By Hoda Kotb Correspondent
NBC News
updated 8/7/2008 10:22:33 AM ET 2008-08-07T14:22:33

This story originally aired Dateline NBC on July 25, 2008.

College attracts the best and the brightest: idealistic kids, full of fire, ready to change the world.

But there's idealism, and then there's Michelle Herndon.

Belinda Herndon: She gave to the World Wildlife Fund, to the Animal Relief, all these little organizations.

Jessica: She had a fascination with apes she worked at a primate sanctuary.

Belinda Herndon: She went to St. Francis house and volunteered which is a homeless shelter.

Belinda Herndon: I’ve actually seen her get out of her vehicle in the middle of a Target parking lot because someone threw a cup in the parking lot.  And she was so irate she told him, it was a young man, a college student just like her, "There's a trash right there.  Would it have killed ya?" and that's just what she said.

For Michelle, it was simple: We are all custodians of our planet, and of every thing on it.

Belinda Herndon: She was a caretaker, yes.  Of people, of things, of animals.

Hoda Kotb: Of everything.

Belinda Herndon: She's called me on her way to work, "I’m going to be late for work.  I’m going to get in trouble!"  I’m like "why?"  "A squirrel!  I found it in my road.  It has a broken leg.  I have to take it to UF to the veterinary clinic."  I’m thinking, "Oh, Michelle..."

Just 24-years-old, Michelle Herndon wanted to join the Peace Corps and spend time doing charity work in Africa.  She even donated money every month to sponsor a needy child.

Belinda Herndon: She had the photo of the boy in her day planner and would bring it up to me.  It was, "Jessica, look at this boy I just adopted."

Belinda Herndon: She had the world by the tail and was riding it.  She was--my child has never been happier. She had everything she wanted.

But her life would take an unexpected turn in early November 2005, becoming the center of a mystery that would baffle detectives and forensic experts and take more than two years to resolve.

Michelle Herndon dreamed of traveling the globe, but she got her start on the two-lane county roads of Live Oak, Fla., a sleepy, tight-knit community just south of the Georgia border.

Belinda Herndon: She was our everything.  Her brother used to always say that we all lived vicariously through Michelle, through her eyes.

Athletic and tall, with long, blonde hair, Michelle loved attention.  She was comfortable at the center of any crowd and knew how to work a room.

Belinda Herndon: She usually made a grand entrance.  Her smile could light up the darkest night.  And she had the bluest eyes she just reminded me of a butterfly the way she would just kind of float around.

When she left the cocoon of Live Oak to attend college in Gainesville, Michelle’s parents knew their social butterfly would land on her feet. 

Michelle lived by herself off-campus and bounced around from house to house, sometimes not in the best neighborhoods.

Belinda Herndon: She had a little Christmas get-together and one of the girls said, you know, if my mother knew I was over in this area of town, she would not be very happy.  But like Michelle said, "Who's going to rob me?  They all think we're as poor as each other!"

To make some extra money, Michelle, a health nut, worked part-time as a personal trainer at Gainesville health and fitness.  She started a recycling program almost immediately.

Jessica Seipel: She was a breath of fresh air.

Jessica Seipel also worked the early morning shift at the gym.

She and Michelle became inseparable, and pretty soon, you could always find Michelle at Jessica’s house giggling, talking and co-hosting dinners and barbeques in Jessica’s big backyard.

Jessica Seipel: Once a week, we tried to have what we called "family dinners" where we would all sit around and have a nice home cooked meal.  And it would, it would be myself, Oliver, Sonia, my girlfriend Sky and also Michelle and whoever else we would just invite over to have dinner.

The dinners were mostly girlfriends, but occasionally Jessica’s roommate, Oliver, would join them.  He was shy. A bit awkward around women. But Michelle always did all she could to make him feel at home.

Belinda Herndon: He said, "I really don't have very many friends."  He said, "I'm so much smarter than most people, that I have a hard time relating to them".   Michelle's like, "Yeah, he's kind of full of himself." She said, "But I feel bad."  She said, "He's the kid that got picked on in school." 

Hoda Kotb: It also seems to me that she was one of those people who sort of took in the strays a little bit.

Jessica Seipel: Uh-huh. Animals and people alike.

Jessica Seipel:  People wise, it seemed like everybody who needed a little bit of encouragement or a little bit of help, she was always right there to get their back.

Michelle had a very full social life, but she was ready to make as much room as possible for one particular guy: Jason Dearing.

