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Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Jose Armando Moreno and Mexico's Teen-Age Assassins

     In the United States, boys as young as eleven have been charged and incarcerated for committing murder. Recently, boys ten and eleven were charged with conspiracy to murder one of their classmates. There have been a few American homicide cases involving children under eleven. In common law America, prior to state crime codes, children under the age of seven were presumed incapable of forming criminal intent. This culpability guideline is reflected in the statutory law of several states.

     In Mexico, kids under the age of fourteen who commit crimes, including murder, are considered too young to prosecute and incarcerate. The Mexican constitution prohibits the government from incarcerating citizens who are under fourteen. Mexican youngsters who are 14, 15, and 16 can be jailed, but not for longer than three years.

     In 2011, a 14-year-old boy only identified as "El Ponchis" (The Cloak), confessed to murdering several people for a local drug lord. The kid admitted beheading four of his victims. The judge sentenced "El Ponchis" to three years in a juvenile detention center.

     Mexican Federal Police, on February 7, 2013, detained 13-year-old Jose Armando Moreno in the central Mexican state of Zacatecas. The boy confessed to participating in the murder of ten people. The killings had been ordered by the head of a drug cartel. Moreno said he had shot six of his victims execution-style with an assault rifle.

     According to Moreno's mother, he had dropped out of school and ran away from home when he was eleven. He survived by selling drugs on the street, and committing contract murders.

     Because of the constitutional ban on youthful incarceration, the authorities had no choice but to release this young assassin back into Mexican society.

     On February 28, 2013, three weeks after being questioned by the federal officers, the boy's bullet-ridden body was found alongside a road in the town of Morelos. His killer or killers had dumped him along with the corpses of four women and a man. The victims had all been murdered execution-style. It's possible that the boy and the others were executed by another 13-year-old kid working for a rival drug cartel.  

Monday, August 29, 2016

The James Nichols Murder Case

     On December 26, 1985, James L. Nichols, Jr. reported his wife JoAnn missing from their home in Poughkeepsie, New York. According to Mr. Nichols, his 55-year-old spouse, a first grade teacher at Gayhead Elementary School in upstate New York's Hopewell Junction, had left the house three days earlier. Mr. Nichols told investigators that she had called home on Christmas eve, but had refused to reveal her whereabouts.

     In an attempt to explain his wife's mysterious disappearance, the husband told police officers that JoAnn had been depressed over the May 1982 drowning of their only son, 25-year-old James Nichols III. The young man had died in a lake in Mississippi. On the Nichols' home computer, detectives found comments ostensibly written by the missing wife that hinted of her intent to commit suicide.

     Many of JoAnn's friends and co-workers, from the very beginning, suspected the teacher's husband of wrongdoing in the case. Mr. Nichols, a hoarder who had filled the couple's basement to the ceiling with junk, was by all accounts an obsessive man with strange habits.

     As is often the case when people go missing, a handful of psychic "detectives" provided investigators with false leads as to JoAnn's fate and her whereabouts. Eventually, the missing persons investigation fizzled-out, and the matter was forgotten. Mr. Nichols, who did not remarry, remained in the house in Poughkeepsie, and continued to fill it up with garbage.

     On December 21, 2012, Mr. Nichols died at the age of eighty-two. The dwelling was in such a mess, a contractor had to be called in to haul off the junk and trash before the place could be put on the market. At 5 PM on June 28, 2013, one of the workers stumbled upon a container that had been hidden inside a false wall in the Nichols basement. The box contained a human skeleton.

     A few days after the gruesome discovery, Dr. Kari Reiber, the Duchess County Medical Examiner, announced that through dental records, the remains had been identified as JoAnn Nichols. According to the forensic pathologist, the first grade teacher had been murdered by blunt force trauma to the head.

     It's hard to image that JoAnn Nichols had been murdered by anyone other than her oddball husband James. For twenty-seven years her body remained hidden amid the junk and debris in this hoarder's basement. Apparently there was nothing, not even his wife's corpse, that this man didn't save.

     While the motive behind JoAnn Nichols' murder remained a mystery, I would venture a guess. Fed up with her husband's hoarding, she had expressed her desire to divorce him. That would mean they would have to sell the house, and in so doing, rid the place of all the debris. To keep his stuff, and possibly to benefit from his dead spouse's Social Security benefits, James Nichols murdered his wife and added her remains to his collection of trash and junk. It's just a theory, and will probably remain so. 

Sunday, August 28, 2016

John Douglas White: The Pastor Who Murdered Women

     John Douglas White, the 55-year-old pastor of the Christ Community Fellowship Church located just west of Mount Pleasant, Michigan, lived by himself in a mobile home park in Broomfield Township near the town of Remus. This self-appointed man of the cloth possessed a background more in line with a person serving a life sentence in prison than a preacher of a tiny church in rural central Michigan. Pastor White, a perverted lust killer, had no business living outside prison walls where he could take advantage of women while masquerading as a man of God. He was a predatory sex killer in preacher's clothing.

     In 1981, John White, then 24, choked and stabbed a 17-year-old girl in Battle Creek, Michigan. The victim survived and White was allowed to plead no contest to assault with intent to do great bodily harm. (In my view, the no contest plea should be abolished.) The judge sentenced White to five years in prison. Corrections authorities let White out on parole after he had served two years behind bars.

     John White and his wife, in 1994, were living in Comstock Township near Kalamazoo, Michigan. On July 11 of that year, 26-year-old Vicky Sue Wall was seen getting into White's pickup just before she disappeared. Shortly after Wall's relatives reported her missing, the 37-year-old violent sex offender checked himself into the Kalamazoo Regional Psychiatric Hospital. In September 1994, police found Vicky Sue Wall's badly decomposed body in the woods not far from her home. Arrested at the psychiatric facility, White admitted strangling the victim to death. The victim and White had had an affair, and she had threatened to tell his wife. So he killed her. (I doubt the police, once they had the confession, conducted an investigation to determine if this was, in reality, the motive for Wall's murder.)

