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Saturday, May 30, 2015

Robert Kosilek: Should a Man Who Murdered His Wife Get a Free Sex Change Operation?

     On the afternoon of Sunday, May 20, 1990, Robert Kosilek hailed a cab from a shopping mall parking lot in North Attleborough, Massachusetts. The taxi driver drove him to a store located a half mile from his home in Mansfield where he lived with his wife Cheryl and their 15-year-old son Timothy. Later that evening, Kosilek called the North Attleborough Police Department to inquire if his wife had been in an automobile accident. She hadn't returned home from work that day and he was worried. The officer he spoke to said, yes, they had found his wife's car. Would he please come to the police station so they could discuss the matter.

     A hour or so before the 41-year-old husband's police call, his wife's body had been discovered in the back seat of her car that was parked in the same shopping mall lot. She had been murdered by someone who had used a length of wire to strangle her.

     At the police station, after being informed of his wife's violent death, Robert Kosilek said Cheryl had left the house that morning for work, and before coming home, had planned to shop at the mall. As for his activities that day, he had stayed home working around the house. The next day, when questioned again, this time as a suspect in his wife's murder, detectives informed Kosilek that they had spoken to his son Timothy who told them that when he (Timothy) called the house that day at five in the afternoon, no one answered the phone. This contradicted the suspect's story that he had been in the house all day. Kosilek asked to be excused from the interrogation room so he could go downstairs to buy cigarettes. From the first floor of the police station, Kosilek called the detective squad and informed the officer that he had terminated the interview and would be hiring an attorney.

     Late that night, Kosilek ran his car into a stop sign in Bedford, Massachusetts. The police officer who responded to the minor accident found Kosilek sitting in the car dressed as a woman.

     On May 24, 1990, police in New Rochelle, New York stopped Kosilek for speeding, then arrested him for driving while intoxicated. At the police department, Kosilek said, "You would be drunk too if the police thought you killed your wife. Look, I had a 15-year-old son and a wife....I murdered my wife. Now I need to call a psychiatrist." The police in New Rochelle called the authorities in North Attleborough, Massachusetts.

     In October 1992, Robert Kosilek went on trial for the murder of his wife. The prosecutor played an audio-taped interview the defendant had given to a local TV reporter. According to Kosilek, on the day of the killing, he and his wife had gotten into a violent argument. She threw boiling water into his face which caused him to punch her to the ground. Cheryl got to her feet, grabbed a kitchen knife and chased him into the living room, threatening to kill him. According to this self-serving account of the fight, Kosilek picked up a length of wire from a table. That's the last thing he remembered. To the TV interviewer he said, "Apparently, I did take her life. It was probably self-defense." During the trial the defendant was dressed up like a woman, painted fingernails and all.

     The jury didn't buy the self-defense theory of Cheryl Kosilek's death. They found the defendant guilty of first-degree murder, and in January 1993, the trial judge sentenced him to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

     Shortly after entering the Massachusetts state prison in Norfolk, Kosilek changed his name to Michelle Kosilek. He was allowed to dress like a female and let his hair grow down to his waist. A prison psychiatrist diagnosed Kosilek with having a gender identification disorder. (He also had a wife killing disorder.) In 2000, Michelle sued the state in federal court for denying him/her a sex change operation, claiming this denial violated his/her Eighth Amendment right against cruel and unusual punishment. Two years later, U.S. District Court Judge Mark Wolf ruled that Kosilek was entitled to be treated for his gender identification disorder, but stopped short of ordering the state to pay for a full sex change operation.

      Although Kosilek didn't get what he wanted from the federal court, the state did provide the prisoner with female hormone therapy, laser hair removal services, and psychotherapy to deal with the disorder.

     In 2005, Kosilek filed a second lawsuit in the same federal court against the Massachusetts Department of Corrections in which he alleged cruel and unusual punishment. In the August 2006 trial, his attorney put several psychiatrists on the stand who testified that for this inmate a sex change was "medically necessary." Kosilek's attorney said, "We ask that gender identification disorder be treated like any other medical condition." (Who said this was a medical condition?) One of the shrinks testified that if the state denied Kosilek this "medical" treatment, the prisoner would kill himself.

     At this absurd trial, Kosilek took the stand and testified that the gender identification condition was equivalent to "biological claustrophobia," and said that the standard treatment for this malady included "surgical correction of the offending genitalia." Holding back tears, the witness said, "The greatest loss is the dying I do inside a little bit every day."(This is a person who can live with killing his wife, but will kill himself if he doesn't get a vagina? Give me a break.)

     The attorney representing the state, in summing up his case before the jury, said, "He's doing life without parole for murder....He was 41 when he killed Cheryl Kosilek. He didn't try to get a sex change operation at that time. Now he's 53 years of age, and he wants the state to pay for that?"

     On September 4, 2012, U.S. District Court Judge Mark Wolf, in his 126-page first-of-a-kind decision, held that the state of Massachusetts must pay for Kosilek's $20,000 sex change operation. In justifying his ruling, the judge wrote that the operation was the "only adequate treatment" for the now 57-year-old prisoner, and that "there is no less intrusive means to correct the prolonged violation of Kosilek's Eighth Amendment right to adequate medical care."

     I guess Judge Wolf was not bothered by the fact there are millions of Americans who have not murdered anyone who do not even receive basic medical care, let alone free sex change operations. What need does a man who will spend the rest of his life in prison have for a vagina? If this is the level of health care taxpayers will have to pay for our vast population of men serving life terms behind bars, then it's time to reverse the trend toward fewer executions. Otherwise, if there is cruel and unusual punishment going on, it involves law abiding citizens who pay the bills.

     On September 17, 2012, Judge Wolf ruled that Kosilek was also eligible to have his legal fees--expected to top $500,000-- paid by the government.

     On December 16, 2014, the First Circuit Court of Appeals overturned U.S. District Court Mark Wolf's ruling. The federal appeals justices found that denying the sex change did not violate Kosilek's Eight Amendment right against cruel and unusual punishment.

