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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. 

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Peggy Sue Thomas: The Murder Accomplice Who Got Off Light

     In 2000, Peggy Sue Thomas, as Ms. Washington, participated in the U.S. Continental Beauty Pageant in Las Vegas. The 34-year-old beautician didn't win or make the top ten. Three years later, Thomas was working in a Freeland, Washington beauty salon owned by Brenna Douglas who confided in her that her 32-year-old husband Russell Douglas was abusive. When Thomas relayed this information to her boyfriend James Huden, he decided to kill Russell Douglas out of revenge. (Huden had been abused as a child, and he was supposedly taking out his anger on Douglas. He and the intended victim had never met.)

     On December 26, 2003, Thomas asked Russell Douglas to meet her in a remote area on Whidbey Island 30 miles north of Seattle. Thomas lured Douglas to this spot on the pretext she had a gift for his wife Brenna. As Russell Douglas waited in his Chevrolet Geo Tracker for Peggy Sue, he came face-to-face with James Huden who shot the sunglasses-wearing victim between the eyes with a .380-caliber pistol.

     Homicide detectives initially suspected that Russell Douglas had been shot to death in a murder for hire plot cooked-up by his wife, the beneficiary of his $500,000 life insurance policy. Investigators caught a break in the case in August 2004 when a friend of James Huden's who had known him in Port Charlotte, Florida, called the Island County Sheriff's Office with a hot tip. The tipster, Bill Hill, said he had played in Huden's band called Buck Naked and the Xhibitionists. According to Hill, Huden had murdered Russell Douglas because Douglas had been abusing his wife. Huden's  girlfriend, Peggy Sue Thomas had set the victim up by luring him to the remote spot on Whidbey Island.

     Douglas case investigators got a second break in the case that summer. A man named Keith Ogden came forward with information regarding the murder weapon used in the execution-style killing. Ogden said he had showed Huden how to disassemble, clean, and fire the .380-caliber Bersa. He had also advised Huden on how to use a pillow or a plastic soda bottle to muffle the muzzle sound.

     James Huden, aware that the authorities were closing in on him, fled to Veracruz, Mexico in the fall of 2004. In Mexico, under the name Maestro Jim, Huden made a living as a guitar player in his band, Buck Naked and the Xhibitionists.

     In 2006, Peggy Sue Thomas, while working in Las Vegas as a limo driver, met Mark Allen, the millionaire owner of the 2009 Kentucky Derby winner, Mind That Bird. After marrying Allen, Thomas took up residence at his horse ranch in New Mexico. After the divorce a few years later, Thomas, the beneficiary of a large settlement, moved back to Whidbey Island, Washington.

     The Mexican police, in June 2011, arrested James Huden on a federal unlawful flight warrant issued in the United States. U.S. Marshals returned the fugitive to Washington where he was scheduled to stand trial for the eight-year-old murder of Russell Douglas.

     Huden, after turning down a plea bargain deal where he'd identify Peggy Sue Thomas as his murder accomplice, went on trial in July 2012. The defendant's wife Jean took the stand for the prosecution and testified that Huden and Thomas had confessed to her regarding their roles in the Douglas murder. Two other men testified that Huden had confessed to them as well.  Because James Huden did not take the stand on his own behalf, he did not implicate Peggy Sue in the murder.

     Following eight days of testimony, the jury found the defendant guilty of first degree murder with aggravating circumstances (using a firearm). A month later, the judge sentenced 59-year-old James Edward Huden to 80 years in prison. (According to the Douglas case prosecutor, one of Thomas' latent fingerprints had been lifted from the murder weapon.)

     The Huden-Thomas-Douglas murder saga came to an end on January 27, 2013 when Peggy Sue, now 47, pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of rendering criminal assistance. The most prison time Thomas could do for this felony was four years. The guilty plea came one week before she was scheduled to go on trial for murder.

     At Thomas' sentencing hearing a month after the guilty plea, Jim Douglas, the victim's father, said this to the judge: "It seems a travesty of justice that she [Thomas] would be sentenced to less that four years in prison for the cold and premeditated act that could not have happened without her involvement." The judge sentenced Thomas to four years in prison.

     Peggy Sue Thomas was as much responsible for Russell Douglas' murder as the man who pulled the trigger. James Huden got 80 years, she got off light. 

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

Nehemiah Griego: A Good Boy Murders His Family in Cold Blood

     People murdered in their homes are usually killed by a family member. Cases involving husbands who kill their wives and women who take out their husbands are fairly common and therefore not particularly shocking. But when a good kid with no history of violence, drug abuse, or mental illness carefully executes his entire family for no apparent reason, that is disturbing. Suddenly parents look at their sulking, surly children in a new light. What in the hell is going on in their callow minds? A parent might wonder if his or her kid has watched too much violence on TV. And if there's a gun in the house, putting it under lock and key. But in most cases, when parents think about children who murder, they think about other people's kids. Murder is something that happens to strangers.

