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Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Serial Arsonist: Burning Hollywood

     Robbers and thieves commit their crimes for financial gain. Arsonists, on the other hand, set fires for a variety of reasons. As a result, motive and criminal profiling is an important lead in arson investigations. Regarding motive, unlawful firesetters generally fall into one of two categories: rational and irrational. The rational arsonists can be put into two groups: people who set fires for direct gain, and those who do it for indirect benefit or gain. Direct gain arsonists torch their homes, cars, and businesses for the insurance money. (Jaunuary is usually a busy month for these people.) The indirect gain fire is set, for example, as retaliation, revenge, competitor elimination, or to cover-up another crime such as homicide. People who set fires for reasons that make sense are usually not repeat offenders. If they do repeat their crimes, it's rarely more than twice.

     Arsonists who are irrationally or pathologically motivated are almost always young men. They are powerless losers who are mad at the world. They set fires to get even with society, to experience feelings of power, to play the role of hero, and in a small percentage of cases, for sexual gratification. Many of them have had problems at school, with their parents and with the police. Some are mildly retarded, others have mental health problems. Older pathological firesetters often have drug and/or alcohol addictions.

     Because the vast majority of serial arsonists are pathological firesetters who have no regard for human life, they are the most dangerous. Unlike rational firesetters, they tend to hang around the fire scenes soaking up the excitement they have created. When taken into custody, they should be interrogated by arson investigators trained and experienced in questioning this type of suspect. For the pathological arsonist, the bigger the fire the bigger the rush. Serial arsonists have been know to set several fires in one night.

     In California, a serial arsonist set 15 fires in Hollywood and 4 fires in neighboring West Hollywood during the early morning hours of Friday, December 30, 2011. Dozens of residents were rousted from their homes. The only injury involved a firefighter who fell while battling one of the blazes. Many of the structural fires were started when the arsonist set fire to vehicles parked nearby. All of the firess were set in an area of four square miles.

     In 2008 and 2009, in and around Coatesville, Pennsylvania in the eastern part of the state, a group of arsonists set 23 fires. One of the arsons killed an 83-year-old woman. Dozens of homes were destroyed, and many residents were displaced. In 2009 the police arrested five arsonists. The oldest, a 25-year-old volunteer firefighter, had responded to his own fires. The rest were young, unemployed men with histories of mental illness and problems with the law. One of the firesetters, a 19-year-old misfit, matched the classic profile of a pathological arsonist. He set a number of copy cat house fires simply for the excitement. The fact these dwelling were occupied at the time only enhanced his experience.

     When the police apprehend the California arsonist, it will be interesting to see how closely he matches the profiles of the Coatesville firesetters.

UPDATE: "I hate America."

     The authorities, on January 2, charged 24-year-old Harry Burkhart with setting more than 50 fires in Hollywood, West Hollywood and in the San Fernando Valley. From Frankfurt, Germany, Burkhart had been upset over his mother's immigration problems. He had recently attended her hearing in immigration court. When taken into custody, Burkhart reportedly said, "I hate America." He is being held in the Los Angeles County Jail without bail. Since his arrest, there have been no further arson fires.

     Burkhart and his 53-year-old mother Dorothee came to the United States from Neukirchen, Germany in October 2011. Just before leaving Germany their house went up in flames. Arson investigators, after locating to separate points of origin, suspect the fire had been intentionally set to defraud the insurance company. In Germany, Dorothee Burkhart has been charged with 19 counts of fraud, crimes unrelated to the house fire. One of the counts involves defrauding the surgeon who had enlarged her breasts.

     A few weeks ago, police in Los Angeles pulled Dorothee Burkhart over for a traffic violation. The traffic stop led to her recent appearance in immigration court. The prospect of being deported apparently set off Harry Burkhart's firesetting spree.  Dorothee and her son have been living in an apartment in Hollywood.


     Before coming to the U.S., Burkhart and his mother resided for awhile in Vancouver, Candada. In March 2010, a Vancouver team of psychiatrists, in connection with a civil court case, examined Harry Burkhart. The battery of shrinks diagnosed him as suffering from autism, severe anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and depression. The police in Vancouver, in the wake of the LA fires, are looking into the possibility that he set a series of fires in that city. A German national, Burkhart was born in Chechnya.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Whackademia: Nutty Professors 4

Give 'Em Hell, Professor

     Southern Indiana University Theater Professor Robert Broadfoot yelled as some of his students, allegedly calling one of them the "B-word." (I presume that stands for bitch rather than butthead, bumpkin, or bastard.)  Frustrated that some of his students were lax about their assignments, and didn't seem to care about the course, Professor Broadfoot, according to a report in the school newspaper, "made aggressive gestures and used bad language." One of Broadfoot's students reportedly said, "I don't think it was necessary, I think everyone has their problems...but he shouldn't take it out on his students, it's not fair." Poor thing. Wait until you get into the real world. Perhaps the professor was taking out his problems on his students because they were his problem. Another theater student thought it was "inappropriate" for the professor to be singling out those who weren't performing (pun intended) in class. If this complaintant gets a job, he or she may be in for a shock. One way to avoid being singled out is to do your work.

     I taught 32 years, and had criminal justice majors who wanted to be police detectives and FBI agents complain that they couldn't find me when they needed something signed. I yelled at students, and rarely missed an opportunity to humiliate them. I didn't do this to prepare them for real life, I did this to prepare them for college. I also enjoyed it. (Just kidding, I think.) Unlike poor Professor Broadfoot, I managed not to get myself fired. Kids who want to be cops and kids who want to be on stage are obviously different. Had I been in the theater department, I wouldn't have lasted a week.

Dumbing Up

     Professors really don't like to be fired. It's undignified, and shatters their exhalted self images. As a result, in academia, wrongful terminations lawsuits are not uncommon. What is uncommon, however, is a plaintiff/professor who prevails in one of these cases.

     In November, former New York University Professor Jose Angel Santana sued the school after they denied him reappointment in August 2011. According to Santana, he had been fired because of his Cuban and African American heritage. Hired in September 2008 as an assistant visiting professor in the acting school with an annual salary of $70,000, Santana claims he was discriminated against because of his race and color. But the plaintiff didn't leave it at that. According to the suit, the straw that broke the camel's back involved the grade Santana had given to a student in his graduate class called, Directing the Actor II. It was this claim that brought Santana and his suit into the national news. The D-grade that sent Santana packing had been given to the famous actor, James D. Franco. Oh boy.

     According to Santana, Franco had only attended two of the courses' fourteen sessions. This gave the professor no choice but to give Franco, in the spring of 2010, the bad grade. Despite the D, Franco, the holder of a Master's Degree of Fine Arts from Columbia, earned his Master's Degree from NYU's Film Production Department. Currently pursuing a Ph.D in English at Yale, Franco is now on NYU's Tisch School faculty, teaching a course on adopting poetry into film. (Huh?) So, the student who got the D is teaching at the school that fired the professor who gave it to him. No wonder the ex-professor is in such a snit. But wait, in this academic drama, there is more.

     According to plaintiff Santana, Mr. Franco has rubbed salt into his wound by making disparaging remarks and inaccurate statements about him in public. For one thing, Franco has called Santana's course an "acting class" when it was in fact a directing class. Santana says he didn't give Franco a D for bad acting, but for missing class. In other words, Mr. Santana wasn't grading Mr. Franco's acting ability, he was grading his attendance ability. Mr. Franco wasn't a bad actor, he was just a bad attender.

     I'm lucky that before I retired none of the students I gave Ds to got rich and famous. I didn't have many bad actors, but I did have my share of bad attenders.

Contributing to What ?!

     In Menlo Park, California, Stanford University Professor Bill Burnett and his wife Cynthia hosted a party for their son and 44 high school students. (What were they thinking?) The kids were celebrating the last football game of the season. The parents had made it clear that alcoholic beverages were prohibited. Well, as you can imagine, booze found its way into the Burnett house. When the basement party got loud and a neighbor complained, police entered the house, found the alcohol, and hauled the professor and his wife off to jail in handcuffs. Charged with 44 counts of contributing to a minor's delinquency, Professor Burnett faces up to a year behind bars.

     While it is not unreasonable to assume that these 44 students are being taught or coached by at least one pedophile who will never see the inside of a jail cell, it's professor Burnett and his wife who have criminally endangered the welfare of these kids. If the Burnetts are guilty of anything, it's stupidity. If they hadn't hosted the party, the kids could have gotten drunk in a Walmart parking lot. In law enforcement it's not about arresting the right people, it's about arresting who you can.

Anger Mismanagement in High Education

     In 2007 police arrested a New Hampshire professor who threatened to kill a colleague for turning him in for a parking violation that resulted in a ticket. Because the university alerted its staff to report the threatening professor if he stepped on compus, he sued the scholl for defamation. The plaintiff lost his case at the trial level, and lost again on appeal. The court battle took two years to resolve. And it was all over a parking ticket. Welcome to academia.

     In 2010, a then professor of criminology and sociology at Anna Maria College in Paxton, Massachusetts, using a variety of Facebook usernames, threatened to kill a New Orleans police officer. The 58-year-old professor, in accusing the officer of raping his girlfriend in 2007, urged to officer to "own up to what you did," and hinted of having friends in a Hell's Angels biker gang pay him a visit. In December 2011, a federal judge, after the professor had pleaded guilty, fined him $5,000 and sentenced him to three years probabion.


Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Strange, Unbelievable Case of the Stray Bullet

     On Friday night, December 16, 2011, a 15-year-old Amish girl named Rachel Yoder, while on her way home in a horse-drawn buggy from a Christmas party at an Amish produce farm, fell dead out of the rig with a bullet in her head. She died not far from her central Ohio home in Wayne County. The girl's brother found her when he saw the horse walking around her body. The Summit County medical examiner, without the benefit of an investigation, ruled the death a homicide. This manner of death ruling triggered speculation the girl had been murdered at the behest of Bishop Sam Mullet, the cult like leader of the band of renegade Amish outlaws recently charged with a series of Ohio home invasion, hair-cutting felonies. (See: "Bishop Sam Mullet: Amish Outlaw," November 25, 2011.)

     A few days after Rachel Yoder's death, the local sheriff announced she had been killed by a stray bullet fired a mile and a half away by a young Amish man cleaning is muzzle-loading rifle. (A rifle loaded through the muzzle end of the barrel. I don't know if this gun was a modern replica or an antique.) The Amish girl's death, according to the gun cleaning theory, was simply a freak accident. The sheriff said he had not ruled out a negligent homicide charge. (Such a charge would be ridiculous. If the Amish man had been cleaning his gun in Starbucks, that's one thing, but in Amish country?)

     One could drive around the most violent neighborhoods in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Miami, and Detroit twenty-four hours a day for twenty years, and never catch a stray bullet. Rachel Yoder had been riding in her buggy in the country, a bullet fired a mile and a half away not only found her, it killed her. That's hard to believe. After traveling that far, a bullet, particularly one fired from a muzzle-loader, loses its velocity and the force to become deadly. This theory of Rachel Yoder's death was so farfetched, a writer who put such a scene into a mystery novel would be laughed out of the business. But, if a firearms identification expert matched the fatal bullet to the Amish man's rifle, then this was what happened.

     One of Rachel Yoder's Amish neighbors was quoted as follows: "We can't understand how it could happen, but I guess it was the Lord, maybe. Her time was up is what we think." I'll tell what I think--on second thought, I better not, other than to say I don't subscribe to that line of reasoning. In my view, if Rachel Yoder was not murdered, she died of extreme bad luck.

   On September 11, 2012, 28-year-old Marion Yoder pleaded guilty to negligent homicide. The Holmes County judge sentenced the Amish man to six months in the county jail, but suspended all but 30 days of the term.  Because I can't imagine a jury convicting this man of negligent homicide, I don't see the wisdom in the guilty plea. While the level of negligence in this case might have supported a civil wrongful death action, it did not rise to criminal recklessness. Putting a man in jail for a freak accident is not criminal justice. 

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Cost of Free Speech: Watch What You Say About Iowa

     A sickening combination of political correctness, cultural touchiness, and the profit motive has killed the kind of rough and tumble journalism once practiced by H. L. Mencken and the recently deceased Christopher Hitchens. It's been replaced by the kind of feel-good public relations slop you see on morning TV. Today, a journalist takes a risk attacking anyone other than a politician or a celebrity. (I don't have a problem mocking and exposing politicians and celebrities, but why just them?) Stephen Bloom, a journalism professor at the University of Iowa, recently said some unflattering things about certain lower class Iowans. It's the kind of writing you rarely see anymore, especially from a professor. (If free speech has an arch enemy, it's the university.) The professor from Iowa is now paying the price for speaking his mind in print.

     In an essay Stephen Bloom wrote called, "Observations From 20 Years of Iowa Life," published on December 9 on "The Atlantic" magazine website, Bloom, in questioning whether Iowa was worthy of being the nation's first caucus state, portrayed certain Iowans in a pretty bad light. For example, he says the rural citizens of the state "...are often the elderly waiting to die, those too timid (or lacking education) to peer around the bend for better opportunities, an assortment of waste-toids and meth addicts with pale skin and rotted teeth, or those who quixotically believe, like Little Orphan Anne, that 'the sun'll come out tomorrow.' Bloom described the municipality of Keokuk as a "depressed, crime-infested slum town," and other Iowa communities as "skuzzy" and "slummy." Ouch.

     As could be expected, Bloom's opinions and observations angered and offended many people, including some of his fellow journalism professors, current and former students (particularly those from Keokuk I'd imagine), the university administration, local politicians ( pandering idiots who I am sure share Bloom's opinion of these "hard-working Americans"), and of course, rural Iowans with bad teeth and a drug habit.

       In response to his description of the lower rung of Iowa's socio-economic ladder, Professor Bloom has received threatening emails which have sent him into hiding until the firestorm of indignation burns itself out. (Next fall he is scheduled to teach a semester at the University of Michigan.) In discussing his situation to a media blogger, Bloom said, "...I don't want some of those crazy people who are reading everything they want into my story to know where I am." To avoid adding fuel to the fire, Professor Bloom has turned down offers to appear on several cable TV news shows. (I don't blame him. Who wants to be spit on by a red-faced talking machine like Chris Matthews?)

     Bloom's incendiary essay comes at a time when the University of Iowa's master's degree program in journalism is in trouble. (Not to be confused with Iowa's famous Writer's Workshop.) The program lost its accreditation last year because it lacked a sufficient number of students. The undergraduate program, not doing well either, is operating on provisional accreditation. David Perlmutter, the director of the journalism school, is worried that the Bloom flap will dissuade prospective journalism majors from applying to the program. Perhaps the director should worry about the message this firestorm is sending to students already enrolled in the crippled (should I use that word?) journalism program.

     To his credit, Perlmutter said this to the "Des Moines Register," "I'm nobody's editor. I'm nobody's publisher. We don't want the kind of system where somebody has to send me something before it gets published, and I'm supposed to censor it...."

     The president of the university, Sally Mason, apparently not a big fan of fee speech, sent an open letter to "The Atlantic" disowning Professor Bloom and his essay. "Please know that he does not speak for the University of Iowa." If Iowans didn't already know this, Bloom had described them correctly. With a degree of pandering one can expect from a university president (these people are worse than politicians), Mason laid it on: "What defines Iowans are their deeds and actions and not some caricature." If this piece of puiblic relations crap had been written by a graduate of the school's journalism program, the program should be shut down.

     Professor Bloom has attributed all the fuss to the state's need to protect its first-in-the-nation caucuses. "There's a financial incentive for the Iowa media not to rock the caucuses' boat," he said. "Political advertising means revenue for newspapers, TV and radio stations."

     Fortunately for Professor Bloom, he's tenured. (I'm usually not a fan of tenure--professors should be fired like everyone else--but in this case, I am.)


Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Criminal Dimwits: The Murder-For-Hire "Mastermind"

     The three main characters in a murder-for-hire scheme are the mastermind, the hitman, and the target. Bit players include enablers, advisors, and hands-on accomplices. No category of crime features a wider variety, in terms of age, occupation, background and socio-economic class, than the murder-for-hire mastermind. One thing they have in common is the stupid belief they will get away with their homicides. They almost always get caught because their idiotic hitmen either leave evidence behind or can't keep their mouths shut.

Dr. Mavoltuv Borkuhova

     Dr. Mavoltuv Borkuhova, a 34-year-old Queens, New York physician, paid her cousin $20,000 to kill her husband, a Forest Hills dentist. On October 28, 2007, the hitman, Mikhail Mallayev, shot Dr. Daniel Malakov to death in broad daylight as he watched his 4-year-old daughter play in a public park near their home. The mastermind and her husband were in the midst of a bitter divorce and fight over custody of the child.

     In 2009, the hitman, whose latent fingerprints were lifted from the murder weapon's makeshift silencer, was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life. That year a jury found Borkukhova guilty as well. The doctor is serving a life sentence without parole.

Pastor Tracy "TB" Burleson

     Even for players caught up in a murder-for-hire drama, Tracy "TB" Burleson and his wife Pauletta, were an odd couple. They both had criminal records.The 44-year-old Houston area preacher had been convicted of mail fraud in connection with the theft of payroll checks. Pauletta had been charged in 1997, 2005, and 2006 with physically abusing the couple's two adopted sons by beating them with boards and extension cords. Found guilty in two of these cases, the 56-year-old pastor's wife received probated sentences. Tracy, quite the ladies' man, had a son from a previous relationship named Darnell Fuller. Rounding out this cast of oddballs was 32-year-old Tyonne Palmer-Pollard, the pastor's mistress. Palmer-Pollard, whille having an affair with the preacher, was also having one with his 20-year-old son, Darnell.

     Burleson's wife Pauletta knew her husband had a mistress, but had no idea he was plotting her murder so he could marry Tyonne. She also didn't know that the pastor had promised Darnell a piece of her $60,000 life insurance payout if he knocked her off.

     On May 18, 2010, at ten-fifteen at night, Darnell Fuller, a Texas Southern University pre-nursing student, walked up behind his stepmother in the driveway of her northwest Harris County house and shot her in the back of the head, killing her on the spot. After the execution style murder, the hitman entered the woods across from the house and came onto another street where Tyonne Palmer-Pollard picked him up and drove him to a place where he cleaned himself up. Later that night they disposed of the murder weapon. (Fuller later directed detectives to the gun.)

     For the pastor-mastermind, his son the hitman, and their mistress accomplice, the case unraveled quickly and two of them were indicted, arrested, and tried. The pastor was convicted of capital murder in September 2010 and sentenced to life without parole. Tyonne Palmer-Pollard went on trial in October 2011, and while convicted as an accomplice in the murder-for-hire case, received a light sentence of seven years. The defense attorney had successfully portrayed Tyonne as a hard-working nursing assistant who cared for her three children as well as a chronically ill friend. She had, according to her defense attorney, fallen in with some bad people. While obviously true, what kind of people fall in with bad people? The jury also found the accomplice guilty of tampering with evidence.

     Darnell Fuller, the hitman who confessed and testified against his father and their mistress, has yet to be tried. In return for Fuller's cooperation, the prosecutor is not seeking the death penalty or life without parole. As is often the case in murder-for-hire sentencing, masterminds are treated more harshly than their cold-blooded triggermen. This is because they are usually the first to confess and make a deal.  

Julio Perez

     In October 2011, a hitman and his accomplice pleaded guilty in San Benito, Texas to the murder of 39-year-old Sonia Perez. The accomplice in the March 31, 2010 murder, 21-year-old Daniel Castaneda, was sentenced to 35 years in prison for his role in the case. (Compared to Tyonne Palmer-Pollard, a stiff sentence.) The hitman, 37-year-old Daniel Lopez, received life without parole.

     According to the confessions of Castaneda and Lopez, the victim's husband, Pentecostal preacher Julio Perez, wanted Sonia Perez murdered for her $120,000 life insurance benefit. The accomplice supplied the handgun, and Lopez, the hitman, hid in the back of the third grade teacher's minivan. Lopez forced the victim to pull off a deserted road along a sugar cane field outside of Rio Hondo, Texas. It was there he shot her twice in the back of the head. Lopez committed this cold-blood murder on the promise of $25,000 from the life insurance payout.

     Preacher Perez, unless he makes a deal with the prosecutor, will go on trial next year for capital murder. If convicted, he could face the death penalty.   

Monday, December 19, 2011

Travelatrocity: Horrors of Commercial Aviation

     There was a time, I suppose, when travelers considered commercial flying an exciting, pleasurable and even romantic experience. Since that bubble burst decades ago, air travel has become increasingly unpleasant. The ordeal begins at the airport with long lines, footwear inspections, strip searches, pat-downs, and body scanning. The misery continues in-flight with diminished amenities, germ-infested air, surly flight attendants, and drunken, bellicose, and over-sized passengers. Back on the ground, passengers are faced with delays in getting off the plane, missed connections, and lost, misplaced, and damaged luggage. If he were alive, Orville Wright would take the bus.

Standing Room Only

     In July, during a seven-hour U.S. Airways flight from Anchorage, Alaska to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 57-year-old Arthur Berkowitz stood the entire trip. When he took his seat on the plane, the spot next to him was empty. A late, very obese passenger came on board and took that seat and half of Berkowitz's. On takeoff and landing, Berkowitz remained squeezed into his seat but was unable to fasten his seat-belt. During the rest of the flight, he strolled about the crammed cabin annoying the flight attendants.

     Following Mr. Berkowitz's complaint, the airline offered him a $200 voucher for his trouble. When Berkowitz declined the offer, U. S. Airways closed his case and issued this statement: "We have attempted to address this customer's sevice concerns, but offering increasing amounts of compensation based on threat of a safety violation isn't really fair - especially when the passenger himself said he didn't follow the crew members' instructions and fasten his seat belt."

Adventures on Jet Blue

     In November, Anibal Mercado, an eighteen year veteran of the New York City Police Department, was returning home from the Dominican Republic on a Jet Blue flight when 22-year-old Antonio Ynoa, four rows behind him, launched into a loud verbal attack on two female flight attendants. Ynoa had gone wild after the attendants told him the bar was closed and refused to bring him soda to mix with the duty-free rum he had brought on board. Seated next to this out of control jerk were two mothers holding babies. The verbal assault turned physical when Ynoa punched a male flight attendant four times in the face.

     Officer Mercado confronted Ynoa and identified himself as a New York City cop. After a brief struggle, Mercado wrestled the drunk to the ground until a flight attendant arrived with a set of flex hand restraints. (The fact they keep handcuffs on planes says it all.) Although cuffed, Ynoa continued to yell and cuss at his captors. He also spit on officer Mercado.

     An hour after the fracus, New York Port Authority police met the plane and took Ynoa into custody. As they hauled him off the plane, he kicked at the arresting officers. Ynoa has been charged with assaulting and interfering with a flight crew. The chance of being confined in a tube thirty thousand feet off the ground with a jerk like Ynoa does not make flying a relaxing way to travel.

     A few days before Mr. Ynoa blew his top, passengers who were stuck eight hours in a Jet Blue plane as it sat at a tarmac in Connecticut during an October snow storm, sued the airline. Because of the delay, the airline could also be fined, by the Department of Transportation, $27,500 per passenger. Guess who will end up paying that tab?

Barroom Brawl in the Sky

     In November, fifteen minutes before a Delta Airlines flight from Atlanta landed in Baltimore, an intoxicated William D. Barna punched the man seated next to him. Two air marshals broke up the fight and seated Barna away from the other passengers. Barna fell asleep for a few minutes, then woke up and attacked one of the air marshals. The drunk and the marshals rolled up and down the aisle until the federal officers subdued the bellicose passenger. A couple of weeks later, an U.S. magistrate judge ordered Barna to undergo five to seven days of alcohol rehabilitation then spend four weeks as a patient in some kind of unspecified program designed to--what?--change his personality?

Baggage Theft

     Heightened airport security has made carry-ons less convenient. As a result, airline passengers are checking in more luggage. Besides added fees for this, and the risk of having baggage misdirected, lost or damaged, there is always the chance that airline baggage handlers will help themselves to your stuff. Recently, twelve American Airlines baggage handlers at Kennedy International Airport in New York, were convicted of baggage and freight theft. These airline employees were caught rifling through passengers' belongings for perfume, liquor, and electronic devices. They also stole laptops, jewelry, and items of clothing. According to one of the thieves, everyone was doing it. And we thought airline cargo was being inspected.

Spread 'em Grandma

     A few days ago an 85-year-old woman trying to board a Florida bound plane at JFK in New York, declined to pass through the body scanning machine because she feared the technology would play havoc with her defibrillator. Instead of patting her down, TBA agents took her to a room where they waterboarded her until she admitted the defibrillator was a bomb--just kidding. They gave the old lady a strip search. In the process, she banged her leg against her walker, causing it to bleed. She also missed her flight. My advice to grandma--stay in Florida. You will avoid humiliation and injury, and the skys over America will be much safer. Thank you TBA.

     Someone needs to tell the idiocrats who establish airport security protocol that there is such a thing as being too careful. But instead of applying reason, common sense, and governmental descretion to airline security, Senator Charles Schumer of New York, and some other politician, in the wake of grandma's strip search, have come up with a typically stupid idea that, as one might expect, expands the bureaucracy. Senator Schumer wants what he calls "Passenger Advocates" stationed at every airport to function, I guess, as quasi-magistrates to render decisions in cases involving outrageously inappropriate TBA enforcement practices.This will be a big help. George Orwell, an exceptionally creative writer, couldn't have made this stuff up. I find it amazing that anyone still writes fiction.

Alec Baldwin: Hero or Heel?

     The TV and movie star recently delayed an American Airlines' take-off because he refused to turn off his cellphone until he finished playing some word game. Before leaving the plane, Baldwin insulted and swore at the flight attendants (could this be true?!) who had ordered him, under the electronics-turn-off-before-we-take-off rule, to shutdown his cellphone.

     A few days later, Mr. Baldwin (really a sweet guy) apologized to the passengers he had held up, but let fly at the airline industry. Citing "paramilitary" security procedures, filthy planes, barely edible meals, and reduced flight amenities, Baldwin, in his blog, wrote: "Air travel has devolved into an inelegant experience akin to riding a Greyhound bus." It should be pointed out, in defense of Greyhound bus travel, that you don't have to turn off your cellphone at any point en route. Moreover, I doubt the articulate Mr. Baldwin has ever been on a Greyhound bus.

     The Baldwin dust-up has triggered a serious discussion over the necessity of the cellphone prohibition. ABC News aviation analyst and pilot (and novelist) John Nance, in an article published in "Time," said, "Airlines wrote the scripts that phones can interfere with the systems of the aircraft. But there is zero evidence [to support this]." In other words, this no electronics policy may be based on a myth. It should be noted that American Airline pilots are allowed to us iPods in the cockpit during take-off, in-flight, and while landing. (The image of a pilot playing with his iPod during landing is not a good one.)

     So, back to Mr. Baldwin. Is he a hero or a heel? I guess that depends on how your feel about the actor, and commerical aviation.    

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Hygiene Defense in the Sandusky Case

     Former football coach Jerry Sandusky's lawyer in the Penn State sexual molestatin case, pursuant to his "hygiene" defense, says his client's only "crime" was teaching young boys how to soap themselves in the shower. This one is right up there on the lawyer embarrassment scale with the "Twinky" defense raised years ago in a San Francisco murder case. (The defendant blamed his homicidal outburst on a sugar-high brought on by excessive Twinky consumption.) If I remember correctly, the Twinky defense worked. But it was California. As loopy as that criminal justification was, it makes more sense than the hygiene defense.

