Tag Archive for family

Mind over Murder

The story of Dr. Carl A. Coppolino, a wealthy physician and convicted murderer, has it all: multiple suspicious deaths occurring years and a thousand miles apart, money, sex, undetectable poison, hypnotic influences, betrayals and groundbreaking science involving rabbits and frogs.
In fact when the story that a doctor had been indicted for a pair of murders in two states broke in 1966, The New York Times described it this way: “No motives were disclosed in either case, but it was indicated that robbery or revenge was not a factor in either murder. One source here today described the slayings as ‘right out of an Alfred Hitchcock thriller.'”
In the early 1960s Carl Coppolino and his wife, Carmela, were a well-off, upwardly mobile 30-something couple living in the seaside community of Middletown Township, Monmouth County, New Jersey. Carl practiced as an anesthesiologist while Carmela was a medical doctor herself working in pharmaceutical research for a New Jersey drug company.
In 1962, however, Carl developed a heart condition that apparently kept him from actively practicing his craft. He shifted his interest to research, writing, and hypnotherapy for people interested in quitting smoking or losing weight. His books, The Practice of Hypnosis in Anesthesiology and The Billion Dollar Hangover both garnered attention at the time of their publication.
Whether or not Carl actually had a heart condition — and there was evidence introduced at his Florida trial that he did not — it was his disturbing behavior at Riverview Hospital in Red Bank that no doubt contributed to his separation. It turns out that same year Carl came to the attention of the FBI after threatening letters were sent to a nurse-anesthetist. It was after this investigation that he left Riverview. The environment was so hostile to the victim that she moved out of state.
However, $22,000 in annual disability payments from an insurance policy (about $170k in current dollars) and royalties from his books, along with Carmela’s salary as a research physician, ensured that they were able to maintain a luxurious lifestyle.
Living across the street from the Coppolinos were Lt. Col. William E. Farber, a career Army officer, and his wife, Marjorie. Although the Farbers were both nearly 20 years older than the doctors, the families became quite close. The relationship began in 1962 when Carl began hypnotizing Marjorie to help her quit smoking.
It eventually blossomed into an affair between Carl and Marjorie. Soon the doctor’s sessions became more passionate, she said. According to her testimony at one of Carl’s trials, Marjorie said after a few sessions she felt a “strong feeling to be close to him.”
“We were in each other’s arms, kissing. The next day we became intimate,” she told the court under questioning by Monmouth County Prosecutor Vincent P. Keuper.

The Death of William Farber

Lt. Col. Bill Farber died on July 30, 1963.
According to Carl, the doctor was asleep at home with his wife when they were awakened by Marjorie on the phone. Bill was ill, she said.
After dressing and heading across the street, “I saw the colonel right away,” Carl said. “He was pale, he was perspiring profusely, he was gasping for breath, and he was holding his heart. He said he felt weak and that he could hardly move.”
The doctor was describing textbook symptoms of a heart attack.
Carl said he insisted that the colonel go to the hospital, but that both Marjorie and Bill rejected the idea.
“I asked Mrs. Farber to call for an ambulance, but she refused to,” he said. “When I left, he seemed to be better, improved, but he certainly wasn’t well.”
Four hours later, at 10 a.m., the doctor returned to the neighbors to repeat his advice that Bill go to the hospital. He said that when he came into the Farber house, the couple was arguing. When his patient refused to follow his advice, Carl indicated that he was “withdrawing from the case,” asked Marjorie to sign a release. Marjorie signed the paper. Later she would identify the signature as hers, but claimed she had no recollection of signing it.
On the evening of the 30th, Carmela Coppolino received a call summoning her to the Farbers. Carl followed soon after, he said.
“When I got there, I found Bill in bed on his back,” Carl testified in his defense. “He was dead. He had been dead from three to five hours.”
Carmela signed Bill’s death certificate, listing the cause of death as coronary thrombosis — essentially a blood clot in the arteries surrounding the heart.
“Where did she get the information from?” Carl was asked.
“From me,” he replied.
Carmela wrote:

I hearby certify that I attended the deceased from 3:30 a.m. to 6: a.m. and that I last saw the deceased alive at 1:30 p.m. on July 30, 1963 and that death occurred at approximately 4 p.m. from…coronary thrombosis.

