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Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Sparing the Life of a Cold-Blooded Killer

     In 1991, 19-year-old Robert Campbell and another violent criminal abducted a 20-year-old bank clerk as she filled her car with gas at a Houston service station. The victim, Angela Rendon, had just purchased a bridal gown for her upcoming wedding.

     The two degenerates drove Rendon to a field where they robbed, raped and beat her. After the vicious assaults, Campbell ordered the terrified victim to run for her life. As she fled her captors, Cambell calmly shot her in the back.

     A year after this senseless, cold-blooded murder, a jury found Campbell guilty of capital murder. The judge sentenced him to death. In this depressing case there has never been a question of Campbell's murderous intent or guilt.

     After living twenty-two years as a death row inmate, Robert Campbell was finally scheduled to die by lethal injection on Tuesday night, May 13, 2014. University of Texas law professor Laurie Levin, one of Campbell's death house attorneys working feverishly to save his life, filed a last-minute motion for a stay of execution with the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. Levin based the federal petition on the fact the Texas Department of Corrections had not revealed the manufacturing source of the pentobarbital purchased for the execution. 

     According to this eleventh-hour plea, prisoners had a right to know whether or not the pentobarbital has been manufactured under "pristine conditions" that would assure that the drug was safe. (What is safe in an execution drug? Pentobarbital is not supposed to be safe--it's supposed to kill.)

     According to Professor Levin, if Campbell's execution was not blocked the results could be "disastrous." (Again, from the executioner's point of view, the results are supposed to be disastrous.)

     On another save-the-killer front, death house lawyers claimed that Campbell, with an I.Q. of 69, was too stupid to execute pursuant to a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court decision that forbid states from executing criminal dimwits. (People with low I.Q.s go to college, get elected to congress, drive cars and vote. When they murder innocent victims in cold blood, why can't they be executed?)

     Robert Campbell's energetic and devoted legal team asked Texas Governor Rick Perry to grant an executive stay of execution on Campbell's behalf.

     On May 13, 2014, the day he was scheduled to die by lethal injection, the federal court of appeals stayed Campbell's execution. Had the executioner dispatched him, Campbell would have been the first condemned man to be put to death since the executioner in Oklahoma ran into trouble disposing of another sadistic cold-blooded killer, Clayton Lockett. Had Campbell been executed as scheduled according to the wishes of the jury that had found him guilty, he would have been the eighth death row inmate killed that year by the state of Texas.

     In 2017, Robert Campbell was re-sentenced to life in prison. 

Tuesday, February 7, 2023

The Don Willburn Collins Murder Case: Robert Middleton's Long, Painful Death

     Robert Middleton, on June 28, 1998, turned eight. Early in the evening of his birthday, his 13-year-old neighbor, Don Willburn Collins, doused him with gasoline and set him on fire. Robert survived the attack, but suffered third-degree burns over most of his body. The crime took place in Splendora, Texas, a small town in the Houston metropolitan area.

      Don Willburn Collins confessed to the police, was arrested and spent several months in juvenile detention. He was not, however, prosecuted as a juvenile or an adult for the assault. According to the Montgomery County prosecutor in charge of the investigation, the state did not have enough evidence against Collins to go forward with the case. As a result, the authorities had no choice but to release the suspect. (Collins had taken back his confession and there were procedural problems associated with the investigation.)

     Over the years, Robert Middleton underwent 100 painful surgeries and many skin grafts that still left him horribly disfigured. In 2011, after being diagnosed with skin cancer, Robert, in a videotaped deposition given shortly before his death at the age of 23, revealed that two weeks before the arson-assault, Don Collins had sexually molested him. Collins had set his victim on fire to prevent him from reporting the rape.

     The medical examiner, finding that Middleton's cancer was caused by his burns, ruled his death a homicide. Following this cause and manner of death determination, detectives with the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office conducted a seven-month cold-case investigation into the 1998 sexual molestation and subsequent arson.

     Three years after Collins set Robert Middleton on fire, a jury found him guilty of sexually molesting an 8-year-old boy. At the time of that rape, Collins was fifteen. For that offense he spent four years in juvenile detention. The assault took place in San Jacinto County, Texas.

     In 2012, Robert Middleton's parents won a $150 million wrongful death suit against Collins. Because the man who had set fire to their son was homeless, the plaintiffs knew they would never collect the civil judgment.

     A Montgomery county judge, in 2013, transferred the Collins/Middleton case from juvenile to adult court after the district attorney charged Don Willburn Collins with felony-murder in connection with Middleton's delayed death. Under the felony-murder doctrine, a person who commits a felony is culpable for any death that occurs in the commission of that crime. In the Collins case, the underlying felony was sexual assault. While the sexual crime didn't cause Middleton's death, it lead to the arson that in turn caused the cancer that killed the victim. (The arson-assault wouldn't work as the underlying felony because the statute of limitations on that offense had run out. The sexual assault, however, wasn't reported until 2011.)

