Eric Koula

If you are a regular reader of my blog you know that I do not always agree with a verdict that a jury renders and I am very open about my feelings in cases in which I just cannot be certain.  Then there are the cases that I can say I am not sure the evidence is there but my "Spidey Sense" as I call it, tells me something. This case falls into the latter category.  

In June of 2012, 42 year old Wisconsin resident, Eric Koula was found guilty in the murders of his parents, Dennis and Merna, in May of 2010 as well as a charge of forgery resulting from Eric signing his father's name to a $50,000 that was cashed the day after it is believed that his parents were murdered.  Few, including Eric it seems, will argue that much of what convicted him was his own behavior throughout the case. Supporters claim the things he did were either innocent things or resulted from the panic of knowing his parents had been murdered.  Others, apparently including the jury, feel differently.

On Monday May 24, 2010 Eric Koula received a phone call from the school in which his mother, Merna worked telling him that she had not shown up to work and calls to the home were going unanswered.  This was odd behavior and so he headed to the home of his parents.  Once inside he found the bodies of both his parents.  They were both dead from gunshot wounds to the head. Eric of course called 911.  

Investigators would find Dennis Koula on the kitchen floor face down in a pool of blood.  His wife would still be sitting at her desk in front of her computer.  In fact, her hand was still touching the keyboard.  There did not to be any kind of forced entry, nor did anything appeared ransacked or stolen.  An examination of the bodies and the crime scene would reveal that it seemed likely that the murders had occurred on Friday evening.  In fact, although the medical examiner could not give any real time or even day investigators believed they knew exactly when the murders occurred.  They believed Merna Koula was murdered at precisely 5:41 pm on Friday evening and that it was likely that her husband came home from work just a few minutes later and was gunned down as he came inside.  How did they determine this?  Merna's computer.  The computer showed that Merna had been active on the computer from 5:14 to 5:41 that evening.  It seems at the time of her murder she had gone to Google and was in the middle of typing in the search.  All they found was "planning qw;" her left had was near the Q and W on the keyboard.  After speaking to the neighbors in the area and hearing that they had not seen any lights on in the Koula home all weekend, which was unusual, they were even more certain that the murders had occurred on Friday evening.  Even though they believed this they decided to keep that information secret, at least for a while.

As with any investigation this one began by looking at those closest to the victims.  This included Dennis and Merna's son, Eric, and their daughter Cindy. On the surface investigators first did not believe either were likely involved. Cindy had proof that she was at work at the time of the murders and Eric, had stated that he was out buying his wife a plant for their anniversary and even provided a receipt for the plant time stamped at 6:15 on the night of the murders.

A few days into the investigation one of the Koula's neighbors called investigator. His name was Steve Burgess and he was a local bank president. He informed investigators that he had been recently receiving death threats and feared that it was possible that the Koula murders were intended for him. Investigators would later say that they looked into this theory seriously and even found the person who had threatened Burgess but that his alibi was solid and he was not involved.  This information would play a large role in Eric Koula's trial in 2012, at least as far as his defense was concerned.

With the Burgess lead not panning out it kind of put the investigation back at square one and sent them looking back at those closest again.  Four days after the body had been discovered they went to Eric's home and started not just questioning him but also his teenage son.  Investigators believed that a .22 caliber rifle had been used in the murders but they had yet to recover the weapon.  In fact, they would never find the weapon.  While at Eric's home they were again asking about everyone's whereabouts over the weekend and asking about guns.  The following day Eric would call investigators back to his home saying that he had found a note in his mailbox that simply said "Fixed You." Presumably (although I cannot prove, and ultimately it did not matter) they took the note and tested it but found nothing.  Eric would later admit (just before his trial in fact) that he had written and placed the note himself in the mailbox hoping that it would stop the investigators from looking at his son.  He continues to claim that it was not because he thought his son guilty but felt that looking at his son was wasting time looking for the "real killer" and he all but simply did not want or need the harassment that went with that type of investigation.  

As the investigation went on a neighbor of Dennis and Merna's said they saw a truck that looked like Eric's at their home around the time the investigators believed the murders occurred.  Eric had claimed to have seen his father (and maybe his mother) on Thursday but not on Friday.  They also discovered that on Saturday, the day after the murders had occurred that Eric had deposited a $50,000 check from his father.  A closer look at his finances told them another story and that ultimately led to the prosecution theory as to why the murders occurred.  According to friends, family and co-workers of Dennis, the couple had given their children a lot of money over the years.  By a lot of money I mean nearing the million dollar mark.  They also claim that Dennis had stated to a few of them, near the time of his death, that it was time to cut the children off.  I will go into more details about these statements in a bit as again they played a significant role in Eric's later trial, as well as throughout his appeals process. Eric was confronted about the $50,000 check and why he had not mentioned it and initially just simply said he had forgotten but that his father had given it to him.  Investigators decided to look deep into Eric's finances.

