More than 4,100,000 pageviews from 150 countries


Thursday, October 18, 2018

The Death Penalty: Execute Them Before They Get Too Fat, Too Good, or Too Stupid

     America's weight problem has changed the way we live and die and has affected how we punish, or can't punish, some of our worst criminals. While the U.S. Supreme Court has not prohibited the execution of certain types of murderers, it has mandated that the state must kill condemned prisoners in a "dignified and humane manner." I would argue that how a prisoner is dispatched is less a matter of dignity and humanity than aesthetics. For this reason, death sentence prisoners no longer end up swinging from the end of a rope, being gunned down by a firing squad, or giving off smoke while twitching in an electric chair. These methods, while effective, look unprofessional and barbaric. In states where certain criminals are still executed, the government has to use methods that do not offend our tender sensitivities. The execution business also has to be politically correct. This is why juries have been reluctant to recommend the death sentence for women, people under 21, and folks with low I.Q.s. Of the 3,322 people currently on death row, only 61 are women. Wives convicted of murdering their husbands spend, on average, 6 years in prison. Men who murder their wives are, on average, sent away for 17 years. (In terms of race, 42 percent of the death row population is black, 12 percent Latino, and 44 percent white.)

     Today, death row inmates are killed by lethal injection. This method of execution fits in nicely with our pharmaceutical culture. We take drugs to get well, to sleep, and to get high, so why not use drugs to execute certain murderers in the 31 states where the death penalty is still legal. But now there is a growing concern about executing people with drugs. Over the past twenty years, several death row prisoners have tried to escape their fates by claiming they are too obese to be humanely injected. In Ohio (one of our fattest states), this has been a recurring correctional issue. (West Virginians are fatter than Ohioans, but in that state they have abolished the death penalty. In the Mountaineer State, convicted, overweight murderers probably don't live much longer than those on Ohio's death row.)

     In May 2007, an executioner in Ohio ran into difficulty when he tried to kill, by injection, 38-year-old Christopher Newton. Six years earlier, while serving time for burglary, Newton murdered his cellmate. Now it was his time to go. Because of his weight, which was 265-pounds, it took the executioner two hours and ten attempts to find a receptive vein for the lethal dose of pentobarbital. During the prolonged execution Newton was actually allowed to go to the bathroom. It would be his last bathroom break, however.

     Nineteen-year-old Richard Cooey, in 1986, threw chunks of concrete off a bridge over Interstate 77 near Akron, Ohio. The act caused the deaths of two University of Akron students. As Cooey's execution date drew near, the 5-foot-7, 267 pound inmate alleged that prison food and lack of exercise had made him too fat to painlessly execute. According to the 41-year-old Ohio prisoner, the executioner's difficulty in finding a friendly vein would cause him stress and discomfort. On October 14, 2008, the Ohio executioner, probably under a little stress himself, had no problem introducing the pentobarbital into Mr. Cooey's system.

     In 1983, Ronald Post murdered Helen Vantz, a hotel desk clerk in Elyria, Ohio. A jury found him guilty and a judge sentenced him to death. There wasn't then, nor now, any question regarding his guilt. Because Post didn't exercise and ate too much, he ballooned-up to 400 pounds. In an effort to get control of his weight, Post asked the government to pay for gastric bypass surgery. (Had he been incarcerated in Massachusetts, Post could have gotten his gastric surgery plus, if he wanted, a sex change operation. Ohio is cruel that way.)

     In 1997, claiming that prison health care providers were having difficulty finding his veins for medication, Ronald Post argued that to execute him this way would amount to a violation of his Eighth Amendment right against cruel and unusual punishment.

     After the federal appellate judge refused to take Ronald Post off death row, prison authorities in Ohio scheduled his execution by lethal injection for January 16, 2013. In November 2012, Mr. Post, claiming to weigh 480 pounds, filed another appeal in which he argued that he had grown so fat his veins were even less accessible. Not only that, the prison didn't own a gurney sturdy enough to roll him into the death chamber. According to Post's attorney, executing his client under those circumstances would comprise "a substantial risk that any attempt to execute him will result in serious physical and psychological pain to him...." The lawyer added that Mr. Post's execution would consist of "a torturous and lingering death."

     State authorities opposing Ronald Post's attempt to see the other side of January 16, 2013, argued that in fact the death row inmate only weighted 396 pounds. In this case it really didn't matter how much this man weighed. The federal appeals court in Cincinnati had already ruled against Mr. Post on the weight issue. Moreover, the state of Ohio, given all of its resources, could probably find a heavy-duty gurney and an executioner who can locate hard-to-find veins. This killer's execution became a moot issue however when, on December 17, 2013, Governor John Kasich granted Ronald Post clemency on the grounds he had poor legal representation at his trial.

     If our procedurally oriented criminal justice system were efficient and reliable enough to dispatch first-degree murderers within two years of their convictions, death row inmates wouldn't have time to get so fat. After ten or twenty years on death row, many of these inmates also find religion and become different people. The person being executed is not the same person who committed the crime. (The Karla Faye Tucker case in Texas is a good example of this. While on death row, Karla found Jesus. To the dismay of protesting evangelicals, Texas went ahead and executed her anyway. I don't think the state has dispatched a female since.)

     There are death row inmates who, while smart enough to have committed first-degree murder, when it comes time to execute them, are too stupid to kill. It seems cruel and unusual to execute slow-witted killers. So, if a death row inmate isn't fat, or hasn't found Jesus, he can pretend to be stupid. (Hell, who can't flunk an I.Q. test? What's tough is pretending to be smart.)

     The way it's administered, the death penalty isn't worth the effort. If there is anything "torturous and lingering" about the execution process, it's the time and money it takes to dispatch these brutal, inhumane killers. 

The Celina Cass Murder Case

     In July 2011, eleven-year-old Celina Cass lived in West Stewartstown, New Hampshire, a village of 800 in the northern part of the state not far from the Vermont/Canadian border. She resided in an apartment with her mother Louisa, her stepfather Wendell Noyes, her 13-year-old sister Kayla, and 22-year-old Kevin Mullaney, the son of her mother's former boyfriend.

    Luisa Cass, on July 26, 2011, reported Celina missing. The mother last saw her daughter at nine the previous night before Celina and Kayla slept over at a friend's house. (Details of what happened that night and exactly when Celina went missing are sketchy.)

     Celina's disappearance triggered a massive search that involved 100 police officers, hundreds of searchers, police dogs, and thousands of missing person posters. The FBI posted a $25,000 reward.

     At ten-thirty in the morning of August 1, 2011, a person spotted a body at the edge of the Connecticut River about a half mile from Celina Cass' apartment. The corpse, found at a popular fishing spot near a dam and a railroad trestle, turned out to be the missing girl. (For some reason, emergency personnel did not pull the body out of the river until ten-thirty that night.)

     The medical examiner, without revealing the cause of death, ruled the case a criminal homicide. Following the autopsy, a mortician cremated the corpse.

     Within a few months following the murder, Louisa Cass and Wendell Noyes, her 47-year-old husband, separated. In 2003, psychiatrists diagnosed Noyes with paranoid schizophrenia and committed him to a state mental facility. The diagnosis and commitment took place after Noyes broke into the home of an ex-girlfriend and threatened to hurt her. After that commitment and release, Noyes was in and out of several psychiatric wards.

     On January 10, 2012, police arrested Kevin Mullaney, the son of Louisa Cass' former boyfriend. The 22-year-old stood accused of a variety of crimes that included forging Lousia Cass' signature on a $250 check. Officers booked him into the Coos County Jail on charges of receiving stolen property, reckless conduct, and possession of a weapon by a felon.

     A jury, on June 12, 2012, found Mullaney guilty as charged. The judge sentenced him to two to six years in prison.

     In December 2013, with the Cass murder still unsolved, the apartment she and her family resided in went up in flames. No one was hurt. (The cause and origin of that fire was not publicly revealed.) Louisa and her daughter Kayla moved in with Kevin Mullaney's father.

     Residents of the New Hampshire community were frustrated that the Cass murder case remained unsolved. New Hampshire Senior Assistant Attorney General Jane Young told an Associated Press reporter in July 2015 that the case was still being actively investigated. However, Marcia Laro, the victim's paternal grandmother, told that reporter that she hadn't spoken to an investigator for well over a year.

     The New Hampshire Attorney General's office, on June 20, 2016, announced that detectives working on the Cass case had arrested Wendell Noyes, the victim's stepfather. Louisa Cass, the girl's mother, in speaking to a local television reporter, said, "I hope he rots."

    In February 2017, the state attorney general's office dropped the murder charge against the 54-year-old Wendell Noyes on the ground he was mentally unfit to stand trial. Instead, Noyes was committed to the state psychiatric hospital for a minimum of five years. If at any point the patient's doctors consider him mentally fit, the murder charge can be refiled. With a long history of mental illness, it is unlikely Noyes will ever be tried for this horrific murder.

Hanging Offenses

A hundred and sixty years ago there were 200 offenses for which a man, woman or child [in England] could be hanged. One could be hanged for cutting down a tree or for associating with gypsies: but, very strangely, not for associating with politicians.

Charles Duff, A Handbook on Hanging, a 2001 reprint of the 1961 classic

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Erika Murray's Squalid House of Horrors

     In 2001, 17-year-old Erika Murray met a 25-year-old McDonald's employee from Framingham, Massachusetts named Ramon Rivera. They moved into his parents' home where less than a year later she gave birth to their first child. Three years later, when they were expecting their second child, they moved into a home a few blocks from the police department in Blackstone, Massachusetts, a town of 10,000 on the Rhode Island state line 50 miles southwest of Boston. The dwelling was owned by Rivera's sister who resided there as well. At that time Rivera had a job at a Staples office supply store as a sales clerk.

     In 2006, Rivera's sister moved out of the house. A year after that, a social worker with the Department of Children and Families (DCF) visited the house on St. Paul Street following a complaint of filthy living conditions. The DCF employee recommended some household upgrades. Because the children didn't seem in danger, the social worker closed the case.

