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Sunday, July 31, 2016

Professor Norma Esparza and the Cold-Case Murder of Gonzalo Ramirez

     Norma Patricia Esparza grew up in southern California's Orange County. On March 25, 1995, the 20-year-old Pomona College student, while in Santa Ana visiting her sister, went to a bar where she met Gonzalo Ramirez. The next morning, accompanied by her sister and a friend, Esparza met Ramirez at a restaurant. Following breakfast, Ramirez drove her back to her dormitory in Claremont.

     On April 15, 1995, during a meeting in Costa Mesa with her boyfriend Gianni Anthony Van at a transmission shop owned by his friend Kody Tran, Norma Esparza revealed that Ramirez had raped her in her Pomona College dorm room after she met him that morning for breakfast.

     The day following the meeting in the transmission shop, a police officer in Irvine, California found Ramirez's body along side of a back road. It looked as though someone had hacked him to death and chopped off several of his fingers. Detectives questioned Norma Esparza who repeated her rape allegation. She said she had no idea who had killed Ramirez.

     In 1996, Esparza and Gianni Van were married. That year, without promising leads in the Ramirez murder case, Irvine detectives shelved the homicide investigation.

     Norma Esparza graduated from Pomona College with a degree in psychology. In 2004, she divorced Gianni Van and moved to France. Five years after moving to Europe, Esparza moved to Geneva, Switzerland where she taught psychology and counseling at Webster University, an American accredited school with campuses in the United States, Europe, and Asia.

     As Esparza pushed ahead with her academic career, the authorities in California, after re-activating the Ramirez case in 2010, were making progress. Using advanced DNA science, a crime lab analyst was able to identify traces of blood recovered from Kody Tran's transmission shop in Costa Mesa as the murder victim's. Because Esparza had admitted being at the transmission shop on the night before the discovery of Ramirez's body, homicide investigators considered her a suspect in the 15-year-old murder.

     Ramirez case detectives believed that on April 15, 1995, after Esparza informed her boyfriend and Kody Tran that she had been raped three weeks earlier by Ramirez, she and the two men drove to a bar where Esparza pointed out Ramirez. As Ramirez drove home from the bar, Gianni Van intentionally rear-ended Ramirez's pickup truck at a red light. When the murder target climbed out of his truck to inspect the damage, Kody Tran and Gianni Van started punching him. Ramirez fled on foot but his attackers caught up to him and forced him into their van.

     After arriving at Tran's Costa Mesa transmission shop, Tran and Van hacked Ramirez to death with a meat cleaver. While detectives didn't think that Esparza had participated in the actual killing, they believed that she had been the chief motivating force behind the murder.

     An Orange County prosecutor, in February 2012, eighteen years after the Ramirez murder, charged Esparza, her ex-husband Gianni Van, and Kody Tran with murder. A short time later, during a stand-off with SWAT team officers, Kody Tan committed suicide.

     In October 2012, police in Boston, Massachusetts arrested Professor Esparza at Logan Airport where she had a layover on her way from Geneva, Switzerland to a Webster University related meeting in St. Louis. After her extradition to California, Esparza gained release from the Orange County Jail by posting her $300,000 bond.

    Two months after her arrest, Esparza signed a plea agreement with Special Prosecutor Scott Simmons in which she would remain free on bail as long as she, as a future trial witness, cooperated with the state. As part of the deal, Esparza agreed to plead guilty to voluntary manslaughter. Otherwise, she would be prosecuted for murder, a crime that could bring a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

    In November 2013 the Ramirez case took a sudden turn when the 39-year-old college professor told reporters that she had decided not to plead guilty. At that point, Orange County Judge Gerald Johnson revoked her bail and sent her back to the Orange County Jail.

     Esparza's current husband, Jorge Mancillas, called the bond revocation "an injustice." To reporters he said, "I guess in Orange County it doesn't count to be innocent."

     On September 15, 2014, Norma Esparza, having changed her mind, entered a guilty plea in Orange County Superior Court in exchange for a six-year prison sentence and the promise to testify against Gianni Van. Her attorney, Jack Earley, told reporters that "there is inherent risk in going to trial. The question is, do you take that risk.  Esparza and her husband Jorge Mancillos have a 4-year-old daughter." According to attorney Earley, his client's decision to plead had a lot to do with the child.

     On July 10, 2015, following a short trial, the jury found 43-year-old Gianni Anthony Van guilty of special circumstances murder. Orange County Superior Court Judge Gregg L. Prickett sentenced Van to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

     

Saturday, July 30, 2016

The Sheetal and Rajesh Ranot Child Abuse Case: No Protection For Maya

     In January 2011, Rajesh Ranot gained custody of his 9-year-old daughter Maya. A family court judge in Queens, New York, at Rajesh's request, issued a protection order against the girl's mother and her 20-year-old brother. The father, of Indian descent, accused his former wife Ramona Roy of abusing Maya.

     Maya moved into the top floor of an Ozone Park, Queens duplex with her father, his second wife Sheetal, and her four children. The family resided on a block inhabited by other families of Indian descent by way of Guyana and Trinidad. Mr. Ranot drove a taxi and worked most nights until four in the morning.

     Neighbors began to notice that Maya's stepmother treated her differently than the other children in the family. While Sheetal watched TV, Maya cleaned the house, cooked, swept the front porch, and did other household chores. Moreover, unlike her step-siblings, Maya wore dirty clothes and looked malnourished. In the winter, she wore flip-flops and often didn't have a coat.

     Someone in the neighborhood alerted the New York City Administration For Children Services which led to regular visits to the Ranot home by social workers. A neighbor from Guyana would later tell a reporter with The New York Times that in India, stepmothers didn't like their stepchildren and treated them like slaves. The fact that Maya was more like a maid than a daughter was, under the cultural circumstances, normal. But Maya lived in the U.S., not India.

     In December 2012, Maya's teachers and classmates noticed that the girl had lost so much weight it looked as though she was being starved. She also came to school with bruises and scratches on her arms and face. A social worker continued to visit the Ranot home. The child protection agents were told by Sheetal Ranot that Maya stole money from the family to give to her biological mother. The stepmother also claimed that the girl was crazy, and giving the family all sorts of problems. When asked by social workers how she had gotten her scratches and bruises, Maya claimed to have fallen. To her friends, however, Maya revealed that her stepmother regularly beat her and locked her in a room.

     On April 16, 2014, the 12-year-old, now weighing 56 pounds, was taken to the Jamaica Hospital Center in Queens with a badly bruised and swollen face. At the hospital, Maya and her stepmother told the doctor, a detective, and a child protection worker named Ruby Perez, that the injuries had been caused by her falling off a ladder.

     Social worker Perez had visited the Ranot home many times and expressed concern that Maya was being abused. The detective at the hospital told the social worker that he didn't have enough proof to establish an abuse case. As a result, the girl went home with her abusive stepmother.

     On May 6, 2014, Sheetal Ranot took her now 46-pound stepdaughter to the emergency room with a deep cut on her left wrist and a laceration on her right knee. According to the stepmother, Maya had tried to commit suicide in the kitchen with a large knife. Although Maya went along with this absurd story, the doctor called the police.

     Finally, after three years of abuse, Maya was sent to live with an aunt. She also began to reveal the details of her ordeal. She had not fallen off a ladder. Her stepmother had beaten her with a rolling pin. Three weeks later she was beaten in the kitchen with a broken metal broom handle. She had not tried to kill herself.

     A prosecutor in Queens, on July 29, 2014, charged Sheetal Ranot with several counts of first-degree assault. In convicted as charged, the stepmother faced up to 25 years in prison.

     Rajesh Ranot, at the time of Sheetal's arrest, was in India visiting relatives. Three days after his wife's arrest, he returned to the U.S. where at the airport he was met by detectives who took him into custody. Charged with lesser assault related and child endangerment offenses, the father faced up to 7 years behind bars.

     When the news broke about Maya Ranot's three-year ordeal, New York City Commissioner Gladys Carrion thanked the Administration For Children's Services and their social workers "whose diligence and professionalism saved the life of a young girl."

     Investigative journalists with The New York Times looked into the Maya Ranot case and wrote a different story. Social workers, instead of interviewing Maya's teachers, classmates, neighbors, and others familiar with the family, simply took the word of the stepmother. As a result, the girl almost died from abuse and neglect.

     Ruby Perez, the 29-year-old social worker who in April 2014 expressed concern regarding Maya's wellbeing, posted the following message on her Facebook page in 2010: "I want to quit my job. Now. I can't take it." Perhaps Perez didn't like working for a child protection agency that didn't protect children.

