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Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Volga Adams: New York City's Biggest Psychic Swindler

     Mrs. Frances Friedman of Manhattan's Upper West Side had been a widow for eight years. In September 1956 she visited a psychic parlor on Madison Avenue run by Volga Adams, a self-appointed gypsy princess. Adams advertised her services in the form of a large drawing painted on her storefront window of a hand, palm facing out. Mrs. Friedman hoped the psychic--"Madam Lillian"--would read her horoscope and identify the source of her depression.

     Volga Adams, a gypsy psychic well known to detectives on the NYPD Pickpocket and Confidence Squad, quickly diagnosed Mrs. Friedman's problem. "There is evil in you," she proclaimed with great authority. Adams instructed her client to go home and wrap an egg in a handkerchief that had belonged to her husband then put these two items into a shoe made for a left foot. The psychic instructed Mrs. Friedman to return to the parlor the next day with the handkerchief and the egg. At this point, Mrs. Friedman should have had the good sense to walk out of the shop and not return.

     As instructed, the prospective mark returned to the gypsy psychic's place of fraud. Adams opened up an egg she had switched with the real one. The phony egg contained a small plastic head. The greenish-yellow head featured a pair of horns, pointed eyebrows, and a black goatee. According to Adams, the presence of the devil's head in the egg was a bad sign. It meant that Mrs. Friedman was cursed. But why?

     Phase two of Volga Adam's psychic confidence game involved handing the victim a dollar bill that had a rip in it. Friedman was told to take the currency home, put it in a handkerchief, and wear it near her breast for two days.

     Upon her return to Volga Adam's scam parlor, Madam Lillian, following a prayer in a foreign tongue, opened the handkerchief to find a mended dollar bill. This "miracle" supposedly revealed the source of Mrs. Friedman's curse. The money her husband had left her upon his death was the problem. Money, the root of all evil, had cursed the widow. If Mrs. Friedman wanted to rid herself of the monetary curse, she would have to give Madam Lillian all of that money, cash she would ritualistically burn. Once that was done, the widow's happiness would return. Divesting herself of the filthy lucre would also clear up her troublesome skin rash. Who would have guessed that this gypsy princess was also a dermatologist.

     A few days after the miracle of the mended dollar bill, Mrs. Friedman withdrew money from six bank accounts and cashed in all of her government bonds. She delivered the $108,273 in cash, stuffed in a paper bag, to another Madison Avenue psychic parlor. (In 1956, that was a lot of dough.)

     Volga Adams suggested that Mrs. Friedman, having rid herself of the evil money, leave the city for a few days to enjoy some "clean air." This is called "cooling the mark." The next day, as Madam Lillian left town herself, her mark headed for the Catskill Mountains in eastern Pennsylvania. A perfect score.

     For a period of a year after Volga Adams bilked Mrs. Friedman out of her life's savings, she cooled the mark with regular phone calls, made collect, from various places around the country. Back in Manhattan in the fall of 1957, Adams informed Mrs. Friedman that she needed another $10,000 to remove traces of the lingering evil underlying the victim's curse. Mrs. Friedman, obviously unaware that she had been swindled, gave Adams the cash. She turned over the money on the condition that the psychic not destroy it, and later return it to her. After she had given the cold-blooded swindler $108, 273, Mrs. Friedman barely had enough money to support herself. A couple months after walking off with the $10,000, Volga Adams called the victim and announced that she could only return $2,000 of the $10,000. The psychic said she was in Florida and would be returning to New York City soon.

     The con game had run its course. Volga Adams did not return to Manhattan, and she quit calling the victim. Thanks to Madam Lillian, Mrs. Friedman not only remained cursed with depression, she was now broke. Finally, she picked up the telephone and called the police. When detectives with the Pickpocket and Confidence Squad heard Mrs. Friedman's story, they recognized the M.O., and knew that Madam Lillian was Volga Adams, one of the city's most notorious con artists.

     Following her indictment in New York City for grand larceny, the 42-year-old defendant went on trial in February 1962. Five weeks later, the jury of five women and seven men informed the judge that they were deadlocked and could not reach an unanimous verdict. The judge had no choice but to declare a mistrial.

     The Manhattan prosecutor scheduled a second trial for May 1963. Volga Adams avoided that proceeding by pleading guilty to a lesser theft charge. After the judge handed the defendant a suspended sentence, she left the city. But before she departed for Florida, Adams placed a curse on the prosecutor. "No woman will ever love him," she predicted.

     Volga Adams continued preying on vulnerable (and in my view stupid) women. A few years after Madam Lillian left Manhattan, Frances Friedman died. At the time of her death, she was lonely, humiliated, and depressed. Thanks to the gypsy princess, Mrs. Friedman died broke.

Origins of the War On Drugs

The war-on-crime atmosphere of the 1930s influenced national drug policy, solidifying the belief that drugs were a criminal rather than a medical or social problem. A national panic over marijuana broke out in the 1930s. The movie Reefer Madness, for example, offered a sensationalized picture of marijuana's allegedly evil effects. The 1937 Marijuana Tax Act established harsh penalties for the possession and sale of marijuana. Harry Anslinger, commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics [now the DEA], imitated [J. Edgar] Hoover, whipping up public fears in order to build a bureaucratic empire. In a popular magazine article, "Marijuana: Assassin of Youth," he painted a terrifying picture of the "sweeping march" of marijuana addiction, causing murder, rape, robbery, and other "deeds of maniacal insanity."

Samuel Walker, Popular Justice: A History of American Criminal Justice, Second Edition, 1998

Public Opinion in High Profile Criminal Trials

Why should [trial lawyers] care about public relations? Their job is to persuade judges and jurors, not the public or the pundits. But the jurors come from the same public that would be watching the preliminary hearing on television. And judges, too, are human beings, who are influenced by public opinion.

Alan M. Dershowitz, Reasonable Doubt: The Criminal Justice System and the O. J. Simpson Case, 1996

Thornton P. Knowles On Lawyers, Plumbers, and Politicians

There are twice as many politicians in the country as lawyers and twice as many lawyers as plumbers. That can't be good.

Thornton P. Knowles

Monday, April 29, 2019

The Michael Nolan Murder-Suicide Case

     Michael Nolan lived in his 86-year-old father's house in Brentwood, New Hampshire, a town of 4,200 in the southern part of the state. The 47-year-old son and his father, Walter Nolan, shared a two-story house in a tree-shaded neighborhood restricted to people 55 and older.

     At four in the afternoon of Monday, May 12, 2014, a neighbor on Mill Pond Road called 911 to report shouting and screams coming from the Nolan residence. Ten minutes later, officer Stephen Arkell, a part time, 15-year veteran of the Brentwood Police Department, pulled up to the scene and was let into the house by Walter Nolan, the owner of the dwelling.

     Four minutes after officer Arkell entered the Nolan house, Derek Franek, an officer with the Fremont Police Department, arrived at the scene. Inside the house, officer Arkell, as he spoke to the old man, was shot and killed by the old man's son, Michael Nolan. When officer Franek entered the dwelling through the front entrance, Michael Nolan opened fire on him. Both the Fremont officer and the senior Mr. Nolan managed to escape the house without being shot. Once outside, officer Franek radioed that an officer was down, and that he had been fired upon by someone inside the Nolan dwelling.

     Officer Franek's urgent call brought a New Hampshire state SWAT unit and the Seacoast Regional Emergency Response Team. Walter Nolan, the 86-year-old owner of the house, in a state of shock and unable to communicate coherently with police officers, was taken by ambulance to Exeter Hospital.

     Inside the police-surrounded house, Michael Nolan poured gasoline throughout the dwelling, lit a match, then began shooting out a window at the SWAT officers. When the SWAT police fired back, a bullet hit a propane gas line that touched off a massive explosion.

     At six o'clock that evening, thirty minutes after the propane blast blew off a third of the Nolan house roof, firefighters began dousing the charred structure with water. Firefighters remained on the scene until nine-thirty that night.

    Cause and origin arson investigators combing through the debris found Michael Nolan's remains. Lying next to his body the officers found three handguns, three rifles, and a cache of ammunition.

     Brentwood police officer Stephen Arkell, killed in the line of duty, left behind a wife and two teenage daughters. He was 48-years-old.

     Although a forensic pathologist performed an autopsy on Michael Nolan, the medical examiner's office did not immediately reveal if he had been shot to death by the SWAT police, died in the fire, or had killed himself.

     According to neighbors, Michael Nolan rarely spoke to anyone, and spent most of his time in his room watching television. Police officers had not been called to the Nolan residence in the past, and Michael did not have a criminal record.

     In May 2015, the authorities, under pressure from the local media, released the results of the joint investigation of the case by the New Hampshire Attorney General's Office, the State Police Major Crime Unit, and the ATF. According to the report, Mr. Nolan had shot himself to death before the house exploded. In the report he was described as a "stressed out" alcoholic gun enthusiast.

Church of Almighty God Cult Members Executed in China

     Two people have been executed in China following their convictions for a brutal, cult-related murder in a McDonald's restaurant in May 2014…The two cult members, father and daughter Zhang Lidong and Zhang Fan, were executed in east China's Shandong Province on Monday February 2, 2015 following the approval of the use of the death penalty by the Supreme People's Court. The pair had been convicted of committing intentional homicide in the province's Zhaoyuan City.

     The convicted duo attacked and killed a 37-year-old woman, Wu Shuoyan after she refused to give the cult members her phone number during a recruitment drive in the fast-food restaurant. The pair, along with three other people convicted in the attack--including two church members of the Zhang family--belonged to the Church of Almighty God, or "Quannengshen."

     Linked to kidnappings, violence and extortion, the Church of Almighty God has been on a list of 14 banned religious groups, issued by China's Ministry of Public Security, since 1995.

     The three other members of the cult involved in the murder were sentenced in October 2014 to prison terms ranging from seven years to life. Zhang Fan and Lyu, another member of the group, called the victim an "evil spirit" before Zhang bludgeoned her with a chair, then jumped on and stomped her head….

"China Executes Cult Members Guilty of McDonald's Murder," CNN, February 2, 2015 

Thornton P. Knowles On Remembering A Freak Show Poster

As a kid, while I wasn't that excited with a carnival came to town, I went anyway. I remember being struck by a huge freak show poster that screamed: COME IN AND VISIT FRANKIE--HALF MAN-HALF WOMAN! I was less curious about Frankie than his redundant poster. Just Half Man or Half Woman would have been enough. I wasn't bothered that I didn't have the 15 cents to go in and see Frankie. His/Her stupid poster was good enough for me.

Thornton P. Knowles

Charles Bukowski on Writers and Writing

     According to Christopher Hitchens, "The reflections of successful writers on other writers, can be astonishingly banal." While probably true, this does not apply to southern California's Charles Bukowski. Before he died in 1994 at 73, Bukowski, the author of thousands of poems, hundreds of short stories, and six novels, had plenty to say about the writer and his craft. While he is one of my favorite authors, I don't think Bukowski was the nicest guy around. His anti-social personality and noir attitude about life is reflected in some of the following quotes. Nice guy or not, Bukowski was interesting, and he could write. A few of his writing related quotes:

Writing is a sick habit to break.

I can write more truly of myself than of anybody that I know. It's a great source of material.

I liked [Ernest] Hemingway for clarity, I loved it, yet at the same time I didn't like the literary feel of it...there was a upper snobbishness attached....When you come in from the factory with your hands and your body and your mind ripped, hours and days stolen from you, you can become very aware of a fake line, a fake thought, of a literary game.

Why do poets consider themselves more elevated than the garbage man, the short story writer and the novelist?

The job of a writer is to write, all else is nonsense that weakens mind, gut, ability and the natural state of being.

Poetry? Well, it's not much, is it? A lot of posing and prancing and fakery, wordplay for its own sake.

I am not so worried about whether I am writing any good or not, I know I write a valley of bad stuff. But what gets me is that nobody is coming on that I can believe in or look up to. It's hell not to have a hero.

I have to write a lot of poems to keep from going crazy; I can't help it. I often write ten to twelve poems a day and then top the whole thing off with a short story.

You know, I've tried the starving writer bit....I write better with a few bucks in my pocket.

I have to drink and gamble [horses] to get away from this typewriter. Not that I don't love this old machine when it's working right. But knowing when to go to it and knowing to stay away from it, that's the trick.

Starvation and obscurity are not necessarily signs of genius.

If there is anything good about my writing it is the roughness, the quality of not being literary.

There is hardly such a thing as a modest writer. Especially a modest bad writer.

It has always been the popular concept for the writer to starve, go mad, suffer, suicide. I think it's time for the editors and publishers to starve, suffer, go made and suicide.

Yes, I drink when I write fiction. Why not? I like things to be entertaining. If I feel entertained at this machine maybe somebody else will feel that way too.... 

Sunday, April 28, 2019

The Early Release of Violent Prisoners

     In 2007, after being convicted of assault with intent to do great bodily harm, an Isabella County judge in central Michigan sentenced Erie Lee Ramsey to five to fifteen years behind bars. The 25-year-old felon from Mount Pleasant, a town 120 miles northwest of Detroit, had previous felony convictions for destruction of police property, resisting arrest, and assault with a dangerous weapon. Ramsey had proven himself to be a violent, lawless person unfit for life outside of prison.

     In the summer of 2012, a Michigan parole board set this violent man free after he had served his minimum sentence of five years. During his relatively short prison stretch, Ramsey had been cited for inmate misconduct six times. Putting this prisoner back into society turned out to be a stupid, disastrous decision by so-called experts in the corrections field.

     At nine-thirty on the night of January 16, 2013, Eric Ramsey drove his pickup onto the campus of Central Michigan University. He arrived on campus with the intent of abducting, raping, and murdering the first vulnerable woman who crossed his path. Outside the Student Activity Center, Ramsey approached a senior from Grand Rapids as she walked toward her car. He stuck a BB handgun into the victim's face, opened the door to her 2003 Ford Escape, and ordered her into the vehicle. Ramsey climbed in behind the wheel, and drove the abductee to his house in Mount Pleasant where he bound her with tape and raped her.

     Later that night, Ramsey forced the terrified college student back into her car. He also placed  two cans of gasoline in the vehicle, and drove north out of Mount Pleasant. When they reached nearby Lincoln Township, Ramsey informed his victim that he was going to kill her. (I presume he intended to use the gasoline to torch the Ford Escape with her in it.) Moments after Ramsey announced his plan to murder his captive, she opened her back passenger seat door and rolled out of the moving vehicle.

     The young woman, not seriously injured from her vehicular escape, jumped to her feet and ran to the closest house where she pounded on the door and screamed for help. A 14-year-old boy, at home with his 11-year-old sister and a younger brother who was two, let the frantic woman into their dwelling. As the victim used the teenager's cellphone to call 911, he armed himself with a hunting knife.

     Eric Ramsey climbed out of the Ford Escape, grabbed the two cans of gasoline, and walked up to the house occupied by the victim and the boy who had taken her in. Using the gasoline as an accelerant, Ramsey set fire to the place, climbed back into the victim's car, and drove off. Shortly after Ramsey torched the house, the occupants' parent arrive home, and using an extinguisher, doused the small blaze.

     Just after midnight, a Michigan State Police officer spotted Ramsey and the Ford Escape in Gaylord, an Otsego County town north of Mount Pleasant. Ramsey intentionally drove his victim's car into the state patrol vehicle, veered off onto a field, jumped out of the damaged vehicle, and ran. In Gaylord, Ramsey stole a Ford F-350 sanitation truck, rammed another state police car, and continued north into Crawford County. Near the town of Fredric about 70 miles north of Mount Pleasant, Ramsey plowed the city garbage truck into a police car driven by a Crawford County sheriff's deputy. Just before climbing out of the sanitation vehicle, Ramsey posted the following message on his Facebook page: "Well folks, I'm about to be shot." (In the era of social media, even fleeing felons find time to post real-time messages. It's a strange world.)

     Ramsey had correctly predicted his fate. The Crawford County Deputy whose car Ramsey had disabled, shot him dead.

     Eric Lee Ramsey was not some drug-addled mental case who flipped-out and embarked on a criminal rampage. He had carried out a planned kidnapping and rape of a total stranger. Had this young woman not escaped, he would have murdered her and set her body on fire. If this wasn't bad enough, the 30-year-old felon had set fire to a house occupied by four people, and tried to kill three police officers.

     Members of the parole board who let this dangerous man out of prison ten years early are responsible for the college student's abduction and rape. It's a miracle she wasn't killed, and that held true for the three police officers Ramsey crashed into. Under the circumstances, it's not a bad thing that Ramsey is dead. That's what he wanted, that's what he deserved, and that's what he got. 

E. M. Forster on Literary Critics

[The literary critic's] constant reference to genius is a characteristic of the pseudo-scholar. He loves mentioning genius, because the sound of the word exempts him from trying to discover its meaning. Literature is written by geniuses. Novelists are geniuses....Everything [the critic] says may be accurate but all is useless because he is moving round books instead of through them. He either has not read them or cannot read them properly. Books have to be read...it is the only way of discovering what they contain....The reader must sit down alone and struggle with the writer, and this the pseudo-scholar will not do. He would rather relate a book to the history of its time, to events in the life of its author, or to the events it describes.

E. M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel, 1927 

Thornton P. Knowles On Ordering A Restaurant Meal

Before I order anything at a restaurant, I go over what I'm gong to say in my head to make sure it is clear and concise and does not invite further inquiry from the waitress. The other day I ordered three things: a medium burger with nothing on it but one slice of tomato; a plain baked potato; and a regular black coffee. The waitress, a nice lady, asked me if I also wanted bacon and pickles on my burger, butter on my potato, and cream for my coffee. I realize the fact I was annoyed reveals one of my many personality disorders. I admire waitresses who work hard and put up with a lot of crap for little pay. For that reason, I never reveal my stupid annoyance over such a trivial matter. It's not easy being me.

Thornton P. Knowles

Lawyers, Legislators, and Judges: Accountability Destroyers

     Discussing the virtues of accountability is a little like talking about the joy of taking exams. It's not exactly what we look forward to in life. Accountability is scary--someone else judging how we're doing….But accountability is an essential part of a healthy life and a healthy society. We all know this. In this age of legal insecurity, however, we are no longer free to act on the obvious--as with our obsession with safety and with rights. We want a perfect world, without failures or disagreements.

     In striving for this utopia we don't notice all the vital benefits that we lose. The freedom of people to make accountability judgments is vital to just about everything important and joyful in work life….

     To see ourselves as we really are, we need the mirror of other people's views. Scientists tell us that most people are incapable of accurately judging themselves, because humans are hard-wired by nature to be self-centered. Our founders believed this as well--that a human being was an atom of self-interest. By protecting against the judgment of others, modern personnel law [employer-emplyee relations] fosters these worst tendencies in humans, starting a downward spiral….

     One federal judge told me about presiding over a discrimination trial in which the facts of the worker's incompetence were overwhelming. As the trial progressed, it was clear to everyone in the courtroom that the worker had no claim. When the verdict came in dismissing his claim, however, the employee still couldn't see it. He sat in the courtroom in disbelief, crying in frustration at the injustice that had been done to him. Inside a legal cocoon, people let their imaginations replace reality.

