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Friday, December 8, 2023

James Pepe: The High School Teacher From Hell

     James J. Pepe taught high school history in the Hillsborough County, Florida school system. For years he had been an erratic, difficult employee who frightened a lot of his follow teachers. In 2001, a faculty member characterized Pepe as "hostile," "aggressive" and "extremely volatile." During this period James Pepe called his principal a "pathological liar" and bragged to people that school administrators were powerless to take action against him. Had this disgruntled, disruptive employee worked in the private sector he would have been fired.

     In dealing with this potentially dangerous and out of control educator the Hillsborough County school superintendent decided against termination. Instead the boss suspended Mr. Pepe with pay, recommended anger management counseling then reassigned him to another school. (In teacher pedophile cases, they call this passing the trash.) Over the next few years, as Mr. Pepe's behavior became more bizarre, paranoid and bellicose, he was transferred three more times. At one of the schools this history teacher disrupted, Mr. Pepe accused the principal of assigning him the worst students. He also accused the maintenance staff of turning off the air-conditioning to his classroom. (Given the passive-aggressive nature of public school employee discipline, this might have been true. As they say, even a paranoid can be persecuted. Maybe school administrators were trying to encourage this pain-in-the-neck to quit.)

     In 2012 James Pepe was teaching and causing havoc at Bloomingdale High School near Tampa, his fifth assignment in the Hillsborough County school system. (Mr. Pepe, a seriously troubled unfit teacher was earning $58,000 a year plus benefits.) In recent months he had focused his paranoia on a 59-year-old economics teacher who also taught at Strawberry Crest High School. Pepe had convinced himself that Robert Meredith was the source of all his problems. More specifically the unstable teacher harbored the false notion that Mr. Meredith, his former colleague and friend, was spreading rumors that Pepe was a child molester.

     In August 2012 the 55-year-old history teacher reached out to a childhood friend for help. James Pepe came right to the point--would this person murder Robert Meredith for $5,000? The stunned friend, who said he would think about the homicidal proposal, immediately reported the murder solicitation to the Plant City Police Department. There was no doubt in the friend's mind that James Pepe was dead serious in his desire to have Mr. Meredith killed.

     The police asked the teacher's friend to call Mr. Pepe back and say that while he wasn't interested in committing murder he had found a man who would do the job. The "hitman," of course, would be an undercover cop.

     The undercover officer, in mid-September 2012, spoke with James Pepe by phone. During that conversation the teacher said he "had an issue he might need taken care of for $2,000." (While this seems a little cheap for a contract murder, had Pepe been talking to a real hitman, the price would have been about right. In the U.S. most amateur assassins are inexpensive.)

     In the second phone conversation between James Pepe and the "hitman," the undercover officer tried to arrange a meeting. Pepe declined, but said in no uncertain terms that he wanted to have Robert Meredith murdered. This conversation, of course, was recorded.

     While the police in murder solicitation cases prefer to have audio and videotaped meetings (often in a car parked in a Walmart parking lot) in which the mastermind hands over the blood money and provides the cop with helpful information regarding the target, the Plant City police, on September 27, 2012, took James Pepe into custody outside Bloomingdale High School.

     Charged with solicitation of first degree-murder, James Pepe was held without bond in the Hillsborough County Jail.

     On March 31, 2014 James Pepe pleaded guilty to solicitation of murder. The judge sentenced the murder-for-hire mastermind to house arrest for one year and 14 years of probation. This was, under the circumstances, an extremely lenient sentence. One would hope, at least, that the conviction ended Mr. Pepe's teaching career. 

Writer's Block: Only in America

     The phrase "writer's block" was coined by an American, a psychiatrist named Edmund Bergler. In other ages and cultures, writers were not thought to be blocked but straightforwardly dried up. One literary critic pointed out that the concept of writer's block is peculiarly American in its optimism that we all have creativity just waiting to be unlocked. By contrast, Milton, when he could not write, felt that he was empty, that there was no creativity left untapped.

