Call of Duty
How Robert Mueller Saved a Mom’s Life and Convicted Her Baby’s Killer
‘He gave it his all. He didn’t take shortcuts. He didn’t hand it to his investigators.’
Robert Mueller answered his own phone at the U.S. Attorney’s homicide bureau at the “Triple Nickel,” as the building at 555 Fifth St. NW in Washington, D.C., was known.
Mueller had previously been the head of the criminal division at the U.S. Department of Justice—“main Justice”—supervising such cases as the prosecution of Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega. He had left in 1994 with the departure of President George H.W. Bush and the arrival of President Clinton and he had gone to work at the Washington office of a fancy law firm, earning some $400,000 a year. At the criminal division and in private practice, he had a secretary who would answer his phone:
“Mr. Mueller’s office.”
But after just a few months of making big bucks, Mueller decided he needed to do something more meaningful, most particularly in a time when the nation’s capital had also become its murder capital, with more than 400 killings a year. He telephoned the District of Columbia’s U.S. Attorney, Eric Holder, and said he wanted to become a frontline homicide prosecutor.
In 1995, at the age of 50, Mueller became the oldest and most improbable rookie in the history of the homicide bureau. He arrived with a Marine Corps pin in his suit jacket lapel, as befitted someone who had served as a rifle platoon commander in Vietnam, receiving a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart.
“2nd Lt. Mueller fearlessly moved from one position to another, directing the accurate counter fire of his men and shouting words of encouragement to them,” the citation for the Bronze Star reads. “With complete disregard for his own safety, he then skillfully supervised the evacuation of casualties from the hazardous area and, on one occasion, personally led a fire team across the fire-swept terrain to recover a mortally wounded Marine who had fallen in a position forward of the friendly lines. 2nd Lt. Mueller’s courage, aggressive initiative and unwavering devotion to duty at great personal risk were instrumental in the defeat of the enemy force.”
That devotion to duty was still manifest as he now set to working at the Triple Nickel.
“He was all business and you knew it, you could outright feel it,” retired Homicide Detective Michael Irving recalls. “He was a guy who commanded and demanded respect.”
And there was something else.
“He gives it as well,” Irving notes. “That would be the one thing that stands out. I’ve never seen him be disrespectful to anyone.”
The victim in Mueller’s first homicide case was 3-year-old Rhonda Morris, who had been battered, burned, choked, suffocated, and repeatedly thrown against a wall and punched hard enough to lacerate her liver while in the care of her mother’s 19-year-old cousin. Mueller visited the scene and studied the evidence and interviewed the witnesses. He impressed the victim’s mother as well as the detectives and his fellow prosecutors with his focus and energy and unfailing attention to the smallest details.
“He takes a personal interest in whatever he is doing,” says the mother, Valerie Morris-Murdock. “He gave it his all. He didn’t take shortcuts. He didn’t hand it to his investigators.”
Morris-Murdock and the others who dealt with Mueller say they never had to guess what he was thinking or whether he had some hidden agenda.
“Bob is, I’ll call him a very straight-up guy,” says June Jeffries, a longtime and highly respected homicide prosecutor who had the Rhonda Morris case before being transferred to the appeals bureau. “He doesn’t play games.”
Yet, as direct and no nonsense as he was, Mueller was not at all cold. He was gentle and supportive and reassuring with Morris-Murdock. He was all the more so with her surviving daughter, Remi, who witnessed the killing when she was just a year older than Rhonda.
“Remi loved him,” Morris-Murdock says. “She still remembers him even though she was 4.”
Remi instantly recognized Mueller when she saw a news report about the new director of the FBI in 2001.
“She said, ‘Mom, did you see Mr. Mueller on TV? You know he’s the director with the FBI,’” Morris-Murdock recalls.
Now that Mueller is the special counsel investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, the murdered child’s mother and the longtime homicide prosecutor as well as a host of detectives agree that we could have nobody better.
“He’s probably the perfect person for what’s going on,” says retired Capt. Lou Hennessy, the head of the Metropolitan Police Department’s homicide squad in Mueller’s time. “Without a doubt, we know we’re going to get the truth.”
Amidst all the tweets and scoops and firings and hirings and intrigues, Mueller is no doubt hard at work interviewing witnesses and examining evidence and pursuing leads, focused only on the job at hand, free of ulterior motives, giving it his all just as he did when he was working homicides.
“He crosses all the t’s and dots all the i’s,” Morris-Murdock says. “He checks things himself.”
Morris-Murdock suggests that if President Trump is as innocent of collusion with the Russians as he insists, then he should be only glad that Mueller is the special counsel.
“Mr. Mueller is an honest man,” Morris-Murdock says. “He’s going to tell the truth about whatever he finds.”
If Trump fires Mueller, that would suggest the president finds the truth to be no more his friend than it has been in numerous other situations.
“[Mr. Mueller] will give honest facts,” Morris-Murdock says.
