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Wednesday, March 3, 2021

The Shayna Hubers Murder Case

     In 2012, Ryan Poston, a 29-year-old lawyer from a family of prominent attorneys and corporate executives, resided in a condo in Highland Heights, Kentucky. He was involved in an on again-off again tumultuous relationship with a 21-year-old graduate student from Lexington, Kentucky named Shayna Hubers. A 2008 graduate of the prestigious School for the Arts, Hubers was pursuing a Master's Degree in counseling from Eastern Kentucky University.

     In 2011 and 2012, Poston and Hubers exchanged hundreds of text messages that revealed she was more attracted to him than he was to her. For months Poston had been trying to get himself out of the relationship. On October 11, 2012, Poston, his mother, his stepfather and Shayna Hubers had dinner at the young attorney's dwelling.

     After dinner that night, Hubers went home but returned a few hours later. Upon her uninvited return the couple argued. Things really heated up when he informed her that he wanted to end the relationship. The argument further intensified when he told her that he had a date the following Friday night with the current Miss Ohio.

     At 8:53 PM the next day, Shayna Hubers called 911 from Poston's condo and said this to the emergency dispatcher: "Ma'am, I have, I have, I killed my boyfriend in self defense."

     "What happened?" asked the dispatcher.

     "He beat me and tried to carry me out of the house and I came back in to get my things. He was right in front of me and reached down and grabbed the gun, and I grabbed it out of his hands and pulled the trigger."

     Responding police officers found Ryan Poston lying on his dining room floor next to his Sig Sauer .380-caliber pistol. He had been shot in the back, twice in the head, and three times in the torso.

     A Campbell County prosecutor charged Shayna Hubers with first-degree murder, first-degree manslaughter, second-degree manslaughter, and reckless homicide. Officers booked the suspect into the county jail in Newport, Kentucky. At her arraignment hearing the judge denied her bail.

     The Shayna Hubers murder trial got underway on April 13, 2015 in Newport, Kentucky before Circuit Judge Fred A. Stine. Commonwealth Attorney Michelle Snodgrass, in her opening statement to the jury, accused the defendant of killing Mr. Poston in a fit of jealous rage. According to the prosecutor's version of the killing, the defendant's first shot knocked the victim down. While he lay wounded and helpless on his dining room floor, she pumped five more bullets into his body.

     Defense attorney Wil Zevely told the jurors that in an act of self defense, his client had shot her boyfriend six times before he fell to the floor and died.

     The lead detective in the case took the stand for the prosecution and testified that the death scene, the victim's dining room, showed no signs of a struggle. Several of Mr. Poston's condo neighbors testified they had not heard anything that night that suggested physical violence.

     A prosecution witness took the stand and said that the defendant had sent her a Facebook message regarding her plan to shoot Mr. Poston at a gun range and make the shooting look like an accident.

     The prosecutor played the defendant's recorded police interview in which she had said: "I shot him probably six times. I shot him in the head. He was lying like this. His glasses were still on. He was twitching. I shot him a couple more times just to make sure he was dead."

     After Commonwealth Attorney Michelle Snodgrass rested the prosecution's case, defense attorney Wil Zevely put Dr. Saeed Tortani, a toxicologist, on the stand. Dr. Tortani testified that at the time of his death, Ryan Poston was taking Xanax and Adderall, drugs linked to aggression and paranoia.

     On cross-examination, the prosecutor brought out the fact the victim had been taking this medicine under a doctor's care. The commonwealth attorney also got Dr. Tortani to reveal he was being paid $380 an hour by the defense.

     Shayna Hubers took the stand on her own behalf. By presenting herself as the victim of her boyfriend's verbal and physical abuse, she laid out a scenario consistent with self defense. Her witness box story, however, did not conform to her recorded statement to the police or her 911 call.

     On Friday April 24, 2015, the jury, after deliberating five hours, found the defendant guilty of first-degree murder. The jurors recommended that Judge Stine sentence Hubers to 40 years in prison.

     Four days after the guilty verdict, the convicted woman's attorney filed a claim for his client's early parole on grounds she had been the victim of domestic violence. Under the Kentucky statute that created this sentencing exception, Hubers' attorney would have to prove that at the time of the abuse she and the victim had been living together. If Judge Stine ruled in favor of Hubers on this sentencing issue, she could be released from prison in five years.

     On August 14, 2015, Judge Stine sentenced Hubers to the recommended 40 years in prison. Pursuant to his ruling, she had to serve at least 85 percent of the sentence. That meant she won't be eligible for parole for 34 years. At the sentencing hearing, a prosecution psychologist described Hubers as a narcissist.

     On August 26, 2016, Campbell County Circuit Judge Fred Stine announced his decision to overturn Shayna Hubers' murder conviction. The judge based this ruling on the fact that juror Dave Craig, before his jury service, had been convicted of a felony. Under Kentucky law, felons are prohibited from jury service. The local prosecutor said she would re-charge Hubers and bring her to trial for a second time.

     In June 2018, while awaiting her second trial in the Campbell County Detention Center, Hubers married a fellow inmate named Richard McBee, a 41-year-old charged with robbery. Huber's second trial had been set for September 2017 and then January 2018 and then postponed again. 
     In August 2018, while being tried the second time for murder, Shayna Hubers married a transgender woman named Unique Taylor. Later that month, the second jury found Hubers guilty of first-degree murder. The judge, following the jury's recommendation, sentenced her to life in prison. 
     In January 2019, Hubers and Taylor divorced.  

The Crime Beat

The irony of crime beat journalism--maybe all of journalism--is that the best stories are really the worst stories. The stories of calamity and tragedy are the stories that journalists live for. It gets the adrenaline churning in their blood and can burn them out young, but nevertheless it is a hard fact of the business. Their best day is your worst day.

Michael Connelly, Crime Beat: A Decade of Covering Cops and Killers, 2004

The 911 Dispatcher

     Since the introduction of the 911 system beginning in 1968 and extending through the 1970s, the dispatcher has become more important than ever. Although 911 has been a lifesaver, the system is abused perhaps as frequently as it is used properly. The dispatcher must filter through the information and properly assess urgency in an emergency context in which everything seems equally urgent.

     The dispatcher's job is to determine who, what, where, when, and how the emergency has happened. In the case of a crime, the dispatcher must also determine if the perpetrators are still present, where they went, how many of them are there, and what they were wearing, and whether they are armed. Often, it is up to the dispatcher to calm a desperate or injured victim, or the child who has found a parent severely injured, sick--or worse.

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

The Dark Fantasy Genre

In pure horror stories--dark fantasy--anything goes, usually straight for the throat. Monsters attack the house, crawl down the chimney, slither or slouch in Zombie ranks closer and closer with each step to the front porch. These fantastic creatures are evil to the core: from slurping, sucking alien monsters to cursed cars that kill their owners. Early in these stories evil begins to appear, usually after a brief opening of calm and tranquility, in small measures.

Philip Martin in The Writer's Guide to Fantasy and Literature, edited by Philip Martin, 2002 

Realistic Horror Fiction

     In a horror novel or short story, there is one primary rule: Make your characters as realistic as possible.

     Reality is your bridge into the fantastic. If readers empathize with your characters and truly believe in them as projections of real life, then they will follow them into whatever fantastic situations you provide. You will achieve what Coleridge termed "the willing suspension of disbelief." Your reader will want to believe your story, no matter how improbable it may be in objective reality.

William E. Nolan, How to Write Horror Fiction, 1990 

1930s Hardboiled Detective Fiction

In the late 1930s Raymond Chandler extrolled the virtues of Dashiell Hammett (who, he felt, took murder out of the library and put it back on the streets where it belonged) and defined the hard-boiled detective genre in an essay for the Atlantic Monthly entitled, "The Simple Art of Murder." He might have been writing a justification of his own work as well: uncluttered prose, lots of metaphors, a wisecracking detective (Philip Marlowe), and the mean streets of a tough and uncaring city.

Nancy Pearl, Book Lust, 2003 

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Joelle Ann Lockwood: The Woman in the Cage

     Joelle Ann Lockwood, a 30-year-old mother of two, shared an apartment with her boyfriend in the southern Indiana city of Evansville. On July 9, 2014, after a night of drinking, Lockwood left the apartment following an argument with her boyfriend. She wandered the streets of Evansville that night.

     In the early morning hours of July 10, while meandering about the city, Lockwood encountered Ricky House Jr., a man she had once dated. The 37-year-old offered her a ride to his place in Stewartsville, a small town 25 miles northwest of Evansville where House lived in a mobile home with his 44-year-old girlfriend, Kendra Tooley.

     Later that morning, when Lockwood told House that she wanted to return to her apartment, he covered her nose and mouth with a rag soaked in chloroform. When she regained consciousness she found herself naked and tied to a bed. She had also been raped.

     Over the next several weeks Lockwood's captors forced her to wear a dog collar with an attached leash. The couple made her do chores that included cleaning and cooking. When House wasn't raping or beating her, she lived in a narrow wooden cage barely large enough for her body.

     On July 13, 2014, three days after Lockwood left her apartment in Evansville, her relatives filed a missing person report. The police coordinated a search but came up empty-handed.

     While the authorities and volunteers looked for Lockwood, her captor, Ricky House, attempted to impregnate her. He and Kendra wanted a child but Tooley was too old to get pregnant.

