'Til Death Do Us Part
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.
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?"
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.
"I was a little bit disappointed that no one told me about that," Mosley said later. "I would have liked to have been thinking about that when I was doing the autopsy that maybe there are drugs involved here. . . . I just didn't suspect drugs."
Instead, Mosley first focused on Judi's external injuries. He saw a "purple area" on the right side of her neck, a bruise on her left cheek, minor abrasions on her nose, a small bruise on her left thigh, and a few other nicks. He noted other bruises, and tiny, broken blood vessels on her lower right eyelid, which often indicate a strangulation.
The doctor found similar hemorrhaging inside Judi's throat, and some internal damage to both sides of her neck, which he also suspected could have been caused by a partial strangulation. However, he could say definitively that the woman hadn't been choked to death.
The cause of Judi Eftenoff's death revealed itself as Mosley examined her damaged brain.
When a cerebral artery ruptures, blood floods into the brain and works like a poison. The result is a stroke, also called an intracerebral hemorrhage. Stroke victims usually are awake when it happens, and the victim often vomits, has trouble walking, and breathes irregularly. Things worsen within an hour or so, with the victim becoming increasingly disoriented and, finally, collapsing. More than half who suffer an intracerebral hemorrhage die. Surprisingly, about 80 percent of those who suffer such strokes are in their 20s and 30s; many cases are drug-related.
The coroner determined that Judi had died from a stroke. What he wouldn't learn for weeks was that it had been caused by cocaine intoxication. After the toxicology tests finally did come back in early November, Mosley released his findings:
"[Judi] died as a result of an intracerebral hemorrhage secondary to cocaine intoxication," he concluded. Large amounts of cocaine were found in her blood and stomach, Mosley's report said, and "the cocaine in her blood may have caused severe hypertension that resulted in intracerebral hemorrhage."
Mosley also mentioned "blunt force head injury" as a secondary cause of death. But the manner of death -- which the doctor could have listed as homicide, accident or suicide -- remained undetermined.
The term "blunt force head injury" carried with it a certain malevolence -- it sounded as if Judi had been severely beaten. That's how the media interpreted it, and how Detective Petrosino would play it months later when prosecutors sought a murder indictment against Brian Eftenoff.
But, like so many other details in this bizarre case, things weren't at all what they seemed.
Joe Petrosino learned much about the Eftenoffs' marriage after Judi died, and it wasn't pretty.
Several of Judi's co-workers at Neiman Marcus said Brian often humiliated her in public, manhandled his children at the store, and presented himself as a vile loudmouth for whom inappropriate behavior was the norm.
One woman said Judi had bought about $1,900 worth of jewelry earlier that September. From Petrosino's report: "Kathleen said the chilling part of the purchase, in retrospect, was Judi's comment to her, as she was taking the items from the store, 'I will keep it, unless he kills me.'"
Judi's family also unleashed years of pent-up disdain for Brian. Her sisters and mother said Judi had confided in them about Brian's alleged physical abuse, and of his serial womanizing.
Brian's behavior after Judi died didn't help: He engaged in ugly rants against his in-laws, some of them in front of his children. He told anyone who would listen how her death had put him in a terrible spot. The Hardings called 911 during one diatribe, and told police Brian was acting irrationally.
The children spent the first few nights after Judi's death with the Eftenoffs' neighbors, Sherrie and Rick Keylash. Brian then sent them to stay with longtime family friends who also live in the area.
By October 1, Child Protective Services officials and police wanted to hear more from Rikki Eftenoff. They asked Dr. Tascha Boychuk, then of the Mesa Center Against Family Violence, to speak with the little girl.
Boychuk told Rikki that day, "I talk with girls who have a mommy that died, and I talk with girls who have mommies that got hurt, and I was wondering if you could tell me how your mommy got hurt."
"I didn't see . . . ," Rikki replied.
Boychuk asked Rikki what Daddy did when he got mad at Mommy.
"Sometimes they fight like how dinosaurs fight. They kick and punch."
Boychuk asked who kicked and who punched.
