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Saturday, May 30, 2015

Robert Kosilek: Should a Man Who Murdered His Wife Get a Free Sex Change Operation?

     On the afternoon of Sunday, May 20, 1990, Robert Kosilek hailed a cab from a shopping mall parking lot in North Attleborough, Massachusetts. The taxi driver drove him to a store located a half mile from his home in Mansfield where he lived with his wife Cheryl and their 15-year-old son Timothy. Later that evening, Kosilek called the North Attleborough Police Department to inquire if his wife had been in an automobile accident. She hadn't returned home from work that day and he was worried. The officer he spoke to said, yes, they had found his wife's car. Would he please come to the police station so they could discuss the matter.

     A hour or so before the 41-year-old husband's police call, his wife's body had been discovered in the back seat of her car that was parked in the same shopping mall lot. She had been murdered by someone who had used a length of wire to strangle her.

     At the police station, after being informed of his wife's violent death, Robert Kosilek said Cheryl had left the house that morning for work, and before coming home, had planned to shop at the mall. As for his activities that day, he had stayed home working around the house. The next day, when questioned again, this time as a suspect in his wife's murder, detectives informed Kosilek that they had spoken to his son Timothy who told them that when he (Timothy) called the house that day at five in the afternoon, no one answered the phone. This contradicted the suspect's story that he had been in the house all day. Kosilek asked to be excused from the interrogation room so he could go downstairs to buy cigarettes. From the first floor of the police station, Kosilek called the detective squad and informed the officer that he had terminated the interview and would be hiring an attorney.

     Late that night, Kosilek ran his car into a stop sign in Bedford, Massachusetts. The police officer who responded to the minor accident found Kosilek sitting in the car dressed as a woman.

     On May 24, 1990, police in New Rochelle, New York stopped Kosilek for speeding, then arrested him for driving while intoxicated. At the police department, Kosilek said, "You would be drunk too if the police thought you killed your wife. Look, I had a 15-year-old son and a wife....I murdered my wife. Now I need to call a psychiatrist." The police in New Rochelle called the authorities in North Attleborough, Massachusetts.

     In October 1992, Robert Kosilek went on trial for the murder of his wife. The prosecutor played an audio-taped interview the defendant had given to a local TV reporter. According to Kosilek, on the day of the killing, he and his wife had gotten into a violent argument. She threw boiling water into his face which caused him to punch her to the ground. Cheryl got to her feet, grabbed a kitchen knife and chased him into the living room, threatening to kill him. According to this self-serving account of the fight, Kosilek picked up a length of wire from a table. That's the last thing he remembered. To the TV interviewer he said, "Apparently, I did take her life. It was probably self-defense." During the trial the defendant was dressed up like a woman, painted fingernails and all.

     The jury didn't buy the self-defense theory of Cheryl Kosilek's death. They found the defendant guilty of first-degree murder, and in January 1993, the trial judge sentenced him to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

     Shortly after entering the Massachusetts state prison in Norfolk, Kosilek changed his name to Michelle Kosilek. He was allowed to dress like a female and let his hair grow down to his waist. A prison psychiatrist diagnosed Kosilek with having a gender identification disorder. (He also had a wife killing disorder.) In 2000, Michelle sued the state in federal court for denying him/her a sex change operation, claiming this denial violated his/her Eighth Amendment right against cruel and unusual punishment. Two years later, U.S. District Court Judge Mark Wolf ruled that Kosilek was entitled to be treated for his gender identification disorder, but stopped short of ordering the state to pay for a full sex change operation.

      Although Kosilek didn't get what he wanted from the federal court, the state did provide the prisoner with female hormone therapy, laser hair removal services, and psychotherapy to deal with the disorder.

     In 2005, Kosilek filed a second lawsuit in the same federal court against the Massachusetts Department of Corrections in which he alleged cruel and unusual punishment. In the August 2006 trial, his attorney put several psychiatrists on the stand who testified that for this inmate a sex change was "medically necessary." Kosilek's attorney said, "We ask that gender identification disorder be treated like any other medical condition." (Who said this was a medical condition?) One of the shrinks testified that if the state denied Kosilek this "medical" treatment, the prisoner would kill himself.

     At this absurd trial, Kosilek took the stand and testified that the gender identification condition was equivalent to "biological claustrophobia," and said that the standard treatment for this malady included "surgical correction of the offending genitalia." Holding back tears, the witness said, "The greatest loss is the dying I do inside a little bit every day."(This is a person who can live with killing his wife, but will kill himself if he doesn't get a vagina? Give me a break.)

     The attorney representing the state, in summing up his case before the jury, said, "He's doing life without parole for murder....He was 41 when he killed Cheryl Kosilek. He didn't try to get a sex change operation at that time. Now he's 53 years of age, and he wants the state to pay for that?"

     On September 4, 2012, U.S. District Court Judge Mark Wolf, in his 126-page first-of-a-kind decision, held that the state of Massachusetts must pay for Kosilek's $20,000 sex change operation. In justifying his ruling, the judge wrote that the operation was the "only adequate treatment" for the now 57-year-old prisoner, and that "there is no less intrusive means to correct the prolonged violation of Kosilek's Eighth Amendment right to adequate medical care."

     I guess Judge Wolf was not bothered by the fact there are millions of Americans who have not murdered anyone who do not even receive basic medical care, let alone free sex change operations. What need does a man who will spend the rest of his life in prison have for a vagina? If this is the level of health care taxpayers will have to pay for our vast population of men serving life terms behind bars, then it's time to reverse the trend toward fewer executions. Otherwise, if there is cruel and unusual punishment going on, it involves law abiding citizens who pay the bills.

     On September 17, 2012, Judge Wolf ruled that Kosilek was also eligible to have his legal fees--expected to top $500,000-- paid by the government.

     On December 16, 2014, the First Circuit Court of Appeals overturned U.S. District Court Mark Wolf's ruling. The federal appeals justices found that denying the sex change did not violate Kosilek's Eight Amendment right against cruel and unusual punishment.

   

     

Friday, May 29, 2015

The Mona Nelson Blow Torch Murder Case

     In April 2010, 44-year-old Angela, the mother of an 11-year-old boy from a previous relationship, married David Davis. Angela's son, a red-headed fifth-grader named Jonathan Foster, lived with his paternal grandmother. In November 2010 the child moved into the Houston, Texas duplex with his mother and new stepfather.

    When he drank, David Davis became violent. One of his assaults sent Angela to the hospital. On December 14, 2010, after he slapped his stepson in the face, Angela and Jonathan moved a hundred feet away into the apartment of a woman who had befriended Angela.

     In the early afternoon of December 24, 2010, a woman who referred to herself as Jonathan's babysitter, spoke on the telephone to one of Angela's co-workers at a meat market where she was employed as a cashier. The woman said she wanted to speak to Angela. The co-worker passed the message on to Angela who said she didn't have a babysitter. Angela called the number and a woman answered the phone. Just before the line went dead, Angela heard her son's voice. She rushed home to check on Jonathan. He was not in the apartment. Fearing foul play, Angela called 911 and reported her son missing.

     Detectives with the Houston Police Department, from the beginning, treated the case as a possible kidnapping. The police, suspecting Angela's estranged husband David, questioned him closely. David Davis said he had checked on Jonathan just 25 minutes before Angela came home to find him missing. At that time the boy was playing a video game. "There's no doubt in my mind that he's been snatched," the stepfather said. "I think a pedophile took him."

