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'Til Death Do Us Part

Brian Eftenoff spoke to the media one day after his wife died.

The frantic call came at 5:36 a.m. on September 24, 1999. "Hurry, hurry! My wife is bruised everywhere! I don't know what's going on!" Brian Eftenoff shouted into the phone. A 911 operator listened as he pleaded with Judi, his 30-year-old wife and mother of their two young children. "Baby, don't you do this to me! I can't raise those children on my own!"

Judi lay on the carpeted floor of the large master bathroom. As the couple's nanny looked on, Brian tried breathing into Judi's clenched mouth. Blood seeped from Judi's left nostril. Brian alternately pressed his large hands into her chest in a futile effort to revive her.

Brian says he knew Judi was dead by the time Phoenix fire paramedics arrived at the Eftenoffs' home in the Ahwatukee foothills a few minutes later. She was cold to the touch, and rigor mortis was setting in, which was why Brian hadn't been able to get her mouth open.The paramedics pronounced Judi dead at 5:52 a.m., and police took control of the scene. Someone hustled the couple's two children, Rikki and Nickolas -- then ages 5 and 3, respectively -- over to a neighbor's.

Officers found Judi sprawled on the bathroom floor in Joe Boxer underpants and a colorful tee shirt. The 5-foot, 8-inch woman looked bone thin. Parts of her face and body seemed bruised, and her body already was turning a ghoulish purple color.

A hair brush and other items on the floor suggested Judi had been grooming near the time of her death. A purse, sitting on a nearby counter, held a small amount of cocaine in two tiny baggies.

Police found no signs of a break-in. The nanny, 20-year-old Natalie Lemmon, told detectives she'd come home around 1 a.m., noticed nothing unusual, and went to her room without seeing her employers.

In an interview later that day, Brian told homicide Detective Joe Petrosino that Judi had been fine when he and a buddy left about 10 p.m. for a night of gambling at the nearby Gila River Casino. He'd come home about 5:30 the next morning, and soon found Judi crouched face down on the bathroom floor.

Brian said he had no clue why or how Judi could have met such a fate. Later in the interview, he told Petrosino that his wife used cocaine "to keep her weight down," and also had been taking diet pills.

Brian spent his first night as a 39-year-old widower at his next-door neighbors' house, snuggling with Judi's favorite "blankie," he later wrote in a journal.

Judi's death attracted local media, with one television report intimating a possible love triangle among Brian, Judi and the young nanny. The next day, Saturday, September 25, reporters swarmed the usually quiet neighborhood to hear what Brian had to say. Surrounded by family and friends in front of his home, he praised Phoenix police for not treating him like a suspect.

"Judi was a wonderful wife, mother, daughter and friend," Brian said. "I would urge all husbands and fathers to take some of the pressure off our spouses and spend some more time sharing the load of parenthood."

He retreated into his home without taking questions. Inside, he faced an increasingly tense situation with Judi's family. The Harding clan had flown in from North Dakota and elsewhere, and they wanted answers. Their suspicions that Brian -- never their favorite -- had something to do with Judi's death already were bubbling to the surface.

Judi was buried at Green Acres Mortuary in Tempe, after a service attended by a few hundred people. That day, Phoenix police spokesman Jeff Halstead told the Arizona Republic that pathologists hadn't yet determined how she'd died.

"It could be a combination of factors or it could be a single factor," he said. "It could be 100 percent medically related, some kind of freak accident, maybe an accidental combination. The whole gamut is out there as to why this could have happened."

The gamut narrowed on November 16, 1999, when the Maricopa County Medical Examiner's Office announced that Judi Lynn Eftenoff's death had been caused by a cocaine-induced stroke. It listed the "other" cause of death as a "blunt force head injury." But instead of classifying the "manner" of death as a murder, suicide or accident, the coroner's office pronounced it "undetermined."

The news did little to assuage Brian Eftenoff, who spoke with Detective Petrosino on November 23, in a call taped by the cop.

"You gonna treat it as a homicide?" Brian asked.

