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Tuesday, December 31, 2019

The McStay Family Murder Case

     Joseph McStay, a 40-year-old owner of a company that installed home water fountains, resided with his wife Summer and their two boys in Fallbrook, a suburban community 55 miles north of San Diego, California. On Monday, February 8, 2010, the McStays were reported missing after a security guard in Ysidro, a town across the border from Tijuana, Mexico, discovered the family's locked and apparently abandoned Isuzu Trooper parked in a mini-mall parking lot two blocks from the border.

     A surveillance camera on a neighbor's house in Fallbrook showed the couple and their boys, ages three and four, pulling out of their driveway in their SUV at 7:45 in the morning of February 4, 2010.

     Poor quality surveillance camera footage on the Ysidro/Tijuana border revealed a family resembling the McStays walking into Mexico four days after they were video-recorded leaving their home in Fallbrook.

     On February 14, 2010, police officers entered the McStay's cul-de-sac home in Fallbrook. The house had not been forcibly entered. Moreover, officers found no evidence of a struggle or the theft of household property. Police officers found bowls of popcorn in the living room and eggs on the kitchen counter. The family's two dogs were in the backyard, an indication the McStays hadn't planned for an extended trip.

     Investigators found no recent activity on the McStay's credit cards or bank account. An examination of their home computer revealed an Internet search that read: "What documents do children need for traveling to Mexico." Friends and relatives, however, had no knowledge that the McStays had planned a short trip into Mexico. After leaving Fallbrook that morning, the family simply disappeared.

     At ten in the morning of November 11, 2013, an off-road motorcyclist near a dirt road in the desert outside the San Bernardino County town of Victorville, came across what appeared to be human bones. At that location, 100 miles north of Fallbrook, detectives discovered two shallow graves each containing two sets of skeletal remains. A few of the bones had been scattered by animals. Items of clothing were also recovered from the scene. The remains were not far from Interstate 15 that connects that part of California to Las Vegas.

     Forensic scientists, through dental records, identified Joseph McStay and his 43-year-old wife Summer as being the two adults found in one of the desert graves. The other two sets of skeletons belonged to their children. According to San Bernardino County Sheriff John McMahon, the McStays and their children had been murdered. The Sheriff, at that time, did not reveal how they had been killed. There were no suspects.

     In speaking to reporters, Joseph McStay's father said he did not believe the people in the Ysidro surveillance footage seen walking into Mexico depicted his son and his family. "My son doesn't walk that way," he said. "They didn't walk into Mexico. They would never do that." The father explained that his son and his wife were aware of the Mexican drug gangs and would not have exposed the children to that risk.

     On November 5, 2014, deputies with the San Bernardino Sheriff's Office arrested Charles "Chase" Merritt at his  home in Chatsworth, California for the murder of the McStay family. The 57-year-old and Joseph McStay had been business partners. The authorities did not reveal a motive for the mass murder.

     Investigators believed the victims had been bludgeoned to death in their Fallbrook home. They had not traveled to Mexico after all. Apparently the murder suspect had disposed of their bodies in the desert outside of Victorville. Deputies booked Merritt into the West Valley Detention Center on four counts of murder. The judge denied the suspect bail.

     In the wake of Chase Merritt's arrest, Patrick McStay, Joseph McStay's father, criticized the San Diego County Sheriff's Office. According to the father, the agency that initially took control of the case didn't actively investigate it. Detectives in San Diego were operating on the theory that the family had traveled to Mexico where they were killed.

     "I know they screwed this thing up," Mr. McStay said. "All the rest was just sugar coating to make it look like they really were interested in solving the case, doing something. They did virtually nothing."

     Regarding the quadruple murder suspect, Mr. McShay said, "Chase was always somebody chasing the dollar. I think that's what it was. It was all about the money."

     On January 30, 2015, Chase Merritt told a judge that he wanted to represent himself at his upcoming murder trial. He said he only had six to eight months to live and wanted to move the process along as quickly as he could. In November 2014, he had been diagnosed with congestive heart failure. Merritt's attorney, Robert Ponce, despite his client's health problems and lack of legal background, informed the judge that Merritt had the intellect to adequately defend himself. The judge scheduled a hearing on the issue for February 20, 2015.

     The judge denied Merritt's request to represent himself, and scheduled the murder trial for July 2015. In July, the judge moved the trial date to September. On September 4, 2015, the same judge postponed the trial to allow Merritt's attorneys to request funds for an expert witness. The Merritt defense hoped to find a forensic scientist to contest the prosecution's key piece of physical evidence: the defendant's DNA inside the victim family's vehicle.

     Finally, after numerous appeals, motions, and judicial delays, a San Bernardino County judge set Merritt's murder trial date for November 13, 2017, seven years after the McStay family murders. In California, the wheels of justice turned slowly.

     Finally, in June 2019, following a four-month trial, jurors in San Bernardino found Charles "Chase" Merritt guilty of four counts of first-degree murder. The jury recommended the death penalty. The judge set the sentencing hearing for December 13, 2019.

     On November 3, 2019, the judge delayed Merritt's sentence hearing after Merritt's lead attorney claimed that a conflict of interest had come up that prevented him from staying on the case. The judge allowed the attorney to withdraw and set the sentencing for January 17, 2020. 

Was J. Edgar Hoover Murdered?

     I've seen some exhumations that are irresponsible attempts to disturb the dead for the sake of providing a harebrained theory, and I've seen others that are scientifically worthy. Some notable people die surrounded by legends and half-truths, making it legitimate to exhume their remains in an age where science can supply answers to the cause and manner of death, especially if the person in question has historical significance.

     Without being conspiracy theorists, we can say that the questions raised on the death of an individual can be many and varied. For example, why did three medical doctors decide not to autopsy the remains of J. Edgar Hoover, a man with many enemies and no history of medical ailments? Shouldn't we find out more through an exhumation? [Hoover was director of the FBI from 1924 to 1972. While he did have a lot of enemies, there is no evidence he was murdered. This is one of those harebrained conspiracy theories.]

James E. Starrs (with Katherine Ramsland), A Voice for the Dead, 2005

Not Everyone is a Fan of the Whodunit

The tradition of the mystery or crime novel is an old and honored one, but it's quality has been debased. And possibly nothing has done more harm to the nature of mystery fiction than the notion that it should concern itself more with "whodunit" than why the deed was done. Chief among those responsible for this decline in Agatha Christie.

Thomas H. Cook, themysteryguild.com, 2003 

The College Nonfiction Writing Class

In your nonfiction writing class [the professor should] always be ready to "tie in" whatever you're talking about with its application out in the world. Undergrads are terribly conscious they'll soon become human beings, and are delighted to know that some of the stuff they're learning may be useful after they leave this artificial hothouse called college. As a writing teacher you'll have more of an advantage in this regard than teachers of most of the other "humanities" courses.

Martin Russ, Showdown Semester, 1980 

The Writer in Hollywood

I knew her name--Madam Hollywood. I rose and said good-by to this strumpet in her bespangled red gown; good-by to her lavender-painted cheeks, her coarsened laugh, her straw-dyed hair, her wrinkled fingers bulging with gems. A wench with flaccid tits and sandpaper skin under her silks, shined up and whistling like a whore in a park; covered with stink like a railroad station pissery and swinging a dead ass in the moonlight.

Ben Hecht, (1893-1964) novelist, journalist, screenwriter 

Monday, December 30, 2019

The Tiffany Alberts Child Abuse Case: A Crime in Search of an Explanation

     In 2016, Tiffany Alberts lived with her husband Jason and their two children, a 13-year-old girl and a boy who was 15. The family resided in Wolcott, Indiana, a small town in the northwestern corner of the state. Tiffany worked as a special education teacher in the Tri-County School District.

     In the spring of 2016, Tiffany Alberts' life took a turn for the worse when her husband Jason died. About this time, doctors diagnosed her 13-year-old daughter with follicular adnexal carcinoma, a rare form of skin cancer. The local fire department held a benefit for Tiffany to help pay her medical expenses that included her daughter's cancer operation that turned out successful.

     In July 2016, Tiffany Alberts received more bad news when doctors diagnosed her mildly autistic son with leukemia. The 15-year-old was taken to Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis, Indiana where, in the Intensive Care Unit, he began a round of chemotherapy.

     Tiffany Albert's son responded well to the chemotherapy sessions, and was discharged in September 2016. But after spending a few days at home, the boy was back in the ICU with a fever accompanied by vomiting and diarrhea. A blood test revealed the presence of organisms found in stool. Doctors were at a loss to explain how this substance had found its way into his system.

    After the young patient failed to respond to medication for his infection, members of the Riley Children's Hospital staff suspected that someone was contaminating his IV fluid. To confirm this suspicion, staff members installed hidden video cameras in his hospital room.

    On November 17, 2016, Tiffany Alberts was recorded injecting liquid into her son's IV line. That substance was tested and turned out to be the patient's own fecal matter.

