Archive for June, 2010

TV Producer Returns to the U.S. Despite Wife’s Murder Investigation

Wednesday, June 16th, 2010

A reality television producer has left Mexico, despite requests from Mexican authorities to remain in the country, after his wife’s body was discovered during their vacation.

Bruce Beresford-Redman was questioned shortly after his wife was found dead in a sewer near the couple’s Cancun resport hotel, but was released from police custody on the condition that he remain in Mexico pending their investigation. They also seized his passport, but according to the Department of Homeland Security, only citizens entering the United States by air are required to show their passport; others can establish their identity and citizenship with an enhanced driver’s license or other documentation.

Beresford-Redman’s wife, Monica, appeared to have “died of strangulation,” according to Adrian Cardena, a spokesperson for the regional police.

Beresford-Redman has been described as a “person of interest” in the killing, and the Mexican prosecutor who is handling the case said over the weekend that he has been unable to locate the producer, who was needed to “sign some paperwork and answer a few additional questions,” according to the Los Angeles Times.

His attorney, Richard Hirsch, said that Beresford-Redman has returned to Los Angeles “to be with his children and to attend to family and personal matters,” adding that he “has no legal obligation to remain in Mexico.”

Monica Beresford-Redman’s sisters met with representatives of the FBI at the United States Embassy in Mexico City, in order to ask that the U.S. government get involved in the investigation.

“Now, more than ever, we beg of the Mexican authorities to accept the assistance that has been offered to them by the FBI,” the sisters said in a statement released over the weekend.

According to sources close to the couple, Monica Beresford-Redman had learned that her husband was involved in an extramarital affair and, as a result, cleaned out the family bank account and traveled to Hawaii with their children. After reconciling, Bruce and Monica Beresford-Redman took the trip to Cancun in an effort to rebuild their relationship.

The couple’s two young children are in the temporary custody of their paternal grandparents, but Monica Beresford-Redman’s sister, Carla Burgos, is challenging them for custody.

Monica Beresford-Redman is a native of Brazil and ran a popular Latin restaurant, Zabumba, with her sisters in Los Angeles. The restaurant has been closed since Monica’s death on April 8.

Bruce Beresford-Redman worked on the popular television reality show “Survivor” for several years, and was nominated for three Emmy Awards. He also worked on MTV’s “Pimp My Ride” and several reality shows for NBC.

Bait-and-Switch Effort Nets Parolee Arrests for CA

Tuesday, June 15th, 2010

Agents with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation have used a time-honored ploy—with a few modern twists—to lure dozens of parole violators back into custody.

The elaborate sting was aimed at parolees who have either stopped checking in with their parole officers, are suspected in new crimes, or have otherwise violated the terms of their parole. Corrections officials sent letters to 2,700 relatives of the parolees, advising them that they were eligible not only for amnesty, but also for a $200 reward.

The scheme was believable, say officials, because it capitalized on a real state law that took effect at the beginning of the year. This law created a new, non-revocable parole status for offenders who are considered to be less dangerous. Once a parolee is put on non-revocable status, they do not have to report to parole agents, are free to come and go as they please, and won’t be sent back to prison unless they are convicted of a new crime. The state implemented this program in order to save money in the wake of a fiscal shortfall, and it is expected to save $200 million on the first year alone.

Fugitives who received notification that they were “pre-qualified for Amnesty or Discharge,” were told that they would be put on non-revocable parole or discharged from parole altogether, to help the state cut costs associated with its corrections and rehabilitation program.

In addition to the letters that were mailed, a Web site, email address and an agent posing as an “amnesty program director” were also established. The Web site advised the parolees-at-large that the program would end Saturday, and that they should call for reservations.

Over 100 felons showed up at a parole office in Oakland, and were told to wait in an auditorium until they could consult with a counselor. When they parolees were called, one at a time, they were arrested and taken to the Alameda County Jail. Eighty-one parolees in total were taken back into custody; most of them are suspects in additional crimes or have other outstanding warrants.

“We’ve chosen to focus on the real bad apples,” said Oscar Hidalgo, a spokesperson for the department.

Partway into the process of arresting the parolees who had shown up to claim their amnesty, word began to trickle back to the auditorium that the offer was in fact a sting. A dozen or more parolees escaped before officers were able to arrest the remaining people in the auditorium.

