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Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Sonja Farak and Annie Dookhan: Crime Lab Rogues

     Last August, authorities in Massachusetts shut down the state crime lab in Jamaica Plain. A month later, state police officers arrested Annie Dookhan on charges related to the forensic chemist's deliberate mishandling of drug evidence, and her failure to follow lab testing protocols. During her tenure at the Jamaica Plain lab, Dookhan had handled more than 50,000 drug samples involving some 34,000 defendants. Now all of these cases are in jeopardy.

     On January 20, 2013, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley announced that state police officers had arrested forensic chemist Sonja Farak. The 35-year-old had been a drug analyst at the state lab in Amherst. The officers arrested Farak at her home in Northhampton on charges she had stolen cocaine and heroin from evidence she had certified. The forensic chemist had replaced the stolen contraband with counterfeit substances. Farak, a state chemist since 2002, was held on $75,000 bail pending her arraignment.

     Two weeks before Farak's arrest, federal inspectors had given the Amherst lab a clean bill of health. After the closing of the Jamaica Plain and Amherst facilities, police and prosecutors in Massachusetts are left with the crime lab in Sudbury, the only laboratory still open in the state.

     In 2012, crime laboratory auditors reported serious quality control problems in the Michigan state system as well as in labs in St. Paul, Minnesota, Houston, Texas, Raleigh, North Carolina, Hartford, Connecticut, Los Angeles and New York City. Over the past ten years, dozens of crime labs across the country lost their accreditation or were temporarily closed. These crime lab failures represent a serious breakdown in American forensic science.

     While there has been some budget cutting that affects street policing, SWAT operations, anti-terrorism programs, and drug enforcement, crime labs have suffered the most from economic austerity. The lack of adequate crime lab funding has created personnel shortages, diminished training, physical plant deterioration, and attenuated administrative oversight.

     The crime lab scandals in Massachusetts illustrate how much damage a couple of rogue forensic practitioners can inflict on a criminal justice system overwhelmed by the government's massive war on drugs.  

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Tyrik S. Haynes: Nutcase With a Knife

     In December 2012, Tyrik S. Haynes, a disturbed 19-year-old from Middletown Township, New Jersey, set fire to a cat trapped in a carrying case, then dumped its charred remains in the woods. After torching the animal, Haynes went to a local Petco store where he tried to adopt another cat to torture and kill.

     On December 24, 2012, Victor Amato, chief of the Monmouth County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, filed a criminal complaint against Tyrik Haynes. (One can only image what's in this  young man's juvenile file. Youngsters who set animals on fire are often mentally slow misfits with alcoholic parents and histories of erotic fire-setting. These are people you don't want living in your neighborhood.)

     If convicted of animal cruelty, a judge could sentence Haynes up to six months in jail. (The problem with cases like this is that corrections administrators don't want these people in their lock-ups.) Following his arrest, Haynes posted his bail and was released from custody.

     On Monday afternoon, January 14, 2013 at three o'clock, Tyrik Haynes was loitering inside a Bed Bath and Beyond franchise not far from his favorite Petco store. For reasons beyond comprehension, Haynes pulled out a knife and stabbed 29-year-old Kerri Dalton at least a dozen times. The victim, from Keansburg, New Jersey, was pushing a stroller containing her five-month-old baby. Parmedics rushed Dalton to the Jersey Shore University Medical Center. She is expected to survive her wounds. The victim's baby was not hurt in the bloody attack. The knife-wielding assailant and his victim were total strangers.

     Police officers, shortly after the random, senseless assault, placed Tyrik Haynes back into the Monmouth County Jail. This time his bail was set at $1 million. Haynes has been charged with attempted murder, child endangerment, and possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose.

     Politicians and criminal justice pundits can talk all day about gun control and other irrelevant, window-dressing anti-violence measures. Since we can't ban knives, or make killing cats criminal homicide, we are left with the question of how to prevent people like Tyrik Haynes from randomly stabbing total strangers in public places. Because there is nothing the police can do to prevent crimes like this, politicians avoid talking about pathologically violent criminals who cannot be deterred or rehabilitated. No politician wants to tell voters that no public place is safe from people like Tyrik Haynes. 

