Wake-Up Call

They're not with us," Scott Falater whispered moments before the prosecutor began his closing argument in the Sleepwalker Murder Case.

Falater gestured toward the jury box, soon to be filled with citizens who would decide his fate. The 43-year-old Phoenician reminded his listener about something he'd said during an interview months earlier.

"Remember, I didn't even believe it was sleepwalking at first," he said, strangely tranquil. "I know it's a hard one for people to believe. I just hope they're listening a little bit."

Falater then shrugged and smiled briefly, before sitting down between his attorneys, Michael Kimerer and Lori Voepel. He is a congenial man, this onetime Motorola engineer, with a wry demeanor and often glib manner that he maintained throughout his trial in spite of his dire circumstances.

Last Friday morning about 10 a.m., just about everyone in the Valley with access to a television or radio learned of Falater's legal fate at the same time he did. Court clerk Kelly Branding read the jury's verdict--guilty of premeditated murder in the vicious January 1997 death of his wife, Yarmila.

In the downtown Phoenix courtroom where they had practically lived for six weeks, nine of the 12 jurors spoke, often eloquently, about their decision. National media types chimed in from their sweat-drenched perches outside the courthouse.

County Attorney Rick Romley and prosecutor Juan Martinez held a victory press conference. The stakes had been enormous--anything less than a first-degree conviction would have made Romley's office a national laughingstock.

Defense attorneys Kimerer and Voepel chose to keep their thoughts to themselves, as did Falater's mother, Lois Wilcek, and stepfather Frank.

Falater himself was reportedly on "suicide watch" at the Madison Street Jail--a routine precaution.

The guilty verdict didn't surprise most veteran courthouse denizens. Almost to a person, they were adamant that the cards were stacked against anyone--even someone with Falater's unblemished reputation as a churchgoing family man and an excellent employee--who did what he did to his wife.

The jury had at least 44 reasons--the number of knife wounds in Yarmila Falater's body--to convict Scott Falater. A neighbor had described how he'd seen Falater roll Yarmila into the family's lighted swimming pool in northeast Phoenix, then hold her under water with gloved hands before retreating to his house. Police found Falater's neatly packaged bloody clothing and other items in his car trunk.

In the end, Falater's savage attack didn't weigh up as a pure sleepwalking case even for his esteemed expert witness, Dr. Roger Broughton of Toronto, Canada. Broughton--famous for his pioneering work in the field of sleep disorders--admitted on the stand that he hadn't known crucial facts about the case until prosecutor Martinez brought them to his attention.

Those facts, Broughton said, gave him pause about his conclusion that Falater had been sleepwalking--and unable to form the requisite "intent" to commit first-degree murder.

What complicated this bizarre case even more was the lack of a plausible motive for murder. In most homicide cases, the reason eventually becomes apparent, even though prosecutors legally don't have to provide one.

But the usual motives--money, jealousy--never emerged in this case, no matter how hard Juan Martinez tried to provide one.

A seasoned prosecutor with the courtroom demeanor of an adrenalized boxer, Martinez accused some witnesses of lying to protect Falater. In open court--sometimes with the jury present--he tossed out allegations that made headlines, but often weren't confirmed by testimony or evidence.

The effect was to distract the jury at times from the grisly facts, something that pleased Kimerer and Voepel to no end. Those facts were the stabbing, the drowning and a laundry list of things Scott Falater did after he'd murdered his wife.

Falater had one chance, and the veteran Kimerer--a practical, levelheaded man--had conceded privately that it was a long shot: to convince the jury that Falater had murdered his beloved wife in an unconscious sleepwalking state. Kimerer and Voepel depicted Falater as a pacific individual who was stressed over problems at work, had been sleeping poorly and, one tragic night, had unwittingly murdered his beloved wife.

It probably wouldn't have hurt the prosecution case if they'd conceded all of the above--minus the sleepwalking. Many people are stressed about work and sleep poorly, but don't butcher their loved ones.

But Martinez conceded nothing. Instead, he argued that Falater had stabbed Yarmila in a rage, then calculatingly drowned her. Falater had committed an almost perfect murder, Martinez told the jury. Unfortunately for Falater, he said, the drowning was committed in full view of a neighbor, Greg Koons.

Martinez derided the idea that Falater--a product engineer and unit manager at a semiconductor plant--had been stressed out at the time of Yarmila's demise. The prosecutor also alluded to Falater's own admissions that he'd been ingesting No-Doz for about a year, contrary to his Mormon faith's prohibition on caffeine. He pointed out that Falater had cursed during interviews with New Times.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin