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Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Best Crime Movies

 

Fargo  (1996)

     Set in North Dakota and Minnesota, this dark comedy features a car salesman who arranges to have his wife kidnapped for ransom, and a pregnant, small town police chief who investigates a pair of highway murders. Any film that has one killer stuffing another into a wood chipper can't be bad. This film works on all levels.

The Informant  (2009)

     A fact-based comic drama about a pathologically lying FBI whistle-blower in the mid-1990s Archer Daniels Midland lysine price-fixing conspiracy. The film is an adaptation of journalist Kurt Eiechenwald's 2000 book of the same name. Matt Damon, the whistle blowing company embezzler, is brilliant as a stiff from Indiana with a background in science who gets in over his head.

Insomnia  (1997)

     A psychological thriller, set in a small Alaskan town near the Arctic Circle, about a true crime novelist (Robin Williams) who murdered a high school girl, and the world-weary Los Angeles Detective (Al Pacino) out to arrest him. The exhausted cop (who can't sleep because the sun never sets), tries to cover-up the accidental shooting of his partner by switching ballistics evidence. A riveting small town tale set in a northern wilderness.
    
One Hour Photo  (2002)

     This tense, leisurely paced psychological drama features a lonely and alienated box store camera film developer (Robin Williams) who develops a pathological fixation on a man, his wife and their boy who he thinks is the ideal American family. His disillusionment triggers an event that leads to his undoing. This film is more about mood and the comparitive bleakness of one man's life than it is about criminal violance.

Se7ven  (1995)

     A gritty detective yarn featuring a pair of homicide investigators (Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman) trying to identify and stop a serial killer whose victims have violated one of the seven sins of gluttony, envy, lust, pride, sloth, greed, and wrath. In the end, the young detective is faced with a sickening dilemma pertaining to the sin of wrath. This film is as graphic and good as it is brutal.

The Departed  (2006)

     Set in Boston, Massachusetts, the rise and bloody fall of Irish crime boss Francis Costello (Jack Nicholson). The film features two state cops (Leonardo Di Caprio and Matt Damon), one corrupt and the other working undercover to identify him. Loosely based on the life of the real Boston mobster, Whitey Bulger who, after years as a fugitive, was recently arrested in California. A great film with a lot of big stars in big roles.

Donnie Brasco  (1997)

     In the 1970s FBI agent Joe D. Pistone infiltrated the Bonanno crime family in New York. The agent's (Johnny Depp) undercover stint led to the conviction of dozens of Mafia figures. The FBI pulled the agent, using the name Donnie Brasco, off the case just before his cover was blown. A realistic depiction of a crime family, its hiearchy, and the type of people who become "made" men.

Goodfellas (1990)

     Unlike "The Godfather" that in some ways romanticizes and glorifies the Mafia of the 1940s and 50s, the wiseguys portrayed in Goodfellas are realistically portrayed as violent thugs in cheesy suits. The film is based on the true story of Henry Hill (Robert De Niro), the Irish hood from Brooklyn who masterminded the 1970s multi-million-dollar Air France heist at JFK. In the end, drugs, greed and recklessness bring down this crew of fascinating degenerates. An adaptation of Nicholas Pileggi's 1986 book, Wiseguy.

Pulp Fiction  (1994)

     This Quentin Taratino, Los Angeles noir classic, features a pair of philosophizing hit men (John Travolta and Robert Jackson), a boxer (Bruce Willis) on the lamb because he didn't throw a fight, and an underworld crime scene cleanup specialist (Harvey Keitel). The film, comprised of loosely connected episodes told in flashbacks and flashforwards, breaks new ground in visual storytelling.

Dead Presidents  (1995)

     This loosely fact-based film about a group of men returning to the Bronx after combat duty as Marines in Vietnam. The action comes to a head when an armored truck heist goes terribly wrong. The film transforms violence into choreographed art.

The Onion Field  (1979)

      This film adaptation of Joseph Wambaugh's 1973 nonfiction book of the same name (Wambaugh also wrote the screenplay), tells the story of the 1963 execution style murder of LAPD officer Ian Campbell. Gregory Ulas Powell and an accomplice abducted Campbell and his partner Karl Hettinger at gunpoint and drove them to an onion field near Bakersfield where Powell murdered Campbell. In 1972 Powell's death sentence was commuted to life. Powell, played in the movie by James Woods, never expressed remorse for the cold-blooded murder. Powell died in prison on August 12, 2012 from prostate cancer. The film, an indictment of the California criminal justice system, makes the time and effort to convict these two killers--endless defense motions, court delays, appeals and the like--a part of the story. Young movie goers today may find the film a little slow. I think it is a classic.

Training Day  (2001)

     This police drama, covering a single day, follows the on-duty actions of a corrupt LA narcotics cop (Denzel Washington), his crew of dirty officers, and a trainee (Ethan Hawk). In this film, except for the trainee who has traded in his uniform for plainclothes, you can't tell the good guys from the bad guys. An unflattering look at Los Angeles, the drug culture, and the cops.

The Firm  (1993)

     A young hotshot lawyer (Tom Cruise) realizes his prestigious Memphis law firm is corrupt and behind the murders of two former law partners. The young lawyer is caught between the FBI and his murderous employer. The film also stars Gene Hackman as the new attorney's legal mentor. A tense, Sydney Pollack thriller.

Serpico  (1973)

     The true story of New York Polce Officer Frank Serpico (Al Pacino) who blew the whistle on the culture of police corruption in the 1960s and 70s. Serpico's courage led to the Knapp Commission Hearings in 1971, and a series of  police reforms. Based on the nonfiction book of the same title by Peter Maas.

Ronin  (1998)

     An international crime thriller set in France about former special forces operatives and intelligent agents (Robert De Niro et. al.) whose mission involves stealing a mysterious package from a heavily guarded convoy. Some great car chase scenes.

Casino (1995)

     A Martin Scorsese film about the real life Las Vegas casino manager Frank Rosenthal (Robert De Niro) who ran three casinos in the 1970s and 80s. A gripping and vivid adaptation of Nicholas Pileggi's book of the same title, the film depicts Las Vegas during its gangster era. The movie also stars Sharon Stone as De Niro's out-of-control wife. Also starring Joe Pesci as an out-of-control gangster who, like De Niro, comes to a bad end. Both men had outlived their time as Las Vegas moved out of its gangster era.

Monday, February 27, 2017

The Christie Lynn Mullins Murder Case

     Christie Lynn Mullins resided with her parents on a residential street on the north side of Columbus, the central Ohio capital of the state. At one-thirty in the afternoon of Saturday, August 23, 1975, the 14-year-old and her girlfriend of the same age were walking to the Woolco Department Store located in the Graceland Shopping Center a few blocks from their homes.

     Mullins' girlfriend had received a telephone call from a man who claimed to be a disc jockey at a local radio station. According to this man, the radio station was sponsoring a cheerleading contest to be held at the department store at one-forty-five that afternoon. The winner of the event would be awarded a free pass to the Ohio State Fair. The girls were to wait for the man outside the store.

     When the girls arrived at the Woolco Department Store, Mullins' companion went inside the place to get the time. When she walked back outside, Christie Mullins was gone. The friend waited twenty minutes before going to another friend's house.

     At two o'clock that afternoon, a man and his wife were walking in a wooded area behind the Woolco store between the shopping center and the Olentangy River. The couple spotted a man hitting something on the ground with a two-by-four board. Realizing he had been seen, the man ran off. When the man and his wife walked to the spot in question to investigate, they found the partially clad body of a girl who had been bludgeoned to death.

     The local medical examiner identified the murdered girl as Christie Mullins. Her hands had been tied with telephone wire and she had been raped.

     The couple who discovered the body provided the police with a detailed description of the man they had seen at the crime scene. A few days later, police officers arrested a man walking on the sidewalk in downtown Columbus. The suspect, a man named John Carman, did not fit the couple's description of the man at the crime scene. Moreover, Mr. Carman suffered from severe mental retardation.

