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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

The Hemy Neuman Murder Case

     In the late 1980s, Hemy Neuman, a young American engineer living and working in Israel, met his future wife Ariela, an Israeli-born school teacher. In 2010 the 47-year-old engineer and his stay-at-home wife were separated. Hemy had moved out of their lavish home in Cobb County, Georgia in August of that year. While Mr. Neuman had a high-paying job as a project manager with GE Energy, he was in financial trouble. His expensive lifestyle--the big house, luxury cars, expensive restaurants and elaborate vacations--had caught up with him. His three children were also attending college. Now his wife was filing for divorce.

     Ariela Neuman had kicked Hemy out of the house because she believed he was having an affair with a 36-year-old woman he had hired at GE. Neuman and Andrea Schneiderman, his suspected lover, denied the accusation. Andrea's husband, Russell "Rusty" Schneiderman, although he had a MBA from Harvard, was out of work. The couple had two young children.

     On the morning of November 18, 2010, Rusty Schneiderman dropped off his 2-year-old son at the Dunwoody Prep nursery school 15 miles north of Atlanta. As the father returned to his car Hemy Neuman walked up behind him, and with a .40-caliber Bersa handgun, shot him several times. Schneiderman fell dead at the scene. Neuman climbed into a rented Kia minivan and drove off.

     A week before the murder, Neuman, wearing a fake beard, had crept up to Schneiderman's house with the intent of shooting him there. Hemy's plan fell apart when his intended target came out of the house to check on a gas leak and saw this bearded man lying in his yard. When spotted by his murder target, Mr. Neuman jumped to his feet and ran off.

     When Hemy Neuman's wife Ariela learned of Rusty Schneiderman's murder in front of the Dunwoody nursery school she knew that her husband had killed the victim over Mr. Schneiderman's wife Andrea. Ariela Neuman called the police and filled them in on her estranged husband's affair with the dead man's wife. Ariela described her husband as a risk-taking control freak obsessed with money and his career.

     Several weeks after the police arrested Mr. Neuman on January 4, 2011 he admitted that he had murdered Rusty Schneiderman. He claimed, however, that at the time of the shooting he was so insane he didn't comprehend the nature and quality of his act. In other words, he was so crazy he didn't know right from wrong. After the killing Hemy Neuman regained his sanity, but when he pulled the trigger in front of the nursery school he was so mentally ill he didn't know what he was doing. That was his defense, temporary legal insanity. Investigators didn't buy it and neither did the prosecutor. If Neuman was crazy he was crazy like a fox.

     In February 2012, charged with malice murder (other states call it first-degree murder or capital murder) and the use of a firearm in the commission of a felony, Hemy Neuman went on trial in a De Kalb County court in Decatur, Georgia.

     The prosecutor played for the jury of nine men and three women a video taped jailhouse interview of the defendant by psychiatrist Dr. Pamela Crawford. During the interview Neuman told Dr. Crawford that he had initially considered stabbing Rusty Schneiderman to death. But he changed his mind because it would be too messy. The defendant thought about poisoning his victim but rejected that idea as too complicated and unreliable. Staging a fatal accident had also crossed Neuman's mind, but in the end he settled on shooting the man to death at close range. He preferred this method because it was simple and sure-fire.

     Following the video of his interview of the defendant, Dr. Crawford testified that a truly delusional, psychotic person would not have gone through the above thought processes. A really crazy person would have acted impulsively without all of that thinking and planning. The defendant, in Dr. Crawford's expert opinion, wasn't crazy. The entire insanity defense was therefore a sham.

     For the defense, forensic psychologist Dr. Andriana Flores testified that Mr. Neuman suffered from an undiagnosed and untreated bipolar disorder accompanied by psychosis. (In other words, he had no history of mental illness.) According to the defense psychologist, Neuman suffered from delusions and a condition called erotomania. As an erotomania sufferer the defendant only thought he was having an affair with the wife of the man he shot to death.  And it got better: Before the killing, Hemy Neuman, according to Dr. Flores, had been visited by an angel who spoke in Oliva Newton-John's voice. This imagined angel had informed the defendant that Mr. Schneiderman's children were actually his. This revelation was reinforced by a message from a second angel who sounded like Barry White!

     On March 14, 2012 after two days of deliberation the jury, presented with three possible verdicts--guilty; not guilty by virtue of insanity; or guilty but mentally ill--found Hemy Neuman guilty but mentally ill. That meant that while he would receive mental health treatment, he'd get it while serving his time in prison. The next day the judge sentenced Hemy Neuman to life behind bars with no chance of parole.

     On Thursday, August 2, 2012, Andrea Sneiderman, the wife of the man Hemy Neuman had murdered, was charged with malice murder, criminal attempt to commit murder, racketeering, two counts of perjury, and two counts of insurance fraud. According the Andrea Schneiderman's indictment she and the convicted killer were having an affair. The couple had conspired to kill Rusty Schneiderman with the intent of "acquiring property, money and life insurance proceeds." The murdered man's wife had received a $2 million life insurance payment as well as $960,000 in various bank accounts.

     In July 2013, following a two-hour hearing, Judge Gregory Adams dropped the murder, racketeering and insurance fraud charges against Andrea Schneiderman. The prosecutor had lost confidence in the reliability of a key prosecution witness. She still faced thirteen other criminal charges related to the murder of her husband.

     Andrea Schneiderman, a month after the above hearing, was convicted of nine felonies in connection with the Neuman case. She did not testify on her own behalf. The jury found her guilty of four counts of perjury, three counts of giving false statements, one count of hindering the apprehension of a criminal and a count of concealing material facts.

     On August 20, 2013 at her sentencing hearing, Schneiderman's friends and family testified on her behalf. When it came her turn to speak to the court Andrea Schneiderman said, "Please let me go home to my kids. Please don't let them live without their mother." The De Kalb County District Attorney asked the judge to sentence Sneiderman to twenty years. Judge Adams sentenced her to five years in prison.

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. 

Monday, May 23, 2022

The Richard Kirk Murder Case

     In 2014, Richard Kirk, 47, resided in Denver's Observatory Park neighborhood not far from the University of Denver. Richard and his wife Kristine purchased the upscale, Tudor style home in 2005. The couple had three soccer-playing grade school boys. Richard's friends described him as a religious, happy-go-lucky man devoted to his family.

     On December 23, 1993, while living in Dallas, Texas, Richard, then single, was charged with felony assault. The prosecutor dropped the charge to a misdemeanor offense then eventually dismissed the case altogether. At the time his future wife Kristine resided five miles away in a Dallas apartment. (Richard Kirk's alleged victim was not identified in the media.)

     In 2000 a police officer in Douglas County, Colorado arrested Richard for driving under the influence. (The disposition of this case is unknown.) These two incidents comprised the extent of Kirk's arrest record.

