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Monday, February 19, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On His High School "Don Juan"

We had a kid in high school that all the girls liked. He was small, didn't play sports, and didn't own a car. But that didn't matter to his female admirers. They even invited him to their sleepovers. We'd ask this guy, what in hell is your secret? He would just smile and walk away. Maybe that was it--he didn't kiss and tell. We were so jealous of the guy we called "Don Juan". At our 50th high school reunion, I asked one of Don Juan's old girlfriends what she and the others had seen in him. She said this: "He was nice, smart, and funny. We enjoyed his company. He did our hair and painted our nails. He was always well-dressed, and even smelled good. If he hadn't been gay, I would have married him." While I was glad to have solved this 50-year-old mystery, I felt like an idiot. Then I felt bad when I learned  he had died in 1993 of AIDS. What is it about high school that makes those four years of your life so memorable?

Thornton P. Knowles

The William Simmons Murder Case: An Unlikely Conviction

     Kaelin Rose Glazier, a 15-year-old sophomore at South Medford High School in Rush, Oregon, disappeared on November 6, 1996 after watching a video in a house trailer with 16-year-old William Frank Simmons. The missing girl had skipped church that evening to meet her boyfriend, Clifford Ruhland, at Simmons' trailer. According to Simmons, the boyfriend didn't show up, and after he and Glazier watched the movie, she departed.

     The local police, believing that the missing girl had run away from home, waited 21 days before investigating the case as an abduction and possible murder. Simmons, a big kid who had been in trouble with the law, and was the last known person to have seen the girl alive, became the first and only suspect in the investigation. Years passed, and without the girl's body, the case ground to a halt. Every once in awhile detectives would question William Simmons at the police station, and every time he would deny having anything to do with the girl's disappearance.

     People don't vanish into thin air. In 2008, 12 years after Glazier went to Simmons' trailer, a man mowing a field 80 feet from the place she was last seen uncovered skeletal remains. According to a forensic anthropologist, the bones were consistent with the remains of a 15-year-old girl.

     At the recovery site, investigators discovered a skull wrapped in duct tape, a tennis shoe, part of a bra, and some jewelry that had belonged to the missing girl. While the medical examiner officially identified the remains as Glazier's and ruled her death a homicide, the forensic pathologist could not determine the precise cause of death. The police theorized she had been suffocated or strangled. DNA evidence from the duct tape did not match the victim's boyfriend or William Simmons.

     On April 10, 2010, the local prosecutor charged William Simmons with murder, and as a backup charge, first-degree manslaughter. The motive: he had killed the girl after she had rebuffed his sexual advances. After killing her, the suspect had supposedly dragged her body to the nearby field. (It's hard to believe it took 12 years for someone to find, 80 feet from where she was last seen, Glazier's remains. Was anybody really looking for her?)

     The Simmons murder trial got underway on February 14, 2012 in the Jackson County Circuit Court. The prosecutor, without an eyewitness, confession or physical evidence linking the 31-year-old defendant to the murder, had an extremely weak case. The state didn't even have a jailhouse informant, or a murder weapon. All the prosecutor had was the defendant's so-called "motive, means, and opportunity," to commit the crime.

     William Simmons' attorney pointed out that motive, means, and opportunity did not comprise evidence. The defense lawyer reminded jurors that the murdered girl's boyfriend may also have had motive, means, and opportunity in the 16 year old case.

     The jury, after deliberating ten hours, voted 10 to 2 to find the defendant guilty of first-degree manslaughter. (The reckless killing of a person as opposed to an intentional murder.) In Oregon, a defendant can be convicted of manslaughter on just 10 guilty votes. To find a person guilty of murder, 12 votes are needed. The judge sentenced William Simmons to the mandatory 10 years in prison.

     At a hearing in May 2012, the convicted man's attorneys, Andrew Vandergaw and Michael Bertoff, in an effort to secure a new trial for their client, put a witness on the stand named Serena Beach. During the Simmons trial Beach had contacted the defense attorneys and said she had "vital information about the case." The lawyers, busy defending the accused man, didn't have time to investigate her allegations.

     According to Serena Beach, in 2003 or 2004, the murder victim's stepfather, Robert Glazier, told her that he "was there when Kaelin Glazier came into the world and was there when she went out." He allegedly said that he knew she was dead and that her body was "down the road."

