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Friday, July 31, 2020

College Enrollment Decline Pre-COVID-19

     The fall 2019 postsecondary enrollment numbers [revealed] that overall, enrollments decreased by 1.3 percent, a drop of more that 231,000 students from 2018. [That's equivalent to four of the country's largest universities.]...

     For the first time this decade, the nation's fall semester's enrollments dipped below 18 million, a decline of more than 2 million students since its peak in 201l...

     If anyone needed further proof that higher education continues to battle strong headwinds, these enrollment numbers should suffice. A shrinking population of high school graduates combined with a spate of institutional scandals, widespread anxiety about the costs of college and mountains of student debt, increasing skepticism about the value and necessity of college, growing concerns about the fairness of the admissions process, and the widening partisan divide between Republicans and Democrats over whether colleges are politically biased, has taken a toll on American's perceptions--and their participation--in college.

Michael T. Nietzel, "College Enrollment Declines Again," NPR, December 16, 2019

Abolish the Police Movement is Not New

     At worst, the politically radical professor is someone who poisons the minds of vulnerable, easily influenced college students. At best, they waste their students' tuition money with their grandstanding. Take University of California at Davis professor and poet Joshua Clover. Dr. Clover, an academic in the oddly combined disciplines of political theory, political economy, poetry, poetics, and Marxism, has called attention to himself by making outlandish statements regarding his hatred of police officers.

     In November 2014, after officer Darren Wilson was cleared of wrongdoing in the police-involved shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Clover tweeted, "I am thankful that every living cop will one day be dead, some by their own hand, some by others, too many of old age." A month later, the professor was at it again with this tweet: "I mean, it's easier to shoot cops when their backs are turned, no?"

     In a January 2016 interview in The California Aggie, Professor Clover said, "People think that cops need to be reformed. They need to be killed. I think we can all agree that the most effective way to end any violence against officers is the complete and immediate abolition of the police."

Crimes Against Language

The language of sociology is made up of vague, often meaningless jargon designed to dull the senses and distort reality. This is particularly true when criminologists talk about crime and criminal justice. The destroyers of precise, vivid English have given us mindless phrases such as "anti-social behavior," "juvenile delinquent," "root causes," and "reform school."  In the vocabulary of sociology, depraved behavior became "deviant behavior." The concept of "root causes" makes society, not the individual, responsible for horrific criminal acts. Sociologists are responsible for the concept of "social justice," code word for collective guilt. In the world of sociology, personal responsibility for one's behavior simply does not exist. 

Before You Write, Have Something to Write About

When young people ask me how to get started writing, I tell them the best way would be go somewhere and do something, experience something, and then write about it. That's how Ernest Hemingway got The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms.

Richard Rhodes, How to Write, 1995

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Heroin Kills

     When someone takes heroin there is an immediate rush. Then the body feels an extreme form of relaxation and a decreased sense of pain. What's happening inside the body is the heroin is turning into morphine. Morphine has a chemical structure similar to endorphins--the chemicals your brain makes when you feel stressed out or in pain. Endorphins inhibit your neurons from firing, so they halt pain and create a good feeling.

     Most people die from heroin overdoses when their bodies forget to breathe. A heroin overdose can also cause your blood pressure to dip significantly and cause your heart to fail. Intravenous heroin users are 300 times more likely to die from infectious endocarditis, an infection on the surface of the heart.

     Heroin use can also cause an arrhythmia--a problem with the rate or rhythm of the heartbeat. During an arrhythmia, the heart may not be able to pump enough blood to the body, and lack of blood flow affects your brain, heart and other organs. Heroin use can also cause pulmonary edema. That's when the heart can't pump blood to the body well. The blood can back up into your veins, taking that blood through your lungs and to the left side of the heart.

     Heroin can also come with other toxic contaminants that can harm a user--although deaths from such instances, while not unheard of, are thought to be rare. [This form of heroin death is now common.]

Jen Christensen, "How Heroin Kills You," CNN February 4, 2014 

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

How To Keep a Government Job

If I were handing out career advice I'd say this: If you want a government job where you can demonstrate courage, go into the military or law enforcement. If you are not the courageous type, seek an ordinary governmental position. The goal of the ordinary civilian government employee is to not make waves. Whistleblowers are not welcome and are treated brutally. In government work, it's all about group think, obedience, and when confronted with governmental wrongdoing, look the other way. 

Jack Henry Abbott's "In The Belly of the Beast"

     My first acquaintance with punitive longterm solitary confinement had a more adverse and profound spiritual effect on me than anything else in my childhood. [Abbott was a victim of child abuse.]

     I suffered from claustrophobia for years when I first went to prison. I never knew any form of suffering more horrible in my life.

     The air in your cell vanishes. You are smothering. Your eyes bulge out; you clutch at your throat; you scream like a banshee. Your arms flail the air in your cell. You reel about the cell, falling.

     Then you suffer cramps. The walls press you from all directions with an invisible force. You struggle to push it back. The oxygen makes you giddy with anxiety. You become hollow and empty. There is a vacuum in the pit of your stomach. You retch.

     You are dying. Dying a hard death. One that lingers and toys with you.

     The faces of the guards, angry, are at the gate of your cell. The gate slides open. The guards attack you. On top of that, the guards come into your cell and beat you to the floor.

Jack Henry Abbott (1944-2002), In The Belly of The Beast, 1982

[In January 1981, Abbott, who had spent most of his life behind bars as a violent criminal, was released on parole from a prison in Utah. Novelist Norman Mailer and other bleeding-heart types who liked Abbott's book, were instrumental in his release. Six months after walking out of prison, Abbott stabbed a 22-year-old waiter to death outside a New York City restaurant. The murder occurred after an argument over Abbott's use of the restaurant's employee-only restroom. Norman Mailer, who had once stabbed his wife, not only liked Abbott because he could write, the novelist may had admired him for his violence. Parole boards, when considering who to release and who not to, should not listen to novelists.] 

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Children's Book Writers Draw On Their Childhoods

To write for children involves a close affinity with one's own childhood. If you have this, it follows that you will have that same affinity for childhood in general.

Irene Hunt in Pauses, edited by Lee Bennett Hopkins, 1995

Monday, July 27, 2020

The Tomeikia Johnson Murder Case

     Off-duty California Highway Patrol Officer Tomeikia Johnson and her husband Marcus Lemons started arguing while having drinks on February 21, 2009 at the T.G.I. Friday bar in Compton, California. At 11PM, after the 32-year-old cop paid the bill, she and Lemons, a barber and locally known amateur bowler, left the restaurant with the CHP officer behind the wheel. About an hour later, Johnson pulled up to her parents' Compton home with her husband's dead body in the BMW. Lemons had been shot point-blank in the head with his wife's handgun. Johnson's mother called 911.

     Pending the results of the homicide investigation conducted by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Office, the CHP re-assigned Johnson to desk duty. She told investigators that she and her husband, after they left the bar, continued to fight. When she pulled the car off the road, he became physical. As they struggled for control of the gun, it went off and killed him. According to her account of the shooting, she was defending herself against an abusive husband.

     Detectives looking into the shooting believed that Johnson had pulled the car off the road, reached into her purse, took out her gun, and shot Lemons in the head. The Los Angeles County deputy district attorney handling the case believed that Johnson had murdered her husband. In January 2011, sheriff's deputies arrested Tomeikia Johnson on the charge of first-degree murder as she sat at her CHP desk. (From the beginning, the CHP had cooperated with the investigation.) Initially held in the county jail on $2 million bond, Johnson made her bail and was released.

     In January 2012, with the defendant's family seated on one side of the courtroom, and her dead husband's relatives gathered in the other half of the gallery, the Johnson trial got underway in downtown Los Angeles. In her opening statement to the jury, Deputy District Attorney Natalie Adomian laid out the prosecution's theory of the shooting. According to the prosecutor, after Johnson pulled the BMW off the road, she pulled out her gun, pressed the muzzle against his head, and pulled the trigger.

     Over the next several days, Adomian, to support the prosecution's assertion that the killing had been intentional, put a blood spatter interpretation analyst as well as a gunshot residue expert on the stand. The experts testified that the pattern and location of the blood and powder staining did not support the defendant's account of the shooting. The forensic scientists were followed by a series of witnesses who portrayed the defendant as having an aggressive personality and a drinking problem. These witnesses characterized Marcus Lemons as a peaceful, nonviolent husband who had taken a lot of abuse from his wife. Since Johnson hadn't confessed, and there were no eyewitnesses to the shooting, the prosecution's case was entirely circumstantial.