     If writer's block is more common in the United States, it would not be the first weakness that is peculiar to our culture. The modern American idea of the literary writer is so shaped by the towering images of Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald struggling with every word, that there is a paradoxical sense in which suffering from writer's block is necessary to be an American novelist. Without block once in a while, if a writer is too prolific, he or she is suspected by other novelists as being a hack.

Alice W. Flaherty, The Midnight Disease, 2004 

Thursday, December 7, 2023

The Debra Milke Murder-For-Hire Case

     In December 1989, 25-year-old Debra Milke lived in Phoenix, Arizona with her 4-year-old son Christopher and a man named James Styers. Milke rented a room in Styers' house. A few days before Christmas Milke asked Mr. Styers to drive Christopher to the mall so he could visit Santa Claus. Instead of taking the boy to the shopping mall Styers and a friend drove him to a secluded ravine outside of town where Styers shot the boy three times in the head. Detectives and prosecutors believed that Debra Milke had arranged the murder of her son for a $50,000 insurance payout. 

      James Styers confessed to the homicide and was convicted of first degree-murder. At his trial neither he nor his friend implicated Milke in the alleged murder-for-hire plot. No other witnesses came forward with incriminating evidence against the mother.

     Evidence that Debra Milke had plotted the murder came from a Phoenix detective named Armando Saldate. According to the detective, Milke told him that her role in the conspiracy to murder her son had been "a bad judgment call." Milke's interrogation had not been recorded and Saldate was the only officer involved in her questioning. The mother proclaimed her innocence from the beginning and denied making any kind of confession to Detective Saldate or anyone else. A local prosecutor, relying on the detective's credibility, charged Debra Milke with murder, conspiracy to commit murder, child abuse and kidnapping.

     Detective Saldate, at Milke's October 1990 murder trial, testified that the mother had confessed to him regarding her role in her son's homicide. The defendant took the stand, professed her innocence and called the detective a liar. As is often the case jurors believed the police officer over the defendant. The jury returned a guilty verdict. A few months later the judge sentenced Debra Milke to death.

     As it turned out Detective Armando Saldate was in fact a notorious liar. Prior to his interrogation of Milke he had been caught committing perjury in four criminal trials. His credibility was so compromised judges refused to accept into evidence confessions this detective had acquired.

     On March 14, 2013 Chief Federal Judge Alex Kozinski of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Milke's conviction and vacated her sentence. The 49-year-old had been on Arizona's death row for 22 years. Based on Detective Saldate's history of perjury and other incidents of police misconduct, Judge Kozinski ruled that Milke's confession should have been excluded from her trial. Without this dishonest detective's tainted testimony the prosecution had no case. In rationalizing his decision, Judge Kozinski wrote: "No civilized system of justice should have to depend on such flimsy evidence, quite possibly tainted by dishonesty or overzealousness, to decide whether to take someone's life or liberty."

     On September 6, 2013, Judge Rosa Mroz of the Maricopa County Superior Court set the 49-year-old prisoner free on $250,000 bond. County prosecutors said they planned to bring Milke back to trial by the end of that month. Once again, the prosecution would seek the death penalty. The defendant's attorneys petitioned the Arizona Court of Appeals to throw out the first-degree murder charge.

     On December 12, 2014 a three-judge panel on the state appeals court ruled that a retrial in the Milke case would amount to double jeopardy. According to the court, "The failure to disclose evidence calls into question the integrity of the system and was highly prejudicial to this defendant." The appellate court ordered the dismissal of all charges against Debra Milke.

Wednesday, December 6, 2023

The James D. Willie Murder Case

     At 1:30 in the morning on Tuesday May 8, 2012, police in Panola County, Mississippi found 74-year-old Thomas Schlender dead in his 1999 Ford 150 pickup. Shot several times, he had crashed into a median divider on Interstate 55 in the northwestern part of the state. Mr. Schlender, from Nebraska, had been on his way to Florida to pick up his grandson. The victim's wallet was missing and near the truck, crime scene investigators recovered five shell casings.

