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Monday, August 31, 2020

An American "Honor Killing"

     On December 24, 2007, a Muslim woman named Patricia Said and her 17 and 18-year-old daughters, fled their home in Lewisville, Texas, a town in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. They left their home in fear of their lives. The 17-year-old daughter, Sarah Yaser Said, a student at Lewisville High School, had dated a non-muslim boy. This fact enraged the girl's father, Egyptian born Yaser Abdel Said, who threatened to harm his wife and daughters over what he considered an unforgivable family disgrace.

     After fleeing their home, Mrs. Said and her daughters took up residence in a motel in Irving, Texas, a suburban community outside of Dallas.

     On January 1, 2008, at two-thirty in the afternoon, Sarah Said called 911 from her cellphone and cried, "Help, I'm dying, oh my God, stop it!" The remainder of Sarah Said's message was unintelligible. The 911 dispatcher's repeated requests for an address went unanswered.

     About an hour after Sarah Said's desperate 911 plea, another emergency operator received a call from a person in the vicinity of the motel in Irving. According to this caller, two teenage girls who appeared to have been shot, were slumped in an abandoned taxicab in the motel parking lot.

     Responding police officers and paramedics found, in the front and back seat of the cab, the bodies of Sarah Said and her sister, Amina Yaser Said. They had been shot to death. Their father, Yaser Abdel Said, who had been a Dallas area cab driver, became the immediate suspect in the murder of his daughters.

     Mr. Said, the suspect of a so-called "honor killing," despite a massive and prolonged manhunt, remained at large for 12 years. In 2014, the fugitive was placed on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted List.

     Finally, on August 26, 2020, FBI agents arrested Yaser Abdel Said in Justin, Texas, a town 36 miles northwest of Dallas. A few hours later, agents arrested Mr. Said's son Yassim and another relative. Both men were charged with harboring a fugitive.

     Following the arrests, Irving Police Chief Jeff Spivey told reporters that "Even after twelve years of frustration and dead-ends, the pursuit of [the Said sisters'] killer never ceased." According to Chief Spivey, "Today's arrest of their father, Yaser Said, brings us close to ensuring justice is served on their behalf."

Dealing With Campus COVID-19

     A consensus is building among public health experts that it's better to keep university students on campus after a COVID-19 outbreak rather than send them home as many are doing.

     It's easier to isolate sick or exposed students and trace their contacts if they stay put, said Ravina Kullar, epidemiologist and spokesperson for Infectious Diseases Society of America. Sending students home risks exposing other people there as well as along the way, and makes contact tracing all but impossible.

Oliva Raimonde, "Colleges With COVID Outbreaks Advised to Keep Students on Campus, Bloomberg, August 30, 2020

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Schools Of Journalism: What's the Point?

For an old school journalist, teaching journalism to college students must be one of the worst jobs in academia. What could the professor say to students about to enter a profession that no longer embraces journalistic objectivity, professional integrity, or freedom of the press? How could such a teacher encourage a student to work in a profession that is no longer trusted by a large percentage of the American public? Perhaps the true question should be: Why do universities still support schools of journalism, and where do they find the teachers to staff these programs? Is that the problem? Should we blame the university for the dismal state of journalism in this country? The decline of honest, objective reporting is more than just disgraceful, it poses a threat to our freedom.

Saturday, August 29, 2020

The Most Expensive Colleges and Universities

       In 2020, Columbia University in New York City is the most expensive college/university in America at $61,850 a year. Columbia is followed by: University of Chicago, $59,298; Landmark College (Vermont) $59,100; Trinity College (Connecticut) $59,050; Franklin and Marshall College (Pennsylvania) $58,795; Vassar College (New York state) $58,770; Harvey Mudd College (California) 58,660; Amherst College (Massachusetts) $58,640; Tufts University (Massachusetts) $58,578; and Kenyon College (Ohio) $58,570.

     By contrasts, it costs $5,700 a year to attend Brigham Young University at Provo, Utah. How could one college education be worth $55,000 more than another? What do they teach at Harvey Mudd they don't teach at Brigham Young?

Friday, August 28, 2020

To Self-Publish or Not

Self-publishing provides more freedom and control, but it also provides more risk. Publishing [non-self] provides more credibility and promotion, but your vision can also be lost in the bureaucratic machinery of the business. It's a tough decision to make.

Mark Manson

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Animal Rights Versus Civil Rights

     On August 18, 2020, German Minister of Food and Agriculture Julia Klockner proposed an animal welfare ordinance that has some pet owners barking mad: a mandate to exercise one's dog twice a day.

     The ordinance would require that dogs be "permitted to exercise outside of a kennel at least twice a day for a total of at least one hour," according to the ministry. "This is to ensure that dogs are given sufficient exercise and contact with environmental stimuli."

     "Pets are not cuddly toys--their needs must be taken into account," Klockner said. The ministry suggested the exercise might take the form of a walk, or letting the dog run around outside.

     The ordinance has stirred much discussion in the German press. "Two hours of walking will soon be mandatory?" asks one headline. "Is the paternalism going too far?" demands another.

     "I don't believe in regulation!" golden retriever owner Helge Melzer told the tabloid Bild. "Every dog is different, has a different age, different diseases, and we have different climates. With the hot temperatures of the last few days, you shouldn't let your dog out for longer."

Laurel Wamsley, "German's Proposed Dog Walking Law Stirs Consternation Among Pet Owners," NPR, August 20, 2020

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Steve Nunn: the Politician and Husband From Hell

     If you think all, or even most, politicians are above average spouses and parents, think again. Although they pretend to be better than the rest of us, some of these hypocrites and thieves turn out to be dangerous criminals. Take Steve Nunn, a state legislator from Kentucky who was a lousy husband, a raging hypocrite, and dangerous.

     Steven Nunn was 15 when his father, Louie B. Nunn, became Kentucky's 52nd governor in 1967. A Republican, Nunn was re-elected to a second term, but in 1973, lost his bid for a seat in the U. S. Senate. Six years later, he ran for governor again, but lost. His career in elected politics was over.

