tv Forensic Files CNN August 2, 2015 12:30am-1:01am PDT
largely circumstantial, but the photogrammetry helped convince the jury. >> photogrammetry was the key element, and it was used to solve the case. without photogrammetry, this case would have gone unsolved. a car runs off the highway into a river. yet the driver is nowhere to be found. for answers, investigators recreated the crash, and the evidence revealed a plan almost 20 years in the making. the result of a deadly obsession that ended in tragedy. nick howard was just 18 years old, fresh out of high school and working in his father's car repair business. he was trying to decide what to do with his life. >> we had a deal with nick that
he was welcome to stay at home, but he had to work or go to school. he had to be doing something with his life. he was starting to get a little bit lackadaisical about that. >> nick was a night person and often stayed out late with friends. on a february night in 1997, nick stopped by a local restaurant to pick up his driver's license he had left there earlier. but the restaurant was closed so he left a note for the owner. >> it was in his handwriting. so we knew that he had gone down there. >> later, he called his parents' answering machine and left a message. >> it's 12:00. i had a little bit of car trouble. so i'll be home in about a half hour or so. i'm wiped out. >> but nick never made it home. >> it was very odd that he wasn't there. he had never not been in his room. it let us know right away something was very wrong.
>> the howard family called police to report nick missing. the search began at the restaurant where nick had stopped the night before. it was on a treacherous road that ran parallel to the sacramento river. >> you make a mistake and drift off of the roadway, you're liable to go to the bottom of the levee. on one side, it's a river. on the other side, it's about a 30-foot drop. >> if you're asleep or intoxicated or not paying attention, there's a good chance you could end up in the water. >> and that's where they found nick's car two days later, submerged in 18 feet of water. >> you could tell that the engine was running because when we examined the radiator, it had contact marks from the fan belt grinding away portions of plastic. we concluded from this that the engine had to be running. >> but there was no sign of nick anywhere. >> we expected to find a body inside. we were pretty surprised when we
did not. >> nick's broken glasses were on the floor of his car. and the side windows were open. >> i was still hoping that we would find him alive. i was hoping that he had swam out of the car and had been injured and didn't know who he was and that we were going to find him. >> the way the car went in, the fact that he got out, none of it made sense. >> inside nick's car, investigators found a greasy film on the dashboard and upholstery. >> it was kind of a light white milky substance that we didn't know what it was initially until we started touching it and playing around with it a little bit. that's when we realized it was motor oil. >> they also found an empty motor oil bottle in the trunk. it looked like the oil spilled in the trunk and got into the car's passenger compartment while in the water. at first, accident investigators thought nick might have fallen asleep at the wheel.
but when a car goes off the road, the driver is usually jolted awake which will leave telltale signs. >> had the driver fallen asleep at the wheel, i would have expected an ever-increasing vigorous correction effort on the part of the driver. in other words, the driver would have predictably steered harder and braked more that would have resulted in a well-defined path of travel down the rocks toward the roadway. none of that was visible. >> but where was nick's body? volunteers searched the river and surrounding areas for possible clues.
nick howard's car was found submerged in the sacramento river, but there was no sign of his body. inside nick's car, investigators found evidence the crash may not have been an accident. >> this car was a manual speed transmission car. it was found in the neutral position. >> in the car's engine, investigators found even more proof. >> we examined the carburetor. i found an oil bottle cap holding the throttle open, which was remarkable by its uniqueness.
never seen it before or have never seen it since. >> the cap was marked with a "v." it was the top to the valvoline motor oil bottle in the trunk. >> the bottle cap was a big indicator right off the bat. the car had been rigged. something wasn't right. >> the bottle cap would be put in there in lieu of a person to hold the gas pedal in position so the vehicle could be operated without a driver. >> to see what effect the bottle cap would have on nick's car, investigators put an identical cap in the carburetor of another car. for safety purposes, a test driver sat behind the wheel to stop the car after the test. when the engine started, the car moved on its own. accident experts estimated the car was traveling at 25 miles per hour when it left the road. the embankment slowed the car. and by the time it hit the water, it was moving at only 15 miles per hour.
