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Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Mary Whitaker Murder Case

     In the summer months for the past 35 years, 61-year-old Mary Whitaker played violin for the Chautauqua Institution Symphony Orchestra in western New York not far from the Pennsylvania line. She lived in a one-story home outside of Westfield, New York. During the rest of the year the New York City resident played for the Westchester Philharmonic.

     On Tuesday night, August 19, 2014, someone drove 43-year-old Jonathan Conklin and Charles Sanford, 30, from Erie, Pennsylvania to Westfield, New York. Both men, with long histories of crime, had met a few months earlier at an Erie homeless shelter. After their driver dropped them off, Conklin broke into an apartment near a bar and stole several guns that included a .22-caliber rifle.

     From the site of the burglary, the two criminals walked to Mary Whitaker's rural home on Titus Road. With Conklin hiding nearby, Sanford rapped on her door. When she responded to his knock, he said he had run out of gas and needed to use her phone. After she handed him her cellphone, Conklin came out of hiding with the rifle in hand and said, "This is a robbery." A moment later, Conklin shot Whitaker in the chest. She screamed and grabbed the gun that went off again in the struggle. The second bullet entered her leg.

     Following the shooting, the robbers dragged the bleeding woman into her garage where they left her  dying while they ransacked her house for items to steal. Upon returning to the garage, Conklin ordered his accomplice to kill the victim. Sanford stabbed the wounded Whitaker in the throat.

     As Mary Whitaker bled to death in her garage, the two cold-blooded killers drove back to Erie in her Chevrolet HHR. They had also stolen her checkbook and credit cards.

     Upon the discovery of Whitaker's body, police in Chautauqua County, aware that Jonathan Conklin had been in the area, immediately suspected him of burglarizing the apartment and murdering the violinist.

     On Friday morning, August 22, 2014, after using Whitaker's credit cards to buy a flat screen television and some clothing at Walmart, Erie detectives took Conklin and Sanford into custody.

     On the day of their arrest, the suspects appeared before a federal magistrate on charges of interstate transportation of a stolen motor vehicle, carjacking, and federal firearms violations. In Chautauqua County, New York, Conklin and Sanford faced state charges of first-degree murder, burglary, and robbery.

     A Chautauqua County grand jury in January 2015 indicted Conklin and Sanford on charges of second-degree murder, burglary, robbery, and criminal use of a firearm. Four months later, the Chautauqua County district attorney announced that the suspects would be tried together in January 2016. Conklin was represented by an attorney with the local public defender's office while Sanford had a defense lawyer from Fredonia, New York.

     In September 2015, Charles Sanford pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and agreed to testify against Jonathan Conklin. Conklin, facing a sure-fire conviction, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder a month later.

     In May 2016, the judge sentenced Charles Sanford to fifteen years to life. Jonathan Conklin received a sentence of twenty-five years to life.

     Cases like this remind us that we live among predatory, cold-blooded killers who ought to be behind bars but are not.


     

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Team Stomping and Kicking: The Football Player Assault Case

     California University of Pennsylvania, one of 14 schools in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Learning, sits on 290 acres in California Borough 35 miles south of downtown Pittsburgh. A good number of its 8,600 students come from southwestern Pennsylvania.

     Shortly after midnight on Thursday October 30, 2014, California University student Shareese Asparagus, a 22-year-old from West Chester, Pennsylvania, walked out of a restaurant on Wood Street in the college town. She was with her 30-year-old boyfriend, Lewis Campbell, also from West Chester. He did not attend California U.

     The trouble started outside the restaurant when a California University football player, accompanied by four of his teammates, said something to the young woman that offended her. This led to an exchange of angry words that prompted Lewis Campbell to step in to defend his girlfriend.

     The football players reacted to the situation by punching and kicking Mr. Campbell to the pavement. As he lay injured on the ground, the assailants kicked and stomped him into unconsciousness. As the teammates strolled away from their battered victim, they chanted, "football strong!"

     As paramedics loaded Mr. Campbell into a medical helicopter, they noticed a shoe print on his face. Emergency personnel flew the unconscious man to Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh where physicians determined that the lower part of Mr. Campbell's brain had shifted 80 degrees. The beating had caused the victim serious brain damage.

     Later on the day of the gang assault in front of the off-campus restaurant, as Mr. Campbell lay in the intensive care unit, police officers showed up at football practice armed with arrest warrants for five California University players. Taken into custody that afternoon were: James Williamson, 20, from Parkville, Maryland; Corey Ford, 22, from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; Jonathan Jacoma Barlow, 21, from the East Liberty section of Pittsburgh; Rodney Gillin, 20, from West Lawn, Pennsylvania; and D'Andre Dunkley, 19, from Philadelphia.

     Police officers booked the five college football players into the Washington County Correctional Facility on charges of aggravated assault, reckless endangerment, harassment, and conspiracy. The judge set each man's bail at $500,000.

     On Friday October 31, 2014, interim California University President Geraldine M. Jones issued the following statement: "California University does not tolerate violent behavior, and the five student-athletes charged in connection with this incident [incident?] will face university sanctions, along with any penalties imposed by law. The police investigation is continuing and the rights of these accused will be upheld. But in light of these allegations, I asked Coach Keller to cancel Saturday's game [with Gannon University]. Behavior has consequences, and all Cal U students, including student-athletes, must abide by our Student Code of Conduct if they wish to remain a part of our campus community. [Aggravated assault hardly falls into the category of a college code of conduct violation.] At the same time, it must be clearly understood that the actions [crimes] of a small group of individuals are not representative of our entire student body, nor of all Cal U student-athletes. [Then what do these "actions" represent?] I ask our entire campus community to recommit to our university's core values, and to demonstrate through their words and their actions the best that our university can be."

     Good heavens, what a mealy-mouthed public relations department response to a vicious attack worthy of a violent street gang. Where is the outrage in this statement?

     The charges against James Williamson were dropped after surveillance footage revealed that he had not participated in the beating. In response, Williamson filed a lawsuit against the district attorney, the police and the borough.

     Corey Ford, on June 7, 2016, pleaded no contest to assault. He received, in return, a sentence of one to two years in prison. (Ford had earlier pleaded guilty to a hit-and-run that killed a bicyclist in Washington, D.C. In that case the judge had sentenced him to 36 months in federal prison.)

     In July 2016, Rodney Gillin and D'Andre Dunkley, in return for their guilty pleas, received sentences of probation.  

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Janet and William Strickland Murder-For-Hire Case

     Seventy-two-year-old William Strickland had lived with his 64-year-old wife Janet thirty years in the same house in south Chicago. Their neighbors considered them a happy couple. Mr. Strickland, a dialysis patient, may have been a contented husband, but his wife Janet wanted him dead.

     In February 2013, Janet Strickland informed her 19-year-old grandson--also named William Strickland--that she was "sick" of his grandfather and wanted him "gone." By "gone" she meant murdered. The old guy had money in the bank that couldn't be spent until he was "gone." Janet wanted that money, and she wanted it now.

     In one of their discussions about Mr. Strickland's fate, Janet told her grandson that she had decided against hiring an outside hit-man because she wanted the job done now. Young William, anticipating a share of his grandfather's wealth, said he would assassinate his namesake. Grandma sealed the deal by giving the young man his grandfather's handgun, a weapon he kept around the house for protection.

