July Twentieth, 2001
Outside, the sun was still up in Panaca, a small town in Lincoln County, and folks started to peek out toward the Lobato house on Calloway street. Inside, the police began their interview with Blaise by asking her if she had a distinct car. (She did: a 1984 red Pontiac Fiero with a license plate that screamed: 4NIK8R.) Blaise, by reflex, said: "Somebody borrowed my car." Then one of the detectives, Thomas Thowsen, a short, amiable and soft-spoken man with nearly a quarter-century of police work to his name. He said: "I know you've been hurt in the past," and everyone in the room—Blaise, Thowsen, and his partner, detective Jim LaRochelle—knew what he meant, for it was in police records that Blaise had been raped by her mother's boyfriend, with her mother's consent, when she was a little girl, just 6 years old, and even to this day the mere mention of it reddens her eyes and breaks down the dam before her heart that she has built and rebuilt innumerable times since that cataclysmic age. The tactic worked. There, in her living room, she bowed her head, sobbed, and stated: I didn't think anyone would miss somebody like that.
It was a critical statement. Detective Thowsen didn't hesitate to provide Blaise her Miranda rights, which she waived without second thought, and at that time they all sat down and got to talking.
Detective Thowsen believed he was now getting somewhere. The case had been stagnant for the past 11 days. He knew for sure he and his partner had a murder on their hands, and not just a brutal one at that, but one distinct from the hundreds of other killings he had investigated in Las Vegas during his nine and a half years in the homicide department; for the victim, besides having had his anus sliced into, had had his penis cut off in whole, and with the exception of the infamous John Wayne Bobbitt saga, neither detective Thowsen nor any of his colleagues had ever heard of such an occurrence. It was so extraordinary, in fact, that five years after encountering the victim's dead and dismembered body, while testifying against Blaise Lobato last week, detective Thowsen would remember that crime scene with clarity, as if it were a succession of gruesome pictures suspended in time within his head.
It was just after midnight on July 9, 2001, and he had been summoned to the northeast end of the parking lot behind the Nevada State Bank on 4240 W. Flamingo Road, across from the Palms Hotel and Casino. Yellow tape had already sequestered the crime scene—a trashbin enclosure 10 feet wide by 14 feet deep, and six feet tall—and everything had been preserved just the way it had been discovered an hour and half earlier.
The unsecured gates were parted open, and the green Dumpster inside had been cocked to the front, so as to forbid easy sight or entrance into the back of the enclosure. Behind the Dumpster, bloody footprints imprinted on the cement floor headed out, but stopped abruptly at the gate-line. In the back left (southwest) corner, there was a swamp of dark blood, and then blood spatter on the block walls, and blood smear on the enclosure's interior curbing. And in between there was the beaten and butchered body of a dead black man, buried in a grave of trash.
At the instruction of detective LaRochelle, crime scene analysts (CSA's) removed very certain items from the scene and impounded them as evidence. They removed debris piecemeal from the victim's body, including a sheet of cardboard with a bloody footprint salvaged in its entirety, and a clear plastic bag wrapped around his groin region, with white towels underneath. In this way, the CSA's and detectives came to see that the man's pants were down below his knees, and that his penis had been sliced off at the base. It would be recovered, alongside six of his teeth, near the Dumpster.
Several days later, the victim would be identified as Duran Bailey, a black male, 44 years old.
Also at the crime scene were some of the man's personal belongings: a gold chain, a pick, cigarettes, explicit adult magazines, a cardboard box on which detectives think Bailey would have slept, and a piece of chewed gum that tests would later prove to have two sources of DNA on it, one of which was the victim's.
What was not found at the scene, however, might have been of greater importance. There was no weapon, no witnesses, and in all certainty no leads to the man, woman or individuals who had perpetrated this godforsaken act.
This is the crime detective Thowsen had pulsating in his mind when he and detective LaRochelle drove up to Panaca, 165 miles northeast of Las Vegas, to speak with Kirstin Blaise Lobato. Out of the blue they had received a call six hours earlier from Laura Johnson, a juvenile probation officer in Lincoln County. Laura had heard from a friend, Dixie Tienken, a teacher in Panaca who mentored Blaise Lobato and whom Blaise took into confidence for many things, that Blaise had just been in an alarming altercation in Las Vegas. Laura heard from Dixie that Blaise cut off a man's penis. And so the probation officer called a sergeant from the Lincoln County Sheriff's Office, who confirmed that there had been an incident just like that in Las Vegas, and who directed Laura to call detective Thowsen at Metro's homicide department.
Before seeing Blaise, detectives Thowsen and Rochelle would visit Laura and take down her recorded statement. Before they left to the Lincoln County Sheriff's Office to obtain an escort to the Lobato household, Laura warned them to not yet speak with Dixie, for she was sure the teacher would tip off Blaise. Yet, it didn't matter, for as soon as Ashley invited the detectives in, and Blaise herself came down, waived her Miranda rights, and submitted to all the detectives' requests, it was clear that Blaise would not be a problem. In fact, before it was all over she would consent to photographs, buccal swabs, a seizure of her shoes, the inspecting of her room, and the searching and towing of her car.
