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Wednesday, January 31, 2024

The James Sullivan Murder-For-Hire Case

     In 1977 James Sullivan, a 34-year-old owner of a liquor distributorship in Atlanta married Lita McClinton, a debutante from one of the city's socially prominent families. She was black and he was white, and her parents, Emory and Jo Ann McClinton, were not pleased with the marriage. Sullivan was a flashy self-made millionaire who had grown up poor on the mean streets of Boston. Ten years older than his bride, he had been married before. Having learned from experience how costly a divorce could be, Sullivan had talked Lita into signing a prenuptial agreement that limited her, in the event of a divorce, to a three-year annual stipend of $90,000. The contract allowed her to keep all of the jewelry she had acquired during the marriage.

     The newlyweds moved into an opulent townhouse in an Atlanta subdivision called Buckhead. Sullivan purchased a second house four years later in Palm Beach, Florida. While in Florida vacationing without his wife at his new oceanfront property, Mr. Sullivan met Hyo-Sook-Choi Rogers, a young woman from South Korea who went by the name Suki. In August 1985, fed up with her husband's infidelity, Lita kicked him out of the Atlanta townhouse. She also filed for divorce and announced that that she was contesting the enforceability of the prenuptial agreement.

    Shortly after the breakup a domestic court judge granted Lita $7,000 a month in temporary alimony. The cash strapped Sullivan, burdened with four car payments, a $900,000 balloon mortgage on the Palm Beach mansion and a girlfriend to impress and keep happy, sold his Atlanta liquor distributorship. Although he had convinced the judge to lower the alimony payments to $2,500 a month, Sullivan had not paid Lita any money. His refusal to pay forced her back into court. Sullivan also pressed the judge to enforce the prenuptial contract. Through her attorney Lita demanded, in addition to the monthly alimony payments, the townhouse, one of the Mercedes and $200,000 in cash. At this point James Sullivan had already spent $100,000 in lawyer fees and saw no end to the outflow of money. The divorce was bleeding him dry.

     At eight-thirty in the morning of January 16, 1987, a resident of the Buckhead condominium complex saw a man approach Lita Sullivan's front door carrying flowers. The door opened and the man disappeared inside. A few seconds later the neighbor heard two gunshots in rapid succession. The man who had delivered the flowers ran out of the house, climbed into a car and drove off. The witness found Lita Sullivan in the foyer lying on her back with her face covered in blood. A dozen pink long-stemmed roses lay on the floor next to her body. The neighbor called 911 and tried to stop the bleeding by pressing a towel against Lita's face. She died in the ambulance as it raced to the hospital.

     The autopsy revealed that Lita had been shot in the face at close range by a .9mm pistol. Investigators at the scene recovered the shell casing and determined that the shooting had not been motivated by robbery. As a result detectives suspected that the murder was a contract killing orchestrated by the victim's husband. At the time of Lita's murder her estranged husband was in Palm Beach, Florida. There was no question that Lita's death would save James Sullivan a lot of money.

     A month after Lita's murder James Sullivan married Suki Rogers. Detectives still hadn't identified the triggerman, located the murder weapon or acquired solid evidence linking Sullivan to the homicide. Nevertheless, in September 1987, a Fulton County Grand Jury sitting in Atlanta indicted him for the contract murder of his wife. A few months later a judge set aside the indictment on the grounds it was based entirely on motive.

     With the murder investigation dead in the water, the FBI took over the case. (Criminal homicide is not a federal offense unless it is committed under special circumstances such as in the course of a kidnapping, bombing, bank robbery, organized crime activity or pursuant to an interstate conspiracy to commit murder-for-hire. Under Title 18 United States Code Section 1958, a single interstate telephone call in furtherance of a murder plot gives the FBI jurisdiction. FBI agents investigate about a hundred murder-for-hire cases a year.)

     Three days before Lita Sullivan's murder someone from a Howard Johnson Motel in Atlanta made a collect call to the phone in James Sullivan's house in Palm Beach, Florida. The call had been placed from room 518 which had been registered to a Johnny Furr. Forty minutes after the murder, someone using a pay phone at a highway rest stop just outside of Atlanta had called James Sullivan's house. That conversation lasted less than a minute. FBI agents, unable to identify Johnny Furr assumed the name was an alias. The federal investigation stalled, and for the second time, the Sullivan case went dormant.

     In 1990 James Sullivan became embroiled in yet another fight to save his assets from a wife who was divorcing him. This time it was Suki. The investigation into Lita Sullivan's murder sprang back to life when Suki, testifying in a divorce proceeding, claimed that Sullivan had threatened to have her killed by the man he had paid to murder Lita. Questioned by the FBI, Suki said that Sullivan never mentioned the hit man by name. The federal prosecutor went ahead with the case anyway, and in November 1992, James Sullivan went on trial for paying an unidentified man to murder his estranged wife Lita. Following Suki's testimony, which comprised the principal evidence against the defendant, the judge, ruling that the government had failed to present enough proof to establish a prima facie case, directed a verdict of not guilty. James Sullivan walked out of the federal court house that day a free man.

     Emory and Jo Ann McClinton, convinced that James Sullivan had paid to have their daughter Lita murdered, filed a wrongful death suit against their former son-in-law. The plaintiff's case, filed in Atlanta, hinged on the testimony of Suki Rogers and the phone calls between Atlanta and Sullivan's Palm Beach home just before and after the fatal shooting. The identity of the triggerman, however, remained a mystery. The jury, applying the lesser burden of proof that applies to civil trials, found in favor of the McClintons, awarding the plaintiffs $4 million in damages.

     In late 1997, more than ten years after Lita Sullivan's murder, a woman from Beaumont, Texas named Belinda Trahan gave the Atlanta police the missing piece of the Sullivan case puzzle. She identified Johnny Furr as her ex-boyfriend Anthony Harwood, a forty-seven-year-old truck driver from Albemarle, North Carolina. After they had broken up, Harwood continued to visit her in Texas. Belinda described Harwood as a violent, abusive man who had repeatedly threatened to kill her if she told the police that he was the man who had delivered the roses and shot James Sullivan's wife.

     According to Belinda Trahan, two weeks before Lita Sullivan's murder, she and Harwood had conferred with James Sullivan in an Atlanta restaurant where Sullivan handed Harwood an envelope stuffed with $12, 500 in cash. The men had first met in November 1986 when Harwood hauled Sullivan's household goods from Georgia to Florida. Sullivan told the truck driver that he wanted his gold-digging wife murdered and offered him $25,000 to do the job.

     Interrogated by Atlanta detectives in January 1998, Harwood admitted that he had taken the hit money and that he was the Johnny Furr who had called Sullivan from the motel before and after Lita Sullivan's murder. Shortly after the shooting Harwood called Sullivan in Palm Beach and said, "Merry Christmas Mr. Sullivan, your problem has been taken care of." Harwood refused to admit, however, that he was the man who had delivered the flowers and shot Lita McClinton in the face. He claimed that he had just been the getaway driver for the triggerman, a guy he only knew as "John the Barber." Although detectives didn't believe that "John the Barber" existed, the prosecutor allowed Harwood to plead guilty to the lesser homicide offense of voluntary manslaughter. In return, Harwood promised to testify against the prosecutor's main interest in the case, James Sullivan. Harwood's refusal to take responsibility for being the hit man did not, in any way, weaken the murder-for-hire case against the mastermind.

     A Fulton County Grand Jury, for the second time, indicted James Sullivan for the murder of Lita McClinton. (Double jeopardy didn't apply because Sullivan had been first tried for this crime in federal court.) On April 24, 1998, before the police took him into custody, Sullivan fled to Costa Rica. From there he traveled to Panama, Venezuela and Malaysia before settling in Thailand where he purchased a luxurious beachside condominium. Under his true name he opened a bank account, acquired a driver's license and lived with a Thai woman who assumed the role of housekeeper and wife. As fugitive from American justice, James Sullivan was living the good life in a tropical paradise.

