More than 4,135,000 pageviews from 150 countries


Thursday, March 30, 2017

Showdown Semester: Advice From a Writing Professor

     Martin Russ' classic 1980 memoir, Showdown Semester: Advice From a Writing Professor, is an entertaining and practical instruction manual for anyone interested in the art and craft of creative writing, or in the difficult job of teaching students how to write for publication. Almost everything in this book is quotable, but here are a few passages that stood out for me:

The brute fact is, the instructor in a fiction workshop earns his pay by telling students what's wrong with their stories. The students themselves are convinced they need encouragement more than anything, and of course you'll encourage them as much as you can; but what they need most of all is discouragement, so that they'll come to realize how appallingly low their standards are and break the terrible habits they've learned.

As I believe in passive sadism in childrearing, so I advocate the same stance in dealing with the obstreperous student. Kill him with kindness or at least benevolent inattention. Not only must you never let yourself be drawn into any sort of emotional escalation, you must avoid acknowledging his attitude.

Make sure you have something to say before you write it down. One of the most difficult things undergrads have to learn is they have as yet little to say.

Many nonfiction teachers make the dumb mistake of providing subjects or topics. Let the student choose them himself, and make damn sure he says something about the subject--rather than merely turning in a description or summary or noncommittal analysis of it.

For some cockeyed reason it is assumed that if you have the required degree you can therefore do an adequate job of teaching.

Often a classroom of students will unconsciously follow a peer leader--a sarcastic put-down artist, for instance, who by dint of personality and precocious verbal skills will turn your course into a living nightmare unless you step in and blandly damp him off.

It's quite true that fiction can't be taught; but you can pass along a few shortcuts and get them interested in the craft of it. I don't think any student wastes his time in a good fiction workshop, not even the talentless ones.

Undergrads tend to use more words than they need to, and much of your work involves showing them that a certain word or phrase or sentence or paragraph can be deleted without loss.

The most prevalent problem in student fiction writing is lack of plot or suspense, or drama.

Undergrad fiction writers are intensely interested in the possibilities of metaphor, simile, alliteration, allusion, parallelism, symbolism, and all the other literary devices. Which is fine. The problem is that they're more interested in the devices themselves than in using them effectively.

For student writers one of the most difficult problems is "creating character"--and it's a damned hard thing to teach.

Fiction-writing students would much rather describe than narrate. Would rather tell than show. Would rather summarize than dramatize. Would rather explain than demonstrate. Would rather obscure than clarify. I don't know why...but students seem to want to do everything wrong.

The amateur's attitude: It is I who am doing this thing, and I'm more important than the thing I am doing. The professional's attitude: This thing I'm doing is more important than me. (In other words, just because you wrote it doesn't make it good, or even interesting.)

The Deon Nunlee Rape Case

     On October 30, 2013, in Detroit, Michigan, police officer Deon Nunlee and his partner were on patrol working out of the 8th Precinct. They were assigned to the late shift when dispatched to a home at three in the morning to investigate a domestic violence complaint.

     Officer Nunlee, 40, had been on the force eight years, and although he didn't have a perfectly clean work record, he had never been disciplined for a serious breach of professional misconduct.

     When the officers rolled up to the complainant's residence, the 31-year-old victim reported that she had been assaulted by her boyfriend. Officer Nunlee's partner stayed with the suspect while Nunlee took the victim to an upstairs bedroom. Instead of taking the woman's assault report, officer Nunlee allegedly assaulted her sexually.

     As the officers left the house that night (I don't know if they arrested the boyfriend), Nunlee informed the victim that he would return to the house after he got off duty. (He did not return to the dwelling.)

     Shortly after the officers departed the scene, the woman notified two of her friends that she had been sexually assaulted by a cop. A few hours later, she reported the crime to the authorities. That day a police administrator placed officer Nunlee on desk duty pending the outcome of the investigation into the accusation.

     On February 10, 2014, a crime lab scientist reported the results of the rape kit test. Deon Nunlee, according to DNA analysis, had engaged in sexual activity with his accuser. The chief of police suspended him without pay.

     On March 14, 2014, police officers booked Deon Nunlee into the Wayne County Jail on charges of second-degree sexual conduct, assault with intent to penetrate, and one count of misconduct in office. After being informed of his Miranda rights, the suspect declined interrogation. A 36th district court judge set Nunlee's bail at $50,000.

     On the day of the officer's arrest, Detroit Police Chief James Craig, at a press conference, said: "This case is an anomaly. This is not what our police officers do. This officer who decided to engage in criminal misconduct does not represent the 2,500 sworn men and women who wear this uniform."

     On November 18, 2014, after pleading guilty to second-degree rape, the Wayne County Judge sentenced the former police officer to 19 months to 15 years in prison. (It seems to me the low end of this sentence is extremely lenient.)
    

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Dale Peck on Contemporary "Literary" Fiction

As one reads contemporary novelists, one can't shake the feeling that they write for one another rather than for some more or less common reader. Their prose shares a showiness that speaks of solidarity and competition--the exaggerated panache with which teenaged boys shoot hoops in their driveways while pretending they don't notice their neighbor watching from across the street.

Dale Peck, Hatchet Jobs, 2004

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

"A Reader's Manifesto"

     In his controversial analysis of what passes for modern literary fiction, B. R. Myers, in "A Reader's Manifesto: An Attack on the Growing Pretentiousness in American Literary Prose," uses the works of prize-winning novelists Paul Auster, Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo, David Gusteson, and Annie Proulix as good examples of bad writing. Since I find these "great writers" virtually unreadable, I'm a big fan of Myers' 2002 book. In his Preface, Myers lays out his basic intent and theme: "In late 1989 I wrote a short book called 'Gorgons in the Pool.' Quoting lengthy passages from prize winning novels, I argued that some of the most accclaimed contemporary prose is the product of mediocre writers availing themselves of trendy stylistic gimmicks. The greater point was that we readers should treat our own taste and perception instead of deferring to received opinion." Wow, what a refreshing and helpful idea! Finally, someone was saying that the problem isn't you, the reader--but them--the pretentious literary critics who have been for years pushing this rubbish on serious readers of fiction. Here are some passages from this honest and courageous book:

...one way that contemporary writers like to lower our expectations for their work is to claim that something as inadequate as language can never do justice to the complexity of what they're trying to say.

You don't have to read anything published after 1960 to know at once what you're in for: a tale of Life in Consumerland, full of heavy irony, trite musing about advertising and materialism, and long, long lists of consumer artifacts, all dedicated to the proposition that America is a wasteland of stupefied shoppers. (I have to plead guilty to that myself. But I'm just a nonfiction hack, not a great novelist.) Critics like to call this kind of thing "edgy" writing, though how an edge can be decerned on either style or theme after fifty years of blunting is anyone's guess. This will always be foolproof subject matter for a novelist of limited gifts.

Anyone who doubts the declining literacy of book reviews need only consider how the gabbiest of all prose style is invariably praised as "lean," "spare," even "minimalist."

A thriller [genre novel] must thrill or it is worthless; this is as true now as it ever was. Today's "literary" novel, on the other hand, need only evince a few quotable passages to be guaranteed at least a lukewarm review. It is no surprise, therefore, that the "literary" camp now attracts a type of writer who, under different circumstances, would never have strayed from the safest crime-novel formulae, and that so many critically acclaimed novels today are really mediocre "genre" stories told in an analgam of trendy stylistic tics.

At the 1999 National Book Awards Ceremony Oprah Winfrey told of calling Toni Morrison to say she had to puzzle repeatedly over many of the latter's sentences. According to Oprah, Morrison's reply was: "That, my dear, is called reading." Sorry, my dear Toni, but it's actually called bad writing. Great prose isn't always easy but it's always lucid; no one of Oprah's intelligence ever had to puzzle over what Joseph Conrad was trying to say in a particular sentence.

The American literary press is faced with a clear choice. It can continue plugging unreadable new books until the last advertiser jumps ship, and the last of the stand-alone book-review sections is discontinued--as "The Boston Globe" was in 2001--or it can start promoting the kind of novels that will get more Americans reading again. (I'm afraid it's too late for that.)

The Paul Driggers Murder-For-Hire Case

     Paul Driggers knew that if he filed for divorce, his wife Janice (not her real name) would fight for custody of their children. Driggers knew that Janice, because of his background of crime which included a ten year stretch in prison, would win that battle. To solve his problem, the 53-year-old Idaho man came up with a plan to file for divorce without his wife knowing about it. The idea behind his plan involved winning the divorce suit through his uninformed wife's default.

     In February 2005, after creating a false mail drop address for himself and his wife in Post Falls, Idaho, Driggers traveled to Bannock County in the southern part of the state where he filed for divorce. Janice, oblivious to what he was up to, failed to respond to the court papers sent to the phony address. Through this scheme, Paul Driggers divorced his wife without her knowledge. Janice was also unaware that the judge had awarded Driggers full custody of their son and two daughters.

     Although divorced, Driggers and his clueless ex-spouse continued to live under the same roof as man and wife. In September 2005, after pleading guilty to hitting one of his daughters with a belt, the judge sentenced Paul Driggers to 180 days in jail. Shortly after his release, Driggers threatened Janice with a handgun. Because he was an ex-felon, the mere possession of the weapon was a crime. Drigger denied the allegation, and the prosecutor dropped the charges.

     In February 2006, after Janice learned from a social worker that she and the man she was living with had been divorced for a year, threw him out of the house. Because they had engaged in sex under the false pretense of marriage, she filed charges of rape. A judge eventually dismissed that case. Driggers, in an effort to recover some of his possessions that included a wall plaque that read: "Families are Forever" sued his ex-wife. He also filed a report with a county child protection agency accusing her of physically abusing their children. The agency responded by taking the children out of the home. With the children temporarily out of the house, Driggers made his big move. He asked a man he had met in prison if he know of someone who would kill his ex-wife.

     Early in April 2006, acting on his former prison associate's recommendation, Driggers called a man in Hayward, California named Matt Robinson and offered him $10,000 for the hit. Driggers said he would deposit $1,000 in Robinson's bank account to pay for his trip to northern Idaho where they would plan and carry out the contract murder. Robinson, having left Driggers with the impression he would be thinking over the offer, reported the solicitation to the Hayward police who hooked him up with the FBI. After meeting with FBI agents, Robinson agreed to help the feds by traveling to Idaho as an undercover murder-for-hire operative.

     On April 25, 2006, Driggers and Robinson met in a restaurant in Coeur d' Alene. They discussed, in addition to the murder, a number of criminal schemes including the manufacture of methamphetamine, and the counterfeiting of documents to be used in identify theft. Three months later, on July 21, Driggers drove his gold Jaguar onto a Lowe's parking lot in Coeur d' Alene. He was there to meet Robinson who was wired for sound. Driggers handed the man he thought would murder his ex-wife another $1,000. The murder-for-hire mastermind promised to pay Robinson the balance of the hit money in $500 monthly installments. Driggers also gave Robinson a photograph of Janice and a handmade map showing how to get to her house in Priest River. The map, carefully drawn and detailed, included suggested escape routes. In order to maintain contact with his hit man as the plot unfolded, Driggers had purchased a pair of walkie-talkies. He also instructed Robinson on how to dispose of the victim's corpse. This mastermind was leaving nothing to chance.

     Driggers, in explaining to Robinson that killing his ex-wife was the only way he could acquire custody of  his children, anticipated that the police would suspect him of having her murdered. "They don't like me," he said. "They hate me. They'd like to put a needle in my arm....We've already made some mistakes. I don't want to get hurt on this. The first three months of the investigation is going to be intense. They're going to check everything....I'm the green light, but you're driving the car. You have a couple of options. You can keep the money and go home. You can do it and get it done, or try to do it, and if it's too difficult, you can drop it."

     The following day, July 22, 2006, Driggers called Robinson and gave him the final go-ahead for the operation. Ten days later, FBI agents who had been keeping track of Driggers, arrested him on the charge of attempted murder-for-hire. When informed that his conversations with Robinson had been taped, Driggers surprised the arresting agents by insisting that he was innocent.

     From his Kootenai County Jail cell a week after being taken into custody, Driggers, referring to his ex-wife as a "vindictive schizophrenic," said this to a local newspaper reporter: "I'm the one who's really being abused. There's been such a climate of fear and paranoia in my case that any action I take to try and protect my property is determined as a move toward hurting my ex-wife, to physically hurting my ex-wife." A federal grand jury, three weeks after Drigger's press interview, indicted him for using interstate commerce to facilitate a murder-for-hire scheme.

     The Driggers murder trial got underway, in the federal court house in Coeur d' Alene, on January 3, 2007. The defendant, insisting that he was the true victim in the case, promised reporters that when jurors heard his side of the story, they would find him not guilty. But before he got the opportunity to defend himself on the stand, the jurors heard the conversation Matt Robinson had tapped in the Lowe's parking lot. After playing the two-hour recording, the government rested its case.

     On January 11, 2007, Driggers, wearing a raspberry colored blazer, climbed into the witness box with the intent of portraying himself as the victim. He had been so distraught over the possibility of losing custody of his children he had gone to bed every night under the influence of sleeping pills and booze. "It was hard to get out of bed in the morning because I'd always hear the voices of my children saying, 'Daddy, daddy, we want you to come home.' I lost the purpose of my life. I had no reason to  live."

     In addressing the issue of his murder-for-hire conversations with Matt Robinson, Driggers dismissed them as a "hypothetical" discussions in which he was merely exploring possible solutions to his "predicament." "There's a difference," he said, "between a statement and an agreement. I didn't want to kill her. I was upset about many things happening in my life."

     The jury, following a brief period of deliberation, found Paul Driggers guilty of attempted murder-for-hire. The verdict surprised no one. But the case wasn't over. Drigger's attorney, noting that a copy of his client's rap sheet had inadvertently found its way into the jury room, moved for a mistrial. The jurors were not supposed to know about the defendant's criminal history. Although only one juror actually looked at the document, the judge had no choice but to declare a mistrial.

     The following month, Driggers was tried again on the same evidence. The second jury, also requiring little time to deliberate, found him guilty as charged. The judge sentenced Paul Driggers to the maximum penalty allowed under federal law, a $17,000 fine and ten years in prison.


Sunday, March 26, 2017

Thiago Henrique Da Rocha: Brazil's Motorbike Serial Killer

     During a nine month period beginning in January 2014, a man on a motorbike in the central Brazilian city of Goiania, used a .38-caliber revolver to shoot 39 people to death. The serial killer approached his intended victims on his motorbike, shouted "robbery!," shot them at close range, then drove off without taking anything from the people he murdered.

     Sixteen of the serial killer's victims were young women, the youngest being a 14-year-old girl shot to death at a bus stop in February 2014. The rest of the murder victims included homeless people, homosexuals, and transvestites.

     The Goiania police caught a break on October 12, 2014 when the killer on the motorbike shot at but didn't kill his intended victim. The young woman told detectives that she knew the shooter from seeing him at a local bar.

     On Tuesday October 14, 2014, the Brazilian police arrested 26-year-old Thiago Henrique Da Rocha at his mother's house in Goiania. The serial murder suspect, during a prolonged police interrogation, confessed to the 39 criminal homicides committed in 2014. He also admitted killing people as far back as when he was 22-years-old. Da Rocha told his interrogators that he wasn't sure how many people he had murdered. All of the shootings, he said, involved victims chosen randomly.

     Da Rocha lived in Goiania with his mother. A search of her house resulted in the discovery of the .38-caliber murder weapon. The police also seized a pair of handcuffs and several knives.

     Shortly after Da Rocha's arrest, the Goiania police chief, at a press conference, said, "Da Rocha felt anger at everything and everyone. He had no link to any of his victims and chose them at random. He could have killed me, you or  your children."

     When detectives asked Da Rocha what caused all of this rage, he told them that he had been sexually abused by a male neighbor when he was 11-years-old. So, why did he take out his anger on so many women? Rejection, he said. A lot of women had rejected his romantic overtures. On top of the sexual assaults and the female rejection, he had been bullied at school. "I was quieter than the other kids," he said. "I suffered mental and physical aggression. I don't know if that has anything to do with it, but these things accumulate inside you." (This man will require very little coaching from his defense attorney.)

     A few days following his arrest, Da Rocha supposedly tried to kill himself by slashing his wrists with a broken light bulb. Jail guards interceded before he was able to seriously cut himself.

     Da Rocha asked a jail guard if he would face a murder trial if he killed a fellow inmate. He said he still felt the urge to kill. He said his feelings of "fury" only abated when he killed a person.

     The handsome serial killer, no doubt the recipient of marriage proposals, became an instant celebrity upon his arrest. In speaking to Brazilian reporters from his jail cell, Da Rocha explained that the killing of a victim in cold blood did not make him happy. He said the next morning "I wasn't happy, no. There was the feeling of regret for what I had done."

     To reporters hanging on every word, Da Rocha said, "If I have a disease, I'd like to know what it is, and also if there is a cure."

     In a statement that revealed the depth of this young killer's sociopathy, Da Rocha said, "I'd like to ask for forgiveness, but I think it's too difficult to ask for forgiveness right now." Even for a sociopath, the extent of this narcissist's self-centeredness is staggering. Because he obviously enjoyed the limelight, Da Rocha was a crime reporter's dream criminal.

     In May 2016, after Thiago Henrique Da Rocha was convicted of eleven cold-blooded murders, the Brazilian judge sentenced the serial killer to 25 years in prison. That's slightly more than two years per victim. In Brazil, the lives of murder victims are cheap.   

Saturday, March 25, 2017

"Literary" Novels Are Unreadable

     In true crime, biography, and other types of nonfiction, I prefer the narrative form. In other words, I like nonfiction that reads like a well-plotted novel. In my opinion, writers who have succeeded in this form include Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote, and Joseph Wambaugh. In fiction, I like crime writers who know how to plot and tell a good story. In this group I include Jim Thompson, Donald Westlake, Evan Hunter, Lawrence Block and Thomas H. Cook.

     People read out of curiosity and the desire to be told a compelling story. This is probably why critically acclaimed literary novelists, authors who disdain drama and a good story, are not widely read. I don't think they deserve to be.

     A tip to readers: avoid novels that have won literary awards--they almost always stink. And stay away from literary novels bearing glowing cover blurbs from other literary writers.



Friday, March 24, 2017

The Celebrity Journalist

It takes tremendous craft for a nonfiction writer to dominate his subject. Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote, Norman Mailer and Hunter S. Thompson could pull this off, but once they became celebrities in their own right, it became harder and harder for them to act as reporters. The instant they arrived to cover a story their presence altered it. Other less-gifted writers who tried to copy them often failed when technique overwhelmed or even changed substance.

