Friday 23 August 2019

The brutal end of an Irish bride

Hours after posting her wedding photos on Facebook, talented scientist Caroline Coffey was bleeding to death on a jogging trail, her throat slit by her new husband. His lawyers claimed insanity but as the prosecution insisted, sometimes murder is just murder. Donal Lynch reports

Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

THE photograph depicts what may have been the happiest moment of Caroline Coffey's young life: She stands barefoot and beaming on a beach in Costa Rica; white sands, white dress, white smile. Her long red mane is swept elegantly off her face and in her hands she carries a blaze of orange orchids. As she grips her husband's arm she looks very much in love. The Pacific ocean laps at their feet while the sky overhead darkens. With their pale clothes and skin they seem almost to glow against it.

It was 8.04pm on June 2 of last year when friends of the Dublin-born woman first saw this snapshot of paradise. "Professional wedding photos are up!" she proudly announced on her Facebook page. "Guests check yourself out and tag!"

Posting this photo was one of the last things Caroline Coffey ever did. Within two hours of it appearing online, she was lying bleeding to death on a remote jogging trail. She had been savagely bludgeoned over the head with a piece of steel pipe and her throat had been crudely slashed with a box-cutter. Even as her wedding guests identified themselves online the bride they loved lay dying. And the man who had stood beside her in every wedding shot was running, bloodied and panicked, back towards the home they shared.

We may never really know why Blazej Kot murdered his young wife. Just under two weeks ago, a jury in upstate New York accepted the prosecution's case that the New Zealand native had simply been "unhappy with his life" and that he had considered her murder and his own suicide "a way out". But in its way this explanation seems every bit as "fantastical" as the defence's claim that he had been driven solely by a panoply of psychological disorders. His calculated discarding of the evidence spoke of a man sufficiently in touch with reality that he could be considered sane, but what kind of warped sanity allows someone to fatally slash his wife's throat before lacerating his own neck?

It was a question many in New York and Pennsylvania have been asking themselves. The death of the beautiful young doctor has sent shock waves through the Irish community in both states. She was torn from her family less than a fortnight before her 29th birthday, and right before her death had seemed to be enjoying personal and professional fulfilment. Friends spoke last week of a "stunning, highly intelligent girl" who was "just coming into her own" and who had achieved a respected position in an Ivy League university. "They were always very loving toward each other," Emily Brooks, one of Caroline's close confidantes said last week of her friend's marriage, adding that she saw no sign of the violence that would come. Another friend said that the verdict "represented an end point in a long ordeal for Caroline's family". The prosecution attorney said that the Irishwoman's parents were both relieved and upset. "I think they just wanted this to be over."

Caroline Marianne Coffey was born in Dublin in 1980, but when she was just two years old her parents, Michael and Patricia, brought her and her brother Paul over to the US. They settled in Clarks Green, an affluent, leafy borough of Pennsylvania's Lackwanna County, and Caroline grew up to a life of ponies and prep schools. An unusually bright child, she attended Our Lady Of Peace School before moving on to Scranton Preparatory, an expensive private school which counts one of the current US senators for Pennsylvania among its former students.

Caroline excelled at the school, both academically and athletically, one of her high-school boyfriends said last week. She rode horses competitively and captained equestrian teams at university. The principal of Scranton Prep, Pat Marx, described her as "an outstanding student". She also developed into a beautiful young woman, and with her long red hair, porcelain complexion and blue eyes she looked unmistakably Irish. According to her family, she was deeply proud of her heritage and named her most beloved horse "Irish Mist". She visited him often at Candy Apple Farms in Dalton, an area near where she grew up. "She was a wonderful girl," says Linda Vass-Shoemaker, who gave Caroline horseriding lessons. "She was very dedicated to everything she was doing."

In 1998, after graduating from Scranton Prep, she took a degree in biology at the University of Scranton and then aimed for a doctorate in comparative medical science at Cornell, a prestigious Ivy League university. She achieved the doctorate in 2007 and went on to work in cancer research.

Dr Michael Sulzinski, a professor of biology at the University of Scranton, knew Caroline for 11 years. He first met her when she was an undergraduate at the school and was assigned to work with him. "Caroline was not just another student. She was my protegee, a respected colleague and a talented researcher," he said.

The evidence that Caroline left behind bears this assessment out. While working with Sulzinski, she achieved sufficient renown that her work was documented in the American Society Of Microbiology Journal, an extremely well respected, peer-reviewed publication. "That was extremely unusual," Sulzinski said of Caroline's impressive start to her career. "But she was the type of scientist who could take it all the way to completion. She completely bypassed doing a Masters and went straight for a PhD." Sulzinski said that after Caroline had earned her doctorate he would often take her back into the classroom to "show her off" to other students as an example of what they could achieve if they put their mind to it. "She was such a promising young scientist and had so much to offer," he added.