     Besides not having any children together, House and Tooley were in financial trouble. On Thursday September 4, 2014, Tooley's ex-husband, Ron Higgs, visited the mobile home in Stewartsville. He encountered Lockwood but assumed she was a willing participant in some kind of perverted sex arrangement with Ricky House and Tooley.

     On Saturday September 6, the 61-year-old Higgs returned to the mobile home with some money for his ex-spouse. This time Joelle Lockwood told him she was being held against her will since early July during which time she had been raped and beaten.

     In an effort to secure Lockwood's freedom, Higgs offered the captors additional money for her release. Ricky House rejected that proposal, and this led to an argument that became physical. Ricky House backed-off, left the room, then returned with a sawed-off shotgun. Ron Higgs grabbed the shotgun and stunned Ricky House with a head-butt. Ricky retreated into a bedroom as Higgs led Joelle Lockwood out of the mobile home.

     A Posey County prosecutor charged Ricky House and Kendra Tooley with multiple counts of rape, kidnapping and assault. The judge set House's bond at $500,000 and Tooley's at $150,000. At the arraignment hearing the couple, represented by a pair of public defenders, pleaded not guilty. 

     Ron Higgs, the man who rescued Joelle Lockwood from her captors, said this to the authorities in charge of the case: "I hope you all have some small cells. That's where they need to spend the rest of their lives, in real small cells."

     In September 2015, a Posey County jury, after a one-week trial, found Ricky House guilty of rape, kidnapping and other crimes. The judge sentenced him to 93 years in prison. Kendra Tooley pleaded guilty in July 2016 to rape and two counts of criminal confinement. The judge sentenced her to 25 years in prison. The judge gave Kendra Tooley two years credit for time served. 

The Criminology Of Marriage

Someone once said that marriages start in bed and end up in court. It's also true that one of the spouses can end up in court because the other one ended up in the morgue. O. J. Simpson wasn't the first, nor the last, husband to murder his wife. And wives can be just as deadly. There are women who marry rich men in order to kill them for their money. These cold-blooded killers are called Black Widows, and their weapon of choice is usually poison. Spouses have been known to commit murder on their honeymoons, quite often during ocean cruises where the victim, usually the wife, ends up with the fishes. For the husband, the most common motive for hiring a hit man to murder his estranged wife is to avoid the high cost of divorce. Moreover, men who don't want to be fathers have either killed their pregnant wives or hired someone else to do the deed. Jealous wives have been known to kill their wayward spouses out of rage, and in some cases, merely to save face. Whenever a married person is murdered, and it's not immediately clear who committed the offense, the spouse who doesn't have an airtight alibi usually becomes the first suspect. In the annals of crime, there are thousands of marital murder cases where the spouse has staged the killing to look like a suicide. And in missing persons cases where the wife has mysteriously disappeared, the experienced homicide detective will look closely at the husband. 

Amber Alert Systems

The Amber Alert System originated in Arlington, Texas in 1996 following the abduction and murder of 9-year-old Amber Hagerman. In 2004, the U.S. Department of Justice established a guideline for when local jurisdictions should initiate the missing child alert system. The guideline sets outs the following criteria:

* Authorities believe the child may have been abducted
* The child is 17 years old or younger
* The child is in imminent danger of injury or death
* There's enough information about the child and the abduction for an alert
* Case details have been entered into a national missing persons database 
     In 2019, there were more than 3,500 Amber Alerts in the United States.   

Writing For Children Isn't Easier Than Writing For Adults

Even famous authors of books intended for adult readers have found that their fame does not transfer easily into the children's market. Renown in one area of writing does not necessarily smooth a path into an entirely different genre. And that is precisely what writing for children is: a different and separate writing area, not an easier one. It has its own difficulties and calls on special and specific skills from its practitioners.

Allan Frewin Jones and Lesly Pollinger, Writing for Children and Getting Published, 1996 

Georges Simenon on Writing a Detective Story

There is nothing easier than to write a detective story. For a start there is at least one corpse, more in American detective stories. Then there is an inspector or a superintendent who conducts the inquiry and who has the right to probe the past and present life of each of the characters. And finally there are the suspects, in varying numbers and different degrees of camouflage as the author decides will best lead to the final denouement.

Georges Simenon, The Man Who Wasn't Margret by Patrick Marnham, 1994 

The Manuscript Rejection Letter

Lee Pennington has been published in more than 300 magazines--and rejected so many thousand times that in one six-month period he papered all four walls of a room with rejection slips. ("I loved getting the 8 by 11 rejections more than the 3 by 5 ones because they covered more space.") He has also filled scrapbooks with rejection slips, used them for coasters, and given rejection parties--invitations written on the back of rejection slip. [I once received a rejection letter one year after the book in question had been published by another house.]
Rotten Reviews & Rejections, 1998

Monday, March 1, 2021

A 1980 Short Story by Thornton P. Knowles

                              The Devil in Booger Hollow


                                   Thornton P. Knowles


     Growing up in suburban Charleston, West Virginia, the state capital, James Sinclair couldn't think of a job he either could do or want to do. He could never be a physician, a lawyer, or even a school teacher. He didn't want to be a salesman like his father, work in a store, a factory, an office, or on a construction site. So, after high school he joined the Army and served a tour in Vietnam as a military police officer. 

     Following his discharge from the Army in 1970, James acquired a job as an investigator for a divorce lawyer in Charleston. He spent the next couple of years tailing cheating spouses, peeking into windows, taking surveillance photographs and digging up dirt on behalf of his employer's clients. He told his parents who wanted him in college that he worked as a paralegal in the offices of a prestigious Charleston law firm. They were not impressed, and told him so. Self esteem was not high up on the list of James Sinclair's  personality traits. 

     As a high school student James was at best mediocre. He considered his teachers boring and tuned them out. He daydreamed his way to his high school graduation, and couldn't imagine four more years trapped in a classroom listening to lectures on subjects that meant nothing to him. He wasn't interested in higher math, science, economics, foreign language, history, or literature. The same was true of sociology, psychology, and philosophy. Perhaps that was his problem, he found nothing interesting. Nothing excited him, not even sports. Why would he waste his time going to a football game? A young English teacher named Misty Dawn once scolded him for not having "school spirit." He informed Miss Dawn that the concept of sports fandom was as foreign to him as quantum physics. His chemistry teacher, Mr. Boggs, believed that intelligence could be measured by how fast one's hair grew. Although the man was certifiably mad, James considered Mr. Boggs the most interesting person in the building. James often wondered if there were other people who found life as boring and meaningless as he did. In church he was told that God put each person on earth for a reason. He was still searching for his. For James, life was a calendar with the days he had lived crossed off.

     Among his classmates, and later fellow soldiers, James Sinclair was alone and apart. Although he wasn't bad looking, his blandness made him unattractive to girls. He would probably never marry, have children, buy a house or do all the other things normal people do. An oddly enough, while he wasn't one of those happy, enthusiastic, ambitious "full of life" people, he wasn't depressed. With such low expectations, nothing disappointed him.

     In 1973, the 23-year-old applied for and received a West Virginia private investigator's license. He qualified because he was over 21, had a high school degree, a West Virginia driver's license, and no criminal record. The fact he didn't have any investigative training or experience wasn't disqualifying. He had, however, read a couple of Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason novels. He figured that his inability to connect with people would somehow be an investigative asset.

     As a private investigator just starting out, James barely made enough money to pay his rent, his car expenses, food, and his yellow page ad. He couldn't afford an office, so he met his clients in their homes or at a popular coffee shop downtown. Once he started making a few bucks he'd buy a brief case. 


     On May 3, 1974, P. I. Sinclair received an important telephone call. A woman named Bailey Collins wanted a private eye to find her missing 28-year-old daughter. Mrs. Collins and her husband, residents of Clay County 50 miles southeast of Charleston, had raised enough money from friends and family to afford, for at least a couple of months, a private investigator. 

     Mr. and Mrs. Collins lived in a farm house down the road from a village called Booger Hollow. The backcountry community featured a pentecostal church, a feed store, an abandoned movie theater, a used car lot, a service station/general store, a cluster of houses, and the Blue Moon Estates trailer court. The only traffic light hadn't functioned since 1960. The Lykes Funeral Home was the most impressive structure in town. In Booger Hollow, one had to die in order to climb the real estate ladder. 

     Seated at the kitchen table, P. I. Sinclair listened as Mrs. Collins, with her husband looking on, provided him with the background information he would need to begin his inquiry into their only daughter's disappearance. 

     Three years earlier, Clystine Bailey Collins, described by her mother as "plain, unworldly, and sweet," came under the spell of the 50-year-old pastor of the Booger Hollow Apostolic Pentecostal Church. Pastor Cletus Todd hired Clystine to work as a house cleaner, church janitor, and when necessary, to help out in the church kitchen. A few months after taking the job, Clystine joined the church, and shortly after that, against her parents' wishes, married the preacher. 

     James Sinclair didn't know anything about the Apostolic Pentecostal church. He wasn't interested in religion. His Presbyterian parents forced him as a youngster to attend Sunday school and church where they pumped Jesus into him like air into an inflatable raft. In his late teens, the raft developed a leak and collapsed. James hadn't stepped inside a church since. Although he found religion off putting, James didn't feel he was a bad person. To be religious one had to belong. Perhaps the reason people were drawn to church was the exact reason he wasn't. He couldn't stand the togetherness, what church people called fellowship. The group singing made him especially uncomfortable. All the hymns sounded alike. He just didn't see the point of any of it.  

