More than 3,125,000 pageviews from 150 countries


Sunday, February 19, 2017

Steven Powell And His Son Josh: Cases Of Voyeurism, Arson, and Murder-Suicide

     On December 6, 2009, Josh Powell reported his 28-year-old wife, Susan Cox Powell, missing. He said she had disappeared while he and his two sons were on a camping trip. The family lived in West Valley, a suburb of Salt Lake City. The story didn't make any sense, and the police didn't believe him. As time passed, and Susan Cox remained missing, the authorities suspected that Josh Powell had murdered his wife for her life insurance. But without the body, the case stalled.

     In January 2010, after losing his job, Josh Powell and his boys moved into his father Steven Powell's house in South Hill, an unincorporated community in the Puyallup, Washington area. Investigators, in August 2011, pursuant to the ongoing investigation of Susan Powell's disappearance and presumed murder, searched Steven Powell's house, and were shocked by what they found.

     On videotapes, computer discs, and in Steven Powell's diaries, detectives found evidence that Josh's father had been sexually obsessed with Susan, and had secretly videotaped and photographed, in 2006 and 2007, two girls who lived in the house next door. The girls were age 8 and 10.

     In seven entries in his dairies, Steven Powell had documented his bizarre fixation on his daughter-in-law. He wrote: "Susan likes to be admired, and I'm a voyeur...I'm a voyeur and Susan is an exhibitionist." In a series of videos of himself ruminating about his daughter-in-law, the senior Powell said he "...would give anything to be with her." In various self-videoed scenes, Steven Powell is kissing a pair of her underwear, standing nude with a photograph of her, and recalling how giving her a foot rub was "...the most erotic experience of my life." Detectives also found clandestinely taken photographs of Susan in various stages of undress.

     Even more disturbing, were the thousands of photographs Powell had secretly taken of the girls next door. The pictures, taken 40 feet away through a window and an open bathroom door, depicted the youngsters getting dressed and undressed, taking baths, washing and drying their hair, and other thing people do in the privacy of their homes. On his computer, Steven Powell had hundreds of photographs he had covertly taken of other girls who had passed in front of his house. Searchers also found hundreds of photographs, taken by other people, of naked women and girls.

     In his diary entries, Powell discussed his voyeurism generally, noting that he enjoyed taking video shots of pretty girls in shorts and skirts. In 2010, he recorded himself saying,  "I've been going nuts and nearly out of control sexually my entire life."

     Charged by the Pierce County prosecutor with 24 counts of voyeurism, and one count of possession of materials of minors engaged in explicit conduct, police arrested Steven Powell on September 12, 2011. Each count carried a maximum sentence of five years in prison. He pleaded not guilty to all charges.

     About a month after his father's arrest, Josh Powell lost custody of his two boys and moved into a rented house in Graham, Washington. On February 6, 2012, his sons' made a visit to his home accompanied by a supervising social worker. Powell, with the boys in the house, locked the social worker out of the dwelling. With the social worker locked outside of the house, Josh Powell murdered the boys with a hatchet. He poured several gallons of gasoline around the dwelling then set it on fire. He died in the blaze.

     Steven Powell, with his daughter-in-law missing and presumed dead, two of his grandsons murdered, and his son, the killer of all three, dead by his own hand, went on trial May 7, 2012 in Tacoma, Washington. In a series of pre-trial hearings, Pierce County Judge Ronald Culpepper had ruled that the prosecution could not introduce any of the evidence pertaining to Powell's obsession with Susan Powell. Moreover, the government could only present 20 of the photographs the defendant had allegedly taken of the girls next door.

     On May 9, the girls Powell had allegedly photographed and videotaped in 2006 and 2007, now 13 and 15, took the stand for the prosecution. When asked why they had not kept the bathroom door closed, one of the witnesses said she felt safer with the door open, and had no idea anyone outside the house could see her. In the summer, because the home didn't have air conditioning, it got hot on the second floor. That explained why all of the upstairs windows had been open during the night. The family had moved to Puyalllup in 2006 from Arizona, and in 2008, left the neighborhood. The girls and their mother had no memory of Steven Powell, and were unable to identify him in the court room.

     Defense attorney Mark Quigley did not put any witnesses on the stand. His defense, which revealed itself through his cross-examination of prosecution witnesses, consisted of suggesting that someone else in the Powell house had spied on the girls. At the time, Steven Powell's two sons, and one of his daughters, lived with him.

     Attorney Quigley, in his closing argument to the jury, pointed out that the state, with no direct proof the defendant had photographed and videotaped the neighbor girls, had not carried its burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

     Prosecutor Grand Blinn, characterized the state's case as one involving "overwhelming circumstantial evidence." Blinn told the jury of six men and six women that the defendant had essentially confessed to being a voyeur. "It's difficult to imagine," he said, "anything more disturbing to teenage girls to know that a middle age man next door was taking pictures of them."

     On May 16, 2012, the jury, following just three hours of deliberation, found Steven Powell guilty of all 14 counts of voyeurism. They acquitted him of the possession of child pornography charges.

     The judge, on July 15, 2012, sentenced Steven Powell to 30 months in prison for the voyeurism offenses.

     On October 27, 2014, the prosecutor re-charged Powell on the pornography allegations. A judge later dismissed that case.

     The Washington State Court of Appeals, on March 13, 2016, set aside Powell's voyeurism conviction on procedural grounds related to the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

     As of February 2017, Susan Cox Powell's body had not been found.
       

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Angels of Death: Homicidal Poisoning


Murder by Poison

     Most people who die from poisoning do so accidentally. As a mode of criminal homicide, poisoning, compared to guns, knives, blunt objects, and ligatures, is rare. According to FBI statistics, out of the 187,000 criminal homicides committed from 1990 to 2000, only 346 involved poison. During the period 2001 to 2006 the figure rose to 523. But forensic toxicologists, the experts educated and trained to detect and identify substances harmful to the human body, believe that homicidal poisoning is more common than crime statistics suggest. For example, in 2002, 26,435 people died of poisoning. While only 63 of these deaths were ruled as murder, 3,336 were listed under manner of death as "undetermined." In other words, forensic pathologists considered these poisoning deaths as suspicious.

     Nobody knows how many people are being murdered by poison because most of these deaths are classified as naturally caused fatalities. In most of these cases, there are no outward signs of homicide. There are no bullet holes, stab wounds, cuts, bruises, or marks around the neck that signify that these deaths were not natural. In most instances, because these deaths are not outwardly suspicious, no autopsies are conducted. These victims are embalmed, buried, or cremated. End of story. Occasionally, suspicions may arise when, say, an estranged spouse receives a large life insurance payment, and a week later, remarries. Money and sex are common motives for murder, but motive is not evidence. The evidence of a homicidal poisoning is the poison. If the toxic substance is not detected and identified in the course of an autopsy, the killer will get away with murder. Exhumations are rare.

