Forensic Files - Oily in the Morning   View more episodes

Aired at 04:00 AM on Wednesday, May 05, 2010 (5/5/2010)      View all transcripts from this day


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00:01:59>> Narrator: Nick howard's car was found submerged in the sacramento river.
00:02:03But there was no sign of his body.
00:02:07Inside nick's car, investigators found evidence the crash may not have been an accident.
00:02:14>> This car was a manual-speed-transmission car.
00:02:18It was found in the neutral position.
00:02:21>> Narrator: In the car's engine, investigators found even more proof.
00:02:28>> I examined the carburetor, and I found an oil-bottle cap holding the throttle open.
00:02:33>> Which was remarkable by its uniqueness.
00:02:36Never seen it before or have never seen it since.
00:02:38>> Narrator: The cap was marked " it was the top to the valvoline motor-oil bottle in the trunk.
00:02:46>> The bottle cap was a big indicator right off the bat.
00:02:49The car had been rigge something wasn't right.
00:02:52>> The bottle cap would be put in there in lieu of a person to hold the gas pedal in position so that the vehicle could be operated without a pilot or a driver.
00:03:03>> Narrator: To see what effect the bottle cap would have on nick's car, investigators put an identical cap in the carburetor of another car.
00:03:12For safety purposes, a test driver sat behind the wheel to stop the car after the test.
00:03:18[ Engine turns over ] when the engine started, the car moved on its own.
00:03:24>> The vehicle gained speed.
00:03:26It'll start firing, and the gasoline will take over and produce much more power, and it will start to accelerate gradually and slowly until it will obtain speed.
00:03:37>> Narrator: Accident experts estimated the car was traveling at 25 miles per hour when it left the road.
00:03:44The embankment slowed the car, and by the time it hit the water, it was moving at only 15 miles per hour.
00:03:52Nick's glasses were found in the car, and investigators wanted to know if nick had been wearing them when the crash occurred.
00:04:02So they created a styrofoam facsimile of nick's head.
00:04:07>> I weighted the styrofoam head so that it was approximately the same weight as nick's head would've been in that same situation.
00:04:16>> Narrator: They put an identical pair of glasses on the model to simulate the force of impact.
00:04:23It was attached to a pendulum.
00:04:25>> Based on a potential-energy formula -- mass times gravity times height -- I lifted the head that given height, allowed it to swing down, and it collided with the steering wheel.
00:04:37>> Narrator: This was a virtual re-creation of what would happen if nick's head had hit the steering wheel when the car crashed into the river at 15 miles per hour.
00:04:52There was far less damage to the test glasses than the ones found in the car.
00:04:58>> My conclusion was nick's head did not collide with the steering wheel in the car.
00:05:03>> Narrator: This proved the glasses had been planted.
00:05:07And if nick hadn't been in the car during the crash, then there was still the possibility he was alive.
00:05:16>> We were a little emotional -- well, very emotional.
00:05:18But, you know, kind of on pins and needles.
00:05:22>> I think it's human nature that you just want to find the person, whether they be dead or alive, just so you know what happened.
00:05:30I think they were prepared -- I think nick's family was prepared to go either way.
00:05:36Of course you pray for the best.
00:05:38But I think there's that part of you that knows it could go the other way.
00:05:44>> Narrator: Three weeks later, a search crew found nick's body in the sacramento river about a quarter-mile downstream from the crash site.
00:05:54The body had been underwater and had resurfaced.
00:05:59>> My whole world changed.
00:06:02I no longer had a son.
00:06:06They weren't really telling us how he died.
00:06:09>> He was the best friend I had.
00:06:11He was the best friend to anybody that he ever met.
00:06:14He didn't usually have a mean word to say.
00:06:17He was very easygoing, very happy-go-lucky.
00:06:20Just kind of a cool kind of kid.
00:06:22>> Narrator: Since there was no motor oil on nick's body and oil was throughout the passenger compartment of his car, this was further proof that he wasn't inside when it crashed.
00:06:37At the autopsy, the pathologist found evidence that nick had been beaten.
00:06:43>> There were internal injuries, specifically bleeding inside the neck muscles, also called strap-muscle hemorrhage.
00:06:49And that alone is a pretty good indicator of manual strangulation.
00:06:53There were bruises on the face.
00:06:55There was also blunt-force injury inside the body.
