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Thursday, August 31, 2023

The Lindsay Lohan Crime-Wave

     The only person more pathetic than an old Hollywood has-been is a young Hollywood has-been. Over the past decade, Lindsay Lohan slipped from successful television actress, theatrical film star and recording artist to a D-list celebrity whose principal claim to fame was her rap sheet. And even her arrest record was D-list. Most of her crimes involved cocaine, alcohol, driving under the influence, a bellicose personality and a sociopath's disrespect for the law and the criminal justice system.

     In 2007, other than being rich and infamous, there was nothing about the 26-year-old that distinguished her from the common garden variety substance abuser. Because she had money, Lohan was well-dressed in court and had better legal representation than the ordinary petty offender. That was one of the reasons why, notwithstanding numerous probation violations, she spent so little time in jail.

     In May 2007 the police arrested Lohan for driving under the influence and possession of cocaine after she lost control of her Mercedes in Beverly Hills. Two months later, in Santa Monica, Lohan got into an argument with a female motorist whom she chased in her SUV. The actress was again under the influence and in possession of cocaine. She had also been driving with a suspended license. Later that summer, in return for pleading guilty to misdemeanor cocaine use and driving under the influence, the judge sentenced Lohan to one day in jail, ten days of community service and three years probation during which time she had to enter an alcohol education program.

     On November 15, 2007, when it came time to serve her 24 hours behind bars at the jail in Lynwood, California, the sheriff, due to overcrowding, released her after she had endured 84 minutes in stir. 

     In October 2009, the judge who had sentenced Lohan following her cocaine and driving under the influence plea, extended her probationary period one year because she'd been too busy (attending Justin Bieber concerts and the like) to complete drunk-driving school. Six months later, after Lohan skipped a court date to attend the Cannes Film Festival, the judge issued a bench warrant for her arrest. After the police took her into custody on the bench warrant, Lohan posted the $100,000 bail and was released. She left the booking center with an alcohol-monitoring device around her ankle. According to the judge, if Lohan didn't stop boozing and snorting cocaine, he'd revoke her bail and she would be incarcerated. Lohan was also ordered to undergo, on a weekly basis, random drug and alcohol testing.

     About two weeks after being fitted with the ankle monitor, Lohan activated the device while attending a MTV Movie Awards party. In response, the judge ruled that she had violated her probation. As a result, the judge raised her bail anther $100,000. Her bail bondsman covered the increase which allowed Lohan to remain free.

     On July 6, 2010 the judge sentenced Lohan to 90 days in jail for failing to attend her court-ordered weekly alcohol education classes. Two weeks later, Lohan showed up at the jail to begin her sentence. After 13 days behind bars, the sheriff released his famous prisoner due to facility overcrowding. In September 2010, Lohan's probation was again revoked after a random drug test revealed cocaine in her system. Instead of being sent back to jail, the authorities shipped Lohan off to the Betty Ford rehabilitation facility.

     A staff worker at the Betty Ford Center, in December 2010, accused Lohan of attacking her after the staff employee asked Lohan to take a drug/alcohol test. The staffer later dropped the charges. 

     In February 2011 police arrested Lohan in connection with the felony theft of a $2,500 necklace from a Venice, California jewelry store. She pleaded not guilty and made bail. A month later, the judge in Lohan's 2007 cocaine/DUI case, revoked her probation and sentenced her to 120 days in the Lynwood jail. She was also ordered to complete the 480 hours of community service. In the meantime, she pleaded guilt to the misdemeanor theft of the $2,500 necklace.

     After a few days behind bars, the sheriff, citing overcrowding, kicked Lohan out of jail again. (I don't buy the overcrowding rationale. I think jail personnel simply found housing this pain-in-the-neck celebrity too disruptive.) While Lohan served the remainder of her jail sentence under house arrest, she failed to complete the required 480 hours of community service. As a result, the judge revoked her probation again, and kicked up her bail another $100,000.

     On March 14, 2012, the LAPD investigated Lohan for allegedly bumping a person with her car outside a Hollywood nightclub then fleeing the scene. The LA prosecutor in charge of the matter, citing lack of evidence, dropped the case. In September of that year Lohan took her one-woman crime wave to the east coast. While outside a fancy Manhattan hotel she clipped another person with her car, then sped off. Again, no charges were filed. A month later Lindsay and her mother Dina allegedly got into a fight at the family home on Long Island. No charges were filed in that case either.

     Police officers in New York City on November 29, 2012 arrested Lohan on suspicion of misdemeanor battery in connection with the alleged assault of a woman at a Manhattan nightclub. The supposed victim, a psychic named Tiffany Mitchell, claimed that Lohan, after calling her a "f-ing Gypsy," punched her in the face. 

     Lohan's ongoing trouble with the law might have finally caught up with her. While she was still on probation from the necklace theft, the police in Santa Monica, on the day of the alleged assault of the psychic, filed new charges against Lohan that are related to her June 2007 cocaine/DUI case. Lohan was accused of giving false information to a police officer, obstructing justice and reckless driving. All of these offenses carried jail sentences.

     On December 3, 2012 the IRS seized Lohan's bank accounts. According to the government, she owes $233,904 in unpaid taxes for the years 2009 and 2010.

     In 2013 Lindsay Lohan did a series of interviews with Oprah that earned her $2 million. Most of that money, however, was earmarked for taxes, rehab fees and further IRS debts. She was left with $500,000.

     In October 2017, in a red-carpet interview, Lohan incurred the wrath of almost everyone when she defended the disgraced Hollywood executive Harvey Weinstein. "I feel bad for Harvey Weinstein right now," she said. "I don't think it's right what's going on." Lohan had supporting roles in two of Weinstein Company productions.

     In January 2019 the 38-year-old Lohan was back on television with a MTV show called "Lindsay Lohan's Book Club." Two years later she starred in a Netflix romantic comedy called "Falling for Christmas."

Wednesday, August 30, 2023

Robert Lustyik: Rogue FBI Agent

     Special Agent Robert Lustyik, a 48-year-old assigned to the FBI resident agency in White Plains, New York, was under investigation by various federal agencies for soliciting bribes from a native of Bangladesh named Rizve Ahmed. Agent Lustyik and his lifelong friend, Johannes Thaler, a ladies shoe salesman from Tarrytown, Connecticut, were suspected of selling FBI data to Ahmed. The information pertained to a political opponent of Ahmed's in Bangladesh, material Ahmed could use to harm his rival. Federal authorities believed Agent Lustyik's and his accomplice's scheme unfolded between September 2011 through March 2012.

     Federal investigators acquired a series of text messages between Lustyik and Thaler discussing how to pressure Ahmed, a resident of Danbury, Connecticut, into paying them the maximum amount of money for the information taken from confidential FBI files. In one such message, Lustyik wrote: "We need to push Ahmed for this meeting and get that $40,000 quick…I will talk us into getting the cash…I will work my magic. We are so close." 
    In a text message to his FBI friend, Thaler replied: "I know. It's all right there in front of us. Pretty soon we'll be having lunch in our oceanfront restaurant." 
     The FBI agent's scheme threatened to unravel in January 2012 when Lustyik learned that Ahmed was considering using another source for the information he wanted. In a text message to Thaler, Lustyik wrote: "I want to kill him [Ahmed]…I'm pissed…I will put a wire on and get Ahmed and his associates to admit they want a Bangladeshi political figure offed [murdered]…We'll sell that information to him [Ahmed]." 
     According to their scheme, the FBI agent and his accomplice hoped to secure, from Ahmed, a $40,000 "retainer"and monthly payments of $30,000. Only $1,000 in bribe money had actually exchanged hands. 
     Besides the Bangladesh scheme, the criminally industrious FBI agent and his co-conspirator had another illegal iron in the fire. In a separate parallel case Special Agent Lustyik and Thaler stood accused of using the agent's access to FBI data to thwart a federal investigation into military contract fraud involving an Utah-based company formed by former U.S. soldiers. The company's head, Michael Taylor, was charged in 2011 with using inside information to win inflated government contracts worth $54 million. The contracts were intended to supply weapons to Afghan troops. 
     Agent Lustyik, in exchange for millions of dollars, offered to make Michael Taylor look like a valuable counterintelligence source by creating a dossier of fake interviews with former agents and prosecutors. In a text message to Taylor, Lustyik wrote: "I will not stop in my attempt to sway this [investigation] your way." Johannes Thaler's role in the scene involved acting as a messenger between Lustyik and Taylor. 
     Unfortunately for Special Agent Lustyik, Taylor and two of his employees pleaded guilty to the defense contract scheme in late 2011. A few months later, when he turned 50, Lustyik retired from the FBI. 
     FBI agents, on August 2, 2013, arrested Lustyik and Thaler for their roles in the Bangladesh bribery case. They were charged with conspiracy to bribe a public official and soliciting and receiving bribes. Lustyik was also charged with disclosing the contents of a FBI Suspicious Activity Report. Lustyik and Thaler posted their bonds and were released from custody to await their trials. If convicted they faced up to 25 years in prison. 
     Michael Taylor, in December 2013, after spending 14 months in federal custody in Utah, gained his freedom by cutting a deal with federal prosecutors in the cases against Lustyik and Thaler. At this point the focus of the federal investigators was on the ex-FBI agent and his friend. 
     On September 30, 2014, the former FBI agent pleaded guilty in a Salt Lake City federal courtroom to attempting to derail the investigation into Michael Taylor's defense contract case. Lustyik's lawyer, in speaking to reporters, said that his client would not make a deal to cooperate with federal prosecutors. He would not testify against his friend, Johannes Thaler. 
     Johannes Thaler, 51, and Rizve Ahmed, 35, on October 17, 2014, pleaded guilty in a White Plains, New York federal court to bribery and conspiracy to commit wire fraud in the Bangladesh case. Lustyik's trial on these bribery charges was scheduled for November 2014. Both men were sentenced to three and a half years in prison.

     In September 2015, U. S. District Court Judge Vincent Briccetti sentenced former agent Lustyik to five years in prison and two years of supervised release. The sentence ran consecutively to the ten year sentence he received in Utah following his 2014 guilty plea to conspiracy to engage in a bribery scheme. 