    Pastor Greg Griego, the 51-year-old father of two boys and two girls, probably never considered himself a candidate for murder. Griego, the former pastor of one of Albuquerque, New Mexico's largest Christian churches, lived with his 41-year-old wife Sarah and their four children at the end of a semi-rural road on the southwestern edge of the city. As a young man in California, before finding Jesus and entering the ministry, Greg Griego had been a member of a street gang. As one of Albuquerque's religious leaders, he volunteered as a prison chaplain, and had overseen the Straight Street program sponsored by the Bernalillo County Jail.

     On Friday night, January 18, 2013, 15-year-old Nehemiah Griego, after he and his mother had a mild disagreement, waited until he was sure she and his three siblings were sound asleep. Mr. Griego was not home. Just before one in the morning, Nehemiah took possession of a .22-caliber pistol he found in his parents' closet. He stepped lightly into his mother's bedroom where she was sleeping in bed next to his 9-year-old brother Zephania. Nehemiah raised the 10-shot pistol and fired several bullets into his mother's head. When his younger brother refused to accept the fact his mother had just been murdered, Nehemiah forced the boy to look at her bloody face. The 15-year-old then fired several slugs into Zephania's head.

     In his sisters' room, Nehemiah shot and killed Jael, age 5, and 2-year-old Angelina. Nehemiah returned to the gun closet and pulled out an AR-15 semi-automoatic rifle. Armed with the assault weapon, he waited in a downstairs bathroom for his father's return. After waiting five hours for his father to come home, Nehemiah opened up on Mr. Griego as he walked by the bathroom doorway, killing him on the spot.

     On his cellphone, Nehemiah sent his 12-year-old girlfriend a photograph of his murdered mother's face. He also called her, and reported what he had done, and what he planned to do. Nehemiah informed the girl that he was driving to the local Walmart in the family van where he intended to randomly kill as many people as possible. He said he expected to be killed in an exchange of gunfire with the police.

     Nehemiah's girlfriend talked him into driving to Pastor Griego's church where they could discuss all of this further. Nehemiah spent the rest of the day at his girlfriend's house. Police officers took Nehemiah Griego into custody later that night. A Bernalillo County prosecutor charged him with two counts of murder and three counts of child abuse. (I don't know why he wasn't charged with five counts of murder.) Perfectly coherent, Nehemiah provided his interrogators with a detailed account of the mass killing. He said he was annoyed with his mother, and had recently entertained thoughts of homicide and suicide. The boy expressed no feelings of guilt or remorse.

    Bernalillo County Sheriff Dan Houston, at a news conference on January 22, said that Nehemiah had been "involved heavily in violent video games" before he murdered his family. They games included "Modern Warfare," and "Grand Theft Auto." The boy had also talked about killing his young girlfriend's parents.

     According to relatives, Nehemiah was an outgoing boy who loved music and hoped one day to serve in the military.

     The cold-blooded mass murder shocked Nehemiah's relatives, friends, and teachers. No one had seen this massacre coming. No one ever does. How can you tell if your 15-year-old son is a monster?

     

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 deviant 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. (For many people, myself included, stories of animal cruelty are more upsetting that human on human crime. I don't think I want to know the psychology behind this juxtaposition of priorities.)

     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. 

Monday, January 21, 2013

Hit-And-Run: America's Silent Crime Wave

     People who accidentally injure or kill pedestrians and others with their vehicles then leave the scene of the accident, come from all walks of life. Most of them are ordinary people who do not live lives of crime. They flee the site of the mishap for different reasons. Hit-and-run drivers don't stop because they are intoxicated, driving on suspended driver's licenses, don't have insurance, are accompanied by someone they shouldn't be with, or are being sought by the authorities. Hit-and-run victims also represent a cross-section of American society.

     Hit-and-run cases are difficult to solve because so many of them occur at night with no witnesses. Even if investigators link a particular car or truck to the victim through hair follicle, textile, or DNA evidence, the prosecutor still has to place the defendant in that vehicle. Judges in hit-and-run cases resulting in injury or death are often reluctant to send convicted defendants to prison. These are not intentional crimes, and those convicted are usually not hardened criminals. Families of hit-and-run victims believe these defendants get off light.

     Nationwide, there about about 6 million traffic accidents a year. At least ten percent of these crashes involve hit-and-run drivers. Of the 600,000 or so hit-and-run cases every year, about a third result in injury or death. Los Angeles, according to a recent journalistic study by L. A. Weekly, is in the midst of a hit-and-run epidemic. Every year, more than 4,000 people in the city of 3.8 million are hurt or killed by hit-and-run drivers. Almost half of the city's traffic accidents are hit-and-run cases. The staggering rate of this crime has overwhelmed the Los Angeles police.

