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Sunday, February 7, 2016

Michael David Elliot: Breaking Out of Prison Was the Easy Part

     In August 1993, a 19-year-old armed robber and arsonist named Michael David Elliot and a criminal associate entered a house near Midland, Michigan with their guns drawn. They had come to the Bentley Township home 140 miles northwest of Detroit to rob Michael and Bruce Tufnell and their friends Vickie Currie and Kathy Lane. Elliot and his accomplice needed the money for drugs. When the home invaders didn't find any cash in the house, they opened fired on the victims, killing all four of them. Before leaving the murder scene, Elliot set fire to the house.

     Four days after the mass murder, police officers arrested Elliot in Saginaw, Michigan. He still possessed the .38-caliber revolver that had fired ten of the fifteen bullets removed from the bodies of the four murder victims.

     At his August 1994 trial, Elliot claimed that he had purchased the murder weapon the day after the massacre from the real killer. He also asserted that at the time of the murders he was at his aunt's house. The jury found the defendant guilty of four counts of first-degree murder. At his sentencing hearing, Elliot told the judge that despite his conviction, he was innocent. The judge sentenced him to four life terms to be served at the Ionia Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison in Ionia, Michigan.

     During the first 14 years of his incarceration, Elliot was a problem inmate with 20 acts of misconduct. But after December 2008, he began serving his time as a model prisoner. Perhaps he decided that a low profile would enhance his chances to escape.

     On February 2, 2014--Super Bowl Sunday--while the other inmates were headed for dinner, the five-foot-eight, 165 pound Elliot made his move. Dressed in a white kitchen uniform to blend in with the snow, Elliot pulled back the bottoms of two fences and crawled to freedom. (Is this what passed for maximum security in Michigan? Where was the fence electricity, the motion detectors, and the prison guards? Were all the guards watching the Super Bowl?)

     After trudging through fields and woods, the escapee walked into the town of Ionia where he used a box cutter to abduct a woman. Elliot and his hostage, in her 2004 red Jeep Liberty, crossed the Michigan border into Indiana. At 9:15 that night, correction officers performing a routine head-count discovered that inmate Elliot was missing.

     Just before midnight, Elliot and his captive stopped for gas at a Marathon station in the town of Middlebury. While he paid for the gas, she entered the gas station restroom and locked the door. Using the cellphone she had kept hidden, the kidnapped woman called 911. After calmly reporting the carjacking and describing her captor, Elliot came to the restroom door and told her to hurry-up. "Yeah, in a little bit," she said. "Sorry, it's taking me longer than what I thought." At that point Elliot decided to drive off without her.

     At 5 PM on February 3, 2014, Elliot pulled into Shipshewan, a town twenty miles east of Elkhart, Indiana. There he abandoned the Jeep Liberty and stole a Chevy Monte Carlo.

     Not long after the prison escapee stole the Monte Carlo, a La Porte County sheriff's deputy spotted the stolen vehicle and tried to pull it over. The high-speed chase that followed ended abruptly when Elliot drove over stop sticks that flattened the Chevy's tires. Officers took him into custody. He had been free less than 48 hours.

     In speaking to a reporter with the Detroit Free Press after his capture, Elliott said, "I just seen an opportunity. It was really simple." Of the five main strategies inmates use to escape low-security facilities--the cut-and-run, the ruse, the tunnel, the outside accomplice, and the walk-away, Elliott's methodology combined the ruse and the cut-and-run. The problem was, he was not incarcerated in a minimum security facility.

     On February 6, 2014, a spokesperson for the prison announced that two corrections employees had been suspended in connection with the escape. One was a corrections officer and the other a shift commander.

     Michael Elliot had found a way to escape from a maximum security penitentiary, but he wasn't equipped to elude capture once he got outside prison fences. While prison escapes are rare, it's even more unusual for escapees to remain at large for more than a few days. 

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Dr. Lisa Tseng: When Does a Physician Become a Drug Dealing Murderer?

     In California, as in most states, a cocaine dealer can be convicted of second-degree murder if a person he sold the drug to dies of an overdose. Such a conviction is based on what is referred to as the felony-murder doctrine which holds that if in the commission of a felony (selling cocaine) someone dies, the felon can be held criminally culpable for that death. The element of criminal intent applies to the commission of the felony, not the resultant death. In other words, it doesn't matter that the cocaine dealer didn't intend to kill one of his customers. It's still murder.

