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Sunday, June 24, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On The Film Adaption Of His Short Story

The protagonist of my short story, "The Melancholy Hitman," takes so much pride in his work he becomes despondent over the fact that, for obvious reasons, he can't take credit for his imaginative, even ingenuous approach to dispatching people for paying clients. He actually considers himself a master in the art of the kill. He's particularly proud that so many forensic pathologists precluded a homicide investigation by listing the manner of death in these cases as suicide. He becomes so depressed over the fact he cannot impress the woman he loves with accounts of his brilliantly executed killings, he commits suicide. He not only kills himself, he does it in a way that leads the forensic pathologist to rule his death a criminal homicide, a case that will never be solved. The story has a sad ending because he will never get credit for that either. When a Hollywood screenwriter adapted my story for a theatrical movie, he changed the ending. In the film version, my protagonist reveals the secret of his double life to his girlfriend. They get married, and saved by the love of a good woman, he goes straight and ends up as one of the country's most renowned homicide detectives. The screenwriter turned a good story into a load of crap with a happy ending. The film was never made, and I ended up using my option money to buy a used car that turned out to be junk. In life, there are no happy endings.

Thornton P. Knowles

The Laquanta Chapman Chainsaw Murder Case

     On the afternoon of October 30, 2008, Aaron Turner, a 16-year-old high school student in Coatesville, Pennsylvania, a Chester County town in the southeastern part of the state, walked home from a community service program for juvenile delinquents. He wore an electronic ankle monitor. Before he reached his parents' house, Turner encountered 28-year-old Laquanta Chapman and two other men. Chapman, who lived across the street from Turner, lured the boy into his house. (It is not clear from the reporting on this case why Chapman did this.)

     Chapman, his friend Michael Purnell, his cousin Bryan Boyd who was visiting from Newark, New Jersey, and Aaron Turner were together in Chapman's basement. Chapman told his 19-year-old cousin to go upstairs and turn the music on as loud as possible. After he did this, Boyd returned to the basement where Chapman and Purnell were screaming at the terrified teen. (Turner either owed Chapman drug money, or had stolen marijuana from him.) The two men pointed handguns at Turner and ordered him to strip off his clothing. Once he was nude, Purnell, then Chapman, shot him. Turner died on the spot.

     When Aaron Turner didn't come home that day, a member of his family called the Coatesville Police Department and reported him missing.

     Five days after the cold-blooded murder, with Aaron Turner still missing, and his decomposing body still lying in Chapman's basement, Chapman decided it was time to dispose of the corpse that was starting to give off a telltale odor. With his cousin's help, Chapman laid Turner's body on a makeshift table. Bryan Boyd and Laquanta Chapman used a pair of chainsaws to cut the body into pieces small enough to fit into trash bags. Chapman, in an effort to destroy DNA evidence left in the chainsaws, used the tools to chop up his pet pit bull. (Chapman, a man with a history of animal abuse, killed his dog for nothing because the ploy didn't work.) Chapman placed several trash bags containing Turner's body parts on the street for refuge pickup.

     More than a year passed, and the police still hadn't recovered Aaron Turner's body. (The teen's dismembered remains had been hauled by trash pickup workers to a local landfill. It was never recovered.) In the meantime, Laquanta Chapman had become a suspect in Turner's disappearance and presumed murder.

     On November 15, 2009,  Coatesville police raided Chapman's house and conducted a search. Officers recovered the two chainsaws which contained DNA evidence that linked Chapman to Turner's murder and dismemberment, and gave the prosecutor circumstantial evidence of Turner's death. (It's hard to believe these killers didn't dispose of the chainsaws.)

     Laquanta Chapman and Bryan Boyd were charged with first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit murder, and abuse of corpse. The Chester County prosecutor also charged Chapman with a cruelty to animals offense. Under Pennsylvania law, both defendants had qualified themselves for the death penalty.

     On November 20, 2011, Bryan Boyd, the cousin from Newark, pleaded guilty to third-degree murder, conspiracy to commit murder, and abuse of corpse. While he would avoid the death sentence, Boyd could be sentenced up to 97 years in prison. Boyd, as part of his plea deal, agreed to testify against his older cousin.

     Laquanta Chapman went on trial on October 24, 2012 in West Chester, Pennsylvania. On November 9, following the testimony of his cousin, the jury of seven men and five women found him guilty of first degree-murder. He was also convicted of the lesser offenses. The jurors deliberated less than three hours before delivering their verdict.

     A week after the guilty verdict, the judge, following a sentencing hearing, sentenced Laquanta Chapman to death.
       

The "Hired-Gun" Trial Expert

The employment of private experts is open to serious objection, for they are only human, and it is natural to sympathize with the side of the case from which his fee comes.

Harry Soderman, Policeman's Lot, 1956

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Celebrating The Rise And Fall Of Celebrities Who Exist For Our Entertainment

     When ordinary people commit crimes, abuse drugs and alcohol, and kill themselves, it's local news. When celebrities or former celebrities do this, it's entertainment. O. J. Simpson's popular culture legacy will not be football. Marilyn Monroe will not be remembered for her film career. Oscar Pistorius, the South African "Blade Runner", after being convicted of killing his celebrity girlfriend, become even more famous. His case entertained millions of people for more than a year.

     Celebrities are manufactured personas. These people have relinquished ownership of themselves to the pubic. In that sense they are not real people. They exist for our amusement. We celebrate their successes and triumphs, and revel in their misery. Ripe for exploitation, celebrities need fame like the rest of us need oxygen. When they don't get it, they whither away and die. Sometimes they take things into their own hands by committing suicide.

     Country and western singer Mindy McCready's prolonged substance abuse, law enforcement problems, and domestic turmoil provided celebrity journalists with a lot of material. The girl from Cleburne County, Arkansas made it big in Nashville with her 1996 debut double-platinum album, "Guys Do It All The Time." She spent the next 16 years trying to replicate that success. During this time, McCready struggled with drugs and alcohol as well as a volatile love life. She never regained the fame she had lost.

     In 2004, McCready pleaded guilty to filling out fraudulent prescription slips for the addictive painkiller OxyContin. A judge in Nashville sentenced her to three years of supervised probation. In May 2005, after her ex-boyfriend, Billy McKnight was charged with attempted murder for allegedly breaking into her Herber Springs home outside of Nashville, police arrested her for driving under the influence. A couple of months later, the singer was found unconscious from a drug overdose in the lobby of a Pinellas County, Florida hotel.

     In September 2005, McCready, pregnant with Billy McKnight's child, was hospitalized after attempting suicide by drug overdose. Police arrested her eighteen months later for misdemeanor battery that occurred during a fight with her mother. In September 2007, McCready spent a year in jail for violating her probation from the 2004 OxyContin sentence. A year later, she was back behind bars for falsifying her community service hours in connection with the 2007 case. The country and western singer attempted suicide again in 2008.

     In 2009, Mindy McCready was talked into becoming a cast member in VH1's reality TV series, "Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew." (Dr. Drew is Dr. Drew Pinsky.) The series was ostensibly about giving viewers insight into the serious problem of substance addiction, and the importance of professional treatment. On the show's third season, McCready appeared with, among other "celebrity" cast members, Dennis Rodman, Tom Sizemore, MacKenzie Phillips, and Heidi Fleiss.

     Fans of this exploitation of fallen stars must have found the program reassuring. While their own lives were far from perfect, they were at least better off than McCready and the other human disasters  showcasing their flaws and failures. After former "Celebrity Rehab" cast members Mike Starr, Joey Kovar, Rodney King, and Jeff Conaway died young, VH1 canceled the series after five seasons. But the spirit of the show lives on in the non-celebrity version called "Rehab with Dr. Drew." The freak show has also spawned a pair of spinoffs, "Sober House," and "Sex Rehab", a series about people addicted to sex.

     After her stint on "Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew," McCready's life continued to spin out of control. (Apparently the TV counselor didn't do her much good.) She had more arrests, drug overdoses, and attempted suicides. In January 2013, McCready's boyfriend, David Wilson, the father of her 9-month-old son, shot himself to death on the front porch of her Herber Springs, Tennessee home. On Sunday, February 17, 2013, McCready, on the same front porch, used a gun to take her own life.

     By dropping the curtain on her own show, McCready gave her audience a tragic ending to a sad story. It won't be long before the public forgets that she ever existed.    

The Timothy Hennis Triple-Murder Case

     U.S. Air Force officer Gary Eastburn and his wife Kathryn were married in 1975. Ten years later, Captain Eastburn, the chief of Air Traffic Control at Pope Air Force Base near Fayetteville, North Carolina, received a new assignment to England. Before the couple's planned departure to Great Britain, they decided to find a new home for their English Setter. The Eastburn family had grown and now included three children. Kara was five, Erin, three, and the baby, Jana, was almost two.

     Army Sergeant Timothy Hennis, stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, lived in Fayetteville with his wife Angela. The 27-year-old saw an ad in a free classified newspaper regarding the Eastburn family's offer to sell their dog for $10 to anyone willing to give the pet a good home. In early May 1985, in response to the ad, Sergeant Hennis met with Kathryn Eastburn at her house on Summerhall Road. The sergeant went home that day with the English Setter.

     On May 10, 1985, a neighbor, aware that Captain Eastburn was attending a squadron officers' training school in Montgomery, Alabama, noticed that a few newspapers had not been picked up at their house. Concerned about the wellbeing of Kathryn and her three children, the neighbor went to the front door to check on them. From outside the house the neighbor heard a baby crying. When he knocked on the door and no one answered, the neighbor called the police.

     Upon entering the Eastburn dwelling, police officers were stunned by what they found. Kathryn, Kara, and Erin had been repeatedly stabbed. The killer had also slashed their throats. The baby in the crib was severely dehydrated, just hours from death. Kathryn had been tied up and raped.