     At 9:32 on the night of Monday, April 14, 2014, 44-year-old Kristine A. Kirk called a 911 dispatcher in Denver to report a domestic disturbance at her residence. She said her husband had been smoking marijuana and was frightening their three young sons. According to Kristine he had also been hallucinating and talking about the end of the world. Most disturbingly he said he wanted her to shoot him to death.

     The dispatcher asked Kristine if there was a gun in the dwelling. The caller said yes, but it was locked inside a safe. The 911 call suddenly turned ominous when Kristine informed the dispatcher that her husband had gotten the handgun out of the safe and was holding it in his hand.

     About thirteen minutes into the 911 call the dispatcher heard a scream and then a gunshot. At that point the line went dead. The dispatcher immediately upgraded the 911 call from a domestic disturbance case to a "code 10"--a possible shooting.

     That night, two Denver police officers rolled up to the Kirk house on South St. Paul Street. Three minutes later one of the officers called for an ambulance and advised the 911 dispatcher that they "were going to need homicide."

     An officer put Richard Kirk into handcuffs and escorted him to the patrol car. From the backseat of the police vehicle, without prompting, the suspect admitted shooting his wife to death.

     The next day a local prosecutor charged Richard Kirk with first-degree murder. At his arraignment on Wednesday, April 16, 2014 the judge advised the suspect of the charge against him, assigned him a public defender and ordered him held without bail. Kirk showed no emotion as he stood before the magistrate.

     The media, as it often does in high-profile crimes, began assessing blame. In this case reporters were quick to note that since 2008, 911 response time at the Denver Police Department had grown longer. According to a police spokesperson, budget cuts and fewer officers on patrol had adversely affected police response time to domestic calls.

     Notwithstanding the 15 minute lapse between the victim's 911 call and the arrival of the officers, there was no way to know for sure if a faster police response would have saved Kristine Kirk's life.

     Because marijuana was legal in Colorado the media made a big deal over the fact that before allegedly murdering his wife Richard Kirk had smoked pot.

     In February 2017, blaming marijuana for the killing, Richard Kirk pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. On April 8, 2017 the judge sentenced him to 30 years in prison. Kirk had relinquished custody of his three sons to his dead wife's parents.

The Emily Lambert Murder Case

      In September 2013, Emily Lambert, a third grade teacher at the O Henry Elementary School near Plano, Texas, a suburban community just north of Dallas, divorced her husband Donavan. The couple had daughters aged four and five. Emily and Donavan, following the break up, remained on good terms.

     Shortly after the divorce the 33-year-old resident of Lewisville began dating a man from Euless, Texas named Robert Early.

     On Saturday, March 1, 2014, Lambert and Early were booked into the Stevens Best Western Inn in Carlsbad, New Mexico. He was on a work assignment and she had accompanied him for the weekend. The next morning Early called the Carlsbad Police Department and reported Emily missing.

     When questioned by police officers the 33-year-old Early said he and his missing girlfriend had left the motel bar--the Blue Cactus Lounge--at eleven-thirty the previous night. When they got back to their room they argued. Emily became so angry she stormed out of the motel. When she didn't return in the morning he called the police.

     Mr. Early described Emily Lambert as five-foot-six, 175 pounds, with long blond hair and a large tattoo of an owl on her back. He said she had left the room without her wallet and her cell phone.

     At four-thirty in the afternoon of Tuesday, March 4, 2014, police officers discovered the body of a female that matched the description of the woman missing from the Best Western Inn. The corpse was found in a field along State Road 31 near Loving, New Mexico, eight miles southeast of Carlsbad. Officers identified the body as Emily Lambert.

     That night detectives questioned Robert Early at the Carlsbad Police Department. In the course of the interrogation session he confessed to killing his girlfriend.

     After returning to their room after an evening of drinking at the motel bar the couple got into a physical fight that led to her being knocked unconscious. From the room Early carried Emily to his silver 2007 Hyundai Elantra.

     With Emily in the Hyundai, Robert drove to a remote area. When he took Emily out of the car she regained consciousness. They fought again, and this time he knocked her out with an air pump. He tied one end of a rope around her neck and closed the other end in the passenger's side car door. With her tethered to the vehicle he climbed behind the wheel and dragged her body to where it was found.

     At one o'clock that morning Carlsbad police officers booked Robert Early into the Eddy County Detention Center on the charges of first-degree murder, kidnapping, and tampering with evidence. The judge set his bail at $1 million.

     In May 2015, a jury sitting in Carlsbad, New Mexico found Robert Early guilty as charged. The judge sentenced Early to the mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole.

Sunday, May 22, 2022

The William Simmons Murder Case: An Unlikely Conviction

     Kaelin Rose Glazier, a 15-year-old sophomore at South Medford High School in Rush, Oregon, disappeared on November 6, 1996 after watching a video in a house trailer with 16-year-old William Frank Simmons. The missing girl had skipped church that evening to meet her boyfriend, Clifford Ruhland, at Simmons' trailer. According to Simmons the boyfriend didn't show up, and after he and Glazier watched the video she departed.

     The local police, believing that the missing girl had run away from home, waited 21 days before investigating the case as an abduction and possible murder. Simmons, a big kid who had been in trouble with the law and was the last known person to have seen the girl alive became the first and only suspect in the investigation. Years passed, and without the girl's body, the case ground to a halt. Every once in awhile detectives would question William Simmons at the police station, and every time he would deny having anything to do with the girl's disappearance.

     People don't vanish into thin air. In 2008, 12 years after Glazier went to Simmons' trailer, a man mowing a field 80 feet from the place she was last seen uncovered skeletal remains. According to a forensic anthropologist the bones were consistent with the remains of a 15-year-old girl.

     At the recovery site investigators discovered a skull wrapped in duct tape, a tennis shoe, part of a bra, and some jewelry that had belonged to the missing girl. While the medical examiner officially identified the remains as Glazier's and ruled her death a homicide, the forensic pathologist could not determine the precise cause of death. The police theorized she had been suffocated or strangled. DNA evidence from the duct tape did not match the victim's boyfriend or William Simmons.

     On April 10, 2010, the local prosecutor charged William Simmons with murder, and as a backup charge, first-degree manslaughter. The motive: he had killed the girl after she had rebuffed his sexual advances. After killing her the suspect had supposedly dragged her body to the nearby field. (It's hard to believe it took 12 years for someone to find, 80 feet from where she was last seen, Glazier's remains. Was anybody really looking for her?)

     The Simmons murder trial got underway on February 14, 2012 in the Jackson County Circuit Court. The prosecutor, without an eyewitness, confession or physical evidence linking the 31-year-old defendant to the murder, had an extremely weak case. The state didn't even have a jailhouse informant or a murder weapon. All the prosecutor had was the defendant's so-called "motive, means, and opportunity," to commit the crime.

