CBS News - 48 Hours
A Question Of Murder
(CBS) The NFL's Green Bay Packers are the soul of Green Bay,
Wis., a hard-working, blue-collar town that takes pride in its team and
its clean-cut image and generally leaves violence on the field.
But the town's traditional values were rocked to the core six years ago,
when a jury found one of Green Bay's own police officers guilty of
murder, of strangling his wife and setting her on fire. The officer,
John Maloney, was sentenced to life in prison.
“Sometimes, I still wake up in the middle of the night and realize, look
around, and come back to reality that I am in this place. I don’t belong
in here,” says Maloney, who denies committing the crime.
Maloney has spent the last six years in prison, and his protests of
innocence might have rung hollow if there weren't so many troubling
questions about this case. Correspondent Susan Spencer reports.
Maloney says the key to understanding what really happened is to
understand his wife, Sandy.
The Maloneys have three children: Matt, Sean and Aaron. Matt, the
oldest, says his all-American family began crumbling in the early '90s,
when Sandy developed neck pain and along with it, a serious addiction to
"If she couldn’t get the pills from her doctors, her friends would
provide it for her," says Matt. "They were no help to her."
Things were so bad that if the boys needed a prescription, the local
pharmacist would make them take the pill in front of him, to make sure
Sandy wouldn’t steal it. But even that didn’t work.
“She’d tell me to slip it under my tongue and just keep it under there
until we left the place. And then I’d spit it out, and she’d take it
when we left," recalls Matt. "I know I shouldn’t have been doing it but
I was so young. Now that I think about it, I can’t believe someone would
do that, especially your own mom.”
But Sandy's situation deteriorated, and was complicated by depression,
panic disorder and alcohol. Matt says they started finding vodka bottles
all over the house. And Maloney says this promoted a lot of arguments:
"They were loud. Yelling and screaming. ... Doors slammed and stuff like
that. I mean, it was, you know, a terrible time."
Maloney says that he never abused Sandy physically during these fights.
But at Maloney's trial, prosecutors told jurors that Sandy had
complained about Maloney's violence to, among others, her psychiatrist,
who says that Sandy showed him the bruises that she said Maloney had
But Sandy's children said their mother would do anything to get more
drugs. And as for the bruises, Matt says, "When she was drunk, she'd
stumble around and fall into everything."
Police were called to the Maloney home numerous times, but a 48
Hours review found no report that made any reference to Maloney
abusing his wife.
"If anyone was fighting, it was my mom hitting my dad," says Maloney's
son, Sean. "People can say he was abusing her, or whatever, but in all
reality, we’re the ones that were there and saw the stuff. And if anyone
swung at anyone, it would be my mom hitting my dad.”
In 1997, Sandy was drunk and wrecked the family car. Maloney had enough,
moved out, filed for divorce and later took the boys with him. "It was a
dangerous situation for them to be in," says Maloney. "I should have
done something sooner than when I did."
Maloney's two youngest sons say their father was with them, putting
together bunk beds, at the time police say he was off murdering their
mother. Their support of Maloney has never wavered.
"He's been in jail or prison since I’ve been in the seventh grade. I’m
in my second year of college now, so he missed a lot,” says Matt.
But this image of a good man falsely accused got nowhere at trial,
largely because of undercover videotapes that revealed quite a different
side of Maloney. It was a side jurors felt they couldn't ignore.
Lola Cator has thought about her daughter Sandy every single day, for
the last seven years. "This is just something I'll never get over with,"
says Cator, who discovered Sandy’s charred body the morning after the
fire. "She was on the couch. She'd been burned."
And from that first instant, Cator blamed Maloney for her daughter's
death: "He wanted her gone. He hated her."
Cator says she thinks Maloney hated Sandy because she was dragging her
feet on the divorce. By now, Maloney had a new, much younger girlfriend,
a 28-year-old IRS agent named Tracy Hellenbrand. Cator believed that
Sandy was getting in the way of their new life: "I know he went there to
Special Prosecutor Joe Paulus shared Cator's certainty, and told the
jury that Maloney was under stress, deeply in debt, and desperate to get
out of the relationship. So, Paulus told the jury that Maloney went to
Sandy's house that night to make sure that she'd be in court the next
day. They argued, and Paulus says Maloney hit Sandy over the head with a
blunt object; the wound bled onto her shirt.
