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Thursday, June 13, 2024

When in Rome: The Finnegan Lee Elder Murder Case

     In 2016 Finnegan Lee Elder lived with his parents in Mill Valley, California, an upscale suburban community in the San Francisco Bay Area. The 16-year-old was a junior at the $19,000 a year Sacred Heart Preparatory School in San Francisco's Cathedral Hill neighborhood.

     In October 2016, Elder, in a pre-arraigned fight with a fellow member of his school's football team, hurt his opponent when the teen struck his head on the pavement. The injured youth had to be placed into an induced coma. A local prosecutor charged Finnegan Elder with assault. (The disposition of the case, not a matter of public record, was resolved in juvenile court. Finnegan Elder ended up graduating from Tamalpais High School in Mill Valley.)

     In July 2019 Finnegan Lee Elder, now a student at Santa Barbara City College, was vacationing in Rome, Italy with his childhood friend, Gabriel Christian Natale-Hjorth. The young men were staying at Rome's Le Meridien Visconti Hotel.

     At eleven o'clock on the night of July 25, 2019 Elder and Natale-Hjorth were in the Trastevere section of the city, a place popular with tourists and young people. The young Americans were looking for 80 euros worth of cocaine. It was there they met an Italian man named Sergio Brugiatelli and one Brugiatelli's associates. Brugiatelli, a police drug informant, took the cocaine money and departed on foot to acquire the drug, leaving his friend behind with the college students. He also left his bicycle and his backpack that contained his cellphone.

     A short time later when Brugliatelli returned, he handed Finnegan Elder a bag containing ground up aspirin. This led to a heated argument that ended when the two college students grabbed Mr. Brugliatelli's backpack and fled.

     Back at the Le Meridien Visconti Hotel, Finnegan Elder took a call made by Brugliatelli to the cellphone still in his backpack. The drug snitch and Elder agreed to meet on the street near the hotel where Brugliatelli would return the drug money in exchange for his backpack and phone.

     Sergio Brugliatelli had no intention of meeting Elder and Natale-Hjorth in the early morning hours on the deserted street near the college students' hotel. Instead he reported the fraudulent drug transaction and the theft of his backpack to the authorities who dispatched two plain-clothed Carabinieri officers with Italy's military police. The officers showed up at the meeting site to question the two students from America. Neither officer was armed.

     At some point after the police officers confronted the students, Finnegan Elder pulled a serrated-edged combat knife with a 7-inch blade and stabbed 35-year-old police officer Cerciello Rega eleven times. Rega, bleeding profusely, collapsed to the street as Natale-Hjorth scuffled with Rega's partner, Anorea Varriale.

     Following the knife attack Finnegan Elder and Natale-Hjorth fled the scene while officer Varriale attended to his bleeding partner. Officer Rega died a few hours later at a local hospital.

     Back at the hotel Elder cleaned off the knife he had brought in his luggage from California. Natale-Hjorth hid the weapon in a hotel room ceiling panel.

     Later that Friday Italian police officers arrested Elder and Natale-Hjorth at their hotel. They were both charged with the murder of officer Cerciello Rega. The American college students were held without bail at Rome's Regina Coeli Prison.

     When interrogated, Finnegan Elder, in admitting stabbing officer Rega, claimed self defense. He said that he believed the two officers were thugs sent by Sergio Brugiatelli. Natale-Hjorth told his interrogators he had no idea his travel companion had brought a knife to Italy.

     If convicted as charged, both defendants faced life sentences. (Italy does not have the death penalty.)

     The Elder/Natale-Hjorth murder trial got underway on February 26, 2020 in Rome, Italy. At this point, due to media coverage of the case, public opinion was strongly against the defendants. Two judges presided over the trail that included a panel of six jurors. Finnegan Elder's parents were in the courtroom and planned to stay in Italy for the duration of the trial. The first few days of the proceeding were taken up with procedural issues.

     On March 9, 2020 the judges postponed the Elder/Natale-Hjorth murder trial for five weeks due to the Coronavirus crisis in the country.
     Two years after the trial postponement both defendants were found guilty of murder. The judges sentenced Elder to 24 years in prison and Natalie-Hjorth to 22 years behind bars. Both men appealed their convictions which were upheld by a higher court. 

Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Dr. Jon Norberg's Nightmare: False Accusations of Rape

    Dr. Jon Norberg, an orthopedic surgeon in Fargo, North Dakota who specialized in hands, elbows and upper extremities was estranged from his wife Alonna, a former pediatrician who suffered from Sjogren's Syndrome, a rare immune system disorder. In 2011 the couple, in their early 40s, were in the midst of a contentious divorce and child custody battle. In June of that year Dr. Alonna Norberg filed a complaint with the Fargo Police Department in which she accused her estranged husband of endangering her life by repeatedly and without her consent injecting her with the powerful anesthetic drug propofol. (This drug gained notoriety after Michael Jackson overdosed on it in 2009.) According to Mrs. Norberg, Dr. Norberg had injected her with the drug thirty times between September 2010 and June 2011. The complainant also accused her husband of rape. She told detectives that on the morning of June 17, 2011 she awoke to discover physical evidence that her husband, while she was under the influence of the drug, had forced her to have oral sex. She found on the nightstand next to the bed a bottle of Diprivan (a propofol brand).

     On August 2, 2011 a prosecutor with the Cass County State Attorney's Office charged Dr. Jon Norberg with gross sexual imposition, a class AA felony that carried a maximum sentence of life. For injecting his wife with propofol the surgeon was also charged with reckless endangerment, a class C felony that could put him in prison for up to five years. As a result of these criminal charges Dr. Norberg took a leave of absence from his medical practice. (The State Board of Medical Examiners would later suspend his medical license indefinitely.) Following his arrest, arraignment and release from custody on bail Dr. Norberg pleaded not guilty to both charges.

     On November 7, 2012 Cass County prosecutor Reid Brady, in his opening remarks to the jury, said, "At the end of this case you will know that the defendant defied dangerous risks by unsafely using propofol on his wife. You will know that he obsessed with sex so much that he perpetrated sex acts on her when he knew she was unaware."

     Defense attorney Robert Hoy, in his opening address to the jury, said that Alonna Norberg had concocted the drug and rape allegations to get the upper hand in the couple's divorce and child custody battles. The defendant had injected his wife with the drug three times to alleviate her pain from Sjogren's Syndrome and to help her sleep.

     Two days into the trial Dr. Alonna Norberg took the stand as the prosecution's principal witness. For two days she gave in a breathless manner graphic and dramatic testimony of being constantly drugged, and on the one occasion raped under its influence. "I remember," she said, "looking around thinking I've got to get up and I got to get away...It was just true true horror because I was choking and I couldn't get his mouth away, I couldn't get my body away."

     Following her testimony Alonna Norberg walked out of the courtroom and did not return to the trial. On November 14, 2012 Robert Knorr, Alonna's father, took the stand and testified regarding an October 28, 2012 meeting he had with Dr. Norberg at the defendant's request. At this meeting in a Fargo restaurant, Dr. Norberg suggested, for the benefit of all parties, that his estranged wife recant her accusations. According to this witness the defendant had said, "She could either say that it was a dream or that she was lying or that she didn't remember." Mr. Knorr believed the defendant thought it would be in the best interest of the entire family if this matter did not go to trial. The witness said, "I told him there was no way that was going to happen." Following Robert Knorr's testimony the state rested its case.

     Under defense attorney Robert Hoy's direct questioning Dr. Harjinder Virdee, a Fargo psychiatrist with 35 years experience, painted a psychiatric portrait of the defendant's accuser that undermined her credibility. Dr. Virdee had spent more than 100 hours reviewing Alonna Norberg's extensive medical history comprised of hundreds of documents. The psychiatrist had also conducted a five-hour interview with the former pediatrician. According to the witness, Alonna was a compulsive nonstop talker who dominated the session.

     Regarding Alonna Norberg's accusations against her husband, it was Dr. Virdee's expert opinion that they were false. The accuser's description of what happened to her was simply too detailed and graphic to ring true. A person under the influence of the drug propofol could not recall what had happened to them is such detail.

     According to Alonna Norberg's medical file, she had been diagnosed with more than fifteen mental illnesses and disorders including obsessive-compulsive disorder; anxiety; histronic and narcissistic personality traits; depression; violent mood swings; and chemical dependency. At no time in the past decade had Alonna Norberg been taking fewer than twenty medications. Occasionally during this period she was ingesting more than fifty different drugs at one time. Many of these prescriptions involved opioid medication such as the addictive oxycodone. "She's got everything," Dr. Virdee said. "If you go through her medical notes there are umpteen diagnoses in the records. It jumps from one thing to another, one [doctor's] visit to the next. She is ill, she is psychiatrically ill."

     Based upon her review of Alonna Norberg's vast psychiatric history, Dr. Virdee added a new diagnosis. In Dr. Virdee's medical opinion, Alonna Norberg suffered from what the psychiatrist called fictitious disorder, a condition or personality trait in which people either fabricate symptoms or intentionally produce symptoms to gain attention and sympathy. (This sounds a lot like the Munchausen Syndrome Disorder.)

     On cross-examination prosecutor Reid Brady pointed out that Dr. Virdee was the first doctor to diagnose Alonna Norberg with the syndrome called fictitious disorder. "I'm the only doctor," she replied, "that has reviewed all the records as well. It's hard to wonder how she became a physician if she can't tell the difference between all these drugs. Her credibility is very low."

     Kori Norborg, the defendant's sister-in-law, took the stand and testified that Alonna's accusations were motivated by her fear that because of her drug addiction she would lose custody of the couple's two children.

     In his closing argument to the jury, defense attorney Hoy said, "There is not one shred of physical evidence to support their [the state's] case. Everything else...originates with Alonna Norberg. Desperate people do desperate things."

     On November 21, 2012, the day before Thanksgiving, the jury after a quick deliberation found Dr. Jon Norberg not guilty of both charges. Given the circumstances surrounding these accusations the charges should never have been filed in the first place. 

     In March 2013, a Fargo judge granted Dr. Norberg primary custody of his children. Five months later an official with the North Dakota Board of Medical Examiners reinstated his medical license. 

