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Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Murder in a Small Town: The 1957 Fordney-Barber Case

     In 1957, whenever someone in the United States committed murder, the story almost always made the front page of the local newspaper, and led the news that night on TV. In the past few years there has been an explosion of murder-suicide cases across the nation, but in the 1950s such mayhem, particularly in small town America, was virtually unheard of. But it did happen, and it happened on May 28, 1957 in a small town in western Pennsylvania.

     John D. Barber and his wife Grace, a childless couple, adopted 8-year-old Judy Rose in 1946. The family resided in Grove City, Pennsylvania. In 1953, when Judy turned fifteen, the family moved fifteen miles west to New Wilmington, a quiet borough of 1,800 in Amish country ninety minutes north of Pittsburgh. The Barbers took up residence in a modest home at 256 North Market Street near the center of the one-redlight town.

     Two years after moving to New Wilmington, the home of Westminster College, Mr. and Mrs. Barber separated. Grace moved a few miles north where she took up residence in Blacktown in adjacent Mercer County. At the time, Mr. Barber, a small aircraft pilot and member of the Shenango Valley Flying Club, worked the night shift at a factory twenty miles west in Youngstown, Ohio. Following her parents' separation, Judy elected to remain in New Wilmington with her father.

     In September 1956, at the beginning of her senior year at New Wilmington Area High School, Judy Barber announced her engagement to Homer Miller, a young man from Grove City who had joined the Marine Corps. Notwithstanding her engagement to Miller, Judy continued to see Theodore George Fordney, a 28-year-old postal worker she had been involved with since July 1956. Early in 1957, following Homer Miller's discharge from the Marine Corps, Judy returned his engagement ring. She continued to go out with Ted Fordney, a man ten years her senior.

     On May 21, 1957, Mr. Barber, in anticipation of Judy's graduation from high school the following week, bought her a car. Although she had been a mediocre student with a lot of absences, Judy had lined-up a job as a secretary in a department store in the nearby town of Sharon. Having flown several times in a small plane with her father, Judy aspired to someday become an airline stewardess.

     Ted Fordney, Judy's on and off boyfriend, had, in 1945, quit high school during his senior year. Ted, a slender, clean-cut kid of average height who was known as an excellent swimmer and diver, while no more of a prankster than many students in his class of 33, alway seemed to be the boy who got caught. According to friend Kenny Whitman, Ted was one of those bad luck guys who walked around under a cloud. Before dropping out of school, Fordney and Whitman washed dishes at The Tavern, a New Wilmington restaurant known throughout western Pennsylvania.

     Growing up in New Wilmington, Ted was raised by his mother. No one seemed to know anything about his father, George A. Fordney. After leaving school, Ted joined the Army. He ended up stationed in Fort Lee, Virginia. In May 1947, fresh out of the service, Ted started working at the massive Youngstown Sheet & Tube Company in Youngstown, Ohio. In 1953, he landed a job at the post office in New Wilmington. He also joined the New Wilmington Volunteer Fire Department.

     In 1957, Ted, 29-years-old, still single, and working at the post office, resided in a two-story house at 512 West Neshannock Avenue owned by his mother. His 54-year-old mother, Mary Virginia (Fischer) Fordney, a practical nurse, lived and worked in Florida. For several months, Ted had been living with terrible pain caused by a slipped disc in his spine. Because he couldn't stand for any period of time, he missed a lot of work at the post office.

     On May 21, 1957, Ted underwent an operation at the Jameson Memorial Hospital in New Castle to repair his ruptured disc. Mrs. Fordney returned to New Wilmington from New Orleans to take care of her son as he tried to recover from the operation. Mrs. Fordney had been in New Orleans visiting Madeline, one of Ted's three grown sisters.

      Six days following his hospital stay, Ted ran into his lifelong friend, Kenny Whitman. When Kenny asked Ted why he hadn't been around to visit, Ted said the pain in his back was so intense he couldn't sit very long in a car.

     Judy Barber, although she continued to date Ted Fordney, occasionally entertained younger men at her house. Whenever this happened, a jealous Ted would drive slowly back and forth on North Market Street past her home. On Monday, May 27, 1957, just four days before her high school graduation, Judy and a Westminster College freshman from West Hartford, Connecticut named Warren Howard Weber, watched a late night television movie at her house. At one o'clock that night, the college student left the North Market Street dwelling and walked back to his dormitory.

     The next morning, May 28, at nine o'clock, John Barber returned home after working the night shift at the factory in Youngstown, Ohio. In the front hallway to the house, Mr. Barber discovered his daughter's dead body sprawled out on the floor. She was dressed in a pair of blue polka-dot pajamas and white, knitted socks. An electrical cord from a vacuum cleaner had been wrapped tightly around her neck and knotted. There were no signs of forced entry into the house, and Mr. Barber did not see any indication that his daughter had struggled with her killer.

     Mr. Barber picked up the telephone and reported his daughter's murder to an officer assigned to the Pennsylvania State Police Barracks in New Castle, a town of 50,000 nine miles south of New Wilmington. After speaking with the Troop D officer, Mr. Barber called Ted Fordney's house and spoke to his mother. Mrs. Fordney, immediately following Mr. Barber's call, checked her son's bedroom and saw that his bed had not been slept in the previous night. Where was he? After seeing his car parked near the house, Mrs. Fordney walked into her back yard where she found Ted about five feet from the porch sprawled next to a .12-gauge shotgun. He had blasted himself in the face.

     Back at the Barber house, shortly after officers from the state police arrived at the death scene, Dr. Frank C. McClenahan, a local physician, came to the dwelling to examine Judy Barber's corpse. The doctor, based on the fact that rigor mortis had not set in, estimated that the girl had been murdered sometime between two and four that morning.

     Two state police officers, Sergeant Harold Rise and Corporal William S. O'Brien, were assigned the task of getting to the bottom of the two violent deaths. At the Barber house, Trooper O'Brien noticed that the killer had ripped the vacuum cleaner cord out of the wall so violently, the plug had come off.

     At the Fordney house, investigators found Ted's wallet, watch, and some loose change on his dresser drawer which led them to theorize that before killing himself in the back yard, Ted had emptied his pockets. On his bedroom walls, the officers notices scratch marks that could have been made by the fingernails of a man in severe pain. The investigators did not find a suicide note.

     Later on the morning of Ted Fordney's suicide, after police officers and firemen had left the Neshannock Avenue house, Mrs. Fordney called the Sharp Funeral Home a few blocks away. Bob Brush, a 19-year-old who happened to be visiting his friend Pete Sharp at the funeral home that day, accompanied Pete and his brother Bud to the Fordney residence. Bob, a 1956 high school graduate, lived on North Market Street a few houses from the murder scene. While Bob was acquainted with Judy Barber, he only knew Ted Fordney as the older guy with a bad back who spent every day during the summer at the New Wilmington swimming pool. In the back yard of the Fordney house, Bob took one look at the man lying next to the shotgun and turned away in horror. He had not been prepared for the human carnage.

     Dr. Lester Adelson, the forensic pathologist with the Cleveland Crime Laboratory who three years earlier had examined the body of Marilyn Shepard, the murdered wife of  Dr. Sam Shepard, performed the Judy Barber autopsy. Dr. Adelson noticed a fresh abrasion on the victim's left temple that suggested the killer had knocked her out before wrapping and tying the cord around her neck. According to the pathologist's estimation, the five-foot-tall high school senior had died of asphyxiation by ligature sometime between two and four on the morning of Tuesday, May 28, 1957.

     Warren Weber, the Westminster College freshman who had been with Judy just hours before the murder, contacted the state police almost immediately after he got word of her fate. That Tuesday afternoon, Lawrence County District Attorney Perry Reeher and County Detective Russell McConhay questioned the shaken student at the county courthouse in New Castle. Weber informed his interviewers that between ten-thirty and eleven o'clock the previous night, he and Judy had seen a man peeking into one of the living room windows. The only thing Weber recognized about the man was that he had a crew-cut. Judy said she thought the window peeper was Ted Fordney.

     Troopers Rice and O'Brien questioned several witnesses who had seen Ted Fordney, at ten-thirty Monday night, walking toward the Barber house. Witnesses had also seen the victim and Fordney riding around town in her new car in the afternoon and evening of the day before her death. According to some of Judy's girlfriends, she did not want to marry Ted, and was thinking of ending their relationship. Whenever she entertained a boy her age, Ted would pay Judy a visit shortly after her date went home.

   New Wilmington weekend police officer John D. Kyle, questioned Ted Fordney's next-door neighbor, Mrs. Elmer Newton who said that she and her husband, between four and five o'clock Tuesday morning, heard a noise they thought was thunder. Officer Kyle presumed the couple had heard Ted Fordney shoot himself in the head.

     At this point in the investigation, all of the homicide investigators as well as the Lawrence County District Attorney, believed that Ted Fordney had gone to the Barber house an hour or so after the college kid had gone home. Judy let him in, they argued, and he punched her on the side of the head. As she lay unconscious on the hallway floor, he wrapped and tied the electrical cord around her neck. After returning to his house, Ted grabbed his shogun, walked into the back yard, and shot himself in the face.

     On Wednesday morning, May 29, the day after the murder-suicide, the dead girl's father allowed himself to be interviewed by reporter Bryant Artis with The Pittsburgh Press. Artis' comprehensive front-page article about the mayhem in New Wilmington featured a large yearbook photograph of Judy Barber. According to John Barber, just minutes after reporting his daughter's murder to the Pennsylvania State Police, he telephoned Ted Fordney. "I called him simply because he knew everybody in town," the father said. Regarding his daughter's relationship with a man ten years older than her, Mr. Barber said, "He wouldn't show up for a month at a time. But they both loved to dance and off they'd go." Asked about his feelings toward Ted Fordney, Mr. Barber said, "It's not fair to accuse him until we know."

     Lawrence County Coroner John A. Meehan, Jr. held the coroner's inquest in New Castle at the country court house on August 6, 1957. Following the three hour session in which six witnesses testified, the coroner's jury, after deliberating twenty minutes, delivered its verdict. These jurors found that Judy Barber had been strangled to death by Theodore Fordney who committed suicide shortly after the murder. This meant there would be no further investigation into these deaths. The case was closed.

