The Dealer's Girlfriend

Amanda Slagter was left with a dead boyfriend, a backpack full of mushrooms, and an eight-year prison sentence. But all was not as it seemed.

The Luzhin Defence
The paramedics arrived first, then police. Inside the house, they found a young woman with disheveled hair and a ring through her lip. Upstairs, a small, thin man lay dead in the bathtub.

The woman's name was Amanda Slagter. Her boyfriend, Kevin Wilson, had taken a couple of pills the night before, she told police between sobs. She'd slept all day and tried to wake him after she got up, but he didn't move. She dragged him to the bathtub and poured water on him, and when that didn't help, she called 911.

Drug overdose, the two Solon policemen figured. They told Slagter she was free to go and let her call a friend for a ride.

Slagter asked if she could take her bags with her. She said they held almost everything she owned, that she was from New York and had no permanent address. No, the police said; they had to secure the scene. But she pleaded with them, and finally they told her: Take only what's yours, what you absolutely need -- and we'll have to search it.

As her ride waited in the driveway, and the police watched her every move, Slagter hauled a blanket, pillow, and several backpacks down the stairs. She opened one bag, and a policeman looked inside: clothes.

Then she opened the second bag -- and tried to close it again. Let me see, the policeman said. She looked away. He peered into the bag and found more than three pounds of psychedelic mushrooms inside. He arrested her. "That's not mine," she said.

Later, police searched the first bag more carefully and found almost $3,000 in cash in a small box under her clothes. Slagter was indicted on charges of possessing drugs and criminal tools.

At trial, the police and prosecutor both described Slagter's behavior as suspicious. One officer testified that the mushrooms were worth $85,000.

Another revealed that, since Slagter had a cellular phone in her hand at the scene, he had obtained Kevin Wilson's cell phone records. They showed that one of Wilson's two phones had been busy with calls all day, during the time Slagter said she was sleeping. The prosecutor accused Slagter of lying and told the jury that she had spent the day calling people and plotting to take the drugs with her, while Wilson lay dead.

"Amanda Slagter had priorities," the prosecutor said. "The priorities were not to call the police. The priorities were to get the drugs out of the house."

The jury convicted Slagter of drug possession, and the judge sentenced her to eight years in prison.

Amanda Slagter was 18 when she left her mother's house in western New York. She had dropped out of high school, was fighting with her family a lot, and decided she'd be better off on her own. So she spent part of the summer of 1997 following the Furthur Festival, the concert tour featuring surviving members of the Grateful Dead. One night, after a Furthur show in Pittsburgh, she was invited to a party in Elyria.

That's the night she met Ryan Brown. He remembers her, a petite blond Deadhead, arriving at the party "with all her hippie friends." In the middle of the party, a kid started convulsing on a couch. Brown thought he was overdosing, then heard someone say he had diabetes.

"I was rubbing sugar water in his mouth," remembers Brown, "and Amanda -- this is how we did meet -- was one of the only people who stepped out of the crowd. She held his hand, said it was all right." Brown and others hauled the guy to the shower and drenched him with water until he came to.

Afterward, Brown and Slagter started talking. She learned he lived in Lakewood, where she already knew some people. Soon, Slagter moved to Lakewood to live with a friend, and she looked Brown up. They started dating, then moved into an apartment together.

When they first met, Slagter was selling pot, Brown says, but she stopped once they were living together. (Slagter declined to comment on that, and Brown later called Scene to say he'd been misunderstood: She had pot, but didn't deal.) For a while, Slagter says, she lived off money from her family and savings from an old job. Once she moved in with Brown, he supported her with his job as a chef at a Rocky River restaurant.

Then Slagter's father started sending her, as Brown puts it, "a crapload of money." James Slagter's house had burned down, and he sent his daughter thousands of dollars in money orders from the insurance payout, Amanda says. She started keeping her money in a locked box, a habit she says she picked up from her family. That, she says, is the money police found in her bag. (James Slagter, who seems to have lived a vagabond's life since losing his house, couldn't be reached for comment. A family member said he was "between phone numbers.")

