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Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Brenda Leyland and the Madeleine McCann Case: Death of a "Troll" or a Concerned Citizen?

     On May 3, 2007, doctors Gerry and Kate McCann, from the affluent village of Rothley in the central English borough of Charnwood, were on holiday in Praia da Luz, Portugal with their three children and another couple. That evening the McCanns reported their 3-year-old daughter Madeleine missing. According to the parents, someone had abducted the girl from the hotel room while they were dining 160 feet away from the resort.

     As in the JonBenet Ramsey case in the United States twelve years earlier, the public, influenced by tabloid-like media coverage, suspected the parents of foul play. When a British DNA analyst reported that the child had died in the hotel room, the authorities were under public pressure to arrest the McCanns.

     In September 2007, the police in Portugal made it official by declaring Doctors Gerry and Kate McCann suspects in the disappearance of their daughter. No arrest warrants were issued and in July 2008 the attorney general of Portugal closed the case against the parents citing lack of evidence.

     While officially cleared of criminal wrongdoing, Gerry and Kate McCann remained, in the tabloid press and the minds of millions in Great Britain and around the world, guilty of murder.

     The missing girl's parents, convinced that the police in Portugal had given up the search, hired private investigators to breathe new life into the case. Based on information uncovered by the PIs and Scotland Yard's release of the image of a man seen carrying a child toward the beach not far from the hotel on the night in question, the Portugese police, in October 2013, re-opened the case. Notwithstanding this development, the McCann child has not been found and no arrests have been made.

     In the years following the Madeleine McCann disappearance, a community of conspiracy buffs have targeted the missing girl's parents. Some would say these people have abused and harassed the McCanns through negative tweets, Facebook postings, text messaging, and other forms of online communication. People who engage in this form of social media activity have been labeled "Trolls," a catch-all term that covers everything from mild criticism to online death threats.

     According to social scientists who have studied this media phenomenon, trolls are often bored, lonely people who become obsessed with a particular crime. Some of them are manifestly insane. While  they annoy and may even frighten the targets of their wrath, they are, for the most part, harmless talkers.  These compulsive chatterboxes orbit every celebrated crime, usually offering up outlandish conspiracy theories. The Lindbergh kidnapping case and the JFK assassination, for example, attracted thousands of revisionist true crime buffs. In the wake of baby Lindbergh's abduction and murder in 1932, the 20-month-old's parents were almost driven crazy by obsessed and mentally ill people who showed up at their mansion and harassed them in public. Today, fixated crime buff simply take to their computers.

     In late September 2014, a British television news team published the identify of one of the more prolific McCann case trolls. Brenda Leyland, a 63-year-old resident of Burton Overy, a picturesque village in the Harborough district of Liecestershire, had published more than 5,000 tweets on the case. The soft-spoken divorcee used her Twitter account to draw attention to what she considered an appalling failure of justice. She called the McCanns neglectful parents and accused them, through their frequent media appearances, of profiting from their daughter's disappearance. Leyland once tweeted that the McCanns should "suffer for the rest of their miserable lives" for what they've done.

     Brenda Leyland regularly accused the metropolitan police (Scotland Yard) of dropping the ball in the missing persons case. She also took on the tabloid media for false and over-the-top reporting. At no time did she threaten the McCanns, and unlike some of her fellow Trolls, never called them baby killers.

     After being outed by the television reporters, Leyland became an online target herself. To avoid being harassed by reporters, she checked into a nearby Marriott Hotel in Grove Park, Leicester. On Saturday, October 4, 2014 at one-forty in the afternoon, police were called to Leyland's hotel room after a Marriott employee discovered her corpse.

     Investigators have found no evidence of criminal homicide in Leyland's sudden death. The autopsy, however, failed to reveal a cause of death. This has led to speculation that Brenda Leyland took her own life.

     Leyland's death will no doubt create a community of Trolls who will somehow link the government or the McCanns to her death. By attaching herself to celebrated case, Leyland briefly became famous herself. Perhaps this was one Troll who came to realize what it is like to be the target of other people's obsession, loneliness and boredom. 

The Connecticut Hotel Mop Attack

     A Connecticut man is facing charges after police said he grabbed a mop out of a hotel employee's hands and was "mopping aggressively" over the worker's shoes. Police say 30-year-old John Thornton, of Southington, was arrested Monday night October 13, 2014 and charged with breach of peace and threatening.

