Part two in a three-part series covering investigating and prosecuting homicide cases without the victim’s body from Michelle Kaszuba an NYC prosecutor, advocate for unsolved cases, and board member for PI for the Missing and the American Investigative Society of Cold Cases. Follow along as she shares her insights to help Citizen Detectives better understand the law on investigating and prosecuting “no body” homicide cases.
The story of the murder conviction of Dr. Robert Bierenbaum began 15 years after his wife, Gail Katz-Bierenbaum, vanished from the Upper East Side of Manhattan in 1985. Robert, a plastic surgeon, had moved to Minot, North Dakota, a small town free of crime, traffic and the everyday trappings of big city life. The locals, at first wary of their new neighbor and his odd demeanor, soon softened to the man who eventually became their town doctor and a member of their community, a pilot who lovingly cared for and repaired a single-engine airplane at a small airfield in the vastness of North Dakota. But Robert was hiding a secret, one that came to light in 2000 when he was arrested for the murder of his wife.
Gail and Robert were married in 1982, and their union was volatile from the start. They quarreled frequently, the verbal disagreements descending into threats and physical violence by Robert against Gail; she recounted to others that he threatened to kill her and said that he would get away with it.
Robert never denied that his marriage left him frustrated, angry and full of hatred; in fact, both husband and wife complained to friends and family that the marriage was loveless, hopeless and doomed. It was not surprising that Gail consulted a divorce lawyer in 1984 and took steps to prepare for her departure from the marriage, but she often vacillated and expressed her trepidation to those closest to her.
Gail disappeared on July 7, 1985. She was close to her parents, sister and friends; she would never be out of touch for long. Moreover, her confidants knew about her abusive marriage and, immediately, everyone feared the worst.
Robert offered plenty of tidbits of information about his wife and her fate. He had last seen her on July 7, when she was heading to Central Park to sunbathe; he failed to mention that they had a fight before she left, but informed others of the omitted detail at a later time. He also lamented that he went looking for her in the park, but only found a towel and suntan oil; sometimes he remembered that detail, sometimes he didn’t. Gail, he had said, had attempted suicide in the past; he insisted that she could have completed suicide, given the state of their marriage. He reminded everyone that Gail was cheating on him and had at least one or two lovers during the course of their marriage; of course, he thought she was hunkered down with a boyfriend. Gail was a drug addict, he proclaimed, and had run away to California or the Caribbean; perhaps she had been killed by her druggie friends.
New York City Police detectives interviewed him multiple times, and got multiple versions of his story of the day Gail went missing. Robert was uncooperative with police and refused their requests to dust their apartment for fingerprints and search for evidence. He commented that their cat had vomited on a rug that had to be sent out to be cleaned; he contradicted himself in later statements regarding the state of the rug. He showed an extreme lack of concern regarding his wife’s departure and no remorse about his final moments with her.
Robert’s words and behavior were suspect; it was all but a foregone conclusion that he had murdered his wife. There was no trace of Gail. There was no eyewitness to a crime. There was no videotape of a murder. No smoking gun. And, on one hand, Robert did have a point. Was it possible that Gail, fed up with a loveless and controlling marriage, had finally decided to leave him and never come back? Did they have enough evidence to prove that the murder had occurred if they didn’t have the corpus delicti — the body of the victim?
As it turns out… they could.
Robert Bierenbaum was arrested, charged with Gail’s murder and extradited to New York to stand trial by October 2000. Prosecutors contended that any thought that Gail had disappeared on her own accord was dispelled by the combination of the legitimate inferences drawn from the circumstantial evidence surrounding Gail’s last day in New York City with one nail that was hammered into Robert’s proverbial coffin.
Robert had a very particular skill set that had not gone unnoticed by the detectives or others in his periphery. Robert was a pilot which meant he had the means, motive, and opportunity to dispose of his wife’s body in a way that it would never be found, allowing him to slip out of the grasp of the detectives until his activities on the date of Gail’s disappearance were uncovered.
On July 7, 1985, at 4:30 P.M., Robert had rented a Cessna 172 plane at Caldwell Airport in Fairfield, New Jersey. The layout of the airport and the position of the rented plan was key. The plane was in a section of the tarmac that would have made it quite difficult for anyone in the rental office to observe him preparing the plane and loading anything, perhaps luggage containing his wife’s body, onto the plane. It was also important to note that this area of the tarmac was accessible by car, in the event that the pilot wanted to drive his vehicle up to the plane to save him the trouble of lugging a heavy duffel bag all that distance. Robert took off and landed within one hour and fifty-six minutes of renting the Cessna. This was enough time to fly approximately 165 miles over part of the Atlantic Ocean and return to Caldwell Airport. Like all pilots, he logged his flight into his flight logbook.
For detectives, the most interesting thing about his flight was that he failed to mention it to them. For his live-in girlfriend—a medical student he began dating several months after Gail vanished—the entry in his flight logbook that she discovered a year later was the confirmation of what everyone had thought all along. The date of the flight “7/7/85” had been written over and changed to “8/7/85”—a flight out of Caldwell Airport for one hour and fifty-six minutes in a Cessna 172 plane. And for anyone who doubted that one man could push a duffel bag containing the body of a 110 pound woman out of a Cessna by himself, the prosecution presented an amazing piece of demonstrative evidence: a video of a pilot discarding a duffel bag that was the equivalent weight of Gail’s body out of a Cessna while in flight.
A jury convicted Robert Bierenbaum of second-degree murder. Even though Gail has never been recovered, her body presumably lost to the Atlantic Ocean, justice did not evade her. Robert was sentenced to life in prison for her murder, and he remains incarcerated to this day.
Th at the police never recovered Gail’s body and that no one other than Gail and Robert witnessed the violent act which ended her life did not bar his murder conviction under New York State law based upon circumstantial evidence, a rule established by case-law in 1982, only a handful of years before Gail was murdered. The Bierenbaum case became a benchmark for circumstantial evidence cases in New York. The case demonstrated how each piece of properly entered evidence created the inferences that led to the conclusion that Robert Bierenbaum undoubtedly murdered his wife and disposed of her body in a way that she would never be found.
Gail’s story culminated in a successful prosecution, but what about the other stories of the missing where we are sure we know who did it, but there’s no arrest and/or no prosecution?
This post is the first of a three-part series that originally ran on the PI for The Missing blog.
Michelle Kaszuba has been a prosecutor since graduating from Hofstra University School of Law in 2010. She currently serves in the Financial Crimes and Money Laundering Bureau of the Suffolk District Attorney's Office and belongs to a specialized unit that investigates wrongful convictions and claims of innocence. Previously, she worked in the Queens County District Attorney's Office for 13 years.
The bulk of her career was spent in a specialized unit that investigated homicides, suspicious deaths, and vehicular deaths alongside NYPD homicide detectives, resulting in the indictments and convictions of many perpetrators. She has also worked with the NYPD cold case squad to investigate unsolved murders and disappearances.
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