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Monday, October 31, 2022

Earmark Identification in the David Wayne Kunze Case

     In the early morning hours of December 16, 1994, near Vancouver, Washington, an intruder entered James McCann's bedroom and bludgeoned him to death. In another bedroom, the burglar fractured the skull of McCann's son who managed, after the attack, to crawl outside where the 20-year-old was discovered by a passerby. Questioned at the hospital, the boy told the police he hadn't gotten a good look at the attacker whom he described as 25 to 35 years old, dark complexioned, about six feet tall and of medium build. George Miller, a fingerprint examiner with the Washington State Crime Lab lifted a latent ear-print off the surface of James McCann's bedroom door. The killer had apparently pressed his head against the door listening for signs of activity before entering the room. Miller processed the house for fingerprints as well, but they all turned out to belong to occupants of the dwelling.

     Although he had red hair and didn't otherwise fit the general description of the killer, the police suspected David Wayne Kunze, the 45-year-old ex-husband of the woman James McCann was about to marry. When Kunze learned of the upcoming marriage four days before the murder he was upset. This led investigators to suspect Kunze attacked the victims out of jealousy and rage. The intruder had stolen McCann's television set, VCR, stereo speakers and wallet, an aspect of the case detectives explained away by theorizing that Kunze took these things to throw investigators off his trail. Convinced that the scene had been staged to look like a burglary, the police made no effort to identify a homicidal intruder through the missing property. David Kunze consented to a search of his truck, boat, storage locker and safety deposit box. Detectives found nothing in those places that connected him to the McCann home invasion and murder.

     Three months passed without further developments in the investigation. Then Michael Grubb, a criminalist with the Washington State Crime Lab, compared the partial ear-print latent with photographs of Kunze's left ear and concluded that it "could have been made by David Kunze." Six months later, on September 21, 1995, Kunze voluntarily agreed to have fingerprint examiner George Miller and Michael Grubb take seven exemplar prints of his left ear. The criminalists applied hand lotion to the suspect's ear, then placed panes of glass against it using various degrees of pressure. Following that procedure, the criminalists dusted the glass with fingerprint powder then lifted the prints with transparent tape.

     Michael Grubb compared the seven exemplars with the crime scene ear latent and concluded that "David Kunze is the likely source for the ear-print and cheek-print that were lifted from the outside of the bedroom door at the homicide scene." George Miller, the crime lab fingerprint analyst, declined to offer an opinion regarding the identification of the crime scene ear latent. He said he identified fingerprints, not earmarks. In June 1996, a year and a half after the murder, and eight months after Michael Grubb identified the crime scene ear-print, the Clark County prosecutor charged David Kunze with aggravated murder, assault, robbery and burglary.

     In a pretrial motion to exclude the ear-print identification, Kunze's attorney petitioned the judge for a so-called Frye hearing. In 1923, a U. S. District Court in Washington D. C. held that lie detection technology had not been accepted in the general scientific community as a legitimate science. As a result, lie detection results did not constitute admissible evidence. This ruling became known as the "general acceptance test." To determine if latent ear-print identification was an accepted function within the forensic science community, the prosecutor and defense attorney in the Kunze case offered expert witnesses on both sides of the issue in a Frye hearing held in December 1996. This would be the most thorough, in-depth judicial/scientific review of ear-print identification in legal and criminalistic history.

     On the issue of latent ear-print identification as a legitimate forensic science, the prosecution presented three advocates against the defense's twelve witnesses, who, in varying degrees, were not enthusiastic about this form of pattern analysis. Michael Grubb, the manager of the Washington State Crime Lab in Seattle who had identified the crime scene ear-print as probably Kunze's, testified that comparing an earmark to a known ear print was not unlike other forms of impression identification. A criminalist who specialized in bullet-striation and tool-mark identification, Grubb said that if you can analyze patterns made by tires, shoes, fingers, gun barrels, and tools, you can render an opinion on the source of an earmark.

     The next prosecution witness, Alfred V. Iannarelli, said he had studied the evidence in the McCann murder case and was certain that the crime scene earmark was an "exact" match to Kunze's left ear. Iannarelli had never worked in a crime lab, had not been to college and had testified only once as an expert witness. He had been a deputy sheriff with the Alameda County Sheriff's Office and the chief of campus security at California State University at Hayward. From 1948 to 1962, Iannarelli had photographed 7,000 ears and from this database concluded that no two ears are the same. He had also devised an ear classification system based upon twelve "anthropometric measurements," a system featured in his 1964 book, The Iannarelli System of Ear Identification. In 1989, Iannarelli self-published a second edition of this text, titled Ear Identification which included a section on latent earmark analysis. He was unable, however, to cite any ear-print studies other than his own, which explained why his books didn't contain bibliographies.

     In ear-print identification, it became clear there were no texts other than Iannarelli's, no community of experts, no section within any crime lab that specialized in this kind of work and no professional organizations or certifying bodies. Besides Mr. Iannarelli, there was one other analyst devoted solely to this form of identification. If anyone could claim to be an internationally known ear-print expert, it was a police officer from Amsterdam named Cornelius Van der Lugt. It was therefore not surprising that Van der Lugt had examined the McCann murder scene evidence and was the third prosecution expert at the Frye hearing. Van der Lugt had become interested in the ear-print identification field after reading Iannarelli's books in the early 1990s, and had since analyzed ear-print evidence in 200 cases in the Netherlands, United Kingdom, and several countries in Western Europe. He had testified as an expert in six trials, all of which were in Holland where judges, not juries, determined a defendant's guilt or innocence.

     According to Cornelius Van der Lugt, many suspects, when presented with his expert ear-print analysis, confessed and pleaded guilty. In one case, a suspect admitted putting his ear to the door, but denied breaking in to the structure. Van der Lugt never worked in a crime laboratory, attended college, or received any kind of formal training in science. He was certain, however, that David Kunze was the source of the McCann murder latent ear-print. As part of his Frye testimony, Van der Lugt praised the work done by Michael Grubb and George Miller in obtaining the seven ear-print exemplars, noting how they had varied the amount of pressure against the ear until the known and crime scene prints looked alike. When asked if ear-print identification, as a forensic science, was accepted around the world, Van der Lugt said that it was.

     While the Kunze prosecution could not have put on a stronger case for ear-print identification, it was arguably not enough to meet the Frye standards. In other words, at least in theory, Kunze's defense attorney could not win the Frye debate without mounting an anti-ear-print case. Leaving nothing to chance, the defense hit back with a dozen impressive witnesses, leading off with Dr. Ellis Kerley, a physical anthropologist and former president of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences and the American Board of Forensic Anthropology. Dr. Kerley said it was reasonable to assume that no two ears were the same, but he wasn't sure this uniqueness would always reveal itself in a crime scene earmark. He didn't consider Iannarelli's books works of science, and didn't approve of Van der Lugt's technique of getting an exemplar to match a crime scene latent by varying the pressure against the suspect's ear. "We don't do that in science...because we're not trying to make them look alike," he said. In Dr. Kerley's opinion, ear-print identification had not achieved general acceptance in the forensic science community.

     Andre Moenssens, a law professor at the University of Missouri at Kansas City, the author of articles and law school texts on forensic science, and a former fingerprint expert in Belgium, testified that the "forensic sciences...do not recognize, as a separate discipline, the identification of ear impressions. There are people in the forensic science community, the broader forensic science community, who feel that it can be done. But if we are talking about a general acceptance by scientists, there is no such general acceptance....To my knowledge, there has been no investigation in the possible rate of error that comparisons between known and unknown ear samples might produce."

     Following the Frye testimony of ten other recognized forensic scientists who did not consider latent ear-print identification a true science, the judge ruled that ear-print identification had in fact gained general acceptance in the scientific community. The decision was stunning in that it was so out of sync with the weight of the expert testimony. It was certainly bad news for David Kunze because the prosecution had no case without the ear-print evidence.

     The case went to trial on June 25, 1997. The prosecutor chose not to put Alfred Iannarelli on the stand, but the jury heard the testimony of state criminalist Michael Grubb, and the ear-print guru Cornelius Van der Lugt. The prosecution ear-print analysts were followed to the stand by a jailhouse informant who claimed that Kunze had confessed to him while in custody. The prosecution rested its case without identifying the murder weapon, connecting the defendant to the crime scene through DNA or fingerprints, or linking him to any of the items taken from house.

     For some reason, the Kunze defense attorney did not call upon the testimony of Dr. Ellis Kerley, Professor Andre Moenssens, or any of the other anti-ear-print Frye witnesses. As a result, the jury found David Kunze guilty of aggravated murder, burglary and robbery. The judge sentenced him to life without parole.

      David Kunze appealed his conviction, and in 1999, a three-judge panel ruled that "the trial court erred by allowing Michael Grubb and Cornelius Van der Lugt to testify that Kunze was the likely or probable source of the ear latent, and that a new trial was therefore required. The appellate court instructed the prosecutor in the second trial not to prejudice the defense by referring to the first trial and the resulting conviction. The appellate judges didn't want the second jury to know that Kunze had been found guilty on the strength of ear-print identification.

     In March 2001, ten days into the second trial, the prosecutor made reference to the earlier conviction. The presiding judge had no choice but to declare a mistrial. The prosecutor, after several jurors announced that had the case gone to them, they would have acquitted the defendant, announced that a third trial would not be scheduled. 

Saturday, October 29, 2022

Pastor Arthur Burton Schirmer: The Singing Minister of Death

     In 1968, Arthur Burton "A.B." Schirmer, an ordained Methodist minister, married his first wife Jewel whom he met while they were 20-year-old students at Messiah College in southeast central Pennsylvania. In the late 1970s, as pastor of the Bainbridge and Marietta United Methodist Churches in southeastern Pennsylvania's Lancaster County, Schirmer and his wife Jewel sang duets at area churches and camp meetings. Later his son and two daughters joined the gospel group billed as the "Singing Schirmer Family."

     In 1978, Schirmer and his family moved to the town of Lebanon in southeast central Pennsylvania where he had been named pastor of the Bethany United Methodist Church (UMC). He and his wife Jewel lived in the church parsonage.

     On April 24, 1999, the 50-year-old Bethany church pastor called 911 at 2:15 in the afternoon to report that when he returned to the parsonage after a jog he found his wife Jewel lying unconscious at the foot of the basement stairs. Jewel Schirmer died the next day at the Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center.