When Carmela’s father, Dr. Carmello Musetto, learned that his daughter filed — let’s call it what it is — a fraudulent death certificate, he said he was livid.
“My God,” he said he told her. “I didn’t bring you up that way. That kind of treatment went out with high-button shoes.”
Eventually, Carmela’s actions helped bring her husband to justice. During the investigation into Bill Farber’s death, attention on Carl was quickly brought to bear when police discovered that his death had not been reported to the county coroner as required when someone dies outside a hospital and the death certificate had been signed by an ineligible physician. New Jersey law required that any physician who signs a death certificate must be a “practicing” doctor. Apparently, Carmela’s status as a researcher did not qualify her to sign certificates.
The Lieutenant Colonel was interred in Arlington National Cemetery.
According to Marjorie, Bill’s death was a long-term project. As their affair progressed, Marjorie said, Carl began telling her repeatedly that her husband needed to be out of the picture.
“‘He has got to go, he’s got to go,’ over and over,” she testified, implying that the doctor was trying to exert some kind of hypnotic control over her.
If her story is to be believed he probably did have some kind of Svengali-like influence, although it is a well-known fact that a person under hypnosis cannot be forced against their will to do something. On the stand, under oath, Marjorie made a series of statements against her own interests describing how Carl was able to manipulate her.
At the doctor’s trial in New Jersey, Marjorie acted as if Carl still had some control over her. The Times described it this way:

In her description of how Dr. Coppolino had hypnotized her, Mrs. Farber seemed to go into a trance herself on the stand. Her head slouched to one side and her eyes closed. Mr. (F. Lee) Bailey, meanwhile, leaned forward from his seat in front of her and snapped his fingers again and again in an apparent attempt to arouse her.

Carl apparently wore down Marjorie’s resolve. Three days before Farber died, Marjorie testified, Carl gave her a syringe and vial filled with an anesthetic that he said was a relaxant and gesturing hypnotically, ordered her to kill her husband. Despite being under the doctor’s hypnotic command, Marjorie said she was unable to bring herself to kill her husband.
“I got rid of it,” she testified at Carl’s trial for her husband’s murder. “I just…this was very objectionable. I just couldn’t do this thing, so I threw it out.”
Marjorie said on the stand that soon she was ready to try again. Without the anesthetic, she was forced to concoct her own poison. While Bill slumbered Marjorie took the syringe and injected it into his thigh.
“He jumped up, complained of a ‘charley horse’ and groped his way to the bathroom” where he became sick, she said.
Marjorie called Carl over and recalled on the stand that his “eyes were popping out of his head.”
“The bastard’s got to go,” she said Carl was saying. “He’s got to die.”
The doctor grabbed a pillow and smothered her husband, Marjorie said.
“He told me that if I ever did anything about my husband’s death that, first, nobody would believe me and, secondly, and more important to me, was that he would have me declared insane and institutionalized,” Marjorie testified later.
Then he called Carmela, described by prosecutors in New Jersey as “an innocent dupe,” who filled out the death certificate.

The Death of Dr. Carmela Coppolino

Following the burial of Lieutenant. Col. Farber, the Coppolinos sold their property in New Jersey and moved south to Longboat Key, near Sarasota. The relationship between Marjorie and the Coppolinos was still strong enough that Marjorie also sold her home and moved to Longboat Key. While there, she asked the couple to stand as godparents for her children when the family converted to Catholicism.
By 1965, however, the 35-year-old Carl had moved on and began dating Mary Gibson, 52, a wealthy widow. Not surprisingly, this did not sit well with Marjorie, by then 54 years old. There were allegations of stalking. At one point Carl complained of Marjorie’s “Gestapo methods of spying on him.”
Meanwhile, this time without Marjorie’s help, Carl was getting ready to end his marriage to Carmela, one way or another. Apparently not a romantic guy, Carl waited until August 18, 1965, the couple’s anniversary, to tell Carmela he no longer loved her, according to Marjorie’s testimony. Just how Carmela responded we will never know, but ten days later, she was dead.
Carl called Carmela’s family back in New Jersey and broke the news that she had died of a “massive coronary occlusion.” Later, Carl lied to Carmela’s father, Dr. Musetto, saying that the Sarasota County medical examiner had performed an autopsy and found a “severe heart condition.”
Carmela’s death certificate was signed by Dr. Juliet Karow, who told authorities that she was summoned to the palatial Coppolino home in Longboat Key, but that the doctor was dead before she arrived. Again, the physician of record assigned the cause of death to be coronary occlusion. Like Carmela, Dr. Karow received her information from Carl. If she saw the injection site on her patient’s left buttock, she never said.
From the get-go Dr. Carmello Musetto refused to believe that his healthy 34-year-old daughter had simply keeled over from a heart attack and he was telling this to anyone who would listen. He told authorities in Florida that his daughter had never had any signs of heart ailments.
Indeed, as neighbors watched the ambulance and police arrive at the home, they were sure that Carl’s heart condition had finally caught up with him.
“When Dr. Karow told me that it was Mrs. Coppolino who was dead, I blurted out ‘you mean Mr. Coppolino,” said neighbor George Thompson at Coppolino’s Florida trial.
Dr. Carmela Coppolino was buried in New Jersey.
Six weeks later, much to the shock and surprise of everyone — particularly Marjorie Farber — Carl married Mary Gibson. With her fortune and the $65,000 insurance Carl collected for his wife’s death (approximately $450k in current dollars), the couple was quite comfortable.

Two Murder Investigations

A pair of murders notwithstanding, rejecting Marjorie’s affections was the biggest mistake that Carl Coppolino committed.
After Carl was married to his rich widow, he approached Marjorie and offered her the position of housekeeper in his home. Just what his motivation was we will probably never know, but Marjorie was not going to take that kind of insult lying down. Instead of accepting the housekeeping position, Marjorie returned to New Jersey and went straight to the cops.
She did it, she said, because she feared Carl would kill again.
“I thought this man might possibly want to kill his present wife,” she said on the stand in New Jersey.
“So you’re here now to protect the present Mrs. Coppolino?” asked defense attorney Bailey.
“Yes, and maybe even myself,” she replied.
Marjorie had no idea that investigators in two states were already looking at Dr. Carl Coppolino as a possible killer, but they were stumped as to the method he used to kill Carmela. The jilted lover provided the final piece of the puzzle when she told them about the drug Carl had given her to use on her husband.
Investigators quickly settled on succinylcholine, a drug used by anesthesiologists in patients undergoing surgery. Succinylcholine is a muscle relaxant which causes apnea, or the inability to breath. Breathing is maintained artificially during surgery. In 1966, however, even a lethal dose of the anesthetic was nearly untraceable because it breaks down in the body so quickly.
In Florida, Carmello Musetto’s five months of insistence that his daughter was much too healthy to die at 35 from a heart attack, along with the lies Carl told him about the autopsy that never happened, prompted authorities in Sarasota to exhume her body and perform the belated autopsy.
Because Carmela was interred in Jersey, the Monmouth authorities were tasked with the examination.
New Jersey officials requested the assistance of New York City Chief Medical Examiner Milton Helpern who by that time in his three decades as a forensic pathologist had performed nearly 20,000 autopsies and participated in an additional 48,000. Reading the file, Helpern was convinced that Carmela had been murdered.
“I found no evidence of disease of the body,” Helpern testified. “I found no explanation of death from the condition of her organs. I would say with reasonable medical certainty she did not die of coronary occlusion or any type of heart disease.”
Beyond that, however, Helpern could not say how Carmela died.
Circumstantial evidence that proved Carl had possession of succinylcholine chloride, plus Marjorie’s insistence that the deadly doctor had given her a syringe full of the stuff to kill Bill and the injection wound led the ME to suspect that the anesthetic was the means of death.
The problem was proving it. For that, Helpern turned to toxicologist Dr. Charles Joseph Umberger.
Umberger believed that succinylcholine in a massive amount could not be broken down by the body fast enough before death occurs, so traces of the drug’s components should still be traceable in the corpse.
Umberger began by performing a general presumptive test for trace evidence of certain drugs or poisons. The tests were negative.
In addition to Umberger, several other scientists were looking at the problem. One, Dr. Malcolm B. Gilman, ME of Monmouth County, injected succinylcholine into rabbits and bullfrogs at his home in Colts Neck, before subjecting their tissues to chemical and spectroscopic analysis.
Dr. Bert La Du, Jr., at the time chairman of the pharmacology department at New York University medical college, tested samples of tissue near the injection site and the needle’s track through subcutaneous fat.
After months of trying established tests and developing new ones, the physicians had identified two chemicals in Marjorie’s body that could be linked back to the anesthetic: succinylmonocholine and succinic acid. The first was found mostly in the fatty tissue adjacent to the needle track with a much smaller amount in the injection-site tissue. The second was found in Carmela’s brain.
Based on the findings in Carmela’s autopsy, New Jersey officials exhumed the colonel’s body, expecting to find the same chemicals. Unfortunately for investigators, Bill had been in the ground for years and the tests were at best inconclusive. Helpern, however, discovered the colonel had a fractured windpipe, which he ruled was caused by homicidal violence.

The Trials of Dr. Carl Coppolino

New Jersey and Florida each raced to be first to indict and try Carl Coppolino for murder and eventually New Jersey came out on top.
Although the trials featured the same players, the two trials were quite different affairs. In the Jersey trial, Helpern went mano a mano with defense attorney F. Lee Bailey, who tried to establish that there was no murder at all.
“Death resulted from compression of the nexk, as indicated by the double fracture of the cricoid cartilage,” Helpern said on the stand. “It had a particular feel. It was broken in two places. It had the feeling of a dented ping pong ball.”
On cross examination, Bailey was unable to get Helpern to admit a cricoid cartilage could be broken during an autopsy, when the sides of a coffin cave in, or when “a spade was driven into the victim’s neck.”
“I would have seen that,” Helpern replied drily.
Helpern told jurors he had seen injuries like Bill’s caused by the heel of a hand pressing on a pillow covering a face.
With a star witness who seemed to lapse into trances on the stand and only the speculation of Helpern about how the cricoid cartilage was broken, the prosecution’s case was weak and few observers were surprised when Carl was acquitted of killing Lieut. Col Farber.
One of the jurors told The New York Times that on the first ballot eight members of the jury believed no murder had occurred, one was undecided and the three others believed the doctor guilty. Five successive ballots resulted in a unanimous verdict of not guilty.
Carl did not go free. Asked by reporters if Mary Gibson Coppolino would be able to spend any time with her husband that night, Prosecutor Keuper, smarting from his loss, said “Not unless she breaks into the jail.”
Although he was out on a $15,000 bond in Florida so he could attend his Jersey trial, he was taken to the airport the next day and accompanied by detectives to Sarasota where he was turned over to the Florida cops.
It was the tests of Umberger, La Du and Gilman that were the center of attention in the Florida trial. Bailey tried to argue that the tests had not been sufficiently vetted and did not deserve the confidence of the jury.
“Why make the defendant a guinea pig for experiments that are not even publishable?” Bailey asked the jury, referring to a statement he elicited on cross-examination from Umberger who said he did not consider his tests “complete enough for publication in a scientific journal.”
Jurors believed the scientists and after three hours of deliberating, announced that they found the doctor guilty of killing his wife.
Coppolino appeared stunned by the verdict.
“I just don’t understand,” he muttered as he was taken away in cuffs.
Bailey was equally surprised by the verdict of second degree murder.
“It’s absolutely impossible to have a second-degree poisoning,” he told the press. “This verdict is a flat compromise. This jury has just acquitted the defendant of first-degree murder and when the appellate court throws out the second-degree murder verdict it will be the end of the case.”
The Florida Court of Appeals disagreed with Bailey: “If the evidence is sufficient to support a verdict of guilty of the offense charged, the jury has the power, (under Florida law) to find the accused guilty of a lesser degree of the offense regardless of the lack of evidence as to such degree.”
Carl Coppolino was sentenced to life in prison, but ended up serving just 12 years. Upon his release he was greeted by his wife, Mary, who stood by him while he served his sentence.
In a 1980 interview with NBC, Carl, continuing to claim innocence, blamed his conviction on a poor performance by F. Lee Bailey. The interview was part of his publicity tour for his book, The Crime That Never Was, described by the New York Daily News as “a narcissistic spin on his villainy that blamed everyone but himself for his ignominious life.”

Mistakes Were Made

Buschkopf and Lucas mugs

The first mistake Carlene Buschkopf made was deciding that killing her husband, Theodore, for the insurance money was a good idea.
The second, and the one that ultimately took her down, was involving a near-stranger in the plot. Carlene and her lover, Arthur Lucas, would never have succeeded with their plan anyway, but Lucas really messed it up when he expected his alibi witness, a casual bar friend who did not like him, to stand up to a police interrogation. Not only did Judy Baker tell investigators everything she knew, she agreed to help the Winona, Minnesota, police put the case closed stamp on this murder for money.
There were plenty of other poor choices that feature prominently in this stupid crime. How stupid, you ask? Carlene was so deep in debt that the insurance policy she hoped to collect would not even bring her head above water. As for mistakes, they range from the common getting caught in a lie by police to the amateurish bungling of the first attempt to kill Ted Buschkopf.
The final proof that the gods looked down in anger on the conspirators is a fine example of irony. The second plan called for Carlene to be wounded in a random attack that killed her husband in the cheap hotel where they were living. To the conspirators the plan sounded good, but their poor execution ended up tacking on an extra attempted murder charge for good measure.
If investigators hear “a robber killed my husband but not me even though I was in bed beside him,” they start making wagers about how many hours are left until the wife confesses. That is not to say it is a crime most often perpetrated by a woman. It will only take a couple of clicks around the Register to find a surprising number of attempts at this crime with the most dire consequences. One man was double-crossed and died at the hand of his hired gunman. Three people — two men and a woman –are on death row, another two women will die behind prison walls and at least one spent the better part of her life in prison. Even these statistics pale in comparison to the murders where the spouse has an alibi, but that is a story for another day.
In 1983, Carlene, 33 years old at the time, was the manager of a failed restaurant that Lucas, 45, owned. The Buschkopfs were drowning in debt and were going down for the third time. They were borrowing money from Ted’s parents just to survive. In June, 1983, the Buschkopfs’ land contract on their home was cancelled and the couple was subsequently evicted from the apartment they had rented. On the day of the shooting, July 25, 1983, the Buschkopfs owed $50,000 on a signature note, were facing a tax lien of $4,700 and many judgments and creditors’ claims.
Testimony at Carlene’s trial showed on the day of the shooting, besides the clothes on her back, the only thing Carlene owned was half a pack of cigarettes.
Naturally the situation created troubles for the couple and that is how Carlene came to be Arthur’s lover.
“I always wanted a hug and kiss in life,” she testified at her trial. “Money never meant nothing to me. That’s why Art Lucas meant something to me.”
Lucas was in no better shape: He owed more than $82,000 in connection with his business by the day of the shooting, was obliged on additional debts of over $6,000, and was behind on his rent.
Things were looking up, or so the conspirators thought: Ten days earlier, Ted, 32, changed his life insurance policies to make Carlene the primary beneficiary. The value of the life insurance was $80,000 — barely enough to make a dent in the debts. Prosecutors presented evidence at Lucas’s trial that he and Carlene planned to use the money to reopen the bankrupt eatery.
Carlene and Arthur had been planning Ted’s murder for some time before the actual event, investigators said, and tried several times to kill him.
The most interesting attempt is what became known at the trial as “The Shive Road Incident.”
Enlisting the help of some friends, Carlene offered Patricia Balk and her boyfriend Peter Fraley a quarter of the insurance proceeds for their help.
One night shortly before the shooting while they were out driving, Carlene asked her husband to take a back road for a change. There they came across Balk lying in the middle of the road and a van parked nearby. Ted stopped the car and went over to Balk, assuming she was hurt. As he was bending down to render aid, Lucas and Peter Fraley left the van, intending to knock Ted out with a baseball bat. Their brilliant plan was to place Ted’s unconscious body in his car and leave it on some railroad tracks, where a train would finish the job.
Fraley changed his mind at the last moment, and according to testimony at Lucas’s trial, put the bat in Ted’s car. Lucas, however, was not ready to give up. He took the bat and hit Ted over the head.
At that point the plot fully collapsed. Rather than rendering Ted unconscious, the blow merely stunned him and his attackers fled in the van. The next day at work, Ted, an engineer at a plumbing company, told a coworker of the incident and showed him the lump on the back of his head. Ted put it down to a failed robbery attempt, not considering the fact he and Carlene were off the beaten path and not a lucrative spot for highway robbers.
Two days later the conspirators tried again and this time they would have more success (so to speak).