     The 65-year-old stepfather, who had been questioned three times by detectives during the early stages of the missing persons investigation, took the stand at the hearing to determine if there was sufficient cause to convene a new trial. Mr. Glazier said he knew that some people considered him a suspect in the murder. He testified that there was a person he suspected in the case.

     Judge Benjamin Bloom denied the defense motion for a new trial. The attorneys for William Simmons said they would appeal the judge's ruling.

     It's surprising that Judge Benjamin Bloom even allowed this case to go to a jury in the first place. Motive, means, and opportunity, while a guideline for identifying criminal suspects, does not rise to proof beyond a reasonable doubt. (As evidenced in this case by the two not guilty votes.) The evidence in this case was not even enough to sustain liability in a civil wrongful death suit where the standard of proof is merely a preponderance of the evidence. In any other state, the Simmons trial would have resulted in a hung jury.

     By any legal standard, the William Simmons case represents an odd and unlikely homicide conviction. While he may have been a good suspect, and may have committed the crime, that was not enough evidence to put him behind bars for 10 years. If this were the standard of proof in all murder trials, a lot of innocent people would end up in prison.

    

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On Trying To Teach Writing

One of my college writing students, pursuant to a composition assignment, wrote the following sentence: "In the desert that day there wasn't a drop of wind." When I asked the student if, on second thought, he found something wrong with that sentence, he asked, "Did I misspell desert?" I figured what the hell, the kid can spell. For that reason, it didn't make a drop of sense to flunk him. Perhaps there is nothing more ridiculous than trying to teach someone to write. If they can, they can. If they can't, they can't. Eventually, I learned to settle for good spelling.

Thornton P. Knowles

The Nuzzio Begaren Murder-For-Hire Case

     In the southern California city of Santa Ana, Nuzzio Begaren married a 36-year-old state corrections officer named Elizabeth. The 40-year-old groom had a daughter from a previous marriage who was ten. Three days after the wedding, Nuzzio bought a $1 million insurance policy on his new wife's life. This meant that Elizabeth Begaren stood between her husband and a million dollars. Buying the life insurance had been the first step on Nuzzio's path to wealth. Getting someone to murder his wife comprised step two.

     Finding someone to kill his wife was the easy part of Nuzzio's murder-for-hire scheme. He simply offered $4,800 in cash to friends who belonged to a Los Angeles criminal gang. On the night of January 17, 1998, the murder-for-hire mastermind took Elizabeth and his daughter shopping at a mall in Burbank. While shopping in Macy's, he gave Elizabeth the cash to hold for him. She placed the money into her purse, unaware she was carrying the pay-off for her own demise.

     As Nuzzio, Elizabeth, and his daughter drove home in the blue Kia Sportage, they were followed by a Buick Regal driven by 24-year-old Guillermo Espinoza. Three other gang members were in the vehicle. At eleven o'clock, as Nuzzio pulled onto the off-ramp of the 91 Freeway in Anaheim, the Buick pulled up alongside Nuzzio and ran him off the road. Three of the LA gangsters got out of the Buick, and as Nuzzio climbed into the back seat of the Kia to be with his daughter, Elizabeth made a run for it as the hit men approached.

     The hit men quickly caught up with Nuzzio's terrified wife. In begging for her life, she pulled out her correction officer's badge. That's when Guillermo Espinoza shot her in the head and chest. The shooter grabbed the dead woman's handbag, returned to the Buick with the other two men, and drove off.

     Nuzzio Begaren told officers with the Anaheim Police Department that the men behind his wife's cold-blooded murder had targeted his family at the shopping mall and followed them home. "There was no reason for someone to follow us," he said. "We have no enemies." Nuzzio described the gangsters' car as a dark blue, late 1970s Oldsmobile. He gave detectives a license number that didn't check out. Nuzzio described the four men in the Oldsmobile as a pair of blacks, and two men who were either white or Latino. "When they saw the badge," he said, "they shot her. She was dying, lying face down in the blood, with her badge in her hand." Nuzzio described his dearly departed wife as someone who had been "full of joy."

     Detectives believed that Nuzzio was full of something else. But the investigation went nowhere, and the case eventually died on the vine. It looked as though Nuzzio Begaren had gotten away with murder.

     In February 2012, police officers arrested the 55-year-old Begaren in Rancho Cucamonga, California. An Orange County grand jury had indicted him for soliciting the murder of his wife. Guillermo Espinoza had been indicted as well, but his whereabouts were unknown. (In 2011, when he learned that cold case detectives had reopened the case, Espinoza went underground.)