     Because no one saw Ted Fordney murder Judy Barber, and he did not confess, the case against him was entirely circumstantial. Moreover, there was no physical evidence connecting Mr. Fordney to the killing. According to reportage in the weekly New Wilmington Globe, forensic scientists at the state police crime lab in Butler had found hair follicles from the victim on the sweeper cord. Latent fingerprints had been lifted from the ligature, but because they were partials, could not be identified.

     Warren Weber, the Westminster College student from Connecticut, did not return to New Wilmington. And who could blame him? He had come to a small, quiet community to end up having a date murdered just hours after he left her house. It probably dawned on Weber that Ted Fordney could have come to the Barber house that night with his shotgun. Before turning the gun on himself, Fordney could have murdered him along with the girl.

     Ted Fordney's mother, on February 1, 1996, while living in a convalescent home in Hermitage, Pennsylvania, died at the age of 93.

      Ted Fordney did not have a history of criminal violence, and he had never been treated for any kind of mental illness. So what could have driven this ordinary man to commit murder and suicide? Perhaps the answer lies in the fact he was in extreme pain. It is possible he was taking pain-killing drugs that had altered his personality. (In the 1950s, patients suffering from post-surgical pain often took a powerful, over-the-counter drug called Paracetamol. Even in small doses, Paracetamol was known to cause kidney, liver, and brain damage. If combined with even small amounts of alcohol, the drug was especially dangerous.)

      The memories of Judy Barber and Theodore Fordney, today remembered by a handful of people, are intertwined forever as they lay buried in the same cemetery outside of New Wilmington, Pennsylvania.

While Parents Drink, Baby Dies

     A 9-month-old baby in Prince William County, Virginia was pronounced dead after being left unattended in a crib for 16 hours…Avarice Alexander was in her crib from 8:30 PM October 15, 2014 to 12:30 PM the next day…

     Police took the 21-year-old parents, Adam and Jasmyne Alexander, into custody. They were charged on October 16, 2014 with child neglect. [Child neglect? What about criminal homicide?] Police allege the baby was left in her crib while the parents were drinking.

     A Gofundme.com page was created by the mother, claiming that her daughter had died of SIDS. [SIDS is a description of death, not a cause.] An aunt has since taken over the fundraising account, claiming the funds will be used so her niece can have a proper burial. The aunt says that the parents will have no access to any of the donations.

"Baby Left in Crib For 16 Hours Dies," Dayton Daily News, October 18, 2014 

Book Acknowledgments

Authors write acknowledgments to acknowledge their debts, of course, to thank people who helped in some way. Ideally, your tone should be gracious but not queenly, grateful but not groveling. Humble dignity is what you should aim for. Acknowledgements also enable you to shamelessly drop names without seeming immodest. In this way, you let the reader know that while you, the author, did the real work, a great many important people stopped whatever they were doing to give you a hand.

Patricia T. O'Conner, Words Fail Me, 1999

Monday, October 30, 2017

Judges Who Kept Rapists Out of Prison

Judge G. Todd Baugh and Rapist Stacey Rambold

     In August 2013, after a jury in Billings, Montana found a 49-year-old high school teacher named Stacey Rambold guilty of having consensual sex with a 14-year-old student, Yellowstone County Judge G. Todd Baugh sentenced the defendant to thirty days in jail plus three years probation. The court ordered Rambold to register as a sex offender.

     Rambold's distraught victim, Cherice Moralez, committed suicide during his rape trial.

     According to Judge Baugh, even though the victim was 35 years younger than her rapist, Moralez was "older than her chronological age." The judge considered this a major mitigating factor in the case.

     On the day after his extremely unpopular sentencing of the former teacher, Judge Baugh, in speaking to reporters baffled by his sentence, stood by his ruling. "Obviously," he said, "a 14-year-old can't consent [to sex with an adult]. I think that people have in mind that this was some violent, forcible, horrible rape. It was horrible enough as it is, just given her age, but it wasn't this forcible beat-up rape."

     Stacey Rambold served his thirty days behind bars and walked free. Having avoided years in prison for ruining a young girl's life, he was one lucky rapist. The judge later apologized for his "chronological age" comments, and due to the public uproar over his sentencing of the teacher, declined to run for his fifth term in office.

Judge Marie Silveira and Rapist Timothy L. Lyman

     On December 27, 2012, 44-year-old soccer coach Timothy Lyman hosted a party for his players at his Oakdale, California house. The coach provided his young party-goers with vodka and rum. One of his guests, a 16-year-old girl, after having consensual sex with a boy her age in one of Lyman's bedrooms, passed out from the effects of alcohol. She awoke to find her coach performing oral sex on her.

     On November 12, 2013, after Timothy Lyman pleaded no contest to rape, Stanislaus County Judge Marie Silveira sentenced the coach to three years probation. Lyman was also ordered to sign up as a sex offender. The prosecutor and members of the victim's family were shocked and outraged by the judge's light sentence.

     In speaking to reporters after Lyman's sentencing, the victim's father said, "Whoever would do this to a 16-year-old girl is just sick. This has devastated my family. There have been lots of sleepless nights for my daughter and sleepless nights for myself. I'm just sick."

Judge James Woodroof and Rapist Austin Smith Clem

     In 2007, 19-year-old Austin Smith Clem had, on two occasions, forcible sex with 14-year-old Courtney Andrews. The rapes took place in Athens, Alabama. Clem swore the girl to secrecy. Moreover, if she told anyone, he threatened to harm her and her parents.

     Four years later, at age 23, Clem forcibly raped Andrews who was then eighteen. This time she asked a friend to report the assault to her parents.

     In September 2013, the Limestone County jury, after deliberating just two hours, found Austin Smith Clem guilty of two counts of second-degree rape and one count of first-degree rape. On November 13, 2013, Judge James Woodroof sentenced the convicted rapist to a non-custody correctional program designed to make offenders "likely to maintain a productive and law abiding life as a result of accountability, guidance, and direction to services needed."

     Clem, after completing the two year program for "nonviolent, low-level offenders," was placed on probation for three years. He also paid a $2,381 fine, and register as a sex offender.

     In response to Judge Woodroof's sentence, Courtney Andrews told reporters that she was "livid" and afraid for her family. The rape victim's father said this: "We thought justice was finally being served, and although the system was very slow, it was not totally broken. We were forced to hear a judge hand down a light sentence." 

Truman Capote on True Crime Writing

     In a somewhat critical New Yorker article on the true crime genre (August 19, 1996), Alex Ross, regarding the history of nonfiction crime writing wrote: " 'True crime' is the name that has attached itself to journalistic and literary accounts of exceptional human ghastliness. The term became a standard publishing category in the 1980s, distinct from long-standing genres of mystery and crime literature....The name is new, the genre is not....Readers have been devouring hastily printed accounts of mayhem and disaster since the invention of the popular press."

     Writing about murder and mayhem--interviewing victims' loved ones and the people who commit these brutal crimes--is not for everyone. Living day to day with violent death and human suffering can take its toll on a writer. Truman Capote, while writing his true crime masterpiece, In Cold Blood, the story of the 1959 murder of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas, said that the subject matter "leaves me increasingly limp and numb and, well, horrified--I have such awful dreams every night. I don't know how I could ever have felt so callous and objective as I did in the beginning." (In Capote: A Biography (1988) by Gerald Clarke)

In Writing a Book You're on Your Own

Writing a book is a strange job. "Here you go," a publish says at the onset, handing you a salary of sorts, and a deadline. "We'll see you in two years." And there you go indeed, in a state of high alarm, without any day-to-day ballast--no appointments, no tasks assigned each morning, no office colleagues to act as sounding boards, no clue as to what you are doing: equipped solely with a single idea, which you cling to like driftwood in a great dark, sea. [Really? You got a book contract based on a single idea? If you miss office routine, quit writing and go back to the office.]

Patricia Pearson, When She Was Bad, 1998

Anti-Affluenza Defense Legislation

     [In December 2013], after a 16-year-old boy said to be suffering from "affluenza" was sentenced to rehabilitation instead of prison for killing four people and maiming two others in a drunk-driving crash, California Assemblyman Mike Gatto…introduced a bill…that would prohibit attorneys from invoking "affluenza" as a defense at trial or as a mitigating factor for sentencing.

     Gatto knows there is no universally agreed upon definitions for the term….[There is also no case law that establishes affluenza as a criminal defense.] In the bill, Gatto defines affluenza as "the notion that an affluent or overly permissive upbringing prevents a defendant from fully understanding the consequences of criminal actions." [What is and what is not a viable criminal defense should be left to the courts to hammer out. This politically feel-good legislation fixes a problem that doesn't exist, and usurps the discretion of judges and juries. The proposed bill was voted down in 2017.]

Robin Abcarian, the Los Angeles Times, January 15, 2014    

How to Tell If You're a Novelist

     Do you have a new idea almost every day for a writing project? Do you either start them all and don't see them to fruition or think about starting but never actually get going? Do your begin sentences in your head while walking to work or picking up the dry cleaning? Do you blab about your project to loved ones, coworkers or strangers before the idea is fully formed, let alone partially executed? Have you ever been diagnosed with any combination of bipolar disorder, alcoholism, or skin diseases such as eczema or psoriasis? Do you snap at people who ask how your writing is going? What is it to them? Do you fear that you will someday wonder where the years went? How is it that some no-talent you went to high school with is being published everywhere you look?

     If you can relate to the above, you certainly have the obsessive qualities--along with the self-aggrandizement and concurrent feelings of worthlessness--that are part of the novelist's makeup.

Betsy Lerner, Forest For The Trees, 2001 

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Peter Keller: The Survivalist Who Didn't Survive

     On Sunday morning, April 22, 2012, firefighters responded to a house fire in North Bend, Washington, a Cascade foothills town 30 miles east of Seattle. When they tried to enter the dwelling through the front door, firefighters realized someone had blocked the entrance from the inside with a couch and an easy chair.

     Once the fire had been extinguished, firefighters discovered the bodies of 18-year-old Kaylene Keller and her mother Lynnettee who was 41. The victims were in their bedrooms, and both of them had been shot in the head at close range with .22-caliber bullets. Arson investigators found 7 empty gasoline cans at the site. (The fire had been started by placing a skillet on the stove containing a plastic container of gasoline, then turning on the burner.)

