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Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On What Little We Know

Let's says some rich man with a sharp mind spent fifty years acquiring college degrees in dozens of academic disciplines. In terms of accumulated knowledge, what would that add up to? Not much. There is too much to know. Regardless of the extend of our formal education and life experience, while some end up less ignorant that others, we all die relatively ignorant. Nevertheless, the world is full of people who think they know everything. I like to believe that these fools, when they kick the bucket, end up in a hell where for eternity they keep flunking the same test.

Thornton P. Knowles

Dueling Experts in the David Camm Murder Case: Is Blood Spatter Analysis a True Science?

     On September 28, 2000, at 9:29 in the evening, David Camm called 911 and reported that he had discovered the murdered bodies of his wife, daughter and son in his garage. Upon arrival at Camm's house in New Albany, Indiana, police discovered Camm's wife Kimberly, his 5-year-old daughter Jill, and his 7-year-old son Brad in Kimberly's Ford Bronco. She and her daughter had been shot in the head. The boy had been shot in the chest. There were abrasions and bruises on Kimberly's knees, elbows, and feet.

     At seven in the evening on the day of the murders, Kimberly, with Jill in the car, picked up Brad from his swimming class. As they drove home, David, a former Indiana state trooper and employee of his uncle's construction company, left the house for his weekly basketball game with friends and relatives. According to eleven witnesses, Camm left the church gym for home at 9:17 PM. Twelve minutes later, he called 911.

     Medical examiner Donna Hunsaker found that although no semen had been recovered, the little girl had been sexually molested within hours before her death. From the onset, detectives suspected David Camm of murdering his family. The police and the Floyd County prosecutor, Stan Faith, believed that Camm had arrived home at 9:22, killed his family, disposed of the gun (it had not been recovered), cleaned up the crime scene, then called 911. But the crime scene evidence did not support this theory. The blood on the driveway had coagulated which suggested that the victims had been murdered before 9:22. If this were the case, David Camm had an iron-clad alibi. The prosecutor, to get around the alibi, decided that Camm had murdered his family before he left the house that night to play basketball.

     In the Ford Bronco, crime scene investigators had found a gray sweatshirt under Brad's body. DNA tests on this sweatshirt and the boy's clothing failed to connect the suspect to the scene. Several latent fingerprints lifted from the car did not belong to anyone in the family.

     In March of 2002, a jury found David Camm guilty of murdering his family. While the prosecution didn't have a motive, or a murder weapon, they had Robert Stites, a blood spatter analyst from Portland, Oregon who testified that eight tiny bloodstains on the defendant's t-shirt had come from spray made by the bullet fired into his daughter's head. The defense argued that Camm had stained his shirt when he embraced the victim. The judge imposed a 195-year sentence.

     In 2004, an Indiana appeals court set aside Camm's conviction on grounds of insufficient evidence. The prosecution promised a retrial. A year later, after the arrest of an armed robber and rapist named Charles Boney, investigators submitted his DNA to a data bank which linked him to the site of the Camm family murder. After initially denying that he knew David Camm, Boney told the police Camm had paid him $250 for the gun Camm had used to shoot his family. To explain the presence of his sweatshirt at crime scene, Boney said the gun had been wrapped in the shirt when he gave it to Camm.

     On the belief that Charles Boney had been Camm's crime scene accomplice, the authorities charged the 36-year-old with three counts of murder and one count of conspiracy to commit murder. In January 2006, the jury found him guilty. A few months later, the judge sentenced Boney to 225 years in prison. After the trial, several jurors told reporters they believed David Camm was the actual shooter. Following Boney's conviction, a man he had served time in prison with, told the police that four months before the murders, Boney had said that when he got out, he planned to kill a police officer's family, and frame the cop.

     David Camm's second trial got underway in January 2006 with a new prosecutor, Keith Henderson, representing the state. On the third day of the trial, the Indiana State Police sergeant in charge of the crime scene investigation testified, under cross-examination, that within days of the murders, the prosecutor (Stan Faith) hired two outside blood spatter analysts to study the serological evidence. The private experts from Portland, Oregon were Rod Englert, and his protege, Robert Stites. (Stites had been the prosecution's key witness in the first trial.) Defense attorney Stacy Vliana asked the witness if he had been aware that Stites wasn't qualified to process crime scenes. Did the sergeant know that Stites hadn't even taken the 40-hour standard bloodstain analysis course? The witness said he had not been informed of Stites' professional background.

   The next day, on cross-examination, Stacy Viliana grilled Robert Stites on his lack of experience as a blood spatter expert. The witness acknowledged that he had not taken the introductory course. He said he had read one book on the subject in 1994. Two days after the Camm murders, he had traveled to New Albany, Indiana because his mentor, Robert Englert, was too busy to handle the case. This was the first murder scene Stites had processed on his own. He had examined the t-shirt David Camm had been wearing on the night of the crime. The shirt contained eight bloodstains, each about a millimeter in diameter, spots he considered consistent with blood sprayed from the impact of a bullet. The defense attorney asked Stites if he had known that the defendant, while wearing that t-shirt, had carried his daughter out of the Bronco. The witness said he had not been aware of that. Stites acknowledged that concerning blood spray staining from the impact of a bullet, one would expect to find hundreds of little spots, not just eight.

     Forensic scientist Lynn Scamahorn took the stand and testified that in Camm's first trial, prosecutor Stan Faith had tried to get her to change her testimony about the DNA evidence on Charles Boney's crime scene sweatshirt. According to Scamahorn, the prosecutor wanted her to say that David Camm's DNA was also on the garment. When she refused, Faith threatened to charge her with obstruction of justice. He had also yelled and swore at her. In recalling her ordeal, the witness broke down. (Faith later denied these allegations.)

     In February, blood spatter expert Tom Bevel testified for the prosecution. According to his analysis, based on 25 years in the field. the blood on the defendant's t-shirt had been sprayed there by a bullet. Bevel also told the jury that David Camm had to be at the crime scene when his wife was shot because her blood had dropped onto one of his sneakers. The witness said that he believed the defendant was within four feet of his daughter when she was shot.

     The next day, prosecution blood spatter expert Rod Englert (Stites's mentor from Portland, Oregon), testified that the defendant must have been standing next to his wife, and just a few feet away from his daughter, when the two were shot. Englert added that the bloodstain on Camm's shoe appeared to have been diluted with water. Microscopist William Chapin, an employee of McCrone Laboratories, took the stand and confirmed the prosecution theory that the defendant was a few feet from his daughter, and right next to his wife, when they were shot. According to Chapin, he had seen traces of the victim's tissue on the defendant's t-shirt.

     The defense put two of its own blood spatter experts on the stand. Paul Kish and Bart Epstein testified that the blood on Camm's t-shirt had gotten there by transfer when he hugged the victims. Paul Kish said he couldn't render an opinion on how the blood stain had gotten on the defendant's shoe.

     On March 3, 2006, following 45 hours of deliberation, the Camm jury found the defendant guilty of murdering his family. The judge later sentenced Camm to life in prison. Following the verdict, F. Thomas Schomhorst, a law professor emeritus at Indiana University, questioned the prosecutor's claim, without supporting evidence, that the defendant had sexually molested his daughter.

     The Indiana Supreme Court, on June 26, 2009, overturned Camm's 2006 conviction. A third trial was scheduled for June 2010. Shortly after the second conviction, prosecutor Keith Henderson signed a publishing deal for a book called, Sacred Trust: Deadly Betrayal. The nonfiction book about the Camm case, would actually be written by Damon DiMarco. The Camm defense, on the grounds the prosecutor's book deal created a conflict of interest, petitioned the court for a special prosecutor. In November 2011, the Indiana Court of Appeals granted the request. This ruling delayed the start of David Camm's third trial.

     In February 2012, the Indiana Supreme Court decided not to hear the state's appeal of the appellate court ruling. Prosecutor Keith Henderson was therefore off the case. Convicting David Camm of murder became the job of special prosecutor Stan Levco.

     On August 22, 2013, the third Camm trial got underway in Lebanon, Indiana. Once again blood spatter analyst Tom Bevel testified that the crime scene bloodstain patterns proved that the defendant was in the garage when his wife and children were shot to death.

     Charles Boney, the man convicted in the case, took the stand and repeated his story that he provided the gun David Camm used to kill his family. Boney said he had no physical contact with any of the victims.

     To counter the prosecution's blood spatter case, defense analyst Barrie Goetz took the stand. Goetz had worked for the Indiana State Police from 1978 to 1981. From 1981 to 2004, he conducted blood spatter examinations for the Colorado Bureau of Investigation. According to Goetz, the blood on the defendant's shoe had been caused by a bloody shoelace hitting the side of the shoe when he ran. The pattern was not, in this witness' opinion, a "projected stain." Goetz said that, unlike his prosecution counterparts, he had used real human blood in his recreations.

     On cross-examination, prosecutor Levco asked this forensic witness why he hadn't videotaped his blood pattern experiments.

     On October 3, two defense witnesses testified that when the Camm murders took place, they were playing basketball with the defendant.

     Dr. Robert Shaler, a forensic anthropologist known for his work identifying bodies after the World Trade Center terrorist attack, testified that blood spatter analysis was not a true science. The interpretation of blood stain patterns had not been subjected to scientific peer review. Moreover, no data had been collected regarding error rates. "Either blood pattern analysis is based on science or it's an art form," Dr. Shaler said. "If it's an art form, then anyone can come up with opinions on it."

     On October 9, Dr. Richard Eikeienboom, a Dutch DNA analyst, took the stand for the defense. According to Dr. Eikeienboom, DNA evidence proved that Charles Boney had physical contact with Kim and Jill Camm. That meant Charles Boney had lied when he testified he had not touched the victims. The defense attorney put Dr. Eikeienboom on the stand to discredit the prosecution's star witness.

     On Eikeienboom's cross-examination, prosecutor Levco brought out the fact the witness' Netherlands based firm, Independent Forensic Services, was not accredited in the United States.

