Category Archives: Criminal Law

Amira Fox Cleared by Ethics Commission

State Attorney Amira Fox, who won election handily to the office vacated by retiring State Attorney Steve Russell, received some good news this afternoon. The Florida Commission on Ethics released a statement about their findings from the hearing on Monday, and found no probable cause regarding the complaint that had been filed against her in 2017, prior to the campaign for State Attorney for the 20th Judicial Circuit.

The complaint was filed by a friend of Ms. Fox’s opponent in the race, Chris Crowley. While the Ethics Commission would not confirm that a complaint had been filed, Crowley and his friends discussed it in the media, and tried to use it as a campaign issue. The complaint alleged Ms. Fox had misused her position at the State while running for office, basically claiming she was improperly campaigning during work hours. This ruling should put any concerns to rest, as the Commission finding of no probable cause means there were not sufficient grounds to proceed.

Sarasota Police try to Charge an Attorney Defending Her Client

Sarasota defense attorney, and friend of the firm, Varinia Van Ness had criminal charges sought by the Sarasota Police against her for her representation of her client. The mere fact that officers would even consider trying to charge a defense attorney for zealously doing her job is shocking. It’s petty, retaliatory, and an affront to our adversarial system of justice. Fortunately, the officer’s multiple attempts to file charges were rebuffed by cooler heads.

Attorney Varinia Van Ness, via
http://www.vannesslawgroup.com/

It started when two Sarasota detectives sought to serve search warrants on Ms. Van Ness’ client and his phone. The parties agreed to meet at Van Ness’ office but about 10 minutes into the meeting, it was revealed that a Detective Derek Galbraith had activated a recording device without notifying Ms. Van Ness. When she found out, she insisted he either terminate the recording, or to leave the office. He declined to turn it off, but he also declined to leave the office. She indicated he was trespassing, but he still wouldn’t leave and Van Ness eventually called 911 to get him to leave.

After detectives left, they tried to serve the warrants again at the client’s work, at his brother’s house, and even at his ex-girlfriend’s home. Van Ness and her client agreed to meet at the police department. When the Detectives read the phone warrant, a spelling error was noticed in the client’s name, and Van Ness and her client left the room, though they ultimately did submit a DNA sample. Later that day, Detective Dan Riley from the Sarasota PD requested that a warrant be issued for the arrest of attorney Van Ness for obstruction of justice.

Fortunately, the warrant was never issued. It was submitted to a judge who recognized that the case involved a defense attorney doing her job, which would be a valid challenge to the warrant. He said it would have to be reviewed the State Attorneys office to see if formal charges were warranted. Sarasota PD didn’t give up, and submitted the warrant request to the State Attorney’s office. The local SAO had a conflict of interest, and the case was reassigned to the 20th Judicial Circuit SAO, who also declined to file charges. Sarasota PD took one more shot, submitting the case to FDLE, who also declined to pursue charges. The case was reviewed by three separate independent judges/agencies, who all agreed there was no merit to bringing charges.

This type of attack on an attorney is shocking and very problematic to the justice system. Ultimately, the fear would be that if cops can go charge an attorney for advocating for their clients, the chilling affect on the job of defense attorneys would harm our criminal justice system and is an affront to the Constitutional protection to the right to be represented by an attorney. The Sixth Amendment guarantees the right to assistance of counsel, and it applies at every level of a criminal investigation.

It’s rare that law enforcement would seek to charge an attorney for advocacy in the normal course of their work. Usually, it takes something really egregious, the Paul Bergrin case in New Jersey springs to mind, where he assisted gangsters placing hits against witnesses. Only something extreme that goes beyond advocacy should even be considered, and even then, it should be reviewed by attorneys before being submitted for a warrant.

Asking a Detective to leave your office because they recorded you without permission is not obstruction of justice. Declining to have your client turn over his phone password when his name is spelled wrong on the warrant is not obstruction of justice. That’s advocacy. Zealous advocates like Varinia Van Ness are the first check against government overreach and the primary protection of individual Constitutional rights. We are lucky to have defense attorneys like Varinia.

via Sarasota Herald-Tribune

Dozens Indicted in College Entrance Scam, Including Celebrities and College Coaches

Federal prosecutors unveiled 40 indictments today in an extensive scheme for wealthy parents to assist getting their children into elite schools. Essentially, well-off parents were using a college preparation business, run by William”Rick” Singer, as a go between to cheat and bribe their children’s entrance into schools. Singer’s company was called Edge College & Career Network, also known as “the Key”, a for-profit prep business out of Newport Beach, California.

Rick Singer, per SacBee.com

The first step was often to have Singer cheat on the tests. It appears this would be accomplished in several steps: Singer and his cohorts, some of which are cooperating witnesses, would have the parents claim a learning difference that would allow their children more time and to take the test at a different location. Singer would use a testing location that he “controlled” to then improve the children’s performance on the test, getting higher scores and making the children more attractive to elite schools. The children would not even know about the adjusted tests, leaving them to believe they had just performed well.

