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Saturday, July 30, 2016

The Sheetal and Rajesh Ranot Child Abuse Case: No Protection For Maya

     In January 2011, Rajesh Ranot gained custody of his 9-year-old daughter Maya. A family court judge in Queens, New York, at Rajesh's request, issued a protection order against the girl's mother and her 20-year-old brother. The father, of Indian descent, accused his former wife Ramona Roy of abusing Maya.

     Maya moved into the top floor of an Ozone Park, Queens duplex with her father, his second wife Sheetal, and her four children. The family resided on a block inhabited by other families of Indian descent by way of Guyana and Trinidad. Mr. Ranot drove a taxi and worked most nights until four in the morning.

     Neighbors began to notice that Maya's stepmother treated her differently than the other children in the family. While Sheetal watched TV, Maya cleaned the house, cooked, swept the front porch, and did other household chores. Moreover, unlike her step-siblings, Maya wore dirty clothes and looked malnourished. In the winter, she wore flip-flops and often didn't have a coat.

     Someone in the neighborhood alerted the New York City Administration For Children Services which led to regular visits to the Ranot home by social workers. A neighbor from Guyana would later tell a reporter with The New York Times that in India, stepmothers didn't like their stepchildren and treated them like slaves. The fact that Maya was more like a maid than a daughter was, under the cultural circumstances, normal. But Maya lived in the U.S., not India.

     In December 2012, Maya's teachers and classmates noticed that the girl had lost so much weight it looked as though she was being starved. She also came to school with bruises and scratches on her arms and face. A social worker continued to visit the Ranot home. The child protection agents were told by Sheetal Ranot that Maya stole money from the family to give to her biological mother. The stepmother also claimed that the girl was crazy, and giving the family all sorts of problems. When asked by social workers how she had gotten her scratches and bruises, Maya claimed to have fallen. To her friends, however, Maya revealed that her stepmother regularly beat her and locked her in a room.

     On April 16, 2014, the 12-year-old, now weighing 56 pounds, was taken to the Jamaica Hospital Center in Queens with a badly bruised and swollen face. At the hospital, Maya and her stepmother told the doctor, a detective, and a child protection worker named Ruby Perez, that the injuries had been caused by her falling off a ladder.

     Social worker Perez had visited the Ranot home many times and expressed concern that Maya was being abused. The detective at the hospital told the social worker that he didn't have enough proof to establish an abuse case. As a result, the girl went home with her abusive stepmother.

     On May 6, 2014, Sheetal Ranot took her now 46-pound stepdaughter to the emergency room with a deep cut on her left wrist and a laceration on her right knee. According to the stepmother, Maya had tried to commit suicide in the kitchen with a large knife. Although Maya went along with this absurd story, the doctor called the police.

     Finally, after three years of abuse, Maya was sent to live with an aunt. She also began to reveal the details of her ordeal. She had not fallen off a ladder. Her stepmother had beaten her with a rolling pin. Three weeks later she was beaten in the kitchen with a broken metal broom handle. She had not tried to kill herself.

     A prosecutor in Queens, on July 29, 2014, charged Sheetal Ranot with several counts of first-degree assault. In convicted as charged, the stepmother faced up to 25 years in prison.

     Rajesh Ranot, at the time of Sheetal's arrest, was in India visiting relatives. Three days after his wife's arrest, he returned to the U.S. where at the airport he was met by detectives who took him into custody. Charged with lesser assault related and child endangerment offenses, the father faced up to 7 years behind bars.

     When the news broke about Maya Ranot's three-year ordeal, New York City Commissioner Gladys Carrion thanked the Administration For Children's Services and their social workers "whose diligence and professionalism saved the life of a young girl."

     Investigative journalists with The New York Times looked into the Maya Ranot case and wrote a different story. Social workers, instead of interviewing Maya's teachers, classmates, neighbors, and others familiar with the family, simply took the word of the stepmother. As a result, the girl almost died from abuse and neglect.

     Ruby Perez, the 29-year-old social worker who in April 2014 expressed concern regarding Maya's wellbeing, posted the following message on her Facebook page in 2010: "I want to quit my job. Now. I can't take it." Perhaps Perez didn't like working for a child protection agency that didn't protect children.