nick's glasses were found in the car. and investigators wanted to know if nick had been wearing them when the crash occurred. so they created a styrofoam facsimile of nick's head. >> i weighted the styrofoam head so that it was approximately the same weight as nick's head would have been in that same situation. >> they put an identical pair of glasses on the model to simulate the force of impact. it was attached to a pendulum. >> based on a potential energy formula, mass times gravity times height, i lifted the head that given height, allowed it to swing down, and it collided with the steering wheel. >> this was a virtual recreation of what would happen if nick's head had hit the steering wheel when the car crashed into the river at 15 miles per hour.
there was far less damage to the test glasses than the ones found in the car. >> my conclusion was nick's head did not collide with the steering wheel in the car. >> this proved the glasses had been planted. and if nick hadn't been in the car during the crash, then there was still the possibility he was alive. >> we were a little emotional. well, very emotional but, you know, kind of on pins and needles. >> of course, you pray for the best, but i think there's that part of you that knows it could go the other way. >> three weeks later, a search crew found nick's body in the sacramento river about a quarter mile downstream from the crash site. the body had been under water and had resurfaced. >> my whole world changed. i no longer had a son. >> he was the best friend i ever had.
he was the best friend to anybody that he ever met. he was very easy-going, very happy-go-lucky. just kind of a cool kind of kid. >> since there was no motor oil on nick's body, and oil was throughout the passenger compartment of his car, this was further proof that he wasn't inside when it crashed. at the autopsy, the pathologist found evidence that nick had been beaten. >> there were internal injuries. specifically, bleeding inside the neck muscles, also called strap muscle hemorrhage. that alone is a pretty good indicator of manual strangulation. there were bruises on the face. there was also blunt force injury inside the body. >> and there was water in nick's lungs, an indication that he was still breathing when he was thrown in the water. >> the cause of death was essentially lack of oxygen. he may well have gone into the water unconscious. ultimately, though, it was
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howard was not in his car when it crashed into the sacramento river. and nick had been strangled and dumped in the river at another time. in a search for suspects, investigators first questioned who would benefit from nick's death and learned that nick had several large life insurance policies. >> we found a life insurance policy that had an accidental death benefit rider on there, making the life insurance policy worth $850,000. now, an 18-year-old kid having an $850,000 life insurance policy is a little bit unusual. >> nick's family believed they were the beneficiaries but soon learned that wasn't the case. >> when i went in the room and pulled the policy out, and there was this loose piece of -- it was an application for change of beneficiary. it was an ncr copy. you could see where it had been crumpled, and it had been folded
at one time. it had ralph marcus' name on it. and i was a little shocked. >> 37-year-old ralph marcus was an unemployed laborer who had a strained relationship with the howard family. he also had a police record. >> well, we did a little checking on mr. ralph marcus. in addition to his gambling and his flashy lifestyle, he never really had the ability to hold a job for very long. >> he was kind of creepy. he just never went away. he wasn't around like 24/7, but he would always show up. >> nick's mother patty first met marcus when they were both in high school 20 years earlier. their first encounter almost landed marcus in jail. >> he was in my home for not five or ten minutes when he proceeded to kind of wrestle me to the floor and try and kiss me. i didn't even know this guy. >> over the years, he continued to make romantic advances to her
and to, in fact, ask her to be his wife. >> but patty said no. married someone else. had two children and tried to distance herself from marcus. but marcus continued to pursue her. >> ralph came to me and wanted to buy my ovum for $50,000. he wanted to hire a surrogate to carry the child. just before the end of the meeting, he put his hand on me and said, "i'd really rather that you carried the child but i know that that's not possible." >> that was the last straw. >> i saw how much it hurt my husband. and i just completely decided that there would be no friendship with ralph marcus at this point. he had stepped over the line just too far. >> but despite their best efforts, they could not convince their son nick to avoid marcus. >> ralph described himself almost as the boy's godfather. he did a lot of things with him to try to impress him. >> i believe that marcus
befriended nick to, first of all, stay close and to find out things about me. but i think even early on, he had a plan to hurt nick. >> they went to lake tahoe. they went to reno. ralph fancied himself the great baccarat player. he got fancy hotel rooms. he had women come by. >> when questioned, ralph marcus said he knew nothing about nick howard's murder and claimed he had an alibi for the night of the crash. >> and he had his dying mother state that he was at home with her during that evening. >> but in marcus' home, investigators found evidence that marcus was somehow involved. >> when i walked into his bedroom, i noticed that he had all of the life insurance paperwork for nick howard spread out over the desk. as if he was working on the life insurance.
