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.

Falater told Tatman (and, later, New Times) that he and Yarmila had awakened at the same time the night before the homicide, thinking they'd heard a prowler outside. (He didn't find anyone.) If he testifies, Falater certainly will be asked why he'd been roused so easily then, but failed to awaken as his dying wife screamed.

Tatman's interview may be most helpful to Scott Falater's chances at trial because of his recollections of sleep problems and work pressures shortly before he killed his wife.

In the months before Yarmila's death, Falater was the manager for a new Motorola product line--a sophisticated chip for hard disk drives--that was foundering. He says he was torn between telling his bosses to discontinue the line--which would have meant job upheavals and possible layoffs for members of Falater's team--or just playing along until the roof inevitably caved in.

"I smelled failure for months--I've been around failure before, and I could smell it. We were facing some pretty high hurdles. . . ."

(A source at Motorola confirms Falater's account of the problems, noting that the company did, in fact, discontinue the line after his arrest.)

Falater says he became obsessed with the crisis, which had demoralized him and his staff.

"I had basically come to the conclusion that they should discontinue our product line," he says. "But my main concern was I'd be betraying all the people that had put so much into the product line. I would have essentially ended their jobs if the bosses followed through on my suggestion. I even talked to Yarm and the kids about it that night over dinner. . . .

"Yarm told me, 'Just lie. Smile and play the game.' I told her, 'I've done that too much.'"

The work pressures were wreaking havoc with his sleep patterns, Falater says. In the weeks before Yarmila's death, he says he'd sleep for three hours or less for three or four nights in a row, then would try to "crash" and sleep up to nine hours.

For Falater's sleepwalking defense to pass muster, he had to have fallen asleep quickly on the fatal night--which he says he did: "That was one of my crash nights. I just hit the bed and must have gone right out cold."

Falater says he'd generally awaken at 5 a.m. on weekdays to prepare for his 6:15 a.m. religion class.

He sometimes had trouble focusing at work, Falater continues, and sometimes nodded off during meetings. He took No-Doz (pure caffeine, verboten among Mormons) on occasion when he had to make a presentation.

In the hours before he killed his wife, Falater says, he had attended a meeting at which he had a verbal clash with a boss. Another important meeting with his unit was slated for the following day, Friday.

Falater tells New Times of bumping into a fellow engineer after work, and the two spoke of having to look for other work at Motorola before the ax fell.

A jury will be asked to decide whether his stresses and sleep problems pushed Falater into a sleepwalking state, or whether they simply fueled a murderous rage.

Many people who were in Arizona in the early 1980s recall Arizona's most famous--or infamous--"sleepwalking" case. In that one, Scottsdale resident Steven Steinberg stabbed his wife, Elana, 26 times, then told police that intruders had killed her during a burglary gone awry.

But the evidence implicated Steinberg, and police arrested him on a murder charge. At trial, his attorney called witnesses to testify that Steinberg may have been sleepwalking or in a short-lived "dissociative" mental state when he stabbed his wife.

Defense attorney Bob Hirsh alleged that Steinberg's "Jewish American Princess" wife had driven him mad with nagging and spending too much money. A jury found Steinberg not guilty on the grounds that he was temporarily insane when he'd killed her.

Because he was deemed "sane" at the time of his acquittal, Steinberg walked out of court a free man.

Things are different now under Arizona law. Since 1994, judges have had to impose "guilty but insane" sentences in cases that formerly fell under the old "temporary insanity" model. These days, a person found guilty but insane must serve a sentence at a mental institution that may be as long as if they were sentenced to prison.

In any case, Scott Falater won't be claiming that he was temporarily insane, nor that his wife drove him to kill.

It's a simple defense: Falater didn't know what he was doing when he killed Yarmila, and he still doesn't remember doing it.

"You know what bothers me the most," he says, tearfully, "of all the people I know, she deserved it less than anyone. I kind of wish she had grabbed the knife and done me instead . . . or that she had run away or something. But because it was me, she didn't."

Hearkening to his Mormon faith, he says, "I hope they'll at least let us spend some time together after I die--maybe hug her one more time."

Told of the basic facts in Falater's case, Dr. Meir Kryger expresses sympathy for the task that awaits jurors.

"They are going to need the wisdom of Solomon in this one," Kryger says. "Is there really an absolute truth here? I don't know. I guess that's why God invented juries and judges."

Contact Paul Rubin at his online address: prubin@newtimes.com

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