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Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Ryan Ferguson Murder Case: A Conviction Based on Perjured Testimony

     During the early morning hours of November 1, 2001, a person or persons attacked sports editor Kent Heitholt as he approached his car in the parking lot next to the Columbia Daily Tribune office in Columbia, Missouri. Around the time of the assault two young white men were seen in the vicinity. The attackers had beaten Mr. Heitholt with their fists then strangled him with his own belt. His watch had been stolen but his wallet was still in his car.

     In the months following the Heitholt murder, detectives with the Columbia Police Department ran down thousands of leads but came up empty handed. As time passed and the case remained unsolved, local criminal justice leaders felt building pressure to solve this brutal murder of a prominent citizen.

     In an act of investigative desperation, the authorities, in November 2003, published a composite police sketch of the two men seen near the newspaper office that night. (Police sketches are not only useless to crime investigators, they make things worse by generating false leads and false hopes of a case solution.)

     In March 2004, an anonymous caller to the crimestopper's hotline in Columbia reported that a 19-year-old local man named Chuck Erickson had been telling people that he may have been involved in the Heitholt murder.

     Chuck Erickson, in March 2004, had just come off a probated sentence related to a drug conviction. When Mr. Heitholt was beaten and strangled to death, Erickson would have been seventeen. Detectives assigned to the case were thrilled to have such a promising lead.

     At police headquarters, detectives put Erickson through an intense and prolonged interrogation that was only partially recorded. Erickson told his questioners that because one of the men depicted in the police sketches looked like him, he started wondering if maybe in a drug and alcohol blackout he had been involved in Mr. Heitholt's violent death. Perhaps he and his friend since childhood, Ryan Ferguson, had committed the murder. They had been drinking that night in a bar not far from the crime scene. Maybe they had robbed the newspaper man in order to keep drinking.

     Had the detectives grilling Erickson not been so desperate to solve the Heitholt case, they might have recognized several indications that Erickson and his friend were not good murder suspects. The robbery motive didn't hold water because Mr. Heitholt had been murdered one hour after the bars had closed that night. Moreover, Erickson had to be told that the victim had been strangled with his own belt, and shown exactly where in the parking lot Heitholt had been attacked.

     When detectives brought Ryan Ferguson in for questioning, he insisted that he had nothing to do with Mr. Heitholt's murder. He maintained that position throughout the interrogation. Not only did Ferguson strongly deny any involvement in the homicide, investigators didn't have a single piece of physical evidence linking him to the crime scene.

     Notwithstanding having nothing but the word of a former drug addict who had no memory of what he had done that night, detectives continued to press their case against both suspects.

     In the months that followed, Chuck Erickson, in return for the promise of a relatively light sentence, agreed to testify against his friend. This meant that Erickson's memory, colored by heavy coaching, would have to significantly improve. And of course it did.

     In October 2005, in Columbia, Missouri, Ryan Ferguson went on trial for the Heitholt murder. When prosecutor Kevin Crane put Chuck Erickson on the stand, he testified that he and the defendant had attacked the victim that night in the newspaper office parking lot. Prosecutor Crane also produced a witness, a janitor named Jerry Trump, who said he had seen Erickson and the defendant that night not far from the murder scene. For some reason Mr. Trump had waited several years before coming forward with his information.

     Two men--a drug addict with a remarkably improved memory, and a witness who came forward at the last minute--comprised the sum total of the prosecution's case. In the name of justice, the trial judge should have directed a not guilty verdict based on the fact the government had not carried its burden of proof. But instead, the case went to the jury and Ryan Ferguson was found guilty as charged. The judge sentenced him to forty years in prison.

     In 2010, Missouri's Western District appellate court heard arguments regarding the Ferguson conviction. While the justices questioned the star prosecution witness' credibility, they declined to rule on the case. Instead, the appeals court judges recommended that the case be reviewed before a different lower court judge.

     The lower court hearing on the Ferguson conviction took place in April 2012. At this proceeding Chuck Erickson admitted under oath that he had lied at Ferguson's murder trial to save his own skin. Jerry Trump, the prosecution's miracle witness, took the stand and confessed that he had committed perjury as well.

     The lower court review judge, after hearing from Erickson and Trump, ruled that Erickson's testimony at Ferguson's 2005 murder trial was indeed credible. In other words, he was telling the truth then but lying now. Although the janitor's testimony was not reliable, the judge said it was an inconsequential factor in Ferguson's conviction. (This judge must have been really stupid.)

     On January 13, 2013, the Ferguson legal team appealed the review judge's ruling. In September justices with the Western District Appeals Court considered the revised testimony of Chick Erickston and Jerry Trump. On November 5, 2013, the Missouri appeals court vacated Ryan Ferguson's murder conviction. After spending almost ten years behind bars, Mr. Ferguson was a free man.

     

Monday, May 30, 2016

The Dan Markel Murder-For-Hire Case

     Raised in Toronto, Canada by well-to-do parents, Dan Markel, in 1995, graduated from Harvard University with a degree in philosophy. Upon earning his undergraduate degree, he studied political philosophy at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and continued his studies at the University of Cambridge in England. In 2001, he graduated from Harvard University Law School.

     After practicing law in Washington, D.C., Markel, in 2005, joined the teaching staff at Florida Statue University Law School in Tallahassee. A year later, he married Wendi Adelson, a graduate of Brandeis University and the University of Miami Law School. After acquiring her law degree in 2005, Florida State University hired her to run their public outreach program. They were married in 2006.

     In 2010, Markel, now a tenured associate professor making $193,000 a year, resided with his wife and their two young sons in the upscale Betton Hills community in Tallahassee. He had become a renowned author, teacher and scholar in the field of retributive justice, the study of punishment in proportion to the crime. He also published a popular academic law blog called, "PrawlsBlawg" that helped recent law graduates find careers in the field.

     In January 2012, Professor Markel's life took a turn for the worse when his wife Wendi blindsided him with the news she wanted a divorce. Moreover, she wanted to take their sons, 3 and 5, with her to south Florida. This led to a bitter child custody battle. The divorce became final in September 2012.

      In 2012, Professor Markel became the target of derision on a blog called "Insidethelawschoolscam," a site devoted to the proposition that law schools, by promising applicants jobs in the field, were knowingly lying about the dwindling career opportunities in law. The followers of the blog were mostly recent law school graduates saddled with huge education debts and no prospects of finding positions in the field.

     Visitors and contributors to "Insidethelawschoolscam" idolized a like-minded University of Colorado law professor named Paul Campos. Campos and his admirers believed that law schools, through false advertising and misrepresentation, were swindling students.

     "Insidethelawschoolscams" enthusiasts considered Professor Markel and his blog part of the problem. In defending his good name, Markel began to engage his detractors by posting messages on the blog. In return, he received responses like this: "Do you have the empathy to compare the terror that goes through a 26-year-old's life when a student loan bill comes due and you can't pay it? When he can't even get a job at Walmart because the education you sold him under false pretenses is so worthless that it won't even advance his candidacy at retail? Now compare that terror, the terror of having your life and financial future pass before your eyes, to the minor annoyance you felt at having your "name" sullied. Get over yourself."

     Over time, name-calling on "Insidethelawschoolscam" turned to the posting of messages that caused Professor Markel to feel under threat of physical harm. He had become the face of the problem and the target of his detractors' wrath.

     Many of Professor Markel's FSU law students considered him abrasive, arrogant, and unhelpful. They complained online that they couldn't find him in his office. When they did find him he was difficult to talk to.

     The year 2012 had been a tough one for Dan Markel. He had been through a bitter divorce, had developed enemies in the blog world, and incurred the anger and frustration of some of his students. What had been a sweet life had turned sour.

     At eleven in the morning of July 18, 2014, Professor Markel pulled onto his driveway and into his garage while talking on his cellphone. The moment he stopped his vehicle, a person who had followed him into the garage shot the 41-year-old in the head through the driver's side window. The killer then drove off in a white or silver Toyota Prius-type vehicle.

     A Betton Hills neighbor heard the gun go off and called 911. When police and paramedics arrived at the scene, Markel was still alive. A few hours later, however, he died at a nearby hospital.

     Homicide detectives believed that the killing was not a random murder. The killer had marked the professor for death and had carried out the murder plot.

     On May 25, 2016, detectives with the Hallandale Beach Police Department arrested 34-year-old Sigredo Garcia for Markel's murder. Officers booked Garcia into the Broward County Jail on charges of first-degree murder and possession of cocaine. Garcia had a criminal history that included strong arm robbery and burglary.

     According to a police spokesperson, the murder of the law professor is being handled as a murder-for-hire case. Up to six more arrests in the case are anticipated. 

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Ethel Anderson: The Unrepentant Child Molester

     In 2011, Ethel Anderson, a 29-year-old teacher at the Mango Elementary School in suburban Seffner, Florida outside of Tampa, resided in Riverside with her husband and 5-year-old daughter. Anderson had recently been named the Diversity School Teacher of the Year.

     In December 2011, Teacher of the Year Anderson began tutoring a 12-year-old math student in her home. Over the next three months, she and the boy exchanged 230 pages of test messages in which she described, in vivid language, her lust for the child. Anderson also expressed her anxiety over feeling unattractive because of her weight. In these exchanges, the boy used the name Dirty Dan. No one reading this material would have guessed that Dirty Dan was a 12-year-old kid communicating with one of his public school teachers. The online exchange between teacher and student, while a bit puerile, was pretty raunchy.

     In February 2012, the teacher-student affair ended following a lover's spat. The angry kid got his revenge by telling his mom everything. It's hard to imagine what was going through the mother's mind when her son described receiving oral sex from a woman paid to teach him math. The couple, according to the boy, also simulated various sexual acts while fully clothed. The boy's tutor also fondled him.

     The mother, perhaps worried that school officials and police officers would take the teacher's word over her son's, confronted Anderson before alerting the authorities. During that meeting, the teacher admitted having an inappropriate relationship with the boy. The student's mom, having clandestinely audio-taped the conversation, went to the police with the evidence. (The mother may also have seen the texted messages between her son and Anderson.)

     Hillsborough County Assistant State Attorney Rita Peters, in March 2012, charged Ethel Anderson with nine counts of lewd and lascivious conduct with a child. Each count carried a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison. Following the teacher's arrest, the school suspended her without pay. Eight months later, Anderson resigned.

     The child molestation trial got underway in Tampa on September 18, 2013. The boy, now 14, took the stand for the prosecution. "I felt she was like my real girlfriend," he said. "She said I was her boyfriend and she loved me. I was thinking, 'I'm living a guy's dream...dating my teacher.' "

     According to the young prosecution witness, Anderson told him she planned to leave her husband because he wasn't a good father, and didn't communicate with her. As time went on, however, the student began having doubts about the relationship. "I'm dating a girl I'm in love with and she thinks of me as a kid. It didn't feel right."

     On the third and final day of the trial, defense attorney William Knight, in a bold move, put his client on the stand. Rather than plead some kind of emotional breakdown, drinking problem or addiction to drugs, the former school teacher denied having physical contact with the boy, essentially calling him a liar. Claiming that the 12-year-old had tried to instigate a sexual relationship, Anderson said, "He attempted, at one point, to grab me in an inappropriate manner. He attempted to kiss me and I pushed him off."

     Regarding her sexually vivid text messages, the defendant said they were nothing more than "sexual therapy" tools to get the boy to focus on his studies. "I recognize it was explicit and inappropriate, but it was all fantasy," she said. "He was going through puberty. He couldn't connect with his family. He was always thinking sexually. My purpose was to get his attention."

     Prosecutor Peters, in a blistering cross-examination of the defendant, asked, "You want the jury to believe that you were in fantasyland to help the boy? Was that part of your training as a teacher? So by giving in to these sexual fantasies he did better in school?"

     "Sometimes, yes," Anderson replied.

     Defense attorney Knight, in his closing remarks to the jury, pointed out that the prosecution had not presented one piece of physical evidence proving any kind of sexual contact between his client and the student.

     When it came her turn to address the jury, the prosecutor called the former teacher's attempt to explain herself "remarkable," and "amazing in its audacity." The state attorney told the jurors that "everything the defendant told you defies logic and common sense."

     On December 19, 2013, Circuit Judge Chet Tharpe, calling Ethel Anderson a parent's worst nightmare, sentenced the former teacher to 38 years in prison.

     Judge Tharpe was Anderson's worst nightmare.

 
 
     

Friday, May 27, 2016

The Alan Goodman Murder Case

     Alan and Lois Goodman, in 2012, had been married 50 years. In the early 1960s, Alan started an auto parts business in Los Angeles. Lois, who in 1979 became a tennis referee (or line umpire--I don't know the first thing about this sport), had risen to the top of her profession, and at age 70, was still officiating matches. She and her 80-year-old husband lived in a condominium in the Woodland Hills district of Los Angeles out in the San Fernando Valley.

     On April 17, 2012, Lois called 911 to report the discovery of Alan Goodman lying on his bed either unconscious or dead. LAPD officers from the Topanga station responded to the scene. According Lois, she had been away from the condo six hours during which time she had been refereeing tennis matches at Pierce Community College in Woodland Hills.

     Upon entering the dwelling, Lois said she noticed a broken coffee mug on the floor with blood on it. From the mug, she followed a trail of blood into Alan's bedroom where she found him unresponsive with a bloody wound to the right side of his head.

     Lois Goodman informed the police officers that her husband, a diabetic with high blood pressure, must have had an heart attack, fallen down a flight of stairs, then somehow made it to his room and climbed onto his bed. Because of Mr. Goodman's age, the LAPD officers had no reason to suspect criminal homicide.

     Two fire department paramedics pronounced Mr. Goodman dead at the scene. While neither of the medics were trained homicide investigators, they possessed enough common sense and death site experience to interpret an oddly shaped wound to the right side of the dead man's head as possible evidence of foul play. As evidence of their suspicion, the medics took care not to disturb the body on grounds it might be part of a murder scene. Although the police officers should have been cautioning the paramedics not to handle the corpse, the cops, relying on Lois Goodman's death narration, allowed the body to be transported to its place of future cremation. In a situation that cried out for, at the very least, an autopsy, Mr. Goodman's corpse, and perhaps evidence of murder, were headed for the furnace.

     Whether or not a homicide had occurred in the Woodland Hills condominium, the initial phase of the Goodman case was not how situations like this should be handled in the second largest police department in the country, or for that matter, anywhere else.

     On April 20, 2012, three days after Alan Goodman's death, an investigator with the Los Angeles County Coroner's Office who had been dispatched to sign Mr. Goodman's death certificate, noticed several deep cuts on the dead man's head and ear that seemed too severe to have been caused by an accidental spill down a flight of steps. This death investigator's rather basic observation led to an autopsy of Mr. Goodman's body. The coroner's office had literally pulled this case out of the fire.

     The next day, a forensic pathologist with the Los Angeles County Coroner's Office determined that Mr. Goodman's cause of death to be blunt force trauma to the head from a sharp object. The pathologist found shards of the broken coffee mug imbedded in the victim's wounds. Moreover, Mr. Goodman had not suffered a heart attack. Instead of a flight of stairs, Mr. Goodman had been killed by being struck in the head with a coffee mug. As a result of the autopsy findings, the coroner's office ruled the manner of this death a homicide.

     Had Mr. Goodman's body been cremated, the cause and manner of this man's death would have remained a mystery. On the other hand, because the autopsy had been delayed three days, the forensic pathologist could not pinpoint the time of death.

     Los Angeles detectives, on April 21, 2012, searched the Goodman condominium in Woodland Hills. The searchers discovered heavy blood staining on the carpets, on the refrigerator door, inside the linen closet, and on a wall near the inside door to the garage.

     In general, an analysis of the blood spatter patterns in the condo did not support the theory that Mr. Goodman had fallen down a flight of stairs. (I don't know if the police had collected the broken coffee mug and its pieces from the crime scene. If they didn't preserve what turned out to be the murder weapon, that would be a problem. And even if they did retrieve it later, there would be a chain of custody problem.)

     Shortly after the search of the Goodman condo, detectives questioned Lois Goodman, this time as a suspect in her husband's murder. According to published police documents, she gave conflicting accounts of what she had observed upon entering the dwelling that day. At one point, she described the scene as "violent," and suggested that someone may have "positioned" Mr. Goodman's body in his bed.

     Over the next four months, Los Angeles detectives, with Lois Goodman as their prime suspect, thoroughly investigated the murder. This led to the discovery of emails she had exchanged with a man who may have been a lover. In one email, Lois Goodman referred to "terminating" a relationship. Investigators suspected that Goodman had murdered her husband for another man. The fact there were no signs of forced entry into the condo, and that nothing had been stolen from the dwelling, comprised more circumstantial evidence that Lois Goodman had been responsible for her husband's violent death. Moreover, when speaking to the responding officers that day, the dead man's wife had gone out of her way to establish her whereabouts at the time of his death, behavior inconsistent with that of a grieving widow.

     In mid-August 2012, after a Los Angeles County prosecutor charged Lois Goodman with the murder of her husband, detectives followed her to New York City where she was scheduled to officiate at the U.S. Tennis Open at Flushing Meadows. On August 21, on the eve of the Open, New York City officers went to her Manhattan hotel room and arrested her on the California murder warrant. That evening, Los Goodman found herself in the Rikers Island lock-up under $1 million bond and awaiting her extradition hearing.

     Back in Los Angeles on August 29, 2012, at her arraignment hearing, the judge, assured by Goodman's attorney Alison Triessl that the tennis line umpire was not dangerous, or a candidate for flight, reduced her bail to $500,000. In speaking to reporters, attorney Triessl, in making the case that her 70-year-old client was physically incapable of killing her husband, pointed out that she had received two full knee replacements, and a shoulder replacement. According to the attorney, Lois Goodman was "wearing two hearing aids, and had rheumatoid arthritis."

     On September 3, 2012, Lois Goodman, after spending two weeks in jail, was released on bail.

     The FBI announced, on October 10, 2012, that Lois Goodman, when asked by a bureau polygraph examiner if she killed her husband, answered no--and passed the test. The polygraph expert, Jack Trimarco, said there was "no significant reaction" when Goodman answered "no" to the payload question. He asked that question several times. If you believe in the polygraph technique, and trust the FBI, this was an important development in the case.

     On November 30, 2012, the Los Angeles prosecutor, due to insufficient evidence, dropped the murder charges against Lois Goodman.

     In April 2015, a federal judge dismissed Lois Goodman's false arrest lawsuit against the LAPD. The plaintiff had claimed the murder accusation caused her "public humiliation." In setting out his rationale for the dismissal, Judge John A. Kronstadt wrote that the LAPD homicide investigation had produced "substantial details sufficient to support a finding of probable cause to arrest Lois Goodman."

     As of May 2016, there have been no other arrests in the case.

       

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Grace Anne Hall's Strange And Suspicious Death

     Twenty-three-year-old Grace Anne Hall was last seen at eight o'clock on the evening of March 20, 2013. She was driving her 1997 silver-gray Toyota Camry in the Serra Mesa section of San Diego, California. The five-foot-seven, 150-pound blonde with tattoos on her upper back was reportedly on her way to an unknown location in the Los Angeles area city of Sherman Oaks for a job interview.

     According to detectives with the San Diego Police Department, Hall used her credit card in the Mira Mesa part of San Diego one week after her disappearance.

     On April 18, 2013, at nine-thirty in the morning, a San Diego patrol officer spotted Hall's Toyota parked in front of the Grab-n-Go Sub Shop in the Kearny Mesa community. According to witnesses, the vehicle had been sitting there for a week.

     When homicide investigators opened the Toyota's trunk, they discovered Hall's body. An autopsy conducted by the San Diego County Medical Examiner's Office revealed no sighs of external trauma on Hall's body. In other words, she had not been bludgeoned, stabbed, or shot.    

     Pending the results of toxicology tests, detectives began to consider the possibility of suicide. According to Hall's father, the victim had been unemployed and was despondent. At the time of her disappearance, she had been living with him. According to Lieutenant Jorge Duran of the San Diego Police Homicide Unit, "The more we discuss the case the more it seems this was not a homicide."