      On Thursday, October 24, 2013, after thirty-one days of testimony, the jury of eight women and four men found David Camm not guilty. The defendant's thirteen-year criminal justice ordeal, involving three murder trials, had finally come to an end. The state of Indiana had spent millions of dollars in a failed attempt to acquire a murder conviction in an obviously flawed case.

     Sometimes prosecutors just don't know when to quit. Moreover, the David Camm case, featuring dueling experts in blood spatter interpretation, is an embarrassment to forensic science. Blood spatter analysis, while perhaps an investigative tool, is not a science and shouldn't be presented as such in a court of law.
      

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On A Poet He Likes

Cleetious "Hillbilly"  Barns, when asked about his poetry said, "If it don't rhyme, it ain't worth a dime, and sure ain't mine." That's about as low-brow as you can get. He's one of my favorites.

Thornton P. Knowles

Diane Staudte and the Power of Poison

     In 2012, 62-year-old Mark Staudte resided with his wife Diane and their four children in a modest neighborhood in Springfield, Missouri. The couple had met years ago at a small Lutheran College in Kansas. While active in the church, Diane and Mark kept to themselves. A man with strong political opinions who regularly wrote letters to the editor, Mr. Staudte had never been very good at holding down a steady job. He eventually stopped trying and devoted most of his time to family matters and playing in a band he had formed called "Messing With Destiny."

     Mark Staudte's 51-year-old wife Diane played the organ at church and unlike her husband, never had much to say. The couple's oldest child, 26-year-old Shaun, suffered from a mild form of autism. Sarah Staudte, 24, was having a hard time finding a good job. Rachel Staudte, two years younger than Sarah, was a dean's list student at Missouri State University. (At least according to her Facebook page.) She played the flute at church. The youngest member of the family was an eleven-year-old girl.

     On April 8, 2012, Easter Sunday, Mark Stuadte died suddenly at home. To the emergency personnel who rushed to the house, Diane explained that her husband hadn't been feeling well. He had recently experienced three seizures. When asked if her husband had a history of this kind of thing, she said he had not suffered seizures in the past.

     The Greene County Medical Examiner, Dr. Douglas Anderson, without conducting an autopsy or ordering toxicological tests, ruled Mark Staudte's manner of death as natural. The forensic pathologist did not identify specifically what had caused this man to die. Pursuant to Diane Staudte's instructions, her husband's body was cremated. At his memorial service, friends and family couldn't help noticing that Diane's demeanor bordered on jubilant.

     On September 2, 2012, almost five months after Mark Staudte's sudden and mysterious passing, tragedy once again raised its ugly head at the Staudte house. This time it was Diane's oldest child Shaun who became ill and suddenly died at the age of 26. Once again, Dr. Douglas Anderson, without the aid of an autopsy or toxicological tests, ruled the death as natural. The medical examiner did not, however, identify the disease that had taken the young man's life. Diane made sure that Shaun's body, like his father's, was consumed by fire. For a woman who, within a period of five months had lost her husband and her oldest child, Diane seemed unfazed by the unexpected deaths. Indeed, her spirits seemed to have been lifted.

     On the day after Shaun's passing, the Springfield police received an anonymous tip from a man who said he was a friend of the Staudte family. According to the caller, Mark and Shaun Staudte had been poisoned to death by Diane. The police, however, did not act on this tip. According to the medical examiner, both men had died natural deaths. Without a finding of homicide, there was nothing to investigate.

     Sarah Staudte fell ill on June 10, 2013. Paramedics came to the house and rushed her to a nearby hospital. The next day, as the 24-year-old fought for her life, the Springfield police received a second anonymous tip in which the caller accused Diane Staudte of poisoning the third member of her family. This time the Springfield police sent a detective to the hospital to question doctors and nurses.

     According to hospital personnel who were caring for the young woman, her mother had visited the patient briefly during which time she joked around with the medical staff. One of the nurses informed the detective that Diane Staudte told hospital personnel that she wasn't going to let her daughter's illness ruin a Florida vacation she planned to take in the near future. A physician described Sarah's condition as "very suspicious." The doctor told the investigator that in his opinion, this patient had been poisoned.

     On June 20, 2013, after being asked to appear at the Springfield Police Department for questioning, Diane Staudte, following a short interrogation, confessed to poisoning all three members of her family. Over a period of days before the deaths of her husband and son, she had spiked their drinks with the sweet taste of antifreeze. Diane had poisoned her husband's Gatorade simply because she "hated" him. She had laced Shaun's Coke with the poison because she considered him "worse than a pest." Diane told her interrogators that she had poisoned her oldest daughter Sarah because the girl "would not get a job and had student loans that had to be paid." Diane insisted that in murdering Mark and Shaun, and attempting to kill Sarah, she had acted alone.

     When detectives questioned Rachel Staudte, the 22-year-old college student, she admitted that she had helped her mother commit the crimes. The two of them had used the Internet to research how to administer antifreeze as a poisoning agent.

     On June 21, 2013, a Greene County assistant prosecutor charged Diane and Rachel Staudte each with two counts of first-degree murder and one count of first-degree assault. The judge denied both women bail.

     According to doctors, while Sarah Staudte survived her poisoning, she would suffer the neurological effects of the antifreeze for the rest of her life. The eleven-year-old Staudte girl was living with relatives. With her father and brother dead, her mother and one of her sisters charged with murder and assault, and the other sister permanently disabled, this girl's family no longer existed. Such is the power of poison.

     In May 2015, Rachel Staudte pleaded guilty to two counts of second-degree murder and one count of first-degree assault. She agreed to testify against her mother in the event her case went to trial. The judge sentenced the 25-year-old to two life prison terms plus twenty years. Under the terms of this sentence, she wouldn't be eligible for parole until she served 42 years.

     On January 20, 2016, Diane Staudte pleaded guilty to one count of first-degree murder in the death of her husband and one count of first-degree assault in the poisoning of her daughter, Sarah. Pursuant to the plea deal she avoided the death penalty, but was sentenced to spend the rest of her life behind bars.

     In May 2016, ABC News acquired video tapes of the police interrogation of Diane Staudte and her daughter, Rachel. As part of her confession, the mother said, "I'm not a perpetual killer. I'm just stupid. I regret doing it. I really do. I've screwed up everybody. I've screwed up my whole family."
   
     

Monday, February 26, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On Being An Invisible Person

While I can appreciate the beauty of a well-designed, well kept automobile, I am not a real car person. The last thing I want is a chariot that turns heads. The car I drive, although not exactly a rattletrap, is sixteen years old, dirty, and as ordinary as a telephone pole. On the road, my sedan is virtually invisible, and as its driver, so am I. That's me, the invisible man driving his invisible car around West Virginia, the invisible state. I wouldn't have it any other way.

Thornton P. Knowles

Dr. Louise Robbins: The Shoe Print Expert From Hell

     Comparing a crime scene shoe print on a hard surface, or an impression in dirt, mud, or snow, to the bottom of a specific shoe, is not unlike the process of latent fingerprint identification. In many crime laboratories, the latent fingerprint people also handle footwear and tire-track evidence and occasionally deal with the identification of tool marks. Compared to DNA analysis, toxicology, and various aspects of forensic pathology, the identification of shoe marks, latent fingerprints, crime scene bullets, tool marks, and handwriting, involves less science than it does informed observation.

     A crime scene shoe print or impression can be identified as part of a footwear group according to size, brand, and model. In some cases, an impression can be identified as coming from one shoe to the exclusion of all other footwear. Every year 1.5 billion pairs of shoes are sold in the United States. At any given time, there could be as many as 100,000 pairs of size 10 Nike sneakers of a certain model and tread design. There could be, say, 5,000 pairs of these shoes in circulation in the Chicago area alone. The criminalistic or incriminating value of a group identification depends upon the size of the group. These group, or class identifications occur when the crime scene print or impression is not detailed enough for a match to a specific shoe, or when the shoe that made the mark is not available for comparison.

     The most famous group identification of shoe prints came at O. J. Simpson's double murder trial in 1995 when FBI expert William Bodziak identified several crime scene prints in blood as having been made by a pair of size 12 Bruno Magli Lorenzo shoes, luxury footwear made in Italy. Bodziak's testimony tended to incriminate Simpson in two ways: the identification involved a relatively small footwear group, and Simpson, after denying that he owned Bruno Magli shoes, was seen on television wearing a pair. The actual shoes that made the bloody prints were never located.

     An individual shoe, boot, or sandal can be linked to a crime scene print or impression the way a latent fingerprint can be matched to its inked, rolled-on counterpart. Instead of comparing ridge configurations, the footwear examiner looks at a shoe's sole and heel for unique signs of wear that show up in the print or impression. Every shoe that has been worn for awhile is as unique as a fingerprint. The more wear, the more potential for identification.

     Footwear identification, unlike fingerprint matching, does not require a minimum number of similarity points to be admissible in court. The credibility of a shoe identification depends upon the training, experience, and objectivity of the examiner, as well as the quality, clarity, and uniqueness of the characteristics being compared. New methods and techniques are constantly being developed, for example, to lift footwear impressions from dust, and even preserve shoe prints made in snow.

     Shoe prints left in dust, blood, or soot are photographed (next to a reference ruler), then peeled off the surface the way a latent fingerprint is lifted. Footwear impressions are often preserved with plaster-of-paris casts of the depressions. Shoes and their crime scene prints and impressions can be compared side-by-side, or through the use of transparent overlays. To connect a suspect to a crime scene through footwear evidence, detectives need three things: a good print or impression; the shoe that made it; and a way to link the suspect to the footwear. In the O. J. Simpson case, the detectives had shoe prints in blood, but none of the footwear in Simpson's possession matched the murder scene evidence. The prosecution had to settle for a group identification.