     The forensic pathologist with the Lebanon County Coroner's Office who performed the autopsy noted that the deceased woman had, wrapped around one leg, an electrical cord from a Shop Vac. She was also barefoot. The pastor's wife had suffered a fractured skull and possessed numerous bruises on her upper body. The coroner's office reported that Jewel Schirmer had died from a traumatic brain injury and ruled her manner of death as "undetermined." While her obituary stated that she had died a "natural death" from falling down a flight of stairs (actually an accidental death), the coroner's office listed Jewel Schirmer's demise as undetermined because her injuries seemed too severe to have been caused by a fall down a flight of steps. Because his wife's death was not ruled a homicide there was no police investigation into the incident and no criminal charges filed against the singing minister.

     In 2001, the year he became pastor of the United Methodist Church in Reeders, an eastern Pennsylvania town in Monroe County, A.B. Schirmer married his second wife, 49-year-old Betty Jean Shertzer, a music teacher.

     On July 15, 2008, motorists driving along State Route 715, a wooded, two-lane highway not far from Reeders, saw a PT Cruiser sitting on the shoulder of the road next to a guardrail. Betty Schirmer was sitting in the front passenger's seat that was soaked in blood. She was bleeding from the head and was unconscious. The passersby noticed severe bruising on the right side of her face. The vehicle showed only minor damage and the pastor was uninjured. Although he possessed a cellphone, one of the motorists called 911.

     The next day, at the Lehigh Valley Hospital, Betty Jean Schirmer died of "sustained multiple skull and facial fractures" and "brain injury." At the pastor's request his second wife's body was cremated before it could be autopsied.

     To the officer investigating the supposed traffic accident, the pastor said he had been driving his wife to the hospital after she complained of a pain in her jaw. While traveling between 45 and 55 MPH he lost control of the car after oversteering to avoid a deer. The vehicle swerved back and forth across the road before slamming into the guardrail. Although Betty Schirmer's head injuries seemed out of proportion to the damage to the car, the authorities did not investigate the 56-year-old woman's death as a possible homicide. The fact the dead woman's husband was a Methodist minister probably had a lot to do with that decision. Had the authorities known about the circumstances surrounding the death of the pastor's first wife Jewel, they might have looked closer into Betty Schirmer's suspicious demise.

     On October 29, 2008, violent death raised its ugly head again in Pastor Schirmer's life. On that day, Joseph Musante, the husband of the pastor's personal assistant, was found dead in the church office behind the pastor's desk. Mr. Musante had been shot in the head in an apparent suicide. Investigators looking into the case were curious to know why this active member of the Reeders UMC congregation had taken his own life in the pastor's office. In pursuing that lead, investigators learned that Pastor Schirmer was having an affair with the dead man's wife, Cynthia.

     A.B. Schirmer's proximity to the untimely, violent deaths of two wives and the husband of his personal assistant and lover, kickstarted a criminal investigation of his second wife Betty's July 2008 death. The fact the pastor was having an affair at the time of the so-called fatal traffic accident on State Route 715 added what had been missing until now: a motive for murder. Pursuant to the homicide investigation, the police conducted a search of Schirmer's church living quarters and found incriminating evidence: massive blood stains from Betty Schirmer, stains someone had tried to clean-up.

     The discovery of blood stains in the Reeders Church parsonage provided homicide investigators with a plausible narrative of Betty Jean's death: the pastor had bludgeoned her in the parsonage, put her bleeding body into the PT Cruiser, staged the traffic accident on the remote highway, then sat in the car with his unconscious wife waiting for her to die. Before she passed away, passing motorists came along, and one of them called 911. The next day she died, and shortly after that she was cremated without an autopsy. With the death of the pastor's personal assistant's husband three months later, the path had been cleared for the pastor's third marriage to Cynthia.

     After A.B. Schirmer became a prime suspect in this second wife's death, the pastor left the ministry. He joined a three-person evangelical singing group called "Beroean." 

     To bolster their case that this man of God had murdered his second wife, the police consulted an expert in traffic accident investigation. According to this expert, the damage to Schirmer's PT Cruiser suggested that when he hit the guardrail he was only traveling 25 MPH, a speed that would not have resulted in Betty Schirmer's severe head trauma and brain damage.

     In July 2010, the county coroner, a forensic pathologist named Dr. Samuel Land, ruled Betty Schirmer's manner of death a homicide. This opened the door to a criminal prosecution.

     Former pastor A. B. Schirmer, on September 13, 2010, in Tannersville, Pennsylvania, was taken into custody by the Pennsylvania State Police. He was charged with the murder of his second wife Betty. He also faced the charge of evidence tampering. At the time of his arrest, the gospel singer was engaged to be married for the third time. The ex-pastor awaited his upcoming murder trial in the Monroe County Correctional Facility where he was incarcerated without bail.

     On September 17, 2010, the Monroe County prosecutor convened a grand jury to look into the death of Jewel Schirmer. Dr. Wayne Ross, the forensic pathologist for Lancaster County, had studied photographs and other material pertaining to the 1999 death in the Lebanon UMC parsonage. Dr. Ross informed the grand jurors that the skull fracture Jewel had supposedly incurred from a fall down the basement steps would have required at least 750 pounds of pressure, a force way out of proportion to an accidental spill of this nature. Moreover, the forensic pathologist testified that the cuts to the victim's face were "highly suspicious and could have been caused by an object striking her head. There were 14 separate impact injuries to her head and face," Dr. Ross said, "as well as numerous abrasions and contusions throughout her upper body and arms." According to Dr. Ross, one of the bruises was in the shape of a handprint.

     Based on Dr. Ross' testimony and other evidence presented at the Monroe County Grand Jury session, Dauphin County Chief Deputy Coroner Lisa Potteiger changed Jewel Schirmer's manner of death from "undetermined" to "homicide." The Monroe County District Attorney charged the paster with first-degree murder.

     In March 2013, after a jury found Schirmer guilty of murdering Jewel Schirmer, a Monroe County judge sentenced the former minister and possible serial killer to life in prison.

     In September 2014, a jury found the former pastor guilty of murdering his wife Betty Jean in 2008. A Lebanon County judge sentenced Schirmer to an additional 40 years in prison. 

Friday, October 28, 2022

The Julia Merfeld Murder-For-Hire Case

     Early in 2013, 27-year-old Jacob Merfeld and his wife Julia moved from Keyport, a small Monmouth County town in eastern New Jersey, to Muskegon, Michigan. While they settled into their Muskegon apartment, the couple's two children, a 4-year-old daughter and a boy who was two, were cared for by Jacob's parents in neighboring Wisconsin.

     There was nothing about Jacob Merfeld, a member of the U. S. Coast Guard, or his 21-year-old wife that seemed out of the ordinary. To the outside world they appeared to be a typical middle-class couple doing their best to raise their children and succeed in life.

     In late March 2013, Julia told co-worker Carlos Ramos that she wanted out of her marriage. She said that although her husband was a nice guy who treated her well, she had found someone else, a person she wanted to live with. While Ramos found this revelation mildly provocative, what she said next shocked him.

     Julia, over a period of several days, talked about how her husband's death would be so much better for her than a divorce and all that went with such a prolonged, complicated process. For one thing, a divorce would be embarrassing, and it would break Jacob's heart. So this was her plan: She would pay Carlos Ramos $50,000 out of her husband's $400,000 life insurance policy if he murdered him. The money would be paid to the hit man in $10,000 installments.

     When this ordinary, unexceptional young wife and mother offered Carlos Ramos $50,000 to commit cold-blooded murder, he didn't take her seriously enough to notify the authorities. He figured she was either joking or just blowing off steam. The cool, unemotional way Julia discussed having her husband dispatched by a contract killer made the whole proposition, while shocking, seem unreal.

     Carlos Ramos started to change his mind about Julia Merfeld as she continued to talk about her murder-for-hire fantasy and his role in it as her hit man. He eventually decided that she meant business, and that his best course of action involved notifying the Muskegon County Sheriff's Office about her deadly plan. He certainly had no intention of becoming a hired killer. The fact she even considered him a candidate for such an assignment boggled his mind and convinced him there was something profoundly wrong with this woman. She spoke of murdering another human being the way one would speak of squashing a cockroach.

     On April 9 and 10, 2013, an undercover officer with the Muskegon County Sheriff's Office who posed as a hit man, met with Julia Merfeld in the officer's car in a Fruitport Township parking lot. With the hidden camera running, the murder-for-hire mastermind explained her reasons for such a drastic solution to a common problem: "It's not that we weren't getting along," she said. "But as terrible as it sounds, it was easier than divorcing him. You know, I don't have to worry about the judgment of my family. I don't have to worry about breaking his heart." 

     Julia Merfeld instructed the phony hit man that she didn't want him to kill Jacob as part as a staged burglary that turned violent. Her reason for not wanting him to do that was self-serving: she didn't want to scare off the person she hoped would move into the apartment with her after Jacob's death. Besides, an indoor killing would be, in her words, "messy."

     Julia said she wanted the hit man to do his job in such a way that wouldn't cause Jacob a lot of pain. She recommended the breaking of his neck. (This woman had obviously seen movies featuring trained killers adept at fatally snapping necks. In real life, breaking a person's neck is not an efficient or easy way to commit murder.) The undercover cop remarked that he usually killed people with guns and knives. Throughout the murder-for-hire conversation, the officer repeatedly told Julia that he was going to put two bullets in Jacob's "noggin." To that she repeatedly responded, "Okay."

      The murder-for-hire mastermind informed the undercover officer that she did not want to know in advance when he planned to commit the murder. "It would be better if you surprised me," she said. "The more shocked I am when it happens, the better. I just want to make it as non-suspicious as possible."

     At one point during her two meetings with the sheriff's deputy, Julia asked, "What happens if you are caught?" The officer assured Julia that as long as he or an associate kept receiving the hit money installments, her name would be kept out of the investigation. (It's hard to image anyone stupid enough to believe that a captured hit man would not immediately roll over on the mastermind.)

     Toward the end of their second meeting on April 10, 2013, Julia Merfeld handed the undercover officer $100 in upfront money to show that she was serious about having her husband murdered. She also gave the officer a floor-plan to the apartment, a photograph of  her husband and written directions to the apartment complex where she hoped the hit man would kill Jacob as he walked out of the building. At this point, the man Julia thought was a contract killer displayed his badge and placed her under arrest.

     A Muskegon County prosecutor charged Julia Charlene Merfeld with solicitation to commit murder. The local magistrate denied her bail.

