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Sunday, July 5, 2015

Murdering Jocelyn Earnest: A Circumstantial Case

     On December 19, 2007, a friend discovered the body of 38-year-old Jocelyn Earnest just inside the front door of her house in Pine Bluff, Virginia. The victim had been shot in the back of the head. Next to her body lay a .357 magnum revolver and a typewriten suicide note that in part read:

     To Mom
          I'm sorry for what I've done. Please forgive me. Wes [the victim's estranged husband] has put us in such a financial bind--can't recover. My new love will not leave the family.
     Love,
     Jocelyn

     The heat inside Earnest's house had been jacked up to 90 degrees and there were no signs of forced entry. The dead woman's dog, a black Labador, was locked in a crate without food or water in a back bedroom.

     Investigators immediately suspected that Jocelyn Earnest had been murdered, and the scene staged to look like a suicide. Detectives knew that people who kill themselves and leave notes rarely type them. In searching Jocelyn's two home computers, investigators did not find drafts of this document. And the word choice and syntax of the note was inconsistent with the writing style found in the victim's handwritten journals. The police suspected that the furnace had been turned up to alter the body's decomposition rate to throw off the biological time of death determination. Apparently the killer had wanted the police to believe Jocelyn had been killed earlier in the day, perhaps to support an alibi.

     Suspicion immediately fell on the victim's estranged husband, Wesley Earnest who had moved out of the house a year earlier. As an assistant high school principal, he lived and worked 200 miles away in Chesapeake, Virginia. Jocelyn had been employed as a financial services manager in Lynchburgh, Virginia. Although together they had been earning $200,000 a year, they were deeply in debt. Wesley, over Jocelyn's objection, had built a three million dollar, seven thousand square foot mansion on nearby lake property. The $6,000 a month mortgage on this second home they couldn't sell because it was financially under water, had put them $1 million in debt. On top of this, Wesley found himself faced with the disasterous financial consequences of  divorce.

     Wesley Earnest claimed he hadn't been to the Pine Bluff house for at least a year. After he had moved out, Jocelyn had changed the locks. Investigators, however, could connect him to the crime scene in two ways: he had purchased the .357 magnum, and two of his latent fingerprints were on the typewritten note next to the body. Two days before his estranged wife's death, the suspect had borrowed a pickup truck from a friend. When he returned the vehicle two weeks later, it had new tires. Detectives believed Wesley had changed out the tires to avoid a crime scene tire track match-up.

     Investigators also read the victim's journal, handwritten in seventeen notebooks. Several of the entries, however, written from Jocelyn's point of view, were in Wesley Earnest's hand. These forged additions portrayed the suspect in a favorable light. However, in one of the notebooks the victim had written: "If I die, Wesley killed me and he probably shot me."

     Wesley admitted to detectives that he had girlfriends but claimed his wife had known about it and approved. At his place of employment in Chesapeake, however, he told co-workers he was single.

     In May 2009, the $3 million house on the lake burned to the ground. Cause and origin fire investigators ruled the cause "undetermined." Because the place was heavily insured, the fire accrued to Wesley's financial benefit.

     Wesley Earnest went on trial in March 2010 for the murder of his wife. His attorney, in an effort to uncouple the defendant from the typewritten crime scene note, contested the forensic reliability of latent fingerprint identification. (Perhaps the defendant would have better served by offering an innocent explanation for the presence of his prints.) The defense attorney also put his client on the stand to testify on his own behalf. The defendant told the jurors that he had purchased the .357 revolver as a gift for his wife so she could protect herself. He portrayed Jocelyn as having been distraught over their financial problems. He also said she was having trouble with the woman who was her new lover.

     The jury, a few days after listening to the defendant, after deliberating less than four hours, found him guilty of murdering his wife.

     A month following the conviction, before Earnest was sentenced, a posting on a newspaper web site revealed that the jurors had read Jocelyn's journal. The trial judge had not wanted the jury to see this evidence. The notebooks had been inadvertantly put into a box that found its way into the jury room. In July 2010, the judge declared a mistrial.

     In November 2010, in Amherst, Virginia, Earnest went on trial again for the murder of his wife. His attorney, once again, put him on the stand to claim his innocence. On cross-examination, the prosecutor got Earnest to admit that in 2006 he had forged entries into his wife's journal. When asked how he had gotten into the Pine Bluff house he had been locked out of, Earnest said he had climbed through an unlocked window. In so doing, the defendant revealed to the jury how he may have entered the house to murder his wife. The second jury found the defendant guilty of first-degree murder. He was subsequently sentenced to life in prison.

     In December 2012, a three-judge panel of the Virginia Court of Appeals upheld the murder conviction and life sentence for Wesley Earnest.

     No one saw Wesley Earnest enter the Pine Bluff house and shoot his wife. No one claimed he had confided to them he had commited the crime. And he never confessed to the police. All the prosecutor had was what looked like a staged suicide, a motive, and a pair of latent prints on a suspect suicide note. But, with these two juries, the prosecution had enough evidence to convict. By comparison, the circumstantial cases against Casey Anthony and O.J. Simpson were much stronger than the case against Wesley Earnest. But Anthony and Simpson got off, and Earnest didn't. While I believe the juries returned the correct verdicts in this case, uniformity of results is not a characteristic of the American system of justice.         

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Dr. Jon Norberg's Nightmare: The Rape Accusations of a Mentally Disturbed Wife

    Dr. Jon Norberg, an orthopedic surgeon in Fargo, North Dakota who specialized in hands, elbows, and upper extremities, was estranged from his wife Alonna, a former pediatrician who suffered from Sjogren's Syndrome, a rare immune system disorder. In 2011, the couple, in their early 40s, were in the midst of a contentious divorce and child custody battle. In June of that year, Dr. Alonna Norberg filed a complaint with the Fargo Police Department in which she accused her estranged husband of endangering her life by repeatedly, and without her consent, injecting her with the powerful anesthetic drug propofol. (This drug gained notoriety after Michael Jackson overdosed on it in 2009.) According to Alonna, Dr. Norberg had injected her with the drug thirty times between September 2010 and June 2011. The complainant also accused her husband of rape. She told detectives that on the morning of June 17, 2011, she awoke to discover physical evidence that her husband, while she was under the influence of the drug, had forced her to have oral sex. She found, on the nightstand next to the bed, a bottle of Diprivan (a propofol brand).

