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Monday, November 30, 2020

The Michael Curry Murder Case

     At 5:30 in the evening on August 29, 1985, Michael L. Curry called the Columbus, Georgia Police Department and reported that someone had entered his home while he was at work and murdered his pregnant wife and his two children.

     At the gory murder scene, police discovered that 26-year-old Ann Curry, her four-year-old daughter Erika, and 20-month-old Ryan had been bludgeoned to death with an axe. The murder weapon, taken from its place of storage in the family garage, was lying next to Ann Curry's body. Detectives noticed that Michael Curry didn't have any of the crime scene blood on him, suggesting that he hadn't checked to see if any of his family members were still alive. Investigators also found it unusual that Curry had called the police department directly instead of 911.

     Other features of the murder scene bothered investigators. Someone had broken a small glass window near a back door secured by an interior deadbolt lock. The broken window was consistent with an intruder reaching in and unlocking the door. But the window had been smashed from the inside of the house, and the door was still locked. If the Curry family had been murdered by an intruder or intruders, how did they get in, and what was their motive? Nothing had been stolen from the house, drawers and closets had not been rifled through, and Ann Curry had not been sexually assaulted. If intruders had come to the dwelling to kill Ann Curry and her children, why hadn't they brought their own murder weapons? (Later, crime lab personnel found no blood or bloody fingerprints on the axe. The killer had obviously sanitized the weapon.) Was this triple murder a crime of passion, or a planned, cold-blooded execution?

      When questioned by the police, Michael Curry said he had left his place of employment at 9:40 that morning to buy a small fan for his office. At 12:55 (according to the retail receipt) he purchased the item at a K-Mart store before returning to his office at 1:10 in the afternoon. He remained in his office until quitting time, then drove home, arriving at his house shortly before 5:30 in the evening.

     In tracing the activities of Mrs. Curry and the children on the day of their deaths, investigators learned they had shopped that morning at a Sears store. After visiting her parents in Columbus, Ann headed home, arriving there at 12:37 PM. If Michael Curry had slaughtered his family, he had committed the murders between 12:37 and 12:55 PM, an 18-minute window of opportunity.

     Looking into Michael Curry's recent history, investigators learned he was having an affair, and spending nights drinking at bars with friends. Witnesses told detectives that Michael felt trapped by a growing family he couldn't afford. He longed for a bachelor's lifestyle, but couldn't afford a divorce and the resultant child support responsibilities.

     Because the forensic pathologist who performed the victim's autopsies couldn't pinpoint their times of death either within or without the 18 minutes of opportunity, Michael Curry didn't have an airtight alibi. But that also meant that a prosecutor couldn't prove the killings took place during the 18-minute timeframe.

     Following a murder inquest held in February 1986, the Muscogee County District Attorney, with no confession, eyewitnesses, or physical evidence linking Michael Curry to the murder scene, decided not to pursue the matter further. Since investigators had no other suspects, the case remained in limbo until January 2009 when a new district attorney, Julia Slater, took office. The Curry murder case came back to life as a cold case homicide investigation.

     Prosecutor Slater theorized that on the day of the murders, when shopping for a desk fan, Michael Curry saw his family at Sears. Realizing this was his opportunity to free himself of his family burden, he drove home to lay in wait. To protect himself from what he knew would be a bloody massacre, he either put on a jumpsuit or a pair of coveralls. He next smashed the window next to the backdoor to stage an intrusion. When his wife and his two children entered the house at 12:37, he attacked them with the axe. After disposing of his blood-spattered coveralls, he rushed to the K-Mart store where he purchased the fan. (When he returned to his office at 1:10 that afternoon, fellow employees noticed he was drenched in sweat.)

     On May 20, 2009, after a Muscogee Grand Jury indicted Michael Curry for murdering his pregnant wife and their two children, detectives arrested him at his home in Dalton, Georgia. He went on trial in April 2011 at the Muscogee County Superior Court in Columbus. Public defender Bob Wadkins argued that his client had an alibi, and that the state's case, based solely on circumstantial evidence, didn't rise to the level of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Wadkins chose not to put the defendant on the stand to testify on his own behalf.

     On April 27, 2011, the jury returned a verdict of guilty on all counts. Judge John Allen sentenced the 54-year-old Michael Curry to three consecutive life sentences. The convicted killer wouldn't be eligible for parole until he had served 30 years behind bars. The best he could hope for was to be set free at age 84.

     Attorney Bob Wadkins appealed Murry's conviction on grounds his client had been found guilty on insufficient evidence. On June 9, 2012, the Georgia Supreme Court unanimously upheld the jury's verdict.  

Turning Tragedy into Humor

     Unlike tragedy, a sense of humor is determined by many factors: our age, our socioeconomic backgrounds, our culture. What most of us consider tragic is fairly static, though something tragic can be made funny by comic techniques such as repetition. In Nathanael West's A Cool Million, the hero keeps losing limbs and other parts of himself as he makes his way in the world until there is very little that's left of him. You lose one limb or all your limbs at once, that's tragic. But if you lose them little by little, as well as an eye, your teeth, your hair, you start defying logic, and once you've transcended logic, most people will laugh in spite of themselves, even if they find something a little horrifying at the same time.

     Simply put, tragedy has serious and logical consequences. Cause and effect. Comedy usually doesn't. You throw a person off a tall building in a comedy, he bounces. You throw someone off a building in a tragedy, don't wait for the bounce.

Robin Hemley in How to Write Funny, John B. Kachuba, editor, 2001 

The Polygraph Effect

Lie detectors sometimes work because people believe they work, deterring the wrong people from applying for jobs in the first place, or producing admissions of guilt during interrogations.

Bill Deadman, investigative journalist, 2006

"The New York Times Book Review" Author Interviews

     Every edition of Sunday's The New York Times Book Review features an author interview column called "By the Book" where the writers of literary novels are asked questions like: What books do you have on your nightstand? What writers do you admire? What literary figures of the past would you invite to a dinner party? (These people have dinner parties.) What are you reading now? (Most of the interviewees answer this question with a long list of books and authors most readers have never heard of.) And what is the last great book you read? (The answer to this one usually results in another list of obscure literary works over the heads of people who read middle-brow genre fiction.)

     Most of the responses to the above literary questions are not only unbearably pretentious, the interviewees, I guess to portray themselves as shockingly original and fascinating (the kind of person the other interviewees would invite to a dinner party) try to sound as eccentric as your typical literary genius.

     Novelist John Green, when asked in the October 13, 2019 edition of the Book Review what book might people be surprised to find on his shelves, answered: "I have a large collection of books about conjoined twins. I used to be the conjoined twins reviewer for Booklist Magazine, which is a busier reviewing beat than one would expect. My favorite novel about conjoined twins (or formerly conjoined twins) are Sister Mine by Nalo Hopkinson, and God's Fool," by Mark Slouka."

     Really? a large collection of novels in the conjoined twins genre? The next time I'm in a Barnes & Noble I'm going to check out the conjoined twins section to see what I've been missing.

Quash or Squash?

To quash is to suppress or extinguish summarily and completely as in to quash a rebellion or a criminal indictment.

To squash is to squeeze something with force so that it becomes flat, soft, or out of shape as in to squash a grape.

One does not, therefore, squash a criminal indictment.

Straightforward, Unpretentious Writing

There are authors who write plainly and directly: "Tom walked out of his house, climbed into his car, and drove to West Virginia." Other writers give us this: "Tom emerged from his abode, eased into his vehicle, and embarked upon a journey to West Virginia." 

Sunday, November 29, 2020

The Li Hang Bin Shaken Baby Syndrome Case

     In 2007,  Li Hang Bin and his common-law wife Li Yang, immigrants from the Fujian Providence in China, resided in the Flushing section of Queens, New York. Just after midnight on October 22, 2007, Mr. Li called 911 to report that his two-month-old daughter Annie had become unresponsive, and had turned blue. The infant arrived at the emergency room thirty minutes later with a fractured skull, brain and eye injuries, two broken legs, and a fractured rib.

     According to the baby's 23-year-old father, the unhealthy infant had been ill with a fever. On the night in question, Mr. Li said he found Annie pale and unconscious. In his attempt to revive his daughter, he accidentally bumped her head against a table. It wasn't until after the baby had turned blue that Mr. Li called 911. Five days after the infant's hospitalization, Annie died.

     The forensic pathologist with the New York City Medical Examiner's Office who performed the autopsy ruled the baby's death a homicide by violent shaking and blunt force trauma. According to the forensic pathologist, the victim had all the signs associated with a shaken baby syndrome (SBS) death. The indicators included bleeding between the brain and the skull, brain swelling, and bleeding in the retina. Pathologists call this the triad of SBS symptoms.

     In March 2008, five months after the baby's death, a Queens prosecutor charged Li Hang Bin with second-degree murder, and as a backup charge, second-degree manslaughter. The prosecutor also charged Li Yang with a lesser criminal offense related to the baby's death. Both suspects were incarcerated in the city jail on Riker's Island. Fearing that they might flee to China, the magistrate denied them bail.

     Mr. Li and his 22-year-old companion insisted that the infant had not been violently shaken and bludgeoned to death. The case dragged on for five years during which time prosecutors offered the defendants plea deals involving lesser crimes and immediate release from jail. Li Hang Bin and Li Yang rejected the plea offers on the grounds they were innocent of any wrongdoing in the baby's death. Mr. Li demanded the opportunity to be exonerated at his trial. He said he was not going to admit to something he didn't do just to get out of jail.

     In January 2013, prosecutor Leigh Bishop, after dropping the charges against Li Yang, made her opening statement to the jury at Mr. Li's Queens murder trial. Prosecutor Bishop told jurors that the defendant had "violently, repeatedly, and with depraved indifference," slammed the baby's head into a hard object causing "abusive head trauma."

     Cedric Ashley, Mr. Li's defense attorney, blamed the baby's death on poor health. The lawyer said he would produce medical evidence that would explain the infant's fractured skull, broken rib, and broken legs. Ashley said these injuries had been caused by a rare disease called Osteogenesis Imperfecta, also known as brittle bone disease.

     Over the next two weeks, jurors heard testimony from a battery of medical witnesses on both sides of the issue. As is often the case involving dueling experts, the confused jurors settled for a compromise verdict. In February 2013, the jury acquitted the defendant of second degree murder, a crime that carries a sentence of 25 years to life. However, perhaps because of the severity of the victim's injuries, the jurors did not acquit the defendant of criminal homicide. They found Li Hang Bin guilty of second-degree manslaughter, the lessor offense.

     Mr. Li, who had been in jail almost five years, faced a maximum 15 year sentence. He expressed shock at his conviction, and promised to fight to clear his name. 

