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Thursday, August 30, 2018

Jacob Limberio's Death: A Bungled Investigation

     Deputies with the Sandusky County Sheriff's Office, in response to a shooting call, arrived at a house near Castalia, Ohio at nine-forty-five on the night of March 2, 2012. Officers with this northern Ohio sheriff's department found 19-year-old Jacob Limberio lying in a pool of blood on the living room floor. According to the three young men in the house with the body, Limberio had been dead about fifteen minutes.

     A superficial examination of the corpse revealed an entrance bullet wound on the left side of Limberio's head, and on the opposite side of his skull, the gaping exit wound made by the slug and pieces of the victim's skull. Lying not far from his feet, the officers found a .367-Magnum revolver, the presumed source of the fatal head wounds. On the living room floor deputies discovered several spent shell casings (in a revolver, the shell casings are not automatically ejected which means these casings had been manually removed from the gun). The death scene was also littered with empty beer bottles.

     According to the three witnesses, they had each fired the .357-Magnum that night in the backyard. After firing the revolver, they returned to the house where, at nine-thirty, Limberio, while talking to someone on his cellphone, pressed the gun's muzzle to his left temple and pulled the trigger. (Since he was right-handed, that would have been awkward.)

     The Sandusky County deputies left the shooting site that night without making measurements and sketches of the death scene. The officers also failed to recover the presumed fatal bullet lodged in the ceiling, or test the three witnesses for the presence of gunshot residue. The .357-Magnum was not processed for latent fingerprints, no one was asked to take a polygraph test, and the slug in the ceiling was not matched with bullets test-fired from the death scene revolver. In other words, there was no investigation into this young man's sudden, violent death.

     Just three hours after the fatal shooting, Sandusky County coroner Dr. John Wukie, without the benefit of an autopsy, wrote the following in his report: "Reason for death: Gunshot wound to head. Deceased shot self in head, may not have realized gun was loaded." Dr. Wukie ruled Jacob Limberio's death a suicide. (If Limberio didn't know the gun was loaded, the manner of his death would have been accidental.)

     In the early morning hours of March 3, 2012, Limberio's body was released to a local funeral home where the next day it was embalmed.

     That summer, Sandusky County detective William Kaiser, in his report closing the Limberio "investigation," wrote that he had found nothing in the case to indicate that this young man's death was nothing more than a "horrible accident." This deputy's conclusion did not square with the coroner's ruling that the death was a suicide. At this point it had become obvious that these law enforcement officials didn't know what they were doing.

     On September 25, 2012, Jacob's parents, Mike and Shannon Limberio, paid to have their son's body exhumed and sent to the renowned forensic pathologist in Pittsburgh, Dr. Cyril Wecht. The former medical examiner of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, over his long career, had performed 17,000 autopsies and testified in hundreds of high-profile murder cases.

     Dr. Wecht's autopsy led him to conclude that Jacob Limberio had been shot from two feet away. In his December 12, 2012 report, Dr. Wecht wrote: "I find it extremely difficult to envision a scenario in which Jacob Limberio could have shot himself accidentally or with suicidal intent. Accordingly, it is my professional opinion, based upon a reasonable degree of medical certainty, that the manner of death in this case should be considered as homicide."

     In January 2013, a Sandusky County judge appointed Lucas County prosecutor Dean Henry to head up a new inquiry into Jacob Limberio's death. No arrests have been made, and Dr. John Wukie has not changed his manner of death ruling from suicide to homicide.

     In speaking to a local newspaper reporter in October 2012 about Limberio's death, Dr. Wecht said, "Even in the most remote county in America, this is a case that would require an autopsy. It's a no-brainer, not even a close call. It's a case that requires extensive investigation by homicide detectives. It requires the collection of all evidence, including the bullet that's still lodged in the ceiling."

     In July, 2013, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine took control of the criminal investigation into Limberiso's sudden and violent death.

     In August 2015, Jacob's parents, Mike and Shannon Limberio, appeared on the "Dr. Phil" television show along with Dr. Wecht who opined that the young man's death had been a criminal homicide. The show also featured two of the witnesses to the shooting who said they had grown tired of being considered, by many, as homicide suspects. As a result, they wanted to take polygraph tests to clear their names.

     On November 20, 2015, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine announced that a Sandusky County grand jury had concluded that the Limberio shooting had been an accident. This finding closed the case as a criminal matter. 

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

The John Raymond Sterner Suicide-Murder Case

     Ocean City is a resort town on the southern tip of Fenwick Island off the coast of Maryland. In the summer the population swells to 300,000. In 2003, Reverend David Dingwell, his wife Brenda, and their three sons moved to Ocean City from the Canadian Province of British Columbia where he grew up. Father Dingwell came to Maryland to become the priest and rector of St. Paul's By-The-Sea Episcopal Church. He soon became known to his parishioners as Father David.

     Just before ten in the morning of Tuesday, November 26, 2013, a man engulfed in flames stormed into St Paul's Shepherd's Crook Building where volunteers were in the pantry preparing to open that day's food distribution service. The man on fire, John Raymond Sterner, a 56-year-old resident of Ocean City who had been a regular beneficiary of the food service and the church's used clothing outlet, bear-hugged church volunteer Jessica Waters.

     From the pantry Sterner ran into one of the ground floor church offices where the flaming man encountered parishioner Bruce Young who tried in vain to knock him to the floor where he could smother the fire. As John Sterner lay dead in the Church's ground floor office, his burning body started a fire that produced a lot of smoke in the building.

     Ocean City firefighters doused the church fire before it destroyed much of the structure. In the second-floor rectory office, they found the 51-year-old priest. Paramedics rushed Reverend Dingwell to Atlantic General Hospital where he died from smoke inhalation.

     Jessica Waters, the pantry volunteer who had been embraced by the flaming Sterner, received treatment at John Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in Baltimore. Bruce Young, the parishioner who tried to help the human torch, received minor burns.

     Twenty-five minutes before he ran into the church in flames, Sterner, at a Shell station a quarter mile from the church, was recorded on a surveillance camera pouring gasoline into a red container. Detectives presumed that just before running into the church building, Sterner doused himself with the accelerant and lit himself up.

     The autopsies of Father Dingwell and John Raymond Sterner were performed by the Chief Medical Examiner of Maryland.

     The man who started the fire that killed Reverend Dingwell had a history of crime dating back to June 1994. Over the years, Sterner had been convicted of breaking and entering, malicious destruction of property, disturbing the peace, and numerous offenses related to alcohol intoxication. The police had arrested Sterner in July 2013 on the charge of second-degree assault. Police officers had taken Sterner to the Peninsula Regional Medical Center for psychiatric evaluation after two of his arrests. According to police reports, the suspect showed signs of "emotional and mental crisis."

     Sterner was just the kind of person Reverend Dingwell and his parishioner volunteers helped every day.

     The fact Sterner bear-hugged the pantry volunteer suggested this was a case of suicide by fire followed by the intent to kill others. Unlike most murder-suicide cases, this killer died before his murder victim.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

The Andres Ordonez Murder Case: Sudden Death in Gangland LA

     Because of heavy gang activity, no place was safe in the neighborhood surrounding the Iglesia Principe de Paz (Prince of Peace) Church on Beverly Boulevard and Reno Street in Los Angeles' Westlake District. Members of the Pentecostal storefront church are immigrants from Guatemala and other Central American countries. When these congregants settled in this part of Los Angeles, they probably had no idea they would be living in such a dangerous, lawless place.

    On November 4, 2012, during a Sunday evening service, a male parishioner, while checking on the food being set up in the church parking lot, saw a teenage girl spray-painting gang graffiti on one of the church's walls. The churchgoer approached the girl and asked her to stop defacing the place of worship. She responded by shoving the man to the ground.

     After assaulting the churchgoer, the teen continued tagging the wall. Two other worshippers came out of the church and saw their fellow parishioner lying on the pavement. As the men ran to help, a male gang member who was with the young church-tagger, climbed out of a parked car and began shooting.

     One of the gunman's bullets struck and killed 25-year-old Andres Ordonez. Another member of the church, a man in his 40s, was seriously wounded. The girl with the spray-paint and her murderous companion drove off as stunned members of the congregation knelt over the victims sprawled out and bleeding on the church parking lot.

     Andres Ordonez and his pregnant wife Ana were parents of a one-year-old son. Andres had come to the United States from Guatemala as a young boy. He had worked long hours as a cook in a local restaurant and had attended this church since he was ten. His widow was the pastor's granddaughter.

     Police believed the gunman and the girl were members of a rival gang who were tagging in enemy territory. As a result, when the church member approached the girl, the gunman, on edge, had an hair-trigger response. Investigators familiar with gang-related crime know that witnesses in these neighborhoods, out of fear of reprisals, were reluctant to cooperate with the police. LAPD homicide detective Jeff Cortina told a reporter with the Los Angeles Times that "we need the public's assistance. This wasn't gangster-on-gangster. It [the murder of an innocent citizen] could happen to anybody...."

     At a press conference on November 8, 2012, Ordonez's young widow asked witnesses to come forward and help the authorities. The city of Los Angeles posted a $50,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the gunman, his female companion, and a third subject who had been in the car with the killer. The vehicle in question was described as a red, four-door compact. The gunman was a Latino man in his early twenties with a muscular build and short hair.

     The senseless murder of a family man attending church on a Sunday evening by a trigger-happy gang member sparked public outrage and demands for more aggressive anti-gang policing. This came at a time when the LAPD was stretched thin and out of money. Because this case received a lot of local media coverage, there was a good chance these gang members would be identified and brought to justice.

     In November 2012, Los Angeles detectives arrested 24-year-old Janeth Lopez, the woman suspected of spray-painting graffiti on the church wall. Officers booked Lopez into the county jail of charges of murder, attempted murder, vandalism and gang related offenses.

     Police officers, in February 2013, took 25-year-old gang member Pedro Martinez into custody on charges of first-degree murder, attempted murder and gang and gun related offenses. Officers also arrested the suspected get-away driver, 33-year-old Ivy Navarrete on the same criminal charges. If convicted, all three defendants in the Ordonez murder case faced up to live in prison.