   

     

Monday, May 25, 2015

The Randy Alana Murder Case

     In 2013, 50-year-old Sandra Coke, a capital case investigator for the federal public defender's office headquartered in Sacramento, California, resided in Oakland with her 15-year-old daughter. As a federal investigator in cases involving death row inmates who had appealed their sentences, Coke interviewed them, their family members, and acquaintances for the public defenders office in the Eastern District of California. The job often involved travel around California and into other states.

     In May 2013, someone broke into Sandra Coke's home and stole her beloved cocker spaniel, Ginny.  Since then, in her spare time, Sandra ran down leads regarding her pet's whereabouts generated by missing-dog posters she had posted around her neighborhood. The poster offered a $1,000 reward for information leading to Ginny's return.

     On Saturday, August 3, 2013, someone called Sandra with information about the dog. At eight-thirty the following evening, Sandra left her house to meet with the person who had called about Ginny. Before leaving the dwelling Sandra told her daughter that she'd be gone no more than thirty minutes. When she did not return to the house as promised, her daughter reported her missing to the Oakland Police Department.

     Doing some detective work of her own, the missing woman's daughter tracked her iPhones using a GPS application. One of the phones had been dumped along a highway near Richmond, California. The other device had been ditched in Oakland.

     At seven-forty-five the evening after Sandra Coke's disappearance, Oakland police found her 2007 Mini Cooper convertible parked two miles from her home. In a quest for leads regarding her whereabouts, officers removed bags of evidence from the Coke residence. Included among the items seized were two laptop computers.

     A few days into the missing person's case, investigators developed a suspect from Oakland named Randy Alana. The 56-year-old career criminal had been seen with Sandra Coke on the night she went missing. The two had dated twenty years earlier.

     In June 2012, Alana was paroled from a fifteen-year prison sentence for armed robbery. He also had convictions for kidnapping and rape and was registered in California as a high-risk sex offender. The fact he and Sandra had been together on the night she went missing raised the possibility of murder.

     For Randy Alana, this was not the first time he was a suspect in a murder case. In September 1983, Alameda County, California  prosecutor Russ Giutini charged the then 26-year-old criminal with using a hammer to beat to death Marilyn Pigott, a woman he had known since elementary school. Pigott had been murdered on August 13, 1983 in her North Oakland apartment.

     In June 1984, while awaiting his murder trial in the Alameda County Jail, Alana and a fellow inmate named James Hodari Benson were accused of killing 40-year-old Al Ingram. The victim had been stabbed 93 times. Alana and Benson were members of the Black Guerrilla Family prison gang. They killed Ingram under the false belief he was a police informant.

      In the fall of 1984, the jury in the Marilyn Pigott murder trial deadlocked 9-3 in favor of convicting Alana. In his second trial, the jury acquitted him because the witnesses who testified against him were "street types." In the Pigott case, Prosecutor Giutini managed to convict Alana of receiving stolen property in connection with his possession of the murder victim's ring.

     In 1986, as a defendant in the Al Ingram murder trial, the jury couldn't reach an unanimous verdict on the issue of Alana's guilt. The judge declared a mistrial. James Hodari Benson was convicted of the murder in 1987. A year later, Alana pleaded no contest to voluntary manslaughter in the Benson case in return for a prison sentence of six years.

     Police officers, on August 6, 2013, arrested Randy Alana on a parole violation and booked him into the Santa Rita County Jail in Dublin, California. The magistrate denied Alana bail.

     Three days after Alana's arrest, a Contra County search and rescue team near Lagoons Valley Park, an unincorporated area in Solano County outside of Vacaville, California, found Sandra Coke's body in a creek bed. She had been strangled to death.

     Former Alameda prosecutor Russ Giutini, in speaking to a CBS reporter, described Alana as a good-looking career criminal who is cunning and manipulative.

     On August 18, 2013, in a jailhouse interview, Randy Alana told a reporter with The Oakland Tribune that he and Sandra Coke had been in love and had planned to get married. During the past several months, according to Alana, they had shared a house and regularly attended the Harmony Missionary Baptist Church. "I'm being treated like a suspect," he said.

     In November 2013, an Alameda County prosecutor charged Alana with murder in connection with Sandra Coke's death. Al Wax, Alana's longtime criminal defense attorney, called the case against his client "very weak and circumstantial," asked a judge in June 2014 to dismiss the case. The judge denied the defense motion to drop the charges. The case would progress to the trial stage.

     The Randy Alana murder trial got underway on March 16, 2015 in the Alameda County Courthouse in Oakland. Prosecutor Colleen McMahon, in her opening remarks to the jury, said that after the defendant stoled Sandra Coke's dog Ginny on May 9, 2013, he tried to extort $1,000 from her for the pet's return. She didn't file charges against him and didn't pay him the ransom. She did, however, speak to his parole officer, accusing Alana of stealing her car, abducting her dog, and stealing her daughter's expensive headphones. This discussion led to Alana's incarceration that spring and summer for violating his parole.

     Infuriated that Coke had spoken to his parole agent, the defendant strangled Coke to death in the rear seat of her Mini Cooper parked behind the Nights Inn in North Oakland.

     Defense attorney Al Wax, in his opening statement, said that without an eyewitness or a confession, the prosecution's case was entirely circumstantial and insufficient.

     Over the next four weeks, prosecutor McMahon presented her evidence that included incriminating surveillance camera footage, cellphone data, and records from the defendant's electronic ankle monitor. When police officers arrested him on August 6, 2013 in Dublin, California, Alana was in possess of the murder victim's car keys and credit cards.

     Two of the defendant's former cellmates at the Santa Rita County Jail took the stand for the prosecution and testified that following his arrest, he remarked that while he had assaulted many women in the past, things didn't look good for him this time.

     Prosecutor McMahon, to establish motive, played a recording of a phone call from Alana to Sandra Coke made on May 9, 2013 from the Santa Rita County Jail. In that call, Alana expressed his rage at her for getting him into trouble with his parole officer.

     A 40-year-old homeless woman took the stand and said that just hours after Sandra Coke's murder, the defendant took her, in his "wife's" Mini Cooper, to a motel in Oakland where they smoked crack and she gave him oral sex.

     Randy Alana took the stand on his own behalf on April 20, 2015. Under direct examination by defense attorney Wax, the defendant gave an account of his activities on the day of Coke's murder, a story he was telling for the first time. According to Alana, on August 3, 2013, he and Sandra Coke, in her Mini Cooper, followed two people she believed would lead them to her dog Ginny. At the point of destination, a crack house in Richmond, California, he went inside to smoke dope while she remained out side talking to the unidentified people.

