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Saturday, April 18, 2015

The Colleen Harris Murder Case

     In 1985, 47-year-old James Batten kicked his wife Colleen out of the house. The estranged couple lived in Placerville, California, a town of 10,000 in the Sacramento metropolitan region. On the night of July 31, 1985, Colleen called the El Dorado County Sheriff's office from her husband's residence and said, "I shot my husband. I think, I don't know, I don't remember. I don't know if I even shot him."

     Police officers found James Batten, Colleen's second husband, lying dead in his bed from two close-range shotgun blasts. The newly minted 43-year-old widow told the officers she had shot her husband in self-defense. She claimed he had threatened to kill her and rape her daughter from her first marriage.

     Charged with first-degree murder, Colleen Batten went on trial in February 1986. A psychiatrist took the stand for the defense and testified that Colleen didn't remember much about the shooting because she suffered from a condition he called, "limited amnesia."

     At the conclusion of the three-week trial, the jury, after deliberating almost two days, returned a verdict of not guilty. One of the jurors, in speaking to a reporter after the trial, said, "The net result was that we felt there was insufficient proof of intent to commit first-degree murder." (The prosecutor had made the mistake of not providing this jury the option of finding the defendant guilty of a lesser homicide offense. Faced with sending Colleen away for life or letting her walk, the jurors set her free.)

     Colleen married again, but in 2005 she and her third husband, 66-year-old Robert Harris, filed for divorce. The couple remained married, however. Although he resided in a cabin on South Lake Tahoe, Mr. Harris, in late 2012, returned to the Placerville house to care for his estranged wife as she recovered from hip surgery.
   
     On January 6, 2013, Colleen was once again on the phone with the police. For the second time in 27 years, she was informing officers she had used a shotgun to blow away a spouse. (It was a different shotgun.)

     The police arrived at the Harris residence that night to find the newly widowed 70-year-old in the kitchen washing dishes. In the bedroom, the police found Mr. Harris in bed with an upper torso shotgun wound. Once again, Colleen claimed self-defense against a violent man who had abused her physically and emotionally. (Apparently she had limited herself to one claim of "limited amnesia.")

    Police officers booked Coleen Harris into the El Dorado County Jail on the charge of first-degree murder.

     The Coleen Harris murder trial got underway on March 18, 2015 in the El Dorado County Courthouse. In his opening statement to the jury, Deputy District Attorney Joe Alexander said the defendant had murdered her estranged husband in a fit of jealousy. On January 5, 2013, the day before the shooting, the defendant caught Mr. Harris standing outside the house on his cellphone with his overseas lover. This, plus the fact Mr. Harris had revealed his plan to move back to his cabin, had pushed the defendant over the edge.

     Defense attorney David Weiner, the lawyer who had successfully represented Coleen Harris at her previous murder trial, did not make an opening statement to the jury.

      Pam Stirling, the murdered man's daughter, took the stand for the prosecution. According to this witness, on the day before her father was shotgunned to death, the defendant sent her a text message that read: "Between you and me, as I sit here wondering who I am married to, your dad just called his Mongolia lover."

     The victim's daughter, in referring to the defendant, said, "Her emotions were going up and down. I was concerned that we would end up where we are today." The witness said her father, as a precaution, had installed new locks on his South Lake Tahoe cabin.

      Pam Stirling was followed to the stand by police officers and detectives involved in the case.

     On March 25, defense attorney Weiner said his client, on the day of the shooting, had been in a "gray fog."

     Defense attorney Weiner, on April 2, 2015, following the closing of the prosecution's case, put Colleen Harris on the stand. The defendant said that after she and her husband had argued over his paramour in Mongolia, she went into their darkened bedroom to console him and to make up. When she reached out to rub his neck, she felt the barrel of a shotgun. "I said, 'Bob, what are you doing? Why do you have this gun with you?' I thought he was going to kill himself."

     The murder defendant testified that in response to her efforts to make up with her husband, he cursed at her and pushed her away. She said she felt a blow to her chest and thought it was the butt of the shotgun. She ran out of the room.

     According to Colleen Harris, when she returned to the bedroom that night, she reached over to her husband on the bed and asked, "Bob, are you okay?" She said she saw blood on his pillow and thought he was having a nose bleed. "I turned on the light and oh God, I saw the most horrible thing I have ever seen in my life. I said, "No, please! This can't be!' "

     In his cross-examination of the defendant, prosecutor Joe Alexander said, "The truth is, Mrs. Harris, you were holding the gun when Bob Harris was killed."

     "I guess I was," she answered. The witness, however, vehemently denied pulling the trigger.

     Prosecutor Alexander, on April 14, 2015, in his closing statement to the jury, said the defendant "entered the room with a shotgun. She aimed it as Bob lay sleeping. She put a finger on the trigger--and pulled that trigger."

     On April 15, 2015, after deliberating less than two hours, the jury returned a verdict of first-degree murder. The defendant, who will spent the rest of her life behind bars, put her hands over her face and cried.

     In speaking to reporters outside the courthouse, Colleen Harris' attorney said, "She took it hard, hard, hard. She is distraught." 

Friday, April 17, 2015

The Jason Young Murder Trials

     In November 2006, 29-year-old Jason Young and his 26-year-old wife Michelle lived in a suburban home outside of Raleigh, North Carolina. They had a 2-year-old daughter named Cassidy. Michelle was five months pregnant with their second child. It was not a happy marriage. He had several girlfriends, and as a salesman for a medical software company spent a lot of time on the road. Michelle told friends and relatives that she hated her life.

     On the morning of November 3, 2006, Jason was out of town. The previous night he had checked into a Hampton Inn in Huntsville, Virginia 169 miles from Raleigh. At nine that morning, he left a voicemail for Michelle's younger sister, Meredith Fisher. Jason asked Meredith to stop by his house and retrieve some papers for him. (I presume he told Meredith he had called home and didn't get an answer.)