Philip K. Howard, Life Without Lawyers, 2009 

Saturday, April 27, 2019

The Lisa McPherson Scientology Case: A Medical Examiner's Meltdown

NOTE: On March 29, 2015, HBO aired a documentary about the Church of Scientology called "Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief." The expose was based on Lawrence Wright's book of the same title. At that time, The Church of Scientology consisted of 11,000 churches, missions and affiliated groups around the world. The HBO documentary did not provide an understanding of the religious doctrine of the church (I'm not sure it's meant to be understood). In 2019, A&E's powerful documentary series, "Leah Remini: Scientology and The Aftermath," was in its third season.

      For a criminal justice system to work, the major law enforcement players--the police, prosecutors, and forensic scientists--have to be hardworking, competent, and honest. In Florida's Pinellas and Pasco Counties between 1997 and 2000, the medical examiner's office was not up to par, and the effect on local criminal justice was disastrous. Dr. Joan E. Wood, the head of the Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner's Office, was the principal source of the problem.

     A graduate of the University of South Florida Medical School, Dr. Wood began her career as a forensic pathologist in 1975 as an associate in the Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner's Office. She became the chief medical examiner in 1982, and for six years was the chairperson of Florida's Medical Examiners Commission, the body that regulates the state's forensic pathologists. Her career seemed to be on track until the mid-1990s when she became involved in a high-profile and controversial homicide case. This case, the 1995 death of a 36-year-old Scientologist named Lisa McPherson, marked the beginning of the end of Dr. Wood's career.

     As revealed in court documents and reported in the St. Petersburg Times, the sequence of events began at 5:50 in the evening of November 18, 1995 when paramedics responded to a minor traffic accident in downtown Clearwater involving McPherson's sports utility van. She was not injured but took off her clothes and walked down the middle of the street telling paramedics, "I need help. I need to talk to someone." The distraught woman said she had been doing things that were wrong but didn't know what they were.

     The paramedics transported McPherson to the Morton Plant Hospital for psychiatric evaluation. Following her examination, a group of Scientologists from her church came to the emergency room and escorted her away, promising that she would be cared for by the church, a decision grounded in their distrust of psychiatric medicine. The disturbed woman was taken to the church-owned Fort Harrison Hotel in downtown Clearwater where troubled Scientologists were taken for rest and relaxation.

     On December 5, 1995, Lisa's caretakers at the hotel rushed her to a hospital in New Port Richey, a 45-minute drive, to see an emergency room physician who was a Scientologist. McPherson had been at the Fort Harrison Hotel 17 days and when she arrived in New Port Richey the five-foot-nine-inch patient weighed 108 pounds and was covered in bruises. McPherson was also unkempt in appearance and pale. She was either dead on arrival at the hospital or pronounced dead shortly thereafter.

     At eleven o'clock the next morning, Dr. Robert Davis, a forensic pathologist in the Pinellas-Pasco County Medical Examiner's Office, performed the autopsy with Dr. Joan Wood looking on. According to Dr. Davis, Lisa McPherson's death had been caused by an embolism of the left pulmonary artery which had partially obstructed the blood flow that carried oxygen from her heart to her left lung. She had therefore died of asphyxia. A thrombus (blood clot) located behind her left knee had traveled from her leg to her heart and into the lung. At the time of her death, Lisa was severely dehydrated, a factor that contributed to her demise. In Dr. Davis's opinion, her dehydration was so pronounced she would have been unresponsive for more than 24 hours before her death. The forensic pathologist believed that the blood clot behind her left leg was caused by a combination of dehydration and bed-ridden immobility. Dr. Wood, instead of ruling McPherson's manner of death natural or accidental, labeled it undetermined, a manner of death that did not preclude a later finding of criminal homicide.

     Because of the condition of Lisa McPherson's body following her 17-day stay at the Fort Harrison Hotel, the Clearwater police quietly began looking into the case. Detectives determined that Lisa had been a Scientologist for 18 years, and during the past two years, had spent about $70,000 on church-related counseling. Before the traffic accident she had spent relaxation time at the Fort Harrison Hotel. McPherson had worked for a Dallas publishing company that mostly employed Scientologists. She had moved to Clearwater when the company relocated there about a year earlier. McPherson had weighted between 140 and 150 pounds when taken to the Fort Harrison Hotel following the traffic accident.

     Curious about just what kind of medical care one received at the Scientologist owned hotel, investigators learned that a few of Lisa's caretakers had medical training, including one person who had been an anesthesiologist. That caregiver, however, had lost her license because of a drug problem. As far as detectives could determine, no one at the hotel had been a licensed physician. The police also discovered that during her stay, Lisa had been physically restrained. She had been tied to her bed and given injections of muscle relaxants and other chemicals.

     When word got out that the authorities were looking into Lisa McPherson's death, church officials accused the Clearwater police of religious harassment. In January 1997, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office joined the investigation. The following month, Lisa McPherson's family filed a wrongful death suit against the church.

     Looking for a second opinion regarding the cause and manner of Lisa McPherson's death, Wayne Andrews of the Clearwater Police Department and Agent A. L. Sroope of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, in November 1997, traveled to Winston-Salem, North Carolina to consult with Dr. George Podgorny, the Forsythe County medical examiner. Dr. Podgorny had reviewed medical records from from the Morton Plant and New Port Richey hospitals; pharmacy records of drugs that had been administered to McPherson; and the Pinellas-Pasco autopsy report that chief medical examiner Joan Wood had approved.

     According to police and court documents, after reviewing this material, Dr. Podgorny opined that the blood clot that had killed Lisa McPherson had been caused by her extreme dehydration and immobility. The forensic pathologist told the investigators that if McPherson had received proper medical treatment and had been taken to a hospital when she first became ill, she might not have died. What this patient needed and did not get was water, salt, vitamins, and extra oxygen. Moreover, her blood-cell count and kidney function should have been closely monitored. When asked if the blood clot in her leg could have been caused by the traffic accident, Dr. Podgorny responded emphatically that such an occurrence would be extremely rare, especially in a 36-year-old woman. He pointed out that people bruise their legs all the time without getting blood clots. In the pathologist's opinion, the manner of Lisa McPherson's death boiled down to improper medical care following the traffic accident.

     A Pinellas County grand jury, on November 13, 1998, returned a two-count indictment charging the Church of Scientology with practicing medicine without a license and abusing or neglecting an adult. In response to these charges, the church asserted that the Lisa McPherson case was being exploited by forces out to destroy the institution. Accustomed to fighting for its survival, the church hit back hard. One of those on the receiving end of the attack was Dr. Joan Wood, the forensic pathologist who had opened the door to the grand jury indictment with her ruling of an undetermined manner of death.

     In the months that followed the indictment, defense attorneys representing the church deluged Dr. Wood with subpoenas that demanded all sorts of information. These lawyers wanted her to change the manner of death ruling to "accidental" on the theory the blood clot that had killed Lisa McPherson was the result of her traffic mishap. The church also denied practicing medicine at the Fort Harrison Hotel and insisted that Lisa had been properly cared for at the Scientology retreat.

     In February 2000, more than four years after the autopsy in the McPherson case, Dr. Wood, while insisting that she had not broken under pressure from the Church of Scientology, changed the McPherson manner of death to accidental. Her decision outraged the county prosecutor and the police agencies involved in the case. As far as the prosecutor was concerned Dr. Wood had folded under pressure. Some of the journalists following the case speculated that pressure and stress had caused the forensic pathologist to come emotionally unglued. Whether she had been bullied into her reversal or not, her new manner of death ruling destroyed her relationship with the local law enforcement community. The prosecutor had no choice but to drop the case against the Church of Scientology. Dr. Wood resigned her position in September 2000.

     After leaving the medical examiner's office, Dr. Wood disappeared for two years, eventually showing up at a conference of state medical examiners in Gainesville, Florida. A reporter with the St. Petersburg Times asked her if her disappearance had anything to do with the McPherson case and if she planned to get back into forensic science. Dr. Wood denied that her reversal in the McPherson case had anything to do with pressure from the Church of Scientology, but she did admit that after 25 years as a forensic pathologist, the stress of the job had finally caught up with her. She said she still had panic attacks when she walked into a courtroom.

     Lisa McPherson's estate, in May 2004, settled the wrongful death suit for an undisclosed amount. In July 2005, Dr. Wood voluntarily relinquished her medical license following a state health department declaration that in the McPherson case she had become "an advocate for the Church of Scientology." After that, she lived in obscurity, hardly ever leaving her townhouse in Tampa. On July 8, 2011, she had a stroke, and eight days later, died in the hospital. At the time of her death the former medical examiner was 67.

Thornton P. Knowles On Wedding Receptions

I've only been to a few weddings. A few too many, actually. I found the reception parties I attended puerile and extremely self-indulgent. At the core, these narcissistic jamborees were nothing more than photo opportunities where the wedding photographer was the most important person in the room. And given the fact that none of these marriages survived beyond a few years, these booze laden celebrations ended up hollow and meaningless. I've never been married, perhaps to avoid being involved in one of these depressing celebrations of future misery.

Thornton P. Knowles

Thornton P. Knowles On Achieving Literary Fame

Becoming a famous author today is about as likely as becoming a famous plumber. And that's the way it should be. In fact, it's more important to know who can fix your plumbing than who wrote a particular book.

Thornton P. Knowles

Women Steal Man's Prosthetic Leg

     Police say a prosthetic leg reported stolen from a veteran in a wheelchair outside the Eagles-Giants football game in south Philadelphia was later recovered on a subway train. Sonny Forriest Jr., who is known for singing for fans outside Phillies and Eagles games, told police that he had taken off his prosthetic leg during his performance. He said he was packing up to leave when a woman in her 20s wearing Eagles gear who appeared intoxicated, approached and took the leg.

     A Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority conductor found the leg at one in the morning on October 13, 2014 at the Olney station in north Philadelphia. Investigators said they planned to examine transit station surveillance video to try to identify a suspect. They said it appeared that three women took part in the theft.

"Stolen Prosthetic Leg Found Aboard Philadelphia Subway Train," Associated Press, October 13, 2014 

Friday, April 26, 2019

Excited Delirium Syndrome: Cause of Death or Police Cover-Up?

     When people die suddenly and unexpectedly without a clear reason, forensic pathologists, rather than classify them as deaths of undetermined causes, often explain these fatalites as being caused by a syndrome. Attributing a mysterious or suspicious death to a syndrome, while it sounds scientific, isn't always forensically enlightening. Some of the more common causes of death syndromes include the Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), the Shaken Baby Syndrome (SBS), and the more recent, Excited Delirium Syndrome (EDS). As causes of death, syndromes are based less on forensic science than on human behavior and the circumstances surrounding these deaths. These postmortem determinations often leave a lot to interpretation and are therefore controversial and subject to intense debate.

Excited Delirium Syndrome (EDS)

     Forensic pathologists in the United States, Canada, England, and Wales, in situations involving agitated, violent, incoherent, and erratic male subjects who die suddenly while fighting with police officers or prison personnel trying to subdue them through physical force or taser jolts, often attribute these deaths to EDS. Most of these men are overweight, a high percentage are black, and they are all high on drugs and/or alcohol. Many are also seriously mentally ill. Under intense stress, the hearts of these men race wildly, their body temperatures soar to 103-5 degrees, and they either die of cardiac or respiratory arrest. Dr. Vincent Di Maio, the former medical examiner of Bexar County, Texas, a well known forensic pathologist and textbook author, believes EDS subjects die from overdoses of adrenaline.

Dr. Deborah Mash

     The term "excited delirium" was coined by Dr. Deborah Mash, the neurologist who founded the Excited Delirium Education, Research and Information Center at the University of Miami where she has studied the brain tissue of 120 men she believed died of EDS. Called a junk scientist and charlatan by her critics, Dr. Mash has appeared as an expert witness on behalf of Taser International, the stun gun company that was been sued by families of men who have died after being tasered. When asked about her relationship with the firm, Dr. Mash has reportedly said, "I don't care about the taser, and I'll tell you why. Excited delirium was happening before the taser....If it happened with pepper spray, you'd say, 'oh, it's the pepper spray that's killing them.'...We have some cases where there were no police involved, and they still died....Medical examiners have described cases where paramedics got to the scene and the room is trashed, there are ice cubes everywhere, and the subject is dead. That tells me that person was trying to cool down." (Miami-Dade County fire rescue paramedics carry excited delirium survival kits designed to cool overheated brains.)

     Critics of EDS as a cause of death determination include the ACLU and other civil libertarian organizations. Noting that EDS is not recognized by the American Medical Association, these critics believe the authorities use EDS to cover-up and white-wash the real causes of death--police brutality and excessive force. They see EDS as a forensic device used to excuse and exonerate heavy-handed law enforcement.

Cases

September 5, 2006
Louisville, Kentucky

     The police encountered 52-year-old Larry Noles, an ex-Marine, standing nude in the middle of the street. After failing to subdue Noles by force, officers shot him with a taser three times. The highly agitated subject suddenly stopped breathing and died. The Jefferson County Medical Examiner attributed the death to EDS.

October 29, 2006
Jerseyville, Illinois

     Roger Holyfield, 17, was walking in the middle of the street carrying a phone in one hand and a Bible in the other. He was screaming incoherently when approached by the police. After struggling with the out-of-control man, officers tasered him. Holyfield went into a coma and died the following day. The local medical examiner attributed the death to EDS.

December 17, 2006
Lafayette, Louisiana

     High on cocaine and delirious, 29-year-old Terill Enard, with a broken bone sticking out of his leg, was creating a disturbance at a Waffle House restaurant. The police came, tried to restrain him, then shocked him with a taser. Enard collapsed and died at the scene. The coroner's office listed the death as "cocaine-induced Excited Delirium."

January 2008
Coral Gables, Florida

     At two in the morning, Coral Gables police found ex-con Xavia Jones lying in the middle of a highway screaming "God is coming to take me!" When officers approached him, Jones yelled, "Kill me, shoot me." Instead of shooting him, an officer tasered him four times. When that had no effect, another officer gave Jones five more jolts. The subject sort of locked-up, then died with a white liquid trickling from his mouth. The Miami-Dade County Associate Medical Examiner cited "excited delirium syndrome, associated with cocaine use" as the cause of death.

July 2008
Hanover Township, New Jersey

     A New Jersey State Trooper pulled up to 25-year-old Kenwin Garcia as he walked along Interstate 287. After frisking the unarmed man, the officer put him in the back of his patrol car where the mentally ill subject became agitated and kicked out a window. Zip-tied around his wrists and ankles, the trooper and another officer placed Garcia into a second patrol car where the subject kicked out another window. A third trooper arrived at the scene to help restrain the agitated man. One of the troopers turned off the dashboard camera before they pulled Garcia out of the car and piled on top of him. Garcia kicked and struggled, said he couldn't breathe, then went limp. He died a week later at a nearby hospital after they took him off life support.

     Although the medical examiner found that Garcia had a broken breastbone, fractured ribs, a torn kidney and internal bleeding, and had not been under the influence of alcohol or drugs, he ruled the cause of death excited delirium syndrome. As a result, none of the troopers in the case were charged with a crime or even disciplined.

      Pursuant to an independent investigation of Garcia's death, four forensic pathologists reviewed the autopsy and found that Garcia had died from suffocation while being restrained. Three law enforcement experts opined that the troopers in this case had used excessive force. The dead man's family, based on these findings, filed a wrongful death suit against the township.

     In 2013, attorneys for Hanover Township agreed to pay the Garcia estate $700,000 in an out of court settlement. No criminal charges were filed in this case.

July 22, 2011
Bangor, Maine

     The Bangor police were called at 6:45 P.M. to deal with 32-year-old Ralph E. Willis, a man addicted to a hallucinogenic stimulant called MDPV, the key ingrediant in bath salts. Officers found him running wildly around yelling at people on the street. When Willis resisted being taken into custody, several officers had to subdue him. In so doing, they used their nightsticks.

    At the Penobscot County Jail, Willis continued to be agitated and uncooperative. He fought with jail personnel who put him into a holding cell. Thirty minutes later, when they checked on him, Willis appeared unresponsive. When deputy sheriffs entered the cell, Willis began to yell. He then grabbed his testicles, banged his head against the wall, and rolled onto his stomach flailed his arms and legs At that point the inmate stopped breathing. A short time later doctors pronounced Willis dead at a local emergency room. He had died of cardiac arrest and at the time of his death had a body temperature of 103 degrees.

     The state's medical examiner ruled the manner of Willis' death accidental. The cause: MDPV toxicity. In her report, the forensic pathologist described Willis as having been in a state of excited delirium. As a result of the Willis case, the Penobscot County Jail no longer accepted prisoners who were under the influence of bath salts.

EDS in England and Wales

     Research by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a not for profit organization based at City University in London, disclosed that excited delirium was first used in a British case in 1996. Since then, the condition has been used by coroners in England and Wales to explain 10 police restraint related deaths. In researching EDS, bureau journalists interviewed several forensic pathologists including Dr. Deborah Mash who told an interviewer that,"Just because you die in police custody doesn't mean that what the police were doing at the time you died led to your death. The symptoms of EDS are why the police are called to the scene to begin with."

     In Great Britian, Dr. Mash has drawn the wrath of several prominent critics in the field of forensic pathology. Dr. Derrick Pounder, a forensic pathology expert at the University of Dundee said, "Excited delirium is a theory....It has come from the United States, where the science is very politicized, without a robust enough analysis. If you write off a death as excited delirium, then you close the door to guilt being attributed, and more importantly, lessons being learned from the types of [police] restraint used."

     Dr. Richard Shepherd, another English forensic pathologist who spoke to journalists with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, said this: "We know there are a group of people who exhibit this very bizarre behavoir. Whether they strictly fall into this group called 'excited delirium' or not, I think will become clearer as more research is done....I think it is a term that should be used with great care...."

     Like its cause of death counterparts, SIDS and SBS, EDS will attract supporters and critics and remain controversial until it is either totally rejected in the medical community or accepted as valid forensic science.
    

Physicians On The Witness Stand

Physicians may be the worst witnesses. They are often swayed by whoever asked them to be an expert. If that lawyer is smart enough to ask their advice, they conclude, he must know what he is doing. That being the case, physicians therefore adopt whatever the lawyer tells them as the facts of the case and become, if only subconsciously, an advocate for the lawyer rather than an independent adviser.

Michael Baden, M.D. and Marion Roach, Dead Reckoning, 2001 

What Makes a Short Story Great?

Unlike most novels, great short stories make us marvel at their integrity, their economy. If we went at them with our red pencils, we might find we had nothing to do. We would discover there was nothing that the story could afford to lose without the whole delicate structure collapsing like a souffle or meringue. And yet we are left with a feeling of completeness, a conviction that we know exactly as much as we need to know, that all of our questions have been answered.

Francine Prose in On Writing Short Stories, edited by Tom Bailey, 2000

Thornton P. Knowles On Writer Suicides.

Some of the world's most famous writers ended their lives with suicide. A few examples would include Hart Crane, Ernest Hemingway, Jerry Kosinski, Jack London, Malcolm Lowry, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Hunter S. Thompson, John Kennedy Toole, and Virginia Woolf. In 1949, Ross Lockridge Jr., a year after the publication of his bestselling novel, Raintree County, gassed himself to death in his newly purchased car. Who knows why so many successful writers kill themselves. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that many writers are odd, high-strung wrecks. Many slip into despair, some go mad, and a number get hooked on booze and drugs. In a few cases, the writer's suicide propells him or her into fame. In 1963, the poet Sylvia Plath, while living in London, gassed herself to death by placing her head into her oven. The 31-year-old writer was virtually unknown before she killed herself. Following her death, Plath became one of the most famous woman writers in the world. Vidal Gore, when speaking of another writer's suicide, wryly noted that for this particular novelist the suicide turned out to be a good career move. While an excellent writer, Mr. Gore was a horse's ass. But he did not die by his own hand. It's quite amazing, however, that he wasn't murdered by Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, William Buckley, or any number of writers who hated his guts. Writers, what a messed up bunch.