     In terms of the law, the prosecution in the Collins case faced a felony-murder causation problem. The prosecutor had to directly link the arson to the sexual attack. There was also the passage of time between the rape and the victim's cancer death. In the old days before crimes were codified, there was a common law principal related to criminal homicide called the year and a day rule. If the victim of an assault died a year and one day after the attack, too much time had passed to allow a murder charge.

     Collin's attorney challenged the transfer of his client's case into adult court. In 1998, under Texas law, a person under the age of 14 could not be charged as an adult with a capital offense. Collins was 13 when he allegedly raped then set fire to the victim. (In 1999, state legislators dropped the age to ten.)

     In October 2014, State District Judge Kathleen Hamilton approved a request by Collins' attorneys to move the murder trial out of Montgomery County. E. Tay Bond, one of the defendant's lawyers, had argued that the intense publicity the case received would make it difficult for his client to get a fair trial locally. Mr. Bond said, "I think the degree of shock as to what happened to Robbie Middleton has created a fervor in the community where people have decided that Don Collins is in fact guilty of something. They would convict him just based on emotion instead of an objective review of the evidence or lack thereof in the case."

     On January 10, 2015, Judge Hamilton heard arguments on the Collin's defense motion to suppress statements the defendant had made to police sixteen years earlier regarding setting the victim on fire. Two days after the oral arguments, the judge decided that because the interview room had not been approved by the Texas Juvenile Justice Department Board, she had no choice but to exclude this evidence from the prosecution's case. Judge Hamilton noted, however that "the officers involved in the 1988 statements had not acted in bad faith." But because Texas law did not provide for good-faith exceptions to the rules in the Family Code, the judge's hands were tied.

     In looking for evidence against the defendant, detectives questioned a man who had served jail time in juvenile detention with Collins who claimed that Collins had threatened to burn him the way he had set fire to Robert Middleton.

     On February 4, 2015, in a Galveston, Texas courtroom, Montgomery County Assistant District Attorney Kelly Blackburn, in his opening statement to the jury, made up of six men and six women, said, "Our case is based on the testimony of adults who came forward and can tell you what the defendant did when he and Robbie Middleton were children. Witnesses will tell you that he poured gasoline on Robbie Middleton in 1998 and set him on fire."

     Defense attorney Tay Bond told the jurors they should not expect the prosecution to present eyewitnesses to this crime because there weren't any.

     Dr. David Herndon, a burn surgeon and chief of staff at Shriners Hospitals for Children in Galveston took the stand as the prosecution's first witness. He said the burns the victim had suffered had eaten through his fat tissue into his muscle. The doctor said Middleton's burns were among the worst he had ever seen. For surviving 13 years, the doctor said he considered Middleton a "miracle."

     Dr. Herndon was followed to the stand by three physicians who testified that the cancer that eventually killed the victim had been caused by his burns.

     Over the next several days, prosecutor Blackburn put on witnesses who testified that Collins had bragged to them about what he had done to Robbie Middleton. One of these witnesses, an inmate at a juvenile detention center who served time with Collins, said the defendant had raped him then threatened to burn him the way he had set fire to the Middleton boy.

     Defense attorney Bond, in his closing remarks to the jury, again stressed the fact there were no eyewitnesses to the crime or physical evidence linking his client to Middleton's burning.

     Prosecutor Blackburn, in his closing statement, called the defendant a "monster" and a "child rapist."

     On February 9, 2015, the jury in Galveston, Texas found Don Collins guilty of capital murder. Following the verdict, attorney Bond promised to appeal the conviction on grounds that trying Collins as an adult for a crime committed when he was thirteen was unconstitutional.

     Judge Blackburn sentenced Collins to forty years in prison.

     On April 4, 2017, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed Collins' murder conviction.

Monday, February 6, 2023

Parents From Hell: Adolfo and Deborah Gomez

     In January 1994, 34-year-old Adolfo Gomez walked out of prison in Illinois after serving three years for burglary and theft. Four years later he was living in the suburban Chicago community of Naperville with his 29-year-old wife Deborah and their two sons, ages one and two. In October 1998, Deborah pleaded guilty to child neglect after leaving the boys alone in their apartment for eight hours.

     In 2007, the couple, now with four children ages two to eleven, were living in Lombard, Illinois. That November Adolfo pleaded guilty to a drunk driving charge.

     From 2008 through 2010 the Gomez family, now comprised of five children, moved from one apartment to another around DuPage and Cook Counties, Illinois. Their landlord in Wood Dale from whom they rented a basement apartment noticed that Adolfo had installed padlocks on the doors to his children's bedrooms. The oldest Gomez child told the landlord he did all the cooking and that the family acquired its food from local churches.

     While living in Northlake, another suburban Chicago community, the Illinois Department of Family Services, in November 2011, opened a child neglect case on Adolfo and Deborah Gomez. Following the investigation the agency, in April 2012, closed the case without taking action against the parents. Two months earlier, Adolfo spent 12 days in the DuPage County Jail for failure to pay several fines and comply with various court orders.

