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Saturday, March 28, 2020

Adaisha Miller's Sudden, Mysterious Death

     On Detroit's west side, on July 8, 2012, 24-year-old Adaisha Miller attended a Saturday night fish fry hosted by Isaac Parrish and his wife. Miller, a certified massage therapist, came to the backyard party with a friend acquainted with the 38-year-old Detroit police officer who was throwing the event. Isaac Parish, a beat patrolman for 16 years, did not know Miller before the party.

     That night, Officer Parrish carried his department-issued Smith & Wesson M & P 40 semiautomatic pistol on his right side in a soft holster tucked inside his waistband covered by his shirt. In Detroit, officers have the option of carrying their firearms when off-duty. They were not, however, supposed to be armed if their blood-alcohol level was 0.02 percent or above. (In Michigan, the blood-alcohol threshold for a DUI conviction is 0.08 percent.) In essence, Detroit officers are prohibited from carrying their handguns if they consume alcohol, period.

     Thirty minutes after midnight on the night of the party, Adaisha Miller, while either hugging the officer, dancing with him side-by-side, or dancing on her knees behind him, touched or tugged at his waist in a way that caused his firearm to discharge. The gun not only went off, the bullet entered Miller's chest, pierced a lung, hit her heart, and exited her lower back. She died later that day at a local hospital.

     According to Dr. Carl Schmidt, the Wayne County Medical Examiner, the path of the bullet through Miller's body did not reveal the victim's position relative to the gun's muzzle (end of the barrel) which was pointed toward the ground. Because the Smith & Wesson M & P 40 is designed for police and military use, it does not have a safety switch. However, the trigger must be pulled back all the way before the gun will fire.

     Months after Adaisha Miller's sudden demise, the Wayne County Medical Examiner's Office declared her death "accidental."

     Officer Parrish, following an internal investigation, was cleared of wrongdoing. He did not undergo a blood-alcohol test.

     Because it was hard to construct a scenario that explained exactly how this accident occurred, Adaisha's death remained a mystery. Less than 24 hours after her death, a lawyer surfaced in the case talking about a potential lawsuit against the Detroit Police Department. Attorney Gerald Thurswell, in speaking to a local reporter, said, "We believe 100 percent that this death was caused as a result of a negligent act of somebody. If somebody was negligent then someone's responsible for the injuries and death caused as a result of their negligent act." The lawyer hired a private investigator to look into the shooting.

     In February 2017, Adaisha Miller's mother, Yolanda McNair, participated in a demonstration outside the Detroit courthouse. The protesters were mothers of children who had been killed by Detroit police officers. McNair told a reporter that in her opinion, justice had not been done in the case of her daughter's death. She had filed a wrongful death suit against the Detroit Police Department. As of this writing, the suit remained unresolved. 

Domestic Abuse Amid the Pandemic Lockdown

     For people who are experiencing domestic violence, mandatory lockdowns to curb the spread of COVID-19 have trapped them in their homes with their abusers, isolated from people and the resources that could help them...

     The current crisis also makes it more difficult for victims to seek help. As medical facilities around the world scramble to respond to coronavirus, health systems are becoming overloaded, making it more difficult for victims to get access to medical care or therapies...

     For many women, the fear of contracting the coronavirus is stopping them from seeking out medical care after experiencing physical abuse...

     Many victims also feel that they can no longer seek refuge at their parents' home, for fear that they could expose their elderly parents to the virus. For some, travel restrictions may limit their ability to stay with loved ones. Women's shelters may also be overcrowded during this time or may close their doors if the risk of infection is deemed too high...

     Many social services for victims of domestic violence will also suffer budget cuts under a recession...

Melissa Godin,  "As Cities Around the World Go On Lockdown, Victims of Domestic Violence Look For a Way Out," Time, March 18, 2020

The Mystery of Why People Commit Crimes

     It's like the old staple of 1930s gangster movies: why does one person become a criminal and the other a priest? Or from my perspective, why does one become a serial killer, another a rapist, another an assassin, another a bomber, another a poisoner, and yet still another a child molester? And within these crime categories, why does each commit his atrocities in the precise way he does? The answer lies in one fundamental question that applies to every one of them:
     Why did he do it?
     The who? follows from there.
     That's the mystery we have to solve.

John Douglas [criminal profiler] and Mark Olshaker, The Anatomy of Motive, 1999

Stephen King on Reading Good and Bad Novels

     One learns most clearly what not to do by reading bad prose. Reading Valley of the Dolls and Bridges of Madison County is worth a semester at a good writing school, even with the superstar guest lecturers thrown in.

     Good writing, on the other hand, teaches the learning writer about style, graceful narration, plot development, the creation of believable characters and truth-telling. A novel like The Grapes of Wrath may fill a new writer with feelings of despair and good old-fashioned jealousy--"I'll never be able to write anything that good, not if I live to be a thousand"--but such feelings can also serve as a spur, goading the writer to work harder and aim higher.

Stephen King, On Writing, 2000

Nature Writing

Nature writing often requires an ability to understand and interpret the findings of science. If you do not have the education or career credentials for writing about these subjects, you can rely on others who are experts, or you can write as a lay naturalist, an astute observer. However, the onus of accuracy is upon you. Although nature writing rests on science, the essay form leaves plenty of room for the writer's interaction with the environment, including one's inner emotional landscape as well as the outer landscape of the setting. One of the best ways to improve your skill in nature and outdoor writing is to read examples of it, as well as books on how to write this specialized kind of writing.

Elizabeth Lyon, A Writer's Guide to Nonfiction, 2003 

Writing Clear, Clean Fiction

I have a rather plain and direct prose style. For me the words should be like a plane of glass that you look through, not at. Decorative flourishes are few. I learned that style on newspapers.

Ken Follett, The New York Times, September 4, 2014 

Friday, March 27, 2020

The Claire Hough Murder Case: A Twisted Saga of False Accusations and Suicide

     In early August 1984, 14-year-old Claire Hough and her best friend Kim Jamer, left their homes in Rhode Island for a two-week vacation in San Diego, California. The girls had arranged to stay at Hough's grandparents' house. The girls spent their days hanging out on Torrey Pines Beach not far from where they were staying.

     On August 24, a day after Kim Jamer returned to Rhode Island, Claire Hough slipped out of her grandparents' house to enjoy the beach at night where groups of teenagers sat around fires drinking beer.

     Claire Hough did not return to her room that night. The next morning a 61-year-old beachcomber named Wallace Wheeler came across her body. She lay dead next to her boombox. Covered in blood on a bloodstained bath towel, her left breast had been cut off and her genitalia mutilated. Her killer had filled her mouth with sand. The murder knife was not at the scene, and was never recovered.

     The San Diego County Coroner determined that Claire Hough had been strangled to death. The forensic pathologist reported that because he found no traces of semen on her body, she had probably not been raped.

     Wallace Wheeler, the man who discovered the body immediately came under suspicion. He was a strange man who, after Claire Hough's murder, kept up a correspondence with her parents. In his letters he wrote about his visions and dreams of the man who had killed their daughter. Without a confession, eyewitness, or evidence physically connecting Mr. Wheeler to the murder, he remained just a suspect. In 1988, Wallace Wheeler jumped to his death from the 13th floor of his apartment building. He was later eliminated as the killer through DNA analysis.

     In 1978, six years before Claire Hough's murder, another teenaged girl had been murdered on Torrey Pines Beach. That victim had also been strangled to death, had her left breast cut off, and had sand in her mouth. There was no evidence that she had been raped. That case was still unsolved. Because of the similarities in these two murders, detectives believed they were dealing with a serial killer.

     After the Claire Hough murder, months turned into years without an arrest. In 2012, a team of cold-case investigators were informed by a DNA analyst that bloodstains on Claire Hough's jeans matched the DNA of a man named Ronald Clyde Tatro. A year earlier, Tatro had been killed in a boating accident.

     In 1975, Ronald Tatro was convicted of kidnapping and raping a girl in Arkansas. Following his parole in 1982, he moved to San Diego. Shortly after arriving in California, Tatro lured a teenage girl into his van where he tried to subdue her with a stun gun. She escaped and notified the police. Tatro was arrested, confessed, and went to prison for attempted rape. By August 1984, when Claire Hough was murdered on the beach, Ronald Tatro was out of prison.

     Detectives trying to connect Ronald Tatro to the 1978 murder of the girl on Torrey Pines Beach discovered that when that girl was killed, he was serving time in Arkansas.

     Because Ronald Tatro was no longer living, the quest to bring Claire Hough's murderer to justice would have ended there. But another man was implicated by the 2012 DNA analysis, and this was a surprise. According to investigators, semen traces on a vaginal swab from the Hough murder matched the DNA of Kevin Brown. This was surprising for two reasons: according to the forensic pathologist in 1984, no semen traces had been found on the victim's body, and, Kevin Brown, at the time of Claire Hough's murder, worked as a technician in the San Diego Crime Lab. Because of the sensitivity of this revelation, the authorities, pending further investigation, decided not to reveal it to the public.

     So, who was Keven Brown? In 2002, Mr. Brown retired from the crime lab after 22 years on the job. The 65-year-old lived in San Diego with his wife Rebecca, a Catholic high school teacher who was several years younger than him. They were married in 1993. He had never been arrested.

     A background investigation of the murder suspect revealed that as a younger man he seemed, in the eyes of some, to be obsessed with sex. In fact, his fellow lab workers had nicknamed him "Kinky." A woman who worked with him in the lab told detectives that Brown had shown her a porn film that she described as "sickening." As an amateur photographer, Mr. Brown supposedly liked to photograph nude women. However, after his marriage, Mr. Brown settled into to a quiet, conventional domestic life. People who knew him as a married man considered Kevin Brown a very nice person who was a bit of a nerd. Nevertheless, detectives on the case had convinced themselves that Ronald Brown had been some kind of sexual pervert.

     On January 9, 2014, San Diego detective Michael Lambert (who happened to be a former colleague of Brown's at the crime lab) and officer Lori Adams, showed up, unannounced at Kevin Brown's door to question him about the Claire Hough murder case. Seated in the living room with the suspect's wife looking on, the detectives asked Mr. Brown if he remembered the case. He said yes, he did remember the brutal murder on Torrey Pines Beach.

     The detectives showed Kevin Brown a photograph of Ronald Tatro. Had he ever met this man? Mr. Brown answered no. The detectives informed Mr. Brown that Ronald Tatro was connected to the murder through his DNA. And not only that, semen found at the murder scene had been identified through DNA as his--Mr. Brown's.

