Murder, or Suicide Attempt? Arson, or Accidental Fire?

John Maloney

None learned the art of archery from me who did not make me, in the end, the target.
Saadi of Shiraz (c. 1200 AD)

A Question Of Murder
Original Broadcast 3/26/05
Does John Maloney deserve a new trial?

Not Sure:
NOTE: This is not a scientific poll. The results above are for information purposes only, and should not be confused with the results of the scientific polls conducted by CBS News.

Sandra Maloney was found in her Green Bay, Wisconsin home, which had been involved in a fire. Sandra's mother, Lola Cator, discovered Sandra's deceased and burned body on the morning of February 11, 1998. Sandra was found laying face down on a couch in the upstairs living room. The phone was off the hook, and the outer storm door was tied from the inside to the front door with a shoelace (Cator cut through the shoelace with scissors to gain entry). Both circumstances had occurred in the past when the Sandy had wanted privacy. The origin of the fire was determined to be the vicinity of her lap and involving the couch. There was extensive soot damage in the home with some minimal structural damage. All of the windows in the home were closed, except for a storm window that was open only a few inches. The fire was determined to be self-extinguishing. Original arson reports from local agencies determined the fire to be accidental in nature with no suspicious elements or circumstances. However, autopsy findings suggested that the manner of death was homicide. A subsequent fire cause and origin report from state investigators reflected arson.

Sandra's estranged husband, John Maloney, a Detective in the Green Bay Police Department, was developed as a suspect given their impending divorce, ongoing child custody battle and history of domestic disputes. Subsequently, John Maloney's girlfriend, Tracy Hellenbrand, a special agent with the Internal Revenue Service, Criminal Investigation Division in Green Bay, was employed by investigators to elicit a confession from him. Despite the failure of Hellenbrand to elicit a confession and despite the lack of any evidence of his presence at the scene, John Maloney was tried and convicted on charges of first-degree homicide, arson and mutilating a corpse in February of 1999.


Sandra married John Maloney, a Detective with the Green Bay Police department in 1978. According to Sandra's statements to her psychiatrist, this was a turbulent relationship during which she suffered physical and emotional abuse. She and John Maloney separated during May or June of 1997. They were not yet divorced at the time of her death. Sandra was furthermore involved in a custody battle with John Maloney for their three sons, ages 12, 9, and 8, a battle which she had effectively lost.
The daughter of an alcoholic police officer, Sandra began treatment with a local psychiatrist in 1992.  The psychiatrist diagnosed generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder, and prescribed the highly addictive drug Klonopin (Benzodiazepine).  Within a year, Sandra was routinely abusing her medication.  Typically, she would take all of the tablets prescribed, then request refills by claiming to have lost the medication, left it in her pants pocket and washed it, etc.  Sandra took all three of her children to a doctor 150 miles away for treatment of migraine headaches, then took the Fioricet (a habit-forming barbituate) prescribed for them herself.  In 1994, for example, Sandra filled and consumed 30 tablet prescriptions of Fioricet intended for one of her children on May 3, May 10, May 16, May 23, May 31, June 8, June 14, June 16, June 21 and June 28. Another one of Sandra Maloney's sons was also prescribed thirty tablets on the following dates in 1994: May 16, May 23, June 5 and June 11. By the next year, the Maloney children could receive Fioricet only by reporting to the local pharmacy and taking the medication in the presence of the pharmacist.  Sandra instructed them to not swallow, and once they were outside, made her children spit out the pills so that she could take them herself.

Sandra became involved in numerous confrontations with neighbors, including a fist fight with another woman at a youth athletic event.  As her husband and mother pressured her to stop her drug use, Sandra began drinking.  This was not, however, a substitute for prescription drugs, but in addition to them.  Her best friend shared the same addictions, and helped Sandra obtain the drugs and alcohol on which she had become dependent.  Sandra received in-patient psychiatric and alcohol/drug abuse treatment in 1996 and again in 1997 following an auto accident caused by her drunk driving.  She refused, however, to participate in out-patient treatment.  When John left in May of 1997 and filed for divorce, Sandra took up smoking cigarettes, and sank further into addiction and depression.  At the end of that year, the children were living with John and his new girlfriend, Tracy Hellenbrand, and Sandra could only have supervised visitation with them.  She was in another traffic accident, but didn't bother to show up in court and a warrant was issued.  Her weight fell to 97 lbs.  By the second week of February 1998, Sandra's mother said she expected Sandra to drink herself to death before the week was out.

At the time of her autopsy, Sandra's blood alcohol content (BAC) was.25%, and her vitreous alcohol content (VAC) was .40%--meaning that a few hours before her death, her actual blood alcohol content was at least .40%. 

Five suicide notes were found in the kitchen wastebasket. 

In the basement of the home, an electrical extension cord was found tied to a conduit pipe.  Two VCRs were stacked on the coffee table beneath the cord.  The shorter end looked suspiciously like a noose that failed to hold.  Blood was found on the coffee table, on the carpet, in the laundry room and in the basement bathroom and shower.  Her shirt, with blood on the collar, was found in the clothes hamper in the laundry room.  A bloody fingerprint belonging to Sandra's best friend was found on the shower door.

