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Saturday, November 27, 2021

Donald Williams Jr.: Dumb And Dangerous

     Donald Williams Jr., born and raised in a crime-ridden Philadelphia neighborhood to parents who physically abused him and spent their welfare money on crack, murdered a man in 1994. The 20-year-old with a low I.Q. and no idea how to make his way in civilized society, had assaulted his former girlfriend, then killed her boyfriend. Convicted of third-degree murder in 1996, the judge sentenced Williams to ten years in prison. (In Pennsylvania, third-degree murder convictions are almost always the result of plea deals.)

     Early in 2009, Williams began dating a woman from Reading, Pennsylvania named Maria Serrano. In May of that year, after letting him move in with her, Serrano kicked the 35-year-old out of her house. The infuriated ex-con took up residence in a halfway house in Reading.

     On June 25, 2009, Williams returned to Serrano's home. That night he raped her. But he didn't leave it at that. While she took a shower, he stabbed her with a screwdriver. Williams then threw the 49-year-old woman down her basement steps, doused her with gasoline, lit her up and left her for dead.

     To the 911 dispatcher, Serrano screamed, "Oh my God, I am bleeding! Hurry up! There is a fire, I am burning all over the place! There is a fire in the house! Hurry up!" Paramedics rushed the badly burned woman to the Lehigh Valley Burn Center near Allentown, Pennsylvania. On August 8, 2009, she died of her injuries.

     A Berks County prosecutor charged Williams, who was already in custody on the rape, arson, and aggravated assault charges, with first-degree murder. The prosecutor said he would seek the death penalty in this case.

     The Williams trial got underway on September 12, 2013 before Berks County Judge Scott D. Keller and a jury of seven women and five men. When Assistant District Attorney Dennis J. Skayhan rested his case, there was no doubt who had tortured and murdered Maria Serrano. Before she died, the victim had identified Williams as her attacker. A state forensic expert had connected the defendant to the rape though his DNA.

     Public defender Paul Yessler put Williams on the stand. The defendant did not deny that he had raped, stabbed, and set fire to the woman he had thrown down a flight of stairs. In a bold and obvious lie that did not go over well with the jurors, Williams claimed to have "flipped-out" that night after catching Serrano having sex with his younger brother.

     Prosecutor Skayhan, as part of his closing argument, played the victim's 911 tape. Public defender Yessler, in his closing statement, emphasized the defendant's 83 I.Q., his ghetto upbringing, and his childhood abuse. In referring to Williams, Yessler said, "This guy did not have a chance from the get-go."

     Six days after the opening of the trial, the jury, after deliberating six hours, found Williams guilty of rape, arson, and first-degree murder. The defendant showed no emotion at the reading of the verdict.

     Because the prosecution sought the death penalty in this case, the judge scheduled a two-day sentence hearing. In arguing for the death sentence, prosecutor Skayhan focused on how the tortured victim had died a slow, agonizing death. Public defender Yessler, in pushing for life, highlighted the defendant's low I.Q. and inability to control his impulses.

     The jury, after deliberating two hours on the sentencing issue, informed Judge Keller that a consensus could not be reached. The judge had no choice but to sentence Donald Williams to life in prison without parole.

     In speaking directly to the convicted murderer, Judge Keller made no secret of where he stood on the question of punishment in this case. "You deserved the death penalty," he said without trying to disguise his disgust at the jury's performance. "It was torture in any man or woman's world. You inflicted a considerable amount of pain and suffering on a victim which is unnecessary, heinous, atrocious, and cruel."

     While few would disagree with the judge's analysis of this murderer, William's low I.Q. would probably have kept him out of the death chamber anyway. Appellate judges do not like the idea of executing mentally slow people. (It's possible that many low I.Q. defendants are simply good at playing dumb.)

The Art and Science of Crime Detection

Crime detection [in 1927] is not a secret art; anybody can do it if he has the wits, and the time, and patience to get all the facts, and if he knows enough of the ways of men and women. [That may have been true then, but not today. The modern detective must possess, among other skills and know-how, knowledge of substantive and procedural criminal law, computer navigation, forensic science, crime scene interpretation, criminology, forensic psychology, surveillance techniques, and methods of witness interview and criminal interrogation.]

Mary Wilkins Freeman (1852-1930) mystery novelist 

Take Your Thriller to Bed

Some people feel that the beach is the best place to read thrillers. They are wrong. The best place is in bed, in the wintertime, when the cold and dark match your mood--and when you are more susceptible to stories about creepy characters with unpleasant motivations.