     If the detectives had hoped Mr. Brown would confess after learning that his DNA had been recovered from the Claire Hough murder scene, they were disappointed. Instead, the suspect insisted that the DNA identification must have been a mistake. He had absolutely nothing to do with the girl's murder and wanted to take a polygraph test to prove it.

     Before the detectives left the suspect's house that morning, they executed a search warrant. When they departed, they were in possession of Mr. Brown's computer and other personal items.

     Later on the day of his confrontation with the San Diego detectives, Kevin Brown took a lie detector test administered by a police department examiner. The polygraph examiner reported that Mr. Brown's response, when asked if he ever knew Ronald Tatro, was "inconclusive." Regarding the subject's denial that he had anything to do with Claire Hough's murder, the polygraph examiner labeled that answer "deceptive." In other words, according to the polygraph examiner, Keven Brown failed the test. While this result encouraged the detectives on the case, it could not be used as evidence in a court. When informed that he had failed the polygraph test, Kevin Brown knew that at some point he would be arrested for the 30-year-old murder of Claire Hough.

     In early October 2014, law enforcement authorities publicly announced that detectives had, through DNA analysis,  finally cracked the Claire Hough murder case. The suspect in the brutal murder was 67-year-old Kevin Brown, a former employee of the San Diego Crime Lab.

     On October 21, 2014, before police officers had a chance to come to his house and arrest him, Kevin Brown hanged himself.

     Rebecca Brown, in December 2014, brought a civil suit against the San Diego Police Department and others for falsely accusing her husband of murder. The false accusation had pushed the depressed and anxious man to suicide. The plaintiff accused homicide detectives of mishandling the investigation, and lying to the magistrate who had issued the search warrant.

     In her lawsuit, Rebecca Brown pointed out that in 1984, the forensic pathologist had not found any semen on Claire Hough's body. Moreover, detectives were never able to establish a connection between her husband and Ronald Tatro.

     Following Rebecca Brown's lawsuit, forensic experts reported that when Kevin Brown worked in the San Diego Crime Lab, the place was horribly polluted and poorly run. Instead of purchasing bodily fluid specimens as control samples, male lab personnel, including Kevin Brown, submitted samples of their own blood and semen. This, along with other lax and sloppy lab procedures, created the possibility of evidence contamination and co-mingling that could explain a false Kevin Brown DNA identification. In any case, had the case gone to trial, due to the conditions of the San Diego Crime Laboratory, the DNA evidence would have been inadmissible. Without the DNA there was no case.

     On February 23, 2020, in a San Diego courtroom, the jury hearing the Rebecca Brown civil case against the police department and other defendants, awarded her $6 million. In addition, Detective Michael Lambert was ordered to pay the plaintiff $50,000 in punitive damages for his role in the investigation. Rebecca and her attorney indicated, however, that if Michael Lambert apologized, they would reduce the amount he owed them. The detective refused to apologize so the punitive damages remained at $50,000.   

The Sungee Kwon Suicide-Murder Case

     In 2015, 45-year-old Dr. Raja Fayad, a native of Syria who earned his medical degree in that country, decided to enter academia rather than to practice medicine. That decision brought him to the United States where he taught physiology and anatomy at the University of Illinois at Chicago. In 2008, Dr. Fayad and his wife Sunghee Kwon moved into a house on Lake Murray in suburban Lexington County outside of Columbia, South Carolina.

     Dr. Fayad, an expert on colon cancer, had moved to South Carolina to assume his new position as the graduate director and head of the Applied Physiology Division of the University of South Carolina's Arnold School of Public Health.

     While Dr. Fayad enjoyed success in his professional life, his marriage to Sunghee Kwon had fallen apart. Although they were divorced in 2012, the couple continued to occupy the house on Lake Murray. In late 2014, however, Dr. Fayad moved out of the dwelling into a suite of rooms at a nearby residence motel.

     At one in the afternoon of Thursday February 5, 2015, Dr. Fayad's former wife showed up at his office on the fourth floor of the Arnold School of Public Health Building in downtown Columbia a few blocks from the Statehouse. She came armed with a 9 mm pistol.

     A few minutes after Sunghee Kwon's arrival at the university, police officers responded to reports from people who had heard the sound of gunshots coming from Dr. Fayad's office and adjacent laboratory.

     Officers that afternoon discovered the dead bodies of Dr. Fayad and his 46-year-old wife. He had been shot several times in the upper torso. After murdering her ex-spouse, Sunghee Kwon took her own life by shooting herself in the stomach.

     The 9 mm pistol, its magazine empty, lay near the bodies. There were no witnesses to the murder-suicide. 

The Vampire In Romance Fiction

There is a place in romance, in my own fantasies, for the laconic cowboy, for the over-civilized power broker, for the gentle prince and the burned-out spy. They all have their appeal, their merits, their stories to tell. But the vampire myth strikes deep in my soul. Deep in my heart I want more than just a man. I want a fallen angel, someone who would rather reign in hell than serve in heaven, a creature of light and darkness, good and evil, love and hate. A creature of life and death. The threat that kind of hero offers is essential to his appeal.

Anne Stuart Krentz in Dangerous Men And Adventurous Women, edited by Jayne Ann Krentz, 1992 

Born To Write

When I began to write stories and novels I did so as though it were the most natural thing in the world. I took to it as a duck takes to water. I have never quite got over my astonishment at being a writer. My language was commonplace, my vocabulary limited, my grammar shaky and my phrases hackneyed. But to write was an instinct that seemed as natural to me as to breathe, and I did not stop to consider if I wrote well or badly.

W. Somerset Maugham, Summing Up, 1938 

Publication Letdown

I believed, before I sold my first novel, that the publication would be instantly and automatically gratifying, an affirming and romantic experience, a Hallmark commercial where one runs and leaps in slow motion across a meadow filled with wildflowers into the arms of acclaim and self-esteem. This did not happen for me. As a result, I try to warn writers who hope to get published that publication is not all it is cracked up to be. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward.

Anne Lamott, Bird By Bird, 1995

Thursday, March 26, 2020

George Falcone: The "Knucklehead" From New Jersey

     At nine in the morning on Sunday, March 22, 2020, 50-year-old George Falcone from Freehold, New Jersey was in nearby Manalapan shopping at a Wegmans grocery store 50 miles north of New York City. One of the employees, while covering an open display of prepared food, asked Mr. Falcone to step back in compliance with the COVID-19 social distancing policy. At the time, 4,000 people in the state had been diagnosed with the virus and 44 had died.

     Instead of responding to the Wegmans employee, Falcone moved in closer, coughed on her, laughed, and informed her and others in earshot that he had the Coronavirus. "You people are lucky to have a job," he said.

     A member of the Manalapan Police Department happened to be in the store working a security detail. The officer approached George Falcone who, for 40 minutes, refused to identify himself.

     On March 24, 2020, a local prosecutor issued George Falcone a summons charging him with 4th-degree obstructing justice, an offense with a maximum sentence of 18 months; 3rd-degree terroristic threats, a crime with a maximum sentence of five years; and harassment, an offense that carried a sentence of up to six months in jail.

    The governor of New Jersey, in one of the great understatements of all time, called Mr. Falcone a "knucklehead."

The Online Hook-Up From Hell

     In September 2010, Mary Kay Beckman, a 46-year-old mother of two from Las Vegas, met 50-year-old Wade Mitchell Ridley via the online dating service, The couple had eight dates before Beckman realized there was something wrong with him and ended the relationship.

     On January 21, 2011, four months after his last date with Beckman, Ridley, armed with a butcher's knife, broke into her garage and waited for her to return home. When Beckman pulled into the garage and got out of her car, Ridley stabbed her ten times. In his attempt to murder his victim, Ridley also stomped her head and neck. Ridley left the garage that night thinking that he had killed Mary Kay Beckman.

     Mary Kay survived the brutal attack, but had to undergo surgeries to repair her jaw, preserve her eyesight, and to have a section of her skull replaced by a synthetic material.

     Shortly after the burglary and attempted murder, Las Vegas police arrested Wade Ridley. While in police custody, he confessed to the Beckman assault. Ridley also informed his interrogators that a few weeks before stabbing and stomping Mary Kay Beckman, he murdered a woman in Phoenix. The suspect said he had used a butcher's knife to stab 62-year-old Anne Simenson to death in her home. Just before murdering Simenson, a woman he had met on Match.Com, Ridley had stolen painkilling drugs from a pharmacist he had robbed at knife-point.

     On February 15, 2011, a prosecutor in Clark County, Nevada charged Wade Mitchell Ridley with the attempted murder of Mary Kay Beckman. In Arizona, a prosecutor charged Ridley with the murder of Anne Simenson.

     In September 2011, Ridley entered an Alford pleas to attempted murder with the use of a deadly weapon and armed robbery. (In so pleading, Ridley didn't admit guilt but acknowledged the state had enough evidence to convict him.) The judge sentenced Ridley to 28 to 70 years in prison.

     On May 17, 2012, a prison guard found Ridley hanging in his cell. The medical examiner ruled his death a suicide.

     Mary Kay Beckman, on January 25, 2013, filed suit against Match.Com in a Las Vegas federal court. Her attorney, Marc Saggese, told reporters that the basis of the $10 million civil action "is the advertising that is utilized by Match.Com, lulling women and men into a false sense of security." It is the plaintiff's contention that the dating service has a legal duty to warn its online customers that there might be people in the dating pool who are dangerous.

     The lawyer representing Match.Com responded to this assertion by saying the notion his client was liable for the behavior of a Match.Com member was absurd. The attorney for the defendant said the plaintiff was the victim of a "sick, twisted" man.

     If Match.Com lost this lawsuit, owners of bars where men and women meet could be held liable for hook-ups that led to one of the parties being criminally victimized. It would make fixing-up friends a risky proposition for match-makers. Who doesn't know that going out with a stranger met online, in a bar, or at a college fraternity party, isn't risky business? While Mary Kay Beckman was the victim of a terrible crime, she was not a victim of Match.Com.

     On May 29, 2013, a federal judge in Nevada threw out Beckman's case against the online dating service. 

The Gregory Eldred Church Murder Case

     In 1982, after graduating from Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pennsylvania, Darlene Sitler began teaching music to students in kindergarten to sixth grade. For thirty years, she taught at the Northern Potter School District based in the tiny borough of Ulysses. Her husband, Gregory Eldred, taught music at the elementary school in Coudersport, the capital of Potter County, 20 miles south of Ulysses in the central part of the state. He was also a clarinet player with the Southern Tier Symphony. The couple attended the First United Presbyterian Church in Coudersport where Darlene played the organ and directed the choir. In April 2010, Darlene filed for divorce. The marital split became official four months later.

