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Murder on tape evokes more tears Widower ends his silence after man jailed since 1996 succeeds in voiding his guilty plea
Sunday, March 19, 2006 BY ROBIN GABY FISHER Star-Ledger Staff
It was over breakfast Friday when Paul Weinstein broke the news to his in-laws of new evidence in his wife's slaying 10 years ago: A family snapshot, which had been found near her body, provided yet another strong link between Kathleen Stanfield Weinstein and the man who has been in prison for killing her.
Weinstein's family had believed they would not have to think about Michael LaSane again for a long time. Especially since LaSane, whose voice was on the tape Weinstein secretly recorded in her last hours, confessed to the crime.
But here they were, in 2006, sitting in a pancake house near the Ocean County Courthouse in Toms River, talking about new evidence as they waited for another hearing.
"Exactly 10 years from the day they told me they'd found her body, and we're back where we were when it all started," Paul Weinstein said Friday, in his only interview since his wife was killed March 14, 1996.
"It's like it just happened. All the memories. The whole thing comes back."
Kathleen Weinstein, a 45-year-old special education teacher who lived in Tinton Falls, was kidnapped in broad daylight from a Toms River shopping mall 20 miles from her home and killed for her car.
The story made national headlines because Weinstein had turned on the tape recorder hidden in her coat. In the 46-minute recording, she is heard bargaining with her abductor for her life.
LaSane, who was one day shy of 17 at the time, later confessed to police he kidnapped Weinstein because he wanted her gold Toyota Camry for his birthday. He suffocated her with her own coat and left the body in Manitou Park, near the apartment complex in Berkeley Township where he lived with his mother. Then he drove the Toyota until he was caught three days later.
In a January 1997 plea bargain, LaSane pleaded guilty to felony murder. He was sentenced to 30 years to life in prison.
But in 2004, after LaSane had served seven years of the sentence in state prison, the case unraveled. LaSane filed an appeal claiming the public defender who handled his case had engaged in sex with his mother. LaSane claimed attorney Kevin Daniels coerced his mother to persuade him to take the plea bargain because Daniels didn't want to take the case to trial.
The appeal included a sworn statement from Vera Thomas: "I did not wish for my son to plead guilty to any of the charges brought against him, because he explicitly proclaimed his innocence. But after the affair with (Daniels) I began to have very intimate feelings for him and subsequently allowed him to coerce my son into accepting the plea bargain."
Daniels, who has a law office in Asbury Park, admitted having a one-night stand with LaSane's mother but insisted it happened after the guilty plea.
In a telephone interview Friday, Daniels said he had sex with Thomas only because "the woman threatened to commit suicide and I did what I could to stop her."
Thomas could not be reached for comment.
In a decision in 2004 that stunned Weinstein's family, and many in the local legal community, the appeals court overturned LaSane's conviction and ruled he could retract his guilty plea.
"The strength of the state's case, including the fact that defendant's voice was identified on a tape recording the victim made during the course of events resulting in death, may affect the decision to withdraw the guilty plea," the court wrote in its July 13, 2004 opinion, "but it does not affect the fact that the conduct of defense counsel warrants the relief we order."
Last month, with Weinstein's family in attendance, LaSane stood before Ocean County Superior Court Judge James N. Citta and withdrew his guilty plea.
The Ocean County Prosecutor's Office responded with new charges of felony murder, kidnapping, carjacking and robbery. Citta ordered LaSane held on $2 million bail in the county jail. Because of a backlog in the Ocean County courts, officials said, the case will take at least a year to go to trial.
Weinstein's 74-year-old mother, Betty Stanfield, is sick over the developments, her surviving children said.
"This has been very hard on our family. Especially our mother. The stress is too much for her," said Barbara Newman, one of Kathleen Weinstein's six sisters.
The startling turn of events in the case "makes everyone questions the system," said Carmine Villani, Paul Weinstein's attorney.
"How could this be happening?" he asked. "In this case, fact is stranger than fiction."
APPLAUSE FOR A RULING
Paul Weinstein said it had taken forever for good memories of his wife to eclipse the haunting thoughts of her last minutes.
Now, on the 10th anniversary of her death, the family must relive it.
The new evidence Weinstein needed to tell his wife's siblings about was an old photograph of his son, Daniel, and two of Daniel's cousins, all of them around 5 or 6 at the time, mugging for the camera.
Ocean County Assistant Prosecutor William Heisler said the photograph had been found near Kathleen Weinstein's body.
It had seemed inconsequential once LaSane confessed. But when the conviction was overturned and a trial seemed inevitable, the prosecutor's office sent the photograph for forensic testing. Both Weinstein's and LaSane's fingerprints are on it, Heisler revealed at LaSane's bail-reduction hearing Friday.
