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Saturday, March 24, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On Politicians Who Talk To God

I don't mind a politician who communicates with God. People have a right to their religion and their beliefs. I do mind when a politician says God told him to make a certain political decision or policy that affects us all. So many of these government policies turn out bad for everyone. So, who are we supposed to blame, the politician or God? Even if I agree with the policy, I don't vote for people who claim they are acting on behalf of a higher power. Who do these mortals think they are? Well, I know who these people think they are, and that's what scares me.

Thornton P. Knowles 

The Amy Senser Hit and Run Homicide Case

     Amy Senser and her husband Joe lived in Edina, Minnesota, an upscale Minneapolis suburb. Joe Senser, a NFL tight end with the Minnesota Vikings in the early 1980s, co-owned four Minneapolis-St. Paul area sports bars. A knee injury had ended his 4-year career with the Vikings. The businessman and sports commentator was a well-liked local celebrity. His attractive, 45-year-old wife Amy was also well-inown and popular. But on the night of August 23, 2011, Amy and Joe Senser's successful lives would take a sudden and tragic turn.

     On the night that changed everything for the Senser family, Amy and her daughters were attending a Katy Perry concert at the Xcell Energy Center in St. Paul. Ninety minutes into the show, Amy developed a headache and decided to drive home. She called Joe who agreed to pick up the girls after the concert.

     According to Amy's version of what happened, while driving Joe's Mercedes-Benz SUV on I-94's Riverside exit off-ramp, a poorly lit section of the highway under construction, she felt a jolt and thought she'd hit a pothole or had bumped a construction barrel. In fact, the right front of her vehicle had hit and killed a man from Laos named Anousone Phantauong. The 38-year-old chef at a Thai restaurant was pouring gasoline into his car that had rolled to a stop on the shoulder of the exit ramp.

     After the collision, Amy got lost, and called her husband. At one point, in her confusion, she came full circle and got off the interstate using the same Riverside exit. This time the area was lit up with the flashing lights of emergency vehicles. She did not associate this activity with the earlier jolt she had felt from either a pothole, or a construction barrel.

     The next morning, according to Amy Senser's account, Joe called her outside and asked how the Mercedes' right headlight and fog light had gotten knocked out. By then, they both had seen TV reports of Phantauong's death, and the search for the hit and run driver. Realizing what had happened the previous night, the Sensers called their lawyer, and later that day, surrendered the damaged Mercedes to the police.

     In speaking to the police, Amy admitted that just before the Katy Perry concert, she had gone to a nearby restaurant where she had consumed less than a full glass of wine. She insisted, however, that she had not been intoxicated when her car hit and killed Mr. Phantauong. Investigators believed she had been drunk, and because of that, had not stopped after plowing into the victim. Detectives were convinced she wanted to sober up before reporting the fatal accident.

     In November 2011, the Hennepin County prosecutor, Deborah Russell, charged Amy Senser with three vehicular related felonies: driving in a grossly negligent manner; leaving the scene of an accident; and failure to promptly report an accident. If convicted of all three charges, the defendant could face up to 30 years in prison. Because she hadn't confessed, and no witness to the accident had come forward, the case against Amy Senser was entirely circumstantial. To find her guilty, the jury would have to infer her state of mind that night. If they believed her testimony, they would have to acquit her.

     To find the defendant guilty of reckless driving, the jury would also have to infer she had been intoxicated at the time of the accident. The fact she had clipped Mr. Phantauong, a man who had placed himself in harm's way by standing just off a poorly lit exit ramp, was not, by itself, enough to establish gross negligence on her part. If the jurors did not find that she was drunk, they would probably not find that the accident was a result of reckless driving.

     The highly anticipated, media intense Amy Senser trial commenced on April 23, 2012. In an effort to prove that the defendant had been driving drunk that night, prosecutor Russell put a motorist on the stand. Shortly after the accident, the witness saw, on I-94, a Mercedes SUV being driven in an erratic manner. The witness passed this vehicle when it slowed to 40 MPH, and when she looked into her rearview mirror, noticed that the car's right front lights were out.

