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Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The Deadly Bay Area Limousine Fire

     On Saturday, May 4, 2013, Nerizo Fojas, a recently married 31-year-old registered nurse from Fresno, California entertained eight of her friends and fellow nurses at a bachelorette party in Oakland. At nine that night, the newlywed and her guests climbed into a white, 1999 Lincoln stretch limousine en route to the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Foster City, the site of her bridal shower. Orville Brown, the 46-year-old who had been driving as a chauffeur for two months, had picked up the nine women for the 40-mile trip from Oakland to Foster City.

     At ten o'clock, as the limousine crossed the San Mateo Bridge on Highway 92 about 20 miles southeast of San Francisco, one of the passengers tapped on the partition that separates the driver from the passengers. At first Brown couldn't hear what this passenger was saying over the car music. When he heard others in the back yelling, "smoke, smoke!" he pulled out of the westbound lane and brought the Town Car to a stop at the side of the bridge.

     In a matter of seconds after Brown exited the limo, the rear passenger and trunk areas of the vehicle burst into flames, engulfing the passengers. Four of the women managed to escape the sudden inferno by crawling through the 3 foot by18 inch driver's partition opening. Five of the nurses, including Nerizo Fojas, were burned to death as they waited to squeeze through the partition opening.

     The dead women were so badly burned they had to be officially identified through dental records. Two of the women who survived the fire were in critical condition.

     Nerizo Fojas had been working at the Community Regional Medical Center in Fresno for two years. Prior to living in Fresno she had resided in Oakland. She and her husband had planned to travel to her native Philippines in June for a second wedding ceremony.

     San Mateo County Coroner Robert Foucrault told reporters that "it was almost impossible for [the victims] to get out as the fire was moving so fast." As cause and origin experts investigate the fire scene, forensic pathologists performed autopsies and ordered toxicology tests.

     It is rare for a motor vehicle not involved in an accident to burst into flames. The fact the fire had spread so fast suggests that something highly flammable had been near the origin of the fire. (A good many car fires that are not incendiary are electrical in nature.) According to the chauffeur, he had informed his passengers that smoking in the vehicle was prohibited. Orville Brown and other witnesses reported that the fire was not accompanied by an explosion.

     On May 7, 2013, Nelia Arelllano, one of the passengers, told a television reporter from San Francisco that the driver of the limo ignored her when she first yelled at him to stop the car. By the time he pulled over the fire had engulfed the rear area of the vehicle. (Stretch limousines have doors at the front and back but not along the elongated section of the car.) The San Jose company that operated the limo, Limo Stop, was licensed and insured.

    In 2014,  fire scene investigation specialists from San Mateo and Alameda Counties determined that the limo fire had been started by a "catastrophic failure" of the suspension system of the 1999 converted Lincoln Town Car that caused its drive shaft to rub on the vehicle's undercarriage, producing friction and sparks that started the fire in the rear passenger section.

     The California Public Utilities Commission fined Limo Stop $20,000 for having nine passengers in the vehicle, one over the limit. On appeal the amount was reduced to $5,000.

     In 2014 and 2015, families of four of the five women who died in the limo settled lawsuits with numerous companies associated with the vehicle fire. In May 2016, the husband of the fifth victim, Aldrin Geronga, filed a wrongful death suit against the Ford Motor company. According to this plaintiff's attorney, "Ford knew there were problems fifteen years ago." 

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Wayne Mills Murder Case

     Jerald Wayne Mills grew up in the town of Arab, Georgia in the northern part of the state. At the University of Alabama where he played football, he earned a degree in education. But instead of becoming a teacher, Mills formed a band and for fifteen years performed primarily on the college circuit.

     Mills, in 2010, was charged with driving under the influence and reckless endangerment after he bumped a police officer who was standing on the side of the highway. Between tours in 2013, Mills busied himself by working on his seventh album. The 44-year-old was married and had a 6-year-old son.

     A friend of Mills, Chris Ferrell, owned the Pit and Barrel Bar located in downtown Nashville. In July 2013, police arrested Ferrell on charges of domestic violence and vandalism. The complaining witness in the case was a bartender he dated. Notwithstanding that arrest, Ferrell possessed a permit to carry a concealed handgun.

     In mid-November 2013, Ferrell and his bar were featured on a TV series on the Spike Network called "Bar Rescue." In the series, experts helped save struggling bars and nightclub businesses.

     During the early morning hours of Saturday, November 23, 2013, Wayne Mills and a handful of friends and acquaintances were drinking with Chris Ferrell in his bar after it had closed. Just before five that morning an argument broke out between Mills and Ferrell. The trouble started when Mills lit up a cigarette in the non-smoking section of the bar. The two men became so angry, bystanders, fearing violence, left the premises.

     Shortly after 5 that morning, a small group of people outside the Pit and Barrel heard three gunshots. One of the bystanders called 911.

     Police officers arrived at the bar to find Mills dead or dying from three shots to the head. One of the bullets had entered the back of his skull. A short time after being taken to Vanderbilt University Medical Center doctors pronounced Mills dead.

     Chris Ferrell told detectives that fearing for his life, he had shot his friend in self defense. As the only witness to the shooting, detectives accepted Ferrell's account pending further investigation and the results of the autopsy. The bar owner was not taken into custody.

