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Monday, May 30, 2022

Dr.Thomas Woodrow Price: A Headmaster's Double Life

     In 2007 Dr. Thomas Woodrow Price, known to his friends as "Woody," became the headmaster of the Branson School, a private college preparatory institution in California's upscale Marin County in the San Francisco bay area. Students of the school--320 of them--paid an annual tuition of $39,475.

     The 54-year-old headmaster and his wife resided in the suburban community of Ross. Price's wife was the principal of the Prospect Sierra School, a private preparatory institution in El Cerrito, California. Dr. Price and his wife exemplified the upper middle class rewards of higher education and ambition. They were highly respected members of their affluent community.

     Thomas Price had earned a master's degree in education administration from Columbia University in New York City. He went on to acquire a doctorate in education leadership from the University of Pennsylvania, another Ivy League school. Before moving to Marin County he held administrative positions at the Newman School in New Orleans and the Abington Friends School in Philadelphia.

     On the evening of Friday October 3, 2014, deputies with the Sacramento County Sheriff's Office responded to a 911 call from a young man who said his 21-year-old girlfriend was holed up in a hotel room doing drugs with an older man. The 911 caller identified his girlfriend as Brittany Hall and said she and the man were staying at the Hyatt Place off Highway 50 in Rancho Cordova, a suburban community 15 miles east of Sacramento. The hotel was located about 100 miles from Dr. Price's home in Ross, California.

     When Dr. Price answered his hotel room door he came face-to-face with two sheriff's deputies who asked about Brittany Hall. From the hallway outside of the single room the officers saw a young blond woman lying on the bed. They shouted her name but she didn't respond. The deputies pushed past the headmaster into the room where they revived the young woman who was obviously under the influence of narcotics.

      One of the officers described the hotel room as a "den of drug activity." Deputies seized, among drug paraphernalia, quantities of methamphetamine, heroin, cocaine, and prescription pills. The man who had rented the hotel room identified himself to the deputies as Dr. Thomas Price, the head of a prestigious prep school in Marin County.

     Officers booked Brittany Hall, a resident of Elk Grove, California, into the Sacramento County Jail on charges of drug possession with the intent to distribute. Dr. Price was booked on the same charges. The next day the headmaster posted his $75,000 bond and was released. Brittany Hall spent the weekend behind bars before someone bailed her out.

     Shortly after his arrest Dr. Price resigned from the Branson School. Although he told investigators that Brittany Hall had been a casual hookup, evidence surfaced that he had been involved with her for up to two years. At any rate it became obvious that Dr. Thomas Price had been living a double life.

     On April 2, 2015, Dr. Price pleaded no contest to a pair of misdemeanor drug possession charges in return for three years probation. Brittney Hall received probation as well.

Sunday, May 29, 2022

The Jerame Reid Police-Involved Shooting Case

      On the night of December 30, 2014, in Brighton, New Jersey, a Cumberland County town of 25,000 south of Philadelphia, Bridgeton police officers Roger Worley and Braheme Days pulled over a Jaguar for running a stop sign. Officer Worley was behind the wheel of the patrol car.

     Officer Days approached the passenger side of the Jaguar and asked the two men in the car how they were doing. The passenger, 30-year-old Jerame Reid, said, "Good, how you doing, officer?"

     A few months earlier, officer Days had arrested Jerame Reid for possession of drugs. As a teenager Reid had been convicted of shooting at police officers. The judge sent him to prison for twelve years.

     A few seconds after approaching the Jaguar officer Days spotted a handgun in the glove compartment. He said, "Don't move! Show me your hands!"

     On the other side of the vehicle officer Worley pointed his gun at the driver, Leroy Tutt. Mr. Tutt sat in the driver's seat with his hands sticking out of the car door window where they could be seen. Officer Worley called for backup.

     Officer Days reached into the Jaguar and removed a silver handgun from the glove box. To the vehicle's occupants he said, "You reach for something you're going to be (expletive) dead!"

     One of the men in the stopped car said, "I got no reason to reach for nothing." Again officer Days warned, "Hey Jerame, you reach for something you're going to be (expletive) dead!"

     As Jerame Reid opened the front passenger door, he said, "I'm getting out of the car." By now officer Worley had joined officer Days on that side of the vehicle. Both officers had their guns drawn. Reid climbed out of the vehicle, and when he stood up his hands were raised to the level of his chest in the officers' plain view.

     A few seconds after Jerame Reid exited the Jaguar, officer Days shot him. Officer Worley also fired his gun but missed his target.  The shot man collapsed to the ground and died on the spot. He did not possess a firearm.

     The police-involved shooting incident was caught on the officers' dashboard camera. The chief of police placed both officers on administrative leave and turned the case over to the Cumberland County prosecutor's office.

     Shortly after receiving the case, Cumberland County prosecutor Jennifer Webb-McRae recused herself from the inquiry because she had personal ties to officer Days. First Assistant prosecutor Harold Shapiro took over the investigation.

     Critics of the way the authorities handled the case called for either a special prosecutor or an intervention by the state attorney general's office. Protestors, notwithstanding the fact that Jerame Reid and the officer who shot him were black, claimed racism.

    In February 2015, three months after Reid's death, a local newspaper reported that in 2011 Jerame Reid had filed a $100,000 lawsuit against the Cumberland County Department of Corrections, Warden Robert Balicki,and three corrections officers. Reid claimed the jail guards assaulted him in October 2009. According to Reid, the officers, without provocation or justification, repeatedly punched, kicked and pepper sprayed his face then threw a bucket of water on him as he lay on the cell floor.

     As a result of the beating Reid said he suffered broken ribs and a fractured left orbital bone that left him without sensation and nerve damage to his lips and cheek area. According to court documents the encounter began after Reid confronted another inmate over stolen belongings. The accused inmate told correction officers that Reid possessed a sharp object.

     Responding jail guards handcuffed Reid and placed him into another cell. According to the plaintiff, after he made a comment to one of the officers they gave him the beating. (The officers alleged that Reid threw the first punch.)

     Reid's lawyer, in court documents, said the corrections officers, after an internal investigation, were disciplined for not filing a use of force report. The matter was not referred to the local prosecutor's office for investigation.

     As a result of the plaintiff's death, the lawsuit against the county and the others was dismissed.

     After a federal prosecutor decided not to pursue the shooting incident against the officers, the case, in April 2016, went before a local grand jury. The grand jurors declined to indict either officer. In July 2016, members of Reid's family settled a federal lawsuit against the police department for an undisclosed amount.

The Paul Johnson/Vance Roberts Kidnap/Sexual Torture Case

     In June 1990, 20-year-old Paul Johnson and his half-brother Vance Roberts kidnapped 17-year-old Andrea Hood off the street in Portland, Oregon. After the victim climbed into Roberts' pickup truck the two men drove her to Roberts' house in the city where, over a period of 36 hours, they repeatedly raped her in a bedroom converted into a soundproof torture chamber. They locked Hood in a closet and at times chained her to a bed.

     On the second day of her captivity Hood managed to free herself, smash a bedroom window and escape.

     Police officers, when they searched Vance Roberts' house, found chains and other items of torture and restraint.

     After Paul Johnson and Vance Roberts pleaded not guilty at their arraignments, a Washington County prosecutor took the case to a grand jury which indicted the half-brothers on charges of kidnapping and rape. Both men maintained their innocence.

     In February 1991, as Johnson and Roberts awaited trial, their mother bailed them out. Both men immediately fled and remained at large for seventeen years until Vance Roberts surrendered to the authorities in 2006.

     In 2007, a jury found Vance Roberts guilty as charged. The key evidence against him involved the testimony of Andrea Hood and Michaelle Dierich, a woman kidnapped and raped by the half-brothers in 1988. The judge sentenced Roberts to 108 years in prison. He continued to insist that he was innocent.

     In September 2015 the Portland kidnap/rape case and its fugitive Paul Johnson were featured on the CNN TV show "The Hunt With John Walsh." Shortly after the episode aired a tip came in regarding Johnson's whereabouts.

     On Monday September 29, 2015, U. S. Marshals in Guadalajara, Mexico arrested Paul Johnson as he walked to an electronics store. The fugitive of 24 years had been living in that country under the name Paul Bennett Hamilton.

     In May 2016 Paul Johnson pleaded guilty to eight counts of first-degree kidnapping, six counts of first-degree sodomy, six counts of first-degree rape and three counts of first-degree sexual abuse. The Washington County judge sentenced the 46-year-old to 18 years in prison.

Saturday, May 28, 2022

Robert H. Richards IV: The Case of the Rich Pedophile

     In 2005, 38-year-old Robert H. Richards IV resided with his wife Tracy and their three-year-old daughter and 19-month-old son. Mr. Richards, the heir to a pair of family fortunes, lived in a 5,800-square-foot mansion in Greenville, Delaware. He was a member of the du Pont family, the people who built a worldwide chemical empire, and was the son of a prominent Delaware attorney. Richards also owned a luxury home in the exclusive North Shores neighborhood near Rehoboth Beach.

     In October 2007 Richards' daughter, now almost six, told her grandmother, Donna Burg, that her father had sexually assaulted her several times in 2005. According to the girl her father had penetrated her with his finger at night in her bedroom. He told his daughter to keep what he had done to her a secret. The grandmother passed this information on to the victim's mother, Tracy Richards. The mother took her daughter to a pediatrician who confirmed that she had been sexually assaulted.

     In December 2007 a grand jury sitting in New Castle County indicted Robert Richards on two counts of second-degree rape. If convicted of the felonies Richards faced a mandatory prison sentence. Following his arrest he retained the services of a high-powered Delaware defense attorney named Eugene J. Maurer Jr.