     On July 29, 2016, following a three-week trial, a jury in Queens, New York found Sheetal Ranot guilty as charged. She will be sentenced later. Ranot's attorney, Mahmoud Rabah, told reporters that his client maintains her innocence and will appeal the conviction.

     Rajesh Ranot's trial is scheduled for a later date. In all probability, he will enter a guilty plea for a lesser sentence. 

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Annette Morales-Rodriguez and the C-Section Murders

     In October 2011, Annette Morales-Rodriguez, a 34-year-old mother of three, lived with a boyfriend who was expecting her to give birth to their baby within a matter of days. But that wasn't going to happen because she had been faking her pregnancy. Morales-Rodriguez had lied to this man twice before about being pregnant, and in the past, to avoid exposure as a liar and a fake, had falsely reported a pair of miscarriages. Running out of time and desperate, Morales-Rodriguez decided to kidnap a woman about to give birth, and steal the fetus by performing a crude Caesarean section using knowledge she had acquired from watching a show on the Discovery Channel.

     In search of a victim and her baby, Morales-Rodriguez showed up at a Hispanic community center in Milwaukee where she encountered 23-year-old Maritza Ramirez-Cruz who was in her 40th week of pregnancy. Morales-Rodriguez lured her intended victim into her car by offering her a ride home. Along the way, Morales-Rodriguez stopped at her house to change her shoes while the unsuspecting Ramirez-Cruz waited outside in the car. When Morales-Rodriguez didn't make a timely return to the vehicle, her passenger walked up to the house, knocked on the door, and asked if she could use the bathroom.

     Shortly after inviting the pregnant woman into her home, Morales-Rodriguez smashed her in the head with a baseball bat, then choked her until she passed out. After binding the victim's hands and feet with duct tape, and covering her nose and mouth with the tape, Morales-Rodriguez sliced into the pregnant woman's body with a X-Acto knife exposing the fetus. After removing the baby boy from his dead mother, Rodriguez realized she had killed the newborn as well.

     After she deposited Rameriz-Cruz's blood-soaked body in her basement, Morales-Rodriguez called 911 and informed the dispatcher she had just given birth to a baby that wasn't breathing. Paramedics who rushed to the scene confirmed that the infant was dead. At this point, the emergency responders had no reason to suspect foul play. They cleaned off the infant, wrapped it in a towel, and handed it to the woman who had just murdered it.

     When the medical examiner performed the autopsy, it became obvious that the baby had been removed from its mother's body by an amateur. This crude procedure had caused its death. A police search of Morales-Rodriguez's house resulted in the discovery of the disemboweled corpse with the duct tape still in place. According to the forensic pathologist, Ramirez-Cruz had died of blood loss and asphyxiation. The baby had been stillborn.

     Following her arrest, in a videotaped interrogation at the Milwaukee police station by detective Rodolfo Gomez, Morales-Rodriguez explained in Spanish how her boyfriend's expectations had caused her to kidnap and home-C-section the young pregnant woman. In other words, she had murdered a pregnant woman to save her relationship with her boyfriend.

     Charged with two counts of first-degree murder, Morales-Rodriguez went on trial in early September 2012. She pleaded not guilty to the murder charges on the ground it had not been her intention to kill the mother and her baby.

     On September 20, 2012, the jury of six men and six women found the defendant guilty as charged. Because Wisconsin didn't have the death penalty, Annette Morales-Rodriguez faced a mandatory life sentence. It was up to the judge to determine if she would be eligible for parole.

     Given the fact this woman had brutally murdered a total stranger, and killed the victim's baby through a crude C-section, Judge David Borowski, on December 13, 2012, sentenced Rodriquez to life in prison with no chance of parole. 

Monday, July 18, 2016

What Happened To Teleka Patrick?

     Raised in New York City, Teleka Patrick graduated from the Bronx High School of Science before earning her Bachelor of Science Degree at Oakwood University in Huntsville, Alabama. Three months after graduating from medical school at Loma Linda University in southern California, Teleka, in June 2013, began her four-year residency at Western Michigan University. She moved into the Gull Run apartment complex in Kalamazoo.

     At seven o'clock in the evening of December 5, 2013, Teleka was caught on a parking lot surveillance camera at the Borgess Medical Center where she worked. She had just finished her shift. From the hospital, a male co-worker gave Teleka a lift to the Radisson Hotel in downtown Kalamazoo. A hotel surveillance camera recorded Teleka entering the lobby dressed in a black hoodie and dark slacks.