     Defense attorney Eric Nelson put on only one witness, Amy Senser. The defendant denied she had been intoxicated when her car hit what she thought was a pothole or a construction barrel. As for her erratic driving on I-94, she had dropped her cellphone between the seat and the center console, and was trying to fish it out.

     On May 2, 2012, the jury of 7 men and 5 women, after a grueling deliberation period of 19 hours, found Amy Senser guilty of two of the three felonies. Jurors acquitted the defendant of the gross negligent charge. Amy, who faced up to 20 years on prison, showed no emotion as the verdicts were read.

     At a post-trial press conference, attorney Eric Nelson said he would appeal his client's conviction on the grounds she had met the requirements of the state accident notification law. One of the jurors who spoke to reporters said, "It was just a very challenging case for us to come to a consensus."

     On July 10, 2012, the judge sentenced Amy Senser to 41 months in prison.

     Corrections authorities, on April 24, 2014, released Amy Senser from the Shakopee Women's Prison after she had served all but six months of her prison stretch. On October 20, 2014, following the completion of a six-month work release program, Senser, having served her hit-and-run sentence, was free.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On His Mother

When I was a kid my mother was always dusting, frantically. We lived on a busy dirt road and the dust that got into the house drove her crazy. One of my uncles died of black lung. My mother was killed by dust. If cleanliness is next to Godliness, she was a saint. Dust to dust, as they say.

Thornton P. Knowles

Brittany Norwood: Cold-Blooded Killer

     In some cases, when it comes to predicting who is capable of committing bloody, premeditated murder, you can't tell the book by its cover. This is particularly true in a murder committed in 2011 by a 29-year-old woman named Brittany Norwood.

     Norwood played high school soccer in Kent, her hometown outside of Seattle, Washington. She continued her career as an athelete at Stony Brook University on Long Island. At Stony Brook, her soccer teammates accused the 5 foot, 120 pound player of stealing cash from them. A member of the team reported the thefts to the coach who chose to ignore the allegations.

     In 2011, Norwood was working as a sales clerk at a downtown Bethesda, Maryland store called Lululemon Athletica where upper-middle class customers bought $98 yoga pants and $58 running shirts. Jayna Murray, a 30-year-old graduate student at John Hopkins University, worked in the store with Norwood. Although the two young women were not close friends, they worked well as a sales clerk team.

     At 9 P.M., March 11, 2011, the two Lululemon clerks closed the doors to the public, and began shutting down the shop for the night. Forty-five minutes later, pursuant to one of the chain's anti-employee theft measures, Jayna and Brittany checked each other's handbags for unpurchased store merchandise. This led to Jayna's discovery of a pair of yoga pants in Brittany's purse. As they walked out the door, Jayna told her fellow employee that she would have to report the attempted theft to the store manager.

     On her walk to the Metro station, Brittany, as a ruse to get Jayna back into the store where she could talk her out of reporting the incident, phoned Jayna to tell her that she had left her wallet in the shop. Since Jayna possessed the key to the store, the two clerks headed back to Lululemon.

     As soon as Brittany and Jayna re-entered the store at 10:05, Norwood made her pitch. But it was to no avail, Jayna had already called the store manager. There was nothing she could do. This infuriated Norwood, and led to a shouting match overheard by employees of a nearby Apple store. The screaming and shouting turned violent when Norwood picked up a heavy metal rod used to support a mannequin and bludgeoned Jayna in the back of the head, crushing her skull. As Jayna staggered toward the store's rear exit, Norwood beat her with a hammer, then picked up a knife and repeatedly stabbed her.

     Norwood's assault lasted six minutes, and produced, on the dying victim, 332 wounds which included a severed spinal cord and 83 defensive injuries.

