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Friday, September 30, 2016

The Tyler Hadley Murder Case

     In 2011, 17-year-old Tyler Hadley, a sullen, introverted, bizarre-acting kid who avoided eye contact with people, lived with his parents in Port St. Lucie, a sprawling suburban community 40 miles north of West Palm Beach, Florida. His parents, Blake and Mary Jo Hadley, had moved to Port St. Lucie from Fort Lauderdale in 1987 to be closer to Blake's parents who lived in the neighboring town of Stuart.

     Mr. Hadley worked for the St. Lucie Nuclear Power Plant as a watch engineer. Mary Jo, who suffered bouts of depression, was an elementary school teacher. Tyler's older brother Ryan attended college in North Carolina.

     As a child, Tyler, a polite well-behaved kid, was close to his parents. He tossed football with his father and enjoyed being with his family in their backyard swimming pool. But by the time he entered Port St. Lucie High School, Tyler had become an eccentric, hyper kid who seemed to be looking for trouble.

     In 2010, Tyler pleaded guilty to burglary. He also, that year, set a fire in a nearby park. In April 2011 the authorities charged Tyler with aggravated battery after he attacked one of his friends. In June of that year he got drunk and urinated on another friend's bed. When daily counseling sessions didn't work, his mother committed him to a mental health clinic.

     On July 16, 2011, Tyler made it known he was throwing a big party at his house that night. He said his parents were out of town and that he had the place to himself. By midnight, a hundred kids, most of whom didn't know the host, were in the Hadley house drinking, making out, and smoking pot.

     The partygoers put out their cigarettes on the carpets and walls and littered the place with empty beer bottles and cans. They completely vandalized the dwelling.

     As a friend of Tyler's was about to leave the party, Tyler pulled him aside and said, "Dude, I did something. I might go to prison. I might go away for life. I don't know, dude, I'm freaking out. I know you're not going to believe me, no one will believe me. I freaking killed somebody."

     The friend didn't want to hear this. "Don't be telling me that sort of thing," he said. "I don't need to know." With that the intoxicated friend stumbled out of the house and drove away.

     To another partygoer Tyler said, "I'm going to kill myself."

     "Why would you do that," the friend asked.

     "Cause I did something really bad. If I get caught, I'll be in jail for a long time."

     At one o'clock that morning, Tyler spoke to his longtime friend, Michael Mandell. "I killed my parents," he said.

     "Yeah, right," replied Mandell.

     "I'm being real. I'm not lying to you. If you look closely enough, you will see signs." Tyler and his friend walked out of the house toward the garage where, in the parking lot, Mandell saw the cars that belonged to Mr. and Mrs. Hadley. When Tyler turned on the lights inside the garage, his friend noticed a bloody shoe print.

     Back in the house, with the party still raging, Tyler took Mandell to the master bedroom. The door was closed and there were streaks of dried blood on its exterior surface. Inside the room, Michael Mandell saw a leg sticking out from beneath a pile of chairs, dishes, pillowcases, books, a coffee table, and blood-soaked towels. Michael backed out of the room and Tyler closed the door.

     Tyler's best friend listened intently as Tyler described how, earlier in the day, he had murdered his parents. Just before five o'clock that afternoon, in anticipation of the murders, he hid his parents' cell phones. He swallowed three Ecstasy pills, and with a claw hammer from the garage, bashed his mother's head in as she sat at the family computer. When his father responded to his wife's screams, Tyler attacked him with the hammer. Mr. Hadley died on the spot.

     After hammering his parents to death for no reason, Tyler wrapped their heads in towels and dragged them into the master bedroom. He next spent hours trying to clean up the gore using Clorox wipes and a sponge mop.

      Michael Mandell, after hearing his friend's detailed account of how he had murdered his parents eight hours earlier, stuck around and partied for another 45 minutes during which time he posed for selfies with his murderous buddy.

     At two in the morning, some kid announced that there was another house party in town. Shortly thereafter, fifteen cars filled with drunk and stoned kids departed the Hadley house. The stampede caused such a commotion a next door neighbor called the police.

     When the two Port St. Lucie police officers knocked on the Hadley front door there were still twenty kids partying in the dwelling. Tyler answered the door and promised to keep the noise down. The officers left.

     At four in the morning the party was still going strong. Kids were starting to notice, however, that their host was acting strange. Someone partygoer notified Michael Mandell of his friend's behavior that caused him to call the Crimestoppers hotline. Mandell's description of what he had seen and heard from Tyler hours earlier brought the police back to the Hadley house.

     Just before dawn, police officers called Tyler out of the house and placed him under arrest. They discovered, in the master bedroom, the bodies of his parents. A local prosecutor charged Tyler with two counts of first-degree murder. The judge denied the murder suspect bail. At the St. Lucie County Jail, Tyler became an immediate celebrity inmate.

     On February 19, 2014, less than a month before his double murder trial was to begin, Tyler Hadley pleaded no contest to murdering his parents.

