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Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Margaret Cirko's Criminal Cough

     On Wednesday, March 25, 2020, at two-thirty in the afternoon, 35-year-old Margaret Cirko walked into a Gerrity's Supermarket in Hanover Township, Pennsylvania. Cirko, known in the community as a chronic pain-in-the-neck, announced in a loud voice: "I have the virus, now you are all going to get sick!" After saying this, Cirko purposely coughed into the meat case and on food in the bakery and produce sections of the store.

     Having pulled off this outrageous, disgusting stunt, Margaret Cirko picked up a 12-pack of beer and tried leaving the store without paying for it.

     Shortly after disgracing herself the supermarket, officers with the Hanover Township Police Department took Cirko into custody. A Luzerne County prosecutor charged Cirko with felony counts of terroristic threats, threats to use a biological agent, and criminal mischief. She was also charged with the misdemeanor offenses of disorderly conduct and attempted retail theft.

     Following a mental evaluation at a local hospital, Cirko was booked into the Luzerne County Correctional Facility. A magistrate set her bail at $50,000.

     While Margaret Cirko was not infected with the virus, Gerrity employees had to dispose of the food she had coughed on. This outlandish, mean-spirited prank cost the store $35,000.

     While it would be comforting to believe that intentionally and publicly coughing on groceries when food is scarce amid a growing public health crisis is a one-of-a kind criminal act, that is not the case. For example, on March 19, 2020, in Purcellville, Virginia, a group of juveniles recorded themselves coughing on grocery store produce. In an act of frightening stupidity, the juveniles posted the video on social media. The tainted food had to be thrown away.  

COVID-19 Dystopia

Life in COVID-19 America is starting to look and feel like a dystopian novel featuring empty grocery store shelves; shuttered schools, colleges, churches, restaurants, bars, stores, courthouses, and dentist offices; thousands of homeless people living in their own filth;  rats (in New Orleans) swarming the streets in search of food; overwhelmed hospitals; crowded morgues; wicked, power-grabbing politicians; violent criminals walking out of prison; and citizens holed up in their homes. Since most dystopian novels have happy endings, we can hope that life imitates art.

In Politics, How Old is Too Old?

According to researchers in Paris, France, the belief that mental decline doesn't start before age 60 is not correct. In reality, cognitive ability--memory, reasoning, and comprehension--begins to go south at age 45. So, what does this mean for America? In a country where 100 million citizens are over 50, and 35 million are older than 65, this could not be good news. And look at our politicians, our leaders: a vast majority of them are over 50, and many into their 60s and 70s. The Speaker of the House just turned 80, our president is 73, and the two men running for his job are pushing 80. Don't these people know when to quit?  And, should people this old be given so much power?

Monday, March 30, 2020

The Sasha Krause Murder Case

     Sasha Marie Krause was born on April 8, 1992 in Temple, Texas. She grew up in a house with her parents Robert and Laura Krause and her six siblings. In 2003, when she was eleven, Sasha's parents joined the Mennonite Church.

     In 2013, Sasha Krause moved to Grandview, Texas where she took a job teaching school at the Grandview Gospel Fellowship. She taught at the school for six years. Extremely bright and hardworking, Sasha taught herself to become fluent in Spanish and French. She also wrote poems and lyrics for gospel hymns.

     In June 2018, Sasha Krause moved from Grandview, Texas to a Mennonite compound located in the Crouch Mesa section of Farmington, New Mexico, a city of 45,000 in the northwest corner of the state. She had come to New Mexico to work as a volunteer at Lamp & Light Publishers, a 46-year-old company that distributed Bibles, Bible study materials, Mennonite correspondence courses and religious school texts in English, French and Spanish. Most of the Lamp & Light staff, 19 in all, were Mennonite volunteers like Sasha.

     Miss Krause also taught Sunday school classes at the nearby Farmington Mennonite Church, a 150-member congregation affiliated with the Nationwide Fellowship of Churches.

     Farmington, New Mexico, with a per capital crime rate of 53 crimes per 100,000 residents, was the most dangerous city in the state. Over the past five years, violent crime in the city had risen 50 percent. The city also had one of the highest unemployment rates--8.9 percent--in the country.

     At eight o'clock on the evening of January 18, 2020, after having dinner with her roommates at the compound, Sasha Krause drove her car the short distance to the Farmington Mennonite Church to pick up books for her Sunday school class. At three o'clock the next morning, when she hadn't returned to the compound, one of her roommates called the San Juan County Sheriff's Office to report her missing. Deputies were immediately dispatched to the compound to investigate.

     The fact the missing woman had not taken her purse when she left the compound suggested that she intended to return to her room that evening.

     Shortly after responding to the missing person call, officers located Krause's car sitting in the Farmington Mennonite Church parking lot.

     Over the next several days, volunteers in the close-knit community searched for the missing Mennonite woman. K-9 teams and police officers on the ground and in the air also looked for Sasha Krause. Investigators canvassed the neighborhood for information that might lead to her recovery. One witness reportedly saw, about the time Sasha left the compound that evening, a white SUV, minivan or pickup parked behind the Farmington Mennonite Church. Another witness reportedly saw, about this time, a "white smaller SUV" speeding from the area. (If there are surveillance cameras in the vicinity of the compound, church and Lamp & Light building, the authorities have not revealed what they recorded that Friday evening.)

     The sheriff's office placed Sasha Krause's personal information into several missing person databases, and offered a $50,000 reward to information leading to her whereabouts.

     In the late afternoon of Friday, February 21, 2020, a camper walking in the desert between the Sunset Crater (volcano) National Monument Park and the Wupatki National Monument Park north of Flagstaff, Arizona, came across the body of a young woman that matched the general description of Sasha Krause. The camper found the body near Forest Service Road 545 in Coconino County about 270 miles from Farmington, New Mexico.

     Fingerprints taken from the presumably murdered woman in the desert matched Sasha Krause's prints that were on file at the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles.

     On Monday, February 21, 2020, a forensic pathologist with the Coconino County Medical Examiner's Office in Flagstaff performed the autopsy. The medical examiner did not, however, reveal the victim's cause or manner of death.

     Agents with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, given the interstate nature of the presumed abduction, joined the investigation. 