"Well, mom does the kicking, and dad does the punching. My mom does it both and my dad does it both. I mean, he chops. Chop, chop, chop, chop."
Boychuk asked Rikki to draw a picture of her mother, then to color in where her mom had gotten punched. Rikki went to work.
"This is the blood," the child said, pointing to the stick figure's face. "She got it on her eye."
Rikki repeated her tale about mutual parental combat. Boychuk asked her where the blood had gone.
"It ran all the way down to here," the girl replied, pointing to her own feet.
"Did someone clean up the blood?"
"Well, my daddy cleaned it, actually . . . [with] the mop, the wet mop."
"Did [nanny] Natalie see the blood?"
"Yup, she did the same thing as I did."
"What did Natalie do?"
"I don't know. It's just a story, it's not really a real story."
The interview soon ended.
Cindy Caiazzo, the CPS caseworker assigned to the Eftenoff case, observed the interview from another room, and says the exchange chilled her.
"We knew Judi had gotten an injury on her eye exactly where Rikki had drawn it," recalls Caiazzo, who no longer works for the agency. "Did I believe that Brian had done it? Yes. I had a kid telling us she'd seen something happen to her mommy."
Rikki's statement and drawing jibed with Joe Petrosino's evolving theory that Brian had beaten Judi shortly before she died. On October 2, he wrote in a police report that the cause of Judi's death was "blunt force trauma to head."
On October 4, Boychuk met again with Rikki, and reminded her of the night she'd said her daddy had put her to bed, the night her mom already was in bed.
"Did anything happen with your mommy and daddy that night?"
"Well . . . officers came when I was sleeping, and my mom died when she was in bed."
Rikki repeated that Brian had punched Judi where she'd circled on the drawing, and added a new detail. "She was bending in the kitchen and my dad putted her down like this," Rikki demonstrated, leaning back in her chair. The child punched herself lightly in her own left eye, and said, "Ouch."
"How old are you now?"
"How old were you when you saw that punching?"
The little girl didn't answer directly.
"No, only sometimes it happens."
"You told me last time, only when [Daddy] gets mad, huh?"
During their next interview on October 6, Rikki told Boychuk, "When [my mom] got hit, she went into her bedroom, and when she keep walking, the blood keep going around spots wherever she walks." (Police found no sign of blood on the carpet or tiled floor at the Eftenoffs'.)
A final session on October 13 produced new inconsistencies. Rikki described how a classmate had punched her in the cheek, bruising her.
"Was that kind of like when you saw the bruise on your mom that was bleeding?" Boychuk asked.
"Was there a bruise someplace on your mommy?"
"No, no, that's only a story."
"Well, we had talked before when it wasn't a story."
"Well, only sometimes that happened."
This time, Rikki said her daddy had carried her mommy to the bedroom. There, Judi had vomited several times, and Brian had cleaned up the mess. (Police found no sign of this.)
"What words was your dad saying when he was carrying your mom?"
"Just some badness. He said, 'When am I going to be done with this . . .' and be the boss and things, and be the boss."
Although contradictory and somewhat vague, Rikki's statements convinced many authorities of what they appeared willing to believe -- that Brian Eftenoff had beaten his wife on the evening of September 23, 1999.
On October 17, CPS officials filed papers with Juvenile Court seeking protective custody of the two Eftenoff children. Cindy Caiazzo's report focused on Brian's erratic behavior, his alleged physical abuse of Judi, his own alleged drug abuse and -- most important -- on the ongoing murder investigation against him.
"On September 24, 1999, Judi Eftenoff . . . died of blunt force trauma," her report started, repeating what Petrosino had written a few weeks earlier. "The natural father and spouse, Brian Eftenoff, is an investigative lead in the death. . . . It is undisputed that the children were in the home during the time their mother was killed. It is imperative that there be no undue influence on the children with regard to what they may have seen or heard."
Caiazzo recommended that the children remain in CPS' custody -- actually at the Eftenoffs' friends -- until authorities determined what had happened to Judi, and Brian's mental health stabilized.