     Five years after fleeing the country to avoid prosecution, James Sullivan, on the FBI's most wanted list, still resided in Thailand. The Royal Thai police arrested Sullivan in 2002 after the television series "American's Most Wanted" featured his case. A viewer who knew of Sullivan's whereabouts called the FBI. Sullivan fought extradition and lost. In March 2004 the FBI brought him out of Thailand and placed him in the Fulton County Jail. Still a man of means, he prepared for his upcoming trial by hiring a team of first-rate defense attorneys. True to his working-class Irish roots he was not going down without a fight.

     The murder-for-hire trial, shown on Court TV, got underway on February 27, 2006. If the jury found the defendant guilty of the 19-year-old murder the jurors could sentence him to death or put him away for life. Either way the 64-year-old convict would die in prison. For Mr. Sullivan the stakes were high.

     The heart of the prosecution's case involved the testimony of Belinda Trahan and her former boyfriend, Anthony Harwood. Trahan, a slender 41-year-old with long blond hair and a sophisticated demeanor, told the jury that she may have given Harwood the idea of posing as a deliveryman. Three days before the murder, when he expressed concern that Lita Sullivan might not open her door to a stranger, she said, "Anyone knows if you want to get a woman to answer the door all you have to do is take her flowers." When Harwood returned to North Carolina after the murder he said to her, "The job is done."

     Anthony Harwood, already convicted of voluntary manslaughter and serving a twenty-year sentence, took the stand to repeat his "John the Barber" story. His testimony against James Sullivan, however, was devastating. The prosecutor asked the 55-year-old witness if he felt remorse for his involvement in Lita McClinton's murder. The witness replied, "I guess I do, by what you may call proxy. I believe we're all accountable for our acts, but I guess if you get down to the brass tacks of it, it all began with Mr. Sullivan."

     On the advice of his attorneys the defendant did not take the stand on his own behalf. With only two witnesses the defense presented its case in less than an hour. On March 13, 2006, following the two-week trial, the jury, after deliberating less than an hour, found James Sullivan guilty as charged. The judge sentenced him to life without the chance of parole. For Lita McClinton's parents, after a nineteen-year ordeal, justice had been done. But it had come at a high price. Anthony Harwood, the man they believed had killed their daughter, in return for his testimony against the mastermind, had been given a relatively light sentence. If Harwood's girlfriend had called the police instead of recommending that he deliver her flowers, their daughter may not have been murdered.

Tuesday, January 30, 2024

The John Mayes Murder Case

     Police officers in the northwest New Mexico town of Farmington, on the morning of June 10, 2011, discovered the body of Dr. Jim Nordstrom. The victim was buried in a woodpile behind his upscale house. The previous night someone had bludgeoned the 55-year-old physician to death. One of the victim's fingers had been nearly severed in what the forensic pathologist identified as a defensive wound. The killer had stolen the doctor's pickup truck as well as his credit cards.

     Not long after finding the doctor's body behind his Foothills neighborhood home, police officers arrested 17-year-old John Mayes. Rob Mayes, Farmington's city manager, had adopted John, a boy who had grown up in Ukraine where he had been abused.

     Detectives over a two day period conducted five interrogation sessions during which time John Mayes confessed to killing the doctor. The interrogations were recorded and preceded by Miranda warnings. Mayes also signed forms in which he waived his constitutional right to remain silent. The young murder suspect did not, however, have an attorney present during the police interrogations.

     John Mayes told his questioners that on June 9, 2011 he had run away from home. When he came upon the house in the Foothills neighborhood he snuck inside and hid in a bedroom. He entered the dwelling through an unlocked window. At the time of the intrusion Dr. Nordstrom was in his living room watching television. About an hour after Mayes entered the house the doctor walked into the bedroom. That's when Mayes struck him in the head eight times with the handle of a pool cue.

     With the doctor dead in his home, Mayes stole his credit cards and his pickup truck. After taking a four hour nap in the stolen vehicle he ate a meal at a Burger King. When he finished his hamburger he used the victim's credit cards to go on a $3,000 shopping spree.

     Later that night John Mayes returned to the murder scene to clean up the blood and to bury the body in the victim's backyard. After tiring of digging a grave Mayes dragged the corpse to the woodpile.

     San Juan County Chief Deputy District Attorney Brent Capshaw charged John Mayes with first-degree murder and the lesser offenses of aggravated burglary, tampering with evidence, vehicle theft and fraudulent use of credit cards. After being booked into the San Juan County Jail the magistrate denied the suspect bond.

     John Mayes, represented by attorney Stephen Taylor, pleaded not guilty at a preliminary hearing held in August 2011. Attorney Taylor advised the court he was challenging the constitutionality of his client's initial five statements to the police on the grounds he had not knowingly waived his Miranda rights. (The judge later ruled that the confessions had been constitutionally acquired and could therefore be introduced into evidence at Mayes' trial.)

     Speaking from the stand at his preliminary hearing, John Mayes offered a version of the events of June 9, 2011 that were far less incriminating than the substance of his statements to the police. Rather than sneaking into the doctor's home that night, he came upon Dr. Nordstrom outside of his Foothills neighborhood house when the doctor was washing his pickup truck. Mayes told the doctor he had run away from home and asked if he could spend the night at his place. Dr. Nordstrom said that he could.

     That night Mayes and the doctor watched a James Bond film on television. After the movie the doctor gave Mayes a tour of the house after which they played a couple games of pool. Dr. Nordstrom asked Mayes if he would like to "try something new." When the physician made a sexual advance Mayes beat him to death with a pool cue.

     Mayes admitted that after killing Dr. Nordstrom he stole his truck and used his credit cards before returning to the house to hide the body.

     Pursuant to a change of venue the John Mayes murder trial got underway on November 13, 2013 in a McKinley County court in Gallup, New Mexico. Neither side disputed the fact Mayes had killed the doctor in his home. What the jury had to determine was whether or not the defendant had committed the act in self defense.

     After the prosecution rested its case, a presentation based heavily on the five statements John Mayes had made to the police following his arrest, the defense brought psychologist Gary White and forensic psychologist Maxann Schwartz to the stand. Both witnesses testified that Mayes' behavior that night had been influenced by a personality disorder that affects people who as children had been neglected or abused. The psychologists said the defendant suffered from "reactive attachment disorder," or RAD. People with his disorder often seek attention from strangers but become aggressive when these individuals try to be nice to them.

     On November 20, 2013 a psychologist from Boise State University named Dr. Charles Honts took the stand for the defense to testify that he had given Mayes a polygraph test early in 2013. Prosecutor Brent Capshaw objected to this witness on grounds he was not a qualified polygraph examiner. (In 2005, a U. S. magistrate judge in Atlanta had prohibited Dr. Honts from giving polygraph testimony in a murder trial. The judge had said, "The court attributes little weight to Dr. Honts' opinions.)

     After Judge William Birdsall overruled the prosecutor's objections to this polygraph witness, Dr. Honts took the stand and said he had asked Mayes four questions: Did Nordstrom invite you into his home? Did you play pool with Nordstrom? Did he slap you on the butt? Did you hide in the bedroom waiting to hit Nordstrom? The witness testified that the defendant answered yes to the first three questions and no to the fourth. According to Dr. Honts, his polygraph examination revealed that Mayes was truthful in his responses.

     On rebuttal, Peter Pierangeli, a polygraph examiner from Albuquerque took the stand for the prosecution and testified that Dr. Honts did not ask the defendant appropriate questions. His polygraph results were therefore unreliable. According to Peter Pierangeli, if Dr. Honts wanted to get to the truth, he would have asked Mayes if Dr. Nordstrom had sexually assaulted him.

     John Mayes did not take the witness stand on his own behalf.

     The defense attorney in his closing remarks to the jury pointed out that the police, by not seizing Dr. Nordstrom's computer and a prescription bottle found in his bedroom, had botched the investigation. The defense attorney told the jurors that Dr. Honts' polygraph test, by itself, created reasonable doubt that his client was guilty of murder.

