NBC News Dateline: Too Fat To Kill?
April 26, 2010
LAWYER: Walter Lesnevich, Esq. — DENNIS MURPHY reporting: (Voiceover) The world of pills, prescription medicines, pharmaceuticals is where he’d made it big.
(Pills and pill bottles)
Mr. JOHN DUNCSAK: He was Moses. He was walking on water. Everybody loved him.
MURPHY: (Voiceover) Paul Duncsak seemed to go straight from a college intern job behind a druggist counter to the big money lifestyle of a pharmaceutical executive. On the way up he struck so many bosses as a natural at figuring innovative ways to make money out of medicine.
(Photos of Paul Duncsak, pills)
Mr. MICHAEL HERTZ: He could do almost anything.
MURPHY: (Voiceover) And for years this hard charging golden boy seemed to have all the perks and benes an executive could want: mid-six figures paycheck, the million dollar house in a good suburb, the wife and kids. And then, just like that, it all slipped away from him. There wasn’t a pill on the shelf to reverse the dizzying decline.
(Outside house; wedding photo; pill bottle spilling)
Ms. NANCY BAGLEY: He did say, you know, ‘Everything that I’ve worked for, you know, is gone.’
MURPHY: (Voiceover) Someone was siccing industry watchdogs on him, slurring his name with innuendo about shady deals and kickbacks. As it turns out, those would be the least of Paul Duncsak’s problems. Something far more sinister was waiting for him inside that million dollar home in the safe New Jersey burbs.
(Pill bottles in factor; photo of Paul; house at night)
Mr. WALTER LESNEVICH: The theory the police developed is that the killer is on the stairs and the first shot is up.
MURPHY: (Voiceover) Paul Duncsak had been ambushed and killed in his own home. The shooter had escaped and now friends of Paul were wondering seriously if they might be next.
(Crime scene photos; police vehicle outside house; police outside house)
Mr. HERTZ: I didn’t know if I was on some type of hit list.
MURPHY: (Voiceover) How had Paul Duncsak’s abbreviated life ended in murder? Well, you need to understand the marriage. He met his bride-to-be, Stacey, in 1998 at a pharmaceutical conference. He did consulting for the industry. She was a sales rep. Friends say they were instantly mad about each other. Paul’s brother John, though, didn’t quite know what to make of her, she was nothing if not direct.
(Photo of Paul; crime scene photos; wedding photo; photo of Stacey Duncsak; wedding photo; John Duncsak)
Mr. DUNCSAK: The first thing out of her mouth was, ‘I’m going to marry Paul.’ And she said something about, ‘Oh, he’s the best lover I’ve ever had.’
MURPHY: (Voiceover) But then her people weren’t all that thrilled with the young hot shot pharmaceutical exec either. Stacey’s father, Ed:
(Photo of Paul)
MURPHY: What did you think of him?
Mr. ED ATES: I though he was arrogant unreasonably, obnoxious. But I wasn’t marrying him.
MURPHY: (Voiceover) So both families bit their tongues and crossed their fingers as the two walked down the aisle in May 1999, after meeting only months before. The wedding was a lavish do, held aboard a yacht in New York harbor.
Mr. DUNCSAK: She got pregnant right, I believe, at the honeymoon purposely to pretty much lock Paul down.
MURPHY: (Voiceover) That would have been fine, says brother John, except that Paul suddenly found himself saddled with another much hungrier mouth to feed. Stacey’s father, Ed Ates, a retired military man, was asking his new son-in-law to invest in various business schemes. Paul’s fellow pharmacist and best pal Michael Hertz tried to give him some advice.
(John standing on balcony; photo of Ed Ates and Stacey; Michael Hertz counting pills)
Mr. HERTZ: I told him be careful, you know. That you don’t know the guy.
Things can happen to your money.
MURPHY: And the business went bust, didn’t it?
Mr. HERTZ: The business went bust, yes.
MURPHY: (Voiceover) By the end of 2003, after four years of marriage and two kids, Paul and Stacey were over and out, heading for divorce. The father-in-law says the soured business deals had nothing to do with his daughter’s marriage going bust. Ed Ates says Paul Duncsak had come to resent Stacey, who was suffering from an illness that had paralyzed her face.
(Wedding photos; broken wedding photo; photo of Ed; photos of Paul and Stacey; photo of Paul, photo of Stacey)
Mr. ATES: Apparently he wanted to be rid of her after she got disfigured.
MURPHY: He didn’t like the way she looked.
Mr. ATES: He didn’t—no. She wasn’t a trophy bride no more.
MURPHY: (Voiceover) Now, as Paul told it, it was Stacey who was the problem.
(Photo of Stacey)
MURPHY: He told friends that she was abusing prescription drugs, while she denied it and allegedly told her father that her husband was selling those drugs on those black market. Ed Ates says he alerted the authorities, who found no evidence of wrongdoing. But the father-in-law wasn’t done. Ed Ates next accused Duncsak of giving kickbacks to employees of a pharmaceutical giant. He’d whistleblown his son-in-law to Paul’s own superiors.
(Voiceover) The result of the father-in-law and estranged wife’s toxic campaign was a a career killer for Paul Duncsak. He lost his biggest client. That, says his divorce attorney Dominic Tomaio, all but ruined Duncsak.
(Photo of Paul in office; pills being made; Dominic Tomaio speaking on phone)
Mr. DOMINIC TOMAIO: Because the pharmaceutical industry is a small, tight-knit industry in the training field, that he felt that he was going to be and was, in fact, blacklisted through the other pharmaceutical companies.
