It doesn’t matter whether Jeffrey Abramowski had 14 years to get his story straight or 14 seconds.
It hasn’t changed once.
“I’ve never killed anyone, absolutely not, no,” he said when I asked him point blank during a recent visit to the Florida prison where he’s serving a life sentence for the 2002 murder of a 78-year-old drug dealer .
“I wasn’t there. I didn’t have a single scratch on me.”
[Abramowski was convicted of the murder of Cortney Crandall in a Melbourne, FL trailer court. After his arrest, prosecutors connected him to the crime scene with DNA evidence—which his defense attorneys maintained was inconclusive.
But his hopes for an appeal were scuttled by the behavior of one of his lawyers, who not only admitted later she was suffering from bipolar disorder, which prevented her from defending Abramowski adequately—but, risking her own career, petitioned the court for a retrial on the grounds that her “manic and delusional” behavior rendered her ineffective as counsel.
Her request was denied, leaving Abramowski nearly out of hope and appeals.]
….This is an odd tale with no clear-cut answers and no easy resolution. The more you dig, the more questions you find.
It’s a story about a father of two, addicted to prescription painkillers, who insists he’s not a killer – even as police and a jury concluded he was.
It features a cast of characters that includes heroin addicts, methadone users, a jailhouse snitch who claims detectives fed him information about the case, a relative of the victim who thinks police erred and, ultimately, a lawyer with a mental illness who is trying to do the right thing by talking now in the hope that it might help win Abramowski his freedom.
His case is currently being appealed by attorney Paul Bross in Atlanta federal court.
‘An Amazing Dad’
Abramowski spent several years working on diesel engines while in the U.S. Coast Guard. When he was discharged, he settled in Florida and started working on cars. When he and his wife Connie had children, it was decided that she would continue working in the medical field and he would stay at home with the children and work when he could.
“My dad was an amazing dad and man,” said his daughter Jamie LeBlanc, whose father missed her wedding and the birth of his grandchildren.
“He always made sure to tell my brother and I that he loved us. He had a horrible childhood and was determined to make sure his children never felt the pain that he did—and we didn’t.”
…But something happened when Jamie was nine years old.
The family was involved in a bad car wreck. Abramowski suffered serious back and rib injuries. That was the night Abramowski became introduced to painkillers. Court documents reveal that four years later he was a functioning addict who would go “doctor-shopping to feed his habit.”
His drug of choice? Oxycontin.
He had just had a new house built and moved in with his wife and two children. But the drug and alcohol abuse worsened, followed by an arrest for DUI. His wife asked him to leave their home and he moved in with a friend named “Bubba.”
It was that love of the narcotic high that brought Abramowski together with Crandall, who lived in a trailer home in Mobile-Land-By-The-Sea in Melbourne, FL.
Investigators, court records and interviews reveal that some of Crandall’s income came from dealing painkillers. He would drive Abramowski and others around to several doctors and pharmacies to fill prescriptions. He paid for the prescriptions and allowed the addicts to keep some of the medications for themselves. He also traded pills for work around the trailer park and rented out several units.
The pills in his pocket ensured a lot of “friends” or, rather, addicts looking to score, according to investigators. But he also made some enemies.
According to records, Crandall was living with Judy Foley, his methadone-addicted girlfriend. Foley’s son—also an addict—disliked Crandall and beat him with a golf club just a week before Crandall was found dead in his trailer with the claw of a hammer stuck in his skull. Michael “Bruce” Foley testified in court that Crandall had hired a pair of thugs to “make Foley bleed” and so he retaliated with the golf club that day.
Police had no shortage of suspects when Crandall’s body was discovered on the floor of his trailer with multiple blunt force injuries to his head. They interviewed Abramowski and others immediately after the May 2002 murder. But it wasn’t until months later, when Abramowski turned himself into the county jail to clear up a violation of probation stemming from DUI, that he was picked up and interrogated again in connection with Crandall’s killing.
‘Do the Right Thing’
“Do the right thing, brother,” Brevard County Sheriff’s Detective Allie Roberts pleaded with Abramowski during an interrogation conducted with a colleague, now-retired Detective Gary Harrell.
[A video of the interrogation shows Robert’s chair and Harrell’s moving closer and closer to Abramowski until he was pinned in the corner.]
“You’re not a bad guy,” continued Roberts. “The drugs have cost you everything. I’m trying to get you on the right track. I know it and you know it. But you’re lying to me. It’s time to tell the truth. For once in your life be a man and stand up and tell the truth.”
[Abramowski’s reply: “You mean by telling my kids I’m a killer when I’m not?”]
…According to investigators, Abramowski killed Crandall because he was angry that Crandall had abandoned him in Orlando after a spat while doctor-shopping.
Abramowski, in [our] interview at prison, called that preposterous.
