A bid to exonerate two men in a Buffalo-area murder centres on the possible role in the crime of Richard Matt, a notorious New York killer.
In February 1993, Deborah Meindl walked into her house in this working-class Buffalo suburb on a blustery Wednesday afternoon, and never left.
Police reports recount what happened: Meindl, a nursing student with two young daughters, was stabbed dozens of times, her hands cuffed behind her back, and strangled with a man's tie that was left around her neck.
Suspicions quickly fell on her husband, who had spoken about having his wife killed, according to court records. But the investigation soon pivoted to two petty thieves who were later convicted of murder despite a lack of forensic evidence linking either to the crime.
Now, an explosive new claim is at the centre of a renewed effort by defence lawyers to clear the two: The real killer was one of New York's most infamous criminals, Richard Matt, whose 2015 escape from a state prison set off a nationwide manhunt that ended when he was fatally shot by a federal agent.
The new theory emerged from a months long investigation by two prosecutors from the Erie County, New York, district attorney's office, who presented their findings — and their belief in Matt's involvement — to their boss, John J. Flynn, the district attorney, in August.
But Flynn rejected the findings, demoted one of the prosecutors and reassigned the other. He said he could not comment on personnel issues, but said the two men had been removed because they "did not accept my decision with the professionalism expected of career prosecutors." His office said that despite the lack of forensic evidence there was still ample trial testimony to support the convictions.
Lawyers for the convicted men make another incendiary claim in court filings: Not only did Matt kill Meindl; he may have carried out the murder at the behest of the lead detective who investigated the crime, David Bentley.
On Tuesday, Bentley adamantly denied any role and offered to take a lie-detector test.
"It's totally, absolutely, unequivocally insane," Bentley said, adding that he had not known Meindl and had testified against Matt in a different murder case.
"I could never say that stuff," Bentley said of his testimony in that case, "and have hired him to murder somebody."
In a motion filed in state Supreme Court in Buffalo last month, the defence lawyers said there is evidence that Matt confessed to killing Meindl in 2015. He made the confession to his fellow escapee, David Sweat, according to another document. Sweat is imprisoned in Ulster County.
Adding more mystery to an already perplexing case, recent DNA sampling of crime scene evidence has excluded both men convicted in the murder — and Matt.
On Wednesday, in a Buffalo courtroom, lawyers for the men convicted in the killing, James Pugh and Brian Scott Lorenz, cited the DNA evidence, Bentley's ties to Matt and inconsistencies in prosecution witnesses' accounts as reasons their clients should be cleared.
Pugh, who was recently paroled after 25 years in prison, was there; Lorenz appeared via video from the state prison in Auburn, New York, where he remains. Meindl's daughter, Lisa Payne, sat in the front row.
Justice Christopher J. Burns seemed inclined to favor a deep reexamination of the case — "I'd like to get an answer to this," he said — raising the prospect of an additional hearing.
"I knew, in my heart, that I didn't commit this crime," Lorenz said in an interview last month, adding, "But I never gave up."
In a statement, Flynn, a Democrat, flatly denied that there was any credible evidence "to link Richard Matt to the murder of Deborah Meindl." He also defended his response to the findings of the prosecutors who revisited the case.
"I, along with my entire senior leadership team, several of my senior bureau chiefs and most experienced trial attorneys, disagreed with their conclusions due to a lack of any credible evidence," he said.
Because the two prosecutors have not detailed their findings publicly, it is not fully clear what they believe implicates Matt. Neither man would comment, although one is seeking to testify in the case, court filings show. Both still work for Flynn.
Bentley helped raise Matt's daughter Jamie, who once wrote that the detective "knew my father probably as well as anyone on the outside." In an interview and text messages, Bentley, who retired in 2003, acknowledged having had a close relationship with Matt — whom he used as an informant — bordering on that of father-son.
"I related to Rick: I felt bad for him," Bentley said. "You could almost say I loved the kid."
But he does not believe Matt — a convicted killer — could have murdered Meindl, saying, "he was just a punk" and "wasn't a candidate for a crime like that."