     Peter A. Keller, the 41-year-old husband and father of the victims, was nowhere to be found. He and his wife had been married 21 years, and for the last 7 lived in the rented house in this unincorporated community. Keller's red Toyota pickup truck was missing, and a week earlier, he had withdrawn $6,200 from the local bank. Friends of the family told the police that Keller, a reclusive man interested in guns, body armor, and trains, was an avid outdoorsman who spent weekends hiking on the logging trails in the rugged Cascade Mountain foothills. Over the past 8 years, Keller, fearing that the end of the world was near, had been building and stockpiling a wilderness fortress/hideout dug into the side of a hill. The cave-like structure he called Camp Keller, featured three levels, a wood stove, a sophisticated ventilation system, a generator, and several hidden entrances and exits. Although Keller had no history of violence, he owned several guns, and a healthy supply of ammunition.

     On April 25, the King County prosecutor charged Peter Keller with two counts of first-degree murder, and one count of arson.

     The police searching for Keller caught a break on Friday, April 27 when a tipster gave them the location of Keller's pickup abandoned on a Rattlesnake Ridge trailhead. From this location, expert trackers picked up Keller's trail comprised of deep foot impressions made by someone carrying a heavy backpack. The boot marks led them to Keller's wilderness refuge.

     At 5 o'clock Saturday evening, April 28, a group of Seattle police officers and a 30-member SWAT team surrounded the bunker. They figured he was inside because they could smell wood smoke coming from his stove. The fugitive didn't respond when ordered out of the structure. Rather than enter a possibly booby-trapped structure to encounter a heavily armed inhabitant, the police pumped teargas into the fort, then waited.

     Following a 23-hour standoff, the officers, equipped with explosive devices, blew the top off Keller's bunker, and found him dead inside. He had shot himself in the mouth with a Glock pistol. Among the stockpiled provisions, the police recovered 13 rifles and handguns.

     Keller's wife Lynnette, disabled several years ago from a workplace accident, had been receiving a monthly state disability check. Because her husband had been so controlling, and tight with money, she often had to borrow money from relatives. Kaylene Keller had been a student at Bellevue Community College.           

The Novelization of Movies

     You've seen the movie, now read the book. The movie came from an original screenplay, but several weeks before the film comes out, there's a book on the stands. Novelizations, they're called…

     The authors of these books are usually paid a bit more up front than the average first novel advance--but their percentage of royalties is far lower, so that a box office hit won't mean that much more money to the novelizer than a complete failure. Also, writing a novelization can be a frustrating experience, since you almost always have to work from the screenplay, turning in your manuscript before the filming has been competed. Often the whole plot of the movie will be changed in filming or editing, and there sits the book, with the old "wrong" version firmly enshrined.

     Novelizations can be fine pieces of work, but in most cases very few readers and no critics will notice or care. There's little joy in the work, it does nothing for your career, and whether the money is worth it to you is for you to answer.

Orson Scott Card, How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, 1990 

Pedophile Priests: Passing the Trash

     After a 13-year-old boy reported in 1979 that a priest raped and threatened him at gunpoint to keep quiet, the Archdiocese of Chicago assured the boy's parents that, although the cleric avoided prosecution, he would receive treatment and have no further contact with minors.

     But the Reverend William Cloutier, who already had been accused of molesting other children, was returned to the ministry a year later and went on to abuse again before he resigned in 1993, two years after the boy's parents filed a lawsuit. Officials took no action against Cloutier over his earlier transgressions because he "sounded repentant," according to internal archdiocese documents released January 21, 2014 that show how the archdiocese tried to contain a mounting scandal over child sexual abuse.

     For decades, those at the highest levels of the nation's third largest archdiocese moved accused priests from parish to parish while hiding the clerics' histories from the public.

The Associated Press, January 21, 2014 

Pulp Fiction

My own idea is that fiction…falls into three main categories: literature, mainstream fiction, and pulp fiction…To label a novel "pulp" is not the same as saying it's a bad novel, or will give the reader no pleasure…To condemn pulp writing out of hand is like condemning a girl as loose simply because she came from unpleasant family circumstances.

Stephen King, Secret Windows, 2002 

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Charles "Chase" Merritt and the McStay Family Murder Case

     Joseph McStay, a 40-year-old owner of a company that installed home water fountains, resided with his wife Summer and their two boys in Fallbrook, a suburban community 55 miles north of San Diego, California. On Monday, February 8, 2010, the McStays were reported missing after a security guard in Ysidro, a town across the border from Tijuana, Mexico, discovered the family's locked and apparently abandoned Isuzu Trooper parked in a mini-mall parking lot two blocks from the border.

     A surveillance camera on a neighbor's house in Fallbrook showed the couple and their boys, ages three and four, pulling out of their driveway in their SUV at 7:45 in the morning of February 4, 2010.

     Poor quality surveillance camera footage on the Ysidro/Tijuana border revealed a family resembling the McStays walking into Mexico four days after they were video-recorded leaving their home in Fallbrook.

     On February 14, 2010, police officers entered the McStay's cul-de-sac home in Fallbrook. The house had not been forcibly entered. Moreover, officers found no evidence of a struggle or the theft of household property. Police officers found bowls of popcorn in the living room and eggs on the kitchen counter. The family's two dogs were in the backyard, an indication the McStays hadn't planned for an extended trip.

     Investigators found no recent activity on the McStay's credit cards or bank account. An examination of their home computer revealed an Internet search that read: "What documents do children need for traveling to Mexico." Friends and relatives, however, had no knowledge that the McStays had planned a short trip into Mexico. After leaving Fallbrook that morning, the family simply disappeared.

     At ten in the morning of November 11, 2013, an off-road motorcyclist near a dirt road in the desert outside the San Bernardino County town of Victorville, came across what appeared to be human bones. At that location, 100 miles north of Fallbrook, detectives discovered two shallow graves each containing two sets of skeletal remains. A few of the bones had been scattered by animals. Items of clothing were also recovered from the scene. The remains were not far from Interstate 15 that connects that part of California to Las Vegas.

     Forensic scientists, through dental records, identified Joseph McStay and his 43-year-old wife Summer as being the two adults found in one of the desert graves. The other two sets of skeletons belonged to their children. According to San Bernardino County Sheriff John McMahon, the McStays and their children had been murdered. The Sheriff, at that time, did not reveal how they had been killed. There were no suspects.

     In speaking to reporters, Joseph McStay's father said he did not believe the people in the Ysidro surveillance footage seen walking into Mexico depicted his son and his family. "My son doesn't walk that way," he said. "They didn't walk into Mexico. They would never do that." The father explained that his son and his wife were aware of the Mexican drug gangs and would not have exposed the children to that risk.

     On November 5, 2014, deputies with the San Bernardino Sheriff's Office arrested Charles "Chase" Merritt at his  home in Chatsworth, California for the murder of the McStay family. The 57-year-old and Joseph McStay had been business partners. The authorities did not reveal a motive for the mass murder.

     Investigators believed the victims had been bludgeoned to death in their Fallbrook home. They had not traveled to Mexico after all. Apparently the murder suspect had disposed of their bodies in the desert outside of Victorville. Deputies booked Merritt into the West Valley Detention Center on four counts of murder. The judge denied the suspect bail.

     In the wake of Chase Merritt's arrest, Patrick McStay, Joseph McStay's father, criticized the San Diego County Sheriff's Office. According to the father, the agency that initially took control of the case didn't actively investigate it. Detectives in San Diego were operating on the theory that the family had traveled to Mexico where they were killed.

     "I know they screwed this thing up," Mr. McStay said. "All the rest was just sugar coating to make it look like they really were interested in solving the case, doing something. They did virtually nothing."

     Regarding the quadruple murder suspect, Mr. McShay said, "Chase was always somebody chasing the dollar. I think that's what it was. It was all about the money."

     On January 30, 2015, Chase Merritt told a judge that he wanted to represent himself at his upcoming murder trial. He said he only had six to eight months to live and wanted to move the process along as quickly as he could. In November 2014, he had been diagnosed with congestive heart failure. Merritt's attorney, Robert Ponce, despite his client's health problems and lack of legal background, informed the judge that Merritt had the intellect to adequately defend himself. The judge scheduled a hearing on the issue for February 20, 2015.

     The judge denied Merritt's request to represent himself, and scheduled the murder trial for July 2015. In July, the judge moved the trial date to September. On September 4, 2015, the same judge postponed the trial to allow Merritt's attorneys to request funds for an expert witness. The Merritt defense hoped to find a forensic scientist to contest the prosecution's key piece of physical evidence: the defendant's DNA inside the victim family's vehicle.

     Finally, after numerous appeals, motions, and judicial delays, a San Bernardino County judge set Merritt's murder trial date for November 13, 2017, four years after the McStay family murders. In California, the wheels of justice turn slowly.


Writing Clear, Clean Fiction

I have a rather plain and direct prose style. For me the words should be like a plane of glass that you look through, not at. Decorative flourishes are few. I learned that style on newspapers.

Ken Follett, The New York Times, September 4, 2014 

Thieves and Their Fences

Basically, the thief needs the fence to survive. The thief's fund-raising abilities would be greatly diminished were the multi-connected fence not around to handle the fruits of his crime. Indeed, the very existence of the fence is considerable encouragement to the thief, who then knows where his next meal is coming from.

Thomas Plate, Crime Pays! 1975 

Keeping a Journal

When I began making a living as a journalist, my father [John Cheever] often suggested that if something disturbed me, I might try writing about it. Keeping a journal helped him a great deal, he said. Putting experience down on paper made it seem less chaotic, less depressing, more sympathetic. "I write to make sense of my life," he used to say.

Susan Cheever, Home Before Dark, 1984 

Friday, October 27, 2017

The Dr. Robert Ferrante Poison Murder Case

     In 2013, Dr. Robert Ferrante and his wife, Dr. Autumn Klein, lived with their 6-year-old daughter in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Dr. Ferrante held the positions of co-director of the Center of ALS Research, and visiting professor of neurology at the University of Pittsburgh Medical School. Dr. Klein, with offices in Magee-Woman's Hospital in the Kaufman Medical Building, was chief of women's neurology at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) and an assistant professor of neurology, obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive services at the University of Pittsburgh.