     Addressing Mrs. Collins, James said, "On the phone you said Clystine went missing on Saturday, April 20."

     "Yes, Pastor Todd called us that evening around eight. He had been out of town. When he returned she wasn't home, or at work. He asked if she was with us, or if we knew where she was."

     "Did he seem upset, worried?"

     "No, not at all."

     "Where do they live?" 

     "In the brick house next to the church."

     "When did the Pastor report her missing?"

     "He didn't."

     "Why not?"

     "He said she left him. Walked out. He figured she met some guy at work."

     "Where is that?"

     "The Luck Lady, a restaurant up on the interstate."

     "Is that something your daughter would do? Run off with a guy?"

     "Absolutely not. Clystine would never do anything like that. Never."

     "Did you explain that to the pastor?"

     "Yes, of course."

     "What did he say?"

     "He claimed she had been acting strange, said the Devil must have entered her soul, something like that."

     "Did he actually blame the Devil?"

     "Yes, it's always the Devil with these people--the pastor and his flock. You see religious fanatics like them Sunday mornings on TV jumping  up and down, rolling on the floor, and speaking in tongues. They put on quite a show. The women don't cut their hair. They wear dresses that go to their ankles, and don't use makeup. They all  think they'll go to Hell if they touch a drop of alcohol, listen to non-church music, see a movie, play cards or watch television. And while they don't show it on TV, they handle snake snakes."

     " What are the snakes for?"

     "I don't know, I guess they're like pets. They believe that rattlers won't bite handlers who are in good standing with Jesus. Religious snake handling is against the law in West Virginia, but they do it anyway. These people aren't normal."

     "Has anyone been bitten?" 

     "Probably, but we'd never know it."

     "How many of these people live in Booger Hollow?"

     "At least half the folks around here belong to the church. Members include the cock-fighting crowd and the moonshiners. Some of them are local bigwigs."

     "When your daughter went missing, did you report this to anyone?"

     "Yes, to Sheriff Terry Blankenship. But he wasn't interested."

     "Why not?"

     "Because he's a member of the church."

     "Was Clystine unhappy?

     "Yes. We're pretty sure she regretted marrying that man, being under his thumb. I don't think she knew what she was getting into when she joined his church--speaking in tongues and all of that. She didn't fit in with those people. Half the time the women go around barefoot, even in the winter."

     It occurred to James that Clystine Todd's disappearance might be more than just a missing persons case. "Do you think the preacher knows where your daughter is? Do you suspect foul play?" he asked.

     "We don't know what to think. But we know that something is not right. Do you know about the pastor's first two wives?"  

     "No. The only thing I know is what you've told me."

     "His first two wives are dead."

     "Do you know how they died?"

     "The first one, Maxine, committed suicide. Hanged herself. The found her in the church basement."

     "And the second?"

    " Poor woman broke her neck falling down a flight of steps."

     "Were the deaths investigated?" 

     "No. Who would investigate? The sheriff is in the church and we don't have a police department."

     "Surely autopsies were performed on the bodies to rule out foul play?"

     "No autopsies. Ralph Lykes, the funeral director who handled the arrangements was, and still is, a member of Pastor Todd's church. He's also the Clay County Coroner. They wasted no time in burying the bodies. Maxine, the one found hanging in the church basement, wasn't even made available for viewing. No church service either. Who knows if they even embalmed her before putting her into the ground." Mrs. Collins appeared on the verge of breaking down. She reached for a tissue.

     James turned to Mr. Collins, "Sir, do you have anything to add?"

     "Call me John. We begged Clystine not to marry that guy. He took control of her life. We should have tried harder to stop her."

     "Does Clystine have a car?"

     "Yes," answered Mr. Collins. "A 1960 Chevy Corvair. A piece of junk, but it was cheap. I'll get you the tag number." Mr. Collins rose from the table and left the kitchen. When he returned he handed James the car registration information and a photograph of his daughter. "Where will you start?" he asked.

     Trying to sound more professional and experienced than he was, James said, "In missing person investigations you start with law enforcement, but because the sheriff is so close to Pastor Todd, I don't see the point. I'll start with the preacher."

     "His office is in his house," Mrs. Collins said. "Do you want his phone number?"

     "No, I'll show up unannounced."


     The Booger Hollow Apostolic Pentecostal church featured a large out of proportion cross that shot into the heavens from the flat roof of the cinderblock building that once housed a farm equipment sales and repair business. Two red, neon signs flashed on and off in the big windows flanking the front door. One blared: THE END IS NEAR and the other: GET RIGHT WITH JESUS. This was not Westminster Abby. James parked his car in the lot in front of the church and walked to the brick, two-story house next door. As he knocked on the door James noticed the late model black Cadillac Fleetwood parked in the pastor's driveway. It was being waxed by a young man with a long and straight narrow beard. He looked like a banjo player in a blue grass band. James didn't imagine there were too many Cadillacs in Booger Hollow, West Virginia. 

     A thin, middle-aged woman with long gray hair, a flowing white dress and a long face answered the door. Trying to hide his apprehension, James followed the towering women to a waiting room outside the preacher's office. He took a seat on an expensive looking sofa as the barefoot woman entered the pastor's office. A few minutes later, the big wooden door opened and the long-faced lady stepped out of the room. She gestured James into the pastor's inner sanctum, then departed. The first thing James noticed, or felt, was the thickness of the blood red carpet. He felt like he had stepped into  a vault.

     From behind his massive oak desk, Pastor Todd rose and extended a hand. Except for his head, he was shockingly small. Although the preacher's head was normal-sized, it was too big for him. And highlighting the fact this man had been born with the wrong head, he arranged his pitch black hair into a prodigious pompadour that added three inches to his height. Dressed in a pale blue suit and a pink shirt buttoned at the collar, Pastor Todd, surrounded by award plaques, group photos, and paintings of Jesus, asked, "What can we do for you young man?" His deep, booming voice startled James who fought the urge to be intimidated.  

     The novice private investigator seated himself on the wooden chair that faced the big desk. In his most confident voice, he said, "My name is James Sinclair. I'm a private investigator from Charleston. I'm here about your wife, Clystine."

     "What about Clystine?" the pastor asked, placing a hand on a thick, leather-bound Bible. James wondered if this were the book he balanced in one hand as he preached. James wondered if he ever dropped it.

      "As you know, Clystine is missing. Her parents are worried."

     "And why is this any of your business?"

     "I've been hired to find her."

     "And you think I know where she is?" 

      "You're her husband."

     "She ran off. I have no idea where, or if she'll return. She hasn't been herself. Last week a member of our church saw her at the truck stop. She wore lipstick and her hair was styled. I was told she was friendly--flirting--with a man. Have you seen the skimpy uniforms they make them wear?" 

     "Was this church member at the truck stop on your behalf?"

     "He's a truck driver." The pastor's smile did not conceal his anger. He was obviously not accustomed to being interrogated.

     "Why would your wife run off like that. If she wanted to leave you, why wouldn't she just say it? Unless of course she was afraid."

     "If you find Clystine, ask her." The little preacher leaned forward and drilled the disrespectful young investigator with his most intimidating stare. 

     "If I find her?" James replied, returning the look. 

     "Yes. And if you do, tell her that Jesus still loves her. He forgives her. Everyone here is praying for her. And what about you, Mr. Sinclair?"

     "What about me?"

     "Have you found Jesus?"

     "I'm not looking for Jesus. I'm looking for your wife."

     "I guess you learned to talk like that from your godless college professors." The gloves were off.

     "I didn't go to college."

     "Didn't your folks take you to church?"


     "And what church was that?"


     "Well that explains it."

     "Instead of speaking up for his parents, James decided to grill the pastor about his deceased wives. I understand," he said, "that in marriage you have been unfortunate."

     "What do you mean by that?" The pastor, of course, knew exactly what James meant. He had been taken off guard. 

     "Your first two wives. They are dead."

     "Their deaths, young man, are a matter of public record. My first wife Maxine committed suicide. The poor woman gave up on Jesus. We did everything to cast the Devil out, but couldn't save her. Darlene fell down the cellar steps and broke her neck. A terrible accident. She's now with God."

     "Did you seek psychiatric help for Maxine?"

     "We don't believe in that kind of thing, Mr. Sinclair. It's time you go. You are not welcome here. The pastor pushed a button, and the long-faced woman appeared. The preacher said, "This man is leaving."  

     On his way to the door, James turned and asked, "Why weren't the violent deaths of you wives investigated?"

     "Do not come back," came the reply.


     The Lucky Lady Truck Stop and Restaurant sat within earshot of traffic moving north and south on Interstate 79 eighteen miles north of Booger Hollow. A young woman in a frilly pink and white uniform who looked like a cross between a nurse and a cocktail waitress, took his order. Her name tag identified her as Beverly. When Beverly returned with his coffee, James asked, "Could I have a word with you about a waitress named Clystine?"

      "I know Clystine."

     "I'm James Sinclair, a private investigator looking for her."

     "Is she in trouble?"

     "She's gone missing and her parents are worried about her."

     "I can't talk here. I'll meet you at McDonald's in an hour."

     As James sat in the booth waiting for Beverly, he wondered if they had actually sold 15 billion burgers. If this were true, it was amazing there were any cows still alive. As he contemplated the slaughter of all these animals, Beverly walked in still wearing her Lucky Lady uniform, the old meeting the new. 

