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Thursday, December 29, 2016

The Father Edward Belczak Embezzlement Case

     Reverend Edward Belczak, the pastor of the 2,500-member St. Thomas More Catholic Church in the Detroit suburb of Troy, Michigan, lived extremely well for a priest who made less than $30,000 a year. In 2005, the well-known and popular 60-year-old man of the cloth purchased, with a $109,578 down payment, a luxury condo in Palm Beach, Florida from his longtime church administrator, Janice Verschuren.

     In late 2012, an internal audit of Reverend Belczak's church commissioned by the Archdiocese of Detroit, led the auditors to suspect that the priest, during the period 2004 to 2012, embezzled at least $429,000 from the parish. The archdiocese reported the audit results to the local police who turned the case over to the FBI.

     Archbishop Allen Vigneron of Detroit, in January 2013, suspended Reverend Belczak. Church administrator Verschuren, suspected of helping the pastor divert church money, resigned.

     Father Belczak's suspension did not sideline him altogether. With advanced permission from the archdiocese, he was allowed to conduct church services at other parishes throughout the Detroit area. He also continued to draw his salary.

     On April 23, 2014, a U.S. Department of Justice spokesperson announced that a federal grand jury sitting in Detroit had indicted Reverend Belczak and Janice Verschuren of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and wire fraud. According to the indictment, Belczal had purchased the Palm Beach condo with funds he had diverted from a parish bank account.

     Another act of theft alleged in the grand jury true bill involved the unlawful taking of $420,204, money bequeathed to the church following the death of a parishioner. That money, according to FBI investigators, had ended up in a secret money-market account in Belczak's name. Forensic accountants with the FBI reported that the 69-year-old priest and his 67-year-old former manager diverted more than $700,000 of the church's money, then filed false financial reports to the archdiocese in Detroit in an attempt to cover the embezzlements. If convicted as charged, the defendants faced up to twenty years in prison.

     Shortly after the indictments came down, Father Belczak's attorney, Jerome Sabbota, in speaking to reporters said, "My client is innocent. He is not happy. Nobody who gets indicted is happy. He looks forward to doing what he has to do."

     Following the priest's suspension in January 2013, many of his parishioners expressed their belief in his innocence. One of his supporters created a website called, "Friends of Father B." The internet site featured photographs of a smiling Father Belczak conducting a variety of church related activities. Supporters were also encouraged to write letters of support to Archbishop Vigneron and even to Pope Francis. (The pope had his own problems with Vatican related embezzlements involving staggering sums of money.) Believers in Father Belczak were asked to donate money to his legal defense fund.

     The "Father B" website also included a statement from the accused priest written after his suspension from St. Thomas More Church. Father Belczak wrote: "I would have never expected a year like this, yet I am at peace with all that has happened. Losing my job, home, and good reputation has brought me to my knees and here I found God awaiting me. His grace has never left me and His assurance continues to direct me. I sense his presence every day working on my behalf and I struggle to align myself to His time frame and not my own. I am reminded daily that faith is the assurance of things hoped for, perceiving as real what is not yet revealed to the senses."

     Faith is good I guess, but in the world of criminal justice, a good lawyer is even better. Imagine, if you will, a teenager confessing to Father Belczak that he had shoplifted something from Walmart. There is petty theft and there is grand theft. If FBI agents and the federal prosecutor were right about Father Belczak, he was not a petty thief, and the parishioners who supported him were victims of his crimes.

     As it turned out, Father Belczak was a big time thief. In September 2015, Father Belczak pleaded guilty to mail fraud in connection with stealing $573,000 from his church. As part of the plea deal, the priest agreed to forfeit the plush Florida condo he had purchased with parish money. The proceeds from the sale of the Palm Beach condo would go back to the parish in the form of restitution.  When asked why he had pleaded guilty, the priest replied, "Because I am."

     After the guilty plea, fifty parishioners and a handful of priests wrote letters to the federal district judge asking for a lenient sentence in the Belczak case.

     On January 1, 2016, U.S. District Court Judge Arthur Tarnow sentenced Father Belczak to 27 months in prison. In speaking to the court, Father Belczak said, "I have stained the reputation of being a priest. I ask for the forgiveness of St. Thomas More parishioners."

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The Dr. Thomas Dixon Love Triangle Murder-for-Hire Case

     The casts in murder-for-hire plots feature three principal characters: the instigator/mastermind who solicits/contracts the homicide; the hit man (or undercover agent playing the triggerman role); and the victim, the person targeted for death. While these cases, in terms of the principal actors, have a somewhat common anatomy, they differ widely according to the socio-economic status of the participants, the nature of their relationships to each other, and the specific motive behind the murder plots.

     On July 11, 2012, someone broke a window and climbed into the Lubbock, Texas home of Dr. Joseph Sonnier III, the 57-year-old chief pathologist of the Covenant Health System in that city. The intruder shot Dr. Sonnier to death. The victim lived alone, and because nothing had been taken from the house, police ruled out robbery as the killer's motive.

     Later on the day of the murder, Lubbock detectives questioned Dr. Sonnier's girlfriend in an effort to determine who may have had a reason to kill the doctor. When she mentioned she had been having trouble with her former boyfriend who insisted on seeing her even though she was dating Dr. Sonnier, the detectives had a suspect, and a potential motive. Their person of interest was a 48-year-old prominent plastic surgeon named Dr. Thomas Michael Dixon who practiced in Amarillo, Texas, a panhandle city 120 miles north of Lubbock. Because the homicide detectives didn't think that Dr. Dixon had climbed into Dr. Sonnier's house through a window and personally shot him, they considered the possibility of a murder-for-hire conspiracy. But who was the hit man?

     Less than a week after the murder, detectives caught a break. A longtime friend and former business associate of Dr. Dixon's told investigators that David Neil Shepard had killed Dr. Sonnier. According to the informant, Shepard, who had attempted suicide two days after Dr. Sonnier's murder, told him Dr. Dixon had given him three bars of silver worth $9,000 as an advance on the hit. (On June 15, 2012, Shepard sold one of the bars for $2,750.) Shepard told the informant that after watching Dr. Sonnier's house for weeks, he broke in through a window and murdered him.

     Because the suspected hit man revealed to the snitch information only known to crime scene investigators, the tipster's story rang true. (Shepard had described, for example, how he had muffled the sound of his gun, and  how many times he fired the weapon.)

     The 51-year-old accused hit man had a crime history of two convictions for theft and burglary. Detectives believed David Shepard and the plastic surgeon had met on the day before Dr. Sonnier's murder. The fact Shepard had sold the bar of silver at an Amarillo pawn shop tended to support a piece of the informant's story.

     On July 16, 2012, police in Amarillo arrested Dr. Thomas Dixon and David Shepard on charges of capital murder. The suspects were booked into the Lubbock County Criminal Detention Center under $10 million bond each.

     This murder-for-hire case was especially newsworthy because the accused mastermind and his victim were physicians. The case was also unusual because David Shepard was much older than the typical hit man. But the love triangle motive was fairly common.

     In April 2013, the mother and sons of Dr. Sonnier filed a wrongful death suit against Dr. Dixon. However, before the civil action could proceed, the murder case had to be resolved within the criminal justice system.

     The suspected hit man, David Neal Shepard, in September 2013, pleaded guilty to breaking into Dr. Sonnier's home and stabbing and shooting him to death. The judge sentenced him to life.

     Lubbock County prosecutor Matt Powell announced in November 2013 that the state would seek the death penalty against Dr. Dixon, the accused mastermind behind Dr. Sonnier's murder.

     In November 2014, at the conclusion of Dr. Dixon's three-week capital murder trial, the jury of six men and six women, after eight hours of deliberation, were unable to reach a unanimous verdict. Judge Jim Bob Darnell declared a mistrial.

     Doug Moore, the jury foreman, in speaking to the media following the mistrial, said that although the case against Dr. Dixon was strong, two jurors refused to find him guilty. The foreman described these jurors as being not very bright. "For me the evidence of guilt seemed very clear," he said.

     Shortly after the mistrial, the judge denied the defendant's request for a reduction of his $10 million bond. However, in September 2015, the judge reduced Dixon's bail to $2 million. A few days later the accused murder-for-hire mastermind paid $200,000 and was released from jail pending the disposition of his second trial.

      On November 19, 2015, the jury in Dr. Dixon's second trial found him guilty of capital murder. The judge sentenced him to life in prison without the chance of parole.

      

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Ice Cream Truck Wars: Sno Cone Joe Versus Mr. Ding-A-Ling

     When imagining men who sell ice cream products out of good humor trucks, one envisions jolly Mr. Rogers types dressed in white. But in reality, why would these people be any different than people who drive taxi cabs, UPS trucks, and buses. Not that there's anything wrong with those folks.