     On July 29, 2016, following a three-week trial, a jury in Queens, New York found Sheetal Ranot guilty as charged. She will be sentenced later. Ranot's attorney, Mahmoud Rabah, told reporters that his client maintains her innocence and will appeal the conviction.

     Rajesh Ranot's trial is scheduled for a later date. In all probability, he will enter a guilty plea for a lesser sentence. 

Friday, July 29, 2016

Tracey Richter: One Scheming, Dangerous Woman

     Tracey Richter's adversarial and bellicose history with her husbands could be viewed as 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 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, 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, Richter met a man online from California named Michael Roberts. Shortly thereafter Tracey and Mr. Michael Roberts were married, and by 2000, the year they separated, the couple had two children, ages one and three. At the time of the separation from her second husband (Roberts), 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 Bert and the two younger children in Early, Iowa, a small town 100 miles north of Des Moines in the eastern part of the state. On December 31 of that year, Richter 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, had 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 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. Their son was dead and their lives were ruined.

     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, Richter appeared on "The Montel Williams Show," a daily afternoon talkfest not unlike what Ophra Winfrey was doing on television. 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. (I don't know if she used this opportunity to accuse her first husband of trying to have her murdered.)

     In 2004, after 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 job, 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, Richter had lured the young man to her house, 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, 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 happened, 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. 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, 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."

     In July 2014, investigators in Iowa searched Tracey Richter's mother's computer on suspicion that Anna Richter and her daughter had harassed and defamed Dr. John Pitman and other prosecution witnesses, people who had helped put Tracey behind bars. According to the search warrant affidavit, the suspects accused these former witnesses of theft, perjury, fraud, computer hacking, and child molestation.

     In August 2014, Anna Richter's attorney, Julie Ofenbakh, argued that her client's computer contained attorney-client privileged communications, and asked the court for an in camera hearing to review the contents of Richter's computer. As of this writing, this aspect of the Tracey Richter criminal saga remained unresolved.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

John Hinckley Jr.: How To Shoot a U. S. President And Three Others And End Up Living The Good Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     Federal Judge Paul Friedman, on July 27, 2016, ruled that Hinckley will begin his permanent "convalescent leave" on August 5, 2016. That meant that Hinckley will live full-time with his mother in Virginia. 

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The David Wise Spousal Rape Case

     In 2008, Mandy Wise kicked her husband, David Wise, out of their home in Indianapolis, Indiana. She then filed for divorce. After eleven years of marriage, she had discovered, on his cell phone, video recordings of him having sex with her. She was unconscious. The tapes revealed to Mandy that she had been surreptitiously drugged and raped by her husband.

     When confronted with the tapes, David responded with the following email: "I was taking advantage of you in your sleep and you kept coming to me and telling me it was not okay. I needed to stop." He did not admit to drugging her, and they never, according to Mandy, discussed the matter prior to her discovery of the videotapes.

     In January 2010, not long after the finalization of the divorce, Mandy, now going by her maiden name Boardman, complained to the police that her ex-husband had been harassing her with repeated phone calls and text messages. She also claimed that David Wise had threatened to kill the man she was then engaged to. A judge granted her a protection order, but Wise was not charged with any crime.

     In 2011, two years after the divorce, Mandy reported the rapes to the police. As evidence, she submitted a DVD copy of the sex tapes. When asked to explain the delay in reporting the rapes and submitting the evidence, Mandy said she didn't want their two children to grow up without a father.

     A Marion County prosecutor charged David Wise with one count of rape, and five felony counts of criminal deviate conduct. If convicted as charged, he faced a maximum sentence of forty years in prison. After spending 24 days in the county detention center, David Wise made bail and was released to await his trial.

     The David Wise spousal rape trial began in April 2014 in Indianapolis. Mandy Boardman's testimony for the prosecution comprised the principal evidence in the three-day proceeding. She took the stand and told the jury that on numerous occasions she had awaken with the feeling that her body had been "messed with." One time she woke up with a pill still dissolving in her mouth. She had also discovered, in the bedroom, eyedroppers that were not hers.

     Following two days of testimony, the case went to the jury. After a brief deliberation, the jurors returned a verdict of guilty on all counts. The judge set May 16, 2014 as the sentencing date. On that day, the prosecutor asked the judge to sentence Wise to twenty years in prison. The convicted man's attorney argued for two years of house detention.

     Marion County Superior Court Judge Kurt Eisgruber, on May 16, 2014, sentenced the 52-year-old rapist to twenty years, with twelve of those years suspended. David Wise would serve the remaining eight years wearing a GPS monitoring device in his home. Following the house detention, he would serve two years of probation.

    Following the sentencing hearing, Wise's attorney, Elizabeth Milliken, told reporters that she planned to appeal her client's conviction.

     On Monday, May 19, 2014, Mandy Boardman, in speaking to a reporter with the Indianapolis Star, said, "I was very pleased with the conviction. The sentencing was a punch in the gut by the justice system. During the reading of the sentence the judge looked at me before he gave the final decision. I was told that I needed to forgive my attacker and move on. I received zero justice on Friday."

     Boardman, to a reporter with the Los Angeles Times, added: "I never thought he [Wise] would be at home, being able to have the same rights and privileges that I do."

    On July 24, 2014, Judge Eisgruber put David Wise behind bars for five years after the rapist violated the terms of his house arrest by letting his GPS tracking device's battery go dead. He also failed to maintain contact with correction authorities. Mandy Boardman responded to her ex-husband's incarceration with the following statement to a local reporter: "Now that I know that he will be in prison for the next five years, I think I can finally get some peace" 

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

No Justice for Arlene Roberts

     On October 28, 1978, Arlene Roberts' neighbors at the Lakeshore Manor Mobile Home Park in Renton, Washington near Seattle, checked in on the 80-year-old after she hadn't been seen for several days. They were shocked by what they saw upon entering her ransacked trailer. Someone had brutally murdered this woman.

     King County Sheriff's deputies found the victim half-naked and gagged with her hands and feet bound by one of her nylon stockings. The killer had strangled Roberts to death with a ligature fashioned from the victim's hair net.

     Although a crime scene investigator gathered physical evidence from the scene, including several latent fingerprints that did not belong to the victim, no suspects were developed, and the investigation slowed to a crawl then died on the vine.

     Early in 2011, 33 years after this sadistic murder, King County cold case investigators re-opened the Roberts homicide case. When detectives entered three of the crime scene latents into the Automatic Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS) computer--including a print that had been developed off a bank statement, and a print off a traveler's check--the computer search produced three "hits" or matches. All of the submitted fingerprints belonged to Ronald Wayne MacDonald, a then 17-year-old burglar who lived seven blocks from the murder scene.

     A background investigation of the murder suspect revealed that shortly after Arlene Roberts' murder, MacDonald moved to Florida where he was arrested several times for burglary for which he served numerous stretches in prison. In the 1990's, while living around the Reno, Nevada area, police had arrested him on burglary charges in 1992 and 2001.

     In June 2011, King County investigators traveled to Reno to interrogate the Roberts murder case suspect. When the detectives confronted MacDonald with the crime scene fingerprint evidence, he confessed to strangling the elderly woman to death in 1978. Two months later, the authorities in Nevada took MacDonald into custody on the charge of first-degree murder. In September 2011, he was back in King County, Washington awaiting his trial under a $2 million bond.

     At the opening of the MacDonald murder trial in June 2012, the defendant and the prosecutor entered into a so-called Alford plea agreement. (An Alford plea allows a defendant to agree to a sentencing deal without admitting guilt.) Pursuant to this plea, MacDonald pleaded guilty to second-degree manslaughter, a lesser homicide offense that carried a maximum sentence of five years. Pursuant to the deal, MacDonald, 51, would only serve 16 months in prison. With credit given for time served, he would, under the plea agreement, be immediately released from custody.

    On August 8, 2012, at the sentencing hearing, King County Detective Scott Tompkins took the stand on behalf of the victim who had no family or friends to represent her at the proceeding.Tompkins urged the judge to ignore the plea bargained deal and impose the maximum manslaughter sentence of five years. According to the detective, the victim had died a horrific death, noting that it had taken the medical examiner eighteen paragraphs just to describe all of her injuries.

     The judge obliged the detective's request, and imposed the five year sentence.

    MacDonald's attorneys appealed the judge's sentence to the state supreme court, arguing that the detective, as part of the prosecution team, had no standing to testify at the sentence hearing on behalf of the victim.