     Hadley's public defender attorney, at the sentencing hearing on March 20, 2014, asked Judge Robert R. Makemon to sentence his client to two concurrent 30-year sentences with a case review after 20 years. The judge, however, sentenced Hadley to two life sentences without the possibility of parole. 

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Katie Stockton's Secret Births and Three Dead Babies

     In 2004, 24-year-old Katie Stockton and her 4-year-old son lived with her parents in a rural home near Rockton, Illinois in the northern part of the state. After becoming pregnant in March of that year, Stockton continued using cocaine, and kept her pregnancy secret. On December 17, 2004, under clandestine circumstances, Stockton gave birth to a living baby.

     Because she didn't want anyone to know about the baby's existence, Stockton stuffed the breathing infant, the placenta, and her bloody garments into an orange shopping sack that she placed into a white, plastic trash bag. Knowing the consequences of her act, the new mother dumped the trash bag and the baby alongside a road 100 feet from her parent's house.

     Days later, the baby was found dead from either exposure or suffocation. A forensic toxicologist determined that the infant--referred to as Baby Crystal--had been infected with hepatitis. The baby also had traces of cocaine in her system.

     Detectives questioned Katie Stockton about the murdered infant. She denied having given birth to the baby. She also refused to provide the authorities with a sample of her DNA. Without enough evidence to support a court order requiring Stockton to supply the DNA evidence, the case fizzled-out.

     Four years later, Baby Crystal's murder was under investigation by a team of cold-case homicide detectives who considered Stockton the prime suspect. An officer who had the suspect under surveillance recovered a cigarette butt she had discarded. The DNA on the cigarette butt matched the bloody clothing found inside the trash bag with the dead baby.

     Detectives, in August 2009, arrested Stockton on the charge of first-degree murder. Notwithstanding the DNA results, she denied being Baby Crystal's mother. Shortly after the arrest, investigators located Stockton's blue Saturn that had been parked for years in an impound lot. Police officers searched the car, and in the trunk, found the skeletal remains of two other infants. The babies had been stuffed into a pair of bags hidden beneath the spare tire.

     Stockton was not charged with the murders of the two infants in the car because forensic pathologists couldn't establish if the babies had been born alive. Later DNA analysis revealed that the infants in Stockton's vehicle were Baby Crystal's sisters. The three dead babies had been fathered by three different men.

     In February 2013, Stockton, facing life in prison (Illinois abolished its death penalty), pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in hopes the judge would show her mercy. At her April 5, 2013 sentencing hearing before Winnebago County Judge John Truitt, public defender David Doll asked that Stockton be given a prison term of 25 years. The defense attorney described his client as a good person who struggled with drug addiction.

     The defendant, in speaking directly to Judge Truitt, said, "I was in a very dark place for many years. I apologize to those I hurt and ask forgiveness. I'm truly sorry for the pain and hurt they have endured."

     Judge Truitt, apparently unmoved by the murder defendant's apology, sentenced the 32-year-old woman to 50 years behind bars. Without the possibility of parole, Stockton will probably spend the rest of her life in prison. 

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Mary Whitaker Murder Case

     In the summer months for the past 35 years, 61-year-old Mary Whitaker played violin for the Chautauqua Institution Symphony Orchestra in western New York not far from the Pennsylvania line. She lived in a one-story home outside of Westfield, New York. During the rest of the year the New York City resident played for the Westchester Philharmonic.

     On Tuesday night, August 19, 2014, someone drove 43-year-old Jonathan Conklin and Charles Sanford, 30, from Erie, Pennsylvania to Westfield, New York. Both men, with long histories of crime, had met a few months earlier at an Erie homeless shelter. After their driver dropped them off, Conklin broke into an apartment near a bar and stole several guns that included a .22-caliber rifle.

     From the site of the burglary, the two criminals walked to Mary Whitaker's rural home on Titus Road. With Conklin hiding nearby, Sanford rapped on her door. When she responded to his knock, he said he had run out of gas and needed to use her phone. After she handed him her cellphone, Conklin came out of hiding with the rifle in hand and said, "This is a robbery." A moment later, Conklin shot Whitaker in the chest. She screamed and grabbed the gun that went off again in the struggle. The second bullet entered her leg.

     Following the shooting, the robbers dragged the bleeding woman into her garage where they left her  dying while they ransacked her house for items to steal. Upon returning to the garage, Conklin ordered his accomplice to kill the victim. Sanford stabbed the wounded Whitaker in the throat.

     As Mary Whitaker bled to death in her garage, the two cold-blooded killers drove back to Erie in her Chevrolet HHR. They had also stolen her checkbook and credit cards.

     Upon the discovery of Whitaker's body, police in Chautauqua County, aware that Jonathan Conklin had been in the area, immediately suspected him of burglarizing the apartment and murdering the violinist.

     On Friday morning, August 22, 2014, after using Whitaker's credit cards to buy a flat screen television and some clothing at Walmart, Erie detectives took Conklin and Sanford into custody.

