Fire and ice: EMT's scorned girlfriend tips cops to murder of ex-wife
03/08/2018 5:27 pm PST
A tiny town about two hours northwest of Manhattan with a population of just 431 people is a place where people tired of the city life go for fresh start.
But for husband and wife Paul and Catherine Novak, it's a place where their troubles would only begin.
The little town of Narrowsburg, New York is a world away from the bustle of the big city, a rustic little hideaway where lots of city folk go looking for a simpler life.
"It's a very beautiful and old town built on lumber and dairy farms and now it's really kind of a second-home-owning hamlet," said writer Nina Burleigh.
It's exactly what cheery young mom Catherine Novak was looking for to raise her family.
"She was a devoted mother, very modest, very cheerful," said Burleigh. "The kind of mother who would donate her time to the classroom, who would donate her time to watching other people's kids."
Catherine was raising her two young kids in an old farmhouse along with her husband Paul, an emergency medical technician still working two hours south in New York City.
Paul and Catherine met years before in the hardcore life of EMT service. She was the sweet, shy volunteer; he was the first-responder with a powerful presence.
"The first-responder world is not something that people who aren't first-responders really understand. You're dealing with life and death every minute," said Burleigh. "It's kind of a subculture."
But raising kids in the big city is too much for Catherine. The family moves upstate to Narrowsburg to "get away from it all."
And for Catherine, it's a breath of fresh air.
"She was a kind of a born volunteer," said Burleigh. "She worked at the church, she worked at the school. She liked to give her time to the community and not just her children, but to the community."
But Paul Novak still craves the high-adrenaline world of the first-responder. He spends several nights a week in the city rather than brave a four-hour round-trip commute.
"But Catherine was not a complainer, and Catherine did not complain to her friends about Paul," said retired Sullivan County, N.Y. District Attorney Steve Lungen.
But soon enough, the strain between the city and country is pulling their marriage apart. Late one night, it breaks.
"The phone rings and in the middle of the night and it's a woman on the other end, calling for Paul," said Lungen.
The other woman is Michelle LaFrance, a younger, newer EMT trainee.
"That phone call corroborated what she had suspicions about," said Lungen.
Catherine's suspicions are now crystal-clear.
"He had told her that he did not want to be with her anymore, he didn't love her and he wanted out," said Lungen.
Paul heads back to the hustle of New York City for good, shacking up with his new girlfriend, splitting custody of the kids and leaving Catherine a nervous wreck.
"Catherine was so concerned about her kids' well-being that she actually took Michelle out to lunch at the diner in Narrowsburg and was very friendly with her, just trying to figure out whether she was capable, trustworthy and working out with her how she wanted those children to be taken care of," said Nina Burleigh. "And that's the kind of mother that she was. She would actually sit down with this girl and have a conversation with her and eat a meal with her, making sure that she knew how to take care of the children."
Then on the cold morning of December 13, 2008, any chance of an amicable split comes crashing down. It's 6:30 a.m., and a neighbor wakes to find Catherine Novak's house engulfed in flames.
The neighbor calls 911, firefighters race to Catherine's home deep in the woods, but it's too late. The house is obliterated. The burning wreckage collapsed into the basement.
"Just looking at the scene, they weren't able to tell what had happened," said Burleigh. "The house was burned to almost nothing."
"The big question on everybody's mind, fire service, the arson people, the neighborhood was, Where was Catherine?" said Steve Lungen.
Then a terrible sight.
"In the basement, lying on the floor, Catherine's body, severely burned," said Lungen.
Thankfully, Catherine's beloved children are safe at Paul's apartment in New York. Catherine died in the fire, alone.
"When her body was found, that was really catastrophic to the community," said Lungen. "When you have a fire like that and then when you have a death like this, it resonates very strongly."
Investigators painstakingly search for the cause of the fire in what remains of the house.
"They took apart this house for the better part of two days, piece by piece by piece," said Lungen.
It's not long before they uncover some odd clues at the scene. The state of Catherine's body raised serious red flags.
"She was found lying on her back, but that's not the way you would find somebody who was killed in a fire, because she would see them in a more fetal position, and also in a position that would reflect that they were struggling to find a place to get out," said Lungen.
And there's something even more puzzling: In the basement, close to where Catherine's body was found was another body: the family dog.
