It happened up in the gentrified hill country just east of San Francisco bay, a crime that played out like pulp fiction... but true. Too true.
East bay defense attorney Daniel Horowitz had discovered, mid-career, a whole new calling — as legal commentator on shows like MSNBC’s "The Abrams Report," and Court TV’s "Nancy Grace’s Closing Arguments." He still practiced, of course, defending everything from murder cases to marijuana possession.
Horowitz had been married to Pamela Vitale for more than a decade. Lately she had been working in her husband’s firm.
“Not only were they husband and wife, but they seemed to be friends. And I thought that was pretty cool,” says Barry Morris, a fellow criminal defense attorney, who had met the couple on a few occasions.
And brick by brick, up on their own hilltop compound, Dan and Pamela were building a huge dream villa, living meanwhile in the trailer beside it.
“Pamela wanted that home. She did the design, the construction, it was what she wanted,” recounts Ivan Golde, who works side by side with Horowitz. “Dan went along with it. He wouldn’t live in a home like that.”
And though it was a multi-million dollar property, Horowitz worried about neighbors— one in particular, who, he claimed, might be a threat to his wife.
“In fact, there was a restraining order written where Dan Horowitz specifically mentioned that ‘my wife is in danger,’” says Golde. That order was never issued— the two neighbors apparently worked out their differences.
But was Pamela safe, up on their isolated hilltop?
A murder during a murder trial
And then Dan Horowitz managed to land one of the biggest cases around, representing Susan Polk, a woman who freely admits she killed her own spouse.
Just two weeks ago, as the trial began, Pamela sat in the courtroom and listened to her husband tell the jury Susan Polk killed her spouse in self defense. Pamela, of course had no idea what was waiting for her just days away.
“We were doing well in trial,” claims Golde. “We were winning this case.”
Then, Friday night, nine days ago, Horowitz appeared on “Dateline” to argue his case for Susan Polk.
That night, apparently on top of the world, he called his media friends.
The next day, he spent in meetings with his staff.
“He called Pamela several times,” recounts Golde. “She didn’t answer the phone. He thought that was odd. But, we were meeting, we were busy. So, I saw Dan until 2:30. And he seemed absolutely fine.”
When he arrived home about dinner time, Horowitz said later, he was surprised to see Pamela’s car outside. Said he thought she was at the ballet.
Here is how he explained what he found to MSNBC’s Dan Abrams.
Dan Horowitz: I just went to the door and saw a smear on it which i knew was bad, and then I found her there, and… Dan Abrams, TV host: You touched her body and felt her pulse and spoke some words to her.Horowitz: When she was lying there, even though I knew that she was dead, I touched her on the temple to see if she was alive, and called 911 on the phone and then went back to her. I just told her, I said a million things, I screamed, I cried, I told her I loved her...
Pamela Vitale was dead, apparently beaten to death, in her own house.
But who would want to kill her?
“Pamela is just the sweetest, nicest, most selfless woman you ever want to know,” says Golde.
The early clues? There was no sexual assault, no robbery, none of the usual signs of assault by a walk-in stranger.
“This beating implies something much more personal,” Golde adds.
Who did it?
Right away, attention went to the high profile Polk case. Was there a connection?
“I don’t know of anybody involved in the Polk case who has a motive to do this,” says Morris. “I mean, it’s just bizarre.”
But Morris who intended to oppose Horowitz’s argument in the Polk case, was called in for questioning.
“When in doubt, ask all about. That’s fine. I mean, they asked me a whole bunch of questions. But they stopped taking notes pretty early on in the interview,” says Morris.
Perhaps because of a theory which soon spread around town: Could it have been the neighbor, the man against whom Horowitz had tried to obtain a restraining order, the man he said had threatened his wife? But when the neighbor was questioned, there was no arrest.
Media, satellite trucks, began to assemble at the base of the Horowitz hill, and a new suspicion fueled the gossip around northern California. “Well, it didn’t surprise me in the sense that whenever there’s a husband and wife situation where one spouse is dead, the first person to talk to is the spouse,” explains Morris.
Then, questions: Was there trouble in the marriage? Had the hugely expensive construction project come between them?
It appeared Pamela had answered the door to her killer wearing underwear. Was the killer someone she knew very well?
Dan Horowitz prepared for a funeral, and found himself dealing with questions from the very media he worked with.
Abrams: People have asked whether you have taken a polygraph, have been asked to take a polygraph. Would take a polygraph?Horowitz: I have not been asked to take a polygraph, I would take a polygraph at any time that the police asked me to do it, but beyond that Dan, I would do anything the police asked me to do.
Would they ask? There was a nervous, expectant wait. And then, the very morning of Pamela’s funeral, the sheriff called a press conference. The announcement came right out of left field.
Local boy arrested
A local 16-year-old boy was arrested in connection to Pamela Vitale’s murder. He lived just down the road from the Horowitz hill.
A student at a nearby junior college, he wasn’t a bad kid, at least according to a former classmate. But he’d changed lately, said others. He became interested in gothic things.
But, commit murder? Why?
The answer, reports Demian Bulwa of the San Fransisco Chronicle, is perhaps even more bizarre than the rest of the awful business: “He and a friend had allegedly been in a scheme where they were going to grow marijuana, I assume indoors, hydraponically,” says Bulwa.
The boy, his sources had told him, wanted equipment to grow marijuana.
“A few days before the killing of Pamela Vitale, this boy allegedly ordered the equipment using some stolen credit card numbers from another neighbor of his. And he believed that this stuff may have ended up at Pamela Vitale and Daniel Horowitz’s home. And so on Saturday, the day of the killing, he went up there in an effort to retrieve these goods. And he got into this confrontation with Pamela Vitale that ended so tragically,” says Bulwa.
Pamela struggled hard, according to Horowitz. The chronicle’s Bulwa reported the attacker struck her on the head: 39 blows with a piece of crown molding. Then he scratched a gothic symbol on her back. And took a shower in her bathroom, drank a glass of water and left.
Murder in the midst of a murder trial. A chain of tragic coincidences.
Which led, finally, here: Scott Edgar Dyleski, 16 years old, appeared in adult court on a charge of murder with “enhancement,” or use of a deadly weapon.
He was a young man whose family Dan Horowitz knew— he had given them free legal advice, as he built his practice and his profile, and she their house on the hill— the one they’d planned to live in for the rest of their lives.
“It’s ironic that the house was for Pamela and Pamela was the victim,” says Golde. “And now neither of them will live in that house. It’s very very sad.”