Tuesday, August 29, 2023

The Michelle Byrom Murder-For-Hire Case

     In 1999, 42-year-old Michelle Byrom lived in Luka, Mississippi, a small, rural town in the northeastern part of the state. She resided with her abusive 58-year-old husband, Edward Byrom Sr. and their 25-year-old son Edward Byrom Jr.

     On June 4, 1999, Edward Byrom Sr. was found dead in the bedroom of his house. He had been shot in the head at close range. Sheriff David Smith of Tishomingo County brought young Edward in for questioning. According to Edward Jr., his friend Joey Gillis had committed the murder on behalf of his mother, Michelle Byrom. The dead man's son said that after the shooting he went to the hospital where his mother was being treated for double pneumonia. When he informed her that Gillis had shot Edward Sr. as planned, Michelle instructed him to return to the house to make sure his father was dead. If in fact the shot had been fatal, young Edward was to call 911 and report the homicide.

     Edward Byrom Jr. told Sheriff Smith that his mother had promised to pay Gillis $15,000 from her husband's $150,000 life insurance policy.

     Joey Gillis, when questioned by the sheriff, denied any involvement in the murder case. 

     After interrogating Edward Byrom Jr. for several hours the sheriff questioned Michelle Byrom at the hospital. The heavily medicated patient, after being told that her son had confessed to the murder-for-hire plot, made statements interpreted by the authorities as incriminating.

     A Tishomingo County prosecutor charged Joey Gillis with capital murder. Edward Jr. and his mother were charged with conspiracy to commit capital murder. If convicted as charged they each faced the possibility of being sentenced to death.

     In early 2000, Edward Byrom Jr., while incarcerated in the Tishomingo County Jail, wrote his mother four letters in which he exonerated her and confessed fully to his father's murder. According to his revised account of the shooting, on the day of the killing, his father had slapped him in the face and called him a no good bastard. After brooding awhile in his bedroom, Edward Jr. found the 9 mm handgun and used it to shoot his father in the head.

     According to young Byrom, when he was interrogated by the sheriff, "I gave him one BS story after another to save my ass….I was scared, confused and high. I just started spitting out the first thought that turned out to be this big conspiracy theory. It was all BS, that's why I had so many different stories."

     In October 2000 Michelle Byrom went on trial for conspiracy to kill her husband for his life insurance money. While Joey Gillis, the supposed triggerman, did not testify, Edward Jr., having recanted his jailhouse confessions to his mother, took the stand for the prosecution.

     Michelle Byrom's attorney decided to withhold the introduction of her son's jailhouse letters until Edward Jr.'s cross-examination. But when it came time to enter the letters into evidence, the judge ruled they could not be introduced mid-trial. While the defense attorney was allowed to grill Edward Jr. about the contents of his confessions, not having the actual letters as exhibits hurt the defense.

     On November 18, 2000, the jury found Michelle Byrom guilty as charged. On the advice of her attorney, she waived her right to a jury-determined sentence, instead putting her fate into the hands of the trial judge. This turned out to be an unwise decision. The judge handed Michelle Byrom the death sentence.

     In 2001, Joey Gillis, the alleged triggerman, in return for a lighter sentence, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit murder and accessory after the fact. Upon his release from prison in 2009 he denied having any involvement in Mr. Byrom's murder.

     Edward Byrom Jr. also pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit murder. Rewarded for his testimony against his mother, he walked out of prison in August 2013.

     In the meantime, death row attorneys working on Michelle Byrom's behalf appealed her conviction on the grounds she had not received adequate legal representation. In 2006 the Mississippi Supreme Court, in a five to three decision, ruled that Byrom's trial attorney's performance had not prejudiced her case. Bryom's appeal for a new trial was denied.

     In March 2014 the Mississippi Supreme Court took up the Byrom appeal again. This time the justices ruled in her favor by reversing the murder-for-hire conviction and remanding the case back to the state circuit court for a new trial. The 57-year-old had been on Mississippi's death row for more than thirteen years.

     Following the Mississippi Supreme Court ruling, a local prosecutor re-charged Byrom with conspiracy to murder her husband.

     On July 15, 2015, Michelle Byrom, while maintaining her innocence, pleaded no contest to the murder conspiracy charge. As part of the plea deal, the judge sentenced her to time served. For the first time in 16 years she was free.

Monday, August 28, 2023

The David Camm Murder Trials

     On September 28, 2000 at 9:29 in the evening, David Camm called 911 and reported that he had discovered the murdered bodies of his wife, daughter and son in his garage. Upon arrival at Camm's house in New Albany, Indiana, police discovered Camm's wife Kimberly, his 5-year-old daughter Jill and his 7-year-old son Brad in Kimberly's Ford Bronco. She and her daughter had been shot in the head. The boy had been shot in the chest. There were abrasions and bruises on Kimberly's knees, elbows and feet.

     At seven in the evening on the day of the murders, Kimberly, with Jill in the car picked up Brad from his swimming class. As they drove home, David, a former Indiana state trooper and employee of his uncle's construction company, left the house for his weekly basketball game with friends and relatives. According to eleven witnesses, Mr. Camm left the church gym for home at 9:17 PM. Twelve minutes later, he called 911.

     Medical examiner Donna Hunsaker found that although no semen had been recovered the little girl had been sexually molested within hours before her death. From the onset detectives suspected David Camm of murdering his family. The police and the Floyd County prosecutor, Stan Faith, believed that Camm had arrived home at 9:22, killed his family, disposed of the gun (it had not been recovered), cleaned up the crime scene then called 911. But the crime scene evidence did not support this theory. The blood on the driveway had coagulated which suggested that the victims had been murdered before 9:22. If this were the case, David Camm had an iron-clad alibi. The prosecutor, to get around the alibi, decided that Camm had murdered his family before he left the house that night to play basketball.

     In the Ford Bronco crime scene investigators found a gray sweatshirt under Brad's body. DNA tests on this sweatshirt and the boy's clothing failed to connect the suspect to the scene. Several latent fingerprints lifted from the car did not belong to anyone in the family.

     In March of 2002 a jury found David Camm guilty of murdering his family. While the prosecution didn't have a motive or a murder weapon, they had Robert Stites, a blood spatter analyst from Portland, Oregon who testified that eight tiny bloodstains on the defendant's t-shirt had come from spray made by the bullet fired into his daughter's head. The defense argued that Mr. Camm stained his shirt when he embraced the victim. The judge imposed a 195-year sentence.

     In 2004 an Indiana appeals court set aside David Camm's conviction on grounds of insufficient evidence. The prosecution promised a retrial. A year later, after the arrest of an armed robber and rapist named Charles Boney, investigators submitted his DNA to a data bank which linked him to the site of the Camm family murder. After initially denying that he knew David Camm, Boney told the police that Camm had paid him $250 for the gun Camm had used to shoot his family. To explain the presence of his sweatshirt at the crime scene, Boney said the gun had been wrapped in the shirt when he gave it to Camm.

     On the belief that Charles Boney had been Camm's crime scene accomplice, the authorities charged the 36-year-old with three counts of murder and one count of conspiracy to commit murder. In January 2006 the jury found Charles Boney guilty. A few months later the judge sentenced him to 225 years in prison. After the trial several jurors told reporters they believed David Camm was the actual shooter. Following Boney's conviction, a man he had served time in prison with told the police that four months before the murders Charles Boney said that when he got out of prison he planned to kill a police officer's family and frame the cop.

     David Camm's second trial got underway in January 2006 with a new prosecutor, Keith Henderson, representing the state. On the third day of the trial the Indiana State Police sergeant in charge of the crime scene investigation testified under cross-examination that within days of the murders, the prosecutor (Stan Faith) hired two outside blood spatter analysts to study the serological evidence. The private experts from Portland, Oregon were Rod Englert and his protege Robert Stites. (Stites had been the prosecution's key witness in the first trial.) Defense attorney Stacy Vliana asked the witness if he had been aware that Stites wasn't qualified to process crime scenes. Did the sergeant know that Stites hadn't even taken the 40-hour standard bloodstain analysis course? The witness said he had not been informed of Stites' professional background.

   The next day, on cross-examination, defense attorney Stacy Viliana grilled Robert Stites on his lack of experience as a blood spatter expert. The witness acknowledged that he had not taken the introductory course. He said he had read one book on the subject in 1994. Two days after the Camm murders he had traveled to New Albany, Indiana because his mentor, Robert Englert, was too busy to handle the case. This was the first murder scene Stites had processed on his own. He had examined the t-shirt David Camm had been wearing on the night of the crime. The shirt contained eight bloodstains, each about a millimeter in diameter, spots he considered consistent with blood sprayed from the impact of a bullet. The defense attorney asked Stites if he had known that the defendant, while wearing that t-shirt, had carried his daughter out of the Bronco. The witness said he had not been aware of that. Stites acknowledged that concerning blood spray staining from the impact of a bullet, one would expect to find hundreds of little spots, not just eight.

     Forensic scientist Lynn Scamahorn took the stand and testified that in Camm's first trial, prosecutor Stan Faith had tried to get her to change her testimony about the DNA evidence on Charles Boney's crime scene sweatshirt. According to Scamahorn, the prosecutor wanted her to say that David Camm's DNA was also on the garment. When she refused, prosecutor Faith threatened to charge her with obstruction of justice. The prosecutor had also yelled and swore at her. In recalling her ordeal the witness broke down. (Stan Faith later denied these allegations.)

     In February, 2006, blood spatter expert Tom Bevel testified for the prosecution. According to his analysis, based on 25 years in the field, the blood on the defendant's t-shirt had been sprayed there by a bullet. Bevel also told the jury that David Camm had to be at the crime scene when his wife was shot because her blood had dropped onto one of his sneakers. The witness said that he believed the defendant was within four feet of his daughter when she was shot.