Tuesday, June 11, 2024

The Modern History of The Death Penalty

     While the death penalty is still lawful in 27 states, only Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Texas actually execute their death row inmates. Contrary to popular belief, the U.S. Supreme Court has never ruled that the death penalty itself amounts to cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Constitution's Eighth Amendment.

     Since the mid-1980s the states that carry out the death penalty have used lethal injection as the principal method of execution. Considered a more humane way to kill condemned prisoners than its predecessors the electric chair and the gas chamber, the use of drugs instead of electricity and lethal gas is more a matter of appearance--aesthetics if you will--than concern for the condemned.

     From 1976 through 2023, 1,392 state and federal inmates were executed by lethal injection. Four states--Alabama, Florida, South Carolina and Virginia--still allow death row prisoners to choose between deadly drugs and the electric chair.

The Electric Chair

     On August 6, 1890 William Kemmler, a convicted murderer serving time at New York's Auburn Prison, earned the distinction of becoming the first person in America to die in the electric chair. The state of Ohio followed New York by replacing hanging with electrocution in 1897. Massachusetts adopted the chair in 1900, New Jersey in 1906 and Virginia in 1908. By the 1930s most of the death penalty states used the electric chair as the primary method of execution. The other states killed their death row inmates by gas, by firing squad or by rope. The state of Kansas continued to hang its prisoners into the early 1960s.

     The state of Nebraska was one of the last jurisdictions to employ the electric chair as its sole method of killing murderers. In February 2008 the practice ended when the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled that electrocution was in itself cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the state's constitution.

The Electric Chair's Golden Era

     In the 1920s and 30s, Robert G. Elliott, an electrician from Long Island, the official executioner for six eastern states, electrocuted 387 inmates. For his work he charged $150 an execution. When he threw the switch (or turned the wheel) on two or more inmates at one prison visit he discounted his fee. Some of Elliott's most infamous clients included Bruno Richard Hauptmann (1936) the killer of the Lindbergh baby; Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray (1928) the killers of Ruth's husband Albert; and Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti (1927) the Italian anarchists convicted of killing a Boston area bank guard. Mr. Elliott, somewhat of a celebrity and obviously proud of his singular contribution to the American system of criminal justice, wrote a memoir called Agent of Death. The book came out in 1940. Long out of print it is today in the libraries of true crime book collectors.

Electrocuting Fat People

     In 1981 Allen Lee "Tiny" Davis murdered a pregnant woman and her two children during a home invasion robbery in Jacksonville, Florida. A year later a jury found him guilty of first-degree murder. The judge sentenced him to death. In 1998, as Davis' execution date approached, the 54-year-old's death house attorney argued that the 355-pound inmate was too heavy for the state's 76-year-old electric chair. Since its construction in 1923 the Florida state electric chair had dispatched 200 prisoners. In recent years the chair had been involved in some unsightly executions. For example, death house witnesses in 1997 saw flames shoot from a condemned man's head. So, in 1998, following this unpleasant tableau, the prison, with "Tiny" Davis in mind, oversaw the construction of a new, heavy-duty electric chair. The new device could easily handle a 355-pound guest. On July 8, 1999 the executioner sent 2,300 volts through the metal cap on the fat man's head for two minutes. It wasn't pretty, there was some blood and a little groaning, but the new chair did its job.

The Gas Chamber

     Death in a gas chamber usually took six to eighteen minutes. The execution ritual began with the condemned inmate being led into the death chamber and strapped into a chair by his arms, waist, ankles and chest. A mask was placed over the prisoner's face and the chamber sealed. The executioner poured sulfuric acid down a tube into a metal container on the floor, a canister that contained cyanide pellets. The mixture of the chemicals produced a cloud of lethal gas.

     An open curtain allowed witnesses to observe the inmate inside the chamber. At the designated moment, the executioner hit an electric switch that combined the chemicals that produced the killing agent.

     The gas chamber was an expensive form of execution. Moreover, one could argue that because the condemned man contributed to his own death by breathing in the gas, it was the most cruel. Dr. Allen McLean Hamilton, a toxicologist, first proposed the gassing of death row inmates to the state of Nevada in 1921. That year state legislators abolished the electric chair in favor of the gas chamber. On February 8, 1924 a Chinese immigrant named Gee Jon became the first person in America to be executed by gas. He died in the chamber inside the Nevada State Penitentiary in Carson City.

     Eventually adopted by eleven states as the official method of execution, lethal gas killed 594 prisoners in the U.S. from 1924 to 1999.

The Caryl Chessman Case

     Caryl Chessman was an armed robber and serial rapist who spent most of his adult life behind bars. In 1948 a Los Angeles jury found him guilty of 17 counts of robbery, kidnapping and rape. Among his crimes he had kidnapped a 17-year-old girl named Mary Alice Meza out of her car and forced her to give him oral sex. He committed a similar offense against another victim, Regina Johnson. Under California law at the time a kidnapping that involved bodily injury was a capital offense. Under this law the judge sentenced Chessman to die in the gas chamber.

     Following his highly publicized trial Mr. Chessman continued to argue his innocence through essays and books. His two memoirs, written behind bars, became bestsellers. During his twelve years on San Quentin's death row he filed dozens of appeals and managed to avoid eight execution dates. Following his failed last-minute attempt to avoid death with a writ of habeas corpus filed with the California Supreme Court, Caryl Chessman died of asphyxiation on May 2, 1960 in San Quentin's gas chamber. He is the only person to die in the gas chamber for a crime other than murder.

Lethal Injection

     By the 21st century state executioners were injecting death row inmates with a three-drug cocktail that included pentobarbital. When the European manufacturers of this deadly drug stopped exporting it and other killing agents to the United States, executioners found themselves in a fix. Some began using a single drug--usually pentobarbital if they had it--while others concocted new experimental cocktails made of drugs available in the United States.

     Anti-capital punishment activists used the lethal drug supply problem to further their push to have the death penalty abolished altogether. But for these crusaders, if it wasn't the inhumanity of using untested drugs, it was something else. Death house attorneys and political activists objected to executing prisoners who, when they committed their murders were under eighteen; were fat with hard-to-find veins; who had low I.Q.s; and in the case of a Missouri murderer named Russell Bucklew, wasn't healthy enough to be humanely executed.

The Clayton Lockett Case

     In 1999 an Oklahoma criminal named Clayton Lockett tortured then buried alive an 18-year-old girl who had been unfortunate enough to cross this predator's path. On April 29, 2014 the executioner at the state penitentiary in McAlester administered a three-drug cocktail of Midazalam (to render him unconscious), Vecuronium (to stop his breathing) and potassium chloride (to stop his heart).

     Seven minutes after the drugs went into Lockett's body he was still conscious. He moved his head and tried to get off the gurney seventeen minutes into the execution. Finally, 43 minutes after being injected, the 38-year-old died of a heart attack. It wasn't a perfect well-oiled killing, but in the end the drugs worked.

     By describing Lockett's death as torture, a horrible ordeal and a nightmare, death house lawyers, anti-capital punishment crusaders and people in the media who supported their cause, exploited Lockett's "botched" execution for all its worth. Suddenly executing a sadistic rapist and cold-blooded murderer by lethal injection became cruel and unusual punishment. For those who were not losing sleep over Clayton Lockett's bumpy ride into eternity, listening to this hand-wringing amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.

Back to Bullets

     In 2014 politicians in Utah, Wyoming and Missouri proposed bringing back the firing squad. In Utah legislators abolished death by firing squad in 2004, citing the excessive media attention surrounding this form of execution. Still, murderers sentenced before 2004 had the option to die by shooting. In 2010 Ronnie Lee Gardner, a man who fatally shot a Salt Lake City attorney in 1985 in Gardner's attempt to flee the court house, selected the firing squad over lethal injection. Five police officers used .30-caliber Winchester rifles to carry out Gardner's execution. Unlike Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma, Mr. Gardner died instantly. Nevertheless, those who opposed capital punishment fretted that the executioners might miss their target causing a slow and painful death. There was, however, a simple solution to this problem: give each executioner two bullets.

The Return of the Electric Chair

     On May 22, 2014 Tennessee Governor Bill Hallam signed a bill allowing the state to electrocute death row inmates in the event the state was unable to acquire the proper drugs for the execution. Lawmakers had overwhelmingly passed the bill the previous month with most people in the state supporting the new law. According to a 2014 Vanderbilt University poll 56 percent of registered voters in the state welcomed the return of the chair.

     Corrections officials in Tennessee were also dealing with the lethal drug shortage. Electricity, on the other hand, didn't come from Europe and was in good supply.

     In Tennessee, Daryl Holton, in 2009, was the last man in the state to die in the electric chair. In 1997 the Gulf War veteran murdered his three sons and a stepdaughter with a high-powered rifle in their Shelbyville, Tennessee garage. Death by electrocution was his choice of execution.  

Monday, June 10, 2024

Sirgiorgio Clardy: The Sociopath From Hell

     Sirgiorgio Clardy bounced from one foster home to another in Portland Oregon because even as a kid no adult could handle him. In 2000 when he was thirteen he attacked his foster dad with a baseball bat. Clardy also threatened and attacked teachers, school administrators and classmates. He took brass knuckles to school and once tried to sexually assault a female student.

     By 2013 the 26-year-old Clardy had been convicted of twenty felonies that included crimes such as forcing young women to work as prostitutes, assault and robbery. When police officers arrested him he'd threaten to rape their wives and children. When he wasn't incarcerated Mr. Clardy made everyone who come into contact with him miserable, including the teenaged girls he forced into prostitution. This brutal pimp had no business living outside of prison walls.

     In the summer of 2012 several 18-year-old prostitutes, against their will, were doing business for Clardy out of the Inn at the Convention Center, a motel on the edge of downtown Portland. During the course of that operation a john tried to leave the motel without paying one of Clardy's prostitutes. Clardy caught the john before he left the motel. The pimp knocked the free-loader off his feet then stomped his face. With the john on the ground bleeding, Clardy took all of his money. It took plastic surgery to repair the damage to the assault victim's face.

