December 5, 2002
New Report in Wife's Death Clears Former Police Officer
LEASANTVILLE, N.J., Dec. 4 — After a long night of drinking, a veteran police officer, the son of a police captain, calls 911 to say his young wife is dead. The medical examiner rules the death a homicide — asphyxia by suffocation — and the husband is charged with killing his wife, his childhood sweetheart. Facing a life sentence, he loses his job and his children, and finds himself vilified by neighbors and the news media.
For the past year and a half, the murder case against the former officer, James L. Andros III, appeared to many to be a cut-and-dried tale of domestic abuse turned deadly. But now a surprise twist has stunned Mr. Andros, the prosecutors and others in this blue-collar suburb of Atlantic City.
This morning, a few weeks before Mr. Andros was to stand trial in the murder of his wife, Ellen, the Atlantic County prosecutor abruptly dismissed all charges after an independent forensics expert submitted a report on Monday showing that Mrs. Andros, 31, had been killed not by suffocation but from bleeding in her coronary artery, a rare condition that can affect women with no history of heart trouble.
On Tuesday, Elliot M. Gross, the medical examiner who had originally declared the March 2001 death a homicide, agreed with the findings, prosecutors said. And the defendant, who has been out on $150,000 bail since shortly after his arrest, walked out of State Superior Court a free man today.
Speaking later in front of the courthouse in Mays Landing, Mr. Andros, 34, said he was ecstatic about the news but embittered by the experience. "I want to scream and shout and celebrate, but I can't," he said. "It's been a horror, a tragedy, and now I have to start properly mourning the death of a spouse."
With his record clear, Mr. Andros, a 12-year veteran of the Atlantic City police force, will be reinstated in the coming days. His first move, however, will be to file a motion seeking the return of his daughters, who have been living with his in-laws since his wife's death — a move that may be difficult, because Mrs. Andros's parents are not convinced of his innocence.
Mr. Andros said he felt vindicated. "The medical examiner came up with a conclusion that just wasn't true, and that's a disgrace," he said.
Dr. Gross, who was New York City's medical examiner during the Koch administration, did not return a half-dozen calls to his home and office seeking comment. But Jeffrey S. Blitz, the Atlantic County prosecutor, acknowledged that the decision to press the case against Mr. Andros was based on Dr. Gross's original determination that the victim had been murdered. "It certainly is regrettable that Dr. Gross didn't conclude that this was a heart attack from natural causes," Mr. Blitz said.
Dr. Gross was dismissed by Mayor Edward I. Koch in 1987 after questions about the accuracy of his forensic reports. Since then, he has become the medical examiner for Cape May and Cumberland Counties in New Jersey. He is also the assistant medical examiner for Atlantic County.
Mr. Andros's lawyer, John Bjorklund, said he had suspected the forensics and had hired two outside experts who concluded that Mrs. Andros had died of spontaneous coronary artery dissection, a condition that causes hemorrhaging in the coronary artery and sudden death but can appear as asphyxiation. In affidavits, Mrs. Andros's family doctor said she had had respiratory problems that could have contributed to her death.
In preparing for trial, prosecutors hired an independent forensic doctor who came to the same conclusions. Faced with those findings, Dr. Gross agreed Tuesday to amend the death certificate. "It's a shame that no one looked at the science a little more closely from the beginning," Mr. Bjorklund said. "It's been a nightmare for everyone involved."
Mr. Andros's nightmare, however, may not be over. His wife's parents, Edward and Bette Ann Clark, will resist moves to have the children, ages 7 and 5, returned to his home, said their lawyer, Marissa Costello. "As of yesterday the prosecutor's office were the ones saying it was murder," she said. "Suddenly everything has changed. They're not happy with the situation."
The Clarks did not respond to telephone messages left at their home, but during the past two years, they have described Mr. Andros in court papers as an abusive husband, a charge he has denied.
Today, friends and neighbors of the Androses described them as a loving couple who first met as children. "She got mad at him when he didn't take the garbage out, the usual things, but there was never any abuse," said Judy Goodman, who lives next door.
Marie Kokes, Mr. Andros's sister, described Ellen Andros as her closest friend and said she had seemed at peace in the days before her death. "So many things have been said about their relationship and they just weren't true," she said.
By his own account, Mr. Andros returned home around 4 a.m. on March 31, 2001, after a night out with friends and found his wife unconscious near the family computer. He called 911 and tried to resuscitate her but it was too late. The police reported no signs of a struggle, but a few weeks later, Mr. Andros was charged with murder.
In recent months, he has been allowed sporadic visits with his daughters, Megan and Elizabeth. With no income and $300,000 in legal fees, he said today, his landlord allowed him to live rent free. And he said most of his fellow officers never questioned his innocence, nor did his family.
"From the beginning I felt like I was in a bad movie I wished I could walk out of," he said. "Thank God the movie is finally over."