Belinda Herndon: She had actually tried to fix him up with her cousin at a family reunion in 2001.  And she said I realized at that moment when Kim kind of looked at him like oh! She said I wanted him all to myself.

Jessica Seipel: You could pretty much tell that they were in love with each other from the get go.

Now, after four years of on and off, off and on, they decided they wanted to be on -- for good.

Jessica Seipel: She looked like a little school girl.  She was like "Oh my gosh, you have to hear about this conversation I just had with Jason!" They just really decided OK, let's go for it.  Let’s, you know, go a hundred percent.  A real committed relationship.  Let’s go for it.

Michelle Herndon was the happiest she'd ever been.  Practically yelling from the rooftops.  But then... silence. 

She stopped calling her mom. Her boyfriend. She missed work and even her best friend said she couldn’t reach her.

Jessica Seipel:  I called her probably 10 times just to see what was going on.

Belinda Herndon: I thought gee, she must really be working or classes or something's going on. 

Then finally, at 3:30 in the morning on Nov. 10, Michelle’s mom, Belinda Herndon, received a phone call. It was Jason.

After not being able to reach Michelle for two days, he had driven back to Gainesville from his house in Miami and was standing outside her house, sick with worry. 

Inside, he could hear her dog barking, her cell phone ringing. But there was no sign of Michelle.

Belinda Herndon: He said I’m at her house and her car's here. She’s left her cell phone and she's left Duke.  And Duke was her baby. All I could think of was maybe Jessica got sick so she went over there.

Belinda roused herself out of her sleep and tried to call Jessica.

Jessica Seipel: Michelle’s mom had called she couldn't get a hold of her. I just jumped out of bed and got dressed and called Michelle’s mom and said I’m going to drive over to Michelle’s house right now.

So Belinda Herndon waited.  She waited for Jason, Jessica, anyone to tell her what was going on. 

But her phone didn't ring. Wouldn't ring. So there was nothing left to do.

Hoda Kotb: Start driving?

Belinda Herndon: Yes.

Hoda Kotb: When did it hit you?

Belinda Herndon: I knew going down there. I knew something wasn't right.  I just -- I knew. I passed people.  I went in the parking lanes in the middle of Gainesville to, I mean, I kept thinking, please God, please let a policeman pull me over, because then they'll be able to get me there quicker. But it was the longest drive of my life. 

It took Belinda an hour to get from her home to Michelle’s, and when she finally arrived, she was greeted by the very last thing any parent wants to see: Yellow police tape, squad cars, and the grim faces of detectives already at work.

Belinda Herndon: The detective walked up to me and he said that our daughter had been found dead in her home.  And I could remember dropping to the ground and telling him if he didn't find the man that did this, her father would and this family would suffer another tragedy.

Her daughter was a healthy and vibrant young woman who'd never suffered anything worse than a migraine. So right away, Belinda thought foul play.

But Gainesville police Det. Michael Douglas wasn't so sure.

Hoda Kotb: Did you see any signs of trauma or any blood or anything like that?

Det. Michael Douglas: None whatsoever.

Hoda Kotb: Nothing?

Det. Michael Douglas: Nothing.  I was perplexed...

Hoda Kotb: So the detectives had to consider the idea that Michelle had done this to herself.

Jessica Seipel: There were so many things, so many different thoughts that were tossed around. I remember somebody saying, maybe it was suicide, and I just wanted to choke them.  They obviously, you've never met her.  You have no idea what you're talking about.

Based on accounts of Michelle’s demeanor in the previous days and the absence of a note, that theory was ruled out pretty quickly.

Det. Michael Douglas: This girl-- but, you know, didn't appear to be suicidal at all.  You know, she had too much-- she was looking forward to the future.

Next, Detective Douglas thought perhaps she was a drug user who overdosed by accident.

Det. Michael Douglas: You can usually tell a lot about a person's personality as you go through their-- their belongings.  And I went through everything-- in her house.

Hoda Kotb: What did that tell you about-- Michelle?

Det. Michael Douglas: She seemed like a very neat, conscientious, health-conscious individual.     

Hoda Kotb: How could you tell-- she was health conscious?

Det. Michael Douglas: By what's in her refrigerator.

Hoda Kotb: Yeah?  What'd she have in there?

Det. Michael Douglas: She had milk, water, some yogurt, fruit, things like that.

