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Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Peter Keller: The Survivalist Who Didn't Survive

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

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

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 Keller's red Toyota pickup truck was missing and a week earlier he had withdrawn $6,200 from a local bank.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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 22, 2024

Steve Nunn: the Politician and Husband From Hell

     If you think all politicians are above average spouses and parents, think again. Although they pretend to be better than the rest of us, some of them are hypocrites and thieves, and even dangerous. Take Steve Nunn, a state legislator from Kentucky who was a lousy husband, a raging hypocrite and dangerous.

     Steven Nunn was 15 when his father, Louie B. Nunn, became Kentucky's 52nd governor in 1967. A Republican, Mr. Nunn was re-elected to a second term but in 1973 lost his bid for a seat in the U.S. Senate. Six years later he ran for governor again, but lost. His career in elected politics was over.

     In 1974, Steve, hoping to follow in his father's footsteps, enrolled in law school but dropped out. He got married and over the next five years had three children. In 1990, at age 38, he ran for the Kentucky state house of representatives and won.

     Steve's father, a hard-driven narcissist and BS artist who enjoyed subjecting his kid to ridicule, refused to be impressed with his son's election to state office. Like his father, Steve was a lousy husband who regularly cheated on his wife. In 1994 she divorced him. (In state politics, being a rotten husband is not usually a liability because most people have no idea who represents them locally.) Two years later Steve's mother Beula, after 42 years of marriage to Louie B., sought a restraining order against the abusive ex-governor. Steve confronted his father over this and the two men came to blows. After that they stopped speaking to each other. Shortly after the father and son stopped talking to each other, Beula divorced Louie B. Nunn.

     Steve Nunn, in his third term as a state legislator married Tracey Damron, a former flight attendant and daughter of a wealthy Kentucky coal magnate. A social butterfly who sparkled at fundraisers and social events, Tracey became the perfect politician's wife. Two years later, in 1998, Steve co-sponsored a bill that imposed the death sentence on convicted killers who murdered women who had taken out restraining orders against them. The bill became Kentucky law.  

       In 2002, after Tracey Nunn engineered a father-son reconciliation, she and Steve moved into the ex-governor's Pin Oak Farms mansion near Versailles, Kentucky. But a year later the 51-year-old's political career took a bad turn. In a bid for the governorship, Steve lost badly in the Republican primary. And on January 29, 2004 his father, at age 81, died of a heart attack. Although Steve didn't have a healthy relationship with his father, the old man's death devastated him. The wheels of Steve's political career came off in 2006 when he lost his legislative seat to an unknown challenger.

     Following the death of his father Steve Nunn started drinking heavily, patronizing prostitutes and behaving irrationally. He also became, like his father, an abusive husband. Tracey divorced him in 2006. The following year the 55-year-old political had-been met 20-year-old Amanda Ross, the daughter of a recently deceased public financier. After two months of dating Steve moved into her Lexington, Kentucky apartment. In 2008 they were engaged to be married.

     Through his engagement to Amanda Ross Steve landed the cabinet-level job of heading up a state agency that oversaw a variety of welfare programs, include those dealing with spousal abuse.

     Although Steve was back on his feet career-wise, he was still emotionally unstable and drinking too much. His paranoia led him to suspect that Amanda was cheating on him. On February 17, 2009, in the midst of an argument in Ross' apartment, Nunn hit Amanda. The next day she petitioned the court for an emergency protection order which a judge quickly granted. Under the restraining order Mr. Nunn could have no contact with Amanda for a period of a year. Within 48 hours of the judge's ruling he had no choice but to resign his cushy, high-paid government job.

     Convinced that Amanda Ross had intentionally sabotaged his career, Steve Nunn became obsessed with revenge. To embarrass and humiliate his former fiancee he showed his friends nude photographs he had taken of her. He began to stalk her.

     On September 11, 2009, as Amanda Ross left her apartment on her way to work, Steve Nunn shot her to death. While no one witnessed the murder, homicide investigators immediately suspected him. Later that day police officers found him hiding in a cemetery. He had scratched his wrists in a phony suicide attempt.

     Charged with first-degree murder, Nunn, to avoid the death penalty mandated by his own legislation, pleaded guilty in 2011 in exchange for a sentence of life without parole.

