The Almost Perfect Murder

Dr. Carl Cop­poli­no

My new book, The Judas Mur­ders, was inspired in part by a dou­ble mur­der case from the 1960’s. Here’s what hap­pened in that case.

Dr. Carl Cop­poli­no, an anes­the­si­ol­o­gist, and his wife Carmela, a research physi­cian, lived in an afflu­ent seashore com­mu­ni­ty in New Jer­sey in 1961 when, at the age of 30, Carl had a heart attack. Due to his poor health, he quit his job and began col­lect­ing dis­abil­i­ty pay­ments while Carmela con­tin­ued to work to sup­port their lifestyle.

Colonel William Far­ber and his wife Mar­jorie lived across the street from the Cop­poli­nos. In 1962, while Carmela was preg­nant with Carl’s sec­ond daugh­ter, Carl and Mar­jorie Far­ber plunged into a tor­rid sex­u­al affair.

Col. William Far­ber

On the morn­ing of July 30, 1963, Colonel Far­ber com­plained of chest pains. Carl thought he was hav­ing a heart attack and told him to go to the hos­pi­tal. He refused to go and died that after­noon. Carl con­vinced Carmela to sign the death cer­tifi­cate, list­ing coro­nary throm­bo­sis as the cause of death. There was no autop­sy.

By 1965, Carl had suf­fered three more heart attacks. He and Carmela moved to Sara­so­ta, Flori­da, hop­ing the mild cli­mate would improve his health. Mar­jorie Far­ber also relo­cat­ed and moved into the house next door to them.

Carmela Cop­poli­no

In August, Carmela com­plained of chest pains. Carl awoke on the 28th to find that she had died in her sleep. He told Carmela’s doc­tor that she had a heart attack, and the doc­tor signed a death cer­tifi­cate indi­cat­ing coro­nary occlu­sion as the cause of death. No autop­sy was per­formed. Carmela was 32 when she died.

Short­ly before her death, Carl had joined a bridge club. His reg­u­lar play­ing part­ner was Mary Gib­son, a wealthy divorcee. He mar­ried her twen­ty-two days after Carmela’s death.

Mar­jorie Far­ber

Carl’s jilt­ed mis­tress, Mar­jorie, was not pleased. She told the police Carl had mur­dered both their spous­es. She said he helped her give Colonel Far­ber an injec­tion of the anes­thet­ic drug suc­cinyl­choline, but the shot didn’t kill him so Carl smoth­ered him with a pil­low. She claimed that Carl killed Carmela with the same drug.

Marjorie’s alle­ga­tions made sense from a med­ical stand­point. Suc­cinyl­choline has benign pur­pos­es. Anes­the­si­ol­o­gists use it to intu­bate patients pri­or to surgery, par­a­lyz­ing the throat so a doc­tor can insert a breath­ing tube pain­less­ly, but mega-dos­es of it are fatal. Vet­eri­nar­i­ans euth­a­nize ani­mals with it, and some states include it in a three-drug, lethal-injec­tion cock­tail to exe­cute cap­i­tal defen­dants.

Most impor­tant­ly for a mur­der­er, suc­cinyl­choline con­verts almost instant­ly after injec­tion into metabo­lites that nor­mal­ly exist in the body. Until the 1990’s, there was no reli­able method for deter­min­ing in an autop­sy that it was the cause of a victim’s death, mak­ing it the per­fect mur­der weapon. As an anes­the­si­ol­o­gist, Carl would have known this.

Based on Marjorie’s alle­ga­tions, the courts ordered the exhuma­tions of Colonel Far­ber and Carmela Cop­poli­no. The med­ical exam­in­er found no evi­dence of heart prob­lems in either corpse. Both states indict­ed Carl for mur­der.

Carl with F. Lee Bai­ley

The New Jer­sey tri­al went for­ward in 1966 with F. Lee Bai­ley as Carl’s attor­ney. Farber’s body had been in the ground for more than two years when the autop­sy was per­formed. Its results were ambigu­ous. The med­ical exam­in­er could not find suc­cinyl­choline in the corpse and he couldn’t tes­ti­fy with cer­tain­ty that Far­ber had been smoth­ered. The pros­e­cu­tion depend­ed almost entire­ly on Marjorie’s tes­ti­mo­ny. In a sav­age cross-exam­i­na­tion, Bai­ley por­trayed her as a “woman scorned,” who would say any­thing to take revenge on Carl. After only four hours’ delib­er­a­tion, the jury found Carl not guilty.