     On Sunday, December 2, 2012, about twenty minutes into Pastor Evon Lloyd's service at the First United Presbyterian Church, Darlene's 52-year-old ex-husband, wearing a hooded beige jacket, entered the building through a side door. Eldred walked up the center aisle, and with a .40-caliber handgun, shot Darlene as she sat at the organ. The single shot caused her to fall into the organ pit. As the stunned congregation looked on, Eldred walked calmly out of the church. One of the churchgoers called 911 as several witnesses to the shooting ran to the front of the church to attend to the wounded organist.

     About three minutes after the shooting, Gregory Eldred walked back into the church. When Pastor Lloyd and others pleaded with him to put down his pistol, the music teacher threatened to shoot anyone who got in his way. "I want to finish this," he said. "I've got to see if she's dead." Eldred walked up to the organ pit and fired two bullets into his ex-wife. If she wasn't already dead, these two shots killed her.

     Several members of the congregation swarmed the shooter, and in the course of subduing him, he fired off another shot that didn't hit anyone. A Pennsylvania State Trooper assigned to the Coudersport barracks arrived at the scene shortly thereafter.

     After state police troopers escorted Gregory Eldred out of the church, the entire congregation climbed aboard a school bus and were driven to a place they were questioned by a team of police officers. (Very few murders are witnessed by this many people.) Eldred, charged with first-degree murder, was held without bond in the Potter County Jail.

     On July 10, 2013, Gregory Eldred pleaded guilty to first-degree murder. The judge sentenced him to life in prison.

     In April 2015, from his cell at the Forest State Correctional Facility in Marienville, Pennsylvania, Gregory Eldred petitioned the state court to withdraw his 2013 guilty plea on grounds that his  attorney, Bill Hebe, had been ineffective counsel.

     The Potter County judge denied Eldred's plea withdrawal petition.

     In 2015, a woman who had witnessed Gregory Eldred murder his wife, under a victim restitution law, sued the convicted killer for $1,427, the money she had spent for counseling services. A judge awarded her the sum in late 2016. In January 2017, Eldred appealed the award on grounds this woman was merely a witness to a crime, not a victim as proscribed by the law. 

Political Correctness is Not Funny

Humor, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. What's uproariously funny to one person may leave another cold. What's funny today may seem insensitive tomorrow. This is certainly true with Leo Rosten's 1937 book The Education of Hyman Kaplan, which describes the very funny struggles of a group of adult immigrants learning English. Many readers may find Rosten's book patronizing at best and offensive at worst. Issues of political correctness--the death knell for humor--arise, too

Nancy Pearl, Book Lust, 2003 

Kurt Vonnegut's Response to a Critic of Science Fiction Writers

     Peter S. Prescott says in his Newsweek piece on science fiction (December 22, 1975): "Few science fiction writers aim higher than what a teen-age intelligence can grasp, and the smart ones--like Kurt Vonnegut, carefully satirize targets--racism, pollution, teachers--that teenagers are conditioned to dislike."

     That unsupported allegation about me will now become a part of my dossier at Newsweek. I ask you to put this letter in the same folder, so that more honest reporters than Mr. Prescott may learn the following about me:

     I have never written with teenagers in mind, nor are teenagers the chief readers of my books. I am the first science fiction writer to win a Guggenheim, the first to become a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, the first to have a novel become a finalist for a National Book Award. I have been on the faculties of the University of Iowa and Harvard, and was most recently a Distinguished Professor of Literature at CCNY.

     Mr. Prescott is entitled to loathe everything I have ever done, which he clearly does. But he should not be a liar. Newsweek should not be a liar.

Kurt Vonnegut, Kurt Vonnegut: Letters, edited by Dan Wakefield, 2012 

Who Do You Write For?

My biggest struggle as a novelist is to put my own story on paper--not to be influenced by what I think my editor, my publisher, my friends, or the reader wants to see on the page. I need to get these people out of my writing space and focus on writing my story. If it resonates for me, it will resonate for my readers.

Joan Johnston in The 101 Habits of Highly Successful Novelists, edited by Andrew McLeer, 2008 

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

States Can Abolish The Insanity Defense

     On March 23, 2020, the United States Supreme Court, in Kahler v. Kansas, ruled that it is not unconstitutional for a state to abolish its insanity defense. The insanity defense allows a criminal defendant to be found not guilty due to a mental illness that deprived the offender of knowing right from wrong. In other words, the defendant was too mentally impaired to form criminal intent. Instead of being guilty of the crime, the defendant is found not guilty by reason of insanity. These defendants, instead of serving a sentence in prison, are committed to a mental hospital where they will remain until doctors determine they are sane enough to return to society. Because juries are skeptical of the insanity defense, it is successful in only one percent of insanity defense cases.

     In 1995, the state of Kansas abolished the insanity defense. (Four other states have since abolished it.)

     In November 2009, in a Kansas killing rampage, James Kahler murdered his two daughters, his estranged wife, and his wife's mother. His attorneys claimed that he was insane, but because the state had made the insanity defense unavailable, Kahler was convicted of four-counts of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. In 2011, Kahler's attorneys challenged the constitutionality of the elimination of the insanity defense. The case worked its way up to  the United States Supreme Court which ruled 6 to 3 in favor of the state. Justice Elena Kagan wrote the majority opinion.

     While Kahler v. Kansas allows states to abolish the not guilty by reason of insanity defense, defendants can present evidence of mental illness to establish a lack of criminal intent to reduce say, first-degree murder to a lesser homicide offense. Moreover, it can be used post-conviction at a sentence hearing as a mitigating factor.

Criminal Voyeurism

     The act of voyeurism runs the gamut of watching reality TV, to window peeping, to the use of hidden and clandestine cameras for one's sexual gratification. In an era of adult entertainment, it seems odd that so many teachers, clergymen, politicians, bosses, lawyers, and physicians have been caught using covert devices like pen cameras to satisfy their sexual curiosities.

     A man (this is not a crime usually committed by women) who risks his family, career, and position in society by secretly videotaping females (and young boys) changing clothes, showering, using the restroom, or merely going about their daily activity, must possess a powerful sexual compulsion that by any standard is deviant. Because this form of pathological voyeurism is also a crime, the clandestine video-taper also risks going to prison. The risk/reward imbalance inherent in this bizarre behavior suggests that these voyeurs are beyond the reach of counselors and medication.

Richard Watkins

     In March 2010, an elementary school teacher in Calne, a town of 13,000 in southwest England, was caught using a pen camera to video-record boys as they changed their clothes for physical education class. Richard Watkins had been doing this for two years, and had thousands of clandestinely acquired images on his home computer.

     The 28-year-old teacher and former children's entertainer (said to possess "circus skills"), pleaded guilty to thirteen counts of criminal voyeurism. The judge sentenced Watkins to four years in prison where he would have plenty of time to practice his juggling.

James Mucha

     In March 2011, James Mucha, an employee of a small manufacturing company in Avon Lake, Ohio, was caught using a pen camera in the women's restroom. A female employee noticed a pen standing upright behind the door after she closed it. Thinking this was an odd place for a writing instrument, the woman picked it up, unscrewed the cap, and found a mini-camera.

     The 43-year-old pen camera owner was charged in August 2011 with three counts of voyeurism. (The company fired him.) Three months later, the judge sentenced Mucha to 150 days in the county jail followed by one year of probation. The judge also fined him $2,000. (Voyeurs who video adult women usually get lighter sentences than men who record children.)

Joshua Waguespack

     In April 2012, in LeLand, Florida, police officers arrested Joshua Waguespack, a seventh grade math teacher at St. Peter's Catholic School. The 33-year-old had used a pen camera to take videos of two girls, ages 12 and 13, who used his teacher's storage closet to change into their gym clothes. He had downloaded these images onto his iPhone and iPad.

     After pleading no contest to two counts of criminal voyeurism in February 2013, the judge sentenced Waguespack to five years in prison. (This is a relatively heavy sentence for a defendant who pleaded guilty which suggests that Waguespack has a criminal history the judge didn't like.)

Dr. Adam Levison

     Having studied at the University of California Berkeley, Georgetown University, and the New York Medical College where he graduated at the top of his class, Dr. Adam Levison taught robotic surgery at Mount Sinai Hospital's School of Medicine in Manhattan. The 39-year-old assistant Professor of Urology lived in a posh West Greenwich Village apartment. Dr. Levison had prestige, good-looks, and money. From all appearances this man had it all. He also had a lot to lose.

     On Tuesday, August 2, 2012, a New York subway transit officer, acting on a tip from two passengers riding on the train with Dr. Levison, arrested the urologist for using a pen camera clipped to a folded newspaper to take shots up women's skirts. Taken into custody at the Union Square Station during the evening rush-hour, the doctor did not protest or proclaim his innocence.

     At his arraignment the day after his arrest, the judge charged Dr. Levison with second-degree unlawful surveillance. If convicted, he faced a maximum sentence of four years in prison. Dr. Levison posted bail, and was released.

     A search of the doctor's pen camera video footage confirmed the suspicions of his fellow subway passengers and the arresting transit officer.

     Mount Sinai Hospital, two months after the subway arrest, announced that the physician was no longer employed by the institution.

     In January 2014, Dr. Levinson pleaded guilty in return for a sentence of five years probation. 

The Criminal Defendant

It is a fact of life that victims get lost in murder trials as the focus of attention shifts to the defendant in the courtroom. It is also a fact that the defendant becomes a sympathetic figure in many people's eyes. The charismatic star O. J. Simpson dominated the proceedings the moment he made his entrance into the courtroom each morning, totally aware of the effect his presence made. His cadre of lawyers, as well as one of the deputies assigned to guard him, were deferential to him. His every reaction, from his frequent exasperation to his occasional laughter, captivated the attention of the room. When photographs of the slashed victims, Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, lying in grotesque positions in gallons of blood, were flashed on the large screen in the courtroom, observers no longer recoiled in horror. They had become used to them.

Dominick Dunne, Justice, 2001

Young Readers

Children and adolescents have their own distinctive ideas concerning humor, politics, and prose, and their tastes in these matters may strike older readers as sophomoric, gauche, ill-informed, or just dead wrong. Conversely, the young have a way of noticing that good manners can be oppressive, that the past is often irrelevant, and that emperors are sometimes naked. In short, the young are not lesser beings; they're just different.

Thomas M. Disch, The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of, 1998 

The "Mannered" Style of Writing

If a novelist cares more for his language than for other elements of fiction, if he continually calls our attention away from the story to himself, we call him "mannered" and eventually we tire of him.

