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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Cops Shooting Cops

Santa Monica, California

     Albert Covarrabias, Jr., a high school graduate, joined the Santa Maria Police Department in 2007. The Santa Barbara County town of 100,000, 170 miles northwest of Los Angeles, is home to 70,000 hispanics. In 2011, Covarrabias' wife committed suicide. The 29-year-old  patrolman, in mid-January of this year, married again.

     A couple of weeks following his wedding, officer Covarrabias learned that members of his own department were investigating him for having sexual relations with a minor. (In California, the age of consent is 18, unless the parties are within 3 years of each other in age.) The alleged victim, a 17-year-old girl, was a member of the police department's Explorer program. (A police cadet.)

     On January 27, 2012, after intercepting and recording a 15 minute phone conversation between Covarrabias and the 17-year-old, Santa Maria investigators decided to take their fellow officer into custody. According to police accounts of the intercepted conversation, Covarrabias told the girl to deny their relationship, and to implicate someone else. He said he'd kill himself before he went to jail, and threatened her if she revealed their secret.

     At one o'clock the next morning, as officer Covarrabias was dismantling a DUI check-point in anticipation of going off duty, he was approached by his cousin Chris Nartatez, a Santa Maria sergeant, and officer Matt Kline, his best-friend on the force who had been his best man at the January wedding. When informed he was under arrest in connection with his alleged sexual relationship with the minor, Covarrabias backed away and reached for  his gun.

     The arresting officers charged Covarrabias, and as they wrestled on the ground, the arrestee managed to draw his weapon and fire four shots. Officer Kline pulled his gun and shot Covarrabias in the chest. The wounded officer died a few  hours later while undergoing emergency surgery.

     Santa Maria police chief Danny Macagni placed officers Kline and Nartatez on paid administrative leave as investigators with the Santa Barbara Sheriff's Office looked into the case.

     The fatal shooting of officer Covarrabias by one of his own, outraged a large segment of the community. Santa Maria police officers have received death threats, and critics of the shooting have called for the chief of police to step down. On February 15, the Santa Maria Officers Association (a police union), called for a "vote of no confidence" against Chief Macagni who has insisted that the actions of officers Kline and Nartatez were morally, administratively, and legally justified. (These officers were not welcome at Covarrabias' funeral.)

     The results of the no confidence vote have, as of this writing, not been made public. If a chief of police loses the support and confidence of the rank and file, he cannot effectively run the department. Based upon what has been reported in the media, the shooting of officer Covarrabias seems perfectly justified. However, if the chief loses support of his department and the community, he will have to go. At this point, the Covarrabia shooting case seems more about identity politics than the use of deadly force.

Long Beach, California

     The Los Angeles area's Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office is housed on the 7th floor of the federal building in Long Beach, a town 20 miles south of Los Angeles. As one of the federal agencies that make up the Department of Homeland Security, ICE came into existence in 2003 when two existing organizations--the Department of Justice's Immigrations and Naturalization Service (INS), and the Treasury Department's Customs Bureau--merged. Agents in the combined agencies had to be cross-trained to do the other bureaus' work. Agents, however, remained loyal to their old bureaus, and this has created internal rivalries and resentments that have been difficult to resolve. Administratively speaking, it has not been a good marriage.

     Late Thursday afternoon, February 16, 2012, 51-year-old Kevin Kozak, the Deputy Special Agent in charge of ICE's Los Angeles office, a former Customs Bureau agent, was meeting with 45-year-old special agent Ezequiel Garcia. The purpose of the meeting involved the former INS agent's job performance. Kozak had earlier denied Garcia's request for an office transfer which had created animosity on his part. (In 2005, Garcia and another ICE agent had sued the Los Angeles Police Department after they had been roughed-up when working undercover. The plaintiffs lost the suit.)

     The office job performance meeting, at 5:30 PM, turned violent when Agent Garcia pulled his service weapon. Agent Kozak grabbed the gun, and as the two men struggled for control of the weapon, Kozak was shot in the upper torso, legs, and hands--six times in all. Agent Perry Woo, who happened to be in the vicinity, shot and killed Ezequiel Garcia. Paramedics rushed Kevin Kozak, severely wounded but alive, to a nearby hospital where, as of this writing, he remains in stable condition.