"Yup," Petrosino replied.

"Is the light gonna be shined in my face again? Or are you shining it in a different direction?"

"I'm not shining it in any direction. I'm just going everywhere."

 

"Do you consider me the lead suspect in this, Joe?"

"I consider you a strong investigative lead. You're the closest person to the victim."

During an interview with New Times in April, Brian said, "Joe is sure I killed Judi somehow, but there's no way they can bust me, because there's nothing to bust me on."

A county grand jury decided there was. On May 30 of this year, Phoenix police arrested Brian Eftenoff on one count of second-degree murder, and on a charge of mailing a small amount of cocaine to Judi's parents after she died. A judge ordered him held in lieu of $500,000 bond at the Madison Street Jail, where he's been ever since.

At a press conference announcing the surprise arrest, County Attorney Rick Romley praised Petrosino for cracking the case. Romley provided only one investigative tidbit, saying "the [Eftenoff] children will be witnesses in this case."

Phoenix police reports released that day depicted Eftenoff as a violent, drug-abusing philanderer who had forced his wife to engage in extramarital sex with other women -- some videotaped. The reports also claimed little Rikki told a counselor she'd seen "Daddy hitting Mommy" allegedly in the hours before Judi died.

The case is scheduled for trial on December 6. Prosecutor Kurt Altman will try to convince jurors that Brian beat his wife before he and his pal went to the casino. He'll argue that, before leaving, Brian forced cocaine down Judi's throat, which led to her fatal stroke. Altman will point to the unusually large amount of the drug found in Judi's stomach, and to small injuries on the inside of her throat, and ask jurors to consider how else it could have happened except at Brian's hand.

Brian denies it all. "I think the jury will see that my case [has] lots of glitz and flash, but no substance," he says. "Bottom line, certain people in authority didn't like my lifestyle. They feel I'm a wife beater and a child mistreater, but they don't have the proof and they never will, because it never happened."

He's right about the lack of substance.

Over the past six months, New Times has spent more than 20 hours interviewing Brian Eftenoff about his wife's death. Extensive interviews have also been conducted with friends and neighbors of Judi and Brian Eftenoff, with toxicologists, pathologists, therapists, psychologists and others. More than 1,200 pages of police reports, courtroom testimony and other documents were reviewed.

And it appears the case against Brian may be more the result of misplaced zeal and a quest for vengeance than sound police work. The New Times investigation, in fact, raises serious questions as to whether there even was a murder at the Eftenoff residence that September night.

Brian Eftenoff is an unsympathetic character whose arrogance and dedication to himself are his most notable personality traits. The antipathy many hold toward Brian is palpable. They want him to be guilty. That list includes a former Child Protective Services caseworker who dealt with Brian for months after Judi's death and calls him "a Ted Bundy look-alike, a, quote unquote, handsome guy . . . who's a sociopath capable of anything."

In this installment, New Times follows the Eftenoffs up to the night of Judi's death. Next week's story will analyze the prosecution's flimsy murder case against Brian, and show how the grand jury and other proceedings were tainted by misleading and inaccurate testimony by Detective Petrosino.


August 23, 1994, is a seemingly routine early morning at the Eftenoffs'. Brian is videotaping his daughter, Rikki, then about two and a half years old, as she plays. Someone on television is gabbing about the latest in the O.J. Simpson murder case.

Clad in pajamas, Judi makes a silly face at the camera and sweet-talks her first-born. Brian goo-goos at Rikki, who smiles and makes happy sounds. It's the picture of domestic tranquillity. But that image is grossly misleading, according to friends and family members who watched the couple's brief marriage spiral into tragedy.

The Eftenoffs had been married about three years when the videotape was made. At the time, he was expanding his wholesale auto parts and car alarm business, and she was working in the men's department at a Neiman Marcus store. Brian was 10 years older than Judi, and this was his second marriage; it was Judi's first.