Five years later—on October 4, 2006, to be exact—detective Thowsen told me that Blaise's consensual nature during that initial encounter (as well as from then on) was not a sign of her having nothing to hide, but rather, a simple matter of the suspect quite willing to match detectives even. It's something he sees all the time. If detectives ask the suspect for one thing, the suspect will give one, but no more. If the detectives demonstrate that they know this, the suspect will tell them that, but no more. "It's what we call minimizing—a common practice among suspects guilty of the crime they're being interviewed for," detective Thowsen says.
In any event, after the detectives got Blaise to sit down with them, outside the presence of her father and stepmother, both of whom were working, the entire tale of Kirstin Blaise Lobato, sad and incredible, turned into a drama that would unfold over the next five years and lead to a conviction, a reversal, and a climatic day in court on October 6, 2006, during Blaise's retrial for the murder of Duran Bailey.
According to their arrest report, detectives Thowsen and LaRochelle placed Blaise under arrest for the murder of Duran Bailey at 6:33 p.m. Blaise's stepmother, Rebecca Lobato—or, Becky, as everyone knows her—had arrived home minutes earlier, and she says the sight of her daughter in handcuffs made her nauseas. She would have puked had not Blaise asked the detectives if she could speak to her stepmother. Mom, Blaise said, crying, I did it, and now I have to do what I have to do. Then Blaise's father, Lorenzo Lobato—or just Larry—came home, and he requested that he be able to kiss his daughter goodbye. The detectives acquiesced; and as she hugged her father, Blaise told him, overrunning with tears: I'm sorry, daddy; told you I did something awful.
In one way, Larry felt a sense of assurance when she told him that. For even though he was beside himself with helplessness—a feeling tantamount to perdition for a father, above all that of a daddy's girl like Blaise—Larry says he believed everything would run its course and his girl would soon return home. Because, he says, she had already told him an entire month before what she had done in Las Vegas on Memorial Day weekend. That is, in May 2001. In other words, an entirely different incident than the one the detectives were there to investigate.
"She told me in June how someone tried to attack her, but that she defended herself with a knife (yeah, the one I bought for her), and then ran off," says Larry, speaking to me at Blaise's retrial five years later, still inflamed by that sense of helplessness. "I always taught my daughters that: you debilitate, and then you run. And so, yeah, I was proud of her. But I had to ask her: Did you kill him?'
"She didn't answer me," Larry continues. "So when she was arrested, there was chaos and some confusion, but I thought I'd hand my daughter over to the justice system and everything would turn out all right."
During her taped statement with detective Thowsen, which had started at 6:07 p.m. and which would result in her arrest for the murder of Duran Bailey before it concluded at 6:33 p.m., Blaise too spoke of an event that took place much before July 8, 2001, the day Duran Bailey's life came to an end.
In that taped statement, Blaise, with her rural white girl's voice drowning in tears, says that it was late when the incident occurred, that it was dark, and that she was coming home from a night out; and she says she was attacked in a parking lot by a man who bum rushed me and knocked me on the ground and hiked up my skirt and said shut up, bitch and slapped my face, and who was old and black and who was a giant towering over me with his penis out, and who smelled like alcohol and dirty diapers; then she says how she pulled out a knife—a butterfly knife with a blue handle which she retrieved from her skirt's back pocket, and which, she would later tell detectives, she had received the previous Christmas from her father, Larry, who had taught her to be dexterous and proficient with it; and she says how she grabbed for whatever I could and cut him, doesn't know what she got, but when she lifted herself he was on the ground crying, and she talks about jetting out of there because I was worried he was gonna see my car and ... and ... and.
And she's crying throughout much of this, telling it to the detectives. The pitch in her voice vacillates, and at times she is unintelligible with emotion. The Lobato dog is persistent in the background. Blaise tells Thowsen how she was up for three straight days on a meth binge, out of her mind. I really don't remember. I just remember like bits and pieces. Like it flashes in and out of stuff. And then Blaise says: I'm gonna throw up. And one of the detectives says: "I know this is hard for you." You don't know how hard it is, Blaise says, finally. You don't know how hard it is to know that you've hurt somebody and you don't even remember it.
Then she says she drove away—stripping off her bloody clothes and driving naked—and then she says she went to the nearby house of her ex-boyfriend, Jeremy Davis, who detectives would later learn lives near Boulder Highway and Flamingo Road and does corroborate the fact that Blaise left her car at his place around Memorial Day, while he was away. She says how she grabbed clothes from her luggage inside her car and changed at Jeremy's, then ran off to a nearby church on Harmon.
And then, moreover, she describes it happening at the Budget Suites, by Sam's Town, where the fountains are. And she says that you could see where it took place if you're looking from Boulder Highway, like from where the shopping center is across the street.