     In the Vicky Sue Wall murder case, the authorities allowed White to strike a deal with the prosecutor. In return for his guilty plea to the ridiculous charge of involuntary manslaughter, the judge sentenced White to eight to fifteen years. At his May 1995 sentencing hearing, White told the judge that Vicky Sue Wall's death had been a "tragic accident." (How do you accidentally strangle someone to death? This judge must have been an idiot.) John White walked out of prison in 2007 after serving twelve years of his sentence. White's wife had divorced him.

     In 2012, Pastor John White was engaged to a woman in his congregation whose 24-year-old daughter--Rebekah Gay--lived a few doors from him in the mobile home park. Because White was a preacher engaged to her mother, Rebekah allowed him to watch her 3-year-old son. She had no idea this preacher watched necrophilia pornography and fantasized about having gruesome, perverted sex with her.

     On October 31, 2012, at six in the morning, John White entered Rebekah Gay's trailer, struck her in the head with a hard rubber mallet, then strangled her to death with a zip tie. After performing perverted sexual acts on Gay's body, White hauled her 5-foot-3, 118 pound corpse in his pickup to a ditch behind a stand of pine trees about a mile from the trailer park. It was there he dumped her body.

     After hiding his victim's corpse, White returned to his trailer where he cleaned himself and his truck with paper towels. He walked to Gay's dwelling, got into her car, and drove it to a nearby bar and parked it there. He had also tossed Gay's cellphone into a dumpster and threw away the rubber mallet. From the bar, White walked back to Gay's mobile home, dressed her son in his Halloween costume, then drove the boy to Mount Pleasant where, as prearranged, the boy's father picked him up for the day.

     Crime scene investigators processed the victim's trailer for physical clues and searched White's mobile home where they found the bloody towels and other incriminating evidence. When questioned by detectives with the Michigan State Police, John White confessed, then led the officers to Rebekah Gay's body.

     On November 1, 2012, John White was arraigned in an Isabella County District Court on the charge of first-degree murder. The judge denied him bail.

     The church member who had hired John White as pastor, said this to a reporter with The Detroit News: "He [White] was absolutely contrite. All kinds of people turn around and meet the Lord and they are a different person. He [White] was doing a lot of good in the community....He was doing a lot of good and Satan did not want him doing good, and Satan got to him."

     So, according to one of Pastor White's congregants, White's cold-blooded lust murder of Rebekah Gay was the devil's doing.

     In April 2013, White pleaded guilty to second-degree murder for killing Rebekah Gay. The judge sentenced him to 56 years and three months. On August 28, 2013, a prison guard at the Michigan Reformatory Correctional Institution in Ionia, found White dead in his cell. He had hanged himself.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Shawn Parcells: Forensic Imposter

     The history of forensic science is also the history of pseudoscience, phony experts, and bogus courtroom testimony. Fakes and charlatans have flourished in the fields of handwriting identification, DNA analysis, forensic toxicology, firearms identification, latent fingerprint analysis, blood spatter interpretation, and forensic pathology.

     These forensic pretenders work in our crime labs, police departments, coroners' and medical examiners' offices. They also practice as private consultants and independent contractors. Within the private sector, these experts from hell often charge less than their qualified counterparts and tailor their findings to meet the needs of the people paying their fees.

     Most forensic impersonators work in the shadows until they become involved in a celebrated case. Once in the public limelight, they are often exposed for who they are. That doesn't mean, however, that they slink, disgraced, into forensic oblivion. When the smoke clears, most of them return, with revised phony credentials, and continue to screw up the criminal justice system with their bogus work. They get away with this because in the U.S. there is very little oversight in forensic science.

Shawn Parcells

     Shawn Parcells, after graduating in 2003 with a degree in life science from Kansas State University, was accepted into a medical school in the Caribbean. He did not attend the school because he and his wife were expecting a baby. So, instead of becoming a physician and acquiring extra training in forensic pathology, Parcells started a company in Overland Park, Kansas called Regional Forensic Services.

     Mr. Parcells, calling himself a forensic pathologist's assistant, offered his services to police departments, coroners' offices and medical examiners' officers. He was not certified as a forensic pathology assistant because no such field is recognized within the forensic science profession.

     In Kansas and Missouri, Parcells testified in homicide trials as an expert witness on issues dealing with forensic cause of death. Even more disturbing, he performed autopsies without the presence or supervision of a real forensic pathologist.

     On his Linkedln page, Parcells claimed to be an adjunct professor at Washburn State University in Topeka, Kansas. He also claimed to have earned a master's degree from New York Chiropractic College. (Like that would qualify him to perform autopsies.)

     A deputy sheriff in Missouri claimed that Parcells held himself out to be a doctor. If true, this could comprise a criminal offense. Otherwise, the laws in Missouri and Kansas are not clear on whether it's legal for a person without a medical degree to perform an autopsy.

     In August 2014, in the wake of the Michael Brown police-involved shooting case in Ferguson, Missouri, Shawn Parcells came out of the shadows when he assisted Dr. Michael Baden perform an autopsy on Mr. Brown at the request of his family. (Dr. Baden is a world renowned forensic pathologist and Fox News contributor.)

     Following the Brown autopsy, Parcells made himself a TV authority on the 18-year-old's death by appearing on CNN, Fox News, and several other television networks. In watching those interviews, very few people would be under the impression that Dr. Baden's assistant was not a forensic pathologist. He came off as being quite authoritative on the subject of Michael Brown's shooting death.

     Parcells' media exposure ultimately led to an investigation by CNN regarding his credentials as a cause of death expert. On November 24, 2014, Parcells sat for a television interview conducted by a CNN correspondent. He admitted having performed autopsies on his own, and when asked how he had acquired his expertise, he said, "by watching pathologists and assisting them at various morgues." Some times he was paid, other times not, he said.

     Parcells, when asked about his master's degree from the chiropractic school, said he couldn't produce the diploma because it had not arrived in the mail. According to the CNN interviewer, when an inquiry was made at Washburn State University regarding his adjunct professorship, a spokesperson for the school said he "is not now and has never been a member of the Washburn University faculty." According to the school official, Parcells had once spoken to two groups of nursing students about the role of a forensic pathologist's assistant. He was not paid for his presentation.