     On April 9, 2015, in a 6-3 decision, the state supreme court justices ruled that the detective's sentence hearing testimony was procedurally inappropriate. This meant that MacDonald, scheduled for release in September 2016, was to be immediately set free.

     Prosecutors in the case, because of procedural issues associated with MacDonald's confession back in 2011, believed the best deal they could make involved the 16-month sentence. Thanks to Detective Tompkins, MacDonald ended up serving three years and eight months behind bars. Even so, this sadistic, serial offender got off light. For Arlene Roberts, there was no justice. 

Monday, July 25, 2016

Who Tried to Murder Gary Melius?

     Born in 1945 in the Jackson Heights section of Queens, New York, Gary Melius began his career as a plumber, became a builder, and eventually made his fortune in real estate. In 1984, he bought a decaying 1919 French-style chateau on Long Island's Gold Coast. The Huntington, Long Island property, called Oheka Castle, was featured in the classic film "Citizen Kane." Melius turned the 109,000-square foot chateau into a luxury hotel, catering facility, and wedding venue. He also resided there.

     A close associate of former U.S. Senator Alphonse D'Amato and contributor of hundreds of thousands of dollars to republican and democrat politicians, Melius was a force in Long Island politics. In 2010, the Oheka Castle hosted the wedding of the disgraced ex-congressman Anthony Weiner and his wife Huma Abedin, a top Hillary Clinton aide.

     Like most rich and powerful men in politics, Gary Melius has cultivated enemies. In February 2014, he conferred with law enforcement officials regarding evidence he had acquired involving political bribery and witness tampering. Melius claimed to have proof of corruption that would send several high ranking government officials to prison.

     In 2013, Melius was at the heart of a political scandal that led to the resignation of Nassau County Police Commissioner Thomas Dale.

     Mr. Melius also had enemies in the business world. He was caught up in a legal battle over control of a company called Interceptor that manufactured ignition locks designed to curb drunken driving. On February 21, 2014, at a company shareholder's meeting, Melius announced that he planned to name a new board of directors.

     Melius has accused the company's founder, John Ruocco, of mismanagement and financial improprieties. Ruocco responded by calling Melius a "political fixer." In December 2013, a judge, siding with Melius, stripped Ruocco of much of his ownership of the company.

     At half past noon on Monday, February 24, 2014, just after Mr. Melius sat down behind the wheel of his Mercedes in the valet parking lot at Oheka Castle, a masked gunman approached the front driver's side window of the vehicle. The assailant fired a shot that hit Melius in the forehead. As the gunman fled the scene in a get-away car, the wounded 69-year-old climbed out of the Mercedes and stumbled  back into his house.

     The injured man's daughter drove her father to Syosset Hospital. From Syosset, he was transferred to the North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System in Manhasset. It was there he underwent emergency surgery. Mr. Melius survived the shooting.

     In speaking to reporters shortly after the assault, Deputy Inspector Matthew C. Lewis, the Commander of the Suffolk County Police Department's Major Crimes Bureau, said, "This looks to be a targeted crime." In other words, Mr. Melius may have been the victim of an attempted assassination, and perhaps the target in a murder-for-hire plot.

     In August 2014, Mr. Melius told a reporter that the police had investigated his adopted son as a possible suspect in the shooting. Thirty-four-year-old Thomas Melius, just days before his father was shot, had gotten out of prison after several months of incarceration related to a drug case. The father pointed out the lack of physical evidence connecting his son to the assault. Mr. Melius said he believed that one of his political enemies was behind the shooting.

     In February 2015, on the one year anniversary of the case, the Suffolk County Police Department raised its reward for tips leading to the arrest of the assailant to $100,000.

     On the two year anniversary of the unsolved attempted murder, February 24, 2016, the Suffolk County Police released portions of a surveillance video the day Mr. Melius was shot. The video depicts the victim walking to his car in the parking lot of the castle when the gunman exits his vehicle and fires through his target's driver's side window. The Suffolk Police also announced that the FBI had entered the case.

     Regarding the release of the surveillance video, Mr. Melius told reporters that it was about time, and that he hoped the publicity would cause someone to come forward with the shooter's identity.
     

Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Steve Nunn Murder Case

     If you think all, or even most, politicians are above average spouses and parents, think again. Although they pretend to be better than the rest of us, some of these hypocrites and thieves turn out to be dangerous criminals. Take Steve Nunn, a state legislator from Kentucky who was a lousy husband, a raging hypocrite, and dangerous.

     Steven Nunn was 15 when his father, Louie B. Nunn, became Kentucky's 52nd governor in 1967. A Republican, Nunn was re-elected to a second term, but in 1973, lost his bid for a seat in the U. S. Senate. Six years later, he ran for governor again, but lost. His career in elected politics was over.

     In 1974, Steve, hoping to follow in his father's footsteps, enrolled in law school, but dropped out. He got married, and over the next five years, had three children. In 1990, at age 38, Nunn ran for the Kentucky state house of representatives, and won.

     Steve's father, a hard-driven narcissist and BS artist who enjoyed subjecting his kid to ridicule, refused to be impressed with his son's election to state office. Like his father, Steve was a lousy husband who regularly cheated on his wife. In 1994, she divorced him. (In state politics, being a rotten husband is not usually a liability because most people have no idea who represents them locally.) Two years later, Steve's mother Beula, after 42 years of marriage to Louie B., sought a restraining order against the abusive ex-governor. Steve confronted his father over this, and the two men came to blows. After that, they stopped speaking to each other. Shortly after the father and son stopped talking to each other, Beula divorced Louie B. Nunn.

     Steve Nunn, in his third term as a state legislator, married Tracey Damron, a former flight attendant and daughter of a wealthy Kentucky coal magnate. A social butterfly who sparkled at fundraisers and social events, Tracey became the perfect politician's wife. Two years later, in 1998, Steve co-sponsored a bill that imposed the death sentence on convicted killers who murdered women who had taken out restraining orders against them. The bill became Kentucky law.  

       In 2002, after Tracey Nunn engineered a father-son reconciliation, she and Steve moved into the ex-governor's Pin Oak Farms mansion near Versailles, Kentucky. But a year later, the 51-year-old's political career took a bad turn. In a bid for the governorship, Steve lost badly in the Republican primary. And on January 29, 2004, his father, at age 81, died of a heart attack. Although Steve didn't have a healthy relationship with his father, the old man's death devastated him. The wheels of Steve's political career came off in 2006 when he lost his legislative seat to an unknown challenger.

     Following the death of his father, Steve started drinking heavily, patronizing prostitutes, and behaving irrationally. He also became, like his father, an abusive husband. Tracey divorced him in 2006. The following year, the 55-year-old political has-been met 20-year-old Amanda Ross, the daughter of a recently deceased public financier. After two months of dating, Steve moved into her Lexington, Kentucky apartment. In 2008, they were engaged to be married.

     Through his engagement to Amanda Ross, Steve landed the cabinet-level job of heading up a state agency that oversaw a variety of welfare programs, include those dealing with spousal abuse.

     Although Steve was back on his feet career-wise, he was still emotionally unstable, and drinking too much. His paranoia led him to suspect that Amanda was cheating on him. On February 17, 2009, in the midst of an argument in Ross' apartment, Nunn hit her. The next day, she petitioned the court for an emergency protection order, which a judge quickly granted. Under the restraining order, Nunn could have no contact with Ross for a period of a year. Within 48 hours of the judge's ruling, Nunn had no choice but to resign his cushy, high-paid government job.

     Convinced that Amanda Ross had intentionally sabotaged his career, Nunn became obsessed with revenge. To embarrass and humiliate his former fiancee, he showed his friends nude photographs he had taken of her. He began to stalk her.

     On September 11, 2009, as Amanda Ross left her apartment on her way to work, Nunn shot her to death. While no one witnessed the murder, homicide investigators immediately suspected Steve Nunn. Later that day, police found him hiding in a cemetery. He had scratched his wrists in a phony suicide attempt.

     Charged with first-degree murder, Nunn, to avoid the death penalty mandated by his own legislation, pleaded guilty in 2011 in exchange for a sentence of life without parole.

     Members of Amanda Ross' family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Steven Nunn in 2012. Two years later, the civil case jury found him responsible for Ross' death and awarded the plaintiffs $24 million.

     In February 2014, Steve Nunn petitioned Fayette County Judge Pamula Goodwine to have his guilty plea withdrawn. Nunn said his defense attorney, Warren Scoville, had given him bad advice. Following the October 2014 hearing on the motion, Judge Goodwine denied Nunn's plea withdrawal request.