     The killer had attempted to clean up the crime scene but had been overwhelmed by the task. There was too much blood. The only items missing from the house were a small amount of cash and the Eastburn ATM card.

     An Eastburn neighbor said he had seen a tall man wearing a dark Members Only jacket walking from the house a couple of days before the police were called to the scene. This man was carrying a large trash bag and drove off in a white Chevrolet. Based on this witness' description of the suspect, a police artist drew a sketch of the man's face.

     Following the news coverage of the triple murder, Sergeant Hennis voluntarily paid a visit to the police station. He told detectives that when he saw a photograph of Kathryn Eastburn on television he realized she was the woman from whom he had recently purchased the dog.

     Because Sergeant Hennis was tall, looked like the man in the police sketch, had just taken a dark Members Only jacket to a dry cleaner, and drove a white Chevrolet Chevette, he became the prime suspect in the case. A witness picked Hennis out of a police line-up as the man seen carrying the trash bag out of the murder house. Shortly after being seen leaving the Eastburn house with the bag, Hennis was seen burning items in an oil drum in his backyard.

     Detectives determined that Hennis and his wife were separating and that he was having money problems. A witness saw Hennis using an ATM machine about the time someone used the Eastburn card.

     Sergeant Hennis denied killing the mother and her children. He said he was home that night building his daughter a dollhouse. County prosecutor William VanStory charged Hennis with three counts of first-degree murder and one count of rape.

     Because the prosecution didn't have a confession, physical evidence linking Hennis to the murder scene, or an eyewitness to the massacre, VanStory offered Hennis a plea bargain. The defendant, perhaps realizing that the prosecution's case was entirely circumstantial, turned down the deal.

     The Hennis murder trial got underway in the spring of 1986. According to the prosecutor's theory of the case, the defendant, after buying the dog, returned to the Eastburn house to have sex with Kathryn. He knew that Captain Eastburn was in Montgomery, Alabama. When Kathryn rejected his sexual advances he flew into a rage and murdered her and her two children.

     The witness who picked Hennis out of the police line-up as the man leaving the murder house carrying the trash bag took the stand for the prosecution. Another witness testified that the Eastburn ATM card had been used on two occasions after the murders. Twice the card user had withdrawn $150. The prosecutor pointed out that the defendant owned his landlord $300 in back rent.

     The Hennis trial lasted three weeks. The jury, after ten hours of deliberation, found the defendant guilty as charged. The judge sentenced Hennis to death.

     The convicted man's attorneys appealed the case to the North Carolina Supreme Court on grounds the jurors had been unduly prejudiced by the introduction into evidence of the graphic murder scene photographs. In 1988, the state supreme court granted Hennis a new trial.

     A year after winning the appeal, Hennis' attorneys, at his second trial, took a more aggressive approach. They put forward their own narrative of the case. Kathryn Eastburn and her children had been murdered by a mysterious stranger who for months had made phone threats against the family. Moreover, a murder scene head hair found on the Eastburn bed did not come from any member of the family or the defendant. Several bloodstains in the house did not match the blood types of the family or Sergeant Hennis. (The Hennis trial predated the DNA era. Blood could only be placed into groups.)

     The defense attorneys argued that the overkill nature of the murders was not consistent with a man who had merely been rebuffed by a woman with whom he had wanted casual sex. According to the defense, the Eastburn family had been slaughtered by a maniac who, for whatever reason, hated them.

     In cross-examining the prosecution's witness, the defendant's attorneys did a good job of raising doubts regarding their credibility. The prosecutors, on the other hand, seemed overconfident they would secure another guilty verdict. For that reason they were shocked when the jury returned a verdict of not guilty.

     Timothy Hennis, following his acquittal, re-enlisted in the Army. Promoted to Staff Sergeant, he did tours of duty in Saudi Arabia and in Somalia before being stationed back in the states at Fort Lewis, Washington.

     In 2006, years after he had retired from the military, the Army called the 48-year-old back into service and sent him to Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

     Army prosecutors, shortly after Staff Sergeant Hennis reported for duty at Fort Bragg, charged him in military court with triple-murder. The Army had called Hennis back to active duty for the sole purpose of the court martial.

     The Hennis legal team sprang back into action. Defense attorneys accused the military of violating their client's right against double jeopardy under the Fifth Amendment. However, due to legal precedent that allowed the court martial of a soldier who had been acquitted in a civilian court of the same crime, the Army's case moved forward.

     Army prosecutors had new evidence that incriminated Hennis. A North Carolina DNA analyst had matched his DNA to semen found inside Kathryn Eastburn. Advanced DNA science had made the identification of this rape kit vaginal swab evidence possible.

     At the 2010 court martial trial, the Hennis defense argued that merely because the defendant and Kathryn Eastburn had engaged in consensual sex didn't prove that he had murdered her and the children. The defense attorneys also brought up the unidentified hair follicle and the unaccounted for bloodstains. Moreover, DNA found under Kathryn's fingernail did not match the defendant.

     The case put on by the Hennis defense was no match for the testimony of the prosecution's DNA expert. The military jury, following a three-day trial, found Hennis guilty of three counts of premeditated murder. The judge sentenced him to death. (Hennis cannot be executed without presidential approval. The military hasn't executed anyone since 1961.)

     In 2012, after numerous federal appeals involving defense claims that the DNA evidence had been contaminated by the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the Hennis case.

     With their client in solitary confinement on death row at Fort Leavenworth military prison in Kansas, the Hennis legal team, in March 2014, appealed the court martial verdict to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals for The Armed Forces. The Hennis defense argued that because Harris had been unlawfully ordered to active duty in 2006, the Army did not have jurisdiction to court martial him.

     On October 14, 2014, the Armed Forces Court of Appeals denied the Hennis petition. At this point it appeared that his attorneys had run out of legal remedies in this one-of-a-kind murder case.
     

Friday, June 22, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On Diagraming Sentences

My tenth grade English teacher almost single handedly murdered my impulse to write. Through her obsession with diagraming sentences, she turned the act of composition into a stressful and unpleasant technical exercise. Her dangling participles and split infinitives drove me to question if I had what it took to be a writer. I was saved by reading pulp fiction written by men who had never made it out of high school, and surly couldn't diagram sentences any better than me. I didn't become a writer because of this English teacher, I became a writer in spite of her. I guess if you can't overcome high school English, you have no business being a writer. Diagram that.

Thornton P. Knowles

The Anthony Taglianetti Love Triangle Murder Case

     In 2010, Anthony Taglianetti and his wife Mary resided with their four children in Woodbridge, Virginia. Anthony, a former Marine, worked at the Marine Museum.  Later that year, the couple separated. Mary and the children moved out of the house in Virginia and relocated in Saratoga Springs, New York.

     Shortly after taking up residence in Saratoga Springs, Mary signed up with the online dating site Match.com where she met Keith Reed Jr. She did not tell the 51-year-old superintendent of the Clymer, New York school district that she was married. After Mr. Reed and the 40-year-old woman exchanged a few emails, they met for dinner. After that they became romantically involved. Keith Reed still did not know that he was dating a married woman.

     Keith Reed, the father of three college age daughters, lived alone in the farming community of 1,500 70 miles southwest of Buffalo, New York. The school superintendent had been divorced for several years.

     In 2011, Mary Taglianetti, after reconciling with her husband, moved back to Woodbridge, Virginia. But in 2012, while still living with him and their children, she began exchanging sexually explicit emails and telephone calls with Keith Reed who still wasn't aware that she was married. The online relationship came to an end when Anthony Taglianetti discovered one of the lurid email messages Mary had forgotten to erase from her computer.

     A furious Anthony Taglianetti sent several angry emails to Keith Reed who insisted he had no idea the woman he had been swapping erotic emails with was married. Mr. Reed made it clear he wanted nothing more to do with Mr. Taglianetti or his dishonest wife.

     On September 23, 2012, Edward Bailey, the principal of Clymer Central High School, reported Keith Reed missing after the superintendent didn't show up for a conference in Saratoga Springs. Mr. Bailey went to Reed's house where he found his dog locked in the garage. Mr. Reed was not in the dwelling.

     Deputies with the Chautauqua County Sheriff's Office questioned the missing man's neighbors who reported hearing gunshots coming from the vicinity of Reed's house around 9:30 PM two days before. On September 24, 2012, a deputy sheriff found Mr. Reed's body amid a row of thick shrubs about 150 feet from his house. He had been shot three times.

     Detectives working the case caught their first break when Mary Taglianetti, on September 26, 2012, told them she suspected that Keith Reed had been murdered by her angry and jealous husband.

     Investigators learned that on September 21, 2012, Anthony Taglianetti drove 350 miles to Clymer, New York where the detectives believed he shot and killed Keith Reed. According to these homicide investigators, Taglianetti, after murdering the victim, drove straight back to Woodbridge, Virginia. The next day he took one of his children to a local museum.

     A Chautauqua County prosecutor charged Anthony Taglianetti with second-degree murder. On September 30, 2012, U.S. Marshals and local police officerrs pulled the murder suspect over as he drove along a rural road in the Shenandoah Valley National Forest in Virginia. Inside Taglianetti's vehicle officers found a .367-Magnum revolver wrapped in one of his wife's offending emails.

     Through DNA analysis, a forensic scientist identified Keith Reed's blood on the suspect's handgun. Ballistics tests revealed that this .357-Magnum had fired the death scene bullets.

     The Taglianetti murder trial got underway on October 31, 2013 in Chautauqua County, New York. District Attorney David W. Foley, in his opening statement to the jury, emphasized the physical evidence pointing to the defendant's guilt.

     Public defender Nathaniel L. Barone, in his opening remarks, said, "This is not a story of an affair gone wrong or a crazed husband seeking justice. It's not as simple as Mr. Taglianetti driving up and killing Keith Reed because of an email. That's not what happened. The defendant is innocent. Mr. Taglianetti did not murder Keith Reed Jr."