Dr. Louise Robbins and her "Cinderella Analysis"

     Fortunately for O. J. Simpson, the world's only footwear identification expert who might have identified the crime scene prints as having been made by shoes worn by him without having access to the actual footwear, had died eight years before his trial. Dr. Louise Robbins, an anthropology professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, wasn't interested in matching the bottoms of shoes to corresponding crime scene latents. She would have claimed she could identify the crime scene prints in the Simpson case by examining other shoes in Simpson's possession. Robbin's method of identification, a process she called "wear pattern analysis," was based on her theory that no two people have the same shaped feet, or walk in exactly the same way. According to her, this unique feature reveals itself inside the shoes people wear, and in the prints or impressions they leave behind.

     Dr. Robbins claimed she could look at a crime scene shoe print and determine that it had been made by the wearer of shoes other than the one shoe that had actually left the crime scene mark. Her critics, and there were many, called this her "Cinderella Analysis." If a defense attorney had a client in a case in which Dr. Robbins was testifying for the prosecution, that defendant's foot always seemed to end up fitting the shoe that had made the crime scene print or impression. The jury, without access to the actual source of the crime scene mark, simply had to take her word for it. It's not surprising that prosecutors with insufficient footwear evidence, and weak cases, loved this woman. Defense attorneys called her the prosecution expert from hell.

     In her work as an anthropologist, Dr. Robbins had frequently exhibited the ability to see things that her colleagues could not. When working in Africa, she garnered worldwide publicity after identifying a 3.5 million-year-old fossilized footprint as made by a woman who was five and a half months pregnant. Dr. Timothy White, a professor of anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley, who had worked with Dr. Robbins in Africa, characterized her conclusions as pure nonsense.

     If Dr. Robbins had confined her ideas to the classroom, she would have been harmless, and no one would have been greatly bothered by her patently ridiculous theories. But in 1976, when she took her nonsense into the courtroom as a forensic footwear identification expert, people not only started to worry, defendants started going to prison. Between 1976 and 1986, Dr. Robbins testified, for fees up to $9,000 a case, in ten states and Canada. During this period at least 12 defendants went to prison on the strength of her expert testimony. Her career as an expert witness came to an end in 1987 when she died of brain cancer at the age of 58.

     In the year of Dr. Robbin's death, the American Academy of Forensic Sciences sponsored a panel of 135 anthropologists, forensic scientists, lawyers, and legal scholars to review her cases and work. The panel concluded that her identification methodology had no basis in science. Marvin Lewis, a law professor at John Marshall University, called her work "complete hogwash." Lewis, who operated an expert witness referral service, was dismayed that so many judges had qualified Robbins as an expert witness. Russell Tuttle, a professor of physical anthropology at the University of Chicago, in referring to Dr. Robbins, said, "Why do we allow this kind of rot, this pseudoscience, into our courts?" FBI expert William Bodziak, who had testified against Dr. Robbins in several murder trials, agreed: "Nobody else has ever dreamed of saying the kinds of things she said."

     Dr. Robbins not only wormed her way into courtrooms, and the hearts of desperate prosecutors, she had impressed juries. She had a Ph.D, taught at a major university, and had been written up in Time Magazine. In 1985, she published a book, Footprints: Collection, Analysis, and Interpretation. As a self-validating expert who used scientific terminology to advance an absurd theory, she came off as extremely confident, and sure of her conclusions. Moreover, some prosecutors portrayed her as a pioneer in a new field of scientific identification. One prosecutor, in defending Dr. Robbins against her critics, reminded the jury that it had taken 400 years for Galileo's theories to gain acceptance in the scientific community. 

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On Faking Creativity

I like to think of myself as a creative person. But a lot of people who think of themselves as creative are not. There are days when I worry that I'm one of those people. You know, a fake pretending to be something I am not. Thinking you are creative is self-anointing. There is no such thing as a certificate of creativity. Deep down I suspect that I am an imposter, but probably a good one. Maybe I'm just a creative fake.

Thornton P. Knowles

The Barbara Olson Murder Case

     In the summer of 2012, Antonio D. Barbeau, a 13-year-old escapee from a juvenile detention center, was living in Sheboygan Falls, Wisconsin with the family of his 13-year-old friend, Nathan P. Paape. On September 17, 2012, Paape's mother drove the eighth graders to the Sheboygan Falls home of Barbeau's great-grandmother. Paape's mother didn't realize that Barbeau carried a concealed hatchet, and that her son possessed a hammer. She didn't know that the boys intended to murder and rob the 78-year-old woman, Barbara Olson.

     The boys entered Olson's house through an unlocked door to her attached garage. The target of the murder/robbery, when she realized why the boys had come to her home, threatened to call Barbeau's mother. At that point Barbeau knocked his great-grandmother off her feet by hitting her in the back of the head with the blunt end of his hatchet. As she lay on the floor trying to protect her head with her hands, Barbeau hit her again, and again. Nathan Paape joined in with his hammer. To finish off the dying woman, Barbeau struck her twice in the back of the head with the blade part of the bloodied hatchet.

     The young murderers rummaged through the dead woman's house looking for cash and valuables. They gathered up the victim's purse, some loose change, and a few pieces of her jewelry. Barbeau slipped the blood-soaked watch off his great-grandmother's wrist.

     The boys had planned to load the victim's body into her car and drive it to a spot where they'd abandoned the vehicle and the corpse. When they couldn't stuff the body into the car, they left it in the garage beneath a blanket.

     The cold-blooded killers tossed the bloody murder instruments into the trunk, and drove off in the murdered woman's car. They parked the Olson vehicle in a lot to a Sheboygan Falls bowling alley. Leaving the keys in the ignition with the stolen jewelry placed on the front seat in plain view, they walked away, hoping that someone would steal the car and eventually take the fall for murdering the woman lying dead in her garage.

     A few blocks from the abandoned vehicle, Barbeau and Paape sat down for a meal at a pizza parlor. After eating their pizzas, the boys walked to Paape's house. Along the way, they tossed Barbara Olson's handbag into a storm drain. At Paape's home, they changed into fresh clothes and hid their bloody garments and the gold watch Barbeau had taken off the corpse.

     Later on the day of this senseless murder, Mrs. Olson's daughter discovered her body. Police officers quickly figured out who had murdered the victim. Investigators recovered her purse from the street drain, the murder weapons from the stolen car, and the killers' bloody clothing and the victim's gold watch from Nathan Paape's house.

     In a matter of days, Antonio Barbeau confessed, and in so doing, implicated his friend. On September 21, 2012, four days after the murder, a Sheboygan County prosecutor changed each suspect with first-degree intentional homicide. The magistrate set each of the defendants' bail at $1 million.

     Nathan Paape went on trial for first-degree intentional homicide in June 2013. Under Wisconsin law, Paape, because of his age, couldn't be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. But if convicted as charged, the judge could sentence him to a maximum of forty years in prison before he was eligible for release.

     One of the first prosecution witnesses, Dr. Doug Kelley with the Fond du Lac County Medical Examiner's Office, testified that Barbara Olson had been struck in the head with the blunt intruments at least twenty-five times. The star prosecution witness, Antonio Barbeau, testified that he and the defendant had hatched the murder/robbery scheme together. Barbeau told the jurors that he and Paape took turns whacking his great-grandmother as she lay helpless in her own home.

     Defense attorneys put their client on the stand to testify on his own behalf. According to the defendant, the crime had been Barbeau's idea. After they entered the victim's house, Paape said he hit the old woman twice with his hammer. He only did it because he was afraid that if he didn't, Barbeau would attack him. The defendant claimed that when his mother drove them to Olson's dwelling, he didn't think that Barbeau would actually carry out the plan to kill the woman.

     Following the one-week trial, the jury, after a quick deliberation, found Nathan Paape guilty as charged. A few days after the verdict, Antonio Barbeau withdrew his not guilty by mental disease plea. He agreed to plead no contest to first-degree intentional homicide.

     On August 12, 2013, Barbeau appeared before Circuit Court Judge Timothy Van Akkeren who presided at his sentence hearing. His attorney presented a psychiatrist who testified that Barbeau had "cognitive issues" stemming from being hit by a car when he was 10-years-old. Judge Van Akkeren, obviously unimpressed with the psychiatrist's testimony, sentenced Barbeau to life. The 14-year-old would not be eligible for parole until November 24, 2048 when he turned fifty.

     The next day Judge Van Akkeren, before sentencing Nathan Paape, said, "Mr. Paape is a follower in this case. I do find there is less culpability." The judge sentenced Paape to life in prison with eligibility for parole on December 2, 2043, Paape's 45th birthday.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

The Eli Weaver/Barbara Raber Murder Case

     In 2009, Eli Weaver, his wife Barbara, and their five children resided in central Ohio's Amish heartland. He owned a gun shop near his Wayne County farm near Apple Creek. Over the past several years, leaders of the Amish community had thrown him out of the church for running around with English women he had met online. Eli would ask for forgiveness, be accepted back into the fold, then get into trouble again with the same un-Amish behavior.

     The 23-year-old Amish man, in 2003, met Barbara Raber, a woman who had grown up Amish but had left the church. The 33-year-old from Millersburg, Ohio made extra money driving Amish people from place to place. The relationship between Eli and his driver eventually became sexual.

     Beginning in the fall of 2008, Weaver and Raber began discussing how to murder his wife. In 2009, they exchanged a series of text messages in which they discussed various plans on how to pull off the crime.

      At seven on the morning of June 2, 2009, one of the Weaver children ran to a neighbor's house with shocking news. Someone, during the night, had shot and killed his mother in her bed. Eli, at that moment, was fishing on Lake Erie. The neighbor and the boy entered the Weaver house where Barbara  Weaver lay in her blood-soaked bed with a gaping gunshot wound in her chest.

