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Friday, September 30, 2011

The Role of Dementia, Despondency, and Mental Illness in Police Involved Shootings: September 2011


     In Garden Grove, California, at 7:35 AM on September 9, police responded to a home after family members called 911 to report that 76-year-old Edward Lee Royce was threatening to kill himself. The officers encountered Royce standing in his backyard holding a handgun. Officers shot Royce with a beanbag gun. The subject then shot himself in the head. The investigation of the incident, by the Orange County District Attorney's Office is ongoing. Although an autopsy has been performed, the authorities have not released the official cause of Mr. Royce's death. He had been despondent over medical problems.

     In January, in unrelated incidents, the Garden Grove police shot and killed two men.


     At noon on September 15, police in Gardena wounded 58-year-old Noel Salinas. Salinas, the owner of a computer business, was behind in his rent and about to lose his shop on Van Ness Avenue. The Gardena police had received a calls of an armed man threatening to kill himself and his landlord. When encountered by the officers, Salinas was holding a handgun in one hand and a knife in the other. Instead of dropping the weapons, the subject retreated into a motor home behind his business. A short time later Salinas emerged from the motor home with the gun in hand. Police ordered him to stop. When Salinas didn't comply, they shot him. People who know Salinas reported that since the death of his wife five years ago, Mr. Salinas has been severely depressed. This was the first police involved shooting of the year in Gardena.


     On September 17, officers from the Indiana State Police, the Decatur Police Department and the Adams County Sheriff's Office responded to a report of a man with a handgun in downtown Decatur. At 11:50 PM officers found 67-year-old Jerry L. Nusbaum waving a handgun in the air and speaking inchoherently. Ten minutes later, when Nusbaum raised his gun toward the officers, a state trooper fired his .223-caliber rifle, striking the subject in the right arm and upper chest. Medics flew Nusbaum to a hospital in Fort Wayne. He survived the shooting. This was the first incident of its kind this year in Decatur.


     On September 22, in Interstate 394 in Golden Valley, a suburban area west of Minneapolis, the police fatally shot 57-year-old Katherine Gordon after pulling her over for speeding up to 90 hours per hour. The officers opened fire when she pointed a handgun in their direction. Two months earlier, Gordon had showed up at the police station in Edina, Minnesota where she announced that the Devil had been talking to her. She asked to be locked up to prevent hurting herself and others. As a result, the authorities hospitalized her for 72 hours. This apparent suicide-by-cop shooting was the first police-involved shooting of the year in Golden Valley.


     On Sunday, September 25, Lubbock police received a call that men were trying to break into an apartment. When the officers arrived at the scene, 90-year-old Willie John Williams, the resident of a neighboring apartment, fired shots at them. The police returned fire, wounding Mr. Williams. It is believed the subject's behavior was the result of dementia and confusion.

     The Lubbock police shot and killed a man on February 20, 2011. Mr. Williams is the oldest person to be shot by the police this year.

     In September, the police in Pendleton, Issaquah and Spokane, Washington; Tampa, Florida; Farmingdale, Maine; and Dundalk, Maryland also shot mentally unstable and/or suicidal citizens.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Executions: Troy Davis (2011) versus Bruno Richard Hauptmann (1936)

    On September 28, a week after Troy Davis was executed in Georgia for the 1989 murder in Savanna of an off-duty police officer, I was interviewed by Dillon Rand for the radio show "You Are Here" broadcast out of Boston on 88.9 FM. Rand asked if there had ben enough evidence in the Lindbergh case to justify the execution of Bruno Richard Hauptmann. In response, I laid out the physical evidence against the defendant and said I believed the state of New Jersey, on April 3, 1936, electrocuted the right man. (New Jersey has since abolished the death penalty.)

     Hauptmann was convicted on physical evidence connecting him to the ransom letters and the kidnap ladder. Troy Davis, on the other hand, had been convicted on the testimony of nine eyewitnesses who said they saw him shoot officer Mark MacPhail on the Burger King parking lot. There was no physical evidence--DNA, fingerprints or ballistics--linking Davis to the homicide. Not only is eyewitness testimony notoriously unreliable, in the Davis case, seven of the nine eyewitnesses later recanted their testimony.