     At three-thirty on the afternoon of March 2, 2013, Janet said good-bye to her husband as he stepped out of the house to await a ride to his dialysis treatment. The murder target had been standing on the sidewalk a few minutes when he was approached from behind by his grandson. The younger William Strickland, using his grandfather's handgun, shot the elderly man six times in the back. Mr. Strickland fell to the ground and died.

     A few days after what the Chicago Police first considered a random robbery-murder--a common crime in the Windy City--Janet Strickland purchased her grandson a new car. A red one. She also went furniture shopping for herself.

     William rewarded himself with an expensive sound system for his new ride, a pair of high-end sneakers, and a fancy cellphone. He also spent some of his grandfather's money at his favorite tattoo parlor. With old guy dead, life was good.

     Detectives arrested William Strickland on the charge of first-degree murder on March 30, 2013. He confessed to the execution-style homicide, and identified his grandmother as the mastermind behind the deadly get-rich-quick plot.

     On April 6, 2013, officers took Janet Strickland into custody. She confessed as well. The murder-for-hire grandmother and her assassin grandson were held on $50,000 bond in the Cook County Jail.

     On February 19, 2016, a jury in Chicago, after deliberating less than three hours, found William Strickland guilty of his grandfather's murder. Judge James Linn, on March 23, 2016, sentenced him to 40 years in prison.

     Janet Strickland went on trial a month later and was found guilty as charged. The judge sentenced the 67-year-old murder-for-hire mastermind to eighteen years in prison.

Monday, September 19, 2016

The Michelle Gibson Murder-For-Hire Case

     Steven Gibson, the owner of a machine shop, lived in Peoria, Arizona, a suburb of Phoenix. He resided in the Thunderbird Vista neighborhood with his 41-year-old wife Michelle, their 15-year-old son Steven Jr., and their 17-year-old daughter Alyssa. In November 2012, Steven Gibson was charged with assaulting a police officer following a DUI arrest. Local police officers, on several occasions, had been summoned to the Gibson house on accusations of domestic violence. No arrests were made because Michelle Gibson refused to press charges.

     At two in the morning of March 1, 2013, Michelle Gibson called 911 and said: "There's blood everywhere! I'm with my kids and I just got home and my husband's out in the garage dead."

     In the Gibson garage police found that the victim had been bludgeoned in the head and stabbed several times in the chest. Since nothing had been stolen from the house, the police ruled out theft as a motive. Investigators also wondered what Mr. Gibson was doing in his garage so late at night.

     On March 27, 2013, following a month-long homicide investigation, police arrested Steven Gibson Jr. on charges of first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder. The next day, officers arrested his mother Michelle on the same charges.

     Investigators believed that Michelle Dawn Gibson had recruited her son, her daughter, and a friend of her son's to murder her husband. (The friend, 16-year-old Erik McBee, had turned himself into the police shortly after the homicide.)

     According to police reports, Michelle Gibson told her team of young assassins that Mr. Gibson needed to be killed before he murdered a family member. In discussing the fate of her husband, Michelle mentioned that he had a life insurance policy. The accused murder-for-hire mastermind promised to pay Erik McBee $1,000 for his participation in Mr. Gibson's homicide.

     The murder-for-hire plan, as allegedly laid out by Michelle, involved incapacitating her husband with chloroform while he slept in his bed. Using the victim's own truck, they would haul his body to a nearby park where one of the young killers would shoot him in the back of the head. To make the murder look like a drug deal gone bad, the assassins planned to spread pills on and around his body.

     As is often the case in murder-for-hire schemes, things did not go as planned. At ten-thirty on the night of February 28, 2013, Erik McBee used a baseball bat to bludgeon Mr. Gibson in the head as he slept in his bed. Steven Gibson Jr. stabbed his dying father three times in the chest, then slashed his throat. Using a dolly, Eric and Steven rolled Mr. Gibson's corpse into the garage. Because Erik McBee fled the scene at the sound of a distant police siren, the dead man never made it to the park. Later that day, Erik, a Popeye's Chicken employee, turned himself into the police.

     When Michelle Gibson returned home around midnight with her daughter, she allegedly helped her son clean up the bloody murder scene. At two that morning, after disposing of physical evidence, Michelle called 911 to report the discovery of her husband's body in the garage.

     Michelle Gibson and her son Steven pleaded not guilty to all charges. Erik McBee also pleaded not guilty to murder.

     In January 2014, McBee pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and agreed to testify against Michelle and Steven Gibson. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

     Steven Gibson Jr. pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in August 2014. The judge sentenced him to 22 years behind bars.

     On November 25, 2014, the jury found Michelle Gibson guilty of first-degree murder. Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Alfred Fenzel, in February 2015, sentenced the murder-for-hire mastermind to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

     

Thursday, September 15, 2016

John Mark Karr's Confession in the JonBenet Ramsey Murder

The Ramsey Case  

      A 5:52 AM emergency call that a child had been kidnapped brought a pair of Boulder, Colorado police officers to John and Patsy Ramsey's 3-story house on December 26, 1996. Patsy Ramsey said she had found a handwritten ransom note inside on the stairs. 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 patrolmen 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 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 coiled around her neck and right wrist. The rope around her neck was tied to what looked like the handle of a paintbrush. Breaking all the rules of crime scene investigation, John Ramsey removed the tape, carried his daughter up the basement steps, and laid her body on the living room floor. Detective Arndt picked up the child, placed her body next to the Christmas tree, and covered it with a sweat shirt. Because the police had not conducted a thorough and timely search of the house, there would be no crime scene photographs.

     In the months following the murder, the police, prosecutors, media, and most Americans believed that someone in the family had killed JonBenet Ramsey. 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 had probably not authored the document. Also, evidence surfaced that an intruder could have come into the house through a broken window in the basement.

John Mark Karr

      After a 13-year battle with ovarian cancer, Patsy Ramsey died on June 14, 2006. She was 49. The media that had helped police and prosecutors portray the Ramseys as child murderers treated the death as a one-day news event, giving it less attention than the passing of a supporting actor on an old TV sitcom. In April 2006, two months before her death, the Ramseys flew from their home in Michigan back to Boulder where they met with district attorney Mary Keenan (now Lacy), who asked them if they had ever heard of a man named John Mark Karr. They Ramseys said they had not--neither the name nor the description of this man rang a bell. What did he have to do with the case?

     Karr, a 41-year-old American itinerate elementary school teacher, had lived in Bangkok, Thailand since 2002. He had recently corresponded with Michael Tracey, a journalism professor at the University of Colorado. Karr's interest in the JonBenet murder had drawn him to the Boulder professor who had produced three television documentaries favorable to the the theory the crime had been committed by an intruder. The emails from Karr, sent under the pseudonym Daxis, had recently become quite bizarre, reflecting more than just a morbid interest in the case. After receiving a series of disturbing phone calls from this man, Professor Tracey alerted the district attorney's office. The calls were traced to John Mark Karr in Bangkok.

     After Daxis had confessed to Tracey that he had accidentally killed JonBenet while inducing asphyxia for his sexual gratification, he became a suspect in the murder. Karr revealed over the phone that when he couldn't revive Jon Benet, he struck her in the head with a blunt object. He told the professor that he had engaged in oral sex with the victim, but had not performed sexual penetration. Aware that Tracey was writing a book on the Ramsey case, Karr offered the author the inside story from the killer's point of view. In the event the book became a movie, Karr wanted to be played by Johnny Depp.

