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Saturday, June 30, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On An Offensive Freak Show Poster

Every year when the carnival rolled into our small town, my friends flocked to the rides. I just wandered around gawking at the strange people who came with the carnival. I didn't have money to gain entry into any of the freak tents. But I did study those gaudy, illustrated canvases that hung outside the tents. I remember that one of those colorful freak posters read: "FRANKIE FRANCINE, HALF-MAN, HALF-WOMAN!" That sign offended me. I didn't like the redundancy. It should have read half-man or half-woman, not both. I was 9-years-old and already a writer. I guess I was the real freak at that carnival.

Thornton P. Knowles

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Sleeping With a Corpse

     A couple from Germany had come to Atlantic City for a convention and stayed in a motel. All night long the room stunk. They kept calling Housekeeping and Housekeeping would come and they'd spray some air freshener, and they put some stuff in the carpeting….

     The next day, the couple checked out. As the maid starts making the bed, it's really, really stinking. The mattress is sitting on a box spring held by the bed frame. The maid pulls off the mattress.

     Well, here's a dead body inside the box. And all night long, the German couple was sleeping on top of it.

     Our investigation started up. It turned out the guy in the room before the German couple had brought a young girl back to the room. We established who the young girl was, and we established that the guy's car was missing.

     We found out that the expressway had a video camera to monitor traffic at different times. Our investigators got the videotape, they see the guy's car, and they see a girl driving the car. So now we got the tag number from the car and put out an "Attempt to Locate."

     The Pennsylvania State Police reported a motor vehicle accident on the expressway the night before. The victim of that accident was taken to the hospital. She discharged herself. Once we identified her as our suspect, one of the guys tracked her to Brooklyn. And the team found her and brought her back.

     Here's a young lady who had been picked up by this guy the night before. She claimed that he sexually assaulted her and, in self-defense, she stabbed him to death. She was Islamic: her thing was that she had been dishonored and her family disgraced. She finally confessed.

     Coincidentally, when she left, she also took his wallet. And his car keys. And his car. She took all the bloody clothing and stopped along the highway and threw them into a stream. All of which was later recovered.

     Here was this girl who was about a hundred ten pounds soaking wet and this guy was about a hundred and eighty pounds. She stabbed him, dragged him, and threw him under the mattress. And then makes the bed.

Homicide detective in Crime Scene by Connie Fletcher, 2006

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

School Teacher By Day, Porn Actor By Night

     In 2000, Stacie Halas, a tall blonde who lived as a child in Florida, graduated from Newbury Park High School in Thousand Oaks, California. Four years later, with a degree in education, she graduated from California State University at Monterey Bay located on the Monterey Peninsula. In February 2005, Stacie worked in four Ventura County school districts as a substitute teacher. Ten months later, Stacie began moonlighting as an actress in explicit, hardcore porn films.

     Between December 2005 and June 2006, Stacie, under the stage name Tiffany Six, appeared in dozens of porn videos for which she was paid $1,500 per sex scene. In a film in which she engaged in group sex with four men, she was interviewed in a behind-the-scenes clip at the end of the video. When asked by the interviewer if being a porn actor was for her a risky career choice, she said, "It is risky, very risky for me because I am a teacher." The interviewer asked Tiffany Six if she'd get fired if caught. "Questionable, probably," she answered. If this was such a risky business for her, why was she doing sex scenes on film? "Money, and it's fun, it's exciting," she replied. "It's just the excitement, doing something different that you're not supposed to do."

     In June 2006, when Stacie began teaching science at Ventura County's Simi Valley High School, she quit the porn industry. In the fall of 2009, Stacie started teaching 7th and 8th grade biology at the Richard B. Haydock Intermediate School in Oxnard, a coastal city of 200,000 in the greater Los Angeles area. (On her professional resume, under the heading, "the biography of human sex," she could have listed her real-life experience in pornography. She didn't. Had Stacie been applying for a cultural studies professorship at the University of California at Berkeley, her adventure in porn might have been an academic plus.)

