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Sunday, September 25, 2016

Team Stomping and Kicking: The Football Player Assault Case

     California University of Pennsylvania, one of 14 schools in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Learning, sits on 290 acres in California Borough 35 miles south of downtown Pittsburgh. A good number of its 8,600 students come from southwestern Pennsylvania.

     Shortly after midnight on Thursday October 30, 2014, California University student Shareese Asparagus, a 22-year-old from West Chester, Pennsylvania, walked out of a restaurant on Wood Street in the college town. She was with her 30-year-old boyfriend, Lewis Campbell, also from West Chester. He did not attend California U.

     The trouble started outside the restaurant when a California University football player, accompanied by four of his teammates, said something to the young woman that offended her. This led to an exchange of angry words that prompted Lewis Campbell to step in to defend his girlfriend.

     The football players reacted to the situation by punching and kicking Mr. Campbell to the pavement. As he lay injured on the ground, the assailants kicked and stomped him into unconsciousness. As the teammates strolled away from their battered victim, they chanted, "football strong!"

     As paramedics loaded Mr. Campbell into a medical helicopter, they noticed a shoe print on his face. Emergency personnel flew the unconscious man to Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh where physicians determined that the lower part of Mr. Campbell's brain had shifted 80 degrees. The beating had caused the victim serious brain damage.

     Later on the day of the gang assault in front of the off-campus restaurant, as Mr. Campbell lay in the intensive care unit, police officers showed up at football practice armed with arrest warrants for five California University players. Taken into custody that afternoon were: James Williamson, 20, from Parkville, Maryland; Corey Ford, 22, from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; Jonathan Jacoma Barlow, 21, from the East Liberty section of Pittsburgh; Rodney Gillin, 20, from West Lawn, Pennsylvania; and D'Andre Dunkley, 19, from Philadelphia.

     Police officers booked the five college football players into the Washington County Correctional Facility on charges of aggravated assault, reckless endangerment, harassment, and conspiracy. The judge set each man's bail at $500,000.

     On Friday October 31, 2014, interim California University President Geraldine M. Jones issued the following statement: "California University does not tolerate violent behavior, and the five student-athletes charged in connection with this incident [incident?] will face university sanctions, along with any penalties imposed by law. The police investigation is continuing and the rights of these accused will be upheld. But in light of these allegations, I asked Coach Keller to cancel Saturday's game [with Gannon University]. Behavior has consequences, and all Cal U students, including student-athletes, must abide by our Student Code of Conduct if they wish to remain a part of our campus community. [Aggravated assault hardly falls into the category of a college code of conduct violation.] At the same time, it must be clearly understood that the actions [crimes] of a small group of individuals are not representative of our entire student body, nor of all Cal U student-athletes. [Then what do these "actions" represent?] I ask our entire campus community to recommit to our university's core values, and to demonstrate through their words and their actions the best that our university can be."

     Good heavens, what a mealy-mouthed public relations department response to a vicious attack worthy of a violent street gang. Where is the outrage in this statement?

     The charges against James Williamson were dropped after surveillance footage revealed that he had not participated in the beating. In response, Williamson filed a lawsuit against the district attorney, the police and the borough.

     Corey Ford, on June 7, 2016, pleaded no contest to assault. He received, in return, a sentence of one to two years in prison. (Ford had earlier pleaded guilty to a hit-and-run that killed a bicyclist in Washington, D.C. In that case the judge had sentenced him to 36 months in federal prison.)

     In July 2016, Rodney Gillin and D'Andre Dunkley, in return for their guilty pleas, received sentences of probation.  

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Bogus Bite Mark Evidence In The Douglas Prade Murder Case

     At ten-thirty in the morning of Thanksgiving Day 1997, a medical assistant found 41-year-old Dr. Margo Prade slumped behind the wheel of her van in the doctor's office parking lot. The Akron, Ohio physician, shot six times with a handgun at close range, had fought with her murderer. Physical evidence of this struggle included buttons ripped from Dr. Prade's lab coat, a bite mark on her left inner arm, and traces of blood and tissue under her fingernails.

     A few months after the murder, Akron police arrested the victim's husband, Douglas Evans Prade. Captain Prade, a 29 year veteran of the Akron Police Department, denied shooting his wife to death. He insisted that at the time of the killing he was in the workout room of the couple's Copley Township condominium complex.

     In 1997, DNA science, compared to today, was quite primitive. As a result, DNA tests of trace evidence from the bite mark and the blood and tissue under the victim's fingernails were inconclusive. DNA analysts were unable to include or exclude Captain Prade as the source of this crime scene evidence.

     Video footage from a security camera at a car dealership next to the murder scene revealed the shadowy figure of a man climbing into Dr. Prade's van at 9:10 in the morning of her death. A hour and a half later, the man exited the murder vehicle and was seen driving off the parking lot in a light-colored car. Homicide detectives never identified this man who could not have been taller than five-nine. The suspect, Captain Prade, stood over six-foot-three. Had investigators focused their efforts on identifying the man in the surveillance video, they would have solved the case. But detectives had their minds set on the victim's husband, and ignored all evidence and leads that pointed in a different direction.

