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Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The Andrew Steele Murder Case: A Unusual Defense

     Andrew Steele, in June 2014, a month after being diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease), had no choice but to resign his position as a deputy sheriff with the Kane County Sheriff's Office in Wisconsin. The 39-year-old resided in Fitchburg, Wisconsin with his wife Ashlee and their two children, ages 10 and 13.

     The ex-law enforcement officer's wife, following the ALS diagnosis, organized dozens of "ice bucket challenges" that raised $23,000 for his medical expenses.

     Ashlee Steele's recently married sister, 38-year-old Kacee Tollefsbol, visited her sister and brother-in-law in August 2014. At one in the afternoon on August 22, 2014, Kacee Tollefsbol called 911 from the Steele's basement recreation room. She said she had been shot by Andy Steele.

     Police officers arrived at the Steele house shortly after the 911 call, but did not enter the dwelling until the arrival of a SWAT team. At 2:20 PM, from the basement of the house, officers heard a woman screaming, "I am dying, I am dying."

     Kacee Tollefsbol had been shot in the torso and died an hour later at a nearby hospital. Before she died she identified the shooter to police officers as her brother-in-law, Andrew Steele.

     The interior of the Steele house was filled with a haze of smoke that had activated a carbon monoxide detector. In the laundry room, officers encountered Andrew Steele lying on the floor next to a 9mm pistol. The officers recognized this man as a former law enforcement colleague.

     The laundry room was extremely hot from burning charcoal briquettes in an outdoor grill. The dryer was running and had been vented back into the room instead of outside.

    When the police tried to pull Andrew Steele out of the room he surprised them by vigorously resisting. The officers had to subdue him before paramedics could transport him from the attempted suicide scene to a nearby hospital.

     In the upstairs master bedroom, police officers found Ashlee Steele tucked into her bed with a sleeping mask on her face and a pillow on her chest. She had been shot once in the head and appeared to have been strangled with a black zip tie. She had also been bound by her wrists with zip ties. The victim's sundress had been pulled up to her thighs.

     The tableau in the master bedroom caused detectives to believe that the killer, for some reason, had posed the body.

     On Andrew Steele's iPhone, investigators discovered a long, rambling message written the day before the murders. The message had been edited at six o'clock on the morning of the killings. In the note, Andrew Steele spoke of having had numerous sexual threesomes with his wife and dead sister-in-law. He also said the three of them had agreed to a suicide pact. "We had a great run and I wanted to go out with a bang so to speak," he wrote. "Please use all donation money for the kids' needs. Mom and dad, stay in the house, retire and focus on the kids' needs…See you all on the other side."

     The Kane County prosecutor's office charged Andrew Steele with two counts of first-degree murder. The defendant, through his attorney, pleaded not guilty to the murder charges. The arraignment magistrate set his bail at $1 million. A few weeks later, at the urging of the prosecutor, the judge raised the bond to $2 million.

     The Andrew Steele murder trial got underway on Monday April 6, 2015 in the Kane County Courthouse. In his opening statement to the jury, Assistant District Attorney Anthony Jurek accused the defendant of premeditated double murder. According to the prosecutor, Mr. Steele had lied to investigators, and had staged his wife's murder scene to fit his story of having kinky sex with her and her sister. (I have no idea why the defendant felt the need to push this story.)

     Defense attorney Paul Barnett had changed his client's initial not guilty pleas to not guilty by reason of mental disease. Because ALS is not a psychiatric disease and the defendant had been early in the diagnosis, this was a highly unusual and legally inappropriate defense.

     Attorney Barnett told the jury that the defendant had kinky sex with his wife, an encounter that had gone terribly wrong, Although the defendant killed his wife, he had no memory of committing the act.

     The lead detective on the case took the stand for the prosecution and testified that physical signs of struggle throughout the house were not consistent with the defendant's story of a three-way suicide pact. Crime scene photographs revealed that the suspect had given detectives different false accounts of the killings. Moreover, the bedroom scene looked staged. According to the detective, on the day before the murders, the defendant had purchased two 8 pound bags of charcoal and a can of lighter fluid.

     The deputy medical examiner testified that Ashlee Steele's body contained several defensive wounds and did not contain evidence of recent sexual activity.

     A state psychiatrist testified that in his expert opinion Andrew Steele and his wife had not engaged in unconventional sex. A DNA expert said that blood on the defendant's 9mm pistol came from the defendant and Kacee Tollefsbol.

     After the prosecution rested its case, attorney Barnett put the defendant's parents on the stand who said their son had never been a violent person. A defense neurologist testified that there is a connection between ALS and a tendency toward violence. On cross-examination, the prosecutor asked the doctor, "Do many ALS patients commit homicide?"


     "Are there many cases of violent acts?"

     "No, again," said the witness.

     Dr. Douglas Tucker, a forensic psychiatrist, testified how ALS deteriorates the brain.

     On April 20, 2015, following ten hours of deliberation, the jury returned its verdict. Ten of the twelve jurors found the defendant guilty by reason of mental disease. The judge committed Andrew Steele to the State Department of Health Services for the rest of his life.

     There is a lot about this case I do not understand. I don't understand the insanity plea as well as the verdict. Mr. Steele was not psychotic when he murdered his wife and sister-in-law. He knew exactly what he was doing. His behavior was deviant, yes, but he had the necessary criminal intent. I also don't know why the defendant went to the trouble of staging his wife's murder. And what was behind all the business about a suicide pact? There is something missing here. What an odd and tragic case.


Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Diane Staudte and the Power of Poison

     In 2012, 62-year-old Mark Staudte resided with his wife Diane and their four children in a modest neighborhood in Springfield, Missouri. The couple had met years ago at a small Lutheran College in Kansas. While active in the church, Diane and Mark kept to themselves. A man with strong political opinions who regularly wrote letters to the editor, Mr. Staudte had never been very good at holding down a steady job. He eventually stopped trying and devoted most of his time to family matters and playing in a band he had formed called "Messing With Destiny."

     Mark Staudte's 51-year-old wife Diane played the organ at church and unlike her husband, never had much to say. The couple's oldest child, 26-year-old Shaun, suffered from a mild form of autism. Sarah Staudte, 24, was having a hard time finding a good job. Rachel Staudte, two years younger than Sarah, was a dean's list student at Missouri State University. (At least according to her Facebook page.) She played the flute at church. The youngest member of the family was an eleven-year-old girl.

     On April 8, 2012, Easter Sunday, Mark Stuadte died suddenly at home. To the emergency personnel who rushed to the house, Diane explained that her husband hadn't been feeling well. He had recently experienced three seizures. When asked if her husband had a history of this kind of thing, she said he had not suffered seizures in the past.

     The Greene County Medical Examiner, Dr. Douglas Anderson, without conducting an autopsy or ordering toxicological tests, ruled Mark Staudte's manner of death as natural. The forensic pathologist did not identify specifically what had caused this man to die. Pursuant to Diane Staudte's instructions, her husband's body was cremated. At his memorial service, friends and family couldn't help noticing that Diane's demeanor bordered on jubilant.

     On September 2, 2012, almost five months after Mark Staudte's sudden and mysterious passing, tragedy once again raised its ugly head at the Staudte house. This time it was Diane's oldest child Shaun who became ill and suddenly died at the age of 26. Once again, Dr. Douglas Anderson, without the aid of an autopsy or toxicological tests, ruled the death as natural. The medical examiner did not, however, identify the disease that had taken the young man's life. Diane made sure that Shaun's body, like his father's, was consumed by fire. For a woman who, within a period of five months had lost her husband and her oldest child, Diane seemed unfazed by the unexpected deaths. Indeed, her spirits seemed to have been lifted.

     On the day after Shaun's passing, the Springfield police received an anonymous tip from a man who said he was a friend of the Staudte family. According to the caller, Mark and Shaun Staudte had been poisoned to death by Diane. The police, however, did not act on this tip. According to the medical examiner, both men had died natural deaths. Without a finding of homicide, there was nothing to investigate.

     Sarah Staudte fell ill on June 10, 2013. Paramedics came to the house and rushed her to a nearby hospital. The next day, as the 24-year-old fought for her life, the Springfield police received a second anonymous tip in which the caller accused Diane Staudte of poisoning the third member of her family. This time the Springfield police sent a detective to the hospital to question doctors and nurses.

     According to hospital personnel who were caring for the young woman, her mother had visited the patient briefly during which time she joked around with the medical staff. One of the nurses informed the detective that Diane Staudte told hospital personnel that she wasn't going to let her daughter's illness ruin a Florida vacation she planned to take in the near future. A physician described Sarah's condition as "very suspicious." The doctor told the investigator that in his opinion, this patient had been poisoned.

     On June 20, 2013, after being asked to appear at the Springfield Police Department for questioning, Diane Staudte, following a short interrogation, confessed to poisoning all three members of her family. Over a period of days before the deaths of her husband and son, she had spiked their drinks with the sweet taste of antifreeze. Diane had poisoned her husband's Gatorade simply because she "hated" him. She had laced Shaun's Coke with the poison because she considered him "worse than a pest." Diane told her interrogators that she had poisoned her oldest daughter Sarah because the girl "would not get a job and had student loans that had to be paid." Diane insisted that in murdering Mark and Shaun, and attempting to kill Sarah, she had acted alone.

     When detectives questioned Rachel Staudte, the 22-year-old college student, she admitted that she had helped her mother commit the crimes. The two of them had used the Internet to research how to administer antifreeze as a poisoning agent.

     On June 21, 2013, a Greene County assistant prosecutor charged Diane and Rachel Staudte each with two counts of first-degree murder and one count of first-degree assault. The judge denied both women bail.

     According to doctors, while Sarah Staudte survived her poisoning, she would suffer the neurological effects of the antifreeze for the rest of her life. The eleven-year-old Staudte girl was living with relatives. With her father and brother dead, her mother and one of her sisters charged with murder and assault, and the other sister permanently disabled, this girl's family no longer existed. Such is the power of poison.

     In May 2015, Rachel Staudte pleaded guilty to two counts of second-degree murder and one count of first-degree assault. She agreed to testify against her mother in the event her case went to trial. The judge sentenced the 25-year-old to two life prison terms plus twenty years. Under the terms of this sentence, she wouldn't be eligible for parole until she served 42 years.

     On January 20, 2016, Diane Staudte pleaded guilty to one count of first-degree murder in the death of her husband and one count of first-degree assault in the poisoning of her daughter, Sarah. Pursuant to the plea deal she avoided the death penalty, but was sentenced to spend the rest of her life behind bars.

     In May 2016, ABC News acquired video tapes of the police interrogation of Diane Staudte and her daughter, Rachel. As part of her confession, the mother said, "I'm not a perpetual killer. I'm just stupid. I regret doing it. I really do. I've screwed up everybody. I've screwed up my whole family."