     In the 1970s and 80s, Robert Pronge, the driver of a New Jersey Mister Softee's Truck, moonlighted as a contract killer. Pronge became known for his use of cyanide to complete many of his assignments. (He dropped the poison in his targets' whiskey and beer, not their Mister Softee cones.) On occasion, however, he'd keep his victims cooling in the Mr. Softee truck until he could permanently dispose of their corpses. The hit man, referred to in certain circles as "Mr. Softee", ended up being murdered by Richard Kuklnski, the prolific Gambino family contract killer known as the "Ice Man." Kuklnski had introduced Mr. Softee to the idea of using cyanide as a murder weapon. Pronge, as far as anyone knows, is the only hit man in history who hauled dead bodies around in an ice cream truck. But compared to Kuklnski who killed more than 200 men for money, Mr. Softee was an amateur. Unlike Kuklinki who was a cold-blooded sociopath, Mr. Softee was a bit crazy and unpredictable. He did, however, sell a lot of ice cream, and from all accounts, loved children.

The Ice Cream Truck War

     In Gloversville, New Jersey, 34-year-old Joshua Malatino, the owner of the local Sno Cone Joe franchise, also sold a lot of ice cream. His 21-year-old girlfriend, Amanda Scott, helped him operate his good humor truck. Business was good in Gloversville until a rival good humor man rolled into town in his Mr. Ding-A-Ling truck.

     Mr. Malatino, aka Sno Cone Joe, decided to harass his business rival, 53-year-old Brian Collis aka Mr. Ding-A-Ling. On April 16, 19, and 28, 2013, Malatino, with his Sno Cone Joe jingles blaring from his truck, tailgated Mr. Ding-A-Ling around town. Whenever Mr. Collis stopped to service a customer, Sno Cone Joe would pull up behind Mr. Ding-A-Ling and offer the consumer free ice cream. At one point, Malatino allegedly phoned Mr. Ding-A-Ling headquarters in Latham, New Jersey and said, "I own this town!"

     On May 3, 2013, a local prosecutor charged  Joshua Malatino and Amanda Scott with harassment and misdemeanor stalking. If convicted, Sno Cone Joe and Sno Cone Jane (just kidding) faced up to three months in jail. According to Gloversville Police Captain John Sira, Malatino drove a different ice cream truck operator out of town the previous summer.

     In April 2015, a Fulton County judge dismissed the charges against Joshua Malatino and Amanda Scott. 

Monday, December 26, 2016

The James Sullivan Murder-For-Hire Case

     In 1977, James Sullivan, a 34-year-old owner of a liquor distributorship in Atlanta, married Lita McClinton, a debutante from of of the city's socially prominent families. She was black and he was white, and her parents, Emory and Jo Ann McClinton, were not pleased with the marriage. Sullivan was a flashy self-made millionaire who had grown up poor on the mean streets of Boston. Ten years older than his bride, he had been married before. Having learned from experience how costly a divorce could be, Sullivan had talked Lita into signing a prenuptial agreement that limited her, in the event of a divorce, to a three-year annual stipend of $90,000. The contract allowed her to keep all of the jewelry she had acquired during the marriage.

     The newlyweds moved into an opulent townhouse in an Atlanta subdivision called Buckhead. Sullivan purchased a second house, four years later, in Palm Beach, Florida. While in Florida vacationing without his wife at his new oceanfront property Sullivan met Hyo-Sook-Choi Rogers, a young woman from South Korea who went by the name Suki. In August 1985, fed up with her husband's infidelity, Lita kicked him out of the Atlanta townhouse. She also filed for divorce and announced that that she was contesting the enforceability of the prenuptial agreement.

     Shortly after the breakup a domestic court judge granted Lita $7,000 a month in temporary alimony. The cash-strapped Sullivan, burdened with four car payments, a $900,000 balloon mortgage on the Palm Beach mansion, and a girlfriend to impress and keep happy, sold his Atlanta liquor distributorship. Although he had convinced the judge to lower the alimony payments to $2,500 a month, Sullivan had not paid Lita any money. His refusal to pay forced her back into court. Sullivan was also pressing the judge to enforce the prenuptial contract. Through her attorney, Lita demanded, in addition to the monthly alimony payments, the townhouse, one of the Mercedes, and $200,000 cash. At this point James Sullivan had already spent $100,000 in lawyer fees, and he saw no end in sight to the outflow of money. The divorce was bleeding him dry financially.

     At eight-thirty in the morning of January 16, 1987, a resident of the Buckhead condominium complex saw a man approach Lita Sullivan's front door carrying flowers. The door opened and the man disappeared inside. A few seconds later the neighbor heard two gunshots in rapid succession. The man who had delivered the flowers ran out of the house, climbed into a car, and drove off. The witness found Lita Sullivan in the foyer lying on her back with her face covered in blood. A dozen pink, long-stemmed roses lay on the floor next to her body. The neighbor called 911 and tried to stop the bleeding by pressing a towel against Lita's face. She died in the ambulance as it raced to the hospital.

     The autopsy revealed that Lita had been shot in the face at close range by a .9mm pistol. Investigators at the scene recovered the shell casings and determined that the shooting had not been motivated by robbery. As a result, detectives came to the conclusion that the murder was a contract killing orchestrated by the victim's husband. At the time of Lita's murder her estranged husband was in Palm Beach, Florida. There was no question that Lita's death would save Sullivan a lot of money.

     A month after Lita's murder James Sullivan married Suki Rogers. Detectives still hadn't identified the triggerman, located the murder weapon, or acquired solid evidence linking Sullivan to the homicide. Nevertheless, in September 1987, a Fulton County Grand Jury sitting in Atlanta indicted Sullivan for the contract murder of his wife. A few months later a judge set aside the indictment on the grounds it was based entirely on motive.

     With the murder investigation dead in the water, the FBI took over the case. (Criminal homicide is not a federal offense unless it is committed under special circumstances such as in the course of a kidnapping, bombing, bank robbery, organized crime activity, or pursuant to an interstate conspiracy to commit murder-for-hire. Under Title 18 United States Code Section 1958, a single interstate telephone call in furtherance of a murder plot will give the FBI jurisdiction. In 2006 FBI agents were involved in 78 murder-for-hire cases.)

     Three days before Lita Sullivan's murder someone from a Howard Johnson Motel in Atlanta had made a collect call to the phone in James Sullivan's house in Palm Beach, Florida. The call had been placed from room 518 which had been registered to a Johnny Furr. Forty minutes after the murder, someone using a pay phone at a highway rest stop just outside of Atlanta had called James Sullivan's house. That conversation lasted less than a minute. FBI agents, unable to identify Johnny Furr, assumed the name was an alias. The federal investigation stalled, and for the second time, the Sullivan case went dormant.

     In 1990, James Sullivan became embroiled in yet another fight to save his assets from a wife who was divorcing him. This time it was Suki. The investigation into Lita's murder sprang back to life when Suki, testifying in a divorce proceeding, claimed that Sullivan had threatened to have her killed by the man he had paid to murder Lita. Questioned by the FBI, Suki said that Sullivan never mentioned the hit man by name. The federal prosecutor went ahead with the case anyway, and in November 1992, James Sullivan went on trial for paying an unidentified man to murder his estranged wife Lita. Following Suki's testimony, which comprised the principal evidence against the defendant, the judge, ruling that the government had failed to present enough proof to establish a prima facie case, directed a verdict of not guilty. James Sullivan walked out of the federal court house that day a free man.

     Emory and Jo Ann McClinton, convinced that James Sullivan had paid to have their daughter Lita murdered, filed a wrongful death suit against their former son-in-law. The plaintiff's case, filed in Atlanta, hinged on the testimony of Suki Rogers and the phone calls between Atlanta and Sullivan's Palm Beach home just before and after the fatal shooting. The identity of the triggerman, however, remained a mystery. The jury, applying the lesser burden of proof that applies to civil trials, found in favor of the McClintons, awarding the plaintiffs $4 million in damages.

     In late 1997, more than ten years after Lita Sullivan's murder, a woman from Beaumont, Texas named Belinda Trahan gave the Atlanta police the missing piece of the Sullivan case puzzle. She identified Johnny Furr as her ex-boyfriend Anthony Harwood, a forty-seven-year-old truck driver from Albemarle, North Carolina. After they had broken up, Harwood continued to visit her in Texas. Belinda described Harwood as a violent, abusive man who had repeatedly threatened to kill her if she told the police that he was the man who had delivered the roses and shot James Sullivan's wife.

     According to Belinda Trahan, two weeks before Lita Sullivan's murder, she and Harwood had conferred with James Sullivan in an Atlanta restaurant where Sullivan handed Harwood an envelope stuffed with $12, 500 in cash. The men had first met in November 1986 when Harwood hauled Sullivan's household goods from Georgia to Florida. Sullivan told the truck driver that he wanted his gold-digging wife murdered and offered him $25,000 to do the job.