     Had the 32-year-old forensic practitioner remained on the fringes of forensic pathology in Missouri and Kansas, he would not have become the subject of a minor forensic and media scandal. 

Friday, August 26, 2016

The Rebecca Bryan Murder Case

     In 2011, Rebecca "Becky" Bryan, a 51-year-old real estate agent, lived in the Oklahoma City suburb of Mustang with her 53-year-old husband Keith. Keith Bryan, a firefighter since 1981, was chief of the fire department in Nichols Hill, an affluent town north of Oklahoma City. The couple had two grown sons.

     In January 2010, Becky filed for a divorce but didn't follow through with the process. Unhappy in her marriage, she was having an affair with a married man she had met in 2009 at a real estate conference. The two had talked about having a new life together. In early September 2011, Becky texted a message to a friend about inheriting, at some point in the near future, a large amount of money that would allow her to move to another part of the state.

     On Tuesday night, September 20, 2011, Becky Bryan called 911 to report the shooting of her husband by an intruder. To officers with the Mustang Police Department, Becky described her horrific experience. She and Keith had been sitting on their living room couch watching television when a hooded man in his 20s or 30s entered the house through the garage door and shot her husband, from point-blank range, in the back of the head. The victim never knew what hit him.

     According to Becky, after the intruder shot Keith, he told her that Kieth should have hired him at the fire department. The blond-haired man left the dwelling the way he had entered. He drove from the house in a pickup truck Becky described in detail.

     Keith Bryan died a few hours later at a nearby hospital. On her way to that hospital with a friend, Becky showed the acquaintance a cellphone photograph she had taken that day of her lover's genitals. The friend, stunned by Becky's demeanor, chalked it up to stress. The authorities feared that a madman was on the loose with a grudge against the Nichols Hill Fire Department.

     Detectives, pursuant to routine homicide investigation protocol, swabbed Becky's hands for traces of gun powder. According to the gunshot residue analysis, she had recently fired a gun with her left hand.

     Just hours after the murder, detectives searched the Bryan house. In the clothes dryer, officers found, wrapped in a lap blanket, a .380-caliber Ruger LCP handgun, a spent shell casing, and a left hand rubber glove. (The glove would test positive for gunshot residue.) The blanket contained four bullet holes. Investigators theorized that the killer had used the folded blanket to shield himself or herself from the victim's blood. It tested positive for gunshot residue as well. Detectives noted that the utility room that housed the clothes dryer was not along the path the intruder would have taken out of the dwelling.

     Between the mattress and the box springs in the master bedroom, detectives found the box the Ruger  pistol had come in as well as a box of .380-caliber rounds. A state firearms identification expert identified the Ruger found in the dryer as the gun that had fired the fatal bullet.

     On September 23, 2011, just three days after Becky Bryan informed the police that an intruder had shot her husband, a county prosecutor charged her with first-degree murder. Detectives arrested Becky early that afternoon at the hotel where she was staying. Booked into the county jail in El Reno, and denied bond, the suspect continued to claim that her husband Keith had been murdered by a hooded man.

     The Bryan murder trial began on May 16, 2013 before Judge Gary E. Miller. Assistant District Attorney Paul Hesse believed he could prove, circumstantially with the physical evidence--the blanket, the rubber glove, the .380-caliber handgun identified as the murder weapon, and the gunshot residue on the defendant's left hand--her guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The prosecutor also had a motive: life insurance and a new start with a lover. Blessed with motive and physical evidence linking Becky to the murder, the prosecutor didn't need an eyewitness or a confession. The evidence was circumstantial, but solid.

     After two days of scientific testimony from the medical examiner--a firearms identification expert, an analyst who connected the defendant to the rubber glove through DNA, and a blood spatter specialist who explained the purpose of the blanket found in the dryer--prosecutor Hesse had proven the state's case. For final measure he put on several witnesses on the stand who provided details regarding the defendant's extramarital sexual activities.

     Defense attorney Gary James, without much to work with, tried to keep the intruder theory alive in the minds of the jurors. He presented several character witness from the ranks of the defendant's social circle and family. Her brother testified that "Becky has always been a person who helped people. She was the person who would pick up a wounded puppy." On cross-examination these defense witnesses had difficulty explaining and justifying the defendants inappropriate behavior just after the murder.

     The defense rested without putting Becky Bryan on the stand. Attorney James, in his closing remarks to the jury, tried to paint the detectives on the case as tunnel-visioned and sloppy. The attorney wondered why the crime scene investigator didn't process the clothes dryer for latent fingerprints to rule out an intruder. Moreover, he didn't understand why the police didn't review surveillance camera footage for images of a pickup truck that matched the description provided by his client.

     On May 21, 2013, less than a week after the Bryan trial began, the jury found the defendant guilty as charged. The jurors needed only four hours to come to that conclusion. After the verdict was read, attorney James hugged his client and said he was sorry. (The defense attorney was not responsible for the guilty verdict.) On July 9, 2013, Judge Miller, following Oklahoma law, sentenced Becky Bryan to life without parole.

   In March 2014, Rebecca Bryan filed an appeal citing the unconstitutional admission of certain evidence as well as ineffective counsel. She claimed she had been denied a fair trial. On December 12, 2014, justices with the Oklahoma Court of Appeals upheld the conviction.

     

Thursday, August 25, 2016

The Historic Cordelia Botkin Poison Murder Case

     In 1895, 30-year-old John P. Dunning and his wife Elizabeth Mary, the daughter of ex-congressman John Pennington of Dover, Delaware, were living in San Francisco. In September of that year, John, while riding his bicycle, spotted an attractive woman sitting on a park bench not far from his home. A few days later, he and his new acquaintance, Cordelia Botkin, a married woman estranged from her husband in Stockton, California, started an affair. During the next two years, John Dunning was a frequent visitor to Botkin's house on Geary Street.

     While cheating on his wife, John Dunning began to drink and lose money at the racetrack. In early 1898, his employer, suspecting that Dunning had been embezzling company money, fired him. Because John could no long support his family, Elizabeth Dunning and her daughter returned to Dover to live with her parents. With his wife and daughter back in Delaware, John was free to move in with Cordelia Botkin who now resided at the Victoria Hotel on Hyde Street.