     Later that morning, Meredith Fisher entered the Young house on Jason's behalf. When she climbed the stairs to the second floor, she was shocked by the sight of bloody footprints. In the master bedroom she discovered her sister lying facedown in a pool of blood. The victim, wearing a white sweatshirt and black sweatpants, had been bludgeoned to death beyond recognition. Meredith found Cassidy hiding under the covers of her parents' bed. She had not been harmed, but her socks were saturated in her mother's blood. Meredith Fisher called 911.

     According to the forensic pathologist who performed the autopsy, the assailant had struck Michelle Young at least thirty times in the head and had tried to kill the victim by manual strangulation before beating her to death. The extent of the head wounds suggested an attack by an enraged, out-of-control killer who hated the victim.

     The authorities, from the beginning, suspected that Jason Young had snuck back to North Carolina from Virginia, murdered his wife, then returned to the Hampton Inn. The killer had not forced his way into the house, nothing had been taken, and the little girl's life had been spared. At the time of the murder, Jason was having an affair with one of his wife's friends. The couple had been fighting and Jason had made no secret of the fact he wanted out of the marriage.

     From a prosecutor's point of view there were serious holes in the Jason Young case. The suspect had an alibi 169 miles from the murder scene and there was no physical evidence linking him to the carnage. Moreover, no one had seen him at the house on the night of the murder. Even worse, investigators had not identified the murder weapon. As a result of these prosecutorial weaknesses, the Wake County District Attorney's Office did not charge Jason with the murder of his wife.

     Michelle Young's parents were convinced that Jason had murdered their daughter. When it became apparent that the authorities were not taking action, they filed a wrongful death suit against him. In March 2009, two years and four months after the homicide, the civil court jury, applying a standard of proof that is less demanding than a criminal trial's proof beyond a reasonable doubt, found the defendant responsible for Michelle's brutal killing. The jurors awarded the plaintiffs $15.5 in damages.

     Eight months after the civil court verdict, a Wake County prosecutor, based on a three-year homicide investigation conducted by the City-County Bureau of Investigation, charged Jason Young with first-degree murder. Police officers, on the afternoon of December 15, 2009, arrested Young after pulling over his car in Brevard, a town in southwest North Carolina. The local magistrate denied him bail.

     The Jason Young murder case went to trial in Raleigh in June 2011. The prosecutor, following his opening statement in which he alleged that the defendant had drugged his daughter that night with adult-strength Tylenol and a prescription sedative, put on an entirely circumstantial case that relied heavily on motive.

     The defense attorney hammered home the fact the prosecution could not place the defendant at the scene of the murder. The state did not have a confession, an eyewitness, or even the murder weapon. Jason took the stand on his own behalf and told the jurors that when his wife was murdered, he was sleeping in a hotel 169 miles away. He said he had loved his wife and their unborn child.

     On Monday morning, June 27, 2011, the foreman of the jury of seven men and five women told the judge that the jurors were "immovably hung" on the verdict. "We currently sit," he said, "at a six to six ration and do not appear to be able to make any further movement. Where do we go from here?"

     The trial judge instructed the jurors to return to the jury room and try to reach a verdict. But later in the day, after deliberating a total of twelve hours, the foreman announced that they were deadlocked in an eight to four vote in favor of acquittal. The judge declared a mistrial.

     The Wake County District Attorney, determined to bring Jason Young to justice, announced that he would try him again. Jason, who had been incarcerated in the Wake County Jail since his arrest in December 2009, went on trial for the second time on February 10, 2012.

     The prosecutor, in his opening statement, alleged that the defendant had checked into the Hillsville Hampton Inn just before eleven on the night of November 2, 2006. An hour later he left the building through an emergency exit he had propped open with a rock to avoid using his computer card key to re-enter the hotel. According to the prosecutor, the defendant arrived at his Birchleaf Drive home at around three in the morning. Shortly after his arrival, he drugged his daughter and murdered his wife. After cleaning up and disposing of his bloody shirt, shoes, and trousers, and ditching or cleaning off the murder weapon, he returned to the hotel, arriving there around seven in the morning.

     Following the testimony of the victim's sister, Meredith Fisher, and the testimony of several other prosecution witnesses, a Hampton Inn hotel clerk took the stand. According to this witness, he had found the emergency door on the first-floor stairwell propped open with a rock. He also noticed that in the same stairwell someone had unplugged the security camera and turned its lens toward the ceiling.

     One of the City-County Bureau of Investigation crime scene officers testified that it appeared that someone had moved the victim's body to get into the defendant's closet. The detective said that despite all of the blood on the upstairs floor, certain items such as the sink drain had been sanitized by the killer. The investigator said he did find traces of blood on the knob to the door leading from the house to the garage. This witness had been present when, on the day after the murder, the suspect's body was checked for signs of trauma related to the killing. No injuries were found.

      A second detective testified that the dark shirt the defendant was seen wearing on hotel surveillance video footage was not in the suitcase he had used on that trip. The implication was that the defendant had disposed of the bloody garment.

     Included among the prosecution witnesses who took the stand over the next two weeks were two daycare employees who said they had seen Cassidy Young acting out her mother's beating. The girl was using a doll to demonstrate the attack. A therapist took the stand and testified that a week before her death, the victim had come to her seeking counseling to cope with her unhappy marriage. In the therapist's opinion Michelle Young had been verbally abused by her husband.

     Jason Young's mother and father took the stand for the defense. On November 3, 2006 Jason had driven from the Hampton Inn in Virginia to his parents's home in Brevard, North Carolina. His mother testified that when they broke the news to him that Michelle had been murdered, "you saw the color just drain from his face."

