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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.

The Halifax Mass Murder Plot

     On Thursday morning February 12, 2015, a caller on the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) Crime Stoppers tip line caused serious concern with a disturbing report. The tipster said that 19-year-old James Gamble from Timberlea, Nova Scotia, a suburb of Halifax; a 23-year-old woman named Lindsay Kantha Souvannarath from Geneva, Illinois; and a 20-year-old Nova Scotia man, Randall Steven Shepherd, planned to shoot as many shoppers as they could on St. Valentine's Day at the Halifax Shopping Centre on the west side of the city.

     The informant said the group had acquired the necessary weaponry to commit Canada's version of America's 1929 St. Valentine's Day massacre. After the mass murder, the plotters planned to take their own lives.

     The persons identified by the RCMP tipster had revealed, through photographs and comments on an Internet chat stream,  their obsession with serial killers and bloody murder scenes. The American, Lindsay Souvannarath, had written messages on her Twitter account she didn't want posted until after her self-inflicted death.

     At one-twenty in the morning of February 13, 2015, police officers watching James Gamble's Timberlea residence, observed a couple believed to be the suspect's parents drive away from the house. After pulling the parents over, a detective called the house and spoke to their son.

     Gamble, whose house was surrounded by an Emergency Response Team, told the detective on the phone that he was unarmed and ready to exit the dwelling. Instead, he shot himself to death in the dwelling. Inside the house, besides the body, officers found three loaded rifles.

     An hour after the suicide in Timberlea, officers took Lindsay Souvannarath into custody when she flew into the Halifax International Airport from her home in Illinois. Police officers also arrested Randall Shepherd who was at the airport to greet her.

     Shortly after her arrest, Souvannarath confessed that she and the others intended to randomly murder as many people as possible at the Halifax shopping mall.

     A local prosecutor charged the American woman and her alleged 20-year-old Nova Scotia accomplice with conspiracy to commit murder. In the meantime, detectives with Nova Scotia's Serious Incident Team were looking into the background of the conspirator who had committed suicide. The investigators were trying to determine the extent of his participation, if any, in the mass shooting plot.

     At a press conference held on Saturday February 14, St. Valentine's Day, Justice Minister Peter MacKay announced that the mass murder plot was not "culturally motivated" or linked to Islamic terrorism. The justice minister called the murder conspirators "murderous misfits." Mr. MacKay acknowledged, however, that murderous misfits like the ones in custody could be exploited by terrorist organizations. He said, "An individual who would so recklessly and with bloody intent plot to do something like this I would suggest would also be susceptible to being motivated by groups like ISIS and others."

     On February 17, 2015, Charles Aukema, one of Lindsay Souvannarath's professors at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, told a reporter with the Cedar Rapids Gazette that his former English student "knew how to put together a sentence and had a command of detail." The professor added, "Sometimes it was pretty sick detail."

     On April 11, 2017, Lindsay Souvannarath pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit murder in the Halifax mall murder plot.

     In September 2018, the judge sentenced Lindsay Souvannarath to life. The judge sentenced Randal Steven Shepherd to ten years in prison.

The Argument Against the Death Penalty

Our criminal justice system is fallible. We know it, even though we don't like to admit it. It is fallible despite the best efforts of most within it to do justice. And this fallibility is the most compelling, persuasive, and winning argument against a death penalty.

Eliot Spitzer, former governor of New York 

Young Writers Don't Write Biographies

Aspiring writers find biography a less attractive form of creative nonfiction because they like to write about themselves, and unlike memoir, poetry, fiction, and drama, biography offers little chance for self-expression.

Philip Furia in Writing Creative Nonfiction, edited by Carolyn Forche and Philip Gerard, 2001 

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.

Charles Bukowski on His Critics

I never believed my critics to be anything but assholes. If the world lasts until the next century, I will still be there and the old critics will be dead and forgotten only to be replaced by new critics, new assholes. [Bukowski, who died in 1994, was right about his prediction.]

Charles Bukowski, Hollywood, 1969

Romance Novel Love Scenes

Strong, appealing characters, sensuous writing, and an understanding on how to create sexual tension are the key elements of good romance novels. Writing strong love scenes that are neither too sappy nor too graphic is one of the challenges of the genre.

Judith Rosen in The Writer's Handbook, edited by Alfrieda Abbe, 2002 

Sunday, March 29, 2020

The Sherri Lynn Wilkins Vehicular Murder Case: Fatal Hypocrisy

     Nobody likes a hypocrite. We are particularly offended (and intrigued) when people we generally admire such as physicians, professors, clergymen, law enforcement officers, generals, teachers, certain celebrities, and counselors commit crimes or behave badly. However, because of low expectations, we are less shocked when politicians, bureaucrats, lawyers, and Wall Street types break the law or act like jerks. In terms of what we expect from people, there are different standards of behavior. For example, in murder-for-hire cases, the upper-middle class mastermind is almost always considered more immoral, and criminally culpable, than the lower-class hitman. This is true even when the contract killer has murdered a complete stranger simply for the money.

     Years ago, when the head mistress of an elite New England girl's school shot and killed her lover in a fit of jealousy, this otherwise ordinary criminal homicide became a celebrated case. Ministers have gone to prison for having their wives killed, and FBI agents have been convicted of first-degree murder. On a smaller criminological scale, the public is shocked when female public school teachers are caught having affairs with their male students. I remember a case involving a high-profile gun control advocate who shot an intruder with an unregistered firearm. These cases attract media attention because they feature hypocrisy.

     In October 2012, Colin McGrattan, an anger management counselor in Stockton, California, murdered his ex-wife, her sister, and the victim's aunt before killing himself. McGrattan had recently lost a legal dispute with his former spouse. Unable to control his anger, he killed three people and himself. On matters of anger management, this man obviously wasn't able to take his own advice.

     Even though we have low expectations for politicians and bureaucrats, cases occasionally pop up that are egregious enough to, if not shock us, grab our attention. In 2007, Sheila Burgess, a Massachusetts political fund-raiser for democrat candidates, collected her reward when Governor Deval Patrick appointed her to the position of State Highway Safety Director. Since this was a political appointment, it's not surprising that Burgess didn't have experience in the fields of public safety, transportation, or public administration.

     On August 24, 2012, Burgess, while driving her state-issued vehicle on a sunny, Sunday afternoon near Milton, Massachusetts, drove off the road, wrecked the car, and injured herself. Although she told the police she had swerved off the highway to avoid an oncoming vehicle, she may have been texting.

     The Highway Safety Director's traffic accident prompted a newspaper inquiry into Burgess' driving history. On November 18, 2012, the day after the paper revealed that Sheila Burgess had a record of 34  traffic violations, the governor removed her from office. (Because she's a government employee, full dismissal was out of the question.) Instead of firing this woman, the governor assigned Burgess to a "different role" within the same department.

Sherri Lynn Wilkins

     In the fall of 2010, 50-year-old Sherri Lynn Wilkins began counseling substance abusers at the Twin Town Treatment Center in Torrance, California. In charge of the evening group sessions, she counseled up to 50 drug and alcohol abusers at a time. It was her job to help these people either get sober or stay off drugs. While Wilkins had earned a degree in drug counseling from Loyola Marymount University, it was her background as an alcoholic and heroin addict that in the bizarre world of substance abuse counseling that qualified her for the position. While giving her street credibility, the fact she "had been there" also meant she might relapse, an event that, in my opinion, would not be in the best interests of the people she was being paid to help.

     Sherri Lynn Wilkins' background, before she began her counseling career, is as follows: In 1992, a Los Angeles County judge sentenced her to 16 months in jail for petty theft. Two years later, another judge sent her away for nine years for burglary. All of her crimes were related to her substance addiction. In May 2010, the Los Angeles police arrested Wilkins for hit and run in Torrance. Because she had not been driving under the influence, the case against her was dropped. But in July 2010, the authorities in Los Angeles charged Wilkins with leaving the scene of an accident and driving under the influence of a controlled substance. For some reason this case was also dismissed.

