Nearly 20 months after the government charged Jim Andros with killing his
wife, took away his children, and suspended him from the police force, Atlantic
County authorities made a stunning announcement:
They'd made a mistake. He was innocent.
In fact, prosecutors said, the case wasn't even a crime.
Ellen Andros, 31, had died of a rare heart ailment, not suffocation
as originally believed.
"It blows me away that this could happen to anyone, even a
police officer," Jim Andros says now. "My goals in life were to create a
family with Ellen and be a police officer. How many people in life can say
they were living their dream? I was. And in the space of minutes, everything
that had been my life was gone."
When prosecutors exonerated Andros in December, they blamed
the coroner. They said he botched the autopsy.
But a review of investigative records, grand jury testimony,
sworn statements and other documents shows:
The coroner said he gave police other evidence that the victim
probably died while the husband was not at home.
Paramedics who responded minutes after the husband's 911 call
said Ellen Andros had been dead for "an extended amount of time."
Grand jurors raised the same questions that troubled defense
Last month, Jim Andros, 34, who faced a life sentence if convicted,
filed a federal civil-rights claim against Atlantic County officials, alleging
that they "conspired to concoct a motive" with his in-laws and distorted
or misrepresented evidence.
"In order to go on with my life, I need to make an effort to
see that there is exposure, so that people can see what happened," Andros
said. He also says he has a practical problem: He owes "hundreds of thousands
of dollars" in legal fees.
Atlantic County Prosecutor Jeffrey S. Blitz declined to comment,
citing the litigation. In a recent filing, he said that Andros has "unfairly
and detrimentally" cast aspersions on his office.
Ellen Andros' mother, Bette Clark of Pennsauken, called allegations
that her family conspired with authorities "ridiculous."
What happened, Clark says, "is a tragedy for my daughter and
certainly for her children." She declined further comment.
Ellen Andros' high school friends, whose statements about marital
troubles were used by prosecutors to help win a murder indictment, say they
have no regrets.
"I told the truth," said Julie Goldberg of Philadelphia. "I
would do it again."
The medical examiner who performed the autopsy, Elliot Gross,
who was ordered to undergo remedial training as a result of his error and
whose findings have caused controversy in the past, said that he made a mistake.
But, he added, others should share some blame.
Jim Andros' criminal-defense lawyers agreed. "It's much, much
more than Gross," said attorney John Bjorklund. "The prosecutors say they
are outraged. But they are the ones who created our client's outrage. They
say he came home in a drunken rage and killed his wife. You don't have to
be scientifically knowledgeable to see the indicators that he couldn't have
A key element in the case was time of death.
On March 30, 2001, Jim Andros arrived at a bar around 9 p.m.
and remained there until 4 a.m., a half-dozen witnesses told police.
Therefore, his attorneys say, if the evidence showed that his
wife died before 4 a.m., he could not have killed her.
According to her mother, Ellen Andros ate her last meal about
By 11:30 p.m., she left her parents' house in Pennsauken and
drove home to Pleasantville. She called her mother at 12:30 a.m. to say she
had arrived safely.
Ellen Andros put her children to bed and logged on to America
Online. She sent an e-mail to a friend at 1:48 a.m. About 40 minutes later,
AOL automatically logged her off for inactivity.
About 4 a.m., when the bar closed, Jim Andros headed home.
The ride from the bar to his house normally takes 15 to 20 minutes.
When he got home, he said, he found his wife sitting upright
in a chair by a computer. When she didn't respond to his greeting, he moved
closer and saw her face.
At 4:27 a.m., he called 911.
"My wife's purple!" he wailed into the phone.
He asked what he should do. He begged his wife to wake up.
"Ellen! Oh my God! Breathe! Ellen, please come back for our
Rescuers arrived at 4:31 a.m. They quickly concluded she was
dead and made no attempt to revive her.
Afterward, several first-responders told authorities that her
extremities were cold, her face blue.
"Which made me think that she'd been down for an extended amount
of time," paramedic Stephen Wilkins told detectives.
A coroner's assistant couldn't record a body temperature because
she forgot her thermometer.