Click on picture for larger view.
The Green Bay Fire Department report noted: 

Several ashtrays were located throughout the building, many filled with cigarette butts. It was noted that several cigarettes had been left burning on tables, counter tops and on a telephone book and had burned down or self-extinguished. Two burned paper matches were identified on the floor of the living room next to the coffee table that was located to the East of the sofa…

Evidence in the dwelling, including several ashtrays containing cigarette butts, burned and discarded matches on the carpet in the living room and self-extinguished cigarettes on furniture throughout the home, indicate a careless pattern of cigarette smoking by the occupant.

The autopsy was performed by Dr. John Teggatz of the Milwaukee Medical Examiner's office.  His only discussion of Sandra's history in his autopsy report is a brief recitation of circumstances, that the victim was found deceased in a house that had suffered from a fire. There is no evidence that Sandra's social, medical, mental health, or smoking history were taken into account in the conclusions of his report. This is not a legitimate forensic practice.   After observing evidence of strangulation--Sandra's neck was too burned to differentiate between ligature and manual strangulation--Dr. Teggatz concluded that the cause of her death was "probably manual strangulation."  This equivocal finding was reviewed by Dr. Gregory Schmunk, Brown County Medical Examiner, who embellished it with his own imaginative but unsubstantiated and unreliable theories.  Ignoring the physical evidence and failing to direct a complete forensic investigation, Dr. Schmunk delcared Sandra's death a homicide.  "There was no other explanation for the death disclosed by the autopsy, other than strangulation/suffocation at the hands of another,"  Dr. Schmunk claimed.

Adding Arson
The Brown County Arson Task Force report made the following findings after investigating the fire scene on February 11, 1998:

… Heat patterns on the West wall behind the sofa were most intense directly behind the North end of the South sofa section. The ceiling directly above this area exhibited the most intense direct heat exposure, with a section of drywall material having burned through and fallen.

Physical evidence, including the condition of the victim, indicates a fire that was initiated in the cushions of the South section of the two piece sectional sofa. The fire apparently smoldered in the cushions of the sofa, creating dense and toxic smoke and intense localized heat.

The fire continued to burn in the smoldering state until oxygen in the structure was depleted below combustion sustenance levels.

Evidence in the dwelling, including several ashtrays containing cigarette butts, burned and discarded matches on the carpet in the living room and self-extinguished cigarettes on furniture throughout the home, indicate a careless pattern of cigarette smoking by the occupant. The location of the fire's origin supports careless use of smoking materials as the probable ignition source of the fire.

The declaration of homicide, however, meant that the fire could not have been accidental.  Special Agent Gregory J. Eggum of the Wisconsin Department of Justice, Division of Criminal Investigation, reviewed autopsy findings first, then looked at the same evidence.  He reported:

Accelerants were located on the couch, stuffed into the couch, and in front of the couch. These accelerants were matchbooks, paper, and cloth.

The area of origin also included the body which was on the couch at the time of the fire. S/A Eggum could not eliminate the possibility that the body was also set on fire.

Also on the floor between the davenport and the coffee table around the heavily charred floor there was an irregular burn pattern which appeared to be an accelerant pattern, either solid or liquid. It was also noted that when water was poured on the floor near this charred hole, it ran away from the hole towards the davenport.

The cause of this fire was determined to be deliberately set.

In fact, no evidence of liquid accelerants was found at the scene.  The items described by S/A Eggum as "accelerants" are "fuel," i.e., they can be burned.  S/A Eggum suggested that twisted tissue might have been used as a trailer, but the tissue wasn't burned, and therefore could not have been a trailer.  The fire was contained and quickly extinguished because the windows were closed.  There was insufficient oxygen available to keep the fire burning.

A Conviction without Evidence
This highly publicized case was portrayed as one of "greed, sex and obsession" and prosecuted on the basis of speculation and theory rather than fact.  Although the State of Wisconsin has a conviction, the circumstances of Sandra Maloney's death remain largely uninvestigated.

  • Sandra's best friend has never been questioned about the presence of her fingerprint in blood on the shower door in Sandra's home.
  • The electrical cord found hanging in the basement was never examined for blood, hair or any other trace/transfer evidence.
  • Blood found throughout the basement has not been subjected to analysis (simple typing or DNA).
  • Crime reconstruction theories have so far made no attempt to account for any of the evidence found in the basement.
  • No specific tests were conducted to identify metabolites associated with the many prescription drugs Sandra was known to take or to which she had access.
  • No medications were recognized, documented, collected and catalogued by crime scene personnel. 
  • No tests were conducted to identify stomach contents collected at autopsy.
  • No tests were conducted to determine the plausibility of the fire being caused by a lit cigarette dropped into the sofa cushions.

  • A 2006 series by reporter Dee Hall of the Wisconsin State Journal took a closer look at the scientific foundation for the state's claim that the Maloney fire was arson -- a claim the state has vigorously refused to re-examine.

    Junk Science
    How the Crimes were Created

    (MS Word Format)
    Autopsy Report
    Milwaukee Co. Dep. ME John Teggatz

    Fire Investigation Report
    DCI S/A Gregory Eggum

    First on the Scene
    Green Bay Fire Department Report
    Conclusion:  Accidental Fire

    (Read with Adobe Acrobat)

    Answers: Read the Reports of Independent Experts
    No Crimes were Committed

    Review of the Death of Sandra Maloney
    James D. Dibdin MD, LL.B, MPA, FCAP, FRCPA
    Report of Expert Opinions
    Dr. James G. Munger,
    Ph.D., MIFireE, CFPS

    Click HERE to read criminal profiler Brent Turvey's complete threshold assessment of this case.
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