     To establish that his client had been an abused wife, and that the shooting had occurred during a life and death struggle for the gun, attorney Darryl Stallworth put the defendant on the stand realizing that the outcome of the case depended upon Tomeikia Johnson's credibility. Stallworth, to make the case for his client's innocence, had to put Marcus Lemons on trial. He had to attack a dead man, always a risky move in a murder trial.

     According to the defendant, a week before her husband died while trying to kill her, he had given her reason to fear for her life. They had gotten into an argument while driving back to Los Angeles from a bowling tournament in Las Vegas. She told him to stop the car, and when he pulled off the road, she ran to a nearby truck stop and called 911 and reported that her husband had gotten possession of her gun and wanted to kill her. (No charges were filed against Lemons.) Johnson also testified that in 2008, Lemons had attacked her in a Las Vegas hotel room, injuring her neck. No charges were filed in that case either.

     After giving testimony intended to establish Marcus Lemons as the abuser in the marriage, Johnson provided her account of how he had died: After leaving the T.G.I. Friday bar in Compton, she and Lemons continued to argue. He became so angry he reached over and started choking her, forcing her to pull off the highway. He grabbed the keys out of the ignition and told her to walk home. She climbed out of the BMW and started running. Worried that he would take the gun out of her purse (left behind in the car) and shoot her, she returned to the vehicle. As she and her husband reached for the gun, it fell to the ground. When she picked it up, the pistol went off, killing him.

     "Did you want to fire that weapon?" asked the attorney.


     "Did you want to kill your husband?"

      "No," the defendant replied.

     The defense rested. Following the closing arguments and the judge's legal instructions, the case went to the jury. If jurors believed Johnson's account of the shooting, they would acquit her. If not, she would not be walking out of the courthouse a free person.

     On January 23, 2012, the jury, after deliberating slightly more than a day, found Tomeikia Johnson guilty of first-degree murder. She fainted, and paramedics rushed to the defense table and wheeled her out of the courtroom on a gurney.

     At Johnson's March 9, 2012 sentencing hearing before Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Robert Perry, her attorney asked the judge to reduce the murder charge to manslaughter. Judge Perry denied the request and sentenced Johnson to 50 years to life. Apparently the judge didn't buy her story either. As Johnson wept, her mother yelled "I love you Tomiekia!" This set off a raucous back and forth in the gallery between the opposing families.

Human Diversity

Even people in the same family are diverse. They don't look the same, think the same, behave the same, or believe in the same things. Family members argue a lot, fight among themselves, and once in a while even kill each other. So it shouldn't be surprising that religious and ethnic groups, as well as nation states, go to war with each other. Maybe the world would be a safer place if the family of man wasn't so diverse.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Should Rutgers University Throw Out Standard Grammar or Professor Rebecca Walkowitz?

     The English Department at Rutgers University recently announced a list of "anti-racist" directives and initiatives for the upcoming fall and spring semesters, including an effort to deemphasize traditional grammar rules.

     The initiatives were spelled out by Rebecca Walkowitz, the English Department chair and sent to faculty, staff and students in an email...

     Titled "Department Actions in Solidarity with Black Lives Matter," the email states that the ongoing and future initiates that the English Department has planned are a "way to contribute to the eradication of systemic inequities facing black, indigenous, and people of color."

     One of the initiatives is described as "incorporating 'critical grammar' into our pedagogy."

     It is listed as one of the efforts for Rutgers' Graduate Writing Program, which "serves graduate students across the Rutgers community. The GWP's mission is to support graduate students of all disciplines in their current and future writing goals, from coursework papers to scholarly articles and dissertations." [So, this is who we can blame for all of that unreadable, jargon-laced academic babbling produced by dissertation writers.]

     Under a so-called critical grammar pedagogy, "This approach challenges the familiar dogma that writing instruction should limit emphasis on grammar/sentence-level issues so as to not put students from multilingual, non-standard 'academic' English backgrounds at a disadvantage," the email states. "Instead, it encourages students to develop a critical awareness of the variety of choices available to them with regard to micro-level issues in order to empower them and equip them to push against biases based on "written accents." [Good heavens, has it come to this?]

Alex Frank, "Rutgers English Department to Deemphasize Traditional Grammar 'In Solidarity With Black Lives Matter' " The College Fix, July 20, 2020

Winston Churchill on Who's a Prostitute

Sir Winston Churchill supposedly asked Lady Astor whether she would sleep with him for five million pounds. She said she supposed she would. Then he asked whether she would sleep with him for only five pounds. She answered,"What do you think I am?" His response was, "We've already established that; we're merely haggling over price."

Marcus Felson, Crime and Everyday Life, Second Edition, 1998 

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Jurors And The Meaning of "Aggravating" and "Mitigating"

     Studies and anecdotal evidence confirm that jurors routinely get confused by legalese. The price of confusion is especially high when the death penalty is at stake. Imagine twelve perfectly nice people who would rather be home suddenly forced to decide a matter of life and death. What helpful advice do they receive? That in deciding whether to impose the death penalty they must consider aggravating and mitigating circumstances.

     The problem is that the average layman hasn't a clue what the terms "aggravating" and "mitigating" mean in the legal context. An aggravating factor is one that heightens the seriousness of the defendant's crime; for example a long history of violent crime. At best, most jurors will understand the word "aggravating" in its colloquial sense as "annoying."Murderers do tend to be pretty annoying--does that mean they should all get the death penalty?

     Mitigating factors are those that tend to lessen the defendant's guilt, such as certain mental conditions. The Supreme Court of Georgia confidently asserted that mitigation "is a word of common meaning and usage" and therefore need not be explained to the jury. Try to remember the last time you heard the word "mitigation" used in everyday conversation.

Adam Freedman, Party of the First Part, 2007

Friday, July 24, 2020

Canada's "Black Widow"

     In 1988, in Ontario, Canada, 52-year-old Melissa Ann Shepard, married to a man named Russell Shepard, met Gordon Stewart, a factory worker with two children whose wife had passed away. They had an affair after which Melissa divorced Mr. Shepard, and became Mrs. Stewart.

     On April 22, 1991, after drugging Gordon Stewart with benzodiazepine (valium and restoril), Melissa drove him to a remote stretch of highway near the Halifax airport, pulled his body out of the car, and ran over him twice. (Mr. Stewart was probably dead from the lethal dose of drugs before she dumped him onto the road.) Three hours later, Melissa reported the incident to the police, claiming she had killed her husband while he was attempting to rape her.

     Melissa's account of her second husband's death, in the context of an attempted rape, made no sense. Moreover, Mr. Stewart, before his death, had written a letter in which he chronicled how Melissa had cheated on him, repeatedly lied, and drained his bank account. The authorities also found traces of the deadly drug in the victim's system.

     In the spring of 1992, a jury in Kingston, Ontario found Melissa guilty of manslaughter. The judge sentenced her to six years in prison. While incarcerated, Melissa formed a support group for wives who had been abused by their husbands. After serving just two years of the manslaughter sentence, the homicidal sociopath became a nationally known spokesperson for the battered wife syndrome.

     In April 2001, while looking for a husband to kill at a Christian retreat in Ontario, Melissa Stewart met 83-year-old Robert Edmund Friedrich. The next day, the 66-year-old "black widow" sent him a letter in which she wrote: "God wants us to be married." Within days of that letter, the couple tied the knot.

     When Mr. Friedrich died of cardiac arrest one year after marrying Melissa, she emptied his bank account of $400,000, and continued receiving his social security checks. The happy widow arranged to have Mr. Friedrich hastily cremated before his body could be autopsied. Because of his age, and the quick cremation, notwithstanding some suspicion of foul play, Melissa was not charged in connection with the old man's death.

     In March 2004, about two years after Mr. Friedrich's passing, Melissa hooked up with a Florida man through an Internet dating site. A few days after the online meeting, she flew to 73-year-old Alexander Strategos' home in Pinellas Park. The next day, the Canadian moved into the recently divorced man's house. Not long after that, they were married.

     During the next eight months, Mr. Strategos, feeling weak, kept falling and hitting his head, injuries that required eight hospitalizations. His doctors couldn't figure out what was ailing him. During his residence at a rest home, just before he died in January 2005, Mr. Strategos signed over power of attorney to his wife.

