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.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin