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Monday, July 31, 2023

Criminal Dimwits: The Murder-For-Hire "Mastermind"

     The three main characters in a murder-for-hire scheme are the mastermind, the hitman, and the target. Bit players include enablers, advisors and hands-on accomplices. No category of crime features a wider variety, in terms of age, occupation, background and socio-economic class, than the murder-for-hire mastermind. One thing they have in common is the stupid belief they will get away with their homicides. They almost always get caught because their idiotic hitmen either leave evidence behind or can't keep their mouths shut.

Dr. Mavoltuv Borkuhova

     Dr. Mavoltuv Borkuhova, a 34-year-old Queens, New York physician, paid her cousin $20,000 to kill her husband, a Forest Hills dentist. On October 28, 2007, the hitman, Mikhail Mallayev, shot Dr. Daniel Malakov to death in broad daylight as he watched his 4-year-old daughter play in a public park near their home. The mastermind and her husband were in the midst of a bitter divorce and fight over custody of the child.

     In 2009, the hitman, whose latent fingerprints were lifted from the murder weapon's makeshift silencer, was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life. That year a jury found Borkukhova guilty as well. The doctor is serving a life sentence without parole.

Pastor Tracy "TB" Burleson

     Even for players caught up in a murder-for-hire drama, Tracy "TB" Burleson and his wife Pauletta were an odd couple. They both had criminal records.The 44-year-old Houston area preacher had been convicted of mail fraud in connection with the theft of payroll checks. Pauletta had been charged in 1997, 2005 and 2006 with physically abusing the couple's two adopted sons by beating them with boards and extension cords. Found guilty in two of these cases, the 56-year-old pastor's wife received probated sentences. Mr. Burleson, quite the ladies' man, had a son from a previous relationship named William Darnell Fuller. Rounding out this cast of oddballs was 32-year-old Tyonne Palmer-Pollard, the pastor's mistress. Palmer-Pollard, while having an affair with the preacher, was also having one with his 20-year-old son William Darnell.

     Burleson's wife Pauletta knew her husband had a mistress, but had no idea he was plotting her murder so he could marry Tyonne. She also didn't know that the pastor had promised William Darnell a piece of her $60,000 life insurance payout if he knocked her off.

     On May 18, 2010, at ten-fifteen at night, William Darnell Fuller, a Texas Southern University pre-nursing student, walked up behind his stepmother in the driveway of her northwest Harris County house and shot her in the back of the head, killing her on the spot. After the execution style murder the hitman entered the woods across from the house and came onto another street where Tyonne Palmer-Pollard picked him up and drove him to a place where he cleaned himself up. Later that night they disposed of the murder weapon. (Fuller later directed detectives to the gun.)

     For the pastor-mastermind, his son the hitman and their mistress accomplice, the case unraveled quickly and two of them were indicted, arrested and tried. The pastor was convicted of capital murder in September 2010 and sentenced to life without parole. Tyonne Palmer-Pollard went on trial in October 2011, and while convicted as an accomplice in the murder-for-hire case, received a light sentence of seven years. The defense attorney had successfully portrayed Tyonne as a hard-working nursing assistant who cared for her three children as well as a chronically ill friend. She had, according to her defense attorney, fallen in with some bad people. While obviously true, what kind of people fall in with bad people? The jury also found the accomplice guilty of tampering with evidence.

     William Darnell Fuller, the hitman who confessed and testified against his father and their mistress pleaded guilty in November 2011 for a sentence of 20 years. As is often the case in murder-for-hire sentencing, masterminds are treated more harshly than their cold-blooded triggermen. This is because the triggermen are usually the first to confess and make a deal. 

Julio Perez

     In October 2011 a hitman and his accomplice pleaded guilty in San Benito, Texas to the murder of 39-year-old Sonia Perez. The accomplice in the March 31, 2010 murder, 21-year-old Daniel Castaneda, was sentenced to 35 years in prison for his role in the case. (Compared to Tyonne Palmer-Pollard, a stiff sentence.) The hitman, 37-year-old Daniel Lopez, received life without parole.

     According to the confessions of Castaneda and Lopez, the victim's husband, Pentecostal preacher Julio Perez, wanted Sonia Perez murdered for her $120,000 life insurance benefit. The accomplice supplied the handgun and Daniel Lopez, the hitman, hid in the back of the third grade teacher's minivan. Lopez forced the victim to pull off a deserted road along a sugar cane field outside of Rio Hondo, Texas. It was there he shot her twice in the back of the head. Lopez committed this cold-blood murder on the promise of $25,000 from the life insurance payout.

      After pleading guilty to murder, the judge sentenced Julio Perez to 45 years in prison.
     

Sunday, July 30, 2023

The Catherine Walsh Murder Case: The Power of DNA Evidence

     A man kills a woman, does not get caught, and moves on with his life. Then one day, 32 years later, cops knock on his door, put him in handcuffs and haul the stunned suspect off to jail on the charge of murder. Before 1995 a story like this was the stuff of fiction. The advent of DNA technology, however, has made scenarios like this one not only possible but fairly common.

     In the old days (in the context of DNA science), when a murder investigation petered out and the trail grew cold detectives shelved the case, and, except for the victim's family, it was forgotten. Maybe the detective who had tried but failed to solve the murder thought about it every so often. But with dead witnesses, failed memories, lost documents and no leads, the old murder remained as dead as the victim. With the passage of enough time, even the killer might forget the killing, or pretended it never happened. It used to be said that murder will out, but that was a lie.

     Thanks to DNA science, old murder cases involving biological evidence such as hair follicles, saliva traces, bloodstains and semen residue can now come back to life and haunt killers who thought they had escaped detection. It's justice delayed but a lot better than no justice at all.

The Catherine Walsh Murder Case

     At noon on September 1, 1979, Peter J. Caltury Sr. entered the duplex in Monaca, Pennsylvania where his 23-year-old daughter Catherine Janet Walsh lived by herself. He found her dead, lying face-down on her bed with her hands tied behind her back with a bathrobe cord. Dressed in a nightgown and partially covered by the bed sheet, the victim had a blue scarf wrapped around her neck. When Mr. Caltury called the Monaca Police Department Officer Andrew Gall responded to the scene.
 
      It became apparent that robbery hadn't been the motive for the Walsh murder. The doors to the house had been locked when the victim's father checked in on his daughter, and there were no signs of a struggle. Based on these conditions, investigators assumed the victim had known her killer.

     Murder was rare in Monaca, a Beaver County town on the eastern bank of the Ohio River 35 miles north of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The fact Catherine Walsh had been sexually assaulted and murdered in her own bedroom shocked the residents of this small community.

     Catherine, a year out of Monaca High School, married Scott E. Walsh in August 1976. In December 1978 he filed for divorce on the grounds she had "violated her marriage vows." Catherine had moved into the duplex after the separation. At the time of her death, however, she was still married to Scott Walsh.

     The Beaver County coroner determined that Catherine Walsh had been strangled to death and ruled the case a homicide. Detectives questioned, as the obvious suspect, Scott Walsh the estranged husband. Investigators also interviewed a man named Gregory Scott Hopkins from the nearby borough of Bridgewater. Hopkins admitted he had had a sexual relationship with the married victim but said it had ended a month before her death.

     Although detectives worked hard on the Walsh murder case they were unable to acquire the evidence they needed to arrest a suspect. Years passed and the case went dormant. Detectives worked on other crimes and the Walsh case suspects went on with their lives. Gregory Hopkins became a successful building contractor, and in November 2010, was elected to the Bridgewater Borough Council. He married his first wife in 1967 and divorced her in 1980. He married again in 1983, divorcing this wife in 1999. In 2001 he married Karen L. Fisher.

     In 2010 the Pennsylvania State Police, working off a federal grant, re-opened several old homicide cases that featured biological evidence that could be linked to murder suspects through DNA analysis. One of these cold-case investigations included the September 1979 murder of Catherine Walsh. In December 2011 a state forensic scientist took DNA samples from several people, including Gregory Hopkins. After comparing biological trace evidence from the victim's nightgown, the bathrobe cord and the crime scene bed sheet to Gregory Hopkins' DNA sample, the scientist declared a match.

     On January 29, 2012 detectives arrested Gregory Hopkins at his home for the murder of Catherine Walsh. They booked the Bridgewater Councilman into the Beaver County Jail. Six days later, James Ross, Hopkins' attorney, asked the judge to grant his client bail. The judge, ruling that Catherine Walsh's murder was a non-bailable crime, denied the defendant's request.

     Hopkins' attorney, promising a "vigorous" defense, told reporters that "Mr. Hopkins is a very reputable man in the community, has been in business for 40 years, served on the borough council and I think the arrest comes as a shock to many people." 