Other clues developed at the scene - clues that did not reflect
well on the husband.
Outside, Ellen Andros' relatives told detectives that the marriage
had been troubled.
First-responders, meanwhile, said it seemed odd that the husband
didn't know when his wife was last seen alive.
Gross conducted an autopsy and concluded that Ellen Andros
had been smothered. He told detectives it was homicide.
But Gross also says he told detectives that the condition of
the food in her stomach showed that she died two to five hours after her last
"Closer to two than to five," he said in a recent deposition.
In a statement, Gross said that if "the Prosecutor's Office
shared with me questions over the time of death" and other evidence, "the
extremely rare microscopic cause of Ellen Andros' sudden, natural cardiac
death masquerading as suffocation might have been brought to light sooner."
At the funeral for Jim Andros' wife, tensions ran high between
her family and his. For the most part, the two families kept their distance.
But at one point, according to Jim Andros' sister, someone muttered: "Murderer."
Three weeks after his wife's death, Jim Andros was arrested
on murder charges and suspended without pay from the Atlantic City police
force, where he was a 12-year veteran who had won several commendations.
He spent the first two days in jail on suicide watch, with
someone waking him every 15 minutes to make sure he was still alive.
A judge granted temporary custody of his two daughters, Meghan,
then 5, and Elizabeth, then 3, to his in-laws.
"It was horrible," he said. "It was weird enough to lose one's
spouse, which is world-ending, but I also saw my family ripped apart and
myself portrayed in the press [as a killer]. There was too much evil going
on to process it all. It was complete overload."
Five weeks later, a grand jury met to consider an indictment.
Jurors heard about the autopsy results, Jim Andros' statements,
and interviews with two high school friends who alleged the marriage had
After the government presented its case, the jurors posed a
dozen questions. One grand juror asked: "If he was smothering [her], she's
probably gasping for air. Did they find any particles in her throat?" No,
they were told.
"They were asking all the right questions about the lack of
evidence," said defense attorney Matt Portella.
Andros, who had spent about a week in jail before his family
helped him post $170,000 bond, said he was surprised by his indictment but
thought authorities would eventually realize he had not killed his wife.
"I kept thinking this will be over in a few weeks," Andros
But after a year of pretrial proceedings, Andros realized he
might actually be convicted of a crime he had not committed.
If he hadn't had children, Andros says, he would have considered
suicide. "That became my driving force to fight," he said.
From the outset, defense attorneys said, they believed Ellen
Andros died of natural causes. She had a tonsillitis condition, and the autopsy
showed throat congestion at death.
Last fall, the defense won permission to allow its own expert
to review autopsy samples. The expert immediately became suspicious of slides
and tissue samples of her coronary artery.
That prompted prosecutors to hire their own expert, who reviewed
the evidence and concluded that Ellen Andros died from a rare but natural
cause: Bleeding in the coronary artery caused her heart to stop. Gross reexamined
the body and concurred.
On Dec. 3, Jim Andros' attorney called and told him to sit
"I'm thinking: 'What now? They're going to try to execute me?'
" Andros recalled.
The state was dropping the case, the lawyer said. It was over.
"I couldn't believe it," Andros said. "Even going out to the
courthouse in Mays Landing to get that piece of paper - it was surreal."
For a while, Andros kept a copy of the judge's order close
"I slept with it in bed next to me, sometimes actually holding
it, so if I would wake up during the night, I would know that it wasn't just
a dream that the charge had been dismissed."
The Atlantic City Police Department reinstated him immediately.
He is now on disability leave because of stress related to the ordeal.
When he regained custody of his daughters in late December,
Jim Andros moved with them back into the rented home where Ellen had died.
He wanted to spend a few months there before moving to a new home in Egg
Some people could not understand why he would want to go back
to the home in Pleasantville. But he says it was important for his family
to treat his wife's death for what it was - a sad and unexpected natural
event. Not a crime.
When he brought his children through the front door, he said,
the older girl turned to her sister and said:
"See? Just like Daddy said, we're back in our real home."