Motherhood naturally had made more of a homebody of Judi -- who then was about 25. Fatherhood, however, hadn't done much to tame Brian. A self-described "jet-setter," Brian still loved to hit the nightspots, even after Judi put a wedding ring on his finger.

A strapping blond man who shared his late wife's model good looks, Brian was a regular habitué of the Scottsdale club scene. There, drugs, sex and superficiality rule the night, and it's always hunting season for the pretty boys and girls, whatever their marital status.

 

"Yes, I went out more than I should have," Brian concedes. "But I was at home with the kids more than people think I was. Me and Judi had an arrangement, a deal between us. We didn't cheat unless we cheated together. I thought that meant in drugs, too, like doing something together or maybe with other adults on a holiday or special occasion."

Brian says "cheating together" meant an occasional sexual threesome with another woman. Judi's friends insist she went along with the arrangement to keep the fragile peace with her husband.

Says best friend Tamra Coalwell: "People do things sometimes to make it through the day. Their whole relationship put me in a bad spot, because Judi knew I didn't like Brian, even though our friendship was forever."

Another friend, Joellen Wick, describes Judi as "a sweet North Dakota girl who had met this big-city wanna-be who had a lot of plans and was a schemer. All kinds of guys had fallen for her, though she liked the bad boys -- she really did. She wanted it all, he promised it to her, and she bought it."

Brian was a bad boy, who sneered and leered at the world around him. A native of Valparaiso, Indiana, he was the oldest of three children born into a middle-class family. His father was an alcoholic who died at 41. His parents divorced when Brian was a teenager, and his mother died of cancer at the age of 40.

"My mom was never home, and that meant a lot of freedom for us kids," he says. "I smoked so much pot by the time I was 17 that I got sick of it and just stopped."

Brian says his mother sent him to Chicago in the late 1970s to live with an uncle. He says he worked menial jobs there until a buddy convinced him in December 1979 to move to San Francisco. There, Brian says he delivered dental supplies by day and worked in a bar at night.

"Brian always took a lot more risks than the average person around here, such as leaving here for good," says his sister, Charlisa Eftenoff-Fox, who still lives in her hometown. (She and her husband have been serving as surrogate parents to Rikki and Nickolas Eftenoff since Brian's arrest.) "I always said that he'd either end up on Skid Row or become a millionaire."

Brian says he embraced his new West Coast lifestyle, including the illegal drugs that abundantly came his way. "I got into cocaine, way into it, and that led me into some real bad things," he says.

Those bad things include a felony criminal record. Asked about it by New Times, Brian summarized that part of his life tersely: "I ended up in jail for two years for buying stolen property when I was a kid. What's that have to do with whether I killed my wife, anyway?"

Eftenoff did serve prison time in the 1980s on the receiving stolen property charge, though his criminal escapades went much farther than that.

For example, Los Angeles County records show that, on May 17, 1983, Brian and another man broke into a Beverly Hills home and stole more than $100,000 in rare coins and other items. During the heist, they happened upon a maid who was alone inside the house.

"I screamed and my mouth was covered," she later told police. One of the men pointed a gun at her, while the other stashed the booty into a satchel. "In English, they said, 'Stay here. Don't leave. If you leave, I will hurt you.' I was never so scared in my life."

Someone ratted on Brian and his partner, and police recovered the stolen property in a storage locker rented in Brian's name. Later in 1983, Brian allegedly assaulted another man with a baseball bat, L.A. court records say, "to stop [the victim] from testifying at his trial [on burglary charges unrelated to the Beverly Hills coin robbery]."

Still a detective with the Beverly Hills department, Leslie Zoeller has been the lead investigator in many high-profile homicides -- including the Menendez brothers and Billionaire Boys Club cases. But he counts Brian Eftenoff as one of the more memorable characters of his career.

"Brian's up for murder?" Zoeller told New Times a few months ago. "Brian Thomas Eftenoff. Let's say this -- I remember Brian and his case well. He's a personality you don't forget. We had a lot of strong-arm robberies happening in town, and copycats in the area. The victim in the baseball bat case had been receiving the stolen property, and sang against Brian and others. Brian got convicted on our case after they plea-bargained the case down, and he went away for a while."