Slagter lived with Brown for about a year. "He was really supportive, took care of me, tried to help me with different things," she says. "I had a lot of problems, though not any more than the average kid. I had a good home, but I kind of rebelled. My parents divorced -- that was a big part of it.

"I was happy for the most part, just trying to sort things out in my head. In that time I was drinking a lot, and I started getting into drugs -- pills, things like that."

Still, the couple had plans: They'd find a house in the country, she'd go to school while he worked, and he'd take classes once she was done.

Then, in October 1998, Brown let his friend Kevin Wilson, whom he knew from the local rave scene, stay at their apartment. "He was a cool guy, funny, easygoing." Brown says he had bought pot from Wilson years before, but didn't usually invite Wilson over, because he always had a "smorgasbord" of drugs on him.

Wilson lived with his parents and usually got along with them. But that fall, Brown says, "he was having a rough time at home," because his parents knew he was using drugs. Brown and Slagter not only took him in, they helped him with a mailing-label project for his parents' Christian bookstore.

Wilson, who was 24, was charming, full of energy, generous, and eager to make friends and be popular. Friends remember his goofy but cool fashion sense -- he wore oversized clothes and shopped at T.J. Maxx -- and his intense love of music, from Pink Floyd to hip-hop to techno.

He was a tiny guy, only five-foot-three, who lived a fast life. Friend James Fambro says Wilson would rush around the city, amped up on methamphetamine, selling ecstasy, mushrooms, and other drugs. Then he'd crash and sleep like a stone.

Brown remembers one of Wilson's collapses. "I'd just got done labeling 2,000 of these things for his parents' Bible bookstore, and here he comes, elbowing in the door. He was wasted. Here he's sitting down at the table, nodding out, kind of foaming at the mouth. I'm carrying him into the kitchen. I put his head under the kitchen sink, [under] cold water, [and was] smacking him in the face, trying to wake him up, saying, 'You're not going to die in my house, pal!'"

It was the last straw for Brown. "I wanted to get away from the Willies -- the Kevins -- stopping over, or them needing a place to stay." Brown claims Wilson told him he'd soon be buying some mushrooms and tried to get Brown to come with him on a trip to Canada to buy ecstasy. Instead, Brown went to look for a house he and Slagter could rent outside Akron, where he was lining up a new job.

But his girlfriend was falling for their houseguest. "He was a kind, caring person, from what I knew of him," Slagter says of Wilson. "I guess I just liked the things he said to me. He made me feel important."

For an intense week, Slagter and Wilson spent much of their time together. Brown came home one day, and Slagter told him, "I think we're done."

"She's packing up her stuff in backpacks. He was packing up his stuff in backpacks," Brown remembers. "I said, 'What's all this packing?' The shit kind of hit the fan." Wilson left, and Slagter soon followed.

Brown hadn't thought their relationship was in trouble. "It was all sudden and psychotic to me -- where the hell is this all coming from?"

He called Wilson later and asked for Slagter. "She didn't sound like her at all," he says. He wondered if she was taking pills. "She's telling me her and Willie are going to get married."

In her arrest photo, Amanda Slagter's hair is wild and unkempt, and there's a vacant, lost look in her eyes. Two and a half years later, sitting in an attorney's office, she's crisply dressed, her hair neatly pulled back.

Out of prison temporarily, while her lawyers fight to get her a new trial, she is composed but shy. She looks out the window as she talks about what happened to her and Wilson. It's hard to tell if she's covering something up or just ashamed of how their pill binge ended in his death.

When she says she didn't know Wilson was dealing ecstasy and mushrooms, she's difficult to believe. Even Wilson's friend James Fambro, who has offered to help Slagter's case, says no one "with any kind of clue" could have hung out with Wilson for a serious amount of time and not known.

"I never really spent time with him until a week and a half, two weeks" before he died, she says. Though Wilson was known for getting a lot of calls on his cell phone, Slagter says she didn't listen in on his conversations. "In the time I spent with him, we were just hanging out. He wasn't out dealing. I was just very, very out of it at that point in time." During their short time together, Slagter says, she and Wilson did drugs about 10 times, smoking pot and taking Valium and other prescription pills.

On October 9, 1998, the last day of Kevin Wilson's life, Wilson and Slagter woke up late. They were staying with one of her friends. Around 5, Fambro says, he called Wilson's cell phone.