     Mr. Strategos' son became suspicious when he discovered, in his father's medical papers, that he had died with the unprescribed drug benzodiazepine in his system. Melissa had also withdrawn $20,000 from her deceased husband's bank account. On January 6, 2005, police arrested her on charges of grand theft and forgery. She pleaded guilty to these offenses, and was sentenced to five years in prison. On April 4, 2009, upon her release from custody, the authorities deported her back to Canada. Melissa never faced charges in connection with the mysterious death of Alexander Strategos.

     On September 28, 2012, Melissa, now 77, married Fred Weeks, a 75-year-old from New Glasgow, New Brunswick. While honeymooning a few days later on Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, Mr. Weeks fell ill at their bed and breakfast and had to be hospitalized. After nurses noticed signs that the patient had been injected with something, hospital personnel alerted the police. On October 1, 2012, Fred Weeks left the hospital a weaker but wiser man.

     The day after her husband walked out of the hospital, the police arrested Melissa on the charge of administering a noxious substance. No doubt her criminal record, and the fates of her former husbands influenced the decision to take her into custody. The judge, at her October 5, 2012 bail hearing, denied her bond.

     On June 11, 2013, Melissa pleaded guilty to administering a noxious drug. The judge sentenced the 78-year-old woman to three and a half years in prison. The Crown, without success, had argued that the defendant's age should not be a factor in her sentencing.

     On December 16, 2014, a judge in Nova Scotia denied the black widow's request for parole. The judge ruled that Melissa Friedrich had to serve her entire sentence which meant she would remain behind bars until January 2017.

     Notwithstanding the judges' insistence that Friedrich serve her full sentence, correction authorities in Nova Scotia released her back into society on March 18, 2016. She had been behind bars less than three years.

     In speaking to reporters, the Black Widow's attorney said this about his client: "I never really thought she was trying to kill anyone. If you look at her past, she really wanted to influence them [her poisoned husbands] and have them change their insurance and wills." 

Charles Bukowski on Contemporary Fiction

I was a young man, starving and drinking and trying to be a writer. I did most of my reading at the downtown L.A. Public Library, and nothing I read related to me or to the streets or to the people about me. It seemed as if everybody was playing word-tricks, that those who said almost nothing at all were considered excellent writers. Their writing was an admixture of subtlety, craft and form, and it was read and it was taught and it was ingested and it was passed on. It was a comfortable contrivance, a very slick and careful Word-Culture. One had to go back the pre-Revolution writers of Russia to find any gamble, any passion. There were exceptions but those exceptions were so few that reading them was quickly done, and you were left staring at rows and rows of exceedingly dull books. With centuries to look back on, with all their advantages, the moderns just weren't very good.

Preface to John Fante's novel, Ask The Dust, 1979 reprint of the 1939 classic.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Whodunits and Thrillers

The whodunit and the thriller are in their most typical manifestations deeply conventional and ideologically conservative literary forms, in which good triumphs over evil, law over anarchy, truth over lies.

David Lodge, The Practice of Writing, 1996

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Journalists Have No Business Telling Us What We Can't Say or Believe

Recently, an award winning journalist for a major newspaper declared that not all issues are debatable, that there isn't always two sides to a story, that certain points of view are indisputable fact and that disagreement on such matters should be banned. Moreover, what subjects can be discussed and debated should be determined by journalists and a certain group of select opinion makers. I don't know what you'd call this, but it certainly isn't objective, fact based journalism. And it definitely is not free speech. For example, this same "journalist" asserts that it is an indisputable fact that the police are "systematically" killing back people. I've been studying and writing about police-involved shootings for ten years, and it is my informed opinion that there is no evidence that remotely suggests that the police set out to kill anyone. Police officers routinely encounter people who are dangerous or appear dangerous, and they do their best to respond appropriately, regardless of race. Of course there are exceptions to this, but those incidents are rare. The police are not serial killers, and suggesting otherwise is reckless. Journalists should be guided by what they have learned through investigation, not simply by what they believe.

Janet Malcom On Journalists

The dominant and most deep-dyed trait of the journalist is his timorousness [timidity]. Where the novelist fearlessly plunges into the water of self-exposure, the journalist stands trembling on the shore in his beach robe. Not for him the strenuous  athleticism--which is the novelist's daily task--of laying out his deepest griefs and shames before the world. The journalist confines himself to the clean, gentlemanly work of exposing the griefs and shames of others.

Janet Malcom

The Humiliating Life Of The Writer

Humiliation is not, of course, unique to writers. However, the world of letters does seem to offer a near-perfect microclimate for embarrassment and shame. There is something about the conjunction of high-mindedness and low income that is inherently comic; something about the presentation of deeply private thoughts--carefully worked and honed into art over the years--to a public audience of strangers, that strays perilously close to tragedy. It is entirely possible, I believe, to reverse Auden's dictum that "art is born out of humiliation."

Robin Robertson, editor, Mortification: Writers' Stories of Their Public Shame, 2004

Monday, July 20, 2020

Conjugal Visits

     Conjugal visits, a concept that started at the Mississippi State Penitentiary as a prisoner-control practice [in the 1950s], will soon be over. [Prison officials] plan to end the program on February 1, 2014, citing budgetary reasons and "the number of babies being born possibly as a result." In Mississippi, where more than 22,000 prisoners are incarcerated--the highest rate in the nation--155 inmates participated last year.

     In the 1970s, new prisons often included special housing for what had come to be called extended family visits. But by 1993, only 17 states allowed conjugal visits. Mississippi is one of just five that have active programs. In California and New York, they are called family visits and are designed to help keep families together in an environment that approximates home. Some research shows that they can help prisoners better integrate back into the mainstream after their release. 

     Visits in those states, and in Washington and New Mexico, can last 24 hours to three days. They are spent in small apartments or trailers, often with children and grandparents, largely left alone by prison guards. Visitors bring their own food and sometimes have a barbecue.

     In New York, about 8,000 family visits were arranged last year, a figure that corrections officials say has declined. Of those, 48 percent were with spouses. The rest were with family members such as children or parents.

     [By 2020, only four states, California, Connecticut, New York, and Washington allow conjugal visits.]

Kim Severson, "As Conjugal Visits Fade, A Lifeline to Inmates' Spouses is Lost," The New York Times, January 12, 2014 

Saturday, July 18, 2020

Dr. Van H. Vu: Pain Killing Narcotic Overdoses

     Up until the late 1980s, prescriptions for narcotic painkillers were limited to cancer patients and people with other terminal illnesses. That changed when influential physicians, in medical journal articles, argued that it was inhumane to keep these narcotics from patients who simply needed relief from pain. As a result, the use of pain killing drugs quadrupled between 1999 and 2010. Currently, physicians write more than 300 million painkiller prescriptions a year with hydrocodone the most popular followed by morphine, codeine, OxyContin, and Xanax.

     In November 2012, reporters with the Los Angeles Times reviewed coroners' office records from four southern California counties (Los Angeles, Orange, Ventura, and San Diego) covering the period 2006 through 2011. The inquiry revealed that more people died from prescription drug overdoses than from heroin and cocaine overdoses. The journalists identified 3,733 overdose deaths from prescription drugs. In half of the cases, the deceased had a doctor's prescription for at least one of the drugs that contributed to the fatal overdose. The deaths frequently resulted from several drugs prescribed by more than one physician.

     The Los Angeles Times study revealed that a small group of doctors accounted for a disproportionate number of fatal overdoses. Seventy-one physicians had written prescriptions that contributed to 298 overdose deaths. Each of these medical practitioners had prescribed drugs to three or more patients who died.

     The ages of the 298 overdose victims ranged from 21 to 79. A majority of these patients had histories of mental illness or addiction, including previous overdoses or stints in drug rehabilitation centers. Many of these prescription drug users were middle-aged teachers, nurses, and police officers introduced to addictive painkillers through bad backs, sore knees, and other painful ailments.

     The 71 physicians associated with three or more fatal overdose cases were pain specialists, general practitioners, and psychiatrists who worked alone without the peer scrutiny provided by hospitals, group practices, and HMOs. Four of the doctors had been convicted of drug-related crimes, and a fifth was awaiting trial.

     One of the physicians in the group of doctors not charged with a crime was a 49-year-old pain specialist from Huntington Beach, California named Dr. Van H. Vu. The Vietnam native had 17 of his patients die as a result of prescription painkiller overdoses. Dr. Vu earned his undergraduate and medical degrees from the University of Washington, and served a residency in anesthesiology at the University of California. He was board-certified in anesthesiology and in pain medicine.

