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Wednesday, June 20, 2018

The David Bowen Murder-For-Hire Case

     The Bowens were an unlikely couple. Forty-four-year-old Daniel, a political ward captain, worked as a janitor at the Chicago Cultural Center. He and his wife, Anne Treonis-Bowen, an attorney with the Illinois Liquor Control Commission, were in the midst of a nasty divorce that included a custody battle over their daughters who were five and six. Daniel couldn't stand the idea that his wife, the one with the better job, the one who would end up with the house and most of the marital assets, was about to become the dominant person in their children's lives. She would make all of the parental decisions while he'd be relegated to the role of a visiting ex-spouse. Daniel Bowen considered this a humiliating attack on his manhood. It was the hatred of his wife, not the love of his children, that drove this man to murder.

     In February 2004, Daniel Bowen offered his childhood friend, Dennis McArdle, $2,000 in upfront money to kill Mrs. Bowen. After the hit man completed the job, and the victim's life insurance paid off, the murder-for-hire mastermind would pay McArdle another $20,000. Bowen also offered his friend a cushy, low-level city job.

     McArdle, a convicted felon, alcoholic, drug addict and incompetent bungler with no prospects and nothing to lose, accepted the contract murder assignment. From a man he barely knew, McArdle purchased, for $500, a .38-caliber revolver with a homemade silencer that didn't work when he and Bowen test-fired the gun in the basement of the cultural center. Bowen scheduled the murder for March 4, 2004, a day when he would be in the company of others, and thus have an airtight alibi.

     As murder plots go, this one was simple. McArdle was to shoot the wife after she parked her car that morning at the Chicago Transit Authority station southwest of the city. On the morning of the hit, wearing a ski mask and latex gloves, McArdle walked up behind the victim in the station parking lot and shot her once in the back of the head. To make the shooting look like a robbery rather than an execution style murder, McArdle took the victim's handbag. The ploy, to the trained eye of an investigator, was transparent.

     Although this amateur hitman had worn gloves to avoid linking himself to the shooting, had disposed of the victim's wallet, and got rid of the murder weapon, he took Mrs. Bowen's purse back to his apartment building where he hid it in the basement. A few days later, the owner of the apartment building found the handbag, and inside it, a prescription bottle bearing the murdered woman's name. The landlord called the police. Because McArdle was the only resident of the building with a connection to the murder victim, he became the prime suspect in the case.

     Ten days after Anne Treonis-Bowen's execution, detectives brought McArdle in for questioning. The 42-year-old suspect, suffering from cirrhosis and hepatitis, quickly confessed and agreed to testify against Daniel Bowen.

     In September 2004, while awaiting trial in the Cook County Jail, Daniel Bowen hanged himself. A month later, a judge sentenced McArdle to 35 years in prison.

    The Bowen case is yet another example that murder-for-hire, like ransom kidnapping, is a desperate crime committed by dimwits and fools. 

Potato Chips As Arson Tool

Crime laboratories do not always detect accelerants that were used in an incendiary fire. Accelerant-sniffing dogs, whose sniffers are more sensitive than even the most sophisticated laboratory equipment, don't always, either. If it is believed that an accelerant was used in the fire, it might be that the accelerant itself is undetectable. One such accelerant could be a bag of potato chips. It is possible to set a bag of chips on fire and throw it on a couch, creating an accelerant-like effect. The fat in the chips make them extremely volatile when ignited (think of a kitchen grease fire). An accelerant-sniffing dog won't even detect the chips, and the labs won't be testing for them, either. The crime scene investigator should always question finding a couch with too many crumbs in the cushions.

Jarrett Hallcox and Amy Welch, Bodies We've Buried, 2006

Raymond Chandler on Ernest Hemingway

Raymond Chandler [a noted and literary twentieth century crime novelist] wrote a sentence true of [Ernest] Hemingway and himself: "I suppose the weakness, even the tragedy of writers like Hemingway is that their sort of stuff demands an immense vitality; and a man outgrows his vitality without unfortunately outgrowing his furious concern with it."

Michael Schmidt, The Novel: A Biography, 2014 

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On The Ideal Job

My idea of an ideal job would be to drive a bus in a town where no one uses public transportation. I also like the idea of being a cop in a place where everyone obeys the law. I might also consider teaching in a high school where all the students are smart, self-motivated, and terrified of authority. Writing novels full time would be great if you didn't have to deal with editors, publicists, and readers. I guess I'm not a people person.