     On June 30, 2013, the San Diego County Medical Examiner announced the cause of Grace Anne Hall's death as acute ethylene glycol poisoning. Because she had ingested a quantity of automobile antifreeze, the medical examiner ruled the manner of death in this highly suspicious case as suicide.

     According to suicide experts, it is extremely rare for a person to commit suicide in the trunk of a car. 

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

People Murdered Over Nothing

     Just because murder is a serious criminal offense does not mean that murderers always have equally serious motives to kill. In the world of criminal homicide, the motive does not always match the crime. Authors of detective novels give their fictitious murderers good reasons to kill such as sweet revenge, big money, passionate sex, jealous love, and burning hatred. In the victimology of crime fiction, the killer and the killed usually know each other well. In novels, murderers are, if not nice people, fascinating folks with interesting reasons to commit the ultimate crime.

     In real life, people who commit criminal homicide are often wildly insane, drug-addled, or just plain stupid. Nonfiction killers are frequently uninteresting people who kill for trivial, idiotic reasons. Quite often, in real life, the murder victim is as insane, drug-addled or stupid as the person who killed him. In the more tragic cases, these mindless murderers take the lives of decent people who simply had the misfortune of crossing their lethal paths. If there is anything interesting in these under-motivated murder cases, it is the fact they are real. The advantage of writing about nonfiction crime is that these cases do not have to make a whole lot of sense. They just have to be true. Fiction, on the other hand, has to be believable. Fiction has to make sense.

The Trigger-Happy Mr. Dunn

     At 7:40 in the evening of November 20, 2012, Michael D. Dunn and his girlfriend pulled into a service station in Jacksonville, Florida. That day, the couple had attended the wedding of Mr. Dunn's son. The 45-year-old software developer and his girlfriend were en route to Dunn's home 160 miles away in Satellite Beach, Florida. Dunn parked his vehicle and waited behind the wheel as his girlfriend entered the gas station's convenience store.

     Mr. Dunn had pulled into the service station alongside a SUV occupied by three teenagers who were listening to music Dunn considered much too loud. He asked the boys to lower the sound level. The kids didn't take kindly to his request which led to an exchange of angry words. Suddenly, Michael Dunn picked up a handgun and fired eight shots into the car. Two of the bullets struck 17-year-old Jordan Davis who was sitting in the back seat. The high school junior, who was about to start his first job at McDonald's, died in the SUV.

     The shooter's girlfriend ran out of the convenience store, and as she climbed into Dunn's vehicle, asked, "What's going on?"

     "I just fired at those kids," Dunn replied as the couple drove away.

     The next day, police officers arrested Michael Dunn at his home in Satellite Beach. (A witness had written down his license number.)  Dunn told his police questioners that he had fired his pistol in self-defense after one of the kids in the SUV pointed a shotgun at him. Dunn's self-defense justification suffered a blow when investigators failed to find any weapons in the SUV. (There were no drugs in the car, and none of the boys had ever been in trouble with the law.)

     In May 2013, a grand jury sitting in Jacksonville, Florida, indicted Michael Dunn of first-degree murder and three counts of attempted murder. On October 17, 2014, after a jury found Dunn guilty as charged, the judge sentenced him to life without the chance of parole.

James Pak: The Angry Landlord

     In 2006, James Pak sold his Korean Yankee Landscape Company, a Biddeford, Maine business he had owned since 1964. In 2012, Mr. Pak was living with his wife in a cape cod-style home in the town of Bedford located 15 miles south of Portland. He rented out an apartment attached to his house to 44-year-old Susan Johnson who lived there with her son, 19-year-old Derrick Thompson. Derrick worked as an auto detailer at a nearby car dealership. His girlfriend, Alivia Welch, worked as a waitress at a local coffee shop. She was eighteen.

     Around six o'clock in the evening of Saturday, December 29, 2012, Bedford police officers responded to a call to defuse a dispute between Mr. Pak and his tenants. The 74-year-old landlord was upset because Derrick Thompson and his mother had parked their cars in his driveway. (The town had banned overnight parking on the street to clear the way for snow removal crews.) After speaking with Mr. Pak and his renters, the officers left the scene without taking anyone into custody.

     At seven that night, shortly after the police thought they had resolved the dispute, they were called back to the Pak house on reports of shots being fired in the rented apartment. Upon their arrival, the officers discovered that Mr. Pak had shot Derrick Thompson and his girlfriend, Alivia Welch, killing them both. He had also shot and wounded Derrick's mother, Susan Johnson.

     Following a three-hour police stand-off at his home, James Pak surrendered to the authorities. Among other crimes, he was charged with two counts of first-degree murder. After pleading guilty on February 3, 2016, the judge sentenced Pak to two life sentences.

Street Gang Killings

     Drug dealers and members of street gangs regularly murder each other over minor slights, petty arguments, and even disrespectful looks. For these habitual criminals it's their chosen way of life. Unless some innocent bystander goes down in the cross-fire, the general public couldn't care less about these deaths. One violent crook is dead, and his killer is off to prison for life. From a societal standpoint, these cases are hardly tragedies.

     Michael Dunn and James Pak were murderers who weren't career criminals, or even drains on society. Because they are not stupid men, their homicidal behavior makes even less sense. These men ruined their lives over nothing. And their victims did nothing to deserve their sudden and violent deaths. That is what makes these spontaneous homicides so tragic, and hard to understand.

    

Sunday, May 22, 2016

The Senseless Murder of a Toddler

     In 2016, 31-year-old Veronica Rene Castro lived in a travel trailer in Bellevue, Texas, a remote Clay County community near the Oklahoma border 80 miles northwest of Fort Worth. Castro resided with her three-year-old son, Dominic Tra'Juan Castro and the boy's 18-year-old stepfather, George Coty Wayman. Wayman, a violent dimwit with a facial tattoo, had a criminal record that included a recent stretch in prison.

     Shortly after three in the afternoon on Tuesday, May 17, 2016, someone from the Castro dwelling on Buffalo Springs Road called 911 to report a shooting. When deputies with the Clay County Sheriff's Office arrived at the scene, they found the Castro toddler shot once in the back of the head.

     Emergency personnel airlifted the seriously wounded boy to the United Regional Health Care System in Wichita Falls, Texas. At ten-forty-five the next morning, Dominic Castro died.

     Wayman, when questioned at the scene of the shooting by the police, said the boy had been accidentally shot when he jumped on the bed where a 9mm handgun had been placed. The physical evidence at the scene failed to support this scenario. Moreover, several people in the bedroom who had witnessed the shooting had a different story.

     According to the eyewitnesses, Wayman, angry at the toddler who had refused to stop jumping on the bed, aimed the gun and shot him in the head.

     A Clay County prosecutor, on May 18, 2016, charged George Wayman with capital murder. (In Texas, the intentional killing of a child under six constitutes a death penalty offense.) The accused murderer was booked into the Clay County Jail under $550,000 bond.

     In my mind, this crime is a justification for capital punishment. Some people just don't deserve to live in civilized society.  

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Alexis Kahn: The Babysitter From Hell

     In 2012, after Benjamin and Hope Jordan moved to Charleston, South Carolina, they hired 21-year-old Alexis Kahn to regularly babysit their 7-month-old son Finn while they were away at work. Kahn had never been arrested, and came with references.

     Five months after bringing Alexis Kahn into their home to care for their most precious possession, the Jordans noticed that their dog, an otherwise friendly black lab, disliked the babysitter. According to Mr. Jordan, "He [the dog] was very aggressive towards her and a few times we actually had to physically restrain him from going towards her."

     Worried that the dog's behavior revealed something sinister about the babysitter, the Jordans hid an iPhone under the couch to record what went on between Kahn, the dog, and the baby in their absence. That evening after work, the couple checked the iPhone and were shocked by what they had recorded. The Jordans heard Kahn tell the baby to "shut up." Next came cussing followed by sounds of the baby being slapped. The baby's cries of distress became cries of pain. "I just wanted to...go back in time and just grab him up," said the father.

     The Jordans fired the babysitter and reported the suspected assault to the Charleston police. Officers arrested Kahn a few weeks later. Confronted with the iPhone evidence, the suspect confessed to assaulting the Jordan baby.

     On September 8, 2013, Alex Kahn pleaded guilty to one count of assault and battery in a Charleston County Circuit Court. The judge handed down a three-year sentence. The ex-babysitter had to spend a year behind bars before being eligible for parole. And her name was added to the state's child abuse register which meant she could never work with children. (Unfortunately, this did not prevent her from having children.)

     According to the baby's parents, Finn had no lingering effects from his abuse at the hands of the abusive babysitter.

     Suggestion: If your dog doesn't like your babysitter, keep the dog and look for a new sitter.  

Monday, May 16, 2016

Judge Goes Easy On Man Who Sodomized a 3-Year-Old Girl

     On June 14, 2014, Kevin Jonas Rojano-Nieto was playing a video game in his parents' garage in Santa Ana, California. A three-year-old girl, a relative visiting the home with her mother, wandered into the garage and encountered Rojano-Nieto.

     Sexually aroused by the toddler, the 20-year-old Rojano-Nieto pulled down her pants and began sodomizing her. He stopped and put his hand over the victim's mouth when the girl's mother, calling for her, jiggled the handle to the locked garage door. When the concerned mother left the house to search for her daughter at a neighbor's place, Rojano-Nieto continued the sexual assault.

     When finished with the little girl, Rojano-Nieto unlocked the garage door and let her back into the house. After her daughter complained of pain shortly after the sexual attack, the mother figured out what happened and called the police.

     On December 3, 2014, a jury found the defendant guilty of one count of sodomy of a child under ten and one count of lewd acts upon a child under fourteen. (Rojano-Nieto had forced the little girl to touch his penis.) The conviction meant that the guilty man would receive the mandatory minimum sentence of 25 years to life.

     On April 3, 2015, Orange County Superior Court Judge M. Marc Kelly shocked everyone familiar with this case by ignoring California's statutory minimum punishment for this man's sex offenses by sentencing Rojano-Nieto to just ten years in prison.