     Stacie Halas' past came back to haunt her in March 2012 when students discovered her pornographic body of work on the Internet. The school placed her on administrative leave pending an internal investigation. (No pun intended.) After school officials forced themselves to watch her videos, the Oxnard School District Board of Trustees did something extremely rare in California--they fired a teacher! Stacie, of course, appealed her termination to the California Commission on Profession Competence. (Seeing the words "California" and "competence" in the same phrase is a bit startling.)

     Stacie, represented by Attorney Richard Schwab, presented her case before the commission at a hearing that got underway on October 22, 2012. In an emotional plea (she had been an actor) to the commissioners of competence, Stacie admitted that she had let herself down by performing in porn films. But she had been desperate. In 2005, when her boyfriend abandoned her, she owed $100,000 in student loans and credit card debt. Attorney Schwab, while conceding that the porn industry is not well respected, reminded the commissioners that it's not against the law to have sex on film for money. (Although she did it for free, look how a sex tape launched Kim Kardasian's career.)

     Attorney Natasha Sawhney, in representing the Ventura School District, argued that Halas would become a distraction if let back into the classroom. Six days after the hearing commenced, following the testimony of twenty witnesses and some erotic exhibits, the commission ruled unanimously to uphold Halas' termination. Her attorney announced that he planned to appeal the competence commissioners'  decision to the State Office of Administrative Hearings. In speaking to a TV report after the hearing, Stacie Halas said, "I think most of us have something in our backgrounds. And I ask anybody to cast the first stone." (At this point, many stones have already been cast at her glass house.)

     On January 11, 2013, the panel of three administrative law judges with the State Office of Administrative Hearings issued a 47-page report justifying the panel's unanimous decision that Stacie Halas was unfit to teach in the California school system. (Not many teachers in California have been so dishonored.) In the opinion of the judges, because the videos showcasing Halas' work in porn continue to be available online, she could never be an effective teacher. According to the lead judge, Halas had "...failed to establish that she can be trusted as a role model for children." The judges, by setting this administrative law precedent, hoped it would deter other California teachers from moonlighting in the porn industry.

     So, in California, one of the worst school systems in America, being a teacher won't hamper a porn career, but porn acting will kill a teaching gig. I guess if you're the kind of person who can act in porn flicks, you're not the kind of person who can teach a class full of lusting boys who have seen you in action. In California, the powerful teacher's union will defend virtually any teacher for any reason except teachers who moonlight in porn. They are on their own.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

The Daniel Sanchez Murder-Suicide Case

     Beatriz "Betty" Silva lived with her sister Maria and Maria's husband Max in a mobile home located among 400 modular dwellings in a subdivision outside of Longmont, a town 35 miles north of Denver, Colorado. The 25-year-old student at Front Range Community College worked at a Chipotle fast-food franchise, and as a sales associate with Marshalls Department Store. On November 22, 2012, Thanksgiving Day, she told her boyfriend, 31-year-old Daniel Sanchez, that she had found someone new. Sanchez, a quick-tempered, violent man, flew into a rage, made threats against the new boyfriend, and began stalking and harassing Silva.

     When they were going together, Betty had loaned Daniel Sanchez $1,000, money he needed to fix up his truck. He had not paid her back as promised, so on Saturday, December 15, 2012, she arranged to meet him in the parking lot of a Best Buy on the outskirts of Denver where they could discuss how he planned to repay the loan. When Betty climbed into his vehicle, Sanchez called her names, punched her in the face, and used her cellphone to text threatening messages to her boyfriend. Against her will, Betty Siva was driven around in Sanchez's truck while he tried to talk her into checking into a hotel where they could resume their relationship. She refused, and after an hour or so, he drove her back to her car and let her out of his truck.

     Betty Silva reported Daniel Sanchez to the Denver police, and on Sunday afternoon, December 16, 2012, officers took him into custody on charges of false imprisonment, second-degree kidnapping, harassment, and domestic violence. He spend the night in the Boulder County Jail, and at ten o'clock Monday night, posted his $10,000 bond and was released.

     Furious over the fact the woman he loved had turned him in to the police, Sanchez drove straight from the jail to Silva's mobile home where he parked on the street in front of her dwelling. Armed with a .45-caliber, 13-round Glock pistol and an extra magazine, Sanchez entered the Silva home by shooting out the glass panel to the rear sliding glass door. Once inside the dwelling, Sanchez took Betty, her 22-year-old sister Maria, and Maria's husband Max Ojeda, hostage.