     Having denied his daughter's accusations Richards agreed to take a polygraph test. When advised by the lie detection examiner that he had failed the test Richards confessed to sexually assaulting his daughter. He said he was mentally ill and in need of psychiatric treatment.

     In June 2008 attorney Maurer and New Castle County prosecutor Renee Hrivnak agreed on a plea arrangement. According to the deal Richards would plead guilty to one count of fourth-degree rape. This was not an offense that called for an automatic stretch in prison.

     Superior Court Judge Jan Jurden, in January 2009, sentenced Richards to Level 2 probation. Under the terms of his sentence Richards would visit a case officer once a month. He also paid a $4,395 fine to the Delaware Violent Crimes Compensation Board.

     Judge Jurden, in justifying the probated sentence, wrote that prison life would be especially difficult for Mr. Richards and that he would not fare well behind bars. In her mind prison was for drug dealers, robbers and murderers, not for child molesters in need of psychiatric treatment.

     In March 2014, Robert Richards' ex-wife Tracy filed a lawsuit against him on behalf of their children. The plaintiff sought compensatory and punitive damages for assault, negligence and the intentional infliction of emotional stress on his daughter and her younger brother.

     According to the affidavit in support of the lawsuit, Richards, in anticipation of a second polygraph test in April 2010, expressed concern about something he had done to his son in December 2005. Richards was worried that he had sexually assaulted the then 19-month-old boy. Richards promised that whatever he had done to that child it would not happen again.

     Richards' incriminating remarks, sparked by the lie detector test he took in 2010 following his probated sentence for sexually assaulting his daughter, were not make public until Tracy Richards filed her lawsuit. The new information inflamed a public already angry over what seemed to be Richards' preferential treatment by the prosecutor and Judge Jurden.

    On June 28, 2014 Robert Richards' attorney negotiated a settlement agreement with his client's former wife. The amount of the settlement was not disclosed. No charges were filed against Richards in connection with the possible molestation of his son.

Donald Eugene Borders: The "Three Women" Murder Case

     In 2003, 85-year-old Lottie Ledford lived by herself in a low-income neighborhood in Shelby, North Carolina, a town of 20,000 fifty miles west of Charlotte. As a younger woman Lottie had worked in the region's textile mills. On August 23, 2003 a relative discovered Lottie lying dead on her bed. Because of her age the police didn't suspect foul play. The Cleveland County Coroner ruled that Lottie Ledford had died of a heart attack.

     Bobby Fisher, Ledford's nephew, believed that his aunt had been murdered. Based upon his own observations and what the funeral director had seen and noted, Fisher knew that Ledford's face and arms had been covered in bruises. (Almost ten years later, in January 2013, Bobby Fisher's widow Barbara Ann, in speaking to a reporter said, "It looked as if someone had taken two fingers and pinched her nose and held her across the mouth.") The fact that someone had cut Ledford's telephone line also suggested homicide. Bobby Fisher pleaded with the Shelby police to launch a murder investigation but they ignored his request.

     On September 20, 2003, six weeks after Lottie Ledford's death, Margaret Tessneer's daughter and son-in-law went to Margaret's house at ten that morning. She didn't live far from Ledford's house. The couple had brought Tessneer a biscuit from Hardee's. The visitors found Tessneer's front door ajar. The couple entered the dwelling where they encountered the 79-year-old lying face-up on her rumpled bed. The dead woman had bruises on her face, arms and legs. Someone had pulled the telephone drop-line away from her house.

     The forensic pathologist who performed the Tessneer autopsy noted the bruises and concluded that the victim had been raped. While he ruled the manner of death in this case homicide the pathologist classified Tessneer's cause of death as"undetermined." 

     On November 10, 2003 in the same part of town a neighbor discovered Lillian Mullinax lying dead in her own bed. The 87-year-old's body was covered in bruises, her front door had been left ajar, and someone had cut her phone line. Following the autopsy Mullinax's cause of death went into the books as "undetermined."

     One didn't have to be Sherlock Holmes to conclude that these three elderly women had been raped and murdered in their homes by the same man.

     In early 2004 local detectives investigating Margaret Tessneer's September 20, 2003 death became interested in a 53-year-old man named Donald Eugene Borders. After graduating from high school in 1977 Borders got married, worked in the region's textile mills and fathered two children. But in the 1990s he turned to crime and was arrested dozens of times for robbery, burglary and assault. In 2001 Borders was sent to state prison on a conviction for breaking and entering a home. After his release from custody in January 2003 Borders lived as a homeless man on the streets of Shelby.

     On March 20, 2004, after publicly asking for help in locating Borders, detectives found him living in a homeless shelter in Charlotte. Armed with an arrest warrant pertaining to a matter unrelated to the so-called "three women" murder case, Shelby officer James Brienza took the suspect into custody. Before hauling him to jail Brienza let the prisoner have a cigarette. When Borders finished his smoke Brienza saved the evidence for DNA analysis.

     A state forensic scientist, in August 2004, found trace evidence from Margaret Tessneer's underwear that revealed she had been raped. Following the passage of more than five years a DNA analyst matched the Tessneer murder scene evidence with the saliva on Border's cigarette butt.

     A Cleveland County Grand Jury, on December 28, 2009, more that six years after Margaret Tessneer's rape and killing, indicted Donald Eugene Borders for first-degree murder. He was taken into custody and held in the Cleveland County Jail without bond.

     Borders' trial got underway in Cleveland on January 5, 2013. On January 28, the jury, after deliberating three hours, found the defendant guilty as charged. The judge sentenced Donald Eugene Borders to life in prison without the chance of parole. 
     While Borders was not charged with the murders of Dottie Ledford or Lillian Mullinax, the authorities believed he had murdered and raped these victims as well.

Friday, May 27, 2022

The Anthony Taglianetti Love Triangle Murder Case

     In 2010, Anthony Taglianetti and his wife Mary resided with their four children in Woodbridge, Virginia. A former Marine, Mr. Taglianetti worked at the Marine Museum.  Later that year the couple separated. Mary and the children moved out of the house in Virginia and relocated in Saratoga Springs, New York.

     Shortly after taking up residence in Saratoga Springs Mary Taglianetti signed up with the online dating site Match.com where she met Keith Reed Jr. She did not tell the 51-year-old superintendent of the Clymer, New York school district that she was married. After Mr. Reed and the 40-year-old woman exchanged a few emails they met for dinner. Shortly after that they became romantically involved. Keith Reed still did not know that he was dating a married woman.

     Keith Reed, the father of three college age daughters, lived alone in the farming community of 1,500 70 miles southwest of Buffalo, New York. The school superintendent had been divorced for several years.

     In 2011, Mary Taglianetti, after reconciling with her husband, moved back to Woodbridge, Virginia. But in 2012, while still living with him and their children, she began exchanging sexually explicit emails and telephone calls with Keith Reed who still wasn't aware that she was married. The online relationship came to an end when Anthony Taglianetti discovered one of the lurid email messages Mary had forgotten to erase from her computer.

     A furious Anthony Taglianetti sent several angry emails to Keith Reed who insisted he had no idea the woman he had been swapping erotic emails with was married. Mr. Reed made it clear he wanted nothing more to do with Mr. Taglianetti or his dishonest wife.

     On September 23, 2012, Edward Bailey, the principal of Clymer Central High School, reported Keith Reed missing after the superintendent didn't show up for a conference in Saratoga Springs. Mr. Bailey went to Reed's house where he found his dog locked in the garage. Mr. Reed was not in the dwelling.

     Deputies with the Chautauqua County Sheriff's Office questioned the missing man's neighbors who reported hearing gunshots coming from the vicinity of Reed's house around 9:30 PM two days before. On September 24, 2012 a deputy sheriff found Mr. Reed's body amid a row of thick shrubs about 150 feet from his house. He had been shot three times.

     Detectives working the case caught their first break when Mary Taglianetti, on September 26, 2012, informed them she suspected that Mr. Reed had been murdered by her angry and jealous husband.

     Investigators learned that on September 21, 2012 Anthony Taglianetti drove 350 miles to Clymer, New York where the detectives believed he shot and killed Keith Reed. According to the homicide investigators, Taglianetti, after murdering the victim, drove straight back to Woodbridge, Virginia. The next day he took one of his children to a local museum.

     A Chautauqua County prosecutor charged Anthony Taglianetti with second-degree murder. On September 30, 2012 U.S. Marshals and local police officers pulled the murder suspect over as he drove along a rural road in the Shenandoah Valley National Forest in Virginia. Inside Taglianetti's vehicle officers found a .367-Magnum revolver wrapped in one of his wife's offending emails.

     Through DNA analysis a forensic scientist identified Keith Reed's blood on the suspect's handgun. Ballistics tests revealed that this .357-Magnum had fired the death scene bullets.

     The Taglianetti murder trial got underway on October 31, 2013 in Chautauqua County, New York. District Attorney David W. Foley in his opening statement to the jury emphasized the physical evidence pointing to the defendant's guilt.

     Public defender Nathaniel L. Barone, in his opening remarks, said, "This is not a story of an affair gone wrong or a crazed husband seeking justice. It's not as simple as Mr. Taglianetti driving up and killing Keith Reed because of an email. That's not what happened. The defendant is innocent. Mr. Taglianetti did not murder Keith Reed Jr."

     The defense attorney, after declaring his client innocent, attacked Mary Taglianetti, one of the prosecution's star witnesses. He characterized her as a "master manipulator" and urged jurors to weigh her testimony carefully. "Mary Taglianetti is a liar," he said.

