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Monday, December 5, 2022

Angels of Death Cases: Serial Murder by 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 about the possibility of 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 experiences 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 or she will lose 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 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 Mr. 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 Donald 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 Donald 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. Donald Harvey had been the last person to see Mr. Powell alive, and he would be the last person the orderly 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 Donald 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.       

Sunday, December 4, 2022

Kenneth Markman: The Fall Of A Drug Dealing Defense Attorney

     Kenneth Markman, after graduating from UCLA and Loyola Law School, began practicing criminal defense law in 1991. Between 2000 and 2010, the State Bar Association of California suspended him twice for not paying his membership dues. It was during this period that the attorney went from representing drug addicts and dealers to becoming one.

     On October 21, 2011 Mr. Markman was in the attorney's room on the 11th floor of the Criminal Justice Center in downtown Los Angeles. He had scheduled a meeting with his client, Jorge Zaragoza. Zaragoza, a drug-dealing gang member with a history of violent crime, had been convicted of attempted carjacking. In a few days a judge would be handing down Zaragoza's sentence.

     Detectives with the Los Angeles Sheriff's Office suspected that Markman was smuggling narcotics to his clients who were incarcerated in the Los Angeles County Jail. As the attorney waited for his opportunity to speak with Zaragoza, a sheriff's deputy accompanied by a drug-sniffing dog entered the room. The dog immediately "alerted" to the presence of drugs on attorney Markman's  person and in his briefcase.

     From the inside pocket of the attorney's suit jacket the deputy removed a package wrapped tightly with electrical tape. The bundle contained twenty-six balloons of heroin and methamphetamine. Markman's briefcase contained a quantity of marijuana and three mini-hypodermic syringes. 

     Charged with seven drug-related felony counts the attorney was booked into the county Inmate Reception Center. The judge set his bail at $145,000. If convicted of trying to smuggle $30,000 worth of narcotics into the Los Angeles County Jail Mr. Markman faced up to four years in prison.

     The accused attorney posted his bond and was released from custody. On November 8, 2011, a security officer screening visitors to the Antelope Valley Court House noticed something suspicious as Markman's briefcase passed through the X-ray machine. After the attorney grabbed his wallet out of the tray and tried to flee a Los Angeles Sheriff's deputy caught up to him before he got out of the building. In his wallet the officer found two bundles of rock cocaine. The attorney's briefcase contained several pieces of drug paraphernalia.

     After being booked again for trying to smuggle drugs to an incarcerated client, Kenneth Markman made his $25,000 bail.

     In February 2013, Kenneth Markman pleaded no contest to the October 2011 drug smuggling charges. Pursuant to a plea deal, the judge, a month later, sentenced the suspended attorney to a year in the Los Angeles County Jail. That sentence included three years of probation which involved one year of drug treatment.

     The State Bar Association of California, following a hearing in August 2013, disbarred Mr. Markman. 

Saturday, December 3, 2022

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 was eligible for parole in 2019. 

Friday, December 2, 2022

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 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, of 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 Mr. Knight was behind the wheel of a vehicle in Las Vegas with rapper Tupac Shakur in the passenger's seat. An assailant fired a bullet into the car killing Shakur. On the night of Shakur's murder police officers arrested Suge 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 officers arrested him for punching a parking lot attendant outside a Hollywood, California nightclub.

     In 2005, Mr. 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. The men 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 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 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 Mr. 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, he 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 him to 28 years in prison. 

Thursday, December 1, 2022

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 baffoonary.

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 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 written 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 bloody 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 either confounded by the conflicting science or simply biased in favor of the defendant. O.J. Simpson was found 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. Moreover, the prosecution let the defense pick the jury. Perhaps the greatest lesson of the Simpson case was this: in a time of cutting edge science and relatively high-paid, well-educated police officers, criminal investigation was a lost art and forensic science a failed promise.

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

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, Mr. Zurbuchen's 33-year-old house guest gave him a peach smoothie. Shortly after drinking it he was taken to the hospital complaining of dizziness, face numbness 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 and herself the beneficiary of his life insurance policy, and had taken control of his bank account, Mr. Zurbuchen 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 poisoning suspect and her daughter moved to Eugene, Oregon. Although the authorities in Utah believed Selena York had tried to murder Ed Zurbuchen, 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 a man in Utah in an effort to kill him so she could take over his estate. Since Selena York had drained Joseph Ferraro's bank accoun and sold both his cars while he was in jail, he believed her story. And so did the authorities in Utah.

     In June 2011, police arrested Selena 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 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.  Had Mr. Zubuchen died of poisoning, York would have been eligible for the death sentence. Had she not ripped-off Joseph Ferraro (who was convicted of 21 felony sexual abuse counts), she would have gotten away with attempted murder. This woman was a dangerous 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. 

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Parents Versus State: Control Over a Child's Healthcare

     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 Hershberger, deputy sheriffs went to the farm and found the place still unoccupied. And no one in the Amish community seemed to know where the Hershbergers had gone. 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 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 did 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. 

Monday, November 28, 2022

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

     Murray's boyfriend and the father of her children, Ramon Rivera, 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, Erika 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 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, Erika 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, Erika Murray was held, without bond, at the Western Massachusetts Regional Correctional Center in Worcester. 
     In May 2019, Erika Murray was allowed to plead guilty to child assault and animal abuse. Judge Kenton-Walker sentenced her to six to eight years in prison with credit for the four plus years served while awaiting trial. Following her release from prison, Murray would be on probation for five years during which time she could not be alone with children under the age of ten.

Sunday, November 27, 2022

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 were 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, Mr. Noyes was in and out of several psychiatric wards.

     On January 10, 2012, police officers 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 Kevin Mullaney guilty as charged. The judge sentenced him to two to six years in prison.

     In December 2013, with the Celina 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 could be refiled. As of November 2022, Mr. Noyes has not been charged with murdering Celina Cass. With a long history of mental illness, it is unlikely Wendell Noyes will ever be tried for this murder.

Saturday, November 26, 2022

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 unmarried mogul with a pair of former wives, lived in Scottsdale. In 2011, Shacknai moved into a 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 Max, 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 Shacknai's brother Adam who had arrived on a flight from Memphis. That evening, Zahau, Adam, Jonah, and a friend of Jonah's 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 had been 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 Rebecca Zahau's autopsy. He found four hemorrhages under her 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 the boy. 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.