     In 1974, Steve, hoping to follow in his father's footsteps, enrolled in law school, but dropped out. He got married, and over the next five years, had three children. In 1990, at age 38, Nunn ran for the Kentucky state house of representatives, and won.

     Steve's father, a hard-driven narcissist and BS artist who enjoyed subjecting his kid to ridicule, refused to be impressed with his son's election to state office. Like his father, Steve was a lousy husband who regularly cheated on his wife. In 1994, she divorced him. (In state politics, being a rotten husband is not usually a liability because most people have no idea who represents them locally.) Two years later, Steve's mother Beula, after 42 years of marriage to Louie B., sought a restraining order against the abusive ex-governor. Steve confronted his father over this, and the two men came to blows. After that, they stopped speaking to each other. Shortly after the father and son stopped talking to each other, Beula divorced Louie B. Nunn.

     Steve Nunn, in his third term as a state legislator, married Tracey Damron, a former flight attendant and daughter of a wealthy Kentucky coal magnate. A social butterfly who sparkled at fundraisers and social events, Tracey became the perfect politician's wife. Two years later, in 1998, Steve co-sponsored a bill that imposed the death sentence on convicted killers who murdered women who had taken out restraining orders against them. The bill became Kentucky law.  

       In 2002, after Tracey Nunn engineered a father-son reconciliation, she and Steve moved into the ex-governor's Pin Oak Farms mansion near Versailles, Kentucky. But a year later, the 51-year-old's political career took a bad turn. In a bid for the governorship, Steve lost badly in the Republican primary. And on January 29, 2004, his father, at age 81, died of a heart attack. Although Steve didn't have a healthy relationship with his father, the old man's death devastated him. The wheels of Steve's political career came off in 2006 when he lost his legislative seat to an unknown challenger.

     Following the death of his father, Steve started drinking heavily, patronizing prostitutes, and behaving irrationally. He also became, like his father, an abusive husband. Tracey divorced him in 2006. The following year, the 55-year-old political had-been met 20-year-old Amanda Ross, the daughter of a recently deceased public financier. After two months of dating, Steve moved into her Lexington, Kentucky apartment. In 2008, they were engaged to be married.

     Through his engagement to Amanda Ross, Steve landed the cabinet-level job of heading up a state agency that oversaw a variety of welfare programs, include those dealing with spousal abuse.

     Although Steve was back on his feet career-wise, he was still emotionally unstable, and drinking too much. His paranoia led him to suspect that Amanda was cheating on him. On February 17, 2009, in the midst of an argument in Ross' apartment, Nunn hit her. The next day, she petitioned the court for an emergency protection order, which a judge quickly granted. Under the restraining order, Nunn could have no contact with Ross for a period of a year. Within 48 hours of the judge's ruling, Nunn had no choice but to resign his cushy, high-paid government job.

     Convinced that Amanda Ross had intentionally sabotaged his career, Nunn became obsessed with revenge. To embarrass and humiliate his former fiancee, he showed his friends nude photographs he had taken of her. He began to stalk her.

     On September 11, 2009, as Amanda Ross left her apartment on her way to work, Nunn shot her to death. While no one witnessed the murder, homicide investigators immediately suspected Steve Nunn. Later that day, police found him hiding in a cemetery. He had scratched his wrists in a phony suicide attempt.

     Charged with first-degree murder, Nunn, to avoid the death penalty mandated by his own legislation, pleaded guilty in 2011 in exchange for a sentence of life without parole.

     Members of Amanda Ross' family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Steven Nunn in 2012. Two years later, the civil case jury found him responsible for Ross' death and awarded the plaintiffs $24 million.

     In February 2014, Steve Nunn petitioned Fayette County Judge Pamula Goodwine to have his guilty plea withdrawn. Nunn said his defense attorney, Warren Scoville, had given him bad advice. Following the October 2014 hearing on the motion, Judge Goodwine denied Nunn's plea withdrawal request.

"The End"

I hate endings. Just detest them. Beginnings are definitely the most exciting, middles are perplexing, and endings are a disaster.

Sam Shepard, The Paris Review, 1997

California Burning

As of late August 2020, 7,000 wildfires have burned trees, brush, and structures over an area of 1.5 million California acres. By this time in 2019, 4,292 wildfires burned 56,000 acres across the state. These fires are caused by camp fires, tossed cigarette butts, sparks from trains, lightening, and arsonists. California is on fire.

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

TruthFinder: The End of Privacy

     Have you ever googled yourself? 57 percent of Americans admit to keeping an eye on their online reputation, and 46 percent admit to using the Internet to look up someone from the past. But Google is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to finding personal information. There's a new website going around that users are calling "creepy," "scary," and "awesome."

     Have you ever been issued a speeding ticket? Failed to stop at a stop sign? Do you know someone who's had a run-in with the law? If you're like most of us, the answer to at least one of those questions is "yes." Most of us have slipped up at least once or twice. In fact, one in four Americans has an arrest or a criminal record.

     An innovative new website called TruthFinder is now revealing the full "scoop" on millions of Americans. TruthFinder can search through hundreds of millions of public records in a matter of minutes. TruthFinder members can literally begin searching in seconds for sensitive data like criminal, traffic, and arrest records. Plus, they are able to check as many records as they want (think: friends, family, neighbors, enemies, etc. etc.).

     Previously, if you needed to research somebody's arrest records, it involved a lot of work. First, you'd need to know where the arrest records were located. Then you'd have to travel to the appropriate county courthouse--in person. After filling out paperwork, you'd have to wait for the results...

     With websites like TruthFinder, a background check is simple and easy. With just a few clicks of your mouse, you can find detailed and explicit information not readily available through a standard search engine...

"I Typed in My Name and the Results Had Me Speechless," The Beacon by TruthFinder, January 3, 2020

Monday, August 24, 2020

A Criminal Homicide Caught On Video

     Warren Behlau lived with his wife Teresa and their 19-year-old son Garrett in Chattanooga, Tennessee. At two-thirty in the afternoon of Wednesday, August 19, 2020, Mr. Behlau, while several hundred miles away from his house, checked his home security video system. He was stunned by what he saw. The camera caught his son Garrett killing Mrs. Behlau. The shocked father called 911.