     My first male teacher was an eigth grade physical education guy who insisted we all take showers after gym class. In response to objections over this policy, the coach reminded us that if the President of the United States found it necessary to take a daily shower, we lowly West Virginia hillbillies should do the same. It made sense to me. Had our gym teacher taken it upon himself to follow us into the shower to give us hands-on instruction on how to soap ourselves, he would have been a pedophile. Fortunately for us, he didn't do that. He just didn't want us to stink.

     What do you think would have happened if Coach Sandusky had sent each of his kids home with a consent form allowing him, in the name of hygiene, to soap-up these boys? How many parents would have signed that waiver? How many would have gone to Coach Paterno? Or better yet, the police?

     Sandusky's attorney should give us a break. Does he think we are stupid? I think he does.

Murder on the Band Bus

     On December 15, the associate medical examiner of Orange County, Florida, Dr. Sara Irrgang, released the results of her autopsy of Robert Champion, the Florida A & M drum major who died on November 19 on a charter bus outside an Orlando Hotel following a football game. The 26-year-old died from "shock due to soft tissue hemorrhage, due to blunt force trauma." The forensic pathologist found extensive contusions (bruising) to Champion's chest, arms, shoulder and back. His interior tissues were bruised as well. He passed away within an hour of his injuries. Repeatedly punched, he died like a person being stoned to death. He did not have drugs or alcohol in his system.

     Investigators in the case have uncovered evidence of financial crimes related to the funding of the marching band. Florida Governor Rick Scott has called for the president of Florida A & M to be suspended. This request has upset many A & M students who do not want the president of the school removed. A crowd of the president's student supporters gathered outside the governor's mansion to protest.

     It's not clear to me why, under these circumstances, A & M students would come to the aid of the school's president. One would think they would be protesting against deadly hazing, and the possibility of university embezzlement.

The Case of the Stupid Movie

     This weekend my wife and I saw "Sherlock Holmes 2: A Game of Shadows" starring Robert Downey, Jr. as Sherlock Holmes and Jude Law as Dr. Watson. After sitting through this picture without the benefit of popcorn, candy or the stuff Mr. Holmes smokes in his pipe, I think I can deduce how this insipid flick came into being. I can see a producer describing, to a computer guy and a screenwriter, visually stimulating scenes, then telling the computer animater and the scriptwriter (in real life a husand and wife team) to organize a story around the visuals without worrying about plot, or for that matter, the audience. In following these instructions, the animater and screenwriter produced a cartoonish combination of one of those Johnny Depp pirate films, a Harry Potter vehicle, and a super-hero whammy. I won't give away the ridiculous ending even though it would save you money and two hours of boredom. The only tension associated with this movie is deciding whether to stick it out because you paid for it, or to walk. Not even one star for this dog. It's a good thing Arthur Conan Doyle is dead.  

Friday, December 16, 2011

Walmartology: Crime in Consumerland 5

A Breach of Security

     On December 5, a customer at a Grove City, Ohio Walmart took his son to the restroom at one-thirty in the afternoon and waited outside near the electronics section of the store. The 9-year-old boy came out of the restroom and reported to his father that a man had held a cellphone under the stall to video tape or photograph him going to the bathroom. The father confronted this person who happened to be 28-year-old Okey Belcher, a Walmart store detective. Belcher denied video taping the boy, explaining that he had dropped his cellphone and was picking it up.

     After the police questioned the boy and Belcher, the officers acquired a search warrant for the suspect's cellphone. The search produced enough evidence to justify Belcher's arrest. He was charged with pandering obscenity involving a minor, a second-degree felony. Because Belcher's iPod contained 100 images of naked children, he was also charged with the federal crime of child pornography. Belcher admitted to a Grove City police officer that he had downloaded child pornography onto his laptop computer as well. A search of his computer revealed 100 digital films depicting juveniles engaged in sexual activity.

     Belcher is currently in state custody pending a hearing before a federal magistrate. If convicted of the federal charges, he could face up to twenty years in prison.

A Sticky Problem

     In Cartersville, Georgia, someone has been planting syringes in clothing sold at the local Walmart. Since November 29, eight needles have turned up in various garments. The syringes, found in the pockets of men's and women's pants, and in boxes containing bras, pajamas, and socks, are the type used by people with diabetes. Customers pricked by the needles risk hepatitis or HIV. The syringes have been sent to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation Crime Laboratory for analysis.

Busting an Old Fence

     In 2008, when the police searched 66-year-old Marin Moreno's home in Albuquerque, New Mexico, they found thousands of dollars worth of merchandise that had been stolen from Target and Walmart stores. Moreno pleaded guilty to paying shoplifters to steal designated items from the stores, merchandise he sold at a local flea market. In return for his plea to the fourth-degree felony of receiving stolen goods, the judge sentenced Moreno to probation.

     The police, in May 2010, arrested Moreno for possession of merchandise his shoplifters had stolen from Walmart and seven other stores. He was charged with racketeering and criminal solicitation. A judge revoked his probation on the 2008 case, sending him back to the Metropolitin Detention Cener to serve out that sentence. On December 8, 2011, after Moreno pleaded guilty to the racketeering and criminal solicitation charges, a judge sentenced him to nine years, suspending all but two. With good behavior and credit for time served, Morino will spend less than a year behind bars. Because the defendant had a sick wife who required care, the judge had gone easy on the old fence.

Wrong Place, Wrong Time

     In Waldorf, Maryland, Walmart employees spotted 22-year-old Timothy Clark stuffing video games under his clothing. As soon as he hit the parking lot, police officers arrested Clark who was in possession of $635 worth of stolen video games and game accessories.

     Timothy Clark had picked the wrong day to steal from Walmart. The store was crawling with cops, fifty of them who were there shopping with underpriveleged kids who had been given gift cards by a local charity. As a bonus, the kids also learned that crime doesn't pay. (Why tell them otherwise?)

A Sad Story

     In December, police arrested Elizabeth Elisha Halfmoon inside a Tulsa, Oklahoma Walmart. She had been in the store six hours trying to manufacture methamphetamine from commerical fluids on sale. The arresting officer, in seizing the bottle containing the ingredients being mixed, suffered a chemical burn. Halfmoon said she was trying to cook meth in the store because she was too broke to buy the drug.

Bullets Over Walmart

     On Saturday afternoon, December 3, two police officers were involved in an undercover drug deal unfolding in the Walmart parking lot in Strongsville, Ohio. At some point in the transaction, a gunfight erupted between the narcs and two of the drug suspects. The gun fire sent Walmart customers ducking and running for cover. The gun play ended when a bullet struck one of the suspects, 27-year-old Lawrence McKissic. As the ambulance drove off with the wounded suspect, Walmart customers continued to come and go as though nothing had happened. The store remained open throughout the incident.

Boxstore Murder

     Lilia Blandin was having problems with her husband, Avery. On October 30, 2011, the police had charged him with criminal domestic violence after he allegedly punched her in the face and abdomen. The 38-year-old woman worked for the Woodforest Bank inside the Walmart store in Greenville County, South Carolina. At one-thirty in the afternoon on Saturday, December 10, Avery Blandin entered the store with a knife. Following a brief argument with Lilia, he stabbed her to death. He fled from the bloody scene but wrecked his car not far from the store. Deputy sheriffs took him into custody without incident.

     Customers at Walmart were appalled that the store remained open for business through the slaying and its aftermath. One shopper said, "I saw there was blood everywhere, on the ground, on the table, on the wall." Customers were kept away from the immediate crime scene which was not compromised by the management's decision not to let a murder interfere with Christmas shopping.


Thursday, December 15, 2011

Knowing the Score in the Sandusky Case

     Jerry Sandusky, after waiving his preliminary hearing at the Centre County Court House in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, vowed to "fight for four quarters." I presume this means he will maintain his innocence until the Penn State sexual molestation scandal is resolved. His attorney, Joe Amendola, after comparing the case to some historic Penn State football victory, said, "This is the game of his [Sandusky's] life." Someone should tell former coach Sandusky and his attorney that this criminal scandal is not a football game to be won or lost. This is real, and it's about determining an accused sex molester's guilt or innocence. And if Sandusky is found guilty, what his sentence should be.

     While sports metaphores have unfortunately become an intregal part of the English language--we all strike out, drop the ball, tackle the problem, and when desperate, throw hail-Mary passes--the use of football metaphores by the defendant and his lawyer in the Penn State pedophile scandal seems inappropriate.

     Sandusky and his attorney, in my view, should call a time out on football metaphores.  

A Band of Sadists?

     On December 13, three members of the Florida A & M University marching band were arraigned in a Tallahassee court on charges of hazing related batteries. The defendants, who made bail, have been charged with beating fellow band member Bria Shante Hunter with fists and a metal ruler. The alleged crime involved the victim's initiation into the "Red Dawg Order," a band clique for students from Georgia. Hunter was beaten so severly she suffered a borken femur and blod clots in her leg.

     This band related violence occured three weeks before Florida A & M drum major Robert Champion died in a hazing incident following a football game in Orlando. ( Mysteriously, the coroner's office has said it has not determined Champion's cause of death.) I would image that a high school kid who enters Florida A & M instead of the U.S. Marine Corps, and joins the marching band instead of the football team, probably doesn't anticipate physical abuse and hellish hazing.

