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Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Fascinating Murder Cases: Twenty-Five Types

     Most crimes, even serious ones, make the nightly news or the local newspaper once or twice then slip into media oblivion. A few attract local or regional public interest for a period of time. Only a handful of cases become national news stories, and even fewer rise to what could be called celebrity crime status. Celebrated crimes of the twentieth century would include the Lindbergh kidnapping, the O. J. Simpson murder, and the John F. Kennedy assassination. I don't think the twenty-first century has seen its first truly celebrated crime. But there have been quite a few fascinating murder cases over the past seventeen years.

Twenty-five types of murders that can become, if not celebrated, at least highly newsworthy:

* Murder cases featuring strong suspects with no eyewitnesses or physical clues.
* Serial murders with plenty of physical clues but no suspects.
* Dismemberment cases involving innocent and unlikely victims.
* Carefully planned murders by physicians, priests, university professors, and other unlikely suspects.
* Black widow poisoning cases involving several dead husbands.
*Angel of death hospital poisoning cases involving several patients.
* Murder investigations that feature either brilliant or bungled police work.
* Murder-for-hire cases involving unlikely masterminds.
* Murders featuring professional athletes.
* Sudden and suspicious death cases involving dueling cause and manner of death testimony.
* Murders involving dueling blood spatter, ballistic, and human bite mark evidence.
* Murder trials involving obvious suspects but missing bodies. (So-called no-body cases.)
* Murders involving evil kids from upper-middle class families.
* Love triangle murder cases involving prominent people and plenty of sex.
* Murders involving TV and Movie actors.
* Major mafia hits.
* Domestic bombing cases involving many victims.
* Mass school shootings.
* Murders with unusual motives.
* Murders involving unusual murder weapons.
* Murderous armored truck heists.
* Murder trials involving the acquittal of obviously guilty defendants.
* Murder cases featuring the conviction of innocent defendants.
* Cold case murders solved by modern forensic science.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

The Charles Smith III and Tonya Bundick Serial Arson Case

     The incendiary fires started on November 12, 2012 in Hopeton, a town 100 miles east of Richmond on Virginia's Eastern Shore, a peninsula along the Chesapeake Bay. Over the next four months, volunteer firefighters in the county responded to 77 intentionally set fires involving abandoned houses, barns, camper trailers, and various out-buildings that included a chicken coop.

     Arson investigators with the Virginia State Police and the Accomack County Sheriff's Office suspected that the serial fire-setter was either a disgruntled firefighter, a teenage boy sexually aroused by flames, or a young man committing arson simply for the thrill and excitement of causing havoc. Given the nature of the places burned, financial gain was not a motive. These were pathologically motivated arsons.

     Since the vast majority of arsonists are men, the fire investigators were not looking for a woman. Female arsonists usually have histories of mental illness, and set fire to their own property. A vast majority of the fires set by women are motivated by the need for sympathy and attention.

     On April 2, 2013, forty-five minutes after midnight, a Virginia State Trooper near the Eastern Shore community of Melfa, pulled over a vehicle with an expired inspection sticker. (This was probably not the real reason for the stop.) The traffic stop occurred shortly after a nearby abandoned house had been torched. Later that morning, a local prosecutor charged the occupants of the car, 38-year-old Charles Smith III and Tonya Bundick, his 40-year-old girlfriend, with setting the Melfa house fire.

     Smith (also known as Charlie Applegate) and Bundick were held without bail at the Accomack County Jail. They were both from Accomac, Virginia. Smith, the owner of a body shop, was once captain of the Tasley Volunteer Fire Company. Smith and Bundick had planned to get married within a month.

     A Virginia State Police spokesperson, at a press conference on April 2, 2013 said, "We are confident that Bundick and Smith are guilty of the majority of fires."According to reports, arson investigators watched Smith set the Melfa house fire. He started the blaze with a towel soaked in gasoline.

     Tonya Bundick resided in a dwelling that sat next door to a shed that had been set on fire in December 2012.

     The authorities did not identify the motive behind the arson spree. Since the couple received no monetary gain from the fires, their motives were probably pathological. Perhaps they were bored, or simply angry at the world.

     In October 2013, Smith pleaded guilty to 67 counts of arson. He faced life in prison, and $5.6 million in fines. As part of the plea deal, Smith agreed to testify against Tonya Bundick.

     Bundick's arson trial got underway in Virginia Beach in January 2014. Smith took the stand against the defendant as the prosecution's star witness. Following his testimony, Bundick entered an Alford plea to one count of arson. (She faced dozens of other arson charges.) By this plea, Bundick did not admit guilt, but acknowledged that the prosecution had enough evidence to convict.

     On September 15, 2014, the judge sentenced Tonya Bundick to ten years in prison. The judge, on April 23, 2015, sentenced Charles Smith III to fifteen years behind bars. 

Monday, January 29, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On Writing Screenplays in Los Angeles

If you throw a stick into a crowd in Los Angeles, chances are you will hit an aspiring screenwriter. According to Chuck Palachniuk, no one in LA is ever more than fifty feet from a screenplay. They're packed into car trunks, stuffed into desk drawers, tucked away in briefcases, and stored in computers. And every one of them, if you believe the author, is a surefire box office hit. In the vast aspiring writer community, the unpublished screenplay has surpassed the novel. Because people now prefer TV over books, that makes sense. Still, the odds of selling a screenplay are worse than becoming a millionaire via a lottery ticket. In the screenplay business, it's hard to know when hope and ambition fade out and foolhardiness fades in. In one of my crime novels, a failing LA screenwriter finds success by getting into the murder-for-hire business. I'm converting that book into a screenplay. Just kidding.

Thornton P. Knowles



The Sherri Lynn Wilkins Vehicular Murder Case: Fatal Hypocrisy

     Nobody likes a hypocrite. We are particularly offended (and intrigued) when people we generally admire such as physicians, professors, clergymen, law enforcement officers, generals, teachers, certain celebrities, and counselors commit crimes or behave badly. However, because of low expectations, we are less shocked when politicians, bureaucrats, lawyers, and Wall Street types break the law or act like jerks. In terms of what we expect from people, there are different standards of behavior. For example, in murder-for-hire cases, the upper-middle class mastermind is almost always considered more immoral, and criminally culpable, than the lower-class hitman. This is true even when the contract killer has murdered a complete stranger simply for the money.

     Years ago, when the head mistress of an elite New England girl's school shot and killed her lover in a fit of jealousy, this otherwise ordinary criminal homicide became a celebrated case. Ministers have gone to prison to having their wives killed, and FBI agents have been convicted of first-degree murder. On a smaller criminological scale, the public is shocked when female public school teachers are caught having affairs with their male students. I remember a case involving a high-profile gun control advocate who shot an intruder with an unregistered firearm. These cases attract media attention because they feature hypocrisy.

     In October 2012, Colin McGrattan, an anger management counselor in Stockton, California, murdered his ex-wife, her sister, and the victim's aunt before killing himself. McGrattan had recently lost a legal dispute with his former spouse. Unable to control his anger, he killed three people and himself. On matters of anger management, this man obviously wasn't able to take his own advice.

     Even though we have low expectations for politicians and bureaucrats, cases occasionally pop up that are egregious enough to, if not shock us, grab our attention. In 2007, Sheila Burgess, a Massachusetts political fund-raiser for democrat candidates, collected her reward when Governor Deval Patrick appointed her to the position of State Highway Safety Director. Since this was a political appointment, it's not surprising that Burgess didn't have experience in the fields of public safety, transportation, or public administration.

     On August 24, 2012, Burgess, while driving her state-issued vehicle on a sunny, Sunday afternoon near Milton, Massachusetts, drove off the road, wrecked the car, and injured herself in the head. Although she told the police she had swerved off the highway to avoid an oncoming vehicle, she may have been texting.

     The Highway Safety Director's traffic accident prompted a newspaper inquiry into Burgess' driving history. On November 18, 2012, the day after the paper revealed that Sheila Burgess had a record of 34  traffic violations, the governor removed her from office. (Because she's a government employee, full dismissal was out of the question.) Instead of firing this woman, the governor assigned Burgess to a "different role" within the same department. As director of the agency, Burgess' annual salary had been $87,000.

Sherri Lynn Wilkins

     In the fall of 2010, 50-year-old Sherri Lynn Wilkins began counseling substance abusers at the Twin Town Treatment Center in Torrance, California. In charge of the evening group sessions, she counseled up to 50 drug and alcohol abusers at a time. It was her job to help these people either get sober or stay off drugs. While Wilkins had earned a degree in drug counseling from Loyola Marymount University, it was her background as an alcoholic and heroin addict that in the bizarre world of substance abuse counseling that qualified her for the position. While giving her street credibility, the fact she "had been there" also meant she might relapse, an event that, in my opinion, would not be in the best interests of the people she was being paid to help. (I've often wondered if it might be a better idea to employ counselors who have managed to get through life without getting hooked on drugs or booze. Maybe this would give them a different kind of credibility. But I don't know the first thing about counseling, and the only things I'm hooked on is coffee and sugar.)

     Sherri Lynn Watkin's background, before she began her counseling career, is as follows: In 1992, a Los Angeles County judge sentenced her to 16 months in jail for petty theft. Two years later, another judge sent her away for nine years for burglary. All of her crimes were related to her substance addiction. In May 2010, the Los Angeles police arrested Wilkins for hit and run in Torrance. Because she had not been driving under the influence, the case against her was dropped. But in July 2010, the authorities in Los Angeles charged Wilkins with leaving the scene of an accident and driving under the influence of a controlled substance. For some reason this case was also dismissed.

     At eleven-thirty on the night of November 24, 2012, Sherri Wilkins, while speeding west on Torrance Boulevard, slammed into 31-year-old Phillip Moreno who was crossing the street near his home. The impact knocked Moreno out of his shoes and threw him up on the hood of Wilkins' car. Wilkins continued driving with the dying man lying on her hood, his body lodged into her windshield.

