|Nov. 4, 2006
Joan and Peter Porco (CBS)
(CBS) During the early morning hours of Nov. 15,
2004, Peter and Joan Porco were brutally
attacked by an axe-wielding intruder in their
bedroom. Peter Porco was murdered, his wife left
Miraculously, she was
clinging on to life, when investigators and medics
arrived at the crime scene hours later. Suffering from
severe injuries, police say Joan Porco indicated to them
who the killer was with a nod.
But as Peter Van Sant reports, she says she has no
memory of that. And she says she never would have
implicated the person who faced trial for the murder of
Detective Chris Bowdish couldn’t believe what he was
seeing. Minutes after discovering the body of Peter
Porco, he was certain he was about to learn the identity
of the killer from Peter’s dying wife Joan.
"And I said to her, 'Can you hear me?' And she nodded
her head yes. I then started feeling that this woman
knows what’s going on," he says.
Although Bowdish had only been in the house for minutes,
he also felt he knew what was going on. "I could see
there was no break in. There was no forced entry," he
Instead of a broken lock, there was a house key in the
front door. It was a spare key that was usually hidden
in a flower pot by the front entrance.
"The house wasn’t what we call 'tossed.' The drawers
weren’t pulled out, they weren’t dumped," Bowdish says.
In the dining room was Joan’s purse and its contents,
all undisturbed. Bowdish says he felt it was an inside
But who would want to harm the Porcos? Married 30 years,
the couple lived in Bethlehem, N.Y., a bedroom community
just outside of Albany. They had two sons, 23-year-old
Jonathan, in the Navy in South Carolina, and 21-year-old
Chris, a student at the University of Rochester.
In a strange coincidence, Det. Bowdish had met the
Porcos two years earlier, when they reported the theft
of laptops during a burglary. He also learned they had
two sons. At the crime scene, he was wondering about the
whereabouts of Jonathan and Christopher.
As the paramedics struggled to get Joan oxygen, Bowdish
approached her. "I said, 'Did a family member do this to
you?' And she nodded her head up and down clearly, yes.
Now everybody in the room’s standing there at this
point, I’ve got witnesses."
First responders Kevin Robert, Jim Regan, and Dennis
Wood couldn’t believe it. "I’ve never seen anybody with
this massive of facial and head trauma and still be
alive and actually able to communicate like she was,"
Joan had been following directions like “straighten your
arm” and “stop moving your legs.” But this was
different. Before their eyes, Joan was about to identify
the killer. The paramedics watched as she nodded her
head in response to the detective’s questions.
"And I said to her 'Did Jonathan do this to you?' And
she clearly shook her back and forth, 'no.' At this
point I knew she could hear me. I knew she understood
the answers to the questions," Bowdish remembers. "And I
said to her, 'Did Christopher do this to you?' And she
then shook her head up and down. She nodded. Yes he
Within minutes, Joan was rushed to the hospital - and
police began looking for Christopher.
More than 200 miles away, Christopher says he didn’t
know police wanted to talk to him. He says he was in his
dorm room when he got a phone call from a local
"She asked me if I had any comment on my parents being
killed that day. I kind of dropped the phone and was
completely shocked, and you know disbelief," he recalls.
"I called the Bethlehem Police Department."
When he called police, Christopher asked whether the
operator had any information about his parents; the
operator asked about his whereabouts.
"The woman on the phone said she couldn’t tell me
anything but they would call me back. So I sat in my
room and waited," Christopher says.
Within the hour, police confirmed his father was dead.
Christopher’s brother Jonathan learned the devastating
news at his Navy base, as an uncle rushed Christopher to
his mother’s bedside at the hospital.
"I saw her - she was swollen and covered in tubes. And
my reaction was I burst into tears. I fell on the floor
right there," Christopher says.
