3. Film Noir

Huck’s alibi, according to Johnson, was unassailable. He had taken the dog for a walk around the neighborhood on the morning of Monday, March 3, 2014. On surveillance video, he can be seen walking out the front door with the dog at 8:12 a.m. He can be seen returning to the house with the dog at 8:38 a.m.

Huck claimed that when he entered the house, he could hear Dana’s iPad playing a yoga video behind the closed door of the yoga room. In surveillance video, Huck can be seen wearing earbuds as he entered the house. His ears remained covered for several minutes as he prepared a bed for the dog on a sofa. Huck told police that he heard a loud crash minutes after returning with the dog.

On the surveillance video, the dog on the sofa appeared to react to a noise at 8:48 a.m. Huck was not on camera at this time. Huck dialed 911 at 8:51 a.m. He did not reappear on camera until 8:56 a.m., when he exited the exterior door of the yoga room and opened the front gate.

Video of Huck before he called 911

During their search of the house on the night of Tuesday, March 4th, detectives seized Dana’s iPad and the digital video recorder (DVR) from the home’s video surveillance system. The system had been installed by Huck, and he was the only person who managed and monitored it. Nevertheless, detectives presumed video files on the DVR gave an authentic, complete account of activities in and around the house.

A limited forensic examination of Dana’s iPad (pdf) showed that it had been used to make a purchase from Levenger.com at 8:28 a.m. on March 3rd while Huck was away from the house. Minutes later at 8:33 a.m., the iPad was used to log in to a yoga instruction video on Gaia.com. The iPad played an episode of yoga teacher Rod Stryker’s Peak Performance Yoga.

Yoga video that played on Dana’s iPad

Detectives saw that Huck was not in the house at the times when Dana’s iPad was used. Therefore, detectives assumed Dana was alive and well somewhere in the house using her iPad, even though she did not appear on camera that morning.

Huck could not have bludgeoned Dana and cleaned up the scene in just the nine minutes between the alleged “loud crash” that caused the dog to startle at 8:48 a.m., and the arrival of first responders at 8:57 a.m.

Therefore, detectives presumed, as Huck had claimed, that Dana was alive and well in the house when he left to walk the dog. It seemed impossible that Huck could have assaulted her that morning; her injuries must’ve been the result of a terrible yoga accident.

When additional facts are considered, and when we watch the video, an alternate narrative begins to emerge. Based on this information, this is what I believe happened.

Huck bludgeoned Dana on the night of Sunday, March 2, 2014, sometime after 10:21 p.m. in the master bathroom, where she bled profusely for hours overnight, mostly in the shower.

Huck used the pull-down ladder in the hallway to access the attic and the surveillance-system DVR. The device was located on the top shelf of the linen closet, just a few feet away from the attic hatch. The camera cords and power cables were within easy reach from the attic, and Huck temporarily disabled the system. While the cameras were off, Huck took Dana’s iPad from the kitchen hutch.

Police photo of DVR in closet

Huck spent the night cleaning up blood and readying his alibi. Likely with help from a neighbor who was a former emergency-room nurse, Huck stopped the bleeding of the gaping wound in Dana’s scalp, washed blood from her hair and dried it, dressed her, and placed her on the floor in the yoga room. In the morning, he re-activated the surveillance cameras.

Huck took Dana’s iPad with him when he walked down the street with the dog. He walked to the golf-course footpath and doubled back in the direction of his house until he was within range of his home’s Wi-Fi network. There, he used Dana’s iPad and credit card to make an online purchase. He logged on to her Gaia.com account and started playing the Rod Stryker yoga video.

Huck walked back the way he’d come, again carrying the iPad under his jacket, reappearing on camera with the dog. After he entered through the front gate of the house, he walked to the exterior door of the yoga room, removed the iPad from his waistband, and put the device outside the door. Through his Bluetooth earbuds, he could hear the Rod Stryker video as it played on Dana’s iPad.

I’ll walk through the video to show how it supports this narrative. But first, it’s important to note multiple instances of digital-forensic malpractice and erroneous interpretation on the part of Long Beach police.

For example, the timestamp on the surveillance video in Dana’s house was 24 minutes ahead of real time. This is not a big deal. Often, video timestamps do not reflect the accurate time. For this reason, as a matter of standard procedure, forensic video technicians make note of time discrepancies and write down details about the surveillance system’s make, model, and settings.

In Dana’s case, it’s my understanding that this information was never collected. Bryan McMahon told me that he later calculated the time offset by looking at a wall clock recorded by Camera 6, presuming the clock on the wall to be correct. It’s standard practice to calculate the time offset upon retrieval of the evidence, or to use a verifiable marker such as the arrival time of emergency vehicles. This is a relatively small matter, but it’s indicative of slapdash work. Police failed to make note of the system’s most basic details when they took it into evidence.