The Dancing Dean of NYU: No Tuition Refund For You

     Yearly tuition at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts is a whopping $58,000. In March 2020, spring classes at NYU were moved online amid the coronavirus pandemic. Because remote learning via video conferencing apps like Zoom, particularly for students in the School of the Arts, didn't cut it, hundreds of Tisch students asked for a partial tuition refund.

     On March 18, 2020, the dean of the Tisch School of Arts, Allyson Green, sent an email to the dissatisfied students announcing there would be no refund. The students were obviously not happy with this policy and organized groups to fight it.

     Four days later, Dean Allyson sent another email telling students that tuition refunds were not forthcoming. With this email, the dean attached a 2 minute, 16 second video showing her, in her living room, singing and dancing to the song, "Losing My Religion." The cringeworthy, uncomfortable-to-watch clip infuriated the complaining students.

     On March 26, 2020, a Tisch School of Arts graduate named Rachel Bloom, asked the school on Twitter "to give students refunds now." She also said, "I am ashamed to say this is my Alma Mater. Stop buying up real estate and start treating your students and their parents with respect and empathy."

     As of March 27, a Tisch student petition asking for tuition refunds had garnered 2,500 signatures.

     Dramas like this are unfolding across the country in America's institutions of higher learning. The COVID-19 crisis will result in lower enrollments, causing academic bubbles to burst, and clueless professors and administrators like Dean Allyson to tumble out into the real world where they will have to find meaningful work.

COVID-19 "Stimulus Scams"

According to the FBI, phone calls, texts and emails asking citizens for personal or financial information in order to receive the $1,200 federal stimulus payment are scams. In times of crisis, scam artists come crawling out of the woodwork. Beware.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

America in the 1950s

Say what you want about America in the 1950s, at least the middle class of that era had contempt for those who boasted excessively about themselves or their children, sucked-up or snitched to get ahead, cursed in public, flaunted their possessions, or in any way acted superior to others. Moreover, the daily consumption of pornography was for perverts; tattoos were on sailors, pimps, and serial killers; marijuana and heroin use was limited to writers, musicians, actors, and members of the criminal underclass; the severely mentally ill were off the streets and living in institutions; gun violence and murder was at a minimum; and welfare was considered a temporary form of charity. Of course the 1950s wasn't good for everyone, particularly for blacks and gays. But it wasn't bad for everyone either. One other observation about that era: with one exception, I've never seen a movie portray that decade realistically. The exception: The Man Who Wasn't There.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Domestic Abuse Amid the Pandemic Lockdown

     For people who are experiencing domestic violence, mandatory lockdowns to curb the spread of COVID-19 have trapped them in their homes with their abusers, isolated from people and the resources that could help them...

     The current crisis also makes it more difficult for victims to seek help. As medical facilities around the world scramble to respond to coronavirus, health systems are becoming overloaded, making it more difficult for victims to get access to medical care or therapies...

     For many women, the fear of contracting the coronavirus is stopping them from seeking out medical care after experiencing physical abuse...

     Many victims also feel that they can no longer seek refuge at their parents' home, for fear that they could expose their elderly parents to the virus. For some, travel restrictions may limit their ability to stay with loved ones. Women's shelters may also be overcrowded during this time or may close their doors if the risk of infection is deemed too high...

     Many social services for victims of domestic violence will also suffer budget cuts under a recession...

Melissa Godin,  "As Cities Around the World Go On Lockdown, Victims of Domestic Violence Look For a Way Out," Time, March 18, 2020

Thursday, March 26, 2020

George Falcone: The "Knucklehead" From New Jersey

     At nine in the morning on Sunday, March 22, 2020, 50-year-old George Falcone from Freehold, New Jersey was in nearby Manalapan shopping at a Wegmans grocery store 50 miles north of New York City. One of the employees, while covering an open display of prepared food, asked Mr. Falcone to step back in compliance with the COVID-19 social distancing policy. At the time, 4,000 people in the state had been diagnosed with the virus and 44 had died.

     Instead of responding to the Wegmans employee, Falcone moved in closer, coughed on her, laughed, and informed her and others in earshot that he had the Coronavirus. "You people are lucky to have a job," he said.

     A member of the Manalapan Police Department happened to be in the store working a security detail. The officer approached George Falcone who, for 40 minutes, refused to identify himself.

     On March 24, 2020, a local prosecutor issued George Falcone a summons charging him with 4th-degree obstructing justice, an offense with a maximum sentence of 18 months; 3rd-degree terroristic threats, a crime with a maximum sentence of five years; and harassment, an offense that carried a sentence of up to six months in jail.

    The governor of New Jersey, in one of the great understatements of all time, called Mr. Falcone a "knucklehead."

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

The Criminal Defendant

It is a fact of life that victims get lost in murder trials as the focus of attention shifts to the defendant in the courtroom. It is also a fact that the defendant becomes a sympathetic figure in many people's eyes. The charismatic star O. J. Simpson dominated the proceedings the moment he made his entrance into the courtroom each morning, totally aware of the effect his presence made. His cadre of lawyers, as well as one of the deputies assigned to guard him, were deferential to him. His every reaction, from his frequent exasperation to his occasional laughter, captivated the attention of the room. When photographs of the slashed victims, Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, lying in grotesque positions in gallons of blood, were flashed on the large screen in the courtroom, observers no longer recoiled in horror. They had become used to them.

Dominick Dunne, Justice, 2001

Monday, March 23, 2020

Court Adjourned: The COVID-19 Effect

     Cleveland Municipal Judge Pinkey S. Carr, a nine year veteran of the bench, was holding court on the 15th floor of the city's Justice Center on Tuesday, March 17, 2020. Four days earlier, Cuyahoga County Administrative Judge Michelle Earley had ordered the postponement of municipal court hearings due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Notwithstanding that administrative order, Judge Carr issued bench warrants that Tuesday for the arrest of 33 defendants who had failed to show up for their scheduled court appearances.

     Assistant Public Defender Mark Jablonski, appearing before Judge Carr that morning, asked if he could tell his clients they did not have to come to the courthouse due to the COVID-19 situation.

