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Thursday, January 31, 2013

Jimmy Lee Dykes: The Alabama Bunker Hostage Case

     Two years ago, shortly after moving into his rural house in Midland City, Alabama, a town of 2,300 not far from Dothan in the south east corner of the state, 65-year-old Jimmy Lee Dykes began building his underground storm shelter. The retired truck driver and Navy veteran worked on the project every day between two and three in the morning for eighteen months. He stocked his underground sanctuary with food, wired it for electricity, and moved in a TV set and other amenities.

     People who live near Mr. Dykes consider him a neighbor from hell. Paranoid, combative, and violent, Dykes, pursuant to a variety of neighborhood disputes and feuds, has threatened to shoot people. He has been seen patrolling his property at night with a flashlight and a shotgun. Back in December, Dykes fired two shots at a pickup truck occupied by two people who reside in the area. As a result of that incident, Dykes had a court appearance in nearby Ozark, Alabama where he faced a charge of menacing. If convicted of the misdemeanor, the judge could sentence the loner and survivalist up to six months in jail.

     On Tuesday, January 29, 2013, the day before his court appearance, Jimmy Lee Dykes became more than just an armed eccentric who hated people. At 3:40 in the afternoon, Dykes boarded a school bus near his house carrying twenty-two elementary school children. He pulled out a handgun and ordered the little passengers out of the vehicle. He then grabbed a 6-year-old boy who was so frightened he fainted. When the bus driver, 66-year-old Charles Poland, Jr. tried to save the child, Dykes shot him four times. (Mr. Poland later died from his wounds.)

     From the hijacked bus, Dykes took the boy to his underground bunker which became the site of an ongoing hostage standoff. A short time later, Dykes' underground fort was surrounded by local, county, and state police officers as well as a SWAT team and paramedic crews. FBI hostage negotiators also responded to the scene. Officers blocked-off several roads in the area.

     The abducted boy's parents were doubly concerned because the child required medication that had to be taken daily. At one point, officers who were talking to Dykes through a PVC pipe dropped the boy's medication into the bunker through the pipe. According to reports, Dykes has assured the hostage negotiators that the child has not been injured.

     On Thursday, some 36 hours into the standoff, a hostage negotiator said, "Give up. You need to exit the shelter, put down any weapons you might have and approach the police. This isn't going to end itself. You need to come out and talk to us. We are not going away."

     On Monday, February 4, 2013 at three in the afternoon, FBI agents stormed the bunker, killed the hostage taker, and rescued the boy. The hostage negotiators, while they were unable to talk Dykes out of the storm shelter, kept the boy alive long enough for Dykes to be worn down then killed. 

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Prosecutor Alex Hunter's Courageous Decision in the JonBenet Ramsey Murder Case

     An early morning emergency call that a child had been kidnapped brought a pair of Boulder, Colorado police officers to John and Patsy Ramsey's three-story house on December 26, 1996. Patsy Ramsey informed the officers that she had found a handwritten ransom note inside the house on the stairway. Fearing that her 6-year-old daughter, JonBenet, had been kidnapped for ransom, she had called 911. After a cursory sweep of the 15-room dwelling, the patrol officers called for assistance.

     During the next two hours, amid friends and relatives who had come to console the family, police set up wiretap and recording equipment to monitor negotiations with the kidnappers. At one point in the afternoon, Boulder detective Linda Arndt asked John Ramsey to look around the house for "anything unusual." Thirty minutes later, he and one of his friends discovered JonBenet's body in a small basement room. Her mouth had been sealed with duct tape, and she had lengths of white rope around her neck and right wrist. The rope around her neck was tied to what looked like the handle of a paintbrush.

     In the months following the murder, the police, prosecutors, media, and most Americans believed that someone in the family had killed the tiny beauty queen. But if this were the case, then who had written the two and a half page ransom note? Forensic document examiners eliminated John Ramsey as the ransom note writer, and all but one handwriting expert concluded that Patsy Ramsey had probably not authored the ransom document. Evidence also surfaced that an intruder could have entered the house through a broken basement window.

     On June 14, 2006, after a 13-year battle with ovarian cancer, Patsy Ramsey died at the age of 49. John Ramsey later remarried.

     Since Boulder County District Attorney Alex Hunter's announcement in 1999 that his office would not prosecute the Ramseys due to lack of evidence, the story has been that the grand jury looking into the murder agreed with the prosecutor's assessment. But on January 28, 2013, according to ABC News reportage, while the grand jury didn't find sufficient evidence to charge the Ramseys with murder, grand jurors did find enough evidence to indict the parents for child abuse that resulted in the victim's death. Notwithstanding this grand jury finding, Alex Hunter stood firm in his decision not to prosecute these parents.

     According to the Ramsey family attorney Lyn Wood, Alex Hunter was "a hero who wisely avoided a miscarriage of justice." Most true crime pundits familiar with the Ramsey case, myself included, agree with attorney Wood. The Ramseys had not only been victimized by their daughter's killer, they were victims of a tabloid-like media that falsely portrayed them as child murders.

     The Ramsey case is still officially open, but investigators do not appear close to solving the murder. JonBenet would have turned 23 this year.  

Monday, January 28, 2013

Leroy Kuffel: A Police Pension For a Sex Offrender

     Round Lake Beach is a northern Illinois town of 26,000 on the Wisconsin state line. In 2009, Round Lake Beach police officer Leroy Kuffel, a 29-year veteran of the force, got into serious trouble. In February and March of that year, the 52-year-old cop had sex with his son's ex-girlfriend. She was sixteen. Following his arrest, Kuffel admitted giving the teen gifts, and taking her out to dinner, but he denied have sexual relations with the minor.

     In January 2010, following a three-day trial in a Lake County court, the jury found Kuffel guilty of aggravated criminal sexual abuse. (Had the girl been a few months younger, he could have been charged with statutory rape.) The state prosecutor recommended that Kuffel be sentenced up to seven years in prison. The defendant's attorney pushed for a probated sentence. In speaking to the court, Kuffel apologized for what he called "bad decisions."

     Sentencing-wise, Judge Daniel Shanes took the middle ground. He sentenced Kuffel to sixty days in the county jail followed by thirty months of nighttime incarceration at a halfway house where the inmate would be allowed to work during the day. The judge also ordered the ex-police officer to seek sex offender treatment. (Since Kuffel considered his relationship with the minor nothing more than a "bad decision," I'm not sure what good this would do.) At the conclusion of the thirty-month work-release program, Kuffel would be under probation for three years.

     On September 20, 2009, while working during the day and spending nights in custody, Kuffel began receiving his $48, 000 a year police pension. Following a legal challenge by Round Lake Beach municipal authorities, the town's mayor, in January 2013, announced that Illinois state law required that Kuffel, notwithstanding his sex offense conviction, be paid his police pension.

     Under Illinois law, no pension benefits will be paid to a retired police officer convicted of any felony relating to, arising from, or in connection with his law enforcement job. Since Officer Kuffel had been off-duty when he had sex with the minor, the above law did not apply to him. (One could argue that Kuffel's victim might have been intimidated or impressed by the fact he was a cop.) Had Kuffel, while off-duty, murdered his wife, under Illinois law, he'd still be eligible for his pension benefits.

     By 2013, Kuffel's increased monthly pension benefits were based on an annual  income of $53,709. When the ex-cop turns 65, he'll rake in $70,079 a year. If Kuffel lives to the year 2026, he will have received, in total pension benefits (not including health care), more than $1 million. Not bad for a registered sex offender.

Nicholas Tankersley: The Peep-Show Jailer

     Small town jail guards, while near the bottom of the criminal justice hierarchy, wield power and control over inmates temporarily housed in county lock-ups. It's not easy recruiting qualified corrections officers willing to work for peanuts among drunks, drug addicts, petty thieves, burglars, sex offenders, and inmates awaiting trial for aggravated assault, rape, and criminal homicide. Most people would find working in a jail disgusting and depressing.

     Nicholas Tankersley worked the midnight-to-eight shift at the Morgan County Jail in Martinsville, Indiana. In early January 2013, a former female inmate of this central Indiana lock-up wrote a letter to a corrections official regarding the 21-year-old night guard. According to the complainant, Tankersley, in exchange for jailhouse favors, had asked a dozen or so female inmates to pose naked for him.

     The former inmate's letter led to an internal investigation which revealed that Tankersley, during the period November 15, 2012 to January 11, 2013, had rewarded several female inmates who sexually exposed themselves, with extra sheets, pens, batteries, oranges, and other items. A Morgan County inmate, in exchange for one of Tankersley's favors, allegedly let him fondle her.

     After confessing to several of these expose-yourself-for-favor incidents, Tankersley, on January 17, 2013, was fired, arrested, and charged with sexual battery and official misconduct. If convicted, he could receive up to three years in prison for each of these felonies.

     Investigators learned that Tankersley had "friended" several former female inmates on his Facebook page. When his wife found out about this, she ordered him to "unfriend" these women.

