June 21, 2007 4:00 AM PDT

Police Blotter: Necrobabes.com leads to murder conviction

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Police Blotter is a weekly News.com report on the intersection of technology and the law.

What: A Texas church leader found guilty of strangling an Austin woman to death appeals his conviction.

When: Texas Court of Appeals rules on June 7.

Outcome: Appeals court rules defendant's AOL searches for asphyxiation and visits to Necrobabes.com were reasonably used as evidence and upholds conviction.

What happened, according to court documents:
Patrick Anthony Russo, 44, was a paying subscriber to Necrobabes.com, a Web site that offers "erotic horror for adults" by providing staged photos and video of usually nude women appearing to be strangled, suffocated, hanged and drowned.

In part because of his Necrobabes.com membership, Russo was found guilty of the November 15, 2001 strangulation of Diane Holik, who worked from her home in Austin and was hoping to sell her house and move in with her fiance in Houston.

The murder was discovered when one of her co-workers at IBM became concerned that Holik had missed a scheduled meeting and was unreachable. The co-worker asked Austin police to check on her, which they did at 5:30 p.m. on November 16.

After being let into the house by a neighbor, the police found a fully clothed body in an upstairs bedroom. Holik's wrists had been bound, and there were marks around her neck indicating strangulation by ligature, meaning a garrote such as a cord or rope. (In cases of ligature homicide, blood flow to the brain is blocked and consciousness is lost in 10 to 15 seconds.)

Expensive jewelry, including a $17,500 engagement ring, was missing. There was no sign of a sexual assault.

During their subsequent investigation, police learned that a man claiming to be a prospective home buyer had contacted Austin residents who had "For Sale" signs in front of their homes. Holik's house had one in her front yard, too.

Although the man had given different names to homeowners, police produced a composite drawing and published it in a local newspaper. One woman--who had been suspicious in a November 5 encounter and wrote down the man's license plate number--recognized the drawing and contacted police.

The license plate trail led to Russo, who worked as a worship leader and music director at New Life In Christ Church in Bastrop, Texas, a short drive from Austin. Police raided Russo's home in the early morning hours of November 21, 2001.

They interviewed Russo and released him. Pastor Jim Fox later said that Russo came by his house and discussed the interrogation--saying he was likely going to be arrested for murder and theft of jewelry. The police never mentioned, however, that Holik's jewelry was missing.

In a subsequent search of Russo's home on June 18, 2003, done with a warrant, police seized a personal computer. Detective Roy Rector initially searched the computer using the Encase software for references to Holik and found none. He then expanded it to include Russo's search history, and a prosecutor noticed references to Necrobabes.com.

Armed with yet another search warrant, granted on November 18, 2003, Rector did a more complete search of the computer for "information pertaining to death by asphyxiation." He confirmed with a billing company that Russo had been a member of Necrobabes.com and had viewed Web pages there dealing with manual and ligature strangulation. About 1,200 Necrobabes.com-related images were found on the seized computer, and there was evidence Russo accessed the site two days before the Holik murder.

He was indicted in May 2002. Some DNA evidence found on a green towel in Holik's home also pointed to Russo. A state jury found Russo guilty of capital murder, and he was given a life sentence.

On appeal, Russo raised two issues that are relevant to Police Blotter: First, he claimed that the police exceeded their computer-search authorization given in the June 18 search warrant, and second, he said the Necrobabes.com excerpts should not have been admitted as evidence. Another trial exhibit included his AOL search for "asphyx" (which is hardly the first time that searches have been used as evidence in criminal cases).

The Texas Court of Appeals rejected those arguments and left his sentence intact.

Excerpts from the Texas Court of Appeals' opinion dealing with the search warrant:
The essence of appellant's complaint is that the police exceeded the scope of the search under the June 18 warrant when the police "used" information that they learned from the computer's Internet history to "discover private information on appellant's computer."