     Detectives with the Davidson County Police Department, for ten hours following the fatal shooting, worked under the false belief that the man shot by Ferrell was Clayton Mills, a Nashville songwriter. Given the fact several people who knew Wayne Mills had witnessed his argument with Ferrell, then heard gunshots, it's hard to image how detectives didn't immediately acquire the true identify of the victim. And why had it taken them so long to sort out their mistake?

     On November 26, 3013, a spokesperson for the Nashville Medical Examiner's Office announced that while a forensic pathologist had performed the autopsy on Wayne Mills, results of that post-mortem work would not be released for up to fourteen weeks. The spokesperson also refused to say if Mr. Ferrell had sustained injuries from the fight.

     In the meantime, Wayne Mills' friends, fans, and family, having heard that one of Ferrell's bullets had entered the back of Mills' head, questioned the believability of the self defense claim.  A rumor surfaced that the shooting occurred when the men were standing on opposite sides of a physical barrier.

     On December 6, 2013, a Davidson County grand jury indicted Chris Ferrell on one count of second-degree murder. Following the indictment, the bar owner turned himself over to the police. Officers booked Ferrell into the Davidson County Jail and the judge set his bail at $150,000. At a bond hearing on December 16, the judge lowered Ferrell's bail which led to his release from custody.

     In January 2014, the Nashville Medical Examiner's Office released the Mills autopsy report. The victim had been killed by a single bullet to the back of the head. The absence of gunpowder staining around the entrance wound suggested the shot had been fired from a distance of at least eighteen inches. The shooting victim had also suffered two broken ribs, abrasions on his head and contusions on his chest, arms, forearms, left thigh and right knee. According to the toxicology report, Mills had a blood-alcohol level of .221, three times the legal limit for driving intoxicated. He also had amphetamine in his system.

     The Wayne Mills murder trial got underway in Nashville on March 2, 2015. In his opening remarks to the jury, Assistant District Attorney Wesley King said that the victim had been shot in the back of the head as he was leaving the bar.

     Defense attorney David Raybin told the jury that the defendant wouldn't have murdered his best friend, that the killing had been in self defense. "He [Mills] was my client's best friend. My client loved him and cared for him and wouldn't murder him," Raybin said. "Never in the ten years they had known each other was there ever a harsh, loud episode between them."

     Prosecutor King put songwriter Thomas Howard on the stand who testified that he saw Ferrell smack a cigarette out of Mills' hand that made Mills angry. "At that point Mills got up and turned around and said, "You ever smack my hand like that again, I'll kill you." Howard said he heard gunshots as he left the bar.

     After the prosecution rested its case on March 4, 2015, the defense attorney put 24-year-old Nadia Markum on the stand. She had been in the bar that night and said Mills and Ferrell were yelling at each other. While she didn't recall the specifics of the argument because she was drunk, she remembered Wayne Mills throwing a glass to the floor. Right after she exited the bar she heard three shots.

     On Markum's cross-examination, prosecutor King got the witness to admit that when questioned by the police, she had said, "All that Mills did was smoke a cigarette." She had also told detectives that Mills was trying to leave the bar when he was shot.

     Defense attorney Raybin, as his final defense witness, put Chris Ferrell on the stand. The defendant testified that Mills became agitated when he couldn't get a cab. "I can't get a cab!" he said. "There are no whores, and no f-ing cocaine here. Why am I here?" At the time of the outburst, Ferrell was walking around the bar turning out lights in anticipation of closing up the place. It was then Mills lit a cigarette.

     The defendant testified that he asked Mills to put out the cigarette. Mills refused, saying that he had helped "build this bar." Ferrell said he reached across the bar and grabbed the cigarette out of Mills' mouth, crushed it and threw it on the floor. Mills responded to this by saying, "If you ever take a cigarette from me again, I will kill you!" According to the defendant, he told Mills to leave the bar but not with the drink he held in his hand. To that Mills said, "If you talk to me like that again I'm going to f-ing kill you." Mills then threw his drink to the floor, smashing the glass into pieces, "You know what?" he said, "I'm going to f-ing kill you!"

     The defendant said that in response to that threats to his life "I fired in fear. I panicked. I believed he had a weapon."

     On March 6, 2015, the jury found Chris Ferrell guilty of second-degree murder. On April 28, 2015, at his sentence hearing, Chris Ferrell, in addressing the court, said, "I stand here today with the heaviest heart, conscious and soul. I will carry the memory of that horrible night forever. I am so sorry for my actions that in an instant changed so many lives." The judge sentenced Ferrell to twenty years in prison.

     

Friday, November 18, 2016

The Cracker Barrel Murders: No Escaping Kevin Allen

     In June 1995, the day he received word that he and his first wife were divorced, 35-year-old Kevin E. Allen assaulted his girlfriend, Janice Koerlin. A few months later, the diagnosed manic-depressive from Kirtland, Ohio, a town 20 miles east of Cleveland, married Koerlin. In September of that year, police arrested Allen after he tried to suffocate his new wife with a pillow. This was a man who obvioulsy had no business being around women. This was a man who needed to be locked up.

     In 2004, Allen filed for personal bankruptcy for the second time. (He had filed for bankruptcy in 1991.) Four years later, the police in North Royalton, Ohio arrested him, now married to his fifth wife with whom he had fathered two daughters, on charges of theft and burglary.

