On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Bergen County, Indictment No. 08-10-1788.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Messano, Yannotti and Espinosa.
Defendant appeals from his convictions for first-degree aggravated manslaughter, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-4(a) (count one); second-degree disturbing or removing human remains, N.J.S.A. 2C:22-1(a)(1) (count two); third-degree forgery, N.J.S.A. 2C:21-1(a)(2),(3) (counts three and four); fourth-degree theft by deception, N.J.S.A. 2C:20-4 (count five); and third-degree hindering apprehension, N.J.S.A. 2C:29-3(b)(1) (count six); and his sentence. We affirm.
The victim, Thalia Stathis, was employed as a waitress at the Arena Diner in Hackensack where she worked the overnight shift. Harry Mavrozisis, the Arena Diner night manager, testified that Thalia was an "excellent" employee who worked six days a week. Both he and Jimmie Vetsas, another night manager, stated that she rarely missed work.
Thalia's mother, Joanne Stathis, testified that her relationship with her daughter changed "drastically" when Thalia began dating defendant. On September 7, 2007, Stathis first informed her mother that she was leaving defendant and wanted to come back home. Thalia also confided in two Arena Diner customers who became friends, Ronni Sheldon and Janet Teller, in early September 2007, that she intended to leave defendant.
Thalia had a number of telephone conversations with her parents in the days following September 7. On September 10, 2007, Thalia called Joanne, crying. The two met at a local restaurant, where Thalia told Joanne that she had broken up with defendant and did not want to see him again. Thalia returned to work after lunch and Joanne did not see her daughter alive again.
Thalia last reported for work on September 13, 2007. That evening, she told both Mavrozisis and Vetsas that she was going to leave defendant. Thalia told Vetsas that before leaving him she intended to return to her apartment to pick up clothes. According to Vetsas, he advised Thalia that her father should accompany her to the apartment, but Thalia stated it was unnecessary.
Following that evening, Mavrozisis found it unusual and became concerned when Thalia missed her scheduled shifts. When he failed in his efforts to contact Thalia, Mavrozisis ultimately contacted the police four or five days later.
On September 26, 2007, when Thalia had been missing for approximately fourteen days, Cliffside Park police officers were dispatched to her apartment to check on her welfare. They spoke with defendant, who informed them that he lived in the apartment with Stathis, his girlfriend of approximately three years, and that he had not seen her for about a week. Defendant was arrested on charges unrelated to this matter.
Defendant was advised of his Miranda*fn1 rights and agreed to answer the officers' questions without an attorney present. He stated that the Cliffside Park apartment belonged to Stathis, and that she paid the rent. Although he had keys to the apartment, he did not sleep there often. Defendant stated he had last seen and spoken to Stathis on September 14, 2007, when he picked her up from work and dropped her off at her apartment between 2:00 and 3:30 in the morning. Defendant claimed that Thalia wanted him to spend the night with her but he left after dropping her off.
According to telephone records, Thalia's last outgoing call was made to defendant's telephone at 1:56 a.m. on the morning of September 14. The last time Thalia's cellphone was active was at 2:51 a.m. that morning, when an incoming call from defendant's phone was forwarded to voicemail. Telephone records also revealed that at the time of both calls, Thalia's phone was within the area of Hackensack Hospital, a short distance from the Arena Diner.
Defendant stated that he returned to the apartment later on the evening of September 14 to drive Thalia to work but she was not there. He returned to the apartment a few hours later but
Thalia was not there and did not answer his telephone call. Defendant contacted the Arena Diner and was told Thalia was not at work.
Defendant called the diner again on September 15 and 23 and also called Thalia's cell phone on September 15, 16, and 21. He returned to her apartment on a daily basis after September 14 "just to see if she was there."
After Thalia was missing for a few days, defendant became concerned about paying the bills. He admitted he had written and signed a check from Thalia's account to pay a cable bill despite the fact that he did not have permission to use her account. Bank records revealed that the last transaction for Thalia's bank account was a forged check to Time Warner Cable that was cashed on September 17, 2007.
During the course of the interview, defendant stated he owned a vehicle, a 2007 Honda Accord, that was parked around the block from the apartment. He consented to a search of the vehicle.
The search of the car's trunk yielded two laundry bags containing clothing, detergent and an air freshener as well as other items. The floor plate that would have covered the spare tire was missing, as was a carpet padding. A "yellowish brown" substance, containing compounds commonly found in cleaning products, was found below the spare tire. There were also five "reddish brown" stains in the trunk. Three of the stains were tested and found to contain Thalia's blood. Several items linked to Thalia, including her ATM card and pin number, were found in the interior of the car. A floor mat was missing from the front passenger side of the vehicle.
Following the car search, police re-interviewed defendant, who said the detectives were lying about finding blood in the car. Asked if he had killed Thalia, defendant became "very belligerent, very uncooperative" and refused to speak further.
A search of Thalia's apartment led to the discovery of four blood stains in the bathroom. Two of those stains, one found on the wall behind the toilet and the one on the underside of the sink were Thalia's blood. Police observed that a blue sheet covered the bed mattress.
Defendant remained incarcerated from September 26, 2007 through July 9, 2008, when Thalia's body was discovered by New York State Police Trooper Kevin Reppenhagen in a garbage bag lying on the shoulder of the Southern State Parkway in New York. The location where the body was found was not maintained or cleaned by the State's Department of Transportation (DOT). Reppenhagen testified that the bag containing the body was similar to refuse commonly seen near the Southern State Parkway.
There was, however, a "heighten[ed] awareness" regarding debris after June 27, 2008, when the partial remains of another victim were found on the side of the highway. The location where the body was found was approximately eight miles from the home of defendant's uncle, where defendant had lived from February to July 2006.
Thalia's body was dressed only in underwear and wrapped in three plastic shopping/laundry-type bags, a garbage bag, and a blue sheet. The body was badly decomposed, a complete skeleton, and contained evidence of live insect activity.
Andrew Wolodzko, M.D., Deputy Medical Examiner for Nassau County, conducted an autopsy. His examination revealed multiple skull and hand fractures, as well as a fractured hyoid, the bone above Thalia's larynx. A toxicology report revealed that no drugs were found in the body. Thalia's death, according to the autopsy, was caused by homicide, specifically blunt force trauma, including multiple blows to Thalia's head. Due to the magnitude of the fractures to the skull, either blow could have been lethal. Accordingly, Dr. Wolodzko identified the cause of death as blunt force head trauma. He also testified that a ...