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Shocking screw-up in Megan McDonald murder case: Suspected killer of NYPD detective’s daughter released because cops and prosecutors weren’t on same page

Edward Holley, Megan McDonald

Cuffed Edward Holley claims innocence while being wheeled by troopers toward a vehicle (ABC 7/screengrab), Megan McDonald (New York State Police)

Something is rotten in the state of New York.

After two decades of no charges in the 2003 murder of 20-year-old Megan McDonald, the daughter of NYPD detective Dennis McDonald, New York State Police triumphantly proclaimed one week ago that they’d finally made an arrest. McDonald’s family members looked on as 42-year-old murder suspect Edward Holley was wheeled into a car in handcuffs. Megan’s still-grieving loved ones called the allegedly “infatuated” ex-boyfriend a “monster” and said he was finally where he belongs: behind bars.

But just one week later, Holley is out of custody while charged with second-degree murder — because state police and the Orange County District Attorney’s Office failed to communicate as they normally would before an arrest of this magnitude was made.

Almost as soon as the news of Holley’s arrest broke last week, Orange County District Attorney David Hoovler reacted by saying he was blindsided by the 17-page felony complaint from April 19 signed by New York State Police investigator Michael Corletta. Hoovler indicated that there simply wouldn’t be enough time to present the case to a grand jury for an indictment, meaning that Holley would soon be released from custody.

“Once a defendant is charged and held in custody, the grand jury must vote an indictment within no longer than six days from the date of the arrest or the defendant must be released. For that reason, complicated cases are normally at least partially presented to a grand jury before an arrest is made,” the DA said. “The preferred practice is for police agencies to coordinate with prosecutors on serious cases. Grand jury presentations on ‘cold’ homicide cases involving complicated fact patterns can rarely be commenced and completed within six days, without prior coordination.”

Though the murder case against Holley remains pending, he was, indeed, released from custody for the timeline reasons Hoovler outlined — and now the DA himself is off the case.

The district attorney’s office confirmed in a statement to Law&Crime that Hoovler sought the appointment of a special prosecutor in the Town of Wallkill Justice Court because the DA had a conflict: Hoovler represented a client in connection with the case while working as attorney in private practice.

“The basis of the application is that while in private practice prior to becoming District Attorney, Mr. Hoovler represented a client in negotiations with the District Attorney’s office regarding potential information that client might provide regarding Ms. McDonald’s death. That client passed away prior to District Attorney Hoovler taking office,” the statement said.

The statement said the DA’s office had only been “consulting with the New York State Police on issues during the investigation.” Hoovler’s office said that the DA “was neither alerted to defendant’s imminent arrest, nor given an opportunity to review the seventeen-page felony complaint in advance of it being filed with the court.”

“Based on the theory of the case as set forth in the felony complaint, coupled with the facts concerning District Attorney Hoovler’s prior legal representation, there would be a substantial appearance of a conflict of interest if the prosecution of this case remained with the Orange County District Attorney’s Office,” the DA’s office said. “Accordingly, it is in the best interest of all parties, as well as the appearance of fairness in the administration of justice, that this matter be handled by a Special Prosecutor.”

It is unclear which deceased client DA Hoovler — a former police detective and former DOJ trial lawyer himself — represented in connection with this case. Hoovler only said that the client died before he was elected to the DA’s office (he was elected in 2013) and that the client had “potential information” about McDonald’s death. Notably, the felony complaint against Holley does say there was a “Suspect # 2” who died in 2010.

The felony complaint referred to “supporting information” about the involvement of “Suspect # 2,” said to have been inside the car when Megan McDonald was murdered:

The State Police investigation spanned over 20 years, not all facts learned from this investigation are contained hereinafter, including additional supporting information against Edward Holley, and supporting information regarding the involvement of ‘Suspect # 2,’ (who died in 2010), who was present in the vehicle when the victim was murdered.

Veteran homicide prosecutor Julia D. Cornachio is now heading up the case as special district attorney with the help of fellow longtime homicide prosecutor Laura Murphy. Supervising Judge of the Criminal Courts James A. McCarty approved the appointment of the special prosecutor, the DA’s office confirmed.

Law&Crime reached out to Cornachio directly and she confirmed her appointment. Cornachio told Law&Crime this is the first time she’s been appointed a special district attorney while in private practice, but that she had previously served as a special prosecutor in a vehicular homicide case while working in the Westchester District Attorney’s Office.

Cornachio declined to comment on the issue of communication, or lack thereof, between the Orange County DA’s Office and state police, but she did agree that, in her experience, “police and prosecutors do communicate closely on any serious felony investigation.”

Law&Crime also reached out to the New York State Police’s Public Information Office to ask if it was true that state police didn’t share the felony complaint with DA Hoovler’s office before arresting Edward Holley in the murder of an NYPD detective’s daughter.

“We appreciate the opportunity but we are not commenting at this time,” said the NYSP response.

Dennis McDonald, then an NYPD retiree, died of a heart attack the year before his daughter was beaten to death.