MURPHY: (Voiceover) So Paul Duncsak, the man who once pulled down 500,000 plus a year as a pharmaceutical executive, was now out the door, back to square one, working behind the counter of a local drugstore, where he made less than 100,000 a year. By the beginning of 2004, Paul Duncsak was not only getting divorced, he was also getting depressed. A few saw Paul struggling with dark thoughts, very dark. At one point he called his brother to say he was putting his affairs in order.
(Pills being made and bottled; photo of Paul; pills being counted; broken wedding photo; photo of Paul; John)
Mr. DUNCSAK: And he goes, ‘I fear of my life. I truly, truly do.’
MURPHY: (Voiceover) Even paranoids are right some of the time.
(Emergency lights; pills)
MURPHY: (Voiceover) Coming up, sabotage in the suburbs. Was someone out to get Paul Duncsak?
Ms. BAGLEY: I remember looking at the other mom…
(Voiceover) …and we were just frozen.
Ms. BAGLEY: We really were.
MURPHY: (Voiceover) The road to divorce is often rocky, but Duncsak’s road was strewn with land mines and shoulder-held weapons. 2004 was a very ugly year indeed for Paul and Stacey. He told his brother, his wife and father-in-law had thrown him under the bus by destroying his professional reputation with their slanderous accusations.
(Wedding photos; photo of Paul and Stacey; John; photo of Paul)
Mr. DUNCSAK: His name out there in the medical field was, you know, nobody wanted to hire him.
MURPHY: (Voiceover) Meanwhile, Stacey Duncsak was on the phone constantly to her parents down in Florida. The single topic: berating Paul and the slow-motion divorce. It became official finally in January of ‘05. He bought her out of the house in Ramsey, New Jersey, money she used to buy a nearby condo, and gave her alimony in a lump sum.
(Photo of Stacey; photo of Ed and Dottie Ates; photo of Paul; outside house; door of condo; photo of Stacey)
Mr. DUNCSAK: He came down to Shore and he was like, ‘I’m divorced.’ I’m like, ‘Congratulations.’ So we went out for a cocktail and we went home.
MURPHY: (Voiceover) The celebration turned out to be a false armistice because the two had quickly entered a cold war phase over child custody. In court papers, he thundered that she was using drugs, addiction had made her an unfit mother. She loudly denied it and got a restraining order against him. Trapped beneath the volleys from the two camps were the children, a small son and a daughter. Arms limitation talks were a cakewalk compared to the Duncsaks’ parental visitation arrangements.
(Photo of Paul; photo of Stacey; photo of Stacey, pills tumbling; shelf with toys, books and photos)
Mr. DUNCSAK: They were dropping off the kids at Ramsey Police Department. I mean, how horrible is that?
MURPHY: (Voiceover) Eventually, by 2006, the two adults called a cease-fire long enough to hammer out a joint custody agreement, a 50-50 split in parenting. Paul, meanwhile, seemed to be getting his groove back. He’d managed to work his way from the drugstore counter back into his old environment as a pharmaceutical executive with Medco. He also had a girlfriend, a serious new woman in his life who was going to move in with him in that nice but all too lonely house in Ramsey, New Jersey. While Paul was talking marriage, the former Mrs. Duncsak’s life was in free fall, money trouble. She hadn’t found work after the divorce. She’d been sickly with various complaints, and now had fallen behind on bank payments for her home. John Duncsak says the way his brother saw it, Stacey had only one option, to move in with her parents, Ed and Dottie Ates, down in Florida. But the child custody arrangement wouldn’t allow that.
(Photo of Paul, photo of Stacey; outside house; photo of Paul; pharmacy; outside Medco; photo of Paul and fiancee Lori Adamo; photo of house; photo of Paul; photos of Stacey; outside condo; John; wedding photo)
Mr. DUNCSAK: Every time that Stacey had the kids, my brother’s always concerned that she would take them out of state.
MURPHY: (Voiceover) And behind that fear of losing his kids was an even darker threat. Paul shared it with his friend Nancy Bagley one afternoon as their kids swam in his backyard. He said that earlier that summer his pool had been sabotaged, its heater cranked up to a piping 100 degrees. He was convinced it was no accident.
(Photo of Paul; Nancy Bagley on stairs; outside house; swimming pool)
Ms. BAGLEY: He says, ‘I’m afraid for my life.’ And I remember looking at the other mom, and we were just frozen, I mean, we really were.
MURPHY: (Voiceover) Pretty soon word was getting around with his new business associates that Paul Duncsak was a man looking over his shoulder. Co-worker Janie Bennorth, who used the same day care as Paul, could not fathom why he was so hush-hush about anyone learning who his new employer was. Downright weird.
(Medco sign; Janie Bennorth at computer; day care playground)
Ms. JANIE BENNORTH: Please do not notice me if you ever see over at the day care. I don’t want anybody to know where I’m working.
MURPHY: (Voiceover) But three weeks later, she ran into him at that day care and innocently said hello. Back at the office, he went nuts on her.
(Day care playground; Medco sign)
Ms. BENNORTH: And very, very, very arrogantly, and very mad, just pointed his finger at me and said, ‘I thought we had this conversation. I thought I told you never to talk to me outside of this office.’ I mean, to the point that I was very scared.
MURPHY: (Voiceover) Even his good friend Michael Hertz thought Paul was starting to lose it. After all, the divorce and custody issue had been settled. He had no reason to fear his ex.
(Hertz in pharmacy; photo of Stacey and Paul)
Mr. HERTZ: I said, ‘Paul, you know, really, I think you’re being a little melodramatic.’
MURPHY: You think the guy’s paranoid?
Mr. HERTZ: Absolutely. And he said, ‘No, this is really happening. I know nobody believes me.’