     On June 27, 2013, faced with the certainty of a conviction based on the videotapes of her conversations with the undercover officer, Merfeld pleaded guilty to the solicitation charge. Three days later, as she stood before the sentencing judge, the defendant said, "I do not believe I'm above punishment. I know what I did was wrong and I take full responsibility. My tears are for remorse, not pity."

     Julia's husband, the man she tried to have murdered, also spoke at the sentencing hearing. Jacob Merfeld told Judge William C. Marietti that he had forgiven his wife because she was a "godly woman who did an ungodly thing." Jacob asked the judge not to send his wife to prison.

     Judge Marietti sentenced the murder-for-hire mastermind to six to twenty years behind bars, a light sentence given the circumstances of this case.

Thursday, October 27, 2022

Freddie Lee Hall: Should Murderers With Low IQs Be Spared The Death Penalty?

     Throw a ball in any maximum security prison and it will bounce off a lot of stupid men. If these vicious rapists, thugs and murderers were smart, most of them wouldn't be behind bars. Moreover, it's not stupidity that makes a person violent. Most stupid people obey the law and wouldn't hurt a fly. So, just because a cold-blooded, sadistic killer has a low IQ is no reason to cut him a break when it comes time for the death penalty. Take Freddie Lee Hall.

     In February 1978, 33-year-old Freddie Lee Hall was out on parole in connection with a recent conviction for assault with intent to rape. Given his long history of violent crime, it was hard to believe he wasn't in prison. Hall and one of his criminal associates, on February 21, 1978, were in Leesburg, Florida looking for a car to steal for use in an armed robbery.

     That afternoon Hall and his accomplice spotted 21-year-old Karol Hurst coming out of the Pantry Pride Grocery Store. She was seven months pregnant. As Hurst walked toward her car the men accosted her and forced the terrified victim into Hall's vehicle.

     Hall drove off with the abducted woman in his car. The accomplice followed in the victim's vehicle. Hall drove Hurst to a wooded area where the two thugs raped and beat the victim savagely before, execution style, they shot her to death. To hide the body Freddie Hall dragged the pregnant corpse deeper into the woods.

     That night, in the murdered woman's car, Hall and his friend drove to the convenience store in Hernando County they planned to hold up. As they sat in the parking lot waiting for the right moment to strike, a suspicious clerk inside the store called the sheriff's station. The sheriff's office happened to be across the street from where Hall and his accomplice were casing out the robbery.

     Deputy Lonnie Coburn pulled into the parking lot and confronted the suspicious men. After getting the drop on the deputy, Hall shot the officer to death with the deputy's service revolver.

     A jury found Freddie Lee Hall guilty of two counts of first-degree murder on June 23, 1978. Jurors, by an eight to four vote, recommended the death penalty. The judge, four days later, sentenced Hall to death row.

     At Hall's sentencing hearing his lawyers argued that their client was too stupid to execute. Hall had been classified by public school officials in the 1960s as "mentally retarded." Ten years before his death sentence Freddie Hall had scored as low as 60 and as high as 80 on IQ tests. According to the American Psychiatric Association's Manual of Mental Disorders, an IQ of 70, plus or minus five points, represents the upper range of intellectual disability.

     Over the years Hall's anti-capital punishment attorneys arranged to have him examined by a battery of psychiatrists and other medical practitioners who declared the death row inmate mentally disabled.

     In 2002, the United States Supreme Court barred states from executing "mentally disabled" prisoners. The high court left the determination of who is so afflicted to the states. In Florida, as measured by an IQ test, the threshold for concluding that an inmate is mentally disabled is a score below 70. 

     On March 3, 2014, appellate attorneys appeared before the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of Freddie Lee Hall. The death house lawyers, in challenging Florida's mental threshold for execution, argued that IQ tests alone were insufficient in establishing mental disability.

     Justice Antonin Scalia pointed out the brutality of Hall's crime and noted that it had taken several steps for Hall to abduct then kill the pregnant woman. The killing of the police officer was certainly premeditated. Didn't the crime itself reflect sufficient mental capacity?

     On May 27, 2014, in a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that defendants whose IQ scores are near 70 should not be executed. Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy noted that states should not "view a single factor as dispositive in determining intellectual disability." As a result of this high court decision, Freddie Lee Hall avoided execution. 
 
     If a criminal is smart enough to read, get a driver's license, plan a robbery and make an effort not to get caught, he should be smart enough to execute. People who are murdered by stupid people are just as dead as those who are murdered with people with IQs higher than Freddie Lee Hall's. 

Wednesday, October 26, 2022

The Gary Melius Attempted Murder Case

     Born in 1945 in the Jackson Heights section of Queens, New York, Gary Melius began his career as a plumber, became a builder and eventually made his fortune in real estate. In 1984 he bought a decaying 1919 French-style chateau on Long Island's Gold Coast. The Huntington, Long Island property called Oheka Castle was featured in the classic film "Citizen Kane." Melius turned the 109,000-square foot chateau into a luxury hotel, catering facility and wedding venue. He also resided there.

     A close associate of former U.S. Senator Alphonse D'Amato and contributor of hundreds of thousands of dollars to republican and democrat politicians, Melius was a force in Long Island politics. In 2010 the Oheka Castle hosted the wedding of the disgraced ex-congressman Anthony Weiner and his wife Huma Abedin, a top Hillary Clinton aide.

     Like most rich and powerful men in politics, Gary Melius cultivated enemies. In February 2014 he conferred with law enforcement officials regarding evidence he acquired involving political bribery and witness tampering. Melius claimed to have proof of corruption that would send several high ranking government officials to prison.

     In 2013 Gary Melius was at the heart of a political scandal that led to the resignation of Nassau County Police Commissioner Thomas Dale.

     Mr. Melius had also made enemies in the business world. He was caught up in a legal battle over control of a company called Interceptor that manufactured ignition locks designed to curb drunken driving. On February 21, 2014, at a company shareholder's meeting, Melius announced that he planned to name a new board of directors.

     Melius accused the company's founder John Ruocco of mismanagement and financial improprieties. Ruocco responded by calling Melius a "political fixer." In December 2013 a judge, siding with Melius stripped Ruocco of much of his ownership of the company.

     At half past noon on Monday, February 24, 2014, just after Mr. Melius sat down behind the wheel of his Mercedes in the valet parking lot at Oheka Castle, a masked gunman approached the front driver's side window of the vehicle. The assailant fired a shot that hit Melius in the forehead. As the gunman fled the scene in a get-away car the wounded 69-year-old climbed out of the Mercedes and stumbled  back into his house.

     The injured man's daughter drove her father to Syosset Hospital. From Syosset he was transferred to the North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System in Manhasset. It was there he underwent emergency surgery. Mr. Melius survived the shooting.

     In speaking to reporters shortly after the assault, Deputy Inspector Matthew C. Lewis, the Commander of the Suffolk County Police Department's Major Crimes Bureau, said, "This looks to be a targeted crime." In other words, Mr. Melius may have been the victim of an attempted assassination, and perhaps the target in a murder-for-hire plot.

     In August 2014, Mr. Melius told a reporter that the police had investigated his adopted son as a possible suspect in the shooting. Thirty-four-year-old Thomas Melius, just days before his father was shot, got out of prison after several months of incarceration related to a drug case. The father pointed out the lack of physical evidence connecting his son to the assault. Mr. Melius said he believed that one of his political enemies was behind the shooting.

     In February 2015, on the one year anniversary of the case, the Suffolk County Police Department raised its reward for tips leading to the arrest of the assailant to $100,000.

     On the second anniversary of the unsolved attempted murder, February 24, 2016, the Suffolk County Police released portions of a surveillance video the day Mr. Melius was shot. The video depicts the victim walking to his car in the parking lot of the castle when the gunman exits his vehicle and fires through his target's driver's side window. The Suffolk Police also announced that the FBI had entered the case.

     Regarding the release of the surveillance video, Mr. Melius told reporters that it was about time, and that he hoped the publicity would cause someone to come forward with the shooter's identity.

     As of this writing, the Gary Melius attempted murder/assault case remains unsolved.

Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Michael A. Dotro: A Rogue Cop in a Dysfunctional Police Department

     Michael A. Dotro, a nine year veteran of the Edison, New Jersey Police Department, worked in the internal affairs unit. Since the 36-year-old officer had a history of misconduct complaints, including charges of excessive force, he didn't seem to be the right person for the job. But nothing within the Edison Police Department was right.

     For years, officers on this police force had been engaged in a civil war. Cops were suing each other, and there were accusations that detectives in the internal affairs unit were gathering information on local politicians and others and ignoring citizen complaints of police brutality.

     In 2005, a member of the Asian-Indian community who had been arrested by officer Dotro accused him of police brutality. Amid citizen protests, and a lot of bad publicity, Dotro was administratively cleared of any wrongdoing.

     Three years after the excessive force complaint, Dotro got into a fistfight with his 68-year-old neighbor, Dennis Sassa. Mr. Sassa claimed that the then 31-year-old officer had punched him in the face six times. The dispute revolved around a shed that sat on Dotro's property. Both men filed assault charges, and both were acquitted in municipal court. (Shortly before the fight, someone had torched a shed on Mr. Sassa's property. Flames from the structure had spread to a camper and to Sassa's house.)

     Edison Police Captain Mark Anderko considered Michael Dotro unfit to be an officer of the law. Captain Anderko and officer Dotro were on opposing sides in the departmental civil war. With 24 years on the force, Captain Anderko served as the top aide to Chief Thomas Bryan. Anderko resided in a two-story colonial home in Middlesex County's Monroe Township with his wife, their two children and his 92-year-old mother.

     At four in the morning of Monday, May 20, 2013, someone firebombed Captain Anderko's home. The family dog alerted Anderko's wife who woke up the other four occupants of the dwelling. No one was injured, but the fire destroyed the front section of the house where the children had been sleeping.

     On Thursday afternoon, May 23, 2013, officers with the Edison Police Department arrested Michael Dotro and searched his Manalapan, New Jersey house. Charged with five counts of attempted murder and aggravated arson, a Superior Court judge set the officer's bond at $5 million. He was incarcerated in the Middlesex County Jail. Following the arrest, Chief Byran placed officer Dotro on paid administrative leave. (The accused cop received an annual salary of $118,000.)
     In September 2017, after numerous court delays, Michael A. Dotro pleaded guilty to aggravated arson. The judge sentenced him to 20 years in prison.

