How to Screw up the Perfect Crime

Anyone who has ever been in a serious relationship probably understands why husbands and wives kill each other, but the murder of Steven Hricko by his wife, Kimberly defies explanation. By almost all accounts Steven wasn’t abusive, and there wasn’t a great deal of financial gain to be realized by his death. Instead, Kim simply wanted out of a relationship that had soured over time. Rather than walking away, she opted to kill her husband.
 
Obviously, Kim didn’t get away with her crime — she had a good plan but her execution was terrible. As a result, she’s serving a life term in a Maryland prison.
 
The Hricko marriage started out well, but after nine years, Kim made no secret of her discontent. She was apparently an outgoing, energetic person and Steve, according to Kim’s talks with her friends, was a homebody. She was also frustrated that he didn’t help out around the house. Fortunately for many of us, this is not reasonable justification to kill.
 
“She said that she had been feeling really bad about their marriage for a long time,” one of her friends testified at Kim’s murder trial. “She said that her and Steve had been having problems and had been having problems for a very long time. I told her that I had always suspected that something wasn’t right, but she would never confide in me and she agreed that she had been living a lie, she said, for a long time. She said that she had asked him to go to counseling sometime back in the late summer of ‘97.”
 
The impetus for Kim’s decision to murder Steve was an affair she began in December 1997 with a man she met at a friend’s wedding. The excitement of new love made her even more desperate to get out of her marriage, and clouded her judgment to such a degree that murder, rather than divorce, appeared to be the best means of accomplishing her goal. Perhaps a possible child custody fight over their daughter scared her; the prosecution suggested an insurance policy as motive. Regardless, once she set her mind to killing Steve, nothing could deter her.
 
The only question remained how to do it.
 
Steve was a golf course manager and Kim was a surgical technologist. Part of her normal job duties was to collect and dispose of all unused medicines after surgery — and that gave her access to the weapon she would eventually use to kill her husband.
 
In December 1997, Kimberly approached a co-worker who had been convicted of a non-violent felony and asked to speak with him. Her manner in approaching the man reveals something about her fractured state-of-mind.
 
“Without warning, she blurted out that she wanted him to kill her husband,” wrote Judge Charles Moylan in Kim’s post-conviction appeal. “He wheeled around, thinking that it had to be some sort of a joke. When he saw that she was deadly serious, he immediately said that he would not get involved in anything like that and tried to convince her that she was experiencing an overreaction to marital ennui. She nonetheless went on to ask if he knew ‘somebody that would kill her husband.’ She mentioned, moreover, the figure of $50,000 as the contract price. After it became clear that (the coworker) had no intention of getting involved, Kimberly urged him to ‘forget about it’ and not to tell anyone else about their conversation.”
 
Unwittingly, the man planted the seed that would germinate and become the murderous plot.
 
“You work in the operating room , you could just put him to sleep,” he said flippantly.
 
Kim had access to a drug that at the time was almost undetectable by forensic science — succinylcholine.
 
An almost perfect murder weapon, succinylcholine was first synthesized in 1906, although its ability to relax muscles was not recognized until 1949. It has a brief duration of action, because it is quickly broken down by plasma. It is used to produce muscle flaccidity during surgery and assisted respiration is essential because it paralyzes the respiratory muscles.
 
“Succinylcholine has been isolated from the area of injection in a fatal poisoning, although no unchanged drug was detected in the blood, liver or kidney (Gajdzinska and Szczepanski, 1967),” write Cravey, Baselt and Houts in Courtroom Toxicology. “A succinic acid level of 12 mg/kg in postmortem brain tissue was used to prove antemortem administration of succinylcholine in a case of suspected homicidal poisoning (Holmes, 1968). However, Fiorese (1969) has shown that endogenous succinic acid concentrations in fresh or embalmed brain (range 19-200 mg/kg) and liver (range 182-2,000 mg/kg) are so variable as to preclude any meaningful distinction between normal subjects and persons who have received the drug prior to death.”
 