     The defense attorney, after declaring his client innocent, attacked Mary Taglianetti, one of the prosecution's star witnesses. He characterized her as a "master manipulator" and urged jurors to weigh her testimony carefully. "Mary Taglianetti is a liar," he said.

     On November 9, 2013, following the testimony of 46 witnesses over a nine day period, the jury of five women and seven men, after three hours of deliberation, found the 45-year-old defendant guilty as charged. On February 24, 2014, the Chautauqua County judge sentenced Anthony Taglianetti to 25 years to life in prison. 

Circumstantial Evidence in Eighteenth Century America

Most [criminal trial] evidence in [in eighteenth century America] was direct; that is, people testified to facts which they observed directly. Circumstantial evidence, or inference from other observed facts, was less common. When used, it was of the [homespun]  knowledge of farm, field, stream, and woods. A sweating horse in the barn was mute testimony that he had been ridden long and hard recently.

Thomas M. McDade, The Annals of Murder, 1961

Thursday, June 21, 2018

John Douglas White: The Pastor Who Murdered Women

     John Douglas White, the 55-year-old pastor of the Christ Community Fellowship Church located just west of Mount Pleasant, Michigan, lived by himself in a mobile home park in Broomfield Township near the town of Remus. This self-appointed man of the cloth possessed a background more in line with a person serving a life sentence in prison than a preacher of a tiny church in rural central Michigan. Pastor White, a perverted lust killer, had no business living outside prison walls where he could take advantage of women while masquerading as a man of God. He was a predatory sex killer in preacher's clothing.

     In 1981, John White, then 24, choked and stabbed a 17-year-old girl in Battle Creek, Michigan. The victim survived and White was allowed to plead no contest to assault with intent to do great bodily harm. (In my view, the no contest plea should be abolished.) The judge sentenced White to five years in prison. Corrections authorities let White out on parole after he had served two years behind bars.

     John White and his wife, in 1994, were living in Comstock Township near Kalamazoo, Michigan. On July 11 of that year, 26-year-old Vicky Sue Wall was seen getting into White's pickup just before she disappeared. Shortly after Wall's relatives reported her missing, the 37-year-old violent sex offender checked himself into the Kalamazoo Regional Psychiatric Hospital. In September 1994, police found Vicky Sue Wall's badly decomposed body in the woods not far from her home. Arrested at the psychiatric facility, White admitted strangling the victim to death. The victim and White had had an affair, and she had threatened to tell his wife. So he killed her. (I doubt the police, once they had the confession, conducted an investigation to determine if this was, in reality, the motive for Wall's murder.)

     In the Vicky Sue Wall murder case, the authorities allowed White to strike a deal with the prosecutor. In return for his guilty plea to the ridiculous charge of involuntary manslaughter, the judge sentenced White to eight to fifteen years. At his May 1995 sentencing hearing, White told the judge that Vicky Sue Wall's death had been a "tragic accident." (How do you accidentally strangle someone to death? This judge must have been an idiot.) John White walked out of prison in 2007 after serving twelve years of his sentence. White's wife had divorced him.

     In 2012, Pastor John White was engaged to a woman in his congregation whose 24-year-old daughter--Rebekah Gay--lived a few doors from him in the mobile home park. Because White was a preacher engaged to her mother, Rebekah allowed him to watch her 3-year-old son. She had no idea this preacher watched necrophilia pornography and fantasized about having gruesome, perverted sex with her.

     On October 31, 2012, at six in the morning, John White entered Rebekah Gay's trailer, struck her in the head with a hard rubber mallet, then strangled her to death with a zip tie. After performing perverted sexual acts on Gay's body, White hauled her 5-foot-3, 118 pound corpse in his pickup to a ditch behind a stand of pine trees about a mile from the trailer park. It was there he dumped her body.

     After hiding his victim's corpse, White returned to his trailer where he cleaned himself and his truck with paper towels. He walked to Gay's dwelling, got into her car, and drove it to a nearby bar and parked it there. He had also tossed Gay's cellphone into a dumpster and threw away the rubber mallet. From the bar, White walked back to Gay's mobile home, dressed her son in his Halloween costume, then drove the boy to Mount Pleasant where, as prearranged, the boy's father picked him up for the day.

     Crime scene investigators processed the victim's trailer for physical clues and searched White's mobile home where they found the bloody towels and other incriminating evidence. When questioned by detectives with the Michigan State Police, John White confessed, then led the officers to Rebekah Gay's body.

     On November 1, 2012, John White was arraigned in an Isabella County District Court on the charge of first-degree murder. The judge denied him bail.

     The church member who had hired John White as pastor, said this to a reporter with The Detroit News: "He [White] was absolutely contrite. All kinds of people turn around and meet the Lord and they are a different person. He [White] was doing a lot of good in the community....He was doing a lot of good and Satan did not want him doing good, and Satan got to him."

     So, according to one of Pastor White's congregants, White's cold-blooded lust murder of Rebekah Gay was the devil's doing.

     In April 2013, White pleaded guilty to second-degree murder for killing Rebekah Gay. The judge sentenced him to 56 years and three months. On August 28, 2013, a prison guard at the Michigan Reformatory Correctional Institution in Ionia, found White dead in his cell. He had hanged himself.

The Man Who Kidnapped Himself

     On Thursday October 23, 2014, Paul Kitterman, a 53-year-old construction worker from Kremmling, Colorado, a town 100 miles north of Denver, was in the mile high city with his stepson and two of his stepson's friends to watch a Broncos-San Diego Charges football game. Mr. Kitterman and his 22-year-old stepson, Jarod Tonneson, were seated in the stadium's south bleachers section. They were among 70,000 fans attending the game. Tonneson's friends watched the game from another part of the Sports Authority Field.

     At the beginning of the third quarter, Tonneson and his stepfather visited the public restroom. When Tonneson came out of the men's room, Mr. Kitterman was not there waiting for him as agreed upon. The stepfather was not in the restroom and had not returned to his seat in Section 230.

     Jarod Tonneson and his friends searched the stadium inside and out until one-thirty the next morning. They found no trace of the man who had accompanied them to the game. Mr. Kitterman, without possession of a cellphone or credit cards, had simply vanished. He had been carrying about $50 in cash.

     Mr. Kitterman had not been intoxicated and was not suffering from a mental problem. This raised the possibility that someone had kidnapped him. Or perhaps he had just gotten sick or lost in the stadium. There seemed to be no other logical explanations for his disappearance. The concerned stepson filed a missing person report with the Denver Police Department.

     On Monday October 27, 2014, a police spokesperson announced that a football fan had seen Mr. Kitterman in the stadium during the third quarter, but the witness couldn't remember where in the stadium he had seen him. Investigators viewed hours and hours of stadium surveillance video footage for clues regarding the missing man's whereabouts. In the meantime, the stepson and his friends posted fliers around the city of Denver.

     On Tuesday night October 28, 2014, someone called the police in Pueblo, Colorado regarding a man believed to be Mr. Kitterman. Shortly after the call, five days after he had gone missing from the football stadium located 112 miles north of Pueblo, police officers found Mr. Kitterman in a K-Mart parking lot.

     Paul Kitterman had not been the victim of foul play and other than being tired, he was in good physical condition. The object of the five-day missing persons search told officers that he had walked and hitchhiked to the city of Pueblo. He said he slept in parks and wooded areas. Along the way he had disposed of his Broncos hat to avoid being recognized. He apparently had not wanted to be found.

     Detectives asked Mr. Kitterman the question that was on everybody's mind: Why did he slip away from his stepson and travel to Pueblo, Colorado? Surely he knew that walking off like that would trigger a police manhunt and cause his friends and family a lot of stress.

     Mr. Kitterman told the officers that because he hadn't watched television for five days, he had no idea people were looking for him. When asked to explain why he had made himself a missing person, Mr. Kitterman said he had gotten his "fill of football" and simply wanted to walk to someplace warmer.

     Because the missing man's actions reflect some form or degree of dementia, the authorities in Denver had no plans to file charges against him. And even if he was of sound mind, what crime did he commit? You don't go to prison for kidnapping yourself. 

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

The David Bowen Murder-For-Hire Case

     The Bowens were an unlikely couple. Forty-four-year-old Daniel, a political ward captain, worked as a janitor at the Chicago Cultural Center. He and his wife, Anne Treonis-Bowen, an attorney with the Illinois Liquor Control Commission, were in the midst of a nasty divorce that included a custody battle over their daughters who were five and six. Daniel couldn't stand the idea that his wife, the one with the better job, the one who would end up with the house and most of the marital assets, was about to become the dominant person in their children's lives. She would make all of the parental decisions while he'd be relegated to the role of a visiting ex-spouse. Daniel Bowen considered this a humiliating attack on his manhood. It was the hatred of his wife, not the love of his children, that drove this man to murder.

     In February 2004, Daniel Bowen offered his childhood friend, Dennis McArdle, $2,000 in upfront money to kill Mrs. Bowen. After the hit man completed the job, and the victim's life insurance paid off, the murder-for-hire mastermind would pay McArdle another $20,000. Bowen also offered his friend a cushy, low-level city job.

     McArdle, a convicted felon, alcoholic, drug addict and incompetent bungler with no prospects and nothing to lose, accepted the contract murder assignment. From a man he barely knew, McArdle purchased, for $500, a .38-caliber revolver with a homemade silencer that didn't work when he and Bowen test-fired the gun in the basement of the cultural center. Bowen scheduled the murder for March 4, 2004, a day when he would be in the company of others, and thus have an airtight alibi.

     As murder plots go, this one was simple. McArdle was to shoot the wife after she parked her car that morning at the Chicago Transit Authority station southwest of the city. On the morning of the hit, wearing a ski mask and latex gloves, McArdle walked up behind the victim in the station parking lot and shot her once in the back of the head. To make the shooting look like a robbery rather than an execution style murder, McArdle took the victim's handbag. The ploy, to the trained eye of an investigator, was transparent.

