"You are the embodiment of evil. May you slowly and eternally rot in the worst kind of Hell."
-Donna Malone, Michelle's Mother
It was the 24th of September 2012. A Monday. Thirty one year old Michelle Warner was scheduled to work that day. She had recently started a new job as a paralegal in a law firm. Michelle had two children, a three year old son Cayden and an eleven year old daughter Hayley. Hayley lived with her father.
Michelle and Cayden lived with Cayden's father, Mark Castellano, in an apartment in Houston, Texas, United States. Michelle and Cayden moved in with Mark just three months previously. Things finally seemed on track for Michelle. She married young and had Hayley after high school but the marriage ended and Hayley stayed with her father. Michelle was arrested for possession of cocaine and it took her a while to rebuild her life. But she did. She saw Hayley often and when she had Cayden, she loved being a mother to her two children.
Michelle Warner and Mark Castellano
Michelle met Mark when they both worked for the same medical firm in 2008. Michelle worked there as a secretary and Mark was in IT. They had Cayden a year later. Just a few months after Cayden was born, Mark ended the relationship. Michelle found it difficult as a single mother as she had to raise Cayden and work so when she found permanent employment at a law firm in 2012, she decided to ask Mark if he would agree to an arrangement. The arrangement involved her and Cayden moving in with him and Mark could help raise his son. They would live together but not as a couple, just as Cayden's parents. He agreed.
That day, the 24th of September, Michelle never arrived at work and her employer contacted her several times but their calls went unanswered. That same day, Michelle's ex husband contacted her brother David Chiffon to let him know that Michelle did not collect Hayley. David called Michelle and when he got no answer, he called Mark.
Mark told David that on Saturday night, the 22nd of September, he and Michelle had an argument. He claimed that after the argument, Michelle left. She didn't take her car and more alarmingly, she left Cayden behind. Mark told David that he did not know where Michelle was.
Michelle was reported missing to the police. On Tuesday, the 25th of September, police carried out a welfare check. Michelle was not at the apartment. They noticed a couple of unusual things such as the hard drives were missing from the computers, but nothing indicated that Michelle had come to any harm.
A couple of days later, Officer Danny Do with the Missing Persons Unit of the Houston Police Department called Mark. Mark told him about the argument. He said it happened as soon as he got home from work on the Saturday. The argument involved a violent altercation. Mark told Officer Do that Michelle sucker punched him in the face and went into her bedroom.
Mark went into the bedroom later in the evening to confront her but she wasn't there. She was gone. Mark believed that Michelle took her purse, keys and cell phone with her as they were not in the apartment.
Mark claimed that their relationship was violent and Michelle would often attack him. He told the Officer that when she was mad, she was violent and that she had a:
On the Saturday, the 22nd of September, according to Mark, when Michelle left the apartment, Mark drove to Odessa with Cayden. He used Michelle's car.
When he got there early the next morning, he told his parents about the argument and said that Michelle had left him. He told Officer Do that he drove back to Houston on the Sunday to collect the rest of his belongings.
On the Monday, he handed in his resignation at work and told them he would be living in Odessa after all.
Mark left a note for Michelle on the mirror in the bathroom of their apartment in Houston:
Cayden and I are gone, you can have the apartment all to yourself. I am taking the car. Since you can’t pay it, and I now owe my dad $3K b/c of you, get it refinanced through your rich daddy and get my name off of it. You are welcome to see Cayden, but since you are on a drug-filled weekend I guess you [won’t call] since Grandma called and said you turned your phone off. I will get you drug tested this time! Bitch!
Police obtained surveillance footage from outside the apartment complex. They looked at the footage from the Saturday night and saw Mark arriving home at 6.57pm. Mark left the apartment at 8.44pm and walked to the parking lot. He got into Michelle's car and backed it up under the carport. He made several trips back and forth, between the apartment and Michelle's car, and then he drove off in Michelle's car at 9.28pm that night.
He was next seen on the footage in the early hours of the Monday morning, the 24th of September. At 3.21am, Mark dragged a large container to Michelle's car. He made several trips back and forth to the car at 5.41am and then left at 6am.
Police searched the area around Mark's parent's home and found a number of items in a dumpster. They found a Pampers box, Mark's business cards, sunglasses , Michelle's credit card which had been cut up and clothing and a wad of black tape.
Police asked Mark to come back to Houston to assist with the investigation. They wanted a non-custodial but recorded interview. He agreed. Before he returned though, he was interviewed by the producers of the “Dr. Phil” show in relation to Michelle's disappearance.
Mark returned to Houston on the 30th of September and met with Fil Waters, a homicide detective with the Houston Police Department.
At first, Mark told the Detective that there was an argument, Michelle went into her bedroom and then he later discovered she had left. However, after further questioning, Mark eventually admitted that there was more to the story. The argument was more violent than he had initially implied. And it resulted in Michelle's death.
