A reader alerted me to this New Jersey paper that held a report by Ted Sherman. The “New Jersey Supreme Court [on] Tuesday overturned the conviction against Michelle Lodzinski.”
Michelle Lodzinski is the mother of Timothy “Timmy” William Wiltsey (August 6, 1985 – date missing May 25, 1991) who disappeared May 25, 1991.
I read Ted’s article with great interest and then dived into the 89 page decision that you can find here.
If you don’t wish to plow through all those pages I’d like to encourage you to read the first six pages. It is a syllabus and serves as an excellent summary of the decision.
I wrote about this case in 2016 and the questions that I had. So, let’s scan the three sets of new sources: Ted Sherman’s, the syllabus, and the decision to see if they can answer my questions.
My concerns in this case as I saw it in 2016
1: Michelle’s age at the time that Timmy was born, her single parent status, and how this affected her behaviour.
2: Timmy’s many absences from school.
3: The lack of evidence to show Michelle’s state of mind as to being a single parent to Timmy, her finances, if there was a desire for another life, and if so, did it include Timmy or not.
4: The changing stories of the events related to Timmy’s disappearance.
5: Middlesex County Prosecutor Alan Rockoff said that nobody can corroborate that Michelle took Timmy to Holmdel Park and then to the carnival. IF that is true, then it is possible that Timmy may have vanished before May 25, 1991. It would be interesting to check his school records to see whether he was in school the week before the Memorial Day weekend.
6: The muddy sneaker found was sent to the FBI laboratory in Quantico, Virginia, but the test results were inconclusive.
7: When searching the area where that sneaker was found, they almost instantly found the other sneaker “20 or 30 yards from where the first sneaker was found.” Then, two hours later they found a skull. Coincidence or never properly searched?
8: Timmy was identified by his dental records. His skull does not tell us how he died. His death was declared a homicide but the skull revealed “absolutely no evidence of trauma.” So, Timmy’s death could have been an accident.
9: My biggest beef in this case is the blanket. Authorities found a blanket in the same area they searched. How long that blanket was out there we do not know. I also don’t know whether the M-Vac was used to search for touch DNA or biological particles that can tell us something about the environment to which the blanket (previously) had been exposed.
As I stand by what I wrote before, I am going to quote myself: “The papers said that Jennifer Blair Dilcher had a visual reaction to the blanket which some took as evidence that indeed the blanket was Timmy’s.
I think that she had a genuine reaction to the fact that police showed up with something that might be related to Timmy. The entire family knew that Timmy was missing. They all waited for a break so obviously when the cops show up it had to mean there was a break in the case! Had they shown her a soccer ball she’d probably have reacted the same way. Why? Grief!
What she showed was sheer grief but the trigger wasn’t the blanket. The trigger was the realization that the police might have a break in the case and it made her relive everything in a split second. I am astonished that I didn’t see this explained in any of the newspapers reporting about the trial.”
If you read the decision you will see that “At trial, however, a number of witnesses intimately familiar with Lodzinski’s residences during the relevant time period did not identify the blanket. No such blanket appeared in any of the photographs of Lodzinski’s apartments.”
Now return to the above. Did Jennifer recognize a blanket that nobody else saw, the blanket that is missing on all photographs? OR did Jennifer express grief and mistakenly associated its onset with the blanket instead of with the appearance of police at their door step while awaiting news about Timmy?
Unless we can exclusively tie the blanket to Timmy (Touch DNA) we do not know where the blanket came from. I’d like to know more about that blanket. Did it have a specific, easily identifiable design? Was it of a particular name brand? The problem is that no forensic evidence can tie Michelle or Timmy to the blanket. Isn’t that odd? If that was Timmy’s blanket his DNA must have been all over that thing.
10: Another red flag to me, a forensic expert for the defense tells the jury that the crime scene where Timmy’s skull was found was “mishandled” by police. See below.