     On August 2, 2011, a prosecutor with the Cass County State Attorney's Office charged Dr. Jon Norberg with gross sexual imposition, a class AA felony that carried a maximum sentence of life. For injecting his wife with propofol, the surgeon was also charged with reckless endangerment, a class C felony that could put him in prison for up to five years. As a result of these criminal charges, Dr. Norberg took a leave of absence from his medical practice. (The State Board of Medical Examiners would later suspend his medical license indefinitely.) Following his arrest, arraignment, and release from custody on bail, Dr. Norberg pleaded not guilty to both charges.

     On November 7, 2012, Cass County prosecutor Reid Brady, in his opening remarks to the jury, said, "At the end of this case you will know that the defendant defied dangerous risks by unsafely using propopol on his wife. You will know that he obsessed with sex so much that he perpetrated sex acts on her when he knew she was unaware."

     Defense attorney Robert Hoy, in his opening address to the jury, said that Alonna Norberg had concocted the drug and rape allegations to get the upper hand in the couple's divorce and child custody battles. The defendant had injected his wife with the drug three times to alleviate her pain from Sjogren's Syndrome, and to help her sleep.

     Two days into the trial, Dr. Alonna Norberg took the stand as the prosecution's principal witness. For two days she gave, in a breathless manner, graphic and dramatic testimony of being constantly drugged, and on the one occasion, raped under its influence. "I remember," she said, "looking around thinking I've got to get up and I got to get away....It was just true true horror because I was choking and I couldn't get his mouth away, I couldn't get my body away."

     Following her testimony, Alonna Norberg walked out of the courtroom and did not return to the trial. On November 14, Robert Knorr, Alonna's father, took the stand and testified regarding an October 28, 2012 meeting he had with Dr. Norberg, at the defendant's request. At this meeting in a Fargo restaurant, Dr. Norberg suggested, for the benefit of all parties, that his estranged wife recant her accusations. According to this witness, the defendant had said, "She could either say that it was a dream, or that she was lying, or that she didn't remember." Mr. Knorr believed the defendant thought it would be in the best interest of the entire family if this matter did not go to trial. The witness said, "I told him there was no way that was going to happen." Following Robert Knorr's testimony, the state rested its case.

     Under defense attorney Robert Hoy's direct questioning, Dr. Harjinder Virdee, a Fargo psychiagtrist with 35 years experience, painted a psychiatric portrait of the defendant's accuser that undermined her credibility. Dr. Virdee had spent more than 100 hours reviewing Alonna Norberg's extensive medical history comprised of hundreds of documents. The psychiatrist had also conducted a five-hour interview with the former pediatrician. According to the witness, Alonna was a compulsive, nonstop talker who dominated the session.

     Regarding Alonna Norberg's accusations against her husband, it was Dr. Virdee's expert opinion that they were false. The accuser's description of what happened to her was simply too detailed and graphic to ring true. A person under the influence of the drug propofol could not recall what had happened to them is such detail.

     According to Alonna Norberg's medical file, she had been diagnosed with more than fifteen mental illnesses and disorders including obsessive-compulsive disorder; anxiety; histronic and narcissistic personality traits; depression; violent mood swings; and chemical dependency. At no time in the past decade had Alonna Norberg been taking fewer than twenty medications. Occasionally during this period she was ingesting more than fifty different drugs at one time. Many of these prescriptions involved opioid medication such as the addictive oxycodone. "She's got everything," Dr. Virdee said. "If you go through her medical notes there are umpteen diagnoses in the records. It jumps from one thing to another, one [doctor's] visit to the next. She is ill, she is psychiatrically ill."

     Based upon her review of Alonna Norberg's vast psychiatric history, Dr. Virdee added a new diagnosis. In Dr. Virdee's medical opinion, Alonna Norberg suffered from what the psychiatrist called fictitious disorder, a condition or personality trait in which people either fabricate symptoms or intentionally produce symptoms to gain attention and sympathy. (This sounds a lot like the Munchausen Syndrome Disorder.)

     On cross-examination, prosecutor Reid Brady pointed out that Dr. Virdee was the first doctor to diagnosis Alonna Norberg with the syndrome called fictitious disorder. "I'm the only doctor," she replied, "that has reviewed all the records as well. It's hard to wonder how she became a physician if she can't tell the difference between all these drugs. Her credibility is very low."

     Kori Norborg, the defendant's sister-in-law, took the stand and testified that Alonna's accusations were motivated by her fear that because of her drug addiction, she would lose custody of the couple's two children.

     In his closing argument to the jury, defense attorney Hoy said, "There is not one shred of physical evidence to support their [the state's] case. Everything else...originates with Alonna Norberg. Desperate people do desperate things."

     On November 21, 2012, the day before Thanksgiving, the jury, after a quick deliberation, found Dr. Jon Norberg not guilty of both charges. Given the circumstances surrounding these accusations, the charges should never have been filed in the first place. This case, in my view, reflects a gross lack of prosecutorial discretion.

     In March 2013, a Fargo judge granted Norberg primary custody of his children. Five months later an official with the North Dakota Board of Medical Examiners reinstated Dr. Norborg's medical license. 

Friday, July 3, 2015

Stacey Sutera Murdered by Stalker Robert McLaughlin

     Early in 2010, Robert McLaughlin, a 62-year-old retired U.S. Postal employee from Painesville, Ohio, a Lake County town in the northeastern part of the state, asked Stacey Sutera out for a date. The 37-year-old teacher who lived in Canfield, a suburban town located on the western edge of the Youngstown metropolitan area, informed McLaughlin that she had no interest in him romantically. The two had known each other fifteen years. McLaughlin gave no indication that he had been hurt and angered by the rejection. Sutera said she hoped the two could remain, if not friends, at least friendly acquaintances.