     The judge, perhaps aware that his ruling would create an angry backlash, carefully laid out his sentencing rationale in writing. According to this southern California judge, "The facts [of this case] don't support there was any violence or callous disregard for the victim's well-being."

     Huh? No violence? Did this girl consent to being sodomized? Did she participate in her own victimization by flaunting herself in the garage? Good heavens.

     Judge Kelly noted that the defendant had not sought out or stalked his victim. Moreover, he now felt  really bad about what he had done to her. Sure he did, but so what?

     The judge, in defending his sentence, wrote: "He [Rojano-Nieto] reacted to a sexual urge and stopped almost immediately." According to Judge Kelly, while the little girl was sodomized by a 20-year-old man, she had not been seriously injured and was therefore "headed for a normal life."

     Judge Kelly has been on the bench in Orange County for fifteen years. How could that be?

     Not content to blame the toddler for her victimization, the judge tried to illicit sympathy for this sex offender by revealing that he had grown up in a "dysfunctional" family with "disruptional abuse." What the hell does that mean? "Disruptional" isn't even a word. This upbringing, according to the judge, had made Rojano-Nieto "insecure, socially withdrawn, and extremely immature." This background had also turned him into a dangerous sexual pervert who should, for the rest of his life, never be around children.

     Orange County Deputy District Attorney Tony Rackauckas responded to Judge Kelly's disturbing decision by announcing his office will appeal Rojano-Nieto's sentence. Referring to the defendant, the prosecutor said, "He's a grown man. He knowingly [actually intentionally] committed this terrible crime and should pay the price."

     Public outrage over the pedophile's light sentence led to a grass roots effort to recall the judge. On December 31, 2015, the bid to have Judge Kelly removed from the bench failed when the recall supporters were unable to collect the minimum 90,829 signatures to get the issue on the ballot.

     District Attorney Tony Rackauckas' sentence appeal before the Ninth Circuit Appellate Court, as of May 2016, was pending.

      Rojano-Nieto is too dangerous to be placed back into society. Anyone who thinks someone like him can be rehabilitated is a fool.



Sunday, May 15, 2016

Joseph L. Miller: A Murderer Brought to Justice Too Late

     In Harrisburg, Pennsylvania on June 12, 1959, 23-year-old Joseph Lewis Miller blasted John and Donna Lumpkins with a 12-gauge shotgun. Mr. Lumpkins died of his injuries on July 4 of that year. Donna Lumpkins, his wife, survived her wounds.

     On January 22, 1960, Joseph Miller pleaded guilty to the John Lumpkins murder and the attempted murder of the victim's wife. The judge sentenced Miller to life in prison. Throughout the late 1960s, Miller made several requests to have his life sentence commuted. On February 9, 1971, Miller got his wish when Governor Raymond P. Shaffer granted his motion. After serving 11 years and 6 months behind bars, Miller began his life as an ex-con on lifetime parole.

     Governor Shaffer's decision in this case would end up costing another man his life. (Whenever a politician commutes a sentence in a case that did not involve injustice, the politician is saying that he knows better than the judge who issued the original sentence. Politicians are not that smart, or wise.)

     On January 15, 1981, Miller, at age 45, shot Thomas Walker to death in the parking lot outside a Harrisburg bar. After being charged with murder and several firearms violations a month later, Miller was nowhere to be found. He became a fugitive from justice.

     In 2010, in the northeastern Texas town of Mineola, Miller, a deacon in the New Life Family Baptist Church, married a 58-year-old member of the congregation named Gennell. He was 74-years-old and living under the name Eugene Eubanks. Miller, a wanted killer, had established himself as a pillar of the community. But he was a man with a secret.

     In the early morning hours of April 21, 2014, a team of U.S. Marshals showed up in Mineola with a warrant for the longtime fugitive's arrest. The marshals took Joseph Miller, aka Eugene Eubanks, into custody and booked him into the Wood County Jail where he awaited his extradition back to Pennsylvania. According to Miller's wife Gennell Eubanks, Eugene suffered from early stage Alzheimer's Disease and arthritis. He also had been having problems with his heart.

     After the marshals hauled her 78-year-old husband off to jail, Gennell Eubanks told a reporter from Pennsylvania that she had not known her husband's real name. Regarding the shooting death of Thomas Walker in 1981, she said, "Eugene said it was an accident. He was trying to protect his brother, because a man was trying to kill him. I believe my husband. He wasn't trying to kill that man; it just happened. He isn't going to lie to me," she said, "because he is a deacon. He was trying to do what's right." As Miller was being taken out of his house in handcuffs, he said this to his 62-year-old wife: "Take care of yourself, and trust in the Lord. He will see you through."

     Miller had not told Gennell Eubanks about his 1959 murder of John Lumpkins and the shooting of the victim's wife. Gennell had no idea her husband of four years had spent more than eleven years in a Pennsylvania prison.
   
     This deacon knew how to keep a secret. 

Saturday, May 14, 2016

The Johnson Family Mortuary: The Funeral Home From Hell

      On July 15, 2014, James Labenz, the owner of the building in east Fort Worth, Texas that housed the Johnson Family Mortuary, went to the funeral home to evict the tenants. Dondre Johnson, 39, and his 35-year-old wife Rachel Hardy-Johnson, owed the landlord $15,000 in back rent. The place looked vacant so Mr. Labenz entered the building. What he saw and smelled caused him to quickly exit the premises and call 911.

     In his report, the police officer who responded to the 911 call noted that he detected the odor of decaying flesh from the funeral home's parking lot. Inside, he found the unrefrigerated remains of several corpses in various states of decomposition. The officer called the Tarrant County Medical Examiner's Office.

     Police detectives accompanied by a medical examiner's office crime scene technician encountered a scene right out of a horror movie. But unlike its fictional counterpart, the funeral home tableau featured insects, maggots, leaking body fluids, and the overpowering stench of death.

     That day, the medical examiner's office took possession of the remains of two stillborn children and five adults. The partially mummified corpse of an adult lay in a casket inhabited by swarms of flies and other bugs. In a small container, the crime scene technician discovered a tiny skeleton. The funeral home's flooring was wet with draining bodily fluids.

     A Tarrant County prosecutor charged the mortuary owners with seven counts of abuse of a corpse. If convicted and sentenced on each count, the couple faced up to seven years behind bars. On July 18, 2014, police officers arrested Rachel Hardy-Johnson at the couple's home in Arlington, Texas. The next day, Dondre turned himself in at police headquarters in Fort Worth. After putting up their $10,500 bonds, the suspects were released from custody.

     The day after he walked out of the Tarrant County Jail, Dondre Johnson said this to a reporter: "This is a funeral home, you can expect to find bodies." True, but one would expect not to find corpses that were decomposing and being consumed by insects.

     Rachel Hardy-Johnson told reporters that she had been absent from the funeral home due to the birth of her child. Dondre, who wasn't very good at keeping up with the paperwork associated with either burying or cremating bodies, had been in charge. (Forget the paperwork, how about actually burying and burning the corpses?) She said that Dondre was all about the pomp and circumstance and show associated with the funeral service.

     Dondre Johnson's lack of administrative skills landed the couple in jail and cost his landlord $8,000 in cleanup fees. Moreover, the macabre publicity associated with the building had significantly lowered its real estate value.

     Following the gruesome discovery of the results of Dondre Johnson's gross mismanagement and callous disregard for the postmortem dignity of the deceased in his care, the Texas Funeral Service Commission revoked the Johnson family funeral license. Angered by the revocation, the couple petitioned the state to get their license returned.

     Dondre and Rachel Hardy-Johnson, already in trouble with the law, were indicted on four counts of fraud by a federal grand jury in September 2014. The couple stood accused of obtaining food stamps, a housing subsidy, federal education funding, and Medicare benefits without revealing their income and other personal assets. The alleged government fraud took place between April 2010 and July 2012. If convicted on each count, the former funeral home owners faced up to 20 years in prison.

     Federal fraud investigators determined that Hardy-Johnson had in 2011 received government benefits while claiming to be an unemployed single mother living alone with her children. During that period she purchased a 2006 Hummer H2 for $26,000 and a 2008 Mercedes-Benz CL S500 for $41,700. The next year, while still representing herself as an unemployed single mother, she bought an expensive Land Rover.

     On January 20, 2015, a Tarrant County grand jury indicted Dondre Johnson and his wife for stealing up to $20,000 from families who had paid for and did not receive funeral services in 2014. If convicted, they faced maximum sentences of 20 years in prison and thousands of dollars in fines.

     Rachel Hardy-Johnson, on January 27, 2015, pleaded guilty in federal court to one count of food stamp benefit fraud involving $6,000 in payments from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Stamp program and its successor, SNAP. She was sentenced to 18 months in prison.

     In February 2015, reporters with the CBS television affiliate in Fort Worth discovered that Dondre Johnson and his twin brother Derrick were conducting funerals in Sherman, Texas. Travis Mitchell, the owner of Serenity Chapel Funeral Services, told the reporters that he handled the business aspects of the operation while Donde and Derrick performed the funerals. According to Mitchell, Dondre Johnson's attorney had advised his client to avoid the media until the theft and abuse of corpse cases in Fort Worth were resolved.

     On September 24, 2015, a jury in Fort Worth found Dondre Johnson guilty of two counts of felony theft. The judge sentenced Johnson to two years in prison and a $20,000 fine. Johnson still faced possible prosecution on seven misdemeanor counts of abuse of corpse. 

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Assailants Who Attack Their Victims With Acid

     In December 2012, a female employee of a company in Gotemba, Japan, a city 120 miles southwest of Tokyo, burned her feet in acid that had been poured into her shoes. The victim worked in a laboratory that produced carbon-fiber products. (In Japan it is customary for employees to remove their shoes when entering controlled areas.)

     The victim's feet were severely burned by hydrofluoric acid, a highly corrosive chemical. After gangrene settled into the assault victim's left foot, doctors had to remove the tips of five of her toes.

     On March 28, 2013, a prosecutor in Gotelmba charged Tatsujiro Fukazawa with attempted murder in the acid attack. The suspect worked in the laboratory with the victim. According to the police, Fukazawa had feelings for the woman who had rejected his romantic overtures. The acid planting was in revenge for that rejection. Although Fukazawa pleaded not guilty to the charges, he was convicted of the assault in 2015, and sentenced to seven years in prison.

