'Til Death Do Us Part

The murder case against Brian Eftenoff crumbles under scrutiny. Part two of a New Times investigation

A few hours after finding his wife dead in their Ahwatukee home, Brian Eftenoff sat down with a homicide detective. He appeared distraught over Judi's death.

"She was blue, like somebody beat the shit out of her," Brian told homicide detective Joe Petrosino at the downtown Phoenix police station. "I just started panicking, because I can't do this without her. I can't raise two kids without Judi." The Eftenoff children, then ages 5 and 3, had been bundled off to a neighbor's house after paramedics pronounced their mother dead, and their home became a crime scene.

Police were trying to sort out what kind of case they had on their hands. It was far too early to say how and why a supposedly healthy, 30-year-old mother of two had died, but they did see some apparent bruising on her head and other parts of her body.

Five-year-old Rikki Eftenoff drew this of her mother on October 1, 1999, one week after Judi died. At the time, she told a counselor, "That's the blood . . . she got it on her eye."
Rikki Eftenoff
Five-year-old Rikki Eftenoff drew this of her mother on October 1, 1999, one week after Judi died. At the time, she told a counselor, "That's the blood . . . she got it on her eye."

What Detective Petrosino had in front of him was a chatterbox of a husband. Brian said he'd last seen Judi alive about 10 the previous evening, as he was leaving with a friend for a night of gambling at the Wild Horse Pass casino. The next time he saw her was about 5:30 that morning, dead on the bathroom floor.

Brian said his wife had no medical problems to speak of, nor was she on any special medications. "When will we know the outcome?" the 39-year-old businessman asked Petrosino. "When will we know what the probable cause of death is?" An autopsy would tell, the detective replied.Near the end of the hours-long interview, Brian allowed that Judi had used cocaine recreationally, and also had been taking diet supplements to keep her weight down. He said he was against using cocaine himself, and had urged his wife not to indulge.

The interview raised far more questions about the Eftenoffs' marriage and about Brian than it answered. He left the police station that day as a suspect -- if, indeed, Judi Eftenoff had been murdered.

In part one of this story last week, New Times examined how Brian's self-centered and arrogant behavior after his wife's death helped make him the focus of the police investigation. It didn't help that Judi had complained to family and friends that her husband had hit her during their troubled six-year marriage. That story also told how the investigation into Judi's death was tainted by Joe Petrosino's misplaced zeal against a uniquely unsavory suspect -- Brian. (The detective declined to comment to New Times about any aspect of this case.)

This story examines how the detective built his case against Brian Eftenoff, one that county prosecutors decided to charge as second-degree murder. Winning a conviction at Brian's upcoming trial may prove to be a much taller order, a New Times investigation shows.

Scant proof exists that Judi Eftenoff even was murdered, much less that Brian did it. Key prosecution witnesses appear likely to hurt the case as much as they'll help it. Those listed witnesses include two county coroners, and a counselor who interviewed Brian's daughter, Rikki, about allegedly violent goings-on inside the Eftenoff home.

Brian Eftenoff's trial on charges of second-degree murder and of sending a small amount of cocaine to his in-laws is scheduled to start December 6. Eftenoff maintained his innocence in hours of interviews with New Times, both before and after his arrest. The paper interviewed 23 people, and analyzed more than 1,200 pages of police reports, courtroom testimony and other documents in preparing this story.

As Brian Eftenoff and Joe Petrosino faced off for the first time, a little girl also was talking about events at her home the previous evening. Rikki Lynn Eftenoff met with Wendy Dutton, of St. Joseph's Hospital's Child Abuse Assessment Center, that day for a short chat.

Dutton interviews children who may have been abused or been eyewitnesses to violence. She told the 5-year-old she'd heard that "something happened today," and asked the child to tell her about it.

Rikki said her father had awakened her that morning, and then she'd seen the police officers.

"Did something else wake you up last night?"

"Well, nothing else. Just some stuff happened."

"Tell me about that."

"I don't know. I don't know what happened."

Dutton soon asked Rikki if her parents ever fought.

"Yeah, a lot of times."

"What happens when your mommy and daddy fight?"

"They get along really easily after that."

"What do they do when they fight?"

"They just wrestle around."

"Does someone ever get hurt when your mommy and your daddy fight?"

"Yes. I always get hurt."

"I was wondering, did your mom and dad have a fight last night?"

"No," the little girl said. "They don't fight."

Fifteen minutes after it started, the first interview with Rikki Eftenoff ended. She had said nothing that implicated her father in her mother's death.

About 30 hours after paramedics pronounced Judi Eftenoff dead, medical examiner Archiaus Mosley began the autopsy of the woman's body.

Also in the room were chief medical examiner Philip Keen and Detective Petrosino. Coroners are like detectives, and like to know as much as possible about their "patients," as they call them. But Petrosino didn't tell Mosley what Brian Eftenoff had offered about Judi's use of cocaine and diet pills, nor did he mention the white powder police had found in tiny baggies in Judi's purse.

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I can only imagine what would have happened if he had called his wife a crack whore. Murder 1? Not sure what evidence the jury had. 

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