     When questioned by an investigator with a child protection service, the 38-year-old mother said she had injected water into her son's IV line to "flush it as the medicine that was given burned." When pressed regarding the plausibility of this explanation, Tiffany Alberts confessed to intentionally injecting her son's own fecal matter into his IV fluid. She said she had started doing this on November 13, four days earlier.

     When asked the obvious question as to why she had intentionally made her son sick, the mother said she had made him ill in hopes of causing his transfer to another hospital unit where he would receive better care.

      Shortly after hospital authorities denied Tiffany Alberts access to her son, the boy quickly recovered. According to the physician who was treating the boy, he could have died of septic shock.

     On November 26, 2016, a Marion County prosecutor charged Tiffany Alberts with six counts of aggravated battery and one count of neglect of a dependent resulting in serious bodily injury. After officers booked her into the Marion County Jail, Alberts posted the $80,000 surety bond and was released. A few months later, the prosecutor added the charge of attempted murder.

     The Tiffany Alberts case went to trial in September 2019, and resulted in a verdict of guilty on the aggravated battery and neglect of a dependent charges. The jury acquitted the defendant of attempted murder.

     In December 2019, the judge sentenced Tiffany Alberts to seven years in prison followed by five years of probation. Her son survived his ordeal and recovered fully,

     Although the issue was not raised, this case had all the earmarks of a crime motivated by a mother with a condition called Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy, an emotional disorder in which a caregiver makes the person under her care sick as a way of gaining sympathy and attention for herself. 

When a Haircut is Not Just a Haircut

     At five in the afternoon on Saturday, December 21, 2019, a man brought his 13-year-old son to a barbershop in Katy, Texas called Magic's Kutts and Fades. Following the haircut, the boy and his father left the shop. A short time later, the father and his son returned to the barbershop. Upon his return, the father complained about his son's look. The boy climbed back onto the chair and the barber fixed the problem without charge.

     Following the second cut, the barber and the boy's father got into an argument in the parking lot outside the shop. The fight ended when the father pulled a gun and shot the barber in the leg, arm, and stomach. As the barber lay bleeding outside the shop, the father and his son drove off.

     The wounded barber was rushed by ambulance to a nearby hospital where he was expected to survive the shooting. Meanwhile, deputies with the Harris County Sheriff's Officer were searching for the shooter.

     Some people take haircuts very seriously. 

Rape: A Serial Crime

The odds that any given rape was committed by a serial offender are around 90 percent.

Jon krakauer, Missoula Rape and the Justice System in a College Town, 2015

Defending the Police

The only people who distrust the cops are crooks. They're not out there just harassing innocent people. Maybe sometimes they do. But there's no inherent situation where cops are deliberately out there harassing people.

Charles Barkley, former NBA player

One of the Most Famous Lines in Hardboiled Fiction

"Why did you kill her?" the policeman in the rear seat asked. "They shoot horses, don't they?" I said.

Horace McCoy (1887-1955) They Shoot Horses, Don't They, 1935

The Evolution of The Memoir From Nonfiction to Quasi Fiction

Bending the truth wasn't always part of the autobiographer's tool kit. In the middle of the last century, when Mary McCarthy published Catholic Girlhood, memoirists weren't even supposed to cobble up dialogue from memory. Her nonfiction standards were those for histories and biographies and journalism--forms then still held to be fairly irrefutable. Whether we were more gullible or more secretive or the standards more rigorous then, I can't say--probably all three.

Mary Karr, The Art of Memoir, 2015

Stealing a Man's Wife

Stealing a man's wife, that's nothing, but stealing his car, that's larceny.

James M. Cain (1892-1977) hardboiled crime fiction writer

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Ethan Couch and the Infamous "Affluenza" Defense

     On the night of June 15, 2013, in Fort Worth, Texas, 16-year-old Ethan Couch and seven of  his friends stole two cases of beer from a local Walmart store. A few hours later, Couch, behind the wheel of his wealthy family's F-350 pickup, sped down a poorly lit rural road. With his blood-alcohol level three times the legal limit, and seven passengers in the truck--two of whom were riding in the bed of the vehicle--he lost control of the pickup.

     Couch's truck plowed into vehicles parked along the side of the road. The two boys in the bed of the truck were flung out of the pickup and severely injured. Breanna Mitchell, whose SUV had broken down was off the road, was killed. Brian Jennings, Shelby Boyles, and Hollie Boyles, people who had pulled off the road to help Breanna, also died in the crash.

     Ethan Couch, on the advise of his attorneys, pleaded guilty to four counts of intoxication manslaughter. This meant the only issue left to be resolved in the case involved his punishment. Was he a troubled kid who needed psychological treatment, or a spoiled brat who required incarceration? If punishment was appropriate in this case, how severe? Did it matter that he was only sixteen? These were questions that would have to be resolved by juvenile court judge Jean Boyd.

     At Ethan Couch's sentence hearing held in Fort Worth on December 10, 2013, Tarrant County Assistant District Attorney Richard Alpert proposed that the defendant be incarcerated for twenty years. In addressing Judge Boyd, Alpert said, "If the boy, who is from an affluent family, is cushioned by the family's wealth, there can be no doubt that he will be in another courthouse one day blaming the leniency he received here." The prosecutor pointed out that inmates in Texas who needed it received drug and alcohol treatment.

     One of the defendant's attorneys, Scott Brown, argued that his client required rehabilitation more than he needed treatment.

     Couch's attorney recommended a two-year treatment program at a $1,200-a-day rehabilitation center near Newport Beach, California followed by a period of probation. The $450,000-a-year program in southern California featured equine sports, yoga, and messages. (It also probably featured rubbing shoulders with a lot of drug-addled Hollywood celebrities.) According to attorney Brown, the boy's parents were willing to pick up the California rehabilitation tab.

     Dr. Dick Miller, a clinical psychologist from Bedford, Texas testified at the sentencing hearing on the defendant's behalf. According to Dr. Miller, Ethan Couch suffered from what he called "affluenza," a syndrome caused by rich parents who didn't set limits and discipline their children. As a result of being spoiled rotten, Ethan didn't know how to behave appropriately.

     Judge Boyd stunned the prosecutor and friends and families of the four victims when she sentenced the teenager to ten years of probation. The judge said she would find a treatment program for the boy in the state of Texas. If he violated the terms of his probation, he could be sent to a juvenile detention facility.

     Eric Boyles had lost his wife Hollie and his daughter Shelby in Couch's drunken crash. In speaking to a CNN correspondent, he said, "There are absolutely no consequences for what occurred that day….Money always seems to keep you out of trouble. Ultimately today, I feel that money did prevail."

     In responding to Judge Boyd's decision, prosecutor Alpert told a reporter that "We are disappointed by the punishment assessed but we have no power under the law to change or overturn it."

     In horrific homicides like this, when there is no retribution, the public loses confidence in the criminal justice system. While rich people do not always get their way in criminal court, the public perception is that they do.

     The so-called "affluenza" case jumped back in the news in December 2015 after a video appeared online featuring Ethan Couch and several other youngsters playing beer pong. This was a clear violation of the terms of Couch's probation. When the kid's probation officer lost touch with him, the authorities in Tarrant County issued a warrant for his arrest. Also missing was Tonya Couch, the boy's mother with whom he had been living.

     Because the local authorities believed the boy and his mother might have fled the country to avoid the possibility of Ethan's incarceration, FBI agents and U. S. Marshal's office investigators were involved in the hunt for the mother and her son.

     On December 29, 2015, Ethan Couch and his mother were arrested in the Mexican resort city of Puerto Vallarta.

     Upon the teen's return to the U.S., a judge transferred Couch's case from the juvenile system to adult court. In 2016, pursuant to his probation violation, the judge sentenced Couch to two years behind bars.

     Couch's attorneys appealed the adult prison sentence to the Texas Supreme Court on the grounds the judge did not have the legal authority to make the transfer to adult court. The attorneys asked the high court to order Couch's release from prison. The Texas Supreme Court denied that request. Young Mr. Couch would do his time behind bars.

     On April 2, 2018, Ethan Couch was released from prison after serving two years. A year later, the judge allowed Couch to continue his probation without wearing an ankle monitor.
        

The Casey Anthony Murder Verdict

As I listened to the verdict in the Casey Anthony case, acquitting her of the homicide of her baby girl, I relived what I felt back when the clerk read the verdict in the Simpson case. But this case is different. The verdict is far more shocking. Why? Because Casey Anthony was no celebrity.

Marcia Clerk, O.J. Simpson case prosecutor 

Hit-and-Run in the U.S.

Since 2006 in the United States, there have been just under 700,000 hit-and-run cases every year. About 65 percent of the fatal cases involved pedestrians and bicyclists. 

Stop-And-Frisk

Stop-and-frisk is not something that you can stop. It is an absolutely basic tool of American policing. It would be like asking a doctor to give an examination without his stethoscope.

William Bratton, NYC Police Commissioner 1994-1996 and 2014-2016

A Good Lawyer

A good lawyer knows the law. A great lawyer knows the judge.

