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Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Did MassMutual Executive Melissa Millan's Knowledge of Trade Secrets Result in her Murder?

Big banks routinely take out life insurance policies on employees.
Last week's blog post discussed the unsolved murder of MassMutual Vice President and mother of two, Melissa Millan. Based on the details that I provided, readers unanimously agreed with my theory that the stabbing that took place at a bike trail in Simsbury, Connecticut, on November 20, 2014, was the work of a professional hit man. Now it is time to delve into the question of who hired the hit man, and the motive behind said hiring.

I still plan to look at court documents regarding Millan's divorce, which was drawn out for two years and finalized in 2012, to see if there is any potential motive that can be gleaned on the part of Millan's ex-husband. That said, I find it hard to believe that a guilty ex-husband, albeit a smart guy with a law degree, could remain free from arrest for over two years after extensive FBI involvement. Perhaps I have too much faith in the FBI, but the solving of a murder carried out by a former spouse motivated by greed or revenge is usually (not always, but usually) a fairly straightforward task. Law enforcement knows to interrogate the suspect; speak with those that knew the suspect and the victim; trace the money trail to locate payments made by the suspect to a hit man; and hopefully get the hit man's family or friends to talk. Often, a rat or two will crawl out of the woodwork during the investigation to help speed things along. Frequently, the hit man is not a true professional, but rather, he is an ex-convict hard up for cash, not very bright; maybe he has a drug problem, and he also has loose lips.

The fact that none of this has played out in the Millan murder investigation makes me wonder if the MassMutual conspiracy theory, first posited in an article by Wall Street on Parade, has any merit. On its face, thinking that an agent or agents within the insurance company that employed Millan was somehow responsible for her murder sounds like the far-fetched plot in a Michael Connelly novel. As a member of MassMutual's Senior Management team, Millan was in charge of overseeing the general management of the company's Bank Owned Life Insurance (BOLI) accounts. That is no small thing. BOLI accounts, sold by insurance carriers like MassMutual make up significant tax-free revenues for "too big to fail" banks. As stated in the Wall Street on Parade article, in 2013, four of Wall Street's largest banks were the largest owners of BOLI, and the four banks' BOLI assets combined totaled $68.1 Billion dollars, with Bank of America leading the pack ($22.7B in BOLI); followed by Wells Fargo ($18.7B); JP Morgan Chase ($17.9B) and Citigroup ($8.8B).
Flowers mark the site on a bike trail where Millan took her final breaths. 

The entire concept of big banks owning life insurance policies on their employees, both high level, mid level, and even low level workers, is ethically questionable. Nonetheless, it is standard practice and the BOLI funds are relied upon by the banks when distributing company bonuses. It is an ugly business. Banks will look through the BOLI database of current and former employees annually and determine who died so that policies can be cashed in and proceeds can go to the entity that paid the premiums: not the family members, but the bank itself. How does the bank justify taking out an insurance policy on a worker in the first place? I am not sure, but I would certainly appreciate reader feedback concerning the reasoning behind how banks justify the necessity of BOLI accounts. To me, it seems like giving a worker a gold watch at retirement and then stealing back the watch, and a whole lot more, when the employee bites the dust.

So what could Millan have known about BOLI accounts and practices that would have put her life in danger? According to Wall Street on Parade, three years before her murder, Millan "assumed leadership of an expanded and centralized services observation division that included business underwriting and operations, as well as claims."  As suggested by blogger Dr. Joseph P. Farrell shortly following Millan's murder:  "Ms. Millan was in a position to see general trends." It is "not about banks offing their employees to collect on insurance." Rather, according to Farrell, where "there is a trend, there is information that someone desperately wants to keep secret."

I recently spoke with an individual who met with Millan and knew, firsthand, that Millan had problems with the power structure of MassMutual while she was working in that very system. Millan was something of a crusader, according to that source. She was frustrated with what she perceived as an "old boy" power structure and she longed to have a voice.

This leads me to the conclusion that a specific worker, probably one lateral to Millan in position and authority, knew that Millan could destroy him or her by unveiling their secret(s). I doubt it was a lesser-level employee. Someone under Millan would have simply quit the job. However, a person of equal if not greater authority to Millan would have the wherewithal to hire a seamlessly professional hit. Here, the hit man in question was no drunken slob that you meet at a biker bar. Imagine, instead, a guy like Gus from Breaking Bad: capable, experienced, and extremely intelligent. This was not the first time that he has murdered for money, and it probably won't be the last.  

It is all so complicated and way above the heads of the Simsbury Police and even, it seems, the FBI, as evidenced in a Hartford Courant article one year following the murder, in which the Simsbury police Chief said that the renewed investigation involving the FBI "led us back to where we started."
In order to further explore the BOLI conspiracy theory, federal investigators will need access to the information known by Millan and see if there were, indeed, any secrets regarding the trends and patterns of BOLI accounts that could have threatened her life. Unfortunately, an automatic disbursement of any and all original documentation is not allowed under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), as the material is considered "privileged" or "contains trade secrets."Yes, shareholders are entitled to make inquiry, but the documents provided would no doubt be neatly edited and presented in a way that would offer little insight into possible misdoings.

Could a Federal Grand Jury Hold the Key to Solving this Case?
Perhaps, then, it is time for federal prosecutors to call a grand jury to look into the matter. Prosecutors do not need probable cause to form a grand jury. Mere suspicion of foul play can suffice. Then, under Rule 17 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, the grand jury can subpoena the information reflecting BOLI patterns and trends that Millan had access to prior to her death. MassMutual would have to turn over such information and the refusal to do so could result in a contempt of court finding involving three years of sentencing for the obstruction of justice. Since the investigation is clearly at a standstill, the formation of a grand jury to look into matter could be just what is needed to heat up a case that gets colder by the day.

Disclaimer: Law enforcement has yet to publicly name any persons of interest in the unsolved murder of Melissa Millan.  

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Hit or Miss: The Unsolved Murder of Melissa Millan

A makeshift memorial marks the site where Millan was found by a driver. 

A big  tree tells the story. Perhaps. This is just one writer's hypothesis.
Nevertheless I will go forward in this blog and state what I think happened on the night of November 20, 2014, when Mass Mutual vice president Mellissa Millan was murdered.

