Paul Novak

In April of 2012 police in Narrowsburg New York received a call from a woman named Michelle LaFrance.  She wanted to discuss a murder.  Since that time many have criticized Michelle not only for the claim, but her story, and her motive.  On the surface Michelle may look like a scorned woman out to get revenge on her ex-boyfriend but as a juror would reveal years later put in the totality of the information, Michelle's story made sense.

On the night of December 13, 2008 the home of Catherine Novak had caught fire.  When it was all over Catherine's body would be found inside.  Her official cause of death was listed as being caused by debris that had fallen and crushed her chest.  Catherine was the mother of two but her children were with their father and his new girlfriend in Long Island. It was unclear as to whether Catherine and Paul Novak were only in the process of a divorce or if their divorce had become final earlier that year.

For his part Paul was a paramedic in Queens New York.  He and Catherine had married in 1997.  They had bought the house in Narrowsburg, but unlike many of the other residents in the small town area, their home was not as prestigious.  Friends would say that Catherine had always been a frugal person and had never had money issues but the couple surely did.  Since Paul worked significantly further away from home he spent several nights a week away and living in the city.  For her part Catherine stay home taking care of the kids and volunteering at things at the school, church and even girl scouts.  Money was tight.  Their home was described more as a "fixer upper" and the money did not come in at a good enough flow to get a lot done in much time.  Too add to this, the time apart apparently began taking a toll on the couple and in March or April of 2008 Catherine had filed for divorce after learning that Paul was having an affair with Michelle.

While Catherine's cause of death did appear to be from the fire, it also appeared as if the fire was set.  On top of this friends and family thought the fact that the family dog, who had died from smoke inhalation, locked in his kennel was odd.  They stated that Catherine did not keep the dog in the kennel when she was home.  Paul of course was questioned and even given a lie detector test in which he passed. It was noted in his first interview that Paul's demeanor seemed a little off and that he had commented that their marriage failed due to the fact that he felt he was not a priority to Catherine and came after the children and all of her volunteer work. In fairness it does not seem he mentioned Michelle or the affair, but then again stating what he had could have led people to believe there had been an affair on his part.  My point is that while he may not have been completely forthcoming, he also did not necessarily appear to lie. It seems that co-workers of Paul were interviewed at that time also but nothing seemed suspicious. A few months later Paul received about $800,000 in insurance from her death (and likely from the now destroyed home), quit his job and moved to Florida with Michelle and his two children.

For the next few years nothing seemed to be happening in the case, if there even was one.  To be truthful I am unsure just how much the arson was looked into or if the true value of that investigation was even learned yet.  Then sometime in 2011 Paul and Michelle split up. 

When interviewed by the Narrowsburg police it does seem that Michelle was rather up front about her reputation.  At one point in the interview she admitted that while living in a small town in New York she slept with "half the town."  This is something the defense would harp on throughout the trial the next year.  But, Michelle had a story to tell, and it was not a pretty one.  Now, I will be the first to admit that she was able to obtain immunity from prosecutors, apparently on the condition that she testify and again the defense jumped on this.  I will also admit that this does not always fair good for people who testify and if she was the only witness against Paul Novak, or her information could not be clarified I would not have convicted him on her testimony.  In essence one of the jury members even stated this.  Alone Michelle's story sounded as if it could have just simply been a ploy for revenge.

Honestly, I think for myself I not only believe Michelle's story because the evidence seems to prove it to be true, but as much as I may not like her behavior or even much of her personality Michelle, at least pertaining to this case, from all accounts seemed to be forthcoming and took blame where blame should be laid.  I have seen the interviews that she has given to the police and she admits her wrongs and does not back down from them or make excuses, at least not for the most part.

According to Michelle she and Paul had met on the job and had begun an affair.  She stated she knew the exact date they slept together because when dealing with the divorce she wanted his paperwork to reflect that date as the day of separation from Catherine, even though it was not.  She had called his home in March and apparently Catherine answered.  It seems as if the call was made just so Catherine would know and soon after Catherine filed for divorce and told friends he was having an affair.  

Throughout the next several months Michelle claimed that Paul's anger and hatred towards Catherine had intensified.  According to her he would tell her stories about Catherine that at the time she believed.  She would come to believe that Catherine was a horrible mother and neglected her children so when Paul, according to her, proclaimed Catherine should die to protect his children she did nothing to stop him.  She would testify that a week before the fire she and Paul had gone out to Catherine's home on the pretense of picking up a motorcycle.  After they left the home Michelle claims that Paul told her that he had sneaked into the basement and unlocked a door that was there. According to Michelle he had plans to return the following week.  

Michelle stated that on the night of December 13, 2008 Paul's children, Natalee and Nicholas were staying with the couple and when they went to bed she gave them each a dose of Benadryl in order to make sure they slept throughout the night without waking. She stated that co-worker Scott Sherwood came to the couple's apartment while Paul was making a batch of "homemade chloroform" and that the two men later left the apartment together to head to Catherine's home.

According to her story Michelle did not ask or did not know until a few days later exactly what had transpired at Catherine's home.  But, she claims that Paul told her that he had lured Catherine into the basement by setting off the fire alarm.  Once downstairs Paul had attempted to use the chloroform but it had failed.  He told Michelle that he resorted to strangling Catherine while she yelled "Think of the kids."  He stated he responded back with "I am doing this for the kids."  