00:06:58>> Narrator: And there was water in nick's lungs, an indication that he was still breathing when he was thrown in the water.
00:07:07>> The cause of death was essentially lack of oxygen.
00:07:09He may well have gone into the water unconscious.
00:07:13>> Ultimately, though, it was drowning that caused the end.
00:07:16>> Narrator: The manner of nick's death was ruled a homicide.
00:07:21Investigators were now looking for a killer./ / ?
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00:11:04>> Narrator: From the forensic evidence, investigators now knew that nick howard was not in his car when it crashed into the sacramento river.
00:11:15And nick had been strangled and dumped in the river at another time.
00:11:22In a search for suspects, investigators first questioned who would benefit from nick's death and learned that nick had several large life-insurance policies.
00:11:34>> We found a life-insurance policy that had an accidental-death-benefit rider on there, making the life-insurance policy worth $850,000.
00:11:43Now, an 18-year-old kid having an $850,000 life-insurance policy is a little bit unusual.
00:11:48>> Narrator: Nick's family believed they were the beneficiaries but soon learned that wasn't the case.
00:11:56>> I went in the room and pulled the policy out, and there was this loose piece of -- it was an application for change of beneficiary, and it was an ncr copy.
00:12:06And you could see where it had been crumpled, and it had been folded at one time.
00:12:11It had ralph marcus' name on it.
00:12:13And I was a little shocked.
00:12:15>> Narrator: 37-Year-old ralph marcus was an unemployed laborer who had a strained relationship with the howard family.
00:12:24He also had a police record.
00:12:26>> Well, we did a little checking on mr. ralph marcus.
00:12:29In addition to his gambling and his flashy lifestyle, he never really had the ability to hold a job for very long.
00:12:35>> He was kind of creepy.
00:12:37He just never went away.
00:12:38He wasn't around, like, 24-7, but he would always show up.
00:12:43>> Narrator: Nick's mother, patty, first met marcus when they were both in high school 20 yer.
00:12:49Their first encounter almost landed marcus in jail.
00:12:53>> He was in my home for not five or ten minutes when he procded to kind of wrestle me to the floor and try and kiss me.
00:13:01I didn't even know this guy.
00:13:03>> Over the years, he continued to make romant and to, in fact, ask her to be his wife >> Narrator: But patty said no, married someone else, had two children, and tried to distance herself from marcus.
00:13:21But marcus continued to pursue her.
00:13:24>> Ralhild, but " >> Narrator: That was the last straw.
00:13:44>> I saw how much it hurt my husband, and I just completely decided that there would be no friendship with ralph marcus at this point.
00:13:52Just too far.
00:13:53>> Narrator: But despite their best efforts, they could not convince their son, nick, to avoid marcus.
00:14:00>> Ralph described himself almost as the boy's godfather.
00:14:03He did a lot of things witm to try to impress him.
00:14:06>> I believe that marcus befriended nick to, first of all, stay close and to find out things about me.
00:14:17But I think even early on he had a plan to hurt nick.
00:14:21>> They went to lake tahoe.
00:14:23They went to reno.
00:14:24Ralph fancied himself the great baccarat player.
00:14:27He got fancy hotel rooms.
00:14:30He had women come by.
00:14:32>> Narrator: When questioned, ralph marcus said he knew nothing about nick howard's murder and claimed he had an alibi for the night of the crash.
00:14:40>> And he had his dying mother state that he was at home with her during that evening.
00:14:48>> Narrator: But in marcus' home, investigators found evidence that marcus was somehow involved.
00:14:56>> When I walked into his bedroom, I noticed that he had all of the life-insurance paperwork for nick howard spread out over the desk as if he was working on the life insurance.
00:15:08>> Narrator: It was clear the change-of-beneficiary forms were in nick howard's handwriting and were not forgeries.
00:15:17It appeared that nick and ralph marcus planned to defraud the insurance company.
00:15:22>> They had hatched a plan to fake nick's death, collect the insurance proceeds, and take the money down to south america or some location to live off of it.
00:15:34>> Narrator: But this was all speculation.
00:15:38Investigators had no proof of the scam or that marcus killed nick howard and crashed his car into the river.
00:15:46>> It was a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle, and we had 999 pieces.
00:15:52>> Narrator: All they needed was that one final piece.