     At eleven-thirty on the night of November 24, 2012, Sherri Wilkins, while speeding west on Torrance Boulevard, slammed into 31-year-old Phillip Moreno who was crossing the street near his home. The impact knocked Moreno out of his shoes and threw him up on the hood of Wilkins' car. Wilkins continued driving with the dying man lying on her hood, his body lodged into her windshield.

     At a traffic light two miles from where Moreno had been struck and thrown up onto the car, several motorists swarmed Wilkins' vehicle and grabbed her ignition key. An ambulance rushed Mr. Moreno to a local hospital where, a few hours later, he died. Los Angeles police officers took the substance abuse counselor into custody. Watkins' blood-alcohol content registered twice the legal limit for driving.

     On November 27, 2012, a Los Angeles County prosecutor charged Sherri Wilkins with vehicular manslaughter and driving under the influence. She was booked into the Los Angeles County Jail under $2.25 million bond.

     In April 2014, a jury in Terrance found Sherri Wilkins guilty of second-degree murder as well as several lesser offenses including hit-and-run. Two months later, Superior Court Judge Henry Hall sentenced the 54-year-old to 55 years to life in prison. The judge said, "Ms. Wilkins demonstrated an extraordinary callousness in fleeing the scene and trying to shake Mr. Moreno's body off her car. Ms. Wilkins is not what we normally see. She's not a classic violent criminal. But you have to evaluate her history. (According to her own testimony, Wilkins' drug addiction started after she was involved in a traffic accident at the age of fifteen. Her back had been broken, and she suffered shattered bones in her ankles and legs. She began medicating herself with heroin because it was "cheaper than going to the doctor.") In justifying the stiff sentence, Judge Hall added, "She had an insatiable desire to become intoxicated."

     Wilkins' attorney, Deputy Public Defender Nan Whitfield, said she would appeal the sentence. To reporters outside the courthouse, Whitfield said, "Nobody likes a drunk driver. Because she was a drug and alcohol counselor, she's held to a higher standard."

     In February 2016, a California appeals court overturned Wilkins' second-degree murder conviction on grounds the introduction of her entire criminal record prejudiced the jury. The court did not set aside her conviction for leaving the scene of the fatal accident.

     A year after the appeals court ruling, Wilkins pleaded no contest to second-degree murder. The judge sentenced her to 25 years in prison.

The Curse of Fame

Very few writers achieve fame through their books. The best an author can hope for is being respected and known by a fair number of readers and members of the literary community associated with his or her genre. Perhaps that's a good thing. Anne Morrow Lindbergh, after her baby had been murdered in 1932 in what became the so-called "Crime of the Century," wrote in her journal that fame was a form of death. Amanda Foreman wrote that "Fame is like a parasite. It feeds off its host--infecting, extracting, consuming its victim until there is nothing left but an empty husk. With this emptiness comes the possibility of a long afterlife as one of the blowup dolls of history." A character in B. Traven's story, The Night Visitor, says: "What is fame after all? It stinks to hell and heaven. Today I am famous. Today my name is printed on the front page of all the papers in the world. Tomorrow perhaps people can still spell my name correctly. Day after tomorrow I may starve to death and nobody cares. That's what you call fame." 

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.

Dialogue in a Memoir

     A fellow memoirist and reviewer writes: "I'm reading a memoir now where the author has written four chapters full of dialogue for events that occurred when she was four years old. Over half the book occurs before she is ten and it's all about what people said and felt. I don't see how much of this could be possibly true."

     My friend's got this right: Nothing makes a reader question memoir more indignantly than the things set aside by quotation marks.

     Unless you walked around your entire life with a tape recorder in your pocket, dialogue will become one of the greatest moral and storytelling conundrums you will face when writing a memoir. You may feel that you need some of it, a smattering at least, to round-out characters, change the pace, dissect the rub between what was thought and what was actually said. You may need dialogue because in life people talk to one another and readers want to know what they said. They want to know the sound of the relationships.

     Dialogue isn't, strictly speaking, absolutely necessary in a memoir. But when it's done right, it feels essential. It seems to bring one closer to the story's heart.

Beth Kephart, Handling the Truth, 2013

Humor and Pathos in Nonfiction

Any well-written nonfiction story can and should engage the emotions. In even the most serious of topics, there is usually room for a touch of humor, and the contrast helps heighten the story's impact. Pathos, too, can emerge in the unlikeliest settings, and can be all the more effective for being unexpected. This doesn't mean that material has to be thigh-slapping hilarious, or tear-jerking sorrowful. Most often, humor and pathos are subtle, growing naturally out of the events being described.

James B. Stewart, Follow the Story, 1998 

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Adaisha Miller's Sudden, Mysterious Death

     On Detroit's west side, on July 8, 2012, 24-year-old Adaisha Miller attended a Saturday night fish fry hosted by Isaac Parrish and his wife. Miller, a certified massage therapist, came to the backyard party with a friend acquainted with the 38-year-old Detroit police officer who was throwing the event. Isaac Parish, a beat patrolman for 16 years, did not know Miller before the party.

     That night, Officer Parrish carried his department-issued Smith & Wesson M & P 40 semiautomatic pistol on his right side in a soft holster tucked inside his waistband covered by his shirt. In Detroit, officers have the option of carrying their firearms when off-duty. They were not, however, supposed to be armed if their blood-alcohol level was 0.02 percent or above. (In Michigan, the blood-alcohol threshold for a DUI conviction is 0.08 percent.) In essence, Detroit officers are prohibited from carrying their handguns if they consume alcohol, period.

     Thirty minutes after midnight on the night of the party, Adaisha Miller, while either hugging the officer, dancing with him side-by-side, or dancing on her knees behind him, touched or tugged at his waist in a way that caused his firearm to discharge. The gun not only went off, the bullet entered Miller's chest, pierced a lung, hit her heart, and exited her lower back. She died later that day at a local hospital.

     According to Dr. Carl Schmidt, the Wayne County Medical Examiner, the path of the bullet through Miller's body did not reveal the victim's position relative to the gun's muzzle (end of the barrel) which was pointed toward the ground. Because the Smith & Wesson M & P 40 is designed for police and military use, it does not have a safety switch. However, the trigger must be pulled back all the way before the gun will fire.

     Months after Adaisha Miller's sudden demise, the Wayne County Medical Examiner's Office declared her death "accidental."

     Officer Parrish, following an internal investigation, was cleared of wrongdoing. He did not undergo a blood-alcohol test.

     Because it was hard to construct a scenario that explained exactly how this accident occurred, Adaisha's death remained a mystery. Less than 24 hours after her death, a lawyer surfaced in the case talking about a potential lawsuit against the Detroit Police Department. Attorney Gerald Thurswell, in speaking to a local reporter, said, "We believe 100 percent that this death was caused as a result of a negligent act of somebody. If somebody was negligent then someone's responsible for the injuries and death caused as a result of their negligent act." The lawyer hired a private investigator to look into the shooting.

     In February 2017, Adaisha Miller's mother, Yolanda McNair, participated in a demonstration outside the Detroit courthouse. The protesters were mothers of children who had been killed by Detroit police officers. McNair told a reporter that in her opinion, justice had not been done in the case of her daughter's death. She had filed a wrongful death suit against the Detroit Police Department. As of this writing, the suit remained unresolved. 

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

The Mystery of Why People Commit Crimes

     It's like the old staple of 1930s gangster movies: why does one person become a criminal and the other a priest? Or from my perspective, why does one become a serial killer, another a rapist, another an assassin, another a bomber, another a poisoner, and yet still another a child molester? And within these crime categories, why does each commit his atrocities in the precise way he does? The answer lies in one fundamental question that applies to every one of them:
     Why did he do it?
     The who? follows from there.
     That's the mystery we have to solve.

