'The Red Sash Murderer': Suspect in wife's death claimed to have slept through her suicide in adjoining room

Nelson Galbraith's children were convinced he was innocent, but detectives found evidence that suggested he was responsible for his wife's death


                            'The Red Sash Murderer': Suspect in wife's death claimed to have slept through her suicide in adjoining room
Josephine Galbraith and Nelson Galbraith (Oxygen/'Accident, Suicide or Murder')

When 76-year-old Josephine Galbraith was discovered hanging in her bedroom in September 1995, the scene was so gruesome that law enforcement was confident it was not a suicide. She was found by her son, Bill Galbraith, and his wife Nancy after they had come to visit her in Palo Alto, California - dead in her underwear with a red sash around her neck. She also had cuts on her wrists and elbows and was bleeding.

The police who were the first to respond to the scene felt there was something off about her death. Michael Yore, a retired detective with the Palo Alto Police Department, was amongst those who were called to investigate and recalled being skeptical. A bucket had been placed under the 76-year-old's arm to catch the blood as she hung over the bed. The sash used for the hanging had been wrapped around her neck three times and double-knotted after each loop, which made it very difficult to untie. A bloody razor blade was also found on a nearby nightstand, and an eight-inch butcher knife with blood on the blade, but not on the handle, was on a dresser. 

"The sash had no blood on it," Yore told Oxygen. "She had blood on both hands. She would have had to get blood on the sash. In the bucket, there was a small amount of blood coating the bottom of the container, and [there were] a number of tissues in there that had blood on it."

Police listed the manner of death in their report as a possible suicide and the coroner's preliminary ruling was that she died of self-asphyxiation. The medical examiner at the Santa Clara County Coroner's Office ruled that she had died of strangulation but did not specify a manner of death. No one seemed sure how Josephine had died. Suspicions were raised further when her cause of death was listed as "pending" and manner of death was listed as "pending investigation" in her death certificate. There was also a handwritten autopsy worksheet where someone had written "strangled by assailant" as the manner of death and suggested the case was a homicide.

Yore revealed he was convinced there was more to the hanging. "As an investigator, you have to follow the evidence," he said. "She had blood on her fingers and her hands, but there’s no blood on the sash. Her bloody hands didn’t touch that sash. There’s no blood on the handle of the knife. Either she wiped her hands clean, or she didn’t touch the handle of that knife."

A month after she was found, Palo Alto police announced that they were investigating Josephine's death as a homicide and that her husband, Nelson Galbraith, was considered to be a suspect. Nelson had been in the living room at the time his wife died and told police he had slept through the ordeal. Yore said his behavior when questioned was strange and that he wasn't emotional considering his childhood sweetheart had just killed herself.

While investigating a possible motive, the detective said he discovered that the couple was divorced and that it was Josephine who financially supported them both. He theorized an argument over money could have led to Nelson killing his wife.

A medical examiner subsequently amended Josephine's death certificate and officially listed the case as a homicide, reasoning that she lacked the physical strength to commit suicide owing to her arthritis and early-onset Parkinson's disease. The couple's children, however, insisted that Nelson was innocent and painted a different picture of their mother's death.

They said their father sleeping as she killed herself was not out of the ordinary for him because he suffered from narcolepsy and was known to sleep through loud noises. They said Josephine had an injury to her back that left her in chronic pain and suffering from depression, something that was exacerbated further by her early-onset Parkinson's.

They insisted that the suicide theory was a plausible one because, in the past, she had talked about wanting to end her own life. They pointed out that, just one week before her death, she had been committed to a psychiatric hospital on a 48-hour hold. Despite protests, more than a year after the death, the District Attorney's Office announced it was pursuing first-degree murder charges against Nelson and arrested him. While he was released three days later, the media had caught wind of the story and dubbed him, 'The Red Sash Murderer.'

As the case hurtled towards a trial, Nelson's children spoke to forensic pathologists who examined the autopsy report and crime scene photographs and were convinced Josephine's death could not have been anything but a suicide. They said the original findings were "fraught with error."

But prosecutors refused to dismiss the case, instead offering Nelson a plea deal where they agreed to drop first-degree murder charges in exchange for a guilty plea to second-degree manslaughter. In response, he told them to go to hell. His confidence in his innocence wasn't misplaced either. At the conclusion of a weeks-long trial in August 1998, a jury took less than a day find him innocent of all charges.

The family's battle was not done there. They sued the state and had their mother's body exhumed for a second autopsy, which confirmed she had died by suicide. The civil lawsuit that followed resulted in a $400,000 settlement and an official apology from the state.

Josephine's death and the criminal investigation that followed will be the subject of an episode on Oxygen's 'Accident, Suicide or Murder,' which airs on the network on Saturdays at 6/5c/

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