As Joan underwent emergency surgery, Christopher agreed
to go to the police station where he was questioned for
six hours. "I wanted to be as helpful as I could. I knew
that in cases like this, you know, the quicker the
better. So I wanted to give them what they needed to
figure out who did it," he says.
Asked if he carried out the deadly attack, Christopher
says, "You know, I can’t say enough, absolutely no. I
would never do anything like that to anyone let alone my
parents who I love dearly."
Bowdish’s number one priority was finding out where
Christopher was at the time of the attack.
Some 16 hours after Joan identified her son as her
attacker, detectives were knocking on doors at
Christopher’s dorm. It quickly became clear that none of
his frat brothers could back up Christopher’s alibi that
he was asleep on the couch in the dorm lounge.
"It just so happened that some guys were up and we
stayed up until like 3:30 a.m. It’s a square room and
some couches and TV – it’s not like maybe he was there
and we overlooked him. He wasn’t there," one of the frat
Detectives searched his room, taking clothes and a
computer; they even impounded his car, a bright yellow
Back at Albany Medical Center, Joan remained
unconscious, clinging to life and undergoing many hours
Former youth minister Joe Catalano rushed to Joan’s
bedside to comfort Christopher. He was struck by
Christopher’s odd behavior. Asked if he sensed any bit
of grief with Chris, Catalano says, "None whatsoever."
By now, Christopher was the prime suspect in the murder.
But police had to figure out how he could have done it.
Chris was at the university the morning his parents were
discovered, more than 200 miles from the crime scene.
And while his fraternity brothers hadn’t seen him the
night before, another student did see him out jogging
the next morning. The case appeared to have hit a wall -
until investigators decided to check several campus
security cameras. What they saw changed everything.
Christopher had told investigators he never left campus.
But prosecutor Mike McDermott says surveillance video
shows Chris is lying. Caught on tape was Chris' bright
yellow Jeep driving through a campus parking lot around
10:30 p.m., just hours before the attacks.
At 10:36 p.m., that same yellow Jeep was captured by a
surveillance camera on the roof of an off-campus medical
center, headed east. From this moment, prosecutors
developed a theory for how they believe he committed the
At 10:45 p.m., New York State Thruway toll collector
John Fallon thought he remembered handing a ticket to a
young man driving a yellow Jeep with big tires. And at
1:51 a.m., another toll collector believes she may have
seen a yellow Jeep driven by a young white male speeding
into her lane at Exit 24 in Albany. The Porco home is
just nine miles away from the exit.
Prosecutor David Rossi thinks Christopher got into the
house by using a spare key that was kept under a pot in
front of the front door.
At 2:14 a.m., police believe Christopher deactivated the
burglar alarm using the master code. "Later he smashed
the alarm keypad in an attempt to hide that," Rossi
says. "The information is stored on a box in the
basement, which we believe Chris probably didn’t know
that. So smashing the keypad did nothing."
Investigators believe Chris then grabbed an ax from the
garage, crept upstairs, and savagely attacked his
parents in bed.
At 4:54 a.m., phone company records show that the phone
line was cut. "Before he left, he staged the house so it
appeared that an outsider was the one who entered, cut
the phone line," Rossi says.
At 5:12 a.m., Christopher re-enters the New York State
Thruway, investigators say, heading back towards
Rochester. And finally, at 8:30 a.m. a yellow Jeep is
again captured by cameras on the roof of a medical
center, headed back in the direction of the campus.
To McDermott, "It all fits perfectly." But how are
prosecutors so certain it’s Chris’ Jeep? McDermott
acknowledges cameras didn't capture a license plate or
But investigators do have decals, and a telltale mud
stain. "The same mud stain. It’s better than a
fingerprint," McDermott says.
On Nov. 4, 2005, Christopher was charged with the murder
of his father, and attempted murder of his mother.
Chris admits that it was his Jeep on the surveillance
video, but says he was just moving it to park
off-campus. By the time he returned to the dorm lounge,
he says his frat brothers had gone to sleep.
