Authors: Steve Martini
Tags: #Fiction, #General
A good lawyer given just one such candidate can take a shot at crafting the honored “SODDI” defense: some other dude did it. There are silver-tongued artists who, given this opening, wouldn’t even have to point a finger, would just nod in the general direction while broadcasting seeds of doubt like a tuberculosis victim coughing on the jury. Feed and cultivate this with care for a few days and it’s anybody’s guess what noxious weed might spring up out of the jury box to strangle the state’s case.
“Threats came with the turf,” says Ruiz. “I mean, people with Madelyn’s kind of money and social status aren’t likely to be loved.”
“So there were threats?” Harry asks, a note of surprise in his voice.
“Sure. It ran the gamut,” says Ruiz. “Nutcases, most of ‘em. People who claimed she stole their software. Former employees who took their job termination personally. Then you get the people at Christmastime whose lights aren’t all blinking, see her picture on the society page, and send her season’s greetings with a P.S.: ‘Wish you were dead.”’
“These were in writing?” Harry is making notes.
“Some of them. Some were called in, some by e-mail and fax. A couple of times they were hand delivered to the front counter in envelopes addressed to
Madelyn Chapman, President and CEO, Isotenics Corporation
like she was gonna open them herself. I guess they figured that way whoever delivered them would have time to get away before they were opened upstairs. We were able to nail one of them from pictures on the videotape at the public counter.”
“And the letters: any of them threaten to kill her?”
Ruiz makes a face and nods as if to say this would be in the natural order of things. “Sure.”
“And the company has these?”
“In their files, I suppose. We always advised them to keep this kind of mail. That was the procedure so we could track past correspondence if anything happened.”
“Good advice.” Harry can’t believe his good luck. He wants the name of the custodian or clerk in charge of filing and maintaining executive death threats at Isotenics so he can serve the guy with a subpoena.
“There was one event that pushed ‘em to hire security for her,” says Ruiz.
“And what was that?” I ask.
“Some nut nailed her with a cream pie at a shareholders’ meeting a couple of years ago. That’s what got the company’s attention. The board of directors finally woke up and realized it could’ve just as easily been somebody with a gun. It was shortly after that they called us in and we got the nod to go to work.” Ruiz starts to see the implications for his case. When you’re charged with murder it never hurts to have a victim who wasn’t loved. Besides the specter of a victimless crime, it increases the universe of possible perpetrators, hopefully to the point of confusion for the jury.
“Hell, if I had a dollar for every one of those letters came in, I could’ve quit and clipped coupons from a hammock on the beach two years ago,” says Ruiz. He is smiling now, warming to the idea that he is not alone in the universe of possible suspects.
Still, it leaves us to deal with one of the overarching ironies of the state’s case against him. A corporation hires executive protection that, according to the cops, ends up murdering the company CEO. It’s the kind of paradox that can lead jurors astray, causing them to disregard issues of reasonable doubt and focus instead on just how hard they might want to jump on the scales of justice to compensate for life’s inequities.
“Let’s talk about the firearm, the gun used to kill her.” I shift to another subject.
With this the smile evaporates from Ruiz’s face.
I look at him. “I understand it was traced to you.”
“Yeah.” Ruiz expels a deep breath as if to say sooner or later he knew we would get around to this. “What can I say? It was mine.”
“Not according to the federal government,” says Harry.
“I didn’t kill her, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
The only evidence that came in on the firearm during the preliminary hearing came from the police. They were able to trace the handgun, an exotic .45 automatic, back to its last owner, the United States government, more specifically, the Army base at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. The problem for Ruiz is that government records show the firearm by serial number as having been issued to one E. Ruiz, his signature and military ID number on a form nine years before the murder. After that there is nothing, no record to show that he ever turned it in or surrendered it upon his discharge from the military.
“Tell us about the gun,” I say. “How did you get it?”
