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Thursday, July 18, 2024

The Lori Isenberg Poison-Murder Case

      In 2018 Laurcene "Lori" Barnes Isenberg, the Executive Director of North Idaho Housing Cooperative, a non-profit organization created to help low-income families, resided with her 68-year old husband, Larry Isenberg in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. Mr. Isenberg had a 39-year-old son from a former marriage. His 66-year-old wife had four daughters from her first husband. 

     On the morning of February 13, 2018 Lori Isenberg called 911. To the emergency dispatcher she reported that while boating with her husband on Lake Coeur d'Alene he had fallen overboard.

     As a water recovery team searched for Mr. Isenberg, Lori Isenberg told deputies with the Kootenai County Sheriff's Office that her husband had been ill with the flu but had insisted on taking her on a boat ride that morning. While attempting to restart the boat's stalled electric motor he toppled into the water. When she couldn't find him she called 911 from his cellphone, 

     In a written police statement Lori Isenberg described her husband's fall this way: "He stood up, looked at me with a confused look on his face and started to fall over. I jumped up and tried to get him, but I tripped on the heater and banged my head and couldn't reach him in time." 

    Searchers were unable to recover Mr. Isenberg's body. At this point the authorities presumed he had drowned as a result of a boating accident. Perhaps he'd suffered a stroke and lost his balance and toppled out of the boat. At this point no one believed that his death had been the result of foul play. 

     The day following Mr. Isenberg's presumed death Lori Isenberg put the family home up for sale. She also gave her daughters personal items that were once owned by Mr. Isenberg. 

     On February 24, 2018, with Larry Isenberg still missing and presumed dead, FBI agents arrested Lori Isenberg on 40 counts of federal wire fraud and one count of theft. Over a period of years the Executive Director of North Idaho Housing Coalition had created thousands of forged invoices that enabled her to embezzled $570,000 from the non-profit organization. Her four daughters, having knowingly received some of the stolen money, were charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud and theft. 

     After pleading not guilty to the charges, a federal magistrate set Lori Isenberg's bail at $2 million. She was held in the Kootenai County Jail on the federal charges. 

     On March 1, 2018 Larry Isenberg's body was seen floating near the shore of Lake Coeur d'Alene. The forensic pathologist who performed the autopsy, based on the results of a toxicological analysis that showed a lethal dose of the drug diphenhydramine in Mr. Isenberg's system, ruled his manner of death homicide by poisoning. Diphenhydramine is an ingredient commonly found in over the counter sleeping aid and pain pills. The forensic pathologist did not publicly reveal how Mr. Isenberg had been given the poison.

     Investigators with the Kootenai County Sheriff's Office, with Lori Isenberg as the prime suspect, launched a murder investigation. In the course of that inquiry detectives learned that in late 2017, when Mr. Isenberg and his wife were vacationing in Florida, she made an Internet inquiry about rental boats, lake currents, weather conditions and water depths pertaining to another Coeur d'Alene area lake called Lake Pend Oreville. While on that Florida trip, detectives had reason to believe that Lori Isenberg tried to kill her husband with diphenhydramine. As for motive, homicide investigators believed that Lori Isenberg was afraid that if her husband learned she had embezzled from her employer he would divorce her.

     Detectives also learned that just weeks before Larry Isenberg's death his wife had made handwritten changes to his will. As a result of these crude alterations the will devised 80 percent of his estate to her four daughters. 

     In the spring of 2019 Lori Isenberg pleaded guilty to defrauding North Idaho Housing Coalition of $570,000. The judge sentenced her to five years in federal prison. Her daughters were sentenced to three years probation, community service and were ordered to pay back the stolen money they had received.

     A Kootenai County grand jury, in January 2020, indicted Lori Isenberg on the charge of first-degree murder for poisoning her husband to death then throwing him off the boat into the waters of Lake Coeur d'Alene. At the time of the indictment Lori Isenberg was serving time for wire fraud and theft at a federal prison. 

     In March 2020, due to COVID-19, the Idaho Supreme Court delayed all criminal jury trials in the state. Lori Isenberg's murder trial was postponed to August 3, 2020. The trial was postponed again to September 14, 2020, then again to early 2021.

     In February 2021 Lori Isenberg pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. Three months later the judge sentenced her to life in prison.

Wednesday, July 17, 2024

The Execution of Manuel Pardo

     In 1979 after having served four years in the Navy, 22-year-old Manuel Pardo graduated from the Florida Highway Patrol (FHP) academy at the top of his class. Following his involvement in a Miami-Dade County ticket-fixing scandal in 1980, Mr. Pardo was kicked out of the FHP. Shortly after his discharge he secured a job with the police department in the small Miami-Dade County town of Sweetwater. In 1981 Manuel Pardo and four other officers faced numerous complains of police brutality. Those charges were quickly dismissed by a local prosecutor.

     The following year Officer Pardo, after saving a two-month-old boy's life by reviving him with CPR, was awarded a public service medal. In the fall of 1983 Pardo graduated from a local community college with a two-year associates degree in criminal justice. Just when his future looked the most promising Pardo's career in law enforcement came to an end when he was caught committing perjury at the 1985 trial of a drug dealer.

     From January to April 1986 the ex-cop embarked on a deadly crime spree in the Miami area. Within a period of three months, in the course of robbing dozens of drug dealers, he murdered six men and three women. He documented his execution-style killings by taking crime scene photographs of his victims and writing up detailed accounts of the murders in his diary. He also put together a scrapbook comprised of newspaper clippings of his crimes. It was during this period that Pardo collected Nazi memorabilia and professed a deep respect for Adolph Hitler.

     Because Manuel Pardo used his murder victims' credit cards, homicide detectives in Miami-Dade County quickly identified him as the man behind the drug dealer robbery/murders. His killing spree ended with his arrest in 1987. Eager to take credit for, and even brag about his murders, Pardo confessed to nine homicides.

     At Pardo's 1988 trial his defense attorneys raised the insanity defense which fell apart when the defendant took the strand on his own behalf. Jurors were surprised when he told them that, "I'm ridding the community of this vermin and technically it is not murder because they are not human beings. I am a soldier, I accomplished my mission and I humbly ask you to give me the glory of ending my life and not let me spend the rest of my days in the state prison."

     The jury found Manuel Pardo guilty of nine counts of first-degree murder. The judge then granted the defendant's wish by sentencing him to death. Pardo became a death row inmate at the Florida state prison in the town of Starke.

     Instead of his life ending gloriously with a quick execution, Pardo, thanks to his anti-death penalty attorneys, languished on death row for 24 years. In filing their appeals in state and federal courts, Pardo's lawyers argued that because this killer had not been mentally competent he should never have been tried in the first place. Over the years various appellate court judges rejected this argument and upheld Pardo's conviction and death sentence.

     In 2012, as Pardo's execution date approached his attorneys, in a last ditch effort to save him, tried a new appellate approach. The state of Florida had recently altered the combination of drugs used by the executioner to dispatch condemned prisoners. The lawyers argued that if prison officials improperly mixed the lethal concoction the anesthetic effect of the lethal dose might be compromised. If this happened the execution might be painful and therefore inhumane in violation of Mr. Pardo's civil rights. A federal judge rejected the appeal. That meant that Pardo's execution would go forward as scheduled.

     At 7:45 in the evening of Tuesday, December 11, 2012, the executioner at the state prison in Starke injected the 56-year-old Pardo with the lethal cocktail of drugs. 

Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Cop Versus Cop

     Florida State Trooper Donna Jane Watts in the early morning hours of October 11, 2011 spotted a Miami police cruiser speed past her in the southbound lanes of the Florida Turnpike. In following the cruiser with her lights flashing and siren blazing, Trooper Watts reached speeds in excess of 120 miles per hour. The pursuing trooper's supervisors at headquarters repeatedly radioed Watts to "back off" but she didn't

     When the Miami officer Fausto Lopez finally pulled over Trooper Watts approached the police car with her gun drawn. She then handcuffed him and escorted him to her vehicle, all the while berating Lopez for reckless driving. For his part officer Lopez remained docile, even polite. Trooper Watts released the Miami officer after writing him a ticket for reckless driving.

     By stopping and ticketing officer Lopez, Trooper Watts violated a sacred unwritten rule of police conduct: never pull over a fellow officer for a traffic violation. According to this silent code of procedure Trooper Watts should have kicked the problem upstairs so police administrators could cover it up. Speaking about the incident to the press, North Miami Police Major Bob Lynch, a law enforcement training instructor, said both officers were wrong: Lopez for driving recklessly and Watts for handcuffing a fellow cop. Most civilians, however, seemed to side with Trooper Watts. It was not surprising that Miami Police Department's police union spokesperson harshly criticized the Florida trooper.

     Bad feelings between the two agencies flared up when an unidentified Miami Police officer (or supporter), in retaliation for Lopez's traffic stop, dumped five gallons of human excrement on a state patrol car parked in front of a trooper's house. And tensions heightened a few days later when a Miami patrol officer pulled over a Florida State Trooper for a traffic violation. In this instance, as it turned out, the trooper's brother happened to work in the Miami Police Department's Internal Affairs Division.