John Douglas [criminal profiler] and Mark Olshaker, The Anatomy of Motive, 1999

Writing Clear, Clean Fiction

I have a rather plain and direct prose style. For me the words should be like a pane of glass that you look through, not at. Decorative flourishes are few. I learned that style on newspapers.

Ken Follett, The New York Times, September 4, 2014 

Friday, March 27, 2020

The Claire Hough Murder Case: A Twisted Saga of False Accusations and Suicide

     In early August 1984, 14-year-old Claire Hough and her best friend Kim Jamer, left their homes in Rhode Island for a two-week vacation in San Diego, California. The girls had arranged to stay at Hough's grandparents' house. The girls spent their days hanging out on Torrey Pines Beach not far from where they were staying.

     On August 24, a day after Kim Jamer returned to Rhode Island, Claire Hough slipped out of her grandparents' house to enjoy the beach at night where groups of teenagers sat around fires drinking beer.

     Claire Hough did not return to her room that night. The next morning a 61-year-old beachcomber named Wallace Wheeler came across her body. She lay dead next to her boombox. Covered in blood on a bloodstained bath towel, her left breast had been cut off and her genitalia mutilated. Her killer had filled her mouth with sand. The murder knife was not at the scene, and was never recovered.

     The San Diego County Coroner determined that Claire Hough had been strangled to death. The forensic pathologist reported that because he found no traces of semen on her body, she had probably not been raped.

     Wallace Wheeler, the man who discovered the body immediately came under suspicion. He was a strange man who, after Claire Hough's murder, kept up a correspondence with her parents. In his letters he wrote about his visions and dreams of the man who had killed their daughter. Without a confession, eyewitness, or evidence physically connecting Mr. Wheeler to the murder, he remained just a suspect. In 1988, Wallace Wheeler jumped to his death from the 13th floor of his apartment building. He was later eliminated as the killer through DNA analysis.

     In 1978, six years before Claire Hough's murder, another teenaged girl had been murdered on Torrey Pines Beach. That victim had also been strangled to death, had her left breast cut off, and had sand in her mouth. There was no evidence that she had been raped. That case was still unsolved. Because of the similarities in these two murders, detectives believed they were dealing with a serial killer.

     After the Claire Hough murder, months turned into years without an arrest. In 2012, a team of cold-case investigators were informed by a DNA analyst that bloodstains on Claire Hough's jeans matched the DNA of a man named Ronald Clyde Tatro. A year earlier, Tatro had been killed in a boating accident.

     In 1975, Ronald Tatro was convicted of kidnapping and raping a girl in Arkansas. Following his parole in 1982, he moved to San Diego. Shortly after arriving in California, Tatro lured a teenage girl into his van where he tried to subdue her with a stun gun. She escaped and notified the police. Tatro was arrested, confessed, and went to prison for attempted rape. By August 1984, when Claire Hough was murdered on the beach, Ronald Tatro was out of prison.

     Detectives trying to connect Ronald Tatro to the 1978 murder of the girl on Torrey Pines Beach discovered that when that girl was killed, he was serving time in Arkansas.

     Because Ronald Tatro was no longer living, the quest to bring Claire Hough's murderer to justice would have ended there. But another man was implicated by the 2012 DNA analysis, and this was a surprise. According to investigators, semen traces on a vaginal swab from the Hough murder matched the DNA of Kevin Brown. This was surprising for two reasons: according to the forensic pathologist in 1984, no semen traces had been found on the victim's body, and, Kevin Brown, at the time of Claire Hough's murder, worked as a technician in the San Diego Crime Lab. Because of the sensitivity of this revelation, the authorities, pending further investigation, decided not to reveal it to the public.

     So, who was Keven Brown? In 2002, Mr. Brown retired from the crime lab after 22 years on the job. The 65-year-old lived in San Diego with his wife Rebecca, a Catholic high school teacher who was several years younger than him. They were married in 1993. He had never been arrested.

     A background investigation of the murder suspect revealed that as a younger man he seemed, in the eyes of some, to be obsessed with sex. In fact, his fellow lab workers had nicknamed him "Kinky." A woman who worked with him in the lab told detectives that Brown had shown her a porn film that she described as "sickening." As an amateur photographer, Mr. Brown supposedly liked to photograph nude women. However, after his marriage, Mr. Brown settled into to a quiet, conventional domestic life. People who knew him as a married man considered Kevin Brown a very nice person who was a bit of a nerd. Nevertheless, detectives on the case had convinced themselves that Ronald Brown had been some kind of sexual pervert.

     On January 9, 2014, San Diego detective Michael Lambert (who happened to be a former colleague of Brown's at the crime lab) and officer Lori Adams, showed up, unannounced at Kevin Brown's door to question him about the Claire Hough murder case. Seated in the living room with the suspect's wife looking on, the detectives asked Mr. Brown if he remembered the case. He said yes, he did remember the brutal murder on Torrey Pines Beach.

     The detectives showed Kevin Brown a photograph of Ronald Tatro. Had he ever met this man? Mr. Brown answered no. The detectives informed Mr. Brown that Ronald Tatro was connected to the murder through his DNA. And not only that, semen found at the murder scene had been identified through DNA as his--Mr. Brown's.

     If the detectives had hoped Mr. Brown would confess after learning that his DNA had been recovered from the Claire Hough murder scene, they were disappointed. Instead, the suspect insisted that the DNA identification must have been a mistake. He had absolutely nothing to do with the girl's murder and wanted to take a polygraph test to prove it.

     Before the detectives left the suspect's house that morning, they executed a search warrant. When they departed, they were in possession of Mr. Brown's computer and other personal items.

     Later on the day of his confrontation with the San Diego detectives, Kevin Brown took a lie detector test administered by a police department examiner. The polygraph examiner reported that Mr. Brown's response, when asked if he ever knew Ronald Tatro, was "inconclusive." Regarding the subject's denial that he had anything to do with Claire Hough's murder, the polygraph examiner labeled that answer "deceptive." In other words, according to the polygraph examiner, Keven Brown failed the test. While this result encouraged the detectives on the case, it could not be used as evidence in a court. When informed that he had failed the polygraph test, Kevin Brown knew that at some point he would be arrested for the 30-year-old murder of Claire Hough.

     In early October 2014, law enforcement authorities publicly announced that detectives had, through DNA analysis,  finally cracked the Claire Hough murder case. The suspect in the brutal murder was 67-year-old Kevin Brown, a former employee of the San Diego Crime Lab.

     On October 21, 2014, before police officers had a chance to come to his house and arrest him, Kevin Brown hanged himself.

     Rebecca Brown, in December 2014, brought a civil suit against the San Diego Police Department and others for falsely accusing her husband of murder. The false accusation had pushed the depressed and anxious man to suicide. The plaintiff accused homicide detectives of mishandling the investigation, and lying to the magistrate who had issued the search warrant.

     In her lawsuit, Rebecca Brown pointed out that in 1984, the forensic pathologist had not found any semen on Claire Hough's body. Moreover, detectives were never able to establish a connection between her husband and Ronald Tatro.

     Following Rebecca Brown's lawsuit, forensic experts reported that when Kevin Brown worked in the San Diego Crime Lab, the place was horribly polluted and poorly run. Instead of purchasing bodily fluid specimens as control samples, male lab personnel, including Kevin Brown, submitted samples of their own blood and semen. This, along with other lax and sloppy lab procedures, created the possibility of evidence contamination and co-mingling that could explain a false Kevin Brown DNA identification. In any case, had the case gone to trial, due to the conditions of the San Diego Crime Laboratory, the DNA evidence would have been inadmissible. Without the DNA there was no case.

     On February 23, 2020, in a San Diego courtroom, the jury hearing the Rebecca Brown civil case against the police department and other defendants, awarded her $6 million. In addition, Detective Michael Lambert was ordered to pay the plaintiff $50,000 in punitive damages for his role in the investigation. Rebecca and her attorney indicated, however, that if Michael Lambert apologized, they would reduce the amount he owed them. The detective refused to apologize so the punitive damages remained at $50,000.   