     The next day, prosecution blood spatter expert Rod Englert (Stites's mentor from Portland, Oregon) testified that the defendant must have been standing next to his wife and just a few feet away from his daughter when the two were shot. Englert added that the bloodstain on Camm's shoe appeared to have been diluted with water. Microscopist William Chapin, an employee of McCrone Laboratories, took the stand and confirmed the prosecution theory that the defendant was a few feet from his daughter and right next to his wife when they were shot. According to Mr. Chapin traces of the victim's tissue were on the defendant's t-shirt.

     The defense put two of its own blood spatter experts on the stand. Paul Kish and Bart Epstein testified that the blood on Camm's t-shirt had gotten there by transfer when he hugged the victims. Paul Kish said he couldn't render an opinion on how the blood stain had gotten on the defendant's shoe.

     On March 3, 2006, following 45 hours of deliberation, the Camm jury found the defendant guilty of murdering his family. The judge sentenced David Camm to life in prison. Following the verdict, F. Thomas Schomhorst, a law professor emeritus at Indiana University, questioned the prosecutor's claim, without supporting evidence, that the defendant had sexually molested his daughter.

     The Indiana Supreme Court, on June 26, 2009, overturned Camm's 2006 conviction. A third trial was scheduled for June 2010. Shortly after the second conviction, prosecutor Keith Henderson signed a publishing deal for a book called, Sacred Trust: Deadly Betrayal. The nonfiction book about the Camm case would actually be written by Damon DiMarco. The Camm defense, on the grounds the prosecutor's book deal created a conflict of interest, petitioned the court for a special prosecutor. In November 2011 the Indiana Court of Appeals granted the request. This ruling delayed the start of David Camm's third trial.

     In February 2012 the Indiana Supreme Court decided not to hear the state's appeal of the appellate court ruling. Prosecutor Keith Henderson was therefore off the case. Convicting David Camm of murder became the job of special prosecutor Stan Levco.

     On August 22, 2013, the third Camm trial got underway in Lebanon, Indiana. Once again blood spatter analyst Tom Bevel testified that the crime scene bloodstain patterns proved that the defendant was in the garage when his wife and children were shot to death.

     Charles Boney, the man convicted in the case as an accomplice, took the stand and repeated his story that he provided the gun that David Camm used to kill his family. Boney said he had no physical contact with any of the victims.

     To counter the prosecution's blood spatter case, defense blood analyst Barrie Goetz took the stand. Goetz had worked for the Indiana State Police from 1978 to 1981. From 1981 to 2004 he conducted blood spatter examinations for the Colorado Bureau of Investigation. According to Mr. Goetz, the blood on the defendant's shoe had been caused by a bloody shoelace hitting the side of the shoe when he ran. The pattern was not, in this witness' opinion, a "projected stain." Goetz said that unlike his prosecution counterparts he had used real human blood in his recreations.

     On cross-examination, prosecutor Levco asked this forensic witness why he hadn't videotaped his blood pattern experiments.

     On October 3, 2013, two defense witnesses testified that when the Camm murders took place they were playing basketball with the defendant.

     Dr. Robert Shaler, a forensic anthropologist known for his work identifying bodies after the World Trade Center terrorist attack, testified that blood spatter analysis was not a true science. The interpretation of blood stain patterns had not been subjected to scientific peer review. Moreover, no data had been collected regarding error rates. "Either blood pattern analysis is based on science or it's an art form," Dr. Shaler said. "If it's an art form, then anyone can come up with opinions on it."

     On October 9, 2013 Dr. Richard Eikeienboom, a Dutch DNA analyst, took the stand for the defense. According to Dr. Eikeienboom, DNA evidence proved that Charles Boney had physical contact with Kim and Jill Camm. That meant Charles Boney had lied when he testified he had not touched the victims. The defense attorney had put Dr. Eikeienboom on the stand to discredit the prosecution's star witness.

     On Dr. Eikeienboom's cross-examination, prosecutor Levco brought out the fact the witness' Netherlands based firm, Independent Forensic Services, was not accredited in the United States.

      On Thursday, October 24, 2013, after thirty-one days of testimony the jury of eight women and four men found David Camm not guilty. The defendant's thirteen-year criminal justice ordeal involving three murder trials had finally come to an end. The state of Indiana had spent millions of dollars in a failed attempt to acquire a murder conviction in an obviously flawed case.

     Sometimes prosecutors just don't know when to quit. Moreover, the David Camm case, featuring dueling experts in blood spatter interpretation was an embarrassment to forensic science. Blood spatter analysis, while perhaps an investigative tool, is not a science and shouldn't be presented as such in a court of law.

Sunday, August 27, 2023

Order In The Court: The AWOL Juror

     Anyone who has observed a civil or criminal trial gavel to gavel soon realizes that the slow, herky-jerky pace of the proceeding and the staggering inefficient use of time is nothing like how people go about their business in the real world. If it were otherwise, nothing would get done and our economy would grind to a halt. It would take two hours to buy a loaf of bread.

     It also becomes clear to court-watchers that the courtroom is the domain of legal profession insiders--the judges, defense attorneys and prosecutors. Everyone else--spectators, witnesses and jurors--are tolerated guests.

     People who have been called to testify or sit on a jury, citizens with lives outside the courthouse, marvel at how much of their time is wasted by the courtroom insiders. The eight-hour work day does not exist within the walls of a courtroom. Trials often don't get underway until ten in the morning. Lunch breaks can last two hours and a judge may decide to adjourn for the day at three in the afternoon.

     Judges set their own pace and time schedules, attorneys show up late and prosecutors and defense attorneys frequently ask for delays to prepare their cases as jurors and witnesses wonder if the ordeal will ever end. On the other hand, a witness cannot show up late, or, after having traveled a great distance to testify, is often left hanging when the court is suddenly adjourned just before the witness is scheduled to take the stand on what will turn out to be five minutes of unnecessary testimony.

     As unwilling participants in these exercises of time mismanagement, the jurors, people with responsibilities outside the courthouse, are also at the mercy of the legal masters of this bizarre universe. As anyone put through jury service knows, there are a lot of rules to obey and there will be hell to pay for any juror who violates them. In a world of false starts and endless delays, courtroom insiders do not tolerate interruptions caused by people other than themselves.

     When a citizen enters a courtroom the perceptive visitor experiences an atmosphere heavy with insider arrogance and privilege, a closed environment that conveys a simple message: you have entered our world and must play by our rules. You are barely welcome here, so watch your step.

Judge John Kastrenakes

     Palm Beach, Florida Circuit Judge John Kastrenakes, appointed to the bench in May 2009, ruled as the emperor of his courtroom and expected to be treated like a king outside of his courtroom. As the enforcer of rules, he did not take well to having them enforced on him.

     At 12:30 in the morning of September 18, 2009, Florida State Trooper Sandra Thompson pulled over a gray Lexus going the wrong way in the parking lot of a Florida Turnpike service plaza. Judge John Kastrenakes was behind the wheel of the vehicle.

     When the judge could not produce proof of insurance, Trooper Thompson issued Kastrenakes a $216 traffic ticket. The judge became quite irate and argued loudly with the officer. The judge informed the trooper that he would dismiss any case she brought before him in court because he knew she was a liar. He said that if this were the type of tickets state troopers issued, he would always have doubts about these officers' credibility when they testified before him in court. 

     Assistant State Attorney Ellen Roberts accused Judge Kastrenakes of using the prestige of his judicial position to "influence and gain advantage" over the officer who gave him the ticket. After initially pleading not guilty to the violation, the judge, a few months later, reluctantly paid the fine. He offered no apologies.

The Case of The AWOL Juror

     The dust-up with the Florida State Trooper over the traffic ticket paled in comparison to Judge Kastrenakes' fury over what he considered a juror's disrespect and contempt for the sanctity of his courtroom.

     In 2019, Deandre Sommerville lived with his grandfather in Palm Beach, Florida. In addition to his part time job as a recreation specialist at a nearby park, the 21-year-old took care of his grandfather, who, because of a recent heart attack, relied on a walker and a scooter to get around. Sommerville took his grandfather shopping and to his physical therapy sessions where the two spent hours doing exercises in the rehabilitation pool. Deandre Sommerville had never been in trouble with the law.

     On August 20, 2019, Sommerville was selected as a juror in a civil negligence trial involving a car accident that occurred in Palm Beach County. The case was tried in Judge Kastrenakes' courtroom. The morning after being picked for the jury, Sommerville awoke at nine and realized he had overslept. Because he had missed his ride to the courthouse, he would be late for the trial.

     Instead of calling the bailiff to report his predicament, Sommerville decided to put in a day's work at the park. After that, he compounded his problem by simply ignoring the fact he was a member of a jury in an ongoing trial. He was young, but he should have known better. He made a mistake he would remember the rest of his life.

     Three weeks after Deandre Sommerville went AWOL from Judge Kastrenakes' courtroom, police officers showed up at his grandfather's house with a summons ordering the young man to appear at a hearing on September 20, 2019 before Judge Kastrenakes.

   When Deandre Sommerville appeared before the angry Judge, he realized he was in serious trouble. Judge Kastrenakes informed him that jury service was as important as serving in the military. Sommerville had broken his oath to serve this essential role as an American citizen. "You were," The judge said, "the only African-American on the jury."

     Judge Kastrenakes also pointed out that as a result of the fugitive juror's no-show, the trial had been delayed 45 minutes. "Your intentional, willful failure to follow the orders of the court is a serious matter," he scolded.

     For Deandre Sommerville's disregard for the sanctity of the America's jury system, Judge Kastrenakes found him guilty of direct criminal contempt. While the judge's verdict was not a surprise, his sentence was. Deandre Sommerville received a ten-day stint in the county jail, 150 hours of community service, a $223 fine and one year of probation. He also was ordered to write Judge Kastrenakes a letter of apology. While on probation, Mr. Sommerville would have to meet once a month with a county probation officer.

     After imposing Sommerville's sentence, the judge warned him that if he didn't perform the community service as ordered, he could end up behind bars for up to six months. "I'm dead serious about this," said the judge. "Dead serious. I'm going to monitor you, make sure you adhere to all the rules and conditions of probation." (How different it would have been for this young man if he lived in California where rapists on probation cut off their ankle bracelets, sexually assault more victims and repeatedly get away with it.)