     In an editorial published in The Miami Herald on November 12, 2011, the author wrote: "Police solidarity has plunged ignobly into senseless acts that stink as much as the poop thrown on a state trooper's car last week. A few Miami officers--or their supporters--appear to be out of control...."

     The law enforcement feud came at a time when the Miami-Dade Police Department was under attack for a rash of questionable police involved shootings. So far that year Miami-Dade officers shot 21 people, killing 17 of them. New York City Police, by comparison, had this year shot 14, killing 7.

Monday, July 15, 2024

The Sherri Lynn Wilkins Murder Case

     Nobody likes a hypocrite. We are particularly offended (and intrigued) when people we generally admire such as physicians, professors, clergymen, law enforcement officers, generals, teachers, certain celebrities and counselors commit crimes or behave badly. However, because of low expectations, we are less shocked when politicians, bureaucrats, lawyers and Wall Street types break the law or act like jerks. In terms of what we expect from people there are different standards of behavior. For example, in murder-for-hire cases the upper-middle class mastermind is almost always considered more immoral and criminally culpable, than the lower-class hitman. This is true even when the contract killer has murdered a complete stranger simply for the money.

     Years ago when the head mistress of an elite New England girl's school shot and killed her lover in a fit of jealousy, this otherwise ordinary criminal homicide became a celebrated case. Ministers have gone to prison for having their wives killed and FBI agents have been convicted of first-degree murder. On a smaller criminological scale, the public is shocked when female public school teachers are caught having affairs with their male students. There was also a case involving a high-profile gun control advocate who shot an intruder with an unregistered firearm. These cases attract media attention because they feature hypocrisy.

     In October 2012 Colin McGrattan, an anger management counselor in Stockton, California murdered his ex-wife, her sister and the victim's aunt before killing himself. McGrattan had recently lost a legal dispute with his former spouse. Unable to control his anger he killed three people and himself. On matters of anger management this man obviously wasn't able to take his own advice.

     Even though we have low expectations for politicians and bureaucrats, cases occasionally pop up that are egregious enough to, if not shock us, grab our attention. In 2007 Sheila Burgess, a Massachusetts political fund-raiser for democrat candidates collected her reward when Governor Deval Patrick appointed her to the position of State Highway Safety Director. Since this was a political appointment it was not surprising that Burgess didn't have experience in the fields of public safety, transportation or public administration. 

     On August 24, 2012, Burgess, while driving her state-issued vehicle on a sunny Sunday afternoon near Milton, Massachusetts drove off the road, wrecked the car and injured herself. Although she told the police she had swerved off the highway to avoid an oncoming vehicle she may have been texting.

     The Highway Safety Director's traffic accident prompted a newspaper inquiry into Burgess' driving history. On November 18, 2012, the day after the paper revealed that Sheila Burgess had a record of 34  traffic violations, the governor removed her from office. (Because she was a government employee full dismissal was out of the question.) Instead of firing this woman the governor assigned Burgess to a "different role" within the same department.

Sherri Lynn Wilkins

     In the fall of 2010, 50-year-old Sherri Lynn Wilkins began counseling substance abusers at the Twin Town Treatment Center in Torrance, California. In charge of the evening group sessions, she counseled as many as 50 drug and alcohol abusers at a time. It was her job to help these people either get sober or stay off drugs. While Wilkins had earned a degree in drug counseling from Loyola Marymount University, it was her background as an alcoholic and heroin addict that in the bizarre world of substance abuse counseling that qualified her for the position. While giving her street credibility, the fact she "had been there" also meant she might relapse, an event that would not be in the best interests of the people she was being paid to help.

     Sherri Lynn Wilkins' background before she began her counseling career involved a 16-month jail sentence in 1992 for theft. Two years later another judge sent her away for nine years for burglary. All of her crimes were related to her substance addiction. In May 2010 the Los Angeles police arrested Wilkins for hit and run in Torrance. Because she had not been driving under the influence the case against her was dropped. But in July 2010 the authorities in Los Angeles charged Wilkins with leaving the scene of an accident and driving under the influence of a controlled substance. For some reason this case was also dismissed.

     At eleven-thirty on the night of November 24, 2012, Sherri Wilkins, while speeding west on Torrance Boulevard, slammed into 31-year-old Phillip Moreno who was crossing the street near his home. The impact knocked Moreno out of his shoes and threw him up on the hood of Wilkins' car. Wilkins continued driving with the dying man lying on her hood, his body lodged into her windshield.

     At a traffic light two miles from where Moreno had been struck and thrown up onto the car, several motorists swarmed Wilkins' vehicle and grabbed her ignition key. An ambulance rushed Mr. Moreno to a local hospital where a few hours later he died. Los Angeles police officers took the substance abuse counselor into custody. Watkins' blood-alcohol content registered twice the legal limit for driving.

     On November 27, 2012 a Los Angeles County prosecutor charged Sherri Wilkins with vehicular manslaughter and driving under the influence. She was booked into the Los Angeles County Jail under $2.25 million bond.

     In April 2014 a jury in Terrance found Sherri Wilkins guilty of second-degree murder as well as several lesser offenses including hit-and-run. Two months later Superior Court Judge Henry Hall sentenced the 54-year-old to 55 years to life in prison. The judge said, "Ms. Wilkins demonstrated an extraordinary callousness in fleeing the scene and trying to shake Mr. Moreno's body off her car. Ms. Wilkins is not what we normally see. She's not a classic violent criminal. But you have to evaluate her history."(According to her own testimony, Wilkins' drug addiction started after she was involved in a traffic accident at the age of fifteen. Her back had been broken and she suffered shattered bones in her ankles and legs. She began medicating herself with heroin because it was "cheaper than going to the doctor.") In justifying the stiff sentence, Judge Hall added, "She had an insatiable desire to become intoxicated."

     Wilkins' attorney, Deputy Public Defender Nan Whitfield said she would appeal the sentence. To reporters outside the courthouse, Whitfield said, "Nobody likes a drunk driver. Because she was a drug and alcohol counselor she's held to a higher standard."

     In February 2016 a California appeals court overturned Wilkins' second-degree murder conviction on grounds the introduction of her entire criminal record prejudiced the jury. The court did not set aside her conviction for leaving the scene of the fatal accident.

     A year after the appeals court ruling Wilkins pleaded no contest to second-degree murder. The judge sentenced her to 25 years in prison.

Sunday, July 14, 2024

Memo To Armed Robbers

     At five-thirty Tuesday evening November 12, 2014, 18-year-old Adric White and Tavoris Moss, 19, walked into a Family Dollar store in Baldwin County, Alabama outside of Mobile. White entered the premises carrying a handgun he intended to use to rob the place.

     This was not the first business establishment Adric White had held-up. A month earlier, after he robbed the nearby Original Oyster House, a judge allowed him to post bail despite the fact the Original Oyster House was not White's first robbery.

     In the back of the store White put his gun to a Family Dollar employee's head and ordered the hostage to the cash-out area where a customer saw what was happening. This customer, who was also armed, pulled his firearm as White forced the terrified clerk to get on his or her knees.

     The armed shopper yelled at Mr. White not to move. The robber, rather than lower his gun turned the weapon on the customer. Fearing that he would be shot, the armed citizen fired at the robber who collapsed to the floor.

     Police officers took the robber's companion into custody as paramedics rushed Adric White to the USA Medical Center. Although hit five times he survived the shooting and received treatment at the hospital while under police guard. The judge revoked his bail on the Original Oyster House hold-up.

     The day following the Family Dollar robbery and shooting a local television reporter spoke to a relative of White's who said the family was furious with the vigilante who had shot and almost killed their loved one. "If the customer's [shooter's] life was not in danger," said the robber's relative, "if no one had a gun up to him, what gives him the right to think that it's okay to shoot someone? The [armed customer] should have left the store and went wherever he had to go."

     The same TV correspondent spoke to the man who had used his gun to stop the robbery and perhaps save the store clerk's life. The shooter, referred to in the local media as the Good Samaritan, said he had no choice but to take the action in the case. When the robber raised his gun the customer fired in self defense. "I didn't want to shoot him," the shooter said.

     According to the Good Samaritan, "Criminals tend to think they are the only ones with guns. I've been legally carrying my firearm for a little over four years now, and thank God I've never had to use it until last night. It just shows it's good to have a concealed carry permit. You never know when you're going to need it."

       As could be expected, gun rights advocates and their opponents argued over the merits of this case. But one thing that was not up for debate: If you rob someone at gunpoint there is a good chance you will be shot by a police officer or a fellow citizen. And if you are, the person who shot you will be hailed by most people as a Good Samaritan.

