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Thursday, July 30, 2015

Carie Charlesworth: Forever the Domestic Abuse Victim

     In 2012, Carie Charlesworth, after having divorced her husband who had abused her for years, lived in Spring Valley, California with her two sons, age nine and eleven, and her twin seven-year-old girls. Carie's ex-husband, 41-year-old Martin Charlesworth was under a court restraining order that prohibited him from contacting his former wife. (Martin did have child visitation rights.) Carie earned $37,000 a year as a second grade teacher at the Holy Trinity Catholic school in El Cajon, a town not far from San Diego.

     Carie Charlesworth's troubled life took a turn for the worse in January 2013 when Martin, in violation of the restraining order against him, went to the school's parking lot in an effort to contact his ex-wife. Alarmed school official responded to Martin's presence by locking down the school and calling the police.

     Police officers rushed to the elementary school where they arrested the ex-husband for violating his restraining order. Shortly thereafter, Martin pleaded guilty to the charge of stalking in violation of the domestic court mandate. The judge sentenced Martin to a year in jail minus time served.

     According to Martin Charlesworth's attorney, he had gone to the school that day to discuss child custody issues with his ex-wife. In speaking to reporters, the attorney said, "He just wants what's best for his children and Carie." In addressing the media, Carie Charlesworth said that based on her ex-husband's past behavior, she was afraid for her safety when he showed up at her place of employment.

     Shortly after the January lockdown, the principal of Holy Trinity placed Carie on paid administrative leave. But in June 2013, an official with the San Diego Catholic diocese informed the 39-year-old teacher that she would not be offered a teaching position for the upcoming school year. In the letter containing this devastating news, the diocese administrator justified the decision by pointing out that according to public records, Martin Charlesworth "has a 20-plus year history of violence, abuse and harassment of people--mostly women--and he has continued the pattern to the present."

     Thirty Holy Trinity parents held a rally outside the school in support of the diocese's decision to discontinue Carie Charleworth's employment. These parents felt that her presence in the school, given the nature of her relationship with her violent and unpredictable ex-husband, endangered their children.

     Carie Charlesworth, in discussing her situation with a reporter, said, "I followed all the things they tell domestic abuse victims to do. Now I feel I was the one who got punished. This is why other victims do not come forward."

     Following her dismissal, Carie Charlesworth championed legislation to insure that no other woman would experience what she had been put through by her employer. In October 2013, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill into law that protected victims of domestic abuse from losing their jobs. A month earlier, she filed a lawsuit against the diocese contesting her dismissal. (In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that religious organizations can claim ministerial exemptions from employment discrimination laws.)

     Martin Charlesworth had been released from the San Diego County Jail on June 20, 2013.

     As of July 2015, Carie Charlesworth's lawsuit against her former employer remained unresolved. 

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Sylvie Cachay Bathtub Murder Case

     Sylvie Cachay grew up as the daughter of a Peruvian-born physician who practiced in Arlington, Virginia. She studied fashion design in New York City and worked for clothing designers Marc Jacobs, Tommy Hilfinger, and Victoria's Secret. In 2006, Cachay started her own swimsuit line called Syla. She resided in a So Ho apartment in Manhattan's meatpacking district.

     Early in 2010, the 33-year-old swimwear designer met 24-year-old Nicholas Brooks, a college dropout and unemployed party-boy with a history of patronizing prostitutes, consuming large amounts of alcohol, and smoking marijuana. Nicholas Brooks' father, Joseph Brooks, achieved a bit of fame by writing the 1970s hit song, "You Light Up My Life." The songwriter supported his son's party-boy lifestyle until 2009 when the elder Brooks was arrested on charges of sexually assaulting several women, most of whom were aspiring actresses. (In 2011, Joseph Brooks, facing the chance of a long stretch in prison, committed suicide.)

     Because of Nicholas Brooks' debauched lifestyle funded by Cachay's credit cards, the couple had a turbulent relationship in which they frequently broke up only to get back together again.

     On the morning of December 8, 2010, Cachay sent Brooks an email that read: "Nick, for the past six months I have supported you financially and emotionally. I am speaking with my credit card company and the police and I am going to tell them that I never allowed you to use my card. I don't care. Have fun in jail."

     Later on the day of Cachay's angry email, at her So Ho apartment, the couple made up. That night, just after midnight, the couple walked to the SoHo House, a luxury hotel not far from Cachay's apartment. They checked into their room at 12:30 AM.

     Shortly after Cachay and Brooks checked in to the SoHo House, a hotel employee heard a man and a woman arguing loudly in their room. Thirty minutes later, Brooks left the suite and was seen eating a steak in the hotel's dining room. Upon finishing his meal, Brooks and a man who had come to the lobby to meet him, left the hotel. A short time later they were having drinks at a nightclub called Employees Only.

     At three in the morning of December 9, 2010, about two and a half hours after Cachay and Brooks checked in to the SoHo House, a guest on the floor below complained to the front dest about water leaking through the ceiling. Hotel employees entered Cachay's room and found her dead in the overflowing bathtub. One of the stunned hotel employees called 911.

     New York City homicide detectives, when they arrived at the hotel, found the swimsuit designer in the bathtub wearing a sweater and a pair of underwear. The officers didn't notice any signs of physical trauma on the dead woman's body. At five-thirty that morning, while the death scene investigators were still in the hotel room, Nicholas Brooks returned to the suite. He agreed to be questioned at a nearby NYPD precinct station.

     Brooks admitted to his questioners that he and his dead girlfriend had been arguing in the hotel room before he left to eat his steak. After that, he and a friend went out for drinks at a nearby nightclub. He said that when he left the hotel room Sylvie was alive.

     Following the autopsy, a forensic pathologist with the New York City Medical Examiner's Office ruled that Sylvie Cachay had died of asphyxia due to strangulation and drowning. The manner of death in her case: criminal homicide.

     New York City detectives arrested Nicholas Brooks on January 4, 2011. He was charged with first-degree murder in Cachay's sudden and violent death. At his arraignment hearing, the magistrate denied the murder suspect bail. Brooks entered a plea of not guilty.