     On March 4, 2013, Justice Richard L. Buchter of the State Superior Court in Queens sentenced the defendant to 5 to 15 years in prison. The Chinese immigrant continued to maintain his innocence.

     Infant death cases are problematic because of the difficulty of ruling out the possibility of nonviolent, natural sources of the SBS symptoms. There are several forensic pathologists around the country who regularly testify for the defense in SBS homicide trials. A forensic pathologist who commented publicly on the Li trial, said he was between 80 and 90 percent certain that this case involved a SBS caused death. 

Keeping Ghislaine Maxwell Alive

       Ghislaine Maxwell, Jeffrey Epstein's former girlfriend, is incarcerated at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, New York. Epstein, with Maxwell's help, provided teenage girls for the sexual pleasure of themselves and their rich and powerful friends.  Following his arrest, Epstein ended up dead in his cell at the Metropolitan Detention Center. While officially his death was listed as suicide, many believe he was murdered. Prison officials, worried that Maxwell will likewise perish in her cell, have her under round-the-clock camera surveillance. She is also strip searched every 24 hours. According to Maxwell's attorney, Bobbi Sternheim, when her client is asleep, she is awaken every fifteen minutes to make sure she is alive. Attorney Sternheim has petitioned a U.S. District Court Judge to intervene on Maxwell's behalf.

     Because the general public has little sympathy for Ghislaine Maxwell, not many people will rise to her defense. However, the federal prison authorities in Brooklyn, by refusing her sleep, are at risk of driving this woman insane to the point she may not be mentally competent to stand trial. 

     In Epstein's case, gross negligence, or even wrongdoing, led to his death. In Ghislaine Maxwell's case, excessive protective measures may drive her nuts. Who's running that jail?

Karl Marx: History's Miserable Loser and Hater

Karl Marx was the foremost hater and most incessant whiner in the history of Western Civilization. He was a spoiled, overeducated brat who never grew up; he just grew more shrill as he grew older. His lifelong hatred and whining led to the deaths of perhaps a hundred million people, depending on how many people died under Mao's tyranny. We will probably never know.

Gary North, author, historian

It's Not a Matter of Good Versus Evil

In philosophy seminars, the choice is usually between good and evil. In the real world, the choice is often between a bad guy and a worse guy.

Dinesh D'Souza, author, film maker, 2018

Donald Westlake on His Writing Schedule

My work schedule has changed over the years. The one constant is, when at work on a novel, I try to work seven days a week, so as not to lose touch with that world. Within that, I'm flexible on hours and output.

Donald Westlake, author of 100 crime novels

Watch Me Write

     Sitting down to write isn't easy. A few years ago, a local high school asked me if a student who is interested in becoming a writer might come and observe me. Observe me! I had to decline. I couldn't imagine what that poor student would think, watching me sit, then stand, sit again, decide that I needed more coffee, go downstairs and make some coffee, come back up, sit again, get up, comb my hair, sit again, stare at the screen, check e-mail, stand up, pet the dog, sit again.
    You get the picture.

Dani Shapiro, Still Writing, 2013 

Saturday, November 28, 2020

The High School Teachers' Sex With Students Sentencing Double Standard

     Meredith Powell began teaching math at Lincoln High School in Tacoma, Washington in September 2012. In January 2014, the unmarried 25-year-old started sending sexually explicit text messages and erotic videos to one of her 15-year-old male students. She followed this up with sexual encounters (oral sex) with this boy and another 15-year-old student. The sexual activity took place in her classroom.

     In February 2014, the police got involved after Powell wrote a letter to the girlfriend of one of the boys. In that letter she apologized for her "unprofessional" and "drunken" text messages.

     Following a brief investigation, Tacoma police officers arrested Meredith Powell for having sex with two of her students. A Pierce County prosecutor charged the teacher with two counts of child rape and several lesser offenses. After her release from the county jail on bond, the superintendent of the Tacoma School District placed the accused teacher on unpaid leave pending the outcome of her case.

     In July 2014, Powell pleaded guilty to two counts of third-degree child rape and one count of communicating with a minor for immoral purposes.

     At Powell's sentencing hearing on August 29, 2014 before Pierce County Superior Court Judge Frank Cuthbertson, Shannon McMinimee, the attorney for the school district, urged the judge to impose a tough sentence. McMinimee reminded the judge that this teacher had committed child rape. (No doubt the school district wanted the judge to send a message to other teachers in the system that having sex with a student was a serious crime.)

     The defendant's attorney, Wayne Fricke, in arguing for a light sentence, called his client "an upstanding individual who went through a rough patch last fall. She didn't handle the situation well and got herself into this situation," he said. (Had the defense attorney said this in reference to a male client who'd had sex with a female student, he would have been laughed out of court.)

     The defendant rose to her feet, and speaking to the judge, said, "I feel like words can't even express how sorry I am. I wish I could take back what happened to the students I failed. Sorry doesn't take away anything that happened, but I hope they [her victims] can move forward with as little impact as possible. I pray every day for the two boys. I'm heartbroken over the suffering I caused them and their families."

     When it came time to hand down his sentence, Judge Cuthbertson said, "This is difficult, this is different, this is not what we usually see. Everything suggests this is out of character for you. But again, you need to understand the severe impact this case has had not only on the victims but on their families."

     The judge sentenced the former teacher to five years. However, he suspended all but six months of that penalty. As part of the sentence the judge ordered Powell to enroll in a program for first-time sex offenders.

     Upon hearing the sentence, the victims' parents could be heard cursing as they stormed out of the courtroom. The attorney for the school district told reporters that she had hoped for a longer period of incarceration. She said the state had revoked Powell's license to teach.

     When a male teacher has consensual sex with a 15-year-old female student, he will almost always be sentenced to at least two years in prison, often longer. This sentencing double standard suggests that some judges, in cases where the defendant is a woman and the student is male, believe that boys are crime victims in name only. Girls, on the other hand, are victims of adult male dominance.

The "Mean World Syndrome"

Professor George Gerbner (1919-2005) taught communications at Temple University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Southern California. In the 1970s, he came up with what he called the "Mean World Syndrome." According to Professor Gerbner, the more media people consumed, the more likely they were to believe the world was a dangerous place. Gerbner also believed that: "Fearful people are more easily manipulated and controlled, more susceptible to deceptively simple, strong, tough measures and hard-line postures. They may accept and even welcome repression if it promises to relieve their insecurities."

The Serial Killer As An Insecure, Narcissistic Loser

Within just about every serial predator, there are two warring elements: a feeling of grandiosity, specialness, and entitlement, together with deep-seated feelings of inadequacy and powerlessness and a sense that they have not gotten the breaks that they should.

John E. Douglas, The Killer Across The Table, 2019

Social Media's Role in Jury Selection

     These days, the process of jury selection has been transformed by the prevalence of online conversations. Choosing the best jurors for your case no longer depends exclusively on each person's answers to a questionnaire and their responses during the voir dire interviews.

     Your due diligence when empaneling a jury now includes checking each potential juror's social media posts to ascertain the person's perspective as it affects the case. This background checking process involves looking deeper than simply searching for any comments about the actual case that is being tried.

     You also need to examine social media profiles to gain an overall view of each person's general worldview, lifestyle and political stance. For example, a potential juror with very strong online statements related to gun control may not be able to be unbiased when seated on a jury for a gun-related crime.

Peter Hecht, Magna Legal Services, October 24, 2016

James Dickey's "Deliverance": A Novel Eclipsed by Its Movie

Deliverance, the debut novel by James Dickey, has reached the polished age of 50...First published in 1970, the novel was a critically acclaimed bestseller and boosted the growing celebrity of its author. However, the 1972 film, which Stephen Farber of The New York Times called the "most stunning piece of moviemaking released this year," quickly eclipsed the novel in the consciousness and imagination of the American movie-going public. Today, if you search for "Deliverance," you must scroll and click into the second page of Google results to find any lead articles about the novel--dominated so thoroughly on the internet by the film--making it easy to wonder if the novel will slip out of print, its semi-centennial unheralded.

S. Tremaine Nelson, Vanderbilt Magazine, Fall 2020

     

Crime Writing: Fact Versus Fiction

Crime fiction can offer an author escape from reality and have great therapeutic value. Conversely, true crime writing is a cold, hard plunge into someone else's reality where you have little or no control over the story. There is no escapism for the true crime writer sifting through the memories of a bereaved mother or listening to a murderer in gory detail, yet that's what you're expected to deliver. 

Jax Miller, American crime novelist, August 17, 2020 

Friday, November 27, 2020

The Young Female Arsonist

     Arson-for-profit is generally an adult male crime while serial, pathological fire setting is often committed by teenage boys. The rare female arsonist is likely to be a 30 to 50-year-old woman who set the fire in her dwelling to attract attention and sympathy. It's even rarer when a young girl intentionally sets a fire that causes extensive property damage. Because fires set by females are generally not motivated by financial gain, they are by definition pathological offenses. This doesn't necessarily mean that these fire setters are legally insane. In cases of  young female arsonists, the perpetrators set the fires because they are angry with their parents, their teachers, or the world in general. 

     On May 14, 2014, someone set a fire north of San Diego that raged for eight days and burned 2,000 acres and destroyed 40 buildings, including homes in the towns of San Marcos and Escondido, California. The so-called Cocos Wildfire threatened several schools including California State University in San Marcos.

     The Cocos Wildfire cost $28 million to extinguish and destroyed $30 million worth of property. According to cause and origin investigators, the fire had been intentionally set.

     In July 2014,  arson investigators identified an unnamed 13-year-old girl as the suspected Cocos fire starter. She resided near the point of origin with her parents who schooled her at home. She was also a top competitor in the San Diego area junior cycling program. 

     Rather than being placed into a juvenile detention facility, the authorities released the suspected arsonist to the custody of her parents. Under the terms of this arrangement she was not allowed out of the house from six in the evening to six in the morning. The rest of the day, she was accompanied by a parent when she left the house.

     Superior Court Judge Aaron Katz ordered that the young defendant undergo psychological evaluation to determine if she was mentally competent to stand trial on the charges of felony arson. On August 20, 2014, following a three-week evaluation process, Juvenile Court Judge Rod Shelton found the suspect mentally competent to stand trial. She had, according to the psychologists, the capacity to understand the nature of the charges against her as well as the ability to help her attorney plan a defense.

     At the suspect's arraignment on the felony arson charges she pleaded not guilty.

     In March 2015, the young fire setter was found guilty of several counts of arson, The judge sentenced the juvenile to 400 hours of community service.