     On November 9, 2013, following the testimony of 46 witnesses over a nine day period, the jury of five women and seven men, after three hours of deliberation, found the 45-year-old defendant guilty as charged. On February 24, 2014 the Chautauqua County judge sentenced Anthony Taglianetti to 25 years to life in prison. 

Thursday, May 26, 2022

Murder She Wrote: The Nancy Crampton Brophy Murder Case

     Sixty-three-year-old Daniel Brophy, a master gardener and expert on marine biology who also knew a lot about the growing of mushrooms, was the chief instructor at the Oregon Culinary Institute located in the Portland, Oregon neighborhood of Goose Hollow. Brophy and his 68-year-old wife of 27 years, Nancy Crampton Brophy, resided in nearby Beaverton, Oregon.

     Nancy Brophy was a self-published author of nine "romance suspense" novels featuring, according to the author's website, "pretty men and strong women." She promoted her fiction which was available on Kindle on her website. All of her male protagonists were Navy SEALS.

     At eight-thirty on Saturday, June 2, 2018, officers with the Portland Police Bureau responded to a 911 call regarding a man who had been found shot to death in the culinary school's kitchen area. The authorities identified the victim as Danial Brophy. He had been shot with a 9mm pistol.

     Other than perhaps a disgruntled culinary student detectives didn't have a clue as to who had shot the instructor. Without an eyewitness they didn't have much to go on.

     On Sunday, June 3, 2018, the day following Chef Brophy's homicide, Nancy Brophy wrote the following on her Facebook page: "For my Facebook friends and family, I have sad news to relate. My husband and best friend, Chef Dan Brophy was killed yesterday morning...I am struggling to make sense of this right now."

     The next day, Nancy Brophy attended a candlelight vigil for her dead husband that was held outside the Oregon Culinary Institute.

     By July 2018 detectives had started thinking about the possibility that Mr. Brophy had been killed by his wife. In November 2011, on her blog "See Jane Publish," Nancy Brophy had posted a 700-word essay entitled, "How to Murder Your Husband." Regarding her marriage to Daniel Brophy, she wrote: "My husband and I are both on our second (and final--trust me!) marriage. We vowed, prior to saying 'I do,' that we would not end in divorce. We did not, I should note, rule out a tragic drive-by shooting or a suspicious accident."

      In her murder essay Brophy wrote that she and her husband had their "ups and downs but more good times than bad." The romance novelist also had plenty to say on the subject of murder: "I find it easier to wish people dead than to actually kill them...But the thing I know about murder is that every one of us have it in him/her when pushed far enough."

     In her treatise on how to get away with murder Nancy Brophy advised against hiring a hit man who are almost always caught and spill their guts. Do the job yourself, she wrote. 

     In Brophy's 2015 novel, The Wrong Cop, the female protagonist fantasizes about murdering her husband. In The Wrong Husband, also published in 2015, Brophy's female hero tries to flee an abusive marriage by faking her own death.

     On September 5, 2018, detectives with the Portland Police Bureau took Nancy Crampton Brophy into custody for killing her husband Daniel. At her arraignment hearing, the prosecutor charged her with murder and the unlawful use of a weapon. (Presumably the 9mm pistol.) The defendant pleaded not guilty and the judge denied her bail. Officers booked the homicide widow into the Multnomah County Jail where she would await her trial.

     In April 2020, Brophy's lawyer petitioned the court to have her released on bail due to the threat of being infected with the COVID-19 virus. The judge denied the request. 
     Nancy Brophy went on trial in early April 2022. The prosecution's key witness, the defendant's cellmate at the Multomah County Jail, testified that Brophy had described to her in detail how she had murdered her husband. Brophy did not take the stand on her own behalf.
     On May 25, 2022, the Multomah County jury found Nancy Brophy guilty of second-degree murder. The judge set her sentencing hearing for June 13, 2022.

The Lois Riess Double Murder Case

     On March 23, 2018, in Blooming Prairie, Minnesota, Dodge County sheriff deputies went to the home of 59-year-old David Riess after his business partner reported that he hadn't seen him for two weeks. Riess's wife Lois had texted friends that Mr. Riess was not well and should not be bothered at home. At the Riess house police officers discovered David Riess's body. He had been shot to death with a .22-caliber gun that was not at the murder scene. Lois Riess was not in the house and no one knew where she was.

     A few days after the discovery of Mr. Riess' body Lois Riess began forging checks drawn on his bank account. The checks were cashed in south Florida.

     A few days after the discovery of Mr. Riess's body Dodge County, Minnesota prosecutor charged Mrs. Riess with the murder of her husband. At this point the missing 56-year-old murder suspect became known in the local media as "The Grandma Fugitive."

     While hiding in Fort Myers, Florida Lois Riess met Pamela Hutchinson, a woman who looked a lot like her. The 54-year-old Hutchinson lived in Bradenton, Florida but was staying in a hotel in Fort Myers where she had traveled to visit a friend.

     On April 5, 2018 Lois Riess shot Pamela Hutchinson to death in the victim's hotel room. Her body was discovered four days after the murder. Police officers recovered the murder weapon, a .22-caliber handgun from the scene. This weapon was determined to be the gun used to kill David Riess in Minnesota. Lois Riess had killed Mrs. Hutchinson, her lookalike, in order to use her identification. From Florida Riess drove to Texas in the murder victim's car.

     On April 10, 2018, a Lee County, Florida prosecutor charged Lois Riess with the first-degree murder of Pamela Hutchinson.

     On April 19, 2018, U.S. Marshals took "The Fugitive Grandma" into custody in South Padre Island, Texas. Riess was having a cocktail at a waterfront restaurant.

     Lois Riess, in December 2019, pleaded guilty to murdering Pamela Hutchinson in Fort Myers, Florida. The Lee County judge sentenced her to life in prison.

     Following Riess' guilty plea, the Dodge County authorities in Minnesota began the process of extraditing her back to that state to stand trial for the March 2018 murder of her husband.
     In April 2020 Lois Riess pleaded guilty to murdering David Riess. The judge sentenced her to life in prison without parole.

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

The Mitchelle Blair Murder Case

     On Tuesday morning March 24, 2014, Wayne County court bailiff Lee Gordon and her crew entered an apartment in Detroit to evict the family and clear the property. The subjects of the eviction, 35-year-old Mitchelle Blair and her four children by two men, resided in the Martin Luther King Apartments, a low-income housing complex on the city's east side. Neither of the children's fathers lived in the dwelling and both owed thousands of dollars in child support.

     Shortly after 36th District Court bailiff Gordon and her crew entered the vacant apartment someone lifted the lid to a freezer that sat just inside the dwelling. In the freezer the eviction crew member discovered the frozen body of a girl inside a black plastic bag. Court bailiff Gordon called 911.

     Responding police officers and emergency personnel found, beneath the girl's frozen corpse, the body of a boy, also inside a black plastic container. The girl had on a pink jacket and the boy had been wrapped in a white sheet.

     A neighbor of Mitchelle Blair's told police officers that the mother of the dead children was babysitting a friend's baby in a nearby apartment. When taken into custody Mitchelle Blair said, "They're both dead. I did it." At the police station she confessed fully to killing her 13-year-old daughter Stoni Blair on May 25, 2013. The suspect said she later murdered her 9-year-old son, Stephen Berry. The mother said she made her 17-year-old daughter place the bodies into the home freezer.

     When asked by a detective why she had murdered her two children the suspect said she had killed them because they had sexually molested their 8-year-old brother.

     Officers booked Mitchelle Blair into the Wayne County Jail on suspicion of child abuse and murder.

     Social workers took the other two Blair children, the 17-year-old and her 8-year-old brother, into protective custody. Neighbors told investigators that they rarely saw the home schooled children outside of the housing unit.

     A spokesperson for the Wayne County Medical Examiner's Office said the bodies would have to thaw before autopsies could be performed. The process would have to occur slowly to preserve potential evidence.

      A few days after the shocking discovery in the freezer detectives learned that over the years all four of Mitchelle Blair's children had been repeatedly beaten with a two-by-four board, burned with an ironing rod, whipped and choked with a belt. The bodies all bore scars of prolonged physical abuse.

     Autopsies determined that the two children in the freezer had died from multiple blunt force trauma and burns. The medical examiner ruled their deaths as homicide. The forensic pathologist found physical evidence of prior physical abuse.

     On March 29, 2015, Alex Dorsey, the father of the murdered 13-year-old girl told a reporter that he hadn't seen his child in two years. Every time he showed up at the housing complex to visit his daughter, Mitchelle Blair told him the girl wasn't home. Efforts by Dorsey to gain custody of his other child were contested by the county's child protection agency.

     On March 30, 2015, Mitchelle Blair's attorney, Wyatt G. Harris, told reporters that his client was being held in isolation at the Wayne County Jail. In a statement that was outlandish even for a defense attorney, Mr. Harris said, "She realizes she has some challenges to work through. I met with her and she's doing okay, but there are things she needs to get through and she'll get through them."

     Challenges? Doing okay?  How could this child abuser and double murderer be doing "okay"? Moreover, who cared how she was doing?

     At Blair's arraignment on April 2, 2015 the defendant entered a plea of not guilty to the charges of murder. The judge ordered a team of state and private psychiatrists to evaluate her to determine if she was mentally competent to understand the criminal charges against her.

     A few days after her arrest Wayne County Jail officials took Blair out of isolation and placed her into a cell with another person. Blair, shortly after the transfer, assaulted her cellmate.