     To make their case against Captain Douglas Prade, detectives asked a retired Akron dentist named Dr. Thomas Marshall to compare a photograph of the death scene bite mark to a dental impression  of the suspect's lower front teeth. According to Dr. Marshall, the only person who could have bitten Dr. Prade was her husband. The suspect's known dental impressions, according to the dentist, matched the crime scene evidence perfectly. At the time, before advanced DNA technology exposed bite mark identification analysis as junk science, Dr. Marshall's identification carried great weight.

     In September 1998, following a two week trial in a Summit county court, the jury, after deliberating only four hours, found Douglas Prade guilty of murdering his wife. The only evidence the prosecution had pointing to the defendant's guilt was Dr. Thomas Marshall's bite mark identification. Without the dentist's testimony, there wouldn't have been enough evidence against Douglas Prade to justify his arrest.

     Following the guilty verdict, the defendant stood up, turned to face the courtroom spectators, and said, "I didn't do this. I am an innocent convicted person. God, myself, Margo, and the person who killed Margo all know I'm innocent." Common Pleas Judge Mary Spicer sentenced Douglas Prade to life without the chance of parole until he served 26 years. Shortly thereafter, the prisoner began serving his sentence at the state prison in Madison, Ohio. At that point he expected to die behind bars.

     In 2004, attorneys with the Jones Day law firm in Akron, and the Ohio Innocence Project, took up Douglas Prade's case. After years of motions, petitions, reports, and hearings, an Ohio judge ordered DNA tests of the saliva traces from the bite wound, scrapings from the victim's lab coat, and scrapings from under Dr. Prade's fingernails.

     In August 2012, DNA analysis of the crime scene trace evidence revealed that none of the associative evidence came from Douglas Prade. (The DNA work was performed by the DNA Lab Diagnostic Center in Fairfield, Ohio.) Summit County Judge Judy Hunter, on January 29, 2013, ordered the release of the 66-year-old prisoner.

     On March 19, 2014, an Ohio appeals court decided that the new DNA evidence did not prove that Prade didn't murder his wife. The appellate judge said that Prade's release from prison was a mistake, and that he should be taken back into custody. The morning after that decision, Mr. Prade found himself back behind bars.

     But later that day, after the Ohio Supreme Court reversed the appeals court re-incarceration order, Prade was released from jail.

     Douglas Prade, an innocent man, had spent 15 years in prison on the bogus bite mark testimony of a junk forensic scientist. Over the past two decades, there have been dozens of wrongful convictions based on bite mark identification.

     Cold case investigators should re-open this murder case in an effort to identify the real killer. But this won't happen because prosecutors won't admit they sent an innocent man to prison.    

Friday, September 23, 2016

The Kim Pham Murder Case

     Just after midnight, Saturday January 18, 2014, 23-year-old Annie Hung "Kim" Pham was waiting to get into the Crosby Bar and Nightclub in downtown Santa Ana, California. The 2013 graduate of Chapman University stood amid others roughly her age eager to enter the club. The festive atmosphere suddenly turned ugly when Pham inadvertently stepped in front of a cluster of club-goers posing for a photograph outside of the bar.

     Members of the group being photographed voiced their displeasure over the so-called "photobomb".  This led to an exchange of angry words between Pham and the others. Shortly thereafter, fists started flying and Pham ended up on the ground being kicked and stomped. Several young bystanders recorded the melee on their cellphones.

     The group Pham had angered included 25-year-old Vanesa Tapia Zavala, her boyfriend, and another couple. When Kim Pham, sprawled at the feet of her attackers, stopped moving, Zavala and her friends walked away leaving the unconscious woman where she lay.

     Doctors at a nearby hospital pronounced Kim Pham brain-dead and placed her on life-support until her organs could be harvested.

     On Monday, January 20, 2014, detectives with the Santa Ana Police Department, after reviewing several cellphone videos of the deadly brawl, arrested Vanesa Zavala on the charge of murder. Officers booked the suspect into the Orange County Jail where she was held on $1 million bond. If convicted as charged, Zavala faces a maximum prison sentence of 15 years to life.

     On Tuesday, January 21, 2014, doctors removed Kim Pham from life support. A few hours later hospital authorities pronounced her dead.

     While investigators were trying to identify the other people in Zavala's group, a coalition of Santa Ana businesses offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to their arrests.

     Following Zavala's arraignment hearing, her attorney, Kenneth Reed told reporters that Zavala herself had been knocked to the ground in the fight. Referring to his client, the lawyer said, "Your life is fine, you have a 5-year-old son, you go out one night on a Friday with your boyfriend and then your life is turned upside down and you find out someone is killed. No matter what the situation is, you're going to be devastated." [For yourself or the victim? Devastation is an emotion, one of many emotions experienced by the living. Kim Pham felt nothing.]

     Attorney Michael Molfetta, the attorney representing a member of Zalava's group who has not been charged in the case, told reporters that Kim Pham threw the first punch. Okay. So the others stomped her to death in self defense?

