Saturday, September 24, 2016
THE GARCIA TRIAL
Amid all the courtroom drama, legal jockeying, dueling motions, DNA fights, changing of judges and acrimony among attorneys in the Anthony Garcia case, it’s easy to forget what started it all: Two of the most harmless members of society were knifed to death inside the Dundee home of two Omaha doctors.
An 11-year-old boy in bunched-up tube socks who had just tossed a Frisbee with his schoolmates. A 57-year-old grandma in the middle of her job cleaning house.
It was eight years ago. March 13, 2008. A crime that rocked a neighborhood, rattled a medical community and gripped a city.
For years, Omaha police had no answers. Their investigation stalled and sputtered.
Was the killer a troubled distant associate of the 57-year-old? A disgruntled medical student who worked for the 11-year-old’s parents, both doctors at Creighton University Medical Center?
A child predator who had messaged the 11-year-old through online gaming?
“The biggest interest we have,” one mourning friend said, “and what everybody was asking is ‘Who could have done this? And why?’ ”
One year passed. Then two. Then three and four. The unsolved case inspired episodes of “Law & Order” and “America’s Most Wanted."
Then came year five. The victim this time: the mourning friend who asked the question above.
TIMELINE: MAJOR EVENTS LEADING UP TO THE TRIAL
Dr. Roger Brumback — chairman of the Creighton University Medical School pathology department — was found dead, along with his wife, Mary, in their home at 11421 Shirley St.
As it turns out, his quote was both eerie and ironic.
The man who had wondered aloud “Who could have done this?” to Thomas Hunter, 11, and Shirlee Sherman, 57, possibly found out firsthand.
Suddenly, Omaha police’s flailing investigation had a focus: Someone was targeting members, or relatives of members, of the Creighton University pathology department, including Brumback’s colleague and Hunter’s father, Dr. William Hunter.
Omaha’s police chief formed a task force. Within two months, Omaha police had arrested Anthony Garcia, a former resident in the pathology department.
Three years later the “Who could have done this?” question will receive a deep examination starting Monday, when jury selection begins in the Anthony Garcia trial.
Jurors will be asked to decide whether Garcia is guilty of two sets of double homicides, five years apart.
They also will be asked whether they believe the state’s theory: that Garcia killed because of a festering grudge over his 2001 firing from Creighton by Roger Brumback and William Hunter.
Garcia and his attorneys will deny the charges. They will point to what they have called a lack of evidence and to letters that indicate Garcia actually had received career help from Hunter, one of the men he is accused of having a grudge against.
Bottom line: With four jaw-dropping crimes committed five years apart, attorneys who dislike each other and a judge who commands the courtroom, legal observers say the trial will be the biggest Omaha has seen this century, if not last.
In terms of Nebraska history, the Garcia case may be rivaled only by the trials of the men who killed five people at a Norfolk bank in 2002 and the 1958 trial of Charles Starkweather, who killed 11 people in a spree in Nebraska and Wyoming.
A look at the people, issues, evidence and intrigue of the Garcia case:
From left: Shirlee Sherman, Thomas Hunter, Mary Brumback, Roger Brumback
Shirlee Sherman, 57 An Omaha native and 1968 Central High graduate who cleaned houses. Her large family includes a son and a daughter, and five grandchildren. Sherman was a hard worker who had a contagious smile, loved to garden and was known to dote on her grandchildren. She “would take care of everyone else before she took care of herself,” her daughter said.
Thomas Hunter, 11 Found dead in gym shorts and a T-shirt. The youngest of four sons of Drs. Claire and William Hunter, Thomas loved math, science, nature and animals, especially squirrels. He played video games, YMCA basketball and soccer and was a “junk food junkie,” according to his father. At the time of his death he was a sixth-grader at King Science and Technology Magnet Center. He would have turned 20 this year.
Mary Brumback, 65 A native of Arlington, Virginia, she and her future husband met at Penn State University and married in 1969. She was a pharmacist in Maryland for a while before graduating from law school and eventually practicing family law in Norman, Oklahoma. She co-wrote a book with her husband, Roger Brumback, and raised their three children with him. In one of his books, Roger credited Mary for her “unselfish devotion and support that has sustained me throughout my career.” The Brumbacks were in the process of moving from Omaha to retire in West Virginia.
