Watch CBS News

A Question Of Murder

This story originally aired March 26, 2005.

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 in 1999, 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 1990s, when Sandy developed neck pain and along with it, a serious addiction to prescription drugs.

"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 caused.

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, since 1998, when her daughter died. "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 kill her."

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 had 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 love."

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 appeared 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," Sean recalls. "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 had 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 well?

"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 case.

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 Berry.

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 Boyle.

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 "reasonable."

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 bizarre twist.

"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 appeared, it was 23 pages long.

At a news conference later that morning, Meyer said: "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 pictures.

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?"

For Maloney, his sons are his biggest champions. "Yes they are. ...And I'm very proud of all of them.

For both John Maloney and former prosecutor Joe Paulus, much has happened in the year and a half since we first broadcast this remarkable story.

State officials just last week filed new misconduct charges against Paulus, for which he is expected to serve two more years in prison.

In the interest of justice, the Wisconsin Supreme Court invited John Maloney's lawyers to present new arguments concerning Paulus'conduct and questions raised by the original 48 Hours broadcast: was the fire an accident?

"In this case there is a real issue as to cause of death and whether or not there was an arson," says Maloney's attorney for the Supreme Court appeal, Lew Wasserman.

And, did the editing of the police tapes distort the truth?

"The cameras aren't here because John Maloney is in jail. They're here because the special prosecutor is in jail because he corrupted the judicial system at the same time he was prosecuting John Maloney," Wasserman says.

But in the end those arguments weren't persuasive enough. This year, on the eighth anniversary of his wife's death, the court denied Maloney a new trial, ruling that he had failed to present sufficient evidence.

John Maloney vows he will never give up.

Maloney can appeal again if his team uncovers new evidence of misconduct regarding Paulus' prosecution of the case. John Maloney will not be eligible for parole until 2024.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.