Ruiz cocks his head a little to one side, shrugs a shoulder. “I kept it when I left the Army. No big thing,” he says. “It’s not that unusual. A lot of times they don’t even check. Hell, half the people I know retired from the Army kept their sidearms. Besides, a piece like that, it’s accurized. You know, I mean for your own touch and feel. It’s like a pair of boots: once you break ‘em in, who else is going to wear them? I spent maybe a hundred hours working on it, stripping it down, changing out bushings, shot out I don’t remember how many barrels and replaced them, reworked the action, adjusted the pull on the trigger for my finger. I lived with the thing. By the time I was finished with it, there probably weren’t two parts in that firearm that were the same as when it was issued. The action, that’s it.”
“Yes, but unfortunately for you, one of them was the frame with the serial number,” Harry counters.
The expression on Ruiz’s face concedes the point.
“All of that aside,” Harry continues, “let’s be up front. You stole it, right?”
There is a lot of grousing, grudging expressions from Ruiz on this before he finally says: “Yeah, I suppose you could say that.”
“You can be sure that’s what the cops are going to say when they get on the stand in your trial,” says Harry. “It’s a major point for them, and while it doesn’t go to the murder itself, it goes to the murder weapon, the tracing of the firearm. We probably can’t keep it out.”
“Let’s not jump to conclusions,” I say.
“What?” Harry turns to me. “Like a jury isn’t going to make inferences that a man who steals a gun might use it in a crime? Let’s be realistic.”
“Actually, that might be a point for our side,” I tell him. “After all, Mr. Ruiz had to know that the firearm was registered in his name on military records. You did know that, didn’t you?” I look at Ruiz.
“So if he knew the weapon was going to be traced back to him, why would he use it to kill Madelyn Chapman? It doesn’t make any sense.”
“Lovers’ quarrel, crime of passion. People don’t take time to think under those circumstances,” Harry points out. “Besides, it’s the fact the gun was stolen that puts him in a bad light. You have to admit, it’s not something that helps the case.”
“That may depend on whether Mr. Ruiz takes the stand. Right now all they can say is that the firearm once owned by the federal government, according to their records, was last known to be in the possession of our client. That was six years ago. Without Mr. Ruiz’s admission on the stand, they can’t say whether it was stolen by him or lost somewhere along the way. Fact is, they don’t know
happened to it.”
Harry looks at me a little cross-eyed, like I’m crazy. Any rational jury can connect the dots. “What are you saying? That we can sell the jury on the theory that somebody else managed to get ahold of a firearm that was once issued to the defendant? That they held it for God knows how many years and they used it to kill Madelyn Chapman so they could frame him? Why?”
I give him a look like
? “I’d be willing to bet that military records regarding issuance of firearms and ammunition aren’t that orderly or neat. You can bet they make mistakes and that somewhere there’s a written report or a government audit showing the frequency of such errors: lost or stolen firearms, military weapons used in crimes. It’s the one thing you can count on in any government bureaucracy: they keep records on everything, including their own mistakes. All I’m saying is that we can shower a good deal of doubt on who had this gun last.”
“Yeah, but here the defendant kn—” I put up a hand and stop him before Harry can finish the thought: that it’s too much of a coincidence that Ruiz knew the victim, had stayed overnight in her house, and that his firearm was used to kill her.
I look at Ruiz. “Let me ask you: Do you have any sense as to how often the Army might make mistakes in this area? Say somebody checks a gun back in and fails to sign off, or they lose a piece of paper. There are people in the military, I assume, who would know this, if in fact it’s a problem. We could put them on the stand.”
What I am telling Ruiz is that there may be a way to put an evidentiary wedge, a slice of reasonable doubt, however slender, between him and the murder weapon, deceptive as this may be.
I stop talking and all eyes are on him. Ruiz looks to Harry, then back at me. Finally he shakes his head. “I don’t get it. What’s the point?” he says. “The gun is mine.”
It’s the thing about desperate defendants, especially those laboring under a psychic load of guilty knowledge with no one to share the burden. In such cases it’s the rare soul who won’t grab any straw in an effort to weave some gold. And I’ve never known one yet to ask questions about ethics in the process.
“I think you understood it very well, Mr. Ruiz. It’s simple and it’s straightforward. It’s called the truth. It’s not the answer a lawyer might look for in court, but then, a smart lawyer would never put you on the stand and allow the question to be asked since he already knows, as I did, that any other answer would be a lie and would likely be exposed as one.”