     At a traffic light two miles from where Moreno had been struck and thrown up onto the car, several motorists swarmed Wilkins' vehicle and grabbed her ignition key. An ambulance rushed Mr. Moreno to a local hospital where, a few hours later, he died. Los Angeles police officers took the substance abuse counselor into custody. Watkins' blood-alcohol content registered twice the legal limit for driving.

     On November 27, a Los Angeles County prosecutor charged Sherri Wilkins with vehicular manslaughter and driving under the influence. She was booked into the Los Angeles County Jail under $2.25 million bond.

     In April 2014, a jury in Terrance found Sherri Wilkins guilty of second-degree murder as well as several lesser offenses including hit-and-run. Two months later, Superior Court Judge Henry Hall sentenced the 54-year-old to 55 years to life in prison. The judge said, "Ms. Wilkins demonstrated an extraordinary callousness in fleeing the scene and trying to shake Mr. Moreno's body off her car. Ms. Wilkins is not what we normally see. She's not a classic violent criminal. But you have to evaluate her history. (According to her own testimony, Wilkins' drug addiction started after she was involved in a traffic accident at the age of fifteen. Her back had been broken, and she suffered shattered bones in her ankles and legs. She began medicating herself with heroin because it was "cheaper than going to the doctor.") In justifying the stiff sentence, Judge Hall added, "She had an insatiable desire to become intoxicated."

     Wilkins' attorney, Deputy Public Defender Nan Whitfield, said she would appeal the sentence. To reporters outside the courthouse, Whitfield said, "Nobody likes a drunk driver. Because she was a drug and alcohol counselor, she's held to a higher standard."


Sunday, January 28, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On Stupidity And Willful Ignorance

Nature has a way of dealing with stupidity. Only the smart and strong survive. In civilized society, however, stupid people suffer, but due to societal kindness, they can survive. It's when a society rewards stupidity and willful ignorance that the trouble begins. And nowhere is stupidity and willful ignorance more rewarded than in the United States Congress. It also resides comfortably within our judicial system. Ignorance is very difficult to cure, and if allowed to spread and flourish, especially among our leaders, it can bring a nation down.

Thornton P. Knowles 

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On America's Most Stupid Book

In 1937, Ernest Vincent wrote a novel called, Gadsby: A Story Over 50,000 Words Without Using The Letter "E". The self-published book, sought fervently decades later by book collectors, entered the public domain in 1968. The letter "e", the most frequently used letter in the English alphabet, made writing such a book a significant challenge. (I used the letter "e" 14 times in the last sentence. I thought about showing my cleverness by writing a sentence about this ridiculous book without using the letter "e", then realized that exercise would make me, on a much smaller scale than Mr. Vincent, stupid.)

Thornton P. Knowles

"Senseless" Killings: The Mystery of Why

     Occasionally murder-suicides occur that cannot be explained or understood. While the vast majority of murders are either motivated by greed, lust, power, fear, or rage, every once in awhile someone takes a life for no apparent reason. These cases are disturbing because there is a need to make sense out of such deviant, violent behavior.

     In 1958, Dr. Marvin Wolfgang (1924-1998) at the University of Pennsylvania, in his classic text, "Patterns in Criminal Homicide," coined the term "victim precepitation." According to Wolfgang, in a high percentage of criminal homicides, the victim contributed to his or her fate by being the first to begin "the interplay of criminal violence" such as drawing a weapon, or striking the first blow. In terms of motive, these homicides are easy to understand.

     In his 1967 book, "The Subculture of Violence," Wolfgang found that 90 percent of criminal homicides are crimes of passion that are "unplanned, explosive, and determined by sudden motivational bursts." These killers act so quickly on their impulses there is simply no time for reasoning or restraint. Homicide investigators are familiar with subjects who have killed people for the smallest of reasons such as a casual argument over an insignificant point, a minor insult, or a mild frustration over something trivial. Investigators call these killings "simplicity of motive" cases.

Thornton P. Knowles On The Mystery Of The Creative Process

Many novelists are reluctant to discuss the creative process--that is, how and where they get their ideas, talent, and inspiration to write. Many deny that talent is an inborn phenomenons, while others ridicule the notion that writers have to be inspired to create. Perhaps having the creative impulse is less a mystery than the lack of creativity in a person. When a reader tells me that he can't imagine how I and others produce novels, I wonder why some people cannot. The truth is, I have no idea how, or even why, I'm compelled to write creatively. Rather than contemplate how or why, I just do it.

Thornton P. Knowles

Arthur Conan Doyle and the History of Forensic Science

     The birth of the modern crime lab can be traced directly to fiction. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a physician and keen observer of his patients' abnormalities. He was a splendid writer, as well, and when he created Sherlock Holmes, he also imprinted on popular culture the idea that when the elements of science are coupled with applied logic, crimes can be solved. Doyle also knew that the way to brand the concept in the public's hearts and minds was to package the science in the form of a uniquely fascinating man. After all, it had worked before, in Charles Dicken's Bleak House, published in 1853. In that novel, Inspector Bucket personified all that amazed the public about Scotland Yard.

     By the time Doyle was writing, in the 1880s, London had had a police force for fifty years and the detectives of Scotland Yard since 1842. Starting in the 1860s, those detectives had added crime scene analysis to their toolbox of skills, and the forensic sciences took a great leap forward. But when Doyle captured it all in the form of Holmes, he did more than just sell books. One avid fan was Edmund Locard, who was influenced by the writing and went on to build the world's first forensic laboratory in Lyons, France in 1910. [The so-called Locard Principle: the criminal leaves part of himself at the crime scene and takes part of it with him.]

     The idea of crime labs spread throughout the world. In 1932, the Federal Bureau of Investigation opened its lab under Director J. Edgar Hoover. [Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Detroit formed crime labs in the 1920s.]

Michael Baden, M.D. and Marion Roach, Dead Reckoning, 2001 

Friday, January 26, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On The Length Of A Novel

At a writer's conference, an aspiring writer working on a piece of fiction asked me how many words she had to write before her book qualified as a novel. I said the minimum word count, in that regard, ranged around 60,000 words. She said, "Oh great, then I'm finished!" Upon that, all the other hopeful authors in the room congratulated her with a round of applause. Who are these people?

Thornton P. Knowles

The So-Called "Witch Hunt"

     The term "witch hunt," used figuratively, applies to a government investigation and/or prosecution of innocent or harmless people. The term has been applied to describe the McCarthy era's hunt for communists working inside our government, and criminal cases involving railroaded defendants later proven to be innocent. An example of a criminal justice witch hunts includes the McMartin pre-school case where Los Angeles prosecutors created public hysteria by falsely and recklessly accusing dozens of California pre-school owners and teachers of child molestation. The wrongful conviction and imprisonment of three young men ("The Memphis Three") accused of satanic murder qualifies as a witch hunt. The members of the Duke Lacrosse team falsely accused of rape is another. People who believe (as I do) that John and Patsy Ramsey were innocent of JonBenet's murder consider them victims of a police and media driven witch hunt.

     A legitimate victim of a political witch hunt was former California Congressman Gary Condit who was falsely implicated by the media in the 2001 murder of Chandra Levy, a political aide in his office. The scandal, fueled by hack, tabloid reporting by the mainstream media, ruined Condit's political career.

     The term "witch hunt" has been so overused by partisan politicians it has lost its true meaning. However, politics is a dirty business, and there is always the chance that the witch hunters will raise their ugly heads and destroy an opposing and innocent politician's life and career. 

The "Cozy" Mystery Novel Genre

A "cozy" is a mystery novel with a light tone and an element of fun; the setting is usually a small community and the protagonist is an amateur sleuth who's a member of the community. Sex and violence occur, for the most part, offstage. Agatha Christie's Miss Jane Marple remains the quintessential cozy protagonist.

Hallie Ephron

Katie Stockton's Secret Births and Three Dead Babies

     In 2004, 24-year-old Katie Stockton and her 4-year-old son lived with her parents in a rural home near Rockton, Illinois in the northern part of the state. After becoming pregnant in March of that year, Stockton continued using cocaine, and kept her pregnancy secret. On December 17, 2004, under clandestine circumstances, Stockton gave birth to a living baby.

     Because she didn't want anyone to know about the baby's existence, Stockton stuffed the breathing infant, the placenta, and her bloody garments into an orange shopping sack that she placed into a white, plastic trash bag. Knowing the consequences of her act, the new mother dumped the trash bag and the baby alongside a road 100 feet from her parent's house.

     Days later, the baby was found dead from either exposure or suffocation. A forensic toxicologist determined that the infant--referred to as Baby Crystal--had been infected with hepatitis. The baby also had traces of cocaine in her system.

     Detectives questioned Katie Stockton about the murdered infant. She denied having given birth to the baby. She also refused to provide the authorities with a sample of her DNA. Without enough evidence to support a court order requiring Stockton to supply the DNA evidence, the case fizzled-out.

     Four years later, Baby Crystal's murder was under investigation by a team of cold-case homicide detectives who considered Stockton the prime suspect. An officer who had the suspect under surveillance recovered a cigarette butt she had discarded. The DNA on the cigarette butt matched the bloody clothing found inside the trash bag with the dead baby.

     Detectives, in August 2009, arrested Stockton on the charge of first-degree murder. Notwithstanding the DNA results, she denied being Baby Crystal's mother. Shortly after the arrest, investigators located Stockton's blue Saturn that had been parked for years in an impound lot. Police officers searched the car, and in the trunk, found the skeletal remains of two other infants. The babies had been stuffed into a pair of bags hidden beneath the spare tire.

     Stockton was not charged with the murders of the two infants in the car because forensic pathologists couldn't establish if the babies had been born alive. Later DNA analysis revealed that the infants in Stockton's vehicle were Baby Crystal's sisters. The three dead babies had been fathered by three different men.