     Martinez, Navarrete, and Lopez went to trial in Los Angeles Superior Court in November 2014. On December 19, 2014, the jury found Pedro Martinez guilty of first-degree murder, attempted murder and several gun an gang related charges. The jurors, however, deadlocked on the murder and attempted murder charges against the women. They were found guilty of the lesser offenses.

     On January 30, 2015, the judge sentenced Pedro Martinez to life in prison without parole.

     A Los Angeles Superior Court Judge, in April 2016, sentenced the spray painter, Janeth Lopez, to 40 years to life in prison. The judge sentenced Ivy Navarrette to 60 years to life behind bars for her role in the murder, attempted murder, and assault. 

Monday, August 27, 2018

Murder-For-Hire: The Crime and Its Cast of Characters

     Murder-for-hire cases fall generally into one of two categories: homicides in which the contract for the killing is carried out, and crimes in which, due to law enforcement intervention in the form of an undercover operative playing the role of the assassin, no one is killed. While still serious felony, the latter offense is one of criminal solicitation.

     The cast of a murder-for-hire plot features three principal characters: the instigator/mastermind who solicits/contracts the homicide, the hit man (or undercover agent playing the triggerman role), and the victim, the person targeted for death. Supporting players might include a cast of go-betweens and accomplices such as people who put the mastermind in touch with the hit man or undercover cop, and helpers brought into the scheme by the triggerman. Murder-for-hire cases frequently include potential assassins the mastermind initially reached out to who reject the assignment. These would-be hit men, often the mastermind's friends, casual acquaintances, relatives, or co-workers, after declining to participate in the plot, either remain silent or go to the police. Many of the ones who remain silent do so because they didn't take the mastermind seriously.

     While murder-for-hire stories, in terms of the characters involved, have a somewhat common anatomy, they differ widely according to the socio-enconomic status of the participants, the nature of their relationships to each other, and the specific motive behind the murder.

     Unlike rapists, sex murderers, pathological fire setters, and pedophiles, murder-for-hire masterminds do not conform to a general psychological profile. They are men and women of various ages and backgrounds who solicit their murders pursuant to a diverse range of motives. Murder plotters, compared to murder doers, tend to be older, more commonly female, and less likely to have histories of crime or violence. Given the pre-meditated nature of a murder-for-hire plot, masterminds, while sociopathic, desperate, depressed, drug-addled, or simply not very bright, are not psychotic and therefore not mentally ill enough to be found legally insane. Without the benefit of the insanity defense, masterminds, when their backs are against the criminal justice wall, tend to throw themselves on the mercy of the court. They often cite, as justification for their murderous acts or homicidal intentions, abuse, depression, and addiction to drugs and/or alcohol. Generally, these pleas for mercy and understanding fall on deaf judicial ears, particularly when the mastermind was obviously motivated by greed such as avoiding the cost of divorce, benefiting from a life insurance policy, or inheriting the victim's estate.

     Masterminds labor under the rather stupid belief that the best way to get away with murder is to pay someone else to do it. They think that having an alibi is their ticket to avoiding arrest and prosecution. These homicide plotters underestimate the reach of federal conspiracy laws as well as the incriminating power of motive. Moreover, while masterminds do not pull the trigger, wield the bat, or sink the knife, they do participate in the crime beyond simply asking someone to commit murder on their behalf. Although detectives won't find their bloody latents at the scene of the crime, masterminds can't help leaving their figurative fingerprints all over the conspiracy. Masterminds also leave behind witnesses in the form of hit men, go-betweens, confidants, and accomplices.

     Most murder-for-hire masterminds, before the homicide, make no secret of the fact they want to eliminate the object of their greed, or the source of their frustration and anger. To facilitate the murder, they pay the the hit men cash upfront, and promise the balance of the blood money following the target's death. The mastermind commonly provides the assassin with a hand-drawn map pinpointing the proposed murder site, a photograph of the victim, the license plate number to the target's vehicle, and an outline that details the future victim's daily routine. Masterminds also leave behind records of cellphone calls that can be quite incriminating.

     Some masterminds leave the murder methodology, the modus operandi, to the hit man, while other plotters actively participate in the planning stage. Masterminds who are engaged in the killing process usually want the homicide to look like an accident, a carjacking, rape, mugging, or deadly home invasion. What they don't realize is that making a murder look like something else is easier said than done. Besides, the people masterminds hire to do the job are commonly incompetent, indifferent, drug-addled, or just plain stupid.

     Paid assassins are almost always men who are younger than their masterminds. They are also more likely to have criminal backgrounds. Because of who they are, hit men do not plan the hit carefully or take steps not to leave behind physical evidence. After the murder, they seldom keep their mouths shut about what they have done, and who they have done it for. If paid a lot of money, hit men usually spend it on drugs or lose it gambling. While hit men are cold-blooded killers, they are nothing like the cool-headed professional assassins we see on television and in the movies. The are disorganized amateurs and bunglers who are easy to catch. Once they are caught, they are quick to spill their guts.

     Murder-for-hire targets are not random victims of crime. They are people with whom the mastermind has had some kind of relationship. People targeted for death can be current and former spouses, estranged lovers, or the mastermind's  parents, children, or business associates. Targets can include people the mastermind has previously victimized who are marked for elimination as crime accusers and potential trial witnesses. In cases of revenge involving masterminds who have scores to settle, victims can be judges, prosecutors, and police informants. Men who batter woman also become murder-for-hire victims at the hands of the women they have beaten.

     The crime solution rate for murder-for-hire offenses is relatively high, particularly when the defendant ends up negotiating with an undercover cop brought into the case by the person the mastermind either recruited for the job, or asked to find a hit man. Undercover operatives and masterminds meet, often in Walmart and shopping mall parking lots, where the conversations are audio and video-taped. Once the mastermind makes clear his or her homicidal intention, perhaps by supplying the upfront money, a weapon, or a photograph of the target, the unsuspecting plotter is arrested on the spot. These arrestees are charged with crimes that include solicitation of murder, attempted murder, and conspiracy to commit murder.

     Occasionally, masterminds caught red-handed in undercover sting operations plead not gulty by reason of insanity, claim they have been entrapped by the police, or raise defenses based on the battered spouse syndrome. But most of the time they confess and hope for leniency.

     Solicitation cases, while incomplete in nature, are fascinating because the police-recorded conversations between the undercover cops and the masterminds provides a window into the minds of people with sociopathic personalities intent on having assorted targets murdered. these cases reveal, in the extreme, how badly a marriage or romantic relationship can deteriorate. One gets the sense, after reviewing hundreds of murder-for-hire cases, that America has become a society of depressed, drug-addled sociopaths who will stop at nothing to get what they want.

     Murder-for-hire crimes that result in actual killings are more challenging for investigators than murder solicitation cases. This is because these offenses include crime scenes, physical evidence, autopsies, witnesses, and suspected masterminds with alibis they can establish. However, compared to drive-by shootings, drug and gang-related murders, and criminal homicides without obvious suspects, murder-for-hire crimes are relatively easy to solve.

     Masterminds generally make it easy for homicide detectives by hiring hit men who are incompetent fools. Murder-for-hire plotters also create future witnesses by casting a wide net in their search for a contract killer. Because hit men are usually careless and have big mouths, these amateur assassins are almost always caught. And when they are arrested, hit men regularly inform on the mastermind in return for a lighter sentence. Murder-for-hire dramas are less about police work, forensic science, and criminal justice than they are about sociology, criminal psychology, and American culture.

     Murder-for-hire cases, from a criminal justice point of view, raise interesting questions associated with the comparative sentencing of masterminds and their hit men. Because both the mastermind and the hired killer can be found guilty of first degree murder, they are eligible, in 32 states, for the death penalty. In most cases, however, the triggerman receives a much lighter sentence that the person who hired him. This is because hit men usually confess first and agree to testify against the mastermind.

     In the recent history of murder-for-hire crime, there have been cold-blooded killers who, in return for their cooperation with law enforcement, have been awarded sentences as light as seventeen years in prison while the mastermind was sentenced to death. Although these sentencing disparities have a lot to do with the practicalities of plea bargaining, there may be more to it than that.

     Masterminding a contract murder is generally perceived as more evil than actually pulling the trigger. The particular loathing of murder-for-hire masterminds is reflected in the fact that homicide investigators and prosecutors target the instigator more than the hit man. Amateurs who kill for money, usually petty criminals who do it for peanuts, don't shock us because they are young, male criminals doing what society expects them to do. When middle and upper-middle class people exploit these desperate and pathetic losers by hiring them to do their dirty work, we hold them more responsible for the murder. For masterminds, it's who they are that makes their behavior so repugnant and evil. This is interesting because a nation full of masterminds would be a lot safer than a country full of hit men.

     

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On The Power Of Imagination

Character, courage, intelligence, imagination, talent, and charisma are all good personality traits to have. But if I had too choose one of these, I would choose imagination. When I was a lonely kid I had imaginary friends. In difficult times I can imagine better times, or at least how to get through the bad times. I can imagine how things could have been worse. I couldn't be a writer without my imagination. It's my imagination that has saved me from boredom, loneliness and despair.

Thornton P. Knowles

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Tip of the Catholic Church Sexual Abuse History Size of Mt. Everest

     On August 25, 2018, CNN reported that according to BishopAccountability, an organization that has been tracking Catholic Church payoffs in sex abuse cases, the church and its insurance companies have dished out $3.8 billion since the 1950s. This report came out in the wake of the Pennsylvania grand jury report documenting the abuse of 1,000 victims by 300 priests in six Pennsylvania dioceses.

     Based on BishopAccountability findings, the largest Catholic Church payoff took place in Los Angeles when, in 2007, the church paid $660 million to 508 sexual abuse accusers. The allegations involved 221 priests, lay teachers and other church employees.

     Unfortunately, these reports merely reflect the tip of the Catholic Church sexual abuse iceberg. One wonders how long hush money, cover-ups and victim intimidation will keep the Catholic Church afloat. 

