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Friday, July 31, 2020

The Alan Goodman Murder Case

     Alan and Lois Goodman, in 2012, had been married 50 years. In the early 1960s, Alan started an auto parts business in Los Angeles. Lois, who in 1979 became a tennis referee, had risen to the top of her profession, and at age 70, was still officiating matches. She and her 80-year-old husband lived in a condominium in the Woodland Hills district of Los Angeles out in the San Fernando Valley.

     On April 17, 2012, Lois called 911 to report the discovery of Alan Goodman lying on his bed either unconscious or dead. LAPD officers from the Topanga station responded to the scene. According Lois, she had been away from the condo six hours during which time she had been refereeing tennis matches at Pierce Community College in Woodland Hills.

     Upon entering the dwelling, Lois said she noticed a broken coffee mug on the floor with blood on it. From the mug, she followed a trail of blood into Alan's bedroom where she found him unresponsive with a bloody wound to the right side of his head.

     Lois Goodman informed the police officers that her husband, a diabetic with high blood pressure, must have had a heart attack, fallen down a flight of stairs, then somehow made it to his room and climbed onto his bed. Because of Mr. Goodman's age, the LAPD officers had no reason to suspect criminal homicide.

     Two fire department paramedics pronounced Mr. Goodman dead at the scene. While neither of the medics were trained homicide investigators, they possessed enough common sense and death site experience to interpret an oddly shaped wound to the right side of the dead man's head as possible evidence of foul play. The medics took care not to disturb the body on grounds it might be part of a murder scene. Police officers, however, relying on Lois Goodman's death narration, allowed the body to be transported to its place of future cremation. In a situation that cried out for, at the very least, an autopsy, Mr. Goodman's corpse, and perhaps evidence of murder, were headed for the furnace.

     Whether or not a homicide had occurred in the Woodland Hills condominium, the initial phase of the Goodman case was not how violent, sudden death situations should be handled in the second largest police department in the country, or for that matter, anywhere else.

     On April 20, 2012, three days after Alan Goodman's death, an investigator with the Los Angeles County Coroner's Office who had been dispatched to sign Mr. Goodman's death certificate, noticed several deep cuts on the dead man's head and ear that seemed too severe to have been caused by an accidental spill down a flight of steps. This death investigator's rather basic observation led to an autopsy of Mr. Goodman's body.

     The next day, a forensic pathologist with the Los Angeles County Coroner's Office determined that Mr. Goodman's cause of death to be blunt force trauma to the head from a sharp object. The pathologist found shards of the broken coffee mug imbedded in the victim's wounds. Moreover, Mr. Goodman had not suffered a heart attack. Instead of a flight of stairs, Mr. Goodman had been killed by being struck in the head with a coffee mug. As a result of the autopsy findings, the coroner's office ruled the manner of this death a homicide.

     Had Mr. Goodman's body been cremated, the cause and manner of this man's death would have remained a mystery. On the other hand, because the autopsy had been delayed three days, the forensic pathologist could not pinpoint the time of death.

     Los Angeles detectives, on April 21, 2012, searched the Goodman condominium in Woodland Hills. The searchers discovered heavy blood staining on the carpets, on the refrigerator door, inside the linen closet, and on a wall near the inside door to the garage.

     In general, an analysis of the blood spatter patterns in the condo did not support the theory that Mr. Goodman had fallen down a flight of stairs. (I don't know if the police had collected the broken coffee mug and its pieces from the crime scene. If they didn't preserve what turned out to be the murder weapon, that was a problem. And even if officers did retrieve this evidence later, that was a chain of custody problem.)

     Shortly after the delayed search of the Goodman condo, detectives questioned Lois Goodman, this time as a suspect in her husband's murder. According to published police documents, she gave conflicting accounts of what she had observed upon entering the dwelling that day. At one point, she described the scene as "violent," and suggested that someone may have "positioned" Mr. Goodman's body in his bed.

     Over the next four months, Los Angeles detectives, with Lois Goodman as their prime suspect, investigated the murder. This led to the discovery of emails she had exchanged with a man who may have been a lover. In one email, Lois Goodman referred to "terminating" a relationship. Investigators suspected that Goodman had murdered her husband for another man. The fact there were no signs of forced entry into the condo, and that nothing had been stolen from the dwelling, comprised more circumstantial evidence that Lois Goodman had been responsible for her husband's violent death. Moreover, when speaking to the responding officers that day, the dead man's wife had gone out of her way to establish her whereabouts at the time of his death, behavior inconsistent with that of a grieving widow.

     In mid-August 2012, after a Los Angeles County prosecutor charged Lois Goodman with the murder of her husband, detectives followed her to New York City where she was scheduled to officiate at the U.S. Tennis Open at Flushing Meadows. On August 21, on the eve of the Open, New York City officers went to her Manhattan hotel room and arrested her on the California murder warrant. That evening, Los Goodman found herself in the Rikers Island lock-up under $1 million bond pending her extradition hearing.

     Back in Los Angeles on August 29, 2012, at her arraignment hearing, the judge, assured by Goodman's attorney Alison Triessl that the tennis line umpire was not dangerous, or a candidate for flight, reduced her bail to $500,000. In speaking to reporters, attorney Triessl, in making the case that her 70-year-old client was physically incapable of killing her husband, pointed out that she had received two full knee replacements, and a shoulder replacement. According to the attorney, Lois Goodman was "wearing two hearing aids, and had rheumatoid arthritis."

     On September 3, 2012, Lois Goodman, after spending two weeks in jail, was released on bail.

     The FBI announced, on October 10, 2012, that Lois Goodman, when asked by a bureau polygraph examiner if she had killed her husband, answered no--and passed the test. The polygraph expert, Jack Trimarco, said there was "no significant reaction" when Goodman answered "no" to the payload question.

     On November 30, 2012, the Los Angeles prosecutor, due to insufficient evidence, dropped the murder charges against Lois Goodman.

     In April 2015, a federal judge dismissed Lois Goodman's false arrest lawsuit against the LAPD. The plaintiff claimed the murder accusation caused her "public humiliation." In setting out his rationale for the dismissal, Judge John A. Kronstadt wrote that the LAPD homicide investigation had produced "substantial details sufficient to support a finding of probable cause to arrest Lois Goodman."

     Lois Goodman, in March 2018, filed suit in federal court claiming the Los Angeles Coroner's Office had deprived her of her civil rights by falsifying her husband's autopsy report. The 76-year-old plaintiff asked for $100,000 in damages to cover the cost of her bail and legal fees stemming from her arrest. As of this writing, Goodman's lawsuit is pending, and no one else has been arrested for the murder of Alan Goodman.

College Enrollment Decline Pre-COVID-19

     The fall 2019 postsecondary enrollment numbers [revealed] that overall, enrollments decreased by 1.3 percent, a drop of more that 231,000 students from 2018. [That's equivalent to four of the country's largest universities.]...

     For the first time this decade, the nation's fall semester's enrollments dipped below 18 million, a decline of more than 2 million students since its peak in 201l...

     If anyone needed further proof that higher education continues to battle strong headwinds, these enrollment numbers should suffice. A shrinking population of high school graduates combined with a spate of institutional scandals, widespread anxiety about the costs of college and mountains of student debt, increasing skepticism about the value and necessity of college, growing concerns about the fairness of the admissions process, and the widening partisan divide between Republicans and Democrats over whether colleges are politically biased, has taken a toll on American's perceptions--and their participation--in college.

Michael T. Nietzel, "College Enrollment Declines Again," NPR, December 16, 2019

Abolish the Police Movement is Not New

     At worst, the politically radical professor is someone who poisons the minds of vulnerable, easily influenced college students. At best, they waste their students' tuition money with their grandstanding. Take University of California at Davis professor and poet Joshua Clover. Dr. Clover, an academic in the oddly combined disciplines of political theory, political economy, poetry, poetics, and Marxism, has called attention to himself by making outlandish statements regarding his hatred of police officers.

     In November 2014, after officer Darren Wilson was cleared of wrongdoing in the police-involved shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Clover tweeted, "I am thankful that every living cop will one day be dead, some by their own hand, some by others, too many of old age." A month later, the professor was at it again with this tweet: "I mean, it's easier to shoot cops when their backs are turned, no?"

     In a January 2016 interview in The California Aggie, Professor Clover said, "People think that cops need to be reformed. They need to be killed. I think we can all agree that the most effective way to end any violence against officers is the complete and immediate abolition of the police."

Great Writers, Troubled People

Charles Bukowski and John Fante--cruel; Ernest Hemingway and Gore Vidal--vain; John Cheever and F. Scott Fitzgerald--drunks; Truman Capote and Hunter S. Thompson--drug addled; Sylvia Plath and David Foster Wallace--suicidal; J.D. Salinger and Thomas Pynchon--reclusive; Norman Mailer and William Burroughs--violent; Fred Exley and Ralph Ellison--blocked; and Leo Tolstoy and Jonathan Swift--mentally ill.

J. Edgar Hoover

If the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation from 1924 to 1972 thought much about his legacy, he probably hoped to be remembered as the man who professionalized criminal investigation, and elevated the image of the FBI agent. As the man responsible for the FBI fingerprint bureau, crime laboratory, National Police Academy, and the "FBI Bulletin," one could argue that Mr. Hoover played a major, innovative role in the history of 20th Century law enforcement. Instead, Mr. Hoover, thanks to a combination of tabloid journalism and the truth, has been remembered as a power-hungry, cross-dressing, mother's boy. But Americans have short memories, and the name J. Edgar Hoover will soon be completely erased from American pop culture. 

Crimes Against Language

The language of sociology is made up of vague, often meaningless jargon designed to dull the senses and distort reality. This is particularly true when criminologists talk about crime and criminal justice. The destroyers of precise, vivid English have given us mindless phrases such as "anti-social behavior," "juvenile delinquent," "root causes," and "reform school."  In the vocabulary of sociology, depraved behavior became "deviant behavior." The concept of "root causes" makes society, not the individual, responsible for horrific criminal acts. Sociologists are responsible for the concept of "social justice," code word for collective guilt. In the world of sociology, personal responsibility for one's behavior simply does not exist. 

Before You Write, Have Something to Write About

When young people ask me how to get started writing, I tell them the best way would be go somewhere and do something, experience something, and then write about it. That's how Ernest Hemingway got The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms.

Richard Rhodes, How to Write, 1995

Thursday, July 30, 2020

The Brenda Heist Missing Person Case

     In 2002, forty-three-year-old Brenda Heist and her husband Lee were going through an amicable divorce. The couple had two children, a daughter who was eight, and a twelve-year-old son. They lived in Lititz Borough, a small Lancaster County town in southeastern Pennsylvania. Brenda worked as a bookkeeper at a local car dealership.

     In an effort to finance her own apartment, Brenda applied for state housing assistance. The agency denied her request. Depressed, overwhelmed, and distraught, Brenda, after driving the children to school one day in February 2002, drove to a nearby town and parked her car in a bus station lot. From there she walked to a park where she sat on a bench and cried.

     Brenda did not go back to her car and drive home that day. To her family and friends, and to the local police, she became a missing person.

     Four days after Brenda dropped her children off at school, police found her car parked in the bus station lot. When a mother takes her kids to school and doesn't return home, the police assume that she has been abducted. As days went by without anyone hearing from or seeing Brenda Heist, detectives began to think that she may have had been murdered. At this point the missing persons case turned into a homicide investigation. As in most missing wife cases, the suspicion in Brenda's disappearance fell on her husband.

     As psychic detectives and other whack-job callers flooded the Heist missing persons investigators with false leads, homicide investigators focused on Lee Heist as their primary murder suspect. As a result, Mr. Heist lost his job. He ran into financial difficulties, and eventually lost his home. After several years as a suspect in his wife's disappearance and murder, following a series of polygraph tests, investigators cleared Lee Heist of wrongdoing in the case. His wife remained missing, however, and was presumed dead.

     In 2008, the Lancaster County Major Crimes Unit began investigating the Brenda Heist disappearance as a cold-case murder. Two years later, Lee Heist petitioned a Lancaster County Court to declare his wife legally dead. With Brenda officially declared "missing and possibly deceased", Mr. Heist was able to marry another woman.

     As it turned out, while Lee Heist was put through hell as a suspect in his wife's murder, Brenda was alive in south Florida. On the day of her disappearance, she was approached by two men and a woman who saw her crying on the park bench. After she related her tale of woe, they invited her to join them on a hitchhiking trip to Florida. She accepted their offer.

     Brenda Heist spent her first two years in Key Largo, Florida living under bridges and eating restaurant garbage. She entered a new phase in her life when she moved into a camp trailer with a man she met on the street. For the next seven years, Brenda lived with this man in Key West. They both worked as day laborers cleaning boats and doing odd jobs for cash.

     In 2011, after her relationship with her trailer roommate soured, Brenda was back on the street. She worked odd jobs and hung out on the beach. In December 2012, under her alias Kelsie Lyanne Smith, Brenda got a job as a live-in housekeeper for a family in Tampa Bay. (According to her employer she had good references.)

      A few months after landing the housekeepers job, a police pulled Brenda over for driving with an expired license plate. The officer found drugs in her car. She served two months in Pensacola County Jail on the drug possession offense. Following her release from jail, she spent a few weeks behind bars in Santa Rosa County on an identify theft charge. At one point she lived in a tent community run by a Florida social service agency.

     On Friday, April 26, 2013, Brenda Heist surrendered herself to the Monroe County Sheriff's Office. Thinking that there were warrants for her arrest out of Pinellas County, the 54-year-old told the Monroe County deputies that she was at the end of her rope, and tired of running. She informed the officers that eleven years ago she had walked out on her family in Lititz Borough, Pennsylvania.

     The Florida authorities called Lititz Borough Sergeant John Schofield with the news that Brenda Heist was not dead, and no longer missing. Her children, now college students, still had a mother.

     On May 3, 2013, Brenda was sent back to the Santa Rosa County Jail on various theft related charges. Morgan Heist, her 19-year-old daughter, told reporters she has no interest in reuniting with her mother.

     On June 11, 2013 a judge in Pensacola, Florida sentenced Heist, known in the Santa Rose court system as Kelsie Smith, to one year in jail in connection a probation violation. She pleaded no contest to failing to check in with authorities after leaving the Pensacola area following her release from jail in April. She'd been on probation for using someone else's identification during a traffic stop.

Heroin Kills

     When someone takes heroin there is an immediate rush. Then the body feels an extreme form of relaxation and a decreased sense of pain. What's happening inside the body is the heroin is turning into morphine. Morphine has a chemical structure similar to endorphins--the chemicals your brain makes when you feel stressed out or in pain. Endorphins inhibit your neurons from firing, so they halt pain and create a good feeling.

     Most people die from heroin overdoses when their bodies forget to breathe. A heroin overdose can also cause your blood pressure to dip significantly and cause your heart to fail. Intravenous heroin users are 300 times more likely to die from infectious endocarditis, an infection on the surface of the heart.

     Heroin use can also cause an arrhythmia--a problem with the rate or rhythm of the heartbeat. During an arrhythmia, the heart may not be able to pump enough blood to the body, and lack of blood flow affects your brain, heart and other organs. Heroin use can also cause pulmonary edema. That's when the heart can't pump blood to the body well. The blood can back up into your veins, taking that blood through your lungs and to the left side of the heart.

     Heroin can also come with other toxic contaminants that can harm a user--although deaths from such instances, while not unheard of, are thought to be rare. [This form of heroin death is now common.]

Jen Christensen, "How Heroin Kills You," CNN February 4, 2014 

Vehicle Arson

     Automobiles seem to be very combustible…they contain flammable liquids, have many electrical circuits, and their interiors are made of combustible material. Combine that with a careless smoker and you have a vehicle fire, or so you would think. But actually, with new technology, most interiors are fire resistant--a cigarette will seldom ignite a seat cover or a floor  mat, the fuel systems are designed with safety in mind, and the electrical circuits are shut off by fuses and other interrupt devices.

     Accidental vehicle fires do occur, but the fire generally remains in one compartment, i.e. engine, trunk, glove compartment or interior.

     There are two types of vehicle arsonist: amateur and professional. An amateur is usually behind on his car payments and desperate to rid himself of the car. He knows that the vehicle must be declared totaled by his insurance company, so he will go for mass destruction. The professional criminal uses vehicle arson to conceal other crimes: stolen cars used during the commission of a crime, or a homicide, for example.

     In general, after driving a car to a remote location, the arsonist will completely dowse the interior and exterior of the vehicle with a combustible material such as gasoline and set the fire. A one-to five-gallon gas can is generally found at the scene. Using five gallons is quite dangerous, and the arsonist may end up like the car if the flammable vapors have saturated the area.

     The arsonist might make what are known as trailers by pouring a stream of gasoline from the vehicle to a location he feels is far enough away from the vehicle to ignite it safely. These types of fires are easily tagged as arson because of the evidence left behind.

Mauro V. Corvasce and Joseph R. Paglino, Modus Operandi, 1995 

In Fiction, No Subject is Taboo

Is there a subject too daunting, a perversion too kinky to mention? Show a writer a taboo and we'll turn it into a story. Pedophilia? Nabokov's Humbert Humbert has been there, done that. The recent craze for zombie fiction offered an orgy of the restless undead feasting on human flesh. Genre novels serve up all sorts of grisly horrors and murder, and the popularity of Fifty Shades of Gray suggests that readers have no problem with sex beyond the vanilla. Even love between the species finds its expression in fairy tales like The Frog Prince and Beauty and the Beast.

Francine Prose, The New York Times Book Review, July 20, 2014 

The Essence of Science Fiction

     Science fiction is that form of literature which deals with the effects of technological change in an imaged future, an alternative present or re-conceived history…

     Science fiction, at the center, holds that the encroachment of technological or social change will make the future different and that it will feel different to those within it. In a technologically altered culture, people will regard themselves and their lives in ways that we cannot apprehend. That is the base of the science fiction vision, but the more important part comes as corollary: the effects of a changed technology upon us will be more profound than change brought about by psychological or social pressure... It will be these changes--those imposed extrinsically by force--which really matter; that is what the science fiction writer is saying, and in their inevitability and power they trivialize the close psychological interactions in which most of us transact our lives.

Barry N. Malzberg, Breakfast in the Ruins, 2007  

Writing Well is an Acquired Craft

     For some reason everyone thinks, "I should know how to write." No one thinks, "I should know how to play the piano." But when it comes to writing, "I should know how to do it."

     What if I told you a story about a man who buys a piano, sits down to play for the very first time and is shocked when he doesn't sound like Arthur Rubinstein?

     "I don't understand," he complains. "I've listened to lots of music, I should know how to play the piano."