     On Monday, November 25, 2013, after deliberating ten hours over a period of two days, the jury found John Mayes guilty of second-degree murder. The jurors also found the defendant guilty of the lesser charges. The conviction carried a maximum sentence of 31 years in prison. The jurors had accepted enough of the defendant's story to believe Dr. Nordstrom had not been the victim of a cold-blooded murder. The jury had also rejected the notion of self-defense in the case.

     Had John Mayes been convicted of first-degree murder his sentence would have been life without parole.

     In November 2014, at Mayes' sentence hearing, delayed months to allow for the appeal on the procedural issues, the two defense psychologists testified that the now 21-year-old could be rehabilitated through "intensive therapy." Dr. Gary White, the psychologist who had treated Mayes for three years testified that he had seen an improvement in the young man's behavior. Dr. White said he would be willing to continue counseling Mayes if the authorities placed him in a correctional facility in the Albuquerque area.

     Defense attorney Stephen Taylor asked Judge William Birdsall to sentence his client to 15 years in prison.

     John Mayes, in speaking to the court, apologized for killing Dr. Nordstrom. He said, "My actions do not reflect what I would like to become. I now know how to better handle myself so that what happened will not occur."

     San Juan County Chief Deputy District Attorney Brent Capshaw told Judge Birdsall that in his fourteen years as a prosecutor the Nordstrom murder was the worst case he had ever worked on. Capshaw said, "Mayes continually bludgeoned Dr. Nordstrom in the back of the head as the victim tried to crawl away. I can't imagine a more violent death." After the murder, according to the prosecutor, Mayes "set up shop" at Nordstrom's home where he downloaded pornography and masturbated. "I can't find a case that calls more for the maximum sentence."

     Judge Birdsall, for the crimes of second-degree murder, aggravated burglary, car theft and several of the lesser offenses, sentenced John Mayes to 33 years in prison.

Monday, January 29, 2024

Vehicles In The History of American Crime

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

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

Bonnie and Clyde Death Car

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

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

Al Capone

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

The Lindbergh Kidnap Car

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

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

Ted Bundy's "Teaching Tool"

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

JFK Assassination Vehicles

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

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

Other Infamous Vehicles

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

Sunday, January 28, 2024

The G E Mound Case

     The G E Mound Case is a narrative nonfiction account of the controversial federal prosecution of five Indian relic collectors involved in the archaeological destruction of a 2000-year-old Indian mound on land owned by a General Electric plastics plant near Mount Vernon, Indiana.

     Art Gerber, a prominent artifact collector, amateur archaeologist and professional photographer from Tell City, Indiana, an Ohio River town located not far from the mound in the southern tip of the state, became the target of the federal investigation of the mound's destruction. Gerber, one of dozens of collectors who hunted relics on the site, had been on the mound in the summer of 1988 on three occasions. The site had been destroyed six weeks earlier by a G E earthmoving contractor pursuant to a landscaping project around the plant's newly built reception center.

     Although G E officials knew they were using soil from an Indian mound for landscaping fill, Art Gerber and the other collectors were prosecuted to placate Native American activists, professional archaeologists and others who consider artifact collecting and amateur archaeology a form of archaeological looting.

     The post-destruction analysis of the so-called G E Mound revealed that it was one of the most important Hopewell era (Middle Woodland) sites ever discovered. The criminal convictions of Art Gerber and the other collectors made legal history because the defendants were held culpable federally even though the artifacts had been removed from private land. To achieve this the federal district judge broadly interpreted an arcane, never before used provision of the 1979 Archaeological Resource Protection Act. The unusual conviction was upheld by the federal appeals court in Chicago. Gerber's appellate attorneys appealed that decision to the U.S. Supreme Court that declined to review the case.

     The G E Mound Case features Art Gerber's fight to defend amateur archaeology and Indian relic collecting. On a personnel level the story involves his struggle against powerful political forces to avoid going to prison. Up against Native American activists who hated him, professional archaeologists who disapproved of his collecting, a well-organized corporate public relations machine, a biased media and an aggressive federal prosecutor, Art Gerber lost his financial security, his health and his freedom. Eventually the case would also cost him his marriage.

     Once Art Gerber was on his way to federal prison Native American activists and professional archaeologists, allies in the anti-collecting movement, turned on each other in a war over who controlled the 5,000 G E Mound artifacts that had been turned over to the FBI. The archaeologists wanted to study the relics. Native American wanted them returned to the earth. With the hasty reburial of these unique clues to the ancient past, the Native Americans won that fight. The G E Mound Case is set against the ongoing war over who owns the ancient relics of America's prehistoric past.

     Mr. Gerber died on August 28, 2017 at the age of 79. 

Saturday, January 27, 2024

The Austin Reed Sigg Murder Case

     In 2012, ten-year-old Jessica Ridgeway resided in Westminster, Colorado outside of Denver. The Witt Elementary School fifth grader lived with her mother, grandmother and aunt. Jessica's mother, Sarah Ridgeway, and the girl's father, Jeremiah Bryant, were divorced and fighting over the $267 per month Mr. Bryant had been ordered to pay in child support. Sarah Ridgeway worked the 10 PM to 7 AM shift at a software company in Boulder.

     On Friday, October 5, 2012, Jessica left her house at eight-thirty in the morning en route to a classmate's home to be driven to school by her friend's father. The 1,000 foot walk past a handful of single track homes and the playground equipment in Chelsa Park only took a few minutes. When Jessica didn't show up at her friend's house at eight-forty, the boy's father drove his son to school without her.

     At ten that morning a school secretary at Witt Elementary called Sarah Ridgeway's cellphone to report Jessica's absence. Sarah, already asleep after working the previous night in Boulder, did not pick up the phone. When she awoke at four that afternoon she checked her messages and learned that Jessica had missed school that day.

     The concerned mother drove to the school where no one she spoke to said they had seen Jessica that day. After checking with some of her daughter's friends and driving by Chelsa Park Sarah Ridgeway, at 4:23 PM, drove to the Westminster Police Department to report her daughter missing.

     That evening an officer with a bloodhound canvased the 1,000-foot route Jessica would have taken that morning. The dog did not pick up her scent. At nine that night the authorities had enough evidence of an abduction to issue an Amber Alert.

     The following morning 1,000 volunteers showed up at the police department to walk the fields in Jessica's neighborhood. The search did not produce any information relative to the girl's disappearance.

     On October 7, 2012, two days after Jessica went missing, a man six miles from the Ridgeway home found a backpack lying next to a sidewalk. The bag contained a keychain bearing the name "Jessica."

     Maintenance workers picking up litter in a park in Arvada, Colorado nine miles from Jessica's house came across a plastic trash bag they thought contained the remains of someone's pet. The workers flagged down two animal management officers who happened to be driving by. One of the officers opened the bag and found the dismembered remains of a child. Two days later DNA tests confirmed that the trash bag held Jessica Ridgeway's remains.

     The Jessica Ridgeway case, now about child murder and dismemberment, suddenly broke into the national news as a big story. Was there a child killer on the loose in Westminster, Colorado?

     Ten days after the gruesome discovery in Arvada, a tipster called the Westminster Police Department with information about Austin Reed Sigg. The 17-year-old, who lived in Westminster with his mother, had dropped out of high school in his junior year. He had since earned a graduate equivalency diploma and was enrolled in a local community college. According to the caller Austin Sigg had an obsession with death and mortuary science. He had also expressed an attraction to Jessica Ridgeway.

     The day following the tip concerning Austin Sigg, FBI agents went to his house and acquired a sample of his DNA.

     On October 23, 2012 Austin Sigg called 911 and expressed his desire to turn himself in and confess to the murder and dismemberment of the Westminster girl. In response to the dispatcher's inquiry regarding his criminal history, Sigg said, "The only other thing that I have done was the Kerner Lake incident where the woman got attacked. That was me." (In May 2012 a young man tried to subdue a female jogger by placing a rag soaked in chloroform over her face. She resisted and managed to escape.)

