The Pelfini Murder
The Case That Toppled the District Attorney?
hear the KPFA Flashpoints interview with Purple Beret Tanya
Brannan on the Pelfini debacle, click
revelations of law enforcement miscon- duct and incompetence,
the Louis Pelfini domestic violence homicide trial ended last
month with a dis- missal of all charges in the November, 1999
slaying of Janet Pelfini.
case fell apart when videotaped evidence came to light of misconduct
by Deputy District Attorney Brooke Halsey, including coached
and perjured testimony by the prosecution's star witness. Because
of double jeopardy, charges can never again be lodged against
Louis Pelfini for criminal conduct in the death of his wife.
aborted trial puts an end to any possibility of justice for
Janet Pelfini, her death may have far-reaching positive effects
for other victims of domestic violence in Sonoma County. The
scandalous, possibly criminal misconduct revealed will likely
put an end to the career of Deputy District Attorney Brooke
Halsey (whose handling of domestic violence cases has sparked
a raft of complaints by local victim advocates) and may well
bring down DA Mike Mullins – and not a moment too soon.
– by Bucket or Any Other Means
On November 7, 1999, Louis Pelfini, a rich, white Petaluma doctor,
called 911 to report his wife had committed suicide by putting
her head in a bucket of water. When sheriff's deputies Rod McMasters
and Ray Basurto arrived they found Janet Pelfini sprawled outside
her home with numerous injuries to her face, head, arms and
ankle. Near the body was a plastic bucket with about an inch
of water in the bottom, its sides dry and moss-covered. There
was no water on Janet Pelfini's head or upper body.
a matter of minutes, Deputies McMasters and Basurto, both rookies
with only six months on the force, ruled out the claim of suicide
and called in their sergeant. Sgt. Satterwhite arrived, agreed
it was a suspicious death and called in the Violent Crimes Investigation
Richard York testified that even before arriving on the scene
he was aware of Pelfini's reputation as a "respected member
of the community." That fact colored his decision-making that
night at the scene.
Janet Pelfini's injuries, suspicions were also raised by her
husband's multiple and conflicting statements at the scene.
First he said that it was suicide, then that Janet had died
of natural causes; first that he'd found the body on all fours
with her head in the bucket, later that he wasn't sure of the
position of the body; first that he'd administered CPR for ten
minutes, then that he hadn't performed CPR at all. Despite these
obvious red flags, York did not declare it a crime scene; therefore
no forensic evidence was collected.
later the coroner declared the death a homicide by suffocation.
The delay meant the evidence from the bucket, Janet and Louis
Pelfini's clothing, fingernail scrapings that would have indicated
a physical struggle, photographs of the injury noted on Louis
Pelfini's hand – all evidence that could have proven the guilt
or innocence of Louis Pelfini – was lost forever. This failure
was to haunt the case for the duration.
20, 2000, more than a year after Janet's death, Louis Pelfini
was indicted by the Grand Jury and charged with murder, voluntary
manslaughter and domestic violence. After less than 3 days in
jail, Pelfini posted the $750,000 bail within hours and returned
to his medical practice pending trial.
A week into the trial, the county's forensic pathologist Dr.
Thomas Gill took the stand. With no physical evidence from the
crime scene, the prosecution's entire case rested on Gill's
determination that Janet Pelfini had been murdered.
attorney Chris Andrian had leaked to the press five months before
that Gill's credibility was to be the corner-stone of his defense,
with revelations of Gill's history of alcoholism, his dismissal
from the Indianapolis coroner's office, and suspension of his
medical license. Clearly this was to be Sonoma County's own
O.J. Simpson trial, with the defense's strategy to attack the
investigation rather than to proffer evidence of Pelfini's innocence.
detailed why Janet Pelfini's injuries could not have resulted
from a fall and why he had unequivocally ruled out acute asthma
attack as the cause of death (the latest defense theory on the
case). The suicide by drowning theory was also debunked – there
was no water in Janet's lungs. Finally, attributing the injuries
around Janet Pelfini's mouth to someone holding something over
her mouth and exerting enough pressure to cause bruising inside
and out, Gill detailed how he had concluded that she had been
smothered to death.
