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Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Ronald W. Brown: The Child Porn Puppeteer

     In 1992, puppeteer Ronald Wilson Brown started his entertainment enterprise, Puppets Plus. (It's the "plus" part of his act that turned out to be disturbing.) Brown performed with his hand-puppets for thousands of kids at shopping malls, schools, churches, and birthday parties throughout the Tampa Bay area. (Serial killer John Wayne Gacy entertained children with his clown act.) Beginning in 1997, Brown, through his so-called Kid Zone Ministry, hosted weekly gatherings at the Gulf Coast Church in his hometown of Largo, Florida. Ronald Brown also worked for the Christian Television Network, using his puppets to warn kids against viewing pornography. (Here's a simple rule: When some clown or guy with puppets wants to talk to your kid about pornography, even if it's in a church, get the hell out of there. If it's on TV, turn it off.)

     The outgoing puppeteer, a resident of the Whispering Pines mobile home park in Largo, regularly invited neighborhood boys and girls between the ages 5 and 12 to his trailer for pizza and candy. (Brown lived in an area populated by young families as evidenced by all the playgrounds near his home.)  He was also Facebook friends with several of the local kids who knew him as the "Cotton Candy Man." This neighborhood comprised an excellent hunting ground for a pedophile.

     In 1998, when a police officer pulled Brown over for a traffic violation, the cop noticed several pairs of boys' underwear in the car. When asked why he had children's undergarments in his vehicle, Brown explained that the clothing belonged to his puppets. (Puppets need underwear?) Whether or not the officer bought Brown's story, nothing came of the traffic cop's observation.

     In 2012, agents with the Department of Homeland Security were conducting an international child pornography investigation that led to 40 arrests in six countries. The child pornography ring, headquartered in Massachusetts, centered around an online chat room where sexual degenerates from around the world could communicate with each other. Ronald Brown, the 57-year-old puppeteer from Largo, Florida, was a regular presence on the pedophile site.

     In one conversation with a man from Kansas named Michael Arnett, Brown wrote that he wanted to kidnap a child, tie him up, lock him in a closet, then eat him for Easter dinner. "I imagine him wiggling and then going still," he wrote. Brown also mentioned a female toddler he knew who made his mouth water, describing how human flesh tastes when prepared in various ways. Michael Arnett sent Brown a photograph of a strangled 3-year-old girl. Turned on by the sight of a dead toddler, Brown replied that this was how he'd "do" the young boy he wanted to kill and consume.

     On July 19, 2012, Homeland Security agents, pursuant to a search of the puppeteer's Largo mobile home, seized CDs, DVDs, thumb drives, micro disks, and VHS tapes containing images of nude children in bondage positions. Some of the youngsters had been posed as though they were dead.

     The day following the search, the federal officers took Ronald Brown into custody. When interrogated, he identified the boy he said he wanted to kidnap and eat as a 10-year-old he knew from church. Brown referred to his Internet musings as being "in the realm of fantasy."

     On July 24, 2012, at Ronald Brown's arraignment, the Assistant United States Attorney informed the defendant he had been charged with conspiracy to kidnap a child and possession of child pornography. The judge set a date in August 2012 for Brown's bond hearing. Two days later, federal agents and deputies with the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office returned to Brown's mobile home where they removed more evidence from the dwelling. Agents and deputies were seen walking out of the place carrying boxes and bags containing who knows what.

     In July 2013, following his guilty plea in federal court, the judge sentenced the 58-year-old Brown to twenty years behind bars. The sentence also included probation for life if he ever got out of prison alive.

Criminologist Lonnie Athens On Deciding To Be Violent

That violent criminals decide to act violently based on their interpretation of a situation would be a radical discovery when psychiatry, psychology and sociology assign violent acts to unconscious motivations, deep emotional needs, inner psychic conflicts or sudden unconscious emotional outbursts. But [Dr. Lonnie] Athens [an American criminologist] quickly discovered that violent criminals interpreted the world differently than did their law-abiding neighbors, and that it was from those differing interpretations that their violence emerged. Violent acts, he began to see, were not explosions: They were decisions.

Richard Rhodes, Why They Kill: The Discoveries of a Maverick Criminologist, 1999

Montaigne on Human Nature

     The evil in the world tends to strike us with more force, and more often, than the good. It is not easy to come up with the opposites of Stalin or Hitler. Evil has repute and power, good is passive, anonymous. But the question remains: Is the good and evil in people indeed distributed by chance and at random?...

     According to [the 16th century French philosopher Montaigne], both instincts and reason impel human nature, but reason is weak. The principal human failing, Montaigne believed, is arrogance, the presumption that through the intellect the truth can be revealed. We are barely superior to the animals, who are stronger, friendlier, and often wiser. Our senses deceive us, and we would do better humbly to acknowledge and accept our limitations. Life can be lived only by following our best instincts. We gain nothing by pondering life, since the future is outside our control. We are what we are; reason can neither change nor tame us; what animates us is unknown. This view of Montaigne is diametrically opposed to the Stoic tradition, which says that by knowing ourselves we can learn self-control and live exemplary lives, like that of the patron saint of all philosophers, Socrates.

A. J. Dunning, Extremes, 1990

The Argument For Citizens Carrying Guns

     People who engage in mass public shootings are deterred by the possibility that law-abiding citizens may be carrying guns. Such people may be deranged, but they still appear to care whether they will themselves be shot as they attempt to kill others…

     One prominent concern about leniency in permitting people to carry concealed handguns is that the number of accidental deaths might arise, but I can find no statistically significant evidence that this occurs. Even the largest estimate of nine more accidental deaths per year is extremely small in comparison to the number of lives saved from fewer murders.

John R. Lott, Jr., More Guns, Less Crime, Second Edition, 2000

"Jargonauts"

Lazy academics and bureaucrats, excessive users of jargon, are the enemies of good writing. Lawrence Langer explained what jargon does to language: "The language of simplicity and spontaneity is forced to retreat behind the barricades of an official prose developed by a few experts who believe that jargon is the most precise means of communication." Jargon is a form of pretentious writing intended to make the writer, at the expense of clarity, seem intelligent, erudite, and profound. In reality, it masks banality and shallow thinking. These "jargonauts" are a blight on the written word.

The Horror Novelist

I have very strong opinions of what the horror genre should be and this has earned me few friends in the franchised horror product schoolyard. All writers of horror, thriller, drama, and adventure stories, because of the material they consider in their work, are serial killers with a physical OFF switch. They have to put themselves into the heads of their maniac creations. It's so easy to put a knife in someone's eye, that's not the point of horror. The point of horror is to make people feel revolted and oppressed and angered in some fundamental way. One has to get under the skin of the reader. You do this by breaking moral boundaries. You do this by breaking narrative structure. You do this by mixing up genres. The horror writer has to expect to be hated, loathed, derided--for only when he can achieve this status of ogre can his art mean anything to a populace sucked dry by the corporate franchising of the horror ethos.

Mike Philbin in The Writer's Guide to Fantasy and Literature, edited by Philip Martin, 2002 

Monday, September 28, 2020

The Modern History of The Death Penalty

     While the death penalty is still lawful in 32 states, only Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, Oklahoma, Virginia, and Texas actually execute their death row inmates. Contrary to popular belief, the U.S. Supreme Court has never ruled that the death penalty itself amounts to cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Constitution's Eighth Amendment.

     Since the mid-1980s, the states that carry out the death penalty have used lethal injection as the principal method of execution. Considered a more humane way to kill condemned prisoners than its predecessors the electric chair and the gas chamber, the use of drugs instead of electricity and lethal gas is more a matter of appearance--aesthetics if you will--than concern for the condemned.

     From 1976 through 2019, 1,300 state and federal inmates were executed by lethal injection. Four states--Alabama, Florida, South Carolina, and Virginia--still allow death row prisoners to choose between deadly drugs and the electric chair.

The Electric Chair

     On August 6, 1890, William Kemmler, a convicted murderer serving time at New York's Auburn Prison, earned the distinction of becoming the first person in America to die in the electric chair. The state of Ohio followed New York by replacing hanging with electrocution in 1897. Massachusetts adopted the chair in 1900, New Jersey in 1906, and Virginia in 1908. By the 1930s most of the death penalty states used the electric chair as the primary method of execution. The other states killed their death row inmates by gas, by firing squad, or by rope. The state of Kansas continued to hang its prisoners into the early 1960s.

     The state of Nebraska was one of the last jurisdictions to employ the electric chair as its sole method of killing murderers. In February 2008, the practice ended when the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled that electrocution was in itself cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the state's constitution.

The Electric Chair's Golden Era

     In the 1920s and 30s, Robert G. Elliott, an electrician from Long Island, the official executioner for six eastern states, electrocuted 387 inmates. For his work he charged $150 an execution. When he threw the switch (or turned the wheel) on two or more inmates at one prison visit, he discounted his fee. Some of Elliott's most infamous clients included Bruno Richard Hauptmann (1936), the killer of the Lindbergh baby; Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray (1928), the killers of Ruth's husband Albert; and Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti (1927), the Italian anarchists convicted of killing a Boston area bank guard. Elliott, somewhat of a celebrity, and obviously proud of his singular contribution to the American system of criminal justice, wrote a memoir called Agent of Death. The book came out in 1940. Long out of print, it is today in the libraries of true crime book collectors.