     The Cachay-Brooks murder trial got underway in New York City on June 7, 2013. In his opening remarks, the assistant district attorney laid out the prosecution's theory of the case: the unemployed, playboy had been using the victim to fund his taste for prostitutes, alcohol, marijuana, and expensive nights out on the town. When she threatened to cut him off and report him to the police, he strangled or drowned her to death in the hotel bathtub.

     The New York City Medical Examiner's Office forensic pathologist took the stand early in the trial. According to the pathologist, "Bruises on the victim's neck, bleeding in her eyes, and abrasions inside her mouth...were injuries consistent with [homicidal] asphyxiation."

     Through several prosecution witnesses, the assistant district attorney presented the jury with emails in which Cachay had complained to her friends about Brooks' drinking, drug use, and late-night partying. In these emails, she referred to the defendant as "the kid I'm dating," as her "man-boy," or as a "stoner" who had quit his job in a cupcake shop.

     The Brooks defense, through a forensic pathologist from Syosset, New York, presented evidence that Cachay's death had been accidental. According to Dr. Gerard Catanese, the victim had drowned in the tub because she had sedatives, anti-depressents, and muscle relaxers in her system. "That combination of drugs," Dr. Catanese said, "could account for her falling asleep, losing consciousness...and sinking under the water and ultimately dying."

     On July 11, 2013, the jury, relying solely on circumstantial evidence, found Nicholas Brooks guilty of first-degree murder. As the verdict was read, friends of Sylvie Cachay, from their seats in the courtroom, cheered loudly. 

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Gabe Watson and The Honeymoon Murder Case

     On October 11, 2003, 26-year-0ld David Gabriel "Gabe" Watson married Tina Thomas, the human resources manager for a small, southern department store chain. The couple met while students at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Shortly before getting married, Tina, in anticipation of her honeymoon, took beginning scuba diving lessons that included eleven dives in a flooded Alabama quarry. Gabe, a more experienced diver, had taken advanced courses. He had also made a total of 55 dives, 40 of which had been in the quarry. In 1999 he had been certified as a rescue diver.

     Ten days after the wedding, Gabe and his 26-year-old wife began their Australian honeymoon. In Sydney, they visited the Taronga Zoo and attended a Shakespeare play at the Sydney Opera House. On October 22, 2003, the honeymooners began a 7-day dive expedition on the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea. Day one of the adventure involved being taken, on the Townsville Dive Company's vessel "Spoilsport," to the historic Yolonga shipwreck, 48 nautical miles southeast of Townsville in Queensland, Australia. Gabe and Tina were accompanied by rescue divers Dr. Doug Milsap and Dr. Stanley Stutz, an emergency room physician from Chicago.

     Shortly into the dive, Dr. Stutz saw Watson swim to his wife and embrace her. When they separated, Gabe began swimming to the surface as she sank to the sea bed where she drowned. Rescuers recovered Tina Watson's body not far from the shipwreck.

     When asked to explain what happened to his wife, Gabe said he and Tina, shortly after going into the sea, had encountered strong currents. She panicked, and as he approached to help, she knocked off his mask and air regulator. He couldn't hold her. She floated away and began to sink. Because of an ear problem, Gabe said he was unable to go after her. As she drifted to the bottom of the ocean, he swam to the surface to summon help.

     On October 27, 2003, five days after the drowning, detectives with the Townsville Police Department questioned Gabe Watson. He said that during the struggle he had tried but failed to activate his wife's buoyancy control vest. "I remember," he said, "shouting through my regulator, 'Tina, Tina, Tina.' In the back of my mind I was thinking these people [the other divers] could see us, or at least think something odd was going on. I pretty much lost it."

     Members of the Australian State Dive Squad assisted in the investigation of the drowning by conducting reenactments of Tina's dive. Several members of the investigation team had problems with Gabe Watson's explanation of the drowning, and suspected foul play. In the meantime, the tabloid press in Australia, England, and the United States called Tina's death "The Honeymoon Murder," and by implication, portrayed Gabe Watson as a cold-blooded killer motivated by his wife's life insurance.

     Four years passed with nothing happening in the case. Then, on November 13, 2007, the story jumped back in the news when the authorities in Australia held an inquest into Tina Watson's death. (I'm not sure why, after four years, the authorities decided to re-open the case. Perhaps it was pressure from Tina Watson's family.) Back in the U.S., on August 15, 2008, Gabe Watson married a woman named Kim Lewis. Three months after his second marriage, an Australian grand jury indicted him for murdering his first wife in October 2003.

     Watson, in May 2009, returned to Australia on his own to face the murder charge. A month later, in the Queensland Supreme Court in Brisbane, he pleaded guilty to the crime of manslaughter. While he had not intentionally killed his wife, Watson was admitting that he had been criminally negligent in not saving her. The Australian judge, believing that the defendant had not murdered his wife, that he had loved her, and felt guilty that he hadn't saved her, sentenced Watson to one year in prison. The judge criticized the media that he felt had journalistically convicted Watson of murdering his wife.

     The one-year prison stretch infuriated Tina Watson's family, and prompted the Australian prosecutor to appeal the sentence to the Queensland Court of Appeals. In September 2009, the three-judge appeals panel hardened Watson's punishment to 18 months behind bars.

     If Gabe Watson thought the matter of his first wife's 2003 death was behind him, he was wrong. In October 2010, a grand jury sitting in Birmingham, Alabama indicted him on charges of murder for pecuniary (monetary) gain, and kidnapping by deception--allegedly luring her to Australia so he could drown her. A month after the Alabama indictment, Watson, having served his 18 months in the Australian prison, was free. Sort of.

     On November 25, 2010, the Australian authorities deported Watson back to America. Before they did, however, the U.S. Attorney General gave them assurances that if convicted, Watson would not be sentenced to the death penalty. As soon as he got off he plane in the U.S., Watson was taken into custody. The prosecutor in Alabama asked the judge to deny Watson bail but in December a judge set his bond at $100,000. Watson made bail and was able to help his attorneys prepare for his trial.