Unknown

Is Television Drama Replacing the Novel?

     Television was so bad for so long, it's no surprise that the arrival of good television has caused the culture to lose its head a bit. Since the debut of "The Sopranos" in 1999, we have been living, so we are regularly informed, in a "golden age" of television. And over the last few years, it's become common to hear variations on the idea that quality cable TV shows are the new novels.

     To liken TV shows to novels suggests an odd ambivalence toward both genres. Clearly, the comparison is intended to honor TV, by associating it with the prestige and complexity that traditionally belong to literature. But at the same time, it is covertly a form of aggression against literature, suggesting that novels have ceded their role to a younger, more popular, more dynamic art form. Mixed feelings about literature--the desire to annex its virtues while simultaneously belittling them--are typical of our culture today, which doesn't know quite how to deal with an art form, like the novel, that is both democratic and demanding. [I don't know about democratic, but demanding, yes. Instead of demanding, I would use the term pretentious to people other than English lit professors who force these "literary" novels on students, some of whom who will someday push this unreadable literature on their students. Genre fiction, however, will always remain popular, television or not.]

     Spectacle and melodrama remain at the heart of TV, as they do with all arts that must reach a large audience in order to be economically viable. But it is voice, tone, the sense of the author's mind at work, that are the essence of literature, and they exist in language, not in images. This doesn't mean we shouldn't be grateful for our good TV shows; but let's not fool ourselves into thinking that they give us what only literature can.

Adam Kirsch, "Are the New 'Golden Age' TV Shows the New Novels?" The New York Times, February 25, 2014

Political Correctness In Regency And Georgian Romance Novels

The attitudes between men and women have to be politically correct even when you're writing Regency and Georgian period historical romance novels. You're going to alienate readers if you have terribly domineering men and very submissive women. That might be a historically accurate way to look at men and women, but you really can't get away with that in modern novels. You have to somehow skirt around that and make the heroes sensitive to women and respect them even while obviously they were more domineering than modern men would be. You have to do the corresponding thing with women. They have to be a little less submissive.

Mary Balogh, likebooks.com, 1998 

Making History Interesting Reading

Most people think of history as old dead stuff, and who can blame them? It's so often presented that way, like bad-tasting medicine that supposedly is good for you. History is about life and people and the writing must bring these people and their times to life. The story of our country is so strong, so compelling, so very important. I want to share the wealth.

David McCullough, The Writing Life, 1995

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Cities Where Bullets Fly and People Die

In the early morning hours of Sunday, December 22, 2019, in Baltimore, Maryland, two men shot seven people outside a hookah lounge. A few hours earlier, in separate incidents, three people were shot in East Baltimore. On Sunday evening, three more victims were shot. These people were murdered. In 2019, 342 people have been murdered in Baltimore. The city is having its deadliest year ever. On this Sunday, in Chicago, 13 people were shot in a home in south Chicago. In 2019, 508 people were murdered in the Windy City. Other places where murder has become routine are: St. Louis, Detroit, New Orleans, Memphis, Newark, Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia. Inner city homicide has become so common it's now essentially ignored by the national media. By contrast, when a kid shoots up a school, cable news channels cover the story nonstop for three days. 

Finders Keepers

     Four home remodelers no longer face criminal charges for spending $60,000 they had found hidden inside a home in western Pennsylvania…The theft and related charges were dismissed in December 2014 by a Washington County judge in what has become known as the "finders, keepers" case…

     The four men had been working as under-the-table laborers, fixing up an unoccupied house, when they found the money hidden in a second-floor dormer. The newest bills dated to the 1980s. The men didn't report the find and split the cash equally. The man they had been working for learned of the discovery and reported them to the police.

     The judge ruled that because the money's owner couldn't be identified, the four workers didn't have criminal intent to steal the cash.

"Charges Dismissed Against Crew That Found $60,000," Associated Press, January 2, 2015  

At The Mercy of a Jury

Having your fate rest in the hands of a jury is the same as entrusting yourself to surgery with a mentally retarded doctor.

Bill Messing

Mark Twain and His Typewriter

     Mark Twain loved gadgets and would buy the latest thing when it came out. When typewriters hit the market, he was among the first to buy one for the then outrageous price of $125 (more than $2,150 in today's money.) Twain was also the first author ever to submit a typewritten manuscript to a publisher. It was 1833 and the book was Life on the Mississippi. 

     Twain used the "hunt and peck" typing method. He didn't know the touch-typing system of using all the fingers. Nobody did, because it wouldn't be invented for another quarter century. Twain eventually traded his Remington typewriter for a $12 saddle.

Erin Barrett and Jack Mingo, It Takes a Certain Type To Be a Writer, 2003 

How Publishers Screen Manuscripts

Publishers will tell you...that every manuscript which reaches their office is faithfully read, but they are not to be believed. At least fifteen out of twenty manuscripts can be summarily rejected, usually with safety. There may be a masterpiece among them, but it is a thousand to one against.

Michael Joseph in Rotten Reviews & Rejections, 1998

Janet Malcolm's Famous Take on Journalists

Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man preying on peoples' vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse. Like the credulous widow who wakes up one day to find the charming young man and all her savings gone, so the consenting subject of a piece of nonfiction writing learns--when the article or book appears--his hard lesson. Journalists justify their treachery in various ways according to their temperaments. The more pompous talk about freedom of speech and "the public's right to know", the least talented talk about Art; the seemliest murmur about earning a living.

Janet Malcolm, The Journalist and the Murderer, 1990

Friday, December 27, 2019

Clayton Lockett: When the Death Penalty is Not Enough

     On June 3, 1999, in Perry, Oklahoma, 23-year-old Clayton Lockett, a violent criminal, accompanied by a pair of crime associates, invaded a home and severely beat the occupant. While Lockett was assaulting 23-year-old Bobby Lee Bornt over a debt, a girl just out of high school knocked on Bornt's front door. Lockett appeared in the doorway and pulled  the girl into the house.

     After hitting the stunned visitor in the face with a shotgun, Lockett put the gun to her head and ordered her to invite her 18-year-old friend, Stephanie Neiman, into the duplex. Neiman had graduated from Perry High School less than a month earlier. She had been a good student, and played in the band.

     The nightmare for these girls began with Lockett and his accomplices raping Nieman's friend and beating her with the shotgun. After the rape and beatings, Lockett bound the girls with duct tape and drove them and Bornt, in Neiman's pickup truck, to a remote area a few miles away. En route, he informed his captives that he planned to kill all three of them and bury their bodies in the woods. The terrified girls begged for their lives.

     At the designated spot, Lockett made the rape victim dig a hole. When it was big enough, Lockett told Neiman to get into the grave. He pointed his shotgun at her and pulled the trigger. The weapon jammed. Lockett walked away, cleared the gun, and returned to the site where he shot and wounded her. He forced the other girl to bury Stephanie Neiman alive. Neiman was murdered because she had refused to promise Lockett that she wouldn't report her friend's rape and the kidnapping to the police.

     Lockett and his degenerate friends drove the rape victim and Bornt back to the duplex. Before he drove off with his accomplices, he threatened to kill the traumatized survivors if they went to the police.

     One of Lockett's accomplices notified the authorities in the hopes of saving his own neck. A local prosecutor charged Clayton Lockett with first-degree murder, rape, robbery, kidnapping, assault and battery, and burglary. Upon his arrest, the cold-blooded rapist and sadistic killer confessed to shooting Stephanie Neiman and having her friend, the girl he had raped, bury her alive.

     In 2000, a jury found Lockett guilty as charged, and sentenced him to death. He ended up on death row at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester.

     After fourteen years of legal appeals, and a last minute stay, Governor Mary Fallin ordered Lockett's execution to take place on April 29, 2014. That evening, an hour before his scheduled death, Lockett fought with prison officers and had to be tasered before being strapped onto the gurney. The executioner, after struggling to find a vein, administered the three-drug cocktail made up of midazalam to render Lockett unconscious, vecuronium to stop his breathing, and potassium chloride--to stop his heart.

     Seven minutes after the drugs were put into Lockett's body, he was still conscious. Ten minutes later, after being declared dead, the condemned man moved his head and tried to climb off the gurney. He was also heard muttering the word, "man." At this point, a corrections official lowered the blind to spare witnesses the sight of a slower than planned execution.

     Forty-three minutes after the executioner injected Lockett with the three drugs, he died of a heart attack. The potassium chloride had done its job, albeit a bit slowly.

     As could be expected, death house lawyers, anti-capital punishment activists, and hand-wringing media types agonized over Lockett's imperfect execution. These death row sob-sisters characterized his death as torture, an ordeal, and a nightmare, and called for the abolishment of the death penalty.

     These outrage mongers were nowhere in sight when Lockett shot Stephanie Neiman and buried her alive? Who in their right mind would shed a tear for this cruel, cold-blooded killer? So what if Mr. Lockett didn't pass gently and quickly into the night? A lot of people die slow, agonizing deaths, citizens who never committed rape or murder. Clayton Lockett was gone, and the world was a better place without him. His memory will be kept alive, however, by those who will use his "botched" execution to advance their cause. For the rest of us, that is cruel and unusual punishment.