     On June 10, 2012, the Gomez family, while on a road trip to Arizona to visit relatives, had car trouble in Lawrence, Kansas. Adolfo managed to coax the Chevy Suburban utility vehicle into a remote spot on a Walmart parking lot. Late in the morning of Wednesday, June 13, 2012, a Walmart shopper noticed a five-year-old boy sitting on the ground near the Gomez vehicle. The child's hands were tied behind his back and his feet were bound. The boy had also been blindfolded. The shopper called 911.

     When officers from the Lawrence Police Department arrived at the scene they saw the boy and his seven-year-old sister, also bound and blindfolded, sitting near the broken down Suburban. The other three Gomez children were in the vehicle with their father. Deborah was inside the Walmart store.

      When Adolfo Gomez resisted arrest officers subdued him with a stun gun. Ten minutes later they took Deborah Gomez into custody when she walked out of the store. The five children were turned over to a child protection agency and the Chevy was hauled to a police towing lot.

     A Douglas County prosecutor charged the 52 and 43-year-old couple with two counts of child abuse and five counts of child endangerment. Adolfo was also charged with resisting arrest. The judge scheduled the preliminary hearing on the case for August 10, 2012. In the meantime Adolfo and Deborah were held in the Douglas County Jail under $50,000 bond each. Adolfo had informed the court he intended to represent himself and his wife against the charges. The judge ordered mental evaluations of both defendants.

   In May 2013 Deborah Gomez pleaded no contest to child abuse. The judge sentenced her to one year probation. A month later her husband, pursuant to a plea arrangement, pleaded guilty to child abuse and resisting arrest. The judge sentenced Adolfo to 30 months in prison minus the 371 days he had spent in jail. At his sentencing hearing Gomez told the judge that he and his children had been fearful of demon possession. The Gomez children were placed into foster care.

Sunday, February 5, 2023

The Cannibal Cop Free Speech Case

     Gilberto Valle, a six year New York City police officer assigned to the 26th Precinct in Harlem, lived with his wife and child in the Forest Hills section of Queens. On an online dating site called OKCupid, the 28-year-old police officer described himself as a "very calm individual" with "an endless supply of hilarious short stories from work that can't be made up. I'll try anything," he wrote, "and I'm not picky at all." According to his online profile, Valle had attended Archbishop Molloy High School in Queens and the University of Maryland, College Park.

     Based upon an investigation conducted by the FBI over several months, officer Valle was not calm or funny. And what he was willing to try was more than a little disturbing. 
     According to court documents related to the federal investigation, Gilberto Valle and several unnamed co-conspirators had used the Internet to acquire potential female victims to kidnap, rape, torture, murder, cook and eat. In his search for targets Mr. Valle had used federal and state law enforcement crime-victim databases. The suspect corresponded with his like-minded co-conspirators through online dating forums.

     In addition to his use of the Internet to identify and lure women, Gilberto Valle conducted physical surveillances of their homes and workplaces. He used this data to draw up and revise detailed kidnap/murder "operation plans." 
     In February 2012, Valle, in an online communication with a co-conspirator who had expressed a desire to rape a woman, offered to kidnap a victim for this man for a fee of $5,000. Pursuant to his offer, Valle wrote: "It is going to be hard to contain myself when I knock her out, but I am aspiring to be a professional kidnapper, and that's business." Later in the conversation, Valle wrote: "She will be alive. I think I would rather not get involved in the rape. You paid for her. She is all yours, and I don't want to be tempted the next time I abduct a girl." 
     On July 2, 2012, Valle and a co-conspirator conducted a disturbing online conversation in which Valle wrote: "I was thinking of tying her body onto some kind of apparatus. Cook her over a low heat, keep her alive as long as possible."
     "How big is your oven," asked the co-conspirator. 
     "Big enough to fit one of these girls if I folded their legs...the abduction will have to be flawless...I know all of them."
     In another Internet exchange regarding a specific woman, Valle wrote: "I can just show up at her home unannounced, it will not alert her, and I can knock her out, wait until dark and kidnap her right out of her home."
     Valle's co-conspirator offered Valle some kidnap advice: "You really would be better to grab a stranger. The first thing the police force will do is check out [the victim's] friends [as suspects]."
     "Her family is out of state."    
     "I have anesthetic gasses," replied the helpful co-conspirator.
     "I can make chloroform here," Valle replied. 
     In another July 2012 conversation, one of Gilberto Valle's co-conspirators asked, "How was your meal?"
     "I am meeting her on Sunday," came the reply. 
     FBI agents, on Wednesday, October 24, 2012, arrested Gilberto Valle at his home on charges of conspiracy to commit kidnapping and intentionally and knowingly accessing a computer without authorization. (The bureau made the arrest because Valle had recently had lunch with a woman the FBI feared he would abduct.) From Valle's home in Queens, agents seized a computer that contained personal data--names, addresses, physical descriptions, and photographs--of 100 women. Valle's computer also held hundreds of incriminating emails and instant message chats between the suspect and his co-conspirators. 
          In March 2013, a jury in Manhattan found the defendant guilty as charged. In July 2014, however, a federal judge, except for the count of illegally using the federal databank to target victims, overturned Valle's conspiracy to kidnap conviction on grounds of free speech. Instead of facing up to life in prison Valle walked out of the jail having already served enough time to satisfy the punishment for the lesser offense.