     Following an intense grilling at the police station, John Carman confessed to killing Christie Mullins. Soon after that he agreed to plead guilty to kidnapping, rape, and murder. A judge sentenced him to life in prison. But shortly after his imprisonment, the case became controversial when the public learned that the suspect possessed the mental age of a ten-year-old. The judge, a week after the story broke, appointed Mr. Carman a new defense attorney who immediately petitioned the court to allow his client to withdraw his guilty plea. The judge granted the motion.

     Notwithstanding the withdrawal of the guilty plea, the state went forward with its case against Mr. Carman. In December 1977, John Carman went on trial for the kidnapping, rape, and murder of Christie Mullins. During the week-long trial, the prosecutor put a surprise witness on the stand. The so-called eyewitness to the crime, Henry Newell Jr., was at the time serving a stretch in prison for burning down his own home. The arson occurred about a year after Christie Mullins' murder.

     According to the prosecution's star witness, the 27-year-old had seen the defendant kill the victim behind the department store. Newell testified that after John Carman fled the crime scene, he, Newell, covered the dead girl's face with his shirt. He also said he had touched the board used to bludgeon the victim to death.

     After the defense attorney thoroughly discredited Henry Newell on cross-examination, he put several witnesses on the stand who testified that at the time of the murder the defendant was on the other side of the city.

     The jury, after a short deliberation, found John Carman not guilty on all charges. The jurors found the alibi witnesses credible and suspected that the real killer was Henry Newell Jr. The jurors also believed that the defendant did not have the mental capacity to commit such a brutal murder.

     Notwithstanding the outcome of the murder trial and the belief by most people familiar with the case that Henry Newell Jr. had kidnapped, raped and murdered Christie Mullins, the police insisted that the jury had let a man guilty of an heinous crime go free.

     Henry Newell Jr. died in 2013 of cancer at the age of 63. By then, cold case homicide investigators with the Columbus Police Department had come to the conclusion that Newell had indeed committed the crime and that the police at the time had horribly bungled the investigation. Before he died, Newell confessed to several people that he had murdered the girl.

     On November 6, 2015, Columbus police sergeant Eric Pilya, the head of the cold case unit, announced at a press conference that the detectives who worked on the case originally, now both deceased, had used "improper investigative techniques." Sergeant Pilya said he wanted to "formally and publicly apologize" to Christie Mullins' family who for years insisted that Henry Newell was the guilty party. 

Saturday, February 25, 2017

The Nicholas Helman Ricin Case: Beware of the Jilted Nerd

     In 2013, 19-year-old Nicholas Helman lived with his mother in Hatboro, Pennsylvania, a town of 8,000 in Montgomery County within the Philadelphia metropolitan area. One of the young man's neighbors in the Eleanor Courts apartment complex described Nicholas as the kid you went to school with for twelve years but don't remember.

     Helman, a quiet, unassuming Eagle Scout, worked at the Target store in Warrington, Pennsylvania. He also spent a lot of time searching for geocaches--objects that are hidden and can be found through GPS coordinates posted on the Internet. Casual acquaintances thought that Helman was much younger than nineteen.

     In the summer of 2013, Helman met a young woman his age at an Eagle Scout picnic. They began dating and he fell in love. When she left him for another man in November 2013, the devastated Helman began sending threatening emails to the new boyfriend. When the object of his wrath brushed off his threats, Helman decided to poison his competitor to death. This was not behavior befitting an Eagle Scout.

     On March 7, 2014, Helman confided in a fellow Target employee that he had just placed an envelope in his rival's mailbox that contained a scratch-and-sniff birthday card laced with ricin, a deadly poison. (Ricin is a protein found in the caster oil plant. The pulp from just eight caster beans can kill an adult. As little as 500 micrograms of the poison, an amount that would fit on the head of a pin, can be fatal.) Helman bragged to his confidant that anyone who came into contact with his ricin would be dead in a few days.

     Helman identified his poison target as his ex-girlfriend's boyfriend, a guy who lived in Warminster, a Bucks County town 40 miles north of Philadelphia. The shocked employee wasted no time in calling the police.

     Police officers, on the day Helman confided in his fellow worker, went to the Eleanor Courts apartment complex to question the suspect. Upon their arrival they arrested Helman as he tried to sneak off carrying a backpack and a piece of luggage.

     Under police questioning, Helman admitted that he had placed an envelope containing a birthday card in his rival's mailbox. He said his intent was to scare his ex-girlfriend's boyfriend, not to hurt him. He was motivated by the desire to get the girl back. Helman claimed that the birthday card was harmless.

     Police officers found, in Helman's backpack, a white bottle labeled "sodium hydroxide" that contained a crystal-like powder. The suspect also possessed a recipe in a notebook that listed ingredients such as caster beans, sodium hydroxide, mixing materials, and other substances.

     Investigators telephoned the poison target's residence and spoke to his mother who said her daughter had just left the house to fetch the mail. The police caller instructed the mother to put the mail back into the box and wait for the police.

     Nicholas Helman was taken into custody and booked into the Montgomery County Jail on the charge of harassment. Shortly after the hazardous materials team retrieved the plain white envelope without a stamp, address, or return address, Helman posted his $50,000 bond and was released from custody.

     After toxicological testing confirmed that the birthday card contained ricin, a Bucks County prosecutor charged Nicholas Helman with attempted first-degree murder. On March 19, 2014, FBI agents and local police officers, backed up by a SWAT team, surrounded the Helman apartment. Following a two-hour standoff, the suspect surrendered to the authorities. A judge denied Helman bail pending a psychiatric evaluation.

     The next day, police officers found a stash of ricin tucked under a gas manhole cover in Hatboro not far from Helman's apartment.

     In November 2014, Nicholas Helman pleaded guilty to the attempted murder charge as well as the offenses of attempted aggravated assault and risking a catastrophe. In July 2015, Judge Alan Rubenstein sentenced the 21-year-old to twenty to forty years in prison. The judge called Helman's crime "extraordinary" and compared his behavior to that of a terrorist. "You are bright. You are articulate. You are responsive," said the judge. "But I don't think you appreciate the damage you have caused people very close to you."

     As deputies led Helman out of the courtroom in handcuffs, the prisoner wept as he said goodbye to family members.

     

Friday, February 24, 2017

The Ethan Estevez Sexuial Abuse/Murder Solicitation Case

     In August 2012, the Harford County Maryland School District hired 29-year-old Ethan Estevez to teach biology in the town of Aberdeen. The resident of Churchville, Maryland would teach alternative education students at the Center for Educational Opportunity. According to the center's website, "Alternative Education provides a continuation of educational services to students who may have experienced crises. This program also exists to meet the individual needs of those students who have dropped out of school or not have been successful in a traditional school environment."
   
      In February 2014, members of the center's teaching staff came to suspect that Estevez was engaged in a sexual relationship with a female student, a relationship that had been going on since September 2012 when the girl was fifteen. The girl had told some of her friends and her mother that she and the teacher had been involved romantically. The mother, along with teachers from the school, reported Estevez to the Harford County Sheriff's Office. 
     A few days after filing the criminal complaint against the teacher, the alleged victim's mother, with a detective listening in on the call, phoned Estevez and asked him if her daughter's allegations were true. Estevez explained that he and the girl were in love and planned to get married. (Estevez, however, already had a wife.) The teacher denied that he and the girl had engaged in anything beyond kissing.
    On March 7, 2014, a school administrator placed Estevez on administrative leave. A month after that, detectives searching the girl's iPhone came across a February 2014 text message to one of her friends that revealed a murder-for-hire plot involving Estevez as the mastermind and his wife as the target. The girl had written: "Like it has to look like an accident because of life insurance and stuff." In another text message, the girl said she "just needed it to really happen before Sunday." 
     Questioned about the text messages by detectives, the student claimed that the teacher never really intended to have his wife murdered. Yes, they had talked about it but he was just joking around. 
     On June 4, 2014, a Harford County grand jury indicted Ethan Estevez on charges of sexual abuse. On that day the head of the school district fired him. After a few hours in jail Estevez posted his bond and was released to await his trial.
 