      With news of Rebecca Zahau's bizarre death, people began speculating about whether or not a murderer had staged a suicide. Some of these commentators said 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 rampant 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 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 her menstrual period, or an intrauterine device. The medical examiner offered no explanation for the presence of the tape residue on her legs.

     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. 
     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. The plaintiffs alleged that the defendant 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. 
     In January 2019, the jury in the wrongful death case found Adam Schackai responsible for Rebecca Zahau's death. The jury awarded the plaintiffs $5 million in damages.

Friday, November 25, 2022

Jeffrey Ferguson's One-Drug Execution

      Several years ago anti-capital punishment activists and death house lawyers began making a fuss over the fact that several states had recently executed condemned prisoners with a single toxic drug, pentobarbital. In the past, executioners used a three-drug cocktail. Because the other two drugs were manufactured in countries that opposed the death penalty, these chemicals were no long available for this purpose in the U.S. Since the rope, the electric chair, the firing squad and the gas chamber were no longer execution options, states that still executed perpetrators of the most heinous murders had no choice but to make do with pentobarbital. This fact enraged anti-capital punishment advocates who considered the one-drug send-off as cruel and unusual punishment. But this was nothing new. Capital punishment opponents object to the death penalty, period. They would complain if these ruthless, cold blooded killers were tickled to death.

     In Missouri, when judges and the governor were confronted with the choice of executing a prisoner with pentobarbital or commuting his sentence to life, they chose the deadly dose. This was not good news for Jeffrey Ferguson, a 59-year-old kidnapper, rapist and murderer who had been living on Missouri's death row for nineteen years.

     At eleven o'clock on the night of February 10, 1989, in St. Charles, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis, 34-year-old Jeffrey Ferguson and his friend Kenneth Ousley pulled into a Shell gas station not far from Interstate 70. Across the street at the Mobile station a 17-year-old employee named Kelli Hall was out front checking the fuel level in one of the station's underground gas tanks. The teenager caught Ferguson's eye.

     Ferguson, with Ousley in his Chevrolet Blazer, pulled into the Mobile station. Ferguson got out of his SUV, approached the girl and ordered her at gunpoint into the vehicle. The two men, with the girl in the backseat, drove off with the intention of raping and killing her.

     In a remote area a few miles from St. Charles, Ferguson and Ousley tortured, raped then murdered Kelli Hall by shooting her in the head with a .32-caliber handgun. They dumped her body in a farmer's field in Maryland Heights, Missouri.

     Two weeks after the senseless and random lust killing, the owner of the St. Louis County farm stumbled across the victim's corpse near a shed. The teenager was naked except for a pair of socks.

     In1993 Kenneth Ousley pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. The judge sentenced him to life with the possibility of parole. Two years later Jefffrey Ferguson went on trial for kidnapping, rape and first-degree murder. Taking the stand on his own behalf, the sociopath claimed that he could not have participated in the rape and murder because at the time he was passed out drunk in his truck. This story contradicted the defendant's confession to detectives shortly after his arrest.

     The jury found Jeffrey Ferguson guilty as charged and recommended the death penalty. The judge sentenced him to death in December 1995. (At that time most Americans were wrapped up in the O. J. Simpson double murder case.)

     After he had been in prison for a few years, Ferguson expressed deep remorse for raping and murdering the 17-year-old girl. He also became religious, counseled inmates and helped start a prison hospice program. All the while his team of attorneys appealed his case to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals and ultimately to the U.S. Supreme Court. They lost all of their appeals.

     Shortly after midnight on March 26, 2014, following a burst of last-minute pleas for a stay of execution, the executioner at the state prison in Bonne Terre, Missouri injected Ferguson with the lethal dose of pentobarbital. While several death penalty sob sisters pointed out in horror that Ferguson did not die quickly, the drug eventually did its job.

     St. Louis County prosecutor Bob McCulloch, in speaking to reporters following the execution, said that Ferguson's good deeds in prison did not make up for what he had done to that innocent teenager. The prosecutor called Ferguson's crime "unspeakable," a word Ferguson's supporters would use to describe his death.

Thursday, November 24, 2022

Anthony Giancola: From Teacher to Cocaine-Crazed Spree Killer

     Anthony (Tony) Giancola, as a student at Boca Ciega High School in Gulfport, Florida just south of St. Petersburg in Pinellas County, showed a lot of promise. He played football, was class president and had the lead role in the school play, South Pacific. Although accepted for admission at West Point, he attended the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.

      Mr. Giancola began his teaching career in 1991 at the Dorothy Thomas Exceptional Center, a K-12 school for at-risk children with special needs. By 2005 he was head of the school. In the summer of 2006, Pinellas School District administrators made Tony Giancola principal at the Van Buren Middle School in Tampa. Although he made $90,000 a year, he had a $100-a-day cocaine habit. In February 2007, the principal purchased cocaine, in his school office, from an undercover narcotics officer. After the drug transaction the officer arrested Giancola and searched his car where he found marijuana and two glass pipes containing traces of cocaine. The narcotics arrest ended Mr. Giancola's education career and led to a year in jail followed by three years of probation.

     In 2009, Tony Giancola's wife divorced him, and a year later, in St. Petersburg, police arrested him as he sat in his car at three in the morning. He was charged with violating his probation, prowling and loitering. At this point in his life Mr. Giancola was a mere shadow of his former self and living on the fringes of society.

     On Friday, June 22, 2012, at 10:45 AM in Lealman, Florida, a Pinellas County town 20 miles west of Tampa, Tony Giancola walked into a group home and stabbed 27-year-old Justin Vandenburgh who died at the scene. Next, he stabbed Mary Allis, 59, who would die later that day at a local hospital. Giancola, using the same knife, attacked 25-year-old Whitney Gilber, and Janice Rhoden, 44. These women survived their stab wounds.

     After stabbing four people at the group home, Giancola drove to nearby Pinellas Park, and at the Kenvin's Motel, attacked the man and woman who ran the place with a hammer. The married 57-year-olds were taken to the hospital and treated for serious injuries. Both of these victims, however, survived.