     Interrogated by Atlanta detectives in January 1998, Harwood admitted that he had taken the hit money and that he was the Johnny Farr who had called Sullivan from the motel before and after Lita Sullivan's murder. Shortly after the shooting Harwood had called Sullivan in Palm Beach and said, "Merry Christmas Mr. Sullivan, your problem has been taken care of." Harwood refused to admit, however, that he was the man who had delivered the flowers and shot Lita McClinton in the face. He claimed that he had just been the getaway driver for the triggerman, a guy he only knew as "John the Barber." Although detectives didn't believe that "John the Barber" existed, the prosecutor allowed Harwood to plead guilty to the lesser homicide offense of voluntary manslaughter. In return, Harwood promised to testify against the prosecutor's main interest in the case, James Sullivan. Harwood's refusal to take responsibility for being the hit man did not, in any way, weaken the murder-for-hire case against the mastermind.

     A Fulton County Grand Jury, for the second time, indicted James Sullivan for the murder of Lita McClinton. On April 24, 1998, before the police took him into custody, Sullivan fled to Costa Rica. From there he traveled to Panama, Venezuela, and Malaysia before settling in Thailand where he purchased a luxurious beachside condominium. Under his true name he opened a bank account, acquired a driver's license, and lived with a Thai woman who assumed the role of housekeeper and wife. As fugitive from American justice, James Sullivan was living the good life in a tropical paradise.

     Five years after fleeing the country to avoid prosecution, Sullivan, on the FBI's most wanted list, still resided in Thailand. The Royal Thai police arrested Sullivan in 2002 after the television series "American's Most Wanted" featured his case. A viewer who knew of Sullivan's whereabouts called the FBI. Sullivan fought extradition and lost. In March 2004, the FBI brought him out of Thailand and placed him in the Fulton County Jail. Still a man of means, Sullivan prepared for his upcoming trial by hiring a team of first-rate defense attorneys. True to his working-class, Irish roots, he was not going down without a fight.

     The murder-for-hire trial, shown on Court TV, got underway on February 27, 2006. If the jury found the defendant guilty of the 19-year-old murder the jurors  could sentence him to death or put him away for life. Either way, the 64-year-old convict would die in prison. For Sullivan, the stakes were high.

     The heart of the prosecution's case involved the testimony of Belinda Trahan and her former boyfriend, Anthony Harwood. Trahan, a slender 41-year-old with long blond hair and a sophisticated demeanor, told the jury that she may have given Harwood the idea of posing as a deliveryman. Three days before the murder, when he expressed concern that Lita Sullivan might not open her door to a stranger, she had said, "Anyone knows if you want to get a woman to answer the door all you have to do is take her flowers." When Harwood returned to North Carolina after the murder he had said to her, "The job is done."

     Anthony Harwood, already convicted of voluntary manslaughter and serving a twenty-year sentence, took the stand to repeat his "John the Barber" story. His testimony against James Sullivan, however, was devastating. The prosecutor asked the 55-year-old witness if he felt remorse for his involvement in Lita McClinton's murder. The witness replied, "I guess I do, by what you may call proxy. I believe we're all accountable for our acts, but I guess if you get down to the brass tacks of it, it all began with Mr. Sullivan."

     On the advice of his attorneys the defendant did not take the stand on his own behalf. With only two witnesses, the defense presented its case in less than an hour. On March 13, 2006, following the two-week trial, the jury, after deliberating less than an hour, found James Sullivan guilty as charged. The judge sentenced him to life without the chance of parole. For Lita McClinton's parents, after a nineteen-year ordeal, justice had been done. But it had come at a high price. Anthony Harwood, the man they believed had killed their daughter, in return for his testimony against the mastermind, had been given a twenty year sentence. If Harwood's girlfriend had called the police instead of recommending that he deliver her flowers, their daughter may not have been murdered.

     

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Joe Rickey Hundley: The Airline Passenger Who Slapped a Baby

     On February 8, 2013, Jessica Bennett, a passenger on a Delta Air Line flight from Minneapolis/St. Paul to Atlanta, sat in row 28 seat B next to Joe Rickey Hundley. Jonah, her black 19-month-old adopted son (she is white) sat on her lap. Hundley, the 60-year-old president of an aircraft parts manufacturing company in Hayden, Idaho had been knocking down double vodkas and made the passengers seated around him uncomfortable with his belligerent remarks and attitude. At one point Hundley, in an obnoxious fashion, told Jessica Bennett that the kid was too big to be sitting on her lap.

     As the plane descended into Atlanta, the change in cabin pressure caused Jonah to cry. Aware that Hundley was becoming increasingly annoyed with the boy, Bennett did her best to calm her son down. But the child was in pain and continued to bawl. Hundley, unable to control his anger, turned to Bennett and said, "shut that [N-word] kid up!"

     Stunned by what she had just heard, Bennett asked, "What did you say?"

     Hundley pushed his lips next to Bennett's ear and repeated the racial slur. He then did something even more outrageous and unexpected; he slapped Jonah in the face with an open hand, cutting the child below his right eye. This did not, obviously, stop the crying.

     Passengers and crew, aware of the intoxicated, loud and bellicose passenger, rushed to Bennett's aid to make sure the angry drunk didn't hit the boy again. When the executive from Idaho walked off the plane in Atlanta he was met by a couple of FBI agents.

     Later that day Hundley was charged in federal court with assaulting a child younger than 16. If convicted, Hundley faced a maximum sentence of one year in prison. According to court records, Hundley, in 2007, pleaded guilty in Virginia to the misdemeanor assault of his girlfriend.

     Joe Hundley denied slapping the boy on the plane. His attorney, Marcia Shein, told reporters that she planned to plead him not guilty. Pointing out that her client was on a personal flight to visit a sick relative, Shein wanted the public to know that Mr. Hundley was under a lot of stress and was distraught. "He's not a racist. I'm going to make that clear because that's what people are suggesting. There's background information people don't know about, and in time it will come out."

     Attorney Shein, in her public relations effort on Hundley's behalf, mentioned that her client had been getting hate mail. "Hopefully," she said, "this situation can be resolved. Both people are probably very nice. No one should rush to judgment."

     Joe Hundley lost his job over the slap heard around the world. On February 17, 2013, the head of Hundley's parent company, AGC Aerospace and Composites Group, a corporation headquartered in Decatur, Georgia, issued a statement which read: "Reports of the recent behavior of one of our business unit executives while on personal travel are offensive and disturbing. We have taken this matter very seriously and worked diligently to examine it since learning of the matter. As of Sunday [February 17] the executive is no longer employed with the company."

     The slapped boy's father, Josh Bennett, told a reporter that, "We want to see this guy do some time."

     In October 2013, Mr. Hundley pleaded guilty to assault after the Assistant United States Attorney indicated that he would be satisfied with a six-month prison sentence. When it came time for sentencing, however, the federal judge ignored the prosecutor's suggestion. On January 6, 2014, the judge sentenced Hundley to eight months in a federal lockup. In justifying the stiffer sentence, the judge cited the defendant's prior assault conviction.
      

Friday, December 23, 2016

The Ruby Klokow Murder Case

     In 1957, 21-year-old Ruby Klokow, a resident of Sheboygan, a Michigan Lake town of 50,000 in southern Wisconsin, physically abused and murdered her 6-month-old daughter, Jeaneen. Following the baby's suspicious death Klokow told the police the child had fallen off the sofa. Although the autopsy revealed two brain hemorrhages, a partially collapsed lung, and three scalp bruises, injuries inconsistent with a fall from a couch, the Sheboygan County Corner ruled the baby's death accidental. As a result of this bogus manner of death ruling, the police did not conduct a homicide investigation. This stunning example of criminal justice incompetence (or indifference) was particularly tragic because the dead child had a two-year-old brother, and Klokow would give birth again.

     In 1964, Ruby Klokow's infant son Scott died mysteriously in his crib. Given the suspicious death of her daughter Jeaneen seven years earlier, it's hard to understand why the authorities in Sheboygan didn't investigate the passing of this child. (Had there been an autopsy there would have been signs of past injuries caused by abuse.)  Instead of putting this homicidal mother away for life, local criminal justice personnel made it possible for this woman to continue practicing her sadistic style of parenting.

     Finally in 2008, Klokow's 53-year-old son James who was two-years-old when his mother murdered his sister Jeaneen, came forward with his own story of parental abuse. According to James Klokow, his mother repeatedly beat him as far back as he could remember. At school he would lie to his teachers regarding how he had collected all of the bruises on his body that included choke marks on his neck. His mother frequently made him stand in a corner all day long during which time she threw knives and scissors at him. She also blinded him in one eye. When he turned thirteen, James, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, ran away from home. After that he was abused by a series of foster parents until the age of eighteen.

     After James Klokow came forward with his story of child abuse, Judy Post, Ruby Klokow's younger sister, told the authorities that Ruby had physically abused her when they were children. Post also reported having seen Ruby throw her infant daughter Jeaneen to the ground.

     In February 2011, a Sheboygan County prosecutor charged the 74-year-old Klokow with second-degree murder in the 1957 death of Jeaneen. A forensic pathologist took the stand at a preliminary hearing and testified that the infant's autopsy revealed injuries too severe to have been caused by a fall off a sofa. Klokow's attorney, after getting her released on bail, delayed matters by claiming that his client was not mentally competent to stand trial.

