The accident that claimed the life of Patty Wlasiuk took place in the early morning hours of April 3, 2002 in the small town of Oxford, New York, a rural upstate area in Chenango County. Emergency services received a call informing them of a pickup truck that had been submerged into a lake in the area of Guilford Lake.
When they arrived on site, Peter Wlasiuk who was married to Patty, appeared soaking wet and told emergency workers that his wife had been driving the truck and had to swerve abruptly when she saw a deer on the road. He managed to get out of the truck but could not save his wife from the frigid water.
State Police diver Jamie Bell swam to the bottom of the lake to retrieve Patty’s body and bring it to shore. She was found facing down, seven feet away from the driver’s side of the truck that was submerged in 14 feet of water. EMT’s tried to resuscitate her and she was taken to the hospital where they attempted to revive her again. She was pronounced dead shortly after her arrival at the hospital.
The Chenango County Sheriff’s Department rapidly called it a homicide instead of an accident, even though, that same day, forensic pathologist Dr. James Terzian, after performing an autopsy, had declared Patty’s death to be a ‘’probable drowning – pending toxicology.’’Police were already telling co-workers and organ donation officials that it was a murder 10 hours before the actual autopsy.
After hearing negative reports from family and friends about Peter and Patty’s marriage, the police had theorized that Peter could have drowned his wife at another location and then taken her to Guilford Lake, but they soon solidified their theory because of the fact that Patty had burdock in her hair and on some of her clothing.
Burdock was also found on the boots Peter was wearing during the accident and that washed up on the shore. The police claimed to have inspected the scene of the accident and to not have seen any burdock bushes in the area, so they concluded that Patty had to have been killed near some burdock bushes.
After obtaining search warrants, the cops went to the Wlasiuk residence and found and secured some burdock bushes in the yard. On one of the bushes near the pool, they found two hairs stuck on the branches. In the lab, the final count became 18 hairs. The problem is that on April 5, 2002, Deputy Ted Ellingson had illegally obtained a branch of the bush in question by breaking it off and placed it into an evidence bag and logged it into evidence notes. When the police went with a warrant and saw the already broken branch, they took it as a sign of a struggle when in fact, it was done by Ellingson. The 2 hairs could have easily looked strategically placed there and were not tangled, matted or twisted.
Four days after the accident, divers examined the bottom of the lake for burdock. They found Patty’s coat and took pictures of it. When they turned it inside out, they realized that it was covered with burdock. They found her driver’s license in one of the pockets and took more photos.
Once at the lab, additional items were found in the pockets. A tool box was also found but they did not open it or take pictures of it, but rather left it at the bottom of the lake. Peter was arrested on April 8th, 2002, and indicted three days later. With the discovery of the burdock bushes, the police presented the case to a Grand Jury on April 11th, 2002, and Wlasiuk was indicted on a single count of second degree murder.
They also went back to Dr. Terzian to tell him about the burdock situation. Based mostly on that fact, he changed his opinion on the manner of death and declared it to be ‘’asphyxiation due to suffocation.’’ Terzian had refused to testify at the Grand Jury hearing because at the time, he had no medical findings to support anything else than a drowning, even after a second autopsy. In his final medical finding, it said ‘‘No respectable lady goes out with burdock in her hair.”
They did not intend to beat around the bush when they strongly identified burdock as the smoking gun.
They removed the pickup truck from the lake the morning following the accident. It was towed and secured in the Chenango County Sheriff’s Department garage. An unqualified accident re-constructionist from the Sheriff’s Department conducted the accident and reconstruction work which included a thorough examination and measurements at the scene and of the truck.
The department’s evidence technician/photographer was also present during this process and took photographs. All of this took place in the first few days following the accident. The State indicated Wlasiuk could not have come out through the driver’s window because the opening was too small. But when you look at the photos they took, it raises questions. I think most people could go through this opening, especially if it was an emergency.
The lead detective, James Lloyd, and District Attorney, Joseph McBride, went to the hospital to meet with Dr. Terzian who gave them several controlled head hair samples he had pulled from Patty after her body had been subjected to organ donation, a funeral and a second autopsy.
Lloyd went back to Chenango County with this evidence. Prior to this, investigators had examined the truck several times and had found no evidence. Weeks later, after Terzian gave detective Lloyd a bag of hair, an outside agency they had hired returned to examine the truck and found hairs.
