All-American Greed: Wealthy newlyweds slain on condo steps
05/11/2018 1:27 pm PDT
In Wilmington, Delaware, a successful businessman and his new bride were targeted for death right at their condominium.
Joe and Olga were a handsome, wealthy couple who had been husband and wife for little more than three months.
"They went to the Caribbean and they got married on a beach and honeymooned there," said newspaper reporter Chris Barrish.
Never imagining that when they promised to love each other until death do they part that they were destined to share just 107 days of wedded bliss together.
The attraction had been instant after Joe and Olga, both in their 30s, met on an online dating site.
"From everybody's accounts, they said they were completely in love," said Delaware Deputy Attorney General Karin Volker.
Joe was the co-owner of a booming upscale auto-repair business.
"It did like a million dollars a year, and it had only been around for a couple years," said Barrish.
Olga, a one-time stocks trader, could take a great deal of credit for the success of the operation.
"She was a big part. So when people walked into that shop, they were greeted by this very attractive blonde Russian woman with an accent, who was super nice, super friendly, super personable," said Barrish.
Both their lives were suddenly snuffed out on the very night they're celebrating Olga's 39th birthday at a local nightspot.
Investigators say on the night of the murders, the couple parked, retrieved their mail and walked down to their building, and ultimately to their death.
At 1:43 a.m. on September 22, 2013, the county police department receives multiple calls from neighbors shaken from their sleep by the sound of gunfire.
"I just heard arguing and the last thing I heard was, what the [----], and then three gunshots."
Another tenant in their Paladin Club condo complex could see Olga lying on the ground outside her door.
"Obviously she's hurt. She has blood all over her face."
And a third neighbor calls from her side.
"I think she is conscious, but she's pretty weak."
Now other residents have also come to Olga's aid.
"I think she is breathing, but she's in trouble."
Police were dispatched to the home of Joe and Olga Connell after getting a flurry of 911 calls reporting a shooting at their front door.
And cops arrive at the newlyweds' condo to find a critically wounded Olga lying motionless in a pool of blood, but still alive.
"When I arrived the medics were on the scene and they were down here working on Olga," said New Castle County Police Corporal Kelly Richards, the first police officer at the crime scene. "She was breathing as she was struggling and what maybe would be described as agonal-type breaths. She was fighting for her life."
From a bullet to the head.
"She had a gunshot wound to the cheek, and what appeared to be possibly an exit wound at the back of the head," said Richards.
As medics are trying to keep Olga alive, police discover Joe in the bushes in a remote corner of the front garden with multiple gunshot wounds lying face down.
"He had several gunshot wounds to the torso area, and one apparent gunshot wound to the back of the head," said Richards. "His head was actually laying in his hand and he had his hand out holding his cellphone."
Corporal Richards was hoping Olga would survive to tell her who did this to her and Joe, but Olga didn't say anything. Tragically, a short time later Olga is declared dead in the emergency room.
Evidence at the scene suggests Joe and Olga had been ambushed by a gunman, or possibly two gunmen, lying in wait for them to return home.
"We found several pieces of evidence that led us to believe that the shooters were right next to the front door," said Richards. "There were several shell casings of two different types of calibers. And there was also a few live rounds."
But without Olga, police have no eyewitness and very little other evidence to go on.
Robbery was immediately discounted as a motive when police learn nothing had been taken from the couple.
"He had his wallet with in excess of $100 in cash, her purse was there, here phone was there. She had a pretty large diamond ring that was on her finger. All that stuff was still there," said New Castle County Police Sgt. James Leonard.
"The police chief said this was not a robbery. This was a deliberate hit," said reporter Chris Barrish.
As the mystery deepens, wild rumors began to swirl around town. Among them that Joe, a bodybuilder known to have used steroids, may have had a run-in with a drug-dealing Russian crime syndicate. But detectives don't buy it.
"We were never able to find anything more to that theory," said Leonard.
They looked at Olga's former husband, wondering if jealousy could have been the motive for the murder of the newlyweds. But Olga's ex was cleared after he provided police with a verified alibi, leaving investigators literally without a clue.
And then detectives get what appears to be their first solid lead, shockingly pointing to one of Joe's own family members as the possible killer. His little sister, and Olga's new sister-in-law, Kelly.
Friends of the family, and even Kelly's own mother, had told police they were suspicious of Kelly because she'd been locked in a bitter feud with Joe over a $20,000 diamond ring.
Kelly Connell sat down with Crime Watch Daily to set the record straight.
"This ring was given to me by my father and my mom on my wedding day 10 years prior," Kelly said.
But her mother had taken the ring and re-gifted it to Joe's new bride as a wedding present.
"Joe's mother wanted Joe to have a beautiful ring for Olga," said Barrish.
And Kelly is infuriated with her brother for even accepting it and leading Olga to believe he'd bought it.
"On Joe's honeymoon she texted him about it and said some pretty nasty things," said Barrish.