     Following his arrest, Tankersley, who goes by the name "Tank," was held in a neighboring county jail. A public defender has been assigned his case. The ex-jailer has pleaded not guilty to all charges. (I expect a plea bargain will be worked out in this case.) 

Sunday, January 27, 2013

A Fear of Kids, Banning Red Pens, Stupid Anti-Bullying Advice, and the Phantom Firearm: Are Teachers Losing Their Minds?

Marie Waltherr-Willard's Fear of Kids

     Marie Waltherr-Willard, a Spanish/French teacher, began teaching French in 1976 at Mariemont High School in Cincinnati, Ohio. In 2009, after 33 years at the high school, the language teacher was transferred against her wishes to a middle-school where she had to teach 7th and 8th graders Spanish. The move took place after the high school French program went online.

     In the middle of the 2010-2011 school year, Waltherr-Willard abruptly retired and began receiving her monthly pension payments based on an annual retirement income of $70,000. In June 2012, the retired teacher filed a federal lawsuit against the school district under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Her disability: a pathological fear of young children, a phobia she said had been diagnosed in 1991.  The former teacher claimed that by forcing her to teach middle-schoolers, her employers had discriminated against her by refusing to recognize and take into consideration her disability. The plaintiff's attorney claims that, as a result of her forced early retirement, his client has lost $100,000 in potential income.

     According to the plaintiff, being around middle-school school kids had shot her blood pressure up to stroke levels. Moreover, the little buggers pushed her into a state of general anxiety, mental anguish, and gastrointestinal illness. The civil trial is scheduled for February 2014. (While I personally consider this legal action frivolous, the Cincinnati school district will probably end up settling this case out of court. School systems have a fear of civil trials.)

The Red Pen Alert: Abusive Grading

     The idea that marking up a student's test or homework with red ink upsets kids who don't appreciate criticism, isn't new. (Ever since Mister Rogers started telling children that they were all extremely special, most of them can't handle the sad truth that 90 percent of us, on a good day, are ordinary.) Since 2008, hundreds of schools across the country have replaced the insidious red grading pencils and pens with writing instruments that produce colors that are less aggressive and mean. (I can't imagine a kid who got an F on a test feeling better about himself because the F is written in a nice shade of blue.)

     Education researchers at the University of Colorado recently published a study that confirms the theory that marking up a kid's work in red as opposed to more neutral colors causes unnecessary anger and embarrassment. Red ink splashed all over a paper supposedly makes the lousy student feel more harshly criticized. Assuming this is true, so what? What's wrong with criticism with a little zip? If students are offended by red ink, they can solve the problem by doing better work. (Maybe the geniuses at the University of Colorado should come up with strategies for that.) I'd like to get my hands on that study, and in red ink, write: "You people are idiots?" (Is that too harsh?)

Radical Anti-Bullying Advice From a Knucklehead

     Gabrielle Jackson is a sixth grader at the Central Middle School in Moline Acres not far from St. Louis, Missouri. Gabrielle complained to her mother, Tammie Jackson, that bullies at school were making lewd and insensitive comments regarding her large bust. Tammie called the school district to report the sexual harassment of her daughter and was not pleased with the response to her complaint. Over the phone, an unidentified employee of the school district suggested that the 13-year-old student have her breasts surgically reduced. Presumably the anti-bullying expert didn't provide this mother specifics regarding just how small the breasts would have to be to disinterest bullies. Moreover, if the plastic surgeon got carried away and made them too small, bullies might exploit her flat-chestedness.

Zero Tolerance for Paper Guns

     On January 22, 2013, Melody Valentin, a fifth grader in a Philadelphia elementary school, inadvertently took a folded piece of paper to school that roughly resembled a handgun. Her grandfather had fashioned the toy weapon. When Melody realized what she had brought to school, she threw the paper gun into a classroom trash can. A fellow student who witnessed Melody's attempt to ditch the contraband, squealed. The teacher seized the evidence, hauled the offender to the front of the class, and gave her hell for being so reckless with all of their lives. Later that night, the distraught girl's mother found her daughter in the bathroom crying. As a result of the negative attention, some of her classmates were calling her a murderer.

     This example of schoolhouse hysteria comes on the heels of an incident in Mount Carmel, Pennsylvania involving a pre-schooler suspended for threatening to shoot a playmate with her pink Hello Kitty soap bubble gun. School officers called the incident a "terroristic threat." (See: "The Kindergarten Terrorist: The Hello Kitty Soap Bubble Conspiracy," January 22, 2013.)

     I'm afraid these school employees are so stupid they are immune from ridicule and embarrassment. (Still, I try.) Obviously there are bright, competent elementary and middle-school teachers and administrators, but just how outnumbered are they by the fools and idiots?

     

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Pest Exterminator Jason Smith Charged with Strangling and Burning Dr. Melissa Ketunuti to Death in Her Philadelphia Town House

     Dr. Melissa Ketunuti, a 35-year-old pediatrician, was a second-year infectious disease fellow and researcher at the University of Pennsylvania's Perelman School of Medicine in downtown Philadelphia. The Thailand native lived in a central city town house not far from the hospital. Except for her 6-year-old pit bull/lab mix Pooch, she lived alone. Dr. Ketunuti had resided at this address for three years, and was in the process of rehabilitating the dwelling.

     On Monday, January 21, Dr. Ketunuti left her town house around nine in the morning to run some errands. She planned to return to her home at ten-fifty to meet with an exterminator with a pest-control company headquartered in Newtown, Pennsylvania. Dr. Ketunuti was having mice problems. When the doctor's dog walker came to the house to pick up Pooch at twelve-thirty, she smelled smoke, and upon investigation, discovered Dr. Ketuniti dead in her basement. The terrified dog walker called 911.

     Homicide detectives and crime scene technicians arrived at the town house to find a still smoldering, badly burned corpse. The victim's face had been so severely charred by the fire it was unrecognizable. The fully dressed woman was lying face-down and had been hogtied with her wrists and ankles bound behind her back. The killer had left a length of cordage around the victim's neck suggesting that before being set on fire, she had been strangled.

     Based on the dead woman's apparel and other points of identity, investigators assumed that the murdered woman in the basement was Dr. Melissa Ketunuti. Detectives found no signs of forced entry, or indications of a sexual assault. Because it didn't appear than anything had been taken from the premises, the killer had not been motivated by theft.

     As investigators began tracing the victim's activities that morning, and gathering footage from neighborhood surveillance cameras, the city of Philadelphia posted a $20,000 reward for information leading to the identification and arrest of this murderer. The next day, a local community group added $15,000 to the incentive.

     On Wednesday, January 23, homicide investigators were in Levittown, Pennsylvania, a sprawling suburban Bucks County community 25 miles northeast of Philadelphia. The officers were in town questioning a 37-year-old pest-control subcontractor named Jason Smith. Smith lived in a powder-blue, two story house surrounded by a white picket fence still displaying Christmas decorations. The exterminator lived there with his girlfriend, their young daughter, and the girlfriend's stepfather.

     Surveillance camera footage in Ketunuti's neighborhood showed Smith, who had been scheduled for a service call at the murder victim's house that morning, walking toward the doctor's town house at ten-fifty. (The house itself was off-camera.) The tall, thin exterminator was wearing a NorthFace jacket and work gloves, and carried a satchel. Just before noon, Smith was video-recorded driving his silver Ford F-150 pickup out of the neighborhood. Before leaving, he circled the block two times. While in Levittown, officers searched Smith's house, his trash, and his truck. Investigators took a computer out of the dwelling, and from the Ford F-150, seized a jacket and a pair of work gloves.

     The next day at nine o'clock in the evening, detectives returned to Levittown to arrest Jason Smith. They took him into custody as he, his girlfriend, and their daughter watched "American Idol." Charged with first degree murder, arson, abuse of corpse, and risking a catastrophe (burning down the neighborhood), Smith was locked up and held without bail.  During the arrest, the family's dog, a boxer named Tyson,  charged the arresting officers and had to be shot dead.

     According to a statement released by a Philadelphia law enforcement spokesperson, Smith and Ketunuti, while in the doctor's basement, got into some kind of argument. The suspect punched her to the floor, jumped on top or her, and used a length of rope to strangle her to death. In an effort to destroy physical evidence that might link him to the body, Smith set fire to the victim's clothing with his lighter. (The body contained no traces of an accelerant.)

     Jason Smith, except for a 2004 DUI conviction, has no criminal record. He told his interrogators that he is addicted to prescription painkillers, and that when arguing with the pest-control customer in her basement, he "snapped." According to Smith, when the doctor "belittled" him, he flew into a murderous rage.

     A friend of the suspect, in speaking to ABC News, revealed that Smith, as a child, had a difficult time controlling his anger. The friend remembers that in his childhood Smith had problems with pyromania.

     In April 2013, at a preliminary hearing before Philadelphia Municipal Judge Teresa Carr Deni, homicide detective Edward Tolliver read Jason Smith's murder confession into the record. According to Detective Henry Glenn, the victim, at the time of her violent death, was wearing riding boots. Dr. Ketunuti's hand and feet had been tied behind her with a leather strap from horse gear. Smith, in his confession, told the detectives that he had bound the victim's ankles with a riding stirrup.

     After murdering Dr. Ketunuti in her home, Smith drove to another pest extermination job in New Jersey.

     At the preliminary hearing, Smith's attorneys, James A. Funt and Marc Bookman, did not contest the murder charge but asked the judge to dismiss the arson count because their client had not intended to burn down the building.  

Friday, January 25, 2013

Who Let Eric Lee Ramsey Let Out of Prison Early?

     In 2007, after being convicted of assault with intent to do great bodily harm, an Isabella County judge in central Michigan sentenced Erie Lee Ramsey to five to fifteen years behind bars. The 25-year-old felon from Mount Pleasant, a town 120 miles northwest of Detroit, had previous felony convictions for destruction of police property, resisting arrest, and assault with a dangerous weapon. Ramsey had proven himself to be a violent, lawless person unfit for life outside of prison.

     In the summer of 2012, a Michigan parole board set this violent man free after he had served his minimum sentence of five years. During his relatively short prison stretch, Ramsey had been cited for inmate misconduct six times. Putting this prisoner back into society turned out to be a stupid, disastrous decision by so-called experts in the corrections field.

     At nine-thirty on the night of January 16, 2013, Eric Ramsey drove his pickup onto the campus of Central Michigan University. He arrived on campus with the intent of abducting, raping, and murdering the first vulnerable woman who crossed his path. Outside the Student Activity Center, Ramsey approached a senior from Grand Rapids as she walked toward her car. He stuck a BB handgun into the victim's face, opened the door to her 2003 Ford Escape, and ordered her into the vehicle. Ramsey climbed in behind the wheel, and drove the abductee to his house in Mount Pleasant where he bound her with tape and raped her.

     Later that night, Ramsey forced the terrified college student back into her car. He also placed  two cans of gasoline in the vehicle, and drove north out of Mount Pleasant. When they reached nearby Lincoln Township, Ramsey informed his victim that he was going to kill her. (I presume he intended to use the gasoline to torch the Ford Escape with her in it.) Moments after Ramsey announced his plan to murder his captive, she opened her back passenger seat door and rolled out of the moving vehicle.

     The young woman, not seriously injured from her vehicular escape, jumped to her feet and ran to the closest house where she pounded on the door and screamed for help. A 14-year-old boy, at home with his 11-year-old sister and a younger brother who was two, let the frantic woman into their dwelling. As the victim used the teenager's cellphone to call 911, he armed himself with a hunting knife.

     Eric Ramsey climbed out of the Ford Escape, grabbed the two cans of gasoline, and walked up to the house occupied by the victim and the boy who had taken her in. Using the gasoline as an accelerant, Ramsey set fire to the place, climbed back into the victim's car, and drove off. Shortly after Ramsey torched the house, the occupants' parent arrive home, and using an extinguisher, doused the small blaze.

     Just after midnight, a Michigan State Police officer spotted Ramsey and the Ford Escape in Gaylord, an Otsego County town north of Mount Pleasant. Ramsey intentionally drove his victim's car into the state patrol vehicle, veered off onto a field, jumped out of the damaged vehicle, and ran. In Gaylord, Ramsey stole a Ford F-350 sanitation truck, rammed another state police car, and continued north into Crawford County. Near the town of Fredric about 70 miles north of Mount Pleasant, Ramsey plowed the city garbage truck into a police car driven by a Crawford County sheriff's deputy. Just before climbing out of the sanitation vehicle, Ramsey posted the following message on his Facebook page: "Well folks, I'm about to be shot." (In the era of social media, even fleeing felons find time to post real-time messages. It's a strange world.)

     Ramsey had correctly predicted his fate. The Crawford County Deputy whose car Ramsey had disabled, shot him dead.

     Eric Lee Ramsey was not some drug-addled mental case who flipped-out and embarked on a criminal rampage. He had carried out a planned kidnapping and rape of a total stranger. Had this young woman not escaped, he would have murdered her and set her body on fire. If this wasn't bad enough, the 30-year-old felon had set fire to a house occupied by four people, and tried to kill three police officers.

     In my opinion, members of the parole board who let this dangerous man out of prison ten years early are responsible for the college student's abduction and rape. It's a miracle she is alive, and that holds true for the three police officers Ramsey crashed into. Under the circumstances, it's not a bad thing that Ramsey is dead. That's what he wanted, and he got what he deserved. 

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Sonja Farak and Annie Dookhan: Crime Lab Rogues

     Last August, authorities in Massachusetts shut down the state crime lab in Jamaica Plain. A month later, state police officers arrested Annie Dookhan on charges related to the forensic chemist's deliberate mishandling of drug evidence, and her failure to follow lab testing protocols. During her tenure at the Jamaica Plain lab, Dookhan had handled more than 50,000 drug samples involving some 34,000 defendants. Now all of these cases are in jeopardy.

     On January 20, 2013, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley announced that state police officers had arrested forensic chemist Sonja Farak. The 35-year-old had been a drug analyst at the state lab in Amherst. The officers arrested Farak at her home in Northhampton on charges she had stolen cocaine and heroin from evidence she had certified. The forensic chemist had replaced the stolen contraband with counterfeit substances. Farak, a state chemist since 2002, was held on $75,000 bail pending her arraignment.

     Two weeks before Farak's arrest, federal inspectors had given the Amherst lab a clean bill of health. After the closing of the Jamaica Plain and Amherst facilities, police and prosecutors in Massachusetts are left with the crime lab in Sudbury, the only laboratory still open in the state.

     In 2012, crime laboratory auditors reported serious quality control problems in the Michigan state system as well as in labs in St. Paul, Minnesota, Houston, Texas, Raleigh, North Carolina, Hartford, Connecticut, Los Angeles and New York City. Over the past ten years, dozens of crime labs across the country lost their accreditation or were temporarily closed. These crime lab failures represent a serious breakdown in American forensic science.

     While there has been some budget cutting that affects street policing, SWAT operations, anti-terrorism programs, and drug enforcement, crime labs have suffered the most from economic austerity. The lack of adequate crime lab funding has created personnel shortages, diminished training, physical plant deterioration, and attenuated administrative oversight.

     The crime lab scandals in Massachusetts illustrate how much damage a couple of rogue forensic practitioners can inflict on a criminal justice system overwhelmed by the government's massive war on drugs.  

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Kindergarten Terrorist: The Hello Kitty Soap Bubble Conspiracy

    Picture ten thousand elementary school teachers and administrators being shaken through a massive intelligence strainer with openings just large enough for people with IQs over 80 to fall through. When imagining the three or four public educators who remain in the big sieve, think of the drooling idiots who run the kindergarten program at the Mount Carmel Area School District 88 miles northwest of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The trouble is, you can't picture these people because on the surface they look and act like folks who have average intelligence and common sense. One would assume, that because these educators are in positions of authority over children, they can be trusted not to make mind-bogglingly stupid decisions. In public education, this is an invalid assumption.

     On January 10, 2013, as a five-year-old Mount Carmel kindergarten student and her classmates waited for their school bus, she and another girl her age were having a pre-schooler type conversation. One of the kids said that when she and her friend got home from kindergarten that day, she intended to shoot her playmate with her pink-colored Hello Kitty gun, a toy in the general shape of a firearm that blows soapy bubbles. According to media reports, a "school official" overheard the insidious reference to gun violence and immediately searched the kid's backpack for the bubble-firing weapon. (I'd like to know who this "school official" was. Are we talking about a bus driver, bus monitor, school guard, or some undercover adult operative?) As it turned out, the little girl was unarmed. But she wasn't out of the woods.

     The next day, the owner of the Hello Kitty toy and the would-be target of the bubble assault, were interrogated by "school officials." (I presume the Hello Kitty grilling was conducted by the elementary school principal and other education administrators experienced in interrogating terrorist suspects. I doubt these schoolhouse inquisitors warned the little girl her Miranda rights.)  The interrogators left the confused and frightened kid in tears. One of the poor girl's teachers told the pint-sized suspect that the police might get involved in her case. (It's a good thing the teacher didn't tell the girl the ATF or the FBI could enter the investigation.)

     The five-year-old must have spilled her guts because someone in position of elementary school authority suspended the kindergarten kid ten days for making a "terroristic threat." (I am not kidding.) The Hello Kitty suspect was also ordered to undergo a psychological evaluation. (Had the undercover school bus operative caught this girl in actual possession of the Hello Kitty contraband, who knows what they would have done with her? I can hear her parents breaking the news that because she's on the no-fly list, Disneyland is out of the question.)

     This kindergarten student's stunned family acquired the services of an attorney who managed to get the school suspension reduced from ten days to two days. The psychologist brought in to profile the girl declared the kid perfectly normal. (Of course after this ordeal, who knows how she'll turn out.) The lawyer will be meeting with these elementary school fascists in hopes of getting the girl's record expunged. (Record? What record? Is she going to be on some kind of terrorist registry? Will she be prohibited from possessing a Pink Kitty? Will Joe Biden ban this toy?)