     On November 5, 2012 Common Pleas Judge Harry E. Knafelc ruled that the state could not use a report by the well-known Pittsburgh-based forensic pathologist Dr. Cyril Wecht. According to Dr. Wecht, the murder scene DNA evidence revealed that Mr. Hopkins had been in the victim's bed lying on top of her when the murder took place. Judge Knafelc, in ruling Dr. Wecht's analysis inadmissible as evidence, cited insufficient scientific data to back up his expert opinion.

     The Hopkins murder trial got underway on November 10, 2013 in the Beaver County Courthouse. Assistant District Attorney Brittany Smith, in her opening statement to the jury, placed the defendant at the murder scene through his DNA found on the bed sheet, nightgown and the bathrobe cord tied around the victim's wrists.

     Defense attorney James Ross told the jurors that his client's DNA was at the murder scene because he and the victim had engaged in sex the summer before her death.

     Defense attorney Ross, in his cross-examination of retired state trooper Richard Matas, got the prosecution witness to concede that when he processed the Walsh murder scene he had not seen semen stains on the body, the bed or the nightgown. Attorney Ross showed the witness a photograph depicting a bedroom trash can with a piece of tissue beside it. Ross asked the witness why the tissue hadn't been collected as potential evidence. "In hindsight, perhaps I made a mistake," replied the former officer.

     Andrew Gall, the former Monaca patrol officer, testified on cross-examination that he had not worn gloves at the site of the Walsh murder.

     At the close of the prosecution's case which featured the expert testimony of several forensic scientists, the 67-year-old defendant took the stand and testified that he had not been in the victim's apartment when she was murdered. According to Hopkins, the last time he visited her apartment was several weeks before her death.

     On November 22, 2013 the jury of five men and seven women found Mr. Hopkins guilty of third-degree murder. Judge Henry Knafelc, on February 26, 2014, sentenced him to 8 to 16 years in prison.

     In the Walsh case, crime scene mistakes made by the police did not diminish the prosecutorial power of DNA evidence.

Saturday, July 29, 2023

Pioneers of Fingerprint Identification

     In 1901, Scotland Yard became the world's first law enforcement agency to routinely fingerprint its arrestees. Fingerprints came to America in 1904 when the St. Louis Police Department established its fingerprint bureau. Before fingerprinting, arrestees in Europe and America, beginning in the late 1870s, were identified by sets of eleven body measurements, a system created by the Frenchman Alphonse Bertillon. By 1914, the year of Bertillon's death, fingerprinting had replaced anthropometry in every county but the United States where, in several jurisdictions, the outdated, cumbersome identification system stuck around until the early 1920s. Until Alphonse Bertillon and the fingerprint pioneers came up with methods of scientifically identifying criminals, law enforcement remained in the dark ages. For this reason Alphonse Bertillon is considered one of the founding fathers of modern policing.

     Beyond the use of fingerprint science to maintain and classify arrest records, and to identify arrestees who are wanted in other jurisdictions, crime scene fingermarks, so-called latent fingerprints--constitute one of the most common forensic techniques of linking suspects to the sites of their offenses. While latent prints can be made visible by various chemicals, iodine fuming, superglue fumes and laser technology, the most common method of bringing out and preserving this type of crime scene evidence, particularly on hard surfaces, involves the application of a fine powder and lifting tape. (This explains the phrase, the latent was lifted from the scene.)

     In 1911, a  Chicago judge, in a first of its kind case, allowed a latent fingerprint into evidence as proof of the defendant's guilt. Since then crime scene latent fingerprint identifications have sent tens of thousands of criminals to prison. The beauty of crime scene fingerprint examination involves the fact it doesn't take high technology or great skill and education to recover this form of trace evidence. Moreover, the comparison of crime scene latents and known fingerprints does not require an advanced degree in science. Jurors can look at a courtroom exhibit in the form of side-by-side enlarged photographs of the two prints depicting their points of joint identify. Unlike DNA identification which requires a leap of faith in science, the matching of a known and unknown fingerprint simply requires good eyesight and faith in the integrity of the evidence. (There have been, however, lapses in the fingerprint integrity aspect of latent fingerprint identification.)

     Today, crime scene latents can be fed into a supercomputer--the Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS)--and matched with single, digitized fingerprints stored in the computer's massive data base. Identifying unknown crime scene latents this way is one of the few instances where forensic scientists can solve and prove cases. When AFIS became operational in the late 1980s, crusaders for the professionalization of criminal investigation and the increased use of forensic science in crime solving envisioned the dawn of a new era in law enforcement much like the introduction of fingerprint science at the beginning of the Twentieth Century.

     America's forensic science pioneers of the early Twentieth Century hoped for a future in which the police would defeat crime through latent fingerprint identification and other forms of forensic science. These early crusaders for scientific crime investigation could not have foreseen how the war on drugs would drain law enforcement resources away from forensic science and criminal investigation. These men would have been shocked and dismayed by the low status and poor results of crime solving in modern law enforcement. 

Friday, July 28, 2023

The Timothy Hennis Triple-Murder Case

     U.S. Air Force officer Gary Eastburn and his wife Kathryn were married in 1975. Ten years later Captain Eastburn, the chief of Air Traffic Control at Pope Air Force Base near Fayetteville, North Carolina, received a new assignment to England. Before the couple's planned departure to Great Britain, they decided to find a new home for their English Setter. The Eastburn family had grown and now included three children. Kara was five, Erin, three and the baby Jana was almost two.

     Army Sergeant Timothy Hennis, stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina lived in Fayetteville with his wife Angela. The 27-year-old saw an ad in a free classified newspaper regarding the Eastburn family's offer to sell their dog for $10 to anyone willing to give the pet a good home. In early May 1985, in response to the ad, Sergeant Hennis met with Kathryn Eastburn at her house on Summerhall Road. The sergeant went home that day with the English Setter.

     On May 10, 1985, a neighbor, aware that Captain Eastburn was attending a squadron officers' training school in Montgomery, Alabama, noticed that newspapers had not been picked up at their house. Concerned about the wellbeing of Kathryn and her three children, the neighbor went to the front door to check on them. From outside the house the neighbor heard a baby crying. When he knocked on the door and no one answered the neighbor called the police.

     Upon entering the Eastburn dwelling police officers were stunned by what they found. Kathryn, Kara, and Erin had been repeatedly stabbed. The killer had also slashed their throats. The baby in the crib was severely dehydrated, just hours from death. Kathryn had been tied up and raped.

     The killer had attempted to clean up the crime scene but had been overwhelmed by the task. There was too much blood. The only items missing from the house were a small amount of cash and the Eastburn ATM card.

     An Eastburn neighbor said he had seen a tall man wearing a dark, Members Only jacket walking from the house a couple of days before the police were called to the scene. This man was carrying a large trash bag and drove off in a white Chevrolet. Based on this witness' description of the suspect, a police artist sketched the man's face.

     Following the news coverage of the triple murder, Sergeant Hennis voluntarily paid a visit to the police station. He told detectives that when he saw a photograph of Kathryn Eastburn on television he realized she was the woman from whom he had recently purchased the dog.

     Because Sergeant Hennis was tall, looked like the man in the police sketch, had just taken a dark Members Only jacket to a dry cleaner and drove a white Chevrolet Chevette, he became the prime suspect in the case. A witness picked Hennis out of a police line-up as the man seen carrying the trash bag out of the murder house. Shortly after being seen leaving the Eastburn house with the bag, Mr. Hennis was seen burning items in an oil drum in his backyard.

     Detectives determined that Sergeant Hennis and his wife were separating and that he was having money problems. A witness saw Hennis using an ATM machine about the time someone used the Eastburn card.

     Sergeant Hennis denied killing the mother and her children. He said he was home that night building his daughter a dollhouse. County prosecutor William VanStory charged Hennis with three counts of first-degree murder and one count of rape.

     Because the prosecution didn't have a confession, physical evidence linking Hennis to the murder scene or an eyewitness to the massacre, VanStory offered Hennis a plea bargain. The defendant, perhaps realizing that the prosecution's case was entirely circumstantial, turned down the deal.

     The Hennis murder trial got underway in the spring of 1986. According to the prosecutor's theory of the case, the defendant, after buying the dog, returned to the Eastburn house to have sex with Kathryn. He knew that Captain Eastburn was in Montgomery, Alabama. When Kathryn rejected his sexual advances he flew into a rage and murdered her and her two children.

     The witness who picked Hennis out of the police line-up as the man leaving the murder house carrying the trash bag took the stand for the prosecution. Another witness testified that the Eastburn ATM card had been used on two occasions after the murders. Twice the card user had withdrawn $150. The prosecutor pointed out that the defendant owned his landlord $300 in back rent.

     The Hennis trial lasted three weeks. The jury, after ten hours of deliberation, found the defendant guilty as charged. The judge sentenced Hennis to death.

     The convicted man's attorneys appealed the case to the North Carolina Supreme Court on grounds the jurors had been unduly prejudiced by the introduction into evidence of the graphic murder scene photographs. In 1988, the state supreme court granted Hennis a new trial.