There was a second approach that involved bribing the schools. In some instances, Singer’s connections would designate the students as recruits for college athletics teams to facilitate their admission. Singer also ran a charitable organization through which he would funnel the money to coaches, such as Yale women’s soccer coach Rudolph “Rudy” Meredith, who had coached there for more than 20 years. Nine coaches and sports administrators have been indicated, including those from schools such as Stanford, USC, Texas and Yale.

Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin

The operation involved more than two hundred FBI agents, multiple cooperating witnesses, and has ensnared rich and powerful people such as actresses Felicity Huffman & Lori Loughlin, as well as CEOs and prominent lawyers. Some payments were in the thousands, while others paid up to $6 million to get their children into competitive elite schools.

Murder Conviction Overturned in Texas Doctor Murder-for-Hire of Another Doctor Case

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Dr. Thomas Dixon

Prosecutors contend that Dr. Michael Dixon, a plastic surgeon from

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Dr. Joseph Sonnier

Amarillo, Texas was so envious of the new lover his ex-girlfriend had taken, also a doctor, that he hired an associate to murder him. Dixon’s relationship with the ex, Richelle Shetina, started ignominiously: she was a patient that came to Dixon’s spa for Botox treatments in 2008. They started an affair, though Dixon was married at the time, and his wife eventually found out and filed for divorce. After several months, Shetina broke off the relationship in 2010.

Shetina found new love in 2011 with another doctor, Joseph Sonnier III, a successful doctor in Lubbock, Texas. However, Dixon was never able to let go of the relationship. Shetina felt as though she was being watched at the gym, and Dr. Sonnier complained to co-workers that his beau’s ex was having trouble letting things go.

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David Shepard

Things came to a tragic conclusion in July, 2012, when Dr. Sonniers was found dead at his home, shot and stabbed. Sadly, Dr. Sonnier’s murder fell almost 2 years to the day after the murder/suicide of his ex-wife by her second husband. Suspicion for Sonnier’s brutal killing would likely have centered on Dr. Dixon pretty quickly anyway, due to the animosity he’d had toward Dr. Sonnier. But investigators got a quick break in the case, when an Amarillo man named Paul Reynolds came forward to say that his roommate had admitted to killing a man, and Reynolds had done some digging and discovered the Sonnier murder, and thought his roommate, David Shepard might be responsible.

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Dr. D. Dixon

When investigators spoke to Shepard, he admitted that he had committed the murder at the behest of his business associate, Dixon, and that Dixon had paid him three silver bars and a box of cigars for accomplishing the task. He had been hired by Dixon for weveral months to spy on Sonnier, with the intent to catch him cheating, so Dixon could expose Sonnier, but to no avail, at which point the murder plot was hatched. Investigators found that Shepard had indeed cashed some gold bars the day after the murder, and charged both he and Dixon with capital murder.

Shepard, who had admitted to being the killer, entered a plea to life in prison, and agreed to cooperate against Dr. Dixon. However, when Dixon went to trial in 2014, Shepard recanted his accusation against Dixon, and said Dixon had only hired him to track Sonnier, and that he committed the murder without Dixon’s direction. The jury hung, and a mistrial was declared. The case went back to trial in 2015, and prosecutors didn’t call Shepard the second time around. However, they called Shepard’s own daughter, Haley, to testify that she thought her father lied the first time around to protect Dixon. This time, Dixon was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

Things turned around again a couple months ago when the appellate court in Amarillo reversed Dixon’s conviction, and remanded the case for a new trial. I thought the appellate court might have an issue with Haley Shepard’s testimony, but apparently the issues that led to the appellate decision were errors by the court in not allowing people into the courtroom, and that cell phone records were obtained without a warrant, pursuant to a recent Supreme Court decision. Just recently, Dixon’s bond was reset to two million dollars, which has has posted as he awaits retrial.

On a separate note, one of Dr. Sonnier’s sons has gone on to be a successful filmmaker, the Dallas magazine did a profile touching on his family tragedies.

Spate of Burrito Attacks in, Where Else, Florida

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Peter Elacqua

Just a few days before Valentine’s Day, Peter Elacqua of Port Richey was arrested for striking his girlfriend with a burrito. They got in an argument, and while in the bedroom, he pushed her into

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Elacqua in 2017

a chair and threw his burrito at her. He fled before cops arrived, and she still had bits of burrito on her when the cops arrived. They tracked down Elacqua a few days later, and arrested him and charged him with domestic battery. Elacqua has an extensive arrest history, including the mug shot at right. Apparently, his being Ninja hasn’t kept him out of jail.