     According to a Radisson emplyee, the woman in the hoodie tried to rent a room using cash. Because she did not show any identification, the person on the front desk refused to register her.

     At eight o'clock, Teleka got a ride back to her car at the Borgess Medical Center in a hotel schuttle van. The shuttle driver later described her behavior as nervous. He said she ducked between cars to avoid being spotted. From the medical center parking lot that night, Taleka Patrick went missing.

     Two hours after Taleka returned to the medical center, an Indiana State Trooper 100 miles from Kalamazoo came across, off Interstate 94 in Portage, an abandoned light-gold 1997 Lexus ES 300. The vehicle, registered to the missing woman, had a flat tire.

     Inside the Lexus, officers found a wallet containing Teleka's driver's license and credit cards. The car also contained pieces of the missing woman's clothing and a small amount of cash. The car keys were gone along with Teleka's cellphone.

     A bloodhound later traced Taleka's steps from the abandoned vehicle to the freeway where her trail went cold. A search of the area surrounding the car failed to produce any clues to her whereabouts.

     According to Carl Clatterbuck, a Kalamazoo private investigator hired to find Patrick, the missing woman's ex-husband and a former on-again off-again boyfriend, were not suspects in the disappearance.

     In late December 2013, several YouTube videos made by Teleka surfaced. Unfortunately, they raised more questions than answers. One of the videos, produced in early November 2013, featured a table in Teleka's apartment containing an elaborate breakfast spread. The narrator, identified as Teleka, says, "I just wanted to show you what I made….If you were here this would be on your plate." In another video, she addressed an unknown person as "baby," and "love."

     On January 1, 2014, Ismael Calderon, married to the missing woman from 2000 to 2011, told a Grand Rapids, Michigan television reporter that his ex-wife suffered from a serious mental problem. The illness led her to believe she was being followed. "This is a tragedy," he said. "I don't think she's hiding somewhere. I think she's being held against her will or the worst. I think that Teleka had this fear of first, being branded with a mental illness. Second, the practical fear of losing her career."

     The next day, a 46-year-old Grammy-nominated gospel singer and Grand Rapids, Michigan pastor named Marvin Sapp said he had filed a protection order against Teleka three months before she disappeared. According to Reverend Sapp, she had sent him 400 love letters, joined his congregation, and contacted his children.

     On April 6, 2014, a man fishing on Lake Charles in the northern part of Indiana saw something floating in the water. It turned out to be a body, and the corpse was Teleka Patrick. The lake had been frozen over during the winter. According to a family member, Patrick had been on her way to Chicago to visit a relative.

     Three days after the body recovery, the Porter County, Indiana Coroner's Office announced that Teleka Patrick had died from asphyxiation from drowning. In Michigan, according to Kalamazoo County Sheriff Richard Fuller, Patrick's drowning had been accidental. As a result, the criminal investigation of this unexplained death was closed.

     

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Did Hannah Overton Murder Her Son?

     Andrew Burd was born in Corpus Christi, Texas on July 28, 2002. The 16-year-old girl who gave birth to him had used, during her pregnancy, meth, crack cocaine, LSD, and marijuana. The expectant mother had also consumed alcohol, took Xanax, and smoked cigarettes. The baby's 17-year-old father worked for a traveling carnival. This infant should have been taken from his unfit parents at birth.

     Andrew was a year old when his mother took him to an emergency room with a broken arm. A doctor suspected child abuse and called Child Protective Services (CPS). Nothing came of the CPS investigation, and the baby was returned to his mother. Eventually, after repeated evidence of child abuse, CPS agents, on the grounds that Andrew was in "immediate danger," took him from his young parents. The agency placed the two and a half-year-old toddler into foster care where he was shuffled from one home to another.

     In 2006, Corpus Christi residents Larry and Hannah Overton heard about Andrew Burd through their evangelical, nondenominational church, Calvary Chapel of the Coastlands. The couple resided in a modest ranch-style house with their four young children. Twenty-nine-year-old Hannah was six months pregnant at the time. Although the family struggled financially from what Larry Overton earned as a landscape lighting installer, the couple expressed interest in adopting Andrew.

