steffen to life in prison plus 19 years.)

     In March 2008 police officers arrested Kenneth Douglas, the former morgue employee, on a drug charge. A detective ran his DNA sample through a database and came up with a match. The semen found in Karen Range's body was his.

     Following his indictment for abuse of a corpse in August 2008 Kenneth Douglas pleaded no contest to the charge. The judge sentenced him to three years in prison.

     Four years later investigators in Cincinnati discovered that Douglas' DNA matched semen that had been found in two other female corpses in the Hamilton County Morgue. One of these cases involved 24-year-old April Hicks who died in October 1991 after falling out of a three-story window. Kenneth Douglas, when confronted with the DNA evidence, admitted having sex with her body on the day she died.

     The other case involved the 1992 murder of 23-year-old Charlene Appling. Douglas confessed to having sex with her corpse as well. (In 1993 Mark Chambers pleaded guilty to strangling Charlene Appling. Sentenced to 10 to 25 years in prison Chambers was paroled in 2000.)

     Kenneth Douglas shocked his interrogators by confessing to having sex with more than 100 Hamilton County corpses during his tenure at the morgue. He blamed his deviant behavior on crack cocaine and booze. 

     In 2012 relatives of Karen Range, Charlene Appling and April Hicks sued Hamilton County in federal court. The plaintiffs accused the defendant of "recklessly and wantonly" neglecting to supervise Mr. Douglas. In 2013 a U.S. district judge dismissed the suit on grounds the plaintiffs, while perhaps victims of negligence on the part of morgue administrators, had failed to establish that their constitutional rights had been violated. The plaintiffs appealed that ruling.

     In August 2014 a three-judge panel on the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the lower court's decision. This meant that the civil case could go forward against Hamilton County.

     In February 2015 Hamilton County settled the abuse of corpse lawsuit by paying the plaintiffs $800,000.

Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Lizzie Borden to O. J. Simpson: The Disappointing History of Forensic Science

     The historical trajectory of forensic science can be illustrated by three celebrated murder trials: The Lizzie Borden case in 1892; the 1932 murder of the Lindbergh baby and trial of Bruno Richard Hauptmann; and the O. J. Simpson double murder and marathon trial of the mid-1990s. Starting with the Borden case the arc rises to the Lindbergh investigation and trial then falls to the bungled Simpson crime scene investigation and subsequent trial featuring investigative and forensic incompetence, hired-gun testimony and televised courtroom showboating and baffoonary.

Lizzie Borden

     While Lizzie Borden may have had the opportunity, motive and means of hacking her stepmother and father to death in their Fall River, Massachusetts home on August 4, 1892, the police, without the benefit of forensic serology and latent fingerprint identification had no way to physically link her to the bludgeoned victims or to the hatchet believed to be the instrument of death.

     In England, the year of the Borden murders, a biologist named Francis Galton published the world's first book on fingerprint classification. As early as 1880 another Englishman, Henry Faulds, had written about the use of finger marks (latent prints) as a method of placing suspects at the scenes of crimes. When Mr. and Mrs. Borden were brutally beaten to death in Fall River the so-called "exchange principle"--conceived by the French chemist Edmond Locard--that a criminal leaves part of himself at the scene of a crime and takes part of it with him--had not evolved from theory into practice. In 1901, nine years after Lizzie Borden's arrest, scientists in Germany discovered a way to identify and group human blood, a forensic technique that had it existed in 1892 may have changed the outcome of the Borden case.

     The all-male jury at Lizzie Borden's spectator-packed trial, without being presented with physical evidence linking the 32-year-old defendant to the bludgeoned and bloodied bodies, and believing that upper-middle-class women were too genteel for such brutality, found her not guilty. Had expert witnesses identified the stain on her dress as human blood and matched a bloody crime scene latent to one of her fingers, the evidence, albeit circumstantial, may have convinced the jurors of her guilt. Assuming that she did in fact commit the double murder, Lizzie, confronted by investigators in possession of such damning, physical evidence may have confessed, or in the very least, made an incriminating remark.

Bruno Richard Hauptmann

     In 1935, when Bruno Richard Hauptmann, an illegal alien from Germany living in the Bronx went on trial in Flemington, New Jersey for the March 1, 1932 murder of the 20-month-old son of Charles and Anne Lindbergh, America had confidence in forensic science and considered it the wave of the future. Because no one had seen the 35-year-old defendant climb the homemade wooden extension ladder to the second story nursery window at the Lindbergh estate near Hopewell, New Jersey, prosecutors didn't possess direct evidence of his guilt. Moreover, no one knew exactly how Hauptmann had killed the baby--had he been strangled, suffocated or bludgeoned to death?--or even exactly where the murder took place. (A truck driver who had pulled over to relieve himself along the road found the baby's remains in a shallow grave about two miles from the Lindbergh house.) If Hauptmann were to be convicted it would have to be entirely on physical evidence. In other words, jurors, based on the physical evidence and its expert analysis would have to infer his guilt.

     Having eluded detection for two and a half years following the hand-off of $50,000 in ransom money to a shadowy figure in a Bronx cemetery, the kidnapper had been passing the ransom bills, identified by their recorded serial numbers, around New York City. In September 1934 a squad made up of FBI agents, troopers from the New Jersey State Police and officers with the New York City Police Department pulled Hauptmann out of his car in Manhattan as he drove from his rented house in the Bronx to Wall Street where he had lost $25,000 in the stock market. From his wallet the arresting officers recovered one of the ransom bills, and back at his house found bundles of ransom money--totaling $14,000--hidden in his garage. Confronted with this and other circumstantial evidence of his guilt, Mr. Hauptmann, a low-grade sociopath, refused to confess.