     On July 17, 2015, Wayne County Judge Dana Hathaway, following Mitchelle Blair's guilty plea, sentenced her to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The Zakieya Avery Exorcism Murder Case

     Zakieya Latrice Avery resided in a Germantown, Maryland row house with her four children, ages one through eight. Twenty-one-year old Monifa Sanford lived under the same roof with the Avery family. The women had met at a church called Exousia Ministries of Germantown. (It was one of 600 or more non-Catholic churches around the world where exorcism was practiced.) The 28-year-old mother of four and her husband, Martin Luther Harris, Jr., were separated. He lived in Los Angeles. Zakieya had once resided in Gaithersburg, Maryland where she had worked as a pharmacy technician.

     On Thursday night January 16, 2014, one of Zakieya Avery's neighbors in the community north of Washington, D.C. dialed 911 to report an unattended child inside a car outside the Avery house. When officers with the Montgomery County Police Department responded to the 911 call the child was no longer in the vehicle. Officers knocked on Avery's door but no one answered. The officers left the scene but reported the matter to a child protection agency.

     The next morning at 9:30 the concerned neighbor called 911 again. This time the caller reported a car with its doors standing open parked outside the Avery residence. A bloody knife lay on the ground near the vehicle.

     Upon the arrival of the police Zakeiya Avery ran out of the house through her back door but didn't get far. Inside the dwelling officers discovered the dead bodies of one-year-old Norell Harris and his two-year-old sister Zyana. The children had been stabbed several times. It appeared they had been attacked while sleeping. In another bedroom officers found five-year-old Taniya and eight-year-old Martello. These two children had also been stabbed but were alive. The two wounded siblings were rushed to a nearby hospital.

     Avery's adult housemate, Monifa Sanford, was also taken to a hospital where she was treated for cuts.

     Police officers took Zakieya Avery into custody at the scene. The next day detectives arrested Monifa Sanford. Both women were charged with two counts of first-degree murder and two counts of attempted murder. Police officers booked the suspects into the Montgomery County Jail where they were held without bond.

     A few days after the murder arrests, Captain Marcus Jones, head of the major crimes unit, told reporters that Zakieya Avery thought her kids were possessed by the Devil which led to a botched exorcism procedure and the deaths. Monifa Sanford was in custody because she had assisted in the deadly ritual. According to the police officer both suspects had confessed.

     Avery's step-grandmother, Sylvia Wade, told a reporter with the Washington Post that Avery was "humble and meek" and said she loved her children. "I don't know what triggered it. She wasn't herself."

     In January 2015, after Monifa Sanford pleaded guilty to the assaults and two murders the judge declared her legally insane and sentenced her to an indeterminate incarceration at a state psychiatric hospital.

     On September 15, 2016 Zakieya Avery also pleaded guilty to the murders and the assaults. A Montgomery County, Maryland judge ruled that she was also legally insane at the time she attacked her children. Instead of prison the judge sent Avery to a maximum security psychiatric hospital where she would stay until her doctors declared her sane enough to leave the mental institution.

Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Assisted Suicide: The Willard Skellie Case

     In America, suicide is not a crime, but in all states but one, helping someone take their life is a form of criminal  homicide. In New York state the act of assisted suicide is prosecuted as second-degree manslaughter which carries a sentence of five to fifteen years.

     Willard F. Skellie and his wife Kathy lived in a two-story house in Glens Falls, New York 45 miles north of Albany. In 2012 Kathy Skellie suffered from mental illness and clinical depression. The 59-year-old woman also struggled with the side-effects of her anti-psychotic medication and experienced panic attacks whenever she left the house. As a result she spent days at a time locked into her bedroom. Early in 2012 she tried to kill herself with a knife.

     At the end of her rope, Kathy asked her 69-year-old husband to buy a gun and teach her how to use it. Knowing that she intended to use the weapon to commit suicide, Willard purchased a 12-gauge shotgun and showed his wife how to operate it. As he demonstrated how the shotgun worked Kathy made notes on a sheet of paper. When Willard loaded the gun, he altered the first two rounds so they wouldn't fire, hoping that two misfires would discourage Kathy from killing herself. Kathy took the loaded weapon to her room.

     On Friday, December 14, 2012, Willard Skellie went deer hunting in the morning and didn't return until evening. He went to bed that night without checking on Kathy. Early the next morning he went hunting again and when he returned to the house a few hours later forced his way into his wife's bedroom. He found that Kathy had used the shotgun to shoot herself in the head. He called 911.

     Officers with the Glens Falls Police Department asked Mr. Skellie if he had helped his wife take her own life. After he denied helping her in any way a detective asked if he'd be willing to take a polygraph test at the state police headquarters in Greenwich, New York. Mr. Skellie agreed to take the lie detection exam.

     On Sunday, December 16, 2012, when detectives informed Mr. Skellie that the polygraph examiner believed he had lied when he denied helping his wife kill herself, he confessed to his role in her death. Mr. Skellie also admitted destroying the notes Kathy had taken regarding how to operate the shotgun. In his confession, Mr. Skellie said, "She was in mental pain from everything. She just couldn't take it anymore."

     On the day of Mr. Skellie's confession, Warren County District Attorney Kate Hogan charged him with tampering with physical evidence and second-degree manslaughter. Unable to post his $100,000 cash bail Mr. Skellies was incarcerated in the Warren County Jail.

     In May 2013, Willard Skellie pleaded guilty to helping his wife kill herself. Judge John Hall sentenced Mr. Skellie to five years probation and 1,000 hours of community service. 

Saturday, May 21, 2022

Courtroom Psychologists and Criminologists

     As trial witnesses experts are brought into the courtroom to help jurors understand things beyond their knowledge as laypersons. Unlike ordinary witnesses experts can express their opinions which because they are experts carry extra weight. Through exhibits and testimony these specialists can point out similarities or dissimilarities between, say, a defendant's known fingerprint, hair follicle, DNA, or handwriting to a crime scene fingerprint, strand of hair, bloodstain or a questioned document. A forensic pathologist in a murder case might be able to tell jurors when, where, and how the victim had been killed. While these courtroom experts work with physical evidence and apply science to their inquiries, even they don't always draw the same conclusions after analyzing the same evidence. For the administration of justice this is not a good thing.

     In terms of disciplines and fields of study, the more courtroom experts there are and the less stringent the legal standards are for who qualifies as an expert, the worse it is for the trial process. Today there are too many trials featuring dueling expert testimony. Instead of helping jurors determine the facts of a particular case, the competing experts render the process more difficult and unreliable. This is why, especially in the soft-science disciplines of criminology (sociology) and psychology, trial judges should deny these practitioners expert witness status. In other words, when it comes to courtroom testimony, we'd be better off if they kept their opinions to themselves.

Psychologists in Child Abuse Cases

     Pennsylvania is the only state where prosecutors are not permitted to call psychologists to the stand as expert witnesses in child molestation cases to help jurors evaluate the credibility of young accusers. Specifically, in cases where victims of sexual abuse waited months or even years to come forward, prosecutors want psychologists to explain why this doesn't mean these accusers are not believable. These expert witnesses, according to prosecutors, can help jurors understand the psychology of this form of victimhood.

     Defense attorneys, on the other hand, object to this form of expert testimony on the grounds it usurps the role of the jury and the power of common sense in deciding if a particular accuser is a credible witness. In performing this duty jurors do not need the help of a psychologists whose opinions on such matters are no better than anyone else's. Moreover, history has shown that too many psychologists testifying for the prosecution lose their objectivity by thinking of themselves as members of law enforcement teams. (For a good example of this phenomena look up the historic McMartin preschool sex abuse case.)

      In American jurisprudence there are expert witnesses testifying on virtually everything under the sun. It has become a racket and it's screwing up the system. Expert witnesses cost a lot of money and are corrupting the trial process. Some experts will testify for whoever will pay them. Others specialize in helping one side or the other. Too many of these witnesses claim expertise in fields and disciplines that are themselves bogus, and many come into court with phony resumes. In selecting between dueling experts jurors might side with the hired-gun who looks the best or is the most persuasive. A complete phony can look and sound more credible than his or her more credentialed counterpart.

     Psychologists and criminologists, among others in the soft sciences, should not be qualified as expert witnesses. The jury process and the criminal justice system would be better off without their conflicting opinions.

Friday, May 20, 2022

Removing Judge John F. Russo

     John F. Russo, at age 34, was admitted to the New Jersey Bar Association in 1997. In 2009 he became an administrative law judge, a position he held until 2015 when he was sworn in as an Ocean County Superior Court Judge.

     In 2017, after Judge Russo asked a testifying rape victim if she knew how to prevent sexual intercourse by closing her legs, Assignment Judge Marlene Lynch suspended him from the bench. Once re-instated, Judge Russo's professional behavior continued to draw criticism.

     In August 2018, based on several complaints, the Supreme Court of New Jersey Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct charged Judge Russo with four counts of misconduct. He stood accused of asking court staff members to do him personal favors; asking preferential scheduling treatment for his son's child custody case; and refusing to recuse himself from a high school classmate's child support case.

     The most serious misconduct allegation against Judge Russo pertained to his asking an alleged rape victim, during cross-examination, if she had tried to close her legs to prevent the assault. The fact he had asked this question to another rape victim a year earlier made this complaint all the more disturbing.

     At his November 2018 disciplinary hearing in Trenton, New Jersey regarding the question he had asked the rape victim, Judge Russo claimed he was simply trying to help a "demoralized witness get re-engaged in the hearing."