     When police officers arrived at the Behlau home, they found Garrett sitting in his bedroom. When asked what he had done with his mother, the young man said, "She's in the woods."

     Officers found 54-year-old Teresa Behlau's body in the woods behind the house. Her head was encased in Saran wrap.

     When homicide investigators viewed the home video footage supplied by Mr. Behlau, they saw Garrett Behlau, after killing his mother, using paper towels in an attempt to clean up the crime scene. The paper towels were recovered from a trash can.

     On August 20, 2020, police officers took Garrett Behlau into custody. The Hamilton County district attorney charged the suspect with criminal homicide, abuse of corpse, and tampering with evidence. The magistrate set Garrett Behlau's bail at $300,000.

Greyhound Bus Therapy: Losing Your Mind in Las Vegas

     According to mental health experts, the city of Las Vegas not only drives people crazy, it attracts unbalanced folks from around the country.  Dr. Lorin Scher, an emergency room psychiatrist with the University of California at Davis Medical Center explains why so many mentally ill people end up in Las Vegas: "As the whole country knows, Las Vegas is a pretty unique place. Many bipolar patients impulsively fly across the country to Vegas during their manic phases and go on gambling binges. Vegas also attracts wandering schizophrenics, people who are drawn to the warm weather, lights, and action."

     Nevada, in 2009, began cutting its mental health service budget. By 2012, the funds for this form of health care had been cut by 28 percent. The reduced spending occurred during the period Las Vegas experienced the surge in psychiatric admissions. Something had to be done to hold down the state's health care costs.

     In March 2013, James Flavy, a 48-year-old schizophrenic living in a complex in Sacramento, California for the homeless, told the authorities a rather disturbing story. A month earlier, when discharged from the Rawson-Neal Psychiatric Hospital in Las Vegas, a mental health worker drove him to the Main Street bus station and put him on a Greyhound bus destined for Sacramento. Following a 15-hour bus ride, Mr. Flavy rolled into Sacramento with a two-day supply of medication and instructions to follow-up his care with a doctor in California. Someone suggested that upon his arrival in the Golden State he call 911. Flavy got off the bus without any identification or access to his Social Security benefits. He wound up in a University of California at Davis Medical Center emergency room where he lived for three days before someone arranged temporary housing.

     Mr. Flavy's story led to the remarkable revelation that from 2008 to 2014, more than 1,500 Las Vegas mental patients had been shipped via Greyhound bus to more than 200 cities in every state in the continental United States.

     The Southern Nevada Adult Mental Health Services, between July 2008 and December 2014, spent $205,000 on mental patient bus tickets. (The agency had a special arrangement with Greyhound.) The busing program has saved the state of Nevada millions of health care dollars.

     One-third of the Greyhound therapy recipients were bused to California, 200 of whom were sent to Los Angeles County. In 2012, Greyhound buses rolled out of Las Vegas carrying 400 mental cases destined for 176 cities in 45 states.

     Health care administrators in Nevada defended their mental ward on wheels program as sort of a revolving door operation. If unbalanced folks from all over the nation can roll into Las Vegas, they ought to be able, following emergency mental health treatment, to roll them back out of town.

Signs You Are a Novelist

You might want to become a nonfiction writer, and yet at every turn you distort things, exaggerate and embellish them, and even introduce characters, places and events that had nothing to do with the original material. In that case, you are a born fiction writer, which is much nicer than saying you are a born liar.

Josip Novakovich in Fiction Writer's Workshop, edited by Josip Novakovich, 1995

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Unsolved Murders

     Statistically, U.S. law enforcement agencies are the worst crime solvers in the Western world. According to official data, there are arrests for about one-eighth of burglaries, about one-third of rapes, and about two-thirds of murders. But official methods of reporting can distort and exaggerate murder clearance rates, and the official clearance rate has held steady for three decades, despite strong declines in the rate of murders being committed.

     According to FBI statistics, Flint, Michigan has the worst murder clearance rate at 17.5%. It is followed by Honolulu, Hawaii (18.8%), Midland, Michigan (23%), Saginaw, Michigan (23.3%), and Lima, Ohio (24.5%).

     Although a lack of trust between police and poor minority communities...is often used as an explanation for plummeting murder clearance rates in those communities, some affluent areas also have low clearance rates. For instance, Palm Beach, Florida and Long Island, New York clear only about one-third of their murder cases. That is comparable to the dismal clearance rates reported by Chicago and New Orleans, where gang-related murders push up the murder rate while depressing the clearance rate...

Matt Clarke, "U.S. Murder Clearance Rates Among Lowest in the World," Criminal Legal News, February 16, 2018

Beware of Unlimited Government

The chief evil is unlimited government--nobody is qualified to wield unlimited power.

Frederich A. Hayek (1899-1992) Austrian-British economist and philosopher 

Saturday, August 22, 2020

The Sheetal and Rajesh Ranot Child Abuse Case: No Protection For Maya

     In January 2011, Rajesh Ranot gained custody of his 9-year-old daughter, Maya. A family court judge in Queens, New York, at Rajesh's request, issued a protection order against the girl's mother and her 20-year-old brother. The father, of Indian descent, accused his former wife Ramona Roy of abusing Maya.

     Maya moved into the top floor of an Ozone Park, Queens duplex with her father, his second wife Sheetal, and her four children. The family resided on a block inhabited by other families of Indian descent by way of Guyana and Trinidad. Mr. Ranot drove a taxi and worked most nights until four in the morning.

     Neighbors began to notice that Maya's stepmother Sheeetal treated the girl differently than the other children in the family. While Sheetal watched TV, Maya cleaned the house, cooked, swept the front porch, and did other household chores. Moreover, unlike her step-siblings, Maya wore dirty clothes and looked malnourished. In the winter, she wore flip-flops and often didn't have a coat.