    Because the hit-and-run accident has become such a commonplace event, these cases do not attract a lot of coverage in the media. Exceptions involve drivers who are professional athletes, TV actors, politicians, or anyone remotely famous. A hit-and-run case made national news in 1999 when 43-year-old Bryon Smith ran over the horror novelist, Stephen King. King was jogging on a remote road near North Lovell, Maine when Smith plowed into him. The writer nearly lost a leg, and Smith lost his driver's license. A year after the judge gave Smith a suspended sentence, the hit-and-run driver committed suicide.

     On January 14, 2013, a "hit-and-run" Google search covering a period of 24 hours, revealed more than thirty cases across America, a fraction of the actual number. In Los Angeles County, 31-year-old twin sisters Tanisha and Tamaya Davis were killed by a hit-and-run driver as they brawled in the middle of the street at three in the morning. The driver has not been identified.

     In the early morning hours of January 14, sheriff's deputies found a hit-and-run victim lying dead on the road in North Charleston, North Carolina. In Framingham, Oregon, a 58-year-old man was seriously injured at 7:30 in the evening when a motorist ran over him as he crossed the street. The police are looking for a blue Toyota sedan. A hit-and-run driver on the south side of Indianapolis killed a female pedestrian at elven-thrity in the morning. In Houston, Texas, at ten-thirty at night, a 64-year-old man was killed when he tried to cross a busy road that had no crosswalk. He was hit by a gray Toyota pickup. A man in Brooklyn, New York was injured by a motorist while riding a bicycle at four in the morning. A driver on a road in Poulsbo, Washington hit two female pedestrians from behind. The injured women ended up in a roadside ditch.

The Facebook Case

     On New Year's eve, 18-year-old Jacob Cox-Brown, while driving home from a party drunk, hit two other cars and kept on going. The next day, the Astoria, Washington resident wrote the following on his Facebook page: "Drivin drunk...classic ;) but to whoever's vehicle I hit, I am sorry." A reader notified the police who examined Cox-Brown's car to find damage that linked his vehicle to one of the sideswiped cars. Following his arrest, Cox-Brown admitted leaving the scene of the collisions. He has been charged with two counts of failing to perform the duties of a driver.

The Motorist with the Bad DMV Record

     On Saturday, January 13, 2013, a hit-and-run driver struck 28-year-old Catherine Calalang and her 20-year-old cousin Laurene Jiminez as they walked along a road in Camden County, New Jersey. Calalang had five teeth kocked out, and suffered facial injuries. Jiminez suffered serious head injuries. The next day, Voorhees Township police received an anonymous tip which led them to Magnolia, New Jersey where they found a damaged Ford Fusion parked on the street. The vehicle, registered to 44-year-old Michele Toussaint of Berlin, New Jersey, contained physical evidence linking it to the hit-and-run.

     Michele Toussaint, since 1991, has had 52 driver's license arrests and 16 moving traffic violations. (Toussaint's husband had been killed in a traffic accident.) She has been charged with leaving the scene of an accident, endangering an injured victim, and causing injury while driving on a suspended license. Toussaint was taken into custody on January 13 and placed into the Camden County Correctional Facility under $62,500 bail. Toussaint told the arresting officers that she was about to turn herself in.

No Prison for Helen Fettes

     In October 2011, 80-year-old Helen Fettes, while driving on a road in Olmsted, Ohio in the Cleveland area, killed 13-year-old Charlie Kho. After running the boy over, Fettes drove away. In November 2012, after pleading no contest to aggravated vehicular homicide, the judge sentenced Fettes to five years of house arrest. The judge also suspended Fettes' driving privileges for life, and ordered her to pay $125,000 in restitution. 

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Stacie Halas, AKA Tiffany Six: A Teacher Who Moonlighted in Porn

     In 2000, Stacie Halas, a tall blonde who lived as a child in Florida, graduated from Newbury Park High School in Thousand Oaks, California. Four years later, with a degree in education, she graduated from California State University at Monterey Bay located on the Monterey Peninsula. In February 2005, Stacie worked in four Ventura County school districts as a substitute teacher. Ten months later, Stacie began moonlighting as an actress in explicit, hardcore porn films.