     William Simmons' attorney pointed out that motive, means, and opportunity did not comprise evidence. The defense lawyer reminded jurors that the murdered girl's boyfriend may also have had motive, means, and opportunity in the 16 year old case.

     The jury, after deliberating ten hours, voted 10 to 2 to find the defendant guilty of first-degree manslaughter. (The reckless killing of a person as opposed to an intentional murder.) In Oregon a defendant could be convicted of manslaughter on just 10 guilty votes. To find a person guilty of murder 12 votes are needed. The judge sentenced William Simmons to the mandatory 10 years in prison.

     At a hearing in May 2012 the convicted man's attorneys, Andrew Vandergaw and Michael Bertoff, in an effort to secure a new trial for their client, put a witness on the stand named Serena Beach. During the Simmons trial Beach had contacted the defense attorneys and said she had "vital information about the case." The lawyers, busy defending the accused man, didn't have time to investigate her allegations.

     According to Serena Beach, in 2003 or 2004, the murder victim's stepfather, Robert Glazier, told her that he "was there when Kaelin Glazier came into the world and was there when she went out." He allegedly said that he knew she was dead and that her body was "down the road."

     The 65-year-old stepfather, who had been questioned three times by detectives during the early stages of the missing persons investigation, took the stand at the hearing to determine if there was sufficient cause to convene a new trial. Mr. Glazier said he knew that some people considered him a suspect in the murder. He testified that there was a person he suspected in the case.

     Judge Benjamin Bloom denied the defense motion for a new trial. The attorneys for William Simmons appealed the judge's ruling.

     It's surprising that Judge Benjamin Bloom even allowed this case to go to a jury in the first place. Motive, means, and opportunity, while a guideline for identifying criminal suspects does not rise to proof beyond a reasonable doubt. (As evidenced in this case by the two not guilty votes.) The evidence in this case was not even enough to sustain liability in a civil wrongful death suit where the standard of proof is merely a preponderance of the evidence. In any other state the Simmons trial would have resulted in a hung jury.

     By any legal standard the William Simmons case represented an odd and unlikely homicide conviction. While Simmons may have been a good suspect and may have committed the crime, that was not enough evidence to put him behind bars for 10 years. If this were the standard of proof in all murder trials a lot of innocent people would end up in prison.

     In April 2020 the United States Supreme Court, in Ramos v. United States, set aside the un-unanimous jury verdict rules in Oregon and Louisiana on grounds such verdicts violated the Sixth Amendment right to a jury. As a result the William Simmons homicide conviction was vacated. 
     William Simmons was not retried for the murder of Rose Glazier. No further arrests were made in this case.

Vehicles In The History of American Crime

     The invention and popularity of the automobile changed and defined the nature of criminal behavior in America and around the world. The motorized vehicle became the instrument and the fruit of crime. Cars, in the old days referred to as "machines," provided a degree of mobility that changed the nature of law enforcement as well. By 1920 police departments across the country were entirely motorized, and soon after that, they were equipped with two-way radios. In 1926, the U.S. Supreme Court, in U.S. v. Carroll, held that an automobile could be searched without a warrant if there was probable cause to believe the vehicle was being used in the commission of a crime. In those days the offense often involved the transportation of contraband liquor. A motorized America and the resultant mobility of the criminal contributed to the federalization of American law enforcement. By the 1930s, bank robbery, kidnapping, interstate car theft and transporting prostitutes across state lines (White Slave Traffic Act) became federal offenses investigated by the FBI. By 1947 the FBI Crime Lab featured a reference collection of tire treads against which crime scene impression could be compared.

     Many crime and police history buffs are fascinated with vehicles owned or used by serial killers, mafia bosses, depression era bank robbers and famous murder victims. People who collect and restore old cars are interested in this aspect of crime history as well. Police and crime museums around the country exhibit old police cars, paddy wagons and vehicles that had been used in historic regional crimes.

Bonnie and Clyde Death Car

     On May 23, 1934, a small army of cops in southern Louisiana ambushed the depression era outlaws Bonnie and Clyde. In a barrage of bullets the police riddled the couple's 1934 gray Ford sedan, killing them both. These folk-hero degenerates had stolen the deluxe sedan in Topeka, Kansas from a woman named Ruth Warren. (For awhile the car was known as the "Warren Death Car.") When the federal government refused to release the blood-soaked Ford, Ruth Warren, realizing its value as crime memorabilia, sued the government and won.

     From 1940 to 1952 the shot-up Ford was on exhibit at an amusement park in Cincinnati, Ohio. In 1952 a man with the name Ted Toddy bought the car for $14,500. During the 1980s the Bonnie and Clyde vehicle sat on display at several casino-resorts in Nevada. In 2017 it could be seen at Whiskey Pete's Resort and Casino in Prim, Nevada. (In January 2012 at an auction in Kansas City, Missouri a collector bought two Bonnie and Clyde bank robbery guns. The Thompson submachine gun and the 1897 Winchester 12-gauge shotgun were recovered in 1933 from the couple's hideout in Joplin, Missouri. The collector paid $210,000 for the weapons.)

Al Capone

     The vicious prohibition era gangster from Chicago, during his murderous career as a bootlegger owned several cars. The vehicle most closely associated with Capone is a 1928 green Cadillac limousine. The armor-plated V-8, equipped with bullet-proof windows, sold for $621,500 at a 2010 auction in California. The fact President Franklin D. Roosevelt had used the car after Capone went to prison added to its value.

The Lindbergh Kidnap Car

     Bruno Richard Hauptmann, on the night of March 1, 1932, drove his 1930 blue Dodge sedan from the Bronx, New York to the Charles Lindbergh estate near Hopewell, New Jersey. The 36-year-old unemployed carpenter used a homemade wooden extension ladder, compressed across the back seat of his car, to climb to the Lindbergh baby's second-story nursery window. In West Trenton at the New Jersey State Police Museum and Learning Center the kidnap ladder is on display. But the Museum does not possess the car Hauptmann used to commit the "crime of the century."

     In 1958, after the state of New Jersey sold Hauptmann's Dodge at auction for $800, it disappeared. If you own a 1930 4-door Dodge that was once blue, check the vehicle identification number against the VIN on record at the New Jersey museum. You might own an important piece of American crime history.

Ted Bundy's "Teaching Tool"

     Crime memorabilia collector Arthur Nash, in 2010, sold the 1968 Volkswagen Beetle owned by the executed serial killer Ted Bundy to the privately owned National Museum of Crime and Punishment in Washington, D.C. (The museum opened in 2008.) In the 1970s Bundy lured many of his female victims into the car where many of them were raped and murdered. Museum speakers at the vehicle's unveiling, aware that critics would accuse them of using Bundy's death car to extract admission fees from true crime sickos, insisted they were using the Volkswagen as a "teaching tool." At the highly publicized unveiling one of the museum owners said, "Specifically, we don't recommend hitchhiking to anyone. This car represents a warning sign that you have to be careful."