     At four o'clock the next morning, Betty Silva called 911. The dispatcher overheard her say, "No, no, no." The 911 operator next heard the sounds of a gun being fired. Following the gun shots, Sanchez came on the phone and informed the dispatcher that he was going to kill himself. Again, the sound of gun fire, then silence. No one else came to the phone.

     Weld County Sheriff's deputies and a SWAT team rolled up to the modular home at 4:18 that morning. Officers weren't sure how many people were in the dwelling, or if any of them were alive. At 5:30 AM, after getting no response from inside the hostage site, members of the SWAT unit stormed into the mobile home. Officers found Sanchez dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. They discovered 29-year-old Max Ojeda and his wife Maria dead in their bedroom. Betty Silva had been shot to death in another part of the house. Officers found 16 spent shell-casings scattered about the murder site.

     In reporting Daniel Sanchez to the Denver police, Betty Silva had indicated a reluctance to go forward with the more serious kidnapping related charges. By minimizing the seriousness of Sanchez's crimes against her, Silva may have contributed to her own death and the fate of the other two victims. Had the magistrate been convinced that Sanchez posed a serious threat of life-threatening violence, Sanchez's bail may not have been set so low. Who knows what would have happened had he spent more time behind bars? There is also the possibility that regardless of the amount of Sanchez's bail, this young woman's fate was sealed once she became this violent, unstable man's girlfriend. 

Sunday, June 24, 2018

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

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

Thornton P. Knowles

The Laquanta Chapman Chainsaw Murder Case

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 21, 2018

The Man Who Kidnapped Himself

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

The David Bowen Murder-For-Hire Case

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On The Ideal Job

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

Thornton P. Knowles

The Steven Fortin Murder Case: Conflicting Bite Mark Testimony

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     In June 2020, a New Jersey appellate court, in finding other "strong evidence" besides bite marks to connect Steven Fortin to the murder, denied his appeal.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

The James Pepe Murder-For-Hire Case

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 15, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On His Book Of Malapropisms

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

Thornton P. Knowles

The Rachel Fryer Child Abuse Murder Case

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On The Devil Weed

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

Thornton P. Knowles

The Forensic Science Hall of Shame: Courtroom Experts From Hell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On The Fear Of Crowds

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

Thornton P. Knowles

Cody Lee Johnson's Short Honeymoon and Sudden Death

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 8, 2018

The Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan Sports/Crime Documentary

     Twenty years ago, Tonya Harding became a household name after she was implicated in the "whack heard around the world" on her figure skating USA teammate, Nancy Kerrigan. To this day, there may not be a bigger scandal in modern sports history.

     Now, two decades later, the scandal is the focus of ESPN's latest documentary in the network's "30 for 30" series. "The Price of Gold" opens with Nancy Kerrigan shrieking through tears, "Why me? Why?" after a man (who we all now know was a friend of Harding's ex-husband) kidnapped her after a practice prior to the January 6, 1994 U.S. Figure Skating Championships….

     "The Price of Gold" aired on January 16, 2014 at 9PM on ESPN.

     [In the spring of 2018, Tonya Harding was a contestant on a reality TV show called "Dancing With the Stars." She came in third.]

Taylor Bigler, The Daily Caller, January 8, 2014

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On Shameless Film Makers And Our Culture of Violence

A common scene in detective films aired on TV and shown in theaters involves the good guy getting knocked out from a blunt object--often the butt of a handgun--to the back of the head. A few minutes after the assault the detective comes to, puts on his hat, and strides out of the room in pursuit of the bad guy. There is no skull fracture, no blood, no concussion, no lump or double vision. If the hero is left with a headache we don't hear about it because tough guys don't whine about such things. Let's switch now to all the idiots who watch this crap at home and in movie theaters. It's inevitable that some of them, in order to temporarily disable someone, will bludgeon the victim on the back of the head. Quite often the victim of the attack, not being a film actor, will end up seriously injured or even dead. Real life violence has a way of doing that. It doesn't bother me that these TV watchers and movie fans end up getting long prison sentences because they believed that what they have seen on screen reflects reality. However, it does bother me that assault victims are seriously injured and killed because the entertainment industry grossly misrepresents the true effects of violence. I believe film executives share the blame in assault cases like this. More generally, they have helped create a culture of violence in American society. Shame on them, and shame on us for watching.

