Monthly Archives: November 2014

The Master Key – Season 4, Show 8, 2014

This is the most difficult & disturbing of all Lt. Joe’s cases.  The real-life level of violence was so high that managers at the ID channel asked the production company not to depict what actually happened.  The television version actually lightens up the case, although that’s difficult to believe when you contemplate the gruesome torture deaths of two small children & a pregnant woman.

Even as Lt. Joe told me what happened, he said he had to gloss over some of the depravity.

As he puts it at the beginning of the show, “I had not seen that kind of violence before.  It was very, very disturbing to me.”

Favorite quotes:  “People are capable of anything.”  “People are the most dangerous animals on earth.”  Although Lt. Joe repeats these lines elsewhere, this is the show where they resonate most.  (I expect you agree that “capable of anything” is a phrase that could apply to the jury as well as the perpetrator.)

Summary, the television version:  It January 12, 1979, 9:00 in the morning at the Fountain apartments in Colorado Springs.  Sorella Wollford, interviewed for this show, plans to spend the day babysitting for her upstairs neighbors, in apartment 210.  The children are Carlos, age 4, & Benjamin, age 2.  Their mother is Yvonne Sisneros, expecting her third child.  When time passes & Sorella does not hear from Yvonne, she goes upstairs & knocks on their apartment door.  She hears a thumping noise.  There’s a ruckus going on.  No one answers the door.  Not knowing what to do, Sorella returns to her own apartment. Hours later, she hears the sound of sirens.

When the call comes, Lt. Joe is in his office poring over cold case files.  For once, this is during regular daytime business hours, a rare time for murder.  But there is nothing routine or common about this case.  Every detective on the force responds.

Lt. Joe arrives to find Benjamin Sisneros, the husband & father, intensely emotional, sitting on the floor in the hallway outside the apartment.  All of the normally cool, professional responders were distressed & upset.  Surveying the scene from the front door of the apartment, Lt. Joe was staggered by what he saw.

What he saw was the woman’s body, now covered with a blanket, bloody with as many as 60 stab wounds, plus strangulation & sexual violence.  The two-year-old boy has been stabbed 22 times; the four-year-old 19 times.  A bloody barbell lies nearby, used in beating the children in the head.

You can imagine Lt. Joe’s reaction, all the more as a photo comes up of his own two small children.

“I was so disturbed,” he says, “that I was filled with rage.  My thought was I am not going to eat, sleep, anything, until I had this son of a bitch by the throat.”

How did this crime begin?  Lt. Joe finds no sign of robbery & no sign of forced entry.  Stab wounds are small & round, unlike those a knife might inflict.  Police find a possibly significant clue, a ballpoint pen, covered in blood & white flecks.  Lt. Joe speculates that it fell from the killer’s pocket.

Benjamin Sisneros is interviewed for this show.  He was young then, now approaching old age.  He is Lt. Joe’s first suspect.  Benjamin reveals that his wife was three months pregnant.  He is an air traffic controller at Fort Carson.  He had been at work since early that morning.  But when he called home & no one answered, he says he became worried.  He signed out of work at 12:10 PM.  He drove home. He called police at 12:45.

Figure how long it took him to drive home, there is a very short period of time–about five minutes–unaccounted for.  Could he have murdered his wife & children during that five minutes?  Lt. Joe believes it’s possible.  He is stretching to find a plausible reason to suspect Benjamin.

But Benjamin says that when he arrived home, he found the door unlocked, unusual for his wife, who was careful about security.  He discovered his wife’s body in the bathtub.  Horrified, he pulled her onto the floor & covered her with a blanket.  Then he called police.  Nothing about him suggests guilt.

Besides, the coroner reports time of the deaths as between 9AM & 11AM, & Benjamin had not left work until just after noon.  Lt. Joe dismisses Benjamin as a suspect.

An anonymous tip gives an address for the possible killer.  Lt. Joe arrives, along with two backup cars.  He finds a 28-year-old man.  This man can account for his time that day.  He shows no physical signs of having just committed three murders.  He reacts to the abrupt arrival of police as a normal person would.  “We were hoping this meant something,” Lt. Joe says.  “It didn’t.”

Meanwhile, police have been canvassing everyone in the apartment building.  The city is shocked.  Media are everywhere.

The police find a witness, a man who was going out to walk his dog.  This man saw someone with a key letting himself into apartment 210.  The man is dressed in a plaid shirt & tan pants.  This could be Jimmy, a maintenance man for the apartment building.  Finally, Lt. Joe has a lead.  “This is a euphoric moment,” he says.