00:19:06>> Narrator: Before his murder, nick howard told his sister he planned to change the beneficiary of his life-insurance policies that totaled almost $1 million.
00:19:17But she didn't take him seriously.
00:19:19>> He told me, "i'm thinking " " and nick said, you know, "well, why not?
00:19:27He could take $850,000, and he could turn it into $4 million.
00:19:30" >> Narrator: And ralph marcus was no stranger to insurance fraud.
00:19:37>> It was said that ralph marcus decided pretty early on in his life that only fools worked for a living.
00:19:43And rather than get a job, he supported himself gambling and insurance scams.
00:19:50Supposedly he had burned down his own house to receive the insurance proceeds and another time had arranged for the theft of a car and a boat to make money off that as well.
00:20:04>> I thought he was creepy.
00:20:05I would've never imagined that he was capable of what he was capable of.
00:20:09But I didn't really care for him too much.
00:20:12>> Narrator: With no forensic evidence linking marcus to the crash, investigators had one last idea.
00:20:20They noticed a lot number on the oil bottle found in the trunk of nick's car.
00:20:26Armed with a warrant, investigators searched ralph marcus' garage looking for a possible connection.
00:20:34And they found a brand-new quart bottle of valvoline motor oil with the same lot number.
00:20:41>> You never know what's gonna be important at a scene, so you collect everything.
00:20:45And sometimes the smallest thing that you didn't think would be involved breaks your case open.
00:20:51>> Narrator: Prosecutors believe ralph marcus was angry with nick's mother for the years of rejection going all the way back to high school.
00:21:01>> Ralph marcus believed that he and patty should have been star-crossed lovers.
00:21:08She had turned him down from the outset.
00:21:11And toward the time when nicholas howard was killed, he had actually gotten to threatening her by saying things like, "you should know what it's " >> Narrator: Ralph marcus' plan, according to prosecutors, was to befriend patty's son, nick, the only family member who would talk to him.
00:21:32He convinced the teenager to crash his car into the river to fake his own death in order to defraud the life-insurance company of $850,000.
00:21:45On the night of the murder, prosecutors believe marcus and nick met on the dock to plan the car crash.
00:21:53Either nick tried to back out or marcus had planned to kill him all along.
00:22:08Him until he was unconscious then threw him into the river, where he drowned.
00:22:16He kept nick's glasses, bent them iand threw them on the floor of nick's car to make it appear nick wasine car when it crashed.
00:22:27Marcus opened the windows, used the cap from his motor-oil bottle, placed carburetor, threw the bottle in the trunk, and started the car.
00:22:39And with that, the car plunged into the sacramento river.
00:22:48Had it not been for accident reconstruction, forensic testing, and a bottle of motor oil, he might have gotten away with it.
00:22:58>> He was motivated to kill nicholas howard to prevent any other witnesses, prevent having to share the insurance proceeds, and because he had a long vendetta against the mother as a scorned lover.
00:23:13>> I don't know if nick planned a scam with ralph.
00:23:18It makes absolutely no sense to me, because you can't get insurance money if you're alive and because I know how nick loved me and loved our family.
00:23:33>> Nick had told people, "i'm gonna be a millionaire before " nick had also made the comment within the week before his disappearance that he could disappear and nobody would ever be able to find him.
00:23:48You can look at that a couple of different ways.
00:23:50Yeah, that leads to believe that perhaps there's some involvement.
00:23:56The family would like to think otherwise.
00:23:58It's difficult to say, and I'm not sure we will ever know.
00:24:03>> Narrator: Ralph marcus was tried and convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
00:24:13>> I was amazed at the mait team, the california highway patrol team, the way they put things back together.
00:24:19It was very interesting in court, even though it was very hard -- the scientific findings, the way they reconstruct the accident.
00:24:28>> I'm reassured as I look back at cases that I've done by the fact that small details come together in the way that they do and allow for a specific diagnosis.
00:24:38Like a lot of modern medicine, it's an amazing thing.
00:24:41>> You just got to teach your kids that you're the number-one fan of theirs and teach them to listen to you.
00:24:48No one out there is for their good like you are.
00:24:51It doesn't matter what they say.
00:24:54There's too many con artists today.
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00:28:19Now, chaz, when I first met you, you told me that I had to stop lathering my hair with regular shampoo every day, and I gotta tell you, I thought that was a >> I've heard that.
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00:29:18You hair's doing the same thing.