In other words, a small amount of succinylcholine can kill and at the time Cravey, et al. wrote their book, was extremely difficult to label as the murder weapon. The drug can take effect within five seconds of being administered intravenously and within less than a minute of being administered intramuscularly. In some cases, the only indication the drug was given may be a bruise around the injection site.
 
Although succinylcholine may be nearly undetectable, Kim made it clear to almost everyone who would listen that she was contemplating a crime.
 
“The conversation started with Kim saying that Steve would be better off dead, that we had talked about divorce but . . . she said that he would be nothing without her and (her daughter) and that, that if they got a divorce that he would try to turn (the girl) against her or to keep her,” one friend testified at Kim’s trial. “And that he didn’t really have very much of a life outside of that marriage anyway, and that he would be better off dead.”
 
The same friend testified that Kim had mentioned succinylcholine in the form of its trade name, Sustinalcolene.
 
“We had a discussion about a case history where a woman had injected some children with Sustinalcolene and that that was a muscle relaxing anesthesia agent and that, that it would go untraced,” she said.
 
On January 30, 1998, in a drunken and distraught state, Kim called another friend and indicated that she was seriously considering committing the crime.
 
From her trial:

A: She said, she was talking more about how it would be easier if Steve were dead and she told me that she had a plan on how to do it where she wouldn’t get caught.
 
Q: Did she tell the plan to you?
 
A: Yes.
 
Q: Tell the ladies and gentlemen of the jury what she told you.
 
A: She told me that she could get a drug that would paralyze Steve, that would stop his breathing and then she would set the curtains on fire with a candle or a cigar and that he would die of smoke inhalation in a fire and nobody would know.

The friend tried to talk her out of it, but Kim had “had answers for everything.” The next morning, when cooler, sober heads prevailed, Kim hedged a bit.

Q: Did you ask her anything about the plan that she told you about?
 
A: Yes. I asked her was she really going to do this and she said I don’t know what I’m going to do.

For his part, Steve knew something was wrong and was taking steps to fix it.
 
“After she asked Steve for a divorce in January, Steve did make a lot of effort on his part, to where he wrote her this beautiful lovely letter that she read to me over the phone, and it was beautiful and Steve was going to counseling,” a friend of Kim’s said on the stand. Kim’s response to his efforts, however was muted.
 
“She said it made her sick,” the friend recounted.

She told me … her reaction or what she said about them was that they made her sick and that he suffocated her and was stifling her and following her around all the time and cuddling up to her real close at night so that she felt like she couldn’t breathe. And wanting to know where she was going or what she was doing. And maybe giving her phone calls that she wasn’t used to getting from him just to say ‘Hi.’

Kim was carrying on an act, waiting for the appropriate time to strike. It presented itself on Valentine’s Day.
 
Steve made arrangements for the couple to go to the Harbourtowne Resort for a romantic weekend getaway that featured a mystery dinner theater program entitled The Bride who Cried, which dinner guests were invited to solve. The corpus delicti involved a bridegroom who drinks poisoned champagne at his wedding reception.
 
Judge Moylan’s summary of the evidence succinctly shows the state of affairs of the marriage:

As February 14 drew closer, the juxtaposition of respective attitudes toward the impending Valentine’s Day getaway is stark pathos. On February 9, Steven committed his hopes to his journal:
 

Life at home is improving and I am looking forward to Valentine’s weekend at Harbortowne with Kim. … She called twice today and said “I love you” without [my] saying it first. I was very happy. … Kim and I have not made love yet and I want to but I will wait as long as it takes. I love her. … I believe I know what being in love really is. We have been married 9 years but I feel like we just started dating.

