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48 Hours The Puppet Master 04.14.07

Run Dates

 

04.14.07 48 Hours The Puppet Master

07.31.07 48 Hours The Puppet Master

The Puppet Master


A Woman Is Targeted For Execution. Who Pulled The Strings?

(CBS) The first report on an October day in 1997 was that a woman had been killed in a drive-by shooting. As correspondent Troy Roberts reports, the bullet that struck then 31-year-old Heather Grossman ripped a fist-sized hole in her neck, severing her spinal cord.


Heather and her husband, John, had been married for just four months. The bullet that struck John Grossman, then 47, only grazed him, but Heather's life was forever changed.

"They explained what had happened and that I was going to be paralyzed from the neck and I was going to be a quadriplegic," Heather remembers.

Ron Samuels rushed to the scene. He was Heatherís first husband, and father of their three children. "I was under the impression that these people were shot and killed," Samuels says. "It was that time of day when my three kids couldíve been with them."

The welfare of the children had always been a contentious issue in a messy custody battle, a far cry from the happier times the couple enjoyed when they met a decade earlier.

Heather was working as a flight attendant; Samuels, a 40-year-old entrepreneur, fell hard for the former high school cheerleader from Minnesota.

"I was the only first class passenger on the way back from Oregon," he remembers of their first encounter. "And I said to her you either come home with me now or I'll see you in the movies."

"He was very persistent," Heather recalls of the meeting.

Soon after that flight, they moved in together. They lived in Pensacola, Fla., where Samuels owned a successful car dealership. At the top of his career, Samuels says his net worth was in excess of $30 million and Heather says he was very generous, taking her on lavish trips.

After living together for several years, in Dec. 1988, Heather and Ron married; their son Ronnie was born shortly afterwards. Two years later, they had twins, Lauren and Joe.

"She was an excellent mother. She was always with the children," says Ben Bentfeld, who with his wife Helen, was a good friend.

But if it all seemed perfect behind the scenes, the marriage was beginning to crumble. "He became controlling and rude and scary and intimidating," Heather remembers.

"I expected her to understand that to live the lifestyle that she wanted that somebody had to pay the bill," Ron explains.

Asked if their arguments turned violent, Heather tells Roberts, "Yes, they became violentÖ. When I wanted to leave him he held a gun to my head."

But Ron Samuels says he never put a gun at his ex-wife's head.

Heather fled with the children to her parentís home in Minnesota and filed for divorce. "When I left him and divorced him, he said, 'You know, you will pay. Youíre gonna pay for leaving me,'" Heather says.

Asked if he told Heather she was "gonna pay" if she left, Ron says, "Not that I recall ever saying that."

Heather moved on and began dating John Grossman, the son of a business tycoon who was part owner of the Minnesota Vikings football team.

"I had a wonderful relationship with John Grossman. And we were in love and everything was really pretty much perfect," she remembers. "We were happy. We were starting on our lives, despite all the torture in the background of Ron Samuels."

Samuels hired a succession of lawyers to fight Heather over custody of the children and child support payments. The court ordered Ron to pay $3,000 in child support to Heather, which he refused to pay. He says he spent $665,000 in legal fees to fight the child support and custody orders.

"He didnít want shared custody. He wanted custody of the children full time, all the time without me having any contact with them," Heather says.

 


Samuels also moved on. Debbie Love, a legal secretary in the firm that represented Samuels in the divorce, would become Samuels' second wife.

Debbie and Samuels saw his children often during scheduled visitations. It was during one of those visits Samuels says his children told him that John Grossman was mistreating them.


Samuels confronted Grossman on the phone. "You know darn well I would never put my hands on your children," Grossman told Samuels.

"No? No? All three of them here told me differently," Samuels fired back.

"We're getting calls at night and we're getting death threats," Heather remembers.

But was Ron Samuels capable of carrying out those threats? "If you wanna know, would I have killed John Grossman? Had I the opportunity, I definitely would," Samuels admits to Roberts.

Speaking about Heather, Samuels says, "I would never do that to the lady that I watched give birth to my three children. Thereís no reason in the world for that."

After a five year relationship, Heather married John Grossman in June 1997.

It was a happy time for them, but their happiness was overshadowed by their fear of Heather's first husband, Ron Samuels, who had accused Grossman of abusing his children.

Because of Samuels' unpredictable and volatile behavior, Heather and John chose to keep their wedding location a secret.

Just four months later, while driving to a lunch date, Heather and John were gunned down. "There was no doubt. In the moment I was shot, I knew Ron Samuels was responsible," says Heather.