Thornton P. Knowles

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On Thin-Skinned Journalists

While journalists are good at dishing it out, they really can't take it themselves. Renata Adler put it this way: "Photographers don't like to be photographed. Surgeons require nearly twice the amount of anesthesia ordinary patients require to undergo surgery. Journalists are the least receptive to professional scrutiny by their colleagues. They react, sometimes unconsciously, sometimes with the utmost deliberation, to avenge themselves." The power of the pen, combined with arrogance, often leads to abuse. We need to keep a close eye on these people. Like so many politicians and government bureaucrats, journalists often abuse their power to destroy lives. Many of them cannot be trusted. Journalists, like their governmental counterparts, are not good at policing themselves. Beware of the journalist, many are nothing more than government toadies, political hacks in disguise.

Thornton P. Knowles

Jose Manuel Martinez: Cartel Hit Man

     Most contract killers are inexpensive amateurs who get caught after their first murders. Their more professional counterparts, career criminals, mostly carry out their murder assignments for organized crime bosses. These hit men are harder to catch because they operate in the shadows of the underworld. But every so often a cold-blooded killer like 51-year-old Jose Manuel Martinez emerges from the shadows.

     In late 2013, authorities on the Mexican-Arizona border arrested Martinez as he tried to cross into the U.S. A warrant for his arrest had been issued out of Lawrence County, Alabama where he had been charged with murdering a man execution style in 2013. According to the authorities in Alabama, Martinez shot the victim because of a disparaging remark he had made about Martinez's sister.

     Authorities in Florida also wanted Martinez in connection with a pair of murders in 2006. In California, where Martinez spent brief periods in state prison for drug and theft convictions, the police considered him a suspect in a series of home-invasion robberies. These crimes took place in late 2012 and early 2013.

     Martinez lived on and off in Richgrove, California, a small farming community in Tulare County in the central part of the state about 40 miles north of Bakersfield.

     While incarcerated in the Lawrence County Jail in Alabama where he awaited his June 2014 murder trial, Martinez told detectives that over the past 35 years he had operated as a hit man for a Mexican drug cartel. According to Martinez, he had murdered forty men since 1980.

     On April 8, 2014, prosecutors in two central California counties--Tulare and Kern--charged Martinez with eleven contract killings committed between 1980 and 2011. Nine of the murders took place in Tulare County and two in Kern County. A prosecutor in Santa Barbara County in southern California charged Martinez with the ninth California murder. If convicted of these "lying in wait" murders, Martinez would be eligible for the death penalty.

     Manuel Martinez confessed to the following contract killings:

     On October 21, 1980, Martinez shot 23-year-old David Bedolla to death near Lindsay, California. Bedolla was driving to work with his wife, brother, and brother-in-law in the car.

     Martinez, on October 1, 1982, shot two ranch workers near Santa Ynez, California. Sylvester Ayon, 30, died in the shooting. The other ranch hand, a 17-year-old, survived his bullet wounds.

     On October 19, 1982, 22-year-old Raul Gonzales disappeared from his home in the Tulare County town of Earlimart. A rancher in nearby Portersville found Gonzales' body in a field two days after Martinez had shot him to death.

     Another resident of Earlimart, 29-year-old Domingo Perez, went missing from his home on April 8, 1995. Six weeks later, a farm worker stumbled upon his bullet-ridden body in an orange grove north of Martinez's home town of Richgrove.

     On the night of February 14, 2000, Martinez entered the Pixley, California home of 56-year-old Santiago Perez and shot him to death as he slept in his bed. The victim's four young children were in the house when Martinez murdered him.

     Jose Alvarado, a 25-year-old from Kern County, was found shot to death on a dirt road outside of McFarland, California. Martinez had executed him by shooting him point blank in the head. This murder took place on February 15, 2007.

     Also in Kern County, Martinez, on March 23, 2009, shot 52-year-old Juan Baustista to death. Martinez committed this murder in an orange grove near McFarland, California.

