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Cutting room the, p.21
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       CUTTING ROOM -THE-, p.21

           Jilliane Hoffman
 

  Daria blew out a low breath. Uh-oh. ‘Yes, Your Honor. However, as this video was given to me by the defendant’s mother, Abigail Lunders, I assumed that she’d also given it to her son’s lawyer. I’m not sure what kind of games the defense is playing. They’ve known about the video’s existence as long as the state has.’

  The judge shook her head again. She was mad. ‘Have you identified the victim on that video, State?’

  ‘Her name is Gabriella Vechio. It’s a murder out of New York that happened five years ago.’

  ‘Still unsolved, I assume?’

  ‘Correct.’

  ‘Hmmm … a five-year-old homicide out of New York doesn’t sound related to Ms Skole’s murder, on the face of it. Let me ask you, Ms DeBianchi: is Gabriella Vechio’s murder investigation related to the murder of Holly Skole?’

  ‘Mr Lunders is not a suspect in Ms Vechio’s murder,’ Daria answered. That much was true. She prayed the judge would stop with her questions — she was walking a fine line of semantics. Rephrase the same exact question, ask it again and the judge would hold her in contempt for lying. Or, rather, for not telling the whole truth.

  Judge Becker sighed like she was tired of talking to toddlers. ‘Are the two cases related — scratch that. Let me see for myself. Where’s this video? And I want the police reports regarding this Vechio girl’s death. Ms DeBianchi, you acknowledge being in possession of the video. I want to see it.’ The judge stood up. ‘I’m going back into chambers. Bring it to me along with the reports and I’ll take a look and decide right now if this is Brady material. The rest of my calendar can wait till we sort this out.’

  ‘There’s more, Judge.’ Varlack walked across the aisle and handed Daria a thick packet. ‘I’m filing a motion to suppress the search of Abby Lunders’s vehicle.’

  ‘What?’ Daria replied with disbelief. ‘That search was conducted pursuant to a warrant.’

  ‘A warrant that was based on the statements of a witness who is now unavailable,’ he said. ‘Your Honor, Marie Modic provided information to Detective Alvarez that led him to obtain a search warrant. Without her statements, law enforcement would never have located the vehicle and hence my client would never have been arrested. We can’t find her, Your Honor. I’ve been trying to depose her, but she’s gone AWOL. No one knows where she is. Without her, the warrant fails.’

  And if the warrant was out, everything inside the Benz was out, too. No lipstick, no DNA, no hair, no fingerprints, no fibers. And that meant Daria wouldn’t be able to prove Holly Skole had ever been in the car, which meant she could ultimately never prove she’d left the club with Lunders. No car meant no conviction. The day could not get any shittier.

  ‘Okay, so make a Motion to Compel her appearance, but the remedy is not suppression of the warrant,’ Daria shot back. ‘Your Honor, Ms Modic only served a limited purpose in Detective Alvarez’s obtaining the warrant. And I am not conceding she’s unavailable.’ Although the Investigations Unit at the State Attorney’s had been looking for her for a couple of weeks, there was no reason to think she’d completely skipped town. Witnesses had lives that went on independent of a criminal case — sometimes all you had to do was look harder.

  ‘Okay, everyone: I’m not hearing that motion today. The state will need time to respond, and in the meantime, hopefully produce this witness. Althea, give them a date on that. Your motion to suppress, or compel, or whatever, is the least of the state’s problems at this moment, Mr Varlack,’ the judge announced as she stepped off the bench and headed toward the door that led to the hallway and her chambers. ‘Right now, I want to see that video.’

  31

  The blue flash drive dangled from the neck cord the judge held in her manicured fist. With her elbows resting on the bench, she slowly swung it back and forth in front of her face, like a pendulum.

  ‘I don’t know what kind of game you think you’re playing, State. The fact that this video was anonymously sent to the defendant’s mother on the eve of her son’s bond hearing raises eyebrows right out of the gate. At least for me it does. If it hadn’t caused the same reaction for you, Ms DeBianchi, I guess that would be one thing. If you’d shrugged your shoulders and moved on to the next matter on your desk, I guess I’d be sitting here questioning your indifference. You are, I suppose, under no obligation to investigate the source of the video, or find out who the girl was or what became of her.’ The judge paused for a long moment. ‘But you did. And you discovered that she, too, was not a consensual partner in an S&M tape, but rather the victim of a brutal murder that had occurred under circumstances alarmingly similar to your own case, albeit in a different jurisdiction.