     We have a criminal justice system that acquits O. J. Simpson and Casey Anthony while convicting murder defendants solely on the testimony of eyewitnesses and jailhouse informants. Because our system of justice, as applied, is so unreliable, the death sentence, as a matter of policy, is not a good idea. Since 1975, of the 138 defendants sentenced to death then later exonerated, thirty-two had been convicted in whole or in part on eyewitness testimony. While I'm not familiar enough with the Davis case to have a strong opinion regarding his guilt or innocence, I'm pretty sure his case will make justifying the death penalty significantly more difficult.

     The radio show will air from 7 to 8 AM on Sunday, October 2. It can be streamed live online at http://www.wers.org/

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Anthony Casey: Trial of the Century or Trial of the Month?

     On June 3, 2011, I received an email from Michael Smerconish, the nationally syndicated radio talk show host out of Philadelphia (WPHT). I had been on Michael's show talking about the Lindbergh kidnapping case on March 2, 2009, and had seen him many times on television filling in for Chris Matthews on MSNBC's "Hardball."  Michael belonged to a "self-described history club" and wanted me to know that he and the other members had just finished reading my book, "The Lindbergh Case."  In addition, he and six of his club friends had planned a trip to Hopewell, New Jersey where they would tour the old Lindbergh house, the site of the 1932 kidnapping of 20-month-old Charles Lindbergh, Jr. The house, now owned by the state, functions as a home for troubled youth called the Alberet Elias Residential Center. In anticipation of their trip, Michael, in his email, raised questions about the case I have been asked many times before. All of the questions pertained to the doubts some people have that the man tried, convicted and executed for the kidnapping and murder, Bruno Richard Hauptmann, was in fact guilty. The unemployed carpenter and illegal German alien from the Bronx, was executed in Trenton, New Jersey on April 3, 1936. The prosecution had linked Hauptmann to the homemade wooden ladder used to take the baby out of the second-story nursery window by identifying a section of the ladder as a piece of floor plank from Hauptmann's attic. According to a battery of forensic document examiners, Hauptmann had written all of the ransom notes, and the police found $14,000 of the $50,000 ransom hidden in his garage. During the two and a half years between the crime and Hauptmann's September 1934 arrest, he had spent, as an unemployed carpenter during the Great Depression, thousands of dollars. (It should be noted that Michaeol Smerconish, while he realizes that not all of the mysteries of the case have been resolved, believes that Hauptmann was guilty.)

QUESTION: Why would a carpenter need to remove an attic board to make the kidnap ladder? You'd think he had plenty of lumber choices.

ANSWER: I believe--and this is speculation--that Hauptmann had assembled the parts of the ladder in his garage months before the kidnapping. Sometime before the right day for the crime arrived, while putting it together, he realized he had used one of the pieces for something else. Instead of going to the store to buy wood, he climbed into his attic, a hard to acess place, where he cut a plank out of his attic floor. (Rail 16 of the ladder matched the wood grain and gap in Hauptmann's attic.)

QUESTION: What would make John F. Condon think that an advertisement in the Bronx Home News would be seen by the kidnapper? (Condon, the Lindbergh family ransom intermediary from the Bronx, would correspond by letter and newspaper ads with the kidnapper, and later met him twice in two Bronx cemeteries. The ransom exchanged hands a month after the kidnapping. Shortly after the kidnapping Condon had placed an ad in the Bronx Home News offering his services as a ransom intermediary in the case.)

ANSWER: I believe Dr. Condon, a local showoff who was quite full of himself, was simply grandstanding with his newspaper ad offering to be the Lindbergh case intermediary. When Hauptmann actually responded by mail to Condon's ad, the old man must have been shocked. (Many of those who believe Hauptmann innocent, point the finger at Condon as either an accomplice or member of another team of kidnappers.)

QUESTION: Did Hauptmann have an accomplice? How could he have taken care of the kidnapped baby himself?