The Gilbert Collar Police-Involved Shooting Case

     Gilbert Thomas Collar grew up in Wetumpka, Alabama, a town of 6,000 within the Montgomery metropolitan area in the central part of the state. The 135-pound, 5-foot-7 high school wrestling star was enrolled at the University of South Alabama, a 15,000-student university located in Mobile, Alabama. Collar, a social sciences major, wanted to become a high school teacher and a wrestling coach.

     A university police officer named Trevis Austin, at 1:23 in the morning of Saturday, October 6, 2012, heard someone banging loudly on one of the campus police station's windows. Upon investigation of this noise, the officer encountered Gilbert Collar, nude and crouched into a fighting stance. The muscular young man, who challenged the officer to a fight, obviously appeared to be out of his mind. When Collar made an aggressive move toward Trevis Austin, the officer drew his weapon, backed-off, and warned the threatening 18-year-old to settle down. Collar rushed toward the campus cop several times, and each time the retreating officer ordered the man to stop and desist. Collar took a knee, rose, and charged the officer again. This time officer Austin shot Collar once in the chest. The attacking freshman stumbled, regained his footing, rushed toward the officer again, then collapsed and died.

     University police officer Austin was placed on administrative leave pending an investigation to be conducted by the Mobile County District Attorney's Office and the local sheriff's department. An important aspect of the inquiry involved reviewing the surveillance camera footage of the bizarre confrontation. Some of the questions that had to be answered included whether or not the student and the officer who shot him knew each other. Investigators also wanted to determine if Collar had a  history of mental illness and/or drug use. The autopsy and toxicological would answer the question of drugs and or alcohol.

     Jeff Glass, Collar's high school wrestling coach, told a reporter that "He [Collar] was a kind soul. He was never aggressive to anyone off the mat. He was a 'yes sir, no sir' kind of guy." Chis Estes, an 18-year-old who grew up with Collar, reportedly said, "Gil was a very 'chill' guy, mellow and easy-going. That's why I don't understand the story that he attacked the cop."

     According to the toxicology report, Gilbert Collar had gotten high on a laboratory drug that mimics the effects of LSD. He had taken the drug at the BayFest music concert on the night of the deadly encounter. Mobile County Sheriff Sam Cochran, at a press conference, announced that the student had assaulted others prior to his death at the hands of the officer.

     In 2013, a grand jury sitting in Mobile County cleared Trevis Austin of criminal wrongdoing in the shooting.

     In the wake of the grand jury no bill, members of Gilbert Collar's family brought a wrongful death lawsuit in federal court against former officer Austin and the university. In 2015, pursuant to that suit, former Tallahassee police chief Melvin Tucker, on behalf of the plaintiff, rendered an expert opinion regarding whether the officer's use of deadly force in the case was appropriate.

     In his report, made public in May 2015, Mr. Tucker concluded that officer Austin had used excessive force in violation of his department's deadly force policy. Melvin Tucker wrote that the officer should either have retreated or used non-lethal means to subdue the student.

     Mr. Tucker noted in his report that over the past 131 years only three police officers in the state of Alabama had been killed by an unarmed assailant. The use of force expert wrote that in 2012 not a single police officer in the United States had died as a result of being disarmed by an arrestee.

     This is one of those difficult cases that no matter how it is resolved, won't satisfy anyone. From the campus police officer's point of view, he was confronted by an aggressive, muscular young man who was apparently out of his mind and intent on engaging him in a wrestling match. For all the officer knew, he was dealing with a drug-crazed man with supernatural strength. (The officer was 5-foot-eleven and the student 5-foot-seven.) Had these two people gotten into hand-to-hand combat, there was a possibility that the attacker could have ended up with the officer's gun. Even if the officer had been equipped with a taser device, there was no guarantee it would have subdued this aggressive, out-of-control subject, particularly with the LSD type drug in his system.

     Looking at this case through the eyes of Gilbert Collar's friends and relatives, it's easy to understand why they have questions regarding this student's sudden and violent death. His mother Bonnie said this to a reporter: "Freshmen kids do stupid things, and campus police should be equipped to handle activity like that without having to use lethal force." Although Gilbert Collar was not a kid, college freshmen are known to do stupid things. But taking off your clothes in the middle of the night, and without provocation or notice, attacking a police officer, goes beyond youthful stupidity.

     

Friday, August 24, 2018

The Hannah Overton Murder Case

     Andrew Burd was born in Corpus Christi, Texas on July 28, 2002. The 16-year-old girl who gave birth to him had used, during her pregnancy, meth, crack cocaine, LSD, and marijuana. The expectant mother had also consumed alcohol, took Xanax, and smoked cigarettes. The baby's 17-year-old father worked for a traveling carnival. This infant should have been taken from his unfit parents at birth.

     Andrew was a year old when his mother took him to an emergency room with a broken arm. A doctor suspected child abuse and called Child Protective Services (CPS). Nothing came of the CPS investigation, and the baby was returned to his mother. Eventually, after repeated evidence of child abuse, CPS agents, on the grounds that Andrew was in "immediate danger," took him from his young parents. The agency placed the two and a half-year-old toddler into foster care where he was shuffled from one home to another.

     In 2006, Corpus Christi residents Larry and Hannah Overton heard about Andrew Burd through their evangelical, nondenominational church, Calvary Chapel of the Coastlands. The couple resided in a modest ranch-style house with their four young children. Twenty-nine-year-old Hannah was six months pregnant at the time. Although the family struggled financially from what Larry Overton earned as a landscape lighting installer, the couple expressed interest in adopting Andrew.

     In 1984, when Hannah Overton was seven-years-old, her father, Bennie Saenz, an evangelical preacher, was arrested and charged with murder. Convicted of bludgeoning a 16-year-old girl to death, then dumping her body along the shore of Padre Island, the Corpus Christi preacher went to prison for 23 years. (I presume he was released in 2007.)

     Before her marriage to Larry, Hannah had worked as a volunteer in an orphanage in Reynosa, Mexico across the border from Corpus Christi. As a married couple, Larry and Hannah had performed missionary work for their church. By all accounts they were decent people, loving parents who had never been in trouble with the authorities. Moreover, neither Larry or Hannah had a history of mental illness.

     In the spring of 2006, Andrew Burd joined the Overton family on a six-month probationary basis. On October 2, 2006, not long after the official adoption, the four-year-old became suddenly ill. He began vomiting and struggled with his breathing. Hannah, instead of immediately calling 911, telephoned Larry at work. He rushed home. When Andrew became unresponsive, the Overtons rushed him to a nearby urgent care clinic. When nurses at the clinic failed to revive Andrew with CPR, paramedics transported the boy to Corpus Christi's Driscoll Hospital.

     Medical personnel at the urgent care clinic, suspicious of child abuse, notified the police shortly after Andrew was admitted to the hospital. Within hours of Andrew's hospitalization, police with the Corpus Christi Police Department searched the Overton residence.

     In the evening of October 3, 2006, Andrew Burd died. Dr. Ray Fernandez, the Nueces County Medical Examiner, performed the autopsy. The forensic pathologist, finding some bleeding of the brain, external scratches and bruises, and twice the level of sodium in the dead child's blood, ruled the manner of death homicide. Dr. Fernandez identified the boy's cause of death as "acute sodium toxicity with blunt force trauma as a contributing factor." (Dr. Fernandez did not acknowledge that the brain hemorrhaging could have been caused by the sodium content in Andrew's blood.)

     Child Protection Services agents took the other Overton children out of their home and placed them with relatives. (Eventually the children would be placed under the care of Hannah Overton's mother.) A few days after Andrew's death, Corpus Christi detective Michael Hess, an investigator who specialized in child abuse cases, interrogated Hannah Overton at the police station. She had agreed to be questioned without the presence of counsel.

     Detective Hess made it clear that he believed that Hannah, feeling overburdened with so many young children, had murdered her adopted son. "I don't see," he said, "what caused the trauma to the brain. I don't see what caused the salt content. Did you at any time strike him?" (At this point, Hannah Overton should have asked for an attorney.)

     The five-hour grilling at the police station ended without a confession. In his report, Detective Hess wrote: "It should be noted that during the entire conversation (conversation?), Hannah Overton showed no emotion." Notwithstanding Hannah Overton's insistence that she had done nothing to harm her adopted son, Nueces County Assistant District Attorney Sandra Eastwood, a child protection crusader, charged the mother of five (she had since had her baby) with capital murder. Under Texas law, if convicted as charged, Hannah Overton faced life in prison without the chance of parole.

     The televised Hannah Overton murder trial got underway in Corpus Christi in August 2007. Prosecutor Eastwood, in her opening remarks to the jury, said, "We don't know precisely how she [the defendant] got [the salt] down Andrew, but we know that he [the child] was very, very, obedient."

     Dr. Ray Fernandez, the Nueces County Medical Examiner testified that he had seen "burn-like scarring" on Andrew's arm that had likely been caused by "contact with a hot surface." (Judge Jose Longoria did not allow Dr. Fernandez to state that blunt force trauma had contributed to Andrew's death. The judge, due to insufficient scientific evidence to back up this part of the pathologist's testimony, ruled it inadmissible.)

     Dr. Alexander Rotta, a pediatric critical care specialist from Indianapolis, Indiana, testified that "There were so many bruises and scratches [on Andrew's body] that it would be difficult to describe them all." Dr. Rotta told the jurors that the sodium content in Andrew's blood amounted to six teaspons of salt. In the doctor's expert opinion, Andrew Burd's death had not been accidental.

     After Detective Michael Hess played a video of the defendant's interrogation, one of the nurses who had performed CPR on Andrew at the urgent care clinic testified that the defendant, during the emergency, had not behaved like a panic-stricken parent. In fact, she often had a smile on her face. Two other urgent care clinic employees took the stand and gave similar testimony. One of these witnesses said that she had heard the defendant tell someone at the clinic that the boy had stopped breathing after he had been "punished." (While children are "punished" all the time, jurors probably interpreted this comment as evidence of child abuse.)