     The day following Sigg's 911 confession the police took him into custody. Sigg told his interrogators that he had abducted Jessica shortly after she left her house that morning. After strangling her to death he cut up her body in a bathtub and deposited most of her remains in the Arvada, Colorado park. He had, however, hidden some of the girl's body parts in a crawl space in the house he shared with his mother.

     A Jefferson County prosecutor charged Austin Sigg as an adult with first-degree murder, kidnapping and the sexual assault of a child. (Sigg denied having sex with the victim.) He was jailed without bond.

     On October 1, 2013, almost a year after Jessica Ridgeway's abduction and murder, and just two days before Sigg's murder trial was to commence, the defendant, against the advice of his public defender, pleaded guilty to all charges.

     On November 18, 2013, before sentencing Sigg to life plus 86 years, Judge Stephen Munsinger, in referring to what Sigg had done to Jessica Ridgeway, said, "Evil is apparently real."

Friday, January 26, 2024

The Jon Lang Murder Case

     After a party on the night of June 18, 1993, 35-year-old Jon Lang's wife Debbie died in the couple's swimming pool. The drowning took place in Patterson Township not far from the western Pennsylvania town of Industry. The Beaver County coroner ruled the death accidental.

     Nineteen years after Debbie Lang's drowning, a coroner's jury sitting in Beaver Pennsylvania ruled that Debbie Lang's death had been caused by a criminal act. In November 2012 a Beaver County prosecutor charged Jon Lang, now 54, with the murder of his wife.

     Whenever a suspect is charged with murder decades after the questioned death, the newly discovered evidence is usually a crime scene fingerprint identification or DNA evidence that linked the defendant to the victim or the site of the murder. It's forensic science that usually saves the day in cold-case murder investigations.

     In the Lang case, however, the evidence supporting the long delayed murder charge lacked the incriminating value of physical evidence. The incriminating evidence was in the form of the most unreliable evidence of all--eyewitness testimony.

     The new testimony in the Lang murder consisted of an event the witness had seen nineteen years ago when he was 16-years-old. Jamie Darlington told a panel of Beaver County coroner's jurors that on June 18, 1993 he was a guest at the Long residence. That night when Darlington looked out a second-story window he saw Jon Lang push his wife into the swimming pool. According to the witness Mr. Lang kept his struggling wife submerged by holding her down with a long-handled pool skimmer.

     According to the 35-year-old's testimony, Mr. Lang became aware that he had been seen murdering his wife. When Lang entered the house after the drowning he threatened the boy. "You didn't hear anything," he said. "And you didn't see nothing." Darlington said he didn't report the homicide out of fear for his own life.

     William Difenderfer, Jon Lang's attorney, called Jamie Darlington's testimony "preposterous." The attorney asserted that Darlington was telling this story now because he was himself in trouble with the law. (In this regard Mr. Darlington was not unlike a jailhouse snitch, the absolute bottom of the evidentiary totem pole.)

     In speaking to a local television reporter after the coroner's jury verdict, Gloria Caler, a Lang neighbor in 1993, said, "I just never believed it was an accident because the lady couldn't swim and the pool was green and it was like, who would want to go swimming in a pool like that? At the time I never thought it was an accident, but nothing came about it."

     On December 9, 2013, the first day of Jon Lang's murder trial, the defendant pleaded no contest to voluntary manslaughter, a lesser homicide offense. While the no-contest plea was not legally an acknowledgement of criminal culpability it was interpreted as an admission of guilt. Why else would Jon Lang allow himself to be convicted on such flimsy evidence?

     The Beaver County Judge sentenced Jon Lang to three to six years in prison, a light sentence if he had murdered his wife in cold blood. 

Thursday, January 25, 2024

Veteran Affairs Patient Jonathan Montano's Wrongful Death

     On May 25, 2011, 65-year-old military veteran Jonathan Montano sat in a chair with an IV shunt in his arm waiting for his dialysis treatment at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Loma Linda, California. Norma Montano, Jonathan's wife of 44 years, waited with him in the federal medical facility. After waiting four hours for his dialysis treatment, Mr. Montano informed a nurse that, tired of waiting, he had decided to seek dialysis at the VA hospital in Long Beach. Jonathan sent his wife to fetch the car.

     A VA nurse informed the patient that he was not authorized to leave the hospital. When it became obvious that Mr. Montano disagreed with that policy and began to leave, the nurse called for muscle in the form of armed, uniformed officers with the Department of Veteran Affairs Police. (The VA has its own police force. The VA police exist to deter and prevent crime and investigate criminal incidents within the VA system.)

     As the feeble veteran made his way to the hospital door two VA police officers tackled him to the ground. The stunned patient's head bounced off the floor and he ended up being pinned down with one officer's knee in his back and the other officer's boot on his neck. The brute force caused the dissection of the veteran's carotid artery, and this led a blood clot that caused a stroke.

     Jonathan Montano had come to the VA hospital in Loma Linda for dialysis and ended up being manhandled by in-house police officers. Apparently in the VA system, patients who expressed disapproval of the poor service were punished. Mr. Montano would have been better off if he had been simply ignored or allowed to find care elsewhere.

     As the VA officers were brutalizing her husband, Norma Montano sat in the car waiting for him to walk out of the hospital. She had no idea that his walking days were over. When he didn't appear, she re-entered the hospital to find him, thinking that perhaps medical personnel were finally hooking him up to a dialysis machine.

     According to the VA doctor who spoke to Norma about her husband, the patent had fallen and suffered a stroke. This of course was not true. She learned of the doctor's lie when a nurse pulled her aside and told her what really happened to Mr. Montano.

     Jonathan Montano, on June 11, 2011, two and a-half weeks after being slammed to the hospital floor and pinned with VA boots on his back and neck, died. Hospital authorities listed stroke as the cause, and natural as the manner of his death. As a result of this fabrication no one in an official position called for a criminal investigation.

     In May 2014 Norma Montano and her two adult children filed a civil suit in federal court against the  Loma Linda VA hospital. The plaintiffs sought punitive, compensatory and emotional stress damages for Mr. Montano's wrongful death at the hands of the VA police officers. The government stood accused, in connection with this veteran's death, of committing the torts of negligence and false imprisonment. There was also a bureaucratic cover-up.

    In September 2015 the Montano family settled the wrongful death suit against the VA for $500,000. The fates of the VA officers who caused this veteran's death was not made public.

Wednesday, January 24, 2024

Too Fat To Execute

     America's weight problem has changed the way we live (and die) and has affected how we punish, or can't punish some of our worst criminals. The issue of a condemned man's weight arose in 1994 when a death row inmate argued that he was too fat to be humanely executed. In 1981 Mitchell Rupe shot two bank tellers to death in anOlympia Washington robbery. In 1994 federal judge Thomas S. Zilly ruled that the 425-pound convicted double murderer was too heavy to be hanged.

     Judge Zilly was afraid that when Mr. Rupe ran out of rope his body would keep going without his head. Although not as clean as having one's head severed by a guillotine, this form of decapitation is no less effective. Since the whole point of executing someone is to kill them quickly, it's not clear why Judge Zilly considered hanging Rupe as cruel and unusual punishment. While hanging this man might end up being an unusual way of dispatching a condemned prisoner, how could one method of causing sudden death be crueler than another equally effective technique? From the perspective of the death row inmate, the cruelty lies in watching the clock tick down to the big moment. In Mitchell Rupe's case, Judge Zilly was apparently more concerned with execution aesthetics than effectiveness.

     As it turned out, Judge Zilly, by saving Mitchell Rupe from a quick and painless end, sentenced him to a slow painful death caused by liver disease, advanced cirrhosis and hepatitis C. Rupe died on February 8, 2006 at age 51. At the time of his death his weight had fallen to 260 pounds. As a result of the Rupe case
the Washington legislature in 1996 changed the state's method of execution from hanging to lethal injection.

     In 1981, the year Mitchell Rupe murdered the two bank tellers in Olympia, Allen "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 three counts of first-degree murder. The judge sentenced Davis to death. In 1998 as Davis' execution date approached, the 54-year-old death row inmate's attorney argued that his 355-pound client was too heavy for the state's 76-year-old electric chair. 

     Since it was built in 1923, Florida's "Old Sparky," having dispatched 200 inmates, had done its job quite effectively. However in 1997 during the execution of a prisoner the chair sort of malfunctioned. When the executioner applied the electricity flames shot a foot in the air from the top of the condemned man's head. The following year, with Allen "Tiny" Davis in mind, the prison oversaw the construction of a new heavy-duty electric chair that could accommodate a 350-pound person. On July 8, 1999 the Florida state executioner ran 2,300 volts through the metal cap on Davis' head for two minutes. It wasn't pretty but "Old Sparky II" did its job.

     Executing overweight prisoners through lethal injection has also presented problems for condemned men and their executioners. On May 24, 2007 an executioner in Ohio ran into difficulty killing 38-year-old Christopher Newton. Six years earlier, while serving time for burglary, Newton had murdered his cellmate. Now it was his time to go. Because of his weight--Newton tipped the scales at 265--it took the executioner two hours and ten attempts to find a proper vein for the inmate's lethal dose of pentobarbital. During the prolonged execution Mr. Newton was actually granted a bathroom break. Once again the death room aesthetics were not good. While obese people are generally unhealthy and die relatively young, they are apparently difficult to execute. I guess you'd call that a paradox.

     Nineteen-year-old Richard Cooey, in 1986, threw chunks of concrete off a bridge over Interstate 77 near Akron, Ohio causing the deaths of two University of Akron students. As his execution date approached the five-foot-seven 267-pound inmate claimed that prison food and the lack of exercise had made him too fat to execute. According to Mr. Cooey, because of his excess weight, the executioner would have a difficult time locating a vein for the lethal dose. The 41-year-old killer did not prevail in his effort to escape his date with the needle. On October 14, 2008 the Ohio executioner had no difficulty finding a way in for the pentobarbital.

     Ronald Ray Post was on death row at Ohio's Mansfield Correctional Institution for murdering a woman in 1983. According to his attorney, Mr. Post was so heavy at 480 pounds the execution gurney would not be strong enough to roll him to his death. Moreover, because of his morbid obesity (pun intended) Post's executioner would have a hard time locating a good vein for the killing agent. In support of his petition to escape his death sentence Mr. Post submitted evidence that medical personnel at the institution had in the past struggled to insert an IV into the 53-year-old's left arm.

     In 2013, not long after Ohio Governor John Kasich commuted Post's death sentence to life, the murderer died of natural causes while being treated at the Franklin Medical Center in Columbus.

     If candidates for the death penalty are becoming too fat to electrocute, hang or inject, maybe the firing-squad should be brought back. Since there are rifles that can bring down elephants there is no reason to spare the lives of fat murderers whose crimes were so atrocious they qualified for the death sentence. It's not right to allow prisoners to eat themselves out of death row. Since people who have not murdered anyone pay the consequences of overeating, so should inmates scheduled for execution. 

Tuesday, January 23, 2024

A Bad Day For David Sturdivant

     David Sturdivant, a 64-year-old ex-Marine (Purple Heart/Vietnam) was doing okay in Atlanta, Georgia. He lived alone in a two-story house and worked in his own engine repair shop attached to his dwelling. Mr. Sturdivant had recently been the victim of neighborhood burglars who had broken into his shop and stole his HAM radio, various electronic items, a couple of riding mowers and his tools. Thieves had also stolen his two antique Thunderbirds.

     After awakening from a nap at one o'clock in the afternoon on April 8, 2011 Mr. Sturdivant looked out his second-story window and saw a pickup owned by Dennis Alexander. With its tailgate open, the vehicle was parked near a riding mower in Mr. Sturdivant's shop for repair. To Mr. Sturdivant it looked like Mr. Alexander, a man with a criminal history of burglary and theft, was about to steal the mower. David Sturdivant stepped out onto his balcony and yelled, "Get off my property and stop stealing my stuff!" When Denish Alexander mocked the property owner Mr. Sturdivant entered his house and returned with a commercial grade M-14 rifle. From the balcony he fired one bullet into the ground to frighten Mr. Alexander off the property.

      Atlanta police officers in the neighborhood working with a television crew filming a segment for the reality TV show "Bait Car" heard the shot. In less than two minutes they were on the scene shouting at Mr. Sturdivant to drop his rifle. Without taking the time to fully comprehend the situation, three officers fired fourteen shots at Mr. Sturdivant. One of the bullets tore into his stomach. Mr. Sturdivant had not shot at the officers and had not pointed his rifle at them.

     A week after the shooting Mr. Sturdivant was discharged from the hospital. He had lost a kidney and was missing several inches of his colon. Police officers immediately took him into custody and hauled him to the Fulton County Jail in his wheelchair. The district attorney charged David Sturdivant with four counts of aggravated assault for pointing his gun at the police officers. He also stood accused of aggravated assault for shooting at the suspected thief and for possession of a weapon in the commission of a crime. If convicted of all charges Mr. Sturdivant faced up to 105 years in prison.

     While Mr. Sturdivant recovered from his bullet wound in the jail's hospital, looters cleaned out his house and business then burned the dwelling and shop to the ground.

     At a preliminary hearing on October 27, 2011 the suspect turned down the district attorney's offer of a probated sentence in return for a misdemeanor plea. Claiming total innocence Mr. Sturdivant rejected the plea bargain.

     On November 11, 2011 a judge tossed out the prosecutor's case against Mr. Sturdivant. After serving seven months in the county jail Mr. Sturdivant was free. But he had nowhere to go except to the local VA hospital. Mr. Sturdivant lost his freedom, his house, his business, his household belongings, his antique cars, his tools, his kidney and a piece of his colon. He was the victim of criminals and the police.

Monday, January 22, 2024

The Terry Bean Sexual Abuse Case

      In 2014 Terry Bean, the 66-year-old Portland, Oregon real estate developer, co-founder of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund and  prominent member of an organization called the Human Rights Campaign, had friends in high places.

      Mr. Bean had friends in positions of power because he was a big-time fund raiser (bundler) for politicians in the democrat party. He raised $500,000 for President Obama's 2012 re-election and shoveled money into the campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Terry Bean also gave President Obama $70,000.

     Bean's political money funneling resulted in several visits to the White House, a trip on Air Force One and photograph-taking sessions with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

     At a 2009 Human Rights Campaign dinner President Obama thanked Mr. Bean, calling him a "great friend and supporter." 

     In 2013 Terry Bean and his 25-year-old boyfriend Kiah Lawson were photographed together under a picture of George Washington in the White House library. Not long after that the couple experienced a nasty break-up. The fractured relationship would cause both men a lot of problems.

     In 2014 investigators with the Portland Police Department's Sex Crime Unit began looking into allegations made by Kiah Lawson that Bean had secretly made video tapes of men having sex in his bedroom. When questioned by detectives Mr. Bean returned the favor by accusing Lawson of using these videotapes to blackmail him for money.

     The Bean/Lawson sex/extortion investigation took a darker turn when Kiah Lawson confessed that he and Bean had used the iPhone app Grindr to arrange a sexual encounter with a 15-year-old boy, a tryst that took place, according to Lawson, on September 27, 2013 at a hotel in Eugene, Oregon.

     In late November 2014 a Lane County grand jury indicted Bean and Lawson on counts of third-degree sodomy and third-degree sexual abuse. Following their arrests the suspects made bail and were released from custody.

     One of Bean's attorneys, Kristen Winemiller, told reporters that her client was the true victim in the case. She said, "Over the course of several months in 2013 and 2014 Terry Bean was the victim of an extortion ring led by several men known to law enforcement. His current arrest was connected to the ongoing investigation of that case in which Mr. Bean has fully cooperated. No allegation against Terry Bean should be taken at face value."

