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Thursday, December 8, 2016

Robert Durst: Money, Madness and Murder

     Robert Durst, born in 1942 into a wealthy family, grew up in Scarsdale, New York. His father, Seymour Durst, got rich investing in real estate. In 1949, when Robert was seven, he saw his mother fall to her death from the roof of the family mansion. The authorities ruled her death a suicide. Although young Robert received extensive psychological counseling, his doctors worried that this childhood trauma would lead to future mental illness. (Robert's brother Douglas claimed in 2014 that Robert did not witness their mother's death, that the lie was nothing more than a ploy to gain sympathy.)

     After graduating from Scarsdale High School and Lehigh University, Robert Durst started graduate school at the University of California, Los Angeles. After acquiring a first-class education, Robert entered the family real estate business but hit a roadblock in 1995 when his brother Douglas assumed control of the enterprise. This led to Robert's permanent estrangement from his family.

     In January 1982, Robert Durst's wife Kathleen, a woman he'd married ten years earlier, suddenly disappeared. Robert waited several days before reporting her missing and didn't bother notifying her family. The police suspected foul play but without the body, the homicide investigation hit a dead end.

     In 2000, with Kathleen Durst still missing, the New York State Police re-epened the 18-year-old case as a cold-case murder investigation. Detectives suspected that Robert had murdered his wife and disposed of her body.

     Not long after the renewed police interest in Kathleen Durst's disappearance, someone murdered, execution-style, Susan Berman in her home in Benedict Canyon, California. Because Berman had been Robert's longtime friend and confidant, detectives believed she had knowledge of Kathleen Durst's disappearance. Investigators speculated that she had been eliminated because she was a potential witness against Robert Durst. The Beverly Hills police had been alerted to Berman's murder by the writer of an anonymous, hand-printed note telling them of a "cadaver" in Berman's house. The writer, in addressing the envelope, had misspelled Beverly as "Beverley." Handwriting experts did not have enough document evidence to identify Robert Durst as the writer of the so-called "cadaver note."

     Although interrogated by detectives as a suspect in the Berman murder case, Robert Durst was not charged. The two cases remained unsolved.

     In 2000, Robert moved to Galveston, Texas to get away from the criminal investigations of his missing wife and his murdered friend, Susan Berman. About this time he took up cross-dressing.

     In 2001, the body parts of 71-year-old Morris Black, Robert Durst's apartment complex neighbor, were found floating in Galveston Bay. When questioned by the police, Durst claimed that Mr. Black had entered his apartment, grabbed a gun hidden in the room, and pointed it at him. According to the 60-year-old Durst, the gun went off accidentally when he tried to disarm his neighbor.

     While he denied murdering Mr. Black in cold blood, Durst admitted that after the killing he used a paring knife, two saws and an axe to dismember the victim's corpse before dumping the body parts into Galveston Bay. The authorities booked Durst into the county jail on the charge of murder.

     Free on bail until his murder trial, Durst missed a preliminary court hearing on the case. The judge issued an arrest warrant for the bail-jumper whose whereabouts were unknown. A month or so later, police officers in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania took Durst into custody outside a Wegmans supermarket after he had shoplifted a chicken sandwich, Band-Aids, and a newspaper. Durst had $500 in his pocket and $37,000 in cash stashed in his car along with two guns, marijuana, and Morris Black's driver's license.

     At Durst's 2003 murder trial, his three attorneys--the best legal defense team money could buy--argued self defense. Following seven weeks of testimony, the jury shocked everyone by finding Robert Durst not guilty. After this stunning verdict, lead investigator Cody Gozalas told reporters that he'd rarely had a more clear-cut case of murder against a defendant. "I believe," the investigator said, "that Mr. Durst walked up behind Mr. Black and shot him in the back of the head. There was nothing to suggest self defense. Mr. Durst never mentioned self defense until after the defense attorneys took over the case."

     The Durst case jurors, widely criticized for the acquittal, said it had been a difficult verdict for them to arrive at. While they knew the defendant had cut up Mr. Black's body, they weren't convinced he had committed a premeditated murder. The jurors bought the defense theory that Durst suffered from a psychological disorder that caused him to cut up and dispose of Mr. Black's body amid a state of panic.

     At the time of Durst's murder acquittal, the Durst family fortune was valued at more than $2 billion.

     Prosecutors, having lost the murder case, charged Durst with two offenses related to Mr. Black's murder--bail jumping and evidence tampering. To avoid going through another trial, Durst pleaded guilty to the lesser charges. The judge sentenced him to five years. He served one year of that sentence. Pursuant to the terms of Durst's 2005 parole, he had to obtain official permission to travel any significant distance from his home.

     In December 2005, Durst made an unauthorized trip to a shopping mall near the apartment complex where he had killed Morris Black. In the mall, he had the bad luck to run into the judge who had presided over his murder trial. The judge, suspecting a parole violation, notified the Texas Board of Pardons and Parole. Corrections authorities sent Durst back to prison on the parole violation. He remained behind bars until March 2006.

     In 2011, Robert Durst purchased a townhouse in Harlem, New York. Three years later, in Houston, Texas, Durst exposed himself at a CVS drugstore then urinated on a rack of candy. A Harris County prosecutor charged him with criminal mischief and indecent exposure.

     In February 2015, the HBO television network aired the first episode of a six-part series about Robert Durst and his connection to his wife's disappearance and the two murders called "The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst." In making the documentary, New York City producers Marc Smerling and Andrew Jarecki spent 25 hours interviewing Durst on camera.

     In the course of their research, the producers acquired from Susan Berman's stepson a hand-printed letter Durst had sent to her a year before her murder. On the envelope Durst had misspelled Beverly as "Beverley."

     Believing that the identical misspellings in the Berman letter and the cadaver note indicated that Durst had hand-printed the note sent to the Beverly HIlls Police Department, the TV producers asked New York City forensic document examiner John Osborn to analyze the handwriting evidence. After comparing the cadaver note to the Berman letter and 40 specimens of Durst's known hand-printing, Mr. Osborn concluded that Durst was the writer of the cadaver document. The producers notified the authorities in Los Angeles.

     In Louisiana at eleven at night on Saturday March 14, 2015, the day before the airing of the final episode of "The Jinx," deputies with the Orleans Parish arrested Robert Durst in his room at the J. W. Marriott Hotel. A prosecutor in Los Angeles had charged Mr. Durst with the first-degree murder of Susan Berman.  Durst had been preparing to fly to Cuba.