     In February 2013, Stockton, facing life in prison (Illinois abolished its death penalty), pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in hopes the judge would show her mercy. At her April 5, 2013 sentencing hearing before Winnebago County Judge John Truitt, public defender David Doll asked that Stockton be given a prison term of 25 years. The defense attorney described his client as a good person who struggled with drug addiction.

     The defendant, in speaking directly to Judge Truitt, said, "I was in a very dark place for many years. I apologize to those I hurt and ask forgiveness. I'm truly sorry for the pain and hurt they have endured."

     Judge Truitt, apparently unmoved by the murder defendant's apology, sentenced the 32-year-old woman to 50 years behind bars. Without the possibility of parole, Stockton will probably spend the rest of her life in prison. 

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On The Birth Of Narrative Nonfiction

Narrative nonfiction involves the use of novelistic techniques--scenes, dialogue, and character development--to tell a true story. Contrary to their claims, Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, Thomas Wolfe, and Hunter Thompson did not create this journalistic sub-genre. Mark Twain, Stephen Crane, Richard Harding Davis, and later, Ernest Hemingway, all journalists before becoming novelists, used narrative nonfiction in their news reporting, then later as writers of nonfiction books. A good narrative nonfiction book will usually outsell an equally good novel. Most readers prefer engaging stories that are true rather than made up. As a novelist, that is not good news for me.

Thornton P. Knowles

The Susan and Sarah Wolfe Murder Case

     Dr. Sarah Wolfe and her sister Susan grew up in Clinton, Iowa. Their father, Jack Wolfe, headed a law firm in Clinton where his wife Pierrette practiced. Mary Wolfe, the eldest child in the family of ten, also a lawyer, had been elected to the Iowa House of Representatives in 2011.

     Since 2007, Dr. Sarah Wolfe, a 38-year-old child and adolescent psychiatrist, had been treating victims of domestic abuse at the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The graduate of Iowa University School of Medicine, she also held the position of Associate Professor in the University of Pittsburgh's Department of Psychiatry.

     In November 2012, 44-year-old Susan Wolfe left her job as a special education teacher in the Chicago public school system. She returned to Clinton where she worked at the YWCA. After Susan moved to Pittsburgh in November 2013, she and her younger sister purchased a 93-year-old, two-story brick house in the East Liberty section of the city. Susan had accepted a job as a teacher's aide at Hillel Academy in Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill neighborhood. At the school she worked with students with behavioral problems.

     On Friday, February 7, 2014, the sisters' co-workers at the psychiatric clinic and the academy became concerned when Sarah and Susan failed to show up for work. This prompted a visit to the Chislett Street house by a Pittsburgh police officer.

     The police officer, at forty-five minutes past noon, knocked on the Wolfe's front door. When no one responded, the officer walked around the dwelling and peeked into windows. Seeing nothing unusual inside the house, the officer headed toward his patrol car. Before he drove off, Matthew Buchholz, a man who identified himself as Sarah Wolfe's boyfriend, approached the officer. The resident of Friendship, Pennsylvania possessed a house key the officer used to enter the dwelling.

     In the basement of the home, the officer discovered the bodies of Sarah and Susan Wolfe. Susan was nude, her sister clothed. They had been each killed by a single bullet to the head. The killer had poured some kind of liquid over one of the bodies in an effort to destroy physical evidence. Susan Wolfe had been badly beaten as well as shot.

     Detectives at the murder scene found no evidence of a forced entry. Dr. Sarah Wolfe's car, a lime green 2011 Ford Fiesta, was not at the house. The vehicle was last seen by a neighbor at 9:25 PM on Thursday, February 6, 2014.

     A police officer, at l:15 in the morning of February 8, spotted the Wolfe vehicle parked about a mile from the scene of the double murder. Crime scene investigators processed the Ford for traces of physical evidence that could shed some light on the murders.

     Homicide detectives theorized that when Dr. Sarah Wolfe arrived home that Thursday night, she walked into a crime in progress. Police found her sister naked and doused with chemicals. Sarah lay nearby at the foot of the basement stairs with her coat half off.

     On Wednesday, February 19, 2014, police officers searched a house next door to the Wolfe sisters' residence and hauled the occupant, a man with a history of burglary and robbery, to police headquarters for interrogation.

     On March 5, 2014, the authorities charged next door neighbor, Allen D. Wade, 43, with two counts of criminal homicide, robbery and theft. A forensic scientist with a private Pittsburgh laboratory found, under Susan Wolfe's fingernails, a mixture of male and female DNA. Traces of Wade's blood were found on a pair of gray sweatpants connected to the murder scene. Detectives took DNA samples from the suspect who denied any involvement in the killings.

     In April 2014, at a preliminary hearing before District Judge John Scott Schricker, a prosecutor with the Allegheny County District Attorneys office presented enough incriminating evidence against Allen Wade to justify moving the case to trial.

     Dectetive Harry Lutton, the lead investigator in the Wolfe double murder, testified that the victims' bank cards had been used by Wade at the Citizens Bank ATM across from the East Liberty Target store.

     Deputy District Attorney Simquita Bridges showed clips from nine surveillance videos showing a man believed to be the suspect using the victims' bank cards. The prosecutor also read the results of a crime laboratory report that identified the defendant's DNA as being under Susan Wolfe's fingernails.

     In May 2014, the district attorneys office announced it would seek the death penalty against Mr. Wade. According to prosecutors, the Wolfe case featured two aggravating circumstances that justified the application of the death sentence. The defendant stood accused of killing Dr. Sarah Wolfe because she witnessed the murder of her sister. Secondly, Mr. Wade was suspected of committing the murder during the commission of a felony.

     Given the fact the current governor of Pennsylvania recently placed moratorium on capital punishment, the death sentence in this case is unlikely.

     On November 16, 2014, the process of selecting a jury got underway in the Allegheny County Courthouse in downtown Pittsburgh. The next day, however, Judge Edward J. Borkowski postponed the murder trial to give defense attorney Lisa Middleman more time to prepare her case. No trial date has been scheduled.

     In February 2016, defense attorney Middleman filed a motion to require the prosecution's DNA expert to reveal the source code used to make the computerized DNA match against her client. Allegheny County Judge Borkowski denied the motion. In response, the defense attorney filed an appeal with the Pennsylvania Superior Court. As a result, Allen Wade's trial, scheduled to start in March 2016, was delayed thirty days.

     The Wade murder trial got underway on May 3, 2016 in Pittsburgh. In her opening remarks to the jury, public defender Middleman said she will challenge the states's DNA evidence. According to the defense attorney, prosecutors sought out the private DNA analyst after experts at the Allegheny County Crime Lab failed to make an identification. Middleman said her client was the victim of a "sloppy investigation," and a rush to judgment.

     On May 23, 2016, the jury, after deliberating five hours, found Allen D. Wolfe guilty as charged. Three days later, as mandated by law, Judge Edward Borkowski sentenced Wade to life in prison without the chance of parole.

   
     

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On The 1950s

Say what you want about America in the 1950s, at least the middle class of that era had contempt for those who boasted excessively about themselves or their children, sucked-up or snitched to get ahead, cursed in public, flaunted their possessions, or in any way acted superior to others. Moreover, the daily consumption of pornography was for perverts; tattoos were on sailors, pimps, and serial killers; marijuana and heroin use was limited to writers, musicians, actors, and members of the criminal underclass; the severely mentally ill were off the streets and living in institutions; gun violence and murder was at a minimum; and welfare was considered a temporary form of charity. I miss those aspects of that decade.

Thornton P. Knowles

The Sharon Voit Murder-For-Hire Case: Until Death Do Us Part

     Years ago, the person who said that marriages start in bed and end up in court wasn't thinking of murder. Those were the good old days. Today, a few marriages end up with one of the parties in court, and the other in the morgue. Wives engineer the deaths of their estranged husbands out of fear they will be left penniless following the divorce. For women trapped in bad marriages, murder, compared to divorce, is quicker and a lot more satisfying. Homicidal husbands want their wives dead to avoid legal fees, the divvying up of the marital estate, alimony, and the expense of child support. Familiarity can breed contempt. Marriage, familiarity, and divorce can breed criminal homicide. In the world of murder-for-hire, the contentious divorce is perhaps the number one motive.

The Sharon Voit Case

     On July 13, 1995, Dr. Kerry Voit, his wife Sharon and their three daughters were watching television in the den of their home in the tranquil village of Golf on the northern outskirts of Chicago. At a quarter to ten, Dr. Voit, stating that he was tired and wanted to retire for the night in that room, switched off the TV. This enraged his wife, and in the scuffle that ensured, Sharon took a punch in the eye. Dr. Voit suffered scratches on his arm, and came away from the fight with a bruised leg. Sharon ordered her husband out of the house. When he refused to leave, she phoned the Cook County Sheriff's Office.

     The deputies who responded to the domestic disturbance received conflicting stories from the Voit daughters. Two of the girls sided with their father, the third with Mrs. Voit. The officers decided not to arrest anyone, but ordered Dr. Voit, a successful downtown Chicago dentist, to leave the house for 72 hours. He spent the next few nights in Harwood Heights at his mother's house.

     Not long after the police call, a family court judge ordered the Voits into marriage counseling, but it was too late for that. The couple continued to fight, and for the next year or so, Dr. Voit moved back and forth between his mother's place and the family home. In the summer of 1997 he moved out permanently.

     The Voit marriage had been an unhappy one from the start. As a 22-year-old dental hygienist, Sharon had helped put Kerry through dental school, then worked in his office until their first child. They had talked about divorce many times, but he didn't want to split up because he thought the divorce would ruin him financially. As a result, the couple found themselves trapped in a marriage that brought them both misery. Finally, Sharon decided that she couldn't take it anymore. That's when she began thinking of murder.

     In the spring of 1999, while talking with Carl Poe, the husband of the ice skating coach working with their youngest daughter, Sharon said she wished she could find someone to have Dr. Voit "taken care of." Mr. Poe passed the comment on to his wife Robyn who dismissed it as a joke. Although Sharon didn't sound like she was joking, Carl agreed with his wife's assessment of black humor bubbling up out of frustration and stress.

