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Thursday, March 21, 2019

The Gary Castonguay Case: Paroling a Cop Killer?

     In 1976, 32-year-old Gary Castonguay was convicted of shooting into the homes of two police officers in Bristol, Connecticut. The attacks took place at night when the officers were home with their families. Castonguay had told people that he wanted to kill cops.

     Instead of being locked up in prison for attempted murder, a judge found Castonguay legally insane and sent him to a psychiatric hospital for six months. Once released from the hospital he was free.

     In 1977, caught breaking into a home in Plainville, Connecticut, Castonguay fled from police officer Robert Holcomb. As Holcomb was about to catch and arrest him, the burglar turned and shot the 26-year-old officer. Castonguay, with the officer down, was free to escape. But instead of running off, he stood over the fallen officer and shot him three times in the chest, killing him on the spot.

     Following his conviction and life sentence for the cold-blooded killing of a police officer, Castonguay's attorney filed several appeals on his client's behalf. The appellate courts rejected all of the appeals. As a result, the conviction and the life sentence remained in effect.

     On January 9, 2015, members of the Connecticut Board of Pardons and Paroles, in a two to one vote, agreed to grant the 70-year-old cop killer a parole. The board members made this atrocious decision after Castonguay's self-serving testimony that he hadn't intended to kill officer Holcomb. In an effort to escape, he panicked, blacked out, and had no memory of the shooting.

     These ridiculous arguments hadn't worked at Castonguay's trial and had been rejected by all of the appellate courts. But decades later the cop killer was able to use these absurd justifications to convince two idiot parole board members to send him back into society.

     None of officer Holcomb's relatives had been notified of the Castonguay parole hearing. When the relatives learned of the granted parole they were understandably shocked and outraged. So were members of the general public who flooded the parole board with angry emails and letters.

     As a result of the public outcry over the parole board's ruling, the board agreed to hold another hearing to give the slain officer's relatives a chance to express their anger and disbelief that this cold-blooded cop killer had been granted parole.

     At the March 25, 2015 hearing, the same board members voted three to zero to rescind the cop killer's parole.

     This case begs the question: where do they find such sob-sister parole board members? I know it's the state of Connecticut, but still. If Castonguay had killed a police officer in Texas, Missouri, Florida, Ohio, or Oklahoma, he'd be dead by now and the dead officer's relatives would not have to worry about a couple of corrections idiots setting him free. 

Why Sherlock Holmes Didn't Stay Dead

     Sherlock Holmes died in 1893 but then came back to life ten years later. After writing twenty-four Holmes stories in six years, Arthur Conan Doyle had grown weary of the popular hero and wanted to focus on writing historical novels. So he figured he could put an end to the whole thing by having Holmes plunge to his death from Switzerland's Reichenbach Falls, holding his arch-enemy, Professor Moriarity, in a mutual death grip.

     Although public outcry was enormous, Doyle remained adamant about not bringing Holmes back. Ten years later, though, McClure's magazine in the United States offered Doyle $5,000 per story if he'd bring his detective back to life. That was the equivalent of nearly $100,000 in today's money, and Doyle couldn't resist. His first story had Holmes coming out of hiding after ten years, and Doyle wrote Holmes stories for a quarter of a century before retiring himself and his detective for good in 1927.

Erin Barrett and Jack Mingo, It Takes a Certain Type To Be a Writer, 2003 

The Drunk And Disorderly Football Fan

     On Sunday night, November 3, 2014, the Baltimore Ravens were in Pittsburgh to play the Steelers at Heinz Field. Stephen Sapp, a 29-year-old fan from Hazelwood, a Pittsburgh neighborhood on the northern bank of the Monongahela River, was in attendance. He would have been better off if he'd stayed home and watched the game on TV.

     At some point during the event, stadium security officers were called to Gate C where an apparently intoxicated Sapp had become disorderly and loud. The security officers warned Mr. Sapp that if he didn't stop yelling and screaming they would have to ask him to leave the stadium. The out of control football fan said he had no intention of being ejected from the premises. That's when security called in the Pittsburgh police.

     Upon the arrival of the Pittsburgh police, Stephen Sapp started kicking the steel dividing barriers. The officers warned him that if he didn't stop doing that, they would have to take him into custody. Mr. Sapp showed his contempt for authority by kicking another barrier that broke loose and hit Melissa Yancee in the forehead. The blow cut her face and knocked her unconscious.

     The officers informed the drunken fan that they were taking him to jail. When they tried to handcuff the disorderly and now dangerous fan, he physically resisted. Sapp ended up on the ground with his hands tucked under his body in an effort to avoid the handcuffs. Following a brief struggle, the officers were able to free the arrestee's hands and apply the restraining device.

