Providence, Rhode Island (AP)
Christopher Hightower was facing a bright future. As a well respected member of the community, he taught Sunday school, counseled troubled teens and was a doctoral candidate in medicine before starting his own investment firm. But underneath that bright facade was an evilness that few had ever encountered.
On September 20, 1991, the evil inside the mild-mannered commodities broker erupted in a spate of violence that would stun the town of Barrington, Rhode Island. and the nation. For on that day, Christopher Hightower went on a bloody killing spree that culminated in the brutal death of his former friend, patent lawyer Ernest Brendel, along with Brendel’s librarian wife, Alice, and the couple’s eight-year-old daughter, Emily.
Using a high-powered crossbow powerful enough to take down a bear, Hightower stalked his prey then shot Ernest Brendel five times with steel-tipped arrows. One of those arrows would pierce his heart. A drugged and sleeping Alice Brendel was strangled with her own scarf. The couple’s daughter, a bright third-grader with an infectious smile, was buried alive. It would take five weeks of gut-wrenching searches to find their bodies.
The savage killings — and the manner in which they were committed — shocked the tiny town of Barrington where Hightower was a well-liked resident and regular churchgoer. The slayings also unraveled the tightly-knit facade he had created for himself. In the end, many in Barrington, would learn that everything about Christopher Hightower was not what it seemed.
A Bizarre Story
From the very beginning, the man’s story sounded bizarre.
On the evening of September 22, 1991 Christine Scriabine sat mesmerized in the kitchen of her Guilford, CT home as a balding and bespeckled commodities broker named Christopher Hightower nervously spilled out a torturously twisted tale of murder, mayhem and the Mob.
Her brother, Ernest Brendel, had been kidnapped, Hightower told the woman. So had his wife, Alice and the couple’s eight-year-old daughter Emily. The kidnappers had also taken Hightower’s wife and two sons, leaving the 42-year-old commodities broker to act as intermediary in negotiating their ransom demands.
To Scriabine, the story sounded incredible.
Her brother, Ernest, was a respected patent lawyer who moved to Barrington, an upper middle-class suburb outside of Providence, RI, from New York City, where he worked as a corporate lawyer. His wife, Alice, a petite woman with short-cropped brown hair, served as a librarian for Brown University in nearby Providence while his daughter, Emily attended school.
As far as anyone knew, he had no ties to the underworld or its unsavory cast of characters.
But Hightower insisted the tale was true. He had proof, he said. Pulling out a dark leather wallet containing Brendel’s identification and a pair of rings belonging to Alice, he shoved them at Scriabine. “Do you recognize them?” he asked. Scriabine did.
For the next five and a half hours, Hightower elaborated on the tale, telling Scriabine that the kidnapping was the result of some bad investments he had made with Mafia money. The Mob, Hightower said, wanted their money back and had kidnapped six people to make sure they would get it.
The price for their freedom was high. $300,000 to be exact.
But Hightower was willing to cut a deal. He could raise $225,000 if Scriabine could come up with the rest.
To Scriabine, it all sounded like a bad movie plot. She couldn’t help but wonder whether the balding and bearded man sitting in front of her was a con-man or actually involved somehow in the family’s disappearance.
Sensing that she was still skeptical of his story, Hightower walked the woman outside to her brother’s red Toyota Camry and showed her the back seat.
Inside, soaked into the cloth, Scriabine saw blood. There was even more blood in the trunk— enough to convince Scriabine that something awful had indeed happened. Police chemists would later determine that the blood belonged to her 53-year-old brother.
Everything seemed so very bizarre that night, Scriabine remembers. But in the weeks to come, things would get even stranger. It was, she would later recall, just the beginning of an endless nightmare.
A Fateful Meeting
Christopher Hightower and Ernest Brendel first met in 1989 when the two men were introduced by a mutual friend that Brendel was visiting at an office located across the hallway from where the lanky commodities broker had set up Hightower Investments, Inc.
Initially, Brendel perceived Hightower to be a struggling financial advisor who was down on his luck and desperately in need of clients. In time, the two men would become friends.
Interested in investments and convinced that Hightower had a winning formula for making a killing in the commodities market, Brendel agreed to invest $2,000 with him.