It was while at Cornell that Caroline met the man she would marry. A fellow doctoral student, Blazej Kot could be aloof and shy with strangers but, according to those who knew him, he also had a dry wit and seemed to gel well with Caroline's more outgoing personality. Born in Zaire to Polish parents, Kot had moved as a child with his family to Auckland, New Zealand. His mother, Barbara, says that he was a "quiet, sensitive child" with a "non-confrontational" personality and an abiding interest in technology. He was sickly -- he developed malaria twice before his fifth birthday -- and he had a tense relationship with his father. His mother would often be forced to mediate arguments between them. According to those who knew him growing up, Kot was a good student. He attended Macleans College and then completed a degree, majoring in computer science and physics at the University of Auckland.

Kot had come to the States on a temporary student visa -- he intended to study computer science at Cornell -- but his blossoming relationship with Caroline presented the enticing possibility of marriage and US citizenship. To friends and family the couple gave the impression of being very much in love. They were married in Ithaca in upstate New York, in October 2008, but saved up for an "exotic location" wedding ceremony in Costa Rica in May of last year.

Caroline wasn't aware that her husband-to-be had a long history of mental problems. As a teenager, he was said to be "always wondering if someone might be watching him" through electrical wall outlets, his lawyer would later say. He also felt that he might one day be picked to work as a secret agent, a belief he apparently never entirely relinquished.

As their wedding ceremony grew closer, Kot seemed more nervous and frustrated with the way his career was going. His family put this down to stress he had suffered as a result of one of his academic papers being rejected. His older sister, who works as a post-doctoral research associate at Cornell, later said that she didn't feel his emotional state was especially precarious, and that she felt he was simply experiencing "the same frustrations we all go through".

To outward appearances, both Kot and Caroline seemed to be looking forward very much to their wedding. Family and friends travelled to Costa Rica and the couple seemed excited but apprehensive that everything would go off OK. There was a moment of tension during the ceremony as a man who had been standing in for Caroline's maid of honour (who was unable to make it to Costa Rica) made a "bizarre" speech which seemed to agitate Kot. However, the groom regained his composure and, according to his father, went on to make a "coherent" speech.

Caroline and Blazej seemed to adapt well to married life. They had the financial troubles of any young couple who had just blown a small fortune on their wedding but to family and friends all seemed well. In late May of 2009 they visited Kot's sister and her impression was that they were happy and in love.

We now know that Kot had been concealing his own inner turmoil. He would later say that he believed a "tragedy" would free him from his situation, that he felt trapped in his life and overworked in his studies. He described how his thoughts changed from hoping Coffey would die in a car accident, to pondering hiring someone to kill her and then deciding to do it himself, saying, "I thought I'd just grab her and cut her and run away."

It was barely a week after their meeting with Kot's sister that Caroline Coffey arrived home from work and uploaded the wedding photographs to her Facebook page. It was a warm evening in Ithaca and she and her husband decided to go for a jog on the Black Diamond running trail that ran parallel to their apartment block. They knew the route well; both had run it many times before. Unbeknownst to Caroline, her husband had a box-cutter in his pocket.

Not long into their jog, Kot and Caroline passed a discarded piece of piping, which had been strewn on the trail. As Caroline ran ahead Kot lagged behind and picked up the piece of pipe. As he ran up behind her she screamed at him, asking, "Blazej, what are you doing?" He answered, "It's not me," and she tried in vain to wrest his hands off her after she fell to the ground. Caroline fought bravely for her life, grabbing the pipe and striking him in the forehead before he took out the box-cutter and slit her throat.

Kot would later tell a psychiatrist, "The thing I remember most is the warmth of the blood." He said that he thought that using a box-cutter to slash his wife's throat seemed like the kindest way to kill her. He kept reiterating that he didn't want to cause her any pain.

Barely half an hour after the attack, a New York State Park police officer, patrolling Taughannock Falls State Park, saw Kot in his car in a car park at one of the entrances to the park, almost eight miles from the couple's apartment. The officer noticed that Kot had dried blood on his arms. When he tapped on the window, Kot abruptly sat up, put the car into gear and screeched over a grassy verge onto the main road.

In a dramatic, OJ Simpson-style chase, Kot lead officers on a five-mile pursuit that reached speeds of more than 90mph, weaving in his lane and speeding through red lights before driving off the road into some trees.

When they finally caught up with him, officers found Kot was clad only in a dressing gown and had slumped over the wheel, bleeding profusely from a large, life-threatening and apparently self-inflicted laceration across his neck. Police forcibly took a small Swiss army knife from Kot's hand and found another bloodstained knife in the pocket of his dressing gown.