     This judge did not believe Valle's writings and behavior rose above the expression of his bizarre fantasies. In America people are punished for criminal actions, not thoughts. This was a close and controversial decision.

     Gilberto Valle, in January 2018, published A Gathering of Evil, a horror novel that featured his obsession with killing and eating women. The work of fiction was narrated through the eyes of a sadist who kidnaps two young women. The author said he hoped to make a living as a novelist.

     In May 2018, Gilberto Valle lost custody of his daughter after his ex-wife claimed she had fears he would murder the girl.

Saturday, February 4, 2023

Randall Price: The Cost Of Hiring a Loose Cannon Cop

     Along a dirt road in Cottageville, South Carolina on May 16, 2011, Officer Randall Price of the Cottageville Police Department shot and killed Bert Reeves, a local construction company owner and the town's former mayor. They were both 40-years-old, had an antagonistic history between them, and, at the time of the shooting, were engaged in physical combat. The backgrounds of both men involved conflict and trouble. Reeves, shot in the chest, died from his wounds at a local hospital. The chief of the six-man police department, consisting of only two full-time patrol officers, placed Officer Price on paid administrative leave pending the investigation of the shooting by detectives with the state.

     Mayor Reeves, in 2004, scolded a town officer for not writing enough speeding tickets to pay for his job. ( With 10,000 vehicles passing through town every day on a major route between Charleston and Waterboro, Cottageville was a notorious speed trap.) In March 2006, a sheriff's deputy arrested the mayor for driving 103 mph in a 55 mph zone. Three months later, another deputy warned Mayor Reeves for driving 71 in a 55 mph area. In July 2006, Reeves suffered a serious brain injury after flipping his pickup. That November, the mayor reported his wife and children missing. He said they had been taken against their will by unidentified people angry at him over some business deal "turned ugly." As it turned out, the wife and kids had left on their own volition to get away from Mr. Reeves. A month later, after the state revealed that Bert Reeves had traces of marijuana in his blood when he wrecked his truck, he resigned from office. About a month before the fatal shooting, Reeves had complained about Officer Price's arrest of one of his relatives on an alcohol related charge.

     Officer Randall Price, before joining the Cottageville force in May 2008, had, two years earlier, been fired from the Blockville Police Department over a claim of excessive force. In 2001, he had been fired from the Aiken County Sheriff's Office for criminal domestic violence, and in 1999 from the McCormick County Sheriff's Office for unsafe driving. During an eleven year period, Mr. Price held jobs with eight different law enforcement agencies. He was the quintessential small town gypsy cop.

     In September 2011, Cottageville Mayor Margaret Steen laid off Officer Price. The police department, she said, couldn't afford to keep him on paid administrative leave pending the completion of the shooting investigation.

     In September 2012, Bert Reeves' ex-wife Ashley, on behalf of their two children, filed a federal wrongful death lawsuit against the town of Cottageville and other defendants. According to her attorney, Mullins McLeod, on the day in question, officer Price drove out to Nut Hatch Lane where he blocked the former mayor in with his patrol car before shooting him in the chest. The plaintiff accused the defendant town of negligently hiring a cop with a history of police brutality. According to the lawsuit, because town officials knew that Officer Price was out to get Mr. Reeves, they were negligent in not firing him.

     In August 2013, Lake Summers, the attorney representing the town, released civil suit documents that portrayed Bert Reeves, in the years before his death, as a mentally unstable and dangerous man. One of these documents included Mayor Margaret Steen's deposition transcript. Steen, the dead man's aunt, testified that shortly before the shooting, while she was at work in the town's municipal building, Reeves pulled his car up behind Officer Price's cruiser and started blowing his horn. The mayor, in an effort to defuse the situation, told the officer to ignore Reeves and go about his business. After Officer Price drove off, Reeves informed the major that he had been "this close to getting" Officer Price.

     According to Mayor Steen, Reeves looked as though he was under the influence of drugs that day. She testified that he was "acting wild and crazy." The mayor advised her nephew to take his complaints about Officer Price to the chief of police. Bert Reeves did not take her advice. In recalling that moment, the mayor said, "and he [Reeves] got this look on his face and he pointed and said, 'I'm going to get him now' and took off like a bat."

     The mayor, worried that there would be a dangerous confrontation involving her nephew and the police officer, immediately notified chief of police John Craddock of the situation. A short time later, Chief Craddock informed the mayor that Officer Price had killed Bert Reeves.