MURPHY: (Voiceover) So with all this drama going on, when Stacey took the kids for vacation the second week in August of 2006, Paul was all but convinced he’d never see them again. Michael, the best friend, tried to cheer him up, changing the subject to the exciting new chapter. His fiancee would be moving in with him in a few days. In fact, Paul was on his cell phone with her as he pulled into his driveway after work on Wednesday, August 23rd. As the fiances chatted, he remarked about an empty hamburger wrapper left lying on the floor. Then he took her to task for leaving the central air conditioner going full blast.
(Photo of Stacey and children; Hertz in pharmacy; outside house; photo of Paul and Lori; mailbox; hamburger wrapper; thermostat)
Mr. DUNCSAK: Paul was being Paul. He made a crack. He goes, ‘I can’t believe you left the freaking air conditioner on.’ She goes, ‘No, I didn’t.’
MURPHY: (Voiceover) That’s when she heard Paul scream and the line go dead. His months of growing fear had been validated by at least seven gunshots at close range. He never had a chance to tell all his doubters, ‘I told you so.’
(Photo of Lori and Paul; photo of cell phone; doors; crime scene photos; photo of Paul)
MURPHY: (Voiceover) Coming up, gunned down in his own house. Were others in danger?
(Crime scene photos; photo of Paul; outside house)
Mr. HERTZ: We all walked around wondering if we were next on the hit list.
MURPHY: (Voiceover) Police hear a conspiracy caught on tape and learn of a secret stakeout.
(Tape recorder; telephone pole; outside house)
Sergeant RUSSELL CHRISTIANA: They were essentially surveilling Paul Duncsak’s house.
MURPHY: (Voiceover) When DATELINE continues.
MURPHY: (Voiceover) Paul Duncsak’s girlfriend heard her fiance being murdered just hours before they were to begin a new life together in this million dollar New Jersey home. She called 911.
(Photo of Paul and Lori; outside house; tape recorder)
911 Operator: (911 audiotape) 911, what’s your emergency?
Ms. LORI ADAMO: (911 audiotape) Hi. I was just speaking to my boyfriend as he was was entering his home, and I heard loud screaming and now there’s dead air on the other end.
MURPHY: (Voiceover) Police arrived at the house that Wednesday evening to find the 40-year-old pharmaceutical executive slumped inside a hallway, dead of multiple gunshot wounds. The killer, whoever he or she was, had left the house unseen and left it behind fairly clean.
(Emergency vehicles and personnel; photo of Paul; crime scene photos; outside house)
MURPHY: No hair, fibers, fingerprints, DNA, no murder weapon.
Detective BRIAN HUTH: No murder weapon.
MURPHY: So all of that good CSI stuff is mostly absent from the scene, huh?
Det. HUTH: That’s correct.
MURPHY: (Voiceover) But Brian Huth, a detective with the local police department, says the victim had been shot at least seven times. To investigators, that suggested hatred. Now, the officers were eager to speak with the ex-wife to learn where she’d been at about 6:30 that night. They quickly located her at her condo.
(Photo of police outside house; photo of Paul; crime scene photo; wedding photo; outside condo)
Det. HUTH: She said she had an appointment for her son at a Dr. Solomon in Teaneck, New Jersey. She arrived a little bit late, arrived about 6:20, and was at the doctor’s appointment for about 45 minutes thereafter.
MURPHY: And you checked it out and she was right.
Det. HUTH: Correct.
MURPHY: That’s where she was. She as alibied up.
Det. HUTH: She was there. Yes.
MURPHY: (Voiceover) Spouses and exes are routinely checked out in these kinds of homicides. But Stacey Duncsak, the victim’s unhappy ex-wife, was in the clear. So who was next on the list of possible shooters? The murdered man’s brother cut right to the chase when he spoke to detectives.
(Wedding photo; photo of Stacey; crime scene photo; John)
Mr. DUNCSAK: I said, ‘I can’t believe he actually did it.’ They’re like, ‘Who?’ ‘Ed Ates.’ I couldn’t believe it.
MURPHY: (Voiceover) Ed Ates, Stacey’s father. Paul’s friend Michael Hertz told police the same thing when he’d learned of Paul’s death. He even thought Ed Ates might try to nail him next.
(Photo of Stacey and Ed; Hertz in pharmacy)
Mr. HERTZ: We all walked around wondering if we were next on the hit list.
MURPHY: Because you thought there was an enemy’s list of friends of Paul?
Mr. HERTZ: Yes, exactly.
MURPHY: (Voiceover) Homicide detectives always pose the question, ‘Who benefited from the murder?’
(Photo of Paul)
MURPHY: And here the victim’s brother and best friend were telling the police that Stacey unquestionably stood to gain from her ex’s death. She’d be free now to move to Florida with her children and raise them with money from the million dollar trust fund Paul had set up for them. And who was the shooter in this theory? Her father, giving his daughter a monstrous and bloody gift of liberation from a man they both loathed. So detective tried to call Ed Ates at his home in Florida. They say his wife, Dottie, answered and told them her husband was away and she had no idea how to reach him.
(Voiceover) Sergeant Russell Christiana is a detective with the prosecutor’s office in Bergen County, New Jersey.
(Russell Christiana reading at table)
Sgt. CHRISTIANA: He’s essentially out of touch for 24 hours from the time of the murder, and he’s the person that we’re looking to talk to. And when you have that type of situation, it starts throwing up red flags.
MURPHY: (Voiceover) The night after the murder, a Thursday, Ed Ates did return the police’s calls. He told them he was currently in Louisiana, at his elderly mother’s. Obviously the New Jersey detectives were eager to interview Ates in person, so they flew to Louisiana. But by the time they’d arrived, the one-time father-in-law had already hired a lawyer and invoked his right not to talk. But the detectives did get in a few words with Ates’ sister Brenda that night. She told them her brother had arrived at their mom’s in Louisiana on a Tuesday evening, one day before the murder of Paul Duncsak.