  ‘I don’t know if a jury’s ever going to get to see this video. I don’t know what kind of a defense Mr Varlack will be raising, although I’m pretty sure I see it coming. But at the very least, Mr Varlack had a right to be informed of the video’s existence, had a right to see the video, and had a right to know the name of the victim so identified in it. As the crimes do appear similar, he also has the right to know the names of any suspects the police have identified in Ms Vechio’s murder, including those developed by the authorities in New York, as well as any possible victims from other jurisdictions that have been identified, as this may lead him to develop another theory of his case. If it turns out that someone other than Mr Lunders committed those murders — murders that do appear, as I just said, alarmingly identical to Ms Skole’s murder — that is information that might very well exculpate the defendant. What is the most disappointing factor in all this is that you are a smart woman, Ms DeBianchi, and you knew you had to turn it over, but you didn’t.’

  ‘Judge—’ Daria started.

  ‘You didn’t. That being said, Mr Varlack, you can’t just sit on something that you had in your possession till the last minute so you can scream you’ve been done wrong, hoping to engage my ire. Your client’s mother had the video. She has a copy in her possession, I’m sure. You’ve obviously seen the video; according to Ms DeBianchi, Abigail Lunders said she’d shown it to you the morning of the Arthur Hearing. So yes, you are entitled to the information that the state has derived from investigating the video, but you are culpably negligent. The state, remiss as it is, is not legally obligated to hand you your defense. I suggest you put some of those well-paid investigators of yours to work and engage in some defense work yourself.

  ‘Give him the names, Ms DeBianchi,’ the judge finished with a sigh. ‘Give him the police reports. Give him the video. And I don’t want to hear so much as a whisper of a rumor that you are withholding evidence, or I’ll be the first to file a bar complaint. No conviction is ever worth your character.’

  Varlack smelled opportunity. ‘Your Honor, I’d like to revisit bond. You said that was possible if there was new evidence that came to light. I think this surely qualifies.’

  ‘Yes, Mr Varlack, I did say that,’ the judge replied.

  ‘Mr Lunders needs to be able to assist in his defense. He doesn’t have a criminal history, not even a traffic ticket. He’d be willing to surrender his passport, commit to an ankle bracelet. And, of course, post a substantial bond.’

  ‘Of course,’ replied Becker, nodding.

  ‘Your Honor, Judge Steyn heard all this—’ Daria protested.

  But the judge waved her off with a fire-red claw. ‘Perhaps this will prove as incentive for you to be completely forthcoming with the court and opposing counsel in the future. You’re lucky this isn’t happening during trial or post-conviction, because you’d be sitting in a jail cell. Bond is hereby granted in the amount of one hundred thousand dollars. In the event the defendant posts bond, he’ll commit to a bracelet and be placed under house arrest pending trial. We’re done for now.’

  The judge swooped off the bench before anyone could utter another word, her black robe billowing in a puff behind her as she quickly strode out the door to her chambers. It slammed shut.

  Daria stood at the state’s table, completely stunned. Bond
was in the discretion of the trial judge, so there was nothing to appeal. She just had to deal with it.

  Talbot Lunders was now out of custody. A free man.

  And it was all her fault.

  32

  ‘Patricia Susanna Graber was a victim on one of Reinaldo Lepidus’s cases back when he was a defense attorney in ’97,’ Mike Dickerson was saying, peering at Manny over his thick glasses from his favorite perch on Manny’s desk: one butt cheek on, one off.

  Manny leaned forward in his chair. ‘Go on.’

  ‘The crime was a home invasion. The defendants were two career criminals from Miami, a Lazaro Nefaris and a Ricky Reeder. According to court documents, they were supposed to hit the house next door and rob it — the one with the meth lab in the kitchen — but they accidentally went to the neighbor’s instead. The home of Joel and Emily Nachwalter.