Both NYSP investigators Corletta and Brad Natalizio have spoken publicly in the past about developments in the case, as well as their closeness to the investigation. Natalizio told NBC’s Dateline that they “both grew up in this area and this has been, you know, a big local case for years.”

“We definitely heard about it growing up,” Natalizio said.

Julie Rendelman, a Law&Crime Network legal analyst, former New York homicide prosecutor and current criminal defense attorney unaffiliated with the case, told Law&Crime that Holley’s release from custody is what happens when the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.

“The DA’s office and police department usually work hand in hand, particularly when dealing with a cold-case homicide investigation such as this. The failure of law enforcement to inform the prosecutor’s office of a pending arrest put the prosecutor in an untenable position of having to present the case to a Grand Jury in an unreasonably short period of time,” Rendelman said. “Unless they believed the defendant was an imminent flight risk or was about to commit another violent crime there isn’t a valid reason for law enforcement to move on the arrest without consulting the DA.”

Holley has reportedly been wheelchair-bound since a 2007 auto accident.

Rendelman also wondered why a special prosecutor wasn’t heading up the case well before Holley’s arrest.

“What adds another wrinkle to this case is what appears to be the prosecutor’s built-in conflict of interest in the matter given his relationship with a potential witness when he was in private practice,” Rendelman said. “One wonders why a special prosecutor wasn’t brought in earlier to assist law enforcement with the investigation.”

In March 2021, New York State Police posted publicly that they were still investigating the McDonald’s murder. The Wallkill resident was a SUNY Orange County Community College student at the time she was beaten to death. An autopsy said McDonald sustained multiple skull fractures and brain injuries.

“McDonald’s body was found on March 15, 2003, in a field off Bowser Road in the Town of Wallkill in Orange County. McDonald’s 1991 white Mercury Sable was discovered two days later in the Kensington Manner apartment complex parking lot, in the Town of Wallkill,” police said. “The cause of death was determined to be blunt force trauma.”

According to the felony complaint, Megan McDonald and Edward Holley were “involved in a romantic relationship, and she attempted to end the relationship days before the murder.”

Over the last two decades, cops said, Holley was interviewed four times and each time he had a different story about an “argument” he had with McDonald days before she was killed.

“The interviews and evidence in this case show that Edward Holley and the victim were involved in an intimate partner relationship leading up to several days prior to the murder. In Holley’s State Police interviews as well as controlled conversations with Witness#19, he advised that he had an argument with the victim several days prior to the homicide,” the complaint said. “Although the reasoning for this argument changes in all his State Police interviews, Holley consistently advised that he and the victim were involved in an altercation several days prior to the homicide which Holley claimed was the last time that he saw the victim.”

State cops said that on June 30, 2021, analysis of DNA evidence showed Holley’s DNA on McDonald’s cell phone and led investigators to conclude that the suspect “likely […] went through the victim’s cell phone” and saw her outgoing call to an ex-boyfriend, “causing Holley to go into a rage.”

“Evidence in this case reveals that the victim was murdered in the driver’s seat of her vehicle,” a 1991 Mercury Sable, cops said, before her body was discarded on a dirt path.

That cell phone was recovered from inside McDonald’s vehicle, authorities said.

“Based on my training and experience, the blunt force trauma that the victim sustained was a result of ‘expressive homicide'” and “explosive violence,” Corletta wrote, noting that five days before the slaying McDonald received a “disturbing voicemail” from a man that multiple witnesses “positively identified” as Holley.

“Yo. I just drove by your crib and seen he was there. Holler back at me when you get this message … easy,” the alleged voicemail said.

“Evidence shows,” the complaint said, that Holley was “also involved in many other physical relationships with multiple women, but […] was infatuated with the victim.”

Cops further suggested a possible financial angle to the slaying, too, saying that Holley “owed the victim a substantial amount of money that was causing hostility between the two leading up to the homicide.” A witness said the money Holley owed was from McDonald’s “deceased father’s NYPD pension,” the complaint said.

Holley, for his part, declared “I’m definitely not guilty” after his arrest.

“I loved her with all my heart,” Holley said from his wheelchair. “They’re framing me like some monkey, but it’s all good.”

His defense lawyer Paul Weber, highlighting the circumstantial nature of the evidence in the complaint, was astonished by the state’s handling of the case.

“It’s a common belief amongst everybody I’ve spoken to about this case … our guess is that the DA’s office has been saying the entire time that there’s not enough evidence to prosecute Mr. Holley on this and the state police went around the DA to make the arrest just to close the case,” Weber told Law&Crime.

Weber stopped short of saying he believes the procedural screw-up is fatal to the state’s case, but he said he was a cop for 20 years and he’s “seen thousands of complaints and defended thousands of clients” without seeing something like this.

“I think that this case is a dog and that the prosecutor at this stage knows that it’s a dog, so he just looked to dump the case,” Weber said.

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Matt Naham is the Senior A.M. Editor of Law&Crime.