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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.

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.     

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.