Drug Use, Cronyism Alleged Against Government Regulatory Staff

Monday, June 14th, 2010

A new report issued by the Interior Department alleges that oil drilling regulators routinely violate both ethics rules and federal regulations, focusing more negative attention on the regulatory climate that may have helped contribute to the current Gulf of Mexico oil catastrophe.

Although the investigation that led to the report was a routine one, and covers events that occurred before the explosion of the BP drilling rig that killed 11 workers and touched off the month-long oil spill, the acting inspector general, Mary Kendall, has been asked to expand and continue the investigation in light of that explosion.

Among the allegations are reports that staff members at a regulatory agency, the Minerals Management Service, accepted bribes from oil and gas companies and looked at pornography on government computers. Some of the gifts that were described in the report include tickets to sporting events and restaurant meals. The Minerals Management Service, or MMS, both regulates the industry and receives royalties from it.

Additionally, says the report, there existed a culture of cronyism between the regulators and oil- and gas-industry officials.

“We discovered that the individuals involved in the fraternizing and gift exchange—both government and industry—have often known one another since childhood,” said Kendall. The report did not include specifics, but did suggest that the relationships often superseded work-related ethical considerations.

In 2007, at the time of the investigation, then-Inspector General Earl Devaney described a “culture of ethical failure” that included numerous conflicts of interest at the Minerals Management Service. That investigation, and the newly released report detailing it, focused on the agency’s Louisiana office, but previous studies had also looked into inappropriate behavior at a Denver office.

The report also included an admission from at least one staffer that he had used crystal methamphetamine, and that he might still have been under the influence of the drug while at work the next day.

Kendall sent the report to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, whose department includes the regulatory agency. Said Salazar, the revelations of the report are “further evidence of the cozy relationship between some elements of MMS and the oil and gas industry,” adding that it was “deeply disturbing.” Salazar had previously proposed to abolish that agency and to create three new entities to replace it.

He also said that several of the employees have already resigned, been fired or been referred for prosecution. Others may yet face disciplinary action. Salazar also asked Kendall to continue the investigation.

Oil giant BP has launched its own investigation into the causes of the accident, which took place on April 20. It promises to brief federal authorities on the results of that investigation this week.

Black Firefighter Applicants Win Supreme Court Backing

Friday, June 11th, 2010

The United States Supreme Court has ruled in favor of a group of black applicants, who are suing the city of Chicago for discrimination after they were denied jobs with its Fire Department.

The case dates back to 1995, when some 26,000 applicants tested to join the Chicago Fire Department. The city, which had only a few hundred jobs to offer, decided to raise the exam cutoff score from 64 to 89. The applicants whose scores fell in between those numbers were told that they probably would not be hired, despite having passed the test. The majority of applicants whose scores were 89 or over, however, were white; only 11 percent of that group were black.

The law states that an applicant who feels they have been unlawfully excluded from an employment position must bring suit within 300 days. Although the test scores were originally announced
on January 26, 1996, the plaintiffs in the case say that the clock shouldn’t have started running until after those scores were used to select firefighter trainees—which occurred on several different occasions between May 1996 and October 2001.

Approximately 6,000 black applicants brought suit against the city, and U.S. District Judge Joan Gottschall ruled in 2006 that the city had not justified the use of the higher cutoff score, that applicants who scored in the 70s or 80s could become successful firefighters, and that the test therefore had an illegal “disparate impact.”

Next in the legal timeline came a reversal from the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, which said that the applicants had waited too long to sue.

In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the lawsuit had not been filed too late, and that the African American applicants were now free to forge ahead with their legal challenge.

Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the court, declared that “It may be true that the City’s January 1996 decision to adopt the cutoff score (and to create a list of the applicants above it) gave rise to a freestanding disparate impact claim. … But it does not follow that no new violation occurred—and no new claims could arise—when the City implemented that decision down the road. If petitioners could prove that the City ‘used’ the ‘practice’ that ’causes a disparate impact,’ they could prevail.”

Chicago’s Fire Department has responded to the long-running legal brouhaha by trying to diversify its workforce, recruiting extensively in minority neighborhoods, and changing the written exam to make it pass/fail.

Drug Maker Novartis to Pay $250 Million in Punitive Damages

Thursday, June 10th, 2010

A federal jury in Manhattan has ruled that pharmaceutical giant Novartis must pay punitive damages—to the tune of $250 million—to thousands of sales representatives against whom it discriminated on the basis of gender. The plaintiffs in the case had sought between $190 million and $285 million.

