This is the first book in my new series with Ted Rohrbacher—a defense lawyer who takes on the impossible cases. In this story, his client is charged with killing his wife, but there are some big problems with the case. The victim’s body can’t be found, even though the murder scene is soaked in blood. Can Ted’s client still be convicted of murder?
The client also suffers from a rare mental illness called “the Amygdala Hijack.” It’s a condition where the brain mis-fires and causes people to do things they normally wouldn’t do—like violent acts. Ted must figure out who the real killer is to defend his client but comes to realize that his client may be the real killer.
The Amygdala Hijack
Murder victim Mina Jensen never had a funeral; was never buried, cremated or even properly mourned. Ted Rohrbacher, a former criminal lawyer, received a call from her husband and Ted’s childhood friend begging for help. In a frantic voice, Dan Jensen said, “There’s a good chance I could be charged with killing my wife.” Since Ted knew the victim also, he was hesitant to even talk with Danny. Years ago, Ted had been a successful prosecutor, but after the disaster that ruined his career, Ted had vowed never to go back into a courtroom or do criminal law again. He didn’t even read the crime news.
When Ted protested, Dan turned on the guilt. “I’m innocent. Mina and I had our problems, but I couldn’t do something this gruesome. You’re the only friend I can turn to.”
“Dan, I told you: I’m not taking cases like this anymore. I don’t want to go into a courtroom again if I can help it. I can refer you to—.”
“Just talk to me. I’m scared.”
Their history went back to the high school hockey team. Also, Mina was a cousin to Ted’s wife. So when Dan had married Mina, the relationship became even closer. Ted had finally relented and agreed to at least meet with Jensen.
Ted waited for him now in his office in the newest steel and glass building along France Avenue, south of Minneapolis. Two years ago he’d joined a boutique law firm that specialized in tax and estate planning—basically making wealthy people richer. After his years in criminal work, Ted felt calm for the first time. He was in his early forties and still had enough time left to build a significant and lucrative practice for himself.
Estate planning was slow, dominated by filling in the forms, and once he’d learned the law, these were routine cases that Ted could do with his eyes closed. Fine by him.
In his office, he felt hermetically sealed inside and could look through the floor-to-ceiling glass to see over the roof of the Galleria shopping mall. Rain clouds drifted toward him from the north and colored the air pewter. That caused the sumac bushes along the edges of the parking lot to glow bright green.
While waiting for Dan’s appointment, Ted booted up his Google calendar and saw that he was scheduled for a lengthy meeting with an elderly couple who wanted to set up a trust to insulate their wealth from estate taxes when they died. Most of his work was like this: holding the dry hands of his clients to assure them their money would remain in their hands. The phone buzzed quietly, and the receptionist’s silky voice said, “Daniel Jensen is here for his appointment.”
Ted reached for his father’s blue blazer from the hanger behind the door. Ted had inherited it after the old guy’s death a few years ago. Even with Ted’s muscular shoulders, the jacket fit uncomfortably—like the memory of his father. His death had left unresolved problems.
The blazer covered an expensive white shirt and a Ralph Lauren silk tie, which he tightened against his neck. Ted left his office, turned into the hallway, felt the soft cushion of the carpeting, and came out to the small lobby. It was decorated in tan tones with aluminum panels to create privacy. The architect the firm had hired referred to it as “Frank Geary does a law firm.” To Ted, it just seemed cold. The receptionist nodded her head toward the man sitting in one of the chairs. Dan Jensen was squeezed between its arms and looked relieved to be able to get up.
Ted’s wife, Laurie, and her cousin, Mina, were very close. But Ted had not done much with Mina and didn’t know her well. Neither had Ted seen Dan since Dan’s business started getting busier. Ted hadn’t seen him for a few years. The change was startling.
Dan had worked as an MP, military police, with the army in Afghanistan during the war. Ted wasn’t sure what he’d done while over there. Although Dan was still broad in the chest and handsome, the rest of him looked worn out. His stomach sagged and his head hung forward as if it was burdened by some weight. His clothing used to be tailored and expensive. Now he wore sloppy jeans and a red golf shirt that was stretched out at the collar, exposing a tan line where the neck met the chest.
“Thanks, Teddy. I really need help on this.” Dan gripped Ted’s hand tightly. In spite of the cool air in the office, sweat glistened across Danny’s face. He swiped it with a bare hand.