     When Alana came out of the crack house Sandra asked him to take her car and and bank card and withdraw cash from her bank account. When he returned to the crack house with the money she was gone, presumably murdered by these mysterious people.

     On May 4, 2015, the last day of Alana's self-serving testimony, prosecutor McMahon, during a blistering cross-examination, poked several holes in the defendant's story. The next day, following the testimony of the defendant's 33-year-old daughter from a short-lived marriage in the 1980s, the defense rested. The judge excused the jury until May 18.

     On May 20, 2015, after the closing arguments, the jury, following a two-hour deliberation, found Randy Alana guilty as charged. He faced up to 96 years in prison. The judge did not set a sentencing date.
         

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Stephen Glass: Discredited Journalist to Ethical Lawyer?

     Stephen Glass, whose father is a physician and his mother a nurse, grew up in an affluent neighborhood in Chicago's North Shore. After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, he moved to Washington, D.C. In 1995, Glass joined the staff of "The New Republic," a hip magazine read by influential political insiders referred to by some as the onboard magazine of Air Force One.

     Ambitious, talented, and eager to please his editor and colleagues, Stephen, in 1996, began dolling up his pieces by fudging quotes and doctoring anecdotes. He continued to fictionalize his nonfiction work through 1997. Early in 1998, Glass submitted stories that were completely made up, accompaning these pieces with phony footnotes, fake email correspondence, and manufactured interview notes.

     Stephen's editor, Charles Lane, became suspicious when he couldn't cooberate the young journalist's sources in several of his submissions. This caused an internal review which led to Stephen's termination in May 1998. (The scandal is the subject of a TV docudrama called "Shattered Glass.") During his tenure at "The New Republic," Glass fabricated thirty-six articles, about half of his journalistic output. (As a free-lancer, he had also fabricated stories for three other publications.)

     After being thrown out of journalism, Glass became a law student at Georgetown University. After acquiring his degree, he moved to New York where he passed the bar exam. After a short stay in New York, Glass took up residence in Los Angeles. Although he passed the California bar exam, because of his history as a journalist, he did not apply to become a licensed attorney. Instead, he took a job as a para-legal at a Beverly Hills law firm.

     In 2003, Glass published an autobiographical novel called "The Fabulist" in which he glossed over the extent of his journalistic fraud. Reviewers were unkind, and the public uninterested. Glass had lost his credibility as a journalist and as a novelist. Moreover, a lot of people were put off by his attempt to capitalize on his journalistic crimes.

     Glass, in 2005, applied for admission to the California Bar. The bar committee, finding him morally unfit to become a lawyer, denied him membership. He appealed the decision to the state bar court which, in 2010, found in his favor. The state responded by appealing the bar court's decision to the California Supreme Court.

     On January 26, 2014, the California Supreme Court denied Glass his license to practice law. In its ruling, the justices noted that "Glass' journalistic dishonesty was not a single lapse of judgement but involved significant deceit sustained unremittingly for a period of years." Moreover, according to the high court, Glass' journalistic lying took place "while he was pursuing a law degree and license to practice law, when the importance of honesty should have gained new meaning for him."

     While no one would dispute the fact there are rotten apples in the legal profession barrel, at least this rotten apple won't be joining them. 

Friday, May 22, 2015

The Brian Browning Sleeping Pill Murder Case

     Brian Browning, 51, lived with his 47-year-old wife Catherine and their two daughters, aged 18 and 20, in Skye, Australia, a suburb of Melbourne on the country's southeastern coast. Catherine worked for the Family Life Community Agency, an organization dedicated to fighting violence against women.

     After the couple agreed to an amicable separation on December 10, 2013, Brian, worried about his financial future, became distraught and couldn't sleep. His 20-year-old daughter Amy suggested that he see a physician. Instead, Brian purchased an over-the-counter packet of 20 Restavit brand sleeping pills.

     At six in the morning of December 19, 2013, Amy Browning heard her mother scream. At the bedroom door, she encountered her father who stood in the doorway holding a bloody knife. Brian Browning, knife in hand, called his wife a bitch then let the weapon fall to his feet.

     Responding police officers discovered Catherine Browning lying in one of her daughter's beds. A forensic pathologist determined that the victim had been stabbed 15 times. Brian Browning had greeted the police that morning in his garden outside of his house. "I've killed my wife," he said.

     Paramedics transported Mr. Browning to the Frankston Hospital for observation. The emergency crew noticed that he was wide-eyed and staring straight ahead. He did, however, respond to their questions.

     At the hospital, Mr. Browning claimed to see ants and spiders crawling on the walls. With a rapid heart rate and elevated blood pressure, hospital personnel turned him over to the custody of the police.

     The next day, while being questioned at the police station, Brian Browning said, "About six o'clock I talked myself into killing her. I went and got the kitchen knife. She was in my daughter's bed. I stabbed her. She woke up, screamed, then I just kept stabbing, stabbing, stabbing. I just spun out."

     According to the suspect, before he went to bed on the night before the killing, he had taken four to ten of the Restavit sleeping pills. After the murder, Mr. Browning said he was so disgusted with himself over what he had done he took the remaining pills in an effort to kill himself. (Detectives had recovered the empty pill packet.)

     On December 20, 2013, in the Melbourne Magistrates Court, Brian Browning pleaded not guilty to the charge of murder. The magistrate denied him bail and ordered a mental evaluation.

     In early April 2015, the Browning murder trial got underway in the Supreme Crown Court of Victoria with Justice Lex Lasry presiding. The defendant's barrister, George Georgiou, in his opening remarks to the jury, argued that the sleeping pills had rendered his client incapable of possessing the criminal intent to commit murder. The barrister characterized Mr. Browning's stabbing frenzy as involuntary behavior.

     Crown prosecutor Daryl Brown, after bringing police officers, detectives, and the defendant's oldest daughter to the stand, put a medical expert into the witness box. According to the physician, four to ten sleeping pills should not have been enough to cause hallucinations or the other effects alleged by the defendant.