     Although this amateur hitman had worn gloves to avoid linking himself to the shooting, had disposed of the victim's wallet, and got rid of the murder weapon, he took Mrs. Bowen's purse back to his apartment building where he hid it in the basement. A few days later, the owner of the apartment building found the handbag, and inside it, a prescription bottle bearing the murdered woman's name. The landlord called the police. Because McArdle was the only resident of the building with a connection to the murder victim, he became the prime suspect in the case.

     Ten days after Anne Treonis-Bowen's execution, detectives brought McArdle in for questioning. The 42-year-old suspect, suffering from cirrhosis and hepatitis, quickly confessed and agreed to testify against Daniel Bowen.

     In September 2004, while awaiting trial in the Cook County Jail, Daniel Bowen hanged himself. A month later, a judge sentenced McArdle to 35 years in prison.

    The Bowen case is yet another example that murder-for-hire, like ransom kidnapping, is a desperate crime committed by dimwits and fools. 

Potato Chips As Arson Tool

Crime laboratories do not always detect accelerants that were used in an incendiary fire. Accelerant-sniffing dogs, whose sniffers are more sensitive than even the most sophisticated laboratory equipment, don't always, either. If it is believed that an accelerant was used in the fire, it might be that the accelerant itself is undetectable. One such accelerant could be a bag of potato chips. It is possible to set a bag of chips on fire and throw it on a couch, creating an accelerant-like effect. The fat in the chips make them extremely volatile when ignited (think of a kitchen grease fire). An accelerant-sniffing dog won't even detect the chips, and the labs won't be testing for them, either. The crime scene investigator should always question finding a couch with too many crumbs in the cushions.

Jarrett Hallcox and Amy Welch, Bodies We've Buried, 2006

Raymond Chandler on Ernest Hemingway

Raymond Chandler [a noted and literary twentieth century crime novelist] wrote a sentence true of [Ernest] Hemingway and himself: "I suppose the weakness, even the tragedy of writers like Hemingway is that their sort of stuff demands an immense vitality; and a man outgrows his vitality without unfortunately outgrowing his furious concern with it."

Michael Schmidt, The Novel: A Biography, 2014 

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On The Ideal Job

My idea of an ideal job would be to drive a bus in a town where no one uses public transportation. I also like the idea of being a cop in a place where everyone obeys the law. I might also consider teaching in a high school where all the students are smart, self-motivated, and terrified of authority. Writing novels full time would be great if you didn't have to deal with editors, publicists, and readers. I guess I'm not a people person.

Thornton P. Knowles

The Steven Fortin Murder Case: Conflicting Bite Mark Testimony

     In 1994, police found the body of 25-year-old Melissa Padilla in a concrete pipe along Route 1 near Woodbridge, New Jersey. Naked from the waist down, she had been beaten and sexually assaulted. The killer had bitten her on the chin and left breast. Padilla had been abducted the night before from a nearby convenience store in the Avenel section of Woodbridge. The police had no suspects, and the investigation quickly died on the vine.

     In April 1995, the state police in Maine contacted the Padilla case investigators with a lead. They had arrested 31-year-old Steven Fortin for the sexual assault of a female state police officer who had been bitten on the chin and left breast. Fortin was also living in Woodbridge at the time of Padilla's murder. Although the suspect denied involvement in the New Jersey homicide, he pleaded guilty, in November 1995, to the assault in Maine. The judge sentenced him to 20 years.

     Five years after entering prison in Maine, the authorities in New Jersey put Fortin on trial for the murder of Melissa Padilla. The prosecution's key witness, FBI criminal profiler Robert Hazelwood, connected the defendant to the Padilla murder by noting similarities in its criminal MO to the sexual assault in Maine. The jury in New Jersey, on the strength of this testimony, found Fortin guilty. In February 2004, the New Jersey Supreme Court overturned the conviction on the grounds it was not supported by sufficient evidence.

     New Jersey prosecutors retried Steven Fortin in 2007. This time they had physical evidence connecting him to the victim. A DNA analyst testified that the defendant could not be excluded as the primary source of the saliva recovered from the Marlboro cigarette butt found near Padilla's body. According to this expert, only one out of 3,500 people could be linked to this evidence. Moreover, the defendant could not be excluded as the DNA source of the blood and tissue traces found under the victim's fingernails.

     Dr. Lowell J. Levine, one of the pioneers in the field of crime scene bite mark identification, a forensic odontologist from upstate New York, had compared photographs of the victim's bite mark wounds (The photographs did not include a ruler measuring the marks because the photographer didn't recognize the bruises as teeth marks.) with photographs of the defendant's front teeth. Dr. Levine noticed a space between Fortin's lower front incisors that corresponded to a space in the mark on the victim's left breast. Dr. Levine testified that although he could not say to a scientific certainty that the defendant had bitten the victim, he could not exclude him as the biter.

     Dr. Adam Freeman, a forensic dentist from Westport, Connecticut, testified that in his study of 259 bite mark cases, the largest study of its kind, he found only 5 cases in which the attackers had bitten their victims on the chin and the breast. Dr. Freeman's testimony helped link the defendant, circumstantially, to the sexual assault in Maine for which he had pleaded guilty.

     Steven Fortin's defense team countered Dr. Levine with another world renowned forensic odontologist, Dr. Norman Sperber, the chief forensic dentist with the California Department of Justice. Dr. Sperber had testified for the defense at the first trial, but the jury had disregarded his testimony. He, like Dr. Levine, had testified for the prosecution in the 1979 trial of serial killer Ted Bundy. Since then, Dr. Sperber had appeared as an expert witness in 215 trials. According to his analysis, Steven Fortin could not have made the bite marks on Melissa Padilla's body. According to Dr. Sperber: "The tracing of his [Fortin's] teeth doesn't even come close to the crime scene bite marks." The forensic odontologist went on to say that bite mark analysis has limitations as a form of crime scene associative evidence. It was not as reliable, he said, as DNA and fingerprint identification. "Skin is a serious limitation for bite mark analysis because it rebounds and is movable," he said. "Bite mark evidence is not a true science."

     On December 4, 2007, the jury of nine men and three women, after deliberating nine hours, found Steven Fortin guilty of first-degree murder and first-degree sexual assault. The judge sentenced him to life plus twenty years.  

Monday, June 18, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On The Odds Of Getting A First Novel Published

If you are not some kind of celebrity, are unpublished, and do not have the services of a literary agent, the odds of getting a first novel published are not good. Best I can figure, the aspiring writer has about one in a thousand chance of getting a commercial publisher to bring out his or her's first work of fiction. The odds are better than the lottery, but that's about it. There are just too many novelists and not enough readers. And to make matters worse, because acquisition editors have no idea what will sell and what won't, a lot of the stuff that gets published is crap. But what the hell, if you got to write a novel, do it. Get the thing out of your system. Who knows?

Thornton P. Knowles

Ali Syed's Killing Spree

     Ali Syed, an unemployed, part time student at Saddleback Community College, lived with his parents in Ladera Ranch, an affluent suburban Orange County community 50 miles south of Los Angeles. The pudgy 20-year-old spent most of his time in his parents' beige and white stucco condo playing video games. He had never been arrested, and had no known history of illicit drug use. Ali did possess a .12-gauge shotgun his father had given to him in 2012.

     At 4:45 in the morning of Tuesday, February 19, 2013, Syed's mother called 911 from the Ladera Ranch condo. "I think somebody was shot," she said. "I heard a gunshot." Deputies with the Orange County Sheriff's Office found, in Syed's room, 20-year-old Courtney Aoki. (There were reports she worked as a stripper.) Aoki had been killed instantly by three shotgun blasts to the head and upper body. Syed had fled the murder scene in his parents' black GMC Yukon before the deputies arrived at the dwelling.

     From Ladera Ranch, Syed headed north on Interstate 5 where, 20 miles from his home, he exited the interstate and drove into the town of Tustin. Driving with a flat tire, Syed pulled into a Denny's parking lot alongside a man sitting in an older model blue Cadillac. Syed pointed his shotgun at the man and yelled, "Get out!" Instead of complying with the order, the driver of the Cadillac drove off. He didn't get far. Syed raised the shotgun and blew out the fleeing driver's rear window, wounding him in the back of the head. The victim, who managed to escape on foot to a nearby hospital, survived the shooting.

     Syed approached a man pumping gas at a Mobile station. "I don't want to hurt you," he said. "I just killed someone. Give me your keys. This is my last day." Syed climbed in behind the wheel of this man's Dodge pickup truck and headed north. On Interstate 5, he drove five miles before merging onto a southbound lane which took him to Freeway 55. He pulled the stolen truck to the shoulder of the highway, stepped out of the vehicle, and began shooting at motorists commuting to work, wounding three of them.

     After firing randomly at passing vehicles, Syed climbed into the Dodge pickup, pulled back onto the highway, proceeded to the Edinger Avenue exit from where he drove into Santa Ana. Shortly after pulling into town, he approached a man sitting in a BMW. Syed ordered 69-year-old Melvin Edwards of Laguna Hills out of his vehicle. As the victim stood at the side of the street, Syed executed him with three shotgun blasts.

     Driving Melvin Edwards' BMW, Syed returned to Tustin. In the parking lot of a computer store, he murdered Jeremy Lewis. Lewis, a plumber from Fullerton, was walking to a construction site at a nearby Fairfield Inn. A construction supervisor saw the shotgun-armed Syed chasing Lewis across the parking lot. The supervisor drove his pickup truck onto the lot in an effort to rescue Lewis, but Syed shot him in the arm, and stole his vehicle. It was 5:45 in the morning.