The interesting thing is that never in that statement does Blaise mention West Flamingo, or Nevada State Bank, or any place near there. Nor does she describe any enclosure, or inflicting any injuries to the man other than a single knife wound to the groin area. In fact, only after being led with questions by the detectives does she insert doubt into her own statement. They began the recorded interview asking if she's explaining what happened a couple weeks ago in Las Vegas, and she, still sobbing from the Thowsen's statement—"I know you've been hurt in the past"—says uh-huh. They ask if she could be mistaking the place this happened at and she is forthright: It's possible. I was on a three-day meth binge, I was out of my mind. They ask if she remembers using any other instrument on the man, and she says No, but it's poss—I have a baseball bat that I keep behind my seat, or I had a bat. Then they ask about a Dumpster, and with the drawn-out speech and inquisitive tone of someone not certain where a question is coming from, she says, uh, there was one not far from where it happened—but I don't remember putting him in it or anything. I don't think there's any way I could have.
Later, detective Thowsen would explain it to the jury in Blaise's retrial for the murder of Duran Bailey in terms of minimizing and jumbling events; the former due to her guilt, the latter to methamphetamines. In fact, the district attorneys trying her case—the same man and woman who convinced a jury of her guilt in the first trial—would explain away many of the holes, contradictions, and ambiguities (that is, the reasonable doubt) in the state's theory that Blaise killed Duran Bailey by reverting back to her inordinate use of meth. "They were talking about the same person," the DA would later state. "Just look at what happened when police showed her his picture."
Detective Thowsen had presented Blaise a mug shot of Duran Bailey while at her house in Panaca. She, already distraught, glanced at it, turned away, cried again, and said: I can't identify him. I've put him out of my mind.
But at the end of her statement, just before the tape recorder clicks off, Blaise says to the detectives: Yeah, this was over a month ago. The detectives, who were there to interview her in respect to Bailey's July 8 murder, did not follow up on the comment; and the truth is, at no point during their visit to the Lobato household did they make mention of July 8 to anybody. Detective Thowsen would later say he knew Blaise's father was on his way home, and so he was hurrying the interview in fear of an altercation with Larry Lobato, who detectives noted had martial arts weapons hanging from his house's hallway wall had a well-earned reputation in Lincoln for being a hothead.
At any rate, on the precipice of another heartrending sunset in Panaca, when folks would begin with their whispers and murmurs about what happened at the Lobato household, detectives Thowsen and LaRochelle drove Blaise back to Las Vegas, where she would be booked into the Clark County Detention Center without the possibility of bail.
October Fifth, 2006
Blaise, 23 years old, sat between two of her defense counsel, Shari Greenburger and Sarah Zalkin, attorneys from San Francisco working pro bono, and Special Public Defender David Schieck sat rubbing his eyes, the temple tip of his eyeglasses in his mouth, at the end of the table. It was a constant image from room 16B at the Las Vegas Regional Justice Center for the past four weeks.
This was Blaise's second time in District Court Judge Valerie Vega's courtroom in the past 52 months, facing charges by the state of Nevada of first-degree murder, and sexual penetration of the dead. And this was her second time facing the possibility of life in prison. With the exceptions of her new defensive team, it was all like an exact repeat of the first trial. The same bailiff was there, as was the same recorder; the same district attorneys were there, just as uptight and robust as ever, and even the same witnesses, save for a handful who came on Blaise's behalf, had come to testify to much of the same basic information.
Her story was the same, too. Blaise, who has passed lie detector tests, says she did indeed cut a black man's penis, but that it was on Memorial Day of 2001, and that she never knew a Duran Bailey or Nevada State Bank parking lot until after she was accused of killing that man there. Which is the unwavering story the defense had presented when it just now rested its case.
"I was so nervous, with everything coming to an end," said Blaise. "But my attorneys said they were confident with our case."
Yet, two critical things had hurt the defense during its case in chief. Their revelatory witnesses, experts in forensic medicine and crime investigation analysis from out of state, came off on the stand as overly subjective. They seemed indignant toward the prosecutors, they appeared to come with the intention of tearing down everything Metro and the Clark County medical examiner had done, and in the end the two witnesses, though academic and articulate, lost much of their credibility due to apparent bias. In turn, the defense looked desperate. The second was Blaise not taking the stand. Her counsel had advised her against it, in fear that Blaise's irrepressible emotions would hurt her case if and when prosecutor William Kephart provoked them. One of her friends later told me: "Blaise wanted nothing more than to tell her story—in her words—but she was scared shitless of Kephart. She didn't want him to attack her, manipulate her words and use her past against her."
Having been raped at the age of 6, again at 13, and then again violated at 17, when her best friend's father forced himself inside of her, Blaise is in fact a girl with vulnerable emotions, and Kephart had used that to his advantage during Blaise's first trial, when she took the stand in her own defense. This time around, however, Blaise retained her fifth amendment right; and when the jury heard Schieck say "The defense rests" without having heard Blaise on stand, half of them, sitting right in front of me, looked her way and stared.
"I had questioned putting her on the stand in the first trial," says Phil Kohn, who led Blaise's defense in May of 2002, her first trial for Bailey's murder. "But juries want to hear defendants. They need to hear them tell their own tales."
In any event, it was time for closing arguments, in which the lawyers would summarize their cases and draw their conclusions.