ANSWER: I believe the fact that Hauptmann had not prepared to care for the child is evidence he killed the baby in cold blood for the ransom money. I think he killed the baby in its crib. Otherwise, he risked the baby crying out and alerting the family as he carried it out the nursery window. If he didn't kill the child in the room, he might have applied an ether-soaked rag to the baby's face to knock him out. Once away from the house, Hauptmann may have murdered the baby whose remains were found ten weeks later two miles from the estate. (In my book "The Ghosts of Hopewell," I reveal that FBI agents had found a vial of ether hidden in Hauptmann's garage along with what was left of the ransom money.)

QUESTION: On the night of the kidnapping, how did Hauptmann know that on that particular Tuesday, Mr. and Mrs. Lindbergh and the baby had stayed beyond the weekend at their new home near Hopewell? (The Lindberghs had not completely moved into the newly constructed mansion. They spent weekends there while still living with Anne Lindbergh's parents at the Dwight Morrow estate in Englewood, New Jersey.)

ANSWER: When Hauptmann went to the Morrow estate just across the river from New York, he realized the Lindberghs were not there that night. Thinking they had already moved to Hopewell, he drove across the state to what became the site of the crime of the century. The three-piece homemade kidnap ladder, in full extention, perfectly reached the baby's window at the Morrow estate. Only two sections were needed to reach the nursery window at the Hopewell home. Sometimes criminals are just lucky.

QUESTION: Why didn't Hauptmann confess to avoid going to the electric chair?

ANSWER: Hauptmann, with the governor of New Jersey on his side, had good reason to believe he was going to avoid the death sentence. When, at the last minute, his pardon efforts failed, it was too late. Also, his wife Anna did not want him to confess. She did not want to be the wife of a baby killer. And finally, Hauptmann, a textbook sociopath, was not wired for admitting guilt.

QUESTION: Was Charles Lindbergh known as a practical joker who had once hidden the baby in a closet in a kidnapping prank on his wife and nanny? (There a those who believe that Charles Lindbergh killed the baby while playing a practical joke on his wife. The Lindberghs, according to this theory, covered-up Charles' recklesseness by orchastrating a phony kidnapping that led to an innocent man's execution.)

ANSWER: It is true that Charles Lindbergh was a practical joker. But to believe the father killed his son, one would have to wish away all the physical evidence connecting Hauptmann to the crime. There is actually a book based on the practical-joke/phony kidnapping theory, and example of hack, tabloid publishing at its worse.

     On June 17, 2011, Michael Smerconish, following his visit to the old Lindbergh home near Hopewell, wrote an article, published on philly.com, in which he compared the Lindbergh kidnapping case to the then on-going Casey Anthony trial in Orlando. In the piece, called "The Trials of the Century Aren't What They Used to Be," Smerconish wrote that he didn't think the Casey Anthony trial, unlike the Lindbergh case, would be of interest to people 75 years from now. He wrote: "In his book, 'The Lindbergh Case,' author Jim Fisher presents a familiar picture in describing the first day of the trial: 'Outside, several hundred spectators were crowded on the courthouse steps and blocking traffic on Main Street. Countless faces, red from the cold, were mashed against the glass of the big courthouse windows, in the hopes of seeing someone famous.' That experts such as Fisher, a former FBI agent, are still examining the [Lindbergh] case three generations later is proof of its lasting news impact...."

     While the jury verdict in the Casey Anthony case shocked a lot of people, I agree with Smerconish that interest in the case will be short-lived. Indeed, unless Casey Anthony is arrested again or is involved in some kind of scandal, the case will, within a few years, fade away.  

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Troubled Career of Dr. Thomas Gill

     Tens of thousands of autopsies are performed every year by forensic pathologists of varying degrees of expertise, competence and experience. There is no consistency of quality in these procedures as evidenced by the fact bungled autopsies have been and continue to be a common problem in the profession.  Incomplete and botched autopsies are nightmares for conscientious homicide investigators. Determining the cause (brain hemorrhage) and manner (homicide) of death in Sudden Infant Death and shaken baby cases (see "Foresnsics Under Fire") is especially important. If the autopsy in a homicide case is bungled, an innocent person could go to prison, or a guilty defendant set free. Correct autopsy findings are also vital in cases where determining if the death was a suicide or homicide cannot be made without the correct application of forensic medicine.  