     Stacey Sutera's rejection of a much older man who had no reason to expect that he had any chance of developing a relationship with this young, attractive woman, changed her life in a way she could not have predicted, or imagined. The rejection turned this otherwise unremarkable, cowardly man into a stealthy and insidious monster.

     Stacey Sutera's prolonged nightmare began on March 26, 2010 when someone used a key to scratch-up her car in the parking lot of a grocery store. Three months later, the superintendent of the Columbiana School District started receiving emails about a sexually oriented website that falsely featured Sutera. The anonymous writer of the emails began sending messages to Sutera in which he threatened to ruin her reputation. These emails were signed, "Your Enemy For Life." During this period, Sutera, who had remained in touch with McLauglin, spoke to him about her problem. He responded with sympathy and concern.

     On July 29, 2010, Sutera filed a report with the Canfield Police Department which detailed the Internet harassment. Sutera had no idea who hated her enough to wage such a malicious campaign against her. Following the police report, Sutera's tormentor scratched a derogatory slur on her car, and began harassing her with a series of prank telephone calls.

     In September 2010, Sutera received a fake, used condom in the mail, a gang item sold online to people out for revenge. The following month, Sutera's teaching colleagues received, through the mail, business cards bearing the teacher's name and address. The cards advertised Sutera's willingness to perform sexual acts for a fee. At this point it was obvious that Sutera's stalker had dedicated his life to ruining hers.

     Stacey Sutera's ongoing nightmare intensified on December 1, 2010 when her stalker poisoned her dog to death. A week later, Canfield detectives learned that Robert McLaughlin had purchased the fake condom online, and had created the sexually explicit websites designed to embarrass and scandalize Sutera. When police officers informed Sutera who had been stalking her, she was stunned. What had she ever done to this man to incur his wrath? Why did he think she deserved to be treated like this?

     On December 8, 2010, detectives with the Canfield Police Department searched McLaughlin's home in Painesville. The officers discovered information linking the suspect to the malicious website, a mailing list of Sutera's colleagues, the phony sex act business cards, photographs of her, and miscellaneous pornographic material. The next day detectives arrested McLaughlin on charges of pandering obscenity and menacing by stalking.

     Sutera, on the day of McLaughlin's arrest, filed for a civil protection order before Judge Eugene J. Fehr of the Mahoning County Common Pleas Court. The judge granted the order which barred McLaughlin from possessing a firearm, and prohibited him from any further contact with Sutera. The order would remain in effect until July 2015. In her affidavit in support of the protection order, Sutera had written: "McLaughlin's actions are clearly designed to cause me mental illness and fear of physical harm. I live in constant fear. My dog has been killed. My daughter and I are in danger."

     Robert McLaughlin, on December 17, 2010, after eight months of stalking Stacey Sutera, pleaded guilty in a Mahoning County Court to menacing by stalking. The judge sentenced him to six months in jail. Six months for ruining a woman's life. The judge had given Sutera just six months of temporary protection from a malicious nutcase.

     Sutera, on January 8, 2011, filed a civil suit against McLaughlin claiming infliction of emotional stress, libel, and invasion of privacy. The plaintiff sought $1.5 million in damages.

     A Mahoning County grand jury, in the spring of 2011, indicted McLaughlin on the felony charges of pandering obscenity, and three counts of possessing criminal tools (his computer). That fall the defendant pleaded guilty to these charges, and on November 29, 2011, Judge Maureen A. Sweeney shocked Sutera, her family, and friends by sentencing this aggressively vicious stalker to five years of probation. McLaughlin was also sentenced to 500 hours of community service and fined $2,500. The judge ordered him to enroll in an anger-management program. He would also have to register in the county as a Tier-I sex offender.

     From Sutera's point of view, McLaughlin's sentence amounted to a slap in the wrist. The fact he would not serve time behind bars guaranteed that he would continue his program of personal destruction. Sutera suffered from multiple sclerosis and ulcers, and had nothing to look forward to but a future of worry and fear. Robert McLaughlin, a nobody and loser who couldn't handle being rejected by someone out of his league, had ruined the life of a once productive mother and teacher. Anger-management? Community service? Probation? (The local prosecutor and the Ohio parole and probation  people had signed-off on these ridiculously lenient sentences.)

     On February 8, 2012, a neighbor found Stacey Sutera lying dead outside her Carriage Hill apartment. She had been shot at close range. That day, a Mahoning County judge issued a warrant for Robert McLaughlin's arrest on the charge of capital murder. After harassing Stacey Sutera for almost two years, this degenerate, who should have been in prison, waited for the 40-year-old to come out of her dwelling. On the last day of her life, this degenerate stalker put a bullet in her head.

     The day after he murdered Sutera, the 64-year-old McLaughlin used the same gun to kill himself at his mother's gravesite. Who knows why this loser felt the need to take his life near his dead mother? Who cares? In McLaughlin's Painesville storage unit, investigators found a suicide note in which he had written out his plans to murder Sutera, and then kill himself. It's tragic that he hadn't killed himself a couple of years earlier after Sutera had rejected him. In his case, suicide would have been more effective than talking to some anger management counselor.

     Stacey Sutera had been powerless to protect herself from a man she knew would eventually kill her. She had reached out to the police and the courts for help and got nothing because the local criminal justice system was more concerned about protecting Robert McLaughlin's rights than Sutera's safety. Did the sentencing judge actually believe that an anger-management counselor could fix Robert McLaughlin? One wonders how many other women in Mahoning County, and elsewhere, are being stalked by men who will eventually murder them.

   

   

     

Thursday, July 2, 2015

The Eric Koula Double Murder Case

     Eric Koula, a 41-year-old day trader who lived in West Salem, Wisconsin with his wife and teenage son, called 911 on May 24, 2010 from his parent's house in nearby Barre to report that someone had shot and killed Dennis and Merna Koula. Homicide detectives would determine that the couple had been murdered three days earlier with a .22-caliber rifle, a weapon never identified.

