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Until Death Do Us Part page 1 of 2

Until Death Do Us Part:
Homicide vs. Divorce

The person, probably a lawyer, who said that marriages start in bed and end in court wasn’t thinking of murder. Those were the good old days. Today, a lot of marriages end with one of the parties in court, and the other in the morgue. The stories in this chapter feature masterminds who solicit and/or cause the deaths of estranged spouses as an alternative to divorce. Wives engineer the deaths of their husbands out of fear they will be left penniless. For women trapped in bad marriages, murder, compared to divorce, is quicker and a lot more satisfying. Homicidal husbands want their wives dead to avoid legal fees, the divvying up of the marital estate, alimony, and the expense of child support. Familiarity can breed contempt. Marriage, familiarity, and divorce can breed criminal homicide. In the world of murder-for-hire, the bad divorce is perhaps the number one motive.

The Clark Bedsole Case

Helen Bedsole filed for divorce, the first time, in 1985. The working mother of two teenage children felt she had suffered enough. Clark Bedsole, the owner of an electrical contracting company in Deep Creek, Virginia and other businesses in that state and North Carolina, had been a lousy husband. He abused Helen physically, spent a lot of money on cocaine, ran around with other women, and tried to control every aspect of her life. Concerned about the financial effects of a divorce, Clark talked Mary out of it, promising to be a better husband.

Six years later, Helen tried once again to get out of the marriage, this time with determination and a more aggressive attorney who demanded one-half of the marital estate. Infuriated by what he considered his wife’s attempt to ruin him financially, Clark hired an equally aggressive attorney to keep her from getting her share. On November 9, 1993, one week before getting her divorce and the settlement she had fought for over the past eighteen months, someone broke into her home in Geneva Shores, Virginia and shot her to death.

Helen had been living in her Geneva Shores, Chesapeake subdivision home just a few days when Gerry Jones, her new housemate, arrived at the dwelling with her furniture. Gerry found the front door broken open and Helen dead on the kitchen floor.  She had been dead about three hours. Crime scene investigators determined that the intruder had shot Helen in the head and neck, at close range, with a .380 caliber handgun. The killer had taken nothing from the house which suggested a motive other than robbery.

Detectives, once they learned of the marital discord and pending divorce, and the fact Helen’s life had been insured for $132,000, treated Clark Bedsole as a prime suspect. Since he had a solid alibi, they figured he might have paid  someone to murder his estranged wife. While this was a plausible theory, without the identify of the hitman, it would remain just that, a theory.

Detectives caught a break in January 1994 when an anonymous caller reported that during a night of sex and cocaine with Clark Bedsole, he revealed that he had paid DeWayne Williams, his drug supplier, $4,000 to murder his wife. Bedsole’s son had suspected the twenty-one-year-old construction worker from the beginning.  The son had seen Williams and his father conferring at the electrical contracting shop just before, and shortly after, his mother’s murder. He had reported his suspicion to the police.

A man acquainted with Williams agreed to assist investigators by encouraging him to talk about the murder. The ploy worked. In a forty-minute conversation ,caught on tape, Williams revealed how he had ridden a bicycle to Helen’s new house in Geneva Shores. He ditched the bike in the woods, broke off the door knob, and entered the premises. He found Helen in the kitchen where he shot her twice with a.380 Colt revolver. After the shooting he fled the scene on foot. Later that evening the husband of the woman Williams had just murdered paid him $4,000 for the hit. Mr. Bedsole, considering the money he had saved by avoiding the divorce, considered the deal a good investment. He would also benefit from his dead wife’s life insurance policy. In his mind, it was money well-spent.

Detectives took Williams into custody on November 9, 1994 when he showed up for work at a construction site in Norfolk. The next day the police arrested Clark Bedsole.  Charged with capital murder and held on $1 million bail, both men claimed they were innocent. The state brought Bedsole to trial in May 1995. The defendant took the stand, and while admitting he had used cocaine and abused his wife, denied any involvement in her death. The jury, after deliberating less than three hours, found him guilty as charged.  Two months later, Williams pleaded guilty to killing Mrs. Bedsole in return for the $4,000 promised by her estranged husband.

The judge sentenced Clark Bedsole to a prison term that offered the possibility of parole no earlier than 2016. Williams, who had pleaded guilty, was sentenced to death. On August 18, 1999, an executioner killed the Bedsole case hitman with a lethal injection. Just before his death, a reporter asked Williams if he had given much thought to the woman he had murdered. “I thought about how I could have gotten away with it,” he said.

The Sharon Voit case

On July 13, 1995, Dr. Kerry Voit, his wife Sharon, and three of their daughters were watching television in the den of their home in the tranquil village of Golf on the northern outskirts of Chicago. At a quarter to ten, Dr. Kerry, stating that he was tired and wanted to retire for the night in that room, switched off the TV. This enraged his wife, and in the scuffle that ensured, Sharon took a punch in the eye. He suffered scratches on his arm and a bruised leg. Sharon ordered him out of the house. When he refused to leave, she phoned the Cook County Sheriff’s Office.

The deputies who responded to the domestic disturbance call received conflicting stories from the daughters. Two of the girls sided with their father and the third with Mrs. Voit. The officers decided not to arrest anyone, but ordered Dr. Kerry, a successful downtown Chicago dentist, to leave the house for seventy-two hours. He spent the next few nights in Harwood Heights at his mother’s house.

A short time later a family court judge ordered the couple into counseling, but it was too late for that. They continued to fight, and for the next year or so, Dr. Voit moved back and forth between his mother’s place and the family home. In the summer of 1997 he moved out permanently.

It had been an unhappy marriage from the start. As a twenty-year-old dental hygienist, Sharon had helped put Kerry through dental school then worked in his office until their first child. They had talked about divorce many times, but he didn’t want to split up  because he thought it would ruin him financially. They had endured a hopeless marriage for the money until Sharon couldn’t take it anymore.

In the spring of 1999, while talking with Carl Poe, the husband of the ice skating coach working with their youngest daughter, Sharon said she wished she could find someone to have Dr. Voit “taken care of.”  Mr. Poe told his wife Robyn who assumed  Mrs. Voit had been joking. Although she had sounded serious, Carl agreed. Perhaps the black humor had bubbled up out of ordinary frustration and stress.

Two months later Sharon shocked Dr. Voit’s friend, Matt Georgopolous, when she said, quite specifically, that the only way she could find happiness was to find someone who would kill her husband. Mr. Georgopolous didn’t think she was joking and warned his friend that his life might be in danger. Dr. Voit laughed it off, explaining that Sharon was a mentally unstable person who was letting off steam.

On March 8, 2000, while conferring with Robyn Poe at an ice skating competition in Buffalo, New York, Sharon asked the coach if she knew anyone who could “take Kerry out.” Alarmed by the question, Robyn ignored the request. Carl had been right, she seemed deadly serious. In a restaurant two days later in the company of the coach and Matt Georgopolous, Sharon gave them a jolt by bringing up the subject again. Shortly after that, Sharon asked the family accountant if Dr. Voit had changed the beneficiary of his life insurance policy. The accountant said he had no knowledge of such matters.

When he learned of his wife’s recent life insurance and hitman inquiries, Dr. Voit decided to take the matter a little more seriously. He called a friend in the Cook County state attorney’s office and reported that Sharon might be trying to have him murdered. The prosecutor referred the complaint to the Chicago Police Department where Detective John Duffy caught the case. After talking to Dr. Voit and Matt Georgopolous, the detective asked Tim Kaufmann with the sheriff’s office special operations branch to enter the case as an undercover hitman.

A few days later, Deputy Kaufmann called Sharon Voit and said, “I understand you have a problem you want taken care of.” She responded by requesting a meeting the following afternoon in the parking lot of a local grocery store. The next day at one-thirty she pulled into the lot behind the wheel of her SUV.  After climbing into the officer’s vehicle, Sharon asked Kaufmann which one of her friends had spoken to him regarding her problem. He replied that in his business that kind of information was confidential. Seemingly convinced that he was in the business of killing people for money, Sharon set up a second meeting.

On March 17, 2000, a covert police video surveillance team stood by as Sharon pulled her SUV into another local parking lot. Kaufmann, wearing a body microphone, climbed into her vehicle, and without specific reference to Dr. Voit, asked if she were serious about him solving her problem.  “Yep,” she replied, it’s gotta be done.”  She then asked how much it would cost. The undercover officer said it depended on how much money she could raise. About seven thousand dollars she said.

To establish his bona fides as a paid assassin, Kaufmann said that after killing people for the United States government as a combat soldier in Vietnam, he had gone into business for himself.  Being in the profession of taking people out didn’t bother him at all. He said he would do it in a way that would make Dr. Voit’s murder look like it had been committed by robber. Having been told by Mrs. Voit that the target had planned a scuba diving trip to the Bahamas the following week, Kaufmann said he’d kill him there. Sharon said she really didn’t care where or how he did his job. She had no interest in the details, she just had “to have the misery finished.”

Kaufmann said he needed $600 upfront to cover the cost of his trip to the Bahamas. She could mail him the balance due after he completed the job. He handed her a slip of paper bearing a post office address she could sent the rest of the money to. In return, Sharon described her husband’s daily routine and provided the officer with the address to his mother’s house in Harwood Heights. Kaufmann said he had everything he needed except a photograph of the target and the expense money. They could meet again, or she could get the photograph and the $600 while he waited in the parking lot. She said she would be back in a hour. Before he returned to his car to wait, Kaufmann asked Sharon if this was really what she wanted to do. She said yes, the man she wanted to have killed had made her life miserable. This was the only way to relieve that misery. She had made her decision.

An hour later, Sharon returned to the parking lot . As Deputy Kaufmann walked away from her vehicle with the photograph and the upfront money, the police swooped in and took her into custody. One moment she thought her problems were over, the next she was sitting in the back of a police car wearing handcuffs. When informed she had been talking to an undercover cop who had recorded the conversation, she admitted trying to hire the officer to kill her husband. Charged with solicitation of murder, she landed in the Cook County Jail with bail set at $10 million.

After conferring with her attorney, Sharon Voit decided to take back her confession and plead not guilty. The lawyer would argue entrapment, that the undercover officer had essentially talked his fifty-one-year-old client into soliciting the murder of her husband. In support of this hard to establish defense, the attorney would parse the conversation,  noting that at one point his client had said, “Part of me wants him to get help so it would be better.”  He also planned to highlight the absence of key words such as “hitman,” “kill,” “murder,” and “dead.” It would be a hard-sell.

Sharon Voit’s trial, held in Skokie, Illinois, got underway in January 2003. As evidence of her guilt, the prosecutor presented the testimony of the Poes, Matt Georgopolous, and Detective John Duffy. Jurors also heard the taped conversation featuring the undercover officer, Tim Kaufmann, and the defendant. The jury also learned that the defendant had given the officer $600 and the photograph of her husband.

In anticipation of the insanity defense, the prosecutor had arranged, shortly after Sharon’s arrest, to have her examined by a pair of state psychiatrists. The doctors took the stand and testified that in their expert opinions, the defendant, at the time of her conversation with the undercover officer, was not legally insane, suffering from the battered woman syndrome, or post-traumatic stress disorder.

Sharon’s attorney had asked Dr. Susan M. Nowak, a Chicago psychiatrist, to examine his client to determine if the effects of her marriage had made her especially vulnerable to being entrapped by an undercover cop. The trial judge accepted Dr. Nowak as an expert witness, but decided to hear her testimony outside the presence of the jury. If Dr. Nowak convinced the judge that the undercover officer had entrapped the defendant, he would direct a verdict of not guilty. Otherwise, the case would go to the jury without Dr. Nowak’s testimony.

Dr. Nowak had investigated  Sharon Voit’s marital history that included reviewing court documents and psychiatric reports and conducting interviews with the defendant and two of her friends. The story of the defendant’s life, as related to the court by the psychiatrist, portrayed Dr. Voit as a cruel and abusive husband. According to the doctor, Sharon met Kerry when they were high school sophomores.  Five years later they married, and shortly after that, he started hitting her. While working in the office as his dental hygienist, Sharon caught him in a closet using cocaine with a female employee. Over the years he had taken other women on lavish trips, showering them with expensive gifts. The psychiatrist testified that Dr. Voit had forced Sharon to have video-taped, three-way, cocaine-laced sex with him and his friend, Matt Georgopolous. The defendant also told Dr. Nowak that her husband, during  “violent” sex intercourse, would hold a pillow over her face against her will.  She had threatened to divorce him several times, but he and his attorney would talk her out of it.

Dr. Nowak, to a reasonable degree of medical certainty, said that it was her expert opinion that the defendant, while not legally insane, possessed a “dependant personality disorder” that had rendered her vulnerable to police entrapment. The judge ruled that the doctor’s testimony did not establish a legal case for entrapment. It wasn’t that the judge didn’t believe the defendant’s characterization of her husband, he just didn’t see how it related to the legal defense of entrapment. If anything, the defendant’s marital history provided a strong motive for the murder solicitation.

The trial went forward and the jury, following a five-hour deliberation, found the defendant guilty. The judge sentenced Sharon Voit to twenty-three years in prison.  Voit’s next door neighbor told a reporter she was shocked by the verdict. “They were such a loving couple,” she said. “They were just so proud of each other. He talked about what a good cook and golfer she was, she was proud of what a good dentist he was. As time goes by I guess you can’t maintain that forever.”

The James Sullivan Case

In 1977, James Sullivan, a thirty-four-year-old owner of a liquor distributorship in Atlanta, married Lita McClinton, a debutante from one of the city’s socially prominent  families. She was black and he was white, and her parents, Emory and Jo Ann McClinton, were not pleased with the marriage.  Sullivan, a flashy self-made millionaire, had grown up poor on the mean streets of Boston. Ten years older than his bride, he had been married before. Having learned how costly a divorce can be, Sullivan wasn’t taking any chances with Lita who agreed to sign a prenuptial agreement limiting her, in the event of a divorce, to a three-year annual stipend of $90,000. The contract allowed her to keep jewelry acquired during the marriage.

The newlyweds moved into an opulent townhouse in an Atlanta condominium subdivision called Buckhead. Sullivan purchased a second house, four years later, in Palm Beach, Florida. While in Florida vacationing without his wife at his new ocean-front property, Sullivan met Hyo-Sook-Choi Rogers, a young woman from South Korea who went by the name Suki. In August 1985, fed up with her husband’s infidelity, Lita kicked him out of the Atlanta townhouse, filed for divorce, and announced that she was contesting the enforceability of the prenuptial agreement.

Shortly after the breakup, a domestic court judge granted Lita $7000 a month in temporary alimony. Burdened with four car payments, a $900,000 balloon mortgage on the Palm Beach mansion, and a girlfriend to impress and keep happy, the cash-strapped Sullivan had to sell the Atlanta liquor distributorship. Although he had gotten the judge to lower the alimony payments to $2,500 a month, he had not paid her anything, forcing Lita back into court. Sullivan was also pressing the judge to enforce the prenuptial contract. Through her attorney, Lita demanded, in addition to the monthly alimony payments, the townhouse, one of the Mercedes, and $200,000 cash. At this point Sullivan had already spent $100,000 in lawyer fees, and there was no end in sight. The divorce was bleeding him dry.

At eight-thirty in the morning of January 16, 1987, a resident of the Buckhead condominium complex saw a man approach Lita Sullivan’s front door carrying flowers. The door opened and the man disappeared inside. A few seconds later the neighbor heard two gunshots in rapid succession. The man ran out of the house, climbed into a car, and drove off. The witness found Lita in the foyer lying face-up, her face covered in blood.  A dozen pink, long-stemmed roses lay on the floor next to her. The neighbor called 911 and tried to stop the bleed by pressing a towel against Lita’s face.  She died in the ambulance as it raced to the hospital.

