Tuesday, August 18, 2009
Frederick Phillip Hammer [above, during his 1979 trial] is the serial killer the Pennsylvania Supreme Court let get away.
This is a story of how sometimes the American judicial system really, really, really blows. Back on the night of October 13, 1978, Frederick Phillip Hammer, 18, a worker at a Philadelphia construction site, hitchhiked along Delaware Avenue. He was picked up by Charles Uffelman, an off-duty Philadelphia police officer heading home after dinner and drinks at DiNardo's restaurant. The exact details of what happened next may never be known, but the gist of it is this: within minutes, Hammer fatally slammed Uffelman in the back of the head with a four-by-four, ripped his wallet from his pocket, and fled in the officer's silver Monte Carlo. About an hour later, Hammer, who lived at the time in Lancaster County, was stopped for speeding in Uffelman's car in Chester County by two state troopers.
Initially, Hammer denied involvement in the murder, but he began changing his story when he realized police had linked him to Uffelman's car. Hammer's mind was not only criminal, but also creative: first, he told officers this unbelievable tale: Uffelman became ill, stopped the car, and vomited at curbside. Hammer told the investigators that when he slapped Uffelman in the face to revive him, it caused Uffelman to punch him, prompting Hammer to grab a nearby board to defend himself. Hammer did admit to police that he stole about $200 from Uffelman.
After speaking with an attorney, however, Hammer changed his tune. Seven months later, during his lengthy trial, he admitted killing Uffelman but in doing so put Uffelman's family through even more heartache and torture. From the witness stand Hammer told the jury that the crime occurred after he rebuffed homosexual advances by the off-duty officer. The allegation outraged Uffelman's family and colleagues in the courtroom.
Throughout the trial, Common Pleas Court Judge Robert A. Latrone frequently expressed incredulity at Hammer's testimony and sharply questioned the defendant from the bench in a manner Hammer's lawyers thought was highly prejudicial. Now, at first blush, Latrone would appear to be a hero for doing so. That would be incorrect. What he was doing was actually setting the stage for Hammer to get out of jail.
Jurors deliberated for 30 hours and - in a burst of good taste - ultimately rejected Hammer's story, convicting him of third-degree murder. Yet that was clearly a compromise verdict: they acquitted Hammer of robbery, knowing that would most likely reduce his ultimate sentence. Latrone eventually imposed a sentence of 7 1/2 to 15 years in prison, less than the 10 to 20 years sought by the prosecution.
If that outrages you, hold on, because Hammer never served even the low end of that sentence. Hammer appealed, citing Latrone's conduct during the trial. The Pennsylvania State Supreme Court agreed that Latrone's actions had been prejudicial, and inexplicably overturned Hammer's conviction in June 1985. In their ruling, they sharply chastised Latrone for acting as an "advocate for the prosecution."
Again, we might think Latrone a hero for not letting Hammer make a sham out of his trial. Yet, he clearly went overboard. At one point during the trial, the judge responded with belligerence to an objection from the defense: "All right. You object. I overrule it. OK? I just overruled." When the trial was over, the State Supreme Court noted in its opinion, Latrone delayed filing an opinion on post-trial motions for three years and 10 months. "Such judicial lethargy must be strongly condemned," the Court said.
Latrone died in 1999. He didn't live to see what happened to Hammer. Or four others.
After the State Supreme Court's asinine action, a second jury further tortured Uffelman's family by acquitting Hammer entirely, on May 23, 1986. Bob Marano, the prosecutor, remembered Hammer as a "handsome young kid" who seemed to connect with a predominantly young female jury, as he had at his first trial. Marano also said he was handicapped by his inability to introduce evidence related to the robbery, which the first jury had taken off the table. The absence of the robbery charge prevented the jury from knowing Hammer's motive, leaving jurors susceptible to Hammer's outrageous claims about Uffelman's purported homosexual advances.