     At 11:30 that morning, Wayne County Coroner Dr. Amy Joliff pronounced Barbara Weaver dead at the scene. Dr. Lisa Kohler, the Summit County Chief Medical Examiner, performed the autopsy. According to the forensic pathologist, the victim had been killed by a single shotgun blast to the right side of her chest. Several shotgun pellets were removed from the corpse. Dr. Kohler estimated the time of death as sometime between midnight and three o'clock that morning.

     John Gardner, a firearms expert with the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation identified the death scene pellets as number six shot. While this ammunition could have been fired from shotguns of four different gauges, the firearms identification expert believed the murder weapon was a .410-gauge shotgun.

     Detectives with the Wayne County Sheriff's Office seized two .410 shotguns from Eli Weaver's gun shop. Officers also recovered a box of .410 shells with one round missing. Investigators in the murder house found an amount of cash sitting on a table suggesting that robbery had not been the motive in this killing.

     Questioned by detectives upon his return from the Lake Erie fishing trip, Eli denied any involvement in his wife's murder.

     On June 10, 2009, detectives arrested Eli Weaver after he confessed to helping Barbara Raber murder his wife. She had pulled the trigger while he was fishing.

     That day, pursuant to a search of Raber's house in Millersburg, officers found a notebook in which she had written out a list of various poisons. At the police station following her arrest, she denied knowledge of the murder. She explained the incriminating text messages to and from Eli as nothing more than joking around.

     The day after Raber's arrest, upon further questioning, the suspected trigger woman admitted going to the Weaver house around four in the morning armed with a .410-gauge shotgun. Eli had left the basement door unlocked for her. She said her intent was merely to frighten Barbara Weaver, but when she entered the bedroom, the gun discharged accidentally. Raber's interrogators didn't buy the accidental shooting story, but asked her to sign a written statement to that effect. She refused and asked to see a lawyer. The interrogation, at that point, came to an end.

     On August 17, 2009, Eli Weaver agreed to plead guilty to conspiracy to commit murder. As part of the plea deal, he promised to testify for the prosecution at Barbara Raber's murder trial.

     The Raber murder trial got underway on September 16, 2009 in Wooster, Ohio with Judge Robert J. Brown presiding. Wayne County prosecutor Edna J. Boyle, following testimony from the county coroner, the medical examiner, and several police officers, put Dena Unangst on the stand. Unangst had been the defendant's cellmate at the Wayne County Jail. According to this witness, Raber admitted to her that she had purchased a .410 shotgun after Eli Weaver, on numerous occasions, begged her to murder his wife. Raber also asked Unangst if she knew how long a fingerprint could last on a gun. (Under ideal conditions, 50 years or more.)

     Gun store owner Larry Miller took the stand and testified that the defendant had purchased a .410 on November 15, 2008.

     On September 30, 2009, prosecutor Boyle put the shunned Amish man on the stand. Elie Weaver, now 29, testified that when he mentioned getting rid of his wife, a woman he didn't love, Raber "ran away with the idea." At one point, during one of their homicide planning conversations, she gave him a bottle of what she called "poison pills." Eli said he rejected poisoning as a way of killing his wife.

     On the day before the murder, Eli informed Raber that at three the next morning he would be leaving the house on a fishing trip. He'd leave the basement door open for her. Shortly after he left the house that morning, Raber sent him a text in which she asked how she was supposed to see in the dark. "It's too scary," she wrote. Eli advised her to take a flashlight.

     At 3:25 AM Raber texted, "I'm scared, where are you?" Texting that he was in Wooster, Eli cautioned Raber not to leave anything behind at the murder scene.

     According to the prosecutor's star witness, on June 9, 2009, the day before Eli and his trigger woman were arrested, they had a conversation in his barn. She described the night she killed Barbara Weaver and said she was "sorry for everything." Before parting company, Raber asked Eli how to clean a gun so it looked like it hadn't been recently fired.

     Assistant public defender John J. Leonard tried to convince the jury that Eli Weaver, not his client, had murdered the victim. The defense attorney described Raber's incriminating statement to detectives as the product of fear and confusion. Leonard rested his defense without putting Barbara Raber on the stand.

     On October 1, 2009, the jury found the defendant guilty as charged. Judge Brown sentence the 39-year-old woman to 23 years in prison. Eli Weaver had been sentenced by this judge the day before to 15 years to life.

     Weaver's light sentence illustrates, from the point of view of a guilty murder mastermind, the value of pleading guilty and testifying against an accomplice. Raber's sentence, given the cold-bloodedness of the killing and the innocence of the victim, was also extremely lenient.  

Friday, February 23, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On The Destructive Power Of Knowledge

Perhaps we overvalue knowledge and great intelligence. It was, after all, the smart boys who drastically shortened the history of life on this planet by producing the atomic bomb. How intelligent was that? Knowledge is not only power, it's vanity, and it can be dangerous. Advanced intelligence and knowledge does not necessarily come with morality or wisdom. It can, and has, been put to terrible use. Humans have outsmarted themselves into oblivion.

Thornton P. Knowles

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On The American Dream Of Becoming Famous

Why do so many Americans want to be famous? Do they know that fame will not bring them wisdom, happiness, love, or even money? Don't they know it often brings disgrace, humiliation and misery? Why do they seek fame, and what does it say about our culture?

Thornton P. Knowles

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On The Novelist's Curse

At my advanced age, I still seek approval of my writing. Among my many weaknesses of character, this one bothers me a lot. I fear I will never outlive this vanity. I struggle hopelessly to make my writing good enough to compensate for my failings as a person. No novel can be good enough to alter the character of its creator. I believe that many novelists are flawed, vain people, and while this is our curse, it keeps us writing.

Thornton P. Knowles

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On A Gal Named Nola

In my mid-twenties, I had a five-year relationship with a woman from Weirton, West Virginia named Nola Contendre. Nola possessed a volatile, hair-trigger temper and an inclination toward physical violence. I think she inherited her bellicosity from her father, a moonshiner and cockfighting promoter who was considered the godfather of the local hillbilly Mafia. Three days after I ended the on-and-off-again affair, Nola walked into a ginmill in town called Custer's Last Shot. I was drinking with a large woman I barely knew but was nonetheless deeply in love with. Nola strode into the joint accompanied by a six-inch barrel, blue steel, Model 10 Smith & Wesson six-shot revolver with one of those beautifully carved walnut handles. Although this was an impressive weapon, it was a bit too heavy for Nola to properly control. As she struggled to remove the S & W from her handbag, she squeezed one off into her big toe. To Nola's credit, the wounded woman was still able to free the handgun and fire a second shot in my direction. The bulled whizzed passed my ear into a Johnny Cash poster (it got him in the guitar) hanging on the wall outside the men's room. The bullet sailed into the pissery where it killed a 60-year-old urinal. By then, a half dozen drunks had managed to get poor Nola to the floor where they separated her from the would-be murder weapon. A year later, and here the story gets sad, a guard at the state pen found Nola hanging dead in her cell. All said, she was one hell of a gal. I like women, but as a matter of survival, I never married.

Thornton P. Knowles

Monday, February 19, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On His High School "Don Juan"

We had a kid in high school that all the girls liked. He was small, didn't play sports, and didn't own a car. But that didn't matter to his female admirers. They even invited him to their sleepovers. We'd ask this guy, what in hell is your secret? He would just smile and walk away. Maybe that was it--he didn't kiss and tell. We were so jealous of the guy we called "Don Juan". At our 50th high school reunion, I asked one of Don Juan's old girlfriends what she and the others had seen in him. She said this: "He was nice, smart, and funny. We enjoyed his company. He did our hair and painted our nails. He was always well-dressed, and even smelled good. If he hadn't been gay, I would have married him." While I was glad to have solved this 50-year-old mystery, I felt like an idiot. Then I felt bad when I learned  he had died in 1993 of AIDS. What is it about high school that makes those four years of your life so memorable?

Thornton P. Knowles

The William Simmons Murder Case: An Unlikely Conviction

     Kaelin Rose Glazier, a 15-year-old sophomore at South Medford High School in Rush, Oregon, disappeared on November 6, 1996 after watching a video in a house trailer with 16-year-old William Frank Simmons. The missing girl had skipped church that evening to meet her boyfriend, Clifford Ruhland, at Simmons' trailer. According to Simmons, the boyfriend didn't show up, and after he and Glazier watched the movie, she departed.

     The local police, believing that the missing girl had run away from home, waited 21 days before investigating the case as an abduction and possible murder. Simmons, a big kid who had been in trouble with the law, and was the last known person to have seen the girl alive, became the first and only suspect in the investigation. Years passed, and without the girl's body, the case ground to a halt. Every once in awhile detectives would question William Simmons at the police station, and every time he would deny having anything to do with the girl's disappearance.

     People don't vanish into thin air. In 2008, 12 years after Glazier went to Simmons' trailer, a man mowing a field 80 feet from the place she was last seen uncovered skeletal remains. According to a forensic anthropologist, the bones were consistent with the remains of a 15-year-old girl.

     At the recovery site, investigators discovered a skull wrapped in duct tape, a tennis shoe, part of a bra, and some jewelry that had belonged to the missing girl. While the medical examiner officially identified the remains as Glazier's and ruled her death a homicide, the forensic pathologist could not determine the precise cause of death. The police theorized she had been suffocated or strangled. DNA evidence from the duct tape did not match the victim's boyfriend or William Simmons.

     On April 10, 2010, the local prosecutor charged William Simmons with murder, and as a backup charge, first-degree manslaughter. The motive: he had killed the girl after she had rebuffed his sexual advances. After killing her, the suspect had supposedly dragged her body to the nearby field. (It's hard to believe it took 12 years for someone to find, 80 feet from where she was last seen, Glazier's remains. Was anybody really looking for her?)

     The Simmons murder trial got underway on February 14, 2012 in the Jackson County Circuit Court. The prosecutor, without an eyewitness, confession or physical evidence linking the 31-year-old defendant to the murder, had an extremely weak case. The state didn't even have a jailhouse informant, or a murder weapon. All the prosecutor had was the defendant's so-called "motive, means, and opportunity," to commit the crime.

