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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Brenda Leyland and the Madeleine McCann Case: Death of a "Troll" or a Concerned Citizen?

     On May 3, 2007, doctors Gerry and Kate McCann, from the affluent village of Rothley in the central English borough of Charnwood, were on holiday in Praia da Luz, Portugal with their three children and another couple. That evening the McCanns reported their 3-year-old daughter Madeleine missing. According to the parents, someone had abducted the girl from the hotel room while they were dining 160 feet away from the resort.

     As in the JonBenet Ramsey case in the United States twelve years earlier, the public, influenced by tabloid-like media coverage, suspected the parents of foul play. When a British DNA analyst reported that the child had died in the hotel room, the authorities were under public pressure to arrest the McCanns.

     In September 2007, the police in Portugal made it official by declaring Doctors Gerry and Kate McCann suspects in the disappearance of their daughter. No arrest warrants were issued and in July 2008 the attorney general of Portugal closed the case against the parents citing lack of evidence.

     While officially cleared of criminal wrongdoing, Gerry and Kate McCann remained, in the tabloid press and the minds of millions in Great Britain and around the world, guilty of murder.

     The missing girl's parents, convinced that the police in Portugal had given up the search, hired private investigators to breathe new life into the case. Based on information uncovered by the PIs and Scotland Yard's release of the image of a man seen carrying a child toward the beach not far from the hotel on the night in question, the Portugese police, in October 2013, re-opened the case. Notwithstanding this development, the McCann child has not been found and no arrests have been made.

     In the years following the Madeleine McCann disappearance, a community of conspiracy buffs have targeted the missing girl's parents. Some would say these people have abused and harassed the McCanns through negative tweets, Facebook postings, text messaging, and other forms of online communication. People who engage in this form of social media activity have been labeled "Trolls," a catch-all term that covers everything from mild criticism to online death threats.

     According to social scientists who have studied this media phenomenon, trolls are often bored, lonely people who become obsessed with a particular crime. Some of them are manifestly insane. While  they annoy and may even frighten the targets of their wrath, they are, for the most part, harmless talkers.  These compulsive chatterboxes orbit every celebrated crime, usually offering up outlandish conspiracy theories. The Lindbergh kidnapping case and the JFK assassination, for example, attracted thousands of revisionist true crime buffs. In the wake of baby Lindbergh's abduction and murder in 1932, the 20-month-old's parents were almost driven crazy by obsessed and mentally ill people who showed up at their mansion and harassed them in public. Today, fixated crime buff simply take to their computers.

     In late September 2014, a British television news team published the identify of one of the more prolific McCann case trolls. Brenda Leyland, a 63-year-old resident of Burton Overy, a picturesque village in the Harborough district of Liecestershire, had published more than 5,000 tweets on the case. The soft-spoken divorcee used her Twitter account to draw attention to what she considered an appalling failure of justice. She called the McCanns neglectful parents and accused them, through their frequent media appearances, of profiting from their daughter's disappearance. Leyland once tweeted that the McCanns should "suffer for the rest of their miserable lives" for what they've done.

     Brenda Leyland regularly accused the metropolitan police (Scotland Yard) of dropping the ball in the missing persons case. She also took on the tabloid media for false and over-the-top reporting. At no time did she threaten the McCanns, and unlike some of her fellow Trolls, never called them baby killers.

     After being outed by the television reporters, Leyland became an online target herself. To avoid being harassed by reporters, she checked into a nearby Marriott Hotel in Grove Park, Leicester. On Saturday, October 4, 2014 at one-forty in the afternoon, police were called to Leyland's hotel room after a Marriott employee discovered her corpse.

     Investigators have found no evidence of criminal homicide in Leyland's sudden death. The autopsy, however, failed to reveal a cause of death. This has led to speculation that Brenda Leyland took her own life.

     Leyland's death will no doubt create a community of Trolls who will somehow link the government or the McCanns to her death. By attaching herself to celebrated case, Leyland briefly became famous herself. Perhaps this was one Troll who came to realize what it is like to be the target of other people's obsession, loneliness and boredom. 

Criminal Justice Quote: When Athletes Steal It's a Mistake--For the Rest of Us It's Criminal

     Saying it was "the biggest mistake I've ever made in my life," Dallas Cowboys running back Joseph Randle apologized to teammates after getting arrested on shoplifting charges. [How about an apology to the store he ripped-off?]

     Randle, 22, a backup tailback in his second season with the Cowboys, was accused of attempting to steal $80 worth of cologne and underwear from a Dillards' Inc. store in the Dallas suburb of Frisco. Cowboys coach Jason Garrett told reporters on October 15, 2014 that Randle will be fined, but not suspended for this weekend's game against the New York Giants.