It wasn’t long before a friendship developed. Soon, they were sharing dinners at each others’ homes and weekend getaways at a vacation house in New Hampshire owned by Hightower’s in-laws. Brendel was so taken by his new friend that he even put Hightower’s name down as a contact person at Primrose Hill Elementary School, where his daughter was a student. Other than her parents, Hightower was the only person authorized to pick the child up from school. Brendal did not renew that authorization the following year, however.
By that time, the friendship had already soured.
In the beginning though, it seemed as though Hightower, with few friends of his own, had finally found a kindred spirit in Brendel. Soon, he began talking about Brendel’s plans to set him up with new computer equipment so he could develop a financial newsletter. He had won Brendel over by assuring the lawyer that he had developed his own formula for investing in commodities that was sure to reap huge profits.
Within weeks, however, Hightower had lost his new friend’s initial $2,000 investment in the highly volatile commodities market. Although Brendel was hesitant to invest further, the smooth-talking broker convinced him to invest an additional $15,000 by assuring him that another investor had reaped a $65,000 profit on a $75,000 investment under Hightower’s brilliant financial guidance. Together, they could make a killing in the stock market, Hightower told the wary lawyer.
But what Brendel didn’t know was that Hightower had doctored that Investment account. There was no $65,000 profit. In fact, there was no profit at all.
On April 1, 1991, suspicious that his friend was financially inept, Brendel closed his account with Hightower Investments. The down-on-his luck broker had lost his only client.
The next day, Brendel asked for an accounting of his $15,000 investment.
Only $3,139 remained. Hightower had lost almost 80 percent of the money in just a few short months.
Upset that the broker allowed his account to illegally slip under the 50 percent fail-safe point without being notified, Brendel fired off a letter to Hightower severing their relationship and asking that Hightower make restitution by May 1.
When Hightower failed to respond despite repeated phone calls, Brendel soon began contacting the broker’s other clients and learned they too had been swindled.
Enraged by that discovery, Brendel wrote a second letter to Hightower demanding to be reimbursed for half of his investment and threatening to complain to the Commodities Futures Trading Commission, which had the power to pull Hightower’s brokerage license.
Hightower ignored Brendel’s demands. He had no money to reimburse his friend.
In fact, he had no money at all.
When Hightower still had not responded by July 15, Brendel complained to the CFTC, which sent a copy of the complaint to Hightower, setting a September 17, 1991 deadline for him to make restitution. In that letter, the CFTC informed Hightower he could resolve the situation either by paying Brendel $11,851 or by responding to the charges. Failure to respond, the CFTC warned the broker, could result in the loss of his trading license.
Hightower would never answer that letter.
Problems at Home
Christopher Hightower’s wife, Susan, knew nothing about her husband’s failed business deal with Brendel. All she knew was that her husband was a loser.
All his life, Christopher Hightower had seen his dreams come crashing down around him. His first marriage failed miserably. So had his plans for becoming a doctor. Now, after seven years as an unsuccessful commodities broker, his marriage to his second wife was in shambles.
Susan Hightower was sick of all the broken promises. She was tired of being left penniless by a husband who depended on the generosity of her parents to provide food and shelter for her family. And she was sick of her husband’s constant accusations that she was being unfaithful.
Sure, her husband was a good father. He coached her son’s soccer team and was active in the youth group at the Barrington Congregational Church, where the family attended religious services regularly. He was even a well-respected member of the congregation where he taught Sunday school, headed the Junior Pilgrim Fellowship and worked to counsel troubled teenagers.
But there were things in his past that even those closest to Hightower didn’t know.
He had falsified his resume, claiming to have graduated “Magna Cum Laude” from the University of Rhode Island with a near-perfect grade point average. In fact, he was a mediocre student. He faked his job history, claiming to have increased sales by 35 percent at the pharmaceutical company where he worked. In truth, he was a terrible salesman with an abysmal sales record. He also submitted a forged transcript and letters of recommendation in order to get into the master’s program in medicine at Wright State University in Ohio. Although he dropped out before he received his master’s degree, on his resume he listed a Ph.D. degree.
But his lies weren’t limited to his resume.