Wrong House Raid in Alabama

     During the early morning hours of June 27, 2006, a total of 100 federal, state, and local drug enforcement agents and officers raided 23 homes in Decatur, Huntsville, Madison, and Hartsville, Alabama. The raids culminated a two-year investigation of a Mexican-based cocaine, marijuana, and methamphetamine trafficking operation doing business in the northern part of the state. That morning, officers with the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Task Force arrested 29 people, including Jerome Wallace, a 28-year-old who lived on Honey Way, a dirt road in rural Limestone County. A police Officer arrested Jerome as he stood in his front yard while task force members, in search of him, broke into the wrong house down the road. The wrong house these officers raided belonged to Wallace's uncle, Kenneth Jamar.

     Just before daybreak, several vans rolled down Honey Way, and parked across from Kenneth Jamar's house. Agents with the DEA, ATF, FBI, and ICE, and the Alabama Bureau of Investigation, along with Alabama state troopers and SWAT teams from Huntsville and Madison County, alighted from their vehicles. A few seconds after one of the officers yelled, "Open Up! Police!" they broke into the house through the front door. Even if the 51-year-old semi-invalid with severe gout and a pace-maker had heard the officers announce themselves, he could not have made it to the door in time to let them in. Had he tried, Mr. Jamar would have walked into a flash bang grenade explosion.

     Mr. Jamar, in his bedroom when he heard his front door bashed open and the stun grenade go off, picked up his pistol. SWAT team officers, when they kicked open Mr. Jamar's bedroom door, saw him standing next to his bed holding the handgun. Armed with semi-automatic rifles, the officers opened fire. One of the 16 bullets from their rifles hit Mr. Jamar in the hip, another in the groin, and a third in the foot. He went down without firing a shot.

     Paramedics rushed Mr. Jamar, in critical condition, to a hospital in Huntsville where he spent two weeks in the intensive care unit. After searching his house, the police confiscated Mr. Jamar's gun collection. Perhaps because the SWAT team had broken into the wrong house, the Limestone County prosecutor chose not to charge Mr. Jamar with attempted assault.

     In the days and weeks following this police involved shooting, newspaper accounts of the raid were sketchy because Mike Blakely, the sheriff of Limestone County, the official heading up the internal investigation of the incident, did not release much information to the media. According to Sheriff Blakely, the officers had to "neutralize" a man who was "aggressively resisting." When a reporter asked the sheriff to comment on the wrong house aspect of the raid, he said, "I guess you could call it a clerical error over the address, but I don't think Jamar's dwelling even has a street address." This begged the question: if Mr Jamar's house didn't have a street address, how could there have been "a clerical error over the address?"

     Because the SWAT officers who shot Kenneth Jamar were not personally responsible for the wrong house raid, and had fired their weapons in self defense, they were cleared of criminal wrongdoing. Kenneth Jamar, in June 2008, filed a $7.5 million lawsuit in federal court claiming that the city of Huntsville, and other entities, had violated his civil rights. In April 2011, the Huntsville city council voted to settle Kenneth Jamar's suit for $500,000.

Law School as the Last Resort

I studied philosophy in college and didn't realize until my senior year that no one would pay me to philosophize when I graduated. My frantic search for a "post-graduation plan" led me to law school mostly because other graduate programs required you to know something about your field of study to enroll; law schools, it seemed, didn't require you to know anything.

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

Avoiding Danger: Trust Your Instincts

Just as we look to government and experts, we also look to technology for solutions to our problems, but you will see that your personal solution to violence will not come from technology, it will come from an even greater resource that was there all the while, within you. That resource is intuition. 

Gavin de Baker, The Gift of Fear: And Other Survival Signals That Protect Us From Violence, 1997 

Women on Death Row

Women account for five percent of death sentences in the United States. Less than one percent of death row inmates who are actually executed are female. The last woman executed by the federal government was Bonnie Heady who was put to death in 1953 for kidnapping and murder. The last woman to be executed by a state was 47-year-old Kelly Renee Gissendaner who died by lethal injection in Georgia in September 2015. Gissendaner was convicted of orchestrating the murder of her husband.  

The Bookstore Book Signing

When I'm sitting in a bookstore, autographing a book for a customer, I dread hearing the words: "You're the author. Why don't you sign it and write something clever?

Tess Gerritsen, Murderati (blog) "A Writer's Life" December 30, 2018

Thursday, November 26, 2020

The Andrew McCormack Murder Case

     On September 23, 2017, 31-year-old Andrew McCormack and his 1-year-old daughter entered their home in Revere, Massachusetts. McCormack had returned to the house after finishing a carpentry job at a friend's place. Shortly after arriving home, Mr. McCormack called 911 and reported that someone had entered the dwelling in his absence and murdered his wife. 

     Police officers found 30-year-old Vanessa Nasucci lying face down on the bedroom floor with a half-filled garbage bag over her head. The bag had been taken from the kitchen trash container. When a first responder removed the bag, it became obvious that the Vanessa Nasucci had been brutally beaten. An autopsy revealed she had also been stabbed many times and strangled. 
     The murder bedroom gave off a strong scent of bleach, and there were chemical burns on the victim's body. Investigators believed the killer had used bleach to destroy crime scene evidence. A large kitchen knife was missing from the kitchen butcher's block, and there was no evidence of forced entry into the house. Moreover, the victim had not been sexually attacked, and nothing had been stolen from the dwelling. The fact the killer had taken the time to sanitize the crime scene suggested that Vanessa Nasucci had not been murdered by an intruder. Suspicion immediately fell up the husband, Andrew McCormack.
     Detectives quickly determined that the couple's marriage had been on the rocks. To support his $500-a-day cocaine habit, Andrew McCormack had drained his wife's credit card accounts, forged checks on her bank account, and had even stolen her wedding ring. On the day of the murder, after finishing the carpentry job, McCormack took his 1-year-old daughter with him to East Boston where he purchased cocaine from his drug dealer. 
     Shortly before her murder, Vanessa Nasucci, a second grade teacher at Connery Elementary in Lynn, Massachusetts, told her husband that she planned to sell the house and hire a divorce attorney. 
     A week after the murder, police officers arrested Andrew McCormack on the charge of first-degree murder. He was booked into the Suffolk County Jail. Through his attorney, the suspect pleaded not guilty. The magistrate denied him bail. 
     The Andrew McCormack murder trial got underway in mid-October 2019 in a Suffolk County courtroom. The prosecution, without a murder weapon, an eyewitness, confession, or physical evidence connecting the defendant directly to the murder, had an entirely circumstantial case. What the prosecutor had was a strong case of motive, means, and opportunity, and the argument that, given the facts of the case, it was unreasonable to conclude that anyone other than the defendant had committed this murder.
     The defense relied heavily on reasonable doubt, and the position that investigators never considered the possibility that someone other than Andrew McCormack had murdered his wife.
     On November 16, 2019, following eleven days of testimony, the jury, after deliberating a week, found Andrew McCormack guilty of first-degree murder. At his sentencing hearing on December 2, 2019, the convicted killer said this to the judge: "I did not murder her. There is someone else getting away with murder." 
     The Suffolk County judge sentenced McCormack to life in prison without the possibility of parole.  

Boy Scouts of America: A Once Trusted Organization Brought Down by Pedophiles

        In February 2020, Boy Scouts of America, with hundreds of sex abuse lawsuits pending against the organization, filed for bankruptcy. Future plaintiffs with claims of forced sex, fondling, and/or exposure to pornography, were told to bring their cases against the organization before November 16, 2020. In the weeks leading up to the deadline, 90,000 sexual abuse suits were filed. 

     Although Boy Scouts of America is uniquely chartered by the U.S. Congress, not one member of Congress has publicly mentioned the bankruptcy or the decades of sexual abuse that has scandalized and diminished the organization. 

     Documents show that Boy Scout of America's leaders identified many known abusers within the organization but failed to notify the authorities or the parents of the victims. 

     At its height, the Boy Scouts had more than 4 million members. Now, even though membership has been opened to girls, there are less than 2 million scouts.

The Last Man to be Executed by Guillotine

On September 10, 1977 at Les Baumettes Prison in France, Hamida Djandoubi was the last man in the world executed by guillotine. The Tunisian agricultural worker, while employed in Marseille, France, tortured and murdered his former girlfriend, 22-year-old Elisabeth Bousquet. 

Hybristophiliacs: Women Who Love Serial Killers

Hybristophiliacs are women who are sexually attracted to serial killers. For every serial killer in the news, an average of 100 women write them fan letters. Ted Bundy, during his murder trial, received 200 fan letters a day and married Carole Anne Boone. The wedding ceremony was held in the courtroom. Doreen Lioy, a magazine editor with a college degree in English literature, fell madly in love with Richard Ramirez the moment she saw his picture. Ramirez was the serial killer known as "Night Stalker." Lioy wrote Ramirez dozens of love letters and attended his trial. She also purchased pieces of his clothing. According to psychologists, hybristophiliacs are usually submissive, narcissistic enablers who are attracted to power.

Living and Dying on Death Row

The average death row inmate lives 15 years between his sentence and his execution. Nearly a quarter of death row prisoners die of natural causes during this period.

A Hilariously Bad Opening Sentence

"On their first date he'd asked her how much she thought Edgar Allan Poe's toe nails would sell on eBay, and on their second he paid for subway fare with nickels he fished out of a fountain, but he was otherwise charming and she thought that they could have a perfectly tolerable life together."

Jessica Sasishara's entry in the annual Bulwer-Lytton opening bad sentence contest, 2012

Law: A Literary Profession

The law is a literary profession, and lawyers are professional writers. The legal profession lives and breathes through the written word: letters, briefs, opinions, contracts, memoranda, and other products.

James E. Moliterno and Frederick L. Lederer, An Introduction to Law, Law Study, and the Lawyer's Role, 1991 

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

A Criminal Atrocity in China

     On August 24, 2013, outside the Shanxi Province town of Linfen in rural northeast China, a woman grabbed 6-year-old Guo Bin as he walked along a path not far from his home. This woman lured the boy into a field where, in a shocking act of brutality, she used a sharp instrument to gouge out his eyes. Several hours later, a member of Guo Bin's family found the boy, his face covered in blood, wandering in a field on the family farm.

     In China, due to a donor shortage, corneas were worth thousands of dollars on the black market. As a result, investigators considered the possibility that the boy had been victimized by an organ trafficker. The authorities abandoned this theory when at the site of the attack, crime scene investigators recovered the boy's eyeballs with the corneas in tact. Police officers also recovered a bloody purple shirt presumably worn by the assailant.

     A witness reported seeing the boy that afternoon with an unidentified woman wearing a purple shirt. According to Guo Bin, the woman who attacked him spoke with an accent from outside the region. She also had dyed blond hair. The victim told investigators that this woman had used a sharp stick to cut out his eyeballs. Based on the nature of the boy's wounds however, doctors believed he had been attacked with a knife.