"A woman answered the phone. I later found out it was Amanda," says Fambro. He had only met her twice, through Brown, and didn't recognize her voice. "He got on the phone. I went, 'Who was that?' 'Oh, my girlfriend.' 'Okay, cool, you got a girlfriend in the past week. Good for you.'"

Fambro says Wilson offered him about three pounds of "boomers" -- psychedelic mushrooms -- for $4,500. Fambro told his friend he probably wasn't interested, but he'd ask around to see if anyone else was.

That evening, Slagter says, she and Wilson went back to Brown's apartment and moved more of her things out, again stuffing them into Wilson's many backpacks. They went to Kindler's, a bar in the Flats, then drove to Solon to spend the night at Wilson's parents' house, since they were out of town. Wilson and Slagter briefly talked to Wilson's uncle, who had come by to check on the house. Slagter, who had been downing Valium all day, saw Wilson take some pills, but didn't know what they were. They had talked about getting a house together, so they looked at newspaper ads. Then they took a dip in Wilson's parents' hot tub and went to bed about 4 a.m.

Wilson's uncle came back to the house around 4 the next afternoon and knocked repeatedly, but no one answered. Slagter says she woke up at 4 p.m., thought Wilson was sleeping, and went downstairs.

"My dog was there with me . . . I took my dog out, I smoked a cigarette, sat there, called my friend when I first woke up. I went and had something to drink, kind of just hung out for a little while, then thought, I'm going to go check and wake him up. It's getting late."

She says she tried shaking Wilson, calling his name, then shouting it. At first, she thought he was playing a practical joke on her, pretending to be asleep. Then she thought he was in the deep sleep he'd fall into after his days-long rushes. "I called my friend and said, 'Hey, what should I do? He's not waking up.' She gave me advice: 'Try to shake him.' I said, 'I'm really starting to get worried.'"

Slagter says she picked up Wilson (who weighed only 107 pounds), dragged him to the bathroom, and pulled him into the tub, hoping the shock of cold water would wake him. When the water hit him, she says, his eyes fell open, but he didn't move. "The first thing I did after that was call 911."

Solon's emergency dispatch received Slagter's call at 5:06 p.m. Paramedics arrived quickly. The police followed them up to the bathroom and told Slagter to wait downstairs.

Soon, an officer came down to tell her Wilson was dead. The coroner later ruled that he'd died of an overdose of ecstasy and morphine, probably between 6 and 9 a.m.

She filled out a statement, and the police told her she was free to go. She called her friend back for a ride.

When she convinced the police to let her take her things, she made three trips upstairs and grabbed four backpacks. She says she didn't know which bags held her things, since she and Wilson had packed so quickly.

"The first bag I knew had my photo album, my money," she said at trial. "And the other bag had photo albums, things like that, picture frames, pictures. And the other two bags that I grabbed were right next to it. I just grabbed those two because I had stuff sorted through all different sorts of bags and I was figuring, well, I can come back at a later time and give them back what's not mine and get what's mine."

She says she grabbed the bag full of mushrooms by mistake. When she unzipped it for the police, "I saw that it was mushrooms and I quickly closed it back up, because it wasn't mine," she testified. "I was quite shocked to see that in there."

Hardly anyone believed Slagter's story: not the cops, not the prosecutor, not Kevin Wilson's father, and not the jury.

Earnest Pochervina, a now-retired Solon police sergeant, was one of the officers who responded to Slagter's 911 call. He says he was suspicious right away. "The guy was, like, stiff. You knew he was dead. He'd been dead for a little while. I'd never heard of anybody trying to revive a person by sticking their head under a faucet." He wondered if she'd been trying to wash away evidence of his drug use. When she insisted on taking three trips upstairs to grab things, his suspicions grew.

"She thought she had a couple of small-town hick cops, and she was going to take a chance," he says. "You know how drug people are. That's what their life revolves around . . . They're willing to take any chance to make sure that they have their supply."