Thornton P. Knowles

Thursday, April 25, 2019

The Diane McDermott Murder Case

     Americans have enjoyed detective fiction since the 1930s. The early police detectives of literature and film were far more impressive than their thick-skulled, real-life contemporaries. In the U.S., criminal investigation, as practiced by the police, didn't become anything resembling a profession well into the 20th Century. The first widely read criminal investigation textbook didn't come out until 1958. (Criminal Investigation by Charles O'Hara) Colleges and universities didn't start criminal justice programs until the early 1970s, and most of them were puerile.

     As late as the 1950s and 60s, police detectives, instead of employing interrogation techniques to acquire confessions, simply beat the hell out of suspects until someone broke down and confessed. In the 1940s, Fred Inbau of Northwestern University Law School, developed a set of interrogation techniques designed to psychologically induce admissions of guilt without the use of force. As a polygraph examiner in the Chicago Crime Lab, he knew that confessions beat out of people by the Chicago Police were unreliable, not to mention inhumane. Inbau's methods, however, weren't universally practiced until after the 1966 Supreme Court decision, Miranda v. Arizona. Cops loved the third-degree, and old habits were hard to break.

     During the first half of the 20th Century and beyond, police detectives didn't routinely conduct professional crime scene investigations, take detailed notes, write case reports, or submit physical evidence to crime labs. Crimes were not systematically investigated and solved, and if a case didn't present an obvious suspect, detectives quickly closed it. Crime novelists and their readers loved murder mysteries, cops didn't. Homicide detectives regularly ignored or bungled murder cases, no one knew how to investigate arsons, and burglars were rarely caught because these crimes did not produce eyewitnesses. Most rape complaints received no investigation whatsoever. Cops who wore suits and carried gold badges were detectives in name only. (The word "detective" wasn't introduced into the English language until 1853 when Charles Dickens coined the term in his novel Bleak House.)

     Today, police detectives are well-paid and have access to cutting edge forensic science. They also can avail themselves of all sorts of relevant education and training. Still, in some big cities, small towns, and suburban communities, criminal investigations are regularly bungled due to indifference, laziness, corruption, and a shortage of qualified personnel. Modern law enforcement is principally focused on street crime, anti-terrorism, and the war on drugs. Criminal investigation has taken a backseat to these law enforcement priorities, and is becoming a lost art. (The nation's crime labs are also underfunded and understaffed.) In the history of criminal investigation, we are coming full circle.

The Diane McDermott Case

     A murder ignored by the police in 1967 drew attention in the spring of 2012 because the victim's son, a TV actor named Dylan McDermott, prevailed upon the authorities to take a second look at his mother's violent death. The Diane McDermott case is one of thousands of suspicious deaths in the past 100 years never investigated seriously or competently by the police.

     In 1967, Diane McDermott lived in a Waterbury, Connecticut apartment with her 5-year-old son Dylan, her 7-month-old daughter Robin, and John Sponza, her 27-year-old boyfriend. In February of that year, Sponza shot Diane McDermott in the head at point-blank range, placed a handgun next to her body that wasn't the firearm he had shot her with, then called the police. Sponza, a heroin addict with organized crime connections, told detectives with the Waterbury Police Department that Diane had picked up the gun he had been cleaning and accidentally shot herself in the head. Only an idiot, or cops on the take, would buy this story.

     Police interviews of Dylan McDermott, neighbors, and friends of the victim contradicted Sponza's claim that he and Diane rarely argued. Dylan said he had seen the boyfriend, who had once locked him out of the apartment, point a gun at his mother. Moreover, the two of them were often heard yelling at each other.

     Following a cursory investigation, the Waterbury Police closed the McDermott case as an accidental shooting. Four years later, police in Waltham, Massachusetts found Sponza's body in the trunk of a car parked in front of a a grocery store.

     The fact Sponza had murdered Diane McDermott in 1967 before DNA and other forensic science breakthroughs does not excuse the bungling of this case. (I don't know if McDermott's body had been autopsied, or if a forensic pathologist had recovered the fatal bullet. Media coverage of the case has focused on the actor's angst.) Even if the fatal slug had been too damaged for microscopic comparison with a test-fired bullet from the death scene handgun, a forensic firearms identification expert could have determined if the two projectiles were the same caliber. The victim's hands could have been tested for traces of gunshot residue, and the firearm next to her body could have been processed for latent fingerprints.

     In June 2012, Dr. H. Wayne Carver, the medical examiner for the state of Connecticut, reviewed the McDermott case file and concluded that the gun next to the victim's body was too small a caliber to have fired the fatal shot. In his report, Dr. Carver wrote, "The wound also showed that the murder weapon had been pressed to the back of the head." (This suggests the victim had been autopsied, and photographs had been taken.)

     Since people don't accidentally shoot themselves in the back of the head, Diane McDermott had obviously been murdered, and the last person to have seen her alive was John Sponza.

     While it's possible the detectives in charge of the McDermott case were either extremely stupid, lazy, or indifferent, I think they were corrupt. While the Connecticut criminal justice system failed to do its job in this case, John Sponza ended up where he belonged, dead in the trunk of someone's car.

The Diversity of Fiction

     Fiction explores how interesting people deal with significant problems at important times in their lives. Stories explore human vulnerabilities and strengths and are usually focused on a character's goals and dilemmas. They inquire into why people act, react, struggle and change as they do. Stories are shaped from techniques that make the narrative lifelike, involved, complicated, and tense…

     There are many types of fiction configured into novels, novellas, and short stories. There are comedies, tragedies, happily-ever-after stories, horror stories, historical re-creations, fantasies, young adult stories, and novels that roller coaster along with pathos, black humor, and grim portrayals of humanity. Some novels track the affairs of the heart; others track a murderer to his hideout or a monster to his lair. Fiction can be of a serious or literary bent or can be as fluffy as marshmallows. Short stories come in all sizes, and novels weigh in at 60,000 words or ramble on to 200,000 words.

Jessica Page Morrell, Between the Lines, 2006 

Eyewitness Misidentifications

Advances in the social sciences and technology have cast a new light on eyewitness identification. Hundreds of studies on eyewitness identification have been published in professional and academic journals. One study by the University of Virginia Law School Professor Brandon L. Garett found that eyewitness misidentifications contributed to 76 percent of the cases overturned by DNA evidence.

Matthew Mangino, criminal defense attorney and criminal justice blogger at wwwmattmangino.com, August 3, 2013

Thornton P. Knowles on the Pretentious Writer

     I'm put off when I suspect that a writer is too aware of his own style or is more concerned with style than content and communication. It's a lot like a speaker who takes on a pompous speaker's voice when he's talking publicly. I consider this pretentious and phony. I prefer authors who don't recognize their own voices or, if they do, are clever enough to make their writing style appear naturally interesting and unique…

     There is a particularly dreadful style of writing, prose intended to sound lofty and important, found in a lot of promotional literature put out by colleges and universities. The thoughts and messages conveyed in this form are usually quite simple. An example of this style can be found in many college mission statements. In straightforward prose, one might write: "The goal of college is the education of its students." Because this is so obvious, to write it simply and directly makes it sound vacuous. But when the mission statement is puffed up with carefully selected words and high-minded phrases, the simplicity of the message is replaced by syntax intended to make it sound profound. This style of writing is pompous and false, and represents writing at its worst.

Thornton P. Knowles, The Psychology of Writing, 1976 

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

The Trigger-Happy Constable

     On November 2, 2011, at 3:30 in the afternoon, Jefferson County Constable David Whitlock, while shopping in a Louisville, Kentucky Walmart where he worked off-duty as a retail security officer, received a call on his cellphone regarding a possible shoplifter. Constable Whitlock approached the suspect, Tammy Lee Jamian, aka Tammy Ortiz, as she sat in her car in the parking lot. When Whitlock reached the vehicle, the suspect started to drive away. Her car ran over Whitlock's foot so he shot her in the arm and hand.

     In Kentucky, constables were elected under the state constitution that gave them powers of arrest in the enforcement of traffic laws. They also served certain types of warrants. Whitlock, in 2000 and 2002, had been charged in a couple of theft cases. Other law enforcement officers had criticized him for carrying a gun without the proper firearms training. In Kentucky, constables were not required to undergo special law enforcement instruction. Whitlock claimed, however, to have taken 122 hours of deadly force classes. According to a Jefferson County Sheriff's Deputy, Whitlock failed the shooting portion of the course and was sent home.

     In a newspaper interview following the Walmart shooting, Whitlock told the reporter he spent 20 to 25 hours a week writing citations for illegal parking in fire lanes and handicapped spots. He also patrolled Louisville making sure addresses were visible on buildings as required by law.

     Tammy Lee Jamian, who has an arrest record for burglary, theft, and prostitution, claimed she was not shoplifting in the store and that Constable Whitlock, when he confronted her in the parking lot, did not identify himself as a police officer. She drove off because she thought she was being mugged. Referring to Whitlock, Jamian's attorney told a reporter "This cowboy shot an unarmed woman for shoplifting. He didn't know if she was Bonnie from Bonnie and Clyde or Sister Teresa. He just shot her."

     On November 11, 2011, Louisville Councilman Rick Blackwell called for the state legislature to remove Whitlock as a Jefferson County Constable. According to the councilman, Whitlock violated three state laws: deputizing staff members, failing to file monthly reports to the county clerk, and using oscillating blue lights on his car.

     In October 2012, pursuant to his guilty plea to charges of wanton endangerment and second-degree assault, Whitlock agreed never to work in law enforcement again. After he completed a diversion program, the prosecutor dropped the charges against the former constable.