Monday, October 24, 2016

The Marissa Alexander Stand Your Ground Assault Case

     Marissa Alexander, when she married Rico Gray in June 2010, was six months pregnant with their child. She had two children from a previous marriage and Gray had five with five other women. One of his sons, and two of Marissa's children, lived with them in their rented Jacksonville, Florida home. She was 30 and he was 35.

     Rico Gray had physically abused his former partners and was beating up Marissa. In July 2010, he had thrown his pregnant wife across the room, then given her a black eye with a head butt. Marissa and her children moved out of the house and into her mother's place. She also filed for an order of protection against her husband.

     At the domestic violence injunction hearing, Rico Gray reportedly said this to the judge: "I got five baby mamas and I put my hand on every last one of them except one. The way I was with women, they was like they had to walk on eggshells around me. You know, they never knew what I was thinking...or what I might do...hit them, push them." The judge granted the order of protection.

     Marissa had the baby on July 23, 2010, and on August 1, returned to the rented house to gather up more of her clothes. While there, she showed Gray a cellphone photograph of their baby. After she entered the bathroom, Gray looked through her cellphone and came across text messages she had sent to her former husband that suggested she planned to leave him permanently and get back with her ex-spouse. Enraged, Gray stormed into the bathroom and allegedly said, "If I can't have you, no one can." He put his hands on her throat, threw her against the door, and threatened to kill her.

     Breaking free, Marissa ran into the attached garage and from her car grabbed her handgun. (It was licensed.) She returned to the house (She claims she couldn't exit the dwelling through the garage because the automatic door opener didn't work.) and encountered Gray standing in the kitchen next to his two sons. Fearing for her life, she (according to her account) fired a warning shot into the air. (Ballistics analysis, however, suggested that the bullet hit a wall and ricocheted up into the ceiling.)

     Rico Gray called 911. In reporting the shooting to the dispatcher he sounded more angry than frightened. A short time later, the house was surrounded by a SWAT team. Marissa was arrested and charged with three counts of aggravated assault. (Three counts because she had allegedly endangered three people.) Under Florida's so-called 10-20-life law, any person convicted of aggravated assault involving the discharge of a firearm is subject to a mandatory 20 year sentence.

     A few days after her arrest, Marissa was released on bail under orders from the judge to stay clear of her husband. But four months later, Marissa, in violation of the judge's order, went back to the house and punched Gray in the face. (She would later plead no contest to domestic battery.)

     With the approach of Marissa's aggravated assault by handgun trial, prosecutor Angela Corey, explained to the defendant that if convicted she would be sentenced to 20 years. The prosecutor offered her a deal: if she pleaded guilty to a lesser charge, the judge would sentence her to three years in prison. Marissa rejected the plea bargain offer.

     In defending Marissa Alexander, her attorney planned to rely on Florida's "stand your ground" law that was in the news as a result of the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin  murder case. (Angela Corey, the state's attorney in Marissa's case was the leading special prosecutor in the February 2012 Sanford, Florida shooting.) Under the "stand your ground" self-defense doctrine, a person who is threatened with death or serious bodily injury in a place where he has a right to be, has no duty under the law to retreat and can meet force with force.

     In a pre-trial hearing on the stand your ground issue, Judge James Daniel  ruled that the law didn't apply to Marissa Alexander because she had no reason to fear for her life in that confrontation with her husband. The defendant could therefore not rely on self-defense and the stand your ground doctrine.

     On March 16, 2012, a jury found Alexander guilty of the three aggravated assault counts. The judge, bound by Florida's 10-20-life law, sentenced her to 20 years in prison.

     Critics of mandatory sentencing laws, along with anti-domestic violence advocates, expressed outrage over the outcome of the Marissa Alexander case. Other than winning an appeal, Marissa Alexander's only other legal remedy involved a grant of clemency by Florida Governor Rick Scott. For that to happen, a member of the state clemency board would have to initiate the action. Marissa could only make application herself after she has served half of her sentence.

     In the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin murder trial, on July 13, 2013, the jury found defendant Zimmerman not guilty of second degree murder. He was also acquitted of the lesser homicide offense of manslaughter. In this case, the jury of six women found that because Zimmerman reasonably feared for his life during a fight with Trayvon Martin, the neighborhood watch leader was legally justified in standing his ground and eventually using deadly force against the 17-year-old. The jury had accepted the defense theory that at the time of his death the 17-year-old was on top of the defendant, banging his head against the sidewalk. Following the February 2012 shooting, Zimmerman had told police officers that he had been afraid the attacker would get control of his handgun.

     In 2013, an appeals court overturned Marissa Alexander's conviction on procedural grounds. The prosecutor immediately announced a second trial that was later scheduled for December 1, 2014. Marissa Alexander remained in custody pending the outcome of the second trial.

     On November 24, 2014, after spending 1,030 days behind bars, Marissa Alexander accepted a plea deal that consisted of two years probation during which time she would wear an electronic ankle bracelet. 

Sunday, October 23, 2016

P.J. Williams and the Florida State University Football Hit-And-Run Cover-Up

     At two-forty in the morning of October 5, 2014, in Tallahassee, Florida, Florida State University cornerback P.J. Williams and two passengers in his Buick Century drove into the path of an oncoming Honda CR-V driven by 18-year-old Ian Keith. Keith was returning home from his job at a nearby Olive Garden. Williams and his friends, one of whom was a teammate, had been celebrating the previous afternoon's football victory.

     Both vehicles in the accident were totaled. Keith's Honda sat in the street leaking fluid with its front end crumpled amid auto part debris. Bruised and cut from his deployed airbag, the teen climbed out of his car and waited for the police.