Hoda Kotb: Right, not like beer or--

Det. Michael Douglas: Right.  Beer—

Hoda Kotb: Pizza and stuff that—

Det. Michael Douglas: --and cold pizza. 

Hoda Kotb: --college kids would have.

Det. Michael Douglas: No, nothing like that.

Hoda Kotb: So, just so I'm clear, you didn't find-- you didn't see any signs of drugs?  No signs of alcohol?

Det. Michael Douglas: No.

In a matter of hours, they had pretty much ruled out an intruder, suicide, an accidental overdose.

There was only one other explanation: Michelle Herndon had died of natural causes.

Det. Michael Douglas: It happens.  But not very often. I’ve had deaths where a seemingly healthy person had a seizure disorder and died.  I had one since Michelle’s death--this girl was 19 years old.  No medical history.  Found dead in her bed.

Hoda Kotb: So it does happen?

Det. Michael Douglas: It does.

So Detective Douglas began wrapping up the investigation.  But before he could close out her file, procedure dictated that he send Michelle’s body to the medical examiner for a routine autopsy.

Dr. Burt: It just didn't make a lot of sense.  Why a young, healthy girl would be dead.  She wasn't known to use drugs, she didn't hang with a rough crowd, she didn't have any of the signs of someone who was in danger.

When Michelle Herndon was found dead in her home on Nov. 10, 2005, the cause of death was a mystery.

Within a few hours of being called to her home, Gainesville police had ruled out an intruder, suicide, a drug overdose.

Belinda Herndon: I thought how ironic, the person that takes care of themselves, that gripes at the rest of us either had an aneurysm, or just whatever it was.

Michelle’s family and friends were devastated... but they took some small comfort in the belief that Michelle’s death was perhaps part of God's plan.

They quickly went to work planning a memorial.

People told story after story about Michelle’s passion for people, for animals, for the planet,  and they pledged to do their part to continue her good works in her memory.

Belinda Herndon: Just a gorgeous day... little breeze, kids running around playing...the day was all Michelle. We all had a big cookout.  And then her two uncles that had never recycled a day in their life proceeded to go through three barrels of trash and recycle everything.

After coming to grips with the idea that Michelle had died of some unseen ailment, Belinda Herndon did not want to pursue a post-mortem exam.

Belinda Herndon: I asked them please not to do an autopsy.

Hoda Kotb: Why was that?

Belinda Herndon: Because Michelle, I knew Michelle didn't want to be cut on.  I couldn't bear the thought--to think my child--my child was dead but now somebody's going to cut on her.

Medical examiner doctor Martha Burt understood, but knew it was necessary.

Dr. Burt: We try to explain to the families that even though it's not something that they would like their loved one to go through, it does give us very good information that would be-- usually is helpful to them.

The autopsy of Michelle’s body revealed what everyone already knew: that Michelle was in great physical shape with no diseases.

But it also revealed a huge clue wrapped in a tiny new detail-- a detail that would blow the nearly closed case back open wide.

On Michelle’s left arm, there was a dot.  Though smaller than a freckle, Dr. Burt decided to take a closer look. 

Detective Douglas remembers the bombshell that followed.

Det. Michael Douglas: I get a phone call from the medical examiner. 

Hoda Kotb: Saying?

Det. Michael Douglas: Saying, "I found a needle puncture in Michelle Herndon's arm.  In her left arm.  And in my medical opinion, it appears to be administered by someone with a level of skill."

Hoda Kotb: A level of skill?

Det. Michael Douglas: Level of skill.

Hoda Kotb: And what did that tell you as a detective?

Det. Michael Douglas: I thought, "This is very unusual."  I said-- my first question was, are there any other needle marks?  Could Michelle be a closet junkie?  You know?  And Dr. Burt said, "No."

Hoda Kotb: Just the one.

Det. Michael Douglas: That's it.  Just the one.

Hoda Kotb: So, it was one, single pinprick? 

Det. Michael Douglas: That's it.

Hoda Kotb: So, that was going to end up being the key to the case?  This single pinprick? 

Det. Michael Douglas: Yes.

Dr. Burt said she was also bothered by the position of Michelle’s body when they found her.

Dr. Burt: The other thing that was also very unusual was the pattern of lividity, which is a settling of blood after a person dies.  And her pattern of lividity indicated that she had been placed faced down relatively soon after she died.

To her, it looked like Michelle had been "placed" with her face in her pillow... not the way she would land if she had fallen ill and collapsed.