     Having taken over the Ramsey case investigation from the Boulder Police Department, the district attorney's office began investigating John Mark Karr. District attorney investigators spoke to the authorities in Bangkok, and read hundreds of the emails Karr had sent to the professor. One of the messages suggested that Karr had a general knowledge of forensic science. "The DNA might not match, but you can't trust the test," he wrote.

     As Ramsey case investigators gathered details of Karr's life and background, it became clear that he was not an ordinary man, and that his strangeness was not inconsistent with the profile of a person who might commit a Ramsey-type crime. After Karr's parents divorced when he was nine, he went to live with his grandparents in Hamilton, Alabama. In 1983, one year after graduating from Hamilton High School, Karr, then 20, married a 13-year-old girl. The marriage ended nine months later in an annulment. In 1989, Karr married 16-year-old Lara Marie Knutson. In four years, he and his wife had three sons. While pursuing a teaching degree through an online teacher's college, Karr opened a licensed day-care center in his home. Although he didn't have a teaching degree, he also worked as a substitute teacher at Hamilton High School. He acquired a college degree in 1999, and that year closed his day-care business. A year later, Karr and his family were residing in Petaluma, California where he taught as a substitute in six schools in the Sonoma Valley Unified School District.

     One year after arriving in Petaluma, while teaching at the Pueblo Vista Elementary School, Karr was arrested by investigators from the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office. They had found child pornography on Karr's computer, and arrested him on five misdemeanor counts of possessing such material. Karr's bail was reduced after he spent six months in the county lockup awaiting trial. He was released on October 2001. While in custody, Karr had written a letter to Richard Allen Davis who had been convicted of kidnapping and murdering Polly Klaas in Petaluma. When Karr failed to show for a court appearance in the pornography case, the judge issued a bench warrant for his arrest, making him a California fugitive from justice.

     During the child pornography investigation, detectives in Sonoma County came across writings and notes Karr had made pertaining to the murder of JonBenet Ramsey. In these musings, Karr had speculated on the killer's thoughts as he committed the crime. Although these were not confessions, the Sonoma detectives took the writings seriously enough to notify the authorities in Boulder. There were follow-up discussions between investigators in California and Colorado, but nothing came of the discovery.

     After Karr divorced his wife, she and their children moved back to Hamilton, Alabama. Following his release from the Sonoma County Jail, Karr fled the country. He taught in Honduras and Costa Rica, and worked as a children's nanny in Germany, the Netherlands, and South Korea. In December 2005, Karr arrived in Bangkok where he had landed a grade-school teaching position.

The Arrest and Confession

     On August 11, 2006, 4 months after district attorney Mary Lacy learned that the Ramsey email writer and telephone confessor was John Mark Karr, police and immigration authorities in Thailand informed her that Karr was living in a downtown Bangkok apartment. In less than a week, Karr would be starting a new teaching job at the New Sathorn International School in the city. Because the authorities didn't want this man interacting with young girls at this school, the Thai police planned to arrest and deport Karr within the next five days. This development presented Lacy with a dilemma. If she did nothing, a man who had confessed to killing JonBenet Ramsey would slip away upon his return to the United States. If she filed charges against Karr, and had him extradited back to Colorado, the probable cause supporting the arrest warrant would be based entirely on his emails and his telephone confessions. Lacy's investigators had not linked Karr to the ransom note through his handwriting, could not place him in Colorado on or about December 26, 1996, and had not matched his DNA to a pair of foreign bloodstains on JonBenet's underwear.

     Operating on the theory that John Mark Karr was not a false confessor, and that his DNA would eventually connect him to the victim, Lacy presented her case to a Boulder judge who issued a warrant for Karr's arrest on charges of first degree-murder, kidnapping, and sexual assault. The district attorney also dispatched one of her investigators to Bangkok.

     After surveilling Karr's apartment building for five days, police and immigration officials took him into custody on August 16, 2006. In response to a Thai police officer who informed Karr that he had been charged with first degree murder in Boulder, Karr declared that his killing of JonBenet had been accidental, and therefore the charge should more appropriately be second-degree murder. He had confessed again.

     After being flown to Los Angeles from Bangkok, Karr arrived in Colorado on August 24, 2006 where he was incarcerated in the Boulder County Jail. Four days later, the John Mark Karr phase of the Ramsey case came to an abrupt end when Mary Lacy announced that because Karr's DNA didn't match the crime scene evidence, the charges against him would be dropped. Moreover, he had not written the ransom note. The case quickly fell out of the news, and John Mark Karr slipped back into obscurity.

The 1999 Indictments

     The JonBenet Ramsey case shot back into the news in October 2013 when a Colorado judge ordered the release of indictments returned against the Ramseys in 1999. The Boulder County Grand Jury alleged that each parent "did permit a child to be unreasonably placed in a situation which posed a threat of injury to the child's life or health which resulted in the death of JonBenet Ramsey." The grand jurors also alleged that the Ramseys "did render assistance to a person, with intent to hinder, delay and prevent the discovery, detention, apprehension, prosecution and punishment of said person for the commission of a crime, knowing the person being assisted has committed and was suspected of the crime of murder in the first degree and child abuse resulting in death."

     Boulder district attorney Alex Hunter refused to sign off on the indictments because the charges were not supported by sufficient evidence to support a conviction.

     In speaking to reporters, the Ramsey family attorney L. Lin Wood called the indictments "nonsensical." According to Wood, "they reveal nothing about the evidence reviewed by the grand jury and are clearly the result of a confused and compromised process."

     Regarding the old indictments, CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Tobin, in pointing out the indictments merely showed that a majority of the grand jurors felt there was probable cause to charge the parents--a lower standard than proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt--said, "it doesn't precisely say that the grand jury thought the parents killed JonBenet. It's not precisely clear what they thought."

     In September 2016, the JonBenet Ramsey case shot back into the news with television documentaries revisiting the murder and shedding new light on the case. Notwithstanding the new media attention, the case remained official unsolved.

   

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Dr. Nirbhay Singh: The Consultant Who Helped Make Mental Hospitals in California More Dangerous

      If you live in California, are seriously mentally ill, and have been accused of a violent crime, do not plead not guilty by reason of insanity. If you do, and succeed, you'll end up in a state mental hospital. It's a lot safer in prison, and you'll get better treatment.

     In 2002, in an effort to improve services in California's mental hospitals that treat the criminally insane, the state hired a private consultant to reform the system. The reformer, a professor of psychiatry at Virginia Commonwealth University named Dr. Nirbhay Singh, had come to the United States in 1987 from New Zealand. Having specialized in research on the developmentally disabled, Dr. Singh had no experience treating seriously mentally ill patients with sociopathic and predatory tendencies. He had published articles about Buddhist-inspired mindfulness (whatever that means), and alternative treatments such as the herb kava as a calming agent. Dr. Singh, in reforming California's state mental institutions, among other things, replaced individual therapy with group classes on anger management.