On February 13, the night before she and Steven were to leave for St. Michael’s, Kimberly, by contrast, made a trip to the house that (her lover) shared with his aunt. She wanted to leave her Valentine’s Day gifts to him in his bedroom. The note accompanying the gifts read:
 

I really wanted to give you all these gifts in person but I guess the Pentagon had a different idea. I am so proud of what you do so I’ll just go on missing you. Have a nice weekend at home, baby. I look forward to seeing you soon. Happy Valentine’s Day, sir. I love you so very much.
Hugs and Kisses, Kim

Steve and Kim arrived at Harbourtowne on February 14. They were presented with a bottle of champagne. At approximately 7 p.m., they went to the dining room and to the dinner-theater production of The Bride Who Cried. Steve and Kim left the dinner theater and returned to their cottage together at between 10 and 10:30 p.m.
 
At approximately 1:20 p.m. Kim reported that her room was on fire.
 
Finding the door to the Hrickos’ room locked, a hotel employee ran around to a back porch. He was able to open the sliding door through which he had observed human feet and legs. Crawling into the smoke-filled room, he found the body of Steven Hricko lying on its back between two twin beds. He dragged the body outside.
 
At the time the first police officers and firefighters entered the room, they confirmed that Steve’s body was lying between the two twin beds, with a pair of burned pillows beneath his head.
 
The point of origin of the fire was those two pillows. Intense heat from the flaming pillows caused the fire to spread to an adjoining bedspread causing the mattress on one of the beds to be burned completely through.
 
The carpet in various places around that bed also showed burning. The corpse was badly charred from the chest area upward to the top of his head, including his upraised left arm. The fire marshal was of the opinion that the fire had burned for between five and fifteen minutes but then burned itself out when the oxygen level in the room fell below the point where it could sustain the fire.
 
“Steven Hricko was already dead when dragged from the room, Judge Moylan wrote. “His body, clad in a tee-shirt and pajama pants, was badly burned from the mid-chest area upward, including his upraised left arm.”
 
Kim gave a lame explanation of events that led up to the fire.
 
After leaving the dinner theater, she and Steve bought four bottles of beer from the hotel bar returned to their room. She recalled seeing the end of a movie called Tommy Boy and then watching the late evening news come on.
 
“Despite a pre-Valentine’s Day covenant with her husband that they would refrain from having sex during the weekend getaway, he began pressuring her for sexual intercourse and an argument ensued between them that lasted for approximately ten minutes,” Judge Moylan wrote. “Because she did not wish to continue the argument, she grabbed her purse and the car keys and left the room.”
 
She described how she then left the Harbourtowne resort and drove toward Easton to visit some friends who lived nearby. She became lost and had to stop and ask several persons for directions. She stated that she was not familiar with Easton and could not find the home. She stated that she could not even find Route 50 and then, abandoning the intended visit, had to ask further directions even to get back to St. Michael’s. She arrived back at Harbourtowne shortly after 1 a.m.
 
She discovered she forgot her key. She walked around to the deck area at the back of the room, remembering that the sliding glass door at the rear of the unit had been opened earlier that evening. As she pushed it further open, she was met by a wall of thick smoke. She reached inside to feel for a light switch but with no success. She then ran to the front of the unit and began knocking on a number of other doors and screaming for help but received no response — this despite the fact that all of the adjoining rooms in the area were occupied.
 
At that point, she jumped into her car and drove to the main lobby, using her cell phone to call 911 while on the way.
 
The people to whom Kim reported the fire were astounded at her calm.
 
“She was, she walked in the lobby and there was no evidence, I mean there was nothing, that she was upset,” one said. “She was just walking into the lobby. She was very calm. Even when she said, ‘There’s a fire in my room,’ we were more excited, I know.”
 
Her story quickly unraveled.
 
“It is a forensic fact of life that an exculpatory effort that is disbelieved thereby becomes highly inculpatory,” Judge Moylan wrote. “In prosecutorial jargon, it is called the ‘false exculpatory.’ In the algebra of production burdens, it goes to prove consciousness of guilt. Kimberly’s attempted explanation fell into that category in several regards. Indeed, it began to unravel even as it began.”
 
There was first the improbability of getting lost. Easton is about 15 minutes from St. Michael’s, the location of the Harbourtowne resort. Why was Kim lost for two hours? If lost, why not call the friends for directions? Kim had her cell phone with her, she used it to call 911 to report the fire. She demonstrated to the troopers questioning her that she knew the friends’ telephone number. Kim gave the unbelievable answer of not wanting to wake the friends.
 