     William Simmons' attorney pointed out that motive, means, and opportunity did not comprise evidence. The defense lawyer reminded jurors that the murdered girl's boyfriend may also have had motive, means, and opportunity in the 16 year old case.

     The jury, after deliberating ten hours, voted 10 to 2 to find the defendant guilty of first-degree manslaughter. (The reckless killing of a person as opposed to an intentional murder.) In Oregon, a defendant can be convicted of manslaughter on just 10 guilty votes. To find a person guilty of murder, 12 votes are needed. The judge sentenced William Simmons to the mandatory 10 years in prison.

     At a hearing in May 2012, the convicted man's attorneys, Andrew Vandergaw and Michael Bertoff, in an effort to secure a new trial for their client, put a witness on the stand named Serena Beach. During the Simmons trial Beach had contacted the defense attorneys and said she had "vital information about the case." The lawyers, busy defending the accused man, didn't have time to investigate her allegations.

     According to Serena Beach, in 2003 or 2004, the murder victim's stepfather, Robert Glazier, told her that he "was there when Kaelin Glazier came into the world and was there when she went out." He allegedly said that he knew she was dead and that her body was "down the road."

     The 65-year-old stepfather, who had been questioned three times by detectives during the early stages of the missing persons investigation, took the stand at the hearing to determine if there was sufficient cause to convene a new trial. Mr. Glazier said he knew that some people considered him a suspect in the murder. He testified that there was a person he suspected in the case.

     Judge Benjamin Bloom denied the defense motion for a new trial. The attorneys for William Simmons said they would appeal the judge's ruling.

     It's surprising that Judge Benjamin Bloom even allowed this case to go to a jury in the first place. Motive, means, and opportunity, while a guideline for identifying criminal suspects, does not rise to proof beyond a reasonable doubt. (As evidenced in this case by the two not guilty votes.) The evidence in this case was not even enough to sustain liability in a civil wrongful death suit where the standard of proof is merely a preponderance of the evidence. In any other state, the Simmons trial would have resulted in a hung jury.

     By any legal standard, the William Simmons case represents an odd and unlikely homicide conviction. While he may have been a good suspect, and may have committed the crime, that was not enough evidence to put him behind bars for 10 years. If this were the standard of proof in all murder trials, a lot of innocent people would end up in prison.

    

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On Trying To Teach Writing

One of my college writing students, pursuant to a composition assignment, wrote the following sentence: "In the desert that day there wasn't a drop of wind." When I asked the student if, on second thought, he found something wrong with that sentence, he asked, "Did I misspell desert?" I figured what the hell, the kid can spell. For that reason, it didn't make a drop of sense to flunk him. Perhaps there is nothing more ridiculous than trying to teach someone to write. If they can, they can. If they can't, they can't. Eventually, I learned to settle for good spelling.

Thornton P. Knowles

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On His Great Grandfather

I was sixteen when my father solemnly informed me that my great grandfather, Fenton Knowles, had died in 1890 from a town marshal's bullet not far from the Huntington, West Virginia bank he had just robbed. It took great effort on my part to disguise my delight in this revelation. Finally, a relative I could look up to.

Thornton P. Knowles

The Jullian McCabe Murder Case

     Jullian McCabe, 34, lived with her husband and 6-year-old son in Seal Rock, Oregon, a coastal town 130 miles southwest of Portland. The boy, named London, suffered from severe autism. The child's father, Matt, also had problems with his health. In 2012, doctors found that Matt McCabe had multiple sclerosis and a mass on his brain. Since then he had been unable to work.

     In late 2013, Jullian McCabe appealed for help on a fundraising website called YouCaring.com where she posted the following message: "If you are a praying person, pray for us. I love my husband and he has taken care of myself and my son for years and years and now it's time for me to take the helm. I am scared and I am reaching out." Through the site, she raised $6,831, considerably less than the stated goal of $50,000.

     In September 2014, Jullian McCabe posted a YouTube video showing her husband in a hospital bed with their son pushing the button that raised and lowered it. Speaking to the camera she said, "I'm sorry but to wake up one day and your whole world is topsy turvey in a world that was already topsy turvey with our son." In that video she also said, "I have thought of pulling a Thelma and Louise." [Movie characters who ended their lives by driving off a cliff.]

     At six-thirty in the evening of Monday November 3, 2014, Jullian McCabe called 911 and reported that she had just thrown her son off the Yaquina Bay Bridge in nearby Newport, Oregon. Officers met her at the bride and took her to the Newport Police Department for questioning.

     At the police station, McCabe calmly informed detectives that voices in her head had instructed her to toss the boy into the water 133 feet below the bridge.

     At ten-thirty that night, while Coast Guard and other searchers looked for the child, a person sitting in a restaurant overlooking the bay at the Embarcadero Resort, noticed a small body floating in the water near a marina. The authorities quickly identified the corpse as London McCabe.

     Shortly after the recovery, officers booked the mother into the Lincoln County Jail on charges of aggravated murder, murder, and first-degree manslaughter. The judge set McCabe's bond at $750,000.

     In speaking to reporters, members of McCabe's family described her as mentally unstable. They said her problems started after her father died and her husband fell ill and couldn't work. She had been simply overwhelmed, they said.

     Investigators learned that McCabe had planned her son's death for three years. On her computer she had searched the phrases "hearing voices," "child off bridge," and "insanity defense." In February 2016, McCabe pleaded guilty to murder. She said she had killed the child because she couldn't handle the responsibility caring for him after her husband had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. The Lincoln County judge sentenced McCabe to life in prison without eligibility for parole until after she served 25 years of her sentence. 

Friday, February 16, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On His Pubic School Education

During my thirteen years in public education (I spent two years in seventh grade), I was at best an average student. I didn't apply myself because I resented being told what I had to learn. I preferred to pursue my own interests such as writing and reading fiction. I didn't care what the inside of a frog looked like, how to say "girl" in Latin, or knowing the 1948 gross national product of Spain. When I got to college, I learned a lot of useless stuff under the false belief that an impressive college transcript would somehow accrue to my benefit. As they say, live and learn.

Thornton P. Knowles

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On Knowing Thy Self

I don't think too deeply about myself, you know, who I really am and so forth. I'm with Robert Penn Warren who once said, "Deep down, I'm shallow." I believe that if you think too deeply about yourself, explore those depths, you might not like what you find. In that regard, I'm a committed surface thinker. I'm what you could call an introspection coward. What little I do know about myself, I don't like, and  have no intention to inquire further. I'll let others speculate on who I am. While I don't know why anyone would care, if some psychological busybody does figure me out, I don't want to be privy to that analysis. I prefer to live as an unsolvable mystery. In terms of psychological self-analysis, I'm content residing in a locked room with the blinds down and the lights off. I keep my mind occupied on important things such as staying on good terms with my cat and writing one-thousand words a day. Because I'm a stranger to myself, I've never suffered from writer's block.

Thornton P. Knowles

Kurt Cobain's Sudden Death: Suicide or Murder-For-Hire?

     Kurt Cobain was the lead singer of the band Nirvana. Married to Courtney Love, he had a history of heroin addiction, clinical depression, and bipolar disorder. In April 1994, following a stint at a drug rehabilitation facilty, Courtney Love reported him missing and suicidal. She hired celebrity private investigator Tom Grant to find him.

     On April 8, 1994, a worker hired to install security lighting at Kurt Cobain's Seattle estate found the 27-year-old dead in the space above his garage referred to as "the greenhouse." The lighting installer found Cobain lying on the floor with a severe head wound and a shotgun (purchased for him by a friend) resting on his chest. Cobain's left hand was wrapped around the barrel. Nearby lay a one-page handwritten note.

     The King County Medical Examiner, Dr. Nicholas Hartshorne, determined the cause of death to be a point blank shotgun blast to the head. The forensic pathologist estimated that Cobain had died on April 5, three days before the discovery of his body. (When someone is reported missing it's not a bad idea to search his house and garage.) According to a toxicologist, "The level of heroin in Cobain's bloodstream was 1.52 milligrams per litre." Dr. Hartshorne ruled the manner of Cobain's death a suicide.

      Sometime after the manner of death ruling, Courtney Love told an editor from Rolling Stone that Cobain had tried to kill himself in Rome by taking 50 Rohypnol pills.

     Tom Grant, the private investigator hired to find Cobain, along with a pair of true crime book writers, and others, believed that Kurt Cobain was the victim of a murder-for-hire plot orchestrated by Courtney Love for his inheritance. Grant and his supporters believed the killer drugged Cobain with heroin, shot him, then staged the sucide. They thought the physical evidence in the greenhouse and the findings in the toxicology report made murder a more plausible manner of death than suicide.

     The Cobain murder theory proponents argued that the death scene did not contain the amount of blood one would expect from a point blank shotgun blast to the head. (Several forensic pathologists have noted that a shotgun shot inside the mouth often results in less blood.) In support of this theory, Tom Grant has pointed out that Cobain's latent fingerprints were not found on the death scene shotgun. (People do not leave identifiable fingerprints on everything they touch. Therefore, the fact that Cobain's latents were not lifted from the gun doesn't prove anything. For all we know, crime scene investigators bungled the job.)

     Regarding the death scene suicide note, Grant and his supporters also subscribed to the theory the document was really a letter written by Cobain announcing his plan to leave his wife and the music industry. The private investigator tthought the last few lines at the bottom of the page had been written by Courtney Love. Five forensic document examiners hired by the TV shows "Dateline NBC" and "Unsolved Mysteries" examined a photocopy of the note. One of the handwriting experts concluded that the entire document was in Cobain's hand. The other four weren't sure if the last lines were added by someone else.

     Those who believed that someone had murdered Cobain argued that he had been so heavily drugged he couldn't have pulled the trigger. Of the five forensic pathologists who considered this issue, two believed that Cobain had built up enough tolerance to have the strength to kill himself. The other three forensic pathologists were not sure.