     Two months after the "taken care of" comment, Sharon shocked Dr. Voit's friend, Matt Georgopolous, when she said, quite specifically, that the only way she could achieve happiness was to find someone who would kill her husband. Mr. Georgopolous didn't think she was joking, and warned his friend that his life might be in danger. Dr. Voit laughed it off, explaining that Sharon was a mentally unstable person who was just letting off steam.

     On March 8, 2000, while conferring with Robyn Poe at an ice skating competition in Buffalo, New York, Sharon asked the coach if she knew anyone who could "take Kerry out." Although alarmed by the question, Robyn decided to ignore Sharon's query. Carl had been right; she seemed deadly serious. In a restaurant two days later with Matt Georgopolous and Robyn Poe, Sharon brought up the murder-for-hire subject again. Shortly after that, she asked the family accountant if Dr. Voit had changed the beneficiary of his life insurance policy. The accountant said he had no knowledge of such matters.

     When Dr. Voit learned of his wife's recent life insurance and hit man inquiries, he decided to take the situation a little more seriously. He called a friend in the Cook County State Attorney's office and reported that Sharon might be trying to have him murdered. The prosecutor referred the complaint to the Chicago Police Department where Detective John Duffy took charge of the case. After talking to Dr. Voit and Matt Georgopolous, the detective asked Tim Kaufmann, a deputy with the sheriff's office special operations branch, to enter the case as an undercover hit man.

     A few days after talking with Detective Duffy, Deputy Kaufmann called Sharon Voit and said, "I understand you have a problem you want taken care of." She responded by requesting a meeting the following afternoon in the parking lot of a local grocery store. The next day at one-thirty, Sharon, behind the wheel of her SUV, pulled into the lot. After climbing into the officer's vehicle, Sharon asked Deputy Kaufmann which one of her friends had spoken to him regarding her problem. The undercover cop replied that in his business that kind of information was confidential. Seemingly convinced that this man was in the business of killing people for money, Sharon set up a second meeting.

     On March 17, 2000, a covert police video surveillance team stood by as Sharon Voit pulled her SUV into another local parking lot. Deputy Kaufmann, wearing a body microphone, climbed into her vehicle, and without specific reference to Dr. Voit, asked if she were serious about solving her problem. "Yep," she replied, "it's gotta be done." She then asked how much it would cost. The undercover officer said it depended on how much money she could raise. About seven thousand dollars she replied.

     To establish his bona fides as a paid assassin, Deputy Kaufmann said that after killing people for the United States government as a combat soldier in Viet Nam, he had gone into business for himself. Being in the profession of taking people out didn't bother him at all. Regarding the Voit hit, he said he would do it in a way that would make the murder look like it had been committed by a robber. In discussing possible times and places, Sharon revealed that Dr. Voit had planned a scuba diving trip to the Bahamas the following week. Deputy Kaufmann said he would kill her husband in the Bahamas. To that Sharon replied that she didn't care where or how the job was done. She said she had no interest in details. She just wanted to have her "misery finished."

     Deputy Kaufmann told Sharon that he needed $600 in upfront money to cover the cost of his trip to the Bahamas. She could mail him the balance due after he completed the job. The undercover cop handed her a slip of paper bearing the post office address where she could sent the rest of the money. Sharon next described her husband's daily routine and provided the officer with the address of his mother's house in Harwood Heights. The deputy said he had everything he needed except a photograph of the target and the expense money. They could meet again, or she could get the photograph and the $600 while he waited in the parking lot. She replied that she would have what he wanted in less than an hour. Before he returned to his car to wait for the photograph and the money, Deputy Kaufmann asked Sharon if this was really what she wanted to do. (A real hit man would never ask this question.) She said yes; the man she wanted killed had made her life miserable. This was the only way she knew to relieve that misery. She had made her decision.

     An hour later, Sharon Voit returned to the parking lot. As Deputy Kaufmann walked away from her vehicle with the photograph and the upfront money, police officers swooped in and took her into custody. One moment she thought her problems were over, the next she was sitting in the back of a police car wearing handcuffs. When informed she had been talking to an undercover cop who had recorded the conversation, she admitting trying to hire the officer to kill her husband. Charged with solicitation of murder Sharon Voit landed in the Cook County Jail with her bond set at $10 million.

     After conferring with her attorney, Sharon Voit decided to take back her confession and plead not guilty. The defense lawyer would argue entrapment, that the undercover officer had essentially talked his 51-year-old client into soliciting the murder of her husband. In support of this hard-to-establish defense, the attorney would parse the recorded conversation, noting at one point that Voit had said, "Part of me wants him to get help so it would be better." The defense attorney also planned to highlight the absence of key words such as "hit man," "kill," "murder," and "dead." The attorney must have known that his defense, given the context of the case, would be a hard sell.

     Sharon Voit's trial, held in Skokie, Illinois, got underway in January 2003. As evidence of her guilt, the prosecutor presented the testimony of the Poes, Matt Georgopolous, and Detective John Duffy. Jurors also heard the taped conversation featuring undercover officer,Tim Kaufmann and the defendant. The jury also learned that the defendant had given the officer $600 and the photograph of her husband.

     In anticipation of the insanity defense, the prosecutor arranged, shortly after Sharon's arrest, to have her examined by a pair of state psychiatrists. The doctors took the stand and testified that in their expert opinions, the defendant, at the time of her conversation with the undercover officer, was not legally insane, suffering from the battered woman syndrome, or post-traumatic stress disorder.

     Sharon Voit's attorney had asked Dr. Susan M. Nowak, a Chicago psychiatrist, to examine his client to determine if the effects of her marriage had made her especially vulnerable to being entrapped by an undercover cop. The trial judge accepted Dr. Nowak as an expert witness, but decided to hear her testimony outside the presence of the jury. If Dr. Nowak convinced the judge that the undercover officer had entrapped the defendant, he would direct a verdict of not guilty. Otherwise, the case would go to the jury without Dr. Nowak's testimony.

     Dr. Nowak had investigated Sharon Voit's medical history that included reviewing court documents and psychiatric reports. The psychiatrist had also interviewed Sharon as well as two of her friends. The story of the defendant's life, as related to the court by the psychiatrist, portrayed Dr. Voit as a cruel and abusive husband. According to the doctor, Sharon met Kerry when they were high school sophomores. Five years later they married, and shortly after that, he started hitting her. While working in the office as his dental hygienist, Sharon caught him in the closet using cocaine with a female employee. Over the years the successful dentist had taken other women on lavish trips, showering them with expensive gifts.

     The defense psychiatrist testified that Dr. Voit had forced Sharon to have video-taped, three-way, cocaine-laced sex with him and his friend, Matt Georgopolous. The defendant also told Dr. Nowak that her husband, during "violent" sexual intercourse, would hold a pillow over her face against her will. She had threatened to divorce him several times, but he and his attorney always talked her out of going through with the legal proceeding.

     Dr. Nowak, to a degree of reasonable medical certainty, said that it was her expert opinion that the defendant, while not legally insane, possessed a "dependent personality disorder" that had rendered her vulnerable to police entrapment. The judge ruled that the doctor's testimony did not establish a legal case for entrapment. It wasn't that the judge didn't believe the defendant's characterization of her husband, he just didn't see how it related to the legal defense of entrapment. If anything, the defendant's marital history provided a strong motive for the murder solicitation.

    The Voit trial went forward without Dr Nowak's open court testimony. On January 10, 2003, following a five-hour deliberation, the jury found the defendant guilty as charged. A few weeks later the judge sentenced Sharon Voit to 23 years in prison. Voit's next door neighbor told a reporter she was shocked by the verdict. "They were such a loving couple," she said. "They were just so proud of each other. He talked about what a good cook and golfer she was. She was proud of what a good dentist he was. As time goes by I guess you can't maintain that forever." 

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On The Curse Of Fame

I have never been famous, and never will be. Very few writers achieve fame through their books. The best an author can hope for is being respected and known by a fair number of readers and members of the literary community associated with his genre. Anne Morrow Lindbergh, after her baby had been murdered in 1932 in what became the so-called "Crime of the Century," wrote in her journal that fame was a form of death. Amanda Foreman wrote that "Fame is like a parasite. It feeds off its host--infecting, extracting, consuming its victim until there is nothing left but an empty husk. With this emptiness comes the possibility of a long afterlife as one of the blowup dolls of history." A character in B. Traven's story, The Night Visitor, says: "What is fame after all? It stinks to hell and heaven. Today I am famous. Today my name is printed on the front page of all the papers in the world. Tomorrow perhaps people can still spell my name correctly. Day after tomorrow I may starve to death and nobody cares. That's what you call fame." Like I said, I am not famous, and that's fine with me. People who seek fame are fools, and when they achieve it, often act like idiots before being disgraced then quickly forgotten. If you don't believe me, watch TV, or read the news.

Thornton P. Knowles

The Eric Koula Double Murder Case

     Eric Koula, a 41-year-old day trader who lived in West Salem, Wisconsin with his wife and teenage son, called 911 on May 24, 2010 from his parent's house in nearby Barre to report that someone had shot and killed Dennis and Merna Koula. Homicide detectives who worked on the case soon determined that Koula's parents had been murdered three days earlier with a .22-caliber rifle. (The murder weapon was never identified.)