   

     

Saturday, July 23, 2016

What Happened To Centre County,Pennsylvania District Attorney Ray Gricar?

The Gricar Missing Person Investigation

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theories of Ray Gricar's Disappearance

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

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

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

Ray Gricar, The Man

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

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

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

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

Ray Gricar and the Jerry Sandusky Pedophilia Case

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     People who have had access to Ray Gricar's papers say there was virtually no reference in them to Jerry Sandusky. If this were true, we will never know if Jerry Sandusky's pedophilia and Ray Gricar's disappearance were in any way connected.

   

     

Thursday, July 21, 2016

The Gregory Eldred Church Murder Case

     In 1982, after graduating from Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pennsylvania, Darlene Sitler began teaching music to students in kindergarden to sixth grade. For thirty years, she taught at the Northern Potter School District based in the tiny borough of Ulysses just south of the New York state border 200 miles northeast of Pittsburgh. Her husband, Gregory Eldred, taught music at the elementary school in Coudersport, the capital of Potter County 20 miles south of Ulysses. He was also a clarinet player with the Southern Tier Symphony. The couple attended the First United Presbyterian Church in Coudersport where Darlene played the organ and directed the choir. In April 2010, Darlene filed for divorce. The marital split became official four months later.

     On Sunday, December 2, 2012, about twenty minutes into Pastor Evon Lloyd's service at the First United Presbyterian Church, Darlene's 52-year-old ex-husband, wearing a hooded beige jacket, entered the building through a side door. Eldred walked up the center aisle, and with a .40-caliber handgun, shot Darlene as she sat at the organ. The single shot caused her to fall into the organ pit. As the stunned congregation looked on, Eldred walked calmly out of the church. One of the churchgoers called 911 as several witnesses to the shooting ran to the front of the church to attend to the wounded organist.

     About three minutes after the shooting, Gregory Eldred walked back into the church. When Pastor Lloyd and others pleaded with him to put down his pistol, the music teacher threatened to shoot anyone who got in his way. "I want to finish this," he said. "I've got to see if she's dead." Eldred walked up to the organ pit and fired two bullets into his ex-wife. If she wasn't already dead, these two shots killed her.

     Several members of the congregation swarmed the shooter, and in the course of subduing him, he fired off another shot that didn't hit anyone. A Pennsylvania State Trooper assigned to the Coudersport barracks arrived at the scene shortly thereafter.

     After officers with the state police escorted Gregory Eldred out of the church, the entire congregation climbed aboard a school bus. The witnesses were driven to a place they were questioned by a team of police officers. (Very few murders are witnessed by this many people.) Eldred, charged with first-degree murder, was held without bond in the Potter County Jail.

     On July 10, 2013, Gregory Eldred pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in a common pleas court. The judge, pursuant to the plea agreement, sentenced him to life in prison.

     In April 2015, from his cell at the Forest State Correctional Facility in Marienville, Pennsylvania, Gregory Eldred petitioned the state court to withdraw his 2013 guilty plea. Through his attorney, former Pennsylvania Attorney General Ernie Preate Jr., Eldred's previous attorney, Bill Hebe, had been ineffective counsel.

     According to Potter County District Attorney Andy Watson, FBI agents had raided Eldred's house on Dutch Hill Road just days before the murder. The FBI, however, refused to reveal the nature of its investigation of Eldred.

     The Potter County judge denied Eldred's plea withdrawal petition.

     If there is a message embedded in Gregory Eldred's madness, it remains a mystery. This is one of those bizarre murder cases that reminds us that sudden, violent death can come anytime, anywhere, and from anyone.


Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Eric Koula Double Murder Case

     Eric Koula, a 41-year-old day trader who lived in West Salem, Wisconsin with his wife and teenage son, called 911 on May 24, 2010 from his parent's house in nearby Barre to report that someone had shot and killed Dennis and Merna Koula. Homicide detectives who worked on the case soon determined that Koula's parents had been murdered three days earlier with a .22-caliber rifle. (The murder weapon was never identified.)

     After the LaCrosse County prosecutor, Tim Gruenke charged Eric Koula on July 29, 2010 with two counts of first-degree murder, police took him into custody. According to the prosecutor, Koula, in financial trouble, murdered his parents in order to inherit their estate. While the prosecutor had motive, means, and opportunity supporting this theory, it was what the state didn't have that made acquiring a conviction unlikely. What the prosecutor didn't have included a confession, an eyewitness, physical evidence pointing to Koula's guilt, or the murder weapon.
     Eric Koula, represented by Jim Kolby and Keith Belzer, went on trial on June 6, 2012. In his opening remarks to the jury of five men and seven women, prosecutor Gruenke stated the defendant executed his mother as she sat at her office computer, then shot his father when he walked into the room. Eric Koula's attorneys, on the other hand, assured the jury their client had an airtight alibi, and pointed out the obvious weakness of the prosecution's case. According to the defense theory of the murders, the victims had been killed by professional hitmen who entered the wrong house. (That doesn't sound too "professional.") The defense didn't elaborate on who had masterminded the contract killing, or why.   
     According to a forensic accountant who testified on behalf of the state, the defendant had only $3,000 in the bank, and owed the IRS and several credit card companies $150,000. Shortly after his parent's violent deaths, Koula had deposited into his bank a $50,000 check drawn on his father's account. 
     Investigators took the stand and testified that the defendant had planted evidence to make himself look innocent. He had written "fixed you" on a piece of paper and put it into his mailbox. The defendant hoped the note would make it look as though the killer was trying to frame him for the murders. Koula eventually confessed to fabricating this evidence.
     After the state rested its case on June 14, 2012, the defense put their own forensic accountant on the stand who testified that Koula's assets exceeded his liabilities. (To me, the term "forensic accountant" is an oxymoron. Accounting is as much a science as economics. While I realize that the word "forensic" pertains to a formal argument like a structured debate or a trial, it still doesn't sound right.) 
     On June 16, Eric Koula took the stand on his own behalf. (This fact alone makes this murder trial somewhat unusual.) Questioned on direct examination by attorney Keith Belzer, the defendant said that in 1994 he, his cousin, and his father purchased a Ford dealership. Eric became president of the company, but in 2006 his father sold the business. Although his father owed him $1million from the sale of the car dealership, the defendant only received $500,000. After the sale of the company, Eric began his day trading enterprise. In 2007, he made $300,000 in profits, but the following year he lost $661,000.
     In 2009, Eric's father gave him $100,000, and in May 2010, his parents promised him another $50,000. On May 20, 2010, the defendant went to his parent's home to pick up the $50,000 check. His father handed him a black check and told him to fill it in himself. That's why he signed his father's name on the check and tried to make the signature look like his father's handwriting. According to the defendant, this was the last time he saw his parent's alive. 
     On Friday, May 21, 2010, the day Dennis and Merna Koula were gunned down, the defendant detailed his activities in a way that established an airtight alibi. The next day, he deposited the $50,000 check bearing his father's fake signature. 
     On Monday, Mary 24, someone at the school where Mrs. Koula taught called Eric to inform him his mother had not shown up for work and that no one at her house was picking up the phone. Eric drove to Barre to check on his parents. He became alarmed when he saw their cars parked in the garage. Inside the house, he found his father lying dead on the home office floor, and his mother at her desk slumped over the computer. After calling 911, he phoned his wife and his pastor, both of whom rushed to the scene to give him support. 
     LaCrosse County deputies took the defendant to the sheriff's office for questioning. In his statement, he forgot to mention the $50,000 check he had deposited containing his father's phony signature. A week later, investigators came to his house to speak to him about the whereabouts of his son Dexter on the day of the murders. The detectives also wanted to know if the boy had access to a .22-caliber rifle. Worried that the police were going to arrest his son for the murder of his grandparents, the defendant wrote the "fixed you" note and placed it in his mailbox. He testified that he had fabricated this evidence to protect his son. 
     The defendant admitted that on July 29, 2010, when he met with detectives for the third and last time, he denied signing the $50.000 check, and didn't reveal that he had written the "fixed you" note. 
     On cross-examination, prosecutor Gary Freyburg pressed the defendant regarding his financial troubles. The prosecutor reminded him about the forged $50,000 check and the planted evidence. The cross-examiner pointed out that in Koula's 911 call, the defendant started out by explaining why he was at his parent's house. Once he justified his presence at the murder scene, he reported his emergency. 
     The testimony phase of the trial came to a close on June 26, 2012. The outcome of the case depended entirely on whether the jurors believed the defendant's testimony. After deliberating less than a day, the jury returned a verdict of guilty. By Wisconsin law, the judge had to impose a sentence of life. The judge could, however, decide to make Koula eligible for parole after serving 40 years behind bars. So, the best Koula could hope for was to walk free at age 83.