     Police officers arrested Clardy shortly after the attack. A Multnomah County prosecutor charged the violent pimp with compelling prostitution, first-degree robbery and second-degree assault. The suspect pleaded not guilty to all charges.

     In the months leading up to Clardy's trial he threatened and spit on several lawyers appointed to represent him. Eventually Judge Kelly Skye, realizing that no lawyer wanted to be near this man, declared that he would have to defend himself with the help of a legal advisor who would not be required to sit next to him in court. After awhile even the legal advisor asked the judge to be relieved from the unsavory assignment.

     In July 2013, not long after Clardy's trial got underway in Portland's Multnomah County Circuit Court, the defendant spit on sheriff's deputies and threatened the judge. The next day deputies rolled the defendant into court handcuffed to a wheelchair. To keep him from spitting on people the defendant's head was covered in a mesh bag. Because Clardy refused to get dressed for trial officers had wrapped him in a suicide smock.

     A few days into the trial, notwithstanding the presence of nine deputy sheriffs, Judge Skye ordered the defendant into another courtroom where he'd watch the proceedings on a video monitor. The judge considered the defendant too disruptive to be physically present at his own trial.

     The jurors concluded Clardy's two-week trial by finding him guilty of all charges. At the sentencing hearing a few days later the prosecutor put Dr. Frank Colistro on the stand. The psychologist, in practice for thirty years, said, "I've evaluated serial murderers, serial rapists and I'm going to tell you very few of those people reached the evaluation scores we're going to talk about here."

     According to the forensic psychologist Mr. Clardy was in the 100th percentile of the narcissistic psychopath scale. "People like Mr. Clardy," the doctor said, "are born bad. It's not something we can fix. That's why we have prisons."

      At the trial prosecutor had put Dr. Colistro on the stand to counter the defendant's claim that he heard voices and wanted to kill himself. Dr. Colistro testified that Clardy exemplified the textbook case of an anti-social psychopath, a man who thought he was smarter, more attractive and better than anyone else. According to Dr. Colistro, Sirgiorgio Clardy was not mentally ill. He was evil.

     Judge Judy Skye, based upon Sirgiorgio Claudy's violent past, criminal record, courtroom behavior and psychological evaluation declared him a "dangerous offender". People so designated, if given the chance, would offend again. As someone beyond the reach of rehabilitation, Judge Skye sentenced Clardy to 100 years in prison with no chance of parole until he served 36 years. Clardy, upon hearing his sentence, swore at the judge and threatened the deputy sheriffs.

     In January 2014, from his cell at the Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution, Clardy, through a handwritten, three-page complaint, filed a $100 million civil suit against, among others, Phil Knight, the chairman of the Nike Company. Clardy based his tort claim on the theory that Nike, on each shoe, does not provide a label that warns users that stomping a person's face while wearing this Nike product could cause serious injury to the stomped person. As a result of the defendant's omission the plaintiff experienced "great mental suffering".

     Clardy's lawsuit, the product of sociopathy in the extreme, was dismissed by a judge on October 2, 2014. 

Sunday, June 9, 2024

Ray Gricar: The Missing District Attorney

The Ray Gricar Missing Person Investigation

     In Bellefonte, Pennsylvania at 11:30 in the morning of Friday, April 15, 2005, Ray Gricar, the 59-year-old district attorney of Centre County, the home of Penn State University, called his live-in girlfriend to inform her he was on a pleasure drive through an area in the region called Penns Valley. Twelve hours later his girlfriend, Patty Fornicola, called 911 and reported him missing.

     The next day Mr. Gricar's red Mini Cooper was found parked near an antique mall in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania 55 miles east of Bellefonte. The interior of the vehicle reeked of cigarettes. Gricar, who didn't smoke, didn't like that smell. The car had been locked and Gricar's cellphone was inside. According to a Lewisburg shop owner whose antique store Gricar had patronized in the past, the district attorney, on the day he left Bellefonte was walking around the mall with a tall, dark-haired woman in her late 30s or early 40s. Investigators made no effort to identify and question this woman. Because this information wasn't published until 13 months after the district attorney's disappearance the police received no help from the public in identifying this possible witness. By the time the story came out the case had grown cold.

     In July 2005, three months after Ray Gricar drove off in his Mini Cooper and didn't return, his county-issued laptop was found in the Susquehanna River not far from the abandoned car. Three months after that the hard drive turned up in the same area of the river. Water had damaged it to the point that no data could be retrieved.

     Following the recoveries from the river the investigation of Gricar's disappearance, conducted by the Bellefonte Police Department (the Pennsylvania State Police didn't want the case and the FBI wasn't involved) ground to a halt. In the summer of 2008, with Ray Gricar still missing and no clues as to what happened to him or where he was, two of his colleagues, Bob Buehne Jr., the district attorney of Montour County and prosecutor Ted McKnight of Clinton County, held a press conference in Lewisburg where Gricar's vehicle had been found. Both men were highly critical of the Gricar missing person's investigation. The neighboring prosecutors said they couldn't understand why the information about Gricar and the mystery woman at the mall hadn't been made public until May 2006.

     On April 14, 2009, four years after Ray Gricar's disappearance, investigators discovered that someone using the missing man's home computer had, shortly before he went missing, searched the Internet on "how to fry a hard drive," and "water damage to a notebook computer." Assuming Mr. Gricar had made these inquiries, one of the more innocent explanations behind the Internet search was that Gricar, in contemplation of his retirement in nine months, wanted to clear his computer before handing it back to the county. This didn't explain, however, why the computer and hard drive ended up in the river. A more ominous motive was that before killing himself Mr. Gricar wanted to destroy data he didn't want anyone to see.

     On July 25, 2011 at the request of Ray Gricar's daughter, a Centre County judge declared him legally deceased.

Theories of Ray Gricar's Disappearance

     There are three schools of thought regarding what happened to Ray Gricar. He could have been murdered, committed suicide or walked off to start a new life under a different identity. The two most popular murder theories featured a mistress who lured him to the Susquehanna River where he was murdered by the woman's husband. The second murder scenario involved a criminal murdering the district attorney out of revenge. Since prosecutors are rarely murdered by people they have prosecuted or planned to put behind bars, the latter theory was the most improbable.

     Suicide seemed more likely than murder in this case. Ray Gricar's brother, Roy J. Gricar, committed suicide in May 1996 by jumping off a bridge over the Great Miami River near West Chester, Ohio. If Ray Gricar had jumped from a bridge across the Susquehanna River, what were the chances his body would have been found? Some believed the odds were great that his body would have been recovered. Others disagreed. To have an opinion on this question, one would have to know the ins and outs of the Susquehanna River.

     The so-called "walkaway" theory, that Mr. Gricar walked-off to start a new life under a new identity, while quite intriguing, didn't make much sense. For one thing he didn't clean out his bank account and drove off without tying up a lot of loose-ends. Following his disappearance there were more than 300 false sightings of him. Those who subscribed to the walkaway theory pointed out that Mr. Gricar had been fascinated by the 1985 disappearance of an Ohio police chief. Inside the chief's car, parked near Lake Erie, searchers found his wallet and his badge. They never found the chief's body. Some of those who believed that Mr. Gricar was still alive believed he could be hiding out in the federal government's witness protection program. (This possibility is out of the question because prosecutors are not eligible for the program.)          

Ray Gricar, The Man

     Ray Frank Gricar was born on October 9, 1945 in Cleveland, Ohio. He attended Gilmour, a prestigious Catholic high school in Gates Mills, Ohio. In 1966 while attending the University of Dayton he met his future wife, Barbara Gray. They were married in 1969. After graduating from Case Western Law School in Cleveland Mr. Gricar started his career as a prosecutor in northwest Ohio's Cuyahoga, County.

     In 1980 the couple and their daughter Lara moved to Bellefonte, Pennsylvania when Barbara landed a job at Penn State University in nearby State College. Shortly after that David Grine, the district attorney of Centre County, hired Ray as an assistant prosecutor. Five years later Mr. Gricar ran for the office of district attorney and won.

     Barbara and Ray divorced in 1991, and five years later Ray married his second wife, Emma. Following a tumultuous marriage he and Emma divorced in 2001. Two years later Ray Gricar moved in with Patty Fornicola, an employee of the Centre County District Attorney's Office who lived in a section of Bellefonte called Halfmoon Hill. By April 2005, having served several terms as district attorney, Ray Gricar was planning to retire in nine months.

     Although a private, somewhat distant person, District Attorney Gricar's colleagues considered him an outstanding career prosecutor with high ethical standards. Because he never had political ambitions beyond the district attorney's office he was not, according to his legal colleagues, subject to political pressure or influence. On a personal level he was known as a bit of a ladies' man.

Ray Gricar and the Jerry Sandusky Pedophilia Case

     In May 1998 when Jerry Sandusky was still an assistant football coach under Joe Paterno at Penn State University and active in his organization for troubled youth called The Second Mile, two 11-year-old boys told their parents that coach Sandusky had fondled them in the Penn State locker room showers. The mother of one of the accusers contacted Detective Ronald Schreffler with the University Police Department. Shortly after receiving the complaint, Mr. Schreffler, on a pretext, got Mr. Sandusky to meet the mother at her house where she confronted him about his being nude in the shower with her son. With the detective in the next room recording the conversation the boy's mother asked Jerry Sandusky if he had been sexually aroused by his physical contact with her son, and if his "private parts" had touched the boy. Sandusky did not deny showering with her son. Regarding the arousal question, he said, "I don't think so--maybe. I was wrong. I wish I could get forgiveness. I know I won't get it from you. I wish I were dead."

     A child psychologist who interviewed the boy concluded that his account, and coach Sandusky's response to the mother's interrogation indicated to him that he was "likely a pedophile." A second psychologist, Dr. John Seasock, after analyzing the same information came to a different conclusion.

     On June 2, 1998 District Attorney Ray Gricar decided not to prosecute the Penn State football coach. Four years later, the boy, referred to as victim # 6, took the stand at Sandusky's sexual abuse trial and described how the coach had lathered him up with soap then said, "I'm going to squeeze your guts out." Ronald Schreffler, later with the Department of Homeland Security, testified in June 2012 that he had wanted Ray Gricar to prosecute Sandusky in 1998 but was overruled.