     A year after winning the appeal, Mr. Hennis' attorneys, at his second trial, took a more aggressive approach. They put forward their own narrative of the case. Kathryn Eastburn and her children had been murdered by a mysterious stranger who for months had made phone threats against the family. Moreover, a murder scene head hair found on the Eastburn bed did not come from any member of the family or the defendant. Several bloodstains in the house did not match the blood types of the family or Sergeant Hennis. (The Hennis trial predated the DNA era. Blood could only be placed into groups.)

     The defense attorneys argued that the overkill nature of the murders was not consistent with a man who had merely been rebuffed by a woman with whom he had wanted casual sex. According to the defense, the Eastburn family had been slaughtered by a maniac who, for whatever reason, hated them.

     In cross-examining the prosecution's witness, the defendant's attorneys did a good job of raising doubts regarding their credibility. The prosecutors, on the other hand, seemed overconfident they would secure another guilty verdict. For that reason they were shocked when the jury returned a verdict of not guilty.

     Timothy Hennis, following his acquittal, re-enlisted in the Army. Promoted to Staff Sergeant, he did tours of duty in Saudi Arabia and in Somalia before being stationed back in the states at Fort Lewis, Washington.

     In 2006, years after he had retired from the military, the Army called the 48-year-old back into service and sent him to Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

     Army prosecutors, shortly after Staff Sergeant Hennis reported for duty at Fort Bragg, charged him in military court with triple-murder. The Army had called Hennis back to active duty for the sole purpose of the court martial.

     The Hennis legal team sprang back into action. Defense attorneys accused the military of violating their client's right against double jeopardy under the Fifth Amendment. However, due to legal precedent that allowed the court martial of a soldier who had been acquitted in a civilian court of the same crime, the Army's case moved forward.

     Army prosecutors had new evidence that incriminated Hennis. A North Carolina DNA analyst had matched his DNA to semen found inside Kathryn Eastburn. Advanced DNA science had made the identification of this rape kit vaginal swab evidence possible.

     At the 2010 court martial trial the Hennis defense argued that merely because the defendant and Kathryn Eastburn had engaged in consensual sex didn't prove that he had murdered her and the children. The defense attorneys also brought up the unidentified hair follicle and the unaccounted for bloodstains. Moreover, DNA found under Kathryn's fingernail did not match the defendant.

     The case put on by the Hennis defense was no match for the testimony of the prosecution's DNA expert. The military jury, following a three-day trial, found Hennis guilty of three counts of premeditated murder. The judge sentenced him to death. (Under military law, Hennis could not be executed without presidential approval. The military hadn't executed anyone since 1961.)

     In 2012, after numerous federal appeals involving defense claims that the DNA evidence had been contaminated by the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the Hennis case.

     With their client in solitary confinement on death row at Fort Leavenworth military prison in Kansas, the Hennis legal team, in March 2014, appealed the court martial verdict to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals for The Armed Forces. The Hennis defense argued that because Harris had been unlawfully ordered to active duty in 2006, the Army did not have jurisdiction to court martial him.

     On October 14, 2014 the Armed Forces Court of Appeals denied the Hennis petition.

     Timothy Hennis' attorneys were back in court in October 2019 arguing, on behalf of their client, double jeopardy and other procedural issues in the case. On March 6, 2020 the U.S. Court of Military Appeals upheld Timothy Hennis' conviction and death penalty.

Thursday, July 27, 2023

David Viens: The Chef Who Cooked His Wife

     In 2009, 46-year-old chef David Viens and his wife of 14 years, Dawn Viens, owned and operated a restaurant called the Thyme Contemporary Cafe in Lomita, a town in southwestern Los Angeles County. The hard-working couple had previously owned a restaurant in Bradenton Beach called the Beach City Market.

     In late 2009, Dawn Vien's sister filed a missing person's report after no one had seen Dawn for at least a week. When questioned by a Los Angeles County detective, David Viens said his 39-year-old wife had been angry over having to work 70 to 80 hours a week at the restaurant. After an argument on October 27, 2009, she moved out of their Holmes Beach apartment. But according to the couple's neighbors, Dawn had not been seen since the early hours of October 18.

     A few hours before daybreak on October 18, 2009, residents of the Holmes Beach apartment complex heard David and his wife arguing. There were also sounds of objects being thrown about the dwelling. Neighbors also heard Dawn storm out of the apartment, slamming the door. This was the last time any of the neighbors saw her.

     Over the next ten months David Viens told friends and acquaintances a variety of stories accounting for his wife's disappearance. He told some people that she was in a drug rehabilitation facility and informed others that she had left him and was living in the mountains. Eventually, after Dawn missed appointments, failed to pick up money she had stashed with a friend and wasn't seen by anyone, the county missing persons bureau turned the case over to the homicide division. In the meantime David Viens had acquired a live-in girlfriend named Kathy Galvan.

     Following the disappearance of his wife David Viens asked Jacqueline Viens, his 21-year-old daughter from his first marriage who was living in South Carolina, to move back to Lomita and help out at the restaurant. On February 21, 2011, when questioned by detectives with the Los Angeles Sheriff's Office, Jacqueline revealed that her father, one night when they were having drinks after work, said he had killed her stepmother. He said that back in October 2009 they had gotten into a terrible argument. He had been exhausted and had taken a sleeping pill to get some rest. But she kept pestering him and wouldn't let him sleep. Because she wouldn't leave him alone he had tried to lock her into the bathroom, even blocking the door with a dresser. When that didn't work he bound her arms and legs with rope and covered her mouth with duck tape. The next morning, after a good night's sleep, Mr. Viens found his wife dead. She had choked to death on her own vomit. He referred to Dawn's death as an accident and told his daughter that the method in which he had disposed of her body guaranteed that her remains would never be found.

     In the course of the police interview Jacqueline Viens admitted helping her father mislead detectives who were looking into her disappearance. Using her stepmother's cellphone she sent her father a text which read, "I'm OK. I'm in Florida and I have to start over." The detectives conducting the interview pressured Jacqueline to help them prove that her stepmother had been murdered. She did this by calling her father and informing him that she had just spilled the beans. "Dad," she said, "They are going to come after you. I told them everything."

     Earlier on the day Jacqueline Viens broke the news to her father that she had ratted him out to the police, a reporter with The Daily Breeze, a newspaper published in Torrance, California, informed David Viens they were coming out with a story about the police finding, on the walls of the the Holmes Beach apartment, traces of his missing wife's blood. (Viens and his girlfriend had since moved out of that apartment.)

     The next morning David Viens asked his girlfriend, Kathy Galvan, to accompany him on a ride to a quiet place where he could tell her something. While being surveilled by a Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputy, Viens and Galvan drove off in his 2003 Toyota 4Runner. Viens led the deputy to a spot not far from the Point Vicente Light House where he pulled the car onto the shoulder of the road and stopped. As the deputy approached, Viens, realizing that the was being followed by the police, sped off with the deputy giving chase.

     Viens pulled into the parking lot at the Point Vicente Light House and drove up to the fence at the edge of an eighty-foot cliff. He and Galvan got out of the SUV, and after a brief struggle, Viens climbed the fence and jumped off the cliff to the beach below.

     When emergency personnel reached Vien's body they were surprised to find him still breathing. Rushed to the County Harbor UCLA Medical Center, he underwent surgery. As it turned out he had broken his ankles, a femur and both hips. Doctors put him into an induced coma.

     A month following Viens's attempted suicide, while still recovering in the hospital, he admitted to detectives that he had accidentally killed his wife. Viens said he had been drinking that night and after finding Dawn dead in the bathroom the next morning, had dumped her body behind the restaurant. To the detectives he said, "You will never find her body."

     Following this quasi-confession, police officers searched the restaurant for Dawn's remains. (After her disappearance, Viens had the place completely renovated.) The officers dug up concrete and used cadaver dogs to sniff the soil underneath. After the two-day operation a police spokesperson announced they had discovered no evidence of the missing woman's body.

     A year later, in March 2012, the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office charged David Viens with the first-degree murder of his wife. Prosecutor Deputy District Attorney Deborah Brazil, who obviously didn't buy the defendant's story of an accidental death, would have to prove her case without the corpse.

     The Viens no-body murder trial got underway on September 14, 2012 in downtown Los Angeles. The prosecution's first witness, the defendant's daughter, Jacqueline, told the story of his confession and mentioned that her father had once joked about how to get rid of a body by cooking it. "He's a chef," she said.

     Richard Stagnitto followed the defendant's daughter to the stand. On the night of October 18, 2009, Mr. Stagnitto was working in the restaurant with David and Dawn Vien. According to this witness the defendant told him that evening that Dawn, to keep herself in alcohol and drugs, was stealing from the business. "That bitch is stealing from me," David Viens allegedly said. "Nobody steals from me. I will kill that bitch." Mr. Stagnitto testified that he told Dawn what David had said about her. According to the witness, "She was very upset. She was crying and at times kind of incoherent and upset that Dave was not happy with her work." After that night the witness never saw Dawn Viens again. With this witness Deputy District Attorney Deborah Brazil established the defendant's motive and his intent to murder his wife.