     Someone in the neighborhood alerted the New York City Administration For Children Services which led to regular visits to the Ranot home by social workers. A neighbor from Guyana would later tell a reporter with The New York Times that in India, stepmothers didn't like their stepchildren and treated them like slaves. The fact that Maya was more like a maid than a daughter was, under the cultural circumstances, normal. But Maya lived in the U.S., not India.

     In December 2012, Maya's teachers and classmates noticed that the girl had lost so much weight it looked as though she was being starved. She also came to school with bruises and scratches on her arms and face. A social worker continued to visit the Ranot home. The child protection agents were told by Sheetal Ranot that Maya stole money from the family to give to her biological mother. The stepmother also claimed that the girl was crazy, and giving the family all sorts of problems. When asked by social workers how she had gotten her scratches and bruises, Maya claimed to have fallen. To her friends, however, Maya revealed that her stepmother regularly beat her and locked her in a room.

     On April 16, 2014, the 12-year-old, now weighing 56 pounds, was taken to the Jamaica Hospital Center in Queens with a badly bruised and swollen face. At the hospital, Maya and her stepmother told the doctor, a detective, and a child protection worker named Ruby Perez, that the injuries had been caused by her falling off a ladder.

     Social worker Perez had visited the Ranot home many times and expressed concern that Maya was being abused. The detective at the hospital told the social worker that he didn't have enough proof to establish an abuse case. As a result, the girl went home with her abusive stepmother.

     On May 6, 2014, Sheetal Ranot took her now 46-pound stepdaughter to the emergency room with a deep cut on her left wrist and a laceration on her right knee. According to the stepmother, Maya had tried to commit suicide in the kitchen with a large knife. Although Maya went along with this absurd story, the doctor called the police.

     Finally, after three years of abuse, Maya was sent to live with an aunt. She also began to reveal the details of her ordeal. She had not fallen off a ladder. Her stepmother had beaten her with a rolling pin. Three weeks later she was beaten in the kitchen with a broken metal broom handle. She had not tried to kill herself.

     A prosecutor in Queens, on July 29, 2014, charged Sheetal Ranot with several counts of first-degree assault. In convicted as charged, the stepmother faced up to 25 years in prison.

     Rajesh Ranot, at the time of Sheetal's arrest, was in India visiting relatives. Three days after his wife's arrest, he returned to the U.S. where at the airport he was met by detectives who took him into custody. Charged with lesser assault related and child endangerment offenses, the father faced up to 7 years behind bars.

     When the news broke about Maya Ranot's three-year ordeal, New York City Commissioner Gladys Carrion thanked the Administration For Children's Services and their social workers "whose diligence and professionalism saved the life of a young girl."

     Investigative journalists with The New York Times looked into the Maya Ranot case and wrote a different story. Social workers, instead of interviewing Maya's teachers, classmates, neighbors, and others familiar with the family, simply took the word of the stepmother. As a result, the girl almost died from abuse and neglect.

     Ruby Perez, the 29-year-old social worker who in April 2014 expressed concern regarding Maya's wellbeing, posted the following message on her Facebook page in 2010: "I want to quit my job. Now. I can't take it." Perhaps Perez didn't like working for a child protection agency that didn't protect children.

     On July 29, 2016, following a three-week trial, a jury in Queens, New York found Sheetal Ranot guilty as charged. On September 8, 2016, Queens Supreme Court Justice Richard L. Buchter sentenced her to 15 years in prison.

   If Rajesh Ranot was convicted in connection with prolonged abuse of his daughter, as of this writing, there is no record of it on the Internet.

Paroling the Killer of Michael Jordan's Father

     On the night of July 23, 1993, James Jordan, the father of famed basketball star Michael Jordan, was murdered by Larry Demery and Daniel Green. Shortly before he was shot to death, Mr. Jordan had been sleeping in his luxury car parked off a highway near Lumberton, North Carolina. At the time the killers spotted Mr. Jordan asleep in his car, they were planning on robbing a motel. The killers had no idea who they had murdered until Mr. Jordan's violent death made the news. "I believe we killed Michael Jordan's daddy," Daniel Green told Larry Demery.

     After murdering James Jordan, the killers dumped his body into a nearby swamp, then used the victim's expensive car to take their girlfriends on a date.

     About a year after the murder, Demery and Green were convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. But in North Carolina, "life in prison" didn't necessary mean life in prison.

     In August 2020, parole authorities in North Carolina announced that on August 9, 2023, Larry Demery would be granted parole. While criminal justice sob-sisters cheered, the news that the man who had killed Michael Jordan's father in cold blood would not serve out his sentence, outraged everyone else.

It's Not Easy To Write Well

A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.

Thomas Mann (1875-1955) German novelist

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Escaping Los Angeles

     Gold's Gym has become synonymous with the Hollywood dream. Set just a few hundred yards from the ocean in sun-kissed Venice Beach, Los Angeles, Gold's was the backdrop for "Pumping Iron," the 1977 documentary which followed a young unknown Austrian bodybuilder named Arnold Schwarzenegger as he prepared for the Mr. Universe contest...

     Yet today Gold's sits amid post-apocalyptic scenes which have consumed much of LA, turning the City of Dreams into an urban nightmare from which people are fleeing in droves. A makeshift tent city made up of flapping tarpaulins and cardboard boxes surrounds the gym on all sides.

     Junkies and the homeless, many of whom are clearly mentally ill, walk the palm-lined streets like zombies--all just three blocks from multi-million dollar homes. Stolen bicycles are piled high on pavements littered with broken syringes.

     TV bulletins are filled with horror stories from across the city; of women being attacked during their morning job or residents returning home to find strangers defecating in their front gardens.

     Today, Los Angels is a city on the brink. "For Sale" signs are seemingly dotted on every suburban street as the middle classes, particularly those with families, flee for the safer suburbs, with many leaving LA altogether...