     On February 29, 2012 the defense rested its case without calling Jason to the stand. (The defense attorney was probably worried that the prosecutor, having studied Jason's direct testimony from the first trial, would rip him apart on cross-examination.)

     The prosecutor, in his closing argument to the jury, said, "This woman wasn't just murdered, she suffered a beating the likes of which we seldom see. This woman was punished. The assailant struck her over thirty times with a weapon of some sort, and she was undoubtedly unconscious after the second or third blow." In speaking to jurors, the prosecutor mentioned the 2009 wrongful death verdict against the defendant.

     The defense attorney during his final jury presentation pointed out the weaknesses in the prosecution's case, talked about reasonable doubt, and reminded the jury that being a bad husband did not make his client a murderer.

     On March 5, 2012, after the jury of eight women and four men deliberated eight hours, the judge, before a packed courtroom, read the verdict: guilty of first-degree murder. The 38-year-old defendant, after the judge announced the verdict, showed no emotion. Facing a mandatory life sentence without the chance of parole, Jason Young was escorted out of the room in handcuffs.

     Following the trial, several of the jurors spoke to reporters. Two members of the jury said that the lack of physical evidence in the case pointed more to the defendant's guilt than his innocence. For example, what happened to the shirt and shoes he was seen wearing on the hotel surveillance footage? A third juror found it incriminating that Cassidy had not been murdered and possibly cleaned-up after the attack.

     The prosecutor in the Jason Young murder trial, the second time around, turned a weakness--a lack of physical evidence--into a strength. In the era of the "CSI" television shows, advanced DNA technology, and high forensic expectations on the part of juries, this was an unusual case.

     Shortly after the murder conviction, Jason Young's attorney filed an appeal raising, among other procedural issues, the fact the jury had been improperly prejudiced by the prosecutor's mentin of the 2009 verdict in the wrongful death case.

     On April 1, 2014, a North Carolina panel of three appellate judges unanimously set aside the Jason Young murder conviction and ordered a new trial. In the 58-page opinion, the justices ruled that the prosecutor's reference to the wrongful death verdict had seriously diminished the defendant's presumption of innocence. He had thus been denied a fair trial. 

Thursday, April 16, 2015

The Donald James Smith Child Kidnapping/Murder Case

     On Friday night, June 21, 2013, 8-year-old Charish Perriwinkle and her mother Rayne were shopping at a Dollar General store in Jacksonville, Florida. At seven that night, 56-year-old Donald James Smith, a registered sex offender with an extensive criminal record, struck up a conversation with Rayne who informed him that she had fallen on hard times. She said she wanted to buy a dress for Charish in anticipation of a visit from the girl's father. Unfortunately, she couldn't afford the purchase. Donald Smith, a total stranger, said he wanted to help. He said he had a Walmart gift card they could use to buy food and clothing.

     Donald Smith, following a conviction in 1993 for attempted kidnapping and selling obscene materials, served five years in prison. The Jacksonville man also became a registered sex offender. In 2009, Smith was charged with felony child abuse after making obscene calls to a 10-year-old girl. In that case he threatened to harm the victim while impersonating a social worker with the Florida Department of Children and Families. Smith eventually pleaded guilty to the felony charge and in return received a light sentence. On May 31, 2013, after serving 438 days behind bars, Smith walked out of the Jackson County Jail a free man.

     From the Dollar General store, Smith drove Charish and Rayne Perriwinkle to a nearby Walmart. While Rayne looked at dresses, Smith, telling Charish that he was going to buy her a meal at the in-house McDonalds, snuck off with the girl. Instead of going to McDonalds, Smith put Charish in his white-colored van and drove off.

     At eleven o'clock that night, when Rayne Perriwinkle realized that her daughter had left Walmart with Smith, she called 911 and reported her missing. The terrified mother described Donald Smith and his van. At six the next morning, Donald Smith, his vehicle, and the missing girl were subjects of an Amber Alert.

     Just before nine that Saturday morning, a police officer investigating a traffic accident on I-95 spotted Smith's van as it passed by in the southbound lane. A few minutes later, a Jacksonville County Deputy Sheriff pulled Smith over and took him into custody. Charish Perriwinkle was not in the van, and Smith was not talking.

     About an hour after Smith's arrest, the police received information regarding a white van that had been parked the previous night in the woods near a church four miles from the Walmart where the victim had been abducted. That tip led to the discovery, in the woods near the church, of the missing girl's corpse.

     On Sunday, June 23, 2013, Donald James Smith pleaded not guilty to charges of kidnapping, sexual battery, and first-degree murder. The arraignment magistrate denied the registered sex offender bail.

     In May 2014, Duval County Circuit Judge Mallory Cooper set Smith's trial for October of that year. The prosecutor's office had announced its intention to seek the death penalty in the case. Smith's attorney, public defender Mark Shirk, asserted that his client was not mentally competent to stand trial, particularly in a capital case.

     In September 2014, with the mental competency issue still unresolved, the judge postponed the Smith trial to early 2015.

     Public defender Shirk, in February 2015, asked the court to remove him from the Smith case due to a conflict of interest that pertained to his representation of a man who had knowledge of Donald Smith's involvement in the Perriwinkle murder. The following month, Judge Cooper appointed Julie Schlax as Smith's new attorney. This meant another case postponement that could delay the trial until sometime in 2016. 

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Nyia Parker: The Mother From Hell

     Nyia Parker resided on the west side of Philadelphia with her 21-year-old son Daequan Norman. Daequan, a quadriplegic, suffered from cerebral palsy. The unemployed 41-year-old mother received Social Security benefits for Daequan and relied upon a network of relatives and friends to help care for her completely dependent son.