     In response to Jablonski's question, Judge Carr said, "Don't call people and tell them not to show up. If they show up, I'm here."

     To the judge the assistant public defender said, "In light of the pandemic, there's no concern?"

     "For the third time," replied the judge, "I will be here. If people show up, I am here."

     Mr. Jablonski thanked the judge and walked out of the courtroom. A few minutes after his departure, Judge Carr in a mocking tone, said, "I'm gonna call and tell them don't come. I'm sure he is. Little idiot."

     On Thursday, March 19, 2020, Assistant Public Defender Mark Jablonski filed an emergency motion to temporarily disqualify Judge Carr from holding Municipal Court hearings. That day, Administrative Court Judge Michelle Earley canceled Judge Carr's 33 bench warrants.

     Cuyahoga Court Supreme Justice, Maureen O'Connor, on Friday March 20, 2020, stripped Judge Carr of her authority to hear criminal and traffic cases until a ruling was made on the assistant public defender's disqualification motion. Judge Pinkey Carr had until March 24, 2020 to file her response to the assistant public defender's motion.

     Because of COVID-19, America's criminal justice system is shutting down. People are not going to jail, prisoners are being released, and court is adjourned.

The Novelist

Novel writing, like other creative and artistic pursuits, tends to be romanticized by many and vilified by some. Novelists in America are seen as special, peculiar but mythical people whose lives have a certain magical charm, or, alternatively, as drunken, neurotic wastrels who sponge off the government and do no work. Sometimes writers themselves perpetrate these myths.

Judith Barrington, Writing The Memoir, 2002 

Friday, March 20, 2020

Criminal Adaptation

The COVID-19 related shutdown of stores and shopping malls will transform some professional shoplifters into burglars. Other criminal types will use the pandemic as an opportunity to set up fake charities and other fraudulent operations. In the economics of thievery, there is no such thing as a recession, just new opportunities to steal.

Will Criminals Self-Quarantine?

On March 16, 2020 in Blaine, Washington, the police department, on its Facebook page, posted the following tongue-in-cheek (I assume) message: "Due to local cases of the COVID-19, the Blaine Police Department is asking all criminal activity and nefarious behavior to cease. We appreciate your anticipated cooperation in halting crime and thank all the criminals in advance. We will certainly let you know when you can resume your normal criminal behavior."

Thursday, March 19, 2020

COVID-19 Policing: Arrests Without Jail, Crimes Without Charges

In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the police commissioner has ordered police officers in cases of larceny, burglary, prostitution, auto theft, vandalism, and certain "economic crimes" not to arrest the suspects. Instead, officers are to stop and identify the suspect, gather evidence of the crime, and file a report. Moreover, officers are no longer going to enforce bench warrants against suspects who fail to show up for court. In other words, in Philadelphia, until the COVID-19 situation is under control, 90 percent of street policing has been put on hold. While turning a blind-eye to crime may help slow down the spread of the virus, it will hasten the spread of criminal activity. In the city of Philadelphia, germs have replaced criminals as the bad guys.

Charles Bukowski On The Starving Artist

Starvation and obscurity are not necessarily signs of genius.

Charles Bukowski

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Prosecutor or Politician?

I was raised--professionally--in the Public Integrity Section [of the Department of Justice]. I started in 1976, stayed there 12 years. [The Public Integrity Section] was formed after Watergate by then head of the Criminal Division, Dick Thornburgh, who ultimately became attorney general.

Eric Holder, U. S. Attorney General

(Eric Holder, in 2013, authorized the FBI search of Fox News journalist James Rosen's phone records on grounds of suspected solicitation of espionage. Mr. Rosen, who was soliciting information from a government leaker, was simply doing his job as a reporter. Dick Thornburgh would not have approved of this governmental trampling of the First Amendment.) 

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Harvey Weinstein's Death Threat

     A few days before Harvey Weinstein's sentencing for raping a hairdresser and forcibly performing oral sex on a "Project Runway" production assistant, the Manhattan supreme court made public a trove of documents pertaining to the Weinstein case that had been previously under seal.

     One of the sealed documents included an email sent on October 31, 2017 to Weinstein by his spokeswoman, Sallie Hofmeister. The Hofmeister email alerted Weinstein to a story The National Enquirer planned to publish regarding accusations against Weinstein made by the actress, Jennifer Aniston.

     According to the story, Aniston had complained to a friend that during the production of the 2005 film, "Derailed," Weinstein sexually assaulted her by pressing up against her back and grabbing her buttocks. According to the Enquirer piece, "Through the years he [Weinstein] frequently stared at her cleavage and moved his mouth around, making her uncomfortable."

     The Hofmeister email also included this Enquirer revelation: "Harvey was infatuated with Jennifer Aniston. He had a massive crush on her and constantly talked about how hot she was."

     About 45 minutes after receiving Hofmeister's email, Weinstein used his iPhone to sent his spokeswoman this: "Jen Aniston should be killed."

     The National Enquirer did not publish the Aniston story, and a spokesperson for the actress called these accusations against Harvey Weinstein false.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Floyd Mayweather and Josie Harris: Domestic Abuse and a Premature Death

     In September 2010, in Las Vegas, Nevada, Floyd Mayweather, the undefeated lightweight boxing champion of the world, entered Jose Harris' house and beat his ex-girlfriend in front of their three children. During the assault, the estranged couple's oldest son, 10-year-old Koraun, slipped out of the house and asked a security guard to call the police.

     A Clark County prosecutor charged Mayweather with felony domestic abuse. In October 2011, Mayweather pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of misdemeanor battery in return for a 87-day sentence.

     On June 1, 2012, Mayweather began serving his time at the Clark County Detention Center. Because he was a celebrity and a notorious loudmouth, corrections officials, for the boxer's own protection, isolated him from the general jail population.

     A few days into his incarceration, Mayweather's attorney filed an emergency motion asking for a modification of the multi-millionaire's sentence. The boxer's lawyer, citing "inhumane conditions" at the lockup, wanted the justice of the peace to change Mayweather's sentence to house arrest, or, at the very least, three days a week in jail and the rest of the week at home. (There are millions of Americans who would plead guilty to murder in order to be sentenced to life without parole at Mayweather's Las Vegas, palatial, 12,000-square-foot mansion.)