Suddenly, Michelle Herndon’s death was not looking so natural after all. Armed with this new information, Det. Mike Douglas returned to her house.

Det. Michael Douglas: Searched her vehicle, looked in the tall grass, looked everywhere we possibly could.  And this is after scouring the house the previous day.

Hoda Kotb: So, there was a point where you discovered a crucial piece of evidence. 

Det. Michael Douglas: You say, "discovered."  I would say "stumbled."  It's--

Hoda Kotb: Stumbled? 

Det. Michael Douglas: --probably I would say--

Hoda Kotb: You stumbled? 

Det. Michael Douglas: --stumble.  is more accurate.

Hoda Kotb: Tell me about that.

Det. Michael Douglas: Laying on the ground is a clear, plastic grocery bag from Publix. 

It was a stray garbage bag, inadvertently left behind when the trash was collected earlier that day.

Det. Michael Douglas: And we poked around, picked it up and looked at it.  And lo and behold, inside it we found several bottles of pharmaceuticals and needles and a catheter. 

Hoda Kotb: Did you just think, jackpot, we found it?

Det. Michael Douglas: I didn't know what I had.  But, I drew the connection.  To me, this is wonderful.  And this is into-- and it was also just dumb luck.

Detective Douglas went on the internet to look up " propofol", the name of the drug on the vials in Michelle’s trash.

He learned that it was a fast-acting sedative that would render a person unconscious within seconds. 

Now just 24 hours after finding Michelle Herndon dead in her home, it seemed like Gainesville police had stumbled into a full-blown murder mystery.

They had a body.  They had a pinprick.  And they had needles and some empty vials of a powerful, hospital-grade anesthetic, only available to medical professionals.

All they needed to find was what the medical examiner called "the skilled hand" that delivered the injection.

Detective Douglas began re-interviewing everyone in Michelle’s life.  He had to figure out why anyone would want to harm Michelle Herndon, the cheerful do-gooder who seemed to have a kind word for everyone.

While looking for anyone who had access to the hospital and Michelle’s house, he got a description from one of Michelle’s neighbors of a man seen at her house a day or two before.

Jessica Seipel: He said that someone had spotted a small framed, you know, Caucasian person wearing glasses and do you know anybody like that?  And I was like, yeah.  My roommate fits that description.

Hoda Kotb: When you said, my roommate fits that description what was the first thing you thought right then.

Jessica Seipel: No. Way.  That's something that only--that only happens in the movies.

Belinda Herndon: He said, "I really need to talk to you."  And, I said, "Well, okay."  And he said, "We think Michelle was murdered."

Belinda Herndon: And, I said, "You what?"  And, he said, "Did Michelle know anyone that worked at a hospital?"  And, I said, "Yes." And, I said, "She knew a young man who lived with her best friend, rented a room." 

That "young man" was Oliver O’Quinn, the shy, awkward guy who lived with her best friend Jessica.  It turns out he was a nurse at nearby Shands Hospital.

Jessica Seipel: It's a person that you trusted.  He was in my house.  If I didn't trust him, I wouldn't have been sleeping in the same house as him. 

It seemed unlikely.  Oliver didn't have a criminal background. He was a divorced father who still spent time with his child, and he made a professional pledge to "do no harm."

But now the question hovered, could Oliver--the guy Michelle felt so sorry for, the guy she befriended--have been involved in her murder?

At that point, nothing was conclusive, but evidence was mounting.

And as Michelle’s friends and family began telling the police everything they knew about him, a complicated portrait began to emerge.

Hoda Kotb: So what did he tell you about himself?

Jessica Seipel: He told me that he was an EMT paramedic and a fire fighter.  He also told me a story about him being a captain in the Air Force.  He said he was a paratrooper, and he had jumped into Afghanistan. He was the very first crew to jump in after 9/11.

Hoda Kotb: It sounds like he's repainted himself as this sort of hero--

Jessica Seipel: And I think that's why we always excused it because he was a small guy so he wanted to paint himself the big picture.

Looking back, Jessica and Michelle’s mom say there were signs that Oliver was becoming increasingly fixated on Michelle.

Hoda Kotb: Did you notice anything that he was paying special attention to her early on?

Jessica Seipel: I would say probably within the first couple of months she just kind of brushed it off.  She wasn't going to not talk to him just because he had a crush on her.

Even play dates with Michelle’s dog, Duke, took on a new meaning.

Belinda Herndon: He would meet her and he actually borrowed somebody else's dog a couple of times to meet her so Duke would have somebody to play with.