     After the LaCrosse County prosecutor, Tim Gruenke charged Eric Koula on July 29, 2010 with two counts of first-degree murder, police took him into custody. According to the prosecutor, Koula, in financial trouble, murdered his parents in order to inherit their estate. While the prosecutor had motive, means, and opportunity supporting this theory, it was what the state didn't have that made acquiring a conviction unlikely. What the prosecutor didn't have included a confession, an eyewitness, physical evidence pointing to Koula's guilt, or the murder weapon.
     Eric Koula, represented by Jim Kolby and Keith Belzer, went on trial on June 6, 2012. In his opening remarks to the jury of five men and seven women, prosecutor Gruenke stated the defendant executed his mother as she sat at her office computer, then shot his father when he walked into the room. Eric Koula's attorneys, on the other hand, assured the jury their client had an airtight alibi, and pointed out the obvious weakness of the prosecution's case. According to the defense theory of the murders, the victims had been killed by professional hitmen who entered the wrong house. (That doesn't sound too "professional.") The defense didn't elaborate on who had masterminded the contract killing, or why.   
     According to a forensic accountant who testified on behalf of the state, the defendant had only $3,000 in the bank, and owed the IRS and several credit card companies $150,000. Shortly after his parent's violent deaths, Koula had deposited into his bank a $50,000 check drawn on his father's account. 
     Investigators took the stand and testified that the defendant had planted evidence to make himself look innocent. He had written "fixed you" on a piece of paper and put it into his mailbox. The defendant hoped the note would make it look as though the killer was trying to frame him for the murders. Koula eventually confessed to fabricating this evidence.
     After the state rested its case on June 14, 2012, the defense put their own forensic accountant on the stand who testified that Koula's assets exceeded his liabilities. (To me, the term "forensic accountant" is an oxymoron. Accounting is as much a science as economics. While I realize that the word "forensic" pertains to a formal argument like a structured debate or a trial, it still doesn't sound right.) 
     On June 16, Eric Koula took the stand on his own behalf. (This fact alone makes this murder trial somewhat unusual.) Questioned on direct examination by attorney Keith Belzer, the defendant said that in 1994 he, his cousin, and his father purchased a Ford dealership. Eric became president of the company, but in 2006 his father sold the business. Although his father owed him $1million from the sale of the car dealership, the defendant only received $500,000. After the sale of the company, Eric began his day trading enterprise. In 2007, he made $300,000 in profits, but the following year he lost $661,000.
     In 2009, Eric's father gave him $100,000, and in May 2010, his parents promised him another $50,000. On May 20, 2010, the defendant went to his parent's home to pick up the $50,000 check. His father handed him a black check and told him to fill it in himself. That's why he signed his father's name on the check and tried to make the signature look like his father's handwriting. According to the defendant, this was the last time he saw his parent's alive. 
     On Friday, May 21, 2010, the day Dennis and Merna Koula were gunned down, the defendant detailed his activities in a way that established an airtight alibi. The next day, he deposited the $50,000 check bearing his father's fake signature. 
     On Monday, Mary 24, someone at the school where Mrs. Koula taught called Eric to inform him his mother had not shown up for work and that no one at her house was picking up the phone. Eric drove to Barre to check on his parents. He became alarmed when he saw their cars parked in the garage. Inside the house, he found his father lying dead on the home office floor, and his mother at her desk slumped over the computer. After calling 911, he phoned his wife and his pastor, both of whom rushed to the scene to give him support. 
     LaCrosse County deputies took the defendant to the sheriff's office for questioning. In his statement, he forgot to mention the $50,000 check he had deposited containing his father's phony signature. A week later, investigators came to his house to speak to him about the whereabouts of his son Dexter on the day of the murders. The detectives also wanted to know if the boy had access to a .22-caliber rifle. Worried that the police were going to arrest his son for the murder of his grandparents, the defendant wrote the "fixed you" note and placed it in his mailbox. He testified that he had fabricated this evidence to protect his son. 
     The defendant admitted that on July 29, 2010, when he met with detectives for the third and last time, he denied signing the $50.000 check, and didn't reveal that he had written the "fixed you" note. 
     On cross-examination, prosecutor Gary Freyburg pressed the defendant regarding his financial troubles. The prosecutor reminded him about the forged $50,000 check and the planted evidence. The cross-examiner pointed out that in Koula's 911 call, the defendant started out by explaining why he was at his parent's house. Once he justified his presence at the murder scene, he reported his emergency. 
     The testimony phase of the trial came to a close on June 26, 2012. The outcome of the case depended entirely on whether the jurors believed the defendant's testimony. After deliberating less than a day, the jury returned a verdict of guilty. By Wisconsin law, the judge had to impose a sentence of life. The judge could, however, decide to make Koula eligible for parole after serving 40 years behind bars. So, the best Koula could hope for was to walk free at age 83.

     On August 12, 2012, Judge Scott Home, at the sentence hearing, said this to the convicted killer: "You took the life of the two people who gave you life, and you'll spend the rest of your life incarcerated." The judge sentenced Koula to two consecutive life sentences without the chance of parole.      

     

Monday, January 22, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On The Difference Between Scholars And Intellectuals

Scholars are well educated people who usually teach at a college or university. Intellectuals are original thinkers who are usually scholars as well. But an intellectual can also be someone who works in a coal mine. Scholars are a dime a dozen. Intellectuals, regardless of what they do, are few and far between. Very few novelists are either scholars or intellectuals. Some of them, however, are talented story tellers, and that's enough.

Thornton P. Knowles

Was Kendrick Johnson Murdered?

     Kendrick Johnson attended Lowndes High School in Valdosta, Georgia. The thin, muscular 17-year-old played on the football and basketball teams. After attending his fourth period class on Thursday, January 10, 2013, Kendrick went missing. The next morning someone discovered the student's body stuffed upside-down inside a  rolled-up wrestling mat that stood on its end in the school gymnasium. He was dead.

     Lowndes County Sheriff Chris Prine, in charge of the death scene investigation, quickly concluded that the high school student's death had been accidental. According to Sheriff Prine, Kendrick must have gone into the mat head-first to retrieve a shoe or some other item. The sheriff theorized that Kendrick got stuck inside the mat and suffocated.

     On January 25, 2013, the head of the Valdosta-Lowndes Regional Crime Laboratory where a forensic pathologist had performed the autopsy ten days earlier, informed members of the media that Johnson's body had "showed no signs of blunt  force trauma." Sheriff Prine assured reporters there were no other signs of a struggle on Johnson's body.

     Kendrick's parents, Kenneth and Jackie Johnson, took issue with the manner of death determination and complained that officials with the sheriff's office and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation were not talking to them about their son's death.

     In mid-April 2013, Lowndes County Coroner Bill Watson told a reporter with the Valdosta Daily Times that Kendrick Johnson's body had been moved before he arrived at the gym. According to the coroner, the sheriff had waited six hours before informing him of the gruesome discovery. (Under Georgia law, the local coroner's office must be notified immediately in cases of sudden, violent, or unexplained death.) Regarding the delay in notification and the moving of the body, Coroner Watson said, "Well it compromises my investigation one-hundred percent. I don't know what the county [sheriff's office personnel] did when they got on the scene....The [death] scene, in my opinion, had been compromised."

     On May 4, 2013, the authorities finally provided the media with a copy of the autopsy report. According to the forensic pathologist who performed Kendrick's autopsy, the young man had died from "positional asphyxia." He had suffocated as a result of being trapped upside-down in the rolled-up mat. Lowndes County Coroner Bill Watson, based upon this cause of death determination, had no choice but to rule that Kendrick Johnson had died as a result of a freak accident.

     Kenneth and Jackie Johnson, convinced that their son had been murdered, and that the authorities were involved in a cover-up, asked a judge to authorize an exhumation. In May 2013 the judge granted the request which led to a second autopsy. That postmortem examination was performed by Dr. William R. Anderson, a forensic pathologist with the private firm Forensic Dimensions, a company located in Heathrow, Florida. The Johnson's paid for Dr. Anderson's postmortem review.

     The dead boy's parents were also pressing for a federal investigation into the closed case. In support of this request, the Johnson couple alleged that crime scene evidence had either been destroyed or tampered with. The sheriff's office had also denied the parents the opportunity to view high school surveillance camera footage of their son during the hours before he went missing. The parents also claimed that postmortem photographs of Kendrick revealed lacerations on his face and body.

     On May 23, 2013, Kenneth and Jackie Johnson released copies of two reports that had been written by a pair of paramedics with the South Georgia Medical Center Mobile Healthcare Service. According to the paramedics, Kendrick's body showed obvious signs of a struggle. Moreover, they found the student's body in a pool of blood and vomit. One of the paramedics wrote that he considered the high school gym the scene of a criminal homicide. The sheriff, however, insisted that morning that Kendrick Johnson's death had been a tragic accident.

     The results of the second autopsy performed by Dr. William R. Anderson were released in early September 2013. In his report, Dr. Anderson concluded that Kendrick Johnson had died from "unexplained, apparent non-accidental blunt force trauma to his right neck and soft tissues."

     The attorney representing the Johnson family told reporters that she was sending a copy of Dr. Anderson's autopsy report to the civil rights division of the U. S. Department of Justice. The cause and manner of Kendrick Johnson's death has not been changed. Officially, he died of a freak accident.

     On October 10, 2013, Kendrick Johnson's parents revealed that when their son's body was exhumed for a second autopsy, Dr. Anderson discovered that the boy's internal organs were missing. "I feel outraged about them stuffing my son's body with newspaper," Jaquelin Johnson said. The parents have told reporters that they believe the missing organs is further evidence of foul play and a cover-up in their son's death.

     Michael Moore, the United States Attorney for the Middle District of Georgia announced on October 31, 2013 that the FBI will investigate the circumstances surrounding Kendrick Johnson's death. "We're happy," Jacquelyn Johnson said. "The only thing we ever wanted was the truth."

     In December 2013, FBI agents questioned several of Johnson's Lowndes High School classmates as well as Lowndes County coroner Bill Watson. Agents also spent time with the deceased boy's parents. The parents, in February 2014, filed a lawsuit against the funeral home that handled their son's remains. According to the plaintiffs, funeral home personnel intentionally destroyed his internal organs in an attempt to interfere with the investigation into their son's murder.

     On March 13, 2014, in Macon, Georgia, four of Johnson's classmates as well as students from nearby Valdosta High School appeared before the federal grand jury looking into the death.

