Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Did Google Maps Lead Hitman to Wrong House?

Dennis and Merna Koula

Dennis and Merna Koula

A look back at the case of Eric Koula. Convicted of murdering his wealthy parents in cold blood after they had cut him off financially, Koula has protested his innocence. His defense team argues that the murders were a case of mistaken identity, a hit gone awry.

On May 24, 2010, wealthy La Crosse, Wisconsin, couple Dennis Koula, 68, and his wife, Merna Koula, 65, were found dead, a single shot to the head each with a .22-caliber rifle. Police got a 911 call from their son Eric who discovered the bodies. Investigators were immediately struck by a few things: The cold calculating nature of the murders, which seemed like a professional hit; the fact that the house was tossed yet none of the valuables were taken and the seeming lack of any motive in the case. They only latched onto Eric Koula as a suspect when they discovered that he was broke and had deposited a $50,000 check from his father the day after the murders. The failed day trader confessed to having forged his father’s signature. Further investigation revealed that he had borrowed over $1 million from his father in the year before the murders, and was $150,000 in debt. One witness testified that Dennis Koula had decided to cut his son off financially.

Eric Koula

Eric Koula

Eric Koula told investigators that he had been at the local Shopko’s gardening center buying a plant for his wife as an anniversary present at 5:45 p.m. and produced a receipt with a 6:15 p.m. time stamp. While checking Eric Koula’s alibi, however, police discovered that he did not appear on the security camera footage. Investigators were able to determine the exact time of Merna’s death because she died at her computer, which recorded the date and time of the last keystroke. Prosecutors believed that time discrepancy in Eric Koula’s alibi gave him the opportunity to kill his parents. The most damning evidence came from Koula himself, who admitted to police that he had sent himself a strange note to throw suspicion away from his family.

Eric Koula is now serving two consecutive life sentences for his parents’ murders. Koula, who never confessed to the murder and was never linked to the crime by DNA, continues to deny that he murdered his parents. His lawyers continue to argue that the evidence against him was purely circumstantial and are planning an appeal.

Keith Belzer, a member of Eric Koula’s defense team, argues that, “There’s no evidence,” against Koula. “There’s no DNA. There’s no fingerprints. There’s no fiber evidence. There’s no hair evidence. My gosh, the guy that whole afternoon was doing grouting of a bathroom. There’s no grout. … Not one thing links Eric Koula to those homicides.”

Forensic expert for the defense Mac Scott testified during the trial saying, “I think it’s an organized scene, … I think it was well planned, rehearsed with experienced doers who knew how to do this type of thing. And most importantly, not leave any evidence.”

Eric Koula

Eric Koula

Koula’s legal team points out that police abandoned another line of investigation when they latched onto Eric Koula as a suspect: The theory that the hits were a case of mistaken identity. A few days after the Koulas’ murders, their neighbor Steve Burgess, the president of a local bank, reported to police that he had been receiving death threats in the days preceding the murder. John Christophersen, a special agent at the time with the Wisconsin Department of Justice, stressed, “And they were distinctly death threats.” Peter Van Sant of CBS News explains, “In fact, when you Google Earth, Steve Burgess’ address…the zoom into the house goes to the Koula’s house, not to Steve Burgess’ house,” which seemed to imply that the hit on the Koulas had been intended for the Burgesses.

So the case sits awaiting appeal, which was promised by Koula’s legal team in 2012, though for some, nagging questions remain: Is Koula really guilty as sin as prosecutors have claimed or was it a hit gone awry, and isn’t it also possible that Koula set the whole thing up to look like a hit gone awry?

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