In Green Bay, Wisconsin, a police officer with a lengthy career in law enforcement was accused of killing his estranged wife, who died in February 1998. But the investigation that followed wasn’t so straightforward. CBS News’ ‘48 Hours: A Question of Murder’ focuses on Sandra Maloney’s death and why the authorities believed John Maloney was responsible. So, if you’re curious about the same, we’ve got you covered.
Who is John Maloney?
John Maloney met Sandra Cator when they were at the same high school during the 1970s. They got married in 1978, with Sandra working as a secretary while John pursued a criminal justice degree. After that, he joined the Green Bay Police Department, spending almost two decades with them. Eventually, John became a detective and arson investigator. The couple had three sons — Matt, Aaron, and Sean. While the marriage seemed fine initially, things soon took a downturn.
During the 1990s, Sandra’s persistent neck pain meant she got addicted to prescription pain pills. This led to constant fights between the couple, and she accused John of physically abusing her. John later denied it, and when a drunk Sandra crashed the family car in 1997, he decided to get a divorce. So, John moved out of the family home and took the kids with him. However, on February 11, 1998, tragedy struck. Sandra’s mother, Lola Cator, found the 40-year-old’s charred body on the living room couch.
Sandra and the couch had caught fire and burned. At the time, the medical examiner claimed that Sandra was murdered, with the cause of death being a combination of blunt force trauma to the back of her head, strangulation, and suffocation. While preliminary investigation pointed to the fire being an accident, the authorities later believed it was intentionally set. As a result, John became the prime suspect. Lola stated that he hated Sandra and wanted her gone since the divorce was taking too long.
John was dating an IRS agent, Tracy Hellenbrand, at the time, and Lola felt he wanted to start a new life as soon as possible. However, John and Sandra’s two youngest kids said he was with them around the time Sandra was believed to be killed. Coincidentally, February 11 was the date of their final divorce hearing. The prosecution claimed that John went to Sandra’s on February 10 to make sure she’d come to the court. However, during an argument, they believed that John had hit her with a blunt object in the back of her head.
After that, the prosecution said John panicked and pressed his knee into Sandra’s back as she was on the couch. Then, after disposing of Sandra’s bloody shirt in the basement, John set the couch on fire and placed half-smoked cigarettes to stage an accidental blaze. Tracy initially provided John with an alibi but, over months of talking to the police, admitted she might have taken a nap at some point, leaving John a window to step out. She chose to cooperate with the authorities, and about five months after the incident, she agreed to her conversation with John being videotaped.
At the time, the couple was in a hotel room, and Tracy began to ask John repeatedly whether he had killed Sandra. While John denied doing so multiple times, he later admitted to being at the house on the night of February 10, which the authorities took for a confession. However, other puzzling evidence was found at the residence. In the basement, there were two VCRs on a coffee table, with a ligature hanging from the ceiling in front of the table.
Sheila Berry, who took up John’s case later, theorized that Sandra was suicidal and tried to hang herself. However, she somehow hurt herself in the back of her head and cleaned up the blood and herself before going upstairs. There, Sheila believed that Sandra had lost consciousness as she smoked, leading to the fire. Luminol showed traces of blood in the basement, and there were suicide notes in the trash as well. However, the jury never saw that evidence.
Where is John Maloney Today?
Furthermore, there seemed to be other issues with the case. While the prosecution surmised that vodka might have been used to start the fire, an expert for John’s defense later stated that the burn pattern in front of the couch was caused by melting foam from the cushions, not vodka. At John’s trial, the defense pointed the finger at Tracy, with John always maintaining his innocence. Nevertheless, John was found guilty of first-degree intentional homicide, arson, and mutilating a corpse.
In April 1999, then 42, he was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 25 years. John also received concurrent sentences of 10 years for mutilating a corpse and four years for arson. In the years after the conviction, he continued fighting, accusing the prosecution of using false testimony to put him behind bars. Nevertheless, John remains incarcerated at Dodge Correctional Institution in Waupun, Wisconsin. John will be eligible for parole in February 2024.