Pretty soon, Oliver’s crush was so obvious that Michelle’s friends would joke about it.

Jessica Seipel: That was a birthday party for one of our girlfriends.  And it was at my house. We had a campfire out back that we sat around.

Belinda Herndon: She kept moving her chair, he proceeded to move his.  And, she actually-- she told me that she sat up right next to one of the other girls, she said as close as she could get.  And, he kind of worked his way in there. 

Jessica Seipel: We knew that she kind of didn't enjoy him following her around quite so much.  So we kind of made a game out of it.  And Michelle would get up and move to one chair, and Oliver would get up and move next to her.  And then she'd kind of wink at one of us and get up and move to a few chairs over.  And he'd get up and move to the chair next to her.

They continued to be friends, but there were signs he was getting possessive.

Jessica Seipel: There were times that he and Michelle had, you know, hung out together.  And he would say, "My friend.  I'm going to have coffee with my friend."  And I would say, "Oh, yeah."  You know, "Your new friend?  Who's your new friend?"  It's my friend.  And I would just, "Okay."  And then I would talk to Michelle the next day and say, you know, "What'd you do yesterday?"  "Oh, yeah.  Oliver and I went and had coffee."

So it kind of seemed like he was keeping it a secret. 

Her mother remembered that about three weeks before her death, Michelle began to worry Oliver had gotten a little bit too attached.

Belinda Herndon: She said, "You know, he's calling constantly.  He's dropping by unexpectedly." And, she said, "It just kind of creeps me out."

Det. Michael Douglas: He would follow her around like a little puppy dog.  In fact, I later learned that he called her 43 times in 30 days. 

And finally, Belinda gave Detective Douglas a potential motive:  She believes that in her excitement, Michelle probably told Oliver that things between her and her boyfriend Jason were getting serious, causing him to get jealous.

Belinda Herndon: I think he got mad.  You know, why not me?  I've been going to the dog park with you.  I've been meeting you at Maude's for coffee.  I've been helping you on your college papers.  Why--

Hoda Kotb: Right, why not me?

Belinda Herndon:--not me. 

The only thing left for Det. Mike Douglas to do was talk to the man himself.

Easier said than done.

The police believed that Oliver O’Quinn, a loner with an unrequited crush, went to her house and somehow managed to inject her with a toxic cocktail of drugs stolen from the hospital where he worked.

The circumstantial evidence was overwhelming. It was not enough to warrant an arrest, but it was enough for Det. Douglas to want a face-to-face meeting.

Det. Mike Douglas: I put a full court press trying to find this guy. 

Hoda Kotb: How many times did you call?

Det. Mike Douglas: Five or six times.

Hoda Kotb: So-- police detective called him five or six times and he never responded?

Det. Mike Douglas: That's right.

Hoda Kotb: Red flags must've been flapping?

Det. Mike Douglas: Yeah.  Yeah.  I have a problem with that.

Next he tried the hospital.

Det. Mike Douglas: I went in there and spoke to the charge nurse.  And she goes, "I just let him go yesterday."

Hoda Kotb: Let him go? 

Det. Mike Douglas: Yeah.

Hoda Kotb: Fired him?

Det. Mike Douglas: Fired him.

Worried that the trail would get cold, Detective Douglas checked another hospital where Oliver freelanced.

Det. Mike Douglas: And lo and behold, there's his car in the parking lot.  So I go in the emergency room.  And I walk up to him.  And I said, "Hello, Oliver. I'm Detective Douglas.  Aren't you even curious why a detective is calling you five or six times saying, 'Look, I want to talk to you right away.'  Aren't you even curious?" And he looked at me and goes, "Oh, yeah.  Why?"  I said, "I want to talk to you about the death of Michelle Herndon."  And he just looked at me and said, "Yeah, I read about that." I said "Well, you come see me tomorrow."  He goes, "Oh, okay."

In his gut, the police veteran was now sure that Oliver was involved with Michelle’s death, but without any concrete evidence to take to the district attorney, he couldn't arrest him.

He wasn't surprised when the following day came and went with no Oliver.

Desperate for leads, Detective Douglas went to Oliver’s hometown in Tennessee to speak to his father.  But his prime target had already come and gone.