     A month after Estevez's sexual abuse arrest, Harford County detectives questioned a girl who had exchanged text messages with the suspect's alleged student victim. According to the ex-teacher's student/girlfriend, he had initially spoke of making his wife's murder look like a hit-and-run accident. Later he changed the murder plan to have the hit man orchestrate a fake drive-by shooting outside of a restaurant. To make the hit look like a random crime and throw suspicion off himself, Estevez wanted the assassin to shoot him in the arm. (That was stupid because hit men are amateurs who don't shoot straight.) This girl also told detectives that her friend said the hit man would kill the teacher's wife for $600. 
     In August 2014, an assistant Harford County state's attorney charged Ethan Estevez with conspiracy to commit first-degree murder. At the defendant's bail hearing, the prosecutor argued that the suspect posed a danger to the community and to his wife. District Court Judge David Carey said he could not ignore the seriousness of the charge. He said, however, that Mr. Estevez was entitled to bail which he set at $75,000. The next day the murder-for-hire and sexual abuse suspect posted his bond and walked out of the Harford County Jail.

     On June 4, 2014, Estevez was fired from his teaching position.

     In February 2015, the prosecutor in charge of the Estevez case dropped the murder solicitation charge in exchange for the former teacher's guilty plea to a fourth-degree sexual offense related to the student. Hartford County Circuit Judge Stephen Waldron sentenced Estevez to one year in the county jail. Pursuant to this lenient sentence, Estevez was deemed eligible for work release. (He had found a job at an insurance company.) The judge also sentenced Estevez to five years probation.   

Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Justin Harris Murder Case

     Justin Ross Harris, a 2012 graduate of the University of Alabama, lived in suburban Cobb County outside of Atlanta, Georgia with his wife Leanna and their 22-month-old son Cooper. On the morning of Wednesday, June 18, 2014, with the toddler strapped into his carseat in the back of his 2011 Hyundai Tucson, Justin Harris drove straight to the administrative offices of Home Depot where he worked. Instead of first dropping Cooper off at the boy's day school, he left his son in the car.

     At noon that day, with the temperature in suburban Atlanta at 92 degrees, Mr. Harris ate lunch at a restaurant not far from Home Depot then returned to work. When he climbed into the sweltering vehicle at four o'clock, the boy was still in the carseat.

     The boy's father drove to a nearby shopping center where, within hearing range of several people, he yelled, "Oh my God, what have I done? My God my son is dead!" Someone at the scene called 911.

     About an hour after responding to the shopping center parking lot, paramedics, unable to revive the boy, pronounced him dead. Officers with the Cobb County Police Department took Justin Harris into custody on suspicion of murder, felony murder and cruelty to a child in the first degree.

     Following an interrogation at police headquarters, a Cobb County prosecutor formally charged Mr. Harris with the above three offenses. At his arraignment, the murder suspect pleaded not guilty. The judge denied him bond.

     According to investigators, the suspect's wife Leanna said this to him at the police station following his interrogation: "Did you say too much?" Employees at Cooper's day school told police officers that when they called the boy's mother to inform her that he had not been delivered to class that morning, she had said, "Ross (Justin) must have left him in the car."

     Following a search of the suspect's dwelling and office, detectives discovered that Justine and Leanna had conducted Internet searches on the subject of hot car death. One of their inquires read: "how long does it take for an animal to die in a hot car?" When confronted with this incriminating evidence, Mr. Harris explained he had been fearful about his son dying inside a hot car. Detectives didn't buy the suspect's explanation.

     Leanna, in filling out a routine victim's statement form, in the place for the victim's name, wrote "self" rather than Cooper Harris.

     Upon completion of the victim's autopsy, the medical examiner ruled that the boy's cause of death was consistent with dying from heat inside of a vehicle. The forensic pathologist wrote that "investigative information suggests the manner of death as homicide."

     Shortly after police officers took Justin Harris into custody, his family and friends established an online petition calling for the prosecutor to drop the felony murder charge. According to the petition, Cooper Harris' death was "a horrible accident. The father loved his son immensely. They were loving parents who are devastated. Justin already has to live with a punishment worse than death." The Harris support group also created an online fundraising account for the suspect and his wife.

     On August 9, 2014, Leanna Harris' attorney, Lawrence Zimmerman, told reporters that he is concerned that the Cobb County District Attorney's Office will bring homicide and/or child cruelty charges against his client.

     As the January 2015 trial approached, Justin Harris' attorney, Maddox Kilgore, insisted that the child's death was a tragic accident and not an act of criminal homicide. The prosecutor, on the other hand, believed the death had been an intentional killing motivated by the suspect's desire to live a child-free life.

     From Harris' home, detectives acquired 120 computer discs containing videos, photographs, cellphone records, emails, and the contents of other material on the suspect's computer hard drives. From this data investigators learned that on the day of Cooper Harris' death the suspect was sexting with a minor girl and another woman. This evidence led to the additional charge of dissemination of pornography to a minor.

     On November 16, 2016, following a five-week trial featuring Leanna Harris as the defense's chief witness, a jury in Brunswick, Georgia found Justine Harris guilty of first-degree murder. Following the verdict, Assistant District Attorney Chuck Boring told reporters that Harris, in killing his child, "had malice in his heart."

     On December 16, 2016, the judge sentenced the 36-year-old Harris to life in prison without the chance of parole. 

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The Kornegay Murder and Child Abuse Case

     Keith Kornegay, 37 and his 33-year-old wife Misty lived in a small white house off a dirt road in northern Florida's Columbia County located between Jacksonville and Tallahassee. Mr. Kornegay drove a truck and on occasion his wife traveled with him. On Sunday January 4, 2015, the couple left the house on a three-day trucking job. They left their 16-year-old son Damien in charge of his three sisters, ages three to fifteen.

     On Monday night January 6, 2015, 11-year-old Nicole Kornegay called the home of a friend and spoke to the girl's mother. According to Nicole, she and her 15-year-old sister Ariel had run away from home. They had walked four miles to the town of White Springs and wanted to be picked up at the Dollar General store.

     When asked why she and her sister had run off, Nicole said that someone at their house may have been shot. The mother called 911 then drove to the Dollar General store to fetch the girls.

     At ten that night, deputies with the Columbia County Sheriff's Office entered the Kornegay house to find Damien Kornegay lying beneath a blanket near the living room fireplace with his head on a pillow. He had been shot to death. His 3-year-old sister was in the house by herself.

     When questioned about the shooting at the sheriff's office, 15-year-old Ariel said she didn't know anything about her brother's death. However, after a few follow-up questions, she broke into tears and confessed to shooting her brother.

     Ariel said that when she misbehaved her parents routinely locked her into her bedroom (they must have had an exterior lock installed), sometimes for days at a time. Shortly after her parents left the  house on the trucking job, her brother Damien, who regularly beat her, locked her into her bedroom. That's when she decided to kill him.

     Ariel talked Nicole into unlocking her door. She knew that her father kept a handgun (a 9mm pistol) in his room. Because the bedroom was locked, Ariel managed to remove an air-conditioner from the window and climb into the room where she found the weapon. She loaded the gun and walked into the living room and shot Damien as he slept near the fireplace. A few minutes later, when she re-entered the living room, Ariel saw her 3-year-old sister trying to wake up their dead brother.

     Following the shooting, Ariel and Nicole headed for the Dollar General store in White Springs, leaving the 3-year-old at home with the corpse.

     After learning that their 16-year-old son had been shot to death by his 15-year-old sister, Keith and Misty Kornegay cut their trip short and returned home where they were met by sheriff's deputies.

     Misty Kornegay told the deputies that she and her husband had frequently locked Ariel into her bedroom. Mr. Kornegay admitted that he had once kept her locked up for 21 consecutive days. (Deputies, in Ariel's bedroom closet, had found a bucket of urine.) When the girl recently tried to kill herself, the parents did not notify the authorities.