The Sungee Kwon Suicide-Murder Case

     In 2015, 45-year-old Dr. Raja Fayad, a native of Syria who earned his medical degree in that country, decided to enter academia rather than to practice medicine. That decision brought him to the United States where he taught physiology and anatomy at the University of Illinois at Chicago. In 2008, Dr. Fayad and his wife Sunghee Kwon moved into a house on Lake Murray in suburban Lexington County outside of Columbia, South Carolina.

     Dr. Fayad, an expert on colon cancer, had moved to South Carolina to assume his new position as the graduate director and head of the Applied Physiology Division of the University of South Carolina's Arnold School of Public Health.

     While Dr. Fayad enjoyed success in his professional life, his marriage to Sunghee Kwon had fallen apart. Although they were divorced in 2012, the couple continued to occupy the house on Lake Murray. In late 2014, however, Dr. Fayad moved out of the dwelling into a suite of rooms at a nearby residence motel.

     At one in the afternoon of Thursday February 5, 2015, Dr. Fayad's former wife showed up at his office on the fourth floor of the Arnold School of Public Health Building in downtown Columbia a few blocks from the Statehouse. She came armed with a 9 mm pistol.

     A few minutes after Sunghee Kwon's arrival at the university, police officers responded to reports from people who had heard the sound of gunshots coming from Dr. Fayad's office and adjacent laboratory.

     Officers that afternoon discovered the dead bodies of Dr. Fayad and his 46-year-old wife. He had been shot several times in the upper torso. After murdering her ex-spouse, Sunghee Kwon took her own life by shooting herself in the stomach.

     The 9 mm pistol, its magazine empty, lay near the bodies. There were no witnesses to the murder-suicide. 

The Vampire In Romance Fiction

There is a place in romance, in my own fantasies, for the laconic cowboy, for the over-civilized power broker, for the gentle prince and the burned-out spy. They all have their appeal, their merits, their stories to tell. But the vampire myth strikes deep in my soul. Deep in my heart I want more than just a man. I want a fallen angel, someone who would rather reign in hell than serve in heaven, a creature of light and darkness, good and evil, love and hate. A creature of life and death. The threat that kind of hero offers is essential to his appeal.

Anne Stuart Krentz in Dangerous Men And Adventurous Women, edited by Jayne Ann Krentz, 1992 

Publication Letdown

I believed, before I sold my first novel, that the publication would be instantly and automatically gratifying, an affirming and romantic experience, a Hallmark commercial where one runs and leaps in slow motion across a meadow filled with wildflowers into the arms of acclaim and self-esteem. This did not happen for me. As a result, I try to warn writers who hope to get published that publication is not all it is cracked up to be. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward.

Anne Lamott, Bird By Bird, 1995

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."

The Online Hook-Up From Hell

     In September 2010, Mary Kay Beckman, a 46-year-old mother of two from Las Vegas, met 50-year-old Wade Mitchell Ridley via the online dating service, The couple had eight dates before Beckman realized there was something wrong with him and ended the relationship.

     On January 21, 2011, four months after his last date with Beckman, Ridley, armed with a butcher's knife, broke into her garage and waited for her to return home. When Beckman pulled into the garage and got out of her car, Ridley stabbed her ten times. In his attempt to murder his victim, Ridley also stomped her head and neck. Ridley left the garage that night thinking that he had killed Mary Kay Beckman.

     Mary Kay survived the brutal attack, but had to undergo surgeries to repair her jaw, preserve her eyesight, and to have a section of her skull replaced by a synthetic material.

     Shortly after the burglary and attempted murder, Las Vegas police arrested Wade Ridley. While in police custody, he confessed to the Beckman assault. Ridley also informed his interrogators that a few weeks before stabbing and stomping Mary Kay Beckman, he murdered a woman in Phoenix. The suspect said he had used a butcher's knife to stab 62-year-old Anne Simenson to death in her home. Just before murdering Simenson, a woman he had met on Match.Com, Ridley had stolen painkilling drugs from a pharmacist he had robbed at knife-point.

     On February 15, 2011, a prosecutor in Clark County, Nevada charged Wade Mitchell Ridley with the attempted murder of Mary Kay Beckman. In Arizona, a prosecutor charged Ridley with the murder of Anne Simenson.

     In September 2011, Ridley entered an Alford pleas to attempted murder with the use of a deadly weapon and armed robbery. (In so pleading, Ridley didn't admit guilt but acknowledged the state had enough evidence to convict him.) The judge sentenced Ridley to 28 to 70 years in prison.

     On May 17, 2012, a prison guard found Ridley hanging in his cell. The medical examiner ruled his death a suicide.

     Mary Kay Beckman, on January 25, 2013, filed suit against Match.Com in a Las Vegas federal court. Her attorney, Marc Saggese, told reporters that the basis of the $10 million civil action "is the advertising that is utilized by Match.Com, lulling women and men into a false sense of security." It is the plaintiff's contention that the dating service has a legal duty to warn its online customers that there might be people in the dating pool who are dangerous.

     The lawyer representing Match.Com responded to this assertion by saying the notion his client was liable for the behavior of a Match.Com member was absurd. The attorney for the defendant said the plaintiff was the victim of a "sick, twisted" man.

     If Match.Com lost this lawsuit, owners of bars where men and women meet could be held liable for hook-ups that led to one of the parties being criminally victimized. It would make fixing-up friends a risky proposition for match-makers. Who doesn't know that going out with a stranger met online, in a bar, or at a college fraternity party, isn't risky business? While Mary Kay Beckman was the victim of a terrible crime, she was not a victim of Match.Com.

     On May 29, 2013, a federal judge in Nevada threw out Beckman's case against the online dating service. 

The Gregory Eldred Church Murder Case

     In 1982, after graduating from Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pennsylvania, Darlene Sitler began teaching music to students in kindergarten to sixth grade. For thirty years, she taught at the Northern Potter School District based in the tiny borough of Ulysses. Her husband, Gregory Eldred, taught music at the elementary school in Coudersport, the capital of Potter County, 20 miles south of Ulysses in the central part of the state. He was also a clarinet player with the Southern Tier Symphony. The couple attended the First United Presbyterian Church in Coudersport where Darlene played the organ and directed the choir. In April 2010, Darlene filed for divorce. The marital split became official four months later.

     On Sunday, December 2, 2012, about twenty minutes into Pastor Evon Lloyd's service at the First United Presbyterian Church, Darlene's 52-year-old ex-husband, wearing a hooded beige jacket, entered the building through a side door. Eldred walked up the center aisle, and with a .40-caliber handgun, shot Darlene as she sat at the organ. The single shot caused her to fall into the organ pit. As the stunned congregation looked on, Eldred walked calmly out of the church. One of the churchgoers called 911 as several witnesses to the shooting ran to the front of the church to attend to the wounded organist.

     About three minutes after the shooting, Gregory Eldred walked back into the church. When Pastor Lloyd and others pleaded with him to put down his pistol, the music teacher threatened to shoot anyone who got in his way. "I want to finish this," he said. "I've got to see if she's dead." Eldred walked up to the organ pit and fired two bullets into his ex-wife. If she wasn't already dead, these two shots killed her.

     Several members of the congregation swarmed the shooter, and in the course of subduing him, he fired off another shot that didn't hit anyone. A Pennsylvania State Trooper assigned to the Coudersport barracks arrived at the scene shortly thereafter.

     After state police troopers escorted Gregory Eldred out of the church, the entire congregation climbed aboard a school bus and were driven to a place they were questioned by a team of police officers. (Very few murders are witnessed by this many people.) Eldred, charged with first-degree murder, was held without bond in the Potter County Jail.

     On July 10, 2013, Gregory Eldred pleaded guilty to first-degree murder. The judge sentenced him to life in prison.