     So what were the inhumane conditions that required Mr. Mayweather's immediate rescue from county incarceration? Was he living off bread and water in a stifling hot cell equipped with a bucket and a lice-infested mattress? Was he fighting off rats, sexual predators, a gang of deranged skinheads, and sadistic guards? What?

     According to the 35-page sentence modification motion with the attached affidavit from Mayweather's personal physician, Dr. Robert Voy, after 10 days in the can, the boxer was getting out of shape. Incarceration was interfering, in a serious way, with his career as a prize fighter. (The previous month, in his victory over Migel Cotto, Mayweather earned $32 million.) As an inmate at the Clark County Jail, Mayweather was not able to maintain his exercise regime. And perhaps even worse, the jail's food and water were simply not up to his standards.

      Because he was forced to eat bread, fruit, and energy bars purchased from the commissary rather than the slop fed to the other inmates, Mr. Mayweather was only taking in 800 calories a day. In other words, his Clark County captors were starving him to death. Mr. Mayweather was not an ordinary beater of woman, this man was a professional. He was the holder of a world title belt, and lest one forget, he had been on the reality TV show, "Dancing with the Stars"! (His only defeat.) How could this be happening in America?

     Arguments on Mayweather's motion were heard before Las Vegas justice of the peace Melissa Saragosa on Wednesday, June 13, 2012. Ruling that Mayweather's request did not meet the criteria for sentence modification, (an illegal sentence, or one based upon an untrue assumption or mistake of fact) Judge Saragosa condemned the prisoner to serve out his full term at the Clark County Detention Center.

     When asked by a reporter to comment on Mayweather's sentence modification plea, Clark County prosecutor Lisa Luzaich remarked, "It's jail. Where did he think he was going? The Four Seasons?"

    In 2014, Mayweather's ex-girlfriend and mother of his three children, in an interview with a reporter with USA Today, discussed the assault that had landed Mayweather in jail, and what is was like living with him for ten years. According to Harris, on that night in September 2010, Mayweather yanked her out of bed by her hair, and while punching and kicking her in front of their two sons and daughter, screamed profanities. Harris said that during their decade long relationship, he had assaulted her six times.

     In 2015, Katie Couric interviewed Floyd Mayweather for Yahoo Global News. To Couric, Mayweather said, "I'm rich and I'm black and I'm outspoken. Those are three strikes right there." Regarding the September 2010 assault he had pleaded guilty to, the boxing champion said, "Did I kick, stomp, and beat someone? No, that didn't happen. I look in your face and say, 'No, that didn't happen.' Did I restrain a woman that was on drugs? Yes, I did. So if that's domestic violence, then you know what? I'm guilty of restraining a person."

     Not long after the publication of the Katie Couric interview where Mayweather essentially accused Josie Harris of being a drug addict, she filed, in a Los Angeles County Court, a $20 million defamation lawsuit claiming intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress.

     On March 10, 2020, at 9:42 in the evening, someone made a call to the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff's station in Los Angeles County. The caller reported an unresponsive woman in a car parked in the driveway of a home in the suburban community of Valencia. Emergency personnel with the Los Angeles County Fire Department responded to the call, and at the scene, pronounced the woman in the vehicle, 40-year-old Josie Harris, dead.

     At the time of Josie Harris' death, the $20 million dollar defamation suit against Floyd Mayweather was still pending. Harris was also working on a memoir.

     On Thursday, March 12, two days after Josie Harris was found dead in her car, the Associated Press and other news outlets reported that Floyd Mayweather, on social media, had been showing himself flashing wads of bills and partying in the red light district of Amsterdam. The 43-year-old boxing promotor posted photographs and videos of himself in the alleys known in the city for its legal prostitution, adult theaters, and sex shops. Despite Coronavirus concerns, Mayweather had been traveling around Europe.

     As of this writing, the cause and manner of Josie Harris' death remained undisclosed. A spokesperson for the Los Angles Sheriff's Department said the case was being handled as a death investigation rather than a homicide.

Stephen King On Writers and Literary Agents

Stephen King's First Rule of Writers and Agents, learned by bitter personal experience: You don't need an agent until you're making enough money for someone to steal, and if you're making that much, you'll be able to take your pick of good agents.

Stephen King, On Writing, 2000

Friday, March 13, 2020

Online Education

What happens when kids learn that online classes are superior to in person? The scam of colleges and universities might be over soon.

Mike Cernovich, tweet, March 12, 2020

World War II Hollywood And The American Hero

It's interesting that three of the Twentieth Century's most visual symbols of American patriotism, military heroism, and the fight for individual freedom were Hollywood actors who came of age during World War II but never saw combat. Charlton Heston enlisted in the Army Air Force in 1941 and was stationed in the Alaskan Aleutian Islands. He never saw combat. Ronald Reagan enlisted in the Army Enlisted Reserve in 1937. By the end of the war his unit had produced 400 Army training films. He never saw combat. John Wayne, the star of countless World War II movies, never served in the military. 

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

The Mary Haley Wade Stalking Case

     In 2014, Mary Haley Wade began teaching in the Special Education Department of Hillwood High School in Nashville, Tennessee. Four years later, Mary and her husband were going through a contentious divorce. On June 29, 2018, the school teacher was arrested on the misdemeanor charge of violating a protection order that had been filed against her by her estranged husband.

     Wade's husband claimed that she had sent him death threats, repeatedly called his place of work, posted embarrassing photographs of him on social media, and sent unwanted messages to his girl friend. As a result, the husband filed a protection order against her.

     On July 5, 2018, a judge agreed to drop the charge against Wade if, after a period of six months, she did not violate her husband's protection order.

     The special education teacher, on August 13, 2008, was again charged with violating the protection order. Six weeks later, the judge once again agreed to drop this charge if Wade stopped harassing her estranged husband for a period of a year.

     In October 2008, after leaving a handwritten note on her husband's car, a prosecutor charged Wade with yet another protection order violation. Two months later, The Hillwood High School teacher allegedly posted unflattering photographs of her husband on his Instagram account.

