By Anne Stanton
*Warningthere is explicit adult content contained in this article.*
Joni Holbrook, a diminutive legal secretary who shot her
husband three times as he slept in his bed in their Benzie County home,
was sentenced to a minimum prison term of six years last week.
Holbrook was allowed to plead guilty to what amounted to a manslaughter
charge earlier this summer, sparing her a jury trial for open murder.
Neither the defense nor the prosecution wanted to roll the dice with an
uncertain verdict; they also wanted to spare the families from the ugly
publicity that would surely go with the trial.
Based on the two-hour hearing last week, it was an accurate call. The
motions filed by the defense over the past several months alleged that the
53-year-old victim, Michigan State Police Sergeant Melvin Paul Holbrook,
had sexually assaulted Joni for years. The sentencing last week provided a
much more explicit picture, quite literally, of what Jonis defense
attorneys had been alluding to.
Joni Holbrooks character, as well, would have been attacked. Last week,
three of Pauls family members alleged Joni, 48, was lying about Paul as a
ploy to shift the blame for her murderous act a year ago. During a break
at the court trial, they intimated that Joni was the sexual aggressor, who
could have walked away.
As the hearing began, the judge told Jonis attorney, Jesse Williams, that
the photos included in his sentencing memoranda must be filed with the
court as part of the public record. The photos were taken from the
Holbrooks home computer.
Some would consider these pictures pornographic, morally outrageous. But
its part of the public record. I cant seal it, said 19th Circuit Court
Judge James Batzer.
The Internet photos were filed after the hearing and included sex torture
scenes, which are popular among a shadow segment of society that finds
pleasure in sado-masochism. They show men violating womens sex organs
and/or nipples with scissors, needles, pliers and pitchforks, as the women
scream in pain.
PAULS FAMILY SPEAKS OUT
Maurice Holbrook, Melvins younger brother, was the first to speak. He
thanked the Michigan State Police and the Benzie County sheriff for
greeting him earlier. He spoke of learning at 5:30 a.m., August 10, that
his brother had been shot dead in his own bed.
I didnt know pain until I realized my brother was taken away from me,
he said, choking out his words. That it was murder was not up for debate.
It was murder!
He said he didnt believe that Paul had ever hurt Joni.
Paul became a Christian seven years ago. He had a tough life. Two
previous marriages, children from both marriages. The children from his
first marriage wont spend time with him. It was a mess. Three years ago,
Paul and I were fishing for salmon in the Pere Marquette River, and he
said, Bro, I really want to make this one work.
Pauls mother, Maureen Holbrook, who lives in Oklahoma, was more direct,
staring hard at Joni Holbrook.
I cannot put into words what youve done to my family and me, she said
during a long speech in which she accused Joni of lying about her
depression and cleaning out checking accounts. You have smeared my sons
name. I am so pleased you will be receiving your dues.
Meleen Froman, Pauls younger sister from Oklahoma, spoke next. The lying
needs to need to stop. Weve had to listen to you all year long, I am a
shell of a woman, she said in a mocking tone. I dont know whether to
laugh, cry or scream. A week before you shot him, you were anything but a
shell. We went shopping, we went to a ballgamewe were laughing and
talking. To say you were some shell, that is preposterous to me. You
used to argue with my brother, you yelled at him, screamed at him, used
profanitynot the acts of an abused woman.
During the bouts of Jonis verbal abuse, Froman said that Paul would
quietly listen. I believe you are selfish, greedy, and you have no
respect for anybody. What you did was cold-blooded and calculating. ...You
could have walked out the garage door, but instead you sneaked into the
bedroom, and shot him once in his face, once in his chest, and, just to
make sure he was dead, once in the back of his head execution style. You
have shown no remorse. You justify it by saying, He was mean to me.
Froman said that she saw Joni hug Paul and tell him she loved him not long
before she murdered him.
None of Holbrooks police colleagues spoke, although several attended.
Michigan State Police Lt. Bill Elliott, commander of the Traverse City
post, said in a recent Express interview that Paul, a 24-year police
veteran, was a dedicated desk sergeant with a good temperament. He worked
very well with the public, he said.
WHY DIDNT SHE LEAVE?
Williams, one of Jonis three pro bono attorneys, spoke next, telling the
family members they will probably hear an important truth theyd never
heard. He spent dozens of hours interviewing Joni, and it took months for
her to come out of her shell enough to say what happened. He then played
an audio recording of an interview in which Joni recalled a violent rape
scene. The tape ends with Joni sobbing uncontrollably.
I hate you! I hate you! Get off me. I hate you. Stop touching me. Quit.
Williams alleged that at the beginning of the10-year marriage, Paul had
coerced Joni to engage in sadomasochism. After a few years, she refused to
participate, at which point, Paul punished her with greater acts of
control, as well as rape and sodomy.