     In an effort to make the murder look like a violent store invasion, Brittany Norwood tossed mops, brooms, and chairs around the shop, used a pair size 12 Reebok sneakers to track bloody shoe prints about the crime scene, and inflicted minor injuries on herself. She then bound her own hands and feet with pieces of rope, and waited overnight on the restroom floor. The next morning, the store manager found Jayna Murray dead in the back hallway, and Brittany Norwood in the bathroom tied up and moaning.

     On the morning after the murder, from her hospital bed, Norwood told detectives that two intruders in ski-masks had attacked her, and killed Jayna. According to Norwood, one of the attackers, a white man making racial slurs (Norwood is black), threatened to cut her throat if she resisted. "It was my fault because I left my wallet," she said.

     From the beginning, detectives had problems fitting the crime scene evidence to Norwood's story. Six days after the crime, the prosecutor charged Norwood with first-degree murder. Under Maryland law, first-degree, premeditated murder carried a sentence of life without parole. Second-degree murder, on the other hand, involved a sentence of 30 years maximum with a chance of parole after 15 years. Although the defendent didn't make a full confession, she did not maintain her innocence. Her attorney's defense consisted of the argument that the killing was a spontaneous homicide, or second-degree murder.

     Norwood's trial, held in the Montgomery County court, got underway in November 2011, and lasted 6 days. The defense attorney didn't put on a single witness, relying instead on his closing statement to the jury. His client was not, he told jurors, "in a right state of mind" when she attacted the victim. The murder, he said, "was the product of an explosion."

     The jury didn't buy the defense theory of the case, and after deliberating less than an hour, returned with their verdict: they found Norwood guilty of  first-degree murder. This meant the sobbing defendant would spend the rest of her life behind bars, with no hope of parole.  

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On His Only Childhood Friends

When I was a kid I had a 26-inch Monarch bicycle and my dog Dusty. As long as I had the two of them I didn't need any friends. The bike outlived my dog, and then my dog died. From there I began my long journey into loneliness. I just couldn't replace them.

Thornton P. Knowles

Murder in Amish Country: The Edward Gingerich Case

     Twenty-four years ago, Edward Gingerich became the first old-order Amish man in history to be convicted of criminal homicide. A year earlier he had crushed his wife's skull by repeatedly stomping her. He next scooped out Katie Gingerich's brain with his hands, then opened her up with a kitchen knife and ripped out all of her internal organs. This atrocious assault took place in the kitchen of the couple's farmhouse located in a remote section of Crawford County in Rockdale Township near Mill Village, Pennsylvania. Two of Edward's children, ages three and four, witnessed the brutal March 19, 1993 killing.

     Edward Gingerich was a gifted young man. Unfortunately, the subjects that excited him were science and technology, disciplines that threatened the Amish way of life. An excellent mechanic, he built engines from scratch and could fix anything that contained a motor. A fish out of water, Edward Gingerich felt trapped in a society at odds with his talents and goals. He eventually built a modern sawmill with a machine shop near his house on property owned by his father. The business put him in touch with a lot of local English people and put him at odds with the local Amish bishop. His estrangement from his family and the Amish community led to depression, anger, and eventually madness in the form of paranoid schizophrenia.

     Prior to killing his wife, Edward spent two, ten-day stints in mental wards in Erie, Pennsylvania and Jamestown, New York. On Katie Gingerich's last day of life, she took Ed to see a chiropractor in Cambridge Springs, Pennsylvania who specialized in treating the Amish for physical aliments. The chiropractor, pursuant to his regular program of treatment, pulled Edward's toes and sent him home with a jar of blackstrap molasses.

     At the Edward Gingerich murder trial in March 1994, the Crawford County jury, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, refused to find the defendant not guilty by reason of insanity. Instead, they found hims "guilty of involuntary manslaughter but mentally ill." This meant Ed would receive psychiatric care while serving a fixed term in prison. Had he been found not guilty by reason of insanity, he would have been treated in a mental institution until the staff psychiatrists declared him well enough to return to society.