Morris-Murdock was lost in a crack addiction on the night in February of 1995 when she left her four young children in the care of her first cousin, Aaron Morris. She returned early the next morning to find little Rhonda unconscious and unresponsive. She called 911 and the police arrived along with paramedics who fought to revive the child.
“He killed my baby!” court papers quote Morris-Murdock crying out.
Rhonda was still not breathing and she still had no pulse when she was rushed to the hospital, where she was pronounced dead. Aaron Morris was arrested for homicide. One of the detectives initially felt certain that Morris-Murdock had been in the apartment during the killing and was therefore complicit.
“The b--ch was in on it,” Morris-Murdock remembers hearing one of the detectives say. “I don’t care what you say.”
But Remi proved to be an uncommonly good witness and said her mother had not been there. Mueller combined that with everything else he was able to determine.
“He was like, ‘Even the pediatrician speaks highly of you,” Morris-Murdock recalls. “I said, ‘You talked to the pediatrician?’”
The pediatrician had told Mueller that Morris-Murdock kept her kids current on their vaccinations and check-ups.
Mueller decided that the accusing detective was wrong, that Morris-Murdock had not been present.
“Mr. Mueller believed me,” Morris-Murdock says.
Mueller also believed in her.
“He took a personal interest in me getting through this ordeal,” she says. “I felt like not only is he prosecuting my daughter’s case, but he wants to be sure I’m OK. He didn’t have to be concerned about me. That isn’t why he was paid.”
Mueller and Jeffries helped her get through rehab and stay off drugs and cope with the loss of her child at the hands of a family member.
“They knew I was sensitive, knew I was very sensitive,” Morris-Murdock says. “It was almost like they were family. They took me in their arms and said, ‘You’ll get through this.’”
She adds, “If it hadn’t been for them I don’t know if I could have stayed sane.”
She stayed clean as well, even though folks of the street offered her free drugs out of supposed sympathy.
“They said, ‘I don’t know how you deal with it,’” Morris-Murdock recalls.
As he would in all his subsequent homicide cases, Mueller carefully examined the scene. He also personally interviewed every significant witness. That included Morris-Murdock’s mother and sister.
“My mother took Rhonda’s death very hard,” Morris-Murdock says. “He knew the family was struggling.”
Mueller’s manner and tone provided comfort even as he sought answers to all his questions.
“Everybody fell in love with him,” Morris-Murdock reports. “It was his persona. It was how he presented himself. It was the interest he took.”
Mueller told the assembled family that Aaron Morris’ attorney from the public defender’s office had asked for the charge to be lowered to manslaughter from murder 1, which requires the prosecution to prove the killing was intentional. Mueller said he felt the evidence and testimony would support the higher charge, but he would let the family make the call.
“He said it would be his decision, but he would be willing to go with whatever we were comfortable with,” Morris-Murdock recalls.
The family sat down and talked. Morris-Murdock telephoned Mueller.
“I said, ‘Go for murder 1,” Morris-Murdock remembers.
Morris-Murdock was often at the Triple Nickel as Mueller continued to build the case. Mueller came in early and kept working past usual business hours.
“I’m looking out the window, thinking, ‘It’s getting dark,’” Morris-Murdock recalls. “He said, ‘Oh, don’t worry we’ll put you in a cab.’”
Mueller then kept working.
“In the office one day, I said, ‘Is this your only case? Don’t you have others?’” Morris-Murdock recalls.
Mueller pointed to a stack of files on his desk, each a homicide.
“He said, ‘I do, but this is the priority right now. I want to see this through to the end,’” Morris-Murdock remembers.
The trial neared, and Mueller prepared Morris-Murdock for her testimony in two sessions, asking one tough question after another.
“He made me cry,” Morris-Murdock says. “He told me, ‘This is what they’re going to do.’”
He told her that these were the kind of questions the defense would ask in an effort to make her lose her composure.
“He said if I break down, they’re going to ask for a dismissal,’” Morris-Murdock recalls.
Mueller advised her that she might want stay away from the courtroom on the days when the autopsy photos were being introduced as evidence and discussed. He asked if she had a photo she could give him that had been taken of Rhonda in life.
“He said, ‘Can we have a picture of her to show because I want them to see the vibrant little girl she was,’” Morris-Murdock remembers. “He said, ‘Rhonda will get justice.’”
The surviving older sister, Remi, was an important witness. Mueller was able to arrange for her to testify on videotape and be spared the stress of appearing in court. She was precociously articulate and poised.
“He said, ‘For a 4-year-old, she talks like she’s 24,’” Morris-Murdock reports.
The trial commenced and the moment arrived for Morris-Murdock to take the stand. Mueller led her through her account.
“He was calm but he was direct,” Morris-Murdock says. “I’m not going to say he took it easy on me. He asked certain questions because he knew [the defense] was going to ask.”
On cross-examination, the public defender was as tough as Morris-Murdock had been warned to expect. Morris-Murdock began to cry and Mueller asked for a brief recess.
“First thing [the defense attorney] did was jump up and ask for a dismissal,” Morris-Murdock recalls.