     Dr. Hsiu-Ying (Lisa) Tseng and her husband ran a storefront medical clinic in Rowland Heights, California, an unincorporated community of 50,000 in Los Angeles County's Gabriel Valley. The clinic had a reputation among prescription drug addicts as a place one could go to acquire prescriptions for drugs such as Xanax, Oxycodone, Methadone, Soma, and Vicodin. Dr. Tseng allegedly issued prescriptions for these pain and anti-anxiety drugs without asking too many questions, or requiring an acceptable medical reason.

     In 2010, reporters with the Los Angeles Times linked Dr. Tseng's drugs to eight overdose deaths. (Not all of the people who overdosed had acquired the prescriptions from the doctor, many of her patients had sold the drugs to others who overdosed on them.) According to the Times, Dr. Tseng, from 2007 through 2010, had written more than 27,000 prescriptions for pain and anti-anxiety medicine.

     In March 2012, state, county and federal narcotics officers arrested Dr. Tseng for murder in connection with the 2009 overdose deaths of three men in their twenties, all of whom had gotten prescription drugs at the Rowland Heights clinic. The authorities also charged Dr. Tseng with 20 felony counts of prescribing drugs to patients with no medical need for the medicine. (If this government-imposed standard were enforced strictly across the country, we'd need a dozen new prisons just for physicians and chiropractors. Street corner cocaine dealers would see their businesses shoot through the roof.) The 42-year-old doctor was placed in the Los Angeles County Jail under $3 million bond.

     There had only been a handful of prescription drug/felony-murder overdose prosecutions in the country. The Tseng case was the first of its kind in Los Angeles County. In June 2012, at a preliminary hearing before judge M. L. Villar de Longoria in a Los Angeles Superior Court to determine if the state had sufficient evidence to move the case to the trial phase, the assistant district attorney put on several witnesses. (In preliminary hearings to determine if the government has a prima facie case, there are no defense witnesses.)

     An undercover DEA agent took the stand and said he (or she) had been prescribed pain and anti-anxiety drugs without exhibiting any evidence of a physical injury. (What are the physical signs of chronic back pain?) Several family members of Tseng's patients testified that they had begged the doctor to quit issuing their addicted relatives prescription drugs. A representative of the Los Angeles Coroner's Office said he had warned Dr. Tseng that many of her patients were dying of prescription drug overdoses.

     On June 25, 2012, after three weeks of testimony, Judge Villar de Longoria ruled that Dr. Tseng could be held over for trial on the three murder charges. The judge, in justifying the ruling, told the defendant that she had "failed to heed repeated red flags" that her patients were drug addicts." (Since it's the role of a jury to make fact determinations like this, the judge's remarks were, in my opinion, inappropriate.)

     Assuming that Dr. Tseng had in fact intentionally or recklessly issued prescriptions to drug addicts, I'm not sure prosecuting her for second-degree murder was good jurisprudence in a country with millions of prescription drug junkies. Bartenders who serve alcoholics booze aren't prosecuted for murder when the drunks kill themselves in car wrecks. Gun dealers who sell firearms to people who use the weapons to blow their brains out aren't prosecuted for murder. (In the federal government's Fast and Furious operation, agents sold guns to drug dealers in Mexico who used them to kill dozens of people. One of the victims was an U.S. Border Patrol Agent. I don't think we'll see the U.S. Attorney General prosecute any federal employees for murder.)

     If convicted of three counts of murder because she prescribed pills to junkies who overdosed on the drugs, Dr. Tseng faced up to life in prison. This was at a time when residents of 18 states, including California, could legally buy "medical" marijuana.

     In October 2015, a jury in Los Angeles County Superior Court found Dr. Tseng guilty of second-degree murder. The judge, on February 5, 2016, sentenced Tseng to 30 years to life in prison.

      

Friday, February 5, 2016

The Randolph Maidens Murder Case

     In April 2013, Dr. Rachael F. Maidens, a successful orthodontist, resided with her husband Randolph and their two-year-old daughter Natalie in a $900,000 home inside a gated, 600-acre subdivision in Brentwood, an affluent suburb outside of Nashville, Tennessee. The Brentwood native had attended Father Ryan High School, Birmingham-Southern College in Birmingham, Alabama, and the University of Florida College of Dental Medicine. She began practicing orthodontics in her hometown in 2006.

     Randolph Maidens, the 34-year-old orthodontist's husband, worked for a biotech firm called Dendreon as a regional pharmaceutical sales manager. Rachel, her family, and Randolph Maidens' fellow employees were concerned that the 42-year-old salesman had, over the past several weeks, lost control of himself. Maidens had been drinking heavily and fighting with Rachael. In February 2013, police in Brentwood arrested him for driving under the influence.