People ask, Why didnt she leave? Williams said. She did leave, the
first time, trying to kill herself. She left a long suicide note. Only Mr.
Holbrook knows whats in that note, and he took care of it.
She tried to leave again in 2004. Paul called her repeatedly at work and
sent her flowers and gifts, which hed never done before, Williams said.
She went back on her own and things were okay for awhile. Then again, the
sexual needs and cravings (of her husband) came back. She left him again
in December of 2007, where he sent her a letter each day, for nine days,
each addressed to her with the word, beautiful.
These letters begged her, as a Christian, to not destroy their marriage
and to let God fix it for us. Paul Holbrook promised he would change.
Williams read excerpts of the letters, including one from December 13,
2007, a prayer, which read in part: LORD, All the evil of my demented
sexual thoughts and acts I cast out. It is gone from me forever. How wrong
could I have been?? What a fool I was. It was not love, nothing more than
a twisted act of the devil. How can I love or be loved. Let my wife
destroy any thing she possesses related to this.
Joni returned, in part, because she entered the marriage with a commitment
to make it work, no matter what (this was a third marriage for them both),
PAIN & BONDAGE
Williams said that Paul Holbrook was into causing pain, asking Joni to
handcuff him to the bed and beat him. He alleged that Paul showed the same
pattern of control and abuse as he did with his first wife, Starr
He read Starrs July 18 letter to the court that said she understands why
Joni felt there was no other way out of the situation. Paul had
controlled her, too, from how much she weighed to making her sit with him
while he went to the bathroom.
Paul was into bondage to the point of it being scary to me, to the point
of it hurting me. He loved to dress in womens underwear and enjoyed
wearing it daily. He made me do his make-up and his nails. He had many
piercings that he did himself. I had to watch when he did this. His
[penis] piercings did cause me pain when we had intercourse. He was into
pain. He enjoyed this very much.? During his prior
marriage to Starr, Paul had an affair with a Michigan State Trooper, who
claimed Paul was stalking her. Paul was put on notice by his commanding
officer to have no further contact with her, Williams said.
Pauls marriage with Starr also ended in a shooting, with Starr firing at
his feet and at his car as he drove away. Pauls fellow troopers
investigated the shooting, allowing him to write a police report
supplement. Starr said the troopers told her, We understand all of the
problems that Paul has been putting you through. No charges were ever
filed, according to court records.
Williams told the court there were numerous parallels: Paul
coerced Joni and Starr into sadomasochistic acts; he controlled the money;
and he took advantage of his position as a policemanif Joni didnt answer
the phone at home, hed ask a state trooper to stop by the house.
Paul never hit Joni, but she was convinced that was the next
step. Prior to the August shooting, Paul and Joni were driving back from
Pauls family home in Oklahoma. About a week before his murder, Paul had
put a heavy rubber mallet in the car, and Joni asked why. He said to
bludgeon her to death, Williams alleged.
In April of 2009, three months prior to the shooting, Joniin a deeply
depressed stateadmitted herself to a psychiatric hospital. The staff was
concerned and called Paul to make sure he didnt leave his service
revolver around the house. Yet Paul continued to bring the gun home and
told Joni how to use it, Williams said.
The hearing last week included no mention of the autopsy of Paul Holbrook,
which might explain his behaviors. Forensic pathologist Stephen Cohle
testified at the preliminary exam that Paul had lost brain substance in
his frontal lobe, possibly from a blow or a fall many years ago. It
could affect behavior. It could also affect decision making, he said, but
would have to defer to psychological testing or medical records.
Could it explain strange behaviors in people? he was asked.
It could, yes, he said.
Williams said he sympathized with Pauls family and understood their anger
and hatred toward Joni. But he asserted that Joni had no choice. If she
triggered his anger, he would have bludgeoned her to death as he told her
he would. Paul is not innocent. He tormented women throughout his life.
This started 23 years ago. Had it been addressed properly and
professionally we wouldnt be here today.
Then in a highly unusual and perhaps unprecedented move, Williams was
allowed to have Jonis family members and former work colleagues speak as
witnesses. First was Ashley Dilts Harris, 27 (Joni Holbrook‘s daughter by
a previous marriage) who testified that Paul had a hold on her mom,
almost like she was a prisoner.
She described going to visit her mom after Joni left Paul for the second
time and finding him at the house. She asked him whether he had raped
her. Yes I have, and he started to cry and rub the cross necklace he
had around his neck. I asked him, If youre such a Christian, how could
you do that? He said, There are things in faith, you dont have an
answer for. I asked him to please get out of my mothers life.