     The Mount Carmel school officials responsible for this little girl's abuse should be fired, and banned from teaching for life. They are the ones who need psychological evaluations. I would also suggest brain scans for  possible physiological explanations for their pathological overreactions. If these school safety zealots are allowed to keep their jobs, kids who possess squirt guns, pistols that shoot ping-pong balls, nurf bullets, and rubber-bands, could be targeted next. If any of the people behind this alarming fiasco are teachers, I would recommend removing staple and glue guns from their classrooms. (Can you imagine what a junior-terrorist could do with staples and glue? Moreover, I'd keep the duct-tape under lock and key.)



     

Tyrik S. Haynes: Nutcase With a Knife

     In December 2012, Tyrik S. Haynes, a disturbed 19-year-old from Middletown Township, New Jersey, set fire to a cat trapped in a carrying case, then dumped its charred remains in the woods. After torching the animal, Haynes went to a local Petco store where he tried to adopt another cat to torture and kill.

     On December 24, 2012, Victor Amato, chief of the Monmouth County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, filed a criminal complaint against Tyrik Haynes. (One can only image what's in this  young man's juvenile file. Youngsters who set animals on fire are often mentally slow misfits with alcoholic parents and histories of erotic fire-setting. These are people you don't want living in your neighborhood.)

     If convicted of animal cruelty, a judge could sentence Haynes up to six months in jail. (The problem with cases like this is that corrections administrators don't want these people in their lock-ups.) Following his arrest, Haynes posted his bail and was released from custody.

     On Monday afternoon, January 14, 2013 at three o'clock, Tyrik Haynes was loitering inside a Bed Bath and Beyond franchise not far from his favorite Petco store. For reasons beyond comprehension, Haynes pulled out a knife and stabbed 29-year-old Kerri Dalton at least a dozen times. The victim, from Keansburg, New Jersey, was pushing a stroller containing her five-month-old baby. Parmedics rushed Dalton to the Jersey Shore University Medical Center. She is expected to survive her wounds. The victim's baby was not hurt in the bloody attack. The knife-wielding assailant and his victim were total strangers.

     Police officers, shortly after the random, senseless assault, placed Tyrik Haynes back into the Monmouth County Jail. This time his bail was set at $1 million. Haynes has been charged with attempted murder, child endangerment, and possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose.

     Politicians and criminal justice pundits can talk all day about gun control and other irrelevant, window-dressing anti-violence measures. Since we can't ban knives, or make killing cats criminal homicide, we are left with the question of how to prevent people like Tyrik Haynes from randomly stabbing total strangers in public places. Because there is nothing the police can do to prevent crimes like this, politicians avoid talking about pathologically violent criminals who cannot be deterred or rehabilitated. No politician wants to tell voters that no public place is safe from people like Tyrik Haynes. 

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Sergei Filin: Bad Blood at the Bolshoi Ballet

     In Russia, they take ballet very seriously, perhaps too seriously. One would assume that the Bolshoi, the world's largest and most prestigious ballet company, would be one place in this corrupt, crime-ridden country immune from criminal violence. But this is not the case. Professional and artistic rivalry in the Bolshoi world of dance is intense, and vicious. (Being threatened and harassed by a ballet dancer is like being shot by a gun-control activist.)

     Sergei Filin started dancing at the famous Moscow theater in 1988. He left the Bolshoi in 2007, returning in March 2011 as the artistic director of the ballet company. Filin's predecessor, Gennady Yanin, the target of threats and harassment during his tumultuous tenure, had to step down after an artistic rival posted erotic photographs of him on the Internet. There have also been incidents of performance sabotage including an alarm clock going off in the audience during a particular scene; a dead cat being tossed on stage in lieu of flowers; needles inserted into costumes; and broken glass planted in the tip of toeshoes.

     It seems the artistic director of the Bolshoi, like the head of a Mafia family, is in constant danger of being unseated by a jealous, power-hungry challenger. Who would have guessed that behind the scenes, these world-class ballet dancers were Tony Sopranos in tights?

     Shortly after assuming his role as artistic director, Sergei Filin became embroiled in a variety of ballet disputes and feuds. One of the performers he crossed swords with was Nikolai Tsiskaridze, a famous principal dancer. In December 2012, someone scratched-up Filin's car, slashed his tires, and hacked into his email account. The artistic director's tormentor/stalker also posted a derogatory Facebook page under Filin's name.

     The harassment became so intense, friends of the 42-year-old Bolshoi director recommended that he hire a private bodyguard. (A big business in Moscow.) Filin, believing that the intimidation tactics would not become physical, rejected the suggestion.

     At eleven o'clock Thursday night, January 16, 2013, when Sergei Filin opened the gate to his central Moscow residence, someone called out his name. A man wearing a face-mask emerged from the darkness carrying a bottle of acid which he threw into the artistic director's eyes. After the attack, the masked assailant fled the scene on foot.

     The acid caused third-degree burns on Filin's face, and possibly destroyed his sight. There are plans to send him to Belgium for treatment, a process that could take up to six months. Police investigators in Moscow are working off the theory that the assault was work-related. 

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Nouel Alba and the Newtown Shooting Swindle

     Politicians aren't the only people who know how to take advantage of a crisis. Swindlers are good at it, too. (Many politicians are swindlers, but that's another story.) On December 14, 2012, shortly after Adam Lanza shot and killed twenty students in the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, Nouel Alba jumped into action.

     The 37-year-old resident of The Bronx, New York, using the Internet handle Victorian Glam Fairys, posted the following on her Facebook page: "All this killing and shooting...is just scary. Praying for all those families and all the kids who are affected (sic) by this today. My heart goes out to all those innocent kids." Fifteen minutes later, at one-thirty on the afternoon of the massacre, Alba allegedly wrote that her nephew, a 6-year-old named Noah Pozner, was one of the victims. (Pozner, an actual victim of the mass murder, was not related to Alba.) The next day, Alba posted a message regarding how donors could send money to a Paypal account to help the boy's family pay for his funeral. Several people donated money to Alba's phony funeral fund.

     On December 19, 2012, in an interview on CNN's TV news show "AC360," Alba denied involvement in the Newtown swindle. In response to her denial, the CNN interviewer said, "This has your email on it. Right there. This is about Noah Pozner's funeral."

     "I never sent that," alba replied. On December 27, FBI agents took Alba into custody.

     Alba, in speaking to a donor who had contacted her by phone, allegedly claimed to have helped identify her nephew's body at the elementary school.

     A federal grand jury sitting in Meriden, Connecticut, on January 15, 2013, indicted Nouel Alba of one count of making a false statement to the FBI. (She denied using her Facebook account to falsely claim to be the Newtown victim's aunt, and to solicit donations on this false pretense.) The charge carries a maximum term of five years in prison, and a fine up to $250,000.

     Nouel Alba is free on $50.000 bond.

     

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The William and Christopher Cormier Murder Case

     Sean Dugas was an active participant in the community of enthusiasts devoted to the role-playing fantasy game, "Magic: The Gathering," a more violent version of "Dungeons & Dragons." The 30-year-old former reporter with the Pensacola Journal News shared a house in Pensacola with 31-year-old twins William and Christopher Cormier. At one time, the brothers had been part of the so-called "Magic community," but had lost interest.

     According to the police version of events, during the early morning hours of August 27, 2012, the Cormier twins murdered Sean Dugas by bludgeoning him with a hard object. Motivated by the intent to steal Dugas' $25,000 to $100,000 collection of Magic game cards, the murder took place in the rented Pensacola dwelling.

     Later on the morning of Sean Dugas' death, his girlfriend, with whom he had made plans to have lunch, stopped by his house. She knocked on the door, and when no one answered, left a note. Over the next couple of days, Dugas did not return his girlfriend's phone calls or text messages.

     On September 7, 2012, Dugas' girlfriend returned to his house to find it unoccupied and, except for a TV set, empty. She couldn't believe Dugas had moved out of the house without telling her. According to a neighbor, two men, four days earlier, had been at the house with a U-Haul truck. The girlfriend, after another week of not hearing from Dugas, reported him missing.

     On September 3, 2012, the Cormier twins, after buying a large plastic container at Walmart for Dugas' body, loaded up the U-Haul truck. Later that day they rolled up to their father's house in Winder, Georgia, a small town 45 miles northeast of Atlanta. They dug a hole in their father's backyard, lowered in the plastic container holding Dugas' body, then filled the grave with concrete. (The brothers told their father they had buried a dog.)

     Police investigators in Pensacola learned that the Cormier twins had sold Magic fantasy cards in Florida, Tennessee, and Georgia. People who knew Dugas told the police that he had recently spoken of moving to Georgia with William and Christopher Cormier.

     On October 8, 2012, detectives in Pensacola asked the police in Winder to locate the twins. At the Cormier house, officers noticed the fresh digging in the backyard. Shortly thereafter, a crew unearthed Dugas' concrete entombed remains.

