As a child, Daniel Blan lived in a single-parent home with his mother, Debbie, and two sisters – a sister, Lisa, and brother, “Junior”. Their mobile home was one of many in a small trailer park in Selma, AL.
Mike Bernos was a local teacher and coach who lived in the same trailer park. Each week after school, he would gather with a few of the neighborhood kids to play basketball. One of those kids was Daniel Blan.
After many months of gathering for ball games, Mike and Daniel developed a close relationship. Daniel’s home life wasn’t exactly stable, as he would see man after man leave his mother’s life and witness her, more often than not, in trouble with the law. Daniel and his biological father had no relationship, so Mike became somewhat of a father figure to Daniel. In 1986, when Daniel was 16 years old, Mike approach Daniel’s mother about taking guardianship of Daniel. With her permission, Mike became Daniel’s legal guardian.
Throughout the years, Mike tried his best to help Daniel overcome the aftereffects of life in an unstable home. I learned a lot about their relationship after I spoke to Mike’s sister, Roxanne. She said, “I don’t think Danny had ever even known his father. I don’t know if they were married or what, I don’t know. He had some abuse before Mike was appointed as his legal guardian, I think. Like burns, maybe cigarette burns, and he’d had one of his fingers cut off or something.
When Mike first started spending time with him, Danny stuttered. The boy had really just been left to be raised on his own other than whoever was abusing him, was it any of the men she was with or I don’t know. But, Mike did try to give Danny a good life. He tried. He got Danny clothes to wear for school so he wouldn’t feel [like he] stood out because he wasn’t wearing nice enough clothes. They weren’t expensive clothes, but not hand-me-downs or raggedy clothes. He did try with Danny very, very much. After a period of time, Danny quit stuttering.
You could tell it seemed like he was more in a good environment, that he wasn’t scared and things like that. We weren’t, as a family, we weren’t really in favor of Mike legally adopting Danny because he had some very rough edges and with a child having that experience the first 12 years of their life, it’s hard to overturn that.”
Roxanne also gave me an idea of what life at home with Daniel was like. “We accepted him as a member of the family, but he was still kind of like a con artist. He could talk his way out of anything. Like you said, just by changing the subject from one thing to the next thing and that was a learned experience, that was a learned way that he could avoid really answering the question or addressing what you’re talking about.
He got into illegal drugs, too. He stole money from Mike and Mike eventually had him move out. But he still would accept visits from Danny and was caring for him, in a way. I mean not caring for him by providing for him but caring emotionally for him. He didn’t mind for Danny to visit him and things like that.
Then he got into drugs pretty bad and some wrong crowds of people and things like that. I just basically told my brother, many times I told him, ‘You have done the best you can do with Danny. You can’t do any more. He’s going to make his own decisions. You gave him the opportunity to have a good life and to achieve things. If he chooses not to do that, it’s his choice and it’s not your fault.’ But, you know, that was hard for my brother to accept because he wanted so badly for Danny to do well.”
It was obvious from looking at the legal documentation and speaking to Mike’s sister that Mike had attempted to be a good father figure to Daniel Blan. But in the wake of Mike’s murder and his subsequent conviction, Daniel claimed he and Mike’s tumultuous relationship was the result of sexual abuse after his guardianship started.
During my first telephone interview with him, Blan told me the following: “Mike had a sickness. Let’s just say that. Mike had a sickness, right? And he would take advantage of younger boys, you know what I’m talking about? I’ve had a lot of time to think about a lot of stuff, you know what I’m talking about? Puzzle stuff together. So Mike had, I believe, he had a pattern. That’s the main reason I left when I turned 18 – before it got out of hand, got more serious than what it got.“
What Blan was telling me was no light allegation. I asked if Mike had ever been convicted of any type of sexual assault or misconduct, or even accused of such. Police records showed he had not.
But what good would Daniel’s allegation do at this point? If anything, knowing this information gave me a reason to believe molestation could be the motive, not drug money. If it was true, why did the prosecution not use that theory?