     Begaren went on trial on August 21, 2013 in a Santa Ana court for conspiracy to murder his wife for financial gain. (Guillermo Espinoza was still at large.) Orange County prosecutor Larry Yellin, in his opening statement to the jury, told of a piece of torn-up paper found near the murder scene that bore the victim's handwriting. Elizabeth had scribbled "light blue" and had written down the license number of the car that had been following them. The plate number belonged to a light blue Buick Regal, the vehicle driven that night by Guillermo Espinosa.

     Prosecutor Yellin informed the jurors that gang members Rudy Duran and Jose Luis Sandoval, both of whom had been in the Buick that night, were going to testify for the prosecution. According to these men, the defendant had arranged his wife's murder for the insurance money. The murder-for-hire mastermind had wanted the killing to look like a highway robbery turned fatal.

     Defense attorney Sal Ciula told the jury that Rudy Duran had been pressured into cooperating with the authorities. According to the defense attorney, if Duran worked with the prosecution, "he would become a witness instead of a defendant. He [Duran] made the obvious choice."

     The heart of the prosecution's case involved the $1 million life insurance police and the testimony of the alleged hit men, Rudy Duran and Jose Luis Sandoval. The essence of the Bergaren's defense involved attacking the credibility of the two key prosecution witnesses.

     On September 6, 2013, the jury, after deliberating three days, found the defendant guilty of hiring Espinoza and Sandoval to murder his wife. On October 4, 2013, the judge could put him away for 25 years to life.

     In October 2013, Rudy Duran and Jose Luis Sandoval pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter. Both men were sentenced to time served and were released from jail. On March 4, 2016, after being apprehended in Mexico, the authorities extradited Guillermo Espinoza back to California where he waits for his trial in the Anaheim Jail.

        

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On His Great Grandfather

I was sixteen when my father solemnly informed me that my great grandfather, Fenton Knowles, had died in 1890 from a town marshal's bullet not far from the Huntington, West Virginia bank he had just robbed. It took great effort on my part to disguise my delight in this revelation. Finally, a relative I could look up to.

Thornton P. Knowles

The Jullian McCabe Murder Case

     Jullian McCabe, 34, lived with her husband and 6-year-old son in Seal Rock, Oregon, a coastal town 130 miles southwest of Portland. The boy, named London, suffered from severe autism. The child's father, Matt, also had problems with his health. In 2012, doctors found that Matt McCabe had multiple sclerosis and a mass on his brain. Since then he had been unable to work.

     In late 2013, Jullian McCabe appealed for help on a fundraising website called YouCaring.com where she posted the following message: "If you are a praying person, pray for us. I love my husband and he has taken care of myself and my son for years and years and now it's time for me to take the helm. I am scared and I am reaching out." Through the site, she raised $6,831, considerably less than the stated goal of $50,000.

     In September 2014, Jullian McCabe posted a YouTube video showing her husband in a hospital bed with their son pushing the button that raised and lowered it. Speaking to the camera she said, "I'm sorry but to wake up one day and your whole world is topsy turvey in a world that was already topsy turvey with our son." In that video she also said, "I have thought of pulling a Thelma and Louise." [Movie characters who ended their lives by driving off a cliff.]

     At six-thirty in the evening of Monday November 3, 2014, Jullian McCabe called 911 and reported that she had just thrown her son off the Yaquina Bay Bridge in nearby Newport, Oregon. Officers met her at the bride and took her to the Newport Police Department for questioning.

     At the police station, McCabe calmly informed detectives that voices in her head had instructed her to toss the boy into the water 133 feet below the bridge.

     At ten-thirty that night, while Coast Guard and other searchers looked for the child, a person sitting in a restaurant overlooking the bay at the Embarcadero Resort, noticed a small body floating in the water near a marina. The authorities quickly identified the corpse as London McCabe.

     Shortly after the recovery, officers booked the mother into the Lincoln County Jail on charges of aggravated murder, murder, and first-degree manslaughter. The judge set McCabe's bond at $750,000.

     In speaking to reporters, members of McCabe's family described her as mentally unstable. They said her problems started after her father died and her husband fell ill and couldn't work. She had been simply overwhelmed, they said.

     Investigators learned that McCabe had planned her son's death for three years. On her computer she had searched the phrases "hearing voices," "child off bridge," and "insanity defense." In February 2016, McCabe pleaded guilty to murder. She said she had killed the child because she couldn't handle the responsibility caring for him after her husband had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. The Lincoln County judge sentenced McCabe to life in prison without eligibility for parole until after she served 25 years of her sentence. 