Like the tape recording, the fingerprints are powerful evidence against LaSane, said Citta in denying LaSane's application for lower bail.
"The proofs are strong in this case," the judge said. "I believe 2 million, cash only, is an appropriate bail."
Paul Weinstein and four of his wife's siblings applauded.
Kathleen Weinstein's family can guess both sets of prints are on the picture because she shared it with LaSane while trying to persuade him to let her go. "Don't kill me," she had said. "I have a family. This is my son."
Weinstein's youngest brother, Mark Stanfield, cried when he heard about the photograph from his brother-in-law at breakfast before Friday's hearing.
Then Paul Weinstein cried, too.
"I didn't think we had any tears left," he said. "But 10 years later, we still have a few."
THE TIRELESS TEACHER
Kathleen Weinstein was a 5-foot-3, 110-pound woman with a kind voice and a bottomless reservoir of energy. "A spunky, tough, little Irish girl," Paul Weinstein said.
When it came to kids, "she was a saint."
Whatever it took to get a child to learn, she did. Weinstein recalled her tutoring a struggling student at a bagel shop because the boy was having a difficult time studying at home.
Colleagues from Thorne Middle School in Middletown remember her as a no-nonsense teacher who would go to great lengths to build a child's confidence.
"It was common to see this tiny person in big spike heels looking up at a big eighth-grader," said Pat Wallace, an art teacher at the school.
For the longest time, Wallace thought Kathleen Weinstein was punishing students when she brought them out into the hall. "But then one day I heard her with one of the kids, and she was encouraging him to be better."
Stories of Weinstein's commitment to her students are legion. But her heart belonged to her own child.
Had Weinstein not been on her way to take a test the day she was killed, Daniel, then 6 years old, would have been with her, her husband said.
"She was totally attached to my son. A supermom. She had a hard time going back to work after he was born. Thank God he wasn't with her that day."
Michael LaSane had been in trouble with the law before he encountered Kathleen Weinstein in the shopping center parking lot that Thursday afternoon. He had a juvenile record. "Weapons offenses and assault on a police officer," the prosecutor said.
LaSane was living with his mother, a Jehovah's Witness, at the Magnolia Gardens apartment complex in Berkeley Township, close to the shopping complex. He was a regular at an Italian deli in the mall. Weinstein stopped there for a sandwich on her way to a Rutgers University graduate teaching exam at Toms River High School South.
LaSane had bragged to friends that he aimed to get a spanking-new Toyota for his birthday, police said.
When Weinstein left the restaurant, LaSane grabbed her and forced her into the car. He took the wheel and drove to Manitou Park, where the two sat for hours while LaSane figured out what to do to keep the car, he allegedly told police.
While LaSane mulled his options, Weinstein talked, secretly taping the last moments of her life.
After her death, parts of the conversation were made public by the prosecutor. Weinstein can be heard trying to talk the teenager down. "You haven't done anything yet," she says. "All you have to do is let me go and take my car."
People who have heard the tape say she sounds like a teacher counseling a troubled student. Paul Weinstein has heard it, but his son, now 16, never has, and the father doesn't want him to.
After Kathleen's murder, Paul Weinstein took his son hiking on weekends for months. "To wear him out. Because when he was tired he wasn't sad and he could sleep."
Daniel Weinstein is doing well, his father said. "He is such a good kid. He's so kindhearted. Not a mean bone in his body. He's so much like his mother."
But the boy has been through more than any child should endure, his father said. "It broke my heart when he came to me one day and said, 'Dad, I can't remember Mommy's voice anymore.'"
NO MORE BARGAINING
Paul Weinstein remarried four years ago. His son has formed a close relationship with his new wife, he says. Daniel calls her "Mom." The family was living a quiet life until the past came back to haunt them.
LaSane's new court-appointed attorney, Michael Nelson, said of LaSane's withdrawn plea that the "only conclusion we can draw is that he's saying he's not guilty.
"He might decide he won't want to go to trial and plead to the indictment."
Heisler, the prosecutor, said there will be no bargaining this time. LaSane either can plead guilty to the charges now or take his chances with a jury trial. In either case, with no deals on the table, he faces life plus 60 years in prison, with no parole for 60 years.
Should LaSane take his chances with a trial, the prosecutor will revive the mournful tape.
It's almost as if Kathleen Weinstein will be speaking to the jury.
To Paul Weinstein, the recording is sacrosanct. He'll go to almost any length to make certain it is not used in vain. But he will not attempt to keep it from a jury.
"If my wife's last words get him another day in prison, it will be worth it," he said.
"It is the only way it will be worth it."