(Moon; highway sign; outside house; airplane taking off; photo of Ed; Brenda Ates; town sign)
MURPHY: Did you think she was telling you the truth?
Sgt. CHRISTIANA: I wasn’t certain at that point. We were—it was still very early on in the investigation.
MURPHY: (Voiceover) So the detectives kept looking into the Ates family’s possible involvement in the murder. Roughly a month after the crime, they obtained wiretaps on various Ates’ phone lines. What they heard sounded to them like a classic cover-up in the works, Ed Ates trying to make sure his family stayed on script when it came to that Tuesday story, his alibi.
(Photo of Ed and Dottie; warning sign; telephone lines and pole; photo of Ed; outside house)
Mr. ATES: (Audiotape) You were there when I got there on Tuesday.
Ms. BRENDA ATES: (Audiotape) Yeah.
Mr. ATES: (Audiotape) OK.
Ms. ATES: (Audiotape) Right.
Mr. ATES: (Audiotape) I just got to make sure that we’re all—we’re all saying the same thing if it comes to it.
Sgt. CHRISTIANA: At least one of them is Edward Ates forcing his alibi at the time on his—on his sister, basically telling her, ‘And I got there on Tuesday.’
MURPHY: Coaching his story.
Sgt. CHRISTIANA: Yes.
MURPHY: (Voiceover) The detectives were also digging into phone records from that summer, and they came up with a plum. Cell phones used by Ed and his wife, Dottie Ates, had been registering hits at cell towers just blocks from the victim’s New Jersey home only a week or so before the murder. Investigators also learned the Florida couple had rented a vehicle in nearby Pennsylvania in the same time frame.
(Christiana reading at table; photo of Ed and Dottie; cell phone towers;
Enterprise sign; landscape)
MURPHY: What was going on with the Ateses in this trip?
Sgt. CHRISTIANA: They were essentially surveilling Paul Duncsak’s house.
MURPHY: (Voiceover) Eventually the New Jersey investigators and prosecutors were convinced they had enough. In June of 2007, almost a year after the death of Paul Duncsak, they traveled to Florida to the home of the Ates family.
(Christiana reading; photo of Paul; RV; outside house)
Mr. ATES: They came in with a SWAT team.
MURPHY: (Voiceover) The grandfather, then about 300 pounds, remembers being overpowered by sheriff’s deputies as his five-year-old grandson looked on in horror. Ed Ates had been arrested for murder and his wife, Dottie, arrested for hindering apprehension and obstruction of justice. The authorities thought they had their man for the crime, but how were they going to break his alibi story. In Louisiana on Tuesday, the day before the killing, the relatives had circled the wagons around big Ed Ates, who was about to tell the world a larger-than-life story about why he couldn’t have possibly killed the man he once called family.
(Photo of Ed, Dottie and child; photo of Ed; photo of Dottie; photo of Ed and two men; outside house; Ed and police officer entering courtroom; photo of Paul)
MURPHY: (Voiceover) Coming up, drama in the court as Ed Ates’ sister takes the stand. She was his alibi, but what will she say under oath?
(Court in session; Brenda in court; Ed in court; Brenda walking)
Ms. ATES: I wanted to do what I thought was the right thing to do.
MURPHY: (Voiceover) This wasn’t how Edward Ronald Ates, a highly decorated computer analyst for the military, figured he’d be spending his retirement years, inside a courtroom in a defendant’s chair, on trial.
(Ed in court; court in session)
Mr. WAYNE MELLO: (In court) Would you please step from the jury box.
MURPHY: (Voiceover) And yet the state of New Jersey was about to tell 12 jurors why they should convict this grandfather of murder.
(Court in session; Ed in court)
Mr. MELLO: (In court) This is the case of the killing of Paul Duncsak.
MURPHY: (Voiceover) Bergen County’s assistant prosecutor Wayne Mello opened the state’s case, talking to the jurors not about the defendant but about the victim. Forty-year-old Paul Duncsak, a wealthy pharmaceutical executive, how he, the victim, had weathered a brutal divorce from Ates’ daughter Stacey. How Paul Duncsak on the day he died was trying to turn the page, on the phone chatting with his new fiancee Lori Adamo when he stepped into his house the night of August 23rd, 2006.
(Wayne Mello in court; Ed in court; photo of Paul and Stacey; photo of Paul and Lori; house at night)
Ms. ADAMO: (In court) He was inside the house and he said, ‘And you left the air conditioning on.’ I said, ‘No. I never turned on the air conditioning.’ And then suddenly he started to scream.
MURPHY: (Voiceover) On the stand, the fiancee recounted Paul Duncsak’s last words.
(Lori in court; house at night)
Ms. ADAMO: (In court) He said, ‘Oh, oh, no.’ And then he stopped speaking, and I heard a thud, like a falling sound, and nothing. And I was calling his name and he wasn’t answering.
MURPHY: (Voiceover) The court heard how the fiancee immediately called 911, and local police arrived within minutes to discover a lifeless Paul Duncsak, slumped inside a narrow hallway of an otherwise pristine house.
(Police vehicle outside house; police officers and vehicles; crime scene photos; photo of Paul; crime scene photos)
Mr. MELLO: (In court) Any sign, anywhere at the residence of Paul Duncsak of forced entry?
Unidentified Man #1: (In court) No.
MURPHY: (Voiceover) An investigator who processed the crime scene testified that the evidence pointed away from a botched robbery. The victim, he said, was still wearing a Rolex watch and had $300 in cash on him. Multiple gunshot wounds were testimony to a violent death.
(Police vehicle outside house; watch; wallet; bullet)
MURPHY: Does that tell you anything?
Mr. MELLO: It tells me somebody wanted this man dead very, very badly.