     In April 2015, from his cell at the Forest State Correctional Facility in Marienville, Pennsylvania, Gregory Eldred petitioned the state court to withdraw his 2013 guilty plea on grounds that his  attorney, Bill Hebe, had been ineffective counsel.

     The Potter County judge denied Eldred's plea withdrawal petition.

     In 2015, a woman who had witnessed Gregory Eldred murder his wife, under a victim restitution law, sued the convicted killer for $1,427, the money she had spent for counseling services. A judge awarded her the sum in late 2016. In January 2017, Eldred appealed the award on grounds this woman was merely a witness to a crime, not a victim as proscribed by the law. 

Political Correctness is Not Funny

Humor, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. What's uproariously funny to one person may leave another cold. What's funny today may seem insensitive tomorrow. This is certainly true with Leo Rosten's 1937 book The Education of Hyman Kaplan, which describes the very funny struggles of a group of adult immigrants learning English. Many readers may find Rosten's book patronizing at best and offensive at worst. Issues of political correctness--the death knell for humor--arise, too

Nancy Pearl, Book Lust, 2003 

Who Do You Write For?

My biggest struggle as a novelist is to put my own story on paper--not to be influenced by what I think my editor, my publisher, my friends, or the reader wants to see on the page. I need to get these people out of my writing space and focus on writing my story. If it resonates for me, it will resonate for my readers.

Joan Johnston in The 101 Habits of Highly Successful Novelists, edited by Andrew McLeer, 2008 

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

States Can Abolish The Insanity Defense

     On March 23, 2020, the United States Supreme Court, in Kahler v. Kansas, ruled that it is not unconstitutional for a state to abolish its insanity defense. The insanity defense allows a criminal defendant to be found not guilty due to a mental illness that deprived the offender of knowing right from wrong. In other words, the defendant was too mentally impaired to form criminal intent. Instead of being guilty of the crime, the defendant is found not guilty by reason of insanity. These defendants, instead of serving a sentence in prison, are committed to a mental hospital where they will remain until doctors determine they are sane enough to return to society. Because juries are skeptical of the insanity defense, it is successful in only one percent of insanity defense cases.

     In 1995, the state of Kansas abolished the insanity defense. (Four other states have since abolished it.)

     In November 2009, in a Kansas killing rampage, James Kahler murdered his two daughters, his estranged wife, and his wife's mother. His attorneys claimed that he was insane, but because the state had made the insanity defense unavailable, Kahler was convicted of four-counts of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. In 2011, Kahler's attorneys challenged the constitutionality of the elimination of the insanity defense. The case worked its way up to  the United States Supreme Court which ruled 6 to 3 in favor of the state. Justice Elena Kagan wrote the majority opinion.

     While Kahler v. Kansas allows states to abolish the not guilty by reason of insanity defense, defendants can present evidence of mental illness to establish a lack of criminal intent to reduce say, first-degree murder to a lesser homicide offense. Moreover, it can be used post-conviction at a sentence hearing as a mitigating factor.

Criminal Voyeurism

     The act of voyeurism runs the gamut of watching reality TV, to window peeping, to the use of hidden and clandestine cameras for one's sexual gratification. In an era of adult entertainment, it seems odd that so many teachers, clergymen, politicians, bosses, lawyers, and physicians have been caught using covert devices like pen cameras to satisfy their sexual curiosities.

     A man (this is not a crime usually committed by women) who risks his family, career, and position in society by secretly videotaping females (and young boys) changing clothes, showering, using the restroom, or merely going about their daily activity, must possess a powerful sexual compulsion that by any standard is deviant. Because this form of pathological voyeurism is also a crime, the clandestine video-taper also risks going to prison. The risk/reward imbalance inherent in this bizarre behavior suggests that these voyeurs are beyond the reach of counselors and medication.

Richard Watkins

     In March 2010, an elementary school teacher in Calne, a town of 13,000 in southwest England, was caught using a pen camera to video-record boys as they changed their clothes for physical education class. Richard Watkins had been doing this for two years, and had thousands of clandestinely acquired images on his home computer.

     The 28-year-old teacher and former children's entertainer (said to possess "circus skills"), pleaded guilty to thirteen counts of criminal voyeurism. The judge sentenced Watkins to four years in prison where he would have plenty of time to practice his juggling.

James Mucha

     In March 2011, James Mucha, an employee of a small manufacturing company in Avon Lake, Ohio, was caught using a pen camera in the women's restroom. A female employee noticed a pen standing upright behind the door after she closed it. Thinking this was an odd place for a writing instrument, the woman picked it up, unscrewed the cap, and found a mini-camera.

     The 43-year-old pen camera owner was charged in August 2011 with three counts of voyeurism. (The company fired him.) Three months later, the judge sentenced Mucha to 150 days in the county jail followed by one year of probation. The judge also fined him $2,000. (Voyeurs who video adult women usually get lighter sentences than men who record children.)

Joshua Waguespack

     In April 2012, in LeLand, Florida, police officers arrested Joshua Waguespack, a seventh grade math teacher at St. Peter's Catholic School. The 33-year-old had used a pen camera to take videos of two girls, ages 12 and 13, who used his teacher's storage closet to change into their gym clothes. He had downloaded these images onto his iPhone and iPad.

     After pleading no contest to two counts of criminal voyeurism in February 2013, the judge sentenced Waguespack to five years in prison. (This is a relatively heavy sentence for a defendant who pleaded guilty which suggests that Waguespack has a criminal history the judge didn't like.)

Dr. Adam Levison

     Having studied at the University of California Berkeley, Georgetown University, and the New York Medical College where he graduated at the top of his class, Dr. Adam Levison taught robotic surgery at Mount Sinai Hospital's School of Medicine in Manhattan. The 39-year-old assistant Professor of Urology lived in a posh West Greenwich Village apartment. Dr. Levison had prestige, good-looks, and money. From all appearances this man had it all. He also had a lot to lose.

     On Tuesday, August 2, 2012, a New York subway transit officer, acting on a tip from two passengers riding on the train with Dr. Levison, arrested the urologist for using a pen camera clipped to a folded newspaper to take shots up women's skirts. Taken into custody at the Union Square Station during the evening rush-hour, the doctor did not protest or proclaim his innocence.

     At his arraignment the day after his arrest, the judge charged Dr. Levison with second-degree unlawful surveillance. If convicted, he faced a maximum sentence of four years in prison. Dr. Levison posted bail, and was released.

     A search of the doctor's pen camera video footage confirmed the suspicions of his fellow subway passengers and the arresting transit officer.

     Mount Sinai Hospital, two months after the subway arrest, announced that the physician was no longer employed by the institution.

     In January 2014, Dr. Levinson pleaded guilty in return for a sentence of five years probation. 

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

Young Readers

Children and adolescents have their own distinctive ideas concerning humor, politics, and prose, and their tastes in these matters may strike older readers as sophomoric, gauche, ill-informed, or just dead wrong. Conversely, the young have a way of noticing that good manners can be oppressive, that the past is often irrelevant, and that emperors are sometimes naked. In short, the young are not lesser beings; they're just different.

Thomas M. Disch, The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of, 1998 

The Russian Writers

I like the great Russian writers best of all--Tolstoi, Chekov, and Dostoevsky. I think it is because they seemed to feel that truth is more important than all the fancy skillful words, than belles lettres. I, personally, don't like writing where the package is fancier and more important than the contents. Perhaps that is why the Russians translate so well, because the important thing to them is what they felt, saw and thought. Life is more important to them than literature.

Brenda Ueland, If You Want to Write, originally published in 1938 

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

The Walter Ogrod Murder Case: Innocent Man on Death Row?

     On July 13, 1988 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, a citizen discovered a cardboard box sitting among trash set out on the curb to be picked up. The box containing the naked and beaten body of a 12-year-old girl. The victim, Barbara Jean Horn, had resided on a nearby street with her mother and stepfather. She had gone missing the day before.