     On Friday May 11, at 2:15 in the morning, police in neighboring Tunica County found the body of 48-year-old Lori Anne Carswell lying near her 1997 Pontiac Grand AM at the intersection of state highway 713 and Interstate 69. She had been on her way home from her place of employment, Fitzgerald's Casino in Hermando, Mississippi. Investigators recovered several shell casings from the scene of Carswell's shooting death.

     The place, time and physical evidence suggested that these murders had been committed by the same person. Police, suspecting that Carswell and Schlender had been murdered by someone impersonating a highway cop, advised motorists to call 911 if an unmarked car flashing its lights came up behind them.

     On May 12, 2012 a spokesperson with the state crime laboratory announced that the firing pin impressions and the ejector marks on the shell casings from the two murder scenes had been fired from the same semi-automatic handgun. In the event the murders were the work of a serial killer the local police brought in FBI profilers to study the case.

     Early Tuesday morning May 14, 2012, a woman in Tunica County, following a domestic disturbance, asked 30-year-old James D. Willie of Sardis, Mississippi to drive her to the sheriff's office. Willie, instead of taking the woman to the police, drove her to a Delta area field where he raped her. After the assault, when the victim tried to run away, Willie fired a shot at her that missed. He forced the victim back into his vehicle, then took her to his girlfriend's apartment. A few hours later the victim climbed out a window and escaped.

     Later that morning, Tunica County sheriff's deputies arrested James Willie at his girlfriend's place. In his car deputies found a 9mm Ruger pistol. From the Delta rape site they recovered a shell casing.

     On Wednesday, May 15, 2012, a spokesperson for the Mississippi State Crime Lab reported that the firing pin and ejector marks on the shell casing found in the field where the woman had been raped were made by the pistol that had fired and ejected the casings at the two highway murder scenes. Moreover, they all had been fired from the handgun recovered from James Willie's car.

     The Tunica County prosecutor charged James Willie with kidnapping, aggravated assault, rape and two counts of capital murder. He was held without bond in the Tunica County Jail.

     The unemployed murder suspect had an extensive arrest record. He had served prison time for burglary and was a known drug abuser. Detectives believed that when Willie shot Thomas Schlender and Lori Anne Carswell he was not impersonating a highway patrol officer. Willie had apparently killed these motorists in cold blood for drug money.

     On April 2, 2014, two days following the selection of the jury in James Willie's trial for the murder of Lori Anne Carswell, Tunica County Sheriff K.C. Hamp took the stand for the prosecution. In the middle of the sheriff's testimony, the defendant jumped to his feet and yelled, "Y'all lying. Why they lying? Let me talk!"

     The defendant's courtroom rant ended when deputies activated the electronic device attached to his leg. The officers gave the defendant three warning beeps before they stunned him with an electrical charge. Willie collapsed heavily to the floor, knocking over a chair.

     After deputies dragged the murder defendant out of the courtroom, District Attorney Brenda Mitchell moved for a mistrial. The judge granted the motion.

     On June 1, 2014, James Willie was back at another defense table being tried for the murder of Thomas Schlender. Panola County District Attorney John Champion, in his opening statement, said this to the jury: "At the conclusion of the trial, if you look at the shell casings found, the bullets that the ballistic expert will testify to, you will see that they had been fired from the same gun. Then you will see a picture of James Willie's guilt. I urge you to find him guilty."

     Panola County Public Defender David Walker, in his opening argument to the jury, said, "The state does not have any DNA from the crime scene or any fingerprints…I argue that the state does not have any proof of my client's guilt."

     On June 3, 2014, the jury in the Panola County Courthouse in Batesville, Mississippi found the defendant guilty as charged. The judge sentenced James Willie to life in prison without parole.

Tuesday, December 5, 2023

"Dragnet": Just the Facts

       The TV series "Dragnet" starring Jack Webb as Sergeant Joe Friday of the Los Angeles Police Department was aired from 1951 to 1959, then came back in 1967 and ran until 1970. The stories, based on actual police files, portrayed the bureaucracy, boredom, frustrations and drudgery--punctuated by bursts of danger--of real life detective work.