     Had Ray Gricar prosecuted Jerry Sandusky for indecent assault, corruption of a minor and child endangerment, more victims, ones Mr. Sandusky had raped, might have come forward. Even if they hadn't, the district attorney would have exposed a pedophile within the Penn State system.

     In 1999 Jerry Sandusky retired from Penn State. He was awarded the title professor emeritus and given an office in the football building. He had full access to all of the sports facilities and used this access and his youth organization to attract and molest young boys.

     If Ray Gricar was not murdered or was still alive, he must have killed himself. The question was, did his decision not to prosecute Jerry Sandusky weigh on his conscience and play a role in his suicide? Between the time the prosecutor closed the case on Sandusky and his disappearance, Mr. Gricar must have been aware that accusations against the coach were still being made. Did he have regrets? Was he second-guessing himself?

     On June 23, 2012 a jury in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania found 68-year-old Jerry Sandusky guilty of sexually assaulting ten boys over a period of fifteen years. The judge sentenced him to 30 to 60 years in prison.

     People who have had access to Ray Gricar's papers say there was no reference in them to Jerry Sandusky. If this were true, whether or not Jerry Sandusky's pedophilia and Ray Gricar's disappearance were in any way connected will remain a mystery.

     On April 13, 2018, a spokesperson for Pennsylvania State Police Troop G announced that a new investigator, Trooper Dana Martini, had been assigned to track down leads in the 13-year-old Gricar disappearance. 
     As of August 2022, Ray Gricar remains missing and is presumed dead.

Saturday, June 8, 2024

A Raped Woman's Revenge

     Nevin Yildirim lived with her husband and two children, ages two and six, in a village in southwestern Turkey. In January 2012 her husband left home to work at a seasonal job in another town. Shortly after Mr. Yildirim began working at the other place, a 35-year-old member of the village named Nurettin came to Nevin's house and raped her. This married father of two threatened to shoot Nevin's children if she reported the crime.

     By August 2012, after months of being raped on a regular basis by Mr. Nurettin, Nevin Yildirim was five months pregnant with his child. When she visited a clinic regarding an abortion a health care worker informed her that her pregnancy was too far along for that option. In Turkey abortions were illegal after the first ten weeks of pregnancy.

     On August 28, 2012, when Mr. Nurettin came to Nevin's house to rape her again she pulled her father-in-law's rifle off a wall rack and shot him. As the wounded Nurettin reached for his handgun to return fire, Nevin shot him again. Hit with the second slug he tired to run but stumbled and fell. As he lay on the ground cursing her she fired a third bullet, this one into his genitals. The rapist went silent and a few seconds later died where he lay in a pool of his own blood.

     The woman who had just killed the man who for months had been raping her laid down her rifle and picked up a kitchen knife that she used to decapitate him. She picked up the detached head by the hair and carried it to the village square. To a group of men sitting around a coffee house, Nevin, still gripping her rapist's head as it continued to drip blood from the base of the severed neck, said, "Here is the head of the man who played with my honor."

     As the coffee house drinkers looked on in horror, Nevin Yildirim tossed her blood trophy. The severed head rolled along the ground and came to rest in the public square. A short time later a local police officer took the blood-splattered woman into custody.

     A few days after the killing, in speaking to her court-appointed lawyer who came to the local jail, Nevin reportedly said, "I thought of reporting [Nurettin] to the military police and to the district attorney, but this was going to make me a scorned woman. Since I was going to get a bad reputation, I decided to clean my honor, and acted on killing him. I thought of suicide a lot, but couldn't do it. Now no one can call my children bastards....Everyone will call them the children of the woman who cleaned her honor."

     On August 30, 2012 at the preliminary hearing on the charge of murder, Nevin Yildirim told the magistrate she didn't want to keep her rapist's baby and that she wished to die. The public prosecutor advised the court that he had ordered psychiatric evaluations of the defendant.

    Nevin Yildirim gave birth to her rapist's child on November 17, 2012.

     On March 25, 2013 the district judge found Yildirim guilty of murder. Before he handed down the sentence the judge ordered police officers to remove feminist protesters from the courtroom.

     After clearing the courtroom of protesters the Turkish judge imposed the maximum punishment of life in prison. Among women in Turkey and others around the world the verdict and sentence created an uproar. Had Nevin Yildirim committed the exact crime in the United States she would have been charged with second or third-degree murder. Her attorney would have had the option of putting on either an insanity or battered woman defense. If found guilty her punishment would not have been anything close to life behind bars. In the U.S. a case like this would likely be resolved through the plea bargaining process that would lead to much lighter sentence.

Friday, June 7, 2024

Ronnie Lee Gardner: The Last Man To Die By Firing Squad

     On the night of October 9, 1984 in Salt Lake City, 24-year-old Ronnie Lee Gardner was under the influence of cocaine when he held up a bar and killed the bartender, Melvyn Otterstrom, by shooting him point blank in the face. The twice-convicted robber netted $100 from the deadly hold up.

     Three weeks after shooting the bartender to death police officers arrested Gardner at his cousin's house in Salt Lake City. Officers booked him into jail on the charge of capital murder. The judge set Gardner's bail at $1.5 million.

     On April 2, 1985, as Mr. Gardner was being escorted through the underground garage on his way to an upstairs courtroom, he managed to get his hands on a firearm someone had left hidden in the garage for him. The moment he displayed the gun in the courtroom a guard shot him in the chest. Although wounded, Ronnie Lee Gardner shot a bailiff in the stomach.

     As the armed and wounded Gardner tried to flee the building he encountered two attorneys and shot one of them in the eye. A dozen police officers surrounded the armed prisoner before he could leave the courthouse. When he dropped the gun officers took him into custody. The lawyer he shot died a little later in the hospital. The bailiff survived.

     Ronnie Lee Gardner was rushed to a local hospital where he recovered from his gunshot wound.

     In October 1985 Mr. Gardner pleaded guilty to both murders and was sentenced to death.

     Two years later, inmate Gardner broke a glass partition in the prison's visiting area and had sex with a woman who was visiting him. The other prisoners barricaded the doors and cheered Gardner and his partner on.

     In 1994, while still housed at the state prison in Draper, Utah, Gardner got drunk on alcohol he fermented in his cell and stabbed a fellow prisoner named Richard "Fats" Thomas. Thomas survived the attack.

     Gardner's death house attorneys, citing their client's troubled upbringing, petitioned to have his death sentence reduced to life in prison. In 2010 the governor of Utah denied the commutation request. Gardner's lawyers appealed that decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. They lost.

     Out of legal remedies, Ronnie Gardner requested that he be executed by firing squad. He said he sought this method of execution because of his Mormon background. It had been 14 years since anyone in the country had been executed this way.

     On June 18, 2010, the state of Utah, pursuant to Ronnie Gardner's request, executed the 49-year-old by firing squad. He was the last condemned prisoner in the United States to be executed by bullet.

Thursday, June 6, 2024

The Lawrence Jones Murder Case

     Early in 2012, 70-year-old Lawrence Jones and his 29-year-old wife, Norife "Janie" Herrera, separated. The couple had resided in a two-story beachfront house on Spray Avenue in Monterey, California.

     Lawrence Jones, an internationally recognized expert in the field of financial management, worked as a consultant for the Asian Development Bank and taught at the Naval Postgraduate School. He was also a visiting scholar at universities around the world.

     Although Mr. Jones held a prestigious professorship and was renowned in his profession, he had a history of crime that included arrests for attempted murder, domestic violence and the assault of a police officer.

     Norfie Herrera, Jones' estranged wife, earned a Master's Degree from a university in Singapore. She formerly resided in the Philippines. After separating from her husband Norfie Herrera took up residence in San Jose, California.

     On July 12, 2012 Mr. Jones' son, Cameron Jones, called the Monterey Police Department and asked officers to check on his father. According to Norife Herrera her estranged husband had threatened to slit his wrists over their upcoming divorce. (Apparently nothing came of this police inquiry.)

     On September 4, 2012 Norife Herrera was reported missing after she failed to show up for work at her Zoom Vision job in Milpitas, California. Police officers questioned Lawrence Jones who said he last saw his estranged wife earlier that day.

     On September 7, 2012 a worker with the Pacific Gas and Electric Company along Cannon Road in a remote section of San Benita County near Aromas, California, reported finding what he described as pieces of a mannequin inside trash bags. As it turned out the bags contained the head, arms, legs and the torso of a woman. A forensic pathologist in Monterey County identified the dismembered remains as Norife Herrera. (One point of identification involved the lot number on the victim's breast implants.)

     On September 13, 2012 police officers and FBI agents tracked Lawrence Jones to a Los Angeles hotel near the airport. Jones had scheduled a flight to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He was booked into the Monterey County Jail on the charge of first-degree murder.

     Police officers, on September 14, 2012, conducted a crime scene investigation at Jones' house in Monterey. The officers found blood stains throughout the dwelling as well as bloody towels, bloody garments in the clothes washer and a bloodied handsaw and ax. In the garage crime scene investigators found a blue tarp stained in blood and pieces of yellow rope similar to the cordage found at the Aromas dump site. In the dishwasher searchers found a carving knife. Also, the fireplace contained debris from burnt pieces of clothing. Police officers left the searched dwelling that day with several computers and the murder suspect's Nissan Maxima.

     On October 21, 2014 Lawrence Jones, accompanied by his attorney Paul Metzer, appeared in a Monterey courtroom for the purpose of changing his plea from not guilty to not guilty by reason of insanity. Superior Court Judge Julie Culver said she would appoint two experts to evaluate Jones' mental state. (Both experts found Jones legally sane.)

     Lawrence Jones, on March 31, 2016, pleaded guilty to murdering his ex-wife and dismembering her body for disposal at the dump site in San Benito County. According to the Monterey County prosecutor in charge of the case the defendant, in a manic rage, had struck the victim in the head with a blunt object on August 30, 2012, the day their divorce became final. The blow didn't kill Herrera but did render her unconscious. On September 5, 2012 Mr. Jones shot his still unconscious ex-wife in the head and lower torso with a 12-gauge shotgun.