     P.J. Williams, the 21-year-old football star who had been named the most valuable defense player in last season's national championship game, fled the scene on foot with his friends. The accident had clearly been his fault, and he had been driving on a suspended license. He had also been drinking.

     Officiers with the Tallahassee Police Department responded to the scene. They asked Ian Keith where the occupant or occupants of the other vehicle had gone. Keith said the three men in the Buick had run off. A check of the Buick's license plate revealed it was registered to P.J. William's grandmother in Ocala, Florida.

     Twenty minutes after fleeing the accident scene, Williams returned with several friends and teammates. He apologized to the officers for leaving the scene of an accident, explaining that he "had a lot on the line." As the local football star rambled on incoherently, a female friend told him to stop talking. "You sound like you've been drinking," she said.

     The Tallahassee officers did not give Williams a field sobriety test or even ask him if he had been drinking or using drugs. Instead, they called two ranking officers with FSU security (no doubt ex-cops) and the director of the athletic department. Because the accident was off-campus, the security officers had no jurisdiction in the case and no business being there.

     At three-thirty that morning, the director of football player development came to the scene and drove Williams home. Ian Keith rode home in a tow truck.

     The FSU campus police officials did not write up a report on the accident. The Tallahassee officers, without conducting an investigation, submitted a report stating there was no evidence of alcohol or drug use associated with the accident. The crash involving the football star went unreported in the local media.

     Rather than being charged with hit-and-run, the police issued Williams a ticket for making an improper left turn and a ticket for driving on a suspended license. His fines totaled $392. Had Williams not been a Florida football star, the officers would have placed him in handcuffs and hauled him off to jail where he would have been tested for alcohol and drugs. He would have been charged with hit-and-run, driving under the influence, and driving without a license. He would have been in big trouble.

     Two days after the accident, Williams paid $296 in overdue fines related to an earlier speeding ticket. I wonder who gave him the money for that. 

Saturday, October 22, 2016

The Terry Bean Sexual Abuse Case

     Terry Bean, the 66-year-old Portland, Oregon real estate developer, co-founder of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, and a prominent member of an organization called the Human Rights Campaign, had friends in very high places.

     Bean had friends in positions of power because he was a big-time fund raiser (bundler) for politicians in the democrat party. Bean raised $500,000 for Obama's 2012 re-election and shoveled money into the campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Bean also gave Obama $70,000 of his own money.

     Bean's political money funneling resulted in several visits to the White House, a trip on Air Force One, and photograph-taking sessions with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

     At a 2009 Human Rights Campaign dinner, the President thanked Mr. Bean, calling him a "great friend and supporter." (The best way to make friends with a dog is to give it bacon. The best way to make friends with politicians is to give them cash. Dogs are a lot cheaper and make better friends.)

     In 2013, Terry Bean and his 25-year-old boyfriend, Kiah Lawson, were photographed together under a picture of George Washington in the White House library. Not long after that, the couple experienced a nasty break-up. The fractured relationship would cause both men a lot of problems, problems money can't fix.

     In 2014, investigators in the Portland Police Department's Sex Crime Unit began looking into allegations made by Kiah Lawson that Bean had secretly made video tapes of men having sex in his bedroom. When questioned by detectives, Bean returned the favor by accusing Lawson of using these videotapes to blackmail him for money.

     The Bean/Lawson sex/extortion investigation took a darker turn when Lawson confessed that he and Bean had used the iPhone app Grindr to arrange a sexual encounter with a 15-year-old boy, a tryst that took place, according to Lawson, on September 27, 2013 at a hotel in Eugene, Oregon.

     In late November 2014, a Lane County grand jury indicted Bean and Lawson on counts of third-degree sodomy and third-degree sexual abuse. Following their arrests, the suspects made bail and were released from custody.

     One of Bean's attorneys, Kristen Winemiller, told reporters that her client was the true victim in the case. She said, "Over the course of several months in 2013 and 2014, Terry Bean was the victim of an extortion ring led by several men known to law enforcement. His current arrest is connected to the ongoing investigation of that case in which Mr. Bean has fully cooperated. No allegation against Terry Bean should be taken at face value."

     On September 1, 2015, Terry Bean offered the alleged victim $225,000 as a civil court settlement. In return, the San Diego teen agreed not to cooperate with the prosecution. Lane County Deputy District Attorney Erik Hasselman told the judge that without the boy's cooperation, the state could not go forward with the prosecution. Shortly thereafter, Circuit Judge Jay McAlpin dismissed the case against the prominent gay activists.

     In speaking to reporters, prosecutor Hasselman said, "I think this result offends justice."


Friday, October 21, 2016

The Dillon Taylor Shooting: Suicide by Cop

     At seven in the evening of August 11, 2014, in South Salt Lake City, Utah, a 911 caller reported that "some gangbangers" who "were up to no good" near a 7-Eleven convenience store had "flashed" a gun. The three suspicious persons, described as young white males, turned out to be 21-year-old Dillon Taylor, his 22-year-old brother, and their 21-year-old cousin.

      When Salt Lake City police officer Bron Cruz responded to the call he immediately called for backup. As two other officers arrived at the scene, the three young men walked into the 7-Eleven. The officers, not wanting to confront the suspects inside the store, waited outside. When Taylor and the other two came out of the store, officer Cruz yelled, "Let me see your hands!"

     Dillon Taylor's brother and his cousin immediately complied with the officer's command by raising their hands. Taylor ignored the order, turned from the officers, and walked off. After a few steps he placed both of his hands into his waistband as he walked away. "Get your hands out now!" shouted officer Cruz.