     T. J. Bonner, a retired U.S. Border Patrol Agent who has worked with ICE, has described the agency's formation as a hostile takeover. Since its creation, the agency has seen several scandals involving agents arrested for drug dealing, obstruction of justice, embezzlement, and other crimes. ICE agents have also been accused of having improper sexual relations with informants.


Monday, March 19, 2012

Shoot/Don't Shoot: Shooting Kids

January 4, 2011
Chicago, Illinois

     Officers patrolling a west side neighborhood for gang and drug activity, spotted a car that matched the description of a vehicle believed to be carrying guns and narcotics. As one of the officers approached the pulled-over car, the driver put it in reverse and rammed the police cruiser. The officer behind the wheel fired his gun as the suspect lurched forward and brushed the other officer. When the passenger in the suspect car pulled a gun, the officer on foot shot him and the driver.

     The wounded suspects turned out to be a pair of 15-year-old boys. After a couple of days in the hospital, the teenagers were charged with aggravated battery and sent to a juvenile detention center. Given the circumstances of the case, no one objected when the authorities ruled this police involved shooting justified.  

March 14, 2011
Lansing, Michigan

     When the intrusion alarm at the Bank of America went off at 3:30 in the morning, five police officers responded to the scene. After discovering the place where the burglar had broken into the the building, three of the officers entered the bank. Two of the officers encountered the intruder hiding in a small storage room. The cornered bank burglar turned out to be 17-year-old Derrinesh Clay. The five foot four, 120 pound girl, wearing a black winter coat with a fur-trimmed hood, black sweatpants over jeans, and a multicolored backpack, brandished a pair of scissors. 

     Lansing police officer Brian Rendon ordered Clay to drop the weapon. When she didn't, he grabbed her by the wrist. The girl put up a fight, and she, Rendon, and another officer ended up on the floor. As the officers tried to handcuff the burglar, she pulled out a serrated steak knife and took a swipe at Rendon, cutting the front of his coat. From a foot away, Rendon pulled his .45-caliber Glock and fired twice, hitting the black girl in the head and stomach as she knelt in front of him. The girl died at the scene. 

     In 2005, Officer Rendon had shot and killed a pit bull, and three years later, shot and wounded a man who came at him with a knife. He was cleared on both shootings. Investigators with the Michigan State Police found that in the Clay shooting, Officer Rendon's deadly force was a "justifiable act of self-defense." The prosecutor's office agreed, therefore no criminal charges have been filed against Officer Rendon. 

     Derrinesha Clay had been in trouble with the law before. Police had recently arrested her for committing a pair of home invasions. She had also been diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, and may have been bipolar. 

     Critics of the police shooting, and there are many, believe that the girl's death could have been avoided. The officer, they say, could have backed off without risking his life. Why didn't he use a taser gun to subdue her. In September 2011, the dead girl's mother, Mary Rush, filed a federal lawsuit in the U. S. District Court in Grand Rapids against Officer Rendon and the city of Lansing. The plaintiff accuses the defendants of gross negligence, battery, and civil rights violations. Regardless of the outcome of this case, the incident has strained relations between the police department and the city's minority community. 

January 4, 2012
Brownsville, Texas

     At eight in the morning, a school administrator at the Cummings Middle School, spotted a student who possessed what looked like a handgun partially concealed under his shirt. The boy stood in the hallway outside of the main office. A few days earlier, 15-year-old Jaime Gonzales had been in a fight with another boy. The concerned school official called 911.

     Gonzales, when approached by several police officers, drew his gun. One of the officers yelled, "Take him out!" When the kid refused to lower his weapon, the police, armed with automatic rifles, shot him in the chest and in the back of the head, killing him instantly. 

     The weapon Gonzales pointed at the police turned out to be a pellet gun that looked like the real thing. The dead student's parents have protested the shooting, and have called for an independent investigation. But in the light of school shootings that have resulted in the deaths of so many students and teachers, it's hard to fault the police in this case. Hindsight is one thing, but these officers had to make a split shoot/don't shoot decision. Based on news reportage of this case, it seems justified even though the boy was fifteen, and armed with a pellet gun.  


Thursday, March 15, 2012

Was Coach Joe Paterno a Hero?

     America is a nation of heroes. There are tens of thousands of them. On TV, news readers  often refer to all military personnel, law enforcement officers, and firefighters as heroes. There are, of course, true war heroes, brave cops, and heroic firefighters. But all of them? If everybody is a hero, then no one is. In the fields of education, literature, law, science, business, and medicine, there are real heroes, but we seldom hear of them. I guess there are even political heroes, but I can't think of any.