 

By "away," Zoeller is referring to Brian's stint in the California prison system from 1984-87, on the reduced charge of receiving stolen property.

Brian had married his girlfriend, Constance, before he went to prison. She filed for divorce in 1989. Brian will say little about his ex-wife, other than the union was a youthful mistake. Now remarried and living in Southern California, Constance was stunned to learn from New Times of Brian's arrest on murder charges. "He's not a good person," she said, before hanging up.

Brian says he took college classes in prison, and resolved to go straight after he won parole. He proved to be a natural salesman, and by 1990 -- just after he turned 30 -- Brian was driving a Porsche and living the life of an upwardly mobile divorcé.

That March, however, L.A. police arrested him on charges of misdemeanor battery and another of disturbing the peace, after a run-in with two women in a restaurant parking lot. Mike Qualls, a spokesman for the L.A. City Attorney's Office, says Brian apparently clashed with the women after they rejected his advances.

"Mr. Eftenoff revved his motor as he drove past them to leave, and it stalled," says Qualls. "The women laughed at him. He got out of the car, and had physical contact with them. Battery means you have to touch them."

Brian pleaded "no contest" to disturbing the peace, and was put on probation. But a judge in March 1991 sentenced him to 45 days in jail for not completing the weekend work detail ordered as part of his probation. (With the exception of a 1997 DUI arrest in Las Vegas, Brian steered clear of the law until after Judi died.)

By early 1991, Brian's job was bringing him to the Valley, where he cultivated new friendships and hung out at the Scottsdale nightclubs. At Jetz one evening, he met a dark-haired beauty with a magnetic smile, a beguiling naiveté, and "legs that went on for days," as Brian recalls.

Her name was Judi Lynn Harding.


Judi Harding's middle-class upbringing was as idyllic as Brian Eftenoff's had been difficult. She was raised in Mandan, North Dakota, adjacent to the capital city of Bismarck, one of Wally and Sharon Harding's four children.

Judi was a healthy girl who loved sports -- volleyball was a favorite -- and attracted people from all walks of life with her vibrant personality and open smile. After graduating from high school, she enrolled at North Dakota State University in August 1987.

There, she joined a sorority, and met Tamra Coalwell, a kindred spirit from a small town in Minnesota. The two became inseparable, and moved into an apartment in Fargo after their freshman year. That winter, they resolved to follow the sun, to Florida or Arizona. "We got accepted at ASU first, so that's where we went," recalls Coalwell, who now works as a financial analyst for a major accounting firm. The friends moved to Tempe in August 1989.

Judi majored in Spanish at ASU, and was a decent student who always supported herself by working various jobs. She left school a few credits short of graduation.

As for the opposite sex, Coalwell says, "Guys really liked Judi, and she had some serious boyfriends, but she wasn't planning on getting married anytime soon. She was a strong and loyal person, but she also was innocent and very trusting. Then she met Brian."

Brian still was based in California when he and Judi started to date. "He was on his best behavior at first," Coalwell says, "and Judi definitely was gaga over him. I didn't like him, and I'm not saying that because of what happened. But you don't want to burst your best friend's bubble, so I didn't say much then about how I was feeling."

Judi moved into Brian's condo on South Mountain; then the couple rented a home in Paradise Valley. In the summer of 1993, she got pregnant with Rikki. "There was no question about what we were going to do," Brian says. "We loved each other, and we moved up the process of getting married."

They wed September 4, 1993, at a Paradise Valley church, a day memorialized in dazzling photos of the radiant bride and her proud new husband.

"She was a very beautiful, vibrant, outspoken gal," says Charlisa Eftenoff-Fox. "It was a real emotional wedding, 'cause I was thinking that Brian was finally really growing up -- all of us kids were. As time went on, I thought of her as my sister just as I think of my real sister as my sister. I loved her."