Friday, February 16, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On His Pubic School Education

During my thirteen years in public education (I spent two years in seventh grade), I was at best an average student. I didn't apply myself because I resented being told what I had to learn. I preferred to pursue my own interests such as writing and reading fiction. I didn't care what the inside of a frog looked like, how to say "girl" in Latin, or knowing the 1948 gross national product of Spain. When I got to college, I learned a lot of useless stuff under the false belief that an impressive college transcript would somehow accrue to my benefit. As they say, live and learn.

Thornton P. Knowles

The Execution of Manuel Pardo

     In 1979, after having served four years in the Navy, 22-year-old Manuel Pardo graduated from the Florida Highway Patrol (FHP) academy at the top of his class. Following his involvement in a Miami-Dade County ticket-fixing scandal in 1980, Pardo was kicked out of the FHP. Shortly after his discharge, Pardo secured a job with the police department in the small Miami-Dade County town of Sweetwater. In 1981, Pardo and four other officers faced numerous complains of police brutality, charges that were quickly dismissed by a local prosecutor.

     The following year, Officer Pardo, after saving a two-month-old boy's life by reviving him with CPR, was awarded a public service medal. Manuel Pardo, in the fall of 1983, graduated from a local community college with a two-year associates degree in criminal justice. Just when officer Pardo's future looked the most promising, his career in law enforcement came to an abrupt end when he committed perjury at the 1985 trial of a drug dealer.

     From January to April 1986, the ex-cop embarked on a deadly crime spree in the Miami area. Within a period of three months, in the course of robbing dozens of drug dealers, Pardo murdered six men and three women. He documented his execution-style killings by taking crime scene photographs of his victims, and writing up detailed accounts of the murders in his diary. Pardo also put together a scrapbook comprised of newspaper clippings of his crimes. It was during this period that Pardo collected Nazi memorabilia, and professed a deep respect for Adolph Hitler.

     Because Pardo used his murder victims' credit cards, homicide detectives in Miami-Dade County quickly identified him as the man behind the drug dealer robbery/murders. Pardo's killing spree came to an end with his arrest in 1987. Eager to take credit for, and even brag about his murders, Pardo confessed to nine homicides.

     At Pardo's 1988 trial, his defense attorneys raised the insanity defense which fell apart when the defendant took the strand on his own behalf. Jurors couldn't believe it when he told them that, "I'm ridding the community of this vermin and technically it is not murder because they are not human beings. I am a soldier, I accomplished my mission and I humbly ask you to give me the glory of ending my life and not let me spend the rest of my days in the state prison."

     The jury found Manuel Pardo guilty of nine counts of first-degree murder. The judge then granted the defendant's wish by sentencing him to death. Pardo became a death row inmate at the Florida state prison in the town of Starke.

     Instead of his life ending gloriously with a quick execution, Pardo, thanks to his anti-death penalty attorneys, languished on death row for 24 years. In filing their appeals in state and federal courts, Pardo's lawyers argued that because this killer had not been mentally competent, he should never have been tried in the first place. Over the years, the various appellate court judges rejected this argument and upheld Pardo's conviction and death sentence.

     In 2012, as Pardo's execution date approached, his attorneys, in a last ditch effort to save him, tried a new appellate approach. The state of Florida had recently altered the combination of drugs used by the executioner to dispatch condemned prisoners. The lawyers argued that if prison officials improperly mixed the lethal concoction, the anesthetic effect of the lethal dose might be compromised. If this happened, the execution might be painful, and therefore inhumane and in violation of Mr. Pardon's civil rights. A federal judge rejected the appeal. That meant that Pardo's execution would go forward as scheduled.

     At 7:45 in the evening of Tuesday, December 11, 2012, the executioner at the state prison in Starke, injected the 56-year-old Pardo with the lethal cocktail of drugs. Since the new combination did its job, we will never know if Mr. Pardo felt any pain. But one thing is sure, this sociopathic murderer did not die in glory.

     

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On Knowing Thy Self

I don't think too deeply about myself, you know, who I really am and so forth. I'm with Robert Penn Warren who once said, "Deep down, I'm shallow." I believe that if you think too deeply about yourself, explore those depths, you might not like what you find. In that regard, I'm a committed surface thinker. I'm what you could call an introspection coward. What little I do know about myself, I don't like, and  have no intention to inquire further. I'll let others speculate on who I am. While I don't know why anyone would care, if some psychological busybody does figure me out, I don't want to be privy to that analysis. I prefer to live as an unsolvable mystery. In terms of psychological self-analysis, I'm content residing in a locked room with the blinds down and the lights off. I keep my mind occupied on important things such as staying on good terms with my cat and writing one-thousand words a day. Because I'm a stranger to myself, I've never suffered from writer's block.