Early on the morning of July 26, a guest at a Winona motel called the manager after hearing someone moaning and calling for help. The manager summoned police, who arrived moments later to find Carlene lying in the doorway of a motel room, clutching her stomach and claiming to have been coshed over the head as well.
In the bed police found Ted, unconscious from a .22-caliber bullet wound to the head. When medical personnel arrived, they found that Carlene had been shot in the lower back and had a knot on her head. The bullet had traveled into Carlene’s abdomen and surgery was necessary to remove it. The knock to the head would have been aggravated assault, but even though Carlene agreed to be shot and the shooter did not want to kill her, it is still attempted murder because it involved a potentially lethal weapon.
Ted never regained consciousness and died in mid-August, but by that time the entire plot had unraveled. Both Carlene and Arthur were advised while they were already in jail that the charges had been upped from attempted murder to first degree murder.
At her trial for killing her husband, Carlene told her version of what happened that morning.
“I was hit on the head,” she told the jury. “Well, I tried to get my head up but there was a pillow on my head. I laid there and then I heard a wrestle in the room. I didn’t actually see anything.”
She claimed that a man’s voice told her to stay still and when she called out for Ted, “I heard like a kid’s pop gun.”
Trying to save her own skin, Carlene threw Balk and Fraley under the bus, claiming the entire crime was their idea and that she and Lucas were merely pawns. She said Balk and Fraley frequently threatened her before the shooting and that Balk was trying to extort blood from a stone because of her affair with Lucas. That blackmail, she claimed, was why Lucas’s restaurant folded in the first place. He was making the payments from his daily receipts. She also claimed that “If I didn’t, they would kill me,” and said on the night of the Shive Road incident, Fraley had threatened her with a gun.
Facing the very serious charges of conspiracy to commit murder for hire, attempted murder for hire, and attempted murder for the shooting for Carlene, both Balk and Fraley claimed it was they who had been threatened if they did not cooperate.
But what really broke the case wide open was the evidence provided by Judy Baker, a bartender at the place where Lucas liked to run up his tab trying to drown his sorrows.
Lucas wamted to use Baker as his alibi, telling police that on the night of the shooting he had been at the bar with Baker and had accompanied her home. At first, Baker made the ill-fated decision to provide the excuse Lucas needed, but when her story failed to match his, she admitted she was lying. Then it all came out.
She said she first met Lucas in May of that year. Some time in June of 1983 he began telling her of the financial problems he and Carlene were having. In mid-July Carlene, whom Baker knew by sight only, visited Baker at her home. Carlene also told Baker of marital and financial problems during the visit, but said she hoped to have those problems taken care of soon.
Sometime during the week of July 10, Lucas told Baker that he and Carlene had a plan to get out of their financial problems by “getting rid” of somebody, but that previous attempts to carry out the plan had failed. He also told her that the motive to get rid of this person was to collect insurance money. On July 23, he asked Baker to help him with an alibi and offered her $1,000 if she would be seen with him on a particular evening.
Two days later, on July 25, he called her at the bar where she worked, again asked for her help, and said he would be coming by the bar. She hung up and said to a co-worker, “Oh, God, that man is coming up here.” He arrived around 7:30 and asked to spend the night with her. She agreed, but said she never saw him again after he left around 9 p.m.
She received two phone calls from Lucas, however. She said he called her at about 6:30 on the morning of July 26, and said “It’s happened, it’s over, it’s done.” He went on to tell her that she should tell the police he had been with her between 5:15 and 5:30 a.m. that morning.
While her little white lie could have made her part of the conspiracy and subject to charge as an accessory, she managed to escape with a stern talking-to about the importance of being honest when talking to the police and a little request. Police asked Baker to make some phone calls to Carlene and Lucas where they each made incriminating statements. In one, Lucas admitted being at the scene of the crime, but he minimized his participation by denying that he fired any shots. His sole purpose for being there, he said on the tape, was to dispose of the gun.
Carlene and Lucas were both arrested on Aug. 1, 1983 and subsequently convicted at separate trials and sentenced to life in prison. For their role in the crime, Balk and Fraley each received three years.
In 1984 Carlene walked away from the women’s prison where she was doing time and managed to stay on the lam for a week. At a 1992 parole hearing, prison officials said that she was “not a model prisoner” and had apparently become involved in an on-going feud with another inmate.
She died of a lung disease in 2010. Lucas, now in his 70s, remains behind bars.