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Monday, May 30, 2016

The Dan Markel Murder-For-Hire Case

     Raised in Toronto, Canada by well-to-do parents, Dan Markel, in 1995, graduated from Harvard University with a degree in philosophy. Upon earning his undergraduate degree, he studied political philosophy at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and continued his studies at the University of Cambridge in England. In 2001, he graduated from Harvard University Law School.

     After practicing law in Washington, D.C., Markel, in 2005, joined the teaching staff at Florida Statue University Law School in Tallahassee. A year later, he married Wendi Adelson, a graduate of Brandeis University and the University of Miami Law School. After acquiring her law degree in 2005, Florida State University hired her to run their public outreach program. They were married in 2006.

     In 2010, Markel, now a tenured associate professor making $193,000 a year, resided with his wife and their two young sons in the upscale Betton Hills community in Tallahassee. He had become a renowned author, teacher and scholar in the field of retributive justice, the study of punishment in proportion to the crime. He also published a popular academic law blog called, "PrawlsBlawg" that helped recent law graduates find careers in the field.

     In January 2012, Professor Markel's life took a turn for the worse when his wife Wendi blindsided him with the news she wanted a divorce. Moreover, she wanted to take their sons, 3 and 5, with her to south Florida. This led to a bitter child custody battle. The divorce became final in September 2012.

      In 2012, Professor Markel became the target of derision on a blog called "Insidethelawschoolscam," a site devoted to the proposition that law schools, by promising applicants jobs in the field, were knowingly lying about the dwindling career opportunities in law. The followers of the blog were mostly recent law school graduates saddled with huge education debts and no prospects of finding positions in the field.

     Visitors and contributors to "Insidethelawschoolscam" idolized a like-minded University of Colorado law professor named Paul Campos. Campos and his admirers believed that law schools, through false advertising and misrepresentation, were swindling students.

     "Insidethelawschoolscams" enthusiasts considered Professor Markel and his blog part of the problem. In defending his good name, Markel began to engage his detractors by posting messages on the blog. In return, he received responses like this: "Do you have the empathy to compare the terror that goes through a 26-year-old's life when a student loan bill comes due and you can't pay it? When he can't even get a job at Walmart because the education you sold him under false pretenses is so worthless that it won't even advance his candidacy at retail? Now compare that terror, the terror of having your life and financial future pass before your eyes, to the minor annoyance you felt at having your "name" sullied. Get over yourself."

     Over time, name-calling on "Insidethelawschoolscam" turned to the posting of messages that caused Professor Markel to feel under threat of physical harm. He had become the face of the problem and the target of his detractors' wrath.

     Many of Professor Markel's FSU law students considered him abrasive, arrogant, and unhelpful. They complained online that they couldn't find him in his office. When they did find him he was difficult to talk to.

     The year 2012 had been a tough one for Dan Markel. He had been through a bitter divorce, had developed enemies in the blog world, and incurred the anger and frustration of some of his students. What had been a sweet life had turned sour.

     At eleven in the morning of July 18, 2014, Professor Markel pulled onto his driveway and into his garage while talking on his cellphone. The moment he stopped his vehicle, a person who had followed him into the garage shot the 41-year-old in the head through the driver's side window. The killer then drove off in a white or silver Toyota Prius-type vehicle.

     A Betton Hills neighbor heard the gun go off and called 911. When police and paramedics arrived at the scene, Markel was still alive. A few hours later, however, he died at a nearby hospital.

     Homicide detectives believed that the killing was not a random murder. The killer had marked the professor for death and had carried out the murder plot.

     On May 25, 2016, detectives with the Hallandale Beach Police Department arrested 34-year-old Sigredo Garcia for Markel's murder. Officers booked Garcia into the Broward County Jail on charges of first-degree murder and possession of cocaine. Garcia had a criminal history that included strong arm robbery and burglary.