     At ten o'clock on Monday morning April 6, 2015, Parker pushed her son in his wheelchair into a wooded area off a walking trail along Cobbs Creek about a quarter mile from their home. She lifted him out of the chair, laid him on his back, placed a Bible on his chest, and covered him with a blanket.

     After depositing her helpless son amid the leaves, empty beer cans and other litter, Nyia Parker boarded a bus to Silver Spring, Maryland to spend a week with her boyfriend, a former Philadelphia resident. She didn't tell anyone that she had left her son lying alone and helpless in the woods.

     Twenty-four hours after leaving her son in the woods exposed to the weather, wild animals, and people who might harm him, Nyia Parker, under a Facebook photograph depicting her and the boyfriend having a good time, wrote: "I am so happy."

     At nine o'clock Friday night April 10, a man walking through the Cobbs Creek woods came upon Daequan Norman lying in the leaves near his wheelchair. He had been there for five days and four nights.

     An ambulance crew rushed the abandoned son to The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. As a result of his ordeal, Daequan suffered from dehydration, was malnourished, and had an eye infection. There was no telling what kind of permanent mental and emotional damage he had suffered.

     A few hours following the abandoned man's removal from the west Philadelphia woods, police in Silver Spring, Maryland took Nyia Parker into custody at her boyfriend's house. Due to some undisclosed ailment, the arresting officers took her to a nearby hospital for some kind of treatment.

     Back in Philadelphia, a local prosecutor charged Parker with half of the offenses in the Pennsylvania Crimes Code. Upon her extradition back to Philadelphia, she faced charges of aggravated assault, simple assault, reckless endangerment of a person, neglect of care of a dependent person, unlawful restraint, kidnapping, and false imprisonment. (Why wasn't she charged with attempted murder?)

     People under the influence of mental illness, alcohol, and drugs commit all kinds of strange, and inexplicable crimes. But how can one even begin to understand why this mother left her quadriplegic son in the woods for five days while she visited her boyfriend. And why the Facebook posting?

     Did she expect her disabled son to die alone in the woods? If Daequan had died, what would have been her story? Would she have blamed his death on kidnappers? If so, how would she have explained the fact she had left him alone in the first place? And why would anyone abduct her son?

     Was it possible that Nyia Parker actually expected to get away with this atrocious act of cruelty? If this case ever goes to trial, this woman is looking at 20 years in prison.

     

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The Nadia Malik Suspicious Death Case

     In February 2014, 22-year-old Nadia Malik resided with her one-year-old daughter and her parents in Broomall, Pennsylvania, a Delaware County suburb in the Philadelphia area. The one-year-old's father, Nadia's estranged boyfriend, 25-year-old Bhupinder Singh, lived with their four-year-old daughter at his parents' apartment in Solon, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland. In 2012, the couple had an infant that, according to court documents, died suddenly under "suspect circumstances."

     Nadia and Bhupinder reportedly had a relationship described as "strained…on/off and violent." Nadia had recently been fired from her job as a CVS pharmacy assistant in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania for missing too much work. 
     On February 9 and again on February 10, 2014, Nadia Malik sent text messages to her brother Faud Malik and her friend Thomas Singh (no relation to Bhupinder) informing them that Bhupinder was holding her against her will in a car. On February 9, Thomas Singh reported Nadia missing to the Lansdowne, Pennsylvania Police Department. (Shortly thereafter the case was transferred to the Marple Township police.) 
     On February 12, 2014, investigators traced Bhupinder Singh, through Nadia's cellphone, to his parents' apartment in Solon, Ohio. At the arrival of the police that day, Singh tried to escape out the back door but was arrested before he ran very far. Officers took him into the Cuyahoga County Corrections Center on a probation violation warrant issued out of Delaware County, Pennsylvania. 
     Singh, who claimed to have no knowledge regarding Nadia's whereabouts, had scratches on his face and a black eye. He told his interrogators the injuries were sustained in a fight he had with Nadia. The last time he saw her was on February 11 in Delaware County. He left her in his father's black 2007 Nissan Altima and took a bus to his parents' home in Solon. When arrested, Singh possessed Nadia's cellphone and her driver's license.  
     At ten-thirty on the morning of Thursday, February 20, 2014, an anonymous tipster called the Marple Township Police Department regarding a black 2007 Nissan Altima with heavily tinted windows parked on 30th Street near Market Street in Philadelphia. Police officers found eight parking tickets on the vehicle. 
     In the reclined front passenger seat of the Nissan, officers found Nadia Malik positioned on her side as though she had been sleeping. The dead woman was fully clothed with a duffel bag resting on top of her head. The car also contained a pile of clothing, loose change, and prescription bill bottles issued to Bhupinder Singh.
     The first parking ticket on the car had been issued on February 10, a few blocks away at 23rd and Market Streets. The second citation was issued on February 12 when the Nissan was parked in an emergency zone on Market Street. The first ticket placed on the car where it was found on February 20 had been issued two days earlier. 
     Based on the parking ticket history, Nadia Malik either died between February 18 and February 20, several days after Bhupinder Singh's arrest, or she or someone else moved the Nissan with her dead body in it.
     A Philadelphia forensic pathologist performed the autopsy on Friday, February 21, 2014. A spokesperson for the medical examiner's office announced that day there were no signs of physical trauma on Malik's body. The spokesperson did not reveal the time of death in the case, a vital piece of information, or the cause and manner of death.

     On October 16, 2014, a spokesperson for the Philadelphia Medical Examiner's Office announced that toxicological tests on Malik's body had not solved the mystery of what killed her or how she  had died.