     Ridiculous, you say? Yet there you are. You're mortified when your work isn't as good as Ernest Hemingway's.

Joel Saltzman, If You Can Talk, You Can Write, 1993 

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

The Bobby Wilson Murder Case

     About 6,000 people live in Spanish Fort, Alabama, a Gulf Coast suburb of Mobile on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay. In the early morning hours of August 11, 2007, Spanish Fort police officer Steve McGough pulled into Wilson's Service Center for gas and a cup of coffee. When McGough walked into the convenience store he found the owner, Arthur "Bobby" Wilson, slumped over the counter. The officer grabbed hold of the bleeding 71-year-old and helped him onto a chair. Mr. Wilson had been beaten in the head with a blunt object, and robbed. As the officer called in the robbery and assault, the victim made "gurgling sounds," and mumbled incoherently. Four months later, Mr. Wilson died from his head wounds. The victim had been unable to describe or name his assailant. The robbery/assault case had turned into a murder.

     In December 2008, shortly after Bobby Wilson's death, Baldwin County prosecutor Michael Plyant charged Leslie Eric Buzbee with capital murder in the case. Police arrested the 23-year-old and hauled him to the Baldwin County Corrections Center in nearby Bay Minette, Alabama. The murder suspect remained in custody without bail.

     Detectives had learned that days before the robbery/assault, Buzbee, who lived ten minutes from the service station and knew the victim well, had asked Mr. Wilson to cash a check. According to the police theory of the case, when Bobby Wilson refused to cash Buzbee's check the second time, the suspect assaulted him with an aluminum baseball bat the victim kept on the premises. The authorities were convinced that Buzbee, high on cocaine and in desperate need of money, assaulted Mr. Wilson out of anger and the need for cash to support his drug habit.

     Leslie Buzbee's trial got underway on May 4, 2009 in Bay Minette. His attorney, John Beck, exploited the fact the prosecution, without the murder weapon, physical evidence linking the defendant to the crime scene, a confession, or an eyewitness, had an extremely weak, circumstantial case. As it turned out, Attorney Beck was right. Four weeks later, the judge declared a mistrial after the jury could not reach an unanimous verdict.

    Following the hung jury, prosecutor Plyant decided to try again. The second trial, which commenced in August 2009, ended prematurely when the judge declared a mistrial on a procedural issue.

     On August 8, 2009, the Baldwin County prosecutor took a third run at Leslie Buzbee. Without new, incriminating evidence, the third jury to be empaneled in the case, after four hours of deliberation, found the 25-year-old defendant not guilty. Buzbee, having been incarcerated in the Baldwin County Correction Center since December 2008, walked free. (The double jeopardy clause of the U.S. Constitution protects Buzbee, regardless of what new evidence might surface, from being tried a fourth time for Mr. Wilson's murder.)

     Following the not guilty verdict, in response to a reporter's question about whether the authorities would re-open the murder case, prosecutor Plyant said, "The investigation is done because we tried the person we believe did the crime."

     The Wilson murder case, from an investigative point of view, produced a suspect, but didn't feature enough hard evidence to support a conviction. Had Bobby Wilson, before he died, been able to communicate with the police, the outcome of this case might have been different.

     On December 31, 2012, officers with the Mobile Police Department arrested Leslie Eric Buzbee in connection with a series of residential burglaries and thefts from vehicles. Officers found cocaine and drug paraphernalia in his car. At the time of his arrest, Buzbee was the subject of several burglary warrants issued out of Baldwin County. He was back in jail, but not for murder.

     In May 2013, while out on bond for the December 2012 case, Buzbee was charged in Baldwin County with second-degree receiving stolen property. (As of this writing I can find no disposition of these cases on the Internet.) As for Bobby Wilson, no one has been held accountable for his murder.

On Being Shot

      If it takes ten or twelve seconds to lose consciousness from blood loss (and consequent oxygen deprivation to the brain), why, then, do people who have been shot so often collapse on the spot? It doesn't just happen on TV.

     I posed this question to Duncan MacPherson, a respected ballistics expert and consultant to the Los Angeles Police Department. MacPherson insists the effect is purely psychological. Whether or not you collapse depends on your state of mind. Animals don't know what it means to be shot, and, accordingly, rarely exhibit the instant stop-and-drop.

     Not everyone agrees with the psychological theory. There are those who feel that some sort of neural overload takes place when a bullet hits. An area of the brain called the reticular activating system (RAS) is responsible for the sudden collapse. The RAS can be affected by impulses arising from massive pain sensations in the viscera. Upon receiving these impulses, the RAS sends out a signal that weakens certain leg muscles, with the result the person drops to the ground.

Mary Roach, Stiff, 2003 

How To Keep a Government Job

If I were handing out career advice I'd say this: If you want a government job where you can demonstrate courage, go into the military or law enforcement. If you are not the courageous type, seek an ordinary governmental position. The goal of the ordinary civilian government employee is to not make waves. Whistleblowers are not welcome and are treated brutally. In government work, it's all about group think, obedience, and when confronted with governmental wrongdoing, look the other way. 

Jack Henry Abbott's "In The Belly of the Beast"

     My first acquaintance with punitive longterm solitary confinement had a more adverse and profound spiritual effect on me than anything else in my childhood. [Abbott was a victim of child abuse.]

     I suffered from claustrophobia for years when I first went to prison. I never knew any form of suffering more horrible in my life.

     The air in your cell vanishes. You are smothering. Your eyes bulge out; you clutch at your throat; you scream like a banshee. Your arms flail the air in your cell. You reel about the cell, falling.

     Then you suffer cramps. The walls press you from all directions with an invisible force. You struggle to push it back. The oxygen makes you giddy with anxiety. You become hollow and empty. There is a vacuum in the pit of your stomach. You retch.

     You are dying. Dying a hard death. One that lingers and toys with you.

     The faces of the guards, angry, are at the gate of your cell. The gate slides open. The guards attack you. On top of that, the guards come into your cell and beat you to the floor.

Jack Henry Abbott (1944-2002), In The Belly of The Beast, 1982

[In January 1981, Abbott, who had spent most of his life behind bars as a violent criminal, was released on parole from a prison in Utah. Novelist Norman Mailer and other bleeding-heart types who liked Abbott's book, were instrumental in his release. Six months after walking out of prison, Abbott stabbed a 22-year-old waiter to death outside a New York City restaurant. The murder occurred after an argument over Abbott's use of the restaurant's employee-only restroom. Norman Mailer, who had once stabbed his wife, not only liked Abbott because he could write, the novelist may had admired him for his violence. Parole boards, when considering who to release and who not to, should not listen to novelists.] 

Writing as a Calling

There's a difference between a vocation and a profession. A vocation is a calling--something you are called to. A profession is something that you practice. In the states, I think about 10 percent of the novel writers actually make a living out of their novel writing. The others have the vocation, but they can only partly have the profession, because they have to spend the rest of their time making money in order to keep themselves in their habit. They are word junkies. They've got to pay for their fix. I chose university teaching because there is a long summer vacation, and also because you could fake it.

Margaret Atwood

Humor in Nonfiction Writing

     Humor is the secret weapon of the nonfiction writer. It's secret because so few writers realize that humor is often their best tool--and sometimes their only tool--for making an important point.

     Few Americans understand this. We dismiss our humorists as triflers because they never settled down to "real" work. The Pulitzer Prizes go to authors like Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, who are (God knows) serious and are therefore certified as men of literature. The prizes seldom go to people like George Ade, H. L. Mencken, Ring Lardner, S. J. Perelman, Art Buckwald, Jules Feiffer, Woody Allen and Garrison Keillor, who seem to be just fooling around. 
     They're not fooling around. They are as serious in purpose as Hemingway or Faulkner--a national asset in forcing the country to see itself clearly. Humor, to them, is urgent work. 
William Zinsser, On Writing Well, originally published in 1975 

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Bethany Deaton's Sex Cult Death

     Bethany Ann Leidlein, a bright, ambitious, and spiritual person, grew up in Arlington, Texas. In 2005, the 20-year-old graduated magna cum laude in English and Spanish from Southwestern University. While enrolled at the university in Georgetown, Texas, she met Tyler Deaton and his friend Micah Moore. Deaton, a domineering and charismatic young man from Corpus Christi, had been a member of the National Honor Society at Calallen High School. At Southwestern, a small liberal arts school affiliated with the Methodist Church, he played jazz piano and led prayer groups in the college chapel. A campus spiritual leader, he became known for his belief that "God glorifies in your having fun."

     After Bethany and Tyler graduated from Southwestern University, the two of them, joined by Micah Moore and a handful of other young men, moved to the Kansas City, Missouri suburb of Grandview where they became members of a fundamentalist Christian church called the International House of Prayer (IHOP). In May 2009, Bethany and Tyler completed a six-month religious program at IHOP University.

     In the summer of 2012,  after Tyler and Bethany were married, they moved, along with his his male religious friends and followers, into a large, old house in Grandview. Having gone back to school and earned a degree in nursing, Bethany worked as a registered nurse at a local hospital. She and her male roommates had evolved into a cult-like religious group led by her husband. The Grandview house they all lived in became sort of a church.

     At ten o'clock on the night on October 30, 2012, Jackson County (Missouri) sheriff's deputies were called to investigate the body of a woman found in the back of a van parked near Longview Lake. The dead woman turned out to be Bethany Ann Deaton.