     In a recorded interview session with the police as he lay in a hospital bed after jumping off the cliff, a recording played for the jurors, the defendant explained to detectives how he had disposed of his wife's body. "I just slowly cooked it and I ended up cooking her for four days." Viens said he had stuffed Dawn's 105-pound corpse face-down in a 55-gallon drum of boiling water and kept her submerged with weights. After four days of this the defendant dumped the drum's contents, minus some body parts, into a grease pit at the restaurant. Viens placed what was left of his wife's remains into garbage bags and tossed them into a dumpster. He said he took her skull to his mother's house in Torrance where he hid it in the attic. (Detectives searched that house without finding the skull.)

     When a detective at the hospital asked the suspect what happened on the night of his wife's death, the defendant said they had been using cocaine together, and that she kept pestering him while he tried to sleep. "For some reason," he said, "I just got violent."

     On September 20, 2012 David Viens informed the judge that he had lost confidence in his attorney, Fred McCurry and wanted to defend himself. The judge ruled that McCurry had represented Viens competently and that it was too late for the defendant to take over the case. A short time later, McCurry informed the judge that the defense had no further evidence to present. When Viens heard that he jumped out of his wheelchair and yelled, "Your honor, I object!" (After seeing the defendant leap to his feet like that, many people in the court room believed the wheelchair had been more of a prop than a necessity.)

     On September 25, 2012, following closing arguments, the jury retired to deliberate the defendant's fate. Two days later the jury returned with its verdict: Guilty as charged.

     On March 22, 2013 the judge sentenced David Viens to fifteen years to life.

Wednesday, July 26, 2023

The Adam Kaufman "Spray Tan" Murder Case

     Adam Kaufman, on November 7, 2007, called 911 from his home in Aventura, Florida. Sounding hysterical, the 34-year-old south Florida real estate developer informed the dispatcher that he had awaken that morning to find his wife, Eleonora (Lina) slumped unconscious in the bathroom, her neck draped over a bar on a magazine rack. Paramedics rushed the 33-year-old to the hospital where she died later that day.

     One of the responding officers with the Aventura Police Department touched the hood of Adam's car and found it warm. Another officer noticed that only one side of the couple's bed had been slept in. As a result, the police didn't believe Adam Kaufman when he claimed to have slept all night next to  his wife.

     Associate Miami-Dade County Medical Examiner Dr. Chester Gwen conducted the autopsy. Although the forensic pathologist found injuries on Lina's upper-back and abrasions on her chin, neck, left shoulder and chest as well as hemorrhages in her interior neck muscles, declared her cause and manner of death "undetermined."

     Without a finding of death by homicide, the Kaufman case remained in limbo for 18 months. In May 2009, Miami-Dade County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Bruce A. Hyma ruled that Lina Kaufman had died by mechanical asphyxiation, that she had been strangled. The following month the prosecutor, even though he didn't have evidence of marital strife or a motive, charged Adam Kaufman with second-degree murder.

     At Kaufman's bond hearing his attorneys revealed the defense version of the death: Lina Kaufman, with a history of fainting spells, had applied a spray-on tanning substance that resulted in a violent allergic reaction causing respiratory failure. When she collapsed she fell with her neck draped over the magazine rack bar.

     Adam Kaufman's trial commenced on May 7, 2012 before Judge Brownyn Miller in Miami, Florida. A week later, following the jury selection process, defense attorney Bill Matthewman, in his opening remarks, unveiled the new defense version of Lina Kaufman's death: while sitting on the toilet she had a heart attack and fell forward with her neck hitting the bar of the magazine rack. In addressing the prosecutor's case, attorney Matthewman said, "The state's evidence cannot even prove that a homicide occurred, let alone that Adam Kaufman did it....The case is a tragedy of errors. An innocent man was charged with a non-existent crime."

     Prosecutor Joe Mansfield, in his opening speech to the jurors, said that Lina Kaufman had been a "healthy, active woman, arguably in the best shape of her life. All of that ended because of the actions of that man, her husband."

      In this case the outcome would come down to how Lina Kaufman had died, naturally or by the hand of her husband. That meant that the important testimony would be of a medico-legal nature.

     On May 16, 2012, Dr. Bruce Hyma took the stand for the prosecution. The Chief Medical Examiner for Miami-Dade County testified that Lina Kaufman had died from strangulation and not a heart attack. Dr. Tracy Baker, the plastic surgeon who had enhanced Mrs. Kaufman's breasts, told the jury that when he examined her a few months before her death she was in good health. Defense attorney Albert Milian asked Dr. Baker on cross-examination if Lina could have lied to him about her medical history. The witness answered yes.

     Dr. Chester Gwen, the former Miami-Dade County forensic pathologist who had performed the autopsy in 2007, testified that the injuries he had found on Kaufman's body had not been caused by emergency personnel who had tried to revive her. On cross-examination, Dr. Gwen admitted that in April 2012 he had said that in his expert opinion the cause of Lina Kaufman's death was still a mystery to him. The forensic pathologist also said that Dr. Hyma, before he ruled the death a homicide by strangulation, had not consulted with him.

     Larissa Adamyan, a friend of the deceased woman, took the stand on behalf of the prosecution. As it turned out her testimony helped the defense more than the prosecution. The witness described the relationship between the defendant and his wife as a "loving marriage." Ten hours before Lina's death, in anticipation of Adam's brother Seth's upcoming wedding, she had gotten a spray tan.

     Aventura police officer Robert Meyers took the stand and said that at the hospital the day Lina died he overheard the defendant tell three different versions of what he had seen that morning in the bathroom. According to this witness the defendant said he had found Lina's neck resting on the toilet bowl; her body slumped over the toilet; and her head hung over the magazine rack. On cross-examination defense attorney Milian got the witness to admit that none of this information was included in his police report.

     Dr. Bruce Hyma re-took the stand on May 2, 2012 to explain why it had taken 18 months to declare Lina Kaufman's cause and manner of death as a strangulation homicide. The forensic pathologist attributed this passage of time to a delayed toxicological report and the fact he wanted to be sure he made the right call. On cross-examination the defense attorney accused the medical examiner of caving in to pressure from the prosecutor to declare Lina Kaufman's death a homicide.

     Prosecutor Mathew Baldwin, during the direct examination of a friend of the deceased woman, asked if the witness had been aware that the defendant, shortly after his wife's death, had been carrying on with another woman. This question brought an objection from the defense. Judge Miller called the attorneys to the bench and excused the jury. In justifying this line of questioning, prosecutor Baldwin said, "He's [the defendant] is asking this girl out with his dead wife's wedding ring on his finger the next month in December 2007. [Lina died in November.] By January and February they're having regular sex. He was not exactly devastated by his wife's passing. The best analogy I can think of is when Casey Anthony was getting a tattoo [after the death of her child]."

     Judge Miller asked the prosecutor if the state had evidence that the defendant had been unfaithful to his wife. The answer was no. Judge Miller ruled that the prosecution could not present evidence of the defendant's post-death dating. At his point, defense attorney Matthewman asked the judge for a mistrial on the grounds the jury had heard the question which had planted the idea in jurors' minds that the defendant had not been a good husband. Judge Miller denied the motion. She had told the jurors to disregard the question.

     That afternoon, a Miami-Dade crime scene technician testified that Lina Kaufman's fingernails contained traces of her blood and tissue, suggesting she had clawed at something around her neck. The prosecutor also called a physicist to the stand who said it would have been physically impossible for Lina to have fallen off the toilet and land with her head draped over the magazine rack. With that, the prosecution rested its case.

     On Thursday, May 24, 2012l, the defense launched its case by calling Lina's mother Frida Aizman to the stand. This witness told the jury that she and her family loved the defendant, and after Lina's death they had become even closer. The witness also testified that in the weeks leading up to her daughter's death, Lina had complained of headaches and feeling weak. She had tried yoga to relieve her headaches.

     Miami-Dade fire rescue captain, Joseph Carman, the first responder to enter the Kaufman house, testified that he found the defendant giving Lina CPR. According to the witness, Mr. Kaufman was wearing a t-shirt and boxer shorts. The defense presented this testimony because it was consistent with Adam Kaufman's story that he awoke after a night of sleep to find his wife collapsed in the bathroom.

     Thomas Hill, a Broward County Sheriff's Office crime scene investigator took the stand for the defense and criticized Kaufman case investigators for not collecting important physical evidence. The witness said they had failed to gather Adam Kaufman's clothing, magazines from the bathroom rack and bedding from the master bedroom. The crime scene investigator also said he could see no evidence of a struggle in the small bathroom. "My goodness," he said, "she would have been kicking those walls in, and I don't see any of that." The witness said that if Lina had been strangled, the defendant would have had gouge marks on his arms from her trying to claw them from her neck.