     On January 28, 2014, an Orange County prosecutor charged 27-year-old Candice Marie Brito with murder in the Pham case. To reporters, Brito's attorney Michael Molfetta lashed out against the victim: "Ms Pham has been anointed a saint," he said. In contrast, his client has been "vilified internationally."

     Brito, from Santa Ana, was held in the Orange County Jail on $1 million bond.

     In July 2016, a jury sitting in a Santa Ana court room found Zavala and Brito guilty of voluntary manslaughter. Orange County Judge Thomas Goethals sentenced both defendants to six years in prison. 

Thursday, September 22, 2016

The David Bowen Murder-For-Hire Case

     The Bowens were an unlikely couple. Forty-four-year-old Daniel, a political ward captain, worked as a janitor at the Chicago Cultural Center. He and his wife, Anne Treonis-Bowen, an attorney with the Illinois Liquor Control Commission, were in the midst of a nasty divorce that included a custody battle over their daughters who were five and six. Daniel couldn't stand the idea that his wife, the one with the better job, the one who would end up with the house and most of the marital assets, was about to become the dominant person in their children's lives. She would make all of the parental decisions while he'd be relegated to the role of a visiting ex-spouse. Daniel Bowen considered this a humiliating attack on his manhood. It was the hatred of his wife, not the love of his children, that drove this man to murder.

     In February 2004, Daniel Bowen offered his childhood friend, Dennis McArdle, $2,000 in upfront money to kill Mrs. Bowen. After the hit man completed the job, and the victim's life insurance paid off, the murder-for-hire mastermind would pay McArdle another $20,000. Bowen also offered his friend a cushy, low-level city job.

     McArdle, a convicted felon, alcoholic, drug addict and incompetent bungler with no prospects and nothing to lose, accepted the contract murder assignment. From a man he barely knew, McArdle purchased, for $500, a .38-caliber revolver with a homemade silencer that didn't work when he and Bowen test-fired the gun in the basement of the cultural center. Bowen scheduled the murder for March 4, 2004, a day when he would be in the company of others, and thus have an airtight alibi.

     As murder plots go, this one was simple. McArdle was to shoot the wife after she parked her car that morning at the Chicago Transit Authority station southwest of the city. On the morning of the hit, wearing a ski mask and latex gloves, McArdle walked up behind the victim in the station parking lot and shot her once in the back of the head. To make the shooting look like a robbery rather than an execution style murder, McArdle took the victim's handbag. The ploy, to the trained eye of an investigator, was transparent.

     Although this amateur hitman had worn gloves to avoid linking himself to the shooting, had disposed of the victim's wallet, and got rid of the murder weapon, he took Mrs. Bowen's purse back to his apartment building where he hid it in the basement. A few days later, the owner of the apartment building found the handbag, and inside it, a prescription bottle bearing the murdered woman's name. The landlord called the police. Because McArdle was the only resident of the building with a connection to the murder victim, he became the prime suspect in the case.

     Ten days after Anne Treonis-Bowen's execution, detectives brought McArdle in for questioning. The 42-year-old suspect, suffering from cirrhosis and hepatitis, quickly confessed and agreed to testify against Daniel Bowen.

     In September 2004, while awaiting trial in the Cook County Jail, Daniel Bowen hanged himself. A month later, a judge sentenced McArdle to 35 years in prison.

    The Bowen case is yet another example that murder-for-hire, like ransom kidnapping, is a desperate crime committed by dimwits and fools. 

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Janet and William Strickland Murder-For-Hire Case

     Seventy-two-year-old William Strickland had lived with his 64-year-old wife Janet thirty years in the same house in south Chicago. Their neighbors considered them a happy couple. Mr. Strickland, a dialysis patient, may have been a contented husband, but his wife Janet wanted him dead.

     In February 2013, Janet Strickland informed her 19-year-old grandson--also named William Strickland--that she was "sick" of his grandfather and wanted him "gone." By "gone" she meant murdered. The old guy had money in the bank that couldn't be spent until he was "gone." Janet wanted that money, and she wanted it now.

     In one of their discussions about Mr. Strickland's fate, Janet told her grandson that she had decided against hiring an outside hit-man because she wanted the job done now. Young William, anticipating a share of his grandfather's wealth, said he would assassinate his namesake. Grandma sealed the deal by giving the young man his grandfather's handgun, a weapon he kept around the house for protection.

     At three-thirty on the afternoon of March 2, 2013, Janet said good-bye to her husband as he stepped out of the house to await a ride to his dialysis treatment. The murder target had been standing on the sidewalk a few minutes when he was approached from behind by his grandson. The younger William Strickland, using his grandfather's handgun, shot the elderly man six times in the back. Mr. Strickland fell to the ground and died.

     A few days after what the Chicago Police first considered a random robbery-murder--a common crime in the Windy City--Janet Strickland purchased her grandson a new car. A red one. She also went furniture shopping for herself.

     William rewarded himself with an expensive sound system for his new ride, a pair of high-end sneakers, and a fancy cellphone. He also spent some of his grandfather's money at his favorite tattoo parlor. With old guy dead, life was good.