     Just before six o'clock, at an intersection about 25 miles north of Ladera Ranch, officers with the California Highway Patrol caught up with Syed. This video-game playing college student, after killing three people and wounding three others in the course of his 75-minute suburban shooting spree, jumped out of the stolen pickup truck while it was still moving. Syed pressed the muzzle of his shotgun to his head and pulled the trigger. He became his seventh victim.

     For reasons that remained a mystery absent a suicide note or some kind of manifesto, Ali Syed shot six innocent strangers. There was no way to know if he had been inspired by Christopher Dorner's rampage in southern California, or any of the other high-profile mass murder-suicide cases. If suicide was his ultimate goal, why did he murder the young woman in his room and the two men he encountered as they went about their daily routines? This was a question that will never answered.

     In the wake of homicidal crime sprees, people also ask if there were any indications that this person was capable of such mayhem. These events are almost always impossible to predict because it's impossible to know what is going on inside the mind of a mentally disturbed person. 

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On How To Keep A Government Job

If I were handing out career advice to a college student, I'd say this: If you want a government job where you can demonstrate courage, go into the military or law enforcement. On the other hand, if you are not the courage type, seek an ordinary governmental position. The goal of the ordinary civilian government employee is to not make waves. Whistleblowers are not welcome and are treated brutally. The secret to getting ahead in government is simple: find the right butt to kiss and shower it with love. In government work, it's all about group think, obedience, and when confronted with governmental wrongdoing, looking the other way. (Even in law enforcement, a job that requires courage, there is a code of silence when it comes to employee wrongdoing.)

Thornton P. Knowles

The James Pepe Murder-For-Hire Case

     James J. Pepe taught high school history in the Hillsborough County, Florida school system. For years he had been an erratic, difficult employee who frightened a lot of his follow teachers. In 2001, a faculty member characterized Pepe as "hostile," "aggressive," and "extremely volatile." During this period, James Pepe called his principal a "pathological liar," and bragged to people that school administrators were powerless to take action against him. Had this disgruntled, disruptive employee worked in the private sector, he would have been fired.

     In dealing with this potentially dangerous and out of control educator, the Hillsborough County school superintendent decided against termination. Instead, the boss suspended Mr. Pepe with pay, recommended anger management counseling, then reassigned him to another school. (In teacher pedophile cases, they call this passing the trash.) Over the next few years, as Pepe's behavior became more bizarre, paranoid, and bellicose, he was transferred three more times. At one of the schools this history teacher disrupted, Pepe accused the principal of assigning him the worst students. He also accused the maintenance staff of turning off the air-conditioning to his classroom. (Given the passive-aggressive nature of public school employee discipline, this might be true. As they say, even a paranoid can be persecuted. Maybe school administrators were trying to encourage this pain-in-the-neck teacher to quit.)

     In 2012, James Pepe was teaching and causing trouble at Bloomingdale High School near Tampa, his fifth assignment in the Hillsborough County school system. (Mr. Pepe, a disfunctional teacher, was pulling down $58,000 a year plus benefits.) In recent months, he had focused his paranoia on a 59-year-old economics teacher who also taught at Strawberry Crest High School. Pepe had convinced himself that Robert Meredith was the source of all his problems. More specifically, the unstable teacher harbored the false notion that Mr. Meredith, his former colleague and friend, was spreading rumors that Pepe was a child molester.

     In August 2012, the 55-year-old history teacher reached out to a childhood friend for help. Pepe came right to the point--would this person murder Robert Meredith for $5,000? The stunned friend, who said he would think about the homicidal proposal, immediately reported the murder solicitation to the Plant City Police Department. There was no doubt in the friend's mind that Mr. Pepe was dead serious in his desire to have Mr. Meredith killed.

     The police asked the teacher's friend to call Pepe back and say that while he wasn't interested in committing murder, he had found a man who would do the job. The "hitman," of course, would be an undercover cop.

     The undercover officer, in mid-September 2012, spoke with James Pepe by phone. During that conversation, the teacher said he "had an issue he might need taken care of for $2,000." (While this seems a little cheap for a contract murder, had Pepe been talking to a real hitman, the price would have been about right. In the U.S. assassins are inexpensive and life is cheap.)

     In the second phone conversation between Pepe and the "hitman," the undercover officer tried to arrange a meeting. Pepe declined, but said, in no uncertain terms, that he wanted to have Robert Meredith murdered. This conversation, of course, was recorded.

     While the police in murder solicitation cases prefer to have audio and videotaped meetings (often in Walmart parking lots) in which the mastermind hands over the blood money, and provides the cop with helpful information regarding the target, the Plant City police, on September 27, 2012, took James Pepe into custody outside Bloomingdale High School.

     Charged with solicitation of first degree-murder, James Pepe was held without bond in the Hillsborough County Jail.

     On March 31, 2014, James Pepe pleaded guilty to solicitation of murder. The judge sentenced this murder-for-hire mastermind to house arrest for one year and 14 years of probation. This was, under the circumstances, an extremely lenient sentence. One would hope, at least, that the conviction ended Mr. Pepe's teaching career. 

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On Ring Lardner And Red Smith

Reporters who cover athletes, athletic teams, and sporting events are often referred to as sports writers. Truth is, only a handful of these journalists are good enough to transcend sports reporting into creative writing. Ring Lardner and Red Smith, for example, were sports writers. Most of their colleagues were merely sports reporters. I imagine that's true today.

Thornton P. Knowles

The David Hilder Murder Case

     On July 3, 2012, a group of foreign students on holiday in Southsea England, a resort town on the English Channel, made a gruesome discovery on the rocks of Portsmouth Beach. They stumbled upon what turned out to be a torso wrapped in a pink shower curtain stuffed inside a plastic bin. Three days later, police officer found a pair of legs at another spot on the beach.

     While the Home Office forensic pathologist could not determine the exact cause of death in this case, marks on the torso suggested that the male victim had suffered a "sustained and violent assault sometime between June 30 and July 3, 2013." The authorities identified the remains as belonging to 30-year-old David Guy, a Southsea man who lived in a camper van and spent a lot of time in the nearby flat of a friend, David Hilder. According to residents of the area, David Guy, when sober, was polite and helpful. When intoxicated, he became violent.

     The dismembered man's longtime friend, David Hilder, collected and sold scrap metal. He rode around on a bicycle equipped with a butcher's box affixed to the handlebars. Witnesses had seen a man on such a bike in the vicinity of the torso dump site.

   On July 5, 2013, David Hilder showed up at the Shoreham police station where he spoke to police constable Stephen Miles. "I need to speak to a copper," Hilder said. "I think I have killed someone." The dirty, disheveled man, known as "Big Dave," seemed confused.

     "What happened," asked PC Miles.

     "I do not know. I'm not sure what I have done." Hilder told the officer he was having flashbacks of the crime he may have committed. "If I have done what I think I've done, then I'm going to kill myself."

     "What do you think you have done?"

     "I don't know," came the reply.

     Police officers conducted a search of Hilder's flat and didn't find anything suspicious. When advised of this, Hilder seemed relieved. Noting that he may have overdosed on the drug Nurofen, Hilder said, "It must have been all in my head then."

     A police officer drove Hilder to a nearby hospital where he was examined and discharged. The officer put him on a train back to his apartment on Richmond Road in Southsea.

     Further investigation of the relationship between "Big Dave" Hilder and "Little Dave" Guy revealed a history of violence. Guy frequently accepted food from Hilder and showered in his flat. In return, he was supposed to take care of Hilder's cat, Tinker. When Hilder returned home to find his place a mess and Tinker neglected, he'd punish Mr. Guy with a beating. In recent weeks the two men had been arguing over Mr. Guy's new relationship with another man.

     Police officers, on July 8, 2012, placed David Hilder under arrest for killing David Guy. The suspect denied having anything to do with his friend's death or dismemberment.

     David Hilder's trial got underway in the Winchester Crown Court exactly one year after the discovery of Mr. Guy's torso on the Southsea beach. The defendant stood accused of murder and the lesser offense of manslaughter. In his opening statement to the jury, Nigel Lickley with the Crown Prosecution Service, called the murder "painstaking and deliberate." According to the prosecutor, the defendant had used his bicycle to dispose of Mr. Guy's body parts. (The victim's head, arms, several internal organs, and his genitals had not been found.) Prosecutor Lickley, in referring to the killing and dismemberment said, "It took time, it took clarity of thought, and it took planning."

     Detective Superintendent Dick Pearson of the Hampshire County Constabulary took the stand for the prosecution and described how he collected cat hair follicles from the pink shower curtain that had been wrapped around Mr. Guy's torso. The Hampshire police sent these samples to the United States where they were visually compared to follicles from 493 American cats. The English samples did not look like any of the hairs from the U. S. cat follicle collection. (The death scene hair did look like Tinker's.)

     English scientists at Leicester University's Department of Genetics compared DNA extracted from Tinker's known hair with the DNA of 152 cats from Southsea and other parts of Hampshire County. Tinker's DNA did not match the DNA from any of the hairs from the 152-cat database. When the DNA from the shower curtain hairs were compared to the DNA of Tinker's known samples, the scientists concluded there was only a one in one-hundred chance that the death scene hairs had not come from the defendant's cat. (DNA in cats is less specific that in humans.)

     Dr. Jon Wetton, the scientist who led the University of Leicester's DNA project, took the stand for the prosecution. Dr. Wetton, who had done similar work on dog DNA, said, "This is the first time cat DNA has been used in a criminal trial in the UK. This could be a real boon for forensic science as the 10 million cats in the UK are unwittingly tagging the clothes and furnishings in more than a quarter of households. Animal DNA offers a way of linking people to places and items though the transfer of their pets' hairs."

     David Hilder's attorney, without much to work with, emphasized his clients low IQ (63) and his learning disability. The defendant also suffered from severe depression.

