Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Scott Peterson and Why They Kill Their Wives

Scott Peterson is back in the news, again. Though he was found guilty of murder in 2004 and sentenced to die, he'll go through many years of automatic appeals before that sentence is carried out. Soon he'll face trial in a civil suit for wrongful death brought by Laci's family. But even this second proceeding is unlikely to tackle the single largest question hovering over the case: the question of "why?"

The motive, the "why' question puzzled nearly all of those who followed the case in the media -- a question talked about endlessly "off-camera" among those of us who covered the criminal trial -- was why someone like Scott would choose to murder his wife and unborn child rather than, simplify, get a divorce.

The real answer to this question helped lead me to a very different understanding of this type of killer because the typical motivations for murder -- financial gain, to be with another woman, jealousy, "snapping" -- just don't fit.

Scott himself made the comment in one of the many phone conversations secretly recorded by Amber Frey, in which he explained with his characteristic mix of evasiveness and revelation that his plan had been to "simplify" his life. What Scott says on these tapes may make little sense to the unschooled listener. But these strange conversations take on great meaning when one understands the inherently twisted logic of the psychopath, for whom emotionally-laden words are often mismatched and incorrectly processed because their emotions are only skin-deep. Nothing connects to any genuine feeling inside.

By analyzing all available records on hundreds cases, I have come to see that Scott Peterson and other eraser killers do not kill for the reasons normally ascribed to spousal murderers. They eliminate the women, and sometimes children, in their lives because they no longer serve any useful purpose to them. They view those they once claimed to love as inconveniences, impediments to the kind of life they covet and fantasize for themselves. They see them, quite literally, as dead weight. In the mind of this type of murderer, it is quicker, easier, and more satisfying for him to simplify one's life by murder than to get a divorce.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Victims of Eraser Killers?

All of the women listed below are dead or presumed to be dead. All were murdered or are believed by authorities to have been murdered by a husband or a boyfriend, falling victim precisely because of their physical and emotional vulnerability to their killer. All “went missing” under mysterious circumstances, but none of these women was ever truly lost. They didn’t wander off, run away from home, suffer amnesia and forget where they belonged. They were deliberately “disappeared” by someone who had good reason to try to make sure they would never be found, someone who wanted to erase them from the face of the earth. Some are found, some never have the dignity of a an actual burial. Though the media has sometimes complained about excessive coverage of supposedly "young white missing women," these cases have received very little coverage beyond their immediate communities and the victims match no profile of ethnicity, age, or race.

• Hattie Bergeler, called "Fern" by friends and family, was found floating in the bay near her Florida home in August 2002 with a bed sheet wrapped around her head and cinderblocks tied to her neck and ankles. Her multimillionaire husband, Donald Moringiello, a retired aerospace engineer, claimed the two had lost sight of each other while driving in separate cars to visit his children. But he had still not reported her missing by the time her remains were identified—a month after he claimed to have lost her in traffic. Despite a wealth of physical evidence—the sheet, rope, cinderblocks, and the gun used to kill Fern, also fished from the water behind their Fort Myers Beach home, were all tied to her husband, and cleaned up blood was found in the house—it took two trials to convict him of second-degree murder. A man of Moringiello’s intelligence and character would not have made so many stupid mistakes, his attorney had argued.

Isabel Rodriguez, 39, vanished in November 2001 two weeks after seeking a protective order against her estranged husband, Jesus, whom she said threatened to kill her if she was awarded any money from him in their divorce. In the days before her disappearance, her husband ordered 10 truckloads of dirt and gravel delivered to his five-acre farm on the outskirts of the Florida Everglades. On the day she went missing, a witness saw a fire burning for hours on the property. Jesus had told all his farmhands not to come to work that day, explaining to one that he was planning a Santeria “cleansing” ritual on the property. Police believe he killed his wife that day, burned her corpse on the farm, and scattered the ashes under the dirt and gravel. He claims she returned to her native Honduras, abandoning their two children, but there is no record of her leaving the U.S. or entering Honduras. Not long after his wife disappeared he began seeing another woman who looks uncannily like his missing wife, whose name even happens to be Isabel.
Prosecutors are still preparing for a third trial after two previous efforts ended in mistrial.

• Kristine Kupka, was just two months away from graduating with a degree in philosophy from Baruch College in New York City when she vanished without a trace in 1998.
It turned out that she was also five-months pregnant. The father of the child was one of her professors, Darshanand “Rudy” Persaud, who had been dating her, but concealed the important fact that he was married, not single. He only revealed this after she told him she had became pregnant. He was so adamant that she get rid of the baby that she began to fear he might hurt her. Kupka left her apartment with Persaud on the day she disappeared. While he admits seeing her that day he denies harming her or having any knowledge of her whereabouts and no charges have ever been brought against him or anyone else. She is still listed as missing. Rudy Persaud is a free man.