     In anticipation of the 20th anniversary of Kurt Cobain's death, a cold-case investigator with the Seattle Police Department spent weeks in February and March 2014 reviewing the case file. On March 21, 2014 a Seattle police spokesperson announced that while the cold-case detective discovered four rolls of undeveloped death scene photographs, the investigator found nothing that sustained the conclusion that Cobain was murdered.

     The newly discovered death scene photographs did not depict Cobain's corpse but rather syringes, a tainted spoon, a lighter, and other personal items strewn across the floor near his body.

     Based upon what I know about this case, I think the weight of evidence supports suicide. The fact that Cobain was holding the barrel of the gun (referred to as the death grip) suggests he was the shooter. If someone had shot Cobain, that person would not have been able to place the dead man's hand around the barrel in such a tightly held fashion. Moreover, the vast majority of murder-for-hire cases unravel quickly after the hitman, or someone the mastermind had reached out to, spills the beans. To my knowledge that did not happened in this 23 year old case.  

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On Using Flashbacks In A Novel

I'm not a fan of the flashback. As a reader, I find a story riddled with flashbacks confusing and annoying. If you get the urge to insert a flashback into your fiction, stop writing and take a nap. If you still insist on putting a flashback into your story after you get up, go ahead and do it. But if it doesn't work, and on publication you are criticized for this decision, flashback to when you made this mistake, then never to it again.

Thornton P. Knowles 

Monday, February 12, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On Using His Computer

I use my computer on the most basic level. I have no idea how it works or what I'm doing to operate it. I'm like the trained chicken in the psychology lab pushing the right buttons for a little corn. When the corn runs out the chicken keeps pecking. When my computer goes down I keep typing. The computer age has made me feel stupid, and helpless. As a result, I've developed some empathy for that poor chicken.

Thornton P. Knowles

Professor James Aune Chose Death Over Disgrace

     Dr. James Aune, the holder of a Ph.D. in Rhetoric from Northwestern University, joined the faculty at Texas A & M in 1996. He published a book about Rhetoric theory and the First Amendment in 2003, and eight years later, was named head of the university's Department of Communication. He lived with his wife in College Station, Texas. The short, pudgy academic with the full beard, long, unruly hair and glasses, cut the figure of the stereotypical college professor.

     In December 2012, a 37-year-old man from Metairie, Louisiana named Daniel T. Duplaisir, under the email address pretty-gurl985@yahoo.com, sent sexually explicit photographs of one of his underage female relatives to Dr. Aune and several other men. The 59-year-old professor took the bait, and with the girl, who called herself Karen McCall, set up a website on MocoSpace.com. Over the next five or six weeks, the professor and the girl communicated online. These exchanges included the transmission of sexually explicit photos of each other.

     On January 7, 2013, Duplaisir, holding himself out as Karen McCall's outraged father, sent Professor Aune a message demanding $5,000 in hush money. The extortionist wrote: "If I do not hear from you I swear to God Almighty that the police, your place of employment, students, ALL OVER THE INTERNET--ALL OF THEM will be able to see your conversations, texts, pictures you sent. And if by some miracle you get away with this, I will use every chance I get to make sure every place or person associated with you knows and sees what you have done. Last chance, you better make the right move." Duplaisir demanded the money by January 8, 2013.

     Shortly after he received the extortion demand, the professor transferred $1,000 to Duplaisir. In an email to the girl, he wrote: "I answered and said I would do whatever he wanted....I sent him $1,000 and then promised more in January. I am scared shitless about this, and can't figure out how to come up with more money."

     At ten-thirty in the morning of January 8, 2013, 90 minutes before Dulpaisir's extortion payoff deadline, Professor Aune sent him the following email: "Killing myself now, and you will be prosecuted for blackmail." One minute after sending the message, the 59-year-old professor jumped to his death from the sixth floor of a campus parking garage.

     On March 26, 2013, FBI agents arrested Daniel Duplaisir in Metairie, Louisiana, an unincorporated community within metropolitan New Orleans. The suspect was charged with the federal crimes of using a phone and the Internet to extort money. At his arraignment in a federal courtroom in Houston, Duplaisir pleaded not guilty to all charges. The judge denied him bail.

     In 2011, the authorities in Louisiana had charged Duplaisir with aggravated incest and oral sexual battery for allegedly abusing the girl Professor Aune thought was Karen McCall.

     In the immediate aftermath of the professor's death, his family, friends and colleagues were baffled by the suicide. (Had the extortion plot not been uncovered, I'm sure there would have been suspicions that Dr. Aune had been murdered.) What's truly hard to understand in this case is why a man of Professor Aune's intelligence and stature would establish a sexual, online relationship with a young girl. As a professor of communications, didn't he realize that his exchanges with this Internet personality were quasi-public?

     In November 2013, Timothy Duplaisir pleaded guilty to extortion in a downtown Houston federal courtroom. At his sentencing hearing before U.S. District Judge Lynn N. Hughes, professor Aune's wife Miriam testified that her husband had confessed to her a week before he killed himself. She said she found it absurd that a man who was so brilliant could have fallen for a blackmail scheme by a so-called father who was supposedly outraged but would take $5,000 to keep silent. She conceded there was a side to her husband she did not know. He had struggled with alcoholism and had been changed by a bout with prostate cancer. Miriam Aune said she regretted not trying to help her husband raise the rest of the blackmail money. Because of the expense of caring for their two sons with autism, that would have been difficult. There was just no money, she said. (Had they paid off this degenerate, he would have asked for more.)

     Regarding her feelings toward the man who caused her husband's suicide, Miriam Aune said, "I truly wanted to hate him, I tried very hard to hate him. How much sadness there must be in this man's life. How much anger there must be in his heart."

     Prior to the sentencing hearing, Duplaisir, who had been behind bars eight months, wrote Judge Hughes two letters asking for mercy. "Please do the right thing for everybody," he wrote. (It was too late to do "the right thing" for the dead professor.) "Put me in a mental hospital so I can begin longterm care. I need to stop being so twisted up and lost in my own mind."

     Judge Hughes, noting that Duplaisir had not been charged with causing professor Aune's suicide, sentenced him to one year in prison.

     Professor Aune must have gone through hell between the period of Duplaisir's extortion demand and his suicide. It's tragic that a low-life like Daniel Duplaisir could exploit and destroy a man who was, by all accounts, an outstanding professor. Some people pay dearly for their weaknesses and flaws.
     

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On Health Care Worker Pinky Placebo

Pinky Placebo, a self-described "Sex Therapist," helped her "patients" out of her room at the DeLux Hotel in downtown Wheeling, West Virginia. Placebo once told me that her best "patients" were local politicians, cops, men of the cloth, and traveling salesmen. Her worst, she said, were lawyers who wanted to negotiate deals and get off light.

Thornton P. Knowles

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On His Last Writer's Conference

At a writer's conference in Pittsburgh, the master of ceremony introduced our featured speaker as a "beloved TV personality." The "TV personality" was greeted by wildly enthusiastic applause. I'm thinking, who in the hell is this guy, and why would he allow himself to be identified as a "TV personality? And why was this creature of the boob-tube speaking to a room full of novelists? After the celebrity's vacuous speech, a canned promo for some upcoming TV show, half the writers in the room lined up for his autograph. That was my last writer's conference. What was the point?

Thornton P. Knowles

The Casmine Aska Attempted Murder Case

     At 8:30 Friday night, February 1, 2013, residents of the Morris Heights section of The Bronx discovered a 9-year-old boy named Freddy Martin lying on the sidewalk in front of a 5-story apartment building. En route to the New York Presbyterian/Columbia Hospital, Freddy told paramedics that "Cas dragged me to the roof and threw me off. I don't know why."

     Suffering broken bones, head trauma, and internal bleeding, doctors put the boy into an induced coma, and placed him on life support.

     New York City detectives, later that Friday night, questioned 17-year-old Casmine Aska at the local precinct station. Casmine, a resident of the apartment building, initially denied being on the roof with Freddy. After further interrogation, the suspect admitted being on the roof when the boy fell off the building. "I grabbed Freddy around the legs," Aska said. "His feet were off the ground. I turned around. I slipped and Freddy fell."

     On Sunday, February 3, Casmine Aska was arraigned in a Bronx court on charges of attempted murder, assault, reckless endangerment, and endangering the welfare of a child. Assistant District Attorney Dahlia Olsher Tannen informed Judge Gerald Lebovits that Aska, as a juvenile, had been in trouble with the law. The prosecutor, who didn't elaborate, asked the judge not to grant the suspect bail.

     Kathryn Dyer, Aska's attorney, in making an argument for bail in this case, said, "This is not about attempted murder." Acknowledging that her client possessed a juvenile record, Dyer assured Judge Lebovits that Aska had "taken responsibility for his life." Defense attorney Dyer pointed out that Aska's favorite subject at Harry S. Truman High School was chemistry, that he attended weekly religious classes, and served food to the homeless.

     Judge Lebovits, apparently unimpressed by Aska's academic interests, religious activity, and community service, denied him bail. The judge's rationale: "Extraordinary risk of flight."

     A few weeks later, when questioned by detectives at the Riker's Island Jail, Aska, in explaining why after the boy's fall he went home and took a nap instead of calling 911, said, "I didn't call the NYPD because my brain froze. I was shivering, I was crying, I went to my aunt's..my whole world stopped."

     On February 15, 2013, when doctors took Freddy Martin off life support, the boy began breathing on his own. Questioned by detectives, he accused Aska, a kid who had been bullying him, of intentionally throwing him off the building.

     A month before Aska's September 2014 trial, the defendant agreed to plead guilty in return for a 40 year prison sentence. 