JFK Assassination Vehicles

     Early in 2011, at an auction in Scottsdale, Arizona, a bidder paid $120,000 for the ambulance that had carried the slain president, on November 23, 1963, from Andrews Air Force Base to the Bethesda National Hospital in Maryland. There has since been a debate over the authenticity of this purchase. Some believe the ambulance is a fake.

     In 2012, the same auction house offered for sale the 1963 Cadillac hearse used to carry President Kennedy's body from the Dallas hospital to Air Force One at Dallas Love Field.

Other Infamous Vehicles

     A few other collectible crime cars include: John Dillinger's 1933 Essex-Terraplane; the 1931 black Lincoln owned by Dutch Schultz; O. J. Simpson's 1995 white Ford Bronco; and the D.C. Snipers's Chevrolet Caprice.

Saturday, May 21, 2022

Tracey Richter: One Scheming, Dangerous Woman

     Tracey Richter's adversarial and bellicose history with her husbands is a cautionary tale for professional men trolling for wives. Her story is a real-life "Play Misty for Me" horror film featuring an attractive sociopathic revenge-oriented protagonist willing to do whatever it takes to dominate, humiliate, and defeat her male antagonists. In Tracey Richter's case her enemies were her estranged husbands. To stand between this woman and what she wanted, to incur her wrath, was like stepping in front on an oncoming train.

     In 1992 the Chicago native lived in Virginia with her first husband, a plastic surgeon named Dr. John Pitman. That year, Tracey Richter, then 27, pleaded no contest to the charge of discharging a firearm during an argument with him. In return for her plea she received a probated sentence. Before they were divorced in 1996 Tracey Richter accused Dr. Pitman of sexually abusing their 3-year-old son Bert. A judge eventually dismissed the case for lack of evidence. Following the divorce Tracey Richter and her son moved back to Chicago.

     In 1997 Tracey Richter met and began dating Dr. Joseph La Spisa, a Chicago based oral surgeon. That relationship soured when, pursuant to an attempt to extort $150,000 from the doctor, she accused him of sexual assault. Although later exonerated, the scandal cost Dr. La Spisa his dental practice.

     About the time she was making life miserable for Dr. La Spisa Tracey Richter met a man online from California named Michael Roberts. Shortly thereafter Tracey Richter married Mr. Roberts. They separated in 2000. The three-year marriage produced two children, ages one and three. At the time of the separation from Michael Roberts Richter was battling Dr. Pitman for custody of their 10-year-old son, Bert. If she lost this fight she would lose her son and the $1,000-a-month child support payments.

     In 2001, Tracey Richter, now 35, resided with her son Bert and the two younger children in Early, Iowa, a small town 100 miles north of Des Moines. On December 31 of that year she called 911 to report that she had just shot an intruder to death who, along with another man, had broken into her house and tried to strangle her with a pair of pantyhose.

     Upon arriving at the dwelling police discovered, in Richter's bedroom, the body of 20-year-old Dustin Wehde. He had been shot nine times with a pair of handguns Richter had retrieved from her home safe. The other man, she said, fled the scene when she opened fire on Wehde. (The other intruder was never identified because he didn't exist.)

     Detectives identified Dustin Wehde, a resident of Richter's neighborhood, as a depressed computer nerd who lived in his parents' basement. He had no criminal record, and as a timid type, was an unlikely candidate for home burglary and assault. Investigators also found it strange that Wehde had parked his car in Richter's driveway.

     In searching the dead man's vehicle police officers made a bizarre discovery. They found, on the front seat, a pink notebook in which Wehde had written that a "mysterious fellow" named John Pitman had hired him to kill Tracey Richter and her 11-year-old son. While the passage was in Wehde's handwriting, it didn't make any sense. Detectives couldn't find any evidence that Wehde and Richter's first husband had ever crossed paths, and the young man didn't come close to fitting the profile of a contract killer. Because the whole setup looked fishy, the police never considered Dr. John Pitman as a murder-for-hire mastermind. While detectives didn't buy Richter's account of the shooting, the Sac County prosecutor didn't bring charges against her and the case went into the books as a self-defense homicide.  Dustin Wehde's parents had to live with the fact their son had been murdered as part of the killer's plot to frame an ex-husband. 

     Shortly after shooting Dustin Wehde to death in her bedroom, Tracey Richter and her children moved to Omaha, Nebraska. In the meantime, the authorities in Iowa kept the existence of the pink notebook secret because to publicize it would have, among other things, scandalized Dr. Pitman. In 2002, Richter appeared on "The Montel Williams Show," a daily afternoon talkfest not unlike the OprahWinfrey show. In response to softball questions in front of a sympathetic studio audience, Richter told the horrifying story of how she had no choice but to take this intruder's life to save herself and her children. She came off as a hero.

     In 2004, after Richter and Michael Roberts were divorced, she told the police that her second husband had been a part of Dr. Pitman's conspiracy to have her killed. The authorities still weren't buying into this murder-for-hire business and never considered Mr. Roberts a suspect in Dustin Wehde's homicide.

     While residing in Nebraska Tracey Richter ran afoul of the law. In 2009, among other accusations of criminal deceit, she was convicted of welfare fraud and sentenced to probation.

     In 2010, Ben Smith, the new Sac County prosecutor, took office. As he had promised in his campaign for the job, Smith asked the Iowa Division of Criminal Justice to investigate the almost ten-year-old Dustin Wehde homicide. As part of that investigation a forensic ballistics expert determined that Wehde had been shot three times in the back as he lay on Richter's bedroom floor. This comprised, in the prosecutor's opinion, circumstantial evidence inconsistent with Richter's claim of self-defense.  

     At the conclusion of the state investigation of Dustin Wehde's suspicious death prosecutor Ben Smith charged Tracey Richter with first-degree murder. Under Smith's theory of the case Richter had lured the young man to her house and forced him at gunpoint to write in the pink notebook that her first husband, Dr. John Pitman, had hired him to kill her and her son. She then fired nine shots into his body then planted the notebook in his car in an effort to frame her former husband for solicitation of murder. Pursuant to this scenario, Dustin Whede had been nothing more than a sacrificial pawn in Richter's evil scheme to win the custody battle she was having with the father of her first-born child. If this was what took place, Tracey Richter was one cold-blooded sociopathic killer. A dangerous woman indeed.

     Granted a change of venue, Tracey Richter's murder trial got underway on October 23, 2011 in the Webster County town of Fort Dodge, Iowa. The defendant, now 45, and living in Omaha, had the support of her 20-year-old son Bert and the man she was currently engaged to marry. On November 7, 2011, the jury of six men and six women, in rejecting Richter's self-defense/contract murder version of Dustin Wehde's death, found her guilty as charged.