     Prior to Edward Gingerich's sentencing, every member of the small Amish enclave put their names on a petition asking the judge to impose the maximum sentence. Since Ed had been convicted of the lesser homicide offense of involuntary manslaughter, the maximum sentence sentence was only five years. The trial judge, noting that Gingerich had already spent a year in the Crawford County Jail, sentenced him to four years.

     Edward Gingerich served his time in a minimum security prison near Mercer, Pennsylvania. He was released from custody, without any strings attached, in March 1998.

     In January 2011, following a troubled post-prison life, Edward Gingerich hanged himself in a barn near Cambridge Springs, Pennsylvania. At the time of his death, he was living outside the local Amish community on a small farm owned by his defense attorney. His suicide message, etched in dust in the barn, read: "Please forgive me."

     Today, the Mill Village Amish enclave is less than half the size it was at the time of the murder. The killing, besides costing the life of a young Amish woman, tore the Gingerich family apart and destroyed a once thriving community.

     A detailed narration of this tragic case can be found in my book, Crimson Stain.   

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On Poetry Readings

No one reads poetry anymore but a handful of poets and a few English teachers and their poor students. While I'd rather sit through a political speech than attend a poetry reading, it's a decision I hope I'll never have to make. Having said that, I'm not against poetry. I'm guilty of writing a few poems myself, and have purchased books of poetry. I just don't like the pretentious mumbo-jumbo stuff. I enjoying reading Charles Bukowski. He's a bad drunk and unlikable person, but a real poet with a lot of gritty, interesting things to say. I do not, however, recommend his raucous, booze laden poetry readings. In his case, it's best to separate the poet from his work.

Thornton P. Knowles

The Vi Ripken Kidnapping Case: An Unsolved Mystery

     Cal Ripken, Jr., inducted into the baseball hall of fame in 2007, played 21 years for the Baltimore Orioles. Because he played in 2,632 consecutive games, Ripken earned the title the "Iron Man." He was a celebrity and businessman in the Baltimore area.

     In July 2012, Vi Ripken, the former ballplayer's 74-year-old mother, became a celebrity in her own right as a victim of an abduction that took place in July 2012. Based on what has been published in the media, and Cal Ripken's public statement on the matter, the following was the initial and sketchy account of this odd crime:

     Between seven and eight in the morning of Tuesday, July 24, 2012, an unknown man entered Vi Ripken's garage in Aberdeen, Maryland, a town 30 miles northeast of Baltimore, and forced her at gun point into her silver, 1998 Lincoln Town Car. The abductor is described as a clean-shaven white male who is five feet ten inches tall, and weighs 180 pounds. He wore glasses, an orange ball cap, and Camouflage colored clothing.

     The kidnapper tied Vi's hands and blindfolded her. (According to the victim, he originally planned to cover her eyes with tape. We don't know what he used to tie her up, or if she was bound behind her back.) With the victim in the back seat of her own car, the abductor drove her around Baltimore and Anne Arundel Counties. They stopped for food, and he lit her cigarettes. At first the kidnapper said he wanted her money and the car, but changed his mind.

     At some point in the abduction, the man told Vi that he wasn't going to hurt her, and that he had decided to take her back to her house. The next day, at six in the morning, the kidnapper parked the car 100 yards from Vi's dwelling, and walked away. Still bound (I think), Vi managed to honk the horn which alerted a neighbor. In telling friends and family what happened, Vi said her abductor did not know her son was Cal Ripken, Jr. (This suggests that she told him that.) He had not physically harmed her, and did not demand a ransom.

     In a press conference held on Friday, August 3, 2012, Cal Ripken, Jr. said he first learned of his mother's disappearance at 9 PM on the day of her abduction. His sister phoned him with the news that a witness had seen a woman in Baltimore County riding in the back seat of a car bearing the license number of the Lincoln Town Car. This person had called the Baltimore County Police. The county police relayed this information to the police in Aberdeen.