     After Ramon Rivera made it clear to Erika Murray that he didn't want any more children, Erika, in 2011, gave birth to a girl. Somehow she had managed to keep the birth a secret. To conceal the true identify of the infant, she told Rivera she was babysitting the child for another woman. In April 2014, Murray, in secret, gave birth to the couple's fourth child. She explained away that baby with the same babysitting story. As a result of the secrecy surrounding the births of her last two children, there are no official records of their existence.

     On August 28, 2014, the second oldest child in the house went to a neighbor and asked, "How do you get a baby to stop crying?"

     The neighbor entered the house on St. Paul Street with the 10-year-old boy and was shocked by what she encountered. The crying 5-month-old was covered in feces. Inside the dwelling there were piles of trash one to two feet deep that included used diapers. The neighbor called the police.

      Police officers and DCF personnel found the interior of the Murray/Rivera house infested with flies, various other bugs, and mice. The four children were immediately removed from the dwelling and placed into temporary foster care.

     Officers also found, in the basement of the house, a marijuana plant beneath a grow-light. Officers also came across jars of marijuana buds and bags of cannabis. Officers booked Rivera into the Worcester County Jail on charges of possession and cultivation of marijuana with the intent to distribute.

     On Wednesday night, September 10, 2014, police officers in Hazmat suits armed with a search warrant returned to the 1,500 square foot house. Amid the squalor they found a dead dog and two dead cats. In a closet they discovered the remains of a baby. The following day, searchers recovered the bodies of two more infants.

     On September 10, at his marijuana charges arraignment, the judge released the 37-year-old Rivera from custody on his own recognizance.
 
     The younger children, the two born in secret, had spent their lives inside that house. The 3-year-old had poor muscle tone and couldn't walk. The baby showed signs of having lived entirely in the dark and had maggots in its ears.

     Murray's court-appointed attorney, Keith Halpern, said this to reporters about his client: "She was frozen in this nightmare. She couldn't get out of it." The attorney telegraphed his defense by suggesting that Murray was mentally ill.

     On Tuesday, October 14, 2014, Worcester County prosecutor John Bradley announced that at least two of the infants whose remains were found in Murray's house had been alive for some period of time. The children were dressed in onesies and diapers. A third infant was found in a backpack.

     The judge, at Murray's October 14 bail hearing set the 31-year-old mother's bond at $1 million. Earlier, at her arraignment, she had pleaded not guilty to all charges.

     Murray's boyfriend and the father of her children, Ramon Rivera III, claimed that he did not know about the dead infants. The authorities did not charge him in connection with the gruesome discoveries inside his house. According to the prosecutor, Murray had instructed her two oldest children to lie to their father about the babies.

     On December 29, 2014, a grand jury sitting in Worcester, Massachusetts indicted Erika Murray on two counts of murder, one count of fetal death concealment related to the remains of the three babies, and two counts of assault and battery in connection with the neglected and abused children. According to prosecutor John Bradley, two of the dead babies had lived from one week to a month.

     In speaking to reporters, the prosecutor said that the defendant had admitted to investigators that knowing that her boyfriend didn't want any more children after the first two, they continued to have unprotected sex. She gave birth to all of the babies in the home's only bathroom, and birthed the children herself. She hid their tiny corpses among the trash in the squalid dwelling.

     At her arraignment hearing, Murray pleaded not guilty to all five of the grand jury charges. Her attorney, Keith Halpern, argued that the prosecution had no physical evidence regarding how long the babies had been alive or how they had died. He said, "The forensic pathologist testified before the grand jury that it was impossible to determine the cause of death of all three dead infants. The evidence of severe harm to the younger children is clear. The issue in this case is Ms. Murray's state of mind. The children were not the only ones that never left that house. She lived in those conditions for years and hardly ever left that house."

     Outside the courthouse, in speaking to reporters, the defense attorney said that his client had laid one of the babies down for a nap, came back an hour or two later and found the infant dead.

     On December 22, 2016, defense attorney Helpern argued at a preliminary hearing that the police search of the defendant's house on September 10, 2014 exceeded the scope of the warrant and was therefore unconstitutional. As a result, according to the attorney, the evidence recovered pursuant to that search was inadmissible

     On March 13, 2017, Judge Janet Kenton-Walker denied the defense motion to suppress the evidence produced by the search in question. That meant that the murder case would proceed to trial. In the meantime, Murray was held, without bond, at the Western Massachusetts Regional Correctional Center in Worcester. 

The Suspicious Deaths of Max Shacknai and Rebecca Zahau

     Rebecca Zahau was born on March 15, 1979 in the town of Falam in northwestern Burma. Her family moved to Nepal and then to Germany before coming to the United States in 2000. The family settled in Saint Joseph, Missouri.

     In 2008, Zahau was living in Scottsdale, Arizona and married to a man named Neil Nalepa. At this time, she started dating 50-year-old Jonah Shacknai, the CEO and founder of Medicis Pharmaceutical Company. The single mogul with a pair of former wives, lived in Scottsdale. In 2011, Shacknai moved into an historic mansion in Coronado, California that had been built in 1908 by John D. Spreckel. Mr. Spreckel had owned the nearby Hotel del Coronado as well as other southern California real estate.  The 13,000 square-foot dwelling featured 27 rooms and a guest house.

     In February 2011, Rebecca divorced Neil Nalepa and moved into the San Diego County mansion with Jonah Shacknai and his 6-year-old son from his second wife. The 32-year-old live-in girlfriend worked as a technician in an ophthalmologist's office.

     On July 11, 2011, Rebecca Zahau and her visiting 13-year-old sister Xena were in the Coronado mansion looking after 6-year-old Max Aaron Shacknai. That morning, Rebecca called 911 to report an accident. Max, while running down an elevated hallway or balcony above the lobby-like entrance to the house, had gone over the banister.  Next to his body lay the large chandelier that had hung from the ceiling not far from where the boy had fallen. Investigators with the Coronado Police Department assumed the boy had grabbed the chandelier to break his fall. He suffered spinal cord injuries and serious head trauma and had slipped into a coma.

     The next day, Rebecca Zahau drove Xena to the airport for her flight back to Saint Joseph, Missouri. She also picked-up Jonah's brother Adam who had arrived on a flight from Memphis. That evening, Zahau, Adam, Jonah, and a friend of his ate dinner at a McDonald's. Adam and Rebecca returned to the mansion while Jonah and Max's mother, Dina Shacknai (nee Romano), sat at their son's bedside. Later that night, Jonah called Rebecca to report that Max wasn't going to make it. They were taking the boy off life-support.

     The next day, July 13, 2011 at 6:45 in the morning, Adam Shacknai called 911 and reported that he had discovered Rebecca Zahau hanging by the neck from the balcony. She was nude. Acting on instructions from the 911 dispatcher, Adam cut down the body.

     Deputies from the San Diego Sheriff's Office found the dead woman lying on the back lawn of the mansion. She was gagged with a blue, long-sleeve cotton T-shirt that was also wrapped around her neck with the sleeves tied into a double knot. Her hands were bound behind her back with a length of red rope. Her ankles were also tied together with a piece of the red cordage. On a bedroom door not far from where Adam Shacknai found Rebecca hanging, someone in cursive writing using black paint had written: "She saved him you can save her."

     Dr. Jonathan Lucas, the San Diego County Medical Examiner, performed the autopsy. He found four hemorrhages under Zahau's scalp (but no lacerations), and evidence of tape residue on her legs. The forensic pathologist found traces of blood on her legs as well.

     On July 16, 2011, Max Shacknai died. Ten days later, Dr. Lucas announced that the boy had died from brain swelling and cardiac arrest. The medical examiner determined the manner of death to be accidental. Dr. Lucas's ruling in the death was immediately questioned by a trauma physician who had treated Max. In this doctor's opinion, someone had tried to suffocate the child before throwing him off the balcony. In other words, he had been murdered.

     As soon as news of Zahau's bizarre death came out, people began speculating about whether or not a murderer had staged a suicide. Commentators were saying that no woman had ever taken off her clothes, gagged herself, bound her hands and ankles, then hanged herself. Late in July, 2011, San Diego Sheriff's Office Sergeant Roy Frank said this to a reporter: "There are documentations of incidents throughout the country where people have secured their feet and hands to commit suicide. They do it to make certain they can't escape if they change their minds."

     On September 2, 2011, San Diego Sheriff Bill Gore, amid rampent speculation of foul play, announced that Rebecca Zahau's death was a suicide. Distraught over Max Shacknai's accident on her watch, she had hanged herself. The sheriff's office had therefore closed the case.

     Four days after Sheriff Gore's press conference, Dr. Jonathan Lucas, in response to a massive wave of skepticism regarding his manner of death ruling, issued the following statement regarding the hemorrhages under Zahau's scalp: "Because there was evidence that she went over the balcony in a non-vertical way (She dove over the railing?), she may have struck her head on the balcony on the way down." In addressing the blood on Zahau's legs, the forensic pathologist identified the cause as either a menstrual period, or an intrauterine device. The medical examiner offered no explanation for the presence of the tape residue.

     The next day, September 7, 2011, Dr. Maurice Godwin, a private forensic consultant from Fayetteville, North Carolina with a Ph.D in criminal psychology, told a reporter that Zahau's death had all the earmarks of a "ritualistic killing," and that the suicide had been staged. In Dr. Godwin's opinion, someone had dazed Zahau with a blow to the head, then tossed her off the balcony.

     In the same newspaper article, Dr. Lawrence Kobilnsky, a DNA expert who taught at City University of New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice, opined that the medical examiner's suicide manner of death determination was "premature." Dr. Kobilnsky said he believed that someone had delivered a substantial blow to Zahau's head. The forensic scientist said, "The chances of bumping into the railing, going over the balcony and hitting your head four times is highly unlikely."

     Dr. Werner Spitz, a highly respected forensic pathologist, in the same piece, said he thought the San Diego medical examiner's manner of death ruling in the case made sense.