From Ted Sherman
1: Justice Barry Albin wrote that “even if the evidence suggested that Timothy did not die by accident, no testimony or evidence was offered to distinguish whether Timothy died by the negligent, reckless, or purposeful or knowing acts of a person, even if that person were Lodzinski.”
2: The decision State v. Michelle Lodzinski (A-50-19)(083398) was a 4-3 decision with Judge Jose L. Fuentes, a presiding appellate court judge, as tie-breaker.
3: Michelle Lodzinski’s release date has not been set.
4: Double jeopardy prevents that Michelle can be tried again in this case.
5: Timeline issues
Timmy may never have been at the carnival. It seems that not only do people around the soda stand not remember him, but in general, people at the carnival didn’t remember seeing a boy matching Timmy’s description. More below.
Michelle’s story changed many times. In one version, a woman named Ellen was watching Timmy while Michelle went to the soda stand. Nobody called or matching Ellen’s description was ever found. More below.
A murder conviction can only mean that there was “available proof for the jury to conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that Timmy’s death was neither suicide nor an accident, but rather that he was the victim of a homicide.” So, what hard evidence tied Michelle to Timmy death as it was undetermined?
“In an opinion joined by Justices Faustino J. Fernandez-Vina and Lee A. Solomon, the court ruled that the state was “permitted to rely entirely on circumstantial evidence,” and “was not required to present direct evidence of defendant’s guilt, as long as it proved the elements of the offense beyond a reasonable doubt.”
However, a first degree murder charge means that there was a mindset, a preparation, and a thought-out execution of an earlier set intention to kill. None of that was proven.
I agree that Michelle’s stories are misleading and that circumstantial evidence can make us believe that she may know more about the manner in which Timmy died BUT you’d still have to prove that SHE caused his death IF you want to convict her of murder.
Judge Albin touches on what bothered me before as well. I quote Sherman: “Lodzinski’s status as a single working mother was not a motive for murder” and “Fuentes, the presiding appellate court judge brought in to re-hear the case, suggested in his questioning that he was more than skeptical of the prosecution case — both as to the motive suggested by the state that Timmy had become too much for Lodzinski, a single mother with limited financial resources, as well as to when the boy even died. He asked whether anybody had testified that Lodzinski had wished she had not had the child.”
If Michelle had ever expressed a wish to be single, childless, where are those pieces of evidence? Whom did she confide in, did she have a history of harming Timmy, was she the cause why he was absent so much at school?
From the syllabus
1: No family member had seen Michelle together with Timmy at the carnival.
2: Searches of Lodzinski’s car, apartment, and garbage came up empty.
3: During the April 1992 search when the other sneaker was found, police also found: a pillowcase (no trace evidence found), eleven child bones, a skull (Timmy’s identified by dental records), partial remains of clothes, a balloon, and the blanket (no trace evidence found).
Do we have proof that the eleven bones were Timmy’s? DNA? What about the clothes and the ballon? As a set, it seems to make sense that all belonged to Timmy as his skull was found there however, in the interest of justice, shouldn’t we be thorough so we can eliminate all doubt?
4: Lodzinski moved to Florida, worked there as a paralegal, had two sons, kept Timmy’s photographs in the house, and the boys knew that they had a brother. This goes to frame of mind. Easy explanation: guilt or grief. However, we all know that one day those boys will ask more questions. So, I’d like to know from people who knew Michelle in Florida how she behaved when Timmy came up in discussions.
5: Dr. Geetha Natarajan, now retired Chief Medical Examiner of Middlesex County, said that Timmy’s cause of death was undetermined but opined by “a preponderance of the evidence” that the manner of his death was homicide. Dr. Natarajan did not speculate about the degree of homicide — that is, whether Timothy’s death was caused negligently, recklessly, or purposely or knowingly.”
In other words, when the case is reviewed in its entirety, with all the pieces of evidence, hard and circumstantial, you cannot objectively infer from Nataranjan’s words that a murder took place. The only inference is that Timmy did NOT die a natural death.