Paul refused, but promised not to torture, rape or hurt her again, Harris
I believed he was a monster because he admitted he repeatedly raped my
mother. He rubbed that cross necklace like he was such a Christian. How do
I find protection for my mother when my stepfather was a Michigan State
Police sergeant who youre supposed to be able to trust!
Jonis sister, Debra Harrand, testified she had seen Pauls pierced
nipples. She said Paul‘s demands that he be sodomized with a dildo and
that his wife urinate into his mouthdisgusted and sickened Joni.
He was wicked and perverse. He would force her--It was like an addiction
he couldnt get enough of. He would rape her anally and shed bleed for
days, said Harrand, who learned of his sex demands while Joni was out on
He told Joni that she was a mentally ill piece of shit, and that people
would believe a police officer before theyd believe her, she said.
One last thing. He was into dog collars. He would wear a leash and she
had to walk him around the house. Hed wear it to bed.
He would take a pile of food, masturbate on it, and then get on all fours
to eat it while she held the leash. Shortly before the shooting, he was
sitting at the kitchen table wearing a dog collar, and presented her with
a matching collar. She said no. He said, Yes. Youre wearing a dog
Joni told her, You dont say no to Paul Holbrook.
Jonis son, Chad Dilts, 25, offered emotional testimony that he wanted to
protect his mom, who used to sit shaking on the couch. I couldnt protect
her. He scared me.
Another witness, Alice Hansen, said she had long talks at work with Joni
about how she could save money to leave Paul. Yet Joni didnt have the
wherewithal to carry through.
When I heard about the shooting, I thought, She probably thought she was
in jail throughout her entire life, so she might as well be in a safe
jail, she said.
Joni spoke last, directing her comments to Pauls family, telling them she
loved them and was sorry for causing their heart ache, anger and sense of
I confessed I did kill him. I confessed that from the start. I am and
always will be a convicted killer. I accept that. But I dont consider
myself as a killer, but as a survivor.
Daugherty did not cross-examine the witnesses.
The defense had a decent chase of acquittal, Batzer said in closing
statements, but not as much as it would like; the prosecutor could counter
that Joni deliberated for 20 minutes before shooting Paul, showing
premeditation, an element of first-degree murder. So they compromised on a
plea for second-degree murder, specifying the equivalent prison sentence
of a manslaughter charge of up to 15 years, Batzer said.
Judge Batzer said that Pauls sexual behavior had violated Jonis sense
of self, sense of self worth, dignity, and values. I recognize that there
are people who would not be bothered by any of it, but it wasnt for her.
This just went on and resulted in this horrible tragedy. There is no
answer to the loss of life. No answer to the pain of the defendants
family in any sentence this court imposes. The law is an imperfect
vehicle, but its what we have.
Batzer referenced the battered spouse syndrome in which people are in
essence paralyzed and cant act, which is to say people no longer have the
choice. I think there were opportunities to act, and she didnt.
Joni herself had seethed with anger for years, butbased on letters
submitted on her behalf to the courtshe lacked self-assertiveness, Batzer
Batzer called his six-year sentencewith a 276-day credit for time
After the sentencing, Prosecutor John Daugherty called the judges ruling
well-reasoned. It was a difficult case for both sides. I certainly do
have sympathy for Paul Holbrooks family.
The sentence was a relief for Jonis friends and family, while Pauls
family members fumed that the murder victim seemed to be the one on
trial. Froman said the prosecutor should have cross-examined the
witnesses instead of letting their statements stand. She said the
sentence was too short, saying she knows of someone who got eight years
for stealing So in Benzie County, if you kill a man in cold blood
while hes sleeping and then cry about it, you only get six. I think
Attorney Jim Amberg, who also defended Joni, applauded the sentence,
saying, Justice was won for everybody.
Judge Batzer is a very intelligent judge, who knows the law at a depth
Ive never seen b. He ruled in our favor all along the way, saying we
could bring all the evidence on Melvin Holbrooks past stuff, which the
prosecutor tried to stop, and that we could use battered spouse syndrome,
a major thing. At the end of the day, Jonis life was spared.
Williams said that Jonis case is a message that its not okay for
husbands to abuse their wives. Hopefully our country is moving in a
direction that it wont tolerate their behavior.
The Express interviewed Joni two days prior to her sentencing. She said
life in jail has been a big improvement, but she needs counseling.
He stole who I was. He ripped out my heart and my soul. I am
nowhere near the person I am. I dont even know where me is. Its just
gone somewhere. I want me back really bad because Im a fun person. Im
a great person, but not like this.
*To watch the videos of Joni Holbrook‘s sentencing hearing and her
interview with Anne Stanton, go to upnorthmedia.org and browse shows
produced by Eric VanDussen. Also, for information on police and domestic
violence, go to abuseofpower.info