Bodysnatchers or murderers - trial has jury in a quandary

Edward Helmore reports from Los Angeles on the case of the book- keeper's body
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The Independent Online
Down the corridor from the trial of the People v Simpson at the Los Angeles Superior Court a strange case of murder, conspiracy, body- snatching and insurance fraud is under jury deliberation.

The case, which started in April, involves three colourful defendants and the corpse of a 37-year-old Hollywood book-keeper, Ellis Greene.

The District Attorney has charged that Dr Richard Boggs, a Rolls-Royce-driving neurosurgeon, conspired with Melvin Eugene Hanson, a gay sportswear manufacturer and his business partner, playboy John Barrett Hawkins, to kill Mr Greene, a stranger, and pass off his body as Mr Hanson's to collect a $1.5m (pounds 960,000) life insurance payout.

The prosecution and defence agree on many points: the body found seven years ago in Dr Boggs' Glendale office was not that of Mr Hanson and Mr Hanson's apparent death was staged by the three defendants as part of an insurance scam. They also agree that the body identified as Mr Hanson's was that of Mr Greene.

What they cannot agree on, and what the jury is weighing, is whether Mr Hanson and Mr Hawkins knew that the corpse was that of a murder victim or merely a snatched cadaver that they ordered from the Harvard-educated Boggs for $50,000. None of this matters much to Dr Boggs, who was convicted of the murder and is serving a life sentence.

"The crux of the case is, there was no murder," says Mr Hanson's lawyer, Joan Whiteside Green. "Only Dr Boggs knows what happened." He did not testify.

The defence claims that Mr Hanson and Mr Hawkins, partners in a sportswear company, agreed only to pay Boggs for a corpse and never asked him to kill to get one. They also contend that there is no proof that anyone was murdered because the results of the autopsy are open to interpretation.

The mystery began in 1987 when Mr Hanson and Mr Hawkins, apparently tired of their sporstwear business, agreed to stage Mr Hanson's death. They contacted Boggs and offered him $25,000 up front, and $25,000 on delivery. In April 1988, Boggs told the police that one of his patients had died in his office. Mr Hanson's ID and credit cards were found on the corpse.

The coroner ruled that the deceased, who was HIV-positive and had a staggering blood alcohol level, had died of natural causes. Mr Hawkins then flew from Ohio, cremated the body, and filed for the insurance.

Five months later, after $1m had been paid, fingerprint records revealed that the body was that of Mr Greene, whose aunt had reported him missing. He had last been seen drinking in a bar on the night before his body turned up at Boggs's practice.

Prosecutors then hired a New York pathologist, who determined from laboratory tests and photographs that Greene had been suffocated and the coroner's file had been amended to read: "cause of death unknown but murder is suspected".

By now, Mr Hawkins and Mr Hanson had vanished despite appeals on America's Most Wanted and The Oprah Winfrey Show.

Mr Hanson became a fixture in the Miami Beach gay community - as Wolfgang Eugene von Snowden - had facial surgery and hair transplants, and was arrested in Texas in 1991 as he stepped off a plane from Acapulco.

Meanwhile Mr Hawkins, who received most of the insurance money and was dubbed the "chameleon" by his frustrated pursuers, lived a lavish life. He was arrested off Sardinia on board his catamaran by Italian authorities in 1991 after he was turned in by his girlfriend, enraged by revelations of his infidelities as reported on the Oprah show.

Mr Hanson faces the death penalty if convicted of first-degree murder, but the Italians refused to extradite Mr Hawkins unless US prosecutors agreed not to seek his execution.