     At the close of the state's case, defense attorneys David Jones and Chris Pinedo brought Harvard educated forensic pathologist Dr. Judy Melinek to the stand. Dr. Melinek identified the sores on Andrew's body as being consistent with mosquito bites that had been excessively scratched. The witness, on the issue of  how all of that sodium had entered Andrew's system, said that in all probability the child suffered from a rare eating disorder called pica. Children with this malady have an uncontrollable desire to consume inappropriate substances such as salt.

     Hannah Overton, who took the stand on her own behalf, did not come off as a convincing or even sympathetic witness. (Her attorneys, given the accusations in the case, had no choice but to put her on the stand.) At this stage of the trial, given the testimony of the medical examiner, the pediatrician from Indiana, and the urgent care clinic personnel, the jurors had probably made up their minds.

     The three-week trial came to an end when the jury, after deliberating eleven hours, found Hannah Overton guilty of capital murder. (She would eventually be sent to the maximum security women's prison outside of Waco, Texas.) Overton's attorneys, shortly after the verdict, polled the jury. The defense attorneys were stunned to learn that all of the jurors had found the defendant guilty for intentionally not getting Andrew immediate medical help. None of the jurors had been convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant had poisoned her child with salt.

     Two days after the guilty verdict, Dr. Edgar Cortes, the emergency room physician on duty at Driscoll Hospital the day Andrew arrived, and the pediatrician who had resuscitated the patient before he was sent to the intensive care unit, wrote a letter to the Overton defense team. Dr. Cortes informed the lawyers that while he had been scheduled to testify for the prosecution, prosecutor Sandra Eastwood never called him to the stand. The doctor wasn't called because in his opinion, Andrew Burd's death had been accidental. Dr. Cortes, had he taken the stand, would have testified that Andrew had been a hyperactive child who suffered from an autism spectrum disorder. (Dr. Cortes had studied Andrew's medical records.) This would account for the boy's inappropriate eating habits, obsessive scratching and picking, and head banging.

     In the months following the guilty verdict, three prominent appellate attorneys--Cynthia Orr, John Raley, and Gerry Goldstein--took an interest in the Overton case. The attorneys filed an appeal alleging newly discovered exonerating evidence, ineffective legal representation at trial, and the withholding of exculpatory evidence from the defense by prosecutor Sandra Eastwood.

     In 2009, the Texas Circuit Court of Criminal Appeals upheld the Overton capital murder conviction. The justices found no proof that the state had known of Dr. Edgar Cortes' cause and manner of death opinion. The appellate judges also rejected the newly discovered evidence and ineffective counsel claims.

     In the spring of 2010, the Overton appellate team petitioned for the right to have access to the prosecution's file on the case. Prior to the trial, prosecutor Eastwood, when asked by defense attorneys for access to documents related to Andrew's stomach contents, claimed that such a report didn't exist. The appellate attorneys, when they were given the opportunity to examine the prosecution's file, found the gastric contents report. Not only did they find the report, according to this document, Andrew's stomach contents did not reveal elevated amounts of salt when he arrived at the urgent care clinic.

     Hannah Overton's appellate team also learned that prosecutor Eastwood had scheduled, for testimony, Dr. Michael Moritz, the clinical director of pediatric nephrology at the Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh. Dr. Moritz specialized in children's kidney diseases, and in 2007, had published a paper on accidental child salt poisoning cases. Dr. Moritz had found that a vast majority of these cases involved boys between the age of one and six. Moreover, they had all had been in foster care, or were from abusive homes. All of these boys suffered from the eating disorder, pica.

     Dr. Moritz told the appellate team that he had waited days in the Corpus Christi court house for his turn to take the stand. When the doctor told prosecutor Eastwood that he had to return to Pittsburgh, she arranged for a video deposition that because of time, was not completed. Had he taken the stand, Dr. Moritz would have testified that in his expert opinion, Andrew's death had been accidental.

     Appellate attorney Cynthia Orr, about the time of the Dr. Moritz revelation, received a letter from Anna Jimenez, the former Nueces County prosecutor who had worked on the Overton case with Sandra Eastwood. Regarding whether Eastwood had withheld exculpatory evidence from the defense, Jimenez wrote: "I fear she [Eastwood] may have purposely withheld evidence that may have been favorable to Hannah Overton's defense.

     In April 2011, Cynthia Orr petitioned the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals for an evidentiary hearing on the Overton case. Ten months later, in February 2012, appellate judge Cathy Cochran ordered the Corpus Christi trial court judge to hold such a proceeding to entertain the appellate team's assertion that Hanna Overton, an innocent person, had been wrongfully convicted of murder.

     The evidentiary hearing began on April 24, 2012. Chris Pinedo, one of Overton's trial attorneys, took the stand. Pinedo testified that he had asked prosecutor Sandra Eastwood for a sample of Andrew's gastric contents that had been acquired by Driscoll Hospital personnel. Attorney Pinedo wanted to have an independent scientist analyze this evidence for sodium content. The defense attorney was told that such evidence did not exist. Because he had acquired photographs of the stomach contents  that had been taken at the Nueces County Medical Examiner's Office, attorney Pinedo knew that he had been lied to.

    Forensic pathologist Dr. Judy Melinek testified that because Neuces County medical examiner, Dr. Ray Fernandez, had failed to adequately analyze Andrew's hypothalamous and pituitary glands, his cause and manner of death conclusions were questionable.

     Dr. Edgar Cortes, the emergency medicine pediatrician who had attended to Andrew at Driscoll Hospital before the boy's death, took the stand and described how he had waited at the court house to testify as a prosecution witness. "I told Assistant District Attorney Sandra Eastwood, 'I hope you're going to come forward with some other [homicide] charge than capital murder because I don't think this was capital murder.' " When asked by attorney Orr why prosecutor Eastwood hadn't put him on the stand, Dr. Cortes said, "I felt like the prosecution had its own theory about what happened." (That is fine as long as the prosecution's theory is backed up by proof beyond a reasonable doubt.)

     Dr. Michael Moritz, the clinical director of pediatric nephrology at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh, one of the nation's leading experts on salt poisoning, took the stand on day two of the Overton evidentiary hearing. Dr. Moritz said he believed that if Andrew Burd had ingested a lethal dose of salt, he had fed it to himself. The doctor testified that intentional, force-fed salt poisoning was extremely rare.

     Day three of the Overton hearing featured the testimony of former prosecutor Sandra Eastwood. In 2010, Eastwood had been fired from the Nueces County District Attorney's office after she had informed the district attorney that she had been romantically involved with a sex offender. During the Overton trial in 2007, Eastwood, an alcoholic, had been functioning under the influence of alcohol and prescription diet pills. Her responses to Cynthia Orr's questions were vague, confusing, and often contradictory. The witness said that her drinking and pill taking had destroyed her memory of the Overton case. As a witness, Eastwood came off more pathetic than evil.

     Eastwood's former assistant in the Overton case, Anna Jimenez, followed her to the stand. According to Jimenez, Eastwood had made the following comment to her: "I will do anything to win this case." Jimenez testified that in her opinion, Sandra Eastwood's behavior during the Overton murder trial was "so far out." The witness testified further that she believed that Hannah Overton should have been charged with a lesser homicide offense. Regarding Eastwood's claim that the boy's gastric contents evidence did not exist, Jimenez said, "She is not truthful."

     On the sixth and final day of the Overton evidentiary proceeding, David Jones, one of Overton's trial attorneys, broke down on the stand. "I failed miserably," he said. "There's probably not a day since this verdict that I don't regret spending more time on this case. I should have done more."

     On June 1, 2012, a month after the conclusion of the Overton hearing, District Court Judge Jose Longoria issued his recommendation to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. In a 14-page opinion, Judge Longoria explained why he saw no new evidence that would have altered the outcome of Overton's murder trial. "The court," he wrote, "concludes that all of the supposedly newly discovered evidence actually was clearly known and discussed at the time of the trial."

     Hannah Overton's appellate team, as well as a large group of people who believed she was an innocent mother who had been railroaded into prison by an overzealous prosecutor, were stunned by Judge Longoria's opinion. The imprisoned woman's fate rested with the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. In making their decision on whether or not to grant Overton a new trial, the appeals court justices were not bound by District Court Judge Longoria's recommendation.

     On September 18, 2014, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals voted 7 to 2 to grant Hannah Overton a new trial. The appellate judges cited problems associated with prosecutor Sandra Eastwood and criticized Overton's trial attorneys for not calling to the stand a salt poisoning expert.

     The Nueces County District Attorney, after losing the appeal, had four options. He could charge Overton again with capital murder, file lesser charges against her, offer a plea deal, or simply dismiss the case. The prosecutor chose to try Overton again for capital murder.

     On December 16, 2014, a Nueces County judge set Overton's bond at $50,000. She posted her bail and was released from prison to await her second trial.

     In February 2016, Hannah and Larry Overton appeared on a episode of the Dr. Phil Show. The couple, in response to pointed questions by the host, denied intentionally poisoning Andrew or delaying his emergency medical care. They also denied abusing the boy. The show featured portions of the video taped police interrogation of Hannah that showed her laughing several times during the detective's questioning. She explained that it was nervous laughter. In defending what appeared to be examples of harsh treatment of Andrew, the couple pointed out that he had been an extremely difficult child to raise. Dr. Phil did not seem convinced the Overtons had been good to the boy, asking them if they had treated him worse than their biological children.

     In May 2017, Nueces County District Attorney Mark Gonzales officially declared Hannah Overton innocent in the death of her four-year-old son. Because she had been wrongfully convicted and behind bars for seven years, the Texas comptroller, on March 7, 2018, informed Overton that she would receive a check from the state in the amount of $573,333.33.

     

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Is There No Place Safe From Sexual Assault?

     One would think that a woman sedated in a hospital room or asleep onboard a commercial airliner would not be in danger of being sexually assaulted. Well, one would be wrong. Sexual offenders are everywhere, can be anyone,  and commit their crimes in places that should be off limits to this kind of personal assault.