     On July 30, 2013, the jury acquitted David Hilder of murder, but found him guilty of the lesser crime of manslaughter. Justice David Bean sentenced Hilder to serve a minimum of twelve years in prison. He had been incriminated by his beloved cat.

   

Friday, June 15, 2018

Not Everyone is a Sherlock Holmes Fan

Reading ten Leslie Charteris novels in succession cruelly highlights his weaknesses. Likewise Agatha Christie and even Arthur Conan Doyle. "Sherlock Holmes after all is mostly an attitude and a few dozen lines of unforgettable dialogue," wrote Raymond Chandler. And once you'd grasped the attitude and heard the lines, why read on?

John Baxter, A Pound of Paper, 2003 

Thornton P. Knowles On Sherlock Holmes Versus Reality

Sherlock Holmes, in the "Adventure of the Norwood Builder," showed off his powers of deduction with this greeting of a stranger: "You mentioned your name, as if I should recognize it, but I assure you that, beyond the obvious fact that you are a bachelor, a solicitor, a Freemason, and an athmatic, I know nothing whatever about you." In the real world of investigative deductive powers, there have been murder cases where the detective in charge inferred suicide from an entrance wound to the back of the victim's head fired from beyond two feet. The performance of most criminal investigators falls between the cartoonish Sherlock Holmes character and the sheer incompetence of the amateur.

Thornton P. Knowles

Teacher William James Vahey: The Life And Crimes Of An International Pedophile

     In 1970, 20-year-old William James Vahey pleaded guilty in California to child molestation. Notwithstanding the sex crime conviction, he graduated from college in 1972 with a degree in education. Facing arrest for not registering as a sex offender, the pedophile fled to Tehran, Iran where he landed a job teaching eighth grade history at a private school attended by American and European children.

     From 1973 to 1975, Vahey taught at the American Community School in Beirut, Lebanon. A year later he was in Madrid, Spain teaching at another private American school. After working one year in Spain, Vahey returned to Iran, this time teaching at the Passararod School in the city of Ahwal.

     In 1978, the itinerate pedophile taught eighth grade students at the American Community School in Athens, Greece. Two years later, Vahey turned up in Saudi Arabia at the Saudi Aramco School in Dhahran. After teaching in Saudi Arabia, Vahey moved to Jakarta, Indonesia where he taught at the Jakarta International School for ten years. After a decade in Indonesia, Vahey ended up in Caracas, Venzeluela working at the Escuela Campo School.

     Vahey's wife Jean (yes, many pedophiles are married), the former superintendent of the Esceula Campo School, was, in 2009, the executive director of the European Council of International Studies. This may explain why he had been able to land so many private school teaching jobs around the world.

     After a year in Venezuela, Vahey was in London, England teaching at the Southbank International School. He taught English boys ages eleven to sixteen, most of whom were offspring of foreign business executives and diplomats. During his three year tenure at Southbank, Vahey took students on numerous overnight field trips.

     In August 2013, administrators at the American Nicaraguan School in Managua hired Vahey to teach ninth grade history. Two months later, Vahey accused his house maid of theft and fired her. In February 2014, the maid went to the principal of the American Nicaraguan School with a thumb drive she had taken from Vahey's computer. The memory stick contained at least 90 images of boys between the ages 12 to 14 who were either asleep or unconscious.

     William Vahey, when confronted by school authorities in possession of this evidence, confessed to drugging and sexually assaulting male students. Fired on the spot, the traveling teacher fled the country to avoid being arrested by Nicaraguan police.

     A federal judge in Houston, Texas, on March 11, 2014, ruled that FBI agents could lawfully search Vahey's thumb drive. Two days later, in a Luverne, Minnesota hotel room, the 64-year-old pedophile committed suicide. During his tenure as a middle school teacher, Vahey had taught at ten private schools in nine countries. He also coached boy's basketball and took students on hundreds of overnight field trips.

     At the time of Vahey's death, he owned a home in London, England and a house in Hilton Head, South Carolina. (I do not know if he was still married or if he had any children of his own.)

     On April 23, 2014, a FBI spokesperson issued a statement that read: "This is one of the most prolific and heinous sexual predator cases we have seen. It appears Vahey was able to perfect his crimes in such a way that his victims were unable to report them. He has been teaching overseas the entire time. We strongly believe there are more victims."

    Most of the dead pedophile's former employers were not eager to admit the commission of his sex crimes under their noses. As is so often the case, when suspicions of this nature arise, education administrators simply pass the trash--the suspected pedophile--to another school. Teacher William James Vahey, with a resume full of employment recommendations from former employers, was a piece of trash passed around the world from one country to the next.

Robert Barnard on Hard-Boiled Detective Fiction

We must cut off the modern detective story from the novel proper, put it in quite another category, one with its own traditions, conventions and demands, and thus develop a completely independent critical approach to it. I feel, in fact, that however we react to novels of the American hard-boiled school, nothing but harm can be done by an attempt to see them as "realistic" or closer to the novel proper than other varieties of crime fiction.

Robert Barnard, A Talent to Deceive, 1990 

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On His Book Of Malapropisms

Through my agent, I once proposed a collection of malapropisms. [The mistaken use of a word in place of a similar-sounding one, often with a unintentionally amusing effect.] I really liked my title: "Pomp and Circumcision." The proposal created a storm of rejection and my need for a new literary agent. I'll never apprehend this rejection.

Thornton P. Knowles

The Rachel Fryer Child Abuse Murder Case

     In November 2013, Florida's Department of Children and Families (DCF) reunited Rachel Fryer with her five children. They had been taken away on May 13, 2011 when her infant son Tavont'ae Gordon died. (A forensic pathologist determined that the baby's death was accidental. Fryer claimed to have rolled over on the child. The medical examiner ruled the cause of death mechanical asphyxiation, a so-called "co-sleeping"fatality. The DCF took the five remaining children from the house due to evidence of substance abuse. Besides drugs, the 32-year-old mother had other problems. She was depressed, abusive, and for years had been in trouble with the law. But after completing a parenting program, she got her five children back.

     Fryer, a resident of Sanford, Florida, a town of 53,000 in the Orlando metropolitan area, served six months in jail in 2012 for violating the terms of her drug probation. Police in Seminole County arrested her in December 2013 for failure to appear in court. Over the past several years, she had been charged with resisting arrest, battery of a law enforcement officer, petty theft, and possession of marijuana.

     On Monday morning, February 10, 2014, one of Fryer's neighbors, worried about the well being of the Fryer children, called the DCF and requested a welfare check of the Fryer home. A caseworker arrived at the house to find Rachel gone. The social worker removed four of Fryer's children from the dwelling. The fifth child, 2-year-old Tariji, Tavont'ae's twin sister, was missing. Concerned about the welfare of the toddler, the caseworker called the Sanford Police Department. Detectives launched a missing persons investigation.

     That Monday night, Rachel Fryer showed up at the Sanford police station with a disturbing story. She claimed that on Thursday, February 6, when she tried to wake up her 2-year-old daughter, the toddler was unresponsive. She spent the next thirty minutes trying to revive the little girl with CPR. When that failed, and it became obvious that the child had stopped breathing, Fryer wrapped the body in a blanket. She did not call 911, the police department, or anyone else.

     After placing the dead girl into a leopard-print suitcase, a friend drove Fryer and Tariji to Crescent City, Florida, a town of two thousand in Putnam County northeast of Sanford. In the front yard of a house on Madison Avenue, Fryer buried her daughter in a shallow grave.

     In searching Fryer's cellphone, detectives discovered text messages that revealed the mother's state of mind in the days leading up to Tariji's death. In one message she had texted: "I'm bout to have a nervous breakdown. I can't take it no more….My child is retarded, I don't know what else to do….I need my depression medicine ASAP. This is too much, I'm about to lose it."

     From Fryer's 7-year-old daughter, detectives learned that Fryer regularly hit her children with a broom handle, a mop, and shoes. The 7-year-old said her mother had beaten her the day before her younger sister disappeared.

     On Tuesday, February 11, 2014, police officers in Crescent City, in the front yard of the house on Madison Avenue, saw a child's shoe sticking out of a freshly dug grave. Under the dirt officers found the corpse of a young girl wearing clothing that preliminarily identified the remains of Tariji Fryer. The leopard-print suitcase lay nearby.

     After a prosecutor in Sanford charged Rachel Fryer with aggravated child neglect, she was booked into the John E. Polk Correctional Facility. The judge denied her bond. In the meantime, investigators waited for the results of the girl's autopsy.

     On Tuesday, February 11, detectives questioned Tariji's father, 28-year-old Timothy Gordon. The DCF had not reunited Gordon with his children because he did not take the required parenting counseling in May 2011 following the death of Tavont'ae.

     The Seminole County Medical Examiner's Office, on February 27, 2014, reported that Tariji Gordon had been killed by blunt force trauma to the head. Some of the victim's injuries included, according to a south Florida forensic dentist, bite marks linked to the suspect. The medical examiner ruled the girl's death a criminal homicide. Following that ruling, a local prosecutor charged Rachel Fryer with murder and aggravated child abuse.

     At the suspect's murder arraignment, she pleaded not guilty. Prosecutors told reporters that in this case they will be seeking the death penalty.

     On March 12, 2014, a Seminole County grand jury indicted Fryer for first-degree murder and several lesser offenses. According to detectives who interrogated the suspect, she confessed to murdering her daughter.

     Rachel Fryer, in June 2016 pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and aggravated child abuse. The judge sentenced her to 30 years in prison

     

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On The Devil Weed

The poison ivy in West Virginia is extremely mean. Growing up in the state I spent my summers playing outdoors. Being out in nature put me in contact with those toxic leaves, and every summer I suffered the horrible consequences of this intimacy. Nothing can ruin an otherwise perfectly good summer for a kid more than a severe case of poison ivy. Other than making people miserable, I never figured out the role of poison ivy in the scheme of things. It's the devil's weed. I'm getting itchy just thinking of the summers of my youth.