     Most of Dr. Vu's pain patients had been referred to him by other physicians who turned to him as a doctor of last resort for people who suffered chronic pain. Many of these patients came to the pain specialist already hooked on prescription narcotics. While 17 of his patients overdosed fatally, Dr. Vu pointed out that he had successfully treated thousands of patients with these drugs. As quoted in the Los Angeles Times, Dr. Vu said: "I am doing the best I can in this very difficult field. I consider myself to be one of the best. But we have limits....I am a physician. I feel terrible when someone loses their life. I'm the one who should be prolonging life, so I'm saddened by that."

     On March 14, 2014, members of the California Medical Board filed a 15-page complaint accusing Dr. Vu of negligently prescribing powerful narcotics to patients who overdosed on the medication. The medical authorities sought to suspend or revoke the doctor's medical license.

     In June 2015, Dr. Vu agreed not to contest the medical board's accusation. In return, the board allowed him to keep his license on the condition that he take classes in prescribing and record keeping. Dr. Vu also agreed to submit to an outside practice monitor for five years.

     While it may be unfair to compare Dr. Vu to pill-pushing quacks like the feel-good doctors who supplied Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson with their drugs, physicians who function principally as legal drug dealers should be prosecuted for homicide when their patients fatally overdose. From an investigative point of view, however, it's not always easy distinguishing between physicians dedicated to the relief of suffering and their drug-pushing counterparts.

     In a subsequent physician/pain killing drug case, Dr. Hsiu-Ying "Lisa" Tseng, in January 2016, was convicted of three counts of second-degree murder in connection with the deaths of three of her patients. This was the first time in the United States a physician was held culpable for murder for the over-prescription of pain killing drugs. The Los Angeles County judge sentenced Tseng to 30 years to life in prison.  

The Warning Shot: Reckless Endangerment or Self-Defense?

     On Saturday night, October 19, 2013, when questioned at her apartment complex in Woodbridge, Virginia, Lakisha Gaither told Prince William County police officers that she and her daughter had been set upon that night by a gang of boys. As Gaither and Brianna, her 15-year-old daughter, walked to their apartment, ten boys approached them in the parking lot.

     According to the 35-year-old mother, one of the boys insulted and swore at them. Brianna, who was five-foot-nine and 160 pounds, did not back down. This led to an exchange of face-to-face insults. When the boy grabbed Brianna's shirt and started hitting her, Ms. Gaither unholstered her handgun and fired a shot into the air.

     The warning shot ended the parking lot confrontation.

     Police officers arrested Lakisha Gaither for the reckless use of a weapon, a misdemeanor offense. None of the boys were charged with a crime. The next day, Lakisha took Brianna to Fairfax, Virginia to stay with the girl's grandmother. Lakisha feared that the boys she had run off with the gunshot might retaliate.

     In speaking to a local reporter, a Prince William County spokesperson said, "Ms. Gaither should have called the police instead of taking matters into her own hands. She may have been trying to break up the fight, but that's not the proper course of action to take."

     The gun-owning mother told the same reporter that, "I didn't feel like I was wrong. I wanted to protect my child. I just wanted this group of guys to disperse. I didn't know what they were going to do. I wanted him to stop hitting my child."

     A week after the confrontation and warning shot, a Prince William County Police Department spokesperson issued a modified account of the incident. According to investigators, Brianna and the boy in question had been involved in an ongoing dispute over rumors that had been spread about her. That night, Gaither and her daughter had sought out the boy near his home where the fight and warning shot took place. The boy claimed that Brianna had thrown the first punch.

     Most people believe that citizens have the right to defend themselves when threatened with bodily harm. There is something profoundly satisfying about dispersing overwhelming force with a shot into the air. However, if the person claiming self-defense instigated the confrontation, there is a lot less sympathy for the shooter.

     The day after being taken to her grandmother's house in Fairfax, Brianna went missing. Lakisha filed a missing persons report with the police. "I don't know where she is," said the mother. "I don't know if she's okay. I don't know if she's hurt. There's been no action on her Facebook."

    Four days later, on October 24, 2013, Brianna returned home. Her mother, without revealing where her daughter had been, used Facebook to thank the people who had been looking for her.

Reader's Digest

According to the writer Jefferson D. Bates, "If you want to find examples of clear, tightly edited prose, you'll look a long way to hunt down anything better than you can encounter in any issue of the much maligned Reader's Digest." The people who hold this popular, mainstream publication in such low esteem are the intellectual elite made up of academics and the literary and journalistic intelligentsia. These smug, self-righteous blowhards detest anything that smacks of God and country. And they ridicule anyone professing so-called "middle class values." Because the Reader's Digest carries stories featuring patriotism and faith, it appeals to middle class, "middle-brow" readers who also demand writing that is straightforward, unpretentious, entertaining, informative and accessible.  The high-brows who snicker at the Digest, also turn their noses up at genre fiction, instead preferring "literary" novels, a brand of fiction that to the general public is essentially unreadable. None of this would matter except for the fact that these pretentious show-offs have taken over the university, literary journals, and perhaps even worse, schools of journalism. To be sure, no professor would be caught dead with a Reader's Digest in his Volvo.

Friday, July 17, 2020

The Era of the Talking Head

If you watch cable news it may have dawned on you that just because an expert talks on and on about a subject doesn't mean that person knows what he's talking about. It's too bad that talking doesn't require the energy of sprinting. The silence would be golden. 

Thursday, July 16, 2020

The "No Good Deed" Drowning Case

     The Jesus Christ Light of Sky Church performed baptisms several times each year along the Pacific coast in Santa Barbara County, California. During a baptism Sunday morning, March 30, 2014, one of the participants got swept out to sea and drowned.

     The pastor, Mauro Cervantes, told a television reporter that his cousin, Benito Flores, was helping him baptize a man when a rogue wave pulled him out into the ocean. Cervantes said he tried to grab his cousin, but a second wave took him out to sea. Flores was dragged out with two other people just before ten in the morning at the Rancho Guadalupe Dunes Preserve. The other two church members survived the ordeal.

     The preserve, west of the town of Guadalupe, had sand dunes more that are 550 feet high, the tallest on the west coast. Officials had warned on its website that the surf can be "very dangerous."

Wednesday, July 15, 2020


     Tasers, which have been around since the 1970's, are handheld devices that deliver an electrical shock that temporarily stuns and disables suspects who resist authority or pose serious physical threats to arresting officers. The original five-watt stun gun, which produced a major jolt, was followed in 1994 by a seven-watt version called the Air-Taser, a product manufactured and sold by Taser International. In 1998, the company developed a higher-powered taser designed to stop the more combative, dangerous suspect likely to fight through the lighter applications. A year or so later, Taser International came out with the M 26, a 26-watt device that stunned subjects with 50,000 volts. The company began selling the X26 in 2003, a lighter, more portable version of the M 26.

     While representatives of Taser International insist that their nonlethal device is safe, critics of the stun gun, such as Amnesty International, claim that tasers have killed hundreds of people. In cases where citizens have died after being shocked by the police, forensic pathologists have found preexisting illnesses or the presence of drugs and other toxic substances. The safety debate continues in forensic medicine and in the courts. But among those who recognize and appreciate that tasers provide a nonlethal  alternative to billy clubs and guns, there is concern over the  indiscriminate use of the device on people whose behavior doesn't call for such force. Over the past few years, police officers have tasered (or tased) children as young as six years of age; people who were mentally ill or physically disabled; and elderly women. Police officers have also stunned peaceful protestors and citizens stopped for traffic violations and other minor offenses whose actions did not justify the unpleasant experience of being jolted by 50,000 volts.

     At present, officers in more than 11,000 police agencies carry taser guns. Although there is no governmental agency that keeps a record of the frequency and consequences of taser use, groups like Amnesty International assert that the frequency of taser use in on the rise. The rise in Taser use, at least in part, may be a result of the increased use of drugs that cause violent behavior, and the fact more people are resisting arrest. Although there is no hard evidence to support this, Taser use probably has reduced the number of police-involved shootings.

The Burp Heard Across the Classroom

     In Albuquerque, New Mexico, when a 13-year-old student "burped audibly" in physical education class, the PE teacher called a school "resource officer" to deal with the disruption. The resource officer summoned a city police officer who came to the school, handcuffed the boy, and hauled him off to a juvenile detention center.