     According to a police spokesperson, the murder of the law professor is being handled as a murder-for-hire case. Up to six more arrests in the case are anticipated. 

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Grace Anne Hall's Strange And Suspicious Death

     Twenty-three-year-old Grace Anne Hall was last seen at eight o'clock on the evening of March 20, 2013. She was driving her 1997 silver-gray Toyota Camry in the Serra Mesa section of San Diego, California. The five-foot-seven, 150-pound blonde with tattoos on her upper back was reportedly on her way to an unknown location in the Los Angeles area city of Sherman Oaks for a job interview.

     According to detectives with the San Diego Police Department, Hall used her credit card in the Mira Mesa part of San Diego one week after her disappearance.

     On April 18, 2013, at nine-thirty in the morning, a San Diego patrol officer spotted Hall's Toyota parked in front of the Grab-n-Go Sub Shop in the Kearny Mesa community. According to witnesses, the vehicle had been sitting there for a week.

     When homicide investigators opened the Toyota's trunk, they discovered Hall's body. An autopsy conducted by the San Diego County Medical Examiner's Office revealed no sighs of external trauma on Hall's body. In other words, she had not been bludgeoned, stabbed, or shot.    

     Pending the results of toxicology tests, detectives began to consider the possibility of suicide. According to Hall's father, the victim had been unemployed and was despondent. At the time of her disappearance, she had been living with him. According to Lieutenant Jorge Duran of the San Diego Police Homicide Unit, "The more we discuss the case the more it seems this was not a homicide."

     On June 30, 2013, the San Diego County Medical Examiner announced the cause of Grace Anne Hall's death as acute ethylene glycol poisoning. Because she had ingested a quantity of automobile antifreeze, the medical examiner ruled the manner of death in this highly suspicious case as suicide.

     According to suicide experts, it is extremely rare for a person to commit suicide in the trunk of a car. 

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

People Murdered Over Nothing

     Just because murder is a serious criminal offense does not mean that murderers always have equally serious motives to kill. In the world of criminal homicide, the motive does not always match the crime. Authors of detective novels give their fictitious murderers good reasons to kill such as sweet revenge, big money, passionate sex, jealous love, and burning hatred. In the victimology of crime fiction, the killer and the killed usually know each other well. In novels, murderers are, if not nice people, fascinating folks with interesting reasons to commit the ultimate crime.

     In real life, people who commit criminal homicide are often wildly insane, drug-addled, or just plain stupid. Nonfiction killers are frequently uninteresting people who kill for trivial, idiotic reasons. Quite often, in real life, the murder victim is as insane, drug-addled or stupid as the person who killed him. In the more tragic cases, these mindless murderers take the lives of decent people who simply had the misfortune of crossing their lethal paths. If there is anything interesting in these under-motivated murder cases, it is the fact they are real. The advantage of writing about nonfiction crime is that these cases do not have to make a whole lot of sense. They just have to be true. Fiction, on the other hand, has to be believable. Fiction has to make sense.

The Trigger-Happy Mr. Dunn

     At 7:40 in the evening of November 20, 2012, Michael D. Dunn and his girlfriend pulled into a service station in Jacksonville, Florida. That day, the couple had attended the wedding of Mr. Dunn's son. The 45-year-old software developer and his girlfriend were en route to Dunn's home 160 miles away in Satellite Beach, Florida. Dunn parked his vehicle and waited behind the wheel as his girlfriend entered the gas station's convenience store.

     Mr. Dunn had pulled into the service station alongside a SUV occupied by three teenagers who were listening to music Dunn considered much too loud. He asked the boys to lower the sound level. The kids didn't take kindly to his request which led to an exchange of angry words. Suddenly, Michael Dunn picked up a handgun and fired eight shots into the car. Two of the bullets struck 17-year-old Jordan Davis who was sitting in the back seat. The high school junior, who was about to start his first job at McDonald's, died in the SUV.