Sarah Lyall, The New York Times Book Review, February 2, 2020

The Big Book Advance

     Within a period of four years, novelist Heather Demetrios received, for her first five books, advances amounting to $350,000. Demetrois quit her New York City job, and did not pay off her college loans. None of her novels did well. As a result, her next two advances were $35,000 and $20,000. In her August 17, 2019 article, "How to Lose a Third of a Million Dollars Without Really Trying," published in Forge, the novelist chronicled her writer's tale of woe. An excerpt:

     "If just one person had sat me down when I signed my first book contract and explained how publishing works, how nothing is guaranteed, and how it often feels like playing Russian Roulette with words, I would have made much sounder financial and creative decisions. I would have set a foundation for a healthy life as an artist, laying the groundwork to thrive in uncertainty, to avoid desperation, panic, and bad decisions that would affect me for years to come."

     "How would my life be different if a fellow writer or someone in the industry had told me that the money I'd be receiving for my advances was absolutely no indication of what I could make on future book deals? What pain could I have avoided if they had advised me not to spend that money as though there would be more where that came from? I suspect I may have avoided near nervous breakdown and not come so perilously close to financial ruin and creative burnout. But no one came forward."

     One could argue that people who aspire to be full time writers should first educate themselves on how publishing works. On this subject, there is a wealth of information available to aspiring writers. Moreover, publishers are not financial advisors. Apparently Demetrois wasn't taught the economics of the writing life in college.This is not surprising because liberal arts educations are not vocational, or practical. 

The 19th Century Diary

Because they had to preserve the family secrets, nineteenth-century women wrote for themselves as diarists much more frequently than they wrote memoirs. The diary allowed confidences no one else was supposed to hear. The mere act of sitting down to write an autobiography broke the code of female respectability, because doing so required a woman to believe that her direct experience, rather than her relationships with others, was what gave meaning to her life.

Jill Ker Conway, When Memory Speaks, 1998 

Friday, November 26, 2021

Richard Savage: The Classified Ad Hit Man

     In January 1985, Richard Savage, a Vietnam veteran with a criminal justice degree and a brief stint as a police officer, placed the following ad in Soldier of Fortune Magazine: "Gun-For-Hire: 37-year-old professional mercenary desires jobs. Vietnam veteran. Discrete and very private. Body guard, courier and other skills. All jobs considered."(Italics mine.) 

     In response to Richard Savage's ad, people asked him to guard gold in Alaska and to find men still missing in Vietnam. But most of the people who answered his ad wanted him to kill someone.

     Within weeks following the publishing of Savage's gun-for-hire ad, he accepted his first assignment, the murder of a 43-year-old businessman from Atlanta named Richard Braun. Savage dispatched a crew of three hit men to Atlanta to kill the murder-for-hire target.

     In June 1985, just before Mr. Braun climbed into his van, it blew up. He survived the blast, but two months later, Savage's hit men killed him with a hand grenade attached to his vehicle.

     Savage's murder-for-hire gang, in August 1985, were in Marietta, Georgia to kill Dana Free, a building contractor. Savage had been paid $20,000 for the hit by a Denver woman who was furious with Mr. Free over a business investment. Two of Savage's men planted a grenade under Mr. Free's car. The murder-for-hire target drove around for a day with the unexploded grenade attached to the underside of his vehicle. The following night, one of the hit men slid under the target's car to make adjustments. The next morning, as Mr. Free backed out of his driveway, the grenade shook loose and rolled out from under the car. After that, Mr. Free got the message that someone was trying to kill him. He went into hiding.

     In late August 1985, Richard Savage accepted a murder assignment from Larry Gray who wanted his ex-wife's boyfriend, a Fayetteville, Arkansas law student named Doug Norwood, killed. In October 1985, when Doug Norwood started his car in a University of Arkansas parking lot, it exploded. The law student escaped the blast with minor injuries.

     In January 1986, as Doug Norwood drove from his home to the university, he realized he was being followed. The murder-for-hire target called the campus police department and officers pulled over the suspicious vehicle. From the car, officers recovered a machine gun and arrested the driver, Michael Wayne Jackson, a member of Richard Savage's murder crew.

     When questioned by the police, Michael Jackson confessed that he had been hired by Richard Savage to kill Doug Norwood. According to Jackson, the mastermind, Larry Gray, had found Richard Savage through his gun-for-hire ad in Soldiers of Fortune magazine.