Roger Brumback, 65 He grew up in the Pittsburgh area. He finished his bachelor’s degree in just two years and, by age 19, had become the youngest student in the inaugural medical school class at Penn State University. In his medical career he was passionate about both ends of life: the brain development of children and brain degeneration in diseases such as Alzheimer’s. The former chairman of Creighton’s pathology department wrote or collaborated on 14 books, and started two medical journals. As a result of a college research discovery, he had a species of owl monkey named after him.
Above: Suspect SUV neighbors described in 2008
FIRST SET OF SLAYINGS
On March 13, 2008, Dr. William Hunter arrived at his home at 303 N. 54th St. to find his youngest son, 11-year-old Thomas, and Shirlee Sherman, who cleaned the Hunters’ house, dead. Hunter’s wife, Dr. Claire Hunter, was on a work trip to Hawaii at the time.
Television footage from that day shows a stunned Bill Hunter in the back of a police car, being driven to Central Police Headquarters.
The slayings sent Omaha, and in particular the stately Dundee neighborhood, into a state of shock. An initial police statement indicated that Dundee residents shouldn’t be concerned — and gave the impression that police had an idea who the killer might be.
But initial leads proved fruitless. Soon, police released a sketch. Neighbors described an olive-skinned man in a silver or gray SUV.
He was well-dressed, in dark clothing, and carried a briefcase. Sherman answered the door and let him into the house, neighbors said.
The killer left knives in the necks of both Hunter and Sherman.
Above: Police sketch of suspect released after 2008 slayings
Omaha police initially focused on the then-boyfriend of Sherman’s daughter. Sherman herself had taken out a protection order against him. That lead didn’t pan out. Detectives also found that Thomas Hunter had been having online communications with some people who turned out to be questionable.
Detectives canvassed the country. The suspects had alibis. Investigators also grilled the Hunters on whether they had any disgruntled former medical students, employees or patients.
At one point Hunter sat down with Roger Brumback and another pathology department administrator to compile a list.
Anthony Garcia’s name came up, but Bill Hunter did not view him as a credible threat. After all, it had been seven years since Garcia had left the Creighton University Medical Center residency.
Even as he was unceremoniously booted from Creighton, Garcia didn’t raise a fuss. And he hadn’t been heard from since.
Above: The Brumback house
SECOND SET OF SLAYINGS
On May 14, 2013, a mover arrived to load the Brumbacks’ piano from their home, 11421 Shirley St. Roger Brumback was retiring and the couple were moving to West Virginia.
The mover got to the threshold of the home only to find the door ajar. Part of a gun clip was on the ground near the threshold. The mover called 911.
Omaha police arrived to find a crime scene similar to the one in Dundee. Two people were dead. Mary Brumback was stabbed to death.
But there was one critical difference: Roger Brumback had been shot to death.
The use of a gun and the fact that a piece of it was left at the scene was one critical break in the investigation.
Above: DNA found on doorknob in 2013
‘A VERY CLOSE SHAVE’
The other critical break: On May 12, 2013 — the day that authorities believe the Brumbacks were killed — a burglar alarm had gone off at the home of Dr. Chhanda Bewtra, who worked alongside Drs. Brumback and Hunter in Creighton’s pathology department.
Bewtra and her husband had gone out for a Mother’s Day lunch. About 2:05 p.m. they received a cellphone call from their security company, alerting them to a possible break-in.
They arrived home soon after to find their back door ajar. Whoever had pulled the door open was gone, perhaps fleeing at the sound of the security alarm. Investigators later found DNA on the handle. Prosecutors allege DNA tests connect it to Garcia or a male relative in his family. Garcia’s attorneys dispute that, saying any connection is hardly convincing.
One of the charges jurors will weigh: the attempted burglary of Bewtra’s home.
Bewtra will be called to testify.
“It was a very close shave,” she has told The World-Herald.
Above: Travel records
THE TASK FORCE
In the immediate aftermath of the Brumbacks’ deaths, Omaha Police Chief Todd Schmaderer formed a task force of Omaha police detectives and FBI agents. He called out the killer at a press conference.