     The crimes featured on "Dragnet" ranged from murder, armed robbery, missing persons, arson, check fraud, embezzlement and even shoplifting. The stories unfolded in a straightforward fashion, helped along by Jack Webb's voice-over narration that informed the viewer of the time, date and place of every scene. The acting was direct and unpretentious (stilted if you're a fan of the angst-ridden I'm-going-for-an-acting-award style) and didn't overshadow the terse, crisp, clear-eyed exposition and dialog. The script writing was a blend of Ernest Hemingway and first-rate news reporting. 

     Each "Dragnet" episode had a beginning, middle and end followed by a wrap-up where you learned the criminal was tried and convicted in "Department 187 of the Superior Court of California, in and for the city and county of Los Angeles." First-degree murderers were "executed in the manner prescribed by law at the state penitentiary, San Quentin, California." Case closed.

     Jack Webb produced the series with James E. Moser as his chief writer. Moser peppered the scripts with police terminology such as M. O. and APB (all points bulletin) and realistically portrayed how criminal cases are solved by detectives who logically follow one investigative lead to the next. Detective Joe Friday didn't have feelings in his "gut" or lay awake at night in angst over the mental and emotional strains of being a cop. He simply performed his duty in a workman like fashion. 

Monday, December 4, 2023

Memo To Armed Robbers

     At five-thirty Tuesday evening November 12, 2014, 18-year-old Adric White and Tavoris Moss, 19, walked into a Family Dollar store in Baldwin County, Alabama outside of Mobile. White entered the premises carrying a handgun he intended to use to rob the place.

     This was not the first business establishment Adric White had held-up. A month earlier, after he robbed the nearby Original Oyster House, a judge allowed him to post bail despite the fact the Original Oyster House was not White's first robbery.

     In the back of the store White put his gun to a Family Dollar employee's head and ordered the hostage to the cash-out area where a customer saw what was happening. This customer, who was also armed, pulled his firearm as White forced the terrified clerk to get on his or her knees.

     The armed shopper yelled at White not to move. The robber, rather than lower his gun, turned the weapon on the customer. Fearing that he would be shot, the armed citizen fired at White who collapsed to the floor.

     Police officers took the suspect's companion into custody as paramedics rushed Adric White to the USA Medical Center. Although hit five times, he survived the shooting and received treatment at the hospital while under police guard. The judge revoked his bail on the Original Oyster House hold-up.

     The day following the Family Dollar robbery and shooting a local television reporter spoke to a relative of White's who said the family was furious with the vigilante who had shot and almost killed their loved one. "If the customer's [shooter's] life was not in danger," said the robber's relative, "if no one had a gun up to him, what gives him the right to think that it's okay to shoot someone? The [armed customer] should have left the store and went wherever he had to go."

     The same TV correspondent spoke to the man who had used his gun to stop the robbery and perhaps save the store clerk's life. The shooter, referred to in the local media as the Good Samaritan, said he had no choice but to take the action in the case. When the robber raised his gun the customer fired in self defense. "I didn't want to shoot him," the shooter said.

     According to the Good Samaritan, "Criminals tend to think they are the only ones with guns. I've been legally carrying my firearm for a little over four years now, and thank God I've never had to use it until last night. It just shows it's good to have a concealed carry permit. You never know when you're going to need it."

       As could be expected, gun rights advocates and their opponents argued over the merits of this case. But one thing that was not up for debate was this: If you rob someone at gunpoint there is a good chance you will be shot by a police officer or a fellow citizen. And if you are, the person who shot you will be hailed by most people as a Good Samaritan.

Sunday, December 3, 2023

The Edward and Marilyn Bagley Sex Slave Torture Case

      There are people who shouldn't have been born. They include serial killers, pedophiles, child pornographers and a small group of perverts who physically torture unwilling victims for sexual pleasure. Whether or not these sexual deviants are born or made is irrelevant. They are among us and by the time one of them is caught and brought to justice the harm has been done. In the end we are frustrated because our justice system is often more civilized than the criminal it punishes. We have to live with the fact these predators never get what's coming to them. In the world of sadistic sex crimes there is no such thing as justice.