     Watson's defense team lost two key legal arguments. First, that the United States did not have jurisdiction in a death that occurred in Australia; and second, that trying him twice for the same drowning amounted to double jeopardy. The prosecutor in Alabama argued successfully that he had jurisdiction because, according to his theory of the case, Watson had planned to kill his wife in Alabama for the travel and life insurance benefits. (As it turned out, Watson was not the beneficiary of his wife's life insurance policy, her father was.) Double jeopardy didn't apply in this case because Watson's first conviction was in another country.

     Gabe Watson's attorneys were prepared to argue that Tina Watson's death had been a tragic accident caused by her inexperience as a diver and a previously diagnosed heart problem. On the other side, the prosecutor hoped to convince the Alabama jury that Watson had switched off his wife's air supply, held her in a bear hug until she died, turned her air back on, then let her sink to the ocean floor.

     Colin McKenzie, a diving expert involved in the original Australian investigation had concluded that "a diver with Watson's training should have been able to bring Tina up." But after reviewing Tina's and Gabe's diver logs certificates and her medical history, McKenzie changed his mind. Based on this new information, the expert concluded that Gabe Watson should not have been allowed in the sea with a woman with no open water scuba diving experience.

     The Watson murder trial got underway on February 13, 2012 in the Jefferson County Courthouse in Birmingham, Alabama. Once the jury of 8 women and 4 men were empaneled, the prosecutor, Don Valeska, and defense attorney Joe Basgier, made their opening statements.

     On February 21, after Valeska had presented the bulk of his case, the trial took a bad turn for the prosecution. Valeska had put funeral director Sam Shelton on the stand and was directing his testimony toward how, at Tina Watson's funeral, the defendant had asked about retrieving his wife's engagement ring from the casket. The prosecutor intended this line of questioning to establish the monetary motive behind the killing. Judge Tommy Nail, from neighboring Montgomery County, did not like what he heard. Interrupting the prosecutor's direct examination, the judge said, "I took my grandmother's engagement ring when she was buried. I think it's quite common." Turning to the witness, Judge Nail asked, "Is it common?" In response to the judge's question, the funeral director answered, "It's quite common."

     Still fuming, Judge Nail excused the jury, then spoke to prosecutor Valeska: "You mean to tell me that [Gabe Watson] bought the engagement ring, married her, he and his family paid for a wedding, he planned and paid for a honeymoon half way around the world, all so he could kill her to get an engagement ring he had bought for her in the first place?"

     Although the jurors didn't hear Judge Nail rip the heart out of the prosecutor's case, it became clear where the judge stood on the issue of the defendant's guilt. Suddenly a conviction, a risky proposition from the beginning, looked like a long shot.

     Judge Tommy Nail, on Thursday, February 23, directed a verdict of not guilty after the prosecutor rested his case. In the judge's opinion, viewed in a light most favorable to the state, there was not enough evidence to make a prima facie case of guilt against Gabe Watson. As a result, there was no need for a defense. The trial was over.

     Only Gabe Watson knows if he killed his wife. In my view, the Alabama prosecutor should have left well enough alone after Watson's 2009 guilty plea and his 18 months in the Australian prison. There was simply no hard evidence in this case of a premeditated murder. This case cost the state of Alabama a lot of money. Several of the prosecution's witness had been flown over from Australia. Sometimes prosecutors, attracted by the limelight and the chance of convicting a big-fish defendant, go too far. Both of the judges in this case--the one in Australia, and Judge Nail--did not believe Gabe Watson had murdered his wife. The prosecutor knew this, but went ahead with the case anyway.

     A book about the case called A Second Chance for Justice by a pair of Australian criminology teachers came out in February 2013. Dr. Asher Flynn lectured at Monash University. Dr. Kate Fitz-Gibbon taught criminology at Deakin University. According to the authors, the Australian authorities accepted Watson's guilty plea to save money. The authors believe Gabe Watson murdered his wife.


Monday, July 27, 2015

Where is Tiffany Michelle Whitton?

     On March 7, 2011, 25-year-old Tiffany Michelle Whitton, a resident of Marietta, Georgia within the Atlanta metropolitan region, showed up in Dalton, Georgia with two other women and a man named Matthew Stone. That night, Tiffany, Tracy Chambers, Casey Renee Cantrell, and Matthew Stone broke into a woman's house and terrorized her with a tire iron. The victim managed to lock herself into the bathroom and call 911. Before fleeing the dwelling, Tiffany and her crew stole the woman's purse that had been lying on the couch. It contained $60.

     When questioned by detectives, Tiffany claimed the owner of the purse owed her money. She and her friends had gone to the house to collect what was hers. Investigators suspected that the victim and the four intruders had been in a drug deal. Tiffany, a user of illicit drugs, had paid the woman for pills, and when the supplier didn't deliver the goods, Tiffany and her friends raided the house to get her money back.

     A prosecutor charged Tiffany and her accomplices with armed robbery, burglary, and possession and use of drug-related objects. Following her guilty plea, the judge gave Tiffany a probated sentence.

     Tiffany, a former Hooter's waitress in Kennesaw, a suburban community north of Atlanta, disappeared on September 13, 2013. The mother of a 6-year-old daughter was last seen at two in the morning in the parking lot of a Walmart store not far from her home in Marietta, Georgia. Since that night she has not made contact with family members or friends. She was last seen with her boyfriend, Ashley Caudle. (A few weeks after Tiffany Whitton's disappearance, police arrested Caudle in a meth raid at his mother's house where he lived.)

     The missing woman's mother created a Facebook page called "Find Tiffany Whitton."

     On February 20, 2014, Marietta police officer David Baldwin, in referring to the multi-tattooed, five-foot-two-inch, 100-pound Whitton, said, "What really worries us is that she literally vanished without a trace."

     In July 2014, detectives executed a search warrant at Caudle's mother's house in Marietta where workman dug up her back yard looking for Tiffany Whitton's remains. The searchers came up empty handed.

     So, what could have happened to Tiffany Whitton? She could have run off to start a new life. However, because of her daughter, that didn't seem likely. It was also unlikely that some abductor was holding her captive. If dead, she could have killed herself in some remote location, or accidentally overdosed on drugs. If none of these events took place, someone may have murdered her. As a drug abuser, Tiffany rubbed shoulders with unsavory and dangerous people. Did she fail to pay a drug dealer? Did her criminal associates come to believe that she was a snitch?

