The Final Straw

Brian Eftenoff's going to prison. He shouldn't have called his dead wife a coke whore.

Answering those questions would have seemed fundamental to convincing jurors that Eftenoff killed his wife. But jurors decided after about eight hours of deliberation that they were satisfied Judi was murdered, and that her husband did it.

The jury foreperson insists that the conviction had little to do with the arrogant, smug persona Eftenoff exuded in the courtroom from day one.

"There were inconsistencies in his testimony, we thought," says Ahna-Kaili Bowman of Chandler. "I don't know that we found him credible as a witness . . . and he certainly didn't help himself on the stand. But it was more than that. We just agreed on the bottom line of, if he didn't do it, who did?"

Jury foreperson Ahna-Kaili Bowman called Eftenoff's testimony inconsistent.
Todd Lillard
Jury foreperson Ahna-Kaili Bowman called Eftenoff's testimony inconsistent.

Added Bowman, "Brian's personality was not a factor in our verdict."

If jurors truly were able to overlook Eftenoff's insolence and self-adulation, they were the only ones observing capable of marshaling such objectivity. Any chance Eftenoff had of walking disappeared after he testified and came across a swamp creature, a bottom feeder, a wife beater and a narcissistic liar.

Seeing him testify was almost painful. Eftenoff sounded much like he did when he spoke to New Times for more than 20 hours, starting in the spring of 2000.

"After the police showed up at my house and everything," he said at the time, "I'm starting to think to myself, 'Oh, fuck, this looks bad.' It looks bad that my wife's dead. Later on, someone says to me how bad they feel for Judi. I'm like, 'Why don't you feel sorry for me? I'm the one who's gonna have to raise these kids, and look at the mess I'm in.'"

Still, the guilty verdicts were an uphill struggle for the two prosecutors. Though Altman told the media horde after the verdict that "we were confident in the outcome we ended up getting," he apparently offered Eftenoff a plea bargain through attorney Cleary months before the trial.

Eftenoff told New Times in December 2000 that he'd rejected a prosecution offer to plead guilty to the drug transportation charge in return for dismissal of the murder charge.

"They're basically offering me time served," Eftenoff said then from the county jail, where he had been incarcerated since his arrest on Memorial Day. "They can go to hell. When I walk away from this, I'm gonna make millions on them when I file my lawsuits."

Cleary says Eftenoff's recollection was accurate, with the exception that prosecutors wanted his client to serve some prison time. Altman says it would be improper for him to discuss it.


The Eftenoff case captivated the Valley on several counts: There was the bizarre nature of the state's murder theory, the odd behavior of a blabbermouth husband turned suspect turned defendant, and the main players -- attractive white people who seemed to have been living the American dream before tragedy struck.

The spectator's gallery in Judge Crane McClennen's large courtroom included a steady stream of snowbirds from the victim's native North Dakota. Most were there to bolster Judi's family, the Hardings, a decent clan that spent the better part of two months in the Valley in support of their late loved one.

Wally and Sharon Harding and their two surviving daughters sat directly behind the prosecutors and homicide Detective Joe Petrosino, another key figure in the Eftenoff case.

Petrosino is a no-nonsense cop with a droll, offbeat sense of humor cultivated over twenty-something years of dealing with bad guys. Though Petrosino tried diligently to maintain his poise during the trial, his antipathy toward Eftenoff obviously transcended the normal cop-suspect relationship.

Prosecuting the case was Altman, a 33-year-old native of Pennsylvania who caught the once-thankless assignment as a member of the Family Violence Unit. Though he'd never been involved in such a high-profile case, Altman was eminently up to the task. He seemed as comfortable in court as a skater on home ice, connecting with the jury as sincere, warm and prepared. Most important, his examination of Brian Eftenoff was scathingly effective.

His colleague, veteran prosecutor Bill Clayton, mainly questioned the medical witnesses, and did well in successfully obscuring the flaws in the case against Eftenoff. Clayton's dry, methodical style masks a street fighter: Before he moved to Maricopa County in the mid-1980s, he worked as a prosecutor down in Cochise County. There, he once prosecuted a man long suspected of killing his girlfriend. Authorities previously had steadfastly declined to file the case, citing too many hurdles. But Clayton won a murder conviction, and an excellent reputation.

Much like Altman and Clayton, defense attorney Jim Cleary was technically sound in court and often made his points skillfully. But the soft-spoken barrister seemed to lose heart after his client's inept performance on the stand. His closing argument failed dismally to convince jurors of the bona fide possibility that reasonable doubt existed in this case -- which it did.

In the end, however, it was Brian Eftenoff himself who was the prosecutors' best friend. Consider three examples, of many, from his testimony:

• Discussing his concerns about his supposedly beloved wife's cocaine addiction: "I came to the conclusion that she couldn't put it down. It's like a Lay's potato chip. Once you start, you can't put it down." (One juror, a medical doctor, threw his hands up at that one. Another stared at Eftenoff in sheer amazement.)

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