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Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Are Writers Prone to Suicide?

     A good many writers are high-strung, strung-out emotional wrecks. A lot of them are really odd. Many slip into despair, some go mad, and a number get hooked on booze or drugs. More than a few have ended their lives with suicide.

     To writers who are more or less normal, there is nothing more morbidly fascinating than the tormented life and self-inflicted death of a fellow author. Ross Lockridge, Jr. is a case in point. In February 1949, about a year after the publication of his first book, Raintree County, a bestselling Book-of-the Month-Club selection, the 33-year-old writer gassed himself to death in his garage while seated in his newly purchased car.

     Journalist Nanette Kutner, who had interviewed Lockridge six months before his suicide, wrote this after his death: "He was no one-book author; he never would have been content to live as Margaret Mitchell [Gone With the Wind] lived. But he could not find a remedy for the letdown that invariably comes after completing a big job, the letdown [Anthony] Trollope understood so well he never submitted a novel until he was deep into the next."

     Do writers end their lives more often than people in other lines of work? There is no way to know if writers are particularly prone to suicide. Experts say that statistics on suicide by occupation are not clear on this issue because there is no national data base on line of work and suicide. Experts also believe that because occupation is not a major predictor of suicide, this aspect of life doesn't explain why people kill themselves. Since writing, for many authors, is more of a way of life than a profession, and is practiced by a lot of unstable people, it probably is a relevant variable.

     Well-known writers who have killed themselves include: John Berryman, Richard Brautigan, Hart Crane, John Gould Fletcher, Romain Gary, Ernest Hemingway, William Inge, Randall Jarrell, Jerry Kosinski, Primo Levi, Ross Lockridge, Jr., Vachel Lindsay, Jack London, Malcolm Lowry, Charlotte Mew, Cesare Pavese, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Hunter S. Thompson, John Kennedy Toole, and Virginia Woolf. 

The Starving Artist

Starvation and obscurity are not necessarily signs of genius.

Charles Bukowski

Arsenic Poisoning

A person can be accidentally poisoned by arsenic through inhalation, absorption through the skin or mucous membranes, skin contact, and ingestion. People have died by breathing arsenic fumes, licking paintbrushes to make a fine point, or wearing inadequate clothing when applying arsenic-based products. The effects of mild poisoning from inhalation include loss of appetite, nausea and diarrhea. Effects of more severe chronic or acute exposure include skin lesions, chronic headaches, apathy, a garlic oder on the breath, a metallic taste in the mouth, a bronzing pigment of the skin resembling "raindrops on a dusty road" and possible damage to the liver. In addition, arsenic and arsenic compounds are known cancer-causing agents and have been implicated in lung and skin cancer and associated with birth defects.

Michael Baden, M.D. and Marion Roach, Dead Reckoning, 2011 

Inadequate Prison Sentences for Violent Criminals

Inadequate prison terms have become a major problem. A Brookings Institute study finds that, on average, the serious criminal commits twelve serious crimes a year. That means that a criminal sentenced to ten years and let out in four will, on average, commit seventy-two violent crimes during the time he should have been put in prison. Other studies put the number of violent crimes per year per criminal even higher. Newspapers routinely tell of murders committed by men out on probation, parole, or released early for good behavior.

Robert H. Bork, Slouching Towards Gomorrah, 1996

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The Guma Aguiar Missing Person Case

     Guma Aguiar's parents immigrated to the United States from Brazil in 1979 when he was two-years-old. The family, from Rio deJaneiro, settled in Pompano Beach, Florida. After college, Guma, a born-again Christian, moved to Texas where, working with his uncle in the oil and gas business, he made a fortune.

     In 2012, the 35-year-old millionaire was living in Fort Lauderdale with his wife Jamie and their four children. The family resided in a $5 million, six-bedroom mansion located in the exclusive oceanside  neighborhood called Rio Vista.

     Aguiar, after converting to Orthodox Judaism, began donating millions of dollars to charitable causes in Jerusalem where he was considered a hero philanthropist. Others considered Aguiar a rich, eccentric man who was losing touch with reality. (Aguiar, according to reports, had spent some time in mental wards. I do not know the extent or nature of his mental health problem.) His marriage to Jamie, whom he'd met in high school, had become a tumultuous relationship. On one occasion he had sued Jamie for divorce, then later withdrew the petition. In April 2012, Jamie Aguiar's attorney challenged the prenuptial agreement she had signed. The following month, Guma transferred guardianship of his $100 million estate ("in the event of my incapacity") from his wife Jamie to his mother, Ellen Aguiar. This, too, was challenged by Jamie's legal representatives.

     On June 18, 2012, Jamie Aguiar informed Guma that she intended to file for divorce. An hour later, at 8:30 in the evening, Guma was seen driving his twin-engine, fiberglass powerboat "T.T. Zion" through Port Everglades toward the Atlantic Ocean. Just after midnight, employees of a beachfront bar called Elbo Room spotted a boat in rough seas drifting toward the beach. The craft came to rest on shore with its navigation lights still on, the shifter in gear, and the keys in the ignition. Guma Aguiar was not in the boat.

     That morning, while investigators searched Aguiar's boat, the Coast Guard launched a search-and-rescue operation. Inside the abandoned craft, officers recovered the owner's wallet, his iPhone, a black T-shirt, and a pair of flip-flops. According to the boat's GPS system, Aguilar had traveled at high speeds two miles northeast of his house before the craft turned around and started drifting back to the shore. Aguiar had left his wedding ring at home.

     After three days, the Coast Guard called off the search-and-rescue mission. Several weeks after Guma's disappearance, Jamie, engaged in a battle against her mother-in-law for control of the $100 million estate, fired her missing husband's chief financial officer. At this point in the case, everybody had a lawyer which was costing the family $1 million a month in legal fees. (In big money disputes like this, the lawyers are always the big winners. When they're finished with the case, there usually isn't much left for anyone else.) The Rio Vista mansion has been put on the market along with Aguiar's 75-foot yacht, and his twin-engine powerboat.

     So, what happened to Guma Aguiar? Did he go out for a quick swim and drown? (Did taking an evening swim in the ocean by himself conform to past behavior?) Did mental illness and a hatred for his wife drive Guma to suicide? Assuming he went into the sea, was it unusual that the Coast Guard searchers didn't find his body? Why hadn't his corpse washed up on shore somewhere in this populated area?  Could he be alive?

     Jamie Aguiar's attorney told reporters that he believed that Guma, after faking his own death, fled to the Netherlands where he was hiding out, or living under a false identity. The attorney suspected that Guma was in the Netherlands because a close business associate of his had recently relocated there.

     On December 29, 2015, a judge in Broward County declared Guma Aguiar legally deceased. This paved the way for the settlement of his estate. A court in Israel where Aguiar owned property will decide whether to accept the Florida court ruling.
 
      I think it's unlikely that Guma Aguiar faked his own death, then disappeared into thin air. It seems to me the money trail would lead investigators right to him. I think he either downed accidentally or committed suicide. The history of mental illness points to suicide, but statistics suggest a downing accident. (Eighty percent of all drownings are accidental.) I'm sure there are some who believe this Florida millionaire was murdered. There doesn't seem to be evidence of foul play in this case--blood on the boat and so on-- but anything is possible when a lot of money is involved.

Writing Genre: The Scope of Science Fiction

One of the hallmarks of science fiction is its intense originality. Science Fiction has few limits on topics or scope, and has wandered far into speculation about the future, future societies, and technological change. Along the way, science fiction writers have explored fiction's classic themes of life and death, human failure, and challenges intrinsic to any worthwhile story. To catch an editor's eye, you must have something different in your story, something you handle especially well--a vivid character, an intriguing background, a compelling theme.

Paula E. Downing in The Writer's Handbook, edited by Sylvia K. Burack, 1994 

Bonnie and Clyde: Fact Versus Fiction

Five-feet-tall Bonnie Parker (1910-1934) didn't look a bit like Faye Dunaway [the actress who played her in a popular movie]; she was never a hero to the poor people of Texas and Oklahoma. The Bonnie and Clyde penny-ante robberies never netted them more than $1,500. She probably never even had a great romance with Clyde Barrow, who, some reports say, was a homicidal homosexual who preferred men ever since his reformatory days. Here's how Ray Hamilton, a Barrow gang member described them: "Bonnie and Clyde? They loved to kill people, see blood run. That's how they got their kicks. They were dirty people. Her breath was awful and Clyde never took a bath.

Richard Zachs, An Underground Education, 1997 

The Death Penalty: Beheading as a Status Symbol

Death by decapitation was the method of execution granted to the nobility of many countries, for it was considered to be an honorable way in which to be dispatched. Common criminals were hanged, drowned, burned or otherwise disposed of, but royalty and the aristocracy were given the privilege of dying by an edged weapon, as in battle.

Geoffrey Abbott, Lords of the Scaffold, 1991

Finding a Topic To Write About

Learning how to write is hard enough, but deciding what to write about--isolating a marketable subject that is appealing to you--is the most difficult task a writer must confront. Find a subject that intrigues and motives you and that will simultaneously intrigue and motivate readers. The task is double-edged. Salable subjects are around us everywhere; on the other hand, they are astoundingly elusive.

Lee Gutkind, The Art of Creative Nonfiction, 1997

Serial Killer Myths

      Five common misconceptions regarding serial killers and the investigation of their cases:

l. All serial killers had terrible childhoods, were beaten by their parents, and sexually abused.

2. Serial killers are "mutants from Hell," who do not look or act like the average person in appearance and mannerisms.

3. Serial killers prey on anyone who crosses their path and do not spend time selecting their victims.

4. Serial killers have an uncanny ability to elude the police for long periods of time.

5. The Federal Bureau of Investigation investigates all serial murderers since most of them cross state lines. [The fear of serial killers exceeds the actual threat because there aren't that many of them out there.]