     In March 2011, Kevin and his fifth wife Katherina, who went by Kate and was ten years younger than him, lived in Strongsville, Ohio with their daughters Kerri and Kayla. That year Kevin and Kate filed for personal bankruptcy. They were in debt $60,000. Although Kevin Allen, with his short, thinning gray hair and his trimmed white beard looked like a friendly guy, he continued to be a bellicose, bad-tempered husband. People went out of their way to avoid him. In 2011, Allen went several months without paying his gas bill, and threatened to shoot anybody from the utility company who came to his place to shut if off. A gas company employee did go to the house, but with a police escort.

     In early April 2012, the domestic abuse had gotten so intense and frequent, Kate and the girls moved into a friend's house. On April 12, Kate decided to take Kerri and Kayla to the Cracker Barrel restaurant in nearby Brooklyn, Ohio to celebrate Kerri Allen's tenth birthday. Kate had invited her estranged husband, and in the relative safety of a crowded restaurant, planned to inform Kevin that she wanted a divorce.

     After the late dinner, while still at the Cracker Barrel, Kate broke the news that she was leaving him. Infuriated, Kevin stormed out of the restaurant, but instead of driving home, he circled the parking lot in his silver Jeep Liberty. Worried that Kevin might become violent, Kate, at 8:40, called 911. "I'm having some spouse problems," she said.

     Kate informed the 911 dispatcher that she had just told her estranged husband that she was leaving  him, and he hadn't taken it very well. At that moment, Kevin Allen was outside the Cracker Barrel restaurant driving around the parking lot. A few minutes later, as Kate spoke to the 911 dispatcher, Kevin re-entered the restaurant and approached her and the children carrying a single barrel shotgun. The local police rolled up to the scene just as Kevin disappeared inside the building.

     The police officers, aware that Kevin Allen had gone into the restaurant armed with a shotgun, decided to remain outside. They were afraid that if they went in after him, innocent bystanders could get shot in the cross-fire. The police were also worried that Allen, if confronted inside, might take a hostage.

     When Kevin Allen got to his wife's table, without saying a word, he aimed his shotgun and fired on her and their two children. The transcript of the 911 call, just before the shooting went like this:

DISPATCHER: "Wait in the lobby for the officers. Do not go outside. Let them talk to him, okay? "

KATE: "He's here and the police are here, too. I have to...." (Gunfire could be heard on the dispatcher's end.)

DISPATCHER: "Ma'am?"

     After murdering his wife and his daughter Kerri, and seriously wounding Kayla, Allen walked out the front door of the restaurant where he encountered the police. When he refused to drop his shotgun, the police opened fire, killing him on the spot.

     When Kevin Allen strode into the Cracker Barrel carrying the shotgun, bedlam broke out with patrons running for cover. The manager helped many diners exit the place through a rear door. None of the customers were injured.

     Medics  rushed Kayla to a nearby hospital where she survived her wounds. People have criticized the officers for not immediately entering the restaurant. But they were faced was a difficult dilemma. Had the police gone in, more people could have been killed. In reality, there is only so much the police can do. They cannot always save families from abusive, murderous husbands. There was no escaping Kevin Allen.

     

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Emani Moss: The Brutal Life and Death of a Girl Georgia Failed to Protect

     In 2004, prosecutors in Gwinnett County, Georgia charged Eman Moss with assaulting the biological mother of his one-year-old daughter, Emani. Because Eman attacked his girlfriend in front of their daughter, the prosecutor also charged him with second-degree child cruelty. In return for his guilty plea, the judge sentenced Eman Moss to probation.

     Six years after the domestic assault, Eman and his daughter resided in Lawrenceville, an unincorporated suburb of Atlanta. Eman's new girlfriend, Tiffany Nicole Brown, lived in the apartment with them. In March 2010, the six-year-old told a teacher at Cooper Elementary School that she was afraid to go home with her bad report card.

     Emani's extreme fear of being punished at home prompted an inquiry by the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services. After finding evidence of abuse, the child protection agency turned the case over to the Gwinnett County Police Department.

     Gwinnett County investigators determined that Tiffany Brown, the girlfriend of the Emani's father, had repeatedly beaten the girl with a belt. On Emani's body doctors found scars, abrasions, scabs, and bruises on her chest, arms, back, and legs. A Gwinnett County prosecutor charged Tiffany Nicole Brown, an elementary school teacher, with first-degree child cruelty. Eman, the girl's father, was charged with child cruelty as well.

     Pursuant to an agreement with the prosecutor, Tiffany was allowed to plead guilty to the lesser charge of second-degree child cruelty. Because he and his girlfriend promised to take parenting classes, the charges against Eman were dropped. (The child services agency had signed-off on the plea bargain.) Everybody came out ahead in the deal except Emani who remained exposed to abuse. (I don't know if Tiffany Brown kept her teaching job.)

     In July 2012, Gwinnett County detectives opened another child abuse case on Eman and Tiffany whom he had since married. When investigators were unable to find sufficient evidence to back up Emani's claims that she was being beaten and denied food as punishment, the police closed the case. Shortly after being abandoned again by the government, the nine-year-old ran away from home. After finding Emani, the authorities not only returned the child to her private hell, they charged her as a runaway juvenile.

     At four in the morning on Saturday, November 1, 2013, Eman Moss called 911 from the Coventry Pointe apartment complex in Lawrenceville. Moss told the 911 dispatcher that his daughter had consumed some kind of poison and died. He said her body was in the apartment and that he was thinking of committing suicide. (Unfortunately this turned out to be a hollow threat.)