     In February 2015, a year after Malik's suspicious death, the authorities released information regarding the February 28, 2012 death of Malik's 3-month-old daughter, Alina Singh. Paramedics found the child next to her mother in a car parked near a Chinese restaurant in the Delaware County town of Springfield. The unresponsive infant was pronounced dead later that day. The Delaware County Medical Examiner ruled the cause of Alina's death as cachexia--a type of muscle atrophy commonly called "wasting syndrome." The manner of the child's death remained "undetermined."

     Detectives with the Philadelphia Police Department continued to investigate Nadia Malik's death as a possible murder case. When questioned by the police in Ohio, Bhupinder Singh said he had fled to Ohio on a Greyhound bus out of New York City after arguing with Malik on matters "concerning their relationship."

     After being found guilty in April 2014 of violating his probation, Singh spent a month in jail. Upon his release on parole, he took up residence in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania. According to a police spokesperson in February 2015, detectives still considered Bhupinder Singh a suspect in what they believed was Malik's homicidal death.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Professor Kirk Nesset's Child Pornography Collection

     Dr. Kirk Nesset taught contemporary literature at Allegheny College, a small liberal arts school located in Meadville, a western Pennsylvania town about 90 miles north of Pittsburgh. In 2007, the then 49-year-old professor won the Heinz Literature Prize awarded by the University of Pennsylvania for his short story collection, Paradise Road. In addition to literary prestige, the award came with a $15,000 cash prize.

     In August 2014, in Arizona where Professor Nesset had a second home in Prescott, a sex offense investigator working undercover traced two pornographic movies to Nesset's computer billing address in Meadville. The films depicted two 8-year-old girls having sex with men. A month after this discovery, a detective with the Pennsylvania State Police found another pornographic film Nesset had purchased online. This movie featured a naked girl who was about six.

     In September 2014, FBI agents and officers with the Pennsylvania State Police, pursuant to a search warrant, took Nesset's hard-drive from his home in Meadville. Over the next several days forensic computer experts found, on the professor's computer, 540,000 images of children. While not all of the images were pornographic, at least 36,000 of them featured erotica or photographs depicting female child sexual molestation. One of the professor's computer files contained more than 1,000 images and movies depicting babies. In one film, a man had sex with an infant during a diaper change.

     Professor Nesset's computer revealed that he had been collecting child pornography since November 2005. (He had, no doubt, began collecting this kind of material long before that.)

     A federal prosecutor in Erie, Pennsylvania, on October 1, 2014, charged Kirk Nesset with possessing, receiving, and distributing child pornography. FBI agents and officers with the state police booked him into the Crawford County Jail on the federal charges.

     At Nesset's arraignment, the federal magistrate released him on a $10,000 unsecured bond. As a condition of his release the suspect was required to wear an electronic monitoring device. Shortly after posting his bail, the 57-year-old resigned from Allegheny College. Classes at the school were cancelled for a day during which time students could seek counseling.

     When questioned by FBI agents, Nesset said his massive child pornography collection allowed him to "release steam." He also explained that looking at child pornography gave him "solace." He said his sexual viewing preference involved girls 10 to 13-years-old.

     Professor Joe Tompkins, Assistant Professor of Communication Arts at Allegheny College, in an October 4, 2014 opinion piece in The Campus, the school newspaper, wrote the following regarding what he considered the school's over reaction to the Nesset case: "We should ask ourselves, are there "sexual predators" simply outside the realm of civilized behavior, or are they actually over-conforming to the cultural norms--norms that result in all too frequent incidents of not only child porn, but related instances of pornographic media, male violence and sexual assault against women (of which there have been numerous cases at Allegheny)? Indeed, we're fooling ourselves to think these are completely unrelated matters…."

     An Allegheny student, in response to Professor Tompkins' article, wrote: "I completely agree that pornography is a more overt extension of the way women are implicitly abused by our androcentric culture, and I agree that culture is largely to blame. I agree that largely, Kirk Nesset is being dehumanized as a fluke in our community, instead of a product of the culture…."

     What a load of academic drivel from an ivory tower egghead and a liberal arts student. It's society's fault that a 57-year-old man gains "solace" from watching another man have sex with an infant? Is this what American higher education has devolved to?

     Enjoying child pornography is still deviant behavior and purchasing it is not a victimless crime. Children are being horribly abused because of people with Kirk Nesset's sexual appetite.

     On April 6, 2015, at the U.S. District Courthouse in Erie, Pennsylvania, the former college professor pleaded guilty to one count each of possessing, receiving, and distributing child pornography. At his sentencing hearing scheduled for August 10, 2015, Nesset will face five to forty years in prison. Because he cooperated with the authorities and pleaded guilty, his sentence will be much closer to the minimum punishment. 

Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Seth Mazzaglia Murder Case

     In 2011, after graduating from  high school in Westborough, Massachusetts, Elizabeth Marriott attended Manchester Community College in New Hampshire. Following her freshman year in Manchester she transferred to the University of New Hampshire in Durham. The 19-year-old marine biology major commuted to the university's main campus from her aunt and uncle's home in Chester. To help pay for her schooling she worked at the Target store in the neighboring community of Greenland.

     Elizabeth, who went by "Lizzi," walked out of class at nine at night on October 9, 2012 with the intent of visiting friends at an apartment in Dover, a town of 30,000 in the southeast corner of the state not far from the university. Her friends notified the authorities when Lizzi didn't show up in Dover and couldn't be located elsewhere.

     Three days after Marriott's disappearance, detectives questioned 29-year-old Seth Mazzaglia, a resident of Dover. The 2006 graduate of the University of New Hampshire had earned a bachelor's degree in theater. Over the past ten years, Mazzaglia, more of a character actor than a leading man type, had performed in plays and musicals around southeast New Hampshire. According to his Facebook page he had a black belt in karate, instructed others in the martial arts, and liked to juggle. Mazzaglia also professed to have a special interest in stage-craft fighting.