“So you’re testing me to see if I’ll tell you a lie?”
“You have to excuse him,” says Harry. “He’s a lawyer.”
“And you’re telling us that you didn’t kill Madelyn Chapman and you don’t know who did. Is that right?”
Ruiz looks at me for a second, wondering, I’m sure, what part of the question is a trick. “Yes, sir, that’s exactly what I’m telling you. You don’t believe me, I guess I’m just going to have to go look for another—”
“Relax, Sergeant. I believe you.”
t first glance the grounds of Isotenics, Inc., aka Software City, look like an Ivy League academy. However, once inside the gate, a closer inspection reveals something more akin to a military base.
The outer-perimeter fence, constructed of ornamental iron for architectural effect, is at least eight feet high and decorated at the top of each picket with a fleur-de-lis, forked and needle sharp like the point of a pike. Anyone trying to climb this would require either the strength and agility of an Olympic gymnast or a ladder on each side. One slip and you would end up like a hot dog on a skewer.
The front gate, with a guardhouse in the center, is manned by uniformed security backed up by surveillance cameras on poles set on high ground as I drive in.
Beyond the gate, the blacktop lane winds through the hills and climbs in elevation toward the top of a ridge in the distance. On the way I pass clustered villages of redbrick buildings, commercial offices designed to approximate colonial New England with names posted on signs for various divisions of the company. The buildings, some with ivy climbing their walls, are erected in a rectangle around a green common, the irrigated and well-manicured lawn contrasting sharply with the dry grass of the California hillside. In places carefully engineered hedgerows covered with oleander and ficus have been used to conceal inner security fences, electrified chain link topped by tight coils of razor wire. None of this is unusual for a company whose principal client is the United States Defense Department. Marked private patrol units cruise the roads.
The rolling hills, more than a thousand acres of brown grass parched tinder dry by the arid climate of Southern California, are punctuated by occasional groves of stately eucalyptus trees.
As I climb, and look back down from on high, the buildings, their peaked roofs and gabled ends glistening in the morning sunlight, spread out below me, then disappear behind a ridge as I round a curve. It is plain to see how the place acquired the appellation
among the press, its various divisions separated as they are like colleges at Oxford. According to the materials I have read, Madelyn Chapman designed the setting so that corporate divisions could each compete against the other in that elevated entrepreneurial quest, the pursuit of perfection.
Halfway to the top the hill, I am stopped at a second security kiosk where the pass I was given at the front gate is collected and exchanged for another. My name is checked off a clipboard and I am handed a paper parking permit. Here the surface of the road suddenly transforms from asphalt to cobblestone arranged in an intricate herringbone design. The road is lined with jacaranda trees, their petals in late bloom covering the ground like a sky-blue shadow under the spreading branches. I take all of this to be a sign that I am entering the commercial equivalent of nirvana, a place set apart, above the mercantile gnashing of teeth and struggle for survival in the world below.
As the Jeep’s tight suspension rattles over the surface of the road, I look to my left and see the endless blue haze of the Pacific as it comes into view a few miles to the west.
I hook the paper parking pass to my rearview mirror and press the accelerator up the hill. Two minutes later the Jeep crests the top. I swing into the parking area marked Visitors and nose into the first open space. The parking lot, which takes up a good part of the eastern edge of the knoll, is nearly full. In front of me is a large Roman Revival two-story brick building with expansive stairs leading to a broad portico out in front. The roof over this is supported by five large white Doric columns complete with scrollwork and massive masonry pedestals. Rising above the roof of the building like the top layer on a wedding cake is a gleaming white dome supported by smaller columns and sporting round porthole windows halfway up its curving arc from the base. I am guessing that this architectural statement is just a little smaller than the gold dome on the state capitol. If you had a helicopter with enough lift, you could pick the building up and plop it down at the University of Virginia and the entire structure would feel at home, right down to the simulated aged brick with its tumbled edges and manufactured chipped corners.