     In Louisville, on January 27, 2014, David Whitlock announced his plan to run for a seat on the Metro Council. He lost.

Horror Stories For Children

Exposing your children to horror-nuanced children's literature at an early age is a positive thing. And here's why: 1. It gets children interested--exhilarated--about reading. I remember that as a kid, I was fascinated by any book that dealt with monsters or ghosts or anything weird. It was thrilling to open up and experience some of these books. There was a sense that I was pushing the boundaries, exploring new territory, doing something that bordered on naughty. It was a little scary and a lot of fun. 2. By exploring the dark side of humanity and the nature of fear, kids learn more about themselves and hopefully become more empowered because of it. 3. There are life lessons to be learned. Don't take that shortcut through the cemetery. Staying out late and not telling your parents where you are can be dangerous. Walking into a forest late at night looking for a wayward pet is a bad idea. Don't take candy from strangers. 4. These children's horror stories create a broader knowledge of literature and history.

Paul Allen, barnesandnoble.com, April 29, 2013

Thornton P. Knowles On America's Missing Person Population

If America's rivers, creeks, lakes, and ponds all suddenly went dry, there wouldn't be enough forensic scientists to identify the remains of all the missing persons no longer submerged in these watery resting places. American waterways are grave sites for thousands and thousands of people who went missing and remain unaccounted for. The stories of their accidents, suicides and murders will never be revealed. These are America's untold stories.

Thornton P. Knowles

The Eyewitness

Before a witness can recall a complex incident, the incident must be accurately perceived at the onset; it must be stored in memory. Before it can be stored, it must be within a witness's perceptual range, which means that it must be loud enough and close enough so the the ordinary senses pick it up. If visual details are to be perceived, the situation must be reasonably well illuminated. Before some information can be recalled, a witness must have paid attention to it. But even though an event is bright enough, loud enough, and close enough, and even though attention is being paid, we can still find significant errors in a witness's recollection of the event, and it is common for two witnesses to the same event to recall it very differently.

Elizabeth Loftus, Eyewitness Testimony, 1979

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

The Harold Montague Ax Murder Case

     In 2010, 33-year-old Harold E. Montague lived in a single-story house with his wife Erricca, their two grade school children, and Erricca's disabled mother, Monica O'Dazier. The family resided on San Pedro Avenue in the central valley area of Las Vegas. Erricca worked outside the home while her husband cared for her mother who had cerebral palsy and suffered seizures. Harold had been his mother-in-law's principal caregiver for the past five years.

     At eleven-forty on the morning of Thursday, February 11, 2010, Harold Montague removed a medieval-style battle ax that hung on his wall and used it to hack his mother-in-law twenty times. Leaving the gravely wounded O'Dazier bleeding in the rear bedroom of the dwelling, Montague, with the bloody battle ax in hand, walked out onto Pedro Avenue where he encountered a young mother pushing her 4-month-old son in a stroller.

     Montague walked up to Sonia Castro and her son Damian, and started swing the weapon. He quickly hacked the baby to death, then struck Sonia several times in the head and hands as she tried to protect herself. During the murderous rampage, Castro begged her attacker to stop. Instead of letting up, Montague laughed in her face. With the dead baby under the overturned stroller, and the infant's mother on the ground with her jaw hanging loosely from her face, Montague walked back into his house.

     A neighbor, 52-year-old Teresa Garner, witnessed the attack and called 911. After making the emergency call, Garner ran to the victims. She found the baby dead, and Sonia alive but horribly disfigured, and bleeding profusely.

     Paramedics rushed the unconscious Monica O'Dazier to the University Medical Center. Sonia Castrol was taken to the same facility where she was listed in "extremely critical" condition. Both women would survive Montague's vicious attacks.

     Following a brief scuffle, Las Vegas officers arrested Harold Montague at his house. He told the officers that he had no memory of the assaults. They booked him into the Clark County Jail on suspicion of first-degree murder and attempted murder.

     The next day, at Montague's arraignment, the judge denied him bail. At that hearing, defense attorney Norm Reed characterized his client as delusional and paranoid. The lawyer said he would have his client examined by a psychiatrist, and depending upon the results of that examination, make a decision as to whether he would plead his client legally insane.

     In October 2010, attorney Reed informed the court that he planned to put on an insanity defense. The judge set the trial for June 2011.

     By 2013, due to several postponements, the Montague case had not come to trial. At a preliminary hearing on December 6, 2013, attorney Reed put a Reno, Nevada psychiatrist named Dr. Tom Bittker on the stand. Dr. Bittker said that several interviews of Montague had given him a profile of this disturbed man's life. For example, as a child, Montague had been beaten, raped and emotionally tormented by his drug-abusing parents. At age six someone murdered the boy's father.

     According to Dr. Bittker, Harold didn't go beyond the fifth grade, and grew up in and out of a Las Vegas juvenile detention center. As an adult, he married Erricca, and fathered two children with her. She worked out of the house while he stayed at home, unable to hold down a job. In 2004, he began taking care of Erricca's mother.

     Dr. Bittker testified that in his expert medical opinion, when Mr. Montague attacked Monica O'Dazier, Sonia Castro, and little Damian, he was in the midst of a psychotic episode that included the delusion that God was speaking to him directly.

     Erricca Montague took the stand at the hearing and testified that for several days before the attacks, her husband's behavior had been bizarre. He hadn't slept for days, stopped eating, and refused to drink water. He spent his nights pacing the house and talking to himself.

     Following the preliminary hearing, the judge ruled that the defense had produced enough evidence to go forward with an insanity defense. (In Nevada as in most states, legal insanity is a so-called affirmative defense, which means the defendant has the burden of proving, with a preponderance of evidence, that he was insane at the time of the alleged criminal act.)

     On May 22, 2014, the Montague case came to an abrupt conclusion when attorney Reed announced that his client had pleaded guilty to first-degree murder, two counts of attempted murder, and battery of a police officer. Under the plea agreement, the defendant was sentenced on July 30, 2014 to life in prison without the chance of parole. In prison, he received treatment for his mental illness.

     The plea agreement meant that Sonia Castro would not have to testify at Montague's trial. Earlier, at a April 2010 preliminary hearing, she had testified that when she begged him to stop his murderous assault, he laughed at her. After the rampage, her jaw had to be surgically reattached. The attack had also left her with an irreparably damaged eye.

     Montague's guilty plea also spared eyewitness Teresa Garner from the ordeal of re-living the crime in court. After Montague's ax-wielding madness, Garner suffered a nervous breakdown.

     Harold Montague, on anti-psychotic medication, expressed a desire to apologize to his victims, and to explain that he had acted out of a psychotic delusion. I doubt that his apology and explanation helped his victims, people who had been permanently scarred physically and emotionally as a result of his bloody rampage.
     

The Sexy Senior Shoplifter

     Police arrested an 82-year-old woman on January 27, 2015 after she stole a $7.39 bottle of Sexiest Fantasies body spray from a CVS store in Augusta, Georgia. A store employee saw Annelise Young slip the merchandise into her purse and walk out of the store without paying for it. The clerk called the police…

     A deputy with the Richmond County Sheriff's office took Young into custody. She apologized for the theft and handed the body spray back to the store employee. She was later booked into the Richmond County Jail on the charge of shoplifting….

"Woman, 82, Arrested For Theft Of Bottle of Sexiest Fantasies Body Spray," dailymail.com, February 9, 2015

Phony Sleep Study As Rape Trap

    One-hundred women in Japan who thought they were participating in a sleep study were drugged and raped, their attacks recorded and sold to pornography sites. Police arrested 54-year-old Hideyuki Noguchi after one of the victims saw herself in a video. Noguchi was charged on February 4, 2015 with three dozen counts of incapacitated rape. Noguchi numbered his victims at 100.

     The sexual assaults began in 2012 when Noguchi took out an ad seeking participants for a sleep study. The ad sought women from their teens through their 40s. Noguchi has no medical training and the study was merely a ruse to isolate women, drug them and film the assaults. The suspect sold the videos to porn sites for about $100,000.

"Man Accused of Raping Women During Fake Sleep Study," CNN, February 5, 2015
     

Altitude Sickness: Flying With Germs


     Studies show that air travelers suffer hight rates of disease infections than people who move about on the ground. (Although I don't imagine that buses are that germ free either.) One study showed a 20 percent increase among flyers to catch colds. Cabin air-filters catch 99 percent of bacterial and virus carrying particles, but when the plane is on the ground before take-off and after landing, the air circulation system is turned off. That's when sickness spreads like wildfire.

     Scott McCarney, in a "Wall Street Journal," wrote: "A number of factors increase the odds of bringing home a souvenir cough and runny nose. For one, the environment at 30,000 feet enables easier spread of disease. [Much of the danger comes from sick passengers sitting nearby. Air in planes is extremely dry, and viruses tend to thrive in low-humidity conditions. When mucous membranes dry out, they are far less effective at blocking infection. High altitudes can tire the body, and fatigue plays a role in making people more susceptible to catching colds, too. Also, viruses and bacteria can live for hours on some surfaces--some viral particles have been found to be active up to a day in certain places. Tray tables can be contaminated, and seat back pockets, which get stuffed with used tissues, soiled napkins and trash, can be particularly skuzzy. It's also not difficult to know why germs are lurking in an airline's pillows and blankets." (I guess it's kind of ironic that the great germaphobe, Howard Hughes, was a commercial aviation pioneer.)

     As germ factories, airplanes sound almost as bad as hospitals. Almost as bad because when most people go to the hospital they are already sick and vulnerable to infection. But this could also apply, I guess, to people who fly every day.


