Murder and conspiracy, or death by natural causes? The case of Cohen

From left: Steve Cohen with his father, Murray Cohen.

From left: Steve Cohen with his father, Murray Cohen.

12/2014
By Suzi Harkola

In late December, 2002, Murray Cohen married Maria Amurrio in Bolivia and brought her to his home on Siesta Key. Three weeks later, he was dead. Authorities ruled it a heart attack, as the 71-year-old had a history of heart problems. His son, Steven Esdale was skeptical.

“She killed him for his million dollar-plus estate,” he asserts, and has spent the past 12 years trying to find someone, anyone, who will listen to his version of the truth of what happened that fateful afternoon.

The saga for the home remodeling and renovations pro has taken its toll on his family, his body, his psyche, and has controlled his life. Esdale wants answers, but none seem to be on the horizon, much less close at hand.

The bizarre story began with a 911 call that captured a male voice in the background as a frantic Maria called for an ambulance. Her husband was having a heart attack. Early copies of the tape were inconclusive, but when transferred to a digital format, the  conversation became more clear. There was a man’s voice in the background; this, despite Maria’s insistence that Murray was not speaking, breathing and was, in fact, totally gone.

“I listened to my father’s voice clearly saying ‘You said you were going to get me an ambulance, that is what you told me, you get away from me, and Maria saying, “Too late. Give up.’ These are the words that I clearly heard with my own bare ear, these are the words that caused me to contact an audio expert to tell me what else was being said,” Esdale states.

Then there was the corazol, a potentially fatal drug, found in the couple’s bathroom. Corazol is banned in the United States, but is manufactured in Bolivia. Used in lab rats to stimulate seizures, it affects the heart and can lead to cardiac arrest. Esdale is convinced that this was a red flag that was either deliberately or accidentally overlooked by police, paramedics and the Sarasota County Medical Examiner, Dr. William Anderson. Maria, 30-years younger than Murray, had been head of Women’s Police in Bolivia and worked with the narcotics unit. When asked why the drug was in their house, Maria said that all of the drugs were prescribed by Murray’s primary care doctor. He denied ever prescribing the drug; in fact, he wrote that he had never heard of it.

The next questionable action was Maria’s request that no autopsy be performed. Dr. Anderson complied, and the body was embalmed and buried in New Jersey. He would later regret that decision and tell the courts that he had made an error. Esdale says, Shortly after I discovered what really happened to my father, I asked Dr. Anderson why he did not perform an autopsy after my father’s death. He told me that he did not perform an autopsy because SSO said there was nothing suspicious. They did not know about the corazol.”

Independent investigations were held by multiple television stations and newspapers. Media investigations lasted from four months to two years, yet police, elected officials, government agencies at local, state and federal levels all turned a deaf ear.

“I am convinced that this is a conspiracy of the highest level,” Esdale states emphatically. “The more I fought, the more layers of government were brought in to deal with me.”

Paul Ginsberg, the nationally known audio specialist who listened to the tape confirmed the voice heard in the background and at that time said, “In my opinion, Murray Cohen was murdered.”

Esdale is also convinced that the SSO deliberately altered evidence by doctoring the audio tape. “The FBI was given a third-generation cassette tape in the beginning by the Sarasota Police Department,” Esdale says. “When I asked them to listen to the correct version, they refused.”

The poor quality 911 recording sent to the FBI was so bad that the FBI analyst says he hears Amurrio yelling the words “mi amor,” not “give up.”

Governor Jeb Bush

Governor Jeb Bush

There was a glimmer of hope when Governor Jeb Bush requested an “investigation” of the facts of the case. While state officials confirmed that they would review the case, they downplayed the significance of the governor’s request and the reported use of the word “investigation.” A governor’s spokesman called Bush’s request routine, and an FDLE official stopped short of calling the new inquiry an investigation.

“The use of the term ‘review’ is better,” FDLE spokesman Larry Long said, and the state-level involvement stopped there.

“The Sarasota Sheriff ’s Department made a mistake and then thought they’d get away with it,” Esdale says. “After that it just snowballed, with mistakes and denials coursing through the criminal justice system at every level, denying me my day in court and the opportunity to avenge my father’s death by putting this murderess behind bars.”

