Sympathy for the Devil

A con man may be smart enough to escape death row by pretending he’s mentally retarded. Are we dumb enough to buy it?

Michael Apelt is a scammer of the first degree.

Apelt arrived in the United States from his native Germany in 1988. He was 25. In four short months, he flim-flammed more people than many con men do in a lifetime.

He never studied English in school, yet expressed himself well enough to get a half-dozen Americans to loan him big bucks. He had no income, yet he charmed Jaguar dealers into letting him take their expensive toys out for a spin.

If Michael Apelt (pictured) and his brother Rudi have their way, they'll be up for parole in seven years.
Arizona Department of Corrections
If Michael Apelt (pictured) and his brother Rudi have their way, they'll be up for parole in seven years.
Rudi Apelt
Arizona Department of Corrections
Rudi Apelt

And even though he was traveling with an ex-girlfriend, he managed to persuade a lovely, bright 30-year-old Mesa woman to elope with him in Vegas, then take out $400,000 in insurance policies on her life. Then he brutally murdered her.

Pretty sick stuff. But not, in any way, the behavior of a mentally retarded person.

That's why it's so unbelievable to me that Apelt, sent to death row in 1990, will return to a Florence courtroom next week for what could be his biggest scam yet.

He really is claiming that he's mentally retarded.

Yep, and our judicial system really is giving him a two-week hearing, with all the trimmings, to prove it. We, the taxpayers, are financing his talented lawyer, his expensive psychiatric experts, the judge who will give him every last benefit of the doubt, and, of course, the assistant attorney general charged with fighting them.

The stakes are real: If he can convince the judge he's retarded, Michael Apelt doesn't only escape execution. He could also get out of jail in just seven years.

Every last shred of evidence says that Apelt is faking it, just as he faked loving his bride even as he put in motion the plan to kill her.

But these days, as a nation, we're so conflicted about the death penalty that we'd rather bend over backwards for a known con man and his latest ridiculous claim than use common sense.

I love this country. Yeah, that's a little sarcastic, but really — aren't we nice?


I first heard about Michael Apelt from Kathy Monkman. I wasn't living in Arizona when Apelt was last in the courtroom, when local TV reporters breathlessly covered his murder trial.

But when I moved to Phoenix two years ago, I wrote my first New Times cover story about Kathy. (The tale is way too complicated to get into here, but you can read it online.) At the time, we talked only briefly about Kathy's beloved older sister, Cindy, who had been Michael Apelt's second wife — and his murder victim.

Since then, Kathy and I have become friends, and we've talked about the case quite a bit more. In the past few weeks, I've read the court files in Pinal County. I also read Apelt's file at the Arizona Department of Corrections, and files from the case in which he attempted to divorce his fourth wife. (Yes, this "retarded" man has managed to persuade four women to marry him.)

I've also read the files on Rudi Apelt, Michael's brother, accomplice, and fellow death row inmate. Rudi also will try to prove his retardation at next week's hearing, but that case isn't quite as clear: Was Rudi a dimwit who followed his brother? Or a fellow con man? It could go either way.

But with Michael, there's no question. All three sets of documents are amazing testaments to his mental abilities. Clearly, this is a guy who knows how to work all kinds of systems.

That comes as no surprise to Kathy. She vividly remembers her suspicion of her older sister's whirlwind romance. Right away, she says, she thought Michael Apelt was a "slick, lounge lizard, manipulating type of guy."

Kathy, however, never imagined that Apelt would kill Cindy — or surface in the court system 17 years later claiming to be retarded.

She remembers visiting the newlyweds and Michael explaining what a difficult time he'd had making his mother's signature German potato salad. He said that he'd had to travel to several different grocery stores to find capers. "He just thought it was ridiculous that Americans didn't know about capers," Kathy tells me, shaking her head.

How many people with mental retardation could give you that kind of monologue — in a foreign language, no less?

Now, you don't have to be a death penalty activist to believe that people with severe mental impairment are better served by life behind bars than execution. For someone who doesn't know enough to function in society, a life sentence without possibility of parole is punishment enough.

But there are two problems when it comes to Michael Apelt.

One: Life without parole wasn't an option at the time of Apelt's crime. If his death sentence is reversed, Michael Apelt could apply for parole in just seven years. He could literally walk free.

Two: Michael Apelt isn't retarded.

When Apelt was 8 years old, he took an IQ test and scored an 88, which doesn't make him Einstein but does put him in the normal range. Only after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that it was unconstitutional to execute people with mental retardation did Michael Apelt score a 65.

There's no doubt in my mind: A man smart enough to set up an insurance scam is a man smart enough to fail a test.

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