     Detectives arrested William Strickland on the charge of first-degree murder on March 30, 2013. He confessed to the execution-style homicide, and identified his grandmother as the mastermind behind the deadly get-rich-quick plot.

     On April 6, 2013, officers took Janet Strickland into custody. She confessed as well. The murder-for-hire grandmother and her assassin grandson were held on $50,000 bond in the Cook County Jail.

     On February 19, 2016, a jury in Chicago, after deliberating less than three hours, found William Strickland guilty of his grandfather's murder. Judge James Linn, on March 23, 2016, sentenced him to 40 years in prison.

     Janet Strickland went on trial a month later and was found guilty as charged. The judge sentenced the 67-year-old murder-for-hire mastermind to eighteen years in prison.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Father Gerald Robinson: Was He A Devil Priest or Innocent Man?

     In 1980, 72-year-old Sister Margaret Ann Pahl worked at Mercy Hospital in Toledo, Ohio as the caretaker of the chapel. A strict taskmaster who didn't suffer fools, Sister Margaret worked closely with 42-year-old Father Gerald Robinson, one of the hospital's chaplains. Father Robinson was a popular priest in the heavily Catholic city of 300,000.

     On April 5, 1980, on Holy Saturday, someone found Sister Margaret's bloody body on the chapel floor. She had been choked to near death, then stabbed 31 times in the chest, neck, and face. Some of the stab wounds in her chest formed the pattern of an upside down cross. The killer had also anointed her forehead with a smudge of her own blood. With her habit pulled up to her chest, and her undergarments pulled down around her ankles, the victim had been posed in a position of humiliation. While not raped, the killer had penetrated her with a cross.

     Although detectives on the case immediately suspected Father Robinson of this ritualistic murder, he presided over Sister Margaret's funeral Mass four days after her homicide. The principal piece of crime scene evidence involved a blood stain on the altar cloth consistent with the form of a sword-shaped letter opener in Father Robinson's apartment. The stain bore the vague print of the letter opener's dime-sized medallion bearing the image of the U.S. capitol. However, because the chief detective on the case was a Catholic, and didn't want to scandalize the church, Father Robinson was not arrested. The investigation floundered, and without a suspect, died on the vine.

     In December 2003, a Lucas County cold-case investigative team re-opened the 1980 murder. Father Robinson, over the past 23 years, had served in three Toledo Diocese parishes. The 65-year-old priest, in 2003, was administering to the sick and dying in several area Catholic homes and hospitals. The case came back to life after a woman wrote a letter to the police claiming that Father Robinson had sexually abused her as a child, molestation that involved Satanic ritualistic behavior that involved human sacrifice. (I don't know if this complainant passed a polygraph test, or made the accusation after some psychologist coaxed the memory out of her. After the Satanic hysteria in the McMartin preschool debacle, and the horrible injustice in the Memphis three case, I'm suspicious of this kind of allegation. Human sacrifice? What did that refer to?)

     Following the exhumation of Sister Margaret's body, a forensic pathologist noted that a stab wound in the victim's jaw could have been made by the letter opener found in Father Robinson's apartment. A DNA analysis of the victim's fingernail scrapings, and underwear, excluded the priest. Nevertheless, in April 2006, the police went to Father Robinson's home and arrested him. From the Lucas County Jail where he was held without bail, the priest denied killing Sister Margaret.

     While there was barely enough evidence to legally justify Father Robinson's arrest--no motive, no confession, no eyewitness, and no physical evidence directly linking him to the corpse--the priest went on trial for murder on April 24, 2006. The prosecutor showed the jury a videotape of the defendant's 2004 police interrogation. Father Robinson told his questioners that he had been stunned when one of the other hospital chaplains accused him of murdering Sister Margaret. When left alone for a few minutes in the interrogation room, the priest folded his hands and began to whisper the word "sister," then bowed his head in prayer. At one point he said, "Oh my Jesus." (I don't know exactly how the prosecution interpreted this as incriminating evidence.)

     A prosecution forensic scientist testified that the letter opener "could not be ruled out" as the murder weapon. (The prosecutor, in his closing remarks, told the jury that the letter opener fit one of the victim's stab wounds "like a key in a lock." Instruments used in stabbings cannot be scientifically linked to their wounds this way. In my view, that statement alone should have been adequate grounds for a reversal on appeal.) The forensic scientist also testified that the altar cloth bloodstains were "consistent with" the general shape of the letter opener. On cross-examination, this witness conceded that a pair of missing scissors could have left the blood stain on the altar cloth.

     On May 11, 2006, the jury, after 9 days of testimony, and 6 hours of deliberation, found Father Robinson guilty. The 70-year-old priest became the second priest in U.S. history to be convicted of criminal homicide. (The first was a priest named Hans Schmidt.) The judge sentenced Robinson to 15 years to life. Incarcerated at the Hocking Correctional Facility in southern Ohio, the priest will be first eligible for parole in 2016.

     Two months after the murder trial, Ohio's 6th District Court of Appeals upheld the conviction. In December 2008, the Ohio Supreme Court declined to hear the case. About a year later, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to entertain the appeal as well.