     At 11:30 on the morning of the Kenvin's Motel rampage, Tony Giancola pulled his Ford sedan up to a house in Penellas Park and asked a group of people sitting on the front porch where he could meet a prostitute. When they told him to get lost, he plowed his car into the porch, injuring three women and a man. A witness at the scene took down the license number to his car.

     As Giancola drove from the hit and run scene he struck a 13-year-old boy riding a bicycle. Kole Price, who received minor injuries from the collision, was struck again by Giancola who was intentionally trying to run him down. The boy found protection behind a telephone pole.

      After trying to kill the boy on the bicycle, Giancola drove to a nearby Egg Plotter restaurant where he called his mother. Shortly after the call she and his sister put the blood-covered Giancola into their car and drove him to the mother's house. When Giancola climbed into the car he said, "You'll be proud of me, I just killed 10 drug dealers."

     When Tony Giancola and the two women arrived at his mother's house, she called the sheriff's office. But before deputies arrived at the dwelling he was gone. A short time later police officers found Giancola hiding in a clump of brush next to a canal in St. Petersburg.

     In the course of Giancola's crime spree, the former school principal had stabbed four people, killing two of them. He attacked the two motel operators with a hammer, injured four people on the porch and ran over a boy on a bicycle. The Pinellas County prosecutor charged Tony Giancola with two counts of first-degree murder, two counts of attempted murder and several counts of aggravated assault. If convicted as charged he faced the death penalty.

     Other than being high on cocaine, investigators don't know why Giancola attacked these eleven people. There was nothing connecting the groups of victims to each other, or to Giancola. Police believed the murders and assaults were spontaneous and random.

     In September 2013, to avoid death by lethal injection, Anthony Giancola was allowed to plead guilty as charged. The judge sentenced him to several life sentences, terms to run consecutively.

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

The Dorice "Dee Dee" Moore Murder Case

     In 2006, an illiterate 37-year-old part time sanitation worker from Lakeland, Florida named Abraham Shakespeare (an ironic name) won the state's $30 million jackpot lottery. Mr. Shakespeare elected to accept the $17 million lump-sum payout. Soon after winning the money he purchased fancy cars, jewelry, furniture and a $1.7 million mansion in his hometown. Over the next two years the soft-touch millionaire who couldn't tell $6,000 from $60,000, spent, lent and gave away 90 percent of his fortune. Like so many big lottery winners before him, Abraham Shakespeare was beleaguered and overwhelmed by needy relatives, greedy acquaintances, grifters and complete strangers begging him for hand-outs. The money took over his life and brought him problems he hadn't had before hitting it big.

     In late 2008 the confused, depressed and vulnerable lottery winner met a 36-year-old predatory fortune-hunter named Dorice "Dee Dee" Moore who befriended him with the claim she was writing a book about how people took advantage of lottery winners. (Such as by claiming to be writing a book on how people take advantage of lottery winners.) Mr. Shakespeare fell for the ploy and by early 2009, Dorice Moore, as his financial advisor, was looting what was left in his bank accounts.

     On April 6, 2009 the former millionaire, now with just $14,000 in the bank, disappeared. His family, however, didn't report him missing for seven months. During this period, Dorice Moore paid people to tell Shakespeare's mother they had spotted her son around town in the company of a woman. Moore even paid one of the missing man's friends to send the mother a forged letter from Abraham. (Since he couldn't write, this should have raised eyebrows.) Moore also hired an impersonator to fake a phone call to Shakespeare's mom.

     By November of 2009 police started investigating Dorice Moore as a suspect in Mr. Shakespeare's disappearance. Officers, while searching her home in Plant City, Florida found the missing man's mummified remains in her backyard beneath a thirty-by-thirty foot slab of concrete. The forensic pathologist who performed the autopsy dug two .38-caliber slugs out of the corpse. Mr. Shakespeare died from being shot twice in the chest.

     Following her arrest on February 3, 2010, Dorice Moore told her police interrogators that Shakespeare had been murdered by five shadowy drug dealers. She knew two of them by the names Ronald and Fearless. The others she didn't know. The detectives questioning her, because they had been investigating the murder, didn't believe the drug dealer story.

     The Moore murder trial got underway on November 29, 2012 in Tampa, Florida before Hillsborough County Circuit Judge Emmett Battles. In his opening remarks to the jury, prosecutor Jay Pruner said that Moore, after stealing $1.3 million from Shakespeare, shot him to death on April 6, 2009. She and an accomplice buried his body behind her house then poured concrete over his grave.

     In addressing the jurors, defense attorney Bryon Hileman said his client had been trying to protect Shakespeare's dwindling fortune from people trying to take advantage of him, and that the lottery winner had fallen in with dealers who had killed him over a drug deal. Regarding the prosecution's case, Hileman pointed out that the state could not link the defendant to the .38-caliber revolver used in the crime. Moreover, Dorice Moore had not confessed, and no eyewitnesses would be testifying against her. According to the defense attorney, the prosecution's case was weak and circumstantial.

     Following several days featuring prosecution witnesses who testified that the defendant had paid them to cover-up Shakespeare's disappearance, the state rested its case.

     Defense attorney Hileman did not put Dorice Moore on the stand to testify on her own behalf. During Hileman's closing argument to the jury, Moore sat at the defense table and sobbed loudly. On December 11, 2012, following a three-hour deliberation, the jury found Moore guilty of first-degree murder.

     Before sentencing the 40-year-old Moore to the mandatory life sentence without parole, Judge Battles called her "cold, calculating, and cruel." According to the judge, she was "probably the most manipulative person this court has ever seen."

     In less than three years, Abraham Shakespeare's good luck turned into a nightmare that led to his murder. This case is a good example how, when it comes to money, big winners can quickly turn into big losers. Mr. Shakespeare should have secured good financial advice, found a way to avoid all of the freeloading beggars, then paid someone to teach him how to read and write. 

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

Criminal Investigation As A Thinking Person's Game

     Successful investigators are intelligent, analytical people who like to solve problems and figure things out. They are also curious, competitive and well-organized in their work habits. They are unafraid of complexity, pay attention to detail, are articulate and can express themselves on paper. Dedicated investigators are lifelong students, people who embrace new challenges and tough assignments. They are not only intelligent, they train themselves to think clearly, draw relevant conclusions and keep bias out of their calculations.