     The prosecutor, pursuant to his courtroom presentation, described how Jones used a handsaw and an ax to dismember the victim. The defendant packed trash bags with his ex-wife's body parts, put the bags into the trunk of her Honda Civic and drove to the disposal site in Aromas.

     Judge Marla Anderson sentenced the 74-year-old Lawrence Jones to 50 years in prison. 

Wednesday, June 5, 2024

Charles Locke: A Bad Cop

     In October 2007 Charles Locke, at the age of 35, joined the Cleveland Police Department. In 2009 he received some publicity when he arrested serial killer Anthony Sowell. Five years after this high point of his law enforcement career officer Locke experienced his policing low point. He endured the disgrace of being arrested by his fellow police officers.

     On July 10, 2014 patrolman Locke was taken into custody at the Fourth District Police Station and booked into the Cuyahoga County Jail on two counts of unlawful sexual conduct with a minor, four counts of the illegal use of a minor in nudity-oriented material and pandering sexually oriented matter involving a minor.

     Upon Locke's arrest the chief of police suspended him from duty without pay pending the disposition of the case. At his arraignment the Cleveland Municipal judge set the officer's bond at $250,000. This meant that Locke, to buy his way out of custody, would have to raise $25,000 in cash or put up sufficient collateral.

     Investigators with the department's internal affairs office acquired video footage of officer Locke, on two occasions, having sex with a 15-year-old girl. In one of the cellphone videos he wore his police uniform.

      Charles Locke had met the fifteen year old at an east side recreation center where she played basketball and he worked off-duty as a security officer. The girl's family became suspicious when they heard rumors that the security guard had developed relationships with some of the female basketball players. Moreover, a witness had seen the girl talking to Locke near his car.

     Following his arrest Mr. Locke's attorney Deanna Robertson, at her client's bail reduction hearing, asked the judge to lower the bond to $10,000. In arguing her case Robertson pointed out that Mr. Locke did not have a criminal record, had a family to support and was therefore not a flight risk. "He has no desire," she said, "of continuing his adult life running from the law." The lawyer described Locke's financial situation as bordering on "poverty." In other words, he did not have the means to become a fugitive from justice.

     Chris Schroeder, an assistant Cuyahoga County prosecutor, informed the judge that the high bond insured that the suspect wouldn't contact the girl. "Charles Locke," he said, "is a police officer who had sex with a child while wearing his uniform. Entrusted with protecting the people of Cleveland, Locke betrayed that trust and took advantage of one of the city's most vulnerable citizens to sexually gratify himself. His behavior cannot be justified, rationalized or excused."

     The judge did not reduce officer Locke's bail. The 43-year-old would remain in custody.

     Jeff Follmer, the president of the Cleveland Police Patrolman's Association told reporters that the union was not supporting officer Locke in this case.
     On October 2014 Charles Locke pleaded guilty to five counts of pandering sexually oriented matter involving a minor, two counts of unlawful sexual conduct with a minor and one count of possessing criminal tools. Following his plea the police department fired him.

     Locke's sentencing hearing commenced before Judge Carolyn B. Friedland on November 19, 2014. When it came time for Locke to address the court, the defendant, in a disjointed rambling statement said that at the time of the sexual assaults he had been exhausted from working 90 hours a week as a police officer and a security guard. Most nights, he said, he slept less than three hours.

     The defendant asked Judge Friedland to take into consideration his life before the incidents involving the girl. "This is not who I am," he said. "I was out of my mind." The former officer, in speaking directly to his victim's parents who were in the courtroom, said, "I'm ashamed…I am so sorry."

     Defense attorney Robertson said this to the judge: "My client is a man, not a monster. He made an isolated unfortunate mistake. He lost touch with reality."

     Assistant county prosecutor Chris Schroeder read a letter from the victim who was not in the courtroom. She wrote that she had trusted officer Locke. Since the crimes she has struggled in school and has been depressed. "I cannot concentrate," she wrote.

     Judge Friedland sentenced Charles Locke to 19 years in prison. 

Tuesday, June 4, 2024

An American "Honor Killing"

     On December 24, 2007 a Muslim woman named Patricia Said and her 17 and 18-year-old daughters, fled their home in Lewisville, Texas, a town in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. They left their home in fear of their lives. The 17-year-old daughter, Sarah Yaser Said, a student at Lewisville High School, had dated a non-muslim boy. This fact enraged the girl's father, Egyptian born Yaser Abdel Said, who threatened to harm his wife and daughters over what he considered an unforgivable family disgrace.

     After fleeing their home Mrs. Said and her daughters took up residence in a motel in Irving, Texas, a suburban community outside of Dallas.

     On January 1, 2008, at two-thirty in the afternoon, Sarah Said called 911 from her cellphone and cried, "Help, I'm dying, oh my God, stop it!" The remainder of Sarah Said's message was unintelligible. The 911 dispatcher's repeated requests for an address went unanswered.

     About an hour after Sarah Said's desperate 911 plea, another emergency operator received a call from a person in the vicinity of the motel in Irving. According to this caller, two teenage girls who appeared to have been shot were slumped in an abandoned taxicab in the motel parking lot.

     Responding police officers and paramedics found, in the front and back seat of the cab, the bodies of Sarah Said and her sister, Amina Yaser Said. They had been shot to death. Their father, Yaser Abdel Said, who had been a Dallas area cab driver, became the immediate suspect in the murder of his daughters.

     Mr. Said, the suspect of a so-called "honor killing," despite a massive and prolonged manhunt, remained at large for 12 years. In 2014 the fugitive was placed on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted List.

     Finally, on August 26, 2020, FBI agents arrested Yaser Abdel Said in Justin, Texas, a town 36 miles northwest of Dallas. A few hours later agents arrested Mr. Said's son Yassim and another relative. Both men were charged with harboring a fugitive.

     Following the arrests, Irving Police Chief Jeff Spivey told reporters that "Even after twelve years of frustration and dead-ends, the pursuit of [the Said sisters'] killer never ceased." According to Chief Spivey, "Today's arrest of their father, Yaser Said, brings us close to ensuring justice is served on their behalf."
     In August 2022 a jury sitting in Dallas found Mr. Said guilty of murdering his two daughters. The judge sentenced him to life in prison without the possibility of parole. 

Monday, June 3, 2024

The Tiffany Stevens Murder-For-Hire Case

     In 2009 Eric Stevens and his 34-year-old wife Tiffany, a wealthy couple living in Simsbury, Connecticut with their 4-year-old daughter, agreed to get divorced. Following the granting of the divorce in 2011 Tiffany gained primary custody of their daughter. This did not sit well with Eric Stevens who contested the family court ruling on the grounds his ex-wife was a drug addict and an unfit parent. Moreover, Tiffany had refused to let him visit the girl.

     In July 2012 John McDaid, a handyman who had worked for the couple when they were married, went to Eric Stevens with some disturbing news. In April of that year Tiffany had given him $5,000 to have him--Mr. Stevens--killed. The would-be hit man said he had spent the money and never intended to carry out the murder assignment.

     Eric Stevens reported the murder-for-hire plot to the Simsbury police who in turn questioned John McDaid. McDaid said that he and Tiffany Stevens, over a period of several months, engaged in many conversations in which she pleaded with him to do the job she had paid him to do. He had secretly audio-taped one of those conversations. According to Mr. McDaid, Tiffany Stevens wanted to make sure she maintained control of a $50 million trust fund set aside for the care of her daughter. If she lost custody of the child she'd forfeit control of that money.

     On July 13, 2012 detectives took Tiffany Stevens into custody on the charge of inciting injury to a person. The judge set her bail at $1 million which she quickly posted. The accused murder-for-hire mastermind, now living in Bloomfield, Connecticut, pleaded not guilty to the charge.

     Following his ex-wife's arrest, Eric Stevens petition the court for custody of his daughter. Hartford Family Court Judge Leslie Olear denied that request.

     At a pretrial hearing on November 18, 2013, Tiffany Stevens' attorney, Herbert Santos, was prepared to plead his client guilty pursuant to a plea agreement with prosecutor Anthony Bochicchio, a deal that guaranteed no prison time. At the last minute, however, the prosecutor backed out of the deal. The case would go to trial on the charge of attempted murder.

     On December 2, 2014 the attempted murder trial got underway before Hartford Superior Court Judge Edward J. Mullarkey. Defense attorney Santos in his opening statement to the jury said that the defendant, at the time of her conversations with John McDaid, had been so drug-addled that she had been incapable of forming the requisite specific intent to solicit her ex-husband's murder.

     The prosecution's star witness, John McDaid, the handyman from Granville, Massachusetts, took the stand and testified that in April 2012 the defendant slapped an envelope containing $5,000 across his chest and said, "Get it done." According to the witness, she wanted Mr. Stevens "taken out." McDaid said he used the hit money to buy clothing for his children, a washer and dryer and other things. The witness said that the defendant tried to motivate him by claiming that her ex-husband had abused her.

     Against the objections of the defense, prosecutor Bochicchio played the audio recording of a conversation between McDaid and the defendant in which she implored him to get the job done. "Find somebody. I want him killed," she said.

     On cross-examination, defense attorney Santos brought out that Mr. McDaid had a long criminal history that included 22 felony convictions. The witness also admitted saying, with regard to his murder plot conversations with the defendant, that he "almost didn't think it was real."

     On December 7, 2014, after the prosecution rested its case, defense attorney Santos put Dr. Seth Feurstein on the stand. The professor of psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine had analyzed the audio-taped conversation and said, "She seemed like she might be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder."

     The last witness for the defense, Edward Khalily, the defendant's father, a prominent Long Island businessman, provided the jury with an extended history of his daughter's drug addiction. According to the witness, Eric Stevens had his problems as well that included a gambling habit that involved losses between $8 and $11 million. According to Mr. Khalily, Mr. Stevens' gambling addiction resulted in outbursts of temper that caused Tiffany to lock their daughter in a bedroom.