When I went to the murder site, I felt like her voice was crying out from the trees and the rocks: find my killer and name my killer. Bring about justice. My life mattered and the truth should be known.....

Somewhere out there, a man is walking around with the knowledge that he killed Melissa Millan- and got away with it... for now.

On the evening of November 20, 2014, the 54-year old senior vice president for Mass Mutual was stabbed while running on a bike trail that runs alongside Iron Horse Boulevard in Simsbury, Connecticut. The slaying came as a shock to the upscale community. Until then, many people felt safe running on that trail at night. Although the street lighting is dim and shadowy areas course the paved path, a steady stream of traffic moves past. Millan was killed between 7:30- 8:00 PM on a Friday night, when people would be driving to restaurants and stores in the area on the weekend before Thanksgiving.

That the killer remains unknown to this day, despite extensive investigative efforts by the Simsbury police and the FBI, indicates that whoever killed Millan was highly intelligent. I personally believe that the murder was the work of a hired hit man who knew that Millan often ran that same route at that time of night. He was not just looking to ambush any female runner. Millan was his sole target.
A crescent-shaped Old Moon barely lit the sky that night. 

I recently visited the scene of the crime. Based on my observations, which are speculative, at best, the murder took place in the following manner:

Millan was running south from her home and had just passed the playground at Rotary Park. As an accomplished tri-athlete, she was moving at a good clip. She had just passed the green lamppost that emitted a dull, orangey light. A short distance ahead, a tree stood in the shadows, a few feet from the trail. The trunk of that tree is approximately 8-feet in height, and wide enough for someone to completely hide behind while simultaneously viewing his target through the cracks of the bulky branches.

Iron Horse Blvd is quiet for predictable periods of time. 
When I went to the site it was sunny out, and yet my companion had to purposely slip her body out from behind the tree for me to even see her, as the photo shows. Imagine how perfectly hidden the killer (likely dressed in black with a hoodie and gloves) would have been on that brisk night in November when only a waning crescent moon lit the sky.

But what about the cars driving past? As you can see in this photo, taken at 3:30 PM on a Friday afternoon in September, the flow of traffic along Hopmeadow Street comes in predictable waves. A short line of cars usually waits at the two intersections about 100 feet away from the murder site in both directions. When the light changes, the cars drive past Millan's makeshift memorial marking the spot where Millan took her final breaths. Then there is a short gap in time, about 20-30 seconds, when the roadway and two intersections are empty.

It is likely that Millan ran this trail in circuits each night, repeating the route two or three times before finishing her work-out. Thus, if the killer saw or heard oncoming traffic, he could simply wait for the next opportunity when Millan would run past the tree.

Just as Millan passed the tree, the killer jumped out, blade in hand. Millan was a strong woman, but she was also petite, Slowing her pace, she turned to see what was behind her, and the killer gave a strong, clean thrust of the knife into Millan's chest. It must have been a big knife. Perhaps a hunting knife. He got the blade in deep and pulled it out, turned quickly, and headed for the area of grass beside the playground, located just a few feet north of the tree where he had hidden.
A grass path leads directly to the parking lot.

Again, this is all speculation on my part, although I suspect that law enforcement shares my theory. The killer's car was parked in the corner of the dark, empty lot that was rarely patrolled by police and yet open to the public 24/7. He jumped in the car, still clutching the knife, and rushed to the lot's entrance. If he turned right or left, he would go onto Hopmeadow Street. Instead, he went straight ahead, crossing Hopmeadow and getting onto a quiet, unlit roadway that leads directly to Route 10.  As the killer turned on to Route 10, Millan crawled to the guardrail and passing motorists stopped to  help.

Millan was taken to St. Francis Hospital where she died. In the hours that followed, it was thought that Millan had been hit by a car. As for Milan's ex-husband, the couple had separated in 2010 and their divorce was not finalized until 2012. Millan was a woman of means, and the court ordered her to pay her ex-husband $8,000.00 a month in spousal support even though the ex-husband once practiced law in California and owned a microbrewery in Farmington that went bankrupt prior to the divorce. I have not looked at the actual divorce decree, but it is likely that the $8,000.00 monthly in alimony was rehabilitative in nature- ordered for a specific period of time so that the ex-husband could establish another career.

Across from the park, a secluded road leads to Route 10. 
Law enforcement has consistently told the media that Millan's ex-husband is not a person of interest and has been ruled out as a suspect. This comes as a surprise to many, as there is no mention in media reports of a solid alibi or any specific reason as to why Millan's ex has been cleared. On one hand, police have searched his home, and very likely his vehicle, and nothing incriminating has been found- but is that enough to clear someone? I trust that law enforcement, including the FBI, has carried out a detailed search of the ex-husband's finances in the year or so leading up to the murder and found no indication of a pay-off to a third party, whether it be in a lump sum or in increments over time.

Assuming the ex-husband is 100% innocent, who else could have hired the hit on Melissa Millan? Stay-tuned. At a future date, I will post a new article regarding the very real possibility that Millan's murder is related to her job at MassMutal and her knowledge of "Trade Secrets" in relation to the company's Bank Owned Life Insurance (BOLI) accounts, a controversial practice where banks purchase life insurance policies on all of their workers.

Disclaimer: There are currently no suspects in the unsolved murder of Melissa Millan and it appears that law enforcement has reached a dead end in the investigation. The theory posited by the author in this post regarding the performance of the crime is based solely on the author's personal observations of the crime scene and is purely speculative in nature. The facts are as follows: Millan was stabbed in the chest at the location referenced above at about 8:00 PM on Friday, November 20, 2014. She was discovered on the ground by a passing motorist and thereafter pronounced dead at St. Francis Hospital. Although this blog post refers to the killer as a man, there is no indication of the killer's gender. 

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Getting to know a serial killer suspect is a headtrip of the highest degree

I recently read Ann Rule's bestseller, Stranger Beside Me, about the crimes of serial killer Ted Bundy. In it, the author describes her personal relationship with Bundy as it evolved over the years. Rule experienced conflicting emotions towards her subject; a man who eventually confessed to the savage killings of 30 women (although the true number of Bundy's victims is said to be more than triple that number). In an odd way, the story reassured me that I am on the right track concerning my efforts to understand and write about serial killer suspect, William Devin Howell, with the end goal being the publication of a true crime novel about him when the trial is over and the verdicts are in.
Bundy: the well-dressed, college-boy Rule first met. 