     After the LaCrosse County prosecutor, Tim Gruenke charged Eric Koula on July 29, 2010 with two counts of first-degree murder, police took him into custody. According to the prosecutor, Koula, in financial trouble, murdered his parents in order to inherit their estate. While the prosecutor had motive, means, and opportunity supporting this theory, it was what the state didn't have that made acquiring a conviction unlikely. What the prosecutor didn't have included a confession, an eyewitness, physical evidence pointing to Koula's guilt, or the murder weapon.

     Eric Koula, represented by Jim Kolby and Keith Belzer, went on trial on June 6, 2012. In his opening remarks to the jury of five men and seven women, prosecutor Gruenke stated the defendant executed his mother as she sat at her office computer, then shot his father when he walked into the room. Eric Koula's attorneys, on the other hand, assured the jury their client had an airtight alibi, and pointed out the obvious weakness of the prosecution's case. According to the defense theory of the murders, the victims had been killed by professional hitmen who entered the wrong house. (That doesn't sound too professional to me.) The defense didn't elaborate on who had masterminded the contract killing, or why.   

     According to a forensic accountant who testified on behalf of the state, the defendant had only $3,000 in the bank, and owed the IRS and several credit card companies $150,000. Shortly after his parent's violent deaths, Koula had deposited into his bank a $50,000 check drawn on his father's account. 

     Investigators took the stand and testified that the defendant had planted evidence  to make himself look innocent. He had written "fixed you" on a piece of paper and put it into his mailbox. The defendant hoped the note would make it look as though the killer was trying to frame him for the murders. Koula eventually confessed to fabricating this evidence.

     After the state rested its case on June 14, the defense put their own forensic accountant on the stand who testified that Koula's assets exceeded his liabilities. (To me, the term "forensic accountant" is an oxymoron. Accounting is as much a science as economics. While I realize that the word "forensic" pertains to a formal argument like a structured debate or a trial, it still doesn't sound right.) 

     On June 16, Eric Koula took the stand on his own behalf. (This fact alone makes this murder trial somewhat unusual.) Questioned on direct examination by attorney Keith Belzer, the defendant said that in 1994 he, his cousin, and his father purchased a Ford dealership. Eric became president of the company, but in 2006 his father sold the business. Although his father owed him $1million from the sale of the car dealership, the defendant only received $500,000. After the sale of the company, Eric began his day trading enterprise. In 2007 he made $300,000 in profits, but the following year he lost $661,000.

     In 2009, Eric's father gave him $100,000, and in May 2010 his parents promised him another $50,000. On May 20, the defendant went to his parent's home to pick up the $50,000 check. His father handed him a black check and told him to fill it in himself. That's why he signed his father's name on the check and tried to make the signature look like his father's handwriting. This was the last time the defendant saw his parent's alive. 

     On Friday, May 21, 2010, the day Dennis and Merna Koula were gunned down, the defendant detailed his activities in a way that established an airtight alibi. The next day, he deposited the $50,000 check bearing his father's fake signature. 

     On Monday, Mary 24, someone at the school where Mrs. Koula taught called Eric to inform him his mother had not shown up for work and that no one at her house was picking up the phone. Eric drove to Barre to check on his parents. He became alarmed when he saw their cars parked in the garage. Inside the house he found his father lying dead on the home office floor, and his mother at her desk slumped over the computer. After calling 911, he phoned his wife and his pastor who rushed to the scene to give him support. 

     LaCrosse County deputies took the defendant to the sheriff's office for questioning. In his statement, he forgot to mention the $50,000 check he had deposited containing his father's phony signature. A week later, investigators came to his house to speak to him about the whereabouts of his son Dexter on the day of the murders. The detectives also wanted to know if the boy had access to a .22-caliber rifle. Worried that the police were going to arrest his son for the murder of his grandparents, the defendant wrote the "fixed you" note and placed it in his mailbox. He testified that he had fabricated this evidence to protect his son. 

     The defendant admitted that on July 29, 2010, when he met with detectives for the third and last time, he denied signing the $50.000 check, and didn't reveal that he had written the "fixed you" note. 

     On cross-examination, prosecutor Gary Freyburg pressed the defendant regarding his financial troubles. The prosecutor reminded him about the forged $50,000 check and the planted evidence. The cross-examiner pointed out that in Koula's 911 call, the defendant started out by explaining why he was at his parent's house. Once he justified his presence at the murder scene, he reported his emergency. 

     The testimony phase of the trial came to a close on June 26, 2012. The outcome of the case depended entirely on whether the jurors believed the defendant's testimony. After deliberating less than a day, the jury returned a verdict of guilty. By Wisconsin law, the judge had to impose a sentence of life. The judge could, however, decide to make Koula eligible for parole after serving 40 years behind bars. So, the best Koula could hope for was to walk free at age 83.

     On August 12, 2012, Judge Scott Home, at the sentence hearing, said this to the convicted killer: "You took the life of the two people who gave you life, and you'll spend the rest of your life incarcerated." The judge sentenced Koula to two consecutive life sentences without the chance of parole.      

     

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The Cracker Barrel Murders: No Escaping Kevin Allen

     In June 1995, the day he received word that he and his first wife were divorced, 35-year-old Kevin E. Allen assaulted his girlfriend, Janice Koerlin. A few months later, the diagnosed manic-depressive from Kirtland, Ohio, a town 20 miles east of Cleveland, married Koerlin. In September of that year, police arrested Allen after he tried to suffocate his new wife with a pillow. This was a man who obvioulsy had no business being around women. This was a man who needed to be locked up.

     In 2004, Allen filed for personal bankruptcy for the second time. (He had filed for bankruptcy in 1991.) Four years later, the police in North Royalton, Ohio arrested him, now married to his third wife with whom he had fathered two daughters, on charges of theft and burglary.

     In March 2011, Kevin and his third wife Katherina, who went by Kate and was ten years younger than him, lived in Strongsville, Ohio with their daughters Kerri and Kayla. That year Kevin and Kate filed for personal bankruptcy. They were in debt $60,000. Although Kevin Allen, with his short, thinning gray hair and his trimmed white beard looked like a friendly guy, he continued to be a bellicose, bad-tempered husband. People went out of their way to avoid him. In 2011, Allen went several months without paying his gas bill, and threatened to shoot anybody from the utility company who came to his place to shut if off. A gas company employee did go to the house, but with a police escort.