     Notwithstanding Dr. Singh's "reforms," the U.S. Department of Justice stuck it's long nose into the problem by suing California on the grounds the state was violating patients' rights by heavily drugging and improperly restraining these extremely violent and dangerous people. The state, rather than fight the case, agreed to a court-supervised improvement plan at four hospitals with more than 4,000 criminally insane patients. (State hospitals in Norwalk, San Luis Obispo County, San Bernadino, and Napa.)

     According to the plan, overseen by Dr. Singh, these four hospitals reduced the use of restraints, isolation rooms, and heavy drugs. The reformer dismantled several behavioral programs, and placed greater importance on bureaucracy, and the production of documentation in support of compliance with the federal mandate. Many health care workers complained that the red tape came at the expense of patient care. Much of the paperwork, according to Dr. Singh's critics, was redundant, and clinically useless. Employees, under Dr. Singh's system, had to fill out 300 new forms every month. Staff members said they no longer had time to play cards and chat with patients, activities that the patients missed.

     While he worked as the chief consultant in California, Dr. Singh also worked with mental health systems in Connecticut, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Tennessee. In January 2011, two weeks after the Los Angeles Times published an interview with a top State Department of Mental Health official about the effects of Dr. Singh's reforms, Dr. Singh abruptly resigned. Dr. Stuart Bussey, president of the Union of American Physicians and Dentists which represents California's mental hospital's psychiatrists and medical doctors, complained that Dr. Singh's reforms did "very little to create a healthy and safe environment for patients and staff." In fact, according to studies conducted in the four hospitals involved in the federally mandated reforms, three of them had become much more dangerous places for patients and mental health workers. The ban of heavy drugs, restraints, and isolation rooms had tripled the incidents of patient-on-patient and patient-on worker assaults in three of the institutions.

     While, according to his critics, Dr. Singh didn't know beans about how to run a place for the criminally insane, he did know how to make a buck. During his nine year tenure as a California mental health consultant, he charged the state $2,500 a day. His total bill came to $4.4 million. No wonder California was broke.

     Dr. Mubashir Farooqi, a psychiatrist at one of the pilot hospitals, called the reform program a "huge, very expensive, very idiotic experiment that failed badly." But in December 2011, notwithstanding the increased violence in the three California mental hospitals, the Department of Justice asked a federal court to extend the oversight, and continue along the same reform path. According to an assistant in the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, California's reforms had not succeeded in improving mental health "outcomes" (bureaucrats love that word) at the four institutions. "Are we where we need to be? Absolutely not," he said in an interview. In the meantime, while the federal government dabbled in the care and treatment of California's criminally insane, mental hospitals in the state were dangerous places for patients, and the people trying to help them.  

Monday, September 12, 2016

University Dean Cecilia Chang: A Corrupt Murder-For-Hire Suspect

     In 1975, a 22-year-old student from Taiwan (an island 200 miles off the coast of mainland China) named Cecilia Chang, enrolled in the Asian Studies Master's Degree program at St. John's University in Queens, New York. After Chang acquired the degree in 1977, the university hired her as an Asian Studies professor. Three years later, university administrators promoted Chang to the position of Dean of the Institute For Asian Studies. Having exhibited the ability to raise money for the program from the Taiwanese and other Asian governments, Chang's job as dean involved fund-raising. She spent the next decade traveling the world, living high on donor contributions to the school and her university expense account.

     In October 1986, Cecilia Chang's husband, Ruey Fung, filed for divorce and sought custody of the couples's toddler son. Four years later, in the midst of a contentious domestic struggle over money and child custody, Ruey Fung was shot outside a warehouse in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn.

     Ruey Fung died from his wounds eleven days after the shooting. But before he passed away, homicide detectives were able to question him at the hospital. Unable to speak, Mr. Fung wrote: "I know the man who shot me, but I do not know his name. Cecilia Chang was the person who paid the guy to shoot me." Ruey Fung claimed that his wife wanted him dead so she wouldn't have to split their estate which included a hosiery business. With his death, she would also gain custody of the boy.

     Because NYC homicide detectives were unable to identity the man who shot and killed Mr. Fung, the investigation died on the vine. Notwithstanding her husband's deathbed murder accusation and police suspicion that Chang had engaged the services of a hit man, her fund-raising career at St. John's University continued to flourish.

     In 2001, Cecilia Chang began spending an inordinate amount of time in Connecticut at the Foxwoods Casino where she lost tens of thousands of dollars playing high-stakes baccarat. Her wagering strategy of doubling her bet each time she lost compounded her casino losses.

     A grand jury sitting in Queens, New York, in 2010, indicted Chang on 205 counts of fraud and embezzlement. She stood accused of stealing huge amounts of money from St. John's University. In addition to embezzling $1 million from the institution, Chang was accused of using her $350,000 a year expense account, and donor money, to finance skiing and surfing trips for her son, fund his law school  tuition, and even pay for his dog's veterinary bills.

     Dean Chang also faced charges of theft, fraud, and corruption in federal court. In 2011, after being charged federally, the judge placed her under house arrest. In the fall of 2012, the federal case against Chang went to trial in Brooklyn, New York. When the Assistant United States Attorney rested the government's case, it was clear to people following the trial that the defendant was guilty.

     On November 5, 2012, convinced she could convince the jury that she was innocent of all charges, Chang took the stand on her own behalf. It quickly became obvious that the jurors not only didn't like her, they didn't believe her testimony. At one point jurors actually laughed loudly at something she said. At this point in the trial, Cecilia Chang realized that in all probability she would be spending the next twenty years in federal prison.

     On Tuesday, the day after her devastatingly bad afternon on the stand, Chang, in her $1.7 million tudor-style home in the Jamaica section of Queens, committed suicide. The 59-year-old was found hanging from a ladder that folded down from her attic. Chang had also slit her wrists. She left behind several suicide notes, written in Mandarin, in which, in true sociopathic fashion, she blamed St. John's University for her problems and her suicide.

     Cecilia Chang had gotten accustomed to having all the money she needed to lavishly entertain herself, her son, and all of her friends in high places. She felt entitled to use university and donor money to live extravagantly, and to cover her gambling loses. In my view, the university had some responsibility for Chang's financial excesses. No university employee should be allowed a $350,000 a year expense account. It seemed that at St. John's University, no one was watching the store while an employee lived high on other people's money.     

Friday, September 9, 2016

The Andres Ordonez Murder Case: Sudden Death in Gangland LA

     Because of heavy gang activity, no place was safe in the neighborhood surrounding the Iglesia Principe de Paz (Prince of Peace) Church on Beverly Boulevard and Reno Street in Los Angeles' Westlake District. Members of the Pentecostal storefront church are immigrants from Guatemala and other Central American countries. When these congregants settled in this part of Los Angeles, they probably had no idea they would be living in such a dangerous, lawless place.

    On November 4, 2012, during a Sunday evening service, a male parishioner, while checking on the food being set up in the church parking lot, saw a teenage girl spray-painting gang graffiti on one of the church's walls. The churchgoer approached the girl and asked her to stop defacing the place of worship. She responded by shoving the man to the ground.

     After assaulting the churchgoer, the teen continued tagging the wall. Two other worshippers came out of the church and saw their fellow parishioner lying on the pavement. As the men ran to help, a male gang member who was with the young church-tagger, climbed out of a parked car and began shooting.

