Suzanne Margaret Basso, 59, was executed by lethal injection on 5 February 2014 in Huntsville, Texas for the murder of a man for an insurance payout.
On 22 October 1995, a quarter-page engagement announcement appeared in the Houston Chronicle proclaiming the engagement of Suzanne Margaret Anne Cassandra Lynn Theresa Marie Mary Veronica Sue Burns-Standlinslowski. The bride was one of twelve children and an heiress to a Nova Scotia oil fortune, had been educated at Saint Anne's Institute in Yorkshire, England, and had been both an accomplished gymnast and a nun. The groom, Carmine Joseph John Basso, was said to be a Congressional Medal of Honor recipient from the Vietnam War. The Chronicle did not receive payment for the ad, which was priced at $1,372. On the 25th, it retracted the ad, stating that it was looking into some possible inaccuracies.
On 27 May 1997, Suzanne Basso called Houston police and asked them to check on her husband at his office, as she hadn't spoken to him for a week and was concerned for his well-being. Police then went to the office and discovered the body of Carmine Basso, 47. According to the police report, the office had no restroom and "there were several trash cans with feces and urine in them." The medical examiner's report stated that Basso had died from erosion of the esophagus due to the regurgitation of stomach acid. The report stated that Basso was malnourished and that there was "a strong ammonia odor" to the body. The death was determined to be from natural causes.
Two months later, Basso, then 43, met Louis "Buddy" Musso, 59, at a church carnival in New Jersey. Musso was a mentally retarded man who lived in an assisted-living center and held a job at a grocery store. His niece compared his mind to that of a 7 to 10-year old child. Musso's friend of twenty years, Al Becker, managed his Social Security benefits as his designated representative payee.
Musso and Basso maintained a long-distance relationship for nearly a year. Then, in June 1998, Basso wooed Musso with a promise of marriage into leaving his family and friends in New Jersey to live with her in Jacinto City, Texas, on the east side of Houston. After saying goodbye to his friends, Musso boarded a Greyhound bus to be with his "lady love." He was wearing cowboy boots, a neckerchief, and a new cowboy hat.
Shortly afterward, Al Becker began having trouble contacting Musso. He had several telephone conversations with Basso, but she refused to let Becker speak with his friend. Becker sought assistance from various Texas state agencies, but was unable to get any information about Musso's situation.
In July 1998, Basso unsuccessfully attempted to designate herself as Musso's Social Security representative payee. She did obtain life insurance policies for Musso with herself named as beneficiary, including one that provided for a base payout of $15,000, which increased to $65,000 in the event that Musso died as the result of a violent crime.
On 22 August, Houston police officer Jeff Butcher responded to a report of an assault on the east side of town, near Jacinto City. He found Basso's 23-year-old son, James O'Malley, and Terence Singleton, 27, leading Musso around on what Butcher described as a military-style run.* According to Butcher's report, Musso had two black eyes and complained that he didn't want to run anymore. Musso told Butcher that he had been beaten up by three Mexicans. Butcher then drove the three men to the nearby apartment where Singleton lived with his fiancee, Hope Ahrens, 22, and her mother, Bernice, 54, and brother, Craig. 25. There he found Suzanne Basso, who said she was Musso's legal guardian. She scolded O'Malley for making Musso run and comforted Musso in front of the officer. Butcher then left.
Three days later, Basso phoned several people, including Musso's niece and local police, expressing concern about Musso's whereabouts. She said he had run away with a "little Mexican lady" he met at a laundromat, and she was worried about him.
The next morning, a man's severely beaten body was found by a jogger in a ditch. According to the medical examiner, the victim was covered from head to toe with hundreds of bruises that had been inflicted over a five-day period before his death. He died from a skull fracture caused by an unknown object that left a large X-shaped cut on his scalp. He suffered 18 or 19 blows to the head. He also had burn marks on his back and lash marks on his back and buttocks. He also had broken bones in his nose and ribs and abrasions on his skin. His body had been dressed in clean clothes before being disposed.
Hours after the body was discovered, Basso entered the Jacinto City police station to provide some information regarding the missing person report she had filed. When she got home, Assistant Chief Robert Pruett was waiting for her. Basso invited Pruett into the small house that she shared with Musso, O'Malley, a dog, a cat, and two ferrets. Musso and O'Malley slept in the living room - O'Malley on a mattress, and Musso on a cot.
Pruett asked Basso and O'Malley to come with him to see the body that had been found. After O'Malley identified the body as Musso's, Pruett then took him aside, away from his mother, and asked him if he knew what happened. "We killed him," was the reply. O'Malley subsequently directed police to a dumpster containing some bloody clothes, plastic gloves, and other evidence.
In a written statement, Basso confessed to driving a car belonging to her friend, Bernice Ahrens, with Musso's body in the trunk. She stated that she drove it to a site where O'Malley, Singleton, and Craig Ahrens dumped the body. She also admitted driving the car to a dumpster where the others disposed of evidence. She stated that she, O'Malley, and the others had beaten and abused Musso prior to his death.