Kurt Hoffman

Kurt Hoffman

James M. Casey

James M. Casey

After little or no response from three Florida governors and law enforcement agencies at the local, state and federal levels, and even President Obama, there was another glimmer of hope when James M. Casey, head of the Jacksonville FBI in charge of 250 agents and all FBI investigations in North Florida, was hired by Esdale’s attorney, Mark Gelman. Casey, who also sat on former president Bush’s National Security Council for two years, completed a 48-page investigation, released in January 2013, which found “sufficient probable cause to believe Maria A. Cohen is responsible for the death of Murray B. Cohen.”

Dictaphone expert William Tidwell who was assigned to the Sarasota 911 call center, conducted a 16-hour examination in front of Sheriff ’s Counsel Kurt Hoffman. He showed Hoffman that he discovered that all the 911 calls for the day of Cohen’s death, January 13, 2003, were deliberately deleted from the hard drive system and back up auxiliary recorder.

Tidwell concluded that the deletion was deliberate because all the calls for January 12, 2003 and January 14, 2003 were intact. Upon this discovery, Esdale who was present at the examination, requested that Hoffman conduct an internal affairs investigation or, in the alternative, request the FBI or FDLE to investigate the destruction of evidence. Esdale’s request was denied and the Sarasota probate court did not help, in spite of the issuance of two court orders which were for SSO to preserve the call on the hard drive and to turn over the original digital copy. Both orders were violated. But even that was not enough to convince Karen Fraivillig, chief homicide prosecutor in Sarasota County, to send the case to a judge.

“There is inadequate evidence to support a finding of probable cause that the death of Murray Cohen can be attributed to criminal action,” Fraivillig wrote to Esdale in August 2013. “In light of the dearth of evidence to sustain the minimal legal standard of probable cause, it would be impossible for the State to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that your father died of anything other than natural causes.”

Lee Bentley

Lee Bentley

Lord was involved with the case for more than seven years. In June of this year, he wrote Lee Bentley, US Attorney for the Middle District of Florida in Tampa, requesting a full federal investigation of the death. In an effort to illustrate the degree of complicity and cover-ups, Lord wrote that in his years of experience as an attorney, he had never heard of, much less represented a client in a case that was “pre-ordained” to be ignored.

He put much of the onus on the Sarasota Sheriff ’s Office, citing incidences of Hoffman tampering with evidence and even destroying the hard drive that held the original 911 call and all of the 911 calls on that date. This was without the professional courtesy of informing Mr. Lord about the destruction. Coincidentally (or perhaps not) this was the same day the Orlando Sentinal requested the hard drive to evaluate the conversation between Maria and the 911 operator.

The case continues to this day. Esdale explains the most current activity: “A week and a half ago (early November 2014) Ginsberg called Medical Examiner Vega. After waiting over a week to find out what went on, I called Dr. Vega to ask where do we go from here. I expected Ginsberg to follow through with his promise to repeat what he said in front of a table full of witnesses at the Friars Club meeting eight months ago. The exact words

Ginsberg stated there were, ‘In my opinion, Murray Cohen was murdered.’ Expecting to unravel the injustice inflicted on my family, Vega told me that Ginsberg did not repeat the statement he made at the Friars Club.

“Vega also stated that Ginsberg did not volunteer the information he publicly stated on Fox television, which was that the voices in the background were coming from the inside of my father’s home. He hears a man pleading for an ambulance and he also hears the caller saying ‘give up.’ Vega stated that what Ginsberg did tell him was he did a lot of pro bono in our case and would not do anything further without being paid. He said that Ginsberg also stated to him that there is much better software out today than years ago when he listened to the call. Vega also told me he is not going to contact anyone of authority or ask anyone to do anything regarding my father’s demise.

“To shove the knife further in my heart, Vega stated to me that maybe I am just hearing what I want to hear, and insinuated that I do not know my own father’s voice. I am sure the tactic was to get me to blow up and threaten him. Instead, I told Vega that I will never rest until justice is served for my father and that I will find a way to break through the wall of obstruction of justice. I also stated to Vega that I believed he was some kind of DEA or informant. He abruptly terminated the conversation by saying, ‘I need to go, Mr. Esdale. Goodbye.’”

Esdale concludes this interview with a simple statement that reflects his frustration, his determination and his will to never give up. “I need justice and I need closure,” he says, voice trembling, choking back tears.

The Sarasota Phoenix also calls on Bentley to instigate a full investigation, beginning with the SSO and moving up the ranks to all who have been involved in this nightmare for Steve Esdale. We hope, on behalf of his entire family, that this matter is resolved and he can resume his life.

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