     The burping boy, while not charged with a crime, was suspended for the rest of the school year. (This took place in December 2011.) While in custody, the boy's captors gave him a risk assessment test. On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being extremely dangerous, the boy scored a 2. My guess is that if Mr. Rogers had taken this test, he would have scored a 2 as well. Perhaps the Dalai Lama would have pulled a 1. The kid's parents filed a lawsuit.

Why Smart People Do Stupid Things

Stupid behavior is less the product of I.Q. and more the result of lust, anger, greed and/or vanity. Mix in drugs and alcohol and things can really get stupid. Perhaps this is why even the smartest people do some of the dumbest things.

Political Movements

In politics and public policy, many so-called "movements" start out with good intentions and noble ideas, are taken over by radicals and zealots, then devolve into corrupt organizations that are all about money and power. Beware of the movement.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

The Hyphernkemberly Dorvilier Murder Case

     At eleven at night on January 16, 2015 in Pemberton Township, a community thirty miles east of Philadelphia in southern New Jersey, several people saw a young woman get out of a car she had parked along Simontown Road. They noticed that she carried something in her arms, a bundle she laid down in the middle of the street. When the woman set fire to the bundle, several witnesses asked her what she was doing. The woman replied calmly that she was burning dog waste.

     To their horror, these witnesses heard the cry of a baby coming from the little fire in the street. People rushed to douse the flames while others called 911 and prevented the woman from driving off in her car.

     Paramedics rushed the baby, still alive, to Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia. From there the newly born infant with its umbilical cord and placenta still attached was flown to St. Christopher's Hospital for Children. The baby girl died sometime after midnight. The tiny victim, secretly born on the day of her death, had been sprayed with WD-40 and set ablaze.

     The baby's mother, 22-year-old Hyphernkemberly Dorvilier, lived about a mile from where she set her infant on fire. After receiving medical treatment, officers booked the suspect into the Burlington County Corrections and Work Release Center on the charge of murder. The judge set her bond at $500,000.

     In April 2016, Dorvilier pleaded guilty to aggravated manslaughter. At her sentencing hearing, she said, "I was on a downward spiral. I believe I hit rock bottom. I apologize first and foremost for not giving my daughter, Angelica, the life she deserved."

     The judge sentenced Dorvilier to 30 years in prison.

The Rise of Shoplifting

     Shoplifting came of age in America in 1995, when the FBI reported that it had jumped 93 percent in the previous five years and was "the nation's fasted-growing form of larceny." The crime was part of President Johnson's Commission on Law Enforcement; his "Special Message to Congress on Crime and Law Enforcement in the U. S." It marked the first time a president ever mentioned shoplifting. The shoplifting spike also inspired the modern anti-shoplifting technology industry, which in the past half century claimed multibillion dollar profits.

Rachel Shteir, The Steal, 2011

Monday, July 13, 2020

Book Editors On Editing

   There was a time in book publishing when editors like Maxwell Perkins of Scribner and Sons played a hands-on role in getting a manuscript ready for publication. Today, editors still evaluate manuscripts and make suggestions, but get much less involved in shaping the book for publication.

A lot of writers think of book editors as failed novelists who take out their frustration on authors. This view is expressed in a quote by David A. Fryxell: "Most of them [editors] grew up wanting to be writers. Now they hold the power of professional life or death over people who are doing what they would probably still rather be doing--writing." I disagree. Literary editing is an art form in its own right, and great editors are talented people. A great editor can turn a good manuscript into an excellent book.

     What follows are what authors say about book editors and the editing process:

Editors in publishing houses can be perceived as basically performing three different roles, all of them simultaneously. First they must find and select the books the house is to publish. Second they edit. And third, they perform the function of representing the house to the author and the author to the house.
Alan D. Williams

Although they're skittish and sometimes blind to real talent, they [editors] are often ambitious idealists; they would like nothing better than to discover and publish a great book--or even a moderately good one.
John Gardner

Often the editing talent is not the writer's own. An outside eye and hand is usually essential.
Dr. Alice W. Flaherty

The successful editor is one who is constantly finding new writers, nurturing their talents, and publishing them with critical and financial success. The thrill of developing fresh writing makes the search worthwhile, even when the waiting and working becomes months, sometimes years of drudgery and frequent disappointment.
A Scott Berg

Master editors taught me how to break books down and put them back together. You learn values--the value of tension, of keeping tension on the page and how that's done, and you learn how to spot self-indulgence, how you don't need it. You learn to become very free and easy about moving things around, which a reader would never do. A reader sees a printed book and that's it. But when you see a manuscript as an editor, you say, well this is chapter twenty, but it should be chapter three.
E. L. Doctorow

Good editing is one of those laborious invisible jobs, like housekeeping, that are apparent only when they aren't done.
John Jerome

Readers give as much credit to an editor for the books they read as pitchers pay tribute to the horses whose hides encase baseballs.
John T. Winterich

You know I'm not the sort of editor who pesters authors [of children's books] and artists. I love creative people, and I never want to do anything to make life harder than it is for creative people.
Ursula Nordstrom

Nobody remotely interested in the role of editors or their relationship to writers should fail to read Editor to Author: The Letters of Maxwell Perkins, edited by John Hall Wheelock. With their warmth, eloquence, total empathy with authors, and gentle but keenly persuasive suggestions, these letters stand alone as lasting beacons to those who would follow.
Alan D. Williams

A good editor is a man who understands what you're talking and writing about and doesn't meddle too much. A good editor can put his finger on weakness...without trying to tell you how to repair it.
Irwin Shaw

The job of editor in a publishing house is the dullest, hardest, most exciting, exasperating and rewarding of perhaps any job in the world.
John Hall Wheelock

When I was an editor, nothing turned me off quicker than reading a presentation that stated the author's book was suitable for every man, woman, and child in the U.S.A., and therefore the book had a potential sale of more than 200 million.
Oscar Collier

Writers work under constant threat of public ridicule and rejection. Editors are protected by a shield of public anonymity
Ralph Keyes

Sunday, July 12, 2020

The Unraveling of Dr. Timothy Jorden

     Dr. Timothy Jorden, a 49-year-old trauma surgeon at the Erie County Medical Center in Buffalo, New York, lived in a suburban luxury home overlooking Lake Erie. After high school, a stint in the U.S. Army, and college, the clean-cut ex-military weapons specialist graduated from the University of Buffalo Medical School. In 2004, he was certified by the American Board of Surgery. His colleagues at the Erie County Medical Center considered Dr. Jorden a gifted surgeon who had saved several lives. Dr. Jorden epitomized achievement and success.

     Dr. Jorden's grip on reality and the good life began slipping away after his live-in girlfriend, 33-year-old Jacqueline Wisnieski, an administrative assistant at the hospital, moved out of his house in Lake View, New York. Believing that Dr. Jorden was having affairs with other women, Wisnieski broke off the relationship. The doctor refused to accept this new reality.

     Dr. Jorden, following the break-up, began stalking Wisnieski, and at one point, held her hostage at knife point in her home for a day and a half. (She apparently didn't report this assault and kidnapping to the police.) The obsessed and disturbed physician attached a GPS tracking device to Wisnieski's car to keep tabs on her. At this point, Wisnieski confided to another doctor that she feared for her life. (This was probably the reason she didn't notify the authorities. Who would believe this woman over the word of a successful surgeon?)

     By June 2012, Dr. Jorden, uncharacteristically unkempt, sporting a shaggy beard, and 75 pounds lighter, was showing physical signs that he was slipping into some kind of dementia. To his friends and fellow employees, he seemed depressed, preoccupied, and distracted. On Wednesday, June 13, 2012, the doctor arrived at work carrying a shotgun and a .357-Magnum revolver. He somehow lured Wisnieski into the hospital basement where, in the stairwell, he shot her five times at close range.

     After killing his ex-girlfriend, the deranged physician drove home, arriving at the Lake View house 30 minutes after the murder. Four minutes later, he came out of his house and entered a path that led into the woods behind the dwelling. (This was caught on his home video surveillance system.) It was here, in a patch of thick brush, that the surgeon put his .357-Magnum to his head and pulled the trigger.

     Back at the hospital, police combed the complex for the doctor, unaware that he lay dead in the woods overlooking Lake Erie. The next day, a SWAT team and a canine unit searched the doctor's property without finding his body. On Friday morning, June 15, 2012, police officers, acting on a tip from one of Dr. Jorden's neighbors who said he had heard a gun go off Wednesday morning behind the doctor's house, found his body. Dr. Jorden did not leave a suicide note.