Rule struggled with the fact that she truly liked Ted on many levels- especially in the early stages of their friendship, before he was even charged with the crimes. Similarly, I am perplexed and confused about feelings of genuine concern that I have felt for Howell in the past 18 months, not unlike the concern that I feel for a disability client suffering in extreme mental anguish. It is not uncommon for me to drive away from prison visits with a heavy heart; my thoughts immersed in a cloud of profound depression.

On the most basic of levels, I just cannot believe that I live in a world where human beings can be accused of such atrocities and need to be locked up like mad dogs for the protection of society. Whether it was Bill Howell who killed those seven victims and buried their dismembered bodies behind the strip mall in New Britain, Connecticut, or whether it was someone other than Bill, the fact remains that that kind of evil exists.  

If Howell is guilty of the charges against him, and that is for a jury to decide, then the friendly man that I meet with at Walker Correctional Institute is a monster. There is no saying what he would do to me in a non-supervised setting without plexiglass separating the two of us. I am petite, and he is a stocky, strong man. He could turn on a dime: jovial and kind-spirited one minute, then frothing at the mouth with pure hatred in his eyes the next. For me, there would be nowhere to run.

And so, I experience a certain dual-mindedness during our visits. On the one hand, I feel relaxed and I actually enjoy our exchanges. It is fair to say that I like the man. On the other hand, I am wondering, always wondering, about what is not being said. We may be discussing Trump's victory, for example, how the events unfolded on election night (Bill went to bed before the final results and awoke for his Insulin injection at 5 AM to hear Sarah Palin talking on the television about a Trump administration. Like me and many other Americans, he was shocked) and as I look into his bulging hazel eyes, I cannot help but think: WTF? Images of events described in the prosecution's court filings trip through my mind. They are all just allegations at this point. The evidence has yet to be presented in a court of law. Still, those mental images exist and they are horrific.

Readers of this blog have asked some recurring questions and I would like to answer them now:

1. Has Howell confessed to you?

God, no. He maintains complete innocence, even with respect to the crime that he is currently serving time for- the murder of Nilsa Arizmendi. Our letters, phone calls, and visits are permeated with the mutual and keen awareness that members of the Prosecution and the Department of Corrections likely read and/or listen to every word exchanged. Bill has every intention of going through the trial process and fighting the charges.

2. Does he come across as a psychopath, a narcissist, or a sociopath?

I am not a mental health professional, so I will let the experts opine on that at trial. For now, I am willing to say two things that strike me about Bill's overall personality. On the surface, he is a sociable person both in and out of prison, but there is a strong antisocial component to his character. For example, he thoroughly enjoyed the transient lifestyle that he had while living in Connecticut. Most of that time he lived out of his van. He often worked two jobs and would shower at the YMCA between shifts. It was a relief to him to not have to pay rent or deal with roommates in low income housing who often had drug addictions. He is, at core, a self-sufficient loner who does not play by society's rules. Put him in a World War Z setting and he would survive. He has told me that he could build a house from ground up. He probably could.

Secondly, he is intensely loyal to the people that he loves. The circle is small: two or three childhood friends; two former girlfriends, one of which is deceased; and even the memory of his father, who he calls "Pops." In reference to the two girlfriends, he admits to making mistakes and having regrets. He frequently weeps when he discusses these two women, especially his first love. However dysfunctional the relationships may have been, he loved her then and he obviously loves her now. I don't think that is an act.

3. Other prisoners call him "Hillbilly." Would you agree with that label?

Not really. Bill speaks with a mild Southern drawl, a product of growing up in Hampton, Virginia (not exactly the Hills of Appalachia.) His accent must strike inmates in the Connecticut prison system as funny and so he is given the name Hillbilly. He did frequent establishments with country line dancing and mechanical bulls, such as Cadillac Ranch, while living in Connecticut, and he met two future girlfriends at those places. He likes heavy metal music, including the work of Ronnie James Dio. He listens to station 99.1 PLR, on his radio. He watches the nightly news, and has a decent knowledge of current events. He also likes watching Family Guy, and American Greed. He is not into sports. While his letters contain spelling errors and he did drop out of high school, his writing is neat and he has sound reasoning skills. If I could rate his intelligence on a scale of 1-10, I would assign a 3 or 4 for verbal and writing capacity, and an 8 for reasoning and logic. There are times when he has out-argued me, a lawyer. He is also shrewd. He usually knows when to speak, and when to shut up, in his own best interests.      

4. Does he have nightmares?

So do I.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Serial Killer Suspect's Suicidal Thoughts are Nothing New

Today The Hartford Courant reported that serial killer suspect William Devin Howell wrote to the newspaper on September 20, 2016, stating that he was suicidal in his current status as an inmate at Bridgeport Correctional. This is old news, to me.

In letters dating back to July 2015, Howell has repeatedly told me about his depression and despair. In our first phone call, on December 21, 2015, Howell ended by saying that he just wanted to close his eyes and never wake up again. The call was being recorded, and shortly thereafter, Howell was transferred from MacDougall-Walker CI in Suffield and put on suicide watch at Garner CI. Over the holidays, Howell was kept in solitary confinement wearing a Ferguson Gown, also known as a Turtle Suit. The nylon material of the garment cannot be tied into a noose for self-hanging. He wrote letters to me on a daily basis, using the ink cartridge of a pen. The outer plastic had been removed by the Department of Corrections (DOC) to prevent Howell from breaking it into a jagged instrument that could be used to slit his wrists.

Howell was transferred back to the protective custody unit at MacDougall-Walker CI about two weeks later. He was grateful to return to a cell with electricity, where he could have recreation time with other prisoners in that unit, and make food from the commissary in his hot pot. When I visited him, he voiced his depression but was careful to say that he had no plans to attempt suicide. He was, of course, aware that our calls were recorded by DOC, and he did not want to get sent back to the suicide watch unit at Garner. It was also important to him to have the proper lighting and a chair and desk in his cell in order to review legal documents provided to him by counsel.