Michelle said that at this point the relationship really started to sour and she seemed to take most of the responsibility for that.  She stated she began drinking as well as sleeping around.  She even admitted to an incident in Florida that had led to their final break up in which she became overly intoxicated, stripped off her clothes and went to the neighbors house.  She was ultimately arrested after several officers had to subdue her and woke up in the hospital without remembering the night before.  While this incident itself had nothing to do with the murder of Catherine Novak, I add it here to show that between the officers and the prosecutors she told stories or at the very least admitted to things that were less than flattering to her or her reputation.

So now of course the investigators need to check out this story.  They found their way to Scott Sherwood.  For his part he would eventually plead guilty to conspiracy to commit murder and also testify against Paul Novak at trial.  As they did with Michelle the defense tried to discredit Sherwood.  They brought up that he took several different psychiatric medications throughout the years, that although he was also a paramedic there were those who testified he was not emotional stable at times at scenes.  They also theorized or expressed a belief I should say that the murder was committed not by Paul Novak with the help of Sherwood but by Michelle with Sherwood's help.  They of course pounced again about Michelle's immunity and Sherwood making a deal with prosecutors for reduced time. Which once again does not always play well with juries and as I said about Michelle, her testimony alone would have not allowed me to convict Paul Novak. But, his story was compelling also.  For his part Sherwood would collaborate much of Michelle's story and also fill in the blanks.  Sherwood admitted that when he got to Paul and Michelle's Paul was making what he said was chloroform and that when it was done they had left. Sherwood claims he took Paul Novak to a particular Walmart store and that Novak had bought a "beanie" cap, duct tape and suede gloves.  He testified that Novak directed him to park behind a barn about a mile away from Catherine's home and Novak got out of the vehicle.  He claimed that about an hour later Novak returned saying "It's done."

Sherwood would claim that he agreed to help Novak not just because he had believed his claims of the type of mother that Catherine was but also because he was in a similar situation, or had been.  Sherwood stated that he had gone through a particular nasty divorce prior to this and was "strapped" with alimony and child support payments but was prevented from seeing his child.  He stated that Novak often complained of Catherine and stated he did not want to end up in the situation Sherwood was in, especially financially.
Sherwood would be sentenced to 3-12 years for his role and was paroled in September of 2015.

So at this point the investigators have made two deals with two people who both claim Paul Novak initiated and carried out the plan to kill his estranged wife.  But, as I said earlier the defense was arguing against these two and their characters so obviously the prosecutor needed more.  And, they had it.  First they had a succession of co-workers of Paul's who would claim a range of things such as hearing the couple fight on the phone, and hearing Paul make comments such as wanting her dead, and how to create the perfect murder.  One co-worker would claim he heard Paul tell Catherine he could kill her while two others said Novak had told him prior to the murder that fire was the best way to get rid of a body.

But, what else did prosecutors have?  Well, they had a picture from a toll booth coming across a bridge of Sherwood's license plate around the time that they would have been returning from the murder.  They also had proof that someone, although they could not prove positively who, had bought the items Sherwood mentioned, at the Walmart he stated he took Novak to, around the time he says he took him.  They also had Sherwood's wife testify that her husband had confessed to her his role prior to his arrest giving his confession a bit more credence. 

For the defense, aside from trying to discredit both Michelle and Scott Sherwood they put on a few witnesses of their own.  One was the landlord of the apartment in which Michelle and Paul lived.  He stated that on the night of December 13th, at the time Sherwood was saying he had gone to the apartment he was watching the show "Gold Rush" and would have noticed if Sherwood had arrived but he had not seen him.  He also claimed that he would have seen Paul return, which he did not, indicating that Paul had never left that night as both Michelle and Sherwood had claimed.  The problem with the landlord's testimony was that the show "Gold Rush" did not air until 2010 and as a juror would later say if he was confused about that, how did they not know he was confused (or lying) about anything else.

The defense also put Natalee Novak, now fourteen on the stand.  She would testify that she did not hear anyone at her father's apartment on the night her mother had died.  Of course there was the testimony that Michelle gave that she had given the children Benadryl.

In my opinion neither of these defense witnesses helped the defense, and in some cases harmed them.  It seems that the juror that spoke to the media later resisted from calling their testimony lies (likely because poor Natalee had lost her mother and could be losing her dad) but that surely could have been the case for both of them.  

On September 17, 2013 the jury found Paul Novak guilty on all the counts he faced which were 1st AND 2nd degree murder, arson, burglary, grand larceny and insurance fraud.  In January of 2014 he was sentenced to life without parole, plus twenty to sixty years.

I have mentioned the juror that spoke to the media a few times throughout because I felt obviously his insight was compelling but also accurate. Paul Novak was the one person who benefited from the death of Catherine.  He and Michelle were not married at the time, nor would they ever be.  Of course the fact she lived with him means she reaped some of the benefits which included a new house in a sunny state, but upon their split she received nothing.  Even if we were to believe she was involved she would not have been so without Paul knowing exactly what was going on, which is something he denied.  The defense would argue that since Michelle admittedly slept around she had an affair with Sherwood and convinced him to help her and that the two of them were now putting the blame on Novak while they walked away with nothing or minor sentences.  I fully believe had Michelle slept with Sherwood she would have said so.  I also do not believe that Sherwood would have given as many details as he had, that could be verified, unless they were the truth.  

There was one other thing that the juror mentioned about the deliberations, that took two days after a seven week  trial, letters had been introduced of correspondences between Paul Novak and Scott Sherwood while they were incarcerated. 
Never once when Sherwood mentioned the trouble they were in or the time they could be facing did Novak deny involvement or proclaim his innocence.  He never tried to ease Sherwood's worries by saying anything like "We do not need to worry about what they find, we did not do anything."  The absence of comments like that one did not help in the belief he was innocent.  

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