     Over the years, state corrections officials have done their best to find more humane ways to put condemned criminals to death. In the 19th and 20th centuries, death row inmates were hanged, electrocuted, suffocated in gas chambers, and shot. Hanging is still an option in New Hampshire and Washington. In Arizona, Missouri, and Wyoming, the gas chamber remains a death penalty choice.

     Many correction experts believe the firing squad is the quickest and least painful way to execute a convict. In 1977, Gary Gilmore, at his request, was executed by firing squad in Utah. 

The Testimony of Jailhouse Snitches

Jailhouse informant testimony is one of the leading contributing factors of wrongful convictions nationally, playing a role in nearly one in five of DNA-based exoneration cases.

Innocence Project 

Murder 101

Here's some advice: If you ever have to kill someone, do it alone. No buddy watching your back, no friend with the getaway car, no one swearing you were with them.

Vincent H. O'Neil, Crime Capsules, 2013

The Politics and Complexities of Rape

Rape is unique. No other violent crime is so fraught with controversy so enmeshed in dispute and in the politics of gender and sexuality. And within the domain of rape, the most highly charged area of debate concerns the issue of false allegations. For centuries, it has been asserted and assumed that women "cry rape," that a large proportion of rape allegations are maliciously concocted for purposes of revenge and other motives.

David Lisak, et. al., Violence Against Women, December 2010

Advice to the Aspiring Writer

If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they're happy.

Dorothy Parker (1893-1967) poet, critic, satirist 

Crime Novelist Rex Stout

The only thing I want is something I can't have; and that is to know if, 100 years from now, people will still buy my books.

Rex Stout (1886-1975) known for his Nero Wolfe novels

Elements of a Good Short Story

It is not hard to state what Edgar Allan Poe meant by a good short story; it is a piece of fiction dealing with a single incident that can be read at a setting. It is original, it must sparkle, excite or impress; and it must have unity of effect or impression. It should move in an even line from its exposition to its close.

W. Somerset Maugham, Points of View, 1961

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Robert Girts: The Husband From Hell

     In 1992 Robert Girts and his third wife Diane lived in a house connected to a Parma, Ohio funeral home that employed the 42-year-old mortician as director and embalmer. On the morning of September 2, 1992, Girts and a couple of his friends were driving back to Parma from nearby Cleveland where they had been helping Girts' brother move. That day, Diane Girts didn't show up for her job that started at noon. A fellow employee, worried because she was never late for work, phoned the funeral home. A funeral company employee checking on Diane noticed that her car was still in the driveway. He went to the front entrance of the dwelling and called to her through the screen door. When she didn't answer he entered the house and found Diane's nude body in the bathtub. She had been dead for several hours.

     The death scene investigation revealed no evidence of foul play such as a burglary or signs of physical trauma. Moreover, detectives found no indication of suicide such as pills or a note. A forensic pathologist with the Cuyahoga County Coroner's Office performed the autopsy. Because the dead woman's post-mortem lividity featured a cherry color rather than purplish red, the forensic pathologist considered the possibility she had died of carbon monoxide poisoning. The pathologist, however, ruled out this cause of death when Diane's blood-carbon monoxide level tested normal. Following standard autopsy protocol, the forensic pathologist secured a sample of the subject's stomach contents--an undigested meal of pasta salad--for toxicological analysis. (The undigested meal suggested Diane had been dead for more than twelve hours.) As a result of the inconclusive nature of the autopsy, the Cuyahoga Coroner ruled Diane Girts' death "undetermined."

     On September 20, 1992, 18 days after the funeral home employee discovered Diane Girts's body in the bathtub, Robert Girts contacted a detective working on the case to inform him that he had discovered a handwritten note that indicated that his wife had killed herself. In that document she had supposedly written: "I hate Cleveland. I hate my job. I hate myself."

     Robert Girts, the grieving husband, in his effort to control the direction of the investigation of his wife's sudden and unexplained death, informed detectives that she had been despondent over their recent move to Parma. Also, she had been having trouble with her weight and suffered depression over a series of miscarriages that suggested she wouldn't be able to give birth.

     The toxicological analysis of the decedent's stomach contents revealed the presence of cyanide at twice the lethal dose. Based on this finding the coroner changed the manner of Diane Girts' death criminal homicide.

     In January 1993, a chemist acquainted with Robert Girts told detectives that at Girt's request in the spring of 1992, she had sent him two grams of potassium cyanide. Girts said he needed the poison to deal with a groundhog problem. Investigators believed the suspect had acquired the cyanide to deal with a wife problem. Detectives also knew that potassium cyanide is not used in the embalming process.

     Investigators learned that the murder suspect, in February 1992, had resumed an affair with an interior designer who had broken off the relationship after learning he was married. To get this woman back, Girts had assured her that he and Diane would be divorced by July 1992. Two months after Diane turned up dead in her bathtub, Girts informed his girlfriend that his wife had died from an aneurysm. Detectives considered Girts' relationship with this woman, along with money, the motive for the murder. Upon Diane's death he had received $50,000 in life insurance proceeds.

     Investigators digging into Girts' personal history in search of clues of past homicidal behavior discovered that in the late 1970s his first wife Terrie (nee Morris) had died at the age of 25. After the couple returned to Girt's hometown of Poland, Ohio after living in Hawaii, Terrie's feet swelled up and she became lethargic. In the hospital following a blood clot she slipped into a coma and died. Members of Terrie's family, who had tried to talk her out of marrying Robert in the first place, wanted her body autopsied out of suspicion she had poisoned. Robert wouldn't allow it.

     On Terrie's death certificate the coroner listed the cause of death as a swollen heart. (This doesn't make sense on its face because a "swollen heart" is not a cause of death.) Investigators learned that Girts' second wife had divorced him. Prior to her death she had accused him of physical abuse.

     In 1993, as part of the investigation of Diane Girts's death by poisoning, Terrie Girts' body was exhumed and autopsied. While the forensic pathologist concluded that she had not died of a swollen heart, he could not find evidence that she had been poisoned. The fact Terrie had spent a month in the hospital before she died accounted for the fact there were no traces of poison in her body. Moreover, she had been dead fifteen years and had been embalmed.

     Charged with the murder of his wife Diane, Robert Girts went on trial in the summer of 1993. Except for a confession the defendant had allegedly made to an inmate in the Cuyahoga County Jail, the prosecution's case was circumstantial.

     After the prosecution rested its case, Girts took the stand and denied murdering his wife. On cross-examination the prosecutor asked the defendant if he had confessed to another inmate. The defense attorney objected to this line of questioning on the ground it was prejudicial. The judge overruled the objection. When the prosecutor asked this question again, Girts denied making the jailhouse confession.  At that point the idea that the defendant had confessed to an inmate had been planted in the minds of the jurors.

     The Cuyahoga County jury found Robert Girts guilty of poisoning his wife Diane to death. The judge sentenced him to life with the possibility of parole after twenty years. (This would have made him eligible for parole in 2013.)

     Girts appealed his murder conviction to the 8th District Court of Appeals in Cuyahoga County on the grounds that the trial judge should not have allowed the prosecutor, on cross-examination, to bring up the alleged jailhouse confession. On July 28, 1994, the state appellate court agreed. Citing prosecutorial misconduct, the justices overturned Girt's murder conviction.

     At his retrial in 1995, Robert Girts did not take the stand on his own behalf. The prosecutor, in his closing argument to the jury, cited the defendant's refusal to testify as evidence of his guilt. The second Cuyahoga County jury found Girts guilty of murder. This time Girts appealed his conviction on grounds that by referring to his decision not to take the stand in his own defense, the prosecutor had violated his constitutional right against self-incrimination. On July 24, 1997, the state appeals court upheld the conviction.

     In 2005, after serving 12 years behind bars at the Oakwood Correctional Facility in Lima, Ohio, Girts appealed his 1995 murder conviction to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. Two years later, the federal appeals court, on grounds of prosecutorial misconduct, reversed Girts' second murder conviction. The justices did not, however, order his immediate release from prison. But if the authorities didn't try him by October 11, 2008, he would be set free on $100,000 bond. When the prosecutors in Ohio failed to bring Girts to trial for the third time within the 180-day deadline, the twice-convicted killer walked out of prison.

     Robert Girts returned to Poland, a bedroom community south of Youngstown. He moved in with a relative and for a time reported twice a month to a probation officer at the Community Corrections Association. In the meantime, he filed a motion asking the appeals court to bar a third murder trial on grounds of double jeopardy. In March 2010, the federal appeals court denied Girts' motion The decision paved the way for a third murder trial.

     After his release from prison in November 2008, Girts married a woman named Ruth he met through the Internet. They lived in a trailer park in Brookfield, Ohio. On August 5, 2012, Ruth, a nurse who had just landed a job at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) in nearby Farrell, Pennsylvania, called her supervisor to say she was quitting because she was being stalked by her husband. Ruth told the supervisor she was afraid for her life and was in hiding.