Thornton P. Knowles On An Agent's Angst

A neighbor's son who was in J. Edgar Hoover's FBI killed a bank robber, a 17-year-old kid with a low I.Q. and a toy gun. Even though the boy was hardly John Dillinger, Director Hoover tried to make a hero out of the distraught agent. The young agent left the bureau and ten years later took his own life. The ugly truth is this: Law enforcement is an impossible job, and very few people are suited for it.

Thornton P. Knowles

Monday, April 22, 2019

The Randy Alana Murder Case

     In 2013, 50-year-old Sandra Coke, a capital case investigator for the federal public defender's office headquartered in Sacramento, California, resided in Oakland with her 15-year-old daughter. As a federal investigator in cases involving death row inmates who had appealed their sentences, Coke interviewed them, their family members, and acquaintances for the public defenders office in the Eastern District of California. The job often involved travel around California and into other states.

     In May 2013, someone broke into Sandra Coke's home and stole her beloved cocker spaniel, Ginny.  Since then, in her spare time, Sandra ran down leads regarding her pet's whereabouts generated by missing-dog posters she had posted around her neighborhood. The poster offered a $1,000 reward for information leading to Ginny's return.

     On Saturday, August 3, 2013, someone called Sandra with information about the dog. At eight-thirty the following evening, Sandra left her house to meet with the person who had called about Ginny. Before leaving the dwelling Sandra told her daughter that she'd be gone no more than thirty minutes. When she did not return to the house as promised, her daughter reported her missing to the Oakland Police Department.

     Doing some detective work of her own, the missing woman's daughter tracked her iPhones using a GPS application. One of the phones had been dumped along a highway near Richmond, California. The other device had been ditched in Oakland.

     At seven-forty-five the evening after Sandra Coke's disappearance, Oakland police found her 2007 Mini Cooper convertible parked two miles from her home. In a quest for leads regarding her whereabouts, officers removed bags of evidence from the Coke residence. Included among the items seized were two laptop computers.

     A few days into the missing person's case, investigators developed a suspect from Oakland named Randy Alana. The 56-year-old career criminal had been seen with Sandra Coke on the night she went missing. The two had dated twenty years earlier.

     In June 2012, Alana was paroled from a fifteen-year prison sentence for armed robbery. He also had convictions for kidnapping and rape and was registered in California as a high-risk sex offender. The fact he and Sandra had been together on the night she went missing raised the possibility of murder.

     For Randy Alana, this was not the first time he was a suspect in a murder case. In September 1983, Alameda County, California  prosecutor Russ Giutini charged the then 26-year-old criminal with using a hammer to beat to death Marilyn Pigott, a woman he had known since elementary school. Pigott had been murdered on August 13, 1983 in her North Oakland apartment.

     In June 1984, while awaiting his murder trial in the Alameda County Jail, Alana and a fellow inmate named James Hodari Benson were accused of killing 40-year-old Al Ingram. The victim had been stabbed 93 times. Alana and Benson were members of the Black Guerrilla Family prison gang. They killed Ingram under the false belief he was a police informant.

      In the fall of 1984, the jury in the Marilyn Pigott murder trial deadlocked 9-3 in favor of convicting Alana. In his second trial, the jury acquitted him because the witnesses who testified against him were "street types." In the Pigott case, Prosecutor Giutini managed to convict Alana of receiving stolen property in connection with his possession of the murder victim's ring.

     In 1986, as a defendant in the Al Ingram murder trial, the jury couldn't reach an unanimous verdict on the issue of Alana's guilt. The judge declared a mistrial. James Hodari Benson was convicted of the murder in 1987. A year later, Alana pleaded no contest to voluntary manslaughter in the Benson case in return for a prison sentence of six years.

     Police officers, on August 6, 2013, arrested Randy Alana on a parole violation and booked him into the Santa Rita County Jail in Dublin, California. The magistrate denied Alana bail.

     Three days after Alana's arrest, a Contra County search and rescue team near Lagoons Valley Park, an unincorporated area in Solano County outside of Vacaville, California, found Sandra Coke's body in a creek bed. She had been strangled to death.

     Former Alameda prosecutor Russ Giutini, in speaking to a CBS reporter, described Alana as a good-looking career criminal who is cunning and manipulative.

     On August 18, 2013, in a jailhouse interview, Randy Alana told a reporter with The Oakland Tribune that he and Sandra Coke had been in love and had planned to get married. During the past several months, according to Alana, they had shared a house and regularly attended the Harmony Missionary Baptist Church. "I'm being treated like a suspect," he said.

     In November 2013, an Alameda County prosecutor charged Alana with murder in connection with Sandra Coke's death. Al Wax, Alana's longtime criminal defense attorney, called the case against his client "very weak and circumstantial," asked a judge in June 2014 to dismiss the case. The judge denied the defense motion to drop the charges. The case would progress to the trial stage.

     The Randy Alana murder trial got underway on March 16, 2015 in the Alameda County Courthouse in Oakland. Prosecutor Colleen McMahon, in her opening remarks to the jury, said that after the defendant stoled Sandra Coke's dog Ginny on May 9, 2013, he tried to extort $1,000 from her for the pet's return. She didn't file charges against him and didn't pay him the ransom. She did, however, speak to his parole officer, accusing Alana of stealing her car, abducting her dog, and stealing her daughter's expensive headphones. This discussion led to Alana's incarceration that spring and summer for violating his parole.

     Infuriated that Coke had spoken to his parole agent, the defendant strangled Coke to death in the rear seat of her Mini Cooper parked behind the Nights Inn in North Oakland.

     Defense attorney Al Wax, in his opening statement, said that without an eyewitness or a confession, the prosecution's case was entirely circumstantial and insufficient.

     Over the next four weeks, prosecutor McMahon presented her evidence that included incriminating surveillance camera footage, cellphone data, and records from the defendant's electronic ankle monitor. When police officers arrested him on August 6, 2013 in Dublin, California, Alana was in possess of the murder victim's car keys and credit cards.

     Two of the defendant's former cellmates at the Santa Rita County Jail took the stand for the prosecution and testified that following his arrest, he remarked that while he had assaulted many women in the past, things didn't look good for him this time.

     Prosecutor McMahon, to establish motive, played a recording of a phone call from Alana to Sandra Coke made on May 9, 2013 from the Santa Rita County Jail. In that call, Alana expressed his rage at her for getting him into trouble with his parole officer.

     A 40-year-old homeless woman took the stand and said that just hours after Sandra Coke's murder, the defendant took her, in his "wife's" Mini Cooper, to a motel in Oakland where they smoked crack and she gave him oral sex.

     Randy Alana took the stand on his own behalf on April 20, 2015. Under direct examination by defense attorney Wax, the defendant gave an account of his activities on the day of Coke's murder, a story he was telling for the first time. According to Alana, on August 3, 2013, he and Sandra Coke, in her Mini Cooper, followed two people she believed would lead them to her dog Ginny. At the point of destination, a crack house in Richmond, California, he went inside to smoke dope while she remained out side talking to the unidentified people.

     When Alana came out of the crack house Sandra asked him to take her car and and bank card and withdraw cash from her bank account. When he returned to the crack house with the money she was gone, presumably murdered by these mysterious people.

     On May 4, 2015, the last day of Alana's self-serving testimony, prosecutor McMahon, during a blistering cross-examination, poked several holes in the defendant's story. The next day, following the testimony of the defendant's 33-year-old daughter from a short-lived marriage in the 1980s, the defense rested. The judge excused the jury until May 18.

     On May 20, 2015, after the closing arguments, the jury, following a two-hour deliberation, found Randy Alana guilty as charged. He faced up to 96 years in prison.

     The Alameda County judge, on June 18, 2015, before sentencing the murderer to 131 years in prison, called Alana a "black hole that sucks the life out of anything positive." 

The Nanny From Hell

     Marcella and Ralph Bracamonte felt sure they had found the ideal nanny. The live-in nanny, whom they hired through Craigslist, immediately seemed to fit in, spending time around them and handling the couple's three kids well. But then the nanny, Diane Stretton, 64, became almost a different person.

     The nanny stopped working and holed up in her room, emerging only to eat. She didn't quit on the Bracamontes--in fact, she refused to leave their home. What's more, Stretton threatened to sue them for wrongful termination and abuse of the elderly.

     Police said they could not remove Stretton from the Braceamonte's home. The couple would have to go through an eviction process…[That was nonsense. The woman wasn't a tenant. She was an employee who was fired. She should have been throw out. Lock the doors, and if she tried to get back in, file a burglary complaint. Only in California.]

     On July 31, 2014, Stretton voluntarily moved out of the Bracamonte residence.

"California Couple's Live-In Nanny Stops Working, Refuses to Leave," Fox News, June 27, 2014 

Thornton P. Knowles On The Happy Man

I once knew a poet and part time college professor who claimed that nothing, absolutely nothing, ever made him angry. He said he believed only in happiness and love. A couple of years later, after spending ten days in a mental ward, the guy threw himself off a ferris wheel. I was one of three people who witnessed his burial in a shabby cemetery outside of Clarksburg, West Virginia. If there is some kind of meaning in all of this, it escapes me. Anyway, I kind of liked the guy.

Thornton P. Knowles

The Vanished Market For Short Stories

After the Second World War, society changed and the market for short stories waned. Collier's died, as did The Saturday Evening Post. In a mere instant, as history is reckoned, the audience for quality short fiction all but vanished; the demand, instead, was for nonfiction and journalism.

Jon Franklin, Writing For Story, 1994 

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Inside Jobs: Four Embezzlement Cases

     While it's impossible for a normal person to understand why, for example, a 14-year-old boy sets a building on fire for a sexual thrill, we all know why people steal. We understand because either as children, adolescents, or adults, we have taken something that didn't belong to us. The motive for theft is simple and direct, to get something for nothing. Theft is immoral, and of course, illegal. As a matter of morality, and certainly in law, the more you steal, the more serious your crime.