MURPHY: (Voiceover) To pre-empt the standard defense argument that the cops never seriously pursued anyone but the accused, the prosecutor called a young neighbor to the stand. He told the court he’d seen a green van with a mysterious woman inside it around the time of the murder, but the tip seemed to be one of those investigative red herrings.
(Police outside house; court in session; vehicle; outside house)
Mr. MELLO: I did not then nor do I now believe that that van was involved in this murder.
MURPHY: (Voiceover) Instead, the prosecutor said the evidence gathered in the months after the murder showed that the killer was far from a nameless intruder. It was, in fact, someone who knew Paul Duncsak well and had plotted his death carefully.
(Bullets; evidence photos; photo of Paul)
Unidentified Man #2: (In court) And what we have here as a search string is ‘how to commit a perfect murder.’
MURPHY: (Voiceover) A police forensics expert provided damning testimony against the defendant. He explained how a computer used by Edward Ates and later seized by police yielded the ghosts of past online searches.
(Man in court; computer searches)
MURPHY: Is it true that on the hard drive they found a search asking the question, ‘How do you commit the perfect murder?’
Mr. MELLO: That is true. He researched how to pick a lock. He would purchase a lock pick set. He versed—researched silencers, he would purchase two books on silencers. He researched .22 caliber weapons.
MURPHY: (Voiceover) And not only did Edward Ates research guns, the prosecutor said he owned them, too.
(Ed in court)
Unidentified Judge: (In court) Please raise your right hand.
MURPHY: (Voiceover) To emphasize that point, he called an extremely reluctant witness for the prosecution: Stacey Duncsak, the daughter of Edward Ates and ex-wife of the victim.
(Stacey in court; wedding photo)
Mr. MELLO: (In court) It would be fair to say that your dad has a good knowledge of guns.
Ms. STACEY DUNCSAK: (In court) He has a knowledge of them.
Mr. MELLO: (In court) OK. In fact, you know that in 2006, he certainly owned a gun.
Ms. DUNCSAK: (In court) Yes, sir.
Mr. MELLO: (In court) And…
MURPHY: (Voiceover) The prosecutor was trying to show that the defendant was not only comfortable around guns but also had planned his murder like an assassin, surveilling his intended victim in the week before the crime. Sergeant Christiana told the court the story of the cell tower hits and cell phone records that put Edward Ates squarely in his ex-son-in-law’s neighborhood.
(Ed; trees at night; house at night; Christiana in court; cell towers; vehicle at night)
Mr. MELLO: It was reconnaissance. Paul Duncsak for the weeks prior followed the same pattern day in and day out.
MURPHY: Same patterns. He’s punching in, punching out. You could set your watch to him.
Mr. MELLO: Well put.
Mr. ATES: (Audiotape) You were there when I got there on Tuesday.
MURPHY: (Voiceover) The sergeant also testified to those wiretaps, the ones in which Edward Ates reminds his sister about when he arrived in Louisiana, on a Tuesday before the Wednesday murder of Paul Duncsak.
(Tape recorder; outside house; crime scene)
Mr. MELLO: He has co-opted his sister and his mother into a conspiratorial agreement to hinder his apprehension, because it is clear that the truth is he was not there on Tuesday.
MURPHY: (Voiceover) Asserted by the prosecution but still not proven. But that was about to change in most dramatic fashion. The defendant’s sister Brenda took the stand. In a soft voice, she, in effect, ratted out her brother. She recounted how he’d asked her to lie to police, to tell them he arrived on her Louisiana doorstep on Tuesday.
(Mello in court; Brenda entering courtroom; Brenda in court; Ed; porch and door)
Mr. MELLO: (In court) Now you knew that was untrue?
Ms. ATES: (In court) Yes.
MURPHY: (Voiceover) Changing her story now, she said her brother had, in fact, arrived on a Thursday, nearly 24 hours after Paul Duncsak’s murder in New Jersey.
(Brenda in court; outside house; house at night)
Mr. MELLO: (In court) After you…
MURPHY: (Voiceover) But maybe there was an asterisk next to Brenda’s testimony. She also admitted on the stand that she’d cut a deal with the state, her testimony in exchange for leniency on charges of hindering apprehension and obstructing justice. Still, she insisted on the stand, and to DATELINE later, that she was now telling the truth.
(Mello and Brenda in court; Ed; Brenda sitting on porch)
Ms. ATES: It is a hard thing to test—have to testify against your brother, but I really didn’t have a choice. I wanted to do what I thought was the right thing to do.
MURPHY: (Voiceover) With his alibi crushed by his own sister, the brick by brick masonry of a circumstantial case was walling in Edward Ates. The prosecution had portrayed a vengeful man carefully plotting the murder of his former son-in-law, stalking his comings and goings, then finally lying in wait that Wednesday night. Speculation, had he baited the scene, knowing that Duncsak would be agitated by finding a carelessly tossed hamburger and an air conditioner blasting away? Was he led to the thermostat off the narrow hallway where he was ambushed, the kill zone? Perhaps. But it’s clear, argued the prosecution, that Ates then got in his car and drove 21 and a half hours straight to his mother’s home in Louisiana, arriving Thursday night.
(Brenda in court; Ed and lawyers in court; photo of Ed; photo of Paul; house at night; crime scene photos; hamburger wrapper; thermostat; crime scene photo; highway at night; sun in trees; outside house)
Mr. MELLO: (Voiceover) He is a very motivated person to return to safety.
Mr. MELLO: Almost poetically to the bosom of his mother.
MURPHY: (Voiceover) Now, Ed Ates had to explain all of that away, and his attorney would try to do just that with a novel defense. ‘Jurors, this man is just too fat to kill.’