     On September 1, 2015 Terry Bean offered the alleged victim $225,000 as a civil court settlement.  In return the San Diego teen agreed not to cooperate with the prosecution. Lane County Deputy District Attorney Erik Hasselman told the judge that without the boy's cooperation the state could not go forward with the prosecution. Shortly thereafter Circuit Judge Jay McAlpin dismissed the case against the prominent gay activist.

     In speaking to reporters prosecutor Hasselman said, "I think this result offends justice."

     In a written statement Terry Bean wrote, "I take some measure of comfort that the world knows what I've always known--that I was falsely accused and completely innocent of every accusation that was made."

     In 2018 the alleged victim, now 20-years-old, came forward and agreed to testify against Terry Bean and Kiah Lawson. In January 2019 Bean and Lawson were re-indicted on the same charges. Eight months later a Lane County jury, based on the testimony of the victim, found Kiah Lawson guilty as charged. The judge sentenced him to two years in prison. 

     In October 2019, the judge postponed Terry Bean's trial to the spring of 2020. That year a state appeals court overturned Kiah Lawson's conviction.
     In January 2022, after the alleged rape victim declined to testify against Terry Bean the Lane County prosecutor dismissed the case against him.

Sunday, January 21, 2024

The Tammy Meyers "Road Rage" Murder Case

     Tammy Meyers and her husband Robert lived on a cul-de-sac in a Las Vegas residential neighborhood with their four children. On Thursday night February 12, 2015, with Robert Meyers out of town on business, the 44-year-old mother gave their 15-year-old daughter a driving lesson on the parking lot of a nearby school. According to the initial account of what happened after that driving lesson, as Tammy drove her daughter home, they became involved in some kind of dustup with a man in a car with two passengers. That man, as the story went, followed the mother and her daughter home. In front of their house, at 11:30 PM, the unknown motorist shot Tammy Meyers in the head. The assault was widely reported in the media as a road rage shooting.

     Emergency personnel rushed Tammy Meyers to the Medical Center of Southern Nevada where doctors placed her on life support. On Saturday February 14, 2015, while police officers searched for the unknown suspect in a silver sedan (a man described as 25-years-old, six-foot tall and 180 pounds) physicians took Tammy Meyers off life-support. She died shortly thereafter.

     Following Tammy Meyers' death new details surfaced about the murder that put a different slant on the case. As Tammy and her daughter drove home that night from the school parking lot, a man driving a silver sedan sped by them. Tammy's daughter, to register her displeasure at the speeding motorist, reached over and honked the horn.

    The speeder, apparently angered by the rebuke, pulled in front on Tammy's green Buick Park Avenue and came to a stop. The man climbed out of his vehicle and confronted the frightened mother and daughter. After threatening the women, the man got back into his car and drove off.

     Instead of calling the police or going home, Tammy Meyers sent her daughter into the house to fetch her 22-year-old brother Brandon. Brandon got into the Buick armed with a 9 mm pistol. He and his mother drove off in search of the unknown motorist who had frightened his mother and his sister.

     According to this version of the story, after driving around for a few minutes, Tammy spotted the silver car she was looking for. She followed that vehicle but quickly lost track of it and headed home. The man she had been following, however, hadn't lost track of Tammy. He followed her and Brandon back to their house.

     At eleven-thirty that night the man in the silver car caught up to Tammy and her son in the cul-de-sac in front of their home. That's when Brandon and the man exchanged gunfire. A bullet from the other man's gun struck Tammy in the head. She collapsed in her driveway. The shooter sped off and someone called 911.

     In speaking to a television reporter with a local ABC affiliate, Robert Meyers said he didn't know why his wife had to lose her life over such a petty incident. "Every time you turn around someone's getting shot in Las Vegas," he said. Admitting that "there were mistakes made" by his wife, the husband called his son Brandon a hero.

     Some people, while lamenting Tammy Meyers' murder, said they didn't understand why she didn't call the police instead of taking matters into her own hands and risking her life and the life of her son by going after the man who had threatened her? Wasn't that asking for trouble? What was she thinking?

     In the wake of this public criticism, Robert Meyers shut down the GoFundMe fundraising site that had been started by a friend of the family. Mr. Meyers returned $6,000 to donors. Sympathy had turned to skepticism. Regarding the Internet site, Mr. Meyers said, "If all of you people think I was a fraud and lied about the facts I am truly sorry."

     Brandon Meyers, in response to the criticism of his mother, said this to a reporter: "Everyone can think what they have to think. I did it for a reason. And I'd do it again for anyone I love."

     On Thursday February 19, 2015, one week after the shooting, the so-called Las Vegas Road Rage Murder Case took a confusing twist when 19-year-old Erich Milton Nowsch Jr. surrendered to the SWAT team that surrounded his house less than a block from the Meyers residence. Nowsch, five-foot-three and 100 pounds, didn't look anything like the composite police sketch of the unknown motorist in the silver car.

     Robert Meyers, in speaking to reporters about this development in the case said, "We know this boy. I couldn't tell you this before. He knew where we lived. We knew how bad he was but we didn't know he was this bad. My wife fed him, she gave him money, she told him to pull his pants up and be a man."

     To a group of reporters out in front of his house, Mr. Meyers said, "Are you all happy? You made my wife look like an animal. There's the animal, a block away!"

    So what did this new twist in the case mean? If Brandon, his sister and their father knew the identify of the person who had committed the murder, why wasn't Erich Nowsch arrested sooner? How did detectives identify Nowsch as the suspected shooter?

    A Las Vegas prosecutor charged Erich Nowsch with murder with a deadly weapon, attempted murder with a deadly weapon and discharging a gun within a vehicle.

     According to a police report on the case made public on Friday February 20, 2015, detectives had found, in front of the Meyers residence, six .45-caliber shell casings. Nowsch's friends told investigators that the suspect had never mentioned a road rage incident to them. Instead, he said people were after him. Moreover, he was not the driver of the silver Audi involved in the case. Nowsch, however, told his friends that he returned fire when someone in the green Buick shot at him.

     Following his guilty plea to murder in late in 2015, the judge sentenced Erich Nowsch to life in prison with the possibility of parole after serving ten years.

Saturday, January 20, 2024

Gabe Watson and The Honeymoon Murder Case

     On October 11, 2003, 26-year-old David Gabriel "Gabe" Watson married Tina Thomas, the human resources manager for a small southern department store chain. The couple met while students at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Shortly before getting married, Tina, in anticipation of her honeymoon, took beginning scuba diving lessons that included eleven dives in a flooded Alabama quarry. Gabe, a more experienced diver, had taken advanced courses. He had also made a total of 55 dives, 40 of which had been in the quarry. In 1999 he became certified as a rescue diver.

     Ten days after the wedding Gabe Watson and his 26-year-old wife began their Australian honeymoon. In Sydney they visited the Taronga Zoo and attended a Shakespeare play at the Sydney Opera House. On October 22, 2003 the honeymooners began a 7-day dive expedition on the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea. Day one of the adventure involved being taken on the Townsville Dive Company's vessel "Spoilsport" to the historic Yolonga shipwreck, 48 nautical miles southeast of Townsville in Queensland, Australia. Gabe and Tina were accompanied by rescue divers Dr. Doug Milsap and Dr. Stanley Stutz, an emergency room physician from Chicago.

     Shortly into the dive Dr. Stutz saw Mr. Watson swim to his wife and embrace her. When they separated, Gabe began rising to the surface as she sank to the sea bed where she drowned. Rescuers recovered Tina Watson's body not far from the shipwreck.

     When asked to explain what happened to his wife Gabe said he and Tina, shortly after going into the sea, had encountered strong currents. She panicked and as he approached to help she knocked off his mask and air regulator. He couldn't hold her and she floated away and began to sink. Because of an ear problem Gabe said he was unable to go after her. As she drifted to the bottom of the ocean he swam to the surface to summon help.