Friday, February 9, 2018

The James D. Willie Murder Case

     At 1:30 in the morning on Tuesday May 8, 2012, police in Panola County, Mississippi found 74-year-old Thomas Schlender dead in his 1999 Ford 150 pickup. Shot several times, he had crashed into a median divider on Interstate 55 in the northwestern part of the state. Mr. Schlender, from Nebraska, had been on his way to Florida to pick up his grandson. The victim's wallet was missing and near the truck crime scene investigators recovered five shell casings.

     On Friday May 11, at 2:15 in the morning, police in neighboring Tunica County found the body of 48-year-old Lori Anne Carswell lying near her 1997 Pontiac Grand AM at the intersection of state highway 713 and Interstate 69. She had been on her way home from her place of employment, Fitzgerald's Casino in Hermando, Mississippi. Investigators recovered several shell casings from the scene of Carswell's shooting death.

     The place, time, and physical evidence suggested that these murders had been committed by the same person. Police, suspecting that Carswell and Schlender had been murdered by someone impersonating a highway cop, advised motorists to call 911 if an unmarked car flashing its lights came up behind them.

     On May 12, 2012, a spokesperson with the state crime laboratory announced that the firing pin impressions and the ejector marks on the shell casings from the two murder scenes had been fired from the same semi-automatic handgun. In the event the murders were the work of a serial killer, the local police brought in FBI profilers to study the case.

     Early Tuesday morning May 14, 2012, a woman in Tunica County, following a domestic disturbance, asked 30-year-old James D. Willie of Sardis, Mississippi to drive her to the sheriff's office. Willie, instead of taking the woman to the police, drove her to a Delta area field where he raped her. After the assault, when the victim tried to run away, Willie fired a shot at her that missed. He forced the victim back into his vehicle then took her to his girlfriend's apartment. A few hours later, the victim climbed out a window and escaped.

     Later that morning, Tunica County sheriff's deputies arrested James Willie at his girlfriend's place. In his car, deputies found a 9mm Ruger pistol. From the Delta rape site they recovered a shell casing.

     On Wednesday, May 15, 2012, a spokesperson for the Mississippi State Crime Lab reported that the firing pin and ejector marks on the rape scene shell casing had been made by the pistol that had fired and ejected the casings at the two highway murder scenes. Moreover, they all had been fired from the handgun recovered from Willie's car.

     The Tunica County prosecutor charged James Willie with kidnapping, aggravated assault, rape, and two counts of capital murder. He was held, without bond, in the Tunica County Jail.

     The unemployed murder suspect had an extensive arrest record. He had served prison time for burglary and was a known drug abuser. Detectives believed that when Willie shot Thomas Schlender and Lori Anne Carswell he was not impersonating a highway patrol officer. Willie had apparently killed these motorists in cold blood for drug money.

     On April 2, 2014, two days following the selection of the jury in James Willie's trial for the murder of Lori Anne Carswell, Tunica County Sheriff K.C. Hamp took the stand for the prosecution. In the middle of the sheriff's testimony, the defendant jumped to his feet and yelled, "Y'all lying. Why they lying? Let me talk!"

     The defendant's courtroom rant ended when deputies activated the electronic device attached to his leg. The officers gave the defendant three warning beeps before they stunned him with an electrical charge. Willie collapsed heavily to the floor, knocking over a chair.

     After deputies dragged the murder defendant out of the courtroom, District Attorney Brenda Mitchell moved for a mistrial. The judge granted the motion.

     On June 1, 2014, James Willie was back at another defense table being tried for the murder of Thomas Schlender. Panola County District Attorney John Champion said this to the jury: "At the conclusion of the trial, if you look at the shell casings found, the bullets that the ballistic expert will testify to, you will see that they had been fired from the same gun. Then you will see a picture of James Willie's guilt. I urge you to find him guilty."

     Panola County Public Defender David Walker, in his opening argument to the jury, said, "The state does not have any DNA from the crime scene or any fingerprints…I argue that the state does not have any proof of my client's guilt."

     On June 3, 2014, the jury in the Panola County Courthouse in Batesville, Mississippi found the defendant guilty as charged. The judge sentenced James Willie to life in prison without parole.
    

Thursday, February 8, 2018

The Father Eric Freed Murder Case

     Eric Freed, while living in Japan in 1979, was ordained a Catholic priest. Twenty years later Reverend Freed joined the greater Santa Rosa Diocese in northern California's Humboldt County. In 2003, Father Freed began teaching in the Religious Studies Department of Humboldt State University in Arcata, California. At the school, which is part of the 23-campus California State University system, Father Freed also directed the Newman Center, a Catholic student organization. In August 2011 Reverend Freed became pastor of St. Bernard Church in the coastal city of Eureka located 275 miles north of San Francisco.

     At nine in the morning, on New Year's Day 2014, Deacon Frank Weber went to the St. Bernard rectory after Father Freed failed to show up for morning mass. The deacon called 911 after discovering the priest dead from what appeared to be a head wound caused by a blunt object.

     At the murder scene police officers found signs of forced entry as well as evidence of a struggle. Father Freed was last seen at 6:30 New Year's Eve following the evening service. The victim's gray 2010 Nissan Altima was nowhere to be found. Investigators had no immediate suspect.

     Humboldt County Sheriff's Office deputies, early in the afternoon of Thursday, January 2, 2014, arrested a 43-year-old man from Redway, California named Garry Lee Bullock. The officers took him into custody for the murder of Father Freed near the southern Humboldt County town of Gaberville.

     According to investigators there was no indication that the suspect and the victim knew each other, or had met before the church break-in. Detectives believed that Bullock had broken into the rectory looking for money. When he encountered the priest, the two men fought until the intruder struck Reverend Freed with a blunt instrument, a blow that killed him.

     In tracing the suspect's activities in the days leading up to the murder, detectives working the Freed case learned that early Tuesday afternoon, December 31, 2013, Humboldt County deputies had arrested Bullock near Gaberville for public intoxication. After becoming agitated at the hospital where he was being evaluated, deputies handcuffed Bullock and booked him into the Humboldt County Jail.

     Just after midnight, January 1, the authorities released Bullock. A few hours later a security guard found Bullock loitering near the St. Bernard Church rectory. The guard chased Bullock off church grounds. This could have been just before or after the suspect murdered the priest.

     After he pleaded guilty to cocaine possession early in 2013, a judge placed Bullock on three years probation. The murder suspect has three daughters and once filed for bankruptcy. He has no history of violent crime.

     On January 6, 2014, the Humboldt County Coroner announced that Reverend Freed had been beaten to death with a wooden stake and a metal gutter pipe. Bullock, held under $1.2 million bond, pleaded not guilty.

     On January 21, 2014, Eureka Police detectives testified at the preliminary hearing to determine if the state had enough evidence to go forward with the case. When arrested for murder, officers found what looked like pieces of mushrooms in the pockets of Bullock's trousers. His hands were so swollen officers took him to the hospital for x-rays. The suspect's hands were also covered with abrasions from his knuckles to his wrists. Bullock also had scratches on his face, arms, and back.

     According to the autopsy report, the victim had died either of blunt force trauma to the head and trachea or by suffocation caused by compression or having a broken vase shoved down his throat. The prosecuting attorney told the court that Bullock had tortured Father Reed "for his own sadistic purpose."

     The judge ruled that the prosecution had presented sufficient evidence against Bullock for the case to go forward toward trial.

     On November 4, 2016, a Humboldt County jury made up of two men and ten women, after four days of deliberation, found Gary Lee Bullock guilty of first-degree murder. Judge John Feeney sentenced Bullock to life in prison without the chance of parole.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

The Kim Pham Murder Case

     Just after midnight, Saturday January 18, 2014, 23-year-old Annie Hung "Kim" Pham was waiting to get into the Crosby Bar and Nightclub in downtown Santa Ana, California. The 2013 graduate of Chapman University stood amid others roughly her age eager to enter the club. The festive atmosphere suddenly turned ugly when Pham inadvertently stepped in front of a cluster of club-goers posing for a photograph outside of the bar.

     Members of the group being photographed voiced their displeasure over the so-called "photobomb".  This led to an exchange of angry words between Pham and the others. Shortly thereafter, fists started flying and Pham ended up on the ground being kicked and stomped. Several young bystanders recorded the melee on their cellphones.

     The group Pham had angered included 25-year-old Vanesa Tapia Zavala, her boyfriend, and another couple. When Kim Pham, sprawled at the feet of her attackers, stopped moving, Zavala and her friends walked away leaving the unconscious woman where she lay.

     Doctors at a nearby hospital pronounced Kim Pham brain-dead and placed her on life-support until her organs could be harvested.

     On Monday, January 20, 2014, detectives with the Santa Ana Police Department, after reviewing several cellphone videos of the deadly brawl, arrested Vanesa Zavala on the charge of murder. Officers booked the suspect into the Orange County Jail where she was held on $1 million bond. If convicted as charged, Zavala faces a maximum prison sentence of 15 years to life.

     On Tuesday, January 21, 2014, doctors removed Kim Pham from life support. A few hours later hospital authorities pronounced her dead.

     While investigators were trying to identify the other people in Zavala's group, a coalition of Santa Ana businesses offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to their arrests.

     Following Zavala's arraignment hearing, her attorney, Kenneth Reed told reporters that Zavala herself had been knocked to the ground in the fight. Referring to his client, the lawyer said, "Your life is fine, you have a 5-year-old son, you go out one night on a Friday with your boyfriend and then your life is turned upside down and you find out someone is killed. No matter what the situation is, you're going to be devastated." [For yourself or the victim? Devastation is an emotion, one of many emotions experienced by the living. Kim Pham felt nothing.]

     Attorney Michael Molfetta, the attorney representing a member of Zalava's group who has not been charged in the case, told reporters that Kim Pham threw the first punch. Okay. So the others stomped her to death in self defense?

     On January 28, 2014, an Orange County prosecutor charged 27-year-old Candice Marie Brito with murder in the Pham case. To reporters, Brito's attorney Michael Molfetta lashed out against the victim: "Ms Pham has been anointed a saint," he said. In contrast, his client has been "vilified internationally."