Asked how she knew, Heather tells Roberts, "Because when I left him, and divorced him, he said that he would destroy me, that he would kill me."

Samuels vehemently denies having anything to do with the shooting. "The one question I have is, if I didnít do it, who did and why? I have that question, too," he says.

And Samuels has a theory, too. "I think John Grossman had a motive to get rid of Heather. For many, many reasons. But the biggest one is because I was a pain in his a--. And I had just enough money to be that pain," Samuels says.

"So, youíre suggesting that John Grossman staged this shooting? He was injured, though, in the shooting, he was shot. Doesnít make any sense to me," Roberts reacts.

"I donít think that was intentional," Samuels claims.

But the evidence told investigators a very different story. It started with a great leadóa detailed description of the hit manís car, including the license plate.

The car was registered to an insurance salesman named Hugh Estess. At the time, Estess was a self-admitted crack addict.

Investigators put the squeeze on Estess, who told them all about the plan. He coughed up the names of the two men in the car: a crack dealer and pimp named Eddie "Slim" Stafford who was the driver; another petty criminal, Roger Runyon, was the shooter.

Then there was Geoff Pollock, who was not involved in drugs, but was at meetings where the murder plans were allegedly discussed with Samuels.

"He said, 'I want her deadÖ,'" says Estess. The motive? Money. "It was, 'Hey, hereís ten grand. Do something for me.' Sure, thanks a lot, sucker," Estess says.

But who was paying?

 


"Ron Samuels gave the instructions to Hugh Estess and Geoff Pollock," says assistant state attorney Al Johnson.

But Samuels is adamant he didn't solicit anyone to kills his ex-wife. "Iím from Brooklyn, New York. If I wanted to pay somebody to do this, Iíd have gone to New York and the professionals would have come thereÖno, I didnít want to do that and no, I did not pay anybody," he insists.


But Al Johnson says Ronald Samuels was the "puppet master."

But could this bizarre conspiracy story hold up in court? Investigators found no direct evidence linking Samuels to the crime, but they were sure he had a powerful motive Ė the costly custody fight that could see him lose his children, a fight Samuels was determined to win.

Asked what the children mean to him, Samuels tells Roberts, "I was willing to swap my life for theirs." And he was willing to put his children right in the middle of the fight. To document his claims that John Grossman was abusing the children, he had them examined by a psychologist.

Little Ronnie was just six years old when he accused John Grossman and Heather's parents of harming him.

"I said to them, 'You guys understand these are very serious things youíre saying. Very serious.í ĎWe promise, daddy. Itís the truth. We donít want to go back there,'" Samuels says.

But Heather Grossman says she never saw her husband John or her parents mistreat her child.

And Ron Samuels says he never coached his children to lie about the abuse allegations.

"In order to gain the upper hand, itís my belief that Ronald Samuels would call and make these child abuse allegationsÖthey were investigated by the police in Minnesota, they were investigated by the police in Boca Raton, and they were found to be unfounded," prosecutor Al Johnson remarks.

The claims of child abuse were rejected by a Florida judge, and Heather was awarded permanent custody of the children, just eight days before she was shot.

While investigators were convinced that Samuels was the mastermind behind the attempted murders, they felt they just didnít have enough evidence to bring a case against him. The key was getting the alleged co-conspirators to cooperate. But at what cost?

The decision was to make a controversial and highly unusual deal: in exchange for truthful testimony about Samuels' lead role in the conspiracy, complete immunity from prosecution for everyone involvedóeveryone, that is, except for Ron Samuels.

"In a perfect world, all five would have done prison time for this. We live in a world of choices and we make the best choice we can," Johnson tells 48 Hours.

With the deal made, the investigators were ready to make a move. But before Ron Samuels could be arrested, he was gone. Five months after the shooting, and just days before he was to be arrested, Samuels was on the run.

 


Now retired FBI agent Larry Doss tracked Samuels to Monterrey, Mexico, a sprawling city about 200 miles south of the border. Asked why he went to Mexico, Samuels tells Roberts, "The reason I went was to eventually bring the three kids there. Legally or illegally, I was gonna do it."

In May 1998, Samuels picked up the phone and called his second wife Debbie Love, using a credit card. But Debbie had allowed Florida police to tap her phone.


The Mexican authorities, working with the FBI, were following Samuelsí every move; as they closed in, he became more desperate. "A short time after the surveillance started, he realizes that heís being followedÖa high speed chase ensues, the car gets wrecked, and when they arrest him, and inventory his car, he has six kilograms of cocaine," says retired agent Doss.