     Deputies booked Mr. and Mrs. Kornegay into the Columbia County Jail on charges of child neglect causing great bodily harm. If convicted of this second-degree felony, they faced up to fifteen years in prison. The judge set their bonds at $20,000.

     In 2010, when Ariel was ten, her uncle went to prison for sexually molesting her. Deputies also learned that Misty Kornegay had once caught Ariel and Damien having sex.

     At a news conference on January 7, 2015, State Attorney Jeff Siegmeister told reporters that 11-year-old Nicole and her older sister were being held in separate juvenile detention centers in Ocala and Gainesville. The prosecutor said he had 21 days to decide whether to charge the girls with premeditated murder as adults or juveniles.

     The prosecutor decided not to charge Ariel Kornegay with criminal homicide. In March 2015, the girl pleaded guilty to burglary, a second-degree felony. The judge placed the 15-year-old on probabion with the Department of Juvenile Justice until her 19th birthday.

     In November 2015, Misty and Keith Kornegay, pursuant to a plea deal, pleaded guilty to the crimes of intentional child abuse and child neglect. The judge sentenced the parents to ten years probation that included two years of house arrest. The judge also ordered the couple to pay fines and court costs.

     In my opinion, the judge in this case let these parents off light.

     

Monday, February 20, 2017

Hit-And-Run: America's Silent Crime Wave

     People who accidentally injure or kill pedestrians and others with their vehicles then leave the scene of the accident, come from all walks of life. Most of them are ordinary people who do not live lives of crime. They flee the site of the mishap for different reasons. Hit-and-run drivers don't stop because they are intoxicated, driving on suspended driver's licenses, don't have insurance, are accompanied by someone they shouldn't be with, or are being sought by the authorities. Hit-and-run victims also represent a cross-section of American society.

     Hit-and-run cases are difficult to solve because so many of them occur at night with no witnesses. Even if investigators link a particular car or truck to the victim through hair follicle, textile, or DNA evidence, the prosecutor still has to place the defendant in that vehicle. Judges in hit-and-run cases resulting in injury or death are often reluctant to send convicted defendants to prison. These are not intentional crimes, and those convicted are usually not hardened criminals. Families of hit-and-run victims believe these defendants get off light.

     Nationwide, there about about 6 million traffic accidents a year. At least ten percent of these crashes involve hit-and-run drivers. Of the 600,000 or so hit-and-run cases every year, about a third result in injury or death. Los Angeles, according to a recent journalistic study by L. A. Weekly, has been in the midst of a hit-and-run epidemic since 2011. Every year, more than 4,000 people in the city of 3.8 million are hurt or killed by hit-and-run drivers. Almost half of the city's traffic accidents are hit-and-run cases. The staggering rate of this crime has overwhelmed the Los Angeles police.

    Because the hit-and-run accident has become such a commonplace event, these cases do not attract a lot of coverage in the media. Exceptions involve drivers who are professional athletes, TV actors, politicians, or anyone remotely famous. A hit-and-run case made national news in 1999 when 43-year-old Bryon Smith ran over the horror novelist, Stephen King. King was jogging on a remote road near North Lovell, Maine when Smith plowed into him. The writer nearly lost a leg, and Smith lost his driver's license. A year after the judge gave Smith a suspended sentence, the hit-and-run driver committed suicide.

     On January 14, 2013, a "hit-and-run" Google search covering a period of 24 hours, revealed more than thirty cases across America, a fraction of the actual number. In Los Angeles County, 31-year-old twin sisters Tanisha and Tamaya Davis were killed by a hit-and-run driver as they brawled in the middle of the street at three in the morning. The driver has not been identified.

     In the early morning hours of January 14, 2013, sheriff's deputies found a hit-and-run victim lying dead on the road in North Charleston, North Carolina. In Framingham, Oregon, a 58-year-old man was seriously injured at 7:30 in the evening when a motorist ran over him as he crossed the street. The police were looking for a blue Toyota sedan. A hit-and-run driver on the south side of Indianapolis killed a female pedestrian at eleven-thrity in the morning. In Houston, Texas, at ten-thirty at night, a 64-year-old man was killed when he tried to cross a busy road that had no crosswalk. He was hit by a gray Toyota pickup. A man in Brooklyn, New York was injured by a motorist while riding a bicycle at four in the morning. A driver on a road in Poulsbo, Washington hit two female pedestrians from behind. The injured women ended up in a roadside ditch.

The Facebook Case

     On New Year's eve, 2012, 18-year-old Jacob Cox-Brown, while driving home from a party drunk, hit two other cars and kept on going. The next day, the Astoria, Washington resident wrote the following on his Facebook page: "Drivin drunk...classic ;) but to whoever's vehicle I hit, I am sorry." A reader notified the police who examined Cox-Brown's car to find damage that linked his vehicle to one of the sideswiped cars. Following his arrest, Cox-Brown admitted leaving the scene of the collisions. He was charged with two counts of failing to perform the duties of a driver. (As of February 20, 2017, I can find no disposition of this case recorded on the Internet.)

The Motorist with the Bad DMV Record

     On Saturday, January 13, 2013, a hit-and-run driver struck 28-year-old Catherine Calalang and her 20-year-old cousin Laurene Jiminez as they walked along a road in Camden County, New Jersey. Calalang had five teeth kocked out, and suffered facial injuries. Jiminez suffered serious head injuries. The next day, Voorhees Township police received an anonymous tip that led them to Magnolia, New Jersey where they found a damaged Ford Fusion parked on the street. The vehicle, registered to 44-year-old Michele Toussaint of Berlin, New Jersey, contained physical evidence linking it to the hit-and-run.

     Michele Toussaint, since 1991, had 52 driver's license arrests and 16 moving traffic violations. (Toussaint's husband had been killed in a traffic accident.) She was charged with leaving the scene of an accident, endangering an injured victim, and causing injury while driving on a suspended license. Toussaint was taken into custody on January 13, 2013 and placed into the Camden County Correctional Facility under $62,500 bail. Toussaint told the arresting officers that she was about to turn herself in.

     The defendant pleaded guilty in December 2013. The judge, at her sentencing hearing, sentenced Toussaint to a two-year electronic monitoring home detention program.

No Prison for Helen Fettes

     In October 2011, 80-year-old Helen Fettes, while driving on a road in Olmsted, Ohio in the Cleveland area, killed 13-year-old Charlie Kho. After running the boy over, Fettes drove away. In November 2012, after pleading no contest to aggravated vehicular homicide, the judge sentenced Fettes to five years of house arrest. The judge also suspended Fettes' driving privileges for life, and ordered her to pay $125,000 in restitution. 

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Steven Powell And His Son Josh: Cases Of Voyeurism, Arson, and Murder-Suicide

     On December 6, 2009, Josh Powell reported his 28-year-old wife, Susan Cox Powell, missing. He said she had disappeared while he and his two sons were on a camping trip. The family lived in West Valley, a suburb of Salt Lake City. The story didn't make any sense, and the police didn't believe him. As time passed, and Susan Cox remained missing, the authorities suspected that Josh Powell had murdered his wife for her life insurance. But without the body, the case stalled.

     In January 2010, after losing his job, Josh Powell and his boys moved into his father Steven Powell's house in South Hill, an unincorporated community in the Puyallup, Washington area. Investigators, in August 2011, pursuant to the ongoing investigation of Susan Powell's disappearance and presumed murder, searched Steven Powell's house, and were shocked by what they found.

     On videotapes, computer discs, and in Steven Powell's diaries, detectives found evidence that Josh's father had been sexually obsessed with Susan, and had secretly videotaped and photographed, in 2006 and 2007, two girls who lived in the house next door. The girls were age 8 and 10.

     In seven entries in his dairies, Steven Powell had documented his bizarre fixation on his daughter-in-law. He wrote: "Susan likes to be admired, and I'm a voyeur...I'm a voyeur and Susan is an exhibitionist." In a series of videos of himself ruminating about his daughter-in-law, the senior Powell said he "...would give anything to be with her." In various self-videoed scenes, Steven Powell is kissing a pair of her underwear, standing nude with a photograph of her, and recalling how giving her a foot rub was "...the most erotic experience of my life." Detectives also found clandestinely taken photographs of Susan in various stages of undress.