The Case of Shafeeq Sheikh

     In 2013, Dr. Shafeeq Sheikh, an Indian-American physician, was working the night shift at the Ben Taub Hospital in Houston, Texas. That evening a 29-year-old woman was admitted for shortness of breath and wheezing. During the night, Dr. Sheikh used his access card key twelve times to gain entrance onto this patient's  floor. While she lay in bed sedated, he sexually assaulted her several times. The victim kept pressing the nurse call button but it didn't work.

     A full two years after the victim's rape kit DNA matched up to Dr. Sheikh, Assistant District Attorney Lauren Reeder charged him with second-degree sexual assault, a crime that carried a sentence of up to twenty years in prison.

     Following Dr. Sheikh's arrest, the Texas Medical Board Revoked his license to practice in the state.

     The case went to trial in August 2018, five years after the crime. The defendant admitted sexual contact with this patient but claimed that the act was consensual.

     At the conclusion of the four-day trial, the jury found Dr. Sheikh guilty as charged. In Texas, juries have the power to determine the defendant's sentence. Before his sentencing, the former physician pleaded with the jurors to show compassion and go easy on him because his criminal behavior had made life difficult for his wife and children. The jury must have been moved by this plea because it recommended a sentence of ten years probation. Although the leniency of this sentence shocked everyone in the courtroom, including the defense attorneys, the judge had no recourse but to follow the jury's recommendation. So, no prison time for a doctor who took sexual advantage of a sedated hospital patient. The former physician, pursuant to his sentence, had to register as a sex offender.

     The victim in this case, in speaking to a local television reporter, said she believed this man had sexually assaulted other women.

The Case of Prabhu Ramamoorthy

     On January 3, 2018, Prabhu Ramamoorthy and his wife were passengers on an overnight Spirit Airlines flight from Las Vegas to Detroit. Ramamoorthy, from India, was in the United States on a work visa.

     The sleeping 22-year-old woman in the window seat next to Ramamoorthy was jolted awake. She found her pants unzipped and Ramamoorthy's hand in her underwear. Her blouse had also been unbuttoned.

     When the plane landed in Detroit, FBI agents took the sexual fondler into custody. United States Attorney Matthew Schneider charged Ramamoorthy with the federal crime of sexual assault, a crime that carried a sentence of up to life in prison.

     Ramamoorthy's trial got underway in August 2018. When he took the stand on his own behalf, the defendant claimed that when he used his finger to penetrate the woman in the seat next to him, he was in a "deep sleep" that came over him after taking a Tylenol pill. The jurors, not being idiots, didn't buy this defense, and after just four hours of deliberation, found Ramamoorthy guilty as charged.

     Prabhu Ramamoorthy was scheduled for sentencing on December 12, 2018. After serving his sentence, he will be deported. (If history is any guide, the deportation process may take several years.)

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

John Mark Karr's Confession in the JonBenet Ramsey Murder

The Ramsey Case  

      A 5:52 AM emergency call that a child had been kidnapped brought a pair of Boulder, Colorado police officers to John and Patsy Ramsey's 3-story house on December 26, 1996. Patsy Ramsey said she had found a handwritten ransom note inside on the stairs. Fearing that her 6-year-old daughter, JonBenet, had been kidnapped for ransom, she had called 911. After a cursory sweep of the 15-room dwelling, the patrolmen called for assistance.

     During the next two hours, amid friends and relatives who had come to console the family, police set up wiretap and recording equipment to monitor negotiations with the kidnappers. At one in the afternoon, Boulder detective Linda Arndt asked John Ramsey to look around the house for "anything unusual." Thirty minutes later, he and one of his friends discovered JonBenet's body in a small basement room. Her mouth had been sealed with duct tape, and she had lengths of white rope coiled around her neck and right wrist. The rope around her neck was tied to what looked like the handle of a paintbrush. Breaking all the rules of crime scene investigation, John Ramsey removed the tape, carried his daughter up the basement steps, and laid her body on the living room floor. Detective Arndt picked up the child, placed her body next to the Christmas tree, and covered it with a sweat shirt. Because the police had not conducted a thorough and timely search of the house, there would be no crime scene photographs.

     In the months following the murder, the police, prosecutors, media, and most Americans believed that someone in the family had killed JonBenet Ramsey. But if this were the case, then who had written the two and a half page ransom note? Forensic document examiners eliminated John Ramsey as the ransom note writer, and all but one handwriting expert concluded that Patsy had probably not authored the document. Also, evidence surfaced that an intruder could have come into the house through a broken window in the basement.

John Mark Karr

      After a 13-year battle with ovarian cancer, Patsy Ramsey died on June 14, 2006. She was 49. The media that had helped police and prosecutors portray the Ramseys as child murderers treated the death as a one-day news event, giving it less attention than the passing of a supporting actor on an old TV sitcom. In April 2006, two months before her death, the Ramseys flew from their home in Michigan back to Boulder where they met with district attorney Mary Keenan (now Lacy), who asked them if they had ever heard of a man named John Mark Karr. They Ramseys said they had not--neither the name nor the description of this man rang a bell. What did he have to do with the case?

     Karr, a 41-year-old American itinerate elementary school teacher, had lived in Bangkok, Thailand since 2002. He had recently corresponded with Michael Tracey, a journalism professor at the University of Colorado. Karr's interest in the JonBenet murder had drawn him to the Boulder professor who had produced three television documentaries favorable to the the theory the crime had been committed by an intruder. The emails from Karr, sent under the pseudonym Daxis, had recently become quite bizarre, reflecting more than just a morbid interest in the case. After receiving a series of disturbing phone calls from this man, Professor Tracey alerted the district attorney's office. The calls were traced to John Mark Karr in Bangkok.

     After Daxis had confessed to Tracey that he had accidentally killed JonBenet while inducing asphyxia for his sexual gratification, he became a suspect in the murder. Karr revealed over the phone that when he couldn't revive Jon Benet, he struck her in the head with a blunt object. He told the professor that he had engaged in oral sex with the victim, but had not performed sexual penetration. Aware that Tracey was writing a book on the Ramsey case, Karr offered the author the inside story from the killer's point of view. In the event the book became a movie, Karr wanted to be played by Johnny Depp.

     Having taken over the Ramsey case investigation from the Boulder Police Department, the district attorney's office began investigating John Mark Karr. District attorney investigators spoke to the authorities in Bangkok, and read hundreds of the emails Karr had sent to the professor. One of the messages suggested that Karr had a general knowledge of forensic science. "The DNA might not match, but you can't trust the test," he wrote.

     As Ramsey case investigators gathered details of Karr's life and background, it became clear that he was not an ordinary man, and that his strangeness was not inconsistent with the profile of a person who might commit a Ramsey-type crime. After Karr's parents divorced when he was nine, he went to live with his grandparents in Hamilton, Alabama. In 1983, one year after graduating from Hamilton High School, Karr, then 20, married a 13-year-old girl. The marriage ended nine months later in an annulment. In 1989, Karr married 16-year-old Lara Marie Knutson. In four years, he and his wife had three sons. While pursuing a teaching degree through an online teacher's college, Karr opened a licensed day-care center in his home. Although he didn't have a teaching degree, he also worked as a substitute teacher at Hamilton High School. He acquired a college degree in 1999, and that year closed his day-care business. A year later, Karr and his family were residing in Petaluma, California where he taught as a substitute in six schools in the Sonoma Valley Unified School District.

     One year after arriving in Petaluma, while teaching at the Pueblo Vista Elementary School, Karr was arrested by investigators from the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office. They had found child pornography on Karr's computer, and arrested him on five misdemeanor counts of possessing such material. Karr's bail was reduced after he spent six months in the county lockup awaiting trial. He was released on October 2001. While in custody, Karr had written a letter to Richard Allen Davis who had been convicted of kidnapping and murdering Polly Klaas in Petaluma. When Karr failed to show for a court appearance in the pornography case, the judge issued a bench warrant for his arrest, making him a California fugitive from justice.

     During the child pornography investigation, detectives in Sonoma County came across writings and notes Karr had made pertaining to the murder of JonBenet Ramsey. In these musings, Karr had speculated on the killer's thoughts as he committed the crime. Although these were not confessions, the Sonoma detectives took the writings seriously enough to notify the authorities in Boulder. There were follow-up discussions between investigators in California and Colorado, but nothing came of the discovery.

     After Karr divorced his wife, she and their children moved back to Hamilton, Alabama. Following his release from the Sonoma County Jail, Karr fled the country. He taught in Honduras and Costa Rica, and worked as a children's nanny in Germany, the Netherlands, and South Korea. In December 2005, Karr arrived in Bangkok where he had landed a grade-school teaching position.

The Arrest and Confession

     On August 11, 2006, 4 months after district attorney Mary Lacy learned that the Ramsey email writer and telephone confessor was John Mark Karr, police and immigration authorities in Thailand informed her that Karr was living in a downtown Bangkok apartment. In less than a week, Karr would be starting a new teaching job at the New Sathorn International School in the city. Because the authorities didn't want this man interacting with young girls at this school, the Thai police planned to arrest and deport Karr within the next five days. This development presented Lacy with a dilemma. If she did nothing, a man who had confessed to killing JonBenet Ramsey would slip away upon his return to the United States. If she filed charges against Karr, and had him extradited back to Colorado, the probable cause supporting the arrest warrant would be based entirely on his emails and his telephone confessions. Lacy's investigators had not linked Karr to the ransom note through his handwriting, could not place him in Colorado on or about December 26, 1996, and had not matched his DNA to a pair of foreign bloodstains on JonBenet's underwear.

     Operating on the theory that John Mark Karr was not a false confessor, and that his DNA would eventually connect him to the victim, Lacy presented her case to a Boulder judge who issued a warrant for Karr's arrest on charges of first degree-murder, kidnapping, and sexual assault. The district attorney also dispatched one of her investigators to Bangkok.

     After surveilling Karr's apartment building for five days, police and immigration officials took him into custody on August 16, 2006. In response to a Thai police officer who informed Karr that he had been charged with first degree murder in Boulder, Karr declared that his killing of JonBenet had been accidental, and therefore the charge should more appropriately be second-degree murder. He had confessed again.

