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Sunday, October 6, 2019

Will Michelle Troconis Receive Immunity in "Missing Mom" Case?

Michelle Troconis with her attorney, Andrew Bowman
When Jennifer Farber Dulos went missing in New Canaan, Conn. on May 24, 2019, it was only natural for the police to take a close look at her estranged husband, Fotis Dulos. The two had been involved in a highly contentious divorce and custody dispute over their five children since 2017. Fotis Dulos was also engaged in civil lawsuits with the estate of Jennifer's father regarding 2.5 million dollars in purportedly unpaid loans. In the face of the scandal, Fotis Dulos immediately lawyered up, hiring renowned trial attorney, Norm Pattis. Together, Dulos and Pattis have consistently and adamantly denied allegations of evidence tampering while asserting Fotis Dulos's complete innocence.

But what about the girlfriend of Fotis Dulos, Michelle Troconis? It appears that Troconis has changed her tune since her boyfriend's estranged wife went missing on May 24. According to Norm Pattis, the couple broke up not long after Jennifer went missing. That's a big deal. Without a romantic entanglement that could motivate her to cover for Dulos, Troconis is now looking out for number one.  Police have been working on Troconis in a series of interviews that began just nine days after Jennifer disappeared. Troconis was initially untruthful, but by the third interview in August, she admitted her earlier evasiveness and divulged some disturbing information:

1. Troconis has stated that she could not account for Dulos's whereabouts from the hours of 6:40 am until noon on May 24, 2019. She awoke in the Farmington home that they shared and Dulos was not there.
Tea Leaf Realty's pic of Farmington home, now in foreclosure

2. When questioned about the "Alibi Scripts" that police found, Troconis initially stated that the notes were designed to simply "help them remember" what they did on those all- important dates of May 24 and May 25. However, in August she finally admitted to police that the scripts contained false information. It's also worth noting that those scripts don't contain details regarding the 30-minute drive along Albany Turnpike on the evening of May 24, at which time video surveillance footage shows Dulos discarding garbage bags into waste receptacles. Troconis now acknowledges that they did make that drive together, but she states that she was talking on her cell phone for the entire time and had no idea what Fotis was up to.

3. Troconis has admitted that she observed Dulos cleaning what he claimed was a coffee spill from his employee's Ford Raptor pickup truck on the day that Jennifer Farber Dulos went missing. She helped to remove paper towels from the truck after the cleaning, but states that the mess did not smell like coffee.

So, Troconis has shared a little bit, but is it enough to get her full immunity and avoid being charged with murder, or conspiracy to commit murder, at a future date? Not even close. Thus far, the information that Troconis has given to law enforcement depicts her as a totally innocent and clueless bystander. She has not shared anything that would significantly assist the prosecution with proving Dulos's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. What's more, even if Troconis eventually gives investigators damaging information that can implicate Fotis Dulos in the murder of his wife, there is still no guarantee that she will be given full immunity for such cooperation.   

According to New Canaan defense attorney, Matthew Maddox, "the topic of cooperation in exchange for immunity may be raised early on by defense counsel, and even be a topic of discussion, but an actual commitment (of immunity) to the defense is very unlikely to be offered." Maddox says that "the practice of the Stamford Judicial District State's Attorney is to not offer immunity from prosecution or other concessions in advance of the conclusion of the case."

So there is a risk that Troconis may cooperate, but still end up being charged with evidence tampering, and/or conspiracy to commit murder, and/or murder. "The State is likely to wait and evaluate the quality of her testimony before any consideration is given to her in her own prosecutions," Maddox says. "She hasn't been charged with conspiracy at murder yet, but if her cooperation is less than forthcoming, the State is not likely to stick its neck out for her. Also, keep in mind that the ultimate sentence that she receives isn't up to the State, but decided by the judge."

Bulls alleged naiveté and fear in the face of her lover's crime 
And so, Troconis finds herself in an exceptionally sticky wicket. If she does know more about what happened to Jennifer Dulos, should she follow the lead of someone like Vanessa Bulls, who cracked under pressure and shared damning information with investigators against her former lover, Baptist pastor Matt Baker, in hopes of receiving full immunity? In that case, Bulls testified that Baker had contemplated poisoning his wife, or making it look like she committed suicide by hanging. Bulls knew her lover's intentions to kill his wife well in advance, and did nothing to alert authorities. After Baker murdered his wife, he confessed it all to Bulls- and yet, she kept it secret for years, repeatedly lying to the police and denying that she knew anything about the murder. Bulls got lucky. She did end up receiving full testimonial immunity, no doubt because what she had to say was quite substantial.

