The Final Straw
"I know if I had shut up, they probably would have ruled it an accident."
-- Brian Eftenoff to New Times a month before Phoenix police arrested him on a charge of murdering his wife
Moments after testifying in the quirky murder trial of Ahwatukee salesman Brian Eftenoff, Dr. Stephen Karch stood in the courthouse lobby and shook his head sadly. Karch, a Bay Area physician, is a leading expert on how cocaine acts inside a body. He had taken the stand in Eftenoff's defense, but felt certain that the jury hadn't bought his testimony.
Karch had tried to explain that it was impossible to say just when Eftenoff's wife, Judi, had swallowed any or all of the cocaine that caused her to die of a stroke at the couple's home in late September 1999. In fact, he wasn't even sure if Judi had swallowed the drug, or had taken it nasally.
Karch also said he couldn't say how much cocaine Judi had ingested -- "There was certainly stuff used, and that's all I'd be prepared to say," he told the Maricopa County Superior Court jury.
But Karch, who was testifying free of charge, said he felt badly about how things had gone on the stand. "This is a case about science, and the science in this case happens to be in favor of the defense," he told New Times afterward. "But I don't think they like this guy, not a bit. They weren't even looking at me up there. They're gonna get him, I can feel it."
The doctor was right. As most Valley residents know by now, a 12-person jury convicted Brian Eftenoff last Friday afternoon of second-degree murder in Judi's death. Prosecutors argued successfully that Eftenoff forced the 30-year-old mother of his two children to swallow a fatal amount of coke after a vicious argument. The panel also convicted Eftenoff of sending cocaine to his in-laws in North Dakota after Judi died, which prosecutors say he did in an odd attempt to cover up his crime.
In a two-part series late last year ("'Til Death Do Us Part," November 23 and November 30, 2000), New Times detailed the problems prosecutors would face in pressing their case against Eftenoff. There was little scientific evidence to show a murder had even taken place. The prosecution's pitfalls included wildly divergent statements by the couple's then 5-year-old daughter, Rikki, about what she'd allegedly seen Daddy do to Mommy that night; flawed and often misleading grand-jury testimony by Phoenix homicide Detective Joe Petrosino; and a medical examiner who'd performed the autopsy on Judi's body, but wasn't in the prosecution's corner.
"The best chance prosecutors may have is if [Eftenoff] testifies," New Times wrote then. "Something his psyche may not allow him to avoid, no matter the pitfalls of a damaging cross-examination."
Eftenoff did testify, and it was like watching a man cut his own wrists. Over and over. After considering more scientific evidence than a class of fledgling medical students, the jury's decision to fry Eftenoff came down to two words he'd used time and again to describe his beautiful wife -- "coke whore."
Surely, Judi did her share of cocaine, with and without her husband, and in doses and frequency that varied according to who was testifying.
But "coke whore"? Two jurors shot malevolent glances across the courtroom at Eftenoff when the couple's nanny, Natalie Lemmon, first testified in the trial that he'd referred to Judi at the funeral as a "crack whore" -- a variation on his posthumous pet name for his wife.
Deputy county attorney Kurt Altman bided his time. When the delicious opportunity came to cross-examine the defendant, Altman repeatedly fired the phrase "coke whore" in Eftenoff's face.
So bad was the damage that defense attorney Jim Cleary -- who had pleaded, cajoled and practically begged Eftenoff to stay off the stand -- was forced to use the phrase himself during his redirect examination of his client.
"Are you saying you never referred to your wife as a 'coke whore'?" Cleary asked Eftenoff, who glared at his counselor as if he were the prosecutor.
"I never called Judi to her face a coke whore," Eftenoff said, without a hint of repentance. "I might use the term 'coke whore' referring to someone that's letting cocaine get ahold of their life."
The jury didn't buy it.
In the end, the jury embraced the state's theory of the case, as fraught with holes as it was: that Eftenoff had shown "extreme indifference" to his wife (an element of second-degree murder) by angrily stuffing cocaine down her throat and leaving her for dead, then had gone out with a buddy for a nightlong gambling jaunt.
Serious questions remain, however, about whether a murder even was committed on South 25th Place on the evening of September 23, 1999. No two experts who testified came to the same conclusion about many crucial scientific components of the case.
Did Brian Eftenoff force the supposed fatal dose of cocaine down Judi's throat or nose? How much coke really was in her body when she died? Over what span of time did Judi take (forced or not) the fatal dose or doses of cocaine? Was she a "chronic" user of the drug? What role did the deep bruise on the back of Judi's head play in her demise, if any? Did that blow to the head cause her to lose consciousness before her husband shoved the cocaine down her throat? If so, could an unconscious person actually swallow a gram or so of powder cocaine? What caused the bruising on the back of Judi's throat? Was it pressure from a thumb and forefinger, as chief medical examiner Dr. Phil Keen suggested, or was it something else, as Keen's associate, Dr. Arch Mosley, countered from the stand?
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?"
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.)
After acknowledging that he sought to use his wife's employee discount at Neiman Marcus after her death: "It's like if someone retires." (Or when someone permanently retires you, a courthouse wag noted wryly.)
On his own use of cocaine with Judi and friends: "There's a time and a place for everything, I imagine . . . as long as you're responsible."
A few days before he had to decide whether to take the stand, Eftenoff called New Times from Madison Street Jail. The trial was going swimmingly, he said, insisting that he felt confident about the outcome.
"If I'm thoroughly convinced I don't have to get up there, I won't," he said, "but I might have to explain the [transportation of] drugs. I don't mean to sound cocky, but there's no way I get convicted of the murder. When this is over, I'm going after them with a vengeance. I know I was on the wrong path, but I didn't kill my wife."
So, Eftenoff was asked, how do you think the cocaine got in the package sent to the Hardings in North Dakota?
"Look at how many people had access to that box before it got mailed off," he replied. "I mean, Judi's friends, the neighbors, our maids, even Joe Petrosino had access to it for days. I know it wasn't me. You'd have to be an idiot to send dope to the people who already think you killed their daughter."
"You think Petrosino planted the dope?"
"Well, I'm not accusing him," Eftenoff retreated. "But you get my point, right?"
An hour or so after the conviction, Detective Petrosino stood on the courthouse steps in the fading daylight and made an astute observation.
"This is a case, that if the defendant wasn't the person that he is, would never have gotten filed," he said, deadpan as ever. "Brian provided most of the clues. Brian is the key to the case, and Brian always has been the key to the case. If it wasn't for Brian, we wouldn't have been here."
The detective added a brief postscript. "I don't have time to manufacture evidence," Petrosino said. "Brian provided all the clues I needed."
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