       Mr. Khalily, still under attorney Santos' direct-examination, said that immediately after Tiffany's arrest Eric Stevens sought out tabloid media attention regarding the $50 million trust fund, stating that whoever got custody of the child would have access to that money. (When attorney Santos had Eric Stevens on the stand he asked him if the trust fund actually existed. "Not to my knowledge," came the response.)

     Defense attorney Santos did not put the defendant on the stand to testify on her own behalf. In summing up his case for the jury he attacked John McDaid's credibility and suggested that the audio recording, because of several gaps, had been tampered with. Moreover, he said there was no record proving that the defendant had withdrawn $5,000 from a bank.

     After portraying his client as a vulnerable, impaired drug-addled woman, Attorney Santos argued that the prosecution had not carried its burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

     On December 8, 2014, Judge Mullarkey handed the case to the jury. Four days later the jury foreman announced that the panel was hopelessly deadlocked on the question of the defendant's guilt. Judge Mullarkey had no choice but to declare a mistrial. This left the prosecutor with the decision of whether to recharge Tiffany Stevens with attempted murder, offer her a plea deal on a lesser charge or drop the case.

     In August 2015 Tiffany Stevens pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of inciting injury to persons. Judge Mullarkey sentenced her to five years probation.    

Sunday, June 2, 2024

The Rob Morrison Domestic Abuse Case

     Spousal abuse is a serial crime committed by angry husbands across America's socio-economic landscape. Wives are beaten in trailer parks, upscale apartment buildings, suburban tract homes and in million-dollar houses in gated neighborhoods. Husbands seldom abuse their wives in public or in front of friends and relatives. Because it's largely a hidden crime, no one knows how many wives are exposed to domestic violence.

     Every so often we are reminded of the domestic abuse problem when a well-known successful man is arrested for hurting his wife. If she is a celebrity as well it's a news event. If the alleged perpetrator and his victim are both members of the news media it's an even bigger story.

     The domestic violence arrest of a New York City anchorman married to a TV reporter was a reminder that even successful high-profile women are vulnerable to spousal abuse.

     Former Marine and combat correspondent who covered the war in Afghanistan, Rob Morrison, in 1989 began anchoring NBC television's weekday morning show "Today in New York." He and his wife Ashley, a reporter for CBS-TV, lived in an apartment on Manhattan's upper West Side. Between 2003 and 2009, Ashley, alleging spousal abuse, called the New York City Police Department seven times. While only one of these calls resulted in her husband's arrest (the files of this case were sealed) NYPD police reports paint Rob Morrison as a hard-drinking, verbally abusive bully with a taste for internet pornography.

     In 2009 the couple purchased a million-dollar house in the upscale suburban town of Darien, Connecticut. Ashley worked as a correspondent on the CBS news show, "MoneyWatch." Rob Morrison left NBC that year to anchor, in New York City, a CBS program called "News at Noon." During his first year at CBS he wrote a column for the Huffington Post about raising his son titled, "Daddy Diaries: Confessions of a Stay-At-Home Anchorman."

     Around two in the morning on Sunday, February 17, 2013 officers with the Darien Police Department rolled up at the Morrison residence. Ashley Morrison's mother, Martha Risk, had called 911 from her home in Columbia, Indiana. The mother reported that her son-in-law, during an argument with her 110 pound daughter, had grabbed her by the throat. Rob Morrison, the subject of the long-distance complaint, told the responding officers to "get the hell out of my house."

     Rob Morrison's scratched and bleeding nose and swollen lip, and the red hand-marks on Ashley's neck, provided the Darien officers with enough physical evidence of domestic violence to support an arrest. According to the police report, as officers escorted Rob Morrison from the house in handcuffs, he said that if released from custody he'd return to the dwelling and kill his wife. (Morrison denied making that threat.) Throughout his encounter with the police Mr. Morrison remained belligerent.

     Later that Sunday, notwithstanding the alleged death threat against his wife, Rob Morrison walked out of jail after posting a $100,000 bond. The next day he showed up for work at the TV station, and when asked about his nose and fat lip he didn't mention his arrest or the domestic violence charges that had been filed against him. 

     On Tuesday, February 29, 2013 in a Stamford, Connecticut court, Rob Morrison was formally charged with felony strangulation, second-degree threatening and disorderly conduct. Judge Kenneth Povodator ordered the defendant out of the house in Darien, and pursuant to an order of protection, instructed him to stay 100 yards from his wife except when they were at work. Judge Povodator, in referring to the Darien police report, said, "It not only reflects a serious incident, it reflects the likelihood of a serious history [of domestic violence]."

     In speaking to reporters after the hearing Rob Morrison blamed his problems on his wife's mother, the source of the 911 domestic disturbance call. He said, "Don't piss-off your mother-in-law is the moral of this story."
   
     On Wednesday, February 20, 2013 Rob Morrison announced that he had resigned from his $300,000-year-job at WCBS-TV. To reporters he said, "My family is my first and only priority right now, and I have informed CBS management that I need to put all of my time and energy into making sure that I do what's right for my wife and son....I did not choke my wife. I've never laid hands on my wife. I was just as surprised by that particular charge as probably everyone else."

     Had Morrison not resigned he may have been suspended or fired. Moreover, there were people who were not surprised by the domestic violence charges against the anchorman. One of those persons was Morrison's mother-in-law, Martha Risk who on February 20 told a reporter with the New York Daily News that Rob Morrison had been abusing Ashley for ten years. She said, "You wonder when you are going to get another call, if it's going to be [from] the hospital. How bad is she hurt this time? You have such a horrible feeling in yourself....This has gone on for too long." Martha Risk told the reporter that when her son-in-law called her early Sunday morning he was "drunk as a skunk." The moment he hung up she called 911.

     In April 2014 the local prosecutor dropped the charges against Rob Morrison following his completion of a domestic violence program. But in mid-June, less than two months after going through the program, Darien police arrested him for domestic harassment. Within a period of three days he had allegedly called his estranged wife 121 times.

     Ashley Morrison told police officers she was afraid that if she caused her estranged husband to be arrested he would kill her. Fearing for her life she and her son fled to Florida about the time officers took Mr. Morrison into custody.

     At Morrison's arraignment the judge issued a more restrictive protection order, then set the suspect's bail at $50,000. Shortly thereafter the ex-TV man posted bail and went home.

     In October 2014 Rob Morrison pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor charge of breach of peace. Judge Erika Tindill sentenced him to six months probation.

     To reporters after the plea hearing, the former television anchorman said he avoided going through a trial in order to move on with his life. "In my mind," he said, "this is a way to move forward."

Saturday, June 1, 2024

The John Raymond Sterner Suicide-Murder Case

     Ocean City is a resort town on the southern tip of Fenwick Island off the coast of Maryland. In the summer the population swells to 300,000. In 2003 Reverend David Dingwell, his wife Brenda and their three sons moved to Ocean City from the Canadian Province of British Columbia where he grew up. Father Dingwell came to Maryland to become the priest and rector of St. Paul's By-The-Sea Episcopal Church. He soon became known to his parishioners as Father David.

     Just before ten in the morning of Tuesday, November 26, 2013, a man engulfed in flames stormed into St Paul's Shepherd's Crook Building where volunteers were in the pantry preparing to open that day's food distribution service. The man on fire, John Raymond Sterner, a 56-year-old resident of Ocean City who had been a regular beneficiary of the food service and the church's used clothing outlet, bear-hugged church volunteer Jessica Waters.

     From the pantry Sterner ran into one of the ground floor church offices where the flaming man encountered parishioner Bruce Young who tried in vain to knock him to the floor where he could smother the fire. As John Sterner lay dead in the Church's ground floor office his burning body started a fire that produced a lot of smoke in the building.

     Ocean City firefighters doused the church fire before it destroyed much of the structure. In the second-floor rectory office they found the 51-year-old priest. Paramedics rushed Reverend Dingwell to Atlantic General Hospital where he died from smoke inhalation.

     Jessica Waters, the pantry volunteer who had been embraced by the burning Sterner, received treatment at John Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in Baltimore. Bruce Young, the parishioner who tried to help the human torch, received minor burns.

     Twenty-five minutes before he ran into the church in flames, Mr. Sterner, at a Shell station a quarter mile from the church, was recorded on a surveillance camera pouring gasoline into a red container. Detectives presumed that just before running into the church building he doused himself with the accelerant and lit himself up.

     The autopsies of Father Dingwell and John Raymond Sterner were performed by the Chief Medical Examiner of Maryland.

     The man who started the fire that killed Reverend Dingwell had a history of crime dating back to June 1994. Mr. Sterner had been convicted of breaking and entering, malicious destruction of property, disturbing the peace and numerous offenses related to alcohol intoxication. The police had arrested him in July 2013 on the charge of second-degree assault. Police officers took Sterner to the Peninsula Regional Medical Center for psychiatric evaluation after two of his arrests. According to police reports the suspect showed signs of "emotional and mental crisis."

     Sterner was just the kind of person Reverend Dingwell and his parishioner volunteers helped every day.

     The fact Sterner bear-hugged the pantry volunteer suggested this was a case of suicide by fire followed by the intent to kill others. Unlike most murder-suicide cases, this killer died before his murder victim.

Friday, May 31, 2024

The Political Scandal: The David H. Petraeus Affair

     In June 2012 Jill Kelley, a married mother of three living in Tampa, Florida, received six or so anonymous emails that disturbed her enough to ask a FBI agent she knew to look into the matter. The sender of the messages wanted the 37-year-old to stay away from her man, David H. Petraeus, the Director of the CIA. Mrs. Kelley and her husband Scott, a Lakeland, Florida cancer surgeon, were on friendly terms with Petraeus and his wife Holly. While Jill Kelley, a Lebanese-American who grew up in Philadelphia was known for her lavish parties and social events, she and her husband were in serious financial trouble with credit card debt and home foreclosure threats. She functioned as an unpaid liaison to the MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa.