     Bethany's head had been covered by a white, plastic bag. In the Ford Windstar van, deputies recovered a notepad upon which someone had written what appeared to be a suicide note. It read: "My name is Bethany Deaton. I chose this evil thing. I did it because I wouldn't be a real person and what is the point of living if it is too late for that. I wish I had chosen differently a long time ago. I knew it all and refused to listen. Maybe Jesus will save me."

     In the van's cup-holder sat an empty 100-count bottle that had once held Acetaminophen pills. While most experienced homicide investigators would have considered Bethany Deaton's death scene suspicious, the Jackson County Coroner's Office classified it as a suicide. The plastic bag over her head, the empty pill bottle, and the suicide note had the look of a staged suicide.

     Bethany Deaton's parents claimed her body and had her buried in Arlington, Texas without an autopsy. According to Bethany's online obituary, she had been "a lover of books, writing, nature, deep conversations, dance, worship, and, most of all, Jesus."

     On November 9, 2012, one of Bethany Deaton's male roommates, 23-year-old Micah Moore, showed up at the Grandview Police Department with something to confess. He informed the detective who spoke to him that Bethany Deaton had not committed suicide because he had murdered her. He had pulled the plastic bag over her head and had held it there "until her body shook."

     According to Micah Moore, he, Tyler Deaton, and the other male members of the spiritual clan had been sexually assaulting Bethany for months. They all had sex with her after drugging her with an antipsychotic drug called Seroquel. (This medication had been prescribed to a member of the sect.) Micah Moore said he had video-taped the group rapes on his tablet computer. He told the detective that he had also confessed his role in the rapes and murder to his pastor. Moore said he had written poems about Bethany Deaton's sexual assaults.

     Micah Moore informed the Grandview detective that the victim's husband, Tyler Deaton, had talked him into killing Bethany and making it look like a suicide. In the weeks prior to her death, Bethany had been seeing a counselor. Tyler Deaton, according to Moore, had been worried that she might report the group rapes to the therapist. Moore also confessed that after the men raped the drugged-up woman, they had consensual sex with each other.

     Following Micah Moore's stunning murder confession, the authorities in Jackson County, Missouri re-classified Bethany Deaton's manner of death as a criminal homicide. Her cause of death: asphyxiation by suffocation. On November 10, prosecutor Jean Peters charged Micah Moore with first degree-murder. Tyler Deaton was not charged with a crime.

     Allen Hood, the president of IHOP University, distanced the school and the church from Tyler Deaton and his followers. He described Deaton as the leader of an independent, close-knit religious group that had operated separately "under a veil of secrecy."

     On November 28, 2012, Micah Moore's attorney, Melanie Morgan, announced that her client had recanted his confession. The lawyer described the confession as "bizarre, nonsensical and most importantly, untrue." Attorney Morgan went on to say that Moore was a "distraught and confused young man under extreme psychological pressure as a result of his friend Bethany's untimely suicide and the sudden removal of his spiritual leader, Tyler Deaton from their extremely close-knit religious community."

     On October 31, 2014, Jackson County prosecutor Jean Peters Baker dropped the charges against Micah Moore. Moore's DNA was not on the bag over Deaton's head and forensic document examination revealed that the suicide note had been written by her. Moore's attorney, Melanie Morgan, said her client's confession had been a "reactive psychotic episode triggered by the suicide of his friend."  

Utah's Firing Squads

     The last person put to death by firing squad in the United States was John Albert Taylor, a convicted child killer executed in Utah in 1996. He was the 49th person executed by firing squad in that state.

     A Utah firing squad consists of five volunteer police officers from the county in which the crime occurred. One of the squad's rifles is loaded with a blank. No member of the squad knows which rifle contains the blank.

     Utah abolished death by firing squad in 2004 and now uses lethal injection to kill its inmates. But the law was not retroactive so inmates with a death sentence imposed before that date can choose between firing squad and lethal injection. An inmate who chooses the firing squad sits in a specially designed chair that restrains his or her arms, legs, and chest. The head is loosely confined so that it remains upright.

     The condemned inmate wears a dark blue outfit with a white cloth circle attached by Velcro over the heart. Sandbags behind the chair catch the four bullets and prevent ricochets. Some twenty feet in front of the chair stands a wall with five firing ports. The inmate may read a final statement before the warden places a hood over  his or her head. The firing squad takes aim at the white cloth circle and fires simultaneously at the warden's command. The bullets rupture the heart, lungs, and major arteries, causing near instant death from shock and hemorrhage. The lower part of the chair in which the prisoner sits contains a pan to catch the flow of blood and other body fluids that rush out of the prisoner's body.

Billy Wayne Sinclair and Jodie Sinclair, Capital Punishment, 2009 

Burglars

     Burglars are the cowards of the underworld. They sneak around hotels, apartment houses and homes in the suburbs like cockroaches in the night, nibbling quietly at private wealth, and scattering into the dark at the slightest disturbance. They are the bugs of the underworld, ever fearful of being snuffed out by the police officer's service pistol or the homeowner's unregistered shotgun.

     But this cowardice pays off. It puts the criminal on the very cautious side of the crime business and reduces the possibility of eyewitnesses to the crime. The one drawback is that the burglar must later deal with a fence, since most burglaries yield merchandise rather than currency. But it is a price that burglars are prepared to pay in return for the practice of what they regard as a trade considerably less risky than armed robbery, where the yield is usually cash. Most burglars do not carry a dangerous weapon.

Thomas Plate, Crime Pays, 1975

"White Fragility," by Robin DiAngelo

     Robin DiAngelo's book White Fragility, published in 2018, has shot up bestseller lists after protests over the death of George Floyd reignited discussions about racism in America.

     DiAngelo is white and regards racism as "the foundation of the society we are in." She says white people become defensive and exhibit "fragility" when challenged on their underlying and, often unconscious, racism.

     White people will never be rid of their biases, DiAngelo has told NPR, saying their [her] necessary work "will be lifelong: really thinking deeply about what it means to be white, how your race shapes your life."

     But as DiAngelo's corporate lecture requests and book sales have grown, so too has criticism of her work.

     The Washington Post's Carlos Lozada said the book employs "circular logic." Lozada writes that White Fragility views people of color as "almost entirely powerless, and the few with influence do not wield it in the service of racial justice."

     Columbia University professor and linguist John McWhorter, who is black, echoes that criticism, writing in the Atlantic that the book "openly infantilized black people" and "simply dehumanized us." He argues that for "DiAngelo, the whole point is the suffering" of white people, who are "taught that pretty much anything they say or think is racist and thus antithetical to the good."

"Linguist John McWhorter Says White Fragility is Condescending Toward Black People," James Doubek, NPR, July 20, 2020

The Editor's Hand in Journalism

One time a newspaper sent us to a morgue to get a story on a woman whose body was being held for identification. A man believed to be her husband was brought in. Somebody pulled the sheet back; the man took one agonizing look, and cried, "My God, it's her!" When we reported this grim incident, the editor diligently changed it to "My God, it's she!"

E. B. White, The Second Tree From the Corner, 1954 

Too Much Dialogue

A writer who overuses dialogue doesn't have an acute sense of pacing, doesn't realize that a work can progress too fast. He relies heavily on dialogue, which means he's also using it poorly, since overuse comes hand in hand with misuse. He might, for instance, be using dialogue as a means of conveying information. He is more likely a beginner, plot oriented, and anxious for a fast pace. Alternately, he might be a playwright or screenwriter turned-author, stuck in the remnants of his previous form. In either case, he is more likely to neglect setting and character development. He is impatient, believes too much in the power of speech, and not enough in the power of silence. And since dialogue rates fairly high on the drama scale, this writer is likely to be overdramatic.

Noah Lukeman, A Dash of Style, 2006 

Children's Book Writers Draw On Their Childhoods

To write for children involves a close affinity with one's own childhood. If you have this, it follows that you will have that same affinity for childhood in general.

Irene Hunt in Pauses, edited by Lee Bennett Hopkins, 1995

Monday, July 27, 2020

The Tomeikia Johnson Murder Case

     Off-duty California Highway Patrol Officer Tomeikia Johnson and her husband Marcus Lemons started arguing while having drinks on February 21, 2009 at the T.G.I. Friday bar in Compton, California. At 11PM, after the 32-year-old cop paid the bill, she and Lemons, a barber and locally known amateur bowler, left the restaurant with the CHP officer behind the wheel. About an hour later, Johnson pulled up to her parents' Compton home with her husband's dead body in the BMW. Lemons had been shot point-blank in the head with his wife's handgun. Johnson's mother called 911.

     Pending the results of the homicide investigation conducted by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Office, the CHP re-assigned Johnson to desk duty. She told investigators that she and her husband, after they left the bar, continued to fight. When she pulled the car off the road, he became physical. As they struggled for control of the gun, it went off and killed him. According to her account of the shooting, she was defending herself against an abusive husband.

     Detectives looking into the shooting believed that Johnson had pulled the car off the road, reached into her purse, took out her gun, and shot Lemons in the head. The Los Angeles County deputy district attorney handling the case believed that Johnson had murdered her husband. In January 2011, sheriff's deputies arrested Tomeikia Johnson on the charge of first-degree murder as she sat at her CHP desk. (From the beginning, the CHP had cooperated with the investigation.) Initially held in the county jail on $2 million bond, Johnson made her bail and was released.