Pass More Laws, Arrest More People

Misdemeanor Burping

   This May, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, when a 13-year-old student "burped audibly" in physical education class, the PE teacher called a school "resource officer" to deal with the disruption. The resource oficer summoned a city police officer who came to the school, handcuffed the boy, and hauled him off to a juvenile detention center.

     The burping boy, while not charged with a crime, was suspended for the rest of the school year. While in custody, the boy's captors gave him a risk assessment test. On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being extremely dangerous, the boy scored a 2. My guess is that if Mr. Rogers had taken this test, he would have scored a 2 as well. Perhaps the Dalai Lama would have pulled a 1. The kid's parents have filed a lawsuit.

Eating While Shopping

     In Makiki, Hawaii, a couple, while shopping with their 3-year-old daughter, got into trouble when they each ate a sandwich they didn't pay for when they went through the check-out line. The offenders offered to pay $10 for what they had consumed, but it was too late. The cops came, took them into custody, and seized thier hyserical child. The parents got their daughter back after posting $100 bail.

     I can imagine, as the cops are investigating the couple at the scene of the crime, retail thieves rolling shopping carts full of groceries out of the store.

Ignition Key Kids

     In Pennsylvania, the police, over the past eighteen months, have arrested ten parents for leaving their children in casino parking lots while they were inside gambling. These lousy parents were appropriately charged with the misdemeanor offense of endangering the welfare of children. But for state legislators who are paid to pass laws, and in the process keep their jobs, one criminal statute covering this behavior is not enough. So they have proposed two more laws.

     One of the bills would make it a misdemeanor to leave children younger than 14 in vehicles parked on casino property, and double the fines on casinos if they fail to report such incidents to the police and social service agencies. The second bill requires casinos to post signs warning gamblers not to leave unattended children in their parking lots. But what about gambler/parents who leave dogs with their children? I think we need a third bill to more specifically define "unattended." And perhaps as fourth bill to protect the dogs.

     So, what about the kids who are left in front of bars while their parents are inside getting drunk? Or parents who leave their children in Walmart parking lots while shoppers are being mugged, cars are being stolen, and murder-for-hire deals are being negotiated in nearby vehicles? Are these crime victims legislative chopped liver?

     I have an idea. Why don't we require every business, under penalty of law, to post signs and report any evidence of bad parenting in and around their facilities? And while we are at it, let's make it a federal crime. It could be called the Omnibus Good Parenting Act of 2011.

     If passing unnecessary window-dressing legislation solved our social problems, America would be paradise on earth. And politicians would be heros instead of self-serving busybodies.


Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Drug War Shock Troops

     American law enforcement has become zero tolerant, more violent, and militarized. Local, state, and federal teams of elite paramilitary special weapons and tactics (SWAT) teams regularly patrol big-city streets and break into homes unannounced. Officers on routine patrol carry high-powered semi and fully automatic weapons. Virtually every law enforcement agency in the country either has its own SWAT unit or has officers who are members of a multijurisdictional force. The barrier between the U.S. military and domestic law enforcement has broken down. The police have become soldiers and military personnel now function as civilian law enforcers. Paramilitary police officers wear combat gear, are transported in army-surplus armored personnel carriers, receive special-forces training, and view criminal suspects as enemy combatants. Federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies field teams of military-trained snipers. In many jurisdictions, the "public servant" concept of policing has been replaced by the "occupying force" model. The idea of community policing has become outmoded. If one didn't know any better, one would think that the nation is in the grip of an historic crime wave. Today, compared with the 1930s and the late 1960s through the 1970s, the current rate of violent crime is much lower.

     Every year SWAT teams conduct forced entry, no-knock raids into 40,000 to 50,000 homes in search of illegal drugs and drug paraphernalia. In many jurisdictions all drug-related search warrant executions involve SWAT team entries. Once a law enforcement agency forms a paramilitary unit, the officers on the team must be kept busy to stay sharp. For this reason, the great majority of SWAT raids in this country involve low-risk police work and are therefore unnecessary.

     The predawn, no-knock SWAT raid into a private home has become the signature of the government's escalating war on drugs. Even when the raids are not in some way botched, as when officers break into the wrong house, innocent bystanders, including children, are injured, manhandled, and/or traumatized. Following these raids, residents are left with broken doors, windows, and furniture as well as ransacked rooms. Occasional the "flashbang" grenades the raiders use to disorient occupants cause injuries and start fires. It is not uncommon for subjects of these raids, thinking that their homes are being invaded by criminals, to pick up guns in self-defense. These people are often shot and killed. If they shoot and kill a police officer, they go to prison. In these cases it doesn't matter that the defendants didn't know who they were shooting at. Some end up on death row.

Minneapolis SWAT

     Acting on information from a narcotics snitch, a Minneapolis SWAT team of eighteen officers, on the night of February 16, 2010, used a battering ram to enter the apartment rented by Rickia Russell. The 30-year-old occupant heard her front door being smashed open followed by the sound of a flashbang grenade rolling into her living room. Upon explosion, the percussion device ignited her sofa and seriously burned her leg. As Russell lay face-down on the floor with her hands cuffed behind her back, she tried to tell the officers about her charred limb. They told her to shut up.

     The officers, armed with a warrant alleging that someone named David Conley was selling drugs out of this apartment, found no narcotics, drug paraphernalia, guns, or any other contriband or evidence of a crime. Rickia Russell did not know a David Conley. The SWAT team had obviously raided the wrong apartment. But instead of apologizing and offering to repair the damage they had caused, the police arrested Russell for the misdemeanor of operating a "disorderly house." The authorities, however, never followed through with a formal charge.

     On December 9, 2011, the Minneapolis City Council offered Russell, who had suffered permanent injuries from the flashbang grenade, a million dollar settlement. This horribly botched police operation was not the first botched paramilitary police raid in Minneapolis

The Vang Khang Raid

     Vang Khang, his wife Yee Moua, and their six children, hill people from Laos, lived in a high-crime neighborhood in northeast Minneapolis. Just before midnight on December 16, 2007, Yee Moua, while watching television, heard window glass shatter. Thinking that criminals were breaking into the house, she bolted up the stairs to where her husband and children were sleeping.

     Awakened by the commotion, Mr. Khang grabbed his shotgun, and hearing heavy footsteps advancing up the stairs, fired a warning shot through his bedroom door. Khang didn't know it, but he had opened fired on officers with the Minneapolis Police Department's Violent Offender Task Force (VOTF). The paramilitary unit had broken into the wrong house in search of street-gang guns and drugs. The exchange of gunfire that erupted after Khang's warning shot included 22 bullets from VOTF officers and two more blasts from Khang's shotgun, pellets that struck the body armor of two of the officers. The moment Khang heard his children yelling, "It's the police!" Khang, who miraculously had not been shot, dropped the shotgun and raised his arms. A few seconds later, he was on the floor with a boot planted in the middle of his back.

     The Minneapolis Police, quickly realizing that their informant had directed them to the wrong house, did not take Khang into custody. VOTF offiers, leaving behind broken windows and bullet holes in the bedroom wall, left the house without apologizing to the family they had endangered and traumatized.

     Seven months after the bungled raid, the Minneapolis police chief awarded the VOTF officers who had raided the wrong house, medals of valor for "bravery in action under fire." In December 2008, the Minneapolis City Council approved a $600,000 settlement for the Khang family.

     Paramilitary policing in Minneapolis has been expensive, and a threat to public safety.


Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Shots Fired: Two Days, Nine Shootings

     On Friday and Saturday, December 9 and 10, 2011, the police, in separate incidents in Florida, Louisiana, New Jersey, Maryland, Texas, Ohio, California, Illinois, and Missouri, shot nine people, killing four of them. As in most police involved shootings, five of the cases received cursory media coverage. Four of the more newsworthy shootings are featured here.

Suicide By Cop in Hollywood

     A month ago, Tyler Brehm, an unemployed 26-year-old from Carlisle, Pennsylvania, moved into a Hollywood, California apartment with his girlfriend. On December 6 they broke up, and on Friday December 9, at ten-fifteen in the morning, Brehm, armed with a 40-caliber handgun, began walking down the middle of Sunset Boulevard toward Vine Street. He shot several times into the air then fired several bullets into a silver Mercedes-Benz coup driven by music industry executive John Atterberry, hitting the victim in the neck and face. Atterberry later died from his wounds. Pedestrians who were aware of what was happening ran for cover. A few bystanders thought they were witnessing the filming of a movie scene. As Brehm fired his weapon, he screamed that he was going to die.

     Two Los Angeles police officers, one of whom was providing security on a nearby movie set, ordered the gunman to drop his weapon. Having run out of ammunition, Brehm pulled a knife. The officers fired four or five times, killing Brehm on the spot.

     Brehm did not have a criminal record. According to one of his Hollywood neighbors, "He wasn't a bad guy, he just got fed up." Another area resident reported that Brehm and his girlfriend had recently moved out of their apartment. "I could tell that he was an unstable person," this neighbor said, "but I don't know the details on what actually made him snap."

     This police shooting has all the earmarks of a suicide by cop case. Although such deaths have become quite common, this police involved shooting drew media attention because it took place in the heart of Hollywood, the town of broken dreams.