     If Tiffany Whitton was murdered, her case will not move forward until someone who knows something about her disappearance calls the police, or someone stumbles upon her body. Finding a person who is dead is a lot more difficult than finding someone who is alive. Moreover, where do you even begin to look for a corpse?

     As of July 2015, Whitton's whereabouts remain unknown. There have been no arrests in the case.
     

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Ridiculous College Courses: Majoring in Stupid

     Recent polls indicate that most Americans believe that acquiring a higher education isn't worth the time or the money. Having a college degree once meant something, and provided the graduate with at least the opportunity to get a decent job. Modern employers are not so impressed. The job market is flooded with degree holders who are unfit for the higher paying positions. That people with bachelor degrees are smarter than people who haven't graduated from a four-year college is no longer a safe assumption.

     On average, students in public supported colleges and universities spend $20,000 a year. (This includes room and board.) Private schools cost twice as much. This means that a college education costs between $80,000 and $160,000. How many parents with more than one child can afford this? Not many. The average college graduate enters the job market owing, for his or her education alone, $24,000. They also have to pay off credit card debt, and car loans. No wonder they are so disappointed when they can't land the high-paying jobs. With the cost of higher education so high, and so many graduates unemployed or under-employed, it's no longer a given that a college education, as a business proposition, is a wise investment. 

       Studies have shown that college and university services are less geared for student needs than for the needs of administrators and professors. Too many college courses reflect the interests of the people who teach them rather than the interests of the students who take them. Many courses are products of the professors' pet interests, or are designed, not for the teaching of useful and demanding subjects, but to draw students.

     One way to fill up a classroom is to create a course about sex. This is one subject college graduates are well versed in. If the professor is a historian, he can offer a course called The History of Sex. There's also the Sociology of Sex; The Philosophy of Sex; The Physiology of Sex; the Psychology of Sex; and The Politics of Sex. Some actual course titles include: Sex in Ancient Rome; The Adultery Novel; Those Sexy Victorians; The Phallus; Sex, Rugs, Salt, and Coal (I have no idea what that one is about); Purity and Porn in America; Cyberporn and Society; FemSex; God, Sex, Chocolate: Desire and the Spiritual Path; and Dirty Pictures.

     There are entire academic departments devoted to gay studies. Swarthmore students are offered a course called Interrogating Gender: Centuries of Dramatic Cross-Dressing. At the University of South Carolina one can take a course entitled GaGa for Gaga: Sex, Gender, and Identify. Not to be outdone, the University of California, Los Angeles, offers a course called Queer Musicology. 

     Look through any college catalogue and you'll find courses on UFO's, ghosts, vampires, zombies, and witchcraft. College kids can enroll in courses devoted to the study of people such as David Becham, Lady Gaga, Oprah Winfrey, Tupac, and dozens of other sports and entertainment "icons." College students today take courses called The Art of Walking; Tree Climbing; Whitewater Skills; Golf, Knitting for Noobs; Finding Dates Worth Keeping; Getting Dressed; How to Watch Television; and my favorite--Underwater Basket Weaving. (In the old days, if you were weaving baskets, you were in a mental institution. Now, you are in college.)

     Several universities, including Georgetown, offer courses featuring the old TV series "Star Trek." Students at the University of Texas can sigh up for a course called Invented Languages: Klingon and Beyond. Language students at the University of Wisconsin can take Elvish (a language spoken in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.) Many of these Klingon and Elvish speaking students can barely handle English.

     Physics students at Frostburg University can study the magic featured in Harry Potter books. Inquiring minds at Occidental College can earn credits by taking a course called, The Unbearable Whiteness of Barbie. Students at the University of Iowa can avail themselves of a course called Elvis As Anthology. The University of California Irvine offers a course called The Science of Superheroes.

     At Alfred University, some professor teaches a course called Nip, Tuck, Perm, Pierce, and Tattoo: Adventures with Embodied Culture. According to the course description: "Students are encouraged to think about teeth whitening, tanning, shaving, and hair-dying." Since kids think about this stuff anyway, perhaps this professor could encourage students to think about things that are at least academic. But wait--there's more: class projects include a visit to a tattoo-and-piercing studio. (Maybe owned by the professor's spouse.) University of California Berkeley students can avail themselves of Joy of Garbage. 

     At the University of Minnesota, if you're a numbskull who's worried about satisfying the physical science requirement, there is a course for you. It's called Geology and Cinema (Professors use the word "cinema" instead of "movie" because "cinema" sounds so academic.) where students sit in class and watch movies that feature geological subject matter as in "Tremors," and "Journey to the Center of the Earth." (If I were this professor, I'd include a field trip to Disneyworld.) At Pitzer College there's a course called Learning from YouTube. According to the catalogue, "YouTube is a phenomenon that should be studied." (Any referred to as a "phenomenon" must be important.)

     For Ohio State students who don't know how to watch a football game, there's a course called Sport For The Spectator. (Again, notice the word "Spectator." How many people who attend sporting events think of themselves as "spectators?") Hopefully this professor gives several lectures that deal with the technique, and meaning, of face-painting, or "facial art." Temple University has a course called UFOs in American Society.

     For pre-law students at the University of California at Berkeley, there's Arguing with Judge Judy: Popular "Logic" on TV Judge Shows. This course is of particular value to students who would rather play a judge on television than be one in real life. For students who want to be TV lawyers, I recommend the Perry Mason series. There is probably a college course around called: The Jurisprudence of Perry Mason.

     Appalachian State University offers a history course called What if Harry Potter is Real? Students who take this course will explore questions such as "who decides what history is, and who decides how it is used or misused. How can fantasy reshape how we look at history. (I would rename this course Advanced Load of Crap.) 

     Students lucky enough to attend the University of Wisconsin at Madison can avail themselves of Theatrical Fencing. This offering from the Department of Kinesiology provides the student with this pearl of wisdom: "Good theatrical fencing is distinct from the art of sword craft, and is worthy of study." Indeed. What value is an academic program without at least one course on theatrical sword craft? And finally, at New York University, students can earn four college credits by taking a course called Disc Jockey: History, Culture, and Technique. (The technique part suggests a big lab fee.) Many college graduates don't know what came first, World War I or World War II, but they all know the history of the D J. At the University of Pennsylvania one can take a course called The Feminist Critique of Christianity. 