     CNN reporters, on March 17, 2014, announced that they had acquired, through the Georgia Open Records Act, an anonymous email dated January 27, 2014. According to the police tipster, one of Johnson's classmates confessed to killing the young man. This person had not, however, confessed directly to the email sender. In an effort to identify the tipster, a Lowndes County assistant district attorney has ordered a communications company to hand over its internet records pertaining to this email.

     In June 2016, an official with the United States Attorney's Office announced that there was insufficient evidence of foul play in Derick Johnson's death to merit the filing of criminal charges.

     In July 2017, a federal district judge dismissed the Johnson family $100 million civil lawsuit filed six months earlier against dozens of state and local officials.

     Case closed.
   

     

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On Pretentious Humor

The bartender at a writer's conference I spoke at in Morgantown, West Virginia wore a name tag that read, TRUMAN CAPOTE. In the spirit of the joke, I ordered an "In Cold Bloody Mary". The barkeep didn't even crack a smile. I guessed it wasn't a West Virginia kind of joke, then realized it was simply pretentious, professorial humor. It wasn't funny. I got fall-down drunk that night worrying that I had morphed from a writer into a cold-blooded academic.

Thornton P. Knowles

The Hemy Neuman Murder Case

     In the late 1980s, Hemy Neuman, a young American engineer living and working in Israel, met his future wife Ariela, an Israeli-born school teacher. In 2010, the 47-year-old engineer and his stay-at-home wife were separated. Hemy had moved out of their lavish home in Cobb County, Georgia in August of that year. While Neuman had a high-paying job as a project manager with GE Energy, he was in financial trouble. His expensive lifestyle--the big house, luxury cars, expensive restaurants, and elaborate vacations--had caught up with him. His three children were also attending college. Now his wife was filing for divorce.

     Ariela Neuman had kicked Hemy out of the house because she believed he was having an affair with a 36-year-old woman he had hired at GE. Neuman and Andrea Schneiderman, his suspected lover, denied the accusation. Andrea's husband, Russell "Rusty" Schneiderman, although he had a MBA from Harvard, was out of work. The couple had two young children.

     On the morning of November 18, 2010, Rusty Schneiderman dropped off his 2-year-old son at the Dunwoody Prep nursery school 15 miles north of Atlanta. As the father returned to his car, Hemy Neuman walked up behind him, and with a .40-caliber Bersa handgun, shot him several times. Schneiderman fell dead at the scene. Neuman climbed into a rented Kia minivan and drove off.

     A week before the murder, Neuman, wearing a fake beard, had crept up to Schneiderman's house with the intent of shooting him there. Hemy's plan fell apart when his intended target came out of the house to check on a gas leak and saw this bearded man lying in his yard. Neuman jumped to his feet and ran off.

     When Neuman's wife Ariela learned of Rusty Schneiderman's murder in front of the Dunwoody nursery school, she knew that Hemy had killed him over Andrea. She called the police and filled them in on her estranged husband's affair with the dead man's wife. Ariela described Hemy Neuman as a risk taking control freak obsessed with money and his career.

     Several weeks after the police arrested Neuman on January 4, 2011, he admitted that he had murdered Rusty Schneiderman. He claimed, however, that at the time of the shooting, he was so insane he didn't comprehend the nature and quality of his act. In other words, he was so crazy he didn't know right from wrong. After the killing, Hemy regained his sanity, but when he pulled the trigger in front of the nursery school, he was nuts. That was his defense, temporary legal insanity. Investigators didn't buy it, and neither did the prosecutor. If Neuman was crazy, he was crazy like a fox.

     In February 2012, charged with malice murder (other states call it first-degree murder or capital murder) and the use of a firearm in the commission of a felony, Hemy Neuman went on trial in a De Kalb County court in Decatur, Georgia.

     The prosecutor played, for the jury of 9 man and 3 women, a video-taped jailhouse interview of the defendant by psychiatrist Dr. Pamela Crawford. During the interview, Neuman told Dr. Crawford that he had initially considered stabbing Rusty Schneiderman to death. But he changed his mind because it would be too messy. The defendant thought about poisoning his victim, but rejected that idea as too complicated and unreliable. Staging a fatal accident had also crossed Neuman's mind, but in the end he settled on shooting the man to death at close range. He preferred this method because it was simple and sure-fire.

     Following the video, Dr. Crawford testified that a truly delusional, psychotic person would not have gone through the above thought process. A really crazy person would have acted impulsively, without all of that thinking and planning. The defendant, in her expert opinion, wasn't crazy. The entire insanity defense was a sham.

     For the defense, Dr. Andriana Flores, a forensic psychologist, testified that Neuman suffered from an undiagnosed and untreated bipolar disorder accompanied by psychosis. (In other words, he had no history of mental illness.) According to the psychologist, Neuman suffered from delusions and a condition called erotomania. As an erotomania sufferer, the defendant only thought he was having an affair with the wife of the man he shot to death. (Too bad he had only thought he had murdered Scneiderman.) And it got better: Before the killing, Hemy Neuman, according to Dr. Flores, had been visited by an angel with Oliva Newton-John's voice who informed him that Schneiderman's children were actually his. This revelation was reinforced by a message from a second angel who sounded like Barry White!

     On March 14, after two days of deliberation, the jury, presented with three possible verdicts--guilty; not guilty by virtue of insanity; or guilty but mentally ill--found Hemy Neuman guilty but mentally ill. That meant that while he would receive mental health treatment, he'd get it while serving his time in prison. The next day, the judge, in Clint Eastwood's voice (just kidding) sentenced Neuman to life behind bars with no chance of parole.

     On Thursday, August 2, 2012, Andrea Sneiderman, the wife of the man Hemy Neuman murdered, was charged with malice murder, criminal attempt to commit murder, racketeering, two counts of perjury, and two counts of insurance fraud. According the Andrea Schneiderman's indictment, she and the convicted killer were having an affair. The couple conspired to kill Rusty Schneiderman with the intent of "acquiring property, money, and life insurance proceeds." The murdered man's wife had received a $2 million life insurance payment as well as $960,000 in various bank accounts.

     In July 2013, following a two-hour hearing, Judge Gregory Adams dropped the murder, racketeering and insurance fraud charges against Schneiderman. The prosecutor had lost confidence in the reliability of a key prosecution witness. Sneiderman still faced thirteen other criminal charges related to the murder of her husband.

     Andrea Schneiderman, a month later, was convicted of nine felonies in connection with the Neuman case. She did not testify on her own behalf. The jury found her guilty of four counts of perjury, three counts of giving false statements, one count of hindering the apprehension of a criminal, and a count of concealing material facts.

     On August 20, 2013 at the sentencing hearing, Schneiderman's friends and family testified on her behalf. When it came her turn to speak to the court, Schneiderman said, "Please let me go home to my kids. Please don't let them live without their mother." The De Kalb County District Attorney asked the judge to send Sneiderman away for twenty years. Judge Adams didn't send this woman home, and he didn't put her behind bars for twenty years. He sentenced her to five years in prison.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On Writing In The Correct Person And Point-Of-View

One of my students opened a story with: "Three months before my sudden death in my girlfriend's car, I went fishing on the Ohio River." Intrigued by this opening line, I asked the student if he intended using the wrong person and point-of-view in an experimental piece of fiction. Or perhaps he was taking a stab at humor. When the kid told me he wasn't experimenting, or trying to be funny, the sentence lost its charm. The kid simply didn't know how to write. Even worse, he didn't know how to BS himself into a better grade.

Thornton P. Knowles  

The Johnson Family Mortuary: The Funeral Home From Hell

      On July 15, 2014, James Labenz, the owner of the building in east Fort Worth, Texas that housed the Johnson Family Mortuary, went to the funeral home to evict the tenants. Dondre Johnson, 39, and his 35-year-old wife Rachel Hardy-Johnson, owed the landlord $15,000 in back rent. The place looked vacant so Mr. Labenz entered the building. What he saw and smelled caused him to quickly exit the premises and call 911.

     In his report, the police officer who responded to the 911 call noted that he detected the odor of decaying flesh from the funeral home's parking lot. Inside, he found the unrefrigerated remains of several corpses in various states of decomposition. The officer called the Tarrant County Medical Examiner's Office.

     Police detectives accompanied by a medical examiner's office crime scene technician encountered a scene right out of a horror movie. But unlike its fictional counterpart, the funeral home tableau featured insects, maggots, leaking body fluids, and the overpowering stench of death.

     That day, the medical examiner's office took possession of the remains of two stillborn children and five adults. The partially mummified corpse of an adult lay in a casket inhabited by swarms of flies and other bugs. In a small container, the crime scene technician discovered a tiny skeleton. The funeral home's flooring was wet with draining bodily fluids.

     A Tarrant County prosecutor charged the mortuary owners with seven counts of abuse of a corpse. If convicted and sentenced on each count, the couple faced up to seven years behind bars. On July 18, 2014, police officers arrested Rachel Hardy-Johnson at the couple's home in Arlington, Texas. The next day, Dondre turned himself in at police headquarters in Fort Worth. After putting up their $10,500 bonds, the suspects were released from custody.

     The day after he walked out of the Tarrant County Jail, Dondre Johnson said this to a reporter: "This is a funeral home, you can expect to find bodies." True, but one would expect not to find corpses that were decomposing and being consumed by insects.

     Rachel Hardy-Johnson told reporters that she had been absent from the funeral home due to the birth of her child. Dondre, who wasn't very good at keeping up with the paperwork associated with either burying or cremating bodies, had been in charge. (Forget the paperwork, how about actually burying and burning the corpses?) She said that Dondre was all about the pomp and circumstance and show associated with the funeral service.

     Dondre Johnson's lack of administrative skills landed the couple in jail and cost his landlord $8,000 in cleanup fees. Moreover, the macabre publicity associated with the building had significantly lowered its real estate value.

     Following the gruesome discovery of the results of Dondre Johnson's gross mismanagement and callous disregard for the postmortem dignity of the deceased in his care, the Texas Funeral Service Commission revoked the Johnson family funeral license. Angered by the revocation, the couple petitioned the state to get their license returned.