     Individuals who make first-class detectives are often not suited for general police work, and a good cop will not necessarily turn into a competent investigator. The fields of law enforcement (peace keeping and order maintenance) and criminal investigation are vastly different functions that appeal to different kinds of people. The uniformed officer, often having to act quickly and decisively, instead of thoughtful discretion, is more likely to behave pursuant to a detailed code of rules and regulations committed to memory. Training a police officer is therefore nothing like preparing someone for criminal investigation. For that reason, criminal investigators should be recruited from an entirely different pool of candidates. For example, there is no reason to require trainee investigators to be as physically fit as uniformed police officers. Moreover, there is no reason to train future investigators on how to issue traffic tickets, handle drunks, bust drug suspects or deal with domestic disturbance situations.

     The gap between policing and criminal investigation widened as law enforcement agencies, focused on drug enforcement, and concerns with terrorism, became more paramilitary in nature. Even small police departments field SWAT teams that keep sharp by arresting deadbeat dads, bad check passers and shoplifting suspects. As the police have become less interested in criminal investigation, the public, having been educated by the O. J. Simpson case, and hooked on TV shows like "CSI," "The New Detectives," and "Forensic Files," have become increasingly more interested in, and knowledgeable about, the art and science of criminal investigation. This has widened another gap, one between public expectation and police performance.

     Until general policing and criminal investigation are recognized and treated as separate vocations, criminal investigations of major, difficult crimes will continue to be regularly bungled. It is becoming increasingly difficult to think of a celebrated case that hasn't suffered from what could be at best termed mediocre detective work. In America, people who commit criminal homicide, not a particularly clever group of criminals, have a one-third chance of either avoiding detection or arrest. One in a hundred arsonists end up in prison and child molesters have a field day. For the law breaker, America is the land of opportunity. And it is not because the U. S. Supreme Court has handcuffed detectives. Blaming democracy and due process for investigative failures has become second nature to investigators unwilling to face up to their inadequacies.

     Crime solution rates reveal just how bad our criminal investigators are doing. Only 20 percent of all criminal cases lead to an arrest. The crime solution rate hasn't changed since the FBI started keeping crime records back in 1933. The reason for this has to do with the fact that criminal investigation, as a function of the American criminal justice system, has never been a priority. This reality has created decades of public frustration and disillusionment. Instead of fixing the problem, the law enforcement community has tried to indoctrinate the public into believing that solving one out of five crimes is the best that can be expected. It's the old war-is-hell excuse. Even in baseball, batting 200 is considered mediocre.

     Investigative trainees are not only drawn from the wrong well, they are improperly trained by instructors who emphasize methods and techniques designed to resolve cases quickly rather than correctly. The emphasis is on the acquisition of direct evidence in the form of eyewitness identification and the confession rather than the more time consuming, and complex gathering and interpretation of physical evidence; an endeavor that requires special training and more complicated thinking. Perhaps this is why so many crime scenes are either ignored, or improperly processed. This also explains why there are so many false confessions and people sent to prison on the strength of questionable line-up and mug shot identifications. Another method of quickly getting a case off the books involves the use of unreliable jailhouse informants who testify against defendants to get off the hook themselves. The plea bargaining process that accounts for 90 percent of the convictions in this country masks how police detectives go about their business. Because there are so few criminal trials there is no way to know how many confessions are illegally acquired, or how many searches are not based upon adequate probable cause.

     Because most detectives are not accustomed to digging deeply into a crime, that is peeling away layers and layers of leads, they are often stumped when merely scratching the surface of a case fails to reveal the perpetrator. There is also the problem of what could be called the veteran rookie, the uniformed cop who after fifteen years on patrol is rewarded with detective duty. These veteran rookies are not only ill-equipped to be investigators, they are often burned-out bureaucrats eyeing retirement.

     The use of task forces and team investigations attenuate investigative responsibility and produces poor results. A single, competent investigator will out perform a team of fifty amateurs without direction or vision spinning their wheels around a case.

     Only a handful of college level criminal justice programs include credible courses on criminal investigation. Most criminal justice courses are in the areas of policing, corrections and the sociology of crime. Too many criminal investigation courses are taught by academics teaching out of textbooks, or worse, by retired cops earning a little part time money by regaling students with war stories. This begs the question: can a qualified practitioner/lecturer teach college students how to become competent, well-rounded criminal investigators? Even if the classroom is filled with serious students who want to become investigators, the answer is, unfortunately, no. The most a criminal investigation professor can do is educate students about the art and science of criminal investigation. While this will not turn criminal justice majors into detectives, it might enhance a student's police training and the all-important apprenticeship that should follow the police academy.

     At the very least, besides the basic crime solving techniques--crime scene work, interviewing, interrogation and the like--students should be exposed to a philosophy or theory of crime solution that includes the proper attitude, mind set and core investigative values that competent detectives possess. They can be taught how to recognize the elements of a solid investigation and identify cases that are incomplete or flawed. If nothing else, students should come away from the course knowing the basic dos and don't of criminal investigation. Outstanding criminal investigators are the products of a solid education, good training, a long internship, close on-the-job mentoring and relevant experience.         

Monday, November 21, 2022

Murder in a Small Town: The 1957 Fordney-Barber Case

     In 1957, whenever someone in the United States committed murder, the story almost always made the front page of the local newspaper and led the TV news that night. Today there is an explosion of murder-suicide cases across the nation, but in the 1950s such mayhem, particularly in small town America, was virtually unheard of. But it did happen, and it happened on May 28, 1957 in a small town in western Pennsylvania.

     John D. Barber and his wife Grace, a childless couple, adopted 8-year-old Judy Rose in 1946. The family resided in Grove City, Pennsylvania. In 1953, when Judy turned fifteen the family moved fifteen miles west to New Wilmington, a quiet borough of 1,800 in Amish country ninety minutes north of Pittsburgh. The Barbers took up residence in a modest home at 256 North Market Street near the center of the one-redlight town.