Thornton P. Knowles

The Steven Fortin Murder Case: Conflicting Bite Mark Testimony

     In 1994, police found the body of 25-year-old Melissa Padilla in a concrete pipe along Route 1 near Woodbridge, New Jersey. Naked from the waist down, she had been beaten and sexually assaulted. The killer had bitten her on the chin and left breast. Padilla had been abducted the night before from a nearby convenience store in the Avenel section of Woodbridge. The police had no suspects, and the investigation quickly died on the vine.

     In April 1995, the state police in Maine contacted the Padilla case investigators with a lead. They had arrested 31-year-old Steven Fortin for the sexual assault of a female state police officer who had been bitten on the chin and left breast. Fortin was also living in Woodbridge at the time of Padilla's murder. Although the suspect denied involvement in the New Jersey homicide, he pleaded guilty, in November 1995, to the assault in Maine. The judge sentenced him to 20 years.

     Five years after entering prison in Maine, the authorities in New Jersey put Fortin on trial for the murder of Melissa Padilla. The prosecution's key witness, FBI criminal profiler Robert Hazelwood, connected the defendant to the Padilla murder by noting similarities in its criminal MO to the sexual assault in Maine. The jury in New Jersey, on the strength of this testimony, found Fortin guilty. In February 2004, the New Jersey Supreme Court overturned the conviction on the grounds it was not supported by sufficient evidence.

     New Jersey prosecutors retried Steven Fortin in 2007. This time they had physical evidence connecting him to the victim. A DNA analyst testified that the defendant could not be excluded as the primary source of the saliva recovered from the Marlboro cigarette butt found near Padilla's body. According to this expert, only one out of 3,500 people could be linked to this evidence. Moreover, the defendant could not be excluded as the DNA source of the blood and tissue traces found under the victim's fingernails.

     Dr. Lowell J. Levine, one of the pioneers in the field of crime scene bite mark identification, a forensic odontologist from upstate New York, had compared photographs of the victim's bite mark wounds (The photographs did not include a ruler measuring the marks because the photographer didn't recognize the bruises as teeth marks.) with photographs of the defendant's front teeth. Dr. Levine noticed a space between Fortin's lower front incisors that corresponded to a space in the mark on the victim's left breast. Dr. Levine testified that although he could not say to a scientific certainty that the defendant had bitten the victim, he could not exclude him as the biter.

     Dr. Adam Freeman, a forensic dentist from Westport, Connecticut, testified that in his study of 259 bite mark cases, the largest study of its kind, he found only 5 cases in which the attackers had bitten their victims on the chin and the breast. Dr. Freeman's testimony helped link the defendant, circumstantially, to the sexual assault in Maine for which he had pleaded guilty.

     Steven Fortin's defense team countered Dr. Levine with another world renowned forensic odontologist, Dr. Norman Sperber, the chief forensic dentist with the California Department of Justice. Dr. Sperber had testified for the defense at the first trial, but the jury had disregarded his testimony. He, like Dr. Levine, had testified for the prosecution in the 1979 trial of serial killer Ted Bundy. Since then, Dr. Sperber had appeared as an expert witness in 215 trials. According to his analysis, Steven Fortin could not have made the bite marks on Melissa Padilla's body. According to Dr. Sperber: "The tracing of his [Fortin's] teeth doesn't even come close to the crime scene bite marks." The forensic odontologist went on to say that bite mark analysis has limitations as a form of crime scene associative evidence. It was not as reliable, he said, as DNA and fingerprint identification. "Skin is a serious limitation for bite mark analysis because it rebounds and is movable," he said. "Bite mark evidence is not a true science."

     On December 4, 2007, the jury of nine men and three women, after deliberating nine hours, found Steven Fortin guilty of first-degree murder and first-degree sexual assault. The judge sentenced him to life plus twenty years.  

Monday, June 18, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On The Odds Of Getting A First Novel Published

If you are not some kind of celebrity, are unpublished, and do not have the services of a literary agent, the odds of getting a first novel published are not good. Best I can figure, the aspiring writer has about one in a thousand chance of getting a commercial publisher to bring out his or her's first work of fiction. The odds are better than the lottery, but that's about it. There are just too many novelists and not enough readers. And to make matters worse, because acquisition editors have no idea what will sell and what won't, a lot of the stuff that gets published is crap. But what the hell, if you got to write a novel, do it. Get the thing out of your system. Who knows?

