This is the second part of Nickels’s interview with Ernest. The first part may be found here.
Dorothe Ernest did not find out that her daughter Kimberly died until 1 p.m. on Nov. 2, 1995.
“It was a Thursday morning around noon when I got a call from my former husband’s administrative assistant saying that she and Terry wanted to come see me that afternoon,” she says. “I’m a psychotherapist and I had patients scheduled for that afternoon. I said no, then I asked, ‘What is this about? Is Terry [her former husband] in surgery? Is he in clinic? Is he in his research lab? Put him on the phone.’”
The assistant said that she couldn’t put Terry on the phone.
“Then I can’t invite you to come this afternoon because I’m not going to cancel patients if this is not important,” Dorothe told her.
The assistant answered that the only thing she could say was that “something terrible has happened in Philadelphia.”
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Dorothe then called Kimberly’s apartment and was greeted with her daughter’s cheery message, “Hi, this is Kim…”
“Of course she’s not home in her apartment, it’s a work day,” Dorothe reminded herself. She then called Kimberly’s work number and says she was greeted with the following recorded message: “Due to an emergency, the offices are closed, but if you have to get a hold of someone, call this number —”
She recalled that there had something in the news about a series of bombings in Philadelphia, and she wondered if maybe there had been a bomb that went off on Kimberly’s street or in her building.
She called the number given out by Kim’s law firm. “This is Dorothe Ernest, I’m Kimberly Ernest’s mother. I believe I need to talk to someone. May I speak with her boss?”
When her daughter’s boss, Russell Cunningham, got on the line, he said, “I thought the police or your husband would have notified you… Kimberly has been found dead…”
“I felt very bad for him. The guy never thought he’d have to tell me,” Dorothe confesses and says the news was like ‘a blast white out time.’
“Well, why didn’t you bother to call me?” she said to Cunningham.
Dorothe says she was cross but when she calmed down she asked Cunningham to give her a direct number to the police rather than a general number.
She says that “everything kind of clicked together” when Cunningham told her “she’s dead.” She immediately understood why Terry, her ex-husband, couldn’t talk and why his assistant was trying to protect him.
When she called the detective and got the information she once again had to ask, “Why didn’t you call me? Just because I’m divorced I am still her mother.” The detective apologized and explained that they had notified her father and assumed that he had told her, “which he had not,” Dorothe adds.
Dorothe looked at the clock and saw that it was five minutes to one. A panic set in as she sat down to collect herself.
She says she tried calling her client to tell her not to come but there was no answer. At that moment she looked out the window and to the right of her vision she saw the client pulling up in her car. She saw the TV camera truck coming up the small hill where her house was located. The first thing she had to do was to tell her client to go home.
“I ran outside and said to her, ‘Listen very carefully, please. There’s been a terrible emergency. I can’t see you today. Please go right away because I can see the police and the camera truck coming up the hill.’ I’m protective of clients and I didn’t want her to be traumatized. The whole thing was horror on top of horror.”
Following the news truck, her husband Terry and his assistant arrived by car. Dorothe says she did the TV interview while a gaggle of people surrounded her house. She says that she felt like a series of red ‘alert’ sound alarms were going off in her head.
Dorothe came to Philadelphia the following day.
Confrontation with Assistant DA Judi Rubino
Later, when Dorothe went to ask Judi Rubino for the autopsy report, Rubino told her “No, you can’t see that,” at which Dorothe replied, “Sorry, I have to see that. I’m her mother and I’m entitled.”
“So she handed me the autopsy report and I looked through it and I said, ‘Wait a minute, she’s not 5’10” she’s 5’8” or 5’7 1/2”, and then Judi Rubino snatched the report out of my hand. I had just seen it for five seconds and she said, ‘That’s why I didn’t want you to see the autopsy report!’ — meaning, you’re just going to start trouble and getting into her business.
“But information allows me to make good decisions. When I don’t have information I have nowhere to put my thoughts. I have to have facts,” Dorothe told me.
Dorothe admits that she was very aggressive with Rubino.
“I really didn’t like it when Judi Rubino snatched it out of my hand. Her attitude was: she had a job to do and I had no role in that job.” Later, Dorothe says she talked about the discrepancy in the autopsy report to the detectives and was told that the man who did the autopsy had a reputation for making mistakes, and that at one point he had misidentified the sex of a body that was decomposed.
Dorothe says she got along famously with the Philadelphia detectives.
“The detectives were a good gang of guys. We went to a dinner. It was a party for somebody and they invited me to go along. I saw them as friends, not detectives. They were friends helping me. That meant a great deal to me. They were concerned about my wellbeing because I felt very isolated and alone.”
“When Kim first went to Philadelphia before she went to paralegal school, she worked for Honeywell, the heating and cooling place. The guys told me that Kim was the kind of young woman who could talk football and sports with the guys. She was cool…”
“I was in Philadelphia for a couple of days to empty her apartment,” Dorothe continued, “Kim was a tidy mouse, she was a very organized girl but she wasn’t the best housekeeper. I remember on a subsequent visit I demanded to see the stairwell at 21st and Pine. They said no, that would be too hard. But I said, ‘Either help me to get to it or I’ll do it when you leave. I need to see where she was alive.”