     The UPMC nursing supervisor passed this information on to the Southwest Regional Police Department in Belle Vernon. An officer with that agency relayed the report to Dan Faustino, the Brookfield Chief of Police.

     Brookfield officers drove out to the Girts' residence to check on Ruth. The suspect met the officers at the dwelling. He said his wife wasn't there and that he had no idea where she was. He consented to a search of the house which confirmed his wife's absence. Later that day, a Brookfield officer contacted Ruth by phone. She told the officer that she had quit her nursing job in Farrell in order to hide from her husband. She said he had threatened to kill her. Ruth was so afraid of Robert she even refused to tell the officer where she was hiding. Ruth did inform the officer about her husband's two murder trials in Cuyahoga County. This led Chief Faustino to call the authorities in Cuyahoga County to inform them of the unfolding developments regarding Girts in Brookfield and Farrell.

     On August 9, 2012, a judge granted a Cuyahoga County prosecutor's motion to convene an emergency bond revocation hearing. In light of Robert Girts' alleged threats against his current wife Ruth, the authorities wanted him back behind bars. After hearing testimony from officials familiar with Robert Girts' murder trials and appeals, and Ruth Girts' recent accusations against him, the judge did not revoke his $100,000 bond. Instead, the magistrate restricted Girts' travel to destinations in Mahoning County where he lived. He could also travel to Cuyahoga County to attend scheduled court appearances. The judge ordered Girts to stay away from his wife.

     As the new phase of the Robert Girts murder saga unfolded, the 59-year-old Ruth remained in hiding.

     In January 2013, Cuyahoga County Judge Michael Jackson remanded Girts' bond and ordered him back to jail. Girts had been visiting  Ruth at her new job. On each occasion he brought her coffee. After drinking the coffee Ruth would feel ill and vomit. Investigators believed Girts was poisoning Ruth with antifreeze. (He had searched the Internet under the word "antifreeze.") Girts told detectives that his dog had stepped in the antifreeze and he was interested in the side effects. He also explained that he had been contemplating using antifreeze to kill himself. Ruth Girts did not seek medical treatment or submit to toxicological tests.

     On January 31, 2014, in an effort to avoid a third trial for murdering his wife Diane in 1992, Girts pleaded guilty to the charge of involuntary manslaughter. In open court he described how he had put cyanide in a saltshaker to poison her. Girts also pleaded guilty to insurance fraud.

     Following his guilty pleas, the authorities returned Girts to prison to serve a sentence of six to thirty years. The Ohio Parole Board, in August 2014, ruled that Girts would not be eligible for parole until 2023.

     Girts' attorney's filed an appeal with the 8th District Ohio Court of Appeals arguing that the six to thirty year sentence was based on the wrong set of sentencing guidelines. Instead of using the sentencing rules applicable for 2014, the judge should have sentenced Girts to the guidelines in place in 1992, the time of the crime. The appellate judges agreed and set aside Girts' guilty plea and his sentence. In November 2015, the state supreme court declined to consider the case which meant that the appellate decision stood.

     On December 18, 2015, in a Cleveland court room, Robert Girts, in connection with the death of Diane Girts, pleaded guilty to charges of involuntary manslaughter and insurance fraud. The judge sentenced him to 12 years but gave him credit for time already served. That meant that Mr. Girts would remain a free man. Case closed.

Subduing The Violent Woman

Having to fight with women is the worst. You sometimes tend to go a little easier on a woman than you would on a man…And they make you pay for it. Their fingernails rip your flesh. They go for your eyes and groin. They spit on you and pull your hair. When you're a cop all that chivalry gets you is hurt. And in the public's eye, you always look like you're in the wrong when you go hands-on with a woman. Actually, some people's idea of police brutality is, to paraphrase a character from the television show The Wire, anytime the police win a fight.

Adam Plantinga, 400 Things Cops Know, 2014 

The Future of Internet Journalism

The question is not whether Internet journalism will be dominant, but whether it will maintain the quality of the best print journalism. In the end it is not the delivery system that counts. It is what it delivers. There has never been such access to knowledge in all its forms. What we have to find is a way to sustain truth seeking. If we evolve the right financial model, we will enter a golden age of journalism.

Harold Evans, My Paper Chase, 2009

The Essence of the Romance Novel

What a romance novel does is describe the progress of the love story, from meeting to that moment when the heroine and the hero decide to commit to each other. At that point they expect to live happily thereafter. Whether they do or not is another story--the straight novel, if you like, after the romance.

Donna Baker, Writing a Romance Novel, 1997 

Creating Reality is More Demanding Than Reporting It

I speak about the limitation on a nonfiction writer's scope for invention as if it were a burden, when, in fact, it is what makes his work so much less arduous. Where the novelist has to start from scratch and endure the terrible labor of constructing a world, the nonfiction writer gets his world ready-made. Although it is a world by no means as coherent as the world of fiction, and is peopled by characters by no means as lifelike as the characters in fiction, the reader accepts it without complaint; he feels compensated for the inferiority of his reading experience by what he regards as the edifying character of the genre: a work about something that is true, about events that really occurred and people who actually lived or live, is valued simply for being that, and is read in a more lenient spirit than a work of imaginative literature, from which we expect a more intense experience.

Janet Malcolm, The Journalist and the Murderer, 1990

Being a Writer is More of an Identity Than a Job

There is something dreary about wanting fiction writing to be a real job. The sense of inner purpose, so often unmentionable in a society enamored of professionalism, distinguishes a writer from a hack. Emily Dickinson didn't turn her calling into a job, and neither did Franz Kafka, or Fernando Pessoa, or Wallace Stevens, or any of the millions of writers who have never earned a penny for their thoughts. A defrocked priest forever remains a priest, and a writer--independent of publication or readership or "career"--is always a writer. Writing, after all, is something one does. A writer is something one is.

Benjamin Moser, The New York Times, January 27, 2015


Tuesday, December 24, 2019

The Nehemiah Griego "Good Boy" Mass Murder Case

     People murdered in their homes are usually killed by a family member. Cases involving husbands who kill their wives, and women who take out their husbands, are fairly common and therefore not particularly shocking. But when a good kid with no history of violence, drug abuse, or mental illness carefully executes his entire family for no apparent reason, the public takes notice. Suddenly parents look at their sulking, surly children in a new light. What in the hell was going on in their callow minds? A parent might wonder if his or her child has watched too much violence on TV. And if there's a gun in the house, it might not be a bad idea to put it under lock and key. But in most cases, when parents think about children who murder, they think about other people's kids. Murder is something that happens to others.

    Pastor Greg Griego, the 51-year-old father of two boys and two girls, probably never considered himself a candidate for murder. Griego, the former pastor of one of Albuquerque, New Mexico's largest Christian churches, lived with his 41-year-old wife Sarah and their four children at the end of a semi-rural road on the southwestern edge of the city. As a young man in California, before finding Jesus and entering the ministry, Greg Griego had been a member of a street gang. As one of Albuquerque's religious leaders, he volunteered as a prison chaplain and had overseen the Straight Street program sponsored by the Bernalillo County Jail.

     On Friday night, January 18, 2013, 15-year-old Nehemiah Griego, after he and his mother had a mild disagreement, waited until he was sure she and his three siblings were sound asleep. Mr. Griego was not home at that time. Just before one in the morning, Nehemiah took possession of a .22-caliber pistol he found in his parents' closet. He stepped lightly into his mother's bedroom where she was sleeping in bed next to his 9-year-old brother Zephania. Nehemiah raised the 10-shot pistol and fired several bullets into his mother's head. When his younger brother refused to accept the fact his mother had just been murdered, Nehemiah forced the boy to look at her bloody face. The 15-year-old then fired several slugs into Zephania's head.

     In his sisters' room, Nehemiah shot and killed Jael, age 5, and 2-year-old Angelina. Nehemiah returned the handgun to the closet and pulled out an AR-15 semi-automoatic rifle. Armed with the assault weapon, he waited in a downstairs bathroom for his father's return. After waiting five hours for his father to come home, Nehemiah opened up on Mr. Griego as he walked by the bathroom doorway, killing him on the spot.

     On his cellphone, Nehemiah sent his 12-year-old girlfriend a photograph of his murdered mother's face. He also called the girl and reported what he had done as well as what he planned to do. Nehemiah informed his friend that he was driving to the local Walmart in the family van where he intended to randomly kill as many people as possible. He said he expected to be killed in an exchange of gunfire with the police.

     Nehemiah's girlfriend talked him into driving to Pastor Griego's church where they could discuss all of this further. Nehemiah spent the rest of the day at his girlfriend's house. Police officers took him into custody later that night.

     A Bernalillo County prosecutor charged Nehemiah Griego with two counts of murder and three counts of child abuse. (I don't know why he wasn't charged with five counts of murder.) Perfectly coherent, Nehemiah provided his interrogators with a detailed account of the mass killing. He said he was annoyed with his mother and had recently entertained thoughts of homicide and suicide. The boy expressed no feelings of guilt or remorse.