     Edward and Marilyn Bagley, a pair of practicing sexual sadists, lived in a trailer near Lebanon, Missouri in the western part of the state. In December 2002, when Edward was 35 and his wife 37, the Bagleys took in a mentally deficient 16-year-old foster home runaway. (The girl was identified by the FBI as FV or Female Victim.) Proudly calling himself "Master Ed," Mr. Bagley and his wife promised the girl a better life that featured a career in modeling and dancing. When FV was still a minor, Edward Bagley forced her to wear "slave clothes," provided her with marijuana and ecstasy and repeatedly raped her. "Master Ed" informed the girl that she was being trained and groomed to be a sex slave. In that regard he forced her to sign a life-time sex slave contract that she believed was legally binding.

     Between February 2004 and February 2009 Master Ed and his accomplice spouse used a crank telephone to electrocute the girl's private parts, flogged her, sewed-up and pierced parts of her body, choked her to the point of unconsciousness, made her watch as they shot her beloved pets and threatened to bury her alive in the woods behind the trailer. The pathologically cruel couple even waterboarded FV and nailed parts of her body to slabs of wood. To mark her as their property Edward Bagley tattooed a barcode on his captive's neck and inked the Chinese symbol of a slave on one of her ankles.

     The Bagleys published FV's torture sessions on live Internet webcasts for the enjoyment of other sexual monsters willing to pay a fee for the thrill of watching a young woman suffer. A sadist in his later twenties from St. Louis named Bradley Cook watched these pornographic obscenities on his computer, downloaded photographs of FV and forwarded to the Bagleys images of his own sex slave activity. Sixty-year-old Michael Stokes, a California connoisseur of the sadistic arts, traveled to the Bagley torture chamber where he paid for the opportunity to inflict his own brand of pain on the hapless victim. Mr. Stokes, after he paid the Bagleys $1,300, was allowed to transport the sex slave to his home on the west coast where he subjected her to a pornographic photo-shoot and various deviate sexual assaults.

     Beginning in June 2007 the Bagleys forced their 21-year-old slave to work as a stripper and exotic dancer in several of the region's adult entertainment clubs. Whenever FV failed to be a club's top monthly earner the Bagleys punished her with extra beatings and acts of sexual depravity.

     FV's seven-year ordeal came to an end in February 2009 when the young woman required emergency medical treatment and hospitalization after the Bagleys' excessive electrical shocking led to cardiac arrest. Shortly after FV's near-death experience the FBI entered the case.

     In September 2010 a federal grand jury sitting in Kansas City, Missouri indicted the Bagleys for commercial sex trafficking and forced labor trafficking involving aggravated sexual abuse. The first charge carried a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison without parole. The second, life without the chance of parole. Several months later the feds indicted Michael Stokes and Bradley Cook for their roles in the Bagley sex slave conspiracy. The grand jury also returned indictments against 52-year-old Dennis Henry and James Noel who was 47. Both of these degenerates had participated in FV torture sessions.

     Early in 2012 Stokes, Cook, Henry and Noel pleaded guilty to federal sex trafficking charges. On December 6, 2012, Marilyn Bagley, now 47, pleaded guilty in a Kansas City federal court to one count of conspiracy to commit commercial sex trafficking. In return for her plea the judge sentenced Marilyn Bagley to a probated sentence.

     On January 15, 2013 Edward Bagley, faced with the realization that Michael Stokes and the other perverts had agreed to testify against him, pleaded guilty to one count of using an interstate facility to entice a minor into illegal sexual conduct.

     A federal judge on September 10, 2013 sentenced Edward Bagley to twenty years in prison with no chance of parole. The next day Bradley Cook was sentenced to twenty years behind bars. The judge gave Dennis Henry and James Noel fifteen years each. Michael Stokes was sentenced to five years in prison.
     In a criminal justice system sympathetic to victims all of these people should have been put away for life. 

