Monday, May 10, 2010

My Kind of Prosecutor

by Diane Fanning

How do you decide which true crime book to read?  There are a number of reasons I make those decisions.  Sometimes, I am familiar with the case and want to know more.  Other times, it is because of an author whose work I respect and enjoy reading.  And then, there are times, I must admit, when I judge the book by its cover.

But recently, I found a whole new reason to select a particular true crime book.  I ended up holding Afraid of the Dark, by Tom Henderson, in my hand for a much more personal reason.  I don't know Tom, and I'd never read one of his books.

It started in my doctor's office.  During this follow-up visit, my doctor, Ronald Cohle, asked about my latest books and what I had in the works.  Then, to my amazement, he revealed something he'd never mentioned in the last sixteen years: his brother, Stephen Cohle (below right), is a medical examiner in Michigan.  He also said that Stephen had recently been on television and mentioned in a book.  He couldn't, however, remember which television show or the title or author of the book.

It didn't take long, though, for me to track down Afraid of the Dark, a true crime book about Florence and Mark Unger (above left).  When Henderson described the boathouse where Florence died, it sounded familiar.  I flipped to the photo section and there it was.  It all rushed into focus -- I remembered learning about that case on Dateline NBC.  Now, I really wanted to know more.

Then, what to my wondering eyes should appear in the pages of that book but prosecutor and Women in Crime Ink contributor Donna Pendergast.  I flashed back to the television show and recalled how impressed I'd been watching her in action in the clips on Dateline NBC.

The book added far more depth than an hour-long show could hope to offer.  It gave a glimpse into the complexities of two people whose marriage with children disintegrated into a melodrama of misery and murder.

It all came to an end on the morning of October 25, 2003, when Florence's body was found floating in the shallows of Lower Herring Lake at Watervale Inn, a northern Michigan resort.  Her husband, Mark Unger, claimed that on the previous night, he left her alone on a deck atop the boathouse to check on their boys.  He said that when he returned fifteen minutes later, she was gone.  He thought that she went to the cabin of friends to socialize.

The next morning, when her lifeless body was discovered, he surmised that Florence must have tripped, hit her head and fallen into the water where she drowned.

But prosecutors and law enforcement had another theory.  They believed Mark had knocked his wife off of the boathouse, causing a severe injury to her head when she hit the concrete slab twelve feet below.  Then, to cover up the assault, they suspected he pushed her into the water, bleeding but alive.
Mark was charged with first degree murder in May 2004.  The investigation uncovered financial problems, a divorce filing, an extramarital affair, an addiction to Vicodin and a looming custody battle over the Ungers' two young boys.  They also discovered many pieces of forensic evidence that were inconsistent with the tale told by Mark.

His trial began on May 3, 2006.  It was the 93rd murder trial for Donna Pendergast, (right). She and her assisting counsel, Mark Bilkovic and John Skrzynski, presented a thorough and convincing case from beginning to end.  But one piece of evidence stood out to me -- something emotionally compelling.  Florence Unger was extremely terrified of the dark and had been all of her life.  There was no way she would have sat alone on top of that boathouse in the pitch-blackness of a rural night.  Mark's whole story was a lie.
Still, the case was all circumstantial, and a battle of experts made the forensic evidence complicated.  Reading the book, you are not sure of the verdict until the end.

One thing, though, is obvious throughout: Pendergast is a formidable prosecutor.  The Detroit Free Press ran a profile of her with the headline: "Born to Prosecute,"  noting that her father was a 40-year veteran police officer. In the article, Swickard wrote: "Defendants can hear a cell door's cold clank when she enters the courtroom."

My advice to anyone contemplating murder: steer clear of Pendergast's territory. She obtained her first murder conviction in 1989 and hasn’t stopped yet. Donna Pendergast has a passion for justice; a tireless persistence to seek it, no matter how long it takes; a steely determination to achieve the right outcome in every single case; and a win rate in murder trials to prove it.

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