Peg Taylor in The Writer's Handbook, edited by Elfrieda Abbe, 2003 

The Steven Pratt Murder Cases

     In 1984, 15-year-old Steven L. Pratt lived in an Atlantic City, New Jersey apartment complex with his mother, Gwendolyn Pratt. One night that year, Steven and his friends were hanging out in the hallway outside his apartment when the next-door neighbor, Michael Anderson, complained of the noise. Following an argument between Pratt and his neighbor, Pratt's friends dispersed.

     For Pratt, the dispute remained unresolved. He went into his apartment and came out armed with a lead pipe. When he confronted his neighbor with the weapon, Michael Anderson grabbed the pipe from him and used the weapon to bloody the teen's face.

     The humiliated Pratt borrowed a handgun from an acquaintance and returned to the apartment complex where he shot Michael Anderson twice, killing him on the spot.

     After the crime scene investigators completed their work, Steven Pratt's mother, knowing what her son had done, marched him down to the police station. Under police questioning, the teen confessed.

     An Atlantic County prosecutor charged Pratt with first-degree murder and tried him as an adult. The young defendant took the stand on his own behalf and told the jurors that when he pulled the trigger the gun just clicked and didn't go off. He kept squeezing the trigger until the bullets came out.

      The jury, presented with evidence of a cold-blooded killing, found the boy guilty as charged. The judge sentenced him to thirty years in prison.

     Pratt's attorney appealed the conviction on the ground his client should have been tried as a juvenile. According to the appeal, Pratt had "emotional impairments" that reduced his intellectual age to less than seven years. The appellate judge affirmed the conviction. (Throw a stick in any maximum security prison and it will hit nine people just as stupid as Pratt.)

     On Friday October 10, 2014, after serving most of his thirty-year sentence at the New Jersey State Prison in Trenton, Pratt became a free man. Having no place to stay, he moved in with his 64-year-old mother who lived in a house on the west side of Atlantic City.

     At two o'clock in the morning of October 12, 2014, one of Gwendolyn Pratt's neighbors heard a loud argument coming from her house. The neighbor, having been accused of being too quick to call the police on her neighbors, resisted the urge to call 911. Steven Pratt had been out of prison less than two days.

     At six-thirty that morning, someone, perhaps this neighbor, did call 911 to report a disturbance at the Pratt residence. At the scene, police officers found Gwendolyn Pratt dead from massive blunt force trauma to her head. The officers also found Steven Pratt and took him into custody.

     Later in the day of Gwendolyn Pratt's murder, police officers booked her son into the Atlantic County Justice Facility on the charge of first-degree murder. The judge set Steven Pratt's bail at $1 million.

     In February 2017, Steven Pratt pleaded guilty to manslaughter for killing his mother. A month later, the judge in Atlantic City sentenced Pratt to 25 years in prison. According to the judge, the 48-year-old Pratt would not be eligible for parole until he served 85 percent of his sentence.

     The Stephen Pratt case lends credence to the view that certain criminals are beyond the reach of rehabilitation. While these people should never be given their freedom, there is no way to identify them as hopeless cases before they reoffend. Nothing is less reliable than predicting human behavior. 

Thursday, March 23, 2017

True Crime as Entertainment

     Occasionally, true crime is where literary writers go to slum and, not coincidentally, make some real money: Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song." It's not the Great American Novel, yet somehow such books have a tendency to end up the most admired works of a celebrated author's career. Is it because better writers tease something out of the genre that pulp peddlers can't, or is it just that their blue-chip names give readers a free pass to indulge a guilty pleasure?…

     True crime labors under the stigma of voyeurism, or worse. It's not just unseemly to linger over the bloodied bodies of the dead and the hideous sufferings inflicted upon them in their final hours, it's also a kind of sickness. Gillian Flynn's novel, Dark Places, describes the wincing interactions between the narrator, a survivor of a notorious multiple murder, and a creepy subculture of murder "fans" and collectors. When she's hard for cash, she's forced to auction off family memorabilia at one of their true crime conventions.

     The very thing that makes true crime compelling also makes it distasteful: the use of human agony for the purposes of entertainment.

Laura Miller, "Sleazy, Bloody and Surprisingly Smart: In Defense of True Crime," salon.com, May 29, 2014

     

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

What Kids Do in the Woods These Days

     Police in Wylie, Texas, wanted to know what two teenagers were doing in the woods Saturday night, March 8, 2014. "We were burying a body," one of them said. They weren't kidding. When police looked in the woods northeast of Dallas they found the corpse of 17-year-old Ivan Mejia of Wylie. The two 16-year-olds were charged with murder.

     Police first became interested when they checked out a suspicious, unoccupied vehicle backed up to the tree line….Officers went into the woods and saw two suspects running from the area. The police officers returned to the car. The 16-year-olds walked up to the car and answered the question that set off the bells….

     Mejia was killed behind Wylie East High School where all three teenagers were students, and taken to the wooded area….No motive has been released, but police say the killing was planned.

     A school spokesperson said the incident was not connected to a school-sponsored activity. [Like what? A Murder 101 field experiment?]

Ralph Ellis and Joe Sutton, "'We Are Burying a Body,' Teen Suspect Tells Texas Police," CNN, March 10, 2014 

Remarkable Murder Cases

Of the cases presented here (A Companion to Murder), some have been chosen because the people involved in them are strange and remarkable, passionate, revengeful, avaricious, stupid, ambitious, resourceful, pitiable, tragic, even comic, beyond the ordinary. Others have been chosen because the interplay of motive behind the the crime has some special interest; others for the sake of some brilliant stroke of detection. Other cases are to be valued for their particular atmosphere or mood; others because they illustrate some tenet of the law as it applies to the crime of murder; others, again, because they display the forensic skill of a great advocate.

Spenser Shew, A Companion to Murder, 1961

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Truman Capote's True Crime Mistake

Put simply, adherence to the truth in nonfiction makes a story feel right. Perhaps the most famous compromise of that standard is Truman Capote's imagined graveyard scene at the end of In Cold Blood, still considered the benchmark for what he called the "non-fiction novel." A brilliant study of a murdered family and the killers who are eventually hanged, there was no happy ending available to the writer. Capote felt a need to resolve that artificially, blighting his immense achievement in synthesizing research with dramatic storytelling with a dreamy and unconvincing denouement he always regretted.