That day, Dr. Boychuk typed an affidavit that started, "On Sept. 23, 1999, Rikki Eftenoff witnessed her father punch her mother in the face, holding the mother down against a kitchen counter . . ."
But for reasons that will be explained later, Boychuk never signed her affidavit.
Eager, he says, to get his children back, Brian continued to see a therapist and take random drug tests, which he passed. He also reverted to visiting nightclubs and making himself available to the ladies.
Though no one in authority had told him he was a murder suspect, Brian became obsessed with the possibility that he would be accused of killing his wife. He called the Medical Examiner's Office frequently about the results of Judi's toxicology tests. Finally, in early November, someone there unofficially told him that cocaine had induced her fatal stroke.
This was good news of sorts for Brian, in that it confirmed what he'd been telling everyone. On November 8, 1999, Brian phoned Petrosino.
"I don't think you're gonna arrest me, Joe," he started, "'cause I know I had nothing to, directly or indirectly, to do with the death. . . . My sources say that Judi had a considerable amount of cocaine in her system. . . . If it's true, then I have serious doubts in my mind as to what really happened there. If my wife did have a substantial amount, it might not be enough to prove that they [the drugs] killed her. But combined with her diet fuel, her anorexia . . . and everything else that I could think of, I could see easily how her poor little heart failed. . . . I don't think Judi was murdered at all, do you, Joe?"
"I don't know how she died."
"What's your gut feeling?"
"Well, I have some problems because there are some things that look suspicious," the detective said. "You know, I have that damage to her eye that we talked about. . . . It's up on the part of the eye where I wouldn't think that you could fall and hit your head unless you landed on some[thing]."
Petrosino's comments did nothing to ease Brian's anxiety, as became apparent during a November 12, 1999, hearing at the county Juvenile Court. The issue was whether the Eftenoff children should continue to stay with family friends, or move into a temporary foster-care home.
Psychologist James Thal, who had evaluated Rikki and her brother Nickolas for CPS, testified that returning the children to Brian might be risky, in part because "it's my understanding that one or both of the children may be witnesses . . . in a possible criminal case against their father."
Brian was seething when he took the stand.
"Do you love your wife?" his attorney, Joe Abodeely, asked him.
"Did you kill your wife?"
"No, I didn't."
"To the best of your knowledge, are you still under a cloud of investigation?"
"Not after the toxicology report."
Brian testified he'd never hit his children, and anyone who said otherwise was lying. "The county is investigating a possible homicide in Juvenile Court," he told an assistant attorney general who was representing CPS. "That's the real issue. Never been a threat to my children. No medical report of spousal abuse between me and my wife. So what other possible reason could you have for keeping my kids?"
Brian also said he'd never hit Judi.
"Never left any marks on her whatsoever?" the AG asked.
"Did you lose your temper with your [brother-in-law John Harding] in your last conversation?"
"No. Yesterday I made a comment [about] how much credit would a coke whore have in court, and he hung up on me."
"Who were you referring to?"
"To my loving wife."
"So your wife was a coke whore?"
"She had a problem, serious problem."
When things calmed down, Judge Maurice Portley broached the subject of reunifying Brian and his children at a later date.
"Essentially, what we have is a successful 39-year-old who is under investigation of a murder," the judge said. "It may go away as a result of things that counsel are trying to do."
On November 16, the Medical Examiner's Office officially released the results of toxicological tests done on Judi Eftenoff's body. The findings indicated that she'd ingested cocaine up to 72 hours before she'd died, not just immediately beforehand.
Most striking to police, though, was the unusually large amount of undigested cocaine in Judi's stomach, which suggested that she'd swallowed it -- not the usual manner of using the drug.
Despite the findings, the official "manner" of Judi's death remained undetermined, and still is. On November 23, Brian again phoned Joe Petrosino, and soon asked, "Hey, when are they gonna determine manner? After the DNA's back? In other words, are there only two possibilities at this point, accidental or homicide?"
"That's pretty much it, accidental or homicide," the detective said.
Brian suggested the amount of cocaine in Judi's blood might mean someone had forced her to take it.