     The public defender representing Deandre Sommerville, citing his client's lack of criminal record and his ties to the community, appealed Judge Kastrenakes' sentence as grossly excessive. On October 4, 2019, after Sommerville had served his ten-day stint the county jail, the judge reduced his probation period to three months and his community service hours to thirty. In return for the lighter penalty, Deandre Sommerville, for the duration of the current court session, had to report once a week to the jury office and give a 10-minute speech about the importance of jury duty. Each presentation would count as three hours of community service.

Saturday, August 26, 2023

Timothy Tyler's "Three Strikes and You're Out" Sentence

    In 1991, 22-year-old Timothy Tyler, an avid user of the hallucinogenic drug LSD, was a so-called "Deadhead" who traveled the country attending Grateful Dead concerts. That year, while en route to a rock concert in California, DEA agents arrested Tyler on the charge of conspiracy to possess LSD with the intent to distribute.

     Tyler, from his home in Florida, had mailed an out-of-state friend five grams of the drug. As it turned out, the friend had become a DEA snitch. Tyler had been arrested twice before on LSD charges. On both of these occasions the judge had sentenced him to probation.

     In 1986, five years before Tyler's third LSD arrest, Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act that contained a "three strikes and you're out" provision. Under the new federal sentencing guidelines, judges, without regard to a defendant's age, lack of violent crime record, mental state or drug addiction, were required to impose a sentence of life without parole on a defendant's third drug conviction.

     Under the 1986 Anti-Drug Act, prosecutors were supposed to use the law to bring down major drug traffickers. Instead, as could be predicted, prosecutors went after low-level drug offenders like Timothy Tyler. Federal prosecutors did this because it was easy and made them look like real crime-fighters. (The three strikes and you're out sentencing provision is no longer in effect.)

     The federal prosecutor in Florida offered Tyler a plea bargain. If he agreed to testify against his co-defendants, Tyler would go to prison for ten years. Since his father was one of the co-defendants in the case, Tyler turned down the deal. Unfortunately for him, his public defender attorney failed to inform him of the mandatory life without parole sentence for three-time losers. Tyler pleaded guilty, but refused to testify against the others. When he learned of the mandatory life sentence law he tried to withdraw his guilty plea but it was too late.

     In 1992, a federal district judge imprisoned Tyler to life without parole. His father was handed a lesser sentence and died in prison on April 2001. Tyler was serving his time at the federal prison in Waymart, Pennsylvania in the northeastern corner of the state.

     On April 23, 2014, Deputy U.S. Attorney General James Cole announced proposed changes to the presidential clemency criteria. Pursuant to the new policy, clemency could be granted to persons who met the following conditions: The clemency applicant must be a low-level, nonviolent offender without a significant criminal history. If convicted today for the same offense, the modern sentence would be shorter than the one imposed. To be eligible for clemency under the new policy, the applicant must also have served at least ten years of his sentence, and his prison record must reflect good conduct.

     The clemency policy announcement gave Timothy Tyler some hope that he might not spend the rest of his life behind bars for mailing five grams of LSD in 1991.

     In August 2016, Tyler was one of 111 federal prisoners granted reduced sentences by President Obama. He was released from prison later that year.

Friday, August 25, 2023

The Case Of The Stray Bullet

     On Friday night, December 16, 2011, a 15-year-old Amish girl named Rachel Yoder, while on her way home in a horse-drawn buggy from a Christmas party at an Amish produce farm, fell dead out of the rig with a bullet in her head. She died not far from her central Ohio home in Wayne County. The girl's brother found her when he saw the horse walking around her body. The Summit County medical examiner, without the benefit of an investigation, ruled the death a homicide. This manner of death ruling caused speculation the girl had been murdered at the behest of Bishop Sam Mullet, the cult-like leader of the band of renegade Amish outlaws who had been recently charged with a series of Ohio home invasions. (See: "Bishop Sam Mullet: Amish Outlaw," November 25, 2011.)

     A few days after Rachel Yoder's death the local sheriff announced she had been killed by a stray bullet fired a half mile away by a young Amish man cleaning his muzzle-loading rifle. (A rifle loaded through the muzzle end of the barrel. I don't know if this gun was a modern replica or an antique.) The Amish girl's death, according to the gun cleaning theory, was simply a freak accident. The sheriff said he had not ruled out a negligent homicide charge. 
     One could drive around the most violent neighborhoods in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Miami and Detroit 24 hours a day for twenty years and never catch a stray bullet. While Rachel Yoder rode inside a buggy in the middle of nowhere, a single bullet fired from a half mile away not only found her, it killed her. Such bad luck is hard to believe. After traveling that far, a bullet, particularly one fired from a muzzle-loader, loses its velocity and the force to become deadly. This theory of Rachel Yoder's death was so farfetched, a writer who put such a scene into a mystery novel would be laughed out of the business. 

     One of Rachel Yoder's Amish neighbors was quoted as follows: "We can't understand how it could happen, but I guess it was the Lord, maybe. Her time was up is what we think." 

   On September 11, 2012, 28-year-old Marion Yoder pleaded guilty to negligent homicide. The Holmes County judge sentenced the Amish man to six months in the county jail but suspended all but 30 days of the term. Since it's hard to imagine a jury convicting this man of negligent homicide, the guilty plea didn't make sense. The level of negligence in this case barely supported a civil wrongful death action, and certainly did not rise to criminal recklessness, the basis of a manslaughter charge. Putting a man in jail for a freak fatal accident is not criminal justice. 

Thursday, August 24, 2023

The Thomas J. Lee Mass Murder Case

     Thomas Jesse Lee, 26, resided with his 33-year-old wife Christie, her 16-year-old daughter Bailey, Christie's parents Mr. and Mrs. William Burton and an 18-year-old friend of the family, Liaona Green. The clan lived in a suburban home outside of La Grange, Georgia, a town 80 miles southwest of Atlanta.

     On Saturday January 31, 2015, after 69-year-old William Burton, Thomas Lee's father-in-law, didn't show up for work for three days and didn't answer his phone, his employer asked the Troup County Sheriff's Office to check on the family.

     At the Burton home sheriff's deputies didn't get a response when they knocked on the door. Because the dwelling was locked, the officers obtained a warrant to enter the dwelling. Once inside the deputies encountered a murder scene comprised of five bodies.

     Deputies found Mr. Burton in the kitchen. He had been severely beaten then shot to death. Shelia Burton, his 67-year-old wife, lay dead in the master bedroom. She had been shot in the head. Thomas J. Lee's wife Christie had been shot to death in their bedroom. The teenage girls, Bailey and Liaona, had been murdered in their room. Liaona had been shot, Bailey strangled to death.

     The authorities immediately suspected that Thomas J. Lee had committed the mass murder. A local judge issued a warrant for the arrest of the six-foot-three, 190 pound fugitive. He had been last seen driving an olive green Mazda Tribute.

     On Monday afternoon February 2, 2015, Thomas J. Lee walked into a church in Corinth, Mississippi 250 miles from the scene of the murders. He told the pastor he had car trouble and needed a lift to Opelika, Alabama. The minister gave Lee money for a bus ticket and a member of the church drove him to the bus station in Tupelo, Mississippi.

     A few hours later, the pastor saw a news report about the Georgia murders on television. The reportage included a photograph of Thomas Lee. Realizing he had just helped a fugitive in a mass murder case, the pastor called the police.

     At five that Monday afternoon police officers took Thomas J. Lee into custody at the Tupelo bus station where he was still waiting for his bus. The next day he was back in Georgia where he was booked into the Troup County Jail on five counts of malice murder. The judge denied him bond.

    On August 12, 2015, Thomas J. Lee pleaded guilty in Troup County Superior Court to five counts of first-degree murder. The judge sentenced the mass murderer to life in prison without the possibility of parole. 

Wednesday, August 23, 2023

The Kyron Horman Missing Person Case

     In 2000, 26-year-old Kaine Andrew Horman, an engineer in Portland, Oregon, married Desiree Young. The marriage did not work out. Within a year the couple discussed separating. But in January 2002, when Desiree learned that she was pregnant, she and Kaine decided to give their marriage a second chance. But it still didn't work. In August 2002 Desiree filed for divorce and moved in with her parents in Medford, Oregon.

     A month after the separation, Desiree gave birth to Kyron. The divorce became final in 2003 and a year after that Desiree moved to Canada where she received treatment for a kidney ailment. When she returned to the U.S. two months later she relinquished custody of 2-year-old Kyron to her ex-husband, Kaine Horman.

     The toddler, in 2004, began living with his father in a house on Sheltered Nook Road in a rural section of northwest Portland. Because of Kaine's demanding job at the Intel Corporation's Jones Farm Campus in Hillsboro, the father arranged day care for Kyron. For that job he hired a friend of his ex-wife's named Terri Moulton.

     Terri Moulton grew up in Roseburg, Oregon, a town three hours from Portland. After graduating from high school in 1988 she attended Umpqua Community College where she met Ron Tarver. Terri and Ron were married in 1991 and three years later had a son named James. A year after the birth of their son Terri and Ron divorced.

     In 1996 Terri married Richard Ecker in Springfield, Oregon. Four years later she graduated from Northwest Christian University with a bachelor's degree in education. From March 2001 to June 2002 Terri worked as a substitute teacher in the Hillsboro School District. In 2002 she divorced Richard Ecker.

     In 2004 Terri Moulton moved into the home on Sheltered Nook Road with Kaine Horman and his 2-year-old son. She had been taking care of the boy for more than a year. Kaine's divorce from Desiree Young had been finalized a year earlier.

     In April 2007 Kaine and Terri were married. Their daughter Kiara Horman was born in 2009.

     Kyron, in 2010, was a second grade student at Portland's Skyline Elementary School two miles from his home. On most days Kyron rode the bus to school, but on June 4, 2010, Terri drove her stepson to class. That day Kyron wanted to set up his Red-Eyed Tree Frog exhibit at the school's science fair.