     Upon being told for the second time to show his hands, Taylor turned and faced the officers. "Show your hands!" officer Cruz demanded. Instead of complying with the officers command, Taylor said, "Nah, fool." At that critical moment, Taylor made a move police officers interpret as a gun-drawing motion. The suspect suddenly hoisted his shirt with his left hand and then quickly removed his right hand from his waistband.

     Officer Cruz responded to Taylor's hand action by opening fire. Hit in the chest and stomach, Taylor collapsed to the ground.

     Immediately following the shooting, officer Cruz rolled Taylor onto his stomach and handcuffed him behind the back as witnesses screamed, "They shot him!"

     "Stay with me buddy," officer Cruz said to the downed man as he rolled the body to its side and applied gauze to one of the bullet wounds. "Talk to me, buddy. Talk to me. Medicals are on the way, man, okay?"

     The shot, handcuffed man on the ground remained unresponsive as officer Cruz put on a pair of latex gloves and began searching Taylor's pockets and rummaging through his clothing. "What the hell were you reaching for, man?" Officer Cruz asked. The officer shook Taylor's arm and said, "Stay with me, man. Come on." To no one in particular the officer said, "I can't find a weapon on him!"

     Paramedics pronounced Dillon Taylor dead at the scene. The police chief placed officer Cruz on paid administrative leave pending an investigation by the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office. According to the medical examiner's office, Dillon Taylor, at the time he was shot, had a blood-alcohol level of .18 percent, well above the .08 percent required for driving while intoxicated.

     When questioned by district attorney's office investigators, officer Bron Cruz said, "I was scared to death. The last thought that went through my mind when I pulled the trigger was that I was too late. And because of that, I was gonna get killed."

     Following the police killing of Dillon Taylor, friends and supporters put up a Facebook page called "Justice for Dillon Taylor." The site attracted 3,300 followers. Kelly Fowler, the attorney for the Taylor family, blamed the fatal shooting on a police culture that has become paranoid and hostile to the public.

     In mid-August 2014, talk radio host Rush Limbaugh discussed the Taylor case in connection with the Michael Brown shooting that occurred a couple of weeks earlier in Ferguson, Missouri. In comparing the two cases, Mr. Limbaugh was offended that the media covering the Taylor shooting didn't mention that officer Cruz was black and the man he shot was white. "They are referring to the officer as 'other-than-white,' " he said. In analyzing the two cases, Limbaugh pointed out that unlike Michael Brown, a black who was shot by a white officer, Dillon Taylor, a white kid, "didn't resist arrest. He didn't hit the cop. He didn't flee and yet he was shot dead."

     On September 30, 2014, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, based upon an investigation that relied heavily on officer Cruz's body-cam footage, announced that his office has ruled the shooting of Dillon Taylor legally justified. In a letter to Police Chief Chris Burbank, the prosecutor wrote: "By the time Dillon Taylor drew his hands from his waistband, officer Cruz's belief that Taylor was presenting a weapon was reasonable." This officer, in the district attorney's opinion, reasonably perceived a threat to his life.

     Officer Cruz had shot Dillon Taylor because a 911 caller had reported seeing a gun on a person who matched Taylor's description. When this possibly armed suspect refused to show his hands after being given simple and understandable law enforcement commands, then made a gun-drawing move, the officer shot him in self defense. This raises the obvious question: why did this young man behave in such a reckless manner, virtually inviting the officer to shoot him? Perhaps the answer to that question lies in Facebook postings made by Taylor just days before his death.

     On August 7, 2014, just four days before the incident, Taylor had written: "I feel my time is coming soon, my nightmares are telling me. I'm gonna have warrants out for my arrest soon…All my family has turned and snitched on me. I'll die before I go do a lot of time in a cell. I'm trying to strive and live but I litterly (sic) can't stand breathing and dealing with shit. I feel like god (sic) cant (sic) save me on this one…"

     Two days later, on August 9, 2014, Taylor posted the following on Facebook: "I finally realize I hit rock bottom. I'm homeless and I haven't slept in two days. Yesterday all I ate was a bag of chips and today a penute (sic) butter and jelly sandwich. I can't go to my brother's…I'm not welcome at any family members' [house] or they call the cops. I'll kick it with a friend until they go to bed and I have to leave…Its (sic) about my time soon."

     When young men and women enter the law enforcement field, they probably don't envision being used by people like Dillon Taylor to end their misery though suicide by cop. Police officers who are involuntary accomplices to suicide should not be charged with criminal homicide.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

The Bradley Stone Mass Murder Case

     Bradley William Stone, a 35-year-old former Marine reservist, resided with his wife Jen, a media analyst, in the town of Pennsburg thirty miles northwest of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He married Jen in September 2013 following his divorce from his first wife Nicole. Nicole had filed for divorce in March 2009 and since that time she and Bradley had been embroiled in a bitter custody battle over their two daughters. On December 9, 2014, a family court judge denied a petition from Bradley that ended the court fight in Nicole's favor. He did not take this defeat in stride.

     Bradley Stone served as a Marine reservist from 2002 to 2011 during which time he spent a couple of months in Ramadi, Iraq where he monitored a computer screen that tracked missiles. After convincing his superior officers that he suffered from asthma, they sent him back to the states.

     In October 2010, Stone was diagnosed with 100 percent service connected post-traumatic stress disorder. At the time of his honorable discharge in 2011, he had risen to the rank of sergeant. In October 2013, Stone filed 17 VA disability claims for problems that included traumatic brain injury,  muscle and joint pain, sleep apnea, and headaches.