• Lisa Tu of Potomac, Maryland, a 42-year-old Chinese immigrant caring for two teenagers and her elderly mother, disappeared in 1988. Tu’s common-law husband, Gregory, a Washington, D.C. restaurant manager heavily in-debt from business failures and gambling losses, said she never returned from a trip to San Francisco to visit a sick friend. But police believe he killed her as she slept on their couch then attempted to assume a new identity, traveling to Las Vegas, forging checks under her name, stealing from her son’s college fund, and enjoying the services of prostitutes.
A first-degree murder conviction was overturned when an appeals court ruled that evidence seized from his Las Vegas hotel room was improperly admitted. In the retrial, he was found guilty of second-degree murder. Lisa Tu has never been found.

• Pegye Bechler, a physical therapist and mother of three, disappeared in 1997 while boating off the Southern California coast with her husband to celebrate their fifth wedding anniversary and her 38th birthday. Eric Bechler claimed she was piloting a rented speedboat and towing him on a boogie board when she was washed overboard by a rogue wave. Although Pegye was an expert swimmer who completed in triathalons, he claimed she never surfaced and no sign of her has ever been found. After sobbing for the cameras about his devastating loss, Bechler took up with another woman just three months after his wife’s disappearance, an actress and lingerie model who agreed to wear a wire for police. Recorded describing how he bashed his wife over the head with a barbell then attached the weights to her body and dumped her at sea, he was convicted of first-degree murder.

• Lisa Thomas’ rocky marriage turned strangely amicable in the summer of 1996 when she and her husband of eight years finally agreed to divorce. Then she vanished on the same weekend she planned to begin looking for her own place to live. Her husband, Bryce, seemed remarkably nonchalant about the fact that his wife was missing and refused to allow police into their Bakersfield, California apartment. Lisa’s frantic twin sister, Theresa Seabolt, broke in and found the underside of the couple’s mattress soaked in blood. Only then did Lisa’s husband move into action, setting up a tip line and pleading for the public’s help in finding his wife. Although Lisa’s body was never found, a jury convicted her husband of second-degree murder. But the verdict was almost immediately thrown into question when one of the jurors accused fellow panelists of not following the judge’s instructions. Facing the possibility of a new trial, Bryce Thomas attempted to hire a hit man from his jail cell (who was actually a sheriff’s investigator) to eliminate his wife’s twin, the woman he believed responsible for putting him behind bars. Dictating a scenario identical to the one he carried out against his wife—presumably in the hope that it would appear the same person killed both sisters, he asked the purported hit man to kill his sister-in-law in her sleep then make her body disappear, leaving just a little trail of blood “because that’s similar to what happened to the one I’m accused of murdering.” Ultimately, the trial judge allowed the conviction for killing his wife to stand, and handed down a sentence of 15-years-to-life. He was subsequently convicted and sentenced to another 12 years for trying to arrange the murder of Theresa Seabolt.

Jami Sherer, 26, mother of a 2-year-old son, disappeared in Redmond, Washington in 1990 the day after telling her husband, Steven, she wanted a divorce and was moving back in with her parents. At her husband’s insistence, she had gone to meet him one last time but never returned. Within hours of that meeting, days before her car was discovered abandoned with her packed suitcase still inside, he began telling family members that his wife was “missing.” Ten years later, still maintaining that his missing wife was alive somewhere as a jury found him guilty of murder, he lashed out at his wife’s family: “When Jami does turn up, you can all rot in hell!”

• Peggy Dianovsky, 28 at the time of her disappearance, vanished from her suburban Chicago home in 1982, leaving no trace of her existence even a quarter century after her disappearance. Her husband, Robert, admitted striking her during an argument with enough force to splatter blood on a stairway in the couple’s home. But he insisted she packed a bag and left that night never to be seen again—without taking her car or her three children. Twenty-two years later he was acquitted of her murder in a bench trial, despite testimony from two of her now grown sons, who said they witnessed their father hit their mother and hold a knife to her throat in the hours leading up to her disappearance. A family friend also testified that several months before Peggy went missing, Robert Dianovsky asked him to help dispose of his wife’s body and outlined a plan to make her killing look like suicide. The friend declined to participate in Dianovsky’s schemes, telling him that he would never get away with it—an incorrect assumption, as it would turn out. Peggy Dianovsky is listed still as a missing person and she never made any attempt to contact her three sons. Robert Dianovsky is a free man and under the law, is judged "not guilty" of a crime for which there are no other suspects.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Do healthy women "accidentally" drown in their own bathtubs?