     Police arrested the Cormier brothers the day the remains were found. They were charged with concealing the death of another. Two days later, after a forensic pathologist identified Dugas' body through dental charts and facial bone CT scans, a Florida prosecutor in Pensacola charged the defendants with murder. Pending extradition to Florida, the brothers were held, without bail, in separate Georgia jails.

     In February 2014, the Cormier twins, in separate Pensacola murder trials, were found guilty as charged. In William's case, the jury only deliberated thirty minutes before reaching their verdict. The judge sentenced William Cormier to life without parole. His brother received a sentence of twenty-five years. 

Monday, January 14, 2013

Dieter Heinz Werner and Jason Earl Dean: Two Stalkers, Different Sentences

The Mercedes Driving Tire Slasher

     In January 2010, Jessica (not the victim's real name) broke up with Dieter Heinz Werner, her 68-year-old boyfriend. Shortly after that, someone slashed her tires in the parking lot of a Houston, Texas movie complex. A month later, Jessica found a GPS tracking device attached to the undercarriage of her car. She suspected Werner, who had been bothering her with text messages and phone calls, of slashing her tires, and using the GPS device to keep track of her whereabouts.

     That spring, the ex-boyfriend continued his harassment by sending Jessica hundreds of text messages. On April 3, 2010, he sent her a text which read: "Should have answered the phone and not ignored me again. Pissed me off. Now I show you." That day, after following her to a grocery store, Werner texted: "Pissed me off when I saw you at Krogers and you turned your head. I would never treat you like that."

     On April 15, a witness at the same movie complex parking lot saw an elderly white man slashing someone's car tires with a pocketknife. The witness jotted down the license number to the vandal's Mercedes convertible. The vehicle was registered to Dieter Heinz Werner. A couple of weeks later, a Harris County prosecutor charged Werner with stalking, a third degree felony. Werner was held without bond for a few days until a judge issued a protection order against the accused stalker. After being served with the restraining order, Werner paid his $75,000 bond and was released.

     In late 2011, Dieter Werner was found guilty of the stalking offense. A few months later, the judge sentenced him to ten years in prison, the maximum penalty for a third degree felony. But in 2012, before Werner was transferred out of the Harris County Jail into the state prison system, he was paroled. After serving about a year behind bars, the convicted stalker walked free.

     According to Texas corrections authorities, Werner had benefited from a so-called "parole in absentia." (Texas parole boards in the 1980s had issued these get-out-of prison passes when the state prison system couldn't handle all of the convicted felons.)

     Victims' rights activists, as well as Werner's stalking victim, were outraged. The parole authorities had not even bothered to notify Jessica of her stalker's parole hearing. In Texas and other places, it's a fact that parole boards often do not inform victims when their criminals are released on parole.


The Taco Bell Handcuff Case

     In 2011, in the northern Georgia town of Ringgold, 25-year-old Jason Earl Dean and the 18-year-old girl he had become obsessed with, worked at the local Taco Bell. After Joan (not her real name) told Dean she did not want to go out with him, he continued asking her out for a date. This had gone on for a month. The harassment became so intense she changed shifts at work to get away from him. Undeterred, Dean continued to bother her.

     On the night of August 8, 2011, Dean waited outside Taco Bell until Joan's shift ended. As she walked to her car, he came up to her with a pair of handcuffs which he slapped around her wrist, binding them arm to arm. She screamed for help which brought other employees out of the Taco Bell. Her fellow employees talked Dean into turning Joan free. The police rolled up to the scene shortly thereafter, but Dean had left. A few days later, police officers arrested him on a college campus in nearby Dalton, Georgia. A local prosecutor charged him with stalking and felonious restraint.

     In January 2013, Jason Earl Dean entered a so-called "blind guilty plea" before Judge Ralph Van Pelt. (A blind plea means that no sentencing agreement has been reached between the prosecutor and the defense attorney. The defendant is essentially throwing himself on the mercy of the court.) Judge Van Pelt, showing no mercy for this stalker, sentenced him to four years in prison followed by six years on probation.

    On its face, Judge Van Pelt's sentence seems excessive. Whether or not it is depends on Jason Dean's background. Without knowing who this stalker is, there's no way to evaluate his sentence. But in any case, it appears that this judge does not like stalkers. That, I like.

   
     

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Prison Health Care: Providing the Best For The Worst

     There is something profoundly wrong with a government that provides convicted felons with better health care than it does to sick people who haven't committed crimes against their fellow citizens. Perhaps this is what happens when a criminal justice system is organized around the idea of protecting the defendant. In Massachusetts, for example, a judge recently ordered the state to finance the sex change of a man who had murdered his wife. If Robert Kosilek hadn't strangled his wife to death, taxpayers would not have been forced to pay the cost of changing him into a female.

     In 2005, a judge in California, after determining that prison health in that state was unconstitutionally substandard, granted a so-called "receiver" the power to hire state medical personnel and set their pay levels. In 2004, the prison health care bill cost California taxpayers $1.1 billion. In 2012, the cost of providing California inmates quality health care cost the state $2.3 billion. Between 2005 and 2012, the number of California prison system health care workers--doctors, nurses, dentists, physical therapists, and psychiatrists--jumped from 5,100 to 12,000. The system also employs 1,400 health care paper shufflers.

     In 2011, 44 of California's highest paid employees worked in the prison health care system. A psychiatrist who works at the Salinas Valley State Prison, made $803,271 in 2012. (This shrink must be good.) A prison doctor in northern California made, in 2011, a base salary of $239,572 plus $169,548 in overtime for working nights and weekends. A registered nurse at the High Desert State Prison pulled down $246,000 that year. In bankrupt California, when it comes to health care, nothing is too good for the state's 124,700 state prison inmates. (These prison health care expenses don't cover the tens of thousands of county jail prisoners throughout the state.)

     Since 2006, heroin addicted inmates at Albuquerque's Metropolitan Detention Center, New Mexico's largest jail, have been treated with methadone to ease the trauma of withdrawal. Warden Ramon Rustin, in November 2012, announced that the $10,000-a-month program was too expensive, that the taxpayers of Bernalillo County simply couldn't afford this in-jail drug treatment measure. Rustin, the former warden of the Allegheny County Jail in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with 32 years experience in the corrections field, said he didn't believe the costly program helped drug-addicted inmates stay out of jail once they were released.

     A month after Warden Rustin's effort to save the county serious money, Bernalillo County Commissioners ordered him to extend the program two months during which time a study of its effectiveness would be conducted. (This is typical government. In the private sector, studies of cost-effectiveness are ongoing, and if a measure wastes money, it's immediately cut.) Bernalillo County also receives $200,000 a year from the state to help fund its methadone program.

     When a person commits a crime that is serious enough to land him in prison, any health care he receives while in custody should be treated as a privilege rather than a constitutional right. Simple rule: If you want good health care, don't murder anyone, rob a store, break into a home, beat your wife and children, or commit a sexual assault. If good health is your priority, exercise, quit smoking, eat right, and stay off drugs and booze. Also, get a job. If you feel the need to switch genders while in prison, fine, but you don't deserve to have law obeying taxpayers foot the bill. In the United States, when it comes to health care, crime pays.  

Friday, January 11, 2013

Murder Rates: Dangerous Places

     When it comes to murder rates, the United States, when compared to the rest of the world, ranks in the middle. Countries that enjoy extremely low homicide rates include Finland, Belgium, United Kingdom, Portugal, and France. European nations with murder rates that exceed America's are: Moldova, Estonia, Lithuania, Ukraine, and Belarus. Other countries with exceptionally high rates of criminal homicide include: Russia, Greenland, Congo, Uganda, Brazil, Costa Rica, and Saint Lucia.

     In the United States, while national homicide rates are no longer in steep decline, they are not dramatically surging. There are cities and towns, however, where the rate of criminal homicide continues to fall significantly. New York City, for example, had 414 criminal homicides in 2012, a 17 percent drop from the previous year. There hasn't been fewer homicides in New York since 1963. (In 1992 there were over two thousand.)

     Last year, Miami, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and St. Louis, cities with traditionally high rates of violent death, experienced declines in their murder rates. High murder towns that in 2012 remained dangerous places to live include Youngstown, Ohio, Camden, New Jersey, Chester, Pennsylvania, Stockton, California, and New Orleans.

     Big, crime-ridden cities that in 2012 saw their murder rates go up significantly include Los Angeles (294 homicides); Chicago (505); Cleveland (197); Philadelphia (331); and Oklahoma City (100).

     Detroit, a town of 706,000 with a history of violent crime dating back to the 1970s when the place was much more populated, and known as the Murder Capital of the United States, had the nation's highest per capita murder rate in 2012. New York City, a metropolis of eight million people, recorded 414 criminal homicides in 2012. There were, by comparison, 411 criminal homicides in the Motor City last year.  In Detroit, a miserable place to live, life continues to be cheap.  

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Amish Mafia: Real Gangsters or Social Misfits?