Monday, October 24, 2022

The Pastor Elder Ulysses Woodard Attempted Murder-Suicide Case

     In 2016, Pastor Elder Ulysses Woodard and his wife Alisha started the True Word of Deliverance Church of God in Prichard, Alabama. In early February 2020, the couple, experiencing serious marital problems, separated. The estrangement from his wife caused Pastor Woodard, a man who had for years suffered from mental illness, considerable distress. The 44-year-old told friends that he was lost without his wife.

     On the night of February 21, 2020, Alisha Woodard was the featured speaker at the Women of God Through Promise Conference at the True Cornerstone Church in Mobile, Alabama. The event was hosted by Pastor Derek Scott Gandy. 

     Shortly after eleven o'clock that night, at the conclusion of Alisha Woodard's sermon, her estranged husband showed up at the True Cornerstone Church and approached Pastor Gandy. "Pastor," he asked, "can I talk to my wife please?"

     Soon after the Woodards met in the parking lot outside the church they began arguing. With church parishioners looking on, Elder Woodard grabbed his wife's arm and pulled her screaming to his car. From the vehicle, Pastor Woodward retrieved a handgun and shot his wife in the chest. After wounding his wife, Woodard climbed into his vehicle and drove off, leaving her bleeding on the church parking lot. 

     Police officers arrived at the scene at 11:23 as paramedics attended Alisha Woodard. The medical responders rushed the wounded woman to a nearby hospital where she would be treated for a non-life threatening wound.

     Around midnight, police officers spotted Pastor Woodard in his car. The vehicle pursuit that followed led back to the True Cornerstone Church's parking lot. When officers approached the pastor's car he put the handgun to his head and pulled the trigger. Upon killing himself his car lurched forward and crashed into the church.

     A few days after the attempted murder-suicide, Pastor Woodard's sister told a reporter that her brother suffered from mental illness and reached out to his Christian friends for help. According to her, the church, having failed to help her brother, was responsible for his death. He was, she said, a "true mighty man of god."

Sunday, October 23, 2022

An Amish Nightmare: The Shaken Baby Misdiagnosis

     On December 23, 1999, Liz Glick, the 4-month-old daughter of Samuel and Liz Glick, Amish dairy farmers in Dornsife, Pennsylvania, died in the hospital two days after her parents had found her unconscious in her crib. The baby had been ill with a fever and had been vomiting. At the Geisinger Medical Center in Danville, pediatricians experienced in treating Amish babies determined that the infant had died of vitamin K deficiency, a genetic and sometimes dietary condition associated with babies born at home and breastfed who have not been given the vitamin through precautionary shots or formula. The symptoms of vitamin K deficiency include bleeding in the brain and eyes as well as the presence of bruises caused by normal handling and movement.

     Dr. Michael Kenny, a pathologist at Geisinger, performed the autopsy and, as Kate Rush would later report in "Genomics in Amish Country," concluded that the baby had died of a "closed-head injury" (as opposed to a "penetrating head injury" caused by a bullet, stabbing instrument, or a blunt object.) Since Dr. Kenny was not the medical examiner, and it was not his job to make an official manner of death ruling, that decision fell to the county coroner, an elected official without a medical degree. Instead of conferring with pediatricians familiar with Amish patients, the coroner took the unusual step of convening an inquest, a jury-empannelled hearing to determine if the death was suspicious enough to warrant a full-scale criminal investigation. (The coroner's inquest, as a first step in the criminal justice process, while still available in most states, is an antiquated way of determining manner of death.)

     Dr. Kenny's "closed-head injury" finding, combined with the bruises and the brain and eye bleeding, led the coroner's jury to rule that Liz Glick may have been the victim of a shaken baby syndrome (SBS) homicide.

     The Glick case became national news when a child protection agency speculated that the other seven Glick children, in the wake of the coroner's jury decision, were in danger. For their own protection the children were placed in foster homes until the Pennsylvania State Police, and perhaps a jury at a murder trial determined if the parents had committed criminal homicide. The Glick children were split up and sent to non-Amish (English) foster parents, an action that stunned and terrified the residents of this traditional central Pennsylvania community.

     The plight of the Glick family caught the attention of Dr. Holmes Morton, a Harvard trained pediatrician who in the 1980's had treated Amish patients at Children's Hospital in Philadelphia. Dr. Morton had moved to Strasburg, Pennsylvania, where in 1989, he had founded a nonprofit clinic in the heart of Amish country called the Clinic for Special Children, specializing in the treatment and study of illnesses and disorders affecting the Amish. Supported by donations and fund-raising events, the clinic incorporated a state-of-the-art laboratory for the diagnosis and study of biochemical genetic disorders. Dr. Morton should have been one of the first experts consulted by the authorities in the Glick case. He was well-known, had expertise pertinent to the case and was local. No one, however, sought his opinion on the cause of the Glick baby's death.

     Without being asked, Dr. Morton conducted his own inquiry into the Glick baby's medical history. A few days later, he announced that the infant had been born with a genetic liver condition that rendered her body incapable of breaking down vitamin K. The symptoms of vitamin K deficiency--the bleeding in the brain and eyes, and the severe bruising--could easily be mistaken for signs of SBS. In Dr. Morton's opinion, the Glick child had not been killed by shaking. There had been a terrible mistake; this baby's death had been of a natural cause.

     But criminal investigations are like freight trains--once they get rolling they are hard to stop. Even though Dr. Morton had thrown his body across the tracks, the train kept coming. Weeks passed. Finally, in February 2000, the case went before a state medical advisory board of physicians. The doctors heard testimony from several pediatricians who agreed with Dr. Morton's diagnosis. The panel of physicians voted to recommend that the manner of death in the Glick case be changed to natural.

     The local coroner, in light of the physicians' recommendation, changed his cause of death ruling, and shortly thereafter, the child protection agency gave the Glick children back to their parents. A month later, the district attorney announced that Samuel and Liz Glick were no longer the targets of a homicide investigation. One can only guess how far down the criminal justice track the prosecution train would have rolled had it not been for Dr. Morton's intervention. One or both of these parents could have been sent to prison. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2022

The Steven Capobianco Murder Case

     On Sunday night, February 9, 2014, 27-year-old Carly Scott, a resident of Makawao, a town on the Hawaiian island of Maui, received a call from Steven Capobianco. Carly Scott's 24-year-old ex-boyfriend and father of her unborn child said his truck was stuck in a ditch off the Hana Highway near mile marker 30 in the Keanae area.

     Carly left her house that night with her pit bull mix Nala in her 1997 Silver Toyota 4Runner. On Monday morning, when Carly Scott didn't show up for work, her mother reported her missing to the Maui police. That day, friends and family of the missing 5-foot-10, 160 pound woman with shoulder-length red hair, drove up and down the Hana Highway looking for her. They were concerned she might have driven off a cliff.

     That morning, February 10, 2014, one of Carly's sisters, Kimberly Scott, spoke to Steven Capobianco who said that after Carly had pulled him out of the ditch, the two of them proceeded on the highway with her following behind his truck. At some point he didn't see her headlights anymore.

     At six in the evening of Wednesday, February 12, 2014, Carly's friends came across the missing woman's SUV in Haiku, Maui. The vehicle, completely gutted by fire, had been rolled over onto its side. The burned-out Toyota was lying in a pineapple field off Peahi Road that led to a popular surfing spot known as "Jaws." Carly Scott was not in the vehicle. (Her dog Nala had turned up two days earlier in Nahiku.)

     The day after her friends found Carly's torched 4Runner in the pineapple field, Mileka Lincoln, a reporter with Hawaii News, interviewed Steven Capobianco. The ex-boyfriend confirmed that on Sunday, the night Carly went missing, she helped him get his truck out of the ditch. Later, the two of them headed toward Haiku 25 miles up the road. She followed behind, and when he reached Twin Falls, he looked in his rearview mirror and didn't see her headlights. Capobianco drove home and assumed that Carly had made it back safety to her house.

     "I sent her a text that said, 'Thank you,' but I figured she was working. That's why she didn't get back to me right away." [Apparently Carly had a late night job.]

     According to Steven Capobianco, "It wasn't until the cops showed up at my house at 5:30 in the morning the next day [Monday February 10] that I realized something was wrong." Capobianco told the reporter that Maui police questioned him at the police station where he took a polygraph exam. When he asked how he had done on the lie test, a detective informed him that according to the instrument, he had not told the truth.

     To the reporter, Capobianco insisted that he "absolutely" had not hurt his ex-girlfriend. "I mean," he said, "it's understandable that I'm probably the prime suspect, so they're [the police] not going to tell me details (of the case)." 

     The missing woman's ex-boyfriend said they broke up several years ago but had remained friends. He said that they "occasionally hooked-up."

     "Were you excited about being a dad?" asked the reporter.

     "Sort of. It was unexpected. She didn't tell me right away, but it was growing on me." At one point, Capobianco indicated that he didn't know for sure if he was the father of Carley Scott's unborn child.

     On Thursday night, February 13, 2014, 16-year-old Phaedra Wais, the missing woman's half-sister, found a skirt, shirt and bloodstained bra in a remote area off the Hana Highway. When Wais reported the find to the police, an officer told her not to disturb the evidence and wait for a detective. The girl ignored this advice and drove the garments to the police station in Kahuiui. Later, police officers found a jawbone, fingertips and hair follicles near this site.

     In an unrelated matter, Maui police, in April 2014, arrested Steven Capobianco on the charge of first-degree burglary. The judge set his bail at $10,000. Capobianco stood accused of breaking into a Haiku woman's apartment in September 2013 and stealing two computers and her jewelry. Police recovered the stolen property in a search of the suspect's house.

     The garments found by Phaedra Wais belonged to her missing half-sister. A forensic scientist ended hope that Scott was alive by identifying the jawbone, fingertips and hair as being hers. This meant the missing person case had turned into a homicide investigation.

     On July 18, 2014, a grand jury sitting in Maui indicted Steven Capobianco of murder and arson. According to the language of the true bill, the suspect had "intentionally or knowingly caused Carly Scott's death in an especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel manner that manifested exceptional depravity."

      Steven Capobianco pleaded not guilty to the murder and arson charges.

     On December 28, 2016, a jury in Maui, in the entirely circumstantial case, found Steven Capobianco guilty of second-degree murder and arson. 
     On March 24, 2017, the judge sentenced Steven Capobianco to 40 years for second-degree murder and 10 years for arson. The sentences were to run consecutively that meant the 27-year-old could serve up to 50 years in prison.

