Sunday, June 30, 2013

PUTTING ON MY REPORTER'S HAT

The Staudte story is the best crime story I've ever covered. Friends, enemies, sycophants and oldsters know that's saying a lot.

Not only is it fascinating on the surface — Mom accused of killing husband and son and sickening oldest daughter with antifreeze; another daughter now accused of helping Mom commit familicide — it is riveting for the stories starting to percolate just beneath the horrific surface. The Staudte (rhymes with "rowdy") case is already one for the ages, and we only know the barest of details of what could happen in the coming weeks and months.

For starters, the Springfield Police Department is coming across as clueless at best. After 27-year-old Shaun Staudte died in September 2012 — just a few months after his father's sudden death — police got a tip that something wicked was happening within the family. It does not appear police did anything on their own to follow-up on the tip; a spokeswoman says officers passed along the information to the medical examiner. If that's true, it was dismissed as unimportant. No one went back to Diane Staudte and asked suspicious questions in September 2012 — even after she had her son's body cremated with no apparent funeral or memorial services.

Diane Staudte reportedly confessed to police that she poisoned husband Mark, son Shaun and daughter Sarah with antifreeze. But as of this writing, there is no forensic evidence bolstering that alleged confession. Police searched the Staudte home on West Swan Street and seized dozens of items, including several household cleaners and fluids that could be poisonous. Antifreeze was among the liquids taken from the home. So was HEET, steel cleaner and windshield-washer fluid.

Pathologists conducted an autopsy on Shaun's body, but they apparently didn't do as thorough a job as they should have. Diane Staudte told police her son had a history of seizures; a pathologist says he found evidence of lesions on the young man's brain. That was that, as far as the pathologist was concerned — the lesions seemed to confirm the history of seizures, and that was good enough to say the young man died of natural (albeit unusual) causes. Had the pathologist done a full microscopic examination of Shaun Staudte's internal organs — and a comprehensive screening of blood and vital fluids — he might well have discovered the poison in Shaun's body.

But that's if the young man was poisoned — again, there is no evidence that tests have been done on the tissue samples saved from the autopsy. Several days after Diane and Rachel Staudte were arrested, the pathologist expressed surprise that he was involved in the case. No one from Springfield police had apparently given him the heads-up that a death he'd called natural was actually a homicide.

There is no way to prove Mark Staudte was poisoned. He was 62 when he died and there was no autopsy. His body was cremated, the ashes scattered in Lake Springfield. Any secrets his body carried are now dust, gone forever. The medical examiner ruled it death by natural causes. A vigorous defense attorney has an opening there, if he or she can get past the alleged confessions from Diane and Rachel Staudte.

Also not yet discussed, but hanging in the distance: the behavior of the medical professionals who treated Sarah Staudte when she was brought to CoxSouth. By all accounts she was unresponsive and near death. Her doctor ran an array of tests but came up with no reason for her illness. He said he suspected poisoning, but he couldn't prove it.

Neither the doctor nor a nurse caring for Sarah Staudte called police. That's apparently the way it's supposed to be. The confidentiality between a medical profession and his or her patient is sacrosanct. But once police started nosing around the hospital, the nurse immediately spilled, telling police she thought Diane Staudte was acting suspiciously. Nevermind the violation of Sarah Staudte's medical privacy — the nurse was acting like a police detective, not a health-care professional. She said Diane Staudte wasn't acting the way a grieving and worried mother should act; she used the word "inappropriate" to describe Diane Staudte's actions. A good defense attorney is going to have fun getting the nurse under cross-examination: You're aware Diane Staudte was a nurse, and nurses often keep their emotions in check? You're a nurse, correct? Do you routinely wear your emotions on your sleeve? Would it be fair to say some people might think you don't act appropriately when it comes to sickness and death? Did you get permission from Sarah Staudte to talk about her medical condition? You didn't? Why did you feel it necessary to divulge her private information to police? If you thought that was OK, why didn't you call police to report her suspected poisoning? Why did you wait several days, until police came to you, to violate Sarah Staudte's privacy rights?

The doctor was more circumspect, telling people he suspected poisoning, but acknowledging all his tests had failed to confirm his suspicions.

The officer leading the investigation also makes several statements that seem contradictory and erroneous. In asking a judge for a search warrant, he said he knows "death by poisoning can often go undetected because it is difficult for the medical examiner to know what if any poisons to test for during the autopsy. Based upon my training, research and experience, I know that individuals poisoned can exhibit medical symptoms prior to death. Here both Mark and Shaun exhibited some flu-like symptoms and had seizures shortly before their deaths. This could be consistent with poisoning."

True. It could also be consistent with dozens of other illnesses not caused by poison.

The officer also makes this statement: "Based upon my experience, bleeding from the mouth is not common from a death to natural causes."

This statement is overly broad. While bleeding from the mouth isn't necessary common, it's far from rare — and it's not an automatic indicator of foul play. If it was, then police look even more bumbling. They would have two otherwise healthy men from the same family, dead within five months of each other, both with blood around their mouths — and yet there was no further investigation.

As it stands now, a police investigator is on-record saying bleeding from the mouth is not common in natural deaths, yet his colleagues didn't seem concerned when they encountered two such deaths in a relatively short period of time — with the same woman reporting both deaths, and with an anonymous tip pointing to her as a killer.

Police will also have to answer questions about what took them so long to fully investigate Sarah Staudte's illness. She was admitted to the hospital on June 9. An anonymous tip fingering Diane Staudte as a dangerous woman came in on June 11. Police finally went to CoxSouth to talk to the doctor and nurse on June 13 — and even after hearing alarming things, did not talk with Diane Staudte until June 20. To say Springfield police were in no hurry to investigate seems an understatement.

Give them credit: they arrested Diane Staudte on June 20. Then again, she had just confessed to murdering her husband and son, and trying to murder her oldest daughter. Police really had no choice but to put her in cuffs.

As it stands right now, the only thing linking Diane and Rachel Staudte to the deaths of Mark and Shaun Staudte — and the sickness of Sarah Staudte — is their alleged confessions. Police and prosecutors have released some information on the case, but they're keeping mum on the specifics of what mother and daughter reportedly told police. We won't really know that until August; Diane and Rachel Staudte have preliminary hearings set for 10 a.m. Aug. 6. That's when prosecutors will introduce just enough evidence to prove a felony has been committed, and reasonable cause to show the defendants committed the crime. That's a fairly low standard to reach. Only then will the women be arraigned in circuit court, and only after that are prosecutors required to disclose their full case to defense attorneys.

Stay tuned.

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