At this point, a report in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat revealed
that the sheriff's department had hired a speech pathologist
to work with Gill in preparation for his testimony, purportedly
to help him present information more clearly and to deal with
questions about his past. It soon came out that there were videotapes
of these sessions – tapes that likely should have been shared
with the defense under the rules of discovery.
a battle for the tapes
A day or
two later, DDA Brooke Halsey presented the court with a backpack
filled with some 24 hours of videotapes, two cassette recordings
and a pile of documents, telling the judge, "I was as surprised
as you were, Your Honor, to learn of the existence of these
tapes," and assuring that Gill had not been coached on the specifics
of the Pelfini case.
then sent the jury on sabbatical, faced with the daunting task
of reviewing the newly discovered evidence to determine if it
should be turned over to the defense. By the next day, the contents
of those videotapes had completely overshadowed the homicide
trial, and Janet Pelfini became collateral damage in what defense
attorney Andrian dubbed "the most contemptible, absurd and despicable
prosecutorial act I have seen in 30 years of practice."
17th, Chris Andrian called for an immediate dismissal of all
charges against Louis Pelfini based on prosecutorial misconduct
and discovery violations as revealed by the videotapes. Daum
ordered an emergency evidentiary hearing, angrily demanding
to know how the tapes originated, who knew about them and when
they knew it. With DDA Brooke Halsey now in the hotseat, Greg
Jacobs and Larry Scofus, second and third in command in the
DA's office, took over for the prosecution ... and they didn't
to Commit Perjury By the end of the first afternoon's testimony
on the tapes it was clear that what was unfolding was nothing
short of a conspiracy to cook Dr. Gill's expert testimony in
the Pelfini case. Involved in the conspiracy were Dr. Gill,
Assistant Sheriff Gary Zanolini and sheriff's Detective Roy
Gourley, DDA Brooke Halsey and speech pathologist Jeffrey Harris.
he was hired by Asst. Sheriff Zanolini to conduct 90-minute
"training sessions" with Dr. Gill once or twice a week from
June to November. Throughout this period, he and Gill met regularly
with Brooke Halsey and Detective Gourley; Gourley in fact was
present at a number of the videotaped sessions. Harris testified
that the questions Gill was coached on ranged from his background
to his testimony in other cases to specific questions about
the autopsy he had conducted on Janet Pelfini!
did his best to protect prosecutor Halsey, answering "I don't
recall" to questions that would directly implicate him in the
conspiracy, Halsey's complicity was so obvious that everyone
in the packed courtroom was salivating at the prospect of his
taking the stand the next morning.
In the hallway
after Harris' testimony, defense attorney Andrian held court
for the press, detailing bits of what was on the tapes he'd
reviewed thus far and promising to show excerpts in the next
stated the tapes showed Gill crafting and changing answers to
specific questions on the Pelfini autopsy, a subject supposedly
off-limits in those sessions. Equally damning, one of the tapes
showed Gill being questioned when a door opened off camera.
Someone said, "Hi, Brooke, have a seat," and the questioning
went on from there. (So much for "I was as surprised as you
were, Your Honor ...!") "Your Honor, I'd like to make a statement
of admissions." – Deputy DA Brooke Halsey
Honor, I'd like to make a statement of admissions."
Deputy DA Brooke Halsey
morning the courtroom bustled with anticipation as the crowd
of defense attorneys, prosecutors, law clerks and a plethora
of other courthouse-types waited for the show to begin, anticipating
Halsey taking the stand before the day was over. But before
the first witness could be called, prosecutor Brooke Halsey
said, "Your Honor, I'd like to make a statement of admissions."
denying he had known about the existence of the tapes or that
Gill and Harris had been rehearsing questions specific to the
Pelfini case, Halsey admitted the tapes showed "crafting answers,
tailoring testimony, time-frames, locations of injuries and
innumerable facts that would come up in this trial." As a result
of the irreparable harm the tapes did to Dr. Gill's credibility,
Halsey asked the court to dismiss the case.
that, the trial of Louis Pelfini came to an unexpected end.
Brooke Halsey Knew
Halsey's statements to the judge aside, here's what we know
– via the videotapes, testimony by Gill or Harris, or Halsey's
own admissions – about his involvement in Dr. Gill's perjured
testimony. (NOTE: Details on the contents of the videotapes
come from the defense attorney or from Halsey's own comments
at the trial.)
Sheriff's Office Scandal
And there's no doubt the Sheriff's department (SO) is involved
up to its eyeballs. Sheriff Jim Piccinini admits they did no
background check on Gill before hiring him, despite the fact
that background checks are mandatory. It was the SO that hired
the speech pathologist to work with Gill, and Sheriff's Det.