Electrocuting Fat People

     In 1981, Allen Lee "Tiny" Davis murdered a pregnant woman and her two children during a home invasion robbery in Jacksonville, Florida. A year later a jury found him guilty of first-degree murder. The judge sentenced him to death. In 1998, as Davis' execution date approached, the 54-year-old's death house attorney argued that the 355-pound inmate was too heavy for the state's 76-year-old electric chair. Since its construction in 1923, the Florida state electric chair had dispatched 200 prisoners. In recent years the chair had been involved in some unsightly executions. For example, death house witnesses in 1997 saw flames shoot from a condemned man's head. So, in 1998, following this unpleasant tableau, the prison, with "Tiny" Davis in mind, oversaw the construction of a new, heavy-duty electric chair. The new device could easily handle a 355-pound guest. On July 8, 1999, the executioner sent 2,300 volts through the metal cap on the fat man's head for two minutes. It wasn't pretty, there was some blood and a little groaning, but the new chair did its job.

The Gas Chamber

     Death in a gas chamber usually took six to eighteen minutes. The execution ritual began with the condemned inmate being led into the death chamber and strapped into a chair by his arms, waist, ankles, and chest. A mask was placed over the prisoner's face, and the chamber sealed. The executioner poured sulfuric acid down a tube into a metal container on the floor, a canister that contained cyanide pellets. The mixture of the chemicals produced a cloud of lethal gas.

     An open curtain allowed witnesses to observe the inmate inside the chamber. At the designated moment, the executioner hit an electric switch that combined the chemicals that produced the killing agent.

     The gas chamber was an expensive form of execution. Moreover, one could argue that because the condemned man contributed to his own death by breathing in the gas, it was the most cruel. Dr. Allen McLean Hamilton, a toxicologist, first proposed the gassing of death row inmates to the state of Nevada in 1921. That year, state legislators abolished the electric chair in favor of the gas chamber. On February 8, 1924, a Chinese immigrant named Gee Jon became the first person in America to be executed by gas. He died in the chamber inside the Nevada State Penitentiary in Carson City.

     Eventually adopted by eleven states as the official method of execution, lethal gas killed 594 prisoners in the U.S. from 1924 to 1999.

The Caryl Chessman Case

     Caryl Chessman was an armed robber and serial rapist who spent most of his adult life behind bars. In 1948, a Los Angeles jury found him guilty of 17 counts of robbery, kidnapping, and rape. Among his crimes, he had kidnapped a 17-year-old girl named Mary Alice Meza out of her car and forced her to give him oral sex. He committed a similar offense against another victim, Regina Johnson. Under California law at the time, a kidnapping that involved bodily injury was a capital offense. Under this law, the judge sentenced Chessman to die in the gas chamber.

     Following his highly publicized trial, Chessman continued to argue his innocence through essays and books. His two memoirs, written behind bars, became bestsellers. During his twelve years on San Quentin's death row, Chessman filed dozens of appeals, and managed to avoid eight execution dates. Following his failed last-minute attempt to avoid death with a writ of habeas corpus filed with the California Supreme Court, Chessman died of asphyxiation on May 2, 1960 in San Quentin's gas chamber. He is the only person to die in the gas chamber for a crime other than murder.

Lethal Injection

     By the 21st century, state executioners were injecting death row inmates with a three-drug cocktail that included pentobarbital. When the European manufacturers of this deadly drug stopped exporting it and other killing agents to the United States, executioners found themselves in a fix. Some began using a single drug--usually pentobarbital if they had it--while others concocted new, experimental cocktails made of drugs available in the United States.

     Anti-capital punishment activists have used the lethal drug supply problem to further their push to have the death penalty abolished altogether. But for these crusaders, if it's not the inhumanity of using untested drugs, it's something else. These death house lawyers and political activists object to executing prisoners who, when they murdered, were under eighteen; inmates who are fat with hard-to-find veins; killers with low I.Q.s; and in the case of a Missouri murderer named Russell Bucklew, a death row inmate who wasn't healthy enough to be humanely executed.

The Clayton Lockett Case

     In 1999, an Oklahoma criminal named Clayton Lockett tortured then buried alive an 18-year-old girl who had been unfortunate enough to cross this predator's path. On April 29, 2014, the executioner at the state penitentiary in McAlester administered a three-drug cocktail of Midazalam (to render him unconscious), Vecuronium (to stop his breathing), and potassium chloride (to stop his heart).

     Seven minutes after the drugs went into Lockett's body, he was still conscious. He moved his head and tried to get off the gurney seventeen minutes into the execution. Finally, 43 minutes after being injected, the 38-year-old died of a heart attack. It wasn't a perfect, well-oiled killing, but in the end the drugs worked.

     By describing Lockett's death as torture, a horrible ordeal, and a nightmare, death house lawyers, anti-capital punishment crusaders, and people in the media who support their cause, exploited Lockett's "botched" execution for all its worth. Suddenly, executing a sadistic rapist and cold-blooded murderer by lethal injection became cruel and unusual punishment. For those who were not losing sleep over Clayton Lockett's bumpy ride into eternity, listening to this hand-wringing was cruel and unusual punishment.

Back to Bullets

     In 2014, politicians in Utah, Wyoming, and Missouri proposed bringing back the firing squad. In Utah, legislators abolished death by firing squad in 2004, citing the excessive media attention surrounding this form of execution. Still, murderers sentenced before 2004 had the option to die by shooting. In 2010, Ronnie Lee Gardner, a man who fatally shot a Salt Lake City attorney in 1985 in Gardner's attempt to flee the court house, selected the firing squad over lethal injection. Five police officers used .30-caliber Winchester rifles to carry out Gardner's execution. Unlike Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma, Mr. Gardner died instantly. Nevertheless, those who opposed capital punishment, fretted that the executioners might miss their target, causing a slow and painful death. There was, however, a simple solution to this problem: give each executioner two bullets.

The Return of the Electric Chair

     On May 22, 2014, Tennessee Governor Bill Hallam signed a bill allowing the state to electrocute death row inmates in the event the state was unable to acquire the proper drugs for the execution. Lawmakers had overwhelmingly passed the bill the previous month. And most people in the state supported the new law. According to a 2014 Vanderbilt University poll, 56 percent of registered voters in the state welcomed the return of the chair.

     Corrections officials in Tennessee were also dealing with the lethal drug shortage. Electricity, on the other hand, didn't come from Europe and was in good supply.

     In Tennessee, Daryl Holton, in 2009, was the last man in the state to die in the electric chair. In 1997, the Gulf War veteran murdered his three sons and a stepdaughter with a high-powered rifle in their Shelbyville, Tennessee  garage. Death by electrocution was his choice of execution.  

There's No Such Thing as an Evil Gun

The rifle itself has no moral stature, since it has no will of its own. Naturally, it may be used by evil men for evil purposes, but there are more good men than evil, and while the latter cannot be persuaded to the path of righteousness by propaganda, they can certainly be corrected by good men with rifles.

Jeff Cooper, The Art of the Rifle, 1997

The Psychological Effects of Having Been Stalked

Even after [stalking] victims feel assured that the stalking has ended, many find themselves having trouble learning to trust again--both others and themselves. A phase of overcompensating can take place, in which survivors of stalking tend to mistrust their own judgment in meeting people, or feel intensely suspicious of others, resulting in potential difficulties forming new relationships, whether personal or professional, intimate or casual. Existing relationships may also be affected; survivors may find themselves reacting with far greater caution and vigilance around others than is normal for them.

Melita Schaum and Karen Parrish, Stalked, 1995

The Gas Chamber: Designed For the Spectacle of Death

     If the hangman's scaffold concentrates the mind, the gas chamber has a way of bewitching it. It's smaller than one would think, roughly four feet square and ten feet high. Almost beautiful, if one is mechanically inclined, it's also extremely alien looking, like an antique, six-sided diving bell someone painted gray...

     Waist-high windows, tinted green and reinforced internally with thin wire, are embedded with large rivets in five of the chamber's six sides. At first sight, these windows make it seem harmless. Windows are hard to associate with death. Then the mind makes the obvious leap: this place is not only for killing but for offering death as a spectacle. Three windows look out from the rear half of the chamber onto the witnesses' room, where media people, state officials, lawyers, and families of the victims sit on long wooden benches that resemble church pews. A fourth window, on the right side of the chamber's front half, is for two doctors who monitor the condemned's heartbeat on an EKG machine and a stethoscope. The fifth, to the left of the chamber's 300-pound door, is for the executioner.

Ivan Solotaroff, The Last Face You'll Ever See, 2001

Historical Mystery Fiction

Historical mystery fiction are for those who enjoy going to a different time as well as place. To create believability, an author of well-written historical mysteries has to do without the conveniences of modern methods and forensics, while incorporating myriad details that authors of modern-set mysteries can take for granted. These authors not only incorporate such details, but do so smoothly so that there are no disjointed pauses for explanation, no interruption of the reader's pleasure in the story. [The television series "Foyle's War," set in World War II England, is an example of well-done historical fiction.]

