Susan Panich is a liar.
That is, if you believe the testimony of Michael Vandenaneele at the murder trial of Dennis “Rocka” Knibbs.
Michael Vandenaneele went to the New Wings Hotel to buy cocaine on the night of the shootings, April 4, 2005. Vandenaneele, a 40ish, balding man with reddish hair, dressed in a mid-blue shirt with pale green dress pants, is a former cocaine addict turned journeyman welder. Susan Panich, who lived at the New Wings Hotel at the time of the shootings, is a current cocaine addict; she told the court that she uses cocaine “every day”, and uses alcohol as well. Panich, 45 years old, scrawny, with shoulder length blond hair, testified that she was the “girlfriend” of Ian [Liscombe] – she said she didn’t know his last name -- who was shot and killed on April 4, 2005. She acknowledged that she had sold drugs with him. –
Vandenaneele knew Susan Panich from purchasing drugs from her and her associates at the New Wings: “Ian, John, Rocka, Susan, Tee, Donnie.” He added, though, that he would “often buy from Rocka”, the defendant Dennis Knibbs. The two “became good friends” and Vandenaneele would stop by the New Wings to say hello to Knibbs, “not necessarily to buy dope.” Vandenaneele also got along well with Ian [Liscombe], who “was a cousin to Rocka, he had told me”.
Vandenaneele had begun his testimony on Thursday afternoon, and was now back on the morning of Friday, April 13th to finish up. On Thursday, he had testified that when he arrived at the New Wings, he had stopped at the front office on the first floor to chat with the young desk clerk, Brett. While there, Vandenaneele witnessed Knibbs and Liscombe coming downstairs and asking around about the whereabouts of “Echo”, whether he was in the building. “Echo” was a nickname for Habib, one of the men who would be shot within minutes. Echo had hit Liscombe over the head with a bat a few days before the shootings, according to Susan Panich’s testimony.
Next, Vandenaneele testified, he saw Ian Liscombe walk to Room 15 on the first floor and push on the door. “Ian was first,” he said “and Rocka was probably two to three steps behind Ian.” The door opened a little but then slammed shut again. “At that time, Ian attempted again, and that’s when Rocka came in behind him.” Then, as though somebody on the other side had suddenly released it, “the door flung open with Ian going in first.” Ian’s foot “went to kick at something” and missed. As Vandenaneele watched, “the barrel of a gun came up.” Vandenaneele was 6-8 feet back from the door at the time. “I didn’t see hands” on the gun, he said, but he estimated he saw about 18” of the barrel – although the previous day, he estimated that he had seen about 2 feet of the barrel of the gun. “As it came up, the gun went off….I heard the blast of a gun and Ian fell into the floor of Room 15….He fell forward”.
“Rocka pulled out a baton”. He pulled it out of a pouch, “like a Gucci bag”,that Vandenaneele had seen him regularly wear on his chest. “It’s a telescopic baton,” Vandenaneele specified, “and they extend.” He described the baton as black, made of three sections, each about 8” long. When asked what the baton was made of, he replied, “Steel”. Vandenaneele said he had seen this baton previously in Knibbs’ possession, “in his room, on the table.” But this was the first time he’d seen him carrying the baton in his pouch. He had previously known Knibbs to use his pouch to carry “his dope”, along with his money and a 38 handgun.
“As Ian was falling to the floor, the baton was being extended”, Vandenaneele clarified. Knibbs “forward motioned it; it extended.” Then Vandenaneele heard what sounded to him like someone being struck by the baton. “Someone screamed.”. Vandenaneele was within a foot of the door when he heard this.
“I moved down the hall to Room 11”, he added. Why?, the prosecutor asked. “Ian’s girlfriend was there and she was calling me.” What was her name?, the prosecutor asked. Vandenaneele responded, “Susan”.
I perked up. The usually drowsy voice of the prosecutor perked up.
What did Susan look like?, the prosecutor asked. “Tiny little blond girl,” Vandenaneele responded. He estimated her to be about “5 foot tall” and about 35 or 36 years old.
This was Susan Panich, who had persistently testified on Thursday that she had not heard anything or seen anyone while in her room or in the corridor of the New Wings on the night her boyfriend, Ian Liscombe, and another man were shot in Room 15.
“I was bringing my laundry in from [the laundromat at] Jackson and Hastings….I was back and forth,” Panich had testified. “I think I was outside when I heard what might have been a shot; I don’t know….I came in, put my laundry away.”
Panich was asked by the prosecutor if she had seen anything as she came in through the front door to her room on the first floor, which she confirmed was Room 11. “I didn’t see anything. I put my laundry inside and I took off.”
When asked who, if anybody, she had seen, Panich responded, “I didn’t see nobody in the halls….I was in there not even three, five, minutes.