Saturday, July 13, 2024

Robert H. Richards IV: The Case of the Rich Pedophile

     In 2005 38-year-old Robert H. Richards IV resided with his wife Tracy and their three-year-old daughter and 19-month-old son. Mr. Richards, the heir to a pair of family fortunes, lived in a 5,800-square-foot mansion in Greenville, Delaware. He was a member of the du Pont family, the people who built a worldwide chemical empire, and was the son of a prominent Delaware attorney. Richards also owned a luxury home in the exclusive North Shores neighborhood near Rehoboth Beach.

     In October 2007 Mr. Richards' six-year-old daughter told her grandmother, Donna Burg, that her father had sexually assaulted her several times in 2005. According to the girl her father had penetrated her with his finger at night in her bedroom. He told his daughter to keep what he had done to her a secret. The grandmother passed this information on to the victim's mother, Tracy Richards. The mother took her daughter to a pediatrician who confirmed that she had been sexually assaulted.

     In December 2007 a grand jury sitting in New Castle County indicted Robert Richards on two counts of second-degree rape. If convicted of the felonies he faced a mandatory prison sentence. Following his arrest he retained the services of a high-powered Delaware defense attorney named Eugene J. Maurer Jr.

     Having denied his daughter's accusations, Robert Richards agreed to take a polygraph test. When advised by the lie detection examiner that he had failed the test he confessed to sexually assaulting his daughter. He said he was mentally ill and in need of psychiatric treatment.

     In June 2008 attorney Maurer and New Castle County prosecutor Renee Hrivnak agreed on a plea arrangement. According to the deal Mr. Richards would plead guilty to one count of fourth-degree rape. This was not an offense that called for an automatic stretch in prison.

     Superior Court Judge Jan Jurden, in January 2009, sentenced Robert Richards to Level 2 probation. Under the terms of his sentence he would visit a case officer once a month. He also paid a $4,395 fine to the Delaware Violent Crimes Compensation Board.

     Judge Jurden, in justifying the probated sentence wrote that prison life would be especially difficult for Mr. Richards and that he would not fare well behind bars. In her mind prison was for drug dealers, robbers and murderers, not for child molesters in need of psychiatric treatment.

     In March 2014 Robert Richards' ex-wife Tracy filed a lawsuit against him on behalf of their children. The plaintiff sought compensatory and punitive damages for assault, negligence and the intentional infliction of emotional stress on his daughter and her younger brother.

     According to the affidavit in support of the lawsuit, Richards, in anticipation of a second polygraph test in April 2010, expressed concern about something he had done to his son in December 2005. He was worried that he sexually assaulted the then 19-month-old boy. Richards promised that whatever he had done to that child it would not happen again.

     Richards' incriminating remarks, sparked by the lie detector test he took in 2010 following his probated sentence for sexually assaulting his daughter were not make public until Tracy Richards filed her lawsuit. The new information inflamed a public already angry over what seemed to be Richards' preferential treatment by the prosecutor and Judge Jurden.

    On June 28, 2014 Robert Richards' attorney negotiated a settlement agreement with his client's former wife. The amount of the settlement was not disclosed. No charges were filed against Richards in connection with the possible molestation of his son.

Friday, July 12, 2024

The Boy Scout Leader From Hell

     In mid-October 2013 Boy Scout leaders Glenn Taylor and David Hall took members of their troop on a tour of Goblin Valley State Park in southern Utah. Advertised as "a showcase of geologic history" the park, surrounded by eroded sandstone cliffs features boulders (called goblins) perched atop slender stone pedestals. These unique formations were created over a period of 170 million years by wind and water.

     Glenn Taylor, a beefy man in his mid-thirties with his son and other Boy Scouts looking on, and David Hall videotaping him, pushed a boulder roughly the size of a small car off its ancient pedestal. It took just fourteen seconds to destroy something nature took millions of years to create.

     The geological destroyer, flexing his muscles and beaming with pride over his achievement, laughed and high-fived the kids. Behind the video camera David Hall cheered Taylor on. "Boom!" he shouted when the boulder toppled off its point. "Yeah! We have now modified Goblin Valley!" Hall yelled triumphantly. Then, in a burst of absurd justification for this act of sheer idiocy, Hall said, "Some kid was about to walk down here and die and Glenn saved his life by getting the boulder out of the way. It's all about saving lives here at Goblin Valley." (This is like draining Lake Erie to keep swimmers from drowning. This is what clinical psychologists call "a load of crap.")

     Sometime after the state park desecration, a friend of Hall's published the video on YouTube. From that site it was linked up to Facebook. Eventually the video came to the attention of state park officials and the local prosecutor's office.

     In January 2014 the prosecutor charged Glenn Taylor with criminal mischief. The prosecutor charged David Hall with aiding criminal mischief. If found guilty of this third-degree felony the men faced up to five years in prison and thousands of dollars in fines.

     Following his arraignment Glenn Taylor, absent his hero persona (remember he saved lives) but still full of crap, said, "It was wrong of us to be vigilantes. We thought we were doing a good deed. We should have alerted a park ranger."

     Utah state parks officer Eugene Swalberg, in speaking to a reporter about the case was not in a BS-accepting mood. "The destruction gives you a pit in your stomach," he said. "There seems to be a lot of happiness and joy with the individuals doing this, and it's not right. This is not what you do at a natural scenic area."

     Officials with Boy Scouts of America didn't think much of Mr. Taylor's vigilantism either. They kicked him and David Hall out of the organization.

     In March 2014 the defendants were allowed to plead guilty to misdemeanor offenses. The judge, pursuant to the plea bargains, sentenced them to one year probation. The former Boy Scout leaders were also ordered to pay fines and restitution. They got off light. 

Thursday, July 11, 2024

The Dino Gugglielmelli Murder-For-Hire Case

     In 2001 Dino Gugglielmelli, the owner of Creations Garden, a $48 million natural cream and nutritional supplement business, met Monica Olsen, a Romanian born model twenty years younger than him. The 39-year-old tycoon had been married twice. Both of those marriages had been brief.

     Not long after the two met Monica Olsen moved into Gugglielmelli's six-bedroom, 7,000-square foot mansion on three acres north of Los Angeles. The couple married in April 2003 and by 2008 had two daughters. They also possessed a Maserati, a Porsche and a BMW.

     The Food and Drug Administration in 2009 tightened the federal regulations regarding the manufacture and marketing of nutritional supplements. This, along with an economic recession, took its toll on Gugglielmelli's business. By 2011 his company, along with his marriage, had collapsed.

     Dino Gugglielmelli in filing for divorce in October 2012 described Monica as a bad mother who "never made dinner for the children." According to court documents Mr. Gugglielmelli complained that nannies raised the children and domestic employees cleaned the house.

     In January 2013, after Mr. Gugglielmelli accused Monica of attacking him with a kitchen knife, she lost custody of the children and moved out of the mansion. Shortly after her departure Mr. Gugglielmelli acquired a young girlfriend. Although he was facing bankruptcy he lavished this woman with $200,000 in gifts. He used other people's money to impress his young lover.

     In the spring of 2013 investigators exonerated Monica Gugglielmelli in the domestic knife assault case. A family court judge in August of that year was about to award her $300,000 in back alimony payments. The federal government, the economy, and his pending divorce put an end to Dino Gugglielmelli's lavish life style. He did not like what the future held.

     On October 1, 2013 Mr. Gugglielmelli and 47-year-old Richard Euhrmann met in a Los Angeles restaurant. Euhrmann, a short time before this meeting had gone to the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Office with information that Gugglielmelli had asked him to murder his estranged wife. For that reason Mr. Euhrmann showed up at the restaurant wired for sound.

     During that meeting Dino Gugglielmelli allegedly offered his friend $80,000 to pull off the hit. "I'll be happy when it's over," he reportedly said. As the two men walked out of the restaurant deputies took Mr. Gugglielmelli into custody.

     A Los Angeles County prosecutor charged the former millionaire with attempted murder and solicitation of murder. After being booked into the county's Men's Central Jail the judge set Gugglielmelli's bond at $10 million.

     At a pre-trial hearing in late 2013 Mr. Gugglielmelli's attorney Anthony Brooklier described Richard Euhrmann, the man Guggliemelli had allegedly asked to kill his estranged wife, as an opportunist and liar who had set up his client. 

     With her estranged husband behind bars for plotting to kill her, Monica moved back into the Gugglielmelli mansion.

     In May 2014, county jail officials moved the high-profile inmate into solitary confinement at the notorious Twin Towers correctional facility. In 2011 the 9,500-prisoner complex was named one of the ten worst jails in the world.  

     After receiving word that several of Gugglielmell's fellow inmates had approached him with offers to kill Richard Euhrmann, the principal witness against Gugglielmelli, corrections officials isolated him from the jail population. Gugglielmelli was also denied the privilege of seeing visitors. Richard Euhrmann, fearing for his life went into hiding.

     Monica, the alleged target of the murder-for-hire plot said she also worried about being killed by a hit man. Traumatized by the case she put the mansion up for sale asking for $3.5 million. She also tried to breathe new life into her beauty cream and baby skin care business.

    On June 13, 2014 in San Fernando Superior Court, Dino Gugglielmelli pleaded guilty to one count of attempted murder. The judge sentenced him to nine years in prison.