     In 2013, two British girls were doused with acid while doing volunteer work in Zanzibar. Two years later, a South African teenage girl poured acid on her boyfriend's private parts. "I was just angry," she said "and all I wanted to do was to make him feel the pain I was feeling."

     According to the Acid Survivors Trust International, 1,500 people are attacked with acid every year. In addition to Japan, India has a long history of horrific acid attacks against women. In Afghanistan, Islamist extremists have thrown acid on girls' faces to scare them away from attending school.

    Anyone familiar with the annals of crime is aware that the ways people have found to be cruel to each other, to inflict pain and suffering, has no limit. 

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Mindy McCready's Addiction, Reality TV Exploitation, and Suicide

     When ordinary people commit crimes, abuse drugs and alcohol, and kill themselves, it's local news. When celebrities or former celebrities do this, it's entertainment. O. J. Simpson's popular culture legacy will not be football. Marilyn Monroe will not be remembered for her film career. Oscar Pistorius, the South African "Blade Runner", since being convicted of killing his celebrity girlfriend, has become even more famous. His case entertained millions of people for more than a year.

     Celebrities are manufactured personas. These people have relinquished ownership of themselves to the pubic. In that sense they are not real people. They exist for our amusement. We celebrate their successes and triumphs, and revel in their misery. Ripe for exploitation, celebrities need fame like the rest of us need oxygen. When they don't get it, they whither away and die. Sometimes they take things into their own hands by committing suicide.

     Country and western singer Mindy McCready's prolonged substance abuse, law enforcement problems, and domestic turmoil provided celebrity journalists with a lot of material. The girl from Cleburne County, Arkansas made it big in Nashville with her 1996 debut double-platinum album, "Guys Do It All The Time." She spent the next 16 years trying to replicate that success. During this time, McCready struggled with drugs and alcohol as well as a volatile love life. She never regained the fame she had lost.

     In 2004, McCready pleaded guilty to filling out fraudulent prescription slips for the addictive painkiller OxyContin. A judge in Nashville sentenced her to three years of supervised probation. In May 2005, after her ex-boyfriend, Billy McKnight was charged with attempted murder for allegedly breaking into her Herber Springs home outside of Nashville, police arrested her for driving under the influence. A couple of months later, the singer was found unconscious from a drug overdose in the lobby of a Pinellas County, Florida hotel.

     In September 2005, McCready, pregnant with Billy McKnight's child, was hospitalized after attempting suicide by drug overdose. Police arrested her eighteen months later for misdemeanor battery that occurred during a fight with her mother. In September 2007, McCready spent a year in jail for violating her probation from the 2004 OxyContin sentence. A year later, she was back behind bars for falsifying her community service hours in connection with the 2007 case. The country and western singer attempted suicide again in 2008.

     In 2009, Mindy McCready was talked into becoming a cast member in VH1's reality TV series, "Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew." (Dr. Drew is Dr. Drew Pinsky.) The series was ostensibly about giving viewers insight into the serious problem of substance addiction, and the importance of professional treatment. On the show's third season, McCready appeared with, among other "celebrity" cast members, Dennis Rodman, Tom Sizemore, MacKenzie Phillips, and Heidi Fleiss.

     Fans of this exploitation of fallen stars must have found the program reassuring. While their own lives were far from perfect, they were at least better off than McCready and the other human disasters  showcasing their flaws and failures. After former "Celebrity Rehab" cast members Mike Starr, Joey Kovar, Rodney King, and Jeff Conaway died young, VH1 canceled the series after five seasons. But the spirit of the show lives on in the non-celebrity version called "Rehab with Dr. Drew." The freak show has also spawned a pair of spinoffs, "Sober House," and "Sex Rehab", a series about people addicted to sex.

     After her stint on "Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew," McCready's life continued to spin out of control. (Apparently the TV counselor didn't do her much good.) She had more arrests, drug overdoses, and attempted suicides. In January 2013, McCready's boyfriend, David Wilson, the father of her 9-month-old son, shot himself to death on the front porch of her Herber Springs, Tennessee home. On Sunday, February 17, 2013, McCready, on the same front porch, used a gun to take her own life.

     By dropping the curtain on her own show, McCready gave her audience a tragic ending to a sad story. It won't be long before the public forgets that she ever existed.    

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

English Teacher Brittni Colleps and Her Senior High Orgy Club

     In the fall of 2010, Brittni Nicole Colleps, a married 28-year-old with three children, started teaching English at Kennedale High School near Arlington, a city located between Fort Worth and Dallas, Texas. She had also been hired to coach the girl's basketball team. Her husband Christopher served in the military and was stationed in the area.

     In April 2011, Brittni began sending sexually explicit text messages, including nude photographs of herself, to some of her senior male students. That quickly led to sexual encounters with five 18-year-old boys at her Arlington home. On at least four occasions, the teacher engaged in group sex with three of her students. (Colleps and her husband were so-called "swingers" who participated in group sex with other consenting adults. On her job application, Brittni probably did not list this activity as one of her hobbies. This was Texas, not California. Just kidding.)

     Colleps' extracurricular sex sessions were exposed in May 2011 when a cellphone video recorded by a participant in one of the home orgies came to the attention of school officials. The police were called in, and when a detective with the Arlington Police Department asked Colleps about this, she denied being involved in such activity. However, when confronted with her text messages to these students, she confessed. The high school immediately suspended her, and a short time later, she resigned.

     While it is not a crime in Texas for a 28-year-old woman to have sex with 18-year-old boys, it is an offense for a school teacher to have an "inappropriate" sexual relationship with a student. The text messages did not constitute a crime, but in Texas, the texting would have been sufficient grounds to fire her. A prosecutor in Tarrant County charged Brittni Nicole Colleps with 16 counts under the inappropriate teacher-student sexual relationship statute. These second-degree felonies carried sentences of two to twenty years in prison each. Colleps was clearly a serial offender.

     On August 13, 2012, the Colleps student orgy trial got underway in Arlington, Texas. The prosecutor put five of the defendant's student sex partners on the stand. All of the witnesses, while describing how their teacher had lured them into sex, testified that they did not consider themselves victims of sexual abuse. The prosecutor showed the jury portions of the cellphone recorded group sex episode that had ignited the scandal. (Colleps's face was not depicted, but a distinct tattoo on her lower back identified her as the female participant.

     The jury, on August 17, 2012, after deliberating less than an hour, returned a verdict of guilty on all counts. Colleps' sentence: five years in prison. Following the verdict, Christopher Colleps told reporters that while his wife's extramarital sexual activities had angered him, he was standing by her.

     In recent years, there have been several cases involving female high school teachers who have engaged in sex with male students. These women tended to be immature, overly romantic types who fell in love with a single kid who was just too cool to resist. Brittni Colleps, on the other hand, simply enjoyed group sex with young men.

     On January 7, 2015, after serving less than half of her five year sentence, the parole board granted Colleps' request for early release. She returned home where she would undergo monthly supervision for the remaining period of her sentence.

    

Monday, May 9, 2016

Dr. Henry Lee: The Celebrity Forensic Scientist

     Dr. Henry Lee has come as close to becoming a household name as any forensic scientist in U.S. history. He has achieved fame in a profession whose practitioners generally operate behind the scenes. In the criminal justice field, it's usually the defense attorneys who get the headlines, and in forensic science, it's often forensic pathologists like Dr. Michael Baden and Dr. Cyril Wecht.

     In the 1930s, a pair of criminalists in the Seattle area, Oscar Heinrich and Luke May, achieved celebrity status by solving a number of celebrated murder cases. Clark Sellers, a handwriting expert from Los Angeles, made headlines with his testimony at the Lindbergh kidnapping trial in Flemington, New Jersey. In the 1960s, Dr. Paul Kirk, a forensic chemist from Berkeley, California became something of a celebrity. The peak of his notoriety came in 1995 when he analyzed crime scene blood-spatter patterns for attorney F. Lee Bailey in the infamous Dr. Sam Shepard murder case near Cleveland, Ohio.

     Dr. Henry Lee, because he rose to fame in the era of true crime television, has enjoyed a level of celebrity more intense and intimate than his well-known predecessors. He has made hundreds of television appearances, and hosted a show on Court TV called Trace Evidence: The Case Files of Dr. Henry Lee. Dr. Lee's personality, demeanor, and life story have helped make him a bigger-than-life character. Like sports stars and major film and television actors, he tends to be vain and dramatic. On the witness stand, he informs jurors and, as a charismatic courtroom showman, entertains them. When Dr. Lee testifies for the prosecution, he's the defense attorney's worst nightmare. When he's appearing on behalf of the defense, it's not good news for the prosecutor. In either case, the media loves it, and so do the jurors.

     Dr. Henry Chang-Yu Lee was born in Rugao City, China on November 22, 1938. When Henry was four, the Chinese communists murdered his father. Two years later, his family fled to Taiwan to avoid the communist revolution. After graduating from the Taiwan Central Police College in 1960 with a degree in police science, Henry jointed the Taipei Police Department. Six years later, after rising to the rank of captain, he came to the United States where, in 1972, he graduated from New York City's John Jay College of Criminal Justice with a bachelor of science degree in science. In 1974, he earned a master's degree in biochemistry from New York University. A year later, he was awarded a Ph.D in biochemistry.

     In 1979, Dr. Lee became the director of the Connecticut State Police Forensic Laboratory where he also held the title of chief criminalist. Following his retirement from the lab in 2000, Dr. Lee began teaching at the University of New Haven where he founded the Henry C. Lee Forensic Institute. According to his resume, Dr. Lee has been awarded several honorary degrees, written more than 20 books (most with co-authors), published numerous scientific articles, given hundreds of speeches, investigated 4,000 homicide cases (not possible), and consulted with more than 300 law enforcement agencies.