Margaret Frazer, The 3rd Degree, March 2001 

The Fear of Writing

     Anxiety is not only an inevitable part of the writing process but a necessary part. If you're not scared, you're not writing. A state of anxiety is the writer's natural habitat. Yet those who live there are seldom bold. War-chasing Hemingways are the exception among writers. Most seek adventure only in their imaginations. Like most of us, they're brave here, timid there, trying to muddle through, to sneak enough good words onto paper before a surge of anxiety erases their literary disk. At the same time, they're driven to seek attention and must peddle their wares to the public.

     To love writing, fear writing, and pray for the courage to write is no contradiction...Writing is both frightening and exhilarating. It couldn't be done without the other.

Ralph Keyes, The Courage to Write, 1995

Sunday, September 27, 2020

The John Crawford Police-Involved Shooting Case

     After graduating from high school in 2008, 18-year-old John Crawford III joined the U.S. Marines. He was discharged shortly after he signed up when military doctors discovered that he suffered from a heart condition.

     In 2014, Crawford resided in Beavercreek, Ohio, a suburban community outside of Dayton in the western part of the state. On Tuesday evening August 5, 2014, the 23-year-old, his girlfriend Tasha Thomas, and his two children from a previous relationship, were shopping at the local Wal-Mart to purchase, among other things, the ingredients to make S'mores for an upcoming family cookout.

     The trouble began as Crawford stood in the sporting section of the store examining a Crossman MK-77 BB/pellet air rifle. A couple of Wal-Mart shoppers saw Crawford holding the air gun in his left hand and called 911. One of the callers, Ronald Ritchie, reported that a man in the store had pointed the gun at two children and was trying to load the weapon.

     When approached by two Beavercreek police officers at 8:26 PM Crawford stood in an aisle away from the sporting section. He was accompanied by his children and on his cellphone talking to their mother, LeeCee Johnson. LeeCee heard Crawford inform the officers that the gun was not real.

     The police officers ordered Crawford to release the weapon and drop to the floor. As he turned toward them they shot him twice. His children looked on in horror as their father sank to the floor with two bullets in his body.

     A few hours later, John Crawford died at a nearby hospital.

     In the panic and confusion immediately following the in-store shooting, Angela Williams, a 37-year-old nursery home worker with a heart condition, collapsed as she scrambled from the violence. Later that night she went into cardiac arrest and died.

     A few days after the fatal police-involved shooting, Beavercreek Police Chief Dennis Evers told reporters that the officers fired their guns when Crawford failed to obey their command to drop the air rifle.

      Mr. Crawford had been shot by officer Sean Williams and Sergeant David Darkow. Both officers were placed on paid administrative leave.

     While the authorities refused to release surveillance camera footage of the shooting to the media, members of the Crawford family and their attorney Michael Wright viewed the video. According to the attorney, the Wal-Mart video revealed that the police officers did not give John Crawford the chance to comply with their orders before shooting him.

     In 2010, one of the Crawford shooters, office Sean Williams, had shot and killed Scott Brogli, a retired master sergeant with the U.S. Air Force. According to officer Williams and his partner, Brogli had charged them with with a knife while the officers were investigating the 45-year-old's drunken beating of his wife. A local grand jury reviewed the case and decided not to bring charges against Williams.

     Two weeks after the Crawford shooting, Sergeant David Darkow went back on duty. Office Williams remained on leave.

     On September 7, 2014, The Guardian newspaper published a long article about the John Crawford shooting case. In that piece, the reporter included quotes from 911 caller Ronald Ritchie who had changed a crucial component of his initial account of of the incident. "At no point," Ritchie said, "did he [Crawford] shoulder the rifle and point it at somebody." Instead, Ritchie said Crawford had merely waved the gun around.

     In his 911 call, Ritchie told the dispatcher that the man with the gun was trying to load it. The emergency dispatcher, in relaying this information to the responding officers, reported that the Wal-Mart man "just put bullets inside the gun." According to The Guardian, the air rifle was not loaded.

     The dead man's father, John Crawford II, having viewed the Wal-Mart surveillance footage, said this to The Guardian reporter: "You can clearly see people in the store walk past him, and they didn't think anything about it. Everybody was just kind of minding their own business. He wasn't acting in any type of way that would have been considered menacing. It was an execution, no doubt about it. It was flat-out murder. And when you see the surveillance camera footage, it will illustrate that."

     Attorney Wright, in discussing the autopsy report with The Guardian reporter, revealed that Dr. Robert Shott, the Montgomery County Deputy Coroner, told him that John Crawford had been hit in the back of his left arm just above the elbow. The second bullet entered the side of his torso left of his belly button. According to the attorney, the ballistics evidence supported the theory that when first shot, Mr. Crawford was not facing the officers.

     Montgomery County grand jurors, in 2015, decided not to indict either officer of negligent homicide or lesser offenses. Following this decision, the U.S. Department of Justice conducted an investigation into the shooting. In 2017, the DOJ announced that it was not seeking federal charges against the officers.

The "Lock-'em-Up" Era

     "Wicked people exist. Nothing avails except to set them apart from innocent people." James Q. Wilson's blunt declaration in 1975 captured perfectly the hard-line anticrime mood that was to dominate the country for the next twenty years. Persistent high rates of violent crime, public hysteria over drugs, and worsening race relations fostered a "lock-'em-up" attitude toward criminals. The result was a spectacular increase in the number of prisoners, from 240,593 in 1975 to 1 million by January 1996. The incarceration rate of 330 per 100,000 population was eight times higher than that of many western European countries and was rivaled only by the rates in South Africa and the former Soviet Union.

     Nothing better illustrated the "lock-'em-up" attitude than the fate of Gary Fannon, sentenced to life imprisonment without possibility of parole at age 18 for possessing 650 grams of cocaine. The draconic Michigan drug law under which he was sentenced was typical of those in many states. There was also the case of Jerry Williams the so-called "pizza thief." One of the first persons convicted under a 1994 California "three strikes and you're out" law, he was sentenced to twenty-five years to life for stealing three slices of pizza. [We seem to be starting the twenty-first century as the "let-'m out" era.]

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

How Crime Threatens Freedom

When physical safety becomes a major problem even for the middle classes, we must of necessity become a heavily policed, authoritarian society, a society in which the middle classes live in gated and walled communities and make their places of work hardened targets...Both the fear of crime and the escalating harshness of the response to it will sharply reduce Americans' freedom of movement and peace of mind. Ours will become a most unpleasant society in which to live. [Police under-response to crime also threatens law obeyers' freedom.]

Robert H. Bork, Slouching Towards Gomorrah, 1996

Factually Accurate Fiction

Three cheers for fiction writers who bother to get their facts straight. If there's a special place for them in heaven, it needn't be very large. The laws of nature are routinely broken and bent to artistic whim as the heroes of novel and film carry on in bucolic scenes where plants bloom and birds nest out of season, often on the wrong continent altogether. [For example, in the classic film, The Deer Hunter, set near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Robert DeNiro and his friends are seen hunting in the Rocky Mountains.]

The New York Times Book Review, September 1, 2019

Useless Writing Advice

Over and over since I've been working on this book, I've been making notes to myself: Don't forget to tell about eating raw broccoli or drinking black coffee or dancing around the room to raise your energy level. Or, should I mention that a very famous novelist masturbated thirteen times a day when she was writing--should I pass that information on? [No, you should not pass that information on because it's pretentious and not helpful.]

Carolyn See, Making a Literary Life, 2002

How Big A Deal Is Getting Published?

Outside of having children, or dying, nothing more dramatic or life-changing can happen to you than to see your work in print. [I wouldn't call dying "life-changing."] Oh, maybe winning the U.S. Open or the American's Cup, but I'm not sure about that, because those are fleeting moments, gone almost as soon as they happen. When you have something in print, even if it's a recipe for heirloom tomato aspic [I have no idea what that is], you've bought a ticket in immortality's lottery. Part of you is floating in another universe, and until every last copy of whatever -it-is, is burned, smashed and gone, you are, because of that little scrap, not bound by the rules of time. [Good heavens, get a grip. Usually breaking into print is a letdown. Immortality?]

Carolyn See, Making a Literary Life, 2002

Saturday, September 26, 2020

The Brandon L. Woodard Murder-For-Hire Case

     Raised in the Ladera Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, Brandon Lincoln Woodard, the son of wealthy parents, lived a privileged life. His uncle, Leonard Woods, was a celebrated drag car racer, and his mother, Sandra Wellington, ran a successful mortgage business. Woodard, in 1999, graduated from a private Episcopal high school in LA called Campbell Hall. He and his parents belonged to an exclusive society of prominent black families called Jack and Jill of America.

     In 2003, Woodard graduated from southern California's Loyola Marymount University with a bachelor's degree in business administration. While working in his mother's mortgage company (shut down in the summer of 2012 for state lending code violations), Brandon cultivated fast-living friends in the music business and in professional sports. He developed a reputation as a man about town.

     Between 2004 and 2012, Woodard acquired an arrest history consisting of at least twenty arrests. A supermarket security guard in Hermosa Beach, California caught him stealing several bottles of wine in 2009. After struggling with the security officer, Woodard sped off in his car, but in so doing, he slammed into two other vehicles. To flee the scene, he abandoned his disabled car and hailed a cab. The police took him into custody shortly after the incident. (I don't know the disposition of this case, but would guess that Woodard pleaded no contest and paid a fine.)

