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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Memphis Police Officer Ronald Harris: The Make-A-Wish Robbery Case

     In January 2002, 22-year-old Ronald Harris joined the police department in Memphis, Tennessee. Twelve years later, he was assigned to the substation at the Memphis International Airport. Officer Harris' supervisors, over the years, documented his failure to live up to the department's standards of professional behavior. He abused the agency's sick leave benefits, did not answer radio calls, and in 2013 was suspended for insubordination.

     In May 2014, Officer Harris' wife reported that he had become delusional and had threatened to kill her. The department granted him leave to seek psychiatric help.

     In June 2014, Harris learned that an employee of St. Jude Children's Hospital, on the seventh of that month, would deliver a credit card worth $1,500 to a Make-A-Wish Foundation family before they boarded a plane with their terminally ill child. On that day Harris followed the Make-A-Wish organization's volunteer into the airport terminal.

     When the paper bag containing the credit card and five St. Jude T-shirts exchanged hands, the off-duty, out-of-uniform cop grabbed the container and tried to flee the scene. Nathan Moore, a member of the sick child's family, confronted officer Harris. In the scuffle that ensued, Harris caused a deep laceration in Mr. Moore's forehead by head-butting him.

     Airport police officers, a couple of bystanders, and the injured Nathan Moore eventually subdued the out-of-control cop. Once inside the police car, Harris kicked open the door and tried to escape.

     Paramedics stitched up Mr. Moore's forehead at the airport. Not long after that the shaken child and his family boarded the plane and flew off to DisneyWorld or wherever they were going to make his dream come true.

     When investigators searched Ronald Harris' car, they found pieces of mail that had been stolen from his neighbor's mailbox.

     Memphis Police Director Toney Armstrong suspended Ronald Harris from the force as officers booked him into the county jail on charges of aggravated assault, robbery, and escape from felony incarceration. At his arraignment, the judge set the suspect's bond at $25,000.

     Ronald Harris may or may not go to prison for his outrageous robbery and assault. There is little doubt, however, that he will not get back on the police force. He will probably end up in a mental health facility.

     Few situations are more dangerous than a violent, mentally ill cop. At least in this case the officer, when he went off the deep end, was not armed. 

Criminal Justice Quote: Two Suicide-by-Cop Cases in Maryland

     Howard County Maryland police shot and killed a knife-wielding man who confronted officers and threatened relatives…County police were called shortly after 6:30 AM Saturday August 13, 2014 to Montgomery Road in Ellicott City where police encountered a 61-year-old man in the front yard of a house. One officer shot the man with a Taser weapon, but the man was able to get back inside the house.

     Upon returning to the front yard, the man confronted the officers with a knife at which time the officers shot him. Two large knives were found at the scene.

     Relatives said the man had recently talked about suicide. Investigators believe he called 911 twice, reporting that someone at the house planned to kill the occupants…This is the second police-involved shooting in Howard County in a week. Both cases involved suicidal suspects. On Wednesday August 20, 2014, police shot a man who stabbed himself and confronted officers.

"Man With Knives Shot, Killed by Police," WBAL-TV, August 23, 2014 

Writing Quote: Alien Nonhuman Beings in Literature and Film

     Aliens--nonhuman beings, usually intelligent and sentient, usually from places other than Earth--are of the most familiar elements of science fiction. Even people who don't read science fiction have become well acquainted with quite a few of them through television shows and movies. "E.T." was the title character of one of the highest-grossing movies ever made; the Star Wars movies popularized wookies, Yoda and Jabba the Hut; Star Trek offered a steady parade of nonhuman life-forms, some of them regular members of the cast.

     Movies have been dealing with aliens for much longer. Invasions of giant spiders and such have long been a staple of low-budget horror films, while occasionally a film would try something a bit more sophisticated like H. G. Wells' War of the Worlds. The same novel inspired Orson Wells' 1938 radio broadcast that literally terrified thousands of listeners.

     Printed science fiction has also featured a great many aliens, often with more care and finesse than they've usually received in the visual and broadcast media…

     Some writers have made a specialty of creating fascinating, believable aliens, along with their cultures and the worlds that produced them…Intelligent nonhumans have been an important element in literature much longer than what we now know as science fiction. Gods, demons and talking animals appear in the most ancient mythologies. The folklores of many lands have produced elves, dragons and trolls that have persisted in some form into the written fantasy of today.

Stanley Schmidt, Aliens and Alien Societies, 1995 

Writing Quote: Before Writing Horror Stories You Must Read Horror Stories

     Horror is a genre with certain identifiable characteristics. When people who enjoy horror read your story, they are not reading it in a vacuum. They are reading it as part of a genre, constantly comparing your story to other horror stories they've read. If I had never read Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" and then a story very much like it, readers who know Poe's story may not be quite as thrilled with my big surprise ending as I had hoped. To them it's no surprise. They've read it before, only a better version.