     According to physicians, Guo Bin, with a visual prosthesis, might someday regain partial vision. Following the attack, the boy's family received $160,000 in donations from members of the public.

     Six days after the gruesome assault, 41-year-old Zhang Huiyang, the victim's aunt, killed herself by jumping into a well. While Guo Bin did not identify his aunt as the assailant, and she did not match his description of the attacker, the authorities, through DNA, linked her to the purple shirt found at the crime scene.

     The boy's mother, in speaking to an Associated Press reporter, pointed out that in the days and weeks following the assault, her traumatized son had been disoriented. "It is easy to understand why he wasn't clear about the situation," she said.

     Since there was no rational motive behind such a senseless assault, the Chinese authorities assumed the boy's aunt was mentally ill.

Behind the Wheel: Drunk and Narcissistic

     On October 13, 2015, 23-year-old Whitney Beall, while driving from one bar to another in her 2015 Toyota Corolla in Lakeland, Florida, recorded her alcohol intoxication by video on the social media app Periscope. "Let's have fun! Let's have fun!" she repeatedly exclaimed into the little camera. Also: "Hi everybody in different countries. I really hope you don't mind that I drive, because in the USA it is really important."

     Beall declared herself unfit to drive when she said, " I'm driving drunk and this is not cool. I haven't been arrested yet, and I really don't hope so." A few minutes later she announced this into the video camera: "I'm driving home drunk, let's see if I get a DUI."

     Several people watching the live-steamed video called 911 to report the drunken driver who was exhibiting her condition to the world.

     Lakeland patrol officer Mike Kellner spotted a 2015 Toyota Corolla being driven on the wrong side of the road. He pulled the car over and encountered the social media sensation, Whitney Beall.

     Beall and her car reeked of alcohol, and her eyes were bloodshot and glassy. In addressing the officer, Beall made a series of slurred, rambling statements that included the claim she was lost and driving on a flat tire.

     After failing the field sobriety test, Officer Kellner took the suspect into custody. After refusing to take a breathalyzer test, officers booked Beall into the Polk County Jail on the charge of driving under the influence. It was her first DUI arrest.

     The day following her DUI charge, Beall made bond and was released from custody. To a reporter she said, "It was a big mistake and I'm learning my lesson." Fortunately, her "big mistake" and learning experience didn't kill someone.

     In February 2016, Beall pleaded no contest to driving under the influence. The judge sentenced her to a six month license suspension, ten days of vehicle impoundment, and a year of probation.

Origins of the Serial Killer Culture

In the 1990s there were all sorts of secondary stories related to serial killing. First was the movie Silence of the Lambs, which introduced into mass consciousness the idea of FBI profilers and the character of serial killer Hannibal Lecter. The controversies of Bred Easton Ellis's book American Psycho, the marketing of serial killer trading cards, AOL's closing of Sondra London's serial killer web site, the market for artworks created by serial killers, and online auctions of their artifacts all contributed to a prevailing serial killer culture.

Peter Vronsky, Serial Killers: the Method and Madness of Monsters, 2004

The Legal Windfall

Americans feel that if something untoward happens to them, someone else ought to pay. In Richmond, California in the mid-1990s, lawyers had a field day. An explosion in the local chemical works spread fumes over the city. Within hours a swarm of lawyers descended on the town and persuaded 70,000 of them to issue claims. The insurers of the plant were obliged to pay out a total of $180 million, of which the lawyers creamed off $40 million.

Ronald Irving, The Law Is An Ass, 2011 

The Novelist's Crutch

Many novelists use alcohol to help themselves write--to calm their anxiety, lift their inhibitions. This may work for awhile, but eventually the writing suffers. The unhappy writer then drinks more; the writing then suffers more, and so on.

Joan Acocella, The New Yorker, June 21, 2004 

Rousseau and Franklin: Shaping the History of Autobiography

When Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) completed his Confessions in 1770 he introduced the secular hero into European literature and recounted his own life in a form and style which influenced male life histories well into the twentieth century. Rousseau set the pattern which required the autobiographer to record the shaping influences of his childhood and the emotions of his maturity. But even as Rousseau set down his denunciation of aristocratic privilege and contrasted his real emotional life with received values, an American contemporary, Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), was forging another male life plot, which preempted much of the foreground of nineteenth-century male autobiography. Franklin's self-presentation defined for the first time the archetypal figure of the capitalist hero, rebellious against inherited privilege, scornful of inefficiency and of waste, driven by economic motives which never figured in Rousseau's wildest dreams. While Rousseau wanted to compel an inattentive society to recognize his literary and dramatic genius, Franklin describes himself as content to accumulate wealth, and to instruct the rest of the world about the moral and economic qualities which earned him his wealth, and through it status and public recognition.

Jill Ker Conway, When Memory Speaks, 1998 

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

The Lori Isenberg Poison-Murder Case

      In 2018, Laurcene "Lori" Barnes Isenberg, the Executive Director of North Idaho Housing Cooperative, a non-profit organization created to help low-income families, resided with her 68-year old husband, Larry Isenberg, in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. Mr. Isenberg had a 39-year-old son from a former marriage, and his 66-year-old wife had four daughters from her first husband. 

     On the morning of February 13, 2018, Lori Isenberg called 911. To the emergency dispatcher she reported that while boating with her husband on Lake Coeur d'Alene, he had fallen overboard.

     As a water recovery team searched for Mr. Isenberg, Lori Isenberg told deputies with the Kootenai County Sheriff's Office that her husband had been ill with the flu, but had insisted on taking her on a boat ride that morning. While attempting to restart the boat's stalled electric motor, he toppled into the water. When she couldn't find him, she called 911 from his cellphone, 

     In a written police statement, Lori Isenberg described her husband's fall this way: "He stood up, looked at me with a confused look on his face and started to fall over. I jumped up and tried to get him, but I tripped on the heater and banged my head and couldn't reach him in time." 

    Searchers were unable to recover Mr. Isenberg's body. At this point the authorities presumed he had drowned as a result of a boating accident. Perhaps he'd suffered a stroke, lost his balance, and toppled out of the boat. At this point, no one believed that his death had been the result of foul play. 

     The day following Mr. Isenberg's presumed death, Lori Isenberg put the family home up for sale. She also gave her daughters personal items that were once owned by Mr. Isenberg. 

     On February 24, 2018, with Larry Isenberg still missing and presumed dead, FBI agents arrested Lori Isenberg on 40 counts of federal wire fraud and one count of theft. Over a period of years, the Executive Director of North Idaho Housing Coalition had created thousands of forged invoices that enabled her to embezzled $570,000 from the non-profit organization. Her four daughters, having knowingly received some of the stolen money, were charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud and theft. 

     After pleading not guilty to the charges, a federal magistrate set Lori Isenberg's bail at $2 million. She was held in the Kootenai County Jail on the federal charges. 

     On March 1, 2018, Larry Isenberg's body was seen floating near the shore of Lake Coeur d'Alene. The forensic pathologist who performed the autopsy, based on the results of a toxicological analysis that showed a lethal dose of the drug diphenhydramine in Mr. Isenberg's system, ruled his manner of death homicide by poisoning. Diphenhydramine is an ingredient commonly found in over the counter sleeping aid and pain pills. The forensic pathologist did not publicly reveal how Mr. Isenberg had been given the poison.

     Investigators with the Kootenai County Sheriff's Office, with Lori Isenberg as the prime suspect, launched a murder investigation. In the course of that inquiry, detectives learned that in late 2017, when Mr. Isenberg and his wife were vacationing in Florida, she made an Internet inquiry about rental boats, lake currents, weather conditions, and water depths pertaining to another Coeur d'Alene area lake called Lake Pend Oreville. While on that Florida trip, detectives had reason to believe that Lori Isenberg tried to kill her husband with diphenhydramine. As for motive, homicide investigators believed that Lori Isenberg was afraid that if her husband learned she had embezzled from her employer, he would have divorced her.

     Detectives also learned that just weeks before Larry Isenberg's death, his wife had made handwritten changes to his will. As a result of these crude alterations, the will devised 80 percent of his estate to her four daughters. 

     In the spring of 2019, Lori Isenberg pleaded guilty to defrauding North Idaho Housing Coalition of $570,000. The judge sentenced her to five years in federal prison. Her daughters were sentenced to three years probation, community service, and were ordered to pay back the stolen money they had received.

     A Kootenai County grand jury, in January 2020, indicted Lori Isenberg on the charge of first-degree murder for poisoning her husband to death, then throwing him off the boat into the waters of Lake Coeur d'Alene. At the time of the indictment, Lori Isenberg was serving time for wire fraud and theft at a federal prison. 

     In March 2020, due to COVID-19, the Idaho Supreme Court delayed all criminal jury trials in the state. Lori Isenberg's murder trial was postponed to August 3, 2020. The trial was postponed again to September 14, 2020, then again to early 2021.

America's Executioners

      From 1926 to 1939, Robert Green Elliott, an electrician from Long Island, New York, the official executioner for six states, electrocuted 387 death row inmates. On January 6, 1927, Elliott executed six men in two states on the same day. In the morning he dispatched three men at the Massachusetts State Prison in Charleston, and in the afternoon, he put to death three men at Sing Sing Prison in New York. Mr. Elliott was paid $150 per execution, but when he killed two or more inmates at the same prison on the same visit, he discounted his fee. 

     Some of Robert Elliott's most infamous executions included Lindbergh kidnapper Bruno Richard Hauptmann who died in the electric chair in April 1936; Ruth Snyder and Judd Grey, executed in 1928 for the murder of Ruth's husband Albert; and Italian anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, executed in 1927 for the murder of a Boston bank guard. 

     Proud of his work, Robert Elliott craved publicity and became a minor celebrity. His memoir, Angel of Death, written with a co-author, came out in 1940, a year before his death. The book is now a collector's item.

     Robert Elliott, in 1926, was named the official executioner in six states when John Hubburt, a man who had executed 140 inmates, retired. Both men were trained by America's first official state executioner, Edwin Jones. 

     Following Robert Elliott's retirement, most executioners kept a low profile. One exception was Sam Jones, an electrician from Louisiana who executed hundreds of inmates. Like Robert Elliott, Jones was proud of his work. He was interviewed by forensic psychiatrist Dr. Dorothy Lewis in a 1980s television documentary. According to Dr. Lewis, Mr. Jones' attitude regarding killing people was not unlike that of a serial killer. Dr. Lewis expressed concern that in America there was no shortage of people who would enjoy the act of legally executing someone. (Dr. Lewis, the creator of the multiple personality disorder, believed that all murderers were insane and as such should not be executed.)