     Dr. Jorden's acquaintances recalled how in the days preceding the murder, he had given away personal belongings to friends and family. On the day before he killed Jacqueline Wisnieski, Dr. Jorden withdrew $30,000 from his bank account.

     In cases where prominent, respected people shock the community by committing murder, the media focuses almost entirely on the killer. The reportage is usually laden with quotes from friends and colleagues who can't believe this person was capable of such an act. While the victim's friends and family were also wondering how this had happened, most of the media angst was about the loss of this special person to the community. The victim's story, as is often the case, is left untold. 

Saturday, July 11, 2020

Officer Shoots Arrestee Who Grabbed His Taser

     Late on the night of November 16, 2014, in Inverness, Florida, Citrus County Deputy Sheriff Jacob Chenoweth responded to a disturbance call in a trailer park involving a woman trying to set fire to a neighbor's truck. When Deputy Chenoweth arrived at the scene, the officer, with four years on the force, encountered 46-year-old Dawn Renee Cameron.

     Citrus County deputies had arrested Cameron five months earlier for violating her parole on a grand theft conviction. Cameron's arrest record also included charges of domestic violence, drug possession, and burglary.

     When officer Chenoweth informed Cameron that she was under arrest, she took a swing at him and missed. With the arrestee's arm wrapped around the deputy's neck, the officer used a leg sweep that dropped them both to the ground where they continued to struggle with Cameron reaching for the officer's firearm and taser.

     Before officer Chenoweth was able to place the resisting woman into handcuffs, she jumped to her feet, stood over him and yelled, "You done it now motherfucker! You're going to get it!" The threatened officer reached for his Taser and realized it wasn't in his possession. The arrestee had taken his stun gun and was pointed it at him. Officer Chenoweth responded by shooting Dawn Cameron three times. She was rushed to a local hospital where a few hours later, she died from her wounds.

     Pursuant to standard protocol, officer Jacob Chenoweth was placed on administrative leave pending the investigation of the fatal shooting by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

     Following the investigation of this police-involved shooting, a spokesperson for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement announced that officer Chenoweth had not only been in danger of serious bodily injury from the Taser, the arrestee could have disabled him and gained possession of his firearm. As a result, the investigating agency concluded that officer Chenoweth's use of deadly force was justified.

     The Citrus County District Attorney, based upon the Florida Department of Law Enforcement report, decided not to press criminal charges against the officer.

     As it often happens in police-involved shooting cases, Dawn Cameron's family filed a wrongful death suit against officer Chenoweth in federal court. In June 2018, the district judge for the Middle District of Florida issued a summary judgment in favor of the defendant officer. The federal judge found the shooting, on its face, an "objectively reasonable" use of deadly force. 

Murder Cities

 Since 1957, 40,000 people have been the victims of criminal homicide in the city of Chicago. This figure does not include criminal homicides that were never reported. In the past few years the annual number of criminal homicides in Chicago dropped. Recently, however, violent death in Chicago has been on the increase. As long as big city politicians continue to not support their own police departments, violent crime in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Cleveland, Atlanta, Seattle, and St. Louis will continue to increase, and significantly. Cities will not be safe places to live.

Criminal Gangs

According to the FBI, there are 33,000 violent street gangs, motorcycle gangs, and prison gangs active in the United States. No wonder we have so much crime in this country.

The Editorial We

Only kings, presidents, editors, and people with tapeworms have the right to use the editorial "we."

Mark Twain

Talented Neurotics

The good writing of any age has always been the product of someone's neurosis.

William Styron

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Serial Rape, Cover-Ups, And Passing The Trash

     On August 14, 2018, authorities released a historic 900-page grand jury report involving 70 years of child molestation by 300 priests in six Pennsylvania dioceses. According to the grand jury investigation, the case involves more than 1,000 victims. (A vast majority of these church pedophiles cannot be prosecuted because the cases are old and the suspects are protected by the statute of limitations.) The cases exposed by this grand jury report reflect the tip of the Catholic Church child molestation problem.

     An excerpt from the report: "Yet another priest finally decided to quit after years of child abuse complaints, but asked for, and received, a letter of reference for his next job--at Walt Disney World." 

Monday, July 6, 2020

August Vollmer: The Forgotten Father of Community Policing

     In the modern-day struggle between the opposing models of law enforcement--community-based policing in which officers interact with citizens as public servants versus militaristic policing comprised of cops who see themselves as crime fighters in a hostile environment--the concept of community policing has been losing out. The rise of police militarism parallels the escalating war on drugs aided by the growing fear of domestic terrorism. The emergence of shock-and-awe policing and zero-tolerance peace-keeping at the expense of police-community relations and the advancement of professionalized criminal investigation would have concerned August Vollmer, the now forgotten police administrator who envisioned an entirely different future for American law enforcement.

     In 1905, the citizens of Berkeley, California banded together to rid themselves of the prostitutes, gambling houses, and opium dens operating openly in their town. The man they elected to do the job was a 29-year-old uneducated mail carrier who promised to clean things up. Reform candidate August Vollmer kept his campaign promises, and as a result, rose from town marshal to chief of police, and, within a period of 16 years, became president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), and one of the most influential police administrators in the country.

     During his law enforcement career, Vollmer introduced advances in police training, established concepts of effective personnel deployment, developed methods of dealing with juvenile offenders, established one of the nation's first fingerprint bureaus, maintained and used crime statistics, and crusaded for the use of science in crime detection. Over the years, Vollmer hammered out a theory of police professionalism later adopted by J. Edgar Hoover when he became director of the FBI in 1924.

     Vollmer did not believe in capital punishment and became skeptical of J. Edgar Hoover's efforts to rid America of the "Red Menace" in the late 1940s and early 50s. He spoke out against the KKK at the peak of its power. After Pearl Harbor, he formed a committee to seek humane treatment for Japanese-Americans who were interred in prison camps. Vollmer also spoke out against the so-called "third-degree" as an interrogation technique.

     In 1919, Vollmer placed an ad in the school newspaper at the University of California soliciting student applicants for jobs as police officers. Over the years, hundreds of full-time college students applied for these positions. Vollmer's "college cops" included Walter Gordon, the department's first black officer, John Larson, the future inventor of the polygraph, and V.A. Leonard who became a well-known writer and criminal justice educator.

     Hundreds of Vollmer's proteges became police administrators like O.W. Wilson who became chief of the Chicago Police Department. Others became forensic scientists, lawyers, military leaders, and politicians. By the late 1940s, at least 25 police chiefs around the country had served under August Vollmer.

     In 1924, Vollmer took leave of the Berkeley Police Department to reorganize and head the Los Angeles Police Department. There he established hiring standards and set up a crime lab and a crime records bureau. He formed a vice squad, and created a bank robbery unit to combat the epidemic of bank hold-ups in the city. Notwithstanding his efforts to professionalize the Los Angeles Police Department, Vollmer was unable to eliminate the graft and political corruption that had become ingrained in the organization. After a year in Los Angeles where he had lost political support for his reform agenda, Vollmer resigned in defeat. He had learned that big city police departments, unlike law enforcement agencies in college towns like Berkeley, were almost impossible to control.

     Following his retirement from the Berkeley Police Department in 1932, Vollmer visited Scotland Yard, the Surete in France, and dozens of other European police departments. He wrote four books and continued to survey and reorganize troubled law enforcement agencies in the United States. He became a law enforcement professor at the universities of Chicago and California.

     In 1955, at the age of 79, Vollmer ended his life by shooting himself with his service revolver. Suffering from Parkinson's Disease and cancer, he didn't want to become a burden. His wife had predeceased him and they had no children. Before ending his life, he called the Berkeley Police Department to report his own suicide. He had willed his papers and extensive criminal justice library to the University of California at Berkeley. His archives are located at the university's Bancroft Library.

Sunday, July 5, 2020

What Happened to Lauren Spierer?

     In 2011, Lauren Spierer, a 20-year-old fashion merchandising major from Edgemont, New York, attended Indiana University at Bloomington. She resided in the Smallwood Apartment complex located in downtown Bloomington.