Steven A. Egger, The Killers Among Us, 1998

Monday, May 29, 2017

Elisa Lam's Mysterious and Suspicious Death

     The Cecil Hotel, a downtown, 600-room, fourteen-story building at 7th and Main near Los Angeles' Skid Row district, could be a setting in a southern California noir film. (I'm thinking of the hotel in the movie "Barton Fink.") In the 1920s and 30s several guests and visitors were murdered in the place. A woman jumped to her death from a hotel window in the 1960s. In 1985, Richard Ramirez, "The Night Stalker," occasionally roomed on the fourteenth floor. The hotel put the serial killer in proximity to prostitutes, fourteen of whom ended up dead by his hand. In 1991, during Jack Unterweger's stay at the hotel, the Austrian murdered several of the neighborhood's working girls. The Cecil's new owners made improvements to the 2-star budget hotel in 2007. Half of the hotel's inhabitants are permanent residents.

     On January 26, 2013, Elisa Lam, a 21-year-old University of British Columbia student from Vancouver, Canada, checked into the Cecil Hotel. During the first five days of her vacation to Los Angeles, Elisa called her parents regularly. She stopped phoning on January 31, and the next day her worried parents, the owners of a vancouver restaurant, reported their daughter missing to the Los Angeles Police Department. 
     Police officers searched the hotel without result. In reviewing surveillance camera footage, detectives came across a two-minute clip of the missing woman standing by herself in a hotel elevator. Lam was seen pushing all of the floor-buttons, obviously frustrated that the elevator door didn't close. For a minute or so she seemed to be hiding in the corner of the elevator before stepping out into the lobby or a hallway. She was seen just outside the elevator gesturing as though she was talking to someone off-camera. 
     On Tuesday morning, February 19, 2013, a maintenance worker on the hotel roof investigating complaints of low water pressure, made a terrible discovery. To his horror he found a young woman's body in one of the four cylindrical tanks that provide the hotel's water. The corpse had been floating in the cistern for two and a half weeks. As suspected, the maintenance man had found Elisa Lam.  
     Guests at the Cecil Hotel had been drinking, brushing their teeth, and showering in water contaminated by a decomposing corpse. During the week before the maintenance man's roof-top discovery, there had been customer complaints of funny tasting drinking water, and showers that started off with a black spray. 
     The Cecil Hotel has remained open, but has been placed on "flush only" status by the Los Angeles County Health Department. (Following the discovery of the body, the city added more chorine to the hotel's drinking water.) After the recovery of Lam's remains, guests checking into the $64 a night hotel were required to sign waivers warning them they were staying at the Cecil "at their own risk and peril." (People were still checking-in?) 
     Los Angeles detectives were treating the case as a suspicious death, but did not determined what happened to Lisa Lam, or how her body ended up in the hotel water supply. (I presume there was no evidence of foul play in her room.) To get to the hotel roof, one had to have access to a locked and alarmed door. The only other way to the top of the building involved climbing the fire escape. 
     According to her parents, Elisa's travel plans had included a trip to Santa Cruz in the central part of the state. There have been no reports regarding why Santa Cruz was on her vacation itinerary. A few news sources have indicated that the young woman might have been "mildly depressed".

     On February 29, a spokesperson for the Los Angeles County Medical Examiner's office announced that the autopsy did not reveal Elisa Lam's specific cause of death. (This means she hadn't been shot, bludgeoned, stabbed or knifed. That left strangulation, smothering, or drowning. Apparently the forensic pathologist was unable to determine if she had been dead or alive when she went into the water.)

     Toxicological tests determined that Lam had not recently consumed alcohol or recreational drugs. In her system she did have antidepressant medication prescribed to manage her depression and bipolar disorder.

     The spokesperson said that while foul play was a possibility, Lam's death was probably an accident. (An accident? How did a hotel guest accidentally end up in a roof-top water tank? What was she doing on the roof? What was she doing in the tank?)

     The Los Angeles County Medical Examiner's office announced, on June 20, 2013, that Elisa Lam's death had been an accident. Really? How does one accidentally drown in a roof-top water tank? Did a witness see Lam on the hotel roof? Was she swimming in the tank? This ruling doesn't make any sense. 

The Heroin High

     The nearest I can come to explaining to someone who doesn't take illegal drugs the unrecapturable [I don't think this is a word] specialness of your first heroin high is to invoke the deep satisfaction of your first cup of coffee in the morning. Your subsequent coffees may be pleasant enough, but they're all marred by not being the first. And heroin use is one of the indisputable cases where the good old days really were the good old days. The initial highs did feel better than the drug will ever make you feel again.

     The chemistry of the drug is ruthless: it is designed to disappoint you. Yes, once in a while there's a night when you get exactly where you're trying to go. Magic. Then you chase that memory for a month. But precisely because you so want to get there it becomes harder and harder. Your mind starts playing tricks on you. Scrutinizing the high, it weakens. You wonder if you're quite as high as you should be….Ah for the good old days when heroin felt wonderful. If I had to offer up a one sentence definition of addiction, I'd call it a form of mourning for the irrecoverable glories of the first time.

Ann Marlowe, How To Stop Time, 1999

Writing in First Person

First person, past tense is a good way for beginning writers to tell a story. As voices go, it's straightforward, its boundaries reasonably clear. It's a familiar voice; we normally frame the ongoing narrative of our lives in the first person, past tense. "Where were you?" "I was out walking the dog and I stopped to buy an ice cream cone." But a first person narrator must be a participant in the story he's telling, and his involvement limits his information. He can report only what his senses reveal, what others tell him, what he knows, and what he speculates.

Richard Rhodes, How to Write, 1995

For Writers, The Lure of Hollywood

They give you a thousand dollars a week [1960s] until that's what you need to live on. And then every day you live after that, you're afraid they'll take it away from you. It's all very scientific. It's based on the psychological fact that a man is a grubbing, hungry little sleaze....In twenty-four hours you can develop a taste for caviar. In forty-eight hours fish eggs are no longer a luxury, they're a necessity.

Character in Rod Serling's play, Velvet Alley

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Parents From Hell: Adolfo and Deborah Gomez

     In January 1994, 34-year-old Adolfo Gomez walked out of prison in Illinois after serving three years for burglary and theft. Four years later, he was living in the suburban Chicago community of Naperville with his 29-year-old wife Deborah and their two sons, ages one and two. In October 1998, Deborah pleaded guilty to child neglect after leaving the boys alone in their apartment for 8 hours.

     In 2007, the couple, now with four children ages 2 to 11, were living in Lombard, Illinois. That November Adolfo pleaded guilty to a drunk driving charge.

     From 2008 through 2010, the Gomez family, now comprised of 5 children, moved from one apartment to another around DuPage and Cook Counties, Illinois. Their landlord in Wood Dale from whom they rented a basement apartment, noticed that Adolfo had installed padlocks on the doors to his children's bedrooms. The oldest Gomez child told the landlord he did all the cooking, and that the family acquired its food from local churches.

     While living in Northlake, another suburban Chicago community, the Illinois Department of Family Services, in November 2011, opened a child neglect case on Adolfo and Deborah Gomez. Following the investigation, the agency, in April 2012, closed the case without taking action against the parents. Two months earlier, Adolfo spent 12 days in the DuPage County Jail for failure to pay several fines and comply with various court orders.

     On June 10, 2012, the Gomez family, while on a road trip to Arizona to visit relatives, had car trouble in Lawrence, Kansas. Adolfo managed to coax the Chevy Suburban utility vehicle into a remote spot on a Walmart parking lot. Late in the morning of Wednesday, June 13, a Walmart shopper noticed a 5-year-old boy sitting on the ground near the Gomez vehicle. The child's hands were tied behind his back and his feet were bound. The boy had also been blindfolded. The shopper called 911.

     When officers from the Lawrence Police Department rolled up to the scene, they saw the boy and his 7-year-old sister, also bound and blindfolded, sitting near the broken down Suburban. The other three Gomez children were in the vehicle with their father. Deborah was inside the Walmart store.

     Adolfo Gomez resisted arrest causing the officers to subdue him with a stun gun. Ten minutes later, they took Deborah Gomez into custody when she walked out of the store. The five children were turned over to a child protection agency and the Chevy was hauled to a police towing lot.

     A Douglas County prosecutor charged the 52 and 43-year-old couple with two counts of child abuse and five counts of child endangerment. Adolfo was also charged with resisting arrest. The judge scheduled the preliminary hearing on the case for August 10. In the meantime, Adolfo and Deborah were held in the Douglas County Jail under $50,000 bond each. Adolfo had informed the court he intended to represent himself and his wife against the charges. The judge ordered mental evaluations of both defendants.

   In May 2013, Deborah Gomez pleaded no contest to child abuse. The judge sentenced her to one year probation. A month later, her husband, pursuant to a plea arrangement, pleaded guilty to child abuse and resisting arrest. The judge sentenced Adolfo to 30 months in prison minus the 371 days he had spent in jail. At his sentencing hearing, Gomez told the judge that he and his children had been fearful of demon possession.

The Fear of Being Sued

     A wealthy society, like a wealthy person, is apt to err on the side of caution, an instinct akin to trying to protect a lead in games. But what's going on here is not the age-old tension between caution and risk. There's a third dimension of risk that never existed, at least not in ordinary daily choices, until recent decades: legal risk. In any social dealings, whether selling products, managing employees, running a classroom, or building a playground, there's a chance that someone might be hurt or offended. And in modern America that carries with it the risk of being sued.

     Dealing with legal risk is different from dealing with other risks because, instead of weighing the benefits and costs of a choice, it requires focusing on the lowest common denominator. A choice might be beneficial or productive but nonetheless carry huge legal risk. The playground could be perfectly suited for its purpose, attracting tens of thousands of children to healthy activity, and still be the source of liability whenever some boy decides to launch himself off the swing and breaks his leg--as is certain to occur from time to time.

     This is not a problem that takes care of itself. America has a public health crisis but doesn't know how to make the legal choices needed to let children to take the risks of growing up. We don't know how to say that sometimes things go wrong. This is an odd phenomenon, as if the adults fell on their heads and developed a kind of amnesia about how life works. The victim of an accident appears, demanding satisfaction, and we shrink back in legal fear.

Philip K. Howard, Life Without Lawyers, 2009

Writing Nonfiction

A beginning writer has more going for him if he decides to write a nonfiction book....A beginner has just as good a chance to find a salable idea as the professional writer.

Doris Ricker Marston

Ultimately every writer must follow the path that feels most comfortable. For most people learning to write, that path is nonfiction. It enables them to write about what they know or can observe or can find out.

 William Zinsser

Being a writer of nonfiction books doesn't seem perishingly difficult; it just requires a certain amount of energy and an intelligent interest in the world. And a certain accumulated skill at organizing the materials that one's research gathers.

John Jerome

Truth is not only stranger than fiction, it is more telling. To know that a thing actually happened gives it a poignancy, touches a chord, which a piece of acknowledged fiction misses.

W. Somerset Maugham

I'll bet you think that if you write a nonfiction book that is interesting, fact filled, and with touches of great writing, a publisher is sure to buy it. Wrong. You have forgotten the first basic rule. Find out who wants it.

Oscar Collier

Fact-based writing can reach creative levels just as fiction writing does, and in the hands of an accomplished nonfiction writer, imaginative use of facts can be transformed and become art.

William Noble 

The Celebrity Stalker's "Entitled Reciprocity" syndrome

If the celebrity stalker thinks he's being rejected, he can feel humiliated and develop anger and hatred toward the star he loves. He thinks, "I have spent hundreds of hours writing and communicating and sending e-mails and presents to this celebrity; this celebrity figure owes me time, he owes me attention--how dare he ignore me." Narcissism is the aggressive underbelly of this idealized fantasy.

Reid Meloy, forensic psychologist in Details Magazine, April 2013

Book Dedications

A friend of mine spoke of books that are dedicated like this: "To my wife, by whose helpful criticism..." and so on. He said the dedication should really read: "To my wife. If it had not been for her continual criticism and persistent nagging doubt as to my ability, this book would have appeared in Harper's instead of The Hardware Age."

Brenda Ueland, If You Want to Write, originally published in 1938  

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Truman Capote's Betrayal

One of the most public and wholesale rejections of a writer occurred in 1975, when Esquire published "La Cote Basque," an early chapter from Truman Capote's novel-in-progress Answered Prayers. Capote's women friends from New York's cafe society were horrified by the exposure of their secrets and promptly banished him from their inner circle. According to his editor, Joe Fox at Random House, "Virtually every friend he had in this world ostracized him for telling thinly disguised tales out of school, and many of them never spoke to him again." Their little writer friend, the elfin troublemaker, had taken things just a little too far. Capote crossed a line he claimed he hadn't known existed, though he confessed to a certain amount of delicious anticipation before the piece ran, and he agreed to be photographed for the magazine's cover with a fedora wickedly tilted atop his head while he pared his fingernails with a very long blade.

Betsy Lerner, The Forest For the Trees, 2000

Kids Who Kill

Nationwide, there are more than 2,000 inmates in 43 states serving life sentences without the chance of parole for murders they committed when they were juveniles. These child and early teen killers make up a fraction of those kids who have committed murder but received lighter sentences. This is not a good sign for our society. 

Methods of Prisoner Execution

It has been, and still is, a matter of opinion whether, if you wish to kill your undesirable, it is better to let him died quietly in a concentration camp, flay him until he dies, hurl him over a precipice, burn, drown, or suffocate him; or entomb him alive and leave him to perish slowly in the silence of his grave; or asphyxiate him agonizingly in a lethal chamber, press him to death or cut off his head; or produce a sort of coma by means of an electric current that grills him in parts....It is all a matter of taste, temperament, and fashion.

Charles Duff (1894-1966) A Handbook On Hanging, 1961

Sportswriter Red Smith

The best sportswriters know this. They avoid the exhausted synonyms and strive for freshness elsewhere in their sentences. You can search the columns of Red Smith and never find a batsman bouncing into a twin killing. Smith wasn't afraid to let a batsman hit into a double play. But you will find hundreds of unusual words--good English words--chosen with precision and fitted into situations where no other sportswriter would put them. They please us because the writer cared about using fresh imagery in a journalistic form where his competitors settle for the same old stuff. That's why Red Smith was still king of his field after half a century of writing, and why his competitors had long since been sent--as they would be the first to say--to the showers.

William Zinsser, On Writing Well, first published in 1975

Friday, May 26, 2017

Homicidal Schizophrenics: Individual Rights Versus Public Safety

     In February 2009, Joseph Hagerman III, a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, stopped taking his antipsychotic medication. He had stopped taking his medicine twice in the past and had experienced psychotic episodes. This time, however, he decapitated his 5-year-old son and injured his wife who tried in vain to protect the boy.

     Following his arrest, Hagerman, in a jailhouse interview with a local TV reporter, said he had killed his son because he believed the boy had become the antichrist.

     A few months after the homicide, a jury in Virginia Beach, Virginia found the defendant not guilty by reason of insanity. Under Virginia law, this meant that Hagerman would be sent to a mental institution instead of prison. He would remain at the hospital until his doctors, and a judge, declared him sane enough to rejoin society.

     In late 2016, doctors at the Eastern State Hospital in Williamsburg, Virginia, recommended to the court that Joseph Hagerman be granted conditional release from the institution. According to the psychiatrist, this patient, over the past few years, had been given 48-hour passes that had not caused any problems. He had been, according to the hospital staff, a model patient.

     A Virginia circuit judge, acting upon the psychiatric recommendation, ordered that Mr. Hagerman be given two independent mental health evaluations.

     On May 9, 2017, following the testimony of two psychiatrists and Mr. Hagerman's father, the judge ordered the patient's conditional release from the hospital. Pursuant to this decree, Mr. Hagerman was required to live at an adult foster care facility during the week. On weekends, he was allowed to reside with his parents.

     Under the judge's order, Mr. Hagerman would also receive periodic visits from social workers and psychiatrists who would check to make sure he was still taking his antipsychotic medication.

    At the conclusion of the sanity hearing, Mr. Hagerman's sister told a local television correspondent that, "I just want to let the community know that my brother is a very loving, generous, Christian man. He had a wonderful family, and it was an unfortunate incident. [Italics mine.] Everyone needs to get educated on mental illness."

     The fact that a child had died because his mentally ill father, for the third time, had stopped taking his medication, was perhaps cause for concern. Compassion for the mentally ill is all well and good, but so is the need to protect people who will, knowingly and unknowingly, cross this man's path. One doesn't need to be highly educated on the subject of mental illness to know that the behavior of a homicidal schizophrenic is extremely unpredictable. 

Revealing Oneself Through Fiction

Many start writing fiction as a dodge, thinking it will provide a good hideout from themselves. Yet those who write stories and novels to escape themselves invariably discover that this is who they stumble over at every turn. Even though novelists and short story writers ostensibly deal in fantasy, they are the most self-exposed authors of all. Writers of nonfiction can be judged on their ability to marshal facts coherently and gracefully. Poets can hide behind elegant words, powerful metaphors, and seductive rhythms. Fiction writers are judged by the emotional authenticity of their work. To create authentic feelings in their characters, they must first call up their own.

Ralph Keyes, The Courage to Write, 1995

Writing Life Is The LIfe of Rejection

Rejection is a fact of writing life. If you are still unpublished, you probably suffer from the misconception that publication in and of itself will cure everything that ails you. But the pain of rejection doesn't stop the day a contract arrives. In fact, when you sign your name on the bottom line of your publisher's contract, you may be signing up for more disappointment than you ever dreamed imaginable. Saint Teresa's dictum "More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones" should be hung on the wall over every writer's desk. Sometimes being rejected may mean being spared. [That's like death sparing one from pain and suffering.] But try telling that to a hungry writer with some fresh pages in hand!

Betsy Lerner, The Forest For The Trees, 2000 

Floyd Mayweather's Cry For Help From the Bowels of the Clark County Jail

     Undefeated lightweight boxing champion Floyd Mayweather, Jr., an unpopular fighter in a corrupt and dying sport, pleaded guilty in December 2011 to beating Josie Harris, the mother of three of his children. The assault took place in Mayweather's palatial 12,000-foot square home in the upscale Southern Highlands neighborhood in Las Vegas.

     On June 1, 2012, Mayweather began serving his 87-day sentence at the Clark County Detention Center. Because he's a celebrity and a notorious loudmouth, corrections officials, for the boxer's own protection, isolated him from the general jail population. (I'm sure jail administrators were not thrilled to learn they would be responsible for this guy.)

     A few days into his incarceration, Mayweather's attorney filed an emergency motion asking for a modification of the multi-millionare's sentence. The boxer's lawyer, citing "inhumane" conditions at the lockup, wanted the justice of the peace to change Mayweather's sentence to house arrest, or, at the very least, 3 days a week in the hell-hole, and the rest of the week at home. (There are millions of Americans who would plead guilty to murder in order to be sentenced to life without parole at Mayweather's mansion. There are probably hundreds of thousands who would find the Clark County Jail an improvement over their current living conditions.)

     So what were the inhumane conditions that required Mr. Mayweather's immediate rescue from county incarceration? Was he living off bread and water in a stifling hot cell equipped with a bucket and a lice-infested mattress? Was he fighting off rats, sexual predators, a gang of deranged skinheads, and sadistic guards? What?

     According to the 35-page sentence modification motion with the attached affidavit from Mayweather's personal physician, Dr. Robert Voy, after 10 days in the can, the boxer was getting out of shape. Incarceration was interfering, in a serious way, with his career as a prize fighter. (And great prizes at that. Last month, in his victory over Migel Cotto, Mayweather walked away with $32 million. Most fans who paid to see the fight paid to see Mayweather lose. Instead they saw a boring bout.) As an inmate at the Clark County Jail, Mayweather was not able to maintain his exercise regime. And perhaps even worse, the joint's food and water were simply not up to his standards.