They were asked to conduct a forensic examination of the truck, but let’s not forget that the submersion and removal from the lake and all that had been done over the last three weeks before the forensic exam could have affected the outcome. And by some lucky coincidence, and without using special equipment or lighting, during a visual examination of the truck, they found a strand of hair in the bed of the truck, stuck to a burr in the liner.
The lab results on the 2 or 3 hairs on the bush at the residence, that became 18 by the time they got to the lab, were examined. DNA was found on several hairs that matched Patty. DNA on the hair found in the bed of the truck also matched Patty’s. When discussed in court, DNA tends to be a tedious and complicated subject that goes over the head of many. In this specific case, Patty’s DNA was of admixed origins and the donor was unknown. It was not her husband’s DNA so we have to ask, as suggested by the defense, if it was the DNA of the person who placed the hair on the bush to make it look like there was a struggle. After all, the hairs looked pretty strategically placed without being matted, tangled or entwined.
Police came up with the theory that Peter had killed his wife after a violent struggle in the yard where he dragged her, and which led to some burdock attaching all over her clothes and hair.
According to them, he pulled her to the truck and put her in the bed and staged an accident at the lake. In April, the ground was muddy after the snow had melted, and Patty had no mud on her shoes, clothes or hair. There were no drag marks near the truck or in the yard close to the bushes. There were no defensive wounds at all found on Patty’s body or dirt under her fingernails.
Peter’s version of the accident
Peter’s trial was set for November 2002, and he testified under oath during an insurance deposition while he was incarcerated: On this fatal day, he drove his wife and their three daughters to the babysitter in his pickup truck. Patty borrowed the babysitter’s car to drive to Sidney Hospital where she worked the 3-11 shift as a nurse. Peter went to work at his own bar, the Angel Inn. He closed the bar early and went home and waited for his wife who was supposed to stop to pick up the kids after work.
At about 11:40PM, the babysitter called him to ask if he knew where Patty was. He told her she should be there soon but shortly after, Patty arrived home without the kids and Peter asked her where they were and an argument ensued over who was supposed to pick them up. The argument intensified. The babysitter called again and Peter told her Patty just came home and that she had grabbed his truck keys and they were going to be on their way; it is interesting to know that the testimony of the babysitter was totally supportive of Peter’s innocence at the first trial, but became more and more evasive and compliant during the following trials after having been pressured from the authorities.
Patty took the wheel and Peter put his boots on and ran to jump in the passenger’s seat. They argued some more, and Patty rolled down her window to flick her cigarette and glowing ash blew into the back seat area. She pulled over on the right shoulder and leaned over to put it out and Peter smelled beer on her breath which made the argument escalate even more. He demanded that she pull over immediately and go back home because he did not want her driving drunk with the kids.
She was so upset that she pulled to the left into a driveway to turn around to go back home. Peter heard a grinding sound and yelled out. His wife made a comment with words to the effect, “I should just drive this thing right into the lake“. The next thing he knew, the truck was going into the lake. His first thoughts were, “Now what am I going to do, how am I going to get this out of here.” Right after, water was coming in and they were sinking. He tried getting out and couldn’t. Patty froze behind the wheel.
Her window was down so he climbed over her and through the open window. He grabbed her by the collar and pulled her out with him but as he struggled to get out, the force of the current made him lose his grip. He surfaced and swam to shore which was about 60 feet away.
He got out of the water and started yelling her name repeatedly. He knocked on doors of cottages near the scene and got no answer. Someone finally answered and agreed to call 911. He returned to the scene with the caller and his friend and continued looking for Patty before the first responders arrived. Shivering and cold, he stood on the road and flagged down the first police car. The deputy put him in the car so he could get warm. He later was taken by ambulance to Sidney Hospital. But not before he was stripped naked, towel dried, wrapped in blankets and given clean and dry clothes.
In November 2002, the case went to trial in Chenango County, NY before the Honorable Howard Sullivan. Wlasiuk had changed attorneys and Frederick Neroni was now representing him. Peter was subsequently convicted and sentenced to 25 years to life in state prison.
