Man walks free after 1979 murder case dismissed
BY JOHN SIMERMAN AND JIM MUSTIAN
May 13, 2014
Following a stunning admission of intentional abuse decades ago at the hands of prosecutors — including one who became a judge and then landed in federal prison for his role in a judicial corruption scandal that rocked the Jefferson Parish courthouse — Reginald Adams walked free Monday, exonerated after 34 years behind bars on a murder rap.
Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro didn’t stop with a concession that Ronald Bodenheimer and another former prosecutor, Harold “Tookie” Gilbert Jr., deliberately hid a detailed police report in the case in two separate trials.
In setting Adams loose at age 61, Cannizzaro also agreed that a pair of former NOPD police detectives lied on the witness stand to help convict Adams twice in the 1979 murder of Cathy Ulfers, the wife of a former New Orleans cop who is himself now serving a life prison sentence for killing his second wife.
Former officers Sam Gebbia, who now works as an investigator for St. Tammany Parish District Attorney Walter Reed, and Martin Venezia — who served a five-year prison sentence in Florida after pleading no contest in 2000 to negligent homicide — testified in those trials that no evidence or other suspects had been found before Adams gave them a statement while locked up in the Orleans Parish jail, confessing that he killed Ulfers in a $10,000 hit job.
But the police report, missing from Adams’ first trial in 1983 and again from his retrial in 1990, showed that police had found the gun used to shoot Ulfers seven times in her home in New Orleans East. Detectives also had linked the .32-caliber revolver to a man, Roland Burns, and his sister, Alece Burns. Both of them are now dead.
The report is dated Nov. 7, 1979, 10 months before Adams’ confession.
Adams was the victim of “manifest intentional prosecutorial misconduct,” Cannizzaro’s office conceded in a court filing that preceded Adams’ release.
“We cannot tolerate intentional misconduct on the part of police and prosecutors. It is clear to me that Adams did not receive a fair trial,” said Cannizzaro, who described his own operation as “a much different type of District Attorney’s Office.”
The case marks the latest — and in Cannizzaro’s eyes, the most egregious — case of alleged misconduct from the 30-year tenure of former District Attorney Harry Connick, whose legacy has fallen under relentless attack as higher courts have found repeated violations of defendants’ constitutional rights. Amid criticism from as high as the U.S. Supreme Court, Cannizzaro’s office has fought to defend most of those convictions.
But not this time.
Cannizzaro’s top deputy, former New Orleans police officer Graymond Martin, choked up Monday as he addressed Adams in the courtroom.
“I want to apologize for anybody I might have ever known who did wrong in this case,” Martin said.
‘Like a champion’
The deal to release Adams was blessed by Criminal District Judge Laurie White. By then, Adams had traded shackles and orange jail garb for a plaid shirt, jeans and new size-9 Converse Chuck Taylor tennis shoes. “You’re free to go,” the judge said.
Outside the courthouse, surrounded by his mother and three sisters, Adams said he felt “like a champion.”
“It’s all good, just some things that happen, and I just gotta live with it,” he said, adding that he aimed to eat some oysters. “Long time coming, though, 34 years, man. I think what I’m gonna do is take a nice long walk first, try to feel things out. I don’t even know how to use a cellphone.”
Adams won a retrial after a higher court found that the jury at his first trial was improperly allowed to view the transcript of his confession. The supplemental police report, absent in the first trial, also was missing from the file that a new set of prosecutors received when they retried him, Cannizzaro said.
In both cases, juries relied on a confession in which Adams got numerous basic facts about the murder wrong, his attorneys noted.
Adams said, for instance, that he shot Ulfers four or five times with a .38-caliber gun — both wrong — that the victim was a man with dark hair and that he entered through the back door.
Ulfers was a blonde. The shooter came through the front door. Adams also got the time of the murders wrong and misstated what items were taken from the house.
“Just about every fact Mr. Adams could have gotten right about how this crime happened, Mr. Adams got wrong,” said Caroline Milne, a staff attorney for Innocence Project-New Orleans, which brought the evidence to Cannizzaro’s office on May 2. “The confession is not worth the paper it’s printed on.”
Lawyers for Adams praised Cannizzaro’s office for acting swiftly when presented with the evidence, agreeing to cut Adams loose in just 10 days.
Michael Magner, one of Adams’ attorneys, who as a federal prosecutor helped secure Bodenheimer’s prison sentence in the “Operation Wrinkled Robe” case, said Cannizzaro’s office was “to be commended without reservation.”