     On February 25, 2013, the day Ruby Klokow was scheduled to go on trial for the murder of her daughter, she entered a plea of no contest to the second-degree murder charge. Klokow, who had admitted killing Jeaneen, was scheduled to be sentenced on April 15, 2013.

     Sheboygan County Judge Angela Sutkiewicz, pursuant to the plea-bargain agreement worked out between the defendant's attorney and the prosecutor, sentenced Klokow to 45 days in jail and ten years probation.

     To reporters following the no contest plea, Klokow's attorney Kirk Obear said that trying his client for murder after all of these years would be "unfair" because so many witnesses have died. The defense attorney went on to say that Klokow was "dealing with a lot of heartache." (Give me a break--serial child abusers don't experience heartaches--they give them.)

     District Attorney Joe DeCecco, in explaining to the media why he signed-off on the plea deal, mentioned Klokow's age and poor health. (Who cares about this woman's health?) The prosecutor also said that because the statute of limitations did not allow him to charge Klokow with the lesser homicide offense of manslaughter he had to prove a case of murder which, under the circumstances, may have been difficult. (So what?)

     It's not that the prosecution in this case didn't have evidence. In addition to the defendant's confession, the district attorney had her sister's testimony and a compelling witness in her son, James Klokow. In my opinion this prosecutor, in the name of justice, should have pushed forward with the trial. What did he have to lose? What was the point of 45 days in jail and ten years of probation?

      Had the jury found this woman guilty of second-degree murder she would have died in prison where she should have been all along. No contest? What kind of plea is that to child abuse and murder? In this case justice was denied in 1957, and after 56 years, denied again.

   

     

Friday, December 16, 2016

The Dr. Arnold Smith Murder-For-Hire Case

     In Greenwood, Mississippi, attorney Lee Abraham got wind of a murder-for-hire plot against him by two husbands of women he had represented several years before in a pair of divorce cases. The attorney had reason to believe that a local physician, 70-year-old Dr. Arnold Smith, and a 54-year-old brickmason named William Paul Muller, were the masterminds behind the plan to kill him. Apparently these men still hated the lawyer who had won settlements for their wives. Instead of moving on with their lives, they wanted revenge.

     On Saturday night, April 28, 2012, two agents with the Mississippi Attorney General's Office who were investigating the case were in Abraham's office talking to him about the alleged murder plot. That night, 23-year-old Keaira Byrd and his 25-year-old accomplice Derrick Lacy burst into the law office. (According to some reports, the agents knew the hit men were coming and were waiting for them.) Byrd, armed with an assault rifle, and wearing a ski mask, fired the first shot. The agents returned fire, killing Byrd on the spot. Derrick Lacy was shot in the lower back. One of the attorney general agents received a minor wound. Attorney Abraham, the target of the hit, escaped injury.

     Derrick Lacy, as he was airlifted to the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, told an investigator that he had overheard Dr. Smith offer Keaira Byrd money to kill the lawyer.

     The day after the shootings, a Leflore County prosecutor charged the oncologist and the brickmason with conspiracy to commit murder. The arraignment magistrate denied Dr. Smith bail. William Paul Muller paid his $250,000 bond and was released. On his Facebook page, Mr. Muller proclaimed his innocence.

     Following Dr. Smith's arrest, his attorney arranged to have him evaluated by a mental health expert who concluded that the physician was not mentally competent to stand trial. In January 2013, in response to the prosecution's request, Circuit Court Judge Breland Hilburn ordered Dr. Smith to undergo a psychiatric evaluation at the Mississippi State Hospital at Whitfield.

     Because of institutional overcrowding, a hospital bed for Dr. Smith didn't become available until June 4, 2013. (Mississippi must have a serious problem with mental illness.)

     On October 8, 2014, Judge Breland Hilburn ruled Dr. Arnold Smith mentally unfit to stand trial and ordered that the 71-year-old physician be committed to the Mississippi State Hospital at Whitfield.

     As of December 2015, no trial date had been set regarding suspects William Paul Muller and Derrick Lacy. Another man, Cordarious Robinson, had been charged with conspiracy to murder attorney Abraham. Prosecutors believe that Robinson helped hire Keaira Byrd for the hit.

     In November 2016, Hinds County Chancery Judge Denise Owens ordered that Dr. Smith be transferred from the the state hospital to a private facility, the Pine Grove Behavioral Health & Addiction Services in Hattiesburg, where he would receive treatment as an out patient. The transfer was based on the diagnoses of a pair of Tulane University psychiatrists. As an out patient, Dr. Smith would be allowed to live in his Jackson home with his current wife.

     The alleged murder-for-hire target, attorney Lee Abraham, filed a civil lawsuit against Dr. Smith that is scheduled for trial in March 2017.

     The criminal case against the alleged murder-for-hire hit man and his accomplices has not, as of December 2016, gone to trial. The same is true regarding the suspected murder-for-hire mastermind Dr. Arnold Smith who is presumably mentally fit to face conspiracy to murder charges as well as a felony-murder doctrine charge related to Kearia Byrd's police involved shooting death.   

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Karen Sharpe: The Grandmother From Hell

     Karen Sharpe, a 54-year-old resident of New Straitsville, Ohio in the southeastern part of the state, was as far from Norman Rockwell's version of a grandparent as you can get. Sharpe, who strikingly resembled a hungover Winston Churchill in a long, ratty wig, had custody of her daughter's two girls, ages 13 and 11. A person like grandma Sharpe having custody of her granddaughters meant that the girls' mother must have been dead, homeless, in drug rehab, or in prison.

     The oldest of Sharpe's granddaughters had a metal plate in her head as a result of abuse from another family member. This fact did not deter grandma Sharpe, on January 19, 2014, from punching the 13-year-old in the face. Ten days after that assault, this monster grandparent took out her rage--perhaps drunken--on the younger sister. Unbeknownst to Sharpe, the 13-year-old recorded that assault on her cellphone.

     When the 11-year-old granddaughter accidentally stepped on Sharpe's sore foot [she probably hurt it kicking a Golden Retriever], grandma forced the girl to the floor and stuffed a pair of heavily soiled men's underwear into her mouth. [Whose underwear?] Grandma Sharpe added to the girl's misery and horror by taping the disgusting garment into place, then ordering the child to swallow the fecal matter. [If you are eating breakfast stop now because it gets worse. Sorry.]

     The domestic depravity continued. When Sharpe removed the tape, the girl vomited on the floor. The sadistic grandmother responded by ordering the child to lick up the mess.

     The victim's sister, after secretly recording her grandmother's obscene cruelty, called the police. Police officers, after reviewing video, immediately arrested Karen Sharpe. Child services personnel placed the girls into temporary foster homes.

     A Hocking County prosecutor charged Sharpe with kidnapping (a felony which includes confinement), and misdemeanor counts of assault and child endangerment. The thoroughly disgusted officers booked the suspect into the Southeastern Regional Jail. The judge set her bond at $1.1 million.

     The next day at the Hocking County Municipal Court, Sharpe pleaded not guilty to all charges. If convicted of kidnapping, she faced up to ten years in prison.

     Hocking County sheriff's deputy Ed Downs told a reporter with the Columbus Dispatch that the crime was the "most disgusting, heinous" case of child abuse he'd ever seen."

     On June 3, 2014, Karen Sharpe was allowed to plead guilty to the lesser offense of endangering children. Hocking Common Pleas Judge John T. Wallace sentenced the degenerate to three years in prison.

     The public officials responsible for this guilty plea should be thrown out of office. For a crime against nature like this there are no mitigating circumstances. A case like this makes a mockery of our criminal justice system.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Gary Irving: The Bail Jumping Rapist

     In 1978, a jury in Norfolk County, Massachusetts found 18-year-old Gary Irving guilty of three counts of rape with force, unnatural acts, and kidnapping. Irving had knocked one of his victims off her bike, dragged her to a secluded area, and viciously raped her. He had threatened a second rape victim with a knife. The convicted rapist faced up to life in prison.

     Immediately following Irving's guilty verdict and sentencing, the rapist's attorney asked Judge Robert Prince to extend his client's bail a couple of days so Irving could make final arrangements before being packed off to prison.

     The prosecutor in the case, Louis Sabadini, pointed out that if Irving was not sent straight to prison, he would flee. Extending bail to a convicted rapist who was facing at least 35 years in prison was simply out of the question. This young man was a violent, sexual predator.

     Judge Prince shocked the prosecutor and the rape victims' families by granting Irving the weekend to settle his affairs before his incarceration. Irving took this opportunity to flee the state. Except perhaps for Judge Prince, Irving's bail jumping surprised no one.

     If there was anything surprising in the Irving case, it was how long it took the authorities to find this rapist and put him behind bars where he should have been living since 1978.

     In trying to find this fugitive the police received plenty of help from reality television. The Irving bail jumping case was featured on "America's Most Wanted," "Unsolved Mysteries," and "Real Stories of the Highway Patrol." It seemed that Gary Irving had somehow left the planet.

     On Wednesday, March 27, 2013, 35 years after Judge Prince set the rapist free, local police and FBI agents arrested Irving at his home in Gorham, Maine where the 52-year-old had been living under the name Gregg Irving. (He hadn't even bothered to change his last name.)