Roy Gourley – known to be one of the SO's "dirty tricksters"
– was directly involved in the videotaped sessions by his own
admission. Some of the sessions even took place in his office.
Also, Gourley had the responsibility to keep Halsey up on what
was going on in those sessions. To think that he didn't do so
Piccinini is now taking credit for firing Dr. Gill as soon as
the shit hit the fan, he doesn't explain why Gill wasn't fired
as soon as they knew of his problems which, by various accounts
was at least six months and perhaps a year earlier.
of getting rid of Gill, Piccinini decided to cover up for him
– coach him on how to get around his embarrassing background
and medical incompetence on the stand – thus insuring another
six to twelve months of bogus autopsies that now will surely
be thrown out. Who knows how many murders will go unprosecuted
due to the impossibility of putting Thomas Gill on the stand
after the Pelfini disaster? (Unconfirmed reports estimate the
number to be between 15 and 25.) "Brooke Halsey upheld the highest
ethical standards of this office." – District Attorney Mike
Mullins "Precisely the problem! – Purple Beret Tanya Brannan
Mullins "Knew or Should Have Known"
As soon as charges were dismissed against Louis Pelfini, I dropped
in to District Attorney Mike Mullins' office for some answers.
Mullins, stone-faced and angry, grudgingly ushered me into his
When I asked
what he intended to do in the wake of the dismissal, Mike said,
"Brooke Halsey did nothing wrong." I then asked if he had watched
all 24 hours of videotape. He replied that his staff had watched
them and reiterated, "Brooke Halsey did nothing wrong."
few more questions, it became clear that no one had watched
all the tapes, so I gave Mike the chance to correct his statement.
"So did you mean to say that until your staff has seen all the
evidence you won't be deciding whether or not to open an investigation?"
I queried. "There will be no investigation," was Mullins' immediate
response. "Brooke Halsey has upheld the highest ethical standards
of this office." Precisely the problem!
and his command staff had been huddling for days since the existence
of the videotapes went public. There's no question he had direct
knowledge of Brooke Halsey's involvement by then, even if he
hadn't orchestrate it. Any way you look at it, Mullins' response
to this debacle – his refusal even to investigate – is nothing
short of obstruction of justice. Mike's decision to "stand by
his man" can only have one just result: that Mullins go down
Halsey upheld the highest ethical standards
of this office."
– District Attorney Mike Mullins
– Purple Beret Tanya Brannan
Justice System Exposed!
To anyone even slightly familiar with the criminal justice system,
the idea that law enforcement lies comes as no surprise. The
only thing that differentiates the Pelfini case from countless
others is that they got caught conspiring to commit perjury
as the videotaped beating of Rodney King made the reality of
police brutality undeniable, the videotaped perjury of county
pathologist Thomas Gill in the Pelfini murder case makes the
reality of expert witness testimony crafted to fit law enforcement's
General Investigation As we go to press, District Attorney Mullins
and Sheriff Piccinini have called for a California Attorney
General investigation into the allegations of perjury and misconduct
in the case. But read carefully between the lines:
Attorney General's office was involved! They took part at least
in questioning Gill in the videotaped mock trial. At this point,
the only untainted entity capable of conducting an independent
investigation would be a special prosecutor.
to the Press Democrat's report, the Attorney General is only
being asked to look into Sheriff's Dept. misconduct and charges
of perjury on the part of Dr. Gill, with no mention of Brooke
Halsey's involvement. But the truth is Halsey's conduct is much
more egregious and unethical than Gill's. He shouldn't be let
off the hook.
we remember well the Attorney General investigation at the time
of the Teresa Macias domestic violence homicide. In that case,
then-Sheriff Ihde repeatedly lied to the public, saying the
Attorney General would be investigating the handling of the
Macias case, when in fact they'd only been asked to investigate
law enforcement protocols and practices. Even after we proved
this with documents from the Attorney General himself, Ihde
continued to lie and misrepresent the scope of the investigation
to the public.
we forget Sheriff Piccinini's state Board of Corrections' investigation
into the jail deaths. After using the investigation to deflect
embarrassing questions about the jail for months, the Sheriff
then failed to release the report when it was completed – until,
that is, four Purple Berets were arrested in protest.
these investigations are used by law enforcement to calm the
public demands for accountability in hopes that, by the time
the report of the investigation comes out, people will have
forgotten what it was all about.
job to make sure the public has a long memory.