Because the state shoulders the burden of proof, the DA gets to offer the first and last closing arguments, and today Sandy Digiacomo, a stern woman with thin red lips, rainforest eyes and blond hair, began by posing the jurors a challenge. This case is like a large puzzle, Digiacomo said, a complicated puzzle with hundreds of pieces, some of which don't even belong, and it is up to you to put everything together to form the true picture of what happened to Duran Bailey. Which the state submits to you is this:
Blaise was craving drugs on July 8, 2001. We know she needs them because of the testimony of her ex-boyfriend Jeremy, who said she chose meth over him, and who also said that she knew where to get drugs in Las Vegas. She even told police herself I know where to get drugs in Las Vegas. So somehow she gets in contact with Duran Bailey to hook up for drugs. And somehow they get back to his place, where he doesn't want money for drugs, but sex. He drops his pants. But the defendant isn't going to have anything to do with this smelly old guy. So what does she do? She acts like she's going to give him fellatio, and then BOOM: the first stab wound. It's to his scrotum. He cups himself, like any guy would do. She starts stabbing him again, and he's trying to protect himself—one hand cupping his genitals, one hand protecting his head—and that's why he has defensive wounds on his hands.
Now, think about it: she tells Dixie and the police that he was lying on the ground crying after she tried to cut his dick. So she somehow goes back to her car to get a bat. She comes back. And that's when the blunt force trauma occurred. She hits him with the bat, kicks him, punches him in the mouth, knocks him down—we know from witness testimony that she's knocked down a guy six-six with a punch before ("Objection, Your Honor, there was no evidence the guy was six-six," said Schieck. "Sustained,' said Judge Vega). We know that she can knock over a guy that's six-six from a punch. He hits his head against the ground and Dr. Simms told you that that could render him unconscious. So now he's down and out and it's very easy for her to go for the calculated stab wound to the carotid artery. He bleeds out, and Dr. Simms said it would only be a matter of minutes before he expires. Then is she done? No. She stabs him a couple more times in the abdomen, to make sure he's dead. At that point, she takes a knife and rips through that rectal region. Then she pulls up that penis and amputates it at the base.
Then she drags him along the ground toward the Dumpster, but she doesn't think she could have put him in it, so she just puts trash on him. Then what does she do? She hightails it back to Panaca.
She tells Dixie 10 days later that she was only worried somebody saw her car. Because think about it: her license plate is something out of the normal. That's why she tells Dixie her parents are going to sell it, or hide it, or paint it.
Now, two days later she tells detectives, I committed it, I did this—but it was in a different area of town. But it's very possible that she was just jumbling her stories. Jumbling between the time she left her car at Jeremy's on Memorial Day 2001 and the time she killed Duran Bailey, on July 8, 2001. Think about it: She does meth.
She's feeling depressed and anxious on the 13th, because her conscience is getting to her, just like she told Michelle Austria. That's why she got Prozac on the 16th.
She didn't stab somebody in May, like she says. Think about it: unless she had reason to believe it had just happened, Dixie wouldn't have checked the recent Las Vegas papers when the defendant went to confide in her on July 18.
Digiacomo was correct in her closing argument when she said Dixie was the starting point of this entire case. For Blaise had arrived at Dixie's house, in Panaca, on the morning of July 18, 2001, anxious to talk about several issues in her life. The first was her being attacked in Las Vegas. Blaise was scared, and the urgency with which she spoke about the event, and about having to cut the man's groin area in defense, led Dixie to start her own miniature investigation. A teacher of many years, Dixie checked the Review-Journal's recent online editions. Then—without having been told the date, or the status of the attacker—she recounted her version of Blaise's altercation in Las Vegas to a juvenile probation officer at the Lincoln County jail, where Dixie teaches summer GED courses. That woman, Laura Johnson, called detective Thowsen on July 20, to ask about the one element of Dixie's tale she remembered best: a severed penis. In this way, the prosecution of Kirstin Blaise Lobato began on third-hand knowledge.
Having read every word from the first trial's 25 pounds of transcripts, twice, I immediately recognized that Digiacomo had recycled the puzzle analogy from the closing arguments of that May 2002 trial. "The only problem with that," says Gloria Navarro, co-counsel for Blaise in the first trial, "is they're working with pieces that don't fit. So they crunch them, cut off the ends, and force them together into something that just doesn't make any sense." And then Navarro substantiates:
"There's irrefutable evidence Blaise was in Panaca on July 5: there's a doctor's note. Her mother took off work on the sixth to nurse her—the books at her work show it. And phone records prove Doug Twining picked her up from her home in Panaca on the late night of the eighth, early morning of the ninth. So Digiacomo says: Well, then, she took off on the night of the sixth, went on a three-day meth binge, killed Bailey in the morning of the eighth, then booked it back to Panaca before noon, when a neighbor saw her four-wheeling."
The state has not proved anything! he said. And they can't. Because Blaise wasn't there. And that's why there are no witnesses to tie her to the Nevada State Bank Parking lot, and absolutely no physical evidence that ties her to the scene, or to Duran Bailey.
It's not that there wasn't evidence at the scene and on Bailey's body, Schieck said. Because there was. And a lot of it. There were tire impressions taken near the enclosure; there were fingerprints lifted from the Dumpster and from the trash on top of Bailey's body; there was a piece of chewed gum with two sources of DNA on it (one of which was Bailey's); there were cigarette butts; there were blood swabs sampled from the area; there were bloody footprints heading out the enclosure and even one left in full on a piece of cardboard over Bailey's body; and there was a foreign piece of hair in Bailey's pubic region—and not one piece of that evidence incriminated my client, Schieck said. In fact, just the opposite: They all excluded Kirstin Blaise Lobato as a potential source of any of it.