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Nouel Alba and the Newtown Shooting Swindle

     Politicians aren't the only people who know how to take advantage of a crisis. Swindlers are good at it, too. (Many politicians are swindlers, but that's another story.) On December 14, 2012, shortly after Adam Lanza shot and killed twenty students in the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, Nouel Alba jumped into action.

     The 37-year-old resident of The Bronx, New York, using the Internet handle Victorian Glam Fairys, posted the following on her Facebook page: "All this killing and shooting...is just scary. Praying for all those families and all the kids who are affected (sic) by this today. My heart goes out to all those innocent kids." Fifteen minutes later, at one-thirty on the afternoon of the massacre, Alba allegedly wrote that her nephew, a 6-year-old named Noah Pozner, was one of the victims. (Pozner, an actual victim of the mass murder, was not related to Alba.) The next day, Alba posted a message regarding how donors could send money to a Paypal account to help the boy's family pay for his funeral. Several people donated money to Alba's phony funeral fund.

     On December 19, 2012, in an interview on CNN's TV news show "AC360," Alba denied involvement in the Newtown swindle. In response to her denial, the CNN interviewer said, "This has your email on it. Right there. This is about Noah Pozner's funeral."

     "I never sent that," alba replied. On December 27, FBI agents took Alba into custody.

     Alba, in speaking to a donor who had contacted her by phone, allegedly claimed to have helped identify her nephew's body at the elementary school.

     A federal grand jury sitting in Meriden, Connecticut, on January 15, 2013, indicted Nouel Alba of one count of making a false statement to the FBI. (She denied using her Facebook account to falsely claim to be the Newtown victim's aunt, and to solicit donations on this false pretense.) The charge carries a maximum term of five years in prison, and a fine up to $250,000.

     Nouel Alba is free on $50.000 bond.


Friday, January 11, 2013

Murder Rates: Dangerous Places

     When it comes to murder rates, the United States, when compared to the rest of the world, ranks in the middle. Countries that enjoy extremely low homicide rates include Finland, Belgium, United Kingdom, Portugal, and France. European nations with murder rates that exceed America's are: Moldova, Estonia, Lithuania, Ukraine, and Belarus. Other countries with exceptionally high rates of criminal homicide include: Russia, Greenland, Congo, Uganda, Brazil, Costa Rica, and Saint Lucia.

     In the United States, while national homicide rates are no longer in steep decline, they are not dramatically surging. There are cities and towns, however, where the rate of criminal homicide continues to fall significantly. New York City, for example, had 414 criminal homicides in 2012, a 17 percent drop from the previous year. There hasn't been fewer homicides in New York since 1963. (In 1992 there were over two thousand.)

     Last year, Miami, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and St. Louis, cities with traditionally high rates of violent death, experienced declines in their murder rates. High murder towns that in 2012 remained dangerous places to live include Youngstown, Ohio, Camden, New Jersey, Chester, Pennsylvania, Stockton, California, and New Orleans.

     Big, crime-ridden cities that in 2012 saw their murder rates go up significantly include Los Angeles (294 homicides); Chicago (505); Cleveland (197); Philadelphia (331); and Oklahoma City (100).

     Detroit, a town of 706,000 with a history of violent crime dating back to the 1970s when the place was much more populated, and known as the Murder Capital of the United States, had the nation's highest per capita murder rate in 2012. New York City, a metropolis of eight million people, recorded 414 criminal homicides in 2012. There were, by comparison, 411 criminal homicides in the Motor City last year.  In Detroit, a miserable place to live, life continues to be cheap.  

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Amish Mafia: Real Gangsters or Social Misfits?

     Between 1693 and 1697, a Swiss Mennonite bishop named Jakob Ammon broke free of the Mennonites, bestowing his name on his followers--the Amish. Ammon's people fled to North America to escape religious persecution in Europe. They drifted in clusters across the continent, occupying parcels of land in some 26 states, concentrating in central Ohio and eastern Pennsylvania where more than one-quarter of this nation's 250,000 Amish reside.