     In 1984, when Hannah Overton was seven-years-old, her father, Bennie Saenz, an evangelical preacher, was arrested and charged with murder. Convicted of bludgeoning a 16-year-old girl to death, then dumping her body along the shore of Padre Island, the Corpus Christi preacher went to prison for 23 years. (I presume he was released in 2007.)

     Before her marriage to Larry, Hannah had worked as a volunteer in an orphanage in Reynosa, Mexico across the border from Corpus Christi. As a married couple, Larry and Hannah had performed missionary work for their church. By all accounts they were decent people, loving parents who had never been in trouble with the authorities. Moreover, neither Larry or Hannah had a history of mental illness.

     In the spring of 2006, Andrew Burd joined the Overton family on a six-month probationary basis. On October 2, 2006, not long after the official adoption, the four-year-old became suddenly ill. He began vomiting and struggled with his breathing. Hannah, instead of immediately calling 911, telephoned Larry at work. He rushed home. When Andrew became unresponsive, the Overtons rushed him to a nearby urgent care clinic. When nurses at the clinic failed to revive Andrew with CPR, paramedics transported the boy to Corpus Christi's Driscoll Hospital.

     Medical personnel at the urgent care clinic, suspicious of child abuse, notified the police shortly after Andrew was admitted to the hospital. Within hours of Andrew's hospitalization, police with the Corpus Christi Police Department searched the Overton residence.

     In the evening of October 3, 2006, Andrew Burd died. Dr. Ray Fernandez, the Nueces County Medical Examiner, performed the autopsy. The forensic pathologist, finding some bleeding of the brain, external scratches and bruises, and twice the level of sodium in the dead child's blood, ruled the manner of death homicide. Dr. Fernandez identified the boy's cause of death as "acute sodium toxicity with blunt force trauma as a contributing factor." (Dr. Fernandez did not acknowledge that the brain hemorrhaging could have been caused by the sodium content in Andrew's blood.)

     Child Protection Services agents took the other Overton children out of their home and placed them with relatives. (Eventually the children would be placed under the care of Hannah Overton's mother.) A few days after Andrew's death, Corpus Christi detective Michael Hess, an investigator who specialized in child abuse cases, interrogated Hannah Overton at the police station. She had agreed to be questioned without the presence of counsel.

     Detective Hess made it clear that he believed that Hannah, feeling overburdened with so many young children, had murdered her adopted son. "I don't see," he said, "what caused the trauma to the brain. I don't see what caused the salt content. Did you at any time strike him?" (At this point, Hannah Overton should have asked for an attorney.)

     The five-hour grilling at the police station ended without a confession. In his report, Detective Hess wrote: "It should be noted that during the entire conversation (conversation?), Hannah Overton showed no emotion." Notwithstanding Hannah Overton's insistence that she had done nothing to harm her adopted son, Nueces County Assistant District Attorney Sandra Eastwood, a child protection crusader, charged the mother of five (she had since had her baby) with capital murder. Under Texas law, if convicted as charged, Hannah Overton faced life in prison without the chance of parole.

     The televised Hannah Overton murder trial got underway in Corpus Christi in August 2007. Prosecutor Eastwood, in her opening remarks to the jury, said, "We don't know precisely how she [the defendant] got [the salt] down Andrew, but we know that he [the child] was very, very, obedient."

     Dr. Ray Fernandez, the Nueces County Medical Examiner testified that he had seen "burn-like scarring" on Andrew's arm that had likely been caused by "contact with a hot surface." (Judge Jose Longoria did not allow Dr. Fernandez to state that blunt force trauma had contributed to Andrew's death. The judge, due to insufficient scientific evidence to back up this part of the pathologist's testimony, ruled it inadmissible.)

     Dr. Alexander Rotta, a pediatric critical care specialist from Indianapolis, Indiana, testified that "There were so many bruises and scratches [on Andrew's body] that it would be difficult to describe them all." Dr. Rotta told the jurors that the sodium content in Andrew's blood amounted to six teaspons of salt. In the doctor's expert opinion, Andrew Burd's death had not been accidental.

     After Detective Michael Hess played a video of the defendant's interrogation, one of the nurses who had performed CPR on Andrew at the urgent care clinic testified that the defendant, during the emergency, had not behaved like a panic-stricken parent. In fact, she often had a smile on her face. Two other urgent care clinic employees took the stand and gave similar testimony. One of these witnesses said that she had heard the defendant tell someone at the clinic that the boy had stopped breathing after he had been "punished." (While children are "punished" all the time, jurors probably interpreted this comment as evidence of child abuse.)