     Between December 2005 and June 2006, Stacie, under the stage name Tiffany Six, appeared in dozens of porn videos for which she was paid $1,500 per sex scene. In a film in which she engaged in group sex with four men, she was interviewed in a behind-the-scenes clip at the end of the video. When asked by the interviewer if being a porn actor was for her a risky career choice, she said, "It is risky, very risky for me because I am a teacher." The interviewer asked Tiffany Six if she'd get fired if caught. "Questionable, probably," she answered. If this was such a risky business for her, why was she doing sex scenes on film? "Money, and it's fun, it's exciting," she replied. "It's just the excitement, doing something different that you're not supposed to do."

     In June 2006, when Stacie began teaching science at Ventura County's Simi Valley High School, she quit the porn industry. In the fall of 2009, Stacie started teaching 7th and 8th grade biology at the Richard B. Haydock Intermediate School in Oxnard, a coastal city of 200,000 in the greater Los Angeles area. (On her professional resume, under the heading, "the biography of human sex," she could have listed her real-life experience in pornography. She didn't. Had Stacie been applying for a cultural studies professorship at the University of California at Berkeley, her adventure in porn would have been an academic plus.)

     Stacie Halas' past came back to haunt her in March 2012 when students discovered her pornographic body of work on the Internet. The school placed her on administrative leave pending an internal investigation. (No pun intended.) After school officials forced themselves to watch her videos, the Oxnard School District Board of Trustees did something extremely rare in California--they fired a teacher! Stacie, of course, appealed her termination to the California Commission on Profession Competence. (Seeing the words "California" and "competence" in the same phrase is a bit startling.)

     Stacie, represented by Attorney Richard Schwab, presented her case before the commission at a hearing that got underway on October 22, 2012. In an emotional plea (she had been an actor) to the commissioners of competence, Stacie admitted that she had let herself down by performing in porn films. But she had been desperate. In 2005, when her boyfriend abandoned her, she owed $100,000 in student loans and credit card debt. Attorney Schwab, while conceding that the porn industry is not well respected, reminded the commissioners that it's not against the law to have sex on film for money. (Although she did it for free, look how a sex tape launched Kim Kardasian's career.)

     Attorney Natasha Sawhney, in representing the Ventura School District, argued that Halas would become a distraction if let back into the classroom. Six days after the hearing commenced, following the testimony of twenty witnesses and some erotic exhibits, the commission ruled unanimously to uphold Halas' termination. Her attorney announced that he planned to appeal the competence commissioners'  decision to the State Office of Administrative Hearings. In speaking to a TV report after the hearing, Stacie said, "I think most of us have something in our backgrounds. And I ask anybody to cast the first stone." (At this point, many stones have already been cast at her glass house.)

     On January 11, 2013, the panel of three administrative law judges with the State Office of Administrative Hearings, issued a 47-page report justifying the panel's unanimous decision that Stacie Halas was unfit to teach in the California school system. (Not many teachers in California have been so dishonored.) In the opinion of the judges, because the videos showcasing Halas' work in porn continue to be available online, she could never be an effective teacher. According to the lead judge, Halas had "...failed to establish that she can be trusted as a role model for children." The judges, by setting this administrative law precedent, hoped it would deter other California teachers from moonlighting in the porn industry. (Stacie can appeal this administrative law decision to a Ventura County Superior Court. But to pay for her legal costs, she would have to get back into porn.)

     So, in California, one of the worst school systems in America, being a teacher won't hamper a porn career, but porn acting will kill a teaching gig. I guess if you're the kind of person who can act in porn flicks, you're the kind of person who can teach a class full of lusting boys who have seen you in action. In California, the powerful teacher's union will defend virtually any teacher for any reason except teachers who moonlight in porn. They are on their own.

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. 

Killer Boobs: Criminal Suffocation by Breasts

     In April 2010, Claire Smedley from Blackpool, England told a British newspaper reporter that she had nearly killed her boyfriend with her size 40LL breasts. (While I know bullet calibers, I have no idea what 40LLs look like other than they are big.) With her boyfriend Steven's face buried in her super-bust, Claire misinterpreted his flailing for oxygen as sexual excitement. After barely escaping breast asphyxiation, Steven ended the relationship. He's now dating a flat-chested woman named Paula. (Just kidding.)

     In Germany, a lawyer named Tim Schmidt claimed that his girlfriend, a woman armed with a pair of 38DDs attempted to suffocate him by breast. Mr. Schmidt described his near-death experience to a German newspaper reporter: "I asked her why she wanted to smother me to death with her breasts. She told me: 'Pleasure--I wanted your death to be as pleasurable as possible.' " (Really? I can't image, as I'm fighting for my last breath, thinking, these are nice.)