     "We were not close," she said. "Clystine kept to herself, went home right after work. Something was bothering her though, she seemed afraid." 

     "Of what?"

     "She didn't say, but she wanted to leave her husband, that preacher down in Booger Hollow. He was older."

     "Did Clystine tell you she was leaving the pastor?"

     "In so many words. She saw something she wasn't supposed to see. When she went to her husband about it he got angry, accused her of spying. Told her to mind her own business. She though she was being followed by a couple of men from of the church. Clystine stopped coming to work the end of last month. I haven't seen her since."

     "Have you spoken to anyone besides me about Clystine?"


     "What else did she tell you about the church?"

     "Nothing that I can think of right now. But I did hear that it's some kind of sex cult where the men treat their wives like slaves and they abuse young girls. I also know that Clystine gave everything she earned over to the church. One time I lent her gas money to get home."

     "What have you heard about the pastor's first two wives?"

     "Nothing. Sorry."


     In Clay, West Virginia, a woman at the Clay County Court House directed James to the marriage and divorce records as well as the certificates of death. According to these documents, Pastor Cletus Todd married his second wife, Darlene nee Williams, on June 6, 1960 when he was 44 and she was 26. Darlene died on November 12, 1964. According to her death certificate she died from a fall in her home. James found no record of a coroner's inquest into her sudden and violent death. The funeral home owned by Clay County Coroner Ralph Lykes handled the burial arrangements. The couple had been childless. James made a copy of Darlene's obituary.

     The pastor married Maxine, nee Palmer, on June 4, 1954. The groom was 42 and his bride 24. On October 9, 1958, a member of the Booger Hollow Apostolic Pentecostal Church found Maxine hanging from a rope above an overturned chair in the church basement. According to Coroner Lykes, Maxine Todd had taken her own life. She was buried without a viewing or church service. While autopsies are almost aways performed in cases of death by hanging, there was no such procedure in Maxine Todd's case. Since Coroner Lykes was a mortician and not a forensic pathologist, his cause and manner of death ruling was meaningless. Maxine's obituary was brief and devoid of biographical information. It was as though she had never lived. 

     While he was at the court house, James decided to check the criminal convictions records to see if Pastor Todd had even been in trouble with the law. He had. In 1950 he was convicted of criminal trespass. James wonder if he had been caught peeping into someone's window. He was convicted two years later of misdemeanor animal cruelty. Because the records did not include details of the offenses involved, James could only speculate about the nature of Pastor Todd's crimes. The judge who presided over both cases, now deceased, sentenced the preacher with small fines. The police files would contain more details regarding the Pastor's crimes, but this information was not available to private investigators without connections. James walked out of the court house that day feeling empty handed.

     The parents of Pastor Todd's second wife Darlene met P. I. Sinclair at the Whippy Dip Custard Stand down the road from their house in Jackson Bend, a village a few miles east of the Clay County Court House. Mr. and Mrs. Williams were already there when he pulled into the Whippy Dip parking lot. They were seated at a picnic table and did not look eager to make his acquaintance. Both were longtime members of the Booger Hollow Church, and considered Pastor Todd second only to Jesus Christ. And it was a close second.

     Following introductions, Mrs. Williams asked why a private investigator looking for the pastor's run-a-way wife was interested in the details of their daughter's death. Taken back by the question, James muttered something about covering all the bases. Mr. Williams, the owner of a used car lot in Jackson Bend, said, "You had a lot of nerve showing up at the church the other day and harassing Pastor Todd. Now you're bothering us about our deceased daughter."

     "I'm sorry but I'm not trying to harass anyone. I'm conducting an investigation into the whereabouts of the pastor's wife. I thought the pastor would be pleased that someone is looking for her. Apparently he isn't."

      Mr. Williams rose to his feet, he was tall and quite fat. "Stay away from Pastor Todd. The poor man has suffered enough. You are not welcome here."

      James thanked Mr. and Mrs. Williams for their time, backed away the Whippy Dip and with his car pointed toward Charleston, stepped on the gas. 

     A few days after the fiasco at the custard stand, P. I. Sinclair was in Booger Hollow speaking to Charlene Palmer, the mother of Pastor Todd's first wife Maxine. Charlene resided at Blue Moon Estates, a trailer court on the southern edge of town. She and her husband, Rolland, left the Booger Hollow church shortly after Maxine's hanging. He died of a heart attack in 1970. Rolland Palmer was 54, and died believing his daughter had been murdered. Mrs. Palmer looked frail and in poor health. James felt uncomfortable in her modest home where her husband's bowling trophies were still on display. "Do you share your husband's belief regarding Maxine's death?" he asked.

     "I do,"she said. "Pastor Todd told us Maxine had come under the spell of the Devil. Those were his words. This was a lie and he knew it. Maxine loved Christ. She never suffered depression and had no history of mental illness. She wouldn't hang herself. We said this to the sheriff and the county coroner, people we knew from church. They assured us that Maxine had taken her own life. How did they know that? There was no investigation. We asked for an autopsy but Pastor Todd said no. He said that Maxine wasn't meeting Christ with her internal organs in a bag. That's not why he didn't want an autopsy. Besides, if she had killed herself, she wouldn't be meeting God." 

     "What do you think happened to Maxine?"

     "She saw something she wasn't supposed to see and someone in the church made sure she couldn't tell the police."

     "Did she tell you or your husband what it was she saw?"

     "Yes. She unexpectedly walked into the room where they keep Bibles, hymn books and other church supplies. She caught a male member of the church with a young girl."

     "What were they doing?"

      "What do you think?"

     "When you say young girl--"

     "She was eleven or twelve."

     "Who she was?"

     "Maxine didn't say."

     "After walking in on the man and the girl, what did Maxine do?"

     "She ran back to the house, and when Pastor Todd came home, she told him what she saw."


     "He was angry--at her! He made her promise not spread rumors about the church. He said he would take care of it. Of course he didn't, and never intended to."

     "Why is that?"

     "Because he was involved."

     "Was Pastor Todd abusing young girls in his church?"

     "Either that or he was procuring them for church members."

     "When did Maxine tell you about the girl in the supply room?"

     "About a week after it happened. A ten days later, she was dead."

     "Did you consider moving away after her death?"

     "No, this was our home. Neither of us had lived anywhere else. I still have friends here, good people. There is something else I want you to know."


     "Six months ago, a woman from Charleston called. She and her parents belonged to the church when Maxine died. When she was twelve, her family left the church and moved to Charleston after her father got a job there. A few months before calling me, she let her parents in on her terrible secret. She couldn't hold it in any longer."


     "For two years, several men in the Booger Hollow Church sexually molested her. And Pastor Todd knew about it."

     "How did she know that?"

     "After it first happened she went to him. He told her it was okay. She was serving the church. If she told anyone, including her parents, they would go to Hell."

     "Mrs. Palmer, did this woman give you her name, and how she could be reached?"



          Tilly McClure worked at the public library in downtown Charleston. She had agreed to meet P. I. Sinclair at a nearby coffee shop. After a bit of small talk, James asked Tilly why she confided in Mrs. about what had happened to her in the Booger Hollow Church. 

     "I wanted Mrs. Palmer to know that if her daughter had killed herself, it was probably because of what she had seen when she walked into church supply room. Maxine witnessed me being sexually abused by two men."

     "How did Mrs. Palmer respond to your revelation?"

     "She cried, and thanked me. She said Maxine did not kill herself. She was emphatic."

     "Do you believe Maxine committed suicide?"

     "Are you asking me if I think they killed her?"


     "I don't know. If they had I wouldn't be surprised. Those people, you have no idea."

     "I think I do."

     "They ruined my life. This is the third job I've had in a year. I miss work. I drink, I'm on medication. I'm still single and live with my aunt. The worst part is, I'm afraid of everyone. I don't know who I can trust? 

     James didn't know what to say to that except, "Okay."

     "Can I trust you?"

     "Yes. I know I can't help you, but I will do no harm. You don't have to be afraid of me."

     "I'm not. You seem different."

     "If I'm different it's because I am extremely ordinary."

     She smiled. "That's funny."

     "I'm afraid it's true."

     "I'd love to be ordinary. Lucky you."

     "At the church, how did it start?"

     "Paster Todd visited our youth camp when I was twelve. He pulled me aside and said he had been watching me, said I was special, a future leader in the church. I was flattered. Eventually he introduced me to one of his righthand men, said this man would teach me about Christian leadership. One thing led to another and the next thing I knew several men were having their way with me. I kept asking myself why me? Was it my fault?"

     "Of course not. Those men were sex offenders, perverts. You were the victim."

     "I keep telling myself that. But it doesn't help. They were respected members of the church."

     "Can you want to tell me their names?"

     "Sheriff Terry Blankenship and Coroner Lykes."

     "Are you aware that these men are still in power, still members of the church?"

     "Yes. And still abusing girls," Tilly added. 

     "Did Pastor Todd ever touch you?"

     "No, but he made it possible, and kept telling me if made accusations no one, not even my parents, would believe me. I would burn in Hell. I believed him. Why was I was so stupid? I should have exposed them."

     "You were a child. The were adults. You could expose them now. You could."

     "They raped me 17 years ago. The police can't do any thing. The people at the church will call me a drunk, a mental case, and they would be right. They will be against me, call me a liar. Anyway, who would I tell?"