 

"Welcome into the Harding family, Brian!" Judi's parents wrote their new son-in-law in a note that day. "Always love and care for our precious jewel, Judi. Love you, Mom and Dad."

But Judi's friends say the gulf between Brian and his new in-laws grew, even at the wedding. "Things were tense," recalls maid of honor Joellen Wick. "Brian made a big deal out of not liking her dress, then he stiffed her parents for money, and he was controlling to the max."

All that was temporarily forgotten on February 11, 1994, when Rikki Lynn Eftenoff was born. She was a little beauty, and home videotapes show the parents doting over their newborn. However, Judi's friends claim Rikki and Nickolas were "trophies" for Brian, and that he never truly bonded with them.

"That's outrageous," Brian counters, seeming as irate about that allegation as about being charged with his wife's murder. "These people who are saying that obviously never saw us interact. Yeah, Judi usually put them to bed, and, yeah, we had a nanny. But I loved my kids then, and I love them now."


If her family and friends are right, Judi first complained about domestic violence at Brian's hands soon after the couple married.

"She called me one time and said he'd taken a fist and hit her," Tamra Coalwell says, estimating that the call came a year or so after the 1993 wedding. "I know she was telling the truth because I know my friend. I'd ask her later if he was still hitting her, and she'd say, no, he'd calmed down a lot. But then she told me she was going to leave him -- this was 1999 -- and I believed her 100 percent."

Joellen Wick recalls a similar call from Judi, probably within a year of Rikki's birth. "She told me Brian had beat her up," Wick says. "I called her mother, and I called the police in Scottsdale or Paradise Valley. I was Rikki's unofficial godmother, and I had a responsibility to her and to my friend. But you can't force someone to leave a situation they aren't prepared to leave."

Neither Scottsdale nor Paradise Valley police could find any record of domestic violence allegations against Brian Eftenoff. But Judi's mother, Sharon Harding, recalled Wick's warning in an interview with police late last year.

Brian's recollections of marital combat with Judi have varied. He told Detective Petrosino shortly after paramedics pronounced Judi dead, "Let me tell you my rule, it's set in stone. I have two sisters, a daughter, a wife, and I have plenty of respect for women. But if you act like a guy, you're gonna get treated like a guy. You hit me or something, throw something at me, smack me in the face, good chance you're probably gonna get smacked back. . . . I'm not saying that's what I did. That's just the way I was brought up. But, nothing ever major, nothing major [with Judi]."

When Petrosino asked Brian, "So she's throwing things at you?" the question elicited a pause.

"You know what?" Brian then said. "When you come up with the cause of death, then I'd feel comfortable talking about this. We've gotten in major fights."

"My question is," the cop continued, "would she defend herself?"

"Hell, fucking yes."

In 1995, the Eftenoffs moved into a new home on South 25th Place. Judi continued to work full-time at Neiman Marcus, even after Nickolas' birth that December. Brian's auto parts/car alarm business was flourishing, and the couple took to hiring live-in nannies to help with child-rearing and housekeeping duties.

One nanny who worked for the Eftenoffs from the summer of 1997 until August 1998 told police the couple fought, but only verbally. She did say she'd once seen Brian drunkenly try to hit Judi, and added that Judi had kicked Brian out of the house twice during her tenure for unspecified wrongdoing.

That nanny said Judi's weight was a nagging issue between the couple, with Brian always telling Judi how fat she was, despite the fact that the woman ate little, and was getting thinner and thinner.

One of Judi's sisters told police after Judi died that she'd stayed with the Eftenoffs in late 1997. Janell Harding also said the couple had a prickly relationship, but she hadn't witnessed any physical violence, only heard about it from Judi.

"[Janell later] told her sister that she had to get out," Detective Petrosino's report says. "She explained to Judi that if she did not leave, she [Judi] was going to end up dead."

 

By the late 1990s, Brian was spending a lot of time in Las Vegas, where he says he had lucrative accounts and a full plate of temptation. Home base was the Hard Rock Hotel, where many employees knew him on a first-name basis.