     Gwinnett County police officers encountered Eman outside the apartment complex standing in a breezeway. The 30-year-old led the officers to a trash can in the recreation area. Inside the garbage bin officers discovered the badly burned body of a girl. The girl in the trash was ten-year-old Emani Moss.

     The county medical examiner's office ruled the girl's death a homicide. According to the forensic pathologist who performed the autopsy, Emani had died of starvation. Her body had been burned postmortem. The medical examiner did not believe she had been poisoned.  (A toxicology report would later confirm the lack of poison in the girl's system.) According to the pathologist, the dead girl had endured periods of up to twelve days without food. She had been dead about three days.

     Eman and Tiffany Moss, charged with first-degree murder, cruelty to children, and concealing a body, were booked into the Gwinnett County Detention Center. The magistrate denied them bail.

     On June 8, 2015, Eman Moss pleaded guilty to the charge of felony-murder. As part of the plea bargain deal, he agreed to testify against his wife, Tiffany. Detectives believed that Tiffany had been the driving force behind the murder. Mr. Moss, according to investigators, had played a passive role in his daughter's torture and death. He had failed to protect her. In return for his plea, Eman Moss was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Tiffany Moss, if found guilty as charged, could be sentenced to death.

    In November 2015, Tiffany Moss pleaded guilty to first-degree child cruelty and was sentenced to five years probation under the state's First Offender Program.
     

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

What Happened To Wall Street Reporter David Bird?

     David Bird, a 55-year-old journalist with the Wall Street Journal who covered the world's energy markets--OPEC and such--lived with his wife Nancy and their two children in central New Jersey's Long Hill Township. Although he underwent a liver transplant operation in 2005, Mr. Bird was an avid hiker, biker, and camper. The Boy Scout troop leader, in 2013, ran in the New York City Marathon. His children were ages 12 and 15.

     On Saturday, January 11, 2014, after he and his wife had put away their Christmas decorations, David said he wanted to take a walk and get some fresh air before it started to rain. At 4:30 PM, dressed in a red rain jacket, sneakers, and a pair of jeans, the six-foot-one, 200 pound, gray-haired reporter walked out of his house. Shortly thereafter it began to rain, and rain hard.

     Two hours after David Bird started his walk in the neighborhood, his wife became worried. He hadn't returned home and it was still raining. To make matters worse, Dave had been suffering from a gastrointestinal virus. Nancy Bird called the Long Hill Township Police Department to report her husband missing.

     Over the next three days police officers and hundreds of volunteers searched the neighborhood and nearby wooded areas for the missing journalist. The searchers were assisted by dogs, a helicopter, and people riding all-terrain vehicles and horses. Volunteers also distributed hundreds of missing persons flyers.

     Notwithstanding the effort to locate Mr. Bird, he was nowhere to be found. It seemed he had disappeared without a trace.

     The fact the missing man left his house without the anti-rejection medication he took twice a day in connection with his liver transplant made finding him all the more urgent. Without that medicine he would surely become ill.

     On January 16, 2014, police officers learned that someone in Mexico, the night before, had used one of David Bird's credit cards. The card was supposedly used four days after Bird's disappearance. Investigators, without a clue as to where David Bird was, or why he went missing, considered the possibility that his disappearance had something to do with his reporting on recent middle east crude oil price changes.

     On March 18, 2015, at five o'clock in the evening, two men canoeing on the Passaic River in New Jersey about a mile from David Bird's home, spotted a red jacket amid a tangle of branches. From that spot emergency responders retrieved a male corpse.

     Dr. Carlos A. Fonesca with the Morris County Medical Examiner's office and forensic dentist Dr. Mitchell M. Kirshbaum identified the remains as David Bird. The day after the discovery, Morris County prosecutor Frederic M. Knapp said an autopsy would be conducted to determine Mr. Bird's cause and manner of death.

     A few days later, a Morris County spokesperson revealed that Mr. Bird had drowned. Investigators found no reason to suspect foul play. Since Mr. Bird's death wasn't homicide or natural, it was either the result of suicide or an accident.

     In June 2015, a spokesperson for the Morris County Medical Examiner's Office ruled the manner of death accidental. 

Monday, November 14, 2016

The Jerome Sidney DeAvila Murder Case

     Jerome Sidney DeAvila, a Stockton, California pedophile with a long history of sex crimes, was sentenced to a prison psychiatric hospital after a child molestation conviction in 2011. The 38-year-old criminally insane sexual predator should have remained in custody for the remainder of his life. Although allowing this man back into society guaranteed more victims, state parole officials released him from the prison mental facility in May 2012. Correction officials did not let DeAvila out because he was no longer dangerous. They freed him because some judge determined that the state psychiatric hospital was too crowded.

     DeAvila, just one of thousands of violent criminals the state of California, had been paroled early because there was no room for them in its prisons and jails. Because getting into prison and jail had become so difficult in the state, parole violators like DeAvila had no incentive to comply with the conditions of parole. DeAvila was supposed to wear a GPS tracking device around his ankle that triggered an alarm if tampered with. Removing the device constituted a parole violation. Because removing tracking devices didn't lead to jail time, many parolees decided not to wear them. As a result, DeAvila's parole officer had no idea where he was or what he was up to.

     The Stockton police, on February 13, 2013, arrested DeAvila for the tenth time since his release from the state psychiatric facility. Every one of his arrests involved violations of the terms of his parole, and included public drunkenness, possession of drugs, and the removal of his GPS tracking device. On each these occasions, officers booked him into the San Joaquin County Jail.