     On May 26, 2020, justices on the New Jersey Supreme Court voted unanimously to permanently remove the 57-year-old judge from the bench. Chief Justice Stuart Rabner in his rationale for the decision wrote that Russo's rape case question was "neither appropriate nor tasteful. No witness, alleged victim, or litigant should be treated that way in a court of law. The question also shamed the alleged victim by intolerably suggesting she was to blame."

     Chief Justice Rabner, regarding Russo's judicial behavior in general, wrote: "His conduct breached the public trust. His pattern of misconduct and unethical behavior not only undermined several court proceedings but also impaired his integrity and the judiciary's. His overall behavior reflects a lack of probity [trustworthiness] and fitness to serve as a judge."

Thursday, May 19, 2022

The Dr. Bing Liu Murder-Suicide Case

     In May 2020, 37-year-old Dr. Bing Liu resided with his wife in a townhouse on the 200 block of Elm Court in Ross Township, Pennsylvania, a suburban community just north of Pittsburgh. A University of Pittsburgh research assistant professor in the Computational and Systems Biology Department, Dr. Bing worked under Ivet Bahar, founder of the University Bahar Laboratory. The computer scientist, using computational models to study the biological process of the coronavirus, was on the verge of making significant findings regarding the cellular mechanisms of the virus.

     A native of China, Dr. Bing earned his Ph.D. in computer science at the National University of Singapore. He had been a postdoctoral fellow at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University before joining the faculty at the University of Pittsburgh.

     Dr. Bing, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, had been working at home. Sometime during the morning of Saturday, May 2, 2020 Dr. Bing's acquaintance, 46-year-old Hau Gu, a software architect who lived in the suburban Pittsburgh metropolitan community of Franklin Park, entered Dr. Bing's townhouse through an unlocked door. Once inside the dwelling Hau Gu shot Dr. Bing in the torso, neck and head. After killing Dr. Bing, Hau Gu walked to his car parked nearby. Once inside the vehicle, instead of driving away, Hau Gu committed suicide by shooting himself in the head.

     Dr. Bing's wife, upon her return to the townhouse at noon that day, discovered her husband's body. An hour later Hau Gu's body was found in his car.

     Hau Gu had earned a bachelor and a master's degree in computer science from Tongji University in Shanghai, China. In the late 1990's, after arriving in the United States, Hau Gu earned a master's degree in software engineering at East Tennessee State University.

     A naturalized U.S. citizen, Hau Gu had worked since 2004 at the Eason Corporation, a company based in Ireland with an office in Pittsburgh.

     On May 5, 2020, Ross Township detective Brian Kohlhepp informed reporters that Dr. Bing's murder had nothing to do with his coronavirus research. As for motive, the detective, being intentionally vague, said the murder involved a "lengthy dispute regarding an intimate partner."

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

The Donna Scrivo Murder Case

     In 1999, Ramsay Scrivo graduated from De La Salle Collegiate High School in St. Clair Shores, a suburban community just east of Detroit, Michigan. He earned a bachelor's degree from Wayne State University four years later. After working briefly as an accountant, Ramsay quit after a supervisor criticized his work.

     After working in the building trade, Scrivo, in the spring of 2013, started a lawn maintenance service. About that time his parents Daniel and Donna Scrivo helped him purchase a condo in St. Clair Shores.

     Notwithstanding the support he received from his parents, Ramsay Scrivo had serious problems. He was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic who suffered depression and bouts of uncontrolled anger when he was off his medication. When he wasn't on his anti-psychotic meds he believed people were trying to poison him. Moreover, he thought someone had implanted a tiny microphone in one of his teeth. Following a simple assault conviction the judge placed Scrivo on probation.

     Ramsay Scrivo's troubled life took a turn for the worse when his father died of an illness in May 2013. After he threatened to hang himself a judge granted his mother Donna Scrivo guardianship of her son. He agreed to mental health treatment at St. John Hospital in Detroit. After 90 days of treatment Ramsay Scrivo was released from the medical center. As long as he took his medication he wasn't dangerous. But almost all schizophrenics, at one time or another, quit their medication because of the side effects. Donna Scrivo moved into Ramsay's condo in St. Clair Shores. She was a registered nurse.

     On Sunday, January 26, 2014 Donna Scrivo reported her son missing. Late in the afternoon of Thursday, January 30 a motorist in China Township 50 miles northeast of Detroit saw a human head that had rolled out of a garbage bag that someone had dumped along the side of the rural road. Inside three more garbage bags found nearby police officers discovered body parts, items of clothing and charred documents.

     Just before five in the morning of Friday, January 31, 2014, a motorist saw another garbage bag alongside an Interstate 94 ramp in nearby St. Clair Township. Inside the bag officers found more body parts.The FBI, through fingerprints, identified the remains as coming from one person, Ramsay Scrivo.

     A neighbor reported seeing Donna Scrivo carrying several garbage bags out of the condo shortly before she reported Ramsay missing. Crime lab technicians found traces of blood in the dwelling as well as in Donna's SUV. There was also evidence in the house that someone had used bleach in an effort to scrub away bloodstains.

     A gas station surveillance camera recorded Donna in her 1995 Chevy Blazer near one of the dump sites.

     Later on the day of the gruesome discoveries deputies with the Macomb County Sheriff's Office arrested Ramsay's 59-year-old mother on charges of mutilation of a corpse and the removal of a dead body without permission from a medical examiner. If convicted of the corpse mutilation she faced up to ten years in prison. The misdemeanor body removal offense came with a maximum sentence of one year in jail.

     On February 3, 2014 at her arraignment the judge appointed Donna Scrivo an attorney and set her bail at $100,000. If bailed out of the Macomb County Jail she would undergo random drug and alcohol testing and would not be allowed to leave the state. The judge also ordered a mental health evaluation.

     At a press conference following the arraignment, a Macomb County prosecutor said that further charges could be filed in the case depending upon the medical examiner's cause and manner of death findings. Not long after that statement the prosecutor charged Donna Scrivo with first-degree murder.

    Donna Scrivo went on trial in May 2015 for the murder and dismemberment of her son. The defendant, as a witness on her own behalf, told the jury that a masked man had entered the condo, pointed a gun at her head, murdered her son then cut up the victim's body with a saw. The prosecutor, on cross-examination, ripped her story to shreds.

     The jurors, following a short deliberation found Donna Scrivo guilty of first-degree premeditated murder. On June 23, 2015, the Macomb County judge sentenced the 61-year-old to life in prison without parole.

The Charles Smith III and Tonya Bundick Serial Arson Case

     The incendiary fires started on November 12, 2012 in Hopeton, a town 100 miles east of Richmond on Virginia's Eastern Shore, a peninsula along the Chesapeake Bay. Over the next four months volunteer firefighters in the county responded to 77 intentionally set fires involving abandoned houses, barns, camper trailers and various out-buildings that included a chicken coop.

     Arson investigators with the Virginia State Police and the Accomack County Sheriff's Office suspected that the serial fire-setter was either a disgruntled firefighter, a teenage boy sexually aroused by flames, or a young man committing arson simply for the thrill and excitement of causing havoc. Given the nature of the places burned, financial gain was not a motive. These were pathologically motivated arsons.

     Since the vast majority of arsonists are men the fire investigators were not looking for a woman. Female arsonists usually have histories of mental illness and set fire to their own property. A vast majority of the fires set by women are motivated by the need for sympathy and attention.

     On April 2, 2013, forty-five minutes after midnight, a Virginia State Trooper near the Eastern Shore community of Melfa pulled over a vehicle with an expired inspection sticker. (This was probably not the real reason for the stop.) The traffic stop occurred shortly after a nearby abandoned house had been torched. Later that morning a local prosecutor charged the occupants of the car, 38-year-old Charles Smith III and Tonya Bundick, his 40-year-old girlfriend, with setting the Melfa house fire.

     Smith (also known as Charlie Applegate) and Bundick were held without bail at the Accomack County Jail. They were both from Accomac, Virginia. Smith, the owner of a body shop was once captain of the Tasley Volunteer Fire Company. Smith and Bundick had planned to get married within a month.

     A Virginia State Police spokesperson at a press conference on April 2, 2013 said, "We are confident that Bundick and Smith are guilty of the majority of fires."According to reports, arson investigators had watched Smith set the Melfa house fire. He started the blaze with a towel soaked in gasoline.

     Tonya Bundick resided in a dwelling that sat next door to a shed that had been set on fire in December 2012.

     The authorities did not identify the motive behind the arson spree. Since the couple received no monetary gain from the fires their motives were probably pathological. Perhaps they were bored, or simply angry at the world.

     In October 2013 Charles Smith III pleaded guilty to 67 counts of arson. He faced life in prison and $5.6 million in fines. As part of the plea deal Smith agreed to testify against Tonya Bundick.

     Bundick's arson trial got underway in Virginia Beach in January 2014. Smith took the stand against the defendant as the prosecution's star witness. Following his testimony, Tonya Bundick entered an Alford plea to one count of arson. (She faced dozens of other arson charges.) By this plea Bundick did not admit guilt but acknowledged that the prosecution had enough evidence to convict.

     On September 15, 2014, the judge sentenced Tonya Bundick to ten years in prison. The judge, on April 23, 2015, sentenced Charles Smith III to fifteen years behind bars. Exactly why the arsonists set these fires remained a mystery.

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Pastor John Douglas White: The Devil in Disguise

     In 2012, John Douglas White, the 55-year-old pastor of the Christ Community Fellowship Church located just west of Mount Pleasant, Michigan, lived by himself in a mobile home park in Broomfield Township near the town of Remus. This self-appointed man of the cloth possessed a background more in line with a person serving a life sentence in prison than a preacher of a tiny church in rural central Michigan. Pastor White, a perverted lust killer, had no business living outside prison walls where he could take advantage of women while masquerading as a man of God. He was a predatory sex killer in preacher's clothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     In April 2013, White pleaded guilty to second-degree murder for killing Rebekah Gay. The judge sentenced him to prison for 56 years and three months.