     Officers responding to the Bristol Hotel were told a man had become "unruly," grabbed the mop and swept it back and forth over the woman's shoes. When the employee asked the man to stop, police say he pushed her into a corner. Police say the woman was shaken and crying.

     Authorities say Thornton insulted and swore at officers during the arrest, threatening them with bodily harm. He was released on $20,000 bond.

"Man Accused of 'Mopping Aggressively'," Associated Press, October 16, 2014 

Counterfeiting: The Crime We Don't Hear Much About

     A man residing in Kampala, Uganda was charged in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania of leading an international counterfeit currency operation. The U.S. Attorney's office for the Western District of Pennsylvania and the U.S. Secret Service filed a criminal complaint in Pittsburgh on December 18, 2014 against 27-year-old Ryan Andrew Gustafson, aka Jack Farrel and Willy Clock…

     While living in the U.S., Gustafson resided primarily in Texas and Colorado, but allegedly rented a postal box at the UPS Store on Pittsburgh's South Side for some of his operations. The Secret Service began investigating the passing of counterfeit Federal Reserve Notes believed to have been manufactured in Uganda. The phony bills were passed in retail and businesses in Pittsburgh…

     Agents determined that Gustafson had passed the notes. The federal investigators also learned that on February 19, 2014 the suspect received three packages from Beyond Computers in Kampala, Uganda…Secret Service agents searched the packages and found $7,000 in counterfeit $100, $50 and $20 notes in two hidden compartments inside one of the packaging envelopes. A fingerprint on a document inside one of the packages belonged to Gustafson…

     A search of Gustafson's residence turned up two million Ugandan shillings, $180,420 in counterfeit bills, and counterfeit denominations of several other countries…

     The U.S. Secret Service estimates $1.8 million in counterfeit Federal Reserve Notes have been seized and passed in Uganda. The total amount of counterfeit money made in Uganda was about $270,000…

     United States law provides for a maximum sentence of 25 years in prison for counterfeiting….

"Man Charged in Counterfeit Money Scheme," Associated Press, December 19, 2014  

Monday, October 29, 2018

Woman Eats Police Car

     A northern Idaho woman has been charged with a felony after police say she chewed up the upholstery of a patrol seat…Staci Anne Spence, 42, was changed with felony malicious injury to property and misdemeanors including resisting arrest and battery on an officer…

     Prosecutors say Spence was arrested on Thursday September 18, 2014 after deputies came to her home to investigate a battery report…When they arrived at the Bonner County Jail, they found that Spence had chewed through the patrol vehicle's upholstery and into the foam cushioning. [That's the good part.]

"Woman Charged Over Chewed Seat," Associated Press, September 24, 2014 

Sunday, October 28, 2018

The Effects of Drug Enforcement

     Given large numbers of addicts, we start with a high level of demand. The effectiveness of law enforcement measures lowers the supply. The selling price, and hence the potential level of profit that accompanies the successful evasion or corruption of law enforcement efforts, rises. To the unprincipled traffickers in narcotics, this counterbalances the increased risk and justifies an increased counter-mobilization effort to evade and corrupt the law enforcement efforts and to increase the market by expanding the number of addicts. The investment in law enforcement then rises, the counter-investment goes up, and the vicious cycle rolls merrily along….

     The suppression approach is, of course, not simply one of increasing the number of police officers devoted to catching offenders. It also includes a demand for increasing police powers (which always carries with it increased infringement of the guaranteed constitutional liberties) and increasingly severe penalties….

     There is another aspect of the law enforcement approach to narcotics which tends to be self-defeating. The structure of the illegal narcotics business is that of a pyramid, or a series of interlocking pyramids resting on the same base. At the bottom of this structure and constituting the vast majority of individuals involved in the business are the addict-pushers. These are usually people impelled to narcotics by their own uncontrollable cravings who would otherwise be unable to support their habit. Consider an enforcement unit which has to justify its existence in the results it can show. Going after higher levels of the narcotics business pyramid, to say nothing of the apex or apexes, is a long, hazardous, and at best uncertain affair….

     By contrast, the addict-pusher is a sure bet. All that is needed is to keep an eye on him once he has been released from serving his sentence and, sooner or later, usually sooner, he will be caught selling or at least in possession. This poor wretch does not command the services of high-priced legal talent, and the case is quickly processed through the courts with a minimum of waste of police time. The result is an impressively large record of arrests and convictions for the individual officer and for the enforcement unit as a whole.