     "The actions that we're going to take is to fine him significantly and move forward," Garrett said in a news conference…[I don't think it's a good sign that people are always "moving forward."] Randle will be fined at $29,117, the amount he earns each week on his scheduled $495,000 base salary this season. [He can't afford cologne and underwear on that salary? This kid needs a raise.]…

     "I just made a huge mistake," Randle told reporters. "It was hard coming back in the locker room and looking at people who care about me in the eye, knowing that I did something stupid."…

"Cowboy's Randle Charged with Trying to Steal Underwear," bloomberg.com, October 16, 2014 

Writing Quote: Stephen King on Reading Good and Bad Novels

     One learns most clearly what not to do by reading bad prose. Reading Valley of the Dolls and Bridges of Madison County is worth a semester at a good writing school, even with the superstar guest lecturers thrown in.

     Good writing, on the other hand, teaches the learning writer about style, graceful narration, plot development, the creation of believable characters and truth-telling. A novel like The Grapes of Wrath may fill a new writer with feelings of despair and good old-fashioned jealousy--"I'll never be able to write anything that good, not if I live to be a thousand"--but such feelings can also serve as a spur, goading the writer to work harder and aim higher.

Stephen King, On Writing, 2000

Criminal Justice Quote: A Mafia Hit Man's Self-Analysis

I didn't want to go straight. No boring sessions with do-gooder social workers for this cookie. No BS therapy from a shrink who would say I hated my uncle. Forget denial and struggling to make ends meet on some begged-for, dead-end job. "You're a criminal pure and simple," I told myself, "so go for it whole hog."

Donald "Tony the Greek" Frankos in The Book of Criminal Quotations, J. P. Bean, editor, 2003 

Monday, October 20, 2014

Tristen Kurilla: A 10-Year-old Killer

     Tristen Kurilla, a fifth-grade student at Damascus Elementary School, lived with his mother, Martha Virbitsky, and his grandfather in Damascus Township, Pennsylvania, a rural community in the northeast corner of the state near the New York line. Helen Novak, a 90-year-old woman being cared for by the boy's grandfather, Anthony Virbitsky, lived under the same roof.

     On Saturday October 11, 2014, Anthony Virbitsky checked on Helen Novak to find that she was having trouble breathing. He offered to take her to the emergency room but she refused. Less than an hour later, when Mr. Virbitsky entered Novak's room to make sure she was okay, he found her dead. The caregiver called 911 to report the passing of an elderly woman.

     Not long after the Wayne County Coroner transported Helen Novak's body to the morgue, Martha Virbitsky showed up at the Pennsylvania State Police barracks in nearby Honesdale with her son. According to the mother, the boy had confessed to killing Helen Novak.

     In speaking to Trooper John Decker, Tristen Kurilla said, " I killed the lady." According to the boy, he pressed the victim's cane against her neck because he was angry that she yelled at him when he came into her room to ask her a question. He also punched her in the throat and stomach.

     "Were you trying to kill her?" asked the trooper.

     "No, I was only trying to hurt her," came the reply.

     Martha Virbitsky told the state police officer that her son had been a problem to raise. He had a violent streak and suffered from what she called "mental difficulties."

     The Wayne County district attorney charged Tristen Kurilla, as an adult, with murder. Officers booked the boy into the Wayne County Correctional Facility.

     Shortly after the 10-year-old's arrest, Kurilla's attorney, Bernie Brown, petitioned the judge to release his client from custody and move the case into juvenile court.

     In addressing the adult versus juvenile court issue, Wayne County District Attorney Janine Edwards pointed out that under Pennsylvania law, homicide charges, regardless of the defendant's age, must be initially filed in adult court. Moreover, juvenile detention centers do not accept children charged with criminal homicide.

     The Wayne County Coroner's Office, on Monday October 13, 2014, declared Helen Novak's cause of death as "blunt force trauma to the neck." Her manner of death will go into the books as homicide.

     

Criminal Justice Quote: The Connecticut Hotel Mop Attack

     A Connecticut man is facing charges after police said he grabbed a mop out of a hotel employee's hands and was "mopping aggressively" over the worker's shoes. Police say 30-year-old John Thornton, of Southington, was arrested Monday night October 13, 2014 and charged with breach of peace and threatening.

     Officers responding to the Bristol Hotel were told a man had become "unruly," grabbed the mop and swept it back and forth over the woman's shoes. When the employee asked the man to stop, police say he pushed her into a corner. Police say the woman was shaken and crying.

     Authorities say Thornton insulted and swore at officers during the arrest, threatening them with bodily harm. He was released on $20,000 bond.

"Man Accused of 'Mopping Aggressively'," Associated Press, October 16, 2014 

Criminal Justice Quote: Random Attacks on College Students by Roving Gangs

     Over the first two weekends in October 2014, groups of young men have been roving the streets and beating people completely at random near the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Police say the beat downs are consistent with initiations by big city street gangs--a phenomenon not typically seen on most Big 10 campuses…

     The attackers--described as black, perhaps 25 years old, wearing dark clothes--prowled aound an area in Champaign, tackling various innocent and unsuspecting victims to the ground and kicking them in the head. Police say five students suffered injuries in four different attacks. Three of the students received treatment for bruises, cuts and facial wounds…One student also had a cell phone stolen. 