"Ah, huh," Petrosino grunted.
That's exactly what he would tell a grand jury months later that Brian had done.
"I have never, ever seen my wife or ever heard of my wife doing large amounts of cocaine," Brian continued. "Exorbitant amounts . . . I'm no angel, Joe, but I didn't have anything directly or indirectly to do with her death. I don't have any clue where she got the cocaine. . . . Did you find any cocaine in our house?"
"I don't think we found any," Petrosino fibbed, not mentioning the cocaine found in Judi's purse near her body.
"This makes sense, then," Brian retorted sarcastically. "No cocaine in the house, but my wife's dead of cocaine. Somebody was doing cocaine with her. . . . You are gonna treat it as a homicide?"
On December 8, Petrosino spoke with Dr. Phil Esplin, a Phoenix psychologist who had been counseling Brian at CPS' request.
Esplin asked the detective if someone could have forced Judi to swallow the cocaine. "Well, I can't get anybody to tell me that one way or the other," Petrosino said. Esplin then asked if another person had inflicted the bruises on Judi's body.
"I don't think we've really got a handle on that one yet," Petrosino admitted. "Could some of them be from falling? Yeah, but if some of them are from falling, then how do you explain away the others? If I go with what Rikki says, that mommy and daddy were fighting, then [it could be] blunt force trauma. Generally, 5-year-olds don't say mommy and daddy were fighting unless mommy and daddy were fighting . . ."
"That's my experience," Esplin agreed.
The detective later used those three words to help sell his case against Brian to the grand jury.
Despite the ongoing investigation, criminal charges against Brian Eftenoff didn't seem imminent early this year. Brian's mental health was improving, his psychologist told a judge, and it appeared in February that he had a fine chance of getting his children back from CPS.
Tellingly, one advocate of reunifying Brian and the kids was Tascha Boychuk, who had elicited Rikki Eftenoff's disturbing statements about "Daddy hitting Mommy." Petrosino later told the grand jury that Boychuk is "considered to be the best in the Valley, if not the state" at interviewing children.
Boychuk had kept in touch with Brian over the months, and also had kept track of how Rikki and Nickolas were doing in foster care. Now, both she and Phil Esplin had become convinced that reunification was the right thing.
CPS agreed to reunite the three in mid-February, after the kids spent two weeks with Judi's parents in North Dakota. But one day before a judge formally approved that arrangement, the Eftenoff case took another improbable turn.
"Cocaine Mailed, Ahwatukee Man Arrested. Late Wife's Parents Give Letter to Police," a February 5 headline in the Arizona Republic said.
"Court documents say Brian Eftenoff sent a package with 1.1 grams of the drug, several straws, a rolled dollar bill, and a letter that said in part, 'Judi was a drug user,' and he could 'no longer cover for her.' . . . Tests indicated that the white powder was cocaine, and fingerprints taken from the contents of the package belonged to Brian Eftenoff, court records say," the story said.
The story was a bombshell, though the reporting was inaccurate on several counts. Brian hadn't mailed the FedEx package to North Dakota himself; he'd sent the "drug user" letter one month after the FedEx package, after, he says, he learned the official cause of Judi's death; and Brian's fingerprints weren't on or in the Baker's chocolate box or pink cosmetic container that allegedly held the cocaine.
Brian was jailed on $40,000 bond, which he made within hours -- but he missed the hearing at which he was supposed to regain custody of his children. "The timing of that whole thing was so obvious," he says. "Petrosino didn't want me to get my kids back, because he thinks I killed my wife."
Brian says he didn't put the cocaine in the FedEx box, and doesn't know how it got there: "Do you think I'm nuts? What possible gain would there have been for me to send them coke two weeks after Judi died? I didn't even know she'd died of a coke stroke then."
Prosecutors won't say why they quickly dropped the drug case against Brian, but they did. On February 29, Brian regained custody of his children. Now, he had to learn how to be a single dad, rebuild his business, and deal with a possible murder charge that hovered over him like a menacing cloud.
