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State of New Jersey v. Victor Muglia

January 17, 2013

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
VICTOR MUGLIA, III, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Union County, Indictment No. 08-11-00949.

Per curiam.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Telephonically argued November 9, 2012

Before Judges Yannotti, Harris and Hoffman.

Defendant pled guilty to first-degree murder of his mother, Karen Muglia (Karen), and the court sentenced him to thirty- eight years of imprisonment, with a period of parole ineligibility as prescribed by the No Early Release Act, N.J.S.A. 2C:43-7.2 (NERA). Defendant appeals from the judgment of conviction dated October 8, 2010. For the reasons that follow, we affirm.

I.

Defendant was a few weeks from his eighteenth birthday when he murdered his mother. The Family Part waived jurisdiction in the matter, and defendant was thereafter charged under Indictment No. 08-11-00949-I with first-degree murder, in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3(a)(1) and/or (2); first-degree murder during the commission or attempt to commit a robbery, in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3(a)(3); first-degree robbery, in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:15-1; third-degree possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose, in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:39-4(d); fourth-degree unlawful possession of a weapon, in violation of 2C:39-5(d); third-degree providing false information to law enforcement officers with the purpose of hindering an investigation, in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:29-3(b)(4); third-degree concealing or destroying evidence of a crime with the purpose of hindering apprehension, in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:29-3(b)(1); and fourth-degree tampering with physical evidence of a crime, in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:28-6(1).

Defendant filed a motion in the trial court to suppress evidence obtained by the police in the search of his mother's home, and to suppress the statements he gave to the police. The trial court thereafter conducted an evidentiary hearing on the motion. We summarize the evidence presented at the hearing.

On the morning of March 31, 2008, Kim Brady (Kim) became concerned about her sister Karen because Kim had not heard from her. Karen called her sister every morning, so it was unusual when no call came that day. Kim called Karen's home, and defendant answered. Defendant was a senior in high school, and Kim inquired why defendant was not in school. He responded that he was sick. When asked where his mother was, defendant told Kim that she was at work. Kim said defendant sounded "strange" on the phone.

Thereafter, Kim called Karen's boyfriend, David Priff (David), to ask him if he had heard from Karen. David had also been trying to contact Karen that morning. He called Karen's employer, who informed him that Karen had not been at work. David also called Karen's cell phone, but the calls went straight to her voicemail. Kim called Karen's house again, but this time no one answered.

Kim told her co-worker she was unable to reach her sister. The co-worker called her husband, Officer Bradley Stover (Stover) of the Piscataway Police Department (PPD), for advice. Stover told his wife that Kim should call the PPD and ask for a "welfare check" at Karen's residence. Kim made the call, and Stover was dispatched to Karen's home to conduct the check.

Stover thought he "was going to help Kim try and locate her sister[.]" Kim and her husband, William Brady (William), met Stover and another officer, Joe Mustowski (Mustowski), at Karen's house. Karen's car was not at the house, but defendant's car was parked in the driveway.

Upon arriving at Karen's home, Stover spoke to Kim and William in the driveway. Kim explained to Stover that her concerns were based in part on problems Karen was having with defendant. Kim had last spoken with Karen the night before. Karen was having disciplinary problems with defendant that day, and she had taken defendant's car keys away from him. Kim also informed Stover of the telephone calls she and David made to Karen's house that morning.

While the officers were speaking with Kim and William, defendant got out of his car in the driveway. This was the first time Stover became aware of defendant's presence. Stover asked defendant where his mother was. Defendant said he did not know.

Knowing that Karen had taken defendant's car keys away from him the night before, Kim asked defendant how he was able to get into his car. Defendant stated he got the keys out of his mother's pocketbook, which he said was inside the house.

Stover asked defendant "to take [them] to the pocketbook because [he] thought it would lead [them] to Karen." Defendant claimed he was locked out and did not have a key. According to Stover, defendant "seemed very nervous[.]" He could not stand still and was not speaking in complete sentences. Stover said that at this point, the primary focus was "[t]o locate Karen." He was concerned for her safety and whereabouts.

Mustowski checked the front door and the garage door with defendant, but found both to be locked. William walked around the side of the garage and to the rear of the house, and Stover followed him. Stover wanted to assist William in case "he was to locate Karen[.]" William opened the unlocked sliding door and indicated to Stover they could get into the house through that door. William then led Stover into the house and unlocked the front door to let Kim, defendant and Mustowski inside.

William testified that he had Karen's permission to "enter the house any time." For several years, William had done work on Karen's house. He stated that, "whenever I needed to get into the house, I was allowed." Prior to March 31, 2008, William estimated that he had entered Karen's home without anyone else present at least a dozen times. William admitted that he did not have a key, but stated that Karen had given him the code for the electronic garage door opener. That day, the opener was not working.

William, Kim, defendant, Stover and Mustowski went into the kitchen. Stover did not find the pocketbook there. From the kitchen, Kim looked down the hallway and noticed that a bedroom door had been damaged. She stated that the door had just been replaced. Stover looked at the door and observed a "small speck of blood near the handle."

The door was locked. Stover walked down the hallway to check the other bedrooms for Karen. He looked into two open bedrooms. On his way back to the kitchen, Stover checked the bathroom to see if Karen was there. He did not find Karen, but saw vomit in the toilet.

