AFTER AN ABDUCTOR demanded the keys to her Toyota Camry at a Toms River shopping center and took her for a ride, Kathleen Weinstein secretly pushed a button on a minicassette player and recorded her last words.
During the 1996 carjacking, the 45-year-old mother and teacher even managed to flip the tape over to continue recording.
Weinstein's story grabbed national headlines because she had bravely taped 46 minutes of her voice and that of her killer before he smothered her to death. NBC's "Law and Order" ran an episode in 1996 based on her case.
The tape - since copyrighted by Weinstein's family - is expected to be played publicly for the first time in an upcoming trial in Ocean County Superior Court.
Michael LaSane, now 27, of Berkeley Township, Ocean County, had pleaded guilty to killing Weinstein, but has since been allowed to retract his plea.
Why? His mother, Vera Thomas, had sex with his defense lawyer, Kevin E. Daniels of Asbury Park, around the time of the guilty plea.
Because of the sexual romp, the New Jersey Appellate Division of Superior Court in 2004 granted LaSane the right to withdraw his plea. LaSane did so last year.
His trial - 11 years after Weinstein's death - begins with jury selection tomorrow. LaSane faces charges of purposeful murder, felony murder, kidnapping, carjacking and robbery.
The one-night stand between Thomas and lawyer Daniels occurred sometime between LaSane's guilty plea on Jan. 23, 1997, and his sentencing that Feb. 28, according to the lawyer's testimony at a 2002 post-conviction relief hearing before Superior Court Judge James N. Citta.
Daniels said he went to visit Thomas at her apartment because she called him and wanted him to withdraw her son's guilty plea. But after he got to the Magnolia Gardens apartment complex in the Manitou Park section of Berkeley Township, this happened:
Thomas began to kiss him and disrobe, Daniels testified, according to court papers. Daniels said he had sex with her because she was depressed, and he was convinced "that she was going to take her life" if he didn't, records show.
Thomas gave conflicting accounts of when they hooked up. She claimed it happened before the guilty plea. At the 2002 hearing, she testified that she had the onetime romp with Daniels in July 1996 "right after [she] got out of rehab" for an alcohol problem, according to court papers. In a written affidavit attached to her son's post-conviction relief petition, however, she had claimed that the "intimate affair" with Daniels developed around the fall of 1996.
At the 2002 hearing, Citta found Daniels' testimony of when the sexual encounter occurred to be credible. Although the judge ruled that mother and lawyer had sex, he found that it did not influence the guilty plea since it happened after the plea.
LaSane had claimed that he had received ineffective counsel from Daniels, who LaSane suggested had pressured his mother to force him to plead guilty.
The appellate court panel reversed Citta's ruling.
In the 2004 decision, Appellate Judge Edwin H. Stern wrote that Daniels' behavior amounted to "unethical conduct" and that the "record sufficiently demonstrates that defendant's reliance on his mother's advice combined with his mother's relationship with defendant's counsel before sentence was imposed" provided enough reason for granting LaSane the right to withdraw his guilty plea.
Daniels, who is still practicing, has not faced any disciplinary action from his sexual encounter with LaSane's mother, according to the New Jersey Office of Attorney Ethics. Phone messages left at Daniels' office were not returned.
Weinstein, a special-education teacher at Thorne Middle School in Middletown, Monmouth County, lived in Tinton Falls, with her husband, Paul, and son, Daniel, who was 6 when she was killed.
A woman outside the Weinsteins' home on a quiet residential street said last week that the family did not want to speak to the news media.
About 3 p.m. on March 14, 1996, Weinstein had parked her 1995 gold Toyota Camry in the Toms River Center, a strip mall on busy Route 37 in Ocean County. She stopped inside Palumbo's, an Italian restaurant, to get a sandwich before heading to a Rutgers University graduate class held at Toms River High School South.
That day, LaSane, a student at Toms River High School South, wanted to give himself a gift for his 17th birthday the next day, authorities have said.
He wanted a Toyota Camry.
Weinstein drove one.
In documents related to LaSane's 1997 guilty plea to felony murder, LaSane said he went to the shopping plaza "to steal a car."
According to court documents, LaSane had given this account of what happened:
He got in Weinstein's car and demanded her keys. Afterward, with Weinstein inside, he "drove a substantial distance from the parking lot" to a "wooded area in Manitou Park."
LaSane said he "put duct tape on [Weinstein's] hands and ankles and . . . left with the car," but when he heard her screaming, he returned. He "came back and . . . put [his] hand over her face [to] stop her from screaming."
LaSane said he realized that she was dead when he left the scene, but said he did not "intend to kill" her.
Police found Weinstein's body three days after her abduction in the Manitou Park woods, less than a mile west of where LaSane lived with his mother in their Magnolia Gardens apartment. They discovered the cassette tape inside an outer pocket of the jacket she had on.
During the abduction, LaSane had told Weinstein he had a gun, but one was never found, sources close to the case said.
At the plain, two-story Magnolia Gardens apartments complex, residents who daily hear the whir of Garden State Parkway traffic nearby, said last week that Thomas no longer lives there.
In a negotiated deal with the Ocean County Prosecutor's Office, LaSane, who was to be tried as an adult, pleaded guilty in January 1997 before Superior Court Judge Peter J. Giovine to felony murder in exchange for prosecutors dropping other charges. A month later, he was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for 30 years.
Because the case had not gone to trial, Weinstein's family did not have to hear Kathleen's last words played over and over again in court, and possibly played repeatedly afterward on television and radio.
At the upcoming trial, LaSane will face the same Superior Court judge who in 2002 denied his request to withdraw his guilty plea: Judge Citta.
Executive Assistant Ocean County Prosecutor William Heisler did not want to comment before the trial. LaSane's defense attorney, James Friedman of Newark, did not return phone calls.
If LaSane is convicted, he faces a maximum sentence of life in prison with no parole eligibility before 60 years.
On the tape, Weinstein is mostly calm while she pleads for her life, sources said.