CBS News 48 Hours

Brian Eftenoff

Reasonable Doubt
March 28, 2002

When beautiful young mother Judi Eftenoff died of a cocaine overdose in her Phoenix house, it seemed like a terrible tragedy. Then police arrested her husband, Brian, and charged him with murder. After a five-week trial, a jury reaches a verdict - but that's only the beginning of the story. Was her death an accident, or a murder? Erin Moriarty investigates.
Brian Eftenhoff
Brian Eftenoff
Eftenhoffs Wedding
Judi & Brian's Wedding
Judi Eftenhoff
Judi Eftenoff

Around 5:15 am, on a September morning in 1999, Brian Eftenoff says he arrived home after a long night out with his best friend, and discovered his wife on the bathroom floor of their Phoenix home. He called 911, but she was dead.

With the Eftenoff’s two children, 5-year-old Rikki and 3-year-old Nicholas, safely with the neighbors, police set about trying to figure out how this young mother died.

Because of the bruises on Judi’s body, police initially suspected an assault. But there were no signs of a break-in, and there were no obvious injuries to cause death.

Brian, 42, the owner of an auto parts business, was taken to the Phoenix police station for questioning and interviewed by Detective Joe Petrocino. Judi’s death came as a shock to her friends, and to her parents back in North Dakota.

Although Brian Eftenoff was the last person to see Judi, he had an air-tight alibi: a surveillance tape from the casino where he had been gambling that night with a friend. Brian says that Judi was fine when he left her that night. He told police his wife was putting the kids to bed, and acting normally when he said goodbye.

Toxicology tests showed that Judi, 30, had died of a stroke caused by cocaine intoxication. Tamara Coalwell, Judi’s best friend, admits Judi started using drugs after she got married. She says that Brian was the one who introduced her to cocaine.

But while the existence of cocaine in Judi’s system certainly explained her mysterious death, it still didn’t answer all of the medical examiner’s questions: How did Judi Eftenoff sustain those minor scrapes and bruises on her face and head?

Judi had met Brian when she was 23. Brian was a handsome, fast-talking charmer. “I was the gas pedal, she was the brakes, we used to always say that. I was the gas pedal, she was the brakes,” Brian says.

After she and Brian married and had children, Judi continued to work in sales at Neiman Marcus. None of Judi’s family or friends had ever liked Brian, and when they heard she had suddenly died, they suspected that he had something to do with it.

There was a problem with their theory. Despite Judi’s cuts and bruises, the county medical examiner wasn’t at all convinced she was murdered, that it might have been an accidental overdose, so he listed her death as "undecided." But Detective Joe Petrosino was not only sure Judi had been murdered - he also thought he knew who killed her: Brian.

At first, it was just the injuries that made the detective suspect Brian. But, over time, Petrosino became convinced, in large part because of Brian himself.

When asked whether he ever fought with his wife, he told Detective Petrosino: “Of course. I have total respect for women, but if you’re going to act like a guy, you get treated like a guy. You hit me with something, throw something at me, smack me in the face, good chance you’re probably going to get smacked back.”

Petrosino started to gather stories that Brian had beaten Judi in the past. He discovered that Rikki Eftenoff, Judi and Brian’s daughter, told social workers that she had seen their parents fighting. In a series of interviews with counselors, Rikki, who was five when her mother died, gave disturbing -- but also conflicting -- stories of domestic abuse.

But Petrosino still couldn’t figure out how Brian could’ve killed Judi that night, so he was far from being able to charge Brian with murder.

Then Brian told Petrosino that there was only one way his wife could have as much cocaine in her system as she did. “To me, then someone was, you know, like, forcing her to do it or something,” Brian told Petrosino. “You know what I’m saying?”

With that, Detective Petrosino came up with his theory of how Brian killed his wife: “I think he beat her up. He hurt her. He knows he hurt her. She’s going to call the cops this time. And he needs an alibi, 'cause he doesn’t want to go to jail. And if he puts a little cocaine in her, and pours it down her and you know, anybody comes and looks at her, she’s going to have to be high on coke.”

Eight months after Judi’s death, prosecutor Kurt Altman and Detective Petrosino went before a grand jury and Brian Eftenoff was arrested for murder. His two children went to live with Brian’s sister.

The Murder Trial

At the trial, Altman argued that Eftenoff forced his wife to swallow cocaine to cover up injuries he had given her during a domestic argument. His key witness was toxicologist Dr. Randall Baselt, who says his calculations show Judi had taken as much as a gram of cocaine an hour or two before her death - too much cocaine he says, and taken too quickly, for Judi to have taken it on her own.

But his calculations are disputed by other expert witnesses. Even a witness from the county’s own medical examiner’s office says the amount of cocaine may have been smaller.