The other officer, Joseph Veto, didn't comment to Scene. At Slagter's trial in April 1999, both officers said Slagter didn't immediately deny the mushrooms were hers when she opened the bag -- though she did deny it a moment later, when arrested. Veto testified that, according to information from narcotics agents, the mushrooms were worth $85,000. He said the cell phone in Slagter's hand rang repeatedly while he questioned her.

To win a conviction, Prosecutor Eleanore Hilow didn't have to prove Slagter owned the mushrooms, but she did have to convince the jury that Slagter knowingly possessed them.

First, Hilow called Kevin Wilson's father, David Wilson, to the stand. He testified that he'd never seen his son with the backpack the mushrooms were found in. He and his wife knew their son had a drug problem, he said -- but they'd set down a rule that he couldn't bring drugs to the house, and his wife had searched their son's room several times in the past. That left jurors free to wonder whether Slagter was the source of the mushrooms, the drugs Wilson died of, and the other drugs found at the death scene.

"He really wasn't selling drugs, but he was using," David Wilson says now. "It wasn't a regular thing he did every day. [But] he was using. It took over his body. Other than that, he was a good kid."

Next, Hilow called Solon police detective Ross Faranda to the witness stand -- and sprang a surprise. Faranda testified that he'd obtained records for both of Wilson's cell phones. One phone record showed an 11-1/2-hour gap between phone calls, roughly fitting the time Slagter said she was asleep -- but the other phone showed dozens of calls between 4 a.m. and 5 p.m., when she called police. Faranda testified that both phones were in the house when Wilson died.

During cross-examination, Hilow used Faranda's testimony to attack Slagter's story. "If the coroner says that Kevin Wilson died between 6 and 9 a.m. on October 10th, and the cell phone records show there were numerous calls made from those cell phones in this house, starting at 10:30 in the morning, who was making those calls?" Hilow asked.

"I don't know," Slagter said.

Hilow pressed the point. "There are calls made to Cleveland. There are calls made to Ontario, calls made to Buffalo, New York. There [are] two people in that house. One of them we know is deceased, and there is you. So you didn't wake up at 4 o'clock in the afternoon, did you?"

"Yes, I did."

Police and paramedics had testified that, by the time they examined Wilson's body, rigor mortis had set in. So Hilow asked Slagter if Wilson had been stiff when she dragged him to the bathtub. Slagter said no.

For her closing and final arguments, Hilow displayed some of the phone records on poster board. All day, she told the jury, Slagter was making phone calls and planning to escape with the mushrooms, even though she knew Wilson was dead.

"Her immediate response wasn't trying to get the police there or the fire department there. Her immediate response was to gather what she wanted and get everything together . . . She knew the value of what she had to get out of there." Slagter was not about to walk away from drugs worth $85,000, Hilow said.

"Ask yourselves, if you are in a house, and someone is dead, is your instinct to start dialing the phone to call Ontario? To call Canada? To call New York? Or is your instinct to call 911 or to call for help?"

The jurors quickly agreed that Slagter was guilty of drug possession.

For juror Roberta Villanueva, the prosecution's story about the phone records was "very important. That was a big thing, a very big thing." But Villanueva says she would have convicted Slagter even without the records. "You have to get back to the basic fact that she attempted to leave the house with the mushrooms."

Other jurors focused on different testimony.

"The idea about her not knowing that this stuff was in a particular pack, that seemed to be bullshit, you know?" says one juror, who asked not to be named. "I think we all concurred: She had knowledge of what the hell that stuff was. She tried to slip this stuff out, in front of the cop."

Slagter's testimony that she doused Wilson with water also aroused suspicion.

"Obviously, she must have known he was dead before trying to get him in the bathtub," says one juror. "If I knew somebody was unconscious, I don't think I'd drag him to the bathtub; I think I'd call 911 immediately."

The jurors spent most of their time debating count two, the charge that Slagter's money was a "criminal tool." At trial, Slagter described the money orders her father had sent her, and she produced his receipts from the huge insurance payments. She was acquitted on that charge.

The drug possession carried a minimum sentence of 3 years in prison and a maximum sentence of 10. Judge Nancy Margaret Russo gave her eight years.

Slagter's lead attorney, Tim Koral, had tried to convince the jury that Slagter didn't know what was in the bag, and that the prosecutor was unfairly trying to paint her as cold, calculating, and indifferent to Wilson's life.

