A Witness to Murder
The evidence presented at Hightower's March 1993 trial was overwhelming.
Prosecutors produced the crossbow he used to kill Brendel along with receipts for both the weapon, the arrows and the muriatic acid and lime he used to aid decomposition of his victims' bodies. They also submitted into evidence the forged letter Hightower sent to the Commodities Futures Trading Commission withdrawing Brendel's complaint and the four "Lynx letters" he had written from his jail cell. It seemed Hightower's fate was sealed.
With a mountain of evidence against him, no one expected Christopher Hightower to take the stand in his own defense. But he did.
Convinced that he could flimflam the jury like he had done so many other times with investors, he began his long, rambling tale of how four shadowy underworld figures forced him to dig the Brendels graves, clean up the murder scene and act as intermediary in a failed extortion attempt of the dead mans sister.
His lawyer, well-known criminal attorney Robert George, could not deter his client. The only thing George could do was allow Hightower to testify - and hope the jury would find him innocent by reason of insanity.
In his testimony, Hightower hinted that Brendel was blackmailing him into conducting illegal stock trades and was trying to gain an interest in his investment business through a newsletter that the two men planned to develop.
Hightower said he acquiesced to Brendels demands out of a desperate need to provide for his wife and children.
But even though he claimed there was an undercurrent of blackmail in their dealings, Hightower said he bore no ill-will toward the stocky, patent attorney.
In fact, Hightower claimed, he had even offered to help Brendel get rid of a pesky raccoon that had been reeking havoc in the familys yard. That is why he bought the crossbow. And that is why, on the night before the killings, he was at the Brendels home.
It was raining that Thursday night, sprinkling down in a bone chilling drizzle, when he stationed himself near the Brendels garage as he waited for the raccoon to appear, Hightower told the jury. When it finally did, he killed it with a single arrow, leaving its body lying outside the garage door. But when investigators arrived at the home to check on the family, no dead raccoon was ever found.
Hightower said after he killed the raccoon, he talked to Brendel about his pending divorce. The patent attorney was sympathetic, Hightower testified, and offered to let him spend the night. It was while he was at the home the next day, he claimed, that he met the four men responsible for the familys murder.
The men, two Chinese and two Hispanics, seemed amiable at first, Hightower said. They appeared to be talking about business with Brendel and even joined in at family meals.
But then things turned ominous.
He said he noticed the men searching through files in the familys garage and basement, apparently looking for something of value. Brendel appeared anxious and irritated.
When it was time for Emily to return home from school that Friday afternoon, Hightower said the men ordered him to pick up the girl and take her home. He complied.
When Hightower told one of the men Brendel had agreed to pay the outstanding rent on his office, the man told him to forge Brendels name on a $2,700 check, which Hightower then cashed at his bank later the same day. The check, which cleaned out the Brendels savings account, would end the brokers pending eviction.
When he returned to the Brendels home after making the rent payment, the men were still there but this time it appeared they were more agitated, Hightower testified. This time, they ordered him to purchase two gas cans, which he was to use to remove the residuals still left in the garage. When asked what those residuals were, Hightower replied heroin.
The story had taken yet another bizarre twist.
Mr. Brendel told me that he was receiving shipments of heroin, Hightower testified. It was being brought into the country via wine casings, bottles. They thought they had an extremely good method of bringing it in and that the bottles were filled, dipped in the (muriatic) acid and then in liquid paraffin to remove any residuals to eliminate the ability of dogs to pick up the scent.
Relatives of the murdered family gasped in horror at the testimony. They were outraged that after all he had done, Hightower now had the audacity to accuse the dead man of dealing heroin.
As the twisted tale continued to pour from his lips, Hightower stood transfixed, describing in detail how the men later handcuffed him and took him into the garage, which by now was covered in Brendels blood.
They wanted to know where the money was, Hightower said, weeping at times as he recalled the horrific scene. Mr. Brendel wouldnt tell them ... so they brought Emily out. They brought Alice out to the garage.
Hightower said the men strangled Alice with a scarf in front of her injured husband, who was still unwilling to give up the moneys location.
Then they strangled Emily.
His testimony strongly contradicted a medical examiners report which showed that Emily had been heavily sedated at the time of her death and quite possibly died from suffocation from being buried alive.
After seeing his wife and daughter murdered, it was Brendels turn. The men then used the crossbow to kill the patent lawyer, Hightower said.
Following the murders, Hightower said the men told him to drive to the home of Brendels sister and relay the ransom demand. He acquiesced, he said, because he feared for the lives of his wife and children.
Why didnt he contact the police after witnessing the murders?
Hightowers defense lawyer asked.
I was being followed, the witness said.
Why the four men didnt kill the only witness who could identify them is anyones guess but Hightower had his own explanation. He had become too valuable to them, the men told him, although the extent of that value could hardly be explained.
Perhaps as a reward for his unfailing obedience, the men left him Brendels letter withdrawing the CFTC complaint.
When asked by the prosecutor why the men would allow him to mail the letters and cash checks forged against Brendels account, Hightower had a simple explanation.
The exoneration of me through the letter, continuing to set me up, continuing with the scheme, Hightower testified. He was being framed, he said, to take the fall for the killings.
Hightower had an explanation for everything but the charm he had exuded to scam investors was not working in the courtroom.
One day after the case went to the jury, Hightower was convicted of the murders.