     Even more disturbing, were the thousands of photographs Powell had secretly taken of the girls next door. The pictures, taken 40 feet away through a window and an open bathroom door, depicted the youngsters getting dressed and undressed, taking baths, washing and drying their hair, and other thing people do in the privacy of their homes. On his computer, Steven Powell had hundreds of photographs he had covertly taken of other girls who had passed in front of his house. Searchers also found hundreds of photographs, taken by other people, of naked women and girls.

     In his diary entries, Powell discussed his voyeurism generally, noting that he enjoyed taking video shots of pretty girls in shorts and skirts. In 2010, he recorded himself saying,  "I've been going nuts and nearly out of control sexually my entire life."

     Charged by the Pierce County prosecutor with 24 counts of voyeurism, and one count of possession of materials of minors engaged in explicit conduct, police arrested Steven Powell on September 12, 2011. Each count carried a maximum sentence of five years in prison. He pleaded not guilty to all charges.

     About a month after his father's arrest, Josh Powell lost custody of his two boys and moved into a rented house in Graham, Washington. On February 6, 2012, his sons' made a visit to his home accompanied by a supervising social worker. Powell, with the boys in the house, locked the social worker out of the dwelling. With the social worker locked outside of the house, Josh Powell murdered the boys with a hatchet. He poured several gallons of gasoline around the dwelling then set it on fire. He died in the blaze.

     Steven Powell, with his daughter-in-law missing and presumed dead, two of his grandsons murdered, and his son, the killer of all three, dead by his own hand, went on trial May 7, 2012 in Tacoma, Washington. In a series of pre-trial hearings, Pierce County Judge Ronald Culpepper had ruled that the prosecution could not introduce any of the evidence pertaining to Powell's obsession with Susan Powell. Moreover, the government could only present 20 of the photographs the defendant had allegedly taken of the girls next door.

     On May 9, the girls Powell had allegedly photographed and videotaped in 2006 and 2007, now 13 and 15, took the stand for the prosecution. When asked why they had not kept the bathroom door closed, one of the witnesses said she felt safer with the door open, and had no idea anyone outside the house could see her. In the summer, because the home didn't have air conditioning, it got hot on the second floor. That explained why all of the upstairs windows had been open during the night. The family had moved to Puyalllup in 2006 from Arizona, and in 2008, left the neighborhood. The girls and their mother had no memory of Steven Powell, and were unable to identify him in the court room.

     Defense attorney Mark Quigley did not put any witnesses on the stand. His defense, which revealed itself through his cross-examination of prosecution witnesses, consisted of suggesting that someone else in the Powell house had spied on the girls. At the time, Steven Powell's two sons, and one of his daughters, lived with him.

     Attorney Quigley, in his closing argument to the jury, pointed out that the state, with no direct proof the defendant had photographed and videotaped the neighbor girls, had not carried its burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

     Prosecutor Grand Blinn, characterized the state's case as one involving "overwhelming circumstantial evidence." Blinn told the jury of six men and six women that the defendant had essentially confessed to being a voyeur. "It's difficult to imagine," he said, "anything more disturbing to teenage girls to know that a middle age man next door was taking pictures of them."

     On May 16, 2012, the jury, following just three hours of deliberation, found Steven Powell guilty of all 14 counts of voyeurism. They acquitted him of the possession of child pornography charges.

     The judge, on July 15, 2012, sentenced Steven Powell to 30 months in prison for the voyeurism offenses.

     On October 27, 2014, the prosecutor re-charged Powell on the pornography allegations. A judge later dismissed that case.

     The Washington State Court of Appeals, on March 13, 2016, set aside Powell's voyeurism conviction on procedural grounds related to the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

     As of February 2017, Susan Cox Powell's body had not been found.
       

Thursday, February 16, 2017

The Gary Castonguay Case: Paroling a Cop Killer?

     In 1976, 32-year-old Gary Castonguay was convicted of shooting into the homes of two police officers in Bristol, Connecticut. The attacks took place at night when the officers were home with their families. Castonguay had told people that he wanted to kill cops.

     Instead of being locked up in prison for attempted murder, a judge found Castonguay legally insane and sent him to a psychiatric hospital for six months. Once released from the hospital he was free.

     In 1977, caught breaking into a home in Plainville, Connecticut, Castonguay fled from police officer Robert Holcomb. As Holcomb was about to catch and arrest him, the burglar turned and shot the 26-year-old officer. Castonguay, with the officer down, was free to escape. But instead of running off, he stood over the fallen officer and shot him three times in the chest, killing him on the spot.

     Following his conviction and life sentence for the cold-blooded killing of a police officer, Castonguay's attorney filed several appeals on his client's behalf. The appellate courts rejected all of the appeals. As a result, the conviction and the life sentence remained in effect.

     On January 9, 2015, members of the Connecticut Board of Pardons and Paroles, in a two to one vote, agreed to grant the 70-year-old cop killer a parole. The board members made this atrocious decision after Castonguay's self-serving testimony that he hadn't intended to kill officer Holcomb. In an effort to escape, he panicked, blacked out, and had no memory of the shooting.

     These ridiculous arguments hadn't worked at Castonguay's trial and had been rejected by all of the appellate courts. But decades later the cop killer was able to use these absurd justifications to convince two idiot parole board members to send him back into society.

     None of officer Holcomb's relatives had been notified of the Castonguay parole hearing. When the relatives learned of the granted parole they were understandably shocked and outraged. So were members of the general public who flooded the parole board with angry emails and letters.

     As a result of the public outcry over the parole board's ruling, the board agreed to hold another hearing to give the slain officer's relatives a chance to express their anger and disbelief that this cold-blooded cop killer had been granted parole.

     At the March 25, 2015 hearing, the same board members voted three to zero to rescind the cop killer's parole.

     This case begs the question: where do they find such sob-sister parole board members? I know it's the state of Connecticut, but still. If Castonguay had killed a police officer in Texas, Missouri, Florida, Ohio, or Oklahoma, he'd be dead by now and the dead officer's relatives would not have to worry about a couple of corrections idiots setting him free. 

Thursday, February 9, 2017

The Austin Reed Sigg Murder Case

     In 2012, ten-year-old Jessica Ridgeway resided in Westminster, Colorado outside of Denver. The Witt Elementary School fifth grader lived with her mother, grandmother, and aunt. Jessica's mother, Sarah Ridgeway, and the girl's father, Jeremiah Bryant, were divorced and fighting over the $267 per month Mr. Bryant had been ordered to pay in child support. Sarah Ridgeway worked the 10 PM to 7 AM shift at a software company in Boulder.

     On Friday, October 5, 2012, Jessica left her house at eight-thirty in the morning en route to a classmate's home to be driven to school by her friend's father. The 1,000 foot walk, past a handful of single track homes and the playground equipment in Chelsa Park, only took a few minutes. When Jessica didn't show up at her friend's house at eight-forty, the boy's father drove his son to school without her.

     At ten that morning, a school secretary at Witt Elementary called Sarah Ridgeway's cellphone to report Jessica's absence. Sarah, already asleep after working the previous night in Boulder, did not pick up the phone. When she awoke at four that afternoon, she checked her messages and learned that Jessica had missed school that day.

     The concerned mother drove to the school where no one she spoke to said they had seen Jessica that day. After checking with some of her daughter's friends, and driving by Chelsa Park, Sarah Ridgeway, at 4:23 PM, drove to the Westminster Police Department to report her daughter missing.

     That evening, an officer with a bloodhound canvased the 1,000-foot route Jessica would have taken that morning. The dog did not pick up her scent. At nine that night, the authorities had enough evidence of an abduction to issue an Amber Alert.

     The following morning, 1,000 volunteers showed up at the police department to walk the fields in Jessica's neighborhood. The search did not produce any information relative to the girl's disappearance.