     Two months after he moved in with his mistress, Dunning landed a newspaper job covering the Spanish-American war. As a result, he would be traveling to Cuba and Puerto Rico. Before leaving San Francisco, Dunning broke the news to Cordelia that he missed his wife and daughter. The affair, he said, was over. Cordelia did not take this news very well. As far as she was concerned, the affair was not over, not by a long shot.

     Back in Dover, Delaware, in the summer of 1898, Mrs. Dunning began receiving anonymous letters mailed from San Francisco that referred to her husband's affair with an "interesting and pretty woman." The letters were signed, "A Friend." That August, someone in San Francisco sent Mrs. Dunning a Cambric handkerchief and a box of chocolates. The note accompanying the gift was signed, "With love to yourself and baby, Mrs. C."

     On August 9, 1898, after dinner at the Pennington home, Elizabeth passed the mystery box of bonbons to family and friends gathered that evening on the front porch. The group of four adults and three children included Mrs. Dunning's sister, Leila Deane and Mrs. Dunning's daughter Mary. Mrs. Dunning and her sister helped themselves to the chocolates, and later in the evening became violently ill.

     Eleven days after the candy arrived in the mail from San Francisco, Leila Deane died. The next day, Mrs. Dunning passed away. The presumed causes of their deaths: cholera morbus, a common ailment in the era before refrigeration. John Dunning, still overseas when he received the news, arrived back in Dover ten days later. When his father-in-law showed him the anonymous letters, including the note that had accompanied the candy, Dunning simply said, "Cordelia."

     Mr. Pennington, the father of the dead women, had the uneaten chocolates analyzed by a chemist who worked for the state. The chemist reported that some of the remaining bonbons had been spiked with arsenic. Mrs. Dunning and her sister had not been autopsied because the treating physician believed that the victims' prolonged vomiting had cleansed their bodies of the poison. Had the science of toxicology existed in 1898, a forensic pathologist would have known that although arsenic, a heavy metal poison, is excreted from the damaged cells, traces are sequestered in the victim's bones, fingernails, and hair follicles.

     The discovery of the poison in the candy prompted a coroner's inquest. When presented with the facts of the case, the coroner's jury ruled that the two women had been poisoned to death by arsenic-laced chocolate mailed from San Francisco.

     Although the deaths had occurred in Dover, the authorities in Delaware requested that the case be investigated by the San Francisco Police Department. The man who would conduct the investigation, I. W. Lees, had been appointed chief of police the previous year. Convinced that she would confess under pressure, Lees arrested Cordelia Botkin for the murders of the two Delaware women. When she vehemently maintained her innocence, Chief Lees was forced to make the case the hard way. He traced the arsenic to the Owl Drug Store on Market Street where a clerk said he had sold the poison to a woman meeting the suspect's description. Lees also questioned a Botkin acquaintance who told him that the suspect had expressed concern about having to sign her name when purchasing arsenic. The acquaintance had assured Botkin that she would not be required to sign for the purchase. Chief Lees also spoke to a physician who had been asked by Cordelia Botkin to describe the effects of various poisons on the human body.

     A search of Cordelia Botkin's room at the Victoria Hotel produced wrapping paper that matched the paper that had enclosed the box of poisoned chocolates. To identify the handwriting associated with the case, Chief Lees engaged the services of San Francisco's Daniel T. Ames, one of the most respected questioned document examiners in the country. When Ames analyzed and compared samples of Mrs. Botkin's handwriting with the questioned writings, he reported that Cordelia Botkin had written the letters, and had addressed the deadly package. Two other document examiners, Carl Eisenschimel and Theodore Kytka, after examining the evidence, agreed with Ames' conclusion.

     Amid intense media coverage, the Cordelia Botkin murder trial got underway in early December 1898. After the prosecution put on its case which featured the three questioned document examiners, the defense had no choice but to put the defendant on the stand. Botkin did not deny buying arsenic in June of that year, explaining that she had used the poison to clean a straw hat. Moreover, the arsenic she had purchased was powdered while the arsenic in the candy was crystalline. Following Botkin's direct testimony and cross-examination, the defense rested.

     After four hours of deliberation, the jury returned a verdict of guilty. Because the case against her was circumstantial, and juries didn't like to send women to the gallows, the jurors recommended a sentence of life in prison. Instead of serving her time in San Quentin, the judge sent her to the county jail in San Francisco where, in exchange for sexual favors, Cordelia would come and go as she pleased. A few months after sentencing her, the judge saw Cordelia shopping in downtown San Francisco.

     While Cordelia Botkin shopped in San Francisco, her attorney appealed her conviction on a procedural issue. An appellate court overturned the conviction which led to a second trial in 1904. Once again, on the strength of the handwriting evidence, a jury found her guilty. After the earthquake of 1906 destroyed the county jail, Botkin was sent to San Quentin. On March 7, at the age of 56, she died in prison of "softening of the brain due to melancholy."        

Friday, August 19, 2016

The Butt-Fired Bottle Rocket Case

     The fireworks began at one-thirty in the morning of May 1, 2011 at the Alpha Tau Omega (ATO) fraternity house not far from the campus of Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia. During the house party, Travis Hughes launched, from the frat house deck, a bottle rocket (a fireworks product on the end of a stick) out of his ass. (If I had to guess, I'd peg this kid as a criminal justice or elementary education major.) The rocket man's startled fraternity brother, Louis Helmburg III, jumped back and fell off the frat house deck. According to Helmburg's account of the incident, he ended up lodged between the deck and an air conditioning unit. Both students had been drinking.

     Not long after the fireworks display, the injured student's attorney filed a personal injury lawsuit against the university, the fraternity, the Marshall University inter-fraternity council, the company that owns the fraternity property, and Travis Hughes, the human rocket launcher. The plaintiff asserts that the ATO fraternity was negligent in failing to install a deck railing. As for defendant Hughes, his consumption of alcohol had led to "stupid and dangerous activities." (Hey, don't blame the booze. How many drunks can fire rockets out of their butts? Someday this skill could become an Olympic sport. It certainly would be more exciting than the shot put and could take place at night.)

