Saturday, August 29, 2009

Ex-New Castle man faces death penalty

Jon Bandler

A single day in February 1994, when New Castle cops went to his parents' home four times on complaints he was acting up, captures what was wrong with Justin Grodin from adolescence through young adulthood.

He could not be controlled. He did not get along with his family. He was prone to violence.

But it only gave the slightest hint to just how dangerous he would become once he had his own family. Grodin abused his baby son in Arizona four years later. And while on the lam from those charges, he killed his infant stepdaughter in April 2000, burying her in a shallow grave near the condo in Fort Myers, Fla., where his parents had moved after leaving Westchester.

"Am I surprised it came to that? No, I’m not. He was a very angry individual,” said retired New Castle Police Chief Robert Breen, who dealt with Grodin for years as youth officer. “I’m saddened that it happened and that baby had to be a victim in all this. But I’m not so surprised.”

Grodin, now 35, is one step away from Florida’s death row after a jury convicted him of first-degree murder and recommended that he be executed by lethal injection. At a hearing tomorrow, his law-yer, J.L. “Ray” LeGrande, will try to convince Lee County Circuit Judge Edward Volz Jr. that a history of mental health issues makes life imprisonment more appropriate. The prosecution will counter that the jury got it right: The heinousness of killing the 11-month-old girl warrants the ultimate punishment.

Volz is expected to issue a written decision in his first death-penalty case. Under Florida law, the judge must give great weight to the jury’s recommendation.

Grodin’s mental competency was an issue for eight years before Volz ruled him fit for trial this year. There were several episodes of odd behavior by the defendant, who at one point during his wife’s testimony was booted from the courtroom. He had no supporters in court — his father, Burton, had died, his mother, Eileen, was in a nursing home and he is estranged from his brother, David.

Over the years, he maintained ties only with his father’s brother, Herbert Grodin, who questions whether it was Justin or his wife who killed the baby. But if Justin did it, he said, his psychological problems should keep him off death row.

“There’s a mental issue there that should predominate,” said the uncle, who lives in New Jersey. “I’m hoping for the best because that’s all I can do, but I am realistic. If they give the death penalty, it’s a misjustice. It would mean they haven’t taken into consideration the background and longtime history of illness.”

Growing up, Justin had no friends and often punched holes in walls when he got upset, Herbert Grodin said.

He had behavioral and psychological problems from early childhood, with teachers noting he isolated himself from others. He was in therapy for several years and educated in alternative programs in Chappaqua schools.

Breen met him in 1986, when Burton Grodin reported the 12-year-old was uncontrollable. Breen suggested getting a Person in Need of Supervision petition, but Burton was reluctant to have his son caught up in Family Court.

Over the next decade, while the family lived in Chappaqua and later in Millwood, police visits to the Grodins were routine.

In June 1988, Eileen Grodin, who was an alcoholic, tried unsuccessfully to kill herself. After taking 30 sleeping pills, she wrote a suicide note, addressing it not to her husband or eldest son, but to David, adding fuel to the brothers' sibling rivalry.

Over the next 18 months, Justin Grodin was admitted at least three times to psychiatric hospitals, and he later attended the Summit School, a residential treatment center in Nyack.

He enrolled at Long Island University, despite an evaluation suggesting “success in college is doubtful.”

Grodin dropped out after three semesters and lived in Shrub Oak after moving out of the Millwood home. His family got at least three orders of protection keeping him away.

Just after noon on Feb. 13, 1994, Eileen called police to report that Justin was beating up his brother. When police arrived, the parents simply asked that Justin leave.

They returned twice over the next several hours — first, when Eileen complained Justin was banging on the front door and smashing a small window, and later when she reported he had gotten inside, taken a camera and smashed it against the house. Both times, he fled into the woods. He was finally arrested later that night when they found him in the living room after another call from Eileen.

His last brush with New Castle police came Aug. 16, 1996, when he was arrested after going to the house, burning an order of protection and wrestling with cops.

He was back Oct. 9, when an argument erupted. Grodin pushed his father and punched him in the arm. By the time police arrived, he had fled. An arrest warrant was issued, but police never found him. There was another warrant when he failed to show up in court on the August charges.

By then he was in Arizona, and police suspect his parents helped him get there.

“Burton was enabling him, and that did make me upset,” Breen said.

Grodin began dating 19-year-old Mary Danielson. She never knew her father, and only went to school through the third grade. On Sept. 12, 1997, when Mary was already pregnant with their son, James, they wed in what his lawyer called a “spontaneous courthouse marriage” that brought together their years of accumulated baggage.

“That is the background to the formation of a perfect storm,” said LeGrande.

Grodin was arrested twice in Arizona on marijuana charges. In July 1998, he broke one of James' legs. The following month, the 4-month-old was admitted to a hospital with bleeding in the brain and four broken ribs.

While the couple were under investigation, Justin left for Florida. In early 1999, an Arizona grand jury indicted them on child abuse charges.

Gretchen was born that May — but it was revealed at Justin's trial that he was not the father. Mary later pleaded guilty and was sentenced to probation. In September 1999, Eileen Grodin sent her a plane ticket so she and Gretchen could join Justin in Florida.

Mary held a variety of jobs — under stolen IDs because she had violated probation by moving — and became pregnant again. In April 2000, she watched as Justin tried to get Gretchen to walk by standing her against his leg as he moved. When the baby fell, Justin yanked her up by her arm and hair. Mary told the jury she then heard a blood-curdling scream and a horrible thud and moments later Gretchen was lying on the couch, her eyes rolling up in her head.

For days after that, “she’d stare right through you, she was nonresponsive ... she was never the same,” Mary said.

But neither parent ever took the baby to a doctor, and Mary continued to leave her alone with Justin.

On April 26, 2000, she was working at McDonald's when Justin called to say there was a problem. She rushed home, and found her daughter lifeless on the floor. Justin said she had fallen off the couch, Mary said.

She wrapped her daughter in a blanket, put her in a garbage bag and placed her in a small tote bag. Justin tried to bury her nearby but couldn't. They went to sleep and the next morning they buried Gretchen across town near his parents' apartment.

The couple then took a bus to Seattle, where they were arrested in early May.

Mary Grodin was sentenced to 15 years in prison for child abuse, but that was cut to time served once she testified. The defense argued that she shared culpability and that she was a proven liar whose description of Justin's violence toward her and the baby could not be trusted.

Herbert Grodin said he visited the family in Florida once, and watched as his nephew feverishly stuffed food in Gretchen's mouth.

“I told him, ‘Justin, would you wait till she swallows the food?’ He slowed down. Then he sped up. He does not have the awareness. He doesn’t know what he’s doing,” the uncle recalled. “He comes across as smart and arrogant. But he’s a boy. He never grew up. How could he grow up without any normal experiences?”

Police who dealt with Grodin for years describe a manipulative young man who became violent when he didn't get what he wanted.

“He’s certainly the only one from here who has gone on to do something so serious that he’s facing the death penalty,” Breen said. “But it’s not about New Castle or Chappaqua. Certainly kids get in trouble here like they do everywhere, but they grow out of it. ... “He’s just one of those kids we couldn’t reach, couldn’t help. I wish I could have done more for him.”