     At the close of the state's case, defense attorneys David Jones and Chris Pinedo brought Harvard educated forensic pathologist Dr. Judy Melinek to the stand. Dr. Melinek identified the sores on Andrew's body as being consistent with mosquito bites that had been excessively scratched. The witness, on the issue of  how all of that sodium had entered Andrew's system, said that in all probability the child suffered from a rare eating disorder called pica. Children with this malady have an uncontrollable desire to consume inappropriate substances such as salt.

     Hannah Overton, who took the stand on her own behalf, did not come off as a convincing or even sympathetic witness. (Her attorneys, given the accusations in the case, had no choice but to put her on the stand.) At this stage of the trial, given the testimony of the medical examiner, the pediatrician from Indiana, and the urgent care clinic personnel, the jurors had probably made up their minds.

     The three-week trial came to an end when the jury, after deliberating eleven hours, found Hannah Overton guilty of capital murder. (She would eventually be sent to the maximum security women's prison outside of Waco, Texas.) Overton's attorneys, shortly after the verdict, polled the jury. The defense attorneys were stunned to learn that all of the jurors had found the defendant guilty for intentionally not getting Andrew immediate medical help. None of the jurors had been convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant had poisoned her child with salt.

     Two days after the guilty verdict, Dr. Edgar Cortes, the emergency room physician on duty at Driscoll Hospital the day Andrew arrived, and the pediatrician who had resuscitated the patient before he was sent to the intensive care unit, wrote a letter to the Overton defense team. Dr. Cortes informed the lawyers that while he had been scheduled to testify for the prosecution, prosecutor Sandra Eastwood never called him to the stand. The doctor wasn't called because in his opinion, Andrew Burd's death had been accidental. Dr. Cortes, had he taken the stand, would have testified that Andrew had been a hyperactive child who suffered from an autism spectrum disorder. (Dr. Cortes had studied Andrew's medical records.) This would account for the boy's inappropriate eating habits, obsessive scratching and picking, and head banging.

     In the months following the guilty verdict, three prominent appellate attorneys--Cynthia Orr, John Raley, and Gerry Goldstein--took an interest in the Overton case. The attorneys filed an appeal alleging newly discovered exonerating evidence, ineffective legal representation at trial, and the withholding of exculpatory evidence from the defense by prosecutor Sandra Eastwood.

     In 2009, the Texas Circuit Court of Criminal Appeals upheld the Overton capital murder conviction. The justices found no proof that the state had known of Dr. Edgar Cortes' cause and manner of death opinion. The appellate judges also rejected the newly discovered evidence and ineffective counsel claims.

     In the spring of 2010, the Overton appellate team petitioned for the right to have access to the prosecution's file on the case. Prior to the trial, prosecutor Eastwood, when asked by defense attorneys for access to documents related to Andrew's stomach contents, claimed that such a report didn't exist. The appellate attorneys, when they were given the opportunity to examine the prosecution's file, found the gastric contents report. Not only did they find the report, according to this document, Andrew's stomach contents did not reveal elevated amounts of salt when he arrived at the urgent care clinic.

     Hannah Overton's appellate team also learned that prosecutor Eastwood had scheduled, for testimony, Dr. Michael Moritz, the clinical director of pediatric nephrology at the Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh. Dr. Moritz specialized in children's kidney diseases, and in 2007, had published a paper on accidental child salt poisoning cases. Dr. Moritz had found that a vast majority of these cases involved boys between the age of one and six. Moreover, they had all had been in foster care, or were from abusive homes. All of these boys suffered from the eating disorder, pica.

     Dr. Moritz told the appellate team that he had waited days in the Corpus Christi court house for his turn to take the stand. When the doctor told prosecutor Eastwood that he had to return to Pittsburgh, she arranged for a video deposition that because of time, was not completed. Had he taken the stand, Dr. Moritz would have testified that in his expert opinion, Andrew's death had been accidental.

     Appellate attorney Cynthia Orr, about the time of the Dr. Moritz revelation, received a letter from Anna Jimenez, the former Nueces County prosecutor who had worked on the Overton case with Sandra Eastwood. Regarding whether Eastwood had withheld exculpatory evidence from the defense, Jimenez wrote: "I fear she [Eastwood] may have purposely withheld evidence that may have been favorable to Hannah Overton's defense.