     Following this stunning verdict, Mr. Michael Roberts, Richter's second husband and father of her two younger children, praised the jurors. He told reporters that Richter had once tried to murder him through drugs and suffocation. Mona Wehde, Dustin's mother, in speaking to reporters on the day of the verdict said that her son's murder had destroyed her marriage and after the divorce her ex-husband committed suicide. She called the jury's decision "a blessing."

     In January 2012, shortly before Judge Kurt L. Wilke sentenced Richter to life in prison, she sent a letter to a Wisconsin prison inmate named James Landa. Mr. Landa, who had been convicted of sexually molesting a 12-year-old girl, had written to Richter following her conviction offering his moral support. (Whatever that meant.) Richter's letter to Landa contained personal information about her second husband, Mr. Michael Roberts. Among other pieces of information, Richter revealed his Social Security number, date of birth, physical description, and home address. When Sac County prosecutor Ben Smith learned of this letter he suspected Richter of soliciting Mr. Roberts' murder. To reporters, Smith said, "I fear for Michael and his kids."

     In June 2012, from prison, Tracey Richter appeared on a "Dateline NBC" two-hour special on the Dustin Wehde murder case. To correspondent Dennis Murphy she stuck to her story of self-defense. Her son Bert appeared on the show to back up her account of the shooting. Her lawyer announced that the convicted killer had filed an appeal.

     From her cell at the Mitchelville, Iowa prison, Richter launched a child custody battle with second husband Michael Roberts over her two younger children, now ages 12 and 14. Roberts had the children with him in California and planned to escape Richter's reach by moving his family to Australia.

     On September 13, 2012, Iowa Judge Nancy Whittenburg, the judge who presided over this child custody fight, ruled that notwithstanding Richter's murder conviction she had not lost her right to regular visits with the children. This meant that Mr. Roberts, to satisfy the judge's decision, had to make visitation trips from California to Iowa and back. When Sac County prosecutor Ben Smith learned of Judge Whittenburg's ruling he called it "mind-boggling."
      

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

Dr. Louise Robbins: The Shoe Print Expert From Hell

     Comparing a crime scene shoe print on a hard surface or an impression in dirt, mud or snow to the bottom of a specific shoe is not unlike the process of latent fingerprint identification. In many crime laboratories latent fingerprint examiners also handle footwear and tire-track evidence and occasionally deal with the identification of tool marks. Compared to DNA analysis, toxicology and various aspects of forensic pathology, the identification of shoe marks, latent fingerprints, crime scene bullets, tool marks, and handwriting involves less science than it does informed observation.

     A crime scene shoe print or impression can be identified as part of a footwear group according to size, brand and model. In some cases an impression can be identified as coming from one shoe to the exclusion of all other footwear. Every year 1.5 billion pairs of shoes are sold in the United States. At any given time there could be as many as 100,000 pairs of size 10 Nike sneakers of a certain model and tread design. There could be, say, 5,000 pairs of these shoes in circulation in the Chicago area alone. The criminalistic or incriminating value of a group identification depends upon the size of the group. These group, or class identifications occur when the crime scene print or impression is not detailed enough for a match to a specific shoe or when the shoe that made the mark is not available for comparison.

     The most famous group identification of shoe prints came at O. J. Simpson's double murder trial in 1995 when FBI expert William Bodziak identified several crime scene prints in blood as having been made by a pair of size 12 Bruno Magli Lorenzo shoes, luxury footwear made in Italy. Bodziak's testimony tended to incriminate Simpson in two ways: the identification involved a relatively small footwear group, and Simpson, after denying that he owned Bruno Magli shoes was seen on television wearing a pair. The actual shoes that made the bloody murder scene prints were never located.

     An individual shoe, boot, or sandal can be linked to a crime scene print or impression the way a latent fingerprint can be matched to its known counterpart. Instead of comparing ridge configurations the footwear examiner looks at a shoe's sole and heel for unique signs of wear that show up in the print or impression. Every shoe that has been worn for awhile is as unique as a fingerprint. The more wear the more potential for identification.

     Footwear identification, unlike fingerprint matching, does not require a minimum number of similarity points to be admissible in court. The credibility of a shoe identification depends upon the training, experience and objectivity of the examiner as well as the quality, clarity, and uniqueness of the characteristics being compared. New methods and techniques are constantly being developed, for example, to lift footwear impressions from dust and even preserve shoe prints made in snow.

     Shoe prints left in dust, blood or soot are photographed (next to a reference ruler) then peeled off the surface the way a latent fingerprint is lifted. Footwear impressions are often preserved with plaster-of-paris casts of the depressions. Shoes and their crime scene prints and impressions can be compared side-by-side or through the use of transparent overlays. To connect a suspect to a crime scene through footwear evidence detectives need three things: a good print or impression; the shoe that made it; and a way to link the suspect to the footwear. In the O. J. Simpson case the detectives had shoe prints in blood but none of the footwear in Simpson's possession matched the murder scene evidence. The prosecution had to settle for a group identification.

Dr. Louise Robbins and her "Cinderella Analysis"

     Fortunately for O. J. Simpson the world's only footwear identification expert who might have identified the crime scene impressions as having been made by shoes worn by him without having access to the actual footwear had died eight years before his trial. Dr. Louise Robbins, an anthropology professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro wasn't interested in matching the bottoms of shoes to corresponding crime scene impressions. She would have claimed she could identify the crime scene prints in the Simpson case by examining other shoes in Simpson's possession. Robbin's method of identification, a process she called "wear pattern analysis," was based on her theory that no two people have the same shaped feet or walk in exactly the same way. According to her this unique feature revealed itself inside the shoes people wear and in the prints or impressions they leave behind.

     Dr. Robbins claimed she could look at a crime scene shoe print and determine that it had been made by the wearer of shoes other than the shoe that left the crime scene mark. Her critics, and there were many, called this her "Cinderella Analysis." If a defense attorney had a client in a case in which Dr. Robbins was testifying for the prosecution, that defendant's foot always seemed to end up fitting the shoe that had made the crime scene print or impression. The jury, without access to the actual shoe that had made the crime scene mark simply had to take her word for it. It's not surprising that prosecutors with insufficient footwear evidence and weak cases loved this witness. Defense attorneys, on the other hand, called her the prosecution expert from hell.

     In her work as an anthropologist Dr. Robbins had frequently exhibited the ability to see things that her colleagues could not. When working in Africa she garnered worldwide publicity after identifying a 3.5 million-year-old fossilized footprint as made by a woman who was five and a half months pregnant. Dr. Timothy White, a professor of anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley, who had worked with Dr. Robbins in Africa characterized her conclusions as pure nonsense.