>> it was clear the change of beneficiary forms were in nick howard's handwriting and were not forgeries. it appeared that nick and ralph marcus planned to defraud the insurance company. >> they had hatched a plan to fake nick's death, collect the insurance proceeds, and take the money down to south america or some location to live off of it. >> but this was all speculation. investigators had no proof of the scam or that marcus killed nick howard and crashed his car into the river. >> it was a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle, and we had 999 pieces. >> all they needed was that one final piece. do you toss and turn?
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before his murder, nick howard told his sister he planned to change the beneficiary of his life insurance policies that totaled almost $1 million, but she didn't take him seriously. >> he told me, i'm thinking about changing the beneficiary. and then i said, not ralph. then nick said, why not? he could take $850,000 and he could turn it into $4 million. you'd never have to work again. >> and ralph marcus was no
stranger to insurance fraud. >> it was said that ralph marcus decided pretty early on in his life that only fools worked for a living, and rather than get a job, he supported himself gambling and insurance scams. supposedly, he had burned down his own house to receive the insurance proceeds. and then another time had arranged for the theft of a car and a boat to make money off that as well. >> with no forensic evidence linking marcus to the crash, investigators had one last idea. they noticed a lot number on the oil bottle found in the trunk of nick's car. armed with a warrant, investigators searched ralph marcus' garage looking for a possible connection. and they found a brand-new quart bottle of valvoline motor oil with the same lot number.
>> you never know what's going to be important at a scene, so you collect everything. sometimes it's the smallest thing that you didn't think would be involved is what breaks your case open. >> prosecutors believe ralph marcus was angry with nick's mother for the years of rejection going all the way back to high school. >> ralph marcus believed that he and patty should have been star-crossed lovers. she had turned him down from the outset. and toward the time when nick howard was killed, he'd actually gotten to threatening her by saying things like, you should know what it's like to lose a child. >> ralph marcus' plan, according to prosecutors, was to befriend patty's son nick, the only family member who would talk to him. he convinced the teenager to crash his car into the river, to fake his own death in order to defraud the life insurance company of $850,000.
on the night of the murder, prosecutors believe marcus and nick met on the dock to plan the car crash. either nick tried to back out or marcus had planned to kill him all along. at some point, marcus strangled him until he was unconscious, then threw him into the river where he drowned. he kept nick's glasses, bent them in half, and threw them on the floor of nick's car to make it appear nick was in the car when it crashed. marcus opened the windows, used the cap from his motor oil bottle, placed it in the carburetor, threw the bottle in the trunk, and started the car. and with that, the car plunged into the sacramento river.
had it not been for accident reconstruction, forensic testing and a bottle of motor oil, he might have gotten away with it. >> he was motivated to kill nicholas howard to prevent any other witnesses, prevent having to share the insurance proceeds, and because he had a long vendetta against the mother as a scorned lover. >> i don't know if nick planned a scam with ralph. it makes absolutely no sense to me because you can't get insurance money if you're alive. and because i know how nick loved me and loved our family. >> nick had told people, i'm going to be a millionaire before i'm 30. nick had also made the comment within the week before his disappearance that he could disappear and nobody would ever be able to find him.
you can look at that a couple of different ways. yeah, that leads to believe that perhaps there's some involvement. the family would like to think otherwise. it's difficult to say. and i'm not sure we will ever know. >> ralph marcus was tried and convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. >> i was amazed at the team, the california highway patrol team, the way they put things back together. it was very interesting in court, even though it was very hard. the scientific findings, the way they reconstruct the accident. >> i'm reassured as i look back at cases i've done, by the way
fact that small details come together in the way that they do and allow for a specific diagnosis. like a lot of modern medicine, it's an amazing thing. >> you just got to teach your kids that you're the number one fan of theirs and teach them to listen to you. no one out there is for their good like you are. it doesn't matter what they say. there's too many con artists her body was behind the sofas. >> evil has met its match. "the hunt" with john walsh tomorrow night at 9:00 on cnn. investigators prepare to examine aircraft debris that has arrived in france, looking for any clues to this question, could this piece of plane be part of the doomed flight mh-370. we look into it. deadly floods and landslides in southeast asia wreak havoc and displace thousands of people from their homes. a live update there ahead. also, two close calls between