     Members of Amanda Ross' family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Steven Nunn in 2012. Two years later the civil case jury found him responsible for Ross' death and awarded the plaintiffs $24 million.

     In February 2014 Steve Nunn petitioned Fayette County Judge Pamula Goodwine to have his guilty plea withdrawn. He said his defense attorney, Warren Scoville, had given him bad advice. Following the October 2014 hearing on the motion, Judge Goodwine denied Nunn's plea withdrawal request.

Sunday, July 21, 2024

The Bobby Woods Jr. Murder Case: The Banality Of Evil

     In August 2015, 17-year-old Bobby Woods Jr. was living in his family's house in Lufkin, Texas with his girlfriend Billie Jean Cutter and her son, Mason Cutter, a 3-year-old boy fathered by another man. When Billie Jean informed Bobby that she was pregnant with his child, the couple decided to murder Mason. With three families living under the same roof there was simply not enough room for the child.

     On August 15, 2015 Bobby Woods took the 3-year-old boy to a pond on the family's property and pushed him into the water. As the boy struggled to survive Bobby Woods turned and walked away. The terrified child drowned. The next day Mason Cutter's body was removed from the pond.

   When questioned by detectives Bobby Woods confessed to killing Mason Cutter and doing it with Billie Jean Cutter's consent. The boy had become excess baggage and had to go. As it turned out, the murder wasn't necessary because Billie Jean was in fact not pregnant. Poor Mason, however, was still dead.

     A month before the August 2019 murder trial Bobby Woods' attorney filed a motion to have his client's confession excluded as evidence on grounds it had been acquired by police coercion. The defense attorney explained that Bobby had signed the Miranda warnings waiver under the belief that only guilty people needed lawyers.

     The judge denied the defense motion, ruling that Woods' confession had been given voluntarily. As a result it could be entered into evidence at his trial. This decision sealed the defendant's fate.

     On August 16, 2019, following seven days of testimony the Angelina County jury found Bobby Woods Jr. guilty of capital murder. The judge sentenced the 21-year-old to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

     Billie Jean Cutter, in exchange for her guilty plea to the charge of conspiracy to commit murder, received a sentence of 20 years behind bars.

      The fact that people like this walk among us is more than a little disturbing. Moreover, the fact this case received so little attention in the national media revealed that we are beyond being shocked and horribly disgusted by evil of this magnitude. Mason Cutter was just another kid who died because he was born to a degenerate mother who had a moronic murderous boyfriend.

Saturday, July 20, 2024

The Vi Ripken Kidnapping Case: An Unsolved Mystery

     Cal Ripken, Jr., inducted into the baseball hall of fame in 2007, played 21 years for the Baltimore Orioles. Because he played in 2,632 consecutive games Ripken earned the title the "Iron Man." He was a celebrity and businessman in the Baltimore area.

     In July 2012 Vi Ripken, the former ballplayer's 74-year-old mother, became a celebrity in her own right as a victim of an abduction that took place in July 2012. Based on what was published in the media and Cal Ripken's public statement on the matter, the following was the initial and sketchy account of this odd crime:

     Between seven and eight in the morning of Tuesday, July 24, 2012 an unknown man entered Vi Ripken's garage in Aberdeen, Maryland, a town 30 miles northeast of Baltimore and forced her at gun point into her silver 1998 Lincoln Town Car. The abductor was described as a clean-shaven white male who was five feet ten inches tall and weighed 180 pounds. He wore glasses, an orange ball cap and Camouflage colored clothing.

     The kidnapper tied Vi's hands and blindfolded her. (According to the victim, he originally planned to cover her eyes with tape. We don't know what he used to tie her up, or if she was bound behind her back.) With the victim in the back seat of her own car the abductor drove her around Baltimore and Anne Arundel Counties. They stopped for food and he lit her cigarettes. At first the kidnapper said he wanted her money and the car, but changed his mind.

     At some point in the abduction the man told Vi that he wasn't going to hurt her and that he had decided to take her back to her house. The next day, at six in the morning, the kidnapper parked the car 100 yards from Vi's dwelling and walked away. Still bound, Vi managed to honk the horn which alerted a neighbor. In telling friends and family what happened, Vi said her abductor did not know her son was Cal Ripken, Jr. (This suggested that she told him that.) He had not physically harmed her, and did not demand a ransom.