He also was a suspect in a fire at his Ohio home that destroyed much of the school books he used in his master’s program. The fire allowed him to postpone his oral exams. He eventually dropped out of the master’s program without ever taking them.
Then there was his questionable business dealings.
While living in Ohio shortly after his marriage to Susan, he ran a small investment club, losing almost all of the $102,000 entrusted to him over a period of four short months. Despite those losses, he had provided statements to his unsuspecting clients which showed that their investments were highly profitable. When they learned of his deception, the irate Ohio investors threatened to take legal action and file complaints with the CFTC.
Once again, however, Hightower managed to talk his way out of a sticky situation by offering to put his home up as collateral.
But financial troubles continued to plague him.
By the time of the murders, he was at least $100,000 in debt. His office telephone had been disconnected, he was behind $1,800 on the rent and his computer equipment was about to be repossessed. Now, Brendel had filed a complaint with the CFTC that was sure to end his brokerage career forever.
All his life, Christopher Hightower had been a failure. He was also a liar, a braggart and a man who wasn’t above forging documents if it met his needs.
Yet, to the outside world, Hightower was a decent, upstanding citizen, a struggling businessman and a doting father who was well-liked and well-respected.. But Susan Hightower knew otherwise.
She knew about his fits of rage, his insatiable jealousy, his brooding moods and his financial ineptitude that had drained her parents of nearly $100,000 in money they had given her husband to start his failing commodities business.
By August 1991, Susan was sick of it all. She told him she wanted a divorce.
Hightower’s world was beginning to collapse.
His first wife had started nagging him that he was late again on the child support payments for his two daughters, payments which Susan had been making from the small salary she made as a church secretary. He also was three months behind on the $600 monthly rent for his office, even though Susan’s parents had been giving him $1,000 every month to pay his business bills. The check for the rent had bounced and the financial service that provided him daily stock quotes was threatening to cut off his access. Slowly, the financial noose was tightening.
In September, after a violent verbal confrontation, a terrified Susan filed for divorce.
But that move did not come without a price.
Angered and upset by what he considered his wife’s betrayal, Hightower told Susan he had contracted with a hit man to have her killed.
“Do you know how much a human life is worth,” he asked her one day, shortly after she announced her intentions. “It’s worth $5,000. That’s what I have paid to have someone kill you if you take my children away. And I paid an extra thousand dollars so it would look like an accident.”
Susan was terrified. She knew from the look on her husband’s face that he was serious about the threat. Two days later, she filed for a restraining order.
But long before that restraining order could be served, Hightower began to set his deadly plan in motion.
A Prelude to Murder
In January, months before the killings, Hightower approached his wife’s sister outside the Barrington Congregational Church where she had just finished practice with the church’s bell ringing group.
“I have something I want you to hear,” he told her mysteriously.
Out spilled an unbelievable story — one he was to repeat time and again.
He had lost some Mafia money in bad investments, he told his sister-in-law. Now they were threatening to “hurt” his wife and children if he did not repay it.
“How much do they want?” she asked incredulously.
“About $7,000,” he replied. “They’re demanding the money by tomorrow afternoon.”
It was almost all the money she had. Fearing for the safety of her sister and nephews, the woman offered to give him the cash.
In exchange, Hightower produced a letter on his stationery on which he had written the events he had just described. He pressed his fingers against the stationery to imprint his fingerprints, then signed the letter, gave it to his sister-in-law and asked her to keep it “somewhere safe’.
“You are to bring it out only if something happens,” he insisted.
He made her promise not to tell his wife or in-laws about the conversation. The next day, he collected the $7,000 she had offered him. She never saw the money again.
Hightower was beginning to set the stage to solve his financial problems and provide an alibi should his wife and children turn up dead.
On September 19, the day Susan Hightower filed for a restraining order and the same day her husband’s computer equipment was to be repossessed, Christopher Hightower went to a local sporting goods store and purchased six arrows and a Devastator Crossbow — a high-powered weapon capable of bringing down a bear.
His credit cards were maxed out so he wrote out a check for $314.98 even though the check would surely bounce since there was no money in his checking account. With the crossbow, he had found the perfect solution to his problems.