     On October 7, two days after Jessica went missing, a man six miles from the Ridgeway home found a backpack lying next to a sidewalk. The bag contained a keychain bearing the name "Jessica."

     Maintenance workers picking up litter in a park in Arvada, Colorado nine miles from Jessica's house, came across a plastic trash bag they thought contained the remains of someone's pet. The workers flagged down two animal management officers who happened to be driving by. One of the officers opened the bag and found the dismembered remains of a child. Two days later, DNA tests confirmed that the trash bag held Jessica Ridgeway's remains.

     The Jessica Ridgeway case, now about child murder and dismemberment, suddenly broke into the national news as a big story. Was there a child killer on the loose in Westminster, Colorado?

     Ten days after the gruesome discovery in Arvada, a tipster called the Westminster Police Department with information about Austin Reed Sigg. The 17-year-old, who lived in Westminster with his mother, had dropped out of high school in his junior year. He had since earned a graduate equivalency diploma and was enrolled in a local community college. According to the caller, Sigg had an obsession with death and mortuary science. He had also expressed an attraction to Jessica Ridgeway.

     The day following the tip concerning Austin Sigg, FBI agents went to his house and acquired a sample of his DNA.

     On October 23, 2012, Austin Sigg called 911 and expressed his desire to turn himself in and confess to the murder and dismemberment of the missing Westminster girl. In response to the dispatcher's inquiry regarding his criminal history, Sigg said, "The only other thing that I have done was the Kerner Lake incident where the woman got attacked. That was me." (In May 2012, a young man tried to subdue a female jogger by placing a rag soaked in homemade chloroform over her face. She resisted and managed to escape.)

     The day following Sigg's 911 confession, the police took him into custody. Sigg told his interrogators that he had abducted Jessica shortly after she left her house that morning. After strangling her to death, he cut up her body in a bathtub and deposited most of her remains in the Arvada, Colorado park. He had, however, hidden some of the girl's body parts in a crawl space in the house he shared with his mother.

     A Jefferson County prosecutor charged Austin Sigg as an adult with first-degree murder, kidnapping, and the sexual assault of a child. (Sigg denied having sex with the victim.) He was jailed without bond.

     On October 1, 2013, almost a year after Jessica Ridgeway's abduction and murder, and just two days before Sigg's murder trial was to commence, the defendant, against the advice of his public defender, pleaded guilty to all charges.

     On November 18, 2013, before sentencing Sigg to life plus 86 years, Judge Stephen Munsinger, in referring to what Sigg had done to Jessica Ridgeway, said, "Evil is apparently real."
      

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The Tania Coleman Murder Case

     Firefighters in Erie, Pennsylvania, on May 24, 2011, while on a call on east Eighth Street, detected the odor of death coming from a discarded suitcase. When they opened the suitcase, the firefighters found the badly decomposed remains of 14-month-old Alayja Coleman.

     The next day, at the Erie Police Department, detectives questioned the child's mother, 20-year-old Tania Coleman. The pregnant mother of two lived in a house near the discovery of the suitcase. The dead girl's father, Rahsean Murphy, had been in prison most of Alaja's life. Murphy had last seen his daughter in late March 2011. Xavier Hollamon, Tania Coleman's 20-year-old boyfriend, was the father of her other two children as well as the baby to come.


     During the low-key, videotaped interrogation that lasted 45 minutes, Tania said that two months earlier she had discovered Alayja dead in her playpen. Panicked, she called Hollamon who rushed to the house. A high school dropout, Hollamon had just completed his Army basic training, and feared this situation would land him in military prison.

     Rather than report Alayja's death to the authorities, Coleman and her boyfriend put her body into the suitcase and hid it in the house. Before long, the odor became too much. On April 25, (this was later determined through investigation), Tania and Xavier, at the cost of $73, purchased a fancy plastic trash bin from Walmart. They placed the suitcase containing Alayja's body into the trash container and set it outside until they figured out how to permanently dispose of the body. (Someone, in stealing the trash bin, removed the suitcase.)

     Forensic pathologist Dr. Eric Vey performed the autopsy, and determined the cause of Alayja's death to be starvation. (Her body had been consuming her muscles and organs.) The Erie County Coroner ruled her manner of death as homicide. Due to the condition of the corpse, Dr. Vey could not pinpoint the victim's time of death.

     Dr. Vey's review of Alayja's pediatric records revealed that when she was 11 months old she weighed less than she had at the age of 4 months. When examined by a pediatrician 6 months after her birth, the doctor declared Alayja's weight in the "danger zone," and recommended that Tania feed her a lot of fruits and vegetables. The little girl missed her 9th and 12th month check-ups.

     Erie County District Attorney Jack Daneri charged Xavier Hollamon with abuse of corpse and tampering with evidence, a pair of misdemeanors that together carried a maximum sentence of 4 years in prison. He charged Tania Coleman with these crimes plus first degree-murder. In Pennsylvania, first degree-murder carried a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the chance of parole. To make his case, the district attorney would have to prove the defendant deliberately starved her daughter to death.

     In early March 2012, Xavier Hollamon pleaded guilty to the abuse of corpse and tampering with evidence misdemeanors in return for 2 years probation and 250 hours of community service. He had been incarcerated in the Erie County Jail for almost a year. Hollamon, as part of the plea bargain, agreed to testify against his former girlfriend, the mother of his two children and the unborn child. (I presume the Army issued Hollamon a dishonorable discharge.)

     Tania Coleman's first-degree murder trial got underway in mid-March 2012 before Judge Shad Connelly in the Erie County Court House. District Attorney Jack Daneri, on the theory that the defendant had killed her daughter because she had not been fathered by her boyfriend, and didn't fit into the family, put on his circumstantial case of intentional murder.

     Jamie Mead, Coleman's court-appointed attorney, presented the defendant as an overwhelmed single parent who had neglected a child who died despite efforts to feed her. Attorney Mead argued that if Coleman had intentionally murdered Alayja, she would have come up with a better plan to dispose of her body. The defendant did not take the stand on her own behalf. In the defense attorney's closing statement to the jury, Mead accused the prosecution of manufacturing a motive to support their theory of an intentional murder.

     On March 22, 2012, the Erie County jury found Tania Coleman guilty of first-degree murder. Attorney Mead immediately filed motions to either replace the first-degree murder conviction with a lesser homicide, or for a new trial. The defense attorney argued that the jury, in finding her client guilty of intentional murder, had relied more on emotion than evidence, citing witnesses who had testified that Tania had expressed concern about Alayja's refusal to eat.

     Judge Shad Connelly, on May 17, 2012, sentenced Tania Coleman to life in prison without chance of parole.

     On October 7, 2013, a state appeals court upheld Coleman's conviction. The appellate affirmation meant that Tania Coleman would spend the rest of her life in prison. 

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The Alan Hruby Murder Case

     John Hruby, a resident of Duncan, Oklahoma, a town of 24,000 about 60 miles north of Dallas, owned and worked at a newspaper located in nearby Marlow. Hruby, 50, his wife Katherine, and their 17-year-old daughter lived in the Timber Creek subdivision on the north side of town. The 48-year-old Katherine, known to friends and family as "Tinker," also worked at the Marlow Review, a weekly publication with a circulation of 3,500.

     The Hrubys' son Alan, a 19-year-old political science major at Oklahoma University, was charged in July 2013 with theft and fraud. He had used his grandmother's name to acquire a credit card. While in Europe that summer, he put $5,000 worth of charges on the fraudulently obtained card. Police arrested him in August 2013 when he returned to the United States from his vacation.

     In February 2014, the judge sentenced Alan Hruby to probation. Pursuant to the terms of his sentence, he was not allowed to consume alcohol. The judge also ordered Hruby to attend alcohol and drug counseling sessions.

     Over the October 10 to 12 weekend in 2014, young Hruby violated the terms of his probation by traveling to Dallas to attend the Oklahoma University-Texas football game. He stayed at the Ritz Carlton hotel and partied all weekend.