In his closing argument, Koral simply asked the jury to disregard the cell phone records. "To pick up where Ms. Hilow left off, I'm going to suggest to you to just totally ignore that . . . There is just no evidence at all establishing the fact that those phone calls were made from that house." Somewhat clumsily, he tried to attack the suggestion that Slagter was awake all day. "They're trying to tell you that she knew he was dead at 9 o'clock and was making phone calls. For what purpose? We don't know. Was she trying to sell the drugs? Why doesn't she get out of there? Just leave. Take the stuff and run, if you want to do that."

James Fambro was furious as he listened to the closing arguments. He wanted to testify that Wilson had owned the mushrooms, and that they were worth only about $5,000, not $85,000. Contrary to David Wilson's testimony, Fambro says he'd seen drugs in his friend's bedroom plenty of times. But Hilow had convinced the judge to bar his testimony as irrelevant. Fambro, who has been convicted of cocaine possession, claims he also knew that Wilson had given his second phone to a friend who supplied Wilson with drugs.

Attorney Joe Jacobs, who had helped spring Slagter from jail, but had let the more experienced Koral take over at trial, thought something didn't add up. Once the jury left to deliberate, Jacobs went over to the prosecutor's table and looked at the cell phone records. He noticed that the two phones had been calling each other the night before Wilson died.

Jacobs claims he asked Hilow why she hadn't given Koral the records, and that she replied that, if Koral had filed a motion for discovery, "This would have been a very different trial." Slagter and her mother have signed affidavits saying they, too, heard that comment -- but Hilow claims she never said it. She only remembers grabbing the phone records from Jacobs when he pulled them off her table.

Slagter was sent to the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville. She says she spent her time in prison getting her GED, reading the Bible, and going through treatment for alcohol and Valium addictions. "I spent a lot of time praying and getting with myself," she says.

Meanwhile, Jacobs tried for months to subpoena Wilson's cell phone records. Finally, he got them, and he saw that the second cell phone -- the one the prosecutor had used to paint Slagter as a liar -- had been outside the Cleveland area between 2:33 and 5:53 p.m. on the day Wilson died.

A technical support staffer for Alltel says those calls -- which Hilow asserted showed Slagter calling Buffalo and Ontario -- were actually calls received while the phone was in the Buffalo and Hespeler, Ontario coverage areas.

The record for the other cell phone fits most of Slagter's story, with a few discrepancies. She says she fell asleep around 4 a.m. and woke up around 4 p.m. No phone calls are listed between 4:25 a.m. and 3:59 p.m. The record shows phone calls at 4:53 and 5:02 p.m., just before her call to 911, which would fit her story about calling a friend for advice -- except that Alltel workers say those were calls to her phone, not calls she placed.

At trial, defense attorney Koral looked briefly at the phone records while Detective Faranda was testifying from them. He got Faranda to admit that he was not at the house the day of the arrest and didn't retrieve any phones. Faranda tells Scene he doesn't remember any details about the phones' recovery.

Officer Veto last saw Slagter with a cell phone just before she put her dog in her friend's car. He figured she put the phone in the car, too. Slagter denies that, and Scene could not reach her friend for comment. But David Wilson says police returned one of his son's cell phones to him. Apparently, the police thought there had been two phones on the scene -- and they did not understand the records well enough to see that the second phone was near Buffalo while Slagter was talking to police at the Wilson home.

At Kevin's funeral, the Wilsons placed the phone police had retrieved in Kevin's casket, because he'd always had it with him. It was buried with him in Lake View Cemetery, near the Garfield Memorial. The other phone was never found.

Joe Jacobs thinks the story of Slagter making phone calls over Wilson's dead body made her look so coldhearted that the jury couldn't believe Slagter simply grabbed the wrong backpack.

The prosecutor and police "had to paint her as stupid or conniving, one of the two, because she was told they were going to be searched," he says. "So she's either really stupid or really evil. And they went with the really evil."