      Jill Kelley's FBI contact, a Tampa field agent and terrorism expert named Frederick Humphries, opened a cyberstalking case which led to the identification of 40-year-old Paula Broadwell as the email sender. Broadwell, a mother of three, was married to a Charlotte, North Carolina radiologist. In the context of the FBI agent's inquiry, this subject was no ordinary woman warning a perceived rival to lay off her man. Broadwell was a West Point graduate, Ph.D. candidate, and U.S. Army Reserve Officer who had met General Petraeus in the spring of 2006 when he spoke at Harvard University. In the course of writing a dissertation on the general, Paula Broadwell remained in touch with him through a series of email interviews. In 2010, when General Petraeus replaced General Stanley McChrystal as the top commander in Afghanistan, Paula Broadwell spent months in that country interviewing him for a book a professional writer named Vernon Loeb was writing for her.

     In August 2011, General Petraeus retired from the U.S. Army, and the following month, was sworn in as Director of the CIA. Two months after Petraeus took over as the head of the CIA he began having an affair with Paula Broadwell.

     Broadwell's ghost-written biography, All In: The Education of General David H. Petraeus, came out in January 2012. The sexual relationship came to an end, by mutual agreement, in the summer of 2012 about the time Broadwell sent the angry emails to Jill Kelley.

     As the story goes, FBI Agent Frederick Humphries became so infatuated with Jill Kelley, his cyberstalking complainant, the 47-year-old investigator allegedly started sending her, via the Internet, bare-chested photographs of himself. There were reports that Humphries was taken off the case and replaced by a team of field agents who were in consultation with the local United States Attorney's Office. As the FBI agents combed through Paula Broadwell's emails they found information regarding the movements and activities of high-level military personnel, including Petraeus. The investigation suddenly evolved into something potentially more serious than a cyberstalking case.

     Eric Holder, the United States Attorney General already up to his neck in the ATF "fast-and-furious" gun running scandal, learned of the Petraeus/Broadwell affair from FBI Director Robert Mueller in September 2012. When pressed to comment on the matter President Obama said that he had not been told of the scandal and potential security breach until November 7, 2012, the day after he had been elected to his second term in office.

     On September 13, 2012, two days after the terrorist attack on the U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya that led to the death of the ambassador and three others, CIA Director Petraeus told the American people that the attack involved a flash-mob reaction to an anti-Muslim video. Following his resignation from the CIA on the day after Obama's reelection, Petraeus indicated that he no longer intended to testify on the Benghazi matter before members of Congress. A few days later, under pressure from Congress and a few media outlets the former CIA Director said he would testify at the November 16, 2012 hearing.

     On November 13, 2012, the sex scandal, already disturbing and bizarre, became even more complex and shocking. The FBI announced that its cyber investigation of Paula Broadwell had uncovered twenty to thirty thousand "inappropriate" Internet messages to Jill Kelley from Marine General John R. Allen, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan. A government spokesperson described the emails as "flirtatious" while others have characterized the material as the equivalent of phone sex. (Further investigation revealed that both Petraeus and Allen had taken time from their busy schedules to write letters on behalf of Jill Kelley's twin sister. The letters were sent to the judge presiding over a child custody battle.)

     There were two schools of thought on the Petraeus/Broadwell/Kelley scandal. Democrats in Washington and the mainstream media were treating the debacle as merely an embarrassing sex scandal. John F. Kennedy played around with mob women and President Bill Clinton deposited his DNA on an intern's dress. No big deal.

     Republicans, on the other hand, based on the timeline of events and David Petraeus' statements regarding the video as the source of the Benghazi attacks, smelled a White House Benghazi conspiracy involving political blackmail and election politics.

     Regardless of one's politics, there were many aspects of the scandal that raised serious concerns. It seemed that once the FBI learned of the Petraeus/Broadwell affair, a clear breach of national security, the President should have been notified and the CIA Director immediately removed from office. That the Attorney General of the United States did not alert President Obama of this threat to national security didn't ring true. It was simply hard to believe that the nation's top law enforcement officer sat on this information for two months. If the President knew of the affair, why did he wait until after his reelection to inform the American people? The answer to that question was obvious.  

     Two days after the September 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. compound in Benghazi, why did CIA Director Petraeus blame the murders on the video? He obviously knew better. Did his backing of the initial White House version of the attack have something to do with the President's knowledge of the Broadwell affair? It's not unreasonable to suspect that Petraeus was toeing the political line to save his job. Had Paula Broadwell not emailed a woman who had a friend in the FBI, David Petraeus might not have lost his job.

     To believe that the CIA Director's affair did not compromise national security seemed naive. Who was Paula Broadwell? What did Petraeus tell her? Did she coax sensitive information out of him? Toward the end of October 2012, at a speech Broadwell gave at the University of Denver, she suggested that the real reason behind the terrorist attack in Benghazi involved Libyan prisoners being held at the U.S. compound for interrogation. If Broadwell did not acquire this information from the news media, where did she get it?

     During a press conference on November 14, 2012, President Obama said there was no evidence that as a result of the Petraeus/Broadwell affair, classified information was compromised. However, the FBI search of Broadwell's home computer revealed that it contained a substantial amount of classified data. The FBI discovery was significant enough to warrant further investigation into the affair. Paula Broadwell was stripped of her military clearance.

    Washington Post columnist and Fox News Contributor Charles Krauthammer believed that CIA Director Petraeus' Benghazi analysis, at variance with what the director had heard from the station chief in Tripoli, was given in order to save his job. In other words, the White House blackmailed him into lying to the American people. Krauthammer, on November 14, 2012 wrote "[Petraeus] understood that his job, his reputation, his legacy, his whole celebrated life was in the hands of the administration, and he expected they would protect him by keeping [the affair] quiet." Under this theory, David Petraeus was just another casualty of Chicago-style politics employed by the Obama administration.

     On January 9, 2015 The New York Times reported that FBI officials and Department of Justice prosecutors recommended bringing charges against Petraeus for providing classified information to his former mistress.

     On April 23, 2015 David Petraeus pleaded guilty to the federal crime of mishandling classified material. The judge, pursuant to the plea deal, sentenced the former general and CIA director to two years probation and a $100,000 fine. In speaking to reporters following his sentencing, Mr. Petraeus said, "Today marks the end of a two-and-a half-year ordeal. I now look forward to moving on with the next phase of my life."

Thursday, May 30, 2024

The Jade Murray Murder Case : No Justice For Skylar Bradley

     Jade Murray lived in Aurora, Missouri, a town of 7,500 in the southwest corner of the state. On December 14, 2013 the 22-year-old took her 4-year-old son Skylar Bradley to a medical facility in Aurora. She told medical personnel that she had found her unresponsive son in his bedroom. That evening he had been ill and refused to eat. The doctor noticed that the boy had bruises on his arms, side and back. From Aurora the critically ill boy was transported to Mercy Hospital in Springfield, Missouri.

     Shortly after arriving at the hospital in Springfield, Skylar Bradley died. According to the forensic pathologist who performed the autopsy the boy died of a ruptured spleen. The medical examiner ruled his death a homicide.

     Detectives with the Missouri State Highway Patrol, suspecting child abuse, questioned the dead boy's mother. Jade Murray denied hitting or otherwise abusing her son. Investigators asked if someone else had beaten the child. The mother insisted that he had not been physically mistreated by anybody.

     From people who knew Jade Murray and the boy, homicide detectives received a different picture. According to these interviewees the hot-tempered young mother frequently took out her wrath on her son. Several people had witnessed Murray strike the child with her fist and noticed that he seemed permanently bruised. In one reported incident Jade Murray had allegedly spanked him so hard the paddle broke.

     Detectives learned that Murray used illegal drugs and regularly gave her son NyQuil and Xanax to sedate him.

     On June 6, 2014, pursuant to an interrogation conducted by the state investigators, Jade Murray confessed to physically abusing her son. On the night he died she admitted hitting him several times for not obeying. She had allegedly struck him so hard she knocked the child off his bed then ordered him to stay in his room. When she checked on the boy 45 minutes later she found him unresponsive.

     Following the confession a Lawrence County prosecutor charged Jade Murray with second-degree murder and second-degree domestic assault. Officers booked the suspect into the county jail. At her arraignment the judge set her bond at $250,000.

     If convicted of second-degree murder Murray faced up to thirty years in prison. The domestic assault charge carried a maximum sentence of seven years behind bars.

     On October 20, 2014 an officer with the Missouri State Highway Patrol took the stand at the preliminary hearing to determine if the prosecution had sufficient evidence to warrant a trial in the case. According to this witness the defendant admitted that she had struck her son hard enough to knock him off his bed. The boy's back hit his brother's bed as he fell.

     Dr. Charles Glenn, the forensic pathologist who performed the autopsy, testified that the child had bruises on several parts of his body and had died of a ruptured spleen. Under cross-examination by Jade Murray's public defender attorney, Dr. Glenn conceded that the victim's enlarged spleen could have been cased by "some sort of viral illness."

     Sergeant Daniel Nash, an investigator with the state patrol, testified that when he questioned the defendant in June 2014, about six months after the boy's death, she told him that during the week before the boy died he had been ill. But on the day of his death his health had improved. When the suspect was pressed regarding exactly how the boy had died the mother hinted that her boyfriend may have had something to do with his death. According to this witness, Jade Murray eventually admitted striking her son. She said she hadn't meant to hit him so hard, describing the incident as an accident.

     Following the preliminary hearing the judge ruled that the state had presented enough evidence to justify a trial in the case. The Murray murder trial was scheduled to be held sometime in 2015.

     In October 2015, pursuant to a plea bargain arrangement between the defendant and Lawrence County prosecutor Don Trotter, Jade Murray pleaded guilty to the charge of second-degree domestic assault. In return for the plea she received a five year prison sentence and credit for two years of time already served in the county jail. As a result Murray was eligible for parole within months of her sentence.

     This incredibly light sentence outraged the community and sparked citizen protests outside the courthouse. In defending the deal, prosecutor Trotter said the murder case against Murray would have been difficult to prove.

Wednesday, May 29, 2024

The Mysterious Andrew Steele Murder Case

     Andrew Steele, in June 2014, a month after being diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease) had no choice but to resign his position as a deputy sheriff with the Dane County Sheriff's Office in Wisconsin. The 39-year-old resided in Fitchburg, Wisconsin with his wife Ashlee and their two children, ages 10 and 13.