     Following his military service, and during the height of his domestic war with his estranged then ex-wife Nicole, Stone received psychiatric treatment at the Lanape Valley Foundation in the Doylestown Hospital for post-traumatic stress disorder. (Some former Marines with PTSD questioned Stones' diagnosis noting that he hadn't seen combat.)

     In 2013, a Montgomery County, Pennsylvania judge sentenced Stone to one year probation following his second driving while intoxicated conviction.

     At four-thirty in the morning of Monday December 15, 2014, six days after Bradley Stone lost the child custody battle, police officers were dispatched to a house in Lansdale, Pennsylvania 28 miles northwest of Philadelphia. Nicole Stone's mother, 57-year-old Joanne Gilbert and her mother, 75-year-old Patricia Hill, resided in that house. Police officers found both women dead.

     Bradley Stone's ex-mother-in-law lay in her bed with a slashed throat. Her mother lay on the floor with a gunshot wound to her right eye. The scene of this double-murder was awash in the victims' blood.

     Shortly after the discovery of the two Bradley Stone ex-in-laws, a 911 call was made from an apartment complex in nearby Lower Salford where Stone's 33-year-old ex-wife Nicole resided. A neighbor in the Pheasant Run apartments reported hearing a disturbance followed by three or four gunshots that came from Nicole's unit. Following the disturbance, the neighbor saw Stone putting his daughters into a green Ford and driving off. (Stone dropped the girls off at an acquaintance's house in Pennsburg. They were unharmed.)

     In Nicole Stone's apartment police officers found her lying on her bed with two gunshot wounds to her face. On the bed lay the murder weapon, Bradley Stone's .40-caliber Heckler & Koch pistol.

     At eight o'clock that morning in southeastern Pennsylvania, police officers in the town of Souderson discovered three more victims of Bradley Stone's murderous rage. Patricia Flick, Nicole's sister, was found hacked to death in her home. Her husband Aaron and her 14-year-old daughter Nina had been bludgeoned and slashed. Anthony Flick, Nicole's 17-year-old nephew, in fighting off an ax-wielding Bradley Stone, had lost fingertips, sustained lacerations to his hands and arms, and suffered a fractured skull. He survived the attack by barricading himself in a room on the third floor of the house. Paramedics rushed the seriously wounded teenager to Thomas Jefferson Hospital in Philadelphia.

     Later that Monday, Bradley Smith, the subject of an intense police manhunt, confronted a man walking his dog in Doylestown. Wearing camouflage clothing, Stone demanded the man's car keys. Instead of acquiring access to a vehicle, Stone found himself looking down the barrel of the man's handgun. The mass murderer was last seen running into a nearby wooded area.

     On Tuesday December 16, 2014, SWAT team officers looking for Stone in Pennsburg,  came across his body in the woods a half mile from his home. He had managed to hack himself to death.

     Neuropsychology professor Eric Zillmer of Drexel University, in speaking to reporters about the mass murder-suicide, said he didn't believe that Stone's murderous rampage had anything to do with PTSD. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Ronald W. Brown: The Child Porn Puppeteer

     In 1992, puppeteer Ronald Wilson Brown started his entertainment enterprise, Puppets Plus. (It's the "plus" part of his act that turned out to be disturbing.) Brown performed with his hand-puppets for thousands of kids at shopping malls, schools, churches, and birthday parties throughout the Tampa Bay area. (Serial killer John Wayne Gacy entertained children with his clown act.) Beginning in 1997, Brown, through his so-called Kid Zone Ministry, hosted weekly gatherings at the Gulf Coast Church in his hometown of Largo, Florida. Ronald Brown also worked for the Christian Television Network, using his puppets to warn kids against viewing pornography. (Here's a simple rule: When some clown or guy with puppets wants to talk to your kid about pornography, even if it's in a church, get the hell out of there. If it's on TV, turn it off.)

     The outgoing puppeteer, a resident of the Whispering Pines mobile home park in Largo, regularly invited neighborhood boys and girls between the ages 5 and 12 to his trailer for pizza and candy. (Brown lived in an area populated by young families as evidenced by all the playgrounds near his home.)  He was also Facebook friends with several of the local kids who knew him as the "Cotton Candy Man." This neighborhood comprised an excellent hunting ground for a pedophile.

     In 1998, when a police officer pulled Brown over for a traffic violation, the cop noticed several pairs of boys' underwear in the car. When asked why he had children's undergarments in his vehicle, Brown explained that the clothing belonged to his puppets. (Puppets need underwear?) Whether or not the officer bought Brown's story, nothing came of the traffic cop's observation.

     In 2012, agents with the Department of Homeland Security were conducting an international child pornography investigation that led to 40 arrests in six countries. The child pornography ring, headquartered in Massachusetts, centered around an online chat room where sexual degenerates from around the world could communicate with each other. Ronald Brown, the 57-year-old puppeteer from Largo, Florida, was a regular presence on the pedophile site.

     In one conversation with a man from Kansas named Michael Arnett, Brown wrote that he wanted to kidnap a child, tie him up, lock him in a closet, then eat him for Easter dinner. "I imagine him wiggling and then going still," he wrote. Brown also mentioned a female toddler he knew who made his mouth water, describing how human flesh tastes when prepared in various ways. Michael Arnett sent Brown a photograph of a strangled 3-year-old girl. Turned on by the sight of a dead toddler, Brown replied that this was how he'd "do" the young boy he wanted to kill and consume.