While he acknowledges the report said he was found with six kilos of cocaine, Samuels says it's not true.

Ron Samuels would serve five years for narcotics trafficking in a Mexican prison, and his second wife, Debbie, would divorce him.

How does one man have such bad luck?

"Some would say I brought it on myself," Samuels tells Roberts. Asked if he did, Samuels says, "I must have been a very bad judge of two women."

But amazingly, even behind bars, Samuels found romance, when he had a chance encounter with Elizabeth Pastrana.

"I met him when I had a clothing business and I took clothes to the poor at the jail," she explains. Three years later, while Samuels was still in prison, Elizabeth became wife number three.

To this day, even in light of the charges against him, Elizabeth remains loyal to Samuels.

While Samuels was serving out his sentence in Mexico, John and Heather Grossman and her children moved to Arizona.

Not long after she was shot, Heather says John became increasingly abusive, both physically and emotionally. "I truly believe John couldnít handle it. And his anger and his rage just took over," she says.

In 2003, they divorced. Two years later, John died of a massive heart attack. "I forgive him. And I can understand it now, she says.

Asked if she forgives Ron Samuels, Heather says, "I forgive Ron Samuels, but I am afraid of him still."

Ron Samuels was extradited from Mexico and returned to Florida to stand trial in West Palm Beach on two counts of attempted murder. The co-conspirators, under the controversial grant of immunity, are all expected to testify about their role in the plot to kill Heather and her second husband, John Grossman.

Heather makes the long trip across country from Arizona to Florida to testify. She needs to confront the man she believes has caused her so much pain.

Itís been nine years since that fateful day. Defense lawyers Ned Reagan and Alex Brumfield plan to attack the credibility of the co-conspirators.

Asked if all these men are liars, Brumfield tells Roberts, "I would say yes."

"So your position is that this immunity deal gave them license to lie?" Roberts asks.

"Thatís exactly it," Reagan argues.

 



Questioned by prosecutor Al Johnson, Roger Runyon admitted that he was the triggerman on Oct. 14, 1997 and that the primary target was Samuels' ex-wife.

Runyon's testimony made Samuels explode. "I'll meet you in hell, you son of a bitch! Iíll find you one way or the other!!!" he shouted.

After order in the court was restored, one by one, the other alleged co-conspirators take the stand to testify. Eddie "Slim" Stafford, the drug dealer and pimp who was driving the car, says Samuels talked often of killing Heather.

And Geoff Pollock, who worked odd jobs for Samuels, says he was at a meeting where Samuels gave the orders to kill Heather.

"When Ron mentioned he wants his ex-wife taken care of, he made a motion of a gun in his hand," Pollock testifies.

Hugh Estess, the old friend of Samuels, also took the stand.

"Did there come a time when you provided him someone who might do this for him?" the prosecution asks.

"Yes," Estess replies, who says he arranged it all.

The testimony seems to put all the elements of the conspiracy in place.

But Samuels is skeptical. "I think that you could get anybody to say anything if they think theyíre not going to go to jail for whatever it is they have pending," he says.

But thereís no getting around phone records the prosecution says link Samuels to Estess and Stafford. "The lynchpin of our case was corroboration through the phone records," says prosecutor Al Johnson.

"And the phone calls ceased after the shooting?" Roberts asks.

"Pretty much," Johnson says.

"After our marriage, Ron changed immediately. He became angry, resentful, moody," says Debbie Love, Samuels' second wife, who tells jurors she was afraid of him. "I was fearful of Ron. Heís very forceful. Heís very domineering, dominating and controlling," she testifies.

And then, Debbie Love makes the prosecution's day.

"What terms would he use when he was describing Heather?" Johnson asks Love.

"That she was a gold digger. That she took his money," Love testifies.

"Did the defendant ever indicate he wished ill of Heather?" Johnson asks.

"Yes, he did," Love replies.

Asked what words he would use, Love testifies, "That bitch should be dead. I wish she was dead. She needs to be dead. Somebody should kill the bitch. We need to get rid of her."

But Samuels says Debbie is lying.

Everyone is telling the same story of rage and revenge and murder for hire. Everyone that is, except Ron Samuels.
 



In court, Heather Grossman is about to confront the man she believes was behind the plot to kill her. "I might have to look away, because he still scares me," she says. "Just knowing that heís there is eerie enough."

Seventeen-year-old Ronnie is called to testify about the decade-old allegations of child abuse against his step-father, John Grossman.