"Opening up the Vegas market was the worst thing I ever did," Brian says. "That town has everything for a weak-minded person like myself -- drugs, gambling, women. Meanwhile, my wife was getting hooked on cocaine, and I didn't even know it."

Brian says he occasionally would invite Judi to join him in Vegas. "If I was going to play around, I was going to play around with my wife there," he says, referring to the couple's extramarital sexual activity. "That was our deal. I can't honestly say that I was perfect, but I tried to be most of the time."

In December 1998, Tamra Coalwell says, she saw her friend for the last time. She and some of Judi's other close friends say they felt compelled to distance themselves from Brian's overbearing personality and incessant sexual advances.

"Brian didn't like me because I could make Judi feel good about herself," Coalwell says. "But he wasn't around that day [in December]. She broke down when she was talking about how screwed up things were. She said, 'Tam, I need to get a divorce.' She was thin, but not as skinny as a picture I saw of her from months later -- she was just bones by then. She asked me to watch the kids while she pulled herself together. Then the phone rang, and she ran to it. She tells me, 'You gotta go now! Brian's coming home!' What clicked in my mind was, 'Yeah, yeah, okay -- I don't think I can help her anymore.'"

Judi also had confided in her sister Janell Harding around that time, Harding later told Petrosino:

"She told me, 'Next time I get married it will be for money. Love didn't work out.'"


Judi Eftenoff went on part-time status at Neiman Marcus in April 1999. Her supervisor, Peg Franklin, later told police that Judi's performance had slipped, possibly because of a deteriorating marriage that she sometimes complained about.

Brian says that's nonsense. However, it was a curious time for Judi to go on part-time status, which cost the Eftenoffs her life insurance and other benefits. Concurrently, Brian had reduced his presence in Vegas, but not necessarily because he wanted to be closer to home and hearth.

He admits he'd lost significant accounts in Nevada and in Arizona, and wasn't as flush financially as he'd been in recent years. Brian closed his downtown Phoenix office, and set up shop in a small room off his garage with his assistant, Sheila Garcia. Even with the reduced overhead, Brian's business continued to struggle in 1998-99.

"We lost those accounts because Brian wasn't servicing them," Garcia tells New Times. "He was out partying all the time, and I was trying to hold things together. It wasn't as if he was home being a father to those kids. If he was home, he was watching TV or whatever."

Brian responds, "It wasn't as bad as you might think. I did have a lot less gross income coming in, and September [1999] had been a tight month. But a lot more profit was coming our way."

Natalie Lemmon, the nanny who was hired in early 1999, later told detectives that the Eftenoffs argued often, with Judi giving as good as she got. She, too, said she'd never seen Brian hit Judi, though she had overheard Brian berate his wife about her alleged cocaine abuse. Lemmon also said little Rikki told her in early September that her daddy had hit her mommy -- where and when was uncertain.

Others say Judi spoke of an increasingly volatile situation. Tana Harding told Petrosino that her sister recently had rented a safe-deposit box in her own name, and had asked her to open it if something bad happened to her. (A September 29, 1999, search of the box elicited only jewelry, birth certificates, a handwritten note that listed some of Brian's shortcomings, and other items.)

One evening around Memorial Day 1999, Judi phoned next-door neighbors Rick and Sherrie Keylash. Rick Keylash -- an engaging guy who owns a custom furniture business -- tells New Times that the couple was having a doozie of a fight.

"We ran over there, but didn't see any hitting, just a lot of verbal language," says Keylash. "I had to step in front of Brian, he was so mad at her, and yelled at them both to calm down. He was threatening to take Rikki and run. He was screaming, 'She's a goddamn coke whore,' which sent Judi through the roof."

 

Brian confirms the basics of Rick Keylash's account, saying he'd "caught" his wife doing cocaine with Sherrie Keylash. "I didn't like her doing coke other than a little bit on those special occasions. Not sneaking around with the next-door neighbor, with kids around and everything, know what I mean?"