     On September 27, 2009, in Earlimart, Martinez abducted 45-year-old Joaquin Baragan. Three days later a rancher found the victim's body on the bank of the Deer Creek Canal outside of town. Baragan had been shot in the back of the head.

     Gonzalo Urquieta, another Earlimart resident, was kidnapped by Martinez on February 15, 2011. Two days later, the 54-year-old's body was found in an orange grove near Richgrove. He had been shot numerous times at close range.

     In June 2014, Martinez pleaded guilty to the 2013 murder in Alabama. the Lawrence County judge sentenced him to 50 years in prison.

     In October 2015, Martinez pleaded guilty in California to the nine Tulare County murders. He also pleaded guilty to the attempted murder of another man in that jurisdiction. On November 3, 2015, the Tulare County judge sentenced the serial killer to ten consecutive life sentences.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On Clowns

As a kid I got bitten on the nose by a mosquito that caused the old snoze to hump up huge and glow red. It itched like hell and made me look like a miniature version of Bozo the Clown. I hate clowns. These grotesque creatures not only creep me out, they reminded me of the bastard mosquito that turned my nose into a brake light. I'll never understand the rationale for mosquitos, or for that matter, clowns.

Thornton P. Knowles

Teen Murderers: Girls Gone Wild

Fort Worth, Texas   

     In June 2018, two 14-year-old girls got into an argument about a sleepover. One of the girls grabbed a knife and stabbed her friend to death. While this murder shocked the community, violence committed by teenaged girls has been on the rise for several years.

Glendale, Arizona

     On the afternoon of January 18, 2014, 16-year-old Jessica Burlew, a runaway from a juvenile group home in Phoenix, was in her mother's Glendale, Arizona apartment. With her mother's knowledge, the teen was having sex with her 43-year-old boyfriend. The girl's mother, Tracey Woodside, left the apartment to take out the trash. While outside the dwelling handling the garbage, Woodside received a call on her cellphone from Jessica who said that her lover, Jason Earl Ash, was dead.

     When Woodside returned to the apartment, she found Ash lying in bed with an electrical cord twisted around his neck. He also had superficial cuts on his face, arms, and torso. When Tracey Woodside called 911, Jessica ran out of the apartment.

     At the death scene, the girl's mother told police officers that Ash and her daughter regularly played sex games involving ligature strangulation and cutting. Just before passing out Ash was supposed to utter a "safety word" to signal a discontinuation of the choking. This time he died before issuing the warning. (He's not the first person to die of sexual asphyxia, it's a dangerous game.)

     Police officers found Jessica at a neighbor's apartment wearing a burka as a disguise. When questioned by officers she admitted accidentally strangling her 43-year-old sex partner with the electrical cord. At first she thought he had merely passed out. To revive Ash, she cut him with a razor blade. After realizing that he was dead, she continued to cut on his body to relieve her own stress.

     A spokesperson with the Glendale Police Department, on January 22, 2014, announced that Jessica Burlew has been charged, as an adult, with second-degree murder.

     In October 2015, pursuant to a plea deal, the judge sentenced Burlew to ten years in prison.

Mundelein, Illinois

     At 8:30 on the morning of Tuesday, January 21, 2014, a 14-year-old girl who resided with her mother and her 11-year-old sister in Mundelein, Illinois, a suburban community 30 miles northwest of Chicago, called 911. According to the caller, an intruder had entered the home that morning shortly after her mother left for work. The man had stabbed her younger sister several times then ran out of the house.

     Police officers found the 11-year-old victim, Dora Betancourt, unconscious and bleeding on the second floor of the dwelling. Emergency personnel rushed the girl to a nearby hospital where she died shortly after arrival. She had been stabbed 40 times. Based on the cuts on her hands and arms, investigators believe the victim tried to defend herself. At the scene, officers recovered a bloody 4-inch kitchen knife.

     Questioned at the Mundelein Police Department, the 14-year-old sister described the intruder as a Hispanic man. When a detective pointed out that the victim had, clutched in her hands, follicles of her older sister's hair, the suspect confessed to the stabbings. After the attack she took a shower to wash off her sister's blood then called her mother who told her to dial 911.

     When asked why she attacked her sister with the kitchen knife, the 14-year-old said she had cooked six dinners for her younger sister the previous week and the girl showed no gratitude. Also, the victim had recently hit her.