     It's no wonder that if you throw a stick in your local shopping mall it'll hit nine retail employees with college degrees. And all of them are in debt and quite a few can speak Klingon.

     In his 2013 book, The New School, University of Tennessee law professor Glenn H. Reynolds makes the case that college graduates can't find good jobs and payoff their huge debts because colleges and universities overcharge and underperform. One way to quickly improve the quality of higher education would be to eliminate stupid courses like the ones above. 
  

Saturday, July 25, 2015

The Michelle Gibson Murder-For-Hire Case

     Steven Gibson, the owner of a machine shop, lived in Peoria, Arizona, a suburb of Phoenix. He resided in the Thunderbird Vista neighborhood with his 41-year-old wife Michelle, their 15-year-old son Steven Jr., and their 17-year-old daughter Alyssa. In November 2012, Steven Gibson was charged with assaulting a police officer following a DUI arrest. Local police officers, on several occasions, had been summoned to the Gibson house on accusations of domestic violence. No arrests were made because Michelle Gibson refused to press charges.

     At two in the morning of March 1, 2013, Michelle Gibson called 911 and said: "There's blood everywhere! I'm with my kids and I just got home and my husband's out in the garage dead."

     In the Gibson garage police found that the victim had been bludgeoned in the head and stabbed several times in the chest. Since nothing had been stolen from the house, the police ruled out theft as a motive. Investigators also wondered what Mr. Gibson was doing in his garage so late at night.

     On March 27, 2013, following a month-long homicide investigation, police arrested Steven Gibson Jr. on charges of first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder. The next day, officers arrested his mother Michelle on the same charges.

     Investigators believed that Michelle Dawn Gibson had recruited her son, her daughter, and a friend of her son's to murder her husband. (The friend, 16-year-old Erik McBee, had turned himself into the police shortly after the homicide.)

     According to police reports, Michelle Gibson told her team of young assassins that Mr. Gibson needed to be killed before he murdered a family member. In discussing the fate of her husband, Michelle mentioned that he had a life insurance policy. The accused murder-for-hire mastermind promised to pay Erik McBee $1,000 for his participation in Mr. Gibson's homicide.

     The murder-for-hire plan, as allegedly laid out by Michelle, involved incapacitating her husband with chloroform while he slept in his bed. Using the victim's own truck, they would haul his body to a nearby park where one of the young killers would shoot him in the back of the head. To make the murder look like a drug deal gone bad, the assassins planned to spread pills on and around his body.

     As is often the case in murder-for-hire schemes, things did not go as planned. At ten-thirty on the night of February 28, 2013, Erik McBee used a baseball bat to bludgeon Mr. Gibson in the head as he slept in his bed. Steven Gibson Jr. stabbed his dying father three times in the chest, then slashed his throat. Using a dolly, Eric and Steven rolled Mr. Gibson's corpse into the garage. Because Erik McBee fled the scene at the sound of a distant police siren, the dead man never made it to the park. Later that day, Erik, a Popeye's Chicken employee, turned himself into the police.

     When Michelle Gibson returned home around midnight with her daughter, she allegedly helped her son clean up the bloody murder scene. At two that morning, after disposing of physical evidence, Michelle called 911 to report the discovery of her husband's body in the garage.

     Michelle Gibson and her son Steven pleaded not guilty to all charges. Erik McBee also pleaded not guilty to murder.

     In January 2014, McBee pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and agreed to testify against Michelle and Steven Gibson. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

     Steven Gibson Jr. pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in August 2014. The judge sentenced him to 22 years behind bars.

     On November 25, 2014, the jury found Michelle Gibson guilty of first-degree murder. Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Alfred Fenzel, in February 2015, sentenced the murder-for-hire mastermind to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

     

Friday, July 24, 2015

"Dragnet": Just the Facts

     Although not one of those kids who wanted to grow up to be a police detective, or one who devoured mystery novels, crime-fighting comics, or Sherlock Holmes fiction, I was a big fan of the TV series "Dragnet" starring Jack Webb as Sergeant Joe Friday of the Los Angeles Police Department. The show first aired from 1951 to 1959, then came back in 1967 and ran to 1970. I can't remember why "Dragnet" appealed to me as a middle and high school student, but after watching a few episodes recently on a TV retro network, I know why I like it now. I admire the show today because the stories, based on actual police files, portray the bureaucracy, boredom, frustrations and drudgery--punctuated by bursts of danger--of real life detective work.

     The crimes featured on "Dragnet," ranging from murder, armed robbery, missing persons, arson, check fraud, embezzlement, and even shoplifting, unfolded in a straightforward fashion, helped along by Jack Webb's voice-over narration in which you are informed of the time, date, and place of every scene. The acting is direct and unpretentious (stilted if you're a fan of the modern, angst-ridden I'm-going-for-an-acting-award style) and doesn't overshadow the terse, crisp, clear-eyed exposition and dialog. I like the script writing, an enjoyable blend of Ernest Hemingway and first-rate news reporting. Journalism school students should be required to watch episodes of "Dragnet" and encouraged to emulate its style.

     Each "Dragnet" episode had a beginning, middle, and end. I especially enjoyed the story wrap-ups because you learned the fate of the criminal suspects who were tried and convicted in "Department 187 of the Superior Court of California, in and for the city and county of Los Angeles." First-degree murderers were "executed in the manner prescribed by law at the state penitentiary, San Quentin, California." Bam. Case closed.

     Jack Webb also produced the show which was written principally by James E. Moser who peppered the scripts with police terminology such as M. O. and APB (all points bulletin). Moser realistically portrayed how criminal cases are solved by detectives who logically follow one investigative lead to the next. Detective Joe Friday didn't have feelings in his "gut," or lay awake at night in angst over the mental and emotional strains of being a cop. He did his job in workman like fashion without all the belly-aching.

     "Dragnet" was good stuff then, and, in my opinion, refreshing now.  

