An example that would be somewhat similar in nature to the Buhler accident/murder investigation was a death in Queens my squad was called to several years ago. As in our Maspeth mystery, we had a woman dead, seemingly accidental. She was found by her ex-husband, at the bottom of her cellar stairs, with her neck broken, most likely as a result of her fall. Through phone records we were able to piece together that the woman was still alive up until a certain time. After a determination of the approximate time of death, we knew the fall took place during the evening hours. (The ex-husband discovered the body the next morning, after stating he just returned home from his night shift work.)
The basement steps were poorly lit. In addition, the woman had just recently moved into the home with her ex-husband, as his platonic roommate, after a falling out with her live-in boyfriend. She was unfamiliar with the steps according to the ex-husband’s account. The woman was middle aged and overweight and had a history of alcohol abuse, and indeed, there was a half empty bottle of liquor on the kitchen table. Added together, it certainly had all the signs of an accidental fall and death. We worked with that theory, but pressed on as if it were a homicide investigation unless proven otherwise.
Pressing on with the investigation raised more questions than it solved. The ex-husband had already informed us the victim was unfamiliar with the steps leading into the basement, and for good reason. The basement was unfinished, with poor lighting and ventilation. It was unkempt and moldy. Obviously, we could not get into the mind of the victim and divine what her thought process was at the time of her fall, but it was curious to all investigators as to what would have drawn her to the basement in the first place. There were no signs of a break in. She kept no belongings down there. It was, of course, possible she was just curious and maybe perhaps was looking to “snoop” around. But it just seemed to be an unusual action for her to take.
Then there were the fundamental investigative steps that began to raise flags. As the finder of the body, the ex-husband needed closer examination. A seemingly innocuous check of his work time line on the night of the fall became an immediate red flag. The ex worked in a local hospital on the overnight maintenance crew.
He lived a very short driving distance to the hospital (under 6 minutes at that time of night.) There was a definite and unexplainable two-and-one-half hour absence during his shift. Not one co-worker or other member of the hospital’s staff could account for his whereabouts during this time. You can now sense a small but dramatic shift in the investigative instincts. It still appeared to be an accident but we were simply going to allow the evidence and information to lead us to the truth and not use the info to fit the theory.
Things got a little more uncomfortable for the ex-husband. Another part of the fundamental investigative equation was to give a look at past love interests (just as in the Buehler case.) The former live in boyfriend was identified, found and questioned. We were struck by his apparent shock at the news and his subsequent sincere display of grief. We learned (and verified) that he ended the relationship with the victim and from what we gathered from friends of each, it was a most amicable split. In our eyes, he was a most unlikely suspect for foul play in this investigation.
He did, however, open our eyes to something else. He informed us the victim only moved in with her ex-husband as a last resort until she could get on her financial feet. There was a history of physical domestic abuse between husband and wife during the marriage. There was no official documentation (police or medical reports) but there were several reliable people within the husband and wife’s social circle that supported the allegation, a few who were vehement in the assertion.
The accident theory was still the prevalent investigative tract but it began to lose some ground to a potential homicide. We still had to be careful in our assumptions. We could not allow investigative biases to bend and shape to our hypothesis. So we took a deeper look into the ex-husband.
And then things really got tight. Incredibly, it was learned that a very recent term life insurance policy in the amount of $100,000 was taken out by the victim naming the ex-husband as beneficiary. We learned through two separate sources this insurance policy was a pre condition to allowing the victim to move into the home. Through subpoenaed banking records, we also learned the ex-husband was paying the monthly installments. Big red flag.
With the history of physical abuse, the unexplained absence from work on the night of the incident, and the insurance revelation, we now shifted the focus of the investigation from a probable accident to a potential homicide. This was a simple matter of, as stated in the opening, allowing evolving circumstances and evidence to dictate the investigative flow. Homicide investigators have learned, over the course of 100 plus years, to allow the crime scene and evidence to lead us around, cutting the path, and for we as investigators to not give in to the temptation of having the evidence fit the theory.
This could have been an accident, a homicide, or who knows, perhaps even suicide.
We never learned which it was. My detectives and I became certain in our hearts that the woman was murdered, and by her ex-husband. We never learned the truth. After initially speaking with us and digging himself a very deep hole with inconsistent and implausible and ever changing statements, he retained a lawyer and refused to cooperate further in the investigation. However we may have felt personally, we let our minds dictate the flow of the investigation. Just as we didn’t allow our initial theory of an accident to solidify we let the evidence evolve. So, conversely, when we developed the very reasonable suspicion of a possible murder, we simply allowed the investigation to take its course and did not twist or shape the evidence to now fit our revised theory.
There was no physical evidence tying the ex into the scenario of pushing the victim down the stairs, either pre-meditated or spontaneous, only circumstantial. There was no bruising on her back or shoulders which might have shown a push. Even if there was a bruise, it easily could have been explained away as caused by the fall.
Just as with our 19th century Maspeth brethren, we had a death case with little physical evidence. They had leeway to make conclusions that today’s standards would not allow. The Coroner was able to bring the Buehler loved ones some small measure of comfort by ruling accidental.
We were able to bring the ex-husband a small measure of discomfort. We notified the life insurance carrier of our investigation. They are withholding his beneficiary payments pending the outcome of the police investigation. Unfortunately for the ex-husband, the policy does not pay out for suicide or a homicide if the killer is the beneficiary. I’m afraid that this CUPPI remains unsolved all these years later.
By modern standards, so is our Maspeth case from 1892.
Kenny O’Keefe was an NYPD officer for 20 years, having retired as a Detective Sergeant in 2003. He is currently the owner and president of Global Investigative Systems.