     Two years after moving to New Wilmington, the home of Westminster College, Mr. and Mrs. Barber separated. Grace moved a few miles north where she took up residence in Blacktown in adjacent Mercer County. At the time, Mr. Barber, a small aircraft pilot and member of the Shenango Valley Flying Club, worked the night shift at a factory twenty miles west in Youngstown, Ohio. Following her parents' separation Judy elected to remain in New Wilmington with her father.

     In September 1956, at the beginning of her senior year at Wilmington Area High School, Judy Barber announced her engagement to Homer Miller, a young man from Grove City who had joined the Marine Corps. Notwithstanding her engagement to Miller, Judy continued to see Theodore George Fordney, a 28-year-old New Wilmington postal worker she had been involved with since July 1956. Early in 1957, following Homer Miller's discharge from the Marine Corps, Judy returned his engagement ring. She continued to go out with Ted Fordney, a man ten years her senior.

     On May 21, 1957, Mr. Barber, in anticipation of Judy's graduation from high school the following week, bought her a car. Although she had been a mediocre student with a lot of absences, Judy had lined-up a job as a secretary in a department store in the nearby town of Sharon. Having flown several times in a small plane with her father, Judy aspired to someday become an airline stewardess.

     Ted Fordney, Judy's on and off boyfriend, had, in 1945, quit high school during his senior year. Ted, a slender, clean-cut kid of average height who was known as an excellent swimmer and diver, while no more of a prankster than many students in his class of 33, alway seemed to be the boy who got caught. According to his friend Kenny Whitman, Ted was one of those bad luck guys who walked around under a cloud. Before dropping out of school, Fordney and Whitman washed dishes at The Tavern, a New Wilmington restaurant known throughout western Pennsylvania.

     Growing up in New Wilmington, Ted was raised by his mother. No one seemed to know much about his father, George A. Fordney. After leaving school Ted joined the Army and was stationed in Fort Lee, Virginia. In May 1947, fresh out of the service, he worked at the Youngstown Sheet & Tube Company in Youngstown, Ohio. In 1953 he landed a job at the post office in New Wilmington. He also joined the New Wilmington Volunteer Fire Department.

     In 1957, Ted, 29-years-old, still single and working at the post office, resided in a two-story dwelling at 512 West Neshannock Avenue. The house was owned by his mother. His 54-year-old mother, Mary Virginia (Fischer) Fordney, a practical nurse, lived and worked in Florida. For several months Ted had been living with terrible pain caused by a slipped disc in his spine. Because he couldn't stand for any period of time he missed a lot of work at the post office.

     On May 21, 1957, Ted underwent an operation at the Jameson Memorial Hospital in New Castle to repair his ruptured disc. Mrs. Fordney returned to New Wilmington from New Orleans to take care of her son as he struggled to recover from the operation. Mrs. Fordney had been in New Orleans visiting Madeline, one of Ted's three grown sisters.

      Six days following his hospital stay, Ted ran into his lifelong friend, Kenny Whitman. When Kenny asked Ted why he hadn't been around to visit, Ted said the pain in his back was so intense he couldn't sit very long in a car.

     Judy Barber, although she continued to date Ted Fordney, occasionally entertained younger men at her house. Whenever this happened, a jealous Ted would drive slowly back and forth on North Market Street past her home. On Monday, May 27, 1957, just four days before her high school graduation, Judy and a Westminster College freshman from West Hartford, Connecticut named Warren Howard Weber, watched a late night television movie at her house. At one o'clock that night the college student left the North Market Street dwelling and walked back to his dormitory.

     The next morning, May 28, at nine o'clock, John Barber returned home after working the night shift at the factory in Youngstown, Ohio. In the front hallway to the house Mr. Barber discovered his daughter's dead body sprawled out on the floor. She was dressed in a pair of blue polka-dot pajamas and white, knitted socks. An electrical cord from a vacuum cleaner had been wrapped tightly around her neck and knotted. There were no signs of forced entry into the house and Mr. Barber did not see any indication that his daughter had struggled with her killer.

     Mr. Barber picked up the telephone and reported his daughter's murder to an officer assigned to the Pennsylvania State Police Barracks in New Castle, a town of 50,000 nine miles south of New Wilmington. After speaking with the Troop D officer, Mr. Barber called Ted Fordney's house and spoke to his mother. Mrs. Fordney, immediately following Mr. Barber's call, checked her son's bedroom and saw that his bed had not been slept in the previous night. Where was he? After seeing his car parked near the house, Mrs. Fordney walked into her back yard where she found Ted about five feet from the porch sprawled next to a .12-gauge shotgun. He had blasted himself in the face.

     Back at the Barber house, shortly after officers from the state police arrived at the death scene, Dr. Frank C. McClenahan, a local physician, came to the dwelling to examine Judy Barber's corpse. The doctor, based on the fact that rigor mortis had not set in, estimated that the girl had been murdered sometime between two and four that morning.

     Two state police officers, Sergeant Harold Rise and Corporal William S. O'Brien, were assigned the task of getting to the bottom of the two violent deaths. At the Barber house, Trooper O'Brien noticed that the killer had ripped the vacuum cleaner cord out of the wall so violently the plug had detached.

     At the Fordney house, investigators found Ted's wallet, watch and some loose change on his dresser drawer which led them to theorize that before killing himself in the back yard he had emptied his pockets. On his bedroom walls the officers notices scratch marks that could have been made by the fingernails of a man in severe pain. The investigators did not find a suicide note.

     Later on the morning of Ted Fordney's suicide, after police officers and firemen had left the Neshannock Avenue house, Mrs. Fordney called the Sharp Funeral Home a few blocks away. Bob Brush, a 19-year-old who happened to be visiting his friend Pete Sharp at the funeral home that day, accompanied Pete and his brother Bud to the Fordney residence. Bob, a 1956 high school graduate, lived on North Market Street a few houses from the murder scene. While Bob was acquainted with Judy Barber, he only knew Ted Fordney as the older guy with a bad back who spent every day during the summer at the New Wilmington public swimming pool. In the back yard of the Fordney house, Bob Brush took one look at the man lying next to the shotgun and turned away in horror. 

