Eli Ruiz | Democrat
Paul Novak, right, was found guilty on all counts during his recent trial. His attorney, Gary Greenwald, is at left.
Novak found guilty on all counts
Story by Eli Ruiz
MONTICELLO October 1, 2013 Paul Novak almost got away with murder.
Back in December of 2008 an early morning 911 call from neighbor Denise Nix- Thompson alerted authorities to the massive fire that had enveloped the Lava home of former Sullivan West School Board member Catherine Novak.
Novak’s body was found in the western Sullivan home’s basement.
“We did not find anything that would reflect Catherine Novak died of criminal means,” said then Sullivan County District Attorney Steve Lungen, while traumatic asphyxia due to debris from the home having fallen atop Novak was believed to be the cause of death at the time.
On Friday, after a seven-week trial perhaps the longest in Sullivan County history and nearly 20 hours of deliberations, an eight-man, four-woman jury convicted Novak’s estranged husband, Paul, on all counts in a trial that captivated the area with its testimony of sex, lies, and videotaped statements.
Indeed Novak did almost get away with the “nearly” perfect crime. A paramedic by trade, Novak had former friend and coworker Scott Sherwood drive him upstate from the Spring Glen, LI apartment he shared with his then girlfriend, Michelle LaFrance.
When Novak’s homemade chloroform concoction failed to knock out his wife with whom he was going through a bitter divorce as he’d planned, he callously strangled her with his own hands, then burned the home he and Catherine once shared to the ground and on top of Catherine to destroy the evidence of his crime.
And it almost worked.
Novak would collect on up to three insurance policies on Catherine’s life and home worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. He would start a new life in Long Island with his two children and a new girlfriend in LaFrance.
But in April of last year a call came into the Troop F State Police barracks in Liberty. The caller said she had information to offer on Catherine Novak’s death. The caller would subsequently give a more than seven-hour videotaped statement to State Police investigators outlining Paul Novak’s plot to kill his wife, regain custody of his children and collect on the insurance policies.
The caller was Michelle LaFrance.
Four years later, as a jury of his peers found him guilty on first degree murder, arson, grand larceny and insurance fraud counts, a stoic Novak showed no reaction, seemingly resigning himself to his fate. A fate that will be determined at Novak’s sentencing by Sullivan County Court Judge Frank LaBuda on December 19.
Novak faces 25-years-to-life in prison.
A juror offered, “It was really tough on us [the trial]. We took our time with the verdict because there was a lot of evidence and testimony to look at and we had a man’s life in our hands… I think we did the right thing, though… for the wife [Catherine Novak], kids, and her family.”
Sullivan County District Attorney Jim Farrell, who prosecuted the case with his predecessor and DA at the time of the murder/arson, Steve Lungen, he said, “I’m extremely pleased, obviously. I was happy they [the jury] came to the conclusion, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Paul Novak intended, and in a planned way, murdered his wife back in December of 2008.”
Regarding the trial’s length, Farrell offered, “Well, I know that at least going back to the 1950s this was certainly the longest trial anyone’s seen here [in Sullivan County]. It just took a long time and when you’re trying cases this long it’s like you’re living the case. This was certainly the longest [case] for me, and a very difficult process but I am pleased with the outcome.”
Regarding Catherine Novak’s family, he said, “This was also an extremely difficult process for the family as well. You could just see the toll it took on them every day.”
As far as the jury who decided Novak’s fate, Farrell was appreciative of their painstaking deliberation.
“They did require many tangible pieces of evidence and various read-backs,” the jury said. “This was not a jury that wasn’t paying attention throughout this long trial. They were in tune throughout and we sincerely appreciate their time and sacrifice.”
Novak’s defense attorney Gary Greenwald said, “In regard to the verdict, the jury has spoken. Obviously I do not agree with them. I compliment the DA’s office for their success. I would also like to say thanks to the court officers, clerks, the stenographer, and all of the court staff for the excellent job they did because they are so commonly overlooked. I’d like to thank my staff as well for all the help in this case because I needed all the help I could get.”
He added, “I do, though, believe the case will be reversed on appeal… there are significant issues I believe will compel this. All that has occurred is that justice has been delayed for Paul Novak, but I do believe there will come the day when he will again be a free man.”