     Between 1693 and 1697, a Swiss Mennonite bishop named Jakob Ammon broke free of the Mennonites, bestowing his name on his followers--the Amish. Ammon's people fled to North America to escape religious persecution in Europe. They drifted in clusters across the continent, occupying parcels of land in some 26 states, concentrating in central Ohio and eastern Pennsylvania where more than one-quarter of this nation's 250,000 Amish reside.

     The Amish are honest, hardworking people known for their self-sufficiency and simple uniformity of dress. The women wear bonnets, shawls, heavy black shoes, black stockings, and plain, dark-colored dresses. The men grow beards (they do shave their upper lips) and dress in blues and blacks. The most conservative sects, referred to as Old-Order Amish, avoid the use of electricity and do not own motor vehicles or telephones. (Some use phones for business.) Their dwellings are unpretentious, furnished in spartan fashion and do not feature indoor plumbing.

     Members of this male-dominated society refer to those outside their faith as "the English." The Amish worship in clusters of 25 to 30 families led by an ordained elder called the bishop, the spiritual and cultural leader of the group. The bishop's authority is great, and his word, in matters of Amish life, is law.

     The Amish are stoical, keep their feelings to themselves, abhor violence, and loathe publicity. They do not abide departures from their principals of conformity, humility, devotion to God, and detachment from the modern world. Excommunicated transgressors are "shunned," sometimes permanently.

     The Mafia, a criminal syndicate that originated in Sicily, Italy, is a loose affiliation of professional thieves and killers involved in a variety of rackets and vices that include extortion, illegal gambling, drugs, prostitution, loan sharking, arson-for-profit, hijacking, and labor union corruption. A group that claims racketeering sovereignty over a particular territory is called a "family."

     Nothing could be more different than the Mafia and Amish versions of the family. The two subcultures are on the opposite extremes of American society. The Amish are quiet pacifists who shun materialism and conspicuous wealth. Mafia types are violent, vulgar, and ostentatious. The notion that there are Mafia types operating within old-order Amish society is not only shocking, it's hard to believe.

     One of this year's cable TV hits is a docu-series on the Discovery Network called "Amish Mafia." Set in the heart of Lancaster County's Amish country in southeastern Pennsylvania, the show, through reenactments, on-camera interviews, and the interactions of the series' main characters, chronicles the lives and adventures of Lebanon Levi and his three-man crew of Amish Mafioso.

     The star of the series, Lebanon Levi, is a tall, pudgy-faced, clean-shaven, soft-spoken Amish man in his late 20s or early 30s. (I presume he is from Lebanon, Pennsylvania, thus the name. I've never heard of a Mafioso with a name like Chicago Tony, or Brooklyn Paulie.) A roofer by trade who owns local real estate, the unbaptized godfather wears go-to-church Amish garb, and drives around in a Cadillac SUV. He conducts his "Mafia" business behind a desk in his barn.

     The mildly illicit business conducted out of Lebanon Levi's barn includes setting up and collecting "insurance" payments from local Amish businesses. (One owner of an Amish enterprise identified as one of Levi's premium payers has denied making protection payments.) Another source of income involves the operation of so-called "Hut Parties" where Amish and English kids gather, for a fee, to drink, dance, and do whatever. The godfather also organizes a small gambling operation connected to organized softball games.

     Lebanon Levi's bodyguard and right-hand-man is Alvin, a clean-shaven Amish man who dresses like his boss, drives a fancy pickup truck, and poses on camera with a baseball bat. No one can see the godfather without going through Alvin, Levi's most loyal and trusted soldier.

     Jolin, a tattooed Mennonite who drives a Mercedes, and poses a lot with assault rifles and pump-action shotguns, plays the role of enforcer. Notwithstanding his job description, Jolin is rather soft-spoken and mild-mannered. He comes off as too thoughtful to be violent. Like Levi, he has a minor arrest record featuring disorderly conduct type offenses. Like his boss, he has not spent time in jail, and none in prison.

     John, a tough-talking Amish man who spends a good deal of time getting advice from his sister Esther, functions as Levi's errand boy. Humiliated by the fact he has to get around on a foot-scooter, John wants desperately to take on bigger assignments and have access to a car. John wants more power, and to move up in the organization. But first he has to earn Levi's trust. John is also not above discussing, for the TV audience, the possibility of challenging Levi for control of the organization. He seems to have his sister's blessing on this issue. Eventually, by conducting business behind Levi's back, and associating with an Amish hood from Ohio who wants to expand into Pennsylvania, John gets into trouble with his former boss.

     Through his small squad of "Mafia" foot-soldiers, Lebanon Levi mainly functions as the enforcer of the Old-Order Amish code of conduct, an odd role for a man who doesn't even belong to the church. In one episode, Levi's men confront and photograph a high-ranking member of the church who's with a prostitute in a seedy motel. In another segment of the series, Levi's men confront an Old Order Amish man who has been taking advantage of an Amish woman whose husband has abandoned her. A member of Levi's crew, in a third show, visits the mobile home of an English guy involved in a buggy hit-and-run case. When the English fellow doesn't admit wrongdoing, and tells Levi's operative to get the hell off his property, the Amish Mafioso fires a shotgun slug through the windshield of the man's unoccupied parked car.

     It's what Lebanon Levi doesn't do that distinguishes him from a real Mafia leader. He doesn't sell drugs, run prostitutes, fence stolen goods, finance heists, or operate a loan sharking business. Instead of Mafia hits and severe beatings, Levi's men issue stern warnings, do a lot of tough-talking, and pose with high-powered weapons. "Amish Mafia" is not HBO's "The Sopranos."

     "Amish Mafia" is essentially a soap opera featuring four social misfits who aren't Amish, English, or Mafia. Since the show doesn't accurately depict the Amish or organized crime, I'm surprised it's so successful. Given the popularity of "Amish Mafia," next year we may be watching "Amish Housewives." 

Monday, January 7, 2013

The Steubenville Gang-Rape Case

     Steubenville, Ohio, a rust-belt town of 19,000 along the Ohio River across from the West Virginia panhandle, has seen better days. The steel mills are long gone, and what's left is unemployment, an ongoing war on drugs, and violent crime. (Even in its heyday, Steubenville was known as a hotbed of Mafia activity.) The only institution that still energizes and inspires the residents of this decaying, crime-ridden community is its high school football program. Like most people in the upper Ohio Valley, the citizens of this town 40 miles west of Pittsburgh are obsessed with high school football.

     During football season on Friday nights, half the town's population gathers in the 10,000-seat stadium to watch Steubenville Big Red roll over its opponents. The team, featuring 19 coaches, has won nine state championships. It's therefore not surprising that kids who play on the high school football team, as small-town heroes, are treated as privileged citizens. Some would even say that these kids can pretty much get away with anything.

     On the night of August 11, 2012, at the home of a "volunteer coach" (I have no idea what that is), fifty teenagers from several area high schools gathered to celebrate the end of summer and the approach of a new football season. With the beer, vodka, rum, and whisky flowing, several of the young partygoers got predictably drunk. (Drugs may also have been involved.) A 16-year-old Weirton, West Virginia girl, an honor student and athlete who attended a private religious school, allegedly fell victim to booze and lost consciousness.

     The next day, several kids who had attended the party, in their Twitter posts, wrote about the gang-rape of a 16-year-old girl who had passed out drunk. According to these social media messages, members of the Steubenville High football team, over a period of several hours with dozens of partygoers looking on, had fondled and raped the girl as she lay nude and unconscious on the floor.

     At one in the morning of August 14, 2012, two full days after the alleged sexual assaults, the girl's parents reported the crime to the Steubenville Police Department. The delay in reporting meant there would be no physical evidence of rape, or blood tests to establish the victim's intoxication. The parents provided the police with a computer flash drive containing Twitter page references to the sexual assault.

     Steubenville Police Chief William McCafferty, at an August 22 press conference, announced the gang-rape allegations, and asked witnesses to come forward. The chief's request for additional information produced no results. It appeared that no one wanted to say anything that would reflect poorly on the high school football program. The Jefferson County prosecutor, and the local judge who handled juvenile matters, recused themselves from the case due to ties with the football team. As a result, the investigation was turned over to the state attorney general's office.

     Attorney general's office investigators seized 15 cellphones and 2 iPads that contained material that was quite disturbing. In a 12-minute video posted by a partygoer, a teenager is heard joking about the girl's condition, noting that because she wasn't moving while a boy was raping her, she must be dead. This witness, reflecting a state of mind that is stunning in its puerile sociopathy, says, "Is it really rape because you don't know if she wanted to or not? She might have wanted to. That might have been her final wish."

     Investigators were also in possession of a cellphone photograph of two boys carrying a limp girl in a t-shirt and blue shorts by her wrists and ankles. Another cellphone image depicts a nude girl lying on the floor naked. From other social media sources, teenagers are heard bragging about the rape. One kid called the victim "sloppy," and made comments that suggested that some of the boys had urinated on the girl.