     As investigators questioned other family members, neighbors and volunteers handed out fliers. Angela faced a television camera and said this to the abductor: "Don't hurt my baby." On the possibility that Jonathan had been kidnapped by a stranger, detectives questioned fifty registered sex offenders in the northwest Houston area.

     On December 28, 2010, four days after Jonathan went missing, a Houston Police Department's K-9 unit recovery dog detected what turned out to be his badly charred remains. (He had to be identified by dental records.) The body had been dumped into a ditch four miles from his residence. It was bound with twine. Near the corpse detectives found a welder's torch.

     Surveillance camera footage from a building near Jonathan's body showed a silver Ford pickup truck pulling up to the site at six o'clock that Christmas eve. A black woman got out of the vehicle, reached into the bed, took out what appeared to be a body, and placed it into the ditch.

     Detectives quickly identified the woman in the truck as 44-year-old Mona Yvette Nelson, an acquaintance of the woman who had been sharing her apartment with Angela and Jonathan. Two weeks earlier Mona had met David Davis, the boy's stepfather. According to witnesses, Mona Nelson had been seen recently in the vicinity of the murdered child's home.

     As a maintenance employee, Nelson had worked with acetylene torches and various types of welding equipment. A former boxer, she had been convicted in 1984 of aggravated robbery which brought her a ten-year probated sentence. Nelson had since been arrested for various drug charges and for making terroristic threats against another woman. The suspect owned a truck that looked like the silver Ford driven by the woman seen on surveillance tapes dumping the body into the ditch.

     On December 30, 2011, at a press conference, a spokesperson for the Houston Police Department announced that Mona Nelson, charged with capital murder, had been arrested for Jonathan Foster's death. Having been denied bond, the suspect was incarcerated in the Harris County Jail. In a search of her northwest Houston residence detectives found twine similar to the cordage found on Jonathan's body. Officers also recovered an acetylene tank used in welding. Sections of Nelson's carpet had been recently burned.

     According to the police spokesperson, Nelson, under police questioning, had admitted dumping Jonathan's body in the ditch. The suspect had not, however, confessed to murdering the boy.

     The day after Nelson's arrest, a local television reporter interviewed her at the Harris County Jail. Nelson told the correspondent that one of Jonathan's family members, on Christmas Eve, had asked her to dump the contents of a garbage container. The unnamed relative paid her twenty dollars for the job. She had been drunk on vodka and had no idea what was in the plastic container. "I didn't know what was in it until they were showing me pictures in the interrogation room. I'm not a monster," she said, "I have five grandkids and I love kids."

     Houston homicide detective Mike Miller, in response to Nelson's statements to the TV reporter, pointed out that Jonathan's body had not been found in a container. In describing the murder suspect, Detective Miller said, "She is a cold soul-less murderer who showed an absolute lack of remorse in taking the life of Jonathan Foster. There's only been one or two people I've ever talked to that had eyes like she did. It was really cold." Detective Miller said that all of the victim's family members, including his stepfather David Davis, had solid alibis. Mona Nelson had acted on her own, he said.

     On Monday, January 3, 2011, Mona Nelson appeared before a judge who asked her if she understood her rights. She said that she did. The judge appointed Nelson an attorney, informed her of the charge, and sent her back to jail. A month later, Harris County prosecutor Connie Spence presented the case to a grand jury that returned a true bill of capital murder.

     The Nelson murder trial got underway on Monday, August 12, 2013 before district judge Jeannine Barr. The defendant had waived her right to a jury trial, putting her fate entirely in the hands of this judge. Nelson's attorney, Alan Tanner, before the opening statements and presentation of witnesses, asked Judge Barr to quash five recorded statements his client had made to detectives over a stretch of seventeen hours at her home and at the police station. According to the defense attorney, the interrogators continued to question Nelson after she complained a dozen times of being ill. The officers did not address Nelson's health complaints until after the interrogation. (Detectives took her to a nearby hospital where doctors found nothing wrong with her.)

     On Tuesday, August 13, Mona Nelson, pursuant to the procedural law question regarding the admissibility of her police statements, testified that her interrogators had worn her down. Although she asked to consult with an attorney a dozen times, the questioning continued. Attorney Tanner argued that the interrogating officers had violated his client's Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. He also asserted that her statements had not been given voluntarily and were therefore inadmissible in court.

     Judge Barr, later that afternoon, made her evidentiary ruling. She excluded the statements Nelson made after she had requested to see a lawyer. Since these requests came late in the interrogation session, most of her statements were admissible.

     In her opening remarks before Judge Barr, prosecutor Spence admitted that the state would not be establishing a motive for Jonathan's murder. (While a prosecutor likes to have motive evidence, it is not a legal requirement for a murder conviction. All the state has to prove is criminal intent. In law, the why is not relevant.) The prosecutor promised the judge that she would prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Mona Nelson, sometime between 2:15 and 6:08 PM on December 24, 2010, tortured and killed the 11-year-old Foster boy with a blowtorch at her home, then dumped his charred remains in a ditch. Spence said that one of the key pieces of evidence she would introduce involved Jonathan's sweat shirt found in a trash can near the defendant's house. The garment bore traces of Nelson's blood.

     Defense attorney Tanner reminded the judge that just because his client had dumped the boy's body in the ditch didn't necessary mean that she had killed him. In foreshadowing the thrust of his defense, Tanner cast suspicion on the victim's stepdad, David Davis. According to the defense attorney, the boy had come between Davis and his estranged wife which may have been the motive behind the murder. All Mona Nelson did was dispose of the contents of a garbage can that had been given to her.

     The victim's mother took the stand as the state's first witness. She was followed by several detectives who testified about the physical evidence they had recovered from Nelson's home and how it related to the evidence found near Jonathan Foster's charred corpse. David Davis, the stepfather, took the stand and admitted that he had hit the victim's mother. He said he had never harmed the boy. Through direct examination prosecutor Spence established the witness' whereabouts at the time of the abduction and the murder.

     Lois Sims, the supervisor at the meat market who took the phone call for Angela Davis on the afternoon of December 24, 2010, described the caller as an angry, foul-mouthed woman. The caller wanted the telephone number of the woman leasing the duplex where Davis and her son were staying. "If you don't get her on the phone now, something's going to happen. He [Jonathan] won't be here for long."

     Defense attorney Tanner pointed out that the two meat market supervisors had described the caller as a white woman. (The defendant was black.)

     On August  19, 2013, two Houston Police Department K-9 officers testified that three cadaver dogs had reacted strongly to a box of burned carpeting at Nelson's house. One of the witnesses said, "There was a strong odor of human remains there. An arborist (tree expert) testified that leaves at the dump site had come from oak trees. There were no such trees where Jonathan's body had been recovered, but around Nelson's house, there were seven trees of this kind.

     The prosecutor played a videotaped statement from Nelson in which she admitted being at the place where Jonathan's body had been dumped. She said she had emptied a garbage container at the site. She said she didn't know the contents of the plastic container.

     The following day, a forensic scientist from the FBI Crime Laboratory testified that a Looney Tunes sweatshirt that belonged to Jonathan, recovered from the defendants trash can, contained Nelson's blood and DNA. Two other DNA experts agreed with this analysis. The presence of this trace evidence on the sweatshirt suggested that the victim had put up a fight.

     On Friday morning, August 23, the prosecution rested its case. Allen Tanner launched his client's defense with the testimony of a woman who gave Mona Nelson an alibi. Following the testimony of two other witnesses, the defense rested its case. Mona Nelson did not take the stand on her own behalf.