      Because this special man was forced to eat bread, fruit, and energy bars purchased from the commissary rather than the crap fed to the other inmates, Mr. Mayweather was only taking in 800 calories a day. In other words, his Clark County captors were starving him to death! They were not mistreating an ordinary beater of woman, this man was a professional. He was the holder of a title belt, and lest you forget, he had been on "Dancing with the Stars"! (His only defeat.) How could this be happening in America?

     Arguments on Mayweather's motion were heard before Las Vegas justice of the peace Melissa Saragosa on Wednesday, June 13, 2012. Ruling that Mayweather's request did not meet the criterial for sentence modification, (an illegal sentence, or one based upon an untrue assumption or mistake of fact) Saragosa condemned the prisoner to 75 more days in Clark County hell.

     When asked by a reporter to comment on Mayweather's sentence modification plea, prosecutor Lisa Luzaich remarked, "It's jail. Where did he think he was going? The Four Seasons?"

     Floyd Mayweather is now a successful boxing promotor operating out of Las Vegas.     

Thursday, May 25, 2017

A Writer's Vocabulary

A huge vocabulary is not always an advantage. Simple language, for some kinds of fiction at least, can be more effective than complex language which can lead to stiltedness or suggest dishonesty or faulty education.

John Gardner, The Art of Fiction, 1984

How Some Serial Killers Are Caught

     The identification of a serial murderer frequently occurs through happenstance or a fluke in which a seemingly unrelated criminal event. A serial murderer may be apprehended for driving a stolen vehicle, and very quickly the police learn they are dealing with a much more violent crime, as was the case when Ted Bundy was pursued in a stolen car in Pensacola, Florida. Following his arrest, the Pensacola police soon learned that they had more than a car thief in their jail.

     [Another example] of routine police work and an unrelated crime leading to the arrest of a serial murderer and a serial murder investigation occurred on June 28, 1993, in Long Island, New York. In the early morning hours two state troopers spotted a tan 1984 Mazda pickup with no license plates driving on the Southern State Parkway. The driver refused to pull over and the officers pursued the pickup. The chase ended 25 minutes later when the Mazda slammed into a utility pole. The driver was unhurt and was arrested. Following the arrest, the officers noticed a very strong smell coming from the bed of the truck where the officers found the badly decomposed body of Tiffany Bresciani, a 22-year-old woman from Manhattan. The driver, Joel Rifkin, would within hours confess to the killing of 16 other women.

Steven A. Egger, The Killers Among Us, 1998


The Lure of Detective Fiction

The resilience of detective fiction, and particularly the fact that so many distinguished and powerful people are apparently under its spell, has puzzled both its admirers and its detractors and spawned a number of notable critical studies which attempt to explain this puzzling phenomenon. In "The Guilty Vicarage," W. H. Auden wrote that his reading of detective stories was an addiction, the symptoms being the intensity of his craving, the specificity of the story, which, for him, had to be set in rural England, and last, its immediacy. He forgot the story as soon as he had finished the book and had no wish to read it again. Should he begin a detective story and then discover it was one he had already read, he was unable to continue. In all this the distinguished poet differed from me and, I suspect, from many other lovers of the genre. I enjoy rereading my favorite mysteries although I know full well how the book will end, and although I can understand the attraction of a rural setting, I am frequently happy to venture with my favorite detectives onto unfamiliar territory.

P. D. James, Talking About Detective Fiction, 2009

Bank Robbery as a Hanging Offense

In Western communities lynchings were the preeminent social event, especially if the bank robber was well known. A local holdup man, or a stranger who had received enough publicity, could and did draw a crowd. Vendors sold popcorn, flags, peanuts, and cold drinks, giving the event a carnival atmosphere. Many small towns didn't have a court system, so there were a lot of impromptu executions. For towns that did have a sitting judge these hangings could be advertised a week or two in advance in order to give people a chance to attend. Hangings were a big boost to the local economy and a good chance for neighbors to get together. Of course, more than a few hasty hangings were not done in a professional manner, and many a bad guy slowly strangled to death with a sizable audience to witness his dilemma. [dilemma?]

L. R. Kirchner, Robbing Banks, 2003

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Eye-Drop Poison Case

     Dr. Harry Johnston, since June 2009, had been treating Thurman Nesbitt for a mysterious illness. The 45-year-old patient, a resident of McConnellsburg in central Pennsylvania, suffered from nausea, low blood pressure, and breathing difficulties. Dr. Johnston, suspecting that his patient was being poisoned, had his blood analyzed. On July 27, 2012, the serology tests revealed the presence of tetrahydrozolin, a chemical found in over-the-counter eye-drops.

     On August 10, 2012, troopers with the Pennsylvania State Police arrested Nesbitt's girlfriend, Vickie Jo Mills. The 33-year-old McConnellsburg woman, on probation for forgery, admitted putting Visine drops into her boyfriend's drinking water. Mills told her interrogators that she had been making Nesbitt sick since June 2009. She said it had never been her intention to poison her boyfriend to death. To the obvious question of why she had done this, Mills explained that she had made Nesbitt sick in an effort to get him to pay more attention to her.

     Most women who use illness to attract attention make themselves sick pursuant to a syndrome called Munchausen. In Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy, these women make their children sick. It's not clear why Mills thought poisoning her boyfriend would improve their relationship.

     The Fulton County prosecutor charged Vickie Jo Mills with ten counts of aggravated assault which carried a combined maximum sentence of 240 years in prison and a $300,000 fine. Shortly after her arrest, the authorities released Mills on a $75,000 surety bond.

     On October 16, 2002, the district attorney dropped nine of the ten counts in return for the defendant's guilty plea. A Fulton County judge, on February 14, 2013, sentenced Mills to two to four years in prison.

     It's odd that something you can put into your eyes will make you sick if you put it into your stomach. This is the first poisoning case that I'm aware of that involved eye-drops. 

Thornton P. Knowles On Literary Jerks

An ordinary, nonliterary jerk is a person with an off-putting personality who nobody likes. While the term "jerk" is not included in the jargon of psychology, we all know what it means. Miserable jerks are even worse, and populate every profession. In the literary world, miserable jerks are often well-educated novelists whose literary ambitions far exceed their talents. Miserable jerks often end up as unpublished college professors teaching aspiring novelists how to write. Again, if I may use the vernacular, a flaming jerk is an egotistical, mildly talented novelist who writes a bestseller that miserable jerks hate. While writing bad reviews of this flaming jerk's novel, they take to their writing desks to imitate his literary style. It's all pretty sad.

Thornton P. Knowles, The Psychology of Writing, 1976 

Kurt Vonnegut on Literary Critics

As for literary criticism in general: I have long felt that any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel or play or a poem is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae or a banana split.

Kurt Vonnegut, Palm Sunday, 1981 

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Bombers On Welfare: A New Form of State-Sponsored Terrorism

     Americans who grew up in the 1950s were programed to respect and obey the law, work hard, and raise their own children without state interference. They also paid their taxes. Today, I image that most people of this generation remain true to these values. I've been fortunate to have lived in this country my entire life. I earned a wage for forty years, paid my taxes, have never been to jail, and helped raise a family. I don't like paying taxes which I believe are too high, but I pay them anyway because that's part of the social contract that binds us as a nation. It's also against the law to cheat the government.

     Citizens of my generation were taught to play by the rules. You don't drive unless you have a valid driver's license, an updated inspection sticker, and car insurance. I consider being pulled over for speeding and not being able to produce my driver's license because I left it at home a big problem. I would come away from that experience feeling like a criminal. I still view shoplifting, bad check passing, and illegal drug possession as crimes of moral turpitude. Growing up, I don't think I met anyone who had been in jail. In the past, cops were treated with respect even if they didn't deserve it.

     Today, when I go to the doctor's office, if I don't have my social security data and my insurance papers, the doctor won't see me. There are no excuses. When I go to vote, I expect to be asked to produce a driver's license or some other form of identification. That requirement doesn't offend me because it makes sense. You are only allowed to vote once, and you have to be a U. S. citizen.

     Years ago, the U. S. government lent me money to go to college. I paid it back. The idea of not paying it back never entered my mind. In my day, people who didn't pay their bills were considered deadbeats. The vast majority of citizens who were on welfare back then were on the dole temporarily because they were ashamed and embarrassed by having to rely on the government. Welfare was not a way of life. People didn't feel entitled to a free lunch.

     In the wake of the Boston Marathon Bombings, the terrorists' mother was on television criticizing the United States government for framing and not protecting her two sons. She and her husband had lived in this country ten years. They left the county but their boys stayed here. While the family lived in Massachusetts they were on state welfare. The boys had free rides in college, and while they were plotting to kill Americans, were living off welfare checks.

     Since the bombings, a Massachusetts state legislator has been on TV revealing how easy it is in that state to get on welfare. All a resident has to do is ask for the money. Social security numbers are not required. In other words, bureaucrats in Massachusetts have no idea who they are giving taxpayer money to. As it turned out, they were giving it to a pair of terrorists who set off two bombs at the Boston Marathon.

    One would have to conclude that the people of Massachusetts are either very wealthy or not very bright. As a U. S. citizen who pays his taxes and obeys the law, I can't see my doctor without my social security data. In Massachusetts, suspected terrorists go to college free, and live on the dole. This gives new meaning to the phrase state-sponsored terrorism.

     

Literary Awards

Goodreads.com lists over 6,000 [literary] prizes on its web site. The oldest, the Nobel Prize in Literature, was founded in 1901; the youngest was established yesterday. Ten more will certainly be announced tomorrow.