    Before the court ordered the thinning out of the state's prison and jail population, parole violators would be held in county jails until their state parole revocation hearings. If found in violation, they'd be sent back to prison to serve up to another year behind bars.

     In DeAvila's case, he'd only spend a few nights in the San Joaquin lockup before being released back into society. Following his tenth parole violation arrest on February 13, 2013, he remained in the overcrowded San Joaquin Jail one week before walking free.

     On February 26, 2013, just six days after DeAvila's last jail release, neighbors discovered the corpse of Rachael Russell, the parole violator's grandmother. Her body had been dumped in a wheelbarrow sitting in her backyard. Later that day, Stockton police officers arrested the high-risk parolee for the rape, robbery and murder of his grandmother. When taken into custody he was wearing her jewelry.

     It had taken a murder to get this man off the streets of Stockton, California. But DeAvila's arrest for murder meant that some other criminal would be set free to make room for him. Instead of grossly overpaying politicians and bureaucrats, the state needs to expand its prison and jail system. Maybe it's time to worry more about the safety of law obeyers and less about prison conditions involving violent criminals.    

     In August 2013, Rachael Russell's daughter and son (DeAvila's mother and uncle) sued the state and San Joaquin County. The plaintiffs claimed that after this dangerous man violated his parole for the tenth time, he should not have been released from the county jail. According to the suit, parole agents who supervised DeAvila knew he was a danger to the 76-year-old victim.

     In April 2014, DeAvila pleaded guilty to rape, robbery, and murder. The judge sentenced him to 25 years to life. The civil suit is pending. 

Thursday, November 10, 2016

The William Keitel Murder Case

     William Keitel and his wife Michele were married in 1989. The couple resided a few miles north of Pittsburgh in Ohio Township, Pennsylvania. In October 1996, following a tumultuous marriage and two children--William, 5 and Abbee, 3--William and Michele separated. Shortly after the split, Michele, 35, became engaged to Charles Dunkle, a 34-year-old from nearby Moon Township.

     In the evening of New Year's Day 1998, 45-year-old William Keitel sat in his Mercedes in the parking lot of the Stop 'N Go convenience store on Mount Nebo Road. He and his father, William Keitel senior, were waiting for Michele to arrive with the children pursuant to an a prearranged exchange. As on numerous occasions in the past, Michele had either forgotten about the exchange or was late.

     At nine-thirty that night, after William called the police, Michele, accompanied by the children, her father, and her fiancee, pulled into the convenience store lot.

     As William pulled out of the Stop 'N Go parking lot with his children in the car, Michele saw that he was armed with a handgun. (William had been issued a permit to carry the .38-caliber revolver.) Screaming that he had a gun, Michele ran after the Mercedes as it eased back onto Mount Nebo Road.

     William, realizing that his estranged wife was chasing his car, pulled into a neighboring beer distributorship parking area and climbed out of his vehicle with the gun in his hand. As Michele, her father--Mr. Charles Walker--and Charles Dunkle rushed him, William shot Dunkle in the chest at close range. With Michele on her knees next to Dunkle's body, William placed the barrel of the .38 to her forehead and pulled the trigger. When Mr. Walker tried to disarm William, the father-in-law was shot in the stomach.

     Michele Keitel and Charles Dunkle died on the beer distributorship's parking lot. Charles Walker survived his bullet wound. The Keitel children witnessed the mayhem a few feet away from their father's car.

     Charged with first-degree murder of Michele Keitel, third-degree murder of Charles Dunkle, and the aggravated assault of Charles Walker, William Keitel went on trial in Pittsburgh in October, 1998. His attorney, William Diffenderfer, presented a case of self defense that included putting his client on the stand to testify on his own behalf. Allegheny County prosecutor Edward Borowski, in the murder of Michele Keitel, sought the death penalty.

     The jury, following the one-month trial, found William Keitel guilty as charged. The jurors, however, rejected the death sentence by an eight to four vote. In January 1999, Common Pleas Judge Jeffery A. Manning sentenced Keitel to life in prison without parole. Three months later, prison administrators assigned him to the State Correctional Institution at Houtzdale located in Clearfield County, Pennsylvania.

     In 2010, William Keitel's 18-year-son, a high school senior, died when his car collided with a telephone pole.

     At one in the afternoon of August 2, 2013, after returning to his cell following a work assignment, William Keitel's 43-year-old cellmate beat him severely. The 59-year-old convicted murderer was rushed by helicopter to a hospital in Altoona, Pennsylvania where, nine days later, he died from the beating.

     The federal appeal of William Keitel's conviction and sentence pending before the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia died along with him. 

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

The Stephanie Lazarus Murder Case

     In the early 1980s, Stephanie Lazarus, a student at UCLA, fell in love with John  Ruetten who also attended the university. After college, Lazarus and Ruetten continued to see each other, and even took trips together. But for Ruetten, it wasn't a serious relationship. In 1984, Stephanie joined the Los Angeles Police Department as a patrol officer. A year later, Ruetten shocked her with the news that he was marrying a woman named Sherri Rasmussen. Lazarus responded to the revelation by becoming hysterical. At the hospital where Rasmussen worked as a nursing supervisor, the jilted, distraught cop confronted her rival. At one point Lazarus threatened that if she couldn't have John Ruetten, nobody could  have him. Notwithstanding Lazarus' smoldering objection, Ruetten and Rasmussen were married in November 1985.