     The next day, defense attorney Allen Tanner delivered his closing argument to the judge. "Mona Nelson," he said, "had absolutely no motive to kill Jonathan Foster. They searched and searched for a motive and there's no reason why she would have killed that boy." In referring to David Davis, the estranged husband, Tanner said, "He wanted to get her back and he told people at work that Jonathan is the root of all his problems....The [prosecution's] case got weaker and weaker....There are more and more unanswered questions now than there were at the beginning. The evidence is clear there could be people who committed this crime and we have no idea at this time who they are."

     When it came her turn to address the judge, prosecutor Spence said, "This defendant took Jonathan Foster back to her house and killed him. We'll never know how she killed him because she burned his body to the point where you can't tell."

     On Monday morning, August 26, 2013, Judge Jeannine Barr found Mona Nelson guilty as charged. She imposed the automatic sentence of life without parole. After hearing the verdict, Nelson said, "I'm innocent, and I maintain my innocence. I wouldn't harm anybody."

     Defense attorney Allen Tanner told reporters he would file an appeal on the grounds of insufficient evidence. "We believe someone else kidnapped this child and someone else killed this child."
   

   


Thursday, May 28, 2015

Tracey Richter: One Scheming, Dangerous Woman

     Tracey Richter's adversarial and bellicose history with her husbands could be viewed as a cautionary tale for professional men trolling for wives. Her story is a real-life "Play Misty for Me" horror film featuring an attractive, sociopathic, revenge-oriented protagonist willing to do whatever it takes to dominate, humiliate, and defeat her male antagonists. In Richter's case, her enemies were her estranged husbands. To stand between this woman and what she wanted, to incur her wrath, was like stepping in front on an oncoming train.

     In 1992, the Chicago native lived in Virginia with her first husband, a plastic surgeon named Dr. John Pitman. That year, Tracey Richter, then 27, pleaded no contest to the charge of discharging a firearm during an argument with him. In return for her plea she received a probated sentence. Before they were divorced in 1996, Richter accused Dr. Pitman of sexually abusing their 3-year-old son, Bert. A judge eventually dismissed the case for lack of evidence. Following the divorce, Tracey Richter and her son moved back to Chicago.

     In 1997, Tracey Richter met and began dating Dr. Joseph La Spisa, a Chicago based oral surgeon. That relationship soured when, pursuant to an attempt to extort $150,000 from the doctor, she accused him of sexual assault. Although later exonerated, the scandal cost Dr. La Spisa his dental practice.

     About the time she was making life miserable for Dr. La Spisa, Richter met a man online from California named Michael Roberts. Shortly thereafter Tracey and Mr. Michael Roberts were married, and by 2000, the year they separated, the couple had two children, ages one and three. At the time of the separation from her second husband Richter was battling Dr. Pitman for custody of their 10-year-old son, Bert. If she lost this fight she would lose her son and the $1,000-a-month child support payments.

     In 2001, Tracey Richter, now 35, resided with Bert and the two younger children in Early, Iowa, a small town 100 miles north of Des Moines in the eastern part of the state. On December 31 of that year, Richter called 911 to report that she had just shot an intruder to death who, along with another man, had broken into her house and tried to strangle her with a pair of pantyhose.

     Upon arriving at the dwelling police discovered, in Richter's bedroom, the body of 20-year-old Dustin Wehde. He had been shot nine times with a pair of handguns Richter had retrieved from her home safe. The other man, she said, had fled the scene when she opened fire on Wehde. (The other intruder was never identified because he didn't exist.)

     Detectives identified Dustin Wehde, a resident of Richter's neighborhood, as a depressed computer nerd who lived in his parents' basement. He had no criminal record, and as a timid type, was an unlikely candidate for home burglary and assault. Investigators also found it strange that Wehde had parked his car in Richter's driveway.

     In searching the dead man's vehicle police made a bizarre discovery. They found, on the front seat, a pink notebook in which Wehde had written that a "mysterious fellow" named John Pitman had hired him to kill Tracey Richter and her 11-year-old son. While the passage was in Wehde's handwriting, it didn't make any sense. Detectives couldn't find any evidence that Wehde and Richter's first husband had ever crossed paths, and the young man didn't come close to fitting the profile of a contract killer. Because the whole setup looked fishy, the police never considered Dr. John Pitman as a murder-for-hire mastermind. While detectives didn't buy Richter's account of the shooting, the Sac County prosecutor didn't bring charges against her and the case went into the books as a self-defense homicide.  Dustin Wehde's parents had to live with the fact their son had been murdered as part of the killer's plot to frame an ex-husband. Their son was dead and their lives ruined.

     Shortly after shooting Dustin Wehde to death in her bedroom, Tracey Richter and her children moved to Omaha, Nebraska. In the meantime, the authorities in Iowa kept the existence of the pink notebook secret because to publicize it would have, among other things, scandalized Dr. Pitman. In 2002, Richter appeared on "The Montel Williams Show," a daily afternoon talkfest not unlike what Ophra Winfrey was doing. In response to softball questions in front of a sympathetic studio audience, Richter told the horrifying story of how she had no choice but to take this intruder's life to save herself and her children. She came off as a hero. (I don't know if she used this opportunity to accuse her first husband of trying to have her murdered.)

     In 2004, after Richter and Michael Roberts were divorced, she told the police that her second husband had been a part of Dr. Pitman's conspiracy to have her killed. The authorities still weren't buying into this murder-for-hire business and never considered Mr. Roberts a suspect in Dustin Wehde's homicide.

     While residing in Nebraska Tracey Richter ran afoul of the law. In 2009, among other accusations of criminal deceit, she was convicted of welfare fraud and sentenced to probation.

     In 2010, Ben Smith, the new Sac County prosecutor, took office. As he had promised in his campaign for the job, Smith asked the Iowa Division of Criminal Justice to investigate the almost ten-year-old Dustin Wehde homicide. As part of that investigation, a forensic ballistics expert determined that Wehde had been shot three times in the back as he lay on Richter's bedroom floor. This comprised, in the prosecutor's opinion, circumstantial evidence inconsistent with Richter's claim of self-defense.  

     At the conclusion of the state investigation of Dustin Wehde's suspicious death, prosecutor Ben Smith charged Tracey Richter with first-degree murder. Under Smith's theory of the case, Richter had lured the young man to her house, forced him at gunpoint to write in the pink notebook that her first husband, Dr. John Pitman, had hired him to kill her and her son, fired nine shots into his body, then planted the notebook in his car in an effort to frame her former husband for solicitation of murder. Pursuant to this scenario, Dustin Whede had been nothing more than a sacrificial pawn in Richter's evil scheme to win the custody battle she was having with the father of her first-born child. If this was what happened, Tracey Richter was one cold-blooded sociopathic killer. A dangerous woman, indeed.

     Granted a change of venue, Tracey Richter's murder trial got underway on October 23, 2011 in the Webster County town of Fort Dodge, Iowa. The defendant, now 45, and living in Omaha, had the support of her 20-year-old son Bert and the man she was currently engaged to marry. On November 7, 2011, the jury of six men and six women, in rejecting Richter's self-defense/contract murder version of Dustin Wehde's death, found her guilty as charged.

     Following this stunning verdict, Mr. Michael Roberts, Richter's second husband and father of her two younger children, praised the jurors. He told reporters that Richter had once tried to murder him through drugs and suffocation. Mona Wehde, Dustin's mother, in speaking to reporters on the day of the verdict, said that her son's murder had destroyed her marriage and after the divorce her ex-husband committed suicide. She called the jury's decision "a blessing."