Tuesday, October 18, 2022

Deputy Shaquille O'Neal And The Botched SWAT Raid

     In 2006, Michael Harmony, a lieutenant with the Bedford County Sheriff's office, commanded the battle against child pornography in south central Virginia. Lieutenant Harmony headed a high-profile regional task force called Blue Ridge Thunder. Shaquille O'Neal, the 7 foot 1, 325-pound center for the Miami Heat professional basketball team, an off-season reserve deputy with the Bedford County Sheriff's Office, was a member of the regional task force. The sheriff had enlisted the famous basketball player, also a gun-carrying reserve officer in Miami Beach, as the public face of the area's anti-child pornography campaign. O'Neal had accompanied the Blue Ridge Thunder team on several military-style child pornography raids.

     In September 2006, a cyberspace undercover investigator assigned to the task force downloaded child pornography via an Internet Provider (IP) address. Based on this information, a local magistrate subpoenaed Fairpoint Communications, the source IP, requiring the company to identify the person or persons at this IP site. The IP complied, providing the authorities with the name of A. J. Nuckols, a resident of Gretna, Virginia. The police didn't know it, but someone at Fairpoint Communications had misread the subpoena. Therefore the identification of the Nuckols family in connection with the IP address was a mistake. Without further investigation into the identify of Mr. Nuckols and his family, the police used this faulty information to acquire a warrant to search his house.

     Mr. Nuckols, a 45-year-old tobacco and cattle farmer, lived with his wife, Lisa, an elementary school teacher, on a farm near Gretna. Two of their children, ages 12 and 16, lived at home. Their 21-year-old daughter attended a nearby college. The family kept their one computer, mostly used by the children for homework, in their living room. The parents didn't know their own email address, and rarely shopped online or downloaded information from the Internet. There was nothing in their histories, lifestyle or associations that suggested any connection to child pornography.

     Saturday morning at 10:30 A.M., September 23, 2006, two officers from the Blue Thunder Task Force knocked on the Nuckol's front door. Invited into the house by Lisa, they informed her of the warrant allowing them to search the dwelling for child pornography. "I was in shock," Lisa later told a newspaper reporter. "At first it was not just disbelief. I told them, 'We don't live that way.' "

     As the police officers spoke to Lisa Nuckols, a fleet of police cars from Bedford and Pittsylvania Counties rolled up to the house. Suddenly ten officers, dressed in black and camouflage and wearing flak jackets were moving about the yard carrying semiautomatic weapons. Mr. Nuckols, working near the barn, looked across the field and saw all the police vehicles. Fearing that something awful had happened to his wife, or one of his children, he jumped into his truck and sped to the house.

     "What's going on?" Mr. Nuckols asked as he climbed out of the pickup. Instead of getting an answer, one of the officers dropped into a shooting position, aimed his pistol at the farmer, and said, "Turn around and put your hands on the truck." Another member of the team handcuffed Mr. Nuckols behind his back. As they led him toward the house, Lieutenant Michael Harmony reportedly said, "Had a rough day? It's about to get a whole lot worse."

     Lieutenant Harmony informed Mr. Nuckols that he or someone in his family was suspected of having downloaded child pornography from 150 web sites. The police were there to search the house for evidence of this crime. Later, in a letter to the editor of the local newspaper, Mr. Nuckols expressed how he felt at that moment: "When it finally became clear what they were there for, I was just flat-out mad. They came and assaulted my family for something we had nothing to do with."

     The Nuckols children came home at 2 P.M. from a high school cross-country meet. The police, still in the house, asked them if they had downloaded child pornography. The children were as stunned by the accusation as their parents. Ninety minutes later, the officers departed, taking with them the family computer, DVDs, videotapes, and other personal belongings. Before he left, Lieutenant Harmony told Mr. Nuckols that the child pornography investigation would take between six and nine months to wrap up, noting that the state crime lab was backed up.

     At one point durng the siege, Mr. Nuckols recognized the famous basketball player. "You're Shaquille O'Neal," he said. The big man, dresssed like the others, and armed, replied that his name was Tony. Nine days later, when the Nuckols family learned that the search and seizure had been based on an erroneous IP address identification, O'Neal denied involvement in the raid. However, after the Bedford County Sheriff's Office confirmed his participation, he admitted his role.

     After the raid, before they were aware of the mistake, Lisa Nuckols told neighbors and friends what happened. Worried that she might lose her job, she advised the principal and the school superintendent as well. In his letter to the newspaper editor, Mr. Nuckols wrote: "When you come into someone's home, that's an intrusion. I feel the same about the raid as I would about any assault on our home and family. A robber would be wrong, and these officers were wrong. No matter what the spin the police put on it, the public will always believe it's wrong. People can't believe this happens in this country."

     In response to the criticism following the revelation that the Blue Ridge Thunder team had raided the wrong house, Lieutenant Harmony blamed the Fairpoint Company. According to him, the IP had made the mistake, not the police. Lieutenant Mike Taylor with the Pittsylvania County Sheriff's Office, though not a participant in the raid, apologized to the Nuckols family.

     Shaquille O'Neal, however, took another approach by accusing Mr. Nuckols of exaggerating his account of the raid to make the police look bad. When members of the media questioned him about his role in the operation, the basketball player reportedly said, "We did everything right, went to the judge, got a warrant. You know, they [the Nuckols] made it seem like we beat them up, and that never happened. We went in, talked to them, took some stuff, returned it--bada bam, bada bing."

Monday, October 17, 2022

What Happened To Teleka Patrick?

     Raised in New York City, Teleka Patrick graduated from the Bronx High School of Science before earning her Bachelor of Science Degree at Oakwood University in Huntsville, Alabama. Three months after graduating from medical school at Loma Linda University in southern California, Teleka, in June 2013, began her four-year residency at Western Michigan University. She moved into the Gull Run apartment complex in Kalamazoo.

     At seven o'clock in the evening of December 5, 2013, Teleka Patrick was caught on a parking lot surveillance camera at the Borgess Medical Center where she worked. She had just finished her shift. From the hospital, a male co-worker gave her a lift to the Radisson Hotel in downtown Kalamazoo. A hotel surveillance camera recorded Patrick entering the lobby dressed in a black hoodie and dark slacks.

     According to a Radisson employee, the woman in the hoodie tried to rent a room using cash. Because she did not show any identification, the person on the front desk refused to register her.

     At eight o'clock, Teleka Patrick got a ride back to her car at the Borgess Medical Center in a hotel shuttle van. The shuttle driver later described her behavior as nervous. He said she ducked between cars to avoid being spotted. From the medical center parking lot that night, Taleka Patrick went missing.

     Two hours after Patrick returned to the medical center, an Indiana State Trooper 100 miles from Kalamazoo came across, off Interstate 94 in Portage, an abandoned light-gold 1997 Lexus ES 300. The vehicle, registered to the missing woman, had a flat tire.

     Inside the Lexus, officers found a wallet containing Teleka Patrick's driver's license and credit cards. The car also contained pieces of the missing woman's clothing and a small amount of cash. The car keys were gone along with Teleka's cellphone.

     A bloodhound later traced Patrick's steps from the abandoned vehicle to the freeway where her trail went cold. A search of the area surrounding the car failed to produce any clues to her whereabouts.

     According to Carl Clatterbuck, a Kalamazoo private investigator hired to find Patrick, the missing woman's ex-husband and a former on-again off-again boyfriend, were not suspects in her disappearance.

     In late December 2013, several YouTube videos made by Patrick surfaced. Unfortunately, they raised more questions than answers. One of the videos, produced in early November 2013, featured a table in her apartment containing an elaborate breakfast spread. The narrator, identified as Patrick, says, "I just wanted to show you what I made. If you were here this would be on your plate." In another video, she addressed an unknown person as "baby," and "love."

     On January 1, 2014, Ismael Calderon, married to the missing woman from 2000 to 2011, told a Grand Rapids, Michigan television reporter that his ex-wife suffered from a serious mental problem. The illness led her to believe she was being followed. "This is a tragedy," he said. "I don't think she's hiding somewhere. I think she's being held against her will or the worst. I think that Teleka had this fear of first, being branded with a mental illness. Second, the practical fear of losing her career."

     The next day, a 46-year-old Grammy-nominated gospel singer and Grand Rapids, Michigan pastor named Marvin Sapp said he had filed a protection order against Teleka Patrick three months before she disappeared. According to Reverend Sapp, she had sent him 400 love letters, joined his congregation and contacted his children.

     On April 6, 2014, a man fishing on Lake Charles in the northern part of Indiana saw something floating in the water. It turned out to be a body, and the corpse was Teleka Patrick. The lake had been frozen over during the winter. According to a family member, Patrick had been on her way to Chicago to visit a relative.

     Three days after the discovery of Patrick's body, the Porter County, Indiana Coroner's Office announced that Teleka Patrick had died from asphyxiation from drowning. In Michigan, according to Kalamazoo County Sheriff Richard Fuller, Patrick's drowning had been accidental. As a result, the criminal investigation of this unexplained death was closed.

Friday, October 14, 2022

The Justin Schneider Sexual Assault Case

     In 2017, 34-year-old Justin Schneider, a husband and father, worked as an Air Traffic Controller at the Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage, Alaska. In August 2017, at an Anchorage service station, he asked a 25-year-old woman he didn't know if he could give her a lift. She said yes and climbed into his vehicle.

     Instead of driving the woman to her destination, Schneider took her to a remote area where he grabbed her, put his hands around her throat, and threatened to kill her if she screamed. The victim passed out and when she awoke, Justin Schneider zipped up his trousers after he had masturbated on her. He gave her tissue to clean off the semen. He told her that he hadn't really intended to kill her, that it was just a threat to keep her quiet. She grabbed her belongings and alighted from the vehicle. As he drove off she had the presence of mind to note his license plate number.

     From the side of the road the victim used her cell phone to call 911 in which she provided the attacker's license plate registration. After being examined at a local hospital, the victim picked Justin Schneider out of a police lineup.

     Following his arrest, a grand jury sitting in Anchorage indicted Mr. Schneider on counts of kidnapping and felony assault, crimes that together carried a prison sentence of up to 99 years. Shortly thereafter, the prosecutor in charge of the case dropped the kidnapping charges because the woman had gotten into Schneider's vehicle willingly. (In Pennsylvania and most other states, simply restraining a person in a vehicle against their will constitutes kidnapping.)

     Following the indictment, Justin Schneider lost his air traffic control job.