     The Amish are honest, hardworking people known for their self-sufficiency and simple uniformity of dress. The women wear bonnets, shawls, heavy black shoes, black stockings, and plain, dark-colored dresses. The men grow beards (they do shave their upper lips) and dress in blues and blacks. The most conservative sects, referred to as Old-Order Amish, avoid the use of electricity and do not own motor vehicles or telephones. (Some use phones for business.) Their dwellings are unpretentious, furnished in spartan fashion and do not feature indoor plumbing.

     Members of this male-dominated society refer to those outside their faith as "the English." The Amish worship in clusters of 25 to 30 families led by an ordained elder called the bishop, the spiritual and cultural leader of the group. The bishop's authority is great, and his word, in matters of Amish life, is law.

     The Amish are stoical, keep their feelings to themselves, abhor violence, and loathe publicity. They do not abide departures from their principals of conformity, humility, devotion to God, and detachment from the modern world. Excommunicated transgressors are "shunned," sometimes permanently.

     The Mafia, a criminal syndicate that originated in Sicily, Italy, is a loose affiliation of professional thieves and killers involved in a variety of rackets and vices that include extortion, illegal gambling, drugs, prostitution, loan sharking, arson-for-profit, hijacking, and labor union corruption. A group that claims racketeering sovereignty over a particular territory is called a "family."

     Nothing could be more different than the Mafia and Amish versions of the family. The two subcultures are on the opposite extremes of American society. The Amish are quiet pacifists who shun materialism and conspicuous wealth. Mafia types are violent, vulgar, and ostentatious. The notion that there are Mafia types operating within old-order Amish society is not only shocking, it's hard to believe.

     One of this year's cable TV hits is a docu-series on the Discovery Network called "Amish Mafia." Set in the heart of Lancaster County's Amish country in southeastern Pennsylvania, the show, through reenactments, on-camera interviews, and the interactions of the series' main characters, chronicles the lives and adventures of Lebanon Levi and his three-man crew of Amish Mafioso.

     The star of the series, Lebanon Levi, is a tall, pudgy-faced, clean-shaven, soft-spoken Amish man in his late 20s or early 30s. (I presume he is from Lebanon, Pennsylvania, thus the name. I've never heard of a Mafioso with a name like Chicago Tony, or Brooklyn Paulie.) A roofer by trade who owns local real estate, the unbaptized godfather wears go-to-church Amish garb, and drives around in a Cadillac SUV. He conducts his "Mafia" business behind a desk in his barn.

     The mildly illicit business conducted out of Lebanon Levi's barn includes setting up and collecting "insurance" payments from local Amish businesses. (One owner of an Amish enterprise identified as one of Levi's premium payers has denied making protection payments.) Another source of income involves the operation of so-called "Hut Parties" where Amish and English kids gather, for a fee, to drink, dance, and do whatever. The godfather also organizes a small gambling operation connected to organized softball games.

     Lebanon Levi's bodyguard and right-hand-man is Alvin, a clean-shaven Amish man who dresses like his boss, drives a fancy pickup truck, and poses on camera with a baseball bat. No one can see the godfather without going through Alvin, Levi's most loyal and trusted soldier.

     Jolin, a tattooed Mennonite who drives a Mercedes, and poses a lot with assault rifles and pump-action shotguns, plays the role of enforcer. Notwithstanding his job description, Jolin is rather soft-spoken and mild-mannered. He comes off as too thoughtful to be violent. Like Levi, he has a minor arrest record featuring disorderly conduct type offenses. Like his boss, he has not spent time in jail, and none in prison.

     John, a tough-talking Amish man who spends a good deal of time getting advice from his sister Esther, functions as Levi's errand boy. Humiliated by the fact he has to get around on a foot-scooter, John wants desperately to take on bigger assignments and have access to a car. John wants more power, and to move up in the organization. But first he has to earn Levi's trust. John is also not above discussing, for the TV audience, the possibility of challenging Levi for control of the organization. He seems to have his sister's blessing on this issue. Eventually, by conducting business behind Levi's back, and associating with an Amish hood from Ohio who wants to expand into Pennsylvania, John gets into trouble with his former boss.