Says Rick Keylash -- who is now separated from his wife -- "Yes, they did coke together, and we did coke with Brian and his wife a few times, okay? But I don't think Sherrie and Judi were sneaking around all the time doing coke like Brian suspected. I'll bet he was probably harder into the coke than she was. For Judi, it was, stay thin and deal with Brian."

Brian says he and Judi celebrated their sixth anniversary in Las Vegas, at his old standby, the Hard Rock Hotel. Rikki and Nickolas joined the couple with nanny Natalie Lemmon for the September 4, 1999, festivities.

"Me and Judi had a heart-to-heart on that trip," Brian says. "She swore to me on the lives of our children that she wouldn't do coke like she'd been doing anymore."

Soon after that, Judi and the children flew to North Dakota to visit her parents. Judi returned to Arizona with the children a few days before she died.

Brian and his longtime friend, Nick Courinos, went gambling on the evening of Tuesday, September 21, 1999. He says he got home about 2 or 3 a.m., then slept in late the next day. Wednesday was uneventful, with Brian staying home most, if not all, of the day.

On Thursday morning, Lemmon later recalled, Judi asked her to keep an eye on Nickolas while she ran some errands. It was the nanny's day off, but she stuck around until Sheila Garcia got to the Eftenoffs' around 10 a.m. Brian was in bed, where he stayed all morning and into the afternoon, saying he was feeling ill.

Garcia says she saw Judi occasionally throughout the day, and was struck at the woman's frenetic pace: "She was just all over the place, cleaning every possible thing. I thought it was really strange, kind of in a frenzy."

Though Garcia says she liked Judi very much, she wasn't close to the boss's wife. But she says they had been comparing notes about their relationships with their spouses.

"I think Judi lost her self-esteem, and didn't know who she was anymore," Garcia says. "She was a great mom and really loved her kids, but she was trying to be this perfect person. I think she finally realized it wasn't happening, that Brian wasn't gonna change, and that caused her to do more drugs."

Brian says he played with the kids when they got home from school that day. He says he and Judi were getting along well, and that he didn't see her ingest any cocaine, just a few diet pills.

"There was no fighting beforehand, no fighting during, no fighting before I left," Brian later told Joe Petrosino. "What I don't understand is, she was very quiet. Normally, Judi busts my nuts every day on a daily basis."

Brian says Nick Courinos called him that day to ask if he wanted to go gambling again. Sure, Brian said. The pair also knew about a lingerie show at a nearby pub, which they also planned to catch before heading to the casino.

He tells New Times he watched part of the season's first Friends episode with Judi, then retreated to his office to play a computer game. Brian says Judi went into Rikki's room to watch the Cartoon Network with the kids shortly before their bedtime.

Courinos was scheduled to fly to Pittsburgh the next morning, to join his pregnant wife at a family gathering. Courinos says he got to the Eftenoffs' about 9 p.m., and waited for Brian to finish dressing. He says he never saw Judi that evening.

"Brian told me she was putting the kids down, that's all I remember," Courinos tells New Times. "He wasn't acting weird at all . . . he acted like Brian all night, not stressed out or nervous about anything."

Brian says he peeked into Rikki's room, and asked Judi for her ATM card, which she handed him.

"She kisses me, says to have a good time, and that's the last I see of her."

(That account differs from what Brian told Petrosino hours after Judi died. "When you left the house, where was Judi?" Petrosino asked him.

 

". . . She was coming in the bedroom, I don't know," Brian replied. "I gave her a kiss. I think when I grabbed this lucky shirt, when I was putting it on, she was coming around the corner into the bathroom. I gave her a kiss. She gave me her ATM card."

Brian also said he'd seen Judi on a couch, then noted that she'd lain in bed with the kids at some point.)

Brian and Courinos took Judi's BMW on their outing. The two have described their next several hours of activity similarly: a stop at the nearby saloon for one beer (the lingerie show was over), then to an automated teller machine, to a supermarket to buy a flask of vodka, a trip through the parking lot of another bar looking for a pal, then finally to the casino.