    Bernalillo County Sheriff Dan Houston, at a news conference on January 22, 2013, said that Nehemiah had been "involved heavily in violent video games" before he murdered his family. The games included "Modern Warfare," and "Grand Theft Auto." The boy had also talked about killing his young girlfriend's parents.

     According to relatives, Nehemiah was an outgoing boy who loved music and hoped one day to serve in the military.

     The cold-blooded mass murder shocked Nehemiah's relatives, his friends, and his teachers. No one had seen this massacre coming. No one ever does. How can you know if your perfect 15-year-old son is a shell with a monster inside?

     By February 2015, no trial date had been set for the Griego family murders. The case had stalled for several reasons. In 2013, the judge assigned to preside over the trial took an extended leave of absence and was not replaced. The boy's defense attorney delayed progress throughout 2014 by requesting one mental health evaluation after another for his client. (Griego had pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.) In the meantime, Nehemiah Griego remained incarcerated at a juvenile detection facility.            

     Finally, after the boy pleaded guilty in March 2016, the judge enraged many in the community by sentencing him as a juvenile. Under New Mexico law, this meant that Griego would walk free as a rehabilitated youth when he turned 21. Six years in custody for the cold-blooded murder of five people.

     In December 2019, nearly seven years after Nehemiah Griego murdered his parents and three siblings, Judicial District Judge Alisa Hart re-sentenced the 22-year-old to life in prison with the possibility of parole.

Why Junk Science Continues to Contaminate Our Courts

The decision whether to allow a new field of forensics into court is made by a judge, not a scientist, or even a fellow practitioner. Judges typically look for guidance on these questions not from scientists, but from other judges. The briefs in such challenges are by lawyers. Judges tend to err on the side of letting evidence in, on the assumption that our adversarial system will sort it out. Even once we discover that a field is scientifically suspect, it's difficult to get the courts to even acknowledge it, much less stop it from being used again, much less correct the cases that my have already been tainted.

Radley Balko, June 2018

A Radical Take on Santa Clause

Isn't Santa just a stand in for a society...that watches and judges, telling kids they got what they deserved based on their behavior? Surely children have to notice that Saint Nick, like the judicial system itself, tends to look more favorably upon the rich. He is fat, white, past middle age, and holds all the cards.

Thomas Quackenbush, A Creature was Stirring: A Twisted Christmas Anthology, 2015

Treating Drug Addiction With Medication

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, since 1999, 700,000 Americans have overdosed on drugs. Of the nation's 15,000 drug treatment facilities, only 42 percent provide patients with any type of medication for opioid addiction, medication known to help get addicts off the drug. Less than 3 percent of these treatment centers offer addicts the choice of one of  three of these federally approved medications: methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone. Most addicts who seek treatment are provided various types of psychological therapy, treatments that have not been particularly successful. 

Writing Habits

     The study I've made of the writing methods of others has led me to the belief that everybody in this business spends a lifetime finding the method that suits him best, changing it over the years as he himself evolves, adapting it again and again to suit the special requirements of each particular book. What works with one person won't necessarily work for another; what works for one book won't necessarily work with another.

     Some novelists outline briefly, some in great detail, and a few produce full-fledged treatments that run half the length of the final book itself. Others don't outline at all. Some of us revise as we go along. Others do separate drafts. Some of us write sprawling first drafts and wind up cutting them to the bone. Others rarely cut three paragraphs overall.

Lawrence Block, Writing the Novel, 1979

Novel Versus Short Story Endings

The ending of the modern short story doesn't require a long summary of what happened "afterwards." The novel, though, presents a slightly different case. After having spent so long with the characters, the reader of a novel has become so interested in them, almost fond of them as acquaintances, that he is not adverse to a long "afterward" or "conclusion" that tells how they married, settled down and raised children and grew old together.

Rust Hills, Writing in General And The Short Story In Particular, 1987 

Learning to Write Novels by Reading Novels

     There are two ways to learn how to write a novel. By writing them and by reading them. If you are not reading them, the obvious question I'd ask is, why would you want to write something you wouldn't want to read? Are you one of those folks who really wants to make movies and figures writing a novel is easier than writing a screenplay? (It is not.) Or you think the novel will be your entree into Hollywood? (It very well could be.)…If you want to be a novelist, you have to read novels. You're kidding yourself if you think otherwise. Your daily view of the world is affected by what you've been reading, and what you write will also be affected.

     You should always be reading a novel or a collection of stories. When you find a novel you like, read everything by that writer, or read him until you've had enough. You're reading to learn….

John Dufresne, Is Life Like This? 2010

Monday, December 23, 2019

"The Ghost": A 1974 Short Story by Thornton P. Knowles

                                            The Ghost
                                                  by
                                     Thornton P. Knowles
                                                                       
                                                   1

       I kill people for money. I've been doing it for years and it never gets old. I like to think I'm not your ordinary hitman. I'm not a drug-addled dimwit, an amateur who gets caught. I'm imaginative and approach my work as a professional. If I may be so bold, I'm a master in the art of murder-for-hire. You won't see my work in a museum or an art gallery, you'll find it in the files of unsolved homicide cases. If I have anything to do with it, my art will remain anonymous.

     My "clients" are rich guys who cheated on their wives and find themselves up to their eyeballs in divorce attorneys. Some of these men are desperate to protect their wealth from women they consider greedy and undeserving, wives they have come to hate and fear. They entertain thoughts of violent death. A few of them harbor fantasies of torture and humiliation. They are consumed by hate and are easy to manipulate. These larger-than-life sociopaths, men who had attracted their wives with their wealth and bravado, are no longer in control of their fates or their emotions.

     My clients don't find me. I find them. I get leads from newspaper gossip columns and stories in the tabloids. Each job is different, so I use various ploys and techniques to enter my future client's life. This is where I have to be careful. I make sure I'm not photographed with the guy, always use a fake name, and employ a variety of disguises. Fingerprints are not a problem because I've never been arrested. I also try to stay clear of my target's friends and associates. When I'm with him, usually in private, I never bring up the subject of his wife or the divorce. At least not directly. I wait for him to suggest what I hope he'll suggest, and act a little shocked when he does."Okay, I'll do it," I say. "I'll take the risk, but it won't be cheap."

     My demands are simple and firm: his wife's death will cost fifty thousand, upfront and in cash. The response is usually the same: "That's too much, no way!" I expect this reaction, these men didn't get rich by being generous. I don't budge, and remind Mr. Moneybags that if he doesn't cough-up the dough, he'll lose half his estate. Take it or leave it. He usually takes it. Nothing is put on paper. I tell him I don't want hand-drawn maps, phone numbers, descriptions, license plate number, things like that. In this business, contracts are oral, and there can be no physical evidence.

     At a remote spot of my choosing, we sit in his car. He hands me the bills, often in a paper bag. Before he asks: "When are you going to do it? Will you make it look like an accident?" I shoot a bullet into his ear. Always the head because there's little bleeding. I don't like blood. For the gun, a piece once owned by a deceased mugger--a story for another time--I find a river or a lake. Like I say, no physical evidence.

    I kill the man who hired me because it makes no sense to kill his wife. If I kill her, the police will suspect him, and he could roll over on me. Sometimes, the cops actually suspect the wife of having my client killed. The investigation, of course, dies on the vine, and the murder disappears into the books as unsolved. By then, I'm working on my next project.

     By definition I'm a "serial killer," but I don't see myself in that light. Those men are psychopaths. I don't take a person's life for sex, excitement, or some kind of psychological compulsion. I do it for a reason--money. I don't have to kill, I chose to. Rather than a psychopathic killer, I'm a professional killer. That's a big difference, at least in my mind.

     I limit myself to one or two jobs a year. Once I had a dry spell and went two years without killing anyone. I don't need much money. I'm single, lease a cheap car, wear J.C. Penny clothes, and rent small apartments in working class neighborhoods. Occasionally, when I'm impersonating a businessman, I'll spring for a couple of relatively expensive suits. I once bought a briefcase. I don't live in one place too long and stay out of trouble. I avoid booze, don't, gamble, use drugs or have romantic relationships with demanding or unstable women. I don't patronize banks or use credit cards. I'm tight-lipped, keep to myself, and spend a lot of time in the public library reading newspapers and the tabloids. I like the tabloids. Scandal journalists know how to find dirt on people. They have no shame, and are good writers. I spend a lot of time in libraries because these places are quiet, and no one pays any attention to you.

    In a way, I don't exist. The murder cops don't have a chance because they're chasing a ghost.

                                                 2

     I don't require myself to hate the men I kill. I'm indifferent. But Bradford Littlesmith, a former carpet salesman who somehow made it big in real estate, was different. I didn't like him. He reminded me of the kid in high school who bullied me until I decided I'd had enough. Come graduation day, the cops were still looking for kid. They never found him. After that, I didn't need the career counselor to guide me into my future profession, although, on my vocational aptitude test, I scored high as a police officer.