     Up until January 5, 2019, all of the charges against Mary Wade had been misdemeanors, but on this date the prosecutor charged her with felony aggravated stalking as well as another restraining order violation. The suspect posted her $1,500 signature bond and was released from the county jail.

     Following her fifth arrest in a period of six months, the superintendent of the Metro Public School System placed Mary Wade on administrative leave. As of this writing, Wade's felony case is pending as well as her status as a teacher at Hillwood High.

It's Insane to Plead Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity in California

      If you live in California, are seriously mentally ill, and have been accused of a violent crime, do not plead not guilty by reason of insanity. If you do, and succeed, you'll end up in a state mental hospital. It's a lot safer in prison, and you'll get better treatment.

     In 2002, in an effort to improve services in California's mental hospitals that treat the criminally insane, the state hired a private consultant to reform the system. The reformer, a professor of psychiatry at Virginia Commonwealth University named Dr. Nirbhay Singh, had come to the United States in 1987 from New Zealand. Having specialized in research on the developmentally disabled, Dr. Singh had no experience treating seriously mentally ill patients with sociopathic and predatory tendencies. He had published articles about Buddhist-inspired mindfulness (whatever that means), and alternative treatments such as the herb kava as a calming agent. Dr. Singh, in reforming California's state mental institutions, among other things, replaced individual therapy with group classes on anger management.

     Notwithstanding Dr. Singh's "reforms," the U.S. Department of Justice stuck it's long nose into the problem by suing California on the grounds the state was violating patients' rights by heavily drugging and improperly restraining these extremely violent and dangerous people. The state, rather than fight the case, agreed to a court-supervised improvement plan at four hospitals with more than 4,000 criminally insane patients. (State hospitals in Norwalk, San Luis Obispo County, San Bernadino, and Napa.)

     According to the plan, overseen by Dr. Singh, these four hospitals reduced the use of restraints, isolation rooms, and heavy drugs. The reformer dismantled several behavioral programs, and placed greater importance on bureaucracy, and the production of documentation in support of compliance with the federal mandate. Many health care workers complained that the red tape came at the expense of patient care. Much of the paperwork, according to Dr. Singh's critics, was redundant, and clinically useless. Employees, under Dr. Singh's system, had to fill out 300 new forms every month. Staff members said they no longer had time to play cards and chat with patients, activities that the patients missed.

     While he worked as the chief consultant in California, Dr. Singh also worked with mental health systems in Connecticut, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Tennessee. In January 2011, two weeks after the Los Angeles Times published an interview with a top State Department of Mental Health official about the effects of Dr. Singh's reforms, Dr. Singh abruptly resigned. Dr. Stuart Bussey, president of the Union of American Physicians and Dentists which represents California's mental hospital's psychiatrists and medical doctors, complained that Dr. Singh's reforms did "very little to create a healthy and safe environment for patients and staff." In fact, according to studies conducted in the four hospitals involved in the federally mandated reforms, three of them had become much more dangerous places for patients and mental health workers. The ban of heavy drugs, restraints, and isolation rooms had tripled the incidents of patient-on-patient and patient-on worker assaults in three of the institutions.

     While, according to his critics, Dr. Singh didn't know beans about how to run a place for the criminally insane, he did know how to make a buck. During his nine year tenure as a California mental health consultant, he charged the state $2,500 a day. His total bill came to $4.4 million. No wonder California was broke.

     Dr. Mubashir Farooqi, a psychiatrist at one of the pilot hospitals, called the reform program a "huge, very expensive, very idiotic experiment that failed badly." But in December 2011, notwithstanding the increased violence in the three California mental hospitals, the Department of Justice asked a federal court to extend the oversight, and continue along the same reform path. According to an assistant in the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, California's reforms had not succeeded in improving mental health "outcomes" (bureaucrats love that word) at the four institutions. "Are we where we need to be? Absolutely not," he said in an interview. In the meantime, while the federal government dabbled in the care and treatment of California's criminally insane, mental hospitals in the state were dangerous places for patients, and the people trying to help them.

     In California, the treatment of the criminally insane has not improved. And the treatment of mentally ill people generally has gotten worse as evidenced by the homeless problems in Los Angeles and San Francisco. As of 2019, notwithstanding billions of taxpayer money, 25 of the state's 58 counties have no impatient psychiatric system.

Sunday, March 8, 2020

Gender-Neutral Restroom Assault

     Rhinelander, Wisconsin is an Oneida County town of 8,000 in the northern tip of the state. On February 27, 2020, deputies with the Oneida County Sheriff's Department arrested Rhinelander High School senior Austin Sauer for the crime of fourth-degree sexual assault. The 18-year-old stood accused of exposing his genitals to a female student in the school's gender-neutral restroom.

     On March 3, 2020, school superintendent Kelli Jacobi issued the following statement regarding the arrest and alleged crime: This was not a random incident, as both students went to the bathroom voluntarily. The male student [Austin Sauer] will no longer be able to be on school grounds, and the bathroom is no longer available to students." The superintendent added that while the parents of the two students were notified, the school did not notify all of the parents because the "incident" was not a random act. After Austin Sauer's arrest, however, everyone in the community read about the alleged crime in the newspaper, or saw it on television news.

     The suspect posted his $1,500 signature bond and was released from custody. 

The Police Detective

     Many uniformed officers want to be detectives--or so they think, until they actually get that promotion. The hours are long, the frequent calls to crime scenes are burdensome, and the responsibility is tremendous. Detectives usually have at least three years of law enforcement experience before they are even considered for the position. In large jurisdictions they may be assigned to a specialized unit: Homicide, Burglary, Auto Theft, White Collar, or Narcotics. In many smaller departments they need to be expert in whatever crime they are called to investigate.

     Upon arrival at the scene the detective gets the first explanation of the event from the responding uniformed officer. The better job the officer has done, the better understanding the detective will have of the crime scene and the events that took place.

    All detectives have their own personal style. Some are gruff, some are smooth, but all the good ones have the practical knowledge of a seasoned street officer, a grasp of the forensic sciences, the legal knowledge of a prosecutor, and an ability to place people, events, and tangible and intangible evidence in space and time in order to put together an investigative scenario of the criminal event.