     If Dr. Robbins had confined her ideas to the classroom she would have been harmless and no one would have been greatly bothered by her patently ridiculous theories. But in 1976, when she took her nonsense into the courtroom as a forensic footwear identification expert, people not only started to worry, defendants started going to prison. Between 1976 and 1986 Dr. Robbins testified, for fees up to $9,000 a case, in ten states and Canada. During this period at least 12 defendants were sent to prison on the strength of her expert testimony. Her career as an expert witness came to an end in 1987 when she died of brain cancer at the age of 58.

     In the year of Dr. Robbin's death the American Academy of Forensic Sciences sponsored a panel of 135 anthropologists, forensic scientists, lawyers and legal scholars to review her cases and work. The panel concluded that her identification methodology had no basis in science. Marvin Lewis, a law professor at John Marshall University, called her work "complete hogwash." Lewis, who operated an expert witness referral service was dismayed that so many judges had qualified Robbins as an expert witness. Russell Tuttle, a professor of physical anthropology at the University of Chicago, in referring to Dr. Robbins, said, "Why do we allow this kind of rot, this pseudoscience, into our courts?" FBI expert William Bodziak, who had testified against Dr. Robbins in several murder trials, agreed: "Nobody else has ever dreamed of saying the kinds of things she said."

     Dr. Robbins not only wormed her way into courtrooms and the hearts of desperate prosecutors, she had impressed juries. She had a Ph.D, taught at a major university and had been written up in Time Magazine. In 1985 she published a book, Footprints: Collection, Analysis, and Interpretation. As a self-validating expert who used scientific terminology to advance an absurd theory, she came off as extremely confident, and sure of her conclusions. Moreover, some prosecutors portrayed her as a pioneer in a new field of scientific identification. One prosecutor, in defending Dr. Robbins against her critics, reminded the jury that it had taken 400 years for Galileo's theories to gain acceptance in the scientific community. 

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

Joseph McGuinniss And The Jeffrey MacDonald Murder Case

     Joe McGuinniss was born in Manhattan, New York on December 9, 1942. Raised by well-to-do parents in New York City and Los Angeles, he graduated in 1964 from Holly Cross University in Worcester, Massachusetts. After failing to get into Columbia University's graduate school of journalism, McGinniss became a staff reporter for the Worcester Telegram. 

     Following stints at The Philadelphia Bulletin and The Philadelphia Inquirer, McGuinniss published his first book in 1968. The Selling of the President, a nonfiction account of the marketing of presidential candidate Richard Nixon, became a bestseller and remained on The New York Times bestseller list for six months. That book established the 26-year-old author's reputation as a serious investigative journalist and landed him a job as writer-in-residence at the Los Angeles Harold Examiner.

The Jeffrey MacDonald Murder Case

     On February 17, 1970 Green Beret Captain and Army surgeon Jeffrey MacDonald reported a deadly invasion of his home at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. At the scene, Army Criminal Investigation Division (CID) officers found MacDonald's wife Colette and his two daughters, Kimberly and Kristen, stabbed to death. MacDonald himself had superficial puncture wounds. According to MacDonald he had struggled with the hippie intruders who had murdered his family.

     Following an internal military review of the case Captain MacDonald was cleared of wrongdoing. But in January 1975 a federal grand jury indicted him on three counts of first-degree murder. He vigorously maintained his innocence and stuck to his original version of the mass murder.

     At some point after MacDonald's indictment Joe McGuinniss entered the case as a journalist who intended to write a book exonerating the Green Beret officer. The writer acquired access into the inner circle of the MacDonald defense team by gaining MacDonald's trust as a loyal friend. In reality, the more McGuinniss learned about the case the more convinced he became of MacDonald's guilt. The true crime writer believed that MacDonald, a sociopath who wanted to be free of  his family, had murdered his wife and daughters in a homicidal frenzy aided by his abuse of diet pills.

     In 1979, when the jury found MacDonald guilty as charged, McGuinniss, to maintain his position within the MacDonald defense team, feigned shock and outrage. But when McGuinniss' book on the case, Fatal Vision, came out in 1983 it was Jeffery MacDonald and his supporters who were shocked and outraged by the author's duplicity.

     Shortly after the publication of Fatal Vision, a book that quickly became a runaway bestseller, Jeffery MacDonald sued the true crime writer for beach of contract.

     When the first of its kind lawsuit went to trial several well-known true crime authors such as Joseph Wambaugh and Norman Mailer testified on McGuinniss' behalf as expert witnesses. According to Wambaugh and Mailer, McGinniss had done what any serious investigative journalist would do to get to the bottom of a case. In other words, a true crime writer has no duty to be honest with the person he's writing about. At the conclusion of the trial some jurors bought McGuinniss' defense but others did not. This led to a hung jury.

    The insurance company for the publisher of Fatal Vision, shocked and concerned that some of the jurors had sided with a man who had killed his wife and two children over the journalist who had written the book about the mass murder settled the suit out of court for $325,000. In the court of public opinion Joseph McGuinniss did not come off as a likable person. Ordinary people did not approve of his journalistic trickery.

     In 1989 journalist Janet Malcolm wrote a long piece about the MacDonald-McGuinniss suit in The New Yorker. A year later the article came out as a book called The Journalist and the Murderer. (It's a great read.) Malcolm's defining of the journalist/subject relationship as inherently exploitive itself became a source of debate. Regarding the MacDonald/McGuinniss relationship Janet Malcolm famously wrote: "Every journalist who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible."

     Jerry Allen Potter and Fred Bott published a book called Fatal Justice that argued for MacDonald's innocence. According to these authors, McGuinniss's book is full of substantive errors and groundless speculation.

     Regardless of one's take on the MacDonald's guilt or innocence, Fatal Vision is an exceptionally well written account of a fascinating murder case. It also popularized the concept of the sociopathic killer who appears normal on the outside but in reality is a pathologically narcissistic liar without feelings of guilt.

     Joe McGuinniss followed Fatal Vision with two bestselling true crime books. Blind Faith, published in 1989, is about a New Jersey man who hired a hit man to murder his wife and Cruel Doubt, published in 1991, features teenage murderers inspired by the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons.

     The method McGuinniss used to research his 2011 book The Rogue, a biography of Sarah Palin, also stirred controversy. In 2010 he rented a house in Wasilla, Alaska next door to the former vice presidential candidate. Critics called McGuinniss a peeping Tom and Palin accused him of stalking her and her family. The book, failing to break new ground about a person the public had lost interest in did not make the bestseller list.

     On March 10, 2014 Joe McGuinniss died in a Worcester, Massachusetts hospital from prostate cancer. At his death at age 71 he was living in Pelham with his second wife Nancy Doherty. He was survived by three children.

     Fatal Vision is considered by many to be a true crime classic equal to Joseph Wambaugh's Onion Field, Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, and Norman Mailer's Executioner's Song.