     On the day of their arrest, the suspects appeared before a federal magistrate on charges of interstate transportation of a stolen motor vehicle, carjacking, and federal firearms violations. In Chautauqua County, New York, Conklin and Sanford faced state charges of first-degree murder, burglary, and robbery.

     A Chautauqua County grand jury in January 2015 indicted Conklin and Sanford on charges of second-degree murder, burglary, robbery, and criminal use of a firearm. Four months later, the Chautauqua County district attorney announced that the suspects would be tried together in January 2016. Conklin was represented by an attorney with the local public defender's office while Sanford had a defense lawyer from Fredonia, New York.

     In September 2015, Charles Sanford pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and agreed to testify against Jonathan Conklin. Conklin, facing a sure-fire conviction, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder a month later.

     In May 2016, the judge sentenced Charles Sanford to fifteen years to life. Jonathan Conklin received a sentence of twenty-five years to life.

     Cases like this remind us that we live among predatory, cold-blooded killers who ought to be behind bars but are not.


     

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The William and Christopher Cormier Murder Case

     Sean Dugas was an active participant in the community of enthusiasts devoted to the role-playing fantasy game, "Magic: The Gathering," a more violent version of "Dungeons & Dragons." The 30-year-old former reporter with the Pensacola Journal News shared a house in Pensacola with 31-year-old twins William and Christopher Cormier. At one time, the brothers had been part of the so-called "Magic community," but had lost interest.

     According to the police version of events, during the early morning hours of August 27, 2012, the Cormier twins murdered Sean Dugas by bludgeoning him with a hard object. Motivated by the intent to steal Dugas' $25,000 to $100,000 collection of Magic game cards, the murder took place in the rented Pensacola dwelling.

     Later on the morning of Sean Dugas' death, his girlfriend, with whom he had made plans to have lunch, stopped by his house. She knocked on the door, and when no one answered, left a note. Over the next couple of days, Dugas did not return his girlfriend's phone calls or text messages.

     On September 7, 2012, Dugas' girlfriend returned to his house to find it unoccupied and, except for a TV set, empty. She couldn't believe Dugas had moved out of the house without telling her. According to a neighbor, two men, four days earlier, had been at the house with a U-Haul truck. The girlfriend, after another week of not hearing from Dugas, reported him missing.

     On September 3, 2012, the Cormier twins, after buying a large plastic container at Walmart for Dugas' body, loaded up the U-Haul truck. Later that day they rolled up to their father's house in Winder, Georgia, a small town 45 miles northeast of Atlanta. They dug a hole in their father's backyard, lowered in the plastic container holding Dugas' body, then filled the grave with concrete. (The brothers told their father they had buried a dog.)

     Police investigators in Pensacola learned that the Cormier twins had sold Magic fantasy cards in Florida, Tennessee, and Georgia. People who knew Dugas told the police that he had recently spoken of moving to Georgia with William and Christopher Cormier.

     On October 8, 2012, detectives in Pensacola asked the police in Winder to locate the twins. At the Cormier house, officers noticed the fresh digging in the backyard. Shortly thereafter, a crew unearthed Dugas' concrete entombed remains.

     Police arrested the Cormier brothers the day the remains were found. They were initially charged with concealing the death of another. Two days later, after a forensic pathologist identified Dugas' body through dental charts and facial bone CT scans, a prosecutor in Pensacola charged the defendants with first-degree murder. Pending extradition to Florida, the brothers were held, without bail, in Georgia.

     In February 2014, the Cormier twins, in separate Pensacola murder trials, were found guilty as charged. In William's case, the jury deliberated only thirty minutes before reaching its verdict. The judge sentenced William Cormier to life without parole. His brother received a sentence of twenty-five years to life.

    

Monday, September 26, 2016

The Michael Marin Poison Pill Arson Case

     Former Wall Street trader Michael Marin lived alone in a $3.5 million, 10,000 square-foot mansion in Biltmore Estates, a high-end neighborhood in Phoenix. The attorney and art collector who owned original Picasso sketches among other valuable paintings, had scaled six of the world's seven tallest mountains. In May 2009, he had reached the summit of Mr. Everest. The 51-year-old had four grown children.

     While Michael Marin had been able to climb Mr. Everest, he had not been able to climb out of debt. Besides falling behind in his Biltmore Estates mortgage, Marin couldn't keep up the $2,500-a-month payments on a second home and owned $34,000 in back taxes. He had amassed numerous other debts as well.

    During the early morning hours of July 5, 2009, flames broke out in Marin's Biltmore Estates mansion. Wearing scuba gear to protect himself from the smoke and toxic gases, Marin escaped through a second-story window of the burning house by climbing down an emergency rope ladder.