     Dr. Lester Adelson, the forensic pathologist with the Cleveland Crime Laboratory who three years earlier had examined the body of Marilyn Shepard, the murdered wife of Dr. Sam Shepard, performed the Judy Barber autopsy. Dr. Adelson noticed a fresh abrasion on the victim's left temple that suggested the killer had knocked her out before wrapping and tying the cord around her neck. According to the pathologist's estimation, the five-foot-tall high school senior had died of asphyxiation by ligature sometime between two and four on the morning of Tuesday, May 28, 1957.

     Warren Weber, the Westminster College freshman who had been with Judy just hours before the murder, contacted the state police almost immediately after he got word of her death. That Tuesday afternoon Lawrence County District Attorney Perry Reeher and County Detective Russell McConhay questioned the shaken student at the county courthouse in New Castle. Weber informed his interviewers that between ten-thirty and eleven o'clock the previous night he and Judy had seen a man peeking into one of the living room windows. The only thing Weber recognized about the man was that he had a crew-cut. Judy told him that she thought the window peeper was Ted Fordney.

     Troopers Rice and O'Brien questioned several witnesses who had seen Ted Fordney, at ten-thirty Monday night, walking toward the Barber house. Witnesses had also seen the victim and Fordney riding around town in her new car in the afternoon and evening of the day before her death. According to some of Judy's girlfriends, she did not want to marry Ted and was thinking of ending their relationship. Whenever she entertained a boy her age Ted would pay Judy a visit shortly after her date went home.

   New Wilmington weekend police officer John D. Kyle questioned Ted Fordney's next-door neighbor, Mrs. Elmer Newton who said that she and her husband, between four and five o'clock Tuesday morning, heard a noise they thought was thunder. Officer Kyle presumed the couple had heard Ted Fordney shoot himself in the head.

     At this point in the investigation the homicide investigators as well as the Lawrence County District Attorney believed that Ted Fordney had gone to the Barber house an hour or so after the college student had gone home. Judy let him in, they argued and he punched her on the side of the head. As she lay unconscious on the hallway floor he wrapped and tied the electrical cord around her neck. After returning to his house Ted grabbed his shogun, walked into the back yard, and shot himself in the face.

     On Wednesday morning, May 29, the day after the murder-suicide, the dead girl's father allowed himself to be interviewed by reporter Bryant Artis with The Pittsburgh Press. Artis' comprehensive front-page article about the mayhem in New Wilmington featured a large yearbook photograph of Judy Barber. According to John Barber, just minutes after reporting his daughter's murder to the Pennsylvania State Police, he telephoned Ted Fordney. "I called him simply because he knew everybody in town," the father said. Regarding his daughter's relationship with a man ten years older than her, Mr. Barber said, "He wouldn't show up for a month at a time. But they both loved to dance and off they'd go." Asked about his feelings toward Ted Fordney, Mr. Barber said, "It's not fair to accuse him until we know."

     Lawrence County Coroner John A. Meehan, Jr. held the coroner's inquest in New Castle at the country court house on August 6, 1957. Following the three hour session in which six witnesses testified, the coroner's jury, after deliberating twenty minutes, delivered its verdict. The inquest jurors found that Judy Barber had been strangled to death by Theodore Fordney who committed suicide shortly after the murder. This meant there would be no further investigation into these deaths. The case was closed.

     Because no one saw Ted Fordney murder Judy Barber, and he did not confess, the case against him was entirely circumstantial. Moreover, there was no physical evidence connecting Mr. Fordney to the killing. According to reportage in the weekly New Wilmington Globe, forensic scientists at the state police crime lab in Butler had found hair follicles from the victim on the sweeper cord. Latent fingerprints had been lifted from the ligature, but because they were partials, they could not be identified.

     Warren Weber, the Westminster College student from Connecticut did not return to New Wilmington. And who could blame him? He had come to a small, quiet community to end up having a date murdered just hours after he left her house. It probably dawned on Weber that Ted Fordney could have come to the Barber house that night with his shotgun. Before turning the gun on himself, Fordney could have murdered him along with the girl.

     Ted Fordney's mother, on February 1, 1996, while living in a convalescent home in Hermitage, Pennsylvania, died at the age of 93.

      Ted Fordney did not have a history of criminal violence and he had never been treated for any kind of mental illness. So what could have driven this ordinary man to commit murder and suicide? Perhaps the answer lies in the fact he was in extreme pain. It is possible he was taking pain-killing drugs that had altered his personality. (In the 1950s, patients suffering from post-surgical pain often took a powerful, over-the-counter drug called Paracetamol. Even in small doses, Paracetamol was known to cause kidney, liver and brain damage. If combined with even small amounts of alcohol the drug was especially dangerous.)

      The memories of Judy Barber and Theodore Fordney, today remembered by a handful of people, are intertwined forever as they lay buried in the same cemetery outside of New Wilmington, Pennsylvania. In criminal homicide, the smaller the town, the bigger the murder.

Sunday, November 20, 2022

Frank Costal and the Kadunce Killings: The Satanic High Priest Murder Case

     At ten o'clock on the morning of July 11, 1978, Rose Butera decided to visit her friend Kathleen Kadunce. Rose, accompanied by her daughter Lori and Lori's boyfriend, pulled up to Kathy Kadunce's two-story house on Wilmington Avenue in New Castle, Pennsylvania, a mill town of 30,000 about an hour north of downtown Pittsburgh. Twenty-five-year-old Kathleen, known to her friends as Kathy, lived in the house with her husband Lawrence and their two children, a four-year-old girl named Dawn and three-month-old Robert Dean Kadunce. (While friends and family called Lawrence Lou or Louie, he will be referred to here as Lawrence.)

     When she approached the Kadunce residence Rose Butera noticed that the back door stood ajar. From the doorway Rose heard a baby crying. After no one answered her knock she and the other two visitors entered the dwelling.

     Rose found the Kadunce baby crying in a portable crib on the first floor. Lori climbed the stairs to the second floor where she stumbled upon the mutilated body of the little girl, Dawn Kadunce. Rose, in response to her daughter's screams, found Mrs. Kadunce's nude and bloody body lying on the bathroom floor.

     According to the Lawrence County coroner, Kathy Kadunce and her daughter had been each stabbed 17 times. The mother had also been shot in the head. The victims had been murdered earlier that morning. Dr. William G. Gillespy, a pathologist with St. Francis Hospital in New Castle, performed the autopsies. According to Dr. Gillespy, Mrs. Kadunce had been shot at point blank range before she was stabbed. The pathologist believed the murders took place sometime between seven and eight-forty-five in the morning. In his report, Dr. Gillespy used the words "excessive" and "overkill" in describing the murders.

