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Sunday, December 31, 2017

Thornton P. Knowles On What It Takes To Be a Master Detective

The creator of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, said that a first-class investigator had to have a good mind, exact knowledge, and the powers of observation and deduction. That's true, as far as it goes, but he forgot to mention persistence, audacity, objectivity, and, above all, integrity. And a little luck never hurt anyone.

Thornton P. Knowles 

Thornton P. Knowles On America's Missing Person Population

If America's rivers, creeks, lakes, and ponds all suddenly went dry, there wouldn't be enough forensic scientists to identify the remains of all the missing persons no longer submerged in these watery resting places. American waterways are grave sites for thousands and thousands of people who went missing and remain unaccounted for. The stories of their accidents, suicides and murders will never be revealed. These are America's untold stories. 

Thornton P. Knowles

Thornton P. Knowles On True Detective Magazines

In 1946, as a 15-year-old, I discovered true detective magazines. I was hooked. This was the beginning of the end of the golden era for fact crime mags. Television came along and wiped out all but a few of these colorful periodicals with the pulp art covers. I particularly liked the stories written by Dashiell Hammett, Jim Thompson, and Alan Hynd. Dashiell Hammett went on to become a famous crime novelist. (I didn't.) My favorite magazines were Master Detective, Official Detective, and True Detective Mysteries. I didn't realize it at the time that these "true" crime stories were more fiction than fact. But many of them were well-written, and they got me interested in criminality, criminals, and criminal investigation. Most of the featured crimes involved gruesome murders and brilliant police work. Depression era bank robbers such as John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson and Machine Gun Kelly also made appearances between the covers of these splashy, photograph rich publications. I purchased most of mine off the rack down at the local drug store. My mother worried that these mags had a bad influence on me. They did, I became a crime novelist.

Thornton P. Knowles

Can A Liar Beat the Polygraph?

     In order for a polygraph (lie detection) test result to be accurate, the instrument must be in good working order; the polygraph examiner must be properly trained and experienced in question formation and line-chart interpretation; and the subject of the test--the examinee--must be a willing participant in the process. Not  everyone is suited for polygraph testing, including people who are ill, on drugs, under the influence of alcohol, extremely obese, retarded, or mentally unbalanced. (In America that's a lot of people.)  Criminal suspects who are emotionally exhausted from a police interrogation do not make good polygraph subjects. Children and very old people should not be placed on the lie detector, either.

     The polygraph instrument measures and records the examinee's involuntary, physiological (bodily) responses to answers to a set of ten yes or no questions. The examinee should know in advance what he will be asked. Based upon changes in the examinee's blood pressure, heart rate, breathing patterns, and galvanic skin response, the examiner will draw conclusions on whether the subject told the truth or lied. Polygraph examiners are not recognized in the criminal court system as expert witnesses, therefore polygraph results are not admissible as evidence of guilt in criminal cases.

     Congress passed a federal law in 1988 that prohibited the use of the polygraph as a private sector pre-employment screening measure. It is widely used, however, in law enforcement as an investigative tool, and as a way to screen job applicants.

     Over the years, more and more local, state and federal law enforcement agencies have required job applicants to submit to polygraph tests. These law enforcement job candidates are typically asked if they've ever sold drugs, stolen significant amounts of money or merchandise from their employers, or are in serious debt. Employment candidates may also be asked if they have omitted anything important from their resumes or job applications.

     In 2013, more than 73,000 Americans were either given polygraph tests as part of the federal job application process, or were tested to determine if they should be allowed to keep their jobs. Federal agencies involved in national security such as the National Security Administration, the FBI, and the CIA, periodically put employees on the polygraph to make sure they haven't gone rogue. Other federal agencies that require periodic screening tests include the DEA, ICE, the Secret Service, ATF, and the Postal Inspection Service.

     Not everyone is a fan of the polygraph technique. Generally, there are two kinds of polygraph critic. There are the anti-polygraph people who object to this form of lie detection because they believe the instrument and the technique is junk science and therefore no more reliable than a flip of a coin. The other group objects to polygraph use because they believe the instrument is utilized to violate the privacy of those tested. Critics in this camp accuse polygraph examiners, and the people who hire them, of abusing the process by digging for dirt that is unrelated to the job application process.

     Over the years there have been numerous high-profile examples of FBI and CIA spies who avoided detection for years even though they were subjected to regular polygraph testing. Aldrich Ames, the counterintelligence CIA officer convicted of spying in 1994, must have found a way to beat the polygraph screening test. (I do not believe that suspects in specific criminal cases can lie to competent examiners and get away with it.) This was also true of FBI agent Robert Hanssen who was convicted of thirteen counts of espionage in 2001.

     Russell Tice, the National Security Administration whistleblower who was one of the first to leak evidence of the NSA's spying on U.S. citizens, revealed that during his 20-year career in counterintelligence, he beat the polygraph a dozen times. Mr. Tice believed that due to political correctness and lawsuits, polygraph tests have become easier to manipulate. He has said that beating the employment screening examination had actually become easy. Over the years Mr. Tice and others have published, in print and online, instructions on how to beat the polygraph.

     Polygraph examiners ask what they call relevant, irrelevant, and control questions. Irrelevant questions such as "Have you ever eaten pasta?" are intended to set the baseline of a truthful response. Control questions are designed to create a baseline or point of reference for deceptive responses. To do that, polygraph examiners ask subjects questions likely to produce deceptive answers. In other words they want the subject to lie. For example: "Have you ever lied to your parents?" or "Have you ever cheated on a test?" Most subjects, when they answer "no" to these questions, are lying. Relevant questions are ones that directly address the point of the polygraph examination. In a national security employee screening test an employee with access to classified information might be asked if he or she has leaked classified documents to a journalist. To determine if the subject is telling the truth about not leaking information, the polygraph examiner compares the physiological responses to the relevant query with the subject's responses to the control and irrelevant questions.

     According to those who have made it their mission to teach people how to beat the polygraph, manipulation techniques, or so-called "countermeasures," center around how the examinee should respond to the control and relevant questions. In answering a control question designed to produce a deceitful physiological baseline, the subject, while telling the expected lie, should bite his tongue. The idea here is to cause the polygraph instrument to record a strong physiological reaction to the subject's lying. When asked a relevant question the answer to which will be a lie, the subject is instructed to find a way to distance himself from the question by daydreaming, counting backward, or slowing down his breathing.

     If this countermeasure works, the relatively mild responses to the relevant questions, when compared to the wild reactions to the control questions, might lead the polygraph examiner to conclude that the examinee had told the truth.

     Law enforcement job applicants are better off simply telling the truth and hoping for the best. Very few people have the presence of mind and discipline to successfully employ these polygraph manipulation tricks. As for national security employees who are either spies or future whistleblowers, they have nothing to lose by trying these techniques. Notwithstanding Aldrich Ames, Robert Hanssen, and Russell Tice, fooling a competent polygraph examiner is a lot easier said than done. And that is no lie.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Thornton P. Knowles On The Execution Of Someone He Knew In High School

A guy in my high school class was so small we nicknamed him Elf. Elf didn't have many friends because nobody liked him. Barely over five feet tall, Elf tried to join the Army. They turned him down because of his height. A couple of years later, three men in a bar made fun of Elf. Elf pulled a gun and shot all three of them. He was tried and convicted of three counts of first-degree murder. This was back when West Virginia still had the death penalty. When it came time for the execution, the electric chair operator had to make adjustments for Elf. You know, adjust the straps, build a platform for his feet, adjust the flow of juice, things of that nature. Still, when the executioner threw the switch, the little guy burst into flames. It was not a pretty sight, for sure. In fact, one of the death chamber observers, quoted in the paper, said that Elf, perched on Old Sparky, looked like a kid sitting on a throne. Another execution witness opined that extremely short people like Elf should be spared the electric chair. I believe, however, that if you are tall enough to kill three people, you are tall enough to be electrocuted. As I say, nobody in high school liked the guy, and West Virginia no longer has the death penalty. I hope I wasn't the kid who nicknamed him Elf.

Thornton P. Knowles 

Thornton P. Knowles On Psychic Detectives

I don't believe in ghosts, Big-Foot, UFOs, alien abductions, Elvis sightings, spontaneous human combustion, or the Loch Ness Monster. I also don't believe in fortune tellers, soothsayers, and so-called psychic detectives who inject themselves into high profile missing person and murder cases. The words "psychic" and "detective" do not belong next to each other. Psychic detectives claim credit for locating missing persons by embellishing and changing, after the fact, their initial predictions and visions. It's all a load of crap. If psychic detectives could do what they claim, there would be no such thing as a missing child. There wouldn't be unsolved murders. Moreover, we would have been spared the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy. But in an era of magical thinking and stupid beliefs, millions of people buy into this paranormal nonsense. Today, it's all about what a person believes, not what he or she knows. Police detectives who allow psychic detectives to waste their time, should find another line of work.

Thornton P. Knowles 

The Rise And Fall Of Judge G. Todd Baugh

     Police in Billings Montana in 2008 arrested 49-year-old Stacey Dean Rambold, a teacher at the local high school. Rambold stood accused of having a sexual relationship with Cherice Morales, a 14-year-old student. A Yellowstone County prosecutor charged Rambold with three counts of sexual intercourse without consent. (By law, a person under the age of 16 cannot consent to sex with an adult. In some states the crime is called statutory rape.)

     In 2004, administrators at Billings Senior High School had warned Rambold against touching or being alone with female students.

     Cherice Morales, just before her 17th birthday in 2010, committed suicide. At the time of this troubled girl's death, the criminal case against her former teacher was pending. The girl's mother, Auliea Halon, sued the the school district for wrongful death. The case was quickly settled for $91,000.

     The Yellowstone County prosecutor, as a result of Morales' suicide, offered Stacey Rambold a deal. If he confessed to one count of sexual intercourse without consent, and promised to enter a sex offender treatment program, the charges would be dropped. Rambold accepted the offer.