     In June 2013, a judge dismissed the suit against Marshall University on grounds the plaintiff failed to follow in-house procedures for bringing such an action. The rest of the case, however, stood.

     Given the humorous facts underlying this suit, it appeared frivolous. The outcome, however, would depend on whether or not the fraternity house deck, because it didn't have a railing, was unsafe. Assuming that it was safe, there was still the question of whether the frat boy's ass-launch made him civilly liable for the student's tumble off the platform.

     On November 4, 2013, the plaintiff, through Huntington attorney Thomas P. Rosinsky, a slip-and-fall lawyer who also handled dog bite, DUI, car repossession and drug cases, settled the case with the company that owned the fraternity house. The amount of the settlement was not disclosed. If Louis Helmberg III paid a price for winning his case, it was that he would become the butt of every butt joke known to man.

     Travis Hughes, the bottle rocket butt-launcher, now works for NASA. (Just kidding.)

     

Thursday, August 18, 2016

The Woman in the Freezer: Who Killed Maria Arroyo?

     In July 2010, a family member found 80-year-old Maria de Jesus Arroyo unconscious in her Boyle Heights home in Los Angeles. At the White Memorial Medical Centre, an emergency room doctor declared Arroyo dead from a heart attack.

     A few days later, Arroyo's body was taken out of the hospital freezer and transported to a funeral home where it would be on display. When the mortician zipped open the body bag, he found the corpse uncharacteristically face down in the postmortem container. Moreover, the frozen woman's nose had been broken, and her face was covered in cuts and bruises. Family members who had seen Mrs. Arroyo just before the ambulance rushed her to the hospital hadn't noticed any injuries. They assumed that hospital personnel had in some way mishandled the body.

     Mrs. Arroyo's husband and eight of their children filed a lawsuit against the White Memorial Medical Centre alleging abuse of corpse. In December 2011, at a hearing pertaining to the suit, Dr. William Manion, a forensic pathologist hired by the family, testified that Mrs. Arroyo had not died of a heart attack.

     It was Dr. Manion's opinion that Mrs. Arroyo had died from asphyxiation and hypothermia. In other words, hospital personnel had put a body bag containing a live person into the hospital freezer. Mrs. Arroyo had regained consciousness inside the bag and struggled to get out. In so doing, she broke her nose and cut and bruised her face. If this were true, this woman had undergone a terrifying death. Instead of saving her life, hospital personnel had killed her in a most horrible way.

     In May 2012, the Arroyo family attorney, Scott Schutzman, upgraded the lawsuit against the hospital to medical malpractice. (If Mrs. Arroyo had in fact died in the hospital morgue freezer, some of the people responsible for her ending up there could also face charges of negligent homicide. According to Dr. Manion, this had not been a natural death.

     In 2013, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge threw out the Arroyo lawsuit because the one year statute of limitations for malpractice suits had run out before the case had been filed. The Arroyo family appealed that decision.

     In March 2014, justices sitting on the California 2nd District Court of Appeal overturned the lower court ruling. The one year statute of limitations did not start running in this case until the plaintiffs learned that Mrs. Arroyo might have gone into the hospital freezer alive. According to the appellate judges, the family had no reason to suspect Mrs. Arroyo had died after being placed into the body bag. The Arroyo lawsuit, therefore, could move forward.

     As of August 2016, the Arroyo medical practice lawsuit remained unresolved. No criminal charges have been filed in connection with the 80-year-old woman's unexplained, mysterious, and suspicious death. 

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The Emmanuel Rangel-Hernandez Murder Case

     In 2001, 5-year-old Mirjana Puhar and her family, in the midst of the Kosovo War, fled to the United States from their home in Stremska Mitrovica, Serbia. The family settled in Charlotte, North Carolina where Mr. Puhar worked as an electrician.

     Mirjana, in the middle of her sophomore year in high school, dropped out. She had been hanging around with the wrong crowd and had gotten involved with drugs.

     At eighteen, Mirjana started to turn her life around by enrolling in a GED program at Central Piedmont Community College. Around this time she became seriously interested in starting a modeling career. She acquired local modeling jobs and worked part time jobs at McDonald's. She also worked in several retail clothing stores as a sales clerk. In the fall of 2013, she earned her high school degree.

     Puhar's first big break in modeling came when she was selected as one of 14 contestants on the television reality show "America's Next Top Model" hosted by Tyra Banks. The 21st cycle of the show premiered on August 18, 2014. (It had been filmed in March and April of that year.)

     Before Mirjana Puhar was eliminated from the TV modeling contest on October 21, 2014, she had an on-screen romantic relationship with a fellow contestant named Denzel Wells. The show featured the fact she, at that time, had a boyfriend back home. That situation defined her character on the program. She finished eighth in the competition.

     On Tuesday February 24, 2015, in a one-story house on Norris Avenue in Charlotte, police officers discovered the bodies of three people who had been shot to death. Mirjana Puhar was one of the murder victims. The other corpses belonged to Jonathan Cosme Alvardado and Jusmar Isiah Gonzaga-Garcia. Investigators believed the triple murder was drug related.

     Police officers, on Friday February 27, 2015, arrested 19-year-old Emmanuel Jesus Rangel-Hernandez and booked him into the Mecklenburg County Jail on three counts of first-degree murder in the case. According to the authorities, Rangel-Hernandez was a known gang member with a history of violent crime.

     It also appeared that Rangel-Hernandez, as an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, had applied for and had been granted immunity in 2012 under President Obama's executive order-created program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Under this program, children brought to the U.S. by illegal alien parents can not be deported. Moreover, they are entitled to government benefits.

     The triple murder in Charlotte involving the aspiring model and the gang member who had been granted DACA status raised the obvious question of why this man, instead of gaining amnesty, hadn't been deported.

     On the day of the murder suspect's arrest, U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley, the head of the Senate Judiciary Committee, wrote a letter to the secretary of the Homeland Security Department asking for documents related to Rangel-Hernandez's immigration status and his application for DACA immunity from deportation.