     In April 2011, Cynthia Orr petitioned the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals for an evidentiary hearing on the Overton case. Ten months later, in February 2012, appellate judge Cathy Cochran ordered the Corpus Christi trial court judge to hold such a proceeding to entertain the appellate team's assertion that Hanna Overton, an innocent person, had been wrongfully convicted of murder.

     The evidentiary hearing began on April 24, 2012. Chris Pinedo, one of Overton's trial attorneys, took the stand. Pinedo testified that he had asked prosecutor Sandra Eastwood for a sample of Andrew's gastric contents that had been acquired by Driscoll Hospital personnel. Attorney Pinedo wanted to have an independent scientist analyze this evidence for sodium content. The defense attorney was told that such evidence did not exist. Because he had acquired photographs of the stomach contents  that had been taken at the Nueces County Medical Examiner's Office, attorney Pinedo knew that he had been lied to.

    Forensic pathologist Dr. Judy Melinek testified that because Neuces County medical examiner, Dr. Ray Fernandez, had failed to adequately analyze Andrew's hypothalamous and pituitary glands, his cause and manner of death conclusions were questionable.

     Dr. Edgar Cortes, the emergency medicine pediatrician who had attended to Andrew at Driscoll Hospital before the boy's death, took the stand and described how he had waited at the court house to testify as a prosecution witness. "I told Assistant District Attorney Sandra Eastwood, 'I hope you're going to come forward with some other [homicide] charge than capital murder because I don't think this was capital murder.' " When asked by attorney Orr why prosecutor Eastwood hadn't put him on the stand, Dr. Cortes said, "I felt like the prosecution had its own theory about what happened." (That is fine as long as the prosecution's theory is backed up by proof beyond a reasonable doubt.)

     Dr. Michael Moritz, the clinical director of pediatric nephrology at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh, one of the nation's leading experts on salt poisoning, took the stand on day two of the Overton evidentiary hearing. Dr. Moritz said he believed that if Andrew Burd had ingested a lethal dose of salt, he had fed it to himself. The doctor testified that intentional, force-fed salt poisoning was extremely rare.

     Day three of the Overton hearing featured the testimony of former prosecutor Sandra Eastwood. In 2010, Eastwood had been fired from the Nueces County District Attorney's office after she had informed the district attorney that she had been romantically involved with a sex offender. During the Overton trial in 2007, Eastwood, an alcoholic, had been functioning under the influence of alcohol and prescription diet pills. Her responses to Cynthia Orr's questions were vague, confusing, and often contradictory. The witness said that her drinking and pill taking had destroyed her memory of the Overton case. As a witness, Eastwood came off more pathetic than evil.

     Eastwood's former assistant in the Overton case, Anna Jimenez, followed her to the stand. According to Jimenez, Eastwood had made the following comment to her: "I will do anything to win this case." Jimenez testified that in her opinion, Sandra Eastwood's behavior during the Overton murder trial was "so far out." The witness testified further that she believed that Hannah Overton should have been charged with a lesser homicide offense. Regarding Eastwood's claim that the boy's gastric contents evidence did not exist, Jimenez said, "She is not truthful."

     On the sixth and final day of the Overton evidentiary proceeding, David Jones, one of Overton's trial attorneys, broke down on the stand. "I failed miserably," he said. "There's probably not a day since this verdict that I don't regret spending more time on this case. I should have done more."

     On June 1, 2012, a month after the conclusion of the Overton hearing, District Court Judge Jose Longoria issued his recommendation to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. In a 14-page opinion, Judge Longoria explained why he saw no new evidence that would have altered the outcome of Overton's murder trial. "The court," he wrote, "concludes that all of the supposedly newly discovered evidence actually was clearly known and discussed at the time of the trial."

     Hannah Overton's appellate team, as well as a large group of people who believed she was an innocent mother who had been railroaded into prison by an overzealous prosecutor, were stunned by Judge Longoria's opinion. The imprisoned woman's fate rested with the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. In making their decision on whether or not to grant Overton a new trial, the appeals court justices were not bound by District Court Judge Longoria's recommendation.