John Gardner, On Becoming a Novelist, 1983 

The Russian Writers

I like the great Russian writers best of all--Tolstoi, Chekov, and Dostoevsky. I think it is because they seemed to feel that truth is more important than all the fancy skillful words, than belles lettres. I, personally, don't like writing where the package is fancier and more important than the contents. Perhaps that is why the Russians translate so well, because the important thing to them is what they felt, saw and thought. Life is more important to them than literature.

Brenda Ueland, If You Want to Write, originally published in 1938 

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

The Walter Ogrod Murder Case: Innocent Man on Death Row?

     On July 13, 1988 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, a citizen discovered a cardboard box sitting among trash set out on the curb to be picked up. The box containing the naked and beaten body of a 12-year-old girl. The victim, Barbara Jean Horn, had resided on a nearby street with her mother and stepfather. She had gone missing the day before.

     According to the city medical examiner, the girl in the box had been struck four times in the head with a blunt object. There was no evidence she had been raped or sodomized.

     About the time Barbara Jean Horn was abducted, several neighborhood witnesses saw a man carrying a box that matched the container the victim's body had been found in. This unidentified man was described as white, in his mid-twenties to early thirties, five-foot-six to five nine, and weighing 165 to 175 pounds.

     As possible suspects, detectives questioned the victim's stepfather; the man who had purchased a television set housed in the box the body was found in; and a third man in the neighborhood who had a history of sex crimes involving young girls. Because the suspects didn't confess, and there was no crime scene evidence linking them to the girl, no one was charged. Without productive leads, the Barbara Jean Horn investigation came to a halt.

     In 1991, three years after Barbara Jean Horn's murder, a team of cold-case investigators reopened the homicide investigation. In April 1992, detectives with the Philadelphia Police Department questioned Walter Ogrod, a 27-year-old truck driver who lived with a married couple across the street from the victim and her family. The people Ogrod lived with had a son who regularly played with Barbara Jean Horn. Mr. Ogrod did not have a criminal record.

     Walter Ogrod, described by his mother as "slow" (he was on the autism spectrum), denied having anything to do with the girl's abduction and murder. But following a grueling, 14-hour interrogation without the presence of an attorney, Ogrod broke down and confessed. He signed a 16-page confession his interrogators insisted were in his own words.

     According to Ogrod's confession, he encountered the victim when she came across the street to play with the couple's son. He lured the girl into the basement with chocolate candy, and after forcing her to give him oral sex, beat her to death with a two-by-four. He removed her clothing, washed her body, and carried her in the box to where it had been found. (Ogrod matched the general description of the unidentified man seen carrying the box.)

     Immediately after signing the confession statement, Ogrod recanted, and insisted that he was innocent.

     Walter Ogrod went on trial for murder in October 1993. The prosecution, without an eyewitness or physical evidence connecting him to the crime, relied heavily on his confession. Ogrod took the stand and professed his innocence. The jury, after deliberating nine hours, returned a verdict of guilty. However, when the judge polled the individual jurors, one of them announced that he disagreed with the verdict. The judge had no choice but to declare a mistrial.

     The second Ogrod murder trial got underway on October 1, 1996. This time the prosecution, instead of relying on the improperly obtained confession written in a style that didn't match the defendant's way of speaking, produced two jailhouse informants who testified that Ogrod had confessed to them. Both of these snitches were known in the criminal justice community for selling out inmates for their own benefit. They were, to say the least, not credible. Nevertheless, the jury, after deliberating just two hours, found Walter Ogrod guilty of first-degree murder. The judge sentenced him to death.

     In 2003, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court upheld the Ogrod conviction and death sentence.

     Over the next fifteen years, Walter Ogrod's attorneys kept fighting to establish his innocence and set him free. His story was featured in a television documentary and a movie which portrayed him as an innocent man awaiting execution.

     In April 2018, the Philadelphia District Attorneys Office's Conviction Integrity Unit opened an investigation into the Ogrod case. Two years later, attorneys with the district attorneys office filed a motion asking a judge to vacate Ogrod's conviction on grounds of police misconduct, false testimony, and exonerating physical evidence. According to the motion, Walter Ogrod was "likely innocent." The judge set a hearing on the motion scheduled for June 5, 2020.

     On March 10,  2020, Walter Ogrod's attorneys filed an emergency petition to have their client released from custody. The request was based on the fact Mr. Ogrod had symptoms of COVID-19 and required immediate medical attention.

     On March 11, officials at the State Correctional Institution at Phoenix, Pennsylvania, pending the outcome of the COVID-19 petition, placed Ogrod into isolation.

     On March 22, 2020, a common pleas judge ordered Walter Ogrod's transfer out of prison to an outside hospital for COVID-19 treatment.

Operating on Dead People

I thought I could contribute more to society by looking at people on the autopsy table and feeding back the findings so that lots of people could benefit, rather than just treating patients one at a time.

Dr. Michael Baden, forensic pathologist


     For centuries the focus of law enforcement has been exclusively on the perpetrator. The victim was left to fend for him--or herself. Today, one of the most dynamic areas in criminology and criminal investigation is Victimology. The hope of this field is that studying the victim will produce better results in crime prevention and prosecution.

     Crime is never the victim's fault, but it is often the case that certain actions and behaviors on the part of the victim might have made the victim vulnerable. Learning from victims' actions may aid in preventing crime.

     Victimology also strives to help the victim heal after the offense. More and more jurisdictions are offering victims financial assistance, psychological counseling, and other help.

     Victimology is an increasingly active area in criminology as well as in all phases of the criminal justice system.

Alan Axelrod and Guy Antinozzi, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Criminal Investigation, 2003

Mystery Novelists Must be Prolific

A mystery writer who waits patiently for a mood to encompass him, for an idea to strike, may find starvation, or other employment, striking first. The professional in this field cannot write one book every three or four years. Three or four a year would be more like it.

Richard Lockridge in Writer's Book, edited by Helen Hull, 1950. Lockridge (1898-1982) and his wife Francis created one of the most famous American mystery series, Mr. and Mrs. North.

First Novels By Teenagers

I always wanted to be a novelist, from the time that I was a little kid and first learned that such a job existed. I decided to attempt my first novel when I was a teenager, and I thought it was going to be easy--that I'd no doubt be published before I graduated from high school. It obviously didn't work that way. It would be ten years of learning the craft and abandoning novels that weren't working before I had my first novel published. [In recent years a handful of teen written coming-of-age novels have been published.]

Marissa Meyer in Children's Writer's and Illustrator's Market, edited by Chuck Sambuchino, 2013 

Robert A. Caro on Biography

I was never interested in writing biographies merely to tell the lives of famous men. [Caro is the author of a multi-volume biography of Lyndon B. Johnson.] I never had the slightest interest in doing that. From the first time I thought of becoming a biographer, I conceived of biography as a means of illuminating the times and the great forces that shape the times--particularly political power. A biography will only do that, of course, if the biography is about the right man.

Robert A. Caro in Extraordinary Lives, edited by William Zinsser, 1986 

Monday, March 23, 2020

Court Adjourned: The COVID-19 Effect

     Cleveland Municipal Judge Pinkey S. Carr, a nine year veteran of the bench, was holding court on the 15th floor of the city's Justice Center on Tuesday, March 17, 2020. Four days earlier, Cuyahoga County Administrative Judge Michelle Earley had ordered the postponement of municipal court hearings due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Notwithstanding that administrative order, Judge Carr issued bench warrants that Tuesday for the arrest of 33 defendants who had failed to show up for their scheduled court appearances.

     Assistant Public Defender Mark Jablonski, appearing before Judge Carr that morning, asked if he could tell his clients they did not have to come to the courthouse due to the COVID-19 situation.

     In response to Jablonski's question, Judge Carr said, "Don't call people and tell them not to show up. If they show up, I'm here."

     To the judge the assistant public defender said, "In light of the pandemic, there's no concern?"

     "For the third time," replied the judge, "I will be here. If people show up, I am here."

     Mr. Jablonski thanked the judge and walked out of the courtroom. A few minutes after his departure, Judge Carr in a mocking tone, said, "I'm gonna call and tell them don't come. I'm sure he is. Little idiot."

     On Thursday, March 19, 2020, Assistant Public Defender Mark Jablonski filed an emergency motion to temporarily disqualify Judge Carr from holding Municipal Court hearings. That day, Administrative Court Judge Michelle Earley canceled Judge Carr's 33 bench warrants.

     Cuyahoga Court Supreme Justice, Maureen O'Connor, on Friday March 20, 2020, stripped Judge Carr of her authority to hear criminal and traffic cases until a ruling was made on the assistant public defender's disqualification motion. Judge Pinkey Carr had until March 24, 2020 to file her response to the assistant public defender's motion.

     Because of COVID-19, America's criminal justice system is shutting down. People are not going to jail, prisoners are being released, and court is adjourned.

The Woman In The Locked Room

     The English writer John Fowles published a horror novel in 1963 called The Collector. Fowles' protagonist, a neurotic butterfly collector, wins the British Football Pool which allows him to buy an country estate. The former city hall ribbon clerk, after converting his cellar into comfortable living quarters, kidnaps a beautiful young art student he has secretly admired. His purpose is not to rape or ransom, but to "collect" this desirable specimen. The girl he has added to his collection of beautiful objects takes ill and dies. Following her death, the collector reads her diary and is shocked to discover that she had not fallen in love with him. The novel closes with the protagonist planning to abduct and imprison another young woman who has caught his attention. (The film version of the book came out in 1965.)

 The Michael Mendez Case                                                              

     One could describe law enforcement as peeking under rocks in search of criminals and evidence of their crimes. Every so often the police turn over a rock and are surprised by what they find. On August 9, 2012, members of the New Jersey State Police Street Gang Unit, while searching an apartment in Paterson for drugs, discovered something they hadn't anticipated. They found a woman who may have lived ten years locked inside a bedroom. The apartment belonged to a 42-year-old suspected drug dealer and member of the Latin Kings street gang named Michael Mendez.

     Most of Mendez's public housing neighbors had not been aware that the woman, 44-year-old Nancy Rodriguez Duran, had been living in the former roofer's apartment. (Mendez, because of lung problems and bipolar disorder, has been on disability for several years.) Over the past decade, only a few of his fellow apartment dwellers had seen Duran outside of the three-story brick complex. Even those sightings were rare. Mendez had resided in the third floor apartment for more than twelve years.

     Inside Duran's small bedroom, padlocked from the outside, officers found a pail used as a chamber pot, a bed, a television, and a telephone. Searchers also discovered, in Mendez's possession, 4,200 prescription pills, 190 grams of marijuana, and $23,000 in cash. The pills alone had a street value of $100,000.