     On April 28, 2015, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeb Johnson admitted to members of Senator Grassley's Homeland Security Committee that Rangel-Hernandez "should not have received DACA." The head of Homeland Security also said that notwithstanding this "tragic case," DACA was a good program. Pressed by Senator Grassley who wanted to know how Rangel-Hernandez acquired immunity under Obama's program, Secretary Johnson said, "the entire workforce that deals with these cases has been re-trained to make sure they identify trouble signs, such as suspected membership in criminal gangs."

     The Rangel-Hernandez case is yet another example of why most Americans no longer trust that government bureaucrats will protect them.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

The Brett Seacat Arson-Murder Case

     In 2011, 35-year-old Brett Seacat, a police instructor at the Kansas Law Enforcement Training Center, lived with his wife Vashti and their two boys, aged two and four, in Kingman, Kansas. During the early morning hours of April 30, 2011, a fire broke out in the Seacat house in the small south central Kansas town of three thousand. Brett and the boys got out of the dwelling unharmed. Vashti Seacat, found by firefighters in her bed with a bullet in her brain, did not.

     According to Brett Seacat, he had been sleeping on the living room couch when, during the middle of the night, his wife called him on her cellphone from the master bedroom with instructions to get the boys out of the house. He ran upstairs to find the master bedroom on fire. When Brett lifted his wife from the bed, her body was limp, and she was bleeding from a bullet wound to her head. Because the room was breaking out in flames, Brett left his wife and rushed to save the boys.

     Arson investigators determined that someone used gasoline as an accelerant to set fires at several points of origin in the Seacat master bedroom. Criminal investigators with the Kansas Bureau of Investigation (KBI) assumed that the arsonist had shot the victim in the head before torching the house. Since the Seacats were in the midst of a divorce, suspicion immediately fell upon Brett Seacat as the arson-murderer.

     On May 12, 2011, two agents with the KBI interrogated Brett Seacat at the Reno County Sheriff's Office. The session lasted seven hours during which time the suspect admitted that he had purchased software to track his wife's text messages and her GPS location. He told his questioners that he had threatened to move out of the house with the boys if his wife proceeded with the divorce. The day before her death, Vashti had served her husband with the divorce papers.

     During the interrogation, Seacat also conceded that on the day before his wife's sudden and violent death, he was in his office at the training center destroying computer hard drives. He said he understood why the investigators considered him a suspect in his wife's death and the arson, but insisted that she had set the fire before shooting herself in the head. According to the suspect, this was an arson-suicide case, not an arson-murder.

     In describing his discovery of the fire and his wife's body, Seacat said, "I remember hearing my own voice inside my head saying, 'dead.' Then all of a sudden it sort of came to me, 'dead, fire,
kids.' "

     In the course of the prolonged interrogation (the suspect was not under arrest), Seacat showed no emotion, and on several occasions laughed with his questioners. The KBI agents made it clear they didn't think Seacat's account of that night made any sense. Why would Vashti risk her children's lives by setting the fire, calling him on the phone, then climbing into bed, pulling up the covers, and shooting herself in the head? Moreover, Brett had no traces of soot from the fire, or blood from his wife, on his clothing. The suspect responded to this by saying: "I'm with you on that. It doesn't make sense at all."

     Agents with the KBI, on Friday, May 14, 2011, arrested Brett Seacat on charges of first-degree murder, aggravated arson, and two counts of child endangerment. A magistrate set his bail at $1 million.

     On May 23, 2013, the Seacat murder trial got underway at the Kingman County Court House in the town of Kingman. Following the opening statements by the attorneys on both sides of the case, the state began presenting its evidence with testimony from the medical examiner, arson investigators, and the KBI agents who had interrogated the defendant in May of 2011.

     On May 30, 2013, the state put Karen Roberts on the stand. Roberts, who worked with the defendant at the Kansas Law Enforcement Training Center, testified that on the day before Vashti Seacat's death, the defendant had asked for an overhead projector to be pulled out of storage. According to the witness, Seacat spent the entire day locked into his office. (According to prosecutors, the last handwritten entry in the victim's journal, a message suggesting suicide, had been forged. Pursuant to this theory, Seacat had used the overhead projector to practice writing in his wife's hand. Seacat claimed that he needed the device in connection with a fraud investigation he was conducting.)

     KBI forensic scientist Chris Riddle, on May 31, 2013, testified that he had found traces of gasoline on the defendant's trousers. A state forensic document examiner revealed that the last entry in Vashti's journal was not in her handwriting. The expert could not, however, identify the defendant as the forger.

     Joy Trotnic, one of Vashti Seacat's co-workers, took the stand and said that on the day before her death, Vashti had expressed concern that her estranged husband would not move out of the house as promised. "Do you think Brett would burn down the house with me in it?" she asked.

     Connie Suderman, the Seacat marriage counselor, told the jurors that the defendant had called her shortly after Vashti's death. According to this witness, he said, "I killed her. Vashti is dead and it's my fault." In describing her conversation with the defendant that day, the therapist said, "I wouldn't say in hearing his voice that I thought he was distressed in any way. He was quite calm. I didn't hear sadness. I didn't hear tearfulness or crying or expressions of surprise or horror or words of exhaustion."

     According to the marriage counselor, Vashti Seacat had indicated that her husband "wasn't doing well" with the pending divorce. "She [Vashti] told me that he [the defendant] had awakened her from her sleep and told her that he had a dream that he had killed her.

     On June 6, 2013, after the prosecution rested its case, defense attorney Roger Falk put his client on the stand. The defendant explained that he had melted two laptop hard drives after he had arrived at work that day to protect against identity theft. He said he had planned to sell the computers. During his testimony, the defendant spoke with ease, and occasionally smiled at the jurors. While portraying himself as a loving husband and father, the defendant admitted that he had threatened to expose his wife's alleged affairs, wreck her career, and take away her sons if she divorced him.

     An expert witness named Gene Gietzen testified for the defense that the pair of trousers the defendant had been wearing on the day in question had been improperly packaged by a KBI arson investigator. As a result, this evidence could have been contaminated.

     On Monday, June 10, 2013, the prosecutor and the defense attorney made their closing arguments to the jury of five men and eight women. The next day, the jury returned its verdict: guilty of all charges. At Seacat's sentencing hearing on August 5, 2013, the judge sentenced Seacat to life in prison.

