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.
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.
I would have thought retardation is fairly cut and dried. Turns out, that's not the case. IQ scores can swing wildly. Kent Cattani, who runs the capital crimes unit for Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard, says that more than a dozen death row inmates in Arizona have petitioned to be declared retarded since the court's 2002 ruling. Cattani has seen cases in which IQ scores run a 40-point gamut the difference between normal intelligence and pure genius.
Does anyone else smell a defense lawyer tactic?
Advocates for the mentally disabled tell me that there are two prongs to proving retardation: low IQ and an inability to adapt successfully to life. Even if someone has an IQ below 70, he isn't considered retarded if he carves out a good career and an independent life.
It's hard to imagine anyone more adaptable than this clown.
He married his first wife in Germany and, according to her, became a hash dealer. (How many retarded drug dealers do you know?) He killed his second wife, then persuaded a third woman to marry him while he was on death row. When she divorced him, he found his fourth wife in two years flat a British nurse who, twice a year, flew to Arizona to visit him.
When Apelt wanted to divorce her, he managed to file his own papers, in perfect legalese. His file at the Arizona Department of Corrections is filled with letters he's written in fluent English to prison officials. In letter after letter, Apelt articulately complains about his mail being opened, his need for a typewriter, and even the prison's "sandy, unwashed, filthy and rotten breakfast potatoes."
Give the man a pen, and he's practically Thomas Hobbes.
Of course, now that Apelt is playing the retarded card, his file is filling up with stories about his miserable childhood and his alcoholic dad. Apparently, he attended a school for students with learning disabilities in Germany and wasn't particularly successful, even there.
There's no doubt in my mind that Apelt will put on a good show in court next week. If he can fool a Jaguar dealer, he can fool a judge.
Luckily for Michael Apelt, the judge who heard his case in 1990 is dead. For his replacement, Apelt drew Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Silvia Arrellano.
Arrellano never heard Apelt's testimony in 1990, which was apparently razor-fast and highly articulate. And throughout her judicial career, Arellano has earned a reputation for being sympathetic to the defense. In this case, she's already made several rulings that should have Apelt's lawyers feeling giddy including a bizarre decision that none of Apelt's actions after turning 18 counts as evidence. (The Arizona Supreme Court overturned that ruling.)
It doesn't help, either, that Apelt's lawyer has been on the case for years, or that the lawyer representing the attorney general's office has little experience with death penalty work. Thanks to turnover in that office, she's been on this case for only a few months.
Fortunately, there will be two people in the courtroom who know exactly what Michael Apelt is capable of.
One of them is Kathy Monkman, who will testify to what she saw and will make a compelling a witness.
The other is Cathy Hughes. Hughes was a 40-year-old Pinal County prosecutor when she secured convictions against the Apelt brothers. She's come out of retirement to volunteer her time.
If anyone knows just what a shyster Michael is, it's Cathy Hughes. She cross-examined him in the last case, and we're going to have to hope she's ready for him now.
But even if justice is served, and Cathy Hughes blows her adversary out of the water, the fact that we're even at this point is unsettling.
Really, this whole thing amazes me. I can't believe we spent tens of thousands of dollars to send Michael Apelt's lawyer to Germany to research his background. I can't believe Apelt is even entitled to a hearing when there's so much proof of his mental abilities.
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This is the problem with our painfully good intentions: We allow con men like Michael Apelt to milk us for all we're worth. We let them because we'd rather give them every last chance at vindication rather then make them pay the price.
Ultimately, that may be a good thing. I like to believe that it's worth turning the other cheek, even when we get smacked for it.
But next week, when Michael Apelt uses the full resources of the state to attempt his highest-stake con ever, I can't help thinking that we're the stupid ones and that the allegedly retarded Michael Apelt will be sitting there laughing his head off.
That's what con men do. And, God bless us, what do we expect when we keep letting them do it?