When Gail Katz-Bierenbaum disappeared in 1985, her relatives and New York prosecutors almost immediately suspected her husband of murder.
Citing her tumultuous, and sometimes violent, marriage, Katz-Bierenbaum’s family said her husband, then aspiring plastic surgeon Robert Bierenbaum, killed her. Gail, relatives told police, complained that Robert was obsessed with control and she lived in fear of him. Robert, they claimed, did not let Gail have her own identity.
Despite the suspicions, prosecutors felt they could not charge Robert Bierenbaum: Gail’s body was never recovered.
It’s a sort of case that prosecutors often dread. Without a body or other physical evidence of a slaying, district attorneys often feel they will not win a conviction. But they do pursue such cases, and have won convictions in a number of recent high-profile missing-body murder prosecutions: Cases such as Delaware vs. Thomas Capano, the influential lawyer convicted of killing Gov. Thomas Carper’s scheduling secretary and dumping her body and sea, at New York vs. Sante and Kenneth Kimes, the mother and son grifters convicted of killing an elderly socialite in an attempt to steal her multimillion-dollar Manhattan townhouse.
The Bierenbaum case is set to become another of the rare, but growing, prosecutions where investigators never found the alleged victim. Last December, 14 years after Katz-Bierenbaum vanished, her husband was arrested and charged. Prosecutors said they found new “compelling” evidence and uncovered inconsistent statements the doctor allegedly made to friends and acquaintances about his wife’s disappearance.
When Bierenbaum goes on trial this fall, the proceedings likely will provide a snapshot of why some legal experts say missing-body cases are the toughest to prove, and show the sorts of hurdles the prosecution must overcome that would not exist when a body has been recovered.
“The law says you must pass the corpus delecti rule, which refers to a body of crime,” says Michigan prosecutor Stuart Fenton. “Normally, you have a body and a coroner who will tell you the cause of death. With a missing body, you don’t have that. You have to prove by circumstantial evidence that: there was a death and the death occurred by criminal means. A lot of prosecutors are afraid of taking on these cases because of these obstacles.”
Constructing & Deconstructing a Murder To prove there was a death in missing-body cases, prosecutors must prove there has been no sign of the person’s existence. That means presenting close friends and family members who would say they haven’t heard from the alleged victim in a long time and that the missing person would not have just gone away without informing them. Prosecutors and investigators also comb through records in 50 states to show there has been no activity in the accounts belonging to the victim, such as Social Security funds, bank accounts and credit card activity.