Wednesday, July 10, 2024

The Shane Absalon Murder Case

     In 1984, 17-year-old Shane Absalon lived in a Fort Worth, Texas apartment building with his parents. Ginger Hayden, a year older than him lived in the same apartment complex with her mother. She and Absalon had attended the same high school in Fort Worth. On September 4, 1984, after starting class at the University of Texas at Arlington (situated halfway between Fort Worth and Dallas) Ginger, her boyfriend Jeff Green and Shane Absalon were gathered in her mother's apartment drinking beer and watching television.

     At 6:15 the next morning Ginger Hayden's mother, Sharon Hayden Harvey, was awaken by the ringing of Ginger's alarm clock. When she entered the bedroom to see why Ginger hadn't turned off her alarm Sharon Harvey discovered her daughter lying on the floor next to her bed in a pool of blood. The hysterical mother dialed the operator and screamed, "My baby's dead!"

     According to the Tarrant County forensic pathologist who performed the autopsy, Ginger Hayden had been stabbed 57 times with a kitchen knife and had bled to death. Wounds on the victim's arms and hands suggested she had put up a fight.

     Detectives with the Fort Worth Police Department questioned Shane Absalon on September 12, 1984. Absalon said that Ginger and her boyfriend were in the apartment when he left the place at 11:30 that night. When asked if he was willing to take a polygraph test Absalon said that he would. But the next day, stating that he was acting on the advice of his attorney, the suspect declined to submit to the lie detector examination.

     For whatever reason the investigation of Ginger Hayden's brutal murder ground to a halt and died on the vine. In the meantime Shane Absalon, during the two years following the homicide, turned into a drunk and drug abuser with a history of arrests for crimes such as burglary, arson and assault. In July 1986 he pleaded guilty in Tarrant County to smashing a vehicle with a club while intoxicated. The judge sentenced him to a one-year period of probation. Pursuant to his sentence he was ordered to enter a drug and alcohol treatment program in Richardson, Texas called Straight Inc. (This outfit was later closed down following charges of patient abuse.)

     In 2001, 18 years after Ginger Hayden's murder, cold-case investigators in Fort Worth re-opened the investigation which focused on Shane Absalon as the prime suspect. Detectives believed that he had murdered Hayden after she refused to have sex with him. Among other evidence of his guilt a neighbor had seen the suspect, after he said he had left his apartment that night, climb over a fence and knock on the victim's sliding patio door. But the police needed more, and it wasn't until 2009 that they had enough evidence to support his arrest. After acquiring DNA samples from Mr. Absalon, forensic experts were able to link him to the murder scene.

     On August 20, 2010 Shane Absalon was taken into custody at his home in Sierra Vista, Arizona where he lived with his wife and young child. At the time he was working as a welder. A month later a grand jury sitting in Fort Worth indicted Absalon for capital murder. If convicted, he would be automatically sentenced to life in prison. Because he had been a juvenile at the time of the murder the defendant was not eligible for the death penalty. Moreover, under the applicable 1984 law, the 43-year-old would be eligible for parole after serving 20 years of his sentence.

     Word of Shane Absalon's arrest reached at least three former patients who were treated with him in 1986 for alcohol and drug abuse at Straight Inc. These people had attended group therapy sessions with Absalon. The news of his arrest for Ginger Hayden's murder prompted the former patients to tell the Fort Worth police that during a group therapy session two years after the murder he had confessed to killing a girl he knew. (Why didn't these former drug-alcohol patients inform the police immediately after Absalon's group therapy confession?)

     Shane Absalon's trial got underway on September 17, 2012. Following the testimony of a DNA analyst who linked the defendant to the murder scene, the prosecutor put three of the former Straight Inc. patients on the stand to state their recollections of the defendant's group therapy confession. (Absalon's attorney Gary Udashen objected to the introduction of this evidence but was overruled by the judge.)

     The first Straight Inc. witness, Sean Garrett informed the jurors that "He [the defendant] told me he was angry. He told me he wanted more of a relationship with her [the victim], that he wanted to be more than just friends. Her response was no, and he was real embarrassed. He stabbed her until he was tired and thought she was dead. His intentions were to kill her." According to this witness, after stabbing Hayden to death, Absalon cleaned up in the bathroom, threw his jacket and shoes in a nearby trash bin and went back to his apartment.

     Former patient Stefany Knight took the stand and said, "Shane stood up to admit to wrongdoing when he was high on heroin. He said he killed a girl...stabbed her with a knife." Michele Valencia, the third Straight, Inc. witness, testified that Absalon's confession had made her physically ill.

     Defense attorney Gary Udashen, in cross-examining Michele Valencia got her to admit that members of the rehabilitation center's poorly trained staff had pressured patients into confessing to crimes and former bad behavior. In this witness' opinion some patients made false confessions just to please staff members running the group therapy sessions. "There was some brainwashing going on...I learned to conform. I had to get out," she said.

      Defense attorney Udashen, in addressing the crime scene DNA evidence in his closing remarks to the jury, referred to unidentified semen on the victim's bed quilt and unidentified blood and tissue under Hayden's fingernails. The fact the defendant's DNA was in the apartment was not surprising because he had been there many times. Suggesting that Ginger Hayden had been murdered by a serial killer who had been loose in the Fort Worth area at the time of her death, the defense attorney said, "The person who killed Ginger Hayden is still out there, and the police need to find that person. That person is not Shane Abalson."

     On September 21, 2012, the jury, following a short deliberation, found the defendant guilty of capital murder. Shane Absalon looked stunned after the foreman of the jury read the verdict. The convicted man's wife ran out of the courtroom in tears. Absalon would not eligible for parole until after the 45-year-old turned 65.  

Tuesday, July 9, 2024

Failed Policing Leads to Vigilantism

     In the summer of 2013 Mary (not her real name), a 15-year-old with Down Syndrome worked a few hours a week at a coffee shop in southwest Detroit called Cafe Con Leche. On July 17 Mary did not show up for her two-hour shift that began at 3:30 PM. The shop's owner, Jordi Carbonell, called Mary's legal guardian who lived a few blocks away. (Mary's mother had died of cancer in 2006.)  The legal guardian informed Mr. Carbonell that Mary had left the house on time for her four-block walk through the Hubbard Farms neighborhood. Shortly after Mr. Carbonell's call Mary walked into the shop. When asked why she was late Mary said she had been with a friend.

     That evening, Mary shocked her legal guardian by telling her that she had been raped that afternoon by a neighborhood man named Bill (not his real name) who invited her to his apartment. According to Mary, Bill had kissed her, told her to undress then raped her. She said he used his cellphone to take photographs of her in the nude.
     Bill, who referred to himself as Super Fly and an Aztec Warrior, was known in the neighborhood for his strange and often confrontational behavior. The 43-year-old was generally disliked by residents of the area who considered him an oddball. He had big puffy hair and walked around in shorts and high socks. In January 2012 a judge had committed Bill to a mental health facility. According to a psychiatrist who treated him there, Bill was severely depressed. The doctor had written: "He feels hopeless and helpless. He plans to kill himself by hanging."
     Mary's guardian reported Mary's claim of rape to the Detroit Police Department on the day the girl reported the crime to her. A member of the sex crimes unit asked a medical technician to gather physical evidence from Mary for possible DNA analysis. Because of the complainant's limited communication skills a detective,  five days after the complaint, brought in a specialist to question her. 
     Mary's guardian became concerned when twelve days passed without anything happening in the case. On July 29, twelve days following the alleged crime, police officers took Bill into custody. When detectives questioned him he refused to cooperate. Before booking him into the Wayne County Jail an officer swabbed his cheek for a DNA sample. 
     The lead investigator on Mary's case asked the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office to charge Bill with rape. An assistant prosecutor in the office, in denying the request, asked for more evidence. The prosecutor recommended that detectives search Bill's apartment. (Apparently the police didn't search the apartment when they took Bill into custody.) 
     On July 31, 48 hours after taking the rape suspect into custody, the police, without a criminal charge had no choice but to release Bill back into the community. Two days later, 16 days after the rape report, police officers searched Bill's apartment. They seized a bed sheet, a blanket and a cellphone. 
     On August 5, 2013 Mary's guardian and members of the community who followed the case with great interest were surprised to learn that the officer in charge of the investigation, 19 days after the rape report, just sent Mary's rape kit to the Michigan State Police Laboratory for analysis. At this point in the investigation detectives couldn't even prove that the complainant had engaged in sex. 
     In response to criticism and neighborhood outrage over the way the case was being handled, a Detroit police administrator blamed the rape kit submission delay on the fact that during this crucial period in the case the sex crime unit moved its offices to a new headquarters. When it became obvious that this excuse only created more anger and frustration in the community the police administrator promised an internal investigation. This did not silence the critics. As far as neighborhood residents were concerned a rapist lived among them under the nose of the police. Instead of handling a rape case properly, investigators were focused on moving their offices. In the Detroit Police Department the crime of rape was obviously low priority. 
     On August 11, 2013, 24 days after Mary's rape report, a man on a bicycle carrying a baseball bat rode up to Bill as he walked along the street not far from his apartment building. "You like raping little girls?" the man asked as he began whacking Bill in the legs with the bat. A witness to the assault called 911. After the beating, as he limped along the sidewalk back to his apartment, Bill was attacked by five men who as a group punched and kicked him. By the time Detroit Police officers arrived at the scene Bill was on the ground and his assailants were gone. An ambulance took Bill to a nearby hospital.
      When released from the hospital Bill did not return to his dwelling. On the night of his beatings someone broke into his apartment and spray-painted "rapist" on the outside wall near the windows to his residence. The next day the building owner hired an armed security guard to make nervous tenants feel safer. 
    No arrests were made in connection with the assaults on the neighborhood rape suspect.