     On October 27, 2003, five days after the drowning, detectives with the Townsville Police Department questioned Gabe Watson. He said that during the struggle he had tried but failed to activate his wife's buoyancy control vest. "I remember," he said, "shouting through my regulator, 'Tina, Tina, Tina.' In the back of my mind I was thinking these people [the other divers] could see us, or at least think something odd was going on. I pretty much lost it."

     Members of the Australian State Dive Squad assisted in the investigation of Tina Watson's drowning by conducting reenactments of her dive. Several members of the investigation team had problems with Gabe Watson's explanation of the drowning and suspected foul play. In the meantime, the tabloid press in Australia, England and the United States called Tina's death "The Honeymoon Murder," and by implication, portrayed Gabe Watson as a cold-blooded killer motivated by his wife's life insurance.

     Four years passed with nothing happening in the case. Then on November 13, 2007 the story jumped back in the news when the authorities in Australia held an inquest into Tina Watson's death. (I'm not sure why, after four years the authorities decided to re-open the case. Perhaps it was pressure from Tina Watson's family.) Back in the U.S. on August 15, 2008, Gabe Watson married a woman named Kim Lewis. Three months after his second marriage an Australian grand jury indicted him for murdering his first wife in October 2003.

     Watson, in May 2009, returned to Australia on his own accord to face the murder charge. A month later, in the Queensland Supreme Court in Brisbane, he pleaded guilty to the crime of manslaughter. While he had not intentionally killed his wife, Watson was admitting that he had been criminally negligent in not saving her. The Australian judge, believing that the defendant had not murdered his wife, that he had loved her and felt guilty that he hadn't saved her, sentenced Watson to one year in prison. The judge criticized the media he believed had journalistically convicted Watson of murdering his wife.

     The one-year prison stretch infuriated Tina Watson's family and prompted the Australian prosecutor to appeal the sentence to the Queensland Court of Appeals. In September 2009 the three-judge appeals panel upped Watson's punishment to 18 months behind bars.

     If Gabe Watson thought the matter of his first wife's 2003 death was behind him he was wrong. In October 2010 a grand jury sitting in Birmingham, Alabama indicted him on charges of murder for pecuniary (monetary) gain and kidnapping by deception--allegedly luring her to Australia so he could drown her. A month after the Alabama indictment, Watson, having served his 18 months in the Australian prison was free. 

     On November 25, 2010 the Australian authorities deported Mr. Watson back to America. Before they did, however, the U.S. Attorney General gave them assurances that if convicted he would not be sentenced to the death penalty. As soon as he got off he plane in the U.S. Gabe Watson was taken into custody. The prosecutor in Alabama asked the judge to deny Watson bail, but in December a judge set his bond at $100,000. The defendant made bail and was able to help his attorneys prepare for his trial.

     Watson's defense team presented two key legal arguments. First, that the United States did not have jurisdiction in a death that occurred in Australia; and second, that trying him twice for the same drowning amounted to double jeopardy. The prosecutor in Alabama argued successfully that he had jurisdiction because, according to his theory of the case, Watson had planned to kill his wife in Alabama for the travel and life insurance benefits. (As it turned out, Watson was not the beneficiary of his wife's life insurance policy, her father was.) Double jeopardy didn't apply in this case because Watson's first conviction was in another country.

     Gabe Watson's attorneys were prepared to argue that Tina Watson's death had been a tragic accident caused by her inexperience as a diver and a previously diagnosed heart problem. On the other side, the prosecutor hoped to convince the Alabama jury that Watson had switched off his wife's air supply, held her in a bear hug until she died, turned her air back on, then let her sink to the ocean floor.

     Colin McKenzie, a diving expert involved in the original Australian investigation had concluded that "a diver with Watson's training should have been able to bring Tina up." But after reviewing Tina's and Gabe's diver logs certificates and her medical history, Mr. McKenzie changed his mind. Based on this new information, the expert concluded that Gabe Watson should not have been allowed in the sea with a woman with no open water scuba diving experience.

     The Watson murder trial got underway on February 13, 2012 in the Jefferson County Courthouse in Birmingham, Alabama. Once the jury of eight women and four men were empaneled, the prosecutor, Don Valeska and defense attorney Joe Basgier made their opening statements.

     On February 21, after prosecutor Valeska had presented the bulk of his case the trial took a bad turn for the prosecution. Valeska had put funeral director Sam Shelton on the stand and was directing his testimony toward how, at Tina Watson's funeral, the defendant had asked about retrieving his wife's engagement ring from the casket. The prosecutor intended this line of questioning to establish the monetary motive behind the killing. Judge Tommy Nail, from neighboring Montgomery County, did not like what he heard. Interrupting the prosecutor's direct examination, the judge said, "I took my grandmother's engagement ring when she was buried. I think it's quite common." Turning to the witness, Judge Nail asked, "Is it common?" In response to the judge's question the funeral director answered, "It's quite common."

     Still fuming, Judge Nail excused the jury, then spoke to prosecutor Valeska: "You mean to tell me that [Gabe Watson] bought the engagement ring, married her, he and his family paid for a wedding, he planned and paid for a honeymoon half way around the world, all so he could kill her to get an engagement ring he had bought for her in the first place?"

     Although the jurors didn't hear Judge Nail rip the heart out of the prosecutor's case, it became clear where the judge stood on the issue of the defendant's guilt. Suddenly a conviction, a risky proposition from the beginning, looked like a long shot.

     Judge Tommy Nail, on Thursday, February 23, 2012, directed a verdict of not guilty after the prosecutor rested his case. In the judge's opinion, viewed in a light most favorable to the state, there was not enough evidence to make a prima facie case of guilt against Gabe Watson. As a result there was no need for a defense. The trial was over.

     Only Gabe Watson knows if he killed his wife. The Alabama prosecutor should have left well enough alone after Watson's 2009 guilty plea and his 18 months in the Australian prison. There was simply no hard evidence in this case of a premeditated murder. Moreover, this weak case cost the state of Alabama a lot of money. Several of the prosecution's witnesses had been flown over from Australia. Sometimes prosecutors, attracted by the limelight and the chance of convicting a big-fish defendant, go too far. Both of the judges in this case--the one in Australia, and Judge Nail--did not believe Gabe Watson had murdered his wife. The prosecutor knew this but went ahead with the case anyway.

     A book about the case called A Second Chance for Justice by a pair of Australian criminology teachers came out in February 2013. Dr. Asher Flynn lectured at Monash University. Dr. Kate Fitz-Gibbon taught criminology at Deakin University. According to the authors the Australian authorities accepted Watson's guilty plea to save money. The authors believed that Gabe Watson had murdered his wife.

Friday, January 19, 2024

The Robert Early Murder Case

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 18, 2024

The Casmine Aska Attempted Murder Case

     At 8:30 Friday night February 1, 2013, residents of the Morris Heights section of The Bronx discovered a 9-year-old boy named Freddy Martin lying on the sidewalk in front of a five-story apartment building. En route to the New York Presbyterian/Columbia Hospital the boy told paramedics that "Cas dragged me to the roof and threw me off. I don't know why."

     Suffering broken bones, head trauma and internal bleeding, doctors put the boy into an induced coma and placed him on life support.

     New York City detectives later that Friday night questioned 17-year-old Casmine Aska at the local precinct station. Casmine, a resident of the apartment building, initially denied being on the roof with Freddy. After further interrogation he admitted being on the roof when the boy fell off the building. "I grabbed Freddy around the legs," Aska said. "His feet were off the ground. I turned around. I slipped and Freddy fell."

     On Sunday, February 3, 2013 Casmine Aska was arraigned in a Bronx courtroom on charges of attempted murder, assault, reckless endangerment and endangering the welfare of a child. Assistant District Attorney Dahlia Olsher Tannen informed Judge Gerald Lebovits that Aska, as a juvenile, had been in trouble with the law. The prosecutor, who didn't elaborate, asked the judge not to grant the suspect bail.