     Because Sapp had sustained cuts during his scuffle with the police, the officers took him to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Mercy Hospital. While waiting to be treated for his minor injuries, Sapp said this to a police officer: "I know how this works. How much money will it take to make this go away and to let me go home today?" (Sapp was employed at the IRS office in Pittsburgh.)

     The officer informed Mr. Sapp that he had just committed the crime of bribery. Seemingly devoid of good sense, the man in custody continued, "Look, I am an IRS agent and I can help you in other ways if you let me go home and make this go away."

     Later that night, the officers showed Mr. Sapp how things work in Pittsburgh criminal justice. They booked him into the Allegheny County Jail on charges of aggravated assault, defiant trespass, resisting arrest, reckless endangerment, and bribery. The judge set his bond at $10,000.

     Melissa Yancee, the woman injured as a result of Mr. Sapp's drunken Heinz Field antics was transported to Allegheny General Hospital for treatment of her head wounds.

     The Steelers, without Mr. Sapps's help, went on to win the game.  

Estimating Time of Death

     Throughout the second half of the twentieth century, pathologists and toxicologists have continued to fill forensic science journals with reports of potential new indicators of time of death. Some of the most promising have included a gradual rise in potassium levels in the eye's jellylike vitreous humor and the waning ability of the cadaver's muscles to respond to mild electric shock. Yet every such stopwatch has eventually proved inadequate when applied to actual murder, in all its controlled-experiment-defying depravity.

     Still, the myth of the medical expert's ability to nail down time of death has endured. No doubt this stems in part from the many pathologists who continue to offer more precision in court than their science can rightfully claim. That they do this is understandable enough, given the relentless pressure. "It's a question almost invariably asked by police officers, sometimes with touching faith in the accuracy of the estimate," wrote famed English pathologist Bernard Knight in the 1960s. "It's one of the most common questions I get," echoed Missouri medical examiner Jay Dix forty years later. "I have to tell them--it's impossible." Yet Dix--one of the nation's top pathologists and the author of the 1999 forensic atlas Time of Death, Decomposition, and Identification--sees it done all the time. "I'm continually reviewing cases in which pathologists pinpoint death to within a few hours," he said. "Not that I've ever seen a case where it was appropriate."

Jessica Snyder Sachs, Corpse, 2001

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

The Austin Reed Sigg Murder Case

     In 2012, ten-year-old Jessica Ridgeway resided in Westminster, Colorado outside of Denver. The Witt Elementary School fifth grader lived with her mother, grandmother, and aunt. Jessica's mother, Sarah Ridgeway, and the girl's father, Jeremiah Bryant, were divorced and fighting over the $267 per month Mr. Bryant had been ordered to pay in child support. Sarah Ridgeway worked the 10 PM to 7 AM shift at a software company in Boulder.

     On Friday, October 5, 2012, Jessica left her house at eight-thirty in the morning en route to a classmate's home to be driven to school by her friend's father. The 1,000 foot walk, past a handful of single track homes and the playground equipment in Chelsa Park, only took a few minutes. When Jessica didn't show up at her friend's house at eight-forty, the boy's father drove his son to school without her.

     At ten that morning, a school secretary at Witt Elementary called Sarah Ridgeway's cellphone to report Jessica's absence. Sarah, already asleep after working the previous night in Boulder, did not pick up the phone. When she awoke at four that afternoon, she checked her messages and learned that Jessica had missed school that day.

     The concerned mother drove to the school where no one she spoke to said they had seen Jessica that day. After checking with some of her daughter's friends, and driving by Chelsa Park, Sarah Ridgeway, at 4:23 PM, drove to the Westminster Police Department to report her daughter missing.

     That evening, an officer with a bloodhound canvased the 1,000-foot route Jessica would have taken that morning. The dog did not pick up her scent. At nine that night, the authorities had enough evidence of an abduction to issue an Amber Alert.

     The following morning, 1,000 volunteers showed up at the police department to walk the fields in Jessica's neighborhood. The search did not produce any information relative to the girl's disappearance.

     On October 7, two days after Jessica went missing, a man six miles from the Ridgeway home found a backpack lying next to a sidewalk. The bag contained a keychain bearing the name "Jessica."

     Maintenance workers picking up litter in a park in Arvada, Colorado nine miles from Jessica's house, came across a plastic trash bag they thought contained the remains of someone's pet. The workers flagged down two animal management officers who happened to be driving by. One of the officers opened the bag and found the dismembered remains of a child. Two days later, DNA tests confirmed that the trash bag held Jessica Ridgeway's remains.

     The Jessica Ridgeway case, now about child murder and dismemberment, suddenly broke into the national news as a big story. Was there a child killer on the loose in Westminster, Colorado?