At the time, Brian kept telling New Times he knew he wasn't in the clear, even though he insisted he hadn't done anything wrong. He was right. On May 30, Phoenix police arrested him on charges of murder.
On May 25, deputy county attorney Kurt Altman presented his case against Brian Eftenoff to a grand jury. Altman -- a meticulous young prosecutor who works in the Family Violence unit -- called only one witness, Joe Petrosino.
Petrosino set the scene -- Brian's story about going to the casino with his pal, then coming home in the early morning to find Judi's body on the bathroom floor.
He told the panel about the autopsy, and "that Judi had a fresh injury on an eyelid, that her face was slightly swollen . . . some fresh abrasions on the nose, some bruising around the mouth, a bruised area on the inside of her upper lip that had two small lacerations as if something had struck inside of her mouth up against her tooth, possibly."
Petrosino said Dr. Mosley had found two fresh hemorrhages on the inside of Judi's throat, which he'd called to chief medical examiner Keen's attention.
"Dr. Keen advised me that these are very suspicious injuries, that you don't get them," the detective continued. "He said it's possible you grab somebody by the throat with your fingertips, you can do that. He also said it was possible that if you stroked along the side of the esophagus hard enough, that you could possibly cause those injuries. . . . He said it was as if you were trying to get someone to swallow something, massaging their throat."
Petrosino said the coroners also found ruptures of tiny blood vessels atop the esophagus, and around Judi's eyelids, which Keen told him he'd "normally expect to find in strangulation, but you can also get it by pressure."
He said the postmortem exam also revealed "a fresh contusion on the back of her head. . . . It was determined to be acute. Dr. Keen describes it as a pool-cue injury. He said that you will find that kind of injury a lot of times in a bar fight [when] somebody gets hit with a pool cue."
He said blood had covered the surface of Judi's brain directly beneath the supposed "pool cue" injury.
"According to Dr. Keen, is this brain injury also consistent with what he was saying [was] a pool-cue type injury?" Altman asked.
As for the cause of Judi's death, Petrosino said, "What [Drs. Keen and Mosley] cannot tell me is that, is the injury caused only by the blunt force trauma, only by the cocaine, or is it a combination of the two . . . and [Keen] said yes, that he would tend to think that domestic violence was most likely the cause of death, but he can't say that with 100 percent certainty."
That wasn't true.
"We have some scuffing, we have some minor bruising. We have some bruising of the neck . . . that's more like a choke-hold kind of grab-the-neck injury, but the bruise on the top of the head could be the result of somebody being pushed into something rather than being actually slugged or slapped by something. And . . . those [injuries] are not necessarily in and of themselves any of them fatal."
During that August 29 interview, defense attorney Jim Cleary also asked Dr. Keen, "Is it possible that the way this woman died is, she consumed cocaine . . .voluntarily or involuntarily, and as a result of consuming cocaine at the level and amount she had in her system, she suffered a [stroke]? And when that happened, she fell off or hit her head and that might have caused the contusion that you saw?"
"That's an entirely possible scenario," Keen replied.
Cleary asked if Judi had suffered a "pool-cue injury," as Petrosino had told the grand jury.
"No, no," Keen answered, "because even though you can get that kind of a bleed with a pool cue, you should have a different kind of pattern on the scalp surface itself. . . . This is a bump on the head. Bump on the head. A blunt force injury of the head. . . . Though we have some bruising on the scalp, which is trauma, we don't have severe injury patterns up there. I don't have lacerations, I don't have fractures of the skull. I just have bruising of the scalp."
In a separate interview with Cleary on August 29, Dr. Mosley said the tiny broken vessels on Judi's inner eyelid suggested to him that she might have been strangled "until I prove it to be something else. And other things that it could be would include . . . heart attacks or stress . . ."
But Judi's death wasn't a result of strangulation, was it, Cleary later asked Keen.
"I don't think anybody was choked until they died and then left there," the coroner responded. "There could still be an element of partial suffocation involved here."
"But you don't have enough to show you that somebody actually choked her and then that caused her to die."