     One of the gunman's bullets struck and killed 25-year-old Andres Ordonez. Another member of the church, a man in his 40s, was seriously wounded. The girl with the spray-paint and her murderous companion drove off as stunned members of the congregation knelt over the victims sprawled out and bleeding on the church parking lot.

     Andres Ordonez and his pregnant wife Ana were parents of a one-year-old son. Andres had come to the United States from Guatemala as a young boy. He had worked long hours as a cook in a local restaurant and had attended this church since he was ten. His widow was the pastor's granddaughter.

     Police believed the gunman and the girl were members of a rival gang who were tagging in enemy territory. As a result, when the church member approached the girl, the gunman, on edge, had an hair-trigger response. Investigators familiar with gang-related crime know that witnesses in these neighborhoods, out of fear of reprisals, were reluctant to cooperate with the police. LAPD homicide detective Jeff Cortina told a reporter with the Los Angeles Times that "we need the public's assistance. This wasn't gangster-on-gangster. It [the murder of an innocent citizen] could happen to anybody...."

     At a press conference on November 8, 2012, Ordonez's young widow asked witnesses to come forward and help the authorities. The city of Los Angeles posted a $50,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the gunman, his female companion, and a third subject who had been in the car with the killer. The vehicle in question was described as a red, four-door compact. The gunman was a Latino man in his early twenties with a muscular build and short hair.

     The senseless murder of a family man attending church on a Sunday evening by a trigger-happy gang member sparked public outrage and demands for more aggressive anti-gang policing. This came at a time when the LAPD was stretched thin and out of money. Because this case received a lot of local media coverage, there was a good chance these gang members would be identified and brought to justice.

     In November 2012, Los Angeles detectives arrested 24-year-old Janeth Lopez, the woman suspected of spray-painting graffiti on the church wall. Officers booked Lopez into the county jail of charges of murder, attempted murder, vandalism and gang related offenses.

     Police officers, in February 2013, took 25-year-old gang member Pedro Martinez into custody on charges of first-degree murder, attempted murder and gang and gun related offenses. Officers also arrested the suspected get-away driver, 33-year-old Ivy Navarrete on the same criminal charges. If convicted, all three defendants in the Ordonez murder case faced up to live in prison.

     Martinez, Navarrete, and Lopez went to trial in Los Angeles Superior Court in November 2014. On December 19, 2014, the jury found Pedro Martinez guilty of first-degree murder, attempted murder and several gun an gang related charges. The jurors, however, deadlocked on the murder and attempted murder charges against the women. They were found guilty of the lesser offenses.

     On January 30, 2015, the judge sentenced Pedro Martinez to life in prison without parole.

     A Los Angeles Superior Court Judge, in April 2016, sentenced the spray painter, Janeth Lopez, to 40 years to life in prison. The judge sentenced Ivy Navarrette to 60 years to life behind bars for her role in the murder, attempted murder, and assault. 

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Officer James Peters: Scottsdale's Dirty Harry

     American law enforcement has become more militaristic, and zero-tolerant. In 201l, the police shot just under 1,200 people, killing slightly more than half of them. (In 2009, the police shot and killed 406 citizens.) Still, 90 percent of police officers, during the course of their entire careers, don't shoot anyone. Most don't even discharge their weapons outside of the firing range. In 2011, of the police officers who did shoot someone, 15 had used this form of deadly force before. One of these officers had a rather provocative history of three previous police involved shootings.

     So, what would you say about a police officer, who, in a span of nine years, shot and killed, in separate shooting incidences, six people? In 2011, the entire police forces of Delaware, North Dakota, Vermont, Wyoming, and Alaska, combined, shot less than six people.

     During the period November 2002 through February 2012, Scottsdale, Arizona police officer James Peters shot at seven people, killing six of them. From this, one might conclude that Scottsdale, the Phoenix area suburb of 220,000, is the site of daily shootouts between the police and a large population of violent criminals. But this isn't the case. In 2011, the Scottsdale police only shot one person, and it wasn't fatal. By comparison, the police in Phoenix that year shot 16, killing 9.

     How could one member of a police department made up of 435 sworn officers, shoot so many people in a relatively low crime city? After say, the third shooting incident, why wasn't this man psychologically evaluated, and at the very least, put behind a desk? Moreover, didn't the officer himself ask himself why he was the only guy on the force doing all of the killing?

     On November 3, 2002, roughly two years after joining the police department, Peters, as a member of the SWAT team, responded to a domestic violence call at the home of a man named Albert Redford. Following a 4-hour standoff, Peters and two other SWAT officers fired seven shots at the suspect, hitting him three times. Mr. Redford died a few hours later in the emergency room. As it turned out, none of the fatal bullets had been fired from Peter's rifle. An investigation by the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office cleared all three officers of wrongdoing

     Officer Peters, on March 25, 2003, responded to a call regarding shotgun blasts coming from the home of a distraught, disbarred attorney named Brent Bradshaw. Three hours later, Peters and his follow officers encountered the 47-year-old suspect wandering along the Arizona Canal carrying a shotgun. When Mr. Bradshaw refused to drop his weapon, Peters dropped him with a shot to the head. This shooting was declared justified.

     On October 10, 2005, Officer Peters shot and killed Mark Wesley Smith. High on methamphetamine, Smith was smashing car windows with a pipe outside an auto-body shop.  In justifying his use of deadly force in this case, Peters said the subject had threatened a fellow officer with the pipe.

     Brian Daniel Brown, 28, took a Safeway grocery store employee hostage on April 23, 2006 after he had hijacked a Krispy Kreme delivery truck. After killing this hostage taker, the department awarded Officer Peters a medal of valor.

     Peters and Scottsdale officer Tom Myers were in Mesa, Arizona on August 30, 2006 hoping to question Kevin Hutchings, a suspect in an assault committed earlier that evening in Scottsdale. After Mr. Hutchings fired a shot from inside his house, the officers had the power company cut off electricity to the dwelling. When the armed man came out of his house to investigate the power outage, Peters shot him to death. The city, in this case, ended up paying the Hutchings family an out of court settlement of $75,000. Even so, the department declared this shooting justified, and Officer Peters kept his assignment as a street cop even though he had killed two people in one year.

     On February 17, 2010, Officer Peters and Detective Scott Gailbraith confronted 46-year-old Jimmy Hammack, a suspect in five Phoenix and Scottsdale bank robberies. When Hammack drove his pickup truck toward the detective, Peters shot him. A few days later, Hammack died in the hospital. This shooting, on the grounds the subject was using his vehicle as a deadly weapon, went into the books as justified.

The Killing of John Loxas

     John Loxas, 50, lived alone in a trash-littered house near Vista De Camino Park in Scottsdale. In 2010, police arrested him for displaying a handgun in public. On February 14, 2012, Peters and five other officers responded to a 911 call concerning Loxas who reportedly was threatening his neighbors with a firearm. To complicate matters, Loxas, who regularly babysat his 9-month-old grandson, had the child in his arms while intimidating the neighbors.

     When Peters and the other officers arrived at the scene, Mr. Loxas and the baby were back inside the house. When ordered to exit the dwelling, Loxas, still holding the child, appeared in the doorway. As the subject turned to reenter the house, and lowered the baby exposing his upper torso and head, Peters, thinking he saw a black object in Loxas' hand, shot him in the head from 18 feet. The subject, killed instantly by the bullet from Peter's rifle, collapsed to the ground still holding the baby. Fortunately, and perhaps miraculously, the infant was not injured.

