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Dead Run 

As her husband lay in a pool of blood, Claudia Hoerig fled to Brazil

The plane touches down early on Monday morning, March 12, 2007. He spent the weekend steering jetliners up and down the eastern seaboard, but on this flight the 44-year-old pilot is now a passenger on his ride home. Once his feet are back on Cleveland soil, he begins his drive east to Newton Falls in rural Trumbull County. His wife of two years is expecting his arrival. After a number of fumbled tries, he's decided today is the day he will end it.

He drives past the quiet stretch of post-war ranch homes that line West Ninth Street and into the driveway of the split-level they share. He leaves an overnight bag and cell phone in the car; this visit won't take long.

After shuttling some belongings from the house, he takes a seat at the bottom of the foyer steps. As he leans forward to lace up his shoes, his wife appears at the top of the stairs.

***

Back in 1997, Karl Hoerig spent his days hovering 30,000 feet over the Persian Gulf, keeping Saddam Hussein's planes off the 33rd Parallel. At the helm of a C130 cargo plane, he was co-pilot for mission commander Larry Diemand, both part of the Air Force Reserve 910th Airlift Wing based out of Youngstown.

Reservists have an active gig: They work day jobs and fly regularly at the base, then saddle up for extended treks around the world. In Saudi Arabia, the unit was part of a month-long mission to enforce a no-fly zone on Iraq, a high-velocity chess match that came with the threat of combat.

Diemand and Hoerig had been friendly back home, but in the gulf the two grew close. Hoerig was a good-looking and popular 34-year-old with a high-watt smile. The unit wit, he lightened the mood with one-liners delivered through the intercom. Above all, he was an incredibly capable pilot — particularly in tense situations, like the time their plane was intercepted by Iranian fighters who peeled back just before an incident.

"When you go in a theater like that, you really want the most experienced air crew you can get," Diemand says. "And Karl was top-notch."

But during the hours the crew was grounded, on an isolated airbase simmering at 115 degrees, Hoerig opened up about the recent end of a marriage that had lasted 10 years and produced a young son and daughter. Diemand guided him through the grief.

Once the gulf tour was complete, the two continued to see each other around the base, eventually losing touch after Diemand retired in 2000. But like many who crossed paths with Hoerig, the elder pilot tucked away fond memories of the encounter. It's how he remembered Hoerig seven years later when he heard the news.

***

Local marksmen swear by Slugmasters, the mom-and-pop gun shop in Braceville just 15 minutes from Newton Falls. The woman stopped by earlier in the week to have a look around. Now it's Saturday, March 10, and she's come back to buy.

A marked departure from the outdoorsmen who usually visit, she's attractive in her late forties, topping out a few inches over five feet tall, with dark eyes and long brown hair that hits her shoulders. She scans the scopes and guns hanging from the walls and arranged under cases in the windowless showroom. The hint of an overseas accent clings to her unfailingly polite speech, but she also drags her vowels around like a New Yorker.

She carries with her a pistol course book, and she has underlined certain passages in it. She says she's interested in target shooting, but knows nothing about it. The clerk recommends a .357 Smith & Wesson Model 60, a five-shot revolver with a five-inch barrel. For almost two hours they cover the basics. The weapon's grip is too large for her hands, so she has it replaced. She opts for one with a built-in laser sight, which fixes a red dot on the intended target. The total price tag is $839.

She buys the gun using her maiden name, though her husband is known to frequent the store as well. The necessary paperwork is signed and stamped, and the woman leaves with the revolver.

"Of the thousand people we've sold guns to," Slugmasters' owner says today, "I never would have suspected her."

***

When Karl Hoerig's closest friends heard he'd met a new woman, it seemed par for the course that year. Leading up to the spring of 2005, Karl had been dating a lot, trying hard to forget about the recent girlfriend who got away.

He was part of a tight-knit group of Reservists, their bonds cemented over long hours logged at the base. Their missions overseas took them everywhere from Thailand to Costa Rica and involved everything from cargo runs to weaving through columns of enemy fire on the approach to Baghdad International. The five socialized off the base as well, going out together and taking ski trips. Most recently, they went in on a '70s junker they planned to refurbish into a Browns tailgating bus.