     On August 12, 2012, Judge Scott Home, at the sentence hearing, said this to the convicted killer: "You took the life of the two people who gave you life, and you'll spend the rest of your life incarcerated." The judge sentenced Koula to two consecutive life sentences without the chance of parole.      

     

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Annette Morales-Rodriguez and the C-Section Murders

     In October 2011, Annette Morales-Rodriguez, a 34-year-old mother of three, lived with a boyfriend who was expecting her to give birth to their baby within a matter of days. But that wasn't going to happen because she had been faking her pregnancy. Morales-Rodriguez had lied to this man twice before about being pregnant, and in the past, to avoid exposure as a liar and a fake, had falsely reported a pair of miscarriages. Running out of time and desperate, Morales-Rodriguez decided to kidnap a woman about to give birth, and steal the fetus by performing a crude Caesarean section using knowledge she had acquired from watching a show on the Discovery Channel.

     In search of a victim and her baby, Morales-Rodriguez showed up at a Hispanic community center in Milwaukee where she encountered 23-year-old Maritza Ramirez-Cruz who was in her 40th week of pregnancy. Morales-Rodriguez lured her intended victim into her car by offering her a ride home. Along the way, Morales-Rodriguez stopped at her house to change her shoes while the unsuspecting Ramirez-Cruz waited outside in the car. When Morales-Rodriguez didn't make a timely return to the vehicle, her passenger walked up to the house, knocked on the door, and asked if she could use the bathroom.

     Shortly after inviting the pregnant woman into her home, Morales-Rodriguez smashed her in the head with a baseball bat, then choked her until she passed out. After binding the victim's hands and feet with duct tape, and covering her nose and mouth with the tape, Morales-Rodriguez sliced into the pregnant woman's body with a X-Acto knife exposing the fetus. After removing the baby boy from his dead mother, Rodriguez realized she had killed the newborn as well.

     After she deposited Rameriz-Cruz's blood-soaked body in her basement, Morales-Rodriguez called 911 and informed the dispatcher she had just given birth to a baby that wasn't breathing. Paramedics who rushed to the scene confirmed that the infant was dead. At this point, the emergency responders had no reason to suspect foul play. They cleaned off the infant, wrapped it in a towel, and handed it to the woman who had just murdered it.

     When the medical examiner performed the autopsy, it became obvious that the baby had been removed from its mother's body by an amateur. This crude procedure had caused its death. A police search of Morales-Rodriguez's house resulted in the discovery of the disemboweled corpse with the duct tape still in place. According to the forensic pathologist, Ramirez-Cruz had died of blood loss and asphyxiation. The baby had been stillborn.

     Following her arrest, in a videotaped interrogation at the Milwaukee police station by detective Rodolfo Gomez, Morales-Rodriguez explained in Spanish how her boyfriend's expectations had caused her to kidnap and home-C-section the young pregnant woman. In other words, she had murdered a pregnant woman to save her relationship with her boyfriend.

     Charged with two counts of first-degree murder, Morales-Rodriguez went on trial in early September 2012. She pleaded not guilty to the murder charges on the ground it had not been her intention to kill the mother and her baby.

     On September 20, 2012, the jury of six men and six women found the defendant guilty as charged. Because Wisconsin didn't have the death penalty, Annette Morales-Rodriguez faced a mandatory life sentence. It was up to the judge to determine if she would be eligible for parole.

     Given the fact this woman had brutally murdered a total stranger, and killed the victim's baby through a crude C-section, Judge David Borowski, on December 13, 2012, sentenced Rodriquez to life in prison with no chance of parole. 

Monday, July 18, 2016

What Happened To Teleka Patrick?

     Raised in New York City, Teleka Patrick graduated from the Bronx High School of Science before earning her Bachelor of Science Degree at Oakwood University in Huntsville, Alabama. Three months after graduating from medical school at Loma Linda University in southern California, Teleka, in June 2013, began her four-year residency at Western Michigan University. She moved into the Gull Run apartment complex in Kalamazoo.

     At seven o'clock in the evening of December 5, 2013, Teleka was caught on a parking lot surveillance camera at the Borgess Medical Center where she worked. She had just finished her shift. From the hospital, a male co-worker gave Teleka a lift to the Radisson Hotel in downtown Kalamazoo. A hotel surveillance camera recorded Teleka entering the lobby dressed in a black hoodie and dark slacks.

     According to a Radisson emplyee, the woman in the hoodie tried to rent a room using cash. Because she did not show any identification, the person on the front desk refused to register her.

     At eight o'clock, Teleka got a ride back to her car at the Borgess Medical Center in a hotel schuttle van. The shuttle driver later described her behavior as nervous. He said she ducked between cars to avoid being spotted. From the medical center parking lot that night, Taleka Patrick went missing.

     Two hours after Taleka returned to the medical center, an Indiana State Trooper 100 miles from Kalamazoo came across, off Interstate 94 in Portage, an abandoned light-gold 1997 Lexus ES 300. The vehicle, registered to the missing woman, had a flat tire.

     Inside the Lexus, officers found a wallet containing Teleka's driver's license and credit cards. The car also contained pieces of the missing woman's clothing and a small amount of cash. The car keys were gone along with Teleka's cellphone.

     A bloodhound later traced Taleka's steps from the abandoned vehicle to the freeway where her trail went cold. A search of the area surrounding the car failed to produce any clues to her whereabouts.

     According to Carl Clatterbuck, a Kalamazoo private investigator hired to find Patrick, the missing woman's ex-husband and a former on-again off-again boyfriend, were not suspects in the disappearance.

     In late December 2013, several YouTube videos made by Teleka surfaced. Unfortunately, they raised more questions than answers. One of the videos, produced in early November 2013, featured a table in Teleka's apartment containing an elaborate breakfast spread. The narrator, identified as Teleka, says, "I just wanted to show you what I made….If you were here this would be on your plate." In another video, she addressed an unknown person as "baby," and "love."

     On January 1, 2014, Ismael Calderon, married to the missing woman from 2000 to 2011, told a Grand Rapids, Michigan television reporter that his ex-wife suffered from a serious mental problem. The illness led her to believe she was being followed. "This is a tragedy," he said. "I don't think she's hiding somewhere. I think she's being held against her will or the worst. I think that Teleka had this fear of first, being branded with a mental illness. Second, the practical fear of losing her career."

     The next day, a 46-year-old Grammy-nominated gospel singer and Grand Rapids, Michigan pastor named Marvin Sapp said he had filed a protection order against Teleka three months before she disappeared. According to Reverend Sapp, she had sent him 400 love letters, joined his congregation, and contacted his children.

     On April 6, 2014, a man fishing on Lake Charles in the northern part of Indiana saw something floating in the water. It turned out to be a body, and the corpse was Teleka Patrick. The lake had been frozen over during the winter. According to a family member, Patrick had been on her way to Chicago to visit a relative.

     Three days after the body recovery, the Porter County, Indiana Coroner's Office announced that Teleka Patrick had died from asphyxiation from drowning. In Michigan, according to Kalamazoo County Sheriff Richard Fuller, Patrick's drowning had been accidental. As a result, the criminal investigation of this unexplained death was closed.

     

Sunday, July 17, 2016

The Sylvie Cachay Bathtub Murder Case

     Sylvie Cachay grew up as the daughter of a Peruvian-born physician who practiced in Arlington, Virginia. She studied fashion design in New York City, and worked for clothing designers Marc Jacobs, Tommy Hilfinger, and Victoria's Secret. In 2006, Cachay started her own swimsuit line called Syla. She resided in a So Ho apartment in Manhattan's meatpacking district.

     Early in 2010, the 33-year-old swimwear designer met 24-year-old Nicholas Brooks, a college dropout and unemployed party-boy with a history of patronizing prostitutes, consuming large amounts of alcohol, and smoking marijuana. Nicholas Brooks' father, Joseph Brooks, achieved a bit of fame by writing the 1970s hit song, "You Light Up My Life." The songwriter supported his son's party-boy lifestyle until 2009 when the elder Brooks was arrested on charges of sexually assaulting several women, most of whom were aspiring actresses. (In 2011, Joseph Brooks, facing the chance of a long stretch in prison, committed suicide.)

     Because of Nicholas Brooks' debauched lifestyle, funded by Cachay's credit cards, the couple had a turbulent relationship. They frequently broke up and then got back together again.