     In the summer of 2011, Rebecca Zahau's family hired a lawyer from Seattle named Anne Bremner to represent their interests in the case and to pressure the San Diego Sheriff's Office to re-open the investigation of Zahau's death. According to one of Zahau's sisters, a nurse practitioner who had spoken to her almost every day, Rebecca had no psychiatric history, and had never attempted suicide. Attorney Bremner, pursuant to the family's quest to have the case re-investigated, asked the San Diego County District Attorney and the state Attorney General to get involved. The district attorney's office and the attorney general, declined.

     On November 15, 2011, Dr. Cyril Wecht, the celebrity forensic pathologist from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, appeared on the "Dr. Phil" television show to voice his professional opinion regarding the cause and manner of Rebecca Zahau's strange and sudden death. Dr. Wecht, at the behest of attorney Anne Bremner, had performed a second autopsy of the victim's exhumed body. While he found Dr. Lucas' initial autopsy thorough, Dr. Wecht questioned the medical examiner's suicide manner of death determination. Wecht said the four hemorrhages beneath the scalp could not have been caused by hanging. "You have to have blunt force trauma for that," he said. "You have something of a rounded, smooth surface that impacts against the scalp, this not producing a laceration." According to Dr. Wecht, Zahau could have been knocked unconscious, which would explain why her body did not have any defense wounds from a struggle. The former coroner of Allegheny County agreed that the woman had died from hanging, but believed her manner of death should be changed from "suicidal" to "undetermined."

     Dina Shacknai, Max Shacknai's mother, in order to acquire the boy's autopsy photographs, filed a suit against the San Diego Medical Examiner's Office on April 12, 2012. Dina and her supporters were looking for proof that someone had murdered the 6-year-old boy. They did not believe the wounds on his head had been caused by the fall. (It's not clear if they suspected Rebecca or her sister Xena, or what motive they assigned to the homicide.)

     On July 16, 2012, the one-year anniversary of Max Shacknai's death, Dina Shacknai and her attorney, Angela Hallier, held a press conference in Phoenix. According to the lawyer, the family possessed information from "privately retained experts" that proved the 6-year-old had been murdered at the Coronado mansion.

     On August 6, 2012, a spokesperson for the Coronado Police Department confirmed they had met with Dina Shacknai and her attorney regarding Max Shacknai's death. Police investigators agreed to read the report containing the opinions of forensic scientists who believed the boy could have been murdered. One of those experts, Dr. Judy Melinek, a forensic pathologist with the San Francisco Medical Examiner's Office, reportedly believed that Max was too small to have gone over the balcony railing. Moreover, she believed his head injuries were not consistent with a fall.

     So, what happened to Max Shacknai and Rebecca Zahau? Within a period of two days, they both went over different balconies in the same house. What were the odds of that? If Rebecca had killed herself over the boy's fall, why did she do it in such a bizarre and suspicious way? And what was the meaning of the message painted on the bedroom door? And who wrote it?

     Assuming that Max had been thrown off the balcony to his eventual death, who did it, and why? If Rebecca had been murdered, was it in revenge for the boy's homicide? And finally, will these questions ever be answered?

     On September 10, 2012, a spokesperson for the Coronado police announced there would be no reinvestigation of 6-year-old Max Shacknai's death. Investigators believed that the boy tripped while running, grabbed a chandelier, hit his back on the banister, and fell to his death.

     In July 2013, Rebecca Zahau's family, believing that her death was the result of criminal wrongdoing, filed a $10 million wrongful death lawsuit against Adam Schackai and Dina Shackai. The plaintiffs alleged that the defendants battered Rebecca then hanged her from the mansion's balcony.

     On March 11, 2016, following a flurry of defense motions in response to the plaintiffs' suit, a San Diego Superior Court judge ruled there was sufficient evidence for the case to proceed to trial. As of February 2017, the civil action remained untried and unresolved. 

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles on Candy Cigarettes

Growing up I got hooked on candy cigarettes. But because those little suckers were so hard to light, I eventually switched to the real thing.

Thornton P. Knowles

The Selena Irene York Poisoned Smoothie Case

     Selena Irene York, and her teenage daughter, after falling on hard times, were taken in by 79-year-old Ed Zurbuchen who let them live in his Vernal, Utah home. On September 29, 2008, his 33-year-old house guest gave him a peach smoothie. Shortly after drinking it, the old man was taken to the hospital complaining of dizziness, numbness of the face, and speech difficulties. At first, doctors thought he had suffered a stroke. After four days in the hospital, Mr. Zurbuchen underwent a series of liver and kidney tests that revealed he had ingested ethylene glycol, the main ingredient in anti-freeze.

     Although Selena York had given Mr. Zuburchen the drink that had made him sick, had made herself the beneficiary of his life insurance policy, and had taken control of his bank account, he didn't want to press charges against her. Without the victim's cooperation and testimony, the Uintah County prosecutor didn't have a case. In 2009, the suspect and her daughter moved to Eugene, Oregon. Although the authorities in Utah believed York had tried to murder the old man, the investigation went cold.

     On April 2011, the poisoning case came back to life when the Uintah County prosecutor received a letter from Joseph Dominic Ferraro, Selena York's former boyfriend, and the father of her child. Ferraro, who was in jail for sexual assault, had been living with York and his daughter in Eugene, Oregon. According to Ferraro, York had bragged to him about poisoning an old man in Utah in an effort to kill him so she could take over his estate. Since York had drained Ferraro's bank account, and sold both of his cars while he sat in jail, he believed her story. And so did the authorities in Utah.

     In June, police arrested York in Eugene on the charge of attempted murder. After being extradited back to Utah, York, in exchange for the reduced charges of aggravated assault and forgery, confessed to poisoning Mr. Zuburchen. She said she had purchased the smoothie at a nearby store, dumped out half of its contents, then poured in the antifreeze. After his death, she planned to gain power of attorney over his estate. Before she had left Utah after the failed homicide, York forged a check on the victim's bank account for $10,000.

     In December 2011, Selena York was allowed to plead no contest to the reduced charges of aggravated assault and forgery. Two months later, the judge sentenced her to three consecutive five-year prison terms. (It's doubtful she will serve 15 years behind bars.) Had Mr. Zubuchen died of poisoning, York would have been eligible for the death sentence. Had she not ripped-off Mr. Ferraro (who was convicted of 21 felony sexual abuse counts), she would have gotten away with attempted murder. This woman was a cold-blooded killer, a sociopath who should never get out of prison.

     Mr. Ferraro, the father of York's child who informed on her, was sentenced to ten years in prison on the sexual abuse case. However, he won an appeal that led to the overturning of his conviction. The trial judge had improperly denied Ferraro's motion to postpone his trial in order to acquire more time for his attorney to prepare his defense. The Lane County prosecutor, rather than schedule a second trial, allowed Ferraro to plead guilty to a single count of second-degree sodomy. Sentenced to three years on that charge, the sex offender walked free because he had already served four years on the multiple felony conviction. Because of a legal technicality, this sexual criminal got off light.

     Because our criminal justice system is overwhelmed by criminality, it is distorted and ineffective due to the need for plea bargaining which keeps the whole system afloat. Without it, the entire mess would collapse. While certain politicians would like to empty our prisons, I think society would be better off with a much larger prison population. This case makes a good argument for that proposition. 

Amish Girl's Amazing Cancer Recovery

     In Ohio, doctors at Akron Children's Hospital, in April 2013, diagnosed 10-year-old Sarah Hershberger with lymphoblastic lymphoma, an aggressive form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The Amish girl's parents, Andy and Anna Hershberger, when told that 85 percent of the patients treated for this illness survive, agreed to a two-year chemotherapy program. After the first round of the chemotherapy, the tumors on Sarah's neck, chest and kidneys were diminished.

     In June 2013, after a second round of chemotherapy treatment made their daughter extremely ill, the Hershbergers decided to stop the treatment. They took this action against the advice of cancer doctors who warned them that without the chemotherapy, Sarah would die.

     The hospital authorities, believing they were morally and legally bound to continue treating the girl, went to court to take away the parents' right to make medical decisions on their daughter's behalf.

     Andy and Anna Hershberger, in September 2013, took Sarah to an alternative cancer treatment center in Central America where doctors put the girl on a regimen of herbs and vitamins. When the family returned to the United States, hospital scans showed no signs of the lymphoma.

     On October 13, 2013, an Ohio appellate court judge granted Maria Schimer, an attorney and licensed nurse, limited guardianship over Sarah Hershberger. The guardianship included the power to make medical decisions on her behalf over the objections of her parents.

     Shortly after the court ruling, the guardian sent a taxi out to the family farm near the village of Spencer, Ohio to fetch Sarah and take her to the hospital in Akron for additional chemotherapy. When the cab arrived at the Medina County home located 35 miles southwest of the Cleveland metropolitan area, the family was gone.

     A few weeks later, pursuant to a welfare check on Sarah, deputy sheriffs went to the farm to find the place unoccupied. No one in the Amish community seemed to know where the Hershbergers were hiding out. If members of this Amish enclave knew the family's whereabouts, they weren't cooperating with the authorities. Attorneys for the Hershberger family appealed the guardianship ruling to the Ohio Supreme Court on issues related to religious freedom.

     If Sarah Hershberger's fate remained in her parents' hands, and she died from the cancer, Mr. and Mrs. Hershberger could face negligent homicide charges. Moreover, people who helped them avoid the authorities could be charged as accomplices to the crime. The right of religious freedom does not match  the right of a child to receive life-saving healthcare. Being given vitamins and herbs as a cancer cure, while less painful than the immediate aftermath of chemotherapy, did not qualify, in the eyes of the medical profession and the law, as adequate healthcare.

     On December 6, 2013, according to media reports, the court appointed guardian decided not to force Sarah Hershberger to undergo further chemotherapy treatments. The family's whereabouts were still unknown.

     In October 2015, MRIs and blood work performed at the Cleveland Clinic revealed that Sarah Hershberrger showed no signs of cancer, and appeared to be in perfect health. As a result of these medical tests, the family judge ended the court-ordered guardianship of the Amish girl. 