      Dora Betancourt had been a student at the St. John's Lutheran School in Libertyville. The 14-year-old murder suspect also attended St. John's.

     A Lake County prosecutor charged the 14-year-old girl with first-degree murder. She was held at a juvenile detention center.

     In January 2016, the judge sentenced the now 16-year-old killer to detention in a juvenile facility until she turned twenty-one.

The Public's Fascination With Crime and Criminals

People seem to have an insatiable appetite for reading about true crime....Many in the cast of [true crime] characters are professionals, or semi-professionals whose lives revolve around matters of crime. Lay people, too have a role--as jurors, for example. There is also, of course, the story of a much larger cohort of lay men and women: people accused of breaking the law; and their victims. Their stories are not, in the main, pleasant or uplifting; the lives caught up in these webs are so often ruined and wasted lives; through these pages parade example after example of foolishness, vice, self destruction, selfishness, evil, and greed. They are stories with few, if any heroes; and few, if any happy endings. But [these stories] are important to the country; and they exert a weird fascination.

Lawrence M. Friedman, Crime and Punishment in American History, 1993

Monday, June 4, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On Trying One's Best

During my teaching years, almost all of my interaction with writing students had to do with grade dissatisfaction. In angling for a higher grade students would often assert that they had worked extremely hard on the assignment and had done the very best they could. Why, they asked, didn't that earn them an A? I told most of them that, based on the poor quality of their work, I sincerely hoped they were lying about doing their very best. But more important, I wanted them to learn that sometimes one's very best is simply not good enough. Even worse, better writing than theirs can come from writers who put in very little effort. They didn't like hearing this. No one does. But it's true. As they say, truth hurts.

Thornton P. Knowles

America's Stupidity Iceberg--Part 2

Recently, the role of stupidity in the annals of American crime reared its ugly head in four cases: In the first, a man was jailed on the allegation that he had fed a sick puppy to a snapping turtle. This new twist in the disgusting history of animal cruelty was followed by an incident involving parents who gave pot to treat their son's seizures. Then we have a man who pulled a gun in a fast food drive through after he received the wrong order. And finally, on the law enforcement front, an off-duty FBI agent's sidearm fell to the floor when he did a back flip at a Denver nightclub. As the agent picked up his sidearm, he squeezed off a shot. The bullet struck another dancer in the leg. To quote John Wayne: "Life is tough. It's even tougher when you're stupid." Amen to that.

The Chicken Wings Assault Case

     Anyone familiar with crime knows that people commit serious criminal acts over extremely trivial matters. Criminologists label this phenomenon simplicity of motive. I call it stupidity.

     At nine-thirty Thursday night September 17, 2015, in Aliquippa, a small western Pennsylvania town north of Pittsburgh, Kim L. Adamson got into an argument with another female patron of Warwos Bar and Lounge. The dust-up started when Adamson ate the other woman's chicken wings.

     Immediately following the chicken wing flap, the two women separated and continued drinking apart from each other. But the argument flared up again with more angry words passing between the combatants. This time the conflict culminated with the 50-year-old chicken wing eater smashing a beer bottle into her adversary's head. The blow caused contusions and cuts to the victim's head and face.

     The attack, caught on a surveillance camera in the bar, led to charges of aggravated assault and related lesser offenses.

    On February 18, 2016, Beaver County District Attorney David Lozier dismissed the charges against Adamson after the victim refused to testify in the chicken wings assault case. 

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On Imagination

I read somewhere that the first book on space travel was written in 1638 by Bishop Francis Godwin. In The Man in the Moon, birds pull a raft through space to the moon. I think the capacity for imagination sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom.

Thornton P. Knowles

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On Going To Hell

I was fifteen when I used fake ID to get into the Dew Drop Inn, a honky tonk down the road from our house outside of Wellsburg, West Virginia. Besides the 3.2 beer, I was there to enjoy a night of hillbilly tunes from a local band called Cowboy Copus and the Didly Squats. When my father, a man whose lips never touched a drop of liquor, learned of my indiscretion, he informed me that I was destined for hell. Later that year, he hanged himself in a neighbor's barn. So, when my time comes, I'll get my chance to find out why in hell he murdered himself.