     Poisons are seldom detected where clinical (rather than criminal) autopsies are performed by regular hospital pathologists. This is because the pathologist is not thinking homicide, or looking for poison. Unless a specific poison is suspected, the chance of random discovery is unlikely. Arsenic, because it is readily available, tasteless, and can be administered in a series of small doses that causes a period of illness before death, is the weapon of choice among those who murder by poison. Within 24 hours of ingestion, arsenic moves from the blood into the victim's liver, kidneys, spleen, lungs and GI tract. In two to four weeks traces can be found in the victim's hair, nails, and skin. From there, traces of the poison settle in the bone. Thirty minutes after ingesting a small dose of arsenic, the victim will experience a metallic taste, garlic smelling breath, headaches, muscle cramping, vertigo, vomiting, abdominal pain, and diarrhea. If the victim doesn't die within a few hours from shock the poisoned person may die a few days later from kidney problems. If the victim survives two to four weeks, in addition to horrible suffering, he will start losing his hair. When death finally comes, the likely cause will be identified as renal failure. Other common poisons used in the commission of homicide include strychnine (rat poison), morphine, and Demerol. Antifreeze (ethyzene glycol) has become a relatively popular weapon in murder-by-poison cases.

Angel of Death Cases

     Deaths by homicidal poisonings that commonly do not raise suspicion, and are therefore misdiagnosed as natural fatalities, involve hospital patients who are elderly, or already ill. The death of an old or gravely ill patient, almost by definition, is a natural death. This is why physicians, nurses, and other healthcare workers who kill--so-called "angels of death"--have gotten away will murdering so many people.

     Normally, homicide by poison is not an impulsive crime. But in the hospital, or home for the elderly, it is a crime of opportunity. The angel of death has easy access to the poison and to the victim. There is no need for extensive preparation and planning. Moreover, there is no apparent or obvious motive for the homicide because these killers do not receive any direct personal gain out of the crime. The homicidal motives associated with angels of death are therefore pathological, and hidden. This type of serial killer is difficult to spot because angels of death are not manifestly insane. They possess personality disorders that compel them to murder out of generalized rage, boredom, or the impulse to play God.

     As murderers, angels of death are cold-blooded, careful, and vain. This makes them hard to catch. Quite often in their employment histories they have been terminated from previous healthcare jobs. When too many patients die on a nurse's or orderly's watch, and the employee comes under suspicion, he or she is fired. Healthcare workers suspected of murdering patients often quit, and get a similar job somewhere else. The tendency, among healthcare administrators, is to deny the obvious, and pass the problem on to the next employer. Over the years, dozens of angels of death have been caught but only after large numbers of patients have been murdered. Given the nature of the crime and the limited role forensic science plays in these cases, it is reasonable to assume that the small number of angel of death convictions represents the mere tip of a rather large homicidal iceberg.

Angel of Death Donald Harvey

     In 1975, after working briefly as a hospital orderly in London, Kentucky, 23-year-old Donald Harvey took a job with the Veteran's Hospital in Cincinnati, Ohio. As the years passed, a pattern emerged. When Harvey was on duty, patients died. Finally, after ten years, and the deaths of more than 100 patients on his watch, the orderly was fired. He was terminated because several hospital workers suspected he was poisoning his patients. After Harvey left the facility, the death rate plummeted. Terminating Donald Harvey turned out to be good medicine, at least at the VA hospital.

     Shortly after his firing, Harvey was hired across town at Drake Memorial Hospital where the death rate began to soar. As he had done at the VA facility, Harvey was murdering patients by either lacing their food with arsenic, or injecting cyanide into their gastric tubes. The deaths at Drake, like those at the VA hospital, were ruled as naturally caused fatalities. While suspicions were aroused it was hard to imagine that this friendly, helpful little man who was so charming and popular with members of his victims' families, could be a stone-cold serial killer.

     As clever and careful as Harvey was, he made a mistake when he poisoned John Powell, a patient recovering from a motorcycle accident. Under Ohio law, victims of fatal traffic accidents must be autopsied. At Powell's autopsy, an assistant detected the odor of almonds, the telltale sign of cyanide. This was fortunate because most people are unable to detect this scent. The forensic pathologist ordered toxicological tests that revealed that John Powell had died from a lethal dose of cyanide. Harvey had been the last person to see Mr. Powell alive, and John Powell would be the last person he would kill.

     The Cincinnati police arrested Harvey, and searched his apartment where they found jars filled with arsenic and cyanide, and books on poisoning. However, the Hamilton County prosecutor believed that without a confession, there might not be enough evidence to convince a jury of Harvey's guilt. The suspect, on the other hand, was worried that if convicted, he would be sentenced to death. So Harvey and the prosecutor struck a deal. In return for a life sentence, Donald Harvey would confess to all of the murders he could remember. Over a period of several days, he confessed to killing, in Kentucky and Ohio, 130 patients. When asked why he had killed all of those helpless victims, the best answer Harvey could muster was that he must have a "screw loose." Forensic pathologists familiar with the case speculated that the murders had given Harvey, an otherwise ordinary and insignificant person, a sense of power over the lives of others. Harvey pleaded guilty to several murders and was sentenced to life in prison.

     The old saying that "murder will out" does not always apply when the weapon of choice is poison.       

Friday, February 17, 2017

Dr. Jon Norberg's Nightmare: The False Rape Accusations of a Mentally Disturbed Wife

    Dr. Jon Norberg, an orthopedic surgeon in Fargo, North Dakota who specialized in hands, elbows, and upper extremities, was estranged from his wife Alonna, a former pediatrician who suffered from Sjogren's Syndrome, a rare immune system disorder. In 2011, the couple, in their early 40s, were in the midst of a contentious divorce and child custody battle. In June of that year, Dr. Alonna Norberg filed a complaint with the Fargo Police Department in which she accused her estranged husband of endangering her life by repeatedly, and without her consent, injecting her with the powerful anesthetic drug propofol. (This drug gained notoriety after Michael Jackson overdosed on it in 2009.) According to Alonna, Dr. Norberg had injected her with the drug thirty times between September 2010 and June 2011. The complainant also accused her husband of rape. She told detectives that on the morning of June 17, 2011, she awoke to discover physical evidence that her husband, while she was under the influence of the drug, had forced her to have oral sex. She found, on the nightstand next to the bed, a bottle of Diprivan (a propofol brand).

     On August 2, 2011, a prosecutor with the Cass County State Attorney's Office charged Dr. Jon Norberg with gross sexual imposition, a class AA felony that carried a maximum sentence of life. For injecting his wife with propofol, the surgeon was also charged with reckless endangerment, a class C felony that could put him in prison for up to five years. As a result of these criminal charges, Dr. Norberg took a leave of absence from his medical practice. (The State Board of Medical Examiners would later suspend his medical license indefinitely.) Following his arrest, arraignment, and release from custody on bail, Dr. Norberg pleaded not guilty to both charges.

     On November 7, 2012, Cass County prosecutor Reid Brady, in his opening remarks to the jury, said, "At the end of this case you will know that the defendant defied dangerous risks by unsafely using propopol on his wife. You will know that he obsessed with sex so much that he perpetrated sex acts on her when he knew she was unaware."

     Defense attorney Robert Hoy, in his opening address to the jury, said that Alonna Norberg had concocted the drug and rape allegations to get the upper hand in the couple's divorce and child custody battles. The defendant had injected his wife with the drug three times to alleviate her pain from Sjogren's Syndrome, and to help her sleep.

     Two days into the trial, Dr. Alonna Norberg took the stand as the prosecution's principal witness. For two days she gave, in a breathless manner, graphic and dramatic testimony of being constantly drugged, and on the one occasion, raped under its influence. "I remember," she said, "looking around thinking I've got to get up and I got to get away....It was just true true horror because I was choking and I couldn't get his mouth away, I couldn't get my body away."