Christopher Hitchens on The Atrocities of Hanging

Having resolved to be done with the vulgar populist spectacle of the public execution, the British Establishment decided to become demure to the point of obsession. Hangmen became more like anonymous civil servants; secrecy and discretion veiled the proceedings; pious little notes posted on the front gates of prisons where the only public notification that a "working-off" had taken place at all. Yet an assiduous reporter or attorney could compile a whole anthology of atrocity and indecency, lurking shadily behind this pretense. The hangman who took a little too much drink to steady his hand; the plastic underwear proffered to female victims; the rope that slipped and causes slow strangulation; the rope that was poorly judged and caused decapitation; the rope that broke; the second and third attempts to "work off" miscreants who didn't expire the first time.

Christopher Hitchens, Introduction to The Handbook of Hanging (2001 reprint of 1961 edition) by Charles Duff

Monday, October 15, 2018

The Edgar Steele Murder-For-Hire Case

     Edgar J. Steele, in 2010, resided with his wife Cyndi on a horse ranch near the town of Sagle in northern Idaho. Ten years earlier the lawyer, who billed himself as the "attorney for the damned," represented Aryan Nations founder and leader Richard Butler in a civil suit the white supremacist lost.

     In January 2010, the 65-year-old Steele solicited a man (who was not identified in the media) to kill his 50-year-old wife and her mother by staging a fatal car accident. According to the murder-for-hire plan, Steele would pay the hit man $25,000. If his wife's life insurance paid off, Steele would kick in an additional $100,000 for the double-hit.

     On June 9, 2010, the man Steele had solicited for murder got cold feet and called the FBI. The next time the would-be hit man and the mastermind met, the snitch secretly recorded Steele soliciting the murders of his wife and his mother-in-law.

     Two days after the FBI learned of the murder-for-hire plot, agents arrested Steele at his home. While the attorney sat in the Kootenai County Jail, FBI agents questioned his wife.

     According to Cyndi Steele, between 2000 and 2010, her husband had sent 14,000 emails to hundreds of Ukrainian women. In 2000, she caught him soliciting relationships with Ukrainian women on Match.com. To lay a trap, Cyndi posted a phony profile of her own on Match.com under a fake name. Steele replied to her posting. Not long after Cyndi filed for divorce, she and her husband reconciled.

     A few days following Steele's arrest, Cyndi decided to get an oil change before driving to Oregon to visit her mother. When an employee of the oil change service looked under her SUV, he discovered a pipe bomb. ATF agents responded to the scene and disarmed the device.

     Shortly after the car bomb discovery, FBI agents arrested Larry Fairfax, a former Steele handyman. Fairfax confessed to planting the car bomb on May 20, 2010. According to Fairfax, Edgar Steele had given him $10,000 in silver coins as a downpayment for the murder of Cyndi and her mother. As part of the murder-for-hire plan, Fairfax was supposed plant a pipe bomb under Edgar Steele's car, a device the murder-for-hire mastermind could detonate to make himself look like an intended victim.

     On June 15, 2010, a grand jury sitting in Coeur d' Arlene indicted Edgar Steele on two counts of using interstate commerce facilities in the commission of murder-for-hire. The grand jury also indicted him for tampering with a federal witness. (From his jail cell, Steele had called his wife to tell her that the voice on the audio tape that contained the murder-for-hire conversation with the FBI snitch was not him.)

     The government provided Steele, who claimed he was broke, with a federal public defender. However, by February 2011, Steele's supporters had raised $120,000 for his defense. That allowed the accused to hire Robert T. McAllister, a prominent trial attorney from Denver.

     In January 2011, Larry Fairfax pleaded guilty to federal charges related to the placing of the pipe bomb on the intended victim's car. In return for his promise to testify against Steele at his upcoming trial, the judge sentenced Fairfax to 27 months in prison.

     The Edgar Steele murder-for-hire trial got underway on April 30, 2011 in Coeur d' Arlene, Idaho before federal judge B. Lynn Winmill. Assistant United States Attorney Traci Jo Whelan, in an effort to establish the defendant's motive in the case, introduced several love letters Steele had written from his jail cell to a Ukrainian woman named Tatyana Loginova.

     The prosecutor also introduced the audio taped murder-for-hire conversations between Steele and Larry Fairfax. The former handyman took the stand and explained why he had planted the pipe bomb under Cyndi Steele's SUV.

     Defense attorney Robert McAllister portrayed the government's case against his client as a conspiracy based on fabricated audio tapes, perjured testimony, and FBI wrongdoing. According to McAllister, the federal government objected to Steele's political beliefs and wanted to silence him.

     Cyndi Steele, one of the intended victims, took the stand to testify on her husband's behalf. (This was not the first time in a murder-for-hire case where the targeted wife stood by the husband who had plotted her death.)

     On May 5, 2011, the jury of eleven women and one man found Edgar Steele guilty on all counts. Seven months after this verdict, Judge Winmill sentenced the murder-for-hire mastermind to fifty years in prison at the federal corrections facility at Victorville, California.

     Steele, with the help of a new lawyer, appealed his conviction to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. According to the appellant, Judge Winmill had improperly instructed the jury. Steele also claimed that he had been denied adequate counsel. This assertion was based on the fact that one month after the guilty verdict, attorney McAllister was disbarred for stealing money in an unrelated case. As a result, he had been so distracted by his own legal problems that he hadn't performed well for Steele.

     In October 2013, the three-judge panel sitting on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed Steel's murder-for-hire conviction. The decision, however, did not deter Steele's ardent supporters, people who claimed the FBI framed him because of his anti-government politics. They continued, without result, to fight for his freedom.
     

Thornton P. Knowles On The Term "Anti-Social Behavior"

I guess it was sometime in the 1960s that criminologists came up with the useless and imprecise term "anti-social behavior." Like most social science jargon, the phrase, while virtually meaningless, sounds intellectually profound. But what in the hell does it mean? In some places exercising free speech is considered anti-social behavior. So is buying a gun; being rude and insensitive; protesting government policy; or acquiring a legal abortion. In other words, this vague, pliable term can be used to describe everything from mass murder to a fart in church. It's mainly a value judgment. People cannot effectively communicate using such jargon which is the enemy of precise language, understanding, and clarity of thought. Bad behavior can be more precisely described, for example, as offensive, inappropriate, stupid, dangerous, greedy, immoral, deviant, dishonest, or criminal. Moreover, bad behavior comes in degrees of badness.

Thornton P. Knowles

Sunday, October 14, 2018

The Pallavi Dhawan Double Murder-Suicide Case

     Sumeet and Pallavi Dhawan, before becoming naturalized U.S. citizens, were married by arrangement in their native home country, India. In 2014, the couple and their 10-year-old son Arnav resided in Frisco, a suburban community north of Dallas, Texas. A computer programmer, Sumeet spent a lot of time away from home. Pallavi had worked in the computer field as well but quit her job to care full time for their special-needs son.

     Arnav, a fifth grade student at Isbell Elementary School was born with a brain cyst and microcephaly, a condition characterized by a smaller than normal head. Pallavi often found herself alone in the house caring for the boy during her husband's extended absences. Recently she had been coping with mental problems and a marriage that was falling apart.

     On Wednesday, January 29, 2014, Sumeet, while on a three week business trip, received an email from Arnav's school informing him that the boy had been absent several days. At 4:30 PM that afternoon, as he was about to arrive home, Sumeet called Pallavi who said she was just leaving the house to pick up Arnav at his after-school tutoring center.

     At 6:30 PM that evening, when Pallavi and the boy had yet to arrive home from the school, Sumeet, concerned about their welfare, called the police.

     Pallavi arrived home, without the boy, while police officers were questioning Sumeet. An officer speaking to the mother asked about Arnav. Where is he? Instead of answering the officer, Pallavi asked if she could speak to her husband privately. The officers backed away.

     Sumeet became visibly upset when Pallavi, referring to their son, said: "He is no more." The distraught father informed the officers that Arnav was in the locked bathroom.

     Inside the dry bathtub officers found the dead boy wrapped up to his neck in a cloth. His body was surrounded by several empty plastic bags.

     The day after the discovery of the dead child, the Collin County medical examiner, without issuing a statement regarding the specific cause of death, ruled the case a homicide. The cause of death was being withheld pending the results of toxicological tests. According to the forensic pathologist, the boy had been dead two days.

     On Thursday, January 30, 2014, police officers booked Pallavi Dhawan into the Frisco City Jail on the charge of capital murder. According to the police, before officers entered the bathroom, one of them asked Pallavi if she had killed her son. She responded by nodding her head in the affirmative. When asked if the body was in the bathroom, she also nodded her head yes.

     On Friday, January 31, 2014, just after midnight, Pallavi's attorney, David Finn, posted her $50,000 bail. Later that day, in speaking to reporters, the Dallas based defense attorney insisted that his client, when she nodded her head in the affirmative, had responded to the question regarding her son's whereabouts, not to the question about whether she had killed him. The police simply misunderstood and misinterpreted what they saw.

     Pointing out that the boy's body showed no signs of physical trauma, and that his lungs did not contain water, attorney Finn announced that he would ask Dr. Nizam Peerwani, the Fort Worth based chief medical examiner of Tarrant County, to conduct his own postmortem inquiry.

     Attorney Finn said that his client had doted on her son, a happy, fun-loving kid. He also claimed that Sumeet Dhawan did not believe his wife had killed their son, and that he stood by her. A reporter asked the attorney why the mother didn't notify the authorities after her son's death. "That's the million-dollar question," Finn replied. Pallavi, he speculated, was probably in a state of shock after Arnav's death. She may have been waiting for her husband to come home.

     In August 2014, Pallavi and Sumeet Dhawan testified before a Collin County Grand Jury looking into the death of their son. In January, the couple had petitioned the authorities to return their car, fax machine and passports, items seized pursuant to the investigation of Arnav's death. The Dhawans had been forced to rent a car and needed their passports to travel back to India.

     On September 3, 2014, police officers arrived at the Dhawan residence at three in the afternoon in response to a 911 call regarding a body floating in the home swimming pool. Inside the house, lying on a bed, searchers discovered a man's body. The dead adults were presumed to be Pallavi and Sumeet Dhawan.