"I don't have enough to go with, no. That's why we've ruled in the way we have."
The manner of Judi's death was not the only issue on which Petrosino misled the grand jury.
When he told the panel about Rikki Eftenoff's statements to Tascha Boychuk, it sounded as if the little girl had been an eyewitness to a fatal beating:
"She observed her parents -- her mother and her father -- in the kitchen area, and there was a physical fight going on. Rikki said that Daddy was punching and kicking Mom, and that she was bleeding from her eye, and that at one point, Mom fell backwards or was pushed backwards, striking her head against the vertical cabinet in the kitchen. After that happened, Mom was not able to walk very well. She was helped into the bedroom, and then she died."
Petrosino said Rikki's drawing had been consistent with Judi's injuries. He testified that her story hadn't changed since she'd first spoken to Boychuk.
A grand juror asked about the reliability of the little girl's statements.
"Dr. Boychuk told me that children couldn't make that up," Petrosino responded. "Dr. Esplin, who is a psychologist . . . agrees with Dr. Boychuk that kids don't make up those kinds of things. If Rikki said she saw mommy and daddy fighting, she did."
But Boychuk tells New Times why she never signed the October 1999 affidavit stating that she believed Rikki had seen Brian assault Judi on the evening of September 23, 1999.
"As I thought about things, I realized there was no way for me to state with any degree of certainty that [Rikki's] descriptions are regarding the night in question," she says. "In general, family violence occurs more than once, and the issue of exactly when something happened is impossible for us to say unless it's the only time it could have happened. You [also] need to be cautious with children's responses about time. And there's the issue of the inconsistent statements that this child made, and the issue of a 5-year-old's concept of death."
Phil Esplin also says Petrosino misrepresented to the grand jury what he'd told the detective about the reliability of child testimony: "The statement that children are incapable of making up something with regard to what they have witnessed is contrary with what we know to be true. Quite often, it's a matter of acquiescing to an onslaught of questions -- 'Did he hit her? When? Where?'
"If you leave a 5-year-old to her own devices, she's not normally going to manufacture something out of whole cloth. So it's quite possible that this child witnessed some physical contact between the parents at some point -- but it may have been remote to the night of Mrs. Eftenoff's death. And this child also gave contradictory information."
Petrosino's grand jury testimony was tainted on one more point: When Altman asked Petrosino if "there was any sign of current cocaine use when the police arrived and examined the scene," Petrosino said there hadn't been, ignoring or forgetting the two small envelopes found in Judi's purse.
Petrosino said his investigation revealed Judi had been a "lightweight cocaine user," and that the amount of coke in Judi's blood was "30 times more than she would normally use."
Petrosino testified that two women had seen "Brian force the drug Ecstasy in Judi's mouth by holding the back of her head, pushing it in her mouth" during a party in Las Vegas at the end of 1998. That sounded eerily similar to what the detective suspected had happened on the evening of September 23, 1999 -- that Brian had coked and choked his wife to death.
(According to Petrosino's own police report, one woman who'd attended the Vegas party had told him "'Brian was trying to shove some more Ecstasy into both Judi's [and another woman's] mouth.' She said the difference was he was playful with [the other woman], but he was very forceful in trying to give the drug to Judi.")
A grand juror asked how Judi could have undigested cocaine in her stomach when she normally had snorted it.
"All doctors I have spoken to said it would not be inconsistent with finding cocaine in the stomach, because of when you sniff it, it can go down the back of your throat. The amount that's in her stomach is the unusual part."
But Dr. Keen later told Jim Cleary that Judi Eftenoff had used cocaine two to three days before she died. In other words, it wasn't necessarily the raw cocaine in Judi's stomach that had induced her fatal stroke.
The grand jury voted 13-0 to indict Brian Eftenoff on charges of second-degree murder, and mailing cocaine to his in-laws in North Dakota. He's been in jail ever since his arrest, in lieu of $500,000 bond.