Saturday, December 2, 2023

The Ryan Walton Double Murder Case

     Real estate developer Michael Walton and his wife Lynda resided with their 18-year-old daughter Shelby in a $1.4 million mansion a few miles from downtown Katy, Texas, a suburban community of 14,000 outside of Houston. Residents of the Lake Pointe Estates gated community referred to the two-story Walton house as "the governor's mansion" because the 54-year-old entrepreneur had developed the subdivision.

     Mr. Walton and his 52-year-old wife had three other children who didn't live with them. Their daughter Shelby, who had just finished her senior year at Katy High School, was planning to attend college in the fall.  Donald Walton, the oldest, was 28. His brother Derrick Walton was 24, and the youngest son, Ryan, had just turned twenty.

     At five o'clock in the afternoon of Thursday, May 29, 2014, 24-year-old Derrick Walton entered the mansion to find his parents dead on the first floor of the dwelling. He called 911.

     When deputies with the Fort Bend County Sheriff's Office responded to the 911 call they discovered that Michael and Lynda Walton had been shot to death. Near their bodies deputies found spent shell casings from a small caliber pistol. Because the gun was not in the house the officers ruled out murder-suicide.

     While deputies found evidence of a forced entry, the interior of the dwelling had not been ransacked and nothing appeared to have been stolen. From neighbors, investigators learned that the couple had been last seen alive at seven that morning.

     A surveillance camera at one of the subdivision's exits showed 20-year-old Ryan Walton driving out of the community in his mother's blue BMW. He was seen leaving the enclave at nine o'clock Thursday morning, two hours after his parents were seen alive.

     Shortly after the 911 call homicide investigators questioned Ryan Walton's three siblings. Ryan's whereabouts, however, were unknown. Estranged from his parents over some unidentified conflict, Ryan had moved out of the house three weeks earlier. He had also dropped out of Texas A & M University at Corpus Christi. (In 2011 the Walton's youngest son had been arrested for possession of marijuana.)

      On Friday, May 30, 2014 the sheriff of Fort Bend County declared Ryan Robert Walton a person of interest in the Walton double murder case.

     An off-duty Fort Bend sheriff's deputy, at thirty minutes past noon on Saturday, May 31, 2014, spotted Ryan Walton behind the wheel of his mother's stolen BMW. The officer pulled the car over in the town of Rosenberg, a community twenty miles from the murder scene.

     That Saturday afternoon officers booked Ryan Walton into the Fort Bend County Jail on two counts of murder. The judge denied him bond.

     On July 3, 2014 a Fort Bend grand jury indicted Ryan Walton on two counts of capital murder. In Texas that meant he was eligible for the death penalty. Six weeks later, at an arraignment hearing, the defendant's court-appointed lawyer pleaded his client not guilty to the murder charges. More than a dozen of the suspect's family and some of his friends attended the hearing. None of them agreed to talk to reporters.

      On September 21, 2016 Judge James Shoemake, pursuant to a plea bargain deal, sentenced 22-year-old Ryan Walton to life with the possibility of parole after 30 years in prison. Because there was no trial and very little news coverage of this case, the motive behind the murders remained a mystery. 

Friday, December 1, 2023

The Mona Nelson Blow Torch Murder Case

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     On Tuesday, August 13, 2013 Mona Nelson, pursuant to the procedural law question regarding the admissibility of her police statements, testified that her interrogators had worn her down. Although she asked to consult with an attorney a dozen times the questioning continued. Attorney Tanner argued that the interrogating officers had violated his client's Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. He also asserted that her statements had not been given voluntarily and were therefore inadmissible in court.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 30, 2023

Linsey Attridge's False Rape Report

     In 2008, Linsey and Gary Attridge were married in the central Scotland town of Grangemouth. The 26-year-old bride had grown up in Grangemouth where her mother worked as a seamstress and her father was a window cleaner. Linsey and her new husband, a financial advisor, honeymooned in Malta.