     After being flown to Los Angeles from Bangkok, Karr arrived in Colorado on August 24, 2006 where he was incarcerated in the Boulder County Jail. Four days later, the John Mark Karr phase of the Ramsey case came to an abrupt end when Mary Lacy announced that because Karr's DNA didn't match the crime scene evidence, the charges against him would be dropped. Moreover, he had not written the ransom note. The case quickly fell out of the news, and John Mark Karr slipped back into obscurity.

The 1999 Indictments

     The JonBenet Ramsey case shot back into the news in October 2013 when a Colorado judge ordered the release of indictments returned against the Ramseys in 1999. The Boulder County Grand Jury alleged that each parent "did permit a child to be unreasonably placed in a situation which posed a threat of injury to the child's life or health which resulted in the death of JonBenet Ramsey." The grand jurors also alleged that the Ramseys "did render assistance to a person, with intent to hinder, delay and prevent the discovery, detention, apprehension, prosecution and punishment of said person for the commission of a crime, knowing the person being assisted has committed and was suspected of the crime of murder in the first degree and child abuse resulting in death."

     Boulder district attorney Alex Hunter refused to sign off on the indictments because the charges were not supported by sufficient evidence to support a conviction.

     In speaking to reporters, the Ramsey family attorney L. Lin Wood called the indictments "nonsensical." According to Wood, "they reveal nothing about the evidence reviewed by the grand jury and are clearly the result of a confused and compromised process."

     Regarding the old indictments, CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Tobin, in pointing out the indictments merely showed that a majority of the grand jurors felt there was probable cause to charge the parents--a lower standard than proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt--said, "it doesn't precisely say that the grand jury thought the parents killed JonBenet. It's not precisely clear what they thought."

     In September 2016, the JonBenet Ramsey case shot back into the news with television documentaries revisiting the murder and shedding new light on the case. Notwithstanding the new media attention, the case remained official unsolved.
   

Thornton P. Knowles On Seeking Political Office

What is it about elected office that attracts so many fools, charlatans, crooks, and idiots? It's no wonder that so many citizens hold politicians in such low esteem and don't even bother to vote.

Thornton P. Knowles

The Mark Young Marijuana Sentencing Case

     In the state of Indiana, a person convicted of armed robbery will serve about six years in prison; someone convicted of rape will serve about eight; and a convicted murderer can expect to spend twenty-five years behind bars. These figures are actually higher than the nation average: eleven years and four months in prison is the typical punishment for an American found guilty of murder….

     [In 1990, 38-year-old Mark Young] was arrested at his Indianapolis home for brokering the sale of seven hundred pounds of marijuana grown on a farm in nearby Morgan County. Young was tried and convicted under federal law. He had never before been charged with drug trafficking. He had no history of violent crime. Young's sole role in the illegal transaction had been that of a middleman--he never distributed the drugs; he simply introduced two people hoping to sell a large amount of marijuana to three people wishing to buy it. The offense occurred a year and a half before his arrest. No confiscated marijuana, money, or physical evidence of any kind linked Young to the crime. He was convicted solely on the testimony of co-conspirators who were now cooperating with the government. On February 8, 1992, Mark Young was sentenced by federal judge Sarah Evans Barker to life imprisonment without possibility of parole.

Eric Schlosser, Reefer Madness, 2003

Monday, August 20, 2018

The Lawrence Capener Knife Attack

     On Sunday morning, April 28, 2013, all hell broke loose inside St. Jude Thaddeus Catholic Church in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The mass had just ended and the choir had begun its final hymn when a 24-year-old man who had been nervous acting and fidgety throughout the service vaulted over several pews toward the front of the church. Lawrence Capener, the crazed churchgoer, possessed a knife which he used to stab the choir director several times.

     Gerald Madrid, the church flutist, came to Adam Alvarez's rescue by attempting to put Lawrence Capener into a bear hug. During the scuffle, Capener, before collapsing to the church floor under the weight of other churchgoers who mobbed him, stabbed the flutist five times in the back. Daren De Aquero, an off-duty Albuquerque police officer, put the subdued assailant into handcuffs.

     Greg Aragon, an off-duty Albuquerque Fire Department Lieutenant, treated the choir director, the man who came to his aid, and a female member of the choir who had been slashed by Capener's knife. None of the victims incurred life-threatening injuries.

     As Capener was led out of the church, an elderly parishioner spoke to him. She said, "God bless you, forgive yourself."

     "You don't know about the Masons," the attacker replied.

     Later that Sunday, a local prosecutor charged Lawrence Capener with three counts of aggravated battery. A magistrate set his bail at $250,000.

     After detectives advised Capener of his Miranda rights, the subject informed his interrogators that he was "99 percent sure" that the choir director was a Mason involved in a conspiracy "that is far more reaching than I could or would believe." He apologized for stabbing the flutist and the woman in the choir.

     While Capener does not belong to the 3,000-member church, his mother was an active parishioner. He had recently graduated from a community college, and had started a new job. According to people who know him, Capener struggled with mental illness.

     In February 2014, Carpener's attorney petitioned the court to lower his client's bail so he could live at home under the supervision of a GPS device. The judge, after hearing from Carpener's victims, denied the request. The trial was scheduled for September 2014.

     On September 29, 2014, pursuant to a plea bargain deal, a judge sentenced Lawrence Capener to five years in prison.

Thornton P. Knowles On Point Of View

I don't know what is worse, being on the outside looking in, or being on the inside looking out. I guess it depends on who you are. Like a lot of novelists, I've always felt like I was on the outside of society looking in, never fully belonging. It's a lonely life, but there's nothing I can do about it. You're either in or you're out, and that's just the way it is.

Thornton P. Knowles

Sunday, August 19, 2018

The Alexander Kinyua: Cannibalism Murder Case

     Cannibalism by cold-blooded serial killers, or psychotics under the influence of mind-altering drugs, is a rare form of criminal homicide. In 1936, Albert Fish, a child molester, serial killer, and cannibal, died in Sing Sing's electric chair. He is believed to have eaten 28 children. Ed Gein, a Wisconsin butcher (a really disturbing thought) robbed graves, committed serial murder, and ate (and sold) human flesh. In 1968, the authorities sent Gein to a state mental institution for life. Another Wisconsin man, Jeffery Dahmer, killed and ate the parts of dozens of young homosexual men. When arrested in 1991, the police found heads and other body parts in his refrigerator. One of Dahmer's fellow inmates bludgeoned him to death in 1994.

     In May 2012, the big true crime stories in the news involved cannibalism. In Miami, a police officer killed Rudy Eugene as he ate most of a homeless man's face along a busy highway. Eugene is believed to  have been under the influence of a LSD-like drug called bath salts. His victim is in critical condition. In Montreal, Canada, a porn actor named Luka Magnotta stands accused of stabbing and dismembering a man on videotape. The victim's torso was found behind Magnotta's apartment building. The authorities also believe Magnotta is the person who mailed the dismembered man's body parts to Ottawa. And now there was a cannibalism case in Maryland involving a college student named Alexander Kinyua.

The Alexander Kinyua Case

     Alexander Kinyua, a 21-year-old electrical engineering student at Morgan State University in Baltimore, lived with his family in Joppatowne, an unincorporated bedroom community in southwest Maryland. A top student at Morgan State, this native of Kenya was in the ROTC program at the school. Kujoe Agyie-Kodie, a 37-year-old immigrant from Ghana who attended Morgan State as a graduate student, roomed in the Kinya family home.

     At dawn on Friday, May 25,  2012, Agyie-Kodie, wearing at T-shirt and shorts went out for a jog. He left his wallet and his cell phone at the Kinya house. When he didn't return, Alexander's father, Anthony Kinyua, reported him missing to the Harford County Police.

     On Tuesday, May 29, 2012, Alexander Kinya's brother, while in the basement laundry room, discovered two tin cans hidden beneath a blanket. Inside one of the containers he found a human head, and in the other, two hands. Confronted by his brother, Alexander said the bloody objects were not human. The sibling ran to the second floor to fetch his father. When the two of them returned to the basement, Alexander was washing out a pair of empty cans.

     Anthony Kinyua called the Harford County detective who was looking for Kujoe Agyei-Kodie. At the Kinyua house, the detective and his partner found the head and two hands hidden on the first floor of the dwelling. The officers questioned Alexander who admitted murdering Agyei-Kodie with a knife, then dismembering his body. He also confessed to eating the dead man's heart, and part of his brain. Shortly thereafter, the detectives found the headless corpse in a dumpster on the parking lot of the nearby Town Baptist Church.

     Alexander Kinyua was arrested and charged with first-degree murder. He was held without bail at the Harford County Detection Center.

     Three weeks before his homicide arrest, Kinyua was charged with severely beating a fellow student at Morgan State University. He had allegedly blinded the victim's left eye, and fractured his skull, arm, and shoulder. In the days leading up to this vicious assault, Kinyua's behavior had been erratic and bizarre.

     Forensic psychiatrist Steven Hoge, the director of the Columbia-Cornell Forensic Psychiatry Fellowship Program in New York City, in an article, said that cannibalism was usually the product of mind-altering drugs, psychosis, or both. As for the pathological motive behind this kind of violence, Dr. Hoge said that human flesh eaters were trying to "capture the power or the spirit of their victims."

     On August 19, 2013, Alexander Kinyum pleaded guilty but not criminally responsible due to legal insanity. As a result, he would remain incarcerated in a mental institution until a judge ruled him mentally healthy enough to rejoin society. In light of the facts of this case and Kinyua's violent history, it is unlikely he will ever be released back into the world.

     

Shoplifting As a Cultural Phenomenon

What's new about shoplifting today is that it has become a cultural phenomenon--a silent epidemic, driven by pretty much everything in our era. Some scholars connect it to traditional families' disintegration, the American love of shopping, the downshifting of the middle class, global capitalism, immigration, the replacement of independent stores with big chains, and the lessening of faith's hold on conduct. Shoplifting gets tangled up in American cycles of spending and saving, and boom and bust, and enacts the tension between the rage to consume conspicuously and the intention to live thriftily. The most recent suspects include the Great Recession, the increasing economic divide between rich and poor, and ineffectual response to the shamelessness of white-collar fraudsters; the shoplifter as the poor man's Bernard Madoff.