     Most of our "heroes" come out of the entertainment industry--where they are also called icons--and the world of sports. I once knew a successful lawyer who had served in the special forces in Vietnam. Guess who he idolized? John Wayne, a Hollywood actor who played a war hero. Really. How can an actor, even a great one, be a hero?

     Hundreds, if not thousands, of amateur and professional athletes become big heroes, and even legends like Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio. At least DiMaggio was married to Marylyn Monroe, a film icon who had an affair with a political hero, John F. Kennedy. I don't understand what it is about great athletes that makes them heroes. I understand the fame and the wealth, even fan adulation. But heroes?

     In America, even coaches can become heroes. In a town near my home, a high school football coach who was in his 90s recently died. His life story dominated the local newspaper for at least three days. You'd think he had cured cancer, or had saved the world from Hitler. He was a high school football coach.

     Penn State football Coach Joe Paterno was a super-hero to millions of sports fans. His supporters liked to point out that he had donated a lot of money to the university library, and other good causes.  Plenty of rich people give their money away, but they are not considered heroes. They are just paying their fair share. Joe Paterno was not hero because he made a huge salary and was generous. He was a hero because his teams won a lot of football games, and brought glory to Penn State. He was supposedly a leader of men.

     Coach Joe Paterno died last January, and before his death, experienced something few Penn State fans could ever have imagined--he got fired! Why? Because the board of trustees didn't think he had showed leadership and courage in the Jerry Sandusky child molestation scandal. About half of the Penn State fandom is still furious over this black mark on Paterno's legend.

     Simply doing the right thing doesn't make one a hero. But if Joe Paterno hadn't turned a blind eye to sexual molestation going on under his nose, children may have been protected, his career wouldn't have ended in disgrace, and his fans would have an untarnished hero.


     A poll released on Friday, March 16, shows that 46 percent of the 1,300 Pennsylvanians questioned favor renaming Beaver Stadium Joe Paterno Stadium. The survey also found 40 percent opposed to the idea. The name change was more strongly supported by people who described themselves "very or somewhat interested" in college football." The proposal was also backed by people over 65. 

Golf as a Contact Sport

     Is golf a game or a sport? I don't know, but if chess and poker can be called sports, so can golf. While it is not a contact sport, being a golfer can be dangerous--just ask Tiger Woods.

May 2011
Granite Falls, North Carolina

     While playing a round of golf at the Granada Farms County Club, a fox ran out of the woods and bit a 76-year-old golfer in the leg. The wounded man's partners beat the fox to death with their clubs. Animal control people determined that the fox had rabies. This was not good news for the injured golfer who had to undergo treatment for the disease. His defenders had dispatched the poor animal with a minimum of strokes, however. Just kidding.

May 2011
Haslingden, England

     On a Saturday afternoon, a 32-year-old man, walking to his brand new silver Audi A4 after a round of golf, was set upon by a pair of masked car thieves who had been hiding in the bushes. One of the assailants struck the golfer in the back of the neck with a crowbar. The victim cried out, and tossed his car keys into a patch high grass near the parking lot. Players from the 18th green heard the victim's cry for help and ran to the scene. The attackers escaped in a white Renault Clio. After being treated for his neck injury, the embattled golfer drove home in his new car.

August 2011
Barrie, Canada

     On August 13, 2011, 42-year-old Bradley Hubbard, while golfing at an indoor mini-putt course with his girlfriend and his daughters, aged 4 and 7, confronted three rowdy teenagers. The boys became violent, and one of them stabbed Hubbard in the neck with a broken putter. The victim died later that night.

     Matthew and Justin Spring, and their friend Jake Workman, have been charged with second degree murder. Released on bail, they are awaiting their first pre-trial hearing set for April 5, 2012.

February 2012
Fort Worth, Texas

     Clay Carpenter, an avid skier who has run four marathons, was playing with two of his friends at the Resort on Eagle Mountain Lake. At the 13th hole, the course marshal (I've heard of air marshals and U. S. Marshals, but didn't know there were golf marshals) told Carpenter and the other two to play through the foursome ahead of them. After they took their shots, a 48-year-old golfer with the other group, apparently infuriated that the threesome was moving through, charged toward Carpenter. The yelling, cursing, out-of-control golfer swung his putter at Carpenter's head. The attacked man raised his hand to protect himself, and in so doing, had his thumb broken. The next thing Carpenter knew, his shoe was filling up with blood. The enraged golfer had stabbed him in the right leg with his broken putter. Rushed to the hospital with a punctured femoral artery, Carpenter would survive the attack. But there is a good chance he will eventually lose his leg.

