Nightmare in Phoenix
(“Walking Terror,” Forensic Files)
If you’re looking for a story about a wholesome nuclear family no one ever imagined could harbor a murderer, the “Walking Terror” episode of Forensic Files should hit the spot.
Scott Falater and Yarmila Klesken started dating in high school and wed in 1976. She loved him enough to adopt a surname that sounds like, well, a brothel-worker classification.
Scott, a Motorola engineer, and Yarmila, a preschool teaching aide, had a son and a daughter, a golden retriever, and a comfortable house in Phoenix, Arizona.
No secrets. The family made few ripples until Scott stabbed Yarmila 44 times with a hunting knife and drowned her in their backyard pool on January 16, 1997.
Normally, after a commercial or two in a Forensic Files story such as this, we learn about the administrative assistant the husband has been secretly romancing or the hidden financial problems in the family and the life insurance jackpot the surviving spouse hoped to receive.
But “Walking Terror” offers up none of that. The only conflicts between the two allegedly stemmed from the fact that he wanted more children and she felt he spent too much time on church activities — hardly the kind of stuff that boils over into homicide.
Call in the pros. Instead, we find out that Scott had a history of sleepwalking. He claimed that he was sleepwalking when he killed Yarmila and had no memory of the incident.
Scott’s sister, Laura, had once tried to wake him up during a sleepwalking episode when he was a teenager, she said, and he reacted by flinging her across the room.
Yarmila Falater’s murder case ended up hinging upon the testimony from sleep-disorder experts as well as a neighbor who saw the attack.
If Scott could prove he was sleepwalking when he killed his wife, he could escape legal responsibility and glide out of the courtroom a free man.
Aye said the jury. In its own way, Falater’s defense made some sense. There was no evidence of prior spousal battery or any waking physical abuse toward anyone.
Still, I found myself rooting for the expert witnesses who doubted Scott’s story. Someone had to pay for the horrible death.
And if a person is capable of killing someone while sleepwalking, maybe that individual belongs behind razor wire, period.
That didn’t matter, however, because the jury rejected the theory that Scott Falater was sleepwalking during the attack and found him guilty of premeditated murder.
For this week’s post, I looked around for an epilogue for him.
But first a recap of the Forensic Files episode along with additional facts from internet research.
Blackout. On a chilly night in 1997, Phoenix resident Greg Coons heard screams coming from his next-door neighbor’s house. Peering over the fence between the properties, Coons saw Scott Falater, age 41, repeatedly stab his wife, also 41, in the backyard, then go inside to change clothes.
Next, Scott tried to quiet his agitated dog and then rolled Yarmila into the swimming pool and held her head underwater. He sealed his knife and bloody clothes in a Tupperware container and deposited it in the wheel well of his Volvo.
By this time, Coons had alerted police, who arrived on the scene and took Scott away in handcuffs. During the subsequent interrogation, Scott told detective John Norman he had no memory of what he had done and that he and Yarmila had a happy marriage.
He remembered Yarmila watching ER on TV when he went to bed that night, and the next thing he recalled was the sound of police sirens in his driveway, he said. “I heard the dogs go crazy, and I heard all the voices, came down, and you guys were all over me. God,” Scott told Norman.
Clash of the experts. During the ensuing investigation, the authorities indulged Scott’s sleepwalking contention by sending him to the Sleep Disorders Service and Research Center, where experts studied his brain waves over a four-day period and found abnormalities consistent with those of sleepwalkers.
Scott Falater had interruptions in his phases of sleep right before the dreaming stage, typical of sleepwalkers.
Psychologist Rosalind Cartwright, who testified for the defense, told Forensic Files that sleepwalkers have committed such senseless acts as destroying their own furniture or plunging their own arms through panes of glass.
The kindly mannered Cartwright believed in Scott’s innocence. Her theory was that Scott, while sleepwalking, was working to fix a malfunctioning swimming pool pump, when Yarmila walked over to question him about it. His fight or flight impulse kicked in and he attacked her, Cartwright suggested.