     The next evening, when the final episode of "The Jinx" aired, Robert Durst was seen being confronted by producer Jarecki with the two pieces of hand-printing featuring the identical misspellings of Beverly. Durst admitted writing the Berman letter, but in obvious distress, denied writing the cadaver letter to the Beverly Hills Police Department.

     At the conclusion of the filmed interview of Durst in the New York City offices of producers Smerling and Jarecki, Durst asked to use their restroom. With his microphone still hot, he began talking to himself. "There it is," he said. "You're caught. What a disaster. What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course."

     On March 17, 2015, the authorities in Orleans Parish announced that Robert Durst had been charged in Louisiana with possession of a firearm by a felon, a felony that carried a maximum ten year sentence. It was not clear how this charge would affect the progress of the murder case in Los Angeles.

     While Durst sat in a Louisiana jail cell, police officers and FBI agents, on March 17, searched his apartment in a 17-story condominium in a posh Houston, Texas neighborhood. His attorney, Dick DeGuerin, called the search a publicity stunt orchestrated by the Berman case prosecutor in Los Angeles.

     In January 2016, Durst pleaded guilty to the federal gun charge. The judge in Louisiana sentenced him to 85 months to be served at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana.

     On November 7, 2016, the 73-year-old was arraigned in the Los Angeles Superior Court for the 2000 murder of Susan Berman. At that hearing, Deputy District Attorney John Levin announced that the state would not seek the death penalty in the case. Durst, who pleaded not guilty, sat in a wheelchair wearing a neck brace. The Durst crime saga continued.

    

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Bite Mark Identification in the Ted Bundy Serial Murder Case

     The identification of a series of bruises or abrasions, usually in the shape of two semi-circles or brackets, as a human bite mark made by a particular set of teeth is a function of forensic dentistry referred to as bite mark identification. This form of impression identification, also called forensic odontology, is based on the assumption that no two people in the world have front teeth that are identical in thickness, shape, relationship to each other, and patterns of wear.

     The process of comparing a bite mark to a known set of teeth is not unlike the identification of latent fingerprint, footwear, and tire track impressions. Bite mark wounds are found on victims of murder, rape, and child molestation. This type of crime scene evidence is preserved by life-size photography, tooth mark tracings onto transparent sheets, and dental casts of the impressions themselves. A suspect might be asked to bite down on a pliable surface for an impression sample, have a cast made of his teeth, or both. Usually, connecting a suspect to a victim through expert bite mark testimony will be enough evidence, by itself, to sustain a criminal conviction. For this reason, bite mark evidence must be 100 percent reliable. Unfortunately, it is not even close to that.

     The field of bite mark identification exploded in the 1980s, and hundreds, if not thousands of defendants went to prison on the strength of bite mark testimony. Although bite mark identification has been a recognized branch of forensic science since 1970, it was the 1979 trial of serial killer Ted Bundy in south Florida that put this form of identification on the map the way the O. J. Simpson murder case popularized DNA profiling in the mid-1990s.

The Ted Bundy Serial Murder Case

     After killing 30 to 100 college-aged women in the states of Washington, Utah, and Colorado, Theodore Bundy entered a Florida State University sorority house in Tallahassee where he sexually assaulted and murdered two Chi Omega sorority members. The police arrested him a short time later in a stolen car, then put him on trial for murder in Dade County.

     The Dade County prosecutor had plenty of nonphysical evidence against Bundy, but it was circumstantial and didn't place him in the Chi Omega murder room. The killer had left a hair follicle on a crime scene stocking mask that looked similar under a microscope to samples from Bundy's head. But hair identification wasn't enough by itself to carry a conviction. The rapist had left traces of semen, but these murders were committed more than ten years before the dawn of DNA analysis.

     If the Dade County prosecutor had any chance of convicting Bundy, he would have to connect him to the murder scene through a bite mark wound on one of the victims. To do that, the prosecutor called on Dr. Richard Souviron, the chief odontologist for the Miami-Dade County Medical Examiner's Office. He also enlisted the services of Dr. Lowell J. Levine, a forensic dentistry consultant to the New York City Medical Examiner's Office. To round out his battery of experts, the prosecutor brought in Dr. Norman Sperber, an odontologist with the San Diego and Imperial County Medical Examiner's Office in California. These three forensic experts comprised the nation's most renowned bite mark analysts.

     Dr. Souviron took the stand and testified that the sorority house attacker had left a postmortem double-bite mark on one victim's left buttock. He had bitten once, turned sideways, them clamped down again. The killer's top bicuspids and his lateral and central incisors had remained in the same position, but he had made two wound brackets with his lower front teeth. When he photographed Ted Bundy's teeth, Dr. Souviron noticed they were of uneven length, chipped, and oddly aligned, factors that helped individualize the defendant's bite mark pattern. To illustrate for the jury that Bundy's teeth matched the murder scene wound, Dr. Sourviron laid a photograph of the defendant's teeth, depicted on a transparent sheet, over an enlarged photograph of the bite mark. The bottom edges of Bundy's teeth lined up perfectly with the crime scene wound.

     Dr. Norman Sperber and Dr. Lowell Levine took the strand and lent their expertise to the identification. Bundy, representing himself, brought in his own dental expert, an odontologist from Maryland who testified that "the dental pattern [bite mark] is one I'd expect to find in 20 percent of the population of male Caucasians." The defense expert didn't say the bite mark on the victim couldn't have been Bundy's, he just wasn't willing to identify the wound as coming from the defendant to the exclusion of all others.

     The Dade County jury found Ted Bundy guilty, the judge sentenced him to death, and ten years later, Bundy was executed. Before his execution he confessed to the sorority house killings and dozens of other lust murders.

     The Ted Bundy case established the credibility and usefulness of forensic bite mark analysis, and for a while placed it on the same level, in terms of reliability, as latent fingerprint identification. But following a series of high-profile misidentifications in bite mark cases, this form of impression analysis is no longer considered as reliable as latent fingerprint identification. Today, in most states, odontologists are not allowed, by law, to state unequivocally that a defendant is the source of a bite mark. The most these experts can say is that the questioned bite mark is consistent with having been made by the defendant's teeth. 

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Randall Dale Adams: An Innocent Man

     In June 2011, a 61-year-old man who had been living a quiet life in a central Ohio town, died without much notice. His name was Randall Dale Adams, and in the history of 20th Century criminal justice--or rather injustice--he was a towering figure. The Adams case perfectly illustrates the doleful saying: "Any prosecutor can convict a guilty defendant, it takes a great prosecutor to convict an innocent one."