     Ambulance personnel and Snohomish County sheriff's deputies, shortly after midnight on Saturday, January 12, 2013, responded to a 911 domestic disturbance call from a mobile home in the Airport Inn Trailer Park outside Everett, Washington. Residents Donna Lange and her boyfriend (who has not been named) had been drinking alcohol and smoking pot all night with a man and two other women. The 51-year-old Lange and her boyfriend had gotten into a fight. The fight escalated and moved to the back of the trailer house. At some point, Lange allegedly threw the 5-foot, 7-inch, 175 pound man to the floor. The 5-foot, 6-inch, 195 pound Lange then climbed on top of the downed drunk and passed out. The victim lay trapped under her body with his face buried in her breasts. (I'm not making this up.)

     When the police and the medics stormed into the trailer, they found the boyfriend still lying on the floor. He was not breathing. In his hands were clumps of Lange's hair. CPR didn't help, and upon arrival at the Swedish Hospital in Edmonds, medical personnel pronounced the 50-year-old boyfriend dead. Cause of death: suffocation.

     Questioned at the hospital, Donna Lange told police officers that she had no knowledge how her boyfriend had died. A few days later, a Snohomish County prosecutor charged Donna Lange with second degree manslaughter. (A lesser homicide charge involving an accidental death caused by reckless behavior, or during the commission of a crime that is not a felony.) If convicted, Lange could be sentenced to a maximum five years in prison.

     Just when you think there is nothing new in the world of deviant behavior and unnatural death, cases like these roll down the pike.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Rafael Robb: The Professor and Wife Killer's Light Sentence

     In 1972, Rafael Robb graduated from Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Israel with a bachelor's degree in economics. A few years later, he immigrated to the United States where, in 1991, he earned a Ph.D. in economics from UCLA. In 1984, now a U.S. citizen, Dr. Robb joined the teaching staff at the University of Pennsylvania. He married Ellen Gregory, a woman seven years younger than him, in 1990. Four years later, the couple had a daughter, Olivia.

     As Rafael Robb's marriage fell apart, Professor Robb's career at the University of Pennsylvania flourished. In 2004, after having published dozens of important papers on game theory, a mathematical discipline used to analyze political, economic, and military strategies, the professor was granted tenure. He also became a Fellow of the Economics Society, one of the highest honors in the discipline.

     In the afternoon of December 22, 2006, Professor Robb, using the non-emergency phone number rather than 911, reported that he had just discovered, upon returning home from work, that an intruder had beaten his wife to death in the kitchen of their Upper Merion, Pennsylvania home. Because Ellen Robb had been beaten beyond recognition, the responding police officers thought she had been murdered by a close-range shotgun blast to the face.

     From Ellen Robb's relatives and friends, homicide detectives learned that the victim, after years of marital abuse, had recently hired a divorce attorney who planned to demand $4,000 a month in spousal support. Ellen, after living with the professor for the sake of their 12-year-old daughter, had finally decided to move out of the house.

     Montgomery County District Attorney Bruce L. Castor, Jr., on January 9, 2007, charged Rafael Robb with first degree murder. Homicide detectives considered Robb's attempt to cover his tracks by staging a home invasion quite amateurish. They believed Robb had murdered his wife to avoid the financial consequences of the upcoming divorce. Robb's attorney announced that he would produce, at the upcoming trial, security-camera footage what would prove that his client hadn't been home when his wife was murdered. Homicide investigators found numerous holes in Robb's so-called alibi.

     On November 27, 2007, on the day Rafael Robb's trial was scheduled to begin, the defendant, pursuant to a plea bargain arrangement, took the opportunity to plead guilty to voluntary manslaughter, a lesser homicide offense. Standing before Common Pleas Court Judge Paul W. Tressler, the defendant said that he and Ellen, on the morning of her death, had been arguing over a trip she planned to take with their daughter, Olivia. "The discussion," Robb said, "was very tense. We were both anxious." (Anxious?) According to the defendant's version of the killing, when Ellen pushed him, he "just lost it." By losing it, Robb meant that he walked into the living room, grabbed an exercise bar used to do chin-ups, and used the blunt object to beat his wife's head into pulp. "I just kept flailing it," he said.

     Judge Tressler, after calling the Robb homicide "the worst physical bludgeoning" he had ever seen, sentenced Rafael Robb to a five-to-ten-year prison term. The light sentence for such a brutal killing committed by an abusive husband who had tried to stage a fake burglary, shocked the victim's family and supporters. (It stunned everyone except the defendant, and perhaps his attorney.)

     In March 2012, after serving less than five years of his lenient sentence at a minimum security prison near Mercer, Pennsylvania 70 miles north of Pittsburgh, Rafael Robb filed a request to serve the remainder of his sentence in a Philadelphia halfway house. The goal behind this corrections rehabilitation program involved allowing model prisoners to work at jobs during the day. (I don't imagine the program was designed for sociopathic murderers.) The Montgomery County prosecutor strenuously opposed Robb's attempt to get into a halfway house.