     "You can go public. I know a crime reporter with the Charleston Gazette. He will tell your story."

     "What good would that do?"

     "It might inspire other victims to come forward, more recent victims. It might lead to criminal charges, and convictions, and the end of the abuse. Will you at least consider it?"

     "I'll do it. I have nothing to lose.


         Under the headline: CHILD SEX ABUSE AT BOOGER HOLLOW CHURCH ALLEGED, the Charleston Gazette, in June 1974, published Tilly McClure's story without naming the church, Pastor Todd, Sheriff Blankenship or Coroner Lykes. Even though the church and the perpetrators were not named, everybody in Booger Hollow knew who was being accused. Pastor Todd, ignoring his attorney's advice, held a press conference in front of his church. Behind him stood a dozen or so preachers from churches around the area. In front of him were several television cameras and a couple of print reporters. Pastor Todd threatened to sue the newspaper, the reporter, and Tilly McClure for libel, slander, and defamation. He asked members of his vilified church to prey for the accuser, a woman he described as troubled and Devil-possessed. While the little man with the wrong sized head and flamboyant hair attacked Tilly McClure, the preachers standing behind him nodded in agreement. The air was filled with amens. Pastor Todd's presentation was well received by members of his congregation, but more than a few viewers in Charleston considered it a shameful, Bible-thumping spectacle. Moreover, the press conference generated, in some circles, sympathy for Tilly McClure.   

     The day following Pastor Todd's sanctimonious press conference where he attacked the mental soundness and morality of his accuser, a Charleston television crew stationed themselves on the sidewalk outside of her residence. Afraid to leave the house, Tilly missed another day of work. By that evening, the TV people were gone. The Booger Hollow Church sex scandal was already old news, pushed aside by a hotel fire in downtown Charleston. 

     Worried about the brave and fragile woman who had trusted him with her story, James tried several times to call her at home. No one picked up which, under the circumstances, was not surprising. Three days later, James called the library and was told that Miss McClure had been absent from work,.

     On the morning of June 15, 1974, twelve days after the infamous Booger Hollow press conference, James turned on the TV and was stunned by the news: Tilly McClure was dead. 

     The previous evening, Tilly McClure's aunt had returned home to find her niece unresponsive on the bathroom floor next to a bottle that contained pills prescribed to treat her depression. While the autopsy and toxicological inquiries had not been completed, the presumed manner of death was either suicide or accidental overdose. James felt certain that it was the former. Overcome by guilt and anger, he wept.


     Tilly McClure's death was not totally in vain. The news of her suicide prompted three mothers of the Booger Hollow Church to file reports with the West Virginia State Police alleging that within the past two years, members of Pastor Todd's congregation had sexually molested their pre-teen daughters. This time Pastor Todd listened to his attorney and did not hold a press conference. 

     In January 1975, state troopers arrested Pastor Cletus Todd, Sheriff Terry Blankenship, County Coroner Ralph Lykes, and two other members of the church. The Clay County District Attorney charged Pastor Todd with three counts of facilitating the sexual abuse of a minor. The other men faced charges of felony rape of a minor. They all pleaded guilty and were released on bond. 

     The sheriff, the coroner, and the other two members of the Booger Hollow Church pleaded guilty to the rape charges and promised to testify against Pastor Todd. In return for their cooperation with the prosecution, they were each sentenced to ten years in prison. 

     In September 1975, Pastor Todd was allowed to plead guilty to the lesser charge of child endangerment. At his January 1976 sentence hearing, several Pentecostal preachers took the stand and vouched for his good character and standing in the community. No one came forward on behalf of the young rape victims. The judge sentenced Cletus Todd to 18 months to be served at the the state prison in Moundsville. Members of the Booger Hollow Apostolic Pentecostal Church present in the courtroom cheered and praised the Lord when the judge handed down the shockingly light sentence. James Sinclair, seated in the back of the room, lowered his head, but not in preyer. When the news reached the pastor's supporters outside the courthouse, they roared in glee and looked to the heavens in thanks.

     Following the stunning failure of the Clay County criminal justice system, James reached out to John and Bailey Collins. He told them he wanted to continue his search for Clystine. He promised to find her. And when he did, the law might not be finished with Pastor Todd. Mr. and Mrs. Collins informed James they could no longer afford his services. They would try to console themselves with the image of their daughter living somewhere with a decent man in a suburban home far way from Booger Hollow, West Virginia.

     In April 1976, disheartened by his inability to find Clystine Todd, and the failure of the criminal justice system to adequately punish Pastor Todd for decades of criminal behavior, James Sinclair left the private detective business. He simply wasn't cut out for it. James moved to Wheeling, West Virginia where he acquired a job driving a city bus, an occupation that suited him well. He maintained an arm's length relationship with his parents, but had met a young, introverted woman he liked. While he frequently thought about Clystine Todd, James never brought up the subject of her disappearance. And the closest he came to a church was when he drove by one in his bus.


     After serving 18 months in the Moundsville State Penitentiary where he started a prison ministry, Pastor Todd returned to Booger Hollow. He was greeted at the church by a throng of gleeful followers gathered to celebrate his homecoming. The charismatic preacher thanked God, forgave his accusers, and promised to rebuild the church into a powerful religious movement that would run the Devil out of West Virginia. While he didn't say where the Devil would run to, this was not be good for for the states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, Maryland and Virginia.

     On August 14, 1997, James Sinclair, while driving his bus down Wheeling's steep Chicken Neck Hill, lost control of the vehicle. The bus crashed into several on-coming cars, swerved into a telephone pole, flipped onto its roof and slid to the bottom of the hill where it exploded and burst into flames. Paramedics pronounced the former private investigator and four of his passengers dead at the scene. Two others died in the accident. Pastor Todd had not run the Devil out of Wheeling, West Virginia. 

     As the Pentecostal citizens of Booger Hollow continued to thank the Lord for the resurrection of their savior, the Very Most Reverend Cletus Todd, the preacher's third wife, Clystine Bailey Todd, sat quietly behind the wheel of her Chevy Corvair. It was there, in the murky waters of a shallow pond, she waited patiently to be discovered by a Clay County boy out for a swim.   

The Albert Jackson Sterling II Murder-For-Hire Case

      Life had been good to Roxanne Sterling, or so it seemed. She lived in a $400,000 house, was married to an ambitious man who made good money, and was eight months pregnant with her second child. Early in the afternoon of November 21, 2006, before leaving the house to go shopping, Roxanne said good-bye to her husband, Albert Jackson Sterling II. In an hour or so, Albert would be driving from the couple's home in Allen, Texas to nearby Dallas to catch a flight to his parents' home in Alamogordo, New Mexico.

     At four o'clock that afternoon, with her husband on the plane to New Mexico, Roxanne pulled her car into the garage and entered her house. She walked into the master bedroom and nearly fainted when she came face-to-face with a man wearing gloves and holding a black leather belt. The intruder rose from the edge of the bed and said, "Your husband wants you dead." Keeping his voice calm, the intruder asked the terrified woman not to panic. He had changed his mind. Instead of killing her, he was there to warn her of her husband's intentions. She was free to call the police. Roxanne, moving as fast as she could, ran to a neighbor's house. The neighbor called 911. The emergency operator could hear Roxanne sobbing uncontrollably in the background.

     Officers from the Allen Police Department found the intruder, Jeffrey Boden Thompson, waiting for them at the Sterling house. Thompson told the officers that Albert Sterling had given him the leather belt which he was to use in strangling the victim. Thompson said he had instructions to haul the corpse, in the victim's car, to a predetermined site in Dallas. After dumping the body, Thompson was to abandon the vehicle at another spot in the city. Mr. Sterling, the murder-for-hire mastermind, had designed his plan to fool the police into thinking that Roxanne had been carjacked and murdered in Dallas. For his efforts, Mr. Thompson would have earned $2,500.

     Because Jeffrey Thompson was willing to cooperate with investigators, the Collin County district attorney decided not to charge him with burglary. To show his willingness to help, Thompson played detectives a message Albert Sterling had left on his cellphone before flying to New Mexico. "The chicken has flown the coop," Albert said, referring to his wife's leaving the  house. "She will be there [back at the  house] in an hour. Just have patience."

     With detectives listening in, Thompson called Sterling in New Mexico with the message he had been told by the mastermind to leave upon completion of the hit: "The chariot (the victim's car) is in south Dallas and the trash (her body) is in west Dallas."

     The next day, in Alamogordo, police officers arrested Albert Sterling on charges of soliciting the murders of his wife and unborn child. The officers booked Sterling into the Otero County Jail where he would await extradition back to Texas. Through his attorney, Sterling denied having arranged his wife's murder, stating that she had caught Thompson in the act of burglarizing their house. The burglar, according to Sterling, had made up the hit murder business to avoid being charged with the break-in.

     Albert Sterling's family, friends, and neighbors were shocked that he had been accused of murder-for-hire. From all appearances he and Roxanne had been happily married, and looking forward to the birth of their baby. People who knew Albert refused to believe that a well-educated man with a good job would hire someone to murder his pregnant wife. Albert not only possessed a good job in the computer industry, the 38-year-old worked as a trainer/instructor in a 24-hour fitness club in Dallas. There had been rumors of a girlfriend who was one of his students in his other business, Al's Punch Time, a boxing gym. Still, no one believed he would have his pregnant wife murdered simply because he had found another woman.