     In a press conference held on Friday, August 3, 2012, Cal Ripken, Jr. said he first learned of his mother's disappearance at 9 PM on the day of her abduction. His sister phoned him with the news that a witness had seen a woman in Baltimore County riding in the back seat of a car bearing the license number of the Lincoln Town Car. This person had called the Baltimore County Police. The county police relayed this information to the police in Aberdeen.

     After Vi Ripken's safe return the authorities distributed a police-sketch of the abductor (these cartoonish depictions are generally useless). The sketch was placed on five massive billboards in the Baltimore area. The authorities also made public a surveillance video tape showing a man in a ball cap walking out of a Walmart store in Glen Burnie, Maryland, an Anne Arundel County town about an hour from Aberdeen. The police did not revealed how this man fit into the story, but one would assume he was the suspected abductor and that at some point during the kidnapping he entered the store to purchase something.

     At the press conference on August 3, 2012 Cal Ripken, Jr. said his mother had not returned to her home in Aberdeen but had otherwise resumed her normal routine. He also said she was talking about her experience "nonstop." On Friday night, August 3, 2012 the kidnapping was featured on the Lifetime Cable Network's "America's Most Wanted." The Aberdeen police offered a $2,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the Ripken abductor.

    The police did not release many details of the crime. For example, did the authorities know the identity of the witness who spotted the woman in the back of the Lincoln Town Car? What did Vi and her abductor do during the 24-hour abduction? Did they sleep? Did they leave the car? Where did she use the restroom? Did crime scene investigators process the car for latent fingerprints and other forms of trace evidence? Did the abductor leave behind the material used to tie the victim up? What about the blindfold? Did the abductor use the victim's credit or ATM cards?

     The biggest mystery, of course, was the identity of the abductor and why he chose to kidnap Vi Ripken.

     On August 2, 2017, more than five years after the Ripken abduction, the police released a new composite sketch of the man they believe had kidnapped Vi Ripken. The FBI had entered the investigation.
     Vi Ripken died in March 2021. She was 82.

    As of this writing no arrests have been made in the case. Moreover, investigators have not identified a suspect.

Friday, July 19, 2024

An Eye For An Eye: The New England Pentecostal Ministries Murder And Shooting Cases

     On Tuesday, October 1, 2019 Luis Garcia, the 60-year-old minister at the New England Pentecostal Ministries Church in Pelham, New Hampshire, a town of 13,000 near the Massachusetts state line, was helping a member of his congregation paint his house in nearby Londonderry, New Hampshire. The owner of the house, 60-year-old Mark Castiglione, was getting married to Claire McMullen on Saturday, October 12, 2019. The ceremony was scheduled to take place at the Pelham Pentecostal Church with Minister Garcia presiding.

     Minister Garcia had been trying to help Mark Castiglione's troubled 24-year-old son, Brandon. A resident of Manchester, New Hampshire, Brandon Castiglione had grown up in Londonderry. Since he turned 18 in 2012 Brandon Castiglione had been arrested on dozens of occasions and had been convicted seven times for drug related offenses.

     At two in the afternoon of Tuesday, October 1, 2019, Mark Castiglione's son Brandon Castiglione came to the house in Londonderry and shot Minister Garcia in the neck with a handgun. When Londonderry police officers entered the Castiglione house they found Minister Garcia dead.  Officers at the scene took Brandon Castiglione into custody.

     The following day, at his arraignment Brandon Castiglione was charged with second-degree murder. The magistrate denied him bail.

     Minister Garcia's funeral service was scheduled for noon on Saturday, October 12, 2019. That morning, Mark Castiglione, the man whose son was in jail for shooting Minister Garcia to death was getting married in Pelham's New England Pentecostal Church. The ministries' 75-year-old bishop, Stanley Choate, would preside over the wedding ceremony in place of his dead colleague.

     At this point it would be hard to imagine this story becoming more bizarre. But it did.