Thornton P. Knowles

The Forensic Science Hall of Shame: Courtroom Experts From Hell

     The inaugural inductees into my Forensic Science Hall of Shame represent the worst of the worst. They are, in no particular order:

Albert H. Hamilton
     In the 1920s and 30s, this druggist from Auburn, New York, professing expertise in toxicology, fingerprint identification, fireams analysis, and questioned document work, testified falsely in dozens of criminal trials. A pure charlatan, Hamilton was caught switching gun barrels in the Sacco and Vanzetti murder case. He also injected himself as a forensic document examiner into the Lindbergh kidnapping case. By then his reputation was so shot neither side wanted to put him on the stand.

Dr. Ralph Erdmann
     Beginning in 1981, Dr. Ralph Erdmann began serving several west Texas counties as a private contract forensic pathologist. During the next fifteen years he performed thousands of autopsies and testified in dozens of homicide trials. Prosecutors loved Dr. Erdmann because he always gave them exactly what they needed. Stupendously incompetent and dishonest, Dr. Erdmann's testimony and bogus cause and manner of death findings sent scores of defendants to prison. While several were later exonerated, there is no way to know how many more of these defendants were innocent.

Joyce Gilchrist
     The damage a single phony forensic scientist can do to the criminal justice system is enormous. Such is the case of Joyce Gilchrist, a DNA analyst and hair follicle identification practitioner who worked in the Oklahoma City Crime Laboratory in the 1980s and 90s. Gilchrist, through a series of unscientific identifications, was accused of sending dozens of innocent defendants to prison. Like the other inductees into the Forensics Hall of Shame, prosecutors found this expert witness extremely helpful in weak cases.

Fred Salem Zain
     A West Virginia state trooper who flunked chemistry in college, Zain began working in the state police crime laboratory in 1977 as a forensic serologist. He later became a DNA analyst, and in that capacity, through his recklessly bogus testimony, falsely linked dozens of innocent defendants to crimes they had not committed. Because Zain was so flamboyant and prolific in his willingness to tailor his testimony to the needs of prosecutors, he was in demand all over the country as a prosecution witness. This was particularly true in Texas. His dreadful career as a phony expert came to an end with his early death in 2002.

Dr. Louise Robbins
     In the 1980s and 90s, Dr. Louise Robbins, an anthropology professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, testified for the prosecution in scores of homicide trials involving footwear impression evidence. Prosecutors liked Dr. Robbins, who looked and sounded like the "Church Lady," because she always linked the defendant to the crime scene shoe or boot print through a whacky method all her own that had absolutely no basis in science. If Dr. Robbins hadn't died early from a brain tumor, there is no telling how many more defendants would have been falsely connected to crime scenes. Prosecutors would bring Dr. Robbins out of the bullpen when no other forensic expert saw a physical connection between the defendant and the murder scene. I've often wondered what motivated Dr. Robbins. Was she simply stupid and full of it, or did she like the money and the attention? For the innocent defendants sent to prison on her bogus testimony, it really didn't matter what motivated this forensic science charlatan.

Dr. Michael West
     In the 1990s, this forensic dentist from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, through his patented "blue light technique," helped convict innocent homicide defendants by testifying to the presence of human bite marks qualified odontologists could not see. Dr. West later expanded his forensic repertoire into blood spatter interpretation, forensic photography, video enhancement, and gunshot-powder analysis. As a forensic scientist, Dr. West attacked the criminal justice system like an out of control wrecking ball. Several of the defendants sent to prison on the strength of his testimony were later exonerated through DNA analysis. 

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On The Fear Of Crowds

Because I'm uncomfortable in the company of more than a handful of people, I avoid crowds. I don't like the noise, the feeling of confinement, and the potential that at any moment the crowd might morph into an ugly mob. I couldn't exist in a place like Manhattan, a massive hill of human ants. It's no wonder that so many people in modern society lose their minds. There are too many of us crammed into limited spaces. We are driving each other crazy.

Thornton P. Knowles

Cody Lee Johnson's Short Honeymoon and Sudden Death

     Cody Lee Johnson and Jordan Lin Graham, residents of Kalispell, Montana, began dating in late 2011. The couple became engaged in December 2012, and on June 29, 2013, were married. While couples who indulge themselves with lavish weddings are just as likely to be divorced as people who get hitched in city hall, family members and guests who attended the Johnson extravaganza didn't expect this marriage to end so quickly--and so violently.

     As it turned out, Cody Johnson was just as clueless as his wedding guests. The 25-year-old groom had no idea that his 22-year-old bride wanted the wedding more than the marriage. Almost immediately after the big ceremony she confided to friends that she already regretted marrying Johnson. When she uttered the pledge "until death do us part" this bride, instead of thinking of spending the rest of her life with this man, may have been contemplating widowhood within a matter of days.

     On the morning of July 8, 2013, when Cody Johnson didn't show up for work, his parents reported him missing to the Kalispell Police Department. As could be expected, a local officer questioned the missing man's wife of nine days. For a woman with a missing husband, she seemed awfully calm and collected.

     According to Jordan, Cody had stormed out of the house the previous night following their exchange of angry words. He had gone off in a dark-colored car bearing Washington state license plates with unidentified friends. She had no idea where he went or what could have happened to him.

     On the night Cody supposedly left the house with the mysterious men, Jordan, in a text message to a friend, said that prior to Cody's disappearance she had planned to break the news to him regarding her second thoughts about their marriage. Three days later, in an email, Jordan informed another acquaintance that Cody had gone hiking in nearby Glacier National Park with friends where he had probably fallen and died.

     On July 11, 2013, the newlywed reported to Glacier National Park officials that she had spotted Cody's body at the foot of a cliff in the Loop Trail area of the park. She had gone to that place in search of her husband because "it was a place he wanted to see before he died." Park officials considered this story absurd, and more than a little suspicious.

     The next day, operating on Jordan's information, searchers located Cody's body in an area so steep and rugged a helicopter had to be employed to recover his corpse.

     Members of Cody Johnson's family who suspected Jordan of murdering her new husband called for an investigation of his death. Since he had died in a national park, the FBI took over the case.

     On July 16, 2013, while being questioned by Special Agent Steven Liss, Jordan admitted that she had lied to the local police about the circumstances of her husband's disappearance. He had not gotten into a car with friends that night. That evening, following a heated argument, Jordan and Cody had driven to the park to cool-off. They continued fighting, however. While standing at the viewpoint above the cliff, he grabbed her by the arm. Jordan said she removed his hand and gave him a shove which propelled him over the cliff. She admitted that she had pushed him in anger, but denied an intention to kill him. In other words, Cody Johnson's death was a tragic accident.

     Two months went by following Jordan's FBI interrogation without an arrest in the case. Members of Cody Johnson's family were wondering if this woman would get away with murder. But on September 9, 2013, FBI agents took Jordan Graham Johnson into custody on the federal charge of second-degree murder. A few days later, represented by a pair of federal public defenders, Jordan appeared before a U. S. Magistrate in Missoula. The judge denied her bail.

     If convicted as charged, Jordan faced a maximum sentence of life in prison. While the federal prosecutor had the motive, opportunity, and means for murder, the case against this defendant was entirely circumstantial. It would be difficult, in the absence of an eyewitness or confession, for the prosecution to prove that the defendant intended to commit murder.

     In March 2014, Jordan pleaded guilty to second-degree murder following the closing arguments at her trial. The judge sentenced her to 30 years in prison. U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy, in handing down his sentence, pointed out that the defendant had initially lied and changed her story about what happened to her husband. Moreover, she never apologized or showed remorse. After admitting her guilt, she claimed she had felt "physically ill" at the prospect of having sex with her husband. She told a friend that she was afraid of what he might expect her to do.

     Jordan Johnson, shortly after being sentenced, requested a new trial on the grounds that her plea agreement had been "illusory" and a "hollow formality." Judge Molloy denied her motion. 

Monday, June 11, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On Taking Literature Too Seriously

Although I have been guilty of this myself, English professors and literary critics often take literature too seriously. Judging the literary value of a novel, in the scheme of things, is a trivial pursuit. Kurt Vonnegut said it best: "Any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel or play or a poem is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae or a banana split."

Thornton P, Knowles  

The Daniel DeJarnette Murder Case

     In 2003, 50-year-old homicide detective Daniel DeJarnette, after 21 years on the force, retired. He and his wife Yu Kue moved to the town of Ka'u on the southern tip of Hawaii's Big Island. During his last ten years on the force, Detective DeJarnette had been a member of the Van Nuys Division's robbery-homicide unit's rape section. During that period, DeJarnette investigated a series of high-profile homicide cases involving sexual attacks.

     By 2006, the retired detective's marriage had fallen apart. His wife Yu Kue told her co-workers at a grocery store in the town of Kona that she wanted to leave him but he wouldn't let her go. They fought all the time, and he was physically abusive.

     On November 12, 2006, officers with the Hawaii County Police responded to the DeJarnette home after Daniel called 911 to report that his wife had fallen off a lava embankment while hanging out laundry to dry. The officers found the 56-year-old wife lying dead twenty feet from the house with two gaping head wounds. The officers immediately arrested DeJarnette on suspicion of homicide.

     According to the forensic pathologist who performed the autopsy, Yu Kue DeJarnette had died from blunt force trauma to the head. Notwithstanding the presence of paint chips in her hair from the suspected murder weapon--a stand for a car jack--and scrapes on her body suggesting that she had been dragged over the lava to where the police had found her body, the forensic pathologist ruled her manner of death as "undetermined." As a result of this postmortem finding, Daniel DeJarnette was released from custody due to lack of evidence.