Eric and Dennis had owned a car lot together at some point.  The business had been sold in 2006 and Eric claimed that his father gave him $500,000 but according to him he was entitled to $1,000,000.  Soon after the business was sold Eric began a career as a day trader (stock market).  In 2007 he made a $300,000 profit but in 2008 he had lost over $600,000 and it seems things had not gotten better.  At the time of the murders, and before he had deposited the $50,000 check his account balance was less than $700.  He was behind on his mortgage and between the IRS and credit cards he owed more than $150,000. Investigators believed that Eric relied on getting money from his parents to support his lifestyle and basically continue doing what he was doing. Investigators also discovered that on the day before the murders he was seeking a cash advance on a credit card, but had learned he could not get the amount he wanted, or at least thought he needed.  

On July 29, 2010 investigators would bring Eric in one more time for questioning, only this time he would never leave.  By now they were convinced that Eric had committed the murders and charged him as such.  They had also believed that he had forged his father's name on the $50,000 check and charged him with that also.  It would take nearly two years for the case to go to trial.

In the meantime a judge ruled that under the law Eric was not entitled to benefit from his parents' significant estate.  It was the prosecution theory that the estate was the motive to begin with and why Eric had committed the murders.  He needed and wanted his inheritance and he was not willing to wait until his parents died of natural causes.  Eventually the estate was split between Eric's sister, Cindy and Eric's two children.  Each would receive about $740,000. I will note here that apparently Eric's wife and children continue to believe in his innocence and unless there was a specification in the distribution of the monies from the estate it is likely that his parents' money is funding his efforts.  

Eric went on trial in June of 2012 charged with two counts of first degree murder and one count of forgery.  Prosecutors would continue to claim that the motive was his inheritance and that he knew that his father was talking of cutting him off financially.  One month before the trial Eric would admit to writing the note left in his mailbox just after the murders and he would admit to signing his father's name to the $50,000 but when it came to the latter he claimed his father had given him a blank check and that he had signed his father's name many times over the years so it was not unusual.  Prosecutors still faced an uphill battle though in proving Eric was guilty.  First, they had still been unable to find the murder weapon or apparently even trace such a gun to Eric in any way.  Secondly there was apparently unknown DNA found in the Koula home.  

For the defense's part, in my opinion, they may have done as much damage to to Eric's case as Eric himself had.  Of course over the years, which is typical in appeals it has been claimed he had ineffective counsel, as well as have blamed rulings from the judge as being unfair.  However, based on the defense theory this case widely became known as the "Google Maps Murder."  The defense theory was that this murder had been a professional hit but that the "professional hitman (or men)" had gone to the wrong house.  The judge had prevented them from specifically naming any other suspects (although I am unsure they had any real names) or even showing their theory about how this occurred and because of this is seems that many feel it was unfair.  On the surface it could be seen as that way but a 2015 decision from the appeals court would straighten that up.... but here I go as I tend to do, getting ahead of myself.

Apparently all along the defense liked the idea that neighbor, Steve Burgess had received death threats and as we see in many cases they claimed the original investigators and the prosecution did not look into that case more seriously. They would cross examine the medical examiner and ask if a .22 caliber handgun could have been used instead of the rifle in which they had testified to but the medical examiner disagreed saying she had not seen the types of wounds she found on the victims from a handgun.  Then, it seemed as if suddenly they may have had some credence to their "wrong house" story.  After the trial had already began, apparently someone on the defense team had put in Steve Burgess' address in Google Earth Maps.  What they discovered was that it pointed to the Koula home.  Defense lawyers would argue to enter this evidence but the judge had denied it.  Again, on the surface this seems like a wrong ruling but the appeals court would later point out that the defense had no evidence that the same result was available in 2010, at the time of the murders. The court would also point out that the defense showed no other evidence that any other site had made this mistake, nor could they prove or have any proof of a hitman theory to begin with to even make the jump to a hitman using Google Maps.  The courts, and others have also brought up the issue that while the defense spoke so much of this being a "professional hit" they then claim these same hit men or man did not verify the address even though it was clearly visible at the end of the driveway of the home.  If in fact this had been a "professional" hit as they claim one would theorize that they would have "staked" out the home, knowing they got the correct target, let alone home.  So in the end, at least in my opinion, it was the correct decision by the courts to not allow the Google Maps information and in essence was the fault of the defense for coming up with the theory (remember they had this theory prior to the Google Maps information) without anything to substantiate it.  