     Dr. Ferrante, twenty-three years older than his wife, met her in 2000 when they lived in Boston where she was a medical student and he worked at a hospital for veterans. They were married a year later. In 2010, Dr. Ferrante left his job at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital to join the University of Pittsburgh's neurological surgery team. Dr. Klein moved to Pittsburgh with him.

     Dr. Klein, who was forty-one, was having difficulty getting pregnant with her second child. Her 64-year-old husband had been encouraging her to take a nutritional supplement to help her conceive. On April 17, 2013, Dr. Ferrante sent Autumn a text message in which he inquired if she had taken the supplement. She wrote back: "Will it stimulate egg production, too?" Nine hours after Dr. Klein sent that message, she collapsed in the kitchen of the couple's Schenley Farms home.

     Emergency personnel rushed Dr. Klein to the University of Pittsburgh Medial Center (UPMC) in Oakland. On the kitchen floor next to her body, paramedics noticed a bag of white powder later identified as creatine, a nutritional supplement. Shortly after the patient was admitted into the hospital, a UPMC doctor ordered tests of her blood. When a preliminary serological analysis revealed a high level of acid, the doctor ordered toxicolgical tests for cyanide poisoning.

     Dr. Klein died on April 20, 2013. Three days later, at Dr. Ferrante's insistence, her body was cremated. As a result, there was no autopsy.

     Dr. Karl Williams, the Allegheny County Medical Examiner, based on the toxicology reports, determined that Dr. Klein had died of cyanide poisoning. The forensic pathologist ruled her death a homicide.

     Cyanide kills by starving the cells of oxygen. A lethal dose for a human can be as small as 200 milligrams--1/25th the size of a nickel. The poison acts fast and metabolizes quickly. The toxic substance can be undetectable from one minute to three hours after ingestion. Had samples of Dr. Klein's blood not been taken upon her admission to UPMC, there would have been no physical evidence of poisoning beyond the contents of the bag of white powder found lying on the victim's kitchen floor.

     Two weeks after Dr. Klein's death, detectives with the Pittsburgh Police Department launched a homicide investigation with Dr. Ferrante as the prime suspect. Officials at UPMC placed the neurologist on leave and denied him access to his laboratory. A police search of the lab resulted in the discovery that 8.3 grams from a bottle of cyanide was missing. Detectives learned that Dr. Ferrante had purchased a half-pound of the poison on April 15, 2013, two days before his wife collapsed in their home. Dr. Ferrante had used a UPMC credit card to buy the cyanide and had asked the vendor to ship it to his lab overnight. Detectives believed the suspect, in his laboratory, mixed the cyanide--a substance not related to his work--into the dietary supplement.

     According to friends of the victim, Dr. Ferrante had been a controlling husband who was jealous of his wife's fast-rising career. Moreover, he suspected that she was having an affair with a man from Boston. Dr. Klein had told friends she was planning to leave the doctor. Another possible motive involved the fact Dr. Ferrante did not want his wife to have another child.

     On April 13, four days before she fell ill, Dr. Klein sent one of her friends a text message regarding a trip she planned to take to Boston by herself. In that message she wrote: "Change of plans. Husband is coming to Boston. Told me 'to keep me out of trouble.'"

     "Oh, dear," replied the friend. "Did you know you were in trouble?"

     "I feel like I have been in trouble for a long time now," Dr. Klein answered.

     On July 24, 2013, an Allegheny County prosecutor charged Dr. Robert Ferrante with first-degree murder. The next day, as Dr. Ferrante drove back to Pittsburgh from St. Augustine, Florida, a West Virginia state patrol officer arrested him on I-77 near Beckley. According to the doctor's attorney, William Difenderfer, his client was on his way to surrender to the Pittsburgh police.

     Dr. Ferrante's arrest for the murder of his wife caused him serious financial problems. Except for $280,000 the suspect was allowed to use for legal expenses and a possible fine, a judge seized his assets. In August 2013, his 6-year-old daughter's maternal grandmother who was caring for the girl in Maryland, petitioned a family court judge for child support.

     The Ferrante murder trial got underway on October 20, 2014 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Following jury selection, the attorneys for each side presented their opening statements. Assistant Allegheny County District Attorney Lisa Pelligrini asserted that the defendant had murdered his wife because she wanted to have a second child. The prosecutor also said that Dr. Ferrante thought his wife was having an affair.

     Defense attorney William Difenderfer pointed out the circumstantial nature of the prosecution's case, inconsistent crime toxicology reports regarding cyanide in Dr. Klein's blood, and an absence of an autopsy.

     Dr. Christopher Holstege, a University of Virginia professor and the author of the text, Criminal Poisoning, Clinical and Forensic Perspectives, took the stand as the prosecutor's key expert witness. Dr. Holstege testified that the victim's symptoms ruled out everything but cyanide poisoning.

     Defense attorney William Difenderfer put three forensic experts on the stand. Dr. Robert Middleberg, vice president of a private crime lab in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, said tests at his facility of Dr. Klein's blood were inconclusive.

     Dr. Middleberg's testimony was backed up by Dr. Shaun Carstairs of the Naval Medical Center in San Diego and former Allegheny County Coroner Dr. Cyril Wecht. Dr. Wecht, a forensic pathologist, had testified in dozens of celebrated murder cases around the world.

     As his last witness, Diffenderfer, in a surprise and risky move, put the defendant on the stand to testify on his own behalf. As could have been anticipated, the prosecutor's blistering cross examination revealed numerous inconsistencies in Dr. Ferrante's statements to the authorities.

     On Friday November 7, 2014, the jury found Dr. Ferrante guilty of first-degree murder, an offense in Pennsylvania that came with a mandatory sentence of life without parole.

     Through his appellate attorney Chris Eyster, Robert Ferrante appealed his conviction on the ground that the prosecution had not had sufficient probable cause for the search warrant that produced evidence that incriminated his client. The lawyer also raised questions regarding the laboratory that concluded that the victim had been killed by poison.

     In September 2016, Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey Manning upheld the Ferrante conviction.

     In October 2017, appellate attorney Chris Eyster petitioned a three-judge Superior Court panel to grant Robert Ferrante a new trial. According to Eyster, Dr. Autumn Klein's post-mortem kidney donation could not have taken place had the organ been irreparably damaged by poison. The lawyer also attacked the reliability of the toxicological tests performed by Quest Diagnostics. In his motion, Eyster argued that the Ferrante prosecution failed to reveal before the murder trial that a Quest subsidiary, the Nichols Institute, paid a $40 million fine for a 2009 federal misbranding conviction, and $241 million more to settle the related litigation. Quest/Nichols, according to federal prosecutors in that case, sold misbranded tests to various laboratories that were unreliable.
     

Charles Bukowski On Not Selling Out

     I think that over-ambition kills. I think that trying to be a writer kills. Writing simply has to be a sickness, a drug. It doesn't have to be, it just is. When one thing or another cures your sickness, that's it. And, of course, there are no guidelines.

     I've been lucky. For decades now I haven't had to force myself to write anything in any particular way…If you slant your writing it means you want to make money, you want to get famous, you want to get published for the sake of getting published. I think that only works for a while. The gods are watching us. And they extract their toll. Without fail.

Charles Bukowski in Charles Bukowski: Selected Letters 1987-1994, edited by Seamus Cooney, 2004 

Thursday, October 26, 2017

The John Mayes Murder Case

     Police officers in the northwest New Mexico town of Farmington, on the morning of June 10, 2011, discovered the body of Dr. Jim Nordstrom. The victim was buried in a woodpile behind his upscale house. The previous night, someone had bludgeoned the 55-year-old physician to death. One of the victim's fingers had been nearly severed in what the forensic pathologist identified as a defensive wound. The killer had stolen the doctor's pickup truck as well as his credit cards.

     Not long after finding the doctor's body behind his Foothills neighborhood home, police officers arrested 17-year-old John Mayes. Rob Mayes, Farmington's city manager, had adopted John, a boy who had grown up in Ukraine where he had been abused.

     Detectives, over a two day period, conducted five interrogation sessions during which time John Mayes confessed to killing the doctor. The interrogations were recorded and preceded by Miranda warnings. Mayes also signed forms in which he waived his constitutional right to remain silent. The young murder suspect did not, however, have an attorney present during the police interrogations.

     John Mayes told his questioners that on June 9, 2011 he had run away from home. When he came upon the house in the Foothills neighborhood, he snuck inside and hid in a bedroom. (I believe he entered the dwelling through an unlocked window.) At the time of the intrusion, Dr. Nordstrom was in his living room watching television. About an hour after Mayes entered the house, the doctor walked into the bedroom. That's when Mayes struck him in the head eight times with the handle of a pool cue.

     With the doctor dead in his home, Mayes stole his credit cards and his pickup truck. After taking a four hour nap in the stolen vehicle, Mayes ate a meal at a Burger King. When he finished his hamburger he used the victim's credit cards to go on a $3,000 shopping spree.

     Later that night, Mayes returned to the murder scene to clean up the blood and to bury the body in the victim's backyard. After tiring of digging a grave, Mayes dragged the corpse to the woodpile.

     San Juan County Chief Deputy District Attorney Brent Capshaw charged John Mayes with first-degree murder and the lesser offenses of aggravated burglary, tampering with evidence, vehicle theft, and fraudulent use of credit cards. After being booked into the San Juan County Jail, the magistrate denied the suspect bond.

     John Mayes, represented by attorney Stephen Taylor, pleaded not guilty at a preliminary hearing held in August 2011. Attorney Taylor advised the court he was challenging the constitutionality of his client's initial five statements to the police on the grounds he had not knowingly waived his Miranda rights. (The judge later ruled that the confessions had been constitutionally acquired and could therefore be introduced into evidence at Mayes' trial.)

     Speaking from the stand at his preliminary hearing, John Mayes offered a version of the events of June 9, 2011 that were far less incriminating than the substance of his statements to the police. Rather than sneaking into the doctor's home that night, he came upon Dr. Nordstrom outside of his Foothills neighborhood house just when the doctor was washing his pickup truck. Mayes told the doctor he had run away from home and asked if he could spend the night at his place. Dr. Nordstrom said that he could.