     Following her testimony, Alonna Norberg walked out of the courtroom and did not return to the trial. On November 14, Robert Knorr, Alonna's father, took the stand and testified regarding an October 28, 2012 meeting he had with Dr. Norberg, at the defendant's request. At this meeting in a Fargo restaurant, Dr. Norberg suggested, for the benefit of all parties, that his estranged wife recant her accusations. According to this witness, the defendant had said, "She could either say that it was a dream, or that she was lying, or that she didn't remember." Mr. Knorr believed the defendant thought it would be in the best interest of the entire family if this matter did not go to trial. The witness said, "I told him there was no way that was going to happen." Following Robert Knorr's testimony, the state rested its case.

     Under defense attorney Robert Hoy's direct questioning, Dr. Harjinder Virdee, a Fargo psychiagtrist with 35 years experience, painted a psychiatric portrait of the defendant's accuser that undermined her credibility. Dr. Virdee had spent more than 100 hours reviewing Alonna Norberg's extensive medical history comprised of hundreds of documents. The psychiatrist had also conducted a five-hour interview with the former pediatrician. According to the witness, Alonna was a compulsive, nonstop talker who dominated the session.

     Regarding Alonna Norberg's accusations against her husband, it was Dr. Virdee's expert opinion that they were false. The accuser's description of what happened to her was simply too detailed and graphic to ring true. A person under the influence of the drug propofol could not recall what had happened to them is such detail.

     According to Alonna Norberg's medical file, she had been diagnosed with more than fifteen mental illnesses and disorders including obsessive-compulsive disorder; anxiety; histronic and narcissistic personality traits; depression; violent mood swings; and chemical dependency. At no time in the past decade had Alonna Norberg been taking fewer than twenty medications. Occasionally during this period she was ingesting more than fifty different drugs at one time. Many of these prescriptions involved opioid medication such as the addictive oxycodone. "She's got everything," Dr. Virdee said. "If you go through her medical notes there are umpteen diagnoses in the records. It jumps from one thing to another, one [doctor's] visit to the next. She is ill, she is psychiatrically ill."

     Based upon her review of Alonna Norberg's vast psychiatric history, Dr. Virdee added a new diagnosis. In Dr. Virdee's medical opinion, Alonna Norberg suffered from what the psychiatrist called fictitious disorder, a condition or personality trait in which people either fabricate symptoms or intentionally produce symptoms to gain attention and sympathy. (This sounds a lot like the Munchausen Syndrome Disorder.)

     On cross-examination, prosecutor Reid Brady pointed out that Dr. Virdee was the first doctor to diagnose Alonna Norberg with the syndrome called fictitious disorder. "I'm the only doctor," she replied, "that has reviewed all the records as well. It's hard to wonder how she became a physician if she can't tell the difference between all these drugs. Her credibility is very low."

     Kori Norborg, the defendant's sister-in-law, took the stand and testified that Alonna's accusations were motivated by her fear that because of her drug addiction, she would lose custody of the couple's two children.

     In his closing argument to the jury, defense attorney Hoy said, "There is not one shred of physical evidence to support their [the state's] case. Everything else...originates with Alonna Norberg. Desperate people do desperate things."

     On November 21, 2012, the day before Thanksgiving, the jury, after a quick deliberation, found Dr. Jon Norberg not guilty of both charges. Given the circumstances surrounding these accusations, the charges should never have been filed in the first place. This case, in my view, reflects a gross lack of prosecutorial discretion.

     In March 2013, a Fargo judge granted Norberg primary custody of his children. Five months later an official with the North Dakota Board of Medical Examiners reinstated Dr. Norborg's medical license. 

Thursday, February 16, 2017

The Gary Castonguay Case: Paroling a Cop Killer?

     In 1976, 32-year-old Gary Castonguay was convicted of shooting into the homes of two police officers in Bristol, Connecticut. The attacks took place at night when the officers were home with their families. Castonguay had told people that he wanted to kill cops.

     Instead of being locked up in prison for attempted murder, a judge found Castonguay legally insane and sent him to a psychiatric hospital for six months. Once released from the hospital he was free.

     In 1977, caught breaking into a home in Plainville, Connecticut, Castonguay fled from police officer Robert Holcomb. As Holcomb was about to catch and arrest him, the burglar turned and shot the 26-year-old officer. Castonguay, with the officer down, was free to escape. But instead of running off, he stood over the fallen officer and shot him three times in the chest, killing him on the spot.

     Following his conviction and life sentence for the cold-blooded killing of a police officer, Castonguay's attorney filed several appeals on his client's behalf. The appellate courts rejected all of the appeals. As a result, the conviction and the life sentence remained in effect.

     On January 9, 2015, members of the Connecticut Board of Pardons and Paroles, in a two to one vote, agreed to grant the 70-year-old cop killer a parole. The board members made this atrocious decision after Castonguay's self-serving testimony that he hadn't intended to kill officer Holcomb. In an effort to escape, he panicked, blacked out, and had no memory of the shooting.

     These ridiculous arguments hadn't worked at Castonguay's trial and had been rejected by all of the appellate courts. But decades later the cop killer was able to use these absurd justifications to convince two idiot parole board members to send him back into society.

     None of officer Holcomb's relatives had been notified of the Castonguay parole hearing. When the relatives learned of the granted parole they were understandably shocked and outraged. So were members of the general public who flooded the parole board with angry emails and letters.

     As a result of the public outcry over the parole board's ruling, the board agreed to hold another hearing to give the slain officer's relatives a chance to express their anger and disbelief that this cold-blooded cop killer had been granted parole.

     At the March 25, 2015 hearing, the same board members voted three to zero to rescind the cop killer's parole.

     This case begs the question: where do they find such sob-sister parole board members? I know it's the state of Connecticut, but still. If Castonguay had killed a police officer in Texas, Missouri, Florida, Ohio, or Oklahoma, he'd be dead by now and the dead officer's relatives would not have to worry about a couple of corrections idiots setting him free. 

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Shayna Hubers Murder Case

     In 2012, Ryan Poston, a 29-year-old lawyer from a family of prominent attorneys and corporate executives, resided in a condo in Highland Heights, Kentucky. He was involved in an on again-off again tumultuous relationship with a 21-year-old graduate student from Lexington, Kentucky named Shayna Hubers. A 2008 graduate of the prestigious School for the Arts, Hubers was pursuing a Master's Degree in counseling from Eastern Kentucky University.

     In 2011 and 2012, Poston and Hubers exchanged hundreds of text messages that revealed she was more attracted to him than he was to her. For months Poston had been trying to get himself out of the relationship. On October 11, 2012, Poston, his mother, his stepfather and Shayna Hubers had dinner at the young attorney's dwelling.

     After dinner that night, Hubers went home but returned a few hours later. Upon her uninvited return the couple argued. Things really heated up when he informed her that he wanted to end the relationship. The argument further intensified when he told her that he had a date the following Friday night with Miss Ohio.

     At 8:53 PM the next day, Shayna Hubers called 911 from Poston's condo and said this to the emergency dispatcher: "Ma'am, I have, I have, I killed my boyfriend in self defense."

     "What happened?" asked the dispatcher.

     "He beat me and tried to carry me out of the house and I came back in to get my things. He was right in front of me and reached down and grabbed the gun, and I grabbed it out of his hands and pulled the trigger."

     Responding police officers found Ryan Poston lying on his dining room floor next to his Sig Sauer .380-caliber pistol. He had been shot in the back once, twice in the head, and three times in the torso.