Paulus then said Maloney panicked and strangled Sandy, putting his knee
in her back as she lay on the couch. The medical examiner bolstered
Paulus' case, concluding that Sandy probably had been strangled, and
saying that he’d found trauma to her neck.
Paulus said that after discarding the bloody shirt in a hamper in the
basement, Maloney set the couch on fire to hide his crime – leaving
behind half-smoked cigarettes to make it look like an accident.
However, the most damning evidence came from the Lady Luck Hotel in Las
Vegas. Five months after Sandy’s death, Maloney had flown there for a
weekend with girlfriend, Tracy Hellenbrand.
"I don’t even know why I even went out there," recalls Maloney. "I guess
that’s one of the foolish things that people do that think they’re in
What Maloney didn't know was that his love had had a change of heart and
that Hellenbrand was now secretly working with prosecutors, who were
still looking for concrete evidence again Maloney.
The hotel room was wired, and a video camera was hidden in a clock
radio. Cops watched closely from next door. Hellenbrand's job was to get
Maloney to confess. For hours, she asked him over and over again, "Did
you kill Sandy? Did you?"
But Maloney kept denying he had killed his wife. Then, finally, he
appears to incriminate himself. He admits he was at Sandy's house the
night she died.
"That videotape showed a man confessing to the crimes that he
committed," says Paulus.
Prosecutors had heard enough. They arrested Maloney that same day.
But the tape also shows a man with an uncontrollable temper. "I'm not
proud of being that angry," says Maloney.
The trial lasted eight days. The guilty verdict was read to a packed
courtroom, which included Maloney's young sons.
"They took us in a back elevator and I just fell on the floor and
started crying my eyes out," says Sean. "I can remember saying, 'What
are we gonna do now?'"
Appeals can take years, but then Sheila Berry, who had never even met
Maloney, took up his cause. Berry is a part-time novelist, part-time
investigator, and part-time head of Truth in Justice, a non-profit group
that tries to help people it feels are wrongly imprisoned.
After consulting with more than a dozen forensic experts, Berry is now
convinced that Maloney is innocent, and that Sandy Maloney wasn't
murdered. She believes that there was no crime.
So how did Sandy die? Berry says the explanation is right there in the
evidence -- evidence the jury never saw.
Behind his back, courthouse reporters dubbed Paulus "Hollywood Joe," for
his love of the camera, and for his dramatic courtroom theatrics.
"He'd get right up there, and he would act things out. His eyes are very
dramatic and he knows how to use them," says Berry, who worked for
Paulus in 1990. "Any attorney would be happy to have those skills,
because they can skate you across a lot of thin ice."
But thin ice was the last thing Paulus had to worry about in 1998.
Assistant District Attorney Mike Balskus says Paulus' career was on a
fast track: "His goal was to become one of the U.S. attorneys in
Wisconsin. The Maloney case would probably be a good vehicle for that."
After the guilty verdict, Paulus said: "Ultimately, the jury paid heed
to what I talked to them about in my closing argument – and that is, we
all know what the truth is here, don't get sidetracked. Just let the
truth flourish so we can get to the right verdict."
Over the next few years, Paulus missed few opportunities to wax
idealistic about truth and justice. But in March 2002, the FBI began
investigating Paulus for corruption, looking into charges that the
prosecutor was taking bribes to fix cases. Soon, the story leaked to the
press, prompting a torrent of righteous indignation.
"I did nothing wrong. There was no impropriety here. All of this is a
big fat lie," says Paulus. "If there is an investigation out there, at
the end of the day, absolutely nothing will come of it."
News of the FBI inquiry came as no shock to Berry, who’d had a run-in
with Paulus years earlier when he was her boss. It involved allegations
that a star witness had lied, but Paulus was able to keep the matter
quiet, stay out of trouble and fire Berry.
"Several people in law enforcement urged me to leave the state," says
Berry. "Said, 'He hates you. He is afraid of you. He is going to set you
up on false criminal charges.' I knew he could do it."
But in April 2004, Paulus' world of influence and power came tumbling
down. He was charged with bribery and income tax evasion. Within weeks,
he’d cut a deal, pleading guilty to accepting $48,000 to fix 22 cases –
six of them criminal. Paulus is now serving a sentence of more than four
years at a federal prison in Florida.