     In January 2012, shortly before Judge Kurt L. Wilke sentenced Richter to life in prison, she sent a letter to a Wisconsin prison inmate named James Landa. Landa, who had been convicted of sexually molesting a 12-year-old girl, had written to Richter following her conviction offering his moral support. (Whatever that meant.) Richter's letter to Landa contained personal information about her second husband, Mr. Michael Roberts. Among other pieces of information, Richter revealed his Social Security number, date of birth, physical description, and home address. When Sac County prosecutor Ben Smith learned of this letter he suspected Richter of soliciting Mr. Roberts' murder. To reporters, Smith said, "I fear for Michael and his kids."

     In June 2012, Tracey Richter appeared on a "Dateline NBC" two-hour special on the Dustin Wehde murder case. To correspondent Dennis Murphy, she stuck to her story of self-defense. Her son Bert appeared on the show to back up her account of the shooting. Her lawyer announced that the convicted killer had filed an appeal.

     From her cell at the Mitchelville, Iowa prison, Richter launched a child custody battle with second husband Michael Roberts over her two younger children, now ages 12 and 14. Roberts had the children with him in California and planned to escape Richter's reach by moving his family to Australia.

     On September 13, 2012, Iowa Judge Nancy Whittenburg, the judge who presided over this child custody fight, ruled that notwithstanding Richter's murder conviction she had not lost her right to regular visits with the children. This meant that Mr. Roberts, to satisfy the judge's decision, had to make visitation trips from California to Iowa and back. When Sac County prosecutor Ben Smith learned of Judge Whittenburg's ruling, he called it "mind-boggling."

     In July 2014, investigators in Iowa searched Tracey Richter's mother's computer on suspicion that Anna Richter and her daughter had harassed and defamed Dr. John Pitman and other prosecution witnesses, people who had helped put Tracey behind bars. According to the search warrant affidavit, the suspects accused these former witnesses of theft, perjury, fraud, computer hacking, and child molestation. The Tracey Richter saga continues. 

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Michael Marin Poison Pill Case

     Former Wall Street trader Michael Marin lived alone in a $3.5 million, 10,000 square-foot mansion in Biltmore Estates, a high-end neighborhood in Phoenix. The attorney and art collector who owned original Picasso sketches among other valuable paintings, had scaled six of the world's seven tallest mountains. In May 2009, he had reached the summit of Mr. Everest. The 51-year-old had four grown children.

     While Michael Marin had been able to climb Mr. Everest, he had not been able to climb out of debt. Besides falling behind in his Biltmore Estates mortgage, Marin couldn't keep up the $2,500-a-month payments on a second home and owned $34,000 in back taxes. He had amassed numerous other debts as well.

    During the early morning hours of July 5, 2009, flames broke out in Marin's Biltmore Estates mansion. Wearing scuba gear to protect himself from the smoke and toxic gases he escaped through a second-story window by climbing down an emergency rope ladder.

     The fire insurance pay-out to a policy holder who was in deep financial trouble raised suspicion that the blaze had been intentionally set and motivated by insurance fraud. Marin's convenient, well-prepared, and bizarre escape from a dwelling engulfed in flames added to the suspicion he had torched the place. (There aren't too many inhabitants in houses consumed by flames who escape down a rope ladder in scuba gear.) This financially-strapped man was either very lucky, extremely prepared for a fast-developing fire, or an arsonist.

     After fire scene investigators found several points of origin and traces of accelerants at these separate fire starts, the arson investigators declared the fire incendiary. Since Michael Marin was the last person in the dwelling before the blaze and had a rather obvious motive for burning the place down, the Maricopa County prosecutor charged him with arson of an occupied structure, a felony that carried a 10 to 20 year sentence. When taken into custody in August 2009, the former high-roller and adventurer said he was "shocked" that anyone would accuse him of such a crime.

     On Thursday, June 28, 2012, a Maricopa County jury found the 53-year-old defendant guilty of arson. Just seconds after the verdict was read Michael Marin popped something into his mouth then took a swig from a sports bottle. His face turned red, he started to cough, then convulsed and collapsed to the floor. Fire personnel who happened to be in the courtroom (it was an arson case) rushed him to a local hospital where he died a few hours later.

     The quickness of Marin's demise after putting something into his mouth led to speculation he took some kind of poison pill.

     On July 27, 2012, a spokesperson for the Maricopa County Medical Examiner's Office revealed that Mr. Marin had lethal traces of cyanide in his system. Investigators had also found a suicide note Marin had sent shortly before his death.

     In the annals of crime there is rarely anything new. It's all been done before. But Michael Marin's dispatching of himself with a poison pill like a captured cold war spy added a line to the history of crime. 

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Adam Kaufman "Spray Tan" Murder Case

     Adam Kaufman, on November 7, 2007, called 911 from his home in Aventura, Florida. Sounding hysterical, the 34-year-old south Florida real estate developer informed the dispatcher that he had awaken that morning to find his wife, Eleonora (Lina) slumped unconscious in the bathroom, her neck draped over a bar on a magazine rack. Paramedics rushed the 33-year-old to the hospital where she died later that day.

     One of the responding officers with the Aventura Police Department touched the hood of Adam's car and found it warm. Another officer noticed that only one side of the couple's bed had been slept in. As a result, the police didn't believe Adam Kaufman when he claimed to have slept all night next to  his wife.

     Associate Miami-Dade County Medical Examiner Dr. Chester Gwen conducted the autopsy. Although the forensic pathologist found injuries on Lina's upper-back and abrasions on her chin, neck, left shoulder, and chest as well as hemorrhages in her interior neck muscles, declared her cause and manner of death "undetermined."

     Without a finding of death by homicide, the Kaufman case remained in limbo for 18 months. In May 2009, Miami-Dade County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Bruce A. Hyma, ruled that Lina Kaufman had died by mechanical asphyxiation, that she had been strangled. The following month, the prosecutor, even though he didn't have evidence of marital strife, or a motive, charged Adam Kaufman with second-degree murder.

     At Kaufman's bond hearing, his attorneys revealed the defense version of the death: Lina Kaufman, with a history of fainting spells, had applied a spray-on tanning substance that resulted in a violent allergic reaction causing respiratory failure. When she collapsed she fell with her neck draped over the magazine rack bar.

     Adam Kaufman's trial commenced on May 7, 2012 before Judge Brownyn Miller in Miami, Florida. A week later, following the jury selection process, defense attorney Bill Matthewman, in his opening remarks, unveiled the new defense version of Lina Kaufman's death: while sitting on the toilet she had a heart attack and fell forward with her neck hitting the bar of the magazine rack. In addressing the prosecutor's case, attorney Matthewman said, "The state's evidence cannot even prove that a homicide occurred, let alone that Adam Kaufman did it....The case is a tragedy of errors. An innocent man was charged with a non-existent crime...."

     Prosecutor Joe Mansfield, in his opening speech to the jurors, said that Lina Kaufman had been a "healthy, active woman, arguably in the best shape of her life. All of that ended because of the actions of that man, her husband."

      In this case, the outcome would come down to how Lina Kaufman had died, naturally or by the hand of her husband. That meant that the important testimony would be of a medico-legal nature.

     On May 16, Dr. Bruce Hyma took the stand for the prosecution. The Chief Medical Examiner for Miami-Dade County testified that Lina Kaufman had died from strangulation and not a heart attack. Dr. Tracy Baker, the plastic surgeon who had enhanced Mrs. Kaufman's breasts, told the jury that when he examined her a few months before her death she was in good health. Defense attorney Albert Milian asked Dr. Baker on cross-examination if Lina could have been lied to him about her medical history. The witness answered yes.