     As it turned out, at the time Officer Peters killed Mr. Loxas, the subject was not armed, or within reach of a weapon. Police did find, in the dead man's living room, a loaded handgun hidden between the arm and cushion of a stuffed chair. Farther into the dwelling, searchers discovered a shotgun, several "Airsoft"-type rifles and pistols, and a "functional improvised explosive device."

     In explaining why he had shot Mr. Loxas, Officer Peters said he had been concerned for the safety of the baby. Peters was placed on paid administrative leave pending yet another police involved shooting investigation by the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office. Critics of the shooting, including some of Loxas' neighbors, protested the incident outside the police department.

     Except for the Safeway hostage case in April 2006, most police officers, faced with the choices presented to Officer Peters, probably would not have exercised deadly force. This didn't mean that Peters had committed criminal acts, or that his shootings were even  administratively unjustified. It just meant that most officers wouldn't have been so quick to pull the trigger. If it were otherwise, every year thousands rather than hundreds of people would die at the hands of the police.

     Because Mr. Loxas had been armed shortly before the police arrived at the scene, and Officer Peters thought the subject was holding a handgun when he shot him, this case was ruled a justifiable homicide. Whether or not, under the circumstances, the killing of Mr. Loxas was the right thing to do, was another question altogether.
 
     On June 22, 2012, the Scottsdale police board for the Public Safety Retirement System approved Officer Peters' application for early retirement based on some unnamed disability. He received a pension of $4,500 a month for life. Not bad for 12 years of work. No wonder the country was going broke, and people in the private sector resented the government.

     In September 2012, the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, on behalf of John Loxas' relatives, sued the city of Scottsdale. The Scottsdale City Council, in June 2013, approved a court settlement of $4.25 million. The Loxas family had originally sought $7.5 million in damages. The city of Scottsdale, in this case, was self-insured up to $2 million, a sum that will have to be paid by municipal taxpayers. Officer Peters was one costly cop. 

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The Albert Jackson Sterling II Murder-For-Hire Case

      Life had been good to Roxanne Sterling, or so it seemed. She lived in a $400,000 house, was married to an ambitious man who made good money, and was eight months pregnant with her second child. Early in the afternoon of November 21, 2006, before leaving the house to go shopping, Roxanne said good-bye to her husband, Albert Jackson Sterling II. In an hour or so, Albert would be driving from the couple's home in Allen, Texas to nearby Dallas to catch a flight to his parents' home in Alamogordo, New Mexico.

     At four o'clock that afternoon, with her husband on the plane to New Mexico, Roxanne pulled her car into the garage and entered her house. She walked into the master bedroom and nearly fainted when she came face-to-face with a man wearing gloves and holding a black leather belt. The intruder rose from the edge of the bed and said, "Your husband wants you dead." Keeping his voice calm, the intruder asked the terrified woman not to panic. He had changed his mind. Instead of killing her, he was there to warn her of her husband's intentions. She was free to call the police. Roxanne, moving as fast as she could, ran to a neighbor's house. The neighbor called 911. The emergency operator could hear Roxanne sobbing uncontrollably in the background.

     Officers from the Allen Police Department found the intruder, Jeffrey Boden Thompson, waiting for them at the Sterling house. Thompson told the officers that Albert Sterling had given him the leather belt which he was to use in strangling the victim. Thompson said he had instructions to haul the corpse, in the victim's car, to a predetermined site in Dallas. After dumping the body, Thompson was to abandon the vehicle at another spot in the city. Mr. Sterling, the murder-for-hire mastermind, had designed his plan to fool the police into thinking that Roxanne had been carjacked and murdered in Dallas. For his efforts, Mr. Thompson would have earned $2,500.

     Because Jeffrey Thompson was willing to cooperate with investigators, the Collin County district attorney decided not to charge him with burglary. To show his willingness to help, Thompson played detectives a message Albert Sterling had left on his cellphone before flying to New Mexico. "The chicken has flown the coop," Albert said, referring to his wife's leaving the  house. "She will be there [back at the  house] in an hour. Just have patience."

     With detectives listening in, Thompson called Sterling in New Mexico with the message he had been told by the mastermind to leave upon completion of the hit: "The chariot (the victim's car) is in south Dallas and the trash (her body) is in west Dallas."

     The next day, in Alamogordo, police officers arrested Albert Sterling on charges of soliciting the murders of his wife and unborn child. The officers booked Sterling into the Otero County Jail where he would await extradition back to Texas. Through his attorney, Sterling denied having arranged his wife's murder, stating that she had caught Thompson in the act of burglarizing their house. The burglar, according to Sterling, had made up the hit murder business to avoid being charged with the break-in.

     Albert Sterling's family, friends, and neighbors were shocked that he had been accused of murder-for-hire. From all appearances he and Roxanne had been happily married, and looking forward to the birth of their baby. People who knew Albert refused to believe that a well-educated man with a good job would hire someone to murder his pregnant wife. Albert not only possessed a good job in the computer industry, the 38-year-old worked as a trainer/instructor in a 24-hour fitness club in Dallas. There had been rumors of a girlfriend who was one of his students in his other business, Al's Punch Time, a boxing gym. Still, no one believed he would have his pregnant wife murdered simply because he had found another woman.

     On December 7, 2006, Albert Sterling was brought back to Texas and placed in the Collins County Jail under $500,000 bond. Two weeks later, a Collin County grand jury indicted him on two counts of murder solicitation. Late in January 2007, a judge released the suspect on bail on the condition he wear an electric monitoring device, and report once a week to the court bailiff. Sterling also had to relinquished his passport.

     While awaiting his murder trial, Albert admitted to Roxanne that he had been involved in an extramarital affair. She not only forgave him, she told the Collins County prosecutor that despite what she had been told by Jeffrey Thompson, she believed that her husband was an honest, trustworthy man who had never plotted to murder her and their baby. She stunned the prosecutor by saying that she would testify on his behalf at his upcoming trial.

     Albert Sterling, through his attorney, Russell Wilson, denied attempting to hire Jeffrey Thompson, an ex-convict, to kill his wife. According to the defense attorney, his client had been working on a car insurance scam with Mr. Thompson when Thompson chose to burglarize his house. When Roxanne walked in on him, the intruder made up the murder-for-hire story.

     On February 13, 2009, a Collin County jury of six men and six women, after a short period of deliberation, found Albert Sterling guilty as charged. The judge sentenced him to two concurrent 30-year prison sentences. Throughout the trial, Roxanne remained loyal to her husband. She had taken the stand for the defense, and at the sentencing hearing, had testified on his behalf.

     Six months after the sentencing of her husband, Roxanne divorced him. When asked by reporters if she still believed in Albert's innocence, she didn't respond. After the sale of the house she and Albert had shared, the 39-year-old moved into a rental house not far from her former residence. 

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Killers Brendan Johnson and Cassandra Rieb: Young, Dimwitted, and Cold-Blooded

     Charles Severance and his wife Shirley, both seventy years old, had lived thirty years in Sterling, Colorado, a rural plains community 110 miles northeast of Denver. In 2014, the couple allowed their grandson, Brendan Johnson, a recent high school graduate without prospects, to take up residence in their modest, single-story $47,000 home.