     On November 27, 1976, Adams, a 27-year-old manual laborer with no history of crime or violence, while walking along a street in Dallas, Texas after his car had run out of gas, met 16-year-old David Ray Harris. Harris, a kid from Vidor, Texas who had aleady been in trouble with the law, was driving a car he had recently stolen. Harris offered Adams a ride.

     After getting into the stolen car with Harris, Adams and his new acquaintance drank some beer, smoked marijuana, and took in a movie called "Swinging Cheerleaders" at a drive-in theater. Shortly after midnight, on November 28, Harris, while driving the blue sedan with its headlights off with Adams in the front passenger's seat, was pulled over by two officers in a Dallas patrol car. As patrolman Robert Wood approached the driver's side of Harris' vehicle, Harris, using a handgun he had stolen from his father, shot officer Wood five times, killing him on the spot. The dead officer's partner, Teresa Turko, fired at the car as Harris sped off. None of her bullets hit the fleeing vehicle. Officer Turko was certain the man who had shot her partner was the only person in the car.

     After dropping Adams off at his place of residence in Dallas, Harris drove southeast 300 miles to his parents' house in Vidor. During the next several days Harris bragged to his friends that he had "offed a pig" in Dallas. This drew the attention of the local police who recovered the pistol Harris had stolen from his father. Through ballistics analysis a firearms expert identified this gun as the murder weapon. Detectives also gave Harris a polygraph test which he failed. At first Harris denied any knowledge of the shooting, but after the ballistics report, and the lie detector results, he fingered Randall Adams, a hitchhiker he had picked up in Dallas, as the cop killer.

     Following a police interrogation in Dallas in which Randall Adams identified David Harris as the police shooter, he passed a polygraph test with that account. The Dallas County District Attorney, Norm Kinne, decided not to prosecute Harris. Kinne didn't want to prosecute David Ray Harris because, at age 16, he was too young for the electric chair.

     At Adams' May 1977 murder trial, prosecutor Kinne manufactured incriminating evidence in the form of three eyewitnesses who testified they had ridden by the shooting scene just as officer Wood approached the blue car. Although it was dark and the inside of the stolen car was unlit, the three witnesses identified Randall Adams as the driver of the stopped vehicle. These identifications were patently ridiculous and obviously motivated by something other than the truth. Two of the eyewitnesses, a husband and wife team, were looking for a piece of the $21,000 reward. The other witness had a daughter in trouble with the law. After the Adams trial the charges against her daughter were dropped. All three of these prosecution witnesses, bought for and coached, committed perjury. Officer Turko took the stand, and while admitting she hadn't seen the shooter clearly, said his hair was the same color as the defendant's.

     Randall Adams took the stand on his own behalf and proclaimed his innocence. The prosecutor and the defense attorney made their closing arguments and the case went to the jury. Without taking much time to deliberate the jurors found the defendant guilty of murdering officer Robert Wood. This led to the penalty phase of the trial which involved the determination of whether or not there was a probability that the convicted man would, if given a life sentence, commit future acts of violence.

     District Attorney Norm Kinne put two expert (so-called) witnesses on the stand who testified that Randall Adams was still a dangerous man. The fact that Adams was innocent and had no history of violence proved that both of these psychiatrists were bogus prosecution hacks. The first of these thoroughly corrupt experts to take the stand, Dr. John Holbrook, had been the chief of psychiatry with the Texas Department of Corrections. (This alone should have disqualified him as an unbiased witness.) The second, a creepy shrink named Dr. John Grigson, after having spoken to Randall Adams fifteen minutes, told the jurors that Adams was qualified to be electrocuted. Dr. Grigson's testimony was so predictably prosecution friendly--he had testified in more than 100 trials that ended in death sentences--defense attorneys around the state called him "Doctor Death." (According the American Psychiatric Association, then and now, future dangerousness is impossible to predict.)

     Relying on corrupt and erroneous psychiatric testimony pertaining to an innocent man, the Dallas County jury voted to sentence Randall Adams to death.

     In January 1979, the Texas Court of Crimminal Appeals affirmed Adams' conviction and death sentence. A judge sentenced Adams to die on May 8 of that year. On May 5, three days before his date with the electric chair, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered a stay of execution. The governor of Texas, Bill Clements, decided to commute Adams's sentence to life in prison.

     While Randall Adams sat in prison, David Harris, the man who had murdered officer Wood, joined the Army. While stationed in Germany, Harris committed a series of burglaries that led to a stretch in the federal prison at Leavenworth, Kansas. After his release from Leavenworth, Harris moved to California where he committed several kidnappings and robberies. In 1985, Harris was back in Texas where, in Beaumont, he murdered a man. A year later, a jury sentenced Harris to death. Had Harris been convicted of killing officer Wood, he wouldn't have had the opportunity to kill the Beaumont man.

     In 1988, producer Errol Morris made a documentary about the Adams case called "The Thin Blue Line." In the film, Morris exposed the prosecution's eyewitnesses as liars, and Dr. John Grigson as a courtroom fraud. A year later, following the airing of the documentary, Dallas District Court Judge Larry Baraka, following a 3-day hearing on the Adams case, recommended to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals that Randall Adams be granted a new trial.

     On March 1, 1989, the appeals court, in an unanimous 27-page opinion that cited gross prosecutoral wrongdoing, ordered a new trial. Three weeks later, the Dallas County District Attorney (not Kinne) dropped all charges. Randall Adams, after twelve years behind bars, walked free. Because he had not been pardoned by the governor, Adams was not eligible for the $25,000 he would have otherwise been awarded.

     In 2004, the state of Texas executed David Harris for the 1985 murder in Beaumont. Before he died, Harris admitted shooting officer Wood to death.

     Except for the occasional reairing of "The Thin Blue Line," the Randall Adams case is almost forgotten. But it shouldn't be forgotten because it reminds us of how much damage "a great" prosecutor can do.    

Monday, December 5, 2016

Two Stalkers, Different Sentences

The Mercedes Driving Tire Slasher

     In January 2010, Jessica (not the victim's real name) broke up with Dieter Heinz Werner, her 68-year-old boyfriend. Shortly after that, someone slashed her tires in the parking lot of a Houston, Texas movie complex. A month later, Jessica found a GPS tracking device attached to the undercarriage of her car. She suspected Werner, who had been bothering her with text messages and phone calls, of slashing her tires and using the GPS device to keep track of her whereabouts.