6: To prove Michelle guilty of murder you need the category of homicide to be either purposely or knowingly. Only then can you connect the dots to harm leading to death and she knew it and allowed it to happen. This has to be combined with Michelle’s state of mind. Does the decision give us any clarity as to her state of mind, previous behaviour, Timmy’s absences from school, pediatric reports of malnutrition or abuse, etc.? No.
7: In the syllabus, the author points to a connection that in fact, isn’t one. “A reasonable jury was entitled to credit the testimony of the three babysitters and conclude that the blue blanket came from Lodzinski’s
apartment — and therefore Timothy was not at the carnival.”
The ownership of the blanket tells us NOTHING about the moment that Timmy vanished. No trace evidence was found and the blanket doesn’t show up in any of the forensic photographs. There is NO connection here. The onset of Timmy’s vanishing cannot be deducted from finding a blanket.
Let me explain it this way:
- we have a child victim
- in the area where his remains are found we find a blanket
- the blanket is tested to see if it can be traced back to the child
- the tests are negative.
Is it possible that despite being found in the same area, the child and the blanket are NOT connected?
You cannot connect dots just because they are dots. You must prove the connections first.
8: In this decision, the court rejected the general class assumptions that connects criminal inclination with poverty. “Stereotypes associated with single-parent women cannot substitute for an absence of evidence relating to an essential element of the offense of murder.”
Key elements in the decision
1: The decision clarifies what bones were found: leg bones, hip bones, and foot bones (eleven bones in total) and they were found while dedging the creek. “Dr. Marvin Shuster, the Chief Medical Examiner of Middlesex County, conducted an autopsy on April 25, 1992. His examination of Timothy’s remains, the eleven bones including the skull, revealed no sign of fracture or trauma. Dr. Shuster could not determine the cause of death.”
2: “The blanket, pillow case, waistbands, and balloon found off Olympic Drive were sent to an FBI laboratory for testing. The testing did not reveal any evidence tying Lodzinski or her home to any of the items. No blood, bodily fluids, fibers, fingerprints, hair, or other trace evidence was found on the blanket or the pillow case.” However, “NO effort was made to compare the pillowcase found off of Olympic Drive with any pillow case in Lodzinski’s residence.”
3: Forensic analysis established that the skull and leg bones found at that location were from Timothy Wiltsey. So, his dental records identified the skull. Did they use DNA for the bones? Not indicated.
4: The missing body parts are the reason why Dr. Geetha Natarajan could not confirm or deny murder. “The absence of a skeleton and other remains left Dr. Natarajan without sufficient evidence to determine the cause of Timothy’s death.” Did Timmy fall, drown, was he stabbed, shot, hung, etc. Also, Dr. Natarajan could not indicate when or where the boy died.
5: As to location, the crime scene, expert evidence showed that tidal activity could not have transported the body from the river to the narrow stream where the remains were found. The condition of the remains showed the child’s body decomposed in that location, and not elsewhere. No further locations were listed as possible crime scenes.
6: We learn in the decision that Michelle never incriminated herself not even “when surreptitiously recorded by her former boyfriend.”
7: On the blanket, no DNA was found which is inconsistent with claiming that the blanket was Timmy’s. His DNA should have been all over that blanket. One thing was found: one hair fiber from an unidentifiable person. Now this would be interesting to research with forensic genealogy. Not to accuse that person of murder but to find out where the blanket really came from.
8: As to whether Timmy was seen at the carnival, we find this: “Seemingly supportive of her account, two carnival workers told law enforcement that they believed they saw a child fitting Timothy’s description at the carnival. Additionally, three teenagers leaving the carnival saw a little boy wearing Ninja Turtles sneakers accompanied by a woman and two men, suggestive of Lodzinski’s “Ellen” account.” But, Ellen was never found.
9: As for me saying that there is no connection between finding a blanket that held no DNA from Timmy and the onset of his vanishing, we now have this: “No one testified that a child fitting Timothy’s description was carrying a ten-foot-by-three-foot blue blanket at the carnival.”