Kim was becoming increasingly upset. She demanded that defendant tell her Karen's whereabouts. Stover decided, however, it was best for Kim and William to step outside. Stover asked defendant some questions while they were alone in the kitchen. When Stover asked defendant what happened to the damaged door, defendant appeared nervous and started to cry. According to Stover, defendant was then "an interview prospect [who] could tell [them] more [about] where [his] mom was." Stover wanted to find out "where Karen was and if she was safe."

Stover decided "to err on the side of caution" and advised defendant of his Miranda*fn1 rights. As he was doing so, defendant stated that he knew his rights. Stover nevertheless finished informing defendant of his rights. Defendant again stated he understood his rights and continued to speak with Stover. Defendant told Stover, "I saw the whole thing, it was terrible[.]" He started to get upset and cry.

Defendant said that two men, named "Mike Barbs" and "Danny," came to the house and pinned him against the wall. Then, defendant stopped speaking to Stover. Stover asked defendant where these men took his mother and whether she was okay. Defendant responded that his mother was dead. He gave Stover a description of the two men and stated that a month earlier these same men had threatened his father.

Meanwhile, Mustowski found a key and gained entry to the locked bedroom. The bedroom had been converted into a television room with a couch and a flat-screen television. In the middle of the room, Mustowski saw a large blood stain on the carpet. A crowbar with bloodstains was leaning against the couch.

The officers also found blood spattered across the walls of the room and a pillow covered in blood and human tissue. In the hallway outside the room, the officers observed a vacuum cleaner with what appeared to be bone fragments and brain matter inside. Stover and Mustowski closed the door to the television room and radioed headquarters, asking for detectives to respond to the scene.

Stover decided to remove defendant from the house in order to preserve the scene. Shortly thereafter, Detective Luigi Altomonte (Altomonte) and Detective Palmisano (Palmisano) arrived and escorted defendant to police headquarters. Defendant was not handcuffed or restrained. Altomonte considered defendant a witness, so upon arriving at headquarters, he placed defendant in an interview room.

At the same time that Altomonte and Palmisano were dispatched to the Muglia home, Detective Sergeant David Powell (Powell) also arrived. He had been dispatched to the home to assist with the "investigation on a possible abduction[.]" When Powell arrived on the scene, Stover and Mustowski informed him that defendant was "possibly a witness or a victim to a possible abduction of his mother."

The other officers performed a cursory search of the home. Powell observed the damage to the television room door. Outside the room, he noticed a pair of bloody socks on the floor. Powell thought that someone had attempted to clean up the blood inside the room because there was a silver cooking pot on the floor, which contained soapy liquid stained the color of blood. The room also smelled faintly of cleaning detergent. In the kitchen area, Powell and Stover noticed smeared blood stains on the floor leading to a door to the garage.

The officers continued to search the house for Karen. They also searched defendant's car in the driveway. Powell received a radio call that Karen's car had been found parked a few blocks away, so he responded to that location with other investigators. Powell searched the car for Karen, but he did not find any relevant evidence. The officers spread out and checked leaf piles and the woods near the location. They did not find anything of note. Powell returned to the Muglia house briefly, then left.

Meanwhile, Stover continued to go through the living areas of the house. Aware of blood stains in the kitchen, Stover opened the kitchen door leading to the garage and saw steps leading to a basement. As he descended the steps, he noticed that a lamp had been knocked over and broken. He saw two doors in the basement.

The door directly in front of him was locked. The door to his left was locked and mounted backwards. In front of this latter door, Stover saw what he believed was blood on the ground, so he obtained permission from his captain, who was present at the scene, to make a forced entry through the two doors.

Stover first entered the door directly in front of the stairs by kicking it open. Inside, he found a living space, but no sign of Karen. Stover proceeded to the other door. Because it was mounted backwards, he was able to raise the hinge pins and remove the door. He set the door aside and entered a storage area.

Inside, Stover saw a large black bag in a space between the water heater and furnace and the back wall. Stover went over to the black bag. On top of the bag, Stover observed a clear plastic bag with human blood on it. Stover said he grabbed the black bag and concluded there was a human body inside.

The body was later identified as Karen. She was pronounced dead later that day. Stover estimated that from the time he arrived at the house to the time he discovered Karen's body, approximately one and one half hours to one hour and forty minutes had elapsed.

When Powell returned to police headquarters, he asked Altomonte to locate "Mike Barbs" and "Danny[,]" the men defendant claimed abducted his mother. Powell confirmed that defendant was a minor, and contacted defendant's father, Victor Muglia, II (Victor).

Altomonte responded to a known address for "Mike Barbs" in Piscataway. After talking to a resident at the address and learning that "Mike Barbs" no longer lived there, Altomonte returned to his car. He was notified that a body had been found. He returned to headquarters.

Before defendant was questioned, Victor had arrived at police headquarters. Sergeant George Trillhaase (Trillhaase) met Victor in a conference room, and interviewed him out of defendant's presence. Because defendant said initially that Karen had been abducted by two men who had previously threatened Victor, the officers wanted to know whether Victor would confirm or deny the story.

According to Powell, Victor was "relatively calm." After questioning him about the alleged threats, Trillhaase told Victor that he had the right to be present during defendant's interview. Trillhaase informed Victor that defendant was a possible suspect in the homicide. He also advised Victor of his son's rights by reading him Miranda warnings. Trillhaase asked Victor to initial the Miranda card acknowledging each right. After Victor signed off on the card for each right, the officers recorded Victor's statement and repeated the Miranda rights.

The officers asked for Victor's consent to interview defendant. Victor gave permission and told Trillhaase he did not wish to be present during the interview. He said that he wanted to go outside the building, to smoke and walk around. Trillhaase ...


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