     That spring, the ex-boyfriend continued his harassment by sending Jessica hundreds of text messages. On April 3, 2010, he sent her a text which read: "Should have answered the phone and not ignored me again. Pissed me off. Now I show you." That day, after following her to a grocery store, Werner texted: "Pissed me off when I saw you at Krogers and you turned your head. I would never treat you like that."

     On April 15, 2010, a witness at the same movie complex parking lot saw an elderly white man slashing someone's car tires with a pocketknife. The witness jotted down the license number to the vandal's Mercedes convertible. The vehicle was registered to Dieter Heinz Werner. A couple of weeks later, a Harris County prosecutor charged Werner with stalking, a third degree felony. Werner was held without bond for a few days until a judge issued a protection order against the accused stalker. After being served with the restraining order, Werner paid his $75,000 bond and was released.

     In late 2011, Dieter Werner was found guilty of the stalking offense. A few months later the judge sentenced him to ten years in prison, the maximum penalty for a third degree felony. But in 2012, before Werner was transferred out of the Harris County Jail into the state prison system, he was paroled. After serving about a year behind bars, the convicted stalker walked free.

     According to Texas corrections authorities, Werner had benefited from a so-called "parole in absentia." (Texas parole boards in the 1980s had issued these get-out-of prison passes when the state prison system couldn't handle all of the convicted felons.)

     Victims' rights activists, as well as Werner's stalking victim, were outraged. The parole authorities had not even bothered to notify Jessica of her stalker's parole hearing. In Texas and other places it was a fact that parole boards often did not inform victims when criminals were released on parole.


The Taco Bell Handcuff Case

     In 2011, in the northern Georgia town of Ringgold, 25-year-old Jason Earl Dean and the 18-year-old girl he had become obsessed with, worked at the local Taco Bell. After Joan (not her real name) told Dean she did not want to go out with him, he continued asking her out for a date. This had gone on for a month. The harassment became so intense she changed shifts at work to get away from him. Undeterred, Dean continued to bother her.

     On the night of August 8, 2011, Dean waited outside Taco Bell until Joan's shift ended. As she walked to her car he came up to her with a pair of handcuffs which he slapped around her wrist, binding them arm to arm. She screamed for help which brought other employees out of the Taco Bell. Her fellow employees talked Dean into turning Joan free. The police rolled up to the scene shortly thereafter, but Dean had left. A few days later, police officers arrested him on a college campus in nearby Dalton, Georgia. A local prosecutor charged him with stalking and felonious restraint.

     In January 2013, Jason Earl Dean entered a so-called "blind guilty plea" before Judge Ralph Van Pelt. (A blind plea means that no sentencing agreement had been reached between the prosecutor and the defense attorney. The defendant was essentially throwing himself on the mercy of the court.) Judge Van Pelt, showing no mercy for this stalker, sentenced him to four years in prison followed by six years of probation.

    On its face, Judge Van Pelt's sentence seemed excessive. Whether or not it was excessive depended upon what kind of person Jason Dean was. Without knowing this stalker's background there was no way to evaluate his sentence. But in any case, it appeared that this judge considered stalking a serious crime. I wish more judges did.

   
     

Sunday, December 4, 2016

John L. Marra: The Judicial Cover-Up of a Police Chief's Conviction

     John Marra's modest entry into law enforcement took place on July 11, 2005 when the 29-year-old became a part-time reserve police officer in Uniontown, Ohio, a Stark County village of 2,800 in the northeastern part of the state. A little over two years after being on the job, Marra entered into an intimate relationship with a 16-year-old girl. He sent her inappropriate text messages, and while on duty, kissed and fondled her at her place of employment, a Subway restaurant.

     In May 2008, the 32-year-old police officer pleaded no contest to dereliction of duty, a second-degree misdemeanor. The Stark County judge sentenced Marra to two years probation and 100 hours of community service. The judge also ordered Marra not to have further contact with the girl or members of her family. As part of the plea deal, Marra agreed to resign from the Uniontown Police Department.

     In 2010, shortly after his period of probation expired, Marra joined the police department in Brady Lake, Ohio, a small Portage County town in the Akron metropolitan area. In December 2013, following the retirement of the chief of police, the major named Marra acting head of the agency. On March 17, 2014, the village council approved Marra's appointment as the chief of the Brady Lake Police Department.

     Marra's promotion, given his history with the Uniontown Police Department, raised more than a few eyebrows. In April 2014, members of the local print and television news media asked Mayor Hal Lehman if someone, in anticipation of Marra's appointment, had conducted a background investigation. The mayor replied that such an inquiry had been made and said, "We are done with the issue." Another reporter asked the mayor if he would provide the media with a copy of the investigative report. Mayor Lehman said he did not have a copy of that document.

     Mayor Lehman, when asked specifically about the new police chief's dereliction of duty conviction five years earlier, had nothing to say other than the matter was settled.

     Chief Marra, aware that his 2008 conviction might prove troublesome to the advancement of his law enforcement career, had petitioned the court to seal the records of the case. If granted his request, this information would be no longer available to the public.

     The Stark County prosecutor's office opposed the Marra petition. Recognizing that offenses less serious than a first-degree misdemeanor can be removed from public scrutiny, the prosecutor trying to preserve Marra's conviction history argued that this particular case was an exception because of Marra's intimate involvement with a 16-year-old girl. Had Marra not agreed to plead in the case, he would have been convicted of a more serious offense. Moreover, as a public official, the chief of police should be held to a higher standard of conduct than an ordinary citizen. Chief Marra had violated that standard.

     On May 1, 2014, following a brief hearing on Marra's petition, Stark County Judge John Poulos approved of the sealing of all documents pertaining to the 2008 dereliction of duty conviction in Uniontown, Ohio. Judge Poulos based his decision on the fact the petitioner had been convicted of a second-degree misdemeanor that, under Ohio law, allowed the sealing of these crime records. The judge obviously didn't buy the argument that public officials should be held to a higher standard than the rest of us. [Why would he? The judge was a public official himself.]

     I disagree with this judge's decision. We give our law enforcement officers enormous power over our lives. In return, they owe us honesty, trustworthiness, good character, and sound judgment. Officer John Marra, with regard to the girl, exhibited an alarming lack of good judgment as well as a troubling and perhaps pathological flaw in his character.

     The citizens of Brady Lake who pay the chief's salary, and are subject to his power and authority, had a right to know such things as the degree to which Marra had coerced or stalked the girl. It may also have been important to know how this case came to light, and how the officer initially reacted to the accusations.