Death of a Shoplifter in a Wheelchair

     At four-thirty in the afternnon on Saturday, December 10, loss prevention officers at the Sears store in Visalia, California approached a shoplifting suspect in a wheelchair. The 29-year-old man wheeled out the back door of the store with the security officers in pursuit. When the officers confronted the suspect, he brandished a knife. As the knife-wielding shoplifter rolled into a nearby Marshalls Department Store, the security officers called the police.

     As the police entered Marshalls, the suspect wheeled out the back door. Confronted outside, he lept from the chair and lunged at the officers with his knife. The officers shot him, and he died on the spot.

Suicide By Cop in Chicago

     At eight o'clock Saturday night, December 10, police officers responded to a call regarding a man with a gun at the Western Cermak Pink Line train station in Chicago. When the officers arrived at the scene, they found 55-year-old Frank Steponaitis holding a gun to his head. Ordered to drop the weapon, Steponaitis pulled a second gun and pointed it at the police. The officers opened fire, killing Mr. Steponaitis. According to court records, the dead man had a history of alcoholism and psychiatric treatment.

Double Murder, Car Chase, and Shooting

     In Salem, Missouri at six-thirty in the evening, during an argument with his ex-wife and her boyfriend over custody of their 2-year-old son, 44-year-old Mavin Rice allegedly pulled a gun and killed both adults. The dead woman's 6-year-old daughter heard the gunshots from another room and called 911. Rice, a former Dent County (Missouri) deputry sheriff, drove off with his son in his white station wagon. After leaving the boy with his current wife, Rice headed north on U.S. Route 63 toward Columbia, Missouri.

     Police picked up Rice's trail through his cellphone signals which led to a high-speed vehicle chase that ended at nine-thirty in the parking lot of the Capitol Plaza Hotel in Jefferson City. The hotel is just blocks from the grounds of the state capitol.

     The fleeing ex-cop ran from his car into the lobby of the luxury hotel where hundreds of doctors, nurses and their families were attending an annual Christmas party. Other hotel guests included a youlth hockey team. The pursuing officers shot Rice as he ran past the lobby elevators toward the swimming pool. Rushed to a local hospital, Rice is expected to survive his wounds.  

Monday, December 5, 2011

Jerry Sandusky: Self-Portrait of a Pedophile

     Pedophiles are bold, commit their crimes under our noses, and think we are stupid. Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State football coach charged with 40 counts of child molestation, by granting CNN a four-hour interview, must think we are beyond stupid. In that interview, conducted over two days last week, Sandusky admitted the following: giving money and gifts to disadvantaged boys; staging wrestling matches in his home; arranging sleep-overs; taking boys on overnight trips; sleeping alone with them in hotel rooms; blowing on their stomachs; and taking showers with them. He admitted that his own wife had expressed concerns over his preoccupation with these boys. And coach Paterno didn't like it either.

     A few weeks ago, Sandusky told a TV sportscaster, on national television, that he touched boys while showering with them. I can't decide, if in the minds of America's pedophile population, if Sandusky is a dream or a nightmare. Could he possibly believe that non-pedophiles will interpret his admitted relationships with these boys as nonsexual? Sandusky is sounding a lot like a national spokesperson for NAMBLA.

     Jerry Sandusky has self-profiled himself as a pedophile. He's also self-prosecuting himself before the American public. His public defense of himself is unprecedented, and, in my view, extremely incriminating. We are not that stupid. (See: "Edgar Friedrichs, Jr: The Profile of a Pedophile," November 9, 2001 and "Criminal Intent in the Sandusky Case," November 16, 2011.) 

Friday, December 2, 2011

Death by Hazing: Will the Band Play On?

     Florida A & M drum major Robert Campion, on November 19, collapsed and died on the bus following a football game in Orlando, Florida. The 26-year-old junior from Decatur, Georgia, pursuant to a post-game hazing ritual, had walked through a gauntlet of fists. Prior to his death he had vomitted and stuggled to breathe. While the police have linked Champion's death to the hazing incident, the authorities have not released the results of his autopsy.

     The president of Florida A & M fired Julian White, the longtime director of the school's marching band. He also placed the 375-member band on indefinate suspension. (The president later dismissed four students from the university.) Julian White, the 71-year-old former director of the band, in denying responsibility for the tragedy and potential homicide, insisted that over the past twenty years he has warned school administrators about the hazing problem. Mr. White believes the university is making him a scapegoat in the matter and has demanded to be rehired. (The fact this scandal is unfolding in the wake of the Penn State mess and coach Paterno's dismissal has probably worked against Mr. White.)

     On November 27, Robert Champion's parents, in a news conference, announced plans to sue the university. The attorney representing the future plaintiffs said the parents are bringing this action to stop dangerous hazing practices. In 2006, Florida A & M student Marcus Jones suffered permanent hearing loss after being hazed as a Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity pledge. Two of his fraternity brothers went to jail after fraternity members punched and whipped Jones and other pledges over a period of four nights.

     Forty-four states, including Florida, have passed anti-hazing legislation. In Florida, if hazing results in serious bodily injury or death, it's a third-degree felony. Under the law, hazing is defined as any action or situation that recklesly or intentionally endangers the mental or physical health or safety of a student.

The Michael Davis Case

     Michael Davis, on February 14, 1994, died in the track and field complex at Southwest Missouri State University after being slapped, punched and body slammed by members of the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity. The autopsy revealed that Davis had suffered fractured ribs, a torn lung and liver, a lacerated kidney, and hemorraging up and down his spine. His heart was also bruised and bleeding.

     The university banned the fraternity and several of its members were convicted of involuntary manslaughter and counts of hazing. Two of the defendants were sentenced to eighteen months in prison. The Davis case led to the passage of anti-hazing laws in several states.

The Matthew Carrington Case

     On February 2, 2005, 21-year-old Chico State University student Matthew Carrington died in a basement of fraternity house after members forced him to drink water and to calisthenics with fans blowing on him. This water intoxication hazing ritual caused Carrington's brain and heart to swell. His fraternity brothers waited more than an hour before calling 911.

     Four defendants in the Carrington case pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter while others pleaded to offenses such as misdemeanor hazing. In 2006, California legislators passed Matt's Law that upgraded anti-hazing laws from misdemeanors to felonies, and allowed prosecutors under these laws to go after nonstudents.

The Hazing Problem

     A national study in 2008 involving 53 colleges and universities and 11,000 undergraduates revealed that more than half of college kids who were members of clubs, sport teams and fraternities experienced some degree of hazing. Common forms of hazing included alcohol consumption, humiliation, isolation, sleep deprivation, and sex acts. Because a lot of young people have a strong desire to belong to a group, they allow themselves to be mistreated this way. They accept hazing because they believe it's worth going through to get into the club. And there is also peer pressure and the power of tradition. What is more difficult to understand is why so many hazers--bullies-- have the sadistic urge to humiliate, intimidate and inflict pain on people who want to be one of them.

     When I was in college, fraternity related initiations and rituals took the form of paddling and running errands for upperclassmen, mild stuff compared to modern hazing. Unlke today, schools didn't regulate this form of activity, nor was hazing a criminal offense. Notwithstanding the efforts of parents, school administrators, and the criminal justice system, hazing remains a serious problem. And who would have guessed that it latest victim would be a 26-year-old drum major in a college band?    

Thursday, December 1, 2011

When Big Is Not Better

     Except for the economy, everything in America is getting bigger. Men, women, and children are getting heavier every day, and require larger toilets, seat-belt extentions, bigger furniture, oversized theater seats, wider revolving doors, scales that go beyond 300, and even wide-body caskets. The U. S. government has gotten as fat and unhealthy as the American people, and seems unable to trim itself or its citizens. (On Tuesday the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid announced that Medicare will pay for obesity screening and intensive behavioral counseling. People old enough for Medicare ought to know how to lose weight. If they don't, it's probably too late.)

The Case of the Boy Who Got Too Fat

     In October, Cuyahoga County (Ohio) Children and Family Service workers took an 8-year-old Cleveland Heights boy from his mother because the child weighed 200 pounds. A judge approved the seizure on grounds the mother's inability to get her son's weight down amounted to medical neglect. County workers were alerted to the boy's excessive weight early last year after his mother took him to an emergency room with breathing problems. Doctors diagnosed the child as suffering from sleep apnea and issued the family a breathing machine. After working with the boy's mother for twenty months, the agency placed the grossly overweight boy into foster care. (According to a recent Government Accountability Office report, children in foster care in five states are taking psychotropic drugs at a rate "two to over four times higher" than childen who are not in foster homes.)

     The attorney representing the distraught mother told reporters on November 28 that the foster mother was having trouble keeping up with all of the boy's medical and governmental appointments. As a result, the county has assigned a social worker to help the foster mom. A few days later, the boy's real mother, an elementary school teacher, publicly stated that she had done her best to limit her son's access to food. She didn't want her boy to be obese and sick, and did not feel his condition was a result of neglect or bad parenting.

     The government's removal of this child from his home has set off a national debate over governmental authority and discretion versus parental rights. The weight of public opinion seems to be with the mother. Perhaps that's because two million children in this country are extremely obese. Moreover, it's hard enough keeping kids away from cigarettes, drugs, pornography, pedophiles and alcohol. Controling their eating habits, particularly in a glutinous culture of junk food and soft drinks, is easier said than done.