Amanda Foreman, author, 2013 interview

Truth v. Deception in the Interrogation Room

Lying suspects tend to deny guilt with specific language such as, in a fatal shooting, "I didn't do it with that gun." Truthful suspects, however, tend to voice general denials like "I never shot her or anyone else in my life." Truthful suspects are not afraid to use harsh, realistic words, such as "steal," "rape," "kill," "rob," "stab," but the deceptive ones usually avoid such language in order to assuage their guilty feeling. Even when less harsh terms are used, the liar's tone of voice will sound weak, in contrast to the strong utterance of a truthful suspect.

Fred E. Inbau, Criminal Interrogation and Confessions, 1986

Clean Up Your Writing

Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon.

William Zinsser, On Writing Well, 1976

Serial Killer Motives

Although victims of serial killers are often robbed, the most common driving force of serial murder is sexual control and dominance. Many victims are raped before or after being killed, while bondage, torture, dismemberment, and cannibalism are not uncommon features of a serial homicide. Other motives for serial murder have been financial profit; ritual, political, social, or moral imperatives (missionary murders); attention (mothers killing their children); and compassion (frequent in medical-type murders.)

Peter Vronsky, Serial Killers: The Method and Madness of Monsters, 2004

Monday, May 22, 2017

The Diane McDermott Murder Case

     Americans have enjoyed detective fiction since the 1930s. The early police detectives of literature and film were far more impressive than their thick-skulled, real-life contemporaries. In the U.S., criminal investigation, as practiced by the police, didn't become anything resembling a profession well into the 20th Century. The first widely read criminal investigation textbook didn't come out until 1958. (Criminal Investigation by Charles O'Hara) Colleges and universities didn't start criminal justice programs until the early 1970s, and most of them were puerile.

     As late as the 1950s and 60s, police detectives, instead of employing interrogation techniques to acquire confessions, simply beat the hell out of suspects until someone broke down and confessed. In the 1940s, Fred Inbau of Northwestern University Law School, developed a set of interrogation techniques designed to psychologically induce admissions of guilt without the use of force. As a polygraph examiner in the Chicago Crime Lab, he knew that confessions beat out of people by the Chicago Police were unreliable, not to mention inhumane. Inbau's methods, however, weren't universally practiced until after the 1966 Supreme Court decision, Miranda v. Arizona. Cops loved the third-degree, and old habits were hard to break.

     During the first half of the 20th Century and beyond, police detectives didn't routinely conduct professional crime scene investigations, take detailed notes, write case reports, or submit physical evidence to crime labs. Crimes were not systematically investigated and solved, and if a case didn't present an obvious suspect, detectives quickly closed it. Crime novelists and their readers loved murder mysteries, cops didn't. Homicide detectives regularly ignored or bungled murder cases, no one knew how to investigate arsons, and burglars were rarely caught because these crimes did not produce eyewitnesses. Most rape complaints received no investigation whatsoever. Cops who wore suits and carried gold badges were detectives in name only. (The word "detective" wasn't introduced into the English language until 1853 when Charles Dickens coined the term in his novel Bleak House.)

     Today, police detectives are well-paid and have access to cutting edge forensic science. They also can avail themselves of all sorts of relevant education and training. Still, in some big cities, small towns, and suburban communities, criminal investigations are regularly bungled due to indifference, laziness, corruption, and a shortage of qualified personnel. Modern law enforcement is principally focused on street crime, anti-terrorism, and the war on drugs. Criminal investigation has taken a backseat to these law enforcement priorities, and is becoming a lost art. (The nation's crime labs are also underfunded and understaffed.) In the history of criminal investigation, we are coming full circle.

The Diane McDermott Case

     A murder ignored by the police in 1967 drew attention in the spring of 2012 because the victim's son, a TV actor named Dylan McDermott, prevailed upon the authorities to take a second look at his mother's violent death. The Diane McDermott case is one of thousands of suspicious deaths in the past 100 years never investigated seriously or competently by the police.

     In 1967, Diane McDermott lived in a Waterbury, Connecticut apartment with her 5-year-old son Dylan, her 7-month-old daughter Robin, and John Sponza, her 27-year-old boyfriend. In February of that year, Sponza shot Diane McDermott in the head at point-blank range, placed a handgun next to her body that wasn't the firearm he had shot her with, then called the police. Sponza, a heroin addict with organized crime connections, told detectives with the Waterbury Police Department that Diane had picked up the gun he had been cleaning and accidentally shot herself in the head. Only an idiot, or cops on the take, would buy this story.

     Police interviews of Dylan McDermott, neighbors, and friends of the victim contradicted Sponza's claim that he and Diane rarely argued. Dylan said he had seen the boyfriend, who had once locked him out of the apartment, point a gun at his mother. Moreover, the two of them were often heard yelling at each other.

     Following a cursory investigation, the Waterbury Police closed the McDermott case as an accidental shooting. Four years later, police in Waltham, Massachusetts found Sponza's body in the trunk of a car parked in front of a a grocery store.

     The fact Sponza had murdered Diane McDermott in 1967 before DNA and other forensic science breakthroughs does not excuse the bungling of this case. (I don't know if McDermott's body had been autopsied, or if a forensic pathologist had recovered the fatal bullet. Media coverage of the case has focused on the actor's angst.) Even if the fatal slug had been too damaged for microscopic comparison with a test-fired bullet from the death scene handgun, a forensic firearms identification expert could have determined if the two projectiles were the same caliber. The victim's hands could have been tested for traces of gunshot residue, and the firearm next to her body could have been processed for latent fingerprints.

     In June 2012, Dr. H. Wayne Carver, the medical examiner for the state of Connecticut, reviewed the McDermott case file and concluded that the gun next to the victim's body was too small a caliber to have fired the fatal shot. In his report, Dr. Carver wrote, "The wound also showed that the murder weapon had been pressed to the back of the head." (This suggests the victim had been autopsied, and photographs had been taken.)

     Since people don't accidentally shoot themselves in the back of the head, Diane McDermott had obviously been murdered, and the last person to have seen her alive was John Sponza.

     While it's possible the detectives in charge of the McDermott case were either extremely stupid, lazy, or indifferent, I think they were corrupt. While the Connecticut criminal justice system failed to do its job in this case, John Sponza ended up where he belonged, dead in the trunk of someone's car.

      

George Orwell and C.S. Lewis

If you want to learn how to write, the best way to start is by imitating C.S. Lewis and George Orwell. These two Englishmen, born five years apart, never used a pompous word if a short and plain one would do. Orwell was a master of the welcoming first sentence. He wrote an essay called "England Your England" while sheltering from German bombs during World War II. Here is his opening: "As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me."

David Brooks, "Really Good Books, Part I," The New York Times, May 22, 2014 

The Screenwriting Workshop

There comes a time in every screenwriter's career when he feels the need to cease a solitary existence and enroll in a class or workshop. Before you jump in, be aware that many of these classes are taught by petty people. Of course not all workshops are evil. [I'm not so sure about that.] In fact, there are many wonderful workshops and teachers across the country. Just make sure the instructor of your workshop promotes constructive, not destructive, feedback, and the other students seem talented, supportive and serious. [My idea of good advice from workshop instructor: If you have real talent, get the hell out of this class. Movies today are crap, written by teams of hacks. Write a genre novel or get into nonfiction. Or better yet, get a real job.]

Richard Krevolin, Screenwriting in the Land of Oz, 2011

Estranged Husband Sets Self on Fire

     At noon on Sunday, March 24, 2013, a 46-year-old Vietnamese man walked into the Creative Nails & Spa salon in the Orange County town of Costa Masa, California. He carried a bucket and began screaming at his estranged wife Lina who worked in the shop as a nail technician.

     Five months earlier, Lina had moved out of the house with the couple's three sons. She had filed a restraining order against her spouse after he had threatened and harassed her with phone calls.

     The angry, drug-addled husband sat cross-legged in the center of the salon. He lifted the bucket and soaked his body in gasoline. Using a lighter, he set himself on fire. As he sat on the floor engulfed in flames, one of the horrified onlookers threw towels on him. A bystander doused the burning man with a fire extinguisher. Another employee called 911.

     Paramedics rushed the charred man to the Western Medical Center where he was treated for third degree burns over 70 percent of his body. He is listed in critical condition.

     In the United States, self-immolation by fire is an extremely rare form of suicide. 

Forensic Firearms Identification

     In the past called forensic ballistics, forensic firearms identification concerns itself with the comparison of crime scene bullets and firing pin impressions on shell casings with the marks on test-fired rounds in the crime lab. If the marks left on the bullet as the projectile passed through the test-gun barrel are identical to the rifling (grooves inside the barrel) scratches on the crime scene slug, the crime site weapon has been identified. If the firing pin impressions on the known and crime scene shell casings match, an identification has been made as well. (Semi-automatic weapons also leave ejector marks on shell casing that can be compared and identified.)

     Forensic firearms identification is a science grounded on the principle that no two guns will leave the same marks on the ammunition. Bullet scratches (called striations) and firing pin impressions are as unique as a person's fingerprints.

     Firearms identification also includes restoring filed-off serial numbers, tracing projectile flights, identifying the various types of bullet wounds, and determining the range of close shots through muzzle produced powder-stain patterns.

     Experts in the field apply the sciences of metallurgy, chemistry (gunshot residue analysis), microscopy, and ballistics. A knowledge of the gun smith trade is also useful. Like forensic document examiners, forensic firearms experts are trained on-the-job in crime laboratories.  

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Glenn Taylor: The Boy Scout Leader From Hell

     In mid-October 2013, Boy Scout leaders Glenn Taylor and David Hall took members of their troop on a tour of Goblin Valley State Park in southern Utah. Advertised as "a showcase of geologic history," the park, surrounded by eroded sandstone cliffs, features boulders (called goblins) perched atop slender stone pedestals. These unique formations were created over a period of 170 million years by wind and water.

     Glenn Taylor, a beefy man in his mid-thirties, with his son and other Boy Scouts looking on, and David Hall videotaping him, pushed a boulder roughly the size of a small car off its ancient pedestal. It took just fourteen seconds to destroy something nature took millions of years to create.