Contrary to what you sometimes here about "accidents in the home" and the dangers of the family bathtub, tubs do not pose a significant threat except to the very young and people with seizure-type disorders or people using large amounts of depressant drugs or alcohol. But the idea of the "deadly bathtub" seems to make it a clever staging ground for men who want to secretly kill their wives.

There is a case under investigation right now in Illinois. No charges have been filed. But a leading forensic examiner believes that an earlier autopsy of the third wife of Drew Peterson--already under a cloud of suspicion in the mystery disappearance of his fourth and current wife, Stacy--came to mistaken conclusions. At the time, Kathleen Savio's death was simply passed over as an accidental drowning in the bathtub. Now, it appears that she was murdered. Her death has been officially declared a homicide, following exhumation and a new autopsy (backed up by a third autopsy done at the behest of Savio's relatives by former New York City medical examiner Michael Baden).

There are two important things to know about this "drowning in the bathtub" business. First of all, it is very difficult for an autopsy to clearly determine drowning as a cause of death. The leading forensic medical textbooks make this quite clear. "Investigation of a body recovered from water can be challenging," writes Dr. Werner Spitz in the widely-used textbook he authored on death investigation. "Autopsy findings alone may be misleading and can cause the inexperienced pathologist to render a diagnosis of drowning when inappropriate."

As Dr. Baden told Greta van Susteren, speaking about the Savio case, "Healthy adults don't drown in bathtubs accidentally."

To make a long and gruesome story short, the forensic autopsy needs to rule out everything else before reaching a finding of "drowning," much less "accidental drowning." While someone might be found dead in a bathtub, even with water in their lungs, it is vital to determine whether or not they had been knocked unconscious, drugged, or simply held under water until they succumbed. Dr. Baden states that Savio had been viciously beaten with bruises still visible on her body even upon exhumation, and had clear signs of a lacerated scalp.

Nevertheless, coroners may rely too heavily on "initial impressions" of a first responder who reports a dead person in a bathtub and fail to to do a thorough autopsy.

In "Erased," I review a case in which a man killed one wife by staging a "bathtub drowning," got away with it even though no water was found in her lungs, then killed his second wife years later in much the same way. Only after the second death did anyone look carefully at the first case.

Elaine Boczkowski was a healthy woman, married to Tim Boczkowski, but was found dead in her bathtub in their North Carolina home.One might have thought that the fact that the bathtub was empty and dry might have given pause to the medical examiners, but it did not.

Four years later, remarried and living in Pennsylvania, Tim killed his second wife, Mary Anne, simply changing the scene of the "tragic accident" he staged to an outdoor hot tub. At least there was water in the tub the second time. Tim told emergency responders that Mary Anne had been drinking heavily and must have passed out and drowned, just as he had claimed with Elaine. Once again, however, no water was found in her lungs, and no alcohol in her system either.

The autopsy in the second case found clear evidence that Mary Anne's death was no accident. The medical examiner was able to determine that the second Mrs. Boczkowski had not drowned but had been strangled to death. She had apparently fought for her life, leaving scratch marks on her husband's torso, which he would feebly claim were the result of her giving him a "scratch massage." The Pennsylvania findings prompted authorities in North Carolina to re-open and re-investigate the death of Elaine four years after the fact, which was also determined to have been a homicide. Boczkowski was eventually tried and convicted of murdering both his wives.

It must be said that there are adverse health conditions that can be triggered by long immersion in a hot tub, which can, in fact, contribute to drowning. But it is almost impossible to drown in a normal bathtub. Yet alleged death by drowning in the family bathtub remains a popular eraser killer ruse.

Rants by Ronni: Erased--Missing Women, Murdered Wives

Rants by Ronni: Erased--Missing Women, Murdered Wives

Crime blogger Ronni, discusses "perfect storm" of psychological dysfunction

The "perfect storm" of dangerous psychology, which Ronni mentions, is a good way to describe my use of the term the "dark triad" which I have borrowed and adapted from some very technical psychological research. The dark triad is a name for this linkage of three traits that are closely related but also distinctive: Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy. One could say extreme manipulativeness, a malignant form of self-centeredness and psychopathy.