     Investigators believed the killer or killers had removed Mrs. Kadunce's wedding ring as well as a blue star sapphire ring. Police officers searched the Kadunce house but did not find the murder weapons.

     New Castle detectives questioned Lawrence Kadunce, Kathy's husband of six years. He said that when he left his house that morning his wife and daughter were alive. Mr. Kadunce was a student at the New Castle Business College where he took night courses. He worked during the day at V & R Industries on Grove Street. The 30-year-old was not a suspect in the case.

     In January 1979, detectives working on the double murder caught a break when an anonymous tipster told officers about a man named Michael Atkinson. According to the caller, Atkinson, a 28-year-old drifter from Ellwood City, a town a few miles south of New Castle, had been involved in the Kadunce murders. Detectives launched an investigation of this man and the more they learned the more they were convinced the anonymous caller had been right.

     On February 11, 1980, police officers armed with a warrant for Atkinson's arrest as a suspect in the Kadunce case, interrogated him at the jail in neighboring Butler County. Atkinson had been arrested in connection with the January 1980 shooting death of Rose Puz, his 84-year-old landlady in Ellwood City.

     Atkinson admitted being at the Kadunce house at six o'clock that bloody morning. He said he waited in the car while his companion, Frank Costal, entered the dwelling. When the 50-year-old Costal walked out of the Kadunce house he was, according to Atkinson, covered in the victims' blood.

     Frank G. Costal, after dropping out of New Castle High School in 1950, joined the Army and ended up serving in Korea during the Korean War. After his military service, the veteran with a "confused sexual identify," traveled around the country as a carnival freak known as Frankie Francine, half-man, half-woman.

     In 1970 Mr. Costal returned to New Castle where he worked odd jobs and lived off a monthly social security disability benefit of $240. (He claimed to have injured himself while working as a laborer in Pittsburgh. He also told people he had been sexually abused as a child.)

     In February 1980, New Castle police officers arrested Frank Costal at his apartment at Highland and Leisure Avenues on suspicion of murdering Mrs. Kadunce and her daughter. In his apartment officers discovered plastic skulls hanging from the ceiling, ceremonial candles, inverted crucifixes and a collection of books on black magic, witchcraft and devil worship. The suspect's walls were also covered with black curtains to give the place a spooky feel.

     Costal told his police interrogators that he, Michael Atkinson, a man named John Dudoice and Lawrence Kadunce had gone to the Kadunce house that morning to straighten out a drug deal Mrs. Kadunce had interfered with. According to Costal, Kathy Kadunce had found the drugs he had given to her husband and she had flushed them down the toilet. Costal said that yes, he was in the house at the time of the murders, but he was not the one who did the killing. His companions had killed the little girl because she would have been a witness to her mother's murder. Costal denied the killings had anything to do with his interest in the occult. Four months earlier, John Dudoice had been shot to death in New Castle. While the case went into the books as a suicide, detectives believed that Dudoice had been murdered by Costal who was worried that if questioned by the police Dudoice would finger him and the others for the Kadunce murders.

     On March 4, 1980, a jury found Michael Atkinson guilty of raping a 17-year-old New Castle girl in 1978.

     On September 15, 1980, Michael Atkinson went on trial for the Kadunce murders. The Lawrence County prosecutor had charged him with the first-degree murder of Kathy Kadunce and the third-degree murder of the victim's daughter. The prosecution theorized that Kathy's murder had been premeditated while her daughter's fatal stabbing had been a spur-of-the-moment killing. (Today the killing of a potential witness to a crime qualifies the murderer for the death penalty.)

     The trial judge allowed the prosecutor to show the jurors the gory murder scene photographs. Atkinson's attorney objected on the grounds these photos unduly inflamed and prejudiced the jury against the defendant. Following the coroner's testimony, several police officers took the stand. Frank Costal, the prosecution's star witness, climbed into the witness box and placed himself, the defendant and the others at the murder scene that morning.

     After the prosecution rested its case, Michael Atkinson's attorney put him on the stand to speak on his own behalf. Atkinson continued to insist that he had not left the car that morning while Costal killed Kathy Kadunce for destroying the drugs her husband had been entrusted with.

     On cross-examination the prosecutor got the defendant to acknowledge several inconsistencies in his written and oral statements to the police. The defendant also admitted that he, Costal, Duodice and Lawrence Kadunce returned to the murder scene an hour after the killings to retrieve physical evidence that might have incriminated them. Atkinson said Dudoice walked out of the Kadunce house carrying a bloody 14-inch butcher knife, the weapon used to stab the victims and dismember the little girl.

     On October 16, 1980, the jury found Michael Atkinson guilty as charged. The judge sentenced him to life in prison for Kathy Kadunce's murder, and ten to twenty years for the slaughter of Dawn Kadunce. Sometime around 2013 Atkinson died while serving time at the state penitentiary in Greene County, Pennsylvania.

     The Frank G. Costal trial got underway on January 5, 1981 in the Lawrence County Courthouse. Because of the regional pre-trial publicity about the murders that extended all the way south to Pittsburgh, the jury had been drawn from the citizens of Crawford County. The prosecutor, in his opening remarks to the jury, argued that the ritualistic killings committed by the defendant had been motived by the thwarted drug deal as well as Costal's desire to kill Kathy because he was having a homosexual affair with Lawrence Kadunce. In other words, the defendant had wanted Mr. Kadunce all to himself.

     Several of the prosecution's witnesses informed the jury of the defendant's participation in satanic rituals held in his apartment. They also described his role as the "High Priest" of a small cult of young, drug-addled naive followers who gathered at his place three or four times a week to smoke pot, drink beer, witness animal sacrifices and other satanic rituals. At these occult events, Frank Costal would often conduct marriage ceremonies involving him and a young male lover. (Police found fake marriage certificates in his apartment.)

     According to several witnesses familiar with the defendant's lifestyle, many of Costal's young followers were afraid to cooperate with the police because they believed Costal had the power to walk through the bars of the Lawrence County Jail.