     Randolph and Rachael, while attending a Dendreon Company conference at the Dolphin Resort at Walt Disney World, argued in front of other pharmaceutical company employees and their spouses. Randolph, in a drunken rage, smashed glasses and screamed that he was going to kill Rachel. The out-of-control sales manager, when fellow employees tried to settle him down, started throwing punches. The police came and took Maidens into custody. Charged with public intoxication and disorderly conduct, he spent the night in jail. Three days later Maidens returned to work.

     At 5:50 PM on Sunday, April 21, 2013, Rachael Maidens' mother, Elizabeth Frisbi, concerned that Randolph had become suicidal, asked officers with the Brentwood Police Department to make a welfare check at the couple's home in the Governors Club subdivision.

     When the officers entered the house they encountered two-year-old Natalie who said, "Daddy gone. Daddy gone." In a second floor bedroom they found Rachael who had been shot to death. Randolph was not in the dwelling.

     In the kitchen, police officers discovered a note in which Randolph apologized for what he had done to his wife. (I do not know the exact wordage of the note or if Maidens explained exactly what he was sorry for.) In the murder scene note, Randolph Maidens had allegedly written that he wanted his daughter Natalie placed into the custody of Rachael's parents.

     Fearing that an armed madman was on the loose, police officers evacuated the homes in the vicinity of the murder and locked down the subdivision. At 6:30 the next morning, officers arrested Randolph Maidens when he returned to his house on Governors Way. He did not resist arrest and was not armed.

     In the trunk of Maidens' car officers discovered $87,200 in cash. In the house they had found $8,500 in 100-dollar bills.

     Charged with first-degree murder, two counts of evidence tampering, and child neglect, officers booked Maidens into the Williamson County Jail. Two days later, a judge set his bail at $2.5 million.

     Shortly after his arrest, Maidens' attorneys petitioned the court for a bail reduction. In June 2013, the judge reduced Maidens' bail to $750,000. With the help of a bonding agency, Maidens gained his release by posting his bail. Corrections officers fitted the suspect with a GPS tracking device and the judge prohibited Maidens from contacting his daughter or members of his dead wife's family.

     At a preliminary hearing on June 25, 2013, Maidens pleaded not guilty to all charges. In November a Williamson County judge announced that in December 2013, a date would be set for Maidens' murder trial.

     On January 7, 2014, Williamson County Judge Timothy Easter revoked Maidens' bond and sent him back to jail. The judge took this action because on December 10, 2013, Davidson County Sheriff Office deputies arrested Maidens at his apartment complex for public intoxication. (The charge was later dropped.) District Attorney Kim Helper had filed the revocation motion on grounds that Maidens was a threat to public safety.

     On September 15, 2014, Randolph Maidens pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the killing of his wife Rachael. In his plea statement he said, "And to Rachael, I promised to love and cherish you and I betrayed all of that. I will live with the anguish forever…No prison is worse than what I inflicted on myself. To all of Rachael's family and friends, I am truly sorry for all the pain and for all the moments that could have been."

     Judge Timothy Easter sentenced Maidens to 25 years in prison. 

Thursday, February 4, 2016

The Donna Scrivo Murder Case

     In 1999, Ramsay Scrivo graduated from De La Salle Collegiate High School in St. Clair Shores, a suburban community just east of Detroit, Michigan. He earned a bachelor's degree from Wayne State University four years later. After working briefly as an accountant, Ramsay quit after a supervisor criticized his work.

     After employment in the building trade, Ramsay, in the spring of 2013, started a lawn maintenance service. About that time his parents, Daniel and Donna Scrivo, helped him buy a condo in St. Clair Shores.

     Notwithstanding the support he received from his parents, Ramsay had serious problems. He was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic who suffered depression and bouts of uncontrolled anger when he was off his medication. Ramsay, when he wasn't on his anti-psychotic meds, thought people were trying to poison him. Moreover, he believed that someone had implanted a tiny microphone in one of his teeth. Following a simple assault conviction, the judge placed Scrivo on probation.

     Ramsay Scrivo's troubled life took a turn for the worse when his father died of an illness in May 2013. After threatening to hang himself, a judge granted Donna Scrivo, a registered nurse, guardianship of her son. Ramsay agreed to mental health treatment at St. John Hospital in Detroit. After 90 days of treatment, he was released from the medical center. As long as he took his medication he wasn't dangerous. But almost all schizophrenics, at one time or another, quit their medication because of the side effects.  Donna Scrivo moved into Ramsay's condo in St. Clair Shores.

     On Sunday, January 26, 2014, Donna reported Ramsay missing. Late in the afternoon of Thursday, January 30, a motorist in China Township 50 miles northeast of Detroit, saw a human head that had rolled out of a garbage bag that had been dumped along the side of a rural road. Inside three more garbage bags found nearby, police officers discovered body parts, items of clothing, and charred documents.

     Just before five in the morning of Friday, January 31, 2014, a motorist saw a garbage bag alongside an Interstate 94 ramp in nearby St. Clair Township. Inside the bag officers found more body parts.The FBI, through fingerprints, identified the remains as coming from one person, Ramsay Scrivo.

     A neighbor reported seeing Donna Scrivo carrying several garbage bags out of the condo shortly before she reported Ramsay missing. Crime lab technicians found traces of blood in the dwelling as well as in Donna's SUV. There was also evidence in the house that someone had used bleach in an effort to scrub away bloodstains.

     A gas station surveillance camera recorded Donna in her 1990s Chevy Blazer near one of the dump sites.

     Later on the day of the gruesome discoveries, deputies with the Macomb County Sheriff's Office arrested Ramsay's 59-year-old mother on charges of mutilation of a corpse, a felony, and the removal of a dead body without permission from a medical examiner, a misdemeanor. If convicted of the former offense, Donna faced up to ten years in prison. The misdemeanor came with a maximum sentence of one year in jail.

     On February 3, 2014, at her arraignment, the judge appointed Donna an attorney and set her bail at $100,000. If and when she was bailed out of the Macomb County Jail, she would undergo random drug and alcohol testing and would not be allowed to leave the state. The judge also ordered a mental health evaluation of the suspect.

     At a press conference following the arraignment, a Macomb County prosecutor said that further charges could be filed in the case depending upon the medical examiner's cause and manner of death findings. Not long after that statement, the prosecutor charged Donna Scrivo with first-degree murder.

    Donna Scrivo went on trial in May 2015 for the murder and dismemberment of her son. The defendant, as a witness on her own behalf, told the jury that a masked man had entered the condo, pointed a gun at her head, murdered her son, then cut up his body with a saw. The prosecutor, on cross-examination, ripped her story to shreds.

     The jurors, following a short deliberation, found Donna Scrivo guilty of first-degree premeditated murder. On June 23, 2015, the Macomb County judge sentenced the 61-year-old to life in prison without parole.
     

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Dr. Ana Maria Gonzalez-Angulo: Prescribing Poison

     Dr. Ana Maria Gonzales-Angulo and her colleague (and lover) Dr. George Blumenschein were on the staff at the University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas. Dr. Gonzales-Angulo, a breast cancer oncologist had attended medical school at the University of Cauca in Colombia, completed her residency in Internal Medicine at the Mount Sinai Medical center in Miaimi, then finished her training at the University of Texas Medical School. She had been with the M. D. Anderson Cancer Center since 2003. Dr. Blumenschein graduated from Vanderbilt University and the University of Texas Medical School. As a specialist in lung, heart and neck cancers, he had been on the cancer center staff since 2000.

     On May 29, 2013, a prosecutor in the Harris County District Attorney's Office, based upon information received from investigators with the University of Texas Police Department, charged Dr. Gonzales-Angulo with aggravated assault. The doctor stood accused of poisoning Dr. Blumenschein's coffee with ethylene glycol, a chemical used in antifreeze and medical research.

     According to the criminal complaint, the poisoning took place in Dr. Gonzales-Angulo's Houston apartment. Dr. Blumenschein, after sipping a cup of coffee made by Dr. Gonzales-Angulo, complained of its sweet taste. Dr. Gonzales-Angulo allegedly informed him that she had added Splenda to his drink and urged him to finish it. After drinking a second cup of Dr. Gonzales-Angulo's coffee that evening, Dr. Blumenschein began slurring his speech.

     Sixteen hours after drinking the two cups of coffee, paramedics rushed Dr. Blumenschein to a nearby emergency room where doctors diagnosed him with central nervous system damage, cardiopulmonary problems, and renal (kidney) failure. (The doctor would subsequently undergo dialysis treatment.)

     Three toxicological tests of Dr. Blumenschein's urine revealed the presence of crystals consistent with ethylene glycol poisoning. (By the time the toxicological analysis took place, the ethylene glycol had been metabolized.)