Another failure is that police did not retrieve any videos recorded by Camera 9. According to one police report, this camera was located somewhere near the exterior door of the master bedroom. Was this camera turned off or otherwise disabled? Did it record nothing? Were its recordings purposely not retrieved for some reason? A forensic video technician, following standard procedure, would have made note.

In Dana’s case, police reports included handwritten notes (pdf) specifying camera views associated with each video channel. Between the notes “CH 8 STREET VIEW SOUTH” and “CH 10 WEST SIDE OF RES/ S/W VIEW FRONT GATE,” the note “CH 9” had been written and scribbled out as if listed by mistake. Unable to specify the view of Camera 9, police scratched it off the list as if it didn’t matter.

These relatively minor mistakes and omissions hint at a larger problem. According to attorney Jonathan Hak, an international expert on forensic video analysis and the law, and the teacher of a training seminar I attended:

“Relying on video evidence without expert interpretation risks the failure to reach the correct conclusions based on the evidence or worse, reaching the wrong conclusions.”

Canadian Bar Association article about video evidence

Untrained detectives and unreliable “experts” who misinterpret digital media can very well botch an investigation, as I believe detectives did in Dana’s case.

Police preserved only three clips of video from the night of Sunday, March 2, 2014. These clips cover just 21 minutes of real time. Based on these glimpses, police concluded that all was well in Dana’s house.

That night, the broadcast of the 86th Annual Academy Awards, hosted by Ellen DeGeneres, had wrapped up just after 9:00 p.m. At 10:00 p.m., Huck walked out of the TV room and onto the back patio with the dog, a copper colored Viszla named Enzo. The air was a cool 54°F. Huck was barefoot and wearing shorts, but he also wore a hoodie sweatshirt.

Seconds after Huck walked outside, Dana walked away from the TV room and down the interior, central hallway of the house. Along this hallway were several rooms: Dana’s office; the so-called yoga room; a laundry nook; and the master suite. There were no cameras in these rooms nor in the hallway. While the presence of 12 cameras initially gave detectives an impression of blanket surveillance, most of the home was hidden from view.

Enzo stayed outside with Huck for less than a minute. The dog sniffed at a patch of grass in the northeast part of the yard. Apparently triggered by the dog’s activity, a motion-activated floodlight near the exterior door of the master bedroom came on briefly and went out. The floodlight was near the presumed location of Camera 9, which, if it was working, would have recorded this outdoor activity. The dog went back inside the house. Huck followed.

Inside the house, Enzo went down the hallway, seemingly in search of Dana. He returned to the TV room moments later without her. Huck, having taken off his hoodie, walked slowly from the TV room and through the dining area, past the orange chairs. Camera 6 recorded him going into the guest bathroom and closing the bathroom door. If Huck had turned on the bathroom light, it would have been visible through the frosted-glass panel of the door. He did not turn on the light.

Forty seconds later, Dana reemerged from the hallway. She had a troubled look on her face. She walked briskly past the glass door of the unlit bathroom, and into the TV room. Moments later, she appeared on the back patio with the dog.

My guess is that Enzo was barking or whining urgently, and this was why Dana looked troubled and walked briskly. Also, she was probably wondering where Huck had gone, and why he wasn’t attending to Enzo.

Once outside, Enzo ran to the low wall at the back of the property. Dana hugged herself in the cool air. The dog wagged his tail as he stood at the wall, as if he wanted Dana to see something on the golf course. On top of this wall was a cable-rail fence which would have allowed Dana to see the footpath on the other side, and the misty darkness of the golf course in the distance. Neighbors often walked their dogs along the footpath.

Was a neighbor walking along the path? Did Dana exchange a greeting with someone? Whether she did or didn’t, the video doesn’t tell us. The camera’s view of this area was blocked by a patio umbrella.

After a few moments, Enzo turned around and trotted back into the house. Dana followed. Huck was still in the bathroom in the dark.

Several seconds later, presumably in response to Dana calling for him, Huck opened the bathroom door. He peered around a corner and stood to face Dana. To me, this is an odd sequence. It appears as if Huck was hiding in the bathroom. He seemed hesitant to reveal himself.

When Huck set up the surveillance cameras, he had angled Camera 7 to cover the spot on which he was standing. To me, he looked uncomfortable under the camera’s scrutiny. Dana stood off camera. Huck looked at her.

I would say that Huck glared at her. He turned his body toward the hallway as if wanting to get away. He raised his chin defiantly. Before he walked down the hall, he flashed a scowling double take at Dana. She followed him down the hall.

This sequence lasted only 10 seconds, but I find it enduringly puzzling. What was Dana saying to Huck during those awkward 10 seconds? I see uncomfortable tension between the two of them.