     The medical examiner, on September 6, 2014, confirmed the identities of the deceased couple. Sumeet had suffered blunt force trauma to his head. One of his hands had been fractured, probably as he raised that hand in defense.

     In October 2014, a spokesperson for the Collin County Medical Examiner's Office announced that Pallavi Dhawan had killed herself. She had drowned under the influence of the common antihistamine diphenhydramine. Sumeet Dhawan, according to the medical examiner's office, had been murdered by his wife. He had died from a combination of blunt force head injures and a toxic dose of several over-the-counter medications.
     

Prosecuting Rapists

My first lesson about sex-crimes prosecution was that perpetrators were not the only enemy. There is a large, more or less hidden population of what I later came to call collaborators within the criminal justice system. Whether if comes from a police officer or a defense attorney, a judge or a court clerk or a prosecutor, there seems to be a residuum of empathy for rapists that crosses all gender, class, and professional barriers. It gets expressed in different ways, from victim-bashing to jokes in poor taste, and too often it results in giving the rapist a break.

Alice Vachss, Sex Crimes, 1993

Claiming Self Defense

     We went to a scene where the husband shot his wife. His story was she came at him with a knife and tried to stab him. So he was saying he killed her in self-defense. But there were a couple of things that just didn't make sense.

     There was a knife in her hand. But it was in the wrong direction to be used as a stabbing-type instrument. It was apparent that he had placed the knife in her hand after he shot her and probably, in his panic, faced it the wrong way.

     There was blood on the palm of her hand where she had touched the entrance wound when she was shot. The normal reaction is to grab where it hurts. and she did. And she had blood on her hand, but there was no blood on the knife.

Crime scene investigator in Crime Scene by Connie Fletcher, 2006

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Lizzie Borden to O. J. Simpson: The Disappointing History of Forensic Science

     The historical trajectory of forensic science can be illustrated by three celebrated murder trials: The Lizzie Borden case in 1892; the 1932 murder of the Lindbergh baby and trial of Bruno Richard Hauptmann; and the O. J. Simpson double murder and marathon trial of the mid-1990s. Starting with the Borden case, the arc rises to the Lindbergh investigation and trial, then falls to the bungled Simpson crime scene investigation and subsequent trial featuring investigative and forensic incompetence, hired-gun testimony, and televised courtroom showboating and baffoonery.

Lizzie Borden

     While Lizzie Borden may have had the opportunity, motive, and means of hacking her stepmother and father to death in their Fall River, Massachusetts home on August 4, 1892, the police, without the benefit of forensic serology and latent fingerprint identification, had no way to physically link her to the bludgeoned victims, or to the never identified hatchet believed to be the instrument of death.

     In England, the year of the Borden murders, a biologist named Francis Galton published the world's first book on fingerprint classification. As early as 1880, another Englishman, Henry Faulds, had been writing about the use of finger marks (latent prints) as a method of placing suspects at the scenes of crimes. When Mr. and Mrs. Borden were brutally beaten to death in Fall River, the so-called "exchange principle"--conceived by the French chemist Edmond Locard--that a criminal leaves part of himself at the scene of a crime and takes part of it with him--had not evolved from theory into practice. In 1901, nine years after Lizzie Borden's arrest, scientists in Germany discovered a way to identify and group human blood, a forensic technique that, had it existed in 1892, may have changed the outcome of the Borden case.

     The all-male jury at Lizzie Borden's spectator-packed trial, without being presented with physical evidence linking the 32-year-old defendant to the bludgeoned and bloodied bodies, and believing that upper-middle-class women were too genteel for such brutality, found her not guilty. Had expert witnesses identified the stain on her dress as human blood, and matched a bloody crime scene latent to one of her fingers, the evidence, albeit circumstantial, may have convinced the jurors of her guilt. Assuming that she did in fact commit the double murder, Lizzie, confronted by investigators in possession of such damning, physical evidence, may have confessed, or in the very least, made an incriminating remark.

Bruno Richard Hauptmann

     In 1935, when Bruno Richard Hauptmann, an illegal alien from Germany living in the Bronx went on trial in Flemington, New Jersey for the March 1, 1932 murder of the 20-month-old son of Charles and Anne Lindbergh, America had confidence in forensic science, and considered it the wave of the future. Because no one had seen the 35-year-old defendant climb the homemade, wooden extension ladder to the second story nursery window at the Lindbergh estate near Hopewell, New Jersey, prosecutors didn't possess direct evidence of his guilt. Moreover, no one knew exactly how Hauptmann had killed the baby--had he been strangled, suffocated, or bludgeoned to death?--or even exactly where the murder took place. (A truck driver who had pulled over to relieve himself along the road, found the baby's remains in a shallow grave about two miles from the Lindbergh house.) If Hauptmann were to be convicted, it would have to be entirely on physical evidence. In other words, jurors, based on the physical evidence and its expert analysis, would have to infer his guilt.

     Having eluded detection for two and a half years following the hand-off of $50,000 in ransom money to a shadowy figure in a Bronx cemetery, the kidnapper had been passing the ransom bills, identified by their recorded serial numbers, around New York City. In September 1934, a squad made up of FBI agents, troopers from the New Jersey State Police, and officers with the New York City Police Department, pulled Hauptmann out of his car in Manhattan as he drove from his rented house in the Bronx to Wall Street where he had lost $25,000 in the stock market. From his wallet, the arresting officers recovered one of the ransom bills, and back at his house, found bundles of the ransom money--totaling $14,000--hidden in his garage. Confronted with this and other circumstantial evidence of his guilt, Hauptmann, a low-grade sociopath, refused to confess.

     At Hauptmann's January 1935 trial, the most publicized and celebrated event of its kind in America, and perhaps the world, eight of the country's most prominent questioned document examiners testified that Hauptmann had written the note left in the nursery as well as the fourteen ransom negotiation letters sent to the Lindberghs prior to the cemetery payoff. A federal wood expert from Wisconsin took the stand and identified a board from the kidnap ladder as having come from Hauptmann's attic floor. This witness also matched tool marks on the ladder with test marks from the blade of Hauptmann's wood plane. (Although a carpenter by trade, Hauptmann had not used his tools since the ransom payoff in April 1932.)

     On February 14, 1935, the jury, based upon Hauptmann's possession of the ransom money, and the physical evidence linking him to the extortion documents and the kidnap ladder, found him guilty. On April 3, 1936, following a series of appeals, prison personnel at the state penitentiary in Trenton, New Jersey strapped him into the electric chair and threw the switch. The handful of protestors gathered outside the death house, when informed of Hauptmann's execution, went home.

O. J. Simpson

     Sixty years after Hauptmann's execution, detectives in Los Angeles arrested O. J. Simpson for the murders of his ex-wife Nicole and her friend Ronald Goldman. The blooding knifings occurred at a time when most big city detectives had at least some college education, and months of police academy training. Human blood could not only be identified as such and grouped, it could be traced, through DNA science, to an individual donor. Unlike the Borden murders, the double homicide in California produced identifiable blood stains, drops and pools at the death site, in Simpson's vehicle, and inside his house. The prolonged, nationally televised trial featured the testimony of DNA analysts, crime scene technicians, blood spatter interpretation witnesses, footwear impression experts, and forensic pathologists. The Simpson trial introduced forensic DNA science to the American public, and could have been a showcase for forensic science in general. Instead, the case featured investigative bungling, batteries of opposing experts, prosecutorial incompetence, and a jury so confounded by the conflicting science, they found Simpson not guilty of a crime most people believe he committed.

     Like Lizzie Borden, O. J. Simpson, while acquitted, was not exonerated. He was destined to live out the rest of his life in that gray area between innocence and guilt. In the Borden case, prosecutors did the best they could with what they had. In the Simpson case, the state squandered cutting edge science and an embarrassment of riches in physical, crime scene evidence. Perhaps the greatest lesson of the Simpson case is this: in a time of cutting edge science and relatively high-paid, well-educated police officers, criminal investigation has become a lost art, and forensic science, a failed promise.

The Stepping Hill Angel of Death Murder Case

     Deaths by homicidal poisonings that commonly do not raise suspicion and are therefore often misdiagnosed as natural fatalities involve hospital patients who are elderly or already ill. The death of an old or gravely ill person, almost by definition, is a natural death. This is why physicians, nurses, and other healthcare workers who intentionally kill patients--so-called "Angeles of Death"--get away with murdering so many victims.

     Normally, homicide by poison is not an impulsive crime. But in the hospital, or home for the elderly, it is a crime of opportunity. The angel of death has access to a variety of toxic substances and to vulnerable victims. There is no need for extensive preparation and planning. Moreover, there is no apparent or obvious motive for the homicide because these serial killers do not receive any direct personal gain from the deaths. This type of serial killer is difficult to spot because angels of death are not manifestly insane. They possess personality disorders that compel them to murder out of generalized rage, boredom, or the impulse to play God.

     As murderers, angels of death are cold-blooded, careful, and vain. Quite often their employment histories reveal they have been terminated from several healthcare jobs. When too many patients die on a nurse or orderly's watch, and the employee comes under suspicion, he or she is simply fired. Healthcare workers suspected of murdering patients also quit and get similar positions elsewhere.

     In angel of death cases the tendency among healthcare administrators is to deny the obvious and pass the problem on to the next employer. Over the years, dozens of angels of death in the U.S. and around the world have been caught, but only after large numbers of patients have been murdered. Given the nature of the crime, and the limited role forensic science plays in these cases, it is reasonable to assume that the small number of angel of death convictions represents the mere tip of a rather large homicidal iceberg.

The Stepping Hill Case

     Greater Manchester is a heavily populated metropolitan county in northwest England. Stockport, a city of 136,000, is one of the municipalities within the county. Between June 1, 2011 and July 15, 2011, three patients at Stepping HIll Hospital in Stockport died after being given saline ampoules or drips laced with insulin.

     Detectives with the Greater Manchester Police Department (GMP) determined that at least eight other patients had suffered from insulin poisoning. (Insulin is used as a treatment for diabetes, but for people without an insulin deficiency, the substance can be toxic.)

