SPT: Joan Wood goes missing immediately after Scientology racketeering

6 May 2001

Case hinges on missing witness

Private investigators search for former medical examiner Joan Wood, whose testimony may be key to whether David Long killed his daughter.

St. Petersburg Times
May 6, 2001


A man accused of killing his baby daughter has an unlikely ally: the detective who led the investigation.

The evidence in the case, said Pasco sheriff's Detective Jeff Bousquet, doesn't support the charge: that David Long shook to death his 7-month-old daughter. Bousquet reached his conclusion after talking to former Pasco-Pinellas Medical Examiner Joan Wood about shaken-baby syndrome. Wood, Bousquet said in a recent deposition, told him that Rebecca Long was shaken so violently that she would have immediately stopped crying.

That troubles Bousquet because he talked to a witness who said Rebecca was still crying when Long left her room after the alleged shaking occurred in March of 1998. And that makes Wood, whose office ruled the case a homicide, a key defense witness who might help prove Long's innocence.

The problem now is finding her.

Wood, who resigned last year after prosecutors blamed her for the collapse of high-profile case against the Church of Scientology, is proving to be an elusive witness.

In September 2000, on her last day in office, a subpoena ordering Wood to a deposition in the Long case arrived at the Medical Examiner's Office in Largo. But Wood had already left the building for the last time, and the subpoena never found its way into her hands.

Days before the scheduled deposition, prosecutors called Long's attorneys and said Wood, 56, was too ill to testify.

A few months later, Long's attorneys asked a Pinellas sheriff's deputy to serve Wood with the subpoena at her Clearwater home. In December and January, the deputy went to Wood's house eight times. Each time she was home but would not come to the door. Her maid told the deputy that Wood was ill.

In March, a judge approved $3,000 in public funds for defense attorneys to hire a private investigator, whose job it was to find Wood and serve her with the subpoena. The private eye made numerous trips to Wood's house and found no sign of activity there, even noting that Christmas decorations remained on the dining room table.

Until Wood can be found and served with the subpoena, the case against Long appears to be at a standstill.

"She's missing," Mina Morgan, one of Long's lawyers, said of Wood. "It appears she's nowhere to be found."

Uncooperative witnesses are a staple of the criminal justice system, but they are typically people with something to hide -- or fear. Wood, given her long career as a public servant, would not seem to fit the profile.

But the circumstances surrounding her controversial exit may have something to do with her reluctance to face defense attorneys.

For 18 years, Woods served as the circuit's chief medical examiner. Prosecutors revered her work, both as an accomplished forensic pathologist and an unflappable courtroom witness.

Then came her flip-flop in the Lisa McPherson case.

McPherson, 36, died in 1995 after 17 days in the Fort Harrison Hotel in Clearwater under the care of fellow Scientologists. Wood originally concluded that McPherson died from a blood clot caused by bed rest and dehydration. Wood's findings prompted prosecutors to file two felony charges against the Church of Scientology: abuse of a disabled adult and practicing medicine without a license.

But last year, Wood changed her mind, concluding that McPherson's death was an accident. As a result, prosecutors dropped the charges against the church, and in a strongly worded memo, blamed Wood for botching the case.

Wood announced her resignation in June, telling Gov. Jeb Bush in a letter that "the stress and physical toll have become more than I can handle."

Local defense lawyers predicted at the time that if Wood ever testified again, she would be attacked for her work in the McPherson case.

Long's attorneys say they're not interested in Wood's work in the McPherson case.

But "she's essential to (Long's) case," said Morgan. "I need for her to confirm or deny whether the child would have stopped crying."

The case against Long, 34, boils down to the medical evidence and witness accounts of what happened in the house the morning Rebecca died.

Results of the autopsy, said assistant medical examiner Marie Hansen, couldn't be clearer: Severe hemorrhaging along Rebecca's spinal chord pointed directly to shaken-baby syndrome.

Describing Rebecca's death to a Times reporter in 1999, Hansen said: "If you had a doll, you'd be shaking the doll so hard to have the head fly off."

But Bousquet, in his deposition, said he "didn't understand some of the things that were actually shown medically. I was told by Dr. Wood that a baby being shaken this violently would have gone right into an unconscious state, and that didn't happen."

According to Bousquet's investigation:

Long went into Rebecca's room on the morning of March 7, 1998, because the child was crying. Long's wife, Teresa, had gone to work, leaving behind her son, her husband, a 12-year-old boy who had spent the night at the family's New Port Richey home and Rebecca.