      Bert Reeves' brother, Mercer Reeves, in his civil suit deposition, revealed that his brother, in November 2006, had been involuntarily committed to a mental health facility after he threatened to harm members of his family. According the brother, Bert had threatened to kill his cousin and talked about harming a police officer.

     Ashley Reeves, in responding to attorney Summer's deposition transcripts, admitted that her ex-husband had gone through a rough period before and immediately after their June 2007 divorce. In 2006, he had threatened to burn down their house. The family court judge granted the divorce on grounds of Bert's adultery. Although the children remained with her, the judge granted her ex-husband visitation rights. "He was a really good father to his children," Ashley said. The plaintiff further asserted that her husband's difficulties with mental illness had nothing to do with his being wrongfully shot to death by Officer Price.

     According to a state toxicology report, Bert Reeves, at the time of his death, was not under the influence of illicit drugs. However, he did have in his system, at "therapeutic levels," three prescription drugs designed to treat anxiety.

     There was no third party witness to this police-involved shooting. Moreover, the event was not caught on videotape. As a result, all investigators had to go on was Randall Price's version of the incident. This and the fact Bert Reeves was mentally disturbed and angry in the hours before his death resulted in no criminal charges against the former police officer.

     On October 2, 2014, testimony in Ashley Reeves' wrongful death suit against Randall Price, the town and its police department got underway in federal court in Charleston, South Carolina. Throughout the trial plaintiff's attorney McLoad painted Randall Price as a loose cannon cop who had been frequently disciplined and fired for his on-duty bad behavior with several law enforcement agencies.

     The federal jury, on October 15, 2014, finding that the village of Cottageville had been negligent in hiring Randall Price, awarded the Reeves family $97.5 million. This award, punitive in nature, was a staggering financial blow to the community.

     In March 2015, to avoid an appeal that could take years, the plaintiffs agreed to accept $10 million in damages.

Friday, February 3, 2023

The Mystery of a Pig Farmer's Cause and Manner of Death

     By all accounts, Terry Vance Garner, a farmer from Riverton, Oregon, a small town 140 miles southwest of Eugene, loved his hogs. While most adult pigs weigh between 250 and 300 pounds when taken to market, the 69-year-old farmer owned several sows as heavy as 700 pounds. One of these huge female pigs once bit him when he accidentally stepped on a piglet.

     At 7:30 in the morning on Wednesday, September 26, 2012, Mr. Garner walked out to the hog pen to feed the animals. At 2:30 that afternoon, a relative who went looking for him, came across his dentures, hat, pocket knife, cigarettes and chunks of his body. The body parts and personal items were found inside the hog enclosure. It appeared that Mr. Garner had been consumed by the pigs he had gone out to feed.

     Although sudden, unexplained deaths call for autopsies, the forensic pathologist for Coos County didn't have enough of a corpse to open up and examine in an effort to determine the dead man's cause and manner of death. The best the authorities could do was take the farmer's bones to a forensic anthropologist at the University of Oregon.

     The forensic scientist didn't shed much light on how Mr. Garner had lost his life. A local dentist identified Mr. Garner through his false teeth.

     Because forensic pathology didn't determine what had caused this man's death, several scenarios were possible, none of which were proven forensically. If Mr Garner had stumbled or knocked over by a hog, then eaten alive, his manner of his death was accidental. If Mr. Garner had suffered a heart attack and died while attending to his pigs, his death would have been classified as natural. If one assumed that the farmer had intentionally offered himself up as hog feed, then his death would have gone into the books as a suicide. If it had been a suicide it was probably a first-of-its-kind case.

     There was also the possibility that Mr. Garner had been murdered. If this was how he died, it would not have been the first time a killer relied on pigs to dispose of a corpse. If the farmer had been shot, and the bullet did not exit his body, the slug would be inside one of the hogs. While foul play was a possibility, it seemed an unlikely scenario in this case.

     Without an eyewitness, a suicide note, a bullet or an autopsy report, the cause and manner of this man's death will remain a mystery.

Thursday, February 2, 2023

The Disneyland Dry Ice Bomb Case

     At four in the afternoon of May 28, 2013, parents who had brought their children to Mickey's Toontown section of Anaheim, California's Disneyland were startled by a small but loud explosion that tore the lid off a trash can near a kiddy ride called Roger Rabbit's Car Toon Spin. While no one suffered injuries from the blast, officials of the famous theme park evacuated the Toontown area.

     At the site of the low-order explosion, detectives found fragments of a plastic water bottle which led them to conclude that a so-called dry ice bomb had been the source of the explosion. A maker of such a device adds chunks of dry ice to a quarter-full bottle of water. Once sealed, the water warms the dry ice which produces carbon dioxide that builds inside the container and eventually ruptures the bottle. These simply made bombs, if moved, can blow off the handler's fingers. As booby traps, dry ice bombs function as little anti-personnel devices.