     On the morning of February 24, 1986, Sherri Ruetten (nee Rasmussen), still employed at the hospital, called in sick. Stephanie Lazarus also took a day off from the LAPD. At six that evening, John Ruetten returned to his townhouse in the San Fernando Valley to find his wife of three months sprawled on her back on the living room carpet. Dressed in a red robe and a pink T-shirt, Sherri Ruetten  had been struck over the head with a heavy vase, tied-up, beaten, bitten, and shot to death. The Los Angeles County coroner estimated that the 29-year-old victim had been murdered around noon.

     A crime scene investigator, in the era before DNA identification, had the presence of mind to swab the victim's bite mark with cotton and place the sealed evidence in the coroner's freezer. (From saliva, a forensic serologist could determine the donor's blood type.) Detectives on the case, thinking that Sherri Ruetten had interrupted a burglar, did not suspect officer Stephanie Lazarus. The investigation went nowhere.

     In 1993, the LAPD promoted Lazarus to detective. That year she married a fellow police officer, and shortly thereafter the couple had a daughter. In 2005, the LAPD formed a squad of cold-case investigators who re-opened hundreds of old, unsolved murders that featured biological evidence capable of being DNA tested. The 1986 Sherri Ruetten case fell into that category. In 2005, a DNA analysis of the saliva traces swabbed from the victim's bite wound revealed that the killer was a woman. While members of Sherri's family suspected that Stephanie Lazarus had killed Sherri, the LAPD, perhaps unwilling to investigate one of their own, stayed with the intruder theory. (Female burglars are extremely rare.)

     In 2009, after Stephanie Lazarus retired from the force as a highly decorated detective specializing in art theft, the cold-case investigators turned their attention to her. That year, a detective who had followed the suspect to a Costco store, retrieved a soda can she had thrown into a trash container. A DNA analyst compared saliva traces from the soda can to the Rasmussen bite mark residue. The comparison resulted in a partial DNA match. This linkage to the murder scene provided detectives with probable cause to take Lazarus into custody.

     With Lazarus in custody, an investigator had the opportunity to swab the inside of her mouth for a higher quality saliva sample. According to DNA expert Jennifer Francis, the sample from the suspect's mouth matched the crime scene saliva. This meant that Stephanie Lazarus was the only person in the world who could have bitten Sherri Ruetten. The district attorney's office charged the retired police officer with first-degree murder. A judge set her bail at $10 million. Lazarus would await her trial in the Los Angeles County Jail.

     The Lazarus trial got underway on February 6, 2012. Deputy District Attorney Paul Nunez, after showing the jury of six men and six women the murder scene photographs, spent the first week establishing the integrity of the DNA evidence. He also emphasized how it proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant had murdered Sherri Ruetten. Defense attorney Mark Overland aggressively cross-examined the prosecution's DNA experts in an effort to plant seeds of doubt regarding the reliability of physical evidence this old.

     On February 14, the prosecutor put John Ruetten on the stand. The 53-year-old witness described how the defendant had reacted to the news he was marrying Sherri Rasmussen. To calm her down, he agreed to have sex with her. After the murder, the idea that Lazarus had killed his wife never crossed Ruetten's mind. Detectives had told him that Sherri had been murdered when she interrupted a burglar.

     Prosecutor Nunez, on February 16, 2012, put his last witness on the stand, a FBI criminal profiler who testified that the killer had staged part of the murder scene to throw off investigators. According to this witness, the victim's townhouse, with its alarm company sign on the door and its location in plain view of other houses, was an unlikely target for a burglar.

     Mark Overland, in his two-day defense presentation, attacked the DNA evidence. He tried to convince jurors that the 1986 bite mark saliva had degraded and had been contaminated. The defense attorney also put a fingerprint examiner on the stand who testified that none of the murder scene latents belonged to the defendant. Overland rested his case without putting the defendant on the stand. (I believe, in a case involving prosecution DNA evidence, that was a mistake.)

     In his closing remarks to the jury, Deputy District Attorney Nunez said the DNA evidence against the defendant was "overwhelming." The prosecutor identified the motive in the murder as jealousy. The defense attorney asked the jurors to disregard the DNA evidence which he characterized as "compromised." During the closing arguments, the defendant looked on without outward signs of emotion.

     On March 8, 2012, after deliberating a little more than a day, the jury found Lazarus guilty of first-degree murder. Not long after the verdict, the Rasmussen family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the LAPD and the city.

     On May 10, 2012, the judge sentenced the 51-year-old Lazarus to 27 years in prison. A civil judge, in 2013, dismissed the Rasmussen wrongful death suit against the police department.  

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Men Who Kill Prostitutes


     The term "serial killing," coined by FBI profilers in the 1980s, pertains to two or more unrelated murders in distinctly separate incidents. In other words, killings with "cooling off" periods in between. At any given time, according to FBI experts on the subject, there are between twenty and fifty serial killers going about their deadly business. I believe, based on national homicide statistics, that the number is closer to twenty. America produces 85 percent of the world's serial killers. While these murderers fall into several groups according to their motives, MO, and psychological profiles, they are all sociopaths who feel no guilt or remorse.