     Dr. John Marriccini, the former Palm Beach County Chief Medical Examiner, testified that the forensic pathologists in the Kaufman case had overlooked Lina Kaufman's history of health problems which included heart disease. Celebrity forensic pathologist Dr. Michael Baden climbed into the witness box and said, "Lina Kaufman did not die of unnatural causes. There was no homicide, there was no murder. She died of natural causes." Dr. Baden testified that in his expert opinion, Miami-Dade County Medical Examiner Bruce Hyma had based his homicide ruling on the work of two rookie forensic pathologists who had gotten it wrong. Dr. Baden said Lina Kaufman died of a heart attack and that the injuries to her throat from hitting the magazine rack had been exacerbated by bungled resuscitation attempts by the defendant and paramedics. Following Dr. Baden's testimony, the defense rested its case without putting the defendant on the stand.

     On May 31, 2012, because the defense had portrayed the Kaufman marriage as blissful, Judge Miller allowed the prosecution to put Fara Corenblum, a rebuttal witness, on the stand. According to Corenblum, she and the defendant started an affair a month after Lina's death. The witness said she ended the twice-a-week relationship after she realized he was not ready to move on following his wife's death. For the prosecution, Corenblum's testimony, by casting a sympathetic light on the defendant, may have done more harm than good.

     Both sides made their closing arguments on Monday, June 4, 2012. The next day, the case went to the jury. At five o'clock that evening the jury returned with its verdict: not guilty.

Tuesday, July 25, 2023

Teacher William James Vahey: The Life and Crimes of an International Pedophile

     In 1970, 20-year-old William James Vahey pleaded guilty in California to child molestation. Notwithstanding the sex crime conviction he graduated from college in 1972 with a degree in education. Facing arrest for not registering as a sex offender, the pedophile fled to Tehran, Iran where he landed a job teaching eighth grade history at a private school attended by American and European children.

     From 1973 to 1975 William Vahey taught at the American Community School in Beirut, Lebanon. A year later he was in Madrid, Spain teaching at another private American school. After working one year in Spain, Vahey returned to Iran, this time teaching at the Passararod School in the city of Ahwal.

     In 1978, the itinerate pedophile taught eighth grade students at the American Community School in Athens, Greece. Two years later he turned up in Saudi Arabia at the Saudi Aramco School in Dhahran. After teaching in Saudi Arabia, Vahey moved to Jakarta, Indonesia where he taught at the Jakarta International School for ten years. After a decade in Indonesia Vahey ended up in Caracas, Venzeluela working at the Escuela Campo School.

     Vahey's wife Jean (pedophiles are often married), the former superintendent of the Esceula Campo School, was, in 2009, the executive director of the European Council of International Studies. This may explain why her husband had been able to land so many private school teaching jobs around the world.

     After a year in Venezuela William Vahey was in London, England teaching at the Southbank International School. He taught English boys ages eleven to sixteen, most of whom were offspring of foreign business executives and diplomats. During his three year tenure at Southbank Mr. Vahey took students on numerous overnight field trips.

     In August 2013, administrators at the American Nicaraguan School in Managua hired Vahey to teach ninth grade history. Two months later Vahey accused his house maid of theft and fired her. In February 2014 the maid went to the principal of the American Nicaraguan School with a thumb drive she had taken from Vahey's computer. The memory stick contained at least 90 images of boys between the ages 12 to 14 who were either asleep or unconscious.

     William Vahey, when confronted by school authorities in possession of this evidence, confessed to drugging and sexually assaulting male students. Fired on the spot, the traveling teacher fled the country to avoid being arrested by Nicaraguan police.

     A federal judge in Houston, Texas, on March 11, 2014, ruled that FBI agents could lawfully search Vahey's thumb drive. Two days later in a Luverne, Minnesota hotel room the 64-year-old pedophile committed suicide. During his tenure as a middle school teacher Mr. Vahey had taught at ten private schools in nine countries. He also coached boy's basketball and took students on hundreds of overnight field trips.

     At the time of William Vahey's death he owned a home in London, England and a house in Hilton Head, South Carolina. 

     On April 23, 2014 a FBI spokesperson issued a statement that read: "This is one of the most prolific and heinous sexual predator cases we have seen. It appears Vahey was able to perfect his crimes in such a way that his victims were unable to report them. He has been teaching overseas the entire time. We strongly believe there are more victims."

    Most of the dead pedophile's former employers were not eager to acknowledge Vehey's commission of sex crimes under their noses. As is so often the case, when suspicions of this nature arose, education administrators simply "passed the trash." They fired the suspected pedophile without alerting his new employers about why he had been terminated. Teacher William James Vahey, with a resume full of employment recommendations from former employers, was passed around the world.

Monday, July 24, 2023

The Michigan Sniper

     In 2003, during a three-week period in and around Washington, D.C., snipers John Allen Muhammad and his 17-year-old accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo, shot thirteen people, murdering ten of them. During this killing spree the so-called Beltway Snipers randomly shot individuals who were going about their daily business in places they thought were safe. During the time these pot-shot artists were at large, the media paid little attention to the rash of routine shootings that were taking place in the District of Columbia, a place much more dangerous than the sites of the sniper shootings.

     Because of the nature of the Beltway shootings, and the victimology, Muhammad and Malvo terrorized an entire region. And that's what snipers really are--terrorists. Although a person is far more likely to be shot by a spouse, it's the sniper that terrorizes. These killers instill fear far beyond the harm they actually inflict. This is what terrorism is all about.

     In mid-October 2012, a sniper began randomly shooting at motorists and pedestrians along a 75-mile stretch between Ann Arbor and Detroit in southern Michigan. 

     At 11:50 in the morning on Saturday, October 27, 2012, an 18-year-old motorist from Canton, Michigan, driving eastbound on I-96 with his girlfriend, became the sniper's 26th target when a bullet passed through the backseat windows of the vehicle. No one was injured.

     Thirty minutes later, Scott Arnold, from Dalton, Michigan, driving eastbound on I-96 on his way to Detroit to attend game 3 of the World Series, became the Michigan sniper's first shooting victim. The 46-year-old, alone in the car, was shot in the buttocks as he approached the Fowlerville Road exit. The wounded driver made it to a service station where he was treated by members of an ambulance crew who took him to St. Joseph Mercy Hospital of Livingston. According to reports, the wounded motorist was extremely concerned that he would miss the Detroit Tigers-San Francisco Giants World Series game.

     In terms of the damage the bullet could have done, Mr. Arnold was lucky. The slug just missed an artery and major nerves. With the bullet still in him, doctors discharged Mr. Arnold from the hospital on Sunday, October 29. He missed the game.

     The FBI and ATF offered an $11,000 reward for information leading to the sniper's arrest. (An odd amount.) Local police, based on witness information, were looking for a black Ford Mustang with blue-tinted headlights and a center racing stripe. Officers were also on the lookout for an older model Chevrolet Cavalier. The limited description of the sniper--a young white male--wasn't much help.

     On October 30, 2012, federal officials and CrimeStoppers of Michigan posted a $102,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the Michigan sniper. The police now believed the shooter was driving a 10 to 12-year-old dark-colored sedan in the shape of an old Toyota Camry or an Oldsmobile Alero.

     On November 7, 2012, police officers arrested 43-year-old Raulie Casteel at his home in Wixom, Michigan. A geologist, he was charged with assault with a dangerous weapon and other crimes connected to the sniping incidents.

     Casteel, in March 2014, pleaded guilty to terrorism and numerous weapons charges. Livingston County Circuit Judge David Reede sentenced him to 18 to 40 years in prison. At a press conference following the sentencing, State Attorney General Bill Schuette said, "Raulie Casteel committed calculated acts of violence that terrorized our state, and today the victims of his shooting spree received justice."

     Defense attorney Douglas Mullkoff told reporters that the Michigan legislature did not intent the terrorism statute to fit someone like Casteel who was mentally ill. According to Mullkoff, "The public views my client as sad. Most people feel sorry for him."

     Had this case gone to trial the jury would not have shown much mercy to the defendant. That's probably why the defense attorney agreed to the plea bargain. There are a lot of mentally ill people living among us but very few of them turn into snipers.

Sunday, July 23, 2023

Delvin Barnes' War on Women

     Delvin Barnes, despite the fact his father was a minister and was raised by loving parents, turned into a predatory sex offender and an abusive husband. In 2005 the 26-year-old's wife kicked him out of their house in Philadelphia and acquired a protective order against him. As is often the case the protective order did not protect.

     Barnes' estranged wife, at ten-fifteen on the night of November 28, 2005, was getting ready for bed when he shocked her by jumping out of her bedroom closet. She threatened to call the police if he didn't leave. He said he had no intention of leaving. When she tried to dial 911 Barnes grabbed the phone, punched her in the face, kicked her and threatened to choke her to death.

     The husband-intruder ordered his wife to undress. He then spent the night sexually abusing her. The next morning, she talked him into letting her call her mother, someone she spoke to every day. In speaking to her mother in earshot of her captor, the battered wife managed to hint that not all was well at her house.