     This fat little boy from Cleveland Heights is a real person and a sad story. But to me, his case stands as a metaphor for what is wrong in this country. The govenment is too big, and so are its people.  

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Missing Prosecutor: What Happened to Ray Gricar?

     On April 15, 2005, Centre County (Pennsylvania) prosecutor Ray Gricar told his girlfriend he was going out for a drive. The 59-year-old district attorney didn't return, and his body is still missing. No one knows where he is or what happened to him. While women and children go missing every day, some to be found alive and others not, it's not everyday that a prosecutor, or any public official for that matter, disappears. The Gricar disappearance was a mystery in 2005, and more than six years later, as a result of its possible connection to the Penn State scandal, it has become a mystery that crys out once again for a solution.

     The Gricar case reminds us that coincidence can be the investigator's worst enemy. If the prosecutor's disappearace is not related to the Jerry Sandusky case, then suicide seems to be the most reasonable explanation. If the two matters are in some way connected, one has to add homicide to the equasion. Put bluntly, the question is this: Did someone murder Ray Gricar to cover up the Penn State sex molestation scandal?

     In 1980, attorney Ray Gricar moved from Cleveland, Ohio to Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, the seat of government in Centre County ten miles northeast of State College, the home of Penn State. Gricar was elected district attorney of the county in 1985. Nine months before he planned to retire from office in 2005, the twice-divorced prosecutor went missing.

The Missing Persons Investigation

     After not returning home on April 15, 2005, the police found Gricar's vehicle parked in an antiques market parking lot in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania fifty miles east of Bellefonte. Three months later, his lap top computer was found, missing its hard drive, in the Susquehanna River. In October 2005, the damaged and useless hard drive was found up river from where police had found Gricar's lap top. On his home computer, Gricar had recently researched how to destroy a hard drive.

     On July 25, 2011, at the request of the missing prosecutor's daughter, a Centre County judge declared Gricar legally deceased. Among the people Gricar had recently prosecuted, none of them surfaced as suspects in Gricar's disappearance.

The Sandusky Connection

     Early in 1998, the mother of an 11-year-old boy reported to the Penn State Univeristy Police that assistant coach Jerry Sandusky had made her son feel uncomfortable in the locker room shower. Coach Sandusky, according to the mother, had hugged her son while both of them were nude. University police detective Ronald Shreffler conducted the investigation which included an audo recording of the mother's confrontation with Coach Sandusky over the incident. The mother asked Sandusky if he had been sexually aroused by his physical contact with her son, and if his "private parts" had touched the boy. The coach did not deny being in the shower with her son. Regarding the arousal question, Sandusky said, "I don't think so...maybe. I was wrong. I wish I could get forgiveness. I know I won't get it from you. I wish I were dead." Acording to subsequent testimony before a grand jury looking into the case, the boy, referred to as victim # 6, described how coach Sandusky lathered him up with soap then said, "I'm going to squeeze your guts out."

     Prosecutor Gricar, in my view, had enough evidence against Jerry Sandusky to support Indecent Assault, Corruption of a Minor, and Child Endangerment convictions. The district attorney chose, however, not to pursue the case. Had he done so, more victims may have surfaced the way they are coming forward now, and Penn State would have been scandalized then instead of now. Coach Joe Paterno may or may not have been fired. Who knows how many molestation victims would have been spared had prosecutor Gricar taken action in 1998.

     Shortly after the grand jury testimony of victim # 6, Jerry Sandusky, at age 57, resigned from Penn State coaching. He did not however, leave town or the campus.

The Speculation

     I would imagine that most people familiar with the case believe that Ray Gricar is dead. Dr. Cyril Wecht, former Allegheny County Medical Examiner and famed forensic pathologist, has publicly said that Gricar may have committed suicide over guilt he could have protected more children. Dr. Wecht has not ruled out the possibility of homicide motivated by someone who didn't want the prosecutor re-opening a case against coach Sandusky.

     Robert Buehner, the district attorney for nearby Montour County and longtime friend of Gricar's, doesn't believe there is any connection between the disappearance and the Sandusky case. Rejecting the probability of suicide, Buehner thinks it's more likely that Gricar had been the target of a violent criminal he had prosecuted or was in the midst of prosecuting.

The Future of the Gricar Case

     Without a body there is no way to know what killed Ray Gricar. That means there is no way to determine how he had died. Unless someone comes forward with a credible confession and information that leads to Gricar's remains, the case will remain in limbo. The matter will eventually be forgotten, but until then, at least as long as the Sandusky case is in the news, the speculation will continue.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Role of Fans in the Penn State Scandal

     Although I prefer the Pittsburgh Steelers to other NFL teams, watch PGA golf during the winter months, and enjoy HBO and ESPN boxing, I cannot call myself a real sports fan. I guess I'm a little defensive about this because not being an avid fan is kind of un-American. I just can't imagine myself waving a terrible towel, painting my face team colors, or having my day ruined because the Steelers lost a game. ( While this probably reveals a latent cruel streak,I've often wondered what it feels like for face-painters leaving the stadium after their team has lost.) Outside my dentist's office, I've never leafed through a "Golf Digest" or "Sports Illustrated." (Coming across one of these publications in Barnes and Noble conjurs up bad memories.) If it weren't for the fast-forward control, I wouldn't watch any sports on TV. Golf announcers--I guess they prefer sports broadcasters--are really annoying with their slobbering Tiger Woods hero-worship, and their obsession with the mechanics of the golf swing. (I doubt that people who actually play golf understand any of that golf swing terminology. No kidding, it's brutal.) And the golfers themselves hang over putts longer that it will take me to write this blog. Now that I think about it, why do I watch golf at all?

     While I'm obviously not an avid sports fan, I'm fascinated with fandom itself. The subject interests me because I've never really understood it. Peter Abrahams' 1995 book "The Fan," is one of my favorite novels. In this beautifully written, tightly plotted story, the fan, in the person of Gil Renard, is fixated on a slugger with the Chicago White Sox. As the plot unfolds, the unemployed knife salesman turns from an obessive fan into a murderous maniac. In the 1996 film version, Renard, a rabid San Francisco Giants fan, is played by Robert De Niro.

     The Penn State scandal, besides the horrors of child molestation, is also about the nature of sports fandom in America. Except for the victims, all of the main characters are former athletes and coaches. And the alleged crimes have scandalized and demoralized tens of thousands of Penn State football fans. In the sports world, no fans are more avid than Penn State supporters. Many of them are worried that the sex scandal will cost the team a prestigious postseason bowl game invitation. The school could end up playiing in the--this is no joke--Mieneke Car Care Bowl in Houston.This devotion to sports presents an interesting but difficult question: had Jerry Sandusky been a history professor instead of a Penn State football coach, how long would it have taken for someone to report him to the authorities? And once reported, how long would it have taken to get him indicted? Thirty-five years?

     According to a recent poll, 51 percent of Pennsylvanians still have a positive view of former coach Joe Paterno. Twenty-one percent aren't sure how they feel about him. Of the men polled, 59 percent still support the coach. Only 3 percent have a positive view of Jerry Sandusky, the alleged child molester Paterno failed to report to the police. Thirty-eight percent don't even think Paterno should have been fired. On that issue seventeen percent aren't sure.

     The only way I can make sense of the above statistics is in the context of sports fandom. Penn State football fans have loved Joe Paterno for making their lives as football fans so rich and fulfilling. If he and Jerry Sandusky had been history professors, they would have been run out of town on a rail, and we wouldn't be talking about the story. In American, I don't think you can under estimate the power of fandom. That's what makes it so fascinating for people like me.         

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Walmartology: Crime in Consumerland 4

     So-called "serious" writers of literary fiction, in hundreds of pretentious, unreadable award-winning novels, have for decades portrayed Americans as frenzied consumers who mindlessly eat, polute, and shop until obesity, pharmaceuticals, boredom, and booze puts them in their pre-purchased, overpriced graves.

     After nine-eleven, President Bush told us to dust ourselves off and shop. Today, retail consumers line-up around the block to buy the latest high-tech gizmo. Customers camp out overnight in the vast spaces of box store parking lots. A fake doctor is caught injecting cement into the butts of women who have exercised their asses off. (Sorry, I dropped that in because I might not find another place to use it.)

     Black Friday has become, like Superbowl Sunday, a defacto holiday. On Black Friday we spend money we don't have, and on Superbowl Sunday we eat bad food and get drunk. All of this plays into the above novelistic theme that might be becoming more than a literary stereotype.

     At four in the morning on Black Friday 2008, two thousand bargain hunters were pressed against the sliding glass doors of a Long Island Walmart. As opening time neared, six brave Walmart employees lined up against the quivering glass doors in an effort to hold back the mob. Eventually, under the weight of the pulsating retail mass, the doors snapped loose and the crowd stampeded into the store. The frenzied bargain hounds knocked a 34-year-old Walmart employee to the ground and trampled him to death. Several other shoppers and employees were bowled over, but survived the onslaught.

     On Thanksgiving 2011, a Black Friday early-bird shopper at a Los Angeles area Walmart, pepper-sprayed several customers to keep them from getting their sweaty hands on merchandise the spritzer fancied. One shopper landed in the hospital while the other casualities were treated on the retail battlefield. The pepper-spray combatant escaped capture by disappearing into the mob with the spoils of battle.