     The fire insurance pay-out to a policy holder who was in deep financial trouble raised suspicion that the blaze had been intentionally set, and motivated by insurance fraud. Marin's convenient, well-prepared, and bizarre escape from a dwelling engulfed in flames added to the suspicion he had torched the dwelling. (There aren't too many inhabitants in houses consumed by flames who escape down a rope ladder in scuba gear.) This financially-strapped man was either very lucky, extremely prepared for a fast-developing fire, or an arsonist.

     After fire scene investigators found several points of origin and traces of accelerants at these separate fire starts, the arson investigators declared the fire incendiary. Since Michael Marin was the last person in the dwelling before the blaze, and had a rather obvious motive for burning the place down, the Maricopa County prosecutor charged him with arson of an occupied structure, a felony that carried a 10 to 20 year sentence. When taken into custody in August 2009, the former high-roller and adventurer said he was "shocked" that anyone would accuse him of such a crime.

     On Thursday, June 28, 2012, a Maricopa County jury found the 53-year-old defendant guilty of arson. Just seconds after the verdict was read, Michael Marin popped something into his mouth then took a swig from a sports bottle. His face turned red, he started to cough, then convulsed and collapsed to the floor. Fire personnel who happened to be in the courtroom (it was an arson case) rushed him to a local hospital where he died a few hours later.

     The quickness of Marin's demise after putting something into his mouth led to speculation he took some kind of poison pill.

     On July 27, 2012, a spokesperson for the Maricopa County Medical Examiner's Office revealed that Mr. Marin had lethal traces of cyanide in his system. Investigators had also found a suicide note Marin had written shortly before his death.

     In the annals of crime there is rarely anything new. It's all been done before. But Michael Marin's dispatching of himself with a poison pill like a captured cold war spy added a new line to the history of crime. 

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Team Stomping and Kicking: The Football Player Assault Case

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Bogus Bite Mark Evidence In The Douglas Prade Murder Case

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 23, 2016

The Kim Pham Murder Case

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 22, 2016

The David Bowen Murder-For-Hire Case

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Janet and William Strickland Murder-For-Hire Case

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     

Monday, September 19, 2016

The Michelle Gibson Murder-For-Hire Case

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     

Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Colin Abbott Murder Case

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Dr. Louise Robbins: The Shoe Print Expert From Hell

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr. Louise Robbins and her "Cinderella Analysis"

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 16, 2016

The Frank Crash Murder Case

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

      

Thursday, September 15, 2016

John Mark Karr's Confession in the JonBenet Ramsey Murder

The Ramsey Case  

      A 5:52 AM emergency call that a child had been kidnapped brought a pair of Boulder, Colorado police officers to John and Patsy Ramsey's 3-story house on December 26, 1996. Patsy Ramsey said she had found a handwritten ransom note inside on the stairs. Fearing that her 6-year-old daughter, JonBenet, had been kidnapped for ransom, she had called 911. After a cursory sweep of the 15-room dwelling, the patrolmen called for assistance.

     During the next two hours, amid friends and relatives who had come to console the family, police set up wiretap and recording equipment to monitor negotiations with the kidnappers. At one in the afternoon, Boulder detective Linda Arndt asked John Ramsey to look around the house for "anything unusual." Thirty minutes later, he and one of his friends discovered JonBenet's body in a small basement room. Her mouth had been sealed with duct tape, and she had lengths of white rope coiled around her neck and right wrist. The rope around her neck was tied to what looked like the handle of a paintbrush. Breaking all the rules of crime scene investigation, John Ramsey removed the tape, carried his daughter up the basement steps, and laid her body on the living room floor. Detective Arndt picked up the child, placed her body next to the Christmas tree, and covered it with a sweat shirt. Because the police had not conducted a thorough and timely search of the house, there would be no crime scene photographs.

     In the months following the murder, the police, prosecutors, media, and most Americans believed that someone in the family had killed JonBenet Ramsey. But if this were the case, then who had written the two and a half page ransom note? Forensic document examiners eliminated John Ramsey as the ransom note writer, and all but one handwriting expert concluded that Patsy had probably not authored the document. Also, evidence surfaced that an intruder could have come into the house through a broken window in the basement.

John Mark Karr

      After a 13-year battle with ovarian cancer, Patsy Ramsey died on June 14, 2006. She was 49. The media that had helped police and prosecutors portray the Ramseys as child murderers treated the death as a one-day news event, giving it less attention than the passing of a supporting actor on an old TV sitcom. In April 2006, two months before her death, the Ramseys flew from their home in Michigan back to Boulder where they met with district attorney Mary Keenan (now Lacy), who asked them if they had ever heard of a man named John Mark Karr. They Ramseys said they had not--neither the name nor the description of this man rang a bell. What did he have to do with the case?