     On April 20, 2015, a witness for the prosecution took the stand and testified that at the time of the killing the defendant was about to collect a $200,000 settlement regarding a workplace injury, money he did not want to share in the divorce arrangement. Moreover, he did not like the idea of sharing the money from the sale of the house with his ex-wife.

     When it came time to put on his defense, Barrister Georgiou put Dr. Lester Walton on the stand. According to the psychiatrist, the Resavit pills contained the sedative doxylamine which can make a person feel agitated. "In broad terms," the doctor said, "the more the person takes the more likely it is he might expect some form of adverse reaction." On cross-examination the psychiatrist admitted that he had never come across a case of doxylamine induced psychosis.

     In his April 28, 2015 closing argument, Crown Prosecutor Daryl Brown told the jury that "whatever the defendant's thought processes were at the time of the killing, it was clear that he knew who he was stabbing. That shows awareness." According to the prosecutor, Mr. Browning had killed his wife because "she was the person who was causing his world to be turned upside down."

     Defense barrister Georigiou, in his closing statement, pointed out that Restavit tablet overdoses have been known to cause psychotic episodes.

     On May 5, 2015, the jury found Brian Browning guilty of murder. The judge will sentence him at a later date.

   

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Alix Tichelman: A Hooker, Heroin, and a Dead Millionaire on a Yacht

     Alix Catherine Tichelman described herself on her Facebook page as a fetish ("bondage, dominance, sadism and masochism") model with more than 200 "client relationships." In plain words, the 26-year-old worked as a Silicon Valley prostitute. Her "clients" were wealthy Johns willing to shell out big fees for the rope, the whip, and who knows what else.

     If one believed Tichelman's Facebook entries, the self-described high-end hooker graduated from high school in Deluth, Georgia before studying journalism at Georgia State University in Atlanta. (Maybe in college she heard that journalists were whores and decided to make real money in that profession.) Tichelman started her sex worker career at Larry Flynt's Hustler Club.

     In early 2012, Tichelman began dating Dean Riopelle, the lead singer of a rock-and-roll band called "Impotent Sea Snakes." (Catchy.) Riopelle also owned the Masquerade Night Club in Atlanta, a popular music venue. Interestingly enough, Riopelle had earned a degree in construction engineering from the University of Florida. Eventually Tichelman moved into Riopell's luxury home in Milton, Georgia.

     On September 6, 2013, officers with the Milton Police Department responded to a domestic call that originated from the Riopelle house. Tichelman, the caller, accused her boyfriend of physical abuse. He returned the favor with assault accusations of his own. The officers departed without taking anyone into custody.

     On September 19, 2013, Tichelman dialed 911 and to the dispatcher said, "I think my boyfriend overdosed on something. He, like, won't respond." Tichelman, in response to the emergency dispatcher's questions, said Riopelle's eyes were open but he was unconscious. She described his breathing as "on and off." The dispatcher overheard the caller say, "Hello Dean, are you awake?"

     When the 911 dispatcher asked Tichelman how she knew her boyfriend had overdosed on something, she said, "Because there's nothing else it could be." The dispatcher inquired if the overdose was intentional or accidental. "He was taking painkillers and drinking a lot," came the reply.

     Dean Riopelle died a week later at a local hospital. The medical examiner's office, following the autopsy, identified the cause of death as excessive heroin and alcohol consumption. The medical examiner ruled the death an accident.

     On November 23, 2013, about a month after Dean Riopelle's overdose fatality, a 51-year-old Google executive from Silicon Valley named Forrest Timothy Hayes enjoyed Tichelman's purchased company on his 50-foot yacht. (The vessel has also been described as a powerboat.) Later that day, the authorities discovered Hayes dead in one of the boat's bedrooms. (The yacht was not at sea.)

     In the course of the investigation into this sudden death, detectives with the Santa Cruz Police Department viewed the yacht's videotape footage that revealed just how the executive had died. Tichelman was seen injecting Hayes with what investigators presumed to be a shot of heroin. Immediately after the needle went in, he clutched his chest and collapsed. Tichelman responded to the obvious emergency by finishing her glass of wine then gathering up her belongings. As she casually strolled out of the bedroom, she stepped over Hayes' body. She did not call 911.

     Santa Cruz detectives, on July 3, 2014, executed a search warrant at Tichelman's parents' home in Folsom, a upscale Silicon Valley community. Her father, Bart, was CEO of a tech firm that offered "energy efficient infrastructure" for data centers. At the Tichelman house, detectives carried away the suspect's laptop. On the computer, investigators found that Tichelman, just before Hayes' death, had made online inquires regarding how to defend oneself if accused of homicide in a drug overdose case.

     On July 4, 2014, an undercover Santa Cruz officer, through the website SeekingArrangement.com, lured Alix Tichelman to a fancy hotel on the pretext of being a John willing to pay $1,000 for a session featuring fetish sex. The officer took the hooker into custody on suspicion of criminal homicide in the yacht owner's death.

     At her arraignment on July 10, 2014, the judge informed the suspect she faced a charge of manslaughter along with several drug related crimes. She pleaded not guilty to these offenses. The judge set her bail at $1.5 million.

     Homicide detectives, in the wake of Forrest Hayes' suspicious death, were looking into the Dean Riopelle overdose case. As a result of the Hayes case, SeekingArrangement.com was shut down. This upset Silicon Valley prostitutes who said they used the site to screen Johns with histories of violence. Affluent sex worker clients in the valley also used the site to arrange hooker dates. (I guess if you're a whore, doing business in an area populated by a lot of rich nerds is a good thing.)

   On May 18, 2015, Alix Tichelman pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and numerous drug offenses in connection with Forrest Hayes' fatal overdose. Larry Biggam, the lawyer who negotiated the plea bargain on Tichelman's behalf, told reporters that although his client had been sentenced to six years in prison, she will only spend three years behind bars.

     The Tichelman case illustrates the difference between immoral and illegal behavior. While not raising a hand to save a dying man is a highly immoral act, in law it is merely a minor form of criminal homicide.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Kurt Cobain's Sudden Death: Suicide or Murder-For-Hire?