Thornton P. Knowles

Ali Syed's Killing Spree

     Ali Syed, an unemployed, part time student at Saddleback Community College, lived with his parents in Ladera Ranch, an affluent suburban Orange County community 50 miles south of Los Angeles. The pudgy 20-year-old spent most of his time in his parents' beige and white stucco condo playing video games. He had never been arrested, and had no known history of illicit drug use. Ali did possess a .12-gauge shotgun his father had given to him in 2012.

     At 4:45 in the morning of Tuesday, February 19, 2013, Syed's mother called 911 from the Ladera Ranch condo. "I think somebody was shot," she said. "I heard a gunshot." Deputies with the Orange County Sheriff's Office found, in Syed's room, 20-year-old Courtney Aoki. (There were reports she worked as a stripper.) Aoki had been killed instantly by three shotgun blasts to the head and upper body. Syed had fled the murder scene in his parents' black GMC Yukon before the deputies arrived at the dwelling.

     From Ladera Ranch, Syed headed north on Interstate 5 where, 20 miles from his home, he exited the interstate and drove into the town of Tustin. Driving with a flat tire, Syed pulled into a Denny's parking lot alongside a man sitting in an older model blue Cadillac. Syed pointed his shotgun at the man and yelled, "Get out!" Instead of complying with the order, the driver of the Cadillac drove off. He didn't get far. Syed raised the shotgun and blew out the fleeing driver's rear window, wounding him in the back of the head. The victim, who managed to escape on foot to a nearby hospital, survived the shooting.

     Syed approached a man pumping gas at a Mobile station. "I don't want to hurt you," he said. "I just killed someone. Give me your keys. This is my last day." Syed climbed in behind the wheel of this man's Dodge pickup truck and headed north. On Interstate 5, he drove five miles before merging onto a southbound lane which took him to Freeway 55. He pulled the stolen truck to the shoulder of the highway, stepped out of the vehicle, and began shooting at motorists commuting to work, wounding three of them.

     After firing randomly at passing vehicles, Syed climbed into the Dodge pickup, pulled back onto the highway, proceeded to the Edinger Avenue exit from where he drove into Santa Ana. Shortly after pulling into town, he approached a man sitting in a BMW. Syed ordered 69-year-old Melvin Edwards of Laguna Hills out of his vehicle. As the victim stood at the side of the street, Syed executed him with three shotgun blasts.

     Driving Melvin Edwards' BMW, Syed returned to Tustin. In the parking lot of a computer store, he murdered Jeremy Lewis. Lewis, a plumber from Fullerton, was walking to a construction site at a nearby Fairfield Inn. A construction supervisor saw the shotgun-armed Syed chasing Lewis across the parking lot. The supervisor drove his pickup truck onto the lot in an effort to rescue Lewis, but Syed shot him in the arm, and stole his vehicle. It was 5:45 in the morning.

     Just before six o'clock, at an intersection about 25 miles north of Ladera Ranch, officers with the California Highway Patrol caught up with Syed. This video-game playing college student, after killing three people and wounding three others in the course of his 75-minute suburban shooting spree, jumped out of the stolen pickup truck while it was still moving. Syed pressed the muzzle of his shotgun to his head and pulled the trigger. He became his seventh victim.

     For reasons that remained a mystery absent a suicide note or some kind of manifesto, Ali Syed shot six innocent strangers. There was no way to know if he had been inspired by Christopher Dorner's rampage in southern California, or any of the other high-profile mass murder-suicide cases. If suicide was his ultimate goal, why did he murder the young woman in his room and the two men he encountered as they went about their daily routines? This was a question that will never answered.

     In the wake of homicidal crime sprees, people also ask if there were any indications that this person was capable of such mayhem. These events are almost always impossible to predict because it's impossible to know what is going on inside the mind of a mentally disturbed person. 