     Karr, a 41-year-old American itinerate elementary school teacher, had lived in Bangkok, Thailand since 2002. He had recently corresponded with Michael Tracey, a journalism professor at the University of Colorado. Karr's interest in the JonBenet murder had drawn him to the Boulder professor who had produced three television documentaries favorable to the the theory the crime had been committed by an intruder. The emails from Karr, sent under the pseudonym Daxis, had recently become quite bizarre, reflecting more than just a morbid interest in the case. After receiving a series of disturbing phone calls from this man, Professor Tracey alerted the district attorney's office. The calls were traced to John Mark Karr in Bangkok.

     After Daxis had confessed to Tracey that he had accidentally killed JonBenet while inducing asphyxia for his sexual gratification, he became a suspect in the murder. Karr revealed over the phone that when he couldn't revive Jon Benet, he struck her in the head with a blunt object. He told the professor that he had engaged in oral sex with the victim, but had not performed sexual penetration. Aware that Tracey was writing a book on the Ramsey case, Karr offered the author the inside story from the killer's point of view. In the event the book became a movie, Karr wanted to be played by Johnny Depp.

     Having taken over the Ramsey case investigation from the Boulder Police Department, the district attorney's office began investigating John Mark Karr. District attorney investigators spoke to the authorities in Bangkok, and read hundreds of the emails Karr had sent to the professor. One of the messages suggested that Karr had a general knowledge of forensic science. "The DNA might not match, but you can't trust the test," he wrote.

     As Ramsey case investigators gathered details of Karr's life and background, it became clear that he was not an ordinary man, and that his strangeness was not inconsistent with the profile of a person who might commit a Ramsey-type crime. After Karr's parents divorced when he was nine, he went to live with his grandparents in Hamilton, Alabama. In 1983, one year after graduating from Hamilton High School, Karr, then 20, married a 13-year-old girl. The marriage ended nine months later in an annulment. In 1989, Karr married 16-year-old Lara Marie Knutson. In four years, he and his wife had three sons. While pursuing a teaching degree through an online teacher's college, Karr opened a licensed day-care center in his home. Although he didn't have a teaching degree, he also worked as a substitute teacher at Hamilton High School. He acquired a college degree in 1999, and that year closed his day-care business. A year later, Karr and his family were residing in Petaluma, California where he taught as a substitute in six schools in the Sonoma Valley Unified School District.

     One year after arriving in Petaluma, while teaching at the Pueblo Vista Elementary School, Karr was arrested by investigators from the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office. They had found child pornography on Karr's computer, and arrested him on five misdemeanor counts of possessing such material. Karr's bail was reduced after he spent six months in the county lockup awaiting trial. He was released on October 2001. While in custody, Karr had written a letter to Richard Allen Davis who had been convicted of kidnapping and murdering Polly Klaas in Petaluma. When Karr failed to show for a court appearance in the pornography case, the judge issued a bench warrant for his arrest, making him a California fugitive from justice.

     During the child pornography investigation, detectives in Sonoma County came across writings and notes Karr had made pertaining to the murder of JonBenet Ramsey. In these musings, Karr had speculated on the killer's thoughts as he committed the crime. Although these were not confessions, the Sonoma detectives took the writings seriously enough to notify the authorities in Boulder. There were follow-up discussions between investigators in California and Colorado, but nothing came of the discovery.

     After Karr divorced his wife, she and their children moved back to Hamilton, Alabama. Following his release from the Sonoma County Jail, Karr fled the country. He taught in Honduras and Costa Rica, and worked as a children's nanny in Germany, the Netherlands, and South Korea. In December 2005, Karr arrived in Bangkok where he had landed a grade-school teaching position.

The Arrest and Confession

     On August 11, 2006, 4 months after district attorney Mary Lacy learned that the Ramsey email writer and telephone confessor was John Mark Karr, police and immigration authorities in Thailand informed her that Karr was living in a downtown Bangkok apartment. In less than a week, Karr would be starting a new teaching job at the New Sathorn International School in the city. Because the authorities didn't want this man interacting with young girls at this school, the Thai police planned to arrest and deport Karr within the next five days. This development presented Lacy with a dilemma. If she did nothing, a man who had confessed to killing JonBenet Ramsey would slip away upon his return to the United States. If she filed charges against Karr, and had him extradited back to Colorado, the probable cause supporting the arrest warrant would be based entirely on his emails and his telephone confessions. Lacy's investigators had not linked Karr to the ransom note through his handwriting, could not place him in Colorado on or about December 26, 1996, and had not matched his DNA to a pair of foreign bloodstains on JonBenet's underwear.

     Operating on the theory that John Mark Karr was not a false confessor, and that his DNA would eventually connect him to the victim, Lacy presented her case to a Boulder judge who issued a warrant for Karr's arrest on charges of first degree-murder, kidnapping, and sexual assault. The district attorney also dispatched one of her investigators to Bangkok.

     After surveilling Karr's apartment building for five days, police and immigration officials took him into custody on August 16, 2006. In response to a Thai police officer who informed Karr that he had been charged with first degree murder in Boulder, Karr declared that his killing of JonBenet had been accidental, and therefore the charge should more appropriately be second-degree murder. He had confessed again.