Police photo of the Brendels’ home
Two days after the CTFC deadline for responding to Brendel’s complaint, Hightower armed himself with the crossbow and hid in the shadows of Brendel’s garage.
In the twisted mind of a killer, Hightower blamed his former friend for his financial ruin. Without his broker’s license, Hightower would never be able to provide financially for his family — or win Susan back. It was that reasoning, police theorize, that led to the killing spree.
For most of that night, Hightower waited inside the Brendels’ garage for his prey to appear.
It wasn’t until the next morning, however, that Brendel finally pulled his red Toyota into the garage after driving his wife to her librarian’s job at Brown University in nearby Providence. Inside the garage, his killer was waiting.
Wearing a black ninja mask and armed with six steel-tipped arrows, Hightower pulled back the drawstring and fired as Brendel stepped from his car. The arrow pierced Brendel’s barrel-like chest and exited out his back, landing in the garage wall with a heavy, dull thud.
But Brendel didn’t die just yet. As he scrambled to escape, Hightower pulled back the drawstring and fired again, this time striking Brendel in the buttocks. As he fell to the ground, his jaw smashed against the floor, breaking and loosening his teeth. By now, blood was everywhere.
Still struggling to escape, Brendel pulled himself up. Hightower fired again, this time hitting his prey directly in the chest. The arrow went into his aorta and lodged in his backbone.
With his strength waning, Brendel somehow managed to climb into the couple’s other car, an Audi, that was parked in the garage next to the Toyota.
Hightower was right behind him, this time armed with a crowbar. Flailing in uncontrollable rage, he smashed Brendel’s skull, breaking off the arrow that protruded from his chest. Ernest Brendel was finally dead. And Christopher Hightower had finally made his big killing.
In Hightower’s mind, the murder put an end to Brendel’s complaint with the Commodities Futures Trading Commission. Still, his plans were far from complete.
Returning to his in-laws home where he lived with his wife and two sons, Hightower was covered in mud, as if he had spent the night outdoors.
Investigators would later theorize that the mud was from the two shallow graves he had prepared for his victims during that rainy night.
While washing up at home, the doorbell rang. It was a constable. He was there to serve Hightower with a restraining order. Hightower looked at the order incredulously then grabbed his briefcase, packed a few articles of clothing in a brown paper bag and left his in-laws home calmly. He still had other business to take care of.
Shortly before 2 p.m. on the day of the murder, Hightower returned to the Brendels’ home and placed a phone call to the Primrose Hill Elementary School, where Emily was a third-grade student. Identifying himself as Ernest Brendel, he told school officials that Emily should be allowed to walk home from school that day. But when the principal called the Brendels’ home to confirm that request, there was no answer. So instead, she sent Emily to the YMCA, where the girl attended an after school program.
When Hightower went to the school to take Emily home, the principal refused to release her. Although he was listed on last year’s forms as an alternate person to pick up Emily, he was not listed this year.
When he learned that Emily was not at school, Hightower drove to the YMCA in the blood spattered Toyota and told the program director he was there to pick up the child. Since no prior arrangements had been made, the program director refused to release her.
About a half-hour later, however, someone identifying himself as Ernest Brendel phoned the YMCA to say that Hightower would be picking up the youngster.
“I’ll give Mr. Hightower my driver’s license as proof,” the caller said.
Hightower drove back to the YMCA in the Brendels’ car with the license. This time, Emily was allowed to go with him. It was the last time she would be seen alive.
Around 6 p.m. that same night, Alice Brendel walked from the bus stop to her home, where Hightower was waiting. It was not her normal routine. Usually, her husband and daughter were waiting for her in the car at the bus stop. This time, something was amiss.
What happened when she arrived home is pure speculation. One police theory — based on the arrangement of four chairs later found in the Brendels’ dining room — suggests that she may have been part of some bizarre “mock trial,” with Hightower serving as both jury and judge. The only thing police knew for certain was that something terrible happened inside the Brendels’ quaint white colonial that day.
Alice didn’t die that first night, however. Hightower needed her to make a phone call first.