     The geological destroyer, flexing his muscles and beaming with pride over his achievement, laughed and high-fived the kids. Behind the video camera David Hall cheered Taylor on. "Boom!" he shouted when the boulder toppled off its point. "Yeah! We have now modified Goblin Valley!" Hall yelled triumphantly. Then, in a burst of absurd justification for this act of sheer idiocy, Hall said, "Some kid was about to walk down here and die, and Glenn saved his life by getting the boulder out of the way. It's all about saving lives here at Goblin Valley." Sure. This is like draining Lake Erie to keep swimmers from drowning. This is what clinical psychologists call, "a load of crap."

     Sometime after the state park desecration, a friend of Hall's published the video on YouTube. From that site it was linked up to Facebook. Eventually the video came to the attention of state park officials and the local prosecutor's office.

     In January 2014, the prosecutor charged Glenn Taylor with criminal mischief. The prosecutor charged David Hall with aiding criminal mischief. If found guilty of this third-degree felony, the men faced up to five years in prison and thousands of dollars in fines. (It's too bad prison inmates are no longer forced to break rocks all day. These guys would be good at it.)

     Following his arraignment, Glenn Taylor, absent his hero persona (remember he saved lives) but still full of crap, said, "It was wrong of us to be vigilantes. We thought we were doing a good deed. We should have alerted a park ranger."

     Utah state parks officer Eugene Swalberg, in speaking to a reporter about the case, was not in a BS-accepting mood. "The destruction gives you a pit in your stomach," he said. "There seems to be a lot of happiness and joy with the individuals doing this, and it's not right. This is not what you do at a natural scenic area."

     Officials with Boy Scouts of America didn't think much of Mr. Taylor's vigilantism either. They kicked him and David Hall out of the organization.

     In March 2014, the defendants were allowed to plead guilty to misdemeanor offenses. The judge, pursuant to the plea bargains, sentenced them to one year probation. The former Boy Scout leaders were also ordered to pay fines and restitution. They got off light. 

Forensic Anthropology Certification

Most professional disciplines, including those that deal with evidence, crime scene investigation, and the human body, have certification boards to ensure that each practitioner meets and maintains certain standards in his respective field. For example, when we go to the doctor, we feel reassured when we look at the professional certificates and degrees hanging on the office wall. There's the American Board of Surgeons for many physicians and the American Board of Forensic Odontology for dentists. For those of us who deal with human remains for the police, medical examiners, and the FBI, there's the American Board of Forensic Anthropology. Anyone who wants to sit for the board of examination in forensic anthropology must have a Ph.D. in physical anthropology (the study of bones), and three years' experience with skeletal cases performed for law enforcement agencies. Best of all, there is a four-hour written test and a four-hour practical (hands-on) qualifying examination.

Robert Mann, Ph.D., Forensic Detective, 2006   

E. M. Forster on Literary Critics

[The literary critic's] constant reference to genius is a characteristic of the pseudo-scholar. He loves mentioning genius, because the sound of the word exempts him from trying to discover its meaning. Literature is written by geniuses. Novelists are geniuses....Everything [the critic] says may be accurate but all is useless because he is moving round books instead of through them. He either has not read them or cannot read them properly. Books have to be read...it is the only way of discovering what they contain....The reader must sit down alone and struggle with the writer, and this the pseudo-scholar will not do. He would rather relate a book to the history of its time, to events in the life of its author, or to the events it describes.

E. M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel, 1927 

Sherlock Holmes on Rural Crime

It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautified countryside.

Sherlock Holmes in Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Copper Beaches."

Anti-Stalking Laws

     Most anti-stalking laws around the country discuss threats or threatening behavior. Most anti-stalking laws require, at minimum, that the victim feel threatened by the stalker's actions. In these states, the stalker may explicitly threaten the victim, but the law does not require that such a threat take place. As long as the stalker's other actions create a threatening climate for the victim, the law can be applied.

     In other states, however, repeated harassment or following must be accompanied by an explicit threat. Most states that require a threat also require that it be "credible." In many states that require a credible threat, the defendant must have the "intent and/or apparent ability" to carry out the threat. Someone who clearly could not carry out the threat would not fit this requirement.

Melita Schaum and Karen Parrish, Stalked, 1995 

Selling Out

The Devil comes to the writer and says, "I will make you the best writer of your generation. Never mind the generation--of the century. No--this millennium! Not only the best, but the most famous, and also the richest; in addition to that, you will be very influential and your glory will endure for ever. All you have to do is sell me your grandmother, your mother, your wife, your kids, your dog, and your soul." "Sure," says the writer, "absolutely--give me the pen, where do I sign?" Then he hesitates. "Just a minute," he says. "What's the catch?"

Margaret Atwood, novelist

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Teenagers Charged With Murdering a Boy in a Car They Stole

     At two-thirty on the afternoon of Thursday, May 18, 2017, Ebony Archie pulled into the Kroger supermarket parking lot in Jackson, Mississippi. With her 6-year-old son Kingston Frazier asleep in the back seat of her running Toyota Camry, the mother entered the store to purchase some medicine.

     According to a parking lot surveillance camera, shortly after the mother entered the grocery store, two men in a two-door Honda Civic approached the Toyota. One of the men climbed out of the Honda, got behind the wheel of Ebony Archie's car and drove off with the 6-year-old still in the back seat.

     When the mother came of the supermarket and discovered her car and her son missing, she reported the theft to a Hinds County sheriff's deputy on patrol on the lot. She did not, however, initially mention that she had left her son in the stolen car.

     At 4:30 that afternoon, when the distraught mother informed the police of her missing son, the authorities broadcast an Amber Alert.

     Sometime during the early morning hours of Friday, May 19, 2017, a citizen reported seeing the stolen Toyota parked alongside a dirt road outside the Madison County town of Gluckstadt, Mississippi. In the back seat of the vehicle, police officers discovered the corpse of Kingston Frazier. The boy had been shot at least once in the head.

     At ten o'clock that morning, Madison County District Attorney Michael Guest announced at a press conference that within hours of the discovery of Kingston Frazier's body, three local teenage suspects had been taken into custody and charged with capital murder.

     The murder suspects were: Dwan Wakefield, 17, D'Allen Washington, 17, and Bryon McBride, 19. (In Mississippi, 17-year-olds accused of capital murder can be charged as adults. They could also face the death penalty.)

     According to media reports, Dwan Wakefield was a senior at Ridgeland High School where he had played football until he was thrown off the team for an unspecified reason. At the press conference, the district attorney did not reveal the roles each suspect had allegedly played in the boy's murder. The suspects were due in court for arraignment on Monday, May 22, 2017. 

Say Goodbye to Paul Goodwin

     A Missouri inmate was put to death early Wednesday December 10, 2014 for fatally beating a 63-year-old woman with a hammer in 1998…Paul Goodwin, 48, sexually assaulted Joan Crotts in St. Louis County, pushed her down a flight of stairs and beat her in the head with a hammer. Goodwin was a former neighbor who felt Crotts played a role in getting him kicked out of a boarding house.

     Goodwin's execution began at 1:17 AM, more than an hour after it was scheduled because Supreme Court Appeals lingered into the early morning. He was pronounced dead at 1:25 AM. He declined to make a final statement.

     Efforts to spare Goodwin's life centered on his low I.Q. and claims that executing him would violate a U.S. Supreme Court ruling prohibiting the death penalty for the mentally disabled. Attorney Jennifer Herndon said Goodwin had an I.Q. of 73, and some tests suggested even lower…But Goodwin's fate was sealed when Governor Jay Nixon denied a clemency request and the U.S. Supreme Court turned down legal appeals--one on the mental competency question and one concerning Missouri's use of an execution drug purchased from an unidentified compounding pharmacy.

"Missouri Executes Inmate For 1998 Hammer Death," Associated Press, December 10, 2014


The Nonfiction Hardback Bestseller

     The most popular nonfiction authors of our day might be characterized by a certain overconfident swagger, the modern prerequisite for mattering in a mixed-up, insecure world. More often than not, these "authors"aren't authors at all, in the strict sense of carefully pondering their ideas and diction and lovingly crafting an argument sturdy yet supple enough to carry their work over to a mass readership. In place of the William Whytes, Vance Packards, and Betty Friedans of earlier, more confident chapters of our national bestsellerdom, we have promoted a generation of alternately jumpy and anxious shouters. Generally these public figures fall into one of two categories: television personalities who have hired hands to cobble together their sound bites; and middling non-writers suffering from extended delusions of grandeur. When it comes to hardcover nonfiction, a realm in which books are physical objects, plunked down on coffee tables as signifiers or comfort totems, Americans don't seem to be looking for authors or writers or artists so much as lifestyle brands in human form: placeholder thinkers whose outrage, sense of irony, or general dystopian worldview matches their own, whether it is Glenn Beck, Barack Obama, or Chelsa Handler.

      It's a glum corollary of such market forces that these very popular nonfiction books aren't books in the traditional sense of the word so much as aspirational impulse buys. They imbue their owners with a feeling of achievement and well-being upon purchase, a feeling that crucially does not require the purchaser to actually sit and read the book in question. Substantive, thoughtful books might pervade other lists (e-book, trade paperback, etc.), but when it comes to the top position on the hardcover nonfiction roster, accessory books by high-profile bloviators typically dominate from Al Franken's Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot to Ann Coulter's Godless to Edward Klein's The Amateur to Dinesh D'Souza's America. 

Heather Havrilesky, "Mansplanation Nation," Bookforum, Dec/Jan, 2015 

Searching for Missing Children

When you're searching for missing or abducted children, you have to look in any place where a child might fit. Not any likely place, but any possible place, which means kitchen cabinets, trash cans, the refrigerator, the freezer, and the oven, all locations where children have been subsequently located, alive or dead.