     In December 2018 the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals denied the 75-year-old MacDonald his latest bid for a new trial.

     Jeffery MacDonald remains in prison and continues to maintain his innocence. 

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.

The Historic Disaster at Waco

     The April 19, 1993 FBI raid of the Mount Carmel Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, which resulted in the deaths of 80 cult members, is a worst-case example of how the militaristic approach to law enforcement can lead to disaster.

     Fifty-one days before the FBI raid, agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tax, and Firearms (ATF), at the conclusion of a seven month investigation, had stormed the compound to arrest cult leader David Koresh and search for a cache of guns that ATF agents suspected had been illegally converted to fully automatic weapons. That raid ended after a brief shootout in which 4 ATF agents were killed and 16 wounded. The officers retreated, leaving an unknown number of Branch Davidians dead and wounded.

     The AFT agents, prior to the raid, had several opportunities to arrest David Koresh outside the Mount Carmel compound. These chances were missed because Koresh was not under a 24-hour surveillance. Had the ATF taken Koresh into custody when the opportunity presented itself, the raid might not have been necessary. The ATF had also lost the element of surprise, and they knew it when two National Guard helicopters, circling above the compound with agency supervisors aboard, took gunfire from below. The supervisors launched the invasion anyway. Although several AFT agents had been trained at Fort Hood by Green Beret personnel, most of the agents participating in the 9:30 A.M. attack had not been appropriately trained or armed. Many of the 76 agents who charged the compound carried semi-automatic handguns.

     Following the AFT fiasco, the FBI took charge of the stand-off. Following the 51-day siege and a series of failed negotiations, several FBI SWAT teams, in full battle gear armed with shortened variants of the standard M-16 assault rifle and supported by Bradley Fighting Vehicles and M-60 tanks, stormed the compound. Forty minutes after 400 canisters of CS gas had been shot inside the building through holes punched in the walls by the armored vehicles, the structure burst into flames and burned to the ground. David Koresh and 17 children were among the 80 dead. Attorney General Janet Reno, operating on unreliable evidence that the Davidian children were being sexually mistreated had authorized the assault. The Waco fiasco turned out to be the deadliest police action in American history.

     Attorney General Reno, in the wake of the Waco disaster, asked former Missouri senator John C. Danforth to investigate the government's role in the raids. In 2000, following a 14-month inquiry, Danforth determined that FBI agents had not started the fire by firing bullets into the compound. The former senator also found the military's role in the raids as lawful.

     Several months after the Danforth inquiry, Thomas Lynch, the director of the CATO Institute's Project on Criminal Justice, published a report characterizing the Branch Davidian raids as "criminally reckless," and Danforth's investigation as "soft and incomplete." According to the CATO investigation, FBI agents in National Guard helicopters had fired rifle shots into the compound, a finding that contradicted the FBI's claim that the helicopters had been deployed merely to distract the Davidians.

     At a news conference, Senator Danforth defended the integrity of his inquiry and attacked the CATO report. The debate over who started the fire at the Davidian compound remained unresolved. Regardless of what FBI agents did or didn't do on April 19, 1993, many believe the military supported ATF and FBI raids should not have been launched in the first place. 

Monday, May 16, 2022

The Nuzzio Begaren Murder-For-Hire Case

      In 1997, in the southern California city of Santa Ana, Nuzzio Begaren married a 36-year-old state corrections officer named Elizabeth. The 40-year-old groom had a daughter from a previous marriage who was ten. Three days after the wedding Nuzzio bought a $1 million insurance policy on his new wife's life. This meant that Elizabeth Begaren stood between her husband and a million dollars. Purchasing life insurance on his wife was the first step on Nuzzio Begaren's path to wealth. Getting someone to murder his wife comprised step two.

     Finding someone to kill his wife was the easy part of Nuzzio's murder-for-hire scheme. He simply offered $4,800 in cash to friends who belonged to a Los Angeles criminal gang. On the night of January 17, 1998, the murder-for-hire mastermind took Elizabeth and his daughter shopping at a mall in Burbank. While shopping in Macy's he gave Elizabeth the cash to hold for him. She placed the money into her purse, unaware she was carrying the pay-off for her own demise.

     As Nuzzio, Elizabeth, and his daughter drove home in his blue Kia Sportage, they were followed by a Buick Regal driven by 24-year-old Guillermo Espinoza. Three other gang members were in the vehicle. At eleven o'clock, as Nuzzio pulled onto the off-ramp of the 91 Freeway in Anaheim, the Buick pulled up alongside Nuzzio's vehicle and forced him off the road. Three of the LA gangsters alighted from the Buick, and as Nuzzio climbed into the back seat of the Kia to be with his daughter, his wife Elizabeth made a run for it as the hit men approached.

     The hit men quickly caught up with Nuzzio's terrified wife. In begging for her life she pulled out her correction officer's badge. That's when Guillermo Espinoza shot her in the head and chest. The shooter grabbed the dead woman's handbag, returned to the Buick with the other three gangsters, and drove off.

     Nuzzio Begaren told officers with the Anaheim Police Department that the men behind his wife's cold-blooded murder had targeted his family at the shopping mall and followed them home. "There was no reason for someone to follow us," he said. "We have no enemies." Nuzzio described the gangsters' car as a dark blue, late 1970s Oldsmobile and gave detectives a license number that didn't check out. Nuzzio described the four men in the Oldsmobile as a pair of blacks and two men who were either white or Latino. "When they saw the badge," he said, "they shot her. She was lying face down in the blood with her badge in her hand." Nuzzio Begaren described his wife as someone who had been "full of joy."

      Although detectives didn't believe Begeren's account of the murder the investigation stalled and the case eventually died on the vine. It looked as though Nuzzio Begaren had gotten away with his crime.

     In February 2012, four years after Elizabeth Begaren's murder, police officers arrested 55-year-old Nuzzio Begaren in Rancho Cucamonga, California. An Orange County grand jury had indicted him for soliciting the murder of his wife. Guillermo Espinoza had been indicted as well, but his whereabouts were unknown. (In 2011, when the gangster learned that cold case detectives had reopened the case, he went underground.)

      Nuzzio Begaren went on trial on August 21, 2013 in a Santa Ana court for conspiracy to murder his wife for financial gain. (Guillermo Espinoza was still at large.) Orange County prosecutor Larry Yellin, in his opening statement to the jury, told of a piece of torn-up paper found near the murder scene that bore the victim's handwriting. Elizabeth had scribbled "light blue" and had written down the license number of the car that had been following them. The plate number belonged to a light blue Buick Regal, the vehicle driven that night by Guillermo Espinosa.

     Prosecutor Yellin informed the jurors that gang members Rudy Duran and Jose Luis Sandoval, both of whom had been in the Buick that night, were going to testify for the prosecution. According to these men, the defendant had arranged his wife's murder for the insurance money. The murder-for-hire mastermind had wanted the killing to look like a highway robbery turned fatal.