     Kathryn Dyer, Aska's attorney, in making an argument for bail in this case, said, "This is not about attempted murder." Acknowledging that her client possessed a juvenile record, Dyer assured Judge Lebovits that Aska had "taken responsibility for his life." Defense attorney Dyer pointed out that Aska's favorite subject at Harry S. Truman High School was chemistry, that he attended weekly religious classes, and served food to the homeless.

     Judge Lebovits, apparently unimpressed by Aska's academic interests, religious activity and community service, denied him bail. The judge's rationale: "Extraordinary risk of flight."

     A few weeks later when questioned by detectives at the Riker's Island Jail, Aska, in explaining why after the boy's fall he went home and took a nap instead of calling 911, said, "I didn't call the NYPD because my brain froze. I was shivering, I was crying, I went to my aunt's..my whole world stopped."

     On February 15, 2013, when doctors took Freddy Martin off life support the boy began breathing on his own. Questioned by detectives he accused Aska, a kid who had been bullying him, of intentionally throwing him off the building.

     A month before Aska Casmine's September 2014 trial he agreed to plead guilty in return for a 40 year prison sentence. 

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

The Chelsea Becker Murder Case

      On September 10, 2019, 25-year-old Chelsea Cheyenne Becker gave birth to a stillborn baby at the Adventist Health Medical Center in Hanford, California. Child Protective Services had taken Becker's previous three children from her. Her children had been taken and placed into other families because of Becker's addiction to methamphetamine and other drugs. In 2016 her son had been born with a meth addiction. 

     Because of Chelsea Becker's history of drug addiction the stillbirth of her fourth child led to a police inquiry. When questioned by detectives shortly after the birth she admitted using meth just four days before the birth. She was in her eighth month of pregnancy. 

     A forensic pathologist with the Kings County Coroner's Office conducted an autopsy and ruled the baby's death a homicide due to "toxic levels of methamphetamine" in the new born's system. 

     Kings County District Attorney Keith L. Faqundes, under Section 187 of the California Penal Code that defined the crime of murder as "the unlawful killing of a human being, or a fetus, with malice," charged Chelsea Becker with murder. According to the charge, the baby's death resulted from "the reckless or indifferent unlawful conduct of a mother."

     On November 6, 2019, police officers took Chelsea Becker into custody at a house in Visalia, California. She was booked into the Kings County Jail on the charge of murder. The magistrate set her bail at $5 million and appointed her a public defender.

     When the Chelsea Becker murder case became a news item nationally, a team of lawyers backed by Advocates For Pregnant Women took over the case from the public defender. Lawyers with the pro-abortion group filed a petition with a California Superior Court asking for a dismissal of the murder charge on grounds Section 187 of the penal code did not apply to Chelsea Becker's case.

     On June 4, 2020, the superior court judge denied the defendant's motion to dismiss. By doing so, the court ruled that Section 187, a law passed in 1970, did apply to stillborn deaths caused by drug addiction. 

     California State Attorney General Xavier Becerra on August 7, 2020, filed an Amicus Curie (friend of the court) brief on Chelsea Becker's behalf before the California Supreme Court. In the brief, Becerra wrote: "Section 187 of the California Penal Code was intended to protect pregnant women from harm, not charge them with murder. Our laws in California do not convict women who suffer the loss of their pregnancy. The law has been misused to the detriment of women, children, and families."

     In a press release associated with the California Supreme Court filing, the state attorney general said: "We will work to end the prosecution and imprisonment of Ms. Becker so we can focus on applying the law to those who put the lives of pregnant women in danger."

     In a statement to reporters, District Attorney Faqundes responded to Attorney General Xavier Becerra's brief this way: "This case is not about a stillbirth, it is a case about a mother's overdose of a late-term viable fetus."

     On December 23, 2020 the California Supreme Court declined to intervene in the Chelsea Becker Murder case. That meant the case would move forward toward trial.

     In May 2021, Kings County Superior Court Judge Robert Shane Burns dismissed the murder charge against Chelsea Becker on grounds related to criminal intent. The judge ruled the prosecution had failed to present sufficient evidence that the defendant had taken the drugs with the knowledge that such behavior would cause a stillbirth.

Tuesday, January 16, 2024

The Shaken Baby Syndrome: The Shirley Ree Smith Case

     When a presumably healthy baby dies in his or her crib for no apparent reason, and there is no evidence of foul play, rather than classifying the cause of death as "unknown," or "undetermined," a coroner or medical examiner will usually call the fatality a "sudden infant death syndrome" (SIDS) case. Although this is the same as ruling the death as "undetermined," it sounds more scientific. At one time the parents of SIDS babies found themselves under clouds of suspicion. Today, as a result of scientific study of these cases, forensic pathologists are attributing natural death causes in infant deaths that earlier would have been classified as SIDS fatalities.

     The "shaken baby syndrome" (SBS) refers to signs of physical trauma found in children under six who have been violently shaken. When a baby or toddler is shaken too hard the victim's brain is jarred against the skull causing it to bleed and swell. Most pediatricians and forensic pathologists believe that to diagnose SBS they must find, at minimum, evidence of subdural hematoma (brain hemorrhaging), retinal bleeding (broken veins in the eyes) and cerebral edema (liquid on the brain that causes it to swell). The conventional wisdom was that a child with these injuries who had neither been in a car accident or fallen from a two-story window had been violently shaken. Supportive evidence of SBS might include trauma to the neck and spine, bruises on the arms and torso and broken ribs.

     In the late 1990s a handful of pediatric researchers began to question the science behind the standard SBS diagnosis.Could cerebral edema and blood in the eyes and brain have other causes such as vitamin deficiency, disease or reactions to vaccines and drugs? Diseases thought to cause symptoms of SBS included hypohosphatasia, a brittle bone disease; Alagilles's Syndrome, a liver ailment; Bylers Disease, a liver disorder common among the Amish; and glutaric acidura, acid buildup in infants that causes paralysis and retinal bleeding. Some experts believe that a relatively short fall to a hard surface, say from three feet, can cause damage to the brain similar to that found in SBS victims.

     Because there is no agreement among pediatricians and forensic pathologists what physical evidence of SBS consists of, homicide trials involving defendants accused of shaking infants to death often involve expert witnesses testifying against each other.

The Shirley Ree Smith Case

     In 1997 a jury in Van Nuys, California convicted Shirley Ree Smith of shaking her seven-week-old grandson to death. The prosecutor convinced the jury that Smith had shaken the baby to stop him from crying. The medical examiner, in explaining why there wasn't as much cerebral bleeding as one might expect in a SBS case, said the baby had been shaken so violently the blood vessels in the brain stem suffered "shearing," causing instantaneous death without bleeding due to the fact the baby's heart had stopped beating. The autopsy had failed to produce evidence of brain swelling or retinal bleeding.

     The Smith defense put two forensic pathologists on the stand who classified the death as a SIDS case, noting that the baby had jaundice, a heart murmer and low birth weight. The jury accepted the prosecution's version of the facts and found Shirley Ree Smith guilty. She received a sentence of fifteen years to life.

     A state court of appeals upheld the Smith conviction. The Ninth Circuit federal court of appeals, however, in 2006, reversed the conviction and ordered Shirley Ree Smith released from prison on the grounds the jury had misclassified the baby's death as a SBS fatality. The state prosecutor appealed the case reversal to the United States Supreme Court.

     On October 31, 2011 the supreme court, in a 6 to 3 decision, reinstated Shirley Ree Smith's homicide conviction. This meant she would have to return to prison. The six justices upheld a longstanding legal principle that an appeals court cannot substitute its judgment for a jury's. The high court, recognizing the jury in the Smith case may have relied on the wrong forensic pathologists, reminded the Ninth Circuit Court that judges in jury trials cannot decide the law and the facts. If Shirley Ree Smith had a remedy in law, it would have to be in the form of executive clemency.
     In April 2012 California Governor Jerry Brown commuted the 51-year-old's conviction. Shirley Ree Smith was immediately released from prison. 

Monday, January 15, 2024

Tracey Richter: One Scheming, Dangerous Woman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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