     Barnes' wife hoped that her mother would get the hint and call the police. Instead, her mother, accompanied by her father who was armed with a baseball bat, showed up at the house to check on her. Barnes expressed his rage over what he considered a betrayal by again assaulting his wife. When her father came to her aid Delvin Barnes wrestled the bat from him and headed for the kitchen to grab a knife. The victim and her parents used this opportunity to run to a neighbor's house where they called 911. By the time the Philadelphia police arrived at the scene, Mr. Barnes was long gone.

     The next day police officers found Delvin Barnes in Philadelphia and took him into custody.

     A year after the home invasion, assault and rape, a jury found Barnes guilty of aggravated assault, criminal trespass, false imprisonment, simple assault and reckless endangerment. The jurors, however, acquitted him of two felonies: rape and burglary.

     The judge sentenced Barnes to three years behind bars. That meant he was back on the street in a matter of months.

     In Virginia, a young woman in July 2014 accused the 37-year-old Barnes of threatening to blow her up with a bomb. A prosecutor charged him with the lesser crime of trespassing, a misdemeanor. Eventually the prosecutor dropped that charge.

     On October 1, 2014, in Charles City County, Virginia, Delvin Barnes abducted off the street a 16-year-old girl who didn't know him. Two days later the victim showed up at a Charles City County business with third-degree burns. She told detectives that her abductor had doused her with bleach and gasoline and set her on fire. The victim had walked two miles from the home where she had been held against her will and raped.

     Investigators in Virginia identified Delvin Barnes as the Virginia girl's rapist by finding a DNA match in a national databank. The victim also identified Barnes from a past mug shot. A local prosecutor charged the suspect with attempted capital murder, abduction, forcible rape and malicious wounding with a chemical. At the time these charges were leveled Barnes' whereabouts were unknown.

     After graduating from high school in California, Maryland, Carlesha Freeland-Gaither worked at a store called Factory Barn. In 2012, she moved to Philadelphia where she took up residence with her grandfather. Two years later, the 22-year-old, a certified nursing assistant at Presbyterian Hospital in Philadelphia, moved in with her boyfriend.

     At 9:30 at night on Saturday November 2, 2014, while Freeland-Gaither walked home from a family party in the Germantown section of the city, Delvin Barnes came up behind her and pulled the screaming and kicking woman into his four-door Ford Taurus. A witness to the abduction called 911.

     At the scene of the kidnapping, detectives found the victim's eyeglasses and cellphone on the street next to shards of auto glass. Surveillance camera footage showed a man in a knit cap and dark coat abduct the victim off the street.

     Shortly after the kidnapping, the FBI and the Philadelphia Citizen's Crime Commission raised a $42,000 reward for information leading to the identify of the abductor.

     On Tuesday November 4, 2014 the authorities published a photograph of a man using Freeland-Gaither's ATM card at six o'clock in the morning in Aberdeen, Maryland. The next day, around noon, U.S. Marshals, ATF and FBI agents pulled Delvin Barnes out of his car that was parked on the side of the road in Jessup, Maryland. Inside the vehicle they found the kidnapped woman who was shaken but alive.

     Following treatment at a local hospital for minor injuries, the agents transported Freeland-Gaither home to Philadelphia where she was greeted by family and friends.

     The suspect's uncle, Lamar Barnes, in speaking to reporters about his nephew said: "Some men grow up having problems with women. So they take it out on women. Apparently Delvin is one of them."

     In September 2015, Barnes pleaded guilty in a Philadelphia courtroom to abducting Carlesha Freeland-Gaither the previous fall. Barnes informed the judge that he had kidnapped the victim to raise money to travel back to Virginia. "It was an act of robbery in the beginning, and it turned into other things," he said. 
     In January 2016 the judge sentenced the 37-year-old to 35 years in prison. 

Saturday, July 22, 2023

Forensic Document Examination

     Forensic document examination, also referred to as questioned document analysis, is a branch of forensic science that concerns itself with the identification of handwriting, ink, typewriting, computer printing and various writing instruments. Ninety percent of a document examiner's work has to do with the comparison of known handwriting samples with questioned writing such as bank robbery notes, ransom documents, mail bomb package addresses, threatening letters, handwritten suicide notes and disputed signatures in wills, insurance policies and contracts.

     It's the forensic document examiner's job to determine if the questioned handwriting is genuine or forged. This aspect of the science is based on the principle that a person's handwriting is unique and consistent.

     Forensic document examiners do not draw conclusions about a writer's personality from his handwriting. That is the function of graphology, a branch of psychology that is not hard science. Graphologists who also function as forensic document examiners are not members of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences and should not be qualified to testify in court as expert witnesses.

     Graphologists who do testify as expert witnesses belong to their own professional organization called the World Association of Document Examiners. Most judges have not learned the difference between these two sets of handwriting identification practitioners. Because of the graphologists, the dueling expert problem flourishes in this field of forensic science. Many critics of this branch of forensic science consider handwriting identification to be too subjective to be true science. The entire profession has been under attack for decades.

     Legitimate document examiners utilize chemistry, specialized photography, computer science and microscopy in their work. A few specialize in the restoration of charred and burned documents. There are no schools for this kind of work. A document examiner's education and training is in the form of on-the-job experience in federal, state, county and city crime laboratories. A few learn the trade in private crime labs and from examiners in private practice.

     Because documents and handwriting are common pieces of physical evidence in virtually every type of crime, criminal investigators rely heavily on this branch of forensic science. It is therefore important that the field maintains its scientific integrity.

Friday, July 21, 2023

The Mark Stobbe Murder Case

     In the spring of 2000, 42-year-old Mark Stobbe, the former senior advisor to Roy Romanon, the premier of Saskatchewan, Canada, moved his family from Regina, Saskatchewan to St. Andrews, Manitoba, a rural community north of Winnipeg. The new senior communications advisor for Manitoba premier Gary Doer moved his wife Beverly Rowbotham and their two sons into a sprawling old house in the country.

     In his new position as the premier's communications strategist, the tall, 350-pound political operative left his house most days at six in the morning and didn't return until eleven at night. This left his wife Beverly alone all day with their sons in a run-down house in the middle of nowhere. Her husband's new job, and the move, had placed Beverly and the marriage under stress.

     At 2:30 in the morning of October 25, 2000, Mark Stobbe telephoned Betty Rowbotham, his wife's sister, to inform her that Beverly had gone missing. Earlier in the day Beverly had been to the Safeway grocery store in Selkirk, 12 kilometers from the house. Because the boys had acted up in the store she had returned home without completing her shopping. That evening Beverly drove back to Safeway to finish the job. Mark said he had fallen asleep in bed with one of his sons and woke up to find that she had not returned from the store. Worried that something had happened to her he called the police and several hospitals.

     Ten minutes after the call Betty arrived at her sister's house. The police were still on their way. Shortly after her arrival Mark went into the backyard where he used a hose to water down something. Ten minutes later he was back inside where he greeted the first officer to arrive at the scene. While the RCMP officer was questioning Mark, the detective received a call from his office. They had found Beverly Rowbotham dead in her car with massive blunt-force wounds to her head. Her Ford Crown Victoria was parked at a gas station in Selkirk. The police recovered Beverly's purse in the vehicle, but her wallet was missing. The killer had also removed the $7,000 ring she had been wearing.

     Based on the RCMP's initial investigation it appeared that Beverly Rowbotham had been murdered in her backyard where investigators found fragments of her skull and clumps of her hair. In the garage, where her Ford had been parked, crime scene officers found two large blood stains on the floor and one on the wall. Also in the garage police recovered two blood-soaked tissues and a bloody towel, evidence that the killer had tried to clean up. In the car abandoned in Selkirk the police discovered traces of blood on the victim's purse. They eventually located Beverly's missing wallet on the bank of the Red River, not far from the gas station.

     In the beginning, investigators figured that Beverly had been murdered sometime that night while her husband and children were asleep in the house. But why would the killer put her body in the Ford and drive it to Selkirk? And how did the killer get to the murder scene in the first place?

     As the investigation moved forward detectives became more skeptical of Mark Stobbe's account of his whereabouts and activities on the night of the murder. They began to suspect that he had killed his wife. As Stobbe's questionings became more accusatorial he continued to deny having anything to do with his wife's death. He also insisted that he and Beverly were not having marital problems. Over the next several months the police chased down 240 tips and interviewed 400 people. But it wasn't until the DNA reports started coming in did the investigation start getting some traction.

     According to DNA analysis of the crime scene evidence, the bloodstains in the garage and in the backyard had come from the victim. The blood stains on the towel and tissues belonged to Mark Stobbe. And there were stains that comprised a mixture of his and his wife's blood. There were, however, DNA traces at the scene that belonged to an unidentified male. The spots of blood on Beverly's handbag found in her car had also come from an unidentified man.