     Since Vi Ripken's safe return, the authorities have distributed a police-sketch of the abductor (these cartoonish depictions are generally useless). The sketch has also been featured on five massive billboards in the Baltimore area. The authorities have also made public a surveillance video tape showing a man in a ball cap walking out of a Walmart store in Glen Burnie, Maryland, an Anne Arundel County town about an hour from Aberdeen. The police have not revealed how this man fits into the story, but one would assume he is the suspected abductor, and that at some point during the kidnapping, he entered the store to purchase something.

     At the press conference on August 3, Cal Ripken, Jr. said his mother has not returned to her home in Aberdeen, but has otherwise resumed her normal routine. He also said she has been talking about her experience "nonstop." On Friday night, August 3, 2012 the kidnapping was featured on the Lifetime Cable Network's "America's Most Wanted." The Aberdeen police offered a $2,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the Ripken abductor.

    The police have not released many details of the crime. For example, did the authorities know the identity of the witness who spotted the woman in the back of the Lincoln Town Car? What did Vi and her abductor do during the 24-hour abduction? Did they sleep? Did they leave the car? Where did she use the restroom? Did crime scene investigators processed the car for latent fingerprints and other forms of trace evidence? Did the abductor leave behind the material used to tie the victim up? What about the blindfold? Did the abductor use the victim's credit or ATM cards?

     The biggest mystery, of course, is the identity of the abductor, and why he chose to kidnap Vi Ripken.

     On August 2, 2017, more than five years after the Ripken abduction, the police released a new composite sketch of the man they believe had kidnapped Vi Ripken. The FBI had entered the investigation.

    No arrests have been made in the case. Moreover, investigators have not even produced a suspect.


Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On West Virginia

If you took away signs of human life, West Virginia would be the most beautiful place on earth.

Thornton P. Knowles

The Urooj Khan Poison Case

     Urooj Khan immigrated to the U. S. from India when he was twenty-three. He worked hard, saved his money, and by 2012, the 46-year-old owned three dry cleaning shops on Chicago's North Side where he lived with his wife Shabana Ansari and his 17-year-old stepdaughter, Jasmeen. Mr. Khan also owned five condos worth $250,000.

     In June 2012, after returning from his hajj pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia where Mr Khan promised himself he would live a better life--and quit buying lottery tickets--he paid $60 at a 7-Eleven store near his house for two instant scratch-off cards. After scratching off the second ticket, Mr. Khan yelled, "I hit a million!"

     On June 26, 2012, at the Illinois Lottery Ceremony, Mr. Khan, with is wife, stepdaughter, and a few friends looking on, accepted the oversized mock check for $425,000. (After opting for the lump sum payment, that sum was left after taxes.) Khan said he'd donate some money to St. Jude's Children's Hospital in Chicago, and use the rest of his winnings to pay bills and grow his business.

     On July 20, 2012, the day after the Illinois Comptroller's Office issued Mr. Khan his $425,000 check, and before he had an opportunity to cash it, the lottery winner had dinner in his modest West Roger's Park neighborhood home with his wife Shabana Ansari and Jasmeen. After dinner, Mr. Khan said he didn't feel well and went to bed. A short time later, he screamed that he was suffocating. Ambulance personnel rushed Mr. Khan to a nearby hospital where doctors pronounced him dead.

     After a routine toxicological testing of Mr. Khan's blood for narcotics, alcohol, and carbon monoxide poisoning (his skin had turned pink), the Cook County Medical Examiner's Office determined his cause of his death to be heart disease. The manner of Mr. Khan's death went into the books as natural. Pursuant to an internal medical examiner's office rule that dead people over the age of 45 who do not show signs of trauma are not autopsied, Mr. Khan was buried without a post-mortem examination. (The age limit has been since raised to 50.)

     On August 15, 2012, Mr. Khan's widow cashed the $425,000 lottery check.

     Five months after Urooj Khan's sudden and unexpected passing, one of his relatives called the Cook County Medical Examiner's Office. According to this unidentified family member, Mr. Khan had been poisoned to death.