     After being flown to Los Angeles from Bangkok, Karr arrived in Colorado on August 24, 2006 where he was incarcerated in the Boulder County Jail. Four days later, the John Mark Karr phase of the Ramsey case came to an abrupt end when Mary Lacy announced that because Karr's DNA didn't match the crime scene evidence, the charges against him would be dropped. Moreover, he had not written the ransom note. The case quickly fell out of the news, and John Mark Karr slipped back into obscurity.

The 1999 Indictments

     The JonBenet Ramsey case shot back into the news in October 2013 when a Colorado judge ordered the release of indictments returned against the Ramseys in 1999. The Boulder County Grand Jury alleged that each parent "did permit a child to be unreasonably placed in a situation which posed a threat of injury to the child's life or health which resulted in the death of JonBenet Ramsey." The grand jurors also alleged that the Ramseys "did render assistance to a person, with intent to hinder, delay and prevent the discovery, detention, apprehension, prosecution and punishment of said person for the commission of a crime, knowing the person being assisted has committed and was suspected of the crime of murder in the first degree and child abuse resulting in death."

     Boulder district attorney Alex Hunter refused to sign off on the indictments because the charges were not supported by sufficient evidence to support a conviction.

     In speaking to reporters, the Ramsey family attorney L. Lin Wood called the indictments "nonsensical." According to Wood, "they reveal nothing about the evidence reviewed by the grand jury and are clearly the result of a confused and compromised process."

     Regarding the old indictments, CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Tobin, in pointing out the indictments merely showed that a majority of the grand jurors felt there was probable cause to charge the parents--a lower standard than proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt--said, "it doesn't precisely say that the grand jury thought the parents killed JonBenet. It's not precisely clear what they thought."

     In September 2016, the JonBenet Ramsey case shot back into the news with television documentaries revisiting the murder and shedding new light on the case. Notwithstanding the new media attention, the case remained official unsolved.

   

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Dr. Nirbhay Singh: The Consultant Who Helped Make Mental Hospitals in California More Dangerous

      If you live in California, are seriously mentally ill, and have been accused of a violent crime, do not plead not guilty by reason of insanity. If you do, and succeed, you'll end up in a state mental hospital. It's a lot safer in prison, and you'll get better treatment.

     In 2002, in an effort to improve services in California's mental hospitals that treat the criminally insane, the state hired a private consultant to reform the system. The reformer, a professor of psychiatry at Virginia Commonwealth University named Dr. Nirbhay Singh, had come to the United States in 1987 from New Zealand. Having specialized in research on the developmentally disabled, Dr. Singh had no experience treating seriously mentally ill patients with sociopathic and predatory tendencies. He had published articles about Buddhist-inspired mindfulness (whatever that means), and alternative treatments such as the herb kava as a calming agent. Dr. Singh, in reforming California's state mental institutions, among other things, replaced individual therapy with group classes on anger management.

     Notwithstanding Dr. Singh's "reforms," the U.S. Department of Justice stuck it's long nose into the problem by suing California on the grounds the state was violating patients' rights by heavily drugging and improperly restraining these extremely violent and dangerous people. The state, rather than fight the case, agreed to a court-supervised improvement plan at four hospitals with more than 4,000 criminally insane patients. (State hospitals in Norwalk, San Luis Obispo County, San Bernadino, and Napa.)

     According to the plan, overseen by Dr. Singh, these four hospitals reduced the use of restraints, isolation rooms, and heavy drugs. The reformer dismantled several behavioral programs, and placed greater importance on bureaucracy, and the production of documentation in support of compliance with the federal mandate. Many health care workers complained that the red tape came at the expense of patient care. Much of the paperwork, according to Dr. Singh's critics, was redundant, and clinically useless. Employees, under Dr. Singh's system, had to fill out 300 new forms every month. Staff members said they no longer had time to play cards and chat with patients, activities that the patients missed.

     While he worked as the chief consultant in California, Dr. Singh also worked with mental health systems in Connecticut, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Tennessee. In January 2011, two weeks after the Los Angeles Times published an interview with a top State Department of Mental Health official about the effects of Dr. Singh's reforms, Dr. Singh abruptly resigned. Dr. Stuart Bussey, president of the Union of American Physicians and Dentists which represents California's mental hospital's psychiatrists and medical doctors, complained that Dr. Singh's reforms did "very little to create a healthy and safe environment for patients and staff." In fact, according to studies conducted in the four hospitals involved in the federally mandated reforms, three of them had become much more dangerous places for patients and mental health workers. The ban of heavy drugs, restraints, and isolation rooms had tripled the incidents of patient-on-patient and patient-on worker assaults in three of the institutions.

     While, according to his critics, Dr. Singh didn't know beans about how to run a place for the criminally insane, he did know how to make a buck. During his nine year tenure as a California mental health consultant, he charged the state $2,500 a day. His total bill came to $4.4 million. No wonder California was broke.