"Somebody planted the idea about him just to defend Pugh and Lorenzo," he said.
Bentley also suggested that Matt "was known to brag about all sorts of stuff that never existed."
After Meindl was killed, suspicion initially fell on her husband, Donald Meindl, who was in his early 30s and a Taco Bell manager at the time. A friend told the police that Donald Meindl had once sought his advice about hiring someone to kill his wife. "It should be made to look like a robbery," the friend recalled Donald Meindl saying, court records show.
Donald Meindl, who did not respond to interview requests, insisted that he was joking and has always maintained his innocence. Police and court records describe an open marriage and Donald Meindl's involvement with a 17-year-old girl who worked for him. He had an alibi: The day of the murder, he was at work getting fired for sexual harassment.
After a tip from an informant, investigators at the time shifted their focus to Lorenz, a 23-year-old with a history of minor crimes who was in Iowa after being arrested for car theft.
Desperate to return home, Lorenz concocted a bizarre plan to confess to Deborah Meindl's murder, according to his defence team, and implicated Pugh, his sometime burglary partner, thinking it would bolster his story. He told a police officer he was innocent, but was willing to plead guilty to a manslaughter charge, according to a prosecution filing.
Lorenz's confession got details wrong — for instance, he said a hogtie was used when one was not — and it was deemed inadmissible at trial. Still, the jury returned a guilty verdict in less than six hours. (Lorenz's name was listed as "Lorenzo" in court records although his legal name is Lorenz.)
Pugh was in his 30s when the slaying occurred. "I was a criminal," he said in an interview. "But I certainly wasn't somebody that would kill somebody. I'm not capable of that."
Lorenz, who is still in prison, recalled being incredulous at the verdict. "I can't believe, I can't believe this," he said in an interview. He added: "Anger turns into bewilderment, then the depression sets in."
Then in 2018 a state judge forced Erie County officials to conduct DNA testing of blood-splattered items from the crime scene. Neither man's DNA was found.
Lorenz was elated.
"I thought I was going home immediately," he said.
Instead, earlier this year, Flynn's office appointed two prosecutors to review the case, Michael J. Hillery, who ran the office's appeals bureau, and David A. Heraty, an assistant district attorney.
After interviewing more than 50 witnesses, Hillery called Ilann Maazel, a civil rights lawyer representing Lorenz, and told him that the prosecutors believed his client was innocent. Moreover, they suspected Matt.
"I almost fell out of my chair," Maazel said.
Pugh's lawyer, Zachary Margulis-Ohnuma, said he was "gratified that honest, courageous prosecutors followed the evidence."
In a court filing last month, Lorenz's lawyers said Deborah Meindl had been having an affair with Bentley and had become aware of unspecified acts of corruption by the detective. The detective, the filing said, had "sent Matt to murder her to ensure that she would not tell anyone else what she knew."
During his career, Bentley was the subject of at least 15 police brutality and harassment complaints, The Buffalo News has reported. But in interviews, he defended his record, saying he was tough but never corrupt.
"I solved more crimes than the whole department did because I was savvy," he said on Tuesday. "But I was not crooked."
He also insisted he had been not in a romantic relationship with Meindl, a denial that Flynn echoed.
In a filing this week, Flynn's office assailed Heraty, suggesting that he had essentially fed details of the crime to Sweat, the onetime fugitive. Heraty has declined to sign an affidavit agreeing to those findings, and has said he wants to testify in the matter.
On Wednesday, Maazel and Margulis-Ohnuma suggested than Sweat's testimony would most likely be included at any future hearing, possibly as soon as December 13.
In a late September letter to Heraty that was turned over to the defence, Sweat suggested that he could offer another plausible explanation to who had killed Deborah Meindl.
"It's been 6 1/2 years since he told me, and until you showed up it wasn't real to me," Sweat wrote, adding that he was concerned about the prosecutor being removed from the case and angry about "the two guys being in prison too who didn't do it!"
"I hope," he wrote, "someone is working on that."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
Written by: Jesse McKinley and Danny Hakim
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