By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
The government's novel prosecution against five Spring Shadows Glen psychiatric hospital workers wasn't going well as it entered its sixth month of testimony in early February. The defendants stood accused of insurance fraud by brainwashing patients and implanting devilishly false memories. Unbeknownst to both sides, at least ten of the 13 remaining jurors and alternate on the panel were prepared to vote not guilty, and the defense hadn't yet begun presenting its side of the case.
Then came a series of truly strange happenings that forced the removal of two jurors and an abrupt end to the marathon trial. It was as if some supernatural force had invaded Judge Ewing Werlein's courtroom and thwarted the jurist's best efforts to keep the sci-fi-ish proceeding under control.
The trial had already produced a distinctly otherworldly atmosphere. A string of former mental patients and their family members testified that Houston psychologist Judith Peterson and others used extreme therapies to convince patients that they had multiple personalities, known as alters, and had participated in satanic cult activities, including murder and cannibalism. The government charged that the patients' diagnoses -- repressed memories of evil -- resulted from brainwashing designed to keep the paying customers at Spring Shadows Glen while administrators sucked their insurance coverage dry. Defendants' attorneys countered that their clients simply provided legitimate treatment for seriously ill patients.
"This whole thing was like an unbelievable TV show," says Peterson attorney Rusty Hardin, who early on confessed that he was totally engrossed in the psychological twists of the case.
"You got all these people up there with these incredible stories as to their mental health before they ever got to Spring Shadows Glen, much less after they got there," marvels Hardin. "By the time it was over, everybody, the jury and the lawyers, was talking in terms of having alters."
Unfortunately for Judge Werlein, the incidents that led to the mistrial were all too real, and despite considerable effort by some to forget, they refused to stay repressed until the trial ran its unnatural course.
The first link in the chain of events that would demolish the trial was forged in December, when a young woman who had been treated at the hospital drove to Bush International Airport to pick up a parcel. The woman was scheduled to be a major witness for psychologist Peterson when the defense began presenting its case in early spring.
As the future witness signed for her parcel at the airport's cargo office, the worker there happened to mention he was on jury duty. When the woman casually asked what the case was about, the juror described a long-running insurance fraud trial that was in its Christmas recess.
She immediately figured out what trial he was talking about. "Oh, you must mean the Judith Peterson case," she exclaimed. Not content to leave it at that, the talkative woman went on to declare, "Well, I just want you to know, that woman saved my life. She's a wonderful friend, and she's getting a bad rap."
Meanwhile, the juror began moaning, "Oooh, I can't talk to you." Then, as the woman turned to leave the office, he admonished her that "if you really want to help your friend you won't say anything about this." And for awhile she didn't. But a time bomb had been set ticking by the airport encounter, one that wouldn't explode for another two months.
Then, in an unrelated incident early this month, several of the women jurors in the trial were walking to lunch. They spotted attorney Dan Cogdell, the lawyer for psychiatrist and defendant Gloria Keraga, smoking a cigar on the sidewalk in front of the federal building. One of the jurors, a pregnant schoolteacher, got an idea so daffy that it could only have come from some mischievous alter.
She had been to The Gingerman, a bar in the Rice Village, and recalled that it seemed an ideal place to smoke a cigar. She decided she'd advise Cogdell where he should light up his stogies. Since the judge had forbidden any contact between the jurors and trial participants, how was she to transmit her brief message?
The juror's solution to her postal problem was as bizarre as the initial idea itself. Ellen Alexander, the case manager for another federal judge, David Hittner, is an unfailingly cheerful and helpful woman, a courthouse favorite of lawyers and reporters. Several women on the Spring Shadows Glen panel had taken to visiting Alexander in her office, and the juror decided she'd entrust the court coordinator with her Gingerman message for Cogdell. When the juror dropped by Alexander's office, the case manager was out, so she simply left the note on a desk.
It was the worst possible solution. Had Alexander seen her, she would have immediately warned the juror not to attempt to communicate with a defense lawyer. Instead, the note bore no outward indication of its author.
"It was just addressed to Dan Cogdell," says a courthouse source. "So Ellen didn't read it and didn't know what it was. She just took it up and gave it to Cogdell, not having any idea what she was putting in motion."