Dead Reckoning

Police and prosecutors say they know who brutally murdered Cassandra Kovack. But no one has answered the question: Why?

She encouraged him to see a psychiatrist, who she says diagnosed him as bipolar and schizophrenic. (Janene says she too is bipolar and has been controlling the disease with medication for fifteen years.) Drisdel was prescribed more medications, including the antidepressants Lexapro and Effexor, as well as Depakote, a drug administered for bipolar disorder. But he wouldn't always take his pills.

"He was very ashamed of it," Janene Drisdel says. "He didn't want anyone to know. He's one of those people who have no tolerance to any kind of medicine. He could take an aspirin and he just looks like he's out for the night. He didn't want to go out and act silly in front of people because he'd taken something.

"A lot of people, when they are bipolar, they'll take the medication, they'll feel fine because they'll come out of their manic or depressive episode," she goes on, noting that she's seen it happen with her nursing patients. "And they'll stop taking the medicine because they feel like they're OK. I think that's probably what helped provoke this: I think he thought he was okay."

Accused of the murder of Cassandra Kovack, Leonardo Drisdel spends his days on lockdown at the St. Louis City Justice Center.
Jennifer Silverberg
Accused of the murder of Cassandra Kovack, Leonardo Drisdel spends his days on lockdown at the St. Louis City Justice Center.
A Chicago transplant, Cassandra Kovack loved her friends in St. Louis' goth community.
A Chicago transplant, Cassandra Kovack loved her friends in St. Louis' goth community.

She also says her husband had a profound fear of knives. "I don't know what happened to him when he was younger, or in his lifetime, that made him like this," she says. "But he's had a huge -- I mean, absolutely terrifying -- fear of knives. To the point where if I bring in even a plastic knife, he would almost run out of this house. We could go and cut a cake, and he would run to scoop it up with his hands or a fork rather than cut it with a knife."

If they went out to dinner together, she says, she'd have to give their server special instructions: Don't set out so much as a butter knife.

On the day of the murder, in fact, the Drisdels had a family barbecue. "He stayed in the backyard while I cut up meat for shish kebabs," Janene says.

Janene believes that the very sight of a knife in Cassandra Kovack's apartment might have been enough to set him off, especially if he was under the influence of drugs.

(On the advice of his lawyer, Drisdel declined to discuss the phobia. "I thank God that I'm alive. That's all I'll say," he says.)

One of Kovack's nonfatal injuries was a gash in her right arm, caused by a knife. And although it was not used in the murder, Jon Jackson, Kovack's ex-boyfriend, says her samurai sword was clearly visible.

"You could see it if you walked in the bedroom," says Jackson. "It wasn't hidden."

Stephen Kovack Sr., Cassandra Kovack's father, doesn't buy the theory. "I doubt if [the murderer] saw it," Kovack counters.

Janene Drisdel visits her husband once a week at the St. Louis City Justice Center downtown, where he will remain until he stands trial, probably sometime next year. She says he professes not to recall the murder, nor his confession to her.

"He has no clue that he's done anything," she says. "He doesn't understand what's going on. He goes from one conversation to another conversation to another conversation and will literally start crying in the middle."

Chet Pleban says he met Drisdel in the mid-'90s through his radio show and considers him a friend. He took the case pro bono, the high-profile local defense lawyer says, after Drisdel made a request to the St. Louis Public Defender's Office.

"He has qualified for defense by the public defender because he has no money," says Pleban. "And I'm willing to represent him because I know him."

He says his client will plead not-guilty. "First of all, I don't know that he confessed to anything, because I don't have copies of any of the police reports," Pleban says. "Assuming that some type of statement was made, the second question is whether the statement attributed to him was accurate, and then whether or not he was competent to make the statement. With regard to any purported statements that his wife may or may not have made, there's a spousal privilege which has to be taken into consideration, too."

In exchange for expediting a jailhouse interview with the Riverfront Times, Pleban laid down ground rules: Nothing about the night of June 4, nothing about Cassandra Kovack, nothing about drug rehab. "We don't even have all the prosecution documents and police reports yet," the attorney explains. "So I don't have all the details of what their case is about. We're doing our own investigation."

Clad in a jail-issued red jumpsuit and seated on a blue plastic chair in a computer lab at the jail, Drisdel sits beside Pleban and co-counsel Talmage Newton. He is eager to talk, so much so that his lawyers must frequently remind him not to broach issues that might hurt his case. It's almost as if he's back on the radio. "You give me a fair shake, and I'll be straight with you," he says more than once.

At other times he suddenly comes up out of his chair. This is to keep his back limber, he explains. "I have to stretch, because if I didn't I would be immobile, and that's a sign of weakness," Drisdel says. "And if you show a sign of weakness in this place, believe me, in the one moment that you are able to be grabbed, you would be grabbed."

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