Det. Mike Douglas: I asked him about his son's attitude when he came home.  What was his affect?  Was he happy?  Was he sad?  Was he eager to leave?  Did he want to come back to Florida?  And dad says, "No, he just struck me as being a little depressed." And I said, "Really?  Why would he be depressed?"  And he says, "Well, he told me a girlfriend of his had died of a drug overdose in Gainesville."  And I had him repeat that. I couldn't believe what I had heard.

Hoda Kotb: So nothing had been out in the media about the pinprick?

Det. Mike Douglas: Nobody knew.

Hoda Kotb: Nobody knew anything?

Det. Mike Douglas: The toxicology had not returned. 

Hoda Kotb: So right then—

Det. Mike Douglas: Bang.

Hoda Kotb: Bang?

Det. Mike Douglas: Yeah.

Det. Mike Douglas: I called the FBI.  And said, "Look, I got a problem. I got a guy who may have left the country." And they flagged his passport.  And I found out that he landed in the Republic of Ireland on Nov. 29.

Oliver O’Quinn, the leading suspect in Michelle Herndon’s murder had slipped away beyond the reach of Gainesville police and into a country that had repeatedly refused to extradite fugitives back to the United States in protest of the death penalty.

They wouldn't send him back, but Irish police were more than willing to provide surveillance of the suspect.

Detective Douglas learned that as soon as he hit the ground, Oliver started planning for a new life: renting a room in a hostel in Dublin... getting a local cell phone... and applying for jobs with the Irish nursing board.

Det. Mike Douglas: He just thought he was the center of the universe.  And smarter than everybody else.  And he was going to pull off a perfect crime.  And get away with it. 

[Correction: The transcript wrongly described the following exchange as an interview with Det. Mike Douglas. These words were in fact spoken by Belinda Herndon.]

Hoda Kotb: You must have been out of your mind. How out of your mind were you?

Belinda Herndon: I was.  I bought a ticket.  I have a ticket in our safety deposit box.  Cost us $3,100.

Hoda Kotb: You bought a ticket to Ireland?

Belinda Herndon: Yes, one way.  There was no need for me to come back.  And, that's-- I went through a very bad period, yeah, yeah.

But then, Belinda and Detective Douglas hatched a plan.  They released details of the case to the Irish media hoping the glare of the spotlight would force Oliver to move again--perhaps into a country more willing to send him back home.

Finally in June 2006, after every flicker of hope had been extinguished, there was a break from the other side of the world.          

Det. Mike Douglas: He pops up at the American embassy in Mauritania.

Hoda Kotb: In Mauritania?

Det. Mike Douglas: Yes.  To receive a money order—

Hoda Kotb: Now how did that-- how did that flag you? 

Det. Mike Douglas: Because he had to-- he identified himself with his passport to the personnel there.  They saw that his passport was flagged.  But they didn't know for what.  They notified the marshal service. And so they stalled him.  They said, "Can you come back later for it?" That spooked him.  And he fled across the border into the neighboring country of Senegal. 

Oliver O’Quinn didn't get far.  Authorities in Senegal captured him and had no problem sending him back to the United States.

Hoda Kotb: So, he left Ireland, ran to Africa.

Det. Mike Douglas: Which is so ironic because that's where Michelle wanted to go.  I actually-- when they called and told me they caught him in Africa, I actually got sick on my stomach. And, then after I let it soak in, I actually started laughing.  And, I thought, what a fool, Michelle was all over Africa.  You know, he had to have known that.  He had to have known that.  She wanted to join the Peace Corps.  She wanted to work with AIDS victims.  I mean, he—

Hoda Kotb: That was her place.

Det. Mike Douglas: Yeah-- that was stupid.

Hoda Kotb: So, he ran to her place.

Det. Mike Douglas: He did, he did. And, he was caught pretty shortly after he ran to her place.  Within a week.

More than two years since 24-year-old Michelle Herndon was discovered dead in her home, more than two years since they realized the harmless guy who had a crush on Michelle was anything but.

Oliver O’Quinn, who had evaded police by fleeing to Europe and Africa, was finally back in Florida, in a courtroom facing trial for murder in the first degree.

Prosecutors James Colaw and Tim Browning set out to paint a picture of a man obsessed, spurned, then driven to murderous, calculating rage.

James Colaw: He called the victim 43 times, spoke to her every single day for nine straight days preceding her death.  Never calls her on 9th, never calls her on 10th, never calls her on the 11th, or the 12th because he knows there's no one there to answer...

They called Michelle’s friends to the stand to show how Oliver zeroed in on her.  Jessica Seipel was first.