Screenwriters: What's With The Toothbrushing Scenes?

It seems that every movie featuring a couple incorporates a scene with the man and woman standing side-by-side in the bathroom brushing their teeth. And the exaggerated way they do it suggests training in theatrical tooth brushing. And like everything else theatrical, it comes off phony. In real life, people don't brush their teeth that way. These scenes are not only phony and annoying, they do nothing to move the story forward. So, screenwriters: enough with the tooth brushing. Break new ground by not doing it. Please.  

One's Writing Vocabulary

All of us possesses a reading vocabulary as big as a lake but draw from a writing vocabulary as small as a pond. [Our speaking vocabulary is somewhere in between.]

Roy Peter Clark, Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, 2006


The Ghostwriter

A ghostwriter who has only a lay knowledge of the subject will be able to keep asking the same questions as the lay reader, and will open up the potential readership of the book to a much wider audience.

Robert Harris, The Ghostwriter, 2010

Monday, November 23, 2020

An FBI Agent Brought Down by Drugs

     Matthew Lowry grew up in Upper Marlboro, Maryland. His father worked as an officer with the Prince George's County Police Department, and his mother was an active member of their Baptist Church. Matthew graduated in 1999 from the Grace Brethren Christian School in Clinton, Maryland where he played soccer, wrestled, and was a member of the National Honor Society. A few years after graduating from the University of Maryland with a bachelor's degree in Criminology, he became a Special Agent with the FBI.

     In 2013, Agent Lowry was assigned to the FBI field office in Washington, D.C. where he was part of a task force that focused on drug crimes along the borders of D.C, Maryland, and Virginia. He resided in a two-bedroom townhouse in the district with his wife Shana who worked as a senior territory manager for a global pharmaceutical company. His father, retired from the Prince George's Police Department, held the position of assistant police chief at an Anne Arundel County law enforcement agency.

     In August 2013, Special Agent Lowry began stealing packets of heroin from the Washington Field Office's evidence room. He had been taking prescription medication for an old injury but had switched to heroin.

     Stealing heroin from the field office's evidence room was easy. Agent Lowry checked out packages of the contraband on the pretext of having the narcotics tested at the FBI Laboratory. Instead, he removed a quantity of the substance from each packet, cut what was left with either the supplement Creatine or the laxative Purelax, weighed the packages on a digital scale to bring them to their original weights, then returned the attenuated heroin to the evidence room in bags with new stickers signifying they had been sealed.

     Agent Lowry got away with his thefts because of the lack of supervision and checks and balances built into the evidence handling procedure at the FBI field office.

     On September 29, 2014, Agent Lowry's bureau colleagues lost track of him. That night, they found the 33-year-old slumped over the wheel of his FBI car. The vehicle had run out of gas near the Washington Navy Yard.

     Inside Lowry's car, agents found opened packets of heroin scattered about. They also found a shotgun and a pistol, evidence seized from a drug raid that was never logged into the evidence room.

     The Special Agent in Charge of the Washington Field Office suspended Agent Lowry pending the outcome of an internal investigation conducted by agents from other field divisions. In 2014, federal prosecutors, as a result of Lowry's evidence-handling scandal, had to dismiss drug charges against 28 defendants.

     The Lowry case caused high level bureau administrators to institute an internal review of the evidence handling procedures in all 56 FBI field offices.

      On March 3, 2015, a federal prosecutor in Washington, D.C. charged the former agent with 20 counts of obstruction of justice, 18 counts of falsification of records, 13 counts of conversion of property, and 13 counts of possession of heroin. 

    On March 31, 2015, Lowry's attorney announced that his client had pleaded guilty in federal court.

    U.S. District Court Judge Thomas F. Hogan, on July 9, 2015, sentenced Matthew Lowry to three years in prison. The judge denied Lowry's plea for home detention on the grounds that his crimes had tainted dozens of major FBI drug cases.

Female Serial Killers Get No Respect

Female serial killers haven't received anywhere the same amount of attention from the media or from criminologists as males have. Even researchers on psychology have tended to focus on male populations. There's a common erroneous assumption that because females are "nurturing," they won't be violent. But we have had female serial killers who have shot, stabbed, smothered (with enormous weight), and even used chainsaws and ice picks.

Dr. Katherine Ramsland, nonfiction author of forensic psychology books, 2009

Pick Your Facebook Friends Carefully

Do not accept a Facebook friend request from Lizzie Borden. You will get hacked.

pinterest.com

Mexican Methamphetamine

Methamphetamine was once a drug mostly made in home labs in America. But over the past few years Mexican cartels have cornered the market on meth production with a purer and cheaper form of the drug. Meth seizures along the border increased 255 percent from over 8,400 kilograms, or some 18,500 pounds worth, in 2012 to 30,081 kilograms (more than 66,000 pounds) in 2017.

Morgan Phillips, Fox News, November 19, 2019

How a Writer's Life Influences His Writing

I've been drinking too much lately and have made plans to cut it down somewhat. Also there have been some rough seas on the home front. Everything seems to get in the way of the writing but maybe it creates it too.

Charles Bukowski in Charles Bukowski: Selected Letters 1971-1986, edited by Seamus Cooney, 2004

Nora Roberts on Novelist Carl Hiaasen

Any good story will have some humor somewhere, whether it's in the situation, the dialogue, the action. But if I want laugh-out-loud funny, I'm going to grab anything by Carl Hiaasen, and I know I'm going to get a good story with memorably quirky characters along with the laughs.

Nora Roberts, The New York Times Book Review, February 11, 2015 

Sunday, November 22, 2020

The Orlando Hall Murder Case

      In September 1994, 23-year-old Orlando Hall ran a marijuana trafficking operation in Arkansas. That month, he and 21-year-old Bruce Carnell drove to Arlington, Texas to confront a man Hall believed had stolen $5,000 from him. At the man's apartment, Hall and Carnell encountered his16-year-old sister who was home alone. When Lisa Rene refused Hall and his accomplice entry, they broke into the apartment and kidnapped her. In the car on their way back to Arkansas, Hall and Carnell raped Lisa Rene. At a hotel in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, the men, over at two day period, continued to rape and torture her.

     From the hotel in Pine Bluff, Orlando Hall and Bruce Carnell drove the victim to a nearby park where they dug a grave, hit their victim with a shovel, then buried her alive.

     Because the Lisa Rene kidnapping involved the crossing of the Texas/Arkansa state lines, the case was handled as a federal kidnapping offense, a death penalty crime when the kidnapped person is harmed or killed.

     Following the kidnapping convictions of Orlando Hall and Bruce Carnell in1996, federal judges sentenced the men to death.

     In 2019, because Bruce Carnell had an I.Q. of 69, a federal judge reduced his sentence to life.

     On November 19, 2020, after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to intervene, Orlando Hall was executed by lethal injection at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana.

Prostitution:The Young Sex Slave

     On February 5, 2003, a judge sentenced 20-year-old Rasul Abernathy, a resident of Coatesville, a Philadelphia suburb in eastern Pennsylvania, to three to ten years for selling drugs. He began serving his time at the State Correctional Institution (SCI) in nearby Chester, Pennsylvania. Two months later, prison authorities transferred Abernathy to SCI-Greenburg, a Westmoreland County facility east of Pittsburgh in the southwestern part of the state.

     On March 28, 2005, after serving slightly more than two years behind bars, Abernathy was granted parole. He returned to the Philadelphia area. After twenty months of freedom, Abernathy violated the conditions of his parole and landed back at SCI-Chester. Prison administrators, on February 6, 2007, transferred Abernathy back to the state prison in Greensburg.

     On January 28, 2008, 29-year-old Postauntaramin Walker, a resident of North Versailles, a community outside of Pittsburgh, began working as a corrections officer at SCI-Greensburg. That's where she met inmate Rasul Abernathy. Upon his parole on September 24, 2008, Abernathy moved in with the prison guard.

     Abernathy, in June 2012, encountered a 16-year-old girl who had run away from a western Pennsylvania juvenile facility. The girl accepted his invitation to live with him and Walker. Walker was still employed as a prison guard at SCI-Greensburg. She knew the girl was wanted by the authorities.

     A month after taking the runaway in, Abernathy and Walker turned the girl out as a teen prostitute. They posted online ads featuring provocative photographs of the young sex worker. To ease the girls's anxiety over turning tricks, her ex-con and corrections officer handlers kept her supplied with marijuana, alcohol, and pain pills. Abernathy set the young prostitute's fees and took care of the business end of the vice operation. When the girl refused to cooperate, her handlers beat her.

     In October 2012, the girl reached out to a former counselor she liked. She told the counselor about her life as an involuntary prostitute, but out of fear, did not identify her captors. The counselor notified the authorities. A short time later, the police picked the girl up and placed her back into the juvenile facility.

     Five months after re-entering the juvenile detention center, the girl escaped. She called Walker who welcomed her back into the sex trade. A few weeks after the young prostitute and her pimps were re-united in North Versailles, prison authorities transferred Walker across the state to SCI-Chester. Abernathy, Walker, and their young sex worker moved into an apartment in Coatesville outside of Philadelphia.

     In March 2013, one of Abernathy's ex-con acquaintances raped the girl. Instead of punishing the rapist, Abernathy shrugged off the assault by calling it a "learning experience." The incident motivated the teen prostitute to run off and return to the Pittsburgh area. A few weeks later, she was back in the juvenile facility where she spilled the beans, this time identifying Abernathy and Walker as her pimps.

     Back in the Philadelphia area, Abernathy and Walker were busy pimping out a 17-year-old male prostitute.

     In November 2013, realizing that her career as a Pennsylvania corrections officer was about to end, Walker quit showing up for work at SCI-Chester.

     In January 2014, a federal grand jury sitting in Philadelphia indicted Abernathy and Walker on charges of child sex trafficking and conspiring to engage in sex trafficking. The indictment pertained to the exploitation of the runaway girl. (The defendants' use of the internet to promote their sex trade made the offense federal.)

     FBI agents arrested Abernathy and the former state corrections officer in Philadelphia shortly after the indictment. Two months later, the same grand jury charged Abernathy, 32, and Walker, 34, with forcing the 17-year-boy into the sex trade. The defendants also faced state charges of kidnapping, promoting prostitution, assault, and other offenses related to the corruption of minors.
     Walker and Abernathy, after pleading guilty to kidnapping and promoting prostitution in January 2015, were each sentenced to ten years in federal prison.

The Celebrity Killer

The killer, or at least the version of the killer who hogs most of the airtime, is set apart from the rest of humanity because of his bad deeds, but that apartness also marks him as special. Something of the animal is in him, and also something of the artist. He's a mastermind, someone who doesn't play by the same rules as the rest of us. (This celebrity killer is almost always a "he," both because the vast majority of all murderers are male, and because the stereotypical roles allotted to female killers--the bad mom, the jealous ex, the gender-nonconforming monster--are less easy to glamorize.)