     On Friday October 10, 2014, Todd Brooks, an employee at the Marlow Review, became concerned when his boss and Katherine Hruby didn't show up for work. On Monday October 13, when the Hrubys didn't come to the newspaper office and didn't answer their phones, Todd Brooks' worries about their wellbeing intensified.

     That Monday, as the Marlow Review employee wondered if something had happened to his boss and his wife, the Hruby housecleaner made a gruesome discovery when she showed up for work in Duncan. She found John Hruby, his wife, and their daughter lying dead on the kitchen floor. They had each been shot in the head.

     Detectives with the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation (OSBI) ruled out double-murder/ suicide in favor of triple homicide. Alan Hruby's black Jeep sat in the Hruby home driveway. OSBI investigators impounded the vehicle.

     On October 15, 2014, OSBI officers arrested Alan Hruby for violating the terms of his credit card fraud probation. Under questioning at police headquarters regarding the murders of his parents and sister, he confessed.

     In early October 2014, Alan Hruby had stolen a 9 mm pistol from his father's pickup truck. On Friday October 10, 2014 he used that gun to shoot his mother twice in the head. He shot his sister to death when she entered the kitchen to investigate the source of the gunshots.

     After murdering his mother and sister, Alan waited an hour until his father came home. When John Hruby walked into the room Alan killed his father by shooting him twice in the head. When hit by his son's first bullet, the father said "ouch" then dropped to the kitchen floor. That's when the young man finished the job by putting the second bullet into his victim's skull.

     Alan Hruby told his interrogators that he had left his cell phone at Oklahoma University so that when detectives checked, it would ping there. He removed the DVR from the home surveillance system and tossed it into a nearby lake along with the murder weapon. After disposing of this evidence, he drove to Dallas to enjoy the festive football weekend.

     When asked why he had murdered his family in cold blood, the college student said he needed to inherit his parents' estate. He owed a loan shark from Norman, Oklahoma $3,000.

     Stephens County District Attorney Jason Hicks charged Alan Hruby with three counts of first-degree murder. The prosecutor said he would seek the death penalty in the case. The judge denied the triple murder suspect bail.

     In July 2015, Alan Hruby, serving time on the credit card conviction at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, wrote a letter to The Oklahoman newspaper in which he said that he welcomed the death penalty. As to why he murdered his family, Hruby said that although it wasn't about money, he still hadn't figured out why he did it. "I didn't feel like myself that day," he wrote. "What occurred was so horrible the death penalty is deserved."

     On March 10, 2016, Alan Hruby pleaded guilty to three counts of first-degree murder in exchange for a sentence of life without parole.

     

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Judge Michael Thornsbury: Abuse of Government Power

     There are many jurisdictions in the United States that have earned reputations of being awash in governmental corruption. For example, nothing is politically on the level in Chicago, Louisiana, Detroit, and Nevada. But governmental fraud, dishonesty, crime, and abuse of power, on the federal, state, and local levels, flourishes everywhere in America. Whenever you have government, big or small, you have corruption. Government is nothing more than organized lying. That's the way it has always been and the way it will continue to be. Government and corruption go together like pancakes and syrup. You can't have one without the other. Corruption is not limited to big cities and states. It exists in places like Mingo County West Virginia. (At least in Mingo County, there were enough honest public servants to expose some of the wrongdoing.)

     Mingo County, home to 27,000, is located on the state's southern border with Kentucky. This place, going all the way back to its Hatfield and McCoy days, has a history of violence and political corruption. In 1997, the people of Mingo County elected Michael Thorsbury to the office of circuit judge. As the only common pleas judge in the county, Thornsbury held a position of power and influence. He was the proverbial big fish in the small pond. Unfortunately he was a piranha.

     In 2008, Judge Thornsbury became romantically involved with his married secretary. A couple of months after he begged her to leave her husband, Robert Woodruff, she ended her relationship with the judge. This is when things started to get bad for Mr. Woodruff.

     Judge Thornsbury, in a effort to railroad Mr. Woodruff into prison, asked a friend to plant drugs in a magnetic box under his car. The judge, thinking that his friend had carried out the assignment, tipped-off the local police.

     Having failed to set Mr. Woodruff up for a phony drug bust, Judge Thornsbury tried something else. After carefully cultivating a friendship with a West Virginia State Trooper, the judge asked the officer to file a false complaint accusing Woodruff of grand larceny. The cop followed through by accusing Woodruff of stealing drill bits from his coal company employer. Woodruff had salvaged old drill bits but with the company's permission. Mingo County prosecutor Michael Sparks intervened on Woodruff's behalf, and a local magistrate dismissed the case. The state trooper, the next year, was named West Virginia State Trooper of the Year. (It must have been a bad year.)

     Determined to get Robert Woodruff out of the way in order to get to his wife, Judge Thornsbury, in an effort to dig up dirt on his target, made one of his friends foreman of a Mingo County Grand Jury. This gave the Judge's friend the power to issue subpoenas as part of a fishing expedition in search of information the judge could use against Woodruff. When one of the firms on the receiving end of one of these bogus subpoenas refused to cooperate, the Judge's scheme fizzled out.

     In 2012, Mr. Woodruff was assaulted outside a convenience store by two men, one of whom brandished a handgun. Judge Thornsbury, obviously at this point desperate, tried to turn Mr. Woodruff from being the victim of the assault to its perpetrator. Once again, the county prosecutor refused to go along with the phony case.

     On August 15, 2013, FBI agents arrested Judge Thornsbury in Williamson, the Mingo County seat. The jurist was under indictment by a federal grand jury for "conspiring to violate Robert Woodruff's right not to be deprived of his liberty without due process of law." If convicted as charged, the 57-year-old judge faced up to 20 years in prison.

     On the day of Judge Thornsbury's arrest, the West Virginia Supreme Court suspended him without pay and lifted his license to practice law.

     Judge Thornsbury, after posting his $10,00 bond, insisted that he was innocent and predicted that he would be vindicated when his case went to trial.

     On October 2, 2013, Thornsbury entered a pleas of guilty of conspiring to deprive Robert Woodruff of his constitutional rights. He also resigned from office. The federal judge sentenced Thornsbury to 50 months in prison.
   

      

Friday, February 3, 2017

Jody Lee Hunt's Murderous Rampage

     Jody Lee Hunt was not a stranger to crime and violence. In 1999, a judge in Virginia sentenced the 24-year-old to ten years in prison following a kidnapping conviction, an offense that included the use of a firearm.

     In 2014, the 39-year-old Hunt owned the J & J Towing and Repair company in Morgantown, West Virginia, the home of West Virginia University in the north central part of the state. Hunt lived nearby in the small town of Westover.

     Sharon Kay Berkshire, Hunt's 39-year-old former girlfriend, filed a domestic violence case against him in October 2014. In mid-November, one of Berkshire's new boyfriends, 28-year-old Michael David Frum, a car detailer who also lived in Westover, sent Hunt a text message that taunted him for losing his girlfriend to another man.

     Besides the humiliation of losing his girlfriend to Frum and another Morgantown area man named Jody Taylor, Hunt was battling a business competitor named Doug Brady, the 45-year-old owner of Doug's Towing. Brady's company, located just a quarter of a mile from Hunt's towing business, had been publicly accused by Hunt of acquiring towing jobs illegally.

     At eight in the morning of Monday December 1, 2014, Morgantown police officers responded to a call regarding a body found at Doug's Towing company. The dead man, Doug Brady, had been shot in the head. Detectives didn't believe that robbery had been a motive for the murder.

     Police officers, less than an hour later, found two more bodies in a house in Cheat Lake, West Virginia just outside of Morgantown. Sharon Kay Berkshire and her lover Michael David Frum had been shot to death execution style.

     A short time after officers responded to the double murder in Cheat Lake, they were called to another murder scene, this one on Sweet Pea Road outside of Morgantown. Jody Taylor, Berkshire's other boyfriend, had been shot in the head.