     Following the determination of how these three patients had died, armed police guards were stationed at the hospital in the event the poisoner was an outsider. To protect patients from a hospital employee, members of the staff were required to work in pairs.

     On July 20, 2011, GMP detectives arrested a 27-year-old Stepping Hill nurse named Rebecca Jane Leighton. The Chief Crown prosecutor for the region charged Leighton with three counts of criminal damage with intent to endanger life. Nurse Leighton pleaded not guilty to the charges.

     The Crown Prosecution Service, on September 2, 2011, dropped the charges against the nurse. Notwithstanding the dismissal of the case against her, the hospital fired Leighton on December 2, 2011. She appealed the discharge, but following a hearing in February 2012, she lost her case.

     On January 5, 2012, detectives with the GMP arrested 46-year-old Victorino Chua, a male nurse originally from the Philippines. Chua had been a registered nurse since 2003. He had two children and claimed to be a devout Roman Catholic. Police officers took him into custody at his home just outside of Stockport.

     Arrested as a suspect in the Stepping Hill Poisonings, but not charged, Chua was interrogated then released on bail. Pursuant to the terms of his release, he was barred from approaching any potential witnesses in the case. He also lost his right to work in healthcare.

     On March 29, 2014, the Chief Crown prosecutor charged Victorino Chua with poisoning to death 44-year-old Tracey Arden, 71-year-old Arnold Lancaster, and Derek Weaver, 83. The murder suspect was also charged with 31 counts of causing grievous bodily harm, 22 counts of attempting to cause grievous bodily harm, and 8 counts of attempting to administer poison. Chua pleaded not guilty to all charges.

     As the poison investigation progressed, GMP detectives identified eight other Stepping Hill patients killed by the insulin contaminated saline, and dozens of patients who were poisoned but survived.

     Detectives with the GMP broke the Stepping Hill murder case wide open when, in Chua's home, they found a letter in which the suspect had written: "I am an angel turned into an evil person, there's a devil in me." While not a confession, it was close enough.

     In May 2015, at the conclusion of the Chua trial, the jury found the defendant guilty of two counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of Tracey Arden and Derek Weaver. The judge later sentenced Victorino Chua to life in prison.
     

Scared Straight

     Ross Wilson, a man in his mid-forties with six children who didn't live with him, resided in a rental house in a crime-ridden neighborhood in Fairfield, a suburb of Hamilton on New Zealand's Northern Island. Mr. Wilson, who worked at a sales job in Hamilton, had, within the past year, moved to Fairfield from Porirua, Wellington, New Zealand. He recently told his relatives that he hated living among drug dealers and other criminals but couldn't afford a safer neighborhood.

     In March 2013, after someone broke into his house, Mr. Wilson posted the following on his Facebook page: "To the scumbag who burgled my house--I hope I'm there to watch when Karma comes and screws you up."

     Just after midnight on June 19, 2013, Tom Smith [not his real name], broke into Ross Wilson's house. As the 21-year-old burglar crept through the dark, he bumped into Mr. Wilson's corpse as it hung from the end of a rope. The thief screamed so loud, several of Mr. Wilson's neighbors called 911 to report a domestic disturbance. The terrified burglar ran out of the house. When he arrived at his own place of residence, Smith called the police and reported what he had encountered at the scene of his crime.

     The Hamilton County police believed that Mr. Wilson had hanged himself a couple of days before Smith's criminal intrusion. A few of Mr. Wilson's relatives urged the local prosecutor to charge Smith with burglary. Because Smith had been scared witless, the authorities decided not to bring charges against him even though he had been in trouble with the law. The local police hoped that this burglar has been scared straight by his deceased burglary victim. 

Friday, October 12, 2018

The Suge Knight Hit-And-Run Murder Case

     Marion "Suge" Knight was born and raised in the Los Angeles suburb of Compton. In 1984, he enrolled at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas on a football scholarship. Following college, he played briefly for the Los Angeles Rams as a defensive lineman. His stint as a bodyguard for singer Bobby Brown provided him an inside look at the music industry that led to his co-founding, in 1991, Death Row Records. His roster of performers included Snoop Dogg and Tupac Shakur.

     In 1995, one of Knight's employees, Jake Robles, was shot to death at a party in Atlanta, Georgia. Knight, who attended the event, blamed the murder on rapper P. Diddy's bodyguard. The shooting marked the beginning of the so-called east coast/west coast rap war.

     In 1996, Knight was behind the wheel of a vehicle in Las Vegas with rapper Tupac Shakur riding in the passenger's seat. An assailant fired a bullet into the car killing Shakur. On the night of Shakur's murder, police arrested Knight for assaulting a man in a Las Vegas hotel room. That lead to a five-year stretch in prison.

     Knight returned to prison in 2002 after violating the terms of his parole by associating with a known gang member. The following year police arrested him for punching a parking lot attendant outside a Hollywood, California nightclub.

     In 2005, Knight became the victim of a crime himself when, while attending a party in Miami in honor of Kanye West's appearance at the MTV Video Music Awards, a gunman shot him in the right leg. The following year, his legal problems and the departure of his top rapper forced him to file for bankruptcy.

     At one-thirty on the morning of August 25, 2014, while attending a MTV Video Music Awards party in West Hollywood hosted by singer Chris Brown, a gunman shot Knight six times. Two other partygoers were wounded in the shooting spree. No arrests were made in that case.

     In October 2014, Beverly Hills police arrested Knight and comedian Micah "Katt" Williams for allegedly stealing a camera that belonged to a female celebrity photographer. They pleaded not guilty to the charge.

     On January 29, 2015, Suge Knight's association with crime and violence came to a head in his hometown of Compton, California when he showed up unwelcome on a movie set where rappers Ice Cube and Dr. Dre were working. The intruder ignored security personnel who asked him to leave. After fighting with two members of the film crew, Knight drove off in his red F-150 Ford Raptor, a very large pickup truck.

     Not long after leaving the movie set, at three that afternoon, Knight got into another fight with two men in the parking lot of a fast-food restaurant called Tam's Burgers. The fight ended with Knight running over the men with his truck. He killed 55-year-old Terry Carter, a man he knew, and injured "Training Day" actor Cle "Bone" Sloane, 51.

     Police later found Knight's truck in a West Los Angeles parking lot.

     According to Lieutenant John Corina with the Los Angeles Sheriff's Office, "It looked like Mr. Knight drove backwards into the victims then lurched forward and hit them again. The people we talked to say it looked like it was an intentional act."

     A Los Angeles County prosecutor charged Knight with criminal homicide and hit and run. On Friday night January 30, 2015, Knight, accompanied by his lawyer, turned himself to the sheriff's office. He smoked a cigar and smiled at photographers as though this was not a big deal. Later that night, after questioning him, Officers booked Knight into the Los Angeles County jail. The judge set his bond at $2 million.

     James Blatt, Knight's attorney, told reporters that his client had accidentally killed a friend and injured another man as he fled from being attacked. The lawyer did not explain the hit-and-run aspect of his client's behavior. "We are confident," he said, "that once the police investigation is completed, Mr. Knight will be totally exonerated."

     On March 20, 2015, after the prosecutor upped the charge against Knight to first-degree murder, the judge raised the defendant's bond to $25 million. Upon hearing this, Knight fainted, hit his head on the defense table, and knocked himself out. Paramedics rushed him to a nearby hospital where he recovered quickly and was sent back to jail. (The bail was later reduced to $10 million.)

     Because Knight fired his first four lawyers, his murder trail remained on hold and he remained in jail. At one point, Knight claimed that he was being tortured in jail by inmates. In January 2016, Knight's fifth lawyer, former prosecutor Stephen L. Schwartz, announced that the boxing champion Floyd "Money" Mayweather had agreed to post his client's $10 million bond. If this were true, Mayweather did not come through on the promise, and Knight remained behind bars.

    Suge Knight's murder trial, set for January 8, 2018, was again postponed after members of his legal team--Thaddeus Culpepper and Mathew Fletcher--were indicted for attempting to bribe witnesses. The next trial date, April 2018, was delayed when the defendant was hospitalized for eye surgery. On April 25, 2018, a Los Angeles County judge set the new murder trial date for September 24, 2018.

    On September 20, 2018, just days before his murder trial in Los Angeles Superior Court, Suge Knight pleaded no contest to the reduced charge of voluntary manslaughter. In return for his plea, the judge sentenced Knight to 28 years in prison. 

Angels of Death: Homicidal Poisoning

Murder by Poison

     Most people who die from poisoning do so accidentally. As a mode of criminal homicide, poisoning, compared to guns, knives, blunt objects, and ligatures, is rare. According to FBI statistics, out of the 187,000 criminal homicides committed from 1990 to 2000, only 346 involved poison. During the period 2001 to 2006 the figure rose to 523. But forensic toxicologists, the experts educated and trained to detect and identify substances harmful to the human body, believe that homicidal poisoning is more common than crime statistics suggest. For example, in 2002, 26,435 people died of poisoning. While only 63 of these deaths were ruled as murder, 3,336 were listed under manner of death as "undetermined." In other words, forensic pathologists considered these poisoning deaths as suspicious.

     Nobody knows how many people are being murdered by poison because most of these deaths are classified as naturally caused fatalities. In most of these cases, there are no outward signs of homicide. There are no bullet holes, stab wounds, cuts, bruises, or marks around the neck that signify that these deaths were not natural. In most instances, because these deaths are not outwardly suspicious, no autopsies are conducted. These victims are embalmed, buried, or cremated. End of story. Occasionally, suspicions may arise when, say, an estranged spouse receives a large life insurance payment, and a week later, remarries. Money and sex are common motives for murder, but motive is not evidence. The evidence of a homicidal poisoning is the poison. If the toxic substance is not detected and identified in the course of an autopsy, the killer will get away with murder. Exhumations are rare.