I gather my briefcase and head toward the terrace of stairs leading to the portico and the main entrance. Climbing the stairs, I enter through the main entrance. Inside, the cavernous rotunda echoes with the click of high heels and shuffling shoe leather on the marble floors, the hum of voices punctuated by the occasional cough and sneeze, all bouncing off of hard surfaces and resonating in the lofty dome.
Careful attention has been paid to every detail so that the interior imitates to perfection the traditional architecture of government. This replication of the architecture of power no doubt has a subtle effect on the customers who visit it, mostly military brass and civilian bureaucrats. Operating as it would at the subconscious level, the design is likely to take advantage of the subservient instincts of those in the employ of the political beast to curtsy and bow in such surroundings.
I am left to wonder whether Chapman may have followed through on this theme upstairs, and if the conference rooms where sales are consummated are designed in the form of congressional hearing rooms, the proverbial political woodsheds for the Pentagon.
A circular counter directly under the dome serves as a public information desk peopled by a small army of scurrying attendants answering phones and pushing paper.
I take my turn in a line behind two other people. When I get to the counter I introduce myself: “Paul Madriani. Here to see Victor Havlitz.”
With the mention of the name I get the distinct impression of being in one of those television commercials where every conversation dies and ears are suddenly tuned in my direction.
“If you’ll wait just a moment . . .” The receptionist doesn’t ask for a business card or whether I have an appointment. No doubt she has been primed to expect me by a phone call from the kiosk down the road.
I have the sensation of being a bug under glass: scores of eyes glancing in my direction. The benefit of having your face and name plastered all over the papers and the six o’clock news as the defender of the man charged with murdering the corporation’s founder and chief executive officer.
As the receptionist picks up the receiver and starts to dial, I look around and a dozen sets of eyes suddenly return to what they were doing before I arrived. The drone of voices slowly picks up again until I can no longer hear what is being said on the phone. Whatever it is, it’s brief. She hangs up.
“Someone will be down to get you momentarily. If you’ll just wait over there . . .” She points off to my left toward a broad corridor that leads to the west wing of the building. I wander in that direction, briefcase in hand, feeling the gaze of eyes boring holes in my back.
Twice this week news crews have shown up out on the street in front of our office, our turn in the tumbrel with the media spitting questions and pushing lenses in our faces.
Ruiz’s impending trial is now topic one among those who tune in to the courts for their entertainment. There is talk that Court TV may try to cover the trial, something Harry and I may have to weigh in on. I am not an advocate of mass media in the courtroom. In the age of celebritocracy there is nothing more insidious than an ambitious juror or two asserting their dominance on a panel and steering deliberations in order to secure a seat on
. Those who believe it doesn’t happen have a view of reality that borders on the innocent.
A few seconds later I hear a soft voice behind me: “Mr. Madriani.”
“Would you follow me, please?”
She is a pretty redhead, fair complexion, dressed in a rust-colored skirt and white blouse, a light silk scarf looped over her shoulders and tied in a loose knot in front.
She smiles as we walk but doesn’t say a word, not even a comment on the weather or to inquire if I had difficulty finding the place. Staring straight ahead, she has an inscrutable expression, like an Irish
Halfway down the corridor we stop in front of a bank of elevators and head up. The ride, not far but slow, passes in silence sufficiently taut that if you touched it with a knife, it would snap. As soon as the doors open on the second floor, it is clear that we have entered executive row. Here the hum of voices and the clattery clicking of keyboards is swallowed whole by the thick Berber that carpets the floor.
The space is huge, taking up what I assume is the entire west wing of the building. In the center are insulated partitions offering a modicum of privacy for secretaries and assistants, each in their own cubicled world, surrounded by a plant or two and pictures, small snapshots of loved ones and friends. A few heads look up as we pass down the hall that is formed by the partitions on one side and a solid wall punctuated by office doors with names on brass plates on the other.
I follow her to the end, where we arrive at a set of double doors, polished mahogany with brass fittings. She taps lightly.
“Come in.” It’s a male voice from the other side, almost imperceptible.
As she opens the door I realize I am being ushered into a conference room, mirrored walls and a table, twenty feet of shimmering dark mahogany surrounded by burgundy leather high-back swivel armchairs. All of this is centered under a brass chandelier large enough to accommodate an entire village of monkeys.