Hammer was released from prison 12 years earlier than if he had been given the full sentence prosecutors desired at his first trial. Following his release, Hammer relocated to the scenic Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, where his stepfather owned property. He settled in Ashe County and worked long hours as a handyman. He also ran a firewood business out of the modest home in Crumpler that he shared with his third wife, Brenda Blevins Hammer.
Friends in North Carolina describe Hammer as a charming, smart workaholic who enjoys camping and horseback riding. They are now shocked that the man they knew could have committed such a violent crime. Imagine, then, how shocked they were when they learned he'd was still doing it.
Financial problems began plaguing Hammer and his wife in 2002, when they filed the first in a series of bankruptcies that revealed escalating debt. They listed their assets as $47,630 and liabilities as $177,436 in 2005. As a result, Hammer was convicted for writing bad checks in 2007. At that time, friends admit, cracks did appear in his normally jovial demeanor.
Shortly after the check-kiting conviction, Hammer went to the home of Jimmy Blevins, who worked for him and was his wife's nephew. The two drove off together. Blevins was never seen again.
Jimmy Blevin's disappearance led James Williams, the Ashe County sheriff, to question Hammer. Soon enough, he would not be the only law enforcement officer interested in the firewood dealer. Albeit too late for three more victims.
On January 24, 2008, Hammer stopped by the Hudler Carolina Tree Farm in Grayson County, Va., where he had spent many hours working for Ron Hudler. Hammer had gone there because he knew that Hudler kept large amounts of cash on the property.There, Hammer fatally shot Hudler, his son, Frederick, and John Miller, an employee. Hammer shot Frederick Hudler four times in the farm's driveway - in the nose, in the back of the head, and twice on the left side of the head. Miller, whose body was found in a garage, was shot twice in the back of the head.
When the elder Hudler came outside in his bedroom slippers to investigate the gunfire, Hammer forced him at gunpoint back inside his home to retrieve a safe. Hammer then shot him once in the back of the head at close range.
Hammer then fled with two metal gun cases, two briefcases containing documents, and a small black safe containing a TAG Heuer watch and $10,000 in cash. Within 12 hours, a calm and smooth Hammer was questioned and caught in lies about his whereabouts. Authorities began compiling evidence, which included surveillance videos and paint chips from Hammer's hand truck that matched paint left on Ron Hudler's safe. He was arrested in the slayings within days.
It took until May 2009, however, for investigators to find the stolen $10,000 and one of the weapons used in the crime, and that was only after Hammer had told another inmate where it was hidden. The inmate then informed authorities in return for a better facilities.
With the evidence, on May 22, 2009, to avoid risking the death penalty, Hammer pleaded guilty to the triple slaying. He was immediately sentenced to multiple life terms with no possibility of parole.
There was still one more Hammer victim unaccounted for: Jimmy Blevins. Hammer agreed in a letter in June to a jailhouse interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer at the Powhatan correctional center southwest of Richmond. After he was put in solitary confinement, however, Hammer instead began sending follow-up letters to the newspaper.
In these letters, Hammer intimated that he had killed Jimmy Blevins - although not why he had killed him - and knew the whereabouts of Blevins' body. In a June 29, 2009 letter to the Inquirer, referring to the Ashe County Sheriff's Department, he said he held "the only key to their problems." About a month later - tipped off by the Inquirer about the contents of the letter - Williams - the county sheriff - agreed to meet with Hammer. The killer agreed to reveal the location of Blevins' body if certain conditions were met. They included moving him to a prison closer to his home.
And so it was that, in a debris-strewn pit in rural Ashe County, N.C., authorities last week unearthed the decaying corpse of Jimmy Blevins, missing and presumed dead for more than two years.
Frederick Phillip Hammer, then, is a serial murderer now serving multiple life terms for three execution-style killings at a tree farm in Grayson County, Va. He took the lives of Uffelman in 1978, Blevins in 2007. And there may be others.
Do you think the Pennsylvania Supreme Court - who freed Hammer to kill at least four more times - gives a rusty fuck?
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