     Serial killers who rape, torment and kill women--often runaways, prostitutes and others who live transient lives--are called lust killers. (In England they call them "recreational killers.") These men are primarily motivated by sex and sadism and have nothing but disdain for their victims. Before they actually kill anyone, most of these sociopaths fantasize about violent sex. At some point, their fantasies turn into reality. These predators prey on prostitutes because they are easy targets. A street walker will go missing, and no one will report it for days or weeks, if at all. Moreover, the police are not likely to give such cases much attention. As criminal homicides, these cases are difficult to solve because many of the bodies cannot be identified, and there is no substantial relationship between the victims and their killers.  

     What follows are the broad profiles of nine lust killers. Two of these men are black, and all of them murdered prostitutes. In no particular order, they are:

Garry Ridgway
Seattle, Washington
white male; born 1949; 90 victims (1982-2000)

     Ridgway, known as the Green River Killer, is America's most prolific lust killer. This childhood bed-wetter with a low IQ grew into a religious fanatic fixated on prostitutes. A loner and an outdoorsman, Ridgway, divorced three times, had a son by his second wife. He targeted street walkers who worked in Seattle and dumped their bodies on the banks of the Green River. He painted trucks for a living.

Arthur Shawcross
Rochester, New York
white male; born 1945; 12 victims (1988-1989)

     In 1972, before Shawcross started killing prostitutes, he raped and murdered two children in Watertown, New York. After serving fourteen years in prison, he began targeting street walkers in Rochester, dumping their bodies in the Genesse River. Although he had a low IQ, he had served in the U.S. Army. He confessed to his murders before dying in 2008.

Bobby Joe Long
Tampa Bay, Florida
white male; born 1953; 10 victims (1984)

     As a child growing up in Kenova, West Virginia, kids teased Long because he had an extra X chromosome that caused him to grow breasts. As a child he suffered several head injuries, and slept in his mother's bed until he was a teenager. Prior to killing women in the Tampa Bay area, Long raped at least fifty women in Fort Lauderdale, Ocala and Miami where he was known in the press as the "Classified Ad Rapist." In 1974, he married his high school girlfriend with whom he fathered two children. They divorced in 1980. Three years later, Long moved to Tampa Bay and in 1984 began abducting, raping and murdering women, most of whom were prostitutes. He took his victims to his apartment where he either stangled or bludgeoned them, or cut their throats. One of his victims escaped which led to his arrest and conviction. Long confessed to deriving sadistic pleasure from his crimes. He is currently on death row.

Maury Travis
St. Louis, Missouri
black male; born 1965; 12-20 victims (2000-2002)

     This hotel worker from Ferguson, Missouri outside of St. Louis, took prostitutes to his home where, in a basement torture chamber, he raped, tortured, and stangled his victims. He video-taped many of his atrocities. When investigators searched Travis' house, they found bondage equipment, a stun gun, and newspaper clippings featuring news of his murders. In 2002, he committed suicide in his St. Louis jail cell. In a letter to the "St. Louis Post-Dispatch," Travis boasted that he had killed seventeen prostitutes.

Kendall Francois
Poughkeepsie, New York
black male; born 1971; 8 victims (1996-1998)

     This necrophiliac high school hall monitor took prostitutes to his home where he killed them by strangulation. His hatred of street walkers stemmed from the fact one of them had infected him with HIV. When the police searched his home, they found the decomposing bodies of several victims. He is serving a life sentence at the Attica Correctional Facility.

Robert Lee Yates
Spokane, Washington
white male; born 1952; 16 victims (1986-1988)

     After working as a prison guard, Yates embarked on a medal-winning, nineteen year career in the U.S. Army where he flew cargo planes and helicopters. All of his victims worked the streets in the skid row section of Spokane. He's currently on death row at Washington State Penetentiary.

Robert Hansen
Anchorage, Alaska
white male; born 1939; 21 victims (1980-1983)

     This bipolar baker and police academy drill instructor came from a dysfunctional family and was bullied at school. Before he began killing prostitutes, he burned down a school bus garage in Pocahontas, Iowa. Known as a quiet loner, Hansen fathered two children. He kidnapped his victims in Anchorage then released them into the Alaskan wilderness where he hunted them down like animals.

Doug Clark
Los Angeles, California
white male; born 1948; 8 victims (1980)

     Along with his accomplice Carol M. Bundy, Clark became known as one of the "Sunset Strip Killers." The boiler operator at a Jergens Soap Factory fantasized about killing women during sex then, with the help of Bundy, graduated to the real thing. He shot his victims in the back of the head. At his trial he represented himself. He's now on death row. Carol Bundy, pursuant to a plea bargain, is doing life.

Dayton Leroy Rogers
Portland Oregon
white male; born 1953; 6 victims (1983-1987)

     A mechanic who fixed small engines and was deeply in debt, Rogers took his victims into the woods where he raped and stabbed them to death. All of his victims were runaways hooked on dope. He's currently awaiting his fate on Oregon's death row.

     The disturbing thing about all of these men is that they did not stand out in any way. They did not look like monsters, and in their daily lives did nothing that revealed who they really were. Notwithstanding their homicidal activities, they seemed ordinary. That's what made them so dangerous. And it also made them hard to catch.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Randall Price: Small Town Cop Kills Mentally Ill Antagonist

     Along a dirt road in Cottageville, South Carolina on May 16, 2011, Officer Randall Price of the Cottageville Police Department shot and killed Bert Reeves, a local construction company owner and the town's former mayor. They were both 40-years-old, had an antagonistic history between them, and, at the time of the shooting, were engaged in physical combat. The backgrounds of both men involved conflict and trouble. Reeves, shot in the chest, died from his wounds at a local hospital. The chief of the six-man police department, consisting of only two full-time patrol officers, placed Officer Price on paid administrative leave pending the investigation of the shooting by detectives with the state.