     The shooter's girlfriend ran out of the convenience store, and as she climbed into Dunn's vehicle, asked, "What's going on?"

     "I just fired at those kids," Dunn replied as the couple drove away.

     The next day, police officers arrested Michael Dunn at his home in Satellite Beach. (A witness had written down his license number.)  Dunn told his police questioners that he had fired his pistol in self-defense after one of the kids in the SUV pointed a shotgun at him. Dunn's self-defense justification suffered a blow when investigators failed to find any weapons in the SUV. (There were no drugs in the car, and none of the boys had ever been in trouble with the law.)

     In May 2013, a grand jury sitting in Jacksonville, Florida, indicted Michael Dunn of first-degree murder and three counts of attempted murder. On October 17, 2014, after a jury found Dunn guilty as charged, the judge sentenced him to life without the chance of parole.

James Pak: The Angry Landlord

     In 2006, James Pak sold his Korean Yankee Landscape Company, a Biddeford, Maine business he had owned since 1964. In 2012, Mr. Pak was living with his wife in a cape cod-style home in the town of Bedford located 15 miles south of Portland. He rented out an apartment attached to his house to 44-year-old Susan Johnson who lived there with her son, 19-year-old Derrick Thompson. Derrick worked as an auto detailer at a nearby car dealership. His girlfriend, Alivia Welch, worked as a waitress at a local coffee shop. She was eighteen.

     Around six o'clock in the evening of Saturday, December 29, 2012, Bedford police officers responded to a call to defuse a dispute between Mr. Pak and his tenants. The 74-year-old landlord was upset because Derrick Thompson and his mother had parked their cars in his driveway. (The town had banned overnight parking on the street to clear the way for snow removal crews.) After speaking with Mr. Pak and his renters, the officers left the scene without taking anyone into custody.

     At seven that night, shortly after the police thought they had resolved the dispute, they were called back to the Pak house on reports of shots being fired in the rented apartment. Upon their arrival, the officers discovered that Mr. Pak had shot Derrick Thompson and his girlfriend, Alivia Welch, killing them both. He had also shot and wounded Derrick's mother, Susan Johnson.

     Following a three-hour police stand-off at his home, James Pak surrendered to the authorities. Among other crimes, he was charged with two counts of first-degree murder. After pleading guilty on February 3, 2016, the judge sentenced Pak to two life sentences.

Street Gang Killings

     Drug dealers and members of street gangs regularly murder each other over minor slights, petty arguments, and even disrespectful looks. For these habitual criminals it's their chosen way of life. Unless some innocent bystander goes down in the cross-fire, the general public couldn't care less about these deaths. One violent crook is dead, and his killer is off to prison for life. From a societal standpoint, these cases are hardly tragedies.

     Michael Dunn and James Pak were murderers who weren't career criminals, or even drains on society. Because they are not stupid men, their homicidal behavior makes even less sense. These men ruined their lives over nothing. And their victims did nothing to deserve their sudden and violent deaths. That is what makes these spontaneous homicides so tragic, and hard to understand.

    

Sunday, May 22, 2016

The Senseless Murder of a Toddler

     In 2016, 31-year-old Veronica Rene Castro lived in a travel trailer in Bellevue, Texas, a remote Clay County community near the Oklahoma border 80 miles northwest of Fort Worth. Castro resided with her three-year-old son, Dominic Tra'Juan Castro and the boy's 18-year-old stepfather, George Coty Wayman. Wayman, a violent dimwit with a facial tattoo, had a criminal record that included a recent stretch in prison.

     Shortly after three in the afternoon on Tuesday, May 17, 2016, someone from the Castro dwelling on Buffalo Springs Road called 911 to report a shooting. When deputies with the Clay County Sheriff's Office arrived at the scene, they found the Castro toddler shot once in the back of the head.

     Emergency personnel airlifted the seriously wounded boy to the United Regional Health Care System in Wichita Falls, Texas. At ten-forty-five the next morning, Dominic Castro died.