     New Jersey State Police Officers took Michael Mendez into custody at the Paterson apartment and hauled him to the Passaic County Jail. Charged with possession of controlled substances with the intent to distribute, kidnapping, false imprisonment, and criminal restraint, Mendez was held on $l million bail. The authorities transported Nancy Rodriguez Duran to a nearby hospital for medical evaluation. While Mendez had two previous convictions for aggravated assault, he had only served three months behind bars.

     On August 14, 2012,  before Mendez's preliminary hearing in Paterson, Nancy Rodriguez Duran, in speaking to reporters, denied having been held in Mendez's apartment bedroom against her will. "He padlocked the door with my consent," she said. "I like being inside, I don't like to go out. It's not that he was keeping me there. Why would he keep me in a room for ten years? How could I be so healthy? I should be dead by now."

     The New Jersey State Attorney General's office took charge of the case. The central legal question involved whether or not an adult can consent to being locked in a room for the better part of ten years. And in a case like this, what constitutes "consent?" Perhaps Duran had been abducted against her will, then over the years, developed the so-called Stockholm Syndrome, a psychological state in which the prisoner develops empathy for her captor. This woman may have been the victim of what psychologists call "traumatic bonding."

     In March 2013, Mendez pleaded guilty before Superior Court Judge Greta Brown in Paterson, New Jersey to third-degree criminal restraint and possession of marijuana and prescription pills with intent to distribute. The judge sentenced him to five years in prison.

     Five years behind bars for keeping a woman locked in a room for ten years.

Novels That Inspired Real-Life Murders

     At his sentencing hearing in 1981, after he was convicted of John Lennon's murder, Mark David Chapman read aloud from J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye: I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over…I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all."

     The Catcher in the Rye was the book Chapman had been reading at the crime scene when he was arrested. It was the book that held, as he claimed, his message for the world. He was standing at the cliff; he was just doing his work.

     A few years later, the serial killers Leonard Lake and Charles Ng embarked on what they called "Operation Miranda," a violent spree of torture, rape and murder named for the woman abducted by a deranged butterfly collector in John Fowles' novel The Collector, which they cited as their inspiration.

Leslie Jamison, The New York Times Book Review, September 14, 2014 

The Novelist

Novel writing, like other creative and artistic pursuits, tends to be romanticized by many and vilified by some. Novelists in America are seen as special, peculiar but mythical people whose lives have a certain magical charm, or, alternatively, as drunken, neurotic wastrels who sponge off the government and do no work. Sometimes writers themselves perpetrate these myths.

Judith Barrington, Writing The Memoir, 2002 

The Unpublished First Novel

As a first novelist I learned about the odds I was facing. They were, shall we say, long. It has been estimated that the number of novel manuscripts each year to be in excess of 100,000. The number of first novels published annually by major houses? Three to four hundred.

Stephen White in How I Got Published, edited by Ray White and Duane Lindsay, 2007 

The Biographer's Natural Enemies

The biographer's business, like the journalist's, is to satisfy the reader's curiosity, not to place limits on it. He is supposed to go out and bring back the goods--the malevolent secrets that have been quietly burning in archives and libraries and in the minds of contemporaries who have been biding their time, waiting for the biographer's knock on their doors. Some of the secrets are difficult to bring away, and some, jealously guarded by relatives, are even impossible. Relatives are the biographer's natural enemies; they are like the hostile tribes the explorer must ruthlessly subdue to claim his territory.

Janet Malcolm, The Silent Woman, 1994 

Sunday, March 22, 2020

The Joshua Besaw Kidnapping/Rape Case

     On May 31, 2019, 30-year-old Joshua Besaw from Thompson, Connecticut, a small town in the northwest corner of the state, was in Webster, Massachusetts where, in a park, he encountered a 12-year-old girl. Calling himself "Chuck," Besaw enticed the girl to get into his car and drove back to Thompson, Connecticut where, in a wooded area, he raped her. After the sexual assault, Besaw and the victim returned to Thompson where he dropped her off in an unfamiliar neighborhood. The rapist left in possession of his victim's cellphone.

     Shortly after the rapist drove away, the victim borrowed a stranger's phone and called her parents who took her directly to the Thompson Police Department. Later that day, personnel at a medical facility conducted a sexual examination and collected biological evidence of the assault.

     A review by law enforcement officers of numerous surveillance videos from sites in Webster, Massachusetts and Thompson, Connecticut quickly led to the identification of Joshua Besaw as the kidnapper/rapist.

     While under local police and FBI surveillance, Besaw discarded cigarette butts that were gathered by his followers for DNA analysis. Traces of the suspect's saliva on the collected cigarette butts matched semen specimens taken from the rape victim. DNA science had positively identified Joshua Besaw as the man who had raped this 12-year-old girl.

     On July 17, 2019, local police officers and FBI agents took Besaw into custody at his place of residence in Thompson, Connecticut. An Assistant United States Attorney in Connecticut charged Besaw with kidnapping, and transporting a victim across state lines with the purpose of sexual assault.

     On March 13, 2020, Joshua Besaw, confronted with the DNA evidence connecting him to the rape, pleaded guilty before a federal judge. At his upcoming June 15, 2020 sentencing hearing, Besaw faced a mandatory federal sentence of twenty years in prison. He could, however, be sentenced to life.

Philip Righter: Art Forger, Tax Cheat, and Fraud

     Philip Righter was a fraud, a forger, a pretender, and a thief. Nothing about this West Hollywood man was on the level. He held himself out as a successful film producer and a serious collector of art. On his Instagram account he posted a photograph of himself wearing a tuxedo and holding an Oscar statue. He also claimed to be an Emmy and Grammy winner. Mr. Righter hadn't won any of these awards, and had only produced a short film in 2016 called "One Good Waiter." As for his collection of paintings, they were forgeries he had purchased cheaply on sites like eBay.

     Philip Righter was also a tax cheat. In 2015, he falsely reported on his federal tax form that he had donated valuable paintings to charity. He also claimed that thieves had broken into his home and stole $2.5 million worth of his art. Due to his phony charity deduction and the false theft claim, the government issued Righter a check for more than $100,000.

     While he was cheating on his taxes, Righter was purchasing paintings online that were painted to look like the work of painters Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Keith Haring, and Jean-Michal Basquiat. He sold $758,000 worth of Haring and Basquiat fakes to an art gallery in Miami, Florida.

     To fool the buyer of these works into thinking they were real, Righter forged accompanying documents in the form of letters of authenticity from the painters' estates.

     In 2016, detectives with the Los Angeles Police Department began investigating Philip Righter for fraud and art forgery. Special Agents with the FBI's Art Crime Team from the Miami Field Division joined in the Righter investigation.

     In July 2018, FBI agents in Los Angeles took Philip Righter into custody of federal charges of mail fraud and aggravated identity theft.

     The 43-year-old forger and thief, on March 13, 2020, pleaded guilty to one count of mail fraud and one count of identity theft. At his sentencing before a federal judge scheduled for May 18, 2020, Righter faced up to 25 years in prison. Because he had pleaded guilty, his punishment won't be nearly that harsh. In this era of lenient sentences for nonviolent criminals, he might not even go to prison.

The Pathology of Bed-Wetting

About five to seven million kids in America wet the bed. Bet-wetting is most common in children in preschool and under the age of seven. Harold Schechter, a prolific author of true crime books and professor of American Literature and Culture at Queens College [NYC], suggested that if this habit persists beyond the age of twelve, it might signify a deeper pathology. The FBI reported that 60 percent of sexually related murderers and serial killers and those who have committed violent crimes have struggled with bed-wetting and many of them are too embarrassed to talk about it, let alone admit to it.

Phil Chalmers, Inside the Mind of a Teen Killer, 2009

Charles Johnson On "Literary Padding"

The "literary" novel runs the risk of what the French call remplissage, or "literary padding," to fill up pages. There's almost nothing more boring that I can think of than seeing a novelist pad out an under-imagined work that has a slim premise, no more complexity than a child's primer, Styrofoam people who are sociological problems masquerading as characters, not much of a story, is thin in imagery and thought, and contains no artistic or intellectual surprises. Oh, wait, there is something more boring: spending three hundred or four hundred pages with characters you don't enjoy hanging out with and for whom you couldn't care less about "what happens next" to them.

Charles Johnson, The Way of the Writer: Reflections on the Art and Craft of Storytelling, 2016

"Of the Coming of John," The Classic Short Story by W.E.B. Du Bois

     In 1903, W.E.B, Du Bois included in his seminal work, The Souls of Black Folk, a brilliant but haunting short story, "Of the Coming of John." In Du Bois's story, a young black man in coastal Georgia is sent off hundreds of miles to a school that trains black teachers. The entire black community where he was born had raised the money for his tuition. The community invests in John so that he can one day return and teach African American children who are barred from attending the public school. Casual and fun-loving, John almost flunks out of his new school until he considers the trust he's been given and the shame he would face if he returned without graduating. Newly focused, sober, and intensely committed to succeed, he graduates with honors and returns to his community intent on changing things.

     John convinces the white judge who controls the town to allow him to open a school for black children. His education has empowered him, and he has strong opinions about racial freedom and equality that land him and the black community in trouble. The judge shuts down the school when he hears what John's been teaching. John walks home after the school's closing frustrated and distraught. On the trip home he sees his sister being groped by the judge's adult son and he reacts violently, striking the man in the head with a piece of wood. John continues home to say goodbye to his mother. Du Bois ends the tragic story when the furious judge catches up with John with the lynch mob he has assembled.

Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, 2014

Charles Bukowski on Living and Writing in Los Angeles

To find the proper place to write it's important that the rent should be reasonable, the walls thick, the landlord indifferent, and the tenants depraved, penurious, alcoholic, and lower-middle class. With the advent of the high-rise apartments, small courts, with their own private entranceways, have more and more vanished, and the wonderful characters that once infested these places have vanished along with them.

Charles Bukowski, "Notes of a Dirty Old Man," L.A. Free Press, 1974

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Judges Who Kept Rapists Out of Prison

Judge G. Todd Baugh and Rapist Stacey Rambold

      In August 2013, after a jury in Billings, Montana found a 49-year-old high school teacher named Stacey Rambold guilty of having consensual sex with a 14-year-old student, Yellowstone County Judge G. Todd Baugh sentenced the defendant to thirty days in jail plus three years probation. The court ordered Rambold to register as a sex offender.

     Rambold's distraught victim, Cherice Moralez, committed suicide during his rape trial.