     To be a creative, innovative horror writer, you must read a lot of everything--and a lot of that everything must be horror. You may be thinking: How can I be creative and original with all these other authors' ideas floating around in my head? This is critical: The sheer amount of material floating around in your head will actually prevent you copying from any one author in particular.

     Instead, you will find a tiny piece of character from this book, a tiny piece of plot from that book, a certain stylistic technique from that other--to combine into something totally new. It is the writer who reads only Stephen King who will turn out stories that sound like Stephen King--on a very bad day.

Jeanne Cavelos in On Writing Horror, Mort Castle, editor, 2007  

     

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Mary Whitaker Murder Case

     In the summer months for the past 35 years, 61-year-old Mary Whitaker played violin for the Chautauqua Institution's symphony Orchestra in western New York not far from the Pennsylvania line. She lived in a one-story home outside of Westfield. During the rest of the year the New York City resident played for the Westchester Philharmonic.

     On Tuesday night, August 19, 2014, someone drove 43-year-old Jonathan Conklin and Charles Sanford, 30, from Erie to Westfield, New York. Both men, with long histories of crime, had met a few months earlier at an Erie, Pennsylvania homeless shelter. After their driver dropped them off, Conklin broke into an apartment near a bar and stole several guns that included a .22-caliber rifle.

     From the site of the burglary, the two criminals walked to Mary Whitaker's rural home on Titus Road. With Conklin hiding nearby, Sanford rapped on her door. When she responded to his knock he said he had run out of gas and needed to use her phone. After she handed him her cellphone, Conklin materialized with the rifle in hand and said, "This is a robbery." At that moment he shot Whitaker in the chest. She screamed and grabbed for the gun that went off in the struggle. The second bullet entered her leg.

     Following the shooting, the robbers dragged the bleeding woman into her garage where they left her while they ransacked her house for items to steal. Upon returning to the garage, Conklin ordered his accomplice to kill the victim. Sanford complied by stabbing the wounded Whitaker in the throat.

     As Mary Whitaker bled to death in her garage, the two degenerates drove back to Erie in her Chevrolet HHR. They had stolen her check book and credit cards.

     Upon the discovery of Whitaker's body, police in Chautauqua County, aware that Jonathan Conklin was in the area, immediately suspected him of burglarizing the apartment and murdering the violinist.

     On Friday morning, August 22, 2014, after using Whitaker's credit cards to buy a flat screen television and some clothing at Walmart, detectives took Conklin and Sanford into custody.

     On the day of their arrest the suspects appeared before a federal magistrate on charges of interstate transportation of a stolen motor vehicle, carjacking, and federal firearms violations. In Chautauqua County, New York, Conklin and Sanford faced state charges of first-degree murder, burglary, and robbery.

     Cases like this remind us that we live among predatory, cold-blooded killers who ought be be behind bars but are not.


     

Framing Your Estranged Husband

     On August 11, 2014, a jury in Indiana, Pennsylvania found 43-year-old Meri Jane Woods guilty of trying to frame her estranged husband of a crime. According to the district attorney, in August 2013, the  Clymer, Pennsylvania defendant downloaded 40 images of child pornography onto the family computer and took the photographs to the police. She accused her estranged husband, Matthew Woods, of downloading the pornographic contraband.

     When investigators examined the time stamps on the images, they determined they had been downloaded more than two weeks after Meri Woods had kicked her husband out of the house pursuant to a protection from abuse order. Since he didn't have access to the dwelling or the computer, he couldn't have downloaded the incriminating material.

     The judge will sentence Woods in December for filing the false police report. She faces up to nine years behind bars. She might also have to register as a Megan's Law offender. 

Criminal Justice Quote: The Cash Goes Into the Armored Truck, Not On It

Nearly $21,000 is missing after a bag of cash fell off the roof of an armored truck that had picked it up from a soon-to-be-closed Atlantic City casino. GardaWorld Armored Car Services picked up the cash at Revel Casino on August 6, 2014…Surveillance video showed the bag holding the cash on the rear driver's side roof as the vehicle left the casino. The bag was still on the roof when the truck pulled away from nearby Resorts Casino Hotel. It is not clear where the bag fell off. [Someone in Atlantic City hit the jackpot.]