New Times spoke with several medical experts as part of its research into the Eftenoff case. One is renowned toxicologist Steven Karch, assistant medical examiner for the City and County of San Francisco, and author of Pathology of Drug Abuse. Dr. Karch studied Judi Eftenoff's autopsy report before his interview:
"Intracerebral hemorrhages happen with cocaine, and they generally happen with the levels you see here," he says. "Although the pathologist believes it's a high level, it's kind of an average level, about the same level of cocaine you'd get as you smoked one rock. But postmortem blood levels of cocaine don't mean anything because they change after death. It's enough to say, there was cocaine in her, and she had a stroke."
Karch agrees with Dr. Keen that, "Based on the general pattern of cocaine-related deaths, the metabolite levels in this person suggest she was a regular cocaine user who had been using the day before she died, and maybe the day before that."
Also like Keen, Karch says "cocaine can be secreted into the stomach from the bloodstream, and from regular snorting. I agree that the amount is suggestive of someone eating it, but there's also nothing in our peer review literature to say what concentrations you see in someone's stomach contents when they swallow cocaine."
Finally, Karch says Judi's heart size was normal, which goes against the notion that she'd been a chronically heavy coke user: "That also rules out the diet fuel as having any role, because all stimulants cause the heart to enlarge. But I wish they [the coroners] had done more with the heart, because that could have told us more. Did they not suspect drugs? Was there any evidence at the scene? Anyway, I think your coroner got it right -- it's a dime-store, run-of-the-mill cocaine-related death."
Maricopa Medical Center's Frank LoVecchio corroborates what Dr. Karch says.
"The level in the stomach does suggest a lot of fresh cocaine, not metabolized," says LoVecchio, an emergency room doctor who also is the director of Good Samaritan Hospital's Regional Poison Control Center. "A concentration that high is very suggestive of someone eating it, which isn't the typical way for someone to get high. But there's nothing in the literature to compare this to -- it's hard to figure out just how much really is there, and how much in there can kill you.
"If you're attempting suicide by swallowing it, there's no guarantee that you'll die. Same goes for someone trying to murder another person that way. If I do swallow cocaine, and you ask me how long it will take for me to absorb it, to get high from it, I would certainly tell you within an hour, and you're more likely to have a stroke at the peak."
County Attorney Rick Romley didn't say much publicly about the case against Brian Eftenoff during a press conference to announce the Ahwatukee man's arrest.
One story about the arrest referred to Judi's "battered and heavily drugged body." Another claimed the prosecution case "rests on the testimony of the Eftenoffs' two children."
In truth, the murder case against Brian comes down to three components -- what the coroners found during Judi's autopsy, anecdotal evidence of prior domestic abuse, and Rikki Eftenoff's statements.
Beyond that, of course, is the "X" factor of Brian himself. The best chance prosecutors may have is if he testifies, something his psyche may not allow him to avoid, no matter the perils of a damaging cross-examination. An unconvincing performance might give jurors pause, even though the case against him is so shaky.
"I'd love to tell the jurors how much I loved my wife, because I did," Brian says. "I just want to get out of jail and try to see what I can do to get my life back."
If he does walk, that won't be easy.
The Eftenoffs' home is for sale, Brian's business is defunct, and he hasn't seen his children in months. Also, most people in the community believe he's a murderer, and will continue to believe that, whatever the jury says.
Judi's gravestone in Tempe refers to her simply as a "Loving daughter, wife and mother. Our memories of you will fill our hearts with love."
Brian also had the mortuary inscribe a message on his half of the stone: "Brian Thomas Eftenoff. 1959-. Loving husband, father. Our love climbed the highest mountains, swam the wildest rivers and ignored the loudest snoring."
The Eftenoff children continue to live in Indiana with their Aunt Charlisa and her husband. A custody battle with Judi's family looms if Brian does get convicted. Charlisa Eftenoff-Fox says she's started a project with Rikki, who's nearing her 7th birthday.
"I'm asking her to draw pictures of her favorite memories of her mom," Eftenoff-Fox says. "We'll write some stuff in, then I'll put the book away. That way, she can look at it when she's older."
Read Part 1 of this series:
'Til Death Do Us Part
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.