     In early April 2012, the domestic abuse had gotten so intense and frequent, Kate and the girls moved into a friend's house. On April 12, Kate decided to take Kerri and Kayla to the Cracker Barrel restaurant in nearby Brooklyn, Ohio to celebrate Kerri Allen's tenth birthday. Kate had invited her estranged husband, and in the relative safety of a crowded restaurant, would inform Kevin that she wanted a divorce.

     After the late dinner, while still at the Cracker Barrel, Kate broke the news that she was leaving him. Infuriated, Kevin stormed out of the restaurant, but instead of driving home, he circled the parking lot in his silver Jeep Liberty. Worried that Kevin might become violent, Kate, at 8:40, called 911. "I'm having some spouse problems," she said.

     Kate informed the 911 dispatcher that she had just told her estranged husband that she was leaving  him, and he hadn't taken it very well. At that moment, he was outside the Cracker Barrel driving around the parking lot. A few minutes later, as Kate spoke to the 911 dispatcher, Kevin re-entered the restaurant and approached her and the children carrying a single barrel shotgun. The local police rolled up to the scene just as Kevin disappeared inside the building.

     The police officers, aware that Kevin Allen had gone into the restaurant armed with a shotgun, decided to remain outside. They were afraid that if they went in after him, innocent bystanders could get shot in the cross-fire. The police were also worried that Allen, if confronted inside, might take a hostage.

     When Kevin Allen got to the table, without saying a word, he aimed his shotgun and blasted his wife and two children. Kate, when Kevin walked into the restaurant, was still on the phone with the 911 dispatcher. Their conversation, at this point, went like this:

DISPATCHER: "Wait in the lobby for the officers. Do not go outside. Let them talk to him, okay? "

KATE: "He's here and the police are here, too. I have to...." (Gunfire could be heard on the dispatcher's end.)

DISPATCHER: "Ma'am?"

     After murdering his wife and his daughter Kerri, and seriously wounding Kayla, Allen walked out the front door of the restaurant where he encountered the police. When he refused to drop his shotgun, the police opened fire, killing him on the spot.

     When Kevin Allen strode into the Cracker Barrel carrying the shotgun, bedlam broke out with patrons running for cover. The manager helped many diners exit the place through a rear door. None of the customers were injured.

     Medics  rushed Kayla to a nearby hospital where she was in critical condition. Some people have criticized the officers for not immediately entering the restaurant. But it was a difficult dilemma. Had the police gone in, more people could have been killed. In reality, there is only so much the police can do. They cannot always save families from abusive, murderous husbands. There was no escaping Kevin Allen.

     

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Volga Adams: New York City's Biggest Psychic Swindler

     Mrs. Frances Friedman of Manhattan's Upper West Side had been a widow for eight years. In September 1956 she visited a psychic parlor on Madison Avenue run by Volga Adams, a self-appointed gypsy princess. Adams advertised her services in the form of a large drawing painted on her storefront window of a hand, palm facing out. Mrs. Friedman hoped the psychic--"Madam Lillian"--would read her horoscope and identify the source of her depression.

     Volga Adams, a gypsy psychic well known to detectives on the NYPD Pickpocket and Confidence Squad, quickly diagnosed Mrs. Friedman's problem. "There is evil in you," she proclaimed with great authority. Adams instructed her client to go home and wrap an egg in a handkerchief that had belonged to her husband then put these two items into a shoe made for a left foot. The psychic instructed Mrs. Friedman to return to the parlor the next day with the handkerchief and the egg. At this point, Mrs. Friedman should have had the good sense to walk out of the shop and not return.

     As instructed, the prospective mark returned to the gypsy psychic's place of fraud. Adams opened up an egg she had switched with the real one. The phony egg contained a small plastic head. The greenish-yellow head featured a pair of horns, pointed eyebrows, and a black goatee. According to Adams, the presence of the devil's head in the egg was a bad sign. It meant that Mrs. Friedman was cursed. But why?

     Phase two of Volga Adam's psychic confidence game involved handing the victim a dollar bill that had a rip in it. Friedman was told to take the currency home, put it in a handkerchief, and wear it near her breast for two days.

     Upon her return to Volga Adam's scam parlor, Madam Lillian, following a prayer in a foreign tongue, opened the handkerchief to find a mended dollar bill. This "miracle" supposedly revealed the source of Mrs. Friedman's curse. The money her husband had left her upon his death was the problem. Money, the root of all evil, had cursed the widow. If Mrs. Friedman wanted to rid herself of the monetary curse, she would have to give Madam Lillian all of that money, cash she would ritualistically burn. Once that was done, the widow's happiness would return. Divesting herself of the filthy lucre would also clear up her troublesome skin rash. Who would have guessed that this gypsy princess was also a dermatologist.

     A few days after the miracle of the mended dollar bill, Mrs. Friedman withdrew money from six bank accounts and cashed in all of her government bonds. She delivered the $108,273 in cash, stuffed in a paper bag, to another Madison Avenue psychic parlor. (In 1956, that was a lot of dough.)

     Volga Adams suggested that Mrs. Friedman, having rid herself of the evil money, leave the city for a few days to enjoy some "clean air." This is called "cooling the mark." The next day, as Madam Lillian left town herself, her mark headed for the Catskill Mountains in eastern Pennsylvania. A perfect score.

     For a period of a year after Volga Adams bilked Mrs. Friedman out of her life's savings, she cooled the mark with regular phone calls, made collect, from various places around the country. Back in Manhattan in the fall of 1957, Adams informed Mrs. Friedman that she needed another $10,000 to remove traces of the lingering evil underlying the victim's curse. Mrs. Friedman, obviously unaware that she had been swindled, gave Adams the cash. She turned over the money on the condition that the psychic not destroy it, and later return it to her. After she had given the cold-blooded swindler $108, 273, Mrs. Friedman barely had enough money to support herself. A couple months after walking off with the $10,000, Volga Adams called the victim and announced that she could only return $2,000 of the $10,000. The psychic said she was in Florida and would be returning to New York City soon.