"$21 G Falls Off Truck After Pickup From Revel Casino," Associated Press, August 20, 2014 

Writing Quote: Writing For Young Adults

Books for young adults often explore the gulf in understanding between parents and children. You can only do this if you enter the world of the young person and address the conflict from their point of view. Try to remember the battles you had as a teenager with those adults who wielded authority over you, be they parents, teachers, the police or whomever. How did you feel when these people tried to impose their will on you?

Allan Frewin Jones and Lesly Pollinger, Writing For Children and Getting Published, 1996

Writing Quote: Novelists Should Write For Themselves

My biggest struggle as a novelist is to put my own story on paper--not to be influenced by what I think my editor, my publisher, my friends, or the reader wants to see on the page. I need to get these people out of my writing space and focus on writing my story. If it resonates for me, it will resonate for my readers.

Joan Johnston in The 101 Habits of Highly Successful Novelists, edited by Andrew McLeer, 2008 

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Militarization of American Law Enforcement

     About half of the nation's SWAT officers are trained by active-duty commandos from Navy Seal and Army Ranger units. Police officers with special operation backgrounds in the military train the rest. When fully outfitted in Kevlar helmets, goggles, "ninja" style hoods, combat boots, body armor, and black or camouflage fatigues, and carrying fully automatic rifles and machine guns, these police officers not only look like military troops geared up for battle, they feel that way.

     These elite paramilitary teams--composed of commanders, tactical team leaders, scouts, rearguards, snipers, flashbang grenade officers, and paramedics--are organized like combat units and are just as lethal. But unlike troops in battle, SWAT police don't encounter mortar fire, granade-propelled rockets, homemade bombs, land mines, and highly trained enemy soldiers.

     A vast majority of SWAT raids, conducted after midnight, are targeted against private homes inhabited by unarmed people who are either asleep or watching television. When a SWAT team encounters resistance, it's usually from a family dog who often gets shot. Given the hair-trigger intensity of these drug operations, unarmed civilians who move furtively or are slow to comply with orders get manhandled and sometimes fired at.

     In a landmark study of police paramilitary units published in February 1997, Eastern Kentucky University professors Peter B. Kraska and Victor Kappeler found that by 1990 every state police agency and half the country's sheriff's officers (about 1,500 agencies) had SWAT units. Thirty-eight percent of the nation's police departments were also SWAT team-ready. Five years later, in cities with populations more than 50,000--about 700 municipalities--90 percent of the police departments were deploying SWAT teams.

     At the dawn of the 21st century, according to Kraska and Kappeler, federal, state, and local police were making 50,000 SWAT raids a year. Twenty-five years earlier, there were 3,000 SWAT call-outs annually. According to the best estimates of experts in the field--counting federal, regional, state, county, and municipal law enforcement agencies--there are now at least 3,500 paramilitary police units operating throughout the country.

     The 1,300 percent jump in SWAT team deployments in less than twenty years does not reflect a concomitant increase in armed hostage taking, sniper cases, or other high-risk incidents requiring heavily armed, combat-trained SWAT teams.

     Since the mid-1990s, the country's largest police agencies have used armored personnel carriers--APCs--to patrol high-crime districts, transport SWAT officers, and function as drug raid-site operations centers. In recent years, medium-and small-sized law enforcement agencies have been acquiring these military transporters. Although they come in various sizes and designs, APCs are full-tracked, armored, amphibious vehicles capable of traveling over rough terrain at relatively high speeds. Many are equipped with high-caliber, fully automatic turret weapons.

     In the summer of 2013, under a national military surplus give-away program, the Department of Defense gave Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected combat vehicles--MRAPs--to 165 police agencies. The 18-ton fighting vehicles built at the height of the Iraq war, cost the military $500,000 apiece.

     These military behemoths, too big for many bridges and roads, come equipped with bullet-proof glass and machine gun turrets. A MRAP can carry six officers and travel up to 65 miles per hour. Because these huge machines only get five miles per gallon, fuel costs are high. Moreover, each recipient of one of these combat vehicles will spend $70,000 to retrofit the MRAP for civilian use.

     And how will law enforcement agencies use these Army surplus MRAPs? At Ohio State University, campus police are using their MRAP to show force at home football games. (No kidding.) In Boise, Idaho, hardly a place of high crime and civil unrest, the police department uses its MRAP to serve arrest and search warrants.

     A reporter asked one law enforcement administrator if the police department had a use for the mounted machine gun. The chief of police assured the reporter that the department had no plans to remove the machine gun turret. "The whole idea," he said, "is to protect the occupants of the vehicle."
But from what? The officers are inside a bullet-proof vehicle that can withstand a land mine.

     These military surplus vehicles, designed for war, are intimidating and out of place in a civilian setting. The fact that so many police agencies possess them is one sign of how inappropriately militarized American law enforcement has become.