     Because dry ice is used at Disneyland to keep refreshments like ice cream and sodas cold, detectives figured there was a good chance the bomber worked for the theme park. As it turned out, they were right.

     On Wednesday, May 29, 2013, officers with the Anaheim Police Department arrested a 22-year-old man from Long Beach named Christian Barnes. Barnes, a so-called "outdoor vending cast member," peddled soda drinks and bottled water from a mobile cart. Charged with possession of a destructive device in a public place, the Disneyland employee was booked into the Orange County Jail. A magistrate set his bond at $1 million.

     It was hard to imagine a rational motive for a crime like this. Some kid dropping a piece of garbage into that trash can could have lost his hand. The fact that Barnes worked at the theme park suggested he didn't have a criminal record.

     On Thursday, May 30, 2013, Barnes pleaded not guilty to the felony charge that carried a maximum sentence of six years in prison. The judge reduced his bail to $500,000.

     Big theme parks are relatively safe places from crime. However, at Disney's Animal Kingdom in Orlando, Florida, a grandmother, after getting off the Dinosaur ride, had found a .380-caliber pistol on her seat. She handed the gun over to a park attendant. A few minutes later, a man returned to the site and claimed the weapon. It had fallen out of his pocket during the bumpy ride. Security personnel escorted him out of the park.

     The Disney Animal Kingdom incident exposed the reality that millions of people walk through hundreds of turnstiles into parks all over the country without being searched or exposed to metal detectors. There was no way to keep guns and dry ice bombs out of these places. If going to a theme park became as inconvenient and intrusive as getting on an airplane, Mickey and his friends would find themselves alone among the Roger Rabbit rides and phony dinosaurs.

     According to prosecutors, Christian Barnes allegedly placed dry ice into two water bottles and locked one inside his vending cart. When a co-worker came to take over the cart, one of the bottles exploded. Barnes then took the second bottle and placed it in the trash can. That device went off a short time later after a park janitor removed the trash bag and put it on the ground. The co-worker and janitor were not injured.

     In November 2013, Christian Barnes pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of possession of a destructive device in return for a sentence of 36 days in jail, 100 hours of community service and three years probation. He got off light.

Wednesday, February 1, 2023

The Chris Kyle Murder Case

     Chris Kyle, during his four tours of duty in Iraq as a Navy SEAL sniper, recorded 160 kills which earned him the unofficial title "America's Deadliest Sniper." (He killed one of his targets from a range of 1.2 miles.) The highly decorated SEAL was awarded two Silver Stars, five Bronze Stars, two Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medals and one Navy and Marine Corps Commendation.

     After his combat duty, Chris Kyle became the Chief Instructor in the training of Navy Special Warfare Sniper and Counter-Sniper teams. He wrote a Navy SEAL manual called the Naval Special Warfare Sniper Doctrine.

     Kyle, upon leaving the Navy in 2009, founded Craft International which provided firearms training to military, police and corporate clients. He became a celebrity in 2012 after the publication of his memoir American Sniper which became a New York Times bestseller.

     In American Sniper there is a passage in which the author claims to have punched former Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura over a comment Kyle considered unpatriotic. Governor Ventura, who said the punch never happened, sued Kyle in federal court for defamation, invasion of privacy and unjust enrichment.

     In 2012, Kyle appeared on the NBC reality television show "Stars Earn Stripes." And in the aftermath of the school massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, Kyle publicly recommended arming school teachers. A book he co-authored called American Gun: A History of the U.S. in Ten Firearms, was released in May 2013.

     On Saturday, February 2, 2013, Chris Kyle was in Glen Rose, Texas, a Hill County town 50 miles southwest of Fort Worth. At 3:30 in the afternoon, during a gun range charity event held at Rough Creek Lodge, a resort and conference center, the 38-year-old former SEAL was shot to death. He was shot by 25-year-old Eddie Ray Routh. After killing Kyle and 35-year-old Chad Littlefield, Routh fled the scene in Kyle's Ford pickup truck. Texas Rangers arrested Routh later in the day at his home in Lancaster, a town just south of Dallas about 70 miles from the shooting range. He confessed to the murder.

     Eddie Ray Routh, an ex-Marine who was deployed to Iraq in 2007, reportedly suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He was charged by the Erath County prosecutor's office with two counts of capital murder. Routh was held on $3 million bond.

     Former Texas Congressman Ron Paul, on February 4, 2013, responded on Twitter to Kyle's habit of taking veterans like Eddie Routh with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder to firing ranges. The Libertarian, whose opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were well-documented, in referring to Chris Kyles' murder, wrote that "he who lives by the sword dies by the sword." Mr. Paul also said that in his opinion, taking veterans with PTSD to firing ranges didn't make any sense.

     In the four months prior to the murder, Eddie Ray Routh, after he threatened to kill his family and himself, received mental health treatment. After murdering Chris Kyle and Kyle's friend Chad Littlefield, Routh drove to his sister's house in Midlothian, Texas where he informed his sister of what he had done on the shooting range.