Her husband’s buddy was planning to attend the Brown-Yale football game with Brendel the next morning and Hightower needed to stop him from coming to the house. Around 7 a.m. on Saturday, September 21, Alice called the friend and told him her husband’s mother had become seriously ill. He would not be able to attend the game as planned. The friend would later recall that there was not a shred of terror in her voice.
It wasn’t until his murder trial that police finally revealed that both Alice and Emily were drugged with sleeping pills before their deaths.
When their bodies were found, a scarf had been tightly wrapped around Alice’s neck. Emily, police believe, was buried alive.
Although police now had a clear indication of how they died, no forensics could explain the kind of horror the family endured.
The day after the murders, Hightower was again out shopping. This time, he purchased a scrub brush and hose along with a bottle of muriatic acid and a 50-pound bag of lime. They were to be used to wash away the evidence of the killings.
Inside the Brendels’ garage, Hightower scrubbed the floor with muriatic acid cleaning the blood that had splattered over the walls and floor. He doused the inside of the bloody Toyota with baking powder to mask the stench of death and washed Brendel’s blood from the car windows.
Without access to his in-laws’ car, Hightower needed the vehicle to carry out the rest of his plan.
The next day, he drove the bloodstained Toyota to Scriabine’s home where he blurted out his story.
Scriabine remembers how utterly insane it all sounded as he talked about mob hitmen and money deals gone bad.
If his family was in such danger, she remembers asking him, why not go to the police? “It was too dangerous” right now, she recalls Hightower telling her. It all just didn’t make sense, she remembers thinking.
Suspicious of his tale, she had her husband photograph Hightower and accepted his American Express card, which he offered willingly as “proof” of his good intentions.
But when she saw the blood inside her brother’s car, Scriabine knew things weren’t as he claimed. In the early hours of Monday morning, after Hightower left, Scriabine called the FBI.
Sensing that Scriabine would go to the authorities, Hightower called the woman back hours later to tell her there was no need to raise any money for the ransom. He would do it himself. At his trial, Hightower testified that he made the call because he felt Scriabine already was dealing with too much anguish. But by the time he made that phone call, it was too late. A manhunt was already underway.
It didn’t take local authorities long to find the commodities broker.
They had already received a complaint from his estranged wife that he had violated the restraining order by showing up at his son’s soccer game Saturday morning and later, at the church where she worked as a secretary. This time, however, the feds wanted to question him about the attempted extortion of Christine Scriabine.
While he was driving the Brendels’ car through the center of Barrington, RI, police pulled him over. Inside the trunk they found the crossbow, a kitchen knife and an empty 50-pound bag of lime. They also found blood — lots of it.
Ironically, Hightower’s September 23 arrest came the same day a letter was mailed to the Commodities Futures Trading Commission withdrawing Brendel’s complaint. Authorities would later find Hightower’s fingerprint on the print key of the Brendel’s computer. The letter, investigators determined, had been forged by Brendel’s killer.
At the police station, Hightower was charged with extortion and held for questioning in the Brendels’ disappearance. Police had enough to make them suspicious that foul play occurred but without any bodies, it would be difficult to charge Hightower with murder.
Their suspect wasn’t about to admit to the killings. Instead, he told FBI investigators an interesting, if implausible, tale. He had received threats from an associate of the powerful New England crime boss, Raymond Patriarcha, he explained to detectives. They had tapped his phone and threatened to kill his family because he was unable to pay back Mafia money he had invested — and deliberately lost. It was a story that paralleled what he had told Scriabine and a tale that would become crucial in his defense.
Police would learn little more of Hightower’s purported mob ties. Soon he would stop talking to them entirely.
The LYNX Connection
Brendel family photo
It would take more than a month of intense police air and ground searches before a woman walking her dog would find the bodies of the Brendel family buried in two shallow graves on the grounds of St. Andrew’s School only a half-mile from the victims’ home. The gruesome discovery came as a shock to the small, close-knit community, which had held out hope that the family would be found alive.
Prayer services for the missing family were regular occurrences at the small white church that Hightower once attended. Congregation members, many of whom found it hard to believe one of their own could be involved in the disappearance, prayed for the family’s safe return. They also prayed for Hightower.
On November 7, their prayers were answered but not in the way they hoped.