     Wayman, when questioned at the scene of the shooting by the police, said the boy had been accidentally shot when he jumped on the bed where a 9mm handgun had been placed. The physical evidence at the scene failed to support this scenario. Moreover, several people in the bedroom who had witnessed the shooting had a different story.

     According to the eyewitnesses, Wayman, angry at the toddler who had refused to stop jumping on the bed, aimed the gun and shot him in the head.

     A Clay County prosecutor, on May 18, 2016, charged George Wayman with capital murder. (In Texas, the intentional killing of a child under six constitutes a death penalty offense.) The accused murderer was booked into the Clay County Jail under $550,000 bond.

     In my mind, this crime is a justification for capital punishment. Some people just don't deserve to live in civilized society.  

Monday, May 16, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     Public outrage over the pedophile's light sentence led to a grass roots effort to recall the judge. On December 31, 2015, the bid to have Judge Kelly removed from the bench failed when the recall supporters were unable to collect the minimum 90,829 signatures to get the issue on the ballot.

    Judges with the 4th District Court of Appeals, in the spring of 2017, reversed Judge Kelly's sentence and ordered that Rojano-Neito be sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.


Thursday, May 12, 2016

Assailants Who Attack Their Victims With Acid

     In December 2012, a female employee of a company in Gotemba, Japan, a city 120 miles southwest of Tokyo, burned her feet in acid that had been poured into her shoes. The victim worked in a laboratory that produced carbon-fiber products. (In Japan it is customary for employees to remove their shoes when entering controlled areas.)

     The victim's feet were severely burned by hydrofluoric acid, a highly corrosive chemical. After gangrene settled into the assault victim's left foot, doctors had to remove the tips of five of her toes.

     On March 28, 2013, a prosecutor in Gotelmba charged Tatsujiro Fukazawa with attempted murder in the acid attack. The suspect worked in the laboratory with the victim. According to the police, Fukazawa had feelings for the woman who had rejected his romantic overtures. The acid planting was in revenge for that rejection. Although Fukazawa pleaded not guilty to the charges, he was convicted of the assault in 2015, and sentenced to seven years in prison.

     In 2013, two British girls were doused with acid while doing volunteer work in Zanzibar. Two years later, a South African teenage girl poured acid on her boyfriend's private parts. "I was just angry," she said "and all I wanted to do was to make him feel the pain I was feeling."

     According to the Acid Survivors Trust International, 1,500 people are attacked with acid every year. In addition to Japan, India has a long history of horrific acid attacks against women. In Afghanistan, Islamist extremists have thrown acid on girls' faces to scare them away from attending school.

    Anyone familiar with the annals of crime is aware that the ways people have found to be cruel to each other, to inflict pain and suffering, has no limit. 

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Cockfighting: A Blood Sport

     Cockfighting, a pair of conditioned and trained roosters equipped with metal spurs or knives battling each other to the death in a cockpit, is against the law in every state in America as well as in Brazil, Australia, and except for France, Europe. In America, Louisiana didn't ban cockfighting until 2008. Although it's illegal, cockfighting, in certain parts of the country, is still a popular form of entertainment.

     In many countries such as Mexico, Peru, Panama, Ecuador, and the Philippines, cockfighting is not only legal, it's the national pastime. Spectators, whether gathered at illegal, clandestine cockfighting venues, or seated in elaborate arenas, bet money on the outcomes of the bouts. Like dogfighting and bullfighting, cockfighting is considered a blood sport. Unlike the sport of boxing, the participants are animals who have no say in the matter.

     Early in the morning of Thursday, April 19, 2012, 200 men, women, and children were gathered at a weekly cockfight venue on a small Hildago County ranch near McAllen, Texas. Without warning, at least two men wearing masks stormed the site and opened fire with automatic assault rifles. Before pandemonium broke out, most of the spectators were seated in bleachers beneath a corrugated pavilion. When the shooting stopped, three man lay dead, and eight were wounded.