     Mazzaglia told detectives that he met Lizzi Marriott in the summer of 2011 when they worked at the Greenland, New Hampshire Target store. At the time of the interview he was employed in the video game section of the Best Buy store in Newington, New Hampshire.

     Mazzaglia informed his questioners that he and his 19-year-old girlfriend, Kathryn McDonough, a high school dropout, had invited Marriott to join them in his apartment on October 9 for three-way, bondage sex. Mazzaglia said that Marriott did not show up at his apartment that particular evening.

     When questioned again later in the day Mazzaglia changed his story. He said he had gone out for a run and upon his return to the apartment found Marriott dead with a ligature mark around her neck. He explained that earlier in the evening Kathryn McDonough and another man had engaged in bondage sex with Marriott. Later in the interrogation Mazzaglia reluctantly admitted that he was the man who had participated in the threesome that night.

     Mazzaglia said that he, McDonough, and Marriott had played strip poker that night. That activity led to sexual intercourse involving a rope-restraint used to limit Marriott's ability to breathe. During that voluntary activity, Marriott suffered a seizure and died. The death, according to Mazzaglia, was an accidental event in the course of consensual but rough sex.

     Instead of reporting the death to the authorities, Mazzaglia tied a grocery bag over the dead woman's head. At eleven o'clock that night, McDonough's friend, Roberta Gerkin and her housemate, came to the apartment at McDonough's request. Gerkin, according to a statement she gave the police, said she saw a white female lying on the floor with a grocery bag covering her head.

     Gerkin told detectives that when she used a box cutter to removed the sack, it exposed the victim's bluish tinted face. Meanwhile, according to Gerkin, Mazzaglia and his girlfriend engaged in a discussion of how they would dispose of the body.

     During his session with detectives, Mazzaglia said he used Marriott's Mazda to haul her body to Pierce Island in Portsmouth, New Hampshire where and McDonough dumped the corpse into the Piscataqua River. The pair then drove Marriott's car to the University of New Hampshire where they left it in a student parking lot. The couple discarded Marriott's clothing in trash bins on campus.

     Police officers and volunteers searched for Marriott's body in the Piscataqua River around the 27-acre Pierce Island. They found no trace of her remains. Notwithstanding the absence of a body, a Strafford County prosecutor charged Mazzaglia with first-degree murder. Police officers arrested him on October 13, 2012. The judge denied the murder suspect bail.

     On December 24, 2012, detectives arrested Kathryn McDonough on the charges of conspiracy and hindering prosecution. She posted her $35,000 bond and walked out of jail on the condition she stayed with her parents in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. In 2013, McDonough pleaded guilty to the charges. The judge, aware that she had agreed to help the prosecution against Mazzaglia, sentenced her to 18 months to three years in prison. Given her role in Lizzi Marriott's death, this depraved young woman had gotten off light. Because the prosecutor in the no-body case needed McDonough's testimony to establish the murder and the defendant's role in it, McDonough had escaped a stiffer sentence.

     The Seth Mazzaglia murder trial got underway in Dover, New Hampshire on Monday, June 2, 2014. Two days later, Kathryn McDonough, the prosecution's star witness, took the stand under government immunity from the charge of first-degree murder. The witness said that on October 9, 2012 she had lured Marriott to Mazzaglia's apartment with the promise of watching a movie or playing a video game. In reality she had wanted to please Mazzaglia with a new sex partner.

     Following a game of strip poker, Mazzaglia said he wanted Marriott and McDonough to kiss. Marriott refused. Mazzaglia next suggested that Marriott watch as he and McDonough had sex. Marriott said she wasn't interested. Unaccustomed to not getting his way, Mazzaglia strangled Marriott with a soft cotton rope used in bondage sex. After witnessing the murder McDonough went into the bathroom and when she returned saw her boyfriend having sex with the corpse.

     McDonough testified that she and Mazzaglia stuffed the victim's body into a large suitcase and drove to the Piscataqua River where they knew the currents were strong. The couple tossed the corpse over a railing but the five-foot-five, 130-pound body landed on the rocks short of the water line. McDonough climbed down and dragged the victim's body into the river.

     On cross-examination, Mazzaglia's attorney, Joachim Barth, proposed that McDonough had killed Lizzi Marriott when the victim refused to have sex with the defendant. Barth reminded the witness that when she first spoke with the police she had taken responsibility for Marriott's death. The defense attorney suggested that the witness had changed her story in return for government immunity and a light sentence.

     Defense attorney Barth also grilled the witness about her claim to have alternative personalities--different characters she used as a "coping mechanism." McDonough responded that the was not controlled by the voices. During the cross-examination McDonough revealed that Mazzaglia believed that he had been a dragon in a past life. Being around the defendant had strengthened her own beliefs in the supernatural.

     On June 27, 2014, following 19 days of testimony that did not include the defendant taking the stand on his own behalf, the jury found Mazzaglia guilty of first-degree murder by strangulation. The jury also found him guilty of first-degree murder while committing a felonious assault. The panel of seven women and five men also found the defendant guilty of conspiracy to tamper with evidence as well as the destruction of physical evidence.

     On August 14, 2014, at the Mazzaglia sentence hearing, the victim's mother, in addressing the convicted murderer, said, "I want you to know that I unequivocally hate you. You are a cowardly, despicable person. You stole our smart, vivacious, beautiful daughter from us. You murdered Lizzi, raped her lifeless body and then threw her away because Lizzi had the self-confidence and self-esteem to say no to you."

