More than 5,225,000 pageviews from 160 countries


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

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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