The Paulus bribery investigation covered June 1998 through June 2000 –
the very time period when Maloney was arrested, tried and convicted. Did
the corrupt district attorney act improperly in the Maloney case as
"He had to have known there were big question marks on whether this was
even a murder or a homicide," says Berry, who adds that despite their
history, she has no ax to grind with Paulus. She just knows the man.
"Here you've got a prosecutor who, on the one hand, is taking money to
fix cases, and they are little cases. So what does he do to distract
attention and pump up this image he has of being the big crime fighter,
the big justice guy? He goes after high-profile cases. They attracted
him like a moth to a flame."
In one of two ongoing investigations, Balskus is collecting boxes of
documents, examining more than 100 of Paulus’ past cases.
Balskus says a zeal to “get” Maloney might have led to manipulating
evidence, like the key videotapes used in Maloney's case. Paulus had
sent the hours of tape to a private, outside company, supposedly to cut
them down for time, not alter the content.
But there was an initial $27,000 editing bill, and a note from Paulus to
the editor saying: "I have replaced modified or added new excerpts to be
included in the tape." There was also an editor's note that said: "Some
of your clips are so short – one and a half seconds in duration – that
they may seem choppy."
Was there any editing done that could be considered doctored? "Not from
my knowledge," says Paulus' co-prosecutor Vince Biskupic.
Maloney probably was hurt more by his actions on the tape than by his
words. Still, Balskus wonders to what lengths Paulus went to win this
Does Balskus think that Maloney got a fair trial? "No, I don't know if
John Maloney did it or not," says Balskus. "But yeah, I think it's
pretty clear that not all the evidence was presented to the jury."
Not only does Berry believe that Maloney did not kill his wife, she's
convinced that Sandy caused her own death.
She says the evidence was in the basement of the Maloney house, where
police recorded a bizarre scene: two VCRs on top of a coffee table. And
from the ceiling, there appeared to be a ligature hanging from a conduit
pipe, right down in front of the coffee table.
The autopsy showed that Sandy was very drunk the night she died. Berry
thinks Sandy tried to hang herself with the electrical cord: "She made a
suicide attempt, at least a gesture, but enough of a gesture to jump off
that coffee table and hit her -- back of her head."
Then, as Berry's theory goes, Sandy tried to clean up in the basement
shower. But ultimately, she ended up on the first floor, where she
collapsed into unconsciousness on the couch while smoking. It was that
lit cigarette, Berry believes, that caused the fire.
"There certainly was a big death wish going on," says Berry. "She did
want to die."
Berry's case was bolstered by what police found upstairs. "There were
quite a few suicide notes found in the trash on the first floor," says
Police had labeled these "apparent suicide notes" on the evidence list
and there were five in all. The notes essentially said: "John, how could
you throw everything away? Take care of the kids. I'm done fighting."
"It was the day before the final divorce hearing. She had already lost
custody of her kids," says Berry. "So I think she just felt she didn't
have anything left."
The jury, however, heard nothing about these notes, and nothing either
about her possible suicide attempt.
Did Paulus intentionally ignore the evidence because it might favor
Maloney? Balskus thinks it's possible: "They thought John Maloney did
it, so they focused on him. The problem with that is you sort of put
blinders on and you ignore the evidence."
Biscupic, who was on Paulus' prosecution team, says the suicide theory
is a fantasy. But where did the head wound take place, and why was there
no blood upstairs? "A fire takes place, things happen," says Biscupic.
But Berry says there was no blood upstairs because Sandy cut her head in
the basement, where her blood was found. State investigators used a
chemical spray, Luminol, which illuminates blood traces even after a
clean-up. In this case, Luminol detected blood in several parts of the
basement, including the bathroom and the shower.
Blood evidence was also found in the laundry room, on towels, on Sandy's
shirt and in another bloody footprint. "They combed this place looking
for any DNA link, any trace of John Maloney here, and they couldn't find
it," says Berry.
The only basement evidence prosecutors seemed to care about was Sandy's
bloody shirt, which they say Maloney took downstairs to the laundry,
after killing Sandy upstairs.
But if Sandy wasn't murdered, how did she die? Berry's experts say it
was alcohol poisoning. She drank herself to death.