Detective Roy Rector, a forensic computer examiner with the Austin Police Department, first made a copy of the computer's hard drive, which is protocol for forensic computer examination. Rector examined the computer with a program called "Encase," which is designed to recover any data located on a hard drive, whether it is an active computer file or a previously deleted file. Rector then performed some keyword searches on the hard drive copy using "Diane Holik," "Pathfinder," and "Lakki Brown" (Holik's realtor). There were no positive hits on these terms. Rector was then requested by a prosecutor to conduct a more thorough search to look for Internet activity related to real estate.

Rector explained that the only way to do that was to recover the entire Internet history and "go through that basically by hand, look at it to see what is real estate and what is not." Detective Rector reviewed the temporary Internet files and the "index.dat" files to determine the computer's Internet history...On August 1, 2003, Rector presented the extracted Internet history to a prosecutor to "see what is real estate and what is not." The prosecutor noted that the Internet history made reference to a "Necrobabes.com."

Rector did not know what that Web site was. While the title appeared suspiciously suggestive and implicitly of a sexual nature, it did not appear to be criminal or of an incriminating character in and of itself. The prosecutor requested Rector to determine if there was additional information of that type on the Internet history concerning "Necrobabes.com."

At some point, Rector was able to parse the Internet history relating to "Necrobabes.com" and determine the dates and times on which the computer had accessed the "Necrobabes.com" Web site on the Internet. Several accesses were on November 13, 2001, two days before the Holik murder.

Detective Rector then, on a personal or lab computer, went online to the Web site for "Necrobabes.com" which was available without charge to anyone surfing the Internet. He was able to view for free the introductory screens, photographs and stories pertaining to the death of women by strangulation. He was able to view information about the payment of fees and the purchase of a membership on the Web site. Rector was able to download these introductory screens, and these exhibits were admitted into evidence.

As noted, on November 18, 2003, another search warrant was issued by a district judge to search the hard drive of appellant's computer for, inter alia, information, photos and text from a Web site named "Necrobabes.com" and information pertaining to death by asphyxiation. The warrant was executed.

The State urges that the temporary Internet files relating to "Necrobabes.com" were not opened before the issuance of the search warrant on November 18, 2003. While the police turned to independent sources to determine the nature of "Necrobabes.com," the State argues that the search of the computer for home sales in the Austin area--the object of the June 18 search warrant--continued as evidenced by exhibits later introduced into evidence without objection. That search was not abandoned in favor of an investigation into "Necrobabes.com."

Keeping in mind the particular facts of the instant case, we find no violation of the Fourth Amendment. The trial court did not abuse its discretion in admitting evidence of the contents of appellant's computer as contended. The sixth ground of error is overruled.

Excerpts from the Texas Court of Appeals' opinion dealing with Necrobabes.com and AOL searches used as evidence:
Appellant complains that the jury was presented with information about his membership in the "Necrobabes.com" Web site and substantial and prejudicial images and stories of asphyxiation that had been viewed on his computer...

State's Exhibit 621 was also generated by Rector and showed Internet activity on the computer on April 27, 2001, with the user-profile of a Patrick Russo and with the use of the AOL (America Online) engine to search for a subject associated to "asphyx." To this exhibit, appellant expressed "no objection." This exhibit is not before us for consideration of its relevancy. State's Exhibits 605 through 618 are the Web pages (introductory screens) from the "Necrobabes.com" Web site and available to anyone surfing the Internet.

The trial court was careful to eliminate images of unrelated sexual activity and nudity, leaving only those images showing ligature and manual strangulation of women and other items pertinent to this circumstantial evidence case where a woman was strangled in her own home. The trial court further limited the admitted images to those that appellant viewed on his computer between the dates of October 7 through November 13, 2001, the latter date being two days before the murder occurred. The State was able to tie some of the viewings to the dates that appellant visited some of the female homeowners and realtors, in order to show intent and motive.

We conclude that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in admitting the exhibits as relevant evidence, or in finding through the balancing process that the probative value of the evidence was not substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice.

