Judge: 'I am Truly in the Presence of an Evil Person'

Julie Keown's e-mail to a friend provided investigators with critical clues.

July 21, 2008, 3:46 PM

July 22, 2008— -- Julie and James Keown seemed to have a perfect relationship. College sweethearts, they met while attending William Jewel College in Missouri and dated for a few years before marrying in 1996 and settling in Kansas City, Mo.

To everyone who knew them, they seemed to be a perfect match: they complimented each other well, rarely fought and were by all accounts a happy pair.

Julie graduated with a nursing degree and started working as an ICU nurse before switching to work for a company that provides health care information technology. Although James never graduated, he landed a gig at a local radio station and then a job doing marketing for a nonprofit educational consulting group.

Anyone who met James was quick to note his charisma and charm. Friends such as former colleague Ellen Scheck were impressed. "JP liked the trappings of success. I mean, he had the Rolex, and the three piece suit. I saw him driving a Jaguar ... He was sort of, you know, the one you expected to watch and, and end up at the networks."

Those who knew him seemed to think James could accomplish anything. There wasn't much surprise when, in 2004, he announced to friends and family that he had been accepted into Harvard Business School on an academic scholarship. Scheck commented, "JP, that guy knew how to network, and if anybody could move up and move from broadcasting to Harvard, he's the one who could probably do it."

Although it meant leaving their close-knit family behind and moving halfway across the country, it was an opportunity that Julie thought the couple couldn't pass up. While Julie's father, Jack Oldag, was impressed that his son-in-law was apparently Harvard-bound, Julie's mother, Nancy Oldag, admitted to initially being less than thrilled about the situation.

"He was taking Julie away from us … I was like, 'Why can't you just get a degree from a college around here?' Even though I didn't want them to go, I was still proud," she said.

That winter, James and Julie relocated to Waltham, Mass., a city just outside of Boston. They had each worked out deals to work remotely for their employers while James attended Harvard. It seemed like a perfect solution, and the couple seemed on course to succeed.

But eight months after the move, the fairy tale began to unravel. Julie started developing flu-like symptoms that quickly worsened.

Then, on Aug. 20, Julie woke up with frightening symptoms that included slurred speech and dizziness. James took her to the emergency room at Newton-Wellesley Hospital. By the time she arrived at the ER, she was so incapacitated she couldn't even sign a consent form.

After a three-day stay in the hospital, Julie's condition was improving, but a battery of tests produced some disturbing news: Julie had chronic kidney disease and would sometime in the distant future need dialysis. Doctors also told her she would have a high-risk pregnancy if she were to conceive. It was major medical news for Julie and James, but even the disturbing diagnosis of kidney disease wasn't enough to account for the severity and sudden onset of Julie's symptoms.

Because her condition had improved considerably, she was released from the hospital.

Just two weeks later, on Labor Day weekend, Julie had another attack. This time her symptoms were even more serious. Once again her motor skills were severely impaired, and then, within a short time, she slipped into a coma.

Her doctors, still stumped, now began suspect a more sinister explanation. They tested her blood for ethylene glycol, a toxin commonly found in antifreeze, which when ingested in high doses can cause the symptoms Julie Keown was suffering from.

By the time the test results came back positive, Julie's family had arrived at the hospital. But by then it was clear that Julie would not make it.

Faced with their daughter's imminent death, and left with a variety of unanswered questions, the Oldags made a surprising decision to secretly take a trip to the Waltham police department and report both the poisoning and their suspicions that James, their son-in-law, may be to blame.

Detective John Bailey remembered Julie's father saying, "I don't understand how this can happen. James and Julie were the only ones in the house that day, and I know she didn't do it, so that only leaves one person."

Just weeks after Julie's tragic death, Waltham police received a call from the Keowns' landlord in Waltham. James had apparently fled town and left thousands of dollars worth of property behind.

"He had abandoned everything -- big screen TV, brand new furniture... It's bizarre," said Bailey, who investigated the scene. Also among the items were photographs of the couple, Julie's wedding dress and wedding rings. It was surprising behavior for a supposedly grieving widower.

The police soon learned James had left Waltham and headed back to his hometown, Jefferson City, Mo., where he had gotten a new job as a radio talk show host for station KLIK. He alternated between telling his new friends and colleagues that his wife was either the victim of a "tragic illness" or that she had committed suicide. Either way, those around him at the time remarked that Keown seemed ready to start a new life.

Tony Messenger, a local journalist, met James around that time. Looking back, he said, "He had just started dating somebody and he seemed to be very interested in kind of settling down and maybe having kids."

Yet, some friends, such as Ted and Laila Willmore, who had been close with both James and Julie, were beginning to realize their friend wasn't quite who he seemed. Initially, they defended James.

"My worst fear," Laila remembered, "was that an innocent man was going to go the jail for something he didn't do." But as time passed the Willmores began to question their friend's innocence.

Then, during the height of the investigation, they had James over for dinner and asked him if he was worried about how things looked. Ted remembered James replying, "You know guys, I don't think I would be indicted for this, and if I were indicted, I wouldn't be convicted and it would be a circumstantial case."

Both Laila and Ted were struck by the fact that during that conversation their friend never once professed his innocence, instead just detailing why he wouldn't get caught for his wife's death.

While he was going about his daily life, the Waltham police department had been uncovering a series of secrets about James. They were in contact with the Oldags, who say the were beginning to believe their son-in-law very likely murdered their daughter.