     Dondre and Rachel Hardy-Johnson, already in trouble with the law, were indicted on four counts of fraud by a federal grand jury in September 2014. The couple stood accused of obtaining food stamps, a housing subsidy, federal education funding, and Medicare benefits without revealing their income and other personal assets. The alleged government fraud took place between April 2010 and July 2012. If convicted on each count, the former funeral home owners faced up to 20 years in prison.

     Federal fraud investigators determined that Hardy-Johnson had in 2011 received government benefits while claiming to be an unemployed single mother living alone with her children. During that period she purchased a 2006 Hummer H2 for $26,000 and a 2008 Mercedes-Benz CL S500 for $41,700. The next year, while still representing herself as an unemployed single mother, she bought an expensive Land Rover.

     On January 20, 2015, a Tarrant County grand jury indicted Dondre Johnson and his wife for stealing up to $20,000 from families who had paid for and did not receive funeral services in 2014. If convicted, they faced maximum sentences of 20 years in prison and thousands of dollars in fines.

     Rachel Hardy-Johnson, on January 27, 2015, pleaded guilty in federal court to one count of food stamp benefit fraud involving $6,000 in payments from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Stamp program and its successor, SNAP. She was sentenced to 18 months in prison.

     In February 2015, reporters with the CBS television affiliate in Fort Worth discovered that Dondre Johnson and his twin brother Derrick were conducting funerals in Sherman, Texas. Travis Mitchell, the owner of Serenity Chapel Funeral Services, told the reporters that he handled the business aspects of the operation while Donde and Derrick performed the funerals. According to Mitchell, Dondre Johnson's attorney had advised his client to avoid the media until the theft and abuse of corpse cases in Fort Worth were resolved.

     On September 24, 2015, a jury in Fort Worth found Dondre Johnson guilty of two counts of felony theft. The judge sentenced Johnson to two years in prison and a $20,000 fine. Johnson still faced possible prosecution on seven misdemeanor counts of abuse of corpse. 

Friday, January 19, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On Receiving a Bad Review

A writer for Kirkus, in reviewing one of my crime novels, said the book featured a cast of vile hillbillies in a trashy setting who said and did things to each other that would turn the stomach of a murder scene investigator. She wrote that good taste demanded that she put the book down after page 20, but was ashamed to admit that out of the kind of morbid curiosity that makes passing motorists gawk at a bloody traffic accident, she finished my "trashy and brutal" novel. It was a terrible review, really bad. I framed that one.

Thornton P. Knowles

The Carla Hague Poisoning Case

     In 2013, Judge Charles Hague lived with his wife of 45 years outside of Jefferson, Ohio in the northeastern part of the state. Since 1993, he had been an Ashtabula County common pleas juvenile/probate judge. Carla, his 70-year-old wife, had retired years earlier as a nurse. The judge and Carla, parents of grown children, enjoyed a reputation in the community as outstanding citizens.

     As is so often the case, outward signs of domestic tranquility are misleading. This unfortunate reality applied to Mr. and Mrs. Hague. The problem within that marriage exploded to the surface on September 15, 2013 when Carla telephoned one of her sons. She said the judge had become ill after consuming a glass of wine. Upon arrival at the house, the son took one look at his father and dialed 911.

     Paramedics rushed the stricken judge to a local hospital from where medical personnel flew him to the Cleveland Clinic for emergency care. Following several days of treatment in Cleveland, the judge returned home to recuperate.

     Judge Hague's relatives, on September 19, 3013, notified the Ashtabula County Sheriff's Office of foul play suspected in the judge's sudden illness four days earlier. More specifically, the relatives accused Mrs. Hague of spiking her husband's wine with antifreeze. (A toxicological analysis of the judge's blood confirmed the presence of ethylene glycol, a toxic ingredient in antifreeze.)

     Sheriff's deputies arrested Carla Hague on December 2, 2013 on suspicion of attempted murder. Officers booked her into the Ashtabula County Jail. Eighteen days later, an Ashtabula County grand jury indicted the suspect of contaminating a substance for human consumption. She also stood accused of attempted murder.

     Carla Hague did not deny putting the antifreeze into her husband's wine. Her intent, she said, was not to kill the judge but to make him slightly ill. He suffered from pulmonary fibrosis, a serious respiratory condition. In Carla's opinion, her husband had been adding to his health problem by drinking too much. She hoped that if the wine made him ill he would cut back on his use of alcohol.

     At her arraignment, Carla pleaded not guilty to the charge of attempted murder. She posted her $100,000 surety bond on December 24, 2013.

     On June 16, 2014, the local prosecutor, with Judge Hague's consent, allowed the defendant to plead guilty to felonious assault. In speaking to a reporter, judge Hague said, "I have no anger or animosity. I am beyond that. I'm gad to have this huge black spot behind us. I have moved on with my life. Carla can get on with hers." (Presumably they will be getting on with their lives without each other.)

     Following the guilty plea, the judge sentenced Carla Hague to two years in prison with eligibility for release in six months.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On The Elements Of Literary Style

A writer's literary style consists mainly of the words he uses and the order he puts them in. That's called, respectively, diction and syntax. In terms of word selection, a pompous or insecure writer will use "multiple" instead of "many"; "impacted by" instead of "affected"; and "individual" instead of "person." Such a writer also uses many more words than necessary. Regarding syntax, an academic author might write: "A good time was had by all." A so-called "literary" novelist might say it this way: "By all, a good time was had." An author with readers will write: "We had a blast."

Thornton P. Knowles

Murdering Jocelyn Earnest: A Circumstantial Case

     On December 19, 2007, a friend discovered the body of 38-year-old Jocelyn Earnest just inside the front door of her house in Pine Bluff, Virginia. The victim had been shot in the back of the head. Next to her body lay a .357 magnum revolver and a typewriten suicide note that in part read:

     To Mom
          I'm sorry for what I've done. Please forgive me. Wes [the victim's estranged husband] has put us in such a financial bind--can't recover. My new love will not leave the family.
     Love,
     Jocelyn

     The heat inside Earnest's house had been jacked up to 90 degrees and there were no signs of forced entry. The dead woman's dog, a black Labador, was locked in a crate without food or water in a back bedroom.

     Investigators immediately suspected that Jocelyn Earnest had been murdered, and the scene staged to look like a suicide. Detectives knew that people who kill themselves and leave notes rarely type them. In searching Jocelyn's two home computers, investigators did not find drafts of this document. And the word choice and syntax of the note was inconsistent with the writing style found in the victim's handwritten journals. The police suspected that the furnace had been turned up to alter the body's decomposition rate to throw off the biological time of death determination. Apparently the killer had wanted the police to believe Jocelyn had been killed earlier in the day, perhaps to support an alibi.

     Suspicion immediately fell on the victim's estranged husband, Wesley Earnest who had moved out of the house a year earlier. As an assistant high school principal, he lived and worked 200 miles away in Chesapeake, Virginia. Jocelyn had been employed as a financial services manager in Lynchburgh, Virginia. Although together they had been earning $200,000 a year, they were deeply in debt. Wesley, over Jocelyn's objection, had built a three million dollar, seven thousand square foot mansion on nearby lake property. The $6,000 a month mortgage on this second home they couldn't sell because it was financially under water, had put them $1 million in debt. On top of this, Wesley found himself faced with the disasterous financial consequences of divorce.

     Wesley Earnest claimed he hadn't been to the Pine Bluff house for at least a year. After he had moved out, Jocelyn had changed the locks. Investigators, however, could connect him to the crime scene in two ways: he had purchased the .357 magnum, and two of his latent fingerprints were on the typewritten note next to the body. Two days before his estranged wife's death, the suspect had borrowed a pickup truck from a friend. When he returned the vehicle two weeks later, it had new tires. Detectives believed Wesley had changed out the tires to avoid a crime scene tire track match-up.

     Investigators also read the victim's journal, handwritten in seventeen notebooks. Several of the entries, however, written from Jocelyn's point of view, were in Wesley Earnest's hand. These forged additions portrayed the suspect in a favorable light. However, in one of the notebooks the victim had written: "If I die, Wesley killed me and he probably shot me."

     Wesley admitted to detectives that he had girlfriends, but claimed that  his wife had known about these affairs and approved of them. At his place of employment in Chesapeake, however, he told co-workers he was single.

     In May 2009, the $3 million house on the lake burned to the ground. Cause and origin fire investigators ruled the cause "undetermined." Because the place was heavily insured, the fire accrued to Wesley's financial benefit.

     Wesley Earnest went on trial in March 2010 for the murder of his wife. His attorney, in an effort to uncouple the defendant from the typewritten crime scene note, contested the forensic reliability of latent fingerprint identification. (Perhaps the defendant would have better served by offering an innocent explanation for the presence of his prints.) The defense attorney also put his client on the stand to testify on his own behalf. The defendant told the jurors that he had purchased the .357 revolver as a gift for his wife so she could protect herself. He portrayed Jocelyn as having been distraught over their financial problems. He also said she was having trouble with the woman who was her new lover.

     The jury, a few days after listening to the defendant, after deliberating less than four hours, found him guilty of murdering his wife.

     A month following the conviction, before Earnest was sentenced, a posting on a newspaper web site revealed that the jurors had read Jocelyn's journal. The trial judge had not wanted the jury to see this evidence. The notebooks had been inadvertantly put into a box that found its way into the jury room. In July 2010, the judge declared a mistrial.

     In November 2010, in Amherst, Virginia, Earnest went on trial again for the murder of his wife. His attorney, once again, put him on the stand to claim his innocence. On cross-examination, the prosecutor got Earnest to admit that in 2006 he had forged entries into his wife's journal. When asked how he had gotten into the Pine Bluff house he had been locked out of, Earnest said he had climbed through an unlocked window. In so doing, the defendant revealed to the jury how he may have entered the house to murder his wife. The second jury found the defendant guilty of first-degree murder. He was subsequently sentenced to life in prison.