     According to Judge Baugh, even though the victim was 35 years younger than her rapist, Moralez was "older than her chronological age." The judge considered this a major mitigating factor in the case.

     On the day after his extremely unpopular sentencing of the former teacher, Judge Baugh, in speaking to reporters baffled by his sentence, stood by his ruling. "Obviously," he said, "a 14-year-old can't consent [to sex with an adult]. I think that people have in mind that this was some violent, forcible, horrible rape. It was horrible enough as it is, just given her age, but it wasn't this forcible beat-up rape."

     Stacey Rambold served his thirty days behind bars and walked free. Having avoided years in prison for ruining a young girl's life, he was one lucky rapist. The judge later apologized for his "chronological age" comments, and due to the public uproar over his sentencing of the teacher, declined to run for his fifth term in office.

Judge Marie Silveira and Rapist Timothy L. Lyman

     On December 27, 2012, 44-year-old soccer coach Timothy Lyman hosted a party for his players at his Oakdale, California house. The coach provided his young party-goers with vodka and rum. One of his guests, a 16-year-old girl, after having consensual sex with a boy her age in one of Lyman's bedrooms, passed out from the effects of alcohol. She awoke to find her coach performing oral sex on her.

     On November 12, 2013, after Timothy Lyman pleaded no contest to rape, Stanislaus County Judge Marie Silveira sentenced the coach to three years probation. Lyman was also ordered to register as a sex offender. The prosecutor and members of the victim's family were shocked and outraged by the judge's light sentence.

     In speaking to reporters after Lyman's sentencing, the victim's father said, "Whoever would do this to a 16-year-old girl is just sick. This has devastated my family. There have been lots of sleepless nights for my daughter and sleepless nights for myself. I'm just sick."

Judge James Woodroof and Rapist Austin Smith Clem

     In 2007, 19-year-old Austin Smith Clem had, on two occasions, forcible sex with 14-year-old Courtney Andrews. The rapes took place in Athens, Alabama. Clem swore the girl to secrecy. Moreover, if she told anyone, he threatened to harm her and her parents.

     Four years later, at age 23, Clem forcibly raped Andrews who was then eighteen. This time she asked a friend to report the assault to her parents.

     In September 2013, the Limestone County jury, after deliberating just two hours, found Austin Smith Clem guilty of two counts of second-degree rape and one count of first-degree rape. The jury recommended a 35-year sentence. On November 13, 2013, Judge James Woodroof sentenced the convicted rapist to a non-custody correctional program designed to make offenders "likely to maintain a productive and law abiding life as a result of accountability, guidance, and direction to services needed."

     Clem, after completing the two year program for "nonviolent, low-level offenders," was placed on probation for three years. He also paid a $2,381 fine, and register as a sex offender.

     In response to Judge Woodroof's sentence, Courtney Andrews told reporters that she was "livid" and afraid for her family. The rape victim's father said this: "We thought justice was finally being served, and although the system was very slow, it was not totally broken. We were forced to hear a judge hand down a light sentence."

     In April 2017, a Limestone County prosecutor charged Austin Clem with first-degree theft by deception. The convicted rapist had been accused in 2016 of taking money to repair vehicles and not doing the work. Clem was charged because he had no intention of fixing the cars and refused to return the money. He also violated his probation in the rape case.

     A Limestone County judge, in December 2017, revoked Clem's probation and sent him to prison to serve his 35 year rape sentence.

Peter Keller: The Survivalist Who Didn't Survive

     On Sunday morning, April 22, 2012, firefighters responded to a house fire in North Bend, Washington, a Cascade foothills town 30 miles east of Seattle. When they tried to enter the dwelling through the front door, firefighters realized someone had blocked the entrance from the inside with a couch and an easy chair.

     Once the fire had been extinguished, firefighters discovered the bodies of 18-year-old Kaylene Keller and her mother Lynnettee who was 41. The victims were in their bedrooms, and both of them had been shot in the head at close range with .22-caliber bullets. Arson investigators found seven empty gasoline cans at the site. (The fire had been started by placing a skillet on the stove containing a plastic container of gasoline, then turning on the burner.)

     Peter A. Keller, the 41-year-old husband and father of the victims, was nowhere to be found. He and his wife had been married 21 years, and for the last seven years lived in the rented house in this unincorporated community. Keller's red Toyota pickup truck was missing, and a week earlier, he had withdrawn $6,200 from a local bank. Friends of the family told the police that Keller, a reclusive man interested in guns, body armor, and trains, was an avid outdoorsman who spent weekends hiking on the logging trails in the rugged Cascade Mountain foothills. Over the past eight years, Keller, fearing that the end of the world was near, had been building and stockpiling a wilderness fortress/hideout dug into the side of a hill. The cave-like structure he called Camp Keller, featured three levels, a wood stove, a sophisticated ventilation system, a generator, and several hidden entrances and exits. Although Keller had no history of violence, he owned several guns, and a large supply of ammunition.

     On April 25, 2012, the King County prosecutor charged Peter Keller with two counts of first-degree murder, and one count of arson.

     The police searching for Keller caught a break on Friday, April 27 when a tipster gave them the location of Keller's pickup abandoned on a Rattlesnake Ridge trailhead. From this location, expert trackers picked up Keller's trail of deep foot impressions made by someone carrying a heavy backpack. The boot marks led them to Keller's wilderness refuge.

     At five o'clock Saturday evening, April 28, 2012, a group of Seattle police officers and a 30-member SWAT team surrounded the bunker. They figured Keller was inside because they could smell wood smoke coming from his stove. The fugitive didn't respond when ordered out of the structure. Rather than enter a possibly booby-trapped structure to encounter a heavily armed inhabitant, the police pumped teargas into the fort, then waited.

     Following a 23-hour standoff, the officers, equipped with explosive devices, blew the top off Keller's bunker, and found him dead inside. He had shot himself in the mouth with a Glock pistol. Among the stockpiled provisions, the police recovered 13 rifles and handguns.

     Keller's wife Lynnette, disabled several years ago from a workplace accident, had been receiving a monthly state disability check. Because her husband had been so controlling and tight with money, she often had to borrow money from relatives. Kaylene Keller had been a student at Bellevue Community College.           

California's Anti-Affluenza Defense Bill

     [In December 2013], after a 16-year-old boy said to be suffering from "affluenza" was sentenced to rehabilitation instead of prison for killing four people and maiming two others in a drunk-driving crash, California Assemblyman Mike Gatto introduced a bill that would prohibit attorneys from invoking "affluenza" as a defense at trial or as a mitigating factor for sentencing.

     Gatto knows there is no universally agreed upon definitions for the term. [There is also no case law that establishes affluenza as a criminal defense.] In the bill, Gatto defines affluenza as "the notion that an affluent or overly permissive upbringing prevents a defendant from fully understanding the consequences of criminal actions." [What is and what is not a viable criminal defense should be left to the courts to hammer out. This politically feel-good legislation fixes a problem that doesn't exist, and usurps the discretion of judges and juries. The proposed bill was voted down in 2017.]

Robin Abcarian, the Los Angeles Times, January 15, 2014    

Writing a Blog

     A lot of blogs about writing are self-centered, and that's fine, but a truly personal blog limits your reach. If there's one thing I've learned about the Internet it's that users come to it to see "What's in it for me?" They want valuable content that speaks to their needs.

     Most writing blogs--and blogs in general--are about the writer of the blog, not about the user. I write my blog to give readers valuable content because I know that's what they want from me. They don't care about my personal life. My readers visit me for writing and publishing advice, so that's what I dish up.

Mary Kole in Children's Writer's and Illustrator's Market, edited by Chuck Sambuchino, 2013 

Book Awards for "Literary Fiction"

In the literary world, there are far more awards for "serious" fiction than championship title belts in the field of professional boxing. While boxing fans and pundits lament the glut of prize fighting titles, the boxers who hold these belts have at least proven themselves to be superior athletes. A book award, except for earmarking the novel as an unreadable piece of show-off fiction, is meaningless.

Keeping a Journal

When I began making a living as a journalist, my father [John Cheever] often suggested that if something disturbed me, I might try writing about it. Keeping a journal helped him a great deal, he said. Putting experience down on paper made it seem less chaotic, less depressing, more sympathetic. "I write to make sense of my life," he used to say.

Susan Cheever, Home Before Dark, 1984 

Friday, March 20, 2020

The Sudden Death of Anneka Vasta: Hollywood Noir

     Anneka Vasta was born Marjorie Lee Thoreson in July 1952 in St. Paul, Minnesota. In 1973, she met and started dating Penthouse Magazine publisher Bob Guccione. Two years later, she became Guccione's Penthouse pet of the year, and in 1979, starred, as Anneka Di Lorenzo, in Guccione's soft-porn film, "Caligula."

     Vasta, in 1988, claiming that Guccione had compelled her to have sex with two of his business associates, sued him for sexual harassment. The jury, in 1990, awarded her $4 million, but an appeals court ruled  that the damages were nonrecoverable and vacated the award. In retaliation for the suit, Guccione reprinted photographs of Vasta and another woman in a lesbian love scene from "Caligula."

     In 2003, while living in Sherman Oaks, California, Vasta began suffering bouts of paranoia and anxiety. Seven years later, the recently divorced 58-year-old, now having financial problems, still struggled with mental illness.

     A pair of joggers, on January 4, 2011 discovered Vasta's naked body on a Marine training beach at Camp Pendleton in San Diego County. Agents with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) took control of the case. Shortly after the discovery of the corpse, investigators located the 59-year-old's Mazda at a popular scenic overlook along Interstate 5. Because her body could not have reached the water from this point, NCIS agents concluded that Vasta had not jumped off the sixty foot cliff.

     At autopsy, the forensic pathologist determined that while Vasta had a broken neck and back, she had drowned. The pathologist found, on Vasta's wrists, superficial cuts called "hesitation marks" that suggested half-hearted attempts at suicide. The body also revealed two shallow stab wounds to her chest. Vasta's body contained no traces of alcohol or drugs. The autopsy produced no evidence of sexual abuse.

     In the dead woman's car, searchers found blood-stained clothing--a blouse and a sports bra--inside a plastic bag. Investigators also found a steak knife bearing traces of her blood. The Mazda also contained Vasta's cellphone and purse. On the passenger's side floor investigators discovered Lithium and an empty Xanax bottle.

     Two days before the joggers came upon Vasta's body in the sand, she had rented a room at a Motel 6 on Raintree Drive near South Carlsbad State Beach. She had not checked out. Investigators found no evidence of violence or foul play in her motel room.