     A year after the retail theft incident, Woodard was accepted into Whittier Law School. During his first year at Whittier, he was arrested on the charge of battery. (In most states this offense is called assault.) In April 2012, while the 31-year-old was enrolled in law school, police arrested him in West Hollywood for cocaine possession. By now, Brandon Woodard was holding himself out as a hip hop promoter in LA's music industry.

     On Sunday, December 9, 2012, Woodard flew from Los Angeles to New York City. At five in the afternoon, he checked into a high-end hotel on Columbus Circle in midtown Manhattan called 6 Columbus. He planned to return to LA the next day to take a law exam. (I wonder how many law students, on the day before an exam, spend nine hours on an airplane.) That evening, Woodard watched a football game at the hotel with a female friend, then went to dinner at a restaurant nearby.

     Just before two in the afternoon on Monday, December 10, 2012, Woodard checked out of his hotel. He left his luggage with a valet, expecting to return for it in a couple of hours. Brandon Woodard never got back to the hotel.

     As Brandon Woodard walked along 58th Street that afternoon not far from the southern border of Central Park, a man wearing a hooded jacket walked up behind him and shot him once in the back of the head with a nickel-plated pistol. As Woodward collapsed to the pavement and died, the shooter climbed into a Lincoln sedan and was driven away. The murder was captured by a surveillance camera that did not reveal a clear picture of the gunman's face.

     Crime scene investigators recovered a spent shell-casing that had been fired out of a 9 mm semi-automatic pistol. A search of a ballistics database revealed that the handgun that had ejected this casing had been used in a November 22, 2009 shooting in Queens, New York. In that incident no one had been hit, and no arrests had been made.

     At the time of his death, Woodard was in possession of three cellphones. This, along with the fact that Woodard associated with music industry types, led investigators to speculate that he had been somehow involved in the drug trade. The shooting M.O. also bore the earmarks of a murder-for-hire conspiracy.

     On December 11, 2012, the day after Woodard's murder, NYPD officers with the 113th Precinct in Queens came across the abandoned getaway car. They traced the Lincoln MKZ to an Avis car rental service in Huntington Station, New York.

     New York City detectives, on December 13, 2012 searched Woodard's condo in Los Angeles. According to newspaper reports, the officers did not find drugs or useful clues into the identities of the people behind Woodard's murder.

     In July 2017, a Manhattan jury, after a three month trial, found 39-year-old Lloyd T. McKenzie guilty of hiring a hit man to murder Brandon Woodard. McKenzie, a party organizer from Queens, New York, arranged the murder to avoid paying Woodard the $161,000 he owned for five kilograms of cocaine. (Woodard had been working as a drug courier for a bicoastal cocaine ring.) The judge sentenced McKenzie to 85 years to life.

     As of this writing, the hit man in Woodard's murder remains unidentified.

The Credible Forensic Pathologist

To be credible, a forensic pathologist has to be professionally qualified, experienced, and scientifically independent. Once a forensic pathologist has been caught taking shortcuts, making mistakes, or giving in to political pressure, that forensic scientist has lost his or her credibility. 

The Three-Card Monte Card Con

     The Three-Card Monte is the mother of all card cons…The Set-Up: 1. Two or more people are standing around a cardboard box on a busy street. The dealer has three cards; two are black and one is red. The red is usually a queen. The dealer shows all three cards, lays them face down on the table and rapidly picks up one card with his left hand and the other two with his right hand, and drops them back on the table in new positions. He repeats this scheme a number of times. The onlooker has to bet the position of the card which is alone in its suit (i.e. the queen). 2. Someone always seems to be winning; this person is the accomplice or shill, working alongside the dealer with the intention of luring unsuspecting marks. 3. Additional accomplices will include the look-out, who watches for the cops and signals their approach so that the game can be folded up quickly; the roper, who seeks out the marks; and the muscle man, who takes care of anyone who tries to complain.

     The Sting: 4. The mark is persuaded to join the game. He never wins. 5. The dealer holds two cards in his right hand. The upper card is held between the thumb and forefinger and the lower card is held between thumb and middle finger, with a small gap between both cards. According to common sense, the dealer should drop the lower card first, but his forefinger surreptitiously ejects the upper card first, which causes the mark to lose track of the right card (the queen). This is especially difficult to see if the dealer's hand makes a sweeping move from his left side to his right side while he drops the cards…

Joel Levy, The Scam Handbook, 2004    

"Trent's Last Case" by E. C. Bentley

The well-known description "Golden Age" [of detective fiction] is commonly taken to cover the two decades between the First and Second Wars, but this limitation is unduly restrictive. One of the most famous detective stories regarded as falling within the Golden Age is Trent's Last Case by E. C. Bentley, published in 1913. The name of this novel is familiar to many readers who have never read it, and its importance is partly due to the respect with which it was regarded by practitioners of the time and its influence on the genre. Dorothy L. Sayers wrote that it "holds a very special place in the history of detective fiction, a tale of unusual brilliance and charm, startlingly original." Agatha Christie saw it as "one of the three best detective stories every written." Edgar Wallace described it as "a masterpiece of detective fiction," and G. K. Chesterton saw it as "the finest detective story of modern times." Today some of the tributes of his contemporaries seem excessive but the novel remains highly readable, if hardly as compelling as it was when first published, and its influence on the Golden Age is unquestionable.

P. D. James, Talking About Detective Fiction, 2009

Novels That Require a Dictionary: No Thanks

     I love words. Most writers love words…When a writer has given new life to words you've heard a million times or used words you don't use or ordinarily think of, but love, it's inspiring.

     I love reading novels that send me to the dictionary to look up words. Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections did this. So did Don DeLillo's Underworld. I pulled out the Webster's to look up crepuscular. "Of relating to, or resembling twilight: active during twilight, insects." I can never look at fireflies, now, without thinking of them as crepuscular. [Come on. No wonder nobody reads "literary fiction."]
     Ann Patchett's Bel Canto yielded the word sangfroid: "self-possession or imperturbability esp. under strain." So I have sangfroid when I don't stress out if I'm late getting somewhere. [I avoid pretentious novelists who show off by using arcane words for simple things and ideas. This is bad writing.] 
Barbara DeMarco-Barrett, Pen on Fire, 2004 [Why didn't she call her book Pen in the State of Self-Sustaining Combustion?]

The Writer's Calling

Most literary callings announce themselves early. John Dos Passos did not discover his call to write until after graduate school, but the obsession hit Truman Capote around age eleven; William Styron at thirteen. Susan Sontag was nine. Even though she did not publish her first book until she was forty-two, P. D. James always knew she wanted to write. "I think I was born knowing it…I think writing was what I wanted to do, almost as soon as I knew what a book was."

Stephen Koch, The Modern Library Writer's Workshop, 2003 

Friday, September 25, 2020

The Charlotte and Owen Schilling Murder-Suicide Case

     On May 10, 2012, Charlotte Schilling, a mother of three, picked-up her youngest child, 10-year-old Owen, from his elementary school in Bellevue, Nebraska. She told the boy they were going on an overnight vacation to Lake Manawa State Park south of Council Bluffs, Iowa, 20 miles north of their home in Plattsmouth, Nebraska. When the 41-year-old mother and her son didn't return home the following day, members of the family became concerned, and called the police.

     Charlotte Schilling's relatives had reason to worry. The previous November, she had tried to kill herself by cinching a self-locking plastic strip--a so-called zip-tie fastener commonly used to bind electrical wires and cables together--around her neck. A relative in the house heard Charlotte collapse to the floor, got to her while she was still breathing, and cut the ligature off her neck. The day before Charlotte checked Owen out of his school, she gave some of her belongings to friends and family. This was not a good sign, an indication she was seriously contemplating suicide.

     A day after Charlotte and her son left Bellevue, police found her car parked in the Iowa state park. She had left her cellphone and wallet in the vehicle. Investigators found no signs of her or Owen. A surveillance video from a nearby convenience store showed Charlotte and the boy, on the day they left Nebraska, buying groceries. The video revealed nothing out of the ordinary in their behavior. He is seen hugging his mother, and she kissing the top of his head.

     Ten days after mother and son drove from the school, police found their decomposing bodies in the woods near the lake, a half mile from her car. They had zip-ties wrapped tightly around their necks, and had died from strangulation by ligature. Police found no physical evidence of a struggle. Near their bodies the officers found some of the food Charlotte had purchased from the convenience store. While their times of death couldn't be pinpointed, the authorities believe they had died shortly after arriving at the park on May 10.

     Why suicidal people murder their children is a mystery. Perhaps they think the youngsters will be better off dead than alive. Maybe it's done to get back at someone. Whatever the motivation, the act is pathological and beyond rational explanation.     

The Locard Exchange Principle in Action

We had a guy in the lab at the FBI who'd always send his teenage daughter out on dates wearing a big fuzzy acrylic sweater. He knew the sweater would transfer like crazy, and if her date brought her home later with a bunch of sweater fibers on him, he and the date were going to have a serious talk.

Max Houck, former FBI trace analyst in Crime Scene by Connie Fletcher, 2006 

How Stupid Defendants Dress For Court

Many defendants dress casually, even for felony trials. The collared shirt is a rarity. Most wear what they might don to watch Saturday morning cartoons, like a shirt that says Lucky Charms or flip-flops and shorts. Or an oversized football jersey and their good jeans, the ones with the embroidered dragon on the rear pockets. Defendants will show up for trial on a marijuana sales case wearing a shirt with a marijuana leaf design--not on a dare, or as some kind of political statement, but because they're so oblivious that they put the shirt on and don't think anything of it.

