Saturday, July 4, 2009

Murder On the 4th of July

It was a July 4th many moons ago when an attorney, who is still in practice, murdered his girlfriend, my friend's sister and got away with it.

Jim (a pseudonym) never got convicted for the crime, never got indicted, never spent a night in jail... despite the fact that everyone close to the case, the family, the police, the prosecutor, friends, neighbors, witnesses, they all know he did. I know he did it. But there wasn't enough evidence for two grand juries to take it any further. So Jim the attorney still lives.... practicing law in a city north of Seattle... while my friend's sister Mary (also a pseudonym) is dead, literally dust in the wind.

Every 4th of July since I first took on that case more than 10 years ago, fireworks sound to me like gunshots, because that's how he did it to her. He waited until the fireworks were going off when he put the gun in her mouth and pulled the trigger. He knew no one could distinguish between a single gunshot and a thousand firecrackers.

He had the whole thing well planned. That's because he's an attorney, and a very smart one at that. So he knew what to do, what not to do. And between the doing and not doings, he got away with murder. Literally.

After he shot her, he put the gun where he thought a suicide victim would drop it. He washed his hands, exited the house, then raced down the road so fast he almost knocked over a group of kids walking along the dirt road towards him. One kid comment on his fixed gaze, his red face, the high rate of speed.

Mary's next door neighbors were expecting her for dinner that night. They received a call from Mary saying she'd be over in a little later, because Jim called and said he was going to stop by to get something. Mary was upset because she knew Jim was going to be with his new girlfriend that July 4th. The girlfriend later admitted, at Jim's urging, she called Mary just to taunt her and tell her so.

Mary told the neighbors she thought Jim was trying to drive her crazy. Ever since they decided to split up, he was meaner than ever. Mary said Jim wanted the beach house they lived in. However, the lease for the beach house, on Indian Tribal land, was in Mary's name and Mary wasn't going to give it up. She told Jim he had to leave.

She had the beach house before Jim moved in with him, she intended to be there when he finally left. Besides, she told her neighbors, her hair dresser, brother and others she trusted... Jim was the one who initially broke it off; he was the one who cheated and lied repeatedly; he was the one who got high, drunk and abusive. The beach house, Mary said, was her sanctuary.

So Jim killed her. Most likely, to get the beach house.

The neighbors, an older couple and 32 years old daughter Jenny who was both Mary's age and close friend, watched from the window, saw Jim come. As soon as his car left their area, Jenny ran to Mary's house, opened the unlocked kitchen door, checked the rooms on her way upstairs to the bedroom. That's when she found Mary, knees bent under her, leaning against her bed in what was described as a prayer position.

Jenny didn't realize Mary was dead until she touched her shoulder, lifted her head, saw the broken teeth, the blood, then it registered. She'd been shot, she was dead. She ran screaming from the house for her parents to call 911. She said to tell the police she was certain Jim killed Mary.

You'd think from there it would be a no brainer. Case closed even before the investigation starts. It was obvious to everyone who knew the story of Mary and Jim, that Jim was a monster in a very handsome shell.... and beautiful, bright, blond-haired, Mary was finally happy Jim was leaving. She was determined not to give him the beach house and was definitely not suicidal as Jim ultimately insisted.

But Jim's story was this: Mary begged Jim to stay and said if he left, she'd shoot herself. And she did.

Jim's behavior after the shooting, was not that of an innocent man. Yet despite all the evidence, witness interviews, a thorough police investigation and the ultimate questioning of Jim... including gun shot residue tests and tests of blood on his pants, which turned out to be animals blood... he got away with it. It went as far as the grand juries and then the criminal investigation came to a complete stop.

I came in on the civil side. When the police didn't file homicide charges, the insurance company decided to call Mary's death a suicide, so they wouldn't have to pay out the life insurance policy she recently took out and left to her nephews and nieces. She had no children of her own.

Her brother hired me in the hopes the civil investigation would prove Mary's death was a homicide and the insurance company would release the insurance benefits to the children. He also figured if the civil investigation proved it was not a suicide, maybe the evidence we got would be enough to re-open the homicide case.

Long story short. Evidence, interviews, forensics, all done on a private basis.
The insurance company is sued, the suicide verdict thrown out and the insurance fund released to Mary's nieces and nephews in a trust.

However, despite our best efforts, countless hours and time, conversations with the lead homicide detective on the case and every other investigating officer, witnesses, 911 tapes, back stories, you name it... we still could take the criminal case no further for reasons that are better suited to a book than a blog.

So on this very day July 4th, when I hear that first firecracker of the night.... and later in bed, while they still go off.... I think about gunshots, Mary and the fact that Jim is still practicing law north of Seattle. He lives in the beach house now, with a woman who looks very much like Mary. And every now and then, I drive by his office, his law practice, watch him coming and going. The case is an obsession of mine, and her brother's.

Every now and then her brother calls. He wants to reopen the investigation, they don't have the funds. Someone wants to do a TV show, news article or movie on the case.
The idea surfaces, then people dig deeper and realize how dangerous such a project would be because Jim is a psychopath. A brilliant one, a dangerous one, who knows how to work the law and play it perfectly.

For every case closed you hear about, there are countless more still open...
simmering, steaming cauldrons of poetic injustice. This would be one of those cases.

The 4th is never a happy day for Mary's brother and her family. It is a bittersweet one for me. I still have Mary's case file in my office. Her brother asked me to hold onto all her personal things, from her wallet and datebook, to her letters and contents of her purse. Her brother says we... he and I... are Mary's voice and it will rise again when the time is right.

This post would be Mary's voice, rising once again, on the the 4th, before the fireworks start.

And right now, I am grateful there is no statute of limitations on murder.

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