Alex Axelrod and Guy Antinozzi, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Criminal Investigation, 2003

A Good Question

Have we become, as American men and women, too liberated and progressive for good taste in our daily and literary use of language?

Charles Johnson, The Way of the Writer: Reflections on the Art and Craft of Storytelling, 2016

Saturday, March 7, 2020

Peter Lizon: The Husband From Hell

     In 2012, Peter Lizon, a 37-year-old native of the Czech Republic, lived with his wife Stephanie and their one-year-old son along a rural road in Leroy, West Virginia not far from Charleston in the western part of the state. The front yard to the rundown house featured a pair of signs that read: "No Trespassing," and "Guard Dog on Duty." The couple raised chickens and goats.

     On June 18, 2012, 43-year-old Stephanie and her husband were in Parkersburg, West Virginia about 50 miles south of Leroy. Peter had come to town to return a rototiller he had rented from the Bosley Rental & Supply Company. After Peter returned the item, Stephanie came back to the store alone. Walking with a pronounced limp, she said she wanted to get away from her husband, and asked if she could hide in the building until he left town. She did not want anyone in the store to call the police.

     When she came out of hiding, an employee of the rental store gave Stephanie the address of a local domestic violence shelter, and money for cab fare. Again, the obviously battered woman asked that no one call the authorities.

        At the domestic violence shelter, Stephanie, using a false name, informed her hosts that her husband had kept her in chains for ten years during which time he tortured her with hot clothing irons and frying pans. He had hobbled her by smashing her feet with a hay bailer, and periodically stomped her feet to keep them mutilated and swollen. With her ankles in shackles, she had given birth to a fully developed stillborn child whose corpse had been buried on their property. Her one-year-old son had been born at home with her in shackles. The child had never been seen by a physician.

     An employee of the shelter took 45 photographs of Stephanie's scars and bruises that included burns on her back and breasts. After being examined in the emergency room at St. Joseph's Hospital, the women at the shelter purchased Stephanie a bus ticket to her parent's home in Alexandria, Virginia. She refused the ticket because she didn't want to abandon her son who was home with his father. Someone at the shelter called the Jackson County Sheriff's Office.

     On July 5, 2012, after sheriff deputies searched the house in Leroy, and seized, among other things, a Sunbeam iron, they arrested Peter Lizon on the charge of malicious wounding. Incarcerated in the South Central Regional Jail under $300,000 bond, Lizon denied physically abusing his wife.

     Lizon's attorney, Shawn Bayliss, told local reporters that the allegations against his client were the "fabrications of a fertile imagination or a feeble mind, one of two." The attorney (I presume court appointed) didn't stop there. "My client's spouse," he said, "has never even filed a petition seeking a domestic violence protection order. She would say, and he [Peter Lizon] would agree, domestic violence has not been part of his history." Attorney Bayliss, advertising himself as the man to see if your wife accuses you of assault, in explaining away the evidence of abuse on Stephanie Lizon's body, said, "But in the most common terms, not every injury is intentional. Not every bruise is the result of some violent act. The point of all that is, don't rush to judgement until you know all the facts." The attorney's remarks infuriated domestic violence protection advocates who worried that such statements discouraged battered women from coming forward.

     On the morning of Friday, July 13, 2012, Peter Lizon appeared in the Jackson County Magistrate Court in Ripley, West Virginia for his preliminary hearing. He sat at the defense table with two attorneys. An obviously frightened Stephanie Lizon took the stand, and in response to prosecutor Katie Castro's questions, denied that her husband had physically abused her. She explained checking into the domestic violence center under a false name as simply a ploy to avoid arguing with her husband that day in front of their one-year-old son. When asked how she had acquired the burn scars on her back and breasts, the witness said they were the result of accidents. And what about her swollen and mutilated feet? And the shackle scars on her ankles? Were these from accidents as well? Yes, answered the witness.

     Following the testimony of witnesses from the rental store and the domestic violence shelter, and the introduction of the 45 photographs depicting Stephanie's scars and bruises, the magistrate bound the case over for trial. Jackson County prosecutor Katie Castro would have to make her case through third-party witnesses, and the physical evidence of abuse.

     Craig Tatterson, the special prosecutor in the case, in August 2012, moved to have the charges against Peter Lizon dropped. According to Tatterson, because the statements made to the women at the Family Crisis Center were hearsay and could not be used in court, there was not enough evidence for the state to go forward with the case. In October 2012, a grand jury sitting in Jackson County refused to indict Peter Lizon. The local prosecutor decided not to present the case again and dropped all charges.

     Eight years later, on March 5, 2020, Peter Lizon's wife Stephanie called 911 to report that while riding in the car with her husband they got into an argument. She opened the car door and tried to jump out. He punched her in the face and held onto her coat as he continued driving down the road. She finally fell out of the vehicle and ran to a house to call 911.

     Jackson County deputies took Peter Lizon into custody. A local prosecutor charged the now 45-year-old with kidnapping and malicious wounding. Stephanie Lizon was treated at a local hospital for severe bruising and abrasions. She told detectives that she had received those injuries a week earlier when her husband tied her with ropes, bound her to a chair, and beat her with a belt. The 51-year-old victim said she remained bound to that chair for two days without food or drink or access to the bathroom.

The Future of Investigative Journalism

     Investigative reporting in America did not begin with Watergate. But it became entrenched in American journalism--and has been steadily spreading around the world--largely because of Watergate.

     Now, 40 years after Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein wrote their first stories about the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington's Watergate office building, the future of investigative reporting is at risk in the chaotic digital reconstruction of journalism in the United States. Resource-intensive investigative reporting has become a burden for shrunken newspapers struggling to reinvent themselves and survive. Nonprofit start-ups seeking to fill the gap are financially fragile themselves, with their sustainability uncertain.

Leonard Downie Jr., The Washington Post, June 7, 2012 

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Crime and Criminal Justice Problems in the United States

1. There are too many pedophiles in our schools, churches, and government.

2. Crime lab understaffing has produced unacceptable backlogs and unreliable results.

3. The country is becoming increasingly drug-addled, drunk, and mentally ill.

4. We have a serious shortage of competent, well-trained criminal investigators.

5. There are too many unnecessary, redundant federal crimes.

6. We are giving guns to school teachers unprepared to make life and death decisions.

7. Teachers are using police officers to criminalize classroom disciplinary problems.

8,  It takes too long to execute death row prisoners.

