Wisconsin State Journal

State investigates murder case handled by Paulus
3/20/04
Dee J. Hall Wisconsin State Journal

The state Department of Justice has launched an investigation into a controversial 1999 Green Bay murder and arson case handled by former Winnebago County District Attorney Joseph Paulus.

Madison attorney Stephen Meyer said Friday he's been hired to conduct an "independent review" of the case involving John Maloney, the former Green Bay police officer convicted of murdering his estranged wife, Sandy. Paulus handled the case as a special prosecutor for Brown County.

"Oh my God! That could be wonderful! Holy cow!" said Ginny Maloney of Green Bay, who's been raising her brother's three sons since he was sentenced to life in prison. "That's all we want. Somebody to look at this fairly and objectively ... and answer the questions we've been asking for five years."

Maloney's attorney, Lew Wasserman, said the probe "takes the case in a new direction" and means the attorney general's office believes questions raised about the case aren't "frivolous." The conviction currently is under appeal at the Wisconsin Court of Appeals.

Paulus has come under increasing scrutiny over the past two years since the FBI launched an investigation into allegations that Winnebago County's former top prosecutor went easy on defendants who paid cash to at least one local lawyer. No charges in that investigation have been filed. Paulus' attorney, Franklyn Gimbel, said he expects any action by federal authorities is at least two weeks away.

Earlier this week, Paulus' successor, Bill Lennon, a fellow Republican, said he was awaiting the results of the federal investigation before seeking a probe into complaints he began receiving when he took office in 2003 that Paulus withheld or tampered with evidence in dozens of cases.

Among the cases Lennon is interested in is Paulus' prosecution of Maloney, 47, a former Green Bay police arson investigator serving a life term at the Dodge Correctional Institution in Waupun.

Dr. Gregory Schmunk, the medical examiner in that case, said Thursday that he now questions whether Paulus gave him all the "relevant information" before Schmunk ruled Sandy Maloney's death a murder. Schmunk said he wasn't aware the Green Bay Fire Department initially called the fire an accident.

Schmunk said he relied on a later report by the state Division of Criminal Investigation that the fire was deliberately set. Schmunk, now chief forensic pathologist for the Stanislaus County (Calif.) Coroner's Office, said the arson ruling was an important factor in his determination that Sandy Maloney was murdered.

"We, as forensic pathologists, rely on the attorneys that we work with and law enforcement that we work with to share the relevant information," Schmunk said. If Paulus withheld the Green Bay Fire Department report from him, Schmunk said, "that would've been concerning to me. ... We would have to go back and re-evaluate the case."

Said Meyer: "The fire guys decided it must be an arson because it was murder. The coroner decided it must be a murder because it was arson." Whether Schmunk received all the relevant reports is "obviously ... the type of information that has to be taken into consideration" in his review, Meyer said.

Meyer said the Justice Department hired an outsider because agents from DCI, its investigative arm, were responsible for most of the Maloney investigation. Meyer said he expects to wrap up the review at the end of April.

"Every time I turn a corner in this case, 10 more doors open up," Meyer said.

Sheila Martin Berry, who has led the charge to re-examine the case along with Maloney's four sisters and three sons, predicted that questions about the Maloney case and allegations of cash-for-leniency are just the beginning of troubles for Paulus.

"I think it's going to be real interesting how rapidly this unfolds now," said Berry, a former Paulus employee who was fired after she revealed her boss withheld evidence in a high-profile Winnebago County rape case. "It's like the dam broke."

Gimbel countered that allegations of prosecutorial misconduct against Paulus, are "a bunch of crap, all of it, as far as I know.

"Everybody sees blood in the water, so there are these wild-eyed accusations about him (Paulus)," added Gimbel, of Milwaukee. "I just think there's a little feeding frenzy going on in the Fox River Valley."

Evidence ignored?

Maloney was convicted of strangling his wife, Sandy, and setting her body on fire on Feb. 10, 1998. Paulus alleged that Maloney, who was home with his girlfriend and three sons, sneaked to his estranged wife's home, strangled and beat her, then set fire to the couch containing her body and returned home.

Maloney has maintained his innocence. His family and appellate attorney, Wasserman, say the case against Maloney was mishandled by defense attorneys Gerald and Bridget Boyle and by Paulus, who ignored evidence that raised doubts about whether Sandy Maloney, 40, was murdered.

