by John W. Taylor
Joanna Madonna moved to the Raleigh, North Carolina area in 2007 with her second husband, three daughters, and elderly father. After divorcing her second husband a couple of years later, Joanna married Jose Perez, a much older and severely ill and disabled Vietnam veteran. Jose’s primary physician, Dr. Robert Falge, described him as “one of the most ill people I have ever seen who was able to continue functioning.” With Jose collecting disability from the government, Joanna periodically taught high school. Though their income was limited, the couple managed to live in several very nice homes in the Raleigh suburbs, primarily due to financial contributions by Joanna’s father.
Almost all relationships are complex and intricate, and Joanna and Jose’s was no exception. Though love and affection were present at the beginning, their relationship became troubled early on. Their bond appeared to be more of a co-dependence than an intimate connection. Jose was a chronic liar and recovering alcoholic. Joanna was a recovering drug addict and alcoholic with numerous emotional issues from her childhood. Joanna viewed Jose as controlling and jealous, while Jose constantly tried to please her. They argued frequently, but there was no indication of physical abuse by either party. As time passed, the anger boiled toward the surface.
On June 15, 2013, Joanna drove to South Carolina in Jose’s jeep to visit relatives. During the visit, she informed her family that she was leaving Jose. She also told them that she was concerned about nearby break-ins and felt she needed to protect herself. Joanna asked her cousin to help her buy a gun. After failing to find an affordable gun at a pawn shop, her cousin let her borrow his Taurus .380 revolver. Telling her that she would not be able to carry the gun without a permit, he also gave her a knife.
It was not clear what ultimately pushed Joanna toward divorce, but she had recently discovered an online intimate exchange between Jose and another woman. Joanna messaged the woman through Facebook demanding she leave Jose alone. Upon returning home from South Carolina and armed with this information, Joanna left the gun and knife on the back seat of the jeep. She asked Jose to go for a drive. It was the last time Jose Perez was seen alive.
The following day, June 16, 2013, a man discovered Jose’s dead body lying face down in a ditch next to an isolated, dead end road. Though he did not have any identification on him, the police identified Jose through his fingerprints. That evening the police went to an address linked to Jose’s name, 12412 Schoolhouse Road in Raleigh, North Carolina.
When the police arrived, Joanna was at her former therapist’s house. The two were in the early stages of an affair, which the prosecution later used as one of her motives for killing Jose. Joanna’s daughter called her, informing her of the police’s presence. When Joanna returned home, she immediately notified the police that she had spoken to an attorney. Moments later the police delivered the death notification to Joanna. Oddly, she never asked how Jose died. During discussions with Wake County lead detective Darcy Weaver, Joanna provided conflicting stories as to the last time she saw Jose. She initially told Detective Weaver that she drove Jose to a rehab center, but then she said he left the house on foot heading toward his sponsor’s house.
The police were immediately suspicious. After securing a search warrant, the police found Jose’s clothes and medications in a garage trash can and what appeared to be blood on the garage floor. The police also interviewed one of Joanna’s daughters who provided details about Joanna’s arrival home the previous night. According to her daughter, Joanna left with Jose, but then came home without him. Joanna was sweaty with a cut on her arm. According to Joanna’s daughter, Joanna told her that she and Jose had a fight, but he would not be coming to the house. Her daughter told her to call the police, but Joanna refused. Based on the totality of the circumstances encompassing Joanna Madonna, the police arrested her for first degree murder. Prior to her trial, Joanna changed her story again and claimed she killed Jose in self-defense.
Jose was shot at least once and stabbed approximately a dozen times, including five times in the back. The gun and knife used on Jose were both Joanna’s. Jose took dozens of medications to combat his many ailments and his doctor painted a picture of a weak and feeble man who barely had the hand strength to pull a gun’s trigger. Joanna incurred only a few minor scratches from her alleged life-and-death fight with Jose. She also failed to contact the police after the incident. Joanna’s claim of self-defense appeared nebulous at best.
Though Joanna’s statements to friends, family, and even the police neglected to mention many relevant details, she attempted to set the record straight when she took the stand in her own defense. Throughout Joanna’s testimony she regularly used the phrase “you know” and paused with “ums.” Both filler phrases can be indicative of deception; however, Joanna consistently paused and hesitated throughout her testimony. Neither usage appeared to be associated with troubling questions, but rather an indication of her contemplating and nervousness prior to or while providing answers.
Joanna testified for many hours over two days. Her answers were generally long-winded and detailed. She remembered dates with ease, even pertaining to activities or events from decades prior. Her testimony came across as authentic and forthright. There were no indications of deception, until she discussed the events surrounding the death of Jose Perez.