The judge allowed Morris-Murdock a few minutes, with no guarantee that he would not grant a dismissal if she proved unable to collect herself. The public defender resumed the questioning.
“She chewed me up pretty bad, but I was really prepared,” Morris-Murdock says. “I’m like, ‘Just remember what Mr. Mueller said, stay calm, don’t scream, don’t jump across the table at [the defendant].”
Morris-Murdock stepped down having retained her composure.
“Mr. Mueller can prep you really good,” she says.
She took Mueller’s praise to be as straightforward and honest as he was in everything else.
“He said, I did good,” Morris-Murdock says. “He always told me, ‘I’m proud of you. You did good.’”
Along with Remi’s video testimony, Mueller played a half-hour video of the statement the defendant had made to the police in the immediate aftermath of the killing. Aaron Morris was recorded saying, “I might as well tell you what happened to Rhonda.” He said he had been “stressed out” and had lost his temper after Rhonda “used the bathroom on herself.” He described beating her and repeatedly lifting her up by her neck.
“I put her in the tub with the hot water and it pulled the skin off her feet,” he reported on the recording.
The situation in the courtroom was made all the more difficult by the presence of the defendant’s mother, the sister of Morris-Murdock’s own mother. Morris-Murdock decided to await the verdict at home. Mueller called to tell her that the jury had declined to convict the cousin of murder 1 and had instead found him guilty of involuntary manslaughter.
“Mr. Mueller was more upset than I was,” Morris-Murdock remembers. “I thought he did a great job. No way could you think [Aaron Morris] didn’t intend to do this. Slamming her up against a wall three times. That’s intentional. This is a 3-year-old helpless child.”
Mueller opted not to speak with the jurors, as attorneys often do after a trial. Their verdict indicated that they had bought the cousin’s insistence that he simply lost his temper.
“He didn’t even want to interview them and talk to them because he felt, ‘This is ridiculous,’” Morris-Murdock says.
At the sentencing, Aaron Morris got 11-to-35 years. Morris-Murdock recalls, “[Mueller] said, ‘The good thing is he got the maximum sentence. We already know he’s going to do at least 20 years.’”
But after what seemed to Morris-Murdock to be no time at all, the cousin sought early parole. Morris-Murdock knew her children would be terrified by just the prospect of this monster being out in the street.
“I said, ‘There’s no way!’” she recalls.
Mueller helped her prepare her videotaped statement to the parole board.
“He told me, ‘Just express how you feel and all you’ve been through and how you feel about him getting out,’” Morris-Murdock says. “I do remember saying I don’t feel comfortable with him coming out not just for my children but for everyone’s children, the neighbor’s child, the lady up the street, the man around the corner.”
Parole was denied. Aaron Morris died behind bars of natural causes. His health could not have been improved by cellblock beatings that Morris-Murdock heard he had received.
Morris-Murdock went on to work at the Department of Labor and to drive a bus, steering the big vehicle through the city streets.
“I loved it,” she says.
She remained resolutely drug-free.
“I said, ‘I can’t go back,’” she recalls. “If I go back, then my daughter’s death would have meant nothing. I need to know something good will come out of this.”
She was the most dedicated of mothers to her surviving children.
“I don’t miss a PTA meeting. I don’t miss a doctor’s appointment. Flag football, basketball, t-ball, I was there,” Morris-Murdock says.
In 2000, she married Clarence Murdock, a deeply decent man who worked at the elementary school her children attended. They had a daughter of their own, Victoria, who graduated from the eighth grade this year, prompting a sign to go up on the front door of their tidy home in northeast Washington, D.C.
“YOU DID IT.”
In the meantime, Remi had graduated high school early with honors. She served in the Navy and proceeded on to college. She now has three children of her own.
On every July 6, the family celebrates what would had been Rhonda’s birthday.
“Ice-cream cake every year,” Morris-Murdock says.
Now 50, Morris-Murdock has “Rhonda” tattooed on her right calf. She remembers that the girl they called “Boom Boom” was altogether special.
“She was kind of like the favorite,” Morris-Murdock says. “She was just a sweetheart. She was so quiet. She would just smile.”
Morris-Murdock also says, “We still talk about what Rhonda would have looked like.”
And she says, “I would never forget Rhonda’s murder. Some days it’s like it just happened. Some days I don’t think about it at all until I’m going to sleep.”
Mueller sent her Christmas cards for five years, but they have since fallen out of touch. She has kept track of his career as he went to work other killings and become head of the homicide bureau and then U.S. Attorney in San Francisco and then the head of the FBI and now special counsel.
“I still get so excited whenever I see him on TV,” Morris-Murdock says. “I’m following everything now… How do they go from him investigating them to them investigating him?”
She has no doubt that for all the Trumpian craziness and dizzy speculation on cable TV news, Mueller is working the Russian-meddling case with the same steady, careful, focused diligence as he did with her daughter’s case. The innocent should be only glad.
Morris-Murdock offers a high compliment to the Marine who was once decorated for his courage and devotion to duty.
“He goes beyond the call of duty,” she says.