Thornton P. Knowles

Kurt Paschke: The Fanatic Football Fan

     As a casual fan of professional boxing, PGA golf, and Pittsburgh Steeler's football, I find the psychology underlying fanatical sports fandom a mystery. (I suspect, however, that narcissism, juvenilia, and borderline sociopathy are reasons behind a person's obsessive loyalty to a particular sports team.) While some sports fanatics can be loud and obnoxious, a few can become violent and dangerous. These are people to avoid, if you can.

     Kurt Paschke, by anyone's standard, was an over-the-top super-fan. The 38-year-old lived in a rented house across the street from his parents in the Long Island town of Holbrook, New York. Kurt worked as a bartender at the Village Tavern in nearby Huntington. A rabid New York Jets football fan and a season ticket-holder, Kurt was one of those guys who paints his face in team colors and religiously wears the team jersey, hat and other gear. But as a fan, Kurt Paschke was so much more.

     To show his devotion to his Jets, Kurt had purchased a mini-bus he called the Jets Mobile. Out of this custom painted vehicle, he tailgated at the Jets' home games at the MetLife Stadium in Queens. Painted green and white in homage to his beloved team, the bus featured a special Jets vanity plate as well as Jets inspired mud flaps and hubcaps. Kurt's mother had embroidered, for the Jets Mobile, Jets-themed seat covers and interior curtains.

     On October 20, 2013, the hated Boston Patriots were in New York for a game against the Jets. On that Sunday afternoon, the Jets, in overtime play, beat the Patriots 30 to 27. As Kurt and his jubilant parents were leaving MetLife Stadium following their glorious victory, they were confronted by three angry Boston Patriot fans. Someone said something that sparked angry words and then a fight between Paschke and Boston fans Jaclyn Nugent, Amanda MacDowell, and David James Sacco.

     In the skirmish, caught on videotape, Nugent can be seen hitting and kicking Paschke. He retaliated by punching the 26-year-old Boston woman in the head. After the blow, Nugent can be seen lunging at Paschke again. The fight ended on its own before security personnel had to break it up. Paschke and Nugent, with bruises and cuts on their faces, parted ways.

     The post-game dustup at MetLife Stadium would have ended there had it not been for the online publication of videos showing a big, strapping man in a Jets jersey punching a woman in the face. And the story got even bigger when the media found out more about the man in the Jets shirt.

     Kurt Paschke, as it turned out, was more than just a Jets fanatic who punched a female Boston fan. Decades earlier, he had served three years in prison for negligent homicide. (He had since been arrested twice for disorderly conduct and once for serving drinks to a minor.)

     On June 27, 1992, shortly after Paschke graduated from Sachem High School in Ronkonkoma, Long Island, he got into a fight with another 17-year-old behind a pizzeria in Sayville, New York. Paschke pulled a knife and stabbed Henry Ferrer to death. Ferrer was not armed.

     In 1995, a jury found Paschke guilty of negligent homicide. In addressing the judge at his sentencing hearing, Paschke said, "I am deeply sorry. I can honestly say I never sought the confrontation, but when it came, I did what I had to do." Paschke served three years in a New York state prison. The judge had also sentenced him to several years of probation.

     In the aftermath of Paschke's fight with the Patriot fans, his mother Colleen, in speaking to a CNN correspondent, defended her son. The 62-year-old from Holbrook said, "If the girl is going to be out of control like that, why can't a guy defend himself? These girls are today, they're really out of control. I really think that they are protected because they are girls and think they can get away with anything." Later, to a reporter with the New York Daily News, Kurt's mother said, "My son is the victim, really."

     Robert Ferrer, the 80-year-old father of the boy Paschke killed in 1992, wasn't in a mood to defend Kurt Paschke. Obviously still bitter over the violent death of his son Henry, Mr. Ferrer said this to the New York Daily News reporter: "He murdered my son, and he got a minimum sentence for killing a 17-year-old boy. He got away with it because his father was a sergeant. [Kurt's father was an officer with the Suffolk County Police Department.] I was dead after it happened. I had a very nice house on Long Island [Bay Shore] and I sold it to get away. The guy is a born criminal."