The director of maintenance for the apartment complex identifies this as James Joseph Perry, although he says Jimmy does not have a master key.  But a background check reveals that Jimmy has a criminal record.  He arrived in Colorado after fourteen years in a New York prison for murder.  Lt. Joe orders a search warrant.

When police arrive at Jimmy’s address, they find Victoria Martinez, Jimmy’s common-law wife.  She says Jimmy has been away all night.  He has girl friends with whom he often spends the night.  She does not find this unusual.  Then she reveals something truly important.  She works cleaning apartments in that same building, & she has a master key.  The key is missing.  Police look in the washing machine & find the clothes they hoped to find–a damp plaid shirt & tan pants, washed with a great deal of bleach.  Bleach destroys blood stains.  Lt. Joe mourns, “We were inches away from finding damning physical evidence.  He beat us to it.”

Police return to the maintenance office of the apartment building.  One officer requests to use the telephone.  As he stands at the desk, he finds himself gazed at a jar of ballpoint pens.  These are pens exactly like the bloody pen police found.  Furthermore, he notices a paint roller flecked with white paint.  Is he looking at an explanation for the white flecks on that pen?  Laboratory analysis will later reveal that yes, there’s a match.

But as this officer is still at the desk, he looks up & sees Jimmy himself entering the office.  Jimmy is wearing a watch flecked with white paint & blood.  His shoes look suspiciously streaked.

Police rush to arrest Jimmy.  Lt. Joe states the obvious, “There is nothing I wanted more than to lock him up.”

Jimmy looks caged & cornered.  He demands a lawyer.  The lawyer brings an end to any idea of a tough interrogation of Jimmy.

Lt. Joe does discover more about him, though.  Jimmy is a sexual hustler.  He hassles women.  He’s been accused of molesting & assaulting women.

One witness even heard him remarking about an attractive woman named Yvonne.

Lt. Joe believes Jimmy planned ahead.  He took Victoria’s master key.  He used it to open the door to Yvonne’s apartment.  He raped & murdered her.  He murdered the children.  Then he went on with an ordinary day at work.  He did all that, & then he just went back to work.

The day arrives for Jimmy’s trial.  Jimmy pleads innocent.  Jimmy testifies, & he is quite a performer.  He tells the jury that while he was in that New York prison, he found God.  He talks about how religion made him a changed man.  He came to Colorado to start a new life.

The jury believes.  The jury acquits Jimmy on all charges.  Jimmy walks free.

Lt. Joe’s reacts, “I was absolutely dumbstruck, & he is laughing at me.”  The other officer interviewed, Skip Armes, describes this as his “greatest professional disappointment.”  The acquittal shakes faith in the court system.  It’s a “violation of the human spirit,” an affront to civilization.

The case goes cold.  There are no other possible suspects.  Several months pass by.

Lt. Joe gets a phone call from NYC police.  They want him to know that Jimmy has been found dead in the Bronx.  Someone threw Jimmy through a window on a tenth floor, & as Lt. Joe puts it, “he didn’t bounce so good.”

Yvonne had “the greatest possible misfortune of living in view of a monster.”  Benjamin, who lost his wife & children to the monster, talks about suffering over his entire life, nearly forty years of mourning & pain.

Summary, real life version:   Remember that that the ID channel considered the details of this murder too disgusting for television viewers.  Lt. Joe considered the details too disgusting to reveal to me in private conversation.  Anything you read here is short of the truth.

In the TV version, Jimmy is said to murder the children so they could not serve as witnesses.  That makes no sense, since small traumatized children could not have been able to testify, in or out of court.  In real life, he murdered to silence them.  One was found with a rag stuffed down his throat.  Also, the frenzied & prolonged nature of the attack indicates that this monster was enjoying himself.

In the TV version, police find the ballpoint pen. At about the same time, there’s mention of extreme multiple stabbing with a small-diameter round weapon. A ballpoint pen could not be that weapon.  It is too breakable.  In real life, police found the apparent weapon in Jimmy’s tool belt.  It was a nine-inch cross-point screwdriver washed in gasoline.  Its dimensions matched the wounds.  Police also found a bloody kitchen knife.

The TV version mentions several weapons Jimmy used to commit murder, but not the weapon that actually caused Yvonne’s death.  Cause of death was a mop handle thrust from her vagina to the base of her heart.

In the TV version, Jimmy is able to walk away, make his way home, & wash his clothes.  In real life, he was covered with blood, just as you’d expect.  Several people noticed, but described the stains as brown, & assumed he had been working on some particularly filthy task.  Police found blood on his belt, shoes, & watch.

