Lake Pleasant bodies case

Fifteen years ago, in the first edition of my book on legal ethics, I wrote about a notorious case that had been tried 20 years before, which had become known as the Lake Pleasant bodies case.

In 2007, one of the protagonists, Frank Armani, a by-then retired lawyer from Syracuse, N.Y., spoke at a panel discussion at the American Bar Association’s national conference on professional responsibility. He filled in some gaps in the story of the case, which is worth retelling.

Armani and his co-counsel, Francis Belge, were appointed by the court to represent Robert Garrow, who was charged with the murder of a teenage boy, Philip Domblewski.

Garrow told Armani and Belge that he indeed killed Philip, and that he also killed two teenage girls who had been reported missing - Alicia Hauck of Syracuse and Susan Petz, of Skokie, Ill.,  who had been camping in the woods in upstate New York.

Garrow told Armani and Belge where the bodies were buried. They searched for and found Alicia’s in a cemetery, Susan’s in a mine shaft. Belge took photographs of them, and moved Susan’s skull several feet to place it near the rest of her remains. They did not report their discovery to the police.

The community exerted pressure on Armani and Belge to reveal whatever Garrow had told them. But they didn’t waver; at least, not then. They took seriously the oath they had taken when they were admitted to the bar to protect their client’s confidences.

This must have been particularly hard for Armani, whose daughter Dorina was a classmate of Alicia Hauck’s sisters at Bishop Ludden High School. Armani himself knew Alicia’s father, who worked at the courthouse. “I had known Mr. Hauck from calendar call,” Armani told the ABA professional responsibility conference. “Prior to calendar call a bunch of us would get together and have coffee down in the cafeteria in the courthouse basement. Mr. Hauck was employed there.

So I knew him that way. They lived in our neighbourhood too, and went to the same church I did. He’d stop in the office and want to talk to me, and I’d sneak out the back door, or I would not see him. I knew I couldn’t trust myself with him.”

Susan Petz’s father also came to speak to Armani. He travelled 1,000 miles from his home in Illinois because he’d learned of speculation linking Garrow to Susan’s disappearance. He pleaded with Armani to tell him whether he knew if Susan was alive.

Armani did not tell the distraught parent sitting across from him where his daughter was buried, or even that she was dead.
Armani and Belge met with prosecutors and offered to provide information about two unsolved murders as part of a plea bargain. The prosecutors rebuffed the approach.

Armani and Belge then advised Garrow to plead not guilty by reason of insanity.
Armani had lined up several witnesses, such as Garrow’s parole officer, but had decided not to call Garrow to testify. On the Monday of the second week of trial, Armani was late arriving at court. Upon entering the courtroom he was astonished to see Garrow, who had been called by Belge, in the witness stand.

Garrow testified about the murders of Alicia Hauck and Susan Petz. Later, Armani and Belge went out one evening and had a few drinks. “I exploded,” Armani told the ABA conference, “and we ended up in a fist fight.” Armani wound up with a black eye.

Garrow was convicted of Philip Domblewski’s murder. He was sentenced to 35 years to life in prison. It became apparent that for more than six months Armani and Belge had kept to themselves their knowledge of the deaths of Alicia Hauck and Susan Petz.

Armani and Belge defended their actions at a press conference. The parents of the victims and the community in which they practised were furious with them. Friends and colleagues deserted them. Their practices dried up.

There were calls for their disbarment, and a grand jury was convened to consider bringing criminal charges against them. Belge, who had moved Susan Petz’s skull, was indicted. There were also death threats against Armani and Belge and their families.

Garrow escaped from prison. At that point Armani assisted the police to find him by providing information he had acquired from Garrow, originally at least, in confidence. At the ABA conference Armani explained why, after maintaining his client’s secrets under such extraordinary pressure, he ultimately divulged this one.

During Garrow’s trial Armani’s teenage daughter Dorina - Alicia Hauck’s sisters’ classmate (who later became a lawyer herself) - came to the courtroom to see her father.

Garrow turned and looked at her and said, “Nice to see you again, Dorina.” Since Garrow had never met Dorina, it suddenly became chillingly apparent that he might have been stalking her.

By the time Garrow escaped, he had sued Armani. “I was on a death list,” Armani said. “And my family was threatened. Nothing goes before that . . . I felt that my primary duty to society and to my family was to get him recaptured and locked up to serve his sentence. He and I had parted company when he threatened my life.”

Armed with the information Armani had given them, the police found Garrow in a field. Garrow jumped up and started shooting at the officers as they were coming at him, and the officers returned the gunfire. Garrow was killed.

During the uproar in the community that followed the disclosure that Armani and Belge had kept to themselves their knowledge of the deaths of Alicia Hauck and Susan Petz, Armani’s mother asked him if he was insane, protecting confidences told to him by a serial murderer. Armani analogized his obligation to that of a priest who learns of a parishioner’s secrets in a confessional. “But Frank,” his mother replied, “you’re not a priest.”

At the ABA conference Armani was asked whether he was tempted to say to Garrow when he started to tell him about the two other killings, “I don’t want to know any more about this.”
“No,” he replied. “When you’re in, you’re in.” Tellingly, he added, almost as an afterthought, “Plus the excitement of it, you know.”

Everyone involved in the case suffered. The pain of the Hauck and Petz families is unimaginable. The local tourism-based economy of the Lake Pleasant community was devastated; people think twice about going camping where there may be a deranged killer on the loose. The public was appalled.

Garrow was convicted and sentenced to 35 years to life, then was killed in the shootout. He was not aided in the slightest by his counsel’s silence.

Belge was indicted, and though he was eventually exonerated, his law practice and that of Armani were practically ruined. So was their peace of mind.

At the ABA conference, Armani was asked how he felt when he learned that Garrow was dead. “It was one great relief,” he responded. “Terrible, but that’s my honest answer. It was a relief. I’m no hero.”
A law professor in attendance begged to differ. “I’ve been teaching about you for over 20 years,” he said to Armani. “The students I have taught about you have learned more from that story about what it means to be a lawyer than from everything else I have told them.”

It was time to wrap up the panel discussion.
“Honestly, I have to say, I don’t have very many heroes who are lawyers,” the program chairwoman said. “But if I had to make a list,” she added, “you’re right at the top, Frank. So thank you.”
“Thank you,” Armani replied. “You’re too kind.”

Gavin MacKenzie is the treasurer of the Law Society of Upper Canada, a partner at Heenan Blaikie LLP, and the author of Lawyers and Ethics: Professional Responsibility and Discipline. His  e-mail is [email protected]

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