Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer The Odd Couple

What does it take to become a suspect in the suburbs? As Mary Muskett and Ron Seigel found out, it's not evidence.

By Jim Hanas

NOVEMBER 22, 1999:  Mary Muskett hears voices. She keeps the door of her scent and candle shop in the Saddle Creek shopping center closed just to keep them out.

"I can't keep the door open because people walk by and say stuff. Sound travels right in," she says. "'There's the suspect.' 'Oh, there's the murderer.' 'There's the cat lady.' Little girls would make cat calls going by. It was horrible."

Neither Muskett nor her shop, Crabtree & Evelyn, seethe with malevolence. The store is filled with light, musical fanfares, and sweet-smelling things for burning and spraying and scrubbing and eating. Delicate things. It is the kind of store that inspires talking quietly and, in that, Muskett seems at home.

"I love this business," she confides in her usual tone, which can only be described as kind. "This business has been my baby for 12 years. I love it. It breaks my heart to see it like this."

Business has not been booming at the shop for more than a year -- not since October 28, 1998, to be exact -- the day Germantown police and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation conducted a sensational and ill-fated fishing expedition there, angling for leads in the year-old murder of McDonald's employee Delma Ramsey, who was beaten and strangled to death in the early morning hours of November 5, 1997.

Six months of suspicion leading up to last October's search, however, failed to uncover evidence against Muskett and her husband Ron Seigel. They were exonerated earlier this year when two former McDonald's employees were charged with the crime.

Last month, one year to the day of the search, the couple filed an $8 million civil suit in federal court against the city of Germantown and five members of its police department, alleging, among other things, "police conduct redolent of a self-aggrandizing media circus rather than a quest for truth."

And a media circus it was -- one that seemed to focus as much on Muskett's love for cats and the fact that she and Seigel met over the Internet as on any evidence against them. But in a suburb known for -- and even priding itself on -- conformity and affluence, such eccentricities can be suspicious enough. More so, even, than evidence.

Late at night, the only place still hopping in Germantown is CK's Coffee Shop. Gap-clad teenagers huddle in booths, guzzling bottomless cups of coffee and smoking cigarettes, and anyone who works late near the intersection of Poplar Avenue and Germantown Road is a regular: McDonald's employees, Germantown cops, Mary Muskett and Ron Seigel.

It was at this coffee shop that Muskett first talked with police about the Ramsey murder. The day after the crime, she approached a uniformed officer and volunteered facts about her routine of feeding the stray cats then living in the woods behind McDonald's. She would pull through the parking lot each night between 1:30 and 2 a.m., leaving some food for the strays on her way to her shop at Saddle Creek, where she typically spends the night taking care of paperwork and making ready for the day's business.

"Yes, I am a night person," said Muskett during an interview with her and Seigel shortly after their exoneration. "It is not a bizarre, weird thing that I do."

A year later, parts of this routine would appear in an affidavit sworn to by Germantown detective J.D. Bruce to secure a warrant to search Muskett and Seigel's home and business. According to the affadavit, an ATM video camera established that Muskett's car pulled into the McDonald's parking lot around 2 a.m. the night of the murder, some 20 minutes before Ramsey arrived and an hour before the brief window authorities pegged for the murder. Another surveillance camera, this one at a gas station near the crime scene, established that Muskett was at the station shortly after the crime.

But, as a lead, Muskett's own report of her routine lay fallow for several months, until an anonymous tip suggested to authorities that they should look at Seigel as a suspect, citing Muskett's routine and Seigel's allegedly volatile temper.

On two days in March of last year, Muskett and Seigel were brought in for questioning. Neither had counsel present. They felt they had nothing to hide, and both say they were not even fully aware that they were under suspicion.

"Knowing what I know now," says Seigel, "if I was to put myself back in that situation I would realize that they were trying to imply that I knew something about this. But at the time, as a good citizen, you don't even see it. You don't see what they're trying to get at. It's almost ridiculous when I think back to it now. How could I have not known that they were trying to write me up on that suspect board of theirs? I'm answering the questions for an hour and a half, not even thinking that maybe I should have an attorney."

From those interviews, a theory of the crime involving the couple emerged. The night before the murder, Seigel appeared at a meeting of the Germantown Animal Control Commission and opposed a plan to trap and euthanize the feral cats behind McDonald's, a plan supported by some at McDonald's, including Ramsey, and "cat spat" headlines were born.

According to the affidavit for search warrant entered by Detective Bruce, Muskett had confirmed in an interview that she knew Delma Ramsey, a crucial link in the theory. Muskett, however, says that's not what she told police.