Phoenix police later collected videotapes from casino officials that showed the men entering the building at 11:43 p.m. Brian says he played poker for hours, leaving Courinos to try his luck on the slots.

About 4 a.m., Brian says, Courinos started bugging him to leave the casino: "He had a 7 o'clock flight, and he had to go home to get his stuff. I was pissed, because I'd just won a couple of big hands. But I told him to go get the freakin' car."

The pair then got stuck in the parking lot for almost an hour -- cameras again confirm this -- when the BMW turned up with a flat tire. They didn't get back to Ahwatukee until about 5:15 a.m. Courinos says he went into the Eftenoffs' home for a few minutes to use the bathroom and/or the phone -- he's not sure.

"The cops asked me if I'd seen the body," says Courinos. "Listen. I might tell a little fib to protect Brian when we went out and did something we weren't supposed to do. But as far as seeing someone lying dead on the floor when I came in -- no way."

Moments after Courinos left, Brian says, he discovered his wife on the bathroom floor. A few months before his arrest this May, he took New Times into the bathroom, and re-created the horrifying scene.

"She's crouched in a kind of fetal position, with her face down into the carpet," Brian said, placing himself in exactly the same position as he claimed to have found Judi. "I roll her over, but she has no muscle control. Lividity has occurred, and, in retrospect, she's obviously been dead a few hours. She looks black and blue at first. I touch her, and I get a sound. I think she's alive. I immediately freak out, and I try to run and catch Nick, but he's gone. I call 911 and sprint down the hall to see if the kids are all right. . . .

"I worked on Judi for about 18 minutes. There was rigor on her arms, but I didn't want to realize it. I pretty much knew after about five minutes that she was gone. I grabbed a tongue scraper -- anything that would fit in there -- to try to clear her throat. Didn't work. Mouth to mouth. Blood flew in my face. Natalie is watching, and she's on the phone with 911. I got sick, then went back. I was sweating like a bitch. The paramedics come by, with a cop. . . . They put me outside. I'm starting to think, 'Oh, fuck, this looks bad.' It looks bad that my wife's dead, and I'm feeling people already cast doubt upon me. . . . Someone says how bad they're feeling for Judi. I'm thinking, '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.' I mean, I loved my wife and all, and I'm thinking it's a murder. The sun comes up when I'm outside. There's a cloud over my head, literally, one cloud."

That cloud may have gone by the name of Joe Petrosino.


Detective Petrosino didn't know at first if he was working a homicide. But if Judi's death did turn out to be murder, the detective had a prime suspect -- Brian Thomas Eftenoff.

Petrosino at first also included Natalie Lemmon on his list of possible co-conspirators, especially after a colleague reported an odd occurrence while interviewing Lemmon at the crime scene. "As I spoke with Natalie," Officer Michael Thorley wrote, "the victim's husband walked toward us. I observed him look at Natalie and pull his index finger across his throat in what appeared to me to be a throat-cutting gesture."

 

Brian says he doesn't recall making the gesture, but says if he did, it was his way of informing Lemmon that Judi was dead. Any talk that he and the nanny had devised some love-mad, twisted murder plot was ludicrous, Brian says.

During their first interview at the downtown Phoenix police station, Petrosino told Brian he'd just returned from the crime scene with a coroner.

"He can't tell me anything at this point," the detective told him.

"Can they rule out foul play?"

"No."

"Am I ruled out? I mean, are you guys still comfortable that there was no foul play on my behalf, on my part?"

"I can't tell you anything because I don't even know if I have foul play. I don't know what killed your wife."

"Well, I just have to think the worst, expect the best. . . . It should have been me, not her. I don't know if she had a life insurance policy or not." (She didn't.)

"We are treating this as a death unknown," Petrosino continued.

Brian says he had an epiphany after his first go-round with the cop.

"I didn't know how my wife had died," he says, "only that I hadn't killed her. But I knew that this guy was very suspicious of me. . . . And I knew that my life had changed forever."

Part 2: the case against Brian Eftenoff.

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


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