Likewise, Troconis will need to assist law enforcement by providing the how, when, why, and where surrounding the disappearance of Jennifer Farber Dulos. She'll certainly need to say a lot more than "Gee, the stain in the truck didn't smell like coffee." And if she is able to give the prosecution what it needs to convict Fotis Dulos, she still risks her own future legal battles regarding her involvement in the crime. She was, after all, traveling with Dulos as he attempted to get rid of items and DNA allegedly belonging to Jennifer Farber Dulos, and her only defense is that she had no idea what he was doing. If Troconis has any chance of immunity, she must tip the scales in her favor with some significant particulars- for example, the location of Jennifer Farber Dulos. Then, she will be left with the challenging task of proving that she did not participate in the planning or concealment of the crime in any way whatsoever. Unlike Vanessa Bulls, Troconis is no spring chicken. She does not exactly fit the bill for a naive and vulnerable woman. Age 44, Troconis is an accomplished international CEO. She speaks multiple languages. Fair to say, Troconis has an uphill battle in establishing a firm defense and gaining the future support of the prosecution. 

Post Script: It was difficult for me to locate a recent murder case where an ex-lover knew far more than he or she let on, and did not escape prison time. Many thanks to Whitney Kurtz-Oglivie, one of the hosts of the podcast "True Crime Campfire,” for pointing me in the direction of the Matt Baker case. 

The top photo of Troconis with her attorney comes from the Stamford Advocate. 

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

The Reality of Being a Corrections Officer: Don't Become a Duck

The media is quick to expose stories of prisoner abuse at the hands of corrections officers across our nation- and rightly so. Inmate abuse is a real problem, and while our tax dollars should not fund prisons that resemble comfortable retreats, inmates should not expect to be harassed, beaten, or in extreme cases, killed, by the powers that be during their time of incarceration.

Last March, J'Allen Jones, a prisoner at Garner Correctional Institution's mental health unit in Newtown, Connecticut, experienced "sudden death during (a) struggle and restraint with chest compression," according to Dr. James Gill, the chief state medical examiner. Gill ruled the death a homicide. Jones also had a heart condition, and the use of pepper spray may have contributed to his death. His family is suing, stating that a handcuffed Jones was beaten by up to ten officers and his neck was broken in the attack. The lawsuit points to surveillance video which they allege supports their version of events. Prison officials argue that the use of force was not excessive. Jones was "noncompliant and combative with staff" before becoming "unresponsive" according to a statement by Connecticut's Department of Corrections following the incident.

Extreme cases like the one at Garner make front page news. But what the media rarely covers are the less sensational, but equally meaningful, stories of what it is like for the majority of prison workers to punch the clock every day and enter a dangerous environment where high risk and violent offenders are housed. According to Connecticut State Representative and former corrections officer, Kevin Skulczyck, "In a case involving handcuffing and pepper spray, you immediately escort the inmate to the shower so they can clean it off. Corrections officers exert that level of professionalism 99.9% of the time."

Skulczyck has over 20 years experience as a c/o in Connecticut and held a variety of positions in the Community Enforcement Division, supervising inmates during their transition back into the community. He says that the end goal is to keep the former convict from reoffending. Like most jobs, it has some bad actors. Nonetheless, he asserts that the overwhelming majority of c/o's "are responders, not aggressors." The men and women who staff the prisons of Connecticut are "cousins to the Blue Lives Matter Movement. It is a noble career that deserves the same kind of recognition that we give to cops." He concedes that misbehavior on the part of a few does happen, but it is not characteristic of the level of responsibility and restraint that most c/o's practice throughout their careers.

So what is it like to work a job that most would not consider doing, let alone for two decades? Skulczyck describes the start of the shift, "when you leave the fresh air, enter the Sally Port, and the doors close behind you." It starts with roll call, and you are assigned a team to work with. "From the first moment of your shift, you are entering hostile territory. You are giving direction to people who don't want to be told what to do. There's conflict: intimidating gestures, getting spit on, yelling, obscenities- you are on pins and needles until the end of your shift, sometimes that is 16 hours later. During your shift, you are vigilant, and there is always the fear of the unknown."

Male guards are quick to defend female c/o's. "The fear is real, specifically for women workers. Inmates do sexually deviant things and try to intimidate and control." He points out that female c/o's are "much more protected today than in the past but they are still subject to creepy things. It wears on them." His observation is further addressed in a front page article in last week's New York Times entitled "Hazing, Humiliation, Terror," in which female prison workers describe disturbing and repeated incidents of sexual threats and intimidation. They often wear oversized uniforms to hide their figures, apply no makeup, and put their hair up in buns since even a swinging pony tail can attract unwanted attention. Still, they feel like the inmates are seeing them naked.

Most civilians cannot imagine the level of darkness that exists in high max prisons. My eyes were certainly opened when writing my book, "His Garden: Conversations with a Serial Killer". Over the course of three years, I visited a notorious criminal at three different high max facilities in Connecticut. It would take a day or so for me to shake off the unnerving monthly meeting. I recall one visit at Cheshire Correctional, observing a frail younger inmate as he openly wept while speaking with an older man who was visiting him. I sensed the inmate's abject terror and hopelessness. He struck me as a newcomer to high max and the experience was traumatizing him. Another high max inmate serving a life sentence recently wrote to me: "The common language of prison isn't english, spanish, or even ebonics... It's violence, intimidation and predation. You don't necessarily have to speak it... but you damn well better understand it. If you feel safe in prison you've got bigger problems than you know."