     Terri and the boy arrived at the elementary school at eight in the morning. They were last seen together fifteen minutes later near Kyron's science exhibit. That day Kyron's teacher marked him absent. At 3:45 in the afternoon of June 4, 2010, Terri Horman reported Kyron missing after he didn't come home from school.

     Students and teachers at the school told detectives that no one had seen Kyron after 8:45 AM. According to Terri, she left the school just before the morning bell. She told detectives that Kyron told her he was leaving the exhibit site en route to his classroom. She said that was the last time she saw him.

     Teachers and staff described the three-foot, eight-inch 50 pound boy as too timid to have left the school on his own. That morning he was dressed in a black T-shirt with "CSI" in green lettering and an image of a handprint. The boy with the metal rimmed eyeglasses wore cargo pants and sneakers trimmed in orange.

     In the week following Kyron's disappearance police officers and others searched the school building, its grounds and the surrounding neighborhood. It seemed the 7-year-old had vanished into thin air.

     From the start, detectives operating on the theory that Kyron had not been abducted by a stranger, focused on Terri Horman's activities on the morning of his disappearance. The police became particularly suspicious when a search of her cellular phone records revealed that she wasn't where she said she was that morning. In fact, her cellphone showed she had been on Sauvie Island five miles from the school. This led to a massive search of the island for the missing boy. Again, no trace of Kyron.

     Interrogated by detectives as a suspect in the case, Terri maintained her innocence. She reportedly took and failed two polygraph tests. Detectives, looking for physical evidence of foul play, seized and searched her car. They found nothing incriminating.

     On June 26, 2010, 22 days after Kyron's disappearance, detectives approached the boy's father with startling information about his wife Terri. According to these investigators, Terri, five months before Kyron went missing, asked a landscaper named Rodolfo Sanchez to kill her husband.

     Sanchez, in reporting the murder solicitation, claimed that Terri told him that Kaine Horman physically and mentally abused her. The would-be hit man's compensation was supposed to be the $10,000 in cash Kaine always carried on his person. To help facilitate the murder-for-hire scheme, Terri allegedly provided Sanchez details regarding her husband's daily routine. She suggested that Sanchez make the hit look like a mugging.

     On the day he learned of the alleged plot against his life, Kaine kicked Terri out of the house. Two days later he filed for divorce and served his estranged wife with a restraining order. Terri moved back into her parents' house in Roseburg, Oregon. (No charges were filed regarding the murder-for-hire allegation.)

     In 2011, with her son still missing and no charges filed in the case, Desiree Young posted missing person's fliers around a strip mall in Roseburg not far from Terri's residence. She also asked the reclusive suspect's neighbors to grill Terri about Kyron's disappearance. Desiree told the Roseburg neighbors that Terri had blamed her failing marriage on Kyron, that she had grown to hate her stepson.

     The Oregon legislature passed a law in 2011 inspired by the Kyron Horman case. The new legislation required school officials to notify parents by the end of the school day if their child had an unauthorized absence.

     On June 1, 2012, Desiree Young filed a lawsuit against Terri Horman claiming that the defendant was "responsible for the disappearance of Kyron." The plaintiff sought $10,000,000 in damages. On July 30, 2013, Young dropped the lawsuit. She said she didn't want the civil action to jeopardize the continuing police investigation into her son's case.

     Desiree and a small group of supporters, in November 2013, staged a demonstration outside of Terri Horman's house in Roseburg. Terri's mother called the police who came and disrupted the demonstration.

     On December 31, 2013, a Multnomah County judge finalized the divorce of Kaine and Terri Horman. The couple still had to resolve the issue of who would get legal custody of their daughter Kiara who was now 5-years-old.
   
     According to Terri Horman's attorneys she was not the last person to see Kyron alive. Moreover, they believed the murder-for-hire allegation against their client was bogus. According to her neighbors, Terri seldom left the house in Roseburg. A lot of people reviled this woman and a few supported her. But for most people familiar with this case, it was hard not to suspect that Terri Horman was somehow responsible for her stepson's disappearance and presumed death.

     In June 2014 the missing boy's mother told reporters that Horman, when asked by a polygraph examiner if she had knowledge of the disappearance, failed the lie detector tests. That month, a family court judge granted Kaine Horman custody of 5-year-old Kiara Horman. Terri Horman, after her daughter received counseling to facilitate a relationship with her mother, would be able to visit the girl under court-ordered supervision.

     Terri Horman, in August 2014, petitioned the court to change her name to Claire Stella Sullivan. She wanted to make the change to avoid what she called the stigma of the Horman name. In addressing the judge, she said, "Kyron Horman is missing. He needs to be found. I love my stepson, I want him home more than anything." She also reminded the judge that she had not been the last person to see Kyron alive. She said her attorneys could prove that. The judge denied her request.

     In December 2014, the head of a residential care facility for mentally ill adults hired Terri Horman as a Mental Health Support Specialist. The Eugene, Oregon company, the Shangra-La Corporation, hired Horman with full knowledge of her status as a suspect in her stepson's disappearance. According to Shrangra-La Chief Executive, "Terri was hired because she has the skills and training that enables her to provide excellent support in the critical area of need."

     On February 20, 2015 Terri Horman petitioned a Lane County judge to issue a temporary protective order against a person named Stacy Green. Horman objected to the 35-year-old's posting of missing child posters outside her place of employment. The petitioner claimed that Green and her associates had been obsessively stalking her for four years. "They are now escalating in this behavior to where I fear they will kill me," she claimed. The judge denied Horman's request for the protection order.

     Terri Horman, on February 21, 2015, quit her job at Shangra-La. She said the denial of her anti-stalking order was the reason she left the residential care facility.

     In a January 2016 interview with a correspondent with the television show "Inside Edition," Terri Horman said, "I never harmed my son. I'm speaking now because nobody is looking for my son anymore. I want Kyron home. I love my son." She admitted to the reporter that she had failed the polygraph test, explaining that because she was deaf in one ear, she didn't hear the questions properly.
     On June 4, 2021, eleven years after her son went missing, the boy's mother, Desiree Young, posted the following message on her Facebook page: "Things are too quiet and it sounds like Multnomah County may not even know they are still searching for Kyron. This is not acceptable and I will be taking it to their doorstep. Kyron--I love you. I will never stop fighting for you."
     Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt, in response to Desiree Young's Facebook posting, tweeted this: "Bringing Kyron Horman home is our number one priority in this case and we will never lose sight of that."
     As of August 2023, Kron Horman remained missing. No charges in the case have been filed.

Tuesday, August 22, 2023

The Kenneth John Konias Jr. Armored Truck Robbery/Murder Case

     One would think that stealing a large sum of money from an armored truck--a bullet-proof vault on wheels protected by at least two armed security officers--would be extremely difficult, and rare. It is not. While some armored car heists feature a lot of planning and several accomplices, most are committed by one or two people. A high percentage of armored car robberies are inside jobs committed by security personnel. In the infamous 1950 Brinks job in Boston, the police didn't recover one cent of the stolen $2.7 million in bills, checks and money orders. By the time the suspects were identified and rounded up the checks and money orders had been destroyed and the cash spent.

     An armored van or truck makes between ten and twenty pickups and deliveries a day. The most secure vehicles are equipped with tracking devices and are staffed by a crew of three armed officers. The driver never leaves the truck. At the delivery and pickup stops, the guard is positioned near the vehicle while the messenger handles the cargo. Occasionally the guard will accompany the messenger to and from the truck. To cut costs armored car companies often use 2-person crews in which the driver is also the messenger.

The Pittsburgh Armored Truck Robbery/Murder Case

     Kenneth John Konias Jr., a 2008 graduate of Serra Catholic High School in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, lived in nearby Dravosburg, a town of 2,000 along the Monongahela River. The 22-year-old, an only child, lived in his parents' house. Upon graduation Konias began work as a security guard in a shopping mall. After a year with the Dravosburg Voluntary Fire Department Mr. Konias joined the volunteer fire department in Duquesne. Six months later the Duquesne fire chief dismissed him because he "didn't fit in." He had failed the test to become an Allegheny County police officer.

     Early in 2011, following a background check, some psychological testing and a little firearms training, Kenneth Konias became a driver-messenger with the Garda Cash Logistics Armored Transport Company. Several months later Kenneth Konias' fellow employees found lottery tickets from a grocery store on his route in the back of the truck. Konias, who hadn't purchased the tickets, said he must have carried the tickets out of the store on the bottom of his cash satchel. His supervisor accepted the explanation and the matter was closed.

     On February 28, 2012 Konias was paired with 31-year-old Michael Haines, a guard who had been on the job a few months. After graduating from Pittsburgh's Robert Morris University with a degree in communications, Haines, from East McKeesport, had previously sold Verizon cell phones. Until getting the job with Garda, Haines had struggled finding full time work. On that Tuesday, with Konias behind the wheel and Haines in the cargo area of the truck, the men pulled away from the Garda office in downtown Pittsburgh. It was a few minutes before eight o'clock in the morning.

     Just before one in the afternoon, after making a pickup at the Home Depot store in suburban in Ross Township, Home Depot employees thought they heard a gun go off inside the Garda truck. Thirty minutes later Kenneth Konias parked the armored vehicle under a bridge two blocks from the Garda office. He climbed out of the truck, walked to the employee parking lot and drove off in his tan Ford Explorer.

     After stopping at places to pick up money bags he had stolen and stashed, Konias drove to his parents' house in Dravosburg where he greeted his father. After putting his bloody Garda jacket on a hanger and hiding $200,000 in cash in the house, Konias left the dwelling in his Ford Explorer.

     At 3:45 that afternoon, a Garda employee came upon the idling truck under the bridge. Blood seeped out the back of the vehicle, and inside Michael Haines lay dead from a bullet fired into the back of his head. The guard's 9 mm Glock semiautomatic pistol was missing along with $2.3 million in cash, enough money to fill two trash bags.

