He was a respected lawman, husband and father.
Then James Andros III’s young wife mysteriously turned up dead, steps away from the couple’s two sleeping daughters. Ellen Andros had been suffocated, the coroner said, and there were no signs of forced entry.
Fingers were pointed at James Andros.
“Did you kill my daughter?” said panicked mother-in-law Bette Anne Clark, rushing past police officers and crime-scene investigators outside Andros’ rented ranch house to confront him.
“Murderer,” muttered mourners at his wife’s funeral.
Andros, 34, was charged with murder, triggering a 1 1/2-year odyssey in which the veteran Atlantic City Police Department patrolman’s life crumbled around him.
He spent two weeks in jail before posting $500,000 bond. Suspended from his $75,000-a-year job, he sank into a deep depression, and a judge awarded custody of his two daughters to his in-laws.
Then, last month, prosecutors dropped a bombshell: Ellen Andros died of natural causes. Elliott Gross, who had ruled her death a homicide, botched the autopsy. In fact, the 31-year-old woman died of a rare heart ailment.
“They tore out this guy’s heart,” said neighbor John Goodman, 58. “He couldn’t grieve for his wife; he was so worried about getting convicted, getting his children back, clearing his name.”
By his memory, Andros first met Ellen Clark when they were toddlers. She lived near his grandparents in Merchantville.
He remembers their first kiss. They were 18, and he was walking her home. She kept telling him he didn’t have to walk her all the way, because her father would probably be watching from the window.
“I think she was trying to tell me something,” Andros says now. “Finally, she just grabbed me and spun me around and kissed me. I ran all the way home.”
They married in 1994. But the marriage was rocky, according to Bette Anne and Edward J. Clark -- Ellen Andros’ parents, who went to Family Court to seek custody even before James was charged. They alleged that he was a heavy drinker, that he occasionally left his family to take ski trips, that his behavior was sometimes “abusive.”
But he had no criminal record and there was no history of domestic violence, according to authorities.
On March 31, 2001, Andros was out drinking with his father -- Capt. James Andros II -- and other friends.
Ellen and the girls had been at her parents’ house in Pennsauken. When he pulled in at the family’s Pleasantville home about 4:20 a.m., he was surprised to find her car in the driveway.
“I walked into the room and said something to her and she didn’t respond,” he said. “Her face was just purple. I’ve never seen anyone look like that. I knew something was very wrong.”
As Meghan and Elizabeth slept, Andros shook his wife to rouse her but felt only dead weight. He tried mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and called 911.
Paramedics arrived but didn’t attempt to revive Ellen Andros, whose skin was blue and cold to the touch. They concluded it was too late to take her to the hospital.
When Gross, the medical examiner in neighboring Cape May County, arrived at the scene, he determined she had died of asphyxiation.
Andros, meanwhile, was being interrogated. Answering questions without a lawyer, he spent 13 hours with investigators. Three weeks later, he was under arrest, accused of murdering his wife.
After making bail, he moved in with his sister, Marie Kokes.
But Andros bore little resemblance to the sarcastic, fun-loving big brother that Kokes -- herself a former police officer -- had grown up with, attended police academy with and rode with on patrol.
“He was a wreck for months,” said Kokes, 33. “He wasn’t eating, he couldn’t sleep, and he was having problems with his vision because of all the stress. He was crying all the time, and he had huge bags under his eyes.”
He lost 50 pounds, and spent more time fretting over the custody case than the murder case.
“You have to know Jim; he is a very strong person,” Kokes said. “He’d seen people get hit by cars, dismembered, had people come at him with knives. But none of that prepared him for this.”
Meanwhile, defense attorneys John Bjorklund and Matthew Portella were rounding up Ellen Andros’ medical records and shopping for forensic pathologists to testify as experts at the upcoming trial.
She wasn’t in perfect health, it turned out. Asthmatic, she had recently suffered a tonsil infection that swelled her neck and made it difficult to breathe.
In his initial court appearances, Andros’ attorneys contended the tonsil infection may have killed her. But when renowned pathologist Dr. Michael Baden, working for the defense, examined tissue samples, he found something Gross had missed.
The samples showed abnormalities in a coronary artery. Alerted to the possibility, prosecutors sought a second opinion from forensic pathologist Donald Jason.
Jason concluded Ellen Andros had suffered bleeding in a coronary artery, which closed from the pressure and caused her heart to stop.
The ailment, known as Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection, is a rare affliction that occurs primarily in young women with no prior history of heart problems.
Presented with the findings, Gross admitted his mistake and amended the death certificate.
On Dec. 3, Superior Court Judge Michael Donio dismissed the murder charge against Andros in a one-page order.
“I actually slept with the order for a couple of days because I was worried that if I woke up without it, it wouldn’t be true,” Andros said.
Two days later, a judge granted Andros full custody of his daughters, Meghan and Elizabeth, now 7 and 5. The police department reinstated him and the City Council approved more than $110,000 in back pay.
But Andros has found that it will take time to clear his name.
“When I first got them back from the Clarks, Meghan said, ‘Why is Mom-Mom a liar?’ I said, ‘What do you mean? Why do you say that?’
“Mom-Mom told me Mommy’s never coming home because you killed her,’ ” the girl replied, according to Andros.
The Clarks, through attorney Marissa Costello, declined comment, although they continue to fight for court-ordered visits with the girls.
Andros plans to sue over his arrest, but says he is less interested in a civil settlement than in exposing the prosecutors and investigators he says tried to railroad him.
Gross, 67, has been fired as assistant medical examiner for Atlantic County, but he still holds his $142,500-a-year job as medical examiner for Cape May and Cumberland counties.
“Everyone wants to make it just Dr. Gross, but it wasn’t just Dr. Gross,” Andros said. “There was no crime, but they went out and found the guy who did it. How can you arrest someone for a crime when there was no crime?
“Gross was wrong, but he never said, ‘James Andros killed his wife'; the state did. Gross was incompetent, but the prosecutor’s office was criminal,” Andros said.
Atlantic County Prosecutor Jeffrey Blitz said Gross’ finding set the case in motion. “Once you have a definitive statement from the ME that it’s a homicide, you look to see who the killer may be. And based on what the ME told us, we opined that she died while he was there,” Blitz said.
Defense experts believe she died about 2:30 a.m., when Andros was out. But Blitz said the time of death was never established.
When asked how it felt to be to be cleared, Andros said: “It sounds weird, I know, but that aspect of it has no effect on me. If the question is, ‘How does it feel to get my kids back?’ it feels great. A month ago, I was a big animal. Now, I’m a hero. But I’m neither. I don’t feel cleared. I was never guilty.”