So how do corrections officers do it day in and day out and manage to return home to live a normal life? "If you are going to be effective in the role, you cannot take it personally," Skulczyck says. Nevertheless, c/o's are human, and there is no denying the unique emotional stress that can come from a meritless lawsuit filed by an inmate, or the fear for your family's safety. "I received threats," Sculczyck states. "'I know where your kids are. I will find your wife...' If you are at a grocery store, for example, you tell your wife and kids to move on while you deal with a confrontation by a former inmate. You have to document them, sometimes contact the state police to file a charge. Unfortunately, some c/o's deal with the psychological issues by escaping through alcohol, drugs."

Despite all of the headaches, Skulczyck says that he loved his career and misses it. "I was part of a team that was a service to the community. Some of the offenders were murderers, others were petty criminals. I may have inspired that one person to be a better person." He also points out the many policy changes that he was instrumental in effectuating: third person phone monitoring, mail review, and video surveillance, all of which can expose criminal activity on the inside and the outside, and prevent drugs from getting in. The cameras are just as important in protecting c/o's as the prisoners that they guard. "There's something we call 'Drowning the Duck,'" he says. "Inmates can be so conniving. They try to get a c/o to do caring things for them, bring them treats, cigarettes..." This can escalate to requests for drugs, or assistance with escape. "We tell new c/o's, 'Don't let them drown you. Don't become a duck.'"
My next blog post will include an interview with Lt. Gary Cornelius, a retired Sheriff who now provides consulting and training to jails and criminal justice academies throughout the United States. He is the author of many books on corrections, including "The Art of the Con: Avoiding Offender Manipulation," and "Stressed Out! Strategies for Living and Working in Corrections, 2nd Edition."      

For those interested in reading my true crime book about Connecticut's most prolific serial killer, it is available at Bookbub on November 28, 2018, for the deeply discounted price of $1.99 (Kindle version.) Here's the link:

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Serial Killings in Springfield, MA: Did Police Do Enough?

Ernestine was a loving mother, sister and daughter.
Frederick Snell is not just grief-stricken- he is outraged. The body of his 47-year old sister, Ernerstine Ryans, was discovered at purported serial killer Stewart Weldon's Springfield home last May, along with the bodies of two other women. When police officers pulled Weldon over in late May for driving without a tail light they found a woman being held captive in his vehicle. She had apparently been repeatedly raped, beaten and stabbed over the course of the last month. The police did not go to Weldon's house to search for other possible victims immediately after the arrest. Three days passed with Weldon in jail before they received a report from his mother of a foul odor on the premises. It was that report that finally prompted them to search Weldon's house.

"Why didn't the police go after this guy at his house months ago?" Snell asked me in an interview on June 5th. "They knew he was dangerous, and he cut off his ankle bracelet in February. Didn't anyone look into that? If they did, my sister would be alive today." Snell also wonders if Weldon's mother knew more than she let on. Was that the first time she smelt a foul odor?

According to an article in the Daily Mail published on June 5, 2018, Stewart Weldon has a long criminal history dating back to adolescence and at the time of his arrest on the charge of kidnapping and rape to assault on May 27th, he was already known to authorities as a high risk offender in the community. He had outstanding warrants for assault and traffic violations, and he had just served two months for beating a woman on the street in October of 2017. At the time of that arrest, he tried to flee from police and 9 officers had to subdue him. Weldon bit one of the officers as he was being handcuffed. Police did not track the woman down for follow-up questioning. He was released in December to witness the birth of his child, and given an electronic ankle bracelet.

Ordinarily, a probation officer would get a signal indicating that an ankle bracelet had been removed, and there are procedures in place whereby the officer notifies the court to seek a warrant for immediate arrest. Did Weldon's probation officer contact the court about this development, and was anything done to locate Weldon? I contacted the Public Relations Department for the Commissioner of Probation in Massachusetts on June 6th and spoke with Coira Holland. She advised me to send her my questions in an email. Here are the questions that I asked Ms. Holland on June 6th:

Weldon reportedly cut off his electronic ankle bracelet in February 2017. Did his probation officer or any other member of law enforcement know about it? Do they receive some kind of a signal in such events? If they did not know, why not? If they did know, did anyone contact the court to request that an arrest warrant be issued in the matter? If not, why? If actions were taken regarding the destruction of the bracelet, what did those actions involve? What is normal procedure in such matters? Was that procedure followed?

 I am still waiting for her answer.
Ernestine is deeply missed by her family.

According to Snell, a resident of Torrington, Connecticut, his sister Ernerstine Ryans had been missing since early March of 2018. She lived right around the corner from Weldon in Springfield. He states that when his mother first went to the police to file a Missing Persons Report, "They did not even take it." He states that the police initially told his mother that because his sister was a drug user, she had probably just fallen off the radar and would show up eventually. According to Ryan Walsh, a Public Information Officer at the Springfield Police Department, a Missing Persons Report was filed on March 18th stating that Ryans had been missing since March 8th. "We do not have a 24-48 hour requirement before filing the reports," he told me. "In 2017, our department received 1270 Missing Person Reports on Juveniles, and 274 on adults. Each one was investigated."