  ‘Unfortunately for Ms Graber, she picked that very night to pay her aunt and uncle a visit. Talk about wrong place, wrong time. Everyone in the house was tied up and pistol-whipped, and twenty-three-year-old Patty was fondled while the two Neanderthals trashed the house looking for the drug money that was being counted next door. Nefaris, the Neanderthal with a conscience, apparently realized they were racking up the felonies and pulled Reeder out before it got any uglier. Prints led BSO detectives to Nefaris, and Patty Graber’s subsequent ID on both of them put the nails in their coffins. Nefaris flipped and got twenty; Reeder went to trial. Patty testified against him, and the judge gave him life.’

  ‘Where are they now?’

  ‘Nefaris got out in 2009, and died of AIDS four months later. Reeder’s still in Union Correctional.’

  ‘And Patty Graber?’

  ‘Her body was found in a dumpster behind a construction site in Parkland in ’99. She’d been raped and strangled.’ Mike tossed a crime-scene picture across the desk. ‘No arrests ever made. No suspects identified. They did check to see if there was any connection to Reeder or Nefaris, but nothing. Both boys were still in jail.’

  ‘Mikey, I take back everything I ever thought about you that wasn’t nice. How’d you find this shit?’ Manny asked.

  ‘A records check and manual review, since cases are not linked by computer to victim or witness names, only to defendants. I also ran both a newspaper search and a Google search with the name Pat Graber, but that wasn’t so helpful, as you can imagine. I got, like, ninety-five thousand hits on my first search. It wasn’t easy, which is why it took me a few weeks. Good thing this was one of Lepidus’s cases from his early years in practice, or I’d still be sitting in the clerk’s office going through shit, where I’ve been eight hours a day for the past month. My wife thinks I’m having an affair.’

  ‘Trust me, she’s happy you’re out of her hair,’ Bear said.

  ‘Lepidus was appointed to the bench by Governor Bush in 2000. He handled hundreds of cases as a defense lawyer and virtually thousands of cases as a circuit court judge and then as an appellate judge with the Fourth DCA and the Supremes, where he lasted two years before he croaked. It would have taken me for ever to find that connection, if I ever did.’

  Manny nodded thoughtfully.

  ‘It gets better. Or worse, depending how you look at it. In my diligent research of the Honorable, or turns out, the not-so-Honorable Judge Lepidus, I came across something else which may or may not be anything—’

  ‘Spit it out, old man.’

  Mike smiled a crooked smile. ‘Did you know that Judge Reinaldo Lepidus was on the Florida Supreme Court when William Rupert Bantling’s appeal was heard? As votes go, his was the one that broke the tie. Sorry, no new trial after all, Bill. Judge Lepidus actually wrote the damn opinion. He said the appellate court overstepped its authority when it overturned the trial judge’s denial of a new trial. Said the trial judge did not abuse his discretion when he denied Bantling’s demand for a new trial on ineffective assistance of counsel grounds and newly discovered evidence, and so the Third District Court of Appeals should never have granted Bantling a new trial. Lepidus was the one who ordered the original verdict reinstated — ultimately sending Cupid back to death row in 2006 and quashing his state appeals.’

  ‘Are you shitting me?’ Manny asked, wide-eyed.

  ‘I ain’t no lawyer, sonny boy, so I can’t explain all the legal mumbo-jumbo to ya, but I’m sure your cute girlfriend can. She seems pretty smart.’

  Manny stared at him. Mike grinned knowingly.

  ‘Insightful,’ Manny replied. ‘For an old man who’s supposed to be at the age he’s forgetting shit.’

  ‘I’ve been called worse. I knew she had nice legs from Day One when you was rushing to see her for the Arthur on the Skole girl. Remember I told you that? I didn’t even have to see her, I just knew.’

  ‘You’re slick.’

  ‘You remind me a lot of myself in my younger days, Bear. Back when I was taller and had a lot more hair.’ Mike rubbed his head. ‘Although maybe we have more in common along those lines, now. I played baseball, too, ya know.’

  ‘Yeah?’

  ‘Little League, but I could’ve gone much further if I hadn’t been drafted. ’Nam called.’

  ‘A million excuses.’

  ‘I always went for the legs. Gam Man, the boys called me,’ Mike went on. ‘Saw you two at the courthouse the other day. Hope you wear a better poker face when you interview street scum, Sonny. You looked like a fucking puppy, following Legs around. But she is definitely cute. Nice ass, too. Don’t know what she sees in you, though.’

