Apelt arrived in the United States
from his native Germany in 1988. He was 25. In four
short months, he flim-flammed more people than many con
men do in a lifetime.
He never studied English in school,
yet expressed himself well enough to get a half-dozen
Americans to loan him big bucks. He had no income, yet
he charmed Jaguar dealers into letting him take their
expensive toys out for a spin.
And even though he was traveling with
an ex-girlfriend, he managed to persuade a lovely,
bright 30-year-old Mesa woman to elope with him in
Vegas, then take out $400,000 in insurance policies on
her life. Then he brutally murdered her.
Pretty sick stuff. But not, in any
way, the behavior of a mentally retarded person.
That's why it's so unbelievable to me
that Apelt, sent to death row in 1990, will return to a
Florence courtroom next week for what could be his
biggest scam yet.
He really is claiming that he's
Yep, and our judicial system really
is giving him a two-week hearing, with all the trimmings,
to prove it. We, the taxpayers, are financing his
talented lawyer, his expensive psychiatric experts, the
judge who will give him every last benefit of the doubt,
and, of course, the assistant attorney general charged
with fighting them.
The stakes are real: If he can
convince the judge he's retarded, Michael Apelt doesn't
only escape execution. He could also get out of jail in
just seven years.
Every last shred of evidence says
that Apelt is faking it, just as he faked loving his
bride even as he put in motion the plan to kill her.
But these days, as a nation, we're so
conflicted about the death penalty that we'd rather bend
over backwards for a known con man and his latest
ridiculous claim than use common sense.
I love this country. Yeah, that's a
little sarcastic, but really aren't we nice?
I first heard about Michael Apelt
from Kathy Monkman. I wasn't living in Arizona when
Apelt was last in the courtroom, when local TV reporters
breathlessly covered his murder trial.
But when I moved to Phoenix two years
ago, I wrote my first New Times cover story about
Kathy. At the time, we talked only briefly about Kathy's
beloved older sister, Cindy, who had been Michael
Apelt's second wife and his murder victim.
Since then, Kathy and I have become
friends, and we've talked about the case quite a bit
more. In the past few weeks, I've read the court files
in Pinal County. I also read Apelt's file at the Arizona
Department of Corrections, and files from the case in
which he attempted to divorce his fourth wife. (Yes,
this "retarded" man has managed to persuade four women
to marry him.)
I've also read the files on Rudi
Apelt, Michael's brother, accomplice, and fellow death
row inmate. Rudi also will try to prove his retardation
at next week's hearing, but that case isn't quite as
clear: Was Rudi a dimwit who followed his brother? Or a
fellow con man? It could go either way.
But with Michael, there's no question.
All three sets of documents are amazing testaments to
his mental abilities. Clearly, this is a guy who knows
how to work all kinds of systems.
That comes as no surprise to Kathy.
She vividly remembers her suspicion of her older
sister's whirlwind romance. Right away, she says, she
thought Michael Apelt was a "slick, lounge lizard,
manipulating type of guy."
Kathy, however, never imagined that
Apelt would kill Cindy or surface in the court system
17 years later claiming to be retarded.
She remembers visiting the newlyweds
and Michael explaining what a difficult time he'd had
making his mother's signature German potato salad. He
said that he'd had to travel to several different
grocery stores to find capers. "He just thought it was
ridiculous that Americans didn't know about capers,"
Kathy tells me, shaking her head.
How many people with mental
retardation could give you that kind of monologue in a
foreign language, no less?
Now, you don't have to be a death
penalty activist to believe that people with severe
mental impairment are better served by life behind bars
than execution. For someone who doesn't know enough to
function in society, a life sentence without possibility
of parole is punishment enough.
But there are two problems when it
comes to Michael Apelt.
One: Life without parole wasn't an
option at the time of Apelt's crime. If his death
sentence is reversed, Michael Apelt could apply for
parole in just seven years. He could literally walk
Two: Michael Apelt isn't retarded.
When Apelt was 8 years old, he took
an IQ test and scored an 88, which doesn't make him
Einstein but does put him in the normal range. Only
after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that it was
unconstitutional to execute people with mental
retardation did Michael Apelt score a 65.