     A prosecutor with the state attorney general's office, on August 27, 2012, charged two 16-year-old Steubenville football players with the rape of the girl from Weirton. The police arrested Trent Mays and Ma'lik Richmond. Mays played quarterback, and was a star on the wrestling team. Richmond, besides football, starred in basketball and track. Through their attorneys, both boys claimed they were innocent. (Mays was also charged with disseminating a photograph of a nude minor.) After spending two months in a juvenile detention center, the suspects were placed under house arrest.

     At a probable cause hearing (to establish if the state had enough evidence to take this case to trial) in October 2012, the prosecutor presented three Steubenville high school students who testified against both defendants. According to these witnesses, Mays and Richmond had driven the victim to three other parties that night where she had been raped. Mays had allegedly used his cellphone to videotape himself fondling the girl in the car en route to another party venue. Special prosecutor Marianne Hemmeter told the judge that the victim had been "unresponsive, not in a position of consent, and they [the defendants] knew it. Let's be clear," she said, "they knew she was drunk."

     The judge, based upon the social media evidence, and the probable cause testimony of the three partygoers, bound the case over. The trial is scheduled for February 13, 2013.

     In late December 2012, the activist hacking group Anonymous, injected itself into the case by posting the photograph of the rape victim being carried by the wrists and ankles by two boys. The group also posted the video where male partygoers are heard joking about the alleged assault. Walter Madison, Ma'lik Richmond's attorney, told a CNN correspondent that while his client is one of the boys in the photograph, he does not appear in the video. Madison called the photograph showing Richmond as one of the boys carrying the girl "out of context," and said that the girl in question was not unconscious. The defense attorney, in referring to the hacking group, said, "A right to a fair trial for these young men has been hijacked."

     On January 5, 2013, another incriminating video surfaced on the Web featuring the comments of a Steubenville High School student named Michael Nodianos who is heard saying, "She is so raped right now. There won't be any foreplay for a dead girl. It ain't wet now to be honest. Trust me, I'm a doctor."

     Ma'lik Richmond's attorney, Walter Madison told CNN on January 5 that he plans to file a motion for change of venue. Because the local judge has taken himself out of the case, a judge sitting in Cincinnati will rule on the motion.

     Steubenville city manger Cathy Davison, on the day the video featuring Michael Nodianos became public, held a press conference. Davison announced the formation of a municipal website aimed at combating the perception that "...everyone in Steubenville is acting like the individuals involved in the case. That we are a community that is run by football. That is not the case." (I find it interesting that the city manager, instead of condemning the video-recorded behavior of the partygoers, is mainly concerned about the image of the town. This case should be about the alleged crime, and the attitude of the teenagers who witnessed and may have participated in the rape. The hell with the town. The focus should be about what's wrong with these kids? Are we producing a generation of moral zombies?)

     The Steubenville football scandal has divided the town into two camps: Big Red fans intensely loyal to the team who call the case a witch-hunt; and residents fed-up with athletes behaving badly and getting away with it. Regardless of how this case turns out for the two defendants, what has been revealed in the social media about what happened that night is really disturbing. The case also illustrates what I consider to be extreme athletic fandom, a phenomena I've never understood.

UPDATE

     The FBI is looking into allegations that Jefferson County Sheriff Fred Abdalla and others investigating the case have been targets of threats. Potential witnesses for the two defendants have been threatened as well. Critics of the way the crime is being handled by the authorities wonder why more high school students haven't been charged with rape. This alleged gang-rape has divided Steubenville, Ohio into warring camps of disgruntled citizens with conflicting ideas on how justice should be administered in this high-profile case.

      

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Did Franciscan Friar Daniel Montgomery Murder Pastor William Gulas?

     Daniel Montgomery grew up in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, a town outside of Philadelphia. After graduating from Catholic high school, he studied religion in the midwest, and became a peace activist. In 1994, the 28-year-old joined the Franciscans, a Catholic religious order. An odd, socially awkward man with a volatile temper and a foul mouth, Montgomery didn't get along with his church colleagues and superiors.

     In July 2002, after being bounced from one church to another, the misfit friar ended up in Cleveland at St. Stanislaus located in the city's Slavic Village neighborhood. Montgomery didn't fit in well at St. Stanislaus either. He offended fellow friars, parishioners, and the 68-year-old pastor of the church, William Gulas, affectionately known as "Father Willie." After three students accused Daniel Montgomery of touching them inappropriately, Father Gulas, in late November 2002, informed the troubled friar that he was being transferred to Our Lady of Lourdes Friary in Cedar Lake, Indiana. (Sounds like a case of passing the trash.)

    At nine in the morning of December 2, 2002, when extinguishing a fire in Father Gulas' rectory office, firefighters stumbled upon his corpse. When questioned that morning by the police, Montgomery said that when the fire broke out, he had been asleep in his second-floor bedroom. A ringing telephone awoke him at which time he smelled smoke, then called 911. After trying to put out the fire, Montgomery fled the church without realizing that Father Gulas was in the burning first-floor office.

     On the day after the St. Stanislaus fire, the Cuyahoga County Coroner announced that the blaze had not killed Pastor Gulas. Someone had shot the priest in the chest, then torched his office.

     On December 8, 2002, detectives brought Friar Montgomery in for further questioning. Following what evolved into a seven-hour interrogation, Montgomery confessed to murdering the St. Stanislaus pastor. The friar had been angry about being transferred to the church in Indiana. He had gone into the pastor's office that morning to ask Father Gulas to vacate the order. According to Montgomery, upon entering the pastor's office, he had said, "I can't [expletive] take it anymore." The angry friar then shot Father Gulas in the chest with a .38-caliber revolver he had purchased the day before from an employee of a neighborhood convenience store. (This person has never been identified.)

     After killing the pastor, Montgomery dropped the revolver (which was never found) and walked down the hall where he acquired the red butane lighter he used to ignite papers on Father Gulas' desk. After setting the fire, Montgomery returned to his room and fell asleep. A call from a parishioner woke him up.

     A Cuyahoga County grand jury, in January 2003, indicted Daniel Montgomery on the charge of aggravated murder. Nine months later the defendant pleaded guilty to a lesser homicide charge in order to avoid the death penalty. The judge sentenced him to 24 years to life. He began serving his time at the state prison in Marion, Ohio.

     In the spring of 2011, a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter named John P. Martin decided to look into Montgomery's case. (Montgomery was now maintaining his innocence.) The journalist's investigation led to a four-part Inquirer series published in July 2011. Pursuant to his claims of innocence, Montgomery, through his new attorney, Barry Wilford, had filed a motion to withdraw his guilty plea in order that the case could go to trial. Attorney Wilford based his argument for reopening the murder case on three principal points: The prosecution had withheld exculpatory evidence; interrogators ignored signs that Montgomery was confessing falsely; and his defense attorney, Henry Hilow, did not provide him with the best defense.

     Problems in the prosecution's case against Montgomery included the fact the police never recovered the murder weapon. On the charred floor of Pastor Gulas' office, fire investigators found an open toolbox that once contained $1,600 in bingo proceeds. Father Gulas kept the padlocked box in his office safe. On the morning of the murder, a parishioner who supposedly had financial problems, was seen coming out of the pastor's office. Assuming this is true, could this man have committed the murder? Another mystery in the case involved the fact that Pastor Gulas' cellphone ended up in the hands of a convicted drug dealer.

     On the issue pertaining to the adequacy of Montgomery's defense, attorney Wilford argued that his client had not wanted to plead guilty. To back up this claim, Wilford cited parts of two letters Montgomery had sent to attorney Hilow months before his guilty plea. In a letter dated February 23, 2003 in which Montgomery asked to meet again with the psychiatrist who had examined him shortly after the murder, wrote: "I was in a state of schizophrenia that produced severe delusions in my thinking, causing me to make false statements on December 8, 2002 at the police interrogation. At that time I was suffering from delusions of grandeur that perhaps if I was no longer to be a Franciscan, then I was to be a martyr for a sinner, the killer and arsonist who committed the crime." On July 7, 2003, Montgomery had written: "I am firmly convinced that I must plead my innocence and follow God's law, which is above human law." (I have no idea what that means in the context of this case.)

     At the July 2011 hearing to determine if the Gulas murder case should be reopened, and a trial convened, Cuyahoga County Assistant Prosecutor Salem Awadallah argued that there was nothing in Montgomery's motion to justify setting aside his guilty plea and going to trial. She pointed out that Montgomery had failed a polygraph test that had been arranged by attorney Wilford. The prosecutor noted that while the Cleveland police interrogation lasted seven hours, no evidence has been presented showing that Montgomery's confession had been coerced. (I presume he was given his Miranda rights. In 2002, detectives in Cleveland did not routinely record their interrogation sessions.)

     Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Joan Synenberg, on December 31, 2012, denied Daniel Montgomery's motion for a murder trial. She did not accompany her ruling with a written decision. Whenever an educated, adult defendant confesses and pleads guilty, without strong evidence of a false confession, or equally powerful evidence that someone else has committed the crime, the conviction will stand. In this case, Daniel Montgomery had failed to overcome the presumption of his guilt.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Arming School Teachers: A Bad Idea

     What's easier--turning a law enforcement officer into a school teacher, or converting an educator into a cop? In the wake of the Newtown elementary school mass murder, a few politicians and a handful of education administrators have proposed that the police provide school teachers with firearms training. These teachers, under this proposal, would not be packing heat primarily for self-protection. They would be carrying guns to protect students against armed killers. This responsibility would essentially turn them into peace officers. That's a bad idea because there's a lot more to law enforcement that knowing how to fire a gun. Criminals and homicidal nut cases know how to fire guns. That doesn't make them cops.

     Teaching a person how to shoot a gun more or less accurately is not that difficult. But finding the right person to arm, then training that individual when to use deadly force, requires more than a few shooting lessons. Every year, trained and experienced law enforcement officers shoot unarmed people. If police officers can make use-of-force mistakes, one can only image how many teacher cops would shoot the wrong person. Shoot or don't shoot situations often require spit-second decision-making under extremely difficult circumstances.

      Just being a competent teacher in today's environment of jerk parents and difficult students is tough enough. The added life and death responsibility of protecting kids from armed intruders would turn some of these cops-with-a-gun into mental cases. Empowering teachers who are not allowed to lay a hand on unruly students to blow away armed intruders is a formula for insanity. An insane teacher who is armed to the teeth is not my idea of how to make schools safer.

     Every year, hundreds of gun owners shoot themselves, and people close to them, accidentally. Guns have a way of going off when they're not supposed to. Even trained police officers unintentionally shoot themselves when cleaning their weapons, or when practicing at firing ranges. In law enforcement, they refer to these embarrassing  incidents as accidental discharges. Inside a school building, an accidental discharge could result in the death of a student.  

     Those who propose putting guns into the hands of school teachers haven't said how many educators should be issued weapons. There are about 100,000 schools in the U.S. So if just five teachers in any given school building are armed, that's 500,000 armed teachers. With a half million amateur cops walking around our schools with loaded weapons, these places, still safe havens for children, would become a lot less secure. (Studies have repeatedly shown than children are safer in schools than at home.)

     I would argue that any school teacher willing to volunteer themselves to be the front-line defense against a heavily armed intruder intent on mass murder, should quit teaching and join a SWAT team. Teacher-cops will not only make schools more dangerous, they'll make public education worse than it already is. (I'm also against placing armed security guards into schools. If these people were capable of professional law enforcement work, they would be cops. But at least school guards don't have to protect and teach.)

     Bad ideas--so-called solutions that make the problem worse--often arise in the wake of disasters like the one in Newtown. Arming teachers is a bad idea.

   


Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Rape in India: A Victimless Crime

     Because of the country's high rate of infanticide, child marriage, and slavery, India is one of the worst places in the world to be a female. Moreover, girls and woman who have been raped are routinely blamed for their victimization, and discouraged from reporting these assaults to the police. If they do, the victims and their families are subjected to public ridicule and humiliation.

     Police officers in this male-dominated society often refuse to accept rape complaints. And when they  do register rape complaints, the crimes aren't professionally investigated. In those occasional instances where rape cases are taken seriously, crime lab delays slow down the process of identifying the rapists. In India's Forensic Science Laboratory in Rohini, it takes 75 days for a DNA report to come back to the investigating officer. These delays are caused by a work backlog caused by a serious shortage of qualified lab personnel. (There are many crime labs in the U.S. that have worse backlogs.) In the rare instance of an Indian rape prosecution, the case will drag on for years, and almost always ends with an acquittal. In India, rape is treated as a victimless crime.

     Among India's major cities, New Delhi, the nation's capital and home to 16 million people, has the country's highest number of reported rapes. Because such a small percentage of these assaults are reported, crime statistics do not come close to reflecting India's extremely high sex crime rate. If just half of India's rapes were reported and investigated, the nation's crime lab system, unable to cope with the workload, would completely break down.

     On the evening of December 16, 2012, in New Delhi, a 28-year-old software engineer and his 23-year-old female companion boarded a city bus after attending a movie. The woman, from an urban, middle-class family, had recently qualified as a trainee physiotherapist in a private New Delhi hospital. The bus driver and five men from the city's slums were the only other people on the bus. The passengers began taunting the woman's friend, then knocked him unconscious with a iron rod. Five of the men then beat and gang-raped the woman. At some point, the bus driver turned the wheel over to one of the rapists, walked to the back of the bus, and had sex with the beaten and bloodied woman. Before the one-hour ordeal came to an end, one of the attackers inserted the iron rod into the female victim's body. The men undressed both victims, then threw their nude bodies off the moving bus.

     The unidentified woman (In India, journalists do not have the kind of access given to American reporters.) was taken to the Safdarjung Hospital in New Delhi with serious brain trauma and severe injuries to her intestines and abdomen. The police, with the help of the rape victim's friend, quickly identified the bus driver and the five other rapists. Shortly after the suspects were taken into custody, the men confessed, telling the police they had tortured and raped the woman "to teach her a lesson."

     On December 26, following three operations and a heart attack, the authorities flew the victim to Mount Elizabeth's Hospital in Singapore.

     This brutal beating and gang rape on a city bus (operated by a private company) sent thousands of protesters into the streets in several Indian cities. The irate protestors demonstrated against the government's lax attitude toward crimes against women. In New Delhi, demonstrators clashed with riot police.

     Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, facing serious civil unrest, promised police and legislative reforms. But the public demonstrations continued throughout the country, growing in strength daily.

     On December 29, 2012, at 4:45 in the morning, the female victim of the brutal bus attack died in the Singapore hospital. Her body was flown back to India for cremation. (In the United States, there would be an autopsy.) The rape victim's cause of death has been listed as brain injury complicated by a lung infection. The six men responsible for her torture, rape, and death have been charged with murder, which in India can lead to the death penalty. (The Indian media has not provided any information regarding the identities of the rapists, or of their male victim.)

     The fact that Ban Ki-moon, the head of the United Nations voiced "deep sorrow" over this young woman's ordeal and death, reveals how this case has focused international attention on India's rape problem.

     On the day following the 23-year-old's passing, a human rights organization called on the Indian government to ban the so-called "finger test," a medical procedure routinely given to rape victims. This unscientific and irrelevant measure involves testing the laxity of a rape victim's vagina to determine if she has been "habitual to sexual intercourse." The obvious purpose of this procedure is to humiliate victims and to discourage them from reporting their rapes.

     Amid the women's rights protests, a legislator from the state of Rajasthan, in proposing his own rape prevention measure, suggested replacing girls' school uniform skirts with pants. While many ridiculed this politician and his idea, it reflects how most men in India blame rape on the rape victim . If the five slum degenerates and the bus driver hadn't beaten and murdered this young woman, she would be alive, and they would still be out in public raping women with impunity.

     City politicians in New Delhi, facing a wave of public anger, have tendered the rape victim's family monetary compensation. Officials have also offered one of the victim's unemployed relatives a government job. I'm sure they are doing this out of the goodness of their hearts.

     I don't know enough about India to venture a guess as to whether or not this case will be the catalyst for change in that country. But given the nature of government, and how difficult it is to change deeply ingrained cultural traditions, it's hard to be optimistic. There is one good sign, however. At least half of the anti-rape protestors have been men. (The women held candles for the victim while the men called for the perpetrators to be quickly hanged.)

UPDATE

     On January 3, 2013, five of the suspects were charged with, among other crimes, rape, kidnapping, and murder. The defendants are Ram Singh, the 33-year-old bus driver; his brother Mukesh, 26 who cleaned buses for the company; Pavan Gupta, 19, a fruit vendor; Akshay Singh, 24, a bus washer; and Vinay Sharma, 20, a fitness trainer. The sixth suspect, a juvenile, has not yet been charged.

     The male friend assaulted by the men on the bus, in his first public statement about the case, said that he and his friend were lying nude and bleeding on the street for an hour while pedestrians passed by without stopping to help them.

     On January 6, 2013, a popular Indian spiritual guru who calls himself godman Asharam, in a video circulated in the Internet, said, "This tragedy would not have happened if she [the murder victim] had chanted God's name and fallen at the feet of the attackers. The error was not committed by just one side." (Since when is gang-rape/murder an "error?" This so-called guru should rename himself "Asharam The Idiot."

     A defense attorney representing three of the accused rapist/murderers, announced on January 9 that his clients will be pleading not guilty. The attorney has also claimed that the suspects were beaten by the police.

     A second gang-rape involving an Indian bus passenger has occurred in a village in the northern state of Punjab. On January 11, 2013, the bus driver and his conductor drove the 29-year-old victim, the only passenger on the bus, to a vacant building where they and five other men raped the woman. The timing of this crime makes one wonder if these rapists were making a political statement.

UPDATE

     On March 11, 2013, one of the men in custody for the New Delhi bus rape was found dead in his cell. Police say Ram Singh had hanged himself. The suspect's father claimed that he had been murdered.