     In August 2012, Rambold began skipping meetings with his counselors, and didn't tell them about unsupervised visits he was having with girls. In November, the head of the sex treatment facility kicked him out of the program. When Deputy Chief Yellowstone County prosecutor Rod Souza learned that Rambold had violated the terms of their agreement, he refiled the original charges against the former teacher.

     Rambold's attorney, Jay Lansing, told reporters that the girls Rambold had visited without supervision were members of his family. Moreover, his client had enrolled in another sex treatment program.

     On August 26, 2013, the Rambold case came before 66-year-old District Court Judge G. Todd Baugh. Before being elected to the bench in 1985, Baugh had served as a federal magistrate. Prior to that, he practiced law in Billings. The judge was currently running, unopposed, for his fifth term on the bench.

     In September 2011, Judge Baugh had sentenced a 26-year-old defendant to 50 years in prison for the rape on an 11-year-old girl. A year later he sent a man to prison for 25 years for possessing child pornography. Judge Baugh did not have a reputation for going easy on sex offenders.

     At the Rambold hearing, Judge Baugh dismissed the refiled charges against the defendant. The judge said that Rambold's being kicked out of the sex program did not justify the refiling of the 2008 sexual intercourse without consent charges. The remaining issue before the judge involved Rambold's sentence based upon his 2010 admission of guilt on the single count of sexual intercourse without consent.

     Yellowstone County Chief Deputy prosecutor Rod Souza proposed a 20 year sentence with 10 years suspended. Defense attorney Jay Lansing suggested that because Rambold had lost his job, his license to teach, his house and his wife, he had been punished enough. Attorney Lansing asked Judge Baugh to suspend all but 30 days of a 15-year sentence. The attorney pointed out that Mr. Rambold had continued his sex rehabilitation program with another treatment facility.

     Judge Baugh said that he had reviewed the videotaped police interviews of Cherice Morales. From this he had concluded that even though the victim was 35 years younger than her teacher, she was "as much in control of the situation" as the defendant. Judge Baugh said that the 14-year-old was "older than her chronological age." The judge considered this a major mitigating factor in the case.

     Judge Baugh suspended all but 30 days of Rambold's 15-year sentence. After spending a month in jail, the former teacher would be on probation for 15 years. He would also have to register as a sex offender.

     Upon hearing this sentence, the dead girl's mother, Auilea Hanlon, stormed out of the courtroom. When she spoke to reporters after the hearing, Hanlon said, " I guess somehow it makes a rape more acceptable if you can blame the victim, even if she was only fourteen."

     In a matter of  hours following the sentence, local citizens were signing an online petition that called for Judge Baugh to resign. Marion Bradley, the director of the Montana National Organization for Women, told reporters that "Rape is rape. She was 14-years-old, and she was not an age where she could give consent, and he groomed her like any pedophile. Unless we show our outrage, none of our children are safe."

     On the day following his controversial and extremely unpopular sentencing of the former high school teacher, Judge Baugh, in speaking to reporters, stood by his ruling. "Obviously," he said, "a 14-year-old can't consent. 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. I think what people are seeing is a sentence for rape of 30 days. Obviously on the face of it, if you look at it that way, it's crazy. No wonder people are upset. I'd be upset, too, if that happened."

     The next day, Judge Baugh conceded that he deserved to be criticized for his "chronological age" comment. He apologized for that but it was too late for apologies.

     Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito, in responding to Judge Baugh's sentence, said, "I have no legal authority whatsoever to appeal a sentence handed down by a judge."

     As of August 29, 2013, the day hundreds of anti-Baugh demonstrators gathered in Billings to protest the sentence, the online petition calling for the judges' resignation had collected 26,350 signatures.

     Stacey Rambold was released from jail in September 2013. He would be on probation until August 2028.

     In July 2014, the Montana Supreme Court censured Judge Baugh for the remarks he made about the 14-year-old rape victim.

     Having decided not to run for a fifth term, Baugh, at the end of his term in December 2014, retired from the bench. He told a skeptical media that his retirement had nothing to do with the Rambold sentence and the state supreme court censure.

     In April 2015, the former judge's critics, and there were many, were stunned to learn that the Yellowstone Area Bar Association had awarded G. Todd Baugh a lifetime achievement award.
     

Friday, December 29, 2017

Thornton P. Knowles On Growing Old

Some day a scientist will discover how to make people invisible. Until then, the closest thing we have to human invisibility is old age.

Thornton P. Knowles 

The Donna Scrivo Murder Case

     In 1999, Ramsay Scrivo graduated from De La Salle Collegiate High School in St. Clair Shores, a suburban community just east of Detroit, Michigan. He earned a bachelor's degree from Wayne State University four years later. After working briefly as an accountant, Ramsay quit after a supervisor criticized his work.

     After employment in the building trade, Ramsay, in the spring of 2013, started a lawn maintenance service. About that time his parents, Daniel and Donna Scrivo, helped him buy a condo in St. Clair Shores.

     Notwithstanding the support he received from his parents, Ramsay had serious problems. He was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic who suffered depression and bouts of uncontrolled anger when he was off his medication. Ramsay, when he wasn't on his anti-psychotic meds, thought people were trying to poison him. Moreover, he believed that someone had implanted a tiny microphone in one of his teeth. Following a simple assault conviction, the judge placed Scrivo on probation.

     Ramsay Scrivo's troubled life took a turn for the worse when his father died of an illness in May 2013. After threatening to hang himself, a judge granted Donna Scrivo, a registered nurse, guardianship of her son. Ramsay agreed to mental health treatment at St. John Hospital in Detroit. After 90 days of treatment, he was released from the medical center. As long as he took his medication he wasn't dangerous. But almost all schizophrenics, at one time or another, quit their medication because of the side effects.  Donna Scrivo moved into Ramsay's condo in St. Clair Shores.

     On Sunday, January 26, 2014, Donna reported Ramsay missing. Late in the afternoon of Thursday, January 30, a motorist in China Township 50 miles northeast of Detroit, saw a human head that had rolled out of a garbage bag that had been dumped along the side of a rural road. Inside three more garbage bags found nearby, police officers discovered body parts, items of clothing, and charred documents.

     Just before five in the morning of Friday, January 31, 2014, a motorist saw a garbage bag alongside an Interstate 94 ramp in nearby St. Clair Township. Inside the bag officers found more body parts.The FBI, through fingerprints, identified the remains as coming from one person, Ramsay Scrivo.

     A neighbor reported seeing Donna Scrivo carrying several garbage bags out of the condo shortly before she reported Ramsay missing. Crime lab technicians found traces of blood in the dwelling as well as in Donna's SUV. There was also evidence in the house that someone had used bleach in an effort to scrub away bloodstains.

     A gas station surveillance camera recorded Donna in her 1990s Chevy Blazer near one of the dump sites.

     Later on the day of the gruesome discoveries, deputies with the Macomb County Sheriff's Office arrested Ramsay's 59-year-old mother on charges of mutilation of a corpse, a felony, and the removal of a dead body without permission from a medical examiner, a misdemeanor. If convicted of the former offense, Donna faced up to ten years in prison. The misdemeanor came with a maximum sentence of one year in jail.

     On February 3, 2014, at her arraignment, the judge appointed Donna an attorney and set her bail at $100,000. If and when she was bailed out of the Macomb County Jail, she would undergo random drug and alcohol testing and would not be allowed to leave the state. The judge also ordered a mental health evaluation of the suspect.

     At a press conference following the arraignment, a Macomb County prosecutor said that further charges could be filed in the case depending upon the medical examiner's cause and manner of death findings. Not long after that statement, the prosecutor charged Donna Scrivo with first-degree murder.

    Donna Scrivo went on trial in May 2015 for the murder and dismemberment of her son. The defendant, as a witness on her own behalf, told the jury that a masked man had entered the condo, pointed a gun at her head, murdered her son, then cut up the victim's body with a saw. The prosecutor, on cross-examination, ripped her story to shreds.

     The jurors, following a short deliberation, found Donna Scrivo guilty of first-degree premeditated murder. On June 23, 2015, the Macomb County judge sentenced the 61-year-old to life in prison without parole.
     

Thornton P. Knowles On Writing Sex Scenes

There are no sex scenes in my novels. I'm not a prude, nor against sex, I just don't know how to write them. There's nothing more pathetic than badly written sex. For me, it's a lot easier to have good sex than make it come alive on paper. I suspect that some writers who compose good sex are better on the page than in bed. Would I rather have good sex or write it? That's a tough one.

Thornton P. Knowles 

Dr. Pamela Fish: DNA Expert From Hell

     In 1990, prosecutors in Cook County, Illinois charged John Willis with several counts of rape in connection with a series of sexual assaults committed in the late 1980s on Chicago's South Side. Willis, a petty thief, and illiterate, denied raping the women even though several of the victims had picked him out of a lineup.

     The only physical evidence in the Willis case was a scrap of toilet paper containing traces of semen. Police took this evidence to the Chicago Police Lab where it was examined by Dr. Pamela Fish. Dr. Fish had come to the lab in 1979 with bachelor's and master's degrees in biology from Loyola University. Ten years later, after taking courses at night, she earned a Ph.D in biology from Illinois Institute of Technology. According to her handwritten lab notes, Dr. Fish determined that the secretor of the semen had type A blood. John Willis had type B blood thereby excluding him as the rapist. Dr. Fish reported, however, in contradiction to her lab notes, that the semen on the tissue possessed type B blood. She testified to this at Willis' 1991 trial. The jury, in addition to believing in Dr. Fish, believed eleven prosecution rape victim/eyewitnesses that identified the defendant as the rapist. The jury found Willis guilty and the judge sentenced him to 100 years in prison.

     Eight years later, a south Chicago rapist confessed to these sexual assaults after being linked to the crimes through DNA analysis. An appeals  judge set aside the Willis conviction and he was set free. On the day of his release, Dr. Fish, now the head of  biochemistry testing at the state crime lab, spoke at a DNA seminar for judges. (The Chicago Police Lab had been incorporated into the Illinois crime lab system in 1996.)

     The Willis reversal led to a 2001 review of Dr. Fish's cases by the renowned DNA expert from Berkeley, California, Dr. Edward Blake. Dr. Blake studied nine cases in which Dr. Fish had testfied that her blood-typing tests had produced inconclusive results. Dr. Blake found that Dr. Fish's test results had actually exonerated the defendants involved and that she had given false testimony at those trials. Dr. Blake characterized Dr. Fish's work as "scientific fraud."

     In the summer of 2001, a state representative at a legislative hearing on prosecutorial misconduct suggested to the head of the Illinois State Police that Dr. Fish be transferred out of the crime lab into a position where she could do less harm. (In the public sector this is considered harsh employee discipline.) The police administrator ignored the recommendation.

     In 2002, three more Illinois men, in prison for rape since 1987, were exonerated by DNA. Dr. Fish had testified for the prosecution in all three cases. Two years later, after the state paid John Willis a large settlement for his wrongful prosecution and incarceration, the state refused to renew Dr. Fish's employment contract. Rather than firing Dr. Fish, the state reluctantly refused to rehire her. (I would image that Dr. Fish's forensic misbehavior did not keep her from enjoying her government retirement benefits.)

     In 2008, Marlon Pendleton, two years after his release from an Illinois prison where he'd been wrongfully incarcerated thirteen years on a rape conviction, sued the Chicago Police Department and Dr. Fish in federal court. The plaintiff accused Chicago detectives Jack Stewart and Steven Barnes, of manufacturing a false line-up identification against him. (These cops were notorious for this kind of  behavior.) He charged Dr. Fish with perjury in connection with her DNA testimony at the trial, testimony that convinced the jury he had raped the victim.

     As of 2015, Dr. Fish was employed as a biology teacher at Notre Dame College Prep in Niles, Illinois.

     Pendleton's civil suit in which he sought punitive damages for malicious prosecution, conspiracy, and emotional distress, had not been resolved as of December 2017.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Thornton P. Knowles On Duck Hunters

I once knew a couple of avid duck hunters. They'd get up in the morning; dress up as though they were going into combat; plant fake ducks on the pond; hide in the reeds with their shotguns; blow their whistles; then blast unsuspecting ducks out of the sky. They called this sport. I call it recreational killing. When ducks learn to drop egg-sized bombs out of their butts, then it will be a sport. I like ducks a lot better than people who kill them for the fun of it.

Thornton P. Knowles

Thornton P. Knowles On Criminal Investigation

Criminal investigation is a thinking person's game. That's why so many criminal investigations are bungled.

Thornton P. Knowles

Thornton P. Knowles On How To Start a Crime Novel

I like stories that begin with a young man or woman walking alone on a moonlit, deserted road in the middle of nowhere. Or, it could be an empty street in the city. Either way, you know that something bad. really bad, is about to happen.

Thornton P. Knowles

The Stephen Cooke Jr Murder-For-Hire Case

     In 2000, Heidi Louise Bernadzikowski, a 24-year-old employee of a health insurance company, lived in a Dundalk, Maryland townhouse with her boyfriend, 29-year-old Stephen Michael Cooke Jr. Baltimore County police officers, on April 20, 2000, responded to a 911 call made from the townhouse by Cooke. Upon arrival, officers found Cooke sitting on the living floor holding his girlfriend in his arms. They were both covered in blood.

     Heidi Bernadzikowski had been murdered. The killer had strangled the victim then slashed her throat. There were no signs of forced entry into the dwelling and no evidence that anything had been stolen. The victim had not been sexually assaulted.

     Detectives in search of a motive for the brutal murder became suspicious of the victim's boyfriend when they learned that a month before her death he had purchased a $700,000 insurance policy on her life. Because Cooke had an alibi that eliminated him as the killer, detectives suspected that he had hired a hit man to do the job. But without proof, they could not arrest him.

     Heidi Bernadzikowski's parents, in 2004, sued Stephen Cooke Jr. under the so-called "slayer's rule" for the $700,000 life insurance payout. The slayer's rule prohibits anyone who intentionally caused the death of the insured to collect life insurance benefits. The civil action was settled out of court when Cooke agreed to pay the plaintiffs $575,000. Detectives working on the murder case considered the settlement a tacit admission of guilt.

     In January 2012, a Baltimore County prosecutor charged Alexander Charles Bennett, a 32-year-old resident of Greeley, Colorado, with the murder of Heidi Bernadzikowski. Three months earlier, Bennett had been connected to the Bernadzikowski murder scene through a DNA match. Moreover, detectives had placed Bennett, a man with a history of burglary and car theft, in Baltimore the month before the murder.

     While homicide detectives theorized that Bennett had been hired by Cooke to kill the victim, the investigators had no evidence linking the hit man to the suspected murder plot's mastermind. In January 2012, police officers booked Bennett into the the Baltimore County Detention Center on the charge of first-degree murder. The judge denied the suspected hit man bail.

     Early in March 2014, just hours before the commencement of his murder trial, Bennett, pursuant to a plea deal, confessed to murdering Heidi Bernadzikowski. According to the hit man, he and a friend from Denver, Colorado named Grant A. Lewis had been hired over the Internet by Stephen Cooke Jr. who wanted someone to murder his girlfriend. Bennett said he flew to Baltimore in March 2000 to meet the murder-for-hire mastermind during which time Cooke offered Bennett and his accomplice a piece of the life insurance payout.

     According to the murder-for-hire plan, Grant Lewis would play the role of intermediary between Cooke and the trigger man. That March 2000 meeting would be the last time Bennett and Cooke communicated with each other directly.

     Alexander Bennett's version of the murder went like this: On April 20, 2000, the day of the killing, Bennett let himself into the Dundalk townhouse with a key left for him by Cooke. On that day, Cooke dropped Heidi off at the townhouse knowing that the killer was inside waiting for her. The moment Bernadzikowski walked into the dwelling, Bennett ambushed and choked the victim until she either passed out or died. To make sure she was dead, Bennett slashed her throat with a knife.

     A Baltimore County prosecutor charged Stephen Cooke Jr. with conspiracy to commit murder. On March 20, 2014, fourteen years after Bernadzikowski's violent death, detectives booked the Pasadena, Maryland suspect into the Baltimore County Detention Center. At his arraignment hearing, Cooke's attorney urged the judge to grant his client bail. The judge denied the request.

     On March 20, Baltimore homicide detectives arrested Grant A. Lewis, the 35-year-old murder-for-hire middle-man. Officers booked Lewis into the county jail on the charge of first-degree murder. Although Lewis had not bloodied his hands in the case, the judge denied him bail.

     On October 30, 2014, a jury found Grant A. Lewis guilty as charged. Baltimore County Court Judge Kathleen Gallogly-Cox, on February 2, 2015, sentenced him to life in prison.

     On June 18, 2015, a Baltimore County jury, after hearing the testimony of hit man Alexander Charles Bennett, found Stephen Cooke Jr. guilty of first-degree murder, solicitation of murder, and conspiracy to commit murder. The judge sentenced him to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

     In August 2015, the judge sentenced Alexander Charles Bennett to 30 years. Had the hit man not testified for the prosecution against Cooke, he would have been sentenced to life.

The Killing of Peyton Strickland

     Shortly before midnight on December 1, 2006, 18-year-old Peyton Strickland, a welding student at Cape Fear Community College, was at home playing a video game with his roommate, a student at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. When Strickland heard knocking at his front door, he got up with the game controller in his hand to answer it. Outside the house, sixteen police officers--nine SWAT team members from the New Hanover Sheriff's Office, three with the Wilmington Police, and four officers with the University of North Carolina Police Department--were poised to charge into the dwelling.

     Peyton Strickland and a University of North Carolina student who lived elsewhere, had allegedly struck a third student with a blunt object and had stolen two of his Playstation 3 game consoles. (The probable cause underlying the search warrant was based on information from an unreliable informant.) The police were at his door to arrest him for armed robbery, assault with a deadly weapon, and breaking and entering.

     Police officers at the front entrance saw Strickland approaching them through the door glass. For some reason, Strickland stopped, turned and walked back into the house. That caused an officer to strike the door with a battering ram. As Strickland turned in response to that noise, a deputy sheriff fired five shots, two of which passed through the door hitting Strickland in the head and chest, killing him on the spot. The officer discharged his weapon because he had confused the sound of the battering ram for gun shots coming from inside the house. Another deputy shot and killed Strickland's two dogs.

     The Hanover County sheriff placed three deputies on paid leave pending the results of the internal investigation of the shooting. The sheriff fired the deputy who had fired the fatal shot.

     A grand jury indicted the former deputy in December 2006 for second-degree murder, but a judge set aside the indictment due to a clerical error. (The grand jury foreman had checked the wrong box on an indictment document.)

     In July 2007, the Hanover County prosecutor presented the case to a second grand jury, but only 12 of the 18 jurors voted to indict the ex-deputy.

     Peyton Strickland's parents sued New Hanover County for the wrongful death of their son. In February 2008, pursuant to an out of court settlement, the county paid the plaintiffs $2.45 million. Nine months later, the family sued the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and their police department for leading the deputies to Peyton's door on the word of an unreliable informant. The defendants in that case, in February 2010, asked the court to dismiss the civil suit out on grounds of sovereign immunity. The judge allowed the case to go forward, and in July 2011, a North Carolina appeals court affirmed that decision. (As of April 2016, this legal action has not been resolved.)