Altman believes the injuries Judi suffered will convince the jury she was murdered, so he turns to the one eyewitness he believes can say how she got them: Brian and Judi’s daughter, Rikki Eftenoff. But her memories were contradictory, and at the trial she had no clear memory of what happened on the night her mother died.

It doesn’t help the prosecution when friends and neighbors who knew Judi during her marriage admit they saw her use cocaine. One woman says she might have done cocaine as much as once a week with Judi.

With evidence like that, and with the confusing and conflicting medical testimony, Brian is beginning to feel confident. “They do not have a case. They will never have a case,” he said.

Phoenix reporter Paul Rubin followed the case since the beginning. “You had this guy who oozed arrogance and he also thinks he’s a little better in every aspect of life than you or I or anybody.”

Brian is upset because he feels the case has focused not on Judi’s death but on his character. ““All they did is make me look like big evil intimidating man. Shouldn’t I get the benefit of the doubt? It’s the state’s burden of proof to show that I killed Judi. Not to come up with some theory that he shoved cocaine down her throat!”

Against the advice of his defense attorney, Brian took the stand. Eftenoff begins with an unusual and rather strange demonstration of how his wife looked when he found her. It makes everyone in the courtroom uncomfortable. Then he tells the jury that his wife used cocaine: “She just couldn’t put it down. It’s like a Lay’s potato chip. It’s hard to put down. When you start, it’s hard to stop.”

But then, he contradicts himself, and actually tells the jury that Judi may have been murdered. “If it was anything like a one-time dose, of like a gram or more than there’s obviously foul play.”

Taking the stand has given Brian a chance to tell his story. But Altman questions that story. Brian contradicts earlier testimony that he had hit his wife. He also denies calling his wife a “coke whore.”

After a five-week trial, the jury took 36 hours to come to a verdict: guilty. He was sentenced to 50 years in prison: 22 years for murder, 28 years for illegally transporting cocaine by mail to Judi’s parents. (He sent a small amount of cocaine in a box of her belongings. He says he didn’t realize it was there.)

Rubin doesn’t believe the evidence against Eftenoff was very convincing. “Just because Brian is weird doesn’t mean he’s a killer. Usually, it’s a whodunit. It’s a murder mystery. Well this one was, maybe it’s a whodunit, but it was a was there a dunnit?” Rubin believes Eftenoff’s ego helped do him in.

The county’s own doctors and toxicologist couldn’t agree on whether she was murdered or not. They’re not the only ones who raise serious questions about the case against Brian.

48 Hours brought together four well-known forensic experts and asked them to study the medical testimony and evidence from the trial: Dr. Lee Hearn, the chief toxicologist for Miami - Dade County, Florida; Dr. Edward Briglia, chief toxicologist for Suffolk County, New York. Dr. Charles Wetli, Suffolk County Chief Medical Examiner; and Dr. Don Ray, now retired, who spent more than 24 years as chief medical examiner in Seattle. Among them, they have studied hundreds of deaths from cocaine.

None of them agrees with the prosecution scenario, that Judi was first knocked unconscious and then murdered when her husband stuffed cocaine down her throat. “I would say it’s virtually impossible given the evidence I’ve looked at,” says Briglia. Not one of them believes Judi was even murdered.

Says Hearn: “I think she was a cocaine user. I think she was bingeing on cocaine the night of her death. And that she developed a cerebral bleed because cocaine raises your blood pressure, it happens fairly often - and that was the cause of her death.”

48 Hours spoke with more than a dozen medical experts and was unable to find a single one who agreed with the prosecution’s star medical witness, Dr. Baselt, who testified that Judi died shortly after ingesting a large dose of cocaine. The problem, say these doctors, is that Baselt based his opinion on blood test results that are unreliable when taken after death. “The notion of this single acute oral overdose is simply not consistent with the facts,” says Briglia.

Undisputed evidence shows that most of the cocaine in Judi’s body had already broken down into by-products called metabolites – very little remained in her stomach.

What about the prosecution’s witness’ argument that there was so much cocaine in her body that she simply couldn’t have done that on her own? “I would characterize that as absurd.” says Hearn.

What about the injuries found on Judi’s body that the prosecution argues is proof she was beaten and forced to take the cocaine?

“These are not indications of anybody who’s sustained any type of beating at all. These to me, are very non-specific. It might be indicative of some type of struggle or a fight, but certainly not a beating,” says Wetli.

They all agree that it is just as likely that the injuries occurred naturally as part of an accidental overdose.

If these medical experts are so convinced Judi was not murdered, isn’t that “reasonable doubt” that her husband killed her?

Says Wetli: “There’s no evidence that she was forced to swallow cocaine. And consequently there is an innocent man in prison.”

“I think it’s very possible that there is an innocent man in jail,” says Briglia.

“Innocent of murder certainly,” says Hearn.

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