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Defense: Detective badgered mother after 5-year-old died


Wendy Ruderman

The Philadelphia Inquirer

One of the detectives who questioned Heather G. Lindorff about the death of her 5-year-old adopted son repeatedly badgered her and lied in a failed attempt to get a confession, the defense argued in court yesterday.

Lindorff's attorney also asserted that Franklin Township Detective Sgt. Richard O'Brien had made several baseless assumptions during the four-hour interrogation on the morning after Jacob Lindorff's death in 2001.

Under questioning on the third day of testimony in Superior Court, O'Brien acknowledged that he believed Lindorff had beaten her son to death and that his opinion had shaped his questioning.

"I believed then and I believe now that the child was murdered," O'Brien testified.

Lindorff and her husband, James E. Lindorff, 54, are being tried on child-abuse charges. Heather Lindorff, 39, also faces three more serious charges: aggravated manslaughter, aggravated assault, and endangering the welfare of a child.

The Gloucester County medical examiner ruled that Jacob, adopted from Russia less than two months before his death on Dec. 14, 2001, had died of blunt head trauma. The boy also had multiple bruises and burns, including second-degree burns on his feet.

O'Brien testified that he had expected Heather Lindorff to tell him that she had deliberately beaten and burned the boy. Lindorff has maintained that Jacob was abused by his biological mother in Russia.

"If the kid [were] in Russia, he'd be a lot better off," O'Brien told Lindorff during the interview at police headquarters on Dec. 15, 2001.

"How can you make this statement, having no knowledge of what went on in Russia?" defense attorney Stephen Patrick asked O'Brien yesterday.

"It's my opinion," O'Brien responded.

"Based on no knowledge," Patrick said.

"Based on no knowledge," O'Brien agreed.

Last week, jurors listened to a tape of Heather Lindorff's statement to O'Brien and Sgt. Robert Best of the Gloucester County Prosecutor's Office. O'Brien told her that her husband had said in an interview that there were "back-to-back days" when Jacob was "uncontrollable." O'Brien then asserted that Heather Lindorff had beaten her son out of frustration.

Yesterday, O'Brien testified that he could not recall whether James Lindorff had made such a statement and acknowledged that he might have lied to Heather Lindorff. O'Brien said that under the law, police can lie to suspects as a "tool" to "gain the truth." It's an "interviewing technique," he said.

When Patrick asked if he had been "trying to trick" Heather Lindorff during the interview, O'Brien replied, "Absolutely."

O'Brien also conceded that he had made several blanket statements to Heather Lindorff without any basis, such as saying Jacob occasionally urinated on himself because he was continually yelled at. O'Brien acknowledged that he did not know what type of bathroom training Jacob had received in Russia.

In addition, O'Brien acknowledged that Jacob's head trauma might have occurred when he was knocked down in the bathtub during a fight with his brothers the day before his death. Jacob was one of six children adopted from Russia by the Lindorffs. O'Brien said that another detective had interviewed the children, and that he could not recall what they had said about the fight in the tub.

Though Heather Lindorff told O'Brien that she would never harm her children, let alone the horses on her Franklin Township farm, he said later that he did not believe her. "I think a horse has a better chance with you than a 5-year-old kid," he told her.

Patrick asked O'Brien about his comment. "Do you find that sarcasm is an effective tool in questioning people?" Patrick asked. "Do you think that was a useful question to ask?"

"I do, yes," O'Brien said.

Contact staff writer Wendy Ruderman at 856-779-3926 or wruderman@phillynews.com.

2003 Dec 9