Snell said that his family knew that something was seriously wrong in the weeks and months following his sister's disappearance. His sister would sometimes be out of touch with everyone- but never for more than 3-4 days. "She did have a drug problem, we knew that, but she always stayed in touch with her two daughters. One of them is 13 years old. There's no way she would go a week without talking to her daughters. And she sent messages to our sisters on Facebook all the time." Snell recently saw that his sister's last post on Facebook was in February. It was a photo of him and his son. "That just upset me so much," he said. "That we were the last ones she posted about."

He stated that his mother visited with the police multiple times and a Missing Person Report was eventually filed. Snell states that no Missing Persons Report was filed on the other victim with ties to Bristol, Connecticut, and he wonders why no report was filed. Did anyone contact the police about her? In the months that followed his sister's disappearance, people would tell family members that they thought they saw Ryans around Hartford, and this gave the family hope. Still, they could not help but wonder if the reports were false, and if something terrible had happened. Now he is haunted by the reality that his sister probably suffered for months at the hands of a deranged serial killer, and that she could possibly have been rescued by the police before dying. "We didn't get served justice," he said. "Ernerstine was a sister and a mother, a grandmother, a great friend and a big part of my family. Those girls suffered slowly."


Friday, May 12, 2017

Jury Selection in the Murder Trial of Robert Honsch

The defendant makes eye contact.
There was no shortage of irony during the opening hours of Robert Honsch's murder trial today. With Mother's Day around the corner, the 73-year old is being tried for killing his wife, Marcia Honsch. Twenty two years ago, Marcia's body was found at Tolland State Forest. One week earlier, on September 28, 1995, Robert and Marcia's adolescent daughter, Elizabeth, was discovered wrapped in plastic garbage bags and a sleeping bag at the back of the same strip mall in New Britain, CT, where serial killer suspect William Devin Howell is said to have disposed of his seven victims in 2003. Both women had been shot in the head.

The 72 potential jurors that entered the courtroom this morning represented a living snapshot of America: young and old, varying in race, education, and social status. Most shared one common interest, however: family. This became abundantly clear as they were individually questioned by Judge Constance Sweeney and counsel regarding reasons for excusal from service. Since Judge Sweeney previously informed the group as a whole that the trial would likely run for at least four weeks, many stated that family obligations would interfere with their ability to serve. Some were parents of young children, others were caregivers for elderly parents. Judge Sweeney accepted these reasons for excusal, and also let many jurors go based on the fact that their employers would not pay for more than 3 days off for jury service.

In contrast, others seemed downright eager to get on the jury. When asked if he had seen or read anything about the case, one man said no, he spent all of his time at the computer and didn't even watch television. Defense counsel inquired, "Do you read the news online?" The man said no. Later, when asked if he would find it difficult to see forensic photos displaying graphic images, the same man answered that it would not be a problem as he was used to seeing those things on television shows like C.S.I. and Bones.  

Based on the witness list alone, this promises to be a very interesting trial. Civilian witnesses will arrive from numerous states: Virginia, New York, Florida, Ohio, and New Hampshire. One of those witnesses will be Honsch's ex-wife from Ohio, Sheryl Tyree. An even larger list of DNA analysts, criminologists, fingerprint experts, and law enforcement officers will testify, some of them coming from as far away as England, Australia, and South Africa.

When questioning jurors who had not been excused, Assistant District Attorney Karen Bell asked if any of them had an unfavorable or distrusting view of law enforcement, especially in light of the media's coverage of some high profile cases in recent years. Defense counsel's questions were a little more substantial and focused on two issues. Firstly, did the prospective juror understand that Honsch was not being tried for the death of his daughter, Elizabeth, even though evidence would be presented regarding her death? The current trial is for the murder of Marcia, not Elizabeth. Evidence regarding Elizabeth could be evaluated for "limited purposes" such as indicating that both were killed pursuant to a scheme or plan. Secondly, did they understand that behavior indicative of a "guilty conscience" was not enough, in and of itself, to prove actual guilt? This was obviously asked in anticipation of facts emerging that Honsch left the country, and then moved to Ohio, following the murders. He also took the last name of his new wife in Ohio, Tyree, making it hard for the Honsch family to locate him.

When the prosecution discussed my presence in the courtroom off record and Honsch realized that I was "press," he seemed to come to life. He stared at me face on for extended periods of time, as if to say, "Make sure you take my good side." His hair is an unusual shade of platinum grey, long and held back in a pony tail that barely covers the bald spot at the back of his head. His shirt was oversized and hung loosely from his aging frame. Pass this guy in a Litchfield County Coffee Bar and you wouldn't think twice. And here he was, sitting feet away from me, charged with murdering the mother of his child... and his child. 

Today, Judge Sweeney ruled that the jury's upcoming visits to crime scenes would be divided into two separate days. On one day, a bus would take them to Tolland State Forest, to the location where Marcia's body was found. The next day, the bus would take them to the back of the strip mall in New Britain, Connecticut, where Elizabeth was found swaddled like an infant; not exactly something a stranger would do to his victim. It's more of a paternal gesture, in my opinion.