But Karl was also navigating a rough patch. He'd broken up with a young Peruvian woman named Carla, whom he'd met on a mission. She had been living with him in Newton Falls, but he ended it when she indicated she wanted kids. He later realized he'd fumbled the play. In the year after their split, a heartbroken Karl turned to online dating, but still referred to Carla as the love of his life. That's why friends were somewhat surprised when, in April 2005, he told them he was thinking about marrying a new woman he'd met only weeks earlier.

Claudia Sobral was a native of Rio De Janeiro. She came to the United States in 1989 on a visitor visa and later married a doctor in Manhattan. In 1998, she became a U.S. citizen; a year later her marriage ended in divorce.

At the time she met Karl, Claudia was living in Queens and working as an accountant. After connecting online, he flew out to meet her in person. Their relationship quickly hit overdrive.

When Karl's friends met Claudia at a weekend getaway on Put-in-Bay, they saw a nice woman and an obvious attraction: The new girlfriend could have been Carla's sister.

"I think he would have done anything to alleviate the pain, like jumping into another relationship with someone who he felt was exactly like Carla," says Chris Swegan, one of Karl's friends in the Reserve.

Whether it was a fresh fire or an afterburn, Karl needed only two months to shore up his commitment: They skipped off to Vegas in June and returned with a marriage certificate. The rabbit-hole plunge from Big Apple to small-town America didn't seem to bother Claudia; she said she liked Newton Falls.

Karl's family was also shocked by the dash to the altar, but not enough to question their 42-year-old son's choice. Ed and Frannie Hoerig first met Claudia when their son brought her by the house in Newton Falls, a pretty two-story nestled on the edge of cornfields. She was attractive and friendly, a little bossy and strange — but they chalked it up to her Brazilian birthright and longtime New York residency. For a reserved family from Newton Falls, one locale was as alien as the other.

A month in, friends say, Karl realized he'd made a mistake. For one, he wanted a wife time-stamped from a simpler era — one who would cook, clean, and take care of his two kids from the first marriage when they visited from out of town. Claudia wasn't interested in any of it.

When the couple spent time with his friends, she seemed disinterested, resulting in awkward exchanges. The guys and their wives would come over to work on the Browns bus, jacking up the music in the driveway and ordering pizza. Claudia would only stay inside. When the group convened for a Super Bowl party, she suggested everyone watch a movie instead.

But Karl's friends saw no major reasons for concern — no infidelity, and no violence in their squabbles.

"I think anyone who knew them knew it was headed for divorce," Chris Swegan says. "It just became a matter of time."

***

Leaving Slugmasters with her new purchase, the woman steers her BMW toward the Warren Shooting Range, a chipped concrete-block building near downtown. She arrives at 3:45 on Saturday afternoon, practicing for one hour with her new .357 Smith & Wesson. Between rounds, she quizzes an employee about different types of ammunition. She says she's interested in stopping power. The clerk recommends hollow-point bullets — the kind that balloon upon impact rather than passing through the target, leaving the projectile inside to cause more damage.

He also notes that her revolver is slow to reload compared to a .45 semi-automatic handgun. He illustrates, and she agrees to buy a Taurus PT1911 for $578.24. But before the transaction is complete, the woman remarks that her bank card doesn't have enough money. She offers to come back on Monday — March 12 — to complete the sale.

***

Karl's family spotted cracks in the marriage's foundation, but they also saw something friends didn't: dysfunction veering into a darker place. A series of strange incidents were the breadcrumbs leading to a conclusion no one wanted to consider.

One evening while Karl was away on a flight, Ed and Frannie's phone rang. A frantic Claudia asked them to come over quickly, saying someone had tried to break into the house. When the Hoerigs arrived, they found Claudia had gotten out one of Karl's rifles for protection. Police searched the property, but turned up nothing. Still, the Hoerigs tried to comfort their daughter-in-law.

