By Ted Waddell
MONTICELLO March 28, 2003 The mood in the Sullivan County Courthouses courtroom during Mondays opening round of a murder trial resembled a military situation.
The accused was an ex-paratrooper with the U.S. Armys elite Special Forces, the presiding judge was a veteran of the blazing sands of the Gulf War and the prosecuting district attorney served with distinction on the bloody fields of Vietnam.
And in a first for the Sullivan County judicial system, Court TV was on hand to provide continuing coverage.
In June 1999, Hal Karen of Highview, near Bloomingburg, called up police and said his wife, Tammy Karen, had taken off for parts unknown.
During the following years, New York State Police investigators treated it as a missing persons case, one of thousands reported across the country every year.
But on March 25, 2002, a young man named Michael Vankleeck was riding an ATV with his girlfriend in the woods near Wurtsboro, looking at likely spots to set up a tree stand for the upcoming deer season.
He saw something out of the ordinary and went over to investigate.
It was a brown plastic garbage can covered with plastic trash bags, tied off with nylon cord, but what appeared to be human bones including a skull and the tattered remains of a womans clothing were strewn about the scene.
I was too freaked out to touch anything . . . so I went home and called the police, Vankleeck testified. This isnt a deer its a person.
In his opening remarks to the jury, Sullivan County District Attorney Stephen Lungen told jurors that in the wake of months of tireless [forensic] work by the New York State Police, the 43-year-old defendant was charged by a grand jury with four crimes: murder in the second degree, offering a false instrument for filing in the first degree, perjury in the second degree and making a punishable false written statement.
According to authorities, Karen repeatedly denied knowing anything about the disappearance of his 41-year-old wife.
Lungen credited Tammys sister, Toni Valentine, with never giving up hope, even though she felt something had gone terribly wrong.
Every month, Toni called Tammy from her home in Florida, right up until the day her sister vanished into thin air. Then the calls stopped, and she contacted the State Police on August 27, 1999.
The defendant would have gotten away with it, [but] Toni Valentine thought something was wrong, said Lungen.
For two years, NYSP Investigator Jones treated it like a missing persons case as he tracked murdered bodies across the United States, said Lungen.
Then came the discovery of a trash can full of human bones, a tattered bra, a watch and a ring out in the woods down a steep embankment off old Route 17 outside Wurtsboro.
In his opening remarks, Lungen asked the jurors to become investigators as the prosecution laid out their case.
You will be able to touch and feel the pieces of evidence, he said.
According to investigators, the skeletal remains of what proved to be Tammy Karen were scattered over a 100-150-yard area.
Animals had gotten to it. . . . There was nothing left but bones, said the DA.
Hal Karen was arrested on August 7. He reportedly told authorities he found his wife dead of a drug overdose, panicked and dumped her body in the woods after placing it in a garbage can, wrapped up in plastic garbage sacks.
Karens attorney, Henri Shawn, said the murder case against his client was like the Wheel of Fortune TV game show, with clues as letters.
This is a case where there is not a knockout punch by the prosecution, said Shawn in his opening remarks.
Listen to the evidence, or lack of evidence in this case dont guess at the letters until you see the whole word, he added.
Lets get it on. . . . Lets see what hes got, said Shawn, referring to the states case.
Before the trial adjourned for lunch, the prosecution presented a display of photographs taken at the crime scene on the afternoon Tammy Karens remains were discovered.
It was all silent in the courtroom, as the stark reality of death appeared on the screen.
The murder trial is expected to last up to two weeks, and about 20-25 witnesses may be called to testify.