     Defense attorney Sal Ciula told the jury that state witness Rudy Duran had been pressured into cooperating with the authorities. According to the defense attorney, if Duran worked with the prosecution "he would become a witness instead of a defendant. He [Duran] made the obvious choice."

     The heart of the prosecution's case involved the $1 million life insurance police and the testimony of the alleged hit men Rudy Duran and Jose Luis Sandoval. The essence of the Begaren's defense involved attacking the credibility of these two key prosecution witnesses.

     On September 6, 2013, the jury, after deliberating three days found the defendant guilty of hiring Espinoza and Sandoval to murder his wife. On October 4, 2013 the judge sentenced him to 25 years to life.

     In October 2013, Rudy Duran and Jose Luis Sandoval pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter. Both men were sentenced to time served and were released from jail. On March 4, 2016, after being apprehended in Mexico, the authorities extradited Guillermo Espinoza back to California.

     On August 2, 2017, Jose Luis Sandoval was shot to death in the Los Angeles County town of Downey. He was 41.

     Guillermo Espinoza, in September 2018, pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter in return for a sentence of 21 years in prison.

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.

Sunday, May 15, 2022

The Eric Koula Double Murder Case

     Eric Koula, a 41-year-old day trader who lived in West Salem, Wisconsin with his wife and teenage son, called 911 on May 24, 2010 from his parent's house in nearby Barre to report that someone had shot and killed Dennis and Merna Koula. Homicide detectives who worked on the case soon determined that Koula's parents had been murdered three days earlier with a .22-caliber rifle. (The murder weapon was never identified.)

     After the LaCrosse County prosecutor, Tim Gruenke charged Eric Koula on July 29, 2010 with two counts of first-degree murder, police officers took him into custody. According to the prosecutor, Koula, in financial trouble, murdered his parents in order to inherit their estate. While the prosecutor had motive, means, and opportunity supporting this theory, it was what the state didn't have that made acquiring a conviction unlikely. What the prosecutor didn't have included a confession, an eyewitness, physical evidence pointing to Koula's guilt, or the murder weapon.
     Eric Koula, represented by Jim Kolby and Keith Belzer, went on trial on June 6, 2012. In his opening remarks to the jury of five men and seven women, prosecutor Gruenke stated the defendant executed his mother as she sat at her office computer, then shot his father when he walked into the room. Eric Koula's attorneys, on the other hand, assured the jury their client had an airtight alibi and pointed out the obvious weakness of the prosecution's case. According to the defense theory of the murders the victims had been killed by professional hitmen who entered the wrong house. (That doesn't sound too "professional.") The defense didn't elaborate on who had masterminded the contract killing, or why.   
     According to a forensic accountant who testified on behalf of the state, the defendant had only $3,000 in the bank and owed the IRS and several credit card companies $150,000. Shortly after his parent's violent deaths Koula had deposited into his bank a $50,000 check drawn on his father's account. 
     Investigators took the stand and testified that the defendant had planted evidence to make himself look innocent. He had written "fixed you" on a piece of paper and put it into his mailbox. The defendant hoped the note would make it look as though the killer was trying to frame him for the murders. Koula eventually confessed to fabricating that evidence.
     After the state rested its case on June 14, 2012, the defense put their own forensic accountant on the stand who testified that Koula's assets exceeded his liabilities. 
     On June 16, Eric Koula took the stand on his own behalf. Questioned on direct examination by attorney Keith Belzer, the defendant said that in 1994 he, his cousin, and his father purchased a Ford dealership. Eric became president of the company, but in 2006 his father sold the business. Although his father owed him $1million from the sale of the car dealership, the defendant only received $500,000. After the sale of the company Eric began his day trading enterprise. In 2007 he made $300,000 in profits but the following year he lost $661,000.
     In 2009, Eric's father gave him $100,000 and in May 2010 his parents promised him another $50,000. On May 20, 2010, the defendant went to his parent's home to pick up the $50,000 check. His father handed him a blank check and told him to fill it in himself. That's why he signed his father's name on the check and tried to make the signature look like his father's handwriting. According to the defendant, this was the last time he saw his parent's alive. 
     On Friday, May 21, 2010, the day Dennis and Merna Koula were gunned down, the defendant detailed his activities in a way that established an airtight alibi. The next day he deposited the $50,000 check bearing his father's fake signature. 
     On Monday, May 24, 2010, someone at the school where Mrs. Koula taught called Eric to inform him his mother had not shown up for work and that no one at her house was picking up the phone. Eric drove to Barre to check on his parents. He became alarmed when he saw their cars parked in the garage. Inside the house he found his father lying dead on the home office floor and his mother at her desk slumped over the computer. After calling 911 he phoned his wife and his pastor, both of whom rushed to the scene to give him support. 
     LaCrosse County deputies took the defendant to the sheriff's office for questioning. In his statement he forgot to mention the $50,000 check he had deposited containing his father's phony signature. A week later, investigators came to his house to speak to him about the whereabouts of his son Dexter on the day of the murders. The detectives also wanted to know if the boy had access to a .22-caliber rifle. Worried that the police were going to arrest his son for the murder of his grandparents, the defendant wrote the "fixed you" note and placed it in his mailbox. He testified that he had fabricated this evidence to protect his son. 
     The defendant admitted that on July 29, 2010, when he met with detectives for the third and last time, he denied signing the $50.000 check and didn't reveal that he had written the "fixed you" note. 
     On cross-examination, prosecutor Gary Freyburg pressed the defendant regarding his financial troubles. The prosecutor reminded him about the forged $50,000 check and the planted evidence. The cross-examiner pointed out that in Koula's 911 call the defendant started out by explaining why he was at his parent's house. Once he justified his presence at the murder scene he reported his emergency. 
     The testimony phase of the trial came to a close on June 26, 2012. The outcome of the case depended entirely on whether the jurors believed the defendant's testimony. After deliberating less than a day the jury returned a verdict of guilty. Pursuant to Wisconsin law the judge had to impose a sentence of life. The judge could, however, decide to make Koula eligible for parole after serving 40 years behind bars. So the best Koula could hope for was to walk free at age 83.

     On August 12, 2012, Judge Scott Home, at the sentence hearing, said this to the convicted killer: "You took the life of the two people who gave you life and you'll spend the rest of your life incarcerated." The judge sentenced Koula to two consecutive life sentences without the chance of parole.

     On August 9, 2019, Eric Koula, acting at his own attorney in his second appeal for a new trial argued that his trial attorneys should have presented fingerprint and other evidence that supported his hit men theory of his parents' murder. A panel of judges with the Wisconsin District IV Court of Appeals denied the 59-year-old's request.