  ‘Me neither, Pops,’ Manny answered with a smile. ‘I’m just glad she sees me. Course the same could be said about your wife. What you married now? Thirty?’

  ‘Don’t go there. My Etta never looked like your prosecutor, although she did have nice legs before the veins started popping.’ He whistled. ‘I’m jealous of you, Bear, but I can’t do nothing about it without taking a pill anyway, so what’s the point in fantasizing?’

  Manny shook his head and picked up a crime-scene photo from his desk. ‘Good detective work there, Watson.’ He frowned. ‘I’m gonna need to blow these pictures up, if possible, Mikey. I need to see if there are any marks—’

  ‘Done,’ Mike said, slipping another crime-scene photo across the desk.

  ‘Jesus …’ Manny said, looking up at Mike, wide-eyed.

  ‘Jesus is right,’ replied Mike. ‘I knew this one would get you.’

  The blonde-haired, brown-eyed Patricia Susanna Graber lay naked in a dumpster, her crumpled legs folded beneath her. But Mike had enlarged the photo, and what Manny immediately noticed was not the strangulation marks across the girl’s pale throat, or the bruises on her thighs, or the vacant stare in her lifeless, open eyes.

  It was the small, jagged black thunderbolt, seared into the flesh right over the girl’s heart that immediately got his attention.

  33

  Daria had debated heading straight to Vance Collier’s office on the fourth floor and telling him what happened before he saw it for himself tonight on the news, or read about it in the morning. Face up and take the medicine. But when she hit the elevator, she just couldn’t do it. Not yet. She headed to her office to regroup her thoughts over a cup of coffee. Perhaps she should call Collier instead …

  She looked out the window at the jail. In a few hours Lunders would be back on the street. Back in the mansion with his odd, hot mom. An out-of-custody defendant meant headaches on several scales. If he was entertaining a plea in that warped pretty head of his, extracting it would be a much more difficult task now. Jailbirds, once they’d tasted freedom, didn’t ever want to go back in the cage. Especially if they were facing a long sentence. If Lunders was involved in a snuff club, being out of custody also meant he could contact witnesses, potentially destroy evidence, and alert possible co-conspirators — his fellow murderers.

  Of course the snuff-club theory was nothing but a theory — it had been weeks since she and Manny had been to see Bantling and they still had not found any conne
ction between Judge Lepidus and ‘Pat Graber’. Other than the word of a convicted serial killer, they’d found nothing to corroborate the club’s existence. Although Manny was actively working the other murders out of St Pete and south Miami, and following up leads, nothing so far had led to either Talbot Lunders or Bill Bantling. For his part, Bantling was in prison at the time of both Florida murders; Lunders was in the Bahamas with his mother when Cyndi DeGregorio, the stripper from Florida City, had disappeared. Although Jane Doe, the unidentified victim from Tampa, was seen leaving the bar in the Don Cesar Hotel last April with a man who matched the description of Talbot Lunders, one year later the hotel employee who’d offered the initial description was unable to pick Talbot’s picture out of a photo line-up.

  Maybe it was pure coincidence that the victims had these similar tattoos/brandings on their persons. Maybe she and Manny had opened up a big bag of worms and handed the defense their defense. Or maybe, just maybe, Daria’s gut had been right from the beginning — Abby Lunders had led them down this weird trail for a reason. Behind the concerned mom demeanor, there was something not to be trusted about the woman. Daria recalled the intimate embrace she’d witnessed in the courthouse between Abby and Talbot. It brought to mind the murdering mother–son grifters, Sante and Kenny Kimes, who’d shared a hell of a lot more than psychopathic genes. Yuck. Nothing much surprised her in this job anymore.

  The phone rang at her desk and she jumped a little in her seat. It was probably Vance calling to scream at her because he had watched the news. She couldn’t avoid his wrath forever. ‘State Attorney’s. DeBianchi.’

  ‘I like that you’re sitting at your desk, waiting for me to call,’ Manny said with a chuckle when Daria picked up. ‘Not even one full ring. Now tell me, what are you wearing?’

  She was relieved it wasn’t Collier, but she also dreaded telling Manny how her morning had gone. She was no good at eating crow. ‘Funny,’ she answered. ‘I was about to head upstairs to see Vance.’

 
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