CItizen of the Week!
Onlookers might have mistaken the 90-degree, May 2005 morning scene atop a downtown Los Angeles apartment building as an active movie set. A tall, agitated, 29-year-old man stripped nude, threw his clothes down 20 stories to South Figueroa Street and danced on the ledge--his bare feet scolding from the hot asphalt and gravel--as he threatened to jump. Above, a helicopter noisily hovered, making it difficult for anyone to communicate. Below, dozens of alarmed firefighters and police, including a SWAT team, watched knowing the airbags they'd deployed on the ground would be ineffective to cushion a fall from that height. Approaching negotiators asked the profusely sweating man what was wrong, causing him to run to the edge, leap and, at the last second, grab a pole and swing back onto the roof. "Don't get too close!" he yelled. "Don't talk to me! If I get down, I'm going to prison! I'm a psycho murderer!"
He said that an hour south, Melissa Sue Mitchell, a kindhearted, 30-year-old Orange County criminal defense lawyer who'd once worked as a federal public defender in San Diego, was dead in the Jacuzzi attached to the backyard pool at her plush Laguna Niguel home. A used syringe and zip-locked plastic coke bag floated eerily next to the face-down corpse riddled with puncture marks. (Later, the coroner would rule acute cocaine intoxication as the cause of death, not drowning or blunt-force trauma.)
It must have felt like déjà vu to Putansu, who'd off-and-on since his teens abused heroin, Ecstasy (often at Club Avalon in LA), methamphetamine, alcohol and cocaine. The day after Thanksgiving 2004, the outgoing, blond-haired, blue-eyed man had left home in Portland, Maine, via bus to California determined to start life anew after one of his drug partners, another young woman, overdosed in 2002. His friends would later tell authorities that he'd worked hard to remain sober in the aftermath. In fact, he'd visited jails to share AA principles with inmates, though he was also often sleeping and using drugs with acquaintances he met in rehab.
On the LA rooftop, Putansu declared himself gay, admitted he got Mitchell hooked on cocaine and stated that he'd murdered his girlfriend of a month the previous night by purposefully injecting a lethal dose into her body. She was "filthy rich" and he, her party-hungry roommate who sold car parts when he was employed, said he felt more than jealous. "I hate her!" he declared.
Putansu had fled the OC crime scene in Mitchell's Jeep, driven to her other home--an LA condo--consumed more cocaine at daybreak and, naked and on the ledge with the sun reaching its apex, orally rambled for a whopping six hours, collecting a wicked full-body sunburn. At one point, he volunteered he wanted to die because he felt remorse. The negotiators--who eventually got him to accept a jacket to stand on and a cell phone--tried to coax his retreat by saying Mitchell's death could have been an accident.
"No, no, it wasn't," he replied, according to police detectives, who had been on the scene so long they ate lunch in a specially erected tent. "I killed her on purpose [and] I watched her drown."
Would he stick to his confession if the cops could nab him before he leaped?
With a firefighter's cell phone, the jittery Putansu called numerous friends around the country to share his drama. Here's the transcript of one voice mail message he left:
"Hey Emma. This is Shawn. Uh, I'm on top of a building. There's another dead girl. I shot her up with too much coke and she had a seizure and she fucking drowned in a hot tub. That girl, the rich girl, uh, basically I killed her. I did it on purpose because I was jealous. Uh, anyway, I'm up on top of this building and I just wanted to say I love you and thanks for all the great times. I'm going to jump off this building and fucking kill myself. So uh, just thought I'd let you know. Tell everyone that I committed suicide, and I'm just not lying either. So . . . uh, anyway, good luck in life. Bye."
But after Putansu completed more than a dozen calls, he didn't jump. He surrendered, was taken to a hospital for sunburn and eventually faced murder by poisoning charges in OC. By trial, he'd changed his story. He was not a killer, he said. In fact, he explained that he'd been using Mitchell's bathroom when she injected herself with a massive dose before hopping into the Jacuzzi. He said he merely found her dead body and panicked.
To bolster his claim, Putansu hired Malibu's Dr. Frank Henry Gawin, who--after a three-hour interview--determined that the rooftop confessions had been drug-induced, "delusional mis-attribution of guilt" that is "commonplace during cocaine intoxication." The "verbal content" was "meaningless" and should be ignored, he concluded while opining that a murder hadn't occurred. Prosecutor Stephen McGreevy branded key portions of Gawin's remarks gobbledygook. A jury agreed. It convicted Putansu of first-degree murder.
Yet Putansu didn't go away quietly to prison. He filed an appeal, claiming that the Orange County District Attorney's Office hadn't produced "even the slightest evidence to show the death was by criminal means" instead of a drug party accident. He again pointed to his confessions as delusional.
Last month, a California Court of Appeal panel based in Santa Ana determined that the "rooftop statements were directly relevant to the issues of intent to kill and premeditation." It also said that, while it is "certainly sympathetic" that events could be "equally likely" attributed to criminal or non-criminal conduct, McGreevy had met the burden to prove his charges.
One stupid night of partying and his subsequent big mouth ended his freedom. Putansu's got a life-in-prison sentence. He will never be eligible for parole.
(Periodically at OCWeekly.com, discover the depths of human depravity in Orange County, California.)
Click HERE for previous "Citizen of the Week!" winners.
--R. Scott Moxley / OC Weekly