Dateline   |  November 07, 2013

'Secrets and Lies' part 2

Investigators suspect Catherine Novak was murdered, and sift through the ashes of the ruined house for clues.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> the remains of that old country house were still smoldering as investigators dug through the debris looking for clues. they wanted to know what caused the fire and exactly how catherine novak died there. her mother's question was more simple.

>> the big thing for me was why didn't she get out, that was what kept going over in my mind. why didn't she get out.

>> even her estranged husband paul was puzzled.

>> i didn't know what to think about it. i've been surrounded by death and violence my entire life and now it hits home

>> the pathologist ruled the death an accident but investigators weren't so sure. they turned to district attorney steve lun john to take a closer look.

>> you were contacted despite this talk that it was an accident?

>> yes. we had a fire and we had a death. the question of how the two of those items were going to come together would not play out for a couple days later and actually years later.

>> the police, as they often do, began by interviewing catherine 's soon to be ex-husband, paul novak .

>> what happened in the interview as far as the way they treated you, the questions they asked you?

>> they were nice. they just asked me about cathy's last whereabouts, if i knew of any boyfriends, who was in the house, any utilities that may have had a problem or something like that.

>> the interview was all very routine. but the investigation at the scene was not. fire inspectors couldn't figure out what ignited the blaze. they checked the wiring, the appliances, the stove, the propane tank. nothing conclusive. but then, things changed. the d.a. brought in a specialist, a forensic pathologist do a second autopsy a few days later. and the results this time told a different story.

>> we knew she did not die in that fire. she did before the fire.

>> the second pathologist discovered there was no carbon monoxide in catherine 's blood or soot in her lungs, meaning she stopped breathing before the fire started. she changed the manner of death from accidental to pending investigation.

>> the question is, what else can we gain or learn before we can start to classify this as a homicide?

>> who do you look to as a suspect?

>> the state police had done some initial interviews, obviously the spouse is the first person you look to. the spouse had a clear alibi.

>> paul and his new girlfriend, michelle lafrance said they were far from catherine 's beloved red house when the fire broke out. a three-hour drive away in their apartment on long island. still, investigators didn't just take the couple's word for it. they made a request.

>> he goes, we want to take a polygraph test.

>> did you feel you were in a tv show by this point?

>> it felt like a bad episode of law and order .

>> when did you get the results?

>> he came back 15 minutes later and said you're all done, you passed.

>> he was driving home from the investigation and he was hysteric hysterical.

>> paul 's sister had never heard him so emotional.

>> they asked me if i killed her and he found it so unbelievable that he was being asked these questions.

>> so if it wasn't paul , investigators needed to look for other suspects.

>> the state police did a complete canvas of the area. anybody who had any connection to catherine novak , the state police reviewed, found, interviewed.

>> but after many months and no leads, investigators hid a dead end . the case turned cold. none of that mattered much to catherine 's mom.

>> i still miss my daughter the same. i miss her no matter what happened to her, i miss her.

>> seven months after catherine 's death, paul and his girlfriend packed up the kids and their apartment on long island and moved a thousand miles south to florida.

>> i figured with my experience that it would probably be pretty easy for me to get a job somewhere.

>> kind of a fresh start ?

>> a fresh start . i thought it would be good for the kids, great school. nice neighborhood .

>> paul said not long after their move, things with michelle started to sour. when they first met, she was a paramedic in training. he was her teacher. her friend. she confided about her history of mental illness , long bouts of depression and alcohol abuse . but now he says her problems were beginning to take a toll on their relationship. his young daughter, a sore spot.

>> she was very jealous of natalie and her mental issues definitely became more apparent as time went on. at one point she actually threatened to commit suicide inside my own house.

>> this was no surprise to alone a and her mom who loved catherine but never approved of michelle .

>> what are your first impressions of michelle ?

>> we didn't like her. why?

>> she immediately wanted catherine 's pictures turned around because she felt catherine was looking at her.

>> paul said it took him a bit longer to realize that he and michelle were not the best match. they had been together for three years when he found out she was cheating on him with a married man.

>> he didn't want to stand for that. he had to ask her to leave. he did it very nicely and she didn't want to go.

>> in what paul described as a bitter break-up, he forced michelle to move out and told her it was over.

>> by that time, it had been more than two years since catherine 's death. investigators back in new york had moved on to other cases. the years were ticking by with no new leads. but the d.a. was a patient man.

>> we never put the file away. it was always a matter of when something is going to come forward, we'll be ready to go forward.

>> we never accepted an accidental cause of death , ever.

>> his patience would be rewarded. a break was coming in this cold case and it would surprise everyone.