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May 13, 2009

Crime degrees of separation: A girl's 1983 murder, Pamela Vitale's 2005 killing, the Oakmont cemetery and the kooky guy at the center of the story





Recent news stories relating to several high-profile East Bay murders and child disappearances were on my mind as I paid a visit Saturday to Pleasant Hill’s park-like Oakmont Memorial Park. During that visit, I ruminated on the small world of crime in Contra Costa County and the East Bay—the strange interconnections between cases, victims, suspects, lawyers, judges, and other related personalities.

For the record, my father’s ashes are interred at Oakmont, so that's why I drove up to the hillside cemetery. The remains of my father, who died in 2003, were placed in a boulder in a spot on the upper part of the cemetery. It’s not too far from he huge Gonzales mausoleum recently profiled on Claycord.com. My father’s “rock,” as my family calls it, sits in the shade of a tree overlooking the hills of Briones regional wilderness.


Still, there’s that crazy, macabre side of me that figured I’d also pay a visit to two gravesites not too far away.. These gravesites, both in the park’s Meditation section, belong to two victims of high-profile Contra Costa murders.

One gravesite belongs to Angela Bugay. She was 5 years old when she died. On November 19, 1983, she disappeared from the Antioch apartment complex where she lived with her single mom and little brother. Her body was found about a week later, buried in a field, still wearing a blue ribbon tied around her blond pony tail, according to the book, Stalemate, which examines Angela’s murder and the disappearances of four other East and North Bay girls between 1988 and 1991.

Actually, to find Angela’s final resting place, I had to ask directions at the Oakmont office. The woman who provided me with directions and a map immediately knew whom I was asking about because, she said, “Someone was asking about her gravesite about two weeks ago.”

The Meditation section is an area of sloping lawn and gravestones that looks down at the Lesher family mausoleum and, in the valley below, the stretch of Walnut Creek, Pleasant Hill and Concord. From, Meditation, you can also see Mount Diablo looming above the entire Diablo Valley.

Angela’s stone is inscribed with the words: “In memory of our little angel.” It looked as though it had been recently decorated, with a flag flying the word “Princess,” and a ceramic bunny and a stuffed teddy bear.


After leaving Angela’s grave, I strolled a few hundred feet to find the gravesite of Pamela Vitale, who was 52 when she was brutally bludgeoned and stabbed in her Lafayette home on October 15, 2005. I knew from a prior visit to my father's rock that Vitale's final resting place was nearby.


That Saturday morning, Vitale had been on my mind, since reading the news that Scott Dyleski, her former teenage neighbor, who had been convicted of killing her, had lost his first appeal. Vitale and Dyleski’s names also had been mentioned in an article in the Contra Costa Times the day before--in connection with yet another East Bay murder.


Thist artcle actually focused less on the murder than on this kooky guy named Timothy Bindner, who somehow wound up a juror on this case.


And in the person of Timothy Bindner is where I find the connection, however loose, between 5 –year-old Angela Bugay, 52-year-old Pamela Vitale, and Oakmont Memorial Park.


Why was Bindner the focus of this news article? Well, in what I’ll call typical Bindner fashion, he got himself back in the news by inserting himself into a horrific crime case: the 2007 murder of a 16-year-old Martinez boy by his Turkish businessman father.

Landing himself in a significant position in a violent, devastating crime, especially in a crime involving a child victim, is a particular talent of Bindner's, at least since the early 1980s.

Actually to call the 61-year-old Bindner, who now lives in San Pablo, "kooky," is very generous, considering that he was accused--though never arrested--in the disappearance of at least one of those four Bay Area girls.

In the early 1990s, he was named by Fairfield police as the prime suspect in the December 1991 disappearance of 4-year-old Amanda “Nicki” Campbell. She disappeared while walking home alone through her neighborhood.

Investigators then began to look at Bindner as a possible suspect in the unsolved cases of three missing East Bay girls. The girls are Amber Swartz, 7, who vanished from in front of her Pinole home in August 1988; Michaela Garecht, 9, who was grabbed by a man in a van outside a Hayward market in November 1988; and Ilene Misheloff, 13, who disappeared while walking home from her Dublin Middle School in January 1989.