     In my book "Forensics Under Fire," I profile the controversial and troubled careers of the following forensic pathologists whose autopsy findings were questioned, reviewed and/or overturned: Dr. Ralph Erdmann, Dr. Joan Wood, Dr. Richard O. Eicher, Dr. Angelo Ozoa, Dr. Michael Berkland, Dr. Charles Siebert, Dr. Roy Meadow, Dr. Alfred Steinschneider, Dr. Kenneth Ackles, and Dr. Charles Harlan. In February 2011, ProPublica, in collaboration with the PBS television news show "Frontline" and National Public Radio, aired the results of a year-long investigation into the nation's 2,300 coroner and medical examiner's offices. Called "Post Mortem: Death Investigation in America," the documentary features the troubled career of 67-year-old forensic pathologist Dr. Thomas Gill. Over a period of eighteen years, Dr. Gill performed thousands of autopsies and testified in twenty-two homicide trials. Like so many other forensic pathologists whose autopsy  findings have been repeatedly challanged by their professional peers, Dr. Gill has moved from job to job in the public and private sectors. He has worked in Indiana, Missouri and in nine counties in northern California. In addition to failing the American Board of Pathology's certification exam the first two times he took it, Dr. Gill, during his career, has suffered from alcohol abuse.

     Because there is a serious shortage of forensic pathologists in the country, Dr. Gill, and others like him, keep getting re-hired, their professional problems notwithstanding. According to the "Frontline" documentary, forensic pathology in America is a dysfunctional system where incompetent practitioners literally bury their mistakes.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Combat Ready in Erie, Pennsylvania

   In August, the Erie Police Department, a force made up of 173 officers in a town of 102,000, took delivery of a new Lenco BearCat armored personnel carrier (APC). The 12-foot high APC weighing more than 17,000 pounds can carry up to ten SWAT officers. It also came equipped with a 50-caliber gun turret and the technology to detect radiation and explosive gas.

     The $201,000 truck, funded by a federal grant, will be available to law enforcement agencies in Erie and four nearby counties, a region not known for high rates of violent crime. In Erie proper, police involved shootings are rare. (The last, involving the police wounding of a 17-year-old high school student, took place in July 2010.)

     For the police in this northwest corner of the state to even have a SWAT team is operationally absurd. To waste federal taxpayer money for this militaristic monstrosity compounds the problem. At best the police tank will collect dust between Fourth of July and halloween parades. At worst the police will use it to intimidate (and impress) citizens in low-risk deployments. Like hundreds of small police departments throughout the country, Erie law enforcement authorities are caught up in the SWAT team craze. While the citizens of Erie and surrounding communities are not safer, they can expect a more militarized form of policing. No wonder this country is broke.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Swat Madness


     On May 16, 2010, a Detroit SWAT team in search of a murder suspect, tossed a flashbang grenade into the first-floor apartment occupied by 7-year-old Alyana Stanley-Jones and her grandmother. As the officers stormed into the house, one of the raiders, amid the chaos, shot the little girl in the throat. She died shortly thereafter. A film crew with the television network A & E was on hand filming the raid for a segment of the true crime program "The First 48." (This is a show about the first 48 hours of a homicide investigation.) As it turned out, the murder suspect, Chauncey Owens, lived in the apartment above the one the SWAT team entered. Surely there had been an opportunity to arrest the suspect on the street minimizing public danger. The pursuit of officer safety should not trump public safety.


     In Stockton, California on June 7, 2011, a 15-officer SWAT team broke into Kenneth Wright's home at 6 AM to execute a search warrant pursuant to his wife's defaulted student loans. The state department of education has asked for the raid. The police grabbed Mr. Wright and muscled him out to his front lawn in his boxer shorts where he lay on the ground with a knee in his back. The arrestee, with no criminal record or history of violence, had no idea what was happening to him. The police placed him in handcuffs and sat him in a hot patrol car for six hours. Mr. Wright's three children, ages 3, 7 and 11, were also held in a police vehicle until the raiders completed their search.  No one in their right mind would support the added cost of a SWAT team had they foreseen how these militaristic units would be unleased on unsuspecting citizens like Mr. Wright and his family.