     That night, Mayes and the doctor watched a James Bond film on television. After the movie, the doctor gave Mayes a tour of the house after which they played a couple games of pool. Dr. Nordstrom asked Mayes if he would like to "try something new." When the physician made a sexual advance, Mayes beat him to death with a pool cue.

     Mayes admitted that after killing Dr. Nordstrom he stole his truck and used his credit cards before returning to the house to hide the body.

     Pursuant to a change of venue, the John Mayes murder trial got underway on November 13, 2013 in a McKinley County court in Gallup, New Mexico. Neither side disputed the fact Mayes had killed the doctor in his home. What the jury had to determine was whether or not the defendant had committed the act in self defense.

     After the prosecution rested its case, a presentation based heavily on the five statements Mayes had made to the police following his arrest, the defense brought psychologist Gary White and forensic psychologist Maxann Schwartz to the stand. Both witnesses testified that Mayes' behavior that night had been influenced by a personality disorder that affects people who as children had been neglected or abused. The psychologists said the defendant suffered from "reactive attachment disorder," or RAD. People with his disorder often seek attention from strangers but become aggressive when these individuals try to be nice to them.

     On November 20, 2013, a psychologist from Boise State University named Dr. Charles Honts took the stand for the defense to testify that he had given Mayes a polygraph test early in 2013. Prosecutor Brent Capshaw objected to this witness on grounds he was not a qualified polygraph examiner. (In 2005, a U. S. magistrate judge in Atlanta had prohibited Dr. Honts from giving polygraph testimony in a murder trial. The judge had said, "The court attributes little weight to Dr. Honts' opinions.)

     After Judge William Birdsall overruled the prosecutor's objections to this witness, Dr. Honts took the stand and said he had asked Mayes four polygraph questions: Did Nordstrom invite you into his home? Did you play pool with Nordstrom? Did he slap you on the butt? Did you hide in the bedroom waiting to hit Nordstrom? The witness testified that the defendant answered yes to the first three questions and no to the fourth. According to Dr. Honts, his polygraph examination revealed that Mayes was truthful in his responses.

     On rebuttal, Peter Pierangeli, a polygraph examiner from Albuquerque took the stand for the prosecution and testified that Dr. Honts did not ask the defendant appropriate questions. His polygraph results were therefore unreliable. According to Pierangeli, if Dr. Honts wanted to get to the truth, he would have asked Mayes if Dr. Nordstrom had sexually assaulted him.

     John Mayes did not take the witness stand on his own behalf.

     The defense attorney, in his closing remarks to the jury, pointed out that the police, by not seizing Dr. Nordstrom's computer and a prescription bottle found in his bedroom, had botched the investigation. The defense attorney told the jurors that Dr. Honts' polygraph test, by itself, created reasonable doubt that his client was guilty of murder.

     On Monday, November 25, 2013, after deliberating ten hours over a period of two days, the jury found John Mayes guilty of second-degree murder. The jurors found the defendant guilty of the lesser charges as well. The conviction carried a maximum sentence of 31 years in prison. The jurors had accepted enough of the defendant's story to believe Dr. Nordstrom had not been the victim of a cold-blooded murder. The jury had also rejected the notion of self-defense in the case.

     Had John Mayes been convicted of first-degree murder, his sentence would have been live without parole.

     In November 2014, at Mayes' sentence hearing, delayed months to allow for the appeal on the procedural issues, the two defense psychologists testified that the now 21-year-old could be rehabilitated through "intensive therapy." Dr. Gary White, the psychologist who had treated Mayes for three years, testified that he had seen an improvement in the young man's behavior. Dr. White said he would be willing to continue counseling Mayes if the authorities placed him in a correctional facility in the Albuquerque area.

     Defense attorney Stephen Taylor asked Judge William Birdsall to sentence his client to 15 years in prison.

     John Mayes, in speaking to the court, apologized for killing Dr. Nordstrom. He said, "My actions do not reflect what I would like to become. I now know how to better handle myself so that what happened will not occur."

     San Juan County Chief Deputy District Attorney Brent Capshaw told Judge Birdsall that in his fourteen years as a prosecutor, the Nordstrom murder was the worst case he had ever worked on. Capshaw said, "Mayes continually bludgeoned Dr. Nordstrom in the back of the head as the victim tried to crawl away. I can't imagine a more violent death." After the murder, according to the prosecutor, Mayes "set up shop" at Nordstrom's home where he downloaded pornography and masturbated. "I can't find a case that calls more for the maximum sentence."

     Judge Birdsall, for the crimes of second-degree murder, aggravated burglary, car theft and several of the lesser offenses, sentenced John Mayes to 33 years in prison.

Thornton P. Knowles On Literary Awards

In the literary world, there are far more awards for "serious" fiction than championship title belts in the field of professional boxing. While boxing fans and pundits lament the glut of prize fighting titles, the boxers who hold these belts have at least proven themselves to be superior athletes. Literary awards, on the other hand, warn us that these award-winning novels are virtually unreadable works of pretentious, show-off fiction.

Thornton P. Knowles, The Psychology of Writing, 1976 

Interpreting Interrogation Room Body Language

     One of the most important transmitters of nonverbal behavior symptoms is the degree of eye contact maintained by the subject with the interrogator. Deceptive suspects generally do not look directly at the interrogator; they look down at the floor, over to the side, or up at the ceiling as if to beseech some divine guidance. They feel less anxiety if their eyes are focused somewhere other than on the interrogator; it is easier to lie while looking at the ceiling or the floor. Consequently, they either try to avoid eye contact with the interrogator by making compensatory moves or else they overact by staring at the interrogator in a challenging manner.

     Truthful suspects, on the other hand, are not defensive in their looks or actions, and can easily maintain eye contact with the interrogator. Even though they may be apprehensive, they show no concern about the credibility of their answers. Although attentive, their casual manner is unrestrained. They need no preparation because their answers are truthful.

Fred E. Inbau, Criminal Interrogation and Confessions, 1986

Historical Writing

Most people think of history as old dead stuff, and who can blame them? It's so often presented that way, like bad-tasting medicine that supposedly is good for you. History is about life and people and the writing must bring these people and their times to life. The story of our country is so strong, so compelling, so very important. I want to share the wealth.

David McCullough, The Writing Life, 1995

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

The Michigan Sniper

     In 2003, during a three-week period in and around Washington, D.C., snipers John Allen Muhammad and his 17-year-old accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo, shot thirteen people, murdering ten of them. During this killing spree, the so-called Beltway Snipers randomly shot individuals who were going about their daily business in places they thought were safe. During the time these pot-shot artists were at large, the media paid little attention to the rash of routine shootings that were taking place in the District of Columba, a place much more dangerous than the sites of the sniper shootings.

     Because of the nature of the Beltway shootings, and the victimology, Muhammad and Malvo terrorized an entire region. And that's what snipers really are--terrorists. Although a person is far more likely to be shot by a spouse, it's the sniper that scares the hell out of us. These people instill fear far beyond the harm they actually inflict. This is what terrorism is all about.

     In mid-October 2012, a sniper began randomly shooting at motorists and pedestrians along a 75-mile stretch between Ann Arbor and Detroit in southern Michigan. While there were ten shot fired by the sniper in Wixom, Michigan, most of the bullets were flying across I-96. (Forensic firearms identification experts linked dozens of bullet fragments to a single rifle. This and the fact that snipers are usually lone wolves led the police to believe they were dealing with one subject.)

     At 11:50 in the morning on Saturday, October 27, 2012, an 18-year-old motorist from Canton, Michigan, driving eastbound on I-96 with his girlfriend, became the sniper's 26th target when a bullet passed through the backseat windows of the vehicle. No one was injured.

     Thirty minutes later, Scott Arnold, from Dalton, Michigan, driving eastbound on I-96 on his way to Detroit to attend game 3 of the World Series, became the Michigan sniper's first shooting victim. The 46-year-old, alone in the car, was shot in the buttocks as he approached the Fowlerville Road exit. The wounded driver made it to a service station where he was treated by members of an ambulance crew who took him to St. Joseph Mercy Hospital of Livingston. According to reports, the wounded motorist was extremely concerned that he would miss the Detroit Tigers-San Francisco Giants World Series game.

     In terms of the damage the bullet could have done, Mr. Arnold was lucky. The slug just missed an artery and major nerves. With the bullet still in him, doctors discharged Mr. Arnold from the hospital on Sunday, October 29. He had missed the game.

     The FBI and ATF offered an $11,000 reward for information leading to the sniper's arrest. (An odd amount.) Local police, based on witness information, were looking for a black Ford Mustang with blue-tinted headlights and a center racing stripe. Officers were also on the lookout for an older model Chevrolet Cavalier. The limited description of the sniper--a young white male--wasn't much help.

     On October 30, 2012, federal officials and CrimeStoppers of Michigan posted a $102,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the Michigan sniper. The police now believed the shooter was driving a 10 to 12-year-old dark-colored sedan in the shape of an old Toyota Camry or an Oldsmobile Alero.

     On November 7, 2012, police officers arrested 43-year-old Raulie Casteel at his home in Wixom, Michigan. A geologist, he was charged with assault with a dangerous weapon and other crimes connected to the sniping incidents.

     Casteel, in March 2014, pleaded guilty to terrorism and numerous weapons charges. Livingston County Circuit Judge David Reede sentenced him to 18 to 40 years in prison. At a press conference following the sentencing, State Attorney General Bill Schuette said, "Raulie Casteel committed calculated acts of violence that terrorized our state, and today the victims of his shooting spree received justice."

     Defense attorney Douglas Mullkoff told reporters that the Michigan legislature did not intent the terrorism statute to fit someone like Casteel who was mentally ill. According to Mullkoff, "The public views my client as sad. Most people feel sorry for him."

     Had this case gone to trial, I don't think the jury would have shown much mercy to the defendant. That's probably why the defense attorney agreed to the plea bargain. There are a lot of mentally ill people living among us. How many of them turn into domestic snipers? 

Injecting Humor in Your Writing

Writing is such lonely work that I try to keep myself cheered up. If something strikes me as funny in the act of writing, I throw it in just to amuse myself. If I think it's funny I assume that a few other people will find it funny, and that seems to me to be a good day's work. It doesn't bother me that a certain number of readers will not be amused; I know that a fair chunk of the population has no sense of humor--no idea that there are people in the world trying to entertain them.

