Dorothe Ernest says that when her daughter, Kimberly, lived in Perth, Australia, she was often mistaken for actress Nicole Kidman.
“Her natural hair color is red and it is very curly, and Kim said it was a real hoot to get mistaken for Nicole Kidman because for a while she could really carry it off. When Nicole Kidman was first in movies, she had hair exactly like Kim’s, a huge head of red, curly, curly curls. She was full of life.”
The idea to try to contact Dorothe Ernest came shortly after my talks with former Philadelphia Detective Tom Augustine, falsely accused of beating Herbert Haak and Richie Wise by Bala Cynwyd attorney Fred Ambrose, who has since been disbarred. (Augustine was officially cleared of these false charges by the U.S. Department of Justice on Nov. 1, 1999.)
I wrote to Dorothe Ernest, told her about the project I was working on, and included a business card in the mix. I waited a couple of weeks, and when I didn’t receive a reply, I decided to call her. Dorothe answered the phone and graciously told me that she had received my letter and was taking her time getting back to me. She also said that she had to think about answering me because she didn’t know what kind of book I was writing, or how I would portray her daughter.
After some introductory talk, Dorothe began to feel comfortable talking about the murder.
“This is not a cold case because they know who killed her. It’s not set up someplace as a cold case — they are not going to spend time and energy looking for someone when they know who did it. Those two [Haak and Wise] cannot be tried again,” she said. (Richard Wise died Sept. 6, 2016.)
Dorothe said she thought about filing a civil case when Haak and Wise were acquitted but then decided, “What is this for? It’s not going to bring Kimberly back. But I wanted some kind of justice. If your book makes people care about her then that’s all I’m asking. Do you know what I’m saying?”
I brought up the subject of DNA.
“Nowadays we are so good with DNA,” Dorothe told me. “Her shoes and her socks were on and her jogging bra was on, pulled up over her breast. She had that on. They said there was not one speck of DNA. I don’t believe it. Somebody told me — I don’t know if it was a detective or somebody — that the particular man who did the autopsy was not good. In the past this man had claimed that a victim was a female when it was really a male, or a male when it was really a female, but he didn’t get the sex right. They also had Kimberly as two inches taller — she was 5’8”, they had her as 5’10” — and my comment about that is, ‘Dead bodies don’t wiggle.’”
“How could they be off on her height? Two inches off on her height is a fairly large amount. If they took any care, how could they be off on her height?“
Dorothe Ernest told me that she was contacted by a gentleman from Northwestern University, a lawyer.
“He’s from a center/clinic where they try to get people out of jail who have been found guilty when they didn’t do the crime. I’ve talked to him on numerous occasions for about a year. I told him that they still have Kimberly’s sneakers and socks and her jogging bra. I think if these items have been kept in any kind of relatively clean environment then they could re-examine these items.
That’s what this lawyer was intending to do, and he asked me to talk about it because there’s now a new person who has something to do with the DNA and he was going to try and get them to open up that box of Kim’s items. I think this could happen, and to me your book might raise the pressure for them to do that. I would love for them to do that. That’s really one of the reasons I’m talking to you. The DNA they are able to find now is unbelievable, and the fact that they found nothing back then —”
Dorothe trailed off as she relived the painful memory.
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I asked her why her daughter moved to Philadelphia.
“My fault,” she said. “I always thought Philadelphia was a very exciting town because of its history. Also, she didn’t have a car — she actually never asked me for a car — but I’ve lived in Philadelphia for two months with my husband when I was first married. Philadelphia is a very walkable city, and I suggested Philadelphia. Not that she always took my advice, but it was my suggestion. Then she was thinking about going to law school, but a couple of her friends were in law school and they hated it. So I said, ‘Why don’t you be a paralegal, work in the field, and see if you like it and then you can tolerate going through a couple years of miserable law school — if that’s how bad it is. “
There was another pause in the conversation, no doubt caused by a flood of painful memories.
“I’ve lived in this house for 41 years. I’m not a transient kind of person. Of course, the reason I’ve been stammering and sometimes having a hard time finding words is that this is very emotional.” I wasn’t getting the sense that Dorothe was stammering, but perhaps in her mind she thought she wasn’t coming across well.
“A mother would do almost anything for her child,” she continued. “I won’t say ‘almost,’ a mother would do anything — no, let me change it, I would do anything to help Kim. Her birthday is Friday, and I always make — I go to the bakery and get a big brown cake, a big round loaf of bread uncut and I spread peanut butter all over the sides and top and sprinkled it with bird seed, and put a candle in the middle and take it up to her grave so we can have a birthday party with the deer, birds and squirrels. They eat the cake. That brown loaf of bread always disappears relatively fast. It’s in a very old cemetery where my parents and grandparents are.”