     Eddie Ray Routh's murder trial was scheduled to start on February 11, 2015. Prosecutors said they would not seek the death penalty. The defendant's attorney, in speaking to reporters on January 22, 2015, said, "My client will plead not guilty by reason of insanity." The judge had rejected attorney J. Warren St. John's earlier motion to have the trial moved out of Erath County. However, in light of the box-office success of the movie "American Sniper," the attorney said he would refile the change of venue request.

     Following Chris Kyle's murder, Jesse Ventura continued his defamation suit against the Kyle estate. He won the civil action at the expense of Kyle's widow. Many considered Ventura's lawsuit greedy and unpatriotic. For him it turned out to be a public relations nightmare.

     In February 2015, an Erath County jury rejected the insanity defense and found Eddie Ray Routh guilty of Chris Kyle's murder. The judge sentenced him to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Chad Wolfe's Mysterious Death

     On Thursday night, March 14, 2013, Chad Wolfe and Jessica Price, his girlfriend of ten years, boarded Delta Flight 2233 out of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania en route to Atlanta and their final destination, Tampa, Florida. Wolfe resided in West Newton, a Westmoreland County town of 3,000 twenty-five miles southeast of Pittsburgh. The 31-year-old worked in a Sewickley Township body shop with his father. Chad and Jessica planned to meet up with friends in Tampa, rent a car, then drive to Daytona Beach to participate in Bike Week festivities. They also planned to visit a few automobile auctions.

     The couple flew into the Tampa International Airport from their layover in Atlanta just before midnight. They had been arguing. Chad took an elevator from the third floor of the main terminal to the 7th floor parking garage while she picked up their luggage from baggage claim. When Jessica returned to the main concourse with the luggage, Chad wasn't there. When she couldn't find him she alerted an airport security officer who organized a search party.

     At ten o'clock the next morning airport maintenance workers found Chad Wolfe's body lying on top of an elevator car stopped at the third floor of the main terminal. In his pocket investigators found an empty Xanax bottle. (He had a prescription for Xanax and Paxil.)

     Investigators found, on the seventh floor not far from the bank of elevators, Chad's cellphone and carry-on case. This discovery raised questions of what Chad was doing in the parking garage, and how his body end up on top of the third floor elevator car.

     The authorities who looked into this mysterious death, certainly a suspicious one, came to the conclusion that Chad Wolfe had somehow accidentally fallen down the elevator shaft. But the young man's father, Garland Wolfe, didn't believe his 150 pound son had the strength to pry open the elevator doors. Don Cassell, an elevator expert, agreed. According to Mr. Cassell, opening the doors of a working elevator with one's bare hands was next to impossible.

     Jessica Price revealed that Chad had taken a Xanax pill to ease his anxiety about flying, He had also consumed a drink on the plane. Did her confused boyfriend go to the parking garage to smoke a cigarette? Still, how did he get into the elevator shaft?

     In May 2013, the Hillsborough County Medical Examiner issued the report on Chad Wolfe's death. The cause of this young man's demise went into the books as "blunt force impact to the head and neck." The manner of death: an accident.

     According to the medical examiner's report, the deceased had Alprozolam and Paxil in his system. In the report, a forensic investigator wrote: "It appears the deceased forced open an elevator door to gain entry into the elevator shaft."

     According to a report submitted months later by the airport, witnesses on Wolfe's flight from Atlanta to Tampa said that Wolfe had been drinking alcohol, popping pills and acting rudely on the plane. At the airport, a witness saw a belligerent man banging on the seventh floor elevator door. Tampa airport detective Kevin Durkin, the lead investigator in the case, concluded that Wolfe forced open the landing doors on the elevator. He then wrapped his arms and legs aground "the elevator cable inside the shaft with the intention to slide down the cable to the elevator car roof. As he descended down the elevator cable, friction wounds caused him to let go."

     Detective Durkin concluded that Wolfe had fallen and died when he landed on the top of the elevator car.

Monday, January 30, 2023

The Eli Weaver/Barbara Raber Murder Case

     In 2009, Eli Weaver, his wife Barbara and their five children resided in central Ohio's Amish heartland. He owned a gun shop near his Wayne County farm near Apple Creek. Over the past several years leaders of the Amish community had thrown him out of the church for running around with English women he had met online. Eli would ask for forgiveness, be accepted back into the fold, then get into trouble again with the same un-Amish behavior.

     The 23-year-old Amish man, in 2003, met Barbara Raber, a woman who had grown up Amish but had left the church. The 33-year-old from Millersburg, Ohio made extra money driving Amish people from place to place. The relationship between Eli and his driver eventually became sexual.

     Beginning in the fall of 2008, Weaver and Raber began discussing how to murder his wife. In 2009, they exchanged a series of text messages in which they discussed various plans on how to pull off the crime.