     Brito, from Santa Ana, was held in the Orange County Jail on $1 million bond.

     In July 2016, a jury sitting in a Santa Ana court room found Zavala and Brito guilty of voluntary manslaughter. Orange County Judge Thomas Goethals sentenced both defendants to six years in prison. 

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Professor Norma Esparza and the Cold-Case Murder of Gonzalo Ramirez

     Norma Patricia Esparza grew up in southern California's Orange County. On March 25, 1995, the 20-year-old Pomona College student, while in Santa Ana visiting her sister, went to a bar where she met Gonzalo Ramirez. The next morning, accompanied by her sister and a friend, Esparza met Ramirez at a restaurant. Following breakfast, Ramirez drove her back to her dormitory in Claremont.

     On April 15, 1995, during a meeting in Costa Mesa with her boyfriend Gianni Anthony Van at a transmission shop owned by his friend Kody Tran, Norma Esparza revealed that Ramirez had raped her in her Pomona College dorm room after she met him that morning for breakfast.

     The day following the meeting in the transmission shop, a police officer in Irvine, California found Ramirez's body along side of a back road. It looked as though someone had hacked him to death and chopped off several of his fingers. Detectives questioned Norma Esparza who repeated her rape allegation. She said she had no idea who had killed Ramirez.

     In 1996, Esparza and Gianni Van were married. That year, without promising leads in the Ramirez murder case, Irvine detectives shelved the homicide investigation.

     Norma Esparza graduated from Pomona College with a degree in psychology. In 2004, she divorced Gianni Van and moved to France. Five years after moving to Europe, Esparza moved to Geneva, Switzerland where she taught psychology and counseling at Webster University, an American accredited school with campuses in the United States, Europe, and Asia.

     As Esparza pushed ahead with her academic career, the authorities in California, after re-activating the Ramirez case in 2010, were making progress. Using advanced DNA science, a crime lab analyst was able to identify traces of blood recovered from Kody Tran's transmission shop in Costa Mesa as the murder victim's. Because Esparza had admitted being at the transmission shop on the night before the discovery of Ramirez's body, homicide investigators considered her a suspect in the 15-year-old murder.

     Ramirez case detectives believed that on April 15, 1995, after Esparza informed her boyfriend and Kody Tran that she had been raped three weeks earlier by Ramirez, she and the two men drove to a bar where Esparza pointed out Ramirez. As Ramirez drove home from the bar, Gianni Van intentionally rear-ended Ramirez's pickup truck at a red light. When the murder target climbed out of his truck to inspect the damage, Kody Tran and Gianni Van started punching him. Ramirez fled on foot but his attackers caught up to him and forced him into their van.

     After arriving at Tran's Costa Mesa transmission shop, Tran and Van hacked Ramirez to death with a meat cleaver. While detectives didn't think that Esparza had participated in the actual killing, they believed that she had been the chief motivating force behind the murder.

     An Orange County prosecutor, in February 2012, eighteen years after the Ramirez murder, charged Esparza, her ex-husband Gianni Van, and Kody Tran with murder. A short time later, during a stand-off with SWAT team officers, Kody Tan committed suicide.

     In October 2012, police in Boston, Massachusetts arrested Professor Esparza at Logan Airport where she had a layover on her way from Geneva, Switzerland to a Webster University related meeting in St. Louis. After her extradition to California, Esparza gained release from the Orange County Jail by posting her $300,000 bond.

    Two months after her arrest, Esparza signed a plea agreement with Special Prosecutor Scott Simmons in which she would remain free on bail as long as she, as a future trial witness, cooperated with the state. As part of the deal, Esparza agreed to plead guilty to voluntary manslaughter. Otherwise, she would be prosecuted for murder, a crime that could bring a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

    In November 2013 the Ramirez case took a sudden turn when the 39-year-old college professor told reporters that she had decided not to plead guilty. At that point, Orange County Judge Gerald Johnson revoked her bail and sent her back to the Orange County Jail.

     Esparza's current husband, Jorge Mancillas, called the bond revocation "an injustice." To reporters he said, "I guess in Orange County it doesn't count to be innocent."

     On September 15, 2014, Norma Esparza, having changed her mind, entered a guilty plea in Orange County Superior Court in exchange for a six-year prison sentence and the promise to testify against Gianni Van. Her attorney, Jack Earley, told reporters that "there is inherent risk in going to trial. The question is, do you take that risk.  Esparza and her husband Jorge Mancillos have a 4-year-old daughter." According to attorney Earley, his client's decision to plead had a lot to do with the child.

     On July 10, 2015, following a short trial, the jury found 43-year-old Gianni Anthony Van guilty of special circumstances murder. Orange County Superior Court Judge Gregg L. Prickett sentenced Van to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

     

Monday, February 5, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On The Mystery Of Human Behavior

As a kid growing up in West Virginia, I had a better understanding of human behavior than after I graduated from college with a degree in psychology. My so-called higher education taught me that I have no idea what makes people tick. None. Moreover, before you can know the "meaning of life," you have to know why people do the things they do. I don't even know what motivates the characters in my novels. Why some people--writers, eggheads, and so-called intellectuals--believe they understand the motives and causes of human action is the biggest mystery of all.  Some things are just unknowable.

Thornton P. Knowles

Natalie Wood's Death: Accident or Murder?

     If you're familiar with the name Natalie Wood, you're probably either a film or true crime buff. However, in the 1960s and 70s, the film star was a household name married to the actor Robert Wagner. She died suddenly and violently on November 29, 1981, and according to the orthodox version of her death, she died by accidental drowning. At that time, Wood's death was news because she was a movie star. Today, it's news because the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Office has re-opened the case as a possible homicide.

      There were only a few doubters at the time of Wood's death. Most people accepted the following story of how the 43-year-old actress died: On the evening of her demise, Wood had dinner with her husband and actor Christopher Walken at Doug's Harbour Reef on Catalina Island off the Los Angeles coast. After their dinner, accompanied by alcholol, the three actors returned to Wagner's yacht "Splendour" where they continued drinking. An argument broke out between the two men. As the story goes, Walken had angered Wagner by suggesting that Wood put her acting career ahead of her husband and their children. After Wood took leave of the men, the actors calmed down and bid each other goodnight. Wood was not in the stateroom upon Wagner's return. He heard a noise on deck and assumed his wife was unsecuring a dinghy roped to the yacht. Wagner figured his angry wife was going ashore on her own in the little boat. Several hours later, Wood's body was discovered floating in the ocean. She was wearing a long nightgown, socks, and a down jacket. The dinghy was located a mile from the yacht, and a mile from where they found Wood's body. When officials boarded the yacht to inform Wagner of the discovery of his wife's corpse, Wagner asked the captain of the boat, Dennis Davern, to identifiy the body for him. And the captain did.

     Los Angeles County Coroner and Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Thomas Noguchi performed the autopsy. Known as "the coroner to the stars," Dr. Noguchi had autopsied, among other celebrities, Marilyn Monroe, Robert F. Kennedy, Janis Joplin, William Holden, John Belushi, and Sharon Tate. Regarding Natalie Wood, Noguchi ruled she had died from accidental drowning. The forensic pathologist considered the bruise on Wood's left cheek and the several other abrasions on her body consistent with accidentally falling off the boat. Noguchi wrote about the autopsy in his 1983 bestseller, Coroner.

     The vast majority of drowning deaths are accidental. A few are suicidal, and the rest are homicides. While an autopsy can establish the cause of death in such cases (asphxia), the manner of death is usually determined by an investigation of the circumstances surrounding the drowning. Did the deceased fall into the water, jump in, or did someone throw the victim into the drink against his will? Forensic pathology alone will seldom answer those questions.

     In 2000, Vanity Fair published an article about the Natalie Wood case that featured an interview of the Wagner yacht captain, Dennis Davern. Davern had been the fourth person on the yacht that night. Although he had not said this to investigators in 1981, Davern claimed that Natalie Wood had been killed by her husband, Robert Wagner. He said he had heard the couple arguing loudly just before she went missing. According to the captain's more recent story, Wagner had coached him on what to say to the police after Wagner had waited four hours before calling the coastguard. Davern's critics have accused him of fishing for a lucrative book deal.

     In 2009, Davern's version of the case appeared in "Goodbye Natalie, Goodbye Splendour" a book he co-authored with his friend Marti Rulli. The captain's shocking accusation gained little attention in the media. True crime books featuring revisionist accounts of old celebrated cases are common. This week, however, the media has been all over the story because the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Office has reopened the case.

     Lieutenant John Corina, at an afternoon press conference on Friday, November 18,  2009, said that Robert Wagner was not a suspect in Natalie Wood's death. Obviously, if the manner of death is changed to homicide, who else would emerge as the suspect--Christopher Walken? Dennis Davern?  "We're going to re-interview some people, talk to some new people, and reevaluate some evidence," Corina said. According to the lieutenant, the intense media coverage has led to several tips his officers would be following up. Tips generated by media exposure almost always consist of useless stuff from a crew of mentally unbalanced, lonely people who often claim psychic powers. Following up on these dead-end leads can consume a lot of time.

     A witness in November 2009 came forward with new information regarding the circumstances surrounding Natalie Wood's death. Marilyn Wayne says that at eleven o'clock on the night the actress went into the ocean, Wayne and her boyfriend, on a nearby craft, heard a woman scream, "Help me, I'm drowning!" The couple heard these cries for up to fifteen minutes. Wayne has told investigators with the Los Angeles County Sherif's Office that she and her boyfriend could see nothing in the dark. They called the harbor patrol but no one answered. They called for a helicopter but it didn't arrive. According to this witness, the police never questioned her or her boyfriend. Moreover, she received a threatening note cautioning her to remain silent.

     In February 2018, the CBS television show, "48-Hours," reported that according to the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Office, Robert Wagner was now a "person of interest" in the investigation of Natalie Wood's death.