With news helicopters hovering overhead, state police officials began the tedious task of unearthing the bodies, carefully preserving every scrap of evidence — including a piece of paper from the bag of lime used to speed the victims’ decomposition. Brendel was buried in one grave. His wife was in another. But when they moved Alice’s body, they could see the sneakers of the little girl underneath. All hope of finding Emily alive had now been dashed.
Hardened police officials wept at the sight. Even Rhode Island Attorney General James E. O’Neil would wipe tears from his eyes as he told of the grim discovery at a press conference near the burial site.
But the discovery of the bodies did not phase Hightower.
While the five-week search for the missing Brendels was underway, a mute Hightower sat in his jail cell at the Adult Correctional Institute, still refusing to talk about the family’s disappearance. But he was not idle.
Hightower still had some business to take care of, even if he was behind bars.
Soon, he began writing anonymous letters from his jail cell asserting his innocence. The letters, signed “Lynx”, claimed the murders were retaliation for the theft of $2 million which Ernest Brendel had stolen from the mob. One of those letters reportedly contained a hit list that included the names of Hightower’s wife, her children and her parents along with his landlords and others who had offended him. The letter, believed to have been written to a hit man, asks whether $55,000 was enough to cover all the murders. Another letter held specific information about the daily routines of his sister-in-law and father-in-law. Others contained threats against his wife and children, purportedly made by the mysterious “Lynx,” who vowed to kill the family if she did not reconcile with the murder suspect.
But authorities found something more chilling in those letters. Many contained detailed information only the killer would know.
Among them was the letter which stated that Brendel had stolen mob money, an assertion that infuriated the dead man’s family. The letter claimed that when Brendel refused to return the cash, four men went to his home, searched it then strangled Alice and Emily in front of the terrified man before he was killed.
“Because of Brendel’s greed and stupidity, his family was killed. Hightower was set up because he was at the wrong place at the wrong time,” the letter writer said. It indicated that Hightower stumbled on the men as they searched Brendel’s home and became an unwilling accomplice when they threatened the lives of his own wife and children.
According to the writer, Hightower was ordered to contact Scriabine about the ransom demand and was followed wherever he went — even into the bank, where he cashed Brendel’s forged check, and the hardware store where he picked up the acid and lime used to clean up after the crime.
“He did everything exactly like we told him to do,” the writer said.
But authorities were not convinced of the letters’ validity, especially after the inmate Hightower chose to sneak the missives out of jail contacted the FBI.
All of the Lynx letters, as they came to be known, were later traced back to the suspect.
At his trial, Hightower testified that he wrote the threatening letters in order to convince authorities that his family needed protection from the mob. The letters, he hoped, would help provide that security. Instead, they were his undoing.
A Witness to Murder
The evidence presented at Hightower’s March 1993 trial was overwhelming.
Prosecutors produced the crossbow he used to kill Brendel along with receipts for both the weapon, the arrows and the muriatic acid and lime he used to aid decomposition of his victims’ bodies. They also submitted into evidence the forged letter Hightower sent to the Commodities Futures Trading Commission withdrawing Brendel’s complaint and the four “Lynx letters” he had written from his jail cell. It seemed Hightower’s fate was sealed.
With a mountain of evidence against him, no one expected Christopher Hightower to take the stand in his own defense. But he did.
Christopher Hightower in court Hightower strode to the witness box confidently, dressed neatly in a suit jacket and turtleneck sweater. He was eager to tell his story.
Convinced that he could flimflam the jury like he had done so many other times with investors, he began his long, rambling tale of how four shadowy underworld figures forced him to dig the Brendels’ graves, clean up the murder scene and act as intermediary in a failed extortion attempt of the dead man’s sister.
His lawyer, well-known criminal attorney Robert George, could not deter his client. The only thing George could do was allow Hightower to testify —- and hope the jury would find him innocent by reason of insanity.
In his testimony, Hightower hinted that Brendel was blackmailing him into conducting illegal stock trades and was trying to gain an interest in his investment business through a newsletter that the two men planned to develop.
Hightower said he acquiesced to Brendel’s demands out of a desperate need to provide for his wife and children.
But even though he claimed there was an undercurrent of blackmail in their dealings, Hightower said he bore no ill-will toward the stocky, patent attorney.