Tim Browning: Did you ever meet any woman he was dating?

Jessica Seipel: No.

Tim Browning: Had he ever introduced you to anyone he characterized as a friend?

Jessica Seipel: No.

Tim Browning: What do you recall him saying about Michelle?

Jessica Seipel: I recall him saying he found her interesting, had never met anyone like her before.

When Jason Dearing, Michelle’s boyfriend, took the stand he told the jury how they had decided to officially take their relationship to the next level -- a sort of pre-engagement.

Jason Dearing: We decided that I would move up closer to Gainesville and we would make an attempt at a more serious, stable, committed relationship from there.

Michelle’s tearful mother, Belinda, said her daughter couldn't wait to tell everyone.

Belinda Herndon: She was crazy about him she was on top of the world.

Prosecutors alleged that when Michelle shared this news the next day with Oliver, who had grown dangerously infatuated with her, he snapped and delivered the fatal injection with pinpoint accuracy.

James Colaw: Did you examine the tissue beneath that puncture wound?

Dr. Martha Burt: Yes... underneath was very minimal amount of hemorrhage.

James Colaw: The person who created the puncture wound would have been someone with some skill or precision in knowing how to do that?

Dr. Martha Burt: It is very suggestive of that.

Next prosecutors called Oliver O’Quinn’s own father to the stand.

In the early days of the investigation, Beecher O’Quinn told Detective Douglas that Oliver told him a girlfriend of his had died of a drug overdose. 

But at that point, the toxicology reports weren't back yet so no one knew that key detail.  Not Detective Douglas, not even medical examiner Martha Burt. 

But now when asked to testify against his son, he denied that previous, on-the-record statements...

James Colaw: You do you recall talking to them that day?

Beecher O’Quinn: I didn't say say anything about a girlfriend or a drug overdose... he did not tell me a girlfriend died of an overdose.

James Colaw: You do understand you're under oath.  Is it your testimony that you didn't say that?

Beecher O’Quinn: I don't remember that.  My son didn't make that kind of statement when he was home.  If he had told me anything about this, I would have contacted our local authorities...

Prosecutors could not get Beecher O’Quinn to incriminate his own son, but they didn't take the stunning reversal lying down.

They followed up with Oliver’s half-sister who said not only did Beecher O’Quinn tell her the overdose story, he also asked her not to cooperate with investigators.

James Colaw: Did he say anything about what you should do if law enforcement contacted you?

Leslie: He said don't tell them anything,

James Colaw: What was your response to that?

Leslie:  That I always tell the truth.

With Oliver’s feelings for Michelle, his motives and his premature knowledge of the cause of death documented, it was time to show he had the know-how.

Tim Browning: Did you find him proficient in administering IVs to patients?

Sallustio: Yes.

James Colaw: Was he tested on the dosage calculations for all these drugs, but specifically including propofol?

Marker: Yes it's in the test questions.

James Colaw: Did he pass the test?

Marker: Yes he did.

Next prosecutors focused on Oliver’s sudden trip to Ireland two weeks after Michelle’s death.  They said it was the desperate, last-ditch effort of a guilty man.

James Colaw: When he starts to find out on November 21 that there must be something because law enforcement is now persistent in seeing me, and speaking to me, things change.  And he begins to go about saying his goodbyes.

Oliver’s ex-wife, Stacy O’Quinn, testified that Oliver came to see her and their daughter at the end of November 2005.  He said was going away for two weeks but promised to take a special trip when he returned.

James Colaw: Did he come back for President's Day or MLK day to take your daughter to Disney?

Stacy O’Quinn:No.

James Colaw: Did he ever come back to take your daughter to Disney?

Beecher O’Quinn: No.

Now all that was left was the proverbial "smoking gun". 

Back in 2005, when Detective Douglas and his team found the plastic grocery bag behind Michelle’s house, filled with empty drug vials and needles, they knew it could be an important clue, but they didn't know how important. 

Det. Mike Douglas: I gave it to my crime lab guy. Well, his wife happened to be a nurse.  And he says, "You know, I've seen my wife gives shots.  And when she does, she puts the needle in her mouth and bites the-- the plastic tip off so she can use her hands."  And he says, "I think this would be a really good place to look for DNA."  I said, "Please, do it.  By all means."

And when those results came back from the lab, the state's experts said the DNA left behind on those needle covers and syringes found in the trash at Michelle’s house could only belong to one person.