     The con game had run its course. Volga Adams did not return to Manhattan, and she quit calling the victim. Thanks to Madam Lillian, Mrs. Friedman not only remained cursed with depression, she was now broke. Finally, she picked up the telephone and called the police. When detectives with the Pickpocket and Confidence Squad heard Mrs. Friedman's story, they recognized the M.O., and knew that Madam Lillian was Volga Adams, one of the city's most notorious con artists.

     Following her indictment in New York City for grand larceny, the 42-year-old defendant went on trial in February 1962. Five weeks later, the jury of five women and seven men informed the judge that they were deadlocked and could not reach an unanimous verdict. The judge had no choice but to declare a mistrial.

     The Manhattan prosecutor scheduled a second trial for May 1963. Volga Adams avoided that proceeding by pleading guilty to a lesser theft charge. After the judge handed the defendant a suspended sentence, she left the city. But before she departed for Florida, Adams placed a curse on the prosecutor. "No woman will ever love him," she predicted.

     Volga Adams continued preying on vulnerable (and in my view stupid) women. A few years after Madam Lillian left Manhattan, Frances Friedman died. At the time of her death, she was lonely, humiliated, and depressed. Thanks to the gypsy princess, Mrs. Friedman died broke.

      

Monday, June 29, 2015

Aaron Schaffhausen: What Kind of Man Murders His Daughters?

     Jessica Schaffhausen and her three daughters, ages 5 to 11, lived in River Falls, Wisconsin, a town of 15,000 30 miles east of the twin cities of St. Paul-Minneapois, Minnesota. The 34-year-old mother had been single 6 months after she and her husband of 12 years, Aaron Schaffhausen, divorced in January 2012. In March, Jessica had called the police after Aaron threatened to harm one of the children. No arrest followed the complaint which was classified by the police as a "harassment incident."

     On July 5, 2012, Aaron Schaffhausen, a construction worker employed by a St. Paul company to work on projects in western North Dakota, was fired after he didn't show up for work. He was living in Minot, North Dakota.

     Just before noon on July 10, 2012, Aaron called Jessica, who worked in St. Paul for a nonprofit agency on aging, and asked if he could pay the girls a surprise visit. Amara, age 11, 8-year-old Sophie, and Cecilia who was 5, were at home in River Falls. Jessica agreed to the visit, but wanted Aaron out of the house before she got home from work.

     That afternoon, when Aaron Schaffhausen arrived at his former place of residence in the subdivision on the east side of town, the babysitter said goodbye to the girls and went home. Around four that afternoon, Aaron called his ex-wife and said, "You can come home now because I killed the kids."

     Jessica Schaffhausen, after receiving this horrific message, called the police. River Falls officers arrived at the scene about the time Jessica pulled up to the house. Upstairs, officers found the three girls dead and tucked into their beds.

     As the officers were trying to understand what had happened to these children, Aaron showed up at the police department and turned himself in. When asked to describe what he had done, and why, the suspect refused to speak.

    The autopsies of the three victims revealed they had been murdered by what the forensic pathologist called "sharp force entry." They had been stabbed, and the 5-year-old had been strangled as well.

     On July 12, the St. Croix County district attorney charged Aaron Schaffhausen with three counts of first-degree murder. Held on $2 million bond, the defendant faced a mandatory life sentence on each count. A few days after filing these charges, the district attorney appointed Wisconsin Assistant Attorney General Gary Freyburg to take over the case as a special prosecutor.

     St. Croix County Circuit Judge Scott Needham, on July 24, 2012 at Schaffhausen's preliminary hearing, heard testimony from River Falls detective John Wilson who said he found a large pool of blood in one of the bedrooms where he believed the three girls had been stabbed. Wilson also noted that the walls were splattered in blood. The girls, lying on their backs with their eyes wide open, had been tucked into their beds. The woman at the police department who had taken Jessica Schaffhausen's call that afternoon described the caller as "hysterical and hyperventilating." Following the 90-minute hearing, the judge bound the case over for trial.

     In early March 2013, Aaron Schaffhausen pleaded guilty to three counts of first-degree murder. Although he pleaded guilty he maintained that, due to insanity, he should not be held criminally responsible for his daughters' deaths. On March 5, 2013, at the prosecutor's request, forensic psychiatrist Dr. Erik Knudson interviewed Schaffhausen for seven hours. During that session, Schaffhausen revealed that before the murders he had experienced reoccurring images in his head that featured the violent deaths of his ex-wife and children. Schaffhausen told Dr. Knudson that on two occasions he had aborted plans to murder the girls.

     After the killings, Schaffhausen, when he realized he couldn't clean up the murder scene, decided to burn down the house. In furtherance of that plan, he went to the basement and poured gasoline on the floor. He didn't go through with the arson out of fear he would get trapped in the fire.

     On March 25, 2013, Aaron Schaffhausen went on trial before a jury that would decide whether or not he had been insane at the time of the murders. Dr. Erik Knudson, testifying for the prosecution, opined that the defendant's depression and alcohol dependency had no relevance to why he killed his children. According to the psychiatrist, the defendant, rather than insane, possessed an antisocial personality disorder.

     In his closing remarks to the jury following the testimony phase of the trial, Schaffhausen's attorney argued that his client suffered from a rare mental disorder rooted in his deep dependency on his ex-wife that caused him to believe the only solution to his problems involved murdering his children. The defense attorney blamed the mass murder on what a defense mental health expert had called "catathymic homicide."

     On April 13, 2013, the jury returned a guilty verdict. Notwithstanding Schaffhausen's mental defects, the jurors wanted this defendant held criminally accountable for his murderous behavior. The jurors obviously believed that Schaffhausn, at the time of the murders, knew what he was doing, and that what he was doing was wrong.

     Judge Scott Needham, on July 15, 2013, sentenced  Aaron Scaffhausen to three consecutive life sentences. Because of the nature of his murders, prison authorities were faced with the likelihood that this prisoner's life will be under constant threat from other inmates.

