A Killer Sleep Disorder

Scott Falater, a mild-mannered Mormon family man, inexplicably stabbed his wife 44 times, then drowned her in the family pool while a neighbor watched. His defense? He was sleepwalking.

The Falater children also are expected to testify that their father would don the jeans--the ones soaked in blood during the stabbing--when he was working around the home, and usually left them and other items in the large plastic container in the Volvo trunk, where police found them. They are also expected to say that he kept the knife with which he stabbed Yarmila in the car trunk as well.

Yarmila was buried at Scottsdale's Paradise Memorial Gardens. Scott Falater was behind bars and couldn't attend, though members of both families attended the services and tried to come to grips with a shocking tragedy.

By then, Falater had hired Mike Kimerer--one of Arizona's most respected attorneys--to defend him. Within a few days, Kimerer had interviewed the neighbor, Greg Koons, in the presence of Falater's mother, Lois Wilcek--who had flown in to be with her son and grandchildren.

Kimerer says--and Wilcek confirms this--that Koons told him a slightly different story from the one he'd told police on the night of January 16.

"I remember him talking about Scott's movements being calm and deliberate and that he had a flat expression," Wilcek says. "'Like a robot,' that's exactly what he said. He also said he thought Scott may have seen him, but that Scott never said a word." (New Times was unable to contact Koons.)

After hearing this, Wilcek told Kimerer that Falater had been a sleepwalker as a young boy and into adolescence.

Within a few days, Scott Falater's sleepwalking defense was born.

In all of us, even in good men, there is a lawless wild-beast nature which peers out in sleep.

--Plato, The Republic

Defense attorneys long have raised the specter of sleepwalking in criminal cases, with mixed success.

It worked in an 1878 British case, for example, after a father killed his 18-month-old by throwing him against the wall one evening.

Cases in which alleged sleepwalkers have been acquitted have been well-chronicled. There have been mind-boggling accounts of sleepwalking wives stabbing husbands, of a young girl killing her father and brother, of a boy gravely injuring a young cousin, and so on--all escaped imprisonment.

Some common threads run through those cases: The offender claims no memory of the act, there is no known motive and the sleepwalker has a history of other episodes.

"It's hard to prove someone really was sleepwalking if they've never done it before," says Canada's Meir Kryger. "It's so easy for someone to say, 'I don't remember anything. But it's never happened before and I promise it'll never happen again, blah, blah, blah. Please let me go.' It's hard to imagine that someone, in their first known sleepwalking incident, committed a violent act--which is rare even in established sleepwalkers."

Juries don't readily buy sleepwalking defenses. In 1996, for example, a Pennsylvania man was sentenced to life in prison for shooting his wife in the back. The man showed a history of sleep apnea, but his story collapsed after prosecutors showed that he knew his wife was about to leave him.

Probably the most well-documented sleepwalking murder trial concerned the case of Toronto resident Kenneth Parks. In 1986, Parks drove 14 miles to his in-laws' home and let himself into their house with a key they'd given him. He stabbed and bludgeoned his mother-in-law to death--severing tendons in one of his hands in the process--and choked his father-in-law into unconsciousness. He then drove to a police station and announced, "I think I have just killed two people."

Parks did have a possible motive for murder. A compulsive gambler, he recently had raided his family's savings account and had been caught embezzling from an employer.

Evidence at trial suggested Parks fit the profile of a bona fide sleepwalker: He could show a history of sleepwalking. He was under great stress. He said he remembered little about the fatal night, and his story stayed consistent under a barrage of questioning from police, mental-health experts and attorneys.

Charged with first-degree murder and attempted murder, the 23-year-old Parks relied on his sleep-disorder experts--including Scott Falater's expert, Dr. Roger Broughton--to convince the jury that his defense was genuine.

It was a tall order.
Most people seriously doubt that someone can remain unconscious while physically hurting another person.

"I am absolutely convinced in my own mind that the sleepwalking event occurred with homicide," Broughton told the Parks jury, "and that there is no other medically acceptable interpretation."

The prosecutor asked him during cross-examination, "Can a person perform virtually any sort of act in his sleep?"

"I'm not sure," Broughton replied. ". . . People, in terms of their motor coordination, can at times have quite coordinated activity. People have been found sleepwalking who have gotten up on rooftops and kept their balance and walked along and been totally asleep. It is unusual for sleepwalkers [who] get up and wander around the room to trip over furniture or to hurt themselves."

The jury acquitted Parks. Now on medication, he has not had a reported recurrence of violence, according to a 1997 story in a Toronto newspaper. But Parks' wife--who supported him even after he killed her mother and hurt her father--divorced him a few years ago because of his gambling obsession.

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