9. Our courtrooms are contaminated with junk science and phony experts.

10. Light, plea bargained sentences for violent criminals do not fit their crimes.

11. There is a serious shortage of highly trained forensic pathologists.

12. The American media is awash in violence and pornography.

13. Criminals and terrorists are entering the U.S. through Mexico.

14. Criminal hackers pose a threat to our financial systems and national security.

15. Due to the threat of terrorism, citizens have been losing their privacy through massive governmental data collection and spying.

16. Unsupervised pedophiles and rapists on parole are reoffending at alarming rates.

17. There are untreated, violent paranoid schizophrenics on our streets.

18. Police in many cities are overwhelmed by hit-and-run cases.
   
19. Over the past five years, the U.S. has suffered an epidemic of murder-suicide cases.

20. In Chicago, Baltimore, St. Louis and many other big cities, black-on-black crime is out of control. 

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

The Alexander Hilton St. Andrews Poison Case

     In 2011, Alexander D. Hilton, a 20-year-old rich kid from Princeton, Massachusetts, attended St. Andrews University in Fife, Scotland. The sophomore prep school graduate (St. Johns) had moved to the the United Kingdom to study economics at this ancient and prestigious institution of higher learning.

     On March 5, 2011, on the eve of the annual St. Andrews ball, Hilton and a group of his fellow students were participating in a dormitory drinking game. One of the drinkers, Robert Forbes, an American from Virginia, after gulping down a bottle of red wine given to him by Hilton, became seriously ill. The 19-year-old suffered loss of balance, severe nausea, had trouble breathing, and temporarily lost his eyesight. He spent a week in the hospital. Doctors said that had Forbes not received medical treatment, he could have died.

     A few days after the dormitory drinking game, local investigators questioned Hilton about the incident. The authorities suspected that Hilton, known around the school as an anti-social oddball, had intentionally poisoned Robert Forbes. Hilton denied mixing anything into the wine. The Scottish authorities didn't have enough evidence to charge the American with a crime, but urged him to leave the country. He was also kicked out of St. Andrews. On March 18, 2011, Alexander Hilton returned to his parents' home in Princeton, Massachusetts.

     Back in Scotland, toxicological tests revealed that the red wine that had made Robert Forbes so sick had been spiked with methanol, an ingredient found in antifreeze. The sweet-smelling liquid, also known as wood alcohol, is colorless, highly flammable, and deadly. A search of Hilton's computer determined that he had investigated the toxicological effects of combining red wine and methanol. In Hilton's dormitory room, investigators found a funnel.

     After Hilton returned to the United States, he enrolled in a college in New Mexico. About a year after the St. Andrews drinking party, Hilton learned that the authorities in Scotland planned to charge him with the attempted murder of Robert Forbes. Upon learning this, Hilton dropped out of the college in New Mexico and returned to his parents' house in Princeton, Massachusetts. Seven months later, in the fall of 2012, the prosecutor in charge of the case in Scotland charged Hilton with attempted murder.

     On February 4, 2013, under an extradition treaty the United States had with the United Kingdom, United States Marshals took Alexander Hilton into custody. The federal authorities hauled the former St. Andrews student to the Central Falls, Rhode Island Detention Center where he was placed under suicide watch.

     Hilton, on February 21, 2013, appeared at his bail hearing in federal court in Boston before a U. S. magistrate judge. Assistant United States Attorney David J. D'Addio, in arguing against bail for this defendant, said, "This is an attempted murder case, a serious case, and we can't lose sight of that. The evidence before us is that Mr. Hilton deliberately poisoned a student at St. Andrews."

     Hilton's defense attorney, Norman S. Zalkind, argued that because his client was seriously mentally ill, bail should be granted in order that the defendant could continue taking his medication, and not be denied psychiatric therapy. According to the defense attorney, if Hilton remained in custody, he was "...going to get sicker and sicker and sicker." Zalkind described Hilton as an extremely intelligent person with the socialization skills of a 14-year-old. (This description probably fit half of the underclassmen at St. Andrews.) The defense lawyer wondered why someone at the university didn't notice Hilton's mental problem after he started flunking his classes. (The question in my mind is how Hilton got into St. Andrews in the first place?)

     The U.S. magistrate judge withheld his bail decision pending the outcome of Hilton's extradition hearing scheduled for March 7, 2013.

      On March 7, 2013, the federal judge certified Hilton's extradition to Scotland. Following that ruling the U.S. magistrate judge allowed the suspect to post bail. Hilton's attorneys immediately appealed the extradition certification to a federal court of appeals.

     Robert Forbes, in March 2013, filed a personal injury suit against Hilton in federal court. A federal judge later dismissed the civil lawsuit. (It may have been settled.)

     The federal court of appeals, in February 2014, granted Alexander Hilton a stay of extradition on grounds he was mentally incompetent to stand trial in Scotland.

     Hilton, in May 2015, was extradited to Scotland to stand trial in the attempted murder case. In July 2015, the defendant pleaded guilty as charged pursuant to the claim that, at the time of the poisoning, he had been mentally ill. Judge Lord Burns of the High Court in Edinburgh sentenced Hilton to three years in prison. 

The Sarai Sierra Murder Case

     Sarai Sierra, a 33-year-old Staten Island, New York wife and mother of two, on January 7, 2013, flew to Istanbul, Turkey. Sierra, an amateur photographer and student at the College of Staten Island, had planned to travel to Turkey with her friend Magdalena Rodriguez who canceled at the last minute. As a result, the part time chiropractor's office employee landed alone in Istanbul, a sprawling city of 14 million.

     During her two-week adventure in Turkey in which she resided in a basement apartment in one of Istanbul's seediest neighborhoods, Sierra remained in touch with her husband Steven, her children, and friends through her iPhone and iPad. On January 15, Sierra flew to Amsterdam where she remained three days. On January 18, on her way back to Turkey, she spend a few hours in Munich, Germany.

      When Sierra's homeward bound plane landed in New York City on January 21, she was not onboard. That is when Steven Sierra reported her missing to the Istanbul police, and made plans to travel to Turkey to search for his wife.