In fact, Hightower claimed, he had even offered to help Brendel get rid of a pesky raccoon that had been reeking havoc in the family’s yard. That is why he bought the crossbow. And that is why, on the night before the killings, he was at the Brendel’s home.
It was raining that Thursday night, sprinkling down in a bone chilling drizzle, when he stationed himself near the Brendel’s garage as he waited for the raccoon to appear, Hightower told the jury. When it finally did, he killed it with a single arrow, leaving its body lying outside the garage door. But when investigators arrived at the home to check on the family, no dead raccoon was ever found.
Hightower said after he killed the raccoon, he talked to Brendel about his pending divorce. The patent attorney was sympathetic, Hightower testified, and offered to let him spend the night. It was while he was at the home the next day, he claimed, that he met the four men responsible for the family’s murder.
The men, two Chinese and two Hispanics, seemed amiable at first, Hightower said. They appeared to be talking about business with Brendel and even joined in at family meals.
But then things turned ominous.
He said he noticed the men searching through files in the family’s garage and basement, apparently looking for something of value. Brendel appeared anxious and irritated.
When it was time for Emily to return home from school that Friday afternoon, Hightower said the men ordered him to pick up the girl and take her home. He complied.
When Hightower told one of the men Brendel had agreed to pay the outstanding rent on his office, the man told him to forge Brendel’s name on a $2,700 check, which Hightower then cashed at his bank later the same day. The check, which cleaned out the Brendel’s savings account, would end the broker’s pending eviction.
When he returned to the Brendel’s home after making the rent payment, the men were still there but this time it appeared they were more agitated, Hightower testified. This time, they ordered him to purchase two gas cans, which he was to use to remove “the residuals still left in the garage.” When asked what those “residuals” were, Hightower replied “heroin.”
The story had taken yet another bizarre twist.
“Mr. Brendel told me that he was receiving shipments of heroin,” Hightower testified. “It was being brought into the country via wine casings, bottles. They thought they had an extremely good method of bringing it in and that the bottles were filled, dipped in the (muriatic) acid and then in liquid paraffin to remove any residuals to eliminate the ability of dogs to pick up the scent.”
Relatives of the murdered family gasped in horror at the testimony. They were outraged that after all he had done, Hightower now had the audacity to accuse the dead man of dealing heroin.
As the twisted tale continued to pour from his lips, Hightower stood transfixed, describing in detail how the men later handcuffed him and took him into the garage, which by now was covered in Brendel’s blood.
“They wanted to know where the money was,” Hightower said, weeping at times as he recalled the horrific scene. “Mr. Brendel wouldn’t tell them … so they brought Emily out. They brought Alice out to the garage.’
Hightower said the men strangled Alice with a scarf in front of her injured husband, who was still unwilling to give up the money’s location.
Then they strangled Emily.
His testimony strongly contradicted a medical examiner’s report which showed that Emily had been heavily sedated at the time of her death and quite possibly died from suffocation from being buried alive.
After seeing his wife and daughter murdered, it was Brendel’s turn. The men then used the crossbow to kill the patent lawyer, Hightower said.
Following the murders, Hightower said the men told him to drive to the home of Brendel’s sister and relay the ransom demand. He acquiesced, he said, because he feared for the lives of his wife and children.
Why didn’t he contact the police after witnessing the murders?
Hightower’s defense lawyer asked.
“I was being followed,” the witness said.
Why the four men didn’t kill the only witness who could identify them is anyone’s guess but Hightower had his own explanation. He had become too “valuable” to them, the men told him, although the extent of that value could hardly be explained.
Perhaps as a reward for his unfailing obedience, the men left him Brendel’s letter withdrawing the CFTC complaint.
When asked by the prosecutor why the men would allow him to mail the letters and cash checks forged against Brendel’s account, Hightower had a simple explanation.
“The exoneration of me through the letter, continuing to set me up, continuing with the scheme,” Hightower testified. He was being framed, he said, to take the fall for the killings.
Hightower had an explanation for everything but the charm he had exuded to scam investors was not working in the courtroom.
One day after the case went to the jury, Hightower was convicted of the murders.
Rhode Island Adult Correctional