"The surveillance cameras on campus don’t show me going
to the Thruway they don’t show me going home. They show
me going off-campus," Christopher says. "If I wanted to
do something like this, if I wanted to sneak home on the
Thruway, why would I take a big yellow car? I mean, that
makes no sense to me."
"You’ve got that surveillance video. But all that tells
you is that he left campus. It doesn’t tell you where he
went," Van Sant tells McDermott.
But McDermott says there was an eyewitness, Marshall
Gokey, who saw the Jeep in the Porcos' driveway at 4
Gokey, a neighbor, says he was driving past the Porco
home on his way to work on the day the bodies were
discovered, when he spotted a familiar yellow Jeep in
the driveway. "I have no doubt in my mind whatsoever
that was Chris Porco’s Jeep," he says.
"You couple Marshall Gokey with the surveillance videos
with the toll takers with the fact that the alarm was
deactivated by someone who knew the master codes, then
Marshall Gokey just fits like the jewel on top of the
crown," McDermott says.
But a stunning development would threatening to topple
the prosecution’s entire case and it involved their star
witness: Joan Porco herself.
Joan, now recovered from the attack but severely
scarred, said she had no memory of anything that
happened that night, and no recollection of ever
indicating by nodding that her son was the attacker. And
Joan went on the offensive, publicly claiming that her
son was innocent.
A month after he was charged, Christopher was free
again, out on bail posted by a large circle of family
and friends, all of whom are convinced of his innocence.
Until trial, he would be living with Elaine LaForte, a
veterinarian who Chris had worked with for years, and
who says Chris is like a son to her.
"I’m aware of evidence that they did find at the crime
scene that makes me believe that it was not
Christopher," says LaForte.
That evidence is a lone fingerprint Chris’ attorney
Laurie Shanks says was found just inches from where the
telephone wire was cut.
Shanks, a professor at Albany law school and her law
partner and husband Terry Kindlon say the police cooked
up a flimsy circumstantial case against Chris.
"What links Christopher to this crime is the malignant
imagination of the police department which decided
within the first, we think, five minutes that
Christopher was the person who killed his father and
attacked his mother," says Kindlon.
But he says that rush to judgment is based on their
misguided belief that Joan knew what she was doing when
police say she identified her son as the killer with a
But McDermott doesn't think Joan's movements were made
by a woman in shock. "I think she was able to
meaningfully communicate," he says.
"It is certainly quite possible that she would be able
to follow simple commands. But being able to follow a
simple instruction doesn’t require memory," says Dr.
Mary Dombovy, one of the most respected neurologists in
Rochester. She has been treating Joan and would be
testifying for the defense at trial.
"You’re saying Joan could have followed commands, raise
your arm, and she’d raise her arm. But if they’re asking
questions of memory, that’s a different part of the
brain?" Van Sant asks.
"Very different function," she says. "And that is
universally what is disrupted after a traumatic brain
injury. She could simply have been responding to the
The defense believes prosecutors are relying on Joan’s
nod because there’s a major flaw in their case – not a
shred of forensic evidence links Chris to the crime.
Kindlon says there was no bloody foot or fingerprint
that linked Chris to the crime scene and that no
forensics evidence was found on his Jeep.
As far as the surveillance video is concerned, Kindlon
says, "We don’t think it’s a problem at all. The fact is
that Christopher’s Jeep was parked off campus."
After parking his car, Shanks and Kindlon say Chris
wandered around until sometime after 3:30 a.m. when he
returned to the dorm lounge and fell asleep
Kindlon says he knows why the Porcos alarm was disabled
using the master code: "Peter Porco had the habit of
shutting down the alarm to let the dog go out and
neglecting to put the alarm back."
And, Shanks says, it was most likely Peter, barely
conscious and bloodied, who put the key in the front
door. "It may very well be that he believed that he was
locked out and used that key to get back in his
disoriented state," she says.