     In January 2012, with the defendant's family seated on one side of the courtroom, and her dead husband's relatives gathered in the other half of the gallery, the Johnson trial got underway in downtown Los Angeles. In her opening statement to the jury, Deputy District Attorney Natalie Adomian laid out the prosecution's theory of the shooting. According to the prosecutor, after Johnson pulled the BMW off the road, she pulled out her gun, pressed the muzzle against his head, and pulled the trigger.

     Over the next several days, Adomian, to support the prosecution's assertion that the killing had been intentional, put a blood spatter interpretation analyst as well as a gunshot residue expert on the stand. The experts testified that the pattern and location of the blood and powder staining did not support the defendant's account of the shooting. The forensic scientists were followed by a series of witnesses who portrayed the defendant as having an aggressive personality and a drinking problem. These witnesses characterized Marcus Lemons as a peaceful, nonviolent husband who had taken a lot of abuse from his wife. Since Johnson hadn't confessed, and there were no eyewitnesses to the shooting, the prosecution's case was entirely circumstantial.

     To establish that his client had been an abused wife, and that the shooting had occurred during a life and death struggle for the gun, attorney Darryl Stallworth put the defendant on the stand realizing that the outcome of the case depended upon Tomeikia Johnson's credibility. Stallworth, to make the case for his client's innocence, had to put Marcus Lemons on trial. He had to attack a dead man, always a risky move in a murder trial.

     According to the defendant, a week before her husband died while trying to kill her, he had given her reason to fear for her life. They had gotten into an argument while driving back to Los Angeles from a bowling tournament in Las Vegas. She told him to stop the car, and when he pulled off the road, she ran to a nearby truck stop and called 911 and reported that her husband had gotten possession of her gun and wanted to kill her. (No charges were filed against Lemons.) Johnson also testified that in 2008, Lemons had attacked her in a Las Vegas hotel room, injuring her neck. No charges were filed in that case either.

     After giving testimony intended to establish Marcus Lemons as the abuser in the marriage, Johnson provided her account of how he had died: After leaving the T.G.I. Friday bar in Compton, she and Lemons continued to argue. He became so angry he reached over and started choking her, forcing her to pull off the highway. He grabbed the keys out of the ignition and told her to walk home. She climbed out of the BMW and started running. Worried that he would take the gun out of her purse (left behind in the car) and shoot her, she returned to the vehicle. As she and her husband reached for the gun, it fell to the ground. When she picked it up, the pistol went off, killing him.

     "Did you want to fire that weapon?" asked the attorney.

     "No."

     "Did you want to kill your husband?"

      "No," the defendant replied.

     The defense rested. Following the closing arguments and the judge's legal instructions, the case went to the jury. If jurors believed Johnson's account of the shooting, they would acquit her. If not, she would not be walking out of the courthouse a free person.

     On January 23, 2012, the jury, after deliberating slightly more than a day, found Tomeikia Johnson guilty of first-degree murder. She fainted, and paramedics rushed to the defense table and wheeled her out of the courtroom on a gurney.

     At Johnson's March 9, 2012 sentencing hearing before Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Robert Perry, her attorney asked the judge to reduce the murder charge to manslaughter. Judge Perry denied the request and sentenced Johnson to 50 years to life. Apparently the judge didn't buy her story either. As Johnson wept, her mother yelled "I love you Tomiekia!" This set off a raucous back and forth in the gallery between the opposing families.

Claiming Self Defense

     We went to a scene where the husband shot his wife. His story was she came at him with a knife and tried to stab him. So he was saying he killed her in self-defense. But there were a couple of things that just didn't make sense.

     There was a knife in her hand. But it was in the wrong direction to be used as a stabbing-type instrument. It was apparent that he had placed the knife in her hand after he shot her and probably, in his panic, faced it the wrong way.

     There was blood on the palm of her hand where she had touched the entrance wound when she was shot. The normal reaction is to grab where it hurts. and she did. And she had blood on her hand, but there was no blood on the knife.

Crime scene investigator in Crime Scene by Connie Fletcher, 2006

Al Capone's Mansion

     The home of the most notorious gangsters in American history could be yours--provided you can meet the asking price of more than $8 million. The Miami Beach waterfront home of Al Capone is back on the market, approximately six months after it was purchased for $7.4 million.

     Capone bought the home for $40,000 in 1928 after being forced to leave his former stomping grounds of Chicago and Los Angeles. He is said to have plotted the 1929 St. Valentine's Day Massacre, in which seven members of a rival Chicago gang were murdered after being lured into an ambush disguised as a liquor [delivery at a Chicago gangster's garage].

     Capone spent his final years at the Palm Island mansion after serving eight years in federal prison for tax evasion. He died in 1947. After extensive restoration work, the house was put back on the market in 2011.

"Make an Offer: Al Capone's Miami Mansion Goes on the Market," Fox News, February 9, 2014 

Backstories in Young Adult Novels

Too much backstory kills a children's book by slowing the pace to a crawl. This is especially deadly in a young adult novel, where pacing is generally faster than in adult books.

Ricki Schultz in Children's Writer's and Illustrator's Market, edited by Chuck Sambuchino, 2013 

The Hard Working Writer

I've written about 2,000 short stories; I've only published about 300 and I feel I am still learning. Any man who keeps working is not a failure. He may not be a great novelist, but if he applies the old-fashioned virtues of hard, constant labor, he'll eventually make some kind of career for himself as a writer.

Ray Bradbury in On Being a Writer, edited by Bill Strickland, 1989 

Human Diversity

Even people in the same family are diverse. They don't look the same, think the same, behave the same, or believe in the same things. Family members argue a lot, fight among themselves, and once in a while even kill each other. So it shouldn't be surprising that religious and ethnic groups, as well as nation states, go to war with each other. Maybe the world would be a safer place if the family of man wasn't so diverse.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Should Rutgers University Throw Out Standard Grammar or Professor Rebecca Walkowitz?

     The English Department at Rutgers University recently announced a list of "anti-racist" directives and initiatives for the upcoming fall and spring semesters, including an effort to deemphasize traditional grammar rules.

     The initiatives were spelled out by Rebecca Walkowitz, the English Department chair and sent to faculty, staff and students in an email...

     Titled "Department Actions in Solidarity with Black Lives Matter," the email states that the ongoing and future initiates that the English Department has planned are a "way to contribute to the eradication of systemic inequities facing black, indigenous, and people of color."

     One of the initiatives is described as "incorporating 'critical grammar' into our pedagogy."

     It is listed as one of the efforts for Rutgers' Graduate Writing Program, which "serves graduate students across the Rutgers community. The GWP's mission is to support graduate students of all disciplines in their current and future writing goals, from coursework papers to scholarly articles and dissertations." [So, this is who we can blame for all of that unreadable, jargon-laced academic babbling produced by dissertation writers.]

     Under a so-called critical grammar pedagogy, "This approach challenges the familiar dogma that writing instruction should limit emphasis on grammar/sentence-level issues so as to not put students from multilingual, non-standard 'academic' English backgrounds at a disadvantage," the email states. "Instead, it encourages students to develop a critical awareness of the variety of choices available to them with regard to micro-level issues in order to empower them and equip them to push against biases based on "written accents." [Good heavens, has it come to this?]

Alex Frank, "Rutgers English Department to Deemphasize Traditional Grammar 'In Solidarity With Black Lives Matter' " The College Fix, July 20, 2020

Winston Churchill on Who's a Prostitute

Sir Winston Churchill supposedly asked Lady Astor whether she would sleep with him for five million pounds. She said she supposed she would. Then he asked whether she would sleep with him for only five pounds. She answered,"What do you think I am?" His response was, "We've already established that; we're merely haggling over price."

Marcus Felson, Crime and Everyday Life, Second Edition, 1998 

The Class Action Suit: A Goldmine for Lawyers

     In a class action, a group of enterprising lawyers persuade a judge to certify a "class" of plaintiffs and then proceed to bring a lawsuit on behalf of the class. If you're a member of the class, you'll get a letter giving you the right to "opt out" of the class. Most likely, you'll throw the letter away without reading it because it's written in legalese. Since you didn't opt out, you're a plaintiff. And if the defendant ends up paying the money, you'll get your share, but it's usually a very small one.

     In April 2005, a Los Angeles Times reporter was surprised to discover that his son had been a plaintiff in a class action lawsuit against Bank of America. The son was equally surprised, and disappointed, to learn that his cut would be 49 cents, while the plaintiffs' lawyers collected fees in excess of $2 million. In a similar action against Citibank, unwitting plaintiffs reported receiving checks as small as 2 cents. The legal fees were over $7 million.

Adam Freedman, The Party of the First Part, 2007 

Remembering Female Floorwalkers of the Past

If you were arrested in a department store for shoplifting in the 1950s and 60s, it was probably by a female store detective, then referred to as a floorwalker. These middle-aged women were tough, quick on their feet masters of retail surveillance. They'd blend into the shopping environment then spring into action to apprehend the unsuspecting thief. It was a dangerous job that took skill, stamina, focus, and courage. These anonymous crime fighters were the unsung heroes on the front lines of American law enforcement.

Journalism Versus Fiction

In fiction, the writer's voice matters; in reporting, the writer's authority matters. The writer of fiction must invent; the journalist must not invent. We read fiction to fortify our psyches and in the pleasure that fortification may give us. We need journalism to learn about the external world in which our psychics have to struggle along, and the quality we most need in the reporter is some measure of trustworthiness. Good journalists care about what words mean.