     On September 22, 2018, Assistant District Attorney Andrew Grannik allowed Schneider to plead guilty to one count of second-degree felony assault. Judge Michael Corey sentenced Schneider to two years in prison then suspended the prison time by giving him credit for a year in jail. The judge sentenced this violent sex offender to a year of house arrest. Moreover, Mr. Schneider was not required to register as a sex offender.

     Justin Schneider did not have to register as a sex offender because under Alaska law, "physical contact with bodily fluid such as semen" did not qualify as a sex crime.

     It's not surprising that the disposition of this case caused a public uproar. In defending the state's handling of this case, a spokesperson with the Alaska Department of Law announced that the plea deal had been based on an expert's opinion that Mr. Schneider would not re-offend. This absurd rationale did not attenuate the criticism of the prosecutor or the judge.

     In responding to the public outrage over the Justin Schneider case, Alaska's governor Bill Walker said he planned to propose legislation that would make "coming in contact with semen" a sex offense that carried a sentence of two to twelve years in prison plus registry as a sex offender. Even those who believed the word of a politician were still angry about how the authorities had handled this case.

     Justin Schneider said the experience had made him a better person. But what about his victim? How did his "experience" affect her? No one asked because no one in Alaska's criminal justice system cared.

Thursday, October 13, 2022

The Oleg Sokolov Murder Case

     On the night of November 7, 2019, Oleg Valeryevich Sokolov, the decorated Napoleonic era historian, author and professor at Saint Petersburg State University in Saint Petersburg, Russian, physically assaulted his girlfriend, 24-year-old Anastasia Veshchenko. She had been a student of his, and upon graduation, had moved into his apartment. That night, after being beaten, Veshchenko called her brother and informed him of the assault. She said Professor Sokolov attacked her because she attended a birthday party with a friend.

     That night, not long after notifying her brother of the assault, Anastasia Veshchenko called her brother back and told him that the dispute had been resolved and that all was well.

     During the early morning hours of November 8, 2019, the 63-year-old professor, in his flat, killed Anastasia Veshchenko by shooting her with a sawed-off shotgun. Following the murder, Sokolov dismembered his victim in the bathtub, placed her body parts in garbage bags and stored them in his spare bedroom. 

     On November 9, 2019, with his dead girlfriend's mutilated body still in his apartment, Professor Sokolov hosted a party.

     On the morning after the party, the intoxicated killer walked along the Moika River not far from his flat. He was recorded on a CCTV camera throwing bags into the water. At one point he stumbled and fell into the water. People who witnessed his fall saved him by pulling him out of the drink. Someone called the police.

     When officers searched Professor Sokolov's backpack they discovered a bag containing a pair of female arms. At that point Sokolov informed the police he had murdered his girlfriend. He led the officers back to his apartment where the officers found what remained of Anastasia Veshchenko's body. They also seized the shotgun, several firearms and the saw the professor used to dismember his girlfriend.

     While at the murder scene with the police officers, the professor, in an attempted suicide, stabbed himself with a dagger. Following treatment at a nearby hospital he was arrested on charges of murder and illegal possession of firearms. 

     Oleg Sokolov, not long after his arrest, pleaded guilty to the murder and gun charges. 

     On June 9, 2020, following delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Sokolov's sentencing hearing got underway in Saint Petersburg. At the proceeding, a government witness informed the court that in 2008, in Moscow, Oleg Sokolov had tied Ekaterina Ivanova to a chair and beat her. The assault took place because Ivanova threatened to leave him after learning that he was married. Nothing came of that assault.

     A psychiatrist for the state testified that at the time he murdered Anastasia Veshchenko, Mr. Sokolov was sane and knew exactly what he was doing.

     The defendant, testifying from within a glass enclosure, explained that he had killed his girlfriend in a fit of anger. He said he had thought she was the perfect woman, but instead she had "turned into a monster."

     Judge Yulia Maximenko sentenced Oleg Sokolov to 12 years and six months, a term to be served at a "strict regime penal colony." No one, including the prosecutor and Anastasia Veshchenko's parents, objected to the lenient sentence.

Wednesday, October 12, 2022

Club Kid Michael Alig: A Life of Drugs and Murder

     In 1988, 22-year-old Michael Alig appeared on the cover of New York magazine under the headline, "Club Kids." Alig, a high-profile figure in the city's party scene, had formed a group of fellow partygoers called Club Kids. Members of the group wore outlandish outfits, used heroin and danced and drank all night in Manhattan's nightclubs. In 1993, Alig appeared as a guest on Phil Donahue's daytime TV talk show. 

     On March 17, 1996, in Michael Alig's upper Manhattan apartment, the party ended. The Club Kid and his friend Robert "Freeze" Riggs were negotiating the purchase of heroin from a dealer named Andre "Angel" Melendez. At some point during the transaction, a dispute erupted over money. Robert Riggs resolved the argument by picking up a hammer and striking Melendez on the head. Michael Alig finished the stunned drug dealer off by smothering him to death with a sweatshirt. 

     After killing their heroin supplier, Alig and Riggs had a problem. What were they going to do with Melendez's body? Until they could come up with a disposal plan, they stored the corpse in Alig's bathtub. In an effort to slow down decomposition, they poured bags of ice over the body. For the smell, the club kids doused the corpse with liquid Drano. 

     Before Alig and Riggs could inconspicuously transport the body out of the apartment, they would have to make it smaller, more compact. To accomplish that, they sawed off Melendez's legs. After keeping the body in the bathtub for six days, the club kids, in preparation for its removal, wrapped Melendez in a bedsheet, placed that into a large garbage bag, then stuffed the dismembered body into a cardboard box. 

     During the early morning hours, Alig and Riggs carried the box to the street, hailed a cab, and instructed the driver to drive them and their package south on the Westside Highway that runs parallel to the Hudson River. At about 25th street, the taxi pulled over. As the cab drove off, Alig and Riggs carried the cardboard box to the bridge rail and dropped the dead drug dealer into the river. 

     A few days after Alig and Riggs dropped corpse into the Hudson River, children playing in the water along Statin Island came across the cardboard box containing the dismembered remains.

     The Club Boys were arrested in the spring of 1996 on the charge of murder. In October 1997, both men pleaded guilty to manslaughter. The judge sentenced each defendant to ten to twenty years in prison. 

     In 2003, a memoir by James St. James, another celebrity Club Kid, was made into the feature film called "Party Monster" starring Macaulay Culkin. Michael Alig was portrayed in the film. 

     Robert Riggs was released from prison in 2010 after serving 13 years. In 2014, after 17 years behind bars, Michael Alig walked free. During his time in prison, Alig continued using drugs.

     In 2017, police arrested Alig in a Bronx park in possession of crystal methamphetamine. A judge placed him on probation. 

     At three o'clock on Christmas Morning, 2020, Michael Alig's boyfriend called 911 from Alig's 159th Street apartment and reported that his partner had overdosed on heroin. New York City police officers found Michael Alig unresponsive. EMS responders arrived at the scene a few minutes later and pronounced the former Club Kid dead. Alig was 54.

The Teen Pimp

     Montia Marie Parker lived in Maple Grove, a suburb of Minneapolis, Minnesota. The 18-year-old cheerleader was one of 1,800 students who attended Hopkins High School. In February 2013, Parker sent a text message to a 16-year-old member of the cheerleading squad asking if the girl was interested in performing sexual acts for money. The Hopkins High School sophomore, who received special education services due to "developmental cognitive delay," had been telling her friends that she needed money.

     In response to the senior cheerleader's query, the 16-year-old, in a return text, said yes. She didn't want to engage in sexual intercourse for money, but she would perform oral sex for paying clients. Montia Parker asked the girl to send photographs of herself that were "not too nasty but kind of cute." When Parker received the photographs, she posted them on Backstage.com, a website that advertised juvenile prostitution.

      Montia Parker, on March 5, 2013, drove the high school sophomore to an apartment building in a nearby community to service a client willing to pay for oral sex. "You're up!" Parker said to her passenger as she pulled up to the address. The 16-year-old entered the building, and when she returned, handed Parker $60. The young pimp deposited the money into her bank account.

     The next morning, Parker, identifying herself as her young sex worker's mother, called the school and reported that her "daughter" wasn't feeling well and would staying at home that day. The young pimp drove her novice prostitute that morning to a customer's house in Brooklyn Park. When the teenager met the john, he insisted in engaging in sexual intercourse. To the reluctant girl, Parker said, "You'll be fine. I didn't drive up here for nothing. Eventually you will need to have sex." The 16-year-old offered oral sex, but not sexual intercourse. The john refused and the high school girls departed without a sale.

     The sophomore prostitute's mother noticed changes in her daughter's behavior and learned that she had skipped school on the pretext phone call. When the mom checked her daughter's cellphone she discovered text messages pertaining to prostitution. She called the police.

     On May 22, 2013, police officers, on charges of sex trafficking and promoting prostitution, booked Montia Parker into the Hennepin County Jail. The next day, the suspected pimp posted her $50,000 bond. If convicted, Montia Parker faced a maximum prison sentence of twenty years and a $50,000 fine. She was represented by a lawyer from the county public defender's office.
     On October 2013, Montia Parker pleaded guilty to promoting prostitution. The judge sentenced her to three years in prison.

     While sex trafficking in young girls by adult men is common criminal activity, teenage female pimps are uncommon.

Tuesday, October 11, 2022

The Kayden Powell Kidnapping Case

     On February 2, 2014, 18-year-old Brianna Marshall gave birth to a six-pound, 20-inch boy she and her boyfriend Bruce Powell named Kayden. The couple resided in Beloit, a town of 7,700 50 miles south of Madison, Wisconsin near the Illinois border.

     At four-thirty in the morning of Thursday, February 6, 2014, Brianna Marshall called 911 and reported that Kayden was missing. The mother told responding officers with the Beloit Police Department that when she checked the baby's crib, located in the room where she and her boyfriend slept, the infant was gone. Police officers found no evidence of a break-in and there was no ransom note.

     According to the parents, they last saw Kayden at one-thirty that morning when their houseguest, Brianna's half-sister, Kristen Rose Smith, left Beloit en route to her home in Denver, Colorado.

     A police officer reached Smith by calling her cellphone. At five-thirty that morning, Smith pulled into the Kum and Go gas station off Interstate 80 in West Branch, Iowa. From the gas station and convenience store, 180 miles from Beloit, Smith flagged down a local police officer.