Isidor Cheim, Donald C. Gerard, and Robert S. Lee, "Drugs and Social Policy," in The Criminal in Society, Leon Radzinowicz and Marvin Wolfgang, Editors, 1994  

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On Going Catatonic

I can't stop buying stuff for my cat. I've purchased beds and blankets; a heated cat bed; toys (a lot of little plastic balls with bells in them and fake mice); climbing trees of all shapes and sizes; hair brushes and shampoos; ear drops and ear wipes; litter boxes, flea and tick applications; litter, litter rakes, litter bags, and scoops; fancy canned food and ordinary bagged pellets; catnip; and even a night light. I think I enjoy cat stuff as much as I love my cat. I need help, stop me before I buy more. I've gone catatonic.

Thornton P. Knowles

Thursday, October 25, 2018

The Real Cause of Crime

Criminals cause crime--not bad neighborhoods, inadequate parents, television, schools, drugs, or unemployment. Crime resides within the minds of human beings and is not caused by social conditions. Once we as a society recognize this simple fact, we shall take measures radically different from current ones. To be sure, we shall continue to remedy intolerable social conditions for this is worthwhile in and of itself. But we shall not expect criminals to change because of such efforts.

Dr. Stanton E. Samenow, Inside the Criminal Mind, 1984

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Tristen Kurilla: A 10-Year-old Killer

     Tristen Kurilla, a fifth-grade student at Damascus Elementary School, lived with his mother, Martha Virbitsky, and his grandfather in Damascus Township, Pennsylvania, a rural community in the northeast corner of the state near the New York line. Helen Novak, a 90-year-old woman being cared for by the boy's grandfather, Anthony Virbitsky, lived under the same roof.

     On Saturday October 11, 2014, Anthony Virbitsky checked on Helen Novak to find that she was having trouble breathing. He offered to take her to the emergency room but she refused. Less than an hour later, when Mr. Virbitsky entered Novak's room to make sure she was okay, he found her dead. The caregiver called 911 to report the passing of the elderly woman.

     Not long after the Wayne County Coroner transported Helen Novak's body to the morgue, Martha Virbitsky showed up at the Pennsylvania State Police barracks in nearby Honesdale with her son. According to the mother, the boy had confessed to killing Helen Novak.

     In speaking to Trooper John Decker, Tristen Kurilla said, " I killed the lady." According to the boy, he pressed the victim's cane against her neck because he was angry that she yelled at him when he came into her room to ask her a question. He also punched her in the throat and stomach.

     "Were you trying to kill her?" asked the trooper.

     "No, I was only trying to hurt her," came the reply.

     Martha Virbitsky told the state police officer that her son had been a problem to raise. He had a violent streak and suffered from what she called "mental difficulties."

     The Wayne County district attorney charged Tristen Kurilla, as an adult, with murder. Officers booked the boy into the Wayne County Correctional Facility.

     Shortly after the 10-year-old's arrest, Kurilla's attorney, Bernie Brown, petitioned the judge to release his client from custody and move the case into juvenile court.

     In addressing the adult versus juvenile court issue, Wayne County District Attorney Janine Edwards pointed out that under Pennsylvania law, homicide charges, regardless of the defendant's age, must be initially filed in adult court. Moreover, juvenile detention centers do not accept children charged with criminal homicide.

     The Wayne County Coroner's Office, on Monday October 13, 2014, declared Helen Novak's cause of death as "blunt force trauma to the neck." Her manner of death: homicide.

     In January 2015, a Wayne County judge, with the approval of the prosecutor, moved the Kurilla case to juvenile court. The ruling came after a psychologist testified at a competency hearing that the boy was mentally ill.

     As of October 2018, there has been a virtual news blackout on this case.
     

Monday, October 22, 2018

The Michael Brown Effect: The Vicious Cycle of Police Militarism

     The Michael Brown police-involved shooting case in Ferguson, Missouri, like the O.J. Simpson double murder verdict, exposed a disturbing reality in American society. In general, blacks and whites have a different attitude toward the police, policing, and the criminal justice system. The Michael Brown case, for all the wrong reasons, also focused public attention on another problem that has been developing over the past thirty years: the increasing militarization of American law enforcement.

     Today's heavily armed police officers in their flak-jackets, combat boots, and helmets are indistinguishable from military troops at war. Most police departments now have massive SWAT tanks, armored personnel carriers, and other military type vehicles. Modern police officers no longer see themselves as armed public servants but as crime-fighting warriors who view criminal suspects as enemies of the state. This militaristic mindset does not lend itself to any form of community policing.