(Ed in court; Walter Lesnevich in court; Ed; photos of Ed)
MURPHY: (Voiceover) Coming up…
(Coming up graphic)
Unidentified Man #3: (In court) His abdomen was obviously obese at that time.
MURPHY: (Voiceover) The legal strategy that raised eyebrows from coast to coast.
(Lesnevich in court; empty juror chairs; Ed sleeping in court)
MURPHY: Too old, too fat, too sick.
Mr. LESNEVICH: Yes. We proved it.
MURPHY: (Voiceover) Ed Ates’ big gamble, when DATELINE continues.
MURPHY: (Voiceover) The prosecution had painted Edward Ates as a liar, a schemer and, worst of all, a cold blooded killer. But as his lawyer was about to assert, those were just words. Where was the hard evidence of Ates’ guilt in the murder of Paul Duncsak?
(Ed in court; Lesnevich in court; Ed in court; photo of Paul)
Mr. LESNEVICH: What I had to show the most was scientific fact, that he could not have done it.
MURPHY: (Voiceover) Attorney Walter Lesnevich began his argument at the crime scene itself, where the defense claim the detective who so meticulously went over every piece of evidence collected there failed to come up with anything. Not so much as a fingerprint or fiber to connect Ed Ates to the crime.
(Lesnevich in court; police vehicle outside house; witness; crime scene photos)
Mr. LESNEVICH: (In court) You’re going to see a lot of what I call, ‘Hm, well, that’s interesting, what about that?’ But not one of those makes up beyond a reasonable doubt.
MURPHY: (Voiceover) Wouldn’t you think, he asked, that an eyewitness would have remembered a strange 300-pound man lumbering away in broad daylight? But the attorney did point out something a young neighbor had seen: a mystery woman inside a green van parked behind the victim’s home.
(Outside house; photo of Ed; outside house; driveway at night; trees at night)
MURPHY: Is that a red herring or is that interesting to you?
Mr. LESNEVICH: It’s very interesting. That probably was the murderer. That probably had something to do with it. Driven by a woman and yet—and every woman Ed Ates knows was accounted for.
MURPHY: (Voiceover) In other words, he says, Paul Duncsak was likely killed by an unknown intruder. Maybe a robber caught in the act who then fled without taking anything. The lawyer says the testimony of the victim’s fiancee supports the theory. She recounted on the stand that Paul said something like, ‘Oh, no,’ into his cell phone, just before the line went dead. He never identified Ed Ates.
(Stairs at night; photo of Paul; fence; Lori in court; photo of cell phone; Ed entering court)
Mr. LESNEVICH: Paul didn’t know the killer. If you’re facing someone killing you and you have that cell phone, wouldn’t you say the person’s name?
(In court) Direct line…
MURPHY: (Voiceover) But the defense had a lot of ground to make up. Starting with the defendant’s initial alibi, which his sister seemed to smash to bits. She told the court her brother had asked her to lie to police, to say he’d arrived in Louisiana on Tuesday, one day before the murder of Paul Duncsak, instead of one day after, on Thursday. On cross, the defense lawyer tried to show that Brenda, a nice woman, was easily confused.
(Lesnevich in court; Ed in court; Brenda on porch; photo of Paul; Brenda in court)
Mr. LESNEVICH: (In court) If I told you that Detective Christiana sat just right where you are and said that Brenda Ates told me she gets confused, would that be true?
Ms. ATES: (In court) Well, occasionally, I do. I have diabetes and I do occasionally get my mind, you know.
Mr. LESNEVICH: She believed the truth was what the detectives told her it was. They told her the truth is Thursday, and she said, ‘Well, you know, sir, you’re a smart detective and I’m just a simple lady. That’s what you say, it must be true.’
MURPHY: (Voiceover) But he defense was about to tell the jury something really surprising. Sister Brenda hadn’t been the only one who had gotten it all wrong about exactly when Ed Ates made it to Louisiana. The defendant himself now said he’d misspoken in those damning wiretaps about arriving on Tuesday.
(Lesnevich in court; Brenda walking; Ed in court)
Mr. ATES: (Audiotape) And you were there when I got there on Tuesday?
Ms. ATES: (Audiotape) Yes.
(Road; houses; Ed in court; police vehicle outside house)
Judge: (In court) Please raise your right hand.
MURPHY: (Voiceover) To verify the amended day, a man who lived in the same neighborhood as Ates’ mother and sister took the stand. His name was Matlock and he remembered seeing Ed Ates and his car on the Louisiana block on Wednesday.
(Matlock in court; outside house; Matlock in court; Ed in court; outside house)
Mr. LESNEVICH: (In court) Did you see his beige Honda that week?
MATLOCK: (In court) Yes, I did.
Mr. LESNEVICH: (In court) What day?
MATLOCK: (In court) A Wednesday.
Mr. LESNEVICH: And he said 17 times, ‘I am certain it was Wednesday.’ This man had no reason to lie. He’s intelligent, awake, sitting right there, staring at the house.
MURPHY: (Voiceover) The lawyer was trying to show that Ed Ates could not have been killing Paul Duncsak in New Jersey and been in Louisiana on the same day at virtually the same hour, physically impossible. And he was about to show why he thought the prosecution’s theory of the crime was also straining reality.
(Outside house; photo of Paul; photo of Ed; outside house; outside house;
Lesnevich in court)
Man #3: (In court) His abdomen was obviously obese at that time.
MURPHY: (Voiceover) In a novel defense that made headlines across the nation, the lawyer called an expert witness, a doctor, to the stand, to show that Edward Ates could not have committed this particular murder. Why? Because the creaky grandfather was too fat to have pulled it off.
(Photo of Ed and document; Lesnevich in court; man in court; Ed entering courtroom)
MURPHY: (Voiceover) Too old, too fat, too sick.