     Police officers booked Dr. Gonzales-Angulo into the Harris County Jail on May 30, 2013. Shortly thereafter she posted her $50,000 bond and was released. Officials at the M. D. Anderson Cancer Center placed the doctor on administrative leave. Her attorney, Derek Hollingsworth, told reporters that his client "is completely innocent. She is a distinguished citizen and scientist," he said, "and these allegations are totally inconsistent with her personal and professional life."

     In September 2013, a Harris County Grand Jury indicted Dr. Gonzales-Angulo on one count of aggravated assault.

     At the Gonzales-Angulo trial, the assistant district attorney put on 22 witnesses include a man who said the defendant, just weeks before Dr. Blumenschein's poisoning, had boasted of having killed others in her native Colombia. The prosecutor, in referring to Dr. Gonzales-Angulo in his closing argument, said, "You can't fix evil.

     The Gonzales-Angulo defense consisted mainly of the argument that the prosecution, in this circumstantial case, had not carried its burden of proof.

     On September 26, 2014, a jury in a Houston, Texas courtroom took less than six hours to find Dr. Gonzalez-Angulo guilty as charged. The judge sentenced her to ten years in prison.

     Gonzales-Angulo could have been sentenced up to 99 years in prison, but instead will be eligible for parole in 2019.
   

     

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Dr. Pamela Fish: DNA Expert From Hell

     In 1990, prosecutors in Cook County, Illinois charged John Willis with several counts of rape in connection with a series of sexual assaults committed in the late 1980s on Chicago's South Side. Willis, a petty thief, and illiterate, denied raping the women even though several of the victims had picked him out of a lineup.

     The only physical evidence in the Willis case was a scrap of toilet paper containing traces of semen. Police took this evidence to the Chicago Police Lab where it was examined by Dr. Pamela Fish. Dr. Fish had come to the lab in 1979 with bachelor's and master's degrees in biology from Loyola University. Ten years later, after taking courses at night, she earned a Ph.D in biology from Illinois Institute of Technology. According to her handwritten lab notes, Dr. Fish determined that the secretor of the semen had type A blood. John Willis had type B blood thereby excluding him as the rapist. Dr. Fish reported, however, in contradiction to her lab notes, that the semen on the tissue possessed type B blood. She testified to this at Willis' 1991 trial. The jury, in addition to believing in Dr. Fish, believed eleven prosecution rape victim/eyewitnesses that identified the defendant as the rapist. The jury found Willis guilty and the judge sentenced him to 100 years in prison.

     Eight years later, a south Chicago rapist confessed to these sexual assaults after being linked to the crimes through DNA analysis. An appeals  judge set aside the Willis conviction and he was set free. On the day of his release, Dr. Fish, now the head of  biochemistry testing at the state crime lab, spoke at a DNA seminar for judges. (The Chicago Police Lab had been incorporated into the Illinois crime lab system in 1996.)

     The Willis reversal led to a 2001 review of Dr. Fish's cases by the renowned DNA expert from Berkeley, California, Dr. Edward Blake. Dr. Blake studied nine cases in which Dr. Fish had testfied that her blood-typing tests had produced inconclusive results. Dr. Blake found that Dr. Fish's test results had actually exonerated the defendants involved and that she had given false testimony at those trials. Dr. Blake characterized Dr. Fish's work as "scientific fraud."

     In the summer of 2001, a state representative at a legislative hearing on prosecutorial misconduct suggested to the head of the Illinois State Police that Dr. Fish be transferred out of the crime lab into a position where she could do less harm. (In the public sector this is considered harsh employee discipline.) The police administrator ignored the recommendation.

     In 2002, three more Illinois men, in prison for rape since 1987, were exonerated by DNA. Dr. Fish had testified for the prosecution in all three cases. Two years later, after the state paid John Willis a large settlement for his wrongful prosecution and incarceration, the state refused to renew Dr. Fish's employment contract. Rather than firing Dr. Fish, the state reluctantly refused to rehire her. (I would image that Dr. Fish's forensic misbehavior did not keep her from enjoying her government retirement benefits.)

     In 2008, Marlon Pendleton, two years after his release from an Illinois prison where he'd been wrongfully incarcerated thirteen years on a rape conviction, sued the Chicago Police Department and Dr. Fish in federal court. The plaintiff accused Chicago detectives Jack Stewart and Steven Barnes, of manufacturing a false line-up identification against him. (These cops were notorious for this kind of  behavior.) He charged Dr. Fish with perjury in connection with her DNA testimony at the trial, testimony that convinced the jury he had raped the victim.

     As of 2015, Dr. Fish was employed as a biology teacher at Notre Dame College Prep in Niles, Illinois.