The most striking change in her responses was the use of the present tense. Up to this point, Joanna had not utilized the present tense when discussing past events. She had detailed traumatic scenarios, including several times she was raped. Joanna appropriately maintained the use of the past tense during those descriptions. During one of her rape stories, she described the circumstances of the attack and her attacker as follows: “Sometimes I ended up with dangerous guys. I had seen him around.” However, when she described the actions involved in Jose’s death she switched to the present tense. The use of the present tense can indicate an individual is creating the story rather than recalling what occurred in the past. Since the person is crafting the story as she is telling it, she may inadvertently utilize the present tense.
According to Joanna’s version of events, she and Jose went for a drive together, which provided her an opportunity to tell him she wanted a divorce. After notifying him of her intentions, Jose faked a heart attack forcing her to pull over. Joanna stated:
He started getting loud… He starts looking like he is panicking… He starts clinching his chest.
Prior to discussing the incident with Jose, Joanna had testified for hours. There was a lot of opportunity to gain a baseline on how she told a story or explained circumstances. She did not use the phrase “started to” or other similar phrasing prior. Started to is a filler phrase that usually conveys no additional information, unless something stopped the action. Why did Jose “start to get loud” rather than “He got loud”? Why did he not just look panicked rather than starting to look panicked? This definitive change in speech can be indicative of deception. Joanna also shifted from the appropriate past tense to the present tense.
Joanna said that after she stopped the car, Jose grabbed her newly acquired gun from the back seat. As she got out of the jeep, Jose allegedly fired a shot at her and missed. According to Joanna, Jose then turned the gun on himself. Feeling he would kill himself, Joanna went for the gun and a struggle ensued. Joanna then stated:
The gun went off at that point and shot him in his face…The gun went off again.
Guns do not normally go off. Someone pulls the trigger causing the gun to fire. By indicating the gun “went off,” Joanna demonstrated a distancing and lack of responsibility with what transpired. Based on her testimony, we do not know who actually pulled the trigger.
After the incident with the gun, the couple regained their composure and decided to drive to the hospital rather than call for help. Jose again claimed he was having a heart attack. Joanna pulled the car onto an isolated road in order to attend to Jose. According to Joanna, after getting out of the car, Jose again attacked her, but this time with her knife. He knocked her to the ground and jumped on top of her on the roadside.
When describing the attack, Joanna bounced back and forth between the past and present tenses, which may indicate she provided some truthful statements coupled with fabrications. She stated, “[he] knocked me in the chest” and “I didn’t see the knife in his hand.” Both of these statements were in the past tense and likely true. However, she also stated, “I’m fading and I feel like I am going to die.” This was in the present tense and as a result, she probably created this memory rather than recalled it. Based on the oscillating nature of her statements, a struggle probably occurred, though it transpired quite differently than she conveyed. Based on Joanna’s word choices and phrasing, the attack was not in self-defense, but driven by some other motive or combination of motives.
Joanna described Jose straddling her while she was on her back on the side of the road. Jose initially had a knife in his hand, but chose to drop it on the ground. He allegedly placed his forearm across her upper chest, cutting off her breath, thus causing her to believe that she would imminently pass out and eventually die. However, there was no indication of trauma to Joanna’s neck. With Jose supposedly above her, placing his forearm across her upper chest, it would have been nearly impossible for him to have exerted pressure on her without his arm sliding onto her neck. If she struggled or moved at all it would have further increased the likelihood his arm would have ended up on her neck. This did not happen, which reduces the probability this scenario occurred. Joana also did not have any injuries indicative of having been shoved to the ground.
Joanna claimed that while in this situation, Jose indicated that he was going for Michelle [Joanna’s daughter from a previous marriage, who did not get along with Jose]. Joanna believed this statement meant Jose intended to kill Michelle. When reciting this exchange while on the stand, Joanna stated: “He said, ‘he was going for Michelle.’” At this point, Jose had only inflicted minor wounds on Joanna, yet seemed to be moving on to his next victim. When retelling what Jose said, Joanna did not use natural phrasing. She failed to use the words he would have used. If this had actually happened, Jose would have said, “I’m going for Michelle,” not “he was going for Michelle.” Joanna’s failure to use the words and phrasing Jose would probably have utilized raises doubts about the authenticity of her assertions.
According to Joanna, when she heard those words, she basically snapped. She grabbed the knife from the ground and started swinging. At this point, she blacked out. Her blackout conveniently allowed her to avoid discussing repeatedly driving a knife into Jose’s flesh. The blackout was very short and it appeared more like difficultly remembering than an actual blackout. Joanna remembered everything until she grabbed the knife and she remembered everything immediately after she got up from stabbing Jose. And even during the knife attack, she remembered swinging the knife. The only thing she could not recall was how many times and where she stabbed him.