I had been led to expect a private meeting with Victor Havlitz, vice president and chief counsel for Isotenics and for the moment Madelyn Chapman’s replacement and stand-in as CEO. Instead it looks like a gathering of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. There are five people gathered around the table, six by the time the woman who has led me here takes her seat. The man at the head of the table is standing, tall and dapper, decked out in a blue pinstriped power suit.
“Mr. Madriani, welcome, I’m Victor Havlitz.” Spider to the fly. The folded French cuffs of his white linen dress shirt peek out beneath the sleeves of his jacket as if they were measured on him where he now stands using a ruler for uniformity. He toys with one of the gold cuff links at his wrist as he smiles at me. His burgundy club tie appears as if it might have been pressed on his body with sizzling steam and color-coordinated to match the leather of the chairs.
“How do you do?” There is nothing I can do but smile back, sandbagged as I am by a group gathering.
He can tell from my expression that I did not expect a crowd. “I hope you don’t mind,” he says. “I asked a few of my colleagues to join us. They may be in a better position to answer some of your questions.” It seems the price of talking to Havlitz is an audience.
“The more the merrier,” I tell him.
“Please, come in,” he says, about to start the introductions, then stops. He apologizes, then offers me coffee, tea, or a soft drink. I pass.
“If you need anything just ask,” he says, then begins: “I’d like you to meet Mary Collard.” He indicates a blond woman in her mid-thirties on the far side of the table, at the end. She bares an obligatory half-smile. “Ms. Collard is the corporation’s chief financial officer. Next to her is Jim Beckworth. Jim assists me in legal and oversees most of our dealings with outside hired counsel. Next to Jim is Wayne Sims. Mr. Sims is with the law firm of Hays, Kinsky, Norton and Cline. I asked Mr. Sims to join us here today since no one in our legal department has much experience in criminal law and I thought it best, under the circumstances, to have someone with some knowledge assisting us.”
“I didn’t expect it to become adversarial,” I tell him.
“Oh, I’m sure it won’t be,” says Havlitz.
I don’t know Sims, but I know the firm: three hundred plus lawyers with offices in five states. They are part of the silk-sock set specializing in business law and white-collar crime.
Havlitz works his way around to my side of the table. “Over here on this side you’ve already met Ms. Rogan.”
My escort on the elevator. “Actually we haven’t been formally introduced,” I tell him.
“Allow me,” says Havlitz. “Karen Rogan. Ms. Rogan was Ms. Chapman’s executive assistant and personal secretary.”
This conjures an immediate image of Ruiz half-naked on his back on Chapman’s couch. She turns to look at me, a fleeting smile, a few light freckles clustered on the slope of her cheek around her nose, Bambi in the headlights.
In her early thirties, her amber hair is thick, medium length, and worn in the kind of natural wind-tossed style that looks as if she’s just stepped off a stormy beach on the Irish Sea. She nods in a kind of awkward gesture and immediately turns back, her eyes downcast toward the table.
If this is the woman Ruiz talked about, the intruder, it is difficult to imagine her not turning several shades of scarlet, given her fair skin and obvious discomfort in the presence of the defendant’s lawyer.
“Last but not least is Harold Klepp. Harold is the . . .
director of research and development.” For Havlitz, all the emphasis is on the word
, an inflection that is not lost on Klepp if I am any judge of facial expressions. He turns quickly to greet me, a smile and a nod. Klepp is African-American, the only person of color at the table.
Trying to put faces to names, plugging them into my own mental organizational chart of the company, I see that Klepp has the dubious honor of stepping into the shoes of Walt Eagan, his trusted predecessor and Chapman’s man Friday. No matter what he says or does, he is not likely to measure up.
“Harold is part of our technical staff. A programmer and design engineer by training.
“Please have a seat,” Havlitz says, gesturing toward the only empty chair at the table. This has been carefully positioned between himself and Karen Rogan, Chapman’s redheaded assistant. It is directly across from the lawyer Sims so that if my questions become too pointed, Havlitz’s lawyer can sink his fangs into me without having to coil before striking.
“If I’d known, I would have brought my office staff,” I tell him.