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People v. Richee

January 19, 2005


Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County. Honorable Frank Zelezinski, Judge Presiding.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Presiding Justice Karnezis

Following a jury trial, defendant Christopher Richee was convicted of first degree murder and was sentenced to life imprisonment. On appeal, defendant argues: (1) the trial court improperly admitted other crimes evidence; (2) the trial court erred in denying his motion in limine; (3) the trial court improperly admitted evidence that was irrelevant and prejudicial; (4) the prosecutor made improper remarks during closing argument; and (5) he was denied a fair trial by the cumulative effect of errors. We find that the admission of other crimes evidence and the quantity of evidence presented relating thereto was error.


Nan Toder, a Florida resident, was visiting the Chicago area, training for her new position as vice-president of Vance Wholesale Floral Company (Vance) in Florida. Toder arrived in Chicago on December 9, 1996, and was staying in Room 227 at the Hampton Inn in Crestwood, Illinois. She was to return home to Florida on December 13, 1996.

On the evening of December 12, 1996, Toder declined a dinner invitation with the president of Vance, went to a nearby gym, and then visited Jewel Food Stores where she made several purchases at 8:25 p.m. She returned to the hotel at approximately 8:54 p.m. and entered the hotel through the front lobby area alone. She was carrying a Wendy's bag and asked the front desk for a 5 a.m. wake-up call the next morning. She spoke with her mother on the phone at 9:56 p.m.

The body of Nan Toder was discovered on the morning of December 13, 1996. The victim of murder, she had been strangled with a pair of pantyhose, bound with telephone cords and slashed in the back of the head several times causing massive bleeding. Her body was found on the floor between two beds.

Defendant, the maintenance manager of the Hampton Inn in Crestwood, was indicted for the murder in December of 1999.


Defendant is not challenging the sufficiency of the evidence in this case. Therefore, we will discuss only those facts relevant to the disposition of this appeal.

On the morning of December 13, 1996, two wake-up calls to Toder's room went unanswered. Concepcion Dominguez, a housekeeper employed at the Hampton Inn, was making her rounds on the morning of December 13, 1996. At about 10:15 a.m., Dominguez knocked on the door of Room 227. There was no response, so Dominguez used her metal key to access the room. Her metal key opened all of the hallway doors on the second floor. The door to Room 227 would not open. She then summoned her supervisor, Mirta Arroyo. Arroyo also tried to open the door of Room 227 with her metal key but the door only opened slightly. Arroyo then knelt down and pushed away what was on the other side of the door, and the door opened. It appeared that a suitcase had been blocking the door. Once the door was fully open, Dominguez noticed that there was blood all over the bed. When Arroyo saw blood on the bed, she told Dominguez to go down the hallway. Arroyo summoned hotel manager Brenda Randazzo. Arroyo and Randazzo returned to Room 227 and Randazzo used her master key to unlock the door. Upon entering the room a second time, the two viewed the body of Nan Toder lying between the two beds and quickly exited the room. Defendant came to Room 226, where staff members had congregated, and asked what was going on. Randazzo informed defendant that there had been a murder and instructed him not to enter Room 227. Arroyo then observed defendant use his key to enter Room 227. He came out several seconds later.

Crestwood police officer John Barolga was on patrol on December 13, 1996, when he received a call of a possible homicide at the Hampton Inn. When he arrived, he was greeted by defendant, who took him to the second floor and directed him to Room 227, where he opened the door with a key. Defendant stated that he did not have any knowledge about where the victim was located within the room. Officer Barolga ordered defendant to stay out of the room.

Officer Barolga entered the room and noticed the black suitcase just inside the door. He also saw, immediately to his right, a door that led to Room 229, an adjoining room. He proceeded into the room and saw a bloody pillow and bedspread on the bed closest to the door. Officer Barolga also observed a towel on the bathroom floor that appeared to have blood on it. While he was in the bathroom looking around, he observed defendant enter the room, pass the bathroom where he was standing, and continue moving toward the main room. Officer Barolga again ordered defendant to stay out of the room. Defendant then backed up and stopped in the vicinity of the doorway. Office Barolga again ordered defendant to leave.

Officer Barolga saw Toder's dead body lying on the floor between two beds. Toder lay on her back, propped up on her elbows with her head tilted back. She was wearing a robe, which was open, exposing her breasts and pubic area. Her neck was bound by pantyhose and a phone cord was wrapped around her left wrist. A bedspread partially covered her legs. He later observed that Toder's feet were also bound with a phone cord.

Dexter Bartlett was found qualified by the court to testify as an expert in crime scene investigations. He responded to the Hampton Inn at approximately 10:33 a.m., on December 13, 1996, and viewed Toder's body in Room 227. He indicated that her injuries were not readily apparent but that her body had been "posed." Based on his observations, he opined that Toder was attacked while lying face down on the bed closest to the door. In addition, based on the blood transfer patterns found on the bed, he opined that the offender used a machete and had worn gloves.

Bartlett also observed that Room 227 was in disarray. Items appeared to have been thrown on the floor after Toder was attacked. He opined that the crime scene was "staged."

Bartlett examined the locks on the outside of the door to Room 227. He observed that the door had two locks on its exterior; an upper locking device that was operated by a key card and a lower locking device that was operated by a metal key. There were marks and partial damage to the lock operated by a metal key. Bartlett opined that the marks were made by someone inserting a screwdriver or other similar device and moving it up and down. Filings were found on the carpet in the hallway outside Room 227. Despite the damage, the lock was still in good working order.