     Dr. Chester Gwen, the former Miami-Dade County forensic pathologist who had performed the autopsy in 2007, testified that the injuries he had found on Kaufman's body had not been caused by emergency personnel who had tried to revive her. On cross-examination, Dr. Gwen admitted that in April 2012 he had said that in his expert opinion, the cause of Lina Kaufman's death was still a mystery to him. The forensic pathologist also said that Dr. Hyma, before he ruled the death a homicide by strangulation, had not consulted with him.

     Larissa Adamyan, a friend of the deceased woman, took the stand on behalf of the prosecution. As it turned out, her testimony helped the defense more than the prosecution. The witness described the relationship between the defendant and his wife as a "loving marriage." Ten hours before Lina's death, in anticipation of Adam's brother Seth's upcoming wedding, she had gotten a spray tan.

     Aventura police officer Robert Meyers took the stand and said that at the hospital the day Lina died he overheard the defendant tell three different versions of what he had seen that morning in the bathroom. According to this witness, the defendant said he had found Lina's neck resting on the toilet bowl; her body slumped over the toilet; and her head hung over the magazine rack. On cross-examination, defense attorney Milian got the witness to admit that none of this information was included in his police report.

     Dr. Bruce Hyma re-took the stand on May 21 to explain why it had taken 18 months to declare Lina Kaufman's cause and manner of death as a strangulation homicide. The forensic pathologist attributed this passage of time to a delayed toxicological report and the fact he wanted to be sure he made the right call. On cross-examination, the defense attorney accused the medical examiner of caving in to pressure from the prosecutor to declare Lina Kaufman's death a homicide.

     Prosecutor Mathew Baldwin, during the direct examination of a friend of the deceased woman, asked if the witness had been aware that the defendant, shortly after his wife's death, had been carrying on with another woman. This question brought an objection from the defense. Judge Miller called the attorneys to the bench and excused the jury. In justifying this line of questioning, prosecutor Baldwin said, "He's [the defendant] is asking this girl out with his dead wife's wedding ring on his finger the next month in December 2007. [Lina died in November.] By January and February they're having regular sex. He was not exactly devastated by his wife's passing. The best analogy I can think of is when Casey Anthony was getting a tattoo [after the death of her child]."

     Judge Miller asked the prosecutor if the state had evidence that the defendant had been unfaithful to his wife. The answer was no. Judge Miller ruled that the prosecution could not present evidence of the defendant's post-death dating. At his point, defense attorney Matthewman asked the judge for a mistrial on the grounds the jury had heard the question which had planted the idea in jurors' minds that the defendant had not been a good husband. Judge Miller denied the motion. She had told the jurors to disregard the question.

     That afternoon a Miami-Dade crime scene technician testified that Lina Kaufman's fingernails contained traces of her blood and tissue, suggesting she had clawed at something around her neck. The prosecutor also called a physicist to the stand who said it would have been physically impossible for Lina to have fallen off the toilet and land with her head draped over the magazine rack. With that, the prosecution rested its case.

     On Thursday, May 24, the defense launched its case by calling Lina's mother Frida Aizman to the stand. This witness told the jury that she and her family loved the defendant, and after Lina's death they had become even closer. The witness also testified that in the weeks leading up to her daughter's death Lina had complained of headaches and feeling weak. She had tried yoga to relieve her headaches.

     Miami-Dade fire rescue captain, Joseph Carman, the first responder to enter the Kaufman house, testified that he found the defendant giving Lina CPR. According to the witness, Mr. Kaufman was wearing a t-shirt and boxer shorts. The defense presented this testimony because it was consistent with Adam Kaufman's story that he awoke after a night of sleep to find his wife collapsed in the bathroom.

     Thomas Hill, a Broward County Sheriff's Office crime scene investigator took the stand for the defense and criticized Kaufman case investigators for not collecting important physical evidence. The witness said they had failed to gather Adam Kaufman's clothing, magazines from the bathroom rack, and bedding from the master bedroom. The crime scene investigator also said he could see no evidence of a struggle in the small bathroom. "My goodness," he said, "she would have been kicking those walls in, and I don't see any of that." The witness said that if Lina had been strangled, the defendant would have had gouge marks on his arms from her trying to claw them from her neck.

     Dr. John Marriccini, the former Palm Beach County Chief Medical Examiner, testified that the forensic pathologists in the Kaufman case had overlooked Lina Kaufman's history of health problems which included heart disease. Celebrity forensic pathologist Dr. Michael Baden climbed into the witness box and said, "Lina Kaufman did not die of unnatural causes. There was no homicide, there was no murder. She died of natural causes." Dr. Baden testified that in his expert opinion, Miami-Dade County Medical Examiner Bruce Hyma had based his homicide ruling on the work of two rookie forensic pathologists who had gotten it wrong. Dr. Baden said Lina Kaufman died of an heart attack and that the injuries to her throat from hitting the magazine rack had been exacerbated by bungled resuscitation attempts by the defendant and paramedics. Following Dr. Baden's testimony the defense rested its case without putting the defendant on the stand.

     On May 31, because the defense had portrayed the Kaufman marriage as blissful, Judge Miller allowed the prosecution to put Fara Corenblum, a rebuttal witness, on the stand. According to Corenblum, she and the defendant started an affair a month after Lina's death. The witness said she ended the twice-a-week relationship after she realized he was not ready to move on following his wife's death. For the prosecution, Corenblum's testimony, by casting a sympathetic light on the defendant, may have done more harm than good.

     Both sides made their closing arguments on Monday, June 4. The next day, the case went to the jury. At five o'clock that evening the jury returned with its verdict: not guilty.

    

Monday, May 25, 2015

The Randy Alana Murder Case

     In 2013, 50-year-old Sandra Coke, a capital case investigator for the federal public defender's office headquartered in Sacramento, California, resided in Oakland with her 15-year-old daughter. As a federal investigator in cases involving death row inmates who had appealed their sentences, Coke interviewed them, their family members, and acquaintances for the public defenders office in the Eastern District of California. The job often involved travel around California and into other states.

     In May 2013, someone broke into Sandra Coke's home and stole her beloved cocker spaniel, Ginny.  Since then, in her spare time, Sandra ran down leads regarding her pet's whereabouts generated by missing-dog posters she had posted around her neighborhood. The poster offered a $1,000 reward for information leading to Ginny's return.

     On Saturday, August 3, 2013, someone called Sandra with information about the dog. At eight-thirty the following evening, Sandra left her house to meet with the person who had called about Ginny. Before leaving the dwelling Sandra told her daughter that she'd be gone no more than thirty minutes. When she did not return to the house as promised, her daughter reported her missing to the Oakland Police Department.

     Doing some detective work of her own, the missing woman's daughter tracked her iPhones using a GPS application. One of the phones had been dumped along a highway near Richmond, California. The other device had been ditched in Oakland.

     At seven-forty-five the evening after Sandra Coke's disappearance, Oakland police found her 2007 Mini Cooper convertible parked two miles from her home. In a quest for leads regarding her whereabouts, officers removed bags of evidence from the Coke residence. Included among the items seized were two laptop computers.

     A few days into the missing person's case, investigators developed a suspect from Oakland named Randy Alana. The 56-year-old career criminal had been seen with Sandra Coke on the night she went missing. The two had dated twenty years earlier.

     In June 2012, Alana was paroled from a fifteen-year prison sentence for armed robbery. He also had convictions for kidnapping and rape and was registered in California as a high-risk sex offender. The fact he and Sandra had been together on the night she went missing raised the possibility of murder.