     Dr. Mubashir Farooqi, a psychiatrist at one of the pilot hospitals, called the reform program a "huge, very expensive, very idiotic experiment that failed badly." But in December 2011, notwithstanding the increased violence in the three California mental hospitals, the Department of Justice asked a federal court to extend the oversight, and continue along the same reform path. According to an assistant in the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, California's reforms had not succeeded in improving mental health "outcomes" (bureaucrats love that word) at the four institutions. "Are we where we need to be? Absolutely not," he said in an interview. In the meantime, while the federal government dabbled in the care and treatment of California's criminally insane, mental hospitals in the state were dangerous places for patients, and the people trying to help them.  

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Susan Cole: Prospective Juror to Perjury Defendant

     More than 90 percent of the criminal cases in American are not tried before a jury. Bargained guilty pleas have essentially replaced the cumbersome and costly trial process. Still, tens of millions of Americans receive jury duty summonses every year. (Our criminal justice system would collapse if just 20 percent of defendants demanded a jury trial. The entire system is set up for guilty pleas based on negotiated sentencing deals. Legislators make maximum sentences for even minor crimes extremely high to give prosecutors more bargaining power.)

     In high-profile criminal trials, the outcome of the case is pretty much determined by which side does the best job of jury selection. O. J. Simpson got off because his attorneys won the jury selection battle. To a certain degree, these trials are over before the first witness takes the stand. Wealthy defendants often hire juror picking consultants who help design a defense-friendly jury. These psychological profilers match jurors to defendants by analyzing such factors as body language, hair styles, clothing, gender, marital status, age, race, education, and occupation. In high-profile cases, the jury selection process, called voir dire, can go on for months.

     Juries, in general, do not represent a cross-section of American society. Entire categories of people never see the jury box. For various reasons, juries rarely include professors, cops, physicians, nurses, small business owners, employees of small companies, college students, young mothers, and lawyers. Most juries are made up of retirees, government workers, employees of large corporations, and people who are unemployed. As a law graduate, criminal justice professor, small business owner, and former FBI agent, I couldn't buy my way onto a jury. I've never made it from the big room full of prospective jurors to the courtroom where lawyers from each side choose the final twelve.

     There are all kinds of reasons and ways for a prospective juror to get out of jury duty. People can be excused for poor health, a criminal record, an upcoming wedding, family demands, mental illness, various economic hardships, and the stated inability to render an unbiased decision. In Michigan, lawmakers recently approved a bill that exempts breast-feeding mothers from jury duty. While prospective jurors are not above telling lies to get out of sitting on a jury, prosecutions for this form of lying under oath are extremely rare. That makes the following case so unusual.

Susan Cole

     In June 2011, Susan Cole, a 57-year-old beautician and Mary Kay Cosmetics saleswoman, received a summons for jury duty. She arrived at the court house in Denver with her hair in curlers and dressed according to her idea of how mentally ill people present themselves. She wore too much lipstick, reindeer socks (I have no idea what they are), and mismatched sneakers. She had put on a tee-shirt that read: "Ask Me About My Bestseller." (In 2007 Cole, under the pen name Char Cole, had self-published a relationship, self-help book/memoir  called "Seven Institutions With El-Way Secrets." My advice to this author: next time you publish a book, select a title that makes sense.)

     When Judge Anne Mansfield asked Cole if she had a history of mental illness, the prospective juror said, "Yeah, I have some mental issues....I broke out of domestic violence in the military [after her divorce she joined the Army] and have a lot of repercussions. I get very confused in the morning when I try to get ready." (Like forgetting to take out her curlers.) The prospective juror said that as a result of the domestic violence, she suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Cole also told the judge she was homeless and living on the street. Judge Mansfield asked if anyone objected to the dismissal of this woman. No one did, and Cole went home.

     On October 17, 2011, on Denver's "Dave Logan Show," a radio call-in program, callers were telling stories about how they had avoided jury duty. Susan Cole joined in the fun by calling the show and telling how she had recently gotten out of jury duty by impersonating a mentally ill person. Obviously aware that she was admitting to a crime, Cole called in under her pen name, Char.

     In justifying her jury avoiding ploy, Cole told the radio audience that she was simply too busy for jury duty. Rather than being ashamed of having lied under oath to avoid a basic civic responsibility, Cole seemed quite proud of herself: "I put black eyebrows on. I put red lipstick on. I left my hair in my curlers, and I put on a tee-shirt that said, 'Ask Me About My Bestseller.' [When did mentally ill homeless women start putting up their hair?] For about two weeks after, when my roommate and I would think about it, or I would tell my clients about it, we would cry we would laugh so hard."

     One of the "Dave Logan Show" listeners, Anne Mansfield, the judge Susan Cole had lied to, didn't find her story so funny. The judge knew exactly who this caller was and notified the prosecutor's office. The prosecutor initiated a criminal investigation.