And as for neighbor Gokey’s Jeep sighting," Klindon says
it might be a case of false memory. "We think he was
desperately trying to help the police. There were two
yellow Jeeps that normally parked and traveled through
The real killer, Chris' lawyers say, may be the person
who left a fingerprint on a telephone box in the
backyard just inches from where the phone line was cut.
What’s more, just weeks before the attack, Chris’
attorneys say Joan Porco saw a stranger in her driveway.
"Joan had told more than one person she was very
frightened. A stranger was there and ran when the light
came on," Shanks says.
And Chris’ lawyers have another theory: they think the
mob may have been targeting the Porcos in retaliation
for the alleged snitching by Peter’s distant relative,
Frankie “The Fireman” Porco, a convicted member of New
But Prosecutors say they’ve checked out all these
possibilities and none of them lead anywhere. "There was
a slow painstaking, methodical investigation to reveal
every scintilla of proof that he committed this crime
before he was charged," says McDermott.
And they dispute the defense notion that Christopher was
a sweet innocent young man. Police discovered it was
Chris who stole his parents' laptops, and later sold
them on eBay.
"Christopher Porco has shown one face to his friends and
family and has shown another face that we’ve uncovered
during the course of this investigation," says
Chris even deceived his fraternity brothers, inventing a
phony life as a rich kid.
"He said his grandmother was a wealthy landowner, owned
much of the land in Fairfield County, Connecticut," one
frat brother said.
But in reality, prosecutors say, Chris was flunking out
of school and deeply in debt. His extravagant lifestyle
was pure fantasy. And in the days leading up to attack,
Chris’ father discovered that his son had forged his
signature to obtain a car loan and a $31,000 loan to pay
for school. Peter Porco sent Chris a series of angry
e-mails, calling his son “out of control.”
And Joan wrote Chris, “Your father and I are extremely
upset with your lies…. Dad is about to have a nervous
Prosecutors say Chris was broke and desperate. That’s
when, they say, he hatched a plan that would solve all
his problems. "They’re only worth $60,000 alive. Dead,
they’re worth $1.1 million," McDermott says.
But Christopher calls the money motive "absurd." "I
could never trade money for my parents' lives," he tells
And Chris’ attorneys say they have proof that the
relationship between Chris and his parents was on the
mend. "The very last e-mail he sends his son says 'I’ve
paid for your school for the fall. And we’ll talk about
the spring when you come home for Thanksgiving,'" says
Nineteen months after the savage attack that left her
husband dead and her life forever disfigured, Joan Porco
walked side by side into court with the man accused of
the brutal crime – her own son.
For seven weeks, the prosecution and defense battled
over the bloody details of this circumstantial case.
More than 80 witnesses took the stand.
Paramedics Kevin Robert and Dennis Wood testified that
they saw Joan Porco nod when asked if Chris was her
attacker. But Joan’s neurologist Dr. Mary Dumbovey told
jurors it was unlikely, given Joan’s severe injuries,
that she understood what she was being asked.
Prosecutors attacked Chris’s alibi, calling nine of his
frat brothers to the stand.
“We marched in everybody who was in that lounge that
night and they all said, Porco wasn’t here," Rossi
Prosecutors told the jury that’s because Christopher was
on his way to commit murder. Their key piece of evidence
is that surveillance video. But defense attorneys told
jurors the tape merely showed Chris leaving campus, not
driving to his parents' house.
"There’s no question he left at 10:30. He wasn’t allowed
to park on campus," Shanks says. "But it doesn’t prove
anything about where he was between 10:30 when he had to
leave campus and the next morning when he parked
But jurors heard from the two toll collectors who
remembered seeing a yellow Jeep like Chris’ on the night
of the murder. And neighbor Marshall Gokey told his
story that he saw Chris’ Jeep on the morning of the
Meanwhile, the defense called into question the
prosecution’s entire case, suggesting it was the real
killer who left that unidentified fingerprint on the
telephone box. And forensic pathologists reminded the
jury that not one drop of blood from the crime scene was
found on Christopher.