Rachel Shteir, The Steal, 2011

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Death BY Hospital Negligence: The Lynne Spalding Case

     On September 19, 2013, Lynne Spalding, suffering from a bladder infection, checked herself into the San Francisco General Hospital. The 57-year-old native of Peterlee, England worked in San Francisco's tourist industry. The thin, frail divorced mother of two seemed confused and disoriented, perhaps from the effects of  her medication. Members of the hospital staff assigned to her care were under orders to look in on Spalding every fifteen minutes.

     When one of Spalding's friends showed up at the hospital on September 21 for a visit, Spalding was not in her room. Hospital employees searched the immediate area and couldn't find her. Maybe she had checked herself out. The friend went to Spalding's apartment and found it vacant. When Spalding didn't return to her dwelling, the friend filed a missing persons report with the police.

     Over the next few days, the missing woman's friends and members of her family looked for her at various places in the city. They posted missing persons flyers around as well. One of her friends created a "Find Lynne" Facebook page. Deputies with the sheriff's office, the agency in charge of hospital security, conducted a search of the giant medical complex. It seemed this woman had vanished into thin air.

     At ten in the morning of October 8, 2013, seventeen days after Lynne Spalding went missing from her hospital room, a hospital employee discovered the body of a middle-aged woman lying dead in a stairwell used as a fire escape. Todd May, the chief hospital medical officer tentatively identified the dead woman as Lynne Spalding. (I presume she was wearing a hospital identification bracelet.)

     The job of determining when, where, and exactly how this woman had died rested in the hands of the San Francisco Medical Examiner's Office. The principal determination involved Spalding's manner of death. While it was not unreasonable to presume that this hospital patient's death occurred naturally, the forensic pathologist looked for signs of physical trauma that suggested a struggle. The pathologist who performed the autopsy also looked for physical evidence of a sexual assault.

     Assuming the absence of foul play in this unusual death, the Spalding case presented the obvious question as to how this sick woman had gotten from her room to the stairwell without being observed by hospital staff. Unless the stairwell where Spalding's body was found was located in an extremely remote section of the hospital, someone should have detected the odor of decomposition.

     San Francisco General Hospital spokesperson Todd May, at a press conference held on October 8, 2013, said, "What happened at our hospital is horrible. We are here to take care of patients, to heal them, to keep them safe. This has shaken us to our core. Our staff is devastated."

     David Perry, Lynne Spalding's friend and the family spokesperson told reporters that "We need to know what Lynne's condition was. We need to know what she was being treated for and frankly we need to know what medications she was on and what state of mind she was in. We're not trying to place blame. We're trying to find answers."

     On Thursday, October 10, San Francisco General Hospital Chief Operating Officer Roland Pickens announced that pursuant to the medical examiner's office report, the corpse in the stairwell was Lynne Spalding's body. A second hospital spokesperson revealed that the stairwell in question was located several hundred feet from the unit where Spalding was being treated. According to this spokesperson, Spalding was being treated in a unit where patients are not watched closely. This contradicted previous information regarding the fifteen minute patient check-ups.

     In a private ceremony held on October 21, Spalding's body was cremated. (This meant, of course, that there would be no second autopsy if one became necessary.)

     On October 22, 2013, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that four days before sheriff's deputies responded to the dead woman found in the city-owned hospital's stairwell, an orderly had twice stepped over her body thinking she was a homeless person. To reporters, Haig Harris, the attorney representing Spalding's children, said, "This is a hospital. Why didn't somebody put their hand on the body to see if there was a pulse?"

     David Perry, a Spalding family spokesperson said this to reporters: "The family is angry and frustrated and out of patience. While we understand the need for a thorough investigation, it has now been one month and three days since Lynne Spalding went missing....The time for answers and real solutions that will protect lives of future patients is long past due."

     A woman who had been visiting her son at the hospital in June 2013 said she had been locked in the same stairwell. She had taken the stairs instead of the elevator, entering the fifth-floor stairwell without realizing it was an emergency exit. The woman walked down to the ground level, but the door sounded an alarm when she opened it. She slammed the door shut and went back upstairs where she pounded on the door window to attract attention. A nurse who happened by let her back inside. No one had responded to the exit alarm.

     Investigators and hospital authorities did not reveal if Spalding had changed into her street clothes before leaving her room. (The fact the orderly presumed she was a homeless person suggests that she had.) While the coroner still had not revealed Spalding's cause of death, the family was assured she had not been the victim of foul play.

     Dan Cunningham with the San Francisco Police homicide unit announced on October 28, 2013 that four days before Spalding's body was discovered, an Asian man in his thirties wearing a hospital name tag told a hospital supervisor that he had seen a person lying in the stairwell. The supervisor checked out the stairwell but didn't see anyone there. Homicide investigators were trying to identify this man for questioning. (It's not clear if the Asian man was the orderly who stepped over the body on October 4, 2013.)

     On December 15, 2013, the medical examiner's office released the results of Spalding's autopsy. According to the San Francisco medical examiner, Spalding had died of "probable electrolyte imbalance with delirium clinical sepsis." In other words, she had died from a chemical imbalance related to chronic alcoholism. According to Dr. Thomas Shaughnessey, the electrolyte imbalances, in combination with a liver that is unable to compensate form the imbalance, resulted in a collapse of Spalding's heart or brain resulting in her death. The forensic pathologist who performed the autopsy was not able to say exactly when she died.

     Members of Spalding's family immediately disputed the allegation that she was an alcoholic. They were therefore outraged by the contents of the medical examiner's report.

     In February 2014, the Centers For Medicare and Medicaid Services, a federal agency that decides whether hospitals meet minimum standards to be eligible for Medicare payments, announced the results of its extensive investigation into the Spalding tragedy. According to the report, hospital nurses failed to act on a doctor's order that this patient be watched around the clock. Federal investigators also blamed the sheriff's department for not having an emergency plan worked out with hospital staff. Investigators concluded that the hospital's "chaotic and poorly coordinated response had contributed to patient Spalding's death."

     The sheriff, in the wake of the hospital scandal, fired one member of the agency's hospital staff and suspended two others. Five more deputies were disciplined administratively. No hospital employees were punished for the Spalding fiasco.

     The Spalding family filed a wrongful death suit against the hospital and the city. In December 2014, the city of San Francisco settled the case for just under $3 million.

     

Friday, August 17, 2018

Ethel Anderson: The Unrepentant Child Molester

     In 2011, Ethel Anderson, a 29-year-old teacher at the Mango Elementary School in suburban Seffner, Florida outside of Tampa, resided in Riverside with her husband and 5-year-old daughter. Anderson had recently been named the Diversity School Teacher of the Year.

     In December 2011, Teacher of the Year Anderson began tutoring a 12-year-old math student in her home. Over the next three months, she and the boy exchanged 230 pages of test messages in which she described, in vivid language, her lust for the child. Anderson also expressed her anxiety over feeling unattractive because of her weight. In these exchanges, the boy used the name Dirty Dan. No one reading this material would have guessed that Dirty Dan was a 12-year-old kid communicating with one of his public school teachers. The online exchange between teacher and student, while a bit puerile, was pretty raunchy.

     In February 2012, the teacher-student affair ended following a lover's spat. The angry kid got his revenge by telling his mom everything. It's hard to imagine what was going through the mother's mind when her son described receiving oral sex from a woman paid to teach him math. The couple, according to the boy, also simulated various sexual acts while fully clothed. The boy's tutor also fondled him.

     The mother, perhaps worried that school officials and police officers would take the teacher's word over her son's, confronted Anderson before alerting the authorities. During that meeting, the teacher admitted having an inappropriate relationship with the boy. The student's mom, having clandestinely audio-taped the conversation, went to the police with the evidence. (The mother may also have seen the texted messages between her son and Anderson.)

     Hillsborough County Assistant State Attorney Rita Peters, in March 2012, charged Ethel Anderson with nine counts of lewd and lascivious conduct with a child. Each count carried a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison. Following the teacher's arrest, the school suspended her without pay. Eight months later, Anderson resigned.

     The child molestation trial got underway in Tampa on September 18, 2013. The boy, now 14, took the stand for the prosecution. "I felt she was like my real girlfriend," he said. "She said I was her boyfriend and she loved me. I was thinking, 'I'm living a guy's dream...dating my teacher.' "

     According to the young prosecution witness, Anderson told him she planned to leave her husband because he wasn't a good father, and didn't communicate with her. As time went on, however, the student began having doubts about the relationship. "I'm dating a girl I'm in love with and she thinks of me as a kid. It didn't feel right."

     On the third and final day of the trial, defense attorney William Knight, in a bold move, put his client on the stand. Rather than plead some kind of emotional breakdown, drinking problem or addiction to drugs, the former school teacher denied having physical contact with the boy, essentially calling him a liar. Claiming that the 12-year-old had tried to instigate a sexual relationship, Anderson said, "He attempted, at one point, to grab me in an inappropriate manner. He attempted to kiss me and I pushed him off."

     Regarding her sexually vivid text messages, the defendant said they were nothing more than "sexual therapy" tools to get the boy to focus on his studies. "I recognize it was explicit and inappropriate, but it was all fantasy," she said. "He was going through puberty. He couldn't connect with his family. He was always thinking sexually. My purpose was to get his attention."

     Prosecutor Peters, in a blistering cross-examination of the defendant, asked, "You want the jury to believe that you were in fantasyland to help the boy? Was that part of your training as a teacher? So by giving in to these sexual fantasies he did better in school?"

     "Sometimes, yes," Anderson replied.

     Defense attorney Knight, in his closing remarks to the jury, pointed out that the prosecution had not presented one piece of physical evidence proving any kind of sexual contact between his client and the student.

     When it came her turn to address the jury, the prosecutor called the former teacher's attempt to explain herself "remarkable," and "amazing in its audacity." The state attorney told the jurors that "everything the defendant told you defies logic and common sense."