Ted led him into a dimly-lit conference room behind a sage-colored glass wall. In that sanctuary, it was quiet. Ted could smell the over-stuffed leather chairs that surrounded a long table.
“Coffee, water?” Ted offered. He called to get two bottled waters from the kitchen in the back room. When a clerk returned with the water, Dan hunched over the table with a tan file folder in front of him. He removed a crumpled paper from it. Ted set the sweating bottle on the table. Dan pulled it toward himself, leaving a streak of moisture across the wood. He shoved the paper toward Ted.
Before he read it, Ted studied Dan. His face looked heavy, as if there was too much skin for the size of his face, and he had intense blue eyes that darted around the room. He hadn’t shaved for several days—probably not from stylish considerations.
“This isn’t me,” Dan protested.
“Slow down.” Ted raised his palm toward him and picked up the paper. It was wrinkled like an old newspaper and Ted spread it on the table to flatten it out. It was a formal complaint, drafted by the prosecutor to initiate a criminal case. As he looked at it, Ted’s chest tightened. He’d sworn that he’d never do this work anymore. It was too painful.
The complaint was labeled, “State of Minnesota, Plaintiff, versus Daniel J. Jensen, Defendant. District Court, Fourth Judicial District.” His date of birth was listed as July 17, 1972. That was followed by several paragraphs of facts that alleged what the prosecutor thought Danny had done that made him guilty of a crime. The last portion of the complaint read:
Count 1: Murder in the Second Degree (Felony)
Minn. Stat. #609.19, Subd. (1), #609.11
That on or about May 10, 2013, in Minnetonka, in Hennepin County, Minnesota,
Daniel J. Jensen, while using a firearm or other dangerous weapons, caused
the death of Mina Jensen, a human being, without premeditation but with
intent to effect the death of that person.
When Ted had finished reading, he looked at Danny and tried to hide the revulsion that he felt. Even after years of representing criminals, Ted found some cases were so upsetting that he still had a hard time believing humans could act the way they did. This was one of those cases. Unlike on the TV news, where murders shared time with cartoons and ads for underarm deodorant, when Ted had practiced criminal law it brought him face to face with reality and death. Sometimes it was too real—especially when he’d known the victim. He couldn’t work on this. Besides, the case was impossible to win.
Ted noticed the complaint had not been stamped by the clerk of court. It hadn’t been formally filed. Technically, Dan wasn’t charged with a crime—yet.
“What am I gonna do?” Dan lifted his head and grinned in a weak fashion. His teeth were new: white and straight. “A detective named O’Brien gave it to me. Said he’d like to see me pay for what I did.”
“This is serious. If it gets charged the maximum penalty is forty years in prison.” Ted could see the fear in Dan’s eyes.
Dan’s chest sagged against the table. “O’Brien told me they were still investigating, but that he knew I was guilty.”
Undoubtedly, the press was all over this one. Lots of spilled blood tended to do that.
Ted sighed. “Mina was my wife’s cousin, for God’s sake. Ethically, I can’t take this case.” He folded the complaint and pushed it over the table toward Dan. It gave Ted an easy way out.
“But I’m innocent. Can’t you defend me then?”
How could a lawyer refuse an innocent man? Ted looked at his watch and decided to at least listen to him. Ted said to him, “Okay. Let’s start with the alleged facts.” Ted retrieved and unfolded the complaint. He started to read. “The police say that you called them and thought your wife had been killed. They met you at your house at Lake Minnetonka and found blood spatters on the wall of the bedroom, lots of blood on the floor in the outline of a human, a bullet lodged in the wall, and streak marks of blood across the floor.”
“But you didn’t call right away.”
“I wasn’t sure—”
Ted interrupted him. “And you had several domestic problems with your wife prior to this. Neighbors had called the police several times, and your wife had even told her friends that she was afraid of you, and that you owned several guns.”
“Well, yeah. I needed them when I worked in Afghanistan. But. . .”
“The preliminary forensic testing of your clothing indicated the presence of lots of blood—your wife’s blood.”
“I can’t explain that.”
“What?” Ted jerked back in his chair.
“See, I passed out. Mina and I were fighting and drinking, I admit that, but then there was someone else in the bedroom. I don’t know who, and I don’t know how he got there, but the fight switched to him and me. I snapped or something, because I can’t remember anything after that.”
“You don’t know anything about this?”
“I mean, I saw it when I woke up, of course. But I didn’t do it. I’ve got some problems from my time in the war, but I couldn’t do something like—this. She was my wife.” His eyes moistened with tears. “You know me.”