Abramowski’s fingerprints were not found at the crime scene. There was no blood evidence found on his clothing, despite copious amounts at the murder scene. The only thing tying Abramowski to the murder scene is a trace of DNA apparently found under Crandall’s fingernail.
…The amount was so small that there remains nothing left with which to conduct more sophisticated testing. However, the sample contained a rare variant that Abramowski also shares, and, according to the state, is only found in one in 75 million people.
Crandall also was found clutching hair that belonged to his girlfriend. Blood belonging to his girlfriend’s son—the guy who beat Crandall with a golf club— was found in Crandall’s bathroom sink, even though he had his own bathroom in the trailer.
“The smart thing to say is that you went over there and he broke bad on you,” Harrell tells Abramowski during the interrogation. “But you’re not smart enough to say that.”
“Why would I say that, Gary? It didn’t happen.”
“That didn’t happen?”
“Then you are just a cold-blooded killer.”
Investigators and prosecutors painted a picture of Abramowski as a strung-out drug addict. It’s important to note that when Crandall’s body was discovered, he had 90 Oxycontin painkillers in a pocket and $70 in another.
Investigators cleared the Foleys,
“Foley was our first real suspect,” Harrell said. “We were hoping it was Bruce Foley. He was the perfect guy to do it. (We) shot up to Alabama and interviewed them right away. But the three of them were following a methadone (clinic) trail up there. It wasn’t him.”
The victim’s granddaughter, Stacie Swank, has been in contact with Abramowski—and she remains convinced that he is innocent.
“No one ever even mentioned Jeff (Abramowski) at all,” she said. “Not until the trial did I realize they were trying to convict someone else. Very strange.
“I think this case has been very botched and I believe that Jeff has been falsely sentenced and framed.”
Jeffrey Abramowski’s first trial ended in a mistrial when one of the state’s jailhouse snitches changed his mind and said he had been coerced by the state. He refused to testify.
Then fate tragically intervened. Defense attorney Laura Siemers, whose husband—public defender Steve Wisoker—represented Abramowski during the mistrial, had an idea. She, being in private practice and with more resources and time to dedicate, offered to represent Abramowski free of charge. She believed in his innocence and told him she would be able to get him cleared of the murder charge.
She had bipolar disorder and was not taking her medications. She said she believed she was the best attorney in the world. She believed there was no one smarter.
She never told Abramowski that she had no murder trial experience, no experience with DNA and that she had only tried one felony case.
Siemers, who knows her admission also jeopardizes her career, said she was suffering from a manic psychotic delusion. Her behavior during the trial was erratic.
She first revealed her condition to Abramowski on Dec. 8, 2011. Four months later, Siemers hired an attorney to prepare a motion for “post-conviction relief” claiming ineffective counsel due to her medical condition and the fact that she had not been treating it. The motion was supported by a letter from board-certified forensic psychologist William Riebsame.
The court denied the motion without a hearing. The claim of ineffectual counsel had come too late.
With few options remaining, Siemers contacted FLORIDA TODAY a couple of months ago with her story.
“I was manic and delusional, throughout the entire trial,” she said. “In my psychotic mania, I believed that I was so brilliant, that it would be easy to win the trial; even though I had never before tried a murder case, I had never before tried a DNA case, and I had convinced Jeff to let me take over his case ten days before his trial was set to start.
“My manic psychosis kept me from understanding simple legal concepts, left me bereft of even common sense, and caused me to be almost constantly antagonistic toward Judge (Tanya) Rainwater.
“My behavior resulted in the judge continuously reprimanding me in front of the jury, and in the judge taking what one appellate lawyer called a ‘prosecutorial stance’ in the trial. The trial was a crazy circus, and Jeff did not receive effective assistance from me as his trial counsel.”
…Her behavior [was not] lost on prosecutor Rob Parker, who has since retired.
“What struck me is that she took on such a serious case on the eve of a trial, with her experience and background,” Parker said, adding that he did not notice anything in her behavior that raised serious flags, but did say the trial “wasn’t the most pleasurable experience.”
The jury deliberated for two hours—including a lunch break —before convicting Abramowski of second-degree murder. He was sentenced to life in prison.
[After I met him at the prison]. Abramowski painstakingly went through as many points as he could during the 90-minute interview, checking them off with a pen as he presented them.
“When I first got charged I go back there with these evil people in here and I was afraid for my life,” he said.
“I’ve had suicidal thoughts for years. I never thought you guys would come and see me.”
John A. Torres is a columnist for FLORIDA TODAY. This is a condensed version of a story published earlier this week as part of his reporting project as a John Jay/Langeloth Foundation Health and Justice Reporting Fellow. For the complete version, and accompanying documents, please click HERE. John welcomes comments from readers. His Twitter tag is@johnalbertorres. Facebook address is: http://www.facebook.com/FTjohntorres.