Thursday, July 23, 2015

The James Sullivan Murder-For-Hire Case

     In 1977, James Sullivan, a 34-year-old owner of a liquor distributorship in Atlanta, married Lita McClinton, a debutante from of of the city's socially prominent families. She was black and he was white, and her parents, Emory and Jo Ann McClinton, were not pleased with the marriage. Sullivan, a flashy self-made millionaire, had grown up poor on the mean streets of Boston. Ten years older than his bride, he had been married before. Having learned from experience how costly a divorce could be, Sullivan had talked Lita into signing a prenuptial agreement that limited her, in the event of a divorce, to a three-year annual stipend of $90,000. The contract allowed her to keep all of the jewelry she had acquired during the marriage.

     The newlyweds moved into an opulent townhouse in an Atlanta subdivision called Buckhead. Sullivan purchased a second house, four years later, in Palm Beach, Florida. While in Florida vacationing without his wife at his new oceanfront property, Sullivan met Hyo-Sook-Choi Rogers, a young woman from South Korea who went by the name Suki. In August 1985, fed up with her husband's infidelity, Lita kicked him out of the Atlanta townhouse. She also filed for divorce and announced that that she was contesting the enforceability of the prenuptial agreement.

     Shortly after the breakup, a domestic court judge granted Lita $7,000 a month in temporary alimony. The cash-strapped Sullivan, burdened with four car payments, a $900,000 balloon mortgage on the Palm Beach mansion, and a girlfriend to impress and keep happy, sold his Atlanta liquor distributorship. Although he had convinced the judge to lower the alimony payments to $2,500 a month, Sullivan had not paid Lita any money. His refusal to pay forced her back into court. Sullivan was also pressing the judge to enforce the prenuptial contract. Through her attorney, Lita demanded, in addition to the monthly alimony payments, the townhouse, one of the Mercedes, and $200,000 cash. At this point, James Sullivan had already spent $100,000 in lawyer fees, and he could see no end in sight to the outflow of money. The divorce was bleeding him dry financially.

     At eight-thirty in the morning of January 16, 1987, a resident of the Buckhead condominium complex saw a man approach Lita Sullivan's front door carrying flowers. The door opened, and the man disappeared inside. A few seconds later, the neighbor heard two gunshots in rapid succession. The man who had delivered the flowers ran out of the house, climbed into a car, and drove off. The witness found Lita Sullivan in the foyer lying on her back, her face covered in blood. A dozen pink, long-stemmed roses lay on the floor next to her body. The neighbor called 911 and tried to stop the bleeding by pressing a towel against Lita's face. She died in the ambulance as it raced to the hospital.

     The autopsy revealed that Lita had been shot in the face at close range by a .9mm pistol. Investigators at the scene recovered the shell casings and determined that the shooting had not been motivated by robbery. As a result, detectives came to the conclusion that the murder was a contract killing orchestrated by the victim's husband. At the time of Lita's murder, her estranged husband was in Palm Beach, Florida. There was no question that Lita's death would save Sullivan a lot of money.

     A month after Lita's murder, James Sullivan married Suki Rogers. Detectives still hadn't identified the triggerman, located the murder weapon, or acquired solid evidence linking Sullivan to the homicide. Nevertheless, in September 1987, a Fulton County Grand Jury sitting in Atlanta, indicted Sullivan for the contract murder of his wife. A few months later, a judge set aside the indictment on the grounds it was merely based on motive.

     With the murder investigation dead in the water, the FBI took over the case. (Criminal homicide is not a federal offense unless it is committed under special circumstances such as in the course of a kidnapping, bombing, bank robbery, organized crime activity, or pursuant to an interstate conspiracy to commit murder-for-hire. Under Title 18 United States Code Section 1958, a single interstate telephone call in furtherance of a murder plot will give the FBI jurisdiction. In 2006, FBI agents were involved in 78 murder-for-hire cases.)

     Three days before Lita Sullivan's murder, someone from a Howard Johnson Motel in Atlanta had made a collect call to the phone in James Sullivan's house in Palm Beach, Florida. The call had been placed from room 518 which had been registered to a Johnny Furr. Forty minutes after the murder, someone using a pay phone at a highway rest stop just outside of Atlanta, had called James Sullivan's house. That conversation lasted less than a minute. FBI agents, unable to identify Johnny Furr, assumed the name was an alias. The federal investigation stalled, and for the second time, the Sullivan case went dormant.

     In 1990, James Sullivan became embroiled in yet another fight to save his assets from a wife who was divorcing him. This time it was Suki. The investigation into Lita's murder sprang back to life when Suki, testifying in a divorce proceeding, claimed that Sullivan had threatened to have her killed by the man he had paid to murder Lita. Questioned by the FBI, Suki said that Sullivan never mentioned the hit man by name. The federal prosecutor went ahead with the case anyway, and in November 1992, James Sullivan went on trial for paying an unidentified man to murder his estranged wife Lita. Following Suki's testimony, which comprised the principal evidence against the defendant, the judge, ruling that the government had failed to present enough proof to establish a prima facie case, directed a verdict of not guilty. James Sullivan walked out of the federal court house that day a free man.

     Emory and Jo Ann McClinton, convinced that James Sullivan had paid to have their daughter murdered, filed a wrongful death suit against their former son-in-law. The plaintiff's case, filed in Atlanta, hinged on the testimony of Suki Rogers, and the phone calls between Atlanta and Sullivan's Palm Beach home just before and after the fatal shooting. The identity of the triggerman, however, remained a mystery. The jury, applying the lesser burden of proof that applies to civil trials, found in favor of the McClintons, awarding the plaintiffs $4 million in damages.

     In late 1997, more than ten years after Lita Sullivan's murder, a woman from Beaumont, Texas named Belinda Trahan, gave the Atlanta police the missing piece of the Sullivan case puzzle. She identified Johnny Furr as her ex-boyfriend Anthony Harwood, a forty-seven-year-old truck driver from Albemarle, North Carolina. After they had broken up, Harwood continued to visit her in Texas. Belinda described Harwood as a violent, abusive man who had repeatedly threatened to kill her if she told the police that he was the man who had delivered the roses and shot James Sullivan's wife.

