SNOW HILL – With a whirlwind four-month period winding down, during which four murder cases with seven different defendants were prosecuted, Worcester County State’s Attorney Joel Todd this week caught his breath long enough to reflect on the unprecedented case load and the satisfaction with which his office handled it.
In the first six months of 2008, there were four homicides in otherwise quiet Worcester County, which typically sees its fair share of crime, but rarely, if ever, sees the sheer volume of violence witnessed during the period. In large metropolitan areas, murders are reported almost daily and their stories are often found buried in the deep pages of the newspapers, but here one homicide is front-page news for months and four is unheard of.
However, Todd said this week the violent six-month period does not signal a dramatic change in the safety of the county. The four homicides were in no way connected and each had different circumstances. There was the still inexplicable stabbing of a West Ocean City woman by an illegal immigrant who did some landscaping work for her; the murder of an elderly man in Pocomoke during what appears to be a robbery gone terribly wrong; the beating death of a teen in Berlin following a night of partying; and the beating of a local woman in Pocomoke after an alleged swap of drugs for sexual services turned violent in a hurry.
In just about each case, there appeared to be no premeditation or provocation, and there is no nexus between the crimes.
“It’s an anomaly,” he said. “It was just a fluke. There is no reason to believe Worcester County is suddenly a more dangerous place to live.”
Nonetheless, four homicides in six months certainly broke the mold in Worcester and tested a State’s Attorney’s Office not accustomed to the workload.
“Normally, we average, not counting vehicular homicides, about one every two years,” he said. “In 2008, we had four before June 1. That’s four in the first six months of the year with multiple defendants in a couple of them. That certainly taxed the resources of this office. Homicide cases obviously take a lot more work.”
The violent spree started in January with the beating death of a local woman, Judy Wojcik, in Pocomoke. A trapper discovered the body in a rural area, touching off an investigation that led to three men, Kendall Irin Northam, 20, of Pocomoke; Shawn Treherne, 23, of Bowie; and David Justice, 20, of Pocomoke. Northam was found guilty of second-degree murder and first-degree assault and was sentenced to 30 years in jail. Treherne and Justice have each pleaded guilty to manslaughter and await their fates pending the outcomes of pre-sentence investigations.
In March, investigators discovered the body of William Nibblett, 77, in his Pocomoke home after his daughters became concerned about his welfare after not hearing from him. A short time later, Charles Robert Phillips, 29, of Salisbury, was identified as the suspect and was arrested at his place of employment. Phillips’ trial is set for Jan. 14 and prosecutors last week filed notice they would seek a sentence of life without parole.
The unprecedented murder spree continued in April when a popular local woman was found stabbed to death in her West Ocean City home. Detectives were able to connect the crime to Roberto Murillo, a Honduran national who lived on the same street who had done some landscaping work for the victim. Murillo essentially confessed to the crime and told police the incident began as a dispute over a check for the work he had done. Murillo was found guilty of first-degree murder and awaits sentencing. His sentencing hearing is set for Monday in Snow Hill.
Finally, in May, Berlin teen Michael Mitchell was beaten to death with a baseball bat during a fight at a post-graduation party. According to the facts of the case, the fight began with pushing and shoving and escalated to the point a couple of the combatants were surrounded by a crowd near their vehicle when a bat was produced from the trunk and the incident turned deadly. After an emotional three-day trial in November, the bat wielder, Dominic Canale, 22, of Ocean City, was found guilty of manslaughter and second-degree assault and awaits sentencing. The driver of the vehicle, Fernando Musiani, 19, of Ocean City, earlier pleaded guilty to reckless endangerment and was sentenced to five years in jail with all but the time he already served suspended.
With the complex machinations of the legal system, each of the cases came to trial almost simultaneously in the last four months of 2008 with each in various phases of the process. Two of the defendants, Northam and Canale, had their cases heard by juries, while a third, Phillips, is set to have his case heard in two weeks. The others were resolved with plea arrangements and other agreements, although they were no less difficult to prosecute considering the case load and the number of prosecutors on the state’s attorney’s staff.
“We have a staff of just eight attorneys and still have to carry the regular day in, day out criminal docket,” he said. “Of the eight, four are what I would call rookies, or new hires. They were hired in March, right in the midst of all this, but I’m happy to say we got the job done.”
Todd said the unfortunate set of circumstances had a silver lining of sorts for his young team of prosecutors.
“We used these cases as a learning opportunity for our new prosecutors,” he said. “They assisted on the prosecutions, which will help them when they get an opportunity down the road to prosecute a homicide case on their own. Now, aside from this recent flurry, thankfully we don’t get too many, but they’ll be ready when they are called upon to prosecute a murder case.”
While four homicides with multiple defendants is unheard of in Worcester, naturally the volume of crime has continued to spike upward as the county’s population continues to grow, but Todd said this week he will not take the opportunity to ask for more money for his overtaxed office. County officials have mandated a 3-percent budget cut for all of its departments in the upcoming fiscal year and Todd said he plans to fall in line.
“I am mindful of the budget problems facing Worcester County and everywhere else and I will do my best to live within the dictates of the 3-percent reduction in my budget requested by the County Commissioners,” he said. “The county has been very good to this office over the years.”
With that being said, Todd said he would not compromise the safety of the county’s citizens because of limited resources and manpower.
“Obviously, I don’t intend to let budget reductions challenge the safety of this county,” he said. “If we had another major incident, like the Sifrit case in 2002, I am certain the commissioners would move heaven and earth to make sure my office has the resources it needs to effectively prosecute the case or cases.”
As the rare homicide spree in the county moves toward closure with a just a handful of issues to be resolved, Todd this week praised the heady work of his prosecution team and the investigators.
“I am extremely satisfied with the investigators and their investigations in these cases,” he said. “The citizens of Worcester County should be extremely proud of their law enforcement teams and particularly the Worcester County Bureau of Investigation, which diligently investigated these cases and made our jobs a little easier. I’m also very satisfied with the staff of the office of the state’s attorney. I’ve been extremely impressed with their work. We have some very sharp attorneys working in this office.”