"The dog had been locked in a kennel and had smoke in its lungs. It died of smoke inhalation," said Nina Burleigh.
Unlike her dog, Catherine's autopsy shows no smoke, no lethal levels of carbon monoxide.
"Her lungs did not show that she had been inhaling the smoke," said Burleigh.
That can mean only one thing: Catherine died before the fire even started.
"And then suddenly the circumstances surrounding her death changed dramatically," said Lungen.
And Catherine's autopsy shows something even more alarming: three dislocated ribs and a strange pooling of blood.
"Dead people don't bleed, people who are alive do," said Lungen. "Finding the hemorrhage around the fracture sites reflected that she was injured and bleeding at some point before she died. It became even clearer to us that we had a very highly suspicious death here."
It's the biggest news to hit the tiny town of Narrowsburg, New York.
"I picked up the local paper, I saw on the front page a color picture of a burning house and the headline 'Local woman dies in fire,' and in the first paragraph I read that it was Catherine," said writer Nina Burleigh.
Catherine Novak was discovered in the ashes of a house burned to the ground.
"My immediate instinct was that she had been murdered. Just because I'm a journalist and because I knew that she was involved in this divorce, and I just assumed something suspicious about this," said Burleigh.
Forensic evidence reveals Catherine Novak had no smoke in her lungs, and was found with broken ribs, indicating she'd been assaulted before the fire.
"This was a highly suspicious death that needs to be investigated to its full extent, because we're probably looking at somebody killing her," said retired D.A. Steve Lungen.
But who would kill this quiet and friendly mother of two? New York State Police check for any similar crimes in the area.
"One of the things you look at is, Is there an arsonist out there? The answer to that was no," said Steve Lungen. "Is there some sex-offender traveling around the area that we need to look at? It was none of that. So all of the usual things that you would start to look at started to come back empty."
It's no random crime, and there is someone who arouses a lot of suspicion.
"Of course the husband would be an initial first person to look at," said Lungen.
It's her estranged husband, Paul Novak, who was shacking up in Queens, New York with his new girlfriend Michelle LaFrance, a young EMT trainee whom people found odd.
"Michelle LaFrance was kind of a piece of work," said Burleigh. "She was a wild child, a troubled child, diagnosed with some emotional or mental illness at a young age, had attempted suicide."
Both Paul Novak and Michelle LaFrance might have plenty of reason to hold a grudge against Paul's ex-wife.
"Some people in the town were suspicious immediately," said Burleigh. "Her friends in the town were very aware of this simmering conflict."
A simmering conflict that many thought would boil over.
"Catherine after the breakup had changed all of the locks in the house so that he didn't have access to the house," said Lungen.
But Paul says he was at his apartment in New York with his kids, two hours away, when the fire started. And his girlfriend Michelle confirms it.
"The spouse had at that point what we viewed as an 'ironclad alibi,' he had his girlfriend, his significant other, saying 'He was with me in Long Island at the time of the fire,'" said Lungen.
But now cops aren't so sure. They hook Paul Novak up for a polygraph exam. He passes the test. His answers show no deception.
Cops are stumped. And with no suspects, the case goes cold. Despite passing the polygraph, Paul Novak still stays a blip on cops' radar for one very glaring reason.
"There was substantial money involved. So there's only one person with motive," said Steve Lungen.
Less than a year after Catherine's death, the grieving ex collects a hefty insurance payout: $300,000 for the house and $500,000 more for the mother of his children. It's enough to finance Paul and Michelle's move to Florida, and a comfortable new life.
"It wasn't Palm Beach, it wasn't Mar-a-Lago, but he had some nice digs with a swimming pool. I mean that's pretty nice for somebody who grew up in apartments in Queens, New York," said Burleigh.
And with plenty of cash in their pockets, Paul and Michelle could live the high life.
There's still no evidence of murder, and that stalemate goes on for years, leaving the plot where Catherine's house once stood covered by season after season of snow. It seemed the tragedy of Catherine Novak's death was nearly forgotten -- except by one person, who places a call to the New York State Police out of the blue.
"Not only did we get her whole life story, but we also got the details of what she said she knew about the murder of Catherine," said Lungen.
It had been almost four years since Catherine Novak died horribly in a house fire. The only one cops ever suspected is her husband Paul. Suspicions and concerns but no proof Paul Novak had anything to do with Catherine's death.