     Notwithstanding objections from the prosecutor and members of Ellen Robb's family still upset about the light sentence, the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole, in October 2012, shocked everyone by granting Rafael Robb early parole. (If the Robb case were a game theory exercise, the ex-professor won.) The 62-year-old convicted wife killer was scheduled for release on January 28, 2013.

     On January 29, 2013, the Pennsylvania Parole Board, after meeting with Ellen Robb's family, reversed its decision to grant the ex-professor's release. HIs next parole review is scheduled for September 14, 2014.

     Rafael Robb should have been found guilty of first degree murder and sentenced to life without parole. Just because this brutal killer was a prominent scholar should not justify the authorities letting him get away with murdering his estranged wife in order to save the cost of a divorce. The prosecutor, in negotiating Robb's guilty plea, gave away the store. This case, on so many levels, is an outrage.       

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

Twins William and Christopher Cormier: The Magic Gathering Cards 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. (The police have not identified the murder weapon.) 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, 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 that day for 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 charged the defendants with murder. Pending extradition to Florida, the brothers are being held, without bail, in separate Georgia jails. 

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Donald Eugene Borders and the "Three Women" Murder Case

     In 2003, 85-year-old Lottie Ledford lived by herself in a low-income neighborhood in Shelby, North Carolina, a town of 20,000 fifty miles west of Charlotte. As a younger woman, Lottie had worked in the region's textile mills. On August 23, 2003, a relative discovered Lottie lying dead on her bed. Because of her age, the police didn't suspect foul play. The Cleveland County Coroner ruled that Lottie Ledford had died of an heart attack.

     Bobby Fisher, Ledford's nephew, believed that his aunt had been murdered. Based upon his own observations, and what the funeral director had seen and noted, Fisher knew that Ledford's face and arms had been covered in bruises. (In January 2013, Bobby Fisher's widow, Barbara Ann, in speaking to a reporter, said, "It looked as if someone had taken two fingers and pinched her nose and held her across the mouth.") The fact that someone had cut Ledford's telephone line also suggested homicide. Bobby Fisher pleaded with the Shelby police to launch a murder investigation, but they ignored his request.

     On September 20, 2003, six weeks after Lottie Ledford's death, in the same neighborhood, Margaret Tessneer's daughter and son-in-law came by her house at ten that morning. The couple had brought Tessneer a biscuit from Hardee's. The visitors found Tessneer's front door ajar, and inside the dwelling, the 79-year-old lying face-up on her rumpled bed. The dead woman had bruises on her face, arms, and legs. Someone had pulled the telephone drop-line away from her house.

     The forensic pathologist who performed the autopsy noted the bruises, and concluded that Margaret Tessneer had been raped. While he ruled the manner of death in this case homicide, the pathologist classified Tessneer's cause of death, "undetermined."

     On November 10, 2003, in the same part  of town, a neighbor discovered Lillian Mullinax lying dead in her own bed. The 87-year-old's body was covered in bruises, her front door had been left ajar, and someone had cut her phone line. Following the autopsy, Mullinax's cause of death went into the books as "undetermined."

     One didn't have to be Sherlock Holmes to conclude that these three elderly women had been raped and murdered in their homes by the same man.

     In early 2004, Shelby detectives investigating Margaret Tessneer's September 20, 2003 death, became interested in a 53-year-old man named Donald Eugene Borders. After graduating from high school in 1977, Borders got married, worked in the region's textile mills, and fathered two children. But in the 1990s he turned to crime and was arrested dozens of times for robbery, burglary, and assault. In 2001, Borders was sent to state prison on a conviction for breaking and entering a home. After his release from custody in January 2003, Borders lived as a homeless man on the streets of Shelby.

     On March 20, 2004, detectives, after publicly asking for help in locating Borders, found him living in a homeless shelter in Charlotte. Armed with an arrest warrant pertaining to a matter unrelated to the three women case, Shelby officer James Brienza took Donald Borders into custody. Before hauiling him to jail, Brienza let the prisoner have a cigarette. When Borders finished his smoke, Brienza saved the butt for DNA analysis.

     A state forensic scientist, in August 2004, found trace evidence from Margaret Tessneer's underwear that revealed she had been raped. Following the passage of more than five years (I have no idea what caused this delay) a DNA analyst matched the Tessneer murder scene evidence with the saliva on Border's cigarette butt.

     A Cleveland County Grand Jury, on December 28, 2009, more that six years after Margaret Tessneer's rape and killing, indicted Donald Eugene Borders for first degree murder. He was taken into custody and held in the Cleveland County Jail without bond.

     Border's trial got underway in Cleveland on January 5, 2013. On January 28, the jury, after deliberating three hours, found the defendant guilty as charged. The judge sentenced Donald Eugene Borders to life in prison without the chance of parole. 