In fall 1999, Jacobs filed an appeal on Slagter's behalf, arguing for a new trial. He said the police search of the bags was illegal (an argument that Koral had made to the trial judge without success). He said the judge erred in not allowing Fambro to testify that the mushrooms were Wilson's. And he argued that Koral had been an ineffective attorney, because he didn't file a motion for discovery before the trial and get an advance copy of the cell phone records. Jacobs also says Koral had only one in-depth conversation with Slagter, came to the trial without notes, and didn't adequately prepare her for testifying.

Koral furiously accuses Jacobs, his former co-counsel in the case, of "dragging my name through the mud" to try to free Slagter. "I've been doing this 34 years. I have an excellent reputation in the community. I don't need some punk kid to make me look like a rookie who doesn't know what he's talking about." But he admits that the cell phone records came as a mid-trial surprise.

In October 1999, after five months in prison, Slagter was released, pending her appeal. She's been living with her aunt and uncle in Wadsworth, near Akron, studying to be a paralegal and working as a waitress. She's reconciled with Ryan Brown, who lives near her.

Last fall, the court of appeals upheld Slagter's conviction in a 2-1 ruling. But, though Jacobs hadn't asked them to, the judges also ruled that Slagter's eight-year sentence was in error. They ruled that Slagter was entitled to the presumption that the minimum sentence should apply to her, and that Russo needed to resentence her and state reasons for the new sentence, if it were longer than three years.

Judge Anne Kilbane, in a dissent, wrote that Slagter should get a new trial, that the police should have had a warrant before searching her bags, and that Fambro should have been allowed to testify. Kilbane also brought up a second issue Jacobs hadn't, calling the police estimate that the mushrooms were worth $85,000 "outrageous." "High Times magazine, a publication devoted to celebrating the use of marijuana and other hallucinogens, reported that, as of September 13, 1998, [the price] for psilocybin mushrooms in the Cleveland area was $100 per ounce," the judge wrote, in a footnote. That, Kilbane said, pegged the three and a half pounds in the bag at $5,500.

The judges agreed that the cell phone records were new evidence, so they'd have to be considered in a separate motion. But the previous spring, while the appeal was pending, Jacobs had already filed just such a motion with the original trial judge. By the time the appeals court ruled, Judge Russo had twice rejected Jacobs's motion -- once because of an error in his brief, then in part because the motion duplicated the pending appeal. Slagter's new attorney, Terry Gilbert, has filed a second appeal, trying to revive the motion about the phone records.

Last week, Slagter went to court for resentencing. Her stepfather, uncle, and boss all told the judge she's been responsible and trustworthy since her time in prison. "You've done well and stayed out of trouble," Judge Russo acknowledged and gave Slagter the mandatory minimum sentence of three years. Over the prosecutor's objection, she let Slagter stay free on bond until her second appeal is resolved.

If the appeal fails, Slagter will go back to prison for two and a half more years, with no chance of parole.

Eleanore Hilow, the prosecutor, stands by her trial victory. She says that nothing in the phone records indicated to her that the second cell phone was roaming outside the Cleveland area. She's confident she would have gotten a conviction without them.

"[Slagter's] honesty as to what she did all day had nothing to do with guilt or innocence in possession of those drugs," Hilow says. "She made three trips upstairs to claim what she says is her property, then attempts to hide the drugs. When she opens the bag when the officers are standing there, she tries to open it and close it very quickly. If I found something that wasn't mine like that, I'd just give it back. I wouldn't try to get it out of the house."

She can't explain why Slagter would try to get the mushrooms past cops who had said they'd search her.

"You know what? I've been doing this almost 10 years," she says with a weary laugh. "I've really given up trying to make sense of why people do what they do . . . She was in possession of drugs. It was up to the jury to decide if she knew what she was doing. They decided she did."

David Wilson doesn't trust Slagter's story about the day his son died. "This gal was treated very fairly," he says. "I don't want her painted as the poor little victim."

Slagter says the time she spent behind bars helped her kick her addictions. "I'm thankful you put me in prison," she told the judge last week. Otherwise, "I don't know where I'd be today."

But she maintains she wasn't guilty of anything but having a drug problem. "I didn't knowingly do what they accused me of doing," she says, choosing her words with the care of someone who's gotten a legal education the hard way. "I didn't knowingly possess the mushrooms."

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