Philadelphia Inquirer

Posted on Sun, May. 11, 2003



Cleared in wife's death, he seeks justice




Inquirer Staff Writer
James Andros

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 lawyers.

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 done it."

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 10:30 p.m.

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 girls!"

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 meal.

"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 been shaky.

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 recalled.

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 down.

"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 by.

"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 Harbor Township.

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."


Contact staff writer John Shiffman at 856-779-3857 or jshiffman@phillynews.com.

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