     On September 18, 2014, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals voted 7 to 2 to grant Hannah Overton a new trial. The appellate judges cited problems associated with prosecutor Sandra Eastwood and criticized Overton's trial attorneys for not calling to the stand a salt poisoning expert.

     The Nueces County District Attorney, after losing the appeal, had four options. He could charge Overton again with capital murder, file lesser charges against her, offer a plea deal, or simply dismiss the case. The prosecutor chose to try Overton again for capital murder.

     On December 16, 2014, a Nueces County judge set Overton's bond at $50,000. She posted her bail and was released from prison to await her second trial.

     In February 2016, Hannah and Larry Overton appeared on a episode of the Dr. Phil Show. The couple, in response to pointed questions by the host, denied intentionally poisoning Andrew or delaying his emergency medical care. They also denied abusing the boy. The show featured portions of the video taped police interrogation of Hannah that showed her laughing several times during the detective's questioning. She explained that it was nervous laughter. In defending what appeared to be examples of harsh treatment of Andrew, the couple pointed out that he had been an extremely difficult child to raise. Dr. Phil did not seem convinced the Overtons had been good to the boy, asking them if they had treated him worse than their biological children.

     As of this writing, no trial date has been set for Hannah Overton's second murder trial.

Note: This account of the Overton case would not have been possible without the original reporting and excellent journalism of Pamela Colloff. In 2012, Colloff wrote several articles about the case for Texas Monthly. 

   

     

Sunday, July 10, 2016

The Seth Mazzaglia Murder Case

     In 2011, after graduating from  high school in Westborough, Massachusetts, Elizabeth Marriott attended Manchester Community College in New Hampshire. Following her freshman year in Manchester, she transferred to the University of New Hampshire in Durham. The 19-year-old marine biology major commuted to the university's main campus from her aunt and uncle's home in Chester. To help pay for her schooling she worked at the Target store in the neighboring community of Greenland.

     Elizabeth, who went by "Lizzi," walked out of class at nine at night on October 9, 2012 with the intent of visiting friends at an apartment in Dover, a town of 30,000 in the southeast corner of the state not far from the university. Her friends notified the authorities when Lizzi didn't show up in Dover and couldn't be located elsewhere.

     Three days after Marriott's disappearance, detectives questioned 29-year-old Seth Mazzaglia, a resident of Dover. The 2006 graduate of the University of New Hampshire had earned a bachelor's degree in theater. Over the past ten years, Mazzaglia, more of a character actor than a leading man type, had performed in plays and musicals around southeast New Hampshire. According to his Facebook page, he had a black belt in karate, instructed others in the martial arts, and liked to juggle. Mazzaglia also professed to have a special interest in stage-craft fighting.

     Mazzaglia told detectives that he met Lizzi Marriott in the summer of 2011 when they worked at the Greenland, New Hampshire Target store. At the time of the interview he was employed in the video game section of the Best Buy store in Newington, New Hampshire.

     Mazzaglia informed his questioners that he and his 19-year-old girlfriend, Kathryn McDonough, a high school dropout, had invited Marriott to join them in his apartment on October 9, 2012 for three-way, bondage sex. Mazzaglia said that Marriott did not show up at his apartment that particular evening.

     When questioned again later in the day, Mazzaglia changed his story. He said he had gone out for a run and upon his return to the apartment found Marriott dead with a ligature mark around her neck. He explained that earlier in the evening Kathryn McDonough and another man had engaged in bondage sex with Marriott. Later in the interrogation, Mazzaglia reluctantly admitted that he was the man who had participated in the threesome that evening.

     Mazzaglia said that he, McDonough, and Marriott had played strip poker that night. That activity led to sexual intercourse involving a rope-restraint used to limit Marriott's ability to breathe. During that voluntary activity, Marriott suffered a seizure and died. The death, according to Mazzaglia, was an accidental event in the course of consensual but rough sex.

     Instead of reporting the death to the authorities, Mazzaglia tied a grocery bag over the dead woman's head. At eleven o'clock that night, McDonough's friend, Roberta Gerkin and her housemate, came to the apartment at McDonough's request. Gerkin, according to a statement she gave the police, said she saw a white female lying on the floor with a grocery bag covering her head.

     Gerkin told detectives that when she used a box cutter to remove the sack, it exposed the victim's bluish tinted face. Meanwhile, according to Gerkin, Mazzaglia and his girlfriend engaged in a discussion of how they would dispose of the body.