Dorothe told me that Kimberly’s younger sister “is still actively grieving her sister’s death — ah, yes, the two were inseparable.”
With that, Dorothe goes into the sisters’ histories. “I got a call from the telephone company once,” she tells me, “announcing that I obviously had a problem because on my bill were calls from Australia and Venezuela, but both my daughters were in different countries at one point. The phone company asked if they could help me with this but I told them that I always pay the phone bill and they were not to worry. I said, ‘I always pay the phone bill. My girls are allowed to buy any book — I will pay for any book if they read it and they can talk to each other as many times as they want and as long as they want.”
Because the semen found in Kimberly’s body did not match either Haak’s or Wise’s DNA, investigators began interviewing Kimberly’s boyfriends, all of whom — with the exception of one man — volunteered to come forward for a DNA test. One of the men who came forward was a man that I knew well. He came forward (and was even filmed by local TV cameras), despite his being a married man. Augustine told me that this man “consented on the spot” if it would help convict Wise and Haak.
About the Haak and Wise acquittal verdict, Dorothe said, “The judge told me that you never know what a jury’s going to do. When I heard that, I made the decision if I were ever in a situation where I could choose between a jury and a decision by a judge, I would pick a judge.”
Dorothe says that after hearing of the murder of her daughter, she came to Philadelphia the following day, or November 3rd.
“The city was wonderful to me,” she recalls. “I stayed in a nice small hotel. The people of Philadelphia, the police, the mayor — I was shocked at their hospitality. I would go into a restaurant to eat dinner and all of a sudden the waiters would say, ‘The couple at such-and-such a table have paid for your dinner.’ I was so easily recognizable because it was so fresh in the news. I even commented to the police, ‘Why are you being so nice to me? You guys are rough policemen. These are detectives, not the school crossing guards. Everyone seemed to take her death into their own life.”
“You know, this was the beautiful girl next door and how could this have happened?”
How could they be off on her height? Two inches off on her height is a fairly large amount. If they took any care, how could they be off on her height?
She says it was her wish to visit the stairwell at 21st and Pine Streets, but was told, “No, no, you can’t do that.” She says she doesn’t recall when she visited it, that it could have been on a subsequent trip to the city but she knew she had to go there despite the objections, just as she realized that she had to go to the morgue to identify Kim.
Initially, the morgue showed her images of Kim on a TV screen. “I’m sorry,” Dorothe said. “I can’t recognize her. I want to see her.” She was told, “No, you can’t do that.”
“Then I said, ‘Well, I don’t recognize her.’ I have a lot of tenacity when I need to. The screen was black and white; it wasn’t very distinct and her face was very, very distorted and swollen from the blows. Finally they said, ‘Okay,’ so I took the elevator down — my younger daughter has never forgiven me for this — and said, ‘I’m going down to see her. You can come down to see her.’ My daughter followed me into the elevator. Anyway, my daughter wished that she had never seen her because it was so horrifying.”
Dorothe describes what happened once she got off the elevator.
“I saw them wheeling a gurney up a long skinny hallway. She was covered up with a sheet, tags on her toe, and they lifted back the sheet so I could see her face and in her curly hair I pulled out leaves and little sticks — what mothers do is get the hair out of your kid’s eyes. It’s an instinctual thing, where you touch your child’s forehead and push the bangs away. I picked out leaves and little twigs and then I wanted to pull the sheet down in my sense of disbelief but the attendant didn’t want me to pull the sheet down. He didn’t want me to see the autopsy scar. I did not pull the sheet down, I’d been bossy enough,” she added with a small, painful, therapeutic laugh.
“At that point I didn’t know that the autopsy was a farce. They had her down as being two inches taller than she really was. If they couldn’t even get her height accurate, what else did they miss? All I knew at the time was that I was comforting my daughter … by touching her hair.”
Thom Nickels is a Philadelphia-based journalist/columnist and the 2005 recipient of the AIA Lewis Mumford Award for Architectural Journalism. He writes for City Journal, New York, Frontpage Magazine and the Philadelphia Irish Edition. He is the author of fifteen books, including ”Literary Philadelphia” and ”From Mother Divine to the Corner Swami: Religious Cults in Philadelphia.” “Death at Dawn: The Murder of Kimberly Ernest” will be published later this year.
This article was edited to correct a spelling error.