     The Strickland case illustrates one of the hidden costs of militarized policing. Every year, city, county, and state governments pay out millions of dollars in civil damages and court settlements created by bungled SWAT raids and excessive force cases.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Thornton P. Knowles On Death By Gas Chamber

On February 8, 1924, a Chinese immigrant named Gee Jon became the first person in America to be executed by cyanide gas. He died in the gas chamber inside the Nevada State Prison in Carson City. Over time, eleven states adopted the cyanide chamber as the official method of execution. From 1924 to 1999, 594 persons died in these gas chambers. In 1990, asphyxiation executioners in California killed a man named Caryl Chessman. He perished in the cyanide room for the crimes of kidnapping and rape. He is the only person in U.S. history to be executed for a crime other than murder. (There are better ways to make history.) The gas chamber, compared to the rope, the firing squad, the electric chair, and lethal drugs, is the cruelest way to dispatch murderers. (That, of course, might be of no concern to proponents of the death sentence.) Death by cyanide took between six and eighteen agonizing minutes, and for those witnessing the execution, it produced  a gruesome tableau. It was the only form of capital punishment that required the condemned man to contribute to his death by breathing within a chamber filled with cyanide gas. I find the concept that the government can, with malice and premeditation, legally kill a human being, fascinating. I imagine it takes a special kind of person to open the trap door, throw the switch, insert the deadly needle, or release cyanide into a chamber occupied by a breathing human. I'm not the nicest guy in the world, and I hate criminals, but I couldn't do it.

Thornton P. Knowles

Thornton P. Knowles On Book Signings

Any creative endeavor can bring humiliation to the creator. It takes courage and thick skin to expose one's creative product to an indifferent, critical, and often uniformed public. For the vast majority of writers, there is nothing more disappointing and humiliating than the in-store book signing event. Unless you are some kind of celebrity whose autograph has value to adoring fans, you'll probably spend the afternoon alone behind your impressive pile of books while the store's publicity person looks on in boredom and disgust. As you sit there, you promise yourself that you will never expose yourself to this form of humiliation again. But, if you are like most authors, you will break that promise time and time again. The only way to spare yourself of this indignity is to become famous, or quit writing.

Thornton P. Knowles 

The Times Square Cookie Monster Case

     New York City's Times Square, in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, was one of the seediest sections of the city. The midtown Manhattan tourist attraction was inhabited by panhandlers, pickpockets, drunks passed out in their own urine, prostitutes, pimps, 3-card monte hustlers, and guys hawking stolen and knock-off watches. Times Square was home to strip joints, hole-in-the-wall bars, peep-shows, adult movie theaters, dirty book stores, and cathouses. This was not a destination for kids or tourists in search of wholesome entertainment. This was a place to get mugged, hustled, and ripped-off.

     When mayor Rudy Giuliani and his police commissioner took control of the city in the 1990s, they cleaned house in Manhattan and transformed Times Square into a Disneyesque theme park for families with young children. Toy stores, souvenir shops, clothing outlets, and fast-food restaurants replaced the adult entertainment establishments. The prostitutes, pimps, panhandlers and street hustlers were replaced by an assortment of costumed Sesame Street and comic book characters who probably think of themselves as street performers.

     Instead of being accosted by whores, bums, and stolen goods merchants, Times Square tourists are hassled by a motley band of oddballs walking around the place inside Spider-Man, Superman, Wonder Woman, Elmo, Big Bird, Super Mario, and Cookie Monster outfits. (This kind of thing goes on in Los Angeles as well. Where I live, if some guy dressed up like Superman walked around town engaging kids, he'd find himself in a police vehicle on his way to jail faster than a speeding bullet.)

     In Times Square, the costumed impersonators compete against each other for the attention of tourists accompanied by kids. They pose and mug it up for the children whose parents are supposed to tip them for the photo-ops. When little Lester returns to West Virginia he can impress his friends with a photograph of himself being hugged by Wonder Woman. (The street performers are not supposed to directly solicit tips. In New York City this is called "aggressive begging.")

     In the scheme of things, slipping a guy in a Big Bird suit a couple of bucks for posing with your kid is harmless enough. It certainly beats having your pocket picked, or losing a couple of hundred bucks to some street corner 3-card monte hustler. But occasionally, in the heat of tip-hustling competition, things get out of hand. Some of the impersonators have slipped out of character. Super Mario got in trouble for groping a woman. Spider-Man pushed a tourist, and Elmo uttered an anti-Sematic slur. Occasionally fights break out between the characters. (It would be odd seeing Big Bird knock Superman to the ground.)

     On Sunday, April 7, 2013, Parmita Katkar, the former Miss India Asia Pacific beauty queen, a Bollywood actress and model, was in Times Square with her husband and two sons. From Stamford, Connecticut, the family had come to Times Square to buy a bicycle at the massive Toys-R-Us store. Around two-thirty that afternoon, she and her family were set upon by the Cookie Monster, AKA Osvaldo Oviroz-Lopez. The big blue furry creature grabbed up Katkar's two-year-old boy and said, "Come on, take a picture." When the mother hesitated, the Cookie Monster put the kid down, pushed him, and said, "Come on, come on! Give me the money!"

     As the terrified boy's father hustled off to find cash for a tip, Oviroz-Lopez launched a verbal attack on the kid's mother. "You are a bitch," he yelled. "Your son is a bastard and your stuff is trash." (I presume the Cookie Monster was commenting on Katkar's body of work in Bollywood.)

     As the shaken tourists escaped the wrath of the furious Cookie Monster, the toddler kept saying, "I don't like Cookie Monster!"

     The next day, the 33-year-old Cookie Monster impersonator was arraigned in a Manhattan criminal court on charges of assault, child endangerment, and aggressive begging. He posted his $1,000 bond and was released.

     In February 2014, the judge agreed to dismiss the charges against Quiroz-lopez after the Cookie Monster performed one day of community service.  

Thornton P. Knowles On His Dreams

I don't know any of the people in my dreams. They are all perfect strangers to me. So, I not only write fiction, I dream it as well. Does that make me a bit crazy? Probably, but what the hell, if I were sane I wouldn't be writing novels.

Thornton P. Knowles

The Darrin Campbell Murder-Suicide Case

     In the mid-1980s, Darrin Campbell, a business major at the University of Michigan, met his future wife Kimberly, a student at Central Michigan University. They both worked in Lansing as aides in the Michigan state legislature. She graduated from college, and he went on to earn a master's degree in business administration.

     In 2004, the couple and their son Colin and daughter Megan moved from San Antonio, Texas to Tampa, Florida where Darrin had an executive position in finance with a large corporation. In 2012, Darrin and Kimberly sold their house for $750,000. They moved into a $1 million rental mansion owned by a former professional tennis player named James Blake.

     The Blake-owned estate featured a 6,000-square foot, five-bedroom house, a swimming pool and spa, and several tall palm trees. Located in Avila, a gated community known for its resident sports figures and CEO's, the mansion rented for $5,000 a month. At this point in his career, Darrin Campbell worked as a business executive for VASTEC, a Tampa based digital records company.

     Darrin and his family settled into the lavish lifestyle expected of residents of this exclusive community. They drove fancy cars, the children attended an expensive private school, they bought all-year passes to Disney World, and spent a lot of money decorating their home for Christmas.

     While on the surface, the Campbell family represented prosperity and the American dream come true, Darrin had plunged them deep into debt. He owed back taxes on a vacant lot in Odessa, Texas that he had purchased for $294,000 in 2006. The tuition cost of sending Colin and Megan to the Carrollwood Day School amounted to $37,000 a year. Darrin had maximized his credit card limits, and couldn't see a way out of the financial hole. The stress of living a lie had broken him down. His American dream had become a nightmare.

     In July 2013, Darrin purchased a .40-caliber Sig Sauer handgun from Shooters World, a gun store and shooting range in Tampa. Less than a year later, on May 4, 2014, he purchased $650 worth of fireworks at a Tampa area Phantom Fireworks outlet. He told the fireworks clerk he was filling out his Fourth of July shopping list. Shortly after picking up the fireworks, Darrin bought several gasoline containers.

     At five-forty-five on the morning of Wednesday, May 7, 2014, a resident of the Avila community called 911 to report a fire and explosion at the Campbell home. The fire and subsequent explosion almost completely demolished the structure. In the course of determining the cause and origin of the blaze, investigators discovered the charred remains of two adults and two children. The bodies were presumed to be Darrin and Kimberly Campbell and their 18-year-old son Colin, and their 15-year-old daughter, Megan.

     The Hillsborough County medical examiner, a few days after the fire, confirmed the identifies of the victims. According to the forensic pathologist who performed the autopsies, all of the victims had been shot to death.

     On Friday, May 9, 2014, Hillsborough County Sheriff's Colonel Donna Lusczynski held a press conference in which she characterized the four Campbell deaths as a case of murder-suicide. According to officer Lusczynski, Darrin Campbell, after murdering his wife and two children with the Sig Sauer handgun, had placed fireworks around the house, poured gasoline on the bodies, then lit a match. At that point he shot himself to death. 

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Thornton P. Knowles On Writing Dialogue

Dialogue that jumps off the page sounds nothing like the way real people converse. A transcript of an everyday conversation is devoid of coherent, memorable, rhetoric. Ordinary talk, when read aloud, comes off as boring, repetitive, and at times, idiotic. Sparkling, rhythmic dialogue is difficult to write, and requires a great deal of training, experience, and talent. Many novelists just don't have the ear for it.

Thornton P. Knowles

Thornton P. Knowles On Eliminating The Celebrity Memoir

The government has paid farmers not to grow certain crops. It would be nice if the government paid  professional ghostwriters not to write celebrity memoirs.  It would go something like this: Whenever a ghostwriter received a legitimate proposal to write such a book, the writer would take the letter to the Office of Good Taste where he or she would be issued a government check. Because I consider the celebrity memoir genre a stain on literature, I'm deeply in love with this proposal. For some reason, however, I can't get my local congressman interested in pushing legislation to this effect. I would call the law "The Saving Literature Act." And it would be really great if at some future date, the law could be amended to include political memoirs. Now I'm really dreaming.

Thornton P. Knowles 

Robert Girts: The Husband From Hell

     In 1992 Robert Girts and his third wife Diane lived in a house connected to a Parma, Ohio funeral home that employed the 42-year-old mortician as director and embalmer. On the morning of September 2, 1992, Girts and a couple of his friends were driving back to Parma from nearby Cleveland where they had been helping Girts' brother move. That day, Diane Girts didn't show up for her job that started at noon. A fellow employee, worried because she was never late for work, phoned the funeral home. A funeral company employee checking on Diane noticed that her car was still in the driveway. He went to the front entrance of the dwelling and called to her through the screen door. When she didn't answer he entered the house and found Diane's nude body in the bathtub. She had been dead for several hours.