     A Campbell County prosecutor charged Shayna Hubers with first-degree murder, first-degree manslaughter, second-degree manslaughter, and reckless homicide. Officers booked the suspect into the county jail in Newport, Kentucky. At her arraignment hearing the judge denied her bail.

     The Shayna Hubers murder trial got underway on April 13, 2015 in Newport, Kentucky before Circuit Judge Fred A. Stine. Commonwealth Attorney Michelle Snodgrass, in her opening statement to the jury, accused the defendant of killing Mr. Poston in a fit of jealous rage. According to the prosecutor's version of the killing, the defendant's first shot knocked the victim down. While he lay wounded and helpless on his dining room floor, she pumped five more bullets into his body.

     Defense attorney Wil Zevely told the jurors that in an act of self defense, his client had shot her boyfriend six times before he fell to the floor and died.

     The lead detective in the case took the stand for the prosecution and testified that the death scene, the victim's dining room, showed no signs of a struggle. Several of Mr. Poston's condo neighbors testified they had not heard anything that night that suggested physical violence.

     A prosecution witness took the stand and said that the defendant had sent her a Facebook message regarding her plan to shoot Mr. Poston at a gun range and make the shooting look like an accident.

     The prosecutor played the defendant's recorded police interview in which she had said: "I shot him probably six times. I shot him in the head. He was lying like this. His glasses were still on. He was twitching. I shot him a couple more times just to make sure he was dead."

     After Commonwealth Attorney Michelle Snodgrass rested the prosecution's case, defense attorney Wil Zevely put Dr. Saeed Tortani, a toxicologist, on the stand. Dr. Tortani testified that at the time of his death, Ryan Poston was taking Xanax and Adderall, drugs linked to aggression and paranoia.

     On cross-examination, the prosecutor brought out the fact the victim had been taking this medicine under a doctor's care. The commonwealth attorney also got Dr. Tortani to reveal he was being paid $380 an hour by the defense.

     Shayna Hubers took the stand on her own behalf. By presenting herself as the victim of her boyfriend's verbal and physical abuse, she laid out a scenario consistent with self defense. Her witness box story, however, did not conform to her recorded statement to the police or her 911 call.

     On Friday April 24, 2015, the jury, after deliberating five hours, found the defendant guilty of first-degree murder. The jurors recommended that Judge Stine sentence Hubers to 40 years in prison.

     Four days after the guilty verdict, the convicted woman's attorney filed a claim for his client's early parole on grounds she had been the victim of domestic violence. Under the Kentucky statute that created this sentencing exception, Hubers' attorney would have to prove that at the time of the abuse she and the victim had been living together. If Judge Stine ruled in favor of Hubers on this sentencing issue, she could be released from prison in five years.

     On August 14, 2015, Judge Stine sentenced Hubers to the recommended 40 years in prison. Pursuant to his ruling, she had to serve at least 85 percent of the sentence. That meant she won't be eligible for parole for 34 years. At the sentencing hearing, a prosecution psychologist described Hubers as a narcissist.

     On August 26, 2016, Campbell County Circuit Judge Fred Stine announced his decision to overturn Shayna Hubers' murder conviction. The judge based this ruling on the fact that juror Dave Craig, before his jury service, had been convicted of a felony. Under Kentucky law, felons are prohibited from jury service. The local prosecutor said she would re-charge Hubers and bring her to trial for a second time. As of February 2017, no date had been set for the second trial. Until that time, Hubers remained in custody without bail. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The St. Valentine's Day Massacre in The History of Forensic Ballistics

     The February 14, 1929 mass murder of seven men in a Chicago bootlegger's garage, one of America's most atrocious crimes, became the centerpiece homicide case of the so-called lawless decade. The bloodbath capped ten years of wholesale murder in America's prohibition era. The mastermind behind the murders, Chicago gangster Al Capone, had gone too far. The St. Valentine's day massacre marked the beginning of the end of "Dr. Death's" murderous career. The mass murder also highlighted the emerging science of forensic firearms identification.

     For several years there had been bad blood between rival bootleggers George "Bugs" Moran and Al Capone. The feud reached its peak when Moran and his North Chicago Gang began hijacking shipments of whisky en route to Capone from Detroit. With his supply of illegal booze endangered, Capone decided to eliminate his competition.

     A Capone undercover operative working in the Moran camp arranged for a shipment of stolen Capone whisky to be delivered to Moran's north side warehouse. The load would arrive at the garage on February 14 at ten-thirty in the morning. Capone wanted to get Moran and his men together in one spot so they could be eliminated en masse. 

     On the morning of the big day, as Capone's men watched from a boarding room across the street, Johnny May, a $50-a-week mechanic, showed up for work. A few minutes later, Moran's accountant, Adam Heyer arrived at the garage. James Clark, Moran's brother-in-law, followed the ex-con accountant to the scene. Clark had served time for burglary and robbery, and had recently beaten a rap for murder. The next to arrive were the Gusenberg brothers, Pete and Frank. Both men possessed rap sheets featuring aggravated assault, theft, and burglary. The sixth man to walk into the death trap didn't belong to the Moran outfit. He was Dr. Reihardt H. Schwimmer, a local optometrist. Dr. Schwimmer, a gangster groupie, had stopped by the warehouse on his way to his office to say hello to his heroes. Albert R. Weinshank, a speakeasy owner, was the seventh man to arrive at the garage that fateful morning. Because Weinshank looked and dressed like Bugs Moran, Capone's lookouts across the street believed that the boss had taken the bait and had arrived at the warehouse. Shortly after Weinshank entered the garage, one of Capone's men ran to a phone to set the murder plan into action.

     Bugs Moran, Ted Newberry, and the third Gusenberg brother, Henry, were still on their way to the warehouse. As they approached their destination, they saw a black Packard pull up in front of the building. It looked like the kind of car used by Chicago police detectives. Five men climbed out of the Packard. Two of them were dressed in police uniforms while the other three wore civilian overcoats. Thinking that the warehouse was being raided by the Chicago police, Moran and his companions fled the scene.

     Capone's uniformed men walked through the front office into the warehouse area. With revolvers drawn, they ordered the seven men up against a yellow brick wall. After the phony cops disarmed the rival crew, two of the men in overcoats pulled Thompson sub-machine guns out from under their coats. The two gunmen opened fire, sweeping their tommy-guns back and forth three times across the backs of their collapsing victims. After the guns fell silent, one of the shooters noticed that one of the victims was still twitching. The gunman walked over to the dying man and blasted him in the face with a double-barreled shotgun.

     Following the massacre, the gunmen walked out of the warehouse with their hands in the air. Behind them walked the uniformed men with their guns drawn. The mass murder had taken less than eight minutes.

     The police officers and detectives who responded to the scene were greeted by a gruesome sight. Four of the victims had fallen backward from the wall and were staring up at the ceiling. Another was face down, stretched along the base of the wall. A sixth man was on his knees slumped forward against a wooden chair. From the bullet-pocked, blood-splattered wall, streams of blood snaked cross the cement floor from the row of bodies. One of the men, Frank Gusenberg, was still alive. Having been shot fourteen times, with seven bullets lodged in his body, he had managed to crawl about twenty feet from the wall. When asked by a police officer to identify the people who shot him, Gusenberg replied, "Nobody shot me." He died ninety minutes later without identifying or describing the gunmen.