There's no doubt in my mind: A man
smart enough to set up an insurance scam is a man smart
enough to fail a test.
I would have thought retardation is
fairly cut and dried. Turns out, that's not the case. IQ
scores can swing wildly. Kent Cattani, who runs the
capital crimes unit for Arizona Attorney General Terry
Goddard, says that more than a dozen death row inmates
in Arizona have petitioned to be declared retarded since
the court's 2002 ruling. Cattani has seen cases in which
IQ scores run a 40-point gamut the difference between
normal intelligence and pure genius.
Does anyone else smell a defense
Advocates for the mentally disabled
tell me that there are two prongs to proving retardation:
low IQ and an inability to adapt successfully to life.
Even if someone has an IQ below 70, he isn't considered
retarded if he carves out a good career and an
It's hard to imagine anyone more
adaptable than this clown.
He married his first wife in Germany
and, according to her, became a hash dealer. (How many
retarded drug dealers do you know?) He killed his second
wife, then persuaded a third woman to marry him while he
was on death row. When she divorced him, he found his
fourth wife in two years flat a British nurse who,
twice a year, flew to Arizona to visit him.
When Apelt wanted to divorce her, he
managed to file his own papers, in perfect legalese. His
file at the Arizona Department of Corrections is filled
with letters he's written in fluent English to prison
officials. In letter after letter, Apelt articulately
complains about his mail being opened, his need for a
typewriter, and even the prison's "sandy, unwashed,
filthy and rotten breakfast potatoes."
Give the man a pen, and he's
practically Thomas Hobbes.
Of course, now that Apelt is playing
the retarded card, his file is filling up with stories
about his miserable childhood and his alcoholic dad.
Apparently, he attended a school for students with
learning disabilities in Germany and wasn't particularly
successful, even there.
There's no doubt in my mind that
Apelt will put on a good show in court next week. If he
can fool a Jaguar dealer, he can fool a judge.
Luckily for Michael Apelt, the judge
who heard his case in 1990 is dead. For his replacement,
Apelt drew Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Silvia
Arrellano never heard Apelt's
testimony in 1990, which was apparently razor-fast and
highly articulate. And throughout her judicial career,
Arellano has earned a reputation for being sympathetic
to the defense. In this case, she's already made several
rulings that should have Apelt's lawyers feeling giddy
including a bizarre decision that none of Apelt's
actions after turning 18 counts as evidence. (The
Arizona Supreme Court overturned that ruling.)
It doesn't help, either, that Apelt's
lawyer has been on the case for years, or that the
lawyer representing the attorney general's office has
little experience with death penalty work. Thanks to
turnover in that office, she's been on this case for
only a few months.
Fortunately, there will be two people
in the courtroom who know exactly what Michael Apelt is
One of them is Kathy Monkman, who
will testify to what she saw and will make a compelling
The other is Cathy Hughes. Hughes was
a 40-year-old Pinal County prosecutor when she secured
convictions against the Apelt brothers. She's come out
of retirement to volunteer her time.
If anyone knows just what a shyster
Michael is, it's Cathy Hughes. She cross-examined him in
the last case, and we're going to have to hope she's
ready for him now.
But even if justice is served, and
Cathy Hughes blows her adversary out of the water, the
fact that we're even at this point is unsettling.
Really, this whole thing amazes me. I
can't believe we spent tens of thousands of dollars to
send Michael Apelt's lawyer to Germany to research his
background. I can't believe Apelt is even entitled to a
hearing when there's so much proof of his mental
This is the problem with our
painfully good intentions: We allow con men like Michael
Apelt to milk us for all we're worth. We let them
because we'd rather give them every last chance at
vindication rather then make them pay the price.
Ultimately, that may be a good thing.
I like to believe that it's worth turning the other
cheek, even when we get smacked for it.
But next week, when Michael Apelt
uses the full resources of the state to attempt his
highest-stake con ever, I can't help thinking that we're
the stupid ones and that the allegedly retarded
Michael Apelt will be sitting there laughing his head
That's what con men do. And, God
bless us, what do we expect when we keep letting them do