(Ed entering courtroom)
Mr. LESNEVICH: Yes. I mean, we proved it. They had nothing to refute that.
MURPHY: (Voiceover) The medical expert testified that Edward Ates’ obesity fueled a litany of chronic health problems—asthma, diabetes, high blood pressure—making it unlikely for him to have been able to run during or just after the crime. What’s more, his sleep apnea, which left him chronically fatigued, would have ruled out an all-night and all-day getaway from New Jersey to Louisiana.
(Photo of Ed; outside house; Ed asleep in court; highway at night)
Mr. LESNEVICH: (In court) Drive 21 and a half hours within a 24-hour period?
Man #3: (In court) That would be highly improbable.
MURPHY: So the reason why Ed Ates can’t be behind the wheel powered by adrenaline fleeing the scene is what?
Mr. LESNEVICH: He would fall asleep. Powered by adrenaline, as the doctor explained, keeps you away four hours, five hours, six hours. Then you have a crash. But adrenaline can’t run 24 hours.
MURPHY: (Voiceover) The defense was telling the jury it had been presented no direct evidence to tie Ed Ates to the murder of his former son-in-law, and medically there was no earthly way he could have done it. And yet there was all that circumstantial evidence still to explain away: that odd trip to Pennsylvania and New Jersey the week before the murder, the damning computer searches. And there was only one person left who could do that. Coming up, Edward Ates takes the stand in his own defense.
(Empty juror chairs; photo of Ed; photo of Paul; Ed; highway at night; computer searches; police vehicle outside house; Ed in court)
Mr. MELLO: (In court) You had murdered Paul Duncsak in cold blood, isn’t that the truth?
Mr. ATES: (In court) No, sir. That is not true.
MURPHY: (Voiceover) Would his story convince a jury?
(Empty juror chairs; Judge in court)
MURPHY: (Voiceover) And later, in our second hour, Bitter Pill. A doting mom loses control at the wheel.
(Highway sign; photo of couple; photo of woman; photo of woman and children; highway sign)
Ms. TARA TAMSEN: (Voiceover) I saw a black car cross over center.
Ms. TAMSEN: And I’m thinking to myself, ‘What is this woman doing?’
MURPHY: (Voiceover) When it was all over, she was dead. Her tight-knit family united in grief, except for her doctor husband.
(Vehicle on road; hospital; photo of woman; man with arm around woman; man crying; grief graphic; photo of couple; photo of man)
DOMINIC: Julie called and said nobody can find Yaz.
MURPHY: (Voiceover) He’d disappeared, leaving behind his children; and soon stories of a double life no one had suspected.
(Photo of man; disappeared graphic; photos of man and children; woman, photo of man, clothing; man; photo of man, photo of woman; bed)
Mr. STEVE DEVER: He would use the apartment to bring his lady friends.
MURPHY: (Voiceover) But cheating does not a murderer make. And his wife died after a tragic but routine car crash. Nothing to do with him. Right?
(Man in court; photo of woman; traffic light; road; photo of man)
MURPHY: (Voiceover) Found these calcium pills.
Unidentified Man #4: (Voiceover) Yes.
MURPHY: What were they filled with?
(Voiceover) Did the doctor do it?
Mr. LESNEVICH: (In court) Let me rephrase it. Drive 21 and a half hours…
MURPHY: (Voiceover) Edward Ates’ lawyer had tried to show that his client wasn’t in New Jersey at the time of Paul Duncsak’s murder and that he wasn’t in any physical shape to be killing anyone. But Edward Ates still had to explain away the rest of the prosecution’s case.
(Lesnevich in court; Ed in court; photo of three men; Mello in court)
Mr. ATES: They absolutely have nothing.
MURPHY: (Voiceover) And he was willing to do just that in a jailhouse interview with DATELINE during a break in his trial. For starters, he said that drive that he and his wife had taken from Florida a week before Paul Duncsak’s death was not a reconnaissance, as the prosecution claimed. It was rather an innocent vacation up north with a detour into New Jersey to make sure his daughter Stacey had her children and that her former husband Paul did not.
(Ed and Murphy talking; highway at night; road; outside condo; photo of Stacey and children)
Mr. ATES: They live very close together and we got up to see how close we were and we drove by to see if he was really on vacation. He appeared to be on vacation, we drove back to the campground.
MURPHY: (Voiceover) He says the police had misread something else, those online searches.
MURPHY: How to commit the perfect murder, looking for books on making your own silencer at home…
Mr. ATES: Mm-hmm.
MURPHY: …for a weapon.
Mr. ATES: Mm-hmm.
MURPHY: That doesn’t look good. Those are bad facts to bring into a murder case.
Mr. ATES: Out of context facts, yes. On “Fox & Friends,” they were discussing how to commit a murder and about the book being banned, and I looked up, ‘Is it really banned? Is it available on the Internet?’
MURPHY: Mr. Ates, did you lie in wait on your son-in-law and then shoot him with a .22 seven times when he came in the door?
Mr. ATES: No, sir.
MURPHY: Did you hear him say, ‘No, no, no,’ hit the floor, give him one in the groin for your daughter Stacey?
Mr. ATES: No. No, sir. I wasn’t there.
MURPHY: Out the back door. Drive 21 hours.
Mr. ATES: No, sir.
MURPHY: (Voiceover) And motive, Ates tells you, is where the prosecution’s case really falls apart. He says he simply had no reason to avenge his daughter or to want his former son-in-law dead.
(Crime scene photo; wedding photo; photo of Paul)
Mr. ATES: I didn’t have anything to get even for. They had—they had a marriage. They had a divorce. He never did anything to me.
(In court) I didn’t have a real feeling for him as far as in either way.
MURPHY: (Voiceover) And he gambled by telling that story directly to the jury itself.