    

Saturday, December 3, 2016

The William Richards Murder Case

     In 1993, 44-year-old William Richards and his wife Pamela, while they were building a house near Hesperia, California in the high desert in San Bernardino County, lived in a motor home. Because there were no power lines near the property, a generator in a nearby shed provided the electricity. William worked as a swing shift electrical engineer at a manufacturing plant in the town of Corona. His 40-year-old wife had a job as a waitress. The following account of what happened on August 10, 1993 is based on William Richards' statement to the police.

     That night, William Richards clocked out of the plant in Corona at 11:03. When he arrived home shortly after midnight, he noticed there were no lights on in the trailer. He re-started the generator in the shed, and as he walked toward his front door, stumbled over his wife's half nude body. Someone had smashed the 5-foot-2, 126 pound woman's head with an heavy object. Richards called 911.

     Deputies from the San Bernardino Sheriff's office arrived at the scene at twelve-thirty that morning. The officers did nothing to protect the crime scene while they waited for the arrival of the homicide detectives. The investigators didn't show up until 3:15, and when they did, decided to wait until daylight before processing the crime scene. In the meantime, officers walked around the site and did nothing to keep several dogs off the property. (When they did begin the crime scene investigation, the officers realized dogs had kicked dirt on Pamela Richards' body.)

     From the beginning, homicide detectives considered William Richards the prime suspect in the murder. Blood spatter patterns suggested the victim had been partially undressed after the bloody attack in an effort to stage a sexual assault. (There was no physical evidence of rape.) Investigators found no signs of forced entry and no physical evidence of an intruder such as foreign shoe impressions and tire tracks. (If there had been such evidence, it could have been trampled by the police.) Moreover, nothing had been stolen from the trailer. Investigators believed that Pamela Richards had been bludgeoned by a blood-stained steppingstone. (A forensic pathologist would find that she had also been strangled.)

     As for motive, detectives believed that the suspect, after he learned that his wife planned to leave him for another man, had killed her in a fit of rage. The fact that Richards and his wife, over their twenty-year marriage, openly had affairs and had already agreed to separate, cast doubt on this motive to kill her. Without a confession or an eyewitness, the San Bernardino County prosecutor had a weak, circumstantial case against William Richards. The fact the crime scene investigation had been bungled also hurt the prosecution's case. Nevertheless, the prosecutor charged Richards with first-degree murder. Police arrested him on September 3, 1993.

     In July 1994, after the jury deadlocked six to six on the question of William Richards' guilt, the judge declared a mistrial. Just three days into his second trial in October 1994, the judge, due to improper communications with a juror, declared a second mistrial. In January 1995, the jury deadlocked eleven to one for his guilt. This led to a third mistrial.

     The San Bernardino County prosecutor, on his fourth try in July 1997, bolstered the state's case with the testimony of Dr. Norman Sperber, the renowned forensic odontologist (dentist) from San Diego who had testified at Ted Bundy's serial murder trial in Florida. Dr. Sperber testified that in his expert opinion, the crescent-shaped impression on Pamela Richards' hand was consistent with having been made with the defendant's front teeth. The odontologist said that only two percent of the U.S. population could have made this crime scene bite mark.

     To counter Dr. Sperber's testimony, the defense presented another respected forensic dentist, Dr. Gregory Golden, the Chief Forensic Odontologist of San Bernardino County. Dr. Golden testified that the photograph of the victim's bite mark was of such poor quality he couldn't make a conclusive determination in the case. When pressed by the prosecutor on cross-examination, Dr. Golden said that he could not eliminate the defendant as the maker of the crime scene bite mark.

     Based on the new bite mark evidence, the jury in Richards' fourth trial found him guilty of first-degree murder. The judge sentenced him to 25 years to life. The convicted man continued to maintain his innocence.

     In 2000, lawyers with the California Innocence Project entered the case on William Richards' behalf. A re-evaluation of the forensic evidence in the murder case led to a petition before a San Bernardino County judge to overturn Richards' murder conviction. The hearing on this motion took place in 2009 before Judge Brian McCarville.

     Since Richards' fourth trial, new technology had made it possible to sharpen the photographic image of the crime scene bite mark. Dr. Norman Sperber took the stand and declared that after analyzing the enhanced photograph, it was his expert opinion that the questioned bite mark had not been made by Mr. Richards. Two other forensic dentists agreed with this analysis, and a third testified that he could not render a conclusive opinion either way.

     A DNA expert testified that the bloody steppingstone contained DNA evidence that had not come from the defendant. A forensic hair and fiber identification expert testified that a 2-centimeter follicle taken from under one of the victim's fingernails did not match samples taken from her husband.

     Judge McCarville, based on the bite mark, DNA, and hair follicle testimony, overturned William Richards' murder conviction.

     The San Bernardino County prosecutor appealed Judge McCarville's ruling to the California Supreme Court. On December 3, 2012, in a 4-3 decision, the state's highest court reinstated Richards' murder conviction. According to the majority justices, the forensic evidence presented at the 2009 hearing did not prove the convicted man's innocence. (Once convicted, the burden of proving innocence shifts to the defendant.) These justices did not believe the forensic dentists had completely ruled out Richards as the source of the crime scene bite mark.

     The dissenting judges did not agree with this interpretation of the new bite mark testimony. As these three justices saw it, three of the four odontologists, including Dr. Norman Sperber, stated that the convicted man was not the source of this crime scene evidence. Since it had been this evidence that had finally led to Richards' murder conviction, its absence supported the position that the state had not carried its burden of proving this man's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

     In September 2014, a new law went into effect in California that would make it easier for William Richards' attorneys to have his conviction overturned. Under this legislation, whenever an expert witness changes his or her opinion, as Dr. Sperber did in the Richards case, the initial testimony will be classified, by law, as false evidence. If that evidence played a vital role in the guilty verdict, the expert's repudiation is grounds for overturning the conviction.

     Citing the new law, Richards' attorneys asked the California State Supreme Court to reconsider the case and throw out the murder conviction.

     On May 27, 2016, the California Supreme Court overturned Richard's 1997 first-degree murder conviction. Following this decision, the San Bernardino District Attorney decided not to retry the case.

Friday, December 2, 2016

The Timothy Hennis Triple-Murder Case

     U.S. Air Force officer Gary Eastburn and his wife Kathryn were married in 1975. Ten years later, Captain Eastburn, the chief of Air Traffic Control at Pope Air Force Base near Fayetteville, North Carolina, received a new assignment to England. Before the couple's planned departure to Great Britain, they decided to find a new home for their English Setter. The Eastburn family had grown and now included three children. Kara was five, Erin, three, and the baby, Jana, was almost two.