     Kurt Cobain was the lead singer of the band Nirvana. Married to Courtney Love, he had a history of heroin addiction, clinical depression, and bipolar disorder. In April 1994, following a stint at a drug rehabilitation facilty, Courtney Love reported him missing and suicidal. She hired celebrity private investigator Tom Grant to find him.

     On April 8, 1994, a worker hired to install security lighting at Kurt Cobain's Seattle estate found the 27-year-old dead in the space above his garage referred to as "the greenhouse." The lighting installer found Cobain lying on the floor with a severe head wound and a shotgun (purchased for him by a friend) resting on his chest. Cobain's left hand was wrapped around the barrel. Nearby lay a one-page handwritten note.

     The King County Medical Examiner, Dr. Nicholas Hartshorne, determined the cause of death to be a point blank shotgun blast to the head. The forensic pathologist estimated that Cobain had died on April 5, three days before the discovery of his body. (When someone is reported missing it's not a bad idea to search his house and garage.) According to a toxicologist, "The level of heroin in Cobain's bloodstream was 1.52 milligrams per litre." Dr. Hartshorne ruled the manner of Cobain's death a suicide.

      Sometime after the manner of death ruling, Courtney Love told an editor from Rolling Stone that Cobain had tried to kill himself in Rome by taking 50 Rohypnol pills.

     Tom Grant, the private investigator hired to find Cobain, along with a pair of true crime book writers, and others, believed that Kurt Cobain was the victim of a murder-for-hire plot orchestrated by Courtney Love for his inheritance. Grant and his supporters believed the killer drugged Cobain with heroin, shot him, then staged the sucide. They thought the physical evidence in the greenhouse and the findings in the toxicology report made murder a more plausible manner of death than suicide.

     The Cobain murder theory proponents argued that the death scene did not contain the amount of blood one would expect from a point blank shotgun blast to the head. (Several forensic pathologists have noted that a shotgun shot inside the mouth often results in less blood.) In support of this theory, Tom Grant has pointed out that Cobain's latent fingerprints were not found on the death scene shotgun. (People do not leave identifiable fingerprints on everything they touch. Therefore, the fact that Cobain's latents were not lifted from the gun doesn't prove anything. For all we know, crime scene investigators bungled the job.)

     Regarding the death scene suicide note, Grant and his supporters also subscribed to the theory the document was really a letter written by Cobain announcing his plan to leave his wife and the music industry. The private investigator tthought the last few lines at the bottom of the page had been written by Courtney Love. Five forensic document examiners hired by the TV shows "Dateline NBC" and "Unsolved Mysteries" examined a photocopy of the note. One of the handwriting experts concluded that the entire document was in Cobain's hand. The other four weren't sure if the last lines were added by someone else.

     Those who believed that someone had murdered Cobain argued that he had been so heavily drugged he couldn't have pulled the trigger. Of the five forensic pathologists who considered this issue, two believed that Cobain had built up enough tolerance to have the strength to kill himself. The other three forensic pathologists were not sure.

     In anticipation of the 20th anniversary of Kurt Cobain's death, a cold-case investigator with the Seattle Police Department spent weeks in February and March 2014 reviewing the case file. On March 21, 2014 a Seattle police spokesperson announced that while the cold-case detective discovered four rolls of undeveloped death scene photographs, the investigator found nothing that sustained the conclusion that Cobain was murdered.

     The newly discovered death scene photographs did not depict Cobain's corpse but rather syringes, a tainted spoon, a lighter, and other personal items strewn across the floor near his body.

     Based upon what I know about this case, I think the weight of evidence supports suicide. The fact that Cobain was holding the barrel of the gun (referred to as the death grip) suggests he was the shooter. If someone had shot Cobain, that person would not have been able to place the dead man's hand around the barrel like that. Moreover, the vast majority of murder-for-hire cases unravel quickly after the hitman, or someone the mastermind had reached out to, spills the beans. To my knowledge that did not happened in this 20 year old case.  

Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Gilberto Valle Cannibal Cop Case

     Gilberto Valle, a 6-year New York City police officer assigned to the 26th Precinct in Harlem, lived with his wife and child in the Forest Hills section of Queens. On an online dating site called OKCupid, the 28-year-old police officer described himself as a "very calm individual" with "an endless supply of hilarious short stories from work that can't be made up. I'll try anything," he wrote, "and I'm not picky at all." According to his online profile, Valle had attended Archbishop Molloy High School in Queens and the University of Maryland, College Park.

     Based upon an investigation conducted by the FBI over several months, officer Valle was not calm, or funny. And what he was willing to try was more than a little disturbing. 
     According to court documents related to the federal investigation, Gilberto Valle, and several unnamed co-conspirators, had used the Internet to acquire potential female victims to kidnap, rape, torture, murder, cook, and eat. In his search for targets, Valle had used federal and state law enforcement crime-victim databases. The suspect corresponded with his like-minded co-conspirators through online dating forums.

     In addition to his use of the Internet to identify and lure women, Valle conducted physical surveillances of their homes and workplaces. He used this data to draw up and revise detailed kidnap/murder "operation plans." 
     In February 2012, Valle, in an online communication with a co-conspirator who had expressed a desire to rape a woman, offered to kidnap a victim for this man for a fee of $5,000. Pursuant to his offer, Valle wrote: "It is going to be hard to contain myself when I knock her out, but I am aspiring to be a professional kidnapper, and that's business." Later in the conversation, Valle wrote: "She will be alive. I think I would rather not get involve in the rape. You paid for her. She is all yours, and I don't want to be tempted the next time I abduct a girl." 
     On July 2, 2012, Valle and a co-conspirator conducted a disturbing online conversation in which Valle wrote: "I was thinking of tying her body onto some kind of apparatus. Cook her over a low heat, keep her alive as long as possible."
     "How big is your oven," asked the co-conspirator. 
     "Big enough to fit one of these girls if I folded their legs...the abduction will have to be flawless...I know all of them."
     In another Internet exchange regarding a specific woman, Valle wrote: "I can just show up at her home unannounced, it will not alert her, and I can knock her out, wait until dark and kidnap her right out of her home."
     Valle's co-conspirator offered Valle some kidnap advice: "You really would be better to grab a stranger. The first thing the police force will do is check out [the victim's] friends [as suspects]."
     "Her family is out of state."    
     "I have anesthetic gasses," replied the helpful co-conspirator.
     "I can make chloroform here," Valle replied. 
     In another July 2012 conversation, one of Gilberto Valle's co-sickies asked, "How was your meal?"
     "I am meeting her on Sunday," came the reply. 
     FBI agents, on Wednesday, October 24, 2012, arrested Gilberto Valle at his home on charges of conspiracy to commit kidnapping and intentionally and knowingly accessing a computer without authorization. (The bureau moved in because Valle had recently had lunch with a woman the FBI feared he would abduct.) From Valle's home in Queens, agents seized a computer that contained personal data--names, addresses, physical descriptions, and photographs--of 100 women. Valle's computer also held hundreds of incriminating emails and instant message chats between the suspect and his co-conspirators. 
          In March 2013, a jury in Manhattan found the defendant guilty as charged. In July 2014, however, a federal judge, except for the count of illegally using the federal databank to target victims, overturned Valle's conviction. Instead of facing up to life in prison Valle walked out of the jail having already served enough time to satisfy the punishment for the lesser offense.