     The death scene investigation revealed no evidence of foul play such as a burglary or signs of physical trauma. Moreover, detectives found no indication of suicide such as pills or a note. A forensic pathologist with the Cuyahoga County Coroner's Office performed the autopsy. Because the dead woman's post-mortem lividity featured a cherry color rather than purplish red, the forensic pathologist considered the possibility she had died of carbon monoxide poisoning. The pathologist, however, ruled out this cause of death when Diane's blood-carbon monoxide level tested normal. Following standard autopsy protocol, the forensic pathologist secured a sample of the subject's stomach contents--an undigested meal of pasta salad--for toxicological analysis. (The undigested meal suggested Diane had been dead for more than twelve hours.) As a result of inconclusive nature of the autopsy, the Cuyahoga Coroner ruled Diane Girts' death "undetermined."

     On September 20, 1992, 18 days after the funeral home employee discovered Diane Girts's body in the bathtub, Robert Girts contacted a detective working on the case to inform him that he had discovered a handwritten note that indicated that his wife had killed herself. In that document she had supposedly written: "I hate Cleveland. I hate my job. I hate myself."

     Robert Girts, the grieving husband, in his effort to control the direction of the investigation of his wife's sudden and unexplained death, informed detectives that she had been despondent over their recent move to Parma. Also, she had been having trouble with her weight and suffered depression over a series of miscarriages that suggested she wouldn't be able to give birth.

     The toxicological analysis of the decedent's stomach contents revealed the presence of cyanide at twice the lethal dose. Based on this finding the coroner changed the manner of Diane Girts' death criminal homicide.

     In January 1993, a chemist acquainted with Robert Girts told detectives that at his request in the spring of 1992, she had sent him two grams of potassium cyanide. Girts said he needed the poison to deal with a groundhog problem. Investigators believed the suspect had acquired the cyanide to deal with a wife problem. Detectives also knew that potassium cyanide is not used in the embalming process.

     Investigators learned that the murder suspect, in February 1992, had resumed an affair with an interior designer who had broken off the relationship after learning he was married. To get this woman back, Girts had assured her that he and Diane would be divorced by July 1992. Two months after Diane turned up dead in her bathtub, Girts informed his girlfriend that his wife had died from an aneurysm. Detectives considered Girts' relationship with this woman, along with money, the motive for the murder. Upon Diane's death he had received $50,000 in life insurance proceeds.

     Investigators digging into Girts' personal history in search of clues of past homicidal behavior discovered that in the late 1970s his first wife Terrie (nee Morris) had died at the age of 25. After the couple returned to Girt's hometown of Poland, Ohio after living in Hawaii, Terrie's feet swelled up and she became lethargic. In the hospital following a blood clot she slipped into a coma and died. Members of Terrie's family, who had tried to talk her out of marrying Robert in the first place, wanted her body autopsied out of suspicion she had poisoned. Robert wouldn't allow it.

     On Terrie's death certificate the coroner listed the cause of death as a swollen heart. (This doesn't make sense on its face because a "swollen heart" is not a cause of death.) Investigators learned that Girts' second wife had divorced him. Prior to her death she had accused him of physical abuse.

     In 1993, as part of the investigation of Diane Girts's death by poisoning, Terrie Girts' body was exhumed and autopsied. While the forensic pathologist concluded that she had not died of a swollen heart, he could not find evidence that she had been poisoned. The fact Terrie had spent a month in the hospital before she died might account for the fact there were no traces of poison in her body. Moreover, she had been dead fifteen years and had been embalmed.

     Charged with the murder of his wife Diane, Robert Girts went on trial in the summer of 1993. Except for a confession the defendant had allegedly made to an inmate in the Cuyahoga County Jail, the prosecution's case was circumstantial.

     After the prosecution rested its case, Girts took the stand and denied murdering his wife. On cross-examination the prosecutor asked the defendant if he had confessed to another inmate. The defense attorney objected to this line of questioning on the ground it was prejudicial. The judge overruled the objection. When the prosecutor asked this question again, Girts denied making the jailhouse confession.  At that point the idea that the defendant had confessed to an inmate had been planted in the minds of the jurors.

     The Cuyahoga County jury found Robert Girts guilty of poisoning Diane to death. The judge sentenced him to life with the possibility of parole after twenty years. (This would have made him eligible for parole in 2013.)

     Girts appealed his murder conviction to the Eight District Court of Appeals in Cuyahoga County on the grounds that the trial judge should not have allowed the prosecutor, on cross-examination, to bring up the alleged jailhouse confession. On July 28, 1994, the state appellate court agreed. Citing prosecutorial misconduct, the justices overturned Girt's murder conviction.

     At his retrial in 1995, Robert Girts did not take the stand on his own behalf. The prosecutor, in his closing argument to the jury, cited the defendant's refusal to testify as evidence of his guilt. The second Cuyahoga County jury found Girts guilty of murder. This time Girts appealed his conviction on grounds that by referring to his decision not to take the stand in his own defense the prosecutor had violated his constitutional right against self-incrimination. On July 24, 1997 the state appeals court upheld the conviction.

     In 2005, after serving 12 years behind bars at the Oakwood Correctional Facility in Lima, Ohio, Girts appealed his 1995 murder conviction to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. Two years later, the federal appeals court, on grounds of prosecutorial misconduct, reversed Girts' second murder conviction. The justices did not, however, order his immediate release from prison. But if they didn't try him by October 11, 2008, he would be set free on $100,000 bond. When the authorities in Ohio failed to bring Girts to trial for the third time within the 180-day deadline, the twice-convicted killer walked out of prison.

     Robert Girts returned to Poland, a bedroom community south of Youngstown. He moved in with a relative and for a time reported twice a month to a probation officer at the Community Corrections Association. In the meantime, he filed a motion asking the appeals court to bar a third murder trial on grounds of double jeopardy. In March 2010, the federal appeals court denied Girts' motion The decision paved the way for a third murder trial.

     After his release from prison in November 2008, Girts married a woman named Ruth he met through the Internet. They lived in a trailer park in Brookfield, Ohio. On August 5, 2012, Ruth, a nurse who had just landed a job at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) in nearby Farrell, Pennsylvania, called her supervisor to say she was quitting because she was being stalked by her husband. Ruth told the supervisor she was afraid for her life and was in hiding.

     The UPMC nursing supervisor passed this information on to the Southwest Regional Police Department in Belle Vernon. An officer with that agency relayed the report to Dan Faustino, the Brookfield Chief of Police.

     Brookfield officers drove out to the Girts' residence to check on Ruth. The suspect met the officers at the dwelling. He said his wife wasn't there and that he had no idea where she was. He consented to a search of the house which confirmed his wife's absence. Later that day, a Brookfield officer contacted Ruth by phone. She told the officer that she had quit her nursing job in Farrell in order to hide from her husband. She said he had threatened to kill her. Ruth was so afraid of Robert she even refused to tell the officer where she was hiding. Ruth did inform the officer about her husband's two murder trials in Cuyahoga County. This led Chief Faustino to call the authorities in Cuyahoga County to inform them of the unfolding developments regarding Girts in Brookfield and Farrell.

     On August 9, 2012, a judge granted a Cuyahoga County prosecutor's motion to convene an emergency bond revocation hearing. In light of Robert Girts' alleged threats against his current wife Ruth, the authorities wanted him back behind bars. After hearing testimony from officials familiar with Robert Girts' murder trials and appeals, and Ruth Girts' recent accusations against him, the judge did not revoke his $100,000 bond. Instead, the magistrate restricted Girts' travel to destinations in Mahoning County where he lived. He could also travel to Cuyahoga County to attend scheduled court appearances. The judge ordered Girts to stay away from his wife.

     As the new phase of the Robert Girts murder saga unfolded, the 59-year-old's wife remained in hiding.

     In January 2013, Cuyahoga County Judge Michael Jackson remanded Girts' bond and ordered him back to jail. Girts had been visiting  Ruth at her new job. On each occasion he brought her coffee. After drinking the coffee Ruth would feel ill and vomit. Investigators believed Girts was poisoning Ruth with antifreeze. (He had searched the Internet under the word "antifreeze." Girts told detectives that his dog had stepped in the antifreeze and he was interested in the side effects. He also explained that he had been contemplating using antifreeze to kill himself. Ruth Girts did not seek medical treatment or submit to toxicological tests.

     On January 31, 2014, in an effort to avoid a third trial for murdering his wife Diane in 1992, Girts pleaded guilty to the charge of involuntary manslaughter. In open court he described how he had put cyanide in a saltshaker to poison her. Girts also pleaded guilty to insurance fraud.

     Following his guilty pleas, the authorities returned Girts to prison to serve a sentence of six to thirty years. The Ohio Parole Board, in August 2014, ruled that Girts would not be eligible for parole until 2023.

     Girts' attorney's filed an appeal with the 8th District Ohio Court of Appeals arguing that the six to thirty year sentence was based on the wrong set of sentencing guidelines. Instead of using the sentencing rules applicable for 2014, the judge should have sentenced Girts to the guidelines in place in 1992, the time of the crime. The appellate judges agreed and set aside Girts' guilty plea and his sentence. In November 2015, the state supreme court declined to consider the case which meant that the appellate decision stood.

     On December 18, 2015, in a Cleveland court room, Robert Girts, in connection with the death of Diane Girts, pleaded guilty to charges of involuntary manslaughter and insurance fraud. The judge sentenced him to 12 years but gave him credit for time already served. That meant that Mr. Girts would remain a free man. Case closed.