When asked if the door to Room 15 was open or closed, Panich testified. “Closed”.
Did you hear anything unusual? “No”. Did other people come out? “No.”
Vandenaneele, seemingly oblivious to the fact that he was exposing Susan Panach as a liar, continued his testimony. “Susan was yelling for me to come down the hall so I went down to Room 11.” The door of Room 15 where the gun had gone off was closed as Vandenaneele moved up the hall. “As I walked to Room 11, I heard “glass smash, a table break, a guy screaming, and moans.” At room 11, he recalled, “I stood between the door frame and the hallway; I could see to the other end of the hall.”
“After the commotion of the table smashing, I heard more wrestling,” Vandenaneele continued, “Then pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop. Six pops.” He recalled that the sound “wasn’t a very high pitched pop.” But the pops were “rapid, continuous” with “not much time between each”.
Vandenaneele was “trying to listen to Susan and the commotion” at the same time. Then he recalled, “Things went silent for a minute or two.”
The door to Room 15 had by this time opened. When the popping stopped, Vandenaneele recalled, “John Jr.” [Whalen] standing in front of the door of Room 15 screaming, “They’re dead; they’re dead; they’ve been shot!”
Vandenaneele had now moved back down the hall toward room 15. He saw Knibbs come out of the Room 15 holding “a revolver in his left hand”, a black 38. Knibbs “came out in a crouched position with the tumbler down, trying to reload more bullets in the tumbler.”
This was not the first time Vandenaneele had seen this revolver in Knibb’s presence. He’d seen it “sitting on a table top in his room.”
Knibbs managed to load more bullets into the gun, Vandenaneele noted: “He did get them in there and the tumbler pulled back.
“Did someone intervene?”, the prosecutor asked.
Yes, a girl from the second floor.” Vandenaneele knew her by her nickname “Tee” and recalled her having identified herself as “Rocka’s girlfriend” the first time he met her.
As the gun was being reloaded, she yelled at Knibbs, “That’s enough, that’s enough! Stop! Stop!” Knibbs passed her the gun. She moved in the direction of the office.
As Tee left, Vandenaneele recalled only Knibbs and “John Jr.” Whalen remaining.
“Rocka was screaming for a cell phone. ‘Give me a cell phone! Give me a cell phone! I need to phone the ambulance!” Vandenaneele described Knibbs’ voice as “hysterical”. Knibbs moved toward the office looking for a phone.
“At that time I made my move to leave,” Vandenaneele recalled. But first he took a look inside Room15 and saw “two guys on the floor in a pool of blood.”
“John Jr. headed down the stairs. Rocka too. All three of us left the building.”
Why did you leave?, the prosecutor asked Vandenaneele. “I was shocked. I couldn’t believe it happened.”
Vandenaneele ran down the stairs five or six steps after John Jr. Whalen and Knibbs. They exited onto Dunlevy St. and headed up to Hastings St. On foot, they traveled through an alley between Hastings and Cordova. Then they “jumped into a cab at the Patricia Hotel” on Hastings.
It was not only Michael Vandenaneele’s contradiction of Susan Panich’s testimony that left her looking like a liar, it was also discrepancies between her testimony and the statement she had given to police two years earlier on the night of April 4, 2005, following the shootings. The prosecutor alluded to these discrepancies in court when he repeatedly responded to her testimony by handing her sections of her statement to police to read to “refresh” her memory.
The prosecutor handed her a section of her statement to police following her court testimony that she had seen nobody and heard nothing when she was in her room or in the corridor of the New Wings Hotel the night of the shootings: “Again, with regard to what you heard, I’d like you to read from your statement to police.” Panich gave the statement a perfunctory glance and retorted, “I can see I was totally out of it. It’s not true. I’m sober now.”
The prosecutor had a few minutes earlier attempted to refresh Panich’s memory with a section of her police statement, after questioning her about “any conversation that you may have heard between Rocka and Ian about ‘roughing someone up’”. “Did you hear that?”, he had asked her. “No”, had been her response. “You spoke to police on April 14, 2005,” he reminded her as he handed her a “portion of your statement to police” on that date. “Does it help you recall any conversation?” She would concede only that, “I know Ian was a little pissed off.” The prosecutor continued to politely, softly, press her on the issue of this conversation: “Did you hear any conversation about what could be done?” “I never heard anything”, she responded.
Who knows if Susan Panich will be called to account for what appears to be perjury. Judge Silverman showed her on Wednesday that he was not going to allow her to show disrespect for the court. He refused her request to be released from jail after she had to be arrested Wednesday morning at her hotel room near Main & Hastings for failing to appear to testify. He told her that he believed she would “be feeling better tonight” after using drugs, and that she was likely to fail to show up to testify on Thursday morning. He impressed upon her, “This is a murder trial.”