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Victor Fosser

This was the second burrito attack in as many months. In January, Victor Fosser of Parrish, Florida, was charged with domestic battery for smashing a burrito in his wife’s face during an argument over a family issue. It is a crime to touch or strike anyone against their will, and that includes food. It’s at least the third burrito battery we’ve covered at Crimcourts… it’s getting to the point where Mexican food attacks are becoming commonplace. Still illegal, though.

Watch out for this Femme Fatale

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Mayira Okheda-Garsia

Mayira Okheda-Garsia may not look the part, but this femme fatale has been charged with masterminding an armed robbery plot against her ex-boyfriend. The victim said that Okheda and three masked, armed men busted through his sliding glass door and robbed him at gunpoint. He said the men were wearing bandannas and held him at gunpoint while they took his gold jewelry. His roommate came in, and all four offenders fled in a Toyota Camry.

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Davante Sparks

Deputies located the Camry, which took off. After a chase, the vehicle stopped and the occupants fled, though the driver was caught. Deputies called in aviation and K-9 units to conduct a search, and ultimately located Okheda hiding under a trailer. They caught a third suspect, Devante Sparks, when he texted Okheda’s phone to let her know he had made it

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Kameron Williams

home… they went to his house and picked him up. The fourth suspect is still on the run. All the suspects are facing charges for armed home invasion robbery and theft, and the driver, Kameron Williams, also faces charges for high-speed fleeing. Arrest records indicate both Okheda and Sparks have gang affiliation.

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Brittany Stubbs

The case reminds of the Brittany Stubbs, who lured a local business with the promise of sex. She had planned for her boyfriend and his brother to rob the man, but the robbery went south and the man was shot and killed. All were charged with first-degree felony murder. Stubbs flipped on the co-defendants and got a 25-year sentence, while the brothers were both sentenced to mandatory life in prison. In this case, fortunately nobody was shot, but it is a life felony. In both cases, the defendants were young and some really poor choices effectively ruined their lives and those of others.

Love-triangle Murder Case Results in Conviction and Life Sentence for Wife, after Claims of Threesomes and Alligators

 

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Denise Williams with Mike, and Brian Winchester (inset)

Mike Williams body was never found after his friend told police that he had drowned in a lake while they were duck hunting back in 2000. At they time, they assumed his body had been eaten by alligators, but his mother never believed it, and never gave up. She even paid for signs and billboards to get the police to investigate, right out of a movie. But the break in the case didn’t come until year later.

Denise Williams collected a $1.75 million dollar life insurance policy payout when her husband was declared dead. His best friend, Brian Winchester, had been fishing with Mike on the Williams’ sixth wedding anniversary, and apparently explained the disappearance well enough that the cops bought it. A few years later, Brian and Denise got married.

It turns out, Denise and Brian had been having an affair- a juicy affair involving threesomes with other parties, trial testimony revealed. She and Brian ultimately got married a few years after Mike’s death, in 2005, and their marriage lasted ten years, falling apart after both of them had additional affairs. Things came to a head in 2016 when Brian, apparently worried that his now-ex-wife would spill the beans about murdering Mike, that he kidnapped Denise at gunpoint. Major backfire, as Brian was now facing a possible life sentence for the armed kidnapping and armed burglary charges. Desperate to make a deal, Brian offered to come clean about Mike’s death. The prosecutors agreed to offer him immunity if cooperated, and 20-years on the kidnapping case. Brian explained that Denise has conspired with him to stage Mike’s death as a boating mishap so they could be together. Brian led authorities to Mike’s remains and charged Denise with murder, conspiracy, and accessory.

The trial was a juicy one, replete with intrigue and affairs. Denise’s defense suggested that Brian was lying to try to save his own skin, and that he had lied repeatedly to investigators. At trial, prosecutors introduced images from one of the threesomes with Brian’s first wife, but they brought her in and she testified that there had been a sexual encounter with she, Brian, and Denise prior to Mike’s disappearance. They also brought in a woman who testified she had had an affair with Brian while he was married to Denise, and that Denise had walked in on them together at one point.

ID Photo

Brian Winchester, via DOC

Ultimately, Brian Winchester’s testimony about Denise’s involvement persuaded the jury, who found Denise Williams guilty at her December trial. The sentencing occurred last week and was mostly perfunctory, as the court was required to impose a mandatory life sentence. Winchester still has most of his sentence in front of him, Florida DOC estimates his release date is not until July, 2036. Denise Williams is not eligible for any form of parole or early release.

Below is a great behind-the-scenes interview with Winchester’s attorney about how he was able to get the immunity deal on Winchester’s kidnapping case- cool insights from an interview with the Law and Crime network. Sounds like the state was leaning hard on the new case to compel him to cooperate on the murder. Also, much of the trial testimony is available online, here.