Mark Mordue, The Australian, January 14, 2006 

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Troy James Knapp: Utah's "Mountain Man Burglar"

     In 1986, when he was 28, Troy James Knapp went to prison in Kalamazoo, Michigan for burglary and related offenses. Knapp pleaded guilty to destroying property in 1994 while living in Salt Lake City. Two years later, police in Seattle arrested him on the charge of stalking and harassment. In 2002, after serving two years in a California prison for burglary, Knapp left the state in violation of his parole.

     In 2007, the wilderness survivalist (he survived on other people's stuff) lived in the mountains of southern Utah. In the summers he stole food and gear from cabins in Iron, Kane, and Garfield Counties, and moved from one campsite to the next. During the winter months Knapp lived in the cabins he burglarized in the summer. The owners would return to their seasonal dwellings to find bullet holes in the walls and doors. Knapp also left notes with messages like: "Pack up and leave. Get off my mountain." (If everyone had packed up and left, Knapp would have starved.)

     Between 2007 and 2013, prosecutors in Iron, Kane, and Garfield Counties charged Knapp with 13 felony burglary crimes and 5 misdemeanor offenses. Because of the remoteness of Knapp's break-ins and the fact he kept on the move, he had eluded capture for more than five years.

     In late February 2013, a man hunting with his son in Sanpete County crossed paths with Knapp about 125 miles southeast of Salt Lake City. Aware they had conversed with the mountain man burglar, the father notified the authorities.

     A few days after speaking with the hunters 9,000 feet up on a mountain near Ferron Reservoir in the central part of the state, forty police officers and a law enforcement helicopter closed in on the fugitive as he trudged through three feet of snow. After firing fifteen rifle shots at the helicopter, Knapp surrendered to the small army of approaching lawmen.

     When taken into custody, Knapp possessed an assault rifle and a handgun. He was booked into the Sanpete County Jail without bond. An Assistant United States Attorney in Utah charged Knapp with several federal firearms offenses.

     In April 2014, pursuant to an arranged plea bargain, Knapp pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court to the use of a firearm during a crime of violence. At his sentence hearing on June 9, 2014, federal court judge Ted Stewart handed down the mandatory minimum sentence of ten years in federal prison.

     Knapp's attorney, in addressing the court, said, "There's an admiration for somebody who chooses to live off the land, because he does it while the rest of us wouldn't. Even if he needs a little help from some cabin owners."

     Sanpete County prosecutor Brody Keisel had a different take on the case. He told reporters after the federal sentencing that Knapp was nothing more than a "common crook." Knapp had agreed to plead guilty to the burglary charges filed against him in the seven Utah counties. According to those plea deals, he faced fifteen years in each county, the sentences to run together.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Lyvette Crespo Manslaughter Case

      Daniel Crespo was born in a Brooklyn, New York public housing project in 1969. Lyvette, Crespo's  high school girlfriend, married him in 1986 shortly after graduation. That year they moved to the Los Angeles area and in 1987 had their first child, a baby girl.

     Daniel Crespo earned an associates degree in psychology/family counseling at East Los Angeles College. Two years later he was awarded a bachelor's degree in criminal justice/public administration from Cal State University. The couple's second child, Daniel Jr, was born in 1994.

     After working eight years as a criminal justice youth counselor, Crespo joined the Los Angeles County Probation Department. In 2001, he and his family resided in the Vinos la Campana condominium complex in Bell Gardens, a suburban community of 43,000 18 miles southeast of Los Angeles. That year he was elected to the city council.

     In Bell Gardens, the city counsel is part time and members take turns serving as mayor. In 2014 Daniel Crespo held the office of Bell Gardens mayor. Over the past five years Crespo worked in the probation department's adult supervision gang/narcotics unit. As a criminal justice practitioner and city office holder, Crespo was considered friendly and well-liked. He also had the reputation of being a devoted family man.

     At two-thirty in the afternoon of Tuesday September 30, 2014, paramedics were called to the Crespo dwelling. The emergency crew found Daniel Sr. in the second floor master bedroom with three bullets in his upper torso. He died en route to a nearby hospital. His 19-year-old son, Daniel Jr, was taken to a hospital where a doctor treated him as an outpatient for facial injuries sustained in a fight.

     Later that day, Los Angeles County deputies questioned Lyvette and her son at a sheriff's station. According to Lyvette, she and her husband had been arguing in the master bedroom. When their son tried to intervene on her behalf, he and his father got into a fight. She left the room and returned with the handgun she used to shoot her husband three times.

     Following police interrogations of the mother and son, the two went home. A spokesperson for the sheriff's office announced that investigators would present the results of their investigation of the Crespo shooting case to the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office. Personnel within that office would determine if there was sufficient evidence to charge Lyvette Crespo and/or her son with criminal homicide.
   
     Two days after the shooting, Eber Bayona, Lyvette Crespo's attorney, described her to the media as a devoted wife and mother who had been the victim of "a difficult and intolerable home life." Attorney Bayona said, "I think the evidence will corroborate that she has been a victim of domestic violence for many years."

     William Crespo, the shooting victim's brother, told reporters that the attorney was simply trying to make his brother look bad. "My brother is not a bad man," he said. William went on to say that the Los Angeles District Attorney's Office should prosecute Lyvette Crespo for second-degree murder. When asked by a reporter if it were true that Daniel Crespo was having an affair with a woman who was pregnant, William Crespo did not answer the question. He did say that his brother was considering leaving his wife.

     In December 2016, following an extensive criminal investigation that revealed that Daniel Crespo had for years physically abused his wife and his son, Deputy District Attorney Beth Silverman allowed Lyvette Crespo to plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter.

     On January 20, 2017, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy sentenced Lyvette Crespo to 90 days in jail and five years probation. While the so-called battered wife syndrome is not recognized as an admissible homicide defense, it is relevant in terms of prosecutorial discretion and sentencing.

   

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The Alton Alexander Nolen Beheading Murder Case

     The 911 call came in at four-thirty in the afternoon on Thursday September 25, 2014 from an employee of the Vaughn Foods distribution warehouse in Moore, Oklahoma ten miles south of Oklahoma City. The emergency caller, not speaking to the dispatcher, said, "Shut the doors!" Then to the dispatcher said, "We have someone attacking someone in the building. Can you hear this in the background? That's a gunshot."

     When they entered the Vaughn Foods building, officers with the Moore Police Department encountered a bloody scene of horrific violence. Coleen Hufford, a 54-year-old employee, had been repeatedly stabbed then beheaded. Traci Johnson, a fellow employee, had been stabbed as well but was still alive. Alton Alexander Nolen, the 30-year-old man wielding the knife, had been shot once. He was alive but unconscious.