     On July 14, 2014, Judge George Singal sentenced Gary Irving to 47 years. The 57-year-old won't be eligible for parole until he's 84.

     What can you say about a judge who made such a reckless decision? What was he thinking? Could he have been that stupid, or were his motives more complicated, and perhaps pathological? One can only hope that Mr. Irving, during his 35 years of freedom, didn't rape more victims. If he did, Judge Prince was his accomplice. (The judge has since died.)

Monday, December 12, 2016

The Harold Sasko Murder Case

     Harold Sasko lived in a middle-class, ranch style home in suburban Lawrence, Kansas with his chocolate labrador Oliver. The 52-year-old businessman owned three CiCi's Pizza restaurants, one in Lawrence and two in Topeka. In 2014, Mr. Sasko informed the woman he was dating at the time that one of his employees, a 18-year-old named Sarah Brooke Gonzales McLinn, would be temporarily staying at his house. He said she needed help with her drug problem and wanted to separate herself from street gang influence. McLinn, a former employee at CiCi's Pizza Buffet in Lawrence, worked at a local Bed, Bath & Beyond store.

     On Friday, January 17, 2014, a member of McLinn's family reported  her missing. The relative informed officers with the Lawrence Police Department that the 18-year-old had been missing for three days. They became concerned when she didn't show up for a family dinner on January 14.

     On January 17, 2014, pursuant to the missing persons investigation, a Lawrence police officer knocked on Mr. Sasko's door. When the resident didn't answer, the officer looked through a window and saw a man lying on the floor in a pool of blood.

     The body in the house turned out to be Mr. Sasko's. He had been murdered and the killer had presumably driven off in his 2008 Nissan Altima. Mr. Sasko's dog Oliver was also missing. A local judge issued a warrant for Sarah McLinn's arrest as a prime suspect in the Sasko murder.

     At ten-thirty Saturday night, January 25, 2014, 1,560 miles from the murder scene, Everglades National Park rangers in Dade County, Florida arrested Sarah McLinn. They found her sleeping in the park after hours in the back of the murdered man's car. She also possessed Oliver, Mr. Sasko's dog. The park rangers took McLinn into custody on charges related to the possession of illicit drugs.

     The authorities in Florida also discovered in the Nissan what detectives believed to be the Sasko case murder weapons--two knives and an ax. The day after her arrest on the drug charges, the district attorney of Douglas County, Kansas charged McLinn with first-degree murder.

     At a press conference on January 27, 2014, Lawrence Police Chief Tarik Khatib told reporters that, "Based upon our investigation, evidence suggests Ms. McLinn gained control over Mr. Sasko and then killed him." According to the police chief, the victim had been attacked with an "edged instrument." Moreover, Mr. Sasko had not been conscious when he died. Chief Khatib said that Mr. Sasko was murdered on January 14, the day McLinn went missing. He did not identify a motive. The suspect, however, had confessed.

     On February 1, 2014, McLinn, after waiving an extradition hearing in Florida, was transported back to Kansas where officers booked her into the Douglas County Jail. The judge set her bond at $1 million.

     According to Sasko case investigators, McLinn, several hours after the murder, was in Bishop, Texas, a small town 100 miles from the Mexican border. She had stopped at two gas stations in Bishop, about 900 miles south of Lawrence, Kansas.

     Carl Cornwell, McLinn's attorney, told reporters that the issue in the case would center on his client's motive to kill, not on whether or not she had committed the murder.

     The Sasko murder trial got underway on March 5, 2015 in the Douglas County Courthouse. Prosecutor Charles Branson told the jury in his opening remarks that Sarah McLinn had carefully planned Mr. Sasko's murder.

     Defense attorney Carl Cornwell, in his opening address to the jury, said his client had not been in control of herself when she killed the victim. The murder, according to attorney Cornwell, had been committed by Alyssa, one of the defendant's multiple personalities.

     Lawrence police detective Robert Brown took the stand for the prosecution and testified that prior to the murder, McLinn had searched Google with the key phrase "neck vulnerable spots." In her confession she admitted stabbing the victim then slicing his throat. When asked by the detective why had she murdered Mr. Sasko, she said, " I wanted to see someone die."

     Detective Brown testified that the defendant had disabled the victim by crushing six sleeping pills and pouring the powder into his can of beer. A toxicology report confirmed the presence of this substance in the victim's system.

     The key witness for the defense, Dr. Marilyn A. Hutchinson, a psychologist, testified that during the 17 hours she spent with McLinn, the defendant spoke to her as four personalities--Sarah, Alyssa, Myla, and Vanessa. Based on these interviews, Dr. Hutchinson diagnosed McLinn as suffering from Dissociative Identify Disorder (DID), a psychological condition once called Multiple Personality Syndrome. According to Dr. Hutchinson, Alyssa had told the defendant to murder the victim.

     Defense attorney Cornwell rested his case without putting Sarah, Alyssa, Myla or Vanessa on the stand.

     On March 20, 2015, the jury, after deliberating just four hours, found the defendant guilty of first-degree murder. Six months later the judge sentenced Sarah McLinn to fifty years in prison.

     The Sasko case illustrates that a defense attorney, regardless of how idiotic the defense, can find a courtroom psychologist to go along with it. Fortunately, most juries are smart enough to cut through the nonsense.

     

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Pittsburgh's Depression Era Cops

     In the 1930s a young man didn't get on the Pittsburgh Police force by passing a test. He got the job because he had pull--a priest he knew, a relative in uniform, or the sponsorship of a ward chairman. Most recruits had ended their schooling early, in some cases so early they couldn't read or write. Some came from neighborhoods where joining the police force was considered an act of treason. Had it not been for the Great Depression, many of these men would have found work in the mills, driving a truck, or in the building trades. But when the bottom fell out of the employment market, police department jobs looked good. This was a  time when people who couldn't find work either lived off their relatives, stole, begged, or starved.

     In those days, the city didn't supply its officers with the tools of the trade. A rookie had to purchase his own uniform, badge, billy club, gun, and call-box key. If he planned on firing his revolver, he'd have to buy his own ammunition, and if he wanted to hit what he shot at, he'd have to arrange for his own firearms training.

     One night on Pittsburgh's South Side, a rookie responding to a grocery store hold-up saw the robber running out of the place with a gun in his hand. The young cop, in fumbling with his second-hand revolver, accidentally shot the hold-up man in the shoulder. The wounded robber stopped in his tracks, dropped his gun, and surrendered. But before the rookie could collect his thoughts, a pair of seasoned patrolmen come on the scene and took credit for the arrest. By stealing the pinch, the veterans got promoted to the detective bureau. The rookie got nothing but a little wiser. This was police training, 1930's style.

     Every cop in Pittsburgh began his career as a substitute officer. Subs were expected to attend roll-call at the beginning of each shift--three times a day--until someone was needed to replace a regular officer who hadn't shown up for duty. A sub might report for work three times a day for weeks before getting an assignment. If a sub didn't get work he didn't get paid, and when he was assigned temporary shift duty, he was paid what the man who had called off earned. Cops who joined the force in the 1930s worked from three to six years as subs before they got on the job full time.

     A few Pittsburgh cops had German backgrounds, and some were Italian, but most were Irish because the city was controlled by Irish politicians. But this western Pennsylvania mill town wasn't all Irish. The city had a thriving Chinatown as well as Polish, Russian, German, and Italian neighborhoods. Most of the city's black population lived in the Hill District, a neighborhood east of the downtown business district. One of the best-known and respected foot patrolman of the era was a black officer who walked the beat on the South Side, and on the Hill, a pair of black cops in plainclothes worked vice. But black cops were never promoted, and only white officers were allowed inside a patrol car.

     During the depression sprawling shanty-towns sprung up around the city. There was a large encampment in the woods near Tropical Avenue in the Banksville section of town. The residents of this makeshift ghetto fed and clothed themselves off a nearby garbage dump. On the fringes of downtown, homeless people the police called "cavemen" camped in caves they had dug out of the hillsides. Occasionally a caveman or two would drink too much moonshine and stagger into the business district where the police would scoop them up and haul them off to jail in a paddy wagon.

     A pair of devastating floods hit Pittsburgh in 1936 and 1937, and downtown, police in rowboats had to rescue customers and employees from the second story of Kaufman's Department Store. In 1936, a Pittsburgh patrolman lost his life when he slipped into the swollen Ohio River between two barges.

     In the thirties, Pittsburgh police officers directed traffic, operated the city run ambulance service, rode paddy wagons, or walked a beat. There were a handful of detectives, vice cops, and a few patrol car and motorcycle officers. Sergeants and lieutenants and their clerical personnel worked inside a dozen station houses throughout the city. Station number 1 was located downtown, number 2 on the Hill, 3 in Lawrenceville, 4 in Oakland, 5 in East Liberty, 7 on the South Side, and so on.

     In those days cops didn't carry two-way radios. They kept in touch by telephoning the station every hour or so from call-boxes situated along their beats. Patrol cars were equipped with one-way radios which meant that radio messages could be received in the car but not transmitted. To acknowledge a transmission from the radio dispatcher, one of the patrol car officers had to telephone the station from a call box.