     Army Sergeant Timothy Hennis, stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, lived in Fayetteville with his wife Angela. The 27-year-old saw an ad in a free classified newspaper regarding the Eastburn family's offer to sell their dog for $10 to anyone willing to give the pet a good home. In early May 1985, in response to the ad, Sergeant Hennis met with Kathryn Eastburn at her house on Summerhall Road. The sergeant went home that day with the English Setter.

     On May 10, 1985, a neighbor, aware that Captain Eastburn was attending a squadron officers' training school in Montgomery, Alabama, noticed that a few newspapers had not been picked up at their house. Concerned about the wellbeing of Kathryn and her three children, the neighbor went to the front door to check on them. From outside the house the neighbor heard a baby crying. When he knocked on the door and no one answered, the neighbor called the police.

     Upon entering the Eastburn dwelling, police officers were stunned by what they found. Kathryn, Kara, and Erin had been repeatedly stabbed. The killer had also slashed their throats. The baby in the crib was severely dehydrated, just hours from death. Kathryn had been tied up and raped.

     The killer had attempted to clean up the crime scene but had been overwhelmed by the task. There was too much blood. The only items missing from the house were a small amount of cash and the Eastburn ATM card.

     An Eastburn neighbor said he had seen a tall man wearing a dark Members Only jacket walking from the house a couple of days before the police were called to the scene. This man was carrying a large trash bag and drove off in a white Chevrolet. Based on this witness' description of the suspect, a police artist drew a sketch of the man's face.

     Following the news coverage of the triple murder, Sergeant Hennis voluntarily paid a visit to the police station. He told detectives that when he saw a photograph of Kathryn Eastburn on television he realized she was the woman from whom he had recently purchased the dog.

     Because Sergeant Hennis was tall, looked like the man in the police sketch, had just taken a dark Members Only jacket to a dry cleaner, and drove a white Chevrolet Chevette, he became the prime suspect in the case. A witness picked Hennis out of a police line-up as the man seen carrying the trash bag out of the murder house. Shortly after being seen leaving the Eastburn house with the bag, Hennis was seen burning items in an oil drum in his backyard.

     Detectives determined that Hennis and his wife were separating and that he was having money problems. A witness saw Hennis using an ATM machine about the time someone used the Eastburn card.

     Sergeant Hennis denied killing the mother and her children. He said he was home that night building his daughter a dollhouse. County prosecutor William VanStory charged Hennis with three counts of first-degree murder and one count of rape.

     Because the prosecution didn't have a confession, physical evidence linking Hennis to the murder scene, or an eyewitness to the massacre, VanStory offered Hennis a plea bargain. The defendant, perhaps realizing that the prosecution's case was entirely circumstantial, turned down the deal.

     The Hennis murder trial got underway in the spring of 1986. According to the prosecutor's theory of the case, the defendant, after buying the dog, returned to the Eastburn house to have sex with Kathryn. He knew that Captain Eastburn was in Montgomery, Alabama. When Kathryn rejected his sexual advances he flew into a rage and murdered her and her two children.

     The witness who picked Hennis out of the police line-up as the man leaving the murder house carrying the trash bag took the stand for the prosecution. Another witness testified that the Eastburn ATM card had been used on two occasions after the murders. Twice the card user had withdrawn $150. The prosecutor pointed out that the defendant owned his landlord $300 in back rent.

     The Hennis trial lasted three weeks. The jury, after ten hours of deliberation, found the defendant guilty as charged. The judge sentenced Hennis to death.

     The convicted man's attorneys appealed the case to the North Carolina Supreme Court on grounds the jurors had been unduly prejudiced by the introduction into evidence of the graphic murder scene photographs. In 1988, the state supreme court granted Hennis a new trial.

     A year after winning the appeal, Hennis' attorneys, at his second trial, took a more aggressive approach. They put forward their own narrative of the case. Kathryn Eastburn and her children had been murdered by a mysterious stranger who for months had made phone threats against the family. Moreover, a murder scene head hair found on the Eastburn bed did not come from any member of the family or the defendant. Several bloodstains in the house did not match the blood types of the family or Sergeant Hennis. (The Hennis trial predated the DNA era. Blood could only be placed into groups.)

     The defense attorneys argued that the overkill nature of the murders was not consistent with a man who had merely been rebuffed by a woman with whom he had wanted casual sex. According to the defense, the Eastburn family had been slaughtered by a maniac who, for whatever reason, hated them.

     In cross-examining the prosecution's witness, the defendant's attorneys did a good job of raising doubts regarding their credibility. The prosecutors, on the other hand, seemed overconfident they would secure another guilty verdict. For that reason they were shocked when the jury returned a verdict of not guilty.

     Timothy Hennis, following his acquittal, re-enlisted in the Army. Promoted to Staff Sergeant, he did tours of duty in Saudi Arabia and in Somalia before being stationed back in the states at Fort Lewis, Washington.

     In 2006, years after he had retired from the military, the Army called the 48-year-old back into service and sent him to Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

     Army prosecutors, shortly after Staff Sergeant Hennis reported for duty at Fort Bragg, charged him in military court with triple-murder. The Army had called Hennis back to active duty for the sole purpose of the court martial.

     The Hennis legal team sprang back into action. Defense attorneys accused the military of violating their client's right against double jeopardy under the Fifth Amendment. However, due to legal precedent that allowed the court martial of a soldier who had been acquitted in a civilian court of the same crime, the Army's case moved forward.

     Army prosecutors had new evidence that incriminated Hennis. A North Carolina DNA analyst had matched his DNA to semen found inside Kathryn Eastburn. Advanced DNA science had made the identification of this rape kit vaginal swab evidence possible.

     At the 2010 court martial trial, the Hennis defense argued that merely because the defendant and Kathryn Eastburn had engaged in consensual sex didn't prove that he had murdered her and the children. The defense attorneys also brought up the unidentified hair follicle and the unaccounted for bloodstains. Moreover, DNA found under Kathryn's fingernail did not match the defendant.

     The case put on by the Hennis defense was no match for the testimony of the prosecution's DNA expert. The military jury, following a three-day trial, found Hennis guilty of three counts of premeditated murder. The judge sentenced him to death. (Hennis cannot be executed without presidential approval. The military hasn't executed anyone since 1961.)

     In 2012, after numerous federal appeals involving defense claims that the DNA evidence had been contaminated by the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the Hennis case.

     With their client in solitary confinement on death row at Fort Leavenworth military prison in Kansas, the Hennis legal team, in March 2014, appealed the court martial verdict to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals for The Armed Forces. The Hennis defense argued that because Harris had been unlawfully ordered to active duty in 2006, the Army did not have jurisdiction to court martial him.