"Newton Falls doesn't even know how to spell 'murder,' let alone have one," Ed remembers thinking. "And for someone who lived in New York, where there's crime every day ... to act like that, something didn't seem right."

Alone another time, Claudia fired a gun in the house, a Mini-14 carbine. She put two bullets in the basement steps and brushed it off as an accident. Karl, who'd always encouraged his parents to swing by the house unannounced when they were around, now told them not to come out to West Ninth unless he was there.

One morning in early 2007, Claudia called the family together. She rang up Ed and Frannie, and politely asked them to come over. She also called Karl's brothers, Steve and Paul, but in a different tone. She was so hysterical during her call to Paul's house, his wife mistook her for her own sister.

When the family arrived, a placid Claudia invited everyone in and said she wanted to talk. Karl came downstairs from the bedroom, still groggy from the night's sleep and surprised to see his family. As the group stood around the foyer, his wife began reeling off a list of petty grievances — Karl wasn't caring enough, he was verbally abusive, he expected too much from her around the house, and he wanted too much time with his friends. The family allowed her to finish, then Frannie followed up by asking why, if she didn't like Karl and was unhappy, she didn't just leave? When the words hit Claudia's ears, she crumpled to the floor in a faint — or at least she appeared to.

Once the family laid her out on the couch, Claudia rose and bolted from the room, locking herself in an upstairs bedroom. "I never saw someone recover so quickly from being passed out," Frannie recalls. She followed her to the door, but Claudia didn't respond. Karl later told his mother that while she'd been knocking, Claudia was inside holding a gun to her head.

But the day wasn't squeezed dry of dramatics just yet. That afternoon, Claudia downed a bottle of pills and got behind the wheel of her car, hiding Karl's cell phone before she left. When Ed and Frannie couldn't reach the troubled couple, they went looking for them. They eventually got through to Claudia, who was driving and sounded intoxicated. She later smashed the car on the side of the road. Ravenna police found her, shipped her off to the hospital, and charged her with driving under the influence.

After the day's one-two punch of strangeness, Karl seemed ready to make a final break. He told his mother he would leave after Claudia's court date on March 13. Frannie told Karl what had been building slowly in her head, from a whispered suggestion to a stadium roar — but she didn't use the actual words.

"I said something like how I didn't like him going into the house there. I was worried because there were guns there. He said, 'How do you think I feel every time I walk in there?' I told my sister that she was setting him up to kill him, and I didn't know how to stop it."

***

The neighbors haven't heard anything — nothing they'll remember later, when police come asking about the clatter that rang out from behind the front door of Karl Hoerig's house. On this Monday morning, West Ninth Street is as quiet as ever.

Jim Thomas is shuffling around his driveway when the front door cracks open on the house next-door. A stooped retiree, he is on good terms with his pilot neighbor. But as Thomas eyes the house, it's not Karl Hoerig who materializes in the doorway, but his wife Claudia. She steps outside and closes the door behind her, gets behind the wheel of her BMW, and guns it down the street.

"Like a bat out of hell," Thomas later says. "She really moved it."

***

Where was Karl? The question rolled through Gary Dodge's head early on Thursday, March 15. The two traded phone calls every other day, so when Gary hadn't heard from Karl since the beginning of the week, he grew worried. But then the former cop showed up at the base Thursday morning to learn that Karl hadn't appeared for a scheduled training flight the night before.

Gary called again and left a message. "I told him that I was going to be calling the police to check on him, and I apologized if everything was okay and it was just me jumping to conclusions," recalls Gary, the weight of Karl's marital woes weighing on his decision to call.

Police arrived at West Ninth and reported back to Gary: Karl's new Subaru was unlocked in the driveway. Guns were resting in the backseat with a carry-on bag, and a cell phone sat in the center console. No one responded to knocks on the door.

Something's wrong, Gary told police before phoning Karl's parents. He said he didn't want to cause alarm, but Karl wasn't answering his phone and had missed a flight. Ed and Frannie agreed to meet police at West Ninth and open up the house.

Gary was on the phone with the officer when they arrived, relaying news that they'd gotten inside the house. Then a shocked cry came through the phone line. It was Karl's father.