While being treated by paramedics, Kot, seemingly disoriented, asked where Coffey was and if she was OK. He told the paramedics to check on her, and spoke about his wedding photos. Eventually he was airlifted to Robert Packer hospital in nearby Bradford County, Pennsylvania.

While all of this was happening, police in a different part of the county were responding to a 911 call to the apartment block that Kot and Coffey lived in. They found the apartment the couple shared ablaze and determined that the fire must have been set deliberately. Despite a thorough search they were unable to find Kot's young wife.

The next morning, at 8.50, a jogger and a cyclist found the bloody and battered body of a young woman lying near a thicket of trees. Caroline had died just 400 yards from her apartment and the computer onto which she had uploaded her wedding photos. Her distraught family were notified, and police immediately arrested Kot on suspicion of murder.

An autopsy was quickly conducted on the Irishwoman's body. The pathologist found that her throat had been slashed with a sharp instrument similar to the one Kot was found to be carrying. He also discovered bruises on Caroline's wrists where she had tried to defend herself.

While the District Attorney's office prepared the case against Kot, her family struggled to come to terms with the loss of their only daughter, the light of their life. In Caroline's death notice they wrote: "Caroline was extremely proud of her Irish heritage. Her passion to see the world was always in her foresight and her most recent travels included trips to Costa Rica, Bolivia and Poland. In her short life, she lived a lifetime. Caroline touched many lives, both here and around the world."

It took nearly a year for the New Zealand man to come to trial, and by that time the issue was Kot's sanity. Defence psychiatrist Dr Rory Houghtalen testified that Kot had a "schizotypical personality disorder", that he was severely depressed by setbacks in his academic career, and that these factors -- coupled with the anti-malarial drug Chloroquine he and Coffey had been taking for their May wedding ceremony in Costa Rica -- made Kot psychotic.

On the eve of the murder, Kot researched how to take his own life. Police recovered evidence of Google search on Kot's iMac computer for "how+to+kill+neck+artery." Houghtalen said Kot was under the paranoid delusion that he was being tested by unseen forces, that Coffey was part of the testing, which he could end by killing her. Kot told him: "At some point, I started thinking... 'My life sucks, wouldn't it be great if something tragic happens to Caroline?'" he said. He concluded that Kot's psychosis fitted the legal definition of an extreme emotional disturbance, which lessens the crime to manslaughter.

Prosecution psychiatrist Dr Gary Horwitz, however, testified that Kot had no major mental disorders at the time of the crime, and that he killed her because he saw her as an impediment to the type of life he wanted to live.

Assistant District Attorney Andrew McElwee further argued that the chain of events before, after and during Caroline's death showed a man who had never stopped scheming and calculating. He noted that Kot recalled thinking that maybe Coffey would get into an accident or go to New York city and get killed during a robbery in a dark alley. He reminded jurors: "There are no dark alleys in Ithaca, ladies and gentleman. The closest thing we have is the Black Diamond Trail, and it's right near the defendant's house, and he knew it."

Blood found in the grass beside Coffey indicates that she was lying face down when she bled to death, he said. "I submit to you that she was flipped over by the defendant," McElwee said, adding that in order for his plan to work, Kot had to know if Coffey was dead. The blood found on Kot's sneakers matched Coffey's, and it may have got there when he flipped her body.

Crucially perhaps for the jury, it seemed there was never any talk of agents testing him until later interviews at which point Houghtalen's continuing probing suggested the idea of a mental illness to jurors. McElwee claimed that the defence wanted jurors to accept a fantastical explanation, but the simplest explanation is often best, he added. "Sometimes murder is just murder," he concluded.

In the end the jury, which deliberated for just seven hours, accepted this reasoning. At 1.25pm on April 21, before a packed courtroom in Ithaca, a foreperson read aloud the verdict: guilty. Kot remained stoic as he heard the word while Caroline's family embraced each other tearfully and held hands.

McElwee said he was overwhelmed with the level of "class and respect" demonstrated by Coffey's family, who tried to maintain normal relations with Mr Kot's family. Prosecutors haven't decided what sentence to recommend, but they plan to talk extensively with Coffey's family about it, he added.

Dimitra Livanos Hollow, who was friends with Coffey for 15 years and talks to her brother Paul most days, told local reporters she was relieved the ordeal was over for the victim's family. "I was also relieved... that the jury was able to see that this was a premeditated, horrific crime on my friend," she added.

In the end, however, there was no triumphalism on the part of the friends of Caroline or the prosecution team. Tompkins County District Attorney Gwen Wilkinson summed up the mood in Ithaca and the emotional exhaustion felt by all involved when she said that the jury appropriately held Blazej accountable. "In the end, though, there aren't any winners -- Caroline is dead, Blazej threw his life away, and the families are devastated."

Sunday Independent

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