John Hersey, The Writer's Craft, 1973 

Elements of a Book Review

A good book review should do an evocative job of pointing out quality. "Look at this! Isn't this good?" should be the critic's basic attitude. Occasionally, however, you have to say, "Look at this! Isn't it awful?" In either case, it's important to quote from the book. Criticism has no real power, only influence.

Clive James, poet and author, 2013 interview 

Spare Versus Thin Fiction

     Fiction writers tend to fall into two broad camps: those who overwrite and those who underwrite. And, while a novelist may be able to get away with writing a spare story, a thin story will never ignite the reader's imagination. A spare story is one in which the writer deliberately chooses to pare down every element, using a small cast of characters, only one or two subplots, and little exposition and description. A well-crafted, yet spare story can work when every word counts and there is enough information to take the reader on a fictional journey. Ernest Hemingway usually wrote spare stories, but readers still feel immersed in his stories and understand the ramifications of the plot on the lives of his characters.

     A thin story, on the other hand, is not based on deliberate choices, but rather on inexperience. In a thin story, the writer does not supply enough sensory data, creating a story line that can't be followed with confidence because of a lack of needed information. Spare stories spark the reader's imagination, but thin stories do not have enough data to do so, leaving the reader confused. In these anemic offerings, the reader is often adrift, longing for detail to place him in the scene, a hint about the themes or deeper meanings, or any doorway into the writer's intentions. 

Jessica Page Morrell, Between the Lines, 2006 

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Psychic Sylvia Mitchell

     In October 2007, 33-year-old Lee Choong, a native of Singapore who worked 80 hours a week at a Manhattan investment-banking firm, walked into the Zena Clairvoyant Psychic parlor on Seventh Avenue South in Greenwich Village. Ms. Choong had sought help from psychics before. In 2006, she had paid $10,000 to a fortune teller doing business in New York's SoHo district. Choong came away from that experience feeling cheated. This distraught and lonely woman had obviously not learned the obvious truth that psychics are not only fakes, they are thieves who prey mostly on gullible, desperate women.

     In her opulent Greenwich Village storefront parlor, 34-year-old Sylvia Mitchell, a resident of Mystic, Connecticut (no kidding) offered to give people who walked into her cheesy shop an introductory "reading" for the bargain price of $75. The first session was in reality a combination sales pitch and hook designed to sucker the customer into subsequent psychic sessions that cost $1,000 each. Since only believers availed themselves of psychics, it didn't take much for one of these phony practitioners to close the deal. If these naive and troubled women had any money when they walked into Zena Clairvoyant's shop of financial horrors, they eventually walked out broke and broken.

     As a prologue to Lee Choong's first reading, the victim unburdened herself to the psychic. Choong said she had fallen in love with a co-worker at the investment-banking firm who did not feel the same way about her. Could Zena help? Of course Zena could help. Here was the problem: in one of Choong's past lives a member of her family had hurt the co-worker. This had created "bad spirits" that had carried forward to the present. But not to worry. Because Choong and this man at the investment-banking firm were meant for each other, psychic Mitchell would bring them together by ridding Choong of the bad spirits that had kept him away.

     During their first meeting, psychic Mitchell cautioned Lee Choong that cleansing her of those evil spirits would not be easy. It would take a lot of time, and as we all know, time is money.

     Over the next year and a half, Lee Choong paid Sylvia Mitchell more than $120,000. The psychic said she needed the money to pay for evil spirit removal supplies. (Apparently you can't get this stuff at Home Depot.) If the bad spirits were not vanquished, and Choong's life didn't get better, Michell promised to return the money. (One didn't have to be a psychic to predict that Choong's life would not improve, and that she would not get her money back.)

     In 2008, notwithstanding psychic Mitchell's efforts, Lee Choong lost her job at the investment-banking firm. When the unemployed woman, in April 2009, asked for a psychic refund, Sylvia Mitchell told her that within a period of four months Choong would get a new job, one that paid $95,000 a year. That, of course, didn't happen. And Choong did not get her refund, either.

     In September 2012, Lee Choong went to the police.

     In August 2008, while Sylvia Mitchell was separating Lee Choong from her savings, Debra Saalfield, a single mother of three entered the psychic shop on Seventh Avenue South. The former competitive ballroom dancer from Naples, Florida, an employee of a Manhattan dance company, had lived in the West Village with her boyfriend, a man she wanted to marry. They broke up, she moved out, and a short time later, she lost her job at the dance company. With her life in shambles, Debra experienced what she called an emotional "meltdown." Rather than seek professional help, and perhaps medication, Saalfield turned to a psychic.

     From psychic Mitchell, Debra Saalfield learned that in one of her past lives she had been an Egyptian princess. As part of the ruling class, Saalfield had enjoyed great wealth. As a result, in her present life, she had become too attached to money. Yes, it was that filthy lucre that was ruining her life. To prove her diagnosis, Mitchell asked Saalfield to write her a check for $27,000. Without that wealth, Saafield's life would improve. If it didn't, Mitchell would return every penny. Saafield took out a loan on her house.

     After Saalfield realized she had been the victim of a confidence scam, she asked the psychic to return the $27,000. Mitchel, over a period of months, gave back about half of what she had taken.

     In 2011, while running a psychic shop in her hometown, Mystic, Connecticut, the authorities accused Mitchell of bilking a Catskills woman out of $9,000. This prompted Zena Clairvoyant to leave the state. A short time later, while running a game in Florida, the police arrested her for stealing $27,000 from a woman who had paid for "consultations" by Zena Clairvoyant.

     In New York City, detectives working out of the 6th precinct arrested Sylvia Mitchell in February 2013 on charges of fortune telling, scheme to defraud, and grand larceny. On the grand larceny charge alone Mitchell faced up to 15 years in prison. The psychic made bail and went back to work in Greenwich Village as Zena Clairvoyant. No doubt she was predicting an acquittal.
   
     The Mitchell trial commenced on September 30, 2013 in a Manhattan criminal courtroom. During the jury selection process, Assistant District Attorney James Bergamo asked members of the panel this question: "Does anyone believe that psychics are real?" (I'm not sure, from the prosecutor's point of view, if you want believers or nonbelievers on the jury. Nonbelievers might condemn the victims as willing suckers who got what they deserved. Believers might see the case as nothing more that a consumer's rights conflict.) In response to Bergamo's question, several members of the jury panel raised their hands as believers. One of these prospective jurors said, "I'm curious about the future." Another said she had a friend who visited a psychic as "a happy-hour thing." A third member of the panel said she had a friend who read palms.

     In his opening statement to the twelve people who ended up on the jury, prosecutor Bergamo revealed his strategy of portraying Choong and Saalfield as vulnerable women taken advantage of by a cold-blooded con artist. "The defendant," he said, "is not in the business of cleansing spirits. She's in the business of cleaning out bank accounts."

     When it came time for defense attorney William I. Aronwald to address the jury, he said, "You will not hear any evidence in this case that she [Sylvia Mitchell] did not provide the services that she was contracted to provide them." In other words, Choong and Saalfield had gotten what they had paid for--they paid for nonsense and that's what they got.

     On Thursday, October 3, 2013, following the direct testimony of prosecution witnesses Saalfield and Choong, defense attorney Aronwald, carefully trying not to come off as a bully, put these pathetic women under cross-examination. Regarding the psychic's so-called "readings," Aronwald asked Debra Saalfield to explain what a reading was. "A reading of what?" he asked. "Palms? Tarrot cards? You paid $75 for a reading, but what was read?"

     "I don't know," replied the witness.

     "When she told you that you had been an Egyptian princess, did you believe her?"

     "No."

     "Did you laugh?"

     "No."

     To Lee Choong, attorney Aronwald asked, "What led you to see a psychic instead of a licensed therapist?"

     "I needed answers," Choong replied.

     "In the eighteen months you were involved with Sylvia, there was no improvement in any of these areas, correct?"

     "Yes."

     "You continued to give her this money?"

     "Yes."

     On Monday, October 7, 2013, a prosecution witness named Rob Millet took the stand and testified that he sought the defendant's help after he learned that his boyfriend was moving back to Texas. To make matters worse, Millet's mother took ill. The psychic, after gaining Millet's confidence, said she had to have $10,000 to give him the quality of help he required. Millet, after borrowing $7,000 from his father,  paid Mitchell her fee. He got nothing in return.

     Defense attorney Aronwald, after resting his case without putting his client on the stand, gave his closing statement to the jury. He said that Sylvia Mitchell had done what her clients had paid her to do--try to help them. Yes, her methods were "unconventional," but so what?

     Prosecutor Bergamo, in his final statement to the jury, said, "The defendant finds people's weaknesses and she exploits them to her advantage."

     On Friday, October 11, 2013, the jury found Sylvia Mitchell guilty as charged. On November 14, 2013, the judge sentenced Mitchell to five to fifteen years in prison. (She already knew that, of course.)

     What this case and others like it reveal about modern society is disturbing. In an era in which we are overwhelmed with information, Americans are losing the ability to draw logical conclusions, apply common sense, and distinguish what is real from what isn't. We live in a culture of magical thinking devoid of objective truth. The loss of common sense and logic to irrational, magical thinking is perhaps one the the greatest dangers facing our country. A nation that can't think straight, make rational decisions, and apply common sense solutions to its problems, is doomed.