Bindner became a very active volunteer in the searches for these missing girls, particularly in the search for Amber Swartz. He tried to befriend the terrified parents, especially Amber's mother, Kim, and to share his “special” insights with police. He seemed to fancy himself something of an amateur expert in crimes against children, and proclaimed a fierce desire to love and care for children.

But the more police and the more the girls’ family members learned about Bindner, the less they liked.

Before these four girls went missing, Angela’s murder had become something of an obsession for Bindner, especially after he first visited her grave in the Meditation section of Oakmont cemetery in 1984: “I guess the fact that Angela’s got a pretty little picture on her gravestone. … It was like a personal thing. I fell in love with her. You’re not supposed to be in love with a dead girl.”

This is what he told John Philpin, a nationally regarded forensic psychologist and the author of the 1997 book, Stalemate. This book offers an insightful and detailed account of investigators’ unsuccessful attempts to pin at least one of these girl’s disappearances on Bindner.
Bindner, as Philpin describes, hung out a lot at Angela’s Oakmont grave—some 80 times, bringing her flowers, tidying the area, talking to her. Police, later looking into the missing girls cases, became aware of Bindner’s Angela fixation, set up surveillance and had trained dogs nose around to see what they could detect.

According to Fairfield investigators, both the scent of Amber Swartz and Nikki Campbell turned up at Angela’s gravesite, which gave them probable cause to publicly identify him as their key suspect in Nikki's disappearance. Bindner maintained his innocence in Nikki’s disappearance, as well as in the other girls’ disappearances. Later, he won $90,000 in a settlement after suing the Fairfield police for defamation of character.



But Bindner--not one to keep his mouth shut—himself suggested that the killer of these girls might have buried their bodies at Oakmont in open graves.

It turns out that Bindner did not kill Angela Bugay. Larry Christopher Graham, a sometime suitor and neighbor of Angela’s mother in the Antioch apartment, was identified as the girl’s rapist and killer through DNA evidence. The Concord man was sentenced to death in 2003.

Even though Bindner was cleared of Bugay’s murder, Fairfield police Detective Harold Sagan thought that Angela’s murder might have served as an “excitor for Bindner—a trigger,” Philpin writes. For Sagan, Angela’s grave at the Oakmont cemetery remained “critical” to the other cases.

Fast forward to this past Friday: Timothy Bindner back in the headlines.
The reason?

The Contra Costa Times reports how Bindner had gotten himself seated on a jury for the trial of Erhan Kayik, who was charged with strangling his 16-year-old son. In Feburary, Bindner and his fellow jurors voted the man guilty of murder.
On Friday, Deputy Public Defender Rebecca Brackman argued in court that Kayik should be granted a new trial.

Why?

Bindner.

Brackman told Judge John Kennedy that Bindner “concealed his background.” That is, his high-profile brushes with investigations involving crimes against children during jury selection. However, Kayik prosecutor Colleen Gleason, who wants the conviction to stand, said Bindner is innocent of juror misconduct because no one asked him the right questions that would have revealed his former notoriety.”

And now we come to Bindner’s connection to Pamela Vitale. According to the Times, Gleason noted that Bindner did disclose the past suspicions against him when he was a prospective juror in the high-profile, 2005 murder case against Scott Dyleski, who was 17 when he was convicted of killing Vitale.

Yes, Bindner was called for jury duty the week that selection was taken place for Dyleski, who was on trial in the summer of 2006 for killing Pamela Vitale. In fact, it looks like he was there the first day of jury selection. That is, according to my notes. As I mentioned in a post two weeks ago, I attended some of Dyleski’s trial, and that includes some of the jury selection.

I remember being in the audience when the prospective jurors took their seats in the jury box. I remember hearing the name “Timothy Bindner.” I knew who he was. I immediately glanced over at the box, and saw him—the infamous Mr. Bindner.

Judge Barbara Zuniga was presiding over Dyleski’s trial. And, in yet another six degrees kind of way, she presided over the trial of Angela Bugay’s killer, Larry Christopher Graham.


Here are the kinds of questions she posed to all the jurors—from what I can find recorded in my notebook: Do any of you have trouble with the legal standard, beyond a reasonable doubt? Have you ever been a victim of a crime, had contact with the district attorney’s office, or public defender’s office. The questions seemed pretty general and typical. At some point, Binder said something or responded to a question in a way that prompted Zuniga to ask him and the prosecutor and defense attorney to join her in chambers for a private consultation. I don’t know what he said in chambers, but I figured it had to do with his notorious public profile. He came out, was handed some paper work, and told he could leave.