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

Colleen Harris and Her Shotgunned Husbands

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

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

     Charged with first degree murder, Colleen Batten went on trial in February 1986. A psychiatrist took the stand for the defense and testified that Colleen didn't remember much about the shooting because she suffered from a condition he called, "limited amnesia." (I believe this shrink suffered from a syndrome called, "limited load of crap.")

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

     Colleen married again, and in 2013 was living in Placerville with her third husband, 72-year-old Robert Harris. Colleen and the retired Lake Tahoe U.S. Forest Service supervisor were having marital problems. (In 2005 they had both filed for divorce, but were still married and living together.) On January 6, 2013, Colleen was once again on the phone with the police. For the second time in 27 years, she was informing officers she had used a shotgun to blow away a spouse. (It was a different shotgun.)

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

     Colleen Harris is currently in custody in the El Dorado County Jail. 

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.  

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Discredited Bite Mark Evidence in the William Richards Murder Case

     In 1993, 44-year-old William Richards and his wife Pamela, while they were building a house near Hesperia, California in the high desert in San Bernardino County, lived in a motor home. Because there were no power lines near the property, a generator in a nearby shed provided the electricity. William worked as a swing shift electrical engineer at a manufacturing plant in the town of Corona. His 40-year-old wife had a job as a waitress. The following account of what happened on August 10, 1993 is based on William Richard's statement to the police.

     That night, William clocked out of the plant in Corona at 11:03. When he arrived home shortly after midnight, he noticed there were no lights on in the trailer. He re-started the generator in the shed, and as he walked toward his front door, stumbled over his wife's half nude body. Someone had smashed the 5-foot-2, 126 pound woman's head with an heavy object. William called 911.

     Deputies from the San Bernardino Sheriff's office arrived at the scene at twelve-thirty that morning. The officers did nothing to protect the crime scene while they waited for the arrival of the homicide detectives. The investigators didn't show up until 3:15, and when they did, decided to wait until daylight before processing the crime scene. In the meantime, officers walked around the site and did nothing to keep several dogs off the property. (When they did begin the crime scene investigation, the officers realized dogs had kicked dirt on Pamela Richards' body.)

     From the beginning, homicide detectives considered William Richards the prime suspect in the murder. Blood spatter patterns suggested the victim had been partially undressed after the bloody attack in an effort to stage a sexual assault. (There was no physical evidence of rape.) Investigators found no signs of forced entry, and no physical evidence of an intruder such as foreign shoe impressions and tire tracks. (If there had been such evidence, it could have been trampled by the police.) Moreover, nothing had been stolen from the trailer. Investigators believed that Pamela had been bludgeoned by a blood-stained steppingstone. (A forensic pathologist would find that she had also been strangled.)

     As for motive, detectives believed that the suspect, after he learned that his wife planned to leave him for another man, had killed her in a fit of rage. The fact that Richards and his wife, over their twenty-year marriage, openly had affairs, and had already agreed to separate, cast doubt on this motive to kill her. Without a confession or an eyewitness, the San Bernardino County prosecutor had a weak, circumstantial case against William Richards. The fact the crime scene investigation had been bungled also hurt the prosecution's case. Nevertheless, the prosecutor charged Richards with first degree murder. Police arrested him on September 3, 1993.

     In July 1994, after the jury deadlocked six to six on the question of William Richards' guilt, the judge declared a mistrial. Just three days into his second trial in October 1994, the judge, due to improper communications with a juror, declared a second mistrial. In January 1995, the jury deadlocked eleven to one for his guilt. This led to a third mistrial.

     The San Bernardino County prosecutor, on his fourth try in July 1997, bolstered the state's case with the testimony of Dr. Norman Sperber, the renowned forensic odontologist (dentist) from San Diego who had testified at Ted Bundy's serial murder trial in Florida. Dr. Sperber testified that in his expert opinion, the crescent-shaped impression on Pamela Richards' hand was consistent with having been made with the defendant's front teeth. The odontologist said that only two percent of the U.S. population could have made this crime scene bite mark.

     To counter Dr. Sperber's testimony, the defense presented another respected forensic dentist, Dr. Gregory Golden, the Chief Forensic Odontologist of San Bernardino County. Dr. Golden testified that the photograph of the victim's bite mark was of such poor quality, he couldn't make a conclusive determination in the case. When pressed by the prosecutor on cross-examination, Dr. Golden said that he could not eliminate the defendant as the maker of the crime scene bite mark.

     Based on the new bite mark evidence, the jury in Richards' fourth trial found him guilty of first degree murder. The judge sentenced him to 25 years to life. The convicted man continued to maintain his innocence.