Everything changed last month when Howell was transferred from Walker to Bridgeport CC. When I visited him a few weeks ago, I was dealing with a very different man than the one I met with a few times at Walker. In the past, he would get a bit get teary during our face to face discussions, but during the recent visit, the tears were flowing steadily down his face and he talked about committing suicide at every turn. The week before, Howell was on suicide watch at Bridgeport CC and though his desire to kill himself did not diminish, he was eventually released from suicide watch and put back in the protective custody cell.

There were a few things that kept Howell sane at Walker: a small television, a hot pot to cook with, proper lighting in his cell, a chair, a bed that was off the floor (not just a mattress on cement), and air conditioning. Bridgeport, in contrast, provides him with none of these amenities. Last week, Howell wrote to inform me that he had tried to kill himself by hanging but the attempt failed and he was left with only a sore neck. He was not placed in suicide watch after that failed attempt.

The readership comments to today's article in the Hartford Courant reflect the overall public sentiment towards Howell. If he is guilty of the crimes that he has been charged with committing, then that sentiment is warranted. That said, he remains innocent until proven guilty, and so has a right to a fair trial without killing himself beforehand. The Constitution says as much.

I will personally be very surprised if Howell can survive another two to three years until a trial takes place and verdicts are rendered. If anything keeps him alive, it will be the fact that it is surprisingly difficult to succeed in killing oneself in the present-day prison system. Petit home invasion murderer Joshua Komisarjevsky recently learned that lesson when he attempted to hang himself in a Pennsylvania prison. It is not easy to do when you have to use a bed frame or chair and willfully pull your body away until the choking process is complete.

What Howell did not tell the Courant in his September 20th letter is that his options for a transfer to another prison are slim. There are only three protective custody units in Connecticut. Howell was in the PC Unit at Walker but was transferred to the PC Unit at Bridgeport due to issues involving another prisoner. It appears that authorities may have been questioning the other prisoner about Howell. He cannot go to the protective custody unit at Cheshire CI, because the State's lead witness, inmate Jonathan Mills, is in that unit. The only place left for Howell to go is Northern CI, which does not have a protective custody unit, but has a special needs unit.

When someone is in prison, likely for life, little things mean everything: that extra bag of chips, or a favorite TV show to look forward to, or a bed that is raised from the ground and a cell temperature that is tolerable for sleeping. At Bridgeport CC, Howell has none of these things. It is ironic that the Supreme Court of Connecticut recently eliminated the death penalty, because Howell has repeatedly told me that he would be glad to die and have this nightmare over with. For those who think that the death penalty is the ultimate punishment, I beg to differ. Howell is living in his own personal hell right now.    

See The Hartford Courant's article, Who is Devin Howell. My upcoming book will share so much about this suspect, based on my ongoing written and face to face interviews with him. This novel/blog is a work in progress that contains substance and insight not contained within ordinary press reports.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The Purpose of Habeases and the Role of the Jailhouse Snitch

Quadruple murderer Jonathan Mills stands to make a nice chunk of money as an informant in the case against serial killer suspect, William Devin Howell. It is likely that he will get the $150,000.00 in award money in exchange for his testimony regarding Howell's alleged confessions at an upcoming trial.
Mills and Howell, courtesy of CT prisoner website and NB PD.

For the friends and family of Mills' victims, it must be sickening to know that the career criminal who took away their loved ones stands to profit from the matter of State vs. Howell. The crimes for which Mills has been convicted are on equal footing with the crimes that Howell is alleged to have done. On October 10, 2000, Mills strangled a female neighbor; a single mother of a two year old girl, and dumped her remains in a wooded section of the fairgrounds in Guilford, Connecticut.

Two months later, Mills broke into his aunt's house, armed with two knives, in search of money for drugs. Katherine Kleinkauf was asleep in bed with her two children, ages 6 and 4. When Kleinkauf awoke and confronted Mills, he stabbed her 45 times. The children awoke during the struggle, and he stabbed each of them six times. He then made off with the dead mother's ATM card and got high on heroin and crack. Later that morning, 10 year old Alyssa Kleinkauf returned from a sleepover at a friend's house to discover the lifeless bodies of her mother and younger siblings. Years later, she would stare down Mills in a courtroom, stating that she still cried herself to sleep at night and woke up in the morning hoping it was all just a nightmare.
Mills disposed of one victim's body in the forest of the Guilford Fairgrounds.

Mills receiving the six figure award offered by the State for information to convict Howell is an unfortunate reality of a legal system that heavily relies on the testimony of criminal informants. Commonly known as "jail house snitches", informants hold a powerful place in the criminal legal system, and their role is not without a lot of controversy. On one hand, snitches help in the solving of many crimes that would otherwise remain unsolved.

On the other hand, they are not always on the up and up given the incentives that they are provided.  A 2004 study by Northwestern University Law School examined all of the wrongful capital convictions to that date and concluded that over 45 percent of those innocence cases were the result of the testimony of a lying informant. Also, one cannot help but wonder if a quadruple murderer (or a child molester, or a longtime narcotics dealer, or any other convicted criminal, for that matter), deserves favors from the State- monetary or otherwise.

Don't get me wrong. I am by no means implying that Mills is lying or that his testimony should not be allowed in court. I am saying that it gets under my skin – and it should get under your skin, too – that the State will likely lift the lien on that award money and, rather than applying it to the cost of Mills' incarceration, hand the money over to Mills for distribution as he sees fit. After all, but for the heinous murders of four people, two of them small children, Mills would never have been in a place to hear Howell's alleged confessions and report them to the State.

A year has passed since Howell was officially charged with murdering six individuals and dumping their remains behind a strip mall in New Britain, Connecticut, and a trial is not even close to being scheduled. The wheels of justice move slowly, but often for good reason. In the case of State vs. Howell, a lot is at stake: family members of the victims will show up in full force throughout the trial; anxiously waiting for justice and tearfully reliving the horrible events as the evidence is presented. In turn, while the defendant's life may not be hanging in the balance (last year, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that the state's death penalty was unconstitutional) it might as well be. A guilty verdict on even one of the many charges will lead to a lifetime behind bars for Howell with no hope of parole.