     

Donald B. Doud: A Witness to Forgery

     In 1988, forensic document examiner Donald B. Doud, after he had reviewed my book The Lindbergh Case for the Journal of Forensic Sciences, wrote me a letter expressing his admiration for the work. Over the next 17 years we exchanged hundreds of letters and emails during which time I spoke about the Lindbergh kidnapping and the JonBenet Ramsey cases at American Society of Questioned Document Examiner conferences in Milwaukee, Baltimore and Memphis. Also during this period, Don was working on a memoir featuring his life as a document examiner. I read the manuscript, made suggestions, and rewrote one of the chapters, but when Don died in 2005, it remained unpublished.

     Born in 1916 in Wisconsin, Don lived his early life in Southern California. After spending a year in a sanitarium recovering from tuberculosis, Don studied to become a professional photographer, a skill he would later use in the preparation of document examination exhibits for trial. While working as an apprentice in the office of the famous Los Angeles questioned document examiner Clark Sellers (a star witness at the Lindbergh/Hauptmann trial in 1935), Don attended classes in questioned document examination taught by John L. Harris at the University of Southern California. A few years later Don moved to New York City where he studied under Albert D. Osborn, the son of Albert S. Osborn, the man considered the father of modern forensic document examination. Both Osborns had testified at the Lindbergh/Hauptmann trial.

     In Chicago, Donald Doud continued his apprenticeship with another prominent practitioner, Herbert J. Walter. In 1951 Don moved to Milwaukee where he practiced with John F. Tyrell, another Lindbergh case handwriting witness.  When Mr. Tyrell passed away in 1955, Don took over his practices in Chicago and Milwaukee.

     During his long career, Don served as chairman of the questioned documents section of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, and on the board of the American Board of Forensic Document Examiners. He lectured for twenty years in law professor Fred Inbau's classes at Northwestern University. During his career, Don wrote dozens of articles and professional papers.

     Don worked on hundreds of little known handwriting/forgery cases and a handful of high profile forgery disputes. He became involved in the historic Alger Hiss spy case, the Clifford Irving-Howard Hughes autobiography fraud, and the Howard Hughes Mormon will case.

     Don's family, five years after his death, published his memoir, "Witness to Forgery." Available on Amazon.com, it is a terrific read featuring an extraordinary career in the little known but fascinating field of forensic fraud and forgery detection. I'm proud to say Don was my friend, and I recommend his memoir.    

Monday, December 25, 2017

Thornton P. Knowles On Navel-Gazing

For a novelist, a creative writer, I'm not much of a navel gazer. When I gaze at my navel, all I see is lint.

Thornton P. Knowles

Thornton P. Knowles On Television

Many people used to refer to television as the "boob-tube." At first, TV watching was not something a lot of people wanted to admit to. "Oh, I don't watch much TV," they'd lie. So, who were the boobs, the people who watched TV, or the people who were on TV? While the folks in the television business were beginning the process of lowering standards of good taste, they were at least getting paid for contaminating American culture. Novelists Truman Capote and Gore Vidal sold their books by becoming television personalities. It apparently didn't bother either writer that they made public fools of themselves, and made it difficult for novelists unwilling to become media whores. I don't find much on television, including sports and the news, interesting or useful. But that's okay, I'm used to being an oddball. I'll say this, though: television will change America, and the world, and not for the better.

Thornton P. Knowles    

The Douglas Prade Murder Case

     At ten-thirty in the morning of Thanksgiving Day 1997, a medical assistant found 41-year-old Dr. Margo Prade slumped behind the wheel of her van in the doctor's office parking lot. The Akron, Ohio physician, shot six times with a handgun at close range, had fought with her murderer. Physical evidence of this struggle included buttons ripped from Dr. Prade's lab coat, a bite mark on her left inner arm, and traces of blood and tissue under her fingernails.

     A few months after the murder, Akron police arrested the victim's husband, Douglas Evans Prade. Captain Prade, a 29 year veteran of the Akron Police Department, denied shooting his wife to death. He insisted that at the time of the killing he was in the workout room of the couple's Copley Township condominium complex.

     In 1997, DNA science, compared to today, was quite primitive. As a result, DNA tests of trace evidence from the bite mark and the blood and tissue under the victim's fingernails were inconclusive. DNA analysts were unable to include or exclude Captain Prade as the source of this crime scene evidence.

     Video footage from a security camera at a car dealership next to the murder scene revealed the shadowy figure of a man climbing into Dr. Prade's van at 9:10 in the morning of her death. A hour and a half later, the man exited the murder vehicle and was seen driving off the parking lot in a light-colored car. Homicide detectives never identified this man who could not have been taller than five-nine. The suspect, Captain Prade, stood over six-foot-three. Had investigators focused their efforts on identifying the man in the surveillance video, they would have solved the case. But detectives had their minds set on the victim's husband, and ignored all evidence and leads that pointed in a different direction.

     To make their case against Captain Douglas Prade, detectives asked a retired Akron dentist named Dr. Thomas Marshall to compare a photograph of the death scene bite mark to a dental impression  of the suspect's lower front teeth. According to Dr. Marshall, the only person who could have bitten Dr. Prade was her husband. The suspect's known dental impressions, according to the dentist, matched the crime scene evidence perfectly. At the time, before advanced DNA technology exposed bite mark identification analysis as junk science, Dr. Marshall's identification carried great weight.

     In September 1998, following a two week trial in a Summit county court, the jury, after deliberating only four hours, found Douglas Prade guilty of murdering his wife. The only evidence the prosecution had pointing to the defendant's guilt was Dr. Thomas Marshall's bite mark identification. Without the dentist's testimony, there wouldn't have been enough evidence against Douglas Prade to justify his arrest.

     Following the guilty verdict, the defendant stood up, turned to face the courtroom spectators, and said, "I didn't do this. I am an innocent convicted person. God, myself, Margo, and the person who killed Margo all know I'm innocent." Common Pleas Judge Mary Spicer sentenced Douglas Prade to life without the chance of parole until he served 26 years. Shortly thereafter, the prisoner began serving his sentence at the state prison in Madison, Ohio. At that point he expected to die behind bars.

     In 2004, attorneys with the Jones Day law firm in Akron, and the Ohio Innocence Project, took up Douglas Prade's case. After years of motions, petitions, reports, and hearings, an Ohio judge ordered DNA tests of the saliva traces from the bite wound, scrapings from the victim's lab coat, and scrapings from under Dr. Prade's fingernails.

     In August 2012, DNA analysis of the crime scene trace evidence revealed that none of the associative evidence came from Douglas Prade. (The DNA work was performed by the DNA Lab Diagnostic Center in Fairfield, Ohio.) Summit County Judge Judy Hunter, on January 29, 2013, ordered the release of the 66-year-old prisoner.

     On March 19, 2014, an Ohio appeals court decided that the new DNA evidence did not prove that Prade didn't murder his wife. The appellate judge said that Prade's release from prison was a mistake, and that he should be taken back into custody. The morning after that decision, Mr. Prade found himself back behind bars.

     But later that day, after the Ohio Supreme Court reversed the appeals court re-incarceration order, Prade was released from jail.

     Douglas Prade, an innocent man, had spent 15 years in prison on the bogus bite mark testimony of a junk forensic scientist. Over the past two decades, there have been dozens of wrongful convictions based on bite mark identification.

     Cold case investigators should re-open this murder case in an effort to identify the real killer. But this won't happen because prosecutors won't admit they sent an innocent man to prison.    

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Thornton P. Knowles On The Mystery of Literary Humor

One of the great literary mysteries involves how some writers can make us laugh, and other writers, regardless of how hard they try, can't. It gets down to the inability to identify the core elements of humor itself. Fortunately, there is no formula for funny.

Thornton P. Knowles 

Thornton P. Knowles On Why Novelists Write

Writing fiction is a form of escape from the mundane realities of life. The same is true for those who read fiction.

Thornton P. Knowles

A Course On Serial Killers for 9th Graders: More Stupidity in Lower Education

     Students in an Australian high school didn't have to wait until college to enroll in stupid, useless courses. A 9th grade teacher in Corio, a suburb of Greelong, Victoria on Australia's southeastern coast, offered a forensic psychology course devoted to the study of serial killers. This begs the question: what educational goal is being met here? Is studying a tiny subculture of deviants with homicidal personality disorders a good way to give 14-years-olds a realistic perception of human behavior? Are these murderous degenerates worthy of this kind of academic attention? Man, where was this teacher when I was in school flunking English, math, and science?

     This 9th grade professor of prolific, pathological homicide gave his (or her) students two weeks to complete a "Serial Killer Investigation Assignment." (I am not kidding, this is not a put on.) The twenty students taking the class were asked to complete ten out of a possible twenty "activities" related to the study of serial killers, their lives, and their victims. This reminds me of Boy Scouts having to do certain things to earn merit badges. Instead of studying the boring stuff, these kids learned all about American serial killers like David Berkowitz (Son of Sam), Ted Bundy, and the man who killed and ate young men, Jeffery Dahmer. (After completing this course, most of these kids would be afraid to visit the U.S.) The Australian students also studied Hannibal Lector, the fictitious, erudite consumer of human flesh. Finally, a course they could sink their teeth into.

     What follows are some of the"Serial Killer Investigation Assignment" activities students could choose from:

     Draw a cartoon panel about how your serial killer murdered someone. This is a good one for a kid with artistic ability who has selected a serial killer like John Wayne Gacy. Gacy, an amateur clown, tricked his young male victims into handcuffing themselves before he slowly strangled them to death. Mr. Gacy buried the dead boys' bodies under his house in Chicago. The visuals here could be great. These students of sadistic, multiple murder could identify with Mr. Gacy who was himself an artist! Maybe they could copy his style and technique. In art, that is. Or maybe they could do a cartoon of him dying in the execution chamber. That would be my choice.

     Choose two serial killers, compare them and decide which of them is worse and why. This is a good exercise for  students who want to be  criminal defense attorneys when they grows up. A student might select Donald Harvey, the Ohio angel of death who murdered hundreds of terminally ill hospital patients by poisoning them to death. Mr. Harvey could be compared to Ted Bundy who raped and murdered dozens of young women. In choosing Harvey over Bundy, the student could argue that all of Bundy's victims were young pretty women, while Donald Harvey just killed old people who were going to die soon anyway. Yes, Donald Harvey was much worse than Ted Bundy. Encouraging a 14-year-old see the good side of a serial killer is, educationally speaking, a splendid idea. Bravo.