The lawsuit was brought by 12 female employees who had alleged that Novartis engaged in discrimination against them between 2002 and 2007. They said that they were passed over for promotions, subjected to hostile remarks and fired because of pregnancies.

The jury, which was composed of five women and four men, had returned a verdict several weeks ago that required the company to pay $3.36 million in compensatory damages, and had ticked the box for punitive damages on the verdict form, indicating that it would ask Novartis to pay more in the future. The trial lasted for five weeks, with four additional days of deliberation on the part of the jury.

Compensatory damages for pain, suffering and loss of enjoyment were split into shares that ranged from $50,000 to nearly $600,000. One former sales representative, Holly J. Waters, had been terminated from her position when she was seven months pregnant; she received $476,000 in compensation.

This award sets the stage for numerous additional claims by female sales employees—approximately 5,600 employees who will ask the court for individual damages. A court-appointed special master will decide their cases on an individual basis, while Judge Colleen McMahon of United States District Court will determine a lump sum, to be distributed among plaintiffs, to cover back pay, lost benefits and adjusted wages.

In 2009, Novartis had sales of $44.3 billion. The company is based in Basel, Switzerland, but the lawsuit involved only the United States subsidiary, the Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corporation.

The drug company has consistently been named to Working Mother magazine’s annual list of the 100 best companies for women. A spokesperson for the magazine said that its award was based on different criteria than those brought to light in the court case, and included policies that Novartis had to support working mothers, such as flex time or telecommuting and paid maternity leave.

According to the financial Web site Bloomberg News, this is the largest-ever employment discrimination verdict, and the second-largest verdict to be handed down to date in 2010.

Kidnapper in Elizabeth Smart Case Receives 15-Year Sentences

Wednesday, June 9th, 2010

The woman who was convicted in the infamous kidnapping of teenager Elizabeth Smart has been sentenced to two prison terms of 15 years each—one as the result of federal charges, and one on state charges.

Wanda Barzee, 64, will most likely serve her sentences concurrently, at the Federal Medical Center, Carswell, in Fort Worth, Texas.

Smart’s case captivated the nation in 2002, when the 14-year-old was kidnapped from her bedroom at knifepoint. She was found alive and well nine months later, in March 2003, near Salt Lake City with Barzee and Barzee’s now-estranged husband, Brian David Mitchell.

Barzee had been ruled mentally incompetent to stand trial not just once, but twice. She refused to take medication on religious grounds, but in 2006, 3rd District Judge Judith Atherton ordered that she undergo treatment with anti-psychotic medications. Doctors at Utah State Hospital declared Barzee competent last fall, and Barzee entered plea negotiations with both state and federal prosecutors.

Barzee pleaded guilty in November 2009 to a number of federal charges, including kidnapping and transportation of a minor across state lines.

Barzee was able to strike a plea deal in the state case, and charges of kidnapping and sexual assault against her were dropped when she pleaded guilty but mentally ill to a charge of conspiracy in the attempted abduction of Olivia Wright, Smart’s cousin. Barzee and Mitchell had attempted to abduct Wright from her home just a month after taking Smart. According to a statement Barzee made in 2003, the pair had planned to take both girls to a camp in the mountains.

Another condition of the plea deals will require Barzee to testify against Mitchell in his pending state and federal trials. Mitchell, 56, is accused not only of kidnapping Smart, but also of repeatedly raping her. He is due to stand federal court trial in November 2010, but the state case against him has been delayed, again because of competency issues. Atherton has declined to order forced medication for Mitchell.

Barzee did receive credit, in the federal case, for the seven years she has already served while waiting for her trial. She will be 72 years old at the time of her release, and will serve five additional years of probation, in addition to having to register as a sex offender. She may also have to serve additional time on the state sentence.

Elizabeth Smart, 22, is now serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Paris. Her father, Ed Smart, said that Elizabeth does not feel the 15-year sentence is sufficient.

Suspect in Disappearance of American Teen Arrested for Murder in Peru

Tuesday, June 8th, 2010

A Dutch citizen who is strongly suspected in the 2005 disappearance of American teenager Natalee Holloway has been detained by Chilean police in connection with a killing in Peru.