     This Detroit rape case split the neighborhood into two camps. One group was in support of the vigilantism while others deplored the idea of citizens taking the law into their own hands. One thing they all agreed on was this: the Detroit Police Department, by bungling the investigation, had created the environment for vigilantism. 
     Bill was never charged with rape.

Monday, July 8, 2024

The Sharon Voit Murder-For-Hire Case: Until Death Do Us Part

      The person who said that marriages start in bed and end up in court wasn't thinking of murder. Some marriages end up with one of the parties in court and the other in the morgue. Wives engineer the deaths of their estranged husbands out of fear they will be left penniless following the divorce. For women trapped in bad marriages murder, compared to divorce, is quicker and a lot more satisfying. Homicidal husbands want their wives dead to avoid legal fees, the divvying up of the marital estate, alimony and the expense of child support. Familiarity can breed contempt and divorce can breed criminal homicide. In the world of murder-for-hire the contentious divorce is perhaps the number one motive.

The Sharon Voit Case

     On July 13, 1995 Dr. Kerry Voit and his wife Sharon were watching television with their three daughters in the den of their home in the tranquil village of Golf on the northern outskirts of Chicago. At a quarter to ten Dr. Voit, stating that he was tired and wanted to retire for the night in that room, switched off the TV. This enraged his wife and in the scuffle that ensured Sharon Voit took a punch in the eye. Dr. Voit suffered scratches on his arm and came away from the fight with a bruised leg. Sharon ordered her husband out of the house and when he refused to leave she phoned the Cook County Sheriff's Office.

     The deputies who responded to the domestic disturbance received conflicting stories from the Voit daughters. Two of the girls sided with their father and the third with Mrs. Voit. The officers decided not to arrest anyone but ordered Dr. Voit, a successful downtown Chicago dentist, to leave the house for 72 hours. He spent the next few nights in Harwood Heights at his mother's house.

     Not long after the police call a family court judge ordered the Voits into marriage counseling, but it was too late for that. The couple continued to fight and for the next year or so Dr. Voit moved back and forth between his mother's place and the family home. In the summer of 1997 he moved out permanently.

     The Voit marriage had been an unhappy one from the start. As a 22-year-old dental hygienist, Sharon had helped put Kerry through dental school then worked in his office until their first child. They had talked about divorce many times but he didn't want to split up because he thought the divorce would ruin him financially. As a result the couple found themselves trapped in a marriage that brought them both misery. Finally, Sharon decided that she couldn't take it anymore. That's when she began thinking of murder.

     In the spring of 1999 while talking with Carl Poe, the husband of the ice skating coach working with her youngest daughter, Sharon Voit said she wished she could find someone to have Dr. Voit "taken care of." Mr. Poe passed the comment on to his wife Robyn who dismissed it as a joke. Although Sharon didn't sound like she was joking Carl agreed with his wife's assessment of black humor bubbling up out of frustration and stress.

     Two months after the "taken care of" comment Mrs. Voit shocked Dr. Voit's friend, Matt Georgopolous, when she said, quite specifically, that the only way she could achieve happiness was to find someone who would kill her husband. Mr. Georgopolous didn't think she was joking and warned his friend that his life might be in danger. Dr. Voit laughed it off, explaining that Sharon was a mentally unstable person who was just letting off steam.

     On March 8, 2000, while conferring with Robyn Poe at an ice skating competition in Buffalo, New York, Sharon Voit asked the coach if she knew anyone who could "take Kerry out." Although alarmed by the question Mrs. Poe decided to ignore Sharon's query although Carl had been right. This woman seemed deadly serious. In a restaurant two days later with Matt Georgopolous and Robyn Poe Mrs. Voit brought up the murder-for-hire subject again. Shortly after that she asked the family accountant if Dr. Voit had changed the beneficiary of his life insurance policy. The accountant said he had no knowledge of such matters.

     When Dr. Voit learned of his wife's recent life insurance and hit man inquiries he decided to take the situation a little more seriously. He called a friend in the Cook County State Attorney's office and reported that Sharon might be trying to have him murdered. The prosecutor referred the complaint to the Chicago Police Department where Detective John Duffy took charge of the case. After talking to Dr. Voit and Matt Georgopolous the detective asked Tim Kaufmann, a deputy with the sheriff's office special operations branch to enter the case as an undercover hit man.

     A few days after talking with Detective Duffy, Deputy Kaufmann called Sharon Voit and said, "I understand you have a problem you want taken care of." She responded by requesting a meeting the following afternoon in the parking lot of a local grocery store. The next day at one-thirty Sharon, behind the wheel of her SUV, pulled into the lot. After climbing into the officer's vehicle Sharon asked Deputy Kaufmann which one of her friends had spoken to him regarding her problem. The undercover cop replied that in his business that kind of information was confidential. Seemingly convinced that this man was in the business of killing people for money, Sharon set up a second meeting.

     On March 17, 2000 a covert police video surveillance team stood by as Sharon Voit pulled her SUV into another parking lot. Deputy Kaufmann, wearing a body microphone, climbed into her vehicle and without specific reference to Dr. Voit asked if she were serious about solving her problem. "Yep," she replied, "it's gotta be done." She then asked how much it would cost. The undercover officer said it depended on how much money she could raise. About seven thousand dollars she replied.

     To establish his bona fides as a paid assassin Deputy Kaufmann said that after killing people for the United States government as a combat soldier in Viet Nam he had gone into business for himself. Being in the profession of taking people out didn't bother him at all. Regarding the Voit hit, he said he would do it in a way that would make the murder look like it had been committed by a robber. In discussing possible times and places Sharon Voit revealed that her husband had planned a scuba diving trip to the Bahamas the following week. Deputy Kaufmann said he would kill her husband in the Bahamas. To that Sharon replied that she didn't care where or how the job was done. She said she had no interest in details. She just wanted to have her "misery finished."

     Deputy Kaufmann told Mrs. Voit that he needed $600 in upfront money to cover the cost of his trip to the Bahamas. She could mail him the balance after he completed the job. The undercover cop handed her a slip of paper bearing the post office address where she could sent the rest of the money. She next described her husband's daily routine and provided the officer with the address of his mother's house in Harwood Heights. The deputy said he had everything he needed except a photograph of the target and the expense money. They could meet again or she could get the photograph and the $600 while he waited in the parking lot. She replied that she would have what he wanted in less than an hour. Before he returned to his car to wait for the photograph and the money Deputy Kaufmann asked Sharon if this was really what she wanted to do. She said yes; the man she wanted killed had made her life miserable. This was the only way she knew to relieve that misery. She had made her decision.

     An hour later Sharon Voit returned to the parking lot. As Deputy Kaufmann walked away from her vehicle with the photograph and the upfront money police officers swooped in and took her into custody. One moment she thought her problems were over, the next she was sitting in the back of a police car wearing handcuffs. When informed she had been talking to an undercover cop who had recorded the conversation she admitting trying to hire the officer to kill her husband. Charged with solicitation of murder Sharon Voit landed in the Cook County Jail with her bond set at $10 million.

     After conferring with her attorney Sharon Voit decided to take back her confession and plead not guilty. The defense lawyer would argue entrapment, that the undercover officer had essentially talked his 51-year-old client into soliciting the murder of her husband. In support of this hard-to-establish defense the attorney would parse the recorded conversation, noting at one point that Voit had said, "Part of me wants him to get help so it would be better." The defense attorney also planned to highlight the absence of key words such as "hit man," "kill," "murder," and "dead." The attorney must have known that his defense, given the context of the case, would be a hard sell.

     Sharon Voit's trial, held in Skokie, Illinois got underway in January 2003. As evidence of her guilt the prosecutor presented the testimony of the Poes, Matt Georgopolous and Detective John Duffy. Jurors also heard the taped conversation featuring undercover officer Tim Kaufmann and the defendant. The jury also learned that the defendant had given the officer $600 and the photograph of her husband.

     In anticipation of the insanity defense the prosecutor arranged shortly after Sharon's arrest to have her examined by a pair of state psychiatrists. The doctors took the stand and testified that in their expert opinions the defendant at the time of her conversation with the undercover officer was legally sane and not suffering from the battered woman syndrome or post-traumatic stress disorder.