     This judge did not believe Valle's writings and behavior rose above the expression of his bizarre fantasies. In America people are punished for criminal actions, not thoughts. This was a close and controversial decision. 
     

Friday, May 8, 2015

The Donald Greenslit Arson Dismemberment Case

     Prior to his domestic assault conviction in October 2011, Donald Greenslit lived with his common-law wife Stacie Dorego and their two young children in a two-story house in Johnston, Rhode Island. Following Greenslit's conviction, probated sentence, and no-contact court order, he moved out. The couple's relationship had been a tumultuous one, marred by numerous arrests for domestic violence. He beat this woman, and beat her often.

     During the early morning hours of Monday, January 22, 2012, Johnston firefighters and rescue personnel were dispatched to the Pershing Road home after receiving a call regarding smoke coming from the house. Greenslit met the responders at the front door of the smoke-filled dwelling. The 52-year-old, after assuring the firefighters that all was well, ordered them to leave his property. Police officers pushed Greenslit aside so the emergency personnel could extinguish the fire and check on the children.

     Greenslit's children, found in their second-story bedroom, were rushed to the Hasbro Children's Hospital where they were treated for smoke inhalation. Firefighters quickly got control of the fire, but in the process, made a gruesome discovery.

     In the fireplace, the emergency responders found the dismembered and smoldering remains of a woman wrapped in a blanket. At the Johnston Police Department later that morning, Greenslit admitted dismembering his wife with a power saw and setting fire to her mutilated corpse. Yes, he had stabbed Stacie Dorego to death, but in self-defense after she had attacked him with a knife.

     According to Dr. Christina Stanley, the Chief Medical Examiner for Rhode Island, the 39-year-old victim had died from multiple stab wounds. The forensic pathologist ruled the death a criminal homicide.

     On January 23, 2012, a Providence County prosecutor charged Greenslit with domestic murder, two counts of child abuse, the obstruction of fire officers, disorderly conduct, and the violation of a non-contact order. Two months later, a grand jury sitting in Providence indicted Greenslit on all charges. In April, at his preliminary hearing, Greenslit pleaded not guilty to domestic murder and the other offenses. He had since recanted his statement to the police that he had killed Dorego in self-defense.

     The Donald Greenslit murder trial got underway on March 1, 2013 in a Providence Superior Court. Following the selection of the jury and the opening statements, the prosecution, on March 4, put two firefighters on the stand who testified that the defendant had tried to deny them entry into the smokey house. A Johnston detective climbed into the witness box and described what he had found in the basement after the fire had been extinguished. The officer recovered a piece of flesh that bore Stacie Dorego's tattoo of a butterfly.

     Special Assistant Attorney General Sara Tindall-Woodman, on March 6, put a jailhouse snitch named Alex Boisclair on the stand. This witness said that he had shared a cell with the defendant, and after being cellmates for one day, Greenslit confided in him that he had stabbed his common-law wife five times. According to the police informant, Greenslit said he had burned Dorego's body parts because he knew she had, upon her death, wished to be cremated. (I doubt she had envisioned her own fireplace as the cremation site.)

     Defense attorney Mark Dana, on cross-examination, accused this witness of incriminating Greenslit in return for prosecutorial leniency on his own behalf. Boisclair, in denying a prosecution deal, said he was simply doing what he thought was the right thing.

     On March 7, 2013, a DNA analyst testified that blood found on a circular saw recovered from the defendant's basement had come from Stacie Dorego. The DNA expert was followed to the stand by the state's chief medical examiner who said that Stacie Dorego's heart had been pierced three times by "something with a single edge." Following Dr. Christina Stanley's testimony, the prosecution rested its case. (I don't believe the prosecution introduced a murder weapon into evidence.)

     On Friday, March 8, defense attorney Mark Dana rested his case without putting the defendant on the stand. (While jurors are not supposed to take this as evidence of guilt, they usually do.) Dana told the jurors that the police didn't test for DNA at the death scene because they didn't want to discover that someone else had committed the murder. He pointed out that without a confession, eyewitness, or physical evidence linking his client to the crime scene, the prosecution's case was weak, and circumstantial. The defense attorney also attacked the credibility of the jailhouse snitch.

     On March 11, 2013, the jury of ten women and two men found Donald Greenslit guilty of murder.

     On May 15, 2013, Judge Susan McGuirl sentenced Greenslit to life in prison without the chance of parole.

     

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The Vincent Viafore Murder Case

     In 2011, Vincent Viafore, a 1986 graduate of Roy C. Ketcham High School in Wappinger, New York, met 31-year-old Angelika Graswald at the Pickwick Pub in Poughkeepsie. At the time, Viafore was going through a divorce. Graswald, a native of Lativa (maiden name Lipska), had been previously married.

     In 2015, the engaged couple planned to get married in Europe on the Baltic Sea.

     At four in the afternoon of Sunday April 19, 2015, Vincent and Angelika entered the choppy waters of the Hudson River in Kayaks. They were en route from Plum Point in the Cornwall-on-Hudson area to Bannerman's Island.

     Three hours and forty minutes after they set out on the Hudson River in Kayaks, Angelika Graswald called 911 to report that, forty minutes earlier, her fiancee had fallen out of his kayak into the river. She capsized as well and had been rescued by a boater. Mr. Viafore was still missing.