     Some victims say their attackers asked them a question or threatened them before the pummeling began. Other victims say they just got attacked. Each incident occurred on a residential street in front of witnesses. There were six to eight attackers in total. They cruised around in a blue vehicle looking for victims. There have been 45 assaults reported in the Champaign-Urbana metropolitan area since October 1, 2014….

Eric Owens, "Black Males Are Viciously Beating People at Random at the University of Illinois," The Daily Caller, October 17, 2014 

Writing Quote: Arthur Conan Doyle's Literary Homicide

A. Conan Doyle grew to detest his detective Sherlock Holmes and killed him off with satisfaction. The rest of the world didn't agree: London stockbrokers wore armbands, the public deluged newspapers with letters of mourning and outrage, and a woman even picketed Doyle's house with a sign that called him a murderer.

Erin Barrett and Jack Mingo, It Takes a Certain Type to be a Writer, 2003 

Writing Quote: The Relevance of Grammar

Among the questions that writers need to ask themselves in the process of revision--Is this the best word I can find? Is my meaning clear? Can a word or phrase be cut from this without sacrificing anything essential? Perhaps the most important question is: Is this grammatical? What's strange is how many beginning writers seem to think that grammar is irrelevant, or that they are somehow above or beyond this subject more fit for a schoolchild than the future author of great literature. Or possibly they worry that they will be distracted from their focus on art if they permit themselves to be sidetracked by the dull requirements of English usage. But the truth is that grammar is always interesting, always useful. Mastering the logic of grammar contributes, in a mysterious way that evokes some process of osmosis, to the logic of thought.

Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer, 2006 

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Alan Hruby Murder Case: In Cold Blood for the Inheritance

     John Hruby, a resident of Duncan, Oklahoma, a town of 24,000 about 60 miles north of Dallas, owned and worked at a newspaper located in nearby Marlow. Hruby, 50, his wife Katherine, and their 17-year-old daughter lived in the Timber Creek subdivision on the north side of town. The 48-year-old Katherine, known to friends and family as "Tinker," also worked at the Marlow Review, a weekly publication with a circulation of 3,500.

     The Hrubys' son Alan, a 19-year-old political science major at Oklahoma University, was charged in July 2013 with theft and fraud. He had used his grandmother's name to acquire a credit card. While in Europe that summer, he put $5,000 worth of charges on the fraudulently obtained card. Police arrested him in August 2013 when he returned to the United States from his vacation.

     In February 2014, the judge sentenced Alan Hruby to probation. Pursuant to the terms of his sentence, he was not allowed to consume alcohol. The judge also ordered Hruby to attend alcohol and drug counseling sessions.

     Over the October 10 to 12 weekend in 2014, young Hruby violated the terms of his probation by traveling to Dallas to attend the Oklahoma University-Texas football game. He stayed at the Ritz Carlton hotel and partied all weekend.

     On Friday October 10, 2014, Todd Brooks, an employee at the Marlow Review, became concerned when his boss and Katherine Hruby didn't show up for work. On Monday October 13, when the Hrubys didn't come to the newspaper office and didn't answer their phones, Todd Brooks' worries about their wellbeing intensified.

     That Monday, as the Marlow Review employee wondered if something had happened to his boss and his wife, the Hruby housecleaner made a gruesome discovery when she showed up for work in Duncan. She found John Hruby, his wife, and their daughter lying dead on the kitchen floor. They had each been shot in the head.

     Detectives with the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation (OSBI) ruled out double-murder suicide in favor of triple homicide. Alan Hruby's black Jeep sat in the Hruby home driveway. OSBI investigators impounded the vehicle.

     On October 15, 2014, OSBI officers arrested Alan Hruby for violating the terms of his credit card fraud probation. Under questioning at police headquarters regarding the murders of his parents and sister, he confessed.

     In early October 2014, Alan Hruby stole a 9 mm pistol from his father's pickup truck. On Friday October 10, 2014 he used that gun to shoot his mother twice in the head. He shot his sister to death when she entered the kitchen to investigate the source of the gunshots.

     After murdering his mother and sister, Alan waited an hour until his father came home. When John Hruby walked into the room Alan killed his father by shooting him twice in the head. When hit by his son's first bullet, the father said "ouch" then dropped to the kitchen floor. That's when the young man finished the job by putting the second bullet into his victim's skull.

     Alan Hruby told his interrogators that he had left his cell phone at Oklahoma University so that when detectives checked, it would ping there. He removed the DVR from the home surveillance system and tossed it into a nearby lake along with the murder weapon. After disposing of this evidence, he drove to Dallas to enjoy the festive football weekend.

     When asked why he had murdered his family in cold blood, the college student said he needed to inherit his parents' estate. He owed a loan shark from Norman, Oklahoma $3,000.

     Stephens County District Attorney Jason Hicks charged Alan Hruby with three counts of first-degree murder. The prosecutor said he might seek the death penalty in the case. The judge denied the triple murder suspect bail.