     Write a poem about a serial killer. My first question for the teacher would be, does it have to rhyme? Mixing poetry and sudden, violent death will surely get kids interested in writing on a higher level. Let's see, what rhymes with autopsy. That's a tough one.

     Create a serial killer board game with full instructions. Oh my, this one is ambitious. But it's a good exercise because it forces the student to spend hours and hours thinking about sadistic, pathological murder. I would suggest adapting "Chutes and Ladders" to "Tunnels and Dungeons," or "Whips and Chains." Maybe the student could convert a Monopoly board. Instead of real estate, the player lands on potential murder victims. In this game, however, there is no get-out-of jail card.

     Make a children's book which teaches them about serial killers. The goal here, I guess, is to get toddlers interested in multiple homicide. Full color illustrations depicting the various ways serial killers go about their business would be quite instructive. Teaching kids at a young age how to commit serial murder would be, I imagine, an excellent anti-bullying measure.

     Draw a floor plan of a serial killer's "dream house." This is a good assignment for students who want to grow up to be sadistic architects. It goes without saying that the dwelling would feature a torture chamber, a dissecting room, a library of snuff videos, and a large but private back yard. I would also suggest a good ventilation system and a large incinerator.

     Ken Massari, the principal of the Australian high school that employed the 9th grade teacher, didn't know about the serial killer course until he read about it in the local press. Apparently a parent had complained to the media. The principal pulled the plug on the course which including killing the teacher's homework assignments. To a reporter, Massari said that "Upon review, I made the decision to withdraw the assignment immediately and permanently, and our trained staff contacted each family to determine if any support was required." 

Thornton P. Knowles On Lifelong Bachelorhood

Because I've never married, people have asked me if I'm gay. Among the many things I am not, I am not gay, not a fan of marriage, and not fond of children. I like my cat, and once had a dog I liked fairly well. While I am not against friendship, I don't have many friends. That is by choice. Although I'm a loner, I'm not lonely. While it may sound pathetic, I have my writing, and that's enough for me.

Thornton P. Knowles

The Shrien Dewani Murder-For-Hire Case

     On November 13, 2010, 30-year-old Shrien Dewani and Anni, his 28-year-old wife of two weeks, were on their honeymoon in Cape Town, South Africa. The couple, of Indian decent (she was born in Sweden), resided in the southwestern English town of Bristol where he was a businessman.

     Shortly after midnight on November 13, 2010, Shrien Dewani reported to police authorities that a gunman had commandeered the taxi he and his wife were riding in near the Cape Town suburb of Guguiethu. The kidnapper ordered the cab driver and Shrien out of the taxi in the town of Harare then drove off with Anni.

     Later that night, police officers found Anni's dead body in the abandoned taxi in the town of Lingelethu West. She had injuries to her head and chest, and had been shot in the back of the neck at short range. Officers with the Western Cape Town Police Department launched a manhunt for the killer.

     Shrien Dewani returned to England where he was treated for depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

     On November 14, 2010, Western Cape Town officers arrested 26-year-old Xolile Mngeni, the suspected gunman, on the charge of murder. Two days later, police officers arrested a suspected accomplice in the murder named Mziwamadoda Qwabe.

     Detectives arrested the cab driver, Zola Tongo, on November 20, 2010. According to the suspect, Shrien Dewani had offered him 1,400 pounds to find a hit man willing to kill his wife Anni. Tongo reached out to his friend Qwabe who brought Mngeni, the trigger man, into the murder-for-hire scheme.

     On December 8, 2010, at the request of the South African government, police in England arrested Dewani for conspiring to have his wife murdered. Two days after being taken into custody, Dewani posted his bail and was confined to house arrest. He denied any involvement in his wife's murder.

     Zola Tongo, the cab driver, pleaded guilty to his role in the murder-for-hire plot in January 2011. The judge sentenced him to 18 years in prison. A month later, Mziwamadoda Qwabe decided to cooperate with the police. He said that after the kidnapper let Dewani and Tongo out of the taxi that night, Mngeni drove off with the victim. Qwabe admitted that for his role in the murder, he received the victim's jewelry.

     In February 2011, back in England, Dewani swallowed a cocktail of 26 pills that included the drug diazepam that had been prescribed to him for anxiety. Following a period of hospitalization, he returned home to house arrest.

     In November 2011, a TV station in England aired a documentary about the case called, "Murder On Honeymoon." The producers of the segment presented evidence pertaining to Dewani's alleged motive for having his new wife murdered. According to the documentary, investigators were working on the theory that Dewani had been living a secret double life as a gay man. Witnesses stated that he had been a regular visitor to a south London gay fetish sex club. When Anni found out he was gay, she threatened to end the marriage and expose him.

     On March 30, 2012, judges sitting on London's High Court ruled that it would be unjust and oppressive to extradite Dewani to South Africa until he overcame his problem with mental illness. The authorities in South Africa were convinced he was faking mental illness to avoid extradition.

     Miziwamadoda Qwabe pleaded guilty in August 2012 and was sentenced in South Africa to 25 years in prison. Three months later a jury found Xolile Mngeni, the hit man, guilty of premeditated murder. The judge sentenced Mngeni to life behind bars.

     The fourth South African involved in the case, a hotel clerk named Monde Mbolombo, had avoided prosecution by testifying against Qwabe and Mngeni.

     The BBC, in September 2012, aired another documentary about the Dewani case called "The Honeymoon Murder: Who Killed Anni?" Featuring forensic experts and others who had reviewed the evidence, the show cast doubt on Shrien Dewani's guilt.

     The widely viewed BBC documentary portrayed Monde Mbolombo, the hotel clerk who was granted immunity for his prosecution testimony, as the true mastermind behind the murder. According to the documentary, Mbolombo put the cab driver in touch with Mngeni, the trigger man. The motive was theft.

     About the time the BBC broadcast the documentary, the English tabloid Daily Mail published text messages the victim had sent to family members shortly before her big wedding. "I'm going to be unhappy for the rest of my life," she had written. "I hate him. I want to cry myself to death."

     On January 2014, a panel of three judges sitting on England's Supreme Court ruled that Shrien Dewani could be extradited to South Africa to be tried for his wife's murder. The extradition, however, was conditioned on the promise that if the defendant were adjudicated mentally unfit for trial, South African authorities would send him back to England. Dewani was expected to arrive in Cape Town in April 2014.

     South African Judge Jeanette Traverso, on December 8, 2014, dismissed the case against Dewni on the ground that no court would convict him unless he took the stand and incriminated himself. The judge noted that the prosecution witnesses against the accused murder-for-hire mastermind were not credible because they had been involved in the killing themselves. The judge's decision ended the case against Dewani because prosecutors in South Africa can only appeal a case when the judge had made a mistake in applying the law. This case, however, was dismissed based upon what this judge considered the crown's lack of evidence to support a conviction. The decision meant that Shrien Dewani was a free man and could not be charged again.

     A spokesperson for the prosecutor's office, in response to the dismissal, told reporters that the judge misunderstood the case.

     In the United States, many murder-for-hire cases are predicated upon the prosecution testimony of the hit man and various accomplices. Getting a conviction pursuant to this South African judge's standards would be, in the United States, almost impossible.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Thornton P. Knowles On Free Speech

Most people who profess to support and respect the constitutional right to free speech, do so only when the speech in question doesn't, in some way, offend them. In reality, very few people, including journalists, truly believe in or understand the rationale for this basic constitutional safeguard against oppressive government. Perhaps the people who hate free speech the most are politicians. That's because they have so much to hide from American voters. It's been this way for a long time, and doesn't bode well for American democracy.

Thornton P. Knowles 

Thornton P. Knowles On Being Armed With A Stun-Gun

If I were a cop, I couldn't be trusted with a stun-gun. I'd zap every jerk I encountered. Give me lip? Zap. Give me the finger? Zap. Walk away when I'm questioning you? Zap. I'd be a real Thomas Edison out there.

Thornton P. Knowles 

Thornton P. Knowles On Taking Creative Chances In Fiction

If you don't have the guts to gamble, to take chances with your creativity, you have no business writing a novel. If you're not a creative risk-taker, go write a feel-good piece for your local newspaper. You know, how Mable down at the library, for her three cats, knitted Christmas sweaters featuring tiny bells and images of Santa stuffing his face with a fruit cake. The piece could be called, "Is Santa Diabetic?" Sorry. 

Thornton P. Knowles

The Pamela Phillips Murder-For-Hire Case

     In 1986, Gary Lee Triano, a well-known real estate developer in Tucson, Arizona, made the mistake of his life when he married 28-year-old Pamela Phillips. Triano had made millions investing in bingo halls and slot-machine parlors in Arizona and California. He made his fortune before Congress authorized Native Americans to open full-blown gambling casinos.

     In 1992, when Triano was broke, his wife of six years divorced him. The couple had two children together. Shortly after the breakup, Phillips took out a $2 million insurance policy on her ex-husband's life. She moved to Aspen, Colorado where she began working as a real estate agent. It was there she met and began dating a 44-year-old man named Ronald Young.

     In 1994, Gary Triano filed for bankruptcy. He was $25 million in debt. He told his girlfriend in July 1996 that someone had been following him.

     At 5:30 PM on Friday, November 1, 1996, after playing a round of golf at the Westin La Paloma Country Club with his friend Luis Ruben, Triano climbed behind the wheel of his 1989 Lincoln Town Car . Eight minutes after pulling out of the country club parking lot, the vehicle exploded and burst into flames. The blast killed Triano instantly.

     Investigators determined that someone had wired a large black powder pipe bomb to Triano's car. Detectives had no idea who this person was. They questioned his ex-wife but didn't consider Phillips a suspect in the bombing. Without promising leads, the case quickly went cold.