     Through his small squad of "Mafia" foot-soldiers, Lebanon Levi mainly functions as the enforcer of the Old-Order Amish code of conduct, an odd role for a man who doesn't even belong to the church. In one episode, Levi's men confront and photograph a high-ranking member of the church who's with a prostitute in a seedy motel. In another segment of the series, Levi's men confront an Old Order Amish man who has been taking advantage of an Amish woman whose husband has abandoned her. A member of Levi's crew, in a third show, visits the mobile home of an English guy involved in a buggy hit-and-run case. When the English fellow doesn't admit wrongdoing, and tells Levi's operative to get the hell off his property, the Amish Mafioso fires a shotgun slug through the windshield of the man's unoccupied parked car.

     It's what Lebanon Levi doesn't do that distinguishes him from a real Mafia leader. He doesn't sell drugs, run prostitutes, fence stolen goods, finance heists, or operate a loan sharking business. Instead of Mafia hits and severe beatings, Levi's men issue stern warnings, do a lot of tough-talking, and pose with high-powered weapons. "Amish Mafia" is not HBO's "The Sopranos."

     "Amish Mafia" is essentially a soap opera featuring four social misfits who aren't Amish, English, or Mafia. Since the show doesn't accurately depict the Amish or organized crime, I'm surprised it's so successful. Given the popularity of "Amish Mafia," next year we may be watching "Amish Housewives." 

Monday, January 7, 2013

The Steubenville Gang-Rape Case

     Steubenville, Ohio, a rust-belt town of 19,000 along the Ohio River across from the West Virginia panhandle, has seen better days. The steel mills are long gone, and what's left is unemployment, an ongoing war on drugs, and violent crime. (Even in its heyday, Steubenville was known as a hotbed of Mafia activity.) The only institution that still energizes and inspires the residents of this decaying, crime-ridden community is its high school football program. Like most people in the upper Ohio Valley, the citizens of this town 40 miles west of Pittsburgh are obsessed with high school football.

     During football season on Friday nights, half the town's population gathers in the 10,000-seat stadium to watch Steubenville Big Red roll over its opponents. The team, featuring 19 coaches, has won nine state championships. It's therefore not surprising that kids who play on the high school football team, as small-town heroes, are treated as privileged citizens. Some would even say that these kids can pretty much get away with anything.

     On the night of August 11, 2012, at the home of a "volunteer coach" (I have no idea what that is), fifty teenagers from several area high schools gathered to celebrate the end of summer and the approach of a new football season. With the beer, vodka, rum, and whisky flowing, several of the young partygoers got predictably drunk. (Drugs may also have been involved.) A 16-year-old Weirton, West Virginia girl, an honor student and athlete who attended a private religious school, allegedly fell victim to booze and lost consciousness.

     The next day, several kids who had attended the party, in their Twitter posts, wrote about the gang-rape of a 16-year-old girl who had passed out drunk. According to these social media messages, members of the Steubenville High football team, over a period of several hours with dozens of partygoers looking on, had fondled and raped the girl as she lay nude and unconscious on the floor.

     At one in the morning of August 14, 2012, two full days after the alleged sexual assaults, the girl's parents reported the crime to the Steubenville Police Department. The delay in reporting meant there would be no physical evidence of rape, or blood tests to establish the victim's intoxication. The parents provided the police with a computer flash drive containing Twitter page references to the sexual assault.

     Steubenville Police Chief William McCafferty, at an August 22 press conference, announced the gang-rape allegations, and asked witnesses to come forward. The chief's request for additional information produced no results. It appeared that no one wanted to say anything that would reflect poorly on the high school football program. The Jefferson County prosecutor, and the local judge who handled juvenile matters, recused themselves from the case due to ties with the football team. As a result, the investigation was turned over to the state attorney general's office.

     Attorney general's office investigators seized 15 cellphones and 2 iPads that contained material that was quite disturbing. In a 12-minute video posted by a partygoer, a teenager is heard joking about the girl's condition, noting that because she wasn't moving while a boy was raping her, she must be dead. This witness, reflecting a state of mind that is stunning in its puerile sociopathy, says, "Is it really rape because you don't know if she wanted to or not? She might have wanted to. That might have been her final wish."