     Poisons are seldom detected where clinical (rather than criminal) autopsies are performed by regular hospital pathologists. This is because the pathologist is not thinking homicide, or looking for poison. Unless a specific poison is suspected, the chance of random discovery is unlikely. Arsenic, because it is readily available, tasteless, and can be administered in a series of small doses that causes a period of illness before death, is the weapon of choice among those who murder by poison. Within 24 hours of ingestion, arsenic moves from the blood into the victim's liver, kidneys, spleen, lungs and GI tract. In two to four weeks traces can be found in the victim's hair, nails, and skin. From there, traces of the poison settle in the bone. Thirty minutes after ingesting a small dose of arsenic, the victim will experience a metallic taste, garlic smelling breath, headaches, muscle cramping, vertigo, vomiting, abdominal pain, and diarrhea. If the victim doesn't die within a few hours from shock the poisoned person may die a few days later from kidney problems. If the victim survives two to four weeks, in addition to horrible suffering, he will start losing his hair. When death finally comes, the likely cause will be identified as renal failure. Other common poisons used in the commission of homicide include strychnine (rat poison), morphine, and Demerol. Antifreeze (ethyzene glycol) has become a relatively popular weapon in murder-by-poison cases.

Angel of Death Cases

     Deaths by homicidal poisonings that commonly do not raise suspicion, and are therefore misdiagnosed as natural fatalities, involve hospital patients who are elderly, or already ill. The death of an old or gravely ill patient, almost by definition, is a natural death. This is why physicians, nurses, and other healthcare workers who kill--so-called "angels of death"--have gotten away will murdering so many people.

     Normally, homicide by poison is not an impulsive crime. But in the hospital, or home for the elderly, it is a crime of opportunity. The angel of death has easy access to the poison and to the victim. There is no need for extensive preparation and planning. Moreover, there is no apparent or obvious motive for the homicide because these killers do not receive any direct personal gain out of the crime. The homicidal motives associated with angels of death are therefore pathological, and hidden. This type of serial killer is difficult to spot because angels of death are not manifestly insane. They possess personality disorders that compel them to murder out of generalized rage, boredom, or the impulse to play God.

     As murderers, angels of death are cold-blooded, careful, and vain. This makes them hard to catch. Quite often in their employment histories they have been terminated from previous healthcare jobs. When too many patients die on a nurse's or orderly's watch, and the employee comes under suspicion, he or she is fired. Healthcare workers suspected of murdering patients often quit, and get a similar job somewhere else. The tendency, among healthcare administrators, is to deny the obvious, and pass the problem on to the next employer. Over the years, dozens of angels of death have been caught but only after large numbers of patients have been murdered. Given the nature of the crime and the limited role forensic science plays in these cases, it is reasonable to assume that the small number of angel of death convictions represents the mere tip of a rather large homicidal iceberg.

Angel of Death Donald Harvey

     In 1975, after working briefly as a hospital orderly in London, Kentucky, 23-year-old Donald Harvey took a job with the Veteran's Hospital in Cincinnati, Ohio. As the years passed, a pattern emerged. When Harvey was on duty, patients died. Finally, after ten years, and the deaths of more than 100 patients on his watch, the orderly was fired. He was terminated because several hospital workers suspected he was poisoning his patients. After Harvey left the facility, the death rate plummeted. Terminating Donald Harvey turned out to be good medicine, at least at the VA hospital.

     Shortly after his firing, Harvey was hired across town at Drake Memorial Hospital where the death rate began to soar. As he had done at the VA facility, Harvey was murdering patients by either lacing their food with arsenic, or injecting cyanide into their gastric tubes. The deaths at Drake, like those at the VA hospital, were ruled as naturally caused fatalities. While suspicions were aroused it was hard to imagine that this friendly, helpful little man who was so charming and popular with members of his victims' families, could be a stone-cold serial killer.

     As clever and careful as Harvey was, he made a mistake when he poisoned John Powell, a patient recovering from a motorcycle accident. Under Ohio law, victims of fatal traffic accidents must be autopsied. At Powell's autopsy, an assistant detected the odor of almonds, the telltale sign of cyanide. This was fortunate because most people are unable to detect this scent. The forensic pathologist ordered toxicological tests that revealed that John Powell had died from a lethal dose of cyanide. Harvey had been the last person to see Mr. Powell alive, and John Powell would be the last person he would kill.

     The Cincinnati police arrested Harvey, and searched his apartment where they found jars filled with arsenic and cyanide, and books on poisoning. However, the Hamilton County prosecutor believed that without a confession, there might not be enough evidence to convince a jury of Harvey's guilt. The suspect, on the other hand, was worried that if convicted, he would be sentenced to death. So Harvey and the prosecutor struck a deal. In return for a life sentence, Donald Harvey would confess to all of the murders he could remember. Over a period of several days, he confessed to killing, in Kentucky and Ohio, 130 patients. When asked why he had killed all of those helpless victims, the best answer Harvey could muster was that he must have a "screw loose." Forensic pathologists familiar with the case speculated that the murders had given Harvey, an otherwise ordinary and insignificant person, a sense of power over the lives of others. Harvey pleaded guilty to several murders and was sentenced to life in prison.

     The old saying that "murder will out" does not always apply when the weapon of choice is poison.       

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Dr. Ana Maria Gonzalez-Angulo: The Case of the Poisoned Coffee

     Dr. Ana Maria Gonzales-Angulo and her colleague (and lover) Dr. George Blumenschein were on the staff at the University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas. Dr. Gonzales-Angulo, a breast cancer oncologist had attended medical school at the University of Cauca in Colombia, completed her residency in Internal Medicine at the Mount Sinai Medical center in Miami, then finished her training at the University of Texas Medical School. She had been with the M. D. Anderson Cancer Center since 2003. Dr. Blumenschein graduated from Vanderbilt University and the University of Texas Medical School. As a specialist in lung, heart and neck cancers, he had been on the cancer center staff since 2000.

     On May 29, 2013, a prosecutor in the Harris County District Attorney's Office, based upon information received from investigators with the University of Texas Police Department, charged Dr. Gonzales-Angulo with aggravated assault. The doctor stood accused of poisoning Dr. Blumenschein's coffee with ethylene glycol, a chemical used in antifreeze and medical research.

     According to the criminal complaint, the poisoning took place in Dr. Gonzales-Angulo's Houston apartment. Dr. Blumenschein, after sipping a cup of coffee made by Dr. Gonzales-Angulo, complained of its sweet taste. Dr. Gonzales-Angulo allegedly informed him that she had added Splenda to his drink and urged him to finish it. After drinking a second cup of Dr. Gonzales-Angulo's coffee that evening, Dr. Blumenschein began slurring his speech.

     Sixteen hours after drinking the two cups of coffee, paramedics rushed Dr. Blumenschein to a nearby emergency room where doctors diagnosed him with central nervous system damage, cardiopulmonary problems, and renal (kidney) failure. (The doctor would subsequently undergo dialysis treatment.)

     Three toxicological tests of Dr. Blumenschein's urine revealed the presence of crystals consistent with ethylene glycol poisoning. (By the time the toxicological analysis took place, the ethylene glycol had been metabolized.)

     Police officers booked Dr. Gonzales-Angulo into the Harris County Jail on May 30, 2013. Shortly thereafter she posted her $50,000 bond and was released. Officials at the M. D. Anderson Cancer Center placed the doctor on administrative leave. Her attorney, Derek Hollingsworth, told reporters that his client "is completely innocent. She is a distinguished citizen and scientist," he said, "and these allegations are totally inconsistent with her personal and professional life."

     In September 2013, a Harris County Grand Jury indicted Dr. Gonzales-Angulo on one count of aggravated assault.

     At the September 2014 Gonzales-Angulo trial, the assistant district attorney put on 22 witnesses. One of these witnesses included a man who said the defendant, just weeks before Dr. Blumenschein's poisoning, had boasted of having killed others in her native Colombia. The prosecutor, in referring to Dr. Gonzales-Angulo in his closing argument, said, "You can't fix evil.

     The Gonzales-Angulo defense consisted mainly of the argument that the prosecution, in this circumstantial case, had not carried its burden of proof.

     On September 26, 2014, a jury in a Houston, Texas courtroom took less than six hours to find Dr. Gonzalez-Angulo guilty as charged. The judge sentenced her to ten years in prison.

     Gonzales-Angulo could have been sentenced up to 99 years in prison, but instead will be eligible for parole in 2019.
     

The Pedro Maldonado Murder-Suicide Case

     In 2013, Pedro Maldonado and his wife Monica, citizens of Ecuador, South America, were living in the United States on expired visas. The couple resided in a gated community in Weston, Florida thirteen miles west of Fort Lauderdale. The Maldonado's 17-year-old son Pedro Jose Maldonado, Jr. attended Cypress Bay High School where he was a drummer in the band. The older Maldonado son, Jose, was a student at Florida State University in Tallahassee.

     Mr. Maldonado and his 47-year-old wife not only faced deportation back to Ecuador, they were in serious financial trouble. An exporter of police supplies to South America, he had recently lost most of his business. In September 2013 the couple's drivers' licenses expired. As people living in the country illegally, they could not renew their licenses and drive legally.

     Due to his citizenship and financial problems, the 53-year-old Maldonado must have felt helpless and doomed. Facing a bleak future he slipped into depression to the point of becoming suicidal.

     On Tuesday, December 3, 2013, at four-fifteen in the afternoon, Mr. Maldonado telephoned a friend in Miami and gave him some shocking news. According to Maldonado, he had killed Monica and their son Pedro in the family's Weston townhouse. Maldonado said he had shot them the day before with arrows fired from a crossbow. When asked where he was calling from, Maldonado said he had checked into a motel near Lake City, Florida. The stunned recipient of this phone call immediately notified the authorities.

     In Weston, Florida, Broward County sheriff's deputies, at six that evening, entered the Maldonado townhouse where they discovered the dead bodies of Monica and her son Pedro. They had each been shot in the head with small arrows or darts fired from a crossbow that featured a pistol grip. (I am assuming that the victims had been shot while they slept.)

     On Tuesday, December 3, 2013, about seven hours after Pedro Maldonado called his friend in Miami with the startling news, deputies with the Columbia County Sheriff's Office spotted his SUV parked outside the Cabot Lodge Motel near the intersection of Interstates 10 and 75 near Lake City, 100 miles east of Tallahassee. Shortly thereafter police officers evacuated the motel and called in a SWAT team and a crisis hostage negotiator.