But Bodenheimer, standing in his Metairie kitchen on Monday, stridently denied wrongdoing. He and Gilbert, who is now dead, never intentionally withheld documents from Adams’ defense attorney, he said.
Bodenheimer lashed out at Cannizzaro and criticized him for “not even calling to ask” him about the discovery issue before agreeing to dismiss the indictment against Adams.
“It does the state no good to put the wrong guy in jail for a murder because then you’re leaving the real killer out on the street,” Bodenheimer said.
“In every case, because it’s a man-made system, there’s at least a scintilla of doubt,” he added. “But I have never prosecuted a man that I did not think was guilty. In any case where you have a confession and the confession is able to give you the details of the crime, then to me that’s sufficient to bring that case to trial.”
Hours of talking
Adams maintains that the detectives plied him with beer and narcotics before he talked. According to a transcript, they interviewed him for hours before recording it. The recording started at 4:15 a.m., according to a transcript.
“How long we been talking?” Venezia asked Adams.
“About a good three hours and a half,” Adams responded.
“About three hours and a half; you tired?” Venezia asked.
“No, cause I want to see them girls.”
Just who Adams meant by “them girls” was unclear.
The police report, written by Gebbia and Venezia, “shows that the gun used to kill Cathy Ulfers and jewelry stolen from the Ulfers’ home at the time of the murder were recovered by police within a month of the crime and traced to two people who had no connection to Mr. Adams,” according to a motion filed jointly by Adams’ attorneys and Cannizzaro.
Adams’ confession came in September 1980, nearly a year after the murder.
The report later turned up in an unrelated file on a burglary case for which Adams was earlier acquitted — a case that Bodenheimer and Gilbert also prosecuted.
It also turned up in the district attorney’s file on Roland Burns, who was arrested on suspicion of accessory to murder in the Ulfers case and charged with possession of stolen property from the home. Connick’s office dropped the case before Adams confessed.
Venezia, who was released from prison in Florida in November 2004, could not be reached. Gebbia did not return a message, nor did a spokesman for the St. Tammany Parish District Attorney’s Office.
Bodenheimer, who is now retired after his 2007 release from federal prison, said it was possible that the supplemental police report was erroneously excluded from the file by a secretary. He added that the prosecutors who retried Adams in 1990 should have known about the report because it was on file with the District Attorney’s Office, albeit in another case.
“You don’t find that as weak as can be?” Bodenheimer said of the allegation. “So Tookie and I say, ‘Let’s hide this evidence in another file of the same name. They’ll never find it there!’ I mean, come on.”
“If we was going to hide it,” he added, “we would have put it in the circular file and thrown it away.”
Bodenheimer also noted that he served as second chair to Gilbert, the lead prosecutor in Adams’ trial. “I just ran whatever errands he told me to run,” he said. “All decisions would have been made by him. All of the decisions of the case, as Leon Cannizzaro knows, are made by the first chair.”
Emily Maw, director of Innocence Project-New Orleans, called Bodenheimer “shameless,” saying the former judge’s explanations were absurd.
“He put it there to hide it,” she said of the police report. “It did not relate to the burglary in any way. The only thing in common between the burglary file and the murder file is the same two prosecutors. No defense lawyer ever had any sniff of this report.”
Detectives determined that Ulfers had been shot after walking in on a burglary in progress at her home at 3973 Downman Road. A responding officer found the front door ajar, and one of the window panes in the door had been broken. The home had been ransacked, and several pieces of jewelry taken from the bedroom, including a diamond wedding band with a Florentine finish, according to the supplemental police report.
Her husband, NOPD officer Ronald Ulfers, told investigators that $3,000 was missing from the nightstand, as was his police radio. In the den, several framed documents had been strewn about the floor, the report says, including a department of police diploma and a commendation letter. Authorities determined that the documents had been “maliciously destroyed.”
Detectives conducted several interviews and followed a number of fruitless leads. They examined the Ulfers’ marriage and found they had “some marital problems, however these problems have not been out of the ordinary for young couples.” Ulfers openly discussed suicide after his wife’s murder, and, according to detectives, lacked “cohesiveness.”
In any case, suspicions about Ronald Ulfers were well-known to Adams’ attorneys during his trial.
Ronald Ulfers, who retired in 1989, was sentenced to life in prison in November 2006 for killing his second wife, Debra Ulfers, in Covington in 1996.
The supplemental police report listed the names of 19 persons who “came under scrutiny,” though investigators noted that “none of these individuals have any link to this case.”