But prosecutors have an answer for that. "First of all,
we don’t believe he got a lot of blood on him when he
committed the crime," says Rossi. "Number two,
Christopher had plenty of time in the house to change
his clothes," McDermott points out. "And number three,
Christopher works in a veterinary hospital. He’s been
trained how to avoid contamination."
Defense attorney Shanks disagrees. "It defies common
sense. If you hit someone 15 or 20 times with an ax, and
you’re pulling back, and you hit somebody and you hit
somebody and you hit somebody. You’re going to have
blood on you. And the reason Christopher didn’t have
blood on him is because he didn’t do it."
Jurors, who also heard from Chris' brother Jonathan,
also would hear testimony from Joan Porco, who hoped to
convince jurors that her nod meant nothing.
With grace and determination, displaying the scars of
her attack, Joan told the jurors she had no memory of
that night. But she was certain of one thing: her son
Christopher did not commit this terrible crime.
"Joan told the jury that her son was a kind, loving
compassionate person who reminded her of her husband
Peter," says Shanks.
Joan Porco has never spoken in public about the case and
turned down 48 Hours' numerous requests for an
interview. But during a break in the trial, she did
allow 48 Hours to film Christopher’s 23rd birthday
Asked how he feels the trial is going, Christopher tells
Van Sant, "As far as guilt or innocence, I’m very
optimistic about how things are going and how they will
As his attorneys prepared for closing statements, Chris
who chose not to take the stand, wanted to send a
message to the jury. "To not jump to conclusions. And to
look at everything," he says. "If you look at the whole
picture it’s pretty clear that things just don’t add
In closing arguments, which the judge allowed 48 Hours
to videotape, Shanks attacked the entire police
investigation which began, she said, with a false
premise. She asked jurors to remember that not a shred
of forensic evidence linked Chris to the crime.
Besides the Joan Porco's nod, prosecutor McDermott said
there was more than enough circumstantial evidence to
find Chris guilty. “Using the master code to disarm the
alarm when he went to his parent’s house that morning,
ladies and gentlemen, was like dropping his wallet at
the crime scene.”
After a seven-week trial, both sides in this murder case
expected the jury to be out for a long time; but it took
jurors less than six hours to render a unanimous
When the verdict was read, Christopher was emotionless.
Asked why, he says, "Well, definitely it was, you know,
the shock of it, of course. But also Laurie told me that
whatever the outcome, I should just not really show much
The verdict came so suddenly, Joan wasn’t there in time
to hear her son’s fate.
"Christopher’s first words to me when we sat down was,
'Will you please be the one to tell my mother,' and he
was very upset. By the time we got back to the hotel,
someone had already called her and so I was with her
within minutes and she hugged me and was just
devastated," Shanks says.
Ultimately, jurors say, the prosecution’s timeline
proved devastating for Christopher and his alibi just
But remarkably, the one thing jurors want Joan Porco to
know is that her nod played absolutely no role in their
verdict. "We believe that she didn’t know what she was
nodding to. That she had no idea what the question was.
We threw that out. We dismissed that completely,” one
“You know, it’s one thing for a juror to say that on TV,
but it’s another thing for them to actually believe
that," Chris says. "It would not have been possible for
me to do this with the lack of evidence there was. It’s
just not possible."
"Do you still say today that the real killer is out
there somewhere?" Van Sant asks.
"There’s no doubt in my mind," he replies. "I know
they’re out there. At this point I have little
confidence that they’ll ever be caught."
"Chris, he thinks he’s smarter than everybody else. He
thought he was smarter than everybody else that night.
He thought he committed the perfect crime. He didn’t,"
says prosecutor David Rossi. "While Mrs. Porco may not
think so, and while the verdict brought more tragedy to
her life, justice was absolutely served by a guilty