***

"The first thing I said to the police was, 'You know who to go after,'" Frannie recalls today. "That was our first thought. No question."

On paper, the case was a simple read. Karl's body was discovered at the bottom of his stairs. Five shots were fired in the foyer: Two of them hit the floor, two more were lodged in Karl's back, and a fifth one pierced his head. Karl had been tying his shoes on the bottom steps when he was shot from above, according to the coroner's report, which ruled that the killing happened three days earlier, on Monday, March 12. The shooter had covered the body with a drop cloth that had been used recently to repaint the living room. The murder weapon — a .357 Smith & Wesson purchased by Claudia Hoerig days earlier — was found loaded and cocked in an upstairs closet; before leaving, she had tried and failed to rig the gun to fire when the door was opened.

But by the time police found Karl Hoerig, Claudia was long gone. Her BMW was recovered at Pittsburgh International Airport. Records show that on Monday afternoon, she flew to New York City using Karl's Southwest employee benefits. From there, she caught a direct flight from JFK to Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Though the case against Claudia was tight, no jury was likely to hear it. A formal plea for extradition was filed with Brazil in 2007. The request was denied.

***

Had Claudia Hoerig flown to Japan, Egypt, Colombia, or a hundred other countries, she would have been extradited immediately. Brazil is different.

The political history of the world's fifth-largest country is heavy on turmoil, a succession of juntas and dictatorships, powers-that-be with long track records of wielding the blunt edge of the justice system with little regard for actual guilt or innocence. As a result, the country's most recent constitution, minted in 1988, pays great deference to the rights of the accused — a stance that includes a policy of not extraditing nationals except in drug cases. But in the 21st century, even as Brazil shrugs off its banana republic past and takes a seat at the table of global power players, the policy remains in place, stirring isolated storms of outrage along the way.

The most high-profile instance of Brazil's extradition practices involves the government's refusal to send a terrorist wanted for four murders back to Italy in the 1970s. Stateside, a Brazilian native working legally as a cab driver in Austin, Texas, was arrested for raping a 28-year-old woman in 2007. He fled to Brazil while out on bail and never returned to face charges.

The pitfalls of Brazilian extradition have caused some law enforcement officials to take extreme and symbolic measures to keep Brazilians from fleeing, including one Arizona judge who slapped a Brazilian-born suspected child molester with a record-setting bail of $75 million — cash-only.

But Brazil doesn't seem interested in renegotiating extradition terms with the U.S., even as it polishes up its global image in the lead-up to hosting the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games. Going by the nightly news, relations between the two nations are solid: Washington hands over $14 million in annual aid to Brazil. By the Brazilian government's own estimate, the number of Brazilians seeking visas to come to America has increased 230 percent since 2006 — a fact that would seem to twist a law-enforcement issue into one of national security: If a Brazilian commits a crime in the U.S. and lands back on home turf, he's essentially scot free.

***

"But we don't want a Brazilian, we want an American," Trumbull County Prosecutor Dennis Watkins says. "And they have refused to send her back."

The prosecutor is confident in his case against Claudia Hoerig; a grand jury quickly indicted her for aggravated murder — an offense punishable at most with life in prison. A philosophical difference on capital punishment is not what's holding up the Brazilian government. They just don't extradite.

What's particularly galling to Watkins and other law enforcement officials is that, if the situation were reversed — if an American had traveled to Brazil, committed a murder, and returned to the U.S. — the standing agreement would call for extradition.

But in the case of Claudia Hoerig, the moral error isn't the only one in play. Watkins says the Brazilian government is mistaken in considering her a Brazilian citizen.

The proof is in the fine print of the country's own constitution. Any resident who chooses to acquire another nationality automatically forfeits Brazilian status. When Claudia Hoerig applied for U.S. citizenship, she had already been granted permanent residency, meaning official status wasn't necessary to stay in America. Instead, she opted for U.S. paperwork without dual citizenship, according to an affidavit written by an agent from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

But Brazil seems unwilling to acknowledge the contradiction. In 2009, the U.S. Department of Justice sent another formal request for extradition based on the citizenship argument. Brazil's refusal came back in only a few months.