An appeal was filed on his behalf. A long list of prosecutorial and judicial errors was put together and the case was returned for a re-trial. Neroni had Wlasiuk sign his house over as collateral, and he stood to make more money with the deal if he lost the case. Not reassuring for a client. And let’s just say that he ended up being disbarred so I will leave it at that.
Randel Scharf was assigned as his new Attorney for the next trial. In November 2007, Peter hired private investigator David Beers who met with Scharf to review the case. Beers was previously employed by the NY State Police as an investigator with experience in narcotics, major crimes and the forensics unit. He had over 34 years of investigative experience. After a preliminary review of the case with Scharf, Beers agreed to take the case.
To this day, he is still actively involved. He managed to identify major issues and concerns right away concerning the police investigation and the physical evidence. It became obvious that Peter’s original attorney was never provided all of the discovery information or had failed to ask for it. As additional discovery materials were received and reviewed, more and more problems were discovered about the police investigation and the physical evidence.
If these issues had been addressed and properly dealt with before the first trial, Beers believe that Peter would have been exonerated. For example, another forensic pathologist, Dr. Michael Sikirica, had been brought in and had concluded that this was a drowning, but he was never called as a witness for the defense. Moreover, the unqualified accident reconstruction work was never challenged. And the list goes on. Trying to repair everything that wasn’t done became an uphill battle.
The following video is an interview with Beers.
The second trial started in September 2008 before acting Chenango County Court Judge, Martin Smith. This time, the jury knew Wlasiuk had already been convicted. Even if a change of venue was warranted and requested, it was denied. During the trial, Dr. Sikirica testified for the defense and the details of the case were challenged.
This time, the state hired none other than TV personality, Dr. Michael Baden, to bolster Dr’ Terzian’s findings concerning both the autopsy and cause of death.
Dr. Sikirica had never testified on behalf of a defendant before and to this day, he remains willing to testify. He has done thousands of autopsies and many were of drowning victims. Terzian had performed two.
The defense called a qualified accident re-constructionist. Beers even testified about definitely finding burdock growing all around the lake and in the area where the accident occurred. He had photographs to prove it and testimony from divers ‘’
Robert Small stated since September 1995 I have made numerous dives in Guilford Lake all of which are logged. In the course of my diving in Guilford Lake I have observed the commonly recognized spiny spheres referred to as burdock laying partially exposed on the bottom silt in shallow water. On one occasion as my diving buddy, Tony Mangini, and I exited the water he brought to my attention that he had several burdock spheres stuck to the Velcro portion of the pocket flap of his buoyancy control vest.’’
The jurors were split during deliberations but convicted Wlasiuk again because of evidence offered by Scharf. Without limiting instructions from the court, the jury misinterpreted the evidence and it became the turning point of their decision. The result: another conviction for 25 to life.
Part of Patty’s diary was presented at trial and some notes written on it had convinced some jurors of Peter’s guilt, but it turned out that the notes had been written by detective Lloyd. When 4 of the jurors found out, they signed affidavits to the effect that they would have voted not guilty had they known it was not Patty’s handwriting.
Peter Wlasiuk did not blame Scharf and is convinced that the jury being misled was totally unintentional. In fact, he was very impressed with his work.
Another appeal filed. The burning bush still in flame
Even before the second trial, Beers was convinced that one or more of the police investigators could have engaged in official misconduct or even tampering. While awaiting the appeal decision, he continued to examine the facts of the case.
In July 2011, he wrote a letter to the NY State Attorney General’s Office in Binghamton, New York expressing his concerns. In September 2011, he met and interviewed two investigators from the AG’s office. He provided information, documentation and photographs in support of his findings. After the meeting, he compiled additional information and sent it all back to them, but to this day, he never received a reply.
In December 2011, the appeals court granted the appeal finding Attorney Scharf ineffective for offering the evidence that convinced the jury to convict again, and Wlasiuk was granted a third trial. In January 2012, NY Attorney Mark Loughran was assigned to represent Wlasiuk for his next go-round. A change of venue was requested but denied once again. The problem with this assignment is that Loughran only spent 58 days preparing for trial and never polled the residents of Chenango County in support of a change of venue. He was clearly occupied elsewhere.
The third trial
The third trial started in June 2012 in Chenango County Court. Once again, the jurors were fully aware throughout the course of the trial that Wlasiuk was twice convicted of murdering his wife Patty. He was convicted again.