     In the midst of the Castiglione/McMullen wedding ceremony that preceded Lous Garcia's funeral service, Garcia's 37-year-old stepson, Dale Holloway, entered the Pelham Pentecostal Church with a handgun and started shooting. Mark Castiglione was struck in the head with an unidentified object, his bride was shot in the arm and Bishop Stanley Choate took a bullet in the chest.

     Several of the forty wedding guests charged the shooter, tackled him and pinned him to the floor. Pelham police officers arrived at the church and took Dale Holloway into custody. Bishop Choate was rushed to the Tufts Medical Center in Boston where he was listed in serious condition but expected to survive his gunshot wound.

     The Hillsborough County District Attorney charged Dale Holloway with two counts of attempted first-degree murder and two counts of first-degree assault.

    In August 2023, following a two-week trial, the jury found Brandon Castiglione guilty of second-degree murder. The judge sentenced him to 42 years in prison.
     Following his November 2023 trial in which he represented himself, the jury found Dale Holloway guilty as charged. The judge in January 2024 sentenced Mr. Holloway to fifty years in prison. 

Thursday, July 18, 2024

The Lori Isenberg Poison-Murder Case

      In 2018 Laurcene "Lori" Barnes Isenberg, the Executive Director of North Idaho Housing Cooperative, a non-profit organization created to help low-income families, resided with her 68-year old husband, Larry Isenberg in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. Mr. Isenberg had a 39-year-old son from a former marriage. His 66-year-old wife had four daughters from her first husband. 

     On the morning of February 13, 2018 Lori Isenberg called 911. To the emergency dispatcher she reported that while boating with her husband on Lake Coeur d'Alene he had fallen overboard.

     As a water recovery team searched for Mr. Isenberg, Lori Isenberg told deputies with the Kootenai County Sheriff's Office that her husband had been ill with the flu but had insisted on taking her on a boat ride that morning. While attempting to restart the boat's stalled electric motor he toppled into the water. When she couldn't find him she called 911 from his cellphone, 

     In a written police statement Lori Isenberg described her husband's fall this way: "He stood up, looked at me with a confused look on his face and started to fall over. I jumped up and tried to get him, but I tripped on the heater and banged my head and couldn't reach him in time." 

    Searchers were unable to recover Mr. Isenberg's body. At this point the authorities presumed he had drowned as a result of a boating accident. Perhaps he'd suffered a stroke and lost his balance and toppled out of the boat. At this point no one believed that his death had been the result of foul play. 

     The day following Mr. Isenberg's presumed death Lori Isenberg put the family home up for sale. She also gave her daughters personal items that were once owned by Mr. Isenberg. 

     On February 24, 2018, with Larry Isenberg still missing and presumed dead, FBI agents arrested Lori Isenberg on 40 counts of federal wire fraud and one count of theft. Over a period of years the Executive Director of North Idaho Housing Coalition had created thousands of forged invoices that enabled her to embezzled $570,000 from the non-profit organization. Her four daughters, having knowingly received some of the stolen money, were charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud and theft. 

     After pleading not guilty to the charges, a federal magistrate set Lori Isenberg's bail at $2 million. She was held in the Kootenai County Jail on the federal charges. 

     On March 1, 2018 Larry Isenberg's body was seen floating near the shore of Lake Coeur d'Alene. The forensic pathologist who performed the autopsy, based on the results of a toxicological analysis that showed a lethal dose of the drug diphenhydramine in Mr. Isenberg's system, ruled his manner of death homicide by poisoning. Diphenhydramine is an ingredient commonly found in over the counter sleeping aid and pain pills. The forensic pathologist did not publicly reveal how Mr. Isenberg had been given the poison.

     Investigators with the Kootenai County Sheriff's Office, with Lori Isenberg as the prime suspect, launched a murder investigation. In the course of that inquiry detectives learned that in late 2017, when Mr. Isenberg and his wife were vacationing in Florida, she made an Internet inquiry about rental boats, lake currents, weather conditions and water depths pertaining to another Coeur d'Alene area lake called Lake Pend Oreville. While on that Florida trip, detectives had reason to believe that Lori Isenberg tried to kill her husband with diphenhydramine. As for motive, homicide investigators believed that Lori Isenberg was afraid that if her husband learned she had embezzled from her employer he would divorce her.