     As Graswald received treatment for hypothermia at a local hospital, police and rescue crews launched a search for Vincent Viafore. According to Graswald, Mr. Viafore had not been wearing a life jacket.

     The next day, while searchers continued to look for Vincent Viafore's body, Graswald went on Facebook to thank everyone for reaching out to her with sympathy. "Please keep your prayers for Vince," she wrote. "Miracles ARE possible. The authorities are doing everything they can." Graswald also posted a number of photographs of herself and Viafore captioned: "I miss you my love."

     On April 21, 2015, with the search for Viafore still underway, Graswald spoke to a local television reporter about how she and her fiancee had fallen out  of their kayaks into the cold, choppy waters of the Hudson River. According to Graswald, he had said, "I don't think I'm gonna make it." She had responded, "What are you talking about? Of course you will."

     Detectives questioned Grawald on April 28, 2015, nine days after the still missing Viafore capsized on the Hudson. Investigators came away from the interview doubting Graswald's account of the incident.

     On Tuesday April 30, 2015, New York State Police Major Patrick Regan announced at a press conference that Angelika Graswald had been charged with second-degree murder in connection with the death of the still missing Vincent Viafore. "Initially," he said, "we believed Graswald to be a survivor of a tragic accident."

     Without elaborating, Major Regan said, "Graswald made statements to us that implicated herself in the crime. We believe we know what happened."

     Orange County District Attorney David Hoovler, regarding the absence of a corpse, told reporters that "It's not unheard of presenting a murder case without a body." (True, but with an autopsy providing a cause of death, the case against the accused will have to be otherwise very strong. With no eyewitness, confession, a strong motive, or physical evidence linking Graswald to the murder, the prosecutor will have an uphill battle.)

     Angelika Graswald is being held in the Orange County Jail without bond.

     On May 3, 2015, Graswald gave another television interview, this time from the Orange County Jail. She said the police arrested her after reading entries in her diary in which she had written that at times she wished her fiancee dead. She explained that these passages had been written "during tough times under stress." The murder suspect insisted that she loved Viafore and would never have caused him any harm.

     

Monday, May 4, 2015

Reverend Creflo Dollar: Show Me The Money

     There are people named Hunter who don't hunt, Fishers who don't fish, and Barbers who don't cut hair. Then there's Reverend Creflo Dollar, a TV preacher who worships money. Now that's a name that fits.

The Money Ministry

     In 1986, Dollar started Creflo Dollar Ministries which today has four parking lot churches in Georgia and one in New York City, Los Angeles, Indianapolis, Washington, D.C., Dallas, and Houston. The 50-year-old televangelist and his wife Taffi are co-pastors of a megachurch in the Atlanta suburb of College Park. Called World Changers Church International, it's housed in the World Dome, a building that's big enough to hold a 8,500-seat sanctuary.

     Creflo and Taffi, the parents of five children, live in a Fayette County mansion in the metro Atlanta area. Noted for his pinstriped suits and charismatic, TV-friendly sermons, Reverend Dollar preaches that prosperity is good, and that God will bless the faithful with earthly riches. If this is gospel, Reverend Dollar and Taffi have been extremely faithful.

     The preacher isn't paid a church salary but derives enormous wealth from his real estate and horse breeding investments. He's authored 30 books and charges as much as $100,000 to give one of his uplifting, motivational speeches. (While he's no Bill or Hilary Clinton in this regard, one-hundred grant per speech puts him in rare company. I once charged $500 for a talk and felt like I had robbed a bank.)

     In 2007, U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley launched an investigation of Creflo Dollar and five other wealthy megachurch televangelists to determine if these preachers were using church-owned airplanes, luxury homes, and credit cards for their personal use. In 2010, at the conclusion of the Senate inquiry, investigators found no criminal wrongdoing. Senator Grassley, however, expressed concern regarding the lack of financial oversight at these huge, money-making ministries.

The Assault

     On the home front, things were not going so well for the prosperity evangelist. At one in the morning on Friday, June 8, 2012, Pastor Dollar's 15-year-old daughter called 911 to report a domestic disturbance. Upon the arrival of the Fayette County Sheriff's deputies, Pastor Dollar's daughter said she and her father had been arguing over whether she should go to a party. According to the police report, he choked her, threw her to the floor, punched her, and hit her with his shoe. The deputies noticed fresh scratches on the girl's neck. Pastor Dollar told the officers that his daughter "became very disrespectful," causing him to "restrain" her.

     The deputies slapped on the handcuffs, and hauled the preacher to the Fayette County Jail. Charged with the misdemeanor offenses of simple battery and cruelty to a child, Reverend Dollar made bail later that morning.

     The next day, Creflo Dollar's attorney, Nikki Bonner, released a statement from the pastor that read: "As a father I love my children and I always have their best interest at heart at all times, and I would never use my hand to ever cause bodily harm to my children." According to the lawyer, the pastor intended to preach to his flock this Sunday.

     On Sunday, June 10, 2012, Reverend Dollar told his congregation at the World Changers Church International that he had not punched or choked his daughter. He referred to the police report as a source of "exaggeration and sensationalism." Speaking from the pulpit, he said, "I will say this emphatically: I should not have been arrested. I want you all to hear personally from me that all is well in the Dollar household." The preacher said the mark on his daughter's neck had been there for ten years, caused by a skin condition. As he spoke, members of the congregation applauded and nodded their heads in approval.

     In the disputed police report, Dollar's 19-year-old daughter supposedly told a deputy that her father grabbed her sister's shoulders and slapped her in the face, then choked her for about 5 seconds. According to this family witness, the 15-year-old tried to break free, but did not fight back. When the pastor allegedly threw her to the floor, the older girl ran to get their mother.

    On January 25, 2013, a Fayette County prosecutor, after the pastor had completed an anger management program, dropped the assault and child abuse charges.

Flying High

     In 2014, Reverend Dollar launched a worldwide campaign to raise $65 million for the purchase of a Gulfstream G-650 luxury jet that accommodates 18 passengers and a crew of four. Equipped with a pair of Rolls-Royce engines, the aircraft can fly from New York to Los Angeles in less than five hours.

