Bashara murder trial likely to draw media frenzy

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Grosse Pointe Park – — People across the country have been riveted by the case of Robert Bashara from the day he appeared on national television nearly three years ago, dabbed at his eyes and bemoaned the brutal killing of his wife.

After several bizarre twists, turns, delays and surprises, Bashara, a former church usher, charity fundraiser and Rotary Club president, is set to stand trial beginning Tuesday for the Jan. 24, 2012, murder of his wife, Jane.

“This case has everything: Sex, infidelity, murder, a prominent man from the Grosse Pointes — all the things that compel people,” University of Detroit Mercy law professor Larry Dubin said.

Court-watchers nationwide are expected to zero in on the proceedings, although live-streaming will not be allowed during the trial that is expected to cause a media frenzy. At least two national television shows have informed Wayne County Circuit Court officials they plan to cover the trial.

“There are many elements that are driving the interest in this case,” Dubin said. “Early on, you had a man who confessed to killing the victim,” referring to developmentally disabled handyman Joseph Gentz. He walked into the Grosse Pointe Park police station days after the killing to confess, only to be turned away. He eventually was arrested and convicted of second-degree murder.

Gentz said he was hired by Bashara, 56, to strangle Jane in the garage of their stately home on Middlesex and dump her body inside her Mercedes Benz SUV in an alley on Detroit’s east side.

Another element of the case that whetted people’s appetites: For weeks, Bashara pleaded with the public to help find his wife’s killer, even as clouds of suspicion swirled around him. Bashara is charged with first-degree murder.

Days after Jane’s body was discovered, The Detroit News first reported Bashara had a girlfriend, Rachel Gillett, for whom he planned to buy a house. It was later revealed Bashara and Gillett were devotees of the bondage, discipline and sadomasochism lifestyle, and that Bashara held kinky parties in his dungeon beneath the Hard Luck Lounge, which he owned, near the border of Detroit and Grosse Pointe Park.

Bashara and Gillett sought other women to join them in a polygamous relationship, including Oregon resident Janet Leehmann, who testified during Bashara’s preliminary examination last year that he tried to woo her by mailing her a T-shirt he’d worn for three days, a leather collar — and two gift certificates to the Olive Garden restaurant chain.

Another woman, Lydia Porter, testified she lived in Bashara’s dungeon for a time and that she often attended church with him and his family.

During the preliminary exam testimony of Gillett, Leehmann and Porter, Bashara licked his lips and made suggestive gestures with his eyeglasses, drawing the ire of 36th District Judge Kenneth King, who called the proceedings the most bizarre he’d ever seen.

Deteriorating marriage

Jane Bashara was a marketing executive who worked at DTE Energy for 24 years. At the time of her death, her marriage was rapidly deteriorating, friends testified.

The man who drove a Lincoln Navigator with the vanity plate “Big Bobb” passed himself off as a wealthy real estate mogul, but court testimony revealed most of his rental properties were in his wife’s name. Many were in foreclosure.

During testimony, it was also revealed Jane was upset with her husband after he withdrew $10,000 from her 401(k) account without her permission. She then changed the passwords to her bank accounts so he couldn’t access them.

She also confided in friends that she was angry after their children caught him on several occasions watching BDSM pornography on his computer.

Bashara’s friends from the BDSM parties, where he was known as “Master Bob,” said he was angry with his wife because she wasn’t interested in kinky sex.

Despite the problems, Jane’s best friend, Patricia Matthews, said she wanted to keep the marriage together. But prosecutors say Bashara had other ideas.

20-year prison sentence

They contend he wanted Jane dead so he could pursue his dream of living in a house with a harem of submissive women. He made an offer to buy a house just blocks from his family home.

According to prosecutors and court testimony, Bashara asked several people if they knew anyone who would carry out a murder for hire. He eventually settled on Gentz, who had done odd jobs for him at his rental properties, prosecutors say.

Bashara exchanged dozens of phone calls with Gentz in the weeks leading up to the killing.

After Gentz was arrested for Jane’s murder, Bashara planned to have a hit man kill him in jail, prosecutors said. He tried to hire a furniture store owner to carry out the hit, but the man wore a wire, and Bashara was recorded talking about trying to have Gentz killed, prosecutors said.

Bashara was convicted in 2012 of solicitation of murder and sentenced to up to 20 years in prison.

The first-degree murder case has since been marked by delays and surprises. The trial was originally set for March, but it got pushed back to allow attorneys more time to wade through a mountain of evidence.

Bashara has had several attorneys since he was first arrested. David Griem asked to be removed from the case because of an unspecified breakdown in the attorney-client relationship.

Mark Procida was appointed to defend Bashara, but he was removed from the case in February by Wayne County Circuit Judge Vonda Evans.

Bashara wanted David Cripps and his wife, Gabi Silver, to defend him, and Cripps was appointed for a short time, but he withdrew because he said he had a conflict of interest.

Veteran attorney Lillian Diallo was then appointed to defend Bashara.

Difficult case

The notoriety of the case could present difficulties, experts say.

“Because of the attention given to this case, it’s likely going to take several days to seat a jury,” said Circuit Judge Timothy Kenny, who met with the media last week to discuss the rules governing coverage of the case.

Dubin agreed the national interest in the case won’t make it easy to try.

“The system gets tested in these types of cases, where there’s so much publicity that seems to establish guilt,” Dubin said.

“The legal system needs to respond by making sure jurors are found who are able to keep their minds open and evaluate the evidence, which will be extraordinarily compelling to people who are fascinated by unusual stuff.”

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