     On December 7, 2006, Albert Sterling was brought back to Texas and placed in the Collins County Jail under $500,000 bond. Two weeks later, a Collin County grand jury indicted him on two counts of murder solicitation. Late in January 2007, a judge released the suspect on bail on the condition he wear an electric monitoring device, and report once a week to the court bailiff. Sterling also had to relinquished his passport.

     While awaiting his murder trial, Albert admitted to Roxanne that he had been involved in an extramarital affair. She not only forgave him, she told the Collins County prosecutor that despite what she had been told by Jeffrey Thompson, she believed that her husband was an honest, trustworthy man who had never plotted to murder her and their baby. She stunned the prosecutor by saying that she would testify on his behalf at his upcoming trial.

     Albert Sterling, through his attorney, Russell Wilson, denied attempting to hire Jeffrey Thompson, an ex-convict, to kill his wife. According to the defense attorney, his client had been working on a car insurance scam with Mr. Thompson when Thompson chose to burglarize his house. When Roxanne walked in on him, the intruder made up the murder-for-hire story.

     On February 13, 2009, a Collin County jury of six men and six women, after a short period of deliberation, found Albert Sterling guilty as charged. The judge sentenced him to two concurrent 30-year prison sentences. Throughout the trial, Roxanne remained loyal to her husband. She had taken the stand for the defense, and at the sentencing hearing, had testified on his behalf.

     Six months after the sentencing of her husband, Roxanne divorced him. When asked by reporters if she still believed in Albert's innocence, she didn't respond. After the sale of the house she and Albert had shared, the 39-year-old moved into a rental house not far from her former residence. 

The Destructive Power of Junk Forensic Science

According to The Center for Integrity in Forensic Sciences, between 1989 and 2019, more than 2000 innocent people were victims of wrongful convictions. Among these victims of injustice, 24 percent had trials that featured improper or invalid forensic science.

Where Do You Go To Get Justice?

Justice?--You get justice in the next world, in this world you have the law.

Opening line to A Frolic of His Own (1994) by William Gaddis

Literary Novelists Switching to Genre Fiction

     The good ship Literary Fiction has run aground and the survivors are frantically paddling toward the islands of genre. Okay, maybe that's a little dramatic, but there does seem to be a definite trend of literary/mainstream writers turning to romance, thrillers, fantasy, mystery, and young adult.

     What is going on? Is it a mass sellout, a belated and half-hearted attempt by writers to chase the market? Are they being pushed into genre by their agents and publishers? Are the literary novelists simply ready for a change, perhaps because even the most exalted among them have a tiny readership compared to genre superstars? Or are the two worlds finally merging?

     Once upon a time, genre was treated as almost a different industry from literary fiction, ignored by critics, sneered at by literary writers, relegated by publishers to imprint ghettos. But the dirty little and not particularly well-kept secret was that, thanks to the loyalty of their fans and the relatively rapid production of their authors, these genre books were the ones who kept the entire operation in business. All those snobbish literary writers had better have hoped like hell that their publishers had enough genre moneymakers in house to finance the advance for their latest beautifully rendered and experimentally structured observations of upper class angst.

     But while genre authors were always the workhorses of publishing, lately they've broken out as stars and are belatedly receiving real recognition. In 2010 there were 358 fantasy titles on the best seller lists, more than double the number in 2006. Publishers, always the last to recognize a literary trend, are pursuing top genre writers who, for the first time, have not only bigger paychecks but genuine clout…

     A lot of literary writers actually support themselves through other jobs, such as teaching, and they may be prepared to wait out the change and hope that literary fiction returns. [Not only has this trend accelerated in the past few years, the line between genre and literary fiction has faded.]

Kim Wright, "Why So Many Literary Writers Are Leaving the Genre,", September 2, 2011 

John Stuart Mill's "The Harm Principle"

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), the most influential political philosopher of the 19th Century, and author of the classic, On Liberty (1859), introduced a doctrine he called "The Harm Principle." Mr. Mill believed that human behavior that causes no significant harm to others should not constitute a crime. This philosophy reflected Mill's belief that government should have limited involvement in the lives of its citizens. The English philosopher would be appalled at the massive size of the administrative arm of the U. S. government, a giant, uncontrolled bureaucracy that regulates or criminalizes every aspect of American life. 

Useless College Degrees and the Self Inflicted Death of Higher Education

Institutions are rarely murdered. They meet their end by suicide....They die because they have outlived their usefulness, or fail to do the work that the world wants done.

Abbott Lawrence Lowell (1856-1943), president of Harvard University 

Sunday, February 28, 2021

Collateral Damage in a Botched SWAT Raid

     After their house in Wisconsin burned down in August 2014, Alecia Phonesavanh, her husband, and their four children, ages one to seven, moved into a dwelling outside of Cornelia, Georgia occupied by two of Alecia's relatives. The family took up residence with 30-year-old Wanis Thonetheva and his mother. They had knowingly moved into a a place where drugs were sold by Wanis who had a long arrest record.

     Since 2002, Wanis Thonetheva had been convicted of various weapons and drug related offenses. In October 2013, a Habersham County prosecutor charged him with possession of a firearm in the commission of a felony. The felony in question involved selling methamphetamine. In May 2014, Thoretheva was out on bail awaiting trial in that case.

     Shortly after midnight on Wednesday May 28, 2014, a confidential drug informant purchased a quantity of meth from Thonetheva at his house. Once the snitch made the sale, Thonetheva left the premises for the night. Had narcotics officers been surveilling the house, they would have known that.

     Based on the informant's drug purchase, a magistrate issued a "no-knock" warrant to search the Thonetheva residence. Just before three in the morning, just a couple of hours after the meth buy, a 7-man SWAT team made up of officers with the Cornelia Police Department and the Habersham County Sheriff's Office, approached the Thonetheva dwelling. A family sticker displayed on a minivan parked close to the suspected drug house indicated the presence of children. If a member of the raiding party had looked inside that vehicle the officer would have seen several children's car seats. A used playpen in the front yard provided further evidence that children were in the house about to be forcibly entered without notice.

     According to the drug informant, men were inside the house standing guard over the drugs. Against the force of the battering ram, the front door didn't fly open. SWAT officers interpreted this to mean that drug dealers were inside barricading the entrance. A SWAT officer broke a window near the door and tossed in a percussion grenade. The flash bang device landed in a playpen next to 19-month-old Bounkham Phonesavanh. It exploded on his pillow, ripping open his face, lacerating his chest, and burning him badly. The explosion also set the playpen on fire.

     There were no drug dealers or armed men in the house. The dwelling was occupied by two women, the husband of one of them, and four children.

     At a nearby hospital, emergency room personnel wanted to fly the seriously injured toddler to Atlanta's Brady Memorial Hospital. But due to weather conditions, Bounkham had to be driven by ambulance 75 miles to the Atlanta hospital. In the burn unit doctors placed the child into an induced coma. (The child would survive his injuries.)

     Shortly after the SWAT raid, police officers arrested Wanis Thonetheva at another area residence. Officers booked him into the Habersham County Detention Center on charges related to the sale of meth to the police snitch. The judge denied him bail.

     Many local citizens criticized the police for tossing a flash bang grenade into the house without first making certain children were not inside. Critics wanted to know why the narcotic detectives hadn't asked the informant about the presence of children. He had been inside the dwelling just a couple of hours before the raid.

     Habersham County Sheriff Joey Terrell told reporters that SWAT officers would not have used a "distraction device" if they had known that children were in the house. Cornelia Chief of Police Rick Darby said, "We might have gone in through a side door. We would not have used a flash bang. But according to the sheriff, members of the SWAT team had done everything correctly. As a result, he could see no reason for an investigation into the operation.

     As far as Sheriff Terrell was concerned, Wanis Thronetheva was responsible for what happened to Bounkham Phonesavanh. He said prosecutors might charge the suspected meth dealer in connection with the child's flash bang injuries.

     In September 2014, due to public criticism of the raid, a state grand jury began hearing testimony regarding the incident. A month later the grand jurors voted not to bring any criminal charges against the officers involved in the drug raid. 

The Reader's Identification With Characters

If it is true that no two writers get aesthetic interest from exactly the same materials, yet true that all writers, given adequate technique, can stir interest in their special subject matter--since all human beings have the same root experience (we're born, we suffer, we die, to put it grimly), so that all we need for our sympathy to be roused is that the writer communicate with power and conviction the similarities in his characters' experience and our own--then it must follow that the first business of the writer must be to make us see and feel vividly what his characters see and feel. However odd, however wildly unfamiliar the fictional world--odd as hog-farming to a fourth-generation Parisian designer, or Wall Street to an unemployed tuba player--we must be drawn into the characters' world as if we were born to it.

John Gardner, The Art of Fiction, originally published in 1983 

The Politics of Disagreement

     Life in democratic societies is rife with disagreement about right and wrong, justice and injustice. Some people favor abortion rights, and other consider abortion to be murder. Some believe fairness requires taxing the rich to help the poor, while others believe it is unfair to tax away money people have earned through their efforts. Some defend affirmative action in college admissions as a way of righting past wrongs, whereas others consider it an unfair form of reverse discrimination against people who deserve admission on their merits. Some people reject the torture of terror suspects as a moral abomination unworthy of a free society, while others defend it as a last resort to prevent a terrorist attack.