As for the fire, Paulus argued at trial that Maloney set it to cover up
his crime. But Berry's arson experts insist this didn't happen. "There
is no question that the investigation conducted by the state is junk
science," says Berry's expert, James Munger.
The state speculated that Sandy's vodka may have been used to start the
fire, and pointed to the burn pattern in front of the couch as proof.
But Munger, who didn't buy that theory, set a couch similar to Maloney's
on fire. Almost immediately, the cushions melted, and it's the melting
foam, not any accelerant, that cases the telltale burn pattern.
"There's absolutely no question in my mind John Maloney is an innocent
man," says Munger.
So why didn't Maloney's own lawyer, prominent Defense Attorney Gerry
Boyle, make these arguments? "To have gone before a jury and said this
was an accident, I think, would have been malpractice," says Boyle. "And
I would have been sanctioned by an appellate or supreme court."
Boyle dismissed the apparent suicide notes and the basement evidence,
and instead came up with a third explanation: Sandy was murdered by
Maloney's girlfriend, Tracy Hellenbrand, the same woman who set him up
in a Las Vegas hotel room.
"Tracy Hellenbrand is an indefatigable liar and she is a killer," says
But Maloney remembers things quite differently. He says he told Boyle
"numerous times" that he believed Sandy's death was an accident. So why
didn't he fire Boyle? "I didn't have another $100,000 to pull out of
mid-air to pay another attorney," says Maloney.
In a report rejecting a complaint the Maloney family filed against
Boyle, Wisconsin state officials called Boyle's defense strategy
So, the defense attorney in this case ended up battling his own client.
And the prosecutor ended up going to prison, which left behind one more
"One of the last acts that Joe Paulus did as district attorney was try
to get that file out of the district attorney's office," says Balskus.
"He ordered someone to basically get rid of the file."
Balskus says the file was transferred from office to office, and most of
it has never been found: "We have very little of the original file. It'd
probably be impossible to try him again."
But all of this controversy ironically has given Maloney another chance.
"You do what you have to do to get along and survive," says Maloney, who
is now working as a prison custodian.
It's a menial job, and it pays only about a quarter an hour. But he says
it keeps him from dwelling on the days, months and now years he's been
away from his three sons.
After the Paulus corruption scandal, and amid questions raised by
investigators like Berry and local reporters, the state ordered a review
of Maloney's case. For a year, the investigation was conducted by
respected attorney Stephen Meyer, who was about to release his
conclusions on the Internet.
Maloney's two youngest sons and other relatives wait for news at
Maloney's sister, Ginny's, house. When it finally appears, it's 23 pages
At a news conference later that morning, Meyer says: "Sandy Maloney was
manually strangled. There is no question in my mind. You can't get away
from that. That's the bottom line, here."
This was a direct contradiction of Berry's theory, and devastating news
for the family. "It's unbelievable that this could have happened," says
Maloney's sister, Ginny.
Meyer emphasized that he wasn't charged with deciding whether Maloney
was guilty or innocent, but only with determining if this death was an
accident or a murder. And on that score, he said, 79 autopsy pictures,
which Berry’s experts didn’t have, led him to only one conclusion.
"It wasn't an accident. And I think the sooner everybody puts that to
rest, the better this case will proceed," says Meyer.
Only manual strangulation, says Meyer, could have caused the deep
injuries to her neck. They could not have been caused by a flimsy
electrical cord fashioned into a noose.
Berry, however, is unmoved by Meyer’s findings, saying he made a big
mistake by not having an outside medical expert review the autopsy
But the report certainly won't help Maloney's case, should he ever get a
new trial. Still, Berry and the Maloney family remain convinced that
there has been a major injustice.
"I just can't believe that something so wrong can happen over and over
again," says Maloney's son, Sean, who then read their family's
statement: "The Maloney family is not giving up on my dad. We love him
and we know the truth. I believe in my dad. And I will fight until he is
by my side."
"If there's any way I thought my dad killed my mom, I would have nothing
to do with this case right now," adds Maloney's son, Matt. "I would not
see my dad. I wouldn't talk to him at all. It's our mom that died. Why
would we cover up for that?"
The Wisconsin Supreme Court is currently reviewing the use of the
undercover videotapes. It is now John Maloney's best hope for a new
trial. If he doesn't win his appeals, he's not eligible for parole until