     Konias, after leaving Dravosburg that afternoon, called several people on his cell phone. He spoke to his mother Renee, telling her that he had stashed $25,000 at his grandmother's grave site at St. Mary Magdalene Cemetery in Munhall. (Mr. Konias retrieved the money, and a relative notified the police.) Konias called a friend and asked him to run off with him. He said he would never have to work again. To another friend he said he had messed up and that his life was over. The friend asked him if he had killed someone. Konias paused, then said yes. In one of the conversations Konias asked about extradition laws in Canada and Mexico. After making these calls, Konias tossed his cell phone out his car window. It was found along Route 51 south of downtown Pittsburgh.

     On Tuesday night, when police officers searched the Konias house in Dravosburg, they recovered the bloody Garda jacket and $200,000. Hoping to catch Konias before he got too far, the police alerted U.S. border authorities, airports, bus depots and train stations.

     On March 1, 2012, the Allegheny County district attorney charged Kenneth Konia with criminal homicide, robbery and theft. The FBI issued a wanted poster and added Konias to the FBI's Most Wanted List. The bureau also posted information regarding the fugitive on its Facebook page.

     On Friday, March 16, the police-hunt for the 6 foot one, 165 pound fugitive was featured on Lifetime TV's "America's Most Wanted" show.

     On April 25, 2012, FBI agents arrested Konias without incident at a house in Pompano Beach, Florida. Based on information from the suspect himself, agents recovered most of the stolen money from the Pompano Beach house and a storage locker nearby. At the time of his arrest Konias still had possession of the handgun he had carried when he worked for Garda Cash Logistics.

     On November 13, 2013, at the conclusion of the 7-day bench trial, Allegheny County Judge David Cashman found Konias guilty of first-degree murder, robbery and theft. At the sentencing hearing on February 18, 2014, Judge Cashman, in advance of announcing Konias' fate, said that Konias had put greed before human life. Konias interrupted the judge by saying, "I was going to suggest you not lecture me and give me my sentence so we can proceed." Unfazed, the judge continued, pointing out that Konia had plotted the assassination for months. The judge also noted that the Haines family had shown mercy by not requesting the death penalty.

     Judge Cashman sentenced the 24-year-old murderer to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Monday, August 21, 2023

Ali Syed's Killing Spree

     Ali Syed, an unemployed part time student at Saddleback Community College, lived with his parents in Ladera Ranch, an affluent suburban Orange County community 50 miles south of Los Angeles. The pudgy 20-year-old spent most of his time in his parents' white stucco condo playing video games. He had never been arrested and had no known history of illicit drug use. Ali did possess a .12-gauge shotgun his father had given to him in 2012.

     At 4:45 in the morning of Tuesday, February 19, 2013, Syed's mother called 911 from the Ladera Ranch condo. "I think somebody was shot," she said. "I heard a gunshot." Deputies with the Orange County Sheriff's Office found, in Syed's room, 20-year-old Courtney Aoki. (There were reports she worked as a stripper.) Aoki had been killed instantly by three shotgun blasts to the head and upper body. Syed had fled the murder scene in his parents' black GMC Yukon before the deputies arrived at the dwelling.

     From Ladera Ranch, Ali Syed headed north on Interstate 5 where, 20 miles from his home, he exited the interstate and drove into the town of Tustin. Driving with a flat tire, he pulled into a Denny's parking lot alongside a man sitting in an older model blue Cadillac. Syed pointed his shotgun at the man and yelled, "Get out!" Instead of complying with the order, the driver of the Cadillac drove off. He didn't get far. Syed raised the shotgun and blew out the fleeing driver's rear window, wounding him in the back of the head. The victim, who managed to escape on foot to a nearby hospital, survived the shooting.

     Syed approached a man pumping gas at a Mobile station. "I don't want to hurt you," he said. "I just killed someone. Give me your keys. This is my last day." Syed climbed in behind the wheel of this man's Dodge pickup truck and headed north. On Interstate 5 he drove five miles before merging onto a southbound lane which took him to Freeway 55. He pulled the stolen truck to the shoulder of the highway, stepped out of the vehicle and began shooting at motorists commuting to work, wounding three of them.

     After firing randomly at passing vehicles Mr. Syed climbed into the Dodge pickup, pulled back onto the highway and proceeded to the Edinger Avenue exit from where he drove into Santa Ana. Shortly after pulling into town he approached a man sitting in a BMW. Syed ordered 69-year-old Melvin Edwards of Laguna Hills out of his vehicle. As the victim stood at the side of the street Syed executed him with three shotgun blasts.

     Driving Melvin Edwards' BMW, Ali Syed returned to Tustin. In the parking lot of a computer store he murdered Jeremy Lewis. Lewis, a plumber from Fullerton, was walking to a construction site at a nearby Fairfield Inn. A construction supervisor saw the shotgun-armed Syed chasing Lewis across the parking lot. The supervisor drove his pickup truck onto the lot in an effort to rescue Lewis, but Syed shot him in the arm and stole his vehicle. It was 5:45 in the morning.

     Just before six o'clock, at an intersection about 25 miles north of Ladera Ranch, officers with the California Highway Patrol caught up with Syed. The video game playing college student, after killing three people and wounding three others in the course of his 75-minute suburban shooting spree, jumped out of the stolen pickup truck while it was still moving. Syed pressed the muzzle of his shotgun to his head and pulled the trigger. He became his seventh victim.

     For reasons that remained a mystery absent a suicide note or some kind of manifesto, Ali Syed shot six innocent strangers. There was no way to know if he had been inspired by other recent high-profile mass murder-suicide cases or if suicide had been his ultimate goal. Why did he murder the young woman in his room and the two men he encountered as they went about their daily routines? These are questions that will never be answered.

     In the wake of homicidal crime sprees, people ask if there were any indications that this person was capable of such mayhem. These events are almost always impossible to predict because it's impossible to know what is going on inside the mind of a mentally disturbed person. 

Sunday, August 20, 2023

Helen Pearson's Murderous Stalker

     On October 21, 2013, 33-year-old Helen Pearson, a resident of Exeter, England, while walking in the rain from her flat to a physical fitness class at a nearby gym was stabbed in the back by an attacker armed with a large pair of scissors. The man dragged Pearson through the entrance gate of St. Bartholomew Cemetery where he pinned her to the ground, punched her and stabbed her in the face and lower jaw.

     When Sandra Robertson, a passing motorist, heard Pearson's screams, she jumped out of her vehicle and ran into the cemetery, a place known by the locals as the Catacombs and pushed the assailant off the victim. That gave Pearson the chance to run out of the cemetery and take refuge at the Fitness First Gym. The attacker fled the scene as well.

     Questioned at the gym by a police officer, the hysterical Pearson cried, "It was my stalker!" An ambulance crew rushed the victim to a nearby hospital. Her wounds, while serious, were not life-threatening.

     Helen Pearson's nightmare began in 2008 when her neighbor, an unemployed mechanic named Joseph Willis, asked if she would accompany him to a local pub to hear a band. She declined his invitation. Her rejection incurred Willis' wrath and turned him into an unrelenting stalker. During the next five years Mr. Willis devoted himself to making Pearson's life a living hell.

     Early on, Joseph Willis made his intentions clear. He wrote Pearson a letter that read: "I want to see how you would cope if you were attacked…Would you fight back? Scream? Let the game begin." Willis' "game" included regularly pawing through her trash, visiting her Facebook page, disrupting her eating disorder support group (she suffered from obsessive compulsion disorder), harassing hang-up phone calls, depositing a dead cat on her doorstep, slashing her tires and vandalizing her flat and her parents' home in Crediton. Willis also continued to send her poison letters in which he called her a "lying evil girl" and warned her to "watch her back."

     On April 7, 2014 Joseph Willis' attempted murder trial got underway at the Crown Court in Exeter. Crown prosecutor Richard Crabb, in his opening statement to the jury, said, " The defendant was obsessed with Helen Pearson and consumed with hostility for reasons that may never become apparent. Willis was consumed by hatred. He had done his best to make her life a misery and made clear threats against her in two letters." [As a matter of substantive criminal law, motive does not have to be proven, just the intent to commit the crime. Intent, however, is often inferred from motive.]

     Helen Pearson took the stand and described to the jury how the 49-year-old defendant had forced her and her family to live in fear. Her father installed security grilles on her windows and set up a security camera at his house in Crediton. She changed cellphones every month and lived in constant fear of being physically attacked. Pearson also kept a diary in which she documented more than 100 incidents of harassment and vandalism.

     In describing the October 21, 2013 attempted murder, Pearson said, "He came from behind. I did not hear him because it was raining heavily and I had my umbrella up. The first thing I knew was when I was stabbed in the back. I turned and saw it was Joe. I saw his eyes and he looked absolutely furious. The first blow pushed me to the ground, and he kicked me and was dragging me along. It was obvious he was planning to get me into the Catacombs. That was where I was going to end. I tried to get free. I felt another kick and stab from behind. I thought this is going on until I am completely dead."

     Continuing with her account of the vicious attack, Pearson said, "I got my phone and was able to dial two nines but not the third. He got the phone away from me. He was deranged and so evil. He knew full well what he was doing and he was determined I was going to be dead. He was trying to drag me farther and farther from the cemetery entrance gates. I thought this is where he is going to get rid of the body. I thought I would be found and my mum and dad would not know what happened.

     "I had six stab wounds in total in my back. I remember seeing the scissors and turning my head and seeing them come down…I was struggling and screaming and pleading. I remember saying, 'Please, Joe. No!' He never spoke to me throughout the whole thing."

     The victim-witness told the jury about her father's home security camera and her window bars. Because the police were useless and apparently uninterested in protecting this woman, the family hired a private detective in an effort to catch the stalker in the act. During Pearson's prolonged ordeal she filed 125 complaints with the Devon and Cornwall Police Departments.

     On April 15, 2014, the jury found Joseph Willis guilty of attempted murder. Outside the Exeter court house following the verdict, Helen Pearson, in speaking to a reporter with the BBC, said, "Every night you go to bed and you don't know what is going to happen and you constantly live in fear. You see that there's no way the stalking is ever gong to end." Pearson, feeling hopeless and vulnerable, said she had thought many times about ending her misery by killing herself.