     These decent grandparents had no idea that Brendan and his 18-year-old girlfriend, Cassandra Rieb, had been planning to murder them for their house, their 2009 Chevrolet pickup truck, and $20,000 in the elderly couple's bank account. According to the harebrained murder plan, Brendan would smother his grandfather as he slept while Rieb, in similar fashion, executed Shirley Severance.

     During the early morning hours of May 20, 2014, the grandson, accompanied by his sociopathic girlfriend, launched their attack on Mr. and Mrs. Severance. But as if often the case involving killers who are dimwitted, things did not go according to plan, and certainly not smoothly. As Rieb began to smother Shirley Severance, Mr. Severance fought against his homicidal grandson. During the struggle, Brendan, unable to smother his grandfather, placed his hands around his neck to strangle him. Mr. Severance couldn't breathe, lost his strength, then died.

     While Brendan was killing his grandfather, his girlfriend continued to have problems dispatching Mrs. Severance. Having fought against being smothered, Shirley begged for her life and offered to give the couple money. Rieb discontinued the assault when Brendan took charge of the murder. The killer's grandmother pleaded with him to stop the attack. She again begged for her life and asked for a drink of water. As the victim drank from the glass, Brendan pulled out a knife to slit her throat. She moved, and the knife instead sliced her in the jaw.

     When the 70-year-old woman tried to escape, Johnson used the knife to stab her repeatedly. "Why are you doing this to me?" she cried.

     "You know why," he replied. Shirley Severance died a few seconds later.

     The double murder not only failed to unfold as planned, it produced a bloody crime scene that the degenerate killers would have to clean up. The killers dragged both bodies into a bedroom where they remained for a day while Johnson and Rieb did their best to clean up the blood and dispose of other physical evidence. But what were they supposed to do with the bodies?

     After scrubbing the murder site, the cold-blooded killers loaded Mrs. Severance into Mr. Severance's pickup truck and hauled her to a wooded area near a reservoir outside of town. At that spot, they cut off her head and set fire to the corpse.

     Two days after the murders, Johnson and Reib returned to the dump site outside of Sterling, placed Mrs. Severance's charred remains back into the truck, and drove the body thirty miles to an area near Lorenzo, Nebraska. At that place they buried the murder victim in a shallow grave.

     Mr. Severance's body remained at the murder scene because he was too heavy to carry to the truck. When planning how to dispose of the bodies, the killers failed to account for this victim's weight.

     On May 29, 2014, a few days after forging and cashing two checks on the Severance bank account for a total of $4,500, Brendan Johnson called 911 to report that he had just discovered his grandfather's body in his house. He also reported that his grandmother was missing.

     Police officers, in response to Brendan Johnson's phony 911 call, met the grandson and his girlfriend at the tiny house on Third Avenue. In the bedroom, the officers came upon Mr. Severance's decomposing corpse.

     Questioned that day at the police station, Johnson said his grandfather had died of a heart attack, and that he had no idea what happened to his grandmother. According to Johnson, prior to Mr. Severance's death, the old man had given him the pickup truck as a gift. He said his grandfather had also given him  the $4,500 drawn from his bank. Detectives didn't buy Johnson's story.

     When asked to take polygraph tests, the young killers confessed. Cassandra Rieb led officers to the place outside of Lorenzo, Nebraska where detectives discovered Shirley Severance's charred and dismembered remains. During her session with the polygraph examiner, Rieb said, "The plan was to kill them so he [Brendan] could get their inheritance. Together we went and we did it together. We had agreed to do it together, obviously. Like one gets one [of the victims] and one gets the other."

     On June 3, 2014, a Logan County prosecutor charged the young couple with two counts of first-degree murder along with several lesser offenses. Johnson and Rieb were booked into the county jail. The judge denied the murder suspects bond.

    In April 2015, Cassandra Rieb, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and assault with a deadly weapon. The judge sentenced the young degenerate to consecutive terms of 48 years and 32 years, respectively. Under Colorado law, Rieb will have to serve at least 75 percent of her sentence behind bars.

     In May 2015, Brendan Johnson, after initially pleading not guilty to murder and fourteen lesser charges related to the case, pleaded guilty to first-degree murder. The plea brought an automatic sentence of life without the possibility of parole.

    It's crimes like this that makes it difficult not to support the death penalty. 

Monday, September 5, 2016

The Rickie Lee Fowler Felony-Murder Arson Case

     Sexually abused as a child, and addicted to methamphetamine, Rickie Lee Fowler lived a life of violence and crime. On October 25, 2003, while riding in a van driven by David Valdez, Jr., Fowler tossed burning road flares out of the moving vehicle. The 22-year-old, angry because he and his family had been evicted from their home, wanted to start fires.

     During the next nine days, the twelve wildfires that swept southern California's San Bernardino foothills scorched 442 square miles of land, and burned 1,000 homes to the ground. Five people died of heart attacks while evacuating their fire-threatened dwellings.

     In 2004, after being interviewed as a possible arson suspect, Fowler was sent to prison on a burglary conviction. Two years later, David Valdez, Jr., the driver of the van, was shot to death.

     Fowler, while serving time on the burglary case, was convicted of repeatedly sodomizing an inmate. The judge in that case sentenced him to three terms of 25 years to life.

     In 2009, after Fowler confessed to starting the October 2003 wildfires, grand jurors in San Bernardino indicted him on one count of aggravated arson and five counts of murder. The homicide indictments were based on the felony-murder doctrine. Fowler, because he had committed a felony that directly led to the killing of five people, was criminally responsible for their deaths. While Fowler had only intended to commit arson, he should have foreseen the deadly consequences of his criminal acts. In most states, convictions based on the felony-murder rule bring sentences of twenty years to life. No one convicted of an unintended homicide has ever been sentenced to death.

     In August 2010, when Fowler learned that the prosecutor was seeking the death penalty in his case, he took back his confession. Two years later, a jury in San Bernardino found Rickie Fowler guilty of  arson and the five counts of murder. The jurors also recommended the death penalty.

     On January 28, 2013, the judge sentenced Fowler to death. This unprecedented death sentence made the Fowler felony-murder case historic in the annals of law. Fowler's attorneys immediately appealed the sentence sentence as cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the U.S. Constitution's Eighth Amendment.

     As of this writing, Fowler, along with many of the 750 Californians on death row, awaits the outcome of his appeal. It's been more than ten years since anyone if California has been executed.

Friday, September 2, 2016

The Christopher Wells Murder-For-Hire Case

    Unlike what we see on TV and in the movies, few real-life murder-for-hire cases involve highly trained, professional contract killers. Most murder-for-hire cases consist of either emotionally unstable or desperate, sociopathic masterminds who hire rank amateurs who almost always botch the job. Identifying a mastermind is one of the easiest assignments a homicide detective will get. Masterminds are most commonly motivated by love, lust, money, rage and/or hatred. They come in all walks of life and often don't have criminal histories. Mothers hire hit men to kill cheerleading coaches, husbands hire losers to kill estranged wives to avoid the cost of divorce, life insurance beneficiaries put out murder contracts on the insured, and teenagers and young adults have parents killed in order to inherit their estates. These cases are not only shockingly common, they are intriguing because of the variety of motives and people involved. Every day someone is arrested for soliciting a contract murder. Most of these masterminds are caught before the homicide is completed because the "hit men" don't realize the people they are talking to are in reality undercover detectives. All of these mastermind/hit-man conversations (many of which take place in Wal-Mart parking lots) are caught on audio and video tape providing detailed insight into the anatomy of this crime.