     In search of a rape suspect, an eight-man U.S. Marshal's SWAT team in Daingerfield, Texas terrified Jerry and Linda Robinson by breaking into their home at 7:30 PM on August 22, 2011. The home owners were held at gun point, not shown any identification, or told what was going on until the marshals realized they had raided the wrong house on an informant's bogus tip. The Robinsons didn't know the fugitive being sought and the man had never been in their house.  Predawn SWAT raids based on informant tips is  reckless, militaristic law enforcement. Shock and Awe tactics should be left to the military personnel engaged in real combat. 

Friday, September 23, 2011

Crimson Stain Epilogue Update

     Early in 2010, Ed Gingerich's brothers Atlee and Joe, as well as their sons and Ed's boys, decided they wanted back into the old-order Brownhill Church and Bishop Rudy Shertler's good graces. The bishop agreed to accept the Gingerichs back into the fold, but under one condition. They would have to sever their ties with Ed. And this is what they did, leaving Ed alienated from his family and the Brownhill Amish community.

     In the summer of 2010, after being unable to find another Amish enclave that would take him, Ed moved in with his former attorney, George Schroeck and his wife on Miller Station Road outside of Cambridge Springs. Ed naturally felt alone and abandoned and slipped deeper into a depressed state. On Thursday, January 13, 2011, George, hoping to get Ed back on his medication to relieve his depression, took him to a local physician. The next day, Ed walked out to Schroeck's barn to feed the horse. Five hours later, Mrs. Schroeck went looking for him. She found Ed hanging from the end of a rope. Before taking his life, Ed had written, in the dust on a nearby bucket, "forgive me, please." It wasn't clear what Ed was asking forgiveness for--killing his wife Katie or killing himself. Perhaps he sought forgiveness for both.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Armed and Dangerous:Who the Police Shoot and Why

     Since Jaunuary 1, 2011, I have been using the internet to compile a national database of police involved shootings. The term "police involved shooting" pertains to law enforcement officers who, in the line of duty, discharge thier guns. When journalists and police administrators use the term, they include the shooting of animals and shots that miss their targets. My case files only include instances in which a person is either killed or wounded by police gunfire. My data also includes off-duty officers who discharge their weapons in law enforcement situations. They don't include, for example, a case involving an officer murdering his wife.
     My research of police involved shootings is in service to a book I plan to write called "Armed and Dangerous: Who the Police Shoot and Why."  It is not intended as an indictment of the police but an attempt to shed light on a reality of American life that has yet to be explored in any detail. One reason for that involves the fact there is no such thing as a national database on how many people the police shoot every year. Morevoer, there is no place to go to find out how many people the police shot, lets say, in California or Pittsburgh during any period of time.  That's why I decided to create my own case repository of police involved shootings. I'm doing this with the knowledge that while I am probably missing some cases, I will catch enough of them to make my study worthwhile.

     Although there are no nationwide police shooting statistics from previous years for comparison to 2011 cases, I believe, based on local statistics published in newspaper articles and law enforcement reports, that police shootings of civilians are on the rise nationally.

     The government does maintain records on how many police officers are killed every year in the line of duty. In 2010, fifty-nine officers were shot to death among 122 killed while on the job. This marked a twenty percent jump from 2009 when forty-nine officers were killed by gunfire. This year so far, more than seventy officers have been shot to death. Not all of these shootings, however, were associated with the cases involving the police shootings of civilians. However, the fact police officers feel they are increasingly under attack may help explain why they are shooting so many citizens.

     During the first eight months of 2011, law enforcement officers, according to my figures, have shot 768 people with 430 of these shootings being fatal encounters. About forty officers have been shot in these civilian-police encounters. Most police invovled shootings feature local officers followed by sheriff's deputies, state police and federal agents. About half of these shootings occured in the largest urban centers with the rest in little towns, small cities and rural areas. The state with the most 2011 shootings (number of people shot) is California followed by Florida, Illinois and Texas.