     Earlier that afternoon, after being fired from the food processing and distribution plant, Alton Nolen left the building in a huff, climbed into his car, and drove erratically around the company parking lot. With a knife in hand, he re-entered the facility through the main entrance. Nolen walked through the front office into the shipping area then into the customer service office. There he encountered Colleen Hufford and Traci Johnson, employees who he had no reason to hate or punish.

     Mark Vaughn, the corporation's chief operating officer, rushed to the scene armed with a rifle. He arrived too late to save Colleen Hufford and almost didn't get there in time for Traci Johnson. Before Nolen had the chance to behead his second victim, Mr. Vaughn shot and wounded him.

     Alton Nolen was not a stranger to the local law enforcement community. In the evening of October 1, 2010, while accompanied by his 29-year-old girlfriend and her 2-year-old son, he was driving his white Chevrolet Impala on Oklahoma Highway 33. State Trooper Betsy Randolph pulled him over after she noticed that Nolen's paper license plate looked like a fake. The officer received confirmation of this after she radioed-in the plate number.

     Nolen, when asked by Trooper Randolph to produce his driver's license, said he didn't have it with him. "Do you have a valid driver's license," she asked.

     "No," he replied.

     Seated next to the trooper in the patrol car parked along the curb on a residential street, Nolen said that he didn't want to go back to jail, and denied having outstanding warrants for his arrest. When the officer entered his name and date of birth into her computer, she knew he had lied. There were several outstanding warrants for Nolen's arrest including one for failing to appear in court on a cocaine charge. The trooper had no choice but to take Nolen into custody.

     Trooper Randolph, after cuffing Nolen's right hand, ran into resistance as he tried to call his girlfriend on his cellphone. As the officer reached for her expandable baton, Nolen pushed her away and jumped out of the police vehicle. The trooper chased Nolen on foot but lost him amid a group of houses in the neighborhood.

     Following a 12-hour manhunt that included a helicopter, police dogs, and officers from four law enforcement agencies, the police took Alton Nolen into custody. A local prosecutor charged him with assault and battery on a police officer and escape from detention.

     Early in 2011, following a plea deal, the judge sentenced Nolen to six years on the cocaine offense, two years for escaping police custody, and two years for assaulting Trooper Randolph. Although he faced up to ten years behind bars, he only served 18 months in prison and six months in a halfway  house.

     While in prison Nolen converted to Islam. In April 2013, a month after leaving the halfway house, he began posting messages on Facebook under the name Jah Keem Yisrael. His postings were clearly anti-American. He ran  photographs of Osama bin Laden and the burning trade towers. He also had several Muslim Facebook friends from the U.S., England, and the Middle East.

     Prior to losing his job at the Moore, Oklahoma food processing plant Nolen tried to covert fellow employees to Islam.

     On Saturday September 27, 2014, detectives questioned Nolen after he had regained consciousness. He was charged with first-degree murder and aggravated assault. Until investigators determined the principal motive for the beheading--anger at being fired or striking a terroristic blow against America--the attacks on these innocent women would be handled as a criminal matter. For many, the fact that Nolen was a militant Muslim who beheaded a woman was enough to justify treating the murder as an act of terrorism.

     In May 2016, Nolen offered to plead guilty to first-degree murder. He said he wanted to be executed by lethal injection. Judge Lori Walkey rejected the defendant's guilty plea and ordered a hearing to determine Nolen's mental competency.

     In August 2016, a prosecution psychologist testified that Alton Nolen had a personality disorder and was therefore not psychotic. A neuropsychologist for the defense testified that Nolen was a schizophrenic with a "thought disorder."

     At the conclusion of the mental competency hearing, Judge Walkey rejected Nolen's guilty plea. This meant that instead of death row, Nolen would be incarcerated in a mental institution.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Miranda and Elytte Barbour: The Craigslist Killers

     Of all the motives behind premeditated murder, killing for the fun of watching someone die reflects a degree of evil that's inhuman. People who kill for the thrill of it are as dangerous as they are diabolical. Because these murderers are incapable of comprehending why normal people consider them monsters, they are beyond the reach of psychology, psychiatry, and anger management. To not execute these murderers constitutes, in itself, a crime against civilization. For born killers, there should be no mercy.

     Elytte Barbour and his 18-year-old wife Miranda resided in Selingsgrove, an eastern Pennsylvania town 100 miles northwest of Philadelphia. On October 22, 2013, after moving to Pennsylvania from North Carolina, the couple got married. Through various Internet sites, Miranda offered her services to lonely men looking for female companionship. For fees that ranged from $50 to $850, she would make herself available for conversation over dinner or during a walk around a shopping mall. Sex was not part of the deal. (Her claim.)

     On November 11, 2013, Miranda, through one of her escort postings on Craigslist, offered to meet Troy LaFerrara at the Susquehanna Valley Mall in Selingsgrove. That night, the 42-year-old from Port Trevorton parked his Chevy S-10 pickup in the mall lot and got into a 2001 Honda driven by Miranda Barbour. Unbeknownst to Mr. LaFerrara, Miranda's 22-year-old husband Elytte was hidden in the SUV behind the front seat.

     Miranda drove from Selinsgrove toward the nearby town of Sunbury. At some point she pulled off the road and came to a stop. Elytte rose up from behind the seat and wrapped a cord around Mr. LaFerrara's neck. With her passenger choking and grasping for air, Miranda got back onto the road and continued driving toward Sunbury.

     In Sunbury, Miranda pulled to a stop and grabbed a knife from between the front seats. With Mr. LaFerrara still being strangled by Elytte, Miranda stabbed the dying man twenty times. After taking the dead man's wallet (but not his cellphone), the lethal couple dumped his corpse in a residential alley.

     From the dump site, the Barbours drove to a department store where they purchased cleaning supplies. Once they had removed the victim's blood from the Honda, Miranda and Elytte drove to a strip club in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania where they celebrated his birthday.

     The day following the LaFerrara murder, November 12, 2013, the occupant of a house whose backyard reached out to the alley, discovered Troy LaFerrara's body. Investigators, from the victim's cellphone, acquired the lead that eventually led them to the married killers.

     On Friday, December 6, 2013, police officers took the couple into custody for the LaFerrara murder. According to Miranda, she had stabbed her passenger after he groped her. She claimed that after she had stabbed LeFerrara four times she "blacked out." As a result, she had no memory of what took place in the immediate aftermath of the killing. (Psychopaths, because they lack insight and empathy, are lousy liars.)