The Wood Chipper Case

     Dr. Lee vaulted onto the national stage in 1986 when an airline pilot named Richard Crafts went on trial in Connecticut for murdering his wife, Halle. Having incurred her husband's wrath by announcing her plans to divorce him, Halle Crafts had covertly audio-taped his threats to to kill her. Perhaps even more incriminating, Richard Crafts was seen by a motorist, on the night of Halle's disappearance, operating a commercial-grade wood chipper in the midst of a blizzard along the bank of the Housatonic River. The audio-tape and the wood chipper sighting led the police to suspect Crafts of murdering his wife. But investigators had a serious problem: they didn't have a corpse. Faced with one of those maddening cases of a good suspect, but no physical evidence, the homicide detectives called on Dr. Lee

     In the couple's bedroom, Dr. Lee found traces of the victim's blood. When he examined a chainsaw that had been in the suspect's possession, Dr. Lee discovered hair follicles, traces of blood, and tissue that he identified as the victim's. In the rented wood chipper, Lee recovered the same, and at the spot where Richard Crafts had been seen operating the equipment, Dr. Lee found fragments of the victim's teeth and bones, along with follicles of her hair. It wasn't much, but it was enough to establish that Halle Crafts had been murdered. From this evidence, Dr. Lee was able to reconstruct the crime, theorizing that the defendant had bludgeoned his wife to death in their bedroom, frozen her body in a home freezer, cut her into pieces with the chainsaw, then shoved the body parts into the wood chipper which sprayed her remains into the river.

     The Crafts trial jury, obviously impressed with Dr. Lee and his evidence, found the defendant guilty of first degree murder. A few years later, while serving his life sentence, Richard Crafts confessed to murdering his wife. Featuring blood and gore, an attractive victim, a suburban killer, a dramatic trial, and scientific investigation in the mold of Sherlock Holmes, the wood chipper case turned Dr. Henry Lee into a celebrity forensic scientist.

William Kennedy Smith Case

     Five years after his famous Crafts murder trial testimony, Dr. Lee took the stand on behalf of a defendant named William Kennedy Smith who was on trail for an alleged 1991 date rape that dominated the news because of the Kennedy family connection. According to the accused, following a night of drinking in Palm Beach, Florida with his accuser, the two had engaged in consensual sex on the lawn of the Kennedy family estate. Dr. Lee, to help prove that the defendant's partner had consented to sex, testified that he had found no grass stains on the woman's pantyhose, evidence one would expect to find had there been a struggle. To illustrate this point, Dr. Lee produced a grass-stained handkerchief he had rubbed against the grass in his own yard. The jury found William Kennedy Smith not guilty.

     Dr. Lee's testimony in the Kennedy case drew criticism from John Hicks, the director of the FBI Laboratory, who called it "outrageous." Hicks characterized Dr. Lee's handkerchief experiment as unscientific, and labeled the conclusions drawn from it speculative. The crime lab director pointed out that the handkerchief was not made of the same fabric as the pantyhose, and the conditions that had created the handkerchief stains did not necessarily replicate the environment at the alleged crime site. Criticism of this type--that Dr. Lee's testimony is more theater than science--has followed him throughout his career.

The O. J. Simpson Case

     Dr. Lee's testimony on behalf of O. J. Simpson in 1995 did not endear him to many of his forensic science colleagues. In general, Dr. Lee's testimony in that case helped the Simpson defense in five ways. It depicted Los Angeles police detectives and crime scene technicians as incompetent; it suggested that blood evidence had been contaminated; it supported the theory that evidence against the defendant had been planted; it pushed the time of the crime forward 45 minutes which accommodated Simpson's alibi; and it laid the groundwork for the theory than Nicole Simpson and Ronald Goldman had been murdered by more than one person.

     On the last point, Dr. Lee's testimony contradicted the testimony of the FBI's renowned footwear identification expert, William Bodziak. Dr. Lee identified a bloody stain on an envelope and scrap of paper found in Nicole Simpson's house as a shoe print that didn't match the footwear--the Bruno Magli Italian designer shoes--prosecutors believed the defendant was wearing when he committed the murders. Mr. Bodziak testified that this bloody print had not been made by a shoe at all. Douglas Deedrich, also from the FBI Crime Lab, testified that the bloody pattern was in fact a fabric print.

     At the Simpson trial, Dr. Lee also raised the possibility that a bloodstain on Ronald Goldman's blue jeans had been made by a shoe that was not a Bruno Magli. On cross-examination, when pressed about this blood print identification, Dr. Lee said that if these patterns were footwear marks, they were not made by the Bruno Magli brand.

     Critics of Dr. Lee's testimony in the O. J. Simpson case called it an example of "blowing smoke"--a term referring to the giving of vague defense testimony intended to muddy the water in an effort to create reasonable doubt.

     Since his testimony in the O. J. Simpson case, Dr. Lee was involved in dozens of celebrated cases that included the JonBenet Ramsey murder, the Scott Peterson case, and the Phil Spector murder case where he was accused of removing a piece of crime scene evidence that might have incriminated the defendant.

     Dr. Lee's participation at various levels in so many cases involving such a variety of evidence and analysis is unusual for a forensic scientist. In the field, he is almost a one-of-a-kind practitioner. At the core of his expertise, he is a forensic serologist, one who examines crime scene biological stains to determine their identify and origin. As a crime scene reconstruction expert, one who determines what happened at the crime site by taking into consideration all of the physical clues, Dr. Lee is also a blood-spatter analyst. As one who studies physical evidence to figure out, after the fact, what occurred at the scene of the crime, Dr. Lee analyzes all kinds of physical evidence, including hair follicles, fibers, bite marks, bone fragments, brain matter, tissue, gunshot powder residue, soil, dust, pollen, and other forms of trace evidence.

     Dr. Lee also studies latent footwear and fingerprint patterns, and analyzes bullet trajectories. He's a generalist in a field of narrowly defined specialists. This has its appeal, and explains why he has been able to insert himself in so many cases. It may also be his weakness, because his expertise and knowledge, over all this forensic territory, is thin. One man can only know so much. Because science and ego are a bad mix, forensic science is best conducted by behind-the-scenes people who are not worried about living up to their press clippings.



       

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Cockfighting: A Blood Sport

     Cockfighting, a pair of conditioned and trained roosters equipped with metal spurs or knives battling each other to the death in a cockpit, is against the law in every state in America as well as in Brazil, Australia, and except for France, Europe. In America, Louisiana didn't ban cockfighting until 2008. Although it's illegal, cockfighting, in certain parts of the country, is still a popular form of entertainment.

     In many countries such as Mexico, Peru, Panama, Ecuador, and the Philippines, cockfighting is not only legal, it's the national pastime. Spectators, whether gathered at illegal, clandestine cockfighting venues, or seated in elaborate arenas, bet money on the outcomes of the bouts. Like dogfighting and bullfighting, cockfighting is considered a blood sport. Unlike the sport of boxing, the participants are animals who have no say in the matter.

     Early in the morning of Thursday, April 19, 2012, 200 men, women, and children were gathered at a weekly cockfight venue on a small Hildago County ranch near McAllen, Texas. Without warning, at least two men wearing masks stormed the site and opened fire with automatic assault rifles. Before pandemonium broke out, most of the spectators were seated in bleachers beneath a corrugated pavilion. When the shooting stopped, three man lay dead, and eight were wounded.

     Two of the dead men were brothers, the 49 and 55-year-old targets of the ambush. Both men had criminal records, and had been suspects in a recent drug war drive-by shooting, the possible motive behind the retaliatory shooting spree. Local police officers believe the third man killed was an innocent bystander. Although the attack took place near the border, the police do not think it was related to the Mexican drug wars.

     The sheriff of Hildago County described the shooting site, littered with bodies, shell casings, pools of blood, beer cans, and twenty dead roosters, as the crime scene from hell. The authorities charged three people with the crime of cockfighting.

     The people charged in connection with cockfighting were convicted and given probation. They could have been sentenced to prison for up to two years, and fined $10,000. As of this writing, the mass murderers have not been identified.

   

     

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Edith Casas and Victor Cingolani: A Marriage Made In Hell

     In August 2010, the body of Johana Casas was found in a field on the outskirts of Pico Truncado, a city in southern Argentina. The 20-year-old model had been shot twice. The authorities arrested Victor Cingolani, the victim's former boyfriend, and Marco Diaz, the man she had been living with at the time of her death. Diaz and Johana, hours before the discovery of her body, were seen at a party together.

     In June 2012, 28-year-old Victor Cingolani was found guilty of participating in Johana Casas' homicide. The judge sentenced him to thirteen years in prison.

     At the time of Johana Casas' murder, her twin sister Edith had been dating the man who would later be convicted of her homicide. Following his conviction, Edith visited him in prison and expressed her belief that he was innocent. In the fall of 2012, she announced, to her parents' horror, that she and Victor Cingolani planned to get married.

     Edith Casas' mother, on December 22, 2012, filed a court motion requesting the suspension of the wedding on grounds that her daughter was "psychologically ill" and "not in full control of her mental faculties." The judge suspended the wedding pending the results of a psychological evaluation of the convicted killer's fiancee.

     In speaking to the media regarding her daughter's bizarre plan to marry Cingolani, her mother referred to the marriage as a "terrible betrayal." In response to her parents' concerns, Edith, in speaking to a reporter said, "Victor is not a violent person and I'm not mad. We've got no doubts about what we are doing. We love each other."

     The judge considering the suspension of the wedding, on December 31, 2012, following the court-ordered psychological evaluation, ruled that the couple could get married. Cingolani's attorney, pursuant to his efforts to have his client's conviction overturned, had been arguing that Marco Diaz had been the sole perpetrator of the homicide. In an interview with a newspaper reporter, the attorney said, "The cigarette butt found near Johana's body belonged to Diaz, and all the witnesses have incriminated him. I can understand Johana's parents' attitude. But Edith is not marrying a killer or anything like it. She is marrying a man who was convicted in a judicial scandal. All we want is justice."

     On Valentine's Day, 2013, Edith Casas and Victor Cingolani, in the presence of a jail guard and another witness, were married by a magistrate in the civil registry office in Pico Truncade. Following the brief ceremony, Cingolani, disguised in sunglasses and a beret, was ushered out the back door en route to his cell. His bride, when she emerged from the government building, encountered a cluster of people who did not wish her well. Instead of rice, these angry folks threw rocks and eggs.

