A Wine Cellar Whodunnit
December, 2009, Louisville, Kentucky.
If you believe Joseph Banis, 41, it was his boyfriend, Jeffrey Mundt, also 41, who capped a night of porn, methamphetamine and group sex by repeatedly stabbing and then shooting their alleged drug dealer, James Carroll, 37. Banis’ lawyers say Mundt was jealous because Carroll and Banis were sexually involved, leaving Mundt out of the fun.
That, however, is not how Jeffrey Mundt tells it. He claims that they were both in bed with Carroll when Banis changed positions to attack Carroll in a violent fit that, in his drugged-out state, Mundt at first mistook for sadomasochistic role-playing. When Mundt finally realized that Carroll, screaming and covered in blood, was near death, he says, he leaped from the bed, to find his boyfriend Banis ready to turn a gun on him, threatening him, before using it to shoot Carroll.
The couple hid Carroll’s body in the wine cellar of the house they shared on Old Louisville’s Fourth Street. Banis says that Mundt vowed to kill him and his family if he didn’t cooperate; Mundt insists that Banis had threatened him —and his cats.
The day following the murder, after Mundt went to work as usual, the men bought a 50-gallon heavy-duty plastic container from a home improvement store. Banis says that Mundt broke the dead man’s legs in order to fit him inside the box; Mundt describes Banis attacking the corpse with a baseball bat to accomplish the fit. Mundt has claimed that Banis forced him to dig a five-foot-deep hole in the wine cellar to bury the box, with room to bury him too if he didn’t cooperate, and that Banis doused Carroll’s body with paint thinner to destroy DNA evidence. Mundt does admit that it was his idea to use lime to mask the stench of decay.
The State holds that both men are responsible for Carroll’s death, prosecutors arguing that the couple had planned to rob him for his cash and methamphetamine and kill him.
Could They Have Gotten Away With It?
On the surface, Jeffrey Mundt seemed like the more respectable half of the couple. He held a computer-science degree from Indiana University and a master’s degree from Northwestern University. At the time of Carroll’s 2009 murder, Mundt was working in information technology at the University of Louisville.
His partner, Joseph Banis, was a club owner who’d already been to prison on drug charges. He had multiple tattoos, and was sporting a teal mohawk at the time of his arrest.
The couple had had a brush with the law even as Carroll rotted in their wine cellar. In April 2010 they stayed in Chicago at the Hyatt Regency, where they asked a doorman to change a $100 bill—but the doorman noticed the bill was wet and he thought it looked too green. When the hotel reported the suspicious bill, Chicago police searched their room and discovered another $55,000 in mostly counterfeit cash, along with three guns, knives, fraudulent identification (Washington IDs with their photos but different names) and the date rape drug GHB. Cops charged them and released them on bail ($50,000 for Mundt and $200,000 for Banis, because one gun was found on his body and the others were in his luggage).
At the time, the incident baffled investigators and the press alike, though it’s now clear that that may have been an escape attempt, but it was their tumultuous relationship that finally got them caught a few months later. In June 2010, Mundt locked himself in a bathroom and called 911 to report that Banis was threatening to break down the door with a hammer and kill him. Banis offered information on a murder to keep himself out of jail. Mundt separately delivered a similar story.
Detective Jon Lesher was so skeptical of the men’s allegations that he wasn’t even sure there was a body in the basement. No one had reported the supposed dead man missing. The detective contacted James Carroll’s family, who told him he was in prison. But when cops couldn’t find a record of that, they returned to the couple’s home with shovels and started digging.
Jeffrey Mundt arranged a deal: He’d testify against his boyfriend in the murder of James Carroll if he didn’t have to face the death penalty himself.
Both men were charged with robbery, murder and evidence tampering. Reputed bad-boy Banis went to trial first, appearing before Jefferson Circuit Judge Mitch Perry in March 2013. The trial took less than two weeks. His boyfriend’s testimony was at the center of the case orchestrated by Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorneys Josh Schneider and Ryane Conroy.
The First Trial
Defense attorneys Darren Wolff and Justin Brown called lead witness Jeffrey Mundt’s reliability into question in Joseph Banis’ trial. They said that text messages between the two men while the murdered James Carroll moldered in their basement didn’t indicate that Mundt was a man who felt threatened by an abusive and manipulative partner. Rather, the texts the defense quoted suggested mutual affection. Perhaps unsurprisingly given the “he said, he said” nature of the case, the prosecution countered with texts in which the two men argued, and both threatened to kill themselves. Furthermore, the defense pointed out, had Mundt truly feared retaliation from Banis, he could have helped keep Banis behind bars after the Chicago arrest. Instead, he posted $20,000 bail to free his partner.
The defense aimed the blame at Mundt. Police witnesses acknowledged that Mundt had changed his story across the course of the investigation, first claiming no knowledge of the murder, then pinning it on Banis. The defense also questioned the validity of the cops’ investigative procedures, specifically Metro Police Detective Collin King’s failure to confiscate a knife that was on Mundt’s keychain when he was questioned.
Initially police had assumed that the killer had used a bigger knife, but the smaller weapon nonetheless became an important piece of evidence when the defense submitted photos showing that Mundt owned Kershaw knife, the same type that expert testimony and police had connected to the murder. Mundt claimed he bought the knife after Carroll’s death; Chicago police confiscated it during his 2010 arrest. Kentucky State Police firearms examiner Lisa Collier testified that a gun seized in the Chicago counterfeiting arrest matched the type that killed Carroll.
The defense also relied on testimony from James Jenkins, a man who’d been in jail with Banis and testified that Banis had admitted to planning to kill his sexual rival.
In an unexpected twist, Banis did not take the stand in his own defense.
Smearing Mundt, however, would not save Banis: The jury only had to agree that they were both involved, not determine who wielded the knife or pulled the trigger. The jury deliberated for 10 hours, was sequestered overnight and continued deliberations the next day. On March 8, 2013, they found Banis guilty of robbery, evidence tampering and complicity to murder, and of the drug charges against him.
Prosecutors planned to ask for the death penalty, but on March 11 Banis waived his right to appeal in exchange for limiting the sentence to life in prison. He will be formally sentenced in June. James Carroll’s mother, Ellen, who is against the death penalty, was satisfied with the sentence.
Jeffrey Mundt is scheduled to go to trial in May 2013 in what promises to be a lively proceeding. By March 14, Mundt’s attorney had already filed an emergency motion to have Banis’ computer at the jail seized and analyzed for evidence tampering. Mundt claims that Banis hacked his profiles on dating/meet up sites about which Mundt was extensively questioned during Banis’ trial. Banis’ attorney insists that the jail computer’s Internet access had been disabled.
Sources on Next Page