"The things that you told childrenís services and social services was the truth or a lie?" the prosecutor asks Ronnie.

"It was a lie," the teen replied.

It's a lie that his father, Ronnie says, convinced him to tell.

"Did Ronald Samuels tell you the reason why he wanted you to make these allegations?" the prosecution asks.

"Yes, he wanted to take me away from my mom and John," the teen says.

Asked what it was like to see his own son testifying against him, Samuels says, "What did I expect that boy to do after 10 years of being told that his dad did that to his mom? And seeing his mom suffer everyday of her life in that chair."

And now, finally, it was Heatherís moment of truth came.

"Iím not scared of him like I was before. I was afraid to see him at first, but he doesnít look intimidating now. I somewhat feel sorry for him that he chose to do what he did. And itís really messed up his life," she says.

"The problems you were experiencing with Mr. Samuels, did they intensify in the latter part of 1996 and into 1997?" prosecutor Johnson asks Heather.

"Yes, they kept getting worse," she says on the stand.

And Heather testifies that her children never complained to her that Grossman was beating them.

The courtroom is hushed as Heather recalls the very moment she was shot. "I tried to scream out for help, but, 'Help' wouldnít come out. And I donít remember anything after that," she testifies.

If the courtroom was riveted by Heatherís testimony, the atmosphere becomes electric when Ron Samuels, against the advice of his lawyers, takes the stand.

"Did you have anything to do with the shooting of Mrs. Grossman?" defense attorney Brumfield asks his client.

"I did not," Samuels says. "I wouldnít want anything like that to happen to her."

He insists he had nothing to do with the murder for hire scheme, saying he did not go to a restaurant to meet Hugh Estees, Geoffrey Pollock and Eddie Stafford.

And he insists that the phone records donít prove anything.

Samuels claims he truly feels Heatherís anguish, but he insists heís innocent.

Up until the trial, young Ronnie hadnít seen his father since the shooting, more than nine years ago. Ronnie tells Roberts he does believe that his father took out a contract on his mother's life.

Asked if there is anything Ron Samuels could say that would change anything, Ronnie says, "Oh, no, not at all, you know? He made his mistake. Thatís his doing, you know? He chose it this way."

 



After three weeks of testimony, and three days of deliberation, Heather Grossmanís nine-year wait for a verdict is about to be over.

The verdict? Guilty on two counts of attempted first degree murder and on four additional charges related to the murder for hire conspiracy. Samuels was sentenced to life, plus 120 years.

"I know that heís out of our lives forever. He will never bother us. I know that Iím safe and my children are safe," Heather says.

As for Roger Runyon, who confessed he shot heather, heís still haunted by his actions. "I'll never forgive myself," he tells 48 Hours. "At this point, just like right now, I wish I never would have been born."

As he begins serving out his sentence in a Florida prison, Ron Samuels, who still maintains his innocence, has grown almost philosophical about his fate. Asked what his biggest regret is, Samuels tells Roberts, "My greatest regret? My greatest regret is that both of us should have tried harder. For the sake of the three children."

"I love the three children. And Iím hoping that one day theyíll want to come see their father. Before theyíre married and have families of their own. And before I die. I miss them very much," he adds.

And he wants his children to know the truth. Asked what that truth is, Samuels says, "The truth is, I would never, ever harm one hair on Heatherís head."

The court ordered Samuels to pay Heather more than $300,000. But the one-time successful businessman who once said his worth was in excess of $30 million tells Roberts he now has "zero, and then some."

But Heather doesnít believe that. "I know he had millions of dollars," she says.

But if thereís really no money left for Heather, she says he could offer her something else of value. "I would have liked an apology. But I know I will never get one. Because I'm sure he was overjoyed that day that I was shot. Ron Samuels is exactly where he belongs and I don't have to think about him anymore."

Asked if she thinks there is any chance for rehabilitation for her condition, Heather says, "No Ö Maybe in 20 years there will be rehabilitation for someone in my condition. I donít think thatís gonna happen in my lifetime."

Today, her fragile condition requires 24-hour care. "I had to learn how to eat, how to swallow, how to sit up, how to speak on a ventilator, and just deal with everyday life this way. So, itís been very hard," she says.

Does she ever sorry for herself?

"I guess. Some days, you know? I might have a difficult day," Heather tells Roberts. "So, itís been very hard. But you know, with my faith and the way my life is now, itís great. It might be hard for some people to believe, but I'm sitting in a very happy place."




 

 

 

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