Finally, there is the fact that the future trial will attract an enormous amount of media attention at both local and national levels. For all of these reasons and more, State's Attorney Brian Preleski and Howell's attorneys, Jeffrey Kestenband and William Paetzold, must be on top of their respective games in the months and years to come.

How are both sides faring in preparation for the battle ahead? To date, legal filings indicate that the State has taken full advantage of its many broad privileges not available to the defense. For example, when defense attorneys need to speak with an incarcerated client or witness, they must make a trip to the prison. In contrast, the prosecution can file a habeas application that allows transport of the prisoner to the courthouse at the taxpayer's expense. This is basically the court's way of allowing an inmate without freedom the temporary liberty to show up in court at a specific time and place and for a specific reason.
Prisoner transport is a risky business.

The legal question then arises: for what purposes can the State exercise its habeas rights? Clearly, habeases can be filed to summon a prisoner to the courthouse on the day of an arraignment, a pre-trial hearing, or a trial. In recent years, however, Preleski has filed habeases for investigative purposes in a matter where a man had yet to be charged with the crimes in question. Since the case of State v. Howell did not exist until September 2015, when official charges were laid, Preleski was unable to file original habeases requesting the transportation of various witnesses at the clerk's office, as required. When he did subsequently present the habeases (when an open file came into existence at the clerk's office) the paperwork teemed with inaccuracies and omissions.

Two of the habeases, one filed before Howell's arrests, one after, request the transport of leading witness, Jonathan Mills, to the courthouse from Cheshire Correctional Institute. Another habeas requested the transport of defendant Howell to court in January 2015, ten months before the case against him existed, in order to serve him with a search warrant. Howell's attorneys argue that the habeas was also intended for the purpose of interrogation.

As one example of the many errors contained in the habeases in question, on April 15, 2015, the State checked the form's box indicating that the transport of Mills was required because he was a defendant in the criminal action specified as State v. Jonathan Mills. No such case existed when the habeas was issued. Mills had long since been convicted for the grisly murders of two women and two children. Also, Mills was being transported for questioning as a witness, not a defendant.  

In a Motion to Preclude Improper Use of Habeas and Subpoenas filed in on June 28, 2016, Howell's attorneys challenged the State's practice of filing habeases for investigative purposes, stating that the "Other" box on the form cannot serve the purpose of allowing the State to summon prisoners to court to for any reason it wants. According to the Defense, habeases are not designed for broad investigative purposes, nor are they intended to assist in pre-trial preparation, including a private meeting where Mills agreed to testify for the state in exchange of a six figure award. Can the State continue to use habeases for investigative purposes outside official court appearances? The judge will let us know that answer when he rules on the Defense's motion in the months ahead.

The State plans to submit evidence of a cooperation agreement with jail house informant, Jonathan Mills, the terms of which suggest that Mills will provide "truthful" testimony at trial. The Defense argues that such language has a prejudicial effect because it is for the trier of fact to determine what is truthful, not the prosecution. Sometimes informants tell the truth, other times they lie, and their information is often difficult to check. For now, the Defense's motion objecting to the language of the cooperation agreement has been tabled. It is likely that the judge will permit such language in the cooperation agreement presented at trial, given that cooperation agreements commonly use terms pertaining to "truthfulness." He may appease the Defense by offering jury instructions that explicitly state that it is for the members of the jury alone to determine what is truthful.

The State has a lot of work ahead, but it remains in the position of a mighty Goliath possessing a deadly arsenal of discovery. In contrast, Howell's attorneys are in the unenviable position of wee Davids engaged in a fight with astronomical odds against them. In keeping with that metaphor, the Defense's pretrial motions to date resemble sticks and stones thrown in the giant's direction. Such disparity between the State and the Defendant is not unusual in the criminal setting. However, in this case, the disparity could be better defined as a massive chasm.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The Senseless Killing of Nina Ubiera

The Naugatuck River flows alongside Route 8 in Connecticut.
Between the years of 1985 and 1994, there were nineteen unsolved homicides in the state of Connecticut. Five of those murders involved the disposal of women along a twelve-mile stretch of roads running adjacent to Route 8. Several of the bodies were found in the vicinity of the Naugatuck River.

On November 1, 1994, a few factory workers were driving to work along Route 262 in Thomaston and saw a naked body in the bushes at the edge of a gravel pit, about twelve feet from the shoulder of the road. The location was just one mile away from the site where another victim, Mary Jo Markiewicz, was discovered, dead from multiple stab wounds, the year before.

Markiewicz, like Everett, Alvarado, and Bettencourt, was a Waterbury prostitute. State police wondered if the unidentified naked body discovered on November 1, 1994, was also a local prostitute and somehow related to the cluster of prior killings. The body had not been there for very long, maybe just a day or two, according to Sgt. Scott O’Mara of the Connecticut state police. The woman was Hispanic, with long wavy hair. She looked to be in her early thirties.
Ubiera was different from other Route 8 victims

Unlike the other Route 8 victims, this woman had been mutilated. One of her breasts was cut off.  Apparently, the killer wanted to keep a physical reminder of the crime for himself, and mutilating his victim likely gave him a sense of ownership and control. In quick time, the twenty detectives assigned to the case unveiled additional differences between the latest victim and the other women dumped near Route 8 in recent years.

The exact cause of death was not apparent. An autopsy later revealed that the cause of death had not been strangulation, shooting, or stabbing. Rather, Ubiera was hit by a car and likely died from the initial impact. Following the accident, her body had been moved to the remote locale where the undressing and mutilation probably took place post-mortem. 

The other Route 8 victims were prostitutes with substance abuse problems. The current victim, however, was not a prostitute or a drug addict. Her name was Olga Maria Cornieles-Ubiera; to her friends, she was “Nina.” Ubiera was among the growing population of Dominicans who had come to Connecticut in search of the American dream. As with most immigrants, job opportunities did not abound for Ubiera. She struggled with the language and could not read English. At the time of her death, Ubiera was between jobs. She lived in a humble third floor tenement in a section of Waterbury’s inner city that was crammed with similarly unattractive and outdated apartment buildings.