To a detective who didn’t know Dana and Huck, this scene probably looked unremarkable. One of the detectives wrote a note: “Night before observe everyone. Dana/no apparent issues.”

While the detective probably was not aware of festering issues in Dana’s marriage, his note acknowledged crucial, indisputable information. Specifically, on this night, Dana did not show any signs of health issues, such as stumbling, confusion, lack of coordination, or lack of balance. She was not intoxicated. She did not behave erratically nor combatively. Nothing about her appearance hinted at the likelihood of an impending, fatal accident. Rather, she was wearing slippers, jeans, and a big sweater, and walking around her house with a serious expression on her face. In other words: “Dana/no apparent issues.”

Video from the night of March 2, 2014

If police had examined videos from preceding nights, they would have been able to draw comparisons about the level of activity in the house on the last night of Dana’s life. Police seized the entire digital video recorder from her house, after all. Detectives had weeks of surveillance videos at their fingertips.

This may sound like the beginning of thorough police work, but it’s another cluster of mistakes. Unplugging a DVR and taking it to the police station to see what’s on it should be done only as a last resort. Cutting the power to a DVR can cause it to malfunction or to erase itself when power is restored. Therefore, technicians customarily use a variety of techniques to retrieve video files without turning off the surveillance equipment.

Nonetheless, police unplugged the DVR and removed it from Dana’s house. One of Nuch’s investigators asked Detective Johnson if police conducted a forensic exam of the device. Johnson reportedly replied that a forensic exam wasn’t necessary because there was no indication that the device had been tampered with or manipulated.

Of course, the only way to know whether it had been tampered with or manipulated would be to conduct a forensic exam.

Videos on the DVR could have given detectives insight into daily household routines, episodes of conflict, and the comings and goings of visitors. Investigators have told me that police did not retain copies of these videos. Bryan told me it would have been too burdensome for police to save more than a few hundred megabytes of digital files for Dana’s case. Police saved everything that was relevant, Bryan said. This comprised three clips from the night of Sunday, March 2, covering approximately 21 minutes of real time, and 45 clips from the morning of Monday, March 3, covering approximately three hours of real time.

Without making a complete copy of the DVR, without even looking at everything on it, and without subjecting the surveillance system to a forensic examination, police gave the DVR back to Huck along with Dana’s iPad, as if these weren’t crucial evidence in a homicide investigation.

Why were police so derelict in their duty to scrutinize and retain evidence?

In 2018, I requested a copy of the LBPD’s written policies and procedures for handling surveillance video. On February 11, 2019, Sergeant Joshua Brearley, Office of the Chief of Police, wrote to me in response:

“The Long Beach Police Department does not have written policies specific to the retrieval or analysis of digital video evidence and CCTV.”

2019 LBPD PRA Request/Response (pdf)

Brearley wrote that the department had standards of practice for officers’ body-worn cameras, but none for CCTV evidence. In other words, in Dana’s case, police were winging it.

Even so, they did save bits and pieces of video, and these tell us something. For example, Dana walked in front of various cameras more than five times on the night of Sunday, March 2. She spent approximately nine minutes on camera standing at the kitchen hutch while using her iPad. Her level of activity on this night starkly contrasts with the following morning when cameras rolled for three hours but Dana never appeared on camera alive and well, not once, not ever.

When I watch the video from the last night of Dana’s life, I see that she was concerned about something. Was she troubled by Huck’s resurgent enthusiasm for drinking alcohol? His messy finances? A possible divorce? It could have been any of these worries, in addition to Huck’s odd behavior that night, such as seemingly hiding in the guest bathroom in the dark.

A few minutes after the awkward scene in which Huck glared at her and she followed him down the hallway, Dana reappeared on camera. She turned on the light of the guest bathroom, went in, and closed the door. She was in the bathroom for approximately two minutes. She exited and turned off the light.

Moments later, she walked from the hallway to the kitchen hutch. At the hutch, she lifted the cover of her iPad.

Probably not by accident, the surveillance camera Huck had installed directly over the hutch, Camera 6, did not show the surface of the hutch. Rather, the camera was angled toward the front door. As Dana used her iPad, the camera recorded only a hint of the top of her head in the lower-right edge of the frame. This part of the frame was further obscured by the video timestamp.

Across the room, Camera 7 recorded Dana as she tapped on her iPad screen. The lights were low. The image is not as clear as I would like it to be. Still, it is unmistakable that Dana was using her tablet device.

After a minute at the hutch, Dana turned as if she had found the information she wanted and was walking away. She stopped. She drew her left hand to her mouth. Dana turned again to her iPad. She tapped on it for another eight minutes.

Was she sending an e-mail message? If so, we might never know what it said. The following morning, Huck sent messages from her main account to her friends and associates. Huck had every opportunity to read Dana’s messages, and to delete whatever he wanted to erase.