Thornton P. Knowles

Kurt Cobain's Sudden Death: Suicide or Murder-For-Hire?

     Kurt Cobain was the lead singer of the band Nirvana. Married to Courtney Love, he had a history of heroin addiction, clinical depression, and bipolar disorder. In April 1994, following a stint at a drug rehabilitation facilty, Courtney Love reported him missing and suicidal. She hired celebrity private investigator Tom Grant to find him.

     On April 8, 1994, a worker hired to install security lighting at Kurt Cobain's Seattle estate found the 27-year-old dead in the space above his garage referred to as "the greenhouse." The lighting installer found Cobain lying on the floor with a severe head wound and a shotgun (purchased for him by a friend) resting on his chest. Cobain's left hand was wrapped around the barrel. Nearby lay a one-page handwritten note.

     The King County Medical Examiner, Dr. Nicholas Hartshorne, determined the cause of death to be a point blank shotgun blast to the head. The forensic pathologist estimated that Cobain had died on April 5, three days before the discovery of his body. (When someone is reported missing it's not a bad idea to search his house and garage.) According to a toxicologist, "The level of heroin in Cobain's bloodstream was 1.52 milligrams per litre." Dr. Hartshorne ruled the manner of Cobain's death a suicide.

      Sometime after the manner of death ruling, Courtney Love told an editor from Rolling Stone that Cobain had tried to kill himself in Rome by taking 50 Rohypnol pills.

     Tom Grant, the private investigator hired to find Cobain, along with a pair of true crime book writers, and others, believed that Kurt Cobain was the victim of a murder-for-hire plot orchestrated by Courtney Love for his inheritance. Grant and his supporters believed the killer drugged Cobain with heroin, shot him, then staged the sucide. They thought the physical evidence in the greenhouse and the findings in the toxicology report made murder a more plausible manner of death than suicide.

     The Cobain murder theory proponents argued that the death scene did not contain the amount of blood one would expect from a point blank shotgun blast to the head. (Several forensic pathologists have noted that a shotgun shot inside the mouth often results in less blood.) In support of this theory, Tom Grant has pointed out that Cobain's latent fingerprints were not found on the death scene shotgun. (People do not leave identifiable fingerprints on everything they touch. Therefore, the fact that Cobain's latents were not lifted from the gun doesn't prove anything. For all we know, crime scene investigators bungled the job.)

     Regarding the death scene suicide note, Grant and his supporters also subscribed to the theory the document was really a letter written by Cobain announcing his plan to leave his wife and the music industry. The private investigator tthought the last few lines at the bottom of the page had been written by Courtney Love. Five forensic document examiners hired by the TV shows "Dateline NBC" and "Unsolved Mysteries" examined a photocopy of the note. One of the handwriting experts concluded that the entire document was in Cobain's hand. The other four weren't sure if the last lines were added by someone else.

     Those who believed that someone had murdered Cobain argued that he had been so heavily drugged he couldn't have pulled the trigger. Of the five forensic pathologists who considered this issue, two believed that Cobain had built up enough tolerance to have the strength to kill himself. The other three forensic pathologists were not sure.

     In anticipation of the 20th anniversary of Kurt Cobain's death, a cold-case investigator with the Seattle Police Department spent weeks in February and March 2014 reviewing the case file. On March 21, 2014 a Seattle police spokesperson announced that while the cold-case detective discovered four rolls of undeveloped death scene photographs, the investigator found nothing that sustained the conclusion that Cobain was murdered.

     The newly discovered death scene photographs did not depict Cobain's corpse but rather syringes, a tainted spoon, a lighter, and other personal items strewn across the floor near his body.

     Based upon what I know about this case, I think the weight of evidence supports suicide. The fact that Cobain was holding the barrel of the gun (referred to as the death grip) suggests he was the shooter. If someone had shot Cobain, that person would not have been able to place the dead man's hand around the barrel in such a tightly held fashion. Moreover, the vast majority of murder-for-hire cases unravel quickly after the hitman, or someone the mastermind had reached out to, spills the beans. To my knowledge that did not happened in this 23 year old case.