     

Monday, August 8, 2016

Where is Tiffany Michelle Whitton?

     On March 7, 2011, 25-year-old Tiffany Michelle Whitton, a resident of Marietta, Georgia within the Atlanta metropolitan region, showed up in Dalton, Georgia with two other women and a man named Matthew Stone. That night, Tiffany, Tracy Chambers, Casey Renee Cantrell, and Matthew Stone broke into a woman's house and terrorized her with a tire iron. The victim managed to lock herself into the bathroom and call 911. Before fleeing the dwelling, Tiffany and her crew stole the woman's purse that had been lying on the couch. It contained $60.

     When questioned by detectives, Tiffany claimed the owner of the purse owed her money. She and her friends had gone to the house to collect what was hers. Investigators suspected that the victim and the four intruders had been in a drug deal. Tiffany, a user of illicit drugs, had paid the woman for pills, and when the supplier didn't deliver the goods, Tiffany and her friends raided the house to get her money back.

     A prosecutor charged Tiffany and her accomplices with armed robbery, burglary, and possession and use of drug-related objects. Following her guilty plea, the judge gave Tiffany a probated sentence.

     Tiffany, a former Hooter's waitress in Kennesaw, a suburban community north of Atlanta, disappeared on September 13, 2013. The mother of a 6-year-old daughter was last seen at two in the morning in the parking lot of a Walmart store not far from her home in Marietta, Georgia. Since that night she has not made contact with family members or friends. She was last seen with her boyfriend, Ashley Caudle. (A few weeks after Tiffany Whitton's disappearance, police arrested Caudle in a meth raid at his mother's house where he lived.)

     The missing woman's mother created a Facebook page called "Find Tiffany Whitton."

     On February 20, 2014, Marietta police officer David Baldwin, in referring to the multi-tattooed, five-foot-two-inch, 100-pound Whitton, said, "What really worries us is that she literally vanished without a trace."

     In July 2014, detectives executed a search warrant at Caudle's mother's house in Marietta where workman dug up her back yard looking for Tiffany Whitton's remains. The searchers came up empty handed.

     So, what could have happened to Tiffany Whitton? She could have run off to start a new life. However, because of her daughter, that didn't seem likely. It was also unlikely that some abductor was holding her captive. If dead, she could have killed herself in some remote location, or accidentally overdosed on drugs. If none of these events took place, someone may have murdered her. As a drug abuser, Tiffany rubbed shoulders with unsavory and dangerous people. Did she fail to pay a drug dealer? Did her criminal associates come to believe that she was a snitch?

     If Tiffany Whitton was murdered, her case will not move forward until someone who knows something about her disappearance calls the police, or someone stumbles upon her body. Finding a person who is dead is a lot more difficult than finding someone who is alive. Moreover, where do you even begin to look for a corpse?

     As of August 2016, Whitton's whereabouts remain unknown. There have been no arrests in the case.
     

Saturday, August 6, 2016

The David Hilder Murder Case

     On July 3, 2012, a group of foreign students on holiday in Southsea England, a resort town on the English Channel, made a gruesome discovery on the rocks of Portsmouth Beach. They stumbled upon what turned out to be a torso wrapped in a pink shower curtain stuffed inside a plastic bin. Three days later, police officer found a pair of legs at another spot on the beach.

     While the Home Office forensic pathologist could not determine the exact cause of death in this case, marks on the torso suggested that the male victim had suffered a "sustained and violent assault sometime between June 30 and July 3, 2013." The authorities identified the remains as belonging to 30-year-old David Guy, a Southsea man who lived in a camper van and spent a lot of time in the nearby flat of a friend, David Hilder. According to residents of the area, David Guy, when sober, was polite and helpful. When intoxicated, he became violent.

     The dismembered man's longtime friend, David Hilder, collected and sold scrap metal. He rode around on a bicycle equipped with a butcher's box affixed to the handlebars. Witnesses had seen a man on such a bike in the vicinity of the torso dump site.

   On July 5, 2013, David Hilder showed up at the Shoreham police station where he spoke to police constable Stephen Miles. "I need to speak to a copper," Hilder said. "I think I have killed someone." The dirty, disheveled man, known as "Big Dave," seemed confused.

     "What happened," asked PC Miles.

     "I do not know. I'm not sure what I have done." Hilder told the officer he was having flashbacks of the crime he may have committed. "If I have done what I think I've done, then I'm going to kill myself."

     "What do you think you have done?"

     "I don't know," came the reply.

     Police officers conducted a search of Hilder's flat and didn't find anything suspicious. When advised of this, Hilder seemed relieved. Noting that he may have overdosed on the drug Nurofen, Hilder said, "It must have been all in my head then."

     A police officer drove Hilder to a nearby hospital where he was examined and discharged. The officer put him on a train back to his apartment on Richmond Road in Southsea.

     Further investigation of the relationship between "Big Dave" Hilder and "Little Dave" Guy revealed a history of violence. Guy frequently accepted food from Hilder and showered in his flat. In return, he was supposed to take care of Hilder's cat, Tinker. When Hilder returned home to find his place a mess and Tinker neglected, he'd punish Mr. Guy with a beating. In recent weeks the two men had been arguing over Mr. Guy's new relationship with another man.

     Police officers, on July 8, 2012, placed David Hilder under arrest for killing David Guy. The suspect denied having anything to do with his friend's death or dismemberment.

     David Hilder's trial got underway in the Winchester Crown Court exactly one year after the discovery of Mr. Guy's torso on the Southsea beach. The defendant stood accused of murder and the lesser offense of manslaughter. In his opening statement to the jury, Nigel Lickley with the Crown Prosecution Service, called the murder "painstaking and deliberate." According to the prosecutor, the defendant had used his bicycle to dispose of Mr. Guy's body parts. (The victim's head, arms, several internal organs, and his genitals had not been found.) Prosecutor Lickley, in referring to the killing and dismemberment said, "It took time, it took clarity of thought, and it took planning."