I read nothing about witnesses, especially from his school, who stated that they never saw Timmy without THAT blanket. Even if there was a dependency, and later you find that blanket somewhere, that doesn’t mean that Timmy was murdered and it doesn’t mean that the killer was his mother. You cannot connect those dots.
10: And this: “The blanket was recovered in an area that was a dumping ground for all types of items. When Agent Butkiewicz found the blue blanket, partially buried, on an embankment above the location of Timothy’s remains, he did not photograph or carefully retrieve it. Instead, he pulled it from the ground and shook dirt from it — and perhaps forensic evidence.”
So, this is the mishandling that they spoke about. Maybe the blanket never belonged to Timmy or Michelle. As the chain of evidence and preservation were not properly executed, we cannot give it the weigh it needs to be essential in a murder charge.
11: We learn that the interrogation of Michelle was worrisome if we consider the possibility of a wrongful conviction. Check this paragraph: “On June 6, 1991, over a period of three hours, Detectives Sloan and
Szkodny interrogated Lodzinski. She stated multiple times that she did not know Timothy’s whereabouts, and she sobbed. As the questioning continued, the detectives’ disbelief became evident. The interrogation persisted, and eventually Lodzinski changed her story. She indicated that an older man had taken Timothy off a ride and, with a younger man, absconded with Timothy. When the detectives pressed for details, Lodzinski responded, “[y]ou wanted to hear something so I told you that.”
I quote “Lodzinski was under immense psychological pressure to give an account that satisfied her disbelieving interlocutors and continued to change her account until one would be accepted and the questioning would stop.”
12: As for how well Michelle cared for Timmy as a sole provider and financially struggling mother: “Nothing in the record indicates that Lodzinski was unable to provide for Timothy’s healthcare and material needs. She took Timothy for extensive dental work, and when he suffered a dog bite, she took him to the hospital. No one testified that Timothy was not well clothed or fed. In the week before Timothy went missing, Lodzinski bought Timothy a new set of clothes and his favorite Ninja Turtles sneakers. Lodzinski, moreover, sent Timothy to a private school for kindergarten. Timothy’s kindergarten graduation gown was hanging in his closet at the time of his disappearance.”
13: As for the risk of having a wrongful conviction at hand “all human endeavors are susceptible to error — and jury deliberations are no different. Although some errors will evade detection or are beyond
correction, our constitutional jurisprudence and our court rules will not tolerate errors that result in a miscarriage of justice. Even a jury verdict is not sacrosanct.”
Was Michelle deceptive? Yes. On purpose? Maybe not if she was genuinely confused and just wanted to get out of the interrogation room. We have seen before that people give false confessions to make the interrogation stop. Think back to Richard Lapointe. Does it mean that Michelle is innocent? Most likely, of murder, yes. Unless proven otherwise, this is it. The case remains unsolved.
Did we avoid a wrongful conviction? I believe so, yes.
Do we know what really happend to Timmy? No.
Is there a chance that he was murdered? Yes. But we need his spine and rib cage to know more. It isn’t likely to be found. Remember the post Stephen Richey wrote about the Beaumont Children.
“Without getting into anything too graphic, I should point out that at this point it is unlikely that a search and excavation – no matter how thorough – is likely to turn up what most people imagine when you say “skeletal remains”. Ground water, the pH level of the soil, bacteria, fungi, the simple weight of the overlying soil all have had a very long time to alter the condition of the remains. It is hard enough on the comparatively denser and more robust remains of an adult let alone juvenile skeletal elements.”
Is there a chance that Michelle knows what happened? A small one, yes.
Is it possible the babysitters were wrong and were guided more by media attention than by memory when they identified the blanket as Timmy’s? Yes.
All in all, I doubt this case will ever be solved to everyone’s satisfaction. So, let’s await Michelle’s release and check for updates on other forensic evidence that may surface in this case.
For now, rest in peace, Timmy Wiltsey.
Hat tip to JP.