Adam Plantinga, 400 Things Cops Know, 2014 

America's First Bomb Murder Case

The earliest case which I have found of the use of a bomb to commit murder was in 1854, when William Arrison sent one to the head of an asylum where he had been confined.

Thomas M. McDade, The Annals of Murder, 1961

"Hooking" the Reader

     Some first lines are so powerful that you absolutely have to keep on reading. This is known as a "hook." Nearly all the great writers employ hooks in one form or another…

     Despite popular misconception, though, the hook is more than a marketing tool. At its best, it can be not only a propellant but also a statement of what you might expect from the text to come. It can establish a character, narrator, or setting, convey a shocking piece of information. The irony is there is only so much you can do with one line; thus it is a game: the less space you have to work with, the more creative you must become. It is not surprising then that hooks comprise some of the most memorable lines in literature.

     What is rarely discussed is the importance of the hook not only as an opening line but as an opening paragraph, not only an opening paragraph but as an opening page, not only as an opening page but as an opening chapter. In other words, the same intensity of thought applied to the opening line should not be confined to the opening line--a common malady--but rather applied to the text in its entirety. This takes endurance, focus and concentration; with this level of intensity, it might take several days to complete even one paragraph.

     Look at your first or last line and think of the agonizing effort you put into it. You knew you were in the spotlight, that it had to be good. How many times did you rewrite that one line? What would the rest of your manuscript be like if you agonized over each line the same way? It would take forever is probably your first thought…

     I am often amazed by how many manuscripts begin with good first lines--and good openings in general--and then fall apart; it is actually rare to see the intensity found in a first line (or last) maintained throughout a manuscript.

Noah Lukeman, The First Five Pages, 2000

Stephen King on the Horror Genre

Louis L'Amour, the western writer, and I might both stand at the edge of a small pond in Colorado, and we both might have an idea at exactly the same time. We might both feel the urge to sit down and try to work it out in words. His story might be about water rights in a dry season, my story would more likely be about some dreadful, hulking thing rising out of the still waters to carry off sheep...and horses...and finally people. Louis L'Amour's "obsession" centers on the history of the American west; I write fearsomes. We're both a little bit nuts.

Stephen King, Secret Windows: Essays and Fiction on the Craft of Writing, 2000

Thursday, September 24, 2020

The Ronita McColley "Wrong House" SWAT Raid

     A confidential informant told an investigator with the Rensselaer County District Attorney's Office that a number of unidentified people were selling cocaine out of three houses in Troy, New York. On June 23, 2008, a member of the county drug task force sent an undercover operative into one of the houses where he purchased cocaine from a known dealer. A few days later, a judge in Troy issued four no-knock nighttime search warrants based on nothing more than the snitch's tip, and one controlled buy.

     At four in the morning on June 28, 2008, an explosion inside the house at 396 First Street awoke Ronita McColley and her 5-year-old daughter. Seconds later, officers with the Troy Emergency Response Team (ERT) and county drug police, poured into McColley's home past her splintered door. McColley would describe that moment to a local reporter this way: "The flash and then the police coming into my house, and me not having any clothes on...It was just a lot of men looking at me, and there was no female in sight." (SWAT teams are almost entirely made up of male officers.)

     After breaking down Ronita McColley's front door, smashing a window with the flash-bang grenade--which burned a hole in her carpet and scorched a wall--and rummaging through her personal belongings, the police found no evidence of illegal drug activity. Some of the officers thought they had accidentally raided the wrong house. But no, this was one of the addresses the snitch had identified as a cocaine site. No one got hurt that night, including McColley's 5-year-old daughter. The SWAT raiders did not apologize for the destruction and terror they had visited upon this innocent mother and her child. Moreover, no one in authority offered to replace McColley's door, the broken window, or the carpet damaged by the percussion grenade. This wrong house SWAT raid was just another case of collateral damage in the drug war.

     In the other raids that night in Troy, the police also failed to find cocaine. Officers recovered small quantities of marijuana, but didn't take anyone into custody. The entire operation, from a drug war perspective, was a failure. Criticism of these fruitless and potentially dangerous no-knock intrusions prompted an internal police inquiry into the operation. On September 17, 2008, the Troy Record published excerpts from Assistant Chief of Police John Tedesco's report. According to Tedesco, "The bulk of this drug investigation was predicated upon the word of the confidential informant absent further investigation. Arguably, the reputation of proven reliable information of the CI was established. However, this fact alone does not negate the need to substantiate the CI's claims. Surveillance or controlled buys at the locations is the seemingly appropriate investigative pursuit to accomplish this function." (This is how police administrators write. The assistant chief could have said, "We shouldn't SWAT raid a dwelling on nothing more than the word of a snitch.")

     Ronita McColley's attorney, Terry Kindlon, gave notice of his intent to file a federal lawsuit against the city of Troy. Interviewed by a Troy Record reporter, the lawyer said, "I sometimes think...that rather than doing thoughtful, thorough police work, they phoned it in, and ended up throwing bombs at one of the nicest, sweetest woman I have ever met." (The raid would have been just as wrong had Ronita McColley not been a nice person.)

     Attorney Kindlon filed the civil rights suit in October 2008, and on March 4, 2012, the judge in a New York state U.S. District Court, ruled in favor of the city and the police.

     Because this mindless police intrusion into a dwelling at night did not result in anyone being shot or seriously injured, this case did not attract much attention in the media. The fact that cases like this were not rare was the real story, a reality then ignored by local media outlets uninterested in incidents that did not feature blood and guts. Had Ronita McColley, thinking that her home was being broken into by criminals, picked up a gun and shot a cop, she would have either been killed, or shipped off to prison for life. For reporters, that would have been a much better story. 

Creating The Master Detective

A master detective is the product of a solid formal education; deep and extended training; prolonged on-the-job monitoring by highly competent investigators; and several years of relevant investigative experience. There are no exceptions to this rule.

Forensic Firearms Identification

     In the past called forensic ballistics, forensic firearms identification concerns itself with the comparison of crime scene bullets and firing pin impressions on shell casings with the marks on test-fired rounds. If marks on the bullet made as it passed through the test-gun barrel are identical to the scratches on the crime scene slug, the crime site weapon has been identified. If the firing pin impressions on the known and questioned shell casings match, an identification has been made as well. (Semi-automatic weapons also leave ejector marks on shell casing that can be compared and identified.)

     Forensic firearms identification is a science grounded on the principle that no two guns will leave the same marks on the ammunition. Bullet scratches (called striations) and firing pin impressions are as unique as a person's fingerprints.

     Firearms identification also includes restoring filed-off serial numbers, tracing projectile flights, identifying the various types of bullet wounds, and determining the range of close shots through muzzle produced powder-stain patterns.

     Experts in the field apply the sciences of metallurgy, chemistry (gunshot residue analysis), microscopy, and ballistics. A knowledge of the gun smith trade is also useful. Like forensic document examiners, forensic firearms experts are trained on-the-job in crime laboratories.  

The Novel of Manners

Novels of Manners emphasize social customs, manners, conventions and mores of a definite social class. Such novels are always realistic, and sometimes they are satiric and comic, as in Henry Fielding's or Jane Austen's work.

Sherri Szeman, Mastering Point of View, 2001 

The Literary Crime Buff

I'm a crime dog. I read crime novels and true-crime books, almost exclusively. I don't dig comedy, sci-fi, current-event exposes or tales of domestic woe.

James Ellroy, 1985

Handling Criticism of Your Writing

A negative response from your readers--especially when they've taken the time to be conscientious about it--is always a shock. It's like getting kicked in the behind while bending over to pick up a penny. It's not the kick that hurts, it's the humiliation of having bent over for the penny. True, your voice may not quiver when you're thanking them for their honesty. Your hands may be steady when you're opening that letter of advice from the editor you've always admired. You may even be able to agree with your favorite author when he tells you that he thinks your new book isn't half as interesting as the last one you wrote. But your whole face is on fire, there's a roaring in your ears, and behind your pleasant "uh-huh" stands an infuriated, tic-faced person demanding to know...(1) how you could allow these half-wits near your best work; (2) why you ever thought you could get away with calling yourself a writer; or (3) how you're ever going to write again. In fact, the difference between the writer who's going to add up to something in a few years and the writer who's not may have less to do with the quality of the work than with the way each one handles criticism. 

Laura Hendrie, "What to Do About Criticism," in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing, Meg Leder and Jack Heffron, editors, 2002 

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Murdered in Abu Dhabi

     In October 2014, the U.S. Embassy in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the Gulf Arab nation of United Arab Emerates (UAE), alerted Americans in the country to a posting on a jihadist web forum that called for "lone wolf" attacks on American teachers working in international schools. Abu Dhabi, an international business and banking hub that featured huge skyscrapers and glitzy shopping malls, had a low violent crime rate and was considered one of the safest big cities in the world.

     Ibolya Ryan, Hungarian-born and raised and educated in Romania as a kindergarten teacher, came to the United States in the 1990s. In 1997, while living with her husband in Denver, Colorado, she took a job as a special needs teacher and enrolled in a course on how to teach English as a foreign language. In 2001, she returned to Hungary then later accepted a teaching position in Austria.