     A Suffolk County prosecutor charged Paschke, Nugent, Sacco, and MacDowell with disorderly conduct and assault. Until the case was resolved, all four football fans were banned from MetLife Stadium. For Kurt Paschke, this punishment went beyond cruel and unusual.

     In March 2014, Kurt Paschke pleaded guilty to the lesser disorderly charge of unnecessary noise. the judge fined him $289. Charges against the other three fans were dropped.

     Paschke, in August 2014, completed a four-hour fan conduct class. (It's amazing that some sports fans have to be taught how to behave.) Following the completion of the good-behavior course, and a written apology, Paschke was granted the right to return to MetLife Stadium. He got his life back.


Friday, June 1, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On Childhood

I hated being a kid. It was like being a patient in an insane asylum. The trauma of growing up may explain why there are so many neurotic, alcoholic, cruel, and drug addled parents who in turn make childhood such a miserable experience. I wonder how many people really like kids. They say they do, but people lie. Maybe I'm just bitter because my father hanged himself before I had a chance to get out of high school. I have no idea what it was like for him growing up. Round and round we go.

Thornton P. Knowles

Yale Professor Samuel See's Jailhouse Death

     Samuel Ryan See grew up in California's Central Valley where he attended California State University in his hometown of Bakersfield. After acquiring his Bachelors of Arts degree, See earned a Ph.D from the University of California, Los Angeles.

     In May 2013, the 34-year-old assistant professor of English and American Studies at Yale University married Sunder Ganglani, a former student at the Yale School of Drama. The two men took up residence in a house in New Haven, Connecticut. 
     Professor See's academic focus, as described on his Facebook page, included "British and American Modernist Literature and Sexuality Studies." In addition to writing about sexual orientation in modern literature, See moonlighted, under the alias Ryan Cochran, as a male escort. In one of Ryan Cochran's Internet profiles, See described himself as loving sex and being with men. "I can get into all kinds of sexual and social situations--just name your pleasure. I'm down to earth, humble [really?], personally generous, and horny a lot of the time." Professor See was, in other words, a male prostitute.
     Dr. See, on leave from Yale University during the fall semester 2013, was not getting along with his 32-year-old husband. On September 18, 2013, officers with the New Haven Police Department, after responding to a domestic call at See's residence, arrested See and Sunder Ganglani for breaching the peace and third-degree assault. 
     After a judge issued orders of protection requiring that the two men stay away from each other, Ganglani moved to New York City. 
     At five in the evening of Saturday, November 23, 2013, Ganglani, in violation of his protection order, showed up at the New Haven house to retrieve some of his possessions. Two hours later the estranged couple were engaged in a heated argument. The fight became so intense a third man in the house called the police. 
     When the responding officers couldn't calm down the combatants, they placed both men under arrest for violating their protection orders. This infuriated See who couldn't believe he was being arrested in his own home. The situation escalated when See fought against being handcuffed. In the scuffle with officers, Professor See fell and sustained a cut above his right eye. 
     While being escorted in handcuffs to the police vehicle, See, in addressing the arresting officer, said,  "I will kill you. I will destroy you."
     Following his treatment at the Yale-New Haven Hospital, police officers booked See into the police department jail on the additional charges of interfering with police and second-degree threatening. He was placed into a cell at nine-fifteen that night.
     At six o'clock the next morning, when a guard checked on Professor See, he found the prisoner unresponsive. The officer called for paramedic help then tried to revive Dr. See with CPR. Fifteen minutes later, emergency service responders pronounced the inmate dead.

     The forensic pathologist who performed Dr. See's autopsy ruled out trauma as the cause of death. (From this I assume the professor did not hang himself or cut his wrists. And he wasn't attacked by another prisoner.)

     In January 2014, Chief State Medical Examiner Dr. James Gill announced that professor See had died of a heart attack brought on by methamphetamine and amphetamine intoxication. The manner of death went into the books as accidental.

     In September 2014, a See family lawyer, after reviewing police and hospital records, told reporters that Mr. See may have died of either neglect or mistreatment at the jail. Attorney David Rosen pointed out that Professor See's death had not been reported to the police for three days after his passing. Although the family was considering filing a wrongful death suit against the authorities, the lawyer conceded that there probably wasn't enough evidence of official negligence or wrongdoing to support such an action.