"They came out and said that I said I knew her," Muskett says. "But the question they asked me was 'Have you ever seen her before?' and I would say, 'Yes I used to go there occasionally and get a breakfast sandwich and coffee and the only words I ever spoke were probably to ask for extra cream.'

"Look how it turned out. It turned out that I had a cat spat with this woman. From not even knowing her to ask her about the weather, it turned into that I hated her and did this and that and that's not true. That was not true at all."

But with the crime scene growing cold, investigators were convinced they were hot on the trail.

"They just knew they were guilty," says Marty Johnson, who, as a third shifter at CK's is the eyes and ears of late-night Germantown. "People just made it impossible for them even to come in and have a cup of coffee. If they were in here when a police officer was in here, they just couldn't rest."

When Johnson herself was questioned by police, she says the guilt of Muskett and Seigel was presented, not as a conclusion to be reached, but as a premise.

"How does it feel to be waiting on those murderers?" she was asked.

"They should've just let that alone," says Johnson. "I said, 'I don't feel that way.'"

According to the Muskett/Seigel lawsuit, there was a lot more investigators should have just let alone.

The suit specifically names five members of the Germantown Police Department: Police Chief Jim Fortune; Inspector Tom Lott; Lt. Danny Payne, and detectives J.D. Bruce and Floyd L. Covey. According to the suit, these officers spoke "ill of Plaintiffs to their customers, family, business associates and have otherwise conducted the investigation in a manner and pursuant to a policy, custom or usage of trammeling the constitutional rights of Plaintiffs, which conduct has caused great emotional and financial harm to Plaintiffs and their reputation, property, and in their business."

In particular, the suit alleges that Germantown police ignored other leads and exculpatory evidence in their pursuit of Muskett and Seigel, that the affidavits that led to the department's warrants contained false statements -- such as the claim that Muskett "knew" Ramsey -- and that authorities have failed to return the bulk of the property confiscated in last year's searches.

Not only that, but the suit claims these improprieties are the result of institutional negligence within the department. A review of department personnel records confirms, for example, the suit's claim that the detectives assigned to the case had little training in investigating homicides.

According to departmental records, Lt. Payne and Detective Bruce completed their only specialized training in homicide just three months before the Ramsey murder, when they each completed a 24-hour course in Gatlinburg. Detective Covey's records reveal no special training in homicide. And while Payne had 10 years of experience on the force at the time of the murder, Bruce and Covey had five years between them.

Records also reveal that there were several officers with considerably more investigative experience on the force at the time, including two former captains of the department's detective division and one former FBI profiler.

The suit also cites the department's failure to adhere to standards set out by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA), an independent organization that oversees accreditation of law enforcement agencies on a volunteer basis nationwide.

The Germantown Police Department considered seeking CALEA-accreditation, at the city administration's urging, under former chief Eddie Boatwright, but the movement died under current chief Fortune, who is named in the suit. Nineteen law enforcement agencies are CALEA- accredited statewide, including the police departments in Nashville and Knoxville. In west Tennessee, only two agencies are -- the Collierville Police Department and the Memphis International Airport Police Department.

The Muskett/Seigel lawsuit comes at a time when the Germantown Police Department is experiencing growing pains and well-publicized internal problems. The size of the force has increased by almost two dozen officers in the last three years. Meanwhile, morale is low, turnover is high, and several EEOC complaints alleging sexual discrimination within the department have been lodged this year alone.

Police Chief Jim Fortune has been recovering from heart surgery since June and recently told The Commercial Appeal that the delay in resuming his duties stems, not from physical problems, but from an inability to handle the stress of dealing with people, a revelation that puts the future leadership of the department into question.

And last month, an outside consultant began work on turning the department around.

"Right now in terms of where we are, with the chief being out, there seems to be concern among the rank and file about where we are going," says Germantown city administrator Patrick Lawton. "We need some direction. We need some leadership."

Lawton declined to comment on the Muskett/Seigel suit, as did city attorney Tom Cates. The attorney handling the city's defense, Edward J. McKenney, says he has seen the complaint but has yet to consult with his clients. Inspector Lott, who oversees the department's detective division, likewise declined comment. Depositions in the case are scheduled to begin next month.

Even with the force's zeal, the aggressive investigation of Muskett and Seigel failed to produce evidence connecting the couple to the crime, despite the cooperation they provided. Both consented to polygraph examinations. Authorities' thirst for a suspect may have been whetted by the fact that Seigel's first exam suggested deception, although the couple's civil attorney Mark Ledbetter says Germantown police were aware of a second, independent test in direct conflict with that finding. Blood and hair samples were also taken from Seigel, then, several months later, from Muskett, still with no break in the case.