     In the spring of 1986, Michael Wayne Jackson and Richard Savage were convicted of a murder unrelated to the Doug Norwood case. The judge sentenced Savage 40 years in prison. A year later, Savage was convicted of the attempted murder of Doug Norwood and was sentenced to 20 years behind bars.

     In 1986, Soldier of Fortune magazine discontinued publishing the gun-for-hire ads.

     Doug Norwood, in January 1987, sued Soldier of Fortune for publishing Richard Savage's ad. Attorneys for the magazine filed a motion to dismiss the suit on grounds the First Amendment right to free speech protected the magazine. The judge denied the magazine's First Amendment claim.

     In 1989, Richard Savage and three members of his crew were convicted of the 1985 bombing murder of Atlanta businessman Richard Braun. Mr. Braun's son, in 1990, filed a wrongful death suit against Soldier of Fortune magazine for running the hit man's classified ad. In 1991, a jury in Atlanta awarded the plaintiff $12 million. The trial judge later reduced the damages to $4.3 million. An appeals court, in 1992, upheld the wrongful death verdict. In so doing, the appellate judge wrote:"The publisher could recognize the offer of criminal activity as readily as its readers obviously did."

     In August 1992, the magazine settled the Doug Norwood lawsuit out of court.

     Beginning in April 2016, after 40 years of publishing the magazine in print form, Soldier of Fortune became an online magazine. At its peak in the mid-1980s, the magazine sold 150,000 copies a month. 

The Homeless Problem

Most people are homeless because they are mentally ill, have a personality disorder, or are addicted to drugs. Everyone knows that. These seriously impaired people can't afford places to live because they are unemployed, and they are unemployed because of the way they are. Homelessness didn't cause their afflictions, it's the other way around. Therefore, giving them places to live will not solve their problems. In their houses, apartments, and homeless shelters they will still have personality disorders, be mentally ill, and/or abuse drugs. Homelessness can't be eradicated without fixing the people who are homeless. If for any reason that can't be accomplished, then there is no solution to the problem. While this is so obviously true, no politician will come on television and acknowledge that the lack of housing isn't the problem. These people are the problem. For society's sake, they need to be gathered up and cared for in shelters and other institutions. Politicians won't say this because it is true, and in politics, nothing kills a career more than telling the truth. As long as the country is run by hacks, incompetents, and crooks, vast numbers of people living on sidewalks, beaches, parks, and beneath interstate overpasses will remain a part of our national landscape. 

Crime Myths

In order for the momentum of a crime myth to be prolonged…myths must be accompanied by certain characterizations. Momentum is achieved if the crime problem has traits that either instill fear or threaten the vast majority of society in some appreciable way. Not unlike Greek mythology, modern crime myths must follow certain themes for success. There must be "virtuous' heroes, "innocent" victims, and "evil" villains who pose a clear and certain threat to the audience. Only then can a crime myth reach its potential. [There were two crime myths that dominated the 1980s: hundreds of serial killers running loose, and an epidemic of stranger kidnappings of children. More recently: the myth of a growing army of zombie meth and bath salts addicts roaming our streets in search of victims.]

Victor E. Kappeler, Mark Blumberg and Gary W. Potter, The Mythology of Crime and Criminal Justice, Third Edition, 2000

Don't Show Your First Draft to Anyone

I would advise the beginning writer to write the first drafts as if no one else will ever read them--without a thought about publication--and only in the last draft to consider how the work will look from the outside.

Anne Tyler, 2001

The Appeal of The Flawed Character

     No one wants to read about perfect characters. Since no reader is perfect, there is nothing more disagreeable than spending free time immersed in a story about an individual who leaps tall buildings of emotion, psyche, body, and spirit in a single bound. Would anyone want a person as a friend, tediously perfect in every way? Probably not. Thus, a character possessing perfection in one area should possess imperfection in another area.

     Sir Arthur Conan Doyle understood this, which is one of the reasons that his Sherlock Holmes has stood the test of time for more than one hundred years and counting. Holmes has the perfect intellect. The man is a virtual machine of cogitation. But he's an emotional black hole incapable of a sustained relationship with anyone except Dr. Watson, and on top of that, he abuses drugs. He has a series of rather quirky habits, and he's unbearably supercilious. As a character "package," he emerges unforgetably from the pages of Conan Doyle's stories. Consequently, it's difficult to believe that any reader of works written in English might not know who Sherlock Holmes is.
Elizabeth George, Write Away, 2004