Moreover, Schieck said, the reported injuries to Bailey's body are inconsistent with the theory that Blaise was the perpetrator. (According to Dr. Larry Simms, the Clark County chief medical examiner, Bailey, while alive, suffered a skull fracture to the back of his head; a slash wound four and half inches long to the back of the neck; multiple abrasions and contusions to the left side of his face, as well as the right; a stab wound on the right side of his forehead; a stab wound to the front right side of his neck, which penetrated the carotid artery; a stab wound on the chin; incised wounds above both eyes; multiple lacerations to the lips; multiple fractures of the jaw; multiple teeth missing; slash wounds to the left side of his chest; slash wounds to the lower extremities of both arms, otherwise known as defensive wounds; abrasions on the left shoulder; and four stab wounds to the lower right rib cage. While dead, he had been stabbed multiple times in the abdomen, slashed at least three inches deep across the anus, all the way to the scrotum, and Duran Bailey had had his penis cut off at the base.
It was one of the most brutal cases in which he recorded the manner of death as homicide, Dr. Simms had said during testimony. And it was his first time encountering an amputated penis.)
Schieck said: Even Dr. Simms, the state's medical examiner, said that in his experience, in his research, and in the literature, these types of altercations are always perpetrated by males, and have some sort of homosexual undertones.
Furhtermore, Schieck reminded the jurors, Dr. Simms said it was unlikely a bat was used, as the detectives and DA had theorized in the beginning. There were no indentation marks consistent with the strike of a bat on the back of his head, where the skull fracture was; nor were there skeletal signs in Duran's face or jaw that a bat had been commissioned in the crime. Plus, blood tests on the bat in Blaise's car turned up negative.
Dr. Simms had said Bailey's organs were pale from massive exsanguinity, he lost 40 percent of his blood weight, and it's highly probable the perpetrator was doused in his blood. Yet, experts could not confirm any remnants of blood in Blaise's red Pontiac Fiero.
Dr. Simms placed the time of death between 3:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. on July 8. Schieck told the jury that no one could put Blaise at the scene, not at the time of Duran Bailey's death nor any other time. But again, just the opposite: 13 witnesses had testified to seeing Blaise in Panaca on the week of July 2 to July 9, and 10 of them said they saw either her or her red Pontiac Fiero in Panaca on July 8. Blaise's sister said she slept with Blaise every night of that week. The special public defender recapitulated the lack of evidence, and he epitomized his point with an accusatory finger toward the state: "They wrongfully arrested Blaise Lobato with bad police work, and then they tried to justify it after the fact. And they're still trying to justify it today!"
I, present every day of Blaise's second trial, had noted in my reporter's notebook that a very stealthy and precarious shift had appeared to occur over the duration of the trial. The responsibility of proof incumbent upon the state seemed to have been transferred to the defense's shoulders, as evidenced by the continual language used by the district attorneys: "Is it possible ..."; "Unlikely, okay, but could it still be ..."; "Somehow ..."; "Maybe ..."; "Perhaps ..." That is, words and phrases typical of defense lawyers trying to squeeze reasonable doubt into the state's tight arguments. When I spoke to Phil Kohn about this, he said that that had been his biggest gripe in regard to the first trial. "My frustration was astronomic," he told me. "The geniuses who created our constitution understood that you can't defend yourself against infinite possibilities."
After the recess that followed both the Digiacomo's's and Schieck's closing arguments, no juror met Blaise's eyes on the way in. In actuality, they all averted them. No doubt it was an evil omen that Blaise detected, for, as Gloria Navarro told me, "Jurors don't want to look at someone they're about to convict." That was before the formidable William Kephart was to present the final words on the case.
He did it with masterful flair. He was gesticulate, his voice hit the high pitch of personal conviction, and he commanded engagement. During the trial he—Bill, a tall white man with an enormous presence, ruby cheeks, eyes blue like the American flag, and the hairstyle of a gameshow host—had been like a caged rottweiler. When he sat he couldn't remain still, shaking his head at unfavorable testimony, breathing hot and heavy when the state's witnesses would turn on them (and many did), tapping his foot when the a witness was in the defense's hands, just waiting to be unleashed. And when a witness like Ashley Lobato took the stand, just 19 years old, he licked his chops. No mistake: licked his chops. He is sly, he is tenacious, he is pitiless, and there is good reason court insiders say he is one of those deputy chiefs on the way up: he is a damn good trial attorney.