     Elections are won and lost on these disagreements. The so-called culture wars are fought over them. Given the passion and intensity with which we debate moral questions in public life, we might be tempted to think that our moral convictions are fixed once and for all by upbringing or faith, beyond the reach of reason.

     But if this were true, moral persuasion would be inconceivable, and what we take to the public debate about justice and rights would be nothing more than a volley of dogmatic assertions, an ideological food fight.

     At its worst, our politics comes close to this condition. But it need not be this way. Sometimes an argument can change our minds.

Michael J. Sandel, Justice, 2009

Novelists Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer, and Truman Capote as Pioneer TV Personalities

Novelists Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, and Gore Vidal were among the first novelists to promote themselves and their books on television. It apparently didn't bother these talented writers that they often made fools of themselves, and made it difficult for novelists who were either unwilling or unable to become TV personalities to promote their books. Today, very few authors would turn down a chance to appear on television.     

George Orwell's Idea of Journalsim

Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations.

George Orwell (1903-1950)

Christoper Hitchens On Writer Appearances On Television

Gore Vidal once languidly told me that one should never miss a chance to appear on television. My efforts to live up to this maxim have mainly resulted in my passing many unglamorous hours on off-peak cable TV. Almost every time I go to a TV studio, I feel faintly guilty. This is pre-eminently the "soft" world of dream and illusion and "perception": it has only a surrogate relationship to the "hard" world of printed words and written-down concepts to which I've tried to dedicate my life, and that surrogate relationship, while it, too, may be "verbal," consists of being glib rather than fluent, fast rather than quick, sharp rather than pointed. It means reveling in the fact that I have a meretricious, want-it-both ways side. My only excuse is to say that at least I do not pretend that this is not so. 

Christopher Hitchens, Hitch 22: A Memoir, 2010 (1949-2011)

Saturday, February 27, 2021

The Rafael Robb Murder Case

     In 1972, Rafael Robb graduated from Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Israel with a bachelor's degree in economics. A few years later he immigrated to the United States where, in 1981, he earned a Ph.D. in economics from UCLA. In 1984, now a U.S. citizen, Dr. Robb joined the teaching staff at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1990, he married Ellen Gregory, a woman seven years younger than him. Four years later, the couple had a daughter, Olivia.

     As Rafael Robb's marriage fell apart, Professor Robb's career at the University of Pennsylvania flourished. In 2004, after having published dozens of important papers on game theory, a mathematical discipline used to analyze political, economic, and military strategies, the professor was granted tenure. He also became a Fellow of the Economics Society, one of the highest honors in the discipline.

     In the afternoon of December 22, 2006, Professor Robb, using the non-emergency phone number rather than 911, reported that he had just discovered, upon returning home from work, that an intruder had beaten his wife to death in the kitchen of their Upper Merion, Pennsylvania home. Because Ellen Robb had been beaten beyond recognition, the responding police officers thought she had been murdered by a close-range shotgun blast to the face.

     From Ellen Robb's relatives and friends homicide detectives learned that the victim, after years of marital abuse, had recently hired a divorce attorney who planned to demand $4,000 a month in spousal support. Ellen, after living with the professor for the sake of their 12-year-old daughter, had finally decided to move out of the house.

     Montgomery County District Attorney Bruce L. Castor, Jr., on January 9, 2007, charged Rafael Robb with first-degree murder. Homicide detectives considered Robb's attempt to cover his tracks by staging a home invasion quite amateurish. They believed Robb had murdered his wife to avoid the financial consequences of the upcoming divorce. Robb's attorney announced that he would produce, at the upcoming trial, security-camera footage what would prove that his client had not been home when his wife was murdered. Homicide investigators, however, found numerous holes in Robb's so-called alibi.

     On November 27, 2007, on the day Rafael Robb's trial was scheduled to begin, the defendant, pursuant to a plea bargain arrangement, took the opportunity to plead guilty to voluntary manslaughter, a lesser homicide offense. Standing before Common Pleas Court Judge Paul W. Tressler, the defendant said that he and Ellen, on the morning of her death, had been arguing over a trip she planned to take with their daughter, Olivia. "The discussion," Robb said, "was very tense. We were both anxious." According to the defendant's version of the killing, when Ellen pushed him, he "just lost it." By losing it, Robb meant that he walked into the living room, grabbed an exercise bar used to do chin-ups, and used the blunt object to beat his wife's head into pulp. "I just kept flailing it," he said.

     Judge Tressler, after calling the Robb homicide "the worst physical bludgeoning" he had ever seen, sentenced Rafael Robb to a five-to-ten-year prison term. The light sentence for such a brutal killing committed by an abusive husband who had tried to stage a fake burglary shocked the victim's family and supporters. 

     In March 2012, after serving less than five years of his lenient sentence at a minimum security prison near Mercer, Pennsylvania 70 miles north of Pittsburgh, Rafael Robb filed a request to serve the remainder of his sentence in a Philadelphia halfway house. The goal behind the rehabilitation program involved allowing model prisoners to work at jobs during the day. The Montgomery County prosecutor strenuously opposed Robb's attempt to get into a halfway house.

     Notwithstanding objections from the prosecutor and members of Ellen Robb's family still upset about the light sentence, the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole, in October 2012, shocked everyone by granting Rafael Robb early parole. (If the Robb murder case were a game theory exercise, the ex-professor won.) The 62-year-old convicted wife killer was scheduled for release on January 28, 2013.

     On January 29, 2013, the Pennsylvania Parole Board, after meeting with Ellen Robb's family, reversed its decision to grant the ex-professor's release.

     In 2013, Rafael Robb's daughter Olivia Robb brought a personal injury suit against her father in state court. At the time of the civil action, the defendant had assets worth more than three million dollars. Following the three-day trial in a Montgomery County court, the jury, on November 6, 2014, awarded the 20-year-old plaintiff $124 million in compensatory and punitive damages. This was the largest contested personal injury verdict in Pennsylvania history. During the course of the trial, Rafael Robb took the stand and admitted killing his wife then lying to the police by claiming she had been murdered by an intruder.

     In May 2016, the Pennsylvania Parole Board denied Rafael Robb's second petition for early release. That meant he would serve his full sentence and remain behind bars until December 2016.

     Rafael Robb should have been found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to life without parole. Just because this brutal killer was a prominent scholar did not justify the authorities letting him get away with murdering his estranged wife in order to save the cost of a divorce. The prosecutor, in negotiating Robb's guilty plea, gave away the store. This case, on so many levels, was an outrage.

     On January 10, 2017, a paroled Rafael Robb walked out of prison. Members of Ellen Robb's family protested outside the Upper Merion home where the former professor had murdered his wife. To reporters the victim's brother said, "He can't simply go back into society unfettered while the memory of my sister fades into the distance."  

     In August 2019, to settle the civil suit judgement against him, Rafael Robb agreed to relinquish 75 percent of his $3 million in investments and pension assets. 

From Hero to Heel

     In September 2007, when Richard De Coatsworth was a 22-year-old rookie on the Philadelphia Police Department, he pulled over a suspicious vehicle occupied by four men. Three of the suspects jumped out of the car and fled. As the young officer alighted from the patrol car to give chase, the fourth suspect blasted him with a shotgun. Notwithstanding the gunshot wound to the lower portion of his face, officer De Coatsworth chased the gunman while calling in for help. Although he eventually collapsed, other officers apprehended the shooter. The assailant was later convicted and sentenced to 36 to 72 years in prison.

     Officer De Coatsworth, following his medical recovery, was promoted to an elite highway patrol unit. In 2008, the National Association of Police Organizations named him that year's "Top Cop."

     In February 2009, Vice President Joe Biden invited Officer De Coatsworth to sit next to Michelle Obama at the President's address to the Joint Session of Congress. The officer was seen on national TV sitting next to the First Lady in his ceremonial police uniform. In his brief law enforcement career, officer Richard De Coatsworth had achieved full hero status. It was at this point that his life and career began to deteriorate.

     Just seven months after appearing with Michelle Obama, De Coatsworth was accused of excessive force after he shot a motorcyclist in the leg. In November 2011, the hero-cop was under investigation by the Internal Affairs Office for fighting with a fellow officer. A month later, after having amassed, during his brief tenure as a police officer, nine civilian complaints of assault, abuse, and misconduct, De Coatsworth retired from the force on full disability.

     Two months after leaving the police department, De Coatsworth was charged with threatening a woman in the Port Richmond section of the city.

     On May 1, 2013, De Coatsworth, after meeting a woman in a downtown bar, allegedly sexually assaulted her at the Day's Inn on Roosevelt Boulevard. At two in the morning of Thursday, May 16, 2013, De Coatsworth showed up at this woman's home in the Fishtown-Kensington section of the city. At her residence, De Coatsworth allegedly forced the 21-year-old and another woman her age to perform oral sex on him at gunpoint. The next day, immediately after the ex-cop departed the house, the woman he had allegedly assaulted at the Day's Inn called the authorities.

     On Saturday, May 18, 2013, a prosecutor charged Richard De Coatsworth with rape, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, trafficking in persons, false imprisonment, and aggravated assault. At his arraignment, the magistrate judge set the defendant's bail at $25 million for each of the women. The judge added another $10 million bond in connection with an unrelated charge involving De Coatsworth's alleged May 9 assault of his live-in girlfriend. In total, the ex-police officer was charged with 32 felonies. His bail was the highest in the history of city, and probably the state.
     In January 2015, De Coatsworth pleaded guilty to promoting prostitution, simple assault and drug possession. The judge sentenced him to 18 months probation. 