     On July 19, 2012, Homeland Security agents, pursuant to a search of the puppeteer's Largo mobile home, seized CDs, DVDs, thumb drives, micro disks, and VHS tapes containing images of nude children in bondage positions. Some of the youngsters had been posed as though they were dead.

     The day following the search, the federal officers took Ronald Brown into custody. When interrogated, he identified the boy he said he wanted to kidnap and eat as a 10-year-old he knew from church. Brown referred to his Internet musings as being "in the realm of fantasy."

     On July 24, 2012, at Ronald Brown's arraignment, the Assistant United States Attorney informed the defendant he had been charged with conspiracy to kidnap a child and possession of child pornography. The judge set a date in August for Brown's bond hearing. Two days later, federal agents and deputies with the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office returned to Brown's mobile home where they removed more evidence from the dwelling. Agents and deputies were seen walking out of the place carrying boxes and bags containing who knows what.

     In July 2013, following his guilty plea in federal court, the judge sentenced the 58-year-old Brown to twenty years behind bars. The sentence also included probation for life if he ever got out of prison alive.


Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Frederick Harris III Murder Case

     In 1987, when he was 20-years-old, Pittsburgh area (Penn Hills) resident Frederick Harris III joined the Pennsylvania Army National Guard and the Army Reserve. Four years later, he graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a degree in psychology. In 1996, Harris left the National Guard and the Army Reserve with the rank of first lieutenant.

      From December 1997 until May 2000, Harris worked as a correctional officer at the State Correctional Institution at Somerset, Pennsylvania. In May 2000, he trained as a case worker for Allegheny County Children and Youth Services, but didn't stay beyond his six-month probationary period.

     Despite his college degree and military background, Harris' life began to unravel due to mental illness that included bipolar disorder. In 2001, he was treated at the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic in Pittsburgh where the psychiatrist prescribed a mood stabilizer. By 2004, he was living on a disability payment of $800 a month. In December 2004, at the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, Harris participated in group therapy sessions that lasted until November 2005.

     In 2009, Harris pleaded guilty to insurance fraud after he lied to his insurance company about how his motorcycle had been stolen. The judge sentenced him to six months probation.

     Harris pleaded guilty in April 2011 to criminal trespass in a bizarre case. After a real estate agent showed him a $500,000 home in Murrysville, Pennsylvania, Harris moved into the vacant house without permission. He stocked the refrigerator with food and slept in a sleeping bag. When police officers came to evict him, they found Harris hiding in a closet. The judge sentenced the house squatter to probation, the terms of which he quickly violated.

     In May 2012, an assistant Allegheny County prosecutor charged Harris with the assault and harassment of his sister Angela in her home. Harris put her into a headlock and dragged her into a bedroom where he punched her several times. That day, police officers arrested him at a Pittsburgh area homeless shelter. Declared mentally incompetent to stand trial, the judge sent Harris to Torrance State Hospital for treatment. Upon his release from the mental institution, Harris pleaded guilty to the assault and harassment charges. The judge sentenced him to seven months in the Allegheny County Jail plus seven years of probation. Upon his release from the Allegheny County Jail, the authorities incarcerated Harris at a state prison in Westmoreland County in connection with his probation violation in the criminal trespass case. He remained behind bars in Westmoreland County until March 2013.

     Harris' father, in 2014, kicked his son out of his Forest Hills home after the 47-year-old tried to choke him. The homeless man's mother, Olivia Gilbert and her husband Lamar, had allowed Harris to move in with them at their home in Penn Hills, a suburban community a few miles northeast of downtown Pittsburgh.

     On Tuesday December 16, 2014, at two in the afternoon, Harris' sister Angela called the police to report that she hadn't heard from her mother and stepfather since Saturday December 13. Officers, in response to the welfare check call, met Angela Harris at the Gilbert house.

     From the outside, the Penn Hills residence looked normal. Because the house was locked and the officers didn't have probable cause to force their way in, Angela Harris kicked open a back door.

     Olivia Gilbert, 73, and her 76-year-old husband Lamar didn't seem to be home. A police officer, finding the master bedroom door locked, jimmied his way into the room to find Frederick Harris III lying under covers on the bed. While Harris was breathing and didn't appear injured or sick, he didn't move or speak.

     Paramedics removed Frederick Harris from the Gilbert house on a stretcher and took him to the Forbes Regional Hospital where doctors couldn't find anything wrong with him physically.

     From the hospital, deputies with the Allegheny County Sheriff's Office put Harris in a patrol car and drove him to downtown Pittsburgh to be questioned at the department's homicide unit. The officers transported Harris from the police vehicle to the interrogation room in a wheelchair. When deputies asked him questions, Harris closed his eyes and refused to speak.

     Back at the Gilbert residence, detectives made a series of gruesome discoveries. In the garage deputies found three trash cans containing knotted garbage bags. One trash can contained two heads. Another bag held human arms, legs, feet, hands, and Mr. Gilbert's torso. The third trash can contained a section of a blood-soaked blue carpet that had been cut from an area near the basement laundry room. This bag also held five bloody knives. (A latent fingerprint expert would later connect the suspect to one of the garbage bags.)

     In the laundry room, officers found dried blood spatter and three bottles of bleach. They also recovered a bottle of anti-bacterial kitchen cleaner. Although parts of the laundry room had been scrubbed, a crime scene luminol test revealed the presence of blood.

     Detectives at the murder site found a receipt that showed that the three garbage cans had been recently purchased at a Home Depot store in nearby East Liberty.