Caroline Graham, "Hollywood's Apocalypse Now," Daily Mail. com, August 15, 2020 

The Car Most Stolen

According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, police reported 748, 841 stolen vehicles in 2018. The car of choice: the Honda Civic. 

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Ross Macdonald on California

Nothing is wrong with California that a rise in the ocean won't cure.

Ross Macdonald (1915-1983) American crime novelist

Sign My Copy of Your Book So I Can Sell It

Probably at least 85 percent of the books I've inscribed both to friends and strangers have found their way into the book market, and rather rapidly.

Larry McMurty, Literary Life, 2019

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Jon Krakauer on Fanatics

I've been pegged as a writer whose beat is extreme ideas, extreme landscapes [mountain climbing], extreme individuals who take actions to their logical extreme. And there is some truth to that. I'm intrigued by fanatics--people who are seduced by the promise, or the illusion, of the absolute. People who believe that achieving some absolute goal, say, or embracing some absolute truth, will lead to happiness, or peace, or order, or whatever it is they most desire. Fanatics tend to be blind to moral ambiguity and complexity, and I've always had a fascination with individuals who deny the inherent contingency of existence--often at their peril, and at the peril of society.

Jon Krakauer, in The New Journalism (2005) by Robert S. Boynton 

Friday, August 14, 2020

The Susan F. McNair Poison Case

   In July 2020, 72-year-old Susan Fenyves McNair was no longer residing with her 85-year-old husband John Rupert McNair and his 43-year-old son, Michael McNair. The estranged couple, residents of Wilmington Delaware, had separated after Mr. McNair filed for divorce.

     Following the separation, the father and son noticed that their cold drinks tasted odd and made them sick. At one point, Michael McNair became seriously ill after consuming a drink that burned his mouth.

     Suspecting that Susan McNair had been entering the house and spiking their drinks, the senior Mr. McNair installed a hidden camera in the kitchen. On July 28, 2020, the camera recorded Susan McNair mixing Lysol, Resolve Carpet Cleaner, and paint thinner into a bottle of sweet tea.

     After Mr. McNair turned the incriminating video recording over to the Wilmington Police Department, medical personnel took samples of his and his son's blood for toxicological analysis.

     Officers with the Wilmington Police Department, on August 11, 2020, took Susan McNair into custody. The district attorney charged Mrs. McNair with two counts of first-degree attempted murder and two counts of contaminating a drink with a controlled substance. The judge set the suspect's bail at $300,000, and assigned her a public defender.

     As of this writing, the authorities have not divulged a possible motive for the poisoning. 

The Darius Sessoms Murder Case

     At five-thirty on Sunday evening, August 9, 2020, 5-year-old Cannon Hinnant was playing in front of his house in Wilson, North Carolina with his sisters aged 7 and 8. As the boy rode his bike with his mother looking on, the child was approached by a 25-year-old neighbor named Darius Sessoms who pointed a handgun at the boy's head and shot him. After the shooting, Sessoms ran back to his house that is located next door to the victim's on Archers Road.

     Doris Lybrand, a neighbor who witnessed the shooting, called 911.

     Cannon Hinnant was rushed to the Wilson Medical Center where he died shortly upon arrival.

     Police officers arrested Sessoms the following evening at a house in the nearby town of Goldsboro. The Wilson County District Attorney charged Darius Sessoms with first-degree murder. The magistrate denied the suspect bail.

     According to neighbors, the boy's family had known Darius Sessoms for several years.

     On Tuesday, August 11, 2020, Bonny Waddell, the young victim's mother, posted the following online: "That man [Sessoms] will answer to me. That man will see me and my son through my face! This sorry excuse as a human being will rot in hell. My heart has been taken from me."

     While as of this writing no motive for the killing has been revealed, a police spokesman told reporters that the murder was not "random."

     According to the boy's father, his son was killed because he had ridden his bicycle on Sessoms' lawn. The father, on Instagram, railed about how the media has ignored this case. (Sessoms is black and the victim is white.)

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Cybercrime

The Internet provides a speedy and efficient means to conduct research, shop, plan travel, and communicate with others. Technology has opened this same world to criminals so they can conduct their "research" and implement their schemes. Using the Internet, criminals gain immediate access to do what they have always done--deceive, defraud, steal, and intimidate. Cybercrime has become an increasing menace to individuals, businesses, and governments. Thousands of miles from their victims and out of reach of law enforcement authorities, criminals can hack into government computer systems, steal personal information, commit identity theft, and destroy a company's valuable software and business records.

Preface to the 2014 edition of Dr. Stanton E. Samenow's 2004 nonfiction book, Inside the Criminal Mind.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Holland's Boy Hit Man

      In 2012, Joyce Winsie Hau, a 14-year-old member of the Chinese-Dutch community in Arnhem, Holland, fell out with her best friend, a 15-year-old girl referred to by the Dutch authorities as Polly W. Joyce angered Polly and Polly's boyfriend, 15-year-old Wesley C., when she gossiped about their sexual escapades on Facebook and other social media. This anger set in motion a plot, hatched by Polly and Wesley, to have Joyce Hau murdered.

     Polly and Wesley offered Jinhau K., an acquaintance of Joyce's, 16 pounds (roughly $50), to commit the homicide. The pair of teen masterminds, over a period of several weeks in late 2011, met frequently with the boy hit man to plan the murder. During these meetings, Polly and her boyfriend provided Jinhau with the homicide target's address, and other information including when Joyce would most likely be home. After the murder, the masterminds promised to take their hitman out for drinks.

     On January 14, 2012, Jinhau K. showed up at the Hau  residence, and when invited into the house by Mr Chun Nam Hau, the knife wielding boy stabbed the father and his daughter. The attack took place in the hallway just inside the dwelling's front entrance. Mr. Hau survived the attack, but Joyce Hau did not. The murder and attempted homicide was witnessed by Joyce's younger brother who was not harmed.

     Shortly after the home assault and murder, the police arrested Jinhau K. In his confession, the boy named the two teen murder-for-hire masterminds. Soon after that, the police arrested Polly W. and Wesley C.

     In August 2012, Jinhau K., went on trial as a juvenile before a district court judge in Arnhem. Following testimony from Chun Nam Hau and Joyce Hau's younger brother, the judge heard from the defendant who testified that he had committed the assault and murder out of fear that if he had refused to carry out the plot, Polly W. and Wesley C. would have killed him.

     The judge, in ruling that the defendant had plenty of opportunity to pull out of the murder conspiracy, said, "In their reports the psychologist and psychiatrist state that the pressure the defendant says he felt, was never so high that he was unable to resist it. There were several moments where the defendant could have called in the help of others, or could have come to his senses."

     On September 3, 2012, the Arnhem judge sentenced Jinhau K. to one year in a juvenile detention center, the maximum penalty under Dutch law for a murderer between the ages 12 to 16. (I don't know why the judge didn't add another year for the attempted murder of Mr. Hau.) Upon completing his one year sentence, Jinhau K. would undergo three years of psychiatric treatment at another facility. When the teen hit man turned 18, he'd be completely free from court supervision.

     Members of Holland's Chinese-Dutch community were shocked and outraged by such a light sentence for the cold-blooded murder of a girl, and the attempted murder of her father. As for the two teenage murder for hire masterminds, the charges against them were dropped. If the hit man only qualified for one year of juvenile detention, what was the point of bothering with the degenerate kids who set these bloody crimes into motion?

    In Holland, the media called Joyce Hau's killing the "Facebook Murder Case." I would call it the case of the Dutch teens who got away with murder. It's not a snappy case title, but it's closer to the truth.

Learning FromThe Greats

No formal course in fiction writing can equal a close and observant perusal of the stories of Edgar Allan Poe and Ambrose Bierce.

H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) American writer of weird fiction.

Lean Times in Los Angeles

The lean days, blue skies with never a cloud, a sea of blue day after day, the sun floating though it. The days of plenty--plenty of worries, plenty of oranges. Eat them in bed, eat them for lunch, push them down for dinner. Oranges, five cents a dozen. Sunshine in the sky, sun juice in my stomach.

Excerpt from John Fante's classic 1939 novel, Ask the Dust

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

The Executioner

Accounts of criminal trials published in old books and documents generally go into much detail of the court proceedings. The judge's name, the lawyers' speeches, evidence given by the witnesses, even the prisoners' protestations, are covered in full. And when executions were held in public, news sheets described each one minutely, dwelling avidly on the victims's behavior, the crowd's reactions. Yet little if anything was said about the official presiding over the dreaded finale. He was referred to only as the "executioner," thereby implying that he was unworthy of further identification, except as an object of scorn.

Geoffrey Abbott, Lords of the Scaffold, 1991

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Violent Behavior is Not a Psychological Trait

[Criminologist Dr. Lonnie] Athens emphasizes and reemphasizes that violentization is a social process, requiring interaction with others, and that as such it changes over time. Psychological processes are obviously involved in the conversion of a brutalized novice into a dangerous violent criminal, but these do not harden into enduring psychological traits: "Psychologists have been caught up for over a half a century in a rather vain quest to discover the psychological traits which distinguish violent and nascent violent criminals from ordinary people. This quest has been stymied in no small part because the psychological traits, or more precisely, psychological processes, which violent criminals manifest do not remain constant, but change as they undergo new social experiences over the course of their violence development."

Richard Rhodes, Why They Kill: The Discoveries of a Maverick Criminologist, 1999

Monday, August 3, 2020

The Purpose of the Criminal Trial

The criminal trial, as designed, is not the most efficient method of getting to the factual truth of a matter. Too much relevant evidence is excluded from the jury to make this the main purpose of the procedure. The principal goal of a trial, at least in theory, is not to produce information, but to produce due process and justice for the accused. Prosecutors, as officers of the court, have a legal and ethical duty not to pursue defendants in cases involving weak or exonerating evidence. But some do, because regardless of the lack of evidence, their priority involves convicting the defendant at any cost. In reality, criminal trials are about winning and losing.

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Pedophiles in Hollywood: Hey Kid, You Want to be a Star?

     While child sexual molestation takes place behind closed doors, pedophiles groom their potential victims in plain sight. They do this in classrooms, churches, gymnasiums, and day care centers--anywhere vulnerable children are subjected to the influence and control of adults. They also do it in Hollywood where parents eagerly offer up young, aspiring actors and entertainers to pedophiles working as talent managers, agents, publicists, acting coaches, and casting directors.

Jason James Murphy

     In Edmonds, Washington, 19-year-old Jason James Murphy, an aspiring actor working as a camp counselor, met and began grooming a 5-year-old boy for sexual encounters. In December 1995, an employee of the Hazelwood Elementary School in Lynnwood, Washington, saw Murphy kissing this boy who was now 7. The teacher notified the police who took Murphy into custody on a child molestation charge. Murphy's family posted his bail and shortly after his arrest he was released.

     In January 1996, Murphy's fixation on this child was so intense he disguised himself as a woman and lured the boy from the elementary school. Murphy and the abducted child flew to New York City and checked into a hotel. After a massive police hunt for the missing victim followed by a segment featuring the case on "America's Most Wanted," a New York City hotel clerk who recognized Murphy and the boy notified the authorities. A short time later, FBI agents rescued the child, and arrested Murphy. Eight months after that a federal jury found Murphy guilty of kidnapping and child molestation. He served 5 of his 7 year sentence behind bars.

     Four years after getting out of federal prison, Murphy moved to West Hollywood, California where he registered as a sex offender under his legal name, Jason James Murphy. Under California law, there were strict rules regarding the circumstances under which a registered sex offender can work with children under 16. The law also required registered sex offenders to notify law enforcement if they changed their names or use aliases.

     Murphy, under the professional name Jason James, became a successful freelance child actor casting director. He worked on films such as "Bad News Bears," "The School of Rock," and "Cheaper by the Dozen 2." Director and co-producer J. J. Abrams hired him as a freelancer on "Super 8."