     When it came his turn to speak, Mazzaglia said, "I did not rape and murder Elizabeth Marriott. However, I do understand the Marriott family's pain and I did play a part in covering up her death, a mistake I tried to correct when investigators came to me and I showed them exactly where I left Lizzi's body. Unfortunately, they were unable to recover her and for that I am truly sorry. My heart goes out to the Marriott family and I am sorry for their loss."

     Judge Steven Houran sentenced Seth Mazzaglia to the maximum penalty, life in prison without the possibility of parole.

     

Saturday, April 11, 2015

The Laurel Schlemmer Bath Tub Murder Case

     Laurel Michelle Ludwig married Mark Schlemmer in July 2005. In May 2006, the couple purchased a house in McCandless, Pennsylvania, a suburban community north of Pittsburgh.

     In September 2009, the couple had two sons aged 18-months and three years (approximately). Mark was 39 and working as an insurance actuary. Laurel, a former teacher, stayed at home to raise the boys. On September 5, 2009, a patron at the nearby Ross Park Mall noticed a parked Honda Odyssey with an unaccompanied toddler inside. Although the van's windows were cracked, the temperature inside the vehicle had risen to 112 degrees. The passerby called 911.

     When Laurel Schlemmer returned to her van she was met by Ross Township police and EMT personnel who had managed to unlock a door and remove the three-year-old boy. Due to the fact the mother was gone from the car twenty minutes, the boy did not require medical treatment.

     An Allegheny County prosecutor charged the 36-year-old mother with the summary offense of leaving a child unattended in a vehicle. Laurel pleaded guilty to the crime and paid a fine. No one read anything into this incident other than a mother's lapse of due care.

     By 2013 Laurel Schlemmer and her husband had three sons. On April 16 of that year, Laurel, when backing her van out of her parents' driveway in Marshall, Pennsylvania, ran over her two and five-year-old boys. One of the children suffered internal injuries while his brother ended up with broken bones. Both boys survived the incident.

     An investigator with the Northern Regional Police Department conducted an inquiry into the driveway collision and concluded that it had been an accident. Personnel with the Allegheny County Office of Children, Youth, and Families conducted an assessment of the Schlemmer family and found no evidence or history of child abuse.

     The pastor of the North Park Church, Reverend Dan Hendley, counseled Laurel in an effort to help her cope with what everybody assumed had been a nearly tragic mishap. Members of the church were  supportive of their fellow parishioner.

     At 8:40 on the morning of Tuesday, April 1, 2014, Laurel Schlemmer put her seven-year-old boy on the school bus and waved him goodbye. She returned to her house and told her three and six-year-old boys to take off their pajamas as she filled the bath tub. The fully dressed mother, once the boys were in the tub, held them under water then climbed into the tub and sat on them.

     Laurel pulled the limp bodies out of the water and laid them out on the bathroom floor. She replaced her wet clothes with dry garments. In an effort to hide the wet pieces of clothing, she bagged them up with two soaked towels and placed the container in the garage.

     At 9:40 that morning Laurel called 911 and reported that her two sons had drowned in the bath tub. Emergency personnel rushed the Schlemmer children to the UPMC Passavant Pediatric Intensive Care Unit. An hour later, three-year-old Luke Schlemmer died. His six-year-old brother remained in critical condition.

     Questioned by detectives, Laurel said she figured she would become a better mother to her oldest son if his younger siblings weren't around. "Crazy voices" had told her the younger ones would be better off in heaven.

     Later that day, detectives booked the mother into the Allegheny County Jail in downtown Pittsburgh. Mrs. Schlemmer faced charges of homicide, attempted homicide, aggravated assault, and tampering with evidence. The judge denied her bond.

     On April 5, 2014, a spokesperson for the Allegheny County Medical Examiner's Office announced that six-year-old Daniel Schlemmer had died. The boy had been on life support at UPMC's Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh.

     At a mental competency hearing on April 7, 2014, Dr. Christine Martone, an Allegheny County psychiatrist, testified that Mrs. Schlemmer was psychotic, suicidal, and suffered from depressive disorder. Judge Jeffrey Manning, based upon this testimony, ruled the defendant mentally incompetent to stand trial.

     Judge Manning ordered the defendant committed to the Torrance State Hospital in Derry Township, a mental health facility 45 miles east of Pittsburgh.

     In Pennsylvania, defendants are considered mentally incompetent to stand trial if due to mental illness they are unable to distinguish right from wrong or cannot assist their attorneys in their defense.

     In January 2015, Judge Manning postponed the murder trial indefinitely. He also imposed a gag order that prohibited the prosecutor and defense attorney from discussing the case publicly.

     Bath tub murders of children occur at least once a year in the U.S. Perhaps the most infamous homicide of this nature took place on June 20, 2001 when 36-year-old Andrea Yates drowned her five children in her Houston, Texas bath tub. A jury, believing that the defendant suffered from postpartum depression, found her not guilty by reason of insanity. She was sent to an institution for the criminally insane.

     The Schlemmer case was not the first murder of its kind in 2014. On March 7, Christine Allen drowned her three-year-old son in her Las Vegas bath tub. The 30-year-old mother told detectives that she had heard "voices in her head that told her to do it." Allen said her son would be "better off dead."

        

Friday, April 10, 2015

Judge Goes Easy On Man Who Sodomized a 3-Year-Old Girl

     On June 14, 2014, Kevin Jonas Rojano-Nieto was playing a video game in his parents' garage in Santa Ana, California. A three-year-old girl, a relative visiting the home with her mother, wandered into the garage and encountered Rojano-Nieto.

     Sexually aroused by the toddler, the 20-year-old Rojano-Nieto pulled down her pants and began sodomizing her. He stopped and put his hand over the victim's mouth when the girl's mother, calling for her, jiggled the handle to the locked garage door. When the concerned mother left the house to search for her daughter at a neighbor's place, Rojano-Nieto continued the sexual assault.