He told the jurors they would never forget this trial for one key reason: It involved a slashed penis. Something so rare and extraordinary that two people losing their penises to a knife in Las Vegas, as the defendant would have you believe, was too implausible to even consider. (Detective Thowsen would tell me the same thing, after he testified: "I've investigated hundreds of cases and this one sticks out for that reason. It just doesn't happen that often.") Kephart told them Blaise, a meth addict, had gone too many days without her fix, back in early July, 2001. Negative test at the doctor's on July 5 in Panaca proves it, he says. And the fact that one of the witnesses saw her fighting with her mom on the 6th means only one thing: She was heading back to Las Vegas. She gets there, goes three days without sleep on meth, then takes out all her rage against men on Duran Bailey. Yeah, Kephart said, she's been molested and raped in the past—but "you don't use sympathy in court; your decisions cannot be based on sympathy"—and she was never going to let that happen again. So she took it out on Duran Bailey. She could have stopped, but she goes back, gets her bat, and does this to him, Kephart said, putting a picture of Bailey's beaten body on the presentation screen. (In total, the prosecution would present the jury with more than 140 photos of Duran Bailey and the crime scene, and they let most of them linger before the jurors.) She hightails it back to Panaca to hide her car—that's what she told Dixie—and then she goes back with Doug to Las Vegas, to, what were his words: to lie low?
There's no one to corroborate her being in Panaca. Did you notice how all those alibis are family members, with the exception of Chris Carrington, and what did his own grandmother come up here and call him: a lamebrain. Ashley Lobato didn't see her those days. She says, Yeah, I know I saw her on the second, third, fourth, fifth, and the eighth, and I can't say I didn't see her on the sixth and seventh, because I was in and out all day. C'mon, do you believe that? The court says you have to judge the credibility of a witness by their testimony and their relation to the defendant. That you can dismiss their testimony—or parts of their testimony if you wish—if you don't find them credible.
And, Kephart said, as relentless as ever, we know all these alibis had spoken to the defendant's mother, Becky Lobato. He whipped his finger toward the seat in the audience she earlier occupied, before she and her husband realized they couldn't bear it any longer, just minutes into Digiacomo's closing.
This is a brutal murder we're talking about, Kephart said, and this girl you see at the defendant's table, dressed real nice, is not the same girl who committed this crime. Kephart pulled out a blown up picture of Blaise with her mug shot photos from July 20, 2001. This is the girl, he said. She was a meth addict.
The defense says we haven't proven anything. Listen: we have to work with what we get, and then present it to you. And the court instructs you to put just as much weight on circumstantial evidence as physical evidence. I think the state has very much proven its case. I know the state has proven its case.
And then, while turning back to his seat in ostentatious disgust, Kephart threw the jury a well-played card: "You know what, if you don't think we've proven our case, then vote her not-guilty."
After the trial was finished, and the verdict had been rendered, Kephart would tell me that he had been upset from the beginning that this case had to be retried in the first place.
September Third, 2004
The Supreme Court sent the case back to Vega's court, reasoning that she had erred in the first trial by precluding the defense from fully impeaching a state's witness. "The error," the justices said, "was not harmless, but it was reversible."
Korinda Martin was the one. Phil Kohn considered her a critical witness—the DA's star witness, in fact—because her testimony was the only link between Blaise and the crime scene. Korinda, a prisonmate of Blaises', came onto the stand during Kirstin's May 2002 trial and, with a saccharine face, said:
Blaise did it. She brags about it. She said Darren was her drug dealer and that he tried to get a piece of ass from her, and she wasn't going to have it, and so she cut his dick off, stuffed it in his mouth, and cut his asshole. She said, Yeah, it might have been a bit of an overkill, but he deserved it. (It turned out that no one could corroborate Korinda's claims, for Blaise had in fact been utterly reticent about her case in jail, and Korinda knew specifics only because she overheard a phone conversation between Blaise and Kohn.)
In cross-examination, Kohn made mention of the numerous attempts Korinda had previously made to get out of jail, and about one specific attempt he asked her point blank: did you write these letters. She looked him dead in the eye and said: No. Within a week Kohn proved through handwriting experts that she had indeed perjured herself, but the court said it was extrinsic evidence that could not be held against her credibility. And further: after the DA won the case, they failed to pursue charges against Korinda Martin.
But even with Korinda's dishonest testimony, Kohn and his co-counsel, Gloria Navarro, believed they had put on a great case for a girl whom they not only believe in, without a shadow of a doubt, but also adore with all their hearts.
Just about everything Blaise has, she received from her father on December 14, 1982, when she was born a Sagittarius in Los Cruces, New Mexico. It was Larry who had given Blaise her last name; who, possessed with nostalgia for one of his old sweethearts, named his only daughter Kirstin and who then anointed her with the middle name Blaise, after a hip character he saw in the ephemeral television show "I Spy." Larry also gave her his German and Dutch blood, his hot-blooded temperament, and the irrevocable sense of pride required to stand up for one's self and one's family at all costs.
He moved her to Las Vegas when she was two, and he gave her his unconditional fatherly protection for the next three years, until Blaise made the sovereign choice to move across town and live with her biological mother, a woman with Native American blood who'd been many years divorced from Blaise's father. It was a tragic decision. For in that house her mother permitted a man to molest Blaise over and over again for an entire year, and by the time Blaise's dad rescued her from that hellhole in 1989, she had been forever sullied.