     Acting on what must have been a credible tip, Medical Examiner Dr. Stephen Cina ordered further toxicological testing of Mr. Khan's blood. This led to a rather shocking discovery: Mr. Khan had died from a lethal dose of cyanide. As a result of this finding, the medical examiner's office changed Mr. Khan's cause of death to cyanide poisoning. His manner of death, however, still had to be determined through a homicide investigation conducted by detectives with the Chicago Police Department. (According to reports, investigators questioned Mr. Khan's widow for four hours.)

     Cyanide is an extremely toxic white powder that has a variety of industrial applications. It can also be found in some pesticides and in rat poison. Small doses of cyanide either swallowed, inhaled (gas chambers used it), or injected, denies the body's blood cells oxygen. Death from this poison, a form of asphyxia called histoxic hypoxia, while agonizing, is quick. To disguise its bitter taste, a cyanide poisoner would be wise to mix a small amount into a plate of spicy food.

     Poisoning, as a mode of criminal homicide, was popular in the 19th Century before the dawn of pharmacology. Because there was no way to scientifically identify abnormal quantities of toxic substances in the body, no one knows how many wives, prior to 1900, poisoned their husbands to death. (In the era before forensic toxicology, homicide cops called cyanide "inheritance powder.")

    In modern times, murder and suicide cases involving cyanide and other poisons are rare. In June 2012, the month Mr. Khan won his lottery money, millionaire Michael Markin, moments after a jury found him guilty of arson, swallowed a cyanide pill. Minutes later he died while sitting at the defense table. Markin's death was so unusual it received nationwide publicity.

     On January 8, 2013, the day Medical Examiner Stephen Cina announced the planned exhumation of Urooj Khan's remains, his wife, Shaban Ansari, told an Associated Press reporter that she wasn't the relative who had requested the more sophisticated toxicological test. She said she had no idea who that person was, and that she "...didn't think anyone had a bad eye for [her husband], or that he had an enemy." The widow refused to provide details of the circumstances surrounding Mr. Khan's death. She said talking about his passing was too painful.

     In late January 2013, information surfaced that after Mr. Khan won the lottery, his 32-year-old wife and his siblings, a daughter from a previous marriage and his stepdaughter Jasmeen, began fighting over the money. According to Mr. Khan's brother Imtiaz and his sister Meraj, after his death, Shabana Ansari tried to cash the lottery check to avoid giving Khan's daughter her fair share. In November 2012, homicide detectives had searched the West Roger's Park home for traces of the cyanide. The five month period between Mr. Khan's death and the criminal investigation made solving the case difficult.

     In early February 2013, the authorities exhumed Urooj Khan's 5-foot-5, 198-pound body from a Chicago cemetery and transported it to the Cook County Medical Examiner's office. Forensic pathologists collected samples of his hair, fingernails, stomach contents, and tissue from his major organs for tests to determine if he had been poisoned to death. Medical Examiner Dr. Stephen Cina told reporters that given the length of time Mr. Khan's body had been in the ground, he was not certain that toxicological tests would produce positive results. According to Dr. Cina, "cyanide over the postmortem period can evaporate from the tissues." Dr. Cina said he remained convinced, however, that Mr. Khan had been the victim of a criminal homicide.

     A few weeks after the exhumation, Dr. Cina, at a press conference, said that while earlier toxicological tests revealed a lethal dose of cyanide in Mr. Khan's blood, the poison was not detected in his tissues or digestive system. "In this case," the forensic pathologist said, "due to advanced putrefaction of the tissues, no cyanide was detected."

     The fact Mr. Khan had died without a will led to a bitter dispute between his widow and his stepdaughter Jasmeen over his estate. In December, pursuant to a court settlement, the probate judge awarded Shabana the three dry cleaning shops, the five condos, and two-thirds of the lottery winnings. Jasmeen got a third of the lottery payoff.