     Vasta's history of paranoia and anxiety, and the presence of the hesitation marks, suggested that she had killed herself. But, as in most suspicious death cases without eyewitnesses or obvious suspects, questions remained. For example, how did Vasta get from her car to the water? How did she receive the broken neck and back before drowning in the Pacific? Could these injuries been caused by the action of the ocean before her death?

     Anneka Vasta's life and sudden death--the star-struck gal from Minnesota, corrupted and abused by a sleazy Hollywood porn merchant--is the stuff of Los Angeles noir. It brings to mind the famous quote by novelist and screen writer Ben Hecht: "I knew her name--Madam Hollywood. I rose and said good-by to this strumpet in her bespangled red gown; good-by to her lavender-painted cheeks, her coarsened laugh, her straw-dyed hair, her wrinkled fingers bulging with gems. A wench with flaccid tits and a sandpaper skin under her silks; shined up and whistling like a whore in a park; covered with stink like a railroad station pissery and swinging a dead ass in the moonlight."

     On Tuesday, May 13, 2014, Anneka Vasta, having quickly faded from public consciousness, briefly surfaced in the media on the occasion of the death of a Swiss artist named H. R. Giger. The 74-year-old was best known for his design of the creature in Ridley Scott's science fiction film, "Alien." Internet articles regarding Giger's death from a fall featured him posing with Anneka Vasta in April 1980 at the opening of an art exhibition in New York City.  

Criminal Adaptation

The COVID-19 related shutdown of stores and shopping malls will transform some professional shoplifters into burglars. Other criminal types will use the pandemic as an opportunity to set up fake charities and other fraudulent operations. In the economics of thievery, there is no such thing as a recession, just new opportunities to steal.

Will Criminals Self-Quarantine?

On March 16, 2020 in Blaine, Washington, the police department, on its Facebook page, posted the following tongue-in-cheek (I assume) message: "Due to local cases of the COVID-19, the Blaine Police Department is asking all criminal activity and nefarious behavior to cease. We appreciate your anticipated cooperation in halting crime and thank all the criminals in advance. We will certainly let you know when you can resume your normal criminal behavior."

Writer Biographies as Author Self-Help Books

When I'm struggling with my own work I'm often drawn to biographies of writers. Not only do I learn fun facts about prominent figures--Henry James suffered terribly from constipation, Kafka chewed every bite of food 32 times, Flannery O'Conner cared for a flock of around 40 peacocks, Montaigne never saw his wife with her clothes off, Balzac fortified himself with a paste made of un-roasted coffee beans--I'm also reminded that there's no single path for living a successful creative or personal life. It's inspiring to read about a flawed human being who struggled with his or her demons and afflictions, experienced paralyzing episodes of failure or self-doubt, but somehow managed to do the work anyway, and produce something that enriched the world. That's my version of self-help.

Tom Perrota in The New York Times Book Review, December 1, 2013 

Internet Book Reviewing

     With so many books being published, and so little space devoted to reviewing them, even a bad review can be considered a badge of honor. As painful as bad reviews are, it is arguably worse to have written a book that is totally ignored. Is literary criticism becoming a lost art?

     In an interview published in Novel Short Story Writer's Market 2002, editor Ann Close appraised the review picture as follows: "The review situation has gotten a lot worse. When newspapers and magazines hit bad times, a lot of them dropped their book reviews. Time and Newsweek used to review three to five books every week. They don't do that anymore. But in a way, the Internet has taken up the slack. You can get an enormous amount of information about a book on the Barnes & Noble and Amazon sites. Many other websites have started doing book reviews. It's hard to tell how much impact they've had. Nobody has been able to measure it exactly." [Internet literary criticism has had an enormous impact on the reading public. Prior to the Internet, a handful of critics ruled the literary world. Thankfully, those days are gone forever.] 

Crime Lab Rogue Annie Dookham

     Annie Dookhan, a chemist for the Massachusetts police, was sentenced to three to five years in prison after committing a fraud so extensive that her crimes call into question the validity of over 40,000 convictions.

     Dookhan worked in a laboratory examining evidence in drug cases. She was a go-to analyst for law enforcement and prosecutors, thanks to her rapid turnaround time and penchant for delivering much needed drug evidence to score convictions.

     Her record, however, was based on countless criminal fabrications. She falsified numerous reports, cut corners, forged signatures, inflated her credentials, lied about whether she was actually testing the lab samples she received and even tampered with evidence.

Robby Soave, The Daily Caller, November 25, 2013

Novel Plots: What's Left?

An editor rejected my first mystery novel with these words: "I think it would take something really unusual to convince me to take on a new mystery series--an American/Jewish plumber who solves cases by listening at people's drain pipes, or something like that."

William G. Tapply, Elements of Mystery Fiction, 1995 

Thursday, March 19, 2020

No Justice for Arlene Roberts

     On October 28, 1978, Arlene Roberts' neighbors at the Lakeshore Manor Mobile Home Park in Renton, Washington near Seattle, checked in on the 80-year-old after she hadn't been seen for several days. They were shocked by what they saw upon entering her ransacked trailer. Someone had brutally murdered this woman.

     King County Sheriff's deputies found the victim half-naked and gagged with her hands and feet bound by one of her nylon stockings. The killer had strangled Roberts to death with a ligature fashioned from the victim's hair net.

     Although a crime scene investigator gathered physical evidence from the scene, including several latent fingerprints that did not belong to the victim, no suspects were developed. The investigation slowed to a crawl, then went inactive.

     Early in 2011, 33 years after the sadistic murder, King County cold case investigators re-opened the Roberts homicide investigation. When detectives submitted three of the crime scene latents into the Automatic Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS) computer--including a print that had been developed off a bank statement, and a print off a traveler's check, the computer search produced three "hits" or matches. All of the submitted fingerprints belonged to Ronald Wayne MacDonald, a then 17-year-old burglar who lived seven blocks from the murder scene.

     A background investigation of the murder suspect revealed that shortly after Arlene Roberts' murder, MacDonald moved to Florida where he was arrested several times for burglary for which he served numerous stretches in prison. In the 1990's, while living around the Reno, Nevada area, police arrested him, in 1992 and 2001, on burglary charges.

     In June 2011, King County investigators traveled to Reno to interrogate the Roberts case suspect. When the detectives confronted MacDonald with the crime scene fingerprint evidence, he confessed to strangling the elderly woman to death in 1978. Two months later, the authorities in Nevada took MacDonald into custody on the charge of first-degree murder. In September 2011, he was back in King County, Washington awaiting his trial under a $2 million bond.

     At the opening of the MacDonald murder trial in June 2012, the defendant and the prosecutor entered into a so-called Alford Plea agreement. (An Alford Plea allows a defendant to agree to a sentencing deal without admitting guilt.) Pursuant to this plea, MacDonald pleaded guilty to second-degree manslaughter, a lesser homicide offense that carried a maximum sentence of five years. Pursuant to the deal, MacDonald, 51, would only serve 16 months in prison. With credit given for time served, he would, under the plea agreement, be immediately released from custody.

    On August 8, 2012, at the sentencing hearing, King County Detective Scott Tompkins took the stand on behalf of the victim who had no family or friends to represent her at the proceeding. Tompkins urged the judge to ignore the plea bargained deal and impose the maximum manslaughter sentence of five years. According to the detective, the victim had died a horrific death, noting that it had taken the medical examiner eighteen paragraphs just to describe all of her injuries.

     The judge obliged the detective's request, and imposed the five year sentence.

    MacDonald's attorneys appealed the judge's sentence to the state supreme court, arguing that the detective, as part of the prosecution team, had no standing to testify at the sentence hearing on behalf of the victim.

     On April 9, 2015, in a 6-3 decision, the state supreme court justices ruled that the detective's sentence hearing testimony was procedurally inappropriate. This meant that MacDonald, scheduled for release in September 2016, was to be immediately set free.

     Prosecutors in the case, because of procedural issues associated with MacDonald's confession back in 2011, believed the best deal they could make involved the 16-month sentence. Thanks to Detective Tompkins, MacDonald ended up serving three years and eight months behind bars. Even so, this sadistic, serial offender got off light. For Arlene Roberts, there was no justice. 

COVID-19 Policing: Arrests Without Jail, Crimes Without Charges

In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the police commissioner has ordered police officers in cases of larceny, burglary, prostitution, auto theft, vandalism, and certain "economic crimes" not to arrest the suspects. Instead, officers are to stop and identify the suspect, gather evidence of the crime, and file a report. Moreover, officers are no longer going to enforce bench warrants against suspects who fail to show up for court. In other words, in Philadelphia, until the COVID-19 situation is under control, 90 percent of street policing has been put on hold. While turning a blind-eye to crime may help slow down the spread of the virus, it will hasten the spread of criminal activity. In the city of Philadelphia, germs have replaced criminals as the bad guys.

Death Row Inmates' Last Meal

The number of death sentences in the United States have dropped significantly over the past twenty years. However, as of 2020, the death penalty is still legal in 31 states and in most of these jurisdictions it is customary to give a condemned prisoner, on the eve of his execution, a special last meal of his choice. ( Corrections officials use the term, "special meal.") In Florida, for example, the final meal can only cost up to $40 and it must be able to be prepared locally. In 2011, Texas abolished the last meal request for death row inmates. According to a 2013 study, inmates who professed their innocence were two-times more likely to refuse the last meal request. Many death row inmates talk about what they will order years in advance of their executions.

The Effect of Narrative Nonfiction on the Novel

What I remember about my first years as a published novelist is how eager publishers were, in those early days, for new fiction. This may have been because there was no New Journalism yet--once it appeared it dealt fiction a kind of double whammy, since the New Journalists used many of the techniques of fiction while keeping the appeal of fact.

Larry McMurtry, Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, 1999

Charles Bukowski On The Starving Artist

Starvation and obscurity are not necessarily signs of genius.

Charles Bukowski

Truman Capote on Interviewing

The secret to the art of journalistic interviewing--and it is an art--is to let the other person think he's interviewing you. You tell him about yourself, and slowly you spin your web so that he tells you everything.

Truman Capote in Conversations With Capote, edited by Lawrence Grobel, 1985

The First Draft

     First drafts, even pretty good ones, can be excruciatingly hard for anyone but their authors to read. What is going on? Is John talking to Mary, or is he talking to Bill? Are we in Iowa or Guatemala? Nothing is so infuriating as not being understood, but if a reader of good basic intelligence does not know what you are talking about, you have a problem. Don't rationalize it by blaming the messenger for the message. Your reader is not stupid. You are not being understood, and it is your problem.