Although Ronni quotes me, I like her description: "Psychopaths, we know about. Daumer. Bundy. Duncan. These "cold killing machines" who have no empathy. The thing about Peterson that didn't fit this label was the fact that he had never been in trouble before. Psychopaths tend to get in trouble with the law early in life, and stay that way. Not all of them, of course, but most. The narcissist, on the other hand, is not usually a killer. He likes to reinvent himself, and he needs a constant supply of adoration and positive reinforcement, but his usual pattern is to just disappear when the supply dries up. However, when Machiavellianism is added to the mix. The Machiavellian is a master manipulator."

Cases in my book which explore in detail these traits include Scott Peterson (of course), L. Ewing Scott (made his wife 'disappear' in mid-fifties Los Angeles), Perry March (Nashville), Robert Durst, John David Smith (husband of Fran Gladden Smith of New Jersey), Justin Barber, and many others.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Why They Kill (Part 1)

In all of the “missing wife” cases I have investigated, it became clear to me that “getting away with murder” was an essential force, but not the only force, driving these killers. One might assume that every killer, every criminal of any sort, wants to get away with his crime. But the majority of domestic homicides don’t happen that way. Most are not planned, not carefully calculated and covered up. In fact, in most intimate partner murders, there is no real attempt to "get away with murder." Many men who kill their wives or partners in a violent argument, the heat of the moment, or in an act fueled party by drugs or alcohol, the killer actually experiences considerable remorse. One recent study suggests that up to 40% of men either committed suicide afterwards, tried to do so, or thought about it. Many other wife killers simply run from the crime scene.

Eraser killers aren't like that because they are most likely "calm" (in the kind of calm that only psychopaths can exhibit) as they commit the murder. Scientific studies of psychopaths indicate that they experience little or no fear in resonse to situations or images that would make most of us very fearful.

The meticulous planning and supreme self-control exhibited both before and after these crimes seemed to be a significant aspect of these men’s characters, far beyond the murderous aspect of their personalities. The expertise at lying and manipulation needed to live a double life is indicative of a high degree of Machiavellianism. While political scientists and others sometimes use this term, psychologists have developed a formal category and accompanying tests and measures for people whose psychological makeup ranks high in Machiavellian traits.

Other malignant personality traits seemed to be involved as well: cold-blooded psychopathic tendencies and extreme degrees of narcissism. But there was something else curious about these men’s characters. Erasing their victims appeared to be not just a means to an end but and end in itself. Once they made the decision to kill, they began purging all trace that the victim ever existed from their lives. Many began getting rid of the woman’s possessions within days of her disappearance, pulling up stakes, changing their lifestyles dramatically. Some immediately replaced their missing wives or girlfriends with other women—sometimes with look-alikes for the disappeared. And, most shockingly, some later attempted to get away with murder again, erasing another wife or girlfriend, sometimes in exactly the same manner as their first crime.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Profiler Roy Hazelwood, the organized killer, and "high praise"

Murder scenes are hard to miss. Unless they've been staged by a clever killer. Those who aren't going to visit them in person can look at Vernon Geberth's Homicide Investigation book, but not before dinner. It was Roy Hazelwood, then at the FBI's famed (and controversial) Behavioral Science Unit who first proposed a fundamental distinction between types of homicide scenes--those which were disorganized versus the organized scenes. The disorganized murder scenes showed unmistakable signs of spontaneous violence, uncontrolled attack, often including breakage, overturned objects, perhaps a prolonged struggle. Most murder scenes are like that. Organized scenes show signs of planning and extended premeditation. Usually far less of a mess, because the killer had the great advantage of the planned, "sneak attack." But what Hazelwood did was to propose that there were two basic types of killers one can postulate based on the crime scenes they leave behind as their "signatures"--and that the crime scene would usually indicate either a "disorganized killer" or an "organized one," that is, one who planned his actions carefully.

This distinction turned out to be critical when I reviewed crime scenes in domestic homicide cases. The group I later termed "eraser killers" matched many characteristics of Hazelwood's "organized crime scene" and mentally "organized killer."

I was pleased then when after finishing the book, Hazelwood wrote me with high praise--especially because I am an investigative reporter not a profiler. Hazelwood said:

"Finally! An exceptional writer brings a new perspective to the ancient crime of domestic homicide. Once many years ago, Jeffrey MacDonald, a highly intelligent and physically attractive physician, was convicted of killing his pregnant wife and two small children. When asked why he committed such a heinous crime, I answered 'Because he didn't need them anymore.' This is a very powerful book and Ms. Strong deserves high praise indeed!"

Hazelwood is also author of The Evil that Men Do and Dark Dreams