     Police militarism has risen during an era when rates of violent crime are at a 35 year low. This begs the question: If American society has become less violent, why are the police becoming more militaristic? And why are the police shooting so many people every year? (According to my own study conducted in 2011, police officers that year shot about 1,200 people, killing slightly more than half of them.) And why are so many young black males being shot by the police?

     Some politicians and black activists like Al Sharpton would have us believe that the police are targeting black men. Under this theory, the police-involved shooting problem is fueled by police racism.

     Having looked at thousands of police-involved shootings, I don't see race as a major factor in these cases. Moreover, while some police shootings are legally justified but unnecessary, a vast majority of these cases involve excellent police work. There are the cases, however, of trigger-happy officers who  commit criminal homicide in the line of duty. Many of these officers are not brought to justice. But again, that is not a matter of race.

     While violent crime rates overall have been dropping, violent crime in inner city black neighborhoods remains high. This is particularly true in places like Chicago, Oakland, Cleveland, and Detroit. This, along with the fact that many young black men hate the police and are eager to exhibit this hatred, explains why so many black subjects are shot. Citizens should be taught that resisting arrest is unacceptable and dangerous behavior. This is true for all people.

     Police shootings in rural, small town and suburban America are also too frequent. That is because of the never-ending and escalating war on drugs. Every year there are more than 80,000 pre-dawn, no-knock drug raids. These forced entries into homes are usually not necessary. Subjects of these home invasions are traumatized, manhandled and injured. Pets are killed. Subjects of these SWAT raids are shot thinking they are protecting their families from criminal invasion. Ending this facet of the drug war won't solve the drug problem, but it would reduce, in every community, the number of police involved shootings. It would also help improve police-community relations.

     More citizens are being shot because more Americans are drunk or under the influence of meth, PCP, bath salts, molly, and synthetic marijuana, substances that alter behavior in an anti-social way. Another problem in our society that lends itself to police violence is mental illness. It seems that an increasing number of Americans are becoming seriously mentally ill. Many of these people are also suicidal and use the police to end their lives. Decades ago the insane among us were housed in institutions. Today they are out on the street attacking citizens with knives and guns, taking hostages, and pushing people off subway platforms. These paranoid schizophrenics are extremely difficult to deal with. When they threaten others with immediate serious bodily injury or death, police officers have little choice but to shot them. While it's true they are not criminals per se, they can be dangerous.

     The rioting and civil disorder in the wake of the Michael Brown shooting and the chokehold death of Eric Garner in New York City will justify increased police militarization across the country. Law obeying citizens demand that the police maintain order. The increased militarization, to a point where officers are essentially occupying our cities, will result in more civil unrest and create more police militarism that in turn will lead to more police-involved shootings.

     We are in a vicious cycle fueled by false assumptions and racial politics. 

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On Living In The Past

What is reality? It's not the past nor the future, and isn't the present because by the time the brain becomes aware of something, that moment has already slipped into the past. So we're living in the past which technically does not exist. So what is going on here? Is there some dimension of reality that a human cannot detect? I'm going to stop because I gave myself a headache.

Thornton P. Knowles

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Pastor-Involved Shooting in a Detroit Church

     Detroit is a violent and dangerous place. Law abiding citizens who can afford to, leave the city for the suburbs. Nowhere is safe, and no one in this dysfunctional city is immune from crime and violence. Even pastors in their churches are vulnerable. It's been this way for quite some time and there's no indication that change is in the air.

     In 2012, criminals attached Pastor Marvin Williams at a downtown Detroit intersection. At gunpoint they took his wallet and stole his car. In July 2014, a man wielding an ax attacked and killed an off-duty police officer working as a church security guard. The fact that churches in the city employ security guards says it all.

     In july 2015, following a wave of general shootings in Detroit, several leaders in the religious community issued a public plea for citizens to take action to stop gun violence. (The only way to control gun violence is through aggressive law enforcement, ambitions prosecutors, and hanging judges. Citizens, for the most part, are helpless.)

     On October 18, 2015, a 36-year-old Detroit pastor named Keon Allison shot and killed 26-year-old Deante Smith during religious services at the City of God nondenominational church on Grand River Avenue on the city's north side. Pastor Allison shot Deante Smith, a member of his congregation, several times with his Glock pistol. Smith was shot when he charged the preacher wielding a brick and a hammer.

     Paramedics rushed Mr. Smith to the Botsford Hospital where he died of his gunshot wounds. Pastor Allison, after being questioned at a nearby police station, was released without being charged with a crime.