A major development in the investigation — which Adams’ attorney apparently was not aware of without the police report — came more than two weeks after the murder, on Oct. 24, 1979, when police serving a search warrant in an unrelated case arrested a man named Milton Holmes and confiscated a seven-shot, .32-caliber revolver that police determined “definitely” was the firearm used in Ulfers’ slaying.
Holmes told the authorities that the revolver had been brought to his residence the night before his arrest by his brother, and that he “had no knowledge of the firearm beyond this.”
His brother, Marvin Holmes, admitted to detectives he had stolen the weapon from the home of Linda Jones on Oct. 20, 1979.
Jones later told detectives she believed she had seen the ring stolen from Ulfers’ home in the possession of Roland Burns. After being hypnotized by police, she recalled Burns had asked her if he could borrow the weapon a few weeks before the murder, but she refused. She recalled that two days after Ulfers’ slaying, Burns had tried to sell her the ring.
Officers later picked up Burns and told him he was under investigation for Ulfers’ murder. Burns, whom police booked as an accessory to the murder, claimed his wife had stolen the ring from a hotel she worked in as a maid; his wife later denied that allegation to police.
Bodenheimer claimed Monday that a reporter had informed him for the first time that investigators had recovered the murder weapon. It was unclear how he missed that in the police report, which included an elaborate account of witness statements and how police retraced the movement of the weapon.
Alece Burns, in the meantime, had been living at the Del Mar Motel on Chef Menteur Highway, close to where the Ulfers lived. She disappeared quickly after the murder, and was later killed, Maw said.
In his first trial, Adams faced a first-degree murder charge, but a jury sentenced him to life in prison instead of death. Both trials against Adams were prosecuted under Connick, whose reign has been marred by later allegations of misconduct.
In his defense of the office, Cannizzaro fought off a $14 million judgment for John Thompson, who was spared execution when a withheld lab report turned up from a robbery case that helped influence Thompson’s death penalty conviction.
Cannizzaro’s office labeled the misdeed the “unethical actions of a rogue prosecutor.” A 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court majority ruled that the office couldn’t be held liable for failing to train prosecutors to turn over evidence based on a single case, and that Thompson had failed to prove a pattern.
The office fared worse in 2012, when the high court voted 8-1 to overturn the conviction of Juan Smith in a rampage on North Roman Street that claimed five lives in 1995.
The court said the state clearly violated Brady v. Maryland, the 1963 decision requiring it to turn over exculpatory evidence. During oral arguments, some justices chided Cannizzaro’s office for bothering to defend Smith’s conviction.
Ironically, Smith’s retrial was scheduled to start Monday just a few courtrooms down the hall from where Adams was being set free. Smith’s retrial was delayed a week.
In a news conference Monday, Cannizzaro said the Adams case was the most egregious example “with regard to intentional misconduct” that he’s come across in his five-plus years in office.
“John Thompson, that’s the closest case to this one,” he said, adding that “we have thrown the flag on ourselves when we’ve found prosecutorial misconduct.”
Cannizzaro slammed the prosecutors in the first trial against Adams, saying they “owe this entire community an apology.”
“Their criminal conduct is corrosive,” he said, saying it will make it harder to prosecute crimes in the city.
He said the statute of limitations has run out on any possible perjury charges against the officers he said lied on the stand.
While Martin, his top deputy, told the judge Monday that he would refer the Ulfers murder to the NOPD’s cold-case division, Cannizzaro lamented that, “We will never know for certain who killed Cathy Ulfers.”
Cannizzaro said he was “not surprised or shocked” by the involvement of Bodenheimer, who pleaded to a variety of charges related to misuse of his elected judgeship.
Still, “I’m not going to say everything he touched is necessarily disastrous,” Cannizzaro said.
The Adams case is not the first in which a sentence has been vacated on account of Bodenheimer’s questionable ethics. In 2011, a judge in Jefferson Parish set aside the death sentence of Manuel Ortiz, a man who had been convicted of hiring a hit man to murder his wife, after it emerged that Bodenheimer had prosecuted Ortiz in the 24th Judicial District while also representing the victim’s family in its efforts to recover insurance proceeds.
The judge faulted Bodenheimer’s “dual representation” as a disturbing conflict of interest, and noted the state had argued throughout Ortiz’s proceedings that he increased the insurance policy on his wife’s life before her murder. Bodenheimer made the opposite argument in the civil case, contending it was the victim who increased the policy.
“This yet another example of Mr. Bodenheimer’s willingness to act in an unprincipled manner for personal gain,” Judge Jerome Winsberg wrote in an order vacating Ortiz’s death sentence.
The Louisiana Supreme Court later reinstated Ortiz’s death sentence.