Photo via Flickr user Trevor Pultz
Joseph Francis Corey knew exactly what he was doing when he perched atop his staircase, loaded a .35 Whelen bolt-action hunting rifle, and blew away an animal control officer who was jiggling the lock on his front door. Or at least that's the argument assistant District Attorney William Satchel made during Corey's just-concluded trial in Sacramento, California.
It worked: Corey was found guilty on Thursday of first-degree murder, and will be sentenced on December 12. But is he really a cold-blooded murderer who laid in wait to kill any lawman who showed up at his door, or a mentally ill hoarder who had lost his grip on reality?
Corey, 67, a Vietnam veteran and retired computer programmer, was dead broke at the time of the incident in September 2012. He hadn't made a payment on his house in over three years. He tried to fight off the bank attempting to seize his home of nearly two decades, but lost. When a couple of cops and a bank representative came to evict Corey and change the locks on his house one day that fall, Corey was mostly compliant, though he did complain he had nowhere to keep his six dogs and two cats who were penned up inside.
The following afternoon, a county animal control officer, Roy Marcum, 45, and two locksmiths came to remove the animals, not knowing Corey had snuck back into his house. Before Marcum could get in the door, Corey's shot ripped through his torso. So far, at least, authorities believe Marcum is the first animal control officer in the nation killed while carrying out an eviction.
When a defendant is facing a first-degree murder charge, along with special circumstances like laying in wait and killing a sworn officer in the line of duty, any attorney worth their salt will do their best to knock down the charges. Mitigating the notion of a premeditated act--heat of passion, drunkenness, rage, a history of childhood violence, self-defense--down to murder in the second degree is a win. In an unconventional strategy, Corey's public defender, Jennifer Mouzis, told the jury that yes, her client was guilty of homicide, "but he didn't deliberate--he didn't premeditate." Mouzis explained: "Mr. Corey is mentally ill. Mr. Corey is a hoarder."
To show the depths of Corey's deranged state of mind, Mouizis revealed pictures from inside his home: piles of newspaper and garbage stacked six feet high, dog cages filled with feces, a defunct kitchen with rotting food, and tiny walk ways that crisscrossed through largely valueless junk. Two cats were kept in cages on a shelf in the bathroom.
"In his mind, they were perfectly well cared for," Mouzis said. "When Mr. Corey was evicted from his home, everything was taken from him."
Mouzis also called upon the celebrity hoarding specialist from A&E's Hoarders, Dr. Robin Zasio, to testify about Corey's mental state. "For somebody whose entire existence is based on caring for these animals and protecting their stuff," Zasio told jurors of the home seizure, "I can't think of any other word to say but devastating." Zasio added that Corey was likely experiencing a fight-or-flight response in the face of the threat. "It's chemically driven," Zasio said. "You will see very extreme anxiety and fear because of the chemicals going through their brain."
In a phone interview with VICE after her testimony, Zasio expanded on how a hoarder could be driven to such a grotesque act. "Hoarding causes a distortion in reality. People see $3 bottle openers as incredibly valuable. They form extreme attachments to objects and that becomes their whole universe. These are often people who have an attachment disorder. They are incapable of forming relationships with other people and so they attach to their stuff."
According to the Merced Sun Star, Corey was married for 17 years and the couple had four daughters, but his wife eventually left him because of his hoarding and took up with her husband's boss.
When Zasio interviewed Corey, he did not identify himself as a hoarder, and did not think he had a problem. "His house was so packed with junk that his animals could only be let out one at a time," she told me in that gentle, empathetic tone that often imbues mental health professionals. "There was no room for them."
After Corey fired on Marcum at approximately 1:30 PM, 100 police officers and three different SWAT teams swarmed the house in what became a grueling 17-hour standoff. A hostage negotiator came to the scene to coax Corey out of the house. Officers called his cellphone 350 times before he answered. According to the testimony of Officer Derrick Metzger, Corey finally answered his cellphone around 5 PM, sounding like he was either drunk or on drugs. The officer reported that Corey was agitated, and that he proceeded to rant about his foreclosure.
Then Corey stopped answering his phone.
At 10:30 PM, police fired tear gas canisters and flashbang devices into Corey's house, but he wouldn't budge. Around 5 AM, a few SWAT team members were able to get into Corey's garage, and when he entered to check on his dogs, an officer Tasered Corey and arrested him.
While Corey lawyer's argued that he was under extreme duress due to his animals and house being compromised, Corey also believed the three men at his door were intruders. Because Marcum was wearing a jacket, his badge was obscured. However, Satchell presented evidence showing Corey had clear sight lines through small windows and took deliberate aim, complicating his hoarder defense.
Marcum's mother visited Corey in jail before his trial for an answer as to why he killed her son. She testified at the trial that Corey responded, "I wanted to kill an officer." At the end of her visit, Corey asked if she would come visit him.