The autopsy revealed that Lita had been shot in the face at close-range by a .9mm pistol. Investigators at the scene recovered the shell casings and determined that the shooting had not been motivated by robbery. As a result, detectives came to the conclusion it was a contract killing orchestrated by the victim’s husband who, at the time of the murder, was in Palm Beach. Her timely death had saved him a lot of money.

A month after Lita’s murder James Sullivan married Suki Rogers. The police didn’t know who had pulled the trigger, were still looking for the murder weapon, and had no solid evidence connecting Sullivan to the shooting. Nevertheless, a Fulton County grand jury sitting in Atlanta indicted Sullivan in September 1987 for orchestrating the murder of his estranged wife. A few months later a judge set aside the indictment because it was based on nothing more than motive.

With the investigation dead in the water, the FBI took over the case. Criminal homicide is not a federal crime unless it is committed under special circumstances such as in the course of a kidnapping, bombing, organized crime activity, or pursuant to an interstate conspiracy to commit murder-for-hire. (In 2006 the FBI investigated seventy-eight murder-for-hire cases.) Under title 18 United States Code (USC) Section 1958, a single interstate telephone call in furtherance of a murder plot will give the FBI jurisdiction. Three days before the shooting, someone from a Howard Johnson motel in Atlanta had made a collect call to the phone in Sullivan’s Palm Beach house. The call had been placed from room 518 which had been registered to a Johnny Furr. Forty minutes after the murder, someone using a pay phone at a highway rest stop just outside Atlanta, had called Sullivan’s house. That conversation lasted less than a minute. FBI agents, unable to identify Johnny Furr, assumed the name was an alias. The investigation stalled, and for the second time the Sullivan case went dormant.

In 1990, Sullivan became embroiled in yet another fight to save his assets from a wife who was divorcing him. This time it was Suki. The investigation into Lita’s murder sprang back to life when Suki, testifying in a divorce proceeding, claimed that Sullivan had threatened to have her killed by the man he had paid to murder Lita. Questioned by the FBI, Suki said that Sullivan never mentioned the hitman by name. The federal prosecutor went ahead with the case anyway, and in November 1992, Sullivan went on trial for paying an unidentified man to murder his estranged wife. Following Suki’s testimony, the principal evidence against the defendant, the judge, ruling that the government had failed to present enough proof to establish a prima facie case, directed a verdict of not guilty. Sullivan walked free.

Emory and Jo Ann McClinton, convinced that James Sullivan had paid to have their daughter murdered, filed a wrongful death suit against their former son-in-law. The plaintiffs’ cased, filed in Atlanta, hinged on the testimony of Suki Rogers and the phone calls between Atlanta and Sullivan’s Palm Beach home just before and after the shooting. The identity of the triggerman, however, remained a mystery. The jury, applying the lesser burden of proof that applies to civil trials, found in favor of the McClintons, awarding the plaintiffs $4 million in damages.

In late 1997, more than ten years after Lita’s murder, a woman from Beaumont, Texas named Belinda Trahan gave the Atlanta police the missing piece of the Sullivan case puzzle. She identified Johnny Furr as her ex-boyfriend Anthony Harwood, a forty-seven-year-old truck driver from Albemarle, North Carolina. After they had broken up, he continued to visit her in Texas. Belinda described Harwood as a violent, abusive man who had repeatedly threatened to kill her if she told the police that he was the man who had delivered the roses and shot James Sullivan’s wife.

According to Trahan, two weeks before the murder, she and Harwood conferred with Sullivan in an Atlanta restaurant where Sullivan handed Harwood an envelope stuffed with $12,500. The men had met in November 1986 when Harwood hauled Sullivan’s household goods from Georgia to Florida. Sullivan told the truck driver he wanted his gold-digging wife murdered and offered him $25,000 for the job.