Beers has been doing defense work for over 15 years, and it was one of the few times he believed his client totally innocent. He strongly believes that Wlasiuk has been wrongly convicted. It seems like finding a fair and impartial jury in such a small community where the image of Wlasiuk has been badly damaged, is not an easy task and could have accounted for the verdict.
Facts as presented by defense and prosecution
- The prosecution claims that if Wlasiuk lied about his wife swerving on the road because there was a deer, he must have lied about the rest.
- The defense asserts that Wlasiuk was trying to protect his wife because she could have lost her nursing license if she had a sixth DUI.
- Dr. Terzian original conclusion was drowning but he changed it to suffocation after hearing about the burdock. He believed that Patty’s lungs did not contain enough water for a drowning.
- Dr. Sikirica who testified for free and who is more experienced than Terzian was of the professional opinion that Patty’s death was a drowning and the injuries sustained were consistent with a combination of the accident, drowning and rescue efforts. After examining Patty’s lungs, the conclusion was that their weight signified that the water content was enough to have been a drowning. The EMT’s report indicated that Patty had been intubated and a lot of water had been suctioned out and the reanimation efforts lasted 45 minutes.
- The Prosecution said there were no burdock by the lake so Patty had to have been killed and dragged at home near the bushes.
- The Defense argued and demonstrated that there was burdock around the scene of the accident and no drag marks in the Wlasiuk’s yard. Also no defensive wounds on the victim or dirt or DNA under her fingernails. Her white shoes and clothes were pristine. Even if she was underwater, some grass or mud stains are pretty resistant even when submerged.
- A non-qualified expert for the prosecution declared that the truck had to be have been driven slowly into the lake and that the driver did not lose control.
- A qualified expert for the defense recreated the drive and demonstrated that the truck lost control at high-speed. The type of tires and the tire marks were photographed and used. The retired NY State police accident reconstructionist demonstrated that the ‘expert’ for the prosecution’s side had made errors during his calculations and when their measurements were put in a computer, the State’s theory could not be duplicated. An embarrassing moment.
- The prosecution insisted that Patty would not have gone off the road.
- The defense had toxicology reports indicating that she was inebriated and had a history of DUI’s.
- The prosecution said that Peter’s hair was dry and the rest of his body soaked.
- The defense had interview notes of initial testimonies where it was constantly said that Peter was soaked from head to toe.
- The prosecution said that if a few hairs belonging to Patty were found on burdock in the backyard, it meant the crime happened there.
- The defense argues that it is totally normal to have found hair blown away in the yard because Patty lived there. Moreover, by creating the appearance of a struggle with a broken branch, and by having hairs with DNA of admixed origins not belonging to Peter, it was made obvious that no struggle happened there.
- The prosecution said that Patty had to have been placed in the bed of the truck.
- The defense argued it made no sense for Wlasiuk to have put her in such a visible place when she could have been placed in the cab with a seat belt. Plus Patty was found in the lake and not in the bed of the truck. It is very unlikely that Patty’s body could have been in the 8 foot bed of the truck and subsequently found facing down near the driver’s side. The tool box that was in the back was found several yards away from the truck and 20 feet from shore and not 63 feet away like Patty’s body was.
This is a very troubling case that badly needs a change of venue to be able to retain a jury not aware of the case and the previous convictions. Because Peter Wlasiuk first trial happened without the help of the right experts and testimony, it seems that history repeated itself.
The evidence without the burdock, and without going on gut feelings or on the alleged difficult relationship the Wlasiuk had, is pretty convincing and in my opinion, raised a reasonable doubt.
I could not help noticing some similarities with the movie My Cousin Vinny when the defense expert proved how the tire tracks meant the car was out of control.
I am also sorry to say that there was also a little comedic vibe when Dr. Terzian explained how Patty was suffocated but there were no signs of a physical struggle. (see attached video)
The arrival of Dr. Baden was surely meant to afford more credibility to the court. Let’s be serious here, to base a prosecution on the presence of burdock does not give much confidence in the State’s investigation. In this case, they did not seem to be able to see the forest for the trees or the truth for the burdock.
You can watch the video outlining both sides of the case and the accident reconstruction by clicking here.