     In Walmart and other stores across the country, several Black Friday shoppers were robbed and shot. Also, in-store fights broke out causing injuries, knocked over displays, and trampled merchandise. In Phoenix, police slammed a grandfather to the ground on suspicion he had shoplifted a game. The shopper had stuck the item into his waistband to free up his hands to lift his grandson above the mob.

     Shopping on Black Friday is not for the faint of heart, or even the moderately courageous. This Black Friday, 152 million shoppers hit the stores.  Americans need their stuff, and some of us are willing to stand in line, camp out, and even fight for our things while muggers lurk between the cars, SUVs and trucks waiting to ambush us as we come out of the stores. There's got to be a better way. Wait, there is, the internet! And that's called Cyber Monday.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Bishop Sam Mullet: Amish Outlaw

     Whenever an Amish man gets his name in the paper, or is seen on television, it's because he has run afoul of the law. That's because the Amish, unlike their English counterparts, avoid calling attention to themselves. The crimes that bring unwanted publicity to these private people are mostly petty, and usually involve alcohol and Amish boys in their teens.

     Edward Gingerich got on TV and in the regional press after he stomped his wife to death in 1993. My mass market paperback about the case, Crimson Stain, made him the most notorious Amish man in the country, perhaps the world. Earlier this year, when he hanged himself in a barn, he briefly popped up in the news. If his name comes up again in print or on TV, it will be as a deceased relative of an Amish law breaker.

     Sam Mullet, the 66-year-old bishop of an eighteen-family Amish enclave in and around the village of Bergholz, Ohio, has been in and out of the local news for almost ten years. The cult-like leader of a renegade group at odds with the larger Amish community in central and eastern Ohio, Mullet has been accused of beating and brainwashing members of his clan as well as having sex with a number of married Amish women. In September 2008, Mullet's son Chris pleaded guilty to three counts of unlawful sexual conduct with two minors in 2003 and 2004.

     In my book, Swat Madness, I wrote about a 2007 SWAT raid on a Bergholz Amish school house. In that raid, Jefferson County Sheriff Frank Abdalia, a longtime Mullet adversary, seized the children of a Bergholz Amish man who claimed that members of Mullet's enclave had sexually molested his children. The complaintant's wife, Wilma Troyer, had refused to let her husband take their children to another community.

     During a three week period in late September and early October 2011, men from the Bergholz group, allegedly on Sam Mullet's orders, invaded Amish dwellings in Holmes and other Ohio counties where the intruders forceably cut the hair and beards off the men, and shaved the heads of the Amish women. These terroristic raids were intended to degrade, intimidate, and humiliate the targets of Sam Mullet's wrath. The bishop had allegedly asked his raiders to bring back photographs and clippings of his victims' hair as proof his orders had been carried out.  (According to author and Amish scholar Donald B. Kraybill, mens' beards and the uncut hair that married Amish women roll into buns are treasured symbols of religious identity.)

     On October 8, 2011, Sheriff Abdalia's deputies arrested Sam Mullet's sons, 38-year-old Johnny and 53-year-old Lester. The deputies also arrested Levi and Lester Miller. Johnny and Lester Mullet were charged with burglary and kidnapping in connection with the hair and beard cutting home invasions in Holmes, Carroll, and Trumbell Counties. Shortly after their arrests, the Amishmen were released after making bail.

     FBI agents and Jefferson County deputies, on November 22, arrested Sam Mullet, three of his sons, and three others from his clan on federal civil rights charges as well as a number of state violations related to the hate crime home invasions. The United States Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio said, "While people are free to disagree about religion in this country, we don't settle those disagreements with late night visits, dangerous weapons, and violant attacks."

     Articles about Sam Mullet that included photographs appeared in the New York Times and hundreds of newspapers across the country. CNN and Fox News aired segments on the FBI arrests. Suddenly Sam Mullet and his local band of Amish outlaws were national news figures, an extremely rare event in the Amish world. While the Amish abhor notoriety, the media loves it because people are fascinated with Amish culture. Although stories like this tell us virtually nothing about how the Amish really live, they provide the illusion of accessibility into the darkest corners of Amish life.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Why do the police use force?

Most people, it seems, have condemned the use of pepper spray on the UC-Davis student protesters. On the more general question of when and where tools of this kind (for example, Tasers) should be used, there is some disagreement (two excellent summaries of the debate are in The New York Times and at Inside Higher Ed).

I had a fairly vigorous discussion with my students yesterday about this, and the tenor and contour of it reminded me of debates over water-boarding (still approved by many; see the recent endorsements of torture by supposed Christian-values candidate Michele Bachmann).

There are two important distinctions to draw in cases involving police force and the military use of torture:

1. Whether using force in a given circumstance is necessary or merely convenient. Using force is a favorite tool of the lazy and incompetent. It is harder to get people to 'do' things, like confess to a crime, reveal information, or move out of a public space, by talking to them. Being a good police officer requires a lot of restraint and patience, and it also requires good 'people' skills. Having pepper spray or a Taser (or water-boarding) at one's disposal is a temptation to skip the hard work of convincing people to cooperate. In the UC case, the police officer did not appear to consider any alternative (including a less painful use of force) before employing the spray.

2. Whether force is used because it is effective or because it is emotionally satisfying. There is little to no evidence that torture actually produces actionable information. Still, anyone who has watched Jack Bauer on 24 or Detective Sipowicz on NYPD Blue knows that torture can be very emotionally satisfying-- as long as the person being tortured is clearly seen by the audience as 'the bad guy.' Pepper spray and Tasers do produce compliance! I suspect, however, that police officers often use them to dole out punishment as pleasure or revenge. 

Limits on the government's use of violence is a core American political value and one of the things that supposedly makes us 'exceptional.' Asking the police and military to use force only when necessary and effective is itself necessary, and, in the long run, more effective.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Close your eyes and think of the Marlboro Man

The Australian government is attempting to reduce smoking by forcing cigarette companies to adopt packaging containing off-putting design features and repugnant images of cancer caused by cigarette consumption. I guess they figure that you won't want to smoke if, in the act of drawing a cigarette out of the pack, you are fighting throwing up in your mouth.

Predictably, this has resulted in a massive lawsuit. In the United States, there would be a decent chance that these kinds of regulations would violate the First Amendment.

I love free speech issues, but I think the more interesting question here is this: If the Australian government, and by extension the Australian people, are so bothered by the negative effects of smoking, why don't they just outlaw cigarettes? The libertarian in me wants the government to either do what they so clearly want to do-- criminalize smoking-- and take the heat, or let people smoke and suffer the consequences.

What do you think?

Whackademia: Nutty Professors

Kennesaw, Georgia
     On December 6, 2010, the police in this town 20 miles north of Atlanta, arrested a 57-year-old accounting professor for public indecency. The part time instructor at Kennesaw State University, amid a classroom rant about refusing to live up to other peoples' standards, stripped naked in front of fifty students. The next day the professor walked (fully clothed) out of jail on $5,000 bond.

     Not everyone exposed to the professor's exhibition came away from his unveiling shocked and appalled. According to one of the students who witnessed the public indecency (is a classroom public?), "He didn't flash us for some sick, perverted kick out of it." (That's probably why he wasn't charged with public exposure.) "I think he did it to make a point (no pun intended) loud and clear to his students. Live life without regrets and shame!" (Perhaps not a good message for future accountants.) "And always have an open heart, be forgiving and grateful. He is a very brave man." (Indeed.) "I respect him deeply." This feeling was not shared by the provost who quickly fired the courageous professor.

     I do not know the disposition of this case, but venture a guess this man is not in prison, or in academia.

Santa Fe, New Mexico
     The 71-year-old former president of the University of New Mexico was arrested in June 2011 for his alleged role in a massive online prostitution enterprise headed by a Fairleigh Dickinson University (New Jersey) physics professor. A political science professor before becoming president of the University of New Mexico (August 2002-July 2003), the arrestee posted a $100,000 bond and was released from custody.

     The online prostitution service arrange for sexual hook-ups and included a three-tiered hierarachy system whereby trusted "johns" could move up in status through certain acts with prostitutes. The highest level of access included a rating system for prostitutes as well as detailed information about prostitution stings.

     The professors of prostitution are awaiting trial.

San Bernardino, California
     A 43-year-old associate professor of kinesiology (the study of human movement) at California State University, San Bernardino, was arrested in September 2011 following the search of his home by deputies with the San Bernardino Sheriff's Office. The officers recovered more than a pound of methamphetamine, rifles, handguns, and body armor. Also, as evidence the professor was president of the local chapter of the Devils Diciple Motorcycle Club, deputies found biker vests and other motorcycle gang paraphernalia. The authorities believe the professor has been involved in the distribution of drugs to a network of dealers in California. The case is pending.

Nassau County, New York
     On November 18, a former New York City police officer turned criminal justice professor at Long Island University accidentally shot himself in the leg and groin just before the start of class. The professor was about to give a test when his concealed handgun went off while he was "securing the weapon." He is expected to recover fully. As a former criminal justice professor myself, I know how dangerous students can be, particularly after you have given them a test. While I never carried a piece, I did keep my eye on the D students, and never got too far from the door.