     During his session with detectives, Mazzaglia said he used Marriott's Mazda to haul her body to Pierce Island in Portsmouth, New Hampshire where and McDonough dumped the corpse into the Piscataqua River. The pair then drove Marriott's car to the University of New Hampshire where they left it in a student parking lot. The couple discarded Marriott's clothing in trash bins on campus.

     Police officers and volunteers searched for Marriott's body in the Piscataqua River around the 27-acre Pierce Island. They found no trace of her remains. Notwithstanding the absence of a body, a Strafford County prosecutor charged Mazzaglia with first-degree murder. Police officers arrested him on October 13, 2012. The judge denied the murder suspect bail.

     On December 24, 2012, detectives arrested Kathryn McDonough on the charges of conspiracy and hindering prosecution. She posted her $35,000 bond and walked out of jail on the condition she stayed with her parents in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. In 2013, McDonough pleaded guilty to the charges. The judge, aware that McDonough had agreed to help the prosecution against Mazzaglia, sentenced her to 18 months to three years in prison. Given her role in Lizzi Marriott's death, this depraved young woman had gotten off light. Because the prosecutor in the no-body case needed McDonough's testimony to establish the murder and the defendant's role in it, McDonough had escaped a stiffer sentence.

     The Seth Mazzaglia murder trial got underway in Dover, New Hampshire on Monday, June 2, 2014. Two days later, Kathryn McDonough, the prosecution's star witness, took the stand under government immunity from the charge of first-degree murder. The witness said that on October 9, 2012, she had lured Marriott to Mazzaglia's apartment with the promise of watching a movie or playing a video game. In reality she had wanted to please Mazzaglia with a new sex partner.

     Following a game of strip poker, Mazzaglia said he wanted Marriott and McDonough to kiss. Marriott refused. Mazzaglia next suggested that Marriott watch as he and McDonough had sex. Marriott said she wasn't interested. Unaccustomed to not getting his way, Mazzaglia strangled Marriott with a soft cotton rope used in bondage sex. After witnessing the murder, McDonough went into the bathroom and when she returned, saw her boyfriend having sex with the corpse.

     McDonough testified that she and Mazzaglia stuffed the victim's body into a large suitcase and drove to the Piscataqua River where they knew the currents were strong. The couple tossed the corpse over a railing but the five-foot-five, 130-pound body landed on the rocks short of the water line. McDonough climbed down and dragged the victim's body into the river.

     On cross-examination, Mazzaglia's attorney, Joachim Barth, proposed that McDonough had killed Lizzi Marriott when the victim refused to have sex with the defendant. Barth reminded the witness that when she first spoke with the police she had taken responsibility for Marriott's death. The defense attorney suggested that the witness had changed her story in return for government immunity and a light sentence.

     Defense attorney Barth also grilled the witness about her claim to have alternative personalities--different characters she used as a "coping mechanism." McDonough responded that she was not controlled by the voices. During the cross-examination, McDonough revealed that Mazzaglia believed that he had been a dragon in a past life. Being around the defendant had strengthened her own beliefs in the supernatural.

     On June 27, 2014, following 19 days of testimony that did not include the defendant taking the stand on his own behalf, the jury found Mazzaglia guilty of first-degree murder by strangulation. The jury also found him guilty of first-degree murder while committing a felonious assault. The panel of seven women and five men also found the defendant guilty of conspiracy to tamper with evidence as well as the destruction of physical evidence.

     On August 14, 2014, at the Mazzaglia sentence hearing, the victim's mother, in addressing the convicted murderer, said, "I want you to know that I unequivocally hate you. You are a cowardly, despicable person. You stole our smart, vivacious, beautiful daughter from us. You murdered Lizzi, raped her lifeless body, and then threw her away because Lizzi had the self-confidence and self-esteem to say no to you."

     When it came his turn to speak, Mazzaglia said, "I did not rape and murder Elizabeth Marriott. However, I do understand the Marriott family's pain and I did play a part in covering up her death, a mistake I tried to correct when investigators came to me and I showed them exactly where I left Lizzi's body. Unfortunately, they were unable to recover her and for that I am truly sorry. My heart goes out to the Marriott family and I am sorry for their loss."

     Judge Steven Houran sentenced Seth Mazzaglia to the maximum penalty, life in prison without the possibility of parole.