One final observation about today's proceedings: this is a class act courtroom; controlled, professional, and set on abiding by bedrock, Constitutional principles. I have practiced in front of well over 100 judges in my legal career and I have seen the good, the bad, and the ugly. Judge Sweeney wears a white hat, thus far. She is friendly with the jurors and counsel, and competently expresses complicated legal concepts in a way that the everyday Joe or Jane can grasp. Hampden County is lucky to have her on the bench.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

When the System Fails: The Unsolved Murder of Mary Badaracco

Mary's daughter, Sherrie Passaro, won't stop fighting for justice
It's called a travesty of justice- when the legal system not only fails to bring about justice, but also provides wishy-washy explanations to the extent that one wonders if some kind of cover-up is going on.

When Sherrie Passaro found out that her mother, Mary Badaracco, was missing, she felt in her gut that her mother's husband, Dominic Badaracco, was involved. Although police initially approached it as a missing person's case, Sherrie asserted that her mother would never leave her daughters and her beloved grandchild without saying goodbye, and she certainly would not permanently cut them out of her life. She also told them that her mother's relationship to Mr. Badaracco contained a long history of domestic violence, and that, one week before Mary went missing, the couple met with a lawyer and planned to divorce due to Mr. Badaracco's ongoing affair with another woman. In the weeks and months following her mother's disappearance, the grieving daughter metaphorically led authorities into a small room containing a giant elephant. In response, the assortment of men gazed out the windows and stared at the walls- and failed to look upon the beast standing right before them.

Why didn't law enforcement immediately suspect foul play and approach the sudden departure of Mary Badaracco as a possible homicide? According to Sherrie, local officials knew that messing with Dominic Badaracco could lead to problems down the road. He was not only a man of means- he also had connections in high places. He and his business partner, Ronald "Rocky" Richter, even golfed with judges. Who golfs with judges? Men with power.

Dominic Badaracco divorced his "missing" wife, Mary, in 1986 on grounds of desertion. That came as a blow to Sherrie and her sister- that a court of law would conclude that her mother deserted the ones she loved. A few years later, a former Hells Angel in the federal witness protection program told authorities that club members killed Mary Badaracco. The informant died in a motorcycle accident shortly after divulging that information.
Mary Badaracco

In 1990, Connecticut State Police reclassified the missing person's case as a homicide. Sherrie thought that progress was finally being made when she met with the new lead investigator. He shared her desire to get to the bottom of the mystery and initiate searches. More hope arose in 2010, when a one man grand jury was formed and carried out a detailed, 18-month probe into the matter. The experience was traumatic for Sherrie and her sister. They were called to testify on numerous occasions and rehash all of the pain surrounding their mother's disappearance. Still, they felt that it was worth it if their mother's murderer could be named and prosecuted. Their hopes were dashed, however, when the grand juror, Judge Arthur Hadden, failed to render any public finding of fact, and the Chief State's Attorney, Kevin Kane, did not pursue the matter any further.

According to Passaro, nothing was ever enough for authorities to find probable cause. They always needed more, more, more- but would not say what more meant. Many murders are solved without finding a body or a weapon, where a mountain of circumstantial evidence is enough to obliterate reasonable doubt. Hadn't investigators presented the grand jury with a virtual mountain of circumstantial evidence: a marriage on the rocks with a history of domestic violence; an impending divorce that would result in the division of a substantial amount of assets not to mention alimony; the fact that the victim's car (with a smashed in window) went missing weeks after she disappeared; and a former Hell's Angel alleging that club members carried out the murder, soon after dies? Sherrie and her sister felt that the court system was turning a blind eye to the elephant in the room- but why?  

Well, for one thing, the case got particularly ugly (and potentially scandalous) when Dominic Badaracco's former business associate, Richter, solicited the assistance of an old golfing buddy, Judge Brunetti. Telephone records subpoenaed by state police indicated that Richter and Brunetti spoke on the phone six times in October 2010; during that time, Brunetti was also talking to colleagues in the New Britain judicial district where he worked, and found out that a grand jury had been formed. He then told Richter about the existence of the grand jury- something that any judge knows not to do.

It remains unclear why it took weeks before Brunetti became concerned enough about Richter's phone calls to report the problem to his lawyer and seek advice. Did he sense that someone was onto him, or was his conscience just getting the better of him? Moreover, why did he have to ask a lawyer for advice on what to do? Wasn't it obvious that the first time Richter called wanting the inside scoop about grand jury proceedings that could result in Dominic Badaracco's indictment for murder, that he should have hung up and reported the matter to law enforcement ASAP? Keep in mind, the man was a judge.    

Brunetti's lawyer instructed him to inform the authorities that Richter was calling him. Police then tapped Brunetti's phone lines. On November 17, 2010, Dominic Badaracco called Brunetti from Richter's cellphone and offered the judge a $100,000 bribe in exchange for "help" in the matter. Badaracco was eventually arrested and served a very short period of time in jail for attempting to bribe a judge with the end goal of influencing a grand jury.