     Sharon Voit's attorney asked Dr. Susan M. Nowak, a Chicago psychiatrist, to examine his client to determine if the effects of her marriage had made her especially vulnerable to being entrapped by an undercover cop. The trial judge accepted Dr. Nowak as an expert witness but decided to hear her testimony outside the presence of the jury. If Dr. Nowak convinced the judge that the undercover officer had entrapped the defendant he would direct a verdict of not guilty. Otherwise the case would go to the jury without Dr. Nowak's testimony.

     Dr. Nowak investigated Sharon Voit's medical history that included reviewing court documents and psychiatric reports. The psychiatrist also interviewed Sharon as well as two of her friends. The story of the defendant's life, as related to the court by the psychiatrist, portrayed Dr. Voit as a cruel and abusive husband. According to the doctor, Sharon met Kerry Voit when they were high school sophomores. Five years later they married and shortly after that he started hitting her. While working in the office as his dental hygienist Sharon caught him in the closet using cocaine with a female employee. Over the years the successful dentist had taken other women on lavish trips and gave them expensive gifts.

     The defense psychiatrist testified that Dr. Voit forced his wife to have video-taped three-way cocaine-laced sex with him and his friend Matt Georgopolous. The defendant also told Dr. Nowak that her husband, during "violent" sexual intercourse, would hold a pillow over her face against her will. She had threatened to divorce him several times but he and his attorney talked her out of going through with the legal proceeding.

     Dr. Nowak, to a degree of reasonable medical certainty said that it was her expert opinion that the defendant, while not legally insane, possessed a "dependent personality disorder" that had rendered her vulnerable to police entrapment. The judge ruled that the doctor's testimony did not establish a legal case for entrapment. It wasn't that the judge didn't believe the defendant's characterization of her husband, he just didn't see how it related to the legal defense of entrapment. If anything the defendant's marital history provided a strong motive for the murder solicitation.

    The Voit trial went forward without Dr Nowak's open court testimony. On January 10, 2003, following a five-hour deliberation the jury found the defendant guilty as charged. A few weeks later the judge sentenced Sharon Voit to 23 years in prison. Voit's next door neighbor told a reporter she was shocked by the verdict. "They were such a loving couple," she said. "They were just so proud of each other. He talked about what a good cook and golfer she was. She was proud of what a good dentist he was. As time goes by I guess you can't maintain that forever." 

Sunday, July 7, 2024

The Sharena Nancy Kidnap-Murder Case

     Twenty-one-year old Paul D. Johnson resided in the Westmoreland County Pennsylvania borough of Delmont located along Route 22 on the eastern edge of suburban Pittsburgh. He was the father of a 23-month-old girl named Nalani. During the summer of 2019 Mr. Johnson began an intermittent romantic relationship with 25-year-old Sharena Islam Nancy, a woman he had met through social media.

     On Saturday, August 31, 2019 Paul Johnson and his daughter were in Sharena Nancy's black 2017 Toyota Yaris. Nalani was in the back of the car strapped into a car seat. At five o'clock that Saturday an argument broke out between Johnson and Nancy. At the intersection of Bryant Street and Clay Drive in the Pittsburgh suburb of Penn Hills Mr. Johnson told Sharena Nancy to stop the car so he and his daughter could get out.

    When Mr. Johnson got out of the Toyota and was about to remove his daughter from the car Nancy drove off with the child. In a state of panic Mr. Johnson called Nancy's cellphone several times without getting a response. He then called 911 and reported that his daughter had been kidnapped by Sharena Nancy in a black Toyota Yaris with Lyft and Uber stickers on the front passenger side of the vehicle.

     The authorities, based upon Mr. Johnson's kidnapping report, put out a regional Amber Alert requesting information regarding the whereabouts of the Toyota driven by Sharena Nancy with Nalani Johnson in the back seat.

     The Amber Alert quickly brought responses from witnessed who had spotted Nancy's car. She was also captured on a surveillance camera at a Sheetz service plaza in Murrysville, a nearby Allegheny County borough. From the service plaza Sharena Nancy, according to witnesses, traveled east on Route 22. About an hour after the abduction a witness saw her car in the Indiana County town of Blairsville.

     Just before 7:30 that Saturday evening, back in Allegheny County, an officer with the suburban Penn Hills Police Department spotted the black Toyota Yaris and pulled it over. Sharena Nancy was behind the wheel but Nalani Johnson and her car seat were not in the vehicle. The officer took Nancy into custody on suspicion of kidnapping.

     Questioned by Allegheny County detectives and FBI agents Sharena Nancy had quite a story, one that accused Nalani Johnson's father of enlisting her help in selling his daughter to an unidentified woman for $10,000.

     According to the kidnapping suspect, Paul Johnson instructed her that Saturday to drive her car, with Nalani in it, eastward toward a service station on Route 22 in Monroeville, a town located in Westmoreland County. Nancy claimed that Johnson assured her that along the way, about 20 minutes into the trip, a woman standing along the side of the highway would flag her over.

     In telling this outlandish tale Sharena Nancy said that she came upon a woman along Route 22 standing near a silver colored SUV with out of state plates. The woman waived her to a stop. It was at that time Nancy handed over Nalani along with the child's car seat.

     After passing off Nalani as instructed by her father, Nancy said she continued driving east to Indiana County's Blairsville where she turned around and headed back to Penn Hills. It was there she was stopped by the police officer and taken into custody.

     Officers booked Sharena Nancy into the Allegheny County jail on charges of kidnapping a minor, interference with the custody of a child and concealing the whereabouts of a child. The magistrate denied her bail.

     On September 3, 2019 law enforcement authorities in Indiana County announced that Nalani Johnson's body had been found by a person or persons they did not identify. The corpse was discovered in Pine Ridge Park near Blairsville about 37 miles east of Penn Hills from where she had been abducted. The body was not far from the Chestnut Ridge Golf Course. Witnesses had reported seeing Sharena Nancy's black Toyota near the course on Saturday August 31.

     A private forensic pathology group, under the auspices of the Indiana County Coroner's Office, performed the autopsy and determined that Nalani Johnson had been smothered.

     On September 5, 2019 Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala told reporters that "there is no evidence that anyone other than Sharena Nancy was responsible for the child's being taken from Penn Hills and ultimately being placed in that field or in the woods in Indiana County." 
     In April 2022 Sharena Nancy pleaded guilty to kidnapping and third-degree murder. The judge sentenced her to 15 to 30 years in prison.

Saturday, July 6, 2024

The Paul Johnson/Vance Roberts Kidnap/Sexual Torture Case

     In June 1990, 20-year-old Paul Johnson and his half-brother Vance Roberts kidnapped 17-year-old Andrea Hood off the street in Portland, Oregon. After the victim climbed into Roberts' pickup truck the two men drove her to Roberts' house in the city where, over a period of 36 hours, they repeatedly raped her in a bedroom converted into a soundproof torture chamber. They locked Andrea Hood into a closet and at times chained her to a bed.

     On the second day of her captivity the teen managed to free herself, smash a bedroom window and escape.

     Police officers when they searched Vance Roberts' house found chains and other items of torture and restraint.

     After Paul Johnson and Vance Roberts pleaded not guilty at their arraignments a Washington County prosecutor took the case to a grand jury which indicted the half-brothers on charges of kidnapping and rape. Both men maintained their innocence.

     In February 1991 as Johnson and Roberts awaited trial, their mother bailed them out. Both men immediately fled and remained at large for seventeen years until Vance Roberts surrendered to the authorities in 2006.

     In 2007 a jury found Vance Roberts guilty as charged. The key evidence against him involved the testimony of Andrea Hood and Michaelle Dierich, a woman kidnapped and raped by the half-brothers in 1988. The judge sentenced Mr. Roberts to 108 years in prison. He continued to insist that he was innocent.

     In September 2015 the Portland kidnap/rape case and its fugitive Paul Johnson were featured on the CNN TV show "The Hunt With John Walsh." Shortly after the episode aired a tip came in regarding Johnson's whereabouts.

     On Monday September 29, 2015 U. S. Marshals in Guadalajara, Mexico arrested Paul Johnson as he walked to an electronics store. The fugitive of 24 years had been living in that country under the name Paul Bennett Hamilton.

     In May 2016 Paul Johnson pleaded guilty to eight counts of first-degree kidnapping, six counts of first-degree sodomy, six counts of first-degree rape and three counts of first-degree sexual abuse. The Washington County judge sentenced the 46-year-old to 18 years in prison.

Friday, July 5, 2024

The Charles Smith III and Tonya Bundick Serial Arson Case

     The incendiary fires started on November 12, 2012 in Hopeton, a town 100 miles east of Richmond on Virginia's Eastern Shore, a peninsula along the Chesapeake Bay. Over the next four months volunteer firefighters in the county responded to 77 intentionally set fires involving abandoned houses, barns, camper trailers and various out-buildings that included a chicken coop.