     Helen Pearson's father, Bernard Pearson, said this to the BBC: "Nobody with the police could see that the level of violence was rising, rising and rising." Mr. Pearson spoke of the family's intention of filing a formal complaint against the law enforcement agencies that failed to protect his daughter against the obsessed degenerate who had obviously intended at some point to murder her.

     The Exeter Crown Court judge, in appreciation of Sandra Robertson's heroic life saving intervention on Helen Pearson's behalf, granted her a 500 pound reward. Regarding the future of the convicted stalker and attempted murderer, the judge said Mr. Willis could anticipate a "lengthy term of imprisonment."

     In May 2014, Bernard Pearson filed a 48-page complaint against the Devon and Cornwall Police Departments. To a BBC reporter he said, "They failed us terribly. The attacks were getting worse and worse and the police failed to realize this and act."

     On July 17, 2014, the judge sentenced Joseph Willis to life in prison, stipulating that the deadly stalker had to serve at least 13 years of his sentence before being eligible for parole.

     Helen Pearson, in speaking to reporters after the sentencing hearing, once again accused the local police of failing to protect her in the face of obvious threats against her life.

     On September 2, 2014, the convicted stalker's attorney filed an appeal to have his client's life sentence reduced. In response to this, Willis' victim said: "I'm not going to let [the appeal] worry me. Willis spent five years making my life a misery. Now he's trying to do it again from behind bars, but he won't succeed."

     An agency in England called The Independent Police Complaints Commission launched an investigation to determine why this woman's plight had been ignored by the Devon and Cornwall Police Departments.

     On March 3, 2015, appellate judges at the Royal Courts of Justice rejected Joseph Willis' sentencing appeal.

     The chiefs of police of the Devon and Cornwall Police Departments apologized to Helen Pearson for the official misconduct and incompetence that led to her victimization. The chiefs promised to take the crime of stalking more seriously in the future. Ms. Pearson called the apologies and promises meaningless.

Saturday, August 19, 2023

The Sarah McLinn Murder Case: The Multi-Personality Defense

     Harold Sasko lived in a middle-class, ranch style home in suburban Lawrence, Kansas with his chocolate lab Oliver. The 52-year-old businessman owned three CiCi's Pizza restaurants, one in Lawrence and two in Topeka. In 2014, Mr. Sasko informed the woman he was dating at the time that one of his former employees, a 18-year-old named Sarah Brooke Gonzales McLinn, would be temporarily staying at his house. He said she needed help with her drug problem and wanted to separate herself from street gang influence. McLinn worked at a local Bed, Bath & Beyond store.

     On Friday, January 17, 2014, a member of McLinn's family reported  her missing. The relative informed officers with the Lawrence Police Department that the 18-year-old had been missing for three days. They became concerned when she didn't show up for a family dinner three days earlier.

     On January 17, 2014, pursuant to the missing persons investigation, a Lawrence police officer knocked on Mr. Sasko's door. When the resident didn't answer, the officer looked through a window and saw a man lying on the floor in a pool of blood.

     The body in the house turned out to be Mr. Sasko's. He had been murdered and the killer had presumably driven off in his 2008 Nissan Altima. Mr. Sasko's dog Oliver was also missing. A local judge issued a warrant for Sarah McLinn's arrest as a prime suspect in the Sasko murder.

     At ten-thirty Saturday night, January 25, 2014, 1,560 miles from the murder scene, Everglades National Park rangers in Dade County, Florida arrested Sarah McLinn. They found her sleeping in the park in the back of the murdered man's car. She also possessed Oliver, Mr. Sasko's dog. The park rangers took McLinn into custody on charges related to the possession of illicit drugs.

     The authorities in Florida also discovered in the Nissan what detectives believed to be the Sasko murder weapons--two knives and an ax. The day after her arrest on the drug charges the district attorney of Douglas County, Kansas charged McLinn with first-degree murder.

     At a press conference on January 27, 2014, Lawrence Police Chief Tarik Khatib told reporters that, "Based upon our investigation, evidence suggests Ms. McLinn gained control over Mr. Sasko and then killed him." According to the police chief, the victim had been attacked with an "edged instrument." Moreover, Mr. Sasko had not been conscious when he died. Chief Khatib said that Mr. Sasko was murdered on January 14, the day McLinn went missing. He did not identify a motive. The suspect, however, had confessed.

     On February 1, 2014, McLinn, after waiving an extradition hearing in Florida, was transported back to Kansas where officers booked her into the Douglas County Jail. The judge set her bond at $1 million.

     According to investigators, Sarah McLinn, several hours after the murder, was in Bishop, Texas, a small town 100 miles from the Mexican border. She had stopped at two gas stations in Bishop, about 900 miles south of Lawrence, Kansas.

     Carl Cornwell, McLinn's attorney, told reporters that the issue in the case would center on his client's motive to kill, not on whether or not she had committed the murder.

     The McLinn murder trial got underway on March 5, 2015 in the Douglas County Courthouse. Prosecutor Charles Branson told the jury in his opening remarks that Sarah McLinn had carefully planned Mr. Sasko's murder.

     Defense attorney Carl Cornwell, in his opening address to the jury, said his client had not been in control of herself when she killed the victim. The murder, according to attorney Cornwell, had been committed by Alyssa, one of the defendant's multiple personalities.

     Lawrence police detective Robert Brown took the stand for the prosecution and testified that prior to the murder, McLinn had searched Google with the key phrase "neck vulnerable spots." In her confession she admitted stabbing the victim then slicing his throat. When asked by the detective why had she murdered Mr. Sasko, she said, " I wanted to see someone die."

     Detective Brown testified that the defendant had disabled the victim by crushing six sleeping pills and pouring the powder into his can of beer. A toxicology report confirmed the presence of this substance in the victim's system.

     The key witness for the defense, Dr. Marilyn A. Hutchinson, a psychologist, testified that during the 17 hours she spent with McLinn, the defendant spoke to her as four personalities--Sarah, Alyssa, Myla and Vanessa. Based on these interviews, Dr. Hutchinson diagnosed McLinn as suffering from Dissociative Identify Disorder (DID), a psychological condition once called Multiple Personality Syndrome. According to Dr. Hutchinson, Alyssa had told the defendant to murder the victim.

     Defense attorney Cornwell rested his case without putting Sarah, Alyssa, Myla or Vanessa on the stand.

     On March 20, 2015, the jury, after deliberating just four hours, found the defendant guilty of first-degree murder. Six months later the judge sentenced Sarah McLinn to fifty years in prison.

     The McLinn case illustrates that a defense attorney, regardless of how idiotic the defense, can find a courtroom psychologist, for a proper fee, to play along. Fortunately, most juries are smart enough to cut through such nonsense.

Friday, August 18, 2023

The Bobby Wilson Murder Case

     About 6,000 people lived in Spanish Fort, Alabama, a Gulf Coast suburb of Mobile on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay. In the early morning hours of August 11, 2007, Spanish Fort police officer Steve McGough pulled into Wilson's Service Center for gas and a cup of coffee. When McGough walked into the convenience store he found the owner, Arthur "Bobby" Wilson, slumped over the counter. The officer grabbed hold of the bleeding 71-year-old and helped him onto a chair. Mr. Wilson had been beaten in the head with a blunt object, and robbed. As the officer called in the robbery and assault, the victim made "gurgling sounds" and mumbled incoherently. Four months later Mr. Wilson died from his head wounds. The victim had been unable to describe or name his assailant. The robbery/assault case had turned into a murder.

     In December 2008, shortly after Bobby Wilson's death, Baldwin County prosecutor Michael Plyant charged Leslie Eric Buzbee with capital murder in the case. Police arrested the 23-year-old and hauled him to the Baldwin County Corrections Center in nearby Bay Minette, Alabama. The murder suspect remained in custody without bail.

     Detectives learned that days before the robbery/assault, Mr. Buzbee, who lived ten minutes from the service station and knew the victim well, had asked Mr. Wilson to cash a check. According to the police theory of the case, when Bobby Wilson refused to cash Buzbee's check the second time the suspect assaulted him with an aluminum baseball bat the victim kept on the premises. The authorities were convinced that Buzbee, high on cocaine and in desperate need of money, assaulted Mr. Wilson out of anger and the need for cash to support his drug habit.

     Leslie Buzbee's trial got underway on May 4, 2009 in Bay Minette. His attorney, John Beck, exploited the fact the prosecution, without the murder weapon, physical evidence linking the defendant to the crime scene, a confession or an eyewitness, had an extremely weak circumstantial case. As it turned out, Attorney Beck was right. Four weeks later the judge declared a mistrial after the jury could not reach an unanimous verdict.

    Following the hung jury, prosecutor Plyant decided to try again. The second trial, which commenced in August 2009, ended prematurely when the judge declared a mistrial on a procedural issue.

     On August 8, 2009, the Baldwin County prosecutor took a third run at Leslie Buzbee. Without new incriminating evidence the third jury after four hours of deliberation found the 25-year-old defendant not guilty. Leslie Buzbee, having been incarcerated in the Baldwin County Correction Center since December 2008, walked free. (The double jeopardy clause of the U.S. Constitution protected Buzbee, regardless of what new evidence might surface, from being tried a fourth time for Mr. Wilson's murder.)

     Following the not guilty verdict, in response to a reporter's question about whether the authorities would re-open the murder case, prosecutor Plyant said, "The investigation is done because we tried the person we believe did the crime."

     The Wilson murder case, from an investigative point of view, produced a suspect, but didn't feature enough hard evidence to support a conviction. Had Bobby Wilson, before he died, been able to communicate with the police, the outcome of this case might have been different.

     On December 31, 2012, officers with the Mobile Police Department arrested Leslie Eric Buzbee in connection with a series of residential burglaries and thefts from vehicles. Officers found cocaine and drug paraphernalia in his car. At the time of his arrest he was the subject of several burglary warrants issued out of Baldwin County. He was back in jail, but not for murder.