     When finished with the little girl, Rojano-Nieto unlocked the garage door and let her back into the house. After her daughter complained of pain shortly after the sexual attack, the mother figured out what happened and called the police.

     On December 3, 2014, a jury found the defendant guilty of one count of sodomy of a child under ten and one count of lewd acts upon a child under fourteen. (Rojano-Nieto had forced the little girl to touch his penis.) The conviction meant that the guilty man would receive the mandatory minimum sentence of 25 years to life.

     On April 3, 2015, Orange County Superior Court Judge M. Marc Kelly shocked everyone familiar with this case by ignoring California's statutory minimum punishment for this man's sex offenses by sentencing Rojano-Nieto to just ten years in prison.

     The judge, perhaps aware that his ruling would create an angry backlash, carefully laid out his sentencing rationale in writing. According to this southern California judge, "The facts [of this case] don't support there was any violence or callous disregard for the victim's well-being."

     Huh? No violence? Did this girl consent to being sodomized? Did she participate in her own victimization by flaunting herself in the garage? Good heavens.

     Judge Kelly noted that the defendant had not sought out or stalked his victim. Moreover, he now felt  really bad about what he had done to her. Sure he did, but so what?

     The judge, in defending his sentence, wrote: "He [Rojano-Nieto] reacted to a sexual urge and stopped almost immediately." According to Judge Kelly, while the little girl was sodomized by a 20-year-old man, she had not been seriously injured and was therefore "headed for a normal life."

     Judge Kelly has been on the bench in Orange County for fifteen years. How could that be?

     Not content to blame the toddler for her victimization, the judge tried to illicit sympathy for this sex offender by revealing that he had grown up in a "dysfunctional" family with "disruptional abuse." What the hell does that mean? "Disruptional" isn't even a word. This upbringing, according to the judge, had made Rojano-Nieto "insecure, socially withdrawn, and extremely immature." This background had also turned him into a dangerous sexual pervert who should, for the rest of his life, never be around children.

     Orange County Deputy District Attorney Tony Rackauckas responded to Judge Kelly's disturbing decision by announcing his office will appeal Rojano-Nieto's sentence. Referring to the defendant, the prosecutor said, "He's a grown man. He knowingly [actually intentionally] committed this terrible crime and should pay the price."

      Rojano-Nieto is too dangerous to be placed back into society. Anyone who thinks someone like him can be rehabilitated is a fool. And what about this judge, what should be done about him?




Thursday, April 9, 2015

Teacher Joyce Quiller: Hero or Victim?

     In January 2014, students and parents filed complaints against a veteran math teacher at Ribault High School in Jacksonville, Florida. The teacher, 51-year-old Joyce Quiller, taught tenth and eleventh graders enrolled in Bridge to Success, a program created to help students two or more years older than normal for their class levels. In other words, most of Quiller's students were not the best nor the brightest. The 21-year classroom veteran had the difficult and unrewarding job of trying to teach math to mostly unmotivated and undisciplined teenagers.

     In the context of today's lax public school education standards, Joyce Quiller had the reputation of being a strict, demanding teacher who didn't dumb-down and didn't suffer fools. She expected her students to show up for class with pen, paper, and completed homework assignments. When students didn't live up to her academic expectations, they failed the course. In fact, she gave 77 percent of her students Fs with all but a few of the rest receiving Ds. It seemed this teacher had imposed a toll on the so-called Bridge to Success, and most of her students didn't want to pay it. It's easy to see why this woman was not a popular teacher among students, their parents, and school administrators.

     The six or so complainants accused Quiller of being foul-mouthed and insulting in the classroom. In speaking to a student who showed up for class without pen or paper, she allegedly said, "What's the point of coming to this motherf--ing class if you don't bring materials?" Moreover, according to her accusers, she told another kid to "shut the f---up."

     Joyce Qullier also faced the allegation that she called her students "stupid" and "ignorant," and once used the n-word. (The complainants in this case are black and so is the accused.)

     This was not the first time Joyce Quiller had been called on the carpet for using inappropriate classroom language. In 2001 and again in 2013 the school superintendent reprimanded her for telling a student to "get out of my f--ing class." She also supposedly instructed a kid to pull up his pants. (Wow, the kid must have been devastated.)

     In response to the accusations of unprofessional (but hardly abusive) classroom demeanor, Quiller submitted a written statement that she was "appalled and disturbed" at the allegations against her. She denied using profanity in class and accused the complainants of having a vendetta against her.

     In March 2014, following an internal inquiry and a hearing, the superintendent of the Duval County School District sent Joyce Quiller a letter of termination. She appealed her firing to an administrative law judge.

     Administrative law judge Bruce McKibben, in August 2014, ruled that the school district had violated the terms of Quiller's employment contract by skipping step three of a three-step system of punishment. According to the judge's interpretation of the case, the school superintendent should have suspended Quiller without pay. The judge ordered the school system to reinstate Joyce Quiller.

     In his 21-page decision, Judge McKibben found that a preponderance of the evidence (a standard of proof less demanding than proof beyond a reasonable doubt) supported the claims she used profanity in class. He did note, however, that one of Quiller's B students testified that she had never heard the teacher swear.

      Regarding Quller's work environment at Ribault High School, Judge McKibben wrote: "Quiller was placed in an almost untenable situation. She did not have all the tools needed to work with students, and her classes were too large. Nevertheless, she was expected to maintain her composure and professionalism."

     The judge, perhaps out of political correctness, did not point out the obvious fact that many of Quiller's students were probably idiots. More school supplies would not have solved that problem.

     On September 8, 2014, after Joyce Quiller answered questions and pleaded her case before the Duval County School Board, board members ignored the administrative judge's reinstatement ruling by voting again to fire the former math teacher.