     In November 2005, nine years after the car bombing murder of the ex-millionaire, Tucson detectives caught a break in the form of an anonymous tip. According to the tipster, Pamela Phillips had paid Ronald Young $400,000 to murder her ex-husband. The hit man had been compensated out of the $2 million life insurance payout that had gone to Phillips.

     FBI agents in Florida uncovered information connecting Young and Phillips in the Triano murder plot. The evidence included incriminating emails between the hit man and the mastermind, detailed records of their business transactions, meetings, and even recorded telephone calls in which the two discussed the murder plot.

     Ronald Young, charged with first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder, went into hiding and became a fugitive.

     In September 2006, FBI agents raided Phillips' house in Aspen, Colorado. On her computer, agents found evidence of her involvement in her ex-husband's murder. However, before she was taken into custody, the murder-for-hire suspect fled the country and took up residence in Austria.

     Gary Triano's two children, in November 2007, sued Pamela Phillips and Ronald Young for the wrongful death of their father. (The plaintiffs were awarded $10 million in damages two years later.)

     On October 2008, FBI agents, after Ronald Young was featured on the TV show "America's Most Wanted," arrested him in California. The suspected hit man was now 66-years-old. Upon his extradition to Arizona, the authorities booked him into the Pima County Jail. The judge set his bond at $5 million. Young pleaded not guilty to the charges of conspiracy to commit murder and first-degree murder.

     A jury, in March 2010, found Ronald Young guilty as charged. The judge sentenced him to life in prison without the chance of parole.

     In December 2010, government officials in Austria agreed to extradite Phillips to the U.S. on condition she would not, if found guilty, be sentenced to death. Prosecutors in Arizona agreed to this condition and the fugitive was sent home to face trial.

     The Pamela Phillips murder-for-hire trial got underway in February 2014 in Tucson, Arizona. Prosecutor Nicol Green portrayed the defendant as a cold-blooded gold digger who hired a former boyfriend to kill Mr. Triano for the life insurance money.

     Defense attorney Paul Eckerstrom painted his client as a victim of overzealous law enforcement. As a successful real estate agent in her own right, the lawyer claimed his client didn't need Triano's insurance money. Regarding the $400,000 she had paid Ronald Young, Eckerstrom characterized the transaction as payment for Young's help in various business ventures.

     In speculating who may have bombed Triano's Lincoln Town Car, attorney Eckerstrom said, "Gary Triano lived on the edge, the financial edge….He borrowed a lot of money from all sorts of people, many people who might be connected to organized crime."

     On April 8, 2014, the jury found Pamela Phillips guilty of first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder. On May 22, 2014, the judge sentenced her to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Upon hearing her fate, Phillips turned to the gallery and said, three times, "I'm innocent!" 

Thornton P. Knowles On Why Johnny Can't Write

Johnny can't write because Johnny can't think. Half of his brain has been sucked out of his head into his television set.

Thornton P. Knowles

Kenneth Markman: The Fall Of A Drug Dealing Defense Attorney

     Kenneth Markman, after graduating from UCLA and Loyola Law School, began practicing criminal defense law in 1991. Between 2000 and 2010, the State Bar Association of California suspended him twice for not paying his membership dues. It was during this period that the attorney went from representing drug addicts and dealers to becoming one.

     On October 21, 2011, Markman was in the attorney's room on the 11th floor of the Criminal Justice Center in downtown Los Angeles. He had scheduled a meeting with his client, Jorge Zaragoza. Zaragoza, a drug-dealing gang member with a history of violent crime, had been convicted of attempted carjacking. In a few days a judge would be handing down Zaragoza's sentence.

     Detectives with the Los Angeles Sheriff's Office suspected that Markman had smuggled narcotics to his clients who were incarcerated in the Los Angeles County Jail. As the attorney waited for his opportunity to speak with Zaragoza, a sheriff's deputy accompanied by a drug-sniffing dog, entered the room. The dog immediately "alerted" to the presence of drugs on Markman's  person and in his briefcase.

     From the inside pocket of the attorney's suit jacket, the deputy removed a package wrapped tightly with electrical tape. The bundle contained twenty-six balloons of heroin and methamphetamine. Markman's briefcase contained a quantity of marijuana and three mini-hypodermic syringes. (This reminds me of a scene right out of the TV show "Locked-Up Abroad.")

     Charged with seven drug-related felony counts, the attorney was booked into the county Inmate Reception Center. The judge set his bail at $145,000. If convicted of trying to smuggle $30,000 worth of narcotics into the Los Angeles County Jail, Markman faced up to four years in prison.

     The accused attorney posted his bond and was released from custody. On November 8, 2011, a security officer screening visitors to the Antelope Valley Court House noticed something suspicious as Markman's briefcase passed through the X-ray machine. After the attorney grabbed his wallet out of the tray and tried to flee, a Los Angeles Sheriff's deputy caught up to him before he got out of the building. In his wallet the officer found two bundles of rock cocaine. The attorney's briefcase contained several pieces of drug paraphernalia.

     After being booked again for trying to smuggle drugs to an incarcerated client, Markman made his $25,000 bail.

     In February 2013, Kenneth Markman pleaded no contest to the October 2011 drug smuggling charges. Pursuant to a plea deal, the judge, a month later, sentenced the suspended attorney to a year in the Los Angeles County Jail. That sentence included three years of probation which involved one year of drug treatment.

     The State Bar Association of California, following a hearing in August 2013, disbarred Mr. Markman. 

Friday, December 22, 2017

Thornton P. Knowles On Good Luck

I once knew a police officer who tripped getting out of his patrol car in front of a store being robbed. His gun went accidentally off and the bullet hit the robber right between the eyes. They made this officer marksman of the year. I put this into one of my novels, but the editor took it out because it was unrealistic. I never spoke to that editor again.

Thornton P. Knowles 

Thornton P. Knowles On The Geography of Writer's Block

Writer's block is mainly an American syndrome. They don't have it, for example, in Europe. I'm from West Virginia where we don't have it either. Maybe we should, but we don't. I guess that's a good thing.

Thornton P. Knowles

Christina Schumacher's Marital Hell And Involuntary Commitment To a Mental Hospital

     In 2011, Ludwig "Sonny" Schumacher lived in Essex, Vermont with his wife Christina and their son and daughter. They had been married 17 years and their marriage was falling apart. The couple also had problems with their professional lives.

     After retiring from the Vermont National Guard as a Colonel and a F-16 pilot, Schumacher accepted an executive position with the Timberiane Dental Company in South Burlington, Vermont. Christina worked as a financial officer with the GE Healthcare Corporation, a company she had been with for more than twenty years.

     In July 2011, Christina petitioned a family court judge for an order of protection against abuse from her husband. In support of her request, Christina claimed that their 15-year-old daughter was afraid of her father. "My daughter," she wrote, "is fearful and has said if I do not file this petition she will file her own. She is now staying with friends." According to the protection order petition, Mr. Schumacher had struck Christina in the face in front of the girl. He had also abused his wife by grabbing her arm and pulling her hair. The family court judge denied the protection request.

     In 2012, after Christina's job at GE Healthcare was eliminated, she landed a position with an Internet firm called, MyWebGrocer. A few months later, she quit that job. Ludwig Schumacher ran into employment problems himself that year. Officials at Timberiane Dental fired him.

     In July 2013, a judge granted Christina a temporary order of protection against her husband after he tipped his 14-year-old son Gunnar's bed upside down with the boy in it. According to the court petition, Mr. Schumacher kept the boy pinned to the floor by pressing his knee against his back. When Gunnar broke free, the father allegedly threw him to the floor. Christina cited this and other incidents of her husband's out-of-contral rage to illustrate a "pattern of abuse which causes fear" for her and her son.

     Ludwig Schumacher appealed his wife's protection of abuse order and won. The family court judge ruled that the description of events in Christina's petition did not constitute domestic abuse by a parent as defined by Vermont law.

     Christina, on September 3, 2013, filed for divorce on grounds that her 49-year-old husband had been unfaithful, abusive, and mentally ill. Shortly after the divorce filing, he moved out of the house and rented an apartment in Essex. In cross-filing for divorce, Mr. Schumacher described Christina as mentally ill, noting that during the summer of 2013, she had received intensive mental health treatment at the Senneca Center at the Fletcher Allen Health facility in Burlington.

     Ludwig Schumacher, on Tuesday, December 17, 3013, called Essex High School stating that his son Gunnar would be absent two days due to "a family situation." A day later, at two in the afternoon, a friend of Gunnar's went to the Schumacher apartment where he found Gunnar and his father dead.

     The 14-year-old boy had been strangled and his father had hanged himself. Mr. Schumacher left behind a long suicide letter explaining why he had murdered his son and killed himself.

     On the day after the discovery of her dead husband and son, a doctor informed Christina that if she didn't check herself into a psychiatric ward at the Fletcher Allen Health Care facility in Burlington, she would be taken into custody by the authorities and put into the hospital without her consent. Because Christina had once told her sister that if anything happened to her children she would kill herself, the doctor felt he was acting in her best interest. Christina insisted that she did not need mental health treatment. All she wanted to do was grieve with her 17-year-old daughter. The doctor followed through on his threat by having Christina involuntarily committed to the mental ward.

     On December 30, 2013, Christina called the Burlington Free Press and asked the newspaper to investigate her situation, saying that the state had no basis to hold her against her will in the mental facility. While Vermont law did not require a prompt judicial review of involuntary mental health commitments, the publicity Christina received from newspaper stories prompted a judicial hearing.

     On January 22, 2014, after three hours of testimony before a Superior Court judge in Burlington, the judge said he disagreed with Christina's mental illness diagnosis and the assessment that she was a danger to herself and others. The judge ordered her release after five and a half weeks in the psychiatric ward.

     Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell, whose office had argued for Christina's continued hospitalization, had no comment for the press.

     I have no trouble believing that Ludwig Schumacher had abused his wife and children. Moreover, if Christina Schumacher did have mental health problems, they were probably caused by the domestic turmoil in her life.