     Since law enforcement is an around-the-clock operation, the workday was divided into three, eight-hour shifts, or "turns" as Pittsburgh cops called them. In the old days, every station house had a sergeant on duty during each turn. These sergeants exercised absolute authority over the cops on the beat and they seldom left the station except to check on a patrolman suspected of sleeping or drinking on the job. Offending patrol officers were assigned so-called "penalty beats" for thirty days. These beats were located in the remote sections of the city and involved long walks between call-boxes.

     Officers on patrol shook doors, reported in on call-boxes, and handled disturbances such as barroom fights and domestic flare-ups. Downtown, cops wearing white gloves directed traffic while officers on paddy wagon duty hauled drunks, crazy people, tramps, and prostitutes to jail. The ambulance crew picked up the sick, the old, and the injured, and carried corpses, often ripe, down endless flights of hillside stairways. Beat cops, besides maintaining order, rendered a variety of unofficial social services. A distraught wife could speak to a patrolman about her drunken husband and the officer might walk into the bar and yank the domestic slacker onto the street for a lecture and a warning.

     In the 1930s, Pittsburgh police officers were paid in cash. In many police households there was a difference between what the officer earned and the amount he turned over to his wife. In other words, a lot of cops skimmed a little off the top for themselves. One police officer's wife, after her husband suffered a heart attack, went to the station to pick up his pay. When she counted it out, she thought they had given him a raise. A cop they called "Bullet" because he was quick to use his gun, hid a fifty-dollar bill in the barrel of his revolver. When confronted by a rabid dog, he shot his gun, and his stash.

     The prohibition era featured a wave of violent crime in New York and Chicago, and in Pittsburgh, three bootleggers from Stowe Township, the Volpe brothers, were gunned-down on the Hill in a St. Valentine's Day style massacre. The Volpes were murdered on the corner of Chatam and Wylie Streets by rival bootleggers from New York City.

     Pittsburgh in the 1930s had it share of whorehouses, at that time called "sporting houses," and a few of them were palatial. The most spectacular sporting house was located on the North Side where Three Rivers Stadium once sat. The police called this cluster of cathouses the "blackberry patch." The madams paid local politicians and ranking police officers for protection. One whorehouse proprietor even built a special men's room for cops on the beat. Detectives used prostitutes as confidential informants, and every so often a vice cop would arrange an illegal, whorehouse abortion for the daughter of a judge or prominent politician.

     Gamblers rolled dice in pool halls, bars, after-hour clubs, and casinos. Ordinary citizens played the daily number for a nickel or a dime--a racket said to have originated in Pittsburgh by Gus Greenlee, Bill Synder, and a guy named Woggie Harris. The gambling bosses paid for police protection, but every so often the cops would raid a joint to remind the racketeers what they were paying for.

     Policing in the 1930s was nothing like it is today. Cops were all male, mostly Irish, poorly educated, and undertrained. There were no hiring standards, and corruption was institutionalized. Because there was almost no public accountability, police brutality was simply part of the job. While the official pay was extremely low, cops made up the difference through petty graft. If a police officer could handle himself physically, and kept his political fences mended, he had a job for life. For most people, the depression era was a terrible time, but for cops, it was, in many ways, the best of times.           

Saturday, December 10, 2016

The Stacey Sutera Stalker Murder Case

     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.

   

   

     

Friday, December 9, 2016

Earmark Identification in the David Wayne Kunze Case

     In the early morning hours of December 16, 1994, near Vancouver, Washington, an intruder entered James McCann's bedroom and bludgeoned him to death. In another bedroom, the burglar fractured the skull of McCann's son who managed, after the attack, to crawl outside where he was discovered by a passerby. Questioned at the hospital, the boy told the police he hadn't gotten a good look at the attacker whom he described as 25 to 35 years old, dark complexioned, about six feet tall, and of medium build. George Miller, a fingerprint examiner with the Washington State Crime Lab lifted a latent ear-print off the surface of James McCann's bedroom door. The killer had apparently pressed his head against the door listening for signs of activity before entering the room. Miller processed the house for fingerprints as well, but they all turned out to belong to occupants of the dwelling.

     Although he had red hair and didn't otherwise fit the general description of the killer, the police suspected David Wayne Kunze, the 45-year-old ex-husband of the woman James McCann was about to marry. When Kunze had learned of the upcoming marriage four days before the murder, he had become upset. This led investigators to suspect Kunze had attacked the victims out of jealousy and rage. The intruder had stolen McCann's television set, VCR, stereo speakers, and wallet, an aspect of the case detectives explained away by theorizing that Kunze had taken these things to throw them off his trail. Convinced that the scene had been staged to look like a burglary, the police made no effort to identify a homicidal intruder through the missing property. David Kunze consented to a search of his truck, boat, storage locker, and safety deposit box. Detectives found nothing in those places that connected him to the McCann home invasion and murder.

     Three months passed without further developments in the investigation. Then Michael Grubb, a criminalist with the Washington State Crime Lab, compared the partial ear-print latent with photographs of Kunze's left ear and concluded that it "could have been made by David Kunze." Six months later, on September 21, 1995, Kunze voluntarily agreed to have fingerprint examiner George Miller and Michael Grubb take seven exemplar prints of his left ear. The criminalists applied hand lotion to the suspect's ear, then placed panes of glass against it using various degrees of pressure. Following that procedure, the criminalists dusted the glass with fingerprint powder then lifted the prints with transparent tape.

     Michael Grubb compared the seven exemplars with the crime scene ear latent and concluded that "David Kunze is the likely source for the ear-print and cheek-print which were lifted from the outside of the bedroom door at the homicide scene." George Miller, the crime lab fingerprint analyst, declined to offer an opinion regarding the identification of the crime scene ear latent. He said he identified fingerprints, not earmarks. In June 1996, a year and a half after the murder, and eight months after Michael Grubb identified the crime scene ear-print, the Clark County prosecutor charged Kunze with aggravated murder, assault, robbery, and burglary.

     In a pretrial motion to exclude the ear-print identification, Kunze's attorney petitioned the judge for a so-called Frye hearing. In 1923, a U. S. District Court in Washington D. C held that lie detection technology had not been accepted in the general scientific community as a legitimate science. As a result, lie detection results did not constitute admissible evidence. This ruling became known as the "general acceptance test." To determine if latent ear-print identification was an accepted function within the forensic science community, the prosecutor and defense attorney in the Kunze case offered expert witness on both sides of the issue in a Frye hearing held in December 1996. This would be the most thorough, in-depth judicial/scientific review of ear-print identification in legal and criminalistic history.

     On the issue of latent ear-print identification as a legitimate forensic science, the prosecution presented three advocates against the defense's twelve witnesses, who, in varying degrees, were not enthusiastic about this form of pattern analysis. Michael Grubb, the manager of the Washington State Crime Lab in Seattle who had identified the crime scene ear-print as probably Kunze's, testified that comparing an earmark to a known ear print was not unlike other forms of impression identification. A criminalist who specialized in bullet-striation and tool-mark identification, Grubb said that if you can analyze patterns made by tires, shoes, fingers, gun barrels, and tools, you can render an opinion on the source of an earmark.

     The next prosecution witness, Alfred V. Iannarelli, said he had studied the evidence in the McCann murder case and was certain that the crime scene earmark was an "exact" match to Kunze's left ear. Iannarelli had never worked in a crime lab, had not been to college, and had testified only once as an expert witness. He had been a deputy sheriff with the Alameda County Sheriff's Office and the chief of campus security at California State University at Hayward. From 1948 to 1962, Iannarelli had photographed 7,000 ears; from this database he had come to the conclusion that no two ears are the same. He had also devised an ear classification system based upon twelve "anthropometric measurements," a system featured in his 1964 book, The Iannarelli System of Ear Identification. In 1989, Iannarelli self-published a second edition of this text, titled Ear Identification which included a section on latent earmark analysis. He was unable, however, to cite any ear-print studies other than his own, which explained why his books didn't contain bibliographies.

     In ear-print identification, it became clear there were no texts other than Iannarelli's, no community of experts, no section within any crime lab that specialized in this kind of work, and no professional organizations or certifying bodies. Besides Iannarelli, there was one other analyst devoted solely to this form of identification. If anyone could claim to be an internationally known ear-print expert, it was a police officer from Amsterdam named Cornelius Van der Lugt. It was therefore not surprising that Van der Lugt had examined the McCann murder scene evidence, and was the third prosecution expert at the Frye hearing. Van der Lugt had become interested in the ear-print identification field after reading Iannarelli's books in the early 1990s, and since had analyzed ear-print evidence in 200 cases in the Netherlands, United Kingdom, and Western Europe. He had testified as an expert in six trials, all of which were in Holland where judges, not juries, determined a defendant's guilt or innocence.