     On November 17, 2011, J. J. Abrams, having learned of Jason James' true identity, informed Paramount Pictures. Someone at the studio called the police.

     Officers with the Los Angeles Police Department, on December 9, 2011, arrested Murphy on charges he had violated California's sex offender registry regulations. Violations of these laws were felonies that carried sentences of up to three years in prison. Murphy's attorney blamed the arrest, and the attention it drew from the media, on the highly publicized Penn State child molestation story that was breaking at the time. The lawyer also claimed that the people who had hired Murphy as a casting director knew his full, legal name. Mr. Murphy had not been accused of molesting any of the children he had worked with professionally.

     On May 2, 2012, a Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge dismissed the charges against Murphy on the grounds that all the studio executives who used his services were aware of the casting director's true identity.

Martin Weiss

     Less than two weeks after producer J. J. Abrams notified Paramount Pictures of who Jason James really was, Los Angeles detectives with the Topanga Division's Sexual Assault Unit arrested 47-year-old Martin Weiss, a Hollywood manager who specialized in child actors. Weiss stood accused of committing 30 to 40 sexual crimes against an aspiring singer and musician he represented from 2005 to 2008. The sexual encounters allegedly took place at Weiss' apartment/business office in Santa Monica, and at his home in Woodland Hills. After being taken to the Los Angeles County Jail, a judge set his bond at $300,000.

     According to the alleged victim, now 18-years-old, the molesting stopped when he turned 15. After that, he and Weiss parted ways. The victim didn't report the abuse then because he didn't think anyone would believe his story. But after the Coach Jerry Sandusky/Penn State scandal became big news, the victim decided to report his abuser, and come forward with evidence that backed up his story.

     On November 15, 2011, the victim confronted Weiss at his apartment in Santa Monica, and secretly taped their conversation. (In the Penn State case, the victim's mother taped her confrontation with the former football coach and child molester.) In discussing their past relationship, Weiss did not deny having sexual relations with his accuser. When Weiss' accuser compared his victimization with that of Jerry Sandusky and the boys he molested, Weiss reportedly replied, "Those kids didn't want it." Weiss' accuser pointed out that his sexual encounters with Weiss, acts that took place when he was 11 and 12, had also not been consensual.

     Martin Weiss, at a December 15, 2012 pretrial hearing, entered a plea of not guilty. If convicted as charged, the owner of Martin Weiss Management faced up to 34 years in prison.

     Paula Dorn, the co-founder of the non-profit child talent support organization BizParentz Foundation, reportedly said that, over the years, she and members of her group have heard rumors of Weiss' sexual relationships with some of his clients. But without any hard evidence of sexual abuse, no one reported this to law enforcement.

     On June 1, 2012, Martin Weiss pleaded no contest to two counts of a lewd act with an 11-year-old client. The judge, Leslie Dunn, sentenced Weiss to one year in the Los Angeles County Jail. He also received five years probation, had to register as a sex offender, and stay away with people under 18. In return for the plea, the prosecutor dropped 6 other sex offense charges against  him.

A Documentary on Pedophilia in Hollywood

     On June 13, 2016, The Week magazine published an article about a column by Oliver Thring that had appeared recently in The Sunday Times (London) regarding pedophiles in Hollywood. What follows is an excerpt from the The Week piece:

     "Serial child abusers lurk among the legions of directors, managers, and agents, sheltered by powerful friends and their own wealth. One agent who managed high-profile child stars was convicted of molesting a boy and trafficking in child pornography, and he spent eight years in jail. Others, though, are never exposed or return to work in Hollywood after serving just a few months in prison--and their old pals hire them to work with children again. Those who speak out are shamed or silenced. Actor Corey Feldman, for example, went public after the abuse he and Corey Haim suffered for years. Both actors went on to abuse alcohol and drugs, and Haim died at age 38. But Feldman's tell-all memoir was dismissed as unreliable because of his drug addiction. Oscar nominated director Amy Berg has made a documentary about the prevalence of child sexual abuse in Hollywood, in which five former child actors described their abuse and named names. But though An Open Secret was well received at Cannes, Berg couldn't acquire a distributor. Hollywood bigwigs just didn't want the story told."

The Literary Novel

A literary novel generally offers some or all of the following: psychological acuity, characterization that rises above stereotype, astute social observation, inventive or powerful use of language, and artful use of form. [Notice that plot or a good story is not included. This is why literary novels go unread.]

Lionel Shriver, The New York Times Book Review, July 13, 2014

Saturday, August 1, 2020

The Laurel Schlemmer Murder Case

     Laurel Michelle Ludwig married Mark Schlemmer in July 2005. In May 2006, the couple purchased a house in McCandless, Pennsylvania, a suburban community north of Pittsburgh.

     By September 2009, the couple had two sons. The youngest was 18-months-old. His brother was three. Mark Schlemmer was 39 and working as an insurance actuary. Laurel, a former teacher, stayed at home to raise the boys. On September 5, 2009, a patron at the nearby Ross Park Mall noticed a parked Honda Odyssey with an unaccompanied toddler inside. Although the van's windows were cracked, the temperature inside the vehicle had risen to 112 degrees. The passerby called 911.

     When Laurel Schlemmer returned to her van she was met by Ross Township police and EMT personnel who had managed to unlock a door and remove the three-year-old boy. Due to the fact the mother was gone from the car twenty minutes, the boy did not require medical treatment.

     An Allegheny County prosecutor charged the 36-year-old mother with the summary offense of leaving a child unattended in a vehicle. Laurel pleaded guilty to the crime and paid a fine. No one read anything into this incident other than a mother's lapse of due care.

     By 2013, Laurel Schlemmer and her husband had their third son. On April 16 of that year, Laurel, when backing her van out of her parents' driveway in Marshall, Pennsylvania, ran over her two and five-year-old boys. One of the children suffered internal injuries while his brother ended up with broken bones. Both boys survived.

     An investigator with the Northern Regional Police Department conducted an inquiry into the driveway incident and concluded that it had been an accident. Personnel with the Allegheny County Office of Children, Youth, and Families conducted an assessment of the Schlemmer family and found no evidence or history of child abuse.