California 117 (73 fatal); Florida 74 (41); Illinois 49 (41); Texas 46 (19); Ohio 34 (21); Pennsylvania 33 (11); and New York 32 (14). It is interesting to note that the police in Ohio killed more people than the police in New York, a state with 8 million more citizens. States with no police shootings as of September 1, 2011 are:Wyoming, Vermont, Delaware and Rhode Island. States with two or less incluce Alaska, South Dakota, Montana and North Dakota.

SHOOTINGS BY CITY (As of September 2011)

Chicago 38, Miami 28, Los Angeles 16, Las Vegas 14, Philadelphia 12, New York 11, Columbus, OH 10, Phoenix 10, St. Louis 8, Tucson 7, Milwaulkee 7, Aurora, CO 7, Houston 7, Albuquerque 6, Orlando 6, Atlanta 6, Cleveland 6, Mesa, AZ 5, Baltimore 5, San Fransicso 5.  It is interesting to note that the police in Albuquerque killed as many people as the police in New York City, and three more than the police in Houston, the country's fourth largest city. Officers in Columbus, Ohio killed twice as many people as the police in Philadelphia and three times as many as the officers in St. Louis. In 2011 (as of September 1), the police in Denver shot one person. In the smaller adjacent city of Aurora, the police shot seven. Is it the police, or the citizens of these two places that accounts for these differences? It's questions like this I hope to answer with my study.


     A vast majority of the people shot by the police are men between the ages twenty-five and forty who have criminal histories. Overall, people shot by the police are much older than the typical first-time arrestee. A significant number of the people shot by the police are in their forties and fifties. Also shot are folks in their sixties, seventies and even eighties. Less than ten percent of civilians shot during the first eight months of 2011 were women. Except for a 17-year-old female bank burglar in Lansing, Michigan, these women were in their late twenties to early forties. Many of them had histories of mental illness or emotional distress and were armed with knives.

     Most police shooting victims were armed with handguns. The next most common weapon involved vehicles (used as weapons) followed by knives (and other sharp objects), shotguns, and rifles. Very few of these people possessed assault weapons and a small percentage were unarmed.

     The situation that brought police shooters and their targets together include domestice and other disturbances; crimes in progress such as robbery, assault and carjacking; the execution of arrest warrants; drug raids; gang activities; routine traffic stops; car chases; and standoff and hostage situations. This year, in Miami and San Francisco, the police shot innocent bystanders.

     Women make up about five percent of the nation's uniformed police services. During the first eight months of 2011, twenty polcewomen wounded or killed civilians in the line of duty. None of these officers had shot anyone in the past. This was not true of male officers. While the vast majority of police officers never fire their guns in the line of duty, a significant number of those who did this year have shot someone before.

     Almost all police involved shootings, while investigated by special units, prosecutor's offices or an outside police agency, are investigated by governmental law enforcement personnel. It is perhaps not surprising that more than 95 percent of all police involved shootings are ruled administratively and legally justified. A handful of cases lead to wrongful death lawsuits. Even fewer result in criminal prosecutions of the shooters.

     The reason the police in America shoot so many people involves a combination of factors such as the increased use of militarized, hair-trigger police tactics; relaxed use of deadly force policies; and a growing population of violent, drugged and/or mentally ill citizens. As I continue my reseach I will update this site. If you have insight into this important law enforcement/public policy issue, please get in touch.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Charles Bukowski on Writers and Writing

The average man puts in his eight hours, comes home beaten and satisfied. With the writer there is never satisfaction; there is always the next piece of work to be done.
Charles Bukowski

As a youth I saw too many movies of the great artist, and the writer was always some tragic and very interesting chap with a fine goatee, blazing eyes, and inner truths springing to his tongue continually....The best writers that I know talk very little, I mean those who are doing the good writing. In fact, there is nothing duller than a good writer.
Charles Bukowski