     Just before midnight on June 2, 2011, Spierer and a friend showed up at a party hosted by an Indiana student named Jay Rosenbaum. At 1:46 in the morning, Spierer left Rosenbaum's apartment with another student, Corey Rossman. A short time later, Rossman and Spierer were seen entering Kilroy's Sports Bar in downtown Bloomington. A surveillance camera, at 2:27 AM, caught Rossman and Spierer leaving the bar together.  She was visibly inebriated to the point of being severely incapacitated. (There is the possibility that Spierer, who suffered from an irregular heartbeat condition called Q T Syndrome, had been given Xanax or cocaine at Rosenbaum's party, or at the bar.)

     Shortly after entering the Smallwood Apartment complex with Rossman, the two students ran into Zachary Oakes, also a student at Indiana University. Oakes didn't like what he saw, and following an angry exchange of words between the two men, Oakes punched Rossman to the floor. Following the altercation, Rossman was seen carrying the incapacitated Spierer to his apartment building. (Rossman, when questioned by detectives, claimed he had no memory whatsoever of the night in question. He said he didn't recall his fight with Oakes.)

     Corey Rossman's roommate, Mike Beth, later told detectives that after Rossman arrived at the apartment with the girl that night, Beth helped Rossman to his bed. According to Beth, he next walked Spierer down the hall to Jay Rosenbaum's apartment, the site of that night's party.

     When questioned by investigators, Rosenbaum said he had non-student guests staying with him that weekend. He claimed to have offered to put Spierer up for the night on his couch. According to Rosenbaum, the girl refused his hospitality. At 4:30 AM, Rosenbaum said he stood on his balcony and watched Spierer begin the six-minute walk to her apartment at the Smallwood complex.

     Jesse Wolff, Lauren Spierer's boyfriend, told detectives that sometime that morning, he sent Spierer a text message. The reply to his message came from an employee of Kilroy's who said the girl had hours earlier left the bar without her cellphone. Wolff called 911 and reported her missing.

     Two years after the mysterious and suspicious disappearance of the University of Indiana student, detectives with the Bloomington Police Department were still investigating the case as a missing persons matter rather than a homicide. Rob and Charlene Spierer, the missing girl's parents, wanted the authorities to keep pressuring Jay Rosenbaum, Mike Beth, Corey Rossman, and Jesse Wolff--so-called persons of interest in the case--for more details regarding their activities that night. The parents also wanted the four students to stop "hiding behind their attorneys" and submit to polygraph tests.

     In speaking to a reporter with the Westchester, New York Journal-News, Rob Spierer said, "I feel if she [his daughter] never met Corey Rossman, she'd be alive today." (From this it is obvious that the missing girl's father thought she had been murdered and her body disposed of.) Later, Mr. Spierer said this to a reporter: "We still believe that [Lauren] may not have left Corey [Rossman's] and Mike [Beth's] or Jay [Rosenbaum's] apartment."

     In May 2013, Robert and Charlene Spierer filed a civil suit against Corey Rossman, Mike Beth, and Jay Rosenbaum. The plaintiffs, through Indianapolis attorney Larry A. Mackey, a former federal prosecutor who has been involved in several high-profile cases, alleged that their daughter's status was the result of the defendants' negligence which included having supplied the underage Lauren with drugs and alcohol. By forcing the defendants to testify in a civil trial, the parents hoped to learn more about what happened to Lauren that night.

     In July 2013, attorneys representing Beth, Rosenbaum, and Rossman asked a federal judge in Indianapolis to dismiss the wrongful death suit against their clients. According to these lawyers, Lauren Spierer's two-year disappearance wasn't enough evidence to legally presume she was dead. Under Indiana law, for a missing person to be declared legally deceased, this person must have been "inexplicably absent for a continuous period of seven years."

     The missing woman's mother, Charlene Spierer, in September 2013, in an effort to keep interest in her daughter's case alive, posted a newsletter on Facebook. In the letter, the distraught and frustrated parent discussed the family's struggle and urged anyone with information to come forward.

     Charlene Spierer, in addressing the people she believed were responsible for Lauren's disappearance and presumed death, wrote: "You know the answers to our questions. You are responsible for the tragedy surrounding Lauren's disappearance. What can be said that hasn't already been said? At times I think if I could make you feel some compassion, maybe, just maybe, you would send Lauren's location to the P. O. Box."

     "We have tried and tried to get answers. There have been awareness events, concerts, and interviews [the Spierers appeared on the TV show "Katie" and were interviewed for People Magazine]. We have handed out fliers, distributed thousands of bracelets, searched and searched with the help of hundreds of volunteers, throughout Bloomington and surrounding areas, without success. We have received and followed countless leads all of which have led disappointingly nowhere. What did you do as we waited, only to receive the crushing news that a lead had come up short? Has it given you pleasure or have you been relieved? Have we come close or are we still far from the truth?"

     In late October, 2013, Charlene Spierer learned that city officials had decided to take down the faded, outdoor missing person signs that had been posted around Bloomington since June 2011. According to a statement released by the city communications director, "For the many people who have felt the signs should have been taken down long ago, it's long overdue. For those who believe they should remain in place, no time was the right time to remove them. Posters about the case remain up throughout the campus and community, including in city government buildings, and police agencies continue to actively investigate."

     In December 2013, federal judge Tanya Walton Pratt, ruling on procedural issues, allowed Robert and Charlene Spierer's civil lawsuit against Jason Rosenbaum and Corey Rossman to go forward.The plaintiffs alleged that Rosenbaum and Rossman negligently provided Lauren with alcohol. Earlier in the month the judge dropped the suit against Michael Beth who was not seen with Lauren the night she disappeared.

    On September 30, 2014, the judge dismissed Robert and Charlene Spierer's suit against Rossman and Rosenbaum. The Spierer family attorney, Jason Barclay, told reporters he would appeal that ruling.  "I am heartbroken," he said, "that Rossman and Rosenbaum and their team of defense lawyers will not allow the Spierers to get a simple question answered: What happened to their daughter that night?"

     The Spierers won their appeal. In January 2015, federal judge Tanya Walton Pratt scheduled the civil trial for May 5, 2015.  Defendants Rosenbaum and Rossman stood accused of giving Lauren Spierer alcohol despite knowing she was intoxicated in violation of their "duty of care" to protect her.

     Attorneys for the defendants denied the "negligence per se" and "dram act" allegations. They pointed blame at the still missing college student and Killroy's Sports Bar in Bloomington. (The trial date for the civil trial was postponed and the case remains as of this writing, unresolved.)

     On March 18, 2015, Charlene Spierer took to Twitter to ask for information regarding the whereabouts of her daughter. It had been almost four years since she disappeared. The distraught mother wrote: "There are things I wish I could say but for the time being am prohibited from saying. Someday, all will be revealed. Some day the truth will be known and the guilty will be held accountable. I dream of the day I can say what I want to say to those responsible for the horrible, unconscionable tragedy that befell Lauren and changed our lives forever. Keep any eye out, eventually the bad guys DO get caught."

     In April 2015, a spokesperson for the Bloomington Police Department announced that a 49-year-old Bloomington man named Daniel Messel had been arrested for the recent murder of Indiana University senior Hannah Wilson. Wilson was last seen leaving Kilroy's, the same bar that Lauren Spierer had visited the night she disappeared. Wilson's body was found in a remote spot outside the city. She had been killed by blunt force trauma to the head. Daniel Messel's cell phone was found near the victim's body.

     In June 2015, a private investigative firm based in New York City, Beau Dietl & Associates, looked into the Wilson murder case on behalf of the Spierer family to determine if Messel could have also murdered Lauren Spierer.

     In January 2016, Beau Dietl announced that his investigators did not believe that the Wilson and the Spierer cases were connected.
     On June 3, 2016, the fifth year anniversary of the Spierer missing person case, a spokesperson for the Bloomington Police Department told reporters that detectives, over the years, had investigated more than 4,000 tips. The private investigative firm working for the Spierer family issued a statement revealing confidence that the family would someday get the closure they deserved.

     Daniel Messel, in July 2016, was found guilty of murdering Hannah Wilson. The judge sentenced Messel to 80 years in prison.

     In November 2017, Brown County prosecutor Ted Adams told reporters that he believed Daniel Messel may have been involved in Lauren Spierer's disappearance. (As of this writing, Messel has not been charged in connection with the Spierer case.)