     For Randy Alana, this was not the first time he was a suspect in a murder case. In September 1983, Alameda County, California  prosecutor Russ Giutini charged the then 26-year-old criminal with using a hammer to beat to death Marilyn Pigott, a woman he had known since elementary school. Pigott had been murdered on August 13, 1983 in her North Oakland apartment.

     In June 1984, while awaiting his murder trial in the Alameda County Jail, Alana and a fellow inmate named James Hodari Benson were accused of killing 40-year-old Al Ingram. The victim had been stabbed 93 times. Alana and Benson were members of the Black Guerrilla Family prison gang. They killed Ingram under the false belief he was a police informant.

      In the fall of 1984, the jury in the Marilyn Pigott murder trial deadlocked 9-3 in favor of convicting Alana. In his second trial, the jury acquitted him because the witnesses who testified against him were "street types." In the Pigott case, Prosecutor Giutini managed to convict Alana of receiving stolen property in connection with his possession of the murder victim's ring.

     In 1986, as a defendant in the Al Ingram murder trial, the jury couldn't reach an unanimous verdict on the issue of Alana's guilt. The judge declared a mistrial. James Hodari Benson was convicted of the murder in 1987. A year later, Alana pleaded no contest to voluntary manslaughter in the Benson case in return for a prison sentence of six years.

     Police officers, on August 6, 2013, arrested Randy Alana on a parole violation and booked him into the Santa Rita County Jail in Dublin, California. The magistrate denied Alana bail.

     Three days after Alana's arrest, a Contra County search and rescue team near Lagoons Valley Park, an unincorporated area in Solano County outside of Vacaville, California, found Sandra Coke's body in a creek bed. She had been strangled to death.

     Former Alameda prosecutor Russ Giutini, in speaking to a CBS reporter, described Alana as a good-looking career criminal who is cunning and manipulative.

     On August 18, 2013, in a jailhouse interview, Randy Alana told a reporter with The Oakland Tribune that he and Sandra Coke had been in love and had planned to get married. During the past several months, according to Alana, they had shared a house and regularly attended the Harmony Missionary Baptist Church. "I'm being treated like a suspect," he said.

     In November 2013, an Alameda County prosecutor charged Alana with murder in connection with Sandra Coke's death. Al Wax, Alana's longtime criminal defense attorney, called the case against his client "very weak and circumstantial," asked a judge in June 2014 to dismiss the case. The judge denied the defense motion to drop the charges. The case would progress to the trial stage.

     The Randy Alana murder trial got underway on March 16, 2015 in the Alameda County Courthouse in Oakland. Prosecutor Colleen McMahon, in her opening remarks to the jury, said that after the defendant stoled Sandra Coke's dog Ginny on May 9, 2013, he tried to extort $1,000 from her for the pet's return. She didn't file charges against him and didn't pay him the ransom. She did, however, speak to his parole officer, accusing Alana of stealing her car, abducting her dog, and stealing her daughter's expensive headphones. This discussion led to Alana's incarceration that spring and summer for violating his parole.

     Infuriated that Coke had spoken to his parole agent, the defendant strangled Coke to death in the rear seat of her Mini Cooper parked behind the Nights Inn in North Oakland.

     Defense attorney Al Wax, in his opening statement, said that without an eyewitness or a confession, the prosecution's case was entirely circumstantial and insufficient.

     Over the next four weeks, prosecutor McMahon presented her evidence that included incriminating surveillance camera footage, cellphone data, and records from the defendant's electronic ankle monitor. When police officers arrested him on August 6, 2013 in Dublin, California, Alana was in possess of the murder victim's car keys and credit cards.

     Two of the defendant's former cellmates at the Santa Rita County Jail took the stand for the prosecution and testified that following his arrest, he remarked that while he had assaulted many women in the past, things didn't look good for him this time.

     Prosecutor McMahon, to establish motive, played a recording of a phone call from Alana to Sandra Coke made on May 9, 2013 from the Santa Rita County Jail. In that call, Alana expressed his rage at her for getting him into trouble with his parole officer.

     A 40-year-old homeless woman took the stand and said that just hours after Sandra Coke's murder, the defendant took her, in his "wife's" Mini Cooper, to a motel in Oakland where they smoked crack and she gave him oral sex.

     Randy Alana took the stand on his own behalf on April 20, 2015. Under direct examination by defense attorney Wax, the defendant gave an account of his activities on the day of Coke's murder, a story he was telling for the first time. According to Alana, on August 3, 2013, he and Sandra Coke, in her Mini Cooper, followed two people she believed would lead them to her dog Ginny. At the point of destination, a crack house in Richmond, California, he went inside to smoke dope while she remained out side talking to the unidentified people.

     When Alana came out of the crack house Sandra asked him to take her car and and bank card and withdraw cash from her bank account. When he returned to the crack house with the money she was gone, presumably murdered by these mysterious people.

     On May 4, 2015, the last day of Alana's self-serving testimony, prosecutor McMahon, during a blistering cross-examination, poked several holes in the defendant's story. The next day, following the testimony of the defendant's 33-year-old daughter from a short-lived marriage in the 1980s, the defense rested. The judge excused the jury until May 18.

     On May 20, 2015, after the closing arguments, the jury, following a two-hour deliberation, found Randy Alana guilty as charged. He faced up to 96 years in prison. The judge did not set a sentencing date.
         

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Kleber Cordova: The New Jersey Bathtub Murder Case

     On May 9, 2008, at 7:30 in the morning, 29-year-old Kleber Cordova called 911 and reported that his wife had accidentally hit her head on their bathtub faucet and slipped, unconscious, under the water. He said he had tried but failed to lift his 4 foot 10 inch, 125 pound wife out of the tub.

     First responders to the Morristown, New Jersey home found a nude Eliana Torres submerged on her back with her face directly under the spout. Given cardiopulmonary resuscitation and rushed to the Morristown Memorial Hospital, the 26-year-old woman died five days later without regaining consciousness.

     Kleber Cordova and Eliana Torres had a one-year-old son and an eight-year-old daughter who attended second grade at the Normandy Elementary School. Cordova, his wife, and their eight-year-old girl had been born in Ecuador and were in the United States illegally. The victim's mother, Rita Valverde, on the day of the bathtub "accident," rushed to the Morristown hospital from her home in Danbury, Connecticut.

     Cordova, when questioned by the police at the  hospital a few hours after his 911 call, said he had arrived home from his night job to find his wife lying face-up in the bathtub with water from the spout pouring directly into her mouth. After failing to remove her from the tub Cordova had called for help. The next day, aware that his wife was still alive and could possibly regain consciousness, Cordova asked to speak with detectives.

     In a video-taped statement given in Spanish through an interpreter, Cordova changed his story. During the week prior to the bathtub incident, he and Eliana had been arguing. She had informed Kleber that she had a boyfriend and planned to leave him. That morning, after she asked him for a divorce, he want "crazy" and held his wife's head under the water for about three minutes. To make the drowning look like an accident, Cordova removed her wet clothing and hid the garments in his car. (The interrogators had not warned Cordova of his Miranda rights, but since he had initiated contact with them, the judge, in a preliminary hearing, ruled the confession admissible.)

     Charged with the murder of his wife, Cordova was placed in the Morris County Jail in lieu of $1 million bond.

     On March 23, 2009, Morris County prosecutor John McNamera offered Cordova a deal. If he pleaded guilty to murder, the judge would sentence him to 30 years in prison. If tried and found guilty, he could received up to 75 years in prison. Cordova rejected the offer. He would take his chances with a jury.