     Detectives looking into the case found no mention of spousal abuse or PTSD in Cole's divorce records. Moreover, her military file contained no documentation supporting such a diagnosis. On March 22, 2012, police arrested Cole on charges of first-degree perjury and attempt to influence a public servant (the judge). If convicted, she faced a maximum sentence of 6 years in prison, on each count.

     Before being hauled off to jail, Cole told detectives that the military had lost her medical records. And the only person who had diagnosed her with PTSD, a Jefferson County court counselor, had since died. Cole said that in her book she writes of being imprisoned five days in a military mental institution. She also claimed that on the night before her jury duty appearance, she had been traumatized by news that her cousin had been killed in a motorcycle accident. As it turned out, her cousin hadn't been involved in a crash.

     In November 2012, Cole pleaded guilty to the felony charge of attempting to influence a public servant. According to the plea deal, the judge deferred her punishment. (A deferred judgment is a no-contest type of plea. Once the guilty party meets court-ordered requirements, there is no formal conviction on record.) Cole also pleaded guilty to second-degree perjury. For this misdemeanor the judge sentenced her to two years probation and forty hours of community service.

     Had Cole gone to trial for lying under oath, her fate would have been in the hands of people who had not lied to get off the jury. Now, with a criminal record involving dishonesty, she was not fit for jury duty.
     

Monday, September 12, 2016

University Dean Cecilia Chang: A Corrupt Murder-For-Hire Suspect

     In 1975, a 22-year-old student from Taiwan (an island 200 miles off the coast of mainland China) named Cecilia Chang, enrolled in the Asian Studies Master's Degree program at St. John's University in Queens, New York. After Chang acquired the degree in 1977, the university hired her as an Asian Studies professor. Three years later, university administrators promoted Chang to the position of Dean of the Institute For Asian Studies. Having exhibited the ability to raise money for the program from the Taiwanese and other Asian governments, Chang's job as dean involved fund-raising. She spent the next decade traveling the world, living high on donor contributions to the school and her university expense account.

     In October 1986, Cecilia Chang's husband, Ruey Fung, filed for divorce and sought custody of the couples's toddler son. Four years later, in the midst of a contentious domestic struggle over money and child custody, Ruey Fung was shot outside a warehouse in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn.

     Ruey Fung died from his wounds eleven days after the shooting. But before he passed away, homicide detectives were able to question him at the hospital. Unable to speak, Mr. Fung wrote: "I know the man who shot me, but I do not know his name. Cecilia Chang was the person who paid the guy to shoot me." Ruey Fung claimed that his wife wanted him dead so she wouldn't have to split their estate which included a hosiery business. With his death, she would also gain custody of the boy.

     Because NYC homicide detectives were unable to identity the man who shot and killed Mr. Fung, the investigation died on the vine. Notwithstanding her husband's deathbed murder accusation and police suspicion that Chang had engaged the services of a hit man, her fund-raising career at St. John's University continued to flourish.

     In 2001, Cecilia Chang began spending an inordinate amount of time in Connecticut at the Foxwoods Casino where she lost tens of thousands of dollars playing high-stakes baccarat. Her wagering strategy of doubling her bet each time she lost compounded her casino losses.

     A grand jury sitting in Queens, New York, in 2010, indicted Chang on 205 counts of fraud and embezzlement. She stood accused of stealing huge amounts of money from St. John's University. In addition to embezzling $1 million from the institution, Chang was accused of using her $350,000 a year expense account, and donor money, to finance skiing and surfing trips for her son, fund his law school  tuition, and even pay for his dog's veterinary bills.

     Dean Chang also faced charges of theft, fraud, and corruption in federal court. In 2011, after being charged federally, the judge placed her under house arrest. In the fall of 2012, the federal case against Chang went to trial in Brooklyn, New York. When the Assistant United States Attorney rested the government's case, it was clear to people following the trial that the defendant was guilty.

     On November 5, 2012, convinced she could convince the jury that she was innocent of all charges, Chang took the stand on her own behalf. It quickly became obvious that the jurors not only didn't like her, they didn't believe her testimony. At one point jurors actually laughed loudly at something she said. At this point in the trial, Cecilia Chang realized that in all probability she would be spending the next twenty years in federal prison.

     On Tuesday, the day after her devastatingly bad afternon on the stand, Chang, in her $1.7 million tudor-style home in the Jamaica section of Queens, committed suicide. The 59-year-old was found hanging from a ladder that folded down from her attic. Chang had also slit her wrists. She left behind several suicide notes, written in Mandarin, in which, in true sociopathic fashion, she blamed St. John's University for her problems and her suicide.

     Cecilia Chang had gotten accustomed to having all the money she needed to lavishly entertain herself, her son, and all of her friends in high places. She felt entitled to use university and donor money to live extravagantly, and to cover her gambling loses. In my view, the university had some responsibility for Chang's financial excesses. No university employee should be allowed a $350,000 a year expense account. It seemed that at St. John's University, no one was watching the store while an employee lived high on other people's money.