     In a March 2015 video soliciting donations from his "friends from around the world," the preacher lamented the fact he needed to replace his 1984 Gulfstream jet. Recently, because the 31-year-old plane had become too dangerous to fly, the pastor and his staff had been reduced to flying commercial. 

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Thomas J. Byrnes: The Father of the Third Degree

     The history of American criminal investigaton does not begin with thinking detectives inspired by the fictitious Sherlock Holmes, but with a police detective who achieved fame and success by acquiring confessions through rubber hose brutality referred to as the "third degree." Although Thomas J. Byrnes is not as familiar today as the nineteenth century private investigator, Allan Pinkerton, it was Byrnes who set the stage for decades of institutionalized police brutality in the United States. It was Byrnes who practiced interrogation techniques that decades later produced the U. S. Supreme Court's Miranda decision. (Miranda v. Arizona, 1966)

     A Civil War veteran living in New York City, Byrnes joined the police department in 1863. Following a brief stint as a patrolman, the smart and ambitious young man got promoted into the newly formed detective bureau where he quickly made a name for himself. In 1880, two years after grabbing headlines for solving a $3 million Manhattan bank burglary, Byrnes, now a captain, took charge of the detective bureau made up of two sergeants and fourteen investigators. With thirty thousand professional thieves and 2,000 gambling dens, New York, one-third the size of London, had three times the crime. Businessmen in the Wall Street district, overrun by sneak-thieves, forgers, pickpockets, and burglars, turned to Byrnes for help. The police captain responded by putting out the word, through a network of paid informants and other law enforcement contacts, that any thief caught south of his infamous Dead Line would be sent to Blackwell's Island for a severe beating; a threat Byrnes carried out with precision and joy until the thieves, having received the message, stayed out of the financial district. The tycoons of Wall Street showed their gratitude by making Captain Byrnes one of the wealthiest police detectives in history. (Today, the only people in the government who get rich are the politicians.)

     Byrnes, as much a businessman as police detective, found other sources of income. During his tenure as Captain of Detectives, he followed the standard policing practice of ignoring, for a price, the city's gambling establishments, whore houses, and opium dens. One the New York's most notorious madams paid $30,000 a year in police bribes.

     As an investigator, Byrnes, in addition to employing a stable of paid, confidential informants, would let lesser criminals off the hook in return for evidence against the bigger fish. He taught his detectives how to identify criminals, particularly safe-crackers and other signature offenders, through their individualistic crime scene techniques--their so-called methods-of-operation, or M.O. The use of informants, criminal intelligence, and M.O. were tactics pioneered by Allan Pinkerton, the only investigator in the country more famous than Byrnes.

     It is not surprising that Byrnes, as an ambitious, publicity-seeking detective working in a era before judicial restraints on police behavior, adapted, as his principal investigative technique, the coerced confession. From a brutally pragmatic point of view, the beauty of the third degree is that it is not necessary, in the acquistion of a confession, to be interrogating the guilty party. By being the first to publicize the fact he would do whatever it took to get a confession, Byrnes established police brutality as a standard operating procedure, making himself the unofficial father of the third degree. For the next fifty some years, until the U. S. Supreme Court in1936 specifically excluded confessions extracted from physically abused prisoners, the third degree became the staple of criminal investigation in America. While Brown v. Mississippi didn't end police brutality, it marked the start of a new era in criminal investigation. However, Byrnes' ghost would inhabit, in varying degrees, interrogation rooms across the country throughout the Twentieth Century.

     Although he worked in the era before the advent of crime statistics--annual crime rates, case clearance percentages and such--Byrnes used statistics, figures no less reliable that their modern counterparts, as indices of success. At one point in his career, Byrnes claimed responsibilty for 3,300 arrests leading to an accumulated ten thousand year prison sentence. There is no telling what percentage of the men he put behind bars were innocent of the crimes charged. Aware that the investigative reputation of Scotland Yard exceeded that of his own department, Byrnes, in the wake of the 1888 serial killings of five prostitutes in East London, challenged Jack-the-Ripper to ply his trade in New York. When a gutted female corpse washed up on the New York side of the Hudson River shortly after Byrnes' burst of bravado, there was serious concern that the ripper had taken up his challenge.

     Thomas Byrnes reached the peak of his fame in 1886 with the publication of a book, under his name, called Professional Criminals of America. The massive work contained the mug shots and detailed criminal histories of four-hundred of the city's most active house burglars, safe-crackers, pickpockets, check forgers, and con artists. Reprinted for the first time in 1969, it is considered a classic work in the history of property crime in America.

     In 1892, a crusading Presbyterian minister in New York City named Dr. Charles H. Parkhurst, launced a religious crusade to clean up vice in the city, and to expose the police corruption that allowed it to exist. The crusade led to political hearings headed by a New York state senator named Lexow. In 1894 Byrnes, now a police superintendent, was called before the Lexow Committee to explain how he, a public servant, had become so wealthy. As a result of the highly publicized hearings, the mayor resigned and a handful of patrolmen were indicted on charges of bribery. Byrnes, and several other police bigwigs were simply forced to resign.

     After leaving the force in 1895, the 54-year-old father of the third degree took a high paying job as general manager of an insurance company. The Lexow politicians, having enjoyed the limelight, left town, and the moment they did, the corruption and vice returned.

     In America, the ward and watch system of policing evolved into a better organized, more efficient system of bribe giving and receiving. For the next sixty to seventy years American law enforcement would be plagued by corruption and brutality. In the late 1800s, D. J. Cook, the superintendent of the Rocky Mountain Detective Association who had been a sheriff and a deputy U.S. marshal, issued words of wisdom applicable to his time and a generation of future cops: "Never hit a prisoner over the head with your pistol, because you may afterwards want to use your weapon and find it disabled."

     In 1910, the week before he died at age 69, Thomas Byrnes transferred to his wife a Fifth Avenue building worth a half-million dollars. Two years later, the lawyer-writer Arthur Train, in his best-selling book, Courts and Criminals, described the status of criminal investigation some seventy years following the formation of the New York City Police Department: "The detective business swarms with men of doubtful honesty and morals...who are accustomed to exageration if not to perjury, and who have neither the inclination nor the ability to do competent work."