Joanna left Jose on the side of the road, thinking he was still alive. She did not realize how many times she had stabbed him or the extent of her attack. After returning home from the incident, Joanna engaged in numerous activities designed to cover-up what had occurred. She cleaned up the blood in the jeep. Joanna threw away Jose’s clothes, his medications, and her wedding and engagement rings. Joanna told her daughters that she dropped Jose off at his sponsor’s house. Joanna later acknowledged that these statements were deliberate lies. Utilizing Jose’s phone and not identifying herself as the sender, Joanna texted Jose’s friends and family indicating that he moved to Florida and would be getting a new phone. Further, she posted on Jose’s Facebook page the same information and then proceeded to delete his account.
Though her post-incident actions were extremely incriminating, Joanna claimed those actions were about anger rather than concealment. She wanted to believe he would get up off the road and walk to his sponsor’s house. She claimed to be unaware of the extent of his injuries. The family computer had several Google searches on it from the day after the incident pointing to the contrary. Forensic analysts found searches such as: “Raleigh dump hours,” “declare someone dead if missing,” and “upon death of veteran.” Yet, the home computer also had a Google search for “restraining orders,” somewhat bolstering Joanna’s claim of believing Jose was still alive. Joanna also asked a family friend, David Whitcomb, to change the locks on the house, as if she feared Jose’s return.
Though it is not necessary to prove motive in most murder trials, the prosecution will provide the jury with a reason for the murder. People want to know why someone committed such a heinous act, but knowing or proving the why is almost always a futile exercise. No one knows what was in the killer’s mind and selecting out-of-context emails or statements does little to conclusively cement a motive for murder. The prosecution attempted to apply reason to an unreasonable act. In the case of Joanna Madonna, the State asserted that Joanna killed Jose because of love and money.
The love component came from Joanna’s intimate and inappropriate relationship with her former therapist. The prosecution presented countless emails and texts demonstrating the extent of the relationship. Though Joanna readily acknowledged the relationship, the prosecution acted as if they caught her in a lie. Further, there was no indication Joanna killed Jose to be with her former therapist.
With regard to money, Joanna gained nothing financially from Jose’s death. And any potential financial gain she or her children could have received was equal to or less than what they could have received if Jose was alive. As with the love angle, the financial motive argument was hallow and without basis.
Though it did not fit into the prosecutor’s carefully crafted narrative of a loveless marriage where Joanna only wanted Jose for his money, the prosecution did not present jealousy or rage as potential motives. Joanna had recently uncovered what she perceived as unfaithfulness by Jose. She lashed out at the woman via Facebook. However, this motive would certainly call into question the idea of premeditation, though there is no specific passing of time requirement for premeditation to have occurred in criminal law. This is a case where we know who, but we do not know why.
Joanna Madonna went to trial in September of 2015. After an almost two week trial, the jury deliberated for less than three hours and convicted her of first degree murder. Though a clear motive seemed to be absent, the jury had little difficulty concluding the presence of premeditation and intentional, deliberate murder. She is currently serving life in a North Carolina prison.
Bythe, Anne, “Madonna Recounts Killing Her Husband,” The News and Observer,
http://www.newsobserver.com/news/local/crime/article36274380.html, September 23, 2015
Lamb, Amanda, “Defense: Madonna Fought Back from Husband’s Attack,” WRAL, http://www.wral.com/trial-begins-for-former-wake-teacher-accused-of-murdering-husband/14901563/, September 15, 2015
Leone, David, “Friends Struggle to Believe Wakefield Woman Killed Husband,” Wake Forest Weekly, http://www.wakeweekly.com/murder-charge-a-shock/, June 20, 2013
Sleuthchic, “Wakefield Stabbing Update!” Musings on Murder, http://www.musingsonmurder.com/, August 1, 2013
“Trial to Begin for Former Wake County Teacher Accused of Killing Husband,” ABC11,
http://abc11.com/news/jury-selection-begins-in-teacher-murder-trial/983385/, September 14, 2015
WRAL Videos, Joanna Madonna Murder Trial, http://www.wral.com/news/local/asset_gallery/14903481/?navkeyword=joanna+madonna&s=0, accessed September – October, 2015. Supplemented by in person court observation of Joanna Madonna Murder trial.
Click below to view John W. Taylor’s previous posts on All Things Crime Blog:
John W. Taylor writes in the true crime genre at www.truecrimewriting.com. He has written short pieces and articles on the death of Marilyn Monroe, JFK, and Martin Luther King, Jr., among others. John wrote and published Umbrella of Suspicion: Investigating the Death of JonBénet Ramsey and Isolated Incident: Investigating the Death of Nancy Cooper in 2012 and 2014, respectively.
John’s interest in the darker side of human nature has compelled him to conduct numerous research and writing projects on various unsolved crimes. He currently resides in Raleigh, North Carolina.
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