Heartburn Can Be Murder

In a wildly embellished wedding announcement that got past Houston Chronicle fact checkers three and a half years ago, Susan and Carmine Basso revealed to the world that it would be death until they parted.

Carmine departed this world two years ago at age 47, presumably a good bit sooner than he would have liked and -- in the minds of some of his family members -- possibly sooner than he should have.

That suspicion has caused Houston police officials to take a new interest in the circumstances surrounding Carmine's death and to discuss his autopsy with Harris County Chief Medical Examiner Joye Carter, who performed postmortem herself. Two years ago this month, Carter ruled that Carmine died of natural causes. However, that was before another bizarre murder case that led to capital murder charges against Susan Basso. Citing that odd killing, Carmine's family and, apparently, some investigators now fear that Carmine may have been done in by his wife. And at least one member of Carmine's family wants the body unearthed so Carter can render a second opinion.

"We think that she did do something [to Carmine]," says Arlene Basso, Carmine's stepmother. And although she's not sure of what other family members think about a possible exhumation, "personally I'm for it."

Susan and Carmine Basso first burst from obscurity to odd notoriety on Sunday, October 22, 1995. Readers of the Chronicle opened the wedding announcement section to see a most strange quarter-page nuptial notice: "Suzanne Margaret Anne Cassandra Lynn Theresa Marie Veronica Sue Burns-Standlinslowski" and Carmine Joseph John Basso had tied the knot.

The notice reported that Ms. Burns-Standlinslowski had 11 brothers and was heir to the "Oil Dynasty in Halifax, Nova Scotia." It followed the not-so-humble life of this happy bride: After obtaining a degree in home economics and trade sewing from Saint Anne's Institute of Yorkshire, England, she had entered a convent and become a nun known as Sister Mary Theresa.

However, convent officials at the time told the Houston Press they had never heard of the woman. Likewise, most of the rest of the announcement about the bride had little in common with reality. Nor apparently did her relationship with her in-laws. According to Carmine's stepmother, the family was never definitely sure that Carmine and Susan were married. Arlene Basso also says that Susan claimed to have twin daughters and then later sent the family a picture of what appeared to the Bassos to be one little girl looking into double mirrors. She adds that she has no idea how Carmine got mixed up with Susan.

"Believe me when I tell you she is off the wall," says the stepmother.
As for the groom, the wedding notice claimed Carmine Basso was a Congressional Medal of Honor winner and the owner of Latin Security & Investigations. While there is no record of a Congressional Medal of Honor being bestowed on Carmine, a check with the Texas Board of Private Investigators and Private Security Agencies did confirm the existence of Latin Security. Its office was in Suite 215 of a building at 6633 Hillcroft in southwest Houston.

And that was the location, on May 27, 1997, where husband Carmine's body was discovered.

According to the report by medical examiner's investigator Pat Banks, Carmine was last known to be alive at 11 a.m. on May 20, 1997, when his wife said she spoke to him by phone. Susan Basso had called Houston police seven days later to ask that they check on Carmine's well-being.

Officer J.R. Martinez found Carmine in the office, dead. The medical examiner's report says Carmine had been complaining earlier of severe back pain, saying he could barely move and "thought" that he had prostate cancer, although he had never been tested for the disease.

Banks's report also states that Susan Basso claimed she had been visiting her mother in New Jersey for the previous month and that friends had told her that Carmine had not been eating because he missed her so much.

The report said that although there were no restrooms in the office suite the couple had apparently been living there for several months. The results were not pleasant.

"There were several trash cans with feces and urine in them," reads the report. "The office was so dirty and unkept, the maids for the office park refused to clean it due to the horrendous odor, according to Officer Martinez."

In her autopsy examination of Carmine, Dr. Carter noted that there was no apparent trauma to the body. The only major abnormalities, she reported, were "a strong ammonia odor to the body" and the erosion of Carmine's esophagus -- erosion that extended to the trachea and a portion of the cervical spine area.

Dr. Carter concluded that Carmine's death was the result of erosive esophagitis. According to Stedman's Medical Dictionary, that is the "inflammation of the lower esophagus from the regurgitation of acid gastric contents" -- in other words, stomach acid. Dr. Carter added that Carmine's condition was complicated by malnourishment.

Carmine is buried in the Tappan Reformed Church Cemetery, not far from his family home in Tappan, New York. According to a cemetery employee, not long after the burial Susan informed cemetery officials that she had been coming to the cemetery at night to talk to Carmine in his grave.

Regardless of how Carmine died, natural causes had nothing to do with the next death associated with Susan Basso. Last August 26, a jogger in Galena Park glanced in a ditch and discovered the body of Louis "Buddy" Musso, a 59-year-old mentally retarded man.

Police arrested the 44-year-old Basso and five other people in Musso's torture and beating death. The six suspects were charged with capital murder, but prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against only Basso. Investigators say she was the ringleader of the group and that she attempted to become Musso's legal guardian after luring him to Houston from New Jersey with a promise of marriage. Instead, say authorities, Basso planned to kill Musso for his insurance policy.

Arlene Basso believes she may have actually met Buddy Musso -- at her stepson's grave.

"I used to stop by on my way home from work, and Susan happened to be there one day," she says. "There was this man with her, and she introduced him to me as her son's friend. I didn't put it together until Iread about [Musso's murder] in the papers. But he was dressed in cowboy-style clothes, and he seemed a little slow."

When Musso's body was found last August, investigators discovered that he had been severely beaten all over his body during a several-day period. One of the defendants also admitted that before Musso's death his killers bathed him with cleaning fluids and bleach, and then scrubbed him with a wire brush.

Houston police now apparently wonder if Carmine Basso, whose body had a strong ammonia odor, may have met a similar fate two years ago. There is an apparent feeling in some sections of the HPD homicide division that Carmine may have died from something more sinister than a very bad case of heartburn.

Dr. Carter agrees. Although there are currently no plans for exhumation of Carmine's body, Carter says she is looking into that possibility.

"When Mr. Basso was found dead, it did not appear to be foul play, but it did appear to be a little strange," says Carter. "In light of the [Musso] case, I think it may warrant a second look."

Since Harris County detectives worked the Musso case and HPDdetectives are investigating Carmine's death, Carter says that, before making a final decision on exhumation, she would like to get both groups of investigators together to compare notes.

However, in the opinion of Susan Basso's attorney, James M. Leitner, if the police are serious about exhuming his client's husband, then "they are grasping for straws."

"From what I know right now, there are certainly no grounds to do it," says Leitner. "I don't know what their reasoning would be."

But, according to Harris County Assistant District Attorney Colleen Barnett, "any evidence that Susan Basso participated in Carmine Basso's death would be welcome in my capital murder prosecution [of Susan]."

Jury selection in Basso's capital murder trial is set to begin July 6. Last week she appeared in court during a hearing on a motion by Leitner for a change of venue because of pretrial publicity. During the hearing, courthouse observers were surprised by Basso's appearance. When she was arrested, Basso reportedly weighed 365 pounds but is now down to a mere 150 pounds. The enormous loss of weight makes Leitner concerned about the health of his client, who had told police that her late husband's malnutrition was due to her absence.

"I think she's sick," says Leitner, "but [the authorities] think she is so disciplined that she is trying to starve herself sick before the trial."

Or maybe she just misses Carmine.

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Steve McVicker