Thursday, August 17, 2023

The Kodiak Island Coast Guard Double Murder Case

     There are locations in the country where murder, while still shocking, is commonplace and therefore predictable. This is true in cities like Chicago, Detroit, Washington D. C. Philadelphia and St. Louis. In the sparsely populated regions of the United States criminal homicide is usually an uncommon event, and double-murder is unheard of. But wherever there are people, even if just a few of them, murder can raise its ugly head. That's what happened in Alaska at the Coast Guard Base on Kodiak Island 250 miles southwest of Anchorage.

     Home to Coast Guard cutters, helicopters and rescue swimmers who come to the aid of mariners on the Bering Sea and Pacific Ocean, the base is populated by 1,300 Coast Guard and civilian employees. The Base is located near Kodiak, a town of 6,300. The Base's Communications Station, the Coast Guard's "ears in the sky", monitors radio traffic from ships and planes.

     At eight in the morning of April 12, 2012, a civilian employee of the Communications Station, upon entering the rigger building where radio antennas were repaired, found the bodies of two fellow employees. Both men had been shot to death. The victims were identified as 51-year-old Richard Belisle and James Hopkins, 41. Belisle, a former Petty Officer, had stayed on at the station as a civilian employee after his retirement. Petty Officer 1st Class Hopkins was an Electrician's Mate.

     Because the men had been murdered on U.S. Government property, the FBI had investigative jurisdiction in the case. Agents were working on the double-murder with Alaska State Troopers. Investigators believed that the victims had been shot to death as they arrived for work sometime between seven and eight that morning. The obvious suspects were base employees who had access to the secured rigger building.

     One of the Communication Station employees who came under suspicion was 61-year-old James Michael Wells. Wells lived with his wife Nancy six miles from the base in the community of Bells Flats. Wells' blue 2001 Honda SUV was seen near the murder scene on the morning of the crime. A week after the murders FBI agents searched Wells' house. They did not, at that time, take him into custody.

     On May 17, 2012, Homeland Security Secretary Director Janet Napolitano, feeling the heat over the still unsolved double murder, issued a meaningless press statement that her department had put its full weight and resources behind the investigation.

     FBI agents, on February 2013, arrested James Wells on two charges of federal murder. The U.S. Magistrate denied the suspect bail. Two weeks later, Wells' wife Nancy, in speaking to an Associated Press reporter, said, "I have faith in my husband's innocence. I have faith in the quality of the investigation."

     In April 2014, a jury found James Wells, a disgruntled employee, guilty of double murder. The judge sentenced him to life. Wells appealed the conviction on grounds the prosecution testimony of a forensic psychologist describing the personality characteristics of workplace killers should not have been admitted into evidence against him.

     In December 2017, a three judge panel on the 9th U. S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed James Well's conviction on grounds the forensic psychologist's testimony was unconstitutionally prejudicial.

      In January 2020, following his second murder trial, the jury found James Wells guilty. The federal judge sentenced him to life in prison. 

Wednesday, August 16, 2023

Brazil's Motorbike Serial Killer

     During a nine month period beginning in January 2014, a man on a motorbike in the central Brazilian city of Goiania, used a .38-caliber revolver to shoot 39 people to death. The serial killer approached his intended victims on his motorbike, shouted "robbery!," shot them at close range, then drove off without taking anything from the people he murdered.

     Sixteen of the serial killer's victims were young women, the youngest being a 14-year-old girl shot to death at a bus stop in February 2014. The rest of the murder victims included homeless people, homosexuals and transvestites.

     The Goiania police caught a break on October 12, 2014 when the killer on the motorbike shot at but didn't kill his intended victim. The young woman told detectives that she knew the shooter from seeing him at a local bar.

     On Tuesday October 14, 2014, the Brazilian police arrested 26-year-old Thiago Henrique Da Rocha at his mother's house in Goiania. The serial murder suspect, during a prolonged police interrogation, confessed to the 39 criminal homicides committed in 2014. He said he started killing people when he was 22-years-old. Da Rocha told his interrogators that he wasn't sure how many people he had murdered. All of the shootings, he said, involved victims chosen randomly.

     Da Rocha lived in Goiania with his mother. A search of her house resulted in the discovery of the .38-caliber murder weapon. The police also seized a pair of handcuffs and several knives.

     Shortly after Da Rocha's arrest, the Goiania police chief, at a press conference, said, "Da Rocha felt anger at everything and everyone. He had no link to any of his victims and chose them at random. He could have killed me, you or  your children."

     When detectives asked Da Rocha what caused all of this rage, he told them that he had been sexually abused by a male neighbor when he was 11-years-old. So, why did he take out his anger on so many women? Rejection, he said. A lot of women had rejected his romantic overtures. In addition to the sexual assaults and the female rejection, he had been bullied at school. "I was quieter than the other kids," he said. "I suffered mental and physical aggression. I don't know if that has anything to do with it, but these things accumulate inside you." 

     A few days following his arrest, Da Rocha supposedly tried to kill himself by slashing his wrists with a broken light bulb. Jail guards interceded before he was able to seriously cut himself.

     Da Rocha asked a jail guard if he would face a murder trial if he killed a fellow inmate. He said he still felt the urge to kill. He said his feelings of "fury" only abated when he killed a person.

     The handsome serial killer, no doubt the recipient of marriage proposals, became an instant celebrity upon his arrest. In speaking to Brazilian reporters from his jail cell, Da Rocha explained that the killing of a victim in cold blood did not make him happy. He said the next morning "I wasn't happy, no. There was the feeling of regret for what I had done."

     To reporters hanging on every word, Da Rocha said, "If I have a disease, I'd like to know what it is, and also if there is a cure."

     In a statement that revealed the depth of this young killer's sociopathy, Da Rocha said, "I'd like to ask for forgiveness, but I think it's too difficult to ask for forgiveness right now." Even for a sociopath, the extent of this narcissist's self-centeredness was staggering. Because he enjoyed the limelight, Da Rocha was a crime reporter's dream criminal.

     In May 2016, after Thiago Henrique Da Rocha was convicted of eleven cold-blooded murders, the Brazilian judge sentenced the serial killer to 25 years in prison. The idea this man could someday walk free was infuriating and impossible to understand.  In Brazil, the life of a murder victim had little value.  

Tuesday, August 15, 2023

The Steven Fortin Murder Case: Conflicting Bite Mark Testimony

     In 1994, police found the body of 25-year-old Melissa Padilla in a concrete pipe along Route 1 near Woodbridge, New Jersey. Naked from the waist down, she had been beaten and sexually assaulted. The killer had bitten her on the chin and left breast. Padilla had been abducted the night before from a nearby convenience store in the Avenel section of Woodbridge. The police had no suspects and the investigation quickly died on the vine.

     In April 1995 the state police in Maine contacted the Padilla case investigators with a lead. They had arrested 31-year-old Steven Fortin for the sexual assault of a female state police officer who had been bitten on the chin and left breast. Fortin was also living in Woodbridge at the time of Padilla's murder. Although the suspect denied involvement in the New Jersey homicide, he pleaded guilty in November 1995 to the assault in Maine. The judge sentenced him to 20 years.

     Five years after entering prison in Maine, the authorities in New Jersey put Fortin on trial for the murder of Melissa Padilla. The prosecution's key witness, FBI criminal profiler Robert Hazelwood, connected the defendant to the Padilla murder by noting similarities in its criminal MO to the sexual assault in Maine. The jury in New Jersey, on the strength of this testimony, found Fortin guilty. In February 2004 the New Jersey Supreme Court overturned the conviction on the grounds it was not supported by sufficient evidence.

     New Jersey prosecutors retried Steven Fortin in 2007. This time they had physical evidence connecting him to the victim. A DNA analyst testified that the defendant could not be excluded as the primary source of the saliva recovered from the Marlboro cigarette butt found near Padilla's body. According to this expert, only one out of 3,500 people could be linked to this evidence. Moreover, the defendant could not be excluded as the DNA source of the blood and tissue traces found under the victim's fingernails.

     Dr. Lowell J. Levine, one of the pioneers in the field of crime scene bite mark identification, a forensic odontologist from upstate New York, had compared photographs of the victim's bite mark wounds (The photographs did not include a ruler measuring the marks because the photographer didn't recognize the bruises as teeth marks.) with photographs of the defendant's front teeth. Dr. Levine noticed a space between Fortin's lower front incisors that corresponded to a space in the mark on the victim's left breast. Dr. Levine testified that although he could not say to a scientific certainty that the defendant had bitten the victim, he could not exclude him as the biter.

     Dr. Adam Freeman, a forensic dentist from Westport, Connecticut, testified that in his study of 259 bite mark cases, the largest study of its kind, he found only five cases in which the attackers had bitten their victims on the chin and the breast. Dr. Freeman's testimony had helped link the defendant, circumstantially, to the sexual assault in Maine for which he had pleaded guilty.

     Steven Fortin's defense team countered Dr. Levine with another world renowned forensic odontologist, Dr. Norman Sperber, the chief forensic dentist with the California Department of Justice. Dr. Sperber had testified for the defense at the first trial, but the jury had disregarded his testimony. He, like Dr. Levine, had testified for the prosecution in the 1979 trial of serial killer Ted Bundy. Since then, Dr. Sperber had appeared as an expert witness in 215 trials. According to his analysis, Steven Fortin could not have made the bite marks on Melissa Padilla's body. According to Dr. Sperber: "The tracing of his [Fortin's] teeth doesn't even come close to the crime scene bite marks." The forensic odontologist went on to say that bite mark analysis has limitations as a form of crime scene associative evidence. It was not as reliable, he said, as DNA and fingerprint identification. "Skin is a serious limitation for bite mark analysis because it rebounds and is movable," he said. "Bite mark evidence is not a true science."

     On December 4, 2007 the jury of nine men and three women, after deliberating nine hours, found Steven Fortin guilty of first-degree murder and first-degree sexual assault. The judge sentenced him to life plus twenty years. 

     In June 2020, a New Jersey appellate court, in finding other "strong evidence" besides bite marks to connect Steven Fortin to the New Jersey murder, denied his appeal.