CHRISTOPHER WELLS CASE

     In August 2010, Amara Wells, the 39-year-old wife of 49-year-old Christopher Wells, declared that she wanted a divorce. The couple lived with their six year old daughter in Monument, Colorado. The day after he received this news, Christopher destroyed $1000 worth of his wife's wardrobe. She and the little girl fled to Castle Rock, Colorado where they took up residence with Amara's sister-in-law and her husband. Within days of the separation, Amara filed for divorce and obtained a restraining order, informing the authorities that she feared for her life. The restraining order did not stop Christopher Wells from stalking and harassing his wife.

     On February 22, 2011, El Paso County (Colorado) police arrested Christopher for violating the restraining order. Instead of posting bail, he chose to remain in custody overnight. That evening someone entered the Castle Rock home and brutally murdered Amara and her sister-in-law's husband. They were beaten, stabbed and shot at close range. Amara's six year old discovered the bodies at three in the morning on February 23. At the time of the killings, Amara's sister-in-law was away on business.

     A few weeks after the double murder, the police arrested Christopher Wells for mastermining the two homicides. Wells and his accomplices, Josiah Sher, Matthew Plake, and Micah Woody had been employed at the Rocky Mountain Auto Brokers in Colorado Springs. Wells stood accused of paying 26-year-old Josiah Sher of Calhan, Colorado, $20,000 for the murder of Amara and her family. Sher's two helpers were charged with buying the weapons, planning the hit, driving the hit man to the scene, and disposing of the evidence. Woody and Plake were each paid $15,000 for their roles in the murders.

     The accused hit man, Josiah Sher, had been arrested in July 2005 for assault, domestic violence, and harassment. Five years later police arrested him for speeding, driving with a revoked license, and being a habitual offender. At the time of this arrest, he was a sergeant in the U.S. Army Reserves.

     Christopher Wells, a hot-tempered drug user, had a history of violence himself. Thirteen years earlier he had asked a cellmate in Fairfax County, Virginia to burglarize his ex-girlfriend's home, and in the process beat her up. Wells gave the cellmate, Richard DeLilly, a checklist detailing the M.O. along with a hand-drawn map of the target's neighborhood and a blueprint of the interior of her home. Wells told DeLilly to take what he wanted then destroy the woman's furniture. Instead of going through with the criminal assignment, De Lilly went to the police. The intended victim told the officers that he, a former Chippendales dancer who did odd jobs and abused methamphetamine, wouldn't take no for an answer. He had called her incessantly, damaged her pickup and jammed the lock on her front door. She considered him wierd and dangerous.

     On September 14, 2011, a judge ruled that the prosecutor in the Castle Rock double murder had sufficient evidence against Wells and the other three to hold the defendants without bond until their separate trials. They were charged with first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit murder, and felony murder. All of the defendants are eligible for the death penalty.

   On January 31, 2012, the Douglas County District Attorney's Office announced that prosecutors intended to seek the death penalty against 27-year-old Josiah Sher, the suspected hit man. Two weeks later, Christopher Wells entered a plea of not guilty in a Douglas County Court.

     In March 2012, Micah Woody and Matthew Plake each pleaded guilty to  two counts of conspiracy to commit first-degree murder. Both men agreed to testify against Christopher Wells and Josiah Sher. The judge sentenced each man to 48 years in prison.

     On January 30, 2014, Christopher Wells and his hit man, Josiah Sher, pleaded guilty to two counts of first-degree murder. The judge sentenced both men to life in prison. 

Thursday, September 1, 2016

The Daniel Sanchez Murder-Suicide Case

     Beatriz "Betty" Silva lived with her sister Maria and Maria's husband Max in a mobile home located among 400 modular dwellings in a subdivision outside of Longmont, a town 35 miles north of Denver, Colorado. The 25-year-old student at Front Range Community College worked at a Chipotle fast-food franchise, and as a sales associate with Marshalls Department Store. On November 22, 2012, Thanksgiving Day, she told her boyfriend, 31-year-old Daniel Sanchez, that she had found someone new. Sanchez, a quick-tempered, violent man, flew into a rage, made threats against the new boyfriend, and began stalking and harassing Silva.

     When they were going together, Betty had loaned Daniel Sanchez $1,000, money he needed to fix up his truck. He had not paid her back as promised, so on Saturday, December 15, 2012, she arranged to meet him in the parking lot of a Best Buy on the outskirts of Denver where they could discuss how he planned to repay the loan. When Betty climbed into his vehicle, Sanchez called her names, punched her in the face, and used her cellphone to text threatening messages to her boyfriend. Against her will, Betty Siva was driven around in Sanchez's truck while he tried to talk her into checking into a hotel where they could resume their relationship. She refused, and after an hour or so, he drove her back to her car and let her out of his truck.

     Betty Silva reported Daniel Sanchez to the Denver police, and on Sunday afternoon, December 16, 2012, officers took him into custody on charges of false imprisonment, second-degree kidnapping, harassment, and domestic violence. He spend the night in the Boulder County Jail, and at ten o'clock Monday night, posted his $10,000 bond and was released.

     Furious over the fact the woman he loved had turned him in to the police, Sanchez drove straight from the jail to Silva's mobile home where he parked on the street in front of her dwelling. Armed with a .45-caliber, 13-round Glock pistol and an extra magazine, Sanchez entered the Silva home by shooting out the glass panel to the rear sliding glass door. Once inside the dwelling, Sanchez took Betty, her 22-year-old sister Maria, and Maria's husband Max Ojeda, hostage.

     At four o'clock the next morning, Betty Silva called 911. The dispatcher overheard her say, "No, no, no." The 911 operator next heard the sounds of a gun being fired. Following the gun shots, Sanchez came on the phone and informed the dispatcher that he was going to kill himself. Again, the sound of gun fire, then silence. No one else came to the phone.

     Weld County Sheriff's deputies and a SWAT team rolled up to the modular home at 4:18 that morning. Officers weren't sure how many people were in the dwelling, or if any of them were alive. At 5:30 AM, after getting no response from inside the hostage site, members of the SWAT unit stormed into the mobile home. Officers found Sanchez dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. They discovered 29-year-old Max Ojeda and his wife Maria dead in their bedroom. Betty Silva had been shot to death in another part of the house. Officers found 16 spent shell-casings scattered about the murder site.

     In reporting Daniel Sanchez to the Denver police, Betty Silva had indicated a reluctance to go forward with the more serious kidnapping related charges. By minimizing the seriousness of Sanchez's crimes against her, Silva may have contributed to her own death and the fate of the other two victims. Had the magistrate been convinced that Sanchez posed a serious threat of life-threatening violence, Sanchez's bail may not have been set so low. Who knows what would have happened had he spent more time behind bars? There is also the possibility that regardless of the amount of Sanchez's bail, this young woman's fate was sealed once she became this violent, unstable man's girlfriend.