"At that point, we didn't have a solid lead or an investigator step that we could follow at that time," said New York State Police Investigator Michael Kelly.
Novak's taken a hefty insurance payout and moved as far as he can from the tragedy, but in that swanky new house on the Florida coast, Novak's life with Michelle LaFrance isn't so sunny.
"Well, he started to cheat on her. He started to look around. And he then went on Match.com. She finds out about it. She decides she's had enough, and they split up," said Nina Burleigh.
Michelle LaFrance is out, and Novak's internet date is in. Once again, Paul Novak seemingly puts his ex-wife's fate far behind him. But someone else is still haunted by the ghost of Catherine Novak.
"In April 2012, I received a phone call from Michelle LaFrance," said Michael Kelly.
New York State Police Officer Michael Kelly is as surprised as anyone when the case suddenly breaks wide open all over again, by a jilted lover.
"The New York State Police took her phone calls seriously. They went down to Florida and interviewed her on camera for hours," said Nina Burleigh.
Wracked by guilt and fear, Michelle LaFrance tells detectives a hair-raising tale.
Michelle LaFrance "He had me convinced that Catherine was the bad guy and he was the good parent, and that these kids were abused and these kids were miserable."
Detective: "He did this for the kids."
LaFrance: "And we need to save the kids."
Novak's sick solution? Kill Catherine using knowledge gleaned from years working as an EMT.
LaFrance: "He was researching things on the Internet, he was going to chloroform her, and leave her, and then burn the house down around her and she was gonna die in the fire."
"She had a lot of mental health issues, but recollection was incredible. She remembered dates, times, places and details, because she was very smart," said retired D.A. Steve Lungen.
Michelle's detailed account of what Paul Novak did to Catherine that night is terrifying.
Early in the morning on December 17, he entered Catherine's home through the basement, setting off a fire alarm, drawing Catherine to the basement where he is lying in wait.
LaFrance: "He told me that they were fighting and that they were rolling around on the basement stair, floor, for like 45 minutes and that's why he was so late."
And she tells cops that Novak's chloroform scheme didn't go as planned.
LaFrance: "This was supposed to be quick and painless, and you know, she was supposed to be passed out before she knew what happened. But I guess he put it over her mouth and it didn't work. She was screaming and begging for her life."
That's when Catherine's heartless ex puts an end to their broken family for good over Catherine's terrified pleas.
LaFrance: "And he told me that the only thing he said to her the entire time that he was fighting with her was 'I'm doing this for the kids,' and he said that she had been wearing wearing a hooded sweatshirt, and that he finally just took the sweatshirt and wrapped it around her neck and held it until she stopped breathing."
Then in a deranged finishing move, Paul Novak sets his former home ablaze to cover his tracks.
A horrifying story -- but could anyone back it up?
That's when Michelle LaFrance drops a bombshell: Novak didn't do it alone.
"She told us that for the first time the name that we've never heard before was Scott Sherwood," said Steve Lungen.
"He was another EMT, and he was this sort of big emotional guy, like 6-foot-7, like a gentle giant, and also had emotional problems which were well known to the crew," said Nina Burleigh.
LaFrance: "As far as I know, Scott was left in the car and Paul walked down to the house."
"Paul identified him as somebody that he could manipulate, and he asked him to drive him up to Narrowsburg on the night that he was going to start this fire at the house and get rid of his wife," said Burleigh.
Cops verify every detail of LaFrance's statement, leading up to a sit-down with that so-called "gentle giant" Scott Sherwood months later. Turns out Sherwood is also wracked with guilt, and spills everything.
Scott Sherwood: "I was driving. We were driving up towards where his residence was, where Catherine still lived."
He claims he drove Paul Novak to Narrowsburg and waited in his truck until Novak returned, and said two final words.
Sherwood: "He said 'It's done.'"
"The facts in terms of what he alleged happened that night to Catherine bear out to be very, if not exact to what Michelle LaFrance had told us a thousand miles away months before," said investigator Michael Kelly.
"So all of these what we call little pieces start to form a very big picture of a very big puzzle that starts to show what happened to Catherine Novak," said Lungen.
Cops know it's time to have another conversation with Paul Novak. But Novak's not playing ball.
Paul Novak: "How long am I gonna be here?"