     On October 14, 2014, the Armed Forces Court of Appeals denied the Hennis petition. At this point it appeared that his attorneys had run out of legal remedies in this one-of-a-kind murder case.

     

Thursday, December 1, 2016

The Whitney Heichel Kidnap Murder Case

     Whitney Heichel, at 6:45 in the morning of Tuesday, October 16, 2012, walked out of her Gresham, Oregon apartment with the intent of driving her 1999 Ford Explorer to her nearby job at Starbucks. That day she had to attend an early morning employee meeting. Instead of reporting to work, she was seen two and a half hours later sitting in the passenger's side of her SUV at a service station in Troutdale, Oregon. (The man behind the wheel had used Heichel's ATM card to purchase gas.)

     A Starbucks employee called Heichel's apartment when she didn't show up for work. Whitney's husband Clinton, at 9:56 AM, called 911 and reported his 5-foot-2, 120 pound wife missing. Ninety minutes later, police officers found Heichel's vehicle in the parking lot of the Walmart store in Wood Village. The front passenger's side window had been broken out. The next day, children found the missing woman's cellphone in the brush between the service station and the abandoned SUV.

     Detectives began questioning residents of Heichel's apartment complex. They spoke to a 25-year-old acquaintance and neighbor named Jonathan Holt. The investigators grew suspicious when Holt's account of himself on the morning in question contained glaring inconsistencies. Detectives grilled Holt on Wednesday the 17th, and when they interrogated him again the next day, he confessed. The police  also recovered the 9 mm pistol Holt used to murder the victim.

     On the morning of October 16, 2012, Holt waited outside the apartment complex for Heichel. When she came out of her apartment he asked her for a lift. Holt had been in Heichel's SUV about five minutes when he pulled a gun and told her to drive to an area near Roslyn Lake. At the lake, Holt forced Heichel at gunpoint to give him oral sex. He then shot her to death.

     After murdering Whitney Heichel, Holt drove the body to Larch Mountain, a 40 minute drive up winding roads from the apartment complex. After hiding her corpse in the underbrush, he drove to the Walmart parking lot where he abandoned the vehicle. (Holt had either broken the passenger's side window to throw off the police, or it had been blown out by a bullet when he shot her.)

     Twelve hours after Whitney Heichel didn't show up for work at Starbuck's, a pair of Holt's friends spotted Holt walking along 257th Avenue in Gresham. When they offered him a ride, he refused, saying, "I just need to finish clearing my head." A short time later, Holt's friends tracked him down and asked him again to get into the car. After accepting the lift, Holt told his friends a strange story. He said that on his way to work that morning at a Swan Island vending company, two black men robbed him at gunpoint. Holt later admitted to detectives that this story was untrue. After confessing to Whitney Heichel's murder, Holt admitting to downloading child pornography onto his laptop computer.

     According to Holt's wife Amanda, her husband felt like a failure, and this had let "so many things build up. I think he just loses it." (Whatever the hell that means.)

     On Friday, October 19, 2012, police officers found Whitney Heichel's body in a remote spot in the woods on Larch Mountain. Besides the confession, detectives  linked Holt to Heichel's murder through his fingerprints and other physical evidence crime scene investigators recovered from her SUV.

     According to medical examiner Dr. Christopher Young, Whitney Heichel had been shot four times. On Monday, October 22, Jonathan Holt, at his arraignment hearing in a Clackamas County court, was charged with aggravated murder. The judge denied him bail. His trial was set for April 2013.

     Jonathan Holt, in July 2013, pleaded guilty to the kidnapping, sexual assault and murder of his neighbor. The judge sentenced him to life without the possibility of parole. 

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Kleber Cordova Bathtub Murder Case

     On May 9, 2008, at 7:30 in the morning, 29-year-old Kleber Cordova called 911 and reported that his wife had accidentally hit her head on their bathtub faucet and slipped, unconscious, under the water. He said he had tried but failed to lift his 4 foot 10 inch, 125 pound wife out of the tub.

     First responders to the Morristown, New Jersey home found a nude Eliana Torres submerged on her back with her face directly under the spout. Given cardiopulmonary resuscitation and rushed to the Morristown Memorial Hospital, the 26-year-old woman died five days later without regaining consciousness.

     Kleber Cordova and Eliana Torres had a one-year-old son and an eight-year-old daughter who attended second grade at the Normandy Elementary School. Cordova, his wife, and their eight-year-old girl had been born in Ecuador and were in the United States illegally. The victim's mother, Rita Valverde, on the day of the bathtub "accident," rushed to the Morristown hospital from her home in Danbury, Connecticut.

     Cordova, when questioned by the police at the  hospital a few hours after his 911 call, said he had arrived home from his night job to find his wife lying face-up in the bathtub with water from the spout pouring directly into her mouth. After failing to remove her from the tub, Cordova had called for help. The next day, aware that his wife was still alive and could possibly regain consciousness, Cordova asked to speak with detectives.

     In a video-taped statement given in Spanish through an interpreter, Cordova changed his story. During the week prior to the bathtub incident, he and Eliana had been arguing. She had informed Kleber that she had a boyfriend and planned to leave him. That morning, after she asked him for a divorce, he want "crazy" and held his wife's head under the water for about three minutes. To make the drowning look like an accident, Cordova removed her wet clothing and hid the garments in his car. (The interrogators had not warned Cordova of his Miranda rights, but since he had initiated contact with them, the judge, in a preliminary hearing, ruled the confession admissible.)

     Charged with the murder of his wife, Cordova was placed in the Morris County Jail in lieu of $1 million bond.

     On March 23, 2009, Morris County prosecutor John McNamera offered Cordova a deal. If he pleaded guilty to murder, the judge would sentence him to 30 years in prison. If tried and found guilty, he could receive up to 75 years in prison. Cordova rejected the offer. He would take his chances with a jury.

     The Cordova murder trial began in early March, 2012 at the Morris County Superior Court in Morristown, New Jersey. Assistant prosecutor Brian DiGiamaco did not show the jury Cordova's video-taped confession because a judge had ruled it inadmissible. The prosecutor put the defendant's daughter, now twelve years old, on the stand. On the morning in question, the eight-year-old girl awoke to the sound of her mother's cries for help. From the bathroom Eliana had screamed, "God help me!" in Spanish. The witness said she walked into the bathroom where she saw water splashing out of the bathtub. Her father was leaning over her mother who was clawing at his face. (When the police spoke to Cordova at the hospital they noticed fresh scratches on his face.) Cordova, when he realized that his daughter was standing nearby, said, "Everything is all right, go to your room." Fearing that her father would get angry if she disobeyed, the girl returned to her room, closed the door, and sat on her bed.