Pulp Fiction Writer David Goodis

David Goodis (1917-1967) was a pulp fiction writer of noir crime novels and short stories in the 1940s and 1950s. He was pretty much forgotten until recently after a couple of literary critics rediscovered his work. This led to the reprinting of a few of his novels. The following excerpt from his 1946 novel Dark Passage exemplifies the genre: "You know me. Guys like me come a dime a dozen. No fire. No backbone. Dead weight waiting to be pulled around and taken to places where we want to go but can't go alone. Because we're afraid to be alone. Because we can't face people and we can't talk to people. Because we don't know how. Because we can't handle life and don't know the first thing about taking a bite out of life. Because we're afraid and we don't know what we're afraid of and still we're afraid. Guys like me." 

Fantasy as Escapist Literature

I still see fantasy as escapist literature. Whether the storytelling itself or by the ideas behind the story, readers want to be transported beyond their mundane existence by the genre.

Betsy Mitchell, Writer's Digest, 1999

Kurt Vonnegut's Response to a Critic

     Peter S. Prescott says in his Newsweek piece on science fiction (December 22, 1975): "Few science fiction writers aim higher than what a teen-age intelligence can grasp, and the smart ones--like Kurt Vonnegut, carefully satirize targets--racism, pollution, teachers--that teenagers are conditioned to dislike."

     That unsupported allegation about me will now become a part of my dossier at Newsweek. I ask you to put this letter in the same folder, so that more honest reporters than Mr. Prescott may learn the following about me:

     I have never written with teenagers in mind, nor are teenagers the chief readers of my books. I am the first science fiction writer to win a Guggenheim, the first to become a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, the first to have a novel become a finalist for a National Book Award. I have been on the faculties of the University of Iowa and Harvard, and was most recently a Distinguished Professor of Literature at CCNY.

     Mr. Prescott is entitled to loathe everything I have ever done, which he clearly does. But he should not be a liar. Newsweek should not be a liar.

Kurt Vonnegut, Kurt Vonnegut: Letters, edited by Dan Wakefield, 2012 

Friday, February 26, 2021

The Mystery of Criminal Motive: The Streeter Brothers Murder Case

     Douglas Ivor Streeter and his brother John owned and operated the Merino sheep farm near Maryborough, Australia, a town northwest of Melbourne in the state of Victoria. The brothers, in their mid-60s, had worked on the 7,000-acre farm since they were teenagers. They lived in the hamlet of Natte Yallock, and attended the local Anglican Church.

     While John Streeter was reclusive, Douglas and his wife Helen had been quite active in the local community. The couple had two adult sons, Ross and Anthony. In December 2012, Douglas was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease. His son, 30-year-old Ross Streeter, lived in the town of Bendigo, and worked on the sprawling farm with his father and his uncle.

     At six in the evening of Thursday, March 16, 2013, Douglas Streeter's wife Helen discovered the bodies of her husband and her brother-in-law. Someone had shot both men in the head with a shotgun. The double murder shocked this rural community. Who would have reason to kill these too well-respected farmers?

     At eleven-thirty the next morning, police officers followed an ambulance en route to Ross Streeter's house in Bendigo where paramedics treated the son for unspecified self-inflicted injuries. They transported Streeter to the Royal Melbourne Hospital where the patient was treated under police guard.

     Investigators believed that sometime after eight in the morning the previous day, Ross had used a shotgun to kill his Uncle John. After the murder the suspect left the farm, then sometime before noon, returned and killed his father.

     On Saturday, March 18, 2013, upon Ross Streeter's discharge from the hospital, police officers placed him under arrest for the two murders. Later that day investigators recovered the murder weapon. Charged with two counts of murder, he was held without bail. The motive for the double murder was a mystery.

     On March 14, 2014, Ross Streeter pleaded guilty to both killings. Supreme Court Justice Lex Laspry, at the November 2014 sentencing hearing, said he was dubious of Streeter's claim that he had no memory of the shootings. A psychiatrist had testified that the defendant did not suffer from any kind of mental illness and that his memory loss assertion was probably false.

     The judge imposed a sentence of 34 years. Mr. Streeter, under the terms of his sentence, would be eligible for parole after serving 25 years in prison. That meant he had no chance of freedom until he turned 55.

     Human behavior can be unpredictable, and in some cases, inexplicable. 

Prison Jobs

     Just because you have a work assignment doesn't mean you'll be paid. Prisons are under no obligation to compensate you for your labor. In fact, many correctional facilities don't pay their inmates anything. When prisons do pay cons, they only pay enough so guys can purchase small items from the commissary or cover the costs of their telephone calls. If no cons have money in their commissary accounts, the place gets really desperate.

     The waiting list to get a job in prison industries is usually a couple years long, because that's the best way to make money. In any event, inmate pay for general labor is very low, a few dollars a week. Mopping floors pays about 12 cents an hour, and working in the factory ranges from 40 cents to $1.10. Remember--to the authorities, work for convicts is a privilege, not a right. In the outside world, you must work or starve. In prison you work to keep from dying of boredom.

Jeffrey Ian Ross and Stephen C. Richards, Behind Bars: Surviving Prison, 2002

Don't Drink and Shoot

Be wary of strong drink. It can make you shoot at tax collectors and miss.

Robert Heinlein, science fiction writer (1907-1988)

Believable Fantasy

I learned years ago from Lester del Ray that the secret to writing good fantasy is to make certain it relates to what we know about our own world. Readers must be able to identify with the material in such a way that they recognize and believe the core truths of the storytelling. It doesn't matter if you are writing epic fantasy, contemporary fantasy, dark urban fantasy, comic fantasy, or something else altogether, there has to be truth in the material. Otherwise readers are going to have a tough time suspending disbelief long enough to stay interested.

Terry Brooks, Sometimes The Magic Works, 2003

Finding a Topic

Learning how to write is hard enough, but deciding what to write about--isolating a marketable subject that is appealing to you--is the most difficult task a writer must confront. Find a subject that intrigues and motivates you and that will simultaneously intrigue and motivate readers. The task is double-edged. Salable subjects are around us everywhere; on the other hand, they are astoundingly elusive.

Lee Gutkind, The Art of Creative Nonfiction, 1997

Newspapers' Declining Popularity

Newspapers' paid circulation has declined from 62.5 million in 1968 to 34.7 million in 2016, while the country's population was increasing by 50 percent. Almost 1,800 newspapers, most of them local weeklies, have closed since 2004.

Nicholas Lemann, "Can Journalism be Saved? The New York Review of Books, Feb 27, 2020

Thursday, February 25, 2021

What Happened To David Bird?

     David Bird, a 55-year-old journalist with the Wall Street Journal who covered the world's energy markets--OPEC and such--lived with his wife Nancy and their two children in central New Jersey's Long Hill Township. Although he underwent a liver transplant operation in 2005, Mr. Bird was an avid hiker, biker, and camper. The Boy Scout troop leader, in 2013, ran in the New York City Marathon. His children were ages 12 and 15.

     On Saturday, January 11, 2014, after he and his wife had put away their Christmas decorations, David said he wanted to take a walk and get some fresh air before it started to rain. At 4:30 PM, dressed in a red rain jacket, sneakers, and a pair of jeans, the six-foot-one, 200 pound, gray-haired reporter walked out of his house. Shortly thereafter it began to rain, and rain hard.

     Two hours after David Bird left the house his wife became worried. He hadn't returned and it was still raining. To make matters worse, Dave had been suffering from a gastrointestinal virus. Nancy Bird called the Long Hill Township Police Department to report her husband missing.

     Over the next three days, police officers and hundreds of volunteers searched the neighborhood and nearby wooded areas for the missing journalist. The searchers were assisted by dogs, a helicopter, and people riding all-terrain vehicles and horses. Volunteers also distributed hundreds of missing persons flyers.

     Notwithstanding the effort to locate Mr. Bird, he was nowhere to be found. It seemed he had disappeared without a trace.

     The fact the missing man left his house without the anti-rejection medication he took twice a day in connection with his liver transplant made finding him all the more urgent. Without that medicine he would surely become ill.

     On January 16, 2014, police officers learned that someone in Mexico, the night before, had used one of David Bird's credit cards. The card was supposedly used four days after Mr. Bird's disappearance. Investigators, without a clue as to where David Bird was, or why he went missing, considered the possibility that his disappearance had something to do with his reporting on recent middle east crude oil price changes.

     On March 18, 2015, at five o'clock in the evening, two men canoeing on the Passaic River in New Jersey about a mile from David Bird's home, spotted a red jacket amid a tangle of branches. From that spot emergency responders retrieved a male corpse.

     Dr. Carlos A. Fonesca with the Morris County Medical Examiner's office and forensic dentist Dr. Mitchell M. Kirshbaum identified the remains as David Bird. The day after the discovery, Morris County prosecutor Frederic M. Knapp said an autopsy would be conducted to determine Mr. Bird's cause and manner of death.

     A few days later, a Morris County spokesperson revealed that Mr. Bird had drowned. Investigators found no reason to suspect foul play. Since Mr. Bird's death wasn't homicide or natural, it was either the result of suicide or an accident.

     In June 2015, a spokesperson for the Morris County Medical Examiner's Office ruled the manner of Mr. Bird's death as accidental.