     The Cordova murder trial began in early March, 2012 at the Morris County Superior Court in Morristown, New Jersey. Assistant prosecutor Brian DiGiamaco did not show the jury Cordova's video-taped confession because it had been ruled inadmissible. The prosecutor put the defendant's daughter, now twelve years old, on the stand. On the morning in question, the eight-year-old girl awoke to the sound of her mother's cries for help. From the bathroom Eliana screamed, "God help me!" in Spanish. The witness said she walked into the bathroom where she saw water splashing out of the bathtub. Her father was leaning over her mother who was clawing at his face. (When the police spoke to Cordova at the hospital, they noticed fresh scratches on his face.) Cordova, when he realized that his daughter was standing nearby, said, "Everything is all right, go to your room." Fearing that her father would get angry if she disobeyed, the girl returned to her room, closed the door, and sat on her bed.

     From her bedroom, the witness heard someone turn off the bathtub water. Her father then walked out of the bathroom and into the kitchen. She could hear his wet sneakers on the kitchen floor. The witness said she took this opportunity to re-enter the bathroom and check on her mother. That's when she saw "the thigh part of her body" in the tub and a lot of water on the floor. Frightened, the little girl ran back to her bedroom.

     Later that morning, in the hospital waiting room, the defendant told his daughter not to say anything about what she had seen. The victim's mother, Rita Valverde, was sitting nearby, and overheard Cordova say this to his daughter.

     On cross-examination by Cordova's attorney, public defender Jessica Moses, the defendant's daughter acknowledged that the first time she accused her father of killing her mother was in December 2008, several months after the incident. The defense attorney, in this line of questioning, hoped to convince the jurors that detectives had wrangled this story out of the eight-year-old. (Since the incident, the witness had been living with her grandmother, Rita Valverde, who had moved from Connecticut to Florida.)

     On March 28, 2012, the victim's sister, Zaida Solis, took the stand and testified that three days after Cordova's arrest he had said this to her: "How could I do that to the love of my life?" The defendant also told his sister-in-law that the drowning had "happened fast," and that he was sorry about it. According to Cordova, on the night before the bathtub attack, Eliana had phoned her boyfriend in front of her husband. The next morning she demanded a divorce.

     After the state rested its case, Jessica Moses asked Judge David Ironson for a judgment of acquittal on the grounds the prosecution had not made a prima facie case against her client. If she did not prevail on that request, the public defender asked for a reduction of the charge from murder to passion/provocation manslaughter. "There is no evidence to support a murder conviction," she argued.

     In opposition to the public defender's reduced charge motion, assistant prosecutor Maggie Calderwood asserted that the defendant had killed his wife "knowingly," and "on purpose." Judge Ironson denied the public defender's motions. The murder charge would stand.

     Jessica Moses didn't have much of a defense beyond a character witness who said Cordova worked hard as an overnight cleaner at a Morristown restaurant and a hospital security officer who saw the defendant faint after visiting his unconscious wife. Cordova did not take the stand on his own behalf.

     In her closing argument to the jury the public defender said that the defendant's daughter had changed her story when questioned by the police months after her father called 911. The defense attorney, in explaining why Cordova had taken off his wife's clothing and hid them in his car, said he "panicked" after the 911 dispatcher asked him a series of questions regarding what had happened in the bathroom. He staged the scene as an accidental drowning because he was sure the authorities would accuse him of murder. As evidence that the killing was not premeditated, the public defender pointed out that two days before the struggle in the bathtub, Cordova bought his wife a new computer and paid an extra $99 for a one-year warranty.

     On April 5, 2012, after deliberating two hours, the jury found Kleber Cordova guilty of murdering his wife. The defendant showed no emotion as the foreman read the verdict.

     The judge, on July 24, 2012, sentenced Kleber Cordova to fifty years in prison. 

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Stephen Glass: Discredited Journalist to Ethical Lawyer?

     Stephen Glass, whose father is a physician and his mother a nurse, grew up in an affluent neighborhood in Chicago's North Shore. After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, he moved to Washington, D.C. In 1995, Glass joined the staff of "The New Republic," a hip magazine read by influential political insiders referred to by some as the onboard magazine of Air Force One.

     Ambitious, talented, and eager to please his editor and colleagues, Stephen, in 1996, began dolling up his pieces by fudging quotes and doctoring anecdotes. He continued to fictionalize his nonfiction work through 1997. Early in 1998, Glass submitted stories that were completely made up, accompaning these pieces with phony footnotes, fake email correspondence, and manufactured interview notes.

     Stephen's editor, Charles Lane, became suspicious when he couldn't cooberate the young journalist's sources in several of his submissions. This caused an internal review which led to Stephen's termination in May 1998. (The scandal is the subject of a TV docudrama called "Shattered Glass.") During his tenure at "The New Republic," Glass fabricated thirty-six articles, about half of his journalistic output. (As a free-lancer, he had also fabricated stories for three other publications.)

     After being thrown out of journalism, Glass became a law student at Georgetown University. After acquiring his degree, he moved to New York where he passed the bar exam. After a short stay in New York, Glass took up residence in Los Angeles. Although he passed the California bar exam, because of his history as a journalist, he did not apply to become a licensed attorney. Instead, he took a job as a para-legal at a Beverly Hills law firm.

     In 2003, Glass published an autobiographical novel called "The Fabulist" in which he glossed over the extent of his journalistic fraud. Reviewers were unkind, and the public uninterested. Glass had lost his credibility as a journalist and as a novelist. Moreover, a lot of people were put off by his attempt to capitalize on his journalistic crimes.

     Glass, in 2005, applied for admission to the California Bar. The bar committee, finding him morally unfit to become a lawyer, denied him membership. He appealed the decision to the state bar court which, in 2010, found in his favor. The state responded by appealing the bar court's decision to the California Supreme Court.

     On January 26, 2014, the California Supreme Court denied Glass his license to practice law. In its ruling, the justices noted that "Glass' journalistic dishonesty was not a single lapse of judgement but involved significant deceit sustained unremittingly for a period of years." Moreover, according to the high court, Glass' journalistic lying took place "while he was pursuing a law degree and license to practice law, when the importance of honesty should have gained new meaning for him."

     While no one would dispute the fact there are rotten apples in the legal profession barrel, at least this rotten apple won't be joining them. 

Friday, May 22, 2015

The Brian Browning Sleeping Pill Murder Case

     Brian Browning, 51, lived with his 47-year-old wife Catherine and their two daughters, aged 18 and 20, in Skye, Australia, a suburb of Melbourne on the country's southeastern coast. Catherine worked for the Family Life Community Agency, an organization dedicated to fighting violence against women.

     After the couple agreed to an amicable separation on December 10, 2013, Brian, worried about his financial future, became distraught and couldn't sleep. His 20-year-old daughter Amy suggested that he see a physician. Instead, Brian purchased an over-the-counter packet of 20 Restavit brand sleeping pills.

     At six in the morning of December 19, 2013, Amy Browning heard her mother scream. At the bedroom door, she encountered her father who stood in the doorway holding a bloody knife. Brian Browning, knife in hand, called his wife a bitch then let the weapon fall to his feet.

     Responding police officers discovered Catherine Browning lying in one of her daughter's beds. A forensic pathologist determined that the victim had been stabbed 15 times. Brian Browning had greeted the police that morning in his garden outside of his house. "I've killed my wife," he said.

     Paramedics transported Mr. Browning to the Frankston Hospital for observation. The emergency crew noticed that he was wide-eyed and staring straight ahead. He did, however, respond to their questions.