     Detectives also learned that just weeks before Larry Isenberg's death his wife had made handwritten changes to his will. As a result of these crude alterations the will devised 80 percent of his estate to her four daughters. 

     In the spring of 2019 Lori Isenberg pleaded guilty to defrauding North Idaho Housing Coalition of $570,000. The judge sentenced her to five years in federal prison. Her daughters were sentenced to three years probation, community service and were ordered to pay back the stolen money they had received.

     A Kootenai County grand jury, in January 2020, indicted Lori Isenberg on the charge of first-degree murder for poisoning her husband to death then throwing him off the boat into the waters of Lake Coeur d'Alene. At the time of the indictment Lori Isenberg was serving time for wire fraud and theft at a federal prison. 

     In March 2020, due to COVID-19, the Idaho Supreme Court delayed all criminal jury trials in the state. Lori Isenberg's murder trial was postponed to August 3, 2020. The trial was postponed again to September 14, 2020, then again to early 2021.

     In February 2021 Lori Isenberg pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. Three months later the judge sentenced her to life in prison.

Wednesday, July 17, 2024

The Execution of Manuel Pardo

     In 1979 after having served four years in the Navy, 22-year-old Manuel Pardo graduated from the Florida Highway Patrol (FHP) academy at the top of his class. Following his involvement in a Miami-Dade County ticket-fixing scandal in 1980, Mr. Pardo was kicked out of the FHP. Shortly after his discharge he secured a job with the police department in the small Miami-Dade County town of Sweetwater. In 1981 Manuel Pardo and four other officers faced numerous complains of police brutality. Those charges were quickly dismissed by a local prosecutor.

     The following year Officer Pardo, after saving a two-month-old boy's life by reviving him with CPR, was awarded a public service medal. In the fall of 1983 Pardo graduated from a local community college with a two-year associates degree in criminal justice. Just when his future looked the most promising Pardo's career in law enforcement came to an end when he was caught committing perjury at the 1985 trial of a drug dealer.

     From January to April 1986 the ex-cop embarked on a deadly crime spree in the Miami area. Within a period of three months, in the course of robbing dozens of drug dealers, he murdered six men and three women. He documented his execution-style killings by taking crime scene photographs of his victims and writing up detailed accounts of the murders in his diary. He also put together a scrapbook comprised of newspaper clippings of his crimes. It was during this period that Pardo collected Nazi memorabilia and professed a deep respect for Adolph Hitler.

     Because Manuel Pardo used his murder victims' credit cards, homicide detectives in Miami-Dade County quickly identified him as the man behind the drug dealer robbery/murders. His killing spree ended with his arrest in 1987. Eager to take credit for, and even brag about his murders, Pardo confessed to nine homicides.

     At Pardo's 1988 trial his defense attorneys raised the insanity defense which fell apart when the defendant took the strand on his own behalf. Jurors were surprised when he told them that, "I'm ridding the community of this vermin and technically it is not murder because they are not human beings. I am a soldier, I accomplished my mission and I humbly ask you to give me the glory of ending my life and not let me spend the rest of my days in the state prison."

     The jury found Manuel Pardo guilty of nine counts of first-degree murder. The judge then granted the defendant's wish by sentencing him to death. Pardo became a death row inmate at the Florida state prison in the town of Starke.

     Instead of his life ending gloriously with a quick execution, Pardo, thanks to his anti-death penalty attorneys, languished on death row for 24 years. In filing their appeals in state and federal courts, Pardo's lawyers argued that because this killer had not been mentally competent he should never have been tried in the first place. Over the years various appellate court judges rejected this argument and upheld Pardo's conviction and death sentence.

     In 2012, as Pardo's execution date approached his attorneys, in a last ditch effort to save him, tried a new appellate approach. The state of Florida had recently altered the combination of drugs used by the executioner to dispatch condemned prisoners. The lawyers argued that if prison officials improperly mixed the lethal concoction the anesthetic effect of the lethal dose might be compromised. If this happened the execution might be painful and therefore inhumane in violation of Mr. Pardo's civil rights. A federal judge rejected the appeal. That meant that Pardo's execution would go forward as scheduled.