Sherrie Passaro and her sister subsequently attempted to obtain sealed transcripts of the grand jury's proceedings in hopes of showing that evidence had been presented that showed that Dominic Badaracco's current wife, Joan, along with his former business partner, Richter, were also directly involved in the bribery. Unfortunately, grand jury proceedings have been shrouded in secrecy since the 1600s. The theory is that disclosing that kind of confidential information could jeopardize an ongoing, active case. Here, however, the reality is that there appears to be nothing active or ongoing about the ice cold case involving Mary Badaracco. It seems to me that any danger that could come about by unveiling the grand jury's transcripts to the public, and especially to the daughters of Mary Badaracco, is far outweighed by the possible gains that would come from full disclosure. As the saying goes, "If you have nothing to hide, then why try to hide anything?" Information gleaned from grand jury transcripts could likely assist in future investigations and media coverage.

Does Sherrie Passaro hold out any hope that her mother's homicide will someday be solved and that the killer(s) will be brought to justice? Yes, there is always a chance that justice will prevail. Miracles happen. On the other hand, these days the answers seem more concrete to her on a spiritual level than in the realm of the court system. Sometimes she awakens from a deep sleep to feel her mother's face hovering just over hers, as if about to kiss her as she did when she was a small child.

Several years ago, she took a break from work and stood outside to get some sun. In the far off distance, a yellow butterfly floated directly her way and began circling around her head. She sensed her mother's spirit so strongly, in that moment. The next time she stood outside on break, a butterfly came and circled her head once again, and she felt her mother's presence. Now she has a flower garden designed to attract butterflies. They float to her balcony and stay still for unusually long periods of time while she takes their photos. Even the simplest of things can invoke her mother's presence. Recently, she made Mary's favorite recipe for cherry chocolate chip Bundt cake; the aroma, the taste, the memories of childhood birthdays.... all of this brought Mary's presence into the room. In a world where the court system can fail and murderers can get away scot-free, at least butterflies and cake can comfort a wounded soul.

Disclaimer: The information in this week's post was derived from a second interview with Sherrie Passaro, dated April 8, 2017. Ms. Passaro has read this article and approves of its contents. All other information contained in this article was derived from online sources including the following articles: Cool Justice: Pretend Investigations The Norm In Badaracco Homicide For 32 Years, by Andy Thibault, August 16, 2016; Judge Took Calls About Grand Jury Investigation, by Rick Green, The Hartford Courant, April 30, 2012; and Victim Advocate Makes Bid For Testimony, by Dirk Perrefort, CTPost, September 7, 2012.  To date, the homicide of Mary Badaracco remains unsolved and no suspects have ever been named. 

Mary Badaracco's famous cherry chocolate chip cake.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Did Mary Badaracco Really Disappear "Without a Trace?"

Mary with her daughters, then ages 2 and 3. 
In medieval times, a visitor approaching a city would smell it from miles away. Inhabitants lived in cramped quarters and left their waste in barrels on the street. When it rained, an "evil smell" arose and engulfed the city. The closer one got, the more putrid the smell. This seems like an appropriate analogy for the unsolved homicide case of Fairfield County resident, Mary Badaracco. The closer you get to it, the more it stinks.

Mary Badaracco went missing from her home in Sherman, Connecticut, in August of 1984. She was thirty eight years old. Initially a missing person's case, Mary's daughters Beth Profeta and Sherrie Passaro convinced a state representative to have the Connecticut State Police reclassify the case as a homicide. That happened in 1990. Think about that. Mary had already been gone for six years. The police spent all of that time approaching a woman's disappearance under the assumption that she simply skipped town... so much for the first 48 hours being crucial to figuring out a crime.

It seems unfathomable that the police would entertain the notion that a mother who doted on her children for two decades and adored her then two year old granddaughter would leave forever without first notifying her daughters, or attempting to contact them as months turned into years. Sherrie was planning a wedding at the time, and her mother was excited about helping her with the details. Keep in mind, this is the same woman who routinely sketched hearts and unicorns on customized cards for her daughters at holiday time. She knew just what they wanted for Christmas, whether it be a Baby Alive doll or a stuffed ET figure, and she would prop the special gifts under the tree as they slept on Christmas Eve, eager to watch their delight the next morning.
A card that Mary drew for her daughter in 1984.

By all accounts, Mary Badaracco was a lovely and down to earth woman. She used to tell her daughter Sherrie that they were "Swamp Yankees," meaning that their blood contained a mix of many nationalities common to this part of New England, including Italian, Jewish, and Native American. Mary was an attractive woman and when her first marriage ended, it did not take long for the single mother of two young girls to catch the eye of another man. She met her second husband, Dominic Badaracco, while she worked at a bar that he owned. Although Dominic had four children from another marriage, he was still something of a catch; handsome, tall and financially secure, he swept Mary off her feet to the extent that she not only married him, but took on the daunting task of helping to raise his children through their adolescent years. To that end, she stopped working and focused all of her energies on keeping a clean house and making home cooked meals.