     According to the city medical examiner, the girl in the box had been struck four times in the head with a blunt object. There was no evidence she had been raped or sodomized.

     About the time Barbara Jean Horn was abducted, several neighborhood witnesses saw a man carrying a box that matched the container the victim's body had been found in. This unidentified man was described as white, in his mid-twenties to early thirties, five-foot-six to five nine, and weighing 165 to 175 pounds.

     As possible suspects, detectives questioned the victim's stepfather; the man who had purchased a television set housed in the box the body was found in; and a third man in the neighborhood who had a history of sex crimes involving young girls. Because the suspects didn't confess, and there was no crime scene evidence linking them to the girl, no one was charged. Without productive leads, the Barbara Jean Horn investigation came to a halt.

     In 1991, three years after Barbara Jean Horn's murder, a team of cold-case investigators reopened the homicide investigation. In April 1992, detectives with the Philadelphia Police Department questioned Walter Ogrod, a 27-year-old truck driver who lived with a married couple across the street from the victim and her family. The people Ogrod lived with had a son who regularly played with Barbara Jean Horn. Mr. Ogrod did not have a criminal record.

     Walter Ogrod, described by his mother as "slow" (he was on the autism spectrum), denied having anything to do with the girl's abduction and murder. But following a grueling, 14-hour interrogation without the presence of an attorney, Ogrod broke down and confessed. He signed a 16-page confession his interrogators insisted were in his own words.

     According to Ogrod's confession, he encountered the victim when she came across the street to play with the couple's son. He lured the girl into the basement with chocolate candy, and after forcing her to give him oral sex, beat her to death with a two-by-four. He removed her clothing, washed her body, and carried her in the box to where it had been found. (Ogrod matched the general description of the unidentified man seen carrying the box.)

     Immediately after signing the confession statement, Ogrod recanted, and insisted that he was innocent.

     Walter Ogrod went on trial for murder in October 1993. The prosecution, without an eyewitness or physical evidence connecting him to the crime, relied heavily on his confession. Ogrod took the stand and professed his innocence. The jury, after deliberating nine hours, returned a verdict of guilty. However, when the judge polled the individual jurors, one of them announced that he disagreed with the verdict. The judge had no choice but to declare a mistrial.

     The second Ogrod murder trial got underway on October 1, 1996. This time the prosecution, instead of relying on the improperly obtained confession written in a style that didn't match the defendant's way of speaking, produced two jailhouse informants who testified that Ogrod had confessed to them. Both of these snitches were known in the criminal justice community for selling out inmates for their own benefit. They were, to say the least, not credible. Nevertheless, the jury, after deliberating just two hours, found Walter Ogrod guilty of first-degree murder. The judge sentenced him to death.

     In 2003, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court upheld the Ogrod conviction and death sentence.

     Over the next fifteen years, Walter Ogrod's attorneys kept fighting to establish his innocence and set him free. His story was featured in a television documentary and a movie which portrayed him as an innocent man awaiting execution.

     In April 2018, the Philadelphia District Attorneys Office's Conviction Integrity Unit opened an investigation into the Ogrod case. Two years later, attorneys with the district attorneys office filed a motion asking a judge to vacate Ogrod's conviction on grounds of police misconduct, false testimony, and exonerating physical evidence. According to the motion, Walter Ogrod was "likely innocent." The judge set a hearing on the motion scheduled for June 5, 2020.

     On March 10,  2020, Walter Ogrod's attorneys filed an emergency petition to have their client released from custody. The request was based on the fact Mr. Ogrod had symptoms of COVID-19 and required immediate medical attention.

     On March 11, officials at the State Correctional Institution at Phoenix, Pennsylvania, pending the outcome of the COVID-19 petition, placed Ogrod into isolation.

     On March 22, 2020, a common pleas judge ordered Walter Ogrod's transfer out of prison to an outside hospital for COVID-19 treatment.

Operating on Dead People

I thought I could contribute more to society by looking at people on the autopsy table and feeding back the findings so that lots of people could benefit, rather than just treating patients one at a time.

Dr. Michael Baden, forensic pathologist

First Novels By Teenagers

I always wanted to be a novelist, from the time that I was a little kid and first learned that such a job existed. I decided to attempt my first novel when I was a teenager, and I thought it was going to be easy--that I'd no doubt be published before I graduated from high school. It obviously didn't work that way. It would be ten years of learning the craft and abandoning novels that weren't working before I had my first novel published. [In recent years a handful of teen written coming-of-age novels have been published.]

Marissa Meyer in Children's Writer's and Illustrator's Market, edited by Chuck Sambuchino, 2013 

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 Woman In The Locked Room

     The English writer John Fowles published a horror novel in 1963 called The Collector. Fowles' protagonist, a neurotic butterfly collector, wins the British Football Pool which allows him to buy an country estate. The former city hall ribbon clerk, after converting his cellar into comfortable living quarters, kidnaps a beautiful young art student he has secretly admired. His purpose is not to rape or ransom, but to "collect" this desirable specimen. The girl he has added to his collection of beautiful objects takes ill and dies. Following her death, the collector reads her diary and is shocked to discover that she had not fallen in love with him. The novel closes with the protagonist planning to abduct and imprison another young woman who has caught his attention. (The film version of the book came out in 1965.)

 The Michael Mendez Case                                                              

     One could describe law enforcement as peeking under rocks in search of criminals and evidence of their crimes. Every so often the police turn over a rock and are surprised by what they find. On August 9, 2012, members of the New Jersey State Police Street Gang Unit, while searching an apartment in Paterson for drugs, discovered something they hadn't anticipated. They found a woman who may have lived ten years locked inside a bedroom. The apartment belonged to a 42-year-old suspected drug dealer and member of the Latin Kings street gang named Michael Mendez.

     Most of Mendez's public housing neighbors had not been aware that the woman, 44-year-old Nancy Rodriguez Duran, had been living in the former roofer's apartment. (Mendez, because of lung problems and bipolar disorder, has been on disability for several years.) Over the past decade, only a few of his fellow apartment dwellers had seen Duran outside of the three-story brick complex. Even those sightings were rare. Mendez had resided in the third floor apartment for more than twelve years.

     Inside Duran's small bedroom, padlocked from the outside, officers found a pail used as a chamber pot, a bed, a television, and a telephone. Searchers also discovered, in Mendez's possession, 4,200 prescription pills, 190 grams of marijuana, and $23,000 in cash. The pills alone had a street value of $100,000.

     New Jersey State Police Officers took Michael Mendez into custody at the Paterson apartment and hauled him to the Passaic County Jail. Charged with possession of controlled substances with the intent to distribute, kidnapping, false imprisonment, and criminal restraint, Mendez was held on $l million bail. The authorities transported Nancy Rodriguez Duran to a nearby hospital for medical evaluation. While Mendez had two previous convictions for aggravated assault, he had only served three months behind bars.

     On August 14, 2012,  before Mendez's preliminary hearing in Paterson, Nancy Rodriguez Duran, in speaking to reporters, denied having been held in Mendez's apartment bedroom against her will. "He padlocked the door with my consent," she said. "I like being inside, I don't like to go out. It's not that he was keeping me there. Why would he keep me in a room for ten years? How could I be so healthy? I should be dead by now."

     The New Jersey State Attorney General's office took charge of the case. The central legal question involved whether or not an adult can consent to being locked in a room for the better part of ten years. And in a case like this, what constitutes "consent?" Perhaps Duran had been abducted against her will, then over the years, developed the so-called Stockholm Syndrome, a psychological state in which the prisoner develops empathy for her captor. This woman may have been the victim of what psychologists call "traumatic bonding."

     In March 2013, Mendez pleaded guilty before Superior Court Judge Greta Brown in Paterson, New Jersey to third-degree criminal restraint and possession of marijuana and prescription pills with intent to distribute. The judge sentenced him to five years in prison.