     The putter attacking man has not been named, or charged with a crime. Why? According to the authorities in Tarrant County, they aren't sure if the stabbing was intentional. Huh? How can one golfer accidentally stab another golfer with a broken putter? And what about the broken thumb? I'm guessing that the putter-wielding golfer is someone important. Otherwise, he'd be charged with aggravated assault. And we would know who he is.

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Unraveling of John Shick: The Western Psychiatric Shooting Spree

     When writing Crimson Stain, my nonfiction book about a schizophrenic Amish man named Edward Gingerich who brutally beat his wife to death in 1993, I thought a lot about the relationship between serious mental illness and violence. (Gingerich hanged himself in January 2011.) At any given time, about half of the one million schizophrenics in the country are off their medications. Roughly one percent account for 1,000 or so criminal homicides a year. In 2011, of the nearly 1,200 people shot by the police, at least 30 percent of them were mentally ill. The so-called "suicide-by-cop" scenario has become a common type of police involved shooting situation. Mental illness is not only a major heath concern in this country, it has become a serious social problem. Sixty years ago, hopelessly mentally ill people were institutionalized, today they are on the street walking among us. Most are not violent, but many are, and there is no way to identify the dangerous ones before they strike. In that sense, we are all sitting ducks.

John F. Shick

(The material from the following account is based on reportage in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review)

     In 1999, John Shick entered Carleton College where in three years he'd graduate with a degree in chemistry. As part of a 5-year, dual-degree program, he would continue his education at Columbia University where, after two years, he'd graduate with an engineering degree. Carleton College is a prestigious school in Northfield, Minnesota with an enrollment of 2,000. In 2002, having acquired his degree in chemistry, Shick moved to New York City to attend Columbia. A brilliant student, he graduated from Columbia in June 2004 with his engineering degree. He was obviously a bright young man from a family who could afford to send him to good schools.

     In April 2009, while living in Portland, Oregon, Shick began showing signs of mental illness. That year, the 26-year-old went to the trouble of legally changing his name to Willim Hahnpere Scolskan, then several months later, changed it back to John Shick. Police took him into custody on December 28, 2009 near the Portland International Airport following a 911 call regarding a man acting strangely. When Shick kicked an officer, and tried to hit him with his foot-long flashlight, the cop gave Shick a taste of his taser. The police arrested Shick for assault, then hauled the combative arrestee to a mental ward for evaluation. A few days later, he was back on the street. (I'm guessing, but I imagine some shrink put him back on his pills then showed him the door.) In January 2010, the assault charges against Shick were dismissed.

     Shick moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in August 2011. He took up residence at the Royal York Apartments in the Oakland section of the city which is home to the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University, and a vast hospital complex. He enrolled at nearby Duquesne University as a graduate student, and teaching assistant. Within weeks of his move to Pittsburgh, administrators at Duquesne began getting complaints about him from several female graduate students. Shick had been bombarding them with emails and text messages in an apparent effort to connect with them socially. The messages weren't threatening or obscene, just excessive, and off-putting.

     In October 2011, Duquesne officials kicked Shick out of the university, and a month later, officially barred him from the campus following a conference with the director of student conduct. (Shick's mother attended the meeting with  him.) He apologized for his behavior.

     At the Royal York Apartments, Shick's fellow residents, although they didn't know him, considered him an oddball. He walked around glassy-eyed, and didn't speak to people he encountered in the hallway or elevator. A handwritten note taped to his apartment door read, "Now cleaning up vomit from pancreatitis. Please do not disturb." Residents who passed by his door detected a chemical odor emanating from his apartment. When walking the streets of Oakland, Shick, wearing a fanny pack and a backpack, and carrying a couple of shopping bags, often looked nervous and confused. When he did make eye-contact with people, they were often angry looks. (I don't think it's a wild guess to assume he suffered from paranoia.)

     On March 7, 2012, in the lobby of his apartment building, Shick asked the apartment manager to call 911 for him. He then vomited on the floor. A short time later, an ambulance arrived to take him to the hospital. A few hours after that, he was back in the building.