     In 2000, lawyers with the California Innocence Project entered the case on William Richards' behalf. A re-evaluation of the forensic evidence in the murder case led to a petition before a San Bernardino County judge to overturn Richards' murder conviction. The hearing on this motion took place in 2009 before Judge Brian McCarville.

     Since Richards' fourth trial, new technology had made it possible to sharpen the photographic image of the crime scene bite mark. Dr. Norman Sperber took the stand and declared that after analyzing the enhanced photograph, it was his expert opinion that the questioned bite mark had not been made by Mr. Richards. Two other forensic dentists agreed with this analysis, and a third testified that he could not render a conclusive opinion either way.

     A DNA expert testified that the bloody steppingstone contained DNA evidence that had not come from the defendant. A forensic hair and fiber identification expert testified that a 2-centimeter follicle taken from under one of the victim's fingernails did not match samples taken from her husband.

     Judge McCarville, based on the bite mark, DNA, and hair follicle testimony, overturned William Richards' murder conviction.

     The San Bernardino County prosecutor appealed Judge McCarville's ruling to the California Supreme Court. On December 3, 2012, in a 4-3 decision, the state's highest court reinstated Richards' murder conviction. According to the majority justices, the forensic evidence presented at the 2009 hearing did not prove the convicted man's innocence. (Once convicted, the burden of proving innocence shifts to the defendant.) These justices did not believe the forensic dentists had completely ruled out Richards as the source of the crime scene bite mark.

     The dissenting judges did not agree with this interpretation of the new bite mark testimony. As these three justices saw it, three of the four odontologists, including Dr. Norman Sperber, stated that the convicted man was not the source of this crime scene evidence. Since it had been this evidence that had finally led to Richards' murder conviction, its absence supported the position that the state had not carried its burden of proving this man's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

     Unless William Richards has recourse to the federal court system, the 63-year-old has exhausted his legal remedies. His best hope is parole. I do not know if this man murdered his wife or not, but I do know this: bite mark identification, under the best of circumstances, is a highly unreliable form of forensic evidence.  

Friday, January 11, 2013

Paul Slater: Invade Home, Get Shot

     On Friday, January 6, 2013 in Loganville, Georgia, a town of 11,000 30 miles east of Atlanta, Melinda Herman was at home watching her 9-year-old twins, and working in her second-story office. At one o'clock that afternoon, Melinda looked out a window and saw a man she didn't recognize pull up in front of her upper-middle-class suburban home. The man, later identified as 32-year-old Paul Ali Slater, had been released from jail in August after serving six months for simple battery and three counts of probation violation. Since 2008, this thief and burglar had been arrested seven times.

     Melinda watched the man approach the house. He knocked on the front door, and when she didn't answer, he laid on the doorbell. Frightened, Melinda called her husband Donnie at work. (In late December, Donne had taken his wife to a shooting range where she had learned how to fire a .38-caliber revolver.) Donnie told Melinda to take possession of the firearm, then hide in the attic with the children. He called 911.

     When Melinda looked out the window again, she saw the man coming toward the house with a crowbar in his hand. As Slater used the tool to break into the Herman home, Melinda and the twins hid in a crawlspace closet.

     From inside the attic closet, Melinda could hear the burglar rummaging through the family's belongings. She became extremely alarmed when she heard the intruder enter the attic. Suddenly the closet door opened, and there he was, standing a foot from her and the children. Melinda raised the six-shot revolver and fired all of its bullets. Five of the slugs hit Slater in the face and neck. Four of these bullets passed through his body.

     The shot intruder fell face-down on the attic floor. As the blood started leaking from his bullet-ridden body, he begged Melinda, who was still pulling the trigger of her empty gun, to stop shooting. Melinda and the children stepped over the home invader's body, and ran out of the house. As they took refuge in a neighbor's place, Slater managed to get to his feet and stumble out of the dwelling. He made his way to the SUV, but a few houses down the street, ran the vehicle into a tree.

     The bloodied and badly wounded burglar crawled out of his SUV and collapsed on someone's driveway. That's where deputies from the Walton County Sheriff's Office found him. "Help me," he cried. "I'm close to dying."

     Emergency personnel rushed the shot intruder to the Gwinnet Medical Center where he was placed on a ventilator. He is expected to survive his gunshot wounds. He's lucky, few people would survive five .38-caliber slugs fired into them at close range. No one will ever know what would have happened to Melinda Herman and her two children had she not emptied her gun on this home invader.

      The local prosecutor charged Paul Ali Slater with burglary and other related offenses. Eventually he will be moved from his hospital bed to a jail cot, and then to a prison cell. In time, this man will be back  out on the street, and in all probability, unless he is confined to a wheelchair, will continue breaking into homes.