     The pastor of the North Park Church, Reverend Dan Hendley, counseled Laurel in an effort to help her cope with what everybody assumed had been a nearly tragic mishap. Members of the church were supportive of their fellow parishioner.

     At 8:40 on the morning of Tuesday, April 1, 2014, Laurel Schlemmer put her seven-year-old boy on the school bus and waved him goodbye. She returned to her house and told her three and six-year-old boys to take off their pajamas as she filled the bath tub. The fully dressed mother, once the boys were in the tub, held them under water then climbed into the tub and sat on them.

     Laurel pulled the limp bodies out of the water and laid them out on the bathroom floor. She replaced her wet clothes with dry garments. In an effort to hide the wet pieces of clothing, she bagged them up with two soaked towels and placed the container in the garage.

     At 9:40 that morning, Laurel called 911 and reported that her two sons had drowned in the bath tub. Emergency personnel rushed the Schlemmer children to the UPMC Passavant Pediatric Intensive Care Unit. An hour later, three-year-old Luke Schlemmer died. His six-year-old brother remained in critical condition.

     Questioned by detectives, Laurel said she figured she would become a better mother to her oldest son if his younger siblings weren't around. "Crazy voices" had told her the younger ones would be better off in heaven.

     Later that day, detectives booked the mother into the Allegheny County Jail in downtown Pittsburgh. Mrs. Schlemmer faced charges of homicide, attempted homicide, aggravated assault, and tampering with evidence. The judge denied her bond.

     On April 5, 2014, a spokesperson for the Allegheny County Medical Examiner's Office announced that six-year-old Daniel Schlemmer had died. The boy had been on life support at UPMC's Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh.

     At a mental competency hearing on April 7, 2014, Dr. Christine Martone, an Allegheny County psychiatrist, testified that Mrs. Schlemmer was psychotic, suicidal, and suffered from depressive disorder. Judge Jeffrey Manning, based upon this testimony, ruled the defendant mentally incompetent to stand trial.

     Judge Manning ordered the defendant committed to the Torrance State Hospital in Derry Township, a mental health facility 45 miles east of Pittsburgh.

     In Pennsylvania, defendants are considered mentally incompetent to stand trial if due to mental illness they are unable to distinguish right from wrong or cannot assist their attorneys in their defense.

     In January 2015, Judge Manning postponed the murder trial indefinitely. He also imposed a gag order that prohibited the prosecutor and defense attorney from discussing the case publicly.

     On May 5, 2016, Allegheny County Judge Jeffrey Manning, after the prosecution and the defense could not agree on a plea arrangement, set the Schlemmer murder trial for June 21, 2016. According to the defendant's attorney, Schlemmer was pursuing a defense of not guilty by reason of insanity.

     Judge Manning, on June 21, 2016, heard testimony from psychiatrist Dr. Christine Martone who opined that the defendant was still too mentally disturbed to be tried. The judge ordered the defendant to be forcibly medicated until she became mentally competent to stand trial for the murder of her sons.

     On March 16, 2017, following a bench trial (no jury) featuring psychiatric testimony on both sides, Allegheny County Judge Manning found Schlemmer guilty of two counts of third-degree murder but mentally ill. The prosecution had argued for first-degree murder, but the judge, due to the defendant's mental condition, found that she had acted in "diminished capacity." In Pennsylvania, a guilty but mentally ill sentence simply meant that the convicted person would be given the appropriate mental health medication in prison instead of a mental institution. In Schlemmer's case, she was sentenced to ten to twenty years behind bars.

The Great Milwaukee Stradivarius Heist

     At twenty after ten on the night of January 27, 2014, violinist Frank Almond, the concertmaster of the Milwaukee Orchestra, walked toward his car in the parking lot outside Wisconsin Lutheran College's auditorium where he had just performed a chamber concert. As the 49-year-old musician neared his car, a man emerged out of the darkness and stunned him with a taser gun. Almond and his violin fell to the ground. The robber picked up the 300-year-old Stradivarius and jumped into a minivan driven by a woman.

     Almond's Lipinski Strad had been given to him on "permanent loan" in 2008 by an anonymous patron. As one of 650 of Antonio Stradivari's instruments still in existence, the stolen violin was valued at $5 million.

     Milwaukee detectives immediately began viewing surveillance camera footage in search of clues. FBI agents assigned to the bureau's art theft unit were dispatched to act as consultants in the case. Investigators notified authorities with Interpol in the event the thieves tried to sell the stolen violin in Europe. A $100,000 reward went up for any information leading to the recovery of the instrument.

     On Monday, February 3, 2014, Milwaukee detectives assigned to the high-profile case arrested two men and a woman. One of the men, 41-year-old Salah Salahadyn, had pleaded guilty in 2000 to possessing a $25,000 sculpture that had been stolen from a Milwaukee art gallery in 1995. The judge sentenced him to five years in prison.

     The second man taken into custody, a 36-year-old suspect who goes by the name Universal Knowledge Allah, has no criminal record. Both suspects were charged with robbery, an offense in Wisconsin that can bring up to 15 years in prison.

     Court Commissioner Katherine Kucharski set Salahadyn's bail at $10,000, an extremely low amount given the fact Salahadyn had a lengthy criminal history that included bail jumping. The magistrate set Allah's bond at $500.

     Charges against the suspected female get-a-way driver were dropped. The authorities had not released this woman's name.

     On Wednesday, February 5, 2014, two days after the arrests, Milwaukee chief of police Edward A. Flynn announced that one of the suspects had led detectives to the stolen Stradivarius. The violin was found in a suitcase in the attic of a house in Milwaukee. The stolen instrument had never left the city. (Perhaps the woman driver in the case was the one who cooperated with detectives in return for her dropped charges.)

     In July 2014, Universal Allah was sentenced to three and a half years in prison. The Milwaukee County judge, in November 2014, sentenced Salah Salahadyn to seven years behind bars.