Jurors And The Meaning of "Aggravating" and "Mitigating"

     Studies and anecdotal evidence confirm that jurors routinely get confused by legalese. The price of confusion is especially high when the death penalty is at stake. Imagine twelve perfectly nice people who would rather be home suddenly forced to decide a matter of life and death. What helpful advice do they receive? That in deciding whether to impose the death penalty they must consider aggravating and mitigating circumstances.

     The problem is that the average layman hasn't a clue what the terms "aggravating" and "mitigating" mean in the legal context. An aggravating factor is one that heightens the seriousness of the defendant's crime; for example a long history of violent crime. At best, most jurors will understand the word "aggravating" in its colloquial sense as "annoying."Murderers do tend to be pretty annoying--does that mean they should all get the death penalty?

     Mitigating factors are those that tend to lessen the defendant's guilt, such as certain mental conditions. The Supreme Court of Georgia confidently asserted that mitigation "is a word of common meaning and usage" and therefore need not be explained to the jury. Try to remember the last time you heard the word "mitigation" used in everyday conversation.

Adam Freedman, Party of the First Part, 2007

The Omnipotent Serial Killer

Many a serial murderer develops a sense that he cannot be caught, especially if the authorities have missed all of the clues he has inadvertently or sometimes even intentionally left behind. This feeling intensifies when he appears to have momentarily triumphed over the authorities. He develops an attitude of personal omnipotence: he has committed the ultimate crime and gotten away with it, and the evidence seems to show him that he can continue to do so. This attitude is critical to his success and to his downfall. It keeps him going for a long time, but eventually it makes him become careless; that is the point at which he is usually caught.

Robert K. Ressler and Tom Shactman, I Have Lived in the Monster, 1997

So, You Want to Write a Memoir?

To write a memoir is to enter…a war zone--with yourself, with the ones you love, with the critics you may never meet. It is to lay your life on the line, or several lines. You may be ridiculed, harassed, taken down in the court of public opinion. Worse, you aunt may never speak to you again. You may be called upon to defend the form. Your sole protection will be the work itself--its integrity, its artfulness, its originality, and its capacity to entertain or seduce.

Beth Kephart, Handling the Truth, 2013 

Even Good Novels Are Flawed

I like the Randall Jarrell line: "A novel is a prose narration of some length that has something wrong with it." I think that's true. If you're going to write a hundred, a hundred and fifty, two hundred thousand words, perfection is a fantasy.

Salman Rushdie, The Paris Review, 2005 

Raymond Chandler on Ernest Hemingway

Raymond Chandler [a noted and literary twentieth century crime novelist] wrote a sentence true of [Ernest] Hemingway and himself: "I suppose the weakness, even the tragedy of writers like Hemingway is that their sort of stuff demands an immense vitality; and a man outgrows his vitality without unfortunately outgrowing his furious concern with it."

Michael Schmidt, The Novel: A Biography, 2014 

Friday, July 24, 2020

Canada's "Black Widow"

     In 1988, in Ontario, Canada, 52-year-old Melissa Ann Shepard, married to a man named Russell Shepard, met Gordon Stewart, a factory worker with two children whose wife had passed away. They had an affair after which Melissa divorced Mr. Shepard, and became Mrs. Stewart.

     On April 22, 1991, after drugging Gordon Stewart with benzodiazepine (valium and restoril), Melissa drove him to a remote stretch of highway near the Halifax airport, pulled his body out of the car, and ran over him twice. (Mr. Stewart was probably dead from the lethal dose of drugs before she dumped him onto the road.) Three hours later, Melissa reported the incident to the police, claiming she had killed her husband while he was attempting to rape her.

     Melissa's account of her second husband's death, in the context of an attempted rape, made no sense. Moreover, Mr. Stewart, before his death, had written a letter in which he chronicled how Melissa had cheated on him, repeatedly lied, and drained his bank account. The authorities also found traces of the deadly drug in the victim's system.

     In the spring of 1992, a jury in Kingston, Ontario found Melissa guilty of manslaughter. The judge sentenced her to six years in prison. While incarcerated, Melissa formed a support group for wives who had been abused by their husbands. After serving just two years of the manslaughter sentence, the homicidal sociopath became a nationally known spokesperson for the battered wife syndrome.

     In April 2001, while looking for a husband to kill at a Christian retreat in Ontario, Melissa Stewart met 83-year-old Robert Edmund Friedrich. The next day, the 66-year-old "black widow" sent him a letter in which she wrote: "God wants us to be married." Within days of that letter, the couple tied the knot.

     When Mr. Friedrich died of cardiac arrest one year after marrying Melissa, she emptied his bank account of $400,000, and continued receiving his social security checks. The happy widow arranged to have Mr. Friedrich hastily cremated before his body could be autopsied. Because of his age, and the quick cremation, notwithstanding some suspicion of foul play, Melissa was not charged in connection with the old man's death.

     In March 2004, about two years after Mr. Friedrich's passing, Melissa hooked up with a Florida man through an Internet dating site. A few days after the online meeting, she flew to 73-year-old Alexander Strategos' home in Pinellas Park. The next day, the Canadian moved into the recently divorced man's house. Not long after that, they were married.

     During the next eight months, Mr. Strategos, feeling weak, kept falling and hitting his head, injuries that required eight hospitalizations. His doctors couldn't figure out what was ailing him. During his residence at a rest home, just before he died in January 2005, Mr. Strategos signed over power of attorney to his wife.

     Mr. Strategos' son became suspicious when he discovered, in his father's medical papers, that he had died with the unprescribed drug benzodiazepine in his system. Melissa had also withdrawn $20,000 from her deceased husband's bank account. On January 6, 2005, police arrested her on charges of grand theft and forgery. She pleaded guilty to these offenses, and was sentenced to five years in prison. On April 4, 2009, upon her release from custody, the authorities deported her back to Canada. Melissa never faced charges in connection with the mysterious death of Alexander Strategos.

     On September 28, 2012, Melissa, now 77, married Fred Weeks, a 75-year-old from New Glasgow, New Brunswick. While honeymooning a few days later on Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, Mr. Weeks fell ill at their bed and breakfast and had to be hospitalized. After nurses noticed signs that the patient had been injected with something, hospital personnel alerted the police. On October 1, 2012, Fred Weeks left the hospital a weaker but wiser man.

     The day after her husband walked out of the hospital, the police arrested Melissa on the charge of administering a noxious substance. No doubt her criminal record, and the fates of her former husbands influenced the decision to take her into custody. The judge, at her October 5, 2012 bail hearing, denied her bond.

     On June 11, 2013, Melissa pleaded guilty to administering a noxious drug. The judge sentenced the 78-year-old woman to three and a half years in prison. The Crown, without success, had argued that the defendant's age should not be a factor in her sentencing.

     On December 16, 2014, a judge in Nova Scotia denied the black widow's request for parole. The judge ruled that Melissa Friedrich had to serve her entire sentence which meant she would remain behind bars until January 2017.

     Notwithstanding the judges' insistence that Friedrich serve her full sentence, correction authorities in Nova Scotia released her back into society on March 18, 2016. She had been behind bars less than three years.

     In speaking to reporters, the Black Widow's attorney said this about his client: "I never really thought she was trying to kill anyone. If you look at her past, she really wanted to influence them [her poisoned husbands] and have them change their insurance and wills." 

Legalese

     In 2001, the Economist magazine reported on a "worrying gap" between the language of the public and that of the legal profession. That gap grows wider every day, as legal English staunchly resists the changes rippling through everyday English. On the brighter side, this means that the law is less susceptible to silly fads, but it also means that the law is less and less accessible to each new generation.

     Legalese could even evolve into a foreign language in the not-too-distant future. Already, many linguists refer to the language of law as a "sublanguage," meaning that it's more than just a collection of jargon, but also has its own specialized rules of grammar and syntax [word order].

Adam Freedman, The Party of the First Part, 2007

The Mentally Ill in Prison

     According to Brown University Medical School psychiatrist Dr. Christine Montross: "Police officers, sometimes in an attempt to provide mentally ill people with treatment, have said things to me: 'We know if we take them to jail, they will at least get three hots and a cot. They will at least get their psychiatric medications.' And so taking them to jail feels like an act of compassion."

     "So this idea of a 'compassionate arrest' struck me so deeply, because we would never do something like that for someone to make sure that he or she received their treatment for diabetes. We would never arrest someone to make sure that they received treatment for cancer. We only do that in this situation of the mentally ill, and that, to me, seems like a travesty."

     "When you are in the prison system, the expectations are very clear. You're given a set of rules; you're meant to follow those rules. If you don't follow the rules, there are consequences, and the consequences result in greater punishment, greater control. When a person with mental illness enters into that system, there is a misalignment between the straightforward system and their ability to comply with that system. So if someone is not thinking clearly, if they're feeling extremely paranoid, they are not going to trust the rules that are being told to them or the people who are enforcing those rules."

In David Davies, "Psychiatrist: America's Extremely Punitive Prisons Make Mental Illness Worse," NPR, July 16, 2020

The Viewpoint Character in Fiction

     Who should narrate (or be your viewpoint character) in fiction? A major character? A minor one? A few characters? What difference does it make? How will it impact the work as a whole?

     Choosing a narrator is not a choice to be made lightly, yet unfortunately many writers make the choice without giving it much thought. Generally, they automatically assign the task to the protagonist. There is nothing necessarily wrong with this choice--in fact, most often, it is the correct one--but problems can arise if the decision was made without taking to time to consider why this person has merit as a narrator, what perspective he has to offer, what he brings to (or how he detracts from) the telling of the story, and how his perspective might differ from others'.