Interrogated by the Atlanta police in January 1998, Harwood admitted he had taken the hit money and was the Johnny Furr who had called Sullivan from the motel before and after the murder. Shortly after the killing, he had called Palm Beach and said, “Merry Christmas Mr. Sullivan, your problem has been taken care of.”  Harwood refused to admit, however, that he was the man who had delivered the flowers and shot Lita McClinton. He claimed he was just the getaway driver for the triggerman, a guy he knew as “John the Barber.” Detectives didn’t believe “John the Barber” existed, nevertheless, the prosecutor allowed Harwood to plead guilty to the lesser homicide offense of voluntary manslaughter. In return, Harwood promised to testify against the prosecutor’s main interest, James Sullivan. Harwood’s refusal to take responsibility for being the hitman did not, in anyway, weaken the murder-for-hire case against the mastermind.

A Fulton County grand jury, for the second time, indicted Sullivan for the murder of Lita McClinton. On April 24, 1998, before the police took him into custody, Sullivan fled to Costa Rica. From there he traveled to Panama, Venezuela, and Malaysia before settling in Thailand where he purchased a luxurious beachside condominium. Under his true name he opened a bank account, acquired a driver’s license, and lived with a Thai woman who assumed the role of housekeeper and wife. A fugitive from American justice, James Sullivan was living the good life in a tropical paradise.

Five years after fleeing the country to avoid prosecution, Sullivan, on the FBI’s most wanted list, still resided in Thailand. The Royal Thai police arrested Sullivan in 2002 after the television show “America’s Most Wanted” featured his case. A viewer who knew of Sullivan’s whereabouts called the FBI. Sullivan fought extradition and lost. In March 2004 the FBI brought him out of Thailand and placed him in the Fulton County jail. Still a man of means, Sullivan prepared for his upcoming trial by hiring a team of first-rate defense attorneys. True to his working-class Irish roots, he was not going down without a fight.

The trial, televised by Court TV, got underway on February 27, 2006. If the jury found him guilty of the nineteen-year-old murder, Sullivan could be sentenced to death or put away for life. Either way, the sixty-four-year-old convict would die in prison. For the defendant the stakes were high.

The heart of the prosecution’s case involved the testimony of Belinda Trahan and her former boyfriend, Anthony Harwood. Trahan, a slender forty-one-year-old with long blond hair and a sophisticated demeanor, told the jury that she may have given Harwood the idea of posing as a deliveryman. Three days before the murder, when he expressed concern that Lita Sullivan might not open her door to a stranger, she had said, “Anyone knows if you want to get a woman to answer the door, all you have to do is take her flowers.” When he returned to North Carolina after the murder, he had said to her, “The job is done.”

Anthony Harwood, already convicted of voluntary manslaughter and serving a twenty year sentence, took the stand to repeat  his “John the Barber” story. His testimony against Sullivan, however, was devastating. The prosecutor asked the fifty-five-year-old witness if he felt remorse for his involvement in Lita McClinton’s murder. He said, “I guess I do, by what you may call proxy. I believe we’re all accountable for our acts, but I guess if you get down to the brass tacks of it, it all began with Mr. Sullivan.”

On the advice of his attorneys, Sullivan did not testify on his own behalf. With only two witnesses, the defense presented its case in less than an hour. On March 13, following the two week trial, the jury, after deliberating five hours, found the defendant guilty. The judge sentenced him to life without parole. For the victim’s parents, after a nineteen year ordeal, justice had been done. But it had come at a high price. The man who had killed their daughter in cold-blood had sold his testimony for a twenty year sentence. If his girlfriend had called the police instead of recommending the delivery of flowers, Lita Sullivan would not have been killed. James Sullivan, two decades ago, would have been convicted of soliciting her death. No murder story has a happy ending, but some end up better than others. Perhaps the Sullivan case is one of those.

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This page was last updated on: Tuesday, January 22, 2008

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A. James Fisher
Dept. of Political Science & Criminal Justice, 146 Hendricks Hall
Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, Edinboro, PA 16444
e-mail: jfisher@edinboro.edu blog: http://jimfishertruecrime.blogspot.com

								

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