Larry then gave her a new family—his wife Becky, and her daughter, Ashley—and then he would move them all to the tranquil town of Panaca when Blaise was 9. He believed Las Vegas was growing too fast and too wild to raise his daughters there, and for him, a man susceptible to drugs, it had become too easy to obtain the seeds of his own destruction. It was the same reason an 18-year-old Blaise would return from her escapade in Las Vegas to Panaca on July 2, 2001, six days before Duran Bailey was found dead beside a Dumpster off of West Flamingo Road.
Yet, according to several sources, Larry was the one who introduced Blaise to the world of drugs. She was 13 when she encountered meth, and from then on she would rely on it as a means to suppress the melancholy and suicidal thoughts that have shadowed her like death since she was just a little girl.
She grew up and learned to secure those drugs on her own in Las Vegas, Blaise has said. There was nothing but naiveté in Panaca, the dead-end town where the high school's senior class is never larger than 40 kids. As soon as she could, Blaise left. In 2000, she graduated from an adult education school, where Dixie Tienken was her teacher and friend, and soon thereafter she took off to Las Vegas. Two years later, when she took the stand in her murder trial, Blaise's lawyer would ask her: "What were you doing in Las Vegas?" She replied: "Trying to make a life." But she only ran into drugs. And like anyone who succumbs to the illusionary seductions of methamphetamines, Blaise became a different girl when she was on them.
Jeremy left her on account of the drugs. Her sister Ashley felt forsaken by Blaise. Her parents, who themselves were in a lifelong battle to abstain from drugs, couldn't control her.She was lost.
One month later, facing charges of first-degree murder and sexual penetration of the dead, and still just an apparition of herself, she met Phil Kohn and Gloria Navarro, who would feed her hope one spoonful at a time.
It hadn't taken him long to notice all the contradictions in the state's case against Blaise. And he would bring them up in court, too, when he had a chance.
In witness testimony he brought out that Steve Pyszkowski, a state's witness, had told police officers that their timeline was way off, because she had told him she did something like that back in June. Kohn brought out that Heather McBride, a state's witness, had heard the same thing from Blaise, whom she didn't even like, prior to the July 4th barbeque at the Lobato house that year. And he got it out of the mouth of Michelle Austria, too, who said she had seen Blaise on the eighth, and Blaise had told her before then that she'd cut a man's penis in Las Vegas.
Kohn then raised begging questions before the jurors: If in her taped statement, and before these witnesses, Blaise said she cut a man's penis while he attacked her, and that he was still alive when she got up, why is she connected to Duran Bailey, whom Dr. Simms said suffered a post-mortem amputation? And if Blaise only speaks of, in her attack, a single injury caused by a single weapon, why is she connected to Duran Bailey, who was beaten, butchered and bludgeoned?
When he had Thowsen on the stand, Kohn asked the detective about the taped interview on July 20, in Panaca:
Kohn: "Don't you have some inkling that you're talking about one place and she's talking about another?"
Kohn: "So her talking about the fountains does not make you believe she's talking about another place?"
And later, Kohn: "She says, Yeah, this happened over a month ago. You just stop the tape at that point. Do you ever say to her, Wait a second, where were you on July 8?' Do you ever do that?"
Kohn: "Detective, in your investigation did you find any evidence or know of anyone finding evidence at the scene that tied Blaise Lobato to the scene where Duran Bailey was killed."
The detective brought up an incriminating incident that he did not include in his initial report, but only after it was time to submit the case to the DA. Blaise, standing inside the CCDC holding cell, with its cement floors and block walls, and curb-like stripe along the intersection of the two, said: This looks similar to the area it happened at. But you could see an awning over you.
To which Kohn asked why they didn't investigate the Budget Suites, where there was a cave with block walls and a cement floor right near the place Blaise said she had been attacked at. Thowsen said there was no need to; they already knew where the crime had happened. The Dumpster enclosure behind the Nevada State Bank with a transparent covering and an awning overhead.
In the end, Kohn says, he found himself trying to prove Blaise's May attack, while the state was the one planting seeds of doubt: "Why aren't there any medical records of a man with a cut penis?" (health privacy laws, says Kohn.) Why aren't there any police reports? ("The last time I reported an assault," Blaise said, speaking of her rape at 13"they basically blew me off) "Why didn't your client tell any authorities? (Blaise: "It's been my experience that it doesn't do me any good.") "Why no incident reports at the Budget Suites? (Blaise: "I tried to scream but there were just a bunch of doped-out looking people walking by and nobody cared.")
Kohn and Navarro had put immeasurable time into Blaise Lobato's first trial. They had gone to Panaca to record the whispers and murmurs in the wind and garner witnesses, and they had put Blaise through rigorous tests to see if her story would waver. It didn't. They had forsaken family, friends, and physical health to defend her. And they came out of it, each has said to me, more convinced than ever of the young woman's innocence.
"A lot of time people ask us [at the Public Defenders Office] why we defend people who are so obviously guilty," says Kohn, head of the Public Defenders Office. "And my answer is Blaise Lobato. My mentor in law once told me that he'd had only three cases in his entire career where he believed with all his heart that his client did not committ the crime. Kirstin is the one for me, and that's what I tell all the new defenders who come in here."
When they wrapped up closing arguments and sent the jurors to deliberate—at 6:45 in the evening—Kohn and Navarro felt good about the case they had presented to the jury. And they had another reason to toast beer that night at the Four Queens Casino downtown, while waiting for the jury's verdict: It was Navarro's birthday.