     On December 19, 2013, Circuit Judge Chet Tharpe, calling Ethel Anderson a parent's worst nightmare, sentenced the former teacher to 38 years in prison.

     Judge Tharpe was Anderson's worst nightmare.
 
 
     

Sticky Fingered Grandmas

     Although retail stores once tolerated shoplifting among the elderly, some big-box stores have installed zero-tolerance policies for the crime, which has led to the arrest of more seniors for stealing everything from dentures and hearing-aid batteries to fruit. Whatever kinds of things elderly people shoplift, their crime incites more than its share of rage and suspicion.

     In 2009, Ella Orko, eighty-six-years-old, was arrested for shoplifting at a Chicago supermarket. It was her sixty-first arrest since 1956. The police referred to her as both a "career" shoplifter and a "habitual" shoplifter. Among the items Orko shoplifted were wrinkle cream, canned salmon, instant coffee, and batteries. Over the course of her life, she had assumed at least fifty aliases….

     At sentencing, Orko rolled into court in a wheelchair wearing a neck brace and pleading deafness, although when arrested two days earlier, she was wheelchair-and neck-brace-free. The judge, who wore hearing aids on both ears, sentenced her to time served in light of her advanced age.

Rachel Shteir, The Steal, 2011 

Lifting Latent Fingerprints In The Cold

     We got a call. There had been a break-in and a murder of a man in his cabin. This was in the North Woods; there were still some cabins up there without electricity. We went up there, and it was about ten or twenty degrees below.

     The first thing we had to do was build a fire in the old wood stove to get the cabin up to heat. When it's that cold, you can't do any latent fingerprint processing. The reason is, if you put a fingerprint down in freezing temperature, the moisture you transfer, perspiration, is going to freeze. And the fingerprint powder will not stick to the print. It'll run right off. You basically need a little bit of humidity in the air to process latent prints. If it's cold, you warm the area up, and what your doing is, you're thawing the fingerprint out.

     We spent the first five hours at the scene building a fire and warming the place up just so we could go through and process the cabin for fingerprints.

Crime Scene Investigator in Connie Fletcher's, Crime Scene, 2006

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Who Started The Black Forest Wildfire?

     A wildfire is generally defined as an uncontrolled fire in an area of combustable vegetation that occurs in the countryside or a wilderness area. Fires of this nature can be brush fires or forest fires. Wildfires are caused naturally by lightening strikes and accidentally by careless campers. Occasionally controlled fires set by government fire officials to reduce highly combustable underbrush grow out of control and burn down the entire forest. Wildfires are also caused by arsonists whose motives are usually pathological.

     At two in the afternoon of Tuesday, June 11, 2013, a fire that started in the Black Forest north of Colorado Springs, Colorado, quickly raged out of control. When finally contained and extinguished on Thursday, June 20, the blaze had killed two people, destroyed 509 homes, and blackened 22 square miles of land. The Black Forest disaster is the most destructive wildfire in the history of the state.

     Fire investigation specialists with the ATF, the U. S. Forestry Service, and the El Paso County Sheriff's Office have ruled out nature and accident as the cause of the Black Forest Wildfire. That meant the fire had been intentionally set. Because the blaze killed two people, the case was being handled, under the felony-murder doctrine, as a possible arson-murder case.

     At the suspected area of the wildfire's origin, investigators were seen crawling on their hands and knees in search of physical clues pertaining to the method of ignition, and the identity of the fire setter.

     In terms of establishing the cause of a fire--locating its point of origin or origins--the debris analysis of a structural fire generally provides a more complete and clearer picture of the fire's cause. Signs of an incendiary structural fire might include heavy burning and intense heat at a spot without an ignition source, multiple points of origin, and traces of an accelerant such as gasoline. These arson indicators usually don't exist at the scene of an intentionally set wildfire.

     Because wildfires begin in remote areas, there are usually no eyewitnesses to the event. In home and business arson cases, investigative leads include the standard motives of insurance fraud and the elimination of a business competitor. In fatal fires, all of the motives that go with criminal homicide are available to the investigator. These leads and pool of usual suspects are rarely available in wildfire arson cases.

     In November 2014, the El Paso County Sheriff's Office completed its investigation into the Black Forest Wildfire. According to a sheriff's office spokesperson, while the fire was caused by a person, investigators had been unable to identify that person or whether or not the fire had been an act of arson. Perhaps it had been a campfire that had not been properly extinguished. Having exhausted all leads, the case was closed and would go into the books as unsolved.
     

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

The Brett Seacat Arson-Murder Case

     In 2011, 35-year-old Brett Seacat, a police instructor at the Kansas Law Enforcement Training Center, lived with his wife Vashti and their two boys, aged two and four, in Kingman, Kansas. During the early morning hours of April 30, 2011, a fire broke out in the Seacat house in the small south central Kansas town of three thousand. Brett and the boys got out of the dwelling unharmed. Vashti Seacat, found by firefighters in her bed with a bullet in her brain, did not.

     According to Brett Seacat, he had been sleeping on the living room couch when, during the middle of the night, his wife called him on her cellphone from the master bedroom with instructions to get the boys out of the house. He ran upstairs to find the master bedroom on fire. When Brett lifted his wife from the bed, her body was limp, and she was bleeding from a bullet wound to her head. Because the room was breaking out in flames, Brett left his wife and rushed to save the boys.

     Arson investigators determined that someone used gasoline as an accelerant to set fires at several points of origin in the Seacat master bedroom. Criminal investigators with the Kansas Bureau of Investigation (KBI) assumed that the arsonist had shot the victim in the head before torching the house. Since the Seacats were in the midst of a divorce, suspicion immediately fell upon Brett Seacat as the arson-murderer.

     On May 12, 2011, two agents with the KBI interrogated Brett Seacat at the Reno County Sheriff's Office. The session lasted seven hours during which time the suspect admitted that he had purchased software to track his wife's text messages and her GPS location. He told his questioners that he had threatened to move out of the house with the boys if his wife proceeded with the divorce. The day before her death, Vashti had served her husband with the divorce papers.

     During the interrogation, Seacat also conceded that on the day before his wife's sudden and violent death, he was in his office at the training center destroying computer hard drives. He said he understood why the investigators considered him a suspect in his wife's death and the arson, but insisted that she had set the fire before shooting herself in the head. According to the suspect, this was an arson-suicide case, not an arson-murder.

     In describing his discovery of the fire and his wife's body, Seacat said, "I remember hearing my own voice inside my head saying, 'dead.' Then all of a sudden it sort of came to me, 'dead, fire,
kids.' "

     In the course of the prolonged interrogation (the suspect was not under arrest), Seacat showed no emotion, and on several occasions laughed with his questioners. The KBI agents made it clear they didn't think Seacat's account of that night made any sense. Why would Vashti risk her children's lives by setting the fire, calling him on the phone, then climbing into bed, pulling up the covers, and shooting herself in the head? Moreover, Brett had no traces of soot from the fire, or blood from his wife, on his clothing. The suspect responded to this by saying: "I'm with you on that. It doesn't make sense at all."

     Agents with the KBI, on Friday, May 14, 2011, arrested Brett Seacat on charges of first-degree murder, aggravated arson, and two counts of child endangerment. A magistrate set his bail at $1 million.

     On May 23, 2013, the Seacat murder trial got underway at the Kingman County Court House in the town of Kingman. Following the opening statements by the attorneys on both sides of the case, the state began presenting its evidence with testimony from the medical examiner, arson investigators, and the KBI agents who had interrogated the defendant in May of 2011.

     On May 30, 2013, the state put Karen Roberts on the stand. Roberts, who worked with the defendant at the Kansas Law Enforcement Training Center, testified that on the day before Vashti Seacat's death, the defendant had asked for an overhead projector to be pulled out of storage. According to the witness, Seacat spent the entire day locked into his office. (According to prosecutors, the last handwritten entry in the victim's journal, a message suggesting suicide, had been forged. Pursuant to this theory, Seacat had used the overhead projector to practice writing in his wife's hand. Seacat claimed that he needed the device in connection with a fraud investigation he was conducting.)

     KBI forensic scientist Chris Riddle, on May 31, 2013, testified that he had found traces of gasoline on the defendant's trousers. A state forensic document examiner revealed that the last entry in Vashti's journal was not in her handwriting. The expert could not, however, identify the defendant as the forger.

     Joy Trotnic, one of Vashti Seacat's co-workers, took the stand and said that on the day before her death, Vashti had expressed concern that her estranged husband would not move out of the house as promised. "Do you think Brett would burn down the house with me in it?" she asked.

     Connie Suderman, the Seacat marriage counselor, told the jurors that the defendant had called her shortly after Vashti's death. According to this witness, he said, "I killed her. Vashti is dead and it's my fault." In describing her conversation with the defendant that day, the therapist said, "I wouldn't say in hearing his voice that I thought he was distressed in any way. He was quite calm. I didn't hear sadness. I didn't hear tearfulness or crying or expressions of surprise or horror or words of exhaustion."

     According to the marriage counselor, Vashti Seacat had indicated that her husband "wasn't doing well" with the pending divorce. "She [Vashti] told me that he [the defendant] had awakened her from her sleep and told her that he had a dream that he had killed her.

     On June 6, 2013, after the prosecution rested its case, defense attorney Roger Falk put his client on the stand. The defendant explained that he had melted two laptop hard drives after he had arrived at work that day to protect against identity theft. He said he had planned to sell the computers. During his testimony, the defendant spoke with ease, and occasionally smiled at the jurors. While portraying himself as a loving husband and father, the defendant admitted that he had threatened to expose his wife's alleged affairs, wreck her career, and take away her sons if she divorced him.

     An expert witness named Gene Gietzen testified for the defense that the pair of trousers the defendant had been wearing on the day in question had been improperly packaged by a KBI arson investigator. As a result, this evidence could have been contaminated.

     On Monday, June 10, 2013, the prosecutor and the defense attorney made their closing arguments to the jury of five men and eight women. The next day, the jury returned its verdict: guilty of all charges. At Seacat's sentencing hearing on August 5, 2013, the judge sentenced Seacat to life in prison.