     While it seemed that Gerald Robinson had run out of legal remedies, his legal team, in 2010, petitioned the state appeals court for post-conviction relief on the grounds that Sister Margaret may have been murdered by a 27-year-old confessed serial killer named Coral Eugene Watts. Watts, a black man, had stabbed 12 women to death in Texas, and at least one woman in Michigan. Police suspected him of killing another 80 victims. Watts had left many of the women with their blouses pulled up to their necks. He had not sexually molested any of his victims. They had all been posed in humiliating positions.

     On April 11, 2011, the Ohio appeals court denied the Robinson petition. According to the appellate judges, Father Robinson's attorneys, at the time of his 2006 trial, knew of Watts as a possible suspect in Sister Margaret's murder, but chose not to pursue this as a defense strategy. Moreover, there were dissimilarities between the serial killer's modus operandi and Sister Margaret's homicide. For one thing, Coral Eugene Watts had typically stalked young women before he killed them outdoors.

     A year later, the Robinson defense team again petitioned the state court of appeals to toss out the 2006 murder conviction. This time the priest's lawyers accused the prosecution of withholding key documents in the case. Regarding the issue of serial killer Watts, Robinson's trial attorneys didn't pursue that line of defense in 2006 because they mistakingly thought he was serving time when Sister Margaret was murdered. As it turned out, on April 5, 1980, Watts was living in southern Michigan, just 40 miles from Toledo. As for modus operandi, the priest's attorneys found Watts' killings and the death of the nun "eerily similar." (Coral Eugene Watts died in 2007 of prostate cancer. He was 53 and serving time in a Michigan prison.)

     Father Gerald Robinson's latest appeal was pending before the Ohio court. While the priest had many supporters who believed in his innocence following his 2006 conviction, it's not clear how many people were still with him and closely following his bid to clear his name and get out of prison. (I don't know who murdered Sister Margaret Ann Pahl in the hospital chapel back in 1980, but from what I know of the case against Gerald Robinson, I don't think the prosecution's evidence supported his conviction.)

     In June 2014, United States District Court Judge James Guin denied a request for the release of Father Robinson. The priest had been ill and, according to reports, didn't have long to live. The judge said he didn't have the jurisdictional authority to grant the motion.

     Father Robinson had a heart attack on Memorial Day 2014 and died on July 4. He passed away in the prison hospital after being told he had 30 to 60 days to live. He was 76,

     

Monday, September 19, 2016

The Michelle Gibson Murder-For-Hire Case

     Steven Gibson, the owner of a machine shop, lived in Peoria, Arizona, a suburb of Phoenix. He resided in the Thunderbird Vista neighborhood with his 41-year-old wife Michelle, their 15-year-old son Steven Jr., and their 17-year-old daughter Alyssa. In November 2012, Steven Gibson was charged with assaulting a police officer following a DUI arrest. Local police officers, on several occasions, had been summoned to the Gibson house on accusations of domestic violence. No arrests were made because Michelle Gibson refused to press charges.

     At two in the morning of March 1, 2013, Michelle Gibson called 911 and said: "There's blood everywhere! I'm with my kids and I just got home and my husband's out in the garage dead."

     In the Gibson garage police found that the victim had been bludgeoned in the head and stabbed several times in the chest. Since nothing had been stolen from the house, the police ruled out theft as a motive. Investigators also wondered what Mr. Gibson was doing in his garage so late at night.

     On March 27, 2013, following a month-long homicide investigation, police arrested Steven Gibson Jr. on charges of first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder. The next day, officers arrested his mother Michelle on the same charges.

     Investigators believed that Michelle Dawn Gibson had recruited her son, her daughter, and a friend of her son's to murder her husband. (The friend, 16-year-old Erik McBee, had turned himself into the police shortly after the homicide.)

     According to police reports, Michelle Gibson told her team of young assassins that Mr. Gibson needed to be killed before he murdered a family member. In discussing the fate of her husband, Michelle mentioned that he had a life insurance policy. The accused murder-for-hire mastermind promised to pay Erik McBee $1,000 for his participation in Mr. Gibson's homicide.

     The murder-for-hire plan, as allegedly laid out by Michelle, involved incapacitating her husband with chloroform while he slept in his bed. Using the victim's own truck, they would haul his body to a nearby park where one of the young killers would shoot him in the back of the head. To make the murder look like a drug deal gone bad, the assassins planned to spread pills on and around his body.

     As is often the case in murder-for-hire schemes, things did not go as planned. At ten-thirty on the night of February 28, 2013, Erik McBee used a baseball bat to bludgeon Mr. Gibson in the head as he slept in his bed. Steven Gibson Jr. stabbed his dying father three times in the chest, then slashed his throat. Using a dolly, Eric and Steven rolled Mr. Gibson's corpse into the garage. Because Erik McBee fled the scene at the sound of a distant police siren, the dead man never made it to the park. Later that day, Erik, a Popeye's Chicken employee, turned himself into the police.

     When Michelle Gibson returned home around midnight with her daughter, she allegedly helped her son clean up the bloody murder scene. At two that morning, after disposing of physical evidence, Michelle called 911 to report the discovery of her husband's body in the garage.

     Michelle Gibson and her son Steven pleaded not guilty to all charges. Erik McBee also pleaded not guilty to murder.

     In January 2014, McBee pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and agreed to testify against Michelle and Steven Gibson. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

     Steven Gibson Jr. pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in August 2014. The judge sentenced him to 22 years behind bars.

     On November 25, 2014, the jury found Michelle Gibson guilty of first-degree murder. Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Alfred Fenzel, in February 2015, sentenced the murder-for-hire mastermind to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

     

Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Colin Abbott Murder Case

     Upon his retirement in 2010 as a New Jersey pharmaceutical company executive, 65-year-old Kenneth Abbott and his second wife Celeste bought a 25-acre estate in Brady Township not far from the town of Slippery Rock, the home of Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania in the western part of the state. Kenneth and his 55-year-old second wife were married in 2007.

     On July 13, 2011, Melissa Elich, Celeste Abbott's daughter, contacted the New Jersey State Police and asked for information about the car accident death of her mother and stepfather. Kenneth Abbott's son Colin had told Elich that Kenneth and Celeste had died in a traffic accident on June 8, 2011. According to Colin, the traffic fatality had taken place in Plant City, New Jersey. When Elich couldn't find Plant City on a map, she called Colin to confirm the location. This time he told her it had happened in Atlantic City. According to the 42-year-old New Jersey resident, his father and Elich's mother had been burned beyond recognition in the crash.

     After the New Jersey State Police officer informed Melissa Elich that the state had no record of such an incident, the officer called the Pennsylvania State Police in Butler County and requested a welfare check of the Abbotts.

     On the day of Melissa Elich's New Jersey State Police inquiry regarding the traffic accident, Corporal Daniel Herr and another Pennsylvania State Trooper drove out to the West Liberty Road estate. The officers searched the unoccupied house and several out-buildings. Near one of the two ponds on the property, the troopers discovered a pair of metal barrels that had been used to burn something. In the vicinity of the barrels, about 200 yards from the house, the officers came across charred human body parts.

     Later on the day of the gruesome discovery on the Abbott estate, Dr. Dennis Dirkmart, a forensic anthropologist with Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pennsylvania, arrived at the scene with his team of graduate students. Dr. Dirkmart and his forensic crew identified a skull containing the upper teeth along with a lower jaw containing additional dentition. The death scene investigators also recovered a female pelvic bone and several larger bones that were male. (The remains were later identified as those of Kenneth and Celeste Abbott.) Further analysis of the dismembered and burned bodies by a forensic pathologist revealed that the couple had been shot. (The police found a spent bullet near one of the ponds.)

     On July 13, 2011, officers with the New Jersey State Police searched Colin Abbott's home in Randolph, New Jersey, a town of 25,000 in the northern section of the state. The search produced incriminating evidence that linked Abbott to the double murder in Butler County, Pennsylvania.

     From Colin Abbott's house, the New Jersey investigators recovered Celeste Abbott's red-leather wallet that contained her driver's license and several credit cards. The officers also found a .380-caliber pistol later identified as the murder weapon. In the murder suspect's bank safety deposit box, detectives found Kenneth Abbott's will that designated his son the sole beneficiary of the $5 million estate. The will had been changed to that effect in 2010. Investigators believed the suspect had murdered his father and stepmother in order to inherit their wealth.

     In Pennsylvania, State Trooper Chris Birckichler questioned Adam Tower, Celeste Abbott's son. Mr. Tower revealed that in speaking to the suspect on July 12, 2011, Colin ordered him not to contact his father's life insurance company. The suspect made it clear that he would be handling the disposition of the estate.

     On July 14, 2011, the day detectives interrogated Colin Abbott in Randolph, New Jersey, murder charges were being filed against him in Pennsylvania. Officers in New Jersey arrested Colin Abbott that day on the Pennsylvania homicide charges, and a couple of weeks later, the suspect was incarcerated in the Butler County Jail awaiting his trial.

     On the day before the trial was to begin, February 26, 2013, the defendant pleaded no contest to two counts of third-degree murder. As part of the plea deal, Abbott avoided the penalties of death and life in prison without the possibility of parole. Butler County Judge William Shaffer sentenced Kenneth Abbott to 35 to 80 years in prison. If he served the minimum sentence, Abbott would regain his freedom when he was 77-years-old. The cold-blooded killer stood before Judge Shaffer and wept.

     Less than a month after his sentencing, on March 6, 2013, Colin Abbott filed a 5-page handwritten request asking Judge Shaffer to allow him to withdraw his plea in the case. At the plea withdrawal hearing on March 28, 2013, the Butler County prosecutor played recordings of jailhouse phone conversations between the prisoner and Deborah Buchanan, his 64-year-old mother.

     Abbott, pursuant to a discussion of his attempt to take back his plea, said this to his mother: "It's a publicity start in the right direction for you; possibly for a book, possibly for other things, you know?" Abbott's mother, a resident of Rockway, New Jersey, owned Deadly Ink Press, a small publisher of murder mystery books. Buchanan had made it known that she was writing a book about her son's case.