I asked Mike’s sister about the allegation. She responded, “There was no talk about that before the trial. I have read that somewhere, I don’t know if that’s on his blog – on Danny’s blog or somewhere. I read that Danny was making that accusation. Mike’s my brother, but I cannot see Mike doing that to any child. He really loved children. Any kids that he had at school, they really liked him and would come to him with anything, to talk about any problems. A lot of them would just talk to him about any problems they had at home or whatever. The number of people that showed up for his memorial in Clanton was just incredible. I had never, ever heard anything like that before this was brought up with Danny after he was already incarcerated.”
Did you catch that? Daniel Blan never brought up the molestation prior to his conviction.
I would have dismissed the claim all together due to lack of evidence to support it, but there was something else that made me think twice. It was a statement from Daniel himself giving to the ABI in May of 1995, about a year after the murder, and the proof to his claim might lie within it.
In his statement given to agent David Lashley, Blan speaks and Lashley transcribes (in what Lashley admits is a condensed version of what Blan actually said). It was not written verbatim. He doesn’t transcribe the questions asked, only Blan’s responses. In the first paragraph, Lashley writes some legal jargon – that Blan has been advised of his rights and is giving the statement on his own accord, under no threat or pressure. The next paragraph addresses any guns Blan owns or that Mike owned. The third paragraph says Blan doesn’t have any friends in Clanton, and so on.
The part that caught my eye doesn’t come until the fourth page when Lashley writes, “He didn’t go out with women. He told me that it was because a girl had hurt him one time when he was in high school. He said he didn’t want some woman to get what he had. Mike was not a homosexual. I am not a homosexual, either. I like girls.”
Why would this be included in his witness statement without further explanation of what was asked? This made me think that Daniel might have said something about the molestation allegations, but that it was looked over by investigators. Of course, I asked Blan about this, and his response was simply, “I don’t remember.”
I wanted to talk to someone who knew Blan at the time of the murder to see if he had ever mentioned this to any of his friends or family. I looked back to his witness statement where he had mentioned the name of a few of his close friends, Scott Blair and Chris Arthur. According to the three of them, they were the best of friends.
I eventually met up with Scott and Chris to discuss the case. I asked each of them if Blan had ever mentioned the molestation from Mike, to which both replied they had not. They also mentioned that Mike had never given either of them that vibe, and that he was nothing but loving and supportive around them.
After my interview with Scott and Chris, I was no closer to finding out if the allegations were true. That’s what I’ve come to find out in this case; there are a lot of things said that might make sense, but there is not much evidence to back up the rumors.
Although I had hit a dead end on the allegations, Chris Arthur did give me a bit of helpful information. He told me he and his ex-wife had hired an attorney after Blan’s trial in hopes of having the conviction overturned. The attorney’s name was Doyle Fuller, a well-known attorney from Montgomery who had previous success on post-conviction litigation.
Chris said he and his wife had paid Fulley a relatively small sum of money to take on the case, and that Fuller essentially worked the case pro-bono, stating that he believed Blan had been railroaded by the State and, based on the evidence presented to him, had a good chance of acquittal.
But, in the middle of his post-conviction appeal, Blan had taken the advice of an old friend, Sarah Hamlett, and fired Fuller in order to hire another group of attorneys to represent him.
Chris told me, “Gosh, I’m trying to remember the girl’s name that came into the picture. I’m trying to think. Her name was Sarah. She came in and Danny knew this girl from childhood or something or other that he’d met. She was going to come in. She had a little bit of money and she was going to hire these lawyers out of Birmingham to come in and take over his case because they thought it wasn’t moving fast enough as far as trying to get him another trial. She hired these people to come in and either her money ran out or either they had some kind of fall out, because after she took over, Danny and I really had kind of lost touch a little bit. Kind of right there closer to the end of those attorneys working on this case.
I may have talked to him every so often, but it got to be where I couldn’t do the things that I could do for him like I did in the beginning because my money was short. Me moving and stuff. Kind of losing touch with phone numbers and stuff like that. We just kind of quit talking on the phone.