William Zinsser, On Writing Well, 1976 

Why Would a Pregnant Woman Scuffle With Cops Making an Arrest?

    After a video posted online showed cops knocking a pregnant woman to the ground and then pushing another woman during a Brooklyn melee, the NYPD opened an internal affairs investigation. The video shows Sandra Amezquita intervening in her teenage son's arrest early Saturday September 20, 2014 in Sunset Park. The pregnant woman is in a scuffle with the officers who are seen pushing her to the ground onto her stomach while they are trying to subdue her. They then shoved another woman when she tried to approach them.

     Cops from the 72nd Precinct were arresting Amezquita's son, 17-year-old Jhohan Lemos, for allegedly having a knife when several of his family members tried to intervene…"Oh, my God, she's pregnant," one onlooker says in the video after Amezquita was thrown to the pavement and handcuffed.

     Jhohan Lemos was charged with criminal possession of a weapon, resisting arrest and harassment…The teen's dad, 50-year-old Ronel Lemos, also got into the tussle with cops and was booked for assault on a police officer, resisting arrest, and harassment…A third man, 46-year-old Secundino Payamps, was also busted for assault on a police officer, obstruction of justice, and harassment. Officers issued a summons to Amexquita for her part in the melee…

     "Her belly is now black and blue with bruises," a witness told a TV reporter. "She's bleeding and she's having complications."…

Antonio Antenucci and Aaron Feis, "Cops Wrestle Pregnant Woman to the Ground in Disturbing Clip," The New York Post, September 24, 2014

     

Thornton P. Knowles On The Inspiration to Write

Novelists who insist they can't create without inspiration are pretenders and dilettantes. A plumber doesn't need inspiration to fix your toilet, and a real writer shouldn't need inspiration to tell you a story.

Thornton P. Knowles, The Psychology of Writing, 1976 

The History of School Mass Shootings

     Large scale attacks at schools and college campuses may seem to be a recent phenomenon, but this is not the case…In fact, the deadliest school attack in the United States occurred in 1927, when a 55-year-old man named Andrew Kehoe murdered his wife and then used dynamite to blow up a school in Bath, Michigan. In all, Kehoe killed 45 people and wounded 58; most of these were children.

     Nearly 40 years later, in 1966, Charles Whitman, a 25-year-old student at the University of Texas, went on a rampage. First he killed his wife and mother, then he set up a sniper position in a tower on campus and gunned down 45 people, killing 14…

     The 1970s and 1980s were not devoid of school attacks. In 1979, a teenage girl named Brenda Spencer opened fire on an elementary school across the street from her home in San Diego, California. She killed 2 adults and wounded 8 children and a police officer. Ten years later, in 1989, a 26-year-old named Patrick Purdy opened fire on an elementary school playground in Stockton, California. He killed 5 children and wounded 29 children and a teacher.

Dr. Peter Langman, Why Kids Kill, 2009 

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Darren Deon Vann: The Serial Prostitute Killer

     In 2005, Darren Deon Vann, a registered sex offender in Indiana, moved to Austin, Texas. Two years later a prosecutor in Texas charged Vann with aggravated rape. After pleading guilty to that charge in 2009, the judge sent the rapist to prison where he served five years. Upon his release from the Texas penitentiary in June 2013, the 42-year-old sex offender returned to northern Indiana. At some point the ex-Marine acquired a wife.

     On Friday October 17, 2014, through a website that serves the Chicago area called backpage.com, Vann arranged to meet a prostitute at a Motel 6 in Hammond, Indiana, a town ten miles west of Gary. The website "facilitator" sent 19-year-old Afrika Hardy to the motel to meet the John. Hardy had recently moved to Indiana from Aurora, Colorado where she had recently graduated from high school.

     When the prostitution facilitator texted Hardy to check on the progress of the trick, the message that came back caused the facilitator to believe that it hadn't been sent by Hardy. The facilitator and another woman went to the motel to check on the prostitute. In the motel room they found signs of a struggle, and in the bathtub, Hardy's dead body.

     Officers with the Hammond Police Department responded to the murder scene. (The Lake County coroner would later report that Hardy had been strangled to death.) Using a phone number provided by the website facilitator, detectives tracked down the John, Darren Deon Vann.

     On Friday October 17, 2014, in Gary, Indiana, police officers arrested Vann who said he wanted to cooperate with the authorities in hopes of making a deal. In the early morning hours of the next day, Vann led detectives to three abandoned houses in Gary where they found the bodies of three women. Vann said he had strangled these prostitutes to death.

     Anith Jones, 35, from Merrillville, Indiana, was the only Gary murder victim who had been reported missing. She had disappeared on October 8, 2014. Jones had moved to Indiana from Chicago ten years ago and had operated a stand at a Gary flea market. It would later be determined that Jones had been murdered by ligature strangulation.

     The other two murder victims discovered on Saturday October 18, 2014--Teaira Batey, 28 and 36-year-old Christine Williams--had also been strangled to death and found in abandoned houses in the blighted Gary neighborhood. Vann had killed his victims elsewhere and deposed of their bodies in the vacant, sometimes fire-damaged homes.

     Later that Saturday night, Darren Vann led Gary police detectives to three more female bodies left to decompose in vacant houses.

     A local Indiana prosecutor, on October 20, 2014, charged Darren Vann with the murder of Afrika Hardy at the Motel 6 in Hammond. In his on-going discussions with homicide investigators, Vann confessed to the murders of woman that go back twenty years. At this point in the case, it was anybody's guess how many women this man has murdered. Vann's wife told detectives that she had no idea she was married to a serial killer.

    The prosecutor in charge of the Vann murder case announced that he would seek the death penalty.

     Due to Darren Vann's legal challenges of Indiana's death penalty law, his trial has been postponed four or five times. He is currently charged with killing and beheading seven women. The Indiana prosecutor hopes to bring this serial killer to trial sometime in 2018. When the death penalty is involved, justice is often delayed.

     

Thornton P. Knowles On Becoming a Literary Critic

If you can't write or edit, but want to become a part of the literary scene, become a critic. This will give you the opportunity to impose your rage and frustration on those who have the talent you crave.

Thornton P. Knowles 

Jason "Eyeball" Barnum

     A man nicknamed "Eyeball" because of a tattoo that darkened the white part of his right eye [he also has numerous tattoos on his face and bald head] pleaded guilty Friday January 2, 2015 to the shooting of an Anchorage, Alaska police officer. The judge sentenced him to 22 years in prison.

     The suspect also pleaded guilty to first-degree burglary and third-degree possession of a weapon. The shooting took place when police were investigating home burglaries and car thefts. Officers were inspecting a hotel in 2012 when Barnum opened fire from a bathroom. Two officers shot back, striking Barnum in the arm. One of the officers was injured in the shoot-out. Barnum later confessed to committing thefts and burglaries to feed his heroin addiction…

     At his sentencing hearing Barnum said, "Everybody knows that I'm not the nicest guy. I understand that what I did was wrong. I can't take none of it back." In explaining his criminal behavior, Barnum deflected some of the blame to the Alaska Department of Corrections, saying he left prison in 2010 with nowhere to go and nothing to do. I was living on the streets, and I tried to get a job, but of course my beautiful face didn't allow me to do that." [Eyeball" had decided to make himself look like a carnival freak. They didn't do that to him in prison.]

" 'Eyeball' Man Sentenced For Shooting Officer," Associated Press, January 3, 2015 

Getting Into a Writing Program

     When I went to writing school, I craved rules. I craved a mentor, and the revelation of secrets, and the permission to write scads, and most of all I craved the confirmation that I could write. In other words, I was like practically everyone else.

    What a mystique writing programs have! A sense of promise emanates from their doors, wafts up from the embossed paper bearing their letterheads. I felt that being accepted to one, and especially to that bizarrely exotic one nestled in the middle of America, Iowa, was like being chosen for an initiation into mysteries. After all, what could be more mysterious than learning how to write?

Bonnie Friedman, Writing Past Dark, 1994 

Monday, October 23, 2017

The Stephen Perry Murder-For-Hire Case

     We'd be in real trouble in this country if criminals were smart. Among the least intelligent members of the criminal class are the ransom kidnappers and the murder-for-hire masterminds. Take Stephen Perry.

     In May 2012, two months after he moved out of the house in Indianapolis he shared with his wife, 27-year-old Stephen Perry filed for divorce. He and his wife Allison had been married since December 2009. The couple, $200,000 in debt, had been fighting over a small inheritance left by Stephen's mother following her death in October 2011. He accused his estranged wife of stealing $15,000 of that money.

     In early December 2012, Perry approached a man he worked with at the Valvoline Instant Oil Change in suburban Indianapolis. Perry asked Adrian Howard if he'd be interested in killing his estranged wife. If Howard wasn't interested in doing the job himself, perhaps he could recommend a hitman. "I know ya'll [black men] know people," Perry said.

     At first Adrian Howard thought Stephen Perry was joking around, but the more Perry persisted with his murder solicitations, the more Howard took him seriously. Finally, Howard began secretly audio-taping their murder-for-hire conversations. At one point, Perry said, "I just want this to be over and done with. So if she dies, I can drop the divorce lawsuit. She's dead, and I'm free."

     As payment for the hit, Perry offered Adrian Howard $15,000 and a machine that prints counterfeit money. (If Perry had a machine that made money, why did he have to have his wife murdered?) The mastermind also gave Howard a slip of paper with his wife's name and address and offered to draw a floor plan of her grandparent's house where she lived. Perry instructed Mr. Howard not to kill the old people or hurt the family dog.

     In late December 2012, the Indianapolis police, after reviewing the taped murder-for-hire conversations, took Stephen Perry into custody. Charged with conspiracy to commit murder, he was held in the Hamilton Country Jail on $250,000 bond.

     On December 11, 2013, The Indianapolis Star published an interview of the would-be hit man, Adrian Howard. "I didn't know what he was capable of," said Mr. Howard. "Maybe he was joking. Maybe he wasn't." Howard said that Perry had picked him as a potential trigger man because he was black and had a criminal record. "I was offended," he said. "Maybe I was a street person before, but I'm out here trying to live my life the best I can. Stephen Perry often talked down to me like I was the scum of the earth, because I had been in prison."