A dog’s bark interrupts our conversation. “I have a dog, too!” Dorothe laughs.
Part of Dorothe Ernest’s strength obviously comes from her sense of humor.
I really didn’t like it when Judi Rubino snatched it out of my hand. Her attitude was: she had a job to do and I had no role in that job.
“Russ Cunningham, Kim’s boss, was saying then that there should be a plaque made up, and it should read something like, ‘This is the spot where the jogger, etc.—‘ The jogger community got behind the idea of a bronze plaque but something about it didn’t sit well with me. At the marathon race shortly after the murder there were T-shirts that read, ‘Run Kim Run’ and ‘Go Kim.’ It warms my heart that the running community got behind her.
“Kim was a graduate of Lawrence University in Wisconsin. After she got her BA she moved to Philadelphia and went to the Philadelphia school of paralegals where she got an advanced degree. She was a very independent person, naturally intelligent. She didn’t have to work for her grades. She had a lot of ability. After her murder I had a long conversation with Mayor Rendell at her memorial service. The mayor cried.
“Arthur Larrabee, one of law partners at Larrabee and Cunningham [the firm now has three names, Larrabee, Cunningham & McGowan] kept asking me where I wanted to have her memorial service, and I said, ‘I don’t know. I can’t make that decision right now.’ Then I learned that Arthur was a Quaker and that the Arch Street Meeting House was the first Quaker church in the USA. I thought, ‘how perfect because I like Quakers, I like the philosophy of Quakers, I like the fact that no one is the boss and everyone is allowed to speak at Quaker meetings.
“So, Kim had two funerals. At the memorial in Philadelphia after the service there were refreshments and a homeless man came up to me and said, ‘I want you to know that we cared about her,’ implying that it’s not just the fancy people and the mayor saying nice things.
“Everyone went out of their way to be gracious and sensitive, and I kept thinking of the City of Brotherly Love. Philadelphia for me really lived up to that. The people, including the rough old policemen, were so kind. All during my stay in Philadelphia and at the service my sister was glued to my side. She gave me tremendous support. We have laughed in subsequent years the way that she was identified in newspaper articles: ‘Dorothy Ernest and her Unknown Escort,’ because my sister doesn’t like a lot of publicity at all. “
I asked her about the trial and whether or not she looked into the faces of Haak or Wise.
“When I first saw photos of Richie Wise and then when I saw the replay on the TV when I was in Philadelphia of his arrest, Richie Wise was a very slight wimpy looking young boy, and his face was all broken out, and when they presented him a year and a couple of months after the murder for the trial, he was dressed in a white shirt and a tie. He looked like a Sunday School teacher. He had fourteen months or whatever of food, clothing and shelter and cleaned up pretty nicely.”
Seeing this version of Wise made her wish that the court could see him at the time of his arrest.
“I really wish the jury could have seen the photo taken in the morgue and taken of Kim’s body in the stairwell,” she added. “I asked Judi Rubino that question and she said, ‘It would be too upsetting for them to see it.’ I told Rubino, ‘That’s ridiculous.’”
Indeed, why was the jury protected from the ugly reality of that crime? Why this attempt by Rubino at self-sabotage? Rubino had never lost a big case in her 30 some years as ADA but something inside her seemed to be unraveling in this case.
“I was at odds with Judi Rubino from the very beginning,” Dorothe said. “I mean, I never said anything bad to her. I never openly criticized her. But I did ask my questions although her attitude seemed to be that she did not want me to get involved with her work. That’s the best way of putting it. She was handling it and I was just the mother. And there was no way I could add anything to this investigation.”
One person I spoke to on condition of anonymity stated that Rubino did not come across as a force in the courtroom compared to the three slick lawyers for the defense, one of whom was the notorious Jack McMahon, Philadelphia’s homegrown version of F. Lee Bailey, who would scream and rant in the courtroom like a madman.
While Dorothe believes that Rubino was a very good lawyer, she told me that she didn’t feel that she protected her daughter.
“I didn’t feel this, and that’s what as a mother I wanted Judi to do, but obviously she was handling it and I asked questions that took up time but that’s who I am, I ask questions, sometimes hard questions, but I’m not going to apologize…. I was a lady, I didn’t swear, but I did not feel that she was a good match for the strong team on the defense.”
On the other hand, Dorothe says she felt very comfortable with the detectives in whose company she says she “could say whatever I wanted to say.”
One of the things that the detectives told her was that McMahon had prostituted himself.
“Yes, they used the word prostituted. I remember that because it shocked me, that McMahon had prostituted himself by contacting Richie Wise and Herbert Haak to represent them…. I guess you are not supposed to do that. McMahon at the time also wanted to run for DA. He kept the whole court waiting one day when we recessed for lunch and then came back and we had to wait until he finished his press conference. It was all publicity that he wanted for himself…”
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.