     Less than two years after the wedding Linsey Attridge was unhappy with her marriage. In August 2010, after meeting kickboxing instructor Nick Smith online, Linsey and her daughter moved into the 32-year-old's house in the northern city of Aberdeen. By the summer of 2011 that relationship had fallen apart after Linsey confessed to having sex with one of Nick Smith's friends while he was in the house asleep. Although they were no longer a couple, Nick Smith allowed Linsey and her daughter, to whom he had become a surrogate father, to remain in his house.

     In August 2011, while browsing through Facebook pages, Linsey Attridge came across a photograph of 26-year-old Philip McDonald, a cook at a downtown Aberdeen cafe. He was pictured with his 14-year-old brother James. Philip lived outside of the city in a modest flat with his partner Kelly Fraser and their daughter. To Linsey Attridge Philip and James McDonald were total strangers.

     A few days after stumbling across the Facebook photograph Linsey Attridge, in a scheme to rekindle her relationship with Nick Smith, decided to falsely report that that Philip and James McDonald had broken into her house and brutally raped her. Before alerting the authorities she staged the crime by overturning furniture, punching herself in the face and ripping her clothing.

     Police officers who responded to the false report found a woman who looked and acted as though she had been beaten and sexually assaulted. She submitted herself to various physical examinations including tests for sexually transmitted diseases. In an act of extreme self-centered cruelty Linsey Attridge identified Philip and James McDonald as her rapists. 

     Two days after receiving the false crime report police officers arrested 14-year-old James McDonald at his mother's house. He was a student at a residential school for teenagers with behavioral problems. Less than an hour after taking James into custody police officers walked into the cafe where Philip McDonald worked as a cook.

     On the worst day of Philip McDonald's life, the detectives told him that he and his brother were the prime suspects in a brutal rape case. The officers asked the shocked and frightened young man to accompany them to the police station for questioning. In the police vehicle en route to police headquarters the officers identified the victim and described the home invasion and crime. Philip broke down and cried. (The officers probably took this as a sign of guilt.)

     At the police station detectives photographed, fingerprinted and swabbed Philip McDonald for DNA. During the five-hour interrogation, when a detective revealed exactly when the crime had taken place, Philip was relieved. While the two men were supposedly raping Linsey Attridge, Philip was at home putting his daughter to bed. Several members of his family were in the house with him that night. His relatives would vouch for his whereabouts at the time of the rape. He had a solid alibi.

     The detectives questioning Philip were not interested in his alibi. Everyone had an alibi. Big deal. Philip didn't realize that many police investigators, once they have a suspect in their cross-hairs, were extremely reluctant, even in the face of exonerating evidence, to change targets, switch gears.

     Over the next two months Philip McDonald's life was a living hell. He couldn't be out in public without being harassed and had to enroll his daughter in another school. By October 2011 Linsey Attridge's story began to unravel. When pressed by detectives who had become skeptical, she admitted that she had made the entire story up. She had done it in an effort to attract attention and sympathy from her estranged boyfriend, Nick Smith. In so doing she had put Philip and his brother through hell, wasted police resources and made the detectives look like incompetent fools. 

     Shortly after Linsey Attridge's false report confession a pair of detectives walked into the cafe to inform Philip that he was in the clear. That was it. Out of the blue he was accused of rape, and out of the blue he was told that he had been cleared. The officers left the restaurant without even offering an insincere apology. Like their counterparts in America, and probably throughout the world, police officers rarely say they are sorry. Why? Because many of them are not sorry. The rest are afraid of being sued.

     A local prosecutor charged Linsey Attridge with the crime of filing a false report. In June 2013 the defendant pleaded guilty to the charge in an Aberdeen courtroom. The judge shocked everyone by sentencing her to 200 hours of community service and two years probation. Nick Smith, her former boyfriend, was in the courtroom that day. He told reporters outside the court house that he thought the judge's sentence was "ridiculous." By that he meant lenient. He was right. This woman should have been locked up for at least five years.