After more than a year of investigating, Waltham police felt they had enough evidence to make an arrest. They traveled to Missouri and tracked down James while he was on the air at KLIK. During a commercial break they placed him under arrest.

He was then brought back to Massachusetts, where he was indicted on first degree murder charges and accused of slowly and methodically poisoning his wife to death behind the closed doors of a supposedly very happy home. James pleaded not guilty and was held without bail.

In June, almost four years after Julie's death, the trial finally began. Prosecutors argued that the man everyone thought was a great guy was, in fact, a devious con man. They revealed a whole series of elaborate lies that James had concocted.

It turned out that James had never gotten into Harvard Business School; instead he had merely forged an acceptance letter. James had also lied about being employed. He had been fired from his job at the Learning Exchange at the beginning of the summer after his bosses found out he was stealing money from the company. In addition, James was in dire financial straits. He was broke and sliding deeper into debt. Instead of simply confessing to his wife, prosecutors claimed he killed her to collect a $250,000 life insurance policy.

Prosecutors pointed to James' computer for key evidence. Investigators searched Keown's computer for Internet search terms from mid-August, just before Julie became seriously ill, including "homemade poisons," "ricin," "Chloroform poisoning" and "antifreeze human death."

Antifreeze commonly contains ethylene glycol, the very poison that killed Julie. Prosecutors said James probably learned online that the sweet taste of antifreeze can easily blend with the similarly colored, sweet tasting Gatorade. Doctors had not tested for this type of poisoning during Julie's first hospital admittance in August 2004 because Julie waved off their suspicions.

Nancy Oldag remembered that her daughter found the doctors' questions ludicrous.

"The doctors kept asking her, 'Are you sure you are not getting some kind of poison,' and she laughed about that and thought it was completely ridiculous," she said.

Yet Julie's autopsy clearly showed she had been exposed to the deadly chemical for weeks. When defense lawyers tried to pressure Feral Sandler, the medical examiner on the case, to admit that poisoning isn't always a homicide, Sandler replied that she was convinced that a registered nurse would never kill herself in such a horrific way. "This is not a painless way to die. It didn't make sense [that] a nurse would put herself through a suffering type of long death like this," Sandler said at the trial.

Although police never found antifreeze or Gatorade in the Keown home, they knew Julie was drinking the sports drink because they had gotten hold of an e-mail chain between Julie and her friend and colleague Jill Lawson. In the message Julie stated, "James keeps wanting me to drink Gatorade, and my taste buds just can't handle anything citric.[sic]"

Julie's best friend, Heather LeBlanc, also testified that she had been on the phone with Julie and heard James calling out in the background, reminding his wife to drink Gatorade while she was ill.

In multiple e-mail exchanges throughout her illness, Julie wrote friends detailing what a wonderful husband and caretaker James was and how she was lucky to have him in her life. Even in e-mails written days before her death, Julie contacted friends and wrote about her unending love for James and her concerns that her illness would "mess up" his future.

Julie was convinced that her husband was focused on her wellness, trying to ensure she stay hydrated by giving her Gatorade to drink. In truth, he was slowly poisoning her.

"On the outside, he portrayed himself as a caring, loving husband … the cruelty that, that goes with a slow poisoning death …I just found it very, very cold," said Bailey, the Waltham detective.

It took less than two days for the 12-person jury to reach a verdict. James Keown was found guilty of first degree murder with deliberate pre-meditation.

Upon hearing the verdict, James briefly closed his eyes and bowed his head, but otherwise he showed little emotion. His only courtroom supporter was his mother, Betty Keown, who sat alone, stoically clutching her Bible.

Julie's family was finally given a chance to confront James before he was sentenced. Julie's mother addressed the court and said, "In my mind, James is no longer a person. He is just a mass of flesh and bone taking up space on this earth. A real person never would have done such an evil thing."

Arguably the harshest statement came from Judge Sandra Hamlin. When she addressed James and the court, she stated vehemently, "The way in which this defendant secretly and methodically planned and carried out the poisoning of his wife and allowed her to suffer so horribly and die such a slow and painful death makes this court feel that I am truly in the presence of an evil person."

Following the Hamlin's statement, James was sentenced to life in prison. When asked about how she felt the day she heard the verdict, Holly Oldag, Julie's sister-in-law, sounded relieved.

"I was so happy to know [James] would be in prison for the rest of his life. Just knowing what an evil man he is is extremely frightening.," she said. "[To know] you were so close to a monster and had no idea. I mean, it just scares me to death to know we had him in our home, in our wedding, around our children. It's just so frightening."

Nancy Oldag said the verdict brought both relief and a sense of clarity.

"I looked at him. And it was just a moment and I just realized that person sitting over there, he is not the person who I thought was married to my daughter," she said. "It was just a realization that sunk into my head that I don't know who he is."

Finally, the Oldags were able to get some closure. But they will never know why their son-in-law would commit such a heinous crime, especially to someone who loved him so much.

"Julie was such a good person," Nancy said. "It wasn't like he was married to someone who didn't care about him, and she would have followed him to the ends of the Earth."

The Oldags said they think it is important for people to know Julie's story, in part so people know the warning signs of ethylene glycol poisoning. They said they also support a pending federal bill called the "Antifreeze Bittering Act," which would require manufacturers to add a bittering agent to antifreeze to help prevent the accidental poisoning of hundreds of children, thousands of pets and unknown number of "death by antifreeze" crimes in this country every year.

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