     In 2014, Ryan was living in Abu Dhabi and teaching at a large international school 35 miles from the downtown section of the city. The 47-year-old mother of three had divorced her husband and was residing in the UAE with her twin 11-year-old sons.

     On Monday December 1, 2014, while shopping at a high-end mall on Reem Island, a newly developed area of the city that was home to thousands of Western expatriates, Ryan entered the ladies restroom. Mall surveillance camera footage showed a person fully covered in a black, full-length gown called an abaya and a headscarf or hijab, following Ryan into the public restroom. This person was later seen leaving the mall in a hurry.

     Officers with the Criminal Investigation Department of the Abu Dhabi Police, when they responded to the shopping mall restroom, found a large, bloody kitchen knife with a blue handle and a trail of blood leading to one of the stalls. That's where they found Ibolya Ryan, the victim of a vicious knifing.

     Shortly after being rushed to a nearby hospital, Ryan died from her knife wounds. Her sons were placed in the care of Abu Dhabi officials until their father came from abroad to pick them up.

     On Thursday December 4, 2014, UAE police officers raided an apartment in Abu Dhabi and took an Emirati woman named Ala'a Badr Abdullah Al-Hashemi  into custody. The authorities believed this murder suspect had earlier planted a homemade bomb at the doorstep of an Egyptian-American physician. The doctor's son found the bomb and called the police. Bomb experts came to the scene and defused the device.

     The day following the suspect's arrest, a spokesperson for the Abu Dhabi police said investigators believed Ryan's cold-blooded killing was an act of terrorism committed by a self-radicalized terrorist who acted alone.

     Ibolya Ryan's murder destroyed the sense of security expatriates in Abu Dhabi once enjoyed.

     The U.A.E. authorities moved quickly to try Ms. Hashemi. The prosecutor described the killing as an "Islamic extremism terror attack." In June 2015, the defendant was convicted as charged and sentenced to death. On July 13, 2015, Hashemi was executed by firing squad in Dubai, U.A. E.

     Attorneys for the executed woman said she had suffered from chronic mental illness. Court-appointed doctors, however, had determined that the defendant had been fit to stand trial. 

Murder Among Friends And Family

Except for cases that clearly involve a homicidal maniac, the police like to believe murders are committed by those we know and love, and most of the time they're right--a chilling thought when you sit down to dinner with a family of five. All those potential killers passing their plates.

Sue Grafton, 1980

How the Automobile Changed U. S. Policing

From 1900 to 1930, the number of automobile registrations in the United States rose from 8,000 to more than 23 million. This phenomenal growth posed challenging new responsibilities for urban police departments regulating traffic, limiting parking in downtown areas, and trying to keep the killed and maimed to a minimum. The introduction and spread of the automobile obliterated the distinction between the law breaking and the law abiding. [It also led to the federalization of law enforcement.]

James F. Richardson, Urban Police in the United States, 1974

People Who Like True Detective Stories

Detective stories make good reading material for misfits. They teach you that being overlooked can be an advantage, that when your perspective is slightly askew from the mainstream, you notice things that other people don't. If you imagine yourself as an investigator, you have an excuse to hover outside the social circle, watching its dynamics unfold. You're untouched and untouchable. Your weirdness becomes a kind of superpower.

Rachael Monroe, Four True Stories of Women, Crime, and Obsession, 2019

The Value of Rewriting

Rewriting is the essence of writing well: it's where the game is won or lost. That idea is hard to accept. We all have an emotional equity in our first draft; we can't believe that it wasn't born perfect. But the odds are close to 100 percent that it wasn't. Most writers don't initially say what they want to say, or say it as well as they could. The newly hatched sentence almost always has something wrong with it. It's not clear. It's not logical. It's verbose. It's klunky. It's pretentious. It's boring. It's full of clutter. It's full of cliches. It lacks rhythm. It can be read in seven different ways. It doesn't lead out of the previous sentence...The point is that clear writing is the result of a lot of tinkering.

William Zinsser, On Writing Well, originally published in 1975

Writing While Intoxicated

Writers have always used drugs and drink to disinhibit themselves. In the beginning, the intoxicating effects of alcohol and drugs can prove prodigious. But once the tail is wagging the dog, the effects are generally deleterious.

Betsy Lerner in The Writer's Mentor by Ian Jackman, editor, 2004

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

The Luka Magnotta Murder Case

     Tenants in a working-class Montreal, Canada neighborhood complained of a bad smell coming from a pile of garbage behind their apartment building. At ten in the morning on May 29, 2012, when the janitor opened a suitcase at the site of the odor, he discovered a man's bloody torso.

     At 11:15 that morning, in Ottawa, at the Conservative Party headquarters, Jenni Bryne, a top political advisor to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, opened a box that had been mailed to that address. As she opened the package, Bryne was hit by a terrible odor and recoiled at the sight of dried blood. She immediately called 911 which brought the Ottawa police, a hazmat unit, and officers with the Emergency Special Operations Section. The box contained a human foot and a note indicating that six other human body parts were in the mail.

     At 9:30 that night, the Ottawa police announced they had found a second severed body part mailed from Montreal. It was a hand found inside a piece of mail intercepted at the Ottawa Postal Terminal.

     On Wednesday morning, May 30, 2012, crime scene investigators and hazardous materials officers entered an apartment in the building where the janitor had found the suitcase containing the blood splattered torso. The masked searchers were interested in a second-story studio apartment rented by a 29-year-old tenant named Luka Rocco Magnotta.

     Luka Magnotta, a stripper, model, and bisexual actor in low-budget adult films who used the names Eric Clinton Newman (his born name) and Vladimir Romanov, had lived in the apartment about four months. Originally from Toronto, Magnotta had an Internet presence that included uploaded videos of animal cruelty. Two years earlier, a video appeared on the Web featuring Magnotta placing a pair of kittens inside an airtight bag then using a vacuum cleaner to suck out the air. He also had a blog under his name called "Necrophilia Serial Killer Luka Magnotta" that featured the following quote: "It's not cool to the world being a necrophiliac. It's bloody lonely. But I don't care." Magnotta was also the author of an Internet article titled, "How to Completely Disappear and Never be Found" in which he laid out a six-step program for changing one's identify.

     On May 25, four days before the gruesome discovery at the Montreal apartment, an uploaded 11-minute Internet video on an Alberta-based website called "Best Gore," showed a man being stabbed, his throat slashed, and his head cut off by an unidentified killer in a dark hoodie. The man in the video also severed the victim's limbs, then committed sexual and cannibalistic acts on the corpse. A dog in the dimly lit room ate part of the body. The snuff video was called, "1 Lunatic 1 Ice Pick." The Canadian authorities believed the torso found behind Magnotta's apartment building, as well as the mailed body parts, belong to the man seen murdered online. Investigators also theorized that Luka Magnotta was the killer in the video.

     In Apartment 208, crime scene investigators believed they had found the site of the videoed murder/dismemberment. Detectives also thought the torso discovered behind the building originated from this apartment. The walls and floor were splattered in dried blood and in the bedroom they found a blood-soaked mattress.

     A forensic pathologist examined the torso and the two mailed body parts and found that the remains belonged to the same person.

     Luka Magnotta, the subject of a massive international manhunt, was described as a slightly built man who was five-foot-eight with short black hair and blue eyes. The authorities searching for the fugitive believed he was hiding out in Europe under a false identity.

     The man believed to have been killed in the snuff film was identified as a student from China named Jun Lin. The 33-year-old had been attending Concordia University in Montreal. He had been going out with Magnotta and was last seen on May 24, 2012. Lin was an undergraduate in the engineering and computer science department.

     Montreal Police Commander Ian Lafreniere believed that Magnotta was hiding in France. The fugitive was immediately placed on Interpol's equivalent of the FBI's most wanted list. A Toronto transsexual who had a sexual relationship with Magnotta, informed the police that the porn actor used drugs and possessed a bad temper.

     In 2010, after Luka Magnotta had posted the disgusting video involving the kittens, a London reporter with The Sun newspaper questioned him for an article. In an email to The Sun, Magnotta warned that his next uploaded snuff video would not involve cats. "Once you kill, and taste blood, it's impossible to stop," he wrote. After the animal cruelty video was published, animal rights activists in Canada tried to get the authorities to intervene.

     On Monday, June 4, 2012, seven  police officers in Berlin, Germany, acting on a tip from a person who recognized Magnotta, arrested him in an internet cafe. At first Magnotta gave the officers a false name, then said, "You got me." Magnotta was in the cafe reading about himself on the Internet.

     On the day following his arrest, as Magnotta appeared before a German judge on the matter of his extradition back to Canada, staff members at two private boy's school in Vancouver, British Columbia, each received a package that had been mailed from Montreal. The package to the False Creek Elementary school contained a human foot. The parcel opened at St. George's contained a hand. The body parts belonged to Jun Lin. The authorities were still searching for the victim's head.

     Several months following his extradition back to Canada, Magnotta acquired an attorney named Luc   Leclain who argued that his client should be tried for the lesser homicide offense of second-degree murder because the Crown could not prove premeditation in Jun Lin's killing. In May 2013, following a week-long preliminary hearing involving thirty witnesses for the Crown, the Court of Quebec judge ruled that the prosecution had enough evidence to justify trying Magnotta for first degree-murder.