     Because Jody Lee Hunt had a motive to murder all four victims, he became the immediate suspect in the quadruple murder case. Police were looking for Hunt's black 2011 Ford F-150 pickup truck.

     On Hunt's Facebook page, detectives found the following message posted on the day of the murders: "I'm deeply hurt by the events that led up to this day! I poured out my heart to her [presumably Sharon Kay Berkshire] only to be manipulated as to what I could give her. Life is short. It's not all games. Don't play a game with a person's heart."

     Also on his Facebook page that day, Hunt had written: "My actions were not right nor were the actions of those who tried to break me down and take from me. This was not the plan but a struggle to see that those who hurt me received their fair pay of hurt like I received."

     At seven in the evening on the day of the four murders, police received a tip that Jody Hunt was seen in Everettsville, a town seven miles from Morgantown in the southern part of Monongalia County. Police officers, in a power line right of way cut through the forrest off U.S. Route 119, found Hunt's truck. Inside the vehicle they discovered Hunt dead from a self-inflicted bullet wound to the head. 

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The Four Corners Archaeological Raids That Caused The Suicide of Dr. James Redd and Two Others

     On June 9, 2009, in Blanding, Moab, and Monticello, Utah; Durango, Colorado; and Albuquerque, New Mexico; FBI and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) agents conducted 17 simultaneous pre-dawn SWAT raids into the homes of people who collected Indian relics. Eleven of the raids took place in Blanding, a San Juan County town in southeastern Utah.

     San Juan County is located in the heart of the Colorado Plateau of canyons and mountains that was home to the ancient Puebloan (Anasazi) people. These so-called cliff-dwellers, from 700 to 1300, populated an area about the size of Connecticut. The Zuni and the Hopi, as well as a dozen other Native American tribes, are thought to be the descendants of the Anasazi.

     The SWAT raids resulted in the seizure of thousands of artifacts that had been removed from the ruins of the Anasazi cliff dwellings, and various burial sites. A group of 24 collectors and dealers were charged with felonies and misdemeanors under the 1979 federal law called the Archaeological Resource Protection Act (ARPA) which prohibits, among other things, the taking of Native American artifacts from tribal and federal land. (In the American west, the federal government owns well over 50 percent of the land.)

     All but three of the 19 San Juan County arrestees lived in Blanding, Utah, a Mormon town where collecting Anasazi artifacts--pottery, baskets, rugs, flint projectile points, sandals, pendants, beads, effigies, and slate atlatl weights (also called banner stones)--has been a popular hobby for more than a hundred years. Collectors swept up in the SWAT raids that morning included the town's only physician and his wife; a high school math teacher whose brother was San Juan County Sheriff; and 12 others. More than half of the arrestees, prominent member of the community, were over 60 years old.

     The day following the heavily armed home invasions, residents of San Juan County were shocked to learn that Dr. James D. Redd, the 60-year-old Blanding physician who had been indicted on one count of theft of Indian tribal property (his wife faced 7 felony counts), had killed himself. A beloved doctor who still made house calls, Dr. Redd's suicide intensified the anti-government feelings in the town. (In 1986, there had been a similar SWAT raid of collectors' homes in Blanding. The federal government failed to prosecute anyone in that case, but hundreds of Anasazi pots were seized, and none of them returned.)

     A week after the four corners SWAT raids, an ARPA arrestee from Durango, Colorado, a 56-year-old collector on the periphery of the federal investigation, also committed suicide. By now, residents of the region, and artifact collectors and dealers across the country, were outraged by what they considered Gestapo-like tactics in the enforcement of the federal archaeological protection law.

The Snitch

     The federal investigation that led to the four corners SWAT raids, the most extensive ARPA case in history, began in 2006 when Ted C. Gardiner, a former Salt Lake City area antiques dealer and collector of prehistoric Native American artifacts, approached the FBI. Gardiner offered to use his online antiques business to gather evidence against collectors and dealers he said had been trafficking in artifacts illegally taken from federal and tribal lands in Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona. The FBI paid the 48-year-old "confidential human source" an initial fee of $10,000 followed by monthly payments of $7,500. Between March 1, 2007 and October 8, 2008, Gardiner, the former owner and CEO of a Utah based grocery story chain founded by his grandfather, clandestinely audio and video recorded 132 telephone and in-person conversations with 22 artifact collectors and a half dozen dealers. (On the day of the SWAT raids, FBI agents had searched the homes of four prominent artifact dealers in Santa Fe, New Mexico, the hub of the Anasazi artifact trade. Although none of these men were indicted, the agents confiscated artifacts from one dealer.)

     During his undercover investigation, Gardiner, equipped with a hidden video camera, accompanied a handful of collectors on artifact digging excursions on federal land. In addition to the $335,000 the FBI paid to the informant to buy 256 artifacts--sandals, blanket fragments, woven baskets, pottery, pipes, Clovis points, stone axes, flint knives, prayer sticks, pendants and other high-item pieces--they gave him another $162,000 to cover his expenses.

     On March 1, 2010, Gardiner, after have been exposed as the FBI's undercover informant by the local media, fatally shot himself in the head. The alcoholic, and former drug addict had been despondent over the previous two case-related suicides, and anxious about facing the collectors and dealers he had betrayed. Following Gardiner's suicide, the federal prosecutor in Utah assured reporters that the ARPA cases would not be adversely affected by the undercover operative's sudden death.

    In 2011 and 2012, all of the ARPA defendants, in exchange for sentences of probation, pleaded guilty.


Comments by Jay Redd, Dr.James Redd's Son


     On August 16, Jay Redd, in an email to the author, defended his parents, described the overkill nature of the federal raid, and set the record straight on some important details. The following are excerpts from his informative and credible email:

     My mom was a collector and not a trafficker, but again, my dad was neither. Everyone who knows my dad knows he did not collect artifacts. The feds watched him for two and a half years and they also knew he did not collect artifacts but that did not fit the mold the feds had planned for my dad to fit into....

     The reason they arrested Dr. Redd on June 10, 2009 was because he picked up off the surface of the ground a tiny little shell bead the feds call an "effigy bird pendent." My dad did not try to sell or trade the tiny little item to the informant or anyone else, he just showed it to him....The true market value of the bead my dad was arrested for is $75 but the informant and the feds inflated the price of it by over 1250 percent and said it was worth $1,000. Now why did they inflate the value? Because the felony charge they gave Dr. Redd required that the item in question, taken from Reservation land, must be valued at over $1,000 in order to qualify as a felony. Anything valued less than $1,000 would be a misdemeanor. Well, my dad would not have lost his medical license over a misdemeanor, but with a felony he would have and that is what the feds were shooting for....

     The treatment the feds imposed on my dad is beyond disgusting. On June 10, 2009 Dr. Redd was returning home from work early in the morning. As he drove up to his house he saw the numerous black SUVs parked there. As he was pulling up to the driveway one of the agents pointed to his FBI hat, drew his gun and pointed it at him. My dad stopped the vehicle and they yanked him from his car at gunpoint, handcuffed him and sat him down in his garage as they milled about him with their weapons. I wonder what the feds said when he requested to speak to his attorney....One of the head agents in charge that day boasted there were 80 agents at my parents house at one time and throughout the day (they searched the house for 11 1/2 hours). A total of 140 agents visited the house....The agent also said there were seven snipers on my parent's roof for hours and hours waiting for my brother to go down to the house....The day after the raid a resident from Blanding told me he watched my parent's house from a distance with his binoculars and said he saw the agents on the roof not moving for hours and hours....

     Concerning the undercover informant Ted Gardiner: If you read the police report and other articles about his suicide you will see that Ted said he "felt guilty for killing two people." Why would an undercover informant who was supposedly doing his job properly to rid the U.S. of evil underground criminals, feel guilty for the actions of those he caught in secret, illegal, underground activity. Could it be because he made friends with my dad who gave him medical advice on his ankle injury, encouraged him a few times to quit smoking to improve his health, invited him to the LDS church function that night....Ted knew he had a major part in Dr. Redd's death and after nine months of torment he could not take it anymore and therefore put a bullet in his head.