     On the morning of December 8, 2010, Cachay sent Brooks an email that read: "Nick, for the past six months I have supported you financially and emotionally. I am speaking with my credit card company and the police and I am going to tell them that I never allowed you to use my card. I don't care. Have fun in jail."

     Later on the day of Cachay's angry email, at her So Ho apartment, the couple made up. That night, just after midnight, the couple walked to the SoHo House, a luxury hotel not far from Cachay's apartment. They checked into their room at 12:30 AM.

     Shortly after Cachay and Brooks checked in to the SoHo House, a hotel employee heard a man and a woman arguing loudly in their room. Thirty minutes later, Brooks left the suite and was seen eating a steak in the hotel's dining room. Upon finishing his meal, Brooks and a man who had come to the lobby to meet him, left the hotel. A short time later they were having drinks at a nightclub called Employees Only.

     At three in the morning of December 9, 2010, about two and a half hours after Cachay and Brooks checked in to the SoHo House, a guest on the floor below complained to the front dest about water leaking through the ceiling. Hotel employees entered Cachay's room and found her dead in the overflowing bathtub. One of the stunned hotel employees called 911.

     New York City homicide detectives, when they arrived at the hotel, found the swimsuit designer in the bathtub wearing a sweater and a pair of underwear. The officers didn't notice any signs of physical trauma on the dead woman's body. At five-thirty that morning, while the death scene investigators were still in the hotel room, Nicholas Brooks returned to the suite. He agreed to be questioned at a nearby NYPD precinct station.

     Brooks admitted to his questioners that he and his dead girlfriend had been arguing in the hotel room before he left to eat his steak. After that, he and a friend went out for drinks at a nearby nightclub. He said that when he left the hotel room Sylvie was alive.

     Following the autopsy, a forensic pathologist with the New York City Medical Examiner's Office ruled that Sylvie Cachay had died of asphyxia due to strangulation and drowning. The manner of death in her case: criminal homicide.

     New York City detectives arrested Nicholas Brooks on January 4, 2011 on the charge of first-degree murder. At his arraignment hearing, the magistrate denied the murder suspect bail. Brooks entered a plea of not guilty.

     The Cachay-Brooks murder trial got underway in New York City on June 7, 2013. In his opening remarks, the assistant district attorney laid out the prosecution's theory of the case: the unemployed, playboy had been using the victim to fund his taste for prostitutes, alcohol, marijuana, and expensive nights out on the town. When she threatened to cut him off and report him to the police, he strangled or drowned her to death in the hotel bathtub.

     The New York City Medical Examiner's Office forensic pathologist took the stand early in the trial. According to the pathologist, "Bruises on the victim's neck, bleeding in her eyes, and abrasions inside her mouth...were injuries consistent with [homicidal] asphyxiation."

     Through several prosecution witnesses, the assistant district attorney presented the jury with emails in which Cachay had complained to her friends about Brooks' drinking, drug use, and late-night partying. In these emails, she referred to the defendant as "the kid I'm dating," as her "man-boy," or as a "stoner" who had quit his job at a cupcake shop.

     The Brooks defense, through a forensic pathologist from Syosset, New York, presented evidence that Cachay's death had been accidental. According to Dr. Gerard Catanese, the victim had drowned in the tub because she had sedatives, anti-depressents, and muscle relaxers in her system. "That combination of drugs," Dr. Catanese said, "could account for her falling asleep, losing consciousness...and sinking under the water and ultimately dying."

     On July 11, 2013, the jury, relying solely on circumstantial evidence, found Nicholas Brooks guilty of first-degree murder. As the verdict was read, friends of Sylvie Cachay, from their seats in the courtroom, cheered loudly. 

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Robert Girts: The Husband From Hell

     In 1992 Robert Girts and his third wife Diane lived in a house connected to a Parma, Ohio funeral home that employed the 42-year-old mortician as director and embalmer. On the morning of September 2, 1992, Girts and a couple of his friends were driving back to Parma from nearby Cleveland where they had been helping Girts' brother move. That day, Diane Girts didn't show up for her job that started at noon. A fellow employee, worried because she was never late for work, phoned the funeral home. A funeral company employee checking on Diane noticed that her car was still in the driveway. He went to the front entrance of the dwelling and called to her through the screen door. When she didn't answer he entered the house and found Diane's nude body in the bathtub. She had been dead for several hours.

     The death scene investigation revealed no evidence of foul play such as a burglary or signs of physical trauma. Moreover, detectives found no indication of suicide such as pills or a note. A forensic pathologist with the Cuyahoga County Coroner's Office performed the autopsy. Because the dead woman's post-mortem lividity featured a cherry color rather than purplish red, the forensic pathologist considered the possibility she had died of carbon monoxide poisoning. The pathologist, however, ruled out this cause of death when Diane's blood-carbon monoxide level tested normal. Following standard autopsy protocol, the forensic pathologist secured a sample of the subject's stomach contents--an undigested meal of pasta salad--for toxicological analysis. (The undigested meal suggested Diane had been dead for more than twelve hours.) As a result of inconclusive nature of the autopsy, the Cuyahoga Coroner ruled Diane Girts' death "undetermined."

     On September 20, 1992, 18 days after the funeral home employee discovered Diane Girts's body in the bathtub, Robert Girts contacted a detective working on the case to inform him that he had discovered a handwritten note that indicated that his wife had killed herself. In that document she had supposedly written: "I hate Cleveland. I hate my job. I hate myself."

     Robert Girts, the grieving husband, in his effort to control the direction of the investigation of his wife's sudden and unexplained death, informed detectives that she had been despondent over their recent move to Parma. Also, she had been having trouble with her weight and suffered depression over a series of miscarriages that suggested she wouldn't be able to give birth.

     The toxicological analysis of the decedent's stomach contents revealed the presence of cyanide at twice the lethal dose. Based on this finding the coroner changed the manner of Diane Girts' death criminal homicide.

     In January 1993, a chemist acquainted with Robert Girts told detectives that at his request in the spring of 1992, she had sent him two grams of potassium cyanide. Girts said he needed the poison to deal with a groundhog problem. Investigators believed the suspect had acquired the cyanide to deal with a wife problem. Detectives also knew that potassium cyanide is not used in the embalming process.

     Investigators learned that the murder suspect, in February 1992, had resumed an affair with an interior designer who had broken off the relationship after learning he was married. To get this woman back, Girts had assured her that he and Diane would be divorced by July 1992. Two months after Diane turned up dead in her bathtub, Girts informed his girlfriend that his wife had died from an aneurysm. Detectives considered Girts' relationship with this woman, along with money, the motive for the murder. Upon Diane's death he had received $50,000 in life insurance proceeds.

     Investigators digging into Girts' personal history in search of clues of past homicidal behavior discovered that in the late 1970s his first wife Terrie (nee Morris) had died at the age of 25. After the couple returned to Girt's hometown of Poland, Ohio after living in Hawaii, Terrie's feet swelled up and she became lethargic. In the hospital following a blood clot she slipped into a coma and died. Members of Terrie's family, who had tried to talk her out of marrying Robert in the first place, wanted her body autopsied out of suspicion she had poisoned. Robert wouldn't allow it.

     On Terrie's death certificate the coroner listed the cause of death as a swollen heart. (This doesn't make sense on its face because a "swollen heart" is not a cause of death.) Investigators learned that Girts' second wife had divorced him. Prior to her death she had accused him of physical abuse.

     In 1993, as part of the investigation of Diane Girts's death by poisoning, Terrie Girts' body was exhumed and autopsied. While the forensic pathologist concluded that she had not died of a swollen heart, he could not find evidence that she had been poisoned. The fact Terrie had spent a month in the hospital before she died might account for the fact there were no traces of poison in her body. Moreover, she had been dead fifteen years and had been embalmed.

     Charged with the murder of his wife Diane, Robert Girts went on trial in the summer of 1993. Except for a confession the defendant had allegedly made to an inmate in the Cuyahoga County Jail, the prosecution's case was circumstantial.

     After the prosecution rested its case, Girts took the stand and denied murdering his wife. On cross-examination the prosecutor asked the defendant if he had confessed to another inmate. The defense attorney objected to this line of questioning on the ground it was prejudicial. The judge overruled the objection. When the prosecutor asked this question again, Girts denied making the jailhouse confession.  At that point the idea that the defendant had confessed to an inmate had been planted in the minds of the jurors.

     The Cuyahoga County jury found Robert Girts guilty of poisoning Diane to death. The judge sentenced him to life with the possibility of parole after twenty years. (This would have made him eligible for parole in 2013.)