The only concession made was to try Hoerig on Brazilian soil — an offer Watkins has no interest in. "The trial of criminal cases takes place in the geographic area where the crime is committed," he says. "Justice is a local thing.

"It is wrong for you to harbor an American citizen who has fled to your country, returned to your country that she abandoned twenty years before and she renounced ten years before, to give her protection for her country," he adds. "There's no way we can compromise with that."

The options are limited. The Supreme Court has upheld forceful abduction of fugitives in the past, but the fallout from such a move could be politically unpredictable. Otherwise, the only real channel for change could be a direct appeal from President Obama or some action taken by Congress, such as defunding aid to Brazil — another move that would shake the geopolitical tree.

But four years after Karl Hoerig's death, it remains unclear how far Washington will go to avenge a murder in small-town Ohio.

***

When the Hoerig family first learned that their daughter-in-law had reached Brazil, they were told to strap in for an extradition process that could take up to two years. Today, huddled in the Newton Falls house where Karl grew up, just down the road from where he's buried, their resolve is visibly battered. When the topic turns to Karl's death, the story comes galloping out of the usually quiet family, hurried on by a growing sense of frustration.

"In the beginning, we had all the faith in the government," Ed says. "We just assumed they were doing something about it. That's what the government does."

As time passed, Karl's friends and family began stuffing the mailboxes of senators and congressmen — anyone who could throw weight toward the cause. Most of the replies were stock "Thank you for writing, but . . ." patter.

The family's dealings with the government offices tasked with returning Claudia to the U.S. are also strained. The State Department refused to answer basic questions on the process and initially declined to meet with the family, the Hoerigs say. That changed only after Karl's brother Paul landed a spot on The Montel Williams Show and America's Most Wanted profiled the case. But if the Hoerigs wanted to talk, they would have to get themselves to Washington.

The frustration muscled its way into e-mails Paul Hoerig was sending off to the State Department, which eventually earned him a visit from the FBI. Tone it down, they said.

For a family pooling its grief around the kitchen table after four years of inaction from two administrations, of watching politicians grip and grin with Brazilian heads of state, of knowing Claudia is living free in Brazil, the fight has almost become too much to wage.

"A 25-year veteran with 200 combat missions, and you turn your back on him," Ed says of his son. "It hurts."

But Claudia does seem to have made the diplomatic talking points. The crop of Wikilinks cables includes a summary of an exchange between the two countries about extradition — and Claudia is specifically named. Also, government officials say the U.S. will now negotiate or amend extradition treaties only with countries that do likewise.

The family has also found vocal champions for the cause, most notably Newton Falls Congressman Tim Ryan, who turned heads in Congress when he introduced a bill in June 2011 calling for an immediate end to foreign aid and a freeze on all Brazilian immigration to the U.S. until Claudia Hoerig is returned to face trial.

Karl's former mission commander, Larry Diemand, has taken the point position on the cause. Diemand hadn't seen Karl for years — didn't even know he had remarried. But once news of the murder spread, the retired pilot, now 63, introduced himself to the family and pledged support.

"If you talk to people about the mechanics and the facts of the case, they look at it and say, 'This is wrong. Let's get her back,'" Diemand says. "Why should someone be allowed to run to a foreign country and not be held accountable?" Today, he's keeping the flame, making the frustrating rounds between law enforcement officials, politicians, and media types willing to tilt an ear at Karl's story.

The nexus of the effort is a bit of 21st-century social media, a "Justice for Karl Hoerig" Facebook page Diemand tends like a shrine. It's become the nerve center for information and discussion on the case, with around 3,300 members and growing. In recent months, Diemand has seen a small sign that the facts of Karl's case are elbowing aside national interest and government policies: In small numbers, Brazilians have begun joining the group.

"Your average Brazilians, I don't think they want to be shielding her once they hear the story," he says. "I think that once the people realize the injustice, eventually they'll convince their leaders to do the right thing.

"But maybe that's naive."

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