Ubiera made the most of a difficult situation. She had loving relationships with her Dominican relatives living in Bridgeport and New York. The two women living in the apartment below her said that she would often stop by for coffee and conversation. Ubiera also had a boyfriend, Michael Knox, who worked as a computer programmer. The two had met in a former workplace; others may have thought Uberia to be somewhat ordinary in looks, but Knox thought that she was beautiful.

Knox was interviewed at length following the murder and police ruled him out as a suspect based on a solid alibi. He was at a Halloween party on the night of Uberia’s death and witnesses could vouch for it. Knox was obviously torn to pieces about his girlfriend’s gruesome demise. It gave him chills, thinking that he must have driven past her defiled corpse on the way to work at a Waterville metals firm in the hours before her lifeless body was discovered.

In an article in the Hartford Courant dated December 29, 1994, Knox described Ubiera as “proper.” The two did not even kiss until a few months into the relationship. Like many women from the Dominican Republic, Ubiera “had a taste for good clothes and fine food.” Police divers explored the frigid waters and banks of the nearby Naugatuck River, located across the road from the location where the body was found.  Any nice clothing that Ubiera wore on the night that she was killed was never found. 
Police searched the snowy shoreline of the Naugatuck River

Ironically, the only personal item found next to Ubiera’s body was a black beeper with a broken clip. It was given to her by Knox so they could stay in touch.

Postscript: Today's blog post concerns one of the unsolved Route 8 Murders. I will return to writing about the serial murders in New Britain, Connecticut, in the near future. 

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

A Republic of Laws, Not Men: The Pressure on Americans to Think (and Act) Like Nancy Grace

Grace often mocks the defense with air quotes. 
Over the holiday weekend, CNN host Nancy Grace announced that she would be leaving her popular self-titled show later this year. Grace currently holds the media's crown for publicly proclaiming a defendant's guilt long before a jury has reached a verdict. How she has escaped being sued into bankruptcy over the last two decades is beyond me.

If a case is especially high profile (and therefore destined for high ratings) Grace starts the slanted presentation right from day one, sometimes before charges are laid. A former prosecutor, she guises her overt bias in the self-professed role of "victims' advocate." It makes perfect sense to her and to many Americans that compassion for the victim involves – even requires –jumping the gun and naming a defendant guilty before the wheels of justice begin to move. Never mind that the defendant may be innocent or that the victim does not want the wrong person to go to jail. In Grace's way of thinking, the mere suggestion that there may be another suspect other than the defendant; that there may be more to this legal drama than initially meets the eye, is almost as bad as committing the crime itself.

Grace's approach to covering true crime has caught on like wildfire. Who doesn't love a good witch hunt? At the very least, it appeals to our innate desire for every story to have good guys and bad guys. As a general rule, the audience wants the opposing sides to be named early on. That way, we can root for our team as the story unfolds. In the minds of Grace and many of her viewers, prosecutors and detectives are almost always on the winning team. The defendant and his or her counsel are the losers. If you need to roll your eyes and mock them with air quotes, go for it. We all know the suspect is guilty.

Has Grace's style rubbed off on me? I'm afraid so. Last summer, I spoke with a prospective publisher about my unfinished true crime manuscript regarding the investigation and upcoming trial of New Britain serial murder suspect, William Devin Howell.

"Who is the protagonist?" she asked.

'Damned if I know,' I honestly thought.  

"You can't write it without knowing the protagonist," she admonished.

I went home and weighed my options. I could take the predictable route and depict the prosecution as the protagonist. Doing so would certainly minimize the negative feedback that I was already receiving behind the scenes from loved ones of the victims and readers who have concluded Howell's guilt. Despite the obvious perks, however, I just couldn't stomach the idea of siding with the prosecution in this particular case. Months back, I sent an email to the office of the Chief State's Attorney requesting an interview. Of course, I knew my request would be rejected given the active status of the case. I was just doing my journalistic duty and putting my feelers out there.

What troubled me about the response that I received was the State's snippety tone. You see, in writing my request I had wrongly called the Chief Attorney Kevin Kline, not Kevin Kane. Hey, I am relatively new to Connecticut and the name of actor Kevin Kline was stuck in my head. The sender tersely wrote, "By the way, his name is Kevin Kane, not Kline" (i.e. you idiot.) The derisive tone solidified the impression that I have had of prosecutors since I started practicing law. They can be an arrogant lot. Why would I want to paint them as Salt of the Earth in my upcoming book, no matter how strong the case at hand?
Kevin Kline is an actor, not an attorney.

In the months that followed, I tried to spin Detective DeRoehn as the good guy. That did not sit well, either. I knew that DeRoehn's role in investigating the disappearance of Nilsa Arizmendi was not always on the up and up. For example, prior to Howell's arrest for Arizmendi's murder, DeRoehn filled out a government form in a way that many would consider to be knowingly misleading. In order to locate the now infamous blue van that was owned by Howell's girlfriend, Dorothy Holcomb, but driven by Howell, DeRoehn checked the box on a DSS form indicating that getting the registration number on the vehicle was for the purpose of locating or apprehending the individual named in this request (i.e, Holcomb, not Howell.) The form was directed at the recipients of food stamps and/or cash assistance. Howell did not partake in those state programs. Holcomb did.

DeRoehn later claimed that checking the box was an oversight on his part. That's a considerable mistake for a man who routinely fills out government forms for a living. Moreover, when he located the van and went to Holcomb's house for questioning, he lied and said that he was there to investigate some lawn thefts in the area that may be related to the driver of the blue van. That particular ruse was entirely legal, and not unusual in the investigative process. Still, it did not make me want to portray DeRoehn as a knight in shining armor.

There was only one option left in my narrative toolbox. I could depict Howell's defense counsel as the protagonist. The idea was almost laughable. Thus far, this case does not resemble The Making of a Murderer. In my research, I have found no egregious investigative errors resulting from the State's excessive zeal. In fairness, however, the media has access to bits and pieces of information put out there by the prosecution. We won't know all of the defense's cards until they are presented at trial. With that in mind, I really look forward to seeing what defense counsel comes up with along the way. If Howell's attorneys, William Paetzold and Jeffrey Kestenband, can pull even a few lame rabbits from the defense's hat, I will be duly impressed. If they can overcome the Nancy Grace presumption that most Americans entertain, to wit: there are no cracks in the State's case, nor is there anything that comes close to reasonable doubt regarding the defendant's guilt, I will be in speechless awe of their lawyering skills. Not only will they have pulled a lame rabbit from the hat, they will have resurrected it from the dead.
The interrogation of Brendan Massey in Making of a Murderer.