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On How To Keep A Government Job

If I were handing out career advice to a college student, I'd say this: If you want a government job where you can demonstrate courage, go into the military or law enforcement. On the other hand, if you are not the courage type, seek an ordinary governmental position. The goal of the ordinary civilian government employee is to not make waves. Whistleblowers are not welcome and are treated brutally. The secret to getting ahead in government is simple: find the right butt to kiss and shower it with love. In government work, it's all about group think, obedience, and when confronted with governmental wrongdoing, looking the other way. (Even in law enforcement, a job that requires courage, there is a code of silence when it comes to employee wrongdoing.)

Thornton P. Knowles

The James Pepe Murder-For-Hire Case

     James J. Pepe taught high school history in the Hillsborough County, Florida school system. For years he had been an erratic, difficult employee who frightened a lot of his follow teachers. In 2001, a faculty member characterized Pepe as "hostile," "aggressive," and "extremely volatile." During this period, James Pepe called his principal a "pathological liar," and bragged to people that school administrators were powerless to take action against him. Had this disgruntled, disruptive employee worked in the private sector, he would have been fired.

     In dealing with this potentially dangerous and out of control educator, the Hillsborough County school superintendent decided against termination. Instead, the boss suspended Mr. Pepe with pay, recommended anger management counseling, then reassigned him to another school. (In teacher pedophile cases, they call this passing the trash.) Over the next few years, as Pepe's behavior became more bizarre, paranoid, and bellicose, he was transferred three more times. At one of the schools this history teacher disrupted, Pepe accused the principal of assigning him the worst students. He also accused the maintenance staff of turning off the air-conditioning to his classroom. (Given the passive-aggressive nature of public school employee discipline, this might be true. As they say, even a paranoid can be persecuted. Maybe school administrators were trying to encourage this pain-in-the-neck teacher to quit.)

     In 2012, James Pepe was teaching and causing trouble at Bloomingdale High School near Tampa, his fifth assignment in the Hillsborough County school system. (Mr. Pepe, a disfunctional teacher, was pulling down $58,000 a year plus benefits.) In recent months, he had focused his paranoia on a 59-year-old economics teacher who also taught at Strawberry Crest High School. Pepe had convinced himself that Robert Meredith was the source of all his problems. More specifically, the unstable teacher harbored the false notion that Mr. Meredith, his former colleague and friend, was spreading rumors that Pepe was a child molester.

     In August 2012, the 55-year-old history teacher reached out to a childhood friend for help. Pepe came right to the point--would this person murder Robert Meredith for $5,000? The stunned friend, who said he would think about the homicidal proposal, immediately reported the murder solicitation to the Plant City Police Department. There was no doubt in the friend's mind that Mr. Pepe was dead serious in his desire to have Mr. Meredith killed.

     The police asked the teacher's friend to call Pepe back and say that while he wasn't interested in committing murder, he had found a man who would do the job. The "hitman," of course, would be an undercover cop.

     The undercover officer, in mid-September 2012, spoke with James Pepe by phone. During that conversation, the teacher said he "had an issue he might need taken care of for $2,000." (While this seems a little cheap for a contract murder, had Pepe been talking to a real hitman, the price would have been about right. In the U.S. assassins are inexpensive and life is cheap.)

     In the second phone conversation between Pepe and the "hitman," the undercover officer tried to arrange a meeting. Pepe declined, but said, in no uncertain terms, that he wanted to have Robert Meredith murdered. This conversation, of course, was recorded.

     While the police in murder solicitation cases prefer to have audio and videotaped meetings (often in Walmart parking lots) in which the mastermind hands over the blood money, and provides the cop with helpful information regarding the target, the Plant City police, on September 27, 2012, took James Pepe into custody outside Bloomingdale High School.

     Charged with solicitation of first degree-murder, James Pepe was held without bond in the Hillsborough County Jail.

     On March 31, 2014, James Pepe pleaded guilty to solicitation of murder. The judge sentenced this murder-for-hire mastermind to house arrest for one year and 14 years of probation. This was, under the circumstances, an extremely lenient sentence. One would hope, at least, that the conviction ended Mr. Pepe's teaching career. 

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On Ring Lardner And Red Smith

Reporters who cover athletes, athletic teams, and sporting events are often referred to as sports writers. Truth is, only a handful of these journalists are good enough to transcend sports reporting into creative writing. Ring Lardner and Red Smith, for example, were sports writers. Most of their colleagues were merely sports reporters. I imagine that's true today.

Thornton P. Knowles