     In January 2012, more than five years after Yu Kue's suspicious death, Hawaii County Deputy Prosecutor Linda Walton re-opened the case. Employing modernized forensic science, a DNA analyst identified traces of the victims's blood on the jack stand. Another crime lab expert connected the paint chips in the victim's head hair to the murder weapon. Forensic scientists also determined that someone had used a bleaching agent in an effort to clean up Yu Kue's blood in the couple's bathroom and other parts of the DeJarnette house.

     On May 14, 2012, a grand jury indicted Daniel DeJarnette of second-degree murder. Police officers arrested the 59-year-old at his Big Island home. If convicted as charged, the former LAPD detective faced a maximum sentence of life in prison. A judge set his bail at $300,000.

     Ten months after his arrest, DeJarnette confessed to killing his wife. They had been fighting, she slapped him, and he struck her in the head with the jack stand. He dragged her body from the bathroom across the lava field to the embankment where the police had found her. Just before he killed Yu Kue, Daniel had purchased a $300,000 insurance policy on her life.

     On March 26, 2013, Daniel DeJarnette pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of manslaughter while under extreme emotional stress. Two months later, a judge imposed the maximum sentence of twenty years in prison.  

Should A Journalist Take Notes?

During my first twenty years or so of magazine writing I had no working method at all. On most interviews I'd try just to go through the experience, paying as much attention as I could, and then later, write the piece from memory. That worked fairly well, but I didn't realize how insulted the subjects were that I took no notes. When I finally did start taking notes--to ease their fears--I found the process of note-taking got in the way of paying attention. I never did solve that one.

John Jerome, The Writing Trade, 1992

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On Janet Malcom

Janet Malcom is my favorite journalist. I like her because she is honest about herself and her profession. Very few journalists are honest about anything. For example, in comparing novelists to journalists, Malcom wrote: "The dominant and most deep-dyed trait of the journalist is his timorousness [timidity]. Where the novelist fearlessly plunges into the water of self-exposure, the journalist stands trembling on the shore in his beach robe. Not for him the strenuous  athleticism--which is the novelist's daily task--of laying out his deepest griefs and shames before the world. The journalist confines himself to the clean, gentlemanly work of exposing the griefs and shames of others." Amen to that!

Thornton P. Knowles

The Colleen Harris Murder Case

     In 1985, 47-year-old James Batten kicked his wife Colleen out of the house. The estranged couple lived in Placerville, California, a town of 10,000 in the Sacramento metropolitan region. On the night of July 31, 1985, Colleen called the El Dorado County Sheriff's office from her husband's residence and said, "I shot my husband. I think, I don't know, I don't remember. I don't know if I even shot him."

     Police officers found James Batten, Colleen's second husband, lying dead in his bed from two close-range shotgun blasts. The newly minted 43-year-old widow told the officers she had shot her husband in self-defense. She claimed he had threatened to kill her and rape her daughter from her first marriage.

     Charged with first-degree murder, Colleen Batten went on trial in February 1986. A psychiatrist took the stand for the defense and testified that Colleen didn't remember much about the shooting because she suffered from a condition he called, "limited amnesia."

     At the conclusion of the three-week trial, the jury, after deliberating almost two days, returned a verdict of not guilty. One of the jurors, in speaking to a reporter after the trial, said, "The net result was that we felt there was insufficient proof of intent to commit first-degree murder." (The prosecutor had made the mistake of not providing this jury the option of finding the defendant guilty of a lesser homicide offense. Faced with sending Colleen away for life or letting her walk, the jurors set her free.)

     Colleen married again, but in 2005 she and her third husband, 66-year-old Robert Harris, filed for divorce. The couple remained married, however. Although he resided in a cabin on South Lake Tahoe, Mr. Harris, in late 2012, returned to the Placerville house to care for his estranged wife as she recovered from hip surgery.
   
     On January 6, 2013, Colleen was once again on the phone with the police. For the second time in 27 years, she was informing officers she had used a shotgun to blow away a spouse. (It was a different shotgun.)

     The police arrived at the Harris residence that night to find the newly widowed 70-year-old in the kitchen washing dishes. In the bedroom, the police found Mr. Harris in bed with an upper torso shotgun wound.

    Police officers booked Coleen Harris into the El Dorado County Jail on the charge of first-degree murder.

     The Coleen Harris murder trial got underway on March 18, 2015 in the El Dorado County Courthouse. In his opening statement to the jury, Deputy District Attorney Joe Alexander said the defendant had murdered her estranged husband in a fit of jealousy. On January 5, 2013, the day before the shooting, the defendant caught Mr. Harris standing outside the house on his cellphone with his overseas lover. This, plus the fact Mr. Harris had revealed his plan to move back to his cabin, had pushed the defendant over the edge.

     Defense attorney David Weiner, the lawyer who had successfully represented Coleen Harris at her previous murder trial, did not make an opening statement to the jury.

      Pam Stirling, the murdered man's daughter, took the stand for the prosecution. According to this witness, on the day before her father was shotgunned to death, the defendant sent her a text message that read: "Between you and me, as I sit here wondering who I am married to, your dad just called his Mongolia lover."

     The victim's daughter, in referring to the defendant, said, "Her emotions were going up and down. I was concerned that we would end up where we are today." The witness said her father, as a precaution, had installed new locks on his South Lake Tahoe cabin.

      Pam Stirling was followed to the stand by police officers and detectives involved in the case.

     On March 25, 2015, defense attorney Weiner said his client, on the day of the shooting, had been in a "gray fog."

     Defense attorney Weiner, on April 2, 2015, following the closing of the prosecution's case, put Colleen Harris on the stand. The defendant said that after she and her husband had argued over his paramour in Mongolia, she went into their darkened bedroom to console him and to make up. When she reached out to rub his neck, she felt the barrel of a shotgun. "I said, 'Bob, what are you doing? Why do you have this gun with you?' I thought he was going to kill himself."

     The murder defendant testified that in response to her efforts to make up with her husband, he cursed at her and pushed her away. She said she felt a blow to her chest and thought it was the butt of the shotgun. She ran out of the room.

     According to Colleen Harris, when she returned to the bedroom that night, she reached over to her husband on the bed and asked, "Bob, are you okay?" She said she saw blood on his pillow and thought he was having a nose bleed. "I turned on the light and oh God, I saw the most horrible thing I have ever seen in my life. I said, "No, please! This can't be!' "

     In his cross-examination of the defendant, prosecutor Joe Alexander said, "The truth is, Mrs. Harris, you were holding the gun when Bob Harris was killed."

     "I guess I was," she answered. The witness, however, vehemently denied pulling the trigger.

     Prosecutor Alexander, on April 14, 2015, in his closing statement to the jury, said the defendant "entered the room with a shotgun. She aimed it as Bob lay sleeping. She put a finger on the trigger--and pulled that trigger."

     On April 15, 2015, after deliberating less than two hours, the jury returned a verdict of first-degree murder. The defendant put her hands over her face and cried. The judge sentenced her to life in prison.

     In speaking to reporters outside the courthouse, Colleen Harris' attorney said, "She took it hard, hard, hard. She is distraught." 

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On The Media Coverage Of Celebrity Suicide

At any given moment, thousands of people, perhaps tens of thousands, are contemplating suicide. While the vast majority of these sad folks will not take their own lives, it doesn't help when the media reports a celebrity suicide in gruesome detail. Such reportage undoubtedly encourages some of these poor souls to convert suicidal thoughts into actual self destruction. While news organizations are not known for self-restraint, it would be nice if reporters were a little more responsible in this regard. [Since 1999, according to the CDC, suicide rates in the United States have gone up 30 percent.]

Thornton P. Knowles

The David Ranta Wrongful Conviction Case

     In 1990, following a botched robbery of a diamond courier in Brooklyn, New York, the robbers carjacked and murdered Rabbi Chaskel Werzberger, a survivor of the Holocaust. A few days after the highly publicize murder, police officers picked up a 35-year-old unemployed drug addict named David Ranta.

     Following his interrogation by NYPD detective Louis Scarcella, Ranta signed a confession in which he admitted helping plot the diamond robbery. A boy who had witnessed the crime, picked Ranta out of a police line-up.

     A few months later, a Brooklyn jury, relying on the defendant's confession, and the line-up identification, found David Ranta guilty of murdering the Rabbi. The judge sentenced him to 35 years in prison.

     The Conviction Integrity Unit of the Brooklyn District Attorney's Office took up the old Werzberger murder case after it became apparent that the evidence against Ranta had been unreliable. Years after the conviction, the young eyewitness of the diamond robbery informed investigators that detectives had coached him into picking Ranta out of the line-up. Evidence also surfaced that cast serious doubt on the reliability of the confession.

     On March 21, 2013, David Ranta walked free after serving 23 years behind bars. He was 58,

     Louis Scarcella, the retired NYPD detective who was in charge of the case, told an Associated Press reporter that Brooklyn prosecutors had pressured him to bring the Rabbi's killer to justice quickly. (I have no doubt that is true.) "I caught a lot of cases and I got confessions," Scarcella said. "I was called in and I did my job and I got confessions." (A detective's job is to get the truth.) Scarcella denied coaching the boy into the line-up identification, and said he continued to stand behind his role in the case.

     There was no evidence to suggest that Detective Scarcella had intentionally framed an innocent man. Moreover, the prosecutor in the case also bore responsibility in this wrongful conviction. But because of public pressure to catch the killer of a Holocaust surviving Rabbi, the prosecutor went ahead and put the burden of determining the guilt or innocence of this defendant on the jury. And he did it with unreliable evidence. Many jurors assume, even in weak cases, that because the defendant is being prosecuted, he must be guilty. It appeared that neither the detective nor the prosecutor were interested in digging deeper into the case. If they had, Ranta would have been exonerated and the real perpetrators brought to justice.

     Two days after he walked out of prison, David Ranta suffered a massive heart attack. He survived his illness, and in February 2014, settled his $150 million lawsuit against the city of New York for $6.4 million.