     Five years behind bars for keeping a woman locked in a room for ten years.

Novels That Inspired Real-Life Murders

     At his sentencing hearing in 1981, after he was convicted of John Lennon's murder, Mark David Chapman read aloud from J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye: I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over…I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all."

     The Catcher in the Rye was the book Chapman had been reading at the crime scene when he was arrested. It was the book that held, as he claimed, his message for the world. He was standing at the cliff; he was just doing his work.

     A few years later, the serial killers Leonard Lake and Charles Ng embarked on what they called "Operation Miranda," a violent spree of torture, rape and murder named for the woman abducted by a deranged butterfly collector in John Fowles' novel The Collector, which they cited as their inspiration.

Leslie Jamison, The New York Times Book Review, September 14, 2014 

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 

The Unpublished First Novel

As a first novelist I learned about the odds I was facing. They were, shall we say, long. It has been estimated that the number of novel manuscripts each year to be in excess of 100,000. The number of first novels published annually by major houses? Three to four hundred.

Stephen White in How I Got Published, edited by Ray White and Duane Lindsay, 2007 

The Biographer's Natural Enemies

The biographer's business, like the journalist's, is to satisfy the reader's curiosity, not to place limits on it. He is supposed to go out and bring back the goods--the malevolent secrets that have been quietly burning in archives and libraries and in the minds of contemporaries who have been biding their time, waiting for the biographer's knock on their doors. Some of the secrets are difficult to bring away, and some, jealously guarded by relatives, are even impossible. Relatives are the biographer's natural enemies; they are like the hostile tribes the explorer must ruthlessly subdue to claim his territory.

Janet Malcolm, The Silent Woman, 1994 

Sunday, March 22, 2020

The Joshua Besaw Kidnapping/Rape Case

     On May 31, 2019, 30-year-old Joshua Besaw from Thompson, Connecticut, a small town in the northwest corner of the state, was in Webster, Massachusetts where, in a park, he encountered a 12-year-old girl. Calling himself "Chuck," Besaw enticed the girl to get into his car and drove back to Thompson, Connecticut where, in a wooded area, he raped her. After the sexual assault, Besaw and the victim returned to Thompson where he dropped her off in an unfamiliar neighborhood. The rapist left in possession of his victim's cellphone.

     Shortly after the rapist drove away, the victim borrowed a stranger's phone and called her parents who took her directly to the Thompson Police Department. Later that day, personnel at a medical facility conducted a sexual examination and collected biological evidence of the assault.

     A review by law enforcement officers of numerous surveillance videos from sites in Webster, Massachusetts and Thompson, Connecticut quickly led to the identification of Joshua Besaw as the kidnapper/rapist.

     While under local police and FBI surveillance, Besaw discarded cigarette butts that were gathered by his followers for DNA analysis. Traces of the suspect's saliva on the collected cigarette butts matched semen specimens taken from the rape victim. DNA science had positively identified Joshua Besaw as the man who had raped this 12-year-old girl.

     On July 17, 2019, local police officers and FBI agents took Besaw into custody at his place of residence in Thompson, Connecticut. An Assistant United States Attorney in Connecticut charged Besaw with kidnapping, and transporting a victim across state lines with the purpose of sexual assault.

     On March 13, 2020, Joshua Besaw, confronted with the DNA evidence connecting him to the rape, pleaded guilty before a federal judge. At his upcoming June 15, 2020 sentencing hearing, Besaw faced a mandatory federal sentence of twenty years in prison. He could, however, be sentenced to life.

Philip Righter: Art Forger, Tax Cheat, and Fraud

     Philip Righter was a fraud, a forger, a pretender, and a thief. Nothing about this West Hollywood man was on the level. He held himself out as a successful film producer and a serious collector of art. On his Instagram account he posted a photograph of himself wearing a tuxedo and holding an Oscar statue. He also claimed to be an Emmy and Grammy winner. Mr. Righter hadn't won any of these awards, and had only produced a short film in 2016 called "One Good Waiter." As for his collection of paintings, they were forgeries he had purchased cheaply on sites like eBay.

     Philip Righter was also a tax cheat. In 2015, he falsely reported on his federal tax form that he had donated valuable paintings to charity. He also claimed that thieves had broken into his home and stole $2.5 million worth of his art. Due to his phony charity deduction and the false theft claim, the government issued Righter a check for more than $100,000.

     While he was cheating on his taxes, Righter was purchasing paintings online that were painted to look like the work of painters Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Keith Haring, and Jean-Michal Basquiat. He sold $758,000 worth of Haring and Basquiat fakes to an art gallery in Miami, Florida.

     To fool the buyer of these works into thinking they were real, Righter forged accompanying documents in the form of letters of authenticity from the painters' estates.

     In 2016, detectives with the Los Angeles Police Department began investigating Philip Righter for fraud and art forgery. Special Agents with the FBI's Art Crime Team from the Miami Field Division joined in the Righter investigation.

     In July 2018, FBI agents in Los Angeles took Philip Righter into custody of federal charges of mail fraud and aggravated identity theft.

     The 43-year-old forger and thief, on March 13, 2020, pleaded guilty to one count of mail fraud and one count of identity theft. At his sentencing before a federal judge scheduled for May 18, 2020, Righter faced up to 25 years in prison. Because he had pleaded guilty, his punishment won't be nearly that harsh. In this era of lenient sentences for nonviolent criminals, he might not even go to prison.

The Pathology of Bed-Wetting

About five to seven million kids in America wet the bed. Bet-wetting is most common in children in preschool and under the age of seven. Harold Schechter, a prolific author of true crime books and professor of American Literature and Culture at Queens College [NYC], suggested that if this habit persists beyond the age of twelve, it might signify a deeper pathology. The FBI reported that 60 percent of sexually related murderers and serial killers and those who have committed violent crimes have struggled with bed-wetting and many of them are too embarrassed to talk about it, let alone admit to it.

Phil Chalmers, Inside the Mind of a Teen Killer, 2009

Charles Johnson On "Literary Padding"

The "literary" novel runs the risk of what the French call remplissage, or "literary padding," to fill up pages. There's almost nothing more boring that I can think of than seeing a novelist pad out an under-imagined work that has a slim premise, no more complexity than a child's primer, Styrofoam people who are sociological problems masquerading as characters, not much of a story, is thin in imagery and thought, and contains no artistic or intellectual surprises. Oh, wait, there is something more boring: spending three hundred or four hundred pages with characters you don't enjoy hanging out with and for whom you couldn't care less about "what happens next" to them.

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

"Of the Coming of John," The Classic Short Story by W.E.B. Du Bois

     In 1903, W.E.B, Du Bois included in his seminal work, The Souls of Black Folk, a brilliant but haunting short story, "Of the Coming of John." In Du Bois's story, a young black man in coastal Georgia is sent off hundreds of miles to a school that trains black teachers. The entire black community where he was born had raised the money for his tuition. The community invests in John so that he can one day return and teach African American children who are barred from attending the public school. Casual and fun-loving, John almost flunks out of his new school until he considers the trust he's been given and the shame he would face if he returned without graduating. Newly focused, sober, and intensely committed to succeed, he graduates with honors and returns to his community intent on changing things.

     John convinces the white judge who controls the town to allow him to open a school for black children. His education has empowered him, and he has strong opinions about racial freedom and equality that land him and the black community in trouble. The judge shuts down the school when he hears what John's been teaching. John walks home after the school's closing frustrated and distraught. On the trip home he sees his sister being groped by the judge's adult son and he reacts violently, striking the man in the head with a piece of wood. John continues home to say goodbye to his mother. Du Bois ends the tragic story when the furious judge catches up with John with the lynch mob he has assembled.

Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, 2014

Charles Bukowski on Living and Writing in Los Angeles

To find the proper place to write it's important that the rent should be reasonable, the walls thick, the landlord indifferent, and the tenants depraved, penurious, alcoholic, and lower-middle class. With the advent of the high-rise apartments, small courts, with their own private entranceways, have more and more vanished, and the wonderful characters that once infested these places have vanished along with them.

Charles Bukowski, "Notes of a Dirty Old Man," L.A. Free Press, 1974

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Judges Who Kept Rapists Out of Prison

Judge G. Todd Baugh and Rapist Stacey Rambold

      In August 2013, after a jury in Billings, Montana found a 49-year-old high school teacher named Stacey Rambold guilty of having consensual sex with a 14-year-old student, Yellowstone County Judge G. Todd Baugh sentenced the defendant to thirty days in jail plus three years probation. The court ordered Rambold to register as a sex offender.

     Rambold's distraught victim, Cherice Moralez, committed suicide during his rape trial.

     According to Judge Baugh, even though the victim was 35 years younger than her rapist, Moralez was "older than her chronological age." The judge considered this a major mitigating factor in the case.

     On the day after his extremely unpopular sentencing of the former teacher, Judge Baugh, in speaking to reporters baffled by his sentence, stood by his ruling. "Obviously," he said, "a 14-year-old can't consent [to sex with an adult]. I think that people have in mind that this was some violent, forcible, horrible rape. It was horrible enough as it is, just given her age, but it wasn't this forcible beat-up rape."

     Stacey Rambold served his thirty days behind bars and walked free. Having avoided years in prison for ruining a young girl's life, he was one lucky rapist. The judge later apologized for his "chronological age" comments, and due to the public uproar over his sentencing of the teacher, declined to run for his fifth term in office.

Judge Marie Silveira and Rapist Timothy L. Lyman

     On December 27, 2012, 44-year-old soccer coach Timothy Lyman hosted a party for his players at his Oakdale, California house. The coach provided his young party-goers with vodka and rum. One of his guests, a 16-year-old girl, after having consensual sex with a boy her age in one of Lyman's bedrooms, passed out from the effects of alcohol. She awoke to find her coach performing oral sex on her.

     On November 12, 2013, after Timothy Lyman pleaded no contest to rape, Stanislaus County Judge Marie Silveira sentenced the coach to three years probation. Lyman was also ordered to register as a sex offender. The prosecutor and members of the victim's family were shocked and outraged by the judge's light sentence.

     In speaking to reporters after Lyman's sentencing, the victim's father said, "Whoever would do this to a 16-year-old girl is just sick. This has devastated my family. There have been lots of sleepless nights for my daughter and sleepless nights for myself. I'm just sick."

Judge James Woodroof and Rapist Austin Smith Clem

     In 2007, 19-year-old Austin Smith Clem had, on two occasions, forcible sex with 14-year-old Courtney Andrews. The rapes took place in Athens, Alabama. Clem swore the girl to secrecy. Moreover, if she told anyone, he threatened to harm her and her parents.

     Four years later, at age 23, Clem forcibly raped Andrews who was then eighteen. This time she asked a friend to report the assault to her parents.

     In September 2013, the Limestone County jury, after deliberating just two hours, found Austin Smith Clem guilty of two counts of second-degree rape and one count of first-degree rape. The jury recommended a 35-year sentence. On November 13, 2013, Judge James Woodroof sentenced the convicted rapist to a non-custody correctional program designed to make offenders "likely to maintain a productive and law abiding life as a result of accountability, guidance, and direction to services needed."

     Clem, after completing the two year program for "nonviolent, low-level offenders," was placed on probation for three years. He also paid a $2,381 fine, and register as a sex offender.

     In response to Judge Woodroof's sentence, Courtney Andrews told reporters that she was "livid" and afraid for her family. The rape victim's father said this: "We thought justice was finally being served, and although the system was very slow, it was not totally broken. We were forced to hear a judge hand down a light sentence."

     In April 2017, a Limestone County prosecutor charged Austin Clem with first-degree theft by deception. The convicted rapist had been accused in 2016 of taking money to repair vehicles and not doing the work. Clem was charged because he had no intention of fixing the cars and refused to return the money. He also violated his probation in the rape case.

     A Limestone County judge, in December 2017, revoked Clem's probation and sent him to prison to serve his 35 year rape sentence.

Peter Keller: The Survivalist Who Didn't Survive

     On Sunday morning, April 22, 2012, firefighters responded to a house fire in North Bend, Washington, a Cascade foothills town 30 miles east of Seattle. When they tried to enter the dwelling through the front door, firefighters realized someone had blocked the entrance from the inside with a couch and an easy chair.

     Once the fire had been extinguished, firefighters discovered the bodies of 18-year-old Kaylene Keller and her mother Lynnettee who was 41. The victims were in their bedrooms, and both of them had been shot in the head at close range with .22-caliber bullets. Arson investigators found seven empty gasoline cans at the site. (The fire had been started by placing a skillet on the stove containing a plastic container of gasoline, then turning on the burner.)

     Peter A. Keller, the 41-year-old husband and father of the victims, was nowhere to be found. He and his wife had been married 21 years, and for the last seven years lived in the rented house in this unincorporated community. Keller's red Toyota pickup truck was missing, and a week earlier, he had withdrawn $6,200 from a local bank. Friends of the family told the police that Keller, a reclusive man interested in guns, body armor, and trains, was an avid outdoorsman who spent weekends hiking on the logging trails in the rugged Cascade Mountain foothills. Over the past eight years, Keller, fearing that the end of the world was near, had been building and stockpiling a wilderness fortress/hideout dug into the side of a hill. The cave-like structure he called Camp Keller, featured three levels, a wood stove, a sophisticated ventilation system, a generator, and several hidden entrances and exits. Although Keller had no history of violence, he owned several guns, and a large supply of ammunition.

     On April 25, 2012, the King County prosecutor charged Peter Keller with two counts of first-degree murder, and one count of arson.

     The police searching for Keller caught a break on Friday, April 27 when a tipster gave them the location of Keller's pickup abandoned on a Rattlesnake Ridge trailhead. From this location, expert trackers picked up Keller's trail of deep foot impressions made by someone carrying a heavy backpack. The boot marks led them to Keller's wilderness refuge.

     At five o'clock Saturday evening, April 28, 2012, a group of Seattle police officers and a 30-member SWAT team surrounded the bunker. They figured Keller was inside because they could smell wood smoke coming from his stove. The fugitive didn't respond when ordered out of the structure. Rather than enter a possibly booby-trapped structure to encounter a heavily armed inhabitant, the police pumped teargas into the fort, then waited.

     Following a 23-hour standoff, the officers, equipped with explosive devices, blew the top off Keller's bunker, and found him dead inside. He had shot himself in the mouth with a Glock pistol. Among the stockpiled provisions, the police recovered 13 rifles and handguns.

     Keller's wife Lynnette, disabled several years ago from a workplace accident, had been receiving a monthly state disability check. Because her husband had been so controlling and tight with money, she often had to borrow money from relatives. Kaylene Keller had been a student at Bellevue Community College.           

California's Anti-Affluenza Defense Bill

     [In December 2013], after a 16-year-old boy said to be suffering from "affluenza" was sentenced to rehabilitation instead of prison for killing four people and maiming two others in a drunk-driving crash, California Assemblyman Mike Gatto introduced a bill that would prohibit attorneys from invoking "affluenza" as a defense at trial or as a mitigating factor for sentencing.

     Gatto knows there is no universally agreed upon definitions for the term. [There is also no case law that establishes affluenza as a criminal defense.] In the bill, Gatto defines affluenza as "the notion that an affluent or overly permissive upbringing prevents a defendant from fully understanding the consequences of criminal actions." [What is and what is not a viable criminal defense should be left to the courts to hammer out. This politically feel-good legislation fixes a problem that doesn't exist, and usurps the discretion of judges and juries. The proposed bill was voted down in 2017.]

Robin Abcarian, the Los Angeles Times, January 15, 2014