   

     

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Peggy Sue Thomas: The Murder Accomplice Who Got Off Light

     In 2000, Peggy Sue Thomas, as Ms. Washington, participated in the U.S. Continental Beauty Pageant in Las Vegas. The 34-year-old beautician didn't win or make the top ten. Three years later, Thomas was working in a Freeland, Washington beauty salon owned by Brenna Douglas who confided in her that her 32-year-old husband Russell Douglas was abusive. When Thomas relayed this information to her boyfriend James Huden, he decided to kill Russell Douglas out of revenge. (Huden had been abused as a child, and he was supposedly taking out his anger on Douglas. He and the intended victim had never met.)

     On December 26, 2003, Thomas asked Russell Douglas to meet her in a remote area on Whidbey Island 30 miles north of Seattle. Thomas lured Douglas to this spot on the pretext she had a gift for his wife Brenna. As Russell Douglas waited in his Chevrolet Geo Tracker for Peggy Sue, he came face-to-face with James Huden who shot the sunglasses-wearing victim between the eyes with a .380-caliber pistol.

     Homicide detectives initially suspected that Russell Douglas had been shot to death in a murder-for hire-plot cooked-up by his wife, the beneficiary of his $500,000 life insurance policy. Investigators caught a break in the case in August 2004 when a friend of James Huden's who had known him in Port Charlotte, Florida, called the Island County Sheriff's Office with a hot tip. The tipster, Bill Hill, said he had played in Huden's band called Buck Naked and the Xhibitionists. According to Hill, Huden had murdered Russell Douglas because Douglas had been abusing his wife. Huden's  girlfriend, Peggy Sue Thomas had set the victim up by luring him to the remote spot on Whidbey Island.

     Douglas case investigators got a second break in the case that summer. A man named Keith Ogden came forward with information regarding the murder weapon used in the execution-style killing. Ogden said he had showed Huden how to disassemble, clean, and fire the .380-caliber Bersa. He had also advised Huden on how to use a pillow or a plastic soda bottle to muffle the muzzle sound.

     James Huden, aware that the authorities were closing in on him, fled to Veracruz, Mexico in the fall of 2004. In Mexico, under the name Maestro Jim, Huden made a living as a guitar player in his band, Buck Naked and the Xhibitionists.

     In 2006, Peggy Sue Thomas, while working in Las Vegas as a limo driver, met Mark Allen, the millionaire owner of the 2009 Kentucky Derby winner, Mind That Bird. After marrying Allen, Thomas took up residence at his horse ranch in New Mexico. After the divorce a few years later, Thomas, the beneficiary of a large settlement, moved back to Whidbey Island, Washington.

     The Mexican police, in June 2011, arrested James Huden on a federal unlawful flight warrant issued in the United States. U.S. Marshals returned the fugitive to Washington where he was scheduled to stand trial for the eight-year-old murder of Russell Douglas.

     Huden, after turning down a plea bargain deal where he'd identify Peggy Sue Thomas as his murder accomplice, went on trial in July 2012. The defendant's wife Jean took the stand for the prosecution and testified that Huden and Thomas had confessed to her regarding their roles in the Douglas murder. Two other men testified that Huden had confessed to them as well.  Because James Huden did not take the stand on his own behalf, he did not implicate Peggy Sue in the murder.

     Following eight days of testimony, the jury found the defendant guilty of first-degree murder with aggravating circumstances (using a firearm). A month later, the judge sentenced 59-year-old James Edward Huden to 80 years in prison. (According to the Douglas case prosecutor, one of Thomas' latent fingerprints had been lifted from the murder weapon.)

     The Huden-Thomas-Douglas murder saga came to an end on January 27, 2013 when Peggy Sue, now 47, pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of rendering criminal assistance. The most prison time Thomas could do for this felony was four years. The guilty plea came one week before she was scheduled to go on trial for murder.

     At Thomas' sentencing hearing a month after the guilty plea, Jim Douglas, the victim's father, said this to the judge: "It seems a travesty of justice that she [Thomas] would be sentenced to less than four years in prison for the cold and premeditated act that could not have happened without her involvement." The judge sentenced Thomas to four years in prison.

     Peggy Sue Thomas was as much responsible for Russell Douglas' murder as the man who pulled the trigger. James Huden got 80 years, she got off light. 

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Jessica Herrera's Vehicular Homicide Trials: When Is An Accident a Crime?

     As drivers, we all occasionally speed, cross the center line, roll through stop signs, and get distracted. There is no such thing as perfection behind the wheel. No one wants to cause an accident, particularly one that results in injury or death. Whenever a driver's carelessness causes or contributes to a traffic accident that results in the death of another driver or  passenger, a prosecutor has to decide if this act of negligence rises to the level of criminal homicide. In my opinion, ordinary negligence that falls short of recklessness--the total disregard for the safety of others--should be treated as a civil wrong rather than a criminal act. Vehicular homicide should only apply to motorists who are driving extremely fast, are drunk, high on drugs, or fleeing from the police. I do not believe in the criminalization of all fatal traffic accidents.

     On June 11, 2011, in Santa Barbara County, California, Christopher Martinez slowed down on Highway 246 east of the town of Lompoc to turn into a driveway that led back to a winery. The 28-year-old was showing up for his first day of work. As he slowed to negotiate the turn, Jessica Herrera, driving the car behind him, rear-ended his vehicle. The collision pushed Martinez's car into the opposite lane where it was struck broadside by a pickup truck carrying two people.

     Paramedics rushed Christopher Martinez to the Marian Regional Medical Center in Santa Maria with severe head trauma and a collapsed lung. He died the next day.

     A Santa Barbara County prosecutor charged the 22-year-old Herrera with misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter, a crime that carried a maximum sentence of one year in jail and a $1,000 fine. In May 2012, the Herrera trial jurors voted seven to five for conviction which caused the judge to declare a mistrial.

     Prosecutor Mark Smith decided to retry Herrera for vehicular homicide. On February 8, 2013, the second trial got underway in the Santa Barbara County Court in Lompoc. In his opening remarks to the jury, prosecutor Smith accused the defendant of driving too fast for conditions (65 mph in a 55 mph zone) and being inattentive.