The lunch time routine at that delightful place of employment (don’t you wish you worked there?) was to sit in a car & slug down vodka.  Jimmy arrived in time for one drink, but he was not his usual self.  His co-worker noticed Jimmy was agitated & sweaty.  He had scratches on his hands.  He was shadow boxing, pretending to fight.  He declared, “Oh, man, I can handle three people at once.”

Yes, the jury heard that evidence.  Yes, Lt. Joe commented just as you’d expect, that Jimmy could handle three people at once, as long as two were children, one was a pregnant woman, & all were defenseless.

In the TV version, police find dry-looking clothes in Jimmy’s washing machine.  In real life, they found the clothes still damp, smelling strongly of bleach, & covered with bleached-out spots, in a clear attempt to get rid of blood stains.

In the TV version, the jury ignored evidence.  In real life, the jury ignored a Rocky Mountain range of evidence.

In real life, Lt. Joe says he went home & hugged his children for half an hour.

Criminal’s progress:  The progress from one crime to the next is something like a jobs lists on a good resume, ever bigger & more accomplished as years go on.  Jimmy started out as a small time burglar & molester of women.  He worked up to sexual assaults.  Next was murder.  In New York, he was convicted of first-degree murder, with a sentence of twenty-five years to life.  Ever the charmer, he told the parole board that he had been accepted to a Bible college in Colorado.  This was the first time he won by “playing the God card,” as Lt. Joe puts it.  The New York parole board jumped at the change to get him far away.  As a Bible student in Colorado, he specialized in seducing the female scholars.  He took them to his car in the parking lot of the school, then videotaped sex with them.  Some were too embarrassed to object; others complained to authorities.

Tracking down witnesses:  You’d think residents of that neighborhood would have been frightened & horrified.  You’d picture them falling all over themselves to aid in the police investigation.  They should have been outside, milling around, demanding police get rid of the monster in their midst.  At the time, the press thought so, too.  They were surprised that residents & neighbors did not help–or even show up, looking worried.  Potential witnesses avoided the police.  They stayed silent, even when they had information.  Lt. Joe says that, in a bad neighborhood, that’s an ordinary pattern of behavior.  People have criminal histories, outstanding arrest warrants.  They don’t invite police notice.

But, Lt. Joe says, if you track them down, they do tell the truth.  They’ll cooperate if they have to.

Other children involved:  Victoria, Jimmy’s common-law wife, had two children from a previous relationship.  She was at least somewhat aware of Jimmy’s proclivities. Yet she allowed Jimmy to have access to her children.  Lt. Joe says bitterly that she needed Jimmy around to help with the rent.

How much time does it take to commit murder?  Lt. Joe momentarily considered whether a perpetrator (Benjamin, the husband & father of the victims, only briefly a suspect) could theoretically have committed this crime in a period of only five minutes.  When Lt. Joe teaches, he demonstrates the possibility of speed in a crime.  He asks the students to time him in a demonstration.  Here’s how the demonstration goes:  Lt. Joe sets up a dummy (or any physical object).  He enters the classroom, shouts at the object that he hates it & is going to kill it.  He then begins a virtual stabbing, counting with each blow…one, two, three…up to a count of fifty.  He then shouts that he is glad the object is dead & storms out of the classroom.  Total time: less than two minutes.

God is my character witness:  This case was so important that the chief district attorney prosecuted it personally.  Legally, when Jimmy took the stand as a witness, that meant the DA could cross-examine him about his criminal past.  Jimmy’s true depravity should have been clear & visible to the jury.  Yet Jimmy turned on the charm.  He used religion as his chief persuader.  He somehow brought the jury, mostly nice middle-class women (including a friend of Kathy’s), into a sentimental world of his imagination in which sin is wiped clean, past crimes forgiven, & a very bad guy magically becomes good, despite all evidence to the contrary.

Nearly the moment they were dismissed, the jurors realized their mistake.  In the bright light of the outside world, they came to their senses. They refused interviews.  They asked the judge not to reveal their names.

In the public outcry over the verdict, there was even a ballot initiative to eliminate trail by jury in the state of Colorado.

If you pay attention to the news, you’ve seen other verdicts gone wrong, other juries bamboozled.  You’ve heard of other criminals finding self-serving religion.  This has all happened before & will happen again–just not to the extreme of this case.

Karma:  Police in both Colorado & New York were quite pleased with the fate that struck down Jimmy.  Lt. Joe mordantly refers to Jimmy’s defenestration as “cement poisoning.”  Police in the Bronx did not investigate the murder.  They put the case away in their “Had It Coming” file.  They even sent Lt. Joe a photo of Jimmy on the sidewalk.  Lt. Joe kept that gory picture in his desk for the next seven years.