     Before the bodies were moved to the morgue, Cook County Coroner Dr. Herman N. Bundeesen showed up at the warehouse to take charge of the crime scene investigation. He had dozens of photographs taken and ordered a careful collection of the empty shell casings, bullets, and bullet fragments. He ordered the firearms evidence placed into sealed envelopes. Bullets later dug out of the seven bodies were placed into envelopes that were each labeled with the name of the person who had been shot by the enclosed slugs.

     Dr. Bundesen established a coroner's jury made up of seven prominent citizens of Chicago who went to the warehouse shortly after the killings to view the scene firsthand. A few days later, the foreman of the jury, Bert A. Massee, called Dr. Calvin Goddard, the world's best known ballistics expert. Dr. Goddard, the former U. S. Army surgeon and ordinance authority who three years earlier,with two other firearms identification pioneers, had formed a private laboratory in New York City called the Bureau of Forensic Ballistics, traveled to Chicago to analyze the crime scene bullets and shell casings.

     When Dr. Goddard arrived in Chicago the following day, he encountered the largest collection of bullets and shell casings he had ever received in a single murder case. Crime scene investigators had recovered, from the warehouse floor, seventy .45-caliber cartridge shells. By examining these casings, Goddard determined that they had all been fired by an automatic weapon. Goddard knew there were only two automatic guns made in the United States that fired .45-caliber ammunition. One was the Colt 45 automatic pistol and the other the Thompson sub-machine gun, also manufactured by the Colt Company.

     By examining the marks made on the casings by the breech bolt, Goddard knew that all of the shells had been fired through a Thompson sub-machine gun. By differentiating two distinct sets of ejector marks on the cartridge cases, Goddard determined that two Thompsons had fired the seventy shells. Fifty cartridges had been fired through one Thompson, and twenty from the other. From this, Dr. Goddard concluded that one sub-machine gun had been loaded with a twenty-shot clip and the other with a fifty-shot drum.

     Crime scene investigators had picked up fourteen bullets from the garage floor. These projectiles had either missed or passed through their targets. All but two were deformed from impact. The rifling marks on the slugs (scratches made by the interior of the barrel) indicated they had been fired though a barrel with six grooves twisting to the right. This was characteristic of a Thompson sub-machine gun. The bullets all contained manufacturer's marks made by the U.S. Cartridge Company. Goddard learned that ammunition so marked had been produced during the period July 1927 to July 1928.

     Dr. Goddard also examined forty-seven bullet fragments that had been collected from the murder scene. Many of these pieces of lead were large enough to contain the imprints of the U.S. Cartridge Company. Most of the fragments showed rifling marks that bore groove characteristics of the Thompson type of rifling. Two empty twelve-gauge shotgun shells had also been recovered from the scene. The shotgun shells contained traces of smokeless powder and had been loaded with buck-shot. The firing pin impressions on the shotgun casings indicated that they had been fired from the same weapon.

     Thirty-nine bullets and bullet fragments had been removed from the bodies of the seven dead men. The body of Adam Heyer, the accountant, yielded fourteen. The bodies of James Clark and Frank Gusenberg produced seven each, and six had been extracted from Albert Weinshank. The remaining five slugs were shared by the other three victims. In addition to the bullets, seven buck-shot pellets had been removed from Dr. Schwimmer's head.

     The magnitude of the St. Valentine's Day mass murder put the Chicago Police Department under tremendous pressure. The fact that many citizens believed that police officers had been involved in the shootings created an additional incentive for detectives to identify the killers. Coroner Bundesen asked Dr. Goddard to test several shotguns and Thompson sub-machine guns owned by the Chicago Police Department to exclude them as potential murder weapons. Dr. Goddard concluded that none of these weapons had been used in the crime.

     After Dr. Goddard completed his initial firearms work, he returned to the Bureau of Forensic Ballistics in New York City. Over the next several months Corner Bundesen mailed Goddard dozens of Thompson sub-machine guns. None of them turned out to be weapons used in the massacre.

     The day after the killings, Bug Moran read in the newspaper that the police wanted to question him about the massacre. The gangster voluntarily showed up at Chicago Police headquarters. When investigators asked him about his theory of the murders, he stated, "Only Capone kills like that."

     While the mass murder was being investigated in Chicago, Al Capone was relaxing at his villa in Miami. The authorities in Florida had given him the perfect alibi. On the morning of February 14, 1929, Capone was in the office of the Dade County Solicitor being questioned about his criminal activies in the Miami area.

     The first arrest in the case came on February 27, 1929. The arrestee, Jack McGurn, a hoodlum with twenty-two murders under his belt, was Al Capone's favorite executioner. A witness who had passed by the warehouse on the fatal morning had heard one of the killers say, "Come on, Mac." The witness identified a photograph of McGurn as one of the St. Valentine's Day shooters. Following his arrest, McGurn immediately posted his $50,000 bail and was back on the street.

     On March 14, 1929, detectives announced that they had developed several other suspects in the mass murder case. They were Joseph Lolordo and James Ray. Lolordo had dropped out of sight and would remain at large. James Ray, a hood out of East St. Louis, Illinois, had vanished.

     The Chicago pollice also made some arrests in the case. Three of Capone's hired killers, John Scalise, Albert Anselmi, and Joseph Guinta were taken into custody. The authorities, due to lack of evidence, had to release Guinta shortly after his arrest. Scalise and Anselmi made bail and were also released. Scalise and Jack McGurn were later indicted on seven counts of murder. McGurn eventually beat the case on a technicality and all charges against him were permanently dropped.

     Al Capone returned to Chicago on May 7, 1929. On the evening of his arrival, Scalise, Guinta, and Anselmi were the guests of honor at a Capone-hosted dinner attended by a dozen or so of his gangster associates. After an elaborate meal, Capone walked up behind the three men and beat them to death with a baseball bat. Their bodies were found early the next morning in the back seat of a car that had been rolled into a ditch alongside a rural Indiana road. The triple murder, related to other Capone business, had nothing to do with the St. Valentine's Day killings.

     Ten months following the massacre in Bugs Moran's garage, when it seemed as though the investigation had died on the vine, the case came back to life. On December 14, 1929, when a police officer in St. Joseph Michigan was escorting two motorists involved in a traffic accident to the police station for questioning, one of the men, a bank robber and Capone associate named Fred Burke, pulled out a pistol and killed the officer. Burke escaped in a hijacked car. Not long after the shooting, in the abandoned get-a-way car, police officers found documents that led them to Fred Burke's wife who lived with him in St. Joseph, Michigan. Burke, an early suspect in the St. Valentine's Day case, wasn't at home. But a search of the dwelling revealed an arsenal that included two Thompson sub-machine guns. The police seized the weapons along with ammunition clips and drums.

     Five days after the seizure at the Burke house, the district attorney in St. Joseph, Michigan delivered the weapons and ammunition to Dr. Calvin Goddard in New York. Goddard test-fired twenty-five bullets through one gun and fifteen through the other. When he compared these bullets and their shell casings with those found at the St. Valentine's Day murder scene, he was certain that the tommy guns found in Fred Burke's home had been the weapons used in the Chicago slaughter.

     On December 23, 1929, Dr. Goddard presented  his firearms identification evidence to the Cook County Coroner's Jury. As a result of his testimony and exhibits, the jurors recommended that Fred Burke be apprehended and held for the Cook County Grand Jury on seven counts of murder.

     Police officers in Michigan captured Burke the following April. Because he was being held for the murder of the police officer, the authorities in Michigan refused to surrender him to Illinois. Instead, Fred Burke was tried in Michigan for the murder of the police officer. Following the guilty verdict, the judge sentenced him to life. He later died in the Michigan State Penitentiary.

     As for Al Capone, his criminal career was coming to an end. In October 1931, he was convicted of tax evasion and sentenced to eleven years at the federal prison in Atlanta. Suffering from syphilis, Capone was released in 1939. He died eight year later. Jack McGurn, the suspected brains behind the massacre, was machined-gunned to death by other gangsters in 1936. He died on a Chicago street with fourteen bullets in his body. Bugs Moran, a few years after the mass murder in his warehouse, was convicted of bank robbery. He died in 1957 while serving his time at the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas.

     The St. Valentine's Day Massacre and the firearms identification work performed by Dr. Calvin Goddard led to the formation of the Scientific Crime Detection Laboratory funded by Northwestern University. Dr. Goddard became the head of the laboratory which specialized in firearms identification, polygraph research, and forensic document examination. In 1938, the Chicago Police Department purchased the lab for $25,000.

     

Monday, February 13, 2017

Jacob Limberio's Death: A Bungled Investigation

     Deputies with the Sandusky County Sheriff's Office, in response to a shooting call, arrived at a house near Castalia, Ohio at nine-forty-five on the night of March 2, 2012. Officers with this northern Ohio sheriff's department found 19-year-old Jacob Limberio lying in a pool of blood on the living room floor. According to the three young men in the house with the body, Limberio had been dead about fifteen minutes.

     A superficial examination of the corpse revealed an entrance bullet wound on the left side of Limberio's head, and on the opposite side of his skull, the gaping exit wound made by the slug and pieces of the victim's skull. Lying not far from his feet, the officers found a .367-Magnum revolver, the presumed source of the fatal head wounds. On the living room floor deputies discovered several spent shell casings (in a revolver, the shell casings are not automatically ejected which means these casings had been manually removed from the gun). The death scene was also littered with empty beer bottles.

     According to the three witnesses, they had each fired the .357-Magnum that night in the backyard. After firing the revolver, they returned to the house where, at nine-thirty, Limberio, while talking to someone on his cellphone, pressed the gun's muzzle to his left temple and pulled the trigger. (Since he was right-handed, that would have been awkward.)

     The Sandusky County deputies left the shooting site that night without making measurements and sketches of the death scene. The officers also failed to recover the presumed fatal bullet lodged in the ceiling, or test the three witnesses for the presence of gunshot residue. The .357-Magnum was not processed for latent fingerprints, no one was asked to take a polygraph test, and the slug in the ceiling was not matched with bullets test-fired from the death scene revolver. In other words, there was no investigation into this young man's sudden, violent death.

     Just three hours after the fatal shooting, Sandusky County coroner Dr. John Wukie, without the benefit of an autopsy, wrote the following in his report: "Reason for death: Gunshot wound to head. Deceased shot self in head, may not have realized gun was loaded." Dr. Wukie ruled Jacob Limberio's death a suicide. (If Limberio didn't know the gun was loaded, the manner of his death would have been accidental.)

     In the early morning hours of March 3, 2012, Limberio's body was released to a local funeral home where the next day it was embalmed.

     That summer, Sandusky County detective William Kaiser, in his report closing the Limberio "investigation," wrote that he had found nothing in the case to indicate that this young man's death was nothing more than a "horrible accident." This deputy's conclusion did not square with the coroner's ruling that the death was a suicide. At this point it had become obvious that these law enforcement officials didn't know what they were doing.

     On September 25, 2012, Jacob's parents, Mike and Shannon Limberio, paid to have their son's body exhumed and sent to the renowned forensic pathologist in Pittsburgh, Dr. Cyril Wecht. The former medical examiner of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, over his long career, had performed 17,000 autopsies and testified in hundreds of high-profile murder cases.

     Dr. Wecht's autopsy led him to conclude that Jacob Limberio had been shot from two feet away. In his December 12, 2012 report, Dr. Wecht wrote: "I find it extremely difficult to envision a scenario in which Jacob Limberio could have shot himself accidentally or with suicidal intent. Accordingly, it is my professional opinion, based upon a reasonable degree of medical certainty, that the manner of death in this case should be considered as homicide."

     In January 2013, a Sandusky County judge appointed Lucas County prosecutor Dean Henry to head up a new inquiry into Jacob Limberio's death. No arrests have been made, and Dr. John Wukie has not changed his manner of death ruling from suicide to homicide.

     In speaking to a local newspaper reporter in October 2012 about Limberio's death, Dr. Wecht said, "Even in the most remote county in America, this is a case that would require an autopsy. It's a no-brainer, not even a close call. It's a case that requires extensive investigation by homicide detectives. It requires the collection of all evidence, including the bullet that's still lodged in the ceiling."

     In July, 2013, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine took control of the criminal investigation into Limberiso's sudden and violent death.

     In August 2015, Jacob's parents, Mike and Shannon Limberio, appeared on the "Dr. Phil" television show along with Dr. Wecht who opined that the young man's death had been a criminal homicide. The show also featured two of the witnesses to the shooting who said they had grown tired of being considered, by many, as homicide suspects. As a result, they wanted to take polygraph tests to clear their names.

     On November 20, 2015, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine announced that a Sandusky County grand jury had concluded that the Limberio shooting had been an accident. This finding closed the case as a criminal matter. 

Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Suspicious Deaths of Max Shacknai and Rebecca Zahau

     Rebecca Zahau was born on March 15, 1979 in the town of Falam in northwestern Burma. Her family moved to Nepal and then to Germany before coming to the United States in 2000. The family settled in Saint Joseph, Missouri.

     In 2008, Zahau was living in Scottsdale, Arizona and married to a man named Neil Nalepa. At this time, she started dating 50-year-old Jonah Shacknai, the CEO and founder of Medicis Pharmaceutical Company. The single mogul with a pair of former wives, lived in Scottsdale. In 2011, Shacknai moved into an historic mansion in Coronado, California that had been built in 1908 by John D. Spreckel. Mr. Spreckel had owned the nearby Hotel del Coronado as well as other southern California real estate.  The 13,000 square-foot dwelling featured 27 rooms and a guest house.

     In February 2011, Rebecca divorced Neil Nalepa and moved into the San Diego County mansion with Jonah Shacknai and his 6-year-old son from his second wife. The 32-year-old live-in girlfriend worked as a technician in an ophthalmologist's office.

     On July 11, 2011, Rebecca Zahau and her visiting 13-year-old sister Xena were in the Coronado mansion looking after 6-year-old Max Aaron Shacknai. That morning, Rebecca called 911 to report an accident. Max, while running down an elevated hallway or balcony above the lobby-like entrance to the house, had gone over the banister.  Next to his body lay the large chandelier that had hung from the ceiling not far from where the boy had fallen. Investigators with the Coronado Police Department assumed the boy had grabbed the chandelier to break his fall. He suffered spinal cord injuries and serious head trauma and had slipped into a coma.

     The next day, Rebecca Zahau drove Xena to the airport for her flight back to Saint Joseph, Missouri. She also picked-up Jonah's brother Adam who had arrived on a flight from Memphis. That evening, Zahau, Adam, Jonah, and a friend of his ate dinner at a McDonald's. Adam and Rebecca returned to the mansion while Jonah and Max's mother, Dina Shacknai (nee Romano), sat at their son's bedside. Later that night, Jonah called Rebecca to report that Max wasn't going to make it. They were taking the boy off life-support.

     The next day, July 13, 2011 at 6:45 in the morning, Adam Shacknai called 911 and reported that he had discovered Rebecca Zahau hanging by the neck from the balcony. She was nude. Acting on instructions from the 911 dispatcher, Adam cut down the body.

     Deputies from the San Diego Sheriff's Office found the dead woman lying on the back lawn of the mansion. She was gagged with a blue, long-sleeve cotton T-shirt that was also wrapped around her neck with the sleeves tied into a double knot. Her hands were bound behind her back with a length of red rope. Her ankles were also tied together with a piece of the red cordage. On a bedroom door not far from where Adam Shacknai found Rebecca hanging, someone in cursive writing using black paint had written: "She saved him you can save her."

     Dr. Jonathan Lucas, the San Diego County Medical Examiner, performed the autopsy. He found four hemorrhages under Zahau's scalp (but no lacerations), and evidence of tape residue on her legs. The forensic pathologist found traces of blood on her legs as well.

     On July 16, 2011, Max Shacknai died. Ten days later, Dr. Lucas announced that the boy had died from brain swelling and cardiac arrest. The medical examiner determined the manner of death to be accidental. Dr. Lucas's ruling in the death was immediately questioned by a trauma physician who had treated Max. In this doctor's opinion, someone had tried to suffocate the child before throwing him off the balcony. In other words, he had been murdered.

     As soon as news of Zahau's bizarre death came out, people began speculating about whether or not a murderer had staged a suicide. Commentators were saying that no woman had ever taken off her clothes, gagged herself, bound her hands and ankles, then hanged herself. Late in July, 2011, San Diego Sheriff's Office Sergeant Roy Frank said this to a reporter: "There are documentations of incidents throughout the country where people have secured their feet and hands to commit suicide. They do it to make certain they can't escape if they change their minds."

     On September 2, 2011, San Diego Sheriff Bill Gore, amid rampent speculation of foul play, announced that Rebecca Zahau's death was a suicide. Distraught over Max Shacknai's accident on her watch, she had hanged herself. The sheriff's office had therefore closed the case.

     Four days after Sheriff Gore's press conference, Dr. Jonathan Lucas, in response to a massive wave of skepticism regarding his manner of death ruling, issued the following statement regarding the hemorrhages under Zahau's scalp: "Because there was evidence that she went over the balcony in a non-vertical way (She dove over the railing?), she may have struck her head on the balcony on the way down." In addressing the blood on Zahau's legs, the forensic pathologist identified the cause as either a menstrual period, or an intrauterine device. The medical examiner offered no explanation for the presence of the tape residue.

     The next day, September 7, 2011, Dr. Maurice Godwin, a private forensic consultant from Fayetteville, North Carolina with a Ph.D in criminal psychology, told a reporter that Zahau's death had all the earmarks of a "ritualistic killing," and that the suicide had been staged. In Dr. Godwin's opinion, someone had dazed Zahau with a blow to the head, then tossed her off the balcony.

     In the same newspaper article, Dr. Lawrence Kobilnsky, a DNA expert who taught at City University of New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice, opined that the medical examiner's suicide manner of death determination was "premature." Dr. Kobilnsky said he believed that someone had delivered a substantial blow to Zahau's head. The forensic scientist said, "The chances of bumping into the railing, going over the balcony and hitting your head four times is highly unlikely."

     Dr. Werner Spitz, a highly respected forensic pathologist, in the same piece, said he thought the San Diego medical examiner's manner of death ruling in the case made sense.

     In the summer of 2011, Rebecca Zahau's family hired a lawyer from Seattle named Anne Bremner to represent their interests in the case and to pressure the San Diego Sheriff's Office to re-open the investigation of Zahau's death. According to one of Zahau's sisters, a nurse practitioner who had spoken to her almost every day, Rebecca had no psychiatric history, and had never attempted suicide. Attorney Bremner, pursuant to the family's quest to have the case re-investigated, asked the San Diego County District Attorney and the state Attorney General to get involved. The district attorney's office and the attorney general, declined.

     On November 15, 2011, Dr. Cyril Wecht, the celebrity forensic pathologist from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, appeared on the "Dr. Phil" television show to voice his professional opinion regarding the cause and manner of Rebecca Zahau's strange and sudden death. Dr. Wecht, at the behest of attorney Anne Bremner, had performed a second autopsy of the victim's exhumed body. While he found Dr. Lucas' initial autopsy thorough, Dr. Wecht questioned the medical examiner's suicide manner of death determination. Wecht said the four hemorrhages beneath the scalp could not have been caused by hanging. "You have to have blunt force trauma for that," he said. "You have something of a rounded, smooth surface that impacts against the scalp, this not producing a laceration." According to Dr. Wecht, Zahau could have been knocked unconscious, which would explain why her body did not have any defense wounds from a struggle. The former coroner of Allegheny County agreed that the woman had died from hanging, but believed her manner of death should be changed from "suicidal" to "undetermined."

     Dina Shacknai, Max Shacknai's mother, in order to acquire the boy's autopsy photographs, filed a suit against the San Diego Medical Examiner's Office on April 12, 2012. Dina and her supporters were looking for proof that someone had murdered the 6-year-old boy. They did not believe the wounds on his head had been caused by the fall. (It's not clear if they suspected Rebecca or her sister Xena, or what motive they assigned to the homicide.)

     On July 16, 2012, the one-year anniversary of Max Shacknai's death, Dina Shacknai and her attorney, Angela Hallier, held a press conference in Phoenix. According to the lawyer, the family possessed information from "privately retained experts" that proved the 6-year-old had been murdered at the Coronado mansion.

     On August 6, 2012, a spokesperson for the Coronado Police Department confirmed they had met with Dina Shacknai and her attorney regarding Max Shacknai's death. Police investigators agreed to read the report containing the opinions of forensic scientists who believed the boy could have been murdered. One of those experts, Dr. Judy Melinek, a forensic pathologist with the San Francisco Medical Examiner's Office, reportedly believed that Max was too small to have gone over the balcony railing. Moreover, she believed his head injuries were not consistent with a fall.

     So, what happened to Max Shacknai and Rebecca Zahau? Within a period of two days, they both went over different balconies in the same house. What were the odds of that? If Rebecca had killed herself over the boy's fall, why did she do it in such a bizarre and suspicious way? And what was the meaning of the message painted on the bedroom door? And who wrote it?

     Assuming that Max had been thrown off the balcony to his eventual death, who did it, and why? If Rebecca had been murdered, was it in revenge for the boy's homicide? And finally, will these questions ever be answered?

     On September 10, 2012, a spokesperson for the Coronado police announced there would be no reinvestigation of 6-year-old Max Shacknai's death. Investigators believed that the boy tripped while running, grabbed a chandelier, hit his back on the banister, and fell to his death.

     In July 2013, Rebecca Zahau's family, believing that her death was the result of criminal wrongdoing, filed a $10 million wrongful death lawsuit against Adam Schackai and Dina Shackai. The plaintiffs alleged that the defendants battered Rebecca then hanged her from the mansion's balcony.

     On March 11, 2016, following a flurry of defense motions in response to the plaintiffs' suit, a San Diego Superior Court judge ruled there was sufficient evidence for the case to proceed to trial. As of February 2017, the civil action remained untried and unresolved. 