     Eventually Mr. Littlesmith came around to discussing his wife's untimely, or for him, timely, demise. While at that point he was probably fantasizing more than planning, I informed him that there was no such thing as a professional contract killer. These men only existed in movies and in books. In real life, so-called hitmen were drug-addled amateurs who got caught and immediately implicated the people who hired them. I also pointed out that hitmen didn't advertise in the yellow pages. Murder-for-hire masterminds also exposed themselves when they solicited people for the hit, and often ended up contracting with an undercover cop. Littlesmith asked me how I came to know so much about murder-for-hire. I told him I spent a few years in federal prison for a white collar crime, and it was there I met men who would do anything for money. I think he bought my story.

     Not long after the subject of his wife's sudden passing came up, my future client and I were having a drink at the bar in a fancy downtown hotel. I could tell he was well known there. I was posing as a potential investor in one of his real estate ventures. As I was about to steer the conversation to his wife Rita, she entered the bar. This I had not expected. Littlesmith saw her coming and said, "Oh boy, here we go." From the look on Rita's face, it was obvious she had not come for friendly drink with her husband. Rita looked angry and she made no effort to hide it.

     Rita was a lot younger than her husband, and even though she had gained a few pounds since her glory days, she wasn't bad looking. I think she was his second or third wife. They had been married three years and were childless. He had a son from a previous marriage. I think Rita had worked for him before they got hitched.

     Rita had one hell of a temper, and a colorful vocabulary to match. The thought crossed my mind that she might kill Littlesmith before I had the chance. This was the kind of out-of-control situation I tried to avoid. Yet there I was, right in the middle of a domestic dispute, carried out in public. Climbing off the stool, I overheard the bartender talking on the phone to a police dispatcher. Just as I approached the door, Rita screamed, "You son-of-a-bitch, I'm gonna kill you!" Everyone else in the bar heard it, too. This was not good.

     The next day I checked the papers and found no news of the hotel bar dustup. Fortunately, no one went to jail. But dozens of people heard Rita Littlesmith threaten to kill her estranged husband, the man I planned to murder. I worried that her inability to control herself might end up causing her trouble. After I took out her husband, Rita could end up under suspicion for his murder. Homicide cops weren't particular in picking their suspects. And once they had someone they liked, they weren't bothered by petty things such as exculpatory evidence.

     Anger had made Rita temporarily stupid, and maybe I was too with my determination to go forward with the hit. But I'd invested too much time to back out now. I had always been lucky. Had my luck ran out? If if had, I'd have to reconsider my future in this business. But for now, I had a job to do.

     A few days after the bar scene, I called Littlesmith from a payphone. "We gotta talk," he said.

     We met later that day in a K-Mart parking lot. I've often wondered how many murders are plotted outside K-Mart. Littlesmith sat behind the wheel of his Cadillac and looked rattled. "She's gotta go," he said. "That bitch threatened to kill me. She just might do it! Do you know someone? You know, like we talked about. Give me a name."

     "I'll do it."

     "What?"

     "I'll kill her."

     "You? I thought you were in real estate."

     "Do you want this done or not?"

     "Okay, but how much?"

     "Fifty thousand."

     "You gotta be kidding. I'm not paying that."

     "Then do it yourself. And if you do, you better hope I keep my mouth shut."

     Littlesmith's face suddenly lost some of its color. "Who in the hell are you?"

     "I'm the guy who can solve your problem--for fifty thousand."

     "I'll give you five up-front and the rest after."

     "If you want it done you'll give me fifty. I don't believe in down payments."

     "No deal."

     I reached for the door handle, "Good luck."

     "Wait! Give me a name."

     "Can't help you there. Say hello to Rita for me."

     "You bastard. Alright. But you better not screw this up. When will you do this?"

     "Tomorrow." We agreed to meet at a secluded spot, a place not far from a lake. "I expect cash, fifty thousand or no deal."

     He agreed and we parted.

     The next day, when I climbed into Littlesmith's Caddy he seemed upbeat, almost excited, over the prospect of his wife's impending death. He wanted to chat but I didn't. I just wanted his money. He handed me the bag and I counted it. All there. I distracted him, slipped in a pair of ear plugs, and bang, job done. After tossing the revolver into the lake, I drove home. Normally at this point I felt relieved and satisfied. But this time I wasn't feeling that. I was thinking about Rita and the possibility that Bradford Littlesmith's murder might not slip quietly into the unsolved files.


                                              3


     A week after I dispatched Mr. Littlesmith, I got some bad news. It was in all the papers. A spokesperson with the district attorney's office held a press conference on the steps of the courthouse to announce that Rita Littlesmith had been charged with the murder of her estranged husband. She was currently incarcerated in the city lockup. Because she was a flight risk, the judge had denied her bail.

     When pressed by reporters to lay out the case against Rita, the prosecution's mouthpiece admitted they had no confession, no eyewitness to the crime, no physical evidence connecting her to the murder, and, as of yet, no murder weapon. But she had motive, and a few days prior to allegedly firing a .38-caliber slug into her husband's right ear, she had threatened to kill him. But they had more, evidence that would send her away for life. Rita had confided to her cellmate that she had lured her husband to the place of his death under the pretext she would consent to the divorce for a small fraction of his estate. After she shot him, she tossed the gun out of her car window somewhere in the city. By now it was probably in the hands of a street thug.

     I was't surprised. When a prosecutor has a good murder suspect, but not enough evidence to convict, the jailhouse snitch comes slithering out of the woodwork. Rita's informant, in return for her lie, probably received a get-out-of-jail card and a bag of evidence-room crack. Rita was in trouble, and maybe I was, too. The moment Rita came storming into the hotel bar I should have walked away from the job. Maybe I had lost my touch.

     As long as Bradford Littlesmith's murder remained an open case, I couldn't move forward, put the hit behind me. Without the jailhouse informant, the prosecutor didn't have a case. That meant this snitch, whoever she was, would have to go. I still had work to do.

     Once I cleaned up the Littlesmith mess, I'd retire. This was not a business for a guy who'd run out of luck and self-confidence. Before I contemplated my new life, I'd identify the snitch and take care of the problem.


                                                 4


     Good thing I read the tabloids because there it was: HOOKER WITNESS IN LITTLESMITH MURDER! The reporter must have slipped the jailer a few bucks, found the informant, and bought her story. Some of these tabloid guys were better detectives than the detectives. A lot better.

     The photograph showed a tall, slender back woman in her forties. The bright yellow hair and the rose tattoo on her neck would make her easy to spot. She called herself Beverly, probably a trick name, and lived in a downtown flophouse called The Regis Arms Hotel. Her husband, a former track star, had run off. That's when she took to the streets--to survive. All these gals had a sad story, it helped in court.

     The tabloid reporter had done most of my work. I'd cruise around The Regis Arms until I found a black, stick of a woman with bleached hair. The sooner I got her into my car the better because the cops would not be happy about their snitch going public. They'd want to reel her in before Rita's attorney got ahold of her and offered a better deal.


                                                  5


     It didn't take me long to roll up on Beverly. There she was, by herself, leaning against the front of a closed tattoo shop, her yellow hair glistening under the streetlight. I pulled up alongside the curb and rolled down my front passenger window. She saw me but didn't move. Maybe she thought I was a cop. She finally dropped her cigarette, straightened off the wall, and walked stiffly toward the car with her high-heels clicking on the pavement. No one was around and traffic was light. Lucky for me, unlucky for her.

     Beverly bent over and looked in. The headlights from an approaching car lit up her face. This woman was already dead, I would be just making it official. "What can mamma do for you?" she asked, without a trace of humanity. Her phony smile revealed a chipped front tooth.

     "Get in," I said, trying to make it sound more like an invitation than a demand. I returned her fake smile with one of my own.

     "Slow down," she said, "this girl needs to see some money."

     "How much?"

     "Depends on what you want?"

     "Just the mouth."

     "Fifty--just for you."

     I held up a a bundle of bills and she climbed in. "Where we going?" she asked.

     "Not far."


                                                   6


      I had planned to take a train to Miami, but at the last minute decided to fly even though I hated the inside a plane full of sweaty people in a hurry to get somewhere. Being trapped in a plane felt like being swallowed by a snake. To make it bearable, I bought a first-class ticket. In first class, they were paid to treat you a little better than the luggage. I wore my J.C. Penny sports coat and one of the two trousers that came with it. When the stewardess asked if I wanted anything to drink, I ordered a Coke to go along with the peanuts.

     Everything I owned fit into a pair of suitcases. I had my life savings--$150,000--packed inside a money belt. Not much for fifteen years of professional killing, but enough for a new start.