     After searching Smith's car and finding baby clothing but no infant, officers with the West Branch Police Department took the half-sister into custody on an outstanding warrant issued from Texas. She was wanted in that state on charges of tampering with government records and fraud. Officers booked Kristen Smith into the Cedar County Jail.

     Back in Beloit, 40 officers representing the FBI, Rock County Sheriff's Office, and the Beloit Police Department, were working on the missing persons case.

     The missing baby's mother, in speaking to a local CNN reporter on Friday, February 6, 2014, said: "I held that baby one time and that was the last time I seen that baby and held him." Brianna Marshall said that she, her boyfriend and the infant were about to move to Denver, Colorado. She and the baby had planned to ride there in her half-sister's vehicle. That explained the baby clothing in Kristen Smith's car.

     At a press conference held on the afternoon of Friday, February 7, 2014, Beloit chief of police Steven Kopp announced that Baby Kayden Powell had been found alive and well that morning. The infant had been swaddled in blankets inside a tote bag in an exterior storage crate at the Kum and Go gas station in West Branch. The baby had survived for 29 hours in subzero temperatures.

     After being taken into custody in Iowa, Kristen Smith agreed to take a polygraph test. When she denied abducting the baby, she failed the exam. Following the infant's recovery, she admitted that she had taken the baby, and that she had been pretending to be pregnant. Before flagging the police car at the gas station, she hid the baby for later retrieval. Police officers had disrupted that plan by taking her into custody on the Texas warrants.

     Remarkably, the baby had no signs of frostbite or hypothermia. A physician at the University of Wisconsin Health Center explained that infants possess a thin layer of fat they can metabolize into heat.

     A federal prosecutor charged Kristen Smith with kidnapping.

     In July 2014, a jury sitting in a Madison, Wisconsin federal court found Kristen Smith guilty of kidnapping baby Kayden Powell.

    United States District Court Judge James Peterson, in October 2014, before sentencing Kristen Smith, said, "You would have let him die rather than admit you had taken him. Your life is a pattern of misrepresentation which frankly continues even now." The judge sentenced Smith to 25 years in prison.

A College Kid's Crime Spree

     On Sunday morning, November 2, 2014, paramedics in a Poudre Valley Hospital ambulance responded to an emergency involving an intoxicated student at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. When the paramedics rolled the student out of the building they found that someone had stolen their ambulance. (The patient had to be transported to another hospital in a backup vehicle.)

     Through GPS technology, the police located the missing ambulance 12 miles away in Loveland, Colorado. Officers found the vehicle, its doors wide open and its front-end badly damages and leaking fluid, sitting in the middle of Highway 34. The officers also encountered the thief, 18-year-old Stefan Sortland standing thirty yards from the wrecked ambulance. The Colorado State University sophomore, decked out in an EMT safety vest, was holding a blanket, a cellphone and a box of Wheat Thins.

     According to witnesses, the ambulance hit the raised median, jumped the curb, struck a highway sign, careened the wrong way and crossed back over the median before coming to a stop.

     When the college boy refused to obey the police-issued commands, they stunned him with a Taser. Referring to the police vehicles surrounding him, Stefan Sortland asked, "Why are those lights flashing on those cars?" On his way to the Loveland Police Department, Sortland informed the officers that he and the stolen ambulance had been en route to Vail, Colorado. For the most part, however, the college student rambled on incoherently.

     At the police station, Sortland said he had taken the drug molly along with some cocaine at a Halloween concert where security officers had kicked him out of the event. He also said that his friends and roommates, having all committed suicide, were dead and in heaven.

     While awaiting his transportation to the local jail, the drugged-up college kid kicked a police department bench and a wall then started masturbating. (Apparently he wasn't handcuffed behind his back.)

     At the Larimer County Jail, while in the booking area, Sortland attacked two jail employees who had brought him lunch. He punched one of the deputies in the face. A short time later, officers booked Sortland on charges of aggravated vehicle theft, obstructing emergency medical personnel, reckless driving, hit-and-run, criminal mischief, unlawful possession of a controlled substance and assault.

     Stefan Sortland's father told detectives that his son had no history of mental illness and was not on medication. His father did say that on Halloween his son had sent him some odd text messages.

     On May 17, 2016, Stefan Sortland pleaded guilty to the felony counts of motor vehicle theft and second-degree assault of a police officer. Chief Judge Stephen Schapanski gave Sortland a four-year deferred sentence. That meant that if Sortland remained law abiding during that period, he would not be sent to prison. According to his defense attorney, the 20-year-old was now taking anti-psychotic medication. 

Monday, October 10, 2022

The Cheryl Silvonek Murder Case

   Cheryl Silvonek lived with her 14-year-old daughter Jamie in a suburban home outside of Allentown, Pennsylvania. On March 8, 2015, the 54-year-old mother learned that her daughter's boyfriend, Army PFC Caleb Barnes, at 21, was much older than she had been led to believe.

     In an effort to end the relationship between her eighth grade daughter and the Army private, Cheryl Silvonek struck a deal with the boyfriend. Barnes agreed to end the romance and return to his base at Fort Meade, Maryland in return for the mother's promise to take the couple to a Breaking Benjamin concert in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

     In the early morning hours of March 15, 2015, following the Scranton concert, Cheryl Silvonek, with her daughter and Caleb Barnes in her SUV, pulled into the Silvonek house driveway. Before the mother could climb out of her vehicle, Barnes started punching her in the head. The assailant tried to choke the victim to death before stabbing her four times. She died in the vehicle shortly after the attack.

     Following the cold-blooded murder, Barnes and the victim's daughter drove the SUV to a place nearby where they dumped the body into a shallow grave. Once they had disposed of the corpse, the murderous couple drove to a Walmart store where they purchased a bottle of bleach and other cleaning supplies they used to clean up the victim's blood.

     Not long after the killing, detectives took the couple into custody on suspicion of murder. Investigators linked Jamie Silvonek to the murder through numerous text messages she had sent to Barnes in the days leading up to the crime. Many of these messages, besides being sexually explicit, urged Barnes to murder Mrs. Silvonek. "I want her gone," the daughter wrote.

     Caleb Barnes, when interrogated by detectives, confessed to the murder. He also insisted that Jamie Silvonek had no prior knowledge of the homicide. In an effort to protect his girlfriend, he took full responsibility for the crime.

     Notwithstanding the boyfriend falling on his sword for his young lover, a Lehigh County prosecutor charged Jamie Silvonek with solicitation of murder. The district attorney charged Barnes with first-degree murder.

     Shortly after being booked into the Lehigh County Jail, Jamie Silvonek's attorneys filed a motion to have her case adjudicated in juvenile court. If found guilty as a juvenile, she could not be imprisoned beyond her twenty-first birthday. The district attorney filed an opposing motion requesting that Silvonek be tried in adult court where a guilty verdict would lead to a sentence of up to 25 years to life.

     On October 29, 2005, at a pre-trial hearing before Judge Marie L. Dantos, both sides, on the issue of  whether or not Silvonek should be tried as an adult or a juvenile, put their expert witnesses on the stand.

     Dr. John O'Brien, a psychiatrist testifying for the prosecution, portrayed Jamie Silvonek as a developing sociopath who had the knack of presenting herself as a victim. According to Dr. O'Brien, Silvonek's teachers at the Orfield Middle School painted her as "a sociopath who thinks societal values do not apply to her." Teachers described Silvonek as extremely mature and manipulative, a "chameleon" who could change faces depending upon who she was talking to and what she wanted.

     To support his diagnosis of the defendant, the prosecution psychiatrist highlighted, among others, these text messages sent by Silvonek: "Don't be afraid of the sides of you that are dark, terrifying" and "People don't understand how cold and manipulative I can be, I hide it so well no one expects."

     Psychologist Dr. Frank Dattilo took the stand on behalf of the defendant. According to this expert witness, the girl was highly intelligent but extremely immature. When Caleb Barnes began flirting with her, the eighth grader didn't know how to handle his attention. According to Dr. Dattilo, "He [Barnes] pursued her. It's a big deal for a young female to be pursued by someone older. She became enamored of this. She was over the moon about the older guy. It's every young girl's dream. She was swept up by Mr. Barnes."

     On November 20, 2015, Judge Dantos, in a 37-page opinion outlining her rationale, ruled that Jamie Silvonek would be tried for murder solicitation as an adult.

     On February 11, 2016, Jamie Silvonek pleaded guilty to the charge of soliciting the murder of her mother. The judge sentenced her to 25 years to life in prison.

     On September 20, 2016, a jury found Caleb Barnes guilty of first-degree murder. At the trial, Jamie Silvonek testified for the prosecution. She said her mother had been murdered because she had tried to destroy her relationship with the defendant. The judge sentenced Barnes to life in prison. 

Sunday, October 9, 2022

The Tyler Deutsch Child Abuse Case

   Tyler Deutsch lived with his girlfriend and her six-week-old baby girl in a trailer house in Roy, Washington, a town of 800 outside of Tacoma. On Saturday, May 25, 2013, while the baby's 22-year-old mother was away from the trailer, Deutsch closed the baby into a freezer to stop her from crying then fell asleep. An hour later, as his girlfriend walked into the dwelling, the 25-year-old removed the baby. The infant, wearing only a diaper, had been exposed to a temperature of ten degrees.

     The mother of the abused child tried to call 911 but Tyler Deutsch, not wanting to get into trouble with the law, took the phone out of her hand. The frantic mother ran to a neighbor's place where she made the emergency call.

     Paramedics rushed the unresponsive baby to the Mary Bridge Children's Hospital were physicians managed to revive her. The infant, with blisters on her skin, had a body temperature of 84. Doctors also determined that the baby had a broken arm and leg as well as a head injury.

     Deputies with the Pierce County Sheriff's Office took Tyler Deutsch into custody. According to reports, he told the officers that by deep-freezing the baby he was trying to help her. A local prosecutor charged him with attempted murder, assault of a child, criminal mistreatment and interfering with reporting domestic violence. The suspect was held in the Pierce County Jail without bond.

    In January 2014, Tyler Deutsch pleaded guilty to first-degree assault. The judge sentenced him to 16 years in prison. The good news was that the abused child recovered fully. The bad news: someday this man would get out of prison.

Saturday, October 8, 2022

The Brittany Stykes Murder Case

     At eight in the evening of August 28, 2013, a motorist on U.S. Route 68, forty-five miles southeast of Cincinnati, Ohio, saw a yellow Jeep that had gone off the road into a wooded area. The motorist pulled over and as he approached the SUV he discovered a woman slumped over the steering wheel. The man called 911.