     At Hauptmann's January 1935 trial, the most publicized and celebrated event of its kind in America and perhaps the world, eight of the country's most prominent questioned document examiners testified that he had written the note left in the nursery as well as the fourteen ransom negotiation letters sent to the Lindberghs prior to the cemetery payoff. A federal wood expert from Wisconsin took the stand and identified a board from the kidnap ladder as having come from Hauptmann's attic floor. This witness also matched tool marks on the ladder with test marks from the blade of Hauptmann's wood plane. (Although a carpenter by trade, Hauptmann had not used his tools since the ransom payoff in April 1932.)

     On February 14, 1935 the jury, based upon Hauptmann's possession of the ransom money and the physical evidence linking him to the extortion documents and the kidnap ladder, found him guilty. On April 3, 1936, following a series of appeals prison personnel at the state penitentiary in Trenton, New Jersey strapped him into the electric chair and threw the switch. The handful of protestors gathered outside the death house, when informed of Hauptmann's execution, went home.

O. J. Simpson

     Sixty years after Hauptmann's execution, detectives in Los Angeles arrested O. J. Simpson for the murders of his ex-wife Nicole and her friend Ronald Goldman. The bloody knifings occurred at a time when most big city detectives had at least some college education and months of police academy training. Human blood could not only be identified as such and grouped, it could be traced through DNA science to an individual donor. Unlike the Borden murders, the double homicide in California produced identifiable blood stains, drops and pools at the death site, in Simpson's vehicle and inside his house. The prolonged, nationally televised trial featured the testimony of DNA analysts, crime scene technicians, blood spatter interpretation witnesses, footwear impression experts and forensic pathologists. The Simpson trial introduced forensic DNA science to the American public and could have been a showcase for forensic science in general. Instead, the case featured investigative bungling, batteries of opposing experts, prosecutorial incompetence and a jury either confounded by the conflicting science or simply biased in favor of the defendant. O.J. Simpson was found not guilty of a crime most people believe he committed.

     Like Lizzie Borden, O. J. Simpson, while acquitted, was not exonerated. He was destined to live out the rest of his life in that gray area between innocence and guilt. In the Borden case, prosecutors did the best they could with what they had. In the Simpson case the state squandered cutting edge science and an embarrassment of riches in physical crime scene evidence. Moreover, the prosecution let the defense pick the jury. Perhaps the greatest lesson of the Simpson case was this: in a time of cutting edge science and relatively high-paid, well-educated police officers, criminal investigation was a lost art and forensic science a failed promise.

Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Holland's Boy Hit Man

      In 2012 Joyce Winsie Hau, a 14-year-old member of the Chinese-Dutch community in Arnhem, Holland, fell out with her best friend, a 15-year-old girl referred to by the Dutch authorities as Polly W. Joyce angered Polly and Polly's boyfriend, 15-year-old Wesley C. when she gossiped about their sexual escapades on Facebook and other social media. This anger set in motion a plot, hatched by Polly and Wesley, to have Joyce Hau murdered.

     Polly and Wesley offered Jinhau K., an acquaintance of Joyce's, 16 pounds (roughly $50), to commit the homicide. The pair of teen masterminds over a period of several weeks in late 2011 met frequently with the boy hit man to plan the murder. During these meetings Polly and her boyfriend provided Jinhau with the homicide target's address and other information including when Joyce would most likely be home. After the murder the masterminds promised to take their hitman out for drinks.

     On January 14, 2012 Jinhau K. showed up at the Hau  residence, and when invited into the house by Mr Chun Nam Hau, the knife wielding boy stabbed the father and his daughter. The attack took place in the hallway just inside the dwelling's front entrance. Mr. Hau survived the attack but Joyce Hau did not. The murder and attempted homicide was witnessed by Joyce's younger brother who was not harmed.

     Shortly after the home assault and murder the police arrested Jinhau K. In his confession the boy named the two teen murder-for-hire masterminds. Soon after that the police arrested Polly W. and Wesley C.

     In August 2012, Jinhau K. went on trial as a juvenile before a district court judge in Arnhem. Following testimony from Chun Nam Hau and Joyce Hau's younger brother the judge heard from the defendant who testified that he had committed the assault and murder out of fear that if he had refused to carry out the plot, Polly W. and Wesley C. would have killed him.

     The judge, in ruling that the defendant had plenty of opportunity to pull out of the murder conspiracy, said, "In their reports the psychologist and psychiatrist state that the pressure the defendant says he felt was never so high that he was unable to resist it. There were several moments where the defendant could have called in the help of others, or could have come to his senses."

     On September 3, 2012 the Arnhem judge sentenced Jinhau K. to one year in a juvenile detention center, the maximum penalty under Dutch law for a murderer between the ages 12 to 16. (I don't know why the judge didn't add another year for the attempted murder of Mr. Hau.) Upon completing his one year sentence Jinhau K. would undergo three years of psychiatric treatment at another facility. When the teen hit man turned 18 he'd be completely free from court supervision.

     Members of Holland's Chinese-Dutch community were shocked and outraged by such a light sentence for the cold-blooded murder of a girl and the attempted murder of her father. As for the two teenage murder for hire masterminds the charges against them were dropped. If the hit man only qualified for one year of juvenile detention what was the point of bothering with the degenerate kids who set these bloody crimes into motion?

    In Holland the media called Joyce Hau's killing the "Facebook Murder Case." I would call it the case of the Dutch teens who got away with murder. It's not a snappy case title but it's closer to the truth.