     The moment I walked out of the terminal, I was hit by a blast of oppressive heat. I heard someone yelling, and when my eyes adjusted to the sun, I saw an elderly woman bawling out a Hispanic cab driver who looked bewildered. The chunky, bluish-haired lady in the yellow leisure suit was giving the poor taxi driver all kinds of hell. Her husband, a pot-bellied man stuffed into a pink pull-over shirt, and wearing a white acorn cap and lime green trousers flared at the bottom, looked embarrassed. The little fellow stood next to a giant golf bag. I couldn't imagine this man hitting a golf ball. Actually, I couldn't imagine him doing anything but standing in the boiling sun watching his wife make a fool of herself. He and the misses had probably returned from visiting their children up north. I sure the kids were happy that mom and dad were back in Florida.

     Right off I sensed there was something profoundly wrong with this place. I couldn't put my finger on it other than it didn't feel right. I didn't belong here. What would I do in this heat, play golf with old guys in pink shirts and bellbottom pants? What was I thinking? Five minutes later I was at the ticket counter buying a first-class flight back to reality.

     I took a seat in the boarding area and opened my airport-purchased tabloid, and there it was: WIFE GLUES HUBBY TO TOILET SEAT! There you go, a future client.

    The ghost was back.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

A Love-Sick Teen and a Fake Abduction

     At eleven-thirty on Monday night, December 16, 2019, 16-year-old Karol Sanchez and her 32-year-old mother, Carmen Sanchez, were walking on Eagle Avenue near East 156th Street in the Bronx, New York. Mother and daughter, from upstate New York, were in the Bronx visiting relatives. As they walked along the street, a beige colored sedan pulled up beside them, two men jumped out, pushed Carmen Sanchez to the sidewalk, and drove off with her daughter. "Oh my God!" Carmen Sanchez screamed, "my daughter, my daughter!"

     The terrified mother ran into a nearby deli for help. "Oh my God!" she screamed, "Help! Help! They took her!"

     Someone in the deli called 911. After reviewing a surveillance camera video of the abduction, the police issued a statewide Amber Alert for the 16-year-old girl. The two men who grabbed Karol Sanchez were black men in their early twenties. Two men remained in the vehicle. The distraught mother told detectives that she planned to move back to Honduras with her daughter. Her daughter, however, did not want to move because she didn't want to leave her boyfriend.

     The following morning, New York City police officers posted photographs of the missing girl around the city. That Tuesday afternoon, Carmen Sanchez received a mysterious call from a man who said, "We got the wrong girl."

     Shortly after that phone call, Karol Sanchez, not far from where she had been taken from her mother, walked up to a pair of New York City police officers sitting in a squad car. The officers recognized her from her missing persons photograph. The girl was trembling and looked frightened.

     At the 40th Precinct station house, Karol Sanchez informed detectives that the abduction was a hoax, one that she had helped orchestrate in order to see her boyfriend, a Crips gangbanger who had once been arrested for murder.

     According to reports, the authorities had no plans to charge Karol Sanchez with a crime. This was not the case involving the four men in the beige sedan.

     

America's Most Stupid Book

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

The "Witch Hunt"

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

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

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

The Impulse Murder

     Murders cannot always be explained or understood. While the majority of criminal homicides are motivated by greed, lust, power, fear, or rage, every once in awhile someone takes a life for no apparent reason. These cases are disturbing because there is a need to make sense out of such deviant, violent behavior.

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

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

Marrying Well

An archeologist is the best husband a woman can have. The older she is the more interested he is in her.

Agatha Christie (1930-1976). Bestselling British mystery novelist who was married to an archeologist. 

The Villain in Crime Fiction

Often I start working out a story in terms of its villain. Sometimes he's more interesting than anyone else. I'm curious about what makes a murderer who he is. Was he born missing some human quality? Did his early environment shape him? Or was it a combination of both?

Sandra Scoppettone, crime novelist 

The Power of Dialogue

Dialogue has practically all the properties which a story demands. It can be both a story builder and a character builder.

Joseph T. Shaw (1874-1952) editor of Black Mask Magazine 1926 to 1936

Let Your Writing Flow

Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.

Louis L'Amour (1908-1988), best known for his western novels 

Saturday, December 21, 2019

The Rabbi Bernard Freundel Criminal Voyeurism Case

     For 25 years, Modern Orthodox Rabbi Bernard "Barry" Freundel was the spiritual leader of the Kesher Israel Synagogue in the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C. Former U.S. Senator from Connecticut Joe Lieberman and U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew were members of Rabbi Freundel's congregation.

     A resident of O Street in Washington, the 62-year-old rabbi was known for his success in helping women convert to Orthodox Judaism. An expert on Jewish law, Rabbi Freundel held the position of Vice President of the Vaad (Rabbinical Counsel) of Greater Washington. He also worked as a professor at nearby Townson University where he taught courses on Judaism and ethics. As a widely known expert on these subjects, the rabbi was a visiting scholar at Princeton, Yale, and Cornell and regularly presented guest lectures at Columbia University and the University of Chicago.

     While Rabbi Freundel enjoyed a sterling reputation in academia and among the vast majority of his congregants, concerns were raised in 2012 regarding his treatment of women undergoing conversion under his guidance. Several women going through the process complained that the Rabbi enjoyed wielding power over their lives. For example, they felt coerced into performing clerical duties such as organizing his files, opening his mail, paying his bills, taking dictation, and responding to emails on his behalf. Moreover, these vulnerable women felt pressured to donate money to the rabbi's favorite causes.

     On October 14, 2014, the roof collapsed on Rabbi Freundel's personal and professional life of privilege and respect when officers with the Washington D.C. Police Department placed him under arrest. He was charged with six counts of misdemeanor voyeurism.

     Rabbi Freundel stood accused of installing a clock radio equipped with a hidden video camera in a synagogue shower room. He had allegedly filmed women showering before taking their ritualistic purification baths in a large tub called the mikvah.

     Jewish women and women converting to Judaism are required under Orthodox religious law to immerse themselves in the mikvah every month after menstruating and before having sex with their husbands.

     Shortly after Rabbi Freundel's arrest, Jewish authorities suspended him without pay from his position at the Kesher Israel Synagogue.

     On October 20, 2014, a Townson University spokesperson announced that the school had opened an internal Title IX investigation to determine if the rabbi had practiced gender or sex discrimination at the university. The school banned the former Judaism and ethics professor from its campus which is located in Maryland between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore.

     The Freundel voyeurism scandal triggered a discussion and inquiry into the possible widespread abuse of female converts by Orthodox rabbis.

     Rabbi Freundel pleaded not guilty to the charges and was set free after posting his bail. If convicted of all six counts, he faced up to six years behind bars.

     On February 11, 2015, several of the rabbi's alleged victims met with federal prosecutors at the U.S. Attorney's Office in Washington, D.C. The meeting had been called to discuss the benefits of a plea bargained deal in the case. Prosecutors, in discussing the Freundel investigation, said that since 2009 the former rabbi had secretly filmed 152 women. Of these crimes, 88 occurred more than three years ago and therefore couldn't be prosecuted because of the statute of limitations. Prosecutors did not reveal to the media how the victims at the meeting had responded to the idea of a plea bargained deal for the ex-rabbi.

     Freundel, on February 19, 2015, pleaded guilty to having secretly videotaped 52 naked women as they prepared to immerse themselves in the ritual bath.

     On May 16, 2015, after sixteen of his victims--some in tears--addressed the court, Judge Geoffrey Alprin sentenced Bernard Freundel to 45 days on each of 52 counts of criminal voyeurism. That came to just under six and a half years in federal prison. 

"Literary Life: A Second Memoir" by Larry McMurtry

     In Literary Life: A Second Memoir, the second of a three-volume autobiography, Larry McMurtry, the author of 30 novels, and more than 30 screenplays, sums up his life as a man of letters. Volume 1 of his memoir set deals with his life as a bookman and owner of a massive used book store in Archer City, Texas. The third installment focuses on his adventures in Hollywood as a screenwriter. McMurtry won a Pulitzer Prize for Lonesome Dove, a novel made into a popular television series. I enjoyed Literary Life: A Second Memoir because it's honest, devoid of false bravado, and provides a look into the literary life of a person who has been able to support himself on his writing. There aren't many of those people around. What follows are some passages from this engaging book:

I hoped to be a writer, but it was not until I had published my fifth book, All My Friends are Going to be Strangers, that I became convinced that I was a writer and would remain one.

Journalists mostly don't expect to be liked--Vanity Fair is not paying its writers big money to write nice things about their subjects.

Probably at least 85 percent of the books I've inscribed both to friends and strangers have found their way into the [book] market, and rather rapidly.

To this day it is not easy to get started in fiction, but the speed with which self-publishing has been established is making getting started a good deal easier....Much trash will get published, but then much trash is published even by the most reputable publishers.

Minor writers provide the stitchery of literature. Besides, major writers often find themselves writing minor books. Major writers aren't major all the time, and minor writers occasionally write better than they normally do, sometimes producing a major book. The commonwealth of literature is complex, but a sense of belonging to it is an important feeling for a writer to have and to keep.

Never discount luck, in the making of a literary career, or any other career, for that matter.