     At 7:45 in the evening of Tuesday, December 11, 2012, the executioner at the state prison in Starke injected the 56-year-old Pardo with the lethal cocktail of drugs. 

Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Cop Versus Cop

     Florida State Trooper Donna Jane Watts in the early morning hours of October 11, 2011 spotted a Miami police cruiser speed past her in the southbound lanes of the Florida Turnpike. In following the cruiser with her lights flashing and siren blazing, Trooper Watts reached speeds in excess of 120 miles per hour. The pursuing trooper's supervisors at headquarters repeatedly radioed Watts to "back off" but she didn't

     When the Miami officer Fausto Lopez finally pulled over Trooper Watts approached the police car with her gun drawn. She then handcuffed him and escorted him to her vehicle, all the while berating Lopez for reckless driving. For his part officer Lopez remained docile, even polite. Trooper Watts released the Miami officer after writing him a ticket for reckless driving.

     By stopping and ticketing officer Lopez, Trooper Watts violated a sacred unwritten rule of police conduct: never pull over a fellow officer for a traffic violation. According to this silent code of procedure Trooper Watts should have kicked the problem upstairs so police administrators could cover it up. Speaking about the incident to the press, North Miami Police Major Bob Lynch, a law enforcement training instructor, said both officers were wrong: Lopez for driving recklessly and Watts for handcuffing a fellow cop. Most civilians, however, seemed to side with Trooper Watts. It was not surprising that Miami Police Department's police union spokesperson harshly criticized the Florida trooper.

     Bad feelings between the two agencies flared up when an unidentified Miami Police officer (or supporter), in retaliation for Lopez's traffic stop, dumped five gallons of human excrement on a state patrol car parked in front of a trooper's house. And tensions heightened a few days later when a Miami patrol officer pulled over a Florida State Trooper for a traffic violation. In this instance, as it turned out, the trooper's brother happened to work in the Miami Police Department's Internal Affairs Division.

     In an editorial published in The Miami Herald on November 12, 2011, the author wrote: "Police solidarity has plunged ignobly into senseless acts that stink as much as the poop thrown on a state trooper's car last week. A few Miami officers--or their supporters--appear to be out of control...."

     The law enforcement feud came at a time when the Miami-Dade Police Department was under attack for a rash of questionable police involved shootings. So far that year Miami-Dade officers shot 21 people, killing 17 of them. New York City Police, by comparison, had this year shot 14, killing 7.

Monday, July 15, 2024

The Sherri Lynn Wilkins Murder Case

     Nobody likes a hypocrite. We are particularly offended (and intrigued) when people we generally admire such as physicians, professors, clergymen, law enforcement officers, generals, teachers, certain celebrities and counselors commit crimes or behave badly. However, because of low expectations, we are less shocked when politicians, bureaucrats, lawyers and Wall Street types break the law or act like jerks. In terms of what we expect from people there are different standards of behavior. For example, in murder-for-hire cases the upper-middle class mastermind is almost always considered more immoral and criminally culpable, than the lower-class hitman. This is true even when the contract killer has murdered a complete stranger simply for the money.

     Years ago when the head mistress of an elite New England girl's school shot and killed her lover in a fit of jealousy, this otherwise ordinary criminal homicide became a celebrated case. Ministers have gone to prison for having their wives killed and FBI agents have been convicted of first-degree murder. On a smaller criminological scale, the public is shocked when female public school teachers are caught having affairs with their male students. There was also a case involving a high-profile gun control advocate who shot an intruder with an unregistered firearm. These cases attract media attention because they feature hypocrisy.

     In October 2012 Colin McGrattan, an anger management counselor in Stockton, California murdered his ex-wife, her sister and the victim's aunt before killing himself. McGrattan had recently lost a legal dispute with his former spouse. Unable to control his anger he killed three people and himself. On matters of anger management this man obviously wasn't able to take his own advice.

     Even though we have low expectations for politicians and bureaucrats, cases occasionally pop up that are egregious enough to, if not shock us, grab our attention. In 2007 Sheila Burgess, a Massachusetts political fund-raiser for democrat candidates collected her reward when Governor Deval Patrick appointed her to the position of State Highway Safety Director. Since this was a political appointment it was not surprising that Burgess didn't have experience in the fields of public safety, transportation or public administration. 