Life was not always easy in the Badaracco home. According to Sherrie, Dominic's sons were a handful to raise and were often getting into trouble at school and with the law. Sherrie recalls that, in the years when she was ages 5 to 11, her stepfather Dominic would sometimes get physical with his wife. During angry outbursts, he would throw food from the cabinets, rip the phone from the wall, and break plates. Whenever Mary sensed a fight brewing, she sent her two daughters to a neighbor's house where she knew they would be safe. One time, Sherrie came down the stairs to see her stepfather sitting at the table with a large carving knife and fork before him. Her mother was clearly nervous and sent Sherrie and her sister to the neighbor's house. Sherrie remembers that her mother came to pick them up later on and her arms were covered in cuts.

It came as a great relief to Sherrie when her mother and stepfather's marriage seemed to calm down after the six children were raised into adulthood and finally out of the house. In about 1983, the empty-nesters moved into a beautiful Colonial situated on five acres of land. It appeared to be Mary's reward for the sacrifices that she had made for her blended family over the years. The couple gutted the entire house, repainted, and purchased all new furniture. When Sherrie visited for dinner every week, her mother and stepfather's relationship was noticeably different. Gone were Dominic's iron-handed, controlling ways. He seemed nicer; less troubled. For the first time, Sherrie began to actually like her stepfather and the fear that she felt throughout her childhood slowly went away.
An aerial view of the Badaracco's dream house in Fairfield County, CT
That all changed one evening in August of 1984. Sherrie went to the house on a Monday for a scheduled dinner and was surprised to find the doors locked and no one at home. Her mother's new car was in the driveway, which seemed even stranger, and the window on the driver's side had been smashed. A large, circular pattern in the glass told Sherrie that something was terribly wrong. She waited on the front porch and her stepfather eventually drove up in the noisy truck carrying ladders that he drove for his sign business. "Where is Mom?" she asked as he approached the steps.

"She left me," he replied.

Sherrie was shocked. The week before, her mother had told her that they had been to see a divorce lawyer and that her stepfather was having an affair. That was the first time Sherrie heard that their marriage had not improved, as she earlier assumed. Still, she never thought for a moment that her mother would pick up and leave her beloved home without any notice to her or her sister. The very proposition was nothing short of absurd. Only a few days before, she had spoken with her mother on the phone about going to the Bridgewater Fair that Saturday. She therefore surmised that her mother went missing on the weekend of August 19th and 20th.

According to Dominic, he last saw Mary a few days before. She was sleeping on the couch that morning, before he went off to work. When he got home from work later in the day, she was not there and all of her belongings had been removed from the home. He claimed that he had hidden $100,000.00 in cash throughout the house (perhaps in anticipation of a future division of assets?) and Mary had found that money and stolen off with it.  

Naturally, Sherrie said that they should call the police right away. She states that Dominic told her not to do that, because his lawyer was "going to take care of everything." One week later, Sherrie's sister Beth found out that their mother was gone, and the two women went to the Southbury Barracks to report the matter. According to Sherrie, the detective in charge was a close friend of Dominic's. He visited the house, and apparently took Dominic's story of a wife who just up and left him at face value.

What about the car with the smashed window? Dominic told Sherrie that her mother had had an accident before leaving and that explained the damage to the car. Conveniently, the car disappeared within weeks of Mary's disappearance. The only proof that it had been sold came in the form of a botched cover up on the back of the title, according to Sherrie, containing wrong dates and misinformation. Did the detective think to impound that car and search its contents before Dominic got rid of it? Apparently not. Was there any further investigation into the dates and names on that title, or the current whereabouts of the car? DMV records may hold a clue, and it would not be hard for law enforcement to get hold of them.

Just a few days after her mother went missing, Sherrie's stepsister asked her to assist in cleaning Mary's belongings from the house. Now that's what I call getting immediate closure. Sherrie was surprised to see that there was barely anything left to retrieve. All of her mother's clothing, jewelry, make-up, and other personal effects were already gone. Mary allegedly packed everything up in a matter of hours before her husband came home from work. One would think that a woman skipping town would take only a few suitcases, but no- Mary took everything she possessed, including all of the photos of her with her daughters. Some of the frames that lined the wall along the stairway were empty, but only the ones that contained pictures of Mary and her daughters. All that Sherrie could find in that "clean up" was a box or two hidden in the storage room containing holiday items. Within weeks of her mother's "departure," Dominic's mistress moved into the home and he filed for an uncontested divorce from Mary in 1986.
Sherrie prizes this gift given by her mother.

Next week's blog will discuss the events that unfolded in the years following the disappearance of Mary Badaracco. To date, no one has ever been charged or convicted in this matter.

A hand-drawn card from mother to daughter.
Disclaimer: The information contained in this article was derived from online articles found at, along with an interview conducted between the writer and Sherrie Passaro. Mrs. Passaro has read this article and approves of its contents.   