     Sadly, your first readers may be reluctant to tell you the truth about your lack of clarity. It is a fact that many readers (especially in a school) will go to great lengths to conceal their bafflement over a piece of prose they don't understand. Rather than run the risk of being thought dense or uncomprehending or philistine, all too many readers, including many who should know better--editors, teachers, workshop members--would rather skip over an obscurity than admit they just don't get it.

Stephen Koch, Writer's Workshop, 2003

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

The Mona Nelson Blow Torch Murder Case

     In April 2010, 44-year-old Angela, the mother of an 11-year-old boy from a previous relationship, married David Davis. Angela's son, a red-headed fifth-grader named Jonathan Foster, lived with his paternal grandmother. In November 2010, the child moved into the Houston, Texas duplex with his mother and new stepfather.

    When he drank, David Davis became violent. One of his assaults sent Angela to the hospital. On December 14, 2010, after Mr. Davis slapped his stepson in the face, Angela and Jonathan moved a hundred feet away into the apartment of a woman who had befriended Angela.

     In the early afternoon of December 24, 2010, a woman who referred to herself as Jonathan's babysitter, spoke on the telephone to one of Angela's co-workers at a meat market where she was employed as a cashier. The woman said she wanted to speak to Angela. The co-worker passed the message on to Angela who said she didn't have a babysitter. Angela called the number and a woman answered the phone. Just before the line went dead, Angela heard her son's voice. She rushed home to check on Jonathan. He was not in the apartment. Fearing foul play, Angela called 911 and reported her son missing.

     Detectives with the Houston Police Department, from the beginning, treated the case as a possible kidnapping. The police, suspecting Angela's estranged husband David, questioned him closely. David Davis said he had checked on Jonathan just 25 minutes before Angela came home and found him missing. At that time, the boy was playing a video game. "There's no doubt in my mind that he's been snatched," the stepfather said. "I think a pedophile took him."

     As investigators questioned other family members, neighbors and volunteers handed out fliers. Angela faced a television camera and said this to the abductor: "Don't hurt my baby." On the possibility that Jonathan had been kidnapped by a stranger, detectives questioned fifty registered sex offenders in the northwest Houston area.

     On December 28, 2010, four days after Jonathan went missing, a Houston Police Department's K-9 unit recovery dog detected what turned out to be the boy's badly charred remains. (Jonathan Foster had to be identified by dental records.) The body, bound with twine, had been dumped into a ditch four miles from his residence. Near the corpse detectives found a welder's torch.

     Surveillance camera footage from a building near Jonathan's body showed a silver Ford pickup truck pulling up to the site at six o'clock that Christmas eve. A black woman got out of the vehicle, reached into the bed, took out what appeared to be a body, and placed it into the ditch.

     Detectives quickly identified the woman in the truck as 44-year-old Mona Yvette Nelson, an acquaintance of the woman who had been sharing her apartment with Angela and Jonathan. Two weeks earlier, Mona had met David Davis, the boy's stepfather. According to witnesses, Mona Nelson had been seen recently in the vicinity of the murdered child's home.

     As a maintenance employee, Nelson had worked with acetylene torches and various types of welding equipment. A former boxer, she had been convicted in 1984 of aggravated robbery which brought her a ten-year probated sentence. Nelson had since been arrested for various drug charges and for making terroristic threats against another woman. The suspect owned a truck that looked like the silver Ford driven by the woman seen on surveillance tapes dumping the body into the ditch.

     On December 30, 2011, at a press conference, a spokesperson for the Houston Police Department announced that Mona Nelson, charged with capital murder, had been arrested for Jonathan Foster's death. Having been denied bond, the suspect was incarcerated in the Harris County Jail. In a search of her northwest Houston residence detectives found twine similar to the cordage found on Jonathan's body. Officers also recovered an acetylene tank used in welding. Sections of Nelson's carpet had been recently burned.

     According to the police spokesperson, Nelson, under police questioning, had admitted dumping Jonathan's body in the ditch. The suspect had not, however, confessed to murdering the boy.

     The day after Nelson's arrest, a local television reporter interviewed her at the Harris County Jail. Nelson told the correspondent that one of Jonathan's family members, on Christmas Eve, had asked her to dump the contents of a garbage container. The unnamed relative paid her twenty dollars for the job. She had been drunk on vodka and had no idea what was in the plastic container. "I didn't know what was in it until they were showing me pictures in the interrogation room. I'm not a monster," she said, "I have five grandkids and I love kids."

     Houston homicide detective Mike Miller, in response to Nelson's statements to the TV reporter, pointed out that Jonathan's body had not been found in a container. In describing the murder suspect, Detective Miller said, "She is a cold soulless murderer who showed an absolute lack of remorse in taking the life of Jonathan Foster. There's only been one or two people I've ever talked to that had eyes like she did. It was really cold." Detective Miller said that all of the victim's family members, including his stepfather David Davis, had solid alibis. Mona Nelson had acted on her own, he said.

     On Monday, January 3, 2011, Mona Nelson appeared before a judge who asked her if she understood her rights. She said that she did. The judge appointed Nelson an attorney, informed her of the charge, and sent her back to jail. A month later, Harris County prosecutor Connie Spence presented the case to a grand jury that returned a true bill of capital murder.

     The Nelson murder trial got underway on Monday, August 12, 2013 before district judge Jeannine Barr. The defendant had waived her right to a jury trial, putting her fate entirely in the hands of this judge. Nelson's attorney, Alan Tanner, before the opening statements and presentation of witnesses, asked Judge Barr to quash five recorded statements his client had made to detectives over a stretch of seventeen hours at her home and at the police station. According to the defense attorney, the interrogators continued to question Nelson after she complained a dozen times of being ill. The officers did not address Nelson's health complaints until after the interrogation. (Detectives took her to a nearby hospital where doctors found nothing wrong with her.)

     On Tuesday, August 13, Mona Nelson, pursuant to the procedural law question regarding the admissibility of her police statements, testified that her interrogators had worn her down. Although she asked to consult with an attorney a dozen times, the questioning continued. Attorney Tanner argued that the interrogating officers had violated his client's Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. He also asserted that her statements had not been given voluntarily and were therefore inadmissible in court.

     Judge Barr, later that afternoon, made her evidentiary ruling. She excluded the statements Nelson made after she had requested to see a lawyer. Since these requests came late in the interrogation session, most of her statements were admissible.

     In her opening remarks before Judge Barr, prosecutor Spence admitted that the state would not be establishing a motive for Jonathan's murder. (While prosecutors prefer to have motive evidence, it is not a legal requirement for a murder conviction. All the state has to prove is criminal intent. In substantive law, the why is not relevant.) The prosecutor promised the judge that she would prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Mona Nelson, sometime between 2:15 and 6:08 PM on December 24, 2010, tortured and killed the 11-year-old Foster boy with a blowtorch at her home, then dumped his charred remains in a ditch. Spence said that one of the key pieces of evidence she would introduce involved Jonathan's sweat shirt found in a trash can near the defendant's house. The garment bore traces of Nelson's blood.

     Defense attorney Tanner reminded the judge that just because his client had dumped the boy's body in the ditch didn't necessary mean that she had killed him. In foreshadowing the thrust of his defense, Tanner cast suspicion on the victim's stepdad, David Davis. According to the defense attorney, the boy had come between Davis and his estranged wife which may have been the motive behind the murder. All Mona Nelson did was dispose of the contents of a garbage can that had been given to her.

     The victim's mother took the stand as the state's first witness. She was followed by several detectives who testified about the physical evidence they had recovered from Nelson's home and how it related to the evidence found near Jonathan Foster's charred corpse. David Davis, the stepfather, took the stand and admitted that he had hit the victim's mother. He said he had never harmed the boy. Through direct examination, prosecutor Spence established the witness' whereabouts at the time of the abduction and the murder.

     Lois Sims, the supervisor at the meat market who took the phone call for Angela Davis on the afternoon of December 24, 2010, described the caller as an angry, foul-mouthed woman. The caller wanted the telephone number of the woman leasing the duplex where Davis and her son were staying. "If you don't get her on the phone now, something's going to happen. He [Jonathan] won't be here for long."

     Defense attorney Tanner pointed out that the two meat market supervisors had described the caller as a white woman.

     On August  19, 2013, two Houston Police Department K-9 officers testified that three cadaver dogs had reacted strongly to a box of burned carpeting at Nelson's house. One of the witnesses said, "There was a strong odor of human remains there. An arborist (tree expert) testified that leaves at the dump site had come from oak trees. There were no such trees where Jonathan's body had been recovered, but around Nelson's house, there were seven trees of this kind.

     The prosecutor played a videotaped statement from Nelson in which she admitted being at the place where Jonathan's body had been dumped. She said she had emptied a garbage container at the site. She said she didn't know the contents of the plastic container.

     The following day, a forensic scientist from the FBI Crime Laboratory testified that a Looney Tunes sweatshirt that belonged to Jonathan, recovered from the defendants trash can, contained Nelson's blood and DNA. Two other DNA experts agreed with this analysis. The presence of this trace evidence on the sweatshirt suggested that the victim had put up a fight.

     On Friday morning, August 23, 2013, the prosecution rested its case. Allen Tanner launched his client's defense with the testimony of a woman who gave Mona Nelson an alibi. Following the testimony of two other witnesses, the defense rested its case. Mona Nelson did not take the stand on her own behalf.

     The next day, defense attorney Allen Tanner delivered his closing argument to the judge. "Mona Nelson," he said, "had absolutely no motive to kill Jonathan Foster. They searched and searched for a motive and there's no reason why she would have killed that boy." In referring to David Davis, the estranged husband, Tanner said, "He wanted to get her back and he told people at work that Jonathan is the root of all his problems....The [prosecution's] case got weaker and weaker....There are more and more unanswered questions now than there were at the beginning. The evidence is clear there could be people who committed this crime and we have no idea at this time who they are."

     When it came her turn to address the judge, prosecutor Spence said, "This defendant took Jonathan Foster back to her house and killed him. We'll never know how she killed him because she burned his body to the point where you can't tell."

     On Monday morning, August 26, 2013, Judge Jeannine Barr found Mona Nelson guilty as charged. She imposed the automatic sentence of life without parole. After hearing the verdict, Nelson said, "I'm innocent, and I maintain my innocence. I wouldn't harm anybody."

     Defense attorney Allen Tanner told reporters he would file an appeal on the grounds of insufficient evidence. "We believe someone else kidnapped this child and someone else killed this child."

     On March 19, 2015, a three-judge panel on the Fourth District Texas Court of Appeals affirmed the Mona Nelson capital murder conviction.