     Ten days after the gruesome discovery in Arvada, a tipster called the Westminster Police Department with information about Austin Reed Sigg. The 17-year-old, who lived in Westminster with his mother, had dropped out of high school in his junior year. He had since earned a graduate equivalency diploma and was enrolled in a local community college. According to the caller, Sigg had an obsession with death and mortuary science. He had also expressed an attraction to Jessica Ridgeway.

     The day following the tip concerning Austin Sigg, FBI agents went to his house and acquired a sample of his DNA.

     On October 23, 2012, Austin Sigg called 911 and expressed his desire to turn himself in and confess to the murder and dismemberment of the missing Westminster girl. In response to the dispatcher's inquiry regarding his criminal history, Sigg said, "The only other thing that I have done was the Kerner Lake incident where the woman got attacked. That was me." (In May 2012, a young man tried to subdue a female jogger by placing a rag soaked in homemade chloroform over her face. She resisted and managed to escape.)

     The day following Sigg's 911 confession, the police took him into custody. Sigg told his interrogators that he had abducted Jessica shortly after she left her house that morning. After strangling her to death, he cut up her body in a bathtub and deposited most of her remains in the Arvada, Colorado park. He had, however, hidden some of the girl's body parts in a crawl space in the house he shared with his mother.

     A Jefferson County prosecutor charged Austin Sigg as an adult with first-degree murder, kidnapping, and the sexual assault of a child. (Sigg denied having sex with the victim.) He was jailed without bond.

     On October 1, 2013, almost a year after Jessica Ridgeway's abduction and murder, and just two days before Sigg's murder trial was to commence, the defendant, against the advice of his public defender, pleaded guilty to all charges.

     On November 18, 2013, before sentencing Sigg to life plus 86 years, Judge Stephen Munsinger, in referring to what Sigg had done to Jessica Ridgeway, said, "Evil is apparently real."

The Memoir-Worthy Life

     The truth is out there. You can't miss it, in fact--it's everywhere. But even as we embrace the twenty-four hour confession cycle of social media, the popularity, and subsequent disparagement, of the memoir reveals our mixed feelings about true stories. We might be lured into tales of harrowing childhoods or devastating divorces, but our internal machinery will monitor the narratives based on the same arbitrary rubrics that guard our own personal revelations (or lack thereof): Is the author honest about his motives? Are her experiences exotic enough to teach us something new? Does he learn a big lesson at the end, or does he tumble off a cliff into a nihilistic abyss?

     Blogs and Instagram and YouTube have rendered brutal honesty and statements of "my truth" about as mundane as instructions on how to dye your hair. Nevertheless, committing your life experiences to the published page is still viewed as an audacious act, one reserved for celebrated authors, public figures, or those who've lived outside the norm and endured horrors untold. For every phalanx of writing instructors exhorting their pupils to write what they know, there's an equal and opposite gaggle of critics urging them to keep their junior-varsity trials and tribulations to themselves. If your pain doesn't equal the pain of the reader, you are merely indulging yourself.

Heather Havrilesky, Bookforum, February/March 2015 

Catherine Wood and Gwendoline Graham: Angels of Death

     Killing to ease the stress of a bad day was part of the strategy adopted by care assistants Catherine Wood and Gwendoline Graham at the Alpine Manor Nursing Home in Walter, Michigan. To make the game more fun, they selected their elderly victims in a sequence whereby the first letter of their names spelled out the word, M.U.R.D.E.R….
     Wood and Graham were lesbian lovers and while they both received satisfactory job reviews, their nursing home colleagues had suspicions about their behavior. For one thing, the pair liked to boast about the callous way they treated some of their patients suffering from Alzheimer's disease which included taking souvenirs such as trinkets and ornaments. Colleagues were not sure how seriously to take things they were told.

     After a series of eight deaths at the nursing home, some of these boasts landed on fertile ground. Wood's ex-husband heard stories about patients being suffocated and, after months of indecision, eventually went to the police. The two women were arrested in December 1988 and charged with murder….

     Wood was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to twenty to forty years imprisonment while Graham, found guilty of six murders, was sentenced to life with no hope of parole.

Robin Odell, The Mammoth Book of Bizarre Crimes, 2010

Thornton P. Knowles On The Devil's Dilemma

Let's say an executioner, on the order of the court, executes a man for murder who, while having lived a life of crime, did not commit the criminal homicide. The executioner, while he killed an "innocent man," has been a model citizen and a good man. Which one goes to Heaven and who ends up in Hell? And what about people who support the death penalty, where are they going?

Thornton P. Knowles

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

The Tania Coleman Murder Case

     Firefighters in Erie, Pennsylvania, on May 24, 2011, while on a call on east Eighth Street, detected the odor of death coming from a discarded suitcase. When they opened the suitcase, the firefighters found the badly decomposed remains of 14-month-old Alayja Coleman.