     Deante Smith had worked for a manufacturing company in Troy, Michigan. In 2012, he got married, and for a period of time he and his wife lived with Pastor Allison, a man Smith considered a mentor and father figure. The relationship went sour when Smith, a player for the semi-professional Michigan Lightening football team, suspected that his minister was sleeping with his wife. In addition to that suspicion, Smith came to believe that the baby his wife had given birth to was the pastor's child.

     Deante Smith's employer in Troy had placed him on suspension after he and Pastor Allison had a loud argument outside the manufacturing facility. The company offered Smith anger management classes.

     In the days leading up to the church shooting, Smith posted several messages on his Facebook page that foreshadowed the deadly Sunday confrontation. 

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles on Candy Cigarettes

Growing up I got hooked on candy cigarettes. But because those little suckers were so hard to light, I eventually switched to the real thing.

Thornton P. Knowles

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Teaching While Intoxicated: Two Cases

Case 1: Ankeny, Iowa
   
      Jennifer Lynn Rich began teaching in 2001 at the East Elementary School in Ankeny, Iowa, a suburb of Des Moines. On Friday February 13, 2015, the 40-year-old teacher and the mother of one of her students were overseeing a St. Valentine's Day party for Rich's kindergarten class. At two that afternoon the parent-helper called the local police department and reported the presence of a can of beer in Rich's classroom.

     A police officer showed up at the school and entered the kindergarten teacher's classroom. (I presume the kids had been dismissed by now.) Inside a leather bag the officer found six cans of Busch Light beer. Two of the beers had been recently consumed. Jennifer Rich's eyes were bloodshot and she had alcohol on her breath.

     Suspecting that the teacher was intoxicated, the police officer administered an on-site breath test that confirmed that she had recently consumed an alcoholic beverage. (A blood analysis later revealed a blood-alcohol percentage double the legal limit for driving in the state.)

     A local prosecutor charged the kindergarten teacher with one count of public intoxication and one count of child endangerment. School officials placed Rich on paid administrative leave. Not long after her arrest she resigned from the East Elementary School.

Case 2: Marshallville, Iowa

     Carissa Bryant taught sixth grade at the Lenihan Intermediate school in Marshalltown, Iowa, a small town 60 miles northeast of Des Moines. On March 4, 2015, Chief Sheriff's Deputy Steve Hoffman was at the elementary school presenting a substance abuse program. When he encountered the 33-year-old teacher he smelled alcohol on her breath and noticed that her eyes were red and that she was slurring her words.

     Deputy Hoffman took Carissa Bryant into custody and booked her into the Marshall County Jail on the misdemeanor charge of public intoxication. A blood-alcohol test placed her alcoholic content at .190 percent. In Iowa .08 percent is the threshold limit for driving under the influence.

     The elementary school teacher posted her $300 bail and was released from custody. The school principal placed Bryant on paid administrative leave.

A National Problem?

     These two teachers were caught drinking on the job because outsiders just happened to be in the schools at the right time. Because there is no national databank on how many public school teachers are fired every year for this kind of behavior, there is no way to know if this is a serious problem. One thing we do know, however, is that misbehaving teachers are rarely fired.

     Only one in 1,000 public school teachers are dismissed for performance related reasons. In the legal profession that number is one in 97 and in medicine, one in 57.

     Under these circumstances it is reasonable to suspect that classroom drinking is a problem made worse by the fact public school teachers are protected against dismissal by tenure and teacher unions.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Thornton P. Knowles On His Mother's Stories

My mother liked to tell stories, and most of them featured either someone's gruesome death or some bizarre disease she had heard about. For a kid, these tales of woe were often unsettling and hard to listen to. But there was one store that caught my imagination, and while I didn't believe a word of it, I repeated the story to all of my friends who did buy it hook line and sinker. It went like this: The husband of one of my mother's friends suffered a heart attack and was being transported to the emergency room in a city ambulance. As the vehicle sped up a steep hill on a cobbled street in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the rear doors burst open. The patient, strapped on a stretcher, flew out the back of the ambulance and bounced down the hill into an oncoming truck. He was, as they say, killed instantly. Because I felt the ending of the story needed a boost, I added this: Following the accident, all ambulance attendants in the city had to equip their patients with helmets. Because my friends believed this as well, they didn't appreciate my attempt at dark humor. I was an idiot for passing this story on, and they were dimwits for believing it. It was great growing up in West Virginia.