      At seven on the morning of June 2, 2009, one of the Weaver children ran to a neighbor's house with shocking news. Someone, during the night, had shot and killed his mother in her bed. Eli, at that moment, was fishing on Lake Erie. The neighbor and the boy entered the Weaver house where Barbara Weaver lay in her blood-soaked bed with a gaping gunshot wound in her chest.

     At 11:30 that morning, Wayne County Coroner Dr. Amy Joliff pronounced Barbara Weaver dead at the scene. Dr. Lisa Kohler, the Summit County Chief Medical Examiner, performed the autopsy. According to the forensic pathologist, the victim had been killed by a single shotgun blast to the right side of her chest. Several shotgun pellets were removed from the corpse. Dr. Kohler estimated the time of death as sometime between midnight and three o'clock that morning.

     John Gardner, a firearms expert with the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation identified the death scene pellets as number six shot. While this ammunition could have been fired from shotguns of four different gauges, the firearms identification expert believed the murder weapon was a .410-gauge shotgun.

     Detectives with the Wayne County Sheriff's Office seized two .410 shotguns from Eli Weaver's gun shop. Officers also recovered a box of .410 shells with one round missing. Investigators in the murder house found an amount of cash sitting on a table suggesting that robbery had not been the motive in this killing.

     Questioned by detectives upon his return from the Lake Erie fishing trip, Eli Weaver denied any involvement in his wife's murder.

     On June 10, 2009, detectives arrested Weaver after he confessed to helping Barbara Raber murder his wife. She had pulled the trigger while he was fishing.

     That day, pursuant to a search of Raber's house in Millersburg, officers found a notebook in which she had written out a list of various poisons. At the police station following her arrest she denied knowledge of the murder. She explained the incriminating text messages to and from Eli as nothing more than joking around.

     The day after Raber's arrest, upon further questioning, the suspected trigger woman admitted going to the Weaver house around four in the morning armed with a .410-gauge shotgun. Eli had left the basement door unlocked for her. She said her intent was merely to frighten Barbara Weaver, but when she entered the bedroom, the gun discharged accidentally. Raber's interrogators didn't buy the accidental shooting story, but asked her to sign a written statement to that effect. She refused and asked to see a lawyer. The interrogation, at that point, came to an end.

     On August 17, 2009, Eli Weaver agreed to plead guilty to conspiracy to commit murder. As part of the plea deal, he promised to testify for the prosecution at Barbara Raber's murder trial.

     The Raber murder trial got underway on September 16, 2009 in Wooster, Ohio with Judge Robert J. Brown presiding. Wayne County prosecutor Edna J. Boyle, following testimony from the county coroner, the medical examiner and several police officers, put Dena Unangst on the stand. Unangst had been the defendant's cellmate at the Wayne County Jail. According to this witness, Raber admitted to her that she had purchased a .410 shotgun after Eli Weaver, on numerous occasions, begged her to murder his wife. Raber also asked Unangst if she knew how long a fingerprint could last on a gun. (Under ideal conditions, 50 years or more.)

     Gun store owner Larry Miller took the stand and testified that the defendant had purchased a .410 on November 15, 2008.

     On September 30, 2009, prosecutor Boyle put the shunned Amish man on the stand. Elie Weaver, now 29, testified that when he mentioned getting rid of his wife, a woman he didn't love, Raber "ran away with the idea." At one point, during one of their homicide planning conversations she gave him a bottle of what she called "poison pills." Eli said he rejected poisoning as a way of killing his wife.

     On the day before the murder, Eli informed Raber that at three the next morning he would be leaving the house on a fishing trip. He'd leave the basement door open for her. Shortly after he left the house that morning, Raber sent him a text in which she asked how she was supposed to see in the dark. "It's too scary," she wrote. Eli advised her to take a flashlight.

     At 3:25 AM Raber texted, "I'm scared, where are you?" Texting that he was in Wooster, Eli cautioned Raber not to leave anything behind at the murder scene.

     According to the prosecutor's star witness, on June 9, 2009, the day before he and Raber were arrested, they had a conversation in his barn. She described the night she killed Barbara Weaver and said she was "sorry for everything." Before parting company, Raber asked Eli how to clean a gun so it looked like it hadn't been recently fired.

     Assistant public defender John J. Leonard tried to convince the jury that Eli Weaver, not his client, had murdered the victim. The defense attorney described Raber's incriminating statement to detectives as the product of fear and confusion. Leonard rested his defense without putting his client on the stand.

     On October 1, 2009, the jury found the defendant guilty as charged. Judge Brown sentence the 39-year-old woman to 23 years in prison. Eli Weaver had been sentenced by this judge the day before to 15 years to life.

     Weaver's light sentence illustrates, from the point of view of a guilty murder mastermind, the value of pleading guilty and testifying against an accomplice. Raber's sentence, given the cold-bloodedness of the killing and the innocence of the victim, was also lenient.