A thorough forensic exam of the iPad might have been able to tell us what she was doing on the device that night. However, investigators have told me that police did not seek nor retain complete logs of her iPad and e-mail activity.

To conduct the forensic exam of Dana’s iPad, it was necessary to unlock the device with a four-digit code. The forensic report shows the unlock code for the device was given to detectives, presumably by Huck because Dana was dead. Meaning, Huck was able to unlock and use Dana’s iPad. His murder alibi relied on digital media evidence that he could access and manipulate, and yet this reality is never noted or analyzed by police.

Perhaps the most important moments in the night’s video happened at the end. Dana walked away from her iPad, leaving it on the hutch. She walked across the room, down the hallway, and was gone. This was the last time she was recorded alive and well, and she was wearing eyeglasses. She needed them to see her iPad, and to watch a video on it. She didn’t own contact lenses.

Police didn’t find Dana’s glasses in the yoga room. Rather, they found and photographed them in the master bathroom next to her sink. Likewise, police found and photographed Dana’s iPad on the kitchen hutch exactly where she’d left it, far from the yoga room.

These details are important because they contradict Huck’s alibi. How could Dana have been watching a video in the yoga room if her glasses were in the bathroom, and she couldn’t see the screen? How, exactly, did her iPad get into the yoga room if she did not carry it there? How, after her fatal “accident” did the device find its way back to the hutch, where police found and photographed it?

If, as detectives assumed, the surveillance system faithfully recorded all activity in and around the house without interruption, why was there no video showing who moved the iPad, and when?

After Dana walked off camera for the last time ever, eight hours went by with no videos to show for it. Police said there were no videos because nothing had happened in or around the house. But, obviously, something happened.

When Dana walked away, lights were on in the kitchen and dining area. A newspaper was in plain view on top of a hutch. But in the morning, the lights had been turned off, and the newspaper was gone. Something happened during the night. Why hadn’t cameras recorded it?

Bryan speculated the lights were controlled by timer switches, and perhaps the cameras had malfunctioned when the newspaper was moved. Bryan had no explanation for why all four exterior cameras in front of the house failed to work. These motion-activated cameras were pointed at busy East Stearns Street, yet they recorded nothing during the night. It’s improbable that during an eight-hour span on Stearns, not one car drove past the house.

In 2016, my dad hired certified forensic video analyst Scott Alan Kuntz to examine video files from Dana’s case and to answer some of my questions. I had attended a forensics seminar taught by Scott, who worked as a sheriff’s deputy in Dane County, Wisconsin. Here’s part of the written query I sent to Scott:

…My general theory is that Dana was fatally injured sometime between 10:20 p.m. on March 2nd, which is the last time she is seen alive and well on the video, and 6 a.m. on March 3. We have no videos covering this time period. However, several of the video files begin at around 6:34 a.m. on March 3. Is this because the CCTV system was switched off during the night, and was switched on at around 6:34? Is there another explanation for this gap in the recordings? ….

Here’s part of Scott’s response:

What I don’t know regarding the time gap is this: Did the police department only choose to export those files to the exclusion of others that might have been recorded throughout the night? Did the DVR have a programmed instruction to not record during the night? (Most DVRs allow the user to setup a ‘schedule’ of recording which is based on days of the week and times of day.)

Did someone remove files from the DVR, which represented video files possibly recorded during the night? (In most DVRs, this would take extensive expertise to do successfully. This option would be improbable in most situations. Most consumer-grade DVRs allow a user to only format the entire hard drive but not selectively delete individual files.)

Does this model DVR stop recording when video signals are interrupted (power or video cables) to the DVR? If that is the case, it is possible that someone could have shut off power to all of the cameras late at night and then re-energized them in the morning. If the DVR and power supply weren’t within camera view, this could produce a situation where no video files exist for the entire night. Someone could have re-energized the cameras or plugged their respective video cables back in without being seen on camera doing it. If the DVR behaves this way and if foul play is suspected, this would, in theory give a person the entire night to move about the house without being recorded on video.

If the DVR is still in police custody, a thorough forensic examination of the hard drive and of the DVR programming would help answer some of these questions….”

Scott also analyzed video file names and timestamps. He noticed details that raised additional questions about whether recordings were omitted by police, or by someone else. These details suggested that the cameras had been activated, and video files had been recorded during the night, but were missing from the cache of files preserved by police. Why were they missing?

Simply, police failed to gather and analyze a complete body of video evidence. We’re left with doubts about what the video demonstrates. Police cannot claim credibly that the video shows proof of Huck’s innocence. Likewise, it doesn’t prove his guilt. It does, however, offer clues about Huck’s role in what happened to Dana.

Read Chapter 4: Playback