     To an Associated Press reporter following this story, Deborah Buchanan said, "I am talking to people about a book deal. I don't think there's anything wrong with that. I am a writer. That's not why he [her son] wants to change his plea. He was under a lot of pressure." (Committing murder can do that to a person.)

     On April 12, 2013, Judge Shaffer denied Abbott's motion to withdraw his no contest plea.

     

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Dr. Louise Robbins: The Shoe Print Expert From Hell

     Comparing a crime scene shoe print on a hard surface, or an impression in dirt, mud, or snow, to the bottom of a specific shoe, is not unlike the process of latent fingerprint identification. In many crime laboratories, the latent fingerprint people also handle footwear and tire-track evidence and occasionally deal with the identification of tool marks. Compared to DNA analysis, toxicology, and various aspects of forensic pathology, the identification of shoe marks, latent fingerprints, crime scene bullets, tool marks, and handwriting, involves less science than it does informed observation.

     A crime scene shoe print or impression can be identified as part of a footwear group according to size, brand, and model. In some cases, an impression can be identified as coming from one shoe to the exclusion of all other footwear. Every year 1.5 billion pairs of shoes are sold in the United States. At any given time, there could be as many as 100,000 pairs of size 10 Nike sneakers of a certain model and tread design. There could be, say, 5,000 pairs of these shoes in circulation in the Chicago area alone. The criminalistic or incriminating value of a group identification depends upon the size of the group. These group, or class identifications occur when the crime scene print or impression is not detailed enough for a match to a specific shoe, or when the shoe that made the mark is not available for comparison.

     The most famous group identification of shoe prints came at O. J. Simpson's double murder trial in 1995 when FBI expert William Bodziak identified several crime scene prints in blood as having been made by a pair of size 12 Bruno Magli Lorenzo shoes, luxury footwear made in Italy. Bodziak's testimony tended to incriminate Simpson in two ways: the identification involved a relatively small footwear group, and Simpson, after denying that he owned Bruno Magli shoes, was seen on television wearing a pair. The actual shoes that made the bloody prints were never located.

     An individual shoe, boot, or sandal can be linked to a crime scene print or impression the way a latent fingerprint can be matched to its inked, rolled-on counterpart. Instead of comparing ridge configurations, the footwear examiner looks at a shoe's sole and heel for unique signs of wear that show up in the print or impression. Every shoe that has been worn for awhile is as unique as a fingerprint. The more wear, the more potential for identification.

     Footwear identification, unlike fingerprint matching, does not require a minimum number of similarity points to be admissible in court. The credibility of a shoe identification depends upon the training, experience, and objectivity of the examiner, as well as the quality, clarity, and uniqueness of the characteristics being compared. New methods and techniques are constantly being developed, for example, to lift footwear impressions from dust, and even preserve shoe prints made in snow.

     Shoe prints left in dust, blood, or soot are photographed (next to a reference ruler), then peeled off the surface the way a latent fingerprint is lifted. Footwear impressions are often preserved with plaster-of-paris casts of the depressions. Shoes and their crime scene prints and impressions can be compared side-by-side, or through the use of transparent overlays. To connect a suspect to a crime scene through footwear evidence, detectives need three things: a good print or impression; the shoe that made it; and a way to link the suspect to the footwear. In the O. J. Simpson case, the detectives had shoe prints in blood, but none of the footwear in Simpson's possession matched the murder scene evidence. The prosecution had to settle for a group identification.

Dr. Louise Robbins and her "Cinderella Analysis"

     Fortunately for O. J. Simpson, the world's only footwear identification expert who might have identified the crime scene prints as having been made by shoes worn by him without having access to the actual footwear, had died eight years before his trial. Dr. Louise Robbins, an anthropology professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, wasn't interested in matching the bottoms of shoes to corresponding crime scene latents. She would have claimed she could identify the crime scene prints in the Simpson case by examining other shoes in Simpson's possession. Robbin's method of identification, a process she called "wear pattern analysis," was based on her theory that no two people have the same shaped feet, or walk in exactly the same way. According to her, this unique feature reveals itself inside the shoes people wear, and in the prints or impressions they leave behind.

     Dr. Robbins claimed she could look at a crime scene shoe print and determine that it had been made by the wearer of shoes other than the one shoe that had actually left the crime scene mark. Her critics, and there were many, called this her "Cinderella Analysis." If a defense attorney had a client in a case in which Dr. Robbins was testifying for the prosecution, that defendant's foot always seemed to end up fitting the shoe that had made the crime scene print or impression. The jury, without access to the actual source of the crime scene mark, simply had to take her word for it. It's not surprising that prosecutors with insufficient footwear evidence, and weak cases, loved this woman. Defense attorneys called her the prosecution expert from hell.

     In her work as an anthropologist, Dr. Robbins had frequently exhibited the ability to see things that her colleagues could not. When working in Africa, she garnered worldwide publicity after identifying a 3.5 million-year-old fossilized footprint as made by a woman who was five and a half months pregnant. Dr. Timothy White, a professor of anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley, who had worked with Dr. Robbins in Africa, characterized her conclusions as pure nonsense.