Detectives and FBI agents, who were part of the task force, eventually focused on Garcia and feared that he might wind up in Omaha again or at another place Garcia had been rejected: Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.
On July 14, 2013, authorities had pinged Garcia’s phone to find that it was at a hotel about two hours southwest of Garcia’s home in Terre Haute, Indiana.
FBI Special Agents Jonathan Robitaille and Kevin Hytrek rented a hotel room with a window overlooking Garcia’s black Mercedes sport utility vehicle. They went to sleep. One of the agents awoke three minutes before his 5 a.m. alarm and peered out his window. Garcia’s SUV was gone.
Panicked, the agents bolted south, zipping 100 mph down Interstate 57.
They pinged Garcia’s phone again — only to discover they already had passed Garcia’s SUV. So they backtracked. Soon after, Garcia was pulled over at one of the last exits in southern Illinois.
Inside Garcia’s car: a crowbar, a sledgehammer, an unloaded .45 caliber handgun and a package of .45 caliber bullets. And an LSU lab coat.
Asked where he was headed, Garcia said New Orleans.
Above: Anthony Garcia mugshot
Most defenses can be summed up this way: He didn’t do it. And the state can’t prove it.
Garcia’s attorneys haven’t played their hand as to what his specific defense is.
They have pointed to another man they call a possible suspect: a man arrested in an Omaha case — the 2007 stabbing death of Joy Blanchard.
And they have picked at the state’s theory that Garcia’s gun was the murder weapon. They noted that the gun clip found at the Brumbacks’ home could have fit five different handgun models.
They have blasted the state’s evidence as weak in both sets of slayings. They also have countered the state’s Garcia-had-a-grudge theory with letters of recommendation and support sent by Hunter and Brumback.
Above: Credit card, skeleton of gun found by roadside in Illinois and restaurant receipt
STRANGE EVIDENCE BEDFELLOWS
The next four to six weeks will include all of the pertinent evidence that jurors will hear. No need to detail it here.
Expect the typical evidence of a murder trial: crime-scene analysis, witness descriptions, DNA evidence.
And the anything-but-typical:
» A former stripper is expected to testify to comments she says Garcia made to try to impress her.
» Former medical colleagues and bosses are expected to testify to their rejection of Garcia.
» And a UPS driver is expected to testify to another break in the case: a bathroom break.
The driver was relieving himself late at night near the intersection of two highways in rural Illinois. As he did, he spotted the skeleton of a handgun. It was missing its slide, magazine and most of the barrel.
Prosecutors will attempt to connect it to Garcia, noting, among other things, it was found about 16 miles from where Garcia used to live in Terre Haute.
In summary, a critical piece of evidence in a series of knife killings? A gun and its broken parts.
Above: Robert Motta Sr., defense attorney, and Don Kleine, Douglas County attorney
NO LOVE LOST
Novice trial spectators would be surprised at how often prosecutors and defense attorneys get along.
Even when arguing, even when objecting, there typically is a collegiality that bridges the distance between the defense and prosecutor tables.
This case? Not so much.
From top: Brenda Beadle, Deputy Douglas County attorney; Robert Motta Jr., defense attorney; Alison Motta, former defense attorney; Jeremy Jorgenson, local defense attorney
One attorney’s recent description of the other side: “They don’t talk to us.”
When they have to — typically in court — there often are fireworks.
On one side is Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine, the state’s most experienced prosecutor; Chief Deputy Brenda Beadle, herself an experienced prosecutor; and a deputy in the office, Sean Lynch.
On the other is the self-proclaimed “Team Motta” of Chicago — Robert Motta Sr.; his son Robert Motta Jr.; and daughter-in-law Alison Motta — and their local counsel, Jeremy Jorgenson.
Robert Motta Sr. once was part of the defense team for Illinois serial killer John Wayne Gacy.
The younger Mottas are fighters.
Alison Motta likely will be in the courtroom, but she won’t be allowed to sit at the defense table or have a speaking role. Judge Gary Randall refused to allow her to represent Garcia after she told several reporters a DNA test “conclusively exonerates” Garcia and implicates another man in the Sherman and Hunter slayings. (The DNA sample was so weak that it didn’t implicate, or exonerate, anyone.)