     On August 28, 2013 a prison guard at the Michigan Reformatory Correctional Institution in Ionia, found John White dead in his cell. He had hanged himself.

Monday, May 16, 2022

The Carla Hague Poisoning Case

     In 2013, Judge Charles Hague lived with his wife of 45 years outside of Jefferson, Ohio in the northeastern part of the state. Since 1993 he had been an Ashtabula County common pleas juvenile/probate judge. Carla, his 70-year-old wife, had retired years earlier as a nurse. The judge and Carla, parents of grown children, enjoyed a reputation in the community as outstanding citizens.

     As is so often the case, outward signs of domestic tranquility are misleading. This unfortunate reality applied to Mr. and Mrs. Hague. The problem within that marriage exploded to the surface on September 15, 2013 when Carla telephoned one of her sons. She said the judge had become ill after consuming a glass of wine. Upon arrival at the house the son took one look at his father and dialed 911.

     Paramedics rushed the stricken judge to a local hospital from where medical personnel flew him to the Cleveland Clinic for emergency care. Following several days of treatment in Cleveland the judge returned home to recuperate.

     Judge Hague's relatives, on September 19, 2013 notified the Ashtabula County Sheriff's Office of foul play suspected in the judge's sudden illness four days earlier. More specifically, the relatives accused Mrs. Hague of spiking her husband's wine with antifreeze. (A toxicological analysis of the judge's blood confirmed the presence of ethylene glycol, a toxic ingredient in antifreeze.)

     Sheriff's deputies arrested Carla Hague on December 2, 2013 on suspicion of attempted murder. Officers booked her into the Ashtabula County Jail. Eighteen days later an Ashtabula County grand jury indicted the suspect of contaminating a substance for human consumption. She also stood accused of attempted murder.

     Carla Hague did not deny putting the antifreeze into her husband's wine. Her intent, she said, was not to kill the judge but to make him slightly ill. He suffered from pulmonary fibrosis, a serious respiratory condition. In Carla's opinion, her husband had been adding to his health problem by drinking too much. She hoped that if the wine made him ill he would cut back on his use of alcohol.

     At her arraignment Carla Hague pleaded not guilty to the charge of attempted murder. She posted her $100,000 surety bond on December 24, 2013.

     On June 16, 2014 the local prosecutor, with Judge Hague's consent, allowed the defendant to plead guilty to felonious assault. In speaking to a reporter judge Hague said, "I have no anger or animosity. I am beyond that. I'm glad to have this huge black spot behind us. I have moved on with my life. Carla can get on with hers."

     Following the guilty plea the judge sentenced Carla Hague to two years in prison with eligibility for release in six months.

Saturday, May 14, 2022

The Heath Kellogg Counterfeiting Ring

     In the old days counterfeiters made funny-money the hard way: they laboriously, and with great skill and craftsmanship engraved metal facsimile plates. The quality of their fake twenties and hundred-dollar bills depended upon the engraving detail, the color of the ink, and the softness, strength, and feel of the paper used to approximate the government's secret blend. In those days only a handful of forgers possessed the skill and equipment needed to counterfeit money. This made them easy to identify and to catch. But with ink in their blood, these men, the minute they got out of prison, returned to their illicit trades. The most skillful counterfeiters were driven by the challenge to produce fake money indistinguishable from the real thing.

     In the late Twentieth Century with advances in computer, photocopy, and graphic arts technology, counterfeiters could produce half-decent fake bills by simply copying real money. At that time American paper currency was the easiest money in the world to counterfeit. In an effort to render bills more difficult to replicate, the U. S. Treasury Department redesigned the larger denominations. (At one time the government printed $500 and $1,000-dollar bills. The largest denomination today is $100.)

     The U.S. government's anti-counterfeiting measures included adding holograms, embedded inks whose colors change depending on the angle of light; more color and larger presidential portraits. The first bills to be redesigned were the tens, twenties, and fifties. The government didn't issue the new 100s until February 2011.

     The redesigned currency drove the amateurs out of the counterfeiting business but it didn't discourage counterfeiters like Heath J. Kellogg. In 2011, the 36-year-old counterfeiter owned and operated a graphic and web design shop in Marietta, Georgia. In February of that year, Kellogg, who has a history of forged check convictions, began producing fake $50-dollar bills. (Fifties are rarely counterfeited.)

     Kellogg approximated the security threads in government bills by using pens with colored ink that showed up under ultraviolet lamps. He printed out the facsimile fronts and backs separately then glued the sheets together.

     In May 2011, a bank in Atlanta sent the Secret Service seven fake 50-dollar bills. Three months later, agents arrested a man in Conyers, Georgia who passed $50-dollar bills that matched the seven fakes that passed through the bank in Atlanta.

     The counterfeit bill passer had purchased his fake bills with a face value of $2,000 for $900 in genuine money. The arrestee identified Mr. Kellogg as the manufacturer of the fake fifties and agreed to cooperate with the Secret Service.

     Agents arrested a second member of the counterfeit distribution ring who also became an undercover Secret Service operative. On November 15, 2012, following the execution of two search warrants and two controlled undercover buys of counterfeit currency from the suspect, agents arrested Heath Kellogg.

     The Assistant United States attorney in the Northern District of Georgia charged Kellogg with conspiracy to manufacture and distribute counterfeit U.S. currency. Five other men were charged in connection with the passing of Mr. Kellogg's contraband product. The federal prosecutor believed that Kellogg and his accomplices injected $1.1 million worth of fake $50-dollar bills into the local economy.

     In November 2013, a jury found Mr. Kellogg guilty as charged. On March 24, 2014 the federal judge sentenced him to 12 years in prison.

     Two days after the counterfeiter's sentencing the judge sent accomplice Stacy P. Smith to prison for three years. Following his prison stretch Smith faced three years of supervised release. The judge sentenced four other members of the Kellogg counterfeiting ring in March 2014. Those sentences ranged from 18-months behind bars to five years probation.

Friday, May 13, 2022

The Ralph Wald Murder Case

     In March 2013, Ralph Wald, a 69-year-old retired Army Lieutenant Colonel who fought in Vietnam, lived with his wife Johnna Flores in Brandon, Florida. The couple had been married since October 2012. She was 41.

     On Sunday, March 10, 2013 just before midnight, Wald got out of bed for a drink of water. En route to the kitchen he saw Johnna on the living room floor having sex with a man he didn't recognize. Wald immediately returned to his bedroom where he picked up his .38-caliber revolver. Back in the living room a few moments later he shot his wife's sex partner in the stomach and head. The man died on the spot.

     After shooting 32-year-old Walter Lee Copley who turned out to be one of Johnna's old flames from Riverview, Florida, Mr. Wald called the police. To the dispatcher he said that he had just shot a man he caught "fornicating" with his wife in their home. After the call Mr. Wald laid down his gun and waited for the authorities to arrive at the death scene.

     Deputies with the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office took Mr. Wald into custody that night. The next day Hillsborough County Assistant State Attorney Chris Moody charged Ralph Wald with second-degree murder. A judge denied the murder suspect bail.

      The Wald case went to trial in Tampa, Florida just eleven weeks after Mr. Copley's death. Prosecutor Moody, in his opening remarks, told the jury that the defendant, who suffered from erectile dysfunction, killed the victim in a jealous rage.

     Defense attorney Joe Episcopo argued that his client thought Mr. Copley was an intruder raping his wife. Under Florida's stand your ground self-defense doctrine the defendant had no duty to retreat from his own home.

     On the second day of the three-day trial Johnna Flores took the stand for the defense. She testified that when her husband shot Mr. Copley she was "black-out" drunk from too much cognac. As a result she had virtually no memory of the shooting.

     The defendant followed his wife to the stand. According to Ralph Wald he and Johnna had planned to see a therapist regarding their sexual problem. "In fact," he said, "she would joke a lot with me that we were a perfect couple. She didn't want to do it and I couldn't do it." The witness said he hoped to salvage his marriage. "I love my wife," he said.

     Prosecutor Moody, in his closing argument to the jury, said this about Mr. Copley: "It's a personal insult to conduct that kind of activity in a man's home, his castle. It cuts to the quick. It's brazen. That kind of deep and personal insult when you find another man having sex in your living room and you can't have sex yourself. This would make you want to lash out--and the defendant did."

     Defense attorney Episcopo, in addressing the jurors, said, "This was a military man trained to know what to do with the enemy. You take your gun and you kill the enemy."

     On May 30, 2013, the jury, after just two hours of deliberation found the defendant not guilty. Ralph Wald embraced his two lawyers as his wife Johnna cried tears of joy.

     Members of Walter Copley's family who were in the courtroom when the verdict was read were obviously not happy with the outcome of the case.

     Following the acquittal, the Wald/Flores marriage showed signs of strain. In October 2014 he filed for divorce but a few months later withdrew the case. Police arrested Flores for assault after she hit her husband with a picture frame. That case was dismissed.

     On Monday at ten-thirty in the morning, September 16, 2018, Mr. Wald called 911 to report his wife was unresponsive. Police officers arrived at the couple's house to find 48-year-old Johnna Flores dead on the living room couch. She had been shot with her husband's .38 caliber revolver, the gun he had used to kill Walter Conley. Police officers, at that time, did not take Mr. Wald into custody.