     In addition to first-degree murder, Luka Magnotta stood charged with the lesser offenses of causing indignity to Jun Lin's body (in the U. S. it's called abuse of corpse), broadcasting obscene material, using the postal service to send obscene material, and the harassment of Prime Minister Stephen Harper and other members of Parliament. The Quebec judge scheduled Magnotta's first-degree murder trial for September 14, 2014.

     Luka Magnotta's murder trial got underway on Monday December 15, 2014 before Justice Guy Cournoyer of the Quebec Superior Court. His attorney, Luc Leclair, tried to convince the jury that the defendant, a schizophrenic, committed the murder in a psychotic state that had rendered him legally insane and therefore not guilty by reason of insanity.

     The Magnotta jury rejected the insanity defense and found the defendant, on December 23, 2014, guilty of first-degree murder. The jurors also found him guilty of the lesser offenses. Judge Cournoyer sentenced Magnotta to life in prison for first-degree murder and gave him 19 years behind bars for the other offenses.

Jury Duty

When you go to court you are putting your fate into the hands of twelve people who weren't smart enough to get out of jury duty.

Norm Crosby, 93, American comedian 

The Female Bank Robber

While about eight percent of America's bank robbers are women, the number of females robbing banks are rising. Women robbers are now targeting banks because, as Willie Sutton once said, that's where the money is. Moreover, bank robbery is no longer a dangerous crime to commit. That's because modern bank employees are trained to cooperated with the robber. As a result, it's no longer necessary to possess a gun to rob a bank. The downside to robbing banks is that a high percentage of these crimes are solved and carry guaranteed prison terms.

Writing With a Day Job

     Writing is a job. It fits into a lot of other categories, too--compulsion, therapy, joy, art, and occasional nightmare. But, at the end of the day, it's a job. And--unless you're lucky--it's not your only occupation…

     I've always had to find time to write fiction as well as maintain a demanding day job…My day job feeds my writing in all kinds of ways. Quite apart from the fact you meet fascination people in professions that might just come in very handy for research, it gives you a structure.

     Like many people, if I have all day to write something, then writing it has a habit of taking me all day…Knowing I haven't got all day to write something makes me buckle down and get on with it…Setting your alarm an hour earlier in the morning and getting up to write with a cup of coffee before you start your normal day achieves a surprising number of words over a few weeks or months.

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

Most True Crime Fans Are Women

     The vast majority of violent crimes are committed by men. Most murder victims are also male. Homicide detectives and criminal investigators: predominantly male. Attorneys in criminal cases are mostly men. Put simply, the world of violent crime is masculine...

     But the consumers of crime stories are decidedly female. Women make up the majority of the readers of true crime books and the listeners of true crime podcasts. Television executives and writers, forensic scientists...all agree: true crime is a genre that overwhelmingly appeals to women.

     Women aren't just passively consuming these stories; they're also participating in them. Start reading through one of the many online sleuthing forums where amateurs speculate about unsolved crimes--and sometimes solve them--and you'll find that most of the posters are women. More than seven in ten students of forensic science, one of the fastest-growing college majors, are women...

Rachel Moore, Savage Appetites: Four True Stories Of Women, Crime, and Obsession, 2019

Charles Bukowski The Romantic

I never really found a friend. With women, there was hope with each new one but that was in the beginning. Even early on, I got it, I stopped looking for the Dream Girl; I just wanted one that wasn't a nightmare.

Charles Bukowski

Monday, September 21, 2020

Workplace Murder-Suicide: The Dangerous Employee

     During the past forty years, hundreds of government and private sector employees have gone ballistic and murdered two or more of their fellow workers, then killed themselves. While workplace shooting sprees have become relatively common, they still produce local headlines, and for a few days, national television coverage.

     News accounts of these violent outbursts almost always feature the question of why. What motivated the employee to commit mass murder, then take his own life? (About 85 percent of these killers are male.) Was the killer mainly motivated by the intent to murder, or to commit suicide? If suicide, why the murders? If murder, why the suicide?

     Many workplace killers are disgruntled, revenge-seeking employees with emotional problems and histories of mental illness and violence. The increasing frequency of these blood baths might reflect the deteriorating mental and emotional health of a nation devolving into a culture of violence, materialism, and entitlement.

     Employers of these homicidal workers are often accused, after the fact, of lax job applicant screening procedures. This is unfair because under federal law, employers are not allowed to ask job seekers all kinds of pertinent questions, including if they have histories of drug abuse, alcoholism, or mental illness. Whether or not a job applicant has ever been arrested is, by law, none of the employer's business. All of this information, of course, is relevant to the question of the applicant's fitness and qualifications for employment.

     Employers in workplace shooting cases are usually sued for having failed to recognize and react to signs of future workplace violence. But to be fair, there is no sure-fire way to identify employees who will "go postal." Quite often, employees who have been fired for violent and threatening workplace behavior return to the job sites weeks, months, and even years later with murderous and suicidal intentions. There is no way to predict or prevent this type of behavior. Police officers patrol the streets, and are present in many public schools, but they are not in homes and places of employment where the real danger lies.

     Lawrence Jones of Fresno, California is a good example of someone an employer shouldn't hire. The 42-year-old, since his early 20s, had been in and out of prison for armed robbery, assault, auto theft, and gun-related crimes. He had spent most of  his adult life behind bars. In September 2011, three months after his last parole, Jones began working at Apple Valley Farms, a chicken processing plant in Fresno. He was hired because there aren't many people willing to work in such places. For fourteen months Jones did his job, then something happened that set him off.

     At eight-thirty on the morning of November 6, 2012, four hours into his shift, Jones walked up to 32-year-old Salvador Diaz who was working in the grinding room. Because of the sound of the machinery, and the fact employees wore noise-protection gear, no one heard Jones shoot Mr. Diaz in the back of the head with his 4-shot .357 Derringer pistol.

     After murdering Mr. Diaz execution-style, Jones entered the deboning room of the plant and executed Manual Verdin, 34. Jones then wounded 28-year-old Arnuflo Conrriguez, and shot Fatima Lopez in the back as she fled the scene. Jones pressed the muzzle of his Derringer to the back of Estevan Catono's head and pulled the trigger. Fortunately for the 21-year-old intended victim, the gun was out of rounds.

     After killing two of his fellow employees, and wounding two others, Jones walked out of the plant, re-loaded the handgun, and fatally shot himself in the head.

     Investigators did not have a motive for the killings, nor did they know if these victims had been targeted. In all probability, these workers were simply unlucky by being at the wrong place at the wrong time.

     Fatima Lopez was treated at a local hospital and released. Arnuflo Conrriguez, for awhile in serious condition at Fresno's Community Regional Medical Center, recovered and was released.

Old People Can Be Dangerous

An elderly Miami woman is facing an aggravated child abuse charge after she allegedly attacked a 10-year-old girl with a hammer. Police arrested Iona Aiken, 79, on December 29, 2014 following an afternoon attack at a home she shared with the girl and her mother…According to the police, "without warning," the suspect hit the girl with the hammer as the victim  listened to music on her tablet with headphones.

"Elderly Woman Attacked Girl With Hammer," Truecrimetoday.blogspot.com, January 1, 2015 

The Forensic Analysis Of Human Bones

     In examining the skeletal remains of a suspected murder victim, a county coroner who is relatively unfamiliar with skeletal anatomy might think he has found cut marks on the bones. He reports them to the police investigators as coming from a knife. A forensic anthropologist who has seen a lot of these cases before is able to interpret the marks differently, and recognizes them as the tooth marks of a scavenging carnivore. The distinctions are extremely fine, but tell that to a presumably innocent man the police are about to charge with murder…

     Experienced forensic anthropologists have examined thousands of bones from all time periods and from all over the world, and are beneficiaries of tens of thousands of examinations made by others in the field. They know what happens to a skeleton after the passage of a month, a decade, a century, two thousand years. They know what happens when a skeleton is left on the prairie after an Indian massacre and buried years later by a passer-by. They can distinguish between evidence of murder and the results of a dog passing by and helping himself…

Dr. Douglas Ubelaker and Henry Scammell, Bones, 1992      

Charles Bukowski On The Typewriter Versus The Computer

With a typewriter it's like walking through mud. With a computer, it's ice skating. It's a blazing blast. Of course, it there's nothing inside you, it doesn't matter. And then there's the clean-up work, the corrections. Hell, I used to have to write everything twice. The first time to get it down and the second time to correct the errors. This way, it's one run for the fun, the glory and the escape.

Charles Bukowski

The Strangeness Of Things: The Beauty Of Nonfiction

As a tiny example of the strangeness of real life, the first name of the chief of police of Orlando, Florida is Orlando. If you put that in a novel you would be laughed at. But in nonfiction it's okay because it is true.

Rejecting Stephen King

Stephen King's first four novels were rejected. "This guy from Maine sent in this novel over the transom," said Bill Thompson, his former editor at Doubleday. Mr. Thompson, sensing something there, asked to see subsequent novels, but still rejected the next three. However, King withstood the rejection, and Mr. Thompson finally bought the fifth novel, despite his colleagues' lack of enthusiasm, for $2,500. It was called Carrie.