Joran van der Sloot, 22, was apprehended while traveling by taxi to Vina del Mar, a coastal city in central Chile, and brought back to Santiago.

Van der Sloot is considered the prime suspect in the slaying of 21-year-old Stephany Flores, who was found dead in a Lima hotel where van der Sloot had been staying. He had been in Peru for a poker tournament, and appears with Flores on surveillance video taken by a Lima casino. A hotel employee saw the pair arrive at the hotel together around 5 a.m. Sunday, then saw van der Sloot leave alone, approximately four hours later. Flores was later found face down on the floor of her hotel room, clothed but with signs of trauma to her body, including abrasions on her face. No cause of death has yet been determined.

Van der Sloot is also suspected of being involved with the still-unsolved case of Natalee Holloway, who disappeared during a high school trip to Aruba in May 2005. Prosecutors say that he remains their main suspect in the case, but despite having been arrested twice, he has never been charged.

Just days after Holloway’s disappearance, van der Sloot was arrested along with 21-year-old Deepak Kalpoe and 18-year-old Satish Kalpoe. They were eventually released from custody, but van der Sloot was re-arrested in November 2007, and again released, less than a month later. In 2008, an undercover journalist who had befriended van der Sloot took video footage, in which the Dutchman claimed to have been with Holloway when she collapsed from intoxication, and later to have dumped her body in the sea, but the courts in Aruba ruled the video insufficient grounds for further arrests or prosecution.

Although the mystery surrounding her disappearance garnered a great deal of television and other media coverage in both Europe and the United States, Holloway’s body has never been found. Flores’s killing occurred exactly five years after Holloway’s disappearance, on May 30.

Ann Angela, spokesperson for the Aruba prosecutor’s office, made a statement Wednesday in which she called the recent developments in South America “incredible.”

“At this moment we don’t have anything to do with it, but we are following the case with great interest and if Peruvian authorities would need us, we are here,” said Angela.

TV Chef Cooked Up Plot to Murder His Wife, Say Cops

Monday, June 7th, 2010

Police in Santa Monica, tipped off by one of the city’s homeless men, have arrested a former television cooking show host on suspicion of orchestrating a murder-for-hire scheme.

Juan-Carlos Cruz, 48, is the former host of two television shows on the Food Network, Calorie Commando and Weighing In. He had been a pastry chef at the tony Hotel Bel Air until losing 43 pounds on the Discovery Health Channel show Discovery Health Body Challenge, after which he shifted his focus to low-calorie cooking.

According to authorities, Cruz approached several homeless men—identified only as Big Dave, Little Dave and Shane—and asked them to kill his wife. Cruz allegedly offered one of them, Little Dave, a thousand dollars to cut his wife’s throat, and provided him with a disposable cell phone, a box cutter, a pocket watch and a pair of gloves. Cruz reportedly gave Little Dave one half of each of ten $100 bills, and showed him a picture of the other halves, which he said the homeless man would receive after the murder had taken place. Shortly thereafter, Little Dave contacted Shane and Big Dave, and they agreed to help Little Dave communicate with Cruz. When Big Dave was arrested on a loitering charge, however, he told police about the plot, and the cops got in touch with all three homeless men the next day.

The men, working with police, called Cruz on the disposable cell phone and asked him to meet them again. Big Dave wore a wire, and the meeting was secretly videotaped by police in the vicinity. At that meeting, Big Dave expressed his reluctance to kill Cruz’s wife in public, and Cruz then promised that he would give the men a security code to his apartment, so that they could lie in wait for the wife and strangle her when she arrived. Cruz also allegedly took the men to the apartment building to show them how to avoid the security cameras.

Santa Monica police began investigating Cruz on May 7; they arranged for the three homeless men to stay in a hotel room during the week-long investigation, in order to keep them out of sight and safe.

“They gave us two pizzas, a 12-pack of beer and a bottle of San Jose,” said Big Dave. “I love them.”

Cruz was arrested on Thursday at a dog park in the Cheviot Hills area of Los Angeles, and charged with solicitation to commit murder. He is being held on $5 million bail and will appear in court today,

D.C. Prosecutors Seek Answers In Bizarre Murder Mystery

Friday, June 4th, 2010

A bench trial is scheduled to begin next week in the mysterious death of a Washington, D.C. lawyer—but the three defendants are charged with obstruction of justice and tampering of evidence, but not with murder.