     Two of the dead men were brothers, the 49 and 55-year-old targets of the ambush. Both men had criminal records, and had been suspects in a recent drug war drive-by shooting, the possible motive behind the retaliatory shooting spree. Local police officers believe the third man killed was an innocent bystander. Although the attack took place near the border, the police do not think it was related to the Mexican drug wars.

     The sheriff of Hildago County described the shooting site, littered with bodies, shell casings, pools of blood, beer cans, and twenty dead roosters, as the crime scene from hell. The authorities charged three people with the crime of cockfighting.

     The people charged in connection with cockfighting were convicted and given probation. They could have been sentenced to prison for up to two years, and fined $10,000. As of this writing, the mass murderers have not been identified.

   

     

Monday, May 2, 2016

The Tick Tock Diner Murder-For-Hire Case

     In 1987, Alex Sgourdos and his two brothers-in-law bought the Tick Tock Diner on New Jersey's Route 3 west of the Meadowlands a few miles from the Lincoln Tunnel that takes you under the Hudson River into midtown Manhattan. The diner not only became a successful business enterprise, it grew into a New Jersey landmark. (Scenes from a dozen movies take place in the diner.)

     In February 2013, one of the diner's managers, 45-year-old Georgious Spyropoulos, tried to hire a hitman to kill his Uncle Alex. Spyropoulos was married to the daughter of one of Mr. Sgourdos' partners.

     In late February 2013, Mr. Spyroupoulos asked a regular patron of the diner if he could put him in touch with a professional killer. The man Spyropoulos reached out to happened to be a regular informant for the New Jersey State Police. As is often the case, the murder-for-hire plot unraveled before it got off the ground.

     In March, the police informant came to the diner with an undercover officer playing the role of contract killer. Later that month, at a meeting in a nearby Home Depot parking lot, Spyropoulos and the undercover cop discussed how the murder-for-hire target would be killed. According to court records, the hitman was to enter Mr. Sgourdos' 6,000-square foot house late on a Sunday night after the diner owner had deposited that day's receipts in his home safe. (The daily receipts usually came to about $20,000.) The mastermind provided the phony hitman with instructions on how to circumvent the dwelling's security system, and said that if the target's wife got in the way, she should be murdered as well.

     Mr. Spyropoulos, according to police affidavits, informed the hitman that his uncle kept a lot of cash in his safe. To acquire the combination, the mastermind suggested that torture might be required. "You can get anything out of anybody with a pair of pliers," he said.

     According to the plan, after the hitman murdered Mr. Sgourdos, Spyropoulos wanted the body disposed of in a way that would cause the authorities to treat the matter as a missing persons case. Spyropoulos handed the undercover cop $3,000 and a revolver, and said they would split whatever was in the Tick Tock Diner owner's safe. Hinting that the Sgourdos hit would be one of a series of murder assignments, Spyropoulos said, "We'll have a lot more to do." (As is always the case, the entire murder-for-hire conversation was taped by the police.)

     On April 9, 2013, officers with the New Jersey State Police entered the Tick Tock Diner at noon and took Georgios Spyropoulos into custody. Charged with conspiracy to commit murder, and solicitation of murder, the suspect was incarcerated in the Passaic County Jail on $1 million bond.

     On July 13, 2014, Georgios Spyropoulos pleaded guilty to plotting the murder of his uncle. In September 2014, Passaic County Judge Ernest Caposela sentenced Spropoulos to eight years in prison. Had Spyropoulos been convicted as charged, he would have been sent to prison for at least 20 years.

     According to the state prosecutor who handled the case, Spyropoulos, even after he entered his guilty plea, showed no remorse for his role in the murder-for-hire plot. He is eligible for parole in less than seven years.

     When it comes to sentencing, our criminal justice system often makes no sense.