     Herrera's attorney, Dillon Forsyth, argued that the crash that took Christopher Martinez's life was a tragic accident. To the jury he said, "There is no evidence a crime occurred. This is a circumstantial case. There is really no credible evidence that what occurred was anything but an accident. The fact is we simply don't know what happened." The defense attorney also pointed out that there were no signs that a driveway was coming up, and that brake lights and turn signals on Martinez's car might not have been working.

     On February 13, 2013, after more than a day of deliberation, the jury reported to the judge that it was deadlocked eleven to one in favor of conviction. Another hung jury, another mistrial.

     I'm surprised that so many jurors in these two trials had voted for conviction. Even assuming Jessica Herrera had been driving ten miles over the speed limit at the time of the accident, I don't believe she should be held criminally responsible for Christopher Martinez's death.

     On February 28, 2013, at a hearing in the Santa Barbara County in Lompoc, Judge James F. Iwasko dismissed the Herrera case after prosecutor Mark Smith said the district attorney's office would not seek a third trial. To have gone forward with a third trial in this case would have amounted to prosecutorial misconduct.  

Friday, June 26, 2015

The Colin Abbott Murder Case

     Upon his retirement in 2010 as a New Jersey pharmaceutical company executive, 65-year-old Kenneth Abbott and his second wife Celeste bought a 25-acre estate in Brady Township not far from the town of Slippery Rock, the home of Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania in the western part of the state. Kenneth and his 55-year-old second wife were married in 2007.

     On July 13, 2011, Melissa Elich, Celeste Abbott's daughter, contacted the New Jersey State Police and asked for information about the car accident death of her mother and stepfather. Kenneth Abbott's son Colin had told Elich that Kenneth and Celeste had died in a traffic accident on June 8, 2011. According to Colin, the traffic fatality had taken place in Plant City, New Jersey. When Elich couldn't find Plant City on a map, she called Colin to confirm the location. This time he told her it had happened in Atlantic City. According to the 42-year-old New Jersey resident, his father and Elich's mother had been burned beyond recognition in the crash.

     After the New Jersey State Police officer informed Melissa Elich that the state had no record of such an incident, the officer called the Pennsylvania State Police in Butler County and requested a welfare check of the Abbotts.

     On the day of Melissa Elich's New Jersey State Police inquiry regarding the traffic accident, Corporal Daniel Herr and another Pennsylvania State Trooper drove out to the West Liberty Road estate. The officers searched the unoccupied house and several out-buildings. Near one of the two ponds on the property, the troopers discovered a pair of metal barrels that had been used to burn something. In the vicinity of the barrels, about 200 yards from the house, the officers came across charred human body parts.

     Later on the day of the gruesome discovery on the Abbott estate, Dr. Dennis Dirkmart, a forensic anthropologist with Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pennsylvania, arrived at the scene with his team of graduate students. Dr. Dirkmart and his forensic crew identified the top part of a skull with the upper jaw and teeth along with a lower jaw containing additional dentition. The death scene investigators recovered a female pelvic bone and several larger bones that were male. (The remains were later identified as those of Kenneth and Celeste Abbott.) Further analysis of the dismembered and burned bodies by a forensic pathologist revealed that the couple had been shot. (The police found a bullet near one of the ponds.)

     On July 13, 2011, officers with the New Jersey State Police searched Colin Abbott's home in Randolph, New Jersey, a town of 25,000 in the northern section of the state. The search produced incriminating evidence that linked Abbott to the double murder in Butler County, Pennsylvania.

     From Colin Abbott's house, the New Jersey investigators recovered Celeste Abbott's red-leather wallet that contained her driver's license and several credit cards. The officers also found a .380-caliber pistol later identified as the murder weapon. In the murder suspect's bank safety deposit box, detectives found Kenneth Abbott's will that designated his son the sole beneficiary of the $5 million estate. The will had been changed to that effect in 2010. Investigators believed the suspect had murdered his father and stepmother in order to inherit their wealth.

     In Pennsylvania, State Trooper Chris Birckichler questioned Adam Tower, Celeste Abbott's son. Mr. Tower revealed that in speaking to the suspect on July 12, 2011, Colin ordered him not to contact his father's life insurance company. The suspect made it clear that he would be handling the disposition of the estate.

     On July 14, 2011, the day detectives interrogated Colin Abbott in Randolph, New Jersey, murder charges were being filed against him in Pennsylvania. Officers in New Jersey arrested Colin Abbott that day on the Pennsylvania homicide charges, and a couple of weeks later, the suspect awaited his murder trial in the Butler County jail.

     On the day before his trial was to begin, February 26, 2013, the defendant pleaded no contest to two counts of third-degree murder. As part of the plea deal, Abbott avoided the penalties of death, and life in prison without the possibility of parole. Butler County Judge William Shaffer sentenced Kenneth Abbott to 35 to 80 years in prison. If he served the minimum sentence, Abbott would regain his freedom when he was 77-years-old. The cold-blooded killer stood before Judge Shaffer and wept.

     Less than a month after his sentencing, on March 6, 2013, Colin Abbott filed a 5-page handwritten request asking Judge Shaffer to allow him to withdraw his plea in the case. At the plea withdrawal hearing on March 28, the Butler County prosecutor played recordings of jailhouse phone conversations between the prisoner and Deborah Buchanan, his 64-year-old mother.

     Abbott, pursuant to a discussion of his attempt to take back his plea, said this to his mother: "It's a publicity start in the right direction for you; possibly for a book, possibly for other things, you know?" Abbott's mother, a resident of Rockway, New Jersey, owned Deadly Ink Press, a small publisher of murder mystery books. Buchanan had made it known that she was writing a book about her son's case.

     To an Associated Press reporter following this story, Deborah Buchanan recently said, "I am talking to people about a book deal. I don't think there's anything wrong with that. I am a writer. That's not why he [her son] wants to change his plea. He was under a lot of pressure." (Committing murder can do that to a person.)

     On April 12, 2013, Judge Shaffer denied Abbott's motion to withdraw his no contest plea.