Detective: "Sir, you're under arrest."
Novak: "I was not aware of that. I'd like to speak to a lawyer, please."
Detective: "All right, be advised you will have every opportunity, OK."
In Novak's mind, Catherine's death was just an accident. But cops now believe it was a calculated murder.
Detective: "You know what, we'll question about the homicide, OK. But you are under arrest."
Novak: "It wasn't a homicide."
Detective: "Yes it is, sir."
"I think when he realized our purpose for being there, he availed himself to his attorney, so he never relayed a story to us," said Michael Kelly.
Detectives play hardball, tugging at Novak's heartstrings.
Detective: "And now, you and I, and this guy have to sit down to figure out 'the why,' because at some point your kids are gonna ask you. Because if you don't explain it to them, they're never gonna have that answer. They're going to spend the rest of their life searching for it."
Still, Paul Novak won't budge.
Novak: "I need a lawyer."
But prosecutors are convinced they have enough to charge Paul Novak with first-degree murder for killing his ex-wife.
Leading up to trial, Paul Novak refuses to talk to the cops, but he is telling his side of the story to reporters.
"No I did not," Novak said when asked if he killed his wife in a Times Herald-Record recording. "I actually found out that they found a body in the basement from my mother. And I said 'Do I need a lawyer?' He goes 'We like you, we know you didn't have anything to do with this, but the D.A. wants us to ask you some questions just to keep you in the clear and make everyone feel a lot better,' so I'm like, 'All right. I mean, I don't have anything to hide you can ask me anything you want.'"
And in court, Novak points the finger right back at his former girlfriend, Michelle LaFrance, and the man claiming to be his partner in crime, Scott Sherwood.
"At the trial they tried to blame the murder on Michelle LaFrance and Scott Sherwood, but they had no motive to commit the murder, and the only person that collected around $800,000 as related to Catherine's death was Paul Novak," said retired D.A. Steve Lungen.
The prosecution claims all of the evidence pointed at only one person: Paul Novak. There's a receipt from a nearby Walmart for a hat and duct tape, placing him in the area that morning, and a toll booth EZ Pass "ping" on the way back from Catherine's house shortly after the murder.
"The evidence against Paul Novak was overwhelming once it all came to light and all the pieces were put together," said Lungen.
Paul Novak never testifies. But his defense does call his 13-year-old daughter to the stand. Hearts are breaking in the courtroom as the little girl tearfully defends her daddy.
"The minute that she sat down everybody just was ready to burst into tears because here she was trying to protect this guy. Her daddy, I mean, the only parent left. And she refused to believe that he had done anything," said Nina Burleigh.
"You know, I looked at her and I saw the little girl who had played with my boy, with her long big black hair, and all I could think about was how Catherine used to brush that hair and that little girl used to cry, as girls do. And how that mother loved that girl. It's just tragic," said Burleigh.
The heartfelt testimony doesn't sway the jury. Paul Novak is found guilty of killing Catherine in cold blood.
"The judge sentenced Paul Novak on the murder in the first-degree charge to the maximum sentence, which is life in prison without parole," said Lungen.
Scott Sherwood pleaded guilty with conspiracy to commit murder, but his cooperation gets him just a year and a half in jail.
Scott Sherwood is remorseful?
"Hundred percent," said Scott Sherwood's attorney Benjamin Greenwald. "He was caught up in Paul Novak's plan. Paul manipulated him completely. He was so upset with himself and how bad he felt, especially for her kids, that he didn't do more."
And what about Michelle LaFrance, the one who blew the whistle on her ex-boyfriend? In a move that stuns many observers of the case, she walks out of court scot-free, getting no jail time.
"Paul Novak is behind bars for the rest of his life. And without her testimony would it have been enough? Sometimes you have to choose between the greater evil and the lesser evil," said Benjamin Greenwald.
It's an evil that still haunts everyone left behind, and the little town that was a refuge to Catherine Novak.
"I drove over just to say my goodbyes to her and look at the place, and it was sad. When you have seen a family living in a house with children, and then you come there and you see what's left is a garage and just flat, wildflowers and grass where the house used to be," said Nina Burleigh. "A little depression in the ground and everything else, just gone, vanished with a few years' time. It was just so terribly sad."
Paul Novak appealed his conviction and was denied. Scott Sherwood served his time is now out of prison.