Ted took a deep breath. He thought of Mina. Bright and cute and always pushing the envelope in life. When the family had called Laurie about Mina’s death, both she and Ted cried. Several days later when Dan had called Ted, he told Laurie about it.
She’d asked him, “How can you even think of representing someone who could have killed my cousin?”
“I’m not going to. But any good defense lawyer knows everyone is entitled to a strong defense.”
“Of course, but you can’t get involved.”
“I don’t want to and I won’t,” Ted assured her.
Now, sitting in front of Dan, Ted wondered how he could avoid the case. He’d have to be honest with Dan. It would be tough, and there might be nothing anyone could do to get Dan out of trouble—even if he was innocent. Ted felt sorry for him. Printed on the bottom of the complaint but unsigned so far was the name Sanford Rogin III, an experienced and tough prosecutor. Ted had worked with him in the past and didn’t like anything about the guy. The evidence against Dan looked bad. Ted would send him to a competent criminal defense lawyer and be able to face Laurie and the family later.
Setting the complaint on the table, Ted changed the subject. “What did you do in Afghanistan?”
“I was in Military Police and they sent me there for four—count ‘em, four deployments. We provided security for the civilians posted there. I got extra pay for hazardous duty. But finally it really messed with my mind.”
“What’s the problem?”
“Post-traumatic stress disorder. I’m seeing a shrink at the VA hospital, but I don’t think it’s working. Trouble is, they don’t have any magic pills to make it all go away. Sometimes I just snap.” He looked up at Ted. “So, you’ll take my case, huh?”
“What happened?” He could smell English Leather cologne on Dan—something too old for a guy his age.
Dan’s eyes poked all around the room, and he kept looking over his shoulder at the door to the lobby. “Teddy, I didn’t imagine it’d be that bad in Afghanistan. I was only a cop, after all. Then one day my best friend suddenly blows up from an IED. I see his body come apart in large chunks and the blood splatters all over my face.” Dan paused to watch Ted’s reaction, and then said, “And it got worse after that.” Dan’s body jerked and he started to hyperventilate. A wheezing sound came from deep in his chest. “I can’t tell you—”
Ted jumped up and yelled for the receptionist to bring more water. She rushed in with another bottle of mineral water. Danny gulped it so fast that he started to choke. In five minutes, he had recovered.
Danny gasped. “You should see my psych reports.”
Ted didn’t say anything, but he thought about the case. He felt a tingling in his stomach. He had to admit there were some tempting legal aspects. Then he thought of his wife. “Danny, I’m not sure that I’m the right lawyer for you.”
“I know I can’t pay a lot right now.” Dan’s eyes, rimmed in red, bored into Ted. Sweat stained the shirt in the middle of his chest.
“I know it looks bad. When I got back from over there, I started my own security firm here. I’ve made a ton of money. Unfortunately, there have been a few tough spots. But we’ve got some equity in the house. I’ll get it out to pay you.”
“Danny, it’s not that,” Ted lied. So that’s why Danny had come to Ted—he couldn’t afford any other lawyer. Ted stood and moved beside Danny and patted his shoulder. In Ted’s mind he pictured Dan’s big house on Lake Minnetonka where the murder had occurred. “I just think a different lawyer would be better for your case.”
Dan leaped up from his chair and slammed it backward. “I need you right now. I’m more scared than I ever was in Afghanistan.”
“Okay.” Ted patted the air with his palms to calm down Dan. Ted softened his voice. “I remember the prosecutor from years ago, and maybe you could cut a deal.”
“No,” he yelled. “I didn’t do it.”
Ted sighed and turned to look out the window. A breeze lifted the leaves on the linden trees around the parking lot. It looked like they were waving at him, warning him. He felt the tingling in his stomach again. He knew what it meant. What if Dan was really innocent?
Ted thought of Laurie, and with the knowledge that he’d have to face her and the family about the case, Ted decided to help Danny—but only temporarily. He would at least look into the mental illness aspects and see if that could help Dan. Then as soon as possible, he’d try to get the prosecutor to drop the case. “All right. I’ll check into things,” Ted assured him.
Dan’s case was certainly unusual, and that intrigued Ted. After all, he had never seen one like it in his entire career. Even though Danny could be charged with second degree murder and the case against him seemed strong, the prosecutor had a major problem with the evidence to prove his guilt. It was also the reason there hadn’t been a funeral or a burial for Mina Jensen—no one had found her body.