     Pendleton's civil suit in which he sought punitive damages for malicious prosecution, conspiracy, and emotional distress, had not been resolved as of February 2016. 

Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Dr. Robert Ferrante Poison Murder Case

     In 2013, Dr. Robert Ferrante and his wife, Dr. Autumn Klein, lived with their 6-year-old daughter in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Dr. Ferrante held the positions of co-director of the Center of ALS Research, and visiting professor of neurology at the University of Pittsburgh Medical School. Dr. Klein, with offices in Magee-Woman's Hospital in the Kaufman Medical Building, was chief of women's neurology at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) and an assistant professor of neurology, obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive services at the University of Pittsburgh.

     Dr. Ferrante, twenty-three years older than his wife, met her in 2000 when they lived in Boston where she was a medical student and he worked at a hospital for veterans. They were married a year later. In 2010, Dr. Ferrante left his job at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital to join the University of Pittsburgh's neurological surgery team. Dr. Klein moved to Pittsburgh with him.

     Dr. Klein, who was forty-one, was having difficulty getting pregnant with her second child. Her 64-year-old husband had been encouraging her to take a nutritional supplement to help her conceive. On April 17, 2013, Dr. Ferrante sent Autumn a text message in which he inquired if she had taken the supplement. She wrote back: "Will it stimulate egg production, too?" Nine hours after Dr. Klein sent that message, she collapsed in the kitchen of the couple's Schenley Farms home.

     Emergency personnel rushed Dr. Klein to the University of Pittsburgh Medial Center (UPMC) in Oakland. On the kitchen floor next to her body, paramedics noticed a bag of white powder later identified as creatine, a nutritional supplement. Shortly after the patient was admitted into the hospital, a UPMC doctor ordered tests of her blood. When a preliminary serological analysis revealed a high level of acid, the doctor ordered toxicolgical tests for cyanide poisoning.

     Dr. Klein died on April 20, 2013. Three days later, at Dr. Ferrante's insistence, her body was cremated. As a result, there was no autopsy.

     Dr. Karl Williams, the Allegheny County Medical Examiner, based on the toxicology reports, determined that Dr. Klein had died of cyanide poisoning. The forensic pathologist ruled her death a homicide.

     Cyanide kills by starving the cells of oxygen. A lethal dose for a human can be as small as 200 milligrams--1/25th the size of a nickel. The poison acts fast and metabolizes quickly. The toxic substance can be undetectable from one minute to three hours after ingestion. Had samples of Dr. Klein's blood not been taken upon her admission to UPMC, there would have been no physical evidence of poisoning beyond the contents of the bag of white powder found lying on the victim's kitchen floor.

     Two weeks after Dr. Klein's death, detectives with the Pittsburgh Police Department launched a homicide investigation with Dr. Ferrante as the prime suspect. Officials at UPMC placed the neurologist on leave and denied him access to his laboratory. A police search of the lab resulted in the discovery that 8.3 grams from a bottle of cyanide was missing. Detectives learned that Dr. Ferrante had purchased a half-pound of the poison on April 15, 2013, two days before his wife collapsed in their home. Dr. Ferrante had used a UPMC credit card to buy the cyanide and had asked the vendor to ship it to his lab overnight. Detectives believed the suspect, in his laboratory, mixed the cyanide--a substance not related to his work--into the dietary supplement.

     According to friends of the victim, Dr. Ferrante had been a controlling husband who was jealous of his wife's fast-rising career. Moreover, he suspected that she was having an affair with a man from Boston. Dr. Klein had told friends she was planning to leave the doctor. Another possible motive involved the fact Dr. Ferrante did not want his wife to have another child.

     On April 13, four days before she fell ill, Dr. Klein sent one of her friends a text message regarding a trip she planned to take to Boston by herself. In that message she wrote: "Change of plans. Husband is coming to Boston. Told me 'to keep me out of trouble.'"

     "Oh, dear," replied the friend. "Did you know you were in trouble?"

     "I feel like I have been in trouble for a long time now," Dr. Klein answered.

     On July 24, 2013, an Allegheny County prosecutor charged Dr. Robert Ferrante with first-degree murder. The next day, as Dr. Ferrante drove back to Pittsburgh from St. Augustine, Florida, a West Virginia state patrol officer arrested him on I-77 near Beckley. According to the doctor's attorney, William Difenderfer, his client was on his way to surrender to the Pittsburgh police.