There were three locking devices on the inside of the door in Room 227 leading to the hallway. The uppermost locking device was a security lock which could only be activated from inside the room and which could not be opened with a key. It would allow the person inside the room to open the door slightly to look outside into the hallway. The second lock was a deadbolt that could only be activated from inside the room. The third lock was a passive door lock that automatically locks from the outside if the door is closed. All three locking devices were in working order on the morning of December 13, 1996.

Bartlett initially concluded that the point of entry into Toder's room was the door leading from the hallway to Room 227. At that time, however, Bartlett was unaware that the housekeeping staff had initially been unable to get that door open because of the suitcase that was right inside the door. After learning this information, Bartlett opined that the point of entry into Toder's room was the door from adjoining Room 229.

The deadbolt on Toder's adjoining door was found locked. There was no way to unlock the deadbolt on Toder's adjoining door from inside Room 229. If the small metal bar from the deadbolt lock on Toder's adjoining door were removed, the lock would appear to be locked although it would actually be disconnected. In addition to deactivating the deadbolt on the adjoining door, a person seeking to gain entry into Toder's room would have to place tape on the striker bolt or on the hole in the door frame. This would have to be done before Toder entered her room.

Bartlett also believed that it would be impossible for Toder's killer to leave her room through the hallway door because of the suitcase. In order to exit, the killer would have to again take apart the locking mechanism in Toder's adjoining door, replace the metal bar and remove the tape. The killer would not be able to lock the deadbolt on Toder's adjoining door if he was in Room 229. He would have to come back into Toder's room later and lock the deadbolt on her adjoining door.

Rod Englert, an expert in the field of crime scene reconstruction and bloodstain interpretation, viewed reports and approximately 400 photographs from the crime scene, as well as individual articles of clothing and bedding taken from Room 227. Englert opined, based on his examination of all of the items, that Toder was sleeping, lying face down on the bed closest to the door with her head at the head of the bed when she was approached from behind. Englert also opined that the massive amount of blood on the bed came from multiple blows to Toder's head. Given that the wounds on Toder's head were parallel, Englert believed that Toder did not fight back. He also opined that the wounds to Toder's head were caused by a machete. The bloody imprint of a machete was left on the bed sheet. The offender likely wore gloves because no fingerprints were recovered from the sheet. DNA samples were taken from the bed sheet and none of the DNA matched that of defendant.

With respect to the position of the body, Englert opined that after the attack, Toder's body was pulled from the bed onto the floor. Englert testified that Toder's body had been posed.

Lisa Dellorto was working at the front desk of the Hampton Inn on the evening of December 12, 1996, from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. She received a telephone call from defendant shortly after she arrived at work. Defendant told Dellorto that he was at Bongo Johnny's, a bar and dance club in Chicago Ridge, Illinois, and asked Dellorto if she wanted him to bring her a burrito. Dellorto said no. Defendant said he was coming to the hotel anyway and was bringing a burrito for himself.

Shortly thereafter, defendant arrived at the hotel. Dellorto was in the guest lobby area and did not see defendant enter through the main hotel entrance but saw him standing at the front desk. Defendant was dressed in a dark sweater, jeans and white tennis shoes. Defendant's tennis shoes struck Dellorto as being unusual because prior to that evening she had seen defendant wear dirty shoes, so Dellorto asked defendant about his shoes. Defendant told her that he got them for Christmas from his mother and rarely wore them. They then went to the back office to talk. Later, she saw defendant looking at the hotel's computer, which was used strictly for hotel information. Looking at the hotel computer, one could determine which rooms were occupied. Dellorto last saw defendant on the evening of December 12, 1996, at approximately 12:30 p.m., when defendant told her that he was going to turn on the hotel's outside Christmas lights.

Dellorto also testified that she was familiar with the key system at the Hampton Inn. A master key was kept at the front desk. Any employees who came in through the front desk area would have access to that key.

Brenda Randazzo testified that she was the general manager of the Hampton Inn on December 12, 1996. On December 12, 1996, defendant worked his normal hours of 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. As manager, she was familiar with the locking systems in the hotel. Randazzo had a master metal key that could open the lock on the outside of a hotel room door. The key would operate even if the deadbolt lock was activated. The other department managers, including Wendy Heberling, the assistant manager, Mirta Arroyo, the executive housekeeper, and defendant, had master keys. There was a fifth master key that was kept in a locked box on the wall in the back office. This key was still in the locked box on the morning of December 13, 1996. The key that was kept at the front desk was not capable of overriding a deadbolt on the hotel room door.

A new locking system came into effect at the Hampton Inn on December 13, 1996, in the afternoon. A meeting was held on December 12, 1996, regarding the new locking system. A representative of the company installing the new locking system was present at the meeting and explained to the hotel staff, including defendant, how the new locks would work.

The new locking system was a computerized electric locking system. A new lock was to be installed on the outside of each hotel room door. The managers would receive new master key cards. The managers' master cards would be capable of circumventing the same locks that they circumvented under the old system. The computerized locking system would record information as to whose key was used to enter a hotel room, if it was a guest key, a maintenance key or a housekeeping key, and the time the key was used to enter the room. This information would not be available from the locking system as it existed on December 12, 1996.

Jill Paoletti testified that she and defendant were dating in December of 1996. At approximately 8:30 p.m. on the evening of December 12, 1996, she went to defendant's house in Burbank, Illinois. She left defendant's house at approximately 11 p.m. that ...

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