     The ex-law enforcement officer's wife, following the ALS diagnosis, organized dozens of "ice bucket challenges" that raised $23,000 for his medical expenses.

     Ashlee Steele's recently married sister, 38-year-old Kacee Tollefsbol, visited her sister and brother-in-law in August 2014. At one in the afternoon on August 22, 2014, Kacee Tollefsbol called 911 from the Steele's basement recreation room. She said she had been shot by Andy Steele.

     Police officers arrived at the Steele house shortly after the 911 call but did not enter the dwelling until the arrival of a SWAT team. At 2:20 PM from the basement of the house officers heard a woman screaming, "I am dying, I am dying."

     Kacee Tollefsbol had been shot in the torso and died an hour later at a nearby hospital. Before she died she identified the shooter to police officers as her brother-in-law, Andrew Steele.

     The interior of the Steele house was filled with a haze of smoke that had activated a carbon monoxide detector. In the laundry room officers encountered Andrew Steele lying on the floor next to a 9mm pistol. The officers recognized this man as a former law enforcement colleague.

     The basement laundry room was extremely hot from burning charcoal briquettes in an outdoor grill. The dryer was running and had been vented back into the room instead of outside.

    When the police tried to pull Andrew Steele out of the room he surprised them by vigorously resisting. The officers had to subdue him before paramedics could transport him from what appeared to be an attempted suicide scene to a nearby hospital.

     In the upstairs master bedroom police officers found Ashlee Steele tucked into her bed with a sleeping mask on her face and a pillow on her chest. She had been shot once in the head and appeared to have been strangled with a black zip tie. She had also been bound by her wrists with zip ties. The victim's sundress had been pulled up to her thighs.

     The tableau in the master bedroom caused detectives to believe that the killer, for some reason, had posed the body.

     On Andrew Steele's iPhone investigators discovered a long rambling message written the day before the murders. The message had been edited at six o'clock on the morning of the killings. In the note, Andrew Steele spoke of having had numerous sexual threesomes with his wife and dead sister-in-law. He also said the three of them had agreed to a suicide pact. "We had a great run and I wanted to go out with a bang so to speak," he wrote. "Please use all donation money for the kids' needs. Mom and dad, stay in the house, retire and focus on the kids' needs…See you all on the other side."

     The Dane County prosecutor's office charged Andrew Steele with two counts of first-degree murder. The defendant, through his attorney, pleaded not guilty to the murder charges. The arraignment magistrate set his bail at $1 million. A few weeks later, at the urging of the prosecutor, the judge raised the bond to $2 million.

     The Andrew Steele murder trial got underway on Monday April 6, 2015 in the Dane County Courthouse. In his opening statement to the jury, Assistant District Attorney Anthony Jurek accused the defendant of premeditated double murder. According to the prosecutor, Mr. Steele had lied to investigators and had staged his wife's murder scene to fit his story of having kinky sex with her and her sister. 

     Defense attorney Paul Barnett had changed his client's initial not guilty pleas to not guilty by reason of mental disease. Because ALS is not a psychiatric disease and the defendant had been early in the diagnosis, this was a highly unusual and legally inappropriate defense.

     Attorney Barnett told the jury that the defendant had kinky sex with his wife, an encounter that had gone terribly wrong, Although the defendant killed his wife he had no memory of committing the act.

     The lead detective on the case took the stand for the prosecution and testified that physical signs of struggle throughout the house were not consistent with the defendant's story of a three-way suicide pact. Crime scene photographs revealed that the suspect had given detectives different false accounts of the killings. Moreover, the bedroom scene looked staged. According to the detective, on the day before the murders, the defendant had purchased two 8 pound bags of charcoal and a can of lighter fluid.

     The deputy medical examiner testified that Ashlee Steele's body contained several defensive wounds and did not contain evidence of recent sexual activity.

     A state psychiatrist testified that in his expert opinion Andrew Steele and his wife had not engaged in unconventional sex. A DNA expert said that blood on the defendant's 9mm pistol came from the defendant and Kacee Tollefsbol.

     After the prosecution rested its case attorney Barnett put the defendant's parents on the stand who said their son had never been a violent person. A defense neurologist testified that there is a connection between ALS and a tendency toward violence. On cross-examination the prosecutor asked the doctor, "Do many ALS patients commit homicide?"

     "No."

     "Are there many cases of violent acts?"

     "No, again," said the witness.

     Dr. Douglas Tucker, a forensic psychiatrist, testified how ALS deteriorates the brain.

     On April 20, 2015 following ten hours of deliberation, the jury returned its verdict. Ten of the twelve jurors found the defendant guilty by reason of mental disease. The judge committed Andrew Steele to the State Department of Health Services for the rest of his life.

     The insanity defense and the verdict in this case does not make sense. Mr. Steele was not psychotic when he murdered his wife and sister-in-law. He knew exactly what he was doing. His behavior was deviant, yes, but he had the necessary criminal intent. Why did the defendant go to the trouble of staging his wife's murder. And what was behind all the business about a suicide pact? There is something missing here. What an odd and tragic case.

Tuesday, May 28, 2024

John Hinckley Jr.

     Most Americans are uncomfortable with the criminal law doctrine that if you kill or try to kill someone in the throes of mental illness you should not be punished but instead be treated and cured of the ailment that caused your deviant behavior. Criminal defense attorneys realize that the not guilty by reason of insanity plea is a tough sell. Juries usually don't buy it. But occasionally there are exceptions to the insanity defense aversion. Take the case of John Hinckley, Jr. Although it is hard to believe, Mr. Hinckley tried to kill the President of the United States and did not go to prison. For most people the idea of releasing a would-be presidential assassin back into society is a notion more insane than Mr. Hinckley himself.

     John Hinckley Jr., at 2:27 in the afternoon of March 30, 1981, shot President Ronald Reagan in the chest and lower right arm with a six-shot, .22-caliber revolver. The president was leaving a speaking engagement at the Washington Hilton Hotel in Washington, D.C. The 25-year-old shooter also wounded White House press secretary James Brady and two others in the presidential party. All of the victims survived, but Mr. Brady was paralyzed for life.

     At his trial in federal court, Mr. Hinckley's attorneys pleaded him not guilty by reason of insanity. According to the defense, John Hinckley had been obsessed with the film actress Jodi Foster who had played the role of a 12-year-old prostitute in the movie "Taxi Driver." Hinckley had seen the film fifteen times and had written Foster several fan letters. In the movie, New York City cab driver Travis Bickle, played by Robert DeNiro, attempts to assassinate a U.S. Senator who was running for president. Hinckley claimed to have shot the president and the others in an attempt to gain favor with the young actress.

    At John Hinckley's trial a battery of defense psychiatrists testified that the defendant, a man who suffered from psychosis and severe depression, also possessed a narcissistic personality disorder. Notwithstanding the fact the defendant knew exactly what he was doing when he shot the president and the others, and knew that what he was doing was wrong, the jury found him not guilty by reason of insanity. If that wasn't bad enough, the verdict left open the possibility that Hinckley could one day live outside a mental institution.

     Over the next 34 years Mr. Hinckley spent most of his time at St. Elizabeth's Psychiatric Hospital in Washington, D.C. In 2006, a U.S. District Court judge ruled that he could spend three days a month at his mother Jo Ann's house in Williamsburg, Virginia. Over the years this judge allowed Hinckley more time outside the hospital in the company of his mother at her luxury home overlooking the 13th hole on an exclusive golf course. Federal prosecutors, at each of these sentencing hearings, fought against granting Mr. Hinckley more freedom.

     In 2013 U.S. District Court Judge Paul L. Friedman, against the strenuous objects of prosecutors, granted John Hinckley the right to live with his mother, then 88-years-old, 17 days out of every month. The judge allowed this freedom after psychiatrists testified that Hinckley's psychosis and depression had been in remission for decades. The doctors did concede that Hinckley still possessed a narcissistic personality disorder. (In the D.C. area throw a stick and it will hit nine people with the same disorder.) As a condition of his expanded freedom Mr. Hinckley was required to check in regularly with his doctors and to keep taking his medication.

     Judge Friedman, pursuant to the Hinckley ruling, urged President Reagan's shooter to take music therapy classes and to do volunteer work at a local hospital.

     From all appearances John Hinckley had it pretty good. When in Williamsburg he drove around in a Toyota Avalon, went to the movies, ate out, took long walks, shopped, played his guitar and painted. Because he did not receive Social Security or Medicare benefits, Hinckley's out of hospital expenses were picked up by his family and amounted to between $5,000 and $10,000 a month. This did not seem to be a horrible existence for a man who had knowingly tried to kill the president of the United States.

     On April 22, 2015 Jon Hinckley's tireless attorneys and their psychiatrists were back in federal court to gain even more freedom for their client. At the hearing, doctors from St. Elizabeths urged the judge to allow Hinckley to move out of the psychiatric facility permanently. Barry Levine, Hinckley's principal lawyer, told the court that his client had not shown "a hint of dangerous behavior."

     On the third day of the Hinckley hearing Dr. Giogi-Guarnieri, one of Hinckley's psychiatrists, testified that the presidential shooter wanted to start a band and desired to publish his music anonymously. Mr. Hinckley, however, did not want to perform publicly. According to Dr. Giorgi-Guarnieri, Mr. Hinckley also wanted to start dating a girl he met at a National Association for the Mentally Ill meeting.

     In August 2015 James Brady died at the age of 73. Although the medical examiner ruled his death a homicide, the United States Attorney for the District of Columbia decided not to pursue the case against the man who shot him in 1981.

     Federal Judge Paul Friedman, on July 27, 2016, ruled that Hinckley could begin his permanent "convalescent leave" on August 5, 2016.

     In November 2018 Judge Friedman granted John Hinckley the right to move out of his mother's house in Williamsburg and live on his own. Pursuant to the ruling, the 63-year-old assassin must live within 75 miles of the city and meet at least twice a month with his social worker, psychiatrist and therapist. Under the terms of his release he was prohibited from owning a gun, drinking alcohol or using illicit drugs.