According to Muskett, many of the questions put to her and Seigel by detectives had not so much to do with the case, but with their lifestyle.

Muskett, who is 49, is 17 years older than Seigel. Seigel is a Canadian citizen. The two met in a computer chat-room several years ago before making plans to meet in Detroit, after which Seigel came to Memphis and lived for almost a year. The two were eventually married in Canada four years ago.

"I was very confused by their behavior," says Muskett of how interested investigators seemed to be in such details. "Because we are unconventional people, but we're not weirdos or anything. We're just different."

According to Muskett, investigators even seemed to think the fact that the couple only owned one car between them was "odd."

"Why do you only have one car?" she recalls being asked. "Everyone in Germantown has two cars."

According to their suit, authorities not only branded them as guilty of murder but of being "scary" and "dangerous."

"We don't fit in in Germantown," says Seigel. "We live in a contemporary house in a colonial neighborhood. [There are] all these things that make us different."

So convinced were authorities of the couple's criminal strangeness, that the affidavit filed to obtain a search warrant for their properties listed "any books, magazines, drawings, or video or audiotapes depicting death by strangulation or auto-erotic strangulation fantasies" as items authorities had probable cause to believe the couple possessed. No such items were seized.

The affidavit suggests that by October 28th of last year, after more than six months of investigation, authorities were still looking for something -- anything -- to connect the couple to the crime.

"They bang on the door, 14 or 15 of them," recalls Muskett. "And we're sleeping. It's horrible. They blast in there."

Seigel was briefly handcuffed before being released to smoke cigarettes in his backyard as authorities conducted a 12-hour search of the house. Muskett accompanied investigators to her shop in Saddle Creek, where a similar search took place.

Twenty cats removed from the house during the search were returned that evening. The couple's car -- a 1991 Honda -- was returned severely damaged a few weeks later. A computer belonging to Muskett was returned five months later. All other property -- from shoes to computer equipment -- has yet to be returned.

Several days later, at the advice of her attorney, Muskett appeared at a press conference in which she denied any involvement in the crime.

After that, nothing happened. Months of nothing.

"It takes its toll on you," says Muskett. "Just the fact that you have that hanging over you."

For seven months, the couple was neither formally accused of a crime nor cleared of wrong-doing. Business at Crabtree & Evelyn was devastated. According to Muskett, revenues were down 46% over the previous year the month after the search and down 51% seven months later when she was exonerated.

There was no fanfare for Muskett's and Seigel's exoneration. At a late May press conference, department officials simply announced that they had new prime suspects.

Robert L. Evans and Maurice E. Lane -- both former McDonald's employees, both grandsons of Ramsey co-worker Emma Owens, both incarcerated in Illinois on other charges: murder and theft, respectively -- were the new targets. Investigators spent several days in Illinois investigating a tip they say came from Memphis Crime Stoppers before returning with the announcement.

Evans and Lane -- who were indicted for the Ramsey murder in June -- fit many key aspects of the crime. They left town the day of the murder. As former McDonald's employees and grandsons of Emma Owens, they knew Ramsey, who apparently let her attackers into the restaurant. And since they are both in their early twenties, they match an FBI profile that suggests the crime was perpetrated by youthful offenders, a profile that -- as noted in their suit -- neither Muskett nor Seigel match.

The suit also alludes to the fact, which the Flyer has confirmed, that at least one former McDonald's employee told the police of speculation at the restaurant that Owens' grandsons were involved in the murder. This came several months before the raid on Muskett and Seigel's home and business and a full year before authorities went public with the lead that eventually led to the indictment of Evans and Lane.

The exoneration of Muskett and Seigel came as a mere byproduct of that announcement -- in answer to a question from the media -- rather than as an official statement from the Germantown police. As set out in the couple's lawsuit, five months later the department has yet to issue either a formal statement of their innocence or an apology.

The couple, meanwhile, say they are not sure whether or how long they will continue to call Germantown home.

"I don't know. We take every day at a time. We have three years left on the lease here," says Muskett, sitting at a table in the backroom of Crabtree & Evelyn.

But if Muskett and Seigel have been harmed by the cavalier tactics of the Germantown police, the department's image -- already struggling -- has also been harmed. Following such a long and rambling investigation, one can't blame some observers if they still don't believe the Germantown PD have the right suspects.

"In my heart and mind I do not," muses Marty Johnson, CK's late-night matron. "They might find them guilty of it, but I don't think they did it. Something in my mind just hasn't been clicking right from day one. I've been thinking they've been barking up the wrong trees."

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