The Flori­da tri­al in 1967 about Carmela’s death was a dif­fer­ent sto­ry. The pros­e­cu­tors based the case on objec­tive cir­cum­stan­tial evi­dence, rather than Marjorie’s tes­ti­mo­ny. A doc­tor tes­ti­fied that he gave Carl six vials of suc­cinyl­choline a few weeks before Carmela’s death because Carl said he need­ed the drug for research, although Carl was not a licensed doc­tor at the time. Carl increased his ben­e­fit under Carmela’s life insur­ance pol­i­cy just before she died. Her med­ical records con­tained no his­to­ry of heart prob­lems. Carmela turned down Carl’s request for a divorce short­ly before her death, and Carl’s bridge club mem­bers said that he moved in with Mary Gib­son the day after Carmela died.

The foren­sic evi­dence was stronger, too. The med­ical exam­in­er spot­ted a punc­ture in Carmela’s but­tocks con­sis­tent with a syringe wound and found abnor­mal lev­els of the metabo­lites deriv­a­tive of suc­cinyl­choline in her organs.

After only six hours’ delib­er­a­tion, the jury found Carl guilty of sec­ond degree mur­der. Tech­ni­cal­ly, the ver­dict made no sense. Poi­son­ing requires pre-med­i­ta­tion and plan­ning, but sec­ond degree mur­der is an inten­tion­al killing that is not pre­med­i­tat­ed. Bai­ley filed vig­or­ous appeals based on that incon­sis­ten­cy and on a host of oth­er legal issues.

Carl & Mary Gib­son dur­ing a break at the tri­al

The appeals were unsuc­cess­ful, but Carl’s wealthy sec­ond wife, Mary, some­how con­vinced a Flori­da leg­is­la­tor over­see­ing the parole board that Carl was inno­cent, and the board released him in 1979 at the age of 47, after serv­ing 12 years.

The next year, Carl pub­lished a book enti­tled The Crime that Nev­er Was. It begins with Carl and Mary mak­ing love in bed in the Buc­ca­neer Motel the morn­ing before the Flori­da jury ren­dered its ver­dict. A three hun­dred page dai­ly diary of Carl’s jail time fol­lows, salt­ed with rants about his vicious per­se­cu­tion.  He claims the med­ical exam­in­er man­u­fac­tured the foren­sic evi­dence against him, Bai­ley com­mit­ted mal­prac­tice, the Flori­da judge and pros­e­cu­tors knew he wasn’t guilty, his jail­ers were sadis­tic, and so on. He doesn’t address the events lead­ing up to the deaths of Colonel Far­ber and Carmela or attempt to explain the cir­cum­stan­tial evi­dence against him. In The Crime That Nev­er Was, Carl, and not Carmela, is the vic­tim, a mar­tyr burned at the stake of a cor­rupt jus­tice sys­tem.

Carl bar­be­cue­ing at the beach

I don’t think so. Based on the evi­dence adduced at the tri­als, I think he was a nar­cis­sis­tic cold-blood­ed mur­der­er. That evi­dence, cou­pled with the known effects of suc­cinyl­choline on the body, tell us exact­ly how he killed Carmela. He plunged a syringe into her hip while she lay in bed. He held her down while she strug­gled against him for the one to three min­utes it took for the Clydesdale–size dose of suc­cinyl­choline to kick in. Then she lay still, the drug hav­ing par­a­lyzed every mus­cle in her body. For the next three to five min­utes, she was trapped inside a liv­ing corpse, ful­ly con­scious, but immo­bile and help­less, even unable to move her eyes, as her diaphragm froze up and her breath grew short­er and short­er until she couldn’t breathe at all. Through it all, she knew exact­ly what was hap­pen­ing to her, right up to the moment of her death.

Know­ing full well as an anes­the­si­ol­o­gist what the drug was doing to Carmela, Carl stood over her and cold­ly watched the woman he had met and mar­ried in med­ical school, his wife of nine years, and the moth­er of his two daugh­ters die a hor­rif­ic death by his hand.

 

Post Script: Carl died in 2017 at the age of 84. There was no autop­sy. Too bad. I won­der if a med­ical exam­in­er would have found evi­dence of those five heart attacks Carl claimed to have suf­fered fifty years before he died, back when he was too sick to work but well enough for red-hot sex­u­al liaisons with Mar­jorie and Mary.