     According to Belinda Trahan, two weeks before Lita Sullivan's murder, she and Harwood had conferred with James Sullivan in an Atlanta restaurant where Sullivan handed Harwood an envelope stuffed with $12, 500 in cash. The men had first met in November 1986 when Harwood hauled Sullivan's household goods from Georgia to Florida. Sullivan told the truck driver that he wanted his gold-digging wife murdered, and offered him $25,000 to do the job.

     Interrogated by Atlanta detectives in January 1998, Harwood admitted that he had taken the hit money, and that he was the Johnny Farr who had called Sullivan from the motel before and after Lita Sullivan's murder. Shortly after the shooting, Harwood had called Sullivan in Palm Beach and said, "Merry Christmas Mr. Sullivan, your problem has been taken care of." Harwood refused to admit, however, that he was the man who had delivered the flowers and shot Lita McClinton in the face. He claimed that he had just been the getaway driver for the triggerman, a guy he only knew as "John the Barber." Detectives didn't believe "John the Barber" existed, nevertheless, the prosecutor allowed Harwood to plead guilty to the lesser homicide offense of voluntary manslaughter. In return, Harwood promised to testify against the prosecutor's main interest in the case, James Sullivan. Harwood's refusal to take responsibility for being the hit man did not, in any way, weaken the murder-for-hire case against the mastermind.

     A Fulton County Grand Jury, for the second time, indicted James Sullivan for the murder of Lita McClinton. On April 24, 1998, before the police took him into custody, Sullivan fled to Costa Rica. From there he traveled to Panama, Venezuela, and Malaysia before settling in Thailand where he purchased a luxurious beachside condominium. Under his true name, he opened a bank account, acquired a driver's license, and lived with a Thai woman who assumed the role of housekeeper and wife. A fugitive from American justice, James Sullivan was living the good life in a tropical paradise.

     Five years after fleeing the country to avoid prosecution, Sullivan, on the FBI's most wanted list, still resided in Thailand. The Royal Thai police arrested Sullivan in 2002 after the television series, "American's Most Wanted" featured his case. A viewer who knew of Sullivan's whereabouts called the FBI. Sullivan fought extradition and lost. In March 2004, the FBI brought him out of Thailand and placed him in the Fulton County Jail. Still a man of means, Sullivan prepared for his upcoming trial by hiring a team of first-rate defense attorneys. True to his working-class, Irish roots, he was not going down without a fight.

     The murder-for-hire trial, shown on Court TV, got underway on February 27, 2006. If the jury found the defendant guilty of the 19-year-old murder, he could be sentenced to death, or be put away for life. Either way, the 64-year-old convict would die in prison. For Sullivan, the stakes were high.

     The heart of the prosecution's case involved the testimony of Belinda Trahan and her former boyfriend, Anthony Harwood. Trahan, a slender 41-year-old with long blond hair and a sophisticated demeanor, told the jury that she may have given Harwood the idea of posing as a deliveryman. Three days before the murder, when he expressed concern that Lita Sullivan might not open her door to a stranger, she had said, "Anyone knows if you want to get a woman to answer the door, all you have to do is take her flowers." When Harwood returned to North Carolina after the murder, he had said to her, "The job is done."

     Anthony Harwood, already convicted of voluntary manslaughter and serving a twenty-year sentence, took the stand to repeat his "John the Barber" story. His testimony against James Sullivan, however, was devastating. The prosecutor asked the 55-year-old witness if he felt remorse for his involvement in Lita McClinton's murder. The witness replied, "I guess I do, by what you may call proxy. I believe we're all accountable for our acts, but I guess if you get down to the brass tacks of it, it all began with Mr. Sullivan."

     On the advice of his attorneys, the defendant did not take the stand on his own behalf. With only two witnesses, the defense presented its case in less than an hour. On March 13, 2006, following the two-week trial, the jury, after deliberating less than an hour, found James Sullivan guilty as charged. The judge sentenced him to life without the chance of parole. For Lita McClinton's parents, after a nineteen-year ordeal, justice had been done. But it had come at a high price. Anthony Harwood, the man they believed had killed their daughter, in return for his testimony against the mastermind, had been given a twenty year sentence. If Harwood's girlfriend had called the police instead of recommending that he deliver her flowers, their daughter would not have been murdered.

     

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Pearlie Golden and Leo Sharp: Criminal Justice in an Aging Society

     It's become common knowledge that elderly people are prolific shoplifters. But it's still surprising when an old person commits a serious crime such as assault or criminal homicide. In recent years, due to mental illness and dementia, dozens of eighty and ninety-year-olds have been shot to death by the police. While these police-involved shootings were found to be justified, many of the fatal shootings were the result of the modern era's hair-trigger, militaristic form of policing. While perhaps legally justified, many of these deadly encounters were arguably unnecessary. But in a zero-tolerant police culture, age and dementia are no longer factors in the shoot-don't shoot equation. Gender doesn't figure in either.

Pearlie Golden

     Pearlie Golden, a 93-year-old resident of Hearne, Texas, a town of 4,500 in the east-central part of the state, didn't like it when the Texas Department of Public Safety declined to renew her driver's license on Tuesday May 6, 2014. Back at her house after failing the test, Pearlie, an African-American known in the community as "Miss Sulie," got into an argument with her nephew, Roy Jones. She demanded that he return the keys to her car. He refused. She got up from her chair on the front porch and entered the house. When she returned, she had a .38-caliber revolver in her hand. Roy Jones ran into the house and called 911.

     Officer Stephen Stem with the Hearne Police Department responded to the 911 call. In 2012, officer Stem had shot a man to death in the line of duty. He was cleared of wrongdoing in that case by a local grand jury and remained on the force.

    Officer Stem, in responding to the call at the old woman's house, shot Pearlie Golden three times. She died shortly thereafter at a nearby hospital. In justifying the deadly use of force on a 93-year-old woman, a police spokesperson said the deceased had "brandished a gun."(According to the Associated Press, Golden, prior to being shot by officer Stem, had actually fired her gun. It is not clear if she took aim at the officer. If she had fired at officer Stem, or at anyone else in his presence, this use of deadly force was clearly justified. If she shot into the air, or the gun discharged accidentally, the issue will be more complicated.) The official spokesperson said, "The officer asked her to put the handgun down, and when she would not, shots were fired." According to the spokesperson, officer Stem ordered her to drop the weapon three times.