     Girts appealed his murder conviction to the Eight District Court of Appeals in Cuyahoga County on the grounds that the trial judge should not have allowed the prosecutor, on cross-examination, to bring up the alleged jailhouse confession. On July 28, 1994, the state appellate court agreed. Citing prosecutorial misconduct, the justices overturned Girt's murder conviction.

     At his retrial in 1995, Robert Girts did not take the stand on his own behalf. The prosecutor, in his closing argument to the jury, cited the defendant's refusal to testify as evidence of his guilt. The second Cuyahoga County jury found Girts guilty of murder. This time Girts appealed his conviction on grounds that by referring to his decision not to take the stand in his own defense the prosecutor had violated his constitutional right against self-incrimination. On July 24, 1997 the state appeals court upheld the conviction.

     In 2005, after serving 12 years behind bars at the Oakwood Correctional Facility in Lima, Ohio, Girts appealed his 1995 murder conviction to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. Two years later, the federal appeals court, on grounds of prosecutorial misconduct, reversed Girts' second murder conviction. The justices did not, however, order his immediate release from prison. But if they didn't try him by October 11, 2008, he would be set free on $100,000 bond. When the authorities in Ohio failed to bring Girts to trial for the third time within the 180-day deadline, the twice-convicted killer walked out of prison.

     Robert Girts returned to Poland, a bedroom community south of Youngstown. He moved in with a relative and for a time reported twice a month to a probation officer at the Community Corrections Association. In the meantime, he filed a motion asking the appeals court to bar a third murder trial on grounds of double jeopardy. In March 2010, the federal appeals court denied Girts' motion The decision paved the way for a third murder trial.

     After his release from prison in November 2008, Girts married a woman named Ruth he met through the Internet. They lived in a trailer park in Brookfield, Ohio. On August 5, 2012, Ruth, a nurse who had just landed a job at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) in nearby Farrell, Pennsylvania, called her supervisor to say she was quitting because she was being stalked by her husband. Ruth told the supervisor she was afraid for her life and was in hiding.

     The UPMC nursing supervisor passed this information on to the Southwest Regional Police Department in Belle Vernon. An officer with that agency relayed the report to Dan Faustino, the Brookfield Chief of Police.

     Brookfield officers drove out to the Girts' residence to check on Ruth. The suspect met the officers at the dwelling. He said his wife wasn't there and that he had no idea where she was. He consented to a search of the house which confirmed his wife's absence. Later that day, a Brookfield officer contacted Ruth by phone. She told the officer that she had quit her nursing job in Farrell in order to hide from her husband. She said he had threatened to kill her. Ruth was so afraid of Robert she even refused to tell the officer where she was hiding. Ruth did inform the officer about her husband's two murder trials in Cuyahoga County. This led Chief Faustino to call the authorities in Cuyahoga County to inform them of the unfolding developments regarding Girts in Brookfield and Farrell.

     On August 9, 2012, a judge granted a Cuyahoga County prosecutor's motion to convene an emergency bond revocation hearing. In light of Robert Girts' alleged threats against his current wife Ruth, the authorities wanted him back behind bars. After hearing testimony from officials familiar with Robert Girts' murder trials and appeals, and Ruth Girts' recent accusations against him, the judge did not revoke his $100,000 bond. Instead, the magistrate restricted Girts' travel to destinations in Mahoning County where he lived. He could also travel to Cuyahoga County to attend scheduled court appearances. The judge ordered Girts to stay away from his wife.

     As the new phase of the Robert Girts murder saga unfolded, the 59-year-old's wife remained in hiding.

     In January 2013, Cuyahoga County Judge Michael Jackson remanded Girts' bond and ordered him back to jail. Girts had been visiting  Ruth at her new job. On each occasion he brought her coffee. After drinking the coffee Ruth would feel ill and vomit. Investigators believed Girts was poisoning Ruth with antifreeze. (He had searched the Internet under the word "antifreeze." Girts told detectives that his dog had stepped in the antifreeze and he was interested in the side effects. He also explained that he had been contemplating using antifreeze to kill himself. Ruth Girts did not seek medical treatment or submit to toxicological tests.

     On January 31, 2014, in an effort to avoid a third trial for murdering his wife Diane in 1992, Girts pleaded guilty to the charge of involuntary manslaughter. In open court he described how he had put cyanide in a saltshaker to poison her. Girts also pleaded guilty to insurance fraud.

     Following his guilty pleas, the authorities returned Girts to prison to serve a sentence of six to thirty years. The Ohio Parole Board, in August 2014, ruled that Girts would not be eligible for parole until 2023.

     Girts' attorney's filed an appeal with the 8th District Ohio Court of Appeals arguing that the six to thirty year sentence was based on the wrong set of sentencing guidelines. Instead of using the sentencing rules applicable for 2014, the judge should have sentenced Girts to the guidelines in place in 1992, the time of the crime. The appellate judges agreed and set aside Girts' guilty plea and his sentence. In November 2015, the state supreme court declined to consider the case which meant that the appellate decision stood.

     On December 18, 2015, in a Cleveland court room, Robert Girts, in connection with the death of Diane Girts, pleaded guilty to charges of involuntary manslaughter and insurance fraud. The judge sentenced him to 12 years but gave him credit for time already served. That meant that Mr. Girts would remain a free man. Case closed.
   

     

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Murder in a Small Town: The 1957 Fordney-Barber Case

     In 1957, whenever someone in the United States committed murder, the story almost always made the front page of the local newspaper, and led the news that night on TV. In the past few years there has been an explosion of murder-suicide cases across the nation, but in the 1950s such mayhem, particularly in small town America, was virtually unheard of. But it did happen, and it happened on May 28, 1957 in a small town in western Pennsylvania.

     John D. Barber and his wife Grace, a childless couple, adopted 8-year-old Judy Rose in 1946. The family resided in Grove City, Pennsylvania. In 1953, when Judy turned fifteen, the family moved fifteen miles west to New Wilmington, a quiet borough of 1,800 in Amish country ninety minutes north of Pittsburgh. The Barbers took up residence in a modest home at 256 North Market Street near the center of the one-redlight town.

     Two years after moving to New Wilmington, the home of Westminster College, Mr. and Mrs. Barber separated. Grace moved a few miles north where she took up residence in Blacktown in adjacent Mercer County. At the time, Mr. Barber, a small aircraft pilot and member of the Shenango Valley Flying Club, worked the night shift at a factory twenty miles west in Youngstown, Ohio. Following her parents' separation, Judy elected to remain in New Wilmington with her father.

     In September 1956, at the beginning of her senior year at New Wilmington Area High School, Judy Barber announced her engagement to Homer Miller, a young man from Grove City who had joined the Marine Corps. Notwithstanding her engagement to Miller, Judy continued to see Theodore George Fordney, a 28-year-old postal worker she had been involved with since July 1956. Early in 1957, following Homer Miller's discharge from the Marine Corps, Judy returned his engagement ring. She continued to go out with Ted Fordney, a man ten years her senior.

     On May 21, 1957, Mr. Barber, in anticipation of Judy's graduation from high school the following week, bought her a car. Although she had been a mediocre student with a lot of absences, Judy had lined-up a job as a secretary in a department store in the nearby town of Sharon. Having flown several times in a small plane with her father, Judy aspired to someday become an airline stewardess.

     Ted Fordney, Judy's on and off boyfriend, had, in 1945, quit high school during his senior year. Ted, a slender, clean-cut kid of average height who was known as an excellent swimmer and diver, while no more of a prankster than many students in his class of 33, alway seemed to be the boy who got caught. According to friend Kenny Whitman, Ted was one of those bad luck guys who walked around under a cloud. Before dropping out of school, Fordney and Whitman washed dishes at The Tavern, a New Wilmington restaurant known throughout western Pennsylvania.

     Growing up in New Wilmington, Ted was raised by his mother. No one seemed to know anything about his father, George A. Fordney. After leaving school, Ted joined the Army. He ended up stationed in Fort Lee, Virginia. In May 1947, fresh out of the service, Ted started working at the massive Youngstown Sheet & Tube Company in Youngstown, Ohio. In 1953, he landed a job at the post office in New Wilmington. He also joined the New Wilmington Volunteer Fire Department.

     In 1957, Ted, 29-years-old, still single, and working at the post office, resided in a two-story house at 512 West Neshannock Avenue owned by his mother. His 54-year-old mother, Mary Virginia (Fischer) Fordney, a practical nurse, lived and worked in Florida. For several months, Ted had been living with terrible pain caused by a slipped disc in his spine. Because he couldn't stand for any period of time, he missed a lot of work at the post office.