     Detective Superintendent Dick Pearson of the Hampshire County Constabulary took the stand for the prosecution and described how he collected cat hair follicles from the pink shower curtain that had been wrapped around Mr. Guy's torso. The Hampshire police sent these samples to the United States where they were visually compared to follicles from 493 American cats. The English samples did not look like any of the hairs from the U. S. cat follicle collection. (The death scene hair did look like Tinker's.)

     English scientists at Leicester University's Department of Genetics compared DNA extracted from Tinker's known hair with the DNA of 152 cats from Southsea and other parts of Hampshire County. Tinker's DNA did not match the DNA from any of the hairs from the 152-cat database. When the DNA from the shower curtain hairs were compared to the DNA of Tinker's known samples, the scientists concluded there was only a one in one-hundred chance that the death scene hairs had not come from the defendant's cat. (DNA in cats is less specific that in humans.)

     Dr. Jon Wetton, the scientist who led the University of Leicester's DNA project, took the stand for the prosecution. Dr. Wetton, who had done similar work on dog DNA, said, "This is the first time cat DNA has been used in a criminal trial in the UK. This could be a real boon for forensic science as the 10 million cats in the UK are unwittingly tagging the clothes and furnishings in more than a quarter of households. Animal DNA offers a way of linking people to places and items though the transfer of their pets' hairs."

     David Hilder's attorney, without much to work with, emphasized his clients low IQ (63) and his learning disability. The defendant also suffered from severe depression.

     On July 30, 2013, the jury acquitted David Hilder of murder, but found him guilty of the lesser crime of manslaughter. Justice David Bean sentenced Hilder to serve a minimum of twelve years in prison. He had been incriminated by his beloved cat.

   

Friday, August 5, 2016

The Adam Kaufman "Spray Tan" Murder Case

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     Dr. Bruce Hyma re-took the stand on May 2, 2012 to explain why it had taken 18 months to declare Lina Kaufman's cause and manner of death as a strangulation homicide. The forensic pathologist attributed this passage of time to a delayed toxicological report and the fact he wanted to be sure he made the right call. On cross-examination, the defense attorney accused the medical examiner of caving in to pressure from the prosecutor to declare Lina Kaufman's death a homicide.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     On May 31, 2012, because the defense had portrayed the Kaufman marriage as blissful, Judge Miller allowed the prosecution to put Fara Corenblum, a rebuttal witness, on the stand. According to Corenblum, she and the defendant started an affair a month after Lina's death. The witness said she ended the twice-a-week relationship after she realized he was not ready to move on following his wife's death. For the prosecution, Corenblum's testimony, by casting a sympathetic light on the defendant, may have done more harm than good.

     Both sides made their closing arguments on Monday, June 4, 2012. The next day, the case went to the jury. At five o'clock that evening the jury returned with its verdict: not guilty.

    

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

The James Pepe Murder-For-Hire Case

     James J. Pepe taught high school history in the Hillsborough County, Florida school system. For years he had been an erratic, difficult employee who frightened a lot of his follow teachers. In 2001, a faculty member characterized Pepe as "hostile," "aggressive," and "extremely volatile." During this period, James Pepe called his principal a "pathological liar," and bragged to people that school administrators were powerless to take action against him. Had this disgruntled, disruptive employee worked in the private sector, he would have been fired.

     In dealing with this potentially dangerous and out of control educator, the Hillsborough County school superintendent decided against termination. Instead, the boss suspended Mr. Pepe with pay, recommended anger management counseling, then reassigned him to another school. (In teacher pedophile cases, they call this passing the trash.) Over the next few years, as Pepe's behavior became more bizarre, paranoid, and bellicose, he was transferred three more times. At one of the schools this history teacher disrupted, Pepe accused the principal of assigning him the worst students. He also accused the maintenance staff of turning off the air-conditioning to his classroom. (Given the passive-aggressive nature of public school employee discipline, this might be true. As they say, even a paranoid can be persecuted. Maybe school administrators were trying to encourage this pain-in-the-neck teacher to quit.)

     In 2012, James Pepe was teaching and causing trouble at Bloomingdale High School near Tampa, his fifth assignment in the Hillsborough County school system. (Mr. Pepe, a disfunctional teacher, was pulling down $58,000 a year plus benefits.) In recent months, he had focused his paranoia on a 59-year-old economics teacher who also taught at Strawberry Crest High School. Pepe had convinced himself that Robert Meredith was the source of all his problems. More specifically, the unstable teacher harbored the false notion that Mr. Meredith, his former colleague and friend, was spreading rumors that Pepe was a child molester.

     In August 2012, the 55-year-old history teacher reached out to a childhood friend for help. Pepe came right to the point--would this person murder Robert Meredith for $5,000? The stunned friend, who said he would think about the homicidal proposal, immediately reported the murder solicitation to the Plant City Police Department. There was no doubt in the friend's mind that Mr. Pepe was dead serious in his desire to have Mr. Meredith killed.

     The police asked the teacher's friend to call Pepe back and say that while he wasn't interested in committing murder, he had found a man who would do the job. The "hitman," of course, would be an undercover cop.

     The undercover officer, in mid-September 2012, spoke with James Pepe by phone. During that conversation, the teacher said he "had an issue he might need taken care of for $2,000." (While this seems a little cheap for a contract murder, had Pepe been talking to a real hitman, the price would have been about right. In the U.S. assassins are inexpensive and life is cheap.)

     In the second phone conversation between Pepe and the "hitman," the undercover officer tried to arrange a meeting. Pepe declined, but said, in no uncertain terms, that he wanted to have Robert Meredith murdered. This conversation, of course, was recorded.

     While the police in murder solicitation cases prefer to have audio and videotaped meetings (often in Walmart parking lots) in which the mastermind hands over the blood money, and provides the cop with helpful information regarding the target, the Plant City police, on September 27, 2012, took James Pepe into custody outside Bloomingdale High School.

     Charged with solicitation of first degree-murder, James Pepe was held without bond in the Hillsborough County Jail.

     On March 31, 2014, James Pepe pleaded guilty to solicitation of murder. The judge sentenced this murder-for-hire mastermind to house arrest for one year and 14 years of probation. This was, under the circumstances, an extremely lenient sentence. One would hope, at least, that the conviction ended Mr. Pepe's teaching career.