     Arson investigators with the Virginia State Police and the Accomack County Sheriff's Office suspected that the serial fire-setter was either a disgruntled firefighter, a teenage boy sexually aroused by flames or a young man committing arson simply for the thrill and excitement of causing havoc. Given the nature of the places burned financial gain was not a motive. These were pathologically motivated fires.

     Since the vast majority of arsonists are men, fire investigators were not looking for a woman. Female arsonists usually have histories of mental illness and set fire to their own property. A vast majority of the fires set by women are motivated by the need for sympathy and attention.

     On April 2, 2013, forty-five minutes after midnight, a Virginia State Trooper near the Eastern Shore community of Melfa pulled over a vehicle with an expired inspection sticker. (This was probably not the real reason for the stop.) The traffic stop occurred shortly after a nearby abandoned house had been torched. Later that morning a local prosecutor charged the occupants of the car, 38-year-old Charles Smith III and Tonya Bundick, his 40-year-old girlfriend, with setting the Melfa house fire.

     Smith (also known as Charlie Applegate) and Bundick were held without bail at the Accomack County Jail. They were both from Accomac, Virginia. Smith, the owner of a body shop was once captain of the Tasley Volunteer Fire Company. Smith and Bundick had planned to get married within a month.

     A Virginia State Police spokesperson at a press conference on April 2, 2013 said, "We are confident that Bundick and Smith are guilty of the majority of fires."According to reports, arson investigators had watched Smith set the Melfa house fire. He started the blaze with a towel soaked in gasoline.

     Tonya Bundick resided in a dwelling that sat next door to a shed that had been set on fire in December 2012.

     The authorities did not identify the motive behind the arson spree. Since the couple received no monetary gain from the fires their motives were probably pathological. Perhaps they were bored or simply angry at the world.

     In October 2013 Charles Smith III pleaded guilty to 67 counts of arson. He faced life in prison and $5.6 million in fines. As part of the plea deal Smith agreed to testify against Tonya Bundick.

     Bundick's arson trial got underway in Virginia Beach in January 2014. Smith took the stand against the defendant as the prosecution's star witness. Following his testimony Tonya Bundick entered an Alford plea to one count of arson. (She faced dozens of other arson charges.) By this plea Bundick did not admit guilt but acknowledged that the prosecution had enough evidence to convict.

     On September 15, 2014, the judge sentenced Tonya Bundick to ten years in prison. The judge, on April 23, 2015, sentenced Charles Smith III to fifteen years behind bars. Exactly why the arsonists set these fires remained a mystery.

Thursday, July 4, 2024

The William Spengler Mass Murder-Suicide Case

     In past years murder-suicide in the United States has accounted for about five percent of all criminal homicides. A vast majority of murder-suicide victims are ex-girlfriends and estranged wives. These deadly  attacks regularly feature alcohol and drug intoxication, mental illness, depression and a variety of personality disorders. In terms of motive none of these killings make any sense to a rational person.

     Nationwide, murder-suicide is on the rise. In a country steeped in a culture of violence populated by a growing number of people who are unable to cope with modern life this is hardly a surprise. Criminologists, psychologists, psychiatrists, politicians and police administrators are clueless about how to reverse this trend. That's because nobody knows what causes drug addiction and mental instability or what makes disturbed people so murderous and self-destructive. 

     In the annals of crime 2012 might be remembered as the beginning of an era of the killing spree culminated with the self-inflicted death of the murderer. That year eighteen men, after murdering three or more people, killed themselves. The following homicidal rampage took place on December 24, 2012 in upstate New York.

William Spengler: The Suicidal Sniper

     In 1980 33-year-old William Spengler lived in the suburban Rochester area town of Webster, New York with his mother Arline and his 92-year-old grandmother. They resided in a middle-class home in a neighborhood of seasonal and year-round houses on a narrow Lake Ontario peninsula. Shortly after William's grandmother was found dead at the foot of their basement stairs the Monroe County district attorney charged Mr. Spengler with first-degree murder. He confessed to beating his grandmother to death with a hammer. (Since rational people don't bludgeon their grandmothers to death the motive behind this murder was pathological and therefore beyond rational comprehension.)

     Because William Spengler agreed to plead guilty, the prosecutor lowered the murder charge to manslaughter. The judge sentenced the defendant to eight to 25 years in prison. (The prosecutor may have been worried about a successful not guilty by reason of insanity defense.)

     In 1997, after serving 16 years behind bars, Mr. Spengler attended his first parole hearing. The inmate, when he learned that his presence at the hearing was not mandatory, said this to the parole panel: "Then it's not worth the time and effort." The parole officials denied Spengler his release. Since he hadn't expected to get out of prison this was no surprise. The surprise came six months later when these same officials granted Spengler his supervised release. The man who had murdered a 92-year-old woman walked out of prison in 1998 after serving two-thirds of his maximum sentence. (In the American system of criminal justice there are very few crimes that the government doesn't forgive. Judges and penologists seem hostile to the punishment rationale justifying sentencing and incarceration. In cases like this, whether or not the murderer has been rehabilitated should be irrelevant.)

     In 2006 while residing with his mother Arline and his older sister Cheryl in the dwelling next door to the house where he had murdered his grandmother Spengler's term of supervised parole expired. Because he was a convicted felon, under New York law he was not allowed to possess any kind of gun.

     In October 2012 William Spengler's mother Arline passed away. Although he hated his 67-year-old sister Cheryl, Spengler loved and doted on his mother. Since his parole in 1998, the gaunt, bearded loner had lived a quiet, uneventful life in the house across the road from Lake Ontario. Because of his low profile very few people in the town of 43,000 knew he existed. After Arline's death, William, in possession of a small arsenal that included handguns, rifles, shotguns and a lot of ammunition, began planning arson, mass murder and suicide. Spengler's years of living in obscurity would soon come to an end.

     Two hours before dawn on December 24, 2012, the 62-year-old ex-felon torched his house and set fire to his car. In possession of a .223-caliber Bushmaster rifle, a .38-caliber Smith and Wesson revolver and a Mossberg pump-action 12-gauge shotgun, Mr. Spengler took up a position behind a small hill not far from his burning house. It was from here he planned to ambush the first responders to the fires he started.

     At 5:35 that morning two members of the West Webster Volunteer Fire Department rolled up to the blaze in a firetruck. Spengler used his .223-caliber semi-automatic Bushmaster to kill 19-year-old Tomasz Kaczowka and his firefighting partner Michael Chiapperini, 43. When John Ritter, an off-duty officer with the Greece, New York Police Department pulled his car alongside the firetruck in an effort to shield the two firefighters, Spengler shot and wounded him. Two firefighters who arrived at the scene in their own vehicles, Joseph Hofstetter and Theodore Scardina, were also wounded by the sniper on the hill.

     An hour or so later the four firefighters and the wounded police officer where taken out of the line of fire by a SWAT operated armored vehicle. As the Spengler house fire began to spread to other homes, SWAT officers used the armored truck to evacuate 33 residents of the neighborhood. Amid all of the confusion William Spengler slipped away. Before it was all over seven homes burned to the ground.

     At eleven o'clock that morning police officers found William Spengler dead on a nearby beach. He had used one of his guns to shoot himself in the head. From a few feet from his body officers recovered a typed, three-page, rambling suicide note that contained the line: "I still have to get ready to see how much of the neighborhood I can burn down, and do what I like doing best, killing people."

     On Christmas day, arson and homicide investigators found Cheryl Spengler's charred remains in the fire debris. A forensic pathologist determined that Spengler's sister had been killed before the fire.

Wednesday, July 3, 2024

The Shrien Dewani Murder-For-Hire Case

     On November 13, 2010, 30-year-old Shrien Dewani and Anni, his 28-year-old wife of two weeks were on their honeymoon in Cape Town, South Africa. The couple, of Indian decent (she was born in Sweden) resided in the southwestern English town of Bristol where he was a businessman.

     Shortly after midnight on November 13, 2010 Shrien Dewani reported to police authorities that a gunman had commandeered the taxi he and his wife were riding in the nearby Cape Town suburb of Guguiethu. The kidnapper ordered the cab driver and Shrien out of the taxi in the town of Harare then drove off in the cab with Anni.

     Later that night police officers found Anni's dead body in the abandoned taxi in the town of Lingelethu West. She had injuries to her head and chest and had been shot in the back of the neck at short range. Officers with the Western Cape Town Police Department launched a manhunt for the killer.

     Shrien Dewani returned to England where he was treated for depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

     On November 14, 2010, Western Cape Town officers arrested 26-year-old Xolile Mngeni, the suspected gunman on the charge of murder. Two days later police officers arrested a suspected accomplice in the murder named Mziwamadoda Qwabe.

     Detectives arrested the cab driver, Zola Tongo, on November 20, 2010. According to the suspect Shrien Dewani had offered him 1,400 pounds to find a hit man willing to kill his wife Anni. Tongo reached out to his friend Qwabe who brought Mngeni, the trigger man, into the murder-for-hire scheme.

     On December 8, 2010 at the request of the South African government, police in England arrested Dewani for conspiring to have his wife murdered. Two days after being taken into custody he posted his bail and was confined to house arrest. He denied any involvement in his wife's murder.