     By 2001, RCMP investigators had focused their attention on Mark Stobbe as the primary suspect in the murder. According to his story, Beverly had not completed her shopping that day because one of the boys had misbehaved at the grocery store in Selkirk. But a store surveillance tape showed that she had been in the place almost an hour, and her cash register receipt indicated she had spent $108.32, an amount equal to her average purchase. The investigators also considered Stobbe's differing accounts of his activity on the night of the murder incriminating. He told some people that he had fallen asleep in front of the television, and he told others that he had been in bed with one of his sons.

     In January 2001, the RCMP acquired a warrant allowing them to tap Stobbe's home telephone. After listening in to 1,000 hours of his phone conversations they heard nothing directly incriminating. In a February 28, 2001 conversation between the suspect and Betty Rowbotham, his former sister-in-law, she informed him that the police were gathering physical evidence from his backyard. To that he replied, "Damn it all." Toward the end of the phone call, Stobbe said, "I feel horrible."

     The Rowbotham/Stobbe case eventually hit a wall and for several years lay dormant. In 2008, almost eight years after Beverly Rowbotham's murder, the Crown charged Mark Stobbe with second-degree murder. He was arrested, made bail and pleaded not guilty to the charge.

     On January 16, 2012, Stobbe's trial got underway in the Manitoba Court of Queen's Bench in Winnipeg. Representing the Crown, Wendy Dawson in her opening statement to the jury laid out the prosecution's theory of the case: On the night of October 24, 2000, the defendant, during a heated argument with his wife in the backyard of their house, hit her in the head 16 times with a hatchet. He dragged her body into the garage, hit her again, stuffed the body into her Ford then drove to the gas station in Selkirk. Using a bicycle he had put into the trunk, he rode back to St. Andrews. Along the way, Stobbe tossed his dead wife's wallet into the Red River to lead investigators into thinking Beverly's killer had robbed her. Stobbe also removed her ring. Back at his house he waited a few hours before calling the police and his sister-in-law. Before the RCMP arrived Mr. Stobbe used a garden hose in an attempt to wash away physical evidence in his backyard.

     Stobbe's attorney, Tim Killeen, assured the jury that Beverly Rowbotham had been bludgeoned to death by an unidentified intruder who had been lying in wait outside her house. The defense attorney pointed to the unidentified male DNA found on her purse, and in the garage.  

     During the next several weeks the Crown put 70 people on the stand, including several witnesses who testified that on the night in question they had seen an overweight man riding a bicycle between Selkirk and St. Andrews. None of these witnesses, however, specifically identified the defendant as the man on the bike.

     On March 7, 2012 the defense put on its case which depended almost entirely on the defendant's taking the stand on his own behalf. If just one juror believed Mark Stobbe's account, there would be no conviction. If all of the jurors believed that he might be telling the truth there would be an acquittal. It was all up to the defendant.

     Under direct examination by attorney Tim Killeen, Stobbe denied killing his wife. "I've spent a lot of nights looking out that window, wondering," he said. When Stobbe learned of his wife's death, "It was confirmation of my worst fears. What it meant was that I was 50 to 60 feet away when she was killed....I should have been able to stop it. I was completely useless in helping her." The defendant at this point broke down on the stand.

     The following day Crown prosecutor Wendy Dawson began her cross-examination of the defendant. She asked Stobbe why he hadn't filed an insurance claim for his wife's $7,000 ring. "You didn't make a claim," she said, "because the ring wasn't stolen. You took it off her hand before you brutally killed her." Stobbe said he hadn't bothered filing a claim because he just didn't care about the ring's value.

     The prosecutor tried to get the defendant to admit that his marriage was under considerable stress. Didn't his long hours at work with his wife alone in the house with the children have an adverse effect on their relationship? "I think it would be fair to say," he replied, "that she wanted me around more, but...she understood that the long hours were part and parcel of my job. She never made a suggestion to me that I change my career."

     Wendy Dawson cross-examined the defendant for five days. In keeping him on the hot seat for so long, the prosecutor risked making him an object of sympathy in the eyes of some of the jurors. On March 22, 2012 the attorneys made their closing arguments. The prosecutor said she didn't want Stobbe to get away with the "near perfect murder of his wife." She said the circumstantial evidence against him was "overwhelming," and that the defendant had "demonstrated all the hallmarks of a dishonest, lying witness. He couldn't keep his story straight," she said. "Certainly he should have been able to hear a cry for help from his wife, or a commotion in the garage. This was a crime of rage."

     In his closing argument, defense attorney Tom Killeen admitted there were reasons for the police to suspect his client, but suspicion alone was not enough to convict a man of murder. The Crown, he said, has not proven its case beyond a reasonable doubt. "Mr. Stobbe has to prove nothing," he said.

     On March 27, 2012, after 82 witnesses and 100 hours of testimony, Judge Chris Martin gave his instructions to the jury. Mark Stobbe's fate was now in the hands of twelve jurors.

     After deliberating two days the jury found Mark Stobbe not guilty. The prosecutor, with no solid evidence of a motive, no murder weapon, weak eyewitness testimony and the unknown male DNA on the victim's purse simply didn't carry, in the minds of this jury, its burden of proof. Some of the jurors may have believed that Stobbe had murdered his wife, but belief and proof beyond a reasonable doubt are not always the same.  

Thursday, July 20, 2023

Angels of Death Cases: Serial Murder by Poisoning

Murder by Poison

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

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

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

Angel of Death Cases

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

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

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

Angel of Death Donald Harvey

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

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

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

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

     The old saying that "murder will out" does not always apply when the weapon of choice is poison.  
     Donald Harvey died in March 2017 at the age of 64.     

Wednesday, July 19, 2023

Dr. Ralph Erdmann: The Forensic Pathologist From Hell

     Most forensic pathologists are hardworking, well intentioned and competent. Even the best of them make honest mistakes. But over the years there have been several high-profile embarrassments to the profession. These forensic pathologists, because they were careless, incompetent, corrupt or weak, did great harm to criminal defendants, victims of crime and forensic science. Dr. Ralph Erdmann, a run-amok forensic pathologist who worked many years in west Texas represents the worst of the worst.

     In 1981, 25 years after acquiring a medical degree in Mexico, Dr. Erdmann moved to Childress in Lubbock County, Texas. He began, on a private contract basis, doing autopsies for five small hospitals in the county. He moved to Amarillo in 1983 and began performing autopsies for hire throughout the Texas panhandle region. Over the next decade Dr. Erdmann conducted more than 3,000 autopsies in 41 jurisdictions. In 1990, at the height of his activity, he performed 480 autopsies. The following year he did 310, most of which were performed in Lubbock County. For his work in Lubbock County, Dr. Erdmann received an annual fee of $140,000. In the smaller counties Dr. Erdmann charged $650 per autopsy. The forensic pathologist had a large territory to cover and was constantly on the move, performing autopsies on the run.

     Because he covered a rural area, Dr. Erdmann did not always work under ideal conditions. In cases of decomposing bodies, many of the smaller hospitals denied him access to autopsy space because of the stink. As a result he performed autopsies in funeral home garages, hospital loading docks, parking lots and abandoned houses. Dr. Erdmann once performed an autopsy on a door laid across two 55-gallon drums.

     It wasn't just his take-charge work ethic that made Dr. Erdmann so popular with detectives and county prosecutors. What they especially liked about this pathologist was his unabashed eagerness to tailor his autopsy findings to their law enforcement needs. If the prosecution needed a victim or suspect to have alcohol in his or her blood, that was not a problem. It didn't matter that no blood-alcohol test had been administered in the case. If a certain time of death was necessary to incriminate a defendant, Dr. Erdmann would provide it, even if such a precise estimation was scientifically infeasible.

     Because Dr. Erdmann made their jobs so easy, many detectives and prosecutors turned a blind eye to his personal weirdness, sloppy work habits, questionable science, embarrassing omissions and patent dishonesty. Even with the support of the law enforcement community, Dr. Erdmann was so obviously unfit for the job he was eventually drummed out of the profession.

     By 1992, after a number of defense attorneys began challenging and exposing Dr. Erdmann's methods and findings, the outlandish nature of his malpractice began to catch up to him. That year he was forced to surrender his Texas medical license to the State Board of Medical Examiners. He also pleaded guilty to charging several counties for autopsies he had not conducted. The judge sentenced Erdmann to 10 years of probation and 200 hours of community service. He also had to pay $17,000 in restitution. The following year Dr. Erdmann left Texas for the state of Washington.

     A review of Dr. Erdmann's work reveals that cutting corners allowed him to perform so many autopsies. For example, he didn't bother to weigh the internal organs he removed. And in many cases he didn't even bother to cut them out of the corpse. He simply estimated their weights. Dr. Erdmann got caught doing this when the family of a man he had autopsied noticed, in the autopsy report, the weight of the dead man's spleen. Years before his death this man's spleen had been surgically removed.