At a recent pretrial hearing, Robert Motta Jr. told Judge Randall: “I don’t practice here, so I can take a scorched-earth policy.”
Kleine has had little tolerance for what he often casts as the defense team’s “antics.” He filed, and later withdrew, a motion for sanctions against Alison Motta on allegations that she told a stripper who likely will testify in the case that she would love to get rid of her. Alison Motta adamantly insists she never made that comment.
The allegation against his wife led Motta Jr. to scream so loudly during a hearing over the phone that he was incomprehensible. A judge pounded on the phone and told him to “shut up.”
Above: The Hunter house
THE VICTIMS’ FAMILIES
Thomas’s father, Dr. William Hunter, is expected to be called as a witness, as might his mother, Dr. Claire Hunter. That will mean they are sequestered outside the courtroom until, and unless, the judge lifts their sequestration after their testimony.
Sherman’s family members — including brother Brad Waite and son Jeff Sherman — have been diligent and dutiful, keeping vigil at nearly all of Garcia’s pretrial hearings. Earlier this month Waite noted how long Garcia has been awaiting trial: 1,145 days, he said. “My feeling is, ‘Let’s get on with it.’ ”
Now on the cusp of the trial, Roger Brumback’s sister, Carol Brumback, plans to travel from her home in Maryland to Omaha. She hasn’t decided whether to bring their 95-year-old mother, Frances.
Frances Brumback is distraught over the death of her firstborn son, Carol said. Roger had spoken to his mother on Mother’s Day 2013, the day authorities believe Roger and Mary Brumback were killed.
“It’s been over three years since then,” Carol Brumback said. “There’s just been so many hurdles to try to get to this point.
“It’s scary that this is actually happening now — that we’ll actually have an outcome. We’re hopeful it’s a positive one.”
Above: Illinois map
Anthony Garcia’s rise to medical doctor was remarkable — in more ways than one. His family was decidedly middle-class: His father is a retired machinist for the U.S. Postal Service and his mother is a nurse. Garcia grew up in Walnut, California, a Los Angeles suburb, and went to medical school at the University of Utah, graduating in 1999.
That he became a doctor is a credit to his parents — and to Illinois, the only state that granted him a lasting medical license. He was fired from his first residency job for yelling at a radiology technician. His next residency position, at Creighton University, ended in 2001 after he and another resident sabotaged a colleague during critical medical exams. At several steps along the way he was denied medical licenses, in part because of those initial terminations.
With the Illinois license, he was able to land a job visiting Medicare patients in the Chicago area. He also worked for the Indiana prison system on a temporary medical license. He lived in a $120,000 house on a cul-de-sac in Terre Haute. He also drank heavily, visited strip clubs and, if prosecutors are to be believed, counted one exotic dancer as his confidante.
Above: Google searches
The most poignant moment of Garcia’s story: In 1999 Garcia and his proud father, Frederick Garcia, packed all of his belongings into an old relic of a van and drove cross-country from California to his first big medical job in New York state.
Fred Garcia is a gregarious man who sometimes referred to Anthony as the family’s “brain surgeon.” His mother, Estella Garcia, is a quiet woman. Garcia’s younger brother, Fernando, is a financial adviser and was Garcia’s most effective spokesman when he held court with the press outside the Douglas County Jail earlier this year.
Above: Judge Gary Randall
An 18-year veteran of the Douglas County bench, Gary Randall has had — and will have — his work cut out for him when the trial begins.
In March Randall took over for Judge Duane Dougherty, who stepped aside from the case because of health concerns.
Randall, a recent finalist for a Nebraska Supreme Court vacancy, essentially will be the trial referee, ruling on evidentiary issues and testimonial objections and instructing the jurors.
A personable judge, he nonetheless has little tolerance for nonsense.
He kicked Alison Motta off the case and has admonished both sides to play nice.
He also recently riled prosecutors when he barred them from using an advanced analysis of the DNA found on Bewtra’s door. Prosecutors appealed the judge’s decision to the Nebraska Supreme Court. However, the high court refused to intervene.