In the end the jury found Eric Koula guilty on all charges and in August of 2012 he was sentenced to 2 counts of life without parole.  In Wisconsin that means he will never get out of prison baring an appeal or a new trial of some sort.  And, of course as I pointed out above, that has been attempted.  

Not only has Eric's defense argued the Google Maps information they have also argued the point of the trial judge allowing testimony from Dennis' brother and a co-worker who testified that within days of the murder Dennis had expressed that he was going to cut his children off.  The defense would argue at trial that because it was not specified that Dennis could have mean his daughter and her husband just as easily as he could have meant simply his children.  Witnesses testified that while Dennis had not elaborated they both took it to mean Eric and his sister, Cindy.  Now, this decision by the courts to allow this testimony was a bit tricky. As a former law student, I can tell you that the most confusing rule in allowing testimony involves "hearsay."  In a court of law ANY statement made outside a courtroom under oath is considered hearsay.  Now, you will so often hear things about how hearsay is not allowed in court which most people believe that means an opinion or a case of someone saying someone else said something.  And, that would be true.... sometimes.  However, there are a multitude of exceptions to that rule.  One of them is called "uttered excitement." In that case a statement made by someone outside of court when there is high emotion is allowed because it is believed that those can be the most honest statements a person can make.  But, there are many other exceptions to that rule and the one that was used here to allow these statements is based on showing the state of mind of Dennis Koula around the time of his murder.  The tricky part about allowing this statement in, the prosecution also had to show that either Eric knew of his father's feelings or should have reasonably known. Although I found no real specific information that the prosecution was able to establish this the appeals court apparently felt that they had and upheld the conviction and this ruling in the appeal.  

As far as the check that he cashed the day after the murders Eric would claim (although long after it was discovered and after he had already lied to authorities) that his father had not only handed him a blank check the day before the murders but that he had written his father's name several times on checks in the past.  This was true apparently when Eric and Dennis had the car business together but the prosecution claimed and apparently proved that this had not happened in several years.

Today, six years after the murders Eric still claims his innocence in this case. When it comes to hard evidence I have to admit there is very little.  As I said earlier, much of what convicted Eric was Eric himself.  He had failed to mention the check he deposited the day after the murders and even lied about it when confronted.  He even placed that note in his own mailbox to deter investigators. Prosecutors claim that although he had a receipt for a potted plant purchased at 6:15 on the evening of the murders that neither he, nor his vehicle was found on cameras within the gardening center or the parking lot of the store. Supporters argue that other cameras within the store were not working that day but apparently using the information of where he was in the store the prosecutors were unable to establish that he was present, let alone the time on the receipt still allowed the murders to occur. While one neighbor had claimed that while mowing his grass on the night of the murders he saw a truck that looked like Eric's go to this parents' home another neighbor claims to have seen the couple in the back yard talking to two men after the time in which prosecutors say they died.  So how do you resolve that?  I have to go with the prosecutors on their theory of time of death considering Merna was still sitting at her computer and her Google search seemed to be incomplete.  Prosecutors argued that when Eric called 911 he first established his reasoning for being at the home and never truly asked for help for his parents.  I have not been able to hear the 911 call (or if I have on one of the television shows I have seen on this case I do not recall) so I cannot have an opinion on what I think about that. I am troubled that a murder weapon not only was not found nor could prosecutors apparently show that Eric ever owned or had possession of such a weapon.  As far as the unidentified DNA found in the home I am unsure where that was found and if it had any significance. Although it was not mentioned in my research I am sure Eric's DNA was likely found in the house and that alone does not trouble me as it was testified that he was at the home often so that would not sway me one way or another.  The only real DNA I think that could matter would be that found on the murder weapon and since that was not found I am unsure DNA plays much of a role here anyway.  Both sides argued that no valuables were taken so robbery was not a motive.  The defense of course used the Hitman theory saying that was why nothing was taken despite money and valuables laying around.  The prosecution argued that nothing was taken because it did not matter considering Eric would likely receive whatever he wanted in the home through the estate, or at least he thought he would when he got away with the crime.  

From a legal standpoint there was little evidence but in the same respect there was more evidence pointing to Eric than away from him and the defense theory seemed wholly impossible.  Could I have convicted Eric Koula?  I am thinking the answer would be yes.


Comments

  1. I just saw the 48 Hours on this case.

    I think the Google Maps evidence should have been admissible.

    The show featured a transcript of the 911 call, and it's a little odd, but I don't put much credence in how people sound in emergency situations. None of us know how we'll react to the stress of finding loved ones murdered.

    Based on the evidence in the show and what you presented, I think l could have convicted as well.

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