     Elytte Barbour confessed fully to the cold-blooded murder of a complete stranger. He told his interrogators that he and Miranda had planned to "murder someone together."

     Dr. Rameen Starling-Romey performed the LaFerrara autopsy at the Lehigh Valley Hospital in Allentown. According to the forensic pathologist, LaFerrara had died from multiple sharp force trauma.

     While the Barbours were in custody without bail, investigators were looking into the possibility that Mr. LaFerrara was not their first murder victim.

     In February 2014, Miranda Barbour, in an interview with a reporter with the Daily Item, a newspaper in Sunbury, Pennsylvania, claimed to have murdered at least 22 people in Alaska, Texas, North Carolina, and California over the past six years. That meant she started killing when when she was thirteen. According to Barbour, the killing started when she joined a satanic cult in Alaska before moving to North Carolina.

     Sunbury police chief Steve Mazzeo told reporters that his detectives had been in contact with the FBI and other law enforcement agencies in those states.

     A judge, in February 2014, granted the defense attorney's request to have Miranda Barbour evaluated by a forensic psychiatrist. Her husband Elytte had already been examined by a court-appointed mental health expert. Investigators were skeptical regarding Miranda Barbour's claim to be a teenage serial killer. Why didn't she tell her police interrogators about these murders? If she was lying about this, she was either delusional or perhaps setting up an insanity defense. Where were the bodies?

     In a second, March 2014 interview with the reporter with The Daily Item, Miranda Barbour claimed that before the murder of Troy LaFerrara, two other targeted victims escaped death when they failed to respond to her offer of female companionship.

     In May 2014, Northumberland County Judge Charles H. Saylor ruled that prosecutors could seek the death penalty in this case. Miranda Barbour's court appointed attorney, Ed Greco, had asked the judge to take the death penalty off the table.

     In August 2014, to avoid the death penalty, the Barbours pleaded guilty to second-degree murder for the killing of Troy LaFerrara. In September, Judge Saylor sentenced the couple to life in prison without parole.

     Holly LaFerrara, in her victim impact statement after the judge handed down the sentences, said, "If it was up to me you would each be strapped to a lethal injection gurney or seated in an electric chair. I say you both got off lucky today…You were bad enough to do the crime. Now let's see how you like doing the time. Lots and lots of time. There aren't many guarantees in life, but you can take this one to the bank. My family and I will make sure you stay in jail, right where you belong."

     The authorities came to the conclusion that Miranda Barbour had lied about the other killings. 

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Violent Male Stalkers in Japan: A Social Crisis

     In the United States, the act of stalking constitutes a crime in every state, and if committed interstate, can also be prosecuted as a federal offense. Criminal stalking is generally defined as a pattern of repeated and unwanted attention, harassment, contact or any course of conduct directed at a specific person that would cause fear in a reasonable person. America, with about three million reported cases a year, is the stalking capital of the world. Two-thirds of these cases involve female victims stalked by ex-boyfriends, former spouses, co-workers, or social acquaintances. While men are stalked, this is primarily a crime against women.

     A high percentage of stalkers are compulsive, paranoid types motivated by anger and revenge. While the FBI doesn't keep track of how many women are murdered by these sociopaths, it's safe to estimate that every year stalkers kill more than 100 women. Because all stalkers are potentially dangerous, this is an extremely serious crime, a fact now recognized by the American law enforcement community.

     As a pattern of deviant behavior, stalking in Japan first attracted national attention in 1998 when a famous kabuki actor named Ennosuke Ichikawa won a restraining order against an overzealous fan. The stalker, however, was not charged with a crime. (In America, stalking is a fact of celebrity life.)

     In the spring of 1999, Shiori Ino, after breaking up with her boyfriend, filed a harassment case against him with the Saitama police in Ageo. Kazuhito Komatsu, the subject of the complaint, his brother, and two of their friends had been following and heckling Ino. They had also been distributing lewd and defamatory flyers about her. After the police refused to investigate Ino's allegations, she filed a formal internal affairs complain charging these officers with police negligence. (Later, through the use of falsified documents, the Saitama police tried to deny that Ino had filed a complaint against her ex-boyfriend.)

     On October 6, 1999, Kazuhito Komatsu, in broad daylight, stabbed Shiori Ino to death outside a train station in Saitama Prefecture. The police, under intense public criticism for ignoring Ino's case, argued that since stalking was not a crime in Japan, there was nothing they could have done to prevent the murder. (Stalking, at the time, was a crime in just one of Japan's 47 prefectural governments.) Komatsu took his own life several months after the murder. Shiori Ino's parents filed a civil lawsuit charging the Saitama officers with police negligence and intentional wrongdoing. (In 2003, the court awarded the family 5.5 million yen.)

     In 2000, 17-year-old Maki Otake broke up with her boyfriend who refused to leave her alone. In April of that year, after a week of stalking Otake, the ex-boyfriend stabbed her 34 times as she parked her bicycle outside her school. The case drew the attention of the national media and put pressure on Japan's politicians and law enforcement agencies to recognize stalking as a serious crime against women. Otake's stalker was later convicted of murder. By 2000, five of Japan's prefectural governments had enacted anti-stalking laws.

     In November 2000, in reaction to the Shiori Ino and Maki Otake murder cases, legislators in Japan's central government passed a law making stalking a national crime. Notwithstanding this new law, the police in the country were reluctant to treat stalking as a serious criminal offense. In many jurisdictions, officers, unwilling to get involved in what they considered trivial personal disputes, refused to investigate stalking complaints.

     In 2010, 38-year-old Eto Ozutsumi began sending 30-year-old Rie Miyoski threatening emails. He repeatedly sent her messages that read: "I am definitely going to kill you." Over a period of months, Ozutsumi sent Miyoski more than a thousand unwanted emails. The Tokyo couple hadn't dated since 2006. Miyoshi filed a complaint with the police, and in early 2011, married another man and moved with him to Zushi in the Kanagawa Prefecture. Her stalker did not know her married name, or where she lived. She changed her email address, and the stalking finally stopped.

     In June 2011, when the police arrested Ozutsumi on charges of stalking, an officer, in reading out loud from the arrest warrant, revealed the victim's married name and her new address. After Ozutsumi pleaded guilty to the stalking charge, the judge sentenced him to probation. About a year later, this man showed up at his former stalking victim's apartment in Zushi and stabbed her to death.