     If Dr. Robbins had confined her ideas to the classroom, she would have been harmless, and no one would have been greatly bothered by her patently ridiculous theories. But in 1976, when she took her nonsense into the courtroom as a forensic footwear identification expert, people not only started to worry, defendants started going to prison. Between 1976 and 1986, Dr. Robbins testified, for fees up to $9,000 a case, in ten states and Canada. During this period at least 12 defendants went to prison on the strength of her expert testimony. Her career as an expert witness came to an end in 1987 when she died of brain cancer at the age of 58.

     In the year of Dr. Robbin's death, the American Academy of Forensic Sciences sponsored a panel of 135 anthropologists, forensic scientists, lawyers, and legal scholars to review her cases and work. The panel concluded that her identification methodology had no basis in science. Marvin Lewis, a law professor at John Marshall University, called her work "complete hogwash." Lewis, who operated an expert witness referral service, was dismayed that so many judges had qualified Robbins as an expert witness. Russell Tuttle, a professor of physical anthropology at the University of Chicago, in referring to Dr. Robbins, said, "Why do we allow this kind of rot, this pseudoscience, into our courts?" FBI expert William Bodziak, who had testified against Dr. Robbins in several murder trials, agreed: "Nobody else has ever dreamed of saying the kinds of things she said."

     Dr. Robbins not only wormed her way into courtrooms, and the hearts of desperate prosecutors, she had impressed juries. She had a Ph.D, taught at a major university, and had been written up in Time Magazine. In 1985, she published a book, Footprints: Collection, Analysis, and Interpretation. As a self-validating expert who used scientific terminology to advance an absurd theory, she came off as extremely confident, and sure of her conclusions. Moreover, some prosecutors portrayed her as a pioneer in a new field of scientific identification. One prosecutor, in defending Dr. Robbins against her critics, reminded the jury that it had taken 400 years for Galileo's theories to gain acceptance in the scientific community. 

Friday, September 16, 2016

The Frank Crash Murder Case

     Frank R. Crash was the proverbial big fish in a small pond. Since 1959 he owned and operated an auto wrecking company in his hometown of Greenville, a western Pennsylvania town of 6,000 eighty miles north of Pittsburgh. Located on the Shenago River in Mercer County, Greenville was home to Thiel College.

     In the 1960s and 70s, Frank Crash, a 1956 graduate of the former Penn High School, raced dirt track sprint cars and snowmobiles. His wife Carol Lee passed away in December 2009. Frank's two daughters, Pam Higbee and Susan Brenneman, also lived in Greenville. Frank resided by himself in a house on Mercer Road in Hempfield Township just south of Greenville across the street from a restaurant and golf course.

     At 10:30 PM on Wednesday, July 24, 2013, Mr. Crash left the Hickory Grill in nearby Hermitage. At nine-thirty the next morning, when the 76-year-old didn't show up for work, his daughter Pam went to his house to check on him. She found her father lying dead in a pool of blood in the kitchen. It appeared that Mr. Crash had been stabbed to death.

     Death scene investigators found trails and splatter of blood throughout the dwelling. The telephone had been ripped from the wall. Next to the corpse lay a smashed cellphone. The intruder, who had entered the house forcefully through the back sliding glass door, had stolen an undisclosed amount of cash and a 4-carat solitaire diamond ring.

     Erie forensic pathologist Eric Vey, on Friday July 27, 2013, published the results of his autopsy. Frank Crash had been stabbed 76 times by a knife or pair of scissors. The victim's heart and lungs had been punctured many times in what Dr. Vey labeled a criminal homicide.

     Mercer County District Attorney Robert C. Kochems, on July 31, 2013 issued a press release on the status of the Crash homicide investigation. According to the prosecutor, the authorities did not have a suspect.

     On November 6, 2014, District Attorney Kochems announced that 33-year-old Tracey Lin Hassel from nearby Hermitage, Pennsylvania had been charged with second-degree murder, third-degree murder, robbery, and burglary in the Crash murder case. (Second-degree murder--in Pennsylvania the felony-murder doctrine--carries a sentence of life in prison.) Burglary and robbery are felonies that could bring up to 20 years in prison. The penalty for third-degree murder in Pennsylvania is 20 to 40 years behind bars.

     According to the Mercer County prosecutor, Hassel, who knew the victim, had broken into his home to steal money so she could bail her boyfriend out of jail. After stabbing Mr. Crash 76 times, the suspect stole the diamond ring off his finger and cash from his pockets.

     Hassel, with a long criminal record, was serving time at the state prison in Muncy, Pennsylvania. She had been convicted in February 2015 of several counts of burglary and robbery.

     On September 13, 2016, on the day the Crash murder trial was set to begin, Tracey Hassel pleaded guilty to third-degree murder in the case. As part of the plea deal, she would serve her murder sentence along with the 7 to 21 year sentence she was serving for the burglaries and robberies. Regarding the Crash murder case, the judge denied her credit for the two years she had served awaiting trial.