By midnight the jury had said nothing, and Kohn began to worry. Not that a long deliberation in general was bad news for the defense, but that keeping on into the wee hours of the morning could be used by stronger jurors as a form of coercing. He objected to Judge Vega numerous times, asking that she dismiss the jurors and have them return to deliberations the following morning. Vega overruled. The jury kept on.
And then a note came from the jurors' room stating that they were scared of the defendant's father, Larry Lobato, and asked if the court could provide security. the defense knew they were doomed.
"In that first trial they made me out to be some kind of Al Capone," Larry would tell me four and a half years later. "Ah man, you don't know what that did to me. I imprisoned myself in my yard for an entire year and did noting but tinker with Blaise's car, questioning everything: fate, life, God, the justice system. Me."
It's true that Larry has an intimidating presence—he walks tough, he talks tough, he has the pencil mustache of bad-asses of old; and that's the reason Kohn and Navarro made an effort to keep him away in the first trial—but Larry believes it was plain and simply Kephart who was afraid of him, and that fear in Kephart, who sits next to the jury, became contagious.
"I used to make eye-contact with him, because that's the kind of guy I am, I look people in the eyes," says Larry. "Just like I looked my daughter in the eyes when she was born and I made that promise to her that day that I would protect her no matter what for the rest of my life.
Navarro, recalled the scene of the verdict for me, and this is what she said: "Here we were, on the left side, and here the jury streamed in. None of them made eye contact with us, and that's what confirmed it. I was crushed. Devastated."
The jury condemned Blaise to 100 years , with possibility of parole after 40. "Sometime I wish there was a little trace of doubt in me, as to Blaise's innocence," says Navarro. "Then I could live with a sense of peace. This case still haunts me, even today."
And Kohn: "I've never lost anyone young to death, so I have no problem saying that was the worst day of my life. I couldn't sleep for a month afterward. And I would have quite law if we didn't get the Supreme Court to reverse it."
October Sixth, 2006
Inside the courtroom, the silence was total. The jury had commenced it's deliberations at 6:45 the night before, and if Blaise's family did not suffer the cold shudders of dejavu, it was only because the jury asked to go home at midnight and return this morning at 8:30. It was now 2:45 p.m. It was cold. Blaise and her three counsel were there. Michelle Ravell, with whom Blaise had been living in freedom since the former bailed her out of jail two years earlier, was there. There was Larry and Becky Lobato, from Southern California, where they now reside, many miles away from Panaca's virulent gossip. And Ashley—she of course was there too.
They were all waiting for the jury to enter with the judgment they'd been anticipating to hear since July 20, 2001, when Kirstin Lobato, their Blaise, had been arrested for murder.
Then the jury came in, absolute arbiters of Blaise Lobato's fate, and everyone rose. Blaise, for the first time not in professional attire, sported a pink jumpsuit and a ponytail. They wait had been interminable.
She breathed through an open mouth, and her body shook. She had said the four weeks of trial had fatigued her, in every sense possible, and the fear that another jury would convict her of murder had hounded her since the weeks leading up to the retrial. Jail was a nightmare, she had said. And I'm a sensitive person.
The air conditioner was overzealous.
Everyone standing, the foreman handed the verdict to the bailiff, who handed it to the judge, who viewed and then gave it to the clerk to read out loud. Guilty, the clerk said.
On one count of voluntary manslaughter with a deadly weapon. And on one count of sexual penetration of the dead.
Both the prosecution and the defense thought the jurors, tired, irritable and deadlocked, came to a middle ground with their verdict. Which is strange, I think, because there are no middle rounds in matters of justice. You either think the girl did it or she didn't do it.
Blaise had had the same philosophy, and that's why she had declined to take the DA's plea deals prior to each trial. As she put it: "It's all or it's nothing."
I spoke to William Kephart after the trial, and I said to him: "The defense, I know, invested their hearts into her innocence, and I'm wondering, does the state—did you—do the same thing, but toward her conviction?"
"I know what you're getting at," said Kephart, a longtime Nevadan. "You know, we turn down hundreds of cases at the DA's office, because they contain reasonable doubt. So when we think there's enough evidence, like this case, we feel like we're representing the community. We're not just trying to win, to be legally competent."
Digiacomo said she was a bit disappointed with the manslaughter verdict, and she thinks the jurors gave into sympathy, even though Blaise Lobato isn't the victim. "The rage involved—it was a first-degree murder case,' she said. "But it's done; it's time to put this to rest."
And then Kephart added: "Anyway, I think we proved to the Supreme Court that we didn't need our "star witness" to get a guilty verdict."
Blaise's friends and family streamed out of the courtroom in tears, and there in the hallway—cold, crowded and funereal—Larry Lobato held his inconsolable wife, himself vanquished by grief, and said, to no one in particular and to everyone in general:
"We've fought and we lost twice. How?"
Before I left the regional justice center, my heart heavy, David Schieck told me the story of Kirstin Lobato is not over. He said there are still many more opportunities for litigation to exhaust.
"And perhaps new DNA evidence will surface, telling us who really killed Duran Bailey," he said.