I don’t know if that was all just some kind of ploy to get [Fuller off the case] because I think she was part of the family that actually put Danny in jail.”
There’s something you should know about Sarah Hamlett. She is the neice of former Alabama Assistant Attorney General Rosa Davis. Davis was a very close friend of the Bernos family.
In an interview with Blan, he told me that prosecutors – specifically Rosa Davis, even though she was not officially assigned to his case – committed prosecutorial misconduct by withholding evidence of the molestation during his trial, and that because evidence was withheld, he was entitled to a new trial under the law.
Was Mike a pedophile? Initially I questioned it, but I can say now I do not believe so. It seems convenient that Blan only mentioned these allegations long after he was incarcerated, at a time during his appeal that may have changed his sentence due to molestation making this a crime of passion.
Below is a transcript of a conversation between myself and Blan discussing why this allegation of misconduct was so important to his case.
ME: So what’s the evidence that you have that would help Tony?
BLAN: That same evidence that was… Rosa Davis withheld evidence about the child molesting. That she told Sarah.
ME: I was wondering how you knew that. So Sarah told you that, that Rosa knew.
ME: But how do you think that would help you in your case?
BLAN: Because they withheld evidence. You cannot withhold any kind of evidence in a case. You have to turn over every evidence you got, whether it’s good or bad. You got to turn it over. If you hold any kind of evidence, that’s a jurisdiction issue, okay. That can get you back in court, all right. Whether the evidence affected the case, would have had a different outcome on the case. If it did, they have to give you a trial.
Blan’s group of Birmingham attorneys hired by Sarah Hamlett would eventually try to argue this point in an appeal. During Blan’s second appeal hearing with one of his new attorneys, Talitha Bailey, told the judge, “We also expect the evidence to show that the State had in its possession certain exculpatory evidence, specifically that the victim in this case was a child molester. They failed to disclose that evidence to the defense.”
Bailey went on to explain to the judge that, had his information been made available to the defense, it would have given them the grounds to offer the jury reasonable alternative theories as to other suspects OR possible mitigating circumstances which would have led to a lesser-included offense.
In correspondence from Wendy Reese (another member of Blan’s new team of attorneys) to Assistant Attorney General William Dill, Reese provides Dill with information he had requested for an upcoming appellate hearing dated August 1, 2001, including the witness list for that hearing. On the list is Sarah Hamlett, Daniel’s former friend/lover and niece of Rosa Davis, who was expected to testify that Davis was aware of information that pinned Mike Bernos as having raped and molested boys, and that such information was withheld from the defense.
I turned to the appeal transcripts to see such an argument presented before the court, but Judge John Rochester did not allow this evidence to be admitted. It was never argued, although Talitha Bailey does bring it up briefly. Once she does, William Dill requests an off-the-record discussion with Judge Rochester. The court reporter simply wrote “Off the record discussion”.
When the discussion starts back, Talitha Bailey requests to invoke Rule 615 of the Alabama Rules of Evidence. This rule requires anyone acting as a witness or anyone in the court by way of subpoena to leave the courtroom during the proceedings. When Judge Rochester asks those witnesses to leave the court, a familiar name speaks up and requests to be excluded from the rule. That person is Rosa Davis.
Davis requests that because she is an attorney, she be exempt from the rule. Bailey argued that she can not be exempt because if they are allowed to present evidence of the molestation allegations before Blan’s trial, she is witness to that issue. The discussion between Davis, Rochester, Dill, and Bailey goes on for several pages, with Bailey trying her best to keep Davis out of the courtroom, but Rochester eventually allows her to stay after suggested she be appointed as the Bernos family’s designee. This is essentially a loophole for allowing her to stay in the courtroom.
Rosa Davis was never called to testify about withholding this evidence, and the only proof I have that it might have possibly occurred is from correspondence from Blan’s attorneys back in 2001. But again, there is still no proof that Blan mentioned this at all during his original trial, and it seems oddly suspicious that he would bring such an allegation before the court when could possibly benefit him greatly.
So what do you think? Was Mike Bernos a child molester? And if so, what does this do for Blan’s motive to kill him?