     Investigators were also in possession of a cellphone photograph of two boys carrying a limp girl in a t-shirt and blue shorts by her wrists and ankles. Another cellphone image depicts a nude girl lying on the floor naked. From other social media sources, teenagers are heard bragging about the rape. One kid called the victim "sloppy," and made comments that suggested that some of the boys had urinated on the girl.

     A prosecutor with the state attorney general's office, on August 27, 2012, charged two 16-year-old Steubenville football players with the rape of the girl from Weirton. The police arrested Trent Mays and Ma'lik Richmond. Mays played quarterback, and was a star on the wrestling team. Richmond, besides football, starred in basketball and track. Through their attorneys, both boys claimed they were innocent. (Mays was also charged with disseminating a photograph of a nude minor.) After spending two months in a juvenile detention center, the suspects were placed under house arrest.

     At a probable cause hearing (to establish if the state had enough evidence to take this case to trial) in October 2012, the prosecutor presented three Steubenville high school students who testified against both defendants. According to these witnesses, Mays and Richmond had driven the victim to three other parties that night where she had been raped. Mays had allegedly used his cellphone to videotape himself fondling the girl in the car en route to another party venue. Special prosecutor Marianne Hemmeter told the judge that the victim had been "unresponsive, not in a position of consent, and they [the defendants] knew it. Let's be clear," she said, "they knew she was drunk."

     The judge, based upon the social media evidence, and the probable cause testimony of the three partygoers, bound the case over. The trial is scheduled for February 13, 2013.

     In late December 2012, the activist hacking group Anonymous, injected itself into the case by posting the photograph of the rape victim being carried by the wrists and ankles by two boys. The group also posted the video where male partygoers are heard joking about the alleged assault. Walter Madison, Ma'lik Richmond's attorney, told a CNN correspondent that while his client is one of the boys in the photograph, he does not appear in the video. Madison called the photograph showing Richmond as one of the boys carrying the girl "out of context," and said that the girl in question was not unconscious. The defense attorney, in referring to the hacking group, said, "A right to a fair trial for these young men has been hijacked."

     On January 5, 2013, another incriminating video surfaced on the Web featuring the comments of a Steubenville High School student named Michael Nodianos who is heard saying, "She is so raped right now. There won't be any foreplay for a dead girl. It ain't wet now to be honest. Trust me, I'm a doctor."

     Ma'lik Richmond's attorney, Walter Madison told CNN on January 5 that he plans to file a motion for change of venue. Because the local judge has taken himself out of the case, a judge sitting in Cincinnati will rule on the motion.

     Steubenville city manger Cathy Davison, on the day the video featuring Michael Nodianos became public, held a press conference. Davison announced the formation of a municipal website aimed at combating the perception that "...everyone in Steubenville is acting like the individuals involved in the case. That we are a community that is run by football. That is not the case." (I find it interesting that the city manager, instead of condemning the video-recorded behavior of the partygoers, is mainly concerned about the image of the town. This case should be about the alleged crime, and the attitude of the teenagers who witnessed and may have participated in the rape. The hell with the town. The focus should be about what's wrong with these kids? Are we producing a generation of moral zombies?)

     The Steubenville football scandal has divided the town into two camps: Big Red fans intensely loyal to the team who call the case a witch-hunt; and residents fed-up with athletes behaving badly and getting away with it. Regardless of how this case turns out for the two defendants, what has been revealed in the social media about what happened that night is really disturbing. The case also illustrates what I consider to be extreme athletic fandom, a phenomena I've never understood.


     The FBI is looking into allegations that Jefferson County Sheriff Fred Abdalla and others investigating the case have been targets of threats. Potential witnesses for the two defendants have been threatened as well. Critics of the way the crime is being handled by the authorities wonder why more high school students haven't been charged with rape. This alleged gang-rape has divided Steubenville, Ohio into warring camps of disgruntled citizens with conflicting ideas on how justice should be administered in this high-profile case.