     On June 3, 2020, nine years to the day after her disappearance, a family member, on the official Lauren Spierer Facebook page, wrote: "Do I think her disappearance was random? No, I do not. Do I think we will ever get the truth or find Lauren's remains? I don't know. Will we ever stop searching? No, we will not. Will Lauren ever be less a part of our family? No, she will not. We are all so fragile, this inner circle who knew and loved Lauren. No cure for the emptiness Lauren's disappearance has left in our hearts. So, for those responsible, how lucky you have been. Nine years of dead ends for our family. Nine years of freedom for you. It will always be that way. I hope that someday, someone will have a crisis of conscience and speak the truth. If not, well, you got away with it. Or did you?"

COVID-19 Advice For College Students

This fall, if you want to distance yourself from your fellow students, go to the library.

Friday, July 3, 2020

The Illustrated Book

     Before children learn to read, they learn to decipher pictures: smiling faces, furry animals, snowflakes. Even as they become fluid readers, using their imaginations to conjure images that the words leave out, that hunger for satisfying visuals never fades. Seductive color palettes, clever interplay of words and images, thoughtful paper craft--these are the factors that make illustrated books such desirable objects to read, touch and admire.

     Now more than ever, authors and illustrators are creating books that push readers' expectations. Sometimes it's unusual physical dimensions--luxuriously tall and broad, or satisfyingly chunky. Sometimes it's especially lavish illustrations. Sometimes it's whiz-bang pop-up art (or, as it's called now, "engineered paper").

Catherine Long, The New York Times Book Review, December 8, 2019

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Did Pastor Richard Shahan Murder His Wife?

     In 2013, Richard Shahan, the 53-year-old associate pastor of the First Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, lived in Homewood, Alabama with his wife Karen. Reverend Shahan functioned as the church's children and family pastor and facilities director. Karen Shahan had a job at a nearby Hobby Lobby store. The couple lived in a rental house owned by the church.

     After graduating in 1985 from the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, Shahan joined the staff at the First Baptist Church in Bryon, Texas where he was the Associate Pastor of Education and Family Development. From 1989 to 1999, Reverend Shahan served at the Shades Mountain Baptist Church in Birmingham. In 2000, he became Associate Paster in Education and Administration for the Hickory Grove Baptist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina where he worked seven years. From 2007 to 2009, Shahan was employed by the Kimble Knight Ministries in Brentwood, Tennessee. From Brentwood in 2009, he and his wife moved back to Birmingham where he joined the First Baptist Church in that city.

     In 2003, while working in Charlotte, North Carolina, Shahan formed his own company, an Internet-based curriculum provider called One Vine, Inc. In 2010, while living in Birmingham, Pastor Shahan and his wife filed for personal bankruptcy. According to court records, the couple listed $443,500 in assets and $505,665 in debts. At the time they had a monthly income of $5,874 which did not include a $2,516 monthly housing allowance from the church.

     In September 2012, Pastor Shahan took a leave of absence from the First Baptist Church in Birmingham in order to travel to Kazakhstan where he had acquired a visiting professor position at the Bible Institute in Almaty, Kazakhstan. He returned to Birmingham in May 2013.

     On July 23, 2013, Karen Louise Shahan's co-workers at Hobby Lobby became concerned when the 52-year-old pastor's wife didn't show up for work. Calls to her home went unanswered. At 11:15 that Tuesday morning, police officers with the Homewood Police Department, pursuant to a welfare check, made a gruesome discovery. The officers found that someone had stabbed Karen Shahan to death in her bedroom. The victim's blood had been spilled throughout the dwelling. A crime scene investigator told reporters that this was the most brutal murder site he had ever witnessed.

     Pastor Richard Shahan was not home the morning police discovered the body of his repeatedly stabbed wife. Detectives believed that the victim had been murdered Monday night or early the next day. There were no signs of forced entry, and nothing from the house had been stolen. The victim had not been sexually assaulted. Suspicion immediately fell upon the husband. The fact he was a pastor meant nothing to homicide detectives who know there is no such thing as an unlikely murder suspect.

     Detectives, on August 7, 2013, questioned Pastor Shahan at the Homewood police station. When asked to account for his whereabouts that Monday night and Tuesday morning, the pastor said he had been out of town visiting one of the couple's two sons.

     On August 8, 2013, the day after the station house interrogation, detectives took Shahan into custody "for investigative purposes." Under Alabama law, a suspect can only be held for investigation 48 hours. If the arrestee is not charged with a crime, he or she must be released.

     Following the suspect's 48 hours behind bars, the authorities released him because the prosecutor didn't have enough evidence to level a homicide charge. Because he was a suspect in his wife's brutal murder, officials at the First Baptist Church placed pastor Shahan on paid administrative leave.

     A Jefferson County prosecutor, shortly after Pastor Shahan announced on December 16, 2013 that he would be leaving the United States to do three years of mission work in Germany, charged him with first-degree murder. On New Years Day, 2014, police officers in Nashville, Tennessee arrested the pastor as he was about to board a plane to Germany.

     Jim Roberson, chief of the Homewood Police Department told reporters that, "Once he [Shahan] got over to Germany or Russia, the chances of extraditing him are pretty nil. We can't get Snowden [the NSA leaker], probably wouldn't get Shahan back either."

     On January 7, 2014, Shahan, though his attorney, said that he would waive his right to an extradition hearing. Less than a week later, the authorities in Alabama booked the murder suspect in the Jefferson County Jail.

     The Shahan case prosecutor did not reveal what evidence the state had against the former pastor. Some of the unanswered questions in the case involved whether investigators had identified the murder weapon. Also, was there physical evidence connecting Shahan to the bloody murder scene; and had detectives broken the suspect's alibi? It appeared the motive in the case was money.

     On October 23, 2014, a local grand jury indicted the former pastor for the murder of his wife. The suspect avoided jail by posting his $100,000 bond. He was, however, pursuant to the terms of his release, under house arrest at his mother's dwelling in Homewood, Tennessee.

     In March 2016, a Jefferson County judge postponed Richard Shahan's murder trial nine months to January 9, 2017. The judge did not reveal the reason for the delay. In murder cases, delays often help the defense at the expense of the prosecution.

     The defendant's murder charge was dismissed on April 10, 2017 when the Alabama Attorney General's Office declared there was not enough evidence to prosecute the former Pastor.

     Case closed. 

David Ranta's Wrongful Conviction

     In 1990, following a botched robbery of a diamond courier in Brooklyn, New York, the robbers carjacked and murdered Rabbi Chaskel Werzberger, a survivor of the Holocaust. A few days after the highly publicize murder, police officers picked up a 35-year-old unemployed drug addict named David Ranta.

     Following his interrogation by NYPD detective Louis Scarcella, Ranta signed a confession in which he admitted helping plot the diamond robbery. A boy who had witnessed the crime, picked Ranta out of a police line-up.

     A few months later, a Brooklyn jury, relying on the defendant's confession, and the line-up identification, found David Ranta guilty of murdering the Rabbi. The judge sentenced him to 35 years in prison.

     The Conviction Integrity Unit of the Brooklyn District Attorney's Office took up the old Werzberger murder case after it became apparent that the evidence against Ranta had been unreliable. Years after the conviction, the young eyewitness of the diamond robbery informed investigators that detectives had coached him into picking Ranta out of the line-up. Evidence also surfaced that cast serious doubt on the reliability of the confession.

     On March 21, 2013, David Ranta walked free after serving 23 years behind bars. He was 58,

     Louis Scarcella, the retired NYPD detective who was in charge of the case, told an Associated Press reporter that Brooklyn prosecutors had pressured him to bring the Rabbi's killer to justice quickly. "I caught a lot of cases and I got confessions," Scarcella said. "I was called in and I did my job and I got confessions." (A detective's job is to get the truth.) Scarcella denied coaching the boy into the line-up identification, and said he continued to stand behind his role in the case.

     There was no evidence to suggest that Detective Scarcella had intentionally framed an innocent man. Moreover, the prosecutor in the case also bore responsibility in this wrongful conviction. But because of public pressure to catch the killer of a Holocaust surviving Rabbi, the prosecutor went ahead and put the burden of determining the guilt or innocence of this defendant on the jury. And he did it with unreliable evidence. Many jurors assume, even in weak cases, that because the defendant is being prosecuted, he must be guilty. It appeared that neither the detective nor the prosecutor were interested in digging deeper into the case. If they had, Ranta would have been exonerated and the real perpetrators brought to justice.

     Two days after he walked out of prison, David Ranta suffered a massive heart attack. He survived his illness, and in February 2014, settled his $150 million lawsuit against the city of New York for $6.4 million.