Rachel Monroe, Savage Appetites: Four True Stories of Women, Crime, and Obsession, 2019

Porch Piracy

Nearly eight in ten U.S. adults are regular online shoppers. In 2019, Americans spent about $605 billon online. According to a survey conducted by Security.org, 38 percent of respondents said they had packages stolen from their homes after the packages were delivered. According to the Los Angeles Police Department, reports of package theft in that city has increased 600 percent since 2010. 

It's Not the Story, It's How To Tell It

You can't just come out and say what you have to say. That's what people do on airplanes, when a man plops down next to you, spills peanuts all over the place and tells you about what his boss did to him the day before. You know how your eyes glaze over when you hear a story like that? That's because of the way he's telling the story. You need a good way to tell your story.

Adair Lara, Naked, Drunk and Writing, 2009

Bestselling Authors and Their Loyal Readers

 Readers have a loyalty that cannot be matched anywhere else in the creative arts, which explains why so many writers who have run out of gas can keep coasting anyway, propelled on to the bestseller lists by the magic words AUTHOR on the covers of their books.

Stephen King, Bag of Bones, 1998

Finding Stories

 There are stories in everything. I've gotten some of my best yarns from park benches, lampposts and newspaper stands.

William Sydney Porter, pen name, O. Henry (1892-1910) American short story writer known for his surprise endings

Saturday, November 21, 2020

The Jason Smith Murder Case

     Dr. Melissa Ketunuti, a 35-year-old pediatrician, was a second-year infectious disease fellow and researcher at the University of Pennsylvania's Perelman School of Medicine in downtown Philadelphia. The Thailand native lived in a central city town house not far from the hospital. Except for her 6-year-old pit bull/lab mix, she lived alone. Dr. Ketunuti had resided at this address for three years, and was in the process of rehabilitating the dwelling.

     On Monday, January 21, 2013, Dr. Ketunuti left her town house around nine in the morning to run some errands. She planned to return to her home at ten-fifty to meet with an exterminator with a pest-control company headquartered in Newtown, Pennsylvania. Dr. Ketunuti was having mice problems. When the doctor's dog walker came to the house to pick up her dog at twelve-thirty, she smelled smoke, and upon investigation, discovered Dr. Ketuniti dead in her basement. The terrified woman called 911.

     Homicide detectives and crime scene technicians arrived at the town house to find a still smoldering, badly burned corpse. The victim's face had been so severely charred by the fire it was unrecognizable. The fully dressed woman was lying face-down and had been hogtied with her wrists and ankles bound behind her back. The killer had left a length of cordage around the victim's neck suggesting that before being set on fire, she had been strangled.

     Based on the dead woman's apparel and other points of identity, investigators assumed that the murdered woman in the basement was Dr. Melissa Ketunuti. Detectives found no signs of forced entry, or indications of a sexual assault. Because it didn't appear than anything had been taken from the premises, the killer had not been motivated by theft.

     As investigators began tracing the victim's activities that morning, and gathering footage from neighborhood surveillance cameras, the city of Philadelphia posted a $20,000 reward for information leading to the identification and arrest of this murderer. The next day, a local community group added $15,000 to the incentive.

     On Wednesday, January 23, 2013, homicide investigators were in Levittown, Pennsylvania, a sprawling suburban Bucks County community 25 miles northeast of Philadelphia. The officers were in town questioning a 37-year-old pest-control subcontractor named Jason Smith. Smith lived in a powder-blue, two story house surrounded by a white picket fence still displaying Christmas decorations. The exterminator lived there with his girlfriend, their young daughter, and the girlfriend's stepfather.

     Surveillance camera footage in Dr. Ketunuti's neighborhood showed Smith, who had been scheduled for a service call at the murder victim's house that morning, walking toward the doctor's town house at ten-fifty. (The house itself was off-camera.) The tall, thin exterminator was wearing a NorthFace jacket and work gloves, and carried a satchel. Just before noon, Smith was video-recorded driving his silver Ford F-150 pickup out of the neighborhood. Before leaving, he circled the block two times. While in Levittown, officers searched Smith's house, his trash can, and his truck. Investigators took a computer out of the dwelling, and from the Ford F-150, seized a jacket and a pair of work gloves.

     The next day, at nine o'clock in the evening, detectives returned to Levittown to arrest Jason Smith. They took him into custody as he, his girlfriend, and their daughter watched "American Idol." Charged with first-degree murder, arson, abuse of corpse, and risking a catastrophe (burning down the neighborhood), Smith was locked up and held without bail.  During the arrest, the family's dog, a boxer named Tyson,  charged the arresting officers and had to be shot dead.

     According to a statement released by a Philadelphia law enforcement spokesperson, Smith and Ketunuti, while in the doctor's basement, got into some kind of argument. The suspect punched her to the floor, jumped on top of her, and used a length of rope to strangle her to death. In an effort to destroy physical evidence that might link him to the body, Smith set fire to the victim's clothing with his lighter. (The body contained no traces of an accelerant.)

     Jason Smith, except for a 2004 DUI conviction, had no criminal record. He told his interrogators that he was addicted to prescription painkillers, and that when arguing with the pest-control customer in her basement, he "snapped." According to Smith, when the doctor "belittled" him, he flew into a murderous rage.

     A friend of the suspect, in speaking to ABC News, revealed that Smith, as a child, had a difficult time controlling his anger. The friend remembered that in his childhood, Smith had problems with pyromania.

     In April 2013, at a preliminary hearing before Philadelphia Municipal Judge Teresa Carr Deni, homicide detective Edward Tolliver read Jason Smith's murder confession into the record. According to Detective Henry Glenn, the victim, at the time of her violent death, was wearing riding boots. Dr. Ketunuti's hands and feet had been tied behind her with a leather strap from horse gear. Smith, in his confession, told the detectives that he had bound the victim's ankles with a riding stirrup.

     After murdering Dr. Ketunuti in her home, Smith drove to another pest extermination job in New Jersey.

     At the preliminary hearing, Smith's attorneys, James A. Funt and Marc Bookman, did not contest the murder charge but asked the judge to dismiss the arson count because their client had not intended to burn down the building.

     In May 2015, a jury sitting in Philadelphia found Jason Smith guilty of first-degree murder, arson, risking a catastrophe, and abuse of corpse. The judge sentenced Smith to life in prison plus 17 to 34 years.  
     Jason Smith appealed his conviction and his sentence, and lost both appeals.

Opposition Research

Why waste your money looking up your family tree? Just go into politics and your opponent will do it for you.

Mark Twain (1835-1910)

The Guiltless Sociopath

Guilt? It's this mechanism we use to control people. It's an illusion. It's a kind of social control mechanism--and it's very unhealthy. It does terrible things to our bodies. And there are much better ways to control our behavior than that rather extraordinary use of guilt. [Yes, prison, and in some cases, the death penalty.]

Ted Bundy, serial killer executed in 1989

The Michael Boysen Double Murder Case

     Michael "Chadd" Boysen, on Friday, March 8, 2013, walked out of the state prison in Monroe, Washington after serving six years for armed robbery. His grandparents, an 82-year-old man and his 80-year-old wife, picked up their grandson at the prison, and drove him to their house in Renton, Washington. It was there the grandparents hosted a "welcome home party" for the 26-year-old ex-con.  The grandparents had also prepared a room for Boysen to spend the night.

     Sometime during the early morning hours of Saturday, March 9, Boysen murdered his grandparents in their home by strangling them with a shoelace. After the murders, Boysen stole their car.

     On Tuesday evening, March 12, 2013, following a day-long stand-off at a motel in Portland, Oregon, police stormed Boysen's room. They found the fugitive lying on the floor with several self-inflicted stab wounds. He was treated at a Portland hospital.

     In October 2013 a jury found Boysen guilty of two counts of aggravated murder. At his sentencing hearing, Boysen's attorney, citing his client's mental illness, asked for a sentence of forty years. Boysen's mother took the stand and said her son was a "manipulating, drugging, lying young man who had caused untold suffering." Boysen responded with a profane outburst against the judge and his family. The judge responded by sentencing Boysen to life in prison without the possibility of parole. When hauled out of the courtroom, the prisoner screamed that he would appeal the sentence.

     In March 2015, a guard at the Washington State Prison at Walla Walla found Michael Boysen dead in his cell. According to the Walla Walla County coroner, Boysen died from a blot clot that traveled to his lungs. He was 28.

Good Children's Books Are Not Dumbed-Down Adult Literature

Most people think writing for children is easier than writing for adults. Just take a good story, simplify the plot, round the sharp edges, throw in a moral and use plain language. Thousands of writers turn out stories using this recipe. But these writers don't sell their stories to publishers. Children are sophisticated, savvy readers. They reject sermons. They avoid condescension. And they resent a dumbed-down attitude.

Nancy Lamb, Crafting Stories For Children, 2001 

Learning Through Writing

I've heard it said that everything you need to know about life can be learned from watching baseball. I'm not what you'd call a sports fan, so I don't know if that is true. I do believe in a similar philosophy, which is everything you need to know about life can be learned from a genuine and ongoing attempt to write.

Dani Shapiro, Still Writing, 2013 

Friday, November 20, 2020

The Savannah Dietrich Rape Case

     In August 2011, in Louisville, Kentucky, 16-year-old Savannah Dietrich, while drinking with two teenage boys she knew, passed out drunk. The boys took advantage of her condition by having sex with her. This, in most states, including Kentucky, is rape. If that wasn't bad enough, the rapists photographed each other committing the crime, and put the photographs on the Internet.

     When Dietrich learned of the humiliating photographs, and the fact they had been published, she and her parents reported the crime to the Louisville Metro Police Department. The two minors were then charged with first-degree sexual abuse, a felony. Since the juveniles had photographed each other in the act, they had no choice to plead guilty. But for some reason, the prosecutor, in return for the pleas, promised a lenient sentence.

     Following the defendant's June 26, 2012 plea hearing before Jefferson County District Judge Dee McDonald, Savannah Dietrich posted several tweets on her Twitter account in which she named the two boys who had pleaded guilty to her sexual assaults. By doing this, she had violated the judges's order not to reveal information about the case, especially the identities of the assaulting juveniles.

     The attorneys representing the two minors, asked Judge McDonald to hold Dietrich in contempt of court. If found in contempt, Dietrich faced up to 180 days in jail, and a $500 fine. (Much more time behind bars than the boys who had assaulted her would spend.)