     In December 2012, a three-judge panel of the Virginia Court of Appeals upheld the murder conviction and life sentence for Wesley Earnest.

     No one saw Wesley Earnest enter the Pine Bluff house and shoot his wife. No one claimed he had confided to them he had commited the crime. And he never confessed to the police. All the prosecutor had was what looked like a staged suicide, a motive, and a pair of latent prints on a suspect suicide note. But, with these two juries, the prosecution had enough evidence to convict. By comparison, the circumstantial cases against Casey Anthony and O.J. Simpson were much stronger than the case against Wesley Earnest. But Anthony and Simpson got off, and Earnest didn't. While I believe the two juries in the Earnest case returned the correct verdicts, uniformity of results is not a characteristic of the American system of justice.         

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On The Writer Lured To Hollywood

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

The Jerame Reid Police-Involved Shooting Case

     Two-thirds of the residents of Bridgeton, New Jersey, a Cumberland County town of 25,000 south of Philadelphia, are either Hispanic or black. On the night of December 30, 2014, Bridgeton police officers Roger Worley and Braheme Days pulled over a Jaguar for running a stop sign. Officer Worley, the white officer, was behind the wheel of the patrol car.

     Officer Days, the black officer, approached the passenger side of the Jaguar and asked the two men in the car how they were doing. The passenger, 30-year-old Jerame Reid, said, "Good, how you doing, officer?"

     A few months earlier, officer Days had arrested Jerame Reid for possession of drugs. As a teenager, Reid had been convicted of shooting at police officers. The judge sent him to prison for twelve years.

     A few seconds after approaching the Jaguar, officer Days spotted a handgun in the glove compartment. He said, "Don't move! Show me your hands!"

     On the other side of the vehicle, officer Worley pointed his gun at the driver, Leroy Tutt. Mr. Tutt sat in the driver's seat with his hands sticking out of the car door window where they could be seen. Officer Worley called for backup.

     Officer Days reached into the Jaguar and removed a silver handgun from the glove box. To the vehicle's occupants he said, "You reach for something you're going to be (expletive) dead!"

     One of the men in the stopped car said, "I got no reason to reach for nothing." Again officer Days warned, "Hey Jerame, you reach for something you're going to be (expletive) dead!"

     As Jerame Reid opened the front passenger door, he said, "I'm getting out of the car." By now officer Worley had joined officer Days on that side of the vehicle. Both officers had their guns drawn. Reid climbed out of the vehicle, and when he stood up, his hands were raised to the level of his chest in the officers' plain view.

     A few seconds after Jerame Reid exited the Jaguar, officer Days shot him. Officer Worley also fired his gun but missed his target.  The shot man collapsed to the ground and died on the spot. He did not possess a firearm.

     The entire police-involved shooting incident was caught on the officers' dashboard camera. The chief of police placed both officers on administrative leave and turned the case over to the Cumberland County prosecutor's office.

     Shortly after receiving the case, Cumberland County prosecutor Jennifer Webb-McRae recused herself from the inquiry because she had personal ties to officer Days. First Assistant prosecutor Harold Shapiro took over the investigation.

     Critics of the way the authorities handled the case called for either a special prosecutor or an intervention by the state attorney general's office. Protestors, notwithstanding the fact that Jerame Reid and the officer who shot him were black, claimed racism.

    In February 2015, three months after Reid's death, a local newspaper reported that in 2011, Jerame Reid had filed a $100,000 lawsuit against the Cumberland County Department of Corrections, Warden Robert Balicki, and three corrections officers. Reid claimed the jail guards assaulted him in October 2009. According to Reid, the officers, without provocation or justification, repeatedly punched, kicked and pepper sprayed his face then threw a bucket of water on him as he lay on the cell floor.

     As a result of the beating, Reid said he suffered broken ribs and a fractured left orbital bone that left him without sensation and nerve damage to his lips and cheek area. According to court documents, the encounter began after Reid confronted another inmate over stolen belongings. The accused inmate told correction officers that Reid possessed a sharp object.

     Responding jail guards handcuffed Reid and placed him into another cell. According to the plaintiff, after he made a comment to one of the officers, they gave him the beating. (The officers alleged that Reid threw the first punch.)

     Reid's lawyer, in court documents, said the corrections officers, after an internal investigation, were disciplined for not filing a use of force report. The matter was not referred to the local prosecutor's office for investigation.

     As a result of the plaintiff's death, the lawsuit against the county and the others was dismissed.

     After a federal prosecutor decided not to pursue the shooting incident against the officers, the case, in April 2016, went before a local grand jury. The grand jurors declined to indict either officer. In July 2016, members of Reid's family settled a federal lawsuit against the police department for an undisclosed amount. Case closed.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On The Mystery Of Advanced Math And Intellectual Superiority

For me, math is adding, subtracting, multiplying, fractions, and percentages. Beyond that, math is a mystery I was never able to solve. Maybe that's because I'm not smart enough to figure out the clues. I'll  have to live with knowing there's a universe of knowledge out there beyond me. Does that make me feel inferior? Hell yes. On a good day, if I stretch intellectually, I can touch the bottom of mediocrity. The thing is though, having great self-worth is the worst thing for a novelist. I guess that's why I'm a fairly good crime writer. Anyway, I don't think I have the personality for brain excellence. Being intellectually excellent is a burden I don't have to carry.

Thornton P. Knowles

John Hinckley Jr.: How To Shoot a U. S. President And Three Others And End Up Living The Good Life

     Most Americans are uncomfortable with the criminal law doctrine that if you kill or try to kill someone in the throes of mental illness you should not be punished, but instead be treated and cured of the ailment that caused your deviant behavior. Criminal defense attorneys realize that the not guilty by reason of insanity plea is a tough sell. Juries just don't buy it. But occasionally there are exceptions to this criminal justice aversion. Take the case of John Hinckley, Jr. Although it is hard to believe, Mr. Hinckley tried to kill the president of the United States and did not go to prison. Most people think that even considering the release of this would-be-assassin back into society is a notion more insane than John Hinckley himself.

     John Hinckley Jr., at 2:27 in the afternoon of March 30, 1981, shot President Ronald Reagan in the chest and lower right arm with a six-shot, .22-caliber revolver. The president was leaving a speaking engagement at the Washington Hilton Hotel in Washington, D.C. The 25-year-old shooter also wounded White House press secretary James Brady and two others in the presidential party. All of the victims survived, but Mr. Brady was paralyzed for life.

     At his trial in federal court, Hinckley's attorneys pleaded him not guilty by reason of insanity. According to the defense, Hinckley had been obsessed with the film actress Jodi Foster who had played the role of a 12-year-old prostitute in the movie "Taxi Driver." Hinckley had seen the film fifteen times and had written Foster several fan letters. In the movie, New York City cab driver Travis Bickle, played by Robert DeNiro, attempts to assassinate a U.S. Senator who was running for president. Hinckley claimed to have shot the president and the others in an attempt to gain favor with the young actress.

    At the trial, a battery of defense psychiatrists testified that John Hinckley, a man who suffered from psychosis and severe depression, also possessed a narcissistic personality disorder. Notwithstanding the fact the defendant knew exactly what he was doing when he shot the president and the others, and knew that what he was doing was wrong, the jury found him not guilty by reason of insanity. If that wasn't bad enough, the verdict left open the possibility that Hinckley could one day live outside a mental institution.

     Over the next 34 years, Mr. Hinckley spent most of his time at St. Elizabeth's Psychiatric Hospital in Washington, D.C. In 2006, a U.S. District Court judge ruled that Hinckley could spend three days a month at his mother Jo Ann's house in Williamsburg, Virginia. Over time, this judge allowed Hinckley more time outside the hospital in the company of his mother at her luxury home overlooking the 13th hole of an exclusive golf course. Federal prosecutors, at each of these sentencing hearings, fought against granting Hinckley more freedom.

     In 2013, U.S. District Court Judge Paul L. Friedman, against the strenuous objects of prosecutors, granted Mr. Hinckley the right to live with his mother, now 88-years-old, 17 days out of every month. The judge allowed this freedom after psychiatrists testified that Hinckley's psychosis and depression had been in remission for decades. The doctors did concede that Hinckley still possessed a narcissistic personality disorder. (In the D.C. area, throw a stick and it will hit nine people with the same disorder.) As a condition of his expanded freedom, Mr. Hinckley was required to check in regularly with his doctors and to keep taking his medication.

     Judge Friedman, pursuant to the Hinckley ruling, urged President Reagan's shooter to take music therapy classes and to do volunteer work at a local hospital.

     From all appearances, John Hinckley had it pretty good. When in Williamsburg he drove around in a Toyota Avalon, went to the movies, ate out, took long walks, shopped, played his guitar, and painted. Because he did not receive Social Security or Medicare benefits, Hinckley's out of hospital expenses were picked up by his family and amounted to between $5,000 and $10,000 a month. This did not seem to be a horrible existence for a man who had knowingly tried to kill the president of the United States.

     On April 22, 2015, Hinckley's tireless attorneys and their psychiatrists were back in federal court to gain even more freedom for their client. At the hearing, doctors from St. Elizabeths urged the judge to allow Hinckley to move out of the psychiatric facility permanently. Barry Levine, Hinckley's principal lawyer, told the court that his client had not shown "a hint of dangerous behavior."

     On the third day of the Hinckley hearing, Dr. Giogi-Guarnieri, one of Hinckley's psychiatrists, testified that the presidential shooter wanted to start a band and desired to publish his music anonymously. Mr. Hinckley, however, did not want to perform publicly. According to Dr. Giorgi-Guarnieri, Mr. Hinckley also wanted to start dating a girl he met at a National Association for the Mentally Ill meeting.

     Federal Judge Paul Friedman, on July 27, 2016, ruled that Hinckley will begin his permanent "convalescent leave" on August 5, 2016.  Hinckley now lives full-time with his mother in Virginia.