     Dr. Ferrante's arrest for the murder of his wife caused him serious financial problems. Except for $280,000 the suspect was allowed to use for legal expenses and a possible fine, a judge seized his assets. In August 2013, his 6-year-old daughter's maternal grandmother who was caring for the girl in Maryland, petitioned a family court judge for child support.

     The Ferrante murder trial got underway on October 20, 2014 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Following jury selection, the attorneys for each side presented their opening statements. Assistant Allegheny County District Attorney Lisa Pelligrini asserted that the defendant had murdered his wife because she wanted to have a second child. The prosecutor also said that Dr. Ferrante thought his wife was having an affair.

     Defense attorney William Difenderfer pointed out the circumstantial nature of the prosecution's case, inconsistent crime toxicology reports regarding cyanide in Dr. Klein's blood, and an absence of an autopsy.

     Dr. Christopher Holstege, a University of Virginia professor and the author of the text, Criminal Poisoning, Clinical and Forensic Perspectives, took the stand as the prosecutor's key expert witness. Dr. Holstege testified that the victim's symptoms ruled out everything but cyanide poisoning.

     Defense attorney William Difenderfer put three forensic experts on the stand. Dr. Robert Middleberg, vice president of a private crime lab in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, said tests at his facility of Dr. Klein's blood were inconclusive.

     Dr. Middleberg's testimony was backed up by Dr. Shaun Carstairs of the Naval Medical Center in San Diego and former Allegheny County Coroner Dr. Cyril Wecht. Dr. Wecht, a forensic pathologist, had testified in dozens of celebrated murder cases around the world.

     As his last witness, Diffenderfer, in a surprise and risky move, put the defendant on the stand to testify on his own behalf. As could have been anticipated, the prosecutor's blistering cross examination revealed numerous inconsistencies in Dr. Ferrante's statements to the authorities.

     On Friday November 7, 2014, the jury found Dr. Ferrante guilty of first-degree murder, an offense in Pennsylvania that came with a mandatory sentence of life without parole.
     

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Did Omar Murray's Wife Alisha Have Him Murdered?

     Omar Murray, a Jamaican-born ironworker resided with his wife Alisha Noel-Murray in a Brooklyn row-house owned by Alisha's mother. The couple, married three years, had moved into the Brownsville neighborhood in early 2012. Omar was thirty-seven. His wife, a home health aide with Visiting Nurse Service of New York, was just twenty-five. A religious man, Omar regularly attended the Full Gospel Assembly of God Church in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn.

     On Sunday, February 24, 2013, as Omar Murray entered his Lott Avenue house at one in the afternoon, he was approached by a man who shot him once in the chest. The victim stumbled into the house and collapsed in the entrance hallway. At the time of the shooting, Alisha was in the house recovering from surgery. She locked herself in her bedroom and called 911. Mr. Murray died a few hours after being rushed by ambulance to the Brookdale University Hospital.

     The next day, New York City Detectives arrested three local men in connection with the murder. Dameon Lovell told interrogators that the dead man's wife had been his lover. Together they had come up with the idea of having Omar murdered in a staged robbery. The 29-year-old murder-for-hire co-mastermind said that Alisha Noel-Murray wanted to cash in on her husband's two life insurance policies.

     In 2009, shortly after they were married, the couple took out a policy with National Benefit for $530,000. Sometime later they insured Mr. Murray's life for another $150,000.

     Kirk Portious, a 25-year-old with a history of violent crime, confessed to being the hit-man. The prosecutor charged Portious and Lovell with first-degree murder. The third man taken into custody, 22-year-old Dion Jack, drove the getaway vehicle. He was charged with hindering prosecution. The judge set his bail at $5,000. Portious and Lovell were held without bond in the jail on Riker's Island.

     Funeral services for the murder victim were held at the Full Gospel Assemble of God Church on Friday night, March 8, 2013. Omar Murray's widow, who had not been charged with a crime, sat in the front pew chewing gum. Omar's uncle, in speaking to a New York Daily News reporter outside the Crown Heights church, said, "To see her [Alisha] sitting there with her crocodile tears makes me sick. We know she killed our Omar. Where is the justice?"

     Alisha Noel-Murray, to the same reporter, said, "I'm not hiding from no one....This is ridiculous."

     As of January 2016, Alisha Noel-Murry had not been charged in connection with Mr. Murray's death. Both life insurance companies refused to pay out the benefits on the ground detectives with the New York City Police Department still considered her a murder-for-hire suspect. In 2015, she sued the National Benefit insurance company for the money.

     Portious and Lovell await their murder trials while incarcerated on Riker's Island. 