Adam Plantinga, 400 Things Cops Know, 2014 

Biography As The Unwanted Genre

Between history and the novel stands biography, their unwanted offspring, which has brought a great embarrassment to them both. In the historian's view it takes ten thousand biographies to make one small history. To the novelist biographers are simply what Nabokov called, "psycho-plagiarists."

Michael Holroyd, Works on Paper, 2002

Friday, May 19, 2017

The Meth-Crazed Murders of Britny Haarup and Ashley Key

     Sisters Britny Haarup, 19, and Ashley Key 22, lived together in a house in Edgerton, Missouri, 35 miles north of Kansas City. Ashley Key, the mother of a 4-year-old girl, had been running with a bad crowd, and had sought her sister's help in  turning her life around. On Friday afternoon, July 13, 2012, Britny Haarup's fiancee, Matt Meyers, stopped by the house and found the sisters missing, and Haarup's 6 month and and 18-month-old daughters alone in the same crib. Because Haarup would never leave the infants alone in the house, Meyers suspected foul play. She had left her cellphone and purse behind, and in the living room Meyers found Ashley's handbag and a pair of her shoes. And most troubling of all, a comforter on the couch contained blood stains. (Police later learned that several guns had been taken from the house.)

     On the afternoon of the disappearances, deputies with the Platte County Sheriff's Office spoke to witnesses who had seen a white, 2002 Dodge Ram pickup truck parked near the sister's house at 9:30 that morning. The next day, a deputy found a truck meeting that description several miles from the sister's house parked near the Platte-Clay County line. The vehicle, registered to a Clifford D. Miller, bore no evidence of a crime, inside or out.

     On Sunday morning, July 15, Platte County detectives questioned Clifford D. Miller, "a person of interest," at his girlfriend's house in Parksville, a suburb of Kansas City. Miller, from Trimble, Missouri in southwest Clinton County, confessed to murdering Haarup and Key, and agreed to lead the police to the field where he had dumped their bodies. Following the confession, the officers took Miller into custody.

     The sisters' bodies were recovered that Sunday, and transported to the Medical Examiner's Office in Jackson County for identification and autopsy.

     When interrogated at his girlfriend's house, Miller said he had been smoking methamphetamine on Friday, July 13. With the intent of having sex with Britny Haarup, (they knew each other but had not engaged in sex) he drove his 2002 Dodge pickup to her house in Edgerton. When he walked into the dwelling through the unlocked front door, Ashley Key, asleep on the sofa, woke up and confronted him. Miller punched her several times, struck her in the head with a hard object from the coffee table, then smothered her with the comforter on the couch.

     Still thinking about having sex with Haarup, Miller walked into her bedroom. When Britny screamed, he hit her with a blunt object, then smothered her with a pillow.

     After murdering the sisters in their own home, Clifford Miller hung around and smoked more meth. High on the drug, he wrapped his victims' bodies in bedsheets and carried them to his pickup truck. After depositing the murdered women in a field several miles from their house, he abandoned his vehicle and called his girlfriend in Parksville.

     The Platte County prosecutor charged Clifford Miller with two counts of first-degree murder. If convicted, he faced a sentence of life without parole or death by injection. He was incarcerated in the Platte County Jail under $500,000 cash-only bond.

     In April 2013, Clifford Miller pleaded guilty to two counts of first-degree murder. The judge sentenced him to life in prison with no chance of parole. While the death penalty would have been too good for this man, it's a shame he was allowed to live. 

Novelist Gore Vidal on Fame

Recently, I observed to [an interviewer] that I was once a famous novelist. When assured, politely, that I was still known and read, I explained myself. I was speaking, I said, not of me but of a category to which I once belonged that no longer exists. I am still here, but my category is not. To speak today of a famous novelist is like speaking of a famous cabinetmaker, or speedboat designer.

Gore Vidal (1925-2012), Screening History, 1992

Forensic Psychology

The profession of forensic psychology, a recent fusion of psychology and the law, is practiced by a minority of licensed psychologists in the United States and taught in a handful of graduate programs....I use the traditional tools of my trade--trained observation, clinical interviews, detailed history-taking, and psychological tests--combined with the street smarts I've gained as a narcotics parole officer and by interviewing hundreds of murderers. But sometimes I must rely on psychological guerrilla tactics, like agreeing with a psychotic's delusions, entering his hallucinations, or stoking a defendant's enthusiasm about drugs, sex, or guns. In these ways, I cull the killers who have no inkling of the wrongfulness of their crime from those who know exactly what they have done. In other words, I try to separate the mad from the bad.

Dr. Barbara R. Kirwin, The Mad, The Bad, and the Innocent, 1997

Movies About Writers

     Writers like watching movies about themselves. It gives us something to do. My doctor father used to scoff at movies about doctors because he was always finding fault with some diagnosis or treatment. I don't know how cops or lawyers feel about their portrayals. Politicians are usually shown as corruptible. Teachers as sad. Writers are variously crazy (Jack Nicholson in "The Shining"), reckless (Michael Douglas in "Wonder Boys"), cranky (Van Johnson in "23 Paces to Baker Street"), self-destructive (Ray Milland in "The Lost Weekend"), without principle (William Holden in "Sunset Boulevard") and/or flailing (Paul Giamatti in "Sideways"). Nothing to argue with, really.

     What we are not shown doing in movies is writing. Composers are shown composing because we can listen to their flights of fancy on the soundtrack. Painters are shown painting because one can actually see art in progress. Kirk Douglas did some very good van Gogh impressions. Ed Harris went so hog wild in "Pollock," one was tempted to go out and buy an original Harris. But writers are rarely shown laboring at the craft....I suppose there's nothing visually dramatic in what we do, though we can get quite worked up about crumpling little balls of paper, tossing them on the floor, then turning our heads this way and sometimes that.

Roger Rosenblatt, 2013   

How Arsonists Set Fires

Arsonists hardly ever simply strike a match to light a fire, using any combustible material at hand such as a piece of paper or a curtain. Such a course of action is too uncertain, since a fire lit in this way may burn itself out very quickly. Usually, an accelerant is used. A flammable liquid such as kerosene [or gasoline] is poured over a wide area of carpets and furnishings, before the match is applied. This ensures that a hot fire will follow and that the building be ablaze long before any firefighters arrive. However, what most arsonists do no know is that traces of such accelerants can be detected, even after the fire has destroyed the building. Small amounts of accelerant will seep into carpets, floorboards, plaster, brickwork and other materials and will not be consumed by the fire. The cooling effect of the water used to quench [extinguish] the fire will slow down the rate of evaporation of the accelerant and enough will usually remain to be detected.

Dr. Zakaria Erzinclioglu, Forensics, 2012 

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Pennsylvania Constable Shook Down Amish Families

     Just when we think that elected officials have come up with every possible method of swindling the people who put them into office, some corrupt politician comes along and proves us wrong. Petty public corruption cases involving local officials--embezzlements, payroll padding, feather-bedding, unauthorized use of government credit cards, per diem fraud, and bribery--are such common occurrences they have become events that get little attention in the media. Most citizens, while disgusted by politicians in general, are no longer shocked by this kind of behavior. Maybe that's why so few of these bums are ever voted out of office. But every once in awhile, one of these government crooks get caught doing something so outrageous it catches, for the blink of an eye, the public's attention.

     Recently, a constable in western Pennsylvania named Glenn Young, Jr. allegedly pulled a stunt that qualifies as a new low in public service. Even so, the story was picked up in a handful of area newspapers, and got mentioned on a couple of local TV stations. Although a news item like this cries out for some in-depth reporting, and perhaps some editorializing, the story appeared for a day, then was gone. What follows is my tribute to this elected official's unique form of pubic service depravity.

     In Pennsylvania, in addition to law enforcement officers who work for police departments, sheriff's offices, and the state police, there is the little known, county-wide office of constable. These uniformed peace officers, elected to six-year terms, usually work directly for judges and district magistrates on minor civil matters. While they carry guns and have badges, and possess full arrest powers, most constables serve court papers and collect court-ordered fines. In a few jurisdictions, they provide courtroom security, and transport local prisoners. In Pennsylvania, constables are on the bottom of the law enforcement hierarchy.

     In October 2011, John Young, Jr., a 63-year-old constable from Beaver County, less than an hour north of the Pittsburgh metropolitan area, was up in Springfield Township, Mercer County investigating vandalism to an Amish school house. (Why Constable Young was working in Mercer County, some 60 miles north of his home in New Brighton, is a mystery. Mercer County doesn't even border Beaver County, and lies outside the constable's normal geographical jurisdiction. Also mystifying is why Young had taken it upon himself to investigate minor vandalism at the Indian Run school house. This is where some professional news reporting would have been helpful.)

     The eager constable (Barney Fife on steroids), after pulling over several Amish buggies to search for whoever knows what, met with a group of local Amish leaders. According to Constable Young, he had identified the 21 Amish lads who had vandalized the school house. Although it had only cost the Amish $92 to replace the broken windows, and fix the broken desks, the constable informed the Amish elders that the youngsters had inflicted $4,000 damage to the school. This meant, according to Young, that the kids had committed a serious crime that could lead to big fines, and possible jail time. This of course, was a load of crap.

     Because he was a nice guy, and had the best interests of the Amish people in mind, Constable Young would save the vandals a lot of money by simply collecting smaller fines from the family of each perpetrator. And this is what he allegedly did, collecting a total of $2,450 in fines that had not been levied by a court or any other governmental body. At some point in what can only be described as a shakedown, someone in the Amish community suspected a swindle, and notified the state police.

     Charged with theft by deception, official oppression, and impersonating a public servant (not to mention a decent person), Constable Glenn Young was taken into custody by state troopers on August 29, 2012. At his arraignment, he pleaded not guilty to all charges. (Young later pleaded guilty in return for a sentence of probation.)