Kelly became more angry when Joe finally returned the ring, and she discovers the diamonds had been replaced with cubic zirconia.
"I confronted Joe and he was really angry at me for just confronting him," said Kelly. "He was afraid Olga was going to find out where the ring came from."
And when the newlyweds' condo just happens to be burglarized a short time later, Kelly is Joe's prime suspect.
Joe accused you of entering into his home?
"He did," said Kelly.
Was anything taken during the robbery?
"All their jewelry," said Kelly.
Including Kelly's diamonds, which Joe had mounted on a new ring for Olga.
So you could understand why Joe thought you did that?
"Yes," said Kelly.
Kelly can also understand why detectives are suspicious of her when Joe and Olga are murdered just a little more than a month after that burglary.
"I felt the heat immediately," said Kelly Connell.
Joe Connell's sister Kelly is not the only one showing up on detectives' radar. As police began to investigate Joe and Olga's murder, the spotlight turned to Joe's business partner and best friend, Chris Rivers.
"There was another group of us looking at who Joe's business partner was, where his business is at, what type of business it is," said New Castle County Police Sgt. James Leonard.
Detectives question Rivers, but haven't informed him that Joe is dead. And oddly Rivers doesn't even ask why he's being questioned about him. But they realize Rivers may have simply assumed Joe was in trouble with the law.
"His response initially was, 'What did he do now?'" said Leonard.
Rivers was also behaving as if Joe really was still alive.
"Anytime he wanted to tell me about something Joe was involved in, he made me promise him that I wouldn't tell him," said Leonard.
And then Rivers reveals that like Joe's sister Kelly, he too had been locked in a nasty ongoing dispute with Joe.
"I guess the last six or eight months, I noticed he stopped working, stopped coming to work. He'd leave early, people start stopping by the shop. He buys a $100,000 car."
He tells detectives it came to an ugly showdown after he learned that bodybuilder Joe was not only using steroids, but also dealing them from their business premises.
"The other guy that works for me comes up to me and goes, 'Joe's selling drugs out of the back of the shop,' and I was like, 'What?' So I searched the shop, found him and said to him 'Get them out. I don't want it here. I'm not losing the frickin' place over this [----].'"
Detectives later learned the allegation was apparently true.
"From what we can determine, he picks up this steroid addiction, and then he sees there is money in it, and so he starts selling them," said Leonard.
Sgt. Leonard says Chris Rivers went on to reveal other dark secrets about Joe, including the fact that he had served more than seven years in prison for pointing a shotgun at a police officer during a bar brawl.
"And now he has this opportunity to talk in detail about Joe's criminal history, Joe's steroid sales, Joe's problems with his family," said Leonard.
And Leonard asks Rivers about Joe's feud with sister Kelly as part of their simultaneous investigation of her.
"You know any more about this thing, this beef within his family, what that's all about?"
"I mean just over the jewelry is really all I know about."
"No details about it?"
"I mean every day there's something dramatic going on with his step family."
"oh, are they like that?"
"They're always arguing over money. They're always arguing over something, and it's, every day there's drama."
Still not telling him that Joe and Olga are dead, detectives ask Rivers about his whereabouts the night they were murdered.
"So last you talked to him was what time, you said?"
"Elevenish, ten-thirty, elevenish, maybe."
When Joe was out with Olga celebrating her 39th birthday.
"I was supposed to go down there and I ended up working at the shop until about 10:30, 11, and then I went home, got in the shower, and then by the time I was gonna go down there, it wasn't even worth going down."
Rivers tells detective he stayed in the rest of the night with his girlfriend, who corroborated his alibi. He also had a clean record.
"There was nothing that popped out in his background at its initial stages that you would think, 'Wow, this is the right guy,'" said Leonard.
Detectives finally told him that Joe and Olga had been murdered.
"He was upset," said Leonard.
At the same time Rivers was being questioned, detectives also continued to interview Joe's sister Kelly about the murders.
With Kelly and Chris Rivers cooperating, investigators still didn't have any clear suspect or any new leads.
"There wasn't DNA, there wasn't surveillance, there were no eyewitnesses," said Delaware Deputy Attorney General Jenna Milecki.
But then a bizarre and stunning break in the case: something Chris Rivers says in an interview with a local newsman finally leads detectives to the real killer of newlyweds Joe and Olga Connell.
Joe Connell's business partner and so-called best friend Chris Rivers had told detectives that the luxury-loving newlyweds were living beyond their means.
"How much money would you say he's getting out of the business as opposed to..."
"Not that much, not enough to do that lifestyle. No way."
Investigators consider the possibility Joe and Olga could have been killed by an angry creditor. But without any other leads the focus of the investigation remains on Chris Rivers and Joe's sister Kelly, who'd been locked in a bitter family feud with him at the time of the killings. She came under the close scrutiny of a national TV news program.
But police ultimately verified Kelly's alibi for the night of the murders. She tells Crime Watch Daily despite their feud, she truly loved her brother and his bride.