     Mayor Reeves, in 2004, scolded a town officer for not writing enough speeding tickets to pay for his job. ( With 10,000 vehicles passing through town every day on a major route between Charleston and Waterboro, Cottageville was a notorious speed trap.) In March 2006, a sheriff's deputy arrested Reeves for driving 103 mph in a 55 mph zone. Three months later, another deputy warned Reeves for driving 71 in a 55 mph area. In July 2006, Reeves suffered a serious brain injury after flipping his pickup. That November, the mayor reported his wife and children missing. He said they had been taken against their will by unidentified people angry at him over some business deal "turned ugly." As it turned out, the wife and kids had left on their own volition to get away from Reeves. A month later, after the state revealed that Reeves had traces of marijuana in his blood when he wrecked his truck, the mayor resigned. About a month before the fatal shooting, Reeves had complained about Officer Price's arrest of one of his relatives on an alchol related charge.

     Officer Randall Price, before joining the Cottageville force in May 2008, had, two years earlier, been fired from the Blockville Police Department over a claim of excessive force. In 2001, he had been fired from the Aiken County Sheriff's Office for criminal domestic violence, and in 1999 from the McCormick County Sheriff's Office for unsafe driving. During an eleven year period, Price had held jobs with eight different law enforcement agencies. He was the quintessential small town gypsy cop.

     In September 2011, Cottageville Mayor Margaret Steen laid off Officer Price. The police department, she said, couldn't afford to keep him on paid administrative leave pending the completion of the shooting investigation. The former mayor shot by Price had been Steen's nephew.

     In September 2012, Bert Reeves' ex-wife Ashley, on behalf of their two children, filed a federal wrongful death lawsuit against the town of Cottageville and other defendants. According to her attorney, Mullins McLeod, on the day in question, officer Price drove out to Nut Hatch Lane where he blocked the former mayor in with his patrol car before shooting him in the chest. The plaintiff accused the defendant town of negligently hiring a cop with a history of police brutality. According to the lawsuit, because town officials knew that Officer Price was out to get Mr. Reeves, they were negligent in not firing him.

     In August 2013, Lake Summers, the attorney representing the town, released civil suit documents that portrayed Bert Reeves, in the years before his death, as a mentally unstable and dangerous man. One of these documents included Mayor Margaret Steen's deposition transcript. Steen, the dead man's aunt, testified that shortly before the shooting, while she was at work in the town's municipal building, Reeves pulled his car up behind Officer Price's cruiser and started blowing his horn. The mayor, in an effort to defuse the situation, told the officer to ignore Reeves and go about his business. After Officer Price drove off, Reeves informed the major that he had been "this close to getting" Officer Price.

     According to Mayor Steen, Reeves looked as though he was under the influence of drugs that day. She testified that he was "acting wild and crazy." The mayor advised her nephew to take his complaints about Officer Price to the chief of police. Bert Reeves did not take her advice. In recalling that moment, the mayor said, "and he [Reeves] got this look on his face and he pointed and said, 'I'm going to get him now' and took off like a bat."

     The mayor, worried that there would be a dangerous confrontation involving her nephew and the police officer, immediately notified chief of police John Craddock of the situation. A short time later, Chief Craddock informed the mayor that Officer Price had killed Bert Reeves.

     Mercer Reeves, in his civil suit deposition, revealed that his brother Bert, in November 2006, had been involuntarily committed to a mental health facility after he threatened to harm members of his family. According the brother, Bert had threatened to kill his cousin, and talked about harming a police officer.

     Ashley Reeves, in responding to attorney Summer's deposition transcripts, admitted that Bert had gone through a rough period before and immediately after their June 2007 divorce. In 2006, he had threatened to burn down their house. The family court judge granted the divorce on grounds of Bert's adultery. Although the children remained with her, the judge granted her ex-husband visitation rights. "He was a really good father to his children," Ashley said. The lawsuit plaintiff asserted that her husband's difficulties with mental illness had nothing to do with his being wrongfully shot to death by Officer Price.

     According to a state toxicology report, Bert Reeves, at the time of his death, was not under the influence of illicit drugs. However, he did have in his system, at "therapeutic levels," three prescription drugs designed to treat anxiety.

     There was no third party witness to this police-involved shooting. Moreover, the event was not caught on videotape. As a result, all investigators had to go on was Randall Price's version of the incident. This and the fact Bert Reeves was mentally disturbed and angry in the hours before his death resulted in no criminal charges against the former police officer.

     On October 2, 2014, testimony in Ashley Reeves' wrongful death suit against Randall Price, the town of Cottageville, and its police department, got underway in federal court in Charleston, South Carolina. Former Cottageville police chief John Craddock took the stand for the defense on October 14, 2014. According to this witness, Bert Reeves, just before Randall Price shot him, was swinging at the officer.

     Throughout the trial, plaintiff's attorney McLoad painted Randall Price as a loose cannon cop who had been frequently disciplined and fired for his on-duty bad behavior with several law enforcement agencies.

     The federal jury, on October 15, 2014, finding that the village of Cottageville had been negligent in hiring Randall Price, awarded the Reeves family $97.5 million. This award was a staggering financial blow to a community that couldn't afford it.