Friday, January 20, 2017

A Dangerous Bite: The Murder of Michael Aranow

On a warm summer night in July, 1978, two fourth-year medical students, Michael Aranow and Steven Asherman, walked into the the forest at Jones' Mountain in New Hartford, Connecticut. Ten hours later, only only one of them would emerge from that forest alive.  
Asherman, pictured here with his wife, was charged with the murder of Aranow.
A disheveled, 28-year old Steven Asherman knocked on the door of Aranow's uncle, Frank Jones Jr., at 7:30 on the morning of July 30. Shirtless and out of breath, he told Jones that he had driven to the family estate from NYC with Aranow the night before, and the two classmates had walked into the forest with the intention of hiking up to Lookout Point. During the walk, they were confronted by two inebriated men; one wielding a knife, and the other carrying a gun. Asherman had a black belt in karate, and he managed to push one of the men away and flee. Aranow also fled, but in a different direction. As the night wore on, Asherman wandered the woods and eventually fell asleep. When he awoke the next morning, he came upon the home of Aranow's uncle.
Photo from Inside Detective Magazine, December 1979

A search immediately ensued, and it was Jones who found his nephew's body about one mile away from the main house. Fully clothed, the 27-year old medical student was more than dead- he had been mutilated from head to toe to the tune of 108 stab wounds. Clearly, his killer had some incredible rage burning inside when he committed the gruesome act. Given the violent nature of the crime, it was also likely that the killer was no stranger to Aranow, and the motive behind the killing was highly personal.

Asherman's story was bizarre from start to finish: two men going for a late night hike? Post-altercation, after fleeing in terror, Asherman eventually falls to sleep? And what happened to his bright yellow shirt? He stated that it tore to pieces as he was running from the drunken men, so he took it off and threw it away. 

Despite its many oddities, the murder of Michael Aranow was not an open and shut case.  The 7-hour long autopsy was interrupted many times, and the medical examiner failed to run a saliva test on a bite mark located on the victim's left shoulder. That bite mark would become a centerpiece of the case at trial. Photos and measurements of the mark on Aranow's shoulder had been taken, and the jury needed to determine if the mark reflected the pattern and measurements of Asherman's teeth. 

It would be the first "bite mark" case in Connecticut. A dentist testifying for the prosecution stated at trial that the bite mark "could have been made" by Asherman, but he was unable to draw a definitive conclusion. In contrast, three forensic dentists testified on behalf of the defense and unanimously agreed that the bite mark did not belong to Asherman. Those same experts had testified against Ted Bundy only three weeks earlier, in what was Florida's first "bite mark" case. 

Dental forensic testimony sent Bundy to the electric chair. 
There, Bundy had left a bite mark on the left buttock of his victim, Lisa Levy. Photographs of Bundy's front upper and lower teeth and gums documented an uneven pattern that matched the impression left on Levy's flesh. Using a transparent sheet, the prosecution lay an enlarged photograph of the bite mark over a photograph of the structure of Bundy's teeth. The experts explained how the unique alignment, size, and sharpness of Bundy's teeth were exactly reflected in the bite mark on Levy's buttock. Even some chips in the teeth were noted, and for that reason, Bundy was watched closely weeks before the trial to make sure that he did not try to file down the evidence.  

It comes as no surprise that the same dental forensic experts who contributed to a finding of guilt in Bundy's case, when testifying on Asherman's behalf, created doubt in the mind of the Connecticut jurors. Early on, the jury voted 8-4 for acquittal, but that was not enough to free Asherman. They deliberated for 24 more hours and eventually agreed upon guilt. However, two jurors maintained that they thought Asherman was innocent, and this led to the first time in the state's court history where jurors were asked to take the stand and explain their deliberations and respond to allegations of misconduct.
Hounds searched the wooded terrain of Jones' Mountain.

Asherman did not begin his 7-14 year prison sentence until his appeals were exhausted, in 1985. He was released on February 11, 1992. I try to refrain from stating whether I think a defendant is innocent or guilty, but since this is a "vintage" murder case and the verdict has long since been rendered and the sentence served, I will say that I think Asherman's defense counsel introduced enough evidence, by way of forensic dental testimony, to result in an acquittal based on reasonable doubt. Moreover, the evidence presented by the prosecution was highly circumstantial. There was no DNA, no weapon, no witness- nada. I also think that one of the defense team's dental experts made a good point when stating in an article for the Hartford Courant dated February 11, 1992, that Asherman had a "credibility problem." He went on to say, "He's the kind of person you might not want to buy a used car from, but that doesn't mean he committed a homicide. Still, it was tough to believe."
The murder weapon was never found. 
Walking my dog on Jones' Mountain in New Hartford, CT. 

Who knows what happened on Jones' Mountain on July 29, 1978? Locals have wondered if Asherman and Aranow were romantically involved, although Asherman was married. Or perhaps Aranow made an advance, and Asherman went ballistic?  It's a murder mystery that continues to confound the residents of New Hartford, Connecticut- myself included.    

Post-script: Thank you to my friend and colleague, Attorney Regina Wexler, for loaning me the Inside Detective magazine, circa December 1979, that she purchased as a true crime collector on E-Bay. Several of the photos in this post originate from that old article. I also greatly enjoyed looking at the out-dated advertisements for cigarettes and diet pills. 
The savage murder of Michael Aranow was the cover story of the December '79 issue.