Judge John Kennedy, who heard Brackman’s arguments regarding Bindner’s jury service in the Kayik trial, agreed to consider whether his failure to disclose his past notoriety compromised Kayik’s right to a fair trial. What a shame that this case might get derailed.

Unfortunately, that's Bindner for you.

On, and he himself was in the courtroom Friday. Kayik was supposed to be sentenced, and Binder was one of four jurors who wanted to be present to see justice rendered against this child killer. The sentencing didn't happen. Instead, Bindner once again found himself in the middle of the story.

And, he’s in the middle of this story that I’m writing now. I’ve been sucked into the Bindner vortex.


Still, I try to reshift my focus by thinking again about the strange and sad connections between those who have died violent deaths in our community. I also think about the words inscribed on Pamela Vitale’s gravestone: “Our guardian angel.”

Maybe Vitale, whose final resting place is so physically close to Angela’s, is watching over the little girl.

9 comments:

Masterlock said...

Fascinating stuff, thanks for the interesting local dirt. That gentleman sounds like someone that should be under surveillance at all times.

Anonymous said...

Yes, fascinating reading. Odd set of details, isn't it? I'm a reader of this blog, but would rather not post my identity on this one. Bindner seems like a real kook.

DodgerDog said...

Crazy,

Writing about 'crime degrees of separation';how many degrees of separation between the kooky guy and yourself?

YOU visited the gravesites.
YOU attended some of the murder trial.
YOU kept notes from the trial.
YOU are writing about it.

Where is the line between 'interest' and 'kooky'?

I don't know the answer to that. I will assume that you have not been a suspect in any murder cases. But maybe his interest in these cases is just one or two degrees of separation from your own.

By the way, I enjoy your blog. I don't agree with everything you write, but I appreciate your writing.

Soccer Mom said...

Masterlock and Anonymous,
Thanks for for your comments. I find it all fascinating. Glad a few others did as well.

And DodgerDog,
Love your comment.
I confess I am a bit of a kook myself, especially about stuff like this, but I swear I have not been a suspect in any murder cases, or in any criminal cases. Aside from some youthful trangressions and some occasional Walnut Creek parking tickets, I'm pretty law abiding.
And glad you enjoy the blog, and am glad you don't always agree with what I write. Sometimes even I go back and ask myself, What WERE you thinking?
Feel free to point out the errors of my views or ways any time.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for keeping us reminded of those poor missing children. Sadly, they are not children anymore, if they are are still alive. I don't know if this Bindner had anything to do with what happened, but I'll check out that book. I remember when these girls went missing., and being really upset by it. I was in high school, and hearing about Ilene made me scared for my own safety. And those tragedies made me think a lot about how I would watch over my own kids.

Anonymous said...

This is all too strage,and to think that there are people like Binder out there is all to scary to me. I would not trust him as far as I could throw him. Masterlock is right when he stated that Binder should be under surveillance 24/7.It is just a matter of time when his fuse blows and God help who is in his way.

Anonymous said...

Binder, oh yea. I was one of the lead investigators (now retired) on the Bugay case and Binder sure fit the bill. He was looked at and looked at by Antioch PD as well as the other you mentioned. Too bad Graham was able to take his own life. He should have suffered like he made his victim suffer.

Grandma said...

My Mom is buried at Oakmont. One day while going to the cemetery, my daughter mentioned Angela Bugay is buried there. We stopped at the office and my daughter went in to ask where Angela is buried. She was given the information. We found her grave and all that was there was a little stuffed black bear. The next time we came to the cemetery we brought the Princess Flag, a stuffed animal and a little pink jewelry case. I don't recall if we added anything else. But, it was us, not Bindner.
We did it with love, good intentions and just trying to do a good thing. We would love to continue to decorate her grave but it it's not suppose to be done, we will stop.

Soccer Mom said...

Dear Grandma,
Thanks for posting here, and telling your story.

What a sweet, lovely thing for you to do. And, please, keep doing it.

You know I wrote that post a while ago. I mentioned the princess flag to show that people still care about Angela Bugay. I never assumed that Timothy Bindner left it there. I hope that's not how it came across in what I wrote. If that's how it came across, I'm sorry. You were, truly, doing a very kind and loving thing.