     Many citizens of Hearne, outraged by the shooting, protested outside the police department. Ruben Gomez, the town's mayor, said he would recommend that officer Stem be fired from the department. On Saturday, May 10, the city council voted 6-0 to discharge officer Stem. To determine if the officer had committed a form of criminal homicide, the shooting was under investigation by the Texas Ranger's Office.

     On September 10, 2014, a local grand jury declined to indict the former police officer.

     Stephen Stem filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against the Hearne city council. On February 10, 2015, a federal judge dismissed the case.

Leo Sharp

     In 2014, Leo Sharp, a 90-yar-old decorated World War II veteran, resided in Michigan City, Indiana, a town of 30,000 fifty miles east of Chicago. In the fall of 2013, a federal prosecutor charged Sharp and eighteen others in connection with their involvement with a Mexican drug cartel. Mr. Sharp confessed to hauling more than a ton of cocaine into the U.S. from Mexico. He had earned, during his tenure as a drug courier, more than $1 million. (In 2011, police stopped Sharp on a traffic violation on Interstate 94 west of Detroit. The arresting officer recovered a large quantity of cocaine.)

     On May 7, 2014, following his guilty plea, Leo Sharp appeared before a federal judge in Detroit for his sentencing. Sharp's attorney, in arguing for leniency, focused on his client's past, particularly his being awarded the Bronze Star for  his combat in the Battle of Mount Battaglia in Italy. Attorney Darryl Goldberg also informed the court that Mr. Sharp's dementia would place a burden on federal prison personnel.

      When it came time for the defendant to speak, Mr. Sharp, dressed in a suit and tie, said he wanted to spend his few remaining years in Hawaii growing papayas on land he owned in that state. (He had probably purchased the property with his drug income.) "All I can tell you, your honor, is I'm really heartbroken I did what I did. But it's done."

     U.S. District Court Judge Nancy Edmunds sentenced Leo Sharp to three years in prison, and fined him $500,000. The judge said, "I don't doubt that prison will be difficult for you, but respect for the law requires there be some custody in this case." In all probability, this judge sentenced the old man to life behind bars.
   
      

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Donald Williams Jr.: A Man Unfit For Civilized Society

     Donald Williams, Jr., born and raised in a crime-ridden Philadelphia neighborhood to parents who physically abused him and spent their welfare money on crack, murdered a man in 1994. The 20-year-old with a low I.Q. and no idea how to make his way in civilized society, had assaulted his former girlfriend, then killed her boyfriend. Convicted of third-degree murder in 1996, the judge sentenced Williams to ten years in prison. (In Pennsylvania, third-degree murder convictions are almost always the result of plea deals.)

     Early in 2009, Williams began dating a woman from Reading, Pennsylvania named Maria Serrano. In May of that year, after letting him move in with her, Serrano kicked the 35-year-old out of her house. The infuriated ex-con took up residence in a halfway house in Reading.

     On June 25, 2009, Williams returned to Serrano's home. That night he raped her. But he didn't leave it at that. While she took a shower, he stabbed her with a screwdriver. Williams then threw the 49-year-old woman down her basement steps, doused her with gasoline, lit her up and left her for dead.

     To the 911 dispatcher, Serrano screamed, "Oh my God, I am bleeding! Hurry up! There is a fire, I am burning all over the place! There is a fire in the house! Hurry up!" Paramedics rushed the badly burned woman to the Lehigh Valley Burn Center near Allentown, Pennsylvania. On August 8, 2009, she died of her injuries.

     A Berks County prosecutor charged Williams, who was already in custody on the rape, arson, and aggravated assault charges, with first-degree murder. The prosecutor said he would seek the death penalty in this case.

     The Williams trial got underway on September 12, 2013 before Berks County Judge Scott D. Keller and a jury of seven women and five men. When Assistant District Attorney Dennis J. Skayhan rested his case, there was no doubt who had tortured and murdered Maria Serrano. Before she died, the victim had identified Williams as her attacker. A state forensic expert had connected the defendant to the rape though his DNA.

     Public defender Paul Yessler put Williams on the stand. The defendant did not deny that he had raped, stabbed, and set fire to the woman he had thrown down a flight of stairs. In a bold and obvious lie that did not go over well with the jurors, Williams claimed to have "flipped-out" that night after catching Serrano having sex with his younger brother.

     Prosecutor Skayhan, as part of his closing argument, played the victim's 911 tape. Public defender Yessler, in his closing statement, emphasized the defendant's 83 I.Q., his ghetto upbringing, and his childhood abuse. In referring to Williams, Yessler said, "This guy did not have a chance from the get-go."

     Six days after the opening of the trial, the jury, after deliberating six hours, found Williams guilty of rape, arson, and first-degree murder. The defendant showed no emotion at the reading of the verdict.

     Because the prosecution sought the death penalty in this case, the judge scheduled a two-day sentence hearing. In arguing for the death sentence, prosecutor Skayhan focused on how the tortured victim had died a slow, agonizing death. Public defender Yessler, in pushing for life, highlighted the defendant's low I.Q. and inability to control his impulses.

     The jury, after deliberating two hours on the sentencing issue, informed Judge Keller that a consensus could not be reached. The judge had no choice but to sentence Donald Williams to life in prison without parole.

     In speaking directly to the convicted murderer, Judge Keller made no secret of where he stood on the question of punishment in this case. "You deserved the death penalty," he said without trying to disguise his disgust at the jury's performance. "It was torture in any man or woman's world. You inflicted a considerable amount of pain and suffering on a victim which is unnecessary, heinous, atrocious, and cruel."

     While few would disagree with the judge's analysis of this murderer, William's low I.Q. would probably have kept him out of the death chamber anyway. Appellate judges do not like the idea of executing stupid people. (In my opinion, many low I.Q. defendants are simply good at playing dumb.)