     At the hospital, Mr. Browning claimed to see ants and spiders crawling on the walls. With a rapid heart rate and elevated blood pressure, hospital personnel turned him over to the custody of the police.

     The next day, while being questioned at the police station, Brian Browning said, "About six o'clock I talked myself into killing her. I went and got the kitchen knife. She was in my daughter's bed. I stabbed her. She woke up, screamed, then I just kept stabbing, stabbing, stabbing. I just spun out."

     According to the suspect, before he went to bed on the night before the killing, he had taken four to ten of the Restavit sleeping pills. After the murder, Mr. Browning said he was so disgusted with himself over what he had done he took the remaining pills in an effort to kill himself. (Detectives had recovered the empty pill packet.)

     On December 20, 2013, in the Melbourne Magistrates Court, Brian Browning pleaded not guilty to the charge of murder. The magistrate denied him bail and ordered a mental evaluation.

     In early April 2015, the Browning murder trial got underway in the Supreme Crown Court of Victoria with Justice Lex Lasry presiding. The defendant's barrister, George Georgiou, in his opening remarks to the jury, argued that the sleeping pills had rendered his client incapable of possessing the criminal intent to commit murder. The barrister characterized Mr. Browning's stabbing frenzy as involuntary behavior.

     Crown prosecutor Daryl Brown, after bringing police officers, detectives, and the defendant's oldest daughter to the stand, put a medical expert into the witness box. According to the physician, four to ten sleeping pills should not have been enough to cause hallucinations or the other effects alleged by the defendant.

     On April 20, 2015, a witness for the prosecution took the stand and testified that at the time of the killing the defendant was about to collect a $200,000 settlement regarding a workplace injury, money he did not want to share in the divorce arrangement. Moreover, he did not like the idea of sharing the money from the sale of the house with his ex-wife.

     When it came time to put on his defense, Barrister Georgiou put Dr. Lester Walton on the stand. According to the psychiatrist, the Resavit pills contained the sedative doxylamine which can make a person feel agitated. "In broad terms," the doctor said, "the more the person takes the more likely it is he might expect some form of adverse reaction." On cross-examination the psychiatrist admitted that he had never come across a case of doxylamine induced psychosis.

     In his April 28, 2015 closing argument, Crown Prosecutor Daryl Brown told the jury that "whatever the defendant's thought processes were at the time of the killing, it was clear that he knew who he was stabbing. That shows awareness." According to the prosecutor, Mr. Browning had killed his wife because "she was the person who was causing his world to be turned upside down."

     Defense barrister Georigiou, in his closing statement, pointed out that Restavit tablet overdoses have been known to cause psychotic episodes.

     On May 5, 2015, the jury found Brian Browning guilty of murder. The judge will sentence him at a later date.

   

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Alix Tichelman: A Hooker, Heroin, and a Dead Millionaire on a Yacht

     Alix Catherine Tichelman described herself on her Facebook page as a fetish ("bondage, dominance, sadism and masochism") model with more than 200 "client relationships." In plain words, the 26-year-old worked as a Silicon Valley prostitute. Her "clients" were wealthy Johns willing to shell out big fees for the rope, the whip, and who knows what else.

     If one believed Tichelman's Facebook entries, the self-described high-end hooker graduated from high school in Deluth, Georgia before studying journalism at Georgia State University in Atlanta. (Maybe in college she heard that journalists were whores and decided to make real money in that profession.) Tichelman started her sex worker career at Larry Flynt's Hustler Club.

     In early 2012, Tichelman began dating Dean Riopelle, the lead singer of a rock-and-roll band called "Impotent Sea Snakes." (Catchy.) Riopelle also owned the Masquerade Night Club in Atlanta, a popular music venue. Interestingly enough, Riopelle had earned a degree in construction engineering from the University of Florida. Eventually Tichelman moved into Riopell's luxury home in Milton, Georgia.

     On September 6, 2013, officers with the Milton Police Department responded to a domestic call that originated from the Riopelle house. Tichelman, the caller, accused her boyfriend of physical abuse. He returned the favor with assault accusations of his own. The officers departed without taking anyone into custody.

     On September 19, 2013, Tichelman dialed 911 and to the dispatcher said, "I think my boyfriend overdosed on something. He, like, won't respond." Tichelman, in response to the emergency dispatcher's questions, said Riopelle's eyes were open but he was unconscious. She described his breathing as "on and off." The dispatcher overheard the caller say, "Hello Dean, are you awake?"

     When the 911 dispatcher asked Tichelman how she knew her boyfriend had overdosed on something, she said, "Because there's nothing else it could be." The dispatcher inquired if the overdose was intentional or accidental. "He was taking painkillers and drinking a lot," came the reply.

     Dean Riopelle died a week later at a local hospital. The medical examiner's office, following the autopsy, identified the cause of death as excessive heroin and alcohol consumption. The medical examiner ruled the death an accident.

     On November 23, 2013, about a month after Dean Riopelle's overdose fatality, a 51-year-old Google executive from Silicon Valley named Forrest Timothy Hayes enjoyed Tichelman's purchased company on his 50-foot yacht. (The vessel has also been described as a powerboat.) Later that day, the authorities discovered Hayes dead in one of the boat's bedrooms. (The yacht was not at sea.)

     In the course of the investigation into this sudden death, detectives with the Santa Cruz Police Department viewed the yacht's videotape footage that revealed just how the executive had died. Tichelman was seen injecting Hayes with what investigators presumed to be a shot of heroin. Immediately after the needle went in, he clutched his chest and collapsed. Tichelman responded to the obvious emergency by finishing her glass of wine then gathering up her belongings. As she casually strolled out of the bedroom, she stepped over Hayes' body. She did not call 911.

     Santa Cruz detectives, on July 3, 2014, executed a search warrant at Tichelman's parents' home in Folsom, a upscale Silicon Valley community. Her father, Bart, was CEO of a tech firm that offered "energy efficient infrastructure" for data centers. At the Tichelman house, detectives carried away the suspect's laptop. On the computer, investigators found that Tichelman, just before Hayes' death, had made online inquires regarding how to defend oneself if accused of homicide in a drug overdose case.

     On July 4, 2014, an undercover Santa Cruz officer, through the website SeekingArrangement.com, lured Alix Tichelman to a fancy hotel on the pretext of being a John willing to pay $1,000 for a session featuring fetish sex. The officer took the hooker into custody on suspicion of criminal homicide in the yacht owner's death.

     At her arraignment on July 10, 2014, the judge informed the suspect she faced a charge of manslaughter along with several drug related crimes. She pleaded not guilty to these offenses. The judge set her bail at $1.5 million.

     Homicide detectives, in the wake of Forrest Hayes' suspicious death, were looking into the Dean Riopelle overdose case. As a result of the Hayes case, SeekingArrangement.com was shut down. This upset Silicon Valley prostitutes who said they used the site to screen Johns with histories of violence. Affluent sex worker clients in the valley also used the site to arrange hooker dates. (I guess if you're a whore, doing business in an area populated by a lot of rich nerds is a good thing.)

   On May 18, 2015, Alix Tichelman pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and numerous drug offenses in connection with Forrest Hayes' fatal overdose. Larry Biggam, the lawyer who negotiated the plea bargain on Tichelman's behalf, told reporters that although his client had been sentenced to six years in prison, she will only spend three years behind bars.

     The Tichelman case illustrates the difference between immoral and illegal behavior. While not raising a hand to save a dying man is a highly immoral act, in law it is merely a minor form of criminal homicide.