     The next day, at the Erie Police Department, detectives questioned the child's mother, 20-year-old Tania Coleman. The pregnant mother of two lived in a house near the discovery of the suitcase. The dead girl's father, Rahsean Murphy, had been in prison most of Alaja's life. Murphy had last seen his daughter in late March 2011. Xavier Hollamon, Tania Coleman's 20-year-old boyfriend, was the father of her other two children as well as the baby to come.

     During the low-key, videotaped interrogation that lasted 45 minutes, Tania said that two months earlier she had discovered Alayja dead in her playpen. Panicked, she called Hollamon who rushed to the house. A high school dropout, Hollamon had just completed his Army basic training, and feared this situation would land him in military prison.

     Rather than report Alayja's death to the authorities, Coleman and her boyfriend put her body into the suitcase and hid it in the house. Before long, the odor became too much. On April 25, (this was later determined through investigation), Tania and Xavier, at the cost of $73, purchased a fancy plastic trash bin from Walmart. They placed the suitcase containing Alayja's body into the trash container and set it outside until they figured out how to permanently dispose of the body. (Someone, in stealing the trash bin, removed the suitcase.)

     Forensic pathologist Dr. Eric Vey performed the autopsy, and determined the cause of Alayja's death to be starvation. (Her body had been consuming her muscles and organs.) The Erie County Coroner ruled her manner of death as homicide. Due to the condition of the corpse, Dr. Vey could not pinpoint the victim's time of death.

     Dr. Vey's review of Alayja's pediatric records revealed that when she was 11 months old she weighed less than she had at the age of 4 months. When examined by a pediatrician 6 months after her birth, the doctor declared Alayja's weight in the "danger zone," and recommended that Tania feed her a lot of fruits and vegetables. The little girl missed her 9th and 12th month check-ups.

     Erie County District Attorney Jack Daneri charged Xavier Hollamon with abuse of corpse and tampering with evidence, a pair of misdemeanors that together carried a maximum sentence of 4 years in prison. He charged Tania Coleman with these crimes plus first degree-murder. In Pennsylvania, first degree-murder carried a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the chance of parole. To make his case, the district attorney would have to prove the defendant deliberately starved her daughter to death.

     In early March 2012, Xavier Hollamon pleaded guilty to the abuse of corpse and tampering with evidence misdemeanors in return for 2 years probation and 250 hours of community service. He had been incarcerated in the Erie County Jail for almost a year. Hollamon, as part of the plea bargain, agreed to testify against his former girlfriend, the mother of his two children and the unborn child. (I presume the Army issued Hollamon a dishonorable discharge.)

     Tania Coleman's first-degree murder trial got underway in mid-March 2012 before Judge Shad Connelly in the Erie County Court House. District Attorney Jack Daneri, on the theory that the defendant had killed her daughter because she had not been fathered by her boyfriend, and didn't fit into the family, put on his circumstantial case of intentional murder.

     Jamie Mead, Coleman's court-appointed attorney, presented the defendant as an overwhelmed single parent who had neglected a child who died despite efforts to feed her. Attorney Mead argued that if Coleman had intentionally murdered Alayja, she would have come up with a better plan to dispose of her body. The defendant did not take the stand on her own behalf. In the defense attorney's closing statement to the jury, Mead accused the prosecution of manufacturing a motive to support their theory of an intentional murder.

     On March 22, 2012, the Erie County jury found Tania Coleman guilty of first-degree murder. Attorney Mead immediately filed motions to either replace the first-degree murder conviction with a lesser homicide, or for a new trial. The defense attorney argued that the jury, in finding her client guilty of intentional murder, had relied more on emotion than evidence, citing witnesses who had testified that Tania had expressed concern about Alayja's refusal to eat.

     Judge Shad Connelly, on May 17, 2012, sentenced Tania Coleman to life in prison without chance of parole.

     On October 7, 2013, a state appeals court upheld Coleman's conviction. The appellate affirmation meant that Tania Coleman would spend the rest of her life in prison. 

Arrest First, Ask Questions Later

     A compassionate Houston driver who gave some change to a homeless man was later wrongfully arrested on police suspicion that his charity was part of a drug deal. During a late-night drive, Greg Snider pulled into an empty parking lot to make a call on his cell phone. A homeless man approached him and asked for money. Snider gave him 75 cents in change before continuing his drive.

     A police car pulled Snider over. The officer ordered him out of his car, handcuffed him and put him in the back of the police car….The officer told Snider that he had seen him make a drug deal. Eventually, as many as 10 police cars approached the scene….Snider agreed to let the officer search his car…After a hour-long search, officers were forced to admit that the man had no drugs, and let him go. The police laughed all the while--apparently, they found it hilarious that they had detained an innocent man for over an hour over a misunderstanding. [Had the driver made a "furtive move," he may have been shot.]

Robby Soave, The Daily Caller, January 17, 2014