"I've never seen two people in love like that. That was the happiest I've ever seen my brother," said Kelly. "She was beautiful, a sweetheart, sophisticated. She treated my brother wonderful."
Detectives became convinced Kelly had nothing to do their murders.
"She had a medical procedure done not a week or two before this that would have rendered her more or less not capable of killing her brother and his wife," said Leonard.
Now that leaves just Chris Rivers, who had already aroused the suspicion of investigators by ratting out Joe for using steroids and accusing him of selling them at their auto shop.
"And I went in there and I mean I ripped the whole place apart and I found a bag there, and it was a lot."
Rivers didn't realize he'd just snitched on himself, too. Police secured a search warrant for the business.
"Various records, computers and the steroids that Chris told us right where they were," said New Castle County Police Sgt. Justin Breslin.
Chris Rivers was arrested and charged with felony possession of steroids.
And now Rivers, out on bail, refused to talk anymore to detectives.
"Once he was charged, he retained legal counsel. So from that point on we couldn't interview, bring him back in," said Breslin.
But to their astonishment, he started talking to someone else.
"They said 'Here's the deal: We found drugs in your building. Joe's dead. You're responsible,'" said reporter Chris Barrish.
Chris Rivers gives a video-recorded interview to local newspaper reporter Cris Barrish.
"I think in retrospect, it proved to be quite problematic for him in some of the responses that he gave," said Leonard.
Investigators couldn't believe it was the same man who'd spoken so ill of his dearly departed business partner just days earlier.
"Ever since he started doing this whole drug thing I kind of distanced myself from him."
But now Rivers is telling Barrish, of the Wilmington News Journal, just the opposite.
"How was your relationship up to the day he died?"
"Figures, you see somebody every day, 12 hours a day, more than you see your wife. So we were pretty much best friends."
"And the police wanted our copies of the interview, because they wanted to match it to theirs and they really wanted to pick it apart to look for inconsistencies," said Barrish.
"And it's 'Joe's my best friend,' and how broken up he was, and how close they were, and how much they got along," said Deputy Attorney General Karin Volker.
Investigators know that Rivers is either lying to Barrish or lying to them.
So now they dig a little deeper into his life to make a shocking discovery.
"You're looking at a guy who's using massive amounts of opioid-based painkillers, not to mention cocaine, who is a complete financial mess," said Leonard.
And allegedly flipping out under the pressure of massive debt.
"During this time I was getting reports about Rivers unravelling, that his drug use was out of control and that he was paranoid and that he was telling people he had done the murders," said Barrish.
Rivers was arrested twice more, for robbery and criminal mischief linked to his drug abuse.
And then investigators find the proverbial smoking gun.
"The biggest break and the most compelling evidence we had in the case were the phones," said Jenna Milecki.
Uncovering records of deleted texts and calls showing that Chris Rivers had kept in contact with a career criminal named Joshua Bey the night Joe and Olga were murdered.
"There was this whole flurry of texts and phone calls, Chris is contacting Joe, but he's also contacting Bey, and Bey is contacting two other people," said Barrish.
And Bey would eventually cut a plea deal in return for spilling the beans.
"He's the linchpin of this entire investigation," said Leonard.
"The only way out of this is to turn on Chris," said Barrish.
Telling investigators Rivers had promised him $60,000 to arrange the murders, which Bey says were committed by a pair of hit men he hired, Aaron Thompson and Dominique Benson.
But why did Rivers want his partner, the man he called his best friend, dead? Cops always say follow the money -- and when they do it leads to a $1 million life insurance policy, a policy taken out when Joe Connell and Chris Rivers went into business together.
"He's greedy, he has debts, he decided Joe has to go," said Barrish. "But if he's gonna collect the insurance policy, Joe's married. So his wife would probably get his share of it. So he's got to get rid of her too."
Rivers was arrested at his auto shop.
"He didn't seem surprised. I believe he knew what was coming," said Breslin.
He was ultimately convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life plus 50 years in prison for plotting the murders of Joe and Olga Connell.
Rivers' middleman, Joshua Bey, pleaded guilty to first-degree conspiracy and got five years behind bars.
Aaron Thompson was convicted of first-degree murder and conspiracy for being the trigger man and was sentenced to life.
Dominique Benson was sentenced to five years for conspiracy after being acquitted of being the second trigger man.
"What the case was all about was a young couple that were just starting their lives together and had to come to this end for no reason but Christopher Rivers' greed," said Milecki.
Joe's sister Kelly says nothing will ever heal her heartbreak over the loss of her brother and his bride and the horror of initially being suspected of killing them.
And the agony of seeing what the murders have done to their loved ones, as she revealed in a victim impact letter read to the jury: "The hardest part has been seeing how much pain Christopher Rivers has caused to my father, my brother, my mom and my children. I want to take their pain away, but I can't. It never goes away. We lost the heart of our family."