     On May 21, 1957, Ted underwent an operation at the Jameson Memorial Hospital in New Castle to repair his ruptured disc. Mrs. Fordney returned to New Wilmington from New Orleans to take care of her son as he tried to recover from the operation. Mrs. Fordney had been in New Orleans visiting Madeline, one of Ted's three grown sisters.

      Six days following his hospital stay, Ted ran into his lifelong friend, Kenny Whitman. When Kenny asked Ted why he hadn't been around to visit, Ted said the pain in his back was so intense he couldn't sit very long in a car.

     Judy Barber, although she continued to date Ted Fordney, occasionally entertained younger men at her house. Whenever this happened, a jealous Ted would drive slowly back and forth on North Market Street past her home. On Monday, May 27, 1957, just four days before her high school graduation, Judy and a Westminster College freshman from West Hartford, Connecticut named Warren Howard Weber, watched a late night television movie at her house. At one o'clock that night, the college student left the North Market Street dwelling and walked back to his dormitory.

     The next morning, May 28, at nine o'clock, John Barber returned home after working the night shift at the factory in Youngstown, Ohio. In the front hallway to the house, Mr. Barber discovered his daughter's dead body sprawled out on the floor. She was dressed in a pair of blue polka-dot pajamas and white, knitted socks. An electrical cord from a vacuum cleaner had been wrapped tightly around her neck and knotted. There were no signs of forced entry into the house, and Mr. Barber did not see any indication that his daughter had struggled with her killer.

     Mr. Barber picked up the telephone and reported his daughter's murder to an officer assigned to the Pennsylvania State Police Barracks in New Castle, a town of 50,000 nine miles south of New Wilmington. After speaking with the Troop D officer, Mr. Barber called Ted Fordney's house and spoke to his mother. Mrs. Fordney, immediately following Mr. Barber's call, checked her son's bedroom and saw that his bed had not been slept in the previous night. Where was he? After seeing his car parked near the house, Mrs. Fordney walked into her back yard where she found Ted about five feet from the porch sprawled next to a .12-gauge shotgun. He had blasted himself in the face.

     Back at the Barber house, shortly after officers from the state police arrived at the death scene, Dr. Frank C. McClenahan, a local physician, came to the dwelling to examine Judy Barber's corpse. The doctor, based on the fact that rigor mortis had not set in, estimated that the girl had been murdered sometime between two and four that morning.

     Two state police officers, Sergeant Harold Rise and Corporal William S. O'Brien, were assigned the task of getting to the bottom of the two violent deaths. At the Barber house, Trooper O'Brien noticed that the killer had ripped the vacuum cleaner cord out of the wall so violently, the plug had come off.

     At the Fordney house, investigators found Ted's wallet, watch, and some loose change on his dresser drawer which led them to theorize that before killing himself in the back yard, Ted had emptied his pockets. On his bedroom walls, the officers notices scratch marks that could have been made by the fingernails of a man in severe pain. The investigators did not find a suicide note.

     Later on the morning of Ted Fordney's suicide, after police officers and firemen had left the Neshannock Avenue house, Mrs. Fordney called the Sharp Funeral Home a few blocks away. Bob Brush, a 19-year-old who happened to be visiting his friend Pete Sharp at the funeral home that day, accompanied Pete and his brother Bud to the Fordney residence. Bob, a 1956 high school graduate, lived on North Market Street a few houses from the murder scene. While Bob was acquainted with Judy Barber, he only knew Ted Fordney as the older guy with a bad back who spent every day during the summer at the New Wilmington swimming pool. In the back yard of the Fordney house, Bob took one look at the man lying next to the shotgun and turned away in horror. He had not been prepared for the human carnage.

     Dr. Lester Adelson, the forensic pathologist with the Cleveland Crime Laboratory who three years earlier had examined the body of Marilyn Shepard, the murdered wife of  Dr. Sam Shepard, performed the Judy Barber autopsy. Dr. Adelson noticed a fresh abrasion on the victim's left temple that suggested the killer had knocked her out before wrapping and tying the cord around her neck. According to the pathologist's estimation, the five-foot-tall high school senior had died of asphyxiation by ligature sometime between two and four on the morning of Tuesday, May 28, 1957.

     Warren Weber, the Westminster College freshman who had been with Judy just hours before the murder, contacted the state police almost immediately after he got word of her fate. That Tuesday afternoon, Lawrence County District Attorney Perry Reeher and County Detective Russell McConhay questioned the shaken student at the county courthouse in New Castle. Weber informed his interviewers that between ten-thirty and eleven o'clock the previous night, he and Judy had seen a man peeking into one of the living room windows. The only thing Weber recognized about the man was that he had a crew-cut. Judy said she thought the window peeper was Ted Fordney.

     Troopers Rice and O'Brien questioned several witnesses who had seen Ted Fordney, at ten-thirty Monday night, walking toward the Barber house. Witnesses had also seen the victim and Fordney riding around town in her new car in the afternoon and evening of the day before her death. According to some of Judy's girlfriends, she did not want to marry Ted, and was thinking of ending their relationship. Whenever she entertained a boy her age, Ted would pay Judy a visit shortly after her date went home.

   New Wilmington weekend police officer John D. Kyle, questioned Ted Fordney's next-door neighbor, Mrs. Elmer Newton who said that she and her husband, between four and five o'clock Tuesday morning, heard a noise they thought was thunder. Officer Kyle presumed the couple had heard Ted Fordney shoot himself in the head.

     At this point in the investigation, all of the homicide investigators as well as the Lawrence County District Attorney, believed that Ted Fordney had gone to the Barber house an hour or so after the college kid had gone home. Judy let him in, they argued, and he punched her on the side of the head. As she lay unconscious on the hallway floor, he wrapped and tied the electrical cord around her neck. After returning to his house, Ted grabbed his shogun, walked into the back yard, and shot himself in the face.

     On Wednesday morning, May 29, the day after the murder-suicide, the dead girl's father allowed himself to be interviewed by reporter Bryant Artis with The Pittsburgh Press. Artis' comprehensive front-page article about the mayhem in New Wilmington featured a large yearbook photograph of Judy Barber. According to John Barber, just minutes after reporting his daughter's murder to the Pennsylvania State Police, he telephoned Ted Fordney. "I called him simply because he knew everybody in town," the father said. Regarding his daughter's relationship with a man ten years older than her, Mr. Barber said, "He wouldn't show up for a month at a time. But they both loved to dance and off they'd go." Asked about his feelings toward Ted Fordney, Mr. Barber said, "It's not fair to accuse him until we know."

     Lawrence County Coroner John A. Meehan, Jr. held the coroner's inquest in New Castle at the country court house on August 6, 1957. Following the three hour session in which six witnesses testified, the coroner's jury, after deliberating twenty minutes, delivered its verdict. These jurors found that Judy Barber had been strangled to death by Theodore Fordney who committed suicide shortly after the murder. This meant there would be no further investigation into these deaths. The case was closed.

     Because no one saw Ted Fordney murder Judy Barber, and he did not confess, the case against him was entirely circumstantial. Moreover, there was no physical evidence connecting Mr. Fordney to the killing. According to reportage in the weekly New Wilmington Globe, forensic scientists at the state police crime lab in Butler had found hair follicles from the victim on the sweeper cord. Latent fingerprints had been lifted from the ligature, but because they were partials, could not be identified.

     Warren Weber, the Westminster College student from Connecticut, did not return to New Wilmington. And who could blame him? He had come to a small, quiet community to end up having a date murdered just hours after he left her house. It probably dawned on Weber that Ted Fordney could have come to the Barber house that night with his shotgun. Before turning the gun on himself, Fordney could have murdered him along with the girl.

     Ted Fordney's mother, on February 1, 1996, while living in a convalescent home in Hermitage, Pennsylvania, died at the age of 93.

      Ted Fordney did not have a history of criminal violence, and he had never been treated for any kind of mental illness. So what could have driven this ordinary man to commit murder and suicide? Perhaps the answer lies in the fact he was in extreme pain. It is possible he was taking pain-killing drugs that had altered his personality. (In the 1950s, patients suffering from post-surgical pain often took a powerful, over-the-counter drug called Paracetamol. Even in small doses, Paracetamol was known to cause kidney, liver, and brain damage. If combined with even small amounts of alcohol, the drug was especially dangerous.)

      The memories of Judy Barber and Theodore Fordney, today remembered by a handful of people, are intertwined forever as they lay buried in the same cemetery outside of New Wilmington, Pennsylvania.