     Brittany Stykes, the dead woman slouched over in the Jeep, had been shot in the neck and side. The 22-year-old victim was 17-weeks pregnant. In the vehicle, still strapped into her carseat, sat Stykes' 14-month-old daughter Aubree. One of the five bullets fired into the vehicle had struck the child. Paramedics rushed Aubree Stykes to Cincinnati Children's Hospital where she survived her head wound.

     According to the Montgomery County forensic pathologist who performed the autopsy, Brittany Stykes had been killed by the bullet that entered her side and punctured her lungs. The shooter or shooters had fired five slugs into the car from outside the vehicle. Investigators found no shell casings in the vicinity of the Jeep which suggested that the victims had been shot by a revolver or revolvers.

     In addition to her two bullet wounds, Brittany Stykes had abrasions on her face, right arm and finger. The forensic pathologist also found scratches on her right leg. These injuries might have been caused when the Jeep left the highway and plowed into the woods. Toxicological tests revealed no drugs or alcohol in her system.

     The forensic pathologist ruled Brittany Stykes' manner and cause of death as homicide by gunshot. The victim's unborn baby had also been killed in the attack.

     Shane Stykes, the murdered woman's 37-year-old husband, worked in a Cincinnati factory. Detectives ruled him out as a suspect when they learned he had been working out in a gym with three police officers at the time of his wife's death. Shane Stykes also passed a polygraph test.

     Detectives, under pressure to solve this case, got nowhere in their investigation. The officers didn't have a suspect, the murder weapon or a motive. Because the victim had $125 in cash as well as jewelry on her person when she died, detectives ruled out robbery. She didn't have life insurance which argued against some kind of murder-for-hire case. It also seemed unlikely that she had been a random target or the victim of mistaken identity.

     A Brown County prosecutor, desperate for a break in the case, convened an investigative grand jury with the power to subpoena reluctant witnesses.

     On November 11, 2013, Samantha Grubbs, a woman who had a son with Shane Stykes before he married Brittany, testified, under subpoena, before the Brown County Grand Jury. Following her testimony, in speaking to a local television reporter about Brittany Stykes, Grubbs said, "I think that when you're young--I'm not saying she's young and dumb--you tend not to see the whole story. I think she just got involved with the wrong group of people."

     Samantha Grubbs did not reveal why she had been called before the grand jury, or explain the "whole story" Brittany had failed to see. Moreover, she didn't identify the "wrong group of people" the murder victim had supposedly fallen in with.

     Mary Dodson, Brittany Stykes' 46-year-old mother, in response to Grubbs' "wrong group of people" comment, said this to the TV reporter: "My daughter's crowd consisted of her mom and dad and her sisters." 

     Three months after the unsolved murders, homicide detectives focused their attention on three individuals who had been subpoenaed by the grand jury but didn't show up to testify. One of these people, as reported by the local media, was one of Shane Stykes ex-girlfriends.

     The authorities posted a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the person or persons responsible for the double-murder.

     In August 2014, the one-year anniversary of Brittany Stykes' murder, the  case remained unsolved. The victim's father, David Dodson, told a local television reporter that he and his wife could not get through the day without thinking about their daughter. Mr. Dodson said he called Buddy Moore, the lead investigator, every day.

     "I talked to him this morning," the father said. "They are chipping away at this, a little bit more every day. There's been a lot of information coming out of the prison and it all keeps coming back to the same group of people," he said. Mr. Dodson didn't identify these people, but did say that he thought Shane Stykes had information about the case he hadn't passed onto the police.

      As of October 2022, no arrests have been made in the Brittany Stykes murder case which remains a mystery. The reward for information leading to an arrest in the case has been raised to $20,000. Aubree Stykes lives with her father. 

Thursday, October 6, 2022

Nathan Ballard: Protecting a Politically Powerful Arrestee

        In 2020, 51-year-old Nathan Ballard resided with his 36-year-old wife Mara in Kentfield, California, a Marin County suburb just north of San Francisco. Described as one of the best places to live in the state, Kentfield was also one of the most expensive places to call home. The couple resided with their four children, two boys and two girls. The two oldest at 11 and 12, were from a former marriage. The younger children were 4 and 18 months old.

     Nathan Ballard, in 2000, worked as an assistant district attorney in San Francisco with Kamala Harris and other local prosecutors. In February 2007, after Gavin Newsom was elected mayor of San Francisco, Nathan Ballard became his communications director. In October 2009, Ballard resigned his position with the mayor's office to begin a career in public relations. He handled public relations for the political campaigns of several prominent Democrat candidates in California and elsewhere. In 2014, after Gavin Newsom was elected to his second term as Lieutenant Governor of California, his wife Jennifer Siebel introduced Nathan Ballard to Mara Reinhardt, a pilates instructor and the owner of Parallel Pilates Studio in Larkspur, a Marin County community 13 miles north of San Francisco. Nathan and Mara were married two years later. Gavin Newsom officiated at the couple's wedding. In 2018, Gavin Newsom was elected Governor of California.

     Known as the "Media Whisperer", Nathan Ballard, in 2016, formed his San Francisco based public relations firm, The Press Store. Whenever a California Democrat politician found him or herself in a public relations crisis for something they said or did, Nathan Ballard was there to either make the problem go away or mitigate the damage. This was, of course, an expensive service that only the rich and powerful could afford. When an ordinary citizen runs afoul of the law or says something that costs him or her their job or subjects them to contempt or ridicule, they are on their own. There is no "Media Whisperer" to rescue non-elites in their time of need.

     Nathan Ballard and The Press Store served dozens of rich and powerful clients that included the Democrat National Committee, the California Democrat party, the Getty family, the Golden State Warriors basketball team, and the California Labor Federation. Nathan Ballard was also on the board of the Representation Project, a non-profit organization started by Governor Newsom's wife Jennifer to advance women's rights. 

     In 2016, the San Francisco Police Officers Association hired Ballard following the controversial police-involved shooting of a black man named Mario Woods. Critics of the fatal encounter accused the police department of being a racist agency. A 2016 profile of Nathan Ballard in San Francisco Magazine described him as one of the city's "preeminent media whisperers" with "a junk yard persona."

     In February 2019, Nathan Ballard opened a second public relations office in Sacramento. That year he acquired, among other clients, the 30,000 member California Correctional Peace Officers Association and a statewide coalition of legal cannabis companies. Ballard, as a high profile Democrat strategist and pundit, was also a frequent talkshow guest on California television and radio. 

     In April 2019, in a University of California Hastings Law School alumni publication called U.C. Hastings Magazine, Mr. Ballard, in a piece entitled "Gamechanger," was quoted as follows: "In my crisis communications work, I parachute into a situation that I may know nothing about on day one. But I have to use my people skills and critical thinking skills to get up to speed quickly, face the media, and deal with questions about the toughest topics." In the puff piece, Ballard said that when growing up, his parents encouraged him to have political conversations with house guests like Cesar Chavez and Jane Fonda.

     In November 2019, Mr. Ballard was featured in another puff piece published in Better magazine entitled, "The Bay Area's Most Successful Dads." In that article he talked about enjoying fatherhood and how important his children were to him.

     On Saturday, October 17, 2020, Nathan Ballard, his wife Mara, and their two youngest children were spending the weekend at the luxurious Carneros Resort and Spa in Napa, California. The next morning, Mara Ballard called the Napa County Sheriff's Office and related the following: The previous night, after her husband had consumed a large quantity of alcohol and some marijuana, he pushed her with both hands through a glass paneled door causing her injuries to the back of her head. Following that assault, he took a pillow off his bed and placed it over the face of their 4-year-old daughter, then laid on the pillow. After rescuing the child, Mara and the children fled to another room.

     When sheriff's deputies arrived to interview Mara Ballard, her husband was no longer at the resort. The next day, Nathan Ballard turned himself in. After refusing to answer questions regarding his wife's accusations, he was booked him into the Napa County Jail on the felony charges of willful cruelty to a child with possible injury and death, and domestic violence in connection with pushing his wife through a glass door.

      On the day of his incarceration, Nathan Ballard made his $75,000 bail and was released. On November 11, 2020, a judge issued a temporary restraining order to keep him away from his family. 

     Normally, whenever an ordinary citizen is charged with a crime as serious as trying to suffocate a child and pushing a woman through a glass door, journalists will learn of the arrest through public records and immediately report what they have found. When such an arrestee is celebrity or a person of some stature, because of public interest, journalists will dig a little deeper to get a fuller story. But, in the case of an arrestee who was a powerful Democrat media professional connected to all the right people leading all the way up to the governor and his wife, local journalists were simply not interested in this news story. In fact, they ignored it, and as a result, nothing appeared in the press regarding the arrest of a powerful Democrat accused of assaulting his 4-year-old daughter and his wife. 

     On Thursday, December 3, 2020, 46 days after Nathan Ballard's arrest, journalists with the news outlet Politico broke the story of Nathan Ballard's arrest for domestic abuse. The story included the following statement issued by Ballard's attorney, Anthony Bass: "I am confident that my client, Nathan Ballard, will be fully acquitted of the charges after the district attorney's office has a chance to review the facts and learn all sides of the story. Nate is a well respected professional and member of the bar with a spotless ethical record. He has no criminal history. Nate knows that he is not perfect, but he is facing his own challenges head-on. After nearly eight years of continuous sobriety, Nate resumed drinking in April after his father died. He is now clean and sober again, and he is currently in a residential recovery program to deal with his drinking problem in a responsible, comprehensive manner. He is a good father, he has his children's best interests at heart, and he wants to resolve this matter privately, quickly, and fairly for their sake."

     Attorney Bass, regarding his client's wife Mara, said she "would testify under oath that he has never been violent toward her, their minor son, nor their minor daughter." Just hours after that comment, attorney Bass retracted the statement. 

     Politico, in their story, included the following text message they had received from Nathan Ballard: "I've spent my career in crisis communications fighting on behalf of the wrongfully accused, and now for the first time, I really know what it feels like to be in their shoes. I will be exonerated. I love my children more than anything on earth, and will be reunited."

     Following the Politico bombshell, a spokesperson for The Representation Project announced that Nathan Ballard had resigned from the board on October 19, 2020.  

     On October 23, 2020, six days after the alleged assault at the Napa resort, Mara Ballard filed for divorce in Marin County.

     In May 2021, the Napa County District Attorney reduced the charges against Nathan Ballard to misdemeanors that did not require prison time. In return, Mr. Ballard agreed to stay away from his children for six years.