Friday, January 29, 2016

Football Coach Philip Foglietta and the Poly Prep 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 future modus operandi in such matters.

     After 25 years as Poly Prep's most successful football coach, 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. 

Thursday, January 28, 2016

The Historic Fingerprint: The Jennings Murder Case

     In Chicago, Illinois, on September 19, 1910, a noise at two in the morning coming from her 15-year-old's bedroom, awoke Mary Hiller. She slipped into her robe and ventured into the hall where she noticed that the gaslight outside her daughter's room had been turned off. Fearing that an intruder had entered the house, Mrs. Hiller returned to the master bedroom and shook her husband awake.

    Clarence Hiller, on the landing en route to his daughter's room, bumped into Thomas Jennings, a 32-year-old paroled burglar in possession of a .38-caliber revolver. The men struggled, then tumbled down the stairway. At the foot of the stairs, Jennings, the bigger man, got to his feet, pulled his gun, and fired two shots. The first bullet entered Hiller's right arm, traveled up through his shoulder, and exited the left side of his neck. The second slug slammed into his chest, piercing his heart and lung before coming out his back. The gunman left the scene through the front door, leaving behind a screaming Mary Hiller, her dead husband, and a terrified 15-year-old girl who had been sexually molested.

     About a mile from the murder house, Jennings, walking with a limp, and bleeding from cuts on his arm, passed four off-duty police officers waiting for a streetcar. When questioned about his injuries, Jennings said he had fallen off a trolley. One of the officers patted him down, and discovered the recently fired handgun. The officers placed Jennings under arrest, and escorted the suspect to the police station.

     A few hours later, detectives at the murder scene found the two .38-caliber bullets that had passed through Clarence Hiller's body. Today, a forensic firearms identification expert would be able to match the crime scene slugs with bullets test-fired through the suspect's gun. But in 1910, this type of forensic identification was 15 year in the future. Investigators also determined that the intruder had entered the Hiller house through a kitchen window. A detective who was ahead of his time, found four fingerprint impressions on a freshly painted porch rail outside the point of entry. (Paint, in those days, dried slowly.) A technician with the police department's two-year-old fingerprint bureau, photographed the the finger marks that had been left in the dark gray paint. (The science of fingerprint identification first came to American from England in 1906 when the St. Louis Police Department started the country's first fingerprint bureau.) Mary Hiller, traumatized by the murder of her husband, failed to pick Thomas Jennings out of a police lineup. While roughed up, and the recipient of a third-degree interrogation, Jennings did not confess.

     At Jennings' May 1911 trial, two Chicago Police Department fingerprint examiners, a fingerprint technician from the police department in Ottawa, Canada, and a private expert who had studied fingerprint science at Scotland Yard, testified that the impressions on the porch rail matched the ridges on four of the defendant's fingers, placing him at the scene of the murder. While the idea that fingerprints were unique had been around for 20 years, this was the first U.S. jury to be presented with this form of impression evidence. The chance of convicting Jennings was not good, because the prosecution's case--the defendant's arrest one mile from the house, his injuries, his possession of a recently fired gun, and his murder scene fingerprints--was based entirely on circumstantial evidence. In those days, and to some extent today, jurors prefer direct evidence in the form of confessions and eyewitness identifications.

     Prior to the testimony of the four fingerprint witnesses, Jennings' attorney had objected to the introduction of this evidence on the grounds that this form of forensic identification had not been scientifically tested, and was therefore unreliable, and inadmissible. The trial judge, in allowing the fingerprint testimony, relied on a 1908 arson case, Carleton v. People, in which the defendant had been linked to the fire scene by impressions left by his shoes.

     The jury, following a short deliberation, found Thomas Jennings guilty of first-degree murder. To arrive at this verdict, the jurors had placed more weight on the physical evidence than on the defendant's claim of innocence. The judge sentenced Jennings to death.

     On appeal, Jennings' lawyer argued that there was no scientific proof that fingerprints were unique. By admitting the testimony of so-called fingerprint experts, the trial court had sentenced a man to the gallows on pseudoscience, and bogus expertise. The Illinois Supreme Court, on December 21, 1911, ruled that the Jennings trial judge had not made a judicial error by admitting the fingerprint testimony. This was good news for forensic science, and bad news for Thomas Jennings who died in 1912 at the end of a rope.

     People v. Jennings laid the groundwork for forensic fingerprint identification in America. By 1925, virtually every court in the United States accepted this form of impression evidence as proof of guilt. In medicine, illness leads to cures, and in law enforcement, murders produce advances in forensic science.