     Even in situations where the cause of death was obviously murder, Dr. Erdmann didn't always get it right. In the case of a body found in a dumpster, Dr. Erdmann reported the cause of death as pneumonia. The police later arrested the suspect who had stolen the dead man's car, shot him in the head, then disposed of his body in that dumpster. Perhaps this man had pneumonia when he was shot to death, but it was the bullet that killed him. In another body-in-the-dumpster case, Dr. Erdmann lost the dead man's head, the body part containing the fatal bullet that would have connected the shooter to the murder. Without the head or the bullet, the suspect could not be prosecuted.

     In a fatal hit-and-run case Dr. Erdmann testified that the victim had died instantly of a broken neck. He based this finding on his examination of the 14-year-old victim's brain. But when the body was exhumed, another forensic pathologist found that Erdmann had not even bothered to open the boy's skull.

     In the case of an infant who died in a bathtub, Dr. Erdmann determined that the baby had been killed by a blow to the stomach. This led to the arrest of the man who was in the house when the infant died. After a second forensic pathologist examined the body, the prosecutor had to drop the murder charge. The baby had drowned accidentally. The cause of death: asphyxia.

     As reported in the ABA Journal, as a result of Ralph Erdmann's bungled and incomplete autopsies, the defendants in 20 murder cases had grounds to appeal their convictions. The panel of experts who looked at 300 of his autopsy reports--a relatively small sampling--found that 1/3 of the bodies had not even been cut open. When confronted with this evidence, Dr. Erdmann explained it away as clerical errors. He never admitted wrongdoing and would continue to insist that he was not dishonest or incompetent. Yes, he had made a few mistakes, but he had been forced to work under unfavorable conditions. The forensic pathologist accused his critics of being revenge-minded defense attorneys and characterized the investigation of his work and career as a witch hunt.

     On July 23, 2010, in Dallas, Texas, Dr. Erdmann died at the age of 83.

Tuesday, July 18, 2023

Forensic Pathology: A Troubled Profession

     Forensic pathologists are physicians educated and trained to determine the cause and manner of death in cases involving violent, sudden or unexplained fatalities. The cause of death is the medical reason the person died. One cause of death is asphyxia--lack of oxygen to the brain. It occurs as a result of drowning, suffocation, manual strangulation by ligature (such as by rope, belt, or length of cloth), crushing or carbon monoxide poisoning. Other causes of death include blunt force trauma, gunshot wound, stabbing, slashing, poisoning, heart attack, stroke or a sickness such as cancer, pneumonia or heart disease.

     For the forensic pathologist, the most difficult task often involves detecting the manner of death--natural, accidental, suicidal or homicidal. This is because the manner of death isn't always revealed by the condition of the body. For example, a death resulting from a drug overdose could be the result of homicide, suicide or accident. Knowing exactly how the fatal drug got into the victim's body requires additional information, data that usually comes from a police investigation. When the circumstances of a suspicious death are not ascertained or are sketchy, and the death was not an obvious homicide, the medical examiner (or coroner) might classify the manner of death as "undetermined."

     The autopsy, along with the crime-scene investigation, is the starting point, the foundation, of a homicide investigation. If something is missed or mishandled on the autopsy table, if the forensic pathologist draws the wrong conclusion from the evidence, the investigation is doomed.

     Up until the 1930s, before the English forensic pathologist Dr. Bernard Spilsbury glamorized the profession through a series of high-profile murder case solutions, forensic pathology was called "the beastly science." Today, in the U.S., there are about 400 practicing forensic pathologists. For medical examiner and coroner systems to work properly, we need at least 800 of these practitioners. On average, about 35 of the 15,000 students who enroll in medical school every year graduate to become forensic pathologists.

     Forensic pathologists in the United States are overworked. Given the nature of the job they are under constant pressure from politicians, prosecutors, homicide investigators, families of the deceased and the media. The pay is relatively low, they often work in unsanitary morgue conditions, and in many jurisdictions have run out of space to store dead bodies. Many forensic pathologists have burned out, and more than a few have had mental breakdowns.    

Monday, July 17, 2023

The Rebecca Bryan Murder Case

     In 2011 Rebecca "Becky" Bryan, a 51-year-old real estate agent, lived in the Oklahoma City suburb of Mustang with her 53-year-old husband Keith. Keith Bryan, a firefighter since 1981, was chief of the fire department in Nichols Hill, an affluent town north of Oklahoma City. The couple had two grown sons.

     In January 2010 Becky filed for a divorce but didn't follow through with the process. Unhappy in her marriage, she was having an affair with a married man she had met in 2009 at a real estate conference. The two had talked about having a new life together. In early September 2011 Becky texted a message to a friend about inheriting, at some point in the near future, a large amount of money that would allow her to move to another part of the state.

     On Tuesday night, September 20, 2011, Becky Bryan called 911 to report the shooting of her husband by an intruder. To officers with the Mustang Police Department Becky described her horrific experience. She and Keith had been sitting on their living room couch watching television when a hooded man in his 20s or 30s entered the house through the garage door and shot her husband from point-blank range in the back of the head. The victim never knew what hit him.

     According to Becky, after the intruder shot Keith, he told her that Kieth should have hired him at the fire department. The blond-haired man left the dwelling the way he had entered. He drove from the house in a pickup truck Becky described in detail.

     Keith Bryan died a few hours later at a nearby hospital. On her way to that hospital with a friend Becky showed the acquaintance a cellphone photograph she had taken that day of her lover's genitals. The friend, stunned by Becky's demeanor, chalked it up to stress. The authorities feared that a madman was on the loose with a grudge against the Nichols Hill Fire Department.

     Detectives, pursuant to routine homicide investigation protocol, swabbed Becky's hands for traces of gun powder. According to the gunshot residue analysis she had recently fired a gun with her left hand.

     Just hours after the murder, detectives searched the Bryan house. In the clothes dryer officers found, wrapped in a lap blanket, a .380-caliber Ruger LCP handgun, a spent shell casing and a left hand rubber glove. (The glove tested positive for gunshot residue.) The blanket contained four bullet holes. Investigators theorized that the killer had used the folded blanket to shield himself or herself from the victim's blood. It tested positive for gunshot residue as well. Detectives noted that the utility room that housed the clothes dryer was not along the path the intruder would have taken out of the dwelling.

     Between the mattress and the box springs in the master bedroom detectives found the box the Ruger  pistol had come in as well as a box of .380-caliber rounds. A state firearms identification expert identified the Ruger found in the dryer as the gun that had fired the fatal bullet.

     On September 23, 2011, just three days after Becky Bryan informed the police that an intruder had shot her husband, a county prosecutor charged her with first-degree murder. Detectives arrested Becky early that afternoon at the hotel where she was staying. Booked into the county jail in El Reno, and denied bond, the suspect continued to claim that her husband Keith had been murdered by a hooded man.

     The Bryan murder trial began on May 16, 2013 before Judge Gary E. Miller. Assistant District Attorney Paul Hesse believed he could prove, circumstantially with the physical evidence--the blanket, the rubber glove, the .380-caliber handgun identified as the murder weapon and the gunshot residue on the defendant's left hand--her guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The prosecutor also had a motive: life insurance and a new start with a lover. Blessed with motive and physical evidence linking Becky to the murder, the prosecutor didn't need an eyewitness or a confession. The evidence was circumstantial, but solid.

     After two days of scientific testimony from the medical examiner--a firearms identification expert, an analyst who connected the defendant to the rubber glove through DNA and a blood spatter specialist who explained the purpose of the blanket found in the dryer--prosecutor Hesse made the state's case. For final measure he put on several witnesses on the stand who provided details regarding the defendant's extramarital sexual activities.

     Defense attorney Gary James, without much to work with, tried to keep the intruder theory alive in the minds of the jurors. He presented several character witness from the ranks of the defendant's social circle and family. Her brother testified that "Becky has always been a person who helped people. She was the person who would pick up a wounded puppy." On cross-examination these defense witnesses had difficulty explaining and justifying the defendants inappropriate behavior just after the murder.

     The defense rested without putting Becky Bryan on the stand. Attorney James, in his closing remarks to the jury, tried to paint the detectives on the case as tunnel-visioned and sloppy. The attorney wondered why the crime scene investigator didn't process the clothes dryer for latent fingerprints to rule out an intruder. Moreover, he didn't understand why the police didn't review surveillance camera footage for images of a pickup truck that matched the description provided by his client.

     On May 21, 2013, less than a week after the Bryan trial began, the jury found the defendant guilty as charged. The jurors needed only four hours to come to that conclusion. After the verdict was read, attorney James hugged his client and said he was sorry. (The defense attorney was not responsible for the guilty verdict.) On July 9, 2013, Judge Miller, following Oklahoma law, sentenced Becky Bryan to life without parole.

   In March 2014, Rebecca Bryan filed an appeal citing the unconstitutional admission of certain evidence as well as ineffective counsel. She claimed she had been denied a fair trial. On December 12, 2014 justices with the Oklahoma Court of Appeals upheld the conviction.