     SWAT officers, after receiving no response from Maldonado's room, entered the motel at two in the morning on Wednesday, December 4. The officers found Mr. Maldonado dead in the bathroom. He had used a knife to slit his throat. (I don't know how long Maldonado waited to kill himself after his call to his friend in Miami.)

     Investigators, in piecing together the sequence of events that unfolded over the previous two days, learned that Maldonado, after murdering his wife and youngest son in the Weston townhouse, drove 460 miles north to Tallahassee where he checked into a motel. Just after seven o'clock Tuesday morning, December 3, 2013, Maldonado shot his 21-year-old son Jose in the ear with  a crossbow dart. Having failed to make a killing shot, the father tried to choke his oldest son to death. Following a struggle, the young man managed to escape.

     Jose did not report his father's attempted murder to the police until after he learned what had happened to his mother and his younger brother.

     Neighbors in Weston described Mr. Maldonado and his family as quiet people who kept to themselves. The only sounds anyone heard coming from the townhouse involved the boy's practice sessions with his drums. Mr. Maldonado did not have an arrest record in the United States. Moreover, the local police had never been called to the house to mediate a domestic dispute.

     That Pedro Maldonado committed suicide is not shocking. What is a mystery is why he decided to end the lives of his wife and sons. When the American dream ended for the father, he must have decided that if he couldn't have it, neither could his wife and two sons. This case reflects the fact that there are things in life and crime that will never make sense. This is particularly true in the world of suicide and murder.
    

Invade Home, Get Shot: The Paul Slater Case

     On Friday, January 6, 2013 in Loganville, Georgia, a town of 11,000 30 miles east of Atlanta, Melinda Herman was at home watching her 9-year-old twins. She was working in her second-story office. At one o'clock that afternoon, Melinda looked out a window and saw a man she didn't recognize pull up in front of her upper-middle-class suburban home. The man, later identified as 32-year-old Paul Ali Slater, had been released from jail in August after serving six months for simple battery and three counts of probation violation. Since 2008, this thief and burglar had been arrested seven times. He had six children.

     Melinda watched the man approach the house. He knocked on the front door, and when she didn't answer, he laid on the doorbell. Frightened, Melinda called her husband Donnie at work. (In late December, Donne had taken his wife to a shooting range where she had learned how to fire a .38-caliber revolver.) Donnie told Melinda to take possession of the firearm, then hide in the attic with the children. He called 911.

     When Melinda looked out the window again, she saw the man coming toward the house with a crowbar in his hand. As Slater used the tool to break into the Herman home, Melinda and the twins hid in a crawlspace closet.

     From inside the attic closet, Melinda could hear the burglar rummaging through the family's belongings. She became extremely alarmed when she heard the intruder enter the attic. Suddenly the closet door opened, and there he was, standing a foot from her and the children. Melinda raised the six-shot revolver and fired all of its bullets. Five of the slugs hit Slater in the face and neck. Four of these bullets passed through his body.

     The shot intruder fell face-down on the attic floor. As the blood started leaking from his bullet-ridden body, he begged Melinda, who was still pulling the trigger of her empty gun, to stop shooting. Melinda and the children stepped over the home invader's body and ran out of the house. As they took refuge in a neighbor's place, Slater managed to get to his feet and stumble out of the dwelling. He made his way to the SUV, but a few houses down the street, ran the vehicle into a tree.

     The bloodied and badly wounded burglar crawled out of his SUV and collapsed on someone's driveway. That's where deputies from the Walton County Sheriff's Office found him. "Help me," he cried. "I'm close to dying."

     Emergency personnel rushed the shot intruder to the Gwinnett Medical Center where he was placed on a ventilator.

    The local prosecutor charged Paul Ali Slater with first-degree burglary and other offenses.

     Slater pleaded guilty in April 2013. At his sentencing hearing a month later, he said, "I knocked on the door. I tried to take every precaution to make sure I was going into a vacant house. The times were tough for my family, and I made the decision to commit a crime. I was going into the house to steal some jewelry.

     The judge sentenced Paul Slater to 20 years with 10 years to serve in prison.

     

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Forensic Toxicology: Brittany Murphy's Cause and Manner of Death

     In 2003, 26-year-old film actress Brittany Murphy purchased a house in West Hollywood that had been owned by Britney Spears. Four years later, she married a British writer/director named Simon Monjack who moved into the multi-million dollar mansion.

     At eight o'clock Sunday morning on December 20, 2009, Brittany Murphy's mother Sharon called 911 to report that her daughter had collapsed in the shower. Paramedics found the 32-year-old actress unconscious. Two hours later, at a nearby hospital, Brittany Murphy died. 
     Shortly after her death, Murphy's husband Simon Monjack told a People magazine reporter that Brittany had been suffering from laryngitis and flu-like symptoms. He said she had been taking antibiotics and was on herbal remedies that wouldn't speed up her heart. Monjack insisted there were no substances in the house at the time of her death that could have harmed her. "There was prescription medication in the house for her female time and some cough syrup. That was it," he said.
     In February 2010, the Los Angeles County Coroner's Office released Murphy's autopsy report that revealed she had died of "multiple drug intoxication, pneumonia, and iron deficiency anemia." According to a toxicological analysis of her blood, Murphy possessed elevated levels of hydrocodine, acetaminophen, and chloropheniramine, ingredients commonly found in over-the-counter cold medications. 
     As a result of the autopsy and toxicological findings, Murphy's manner of death went into the books as natural, caused by a weakened state of health made worse by an accidental overdose of cold medications. According to the coroner, Brittany Murphy's death could have been prevented by a visit to her doctor. If the Los Angeles Coroner's Office's cause and manner of death determinations were correct, the young actress had contributed to her own demise. 
     In the months following the film star's sudden death, stories appeared in the tabloid press suggesting that she had died from anorexia or from an accidental drug overdose. Rumors were also circulating that she had committed suicide. 
     On May 23, 2010, at nine thirty at night, someone called 911 requesting medical assistance at the West Hollywood home still occupied by Simon Monjack. Emergency responders found the dead body of the 40-year-old once married to Brittany Murphy. He had been scheduled that fall for triple-bypass surgery. 
     According to the forensic pathologist who performed Monjack's autopsy at the Los Angeles Coroner's Office, he had died a natural death caused by pneumonia and anemia. The toxicology report showed he had been taking prescription medication. 
     In response to rumors of foul play in Murphy's and Monjack's deaths, assistant coroner Ed Winter told reporters that "at the time of their deaths both of them were in very poor health. I don't think they ate correctly or took care of themselves. They didn't seek medical attention."
     Brittany Murphy's father, a man named Angelo Bertolotti who had served three stretches in the federal penitentiary in Atlanta for various racketeering offenses, had never been a factor in Murphy's life. But after her death, he became involved by filing a lawsuit against the Los Angeles Coroner's Office and the Los Angeles Police Department. 
     Bertolotti brought the legal action in an effort to force the coroner's office to test his daughter's hair for traces of heavy metal poisons. Bertolotti believed that additional toxicological testing would prove that she had not died from pneumonia, anemia, and a lethal mix of cold medications. 
     The Los Angeles Coroner's Office defended its decision not to test Murphy's hair follicles for traces of heavy metal poison on the grounds there was no indication that she had died from arsenic poisoning. (Professional death investigators, rather than basing their conclusions on personal assumptions, apply forensic science to unravel the mystery of sudden, unexplained deaths.) 
     In July 2012, a judge dismissed Angelo Bertolotti's lawsuit. However, as a consolation, Bertolotti acquired, from the coroner's office, samples of his daughter's hair, blood and tissue for independent toxicological testing. He promptly sent the samples to a private lab in Colorado for analysis. 
     The private laboratory, in November 2013, reported high levels of ten heavy metal poisons in the submitted Brittany Murphy samples. According to the toxicological report, Murphy's system contained, among other poisons, aluminum, manganese, and barium, poisons found in rat poison, pesticides, and insecticides.  According to the private crime lab, presence of these poisons strongly suggested the possibility of a homicidal poisoning. 
     Armed with the private toxicological findings, Angelo Bertolotti demanded that the Los Angeles Police Department re-open its investigation into Brittany Murphy's death. He also wanted the Los Angeles Coroner's Office to change its manner and cause of death rulings to homicidal poisoning. 
     Speaking to reporters after the release of the private toxicological report, Bertolotti said, "Vicious rumors, spread by tabloids, unfairly smeared Brittany's reputation. My daughter was neither anorexic or a drug addict." 
     A few days after the new revelations in the case, Bertolotti appeared on the TV show "Good Morning America." Bertolotti said, "I have a feeling that there was a definite murder situation here. It's poison, yes, I know that." Bertolotti pointed out that the Colorado forensic lab was an accredited facility that "cannot be ignored."
     Los Angeles Chief Coroner's investigator Craig R. Harvey, in response to the private laboratory's toxicological findings, said this to reporters: "The Los Angeles Coroner's Office has no plans to reopen our inquiry into the [Murphy] death. We stand by our original reports."

     In speaking to a reporter with Fox News on November 20, 2013, addiction specialist Dr. Damon Raskin said the private toxicology results made him suspicious of foul play. Moreover, "other than lab error, there is no other good medical explanation for these abnormal levels of heavy metals. Therefore, some type of poisoning is clearly a possibility."

     Fox reporter Hollie McKay also questioned Dr. Shilpi Agarwal, a Los Angeles based physician who said it was extremely unlikely that Murphy had elevated levels of the heavy metals in her system without being given supplements or unintentionally ingesting them.

     Dr. Michael Baden, the famed forensic pathologist, had a different interpretation of the new toxicological findings. He said this to a Fox News reporter: "The grouping of heavy metals is more suggestive of hair product use--dyes, soaps, heat, etc. than of rat poison….When hair samples are stored for so long, the increased sensitivity of new chemical tests will pick up whatever was in the hair's container. Was the container tested?"
     Rather than defend a premature conclusion, the Los Angeles Coroner's Office should have acknowledged the new toxicological evidence and opened an investigation. As of this writing, the case remained closed.