     Earlier that morning, before the wedding, Cingolani, when questioned by a TV reporter, said, "I'm getting married because I love Edith. (Many believed he was marrying her to gain an advantage in his quest to clear his name and get out of prison.) I didn't think the wedding would have so many repercussions worldwide." Really? Women who marry imprisoned murderers attract media attention for the single reason that it's such a deviant and stupid thing to do. It's hardly surprising that when a young, beautiful woman marries the man who is behind bars for murdering her twin sister, it excites the media, upsets people close to the victim, and angers a segment of the public.

    As of May 2016, Marco Diaz has not been tried for Johana Casas' murder.

    

Friday, May 6, 2016

A Short History of American Forensic Science

     By 1935, crime laboratories were up and running in New York City, Chicago, Detroit, Boston, Los Angeles and Philadelphia. The FBI Lab had opened its doors in 1933. The bureau's national fingerprint repository had been operating in Washington, D.C. since 1924, the year J. Edgar Hoover, an early advocate of scientific crime detection, became the agency's fourth director. August Vollmer, the progressive police administrator from Berkeley, California, and Dean John Wigmore of Northwestern University Law School, had been tireless crusaders for forensic science and physical evidence as an alternative to coerced confessions, eyewitness testimony, and jailhouse informants. Wigmore and Vollmer were the main forces behind the formation, in Chicago, of the Scientific Crime Detection Laboratory in 1930. In 1938, the private lab beame part of the Chicago Police Department.

     In the 1930s, a pair of private practice forensic chemists and crime scene reconstructon analysts in the northwest, Oscar Heinrich and Luke May, were grabbing headlines by solving high-profile murder cases. Stories involving crimes solved through the scientific analysis of physical evidence had become commonplace features in the fact-crime magazines so popular at the time. Numerous textbooks and manuals had been published on the subjects of fingerprint identification, forensic ballistics, questioned documents, trace evidence analysis, forensic serology, forensic medicine, scientific lie detection (polygraph), and forensic anthropology, the identification and analysis of skeletal remains.

     Criminal investigation textbooks of this era contained detailed instructions on how to protect crime scenes, render crime scene sketches, photograph clues, mark and package physical evidence, dust for latent fingerprints, make plaster-of-Paris casts of tire tracks and footwear impressions, and in the case of sudden, unexplained, or violent death, look for signs of criminal homicide. By the mid-thirties, virtually every court in the country accepted the expert opinions of practitioners in the major forensic fields, and jurors recognized the advantages of expert physical evidence interpretation over the more direct testimony of jailhouse snitches and eyewitnesses.

     Today, nothwithstanding DNA science and computerized fingerprint identification and retrieval capabilities, crime solution percentages in the United States have not improved since the mid-thirties when the FBI started collecting crime statistics. The emphasis on street policing (order maintenance), the escalating war on drugs, and the threat of domestic terrorism has diminished the role of criminal investigation and forensic science in the administration of justice. At a time when DNA technology has advanced far beyond the imaginations of the pioneers of forensic serology (Dr. Paul Kirk and others), rapists, pedophiles, and serial killers are escaping detection and arrest due to DNA analysis backlogs created by a shortage of funds and experts.

     Ironically, one of the byproducts of DNA science has been the release of hundreds of innocent people who have been convicted on the strength of coerced confessions, unreliable eyewitnesses, and the testimony of jailhous informants. In the small percentage of trials involving the analysis of physical evidence, jurors are commonly exposed to conflicting scientific testimony. When faced with opposing experts, jurors tend to disregard the science altogether. The forensic pioneers of the twenties and thirties would be appalled by this hired-gun phenomena and the low productivity of today's investigative services.

     During the first decade of the 21st Century, due to forensic misidentifications caused by substandard lab conditions and incompetent personnel, crime laboratories in, among other places, Houston, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, and Boston, had to be temporarily closed. During this period, for the first time in the history of the science, there were numerous high-profile fingerprint misidentifications. Moreover, modern forensic science has seen the infusion of pseudo-science and bogus expertise into the nation's courtrooms.

      In March 2009, the National Academy of Sciences, an organization within the National Institute of Justice, after an eighteen month study, published a report criticizing the state of forensic science in America. The writers of the widely publicized report recommended that Congress create a federal agency to insure a firewall between forensic science and law enforcement; finance more research and personnel training; and promote universal standards of excellence in the troubled fields of DNA profiling, forensic firearms identification, fingerprint analysis, forensic document examination, and forensic pathology. From this, one might reasonably conclude that modern forensic science, weighed against the hopes and dreams of its pioneers, has not lived up to its potential.

    

Thursday, May 5, 2016

The Sharon Voit Murder-For-Hire Case: Until Death Do Us Part

     Years ago, the person who said that marriages start in bed and end up in court wasn't thinking of murder. Those were the good old days. Today, a few marriages end up with one of the parties in court, and the other in the morgue. Wives engineer the deaths of their estranged husbands out of fear they will be left penniless following the divorce. For women trapped in bad marriages, murder, compared to divorce, is quicker and a lot more satisfying. Homicidal husbands want their wives dead to avoid legal fees, the divvying up of the marital estate, alimony, and the expense of child support. Familiarity can breed contempt. Marriage, familiarity, and divorce can breed criminal homicide. In the world of murder-for-hire, the contentious divorce is perhaps the number one motive.

The Sharon Voit Case

     On July 13, 1995, Dr. Kerry Voit, his wife Sharon and their three daughters were watching television in the den of their home in the tranquil village of Golf on the northern outskirts of Chicago. At a quarter to ten, Dr. Voit, stating that he was tired and wanted to retire for the night in that room, switched off the TV. This enraged his wife, and in the scuffle that ensured, Sharon took a punch in the eye. Dr. Voit suffered scratches on his arm, and came away from the fight with a bruised leg. Sharon ordered her husband out of the house. When he refused to leave, she phoned the Cook County Sheriff's Office.

     The deputies who responded to the domestic disturbance received conflicting stories from the Voit daughters. Two of the girls sided with their father, the third with Mrs. Voit. The officers decided not to arrest anyone, but ordered Dr. Voit, a successful downtown Chicago dentist, to leave the house for 72 hours. He spent the next few nights in Harwood Heights at his mother's house.

     Not long after the police call, a family court judge ordered the Voits into marriage counseling, but it was too late for that. The couple continued to fight, and for the next year or so, Dr. Voit moved back and forth between his mother's place and the family home. In the summer of 1997 he moved out permanently.

     The Voit marriage had been an unhappy one from the start. As a 22-year-old dental hygienist, Sharon had helped put Kerry through dental school, then worked in his office until their first child. They had talked about divorce many times, but he didn't want to split up because he thought the divorce would ruin him financially. As a result, the couple found themselves trapped in a marriage that brought them both misery. Finally, Sharon decided that she couldn't take it anymore. That's when she began thinking of murder.

     In the spring of 1999, while talking with Carl Poe, the husband of the ice skating coach working with their youngest daughter, Sharon said she wished she could find someone to have Dr. Voit "taken care of." Mr. Poe passed the comment on to his wife Robyn who dismissed it as a joke. Although Sharon didn't sound like she was joking, Carl agreed with his wife's assessment of black humor bubbling up out of frustration and stress.

     Two months after the "taken care of" comment, Sharon shocked Dr. Voit's friend, Matt Georgopolous, when she said, quite specifically, that the only way she could achieve happiness was to find someone who would kill her husband. Mr. Georgopolous didn't think she was joking, and warned his friend that his life might be in danger. Dr. Voit laughed it off, explaining that Sharon was a mentally unstable person who was just letting off steam.

     On March 8, 2000, while conferring with Robyn Poe at an ice skating competition in Buffalo, New York, Sharon asked the coach if she knew anyone who could "take Kerry out." Although alarmed by the question, Robyn decided to ignore Sharon's query. Carl had been right; she seemed deadly serious. In a restaurant two days later with Matt Georgopolous and Robyn Poe, Sharon brought up the murder-for-hire subject again. Shortly after that, she asked the family accountant if Dr. Voit had changed the beneficiary of his life insurance policy. The accountant said he had no knowledge of such matters.

     When Dr. Voit learned of his wife's recent life insurance and hit man inquiries, he decided to take the situation a little more seriously. He called a friend in the Cook County State Attorney's office and reported that Sharon might be trying to have him murdered. The prosecutor referred the complaint to the Chicago Police Department where Detective John Duffy took charge of the case. After talking to Dr. Voit and Matt Georgopolous, the detective asked Tim Kaufmann, a deputy with the sheriff's office special operations branch, to enter the case as an undercover hit man.

     A few days after talking with Detective Duffy, Deputy Kaufmann called Sharon Voit and said, "I understand you have a problem you want taken care of." She responded by requesting a meeting the following afternoon in the parking lot of a local grocery store. The next day at one-thirty, Sharon, behind the wheel of her SUV, pulled into the lot. After climbing into the officer's vehicle, Sharon asked Deputy Kaufmann which one of her friends had spoken to him regarding her problem. The undercover cop replied that in his business that kind of information was confidential. Seemingly convinced that this man was in the business of killing people for money, Sharon set up a second meeting.

     On March 17, 2000, a covert police video surveillance team stood by as Sharon Voit pulled her SUV into another local parking lot. Deputy Kaufmann, wearing a body microphone, climbed into her vehicle, and without specific reference to Dr. Voit, asked if she were serious about solving her problem. "Yep," she replied, "it's gotta be done." She then asked how much it would cost. The undercover officer said it depended on how much money she could raise. About seven thousand dollars she replied.

     To establish his bona fides as a paid assassin, Deputy Kaufmann said that after killing people for the United States government as a combat soldier in Viet Nam, he had gone into business for himself. Being in the profession of taking people out didn't bother him at all. Regarding the Voit hit, he said he would do it in a way that would make the murder look like it had been committed by a robber. In discussing possible times and places, Sharon revealed that Dr. Voit had planned a scuba diving trip to the Bahamas the following week. Deputy Kaufmann said he would kill her husband in the Bahamas. To that Sharon replied that she didn't care where or how the job was done. She said she had no interest in details. She just wanted to have her "misery finished."