Why did he feel threatened by his own wife? Sleepwalkers are incapable of facial recognition during episodes, Cartwright said. Scott mistook Yarmila for an attacker, she believed.
Memory bank. County prosecutor Juan Martinez mocked the credentials of Cartwright and the defense’s other sleep expert, Robert Broughton.
Their résumés “are nothing but steps to their shrines of self-indulgence,” Martinez told the jury. He also pointed out that Broughton’s and Falater’s explanation differed about stashing the clothes in the car.
Broughton said it was a routine task because Falater kept clothes in his car to wear for yard work, but Falater said they were there for emergencies.
Martinez called on sleep-disorder expert Mark Pressman, M.D., who testified that Yarmila’s screams of pain and the dog’s barking would have awakened a sleepwalker.
Pressman also asserted that a sleepwalker can’t create new memories during an episode. Scott’s recognition of the need to conceal the bloody evidence meant that he knew what he was doing all along, Pressman testified.
Martinez theorized that Scott planned to kill Yarmila, go back to bed, and allow his children to find her body the next morning and think a random stranger had murdered her.
During the six-week trial, the prosecutors also contended that the Falater marriage wasn’t all hearts and flowers and noted that Yarmila wasn’t wearing her wedding ring when police found her body.
Backup excuse. Perhaps, the prosecution ventured, Scott knew about the 1987 case of a Canadian man named Ken Parks who was acquitted of killing his mother-in-law because, he claimed, he did it unintentionally while sleepwalking.
Maybe Scott planned to use a sleepwalking defense as a backup plan in case the unknown-attacker ploy failed.
Martinez, who newspaper reporter Paul Rubin described as having the “demeanor of an adrenalized boxer,” hammered Scott Falater’s contention that stress at work contributed to his alleged frazzled sleepwalking state on the night of the killing.
According to Rubin’s Phoenix New Times article: “Falater testified that Yarmila was the only person he’d told about his sleep deprivation. ‘And she can’t come in and testify, can she?’ Martinez snapped at him.”
Jurors convicted Scott after eight hours of deliberation. “It’s not over yet,” Scott announced as he left the courtroom, according to a New York Post story entitled “Wide-Awake Jury Nails ‘Sleepwalking’ Wife Killer.”
Scott also expressed remorse, as reported by the Associated Press:
“I have no memory of what happened. The one thing I do know is that I loved my wife. . . . I’ve tortured myself a hundred times with thoughts of what must have been going through her [Yarmila’s] mind as she was being attacked by me. It had to have been a terrifying, confusing, and painful experience for her.”
At least he didn’t try to blame the victim.
Mother-in-law speaks. Megan, the Falaters’ 18-year-old daughter, who was a freshman at the University of Chicago, and Michael, their 15-year-old son, both testified that Scott was a great father and they wanted to continue their relationship with him.
Yarmila’s mother (also named Yarmila) told the judge she wanted her grandchildren to have Scott in their lives, albeit with him in a jail cell.
Noting the children’s testimony that the Falaters had a happy marriage free of violence, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Ronald Reinstein declined to impose the death penalty and instead sentenced Scott to life with no possibility of parole.
While reaffirming his belief in Scott’s innocence, defense lawyer Mike Kimerer conceded the sleepwalking contention presented a challenge. “You would love to have a much different defense,” Kimerer said. “We didn’t have anything else.”
Single white male. Today, Scott Falater is inmate No. 148979 in the Arizona Department of Corrections system.
Aside from one incident in 2004, when he “disobeyed an order,” Scott has behaved himself in prison. His work assignments have included teacher’s aide, library aide, and data entry clerk.
One online commenter joked that Scott’s last name could make him very popular in jail. Just the same, for everyone’s safety, let’s hope the warden has him sleeping alone, in a locked cell.
That’s all for this post. Until next week, cheers. — RR