     Zola Tongo, the cab driver, pleaded guilty to his role in the murder-for-hire plot in January 2011. The judge sentenced him to 18 years in prison. A month later Mziwamadoda Qwabe decided to cooperate with the police. He said that after the kidnapper let Dewani and Tongo out of the taxi that night,  Xolile Mngeni drove off with the victim. Qwabe admitted that for his role in the murder he received the victim's jewelry.

     In February 2011, back in England, Shrien Dewani swallowed a cocktail of 26 pills that included the drug diazepam that had been prescribed to him for anxiety. Following a period of hospitalization he returned home to house arrest.

     In November 2011 a TV station in England aired a documentary about the case called, "Murder On Honeymoon." The producers of the segment presented evidence pertaining to Dewani's alleged motive for having his new wife murdered. According to the documentary, investigators were working on the theory that Dewani had been living a secret double life as a gay man. Witnesses stated that he had been a regular visitor to a south London gay fetish sex club. When Anni found out he was gay she threatened to end the marriage and expose him.

     On March 30, 2012, judges sitting on London's High Court ruled that it would be unjust and oppressive to extradite Dewani to South Africa until he overcame his problem with mental illness. The authorities in South Africa were convinced he was faking mental illness to avoid extradition.

     Mziwamadoda Qwabe pleaded guilty in August 2012 and was sentenced in South Africa to 25 years in prison. Three months later a jury found Xolile Mngeni, the hit man, guilty of premeditated murder. The judge sentenced Mngeni to life behind bars.

     The fourth South African involved in the case, a hotel clerk named Monde Mbolombo had avoided prosecution by testifying against Qwabe and Mngeni.

     The BBC, in September 2012, aired a documentary about the Dewani case called "The Honeymoon Murder: Who Killed Anni?" Featuring forensic experts and others who had reviewed the evidence the show cast doubt on Shrien Dewani's guilt.

     The widely viewed BBC documentary portrayed Monde Mbolombo, the hotel clerk who was granted immunity for his prosecution testimony, as the true mastermind behind the murder. According to the documentary Mbolombo put the cab driver in touch with Mngeni, the trigger man. The motive was theft.

     About the time the BBC broadcast the documentary the English tabloid Daily Mail published text messages the victim had sent to family members shortly before her big wedding. "I'm going to be unhappy for the rest of my life," she had written. "I hate him. I want to cry myself to death."

     On January 2014 a panel of three judges sitting on England's Supreme Court ruled that Shrien Dewani could be extradited to South Africa to be tried for his wife's murder. The extradition, however, was conditioned on the promise that if the defendant were adjudicated mentally unfit for trial South African authorities would send him back to England. Dewani was expected to arrive in Cape Town in April 2014.

     South African Judge Jeanette Traverso, on December 8, 2014, dismissed the case against Mr. Dewani on the ground that no court would convict him unless he took the stand and incriminated himself. The judge noted that the prosecution witnesses against the accused murder-for-hire mastermind were not credible because they had been involved in the killing themselves. The judge's decision ended the case against Dewani because prosecutors in South Africa could only appeal a case when the judge had made a mistake in applying the law. This case, however, was dismissed based upon what this judge considered the crown's lack of evidence to support a conviction. The decision meant that Shrien Dewani was a free man and could not be charged again.

     A spokesperson for the prosecutor's office, in response to the dismissal, told reporters that the judge misunderstood the case.

     In the United States many murder-for-hire cases are predicated upon the prosecution testimony of the hit man and various accomplices. Getting a conviction pursuant to this South African judge's standards would be, in the United States, almost impossible.

Tuesday, July 2, 2024

The Mystery of Criminal Motive: The Streeter Brothers Murder Case

     Douglas Ivor Streeter and his brother John owned and operated the Merino sheep farm near Maryborough, Australia, a town northwest of Melbourne in the state of Victoria. The brothers, in their mid-60s, had worked on the 7,000-acre farm since they were teenagers. They lived in the hamlet of Natte Yallock and attended the local Anglican Church.

     While John Streeter was reclusive, Douglas and his wife Helen had been quite active in the local community. The couple had two adult sons, Ross and Anthony. In December 2012 Douglas Streeter was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease. His son, 30-year-old Ross Streeter lived in the town of Bendigo and worked on the sprawling farm with his father and his uncle.

     At six in the evening of Thursday, March 16, 2013 Douglas Streeter's wife Helen discovered the bodies of her husband and her brother-in-law. Someone had shot the brothers in the head with a shotgun. The double murder shocked this rural community. Who would have reason to kill these too well-respected farmers?

     At eleven-thirty the next morning police officers followed an ambulance en route to Ross Streeter's house in Bendigo where paramedics treated Douglas Streeter's son for unspecified self-inflicted injuries. They transported Mr. Streeter to the Royal Melbourne Hospital where the patient was treated under police guard.

     Investigators believed that sometime after eight in the morning the previous day, Ross Streeter had used a shotgun to kill his Uncle John. After the murder the suspect left the farm then sometime before noon returned and killed his father, Douglas.

     On Saturday, March 18, 2013, upon Ross Streeter's discharge from the hospital, police officers placed him under arrest for the two murders. Later that day investigators recovered the murder weapon. Charged with two counts of murder he was held without bail. The motive for the double murder was a mystery.

     On March 14, 2014 Ross Streeter pleaded guilty to both killings. Supreme Court Justice Lex Laspry, at the November 2014 sentencing hearing said he was dubious of Streeter's claim that he had no memory of the shootings. A psychiatrist had testified that the defendant did not suffer from any kind of mental illness and that his memory loss assertion was probably false.

     The judge imposed a sentence of 34 years. Mr. Streeter, under the terms of his sentence, would be eligible for parole after serving 25 years in prison. That meant he had no chance of freedom until he turned 55.

     Human behavior can be unpredictable, and in some cases inexplicable. 

Monday, July 1, 2024

Emily Creno's Self-Serving Hoax

     On the surface there was nothing exceptional about Emily J. Creno. In 2012 the mother of an 8-year-old girl and a boy who was four lived in Utica, a central Ohio town not far from Columbus. After the 31-year-old's marriage had gone sour her husband John moved out of the house.

     In December 2012 Emily Creno took her son J. J. to a hospital emergency room in Columbus. She told medical personnel that he had suffered a series of seizures. Following blood tests, X-rays and EEG monitoring the physician informed the mother that her son was in good health.

     Notwithstanding her son's clean bill of health, confirmed by subsequent hospital visits and various screening tests, Emily Creno told friends and family that J. J. had been diagnosed with cancer. She said J. J.  didn't have long to live. The child, thinking that he was terminally ill, basically shut down. When John Creno visited his son the boy couldn't speak or get off the couch. (Emily regularly shaved J. J.'s head to give him the appearance of someone being treated with chemotherapy.) Her estranged husband had no idea his son's illness was a hoax orchestrated by his wife. (The couple later divorced.)

     One of Emily's sympathetic friends created a Facebook page for the purpose of soliciting donations for the distraught mother and her dying son. About twenty people sent the family clothes, toys and money. One Facebook reader drove 500 miles to console Emily and the stricken boy.

     In May 2013 a Columbus woman with a daughter suffering from leukemia visited the Creno Facebook page where she read postings about J. J.'s illness and symptoms that didn't make sense. Thinking that Emily Creno was possibly soliciting money and goods on a false pretense this woman reported her suspicion to an officer with the Utica Police Department.

     Utica detective Damian Smith, in response to the tipster's call, got in touch with the Columbus oncologist who was supposedly treating the Creno boy. The physician said he did not know Emily or her son. Further investigation, which presumably included Creno's interrogation and perhaps a polygraph test, established the fact that her son's terminal illness was nothing more that a product of her imagination and deception.

     Licking County prosecutor Tracy Van Winkle in September 2013 charged Emily Creno with one count of third-degree child endangerment. Shortly thereafter police officers took the suspect into custody on the felony charge. A local magistrate set her bail at $50,000. The prosecutor told reporters that she would present the case to a grand jury which could result in additional charges related to fraud and theft by deception.    

     On May 7, 2014 Emily Creno after pleading no contest to charges of theft and endangering a child was sentenced to 18 months in prison by Judge Thomas Marcelain. The judge also ordered Creno to pay back the money donated to her phony cause. At the sentence hearing Judge Marcelain said that Creno's ploy had been intended to get her husband back, a scheme that got out of hand.

     In terms of motive this could have been a Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy (MSBP) case. Mothers with this disorder make their children ill to gain sympathy and attention from friends, family and hospital personnel. Quite often the MSBP subject is trying to attract the attention of an indifferent or estranged spouse. Even if Emily Creno didn't poison her son to make him ill, her cancer hoax could be explained in the context of this disorder. In other words the motive behind this dreadful case may have been pathological rather than theft by deception. It should be noted, however, that Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy does not constitute a recognized legal defense. It is not the same as legal insanity because MSBP mothers are fully aware of what they are doing and that what they are doing is wrong.