     Deputy Kaufmann told Sharon that he needed $600 in upfront money to cover the cost of his trip to the Bahamas. She could mail him the balance due after he completed the job. The undercover cop handed her a slip of paper bearing the post office address where she could sent the rest of the money. Sharon next described her husband's daily routine and provided the officer with the address of his mother's house in Harwood Heights. The deputy said he had everything he needed except a photograph of the target and the expense money. They could meet again, or she could get the photograph and the $600 while he waited in the parking lot. She replied that she would have what he wanted in less than an hour. Before he returned to his car to wait for the photograph and the money, Deputy Kaufmann asked Sharon if this was really what she wanted to do. (A real hit man would never ask this question.) She said yes; the man she wanted killed had made her life miserable. This was the only way she knew to relieve that misery. She had made her decision.

     An hour later, Sharon Voit returned to the parking lot. As Deputy Kaufmann walked away from her vehicle with the photograph and the upfront money, police officers swooped in and took her into custody. One moment she thought her problems were over, the next she was sitting in the back of a police car wearing handcuffs. When informed she had been talking to an undercover cop who had recorded the conversation, she admitting trying to hire the officer to kill her husband. Charged with solicitation of murder Sharon Voit landed in the Cook County Jail with her bond set at $10 million.

     After conferring with her attorney, Sharon Voit decided to take back her confession and plead not guilty. The defense lawyer would argue entrapment, that the undercover officer had essentially talked his 51-year-old client into soliciting the murder of her husband. In support of this hard-to-establish defense, the attorney would parse the recorded conversation, noting at one point that Voit had said, "Part of me wants him to get help so it would be better." The defense attorney also planned to highlight the absence of key words such as "hit man," "kill," "murder," and "dead." The attorney must have known that his defense, given the context of the case, would be a hard sell.

     Sharon Voit's trial, held in Skokie, Illinois, got underway in January 2003. As evidence of her guilt, the prosecutor presented the testimony of the Poes, Matt Georgopolous, and Detective John Duffy. Jurors also heard the taped conversation featuring undercover officer,Tim Kaufmann and the defendant. The jury also learned that the defendant had given the officer $600 and the photograph of her husband.

     In anticipation of the insanity defense, the prosecutor arranged, shortly after Sharon's arrest, to have her examined by a pair of state psychiatrists. The doctors took the stand and testified that in their expert opinions, the defendant, at the time of her conversation with the undercover officer, was not legally insane, suffering from the battered woman syndrome, or post-traumatic stress disorder.

     Sharon Voit's attorney had asked Dr. Susan M. Nowak, a Chicago psychiatrist, to examine his client to determine if the effects of her marriage had made her especially vulnerable to being entrapped by an undercover cop. The trial judge accepted Dr. Nowak as an expert witness, but decided to hear her testimony outside the presence of the jury. If Dr. Nowak convinced the judge that the undercover officer had entrapped the defendant, he would direct a verdict of not guilty. Otherwise, the case would go to the jury without Dr. Nowak's testimony.

     Dr. Nowak had investigated Sharon Voit's medical history that included reviewing court documents and psychiatric reports. The psychiatrist had also interviewed Sharon as well as two of her friends. The story of the defendant's life, as related to the court by the psychiatrist, portrayed Dr. Voit as a cruel and abusive husband. According to the doctor, Sharon met Kerry when they were high school sophomores. Five years later they married, and shortly after that, he started hitting her. While working in the office as his dental hygienist, Sharon caught him in the closet using cocaine with a female employee. Over the years the successful dentist had taken other women on lavish trips, showering them with expensive gifts.

     The defense psychiatrist testified that Dr. Voit had forced Sharon to have video-taped, three-way, cocaine-laced sex with him and his friend, Matt Georgopolous. The defendant also told Dr. Nowak that her husband, during "violent" sexual intercourse, would hold a pillow over her face against her will. She had threatened to divorce him several times, but he and his attorney always talked her out of going through with the legal proceeding.

     Dr. Nowak, to a degree of reasonable medical certainty, said that it was her expert opinion that the defendant, while not legally insane, possessed a "dependent personality disorder" that had rendered her vulnerable to police entrapment. The judge ruled that the doctor's testimony did not establish a legal case for entrapment. It wasn't that the judge didn't believe the defendant's characterization of her husband, he just didn't see how it related to the legal defense of entrapment. If anything, the defendant's marital history provided a strong motive for the murder solicitation.

    The Voit trial went forward without Dr Nowak's open court testimony. On January 10, 2003, following a five-hour deliberation, the jury found the defendant guilty as charged. A few weeks later the judge sentenced Sharon Voit to 23 years in prison. Voit's next door neighbor told a reporter she was shocked by the verdict. "They were such a loving couple," she said. "They were just so proud of each other. He talked about what a good cook and golfer she was. She was proud of what a good dentist he was. As time goes by I guess you can't maintain that forever." 

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

The Susan and Sarah Wolfe Murder Case

     Dr. Sarah Wolfe and her sister Susan grew up in Clinton, Iowa. Their father, Jack Wolfe, headed a law firm in Clinton where his wife Pierrette practiced. Mary Wolfe, the eldest child in the family of ten, also a lawyer, had been elected to the Iowa House of Representatives in 2011.

     Since 2007, Dr. Sarah Wolfe, a 38-year-old child and adolescent psychiatrist, had been treating victims of domestic abuse at the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The graduate of Iowa University School of Medicine, she also held the position of Associate Professor in the University of Pittsburgh's Department of Psychiatry.

     In November 2012, 44-year-old Susan Wolfe left her job as a special education teacher in the Chicago public school system. She returned to Clinton where she worked at the YWCA. After Susan moved to Pittsburgh in November 2013, she and her younger sister purchased a 93-year-old, two-story brick house in the East Liberty section of the city. Susan had accepted a job as a teacher's aide at Hillel Academy in Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill neighborhood. At the school she worked with students with behavioral problems.

     On Friday, February 7, 2014, the sisters' co-workers at the psychiatric clinic and the academy became concerned when Sarah and Susan failed to show up for work. This prompted a visit to the Chislett Street house by a Pittsburgh police officer.

     The police officer, at forty-five minutes past noon, knocked on the Wolfe's front door. When no one responded, the officer walked around the dwelling and peeked into windows. Seeing nothing unusual inside the house, the officer headed toward his patrol car. Before he drove off, Matthew Buchholz, a man who identified himself as Sarah Wolfe's boyfriend, approached the officer. The resident of Friendship, Pennsylvania possessed a house key the officer used to enter the dwelling.

     In the basement of the home, the officer discovered the bodies of Sarah and Susan Wolfe. Susan was nude, her sister clothed. They had been each killed by a single bullet to the head. The killer had poured some kind of liquid over one of the bodies in an effort to destroy physical evidence. Susan Wolfe had been badly beaten as well as shot.

     Detectives at the murder scene found no evidence of a forced entry. Dr. Sarah Wolfe's car, a lime green 2011 Ford Fiesta, was not at the house. The vehicle was last seen by a neighbor at 9:25 PM on Thursday, February 6, 2014.

     A police officer, at l:15 in the morning of February 8, spotted the Wolfe vehicle parked about a mile from the scene of the double murder. Crime scene investigators processed the Ford for traces of physical evidence that could shed some light on the murders.

     Homicide detectives theorized that when Dr. Sarah Wolfe arrived home that Thursday night, she walked into a crime in progress. Police found her sister naked and doused with chemicals. Sarah lay nearby at the foot of the basement stairs with her coat half off.

     On Wednesday, February 19, 2014, police officers searched a house next door to the Wolfe sisters' residence and hauled the occupant, a man with a history of burglary and robbery, to police headquarters for interrogation.

     On March 5, 2014, the authorities charged next door neighbor, Allen D. Wade, 43, with two counts of criminal homicide, robbery and theft. A forensic scientist with a private Pittsburgh laboratory found, under Susan Wolfe's fingernails, a mixture of male and female DNA. Traces of Wade's blood were found on a pair of gray sweatpants connected to the murder scene. Detectives took DNA samples from the suspect who denied any involvement in the killings.

     In April 2014, at a preliminary hearing before District Judge John Scott Schricker, a prosecutor with the Allegheny County District Attorneys office presented enough incriminating evidence against Allen Wade to justify moving the case to trial.

     Dectetive Harry Lutton, the lead investigator in the Wolfe double murder, testified that the victims' bank cards had been used by Wade at the Citizens Bank ATM across from the East Liberty Target store.

     Deputy District Attorney Simquita Bridges showed clips from nine surveillance videos showing a man believed to be the suspect using the victims' bank cards. The prosecutor also read the results of a crime laboratory report that identified the defendant's DNA as being under Susan Wolfe's fingernails.

     In May 2014, the district attorneys office announced it would seek the death penalty against Mr. Wade. According to prosecutors, the Wolfe case featured two aggravating circumstances that justified the application of the death sentence. The defendant stood accused of killing Dr. Sarah Wolfe because she witnessed the murder of her sister. Secondly, Mr. Wade was suspected of committing the murder during the commission of a felony.

     Given the fact the current governor of Pennsylvania recently placed moratorium on capital punishment, the death sentence in this case is unlikely.

     On November 16, 2014, the process of selecting a jury got underway in the Allegheny County Courthouse in downtown Pittsburgh. The next day, however, Judge Edward J. Borkowski postponed the murder trial to give defense attorney Lisa Middleman more time to prepare her case. No trial date has been scheduled.

     In February 2016, defense attorney Middleman filed a motion to require the prosecution's DNA expert to reveal the source code used to make the computerized DNA match against her client. Allegheny County Judge Borkowski denied the motion. In response, the defense attorney filed an appeal with the Pennsylvania Superior Court. As a result, Allen Wade's trial, scheduled to start in March 2016, was delayed thirty days.

     The Wade murder trial got underway on May 3, 2016 in Pittsburgh. In her opening remarks to the jury, public defender Middleman said she will challenge the states's DNA evidence. According to the defense attorney, prosecutors sought out the private DNA analyst after experts at the Allegheny County Crime Lab failed to make an identification. Middleman said her client was the victim of a "sloppy investigation," and a rush to judgment.