When all is said and done, I will not write the manuscript having chosen the protagonists and antagonists in advance. That tactic may work in a John Grisham novel, but in the arena of true crime, it can significantly jeopardize the integrity of the work. So here's my solution which I pray will keep my Nancy Grace demons at bay: I will continue with the research, carry on with writing and visiting the suspect, and eventually attend the trial with an open and observant mind.

By story's end, if there is a good guy in this book, I suspect it will be the law itself; an individual's Constitutional right to a fair trial regardless of the heinous nature of the crime for which he has been accused, or the seemingly insurmountable odds against him. That cornerstone of the American justice system will likely be my good guy.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Mondays with Bill

MacDougall-Walker Correctional, where Howell is housed.
You have no doubt heard of the bestselling book, Tuesdays with Morrie. It is a memoir of sorts, in which the author chronicles his weekly visits with a terminally ill college professor. As I left the MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution last Monday, it occurred to me that the next two years of my life could be aptly described as Mondays with Bill. That's because I promised serial killer suspect William Devin Howell in our initial face to face meeting that I would visit him from this point forward on the first Monday of every month.

Howell has not had a visitor in over three years. He wrote one short letter in response to a local TV reporter's inquiries. That letter was passed on to a psychologist who read it and concluded that the serial killer suspect was trying to "humanize himself" to the TV viewers. Otherwise, I have been Howell's sole connection with the outside world, with only two exceptions: a woman who wrote him early on and said that she was interested in writing a book about him, but soon after stopped writing (perhaps realizing that she was in over her head); and a man whom Howell describes as a "psycho" from out of state, who writes and expresses great interest about the crimes that Howell has been charged with committing.  

I began written correspondence with Howell last July. To date, he has sent me over one hundred pages of handwritten letters. Sometimes he sketches blueprints of holiday-themed crafts that he makes in his cell to kill the time: a Christmas tree made from the shiny red foil of potato chip bags and pen cartridges, and shriveled up oranges with Jack O'Lantern faces, for example. I often read his letters on lunch break at work. My paralegal eyes me thumbing through the pages and licking peanut butter from my fingers and cringes with disgust. "Ew! You don't know what's on those pages!"
She's right. I don't know what is on those pages, other than the DNA of a man accused of murdering seven individuals, some of whom were brutally raped, and leaving their remains to rot behind a strip mall in New Britain, Connecticut. So yeah, it is kind of gross when you think about it. 

Engaging in a relationship with a serial killer suspect for the purpose of gathering information for a future true crime novel is not an endeavor that will win a person any popularity contests. For the most part, people who enjoy the true crime genre post encouraging remarks on my Serial Murders in Connecticut Facebook page. But there are always the private messages that the public does not see; the, "How can you give this monster any attention? Have you no shame? You are so naive if you think he is anything except evil" type of sentiments. Strangely, I never said he was anything but evil.  

Truth is, on an ethical level I do struggle with writing about Howell. There is something reprehensible about spending time with a serial killer suspect and potentially making a profit off the pain inflicted on the victims and their family members. 

So why do it? I have asked myself this question many times over. The answer that keeps coming back to me is simple: readers want to know the truth and writers need to tell the truth, no matter how disturbing it may be. Violent crimes of a sexually aberrant nature are on the rise. The perpetrator could be your church-going next door neighbor (the BTK killer) or a handsome law student riding his bike at a state park (Ted Bundy.) That reality is both creepy and fascinating. A good true crime story can serve as both a cautionary tale (watch out, there are some crazies out there), and a statement on the random cruelty of life (but even if you lock your doors, the crazies can still get you.) For women readers, especially, there is often that factor of being able to relate to the victim and her plight. The reader looks back on events in her own life that could have led to rape or even murder: that shadowy figure in the parking garage; the jogger coming up from behind on a lonesome street; or that gentlemanly guy in college who ended up stalking her...

The true crime genre started with Truman Capote's masterpiece, In Cold Blood. It tells the story of the murders of four members of a wealthy wheat-farming family in Kansas back in 1959. The author didn't just write about the two killers, Perry Smith and Richard Hickock- he got to know them. Some say Capote was infatuated, perhaps in love, with Smith. I can assure you, I hold no romantic feelings for Howell. Early on, I was afraid of him and I had nightmares of being attacked. As of late, I feel only a kind of clinical curiosity. I told him in one letter that I want to know "what makes him tick." And I truly do. 

Christian Longo and author Michael Finkel. 
Countless others have gone on to write about real-life killers that they actually got to know. New York Times journalist Michael Finkel initially liked wife and child murderer Christian Longo, and hoped that the Jehovah's Witness who claimed innocence was telling him the truth. Over time, Finkel's feelings changed to horror and disgust as he accepted that Longo was nothing but a heartless psychopath who could tell lies like some people discuss sports or the weather. 

Family-killer Perry Smith and Truman Capote.
Back to last week's visit with Howell; we were separated by glass and spoke on blue phones that recorded our conversation. His lawyers are not happy about his choice to write me and meet with me, but he tells them that it's his life. We are an odd pair, to be sure: I am an artificially blonde Social Security lawyer on the cusp of fifty; Howell is a high school drop-out from Virginia who may turn out to be one of Connecticut's most prolific serial killers. Hard to believe that we spent the entire hour engrossed in conversation- but we did. Much of our discussion seemed pointless: discussing books by John Saul, and the habits of birds that Howell feeds in the outside recreation area, more like a concrete cubby hole, each morning. 

Did we discuss the current allegations? Briefly. Howell explained his decision to waive a probable cause (PC) hearing last week. His main reason for wanting to go through with it was to let the court and the public know that Jonathan Mills, the convicted killer expected to provide key testimony against Howell, was being given a $150,000.00 award for doing so. The State has not given any indication that it will waive that award, or apply it to Mills' incarceration fees. I asked Howell why Mills would be so interested in the cash, since he will never see it because he has a life sentence for killing two women and two children in 2000. Howell argued that Mills probably wanted to give the money to friends or family on the outside. "That money could buy his mother a nice little house," he said. Well, that's true, but it involves the assumption that Mills gives a damn about his mother, or anyone else on the outside, for that matter.