     Dietrich, in speaking to a Louisville reporter with The Courier-Journal, said, "So many of my rights have been taken away by these boys. I'm at the the point that if I have to go to jail for my rights, I will do it. If they really feel it's necessary to throw me in jail for talking about what happened to me--then I don't understand justice."

     On Monday, July 23, 2012, the lawyers representing the juveniles awaiting their sentences, withdrew their motion to have Dietrich held in contempt of court. In a single day, an online petition on change.org had brought 62,000 signatures in support of Dietrich's decision to publicize the identities of her assaulters. It was obvious that members of the public believed these boys, so afraid of being publicly embarrassed and humiliated by their cruelty and criminality, deserved to be exposed by their victim.

     In September 2012, a judge ruled that documents pertaining to the Dietrich case had to be released to the public. According to the publication of this material, a prosecutor told the victim to "Get over it and see a therapist." The documents also revealed that the victim's 16-year-old attackers had committed the assault because they believed it would be "funny."

     The sex offenders, in October 2012, were sentenced to 50 hours of community service. The boys also were ordered to undergo sex-offender counseling. When these boys reached the age of 19, they could file motions to have their guilty pleas withdrawn and the case dismissed. If granted that request, their criminal records would be expunged. As for the victim, where could she go to have her memory of the crime expunged?

Looking Back at England's Child Sex Exploitation Scandal

     In Rotherham, a city of 250,000 in northern England, five men from the Pakistani community were convicted in 2010 of grooming teenage girls for rape. The victims were trafficked across northern England by crews made up of Asian men. The high-profile trials brought to light other child sex exploitation rings run by Pakistani men in the cities of Rochdale, Derby, and Oxford.

     English authorities, responding to public pressure in the wake of the trials and accusations, asked Alexis Jay, the former chief social worker for the Scottish government, to investigate the scandal and publish a report on the depth and scope of the criminal operation. She released her report on August 25, 2014.

     Ms. Jay and her investigators determined that from 1997 to 2013, 1,400 girls, some as young as eleven, were sexually assaulted in the massive criminal enterprise. They were gang-raped, beaten, and threatened. The author of the report wrote: "There were examples of children who had been doused in petrol and threatened with being set alight, threatened with guns, made to witness brutally violent rapes and threatened they would be next if they told someone."

     How could so many girls be exploited, by so many men, for so long? According to Alexis Jay, "Police regarded these child victims with contempt." Moreover, a good number of these children were known to child protection agencies. Police chiefs, detectives, and council members chose to believe the sex was either consensual or the allegations of rape were false. These crime were, according to the report, "effectively suppressed."

     In some instances, parents who tried to rescue their children from the exploitation operators were themselves arrested. (Police bribery must have been rampant.) In the report, Alexis Jay wrote: "The collective failures of political and police leadership were blatant. From the beginning, there was growing evidence that child sexual abuse exploitation was a serious problem in Rotherham."

     Following the publication of Ms. Jay's shocking report, Roger Stone, the head of the Rotherham City Council resigned. Outraged parents and others called for the Police and Crime Commissioner for South Yorkshire to step down as well. The commissioner told reporters he had no intention of resigning. No one else in the public sector took responsibility for the scandal.

Judicial Interpretation

There is no surer way to misread any document then to read it literally...As nearly as we can, we must put ourselves [as judges] in the place of those who uttered the words, and try to divine how they would have dealt with the unforeseen situation. Interpretation is necessarily an act of creative imagination. [In my view, this form of activism from the bench, if abused, can go from judicial interpretation to judicial interference.]

Judge Learned Hand (1872-1961)  

Charles Bukowski On Literary Prizes And Grants

Guggenheim, all those prizes and grants--you know how they go--more money is given to people who already have money. I know a professor who can't write. He wins a prize every year--usually the same one--and he goes off to some island and works on some project, meanwhile still getting paid half-salary for doing nothing at the university he's supposed to be teaching at. On one of his island trips he put together an anthology, even put me in it, but didn't have the decency to send me a copy of the book.

Charles Bukowski in Charles Bukowski: Selected Letters 1965-1970, edited by Seamus Cooney, 2004

Horror Fiction Cliches

     All good fiction consists of looking at things afresh, but horror fiction seems to have a built-in tendency to do the opposite. Ten years or so ago [1997], many books had nothing more to say than "the devil made me do it." Now, thanks to the influence of films like Friday the 13th, it seems enough for some writers to say that a character is psychotic; no further explanation is necessary. But it's the job of writers to imagine how it would feel to be all their characters, however painful that may sometimes be. It may be a lack of that compassion that has led some writers to create children who are evil simply because they are children, surely the most deplorable cliche` of the field.

     Some cliches are simply products of lazy writing. Tradition shouldn't be used as an excuse to repeat what earlier writers have done; if you feel the need to write about the stock figures of the horror story, that's all the more reason to imagine them anew.

Ramsey Campbell in On Writing Horror Fiction, Mort Castle, editor, 2007 

Thursday, November 19, 2020

The Gilbert Collar Police-Involved Shooting Case

     Gilbert Thomas Collar grew up in Wetumpka, Alabama, a town of 6,000 within the Montgomery metropolitan area in the central part of the state. The 135-pound, 5-foot-7 high school wrestling star was enrolled at the University of South Alabama, a 15,000-student university located in Mobile, Alabama. Collar, a social sciences major, wanted to become a high school teacher and a wrestling coach.

     A university police officer named Trevis Austin, at 1:23 in the morning of Saturday, October 6, 2012, heard someone banging loudly on one of the campus police station's windows. Upon investigation of this noise, the officer encountered Gilbert Collar, nude and crouched into a fighting stance. The muscular young man, who challenged the officer to a fight, obviously appeared to be out of his mind. When Collar made an aggressive move toward Trevis Austin, the officer drew his weapon, backed-off, and warned the threatening 18-year-old to settle down. Collar rushed toward the campus cop several times, and each time the retreating officer ordered the man to stop and desist. Collar took a knee, rose, and charged the officer again. This time officer Austin shot Collar once in the chest. The attacking freshman stumbled, regained his footing, rushed toward the officer again, then collapsed and died.

     University police officer Austin was placed on administrative leave pending an investigation to be conducted by the Mobile County District Attorney's Office and the local sheriff's department. An important aspect of the inquiry involved reviewing the surveillance camera footage of the bizarre confrontation. Some of the questions that had to be answered included whether or not the student and the officer who shot him knew each other. Investigators also wanted to determine if Collar had a  history of mental illness and/or drug use. The autopsy and toxicological would answer the question of drugs and or alcohol.

     Jeff Glass, Collar's high school wrestling coach, told a reporter that "He [Collar] was a kind soul. He was never aggressive to anyone off the mat. He was a 'yes sir, no sir' kind of guy." Chis Estes, an 18-year-old who grew up with Collar, reportedly said, "Gil was a very 'chill' guy, mellow and easy-going. That's why I don't understand the story that he attacked the cop."

     According to the toxicology report, Gilbert Collar had gotten high on a laboratory drug that mimics the effects of LSD. He had taken the drug at the BayFest music concert on the night of the deadly encounter. Mobile County Sheriff Sam Cochran, at a press conference, announced that the student had assaulted others prior to his death.

     In 2013, a grand jury sitting in Mobile County cleared Trevis Austin of criminal wrongdoing in the shooting.

     In the wake of the grand jury no bill, members of Gilbert Collar's family brought a wrongful death lawsuit in federal court against former officer Austin and the university. In 2015, pursuant to that suit, former Tallahassee police chief Melvin Tucker, on behalf of the plaintiff, rendered an expert opinion regarding whether the officer's use of deadly force in the case was appropriate.

     In his report, made public in May 2015, Mr. Tucker concluded that officer Austin had used excessive force in violation of his department's deadly force policy. Melvin Tucker wrote that the officer should either have retreated or used non-lethal means to subdue the student.

     Mr. Tucker noted in his report that over the past 131 years only three police officers in the state of Alabama had been killed by an unarmed assailant. The use of force expert wrote that in 2012, not a single police officer in the United States had died as a result of being disarmed by an arrestee.

     This is one of those difficult cases that no matter how it was resolved, won't satisfy anyone. From the campus police officer's point of view, he was confronted by an aggressive, muscular young man who was apparently out of his mind and intent on engaging him in a wrestling match. For all the officer knew, he was dealing with a drug-crazed man with supernatural strength. (The officer was 5-foot-eleven and the student 5-foot-seven.) Had these two people gotten into hand-to-hand combat, there was a possibility that the attacker could have ended up with the officer's gun. Even if the officer had been equipped with a taser device, there was no guarantee it would have subdued this aggressive, out-of-control subject, particularly with the LSD type drug in his system.

     Looking at this case through the eyes of Gilbert Collar's friends and relatives, it's easy to understand why they have questions regarding this student's sudden and violent death. His mother Bonnie said this to a reporter: "Freshmen kids do stupid things, and campus police should be equipped to handle activity like that without having to use lethal force." Although Gilbert Collar was not a kid, college freshmen are known to do stupid things. But taking off your clothes in the middle of the night, and without provocation or notice, attacking a police officer, goes beyond youthful stupidity. 
     In my opinion, Officer Austin, while he caused Gilbert Collar's death, was not responsible for it.

The Petra Pazsitka Lost And Found Case

     In 1984, when 24-year-old Petra Pazsitka, a computer science student attending college in Braunschweig, Germany, failed to show up at her brother's birthday party, her parents reported her missing. The police in this northern German city launched a massive hunt.

     About a year after the student's disappearance, the missing persons case was featured on a popular German television crime show. The public exposure did not create any tips that led to Pazsitka's recovery.

     Not long after the airing of the TV segment, a man named Gunter confessed to the rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl from the neighborhood where Pazsitka had disappeared. This man also confessed to kidnapping and murdering the missing college student. But after Gunter was unable to lead homicide investigators to Pazsitka's body, the suspect took back his confession and that case was closed.

     In 1989, five years after Pazsitka's disappearance, she was officially declared dead even though her body had not been recovered.

     In September 2015, police in Dusseldorf, Germany were called to an apartment to investigate a burglary. At the scene they spoke to the victim tenant, a 54-year-old woman who identified herself as Mrs. Schneider. Investigators, when they learned that Mrs. Schneider didn't possess a driver's license, social security card, passport, or bank account, or any other form of personal identification, turned their attention on her.

     As it turned out, Mrs. Schneider was Petra Pazsitka. After staging her disappearance 30 years ago, Pazsitka lived in several German cities under numerous assumed names. She paid all of her bills with cash and didn't drive a car.

     When detectives asked Pazsitka the obvious question of why she had voluntarily disappeared, causing a massive police hunt as well as pain and suffering for her family, she said she had wanted to start a new life. She offered no explanation beyond that. Her father had since died. When asked if she wanted to reunite with her mother and brother, she said she did not.

