Hoerig pleads not guilty; judge sets bail at $10M
By Ed Runyan
Claudia Hoerig, the subject of an 11-year quest by Prosecutor Dennis Watkins and others to return her from Brazil to Trumbull County to face aggravated-murder charges, came through a doorway Friday morning in a frumpy jail jumpsuit.
Hoerig, now 53 with gray hair, was the center of attention in Trumbull County Common Pleas Court. But the Brazilian native no longer appeared glamorous in the way she did in photographs with her Air Force pilot husband, Karl Hoerig, during their two-year marriage. Karl also was a commercial pilot.
Documents in the case say Claudia apparently left in a hurry after Karl’s killing in March 2007, leaving behind 77 pairs of shoes, 59 dresses, 19 business suits, 12 coats and 69 sweaters.
Her first husband, a New York physician, told Trumbull County investigators that their marriage had dissolved because she had more than 20 credit cards during their marriage and was using them to wire funds to Brazil and purchase properties in her home country.
Claudia did not even appear to be asked to speak during the arraignment hearing before Judge Andrew Logan. Most of the hearing involved a discussion between the judge and the attorneys regarding her bail, which was set at $10 million, believed to be a record amount for Trumbull County.
Chris Becker, a county assistant prosecutor, said it’s the highest bail he’s aware of in his 17 years.
Her appearance apparently was the first time she’s been back in Trumbull County since March 12, 2007, when she’s accused of shooting Karl near the basement steps of their home on Ninth Street in Newton Falls. He had been hit twice in the back and once in the head.
Prosecutors say they think Claudia shot her husband because he was planning to leave her that day. He had told a fellow pilot that he expected things to go badly when he told her he was leaving.
He was found dead three days later after he didn’t report for duty at the Youngstown Air Reserve Station. Prosecutors say she boarded a flight from Pittsburgh to New York City on March 12 and believe she boarded another one from JFK Airport to Brazil that night.
She remained free for much of those 11 years because Brazil’s constitution forbade its government from extraditing native Brazilians back to a country where they have been accused of committing a crime.
Matt Pentz, one of Claudia’s lawyers from the Ohio Public Defender’s Office, entered a not-guilty plea for her. If she is able to make bond, she must wear an electronic monitoring bracelet and would be on house arrest, the judge said.
Judge Logan said the $10 million would be an actual amount she would have to post, not the 10 percent that is typical in most criminal matters.
Judge Logan set the first pretrial hearing for 11 a.m. Feb. 6 because Becker said it probably would take about two weeks to provide defense counsel with the pretrial evidence in the case.
When the hearing was over, Watkins and three U.S. officials spoke to a large gathering of reporters and spectators in the courtroom.
“It’s been a long journey, but you know, justice is a journey. It doesn’t end until it’s done,” Watkins said of the nearly 11 years it took to bring Claudia back to Trumbull County.
“Karl Hoerig did a lot of missions for this country. The system of justice must do its mission. We must be soldiers and work to bring to a conclusion a criminal case.” Karl Hoerig flew nearly 200 Air Force combat missions in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Watkins and Peter Elliott, U.S. Marshal for the Northern District of Ohio, did not answer the question on many minds: What finally triggered Claudia’s being sent back to the United States? Watkins and the others said they can’t discuss details but praised the cooperation among local and federal officials over more than a decade.
Stephen Anthony, special agent in charge of the Cleveland FBI, wasted no time in focusing his words on the veteran prosecutor, Watkins, saying the reason Claudia was brought back to Trumbull County was “the unrelenting tenacity of this man right here, rallying the troops, making sure everyone was on the same page, working together for the last 10 years, alongside every day the family and the many supporters here, including the elected officials.”
Anthony said the work is “a testament to the whole government approach led by Prosecutor Watkins bringing us together and never letting us forget what it’s all about: It’s all about justice for the Hoerig family and Karl.”
Elliott said Claudia is in Trumbull County “because of one man, and that man is Dennis Watkins. I have 40 counties in my jurisdiction. I have never seen a more passionate prosecutor than Dennis Watkins.”
Elliott said the U.S. Marshals Service chartered a direct flight to Brazil on Sunday and returned with Claudia on Wednesday.
Asked whether Claudia’s case represents the first time a Brazilian-born citizen was extradited to the United States to face criminal charges, Elliott referred the question to Eric Johnson of the Diplomatic Security Service and Department of State, and Johnson declined to discuss it.
Erin Moriarty of the television show “48 Hours” was among the reporters asking questions. “48 Hours” aired a segment in November on the Hoerig case. She told The Vindicator after the hearing she hopes to have a story on “CBS This Morning” on Monday and will do an update of the earlier “48 Hours” segment at 9 p.m. Feb. 9.
She said she also plans to follow Hoerig’s trial, if there is one.
Moriarty said she was surprised, like all of the news media, when she learned Wednesday that Claudia was in the Trumbull County jail. She said she didn’t expect the president of Brazil to send her back so quickly because “it’s almost been 11 years.”
But Moriarty said she recently learned that officials have known since December that Claudia was coming back. That means it took only four to six weeks for the Brazilian president to release her after her last appeals were exhausted.
“They did a good job of keeping it quiet,” she said.
Moriarty said officials didn’t want the public to know about it “until she was on the airplane, until she was in the jail. They were convinced something would get in the way. They just wanted to wait until it had actually happened.”
Moriarty says he thinks one of the most impactful aspects of the “48 Hours” segment in November was Paul Hoerig traveling to Brazil to see what kind of life Claudia was living there the many years before she was jailed in Brazil. The segment also showed Paul walking into a meeting with the U.S. State Department.
“I really think Paul going to Brazil made a big difference in the case because he put a face to a victim’s family, and I think sometimes that’s really needed.”
Paul Hoerig said after the hearing that the media “played a very good part in this, shedding a light on the case so it did get the attention it needed. This is a good day, a long time coming,” he said.
The 910th Airlift Wing of the Youngstown Air Reserve Station issued a news release Friday saying the thoughts and prayers of the Air Force “are with Maj. Hoerig’s family as they prepare for the upcoming trial to achieve justice for their loved one and our fallen comrade in arms.”
It added, “Those who knew him know Maj. Hoerig would want our mission at the 910th to go on. The loss of our wingman and friend has been an emotional and difficult experience. But today, we stand together as professional, resilient airmen performing our mission, believing justice for Karl and peace for his family are within reach at last.”