Hours before retired U.S. Air Force Major Thomas Maffei shot and seriously injured his estranged wife and her father in Coral Springs, he went to a Veterans Administration crisis clinic in Palm Beach County and told staff he was under extreme stress.
When Maffei goes on trial Monday in Broward Circuit Court on attempted murder and other charges, he won’t dispute that he fired three shots through his then-wife’s apartment door as she and her father leaned against it, trying to keep him out.
Some of those hollow-point bullets struck Katherine Ranta Maffei and her father, Robert Ranta, before Maffei forced his way inside and shot both victims again on November 2, 2012, prosecutors say.
Maffei, who served in Afghanistan and Iraq before he was diagnosed with severe back pain, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), will present an “intoxication defense” at trial, his lawyer Fred Haddad said.
He hopes to persuade jurors that Maffei acted with diminished responsibility because he took large doses of legally prescribed oxycodone pain pills and clonazepam, a tranquilizer, just before committing the offenses.
The case touches on numerous issues including domestic violence, the standard of care provided to veterans and the fact that Maffei, legally had access to his guns despite his mental health problems and a history of restraining orders obtained — and later dropped — by his estranged wife.
Jurors will get to hear some of the incident as it unfolded. Part of it was recorded on disturbing 911 calls the victims made from inside the apartment.
“Please come. I need … my estranged husband is here and he’s trying to get inside,” Katherine Ranta begged when the dispatcher answered.
For the next several minutes, her screams, labored breathing and the sound of her repeatedly saying “please, please, please” fill the recorded call while Maffei can be heard talking angrily in the background. Though Ranta could barely speak, the dispatcher confirmed that her husband shot her and she feared for her life.
“I saw my hand explode,” Ranta later told detectives, explaining that Maffei aimed and fired his gun as she put her hand up in self-defense. She was also shot in the chest. Her father was shot in the chest and arm.
In another 911 call made by her father as he took cover behind a love seat, Katherine Ranta is heard repeatedly apologizing while Maffei asked why she blocked his phone number so he couldn’t call their 4-year-old son and accused her of taking some of his belongings.
Maffei let the two victims and his unharmed son leave the apartment after about 15 minutes. He surrendered after a brief standoff with Coral Springs police.
Maffei was particularly agitated on the day of the shooting because Ranta, had recently moved out of their Parkland home and into the Barrington Club apartments. Ranta said she was taking special precautions to hide from Maffei and did not let him see their son for about 2 ½ weeks because she was waiting for a formal court-ordered custody-sharing agreement, according to court records. Her car tire was slashed outside the house about an hour before the shooting, police said.
Maffei, who claimed he found Ranta by chance when he spotted her car as he drove by the gated community, was also angry because he thought Ranta had “trashed” their home and taken his collection of coins, stamps and military memorabilia.
In a recorded phone call Maffei made from jail to his mother a few days later, he insisted the shooting was not premeditated and claimed he had just been trying to shoot out the door lock, though the three bullet holes were clustered in the middle of the door.
“Mom, if I had intended to shoot either of them, they’d be dead…,” Maffei said. “I had 14 bullets in my gun, I had an extra 14 bullets in my pocket. If I wanted to kill them, they’d be dead.”
He blamed “the drugs and rage,” telling his mother that he was prescribed the pills at the VA clinic in West Palm Beach and took one at 2 p.m, one at 6 p.m. and a third at 8 p.m., minutes before the 8:20 p.m. shootings. It’s unclear from court records which pills he took.
His mom reminded him during the recorded call that he had previously talked about getting revenge and had told her he wanted to kill his estranged wife. He later told her not to repeat that to anyone.
In other calls from the jail to his mother, he said he had spent three hours at the VA clinic on the day of the shooting and was prescribed “medication that was very, very strong.” He also said he didn’t remember much of the rest of the evening but recalled the shootings.
Broward Assistant State Attorney Molly McGuire declined to comment.
Maffei’s lawyer Haddad said his client did not get the help he needed to combat his severe depression and PTSD.
“He goes to the VA that day, looking for help and they just loaded him up with more pills,” Haddad said. “This is a guy who was a major in the Air Force, he has a master’s degree. This is a stand-up guy, a highly regarded, trusted retired member of the military who served his country.”
Defense experts will testify that Maffei suffered chronic back pain after being injured in an explosion while he was serving overseas and that he had sought psychiatric help continually since 2005, Haddad said. Maffei also was admitted to a VA hospital and underwent treatment for severe depression in 2011, the lawyer said.
“I don’t think he’s gotten the help he needed,” Haddad said. “Obviously, they drugged him. Obviously, he couldn’t have gotten the help he needed because he did this.”
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in West Palm Beach, Kenita Gordon, declined to comment on Maffei, saying the agency has a policy of not discussing individual clients because of medical privacy laws and other concerns.
“We take matters like veterans in crisis very seriously and we are totally and fully committed to making sure they get the care and support they need,” Gordon said, speaking in general about the agency’s mission.
During the trial, the defense will have to deal with video footage that shows Maffei appearing to chat calmly with police officers at the Coral Springs department after he was arrested on the night of the shooting.
“When someone gets the big picture, they’ll empathize but it doesn’t justify shooting…,” said Maffei, who didn’t seem to realize he was being recorded. “And I brought it [the firearm] for intimidation and that was stupid.”