     Another witness who had participated in black magic rituals at the defendant's apartment testified that many of the "High Priest's" followers, in return for access to the beer and marijuana, shoplifted for him. One of the former attendees at Costal's beer and pot-fueled occult affairs told the jury that he once saw the defendant wearing nothing but a pair of woman's red bikini underwear.

     The prosecutor put a jailhouse informant on the stand who said that while serving time with Costal in a Lawrence County Jail cell, Costal boasted about "carving up the Kadunces." The snitch said Costal had been angry at Kathy for interfering with his relationship with her husband.

     A prosecution witness testified that Lawrence Kadunce had been an active member of Costal's satanic group. She said she had seen him several times in the defendant's apartment. According to this witness, Mr. Kadunce and the defendant had been involved in a homosexual relationship. Another person took the stand and said that Costal had demanded that Lawrence Kadunce leave his wife Kathy. According to this witness, just before the murders, Costal had confided to her that "something bad was going to happen to Kathy."

     An expert on satanism took the stand for the prosecution and said that the defendant's plastic skulls, devil worship posters, robes and books on the occult were consistent with the ritualistic nature of the Kadunce murders. According to this witness (so-called satanism experts have since been discredited) the fact the victims had been stabbed 17 times had satanic relevance. (Detectives who worked on the case believed the defendant's devil worshiping trappings were nothing more than props in furtherance of his desire to seduce young gay men.)

     Michael Atkinson took the stand as the prosecution's star witness. He testified that Frank Costal, John Dudoice and Lawrence Kadunce were in the house committing the murders while he sat outside in the car. Atkinson told the jury that Frank Costal wanted to kill Kathy Kadunce in order to have Lawrence for himself. The witness further implicated the husband by claiming that Lawrence had entered the house that morning armed with a pistol.

     On January 25, 1981, the jury found Frank Costal guilty of two counts of first-degree murder. The judge imposed the mandatory life sentence without parole. Costal died in 2001 at age 71 while serving his time at the State Correctional Institute at Laurel Highlands, Pennsylvania.

     A jury in the summer of 1982 found Michael Atkinson guilty of murdering his Ellwood City landlord, Rose Puz. The judge handed him a second life sentence for the January 1980 murder. (There are those who believe that Michael Atkinson and a man named Raymond Tanner murdered 37-year-old Beverly Ann Withers and 4-year-old Melanie Gargacz on November 7, 1975 in New Castle. When the girl's mother, Marilyn Gargacz, came home that afternoon, the school teacher found her daughter and the girl's babysitter dead from small caliber gunshot wounds to the head. No arrests were made, and that case remained unsolved.)

     Lawrence Kadunce, having been implicated in his wife's and daughter's murders, went on trial in January 1982 in Lawrence County with Judge Glenn McCracken presiding. Because of the intense local publicity surrounding the case, a jury from Centre County had been impanelled. Mr. Kadunce had been assigned two defense attorneys, Norman A. Levine and Peter E. Horney.

     District Attorney Norman J. Barilla opened his prosecution by putting Sandra Lee Krosen on the stand. The 39-year-old witness from Edinburg testified that Frank Costal had been a babysitter for one of her friends. In 1977, Mr. Costal had introduced Krosen to his good friend, Lawrence Kadunce.

     New Castle police officer William Carbone testified regarding major inconsistencies in statements the defendant made to him on the day of the murder and the day after. Kathleen Kadunce's mother, brother, and sister testified that the defendant had given them different stories regarding his activities on the night before the murders. The family members also noted that Lawrence, at his dead wife's funeral, had laughed and joked with friends who came to pay their respects.

     Michael Atkinson, the prosecution's star witness took the stand on January 21,1982. According to the convicted murderer and rapist, after the defendant and his wife argued in the bathroom about the drugs---she had been about to take a bath--he shot her in the head. After killing his wife, the defendant sent Frank Costal to silence his daughter, Dawn.

     Atkinson said that after the murders he burned evidence from the crime scene behind his house on South Jefferson Street. He disposed of the murder knife and gun by tossing the weapons into a pond owned by the Medusa Cement plant near Wampum, Pennsylvania.

      According to Atkinson, Frank Costal had introduced him to the defendant and his wife in 1977 at the Towne Mall in downtown New Castle. The witness described Lawrence Kadunce as a vengeful and jealous husband who had accused him (Atkinson) of having an affair with Kathy. Atkinson said he had caught the defendant and Frank Costal, a man he described as a "blood-maddened drug using homosexual," having sex in Costal's apartment.

     Defense attorney Levine, in his cross-examination of the prosecution's star witness pointed out major discrepancies in Atkinson's testimony at this trial, the Costal trial and at a March 1981 preliminary hearing before District Justice Howard B. Hanna. In Atkinson's two signed statements given to the New Castle police on February 10 and 11, 1980, Lawrence Kadunce was not mentioned as a participant in the murders.

     Attorney Levine also got the witness to admit that in return for his testimony against Lawrence Kadunce, District Attorney Barilla had promised not to seek the death penalty in the Rose Puz murder case. Moreover, in return for his Kadunce trial testimony, Atkinson would receive major dental work paid by the state.

     Two Lawrence County jailhouse snitches took the stand for the prosecution and testified that the defendant, while incarcerated there, made statements to them that incriminated him in the murders.

     When it came time to present his side of the case, defense attorney Levine put Lawrence County Jail warden Joseph F. Gregg on the stand. The warden's testimony, based on jail records, cast serious doubt regarding the veracity of the jailhouse informants' stories.

     Lawrence Kadunce took the stand on his own behalf and denied ever knowing Frank Costal or Michael Atkinson. He told the jurors that he was at work when the murders took place. The jury, on February 10, 1982, found the defendant not guilty.

     Following his acquittal, Lawrence Kadunce left the New Castle area. He later remarried and had a son with his second wife. According to that son, his father refused to talk about the case. Some members of Kathy's family were not convinced that Mr. Kadunce was innocent.

     In 2004, the murder house at 702 Wilmington Avenue was torn down to make room for a video rental store.

     The Kadunce case is tragic because two innocent victims were drawn into a circle of criminal degenerates who committed a perfectly senseless and horrific crime.