     On August 24, 2012, Burgess, while driving her state-issued vehicle on a sunny Sunday afternoon near Milton, Massachusetts drove off the road, wrecked the car and injured herself. Although she told the police she had swerved off the highway to avoid an oncoming vehicle she may have been texting.

     The Highway Safety Director's traffic accident prompted a newspaper inquiry into Burgess' driving history. On November 18, 2012, the day after the paper revealed that Sheila Burgess had a record of 34  traffic violations, the governor removed her from office. (Because she was a government employee full dismissal was out of the question.) Instead of firing this woman the governor assigned Burgess to a "different role" within the same department.

Sherri Lynn Wilkins

     In the fall of 2010, 50-year-old Sherri Lynn Wilkins began counseling substance abusers at the Twin Town Treatment Center in Torrance, California. In charge of the evening group sessions, she counseled as many as 50 drug and alcohol abusers at a time. It was her job to help these people either get sober or stay off drugs. While Wilkins had earned a degree in drug counseling from Loyola Marymount University, it was her background as an alcoholic and heroin addict that in the bizarre world of substance abuse counseling that qualified her for the position. While giving her street credibility, the fact she "had been there" also meant she might relapse, an event that would not be in the best interests of the people she was being paid to help.

     Sherri Lynn Wilkins' background before she began her counseling career involved a 16-month jail sentence in 1992 for theft. Two years later another judge sent her away for nine years for burglary. All of her crimes were related to her substance addiction. In May 2010 the Los Angeles police arrested Wilkins for hit and run in Torrance. Because she had not been driving under the influence the case against her was dropped. But in July 2010 the authorities in Los Angeles charged Wilkins with leaving the scene of an accident and driving under the influence of a controlled substance. For some reason this case was also dismissed.

     At eleven-thirty on the night of November 24, 2012, Sherri Wilkins, while speeding west on Torrance Boulevard, slammed into 31-year-old Phillip Moreno who was crossing the street near his home. The impact knocked Moreno out of his shoes and threw him up on the hood of Wilkins' car. Wilkins continued driving with the dying man lying on her hood, his body lodged into her windshield.

     At a traffic light two miles from where Moreno had been struck and thrown up onto the car, several motorists swarmed Wilkins' vehicle and grabbed her ignition key. An ambulance rushed Mr. Moreno to a local hospital where a few hours later he died. Los Angeles police officers took the substance abuse counselor into custody. Watkins' blood-alcohol content registered twice the legal limit for driving.

     On November 27, 2012 a Los Angeles County prosecutor charged Sherri Wilkins with vehicular manslaughter and driving under the influence. She was booked into the Los Angeles County Jail under $2.25 million bond.

     In April 2014 a jury in Terrance found Sherri Wilkins guilty of second-degree murder as well as several lesser offenses including hit-and-run. Two months later Superior Court Judge Henry Hall sentenced the 54-year-old to 55 years to life in prison. The judge said, "Ms. Wilkins demonstrated an extraordinary callousness in fleeing the scene and trying to shake Mr. Moreno's body off her car. Ms. Wilkins is not what we normally see. She's not a classic violent criminal. But you have to evaluate her history."(According to her own testimony, Wilkins' drug addiction started after she was involved in a traffic accident at the age of fifteen. Her back had been broken and she suffered shattered bones in her ankles and legs. She began medicating herself with heroin because it was "cheaper than going to the doctor.") In justifying the stiff sentence, Judge Hall added, "She had an insatiable desire to become intoxicated."

     Wilkins' attorney, Deputy Public Defender Nan Whitfield said she would appeal the sentence. To reporters outside the courthouse, Whitfield said, "Nobody likes a drunk driver. Because she was a drug and alcohol counselor she's held to a higher standard."

     In February 2016 a California appeals court overturned Wilkins' second-degree murder conviction on grounds the introduction of her entire criminal record prejudiced the jury. The court did not set aside her conviction for leaving the scene of the fatal accident.

     A year after the appeals court ruling Wilkins pleaded no contest to second-degree murder. The judge sentenced her to 25 years in prison.

Sunday, July 14, 2024

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 Mr. 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 the robber who collapsed to the floor.

     Police officers took the robber'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: 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.