The death of Robert Wone, 32, has gripped the nation’s capital because of its unusual circumstances and baffling evidence. Wone’s body in a Dupont Circle townhouse late one night in August 2006, but despite having three stab wounds in his chest, there were no signs of struggle and next to no blood at the crime scene. His body was neatly placed on a turned-down guest bed, and although a knife was found in the room, it didn’t match the wounds. An autopsy revealed that Wone was likely restrained and incapacitated, perhaps by a single cut to the aorta, before he was killed. The stab wounds were so clean that Wone would have had to be lying perfectly still when they occurred.

The three defendants’ unconventional relationship—Joseph Price, Victor Zaborsky and Dylan Ward were romantically linked and described themselves as a family—has only added to the mystery. Investigators discovered bondage paraphernalia in the townhouse, including a set of padded restraints which Assistant U.S. Attorney Glenn Kirschner wanted to have introduced as evidence in the trial, but which the judge, D.C. Superior Court Judge Lynn Leibovitz, ruled as too prejudicial.

Wone had asked Price, an old college friend, if he could spend the night at the townhouse in lieu of driving back to his suburban home after a late night working in the city. Less than an hour and a half after he arrived, Zaborsky placed a 911 call reported the stabbing. All three of the men claim that an intruder committed the crime, although they heard nothing unusual on that August night save Wone’s screams or grunts, after which they ran to the guest room to find him alone and dying.

The three have since claimed that their cooperation with police wasn’t entirely voluntary, and that they were never informed of their rights. They have sought to have the statements they made during questioning thrown out. In another unusual move, the men waived their right to a jury trial, right before jury selection was to begin.

Prosecutors do not have enough evidence to charge the men with homicide—in part because police botched two aspects of the investigation. They incorrectly used a chemical during examination of the crime scene, therefore detecting traces of blood where there may in fact have been no blood; they also failed to copy data from Wone’s company-issued BlackBerry, which was found on the scene along with his wallet and Movado watch, before returning it to his employer. Two unsent email messages on the device, composed less than an hour before the murder, may have provided clues to the assailant’s identity—but that evidence is gone.

Instead, prosecutors are charging the men with the lesser crimes of obstruction and tampering, in the hopes that a conviction on these charges will lead one of them to divulge more details, so that they can unravel this complicated, compelling case.

Mojave Desert Cross, Center of Supreme Court Case, Is Stolen

Thursday, June 3rd, 2010

A seven-foot metal cross that is intended to serve as a memorial to fallen American soldiers, and which was recently at the center of a Supreme Court case, has been stolen.

The cross, one of a series of memorial crosses which have been erected in the same spot, on federal land in the Mojave Desert, was stolen late Sunday or early Monday. It’s not yet clear what the thieves’ motivation may have been, but authorities say that suspects could include scrap metal salvagers or people with a vested interest in the controversial case.

Just two weeks prior to the theft, the United States Supreme Court said that the cross was allowed to remain on federal land. A former park service employee brought the suit a decade ago, saying that the cross violated the constitutional separation between church and state. Federal courts had ruled that the cross was unconstitutional, and refused an effort spearheaded by Congress to transfer the property to private ownership, in order to sidestep the issue. In April, the nation’s highest court ruled 5-4 that the cross should not be removed, and returned the case to the federal level for a decision on the property issue.

While the debate was ongoing, the metal cross had been covered with plywood. Vandals tore off the plywood cover this weekend; when maintenance workers went to replace it, they found that the cross itself was missing.

The United States Justice Department is investigating the case, and the American Legion, the national veterans’ group, has offered a $25,000 reward for information about the theft.

The remote site, which lies 70 miles south of Las Vegas and 200 miles northeast of Los Angeles, has had a cross standing since 1934, when the Veterans of Foreign Wars honored the dead troops of World War I with a wooden cross. The metal version has been in place since the 1990s, and has been vandalized before. It has been bolted to the rock for over a decade—authorities say that the thieves cut the metal bolts in order to take the cross.

If the original cross is not recovered, its replacement may further stir the controversy, since it’s unclear whether a new cross would be protected by the recent Supreme Court ruling.

A spokesperson for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of the former park services employee, said that although his organization feels that the cross’s presence in the Mojave Desert is unconstitutional, this does not justify its theft.