When Howell found out from his lawyers that the potential self-interest of Mills would be made clear to the court and the public via legal filings and media reports even without a PC hearing, he realized that going through with the PC hearing was not worth it. It was a good decision, in my opinion, as PC hearings are well known vehicles for the State to present its evidence long before trial and thus permit a defendant to be tried by public perception before a proper adjudication takes place.

There is also the issue of changing venue. I suspect that Howell's attorneys will request that the case get removed from the jurisdiction of the New Britain Superior Court in the near future. New Britain is not exactly Mayberry, but it is a small New England city where people talk and also drive past the crime site with frequency.

Until the final verdicts are rendered, I will continue to have my Mondays with Bill. We will discuss birds, and holiday decorations and memories from his childhood because, when writing about a serial killer suspect, the devil really is in the details. Do I think Howell is guilty? My opinion does not matter. That's for a jury to decide. I am aware of some of the prosecution's forensic evidence, and witnesses who will testify against Howell at trial. The defense has an uphill battle to fight, to say the least. That said, Howell, like any other American, deserves his day in Court and you can bet that I will be there to observe the drama as it unfolds.  

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

His Garden: Conversations with a Serial Killer, by Anne K. Howard

Excerpt from Chapter 10

Howell's 2007 Trial for the Murder of Nilsa Arizmendi

Joseph Ashley Masters would probably have preferred a root canal without anesthesia to testifying at the New Britain Superior Court on the morning of January 29, 2007. Unfortunately for Masters, he had no choice in the matter. Howell’s longtime friend was served with an interstate subpoena ordering him to appear and testify in court two weeks earlier. He tried to fight the process in a court in Hampton, Virginia, but without success. He was provided with a plane ticket, paid for by the state of Connecticut, and transported to Howell’s trial.

It’s usually not a good thing for a witness’s credibility to give a lot of “I do not recalls” in response to the opposition’s questions. After state’s attorney Brian Preleski got through with Masters, it almost seemed like the witness was suffering from a mild case of amnesia.

Preleski: And how long had Mr. Howell been staying with you prior to Thanksgiving in 2003?

Masters: That I can’t recall.

Preleski: And did Mr. Howell have Thanksgiving dinner with you that year?

Masters: No, because I believe we went to my parents’ house, my wife’s parents’ house and he stayed at my house. No, I can’t- I can’t recall.

Preleski: And what kind of vehicle was Mr. Howell driving back then?

Masters: That I don’t recall either.

Preleski stepped forward and offered photos of the interior and exterior of Howell’s blue van. His recollection refreshed, Masters stated that it was the vehicle that Howell drove on the week of Thanksgiving of 2003, and the same van that they cleaned out on the driveway. On entering the van, Masters testified that it contained “regular odors” including the smell of grass, oil, gas, and some body odor.

He went on to testify that he did not recall there being any seat cushions on the bluish-grey bench in the van, matching or non-matching. Further, he didn’t see Howell remove any cushions or dispose of them in any manner. The answer was in direct contradiction to a portion of the written statement given by Masters to police on May 13, 2005, with initials showing his voluntary approval of the information in the margins of the document.

We emptied out the van together. I remember the van had a light blue rug. I saw the bench seat in the back of the van. I saw the bottom bench cushion and the back bench cushion were present. I saw both red and dark red stains on both the bottom and the back cushions that were very noticeable. Devin said that the cushions were stained, but didn’t give any further explanation. Margin, JAM.

While giving this statement, Inspector Hankard showed me a picture of one of the cushions inside the van. I recognize it as being (a) photograph of the same cushion with red and dark red stains. I signed, dated and timed this photograph as the picture of Devin’s van I saw during Thanksgiving 2003. Margin, JAM.

While inside the van I smelled a very strong odor. It wasn’t gas, oil, or grass. It smelled like body odor. Initials, JAM.

Right around this time I watched Devin take the bottom bench cushion off, roll it up, and put it in a plastic bag. Devin put the plastic bag at the curb for pick up, which occurred sometime later. Margin, JAM.

From an evidentiary perspective, the five-page document, initialed by Masters in nineteen locations and signed five times, was Howell’s death knell. When Masters took the stand less than two years after writing the statement and testified differently, it made him look like, well… a liar. More precisely, he looked like a loyal friend and a liar.

On cross-examination, defense attorney Ken Simon tried to show police coercion. According to Simon, the written statement was not reliable because there was a show of force used by the police. First, a large group of them unexpectedly showed up at Masters’ home and questioned him for two hours. This was followed by a lengthy interrogation at the police station that lasted upwards of four hours. Masters was “very nervous” and just wanted to give the police what they wanted so he could go home.

Judge Sheldon wasn’t buying it. He overruled Simon’s objection to the admission of the written statement, finding that Masters was not in police custody when the statement was made, and he was in fact free to leave. Moreover, his nervous state was a given. It did not indicate that he had been threatened in any way. It was hardly a threat when the police told Masters that the failure to cooperate could lead to a charge of aiding and abetting a fugitive. They were simply doing their job. Finally, ten or so officers may have initially approached Masters home in May 2004, some in uniform, but when he was questioned at the station, it was only by two detectives.

Disclaimer: In 2007, William Devin Howell was sentenced to 15-years imprisonment for the murder of Nilsa Arizmendi, absent the discovery of the victim's body. Arizmendi's remains were subsequently located with the assistance of FBI cadaver dogs behind a strip mall in New Britain, Connecticut, in April 2015.

The forest behind the strip mall located at 593 Hartford Rd.

The remains of three more victims were found alongside Arizmendi's remains at that time. Eight years earlier, in August 2007, three other victims were discovered in the forest behind that same strip mall. All total, the remains of seven individuals have been found behind the strip mall. Howell has been charged with the murders of the remaining six victims. On Monday, May 9, 2016, Howell pled not guilty to the murders. A trial will probably not take place for at least 1-2 years. The information contained in the foregoing post was derived from the 2007 trial transcript. The author remains in close written correspondence with Howell.