     In January 2020, Ralph Wald was charged with shooting his wife to death. Officers booked the 77-year-old into the Hillsborough County Jail on the charge of manslaughter with a firearm. 
     As of this writing Mr. Wald awaits his second murder trial that has been delayed several months due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The Gregory Graf Murder Case

     Jessica Padgett, a 33-year-old mother of three, was last seen at 12:45 in the afternoon of Friday November 21, 2014 by fellow employees at the Duck Duck Goose Daycare Center in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Surveillance camera footage revealed that 15 minutes after she left the the center her car was returned to the daycare parking lot by a man whose face was not caught on camera.

     Police and volunteers in the eastern Pennsylvania community searched several days without finding a trace of the missing woman. Investigators feared foul play.

     On Wednesday November 26, five days after Padgett went missing police officers, while executing a search warrant in and around the house in Allen Township where her mother and stepfather resided, found her remains buried behind a shed on the 7-acre plot of land.

     On the day the body was recovered police officers took the victim's stepfather, 53-year-old Gregory R. Graf, into custody on suspicion of murder. At the time Jessica Padgett went missing her mother was in Florida.

     Graf, a dedicated hunter who grew marijuana on his property owned a local fencing company. Under police questioning he initially denied any knowledge of his stepdaughter's disappearance and murder. He said he had no idea how her body ended up in the ground on his land. But when detectives pressed Graf with inconsistencies in his story and confronted him with physical evidence that linked him to the disappearance and murder he broke down and confessed.

     Graf admitted shooting Padgett in the back of the head shortly after she left the daycare center that day. Regarding his motive, he was vague. Investigators believed Graf had raped the victim before he killed her. As it turned out detectives had the order of these acts reversed.

     Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli charged Gregory Graf with first-degree murder. The judge denied the suspect bail.

     On December 5, 2014, a search of Graf's computer revealed a video of the suspect having sex with his stepdaughter's corpse. This act of necrophilia on the remains of a woman he had murdered for that purpose made Graf, under Pennsylvania law, eligible for the death penalty.

     Following the discovery of the postmortem sex video the prosecutor added the charge of abuse of corpse.

     At his arraignment Graf asked the judge to appoint him a defense attorney. The defendant said he didn't want to take resources from his family to pay for a lawyer. The judge denied this request on the grounds the suspect had enough money to pay for his own defense.

     On November 13, 2015, following Graf's four-day trial the jury found him guilty of first-degree murder. In arriving at this verdict jurors deliberated less than ten minutes. The conviction brought a mandatory life sentence without the possibility of parole.

Thursday, May 12, 2022

Vigilante Justice: Ellie Nesler's Short, Troubled Life

     In 1952, Ellie Starr Nesler was born in Jamestown, California, a gold mining community in the northern part of the state. Her family was poor, and as a teenager she worked for a local farmer driving a tractor and digging ditches. Her first marriage ended quickly in divorce. She survived on welfare and part time jobs.

     Ellie Nesler's second husband was a gold miner who took her and their two young children--William and Rebecca--to Liberia in West Africa where he hoped to strike it rich mining gold. When civil war broke out in that country Ellie and the children returned to California. Her husband remained in Africa.

     In 1987, while residing in Jamestown, Ellie Nesler befriended 31-year-old Daniel Driver, a member of her church. Mr. Driver took an intense interest in Ellie's 5-year-old son William and soon became like a father to the boy. Unbeknownst to Ellie Nesler, Mr. Driver was a serial pedophile who was grooming her unsuspecting son for sex.

     In the summer of 1988, Daniel Driver and Ellie Nesler's 6-year-old son attended a two-week summer church camp. When the boy returned home he was a different person--sullen and argumentative. Several months later the boy told his mother that Daniel Driver had repeatedly sexually molested him at the summer camp.

     In 1992, a Tuolumne County, California prosecutor charged Daniel Driver with sexually molesting Ellie Nesler's son and three other boys. On April 2, 1993 Ellie Nesler hid a .25-caliber pistol in her purse and entered the Tuolumne County Court House to attend a preliminary hearing on the Driver sex abuse case. (In those days court houses did not have entrance metal detectors and visitors were not searched.) During a break in the proceeding Ellie Nesler walked up to the defendant and from point blank range shot him in the head and neck, killing him on the spot. Sheriffs Deputies immediately took her into custody.

     When questioned by detectives, Ellie Nesler said, "He deserved to die. Maybe I'm not God, but I'll tell you what--I'm the closest damn thing to it for all the other little boys." When asked why she had murdered the accused molester, she said she had no confidence that her son and the other victims would receive justice in Tuolumne County.

     For some in the Jamestown community, Ellie Nesler was a hero for exacting her own justice against a predatory pedophile. Others condemned her for taking the law into her own hands.

     On July 14, 1993, just three months after the 41-year-old defendant killed the suspected sex offender a Tuolumne County jury found Ellie Nesler guilty of voluntary manslaughter. The judge sentenced her to ten years at the women's prison in Chowchilla, California. After the sentence Nesler said, "I'm sorry that I killed someone and that I'm not with my children. But on the other hand, I wish the judicial system would have taken care of it. I wish I wouldn't have had to."

     A year after Nesler's conviction a California appellate court overturned her conviction on grounds of jury misconduct. In 1995, Ellie Nesler pleaded guilty to manslaughter in return for a three-year sentence. Because she had been diagnosed with breast cancer the judge agreed to the lighter sentence.

    Ellie Nesler had been out of prison about a year when, in 1999, the USA cable network aired a movie about her called, "Judgment Day: The Ellie Nesler Story."

     Following her prison stretch in Chowchilla, California life did not go well for Ellie Nesler. In 2002 a judge sentenced her to six years in prison after she pleaded guilty to the possession and sale of methamphetamine. Claiming that she wouldn't have received a fair trial in Tuolumne County, Nesler returned to prison maintaining her innocence.

     While serving her time at Chowchilla, Elli's 23-year-old son William stomped a man to death in Jamestown. He committed the murder just 30 days after he had been released from a 30-day sentence for an earlier assault.  In 2005 the judge sentenced him to 25 years to life.

     In 2006 Ellie Nesler received an early release from prison. On Christmas day 2008 she died of cancer at the U. C. Davis Medical Center in Sacramento. She was 56.

The Execution of Lester Bower Jr.

     In 1983, 35-year-old Lester Leroy Bower Jr., a graduate of Texas A & M with a good job as a chemical salesman, lived in Arlington, Texas with his wife and two daughters. On October 8, 1983 Bower responded to a newspaper ad regarding a ultralight airplane on sale for $4,000.

     That Saturday afternoon, at a hanger on the B & B Ranch in Sherman, Texas, Bower met with the seller of the plane, 51-year-old Bob G. Tate. Bower had driven to the ranch, 60 miles north of Dallas with the intent of killing Mr. Tate and stealing the building contractor's plane.

     As Bower loaded the small aircraft into his truck after murdering Mr. Tate with a .22-caliver handgun, three of the dead man's friends showed up at the murdered man's ranch to watch the Texas-Oklahoma football game. Caught at the murder scene, Bower shot to death 39-year-old Ronald Mayes, a former Sherman police officer; Philip Good, a 29-year-old sheriff's deputy; and Jerry Mac Brown, a 52-year-old interior designer.

     At Bower's May 1984 trial the prosecutor put on a circumstantial case that led to a guilty verdict. The judge, in accordance with the recommendation of the jurors, sentenced Lester Bower to death.

     On May 20, 2015, 31 years following the guilty verdict and death sentence, the 67-year-old Bower, with his execution date approaching, gave an interview to a local reporter. In referring to his impending death, Bower said, "If this is going to bring some closure to the victims' families, then good. But if they think by this they're executing the person who killed their loved ones then that's going to come up a little short."

     On Wednesday June 3, 2015, after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected Bower's last ditch appeal, the condemned man, from his death-house gurney, thanked his lawyers, his wife and his daughters for their "unwavering support."

     By way of a final statement, Bower said, "Much has been written about this case, not all of it has been the truth." Shortly after these last words, the executioner administered the lethal dose of pentobarbital.

     Lester Bower was one of the longest serving and oldest inmates on Texas' death row. 
     In 2020 a woman came forward claiming that Lester Brown Jr. had not killed the four men that day in 1983. According to this person her ex-boyfriend and three of his friends committed the murders pursuant to a drug deal gone bad. Not long after this witness came forward, three others provided information that confirmed key parts of the woman's account of the killings.

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

A Righteous Shooting

     At eight-forty on Sunday morning November 30, 2014, a minister (not identified in the media) living with his wife and three young children on a rural road near Valley Center, Kansas, was forced to make a life and death decision.

     Alerted to an intrusion by his activated  home burglary alarm, the pastor ran into his kitchen to find a window shattered and a man about to enter the house. The minister, to protect  himself and his family, grabbed his handgun and opened fire.

     The intruder immediately retreated and ran off. Deputies with the Sedgwick County Sheriff's Office in responding to the home burglary call came upon a man lying on the side of the road not far from the break-in. Officers rushed the bleeding man to the nearest emergency room.

     Police identified the burglar who was shot while breaking into the pastor's house as Cory Landon. Lucky for him, he had been struck by a single bullet that grazed his forehead. After he was treated at the hospital and released deputies booked Landon into the Sedgwick County Jail on the charge of aggravated burglary. (In Kansas and most states intruding into a dwelling is a more serious offense than breaking into a commercial building.)

     Landon told the arresting officers that he and a few of his friends had been camping out in the area of the break-in.