“I grabbed her by her neck and just threw her on the bed and I heard it pop and her tongue popped out and that was it. I sit there and held it and by the time I realized what I did, she was dead.”
showed police what happened next. He demonstrated how Michelle tried to hit him and he pushed her and grabbed her neck. Mark claimed he fell on top of her on the bed and crushed her windpipe. He said that he "just locked up" and remained on top of Michelle for at least a minute and a half or two minutes. He then heard a popping noise and Michelle's tongue stuck out.
Mark Castellano demonstrating what happened
When Michelle was dead, Mark told police that Cayden, who was in the next room the entire time, walked in and saw Michelle's feet hanging off of the bed. Mark told him that "mommy's asleep."
Mark taped her feet together and put a plastic bag over her head. He put Michelle's body in a closet and then drove with Cayden to Odessa.
Mark then drove back from Odessa and put Michelle's body in a large crate and put the crate in her car. Mark told police that he drove to a remote field south of Midland, Texas and buried the body in a shallow grave. He drew the location where he buried her. And police went there and found her body.
The Autopsy revealed that Michelle sustained two fractures to her airway, a fracture of the hyoid bone and a fracture of the cricoid cartilage.Evidence of petechiae on the inner surfaces of Michelle's lips indicated that she died of asphyxiation. It was the opinion of the Medical Examiner that the cause of Michelle's death was strangulation.
Mark was charged with murder.
Assistant District Attorney Jamie Reyna told the Court in her opening for the Prosecution that:
"This is a case about obsession, rage, and this defendant's calculated attempts to get away with murder. He became so upset with Michelle, that he grabbed her by the neck , that he started to choke her, he started to squeeze her neck. You'll hear him tell those officers he choked her for one-and-a-half to two minutes."
They played the recorded interview of his confession to the Detective to the Jury.
The Medical Examiner testified that Michelle died from strangulation. She referred to the two fractures in Michelle's airway and petechiae markings on the skin. Both of these are consistent with strangulation. There was also skin discoloration on the front of the neck and on the sides of the neck. But there was no skin discoloration on the back of the neck. This would be consistent with a person applying pressure to the front of the neck.
When Mark's version of events was put to her, namely that he fell on top of Michelle, the Medical Examiner said that it would be unlikely that a person would die from being grabbed by the neck and thrown to the bed under someone else's weight unless it included a prolonged compression of the neck.
Mark’s supervisor, Eric Johnson, gave evidence. He told the Court that Mark threatened to kill Michelle on two separate occasions. Mark told Eric he was going to kill Michelle so that his parents could care for Cayden. Just a few months before Michelle was killed, Mark told Eric that Michelle had physically assaulted him and he needed a pipe because he was going to kill her.
Even though Mark confessed and admitted her killed Michelle, he pleaded not guilty as he claimed her death was the result of an accident. It was the Defense's case that there had been a heated fight between Mark and Michelle and it resulted in Mark falling on Michelle as he defended himself and that's how she died.
Mark tried to paint a picture of a volatile relationship, one where he was often beaten up by Michelle. But there were no reports of violence in their relationship prior to that night. It was Mark's case that Michelle provoked him because she struck him and when she attempted to strike him again he snapped and had to fight back. He was defending himself.
The Defense called just one witness. Their witness was a forensic engineer and he testified that Michelle's injuries were consistent with Mark's version of events. He testified that the physical evidence was inconsistent with prolonged squeezing of the neck because he did not find any evidence of force applied on the sides of her neck. When it was put to him during cross examination, he conceded that someone could be strangled from the front without pressure being applied to the sides of the neck.
Mark was found guilty of murder.
At Mark's sentencing phase, his lawyer argued that his case was one of sudden passion. Sudden passion can be raised as a mitigating factor during the punishment phase of the Trial in Texas. It cannot be used as a defense to murder. But if a person is found guilty of murder, then they can argue that the murder was the result of sudden passion.
Jurors had to consider whether Mark was provoked to such a level of fear, rage or resentment that any reasonable person in a similar situation with an ordinary temper simply would not be able to keep their cool.
If Mark was successful in this argument, it would mean that the maximum punishment for murder is reduced from life in prison to 20 years. And he could be sentenced to as little as 2 years.
The Jury did not find Mark's case was a case of sudden passion. Sudden passion is as it sounds-sudden, it's something that happens in the very moment the offense occurs. Something so strong that you simply cannot control yourself. Mark's case did not involve sudden passion. He knew exactly what was going to happen that Saturday when he got home from work. He had already threatened to kill Michelle and had started planning child care arrangements for Cayden. So it was no surprise that the Jury found this was not a case of sudden passion.
Mark could have been sentenced to life in prison. Instead, he was sentenced to 27 years. He will be eligible for parole in 2026.
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