     In criminal law, there are several forms of theft, or illegal taking. Customers who steal merchandise from stores are retail thieves. People who slip out of restaurants without paying their bills commit theft of service. Employees who steal from their employers are larcenists security professionals call internal thieves. Criminals who threaten to expose victims' secrets if not paid money to remain silent, are blackmailers. A thug threatening future physical harm if the victim doesn't pay up is called an extortionist. (If you don't pay me $1,000 a month I'll burn down your business, is not how fire insurance is supposed to work.) Robbers are thieves who take money and valuables through the use of force or threat of immediate physical force; and burglars steal (and commit other crimes) by unlawful intrusion into homes and buildings. Swindlers and con artists acquire their loot through deception and fraud. And don't forget the passers of bad checks, forged money orders, and stolen and fake credit cards. It seems there are as many ways to steal as there are ways to acquire things legally.

     Except for major armored truck ambush jobs, big time jewelry heists, and massive credit card cases, the thieves who hit their victims the hardest financially, are the embezzlers. (The average bank robbery haul, for example, is just a few thousand dollars.) An embezzler is a person who's in what is called a fiduciary relationship with the victim, a position of trust. The embezzler--accountants, company and organization treasurers, financial managers, and various financial institution employees--steal from private and government employers and clients who have entrusted them with their money. While an embezzler can make a big, one-time haul, most steal smaller amounts over extended periods of time. To accomplish these illegal diversions of funds, embezzlers often alter financial documents, and commit the separate crimes of forgery and false swearing. Quite often, embezzlers, to get away with their thefts, have accomplices within the victim companies and organizations. Detectives and federal agents who investigate these cases (particularly when they involve sophisticated computer crimes), should be specialists in the investigation of financial offenses and criminal conspiracies.

Ligonier Township, Pennsylvania

     A recent audit of the personal finances of 95-year-old Dr. Robert Monsour led to criminal charges against 58-year-old Maureen A. Becker who was hired in 2000 to take around-the-clock care of the doctor, and to look after his money. She has been charged with diverting to her own use, between January 2008 and March 2010, $340,000 of the old man's money. Becker stood accused of depositing, into her own bank account, $167,000 from the sale of 67 acres of the doctor's estate. When asked why she had diverted these funds to her own bank account, Becker claimed the money had been a gift from her employer. (This, apparently, was news to Dr. Monsour.) Becker also told investigators that the doctor had raised her salary from $300 a week to $800. Detectives also found that the suspect deposited a number of her employer's CDs into her account, money she claimed the doctor wanted her to have.

     The judge, following Becker's guilty plea, sentenced her in June 2012 to three years in prison.

New York City

     Anita Collins, in 1986 and 1999, pleaded guilty to fraud in connection with the theft of funds from a pair of her New York City employers. In return for her pleas, she avoided prison. In 2010, Collins, at age 65, worked in the finance office of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York. She had been hired without a background investigation. In an article published in the archdiocese newspaper, Catholic New York, she received praise for volunteering at St. Patrick's Cathedral when Archbishop Timothy Dolan presided over a mass welcoming 600 people to Catholicism. Described as an "unassuming" person, Collins told the author of the piece that "My faith has always been a steadfast part of my life."

     An outside auditor, in November 2011, discovered $350,000 of the church's money missing. Following a criminal investigation by the Manhattan District Attorney's Office, Collins was charged with siphoning $1 million in church donations. Over a period of seven years Collins sent fake invoices to the archdiocese then issued some 450 checks to accounts she controlled. All of the transactions were in sums just under the $2,500 threshold that required a supervisor's approval.

     The church fired Anita Collins in December 2011. According to the chief investigator on the case, the suspect spent the $1 million on mortgage payments and on "a lifestyle that was not extravagant but was far from her lawful means."

     Collins pleaded guilty to grand larceny in the first degree in September 2012. In October 2012, the Manhattan judge sentenced her to 4 to 9 years in prison. The judge also ordered her to pay back the church.

Belgrade, Montana

      In November 2010, police were called in when members of the Belgrade Little League Baseball Association couldn't figure out why outstanding bills for uniforms and supplies had not been paid. During a period of four years, league board members had signed blank checks, and gave them to the treasurer, Amy Jo Erickson, to pay the bills.

     In January 2011, after the police discovered that $92,000 from the organization had vanished, they confronted Erickson. The little league treasurer admitted that she had made the blank checks out to herself in "cash," and to her husband's plumbing company. She started embezzling in 2007 because, according to court records, she "needed help financially."

     Anita Collins took money from the church and Amy Jo Erickson stole from the parents and sponsors of little league baseball players. These thieves weren't starving, they didn't use the money for life saving surgery, and they didn't play Robin Hood by giving it to the poor. They simply redistributed a little wealth to themselves.

     In October 2012, after Erickson pleaded guilty, the judge sentenced her to 180 days in the Gallatin County Jail. The judge ordered her to pay full restitution.

Lakewood, Washington

     On November 29, 2009, a police assassin named Maurice Clemmons walked into a coffee shop in Parkland, Washington and shot four Lakewood police officers to death. Two days later, a police officer in Seattle killed Clemmons in a gun battle. Following the mass murder, the police department formed a charity to help the families of the slain officers called the Lakewood Police Independent Guild (LPIG). Officer Timothy Manos became the treasurer of the fund.

     Although the 34-year-old treasurer received a police salary of $93,347 a year, Manos had serious financial problems. In June 2006, Ford Motor Credit Company sued him for $12,000 he owned in car payments. He had been sued for unpaid medical expenses, and owed a lot of money to credit card companies. He and his wife also enjoyed what some would consider an extravagant lifestyle.

     In 2010 and 2011, citizens in the Lakewood community donated $3.2 million to the fund from which Manos allegedly skimmed $150,000. During the period the FBI believed he was embezzling the money, this debt-ridden cop took his wife to Las Vegas to enjoy the Cirque du Soleil, and several nights of gambling. Also during this period, Manos spent $1,700 on snowboarding and other outdoor gear. He bought a high-definition video camera; a computer; a stainless-steel refrigerator; and a high-definition television set. Between February 12, 2010 and February 20, 2011 Manos withdrew $50,000 from ATMs.

     In March 2011, FBI agents arrested Manos on 10 counts of wire fraud. LPIG official placed Officer Manos on paid administrative leave pending the completion of the federal investigation.

     A federal judge in Tacoma, following Manos' guilty plea, sentenced him to 33 months in prison and ordered him to pay $159,000 in restitution.

     Stealing from the Catholic church and the little league is bad enough, but the ripping-off of a charity for the families of slain police officers by a fellow officer is as bad as it gets.            

The Death Penalty in China

     In China, the Chengguan are municipal law enforcement officers considered a notch below regular cops. As enforcers of city ordinances, these low-level officers have a national reputation for over-enforcement and brutality. This is particularly true in the way these enforcers handle unlicensed street vendors.

     Over the years members of the Chengguan have been accused of physically abusing hundreds of street vendors. Since 2001, sixteen of these licensing offenders have been beaten to death. In July 2013, in Hunan Province, the government paid $150,000 to the family of a watermelon vendor killed by a Chengguan officer. In China, these ordinance enforcers are extremely unpopular, feared, and even hated by millions of chinese citizens.

     In May 2009, in the city of Shenyang in northeast China, Chengguan officers arrested a 33-year-old street vendor named Xia Junfeng. Xia, a laid-off factory worker who sold sausages and kabobs from an unlicensed street cart, dreamed of sending his son to art school in Beijing. His wife held two jobs as a cleaning lady and baker at a school.

     While being given the third-degree in a police interrogation room, Xia, with a knife he used to slice meat, stabbed two Chengguan cops to death. A local prosecutor charged Xia with two counts of first-degree murder.

     One of the Chengguan officers Xia stabbed had a long history of police brutality. In 2008, the officer broke the arm of a woman he had arrested for selling umbrellas without a license.

     At his murder trial in November 2009, Xia pleaded not guilty on grounds of self-defense. The prosecution asserted that Xia's repeated stabbing of the officers went beyond what was necessary to defend himself. According to the defendant, had he not used deadly force, the officers would have beaten him to death. Xia's attorney put six witnesses on the stand who testified to Xia's beating at the hands of these officers.

     Testifying on his own behalf, Xia said, "He [one of the arresting officers] began to beat me as soon as I entered the [interrogation] room. His fists pounded my head and ears. As I tried to run outside, I came face-to-face with another officer. Right away he grabbed my collar to stop me. He also struck me with his fist...and kicked at my thighs." When Xia put his hand down to protect his groin area, he felt the knife he kept in his pocket. This was the instrument he used to stab both of the officers to death. (Why wasn't Xia searched pursuant to his arrest? Do these officers receive any training?)

     The trial judge found Xia Junfeng guilty of two counts of first-degree murder and sentenced him to death. Xia's wife, Zhang Jing, took up her husband's crusade by publishing a blog. As a result, both she and the condemned man became famous as his case worked its way through the appellate process. Because there had been prosecutorial improprieties at the trial, Xia's supporters were confident his conviction would be overturned.

     In 2011, while millions of Chinese citizens were expressing online sympathy for the street vendor convicted of killing two Chengguan officers, justices on the nation's supreme court upheld his conviction and sentence. "The crime he committed was heinous," wrote one of the justices. "The method he used was extremely cruel and the results serious. He should be punished to the full extent of the law."

     On September 25, 3013, millions of Chinese citizens were outraged by Xia Jonfeng's execution by lethal injection. On the popular website Sina.com, 28 million people had posted messages of support for the man who had killed two members of the hated Chengguan police. Following Xia's execution, Chinese censors were busy scrubbing commentary on dozens of blogs protesting the death of the man who had come to represent resistance against oppressive Chinese law enforcement.

     In China, public support for capital punishment has diminished over the years. Ten years ago the authorities were executing 12,000 prisoners a year. In 2012, 3000 Chinese prisoners died by firing squad or lethal injection.