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22 comments

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That's nine kinds of ****ed up
Necrobabes? That borders on unbelievable.
Posted by Christopher Hall (1205 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Welcome to 21st century America...
Freedom without any self-control or responsibility. We get so
caught up in our "right to free speech" that we're paralyzed into
inaction when stuff like this shows up on our doorstep. It's anarchy
when you think about it.
Posted by lkrupp (1608 comments )
Link Flag
why isnt anyone closing this sight
the authorites shouldve closed it down the second a murder was associtated with the sight
Posted by newcreation (118 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Pathetic
It is people like you who should not be allowed near the judicial system. Shutting down a site based on possibility that someone looked at it before killing someone is ridiculous. That is like the people claiming that the school shooters played counter-strike before killing everyone; so of course we need to get rid of video games.... pathetic. No web site made him do it, it was what he wanted to do and he did it. Quite trying to shift the blame from the people who do the crime to someone else.
Posted by Remi Qaine (5 comments )
Link Flag
re: why isnt anyone closing this sight
How about you learn to spell and punctuate before you start posting your idiot-comments on 'sights'.
Posted by aabcdefghij987654321 (1721 comments )
Link Flag
first amendment
Actors pretending to die horrific deaths is something that is presumptively protected by the First Amendment. It's also a Hollywood staple, though not with exactly the same, ah, plot lines and amount of nudity that you'll see on Necrobabes.

So, under what law do you propose to shut them down?
Posted by declan00 (848 comments )
Link Flag
Re: Why isn't anyone closing this site?
Unfortunately, people would scream, holler, and stomp their feet that you were punishing them by taking away their sick web site when they've done nothing wrong.

Charles R. Whealton
Charles Whealton @ pleasedontspam.com
Posted by chuck_whealton (521 comments )
Link Flag
typos
Its "Bastrop" not "Batrop". FWIW its more like 30 miles, not 10,
from downtown Austin to Bastrop.
Posted by Bill Gremillion (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
PC search requires a judge warrant, do you know Bill Gates?
This story shows clearly that the inspection of a hard disks or other device requires an order by judge. This should be taken into account when software as the (not)Genuine (not) Advantage of MS is delivered almost by force. Such privacy attacks should be banned absolutely. MS owners seem not to know the laws and everybodys rights, do you believe they do not?
Posted by balonga (18 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Circumstancial evidence leads to electric chair...
Sheesh! Our "criminals get justice system," activist judges, and out of control Congress sure makes for some fun times. Glad I'm not a Christian worship leader.
Today, I washed my hands at Safeway, and I researched tape backup systems...if a woman dies at Safeway by strangulation with iron-oxide tape, I am a dead-man-walking. If his finger prints were pressed into her neck, I might be persuaded to believe that he was the killer. The evidence that he was convicted upon is weak. Either there is a bunch of evidence that we are not privy to, or he better go free after an additional appeal in front of some objective professionals.
Posted by gdusseau (30 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Why don't you read!!!
One of the problems with us 'Net surfers is that we tend to skim through pages, often times missing the minutiae and sometimes some very important points.

Facts of the case:

1. Russo's web activity and conducted searches indicated interest in ASPHYXIATION & NECROPHILIA (but you already knew that)

2. Russo had made suspicious calls to several home-owners (mostly female) regarding purchase of their homes, despite the fact that he was not actually seeking to buy a home.

3. Initial interview conducted by police made NO mention of missing jewellery from Holik's house, yet Russo confided in a church leader that he would "probably be charged for her murder and theft of jewellery"

4. DNA EVIDENCE (and this was the clincher!), I repeat DNA EVIDENCE in Holik's bathroom tied Russo to the scene of the crime!

5. Searches for asphyxiation conducted showed a pattern that paralleled his visit to each female homeowner to ostensibly purchase a home. In other words, each time he got all riled up with whatever sick fantasies were floating through his head, he tried to realise those fantasies by making advances - through false pretence - on lonely women. The coward just couldn't go through with it until (unfortunately) finally in Holik's case.

Let's also not forget that in calling each individual he gave a different (false) name each time (that was to pre-empt a stupid question you're very likely to ask, like: "how do we know he wasn't really looking for a home?").

Reading maketh a good man - read thoroughly BEFORE you comment!
Posted by DrewHew (7 comments )
Link Flag
Evidence does not convince me
I have to agree that there should be something other than evidence that he went to sites that specialize in necrophilia before he was convicted. If there wasn't, then watch out anyone who surfs lolicon porn, guro porn, etc. like I do.

If anyone gets killed in your neighborhood, you are going to be the first person on the list for them to come after.

This has gone way to far. Surfing for lolicon porn does not mean necessarily that you are a child molester or child rapist. Surfing for guro porn does not mean that you are a serial killer.

It seems like the judges TOTALLY ignored the fact that this goes against the circumstantial evidence rules that are in place. It's.... what do they call it? I think it's "prejudical non-evidence"?
Posted by Leria (585 comments )
Link Flag
Yeah, he's probably guilty
On the other hand, I see no reason to shut down the Necrobabes site. They apparently haven't broken the law, nor do they advocate doing so. Considering how many people engage in sexual activity that doesn't conform to the missionary position only, I see nothing exceptionally deviate about it. Odd, disturbing, and doesn't do a thing for me personally, but if that's what they want to post, fine.
Posted by Dr_Zinj (727 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Confessions of a Necrobabes user
I myself, have enjoyed the Necrobabes website for many years, since it?s inception, and a regular contributor to its free BBS, which is more or less a writers group. We enjoy writing and reading horror erotica and pulp fiction, and as with any website, it becomes a close nit group of folks who have forged true friendships that have spilled over into our real lives, which are boring and quite normal. I haven?t ever met a psycho at any of these ?conventions?.

There is nothing even remotely beautiful about real death. We aren?t talking about MURDER, here. We are talking about Actress?s and models who play out different death scenes, then cash the paycheck that they earned to buy groceries and pay the electric bill. There are even favorite models who are requested over and over, clearly nobody wishes any real harm to become of them. Sick people are everywhere, but they are going to be out there with or without these websites that supposedly feed and enflame there desires.

I am a horror geek, and note that horror films have always been suggestive. Halloween?s Michele Myers? knife isn?t really a knife, and a female victim doesn?t sound like she?s dying. These movies aren?t made to be realistic textbooks for mass-murder, they are meant to entertain us. Titillate us, and give our girlfriends a reason to seek comfort. That a few folks find these movies suggestive shouldn?t be a great shock for anybody.

Death and entertainment goes hand and hand, and I say Thank God! I love baseball, but if all they made were films about baseball it would be a dull world indeed. I could sight death and entertainment until I?m blue in the face, but Necrobabes and it?s users aren?t on the block. That is a different discussion for a different day. What is on the block is kind of scary.

I?m all for justice, and from the information contained in this article, it looks like justice was served. Murder is a vicious crime that hurts more then the victims, and I don?t think that I?m qualified to say either way what the police should or shouldn?t use as tools for capturing the guilty. The fact that a web browsers history was used in court is terrifying. We are talking about Thought Police, which has no place in the modern judicial system. One could arrest whomever they want to for any crime imaginable based on entertainment.

Carry this one step further, and you could say that anybody who is caught watching the TV show CSI is studying to commit crimes. Of course not everybody who watches CSI is a criminal, but you can bet your last buck that criminals watch it. That?s not evidence, and it has no place in our court system. Now this guy might walk because of the sloppy work, lets just hope that we learn from this, but WHAT a price, huh?

RIP
Posted by Ripx187 (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Well let see, the web site didn't do anything wrong but we don't like it so let's band it and shut it down.
Even though his search history to Necrobabes and other sites got him indicted and was admitted as evidence.
Well let's see, 20 kids died by a lunatic with a gun attacking a school so let's band guns and get rid of them.
Even though the web is full of stories of gun owners warding off attacks by people like Russo.
Some people need to learn not to react to the every first thought that enters their brains and learn to reason things out.
Posted by icicicles (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
 

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