     On April 11, 2014, following a short trial, the jury in the Hamilton Superior Court found Stephen Perry guilty of conspiracy to commit murder, a Class A felony punishable up to 50 years in prison. On May 23, 2014, the judge sentenced the murder-for-hire mastermind to five years behind bars. Judges must have soft spots in their hearts for stupid people.  

Thornton P. Knowles on Being an Obscene Writer

A seventh grade teacher called a short story I wrote "obscene." I went home and bragged to my parents that I was an obscene writer! I didn't know what the word meant. Fortunately for me, they didn't either.

Thornton P. Knowles 

Writing For Publication is Exhausting

I tend to think of writing as much like taking an exam--the experience is deeply absorbing, my concentration is intensely focused, time seems suspended yet suddenly hours have elapsed. At the end of a day of writing, I feel drained. The point is that I don't believe anyone has to innately love the process of writing to be a good writer, and to find it an immensely satisfying pursuit.

James B. Stewart, Follow the Story, 1998

When a Professional Athlete Steals, It's a Mistake. For the Rest of Us, It's Criminal

     Saying it was "the biggest mistake I've ever made in my life," Dallas Cowboys running back Joseph Randle apologized to teammates after getting arrested on shoplifting charges. [How about an apology to the store he ripped-off?]

     Randle, 22, a backup tailback in his second season with the Cowboys, was accused of attempting to steal $80 worth of cologne and underwear from a Dillards' Inc. store in the Dallas suburb of Frisco. Cowboys coach Jason Garrett told reporters on October 15, 2014 that Randle will be fined, but not suspended for this weekend's game against the New York Giants.

     "The actions that we're going to take is to fine him significantly and move forward," Garrett said in a news conference…[I don't think it's a good sign that people are always "moving forward."] Randle will be fined at $29,117, the amount he earns each week on his scheduled $495,000 base salary this season. [He can't afford cologne and underwear on that salary? This kid needs a raise.]…

     "I just made a huge mistake," Randle told reporters. "It was hard coming back in the locker room and looking at people who care about me in the eye, knowing that I did something stupid."…

"Cowboy's Randle Charged with Trying to Steal Underwear," bloomberg.com, October 16, 2014 

Writing the Whodunit Crime Novel

     Most of my fiction writing has been in the murder mystery novel genre, specifically whodunits, in which there usually are four to six suspects. One of the most difficult aspects of writing whodunits is to give all of these suspects roughly equal motives for having committed the murder. The idea is to keep the reader guessing as long as possible.

     I try to adhere to the doctrine of fair play in the plot. That is, I put in clues so that the reader could conceivably identify the murderer. Having said that, I bury the clues by making them hard to spot. Many of these clues are embedded in seemingly innocuous details. [In real life, people often commit  murder with virtually no motive that makes any sense. Moreover, people with the most obvious motives  often turn out to be innocent. In the murder mystery genre the plots have to make sense. In true crime they just have to be true.]

Robert Goldsborough in The 101 Habits of Highly Successful Novelists, Andrew McAleer, editor, 2008

Sunday, October 22, 2017

The Roberto Roman Cop Killer Murder Cases

     Just after midnight on January 5, 2010, Deputy Josie Fox of the Millard County Sheriff's Office and her partner were watching, from a distance, a suspicious car and a pickup truck parked along the road near the tiny central Utah town of Delta. There had recently been a series of burglaries which had drawn the officers to the area. When the two suspicious vehicles departed the scene in opposite directions, Deputy Fox followed  the 1995 Cadillac DeVille. The officers knew the identity of the man in the other vehicle, the pickup truck. He was a known drug user named Ryan Greathouse who also happened to be Deputy Fox's brother.

     After Deputy Fox called in the license number of the Cadillac, registered to 38-year-old Roberto Miramontes Roman, the police dispatcher forwarded instructions to have the vehicle pulled over. A few minutes later, Deputy Fox radioed that she had pulled over Roman and was exiting the patrol car.

     Deputy Fox did not transmit further messages and was not responding to calls from the dispatcher. Concerned that the deputy's encounter with the driver of the Cadillac had resulted in her injury or death, Millard County Sergeant Rhett Kimball proceeded to the site of the stop to investigate. When the deputy rolled up to the scene, he saw Fox's patrol car lights flashing and the deputy lying on the road in a pool of blood. The 37-year-old police officer had been killed by two bullets fired at close range into her chest. (I imagine the bullets had pierced her bullet-proof vest.) Roberto Roman and his 1995 Cadillac were gone.

     After fleeing the scene en route to Salt Lake City, Roberto Roman got stuck in a snowbank near Nephi, Utah. He called his friend, 35-year-old Ruben Chavez-Reyes, for help. Chavez-Reyes pulled the Cadillac out of the snowbank, and from there the two men continued on to Salt Lake City. Along the way, Roman tossed the murder weapon, an AK-47 assault rifle, out the car window. When the two men arrived at their destination, Roman switched license plates with Chavez-Reyes. (He did not, however, clean traces of Deputy Fox's blood off his Cadillac.) Later that morning, Roman told his friend that he had "broke a cop," meaning that he had killed a police officer.

     Deputy Fox's partner, later that morning, questioned Ryan Greathouse at his home. The deceased deputy's brother said he had purchased drugs from the man in the Cadillac, a dealer he knew as "Rob." Greathouse gave the deputy Rob's phone number which identified this man as Roberto Roman. The deputy then informed Greathouse that Roman had shot and killed his sister with an AK-47 assault rifle.

     The next day, Millard County deputies arrested Roberto Roman whom they found hiding in a shed in Beaver, Utah. Once in custody, Roman provided the officers with a full confession. The suspect told his interrogators that when the patrol officer pulled him over outside of Delta, he was angry because he was being careful not to speed or cross over the center line. Furious that the cop was pulling him over simply because he was "Mexican," Roman shot her twice with his assault rifle. He did not know he had murdered the sister of the man who had just purchased meth from him.

     The Millard County prosecutor charged Roberto Roman with aggravated first-degree murder as well as with lesser weapons and evidence tampering offenses. If convicted of murdering a police officer, under Utah law, Roberto Roman faced the death penalty.

     In April 2010, more than four months after the shooting death of his sister, Ryan Greathouse was found dead from a meth overdose in the bedroom of a Las Vegas apartment.

     In 2011, Judge Donald Eyre presided over a two-day hearing to determine if Robert Roman would qualify for the death penalty. The judge, after listening to the testimony of psychologists, ruled that the defendant was "mentally retarded," and as such, ineligible under Utah law for execution. This ruling disappointed and mystified a lot of people. (I would imagine that most cop killers are either high on drugs and/or stupid. Since intoxication and mental dullness are not criminal defenses, I don't see why people who are not bright are spared execution. Moreover, courthouse psychologists think all criminals are stupid and should therefore be judged differently from their more intelligent counterparts. Psychologists should not be allowed inside a courthouse unless they have been charged with a crime.)

     The Roberto Roman murder trial got underway on August 13, 2012 in the Fourth District Court in Spanish Fork, Utah. After the prosecution rested its case four days later, the defendant took the stand on his own behalf. Rather than admitting his guilt as he had in his police confession, Roberto Roman offered the jurors a completely different story, one that was both self-serving and implausible.

     On the night of Deputy Fox's death, the defendant and the officer's brother Ryan Greathouse, were riding around in Roman's Cadillac smoking meth. When Deputy Fox pulled the car over outside Delta, Ryan, who was crouched down in the vehicle, grabbed the AK-47 and shot Fox in the chest, unaware he had just murdered his sister. After the shooting, the two men went their separate ways. The beauty of this story involved the fact Ryan Greathouse was not in position to contest the defendant's version of the murder.

     Prosecutor Pat Finlinson, in his closing summation, reminded the jurors of the physical evidence that supported the prosecution's theory of the case. The victim's bullet wounds indicated that the AK-47 had been fired at an angle consistent with being discharged by the driver of the Cadillac. Moreover, the defendant's fingerprints, not Ryan Greathouse's, were on the assault rifle.

     On August 20, 2012, a week after the Roberto Roman trial began, the jury, after deliberating eight hours, found the defendant not guilty of the aggravated first degree murder of Deputy Josie Fox. The jurors, in defending their unpopular verdict, said that without Roman's confession, they didn't have enough evidence to find him guilty.

     Roberto Roman became the first Utah defendant charged with the murder of a police officer to be acquitted since 1973. The jury did find him guilty of the lesser offenses pertaining to the assault rifle and the evidence tampering. On October 24, 2012, the judge sentenced Roman to the ten year maximum sentence for those crimes.

     The not guilty verdict in the Roberto Roman murder trial shocked and angered the law enforcement community, friends and relatives of the slain police officer, and a majority of citizens familiar with the case. Had Ryan Greathouse not died between the time of the shooting and Roman's trial, this case may have had a different ending. For a stupid person Roberto Roman had done a good job of beating a strong circumstantial case.

     In May 2013, David Barlow, the United States Attorney for the District of Utah, announced that a federal grand jury had returned an 11-count indictment against Roberto Roman for, among other crimes, the murder of Deputy Josie Fox. U.S. Attorney Barlow said, "The fact that Mr Roman had already been tried before a state court had no influence or affect on the federal murder charge [arising out of the same conduct]." In other words, according to this federal prosecutor, the Fifth Amendment protection against double jeopardy didn't apply in this case.

     The new federal charges against Roman, in addition to murder, included, among other offenses, drug trafficking and illegally firing a gun in the death of a police officer. If convicted as charged, Roman faced a maximum sentence of life in prison.

     In May 2014, Roman's attorneys filed a motion to dismiss the federal indictments on grounds their client should not have to stand trial for a federal murder charge related to the same crime. Attorney Jeremy Delicino said, "In layman's terms, the Untied States seeks a second chance to rectify what it believes the jury got wrong the first time. In blunt colloquial terms, the Unites States seeks a do-over."

     In response to the defense motion to dismiss the indictments, lawyers for the prosecution asserted that the U.S. Supreme Court had held that federal and state governments can prosecute a person for separate crimes based upon the same conduct.

     On September 30, 2014, U.S. District Court Judge David Nuffen ruled that prosecuting Roberto Roman for federal offenses related to the police officer's murder did not constitute double jeopardy. The federal case could therefore go forward.