Leigh Clark: The DNA on my exhibit matched the DNA profile of defendant Oliver O’Quinn.

Public defender Drew McGill didn't call a single witness.  It was a risky strategy--one that would require him to use the closing argument to do all the heavy lifting.

Drew McGill: The state attorney said that they were going to show you that he was infatuated with her, that he adored her.  But they didn't show you that.

First, he asked the jury to flat out reject the notion that Oliver O’Quinn was obsessed with Michelle Herndon.

He tried to recast the story of the birthday party at Jessica’s house where Oliver kept sitting next to Michelle in a different light.

Drew McGill: Is that terribly unusual? Does that seem like such a stretch of the imagination that somebody's in a big social setting but they don't know any of these people, but they know one person so they're hanging close to them?

And he argued that there were other women in Oliver O’Quinn’s life who he had perfectly normal relationships with.

Drew McGill: So Oliver O’Quinn is attracted to attractive young ladies. He was attracted to Michelle Herndon.  He was attracted to his ex-wife, we can presume, since they got married.

When it came to the investigation, the defense tried to show that Det. Mike Douglas targeted O’Quinn not based on facts, but on convenience.

Drew McGill: Oliver’s a nurse.  Ooh!  We’ve got a pinprick.  Ooh!  Anything that doesn't fit with that we're going to disregard.

Then McGill pointed out what he called one state witness blatantly contradicting another:

Drew McGill: The state attorney at times portrayed him throughout this trial as this person of great skill, this great skilled person, he could make this small injection, but then the next sentence, he's getting the boot because he's incompetent and his skills aren't up to par.

Finally, the defense attacked the DNA evidence, the only non-circumstantial evidence presented by the prosecution.  He said the analyst had mistakes in her report.

Drew McGill: She said yes, it was a typographical error but she didn't catch it proofreading. If no one caught that, three reviews didn't catch it either.  If they didn't catch that, what else didn't they catch?

With that, it was up to the jury to decide. 

One question never answered in the trial: How did Oliver manage to inject Michelle without a struggle?

Investigators believe Oliver may have pretended he was going to give her some medication to treat her persistent migraine headaches, but instead gave her a powerful sedative.

Det. Mike Douglas: So she trusted him.  And this guy gave her four times the lethal dose.  Knowing-- knowing that it was going to kill her.  It's sinister.  This guy planned it.

The verdict would take just two and a half hours.

Verdict: We the jury find as follows: the defendant is guilty of first-degree murder...

More than two years after Michelle Herndon’s death, Oliver O’Quinn was found guilty of murder in the first degree and sentenced to life without parole.

It was a moment Belinda Herndon thought would never come.

Hoda Kotb: When you heard the words--

Belinda Herndon: Relief.

Belinda Herndon: I wanted to stand up and point at him and say "got you" or something.  Just that these people saw the truth. I was like--I had won the lottery.

Before Oliver O’Quinn was taken away to begin serving the rest of his life behind bars, Belinda Herndon spoke directly to him.

Belinda Herndon: I think about what you did to yourself and Michelle would have been your friend for life she could have been your friend 10 years from now but you took that.  You chose to take that. What you took from us, you will never know.  I almost let you take everything.  I almost didn't survive this.

Hoda Kotb: Did you look at him when you were doing it?

Belinda Herndon: Very much so.

Hoda Kotb: And did he look back?

Belinda Herndon: He looked at me.  I don't think he saw me.  I think he looked right through me.

Hoda Kotb: Expressionless is how they described it...

Belinda Herndon: Yes.  Dead.  Dead eyes.  That's what I thought whenever I looked at him.  I thought, "I've never seen such lifeless eyes in my life."  Yeah.

Hoda Kotb: How do you feel now?

Belinda Herndon: Like I have to do something.  That, Michelle expects it.  I don't think the Peace Corps wants me.  I think I'm a little over their age limit.  But-- I have to do something.  I have to. 

Belinda Herndon says her daughter is still with her every day...

Belinda Herndon: I see Michelle on the street here.  I see Michelle in the way chimes blow in the wind.

...and she takes comfort in knowing Michelle’s brief life will have a lasting impact.

Belinda Herndon: The people that have come forward and said, "Michelle's made me be a better environmentalist.  Michelle's made me be a better person because she makes me be conscientious." I think, you know, she died not knowing how many lives she had touched. 

Oliver O'Quinn is now appealing his conviction.

© 2013  Reprints

Video: The sister she always wanted


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