The Shootings

     At 1:42 in the afternoon of March 8, the day after he had vomited in his apartment building, John Shick, wearing a tan trench coat, white T-shirt, jeans, tennis shoes, and a watch on each wrist, walked into the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic in Oakland. He carried two 9 mm semi-automatic pistols, and in his fanny pack, had extra bullets along with some pills, a roll of Tums, and a pencil and some paper. He began shooting the moment he stepped into the lobby, firing a bullet into the chest of the receptionist, Katheryn F. Leight. The wounded 64-year-old was on the phone talking to her husband. Michael Schaab, a 25-year-old therapist, just happened to be returning from his lunch break. He didn't have a chance. Shick shot him dead on the spot.

     As shot rang out in the lobby, panicked employees scurried about yelling, "Hide! hide!" and "Stay down!" Shick wounded three more people on the first floor, then climbed the stairwell leading to the second-floor parking garage. He tried to exit the building there, but didn't have an access card to open the door. He fired a shot into the window panel, but the glass didn't shatter.

     As Shick re-entered the lobby from the stairs, three police officers from the University of Pittsburgh came through the front door firing their guns. Before being hit, a bullet from Shick's pistol grazed one of the officers. When the gunfire ended, Shick lay dead, face-down on the floor next to Michael Schaab's body. He had shot six people, killing one.

     For several hours, investigators didn't know who the dead man was. He carried no identification, and a NCIC fingerprint search came up negative. Eventually someone identified a post-mortem photograph of the shooter. (At the time of the rampage, Shick's parents were reportedly on a yacht in the Bahamas.) When investigators searched Shick's apartment, they found notes taped to the walls pertaining to people who had slighted and angered him.

     While the investigation is ongoing, investigators have not determined why Shick had targeted employees of the Western Psychiatric facility. He didn't know his victims, and the shootings seemed random. His 9 mm handguns originated from Texas, and one of them had been reported stolen.

     Michael Schaab, the 25-year-old geriatric therapist shot to death in the Western Psychiatric lobby, had earned his BA degree in psychology from the University of Pittsburgh. The Greensburg, Pennsylvania native was planning to get married in March of next year. In October 2010, his 26-year-old sister Nancy had been shot to death at a residence she shared with a man named Jordan Just. The shooting took place over an argument concerning heroin. Just pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter, and is serving a 6 to 15 year sentence in a central Pennsylvania prison.

     On March 9, the president of the union (SEIU) that represents 200 nurses, clerks, and housekeepers at the 292-bed Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, a part of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, called for a "full investigation" of the shooting spree. The head of the union wanted to know why the lobby had not been protected by security personnel.   


Saturday, March 3, 2012

Penn State Scandal: Child Abuse Coverup?

     Jerry Sandusky faces 52 counts of child molestation involving 10 male victims between the ages 8 to 17. The 68-year-old former football coach under Joe Paterno is awaiting his trial under house arrest. Sandusky was taken into custody in November 2011 along with athletic director Tim Curley and vice president Gary Schultz. Curley and Schultz have been charged with failing to properly report Sandusky's suspected child molestation, and lying to a grand jury. Joe Paterno, tarred by the scandal but not charged, died in January 2011 from lung cancer.

     Eight of Sandusky's eight victims were molested on the Penn State Campus. Another boy, referred to in court papers as Victim 4, was molested in Florida and Texas when the team traveled to these places for games. Sandusky had sex with the tenth victim at the boy's school.

     On February 29, Judge John Cleland denied Sandusky's motion for a two-month trial delay. The prosecutor had asked for a change of venue, but the case will be tried in Penn State country where it will be hard to find, in my view, jurors who are not sympathetic to the defendant.

     Sandusky and the two former university administrators aren't the only Penn State people under investigation. The FBI has entered the case, and on February 2, served a subpoena on the school. The feds are seeking correspondence, computer hard drives, and various other documents that might prove an institutional conspiracy to coverup Sandusky's crimes.

     It hardly stretches the imagination to envision school officials with knowledge of Sandusky's obsession with young boys, molestations, and even accusations of abuse, doing whatever it took to sweep it all under the rug. When it comes to protecting reputations and images, colleges and universities are extremely aggressive. (To get away with overcharging students, campus life has to be presented as four years in paradise.) To this end, schools are capable of bribery, intimidation, and obstruction of justice.