     Istanbul, Turkey's largest city, compared to other major metropolitan concentrations in the region, was relatively safe from violent crime. Because tourism was a big business in the city, local authorities were eager to find the missing American tourist. Members of the special investigative unit formed to find Sarai Sierra reviewed thousands of hours of downtown surveillance camera footage for a glimpse of the missing woman and clues to her whereabouts. They came up empty-handed.

     On February 2, 2013, residents who lived near the remnants of Istanbul's ancient city walls not far from the Galata Bridge that spanned the Golden Horn waterway, discovered the body of a woman. Police made a tentative identification of the corpse through a driver's license found on the body of the fully-dressed woman. The fact that Sarai Sierra was still wearing her earrings, a bracelet, a gold ring, and a necklace, ruled out robbery as a motive for her murder. Her iPhone and iPad were missing.

     Sarai Sierra had been killed by several blows to the head. The presence of a blanket near the body suggested she had been murdered elsewhere and dumped at the site not far from the busy highway.

     Not long after the discovery of the American tourist's murdered remains, a local woman came forward with information that on January 29, 2013 she had seen a man removing "something" at the presumed dump site from a white car. The witness said she saw a woman's hand protruding from the blanketed bundle taken out of vehicle by the man.

     In the course of their murder investigation, the Istanbul police detained fifteen people for questioning. Because the case had attracted so much media attention in Turkey, the local authorities were eager to bring Sierra's killer or killers to justice.

     On February 4, 2013, prosecutors in Istanbul were granted a court order allowing the acquisition of DNA samples from suspects who had been questioned in the case. DNA samples from Sierra's body and the recovery site blanket--hair follicles and scrapings from beneath the victim's fingernails--were sent to a crime lab for analysis. Also, the FBI entered the case.

     Istanbul police, in the spring of 2013, arrested a 47-year-old collector of scrap paper named Ziya Tasali. Tasali confessed to killing Sarai Sierra after she resisted his kiss in the Fatih district of the city. Tasali denied raping the victim. He said she "hit me with her phone between my two eyebrows, and I pushed her to the floor." She then picked up a rock and threw it at him. "I got very angry," he said. "I hit her with a stone I grabbed off the floor."

     The murder suspect said he was sniffing paint thinner at the time of the killing.

     On June 24, 2014, Tasali was found guilty of murder and sentenced to life in prison. 

Monday, March 2, 2020

Lara Prychodko's Mysterious Death

     In the decade prior to 2015, 46-year-old Lara Prychodko lived the life of a wealthy, New York City socialite. Her husband, David Christopher Schlacet, was co-founder of a New York City construction company called Taocon, Inc. The couple owned a condominium in Toronto, two homes in the Hamptons, and a pair of apartments in New York City. But by 2016, there was a problem: Lara Prychodko's drug and alcohol problem had caught up with her. In 2012, she had been convicted of driving while intoxicated, and in 2015 had lost custody of her ten-year-old son, Talin. As part of the custody settlement with her estranged husband, the domestic court judge ordered Prychodko to undergo regular drug and alcohol testing which she regularly failed.

     In 2016, Lara and her husband separated and began the process of going though a divorce. That year, Mr. Schlacet's construction company Taocon, Inc. filed for bankruptcy. The firm owned creditors $3.4 million and had assets of $550,000.

     Lara Prychodko resided in a luxury apartment in Union Square, Manhattan called Zeckendore Towers. (Hillary Clinton's top aide Huma Abedin and her husband, the disgraced congressman Anthony Weiner, had once lived in the building.) By 2018, Lara Prychodko and Mr. Schlacet were trying to work out how to divide the marital property.

    At 4:10 in the afternoon of July 18, 2018, one of Lara Prychodko's neighbors on the 27th floor of Zeckendore Towers, heard a noise coming from the hallway. When the neighbor stepped out of her apartment to investigate, she saw a purse sitting on the carpet near the door to the trash compactor chute. (The handbag was later identified as Lara's.)

     A Zeckendore Towers maintenance employee, at 4:40 that afternoon, came upon the topless body of a woman inside the basement trash compactor. Responding New York City police officers pronounced the woman, identified as Lara Prychodko, dead at the scene.

     As part of the sudden, unexplained death investigation, detectives viewed a Zeckendore hallway surveillance video that showed, about the time the 27th floor neighbor heard the noise near the trash compactor door, Lara Prychodko stumbling about the hallway in what appeared to be a state of intoxication. Based on the dead woman's history with drugs and alcohol, and what appeared on the surveillance video, detectives wound up the investigation by concluding she had died as the result of a "drunken accident."

     On September 18, 2018, New York City Medical Examiner Barbara Sampson ruled Lara Prychodko's death from the 27-floor plunge into the trash compactor, "Undetermined." In her report, the medical examiner wrote: "The circumstances around this death are unclear; however, there is no suspicion of foul play."

     Following the New York City Medical Examiner's cause and manner of death rulings, the Manhattan District Attorney's Office closed the case.

     Lara Prychodko's father, Nicholas Prychodko, who believed his daughter might have been murdered, asked the famed forensic pathologist, Dr. Michael Baden, to review the official autopsy inquiry into the death. Dr. Baden agreed to take the case at no charge.

    After studying the autopsy report, X-rays, laboratory results, and death scene photographs, Dr. Baden, in a July 15, 2019 letter to Mr. Prychodko, wrote: "Lara Prychodko may have died because of homicidal ligature strangulation and placed in the garbage chute." Dr. Baden considered the fact the victim's blouse was off as possible evidence of violence. He also found, on Prychodko's body, what he considered physical signs of a struggle.

     In February 2020, Dr. Baden expressed his views on Lara Prychodko's death to an interviewer on Fox News

     The Manhattan District Attorney's Office, and the investigating officers with the New York City Police Department, continued to maintain no foul play in Lara Prychodko's death. The case remained closed.

     Nicholas Prychodko, at a press conference, said, "I no longer accept the validity of their [the New York City Medical Examiner's Office] autopsy report and its conclusions." Mr. Prychodko announced that he had hired a private investigator to look into the case.