Pruett then went to the apartment where Musso was killed. When he asked Bernice Ahrens whether she knew why he was there, she answered, "This is about Buddy, isn't it?" Officers then collected a wooden baseball bat, an aluminum baseball bat, handcuffs, and pieces of bloodstained carpet from the apartment and carpet from the trunk of Ahrens' car.
A neighbor, Bruce Byerly, told police that he saw Musso a week before his death and noticed that he had a black eye and bruises and bloody wounds on his face. Byerly asked Musso if he wanted him to call an ambulance or police. "No," he answered. "You call anybody, and she'll just beat me up again."
Evidence and testimony showed that Basso and O'Malley treated Musso like a slave since his arrival in Houston, beating him as punishment for moving too slowly and not doing his chores. Police originally believed that the fatal beating was inflicted because Musso broke a Mickey Mouse ornament at the apartment shared by Bernice, Craig, and Hope Ahrens and Terrence Singleton. Further investigation, however, uncovered the insurance policies and a document entitled "Last Will and Testament," which left Musso's entire estate to Basso while "no one else [was] to get a cent." O'Malley, Singleton, and Bernice had signed it as witnesses. The document bore a 1997 date, but had been created on Basso's computer on 13 August 1998.
Police also found a copy of a restraining order on Basso's computer that barred any of Musso's relatives from contacting him.
In a pair of Musso's pants, police found a note written by Musso and addressed to a friend back in New Jersey. "You must get ... down here and get me out of here," the note read. "I want to come back to New Jersey soon."
Texas law includes kidnapping and murder for remuneration as aggravating factors that qualify a murder as capital murder. "Kidnapping" for the purposes of capital murder has been interpreted to mean any form of unlawful restraint by force. All six members of the group were charged with capital murder, but the death penalty was only sought for Basso.
James O'Malley, the first to go to trial, testified that during Musso's final five-day ordeal, he was frequently handcuffed - sometimes at home, sometimes in the back seat of the car while the group enjoyed a meal in a restaurant. Musso was forced to kneel on a mat and was denied food and water and access to a toilet. When he cried or wet himself, he was beaten.
O'Malley testified that his mother pressured him to take part in the killing. "I didn't know what else to do," he said. "I was scared of my mother." He was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to life in prison.
Terence Jermaine Singleton, Bernice Ahrens, and Craig Ahrens were also convicted of capital murder. Singleton admitted that he kicked Musso and hit him with a baseball bat. He was sentenced to life in prison. Bernice Ahrens, who admitted that she hit Musso, received an 80-year prison sentence. Craig Ahrens, who also admitted that he hit the victim, received a 60-year sentence. All three co-defendants said that Basso and O'Malley inflicted the worst beatings and that Basso was in charge.
Hope Ahrens admitted at her trial that she hit Musso twice because he "broke one of my Mickey Mouses and said that he wanted me and my mom to die." Her capital murder trial ended with a hung jury. Prosecutors then offered her a plea bargain in exchange for her testimony against Basso, who was tried last. Ahrens subsequently pleaded guilty to murder and was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
By the time of her trial, Basso weighed only 140 pounds and used a wheelchair. She said she had become partially paralyzed from a beating she received from Harris County jailers. She also complained of mental problems. She spoke in a squeaky, little-girl voice, saying she had regressed to her childhood. She also claimed to be blind. In a competency hearing, a court-appointed psychiatrist testified that Basso was faking having a mental illness. The judge found Basso competent to stand trial.
"It was challenging, but I saw her for who she was," Harris County assistant district attorney Colleen Barnett said later when remembering the trial. "I was determined I was not going to let her get away with it."
Hope Ahrens testified that on Friday, 21 August 1998, Basso and O'Malley brought Musso to the Ahrens' and Singleton's apartment. When they arrived, Musso had two black eyes, which he claimed he got when some Mexicans beat him up as he went for a walk. After arriving at the apartment, Basso ordered Musso to stay on a red and blue mat in the hallway. Sometimes she had him on his hands and knees, and sometimes just on his knees. At some point during the weekend, Basso began slapping Musso, and O'Malley began kicking him with his steel-toed combat boots. Musso asked O'Malley to stop kicking him. When he did stop, Basso asked him why he stopped. Ahrens also testified that Basso hit Musso on the back with a baseball bat, a belt, and a vacuum cleaner, and that the 300-pound woman also jumped on him.
When Basso left for work, she instructed O'Malley to watch the others and make sure they did not leave the apartment or use the phone. O'Malley refused Musso's requests to leave the mat, and hit him when he tried to get off of it. Ahrens testified that Musso was moving very slowly and was clearly in pain from the beatings. His request for someone to call an ambulance was not heeded. O'Malley subsequently took the victim into the bathroom and bathed him with bleach, Comet, and Pine Sol and scrubbed his skin with a wire brush. It is unclear from court records and other reports whether Musso died before, during, or after the chemical bath. Reports are also unclear about at what point Basso returned home from work.
Basso's daughter, Christianna Hardy, testified against her mother at her punishment hearing. "There was sexual abuse, mental abuse, emotional abuse, physical abuse. Any kind of abuse she could inflict," she stated.
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