     On February 6, 2017, a jury sitting in a Salt Lake City courtroom found Roberto Roman guilty of eight federal charges that included the murder of Deputy Fox. U.S. District Court Judge David Nuffen, in April 2017, sentenced Roman to life in prison plus 80 years. "Criminals must know that killing a law enforcer in the line of duty means that they will never go free," he said.



      

An Eye For An Eye

The biblical precept, "An eye for any eye and a tooth for a tooth" belongs to an era that predates courts. It enjoins the injured party not to wreak vengeance beyond the injury he has suffered. In this sense it is the beginning of the idea of justice.

Ronald Irving, The Law Is An Ass, 2011 

A Good Writing Day

I know perfectly well how to have a good writing day: get up around six, get a quick breakfast, at my desk before seven for an uninterrupted three hours of solid work (invariably the most productive segment of the day); a break at ten to fetch the mail, then back to work--resisting, by sheer strength of character, the seductions of the mail--until noon. Break again to [take a walk], get lunch, read the paper. Back to the desk for another productive couple of hours, until concentration fades; sag away from the desk about four, get a nap, feed and exercise the dogs, and begin, cocktail in hand, to read whatever it is I'm reading at the time. Piece of cake. I get a writing day like that, oh, at least once a month.

John Jerome, The Writing Trade, 1992 

The Premature Aging of Prostitutes

Their faces go before their time, their skin coarsens, their speech turns foul until at last it is true to say they are almost completely de-womanized in every gentle aspect of that word. This, like the mark of Cain on the brow of the murderer, is the stigmata of prostitution which none can escape.

John Gosling, head of Scotland Yard's vice squad in the 1950s, in The Book of Criminal Quotations, J.P. Bean, editor, 2003 

The Unhappy Vocation

Novel writing is considered a profession and I don't think it is a profession. I think that everyone who does not need to be a writer, who thinks he can do something else, ought to do something else. Writing is not a profession but a vocation of unhappiness. I don't think that an artist can ever be happy.

Georges Simenon, Paris Review, Summer 1955 

Saturday, October 21, 2017

The Levi Chavez Murder Case

     Levi Chavez, a 26-year-old officer with the Albuquerque, New Mexico Police Department, at nine o'clock on the night of October 21, 2007, called 911 to report that his wife had committed suicide with his department-issued Glock 9 pistol. Responding officers with the APD found, at the Chavez home in Los Lunas, 26-year-old Tera Chavez. The officers found the woman in the master bedroom with a massive exit bullet wound at the base of her skull. Next to her body officers saw the 9 mm Glock that still had a round in its chamber. Nearby lay the fatal bullet's spent shell casing and, detached from the handgun, its clip. It appeared that the barrel of the gun had been inserted into the dead woman's mouth.

     Officer Chavez informed his fellow officers that he and his wife had been having marital problems for years, and that on countless occasions the mother of two, who worked at a beauty salon as a hairdresser, had threatened to kill herself.

     Because it was apparent that Tera Chavez had been dead for several hours, the crime scene officers wanted to know the circumstances under which Levi had discovered his wife's corpse. In response to that question, Chavez said he last saw his wife on Friday morning, October 19 before going on duty at the APD. That night, he decided to stay over at his girlfriend Deborah Romero's house. Romero was also a member of the Albuquerque Police Department.

     According to Levi Chavez, on Saturday, October 20, Tera called him 176 times. He ignored her calls by turning off his cellphone. Chavez said he spent Saturday night with Romero, and the next day, when Tera didn't call him, he began to worry. Later that Sunday evening, Levi said his mother told him that Tera had not shown up for work that day at the beauty salon. At that point he rushed home to find that his wife had committed suicide.

     In 2007, the Albuquerque Police Department, due to a series of questionable police-involved shootings, and allegations of institutional corruption and departmental cover-ups of officer wrongdoing, was under investigation by the FBI. Shortly after Tera Chavez's sudden and violent death, critics of the APD accused the department of helping officer Chavez cover up the murder of his wife by destroying crime scene evidence. Because the police department had such a bad reputation, and a police officer's wife had died under suspicious circumstances, Detective Aaron Jones of the Valencia County Sheriff's Office took charge of the homicide investigation.

     Detective Jones, who suspected that Levi Chavez had murdered his wife eighteen to twenty hours before he called 911, had to back off when Dr. Patricia McFeeley, the state medical examiner, ruled Tera's manner of death a suicide. In November 2007, Detective Jones showed Dr. McFeeley crime scene photographs that caused her to change Tera Chavez's manner of death to "undetermined." Despite Jone's efforts, the homicide investigation eventually died on the vine.

     In April 2011, three and a half years after Tera Chavez's death, following a cold-case murder investigation, Dr. McFeeley changed the manner of death in the case to "criminal homicide." Assistant Sandoval County District Attorney Bryan McKay charged Levi Chavez, who was no longer on the police force, with first-degree murder in his wife's death.

     The Chavez murder trial got underway on June 3, 2013 before Sandoval District Court Judge George Eichwald. In his opening remarks to the jury, lead prosecutor McKay presented the state's theory that the defendant had murdered his wife sometime between late Saturday night, October 20, 2007 and the early morning hours of Sunday, October 21. After shooting his wife in the mouth with the Glock 9 pistol, the defendant staged a suicide by placing the gun, the shell casing, and the clip next to her body.

     Levi Chavez's trial attorney, David Sema, a lawyer well known in New Mexico for representing several high-profile criminal defendants, told the jurors that his client's wife had committed suicide over her husband's extramarital affairs.

     Detective Aaron Jones took the stand for the prosecution. According to the Valencia County homicide detective, the Glock magazine found next to the victim's body was "unseated." By that, the witness meant it wasn't locked into the butt of the gun. This suggested that after the weapon had been discharged, the shooter had pressed a button to release the clip.

     DNA expert Alanna Williams, who in 2007 worked for the New Mexico Crime Laboratory, but was now employed by the APD, testified that she had tested the Glock and a pair of sweatpants found in the Chavez home washing machine for DNA. Williams said she had found blood on the muzzle of the pistol that contained the victim's DNA. On the handgun's grip, the forensic scientist found a mixture of Tera's and the defendant's DNA. The sweatpants, believed to have been worn by the defendant, contained DNA from the victim.

     Dr. Patricia McFeeley, now the former medical examiner, testified that the death scene Glock had been inserted at least one inch into Tera Chavez's mouth. The fatal bullet had vaporized the victim's brainstem. The forensic pathologist explained that the victim, after being shot, couldn't have pressed the button that released the magazine from the butt of the pistol.

     One of the defendant's mistresses, APD officer Regina Sanchez, took the stand. In September 2006 she and Levi began an intimate relationship. A month later, Sanchez, believing that Chavez was in the process of divorcing Tera, allowed him to move in with her. After the witness received an angry call from Tera Chavez, he moved out.

     Rose Slama, another of the defendant's girlfriends, testified that he told her that when Tera shot herself, he was in the house taking a shower.

     After the prosecution rested its case on June 26, 2013, defense attorney David Sema put Dr. Alan Berman, a suicide expert who lived in Washington, D. C., on the stand. Based on Tera Chavez's diary entries, text messages, medical history, and two notes in her handwriting found at the death scene, Dr. Berman said he believed that she suffered from low self-esteem and self-hate due to her emotionally abusive relationship with her philandering husband. She had been, in the witness' opinion, depressed as well. According to the psychologist, these factors combined to create what he called "acute risk factors for suicide."

     Dr. Berman read several text messages Tera had sent to her husband between August and October 2006. In one such message she had written: "I am a loser. I've failed at everything, especially you. I want to die." In another text she had said, "I'm tired of being your dumb wife. You treat me like shit...please respect me...I have a job."

     Prosecutor McKay, on cross-examination, asked the "suicideologist" to read Tera Chavez's last diary entry, dated July 12, 2007, which read: "...so goodbye to the person I used to be. Welcome a new day. Happiness!" Dr. Berman testified that he did not believe this statement was inconsistent with a suicidal mindset.

     On July 1, 2013, a crime scene reconstruction expert took the stand for the defense. In the course of demonstrating to the jury how Tera Chavez, after shooting herself in the mouth with the Glock, had pressed the button that released the magazine, failed to eject the magazine pursuant to his theory of what happened. In other words, the demonstration failed.

     Defense attorney Sema, on July 9, 2013, presented his star witness. Dr. Charles V. Wetli, the former medical examiner of Suffolk County, New York, had testified for the defense in dozens of high-profile murder cases. According to the forensic pathologist, had the defendant shoved the pistol into his wife's mouth, he would have broken some of her teeth. According to Dr. Wetli, Tera Chavez, in killing herself, had turned the gun upside down and used her thumb to pull the trigger.

     Prosecutor McKay's associate, Assistant District Attorney Anne Keener, on cross-examination, showed Dr. Wetli a death scene photograph that appeared to show that one of Tera's lower teeth had been chipped. When asked if one of the dead woman's teeth had been broken, the forensic pathologist said, "It's possible." Prosecutor Keener asked Dr. Wetli if he had visited the death scene or personally examined Tera Chavez's corpse. He said that he had not.

     The second major defense witness, the defendant himself, took the stand on July 11, 2013. In describing his discovery of his dead wife on the night of October 21, 2007, Levi Chavez said, "I turned on the light and it was like terror. I couldn't believe what I was seeing." The defendant told the jury that he blamed himself for Tera's suicide, and felt that God was saying to him: "This is all your fault." Chavez assured the jurors that he had found religion, and had not cheated on his second wife. At several points during his direct examination by attorney Sema, the defendant broke down in tears.

     On cross-examination, prosecutor Bryan McKay asked the former police officer why he had left his loaded department-issued gun "with a woman who was depressed and talked about possibly hurting herself. You had small children in the house."

     "We had," the defendant replied, "an attempted break-in. A truck was stolen right out of our driveway when she was there. And yes, I had small children in the home, but this is exactly why I left the gun in the house. (Regarding the theft of Levi's 2004 Ford F-250 truck, Tera allegedly told her fellow beauty salon workers that he and his "cop buddies" had staged the theft as part of an insurance scam. Prosecutor McKay had attempted to get this information before the jury, but Judge Eichwald had suppressed it.)

     On July 16, 2013, the jury, after ten hours of deliberation, found the defendant not guilty.