(Ed in court)
MURPHY: Now why in violation of all the rules of perception, of trial law 101, did you elect to put Ed Ates on the stand?
Mr. LESNEVICH: This is a very intelligent man. He wanted to explain that he didn’t do it.
MURPHY: (Voiceover) Just as he had with DATELINE, Edward Ates told the jury his version of those computer searches and the trip north a week before Paul Duncsak’s death. But in so doing, he left himself open to the prosecution’s cross-examination.
(Ed in court; trees and highway; Ed in court)
Mr. MELLO: (In court) You had murdered Paul Duncsak in cold blood and fled that scene, driving to your mother’s home. Isn’t that the truth?
Mr. ATES: (In court) No, sir, that is not true.
MURPHY: (Voiceover) The victim’s brother John Duncsak says he listened to Ed Ates’ testimony in utter disbelief. He was praying the jurors had, too.
(John in court; Ed in court)
Mr. DUNCSAK: You knew he was lying. ‘I did not kill Paul Duncsak.’ Like you knew. I mean, you just felt he did.
MURPHY: (Voiceover) But it was Ed Ates’ shifting alibi for the crime that the prosecutor believed would undo the Florida man.
(Ed in court)
Mr. MELLO: When he changed from, ‘I was in Louisiana on Tuesday’ to ‘I was in Louisiana on Wednesday,’ that was a mammoth sea change that the jury, I felt, would never buy. It was the big lie.
(In court) He has lied to you again and again and again.
MURPHY: (Voiceover) In his closing, the prosecutor theorized for the jury just why Edward Ates had gone to such lengths to kill Paul Duncsak. It was for his daughter Stacey, whose life had been in free fall ever since her divorce from the victim.
(Mello in court; Ed in court; photo of Stacey; photo of Paul)
Mr. MELLO: She really has nowhere to go. The father, her protector, wants her back, and wants those grandchildren in Florida. And so long as Paul Duncsak is alive, that will not be. And I think, in part, Ed Ates viewed this matter as he just needed killing.
Mr. LESNEVICH: (In court) Look at Ed. You look at him.
MURPHY: (Voiceover) All wrong, replied the defense. It closed its case by underscoring again why Ed Ates couldn’t be the killer: He had no motive, he was too unhealthy to kill Paul Duncsak and flee the scene as police claim, and he couldn’t have been in two places at once, in New Jersey when Paul Duncsak was dying and in Louisiana where a neighbor named Matlock clearly identified him.
(Ed and Lesnevich in court; photo of Ed; Ed; landscape; outside house; town sign; Matlock in court)
Mr. LESNEVICH: (In court) Matlock saw him and his car there Wednesday night, August 23rd.
MURPHY: (Voiceover) Now, it was the jury’s case. But it wouldn’t take long, just a little more than a day for it to render a verdict.
(Empty juror chairs)
Judge: (In court) What is your verdict?
Unidentified Juror #1: (In court) Guilty.
MURPHY: (Voiceover) The 12 men and women who’d heard the case agreed that Edward Ates had, in fact, murdered his former son-in-law Paul Duncsak. His too fat to kill defense may have won points for being original, but these two jurors said the panel rejected it completely.
(Empty juror chairs; photo of Ed; photo of Paul; Ed; jurors)
Unidentified Juror #2: He held his hand out, shot a gun, and went to the neighbor’s yard and got in a car and drove.
MURPHY: (Voiceover) They found the prosecution’s evidence, circumstantial though it was, pointed overwhelmingly to the man’s guilt: the computer searches, the sister’s testimony, that mystery trip to New Jersey.
(Crime scene photos; computer searchers; Brenda in court; highway)
Juror #2: He knew the comings and goings of Paul, so he was in the house waiting, and as soon as he came in the door and moved a few feet into the hallway, the door opened…
Unidentified Juror #3: Mm-hmm.
Juror #2: …and Ed shot him.
MURPHY: (Voiceover) But what really sunk Ed Ates for these jurors was his decision to testify directly. It all snapped together.
(Ed in court)
Juror #3: I was certainly in shock that he—that he took the stand, and then all of a sudden when the change of the story of when he actually got there.
MURPHY: He’s changed his story as well.
Juror #3: Yes. Just the changing of the story, we went from Tuesday to Wednesday to Thursday, the wiretaps, I think that all certainly played into it.
Mr. DUNCSAK: (In court) You are guilty.
MURPHY: (Voiceover) Later in court, the victim’s brother, John Duncsak vented his fury at the man who took his brother’s life and robbed his children of their father.
(John speaking in court; Ed in orange jumpsuit in court)
Mr. DUNCSAK: (In court) The defendant’s decision to take the life of a human being with no regard for the effect that it may have on others is unimaginable.
MURPHY: (Voiceover) His daughter Stacey, who declined to speak to DATELINE, faces no charges in the death of her former husband. It’s a fact that doesn’t sit well with Paul Duncsak’s friend Michael Hertz.
(Stacey in court; wedding photo)
MURPHY: She’s in Florida at her family home with her children, with a tidy reserve of money. She’s in the winner’s circle.
Mr. HERTZ: Yes. It’s sad, isn’t it? It’s sad that after all of this, it worked out with such a nice neat bow for her.
MURPHY: (Voiceover) The judge had little sympathy for Edward Ates. He sentenced him to life without parole, likely a death sentence for the 65-year-old grandfather, who the jury believed lay in wait and then fired at least seven times. Not too old or too sick to hate.
(Judge in court; court in session; photo of Ed, Dottie and child; house at night; Ed in orange jumpsuit)
CURRY: Ed Ates’ wife, Dottie, and his mother, Myra, are also facing charges in this case, among them conspiracy and obstruction of justice. Automatic pleas of not guilty have been entered for both of them.