     According to Cornelius Van der Lugt, many suspects, when presented with his expert ear-print analysis, had confessed and pleaded guilty. In one case, a suspect admitted putting his ear to the door, but denied breaking in to the structure. Van der Lugt had never worked in a crime laboratory, attended college, or received any kind of formal training in science. He was certain, however, that David Kunze was the source of the McCann murder latent ear-print. As part of his Frye testimony, Van der Lugt praised the work done by Michael Grubb and George Miller in obtaining the seven ear-print exemplars, noting how they had varied the amount of pressure against the ear until the known and crime scene prints looked alike. When asked if ear-print identification, as a forensic science, was accepted around the world, Van der Lugt said that it was.

     While the Kunze prosecution could not have put on a stronger case for ear-print identification, it was arguably not enough to meet the Frye standards. In other words, at least in theory, Kunze's defense attorney could have won the Frye debate without mounting an anti-ear-print case. But leaving nothing to chance, the defense hit back with a dozen impressive witnesses, leading off with Dr. Ellis Kerley, a physical anthropologist, and former president of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences and the American Board of Forensic Anthropology. Dr. Kerley said it was reasonable to assume that no two ears were the same, but he wasn't sure this uniqueness would always reveal itself in a crime scene earmark. He didn't consider Iannarelli's books works of science, and didn't approve of Van der Lugt's technique of getting an exemplar to match a crime scene latent by varying the pressure against the suspect's ear. "We don't do that in science...because we're not trying to make them look alike," he said. In Dr. Kerley's opinion, ear-print identification had not achieved general acceptance in the forensic science community.

     Andre Moenssens, a law professor at the University of Missouri at Kansas City, the author of articles and law school texts on forensic science, and a former fingerprint expert in Belgium, testified that the "forensic sciences...do not recognize, as a separate discipline, the identification of ear impressions. There are people in the forensic science community, the broader forensic science community, who feel that it can be done. But if we are talking about a general acceptance by scientists, there is no such general acceptance....To my knowledge, there has been no investigation in the possible rate of error that comparisons between known and unknown ear samples might produce."

     Following the Frye testimony of ten other recognized forensic scientists who did not consider latent ear-print identification a true science, the judge ruled that ear-print identification had in fact gained general acceptance in the scientific community. The decision was stunning in that it was so out of sync with the weight of the expert testimony. It was certainly bad news for David Kunze, because the prosecution would have had no case if the ear-print evidence had been excluded on the grounds it didn't meet the Frye test. Now the state could go forward against him.

     The case went to trial on June 25, 1997. The prosecutor chose not to put Alfred Iannarelli on the stand, but the jury heard the testimony of state criminalist Michael Grubb, and the ear-print guru Cornelius Van der Lugt. The prosecution ear-print analysts were followed to the stand by a jailhouse informant who claimed that Kunze had confessed to him while in custody. The prosecution rested its case without identifying the murder weapon, connecting the defendant to the crime scene through DNA or fingerprints, or linking him to any of the items taken from house.

     For some reason the Kunze defense attorney did not call upon the testimony of Dr. Ellis Kerley, Professor Andre Moenssens, or any of the other anti-ear-print Frye witnesses. As a result, the jury found David Kunze guilty of aggravated murder, burglary, and robbery. The judge sentenced him to life without parole.

     Kunze appealed his conviction, and in 1999, a three-judge panel ruled that "the trial court erred by allowing Michael Grubb and Cornelius Van der Lugt to testify that Kunze was the likely or probable source of the ear latent, and that a new trial is therefore required." The appellate court instructed the prosecutor in the second trial not to prejudice the defense by referring to the first trial and the resulting conviction. The appellate judges didn't want the second jury to know that Kunze had been found guilty on the strength of ear-print identification.

     In March 2001, ten days into the second trial, the prosecutor made reference to the earlier conviction. The presiding judge had no choice but to declare a mistrial. The prosecutor, after several jurors announced that had the case gone to them, they would have acquitted the defendant, announced that a third trial would not be scheduled. 

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Bite Mark Identification in the Ted Bundy Serial Murder Case

     The identification of a series of bruises or abrasions, usually in the shape of two semi-circles or brackets, as a human bite mark made by a particular set of teeth is a function of forensic dentistry referred to as bite mark identification. This form of impression identification, also called forensic odontology, is based on the assumption that no two people in the world have front teeth that are identical in thickness, shape, relationship to each other, and patterns of wear.

     The process of comparing a bite mark to a known set of teeth is not unlike the identification of latent fingerprint, footwear, and tire track impressions. Bite mark wounds are found on victims of murder, rape, and child molestation. This type of crime scene evidence is preserved by life-size photography, tooth mark tracings onto transparent sheets, and dental casts of the impressions themselves. A suspect might be asked to bite down on a pliable surface for an impression sample, have a cast made of his teeth, or both. Usually, connecting a suspect to a victim through expert bite mark testimony will be enough evidence, by itself, to sustain a criminal conviction. For this reason, bite mark evidence must be 100 percent reliable. Unfortunately, it is not even close to that.

     The field of bite mark identification exploded in the 1980s, and hundreds, if not thousands of defendants went to prison on the strength of bite mark testimony. Although bite mark identification has been a recognized branch of forensic science since 1970, it was the 1979 trial of serial killer Ted Bundy in south Florida that put this form of identification on the map the way the O. J. Simpson murder case popularized DNA profiling in the mid-1990s.

The Ted Bundy Serial Murder Case

     After killing 30 to 100 college-aged women in the states of Washington, Utah, and Colorado, Theodore Bundy entered a Florida State University sorority house in Tallahassee where he sexually assaulted and murdered two Chi Omega sorority members. The police arrested him a short time later in a stolen car, then put him on trial for murder in Dade County.

     The Dade County prosecutor had plenty of nonphysical evidence against Bundy, but it was circumstantial and didn't place him in the Chi Omega murder room. The killer had left a hair follicle on a crime scene stocking mask that looked similar under a microscope to samples from Bundy's head. But hair identification wasn't enough by itself to carry a conviction. The rapist had left traces of semen, but these murders were committed more than ten years before the dawn of DNA analysis.

     If the Dade County prosecutor had any chance of convicting Bundy, he would have to connect him to the murder scene through a bite mark wound on one of the victims. To do that, the prosecutor called on Dr. Richard Souviron, the chief odontologist for the Miami-Dade County Medical Examiner's Office. He also enlisted the services of Dr. Lowell J. Levine, a forensic dentistry consultant to the New York City Medical Examiner's Office. To round out his battery of experts, the prosecutor brought in Dr. Norman Sperber, an odontologist with the San Diego and Imperial County Medical Examiner's Office in California. These three forensic experts comprised the nation's most renowned bite mark analysts.

     Dr. Souviron took the stand and testified that the sorority house attacker had left a postmortem double-bite mark on one victim's left buttock. He had bitten once, turned sideways, them clamped down again. The killer's top bicuspids and his lateral and central incisors had remained in the same position, but he had made two wound brackets with his lower front teeth. When he photographed Ted Bundy's teeth, Dr. Souviron noticed they were of uneven length, chipped, and oddly aligned, factors that helped individualize the defendant's bite mark pattern. To illustrate for the jury that Bundy's teeth matched the murder scene wound, Dr. Sourviron laid a photograph of the defendant's teeth, depicted on a transparent sheet, over an enlarged photograph of the bite mark. The bottom edges of Bundy's teeth lined up perfectly with the crime scene wound.

     Dr. Norman Sperber and Dr. Lowell Levine took the strand and lent their expertise to the identification. Bundy, representing himself, brought in his own dental expert, an odontologist from Maryland who testified that "the dental pattern [bite mark] is one I'd expect to find in 20 percent of the population of male Caucasians." The defense expert didn't say the bite mark on the victim couldn't have been Bundy's, he just wasn't willing to identify the wound as coming from the defendant to the exclusion of all others.

     The Dade County jury found Ted Bundy guilty, the judge sentenced him to death, and ten years later, Bundy was executed. Before his execution he confessed to the sorority house killings and dozens of other lust murders.

     The Ted Bundy case established the credibility and usefulness of forensic bite mark analysis, and for a while placed it on the same level, in terms of reliability, as latent fingerprint identification. But following a series of high-profile misidentifications in bite mark cases, this form of impression analysis is no longer considered as reliable as latent fingerprint identification. Today, in most states, odontologists are not allowed, by law, to state unequivocally that a defendant is the source of a bite mark. The most these experts can say is that the questioned bite mark is consistent with having been made by the defendant's teeth. 

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Randall Dale Adams: An Innocent Man

     In June 2011, a 61-year-old man who had been living a quiet life in a central Ohio town, died without much notice. His name was Randall Dale Adams, and in the history of 20th Century criminal justice--or rather injustice--he was a towering figure. The Adams case perfectly illustrates the doleful saying: "Any prosecutor can convict a guilty defendant, it takes a great prosecutor to convict an innocent one."

     On November 27, 1976, Adams, a 27-year-old manual laborer with no history of crime or violence, while walking along a street in Dallas, Texas after his car had run out of gas, met 16-year-old David Ray Harris. Harris, a kid from Vidor, Texas who had aleady been in trouble with the law, was driving a car he had recently stolen. Harris offered Adams a ride.