Drinking and Dying in Russia

     A disturbing study in the Lancet looking at the causes of Russian mortality tracked 151,000 men over 10 years, during which time 8,000 of them died. They found that the "risk of dying before age 55 for those who said they drank three or more half-liter bottles of vodka a week was a shocking 35 percent. The average Russian adult drinks about 13 liters [a liter is about four 8-ounce glasses of water] of pure alcohol per year, of which 8 liters is hard alcohol, mainly vodka. For men, it's closer to 20 liters. (Americans, by contrast, consume an average of about 9 liters of alcohol per year, half of which is beer.)

     Overall a quarter of Russian men die before reaching 55, compared with 7 percent of men in the United Kingdom and fewer than one percent in the United States. The life expectance for men in Russia is 64 years, placing it among the lowest 50 countries in the world in that category.

Joshua Keating, "Vodka's Death Toll," Slate, January 30, 2014

Truth Versus Belief

Truth does not become true by virtue of the fact that the entire world agrees with it, no less so even if the world disagrees with it.

Maimonides (1135-1204) philosopher 

A Good Story Is Gold

In the far west there is one thing which is more valuable than gold, even. And that is a story, whether it be true or good true-sounding fiction. Stories.

Max Brand (1892-1944) bestselling western fiction writer

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

John Mark Karr's Confession in the JonBenet Ramsey Murder

The Ramsey Case  

      A 5:52 AM emergency call that a child had been kidnapped brought a pair of Boulder, Colorado police officers to John and Patsy Ramsey's 3-story house on December 26, 1996. Patsy Ramsey said she had found a handwritten ransom note inside on the stairs. Fearing that her 6-year-old daughter, JonBenet, had been kidnapped for ransom, she had called 911. After a cursory sweep of the 15-room dwelling, the patrolmen called for assistance.

     During the next two hours, amid friends and relatives who had come to console the family, police set up wiretap and recording equipment to monitor negotiations with the kidnappers. At one in the afternoon, Boulder detective Linda Arndt asked John Ramsey to look around the house for "anything unusual." Thirty minutes later, he and one of his friends discovered JonBenet's body in a small basement room. Her mouth had been sealed with duct tape, and she had lengths of white rope coiled around her neck and right wrist. The rope around her neck was tied to what looked like the handle of a paintbrush. Breaking all the rules of crime scene investigation, John Ramsey removed the tape, carried his daughter up the basement steps, and laid her body on the living room floor. Detective Arndt picked up the child, placed her body next to the Christmas tree, and covered it with a sweat shirt. Because the police had not conducted a thorough and timely search of the house, there would be no crime scene photographs.

     In the months following the murder, the police, prosecutors, media, and most Americans believed that someone in the family had killed JonBenet Ramsey. But if this were the case, then who had written the two and a half page ransom note? Forensic document examiners eliminated John Ramsey as the ransom note writer, and all but one handwriting expert concluded that Patsy had probably not authored the document. Also, evidence surfaced that an intruder could have come into the house through a broken window in the basement.

John Mark Karr

      After a 13-year battle with ovarian cancer, Patsy Ramsey died on June 14, 2006. She was 49. The media that had helped police and prosecutors portray the Ramseys as child murderers treated the death as a one-day news event, giving it less attention than the passing of a supporting actor on an old TV sitcom. In April 2006, two months before her death, the Ramseys flew from their home in Michigan back to Boulder where they met with district attorney Mary Keenan (now Lacy), who asked them if they had ever heard of a man named John Mark Karr. The Ramseys said they had not--neither the name nor the description of this man rang a bell. What did he have to do with the case?

     Karr, a 41-year-old American itinerate elementary school teacher, had lived in Bangkok, Thailand since 2002. He had recently corresponded with Michael Tracey, a journalism professor at the University of Colorado. Karr's interest in the JonBenet murder had drawn him to the Boulder professor who had produced three television documentaries favorable to the the theory the crime had been committed by an intruder. The emails from Karr, sent under the pseudonym Daxis, had recently become quite bizarre, reflecting more than just a morbid interest in the case. After receiving a series of disturbing phone calls from this man, Professor Tracey alerted the district attorney's office. The calls were traced to John Mark Karr in Bangkok.

     After Daxis had confessed to Tracey that he had accidentally killed JonBenet while inducing asphyxia for his sexual gratification, he became a suspect in the murder. Karr revealed over the phone that when he couldn't revive JonBenet, he struck her in the head with a blunt object. He told the professor that he had engaged in oral sex with the victim, but had not performed sexual penetration. Aware that Tracey was writing a book on the Ramsey case, Karr offered the author the inside story from the killer's point of view. In the event the book became a movie, Karr wanted to be played by Johnny Depp.

     Having taken over the Ramsey case investigation from the Boulder Police Department, the district attorney's office began investigating John Mark Karr. District attorney investigators spoke to the authorities in Bangkok, and read hundreds of the emails Karr had sent to the professor. One of the messages suggested that Karr had a general knowledge of forensic science. "The DNA might not match, but you can't trust the test," he wrote.

     As Ramsey case investigators gathered details of Karr's life and background, it became clear that he was not an ordinary man, and that his strangeness was not inconsistent with the profile of a person who might commit a Ramsey-type crime. After Karr's parents divorced when he was nine, he went to live with his grandparents in Hamilton, Alabama. In 1983, one year after graduating from Hamilton High School, Karr, then 20, married a 13-year-old girl. The marriage ended nine months later in an annulment. In 1989, Karr married 16-year-old Lara Marie Knutson. In four years, he and his wife had three sons. While pursuing a teaching degree through an online teacher's college, Karr opened a licensed day-care center in his home. Although he didn't have a teaching degree, he also worked as a substitute teacher at Hamilton High School. He acquired a college degree in 1999, and that year closed his day-care business. A year later, Karr and his family were residing in Petaluma, California where he taught as a substitute in six schools in the Sonoma Valley Unified School District.

     One year after arriving in Petaluma, while teaching at the Pueblo Vista Elementary School, Karr was arrested by investigators from the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office. They had found child pornography on Karr's computer, and arrested him on five misdemeanor counts of possessing such material. Karr's bail was reduced after he spent six months in the county lockup awaiting trial. He was released on October 2001. While in custody, Karr had written a letter to Richard Allen Davis who had been convicted of kidnapping and murdering Polly Klaas in Petaluma. When Karr failed to show for a court appearance in the pornography case, the judge issued a bench warrant for his arrest, making him a California fugitive from justice.

     During the child pornography investigation, detectives in Sonoma County came across writings and notes Karr had made pertaining to the murder of JonBenet Ramsey. In these musings, Karr had speculated on the killer's thoughts as he committed the crime. Although these were not confessions, the Sonoma detectives took the writings seriously enough to notify the authorities in Boulder. Although there were follow-up discussions between investigators in California and Colorado, nothing came of the discovery.

     After Karr divorced his wife, she and their children moved back to Hamilton, Alabama. Following his release from the Sonoma County Jail, Karr fled the country. He taught in Honduras and Costa Rica, and worked as a children's nanny in Germany, the Netherlands, and South Korea. In December 2005, Karr arrived in Bangkok where he had landed a grade-school teaching position.

The Arrest and Confession

     On August 11, 2006, four months after district attorney Mary Lacy learned that the Ramsey email writer and telephone confessor was John Mark Karr, police and immigration authorities in Thailand informed her that Karr was living in a downtown Bangkok apartment. In less than a week, Karr would be starting a new teaching job at the New Sathorn International School in the city. Because the authorities didn't want this man interacting with young girls at this school, the Thai police planned to arrest and deport Karr within the next five days. This development presented District Attorney Lacy with a dilemma. If she did nothing, a man who had confessed to killing JonBenet Ramsey would slip away upon his return to the United States. If she filed charges against Karr, and had him extradited back to Colorado, the probable cause supporting the arrest warrant would be based entirely on his emails and his telephone confessions. Lacy's investigators had not linked Karr to the ransom note through his handwriting, could not place him in Colorado on or about December 26, 1996, and had not matched his DNA to a pair of foreign bloodstains on JonBenet's underwear.

     Operating on the theory that John Mark Karr was not a false confessor, and that his DNA would eventually connect him to the victim, Mary Lacy presented her case to a Boulder judge who issued a warrant for Karr's arrest on charges of first-degree murder, kidnapping, and sexual assault. The district attorney also dispatched one of her investigators to Bangkok.

     After surveilling Karr's apartment building for five days, police and immigration officials took him into custody on August 16, 2006. In response to a Thai police officer who informed Karr that he had been charged with first-degree murder in Boulder, Karr declared that his killing of JonBenet had been accidental, and therefore the charge should more appropriately be second-degree murder. He had confessed again.

     After being flown to Los Angeles from Bangkok, Karr arrived in Colorado on August 24, 2006 where he was incarcerated in the Boulder County Jail. Four days later, the John Mark Karr phase of the Ramsey case came to an abrupt end when Mary Lacy announced that because Karr's DNA didn't match the crime scene evidence, the charges against him would be dropped. Moreover, he had not written the ransom note. The case quickly fell out of the news, and John Mark Karr slipped back into obscurity.

The 1999 Indictments

     The JonBenet Ramsey case shot back into the news in October 2013 when a Colorado judge ordered the release of indictments returned against the Ramseys in 1999. The Boulder County Grand Jury alleged that each parent "did permit a child to be unreasonably placed in a situation which posed a threat of injury to the child's life or health which resulted in the death of JonBenet Ramsey." The grand jurors also alleged that the Ramseys "did render assistance to a person, with intent to hinder, delay and prevent the discovery, detention, apprehension, prosecution and punishment of said person for the commission of a crime, knowing the person being assisted has committed and was suspected of the crime of murder in the first degree and child abuse resulting in death."

     Boulder district attorney Alex Hunter refused to sign off on the indictments because the charges were not supported by sufficient evidence to support a conviction.

     In speaking to reporters, the Ramsey family attorney, L. Lin Wood, called the indictments "nonsensical." According to Wood, "they reveal nothing about the evidence reviewed by the grand jury and are clearly the result of a confused and compromised process."

     Regarding the old indictments, CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Tobin, in pointing out the indictments merely showed that a majority of the grand jurors felt there was probable cause to charge the parents--a lower standard than proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt--said, "it doesn't precisely say that the grand jury thought the parents killed JonBenet. It's not precisely clear what they thought."

     In September 2016, the JonBenet Ramsey case shot back into the news with television documentaries revisiting the murder and shedding new light on the case. Notwithstanding the new media attention, the case remained unsolved. As of this writing, there have been no arrests in the JonBenet Ramsey murder case.