     Back at the Allegheny County Sheriff's office, deputies found, in one of the suspect's pockets, a handwritten note signed "Mr. & Mrs. Gilbert" that thanked Frederick for house sitting while they were on vacation. The note contained a PS that read: "Don't answer the door for anyone."

     While questioning Harris his interrogators noticed a relatively fresh laceration on the palm of his right hand.

     On December 17, 2014, an Allegheny County assistant district attorney charged Frederick Harris III with two counts of murder and two counts of abuse of corpse. The judge denied the suspect bail.

     According to the Allegheny County Medical Examiner's office, Mr. Gilbert had died from a stab wound to his torso. The forensic pathologist found that Mrs. Gilbert, whose torso was missing, had died  "by sharp instrument." (Investigators suspect Mrs. Gilbert's torso and other body parts were picked up by refuse workers and taken to a landfill.)

     In September 2016, in an Allegheny County court room, the jury found Frederick Harris III guilty of two counts of first-degree murder and two counts of abuse of corpse. The defendant's attorney had failed to convince the jurors that someone else had committed the murders. The judge sentenced Harris to life without parole.


Monday, October 17, 2016

The Michelle Byrom Murder-For-Hire Case

     In 1999, 42-year-old Michelle Byrom lived in Luka, Mississippi, a small, rural town in the northeastern part of the state. She resided with her abusive 58-year-old husband, Edward Byrom Sr. and their 25-year-old son, Edward Byrom Jr.

     On June 4, 1999, Edward Byrom Sr. was found dead in the bedroom of his house. He had been shot in the head at close range. Sheriff David Smith of Tishomingo County brought young Edward in for questioning. According to Edward Jr., his friend Joey Gillis had committed the murder on behalf of his mother, Michelle Byrom. The dead man's son said that after the shooting, he went to the hospital where his mother was being treated for double pneumonia. When he informed her that Gillis had shot Edward Sr. as planned, Michelle instructed him to return to the house to make sure his father was dead. If in fact the shot had been fatal, young Edward was to call 911 and report the homicide.

     Edward Byrom Jr. told Sheriff Smith that his mother had promised to pay Gillis $15,000 from her husband's $150,000 life insurance policy.

     Joey Gillis, when questioned by the sheriff, denied any involvement in the murder case. A test to determine if he had recently fired a gun proved negative. (A gunshot residue test on Edward Jr., however, turned out positive. The dead man's son also led deputies to the murder weapon, a World War II 9 mm handgun that had belonged to his grandfather.)

     After interrogating Edward Byrom Jr. for several hours, the sheriff questioned Michelle Byrom at the hospital. The heavily medicated patient, after being told that her son had confessed to the murder-for-hire plot, made statements interpreted by the authorities as incriminating.

     A Tishomingo County prosecutor charged Joey Gillis with capital murder. Edward Jr. and his mother were charged with conspiracy to commit capital murder. If convicted as charged, they each faced the possibility of being sentenced to death.

     In early 2000, Edward Byrom Jr., while incarcerated in the Tishomingo County Jail, wrote his mother four letters in which he exonerated her and confessed fully to his father's murder. According to his revised account of the shooting, on the day of the killing, his father had slapped him in the face and called him a no good bastard. After brooding awhile in his bedroom, Edward Jr. found the 9 mm handgun and used it to shoot his father in the head.

     According to young Byrom, when he was interrogated by the sheriff, "I gave him one BS story after another to save my ass….I was scared, confused, and high. I just started spitting out the first thought that turned out to be this big conspiracy theory. It was all BS, that's why I had so many different stories."

     In October 2000, Michelle Byrom went on trial for conspiracy to kill her husband for his life insurance money. While Joey Gillis, the supposed triggerman, did not testify, Edward Jr., having recanted his jailhouse confessions to his mother, took the stand for the prosecution.

     Michelle Byrom's attorney decided to withhold the introduction of her son's jailhouse letters until Edward Jr.'s cross-examination. But when it came time to enter the letters into evidence, the judge ruled they could not be introduced mid-trial. While the defense attorney was allowed to grill Edward Jr. about the contents of his confessions, not having the actual letters as exhibits hurt the defense.

     On November 18, 2000, the jury found Michelle Byrom guilty as charged. On the advice of her attorney, she waived her right to a jury-determined sentence, instead putting her fate into the hands of the trial judge. This turned out to be an unwise decision. The judge handed Michelle Byrom the death sentence.

     In 2001, Joey Gillis, the alleged triggerman, in return for a lighter sentence, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit murder and accessory after the fact. Upon his release from prison in 2009, he denied having any involvement in Mr. Byrom's murder.

     Edward Byrom Jr. also pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit murder. Rewarded for his testimony against his mother, he walked out of prison in August 2013.

     In the meantime, death row attorneys working on Michelle Byrom's behalf had appealed her conviction on the grounds she had not received adequate legal representation. In 2006, the Mississippi Supreme Court, in a five to three decision, ruled that Byrom's trial attorney's performance had not prejudiced her case. Bryom's appeal for a new trial was denied.

     In March 2014, the Mississippi Supreme Court took up the Byrom appeal again. This time the justices ruled in her favor by reversing the murder-for-hire conviction and remanding the case back to the state circuit court for a new trial. The 57-year-old had been on Mississippi's death for more than thirteen years.

     Following the Mississippi Supreme Court ruling, a local prosecutor re-charged Byrom with conspiracy to murder her husband.

     On July 15, 2015, Michelle Byrom, while maintaining her innocence, pleaded no contest to the murder conspiracy charge. As part of the plea deal, the judge sentenced her to time served. For the first time in 16 years, she was free.