     After getting into the stolen car with Harris, Adams and his new acquaintance drank some beer, smoked marijuana, and took in a movie called "Swinging Cheerleaders" at a drive-in theater. Shortly after midnight, on November 28, Harris, while driving the blue sedan with its headlights off with Adams in the front passenger's seat, was pulled over by two officers in a Dallas patrol car. As patrolman Robert Wood approached the driver's side of Harris' vehicle, Harris, using a handgun he had stolen from his father, shot officer Wood five times, killing him on the spot. The dead officer's partner, Teresa Turko, fired at the car as Harris sped off. None of her bullets hit the fleeing vehicle. Officer Turko was certain the man who had shot her partner was the only person in the car.

     After dropping Adams off at his place of residence in Dallas, Harris drove southeast 300 miles to his parents' house in Vidor. During the next several days Harris bragged to his friends that he had "offed a pig" in Dallas. This drew the attention of the local police who recovered the pistol Harris had stolen from his father. Through ballistics analysis a firearms expert identified this gun as the murder weapon. Detectives also gave Harris a polygraph test which he failed. At first Harris denied any knowledge of the shooting, but after the ballistics report, and the lie detector results, he fingered Randall Adams, a hitchhiker he had picked up in Dallas, as the cop killer.

     Following a police interrogation in Dallas in which Randall Adams identified David Harris as the police shooter, he passed a polygraph test with that account. The Dallas County District Attorney, Norm Kinne, decided not to prosecute Harris. Kinne didn't want to prosecute David Ray Harris because, at age 16, he was too young for the electric chair.

     At Adams' May 1977 murder trial, prosecutor Kinne manufactured incriminating evidence in the form of three eyewitnesses who testified they had ridden by the shooting scene just as officer Wood approached the blue car. Although it was dark and the inside of the stolen car was unlit, the three witnesses identified Randall Adams as the driver of the stopped vehicle. These identifications were patently ridiculous and obviously motivated by something other than the truth. Two of the eyewitnesses, a husband and wife team, were looking for a piece of the $21,000 reward. The other witness had a daughter in trouble with the law. After the Adams trial the charges against her daughter were dropped. All three of these prosecution witnesses, bought for and coached, committed perjury. Officer Turko took the stand, and while admitting she hadn't seen the shooter clearly, said his hair was the same color as the defendant's.

     Randall Adams took the stand on his own behalf and proclaimed his innocence. The prosecutor and the defense attorney made their closing arguments and the case went to the jury. Without taking much time to deliberate the jurors found the defendant guilty of murdering officer Robert Wood. This led to the penalty phase of the trial which involved the determination of whether or not there was a probability that the convicted man would, if given a life sentence, commit future acts of violence.

     District Attorney Norm Kinne put two expert (so-called) witnesses on the stand who testified that Randall Adams was still a dangerous man. The fact that Adams was innocent and had no history of violence proved that both of these psychiatrists were bogus prosecution hacks. The first of these thoroughly corrupt experts to take the stand, Dr. John Holbrook, had been the chief of psychiatry with the Texas Department of Corrections. (This alone should have disqualified him as an unbiased witness.) The second, a creepy shrink named Dr. John Grigson, after having spoken to Randall Adams fifteen minutes, told the jurors that Adams was qualified to be electrocuted. Dr. Grigson's testimony was so predictably prosecution friendly--he had testified in more than 100 trials that ended in death sentences--defense attorneys around the state called him "Doctor Death." (According the American Psychiatric Association, then and now, future dangerousness is impossible to predict.)

     Relying on corrupt and erroneous psychiatric testimony pertaining to an innocent man, the Dallas County jury voted to sentence Randall Adams to death.

     In January 1979, the Texas Court of Crimminal Appeals affirmed Adams' conviction and death sentence. A judge sentenced Adams to die on May 8 of that year. On May 5, three days before his date with the electric chair, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered a stay of execution. The governor of Texas, Bill Clements, decided to commute Adams's sentence to life in prison.

     While Randall Adams sat in prison, David Harris, the man who had murdered officer Wood, joined the Army. While stationed in Germany, Harris committed a series of burglaries that led to a stretch in the federal prison at Leavenworth, Kansas. After his release from Leavenworth, Harris moved to California where he committed several kidnappings and robberies. In 1985, Harris was back in Texas where, in Beaumont, he murdered a man. A year later, a jury sentenced Harris to death. Had Harris been convicted of killing officer Wood, he wouldn't have had the opportunity to kill the Beaumont man.

     In 1988, producer Errol Morris made a documentary about the Adams case called "The Thin Blue Line." In the film, Morris exposed the prosecution's eyewitnesses as liars, and Dr. John Grigson as a courtroom fraud. A year later, following the airing of the documentary, Dallas District Court Judge Larry Baraka, following a 3-day hearing on the Adams case, recommended to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals that Randall Adams be granted a new trial.

     On March 1, 1989, the appeals court, in an unanimous 27-page opinion that cited gross prosecutoral wrongdoing, ordered a new trial. Three weeks later, the Dallas County District Attorney (not Kinne) dropped all charges. Randall Adams, after twelve years behind bars, walked free. Because he had not been pardoned by the governor, Adams was not eligible for the $25,000 he would have otherwise been awarded.

     In 2004, the state of Texas executed David Harris for the 1985 murder in Beaumont. Before he died, Harris admitted shooting officer Wood to death.

     Except for the occasional reairing of "The Thin Blue Line," the Randall Adams case is almost forgotten. But it shouldn't be forgotten because it reminds us of how much damage "a great" prosecutor can do.    

Sunday, December 4, 2016

John L. Marra: The Judicial Cover-Up of a Police Chief's Conviction

     John Marra's modest entry into law enforcement took place on July 11, 2005 when the 29-year-old became a part-time reserve police officer in Uniontown, Ohio, a Stark County village of 2,800 in the northeastern part of the state. A little over two years after being on the job, Marra entered into an intimate relationship with a 16-year-old girl. He sent her inappropriate text messages, and while on duty, kissed and fondled her at her place of employment, a Subway restaurant.

     In May 2008, the 32-year-old police officer pleaded no contest to dereliction of duty, a second-degree misdemeanor. The Stark County judge sentenced Marra to two years probation and 100 hours of community service. The judge also ordered Marra not to have further contact with the girl or members of her family. As part of the plea deal, Marra agreed to resign from the Uniontown Police Department.

     In 2010, shortly after his period of probation expired, Marra joined the police department in Brady Lake, Ohio, a small Portage County town in the Akron metropolitan area. In December 2013, following the retirement of the chief of police, the major named Marra acting head of the agency. On March 17, 2014, the village council approved Marra's appointment as the chief of the Brady Lake Police Department.

     Marra's promotion, given his history with the Uniontown Police Department, raised more than a few eyebrows. In April 2014, members of the local print and television news media asked Mayor Hal Lehman if someone, in anticipation of Marra's appointment, had conducted a background investigation. The mayor replied that such an inquiry had been made and said, "We are done with the issue." Another reporter asked the mayor if he would provide the media with a copy of the investigative report. Mayor Lehman said he did not have a copy of that document.

     Mayor Lehman, when asked specifically about the new police chief's dereliction of duty conviction five years earlier, had nothing to say other than the matter was settled.

     Chief Marra, aware that his 2008 conviction might prove troublesome to the advancement of his law enforcement career, had petitioned the court to seal the records of the case. If granted his request, this information would be no longer available to the public.

     The Stark County prosecutor's office opposed the Marra petition. Recognizing that offenses less serious than a first-degree misdemeanor can be removed from public scrutiny, the prosecutor trying to preserve Marra's conviction history argued that this particular case was an exception because of Marra's intimate involvement with a 16-year-old girl. Had Marra not agreed to plead in the case, he would have been convicted of a more serious offense. Moreover, as a public official, the chief of police should be held to a higher standard of conduct than an ordinary citizen. Chief Marra had violated that standard.

     On May 1, 2014, following a brief hearing on Marra's petition, Stark County Judge John Poulos approved of the sealing of all documents pertaining to the 2008 dereliction of duty conviction in Uniontown, Ohio. Judge Poulos based his decision on the fact the petitioner had been convicted of a second-degree misdemeanor that, under Ohio law, allowed the sealing of these crime records. The judge obviously didn't buy the argument that public officials should be held to a higher standard than the rest of us. [Why would he? The judge was a public official himself.]

     I disagree with this judge's decision. We give our law enforcement officers enormous power over our lives. In return, they owe us honesty, trustworthiness, good character, and sound judgment. Officer John Marra, with regard to the girl, exhibited an alarming lack of good judgment as well as a troubling and perhaps pathological flaw in his character.

     The citizens of Brady Lake who pay the chief's salary, and are subject to his power and authority, had a right to know such things as the degree to which Marra had coerced or stalked the girl. It may also have been important to know how this case came to light, and how the officer initially reacted to the accusations.

    

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Kleber Cordova 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 receive 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 a judge had ruled it 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 had 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.