In an interview last year, Gerald Boyle called the claim that he fumbled the defense, "an absolute absurd issue. I busted my butt on that case."

Maloney's supporters say Paulus also took statements out of context from a surreptitiously filmed videotape to make it appear that Maloney had confessed - the prosecution's key piece of evidence.

The appeal pending in the 3rd District Court of Appeals questions the legality of the videotape. Wasserman said if he can convince the appeals court to throw out the tape, the prosecution "will have nothing to use."

Aside from that videotape, investigators from Green Bay and the state found no evidence linking Maloney to Sandy's death. Jurors did hear that the Maloneys had a tumultuous relationship and that John Maloney worried about money and paying spousal support to Sandy, who struggled with depression and addiction to alcohol and drugs.

Paulus painted the 18-year veteran police officer as having a violent temper. Paulus noted that Sandy told her therapist that John hit her, a claim Maloney and his three sons all deny.

The prosecutor showed jurors heated arguments captured on tape between Maloney and his then-girlfriend, Tracy Hellenbrand, during a July 1998 stay at a Las Vegas motel. Hellenbrand allowed investigators to secretly tape them in a deal to avoid criminal charges for lying on her application to become an IRS agent.

Hellenbrand became a witness for the prosecution, claiming Maloney had a musty "smell of death" on him the night Sandy died.

A lot of skepticism'

Berry, the former victim/witness coordinator for Winnebago County, has been working with the Maloneys for four years since she contacted them about writing a book about the case. "I didn't set out to clear his name," said Berry, who now runs a non-profit group called Truth in Justice. "The more I looked, the more dirt I dug up."

The Maloney family and Berry have spent thousands of hours going over the evidence. In 2000 and 2001, Berry, who now lives in Richmond, Va., convinced several forensic experts to work for free to examine photos from the fire-damaged home and the autopsy, police and fire reports to determine how Sandy Maloney died.

They all reached the same conclusions: Sandy Maloney's death was not a homicide, the fire was an accident and the arson investigation was, in the words of fire expert James Munger, "junk science."

"The hypotheses put forward by the state and its 'expert witnesses' that the fire was incendiary and the death of Sandy Maloney was homicide fail when held up to the bright light and challenge of reasonable examination," said Munger, a former Alabama deputy state fire marshal.

Maloney's former co-workers on the Green Bay Police Department also have long doubted that Maloney was involved in his wife's death, said attorney Thomas Parins, who represents the Green Bay Police Protective Association. Parins said most officers he's talked to believe the Las Vegas tape "was no confession."

"There was a lot of skepticism that John Maloney did it," Parins said. "I don't believe his fellow police officers felt there was really proof that John Maloney committed this crime.

"He (Maloney) had been a police officer for a number of years. Cops know who they could trust and who they couldn't," Parins said. "John Maloney is a police officer they trusted."

Maloney's supporters believe Paulus and the investigators failed to consider their own evidence suggesting Sandy Maloney's death was an accident. "They targeted John Maloney then built their case, rather than the other way around," Wasserman said.

They note that Sandy's potentially lethal blood-alcohol level was estimated at four times the legal limit and that suspected blood found on a downstairs coffee table indicates she could've hit her head, rather than the prosecution theory that Maloney hit her.

Brown County jurors also weren't told about the five suicide notes written by Sandy Maloney found crumpled in the trash the night of her death. The notes, urging John to "take care of the kids," were found on the eve of a court hearing in the couple's custody case. Jurors also didn't know that the coffee table in the basement held two VCRs stacked on top of one another underneath a looped cord hanging from the ceiling like a noose.

Based on that evidence and reports produced by the forensic experts, Maloney's supporters believe this is a likely scenario: Sandy tried to hang herself in the basement. She hit her head on the coffee table. She returned upstairs to the couch, where she passed out after heavy drinking. Her cigarette set the couch on fire.

Ginny Maloney said she's relieved someone in a position of authority is finally taking a second look at the evidence. She wants her brother reunited with his sons, Matt, 19, Sean, 16, and Aaron, 15.

"John's not the only one who's in prison," Ginny Maloney said. "We are too."

Contact Dee J. Hall at dhall@madison.com or 252-6132.


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