     From her bedroom, the witness heard someone turn off the bathtub water. Her father then walked out of the bathroom and into the kitchen. She could hear his wet sneakers on the kitchen floor. The witness said she took this opportunity to re-enter the bathroom and check on her mother. That's when she saw "the thigh part of her body" in the tub and a lot of water on the floor. Frightened, the little girl ran back to her bedroom.

     Later that morning, in the hospital waiting room, the defendant told his daughter not to say anything about what she had seen. The victim's mother, Rita Valverde, was sitting nearby and overheard Cordova say this to his daughter.

     On cross-examination by Cordova's attorney, public defender Jessica Moses, the defendant's daughter acknowledged that the first time she accused her father of killing her mother was in December 2008, several months after the incident. The defense attorney, in this line of questioning, hoped to convince the jurors that detectives had wrangled this story out of the eight-year-old. (Since the incident, the witness had been living with her grandmother, Rita Valverde, who had moved from Connecticut to Florida.)

     On March 28, 2012, the victim's sister, Zaida Solis, took the stand and testified that three days after Cordova's arrest he had said this to her: "How could I do that to the love of my life?" The defendant also told his sister-in-law that the drowning had "happened fast," and that he was sorry about it. According to Cordova, on the night before the bathtub attack, Eliana had phoned her boyfriend in front of her husband. The next morning she demanded a divorce.

     After the state rested its case, Jessica Moses asked Judge David Ironson for a judgment of acquittal on the grounds the prosecution had not made a prima facie case against her client. If she did not prevail on that request, the public defender asked for a reduction of the charge from murder to passion/provocation manslaughter. "There is no evidence to support a murder conviction," she argued.

     In opposition to the public defender's reduced charge motion, assistant prosecutor Maggie Calderwood asserted that the defendant had killed his wife "knowingly," and "on purpose." Judge Ironson denied the public defender's motions. The murder charge would stand.

     Jessica Moses didn't have much of a defense beyond a character witness who said Cordova worked hard as an overnight cleaner at a Morristown restaurant and a hospital security officer who saw the defendant faint after visiting his unconscious wife. Cordova did not take the stand on his own behalf.

     In her closing argument to the jury the public defender said that the defendant's daughter had changed her story when questioned by the police months after her father called 911. The defense attorney, in explaining why Cordova had taken off his wife's clothing and hid them in his car, said he "panicked" after the 911 dispatcher asked him a series of questions regarding what had happened in the bathroom. He staged the scene as an accidental drowning because he was sure the authorities would accuse him of murder. As evidence that the killing was not premeditated, the public defender pointed out that two days before the struggle in the bathtub, Cordova bought his wife a new computer and paid an extra $99 for a one-year warranty.

     On April 5, 2012, after deliberating two hours, the jury found Kleber Cordova guilty of murdering his wife. The defendant showed no emotion as the foreman read the verdict.

     The judge, on July 24, 2012, sentenced Kleber Cordova to fifty years in prison. 

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The Deadly Bay Area Limousine Fire

     On Saturday, May 4, 2013, Nerizo Fojas, a recently married 31-year-old registered nurse from Fresno, California entertained eight of her friends and fellow nurses at a bachelorette party in Oakland. At nine that night, the newlywed and her guests climbed into a white, 1999 Lincoln stretch limousine en route to the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Foster City, the site of her bridal shower. Orville Brown, the 46-year-old who had been driving as a chauffeur for two months, had picked up the nine women for the 40-mile trip from Oakland to Foster City.

     At ten o'clock, as the limousine crossed the San Mateo Bridge on Highway 92 about 20 miles southeast of San Francisco, one of the passengers tapped on the partition that separates the driver from the passengers. At first Brown couldn't hear what this passenger was saying over the car music. When he heard others in the back yelling, "smoke, smoke!" he pulled out of the westbound lane and brought the Town Car to a stop at the side of the bridge.

     In a matter of seconds after Brown exited the limo, the rear passenger and trunk areas of the vehicle burst into flames, engulfing the passengers. Four of the women managed to escape the sudden inferno by crawling through the 3 foot by18 inch driver's partition opening. Five of the nurses, including Nerizo Fojas, were burned to death as they waited to squeeze through the partition opening.

     The dead women were so badly burned they had to be officially identified through dental records. Two of the women who survived the fire were in critical condition.

     Nerizo Fojas had been working at the Community Regional Medical Center in Fresno for two years. Prior to living in Fresno she had resided in Oakland. She and her husband had planned to travel to her native Philippines in June for a second wedding ceremony.

     San Mateo County Coroner Robert Foucrault told reporters that "it was almost impossible for [the victims] to get out as the fire was moving so fast." As cause and origin experts investigate the fire scene, forensic pathologists performed autopsies and ordered toxicology tests.

     It is rare for a motor vehicle not involved in an accident to burst into flames. The fact the fire had spread so fast suggests that something highly flammable had been near the origin of the fire. (A good many car fires that are not incendiary are electrical in nature.) According to the chauffeur, he had informed his passengers that smoking in the vehicle was prohibited. Orville Brown and other witnesses reported that the fire was not accompanied by an explosion.

     On May 7, 2013, Nelia Arelllano, one of the passengers, told a television reporter from San Francisco that the driver of the limo ignored her when she first yelled at him to stop the car. By the time he pulled over the fire had engulfed the rear area of the vehicle. (Stretch limousines have doors at the front and back but not along the elongated section of the car.) The San Jose company that operated the limo, Limo Stop, was licensed and insured.

    In 2014,  fire scene investigation specialists from San Mateo and Alameda Counties determined that the limo fire had been started by a "catastrophic failure" of the suspension system of the 1999 converted Lincoln Town Car that caused its drive shaft to rub on the vehicle's undercarriage, producing friction and sparks that started the fire in the rear passenger section.

     The California Public Utilities Commission fined Limo Stop $20,000 for having nine passengers in the vehicle, one over the limit. On appeal the amount was reduced to $5,000.

     In 2014 and 2015, families of four of the five women who died in the limo settled lawsuits with numerous companies associated with the vehicle fire. In May 2016, the husband of the fifth victim, Aldrin Geronga, filed a wrongful death suit against the Ford Motor company. According to this plaintiff's attorney, "Ford knew there were problems fifteen years ago."