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Dr. George Kenney: The Case of the Hypnotizing School Principal

     In 2001, Dr. George Kenney became the principal of North Port High School in North Port, Florida. In 2006, in an effort to help students deal with anxiety and other emotional problems, he learned how to hypnotize people at the Omni Hypnosis Training Center in DeLand, Florida. Although in Florida it is a crime to practice therapeutic hypnosis without a medical-related license, Dr. Kenney hypnotized dozens of students.

     In 2009, a Sarasota County School District supervisor told the principal to limit student hypnosis to psychology class. Dr. Kenney did not obey this directive, noting that all of his hypnotic sessions were done with parental consent.

     In February 2011, the principal hypnotized a 17-year-old senior named Brittany Palumbo. The girl had sought his advice on how, in anticipation of getting into a good college, she could do better on tests. Dr. Kenney used hypnosis to reduce this student's anxiety over taking exams.

     Shortly after hypnotizing Brittany Palumbo, Dr. Kenney taught the school's star quarterback, 16-year-old Marcus Freeman, how to hypnotize himself to improve his on-field concentration.

     On March 15, 2011, while reportedly hypnotizing himself while behind the wheel of a car, Marcus Freeman drove off the road. He died in the crash. (Since he died in the accident, I'm not sure how anyone knew he was under self-hypnosis while driving.)

     In April 2011, Dr. Kenney, notwithstanding Marcus Freeman's fatal accident, hypnotized 16-year-old Wesley McKinley. The next day the boy committed suicide.

     Brittany Palumbo, on May 4, 2011, took her own life. Dr. Kenney had hypnotized her the past February to help her with her test taking anxiety.

     Following Brittany Palumbo's death, the Sarasota County school superintendent placed the North Port High School principal on paid administrative leave pending the results of investigations by the school district and the local police.

     While initially denying that he had hypnotized Marcus Freeman and Brittany Palumbo, Dr. Kenney admitted putting both students under. Investigators determined that since 2006, the principal had hypnotized 75 students and members of the high school staff. He had hypnotized one basketball player 30 to 40 times to help the boy concentrate better on the basketball court.

     On June 12, 2012, a Sarasota County prosecutor charged Dr. Kenney with the misdemeanor offense of practicing therapeutic hypnosis without a license. Shortly after being charged, Dr. Kenney resigned from North Port High School.

     Later in 2012, the former principal pleaded no contest to the misdemeanor offense. Pursuant to the plea deal, the judge sentenced Dr. Kenney to one-year probation.

     About the time of his guilty plea, families of the three students brought a civil suit against the Sarasota County School District. The plaintiffs were prohibited under Florida law from suing Dr. Kenney personally.

     In 2013, under pressure from the Florida Department of Education, Dr. Kenney gave up his state teaching license. He was also banned from reapplying for another license to teach in Florida.

     As the date of the civil trial approached, the plaintiffs and the school district agreed to a $600,000 court settlement split three ways. On October 6, 2015, the civil suit settlement became official.

     Had the lawsuit gone to trial, the plaintiffs would have had the burden of proving, by a preponderance of the evidence, a direct causal link between George Kenney's  hypnosis and the deaths of the students.

     

Friday, February 10, 2017

The Steven Capobianco Murder Case

     On Sunday night, February 9, 2014, 27-year-old Carly Scott, a resident of Makawao on the Hawaiian island of Maui, received a call from Steven Capobianco. Scott's 24-year-old ex-boyfriend and father of her unborn child said his truck was stuck in a ditch off the Hana Highway near mile marker 30 in the Keanae area.

     Carly left her house that night with her bit bull mix Nala in her 1997 Silver Toyota 4Runner. On Monday morning, when Carly didn't show up for work, her mother reported her missing to the Maui police. That day, friends and family of the missing 5-foot-10, 160 pound woman with shoulder-length red hair, drove up and down the Hana Highway looking for her. They were concerned she might have driven off a cliff.

     That morning, February 10, 2014, one of Carly's sisters, Kimberly Scott, spoke to Steven Capobianco who said that after Carly had pulled him out of the ditch, the two of them proceeded on the highway with her following behind his truck. At some point he didn't see her headlights anymore.

     At six in the evening of Wednesday, February 12, 2014, Carly's friends came across the missing woman's SUV in Haiku, Maui. The vehicle, completely gutted by fire, had been rolled over onto its side. The burned-out Toyota was lying in a pineapple field off Peahi Road that led to a popular surfing spot known as "Jaws." Carly was not in the vehicle. (Her dog Nala had turned up two days earlier in Nahiku.)

     The day after friends found Carly's torched 4Runner in the pineapple field, Mileka Lincoln, a reporter with Hawaii News, interviewed Steven Capobianco. The ex-boyfriend confirmed that on Sunday, the night Carly went missing, she picked him up and drove him to Keanae so he could repair his truck and get it out of the ditch. Later, the two of them headed toward Haiku 25 miles up the road. She followed behind, and when he reached Twin Falls, he looked in his rearview mirror and didn't see her headlights. Capobianco drove home and assumed that Carly had made it back safety to her house.

     "I sent her a text that said, 'Thank you,' but I figured she was working. That's why she didn't get back to me right away." [Apparently Carly had a late night job.]

     According to Capobianco, "It wasn't until the cops showed up at my house at 5:30 in the morning the next day [Monday February 10] that I realized something was wrong." Capobianco told the reporter that Maui police questioned him at the police station where he took a polygraph exam. When he asked how he had done on the lie test, a detective informed him that according to the instrument, he had not told the truth.

     To the reporter, Capobianco insisted that he "absolutely" had not hurt his ex-girlfriend. "I mean," he said, "it's understandable that I'm probably the prime suspect, so they're [the police] not going to tell me details (of the case)." (Capobianco did not specify what he thought he was the prime suspect of--murder? If so, did he know something no one else knew?)

     The missing woman's ex-boyfriend said they broke up several years ago but had remained friends. He said that they "occasionally hooked-up."

     "Were you excited about being a dad?" asked the reporter.

     "Sort of. It was unexpected. She didn't tell me right away, but it was growing on me." At one point, Capobianco indicated that he didn't know for sure if he was the father of Scott's unborn child.

     On Thursday night, February 13, 2014, 16-year-old Phaedra Wais, the missing woman's half-sister, found a skirt, shirt, and bloodstained bra in a remote area off the Hana Highway. When Wais reported the find to the police, an officer told her not to disturb the evidence and wait for a detective. The girl ignored this advice and drove the garments to the police station in Kahuiui. Later, police officers found a jawbone, fingertips, and hair follicles near this site.

     In an unrelated matter, Maui police, in April 2014, arrested Capobianco on the charge of first-degree burglary. The judge set his bail at $10,000. Capobianco stood accused of breaking into a Haiku woman's apartment in September 2013 and stealing two computers and her jewelry. Police recovered the stolen property in a search of the suspect's house.

     The garments found by Phaedra Wais belonged to her missing half-sister. A forensic scientist ended hope that Scott was alive by identifying the jawbone, fingertips and hair as belonging to her. This meant the missing person case had turned into a homicide investigation.

     On July 18, 2014, a grand jury sitting in Maui indicted Steven Capobianco of murder and arson. According to the language of the true bill, the suspect had "intentionally or knowingly caused Carly Scott's death in an especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel manner that manifested exceptional depravity."

     Capobianco pleaded not guilty to the murder and arson charges.

     On December 28, 2016, a jury in Maui found Steven Capobianco guilty of second-degree murder and arson. Because the jurors labeled the killing "heinous," Capobianco was eligible for life in prison without parole. The judge was scheduled to hand down the sentence on March 24, 2017.