Noah Lukeman, The First Five Pages, 2000

Sunday, September 20, 2020

No Place Is Off-Limits for Sexual Assault

     One would think that a woman sedated in a hospital room or asleep onboard a commercial airliner would not be in danger of being sexually assaulted. Well, one would be wrong. Sexual offenders are everywhere, can be anyone, and commit crimes in places that reasonable people assume are safe.

The Case of Shafeeq Sheikh

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Case of Prabhu Ramamoorthy

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

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

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

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

     The judge, on December 12, 2018, sentenced Prabhu Ramamoorthy to nine years in prison.

LAPD Chief William Parker (1905-1966)

Appointed Chief of the Los Angeles Police in 1950, William Parker quickly imposed an authoritarian management style that resembled J. Edgar Hoover's leadership of the FBI. He cleaned up the notoriously corrupt department and developed a highly militaristic style of policing that emphasized aggressive crime-fighting. He portrayed the police as the thin blue line between civilization and chaos. Also like Hoover, he was a master of public relations and helped create the popular television show Dragnet, which projected a national image of the Los Angeles police as relentlessly efficient. Sergeant Joe Friday's favorite line, "Just the facts, ma'am," became a popular cliche. [Parker was chief of police for 39 years.]

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

From The Mouth Of A Homicidal Maniac

I don't wanna take my time going to work, I got a motorcycle and a sleeping bag and ten or fifteen girls. What the hell I wanna go off to work for? Work for what? Money? I got all the money in the world. I'm the king, man. I run the underworld. I decide who does what and where they do it at. What am I gonna run around like some teeny bobber somewhere for someone else's money. I roll the nickels. The game is mine. I deal the cards.

Charles Manson

Employee Theft: The Unspoken Crime

     In criminal law, when a person steals without force or unlawful intrusion, it's the crime of larceny or theft. The vast majority of thefts are committed by employees against their employers. Security practitioners call this internal theft, and it involves, every year, the loss of billions of dollars to business and industry. Employees rip-off cash, merchandise, equipment, supplies, and time. In the retail business, employees steal 75 percent of all pilfered cash and merchandise. Customer and vendor thieves account for the rest.

     While economists and politicians rarely speak of this huge problem, internal theft is one of the reasons employers try to get their business conducted with as few employees as possible.

     American employees steal because they either live beyond their means; are hooked on drugs, booze, gambling, or shopping; are ethically corrupt; or are narcissists who simply feel entitled. When caught, employees come up with various sob stories and all manner of excuses, but they all steal for the same basic reason: to get something for nothing.

The Feature Article

A "feature" is an article with a human-interest angle. Its purpose goes beyond news and information. A feature engages its readers in the story of people or of a single person behind a newsworthy event. This means that well-written features are meant to arouse emotions. The writer might accomplish this through humor, for instance, or by conveying the emotions of the people involved in the event…The way you write a feature can depart from strict journalistic writing and may borrow techniques from fiction.

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

Can Creative Writing Be Taught?

     I find it both fascinating and disconcerting when I discover yet another person who believes that writing can't be taught. Frankly, I don't understand this point of view.

     I've long believed that there are two distinct but equally important halves to the writing process: One of these is related to art; the other is related to craft. Obviously, art cannot be taught. No one can give another human being the soul of an artist, the sensibility of a writer, or the passion to put words on paper that is the gift and the curse of those who fashion poetry and prose. But it's ludicrous to suggest and shortsighted to believe that the fundamentals of fiction can't be taught.

Elizabeth Gorge, Write Away, 2004

Writing About Science

Science writing has a reputation for bloodlessness, but in many ways it is the most human of disciplines. Science, after all, is a quest, and as such it's one of the oldest and most enduring stories we have. It's about searching for answers, struggling with setbacks, persevering through tedium and competing with colleagues all eager to put forth their own ideas about how the world works. Perhaps most of all, it's about women and men possessed by curiosity, people who devote their lives to pursuits the rest of us find mystifying or terrifying--chasing viruses, finding undiscovered planets, dusting off dinosaurs or teasing venomous snakes.

Michelle Nijhuis, "The Science and Art of Science Writing," The New York Times, December 9, 2013

Saturday, September 19, 2020

The Russell and Shirley Dermond Murder Case

     In 2014, 88-year-old Russell Dermond and his 87-year-old wife Shirley resided in a $1 million, 3,300-square-foot home on the shores of Lake Oconee in Reynolds Plantation, Georgia, a retirement/resort community 75 miles east of Atlanta. Before retiring, Mr. Dermond owned franchises in Wendy's and Chick-fil-A fast-food restaurants. Mr. Dermond, a U.S. Navy veteran, grew up in Hackensack, New Jersey. He played golf, liked to read, and enjoyed spending time with family and friends. The couple regularly attended the Lake Oconee Community Church.

     Married 68 years, the couple, in 1994, purchased the house on the cul-de-sac in the neighborhood of Lakeside Great Waters. The gated community, that featured a Jack Nicklaus Signature golf course, was considered safe from crime.

     In 2000, one of the couple's three adult children, Mark Dermond, was shot to death after a drug deal went bad in Atlanta. The Dermond's oldest son had been struggling with drug addiction for years.

     On Monday, May 6, 2014, after not hearing from Russell or Shirley Dermond for several days, neighbors went to their house to check on them. They found Mr. Dermond's body in the garage. He had been decapitated. Mrs. Dermond was missing along with her husband's head. Both of their vehicles were parked in the driveway, and the interior of the dwelling seemed undisturbed. There were no signs of forced entry, and nothing had been stolen, including Mrs. Dermond's purse that was still in the house.

     Investigators with the Putnam County Sheriff's Office and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI), based upon the blood spatter pattern in the garage, theorized that Mr. Dermond's head had been cut off after his death. Moreover, he had not been stabbed or shot. Detectives believed he had been bludgeoned to death sometime between Friday, May 2 and Sunday, May 5, 2014.

     Following Mr. Dermond's murder, there was no activity on the couple's bank accounts. Since no ransom demands had been made, detectives didn't think Mrs. Dermond had been kidnapped for money.

     To help the local authorities locate Shirley Dermond, the FBI put up 100 billboard posters and offered a $20,000 reward. Scuba divers searched the lake in the vicinity of the house and officers used cadaver dogs to look for the missing woman in the surrounding woods. Police officers and FBI agents also questioned dozens of residents of the gated community.

     On May 7, 2014, Bradley Dermond, the couple's son, told a local television reporter that the murder of his father and the disappearance of his mother,"makes no sense at all. We're still hoping that our mother is OK." Two days later, Putnam County Coroner Gary McEhenney announced the presumed cause of Mr. Dermond's death to be "cerebral trauma."

     On Friday afternoon May 16, 2014, after two fishermen spotted a body, an emergency crew pulled Shirley Dermond's corpse out of Lake Oconee five miles from her house. According to the Putnam County coroner, she had been murdered by blunt force trauma to the head then dumped into the water.

     Investigators believed the intruder or intruders who murdered the couple may have used a boat in the commission of the crime. No suspects, however, were developed in the case. Moreover, the motive behind the double murder remained a mystery. The authorities had not located Mr. Dermond's head and the reason behind his decapitation was unknown. Some believed the murders could have been a mob hit, but who would want these elderly people rubbed out?

     Residents of this community, following the gruesome double-murder, had their illusion of security shattered.

     In November 2014, six months after the still unsolved murders, Putnam County sheriff Howard Sills, in an interview with a local television news reporter, said, "I go to sleep every night thinking about this case and wake up every morning thinking about it. And I'm not exaggerating." According to the sheriff, every potential suspect questioned in the investigation had been cleared. The sheriff said he believed the murders had been pre-meditated and planned. "You can't make me believe there was any kind of randomness to this crime. It bothers me a great deal that someone has committed such a heinous crime and they're still out there."

     On December 9, 2014, Sheriff Sills told another television reporter that his office had received thousands of pages of phone records going back six months prior to the Dermond murders. The Gwinnett County district attorney's office used special software to help investigators analyze the phone data in search for suspects.

     The reward for information leading to the arrest of the killer or killers, raised to $55,000, did not produce any leads in the case.

     In February 2015, Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills revealed to a local TV reporter that Shirley Dermond's body had been held to the bottom of Lake Oconee by two cement blocks. The killer or killers had not accounted for decomposing gases that causes a weighted down body in water to become buoyant. While there was no effort to hide Mr. Dermond's body, the killer or killers did not want his wife's corpse to be found.

     In April 2016, in speaking to a local newspaper reporter, the murder victims' 57-year-old son Keith said, "It's bad enough to lose both of your parents at the same time, but in the way it happened. We would have been devastated if they'd just had a car accident. But to have it all happen this way, and then just compounding with the details and then the fact they haven't caught anybody. They don't even have a clue. We don't even know why."

     On May 6, 2017, Sheriff Sills, on the third anniversary of the Russell and Shirley Dermond's murders, discussed the still unsolved case with a local reporter. The sheriff said that he believed the Dermonds had been targeted victims and that, "Somebody knows who did this." The sheriff admitted that not solving such an important murder case was "somewhat embarrassing" and that his investigators did not have any promising leads.
     As of September 2020, the 6-year-old Russel and Dermond Murder case remained unsolved.