Noah Lukeman, The Plot Thickens, 2002 

Charles Bukowski on Contemporary Fiction

I was a young man, starving and drinking and trying to be a writer. I did most of my reading at the downtown L.A. Public Library, and nothing I read related to me or to the streets or to the people about me. It seemed as if everybody was playing word-tricks, that those who said almost nothing at all were considered excellent writers. Their writing was an admixture of subtlety, craft and form, and it was read and it was taught and it was ingested and it was passed on. It was a comfortable contrivance, a very slick and careful Word-Culture. One had to go back the pre-Revolution writers of Russia to find any gamble, any passion. There were exceptions but those exceptions were so few that reading them was quickly done, and you were left staring at rows and rows of exceedingly dull books. With centuries to look back on, with all their advantages, the moderns just weren't very good.

Preface to John Fante's novel, Ask The Dust, 1979 reprint of the 1939 classic.

The Autobiographical First Novel

Highly autobiographical first novels are out of fashion. Budding writers are expected to cast their eyes away from themselves. And yet in our culture of instant gratification and celebrity, a writer's reputation can depend almost exclusively on the critical reception of a first novel. The problem is twofold: we expect first novels to be works of non-autobiographical genius well before a writer has time to mature.

Rosalind Porter, findarticles.com, 2005 

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Eric Toth: Pedophile On The Run

     Born in 1982, Eric Toth grew up near Indianapolis, Indiana. He earned good grades in high school where he was considered self-centered and eccentric, and when he wanted to be, charming and manipulating. Abused as a child, he suffered bouts of depression and engaged in compulsive lying.

     The lanky young man enrolled at Cornell University in New York State. A year later, he transferred to Purdue University at Calumet (Indiana) where he graduated with a Bachelor's Degree in elementary education. During his college years he told several people he was an agent with the CIA.

     Upon his graduation in 2002, Toth volunteered at an elementary school in Indianapolis where he worked as a teacher's aide. His intense interest in boys between the ages 8 and 11 led to parental complaints and concerns. The principal, suspecting that Toth was a pedophile, terminated his association with the school. A lot of parents were glad to see him go.

     In 2003, Toth drifted around the midwest, always inserting himself into environments that put him in proximity to young boys. In 2004 and part of 2005, Toth worked as a counselor at a boy's camp in Madison, Wisconsin. It was at this camp he made videotapes of himself engaging in various sexual activities with several boys. When his behavior began to raise suspicion, he moved on. Moving on is what pedophiles do when too many people get suspicious.

     In the fall of 2005, administrators at the Beauvior Elementary School attached to the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., hired Toth to teach third grade. Many of the students in this small prestigious Catholic School came from families of wealth and political power.

     Toth's enthusiasm for his job included tutoring children for free and babysitting them at their homes. His gung-ho work attitude made him a popular teacher at the school. But his excessive familiarity with his male students, including having boys sit on his lap, raised eyebrows and suspicions.

     In 2008, a fellow Beauvior employee found disturbing photographs on a school camera assigned to Toth. The pornographic pictures featured the teacher and several boys. The school's principal confronted Toth, then fired him on the spot. After a security officer escorted Toth out of the building and off the campus, the principal called the police. The delay gave Toth the head start he needed to get out of town and disappear.

     Based upon the photographs recovered from Toth's camera, a federal prosecutor charged him with producing and possessing child pornography. This made Toth a fugitive from the law.

     A month after the Beauvior principal kicked Toth out of Beauvior Elementary, a car that had been rented under the name Jay Kellor turned up at the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport.  Inside the Honda, FBI agents found child pornography linked to Toth's tenure as a boy's camp counselor in Wisconsin.

     In the rented vehicle, agents also discovered a suicide note signed by Toth. According to the handwritten document, the authorities would find his body on the bottom of a nearby lake. A search of that lake failed to turn up Toth's remains. The FBI considered the suicide note a fake, a ploy to throw agents off his trail.

     Toth, going by the name David Bussone, showed up in January 2009 at the Lodestar Day Rescue Center in Phoenix, Arizona. Toth volunteered to help homeless man complete their 12-step alcohol and drug addiction treatments. He told his colleagues at the rescue center that he had been an educator at an elite east coast school, and that the experience had turned him against wealth and the materialistic lifestyle. He said he had taken a five-year oath of poverty, and had re-dedicated his life to helping the downtrodden.

     In the meantime, FBI agents across the country were still searching for Toth. The federal manhunt received a boost when the Toth case appeared on the television show, "America's Most Wanted." One of the homeless men at Lodestar saw the segment and recognized David Bussone as Eric Toth. The next day, realizing that he had been identified, the fugitive pedophile disappeared again.

     In July 2009, under a another pseudonym supported by stolen identification documents, Toth turned up at a hippie commune in Austin, Texas. One of the members of the community found Toth a job at an Austin computer repair shop called P.C. Guru. Toth worked at the store two and a half years during which time he tutored grade school boys for free. He also gave the mother of two of his students financial aid.

     The FBI, on April 10, 2012, replaced Osama bin Laden on the Bureau's Top Ten Most Wanted List with Eric Toth. In October of that year, Toth used a fake passport, under the name Robert Shaw Walker, to flee to Nicaragua. He took up residence in a house in Esteli, a town 90 miles north of the capital, Managua. Toth told people he met there that he had come to Nicaragua to write a book.

     On April 18, 2013, while attending a social function, Toth ran into an American tourist who recognized him. Two days later, Nicaraguan police officers surrounded his house in Esteli. Following the arrest, officers found 1,100 images of child pornography Toth had downloaded from the Internet onto his personal computer.

     Four days after his capture in Nicaragua, Toth was back in Washington, D.C. sitting in jail awaiting his trial.

     On December 13, 2013, Toth pleaded guilty before a federal judge to three counts of child pornography and two counts of identify theft. He faced up to 30 years in prison.

     On March 11, 2014, the judge sentenced the 32-year-old pedophile to 25 years in federal prison. At his sentencing Toth said, "I don't pretend that anything I could say here today would ever make up for what I did. Everything the prosecutor said about me is true."

Chris Hedges on America

We now live in a nation where doctors destroy health, lawyers destroy justice, universities destroy knowledge, governments destroy freedom, the press destroys information, religion destroys morals, and our banks destroy the economy.

Chris Hedges [A journalist, book author, and Senior Fellow at the Nation Institute in New York City who specializes in American politics and society.] 2013  

The Historic Supreme Court Miranda Case

     On June 13, 1966, by a 5-4 decision, the United States Supreme Court rendered the landmark Miranda v. Arizona decision. Based on the Fifth Amendment to the U. S. Constitution, which states that "No person…shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself," Miranda expanded the meaning of these simple words.

     The court held that even voluntary confessions by a suspect in police custody would no longer be admissible as evidence, unless the police first warned the suspect that (1) he had the right to remain silent, (2) anything he said might be used against him in court, (3) he had the immediate right to a lawyer, and (4) he could get a free lawyer if he couldn't afford one. The person being interrogated then had to expressly waive those rights before any questioning could proceed. Should interrogators  make the slightest omission or error in this warning, evidence subsequently acquired from the suspect could be declared inadmissible.

     In this single decision, four veteran criminals, convicted after voluntarily confessing to separate crimes, had their convictions overturned. The first was a three-time convict who admitted to a robbery after being identified by two victims. The second forged stolen checks from a purse-snatching in which the victim was killed. The third, a veteran bank robber, confessed after being told of his rights, but didn't explicitly waive them. The fourth, arrested for kidnapping and rape, was identified by his victim, and later confessed "with full knowledge of my legal rights, understanding that any statement I make may be used against me." He hadn't, however, been formally advised of his right to have a lawyer present.

     Even though these confessions weren't "involuntary in traditional terms," writes Chief Justice Earl Warren for the majority, "in none of these cases did the officers undertake to afford the appropriate safeguards….to insure that the statements were truly the product of a free choice."

    According to the Court's majority opinion, "In each of these cases, the defendant was thrust into an unfamiliar atmosphere and run through menacing police interrogation procedures. The potentiality for compulsion is forcefully apparent, for example…where the indigent Mexican defendant  was a seriously disturbed individual with pronounced sexual fantasies [author's note: the man had been judged mentally competent to stand trial], and where the defendant was an indigent Los Angeles Negro who had dropped out of school in the sixth grade."

Robert James Bidinotto, "Subverting Justice," in Criminal Justice?, Robert James Bidinatto, ed., 1994

Whodunits and Thrillers

The whodunit and the thriller are in their most typical manifestations deeply conventional and ideologically conservative literary forms, in which good triumphs over evil, law over anarchy, truth over lies.

David Lodge, The Practice of Writing, 1996

Crime Novelist James Ellroy

James Ellroy [The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, LA Confidential, American Tabloid, and others] is a cult. For many, he's a you're-in-or-you're out cult, because he's intense and absolute and violent in every respect--emotionally, linguistically, and physically. He's a brash writer who spins marvelously complicated, suspenseful plots. He is fluent in local period dialect that captures everything dirty, transient, prejudiced, profane, and provincial about the way cops and robbers, movie stars, and politicians talk. His thick, relentless dialogue (fully peppered with all the nasty racist and sexist things you might imagine that hard-boiled cops would say) combines with a compressed, impressionistic aesthetic that puts the language somewhere between A Clockwork Orange and Ulysses. 

Minna Procter, Bookforum, Oct./Nov./Dec., 2014