     Neighbors praised the pastor for his bold anti-intrusion action. Faced with the same situation they all said they would have used deadly force. The neighbors did not believe the pastor's decision, given his position in the community, was immoral. He had reacted as a father and a husband, not as a man of the cloth. "That's an armed citizen taking care of business," one of the neighbors told a local report.

      As for the burglar, breaking into an intrusion-alarmed dwelling in rural Kansas in broad daylight was dangerously stupid.

     In 2015 Cory Landon pleaded guilty and was sentenced to a short prison term followed by probation.

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Murdering Jocelyn Earnest: A Circumstantial Case

     On December 19, 2007, a friend discovered the body of 38-year-old Jocelyn Earnest just inside the front door of her house in Pine Bluff, Virginia. The victim had been shot in the back of the head. Next to her body lay a .357 magnum revolver and a typewritten suicide note that in part read:

     To Mom
          I'm sorry for what I've done. Please forgive me. Wes [the victim's estranged husband] has put us in such a financial bind--can't recover. My new love will not leave the family.
     Love,
     Jocelyn

     The heat inside Earnest's house had been jacked up to 90 degrees and there were no signs of forced entry. The dead woman's dog, a black Lab, was locked in a crate without food or water in a back bedroom.

     Investigators immediately suspected that Jocelyn Earnest had been murdered and the scene had been staged to look like a suicide. Detectives knew that people who kill themselves and leave notes rarely type them. In searching Jocelyn's two home computers investigators did not find drafts of this document. And the word choice and syntax of the note were inconsistent with the writing style found in the victim's handwritten journals. The police suspected that the furnace had been turned up to alter the body's decomposition rate to throw off the biological time of death determination. Apparently the killer had wanted the police to believe Jocelyn had been killed earlier in the day, perhaps to support an alibi.

     Suspicion immediately fell on the victim's estranged husband Wesley Earnest who had moved out of the house a year earlier. As an assistant high school principal he lived and worked 200 miles away in Chesapeake, Virginia. Jocelyn had been employed as a financial services manager in Lynchburg, Virginia. Although together they had been earning $200,000 a year they were deeply in debt. Wesley, over Jocelyn's objection, had built a three million dollar, seven thousand square foot mansion on nearby lake property. The $6,000 a month mortgage on this second home they couldn't sell because it was financially under water had put them $1 million in debt. On top of this, Wesley Earnest found himself faced with the disastrous financial consequences of divorce.

     Wesley Earnest claimed he hadn't been to the Pine Bluff house for at least a year. After he had moved out Jocelyn had changed the locks. Investigators, however, could connect him to the crime scene in two ways: he had purchased the .357 magnum and two of his latent fingerprints were on the typewritten note next to the body. Two days before his estranged wife's death the suspect had borrowed a pickup truck from a friend. When he returned the vehicle two weeks later it had new tires. Detectives believed Wesley had changed out the tires to avoid a crime scene tire track match-up.

     Investigators also read the victim's journal, handwritten in seventeen notebooks. Several of the entries, however, written from Jocelyn's point of view, were in Wesley Earnest's hand. These forged additions portrayed the suspect in a favorable light. However, in one of the notebooks the victim had written: "If I die, Wesley killed me and he probably shot me."

     Wesley admitted to detectives that he had girlfriends but claimed that his wife had known about these affairs and approved of them. At his place of employment in Chesapeake, however, he told co-workers he was single.

     In May 2009, the $3 million house on the lake burned to the ground. Cause and origin fire investigators ruled the cause "undetermined." Because the place was heavily insured the fire accrued to Wesley's financial benefit.

     Wesley Earnest went on trial in March 2010 for the murder of his wife. His attorney, in an effort to uncouple the defendant from the typewritten crime scene note, contested the forensic reliability of latent fingerprint identification. (Perhaps the defendant would have better been served by offering an innocent explanation for the presence of his prints.) The defense attorney also put his client on the stand to testify on his own behalf. The defendant told the jurors that he had purchased the .357 revolver as a gift for his wife so she could protect herself. He portrayed Jocelyn as having been distraught over their financial problems. He also said she was having trouble with the woman who was her new lover.

     The jury, a few days after listening to the defendant, after deliberating less than four hours, found him guilty of murdering his wife.

     A month following the conviction, before Earnest was sentenced, a posting on a newspaper web site revealed that the jurors had read Jocelyn's journal. The trial judge had not wanted the jury to see this evidence. The notebooks had been inadvertently put into a box that found its way into the jury room. In July 2010 the judge declared a mistrial.

     In November 2010, in Amherst, Virginia, Earnest went on trial again for the murder of his wife. His attorney, once again, put him on the stand to claim his innocence. On cross-examination the prosecutor got Earnest to admit that in 2006 he had forged entries into his wife's journal. When asked how he had gotten into the Pine Bluff house he had been locked out of, Earnest said he had climbed through an unlocked window. In so doing the defendant revealed to the jury how he may have entered the house to murder his wife. The second jury found the defendant guilty of first-degree murder. He was subsequently sentenced to life in prison.

     In December 2012, a three-judge panel of the Virginia Court of Appeals upheld the murder conviction and life sentence for Wesley Earnest.

     No one saw Wesley Earnest enter the Pine Bluff house and shoot his wife. No one claimed he had confided to them he had committed the crime. And he never confessed to the police. All the prosecutor had was what looked like a staged suicide, a motive, and a pair of latent prints on a suspect suicide note. But, with these two juries the prosecution had enough evidence to convict.     

Monday, May 9, 2022

Donte Johnson: Playing the Stupid Card

     At one in the morning after watching a movie at a friend's house, 20-year-old Sabina Rose O'Donnell borrowed a bicycle to ride to her north Philadelphia apartment a few blocks away. She never made it home. Later that day, June 2, 2010, police discovered her body in a trash-littered lot behind her apartment building. At the scene investigators found jewelry, a camera, and an uncashed paycheck made payable to the victim. With her bra wrapped tightly around her neck, the victim had been raped, beaten, and strangled to death. The killer had left his bloody undershirt near her body.

     According to video-tapes from neighborhood surveillance cameras police were able to place 18-year-old Donte Johnson in the area at the time of the murder. After two Philadelphia officers arrested Johnson on June 10, 2010 he admitted biking around the neighborhood that night but denied any knowledge of the murder. His interrogators explained to him how DNA analysis of his sperm could link him the the dead woman's body. Upon hearing this, Johnson said he and the victim had consensual sex two days before her death. When the detectives questioned that story Johnson tried another way of neutralizing the DNA evidence: he said that after stumbling across her body he had masturbated over the corpse. The interrogators explained that this didn't explain away the bloody undershirt. At this point Johnson confessed to the rape and murder.

     Assistant District Attorney Richard Sax charged Donte Johnson with first-degree murder, rape, and robbery. Soon after Johnson's court-appointed defense attorneys entered the case, the suspect took back his confession and turned down a negotiated guilty plea. The defense challenged the reliability of the DNA evidence linking Johnson to the body and the murder site, and made the argument that the prosecution couldn't use his recanted confession. Johnson was now claiming that at the time of Sabina Rose O'Donnell's rape and murder he was at home with his family.

     At a pre-trial hearing on April 30, 2012 to determine if the prosecution could introduce Johnson's confession, defense attorney Gary Server put a private forensic neuropsychologist on the stand. Dr. Gerald Cooke testified that Johnson, with a damaged brain and an IQ of 73, had the mental capacity of an 11-year-old. Because the suspect was almost retarded his interrogators could have easily manipulated him into confessing to a crime he didn't commit.

     In arguing for the exclusion of Johnson's confession, attorney Server said, "The detective speaks to Mr. Johnson and he thinks he's talking to an adult, when in reality he's speaking to a child." The defense attorney also noted that when questioned by the police his client had been drunk and high on drugs.

    The police officers who arrested Johnson took the stand and testified that the suspect, sober and coherent, knew exactly what was going on when they took him into custody. According to the police officers, Johnson did not act or speak like an 11-year-old child. The judge, after hearing both sides of the argument ruled that the prosecutor could introduce Johnson's confession at his trial. The defense attorneys could make the false confession claim to the jury.

     On May 1, 2012, after opening statements to the jury from both sides, the prosecutor presented the state's case. Surveillance cameras placed the defendant in the vicinity that night, Johnson had confessed to the rape and murder, and DNA linked him to the bloody shirt and the victim's body. From a prosecutor's point of view, as murder cases go, this was about as good as it gets.

     By comparison, the defense--that DNA analysts made mistakes, the confession was false, and Johnson's family said he was at  home with them that night--was weak.

     To convince the jury that police interrogators had taken advantage of Johnson's feeble mind to wrangle a false confession out of  him, the defense attorney showed the video-taped testimony of the neuropsychologist, Dr. Gerald Cooke. According to Dr. Cooke--who earned $9,300 for his I.Q. testing and testimony--Donte Johnson had trouble solving problems, reasoning, and thinking quickly. His mother had given birth to Donte when she was 16; early in his youth he had suffered some kind of brain damage; and since turning 14 he had been using drugs and binge drinking. According to the psychologist this simpleton never held a job and had sex with scores of women.

     Donte Johnson's attorneys chose not to put their client on the stand. Perhaps they didn't want to risk a witness box confession like in one of those old Perry Mason TV episodes. Moreover, having tried to make the jurors feel sorry for the defendant, the attorneys wanted to keep him under wraps. Following the closing arguments and the judge's instructions the case went to the jury.

     Jurors, after deliberating four hours, found Donte Johnson guilty of first degree-murder and rape. The judge sentenced him to life plus 40 to 80 years. In speaking to the judge after receiving his sentence, Johnson said, "How can you clearly say I did anything? If I did something I would take responsibility."