“I asked her why she didn’t call me, the friend testified. “She says well it was too late. I didn’t want to wake you up.”
 
Judge Moylan expressed his own incredulity at this response:
 
“The incongruity of the response was not even subtle,” he said. “Why, at a given hour, would one be unwilling to wake up with a phone call the very people one was fully intending to wake up by ringing the door bell?”
 
Kim claimed that Steve was heavily intoxicated the night he died, but the investigator who questioned her about his death, testified the facts didn’t back up her story.
 
“I asked her would you please tell me the amount of alcohol that your husband consumed that night,” he said. “She advised me that he was drinking heavily that night. At that time I confronted her with the Medical Examiner toxicologist’s report information indicating 0.00 blood alcohol contents in her husband’s body. At that time she just stared for a second and said, I don’t understand that. And I don’t understand that. I said well could you please explain to me if your husband was drinking this amount of alcohol why didn’t it register? Again she just said, I don’t understand why. I don’t understand.”
 
The couple’s bar tab that night at the dinner theater was $5.50, and one of the other guests at their table during the dinner theater happened to be an assistant district attorney who testified that he saw Steve consume one or two beers.
 
As the investigation progressed, Kim demonstrated an unusual curiosity about the status of the medical examiner’s report.
 
To the prosecution, her curiosity about what was at the time thought of as a tragic, but routine, accident was curious. It looked like Steve had died of smoke inhalation in a fire. What did she expect to learn from an autopsy report? Could it be whether or not any needle marks were found on the body or if succinylcholine was detected?
 
Kim also raised concerns with her adamant insistence that Steve’s body be cremated. It’s one thing to honor a loved one’s last wishes, but her strong determination to see him cremated clashed with her indifference about every other aspect of his final arrangements.
 
As Steve’s sister testified: “She let it be known that it was fine with her if we took care of it all except that the cremation was decided on and that any other aspects she didn’t have a strong opinion on but that it was up to us.”
 
Even as the embers of the fire still smoldered, the police were suspicious of Kim’s behavior. When the medical examiner delayed releasing Steve’s body in favor of some extra tests, her friends noted that Kim was quite uneasy. Knowing that the police had been asking questions, Kim became desperate for information. She asked a close friend to find out what others had been saying to the police.
 
“To seek to learn what friends have been saying to the police is not normal behavior for one who has recently but innocently been widowed,” Judge Moylan wrote.
 
The police soon confronted Kim with the proof that Steve was dead before the fire started. There was no soot or carbon monoxide found in Steve’s body, the autopsy revealed. The trooper who broke the news to Kim describes how she reacted.

She stared and didn’t say nothing and then she stared some more and she said I don’t understand why. I don’t understand. At that time, she hesitated and never said nothing and then she kind of bowed her face down towards her hands and started crying. She continued crying. I said to her, Kimberly, please tell me what happened that night. And she continued crying. She gets up out of her chair, walks over and sat in another chair where she continued crying.
Again I said please tell me what happened that night. Kimberly said to me, if I tell you what happened, can I go home tonight and see my daughter? I stated to her, Kimberly, please just tell me the truth and what happened the night your husband died. Kimberly looked up and stated to me I want to tell you but I want to see my daughter first. I told Kimberly, I said, Kimberly, I will make arrangements for you to see your daughter. She hesitated, sat there, looked up again and Kimberly stated to me, I really want to tell you the truth, but can I still go home?

Kim was not allowed to go home and was instead arrested for murder.
 
She never confessed to the killing, but in a conversation with one of her friends while she was in jail, she all but admitted killing her husband.
 
Talking about Steve’s insurance policies, the friend recalled that “Kim said that I don’t care what anyone says, it wasn’t for the money.”
 
That begs the question: What wasn’t for the money?
 
In the end, the jury answered that question, convicting Kim of murder and arson.