     Compared to the average public corruption case, Constable Young's breach of public trust didn't amount to much. But why would a man risk his reputation and livelihood by committing such a petty crime against decent Amish people? (Maybe to take advantage of their trust and good nature.) The shear stupidity of this boneheaded swindle was jaw-dropping. The fact Constable Young possessed a badge and a gun, and had been invested with full arrest powers, was more than a little disturbing. Cases like this should remind us of the kinds of people who run for office, and manage to get themselves elected into positions of public trust. What this little case represents, to me, is something important, and worthy of exposure.

       

The Trigger-Happy Constable

     On November 2, 2011, at 3:30 in the afternoon, Jefferson County Constable David Whitlock, while shopping in a Louisville, Kentucky Walmart where he worked off-duty as a retail security officer, received a call on his cellphone regarding a possible shoplifter. Constable Whitlock approached the suspect, Tammy Lee Jamian, aka Tammy Ortiz, as she sat in her car in the parking lot. When Whitlock reached the vehicle, the suspect started to drive away. Her car ran over Whitlock's foot so he shot her in the arm and hand.

     In Kentucky, constables were elected under the state constitution that gave them powers of arrest in the enforcement of traffic laws. They also served certain types of warrants. Whitlock, in 2000 and 2002, had been charged in a couple of theft cases. Other law enforcement officers had criticized him for carrying a gun without the proper firearms training. In Kentucky, constables were not required to undergo special law enforcement instruction. Whitlock claimed, however, to have taken 122 hours of deadly force classes. According to a Jefferson County Sheriff's Deputy, Whitlock failed the shooting portion of the course and was sent home.

     In a newspaper interview following the Walmart shooting, Whitlock told the reporter he spent 20 to 25 hours a week writing citations for illegal parking in fire lanes and handicapped spots. He also patrolled Louisville making sure addresses were visible on buildings as required by law.

     Tammy Lee Jamian, who has an arrest record for burglary, theft, and prostitution, claimed she was not shoplifting in the store and that Constable Whitlock, when he confronted her in the parking lot, did not identify himself as a police officer. She drove off because she thought she was being mugged. Referring to Whitlock, Jamian's attorney told a reporter "This cowboy shot an unarmed woman for shoplifting. He didn't know if she was Bonnie from Bonnie and Clyde or Sister Teresa. He just shot her."

     On November 11, Louisville Councilman Rick Blackwell called for the state legislature to remove Whitlock as a Jefferson County Constable. According to the councilman, Whitlock violated three state laws: deputizing staff members, failing to file monthly reports to the county clerk, and using oscillating blue lights on his car.

     In October 2012, pursuant to his guilty plea to charges of wanton endangerment and second-degree assault, Whitlock agreed never to work in law enforcement again. After he completed a diversion program, the prosecutor dropped the charges against the former constable.

     In Louisville, on January 27, 2014, David Whitlock announced his plan to run for a seat on the Metro Council. He lost.

    

In Writing, Having an Idea For a Book is the Easy Part

Most anyone can have a great idea. A smaller group might get it onto paper in some form. A fair number of those will be able to revise parts of it until it is very good. Yet to take all the elements such as character and themes and place, and to think about voice, style and language, just doesn't happen in one fell swoop. Only a few writers can take what first comes out on the page and work it until every bit of it is right, until all of its parts become a beautiful whole. True talent--perhaps even genius--lies not in coming up with the idea but in being able to do the hard, dogged work that brings that idea to fruition.

Carole Burns, Off The Page, 2008


One Less Baby-Killer in Ohio

     On the night of September 29, 1988, in the northern Ohio town of Mansfield, 31-year-old Steve Smith walked into his live-in girlfriend's bedroom carrying her six-month-old daughter. Smith was nude and had been drinking. The lifeless infant in his arms bore bruises and cuts.

     Kesha Frye took her daughter to a neighbor's house where she called 911. At the hospital doctors tried for an hour to revive Autumn Frye before pronouncing the baby dead. An autopsy revealed that the infant had been raped.

     A year after his arrest, Steve Smith went on trial for aggravated murder. On the advice of his attorneys, the defendant did not take the stand on his own behalf. The jury found him guilty as charged, and the judge sentenced him to death.

     On April 2, 2013, after living twelve years on death row, Smith appeared before the Ohio Parole Board that was considering his petition to reduce  his sentence to life. Smith admitted raping the infant, but said he hadn't intended to kill her. The parole board and Governor John Kasich denied Smith's motion for a life sentence.

     At ten-thirty in the morning of May 1, 2013, the Ohio executioner at the state prison in Lucasville injected a lethal dose of pentobarbital into the body of the 46-year-old prisoner. Steve Smith's 20-year-old daughter and a handful of others watched him go. If the baby-killer made a statement before the pentobarbital got into his system, his last words have not escaped the prison. 

Forensic Botany

One thing I tell police frequently is this: If you get a call of somebody breaking into a house, and you see somebody walking down the street as you pull up, as you question him, ask to see the cuffs of his pants. If he's climbed through a hedge or walked through a yard--most people have weeds around. Weeds get around in lots of clever ways; they often have little sticky parts that adhere to you shoes, or your shoelaces, or your pants cuffs, or they land in a pants cuff. If the suspect says, "Oh, I got those in my grandmother's yard," those particular weeds may not be there. So we've hooked people to certain crime sites though what kind of weeds have gotten stuck to them. Almost no one can lie about plant evidence.

Forensic botanist, in Crime Scene by Connie Fletcher, 2006 

B. R. Myers on The "Literary" Novelist

The joy of being a [literary] writer today is that you can claim your work's flaws are all there by design. Plot doesn't add up? It was never meant to; you were playfully reworking the conventions of traditional narrative. Your philosophizing makes no sense? Well, we live in an incoherent age after all. The dialogue is implausible? Comedy often is. But half the jokes fall flat?  Ah! Those were the serious bits. Make sure then, that your readers can never put a finger on what you are trying to say at any point in the book. Let them create their own text--you're just the one who gets paid for it.

B. R. Myers, A Reader's Manifesto, 2002
[This is an outstanding, groundbreaking book.]

People Who Work With Criminal Offenders Burn Out

The greatest occupational hazard to people working with criminals [counselors, social workers, and parole agents] is not physical attack. More serious is a rapid burnout of enthusiasm, commitment, and interest. Mention the word "burnout" to people in corrections, and they will solemnly nod. Increasing numbers of idealistic, genuinely concerned young Americans are entering corrections, eager to do a good job. Almost immediately, they confront a huge array of obstacles for which they are poorly prepared. Despite the fact that their clients are the most difficult anywhere, they think they are expected to accomplish what parents, teachers, employers, clergymen, and others failed at for years.

Dr. Stanton E. Sanenow, Inside the Criminal Mind, 1984

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Have We Become a Nation of Sociopaths?

     It was Joe McGinniss, in his 1984 book Fatal Vision, who introduced the general public to sociopathy, a personality disorder found in normal looking and acting people who commit cold-blooded murder. "Fatal Vision" explores the sociopathic personality of Dr. Jefferey MacDonald, an Army physician convicted of murdering his pregnant wife and two small children.

     In the true crime genre, the 1980s became the golden era of books about serial killers, all of whom were sociopaths. Readers and TV viewers became familiar with FBI profilers John Douglas, Robert Ressler, and Roy Hazelwood, the founders of the FBI's Psychological Behavioral Unit housed at the FBI Academy at Quantico, Virginia. Through hundreds of books and true crime television shows, serial killers such as Ted Bundy, Jefferey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy, and David Berkowitz (Son of Sam) became household names. Dr. Park Dietz, a high-profile forensic psychiatrist, author and expert witness, educated the public on the most common traits found in the sociopathic personality which include: narcissism, lack of empathy, pathological lying, the inability to admit guilt, the belief one is smarter than everybody, and the belief one is above society's rules of behavior and laws. (In other words, the American politician.)

     Now, when people discuss sociopathy, it is not always in the context of criminal behavior. That's because not all people with sociopathic qualities are serial killers and/or rapists. Recently there have been numerous articles about how to identify a sociopathic person, what professions tend to attract them (politics, business and law) and how to deal with these difficult people.

     Nobody knows for sure if sociopaths are born or made, but they seem to be multiplying. Maybe it started with Mr. Rogers and his you-are-special message. Perhaps it's our celebrity culture where rich and famous people are worshiped regardless of how they achieved their wealth and fame. The lesson here seems to be: If you want something bad enough, and are willing to do whatever it takes to get it, you will succeed because you are special and deserve to get what you want. (Have you noticed that on reality TV, people can't talk about themselves for more than a couple of minutes without breaking down in tears? What is that?)

     Tens of thousands of people will show up in a city to audition for TV shows like "American Idol." They all have this pathological need to share their unique talents with the world, and are inspired by former winners who all say the same ridiculous thing: "Don't give up your passion, your dream. If I can make it, so can you." This of course is a load of crap. The odds of getting rich and famous are one in a million. And if you do get rich and famous, it probably won't last. You'll end up like one of those has-beens who say things like, "You might remember me as the janitor in the 1975 sitcom, "Barney Meets Betty." Winners of "American Idol," instead of encouraging fools like themselves, should say: "I'm stupid like you but I got real lucky. Instead of chasing an impossible dream, prepare yourself for real life."

     It seems we're raising generations of young people who, if they don't realize their dreams of wealth and fame, become despondent and morose. They live the rest of their miserable lives blaming "society" for their lost opportunities. Some of them turn to drugs, alcohol and crime.

     Several years ago I investigated a swindler who operated as a literary agent and publisher. A typical sociopath, she believed she was smarter than the people she bilked. This wasn't the case and the woman ended up in federal prison. I wrote a book about her called, Ten Percent of Nothing: The Case of the Literary Agent From Hell. As an epigram to the book, I wrote: "As a nonfiction crime writer, I have come across more than my share of sociopathic personalities. As one who feels guilty about everything, I find these people fascinating. When sociopaths end up in jail, neurotics like me end up writing about them."

     If I were writing this book today, I would leave out the part about finding sociopaths fascinating. I now find them annoying, depressing, and harmful to the future of this country.