The entire time Long was in his daughter's room -- about two minutes -- Rebecca continued to cry, the house guest, Josh Scepinski, told Bousquet. And the child continued to cry for about 10 minutes after Long emerged from Rebecca's room, Josh told the detective.

Josh was certain his account was accurate because a baby monitor piped every sound from Rebecca's room. What's more, Josh said, the pitch and volume of Rebecca's crying never changed.

"If the baby's going back and forth as violently as the Medical Examiner's Office is stating . . . you would have a high pitch or a low pitch from the actual shaking," Bousquet said. "Or you would have the baby stop crying and go to an unconscious state."

Long went back into Rebecca's room after she fell silent and found her on her stomach, not breathing. He started CPR, but couldn't revive her. She died a few hours later at All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg.

The defense theory is that Rebecca suffered the fatal injuries when her father attempted CPR.

"He just flat out couldn't have shaken her the way they are claiming," Morgan said.

Long was a gentle, loving father, Morgan said, with no history of abuse. He and his wife referred to Rebecca as their "miracle baby" because she weighed just 1 pound 11 ounces at birth.

Long voluntarily gave a series of interviews to detectives, and in the beginning he denied ever shaking Rebecca. Then, after failing a lie-detector test, he admitted shaking Rebecca gently.

But even with Long's admission -- coupled with the Medical Examiner's Office conclusion that Rebecca was a victim of shaken-baby syndrome -- Bousquet still didn't think he had probable cause for an arrest.

"If I took it to be an admission of guilt at that time, I would have charged him," Bousquet said.

Doubting the Medical Examiner's Office conclusion, Bousquet asked prosecutors to seek a second opinion from an outside agency. Eighteen months passed, and no outside review was ever conducted.

The only documented activity in the case over those 18 months was an e-mail written by Wood asking a forensic pathologist in Birmingham, Ala., to look at the case.

"(Prosecutors) are fighting the police who have, for some reason, decided that we are wrong and that the family did nothing wrong," Wood wrote in the June 11, 1999, e-mail.

In September 1999, prosecutors convened a grand jury and indicted Long on first-degree murder charges -- without getting the second opinion. Long, who is free on $50,000 bail, declined through his attorneys to comment. He faces life in prison if convicted.

Bousquet did not return calls seeking comment for this story.

After the indictment, prosecutors included Wood's name on the witness list for the case. They have since taken her name off, assistant state attorney Mike Halkitis said, because she played a minor role in the case and didn't perform the autopsy.

Halkitis said the case can move forward without Wood. Since the indictment, Halkitis said he has obtained an opinion from a second pathologist that confirms the original finding by the Medical Examiner's Office.

"We want to get this case tried," he said. "It's a dead issue as to whether Joan Wood is going to testify. Supposedly she was ill, but that's not something I know anything about."

Bob Attridge, a prominent local defense attorney and former prosecutor, said the state is in a tough position.

"Under the circumstances, it seems prudent to delay the case to try and find (Wood)," Attridge said.

Any conviction won without Wood's participation would later be subject to attack on appeal, Attridge said. "If she was subsequently found, there would probably be grounds for a new trial," he said.

On the other hand, Attridge said the defense could call an expert witness, in lieu of Wood, to say Rebecca would have stopped crying immediately if she had been shaken enough to kill her. Of course, Attridge said, the defense would prefer to have Wood: Her testimony would carry more weight with a jury because her office determined the cause of death and she has appeared so many times over the years as a state witness.

So where is Joan Wood?

A neighbor who declined to give her name told a reporter that Wood disappeared around Christmas. Someone comes by to collect Wood's mail and cut her grass, the neighbor said, but nobody has lived in the home for months.

A defense attorney representing a Pinellas woman charged with killing a baby also hired a private investigator this year to find Wood. The attorney, Sherwood Coleman, said he needed to ask Wood about key findings she made in the case against Shara Willhoite, who pleaded guilty last month to second-degree murder.

"I authorized (the private investigator) to use any means necessary to find her and we were unsuccessful," Coleman said.

Until Wood returns and can be served with a subpoena, Morgan said she will object to Long's case going to trial.

"I think if we don't find her, and if we're not able to get a statement from her, (Long) will be denied his due process rights to a fair trial."


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