Coroner's mistake brings a nightmare for cop
Published: Saturday, January 18, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 18, 2003 at 1:18 a.m.
PLEASANTVILLE, N.J. - He was a respected lawman, husband and father.
Then James Andros III's young wife mysteriously turned up dead, steps away from the couple's two sleeping daughters. Ellen Andros had been suffocated, the coroner said, and there were no signs of forced entry.
Fingers began pointing at James Andros.
"Did you kill my daughter?" said panicked mother-in-law Bette Anne Clark, rushing past police officers and crime scene investigators outside Andros' rented ranch house to confront him.
"Murderer," muttered the mourners at his wife's funeral.
Andros, 34, was charged with murder, triggering a 1-year odyssey in which the veteran Atlantic City Police Department patrolman's life crumbled around him.
He spent two weeks in jail before posting $500,000 bail. Suspended from his $75,000-a-year job, he sank into a deep depression, and a judge awarded custody of his two daughters to his in-laws.
Then, last month, prosecutors dropped a bombshell: Ellen Andros died of natural causes. Elliott Gross, who had ruled her death a homicide, botched the autopsy. In fact, the 31-year-old died of a rare heart ailment.
By his memory, Andros first met Ellen Clark when they were toddlers. She lived near his grandparents in Merchantville.
He remembers their first kiss. They were 18, and he was walking her home. She kept telling him he didn't have to walk her all the way, because her father would probably be watching from the window.
"I think she was trying to tell me something," Andros says now. "Finally, she just grabbed me and spun me around and kissed me. I ran all the way home."
They married in 1994. But the marriage was rocky, according to Bette Anne and Edward J. Clark - Ellen Andros' parents, who went to Family Court to seek custody even before James was charged. They alleged that he was a heavy drinker, that he occasionally left his family to take ski trips, that his behavior was sometimes "abusive."
But he had no criminal record and there was no history of domestic violence, according to authorities.
The ordeal begins
On March 31, 2001, Andros was out drinking with his father - Capt. James Andros II - and other friends.
Ellen and the girls had been at her parents' house, in Pennsauken. When he pulled in at the family's Pleasantville home at about 4:20 a.m., he was surprised to find her car in the driveway.
"I walked into the room and said something to her and she didn't respond," he said. "Her face was just purple. I've never seen anyone look like that. I knew something was very wrong."
As Meghan and Elizabeth slept, Andros shook his wife to rouse her, but felt only dead weight. He tried mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and called 911. Paramedics concluded it was too late to take her to the hospital.
When Gross, medical examiner in neighboring Cape May County, arrived at the scene, he determined she died of asphyxiation.
Andros, meanwhile, was being interrogated. Three weeks later, he was under arrest, accused of murdering his wife.
Defense attorneys John Bjorklund and Matthew Portella rounded up Ellen Andros' medical records and shopped for forensic pathologists to testify as experts at the upcoming trial.
She wasn't in perfect health, it turned out. When renowned pathologist Dr. Michael Baden, working for the defense, examined tissue samples, he found something Gross had missed.
The samples showed abnormalities in a coronary artery. Alerted to the possibility, prosecutors sought a second opinion from forensic pathologist Donald Jason.
Jason concluded Ellen Andros had suffered bleeding in a coronary artery, which closed from the pressure and caused her heart to stop.
Picking up the pieces
On Dec. 3, Superior Court Judge Michael Donio dismissed the murder charge against Andros in a one-page order.
Two days later, a judge granted Andros full custody of his daughters, Meghan and Elizabeth, now 7 and 5. Then, the police department reinstated him and the City Council approved more than $110,000 in back pay.
But Andros has found that it will take time to clear his name.
"When I first got them back from the Clarks, Meghan said, 'Why is Mom-Mom a liar?' I said, 'What do you mean? Why do you say that?'
"Mom-Mom told me Mommy's never coming home because you killed her," the girl replied, according to Andros.
When asked how it felt to be to be cleared, Andros said: "It sounds weird, I know, but that aspect of it has no effect on me. If the question is, 'How does it feel to get my kids back?' it feels great.
"A month ago, I was a big animal. Now, I'm a hero. But I'm neither. I don't feel cleared. I was never guilty."
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