     In the wake of the Rie Miyoski murder, women's rights advocates and others in Japan were outraged over this official indifference to the crime of stalking and its victims. In Japan, police attitudes concerning crimes agains women have been slow to change,

     Between the years 2004 and 2014, reports of stalking in Japan increased ten-fold. Notwithstanding Japan's tough anti-stalking legislation passed in 2011, the problem of the violent male stalker continued to affect thousands of female victims, many of whom awere eventually murdered. According to recent reports, violent stalking in Japan has become a crime problem of epidemic proportions.    

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Anthony Novellino: The Pig Mask Murder Case

     In 2010, after years of marriage, Anthony Novellino and his wife Judith, a teacher at Morris Catholic High School in Denville Township, New Jersey, couldn't stand each other. She accused him of being verbally abusive and controlling. He claimed that because she was such a lousy housekeeper, the place was always a mess. To back up his accusation, he emailed photographs of the unkempt home to family and friends.

     The couple also fought over their oldest son, Anthony A. Novellino Jr., a resident of nearby Parsippany. Over the past few years, police officers had arrested Novellino Jr. for possession of drugs. He had also been charges with auto theft. Judith Novellino treated her drug-addicted son with compassion and accommodated his needs such as giving him money. The father, fed up with his son, believed that tough-love, such as jail, was the best way to deal with the problem.

     Judith Novellino filed for divorce, and on June 8, 2010, it became final. According to the divorce settlement, she would receive $110,000, her share of the house, plus $150,000, her half of their IRAs and bank savings. Mr. Novellino made no secret of the fact he felt cheated in the distribution of the family assets.

     On June 19, 2010, eleven days after the finalization of the breakup, Anthony Novellino came home and found Judith in the house retrieving her personal belongings. They argued and he became enraged. The confrontation came to a bloody end when he stabbed her 84 times with an 8-inch kitchen knife. Before he packed some of his belongings and walked to his car, Mr. Novellino slipped a pig mask over his former wife's head.

     Christina German discovered her mother's body in the bathroom when she came to the house to help the 62-year-old move her belongings to an apartment in Parsippany.

     Five days after the brutal murder, police in Puyallup, Washington took Anthony Novellino into custody. The 66-year-old fugitive had driven across the country to be with a woman he had met on the Internet. Assistant Morris County prosecutor Maggie Calderwood charged Novellino with murder and several lesser offenses.

     When interrogated by detectives in New Jersey, the suspect claimed that he had "hit" his former wife twice with the knife in self defense. The judge denied Novellino bond. Officers booked the suspect into the Morris County Jail where he would await his day in court.

     The Novellino trial got underway in a Morristown Superior Court on July 7, 2014. In his opening remarks to the jury, the defendant's attorney, Michael Priarone, said his client, in a fit of temporary insanity, had attacked his wife. This act of violence, according to the defense attorney, was entirely out of his client's character. As a result, Priarone wanted the jury to find Mr. Novellino guilty of what he called "passion provocation manslaughter," an offense that carried a maximum sentence of ten years in prison.

     Anthony Novellino's attorney moved to have the death scene pig mask excluded from evidence on the grounds it was "highly prejudicial" to his client. The judge denied that request.

     On July 22, 2014, after just three hours of deliberation, the jury found Anthony Novellino guilty of murder, hindering apprehension, tampering with evidence, and two counts of illegal weapons possession.

     At the September 12, 2014 sentence hearing, the judge sentenced 70-year-old Anthony Novellino to 50 years in prison. The overkill and the pig mask had sealed his fate.

     

Saturday, March 4, 2017

The Nicolas Holzer Mass Murder Case

     Some of the most disturbing and puzzling murder cases are ones that, even from the killer's point of view, make no sense. The good-boy Eagle scout who murders his parents in their sleep or guns down teachers and students at his school falls into this category. A young mother who drowns her baby in the bathtub or a longtime employee who shows up at work one day with mass murder on his mind, are cases that defy understanding.

     Out-of-the-blue murders committed by noncriminal types who didn't exhibit symptoms of mental illness are frightening because they can't be predicted and therefore prevented. The murderers in these cases simply blindside their victims. Such cases are insidious in their straightforward banality. The feeling they create is this: no place is safe and no one can be trusted. We are all in danger.

     In 2004, after he and his wife Juana were divorced, Nicolas Holzer gained custody of his two sons who were one and three-years-old. Three years later, Holzer and the boys moved into his parents' house in Goleta, California, a town of 30,000 ten miles northwest of Santa Barbara.

     Just after elven o'clock on the night of Monday, August 11, 2014, 45-year-old Nicolas Holzer called 911 and without emotion informed the dispatcher that he had just killed his family.

     When deputies with the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office rolled up to the Holzer house on Walnut Park Lane not far from the University of California at Santa Barbara, they were met at the front door by the composed but bloodstained 911 caller.

     Inside the dwelling deputies discovered the blood-covered bodies of William Holzer, 73, Sheila Holzer, 74, and their two grandsons, Vincent, 10 and Sebastian who was thirteen. They had been stabbed to death by a pair of large kitchen knives.

     A calm and collected Nicolas Holzer informed the officers that he first murdered his father in the den. He then stabbed the boys to death as they slept in their beds. He said he killed his mother last. Officers found her body lying in the hallway outside the boys' bedroom.

     When asked why he had wiped-out his family, Holzer simply said, "I had to." He added that in killing them he had fulfilled what he believed was his destiny. This, of course, makes no sense whatsoever.

     Also dead in the house was the family pet, an Australian Shepherd.

     The Holzer residence had not been visited in the past by police officers responding to domestic violence calls. And detectives, at least in the initial stage of the investigation, found no evidence of prior mental illness.

     Charged with four counts of first-degree murder, Nicolas Holzer was held in the Santa Barbara County Jail without bond. Because California had recently abolished the death sentence, Mr. Holzer, if convicted as charged, faced life behind bars. His attorney, a month after the killings, said he planned to plead his client not guilty by reason of insanity.

     Holzer's ex-wife Juana, in August 2016, filed a wrongful death suit against the mass murder suspect. As of March 2017, Nicolas Holzer had still not been examined by a psychiatrist pursuant to his insanity plea. Moreover, no trial date had been scheduled. The authorities have not revealed why this case had not moved forward.