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Friday, December 31, 2021

The Man in the Bag

     Gareth Williams grew up in North Wales, graduated from Cambridge University, and earned a Ph.D. from Manchester University. A math genius, he was hired as a codebreaker at the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in Chetenham, England. A fit, slender man of five-foot seven who participated in competitive cycling, Williams kept to himself, and lived a somewhat secret life. The quiet 31-year-old bachelor had become a rising star in the super secret world of counterterrorism.

     In 2010, after ten years at the GCHQ electronic surveillance facility at Chetenham, Williams was transferred to the secret British intelligence gathering agency M16 in London. He lived on the top floor of a 5-story townhouse in the upscale Pimlico neighborhood of west London. The government-issued flat was less than a mile from M16 headquarters.

     In August 2010, Williams, who didn't make a habit of missing work, hadn't been seen at M16 headquarters for more than a week. He was not on vacation or special assignment, and didn't answer his phone. His M16 supervisor did not report him missing, but residents of his townhouse, after not seeing him around, called the police.

     On Monday afternoon, on August 23, 2010, police officers broke into Williams' apartment. In the bathroom, they saw, sitting in the empty tub, a large cylindrical North Face sports satchel (called a duffel bag or holdall). The bag had been secured by a small padlock. After breaking the lock and unzipping the satchel, the police found the decomposing body of a nude man in a fetal position with his arms crossed over his chest. The man in the bag was Gareth Williams.

     Officers with Scotland Yard's Homicide and Serious Crime Command conducted a crime scene investigation. There was no evidence of forcible intrusion into the apartment. (The front door had been locked from the outside which suggested that someone had been in the flat with Williams when he went into the satchel.) The apartment showed no signs of a struggle or theft. Moreover, the crime scene investigators found no latent fingerprints or trace evidence that may have contained DNA. It seemed the death site had been forensically sanitized.

     The day after the gruesome and perplexing discovery, Home Office forensic pathologist Dr. Ben Swift performed the autopsy. Because of the decomposition, Dr. Swift could not pinpoint the time of death. The condition of the corpse also precluded any kind of toxicological analysis to determine if Williams had been poisoned. The forensic pathologist found no evidence of physical trauma on the body, including Williams' fingers and nails. From this Dr. Swift concluded that Mr. Williams had not tried to escape the confines of the sports bag.

     While the manner of Gareth Williams' death--homicide, suicide, natural or accidental--could not be forensically determined, Dr. Swift reported that the likely cause of death was oxygen depletion, or hypercapnia--a build up of carbon dioxide inside the bag. The forensic pathologist speculated that Williams would have suffocated within 30 minutes.

     A series of experiments conducted by two men of Williams' size and fitness, revealed that it was virtually impossible to put oneself in that bag. It would also have been extremely difficult for one person to put a dead body in the satchel. This led some investigators to conclude that Williams, with the help of someone else, had willingly climbed into the bag.

     In Williams' apartment, detectives found $35,000 worth of designer women's dresses, plus 26 pairs of expensive women's shoes. In addition to a bright orange female wig, investigators found cocaine, and a cache of gay pornography. Williams' had also visited several web sites for practitioners of bondage, S & M, and a phenomena called "claustophilia," the experiencing of sexual pleasure by being confined in small enclosures.

     When officials at M16 were informed of Mr. Williams' apparent sexual preferences--his cross-dressing, bondage, and gayness--his supervisors said they had been aware of all of that. In the world of modern espionage, the private sexual lives of their counterterrorism officers was no longer of interest to agency administrators. Shortly after the discovery of Williams' body, M16 had released a statement that his death had nothing to do with his work.

    There were those who believed he was poisoned to death--perhaps by potassium cyanide, or the sedative GHB--by either Russian secret service hit men, Al Qaeda operatives, or assassins from other unfriendly countries.

     Another school of thought involved the theory that Williams was murdered by a gay lover. Perhaps the most popular belief was that Williams had died as a result of some kind of sadistic or masochistic sexual act gone wrong, something in the line of auto-erotic asphyxiation. If the later was the case, the manner of his death would be accidental. But questions remained. Who helped Williams into the satchel, then locked it from the outside? Who had a key to his flat? And why hadn't this person come forward?

     In November 2013, following a Metropolitan Police twelve month investigation, Deputy Commissioner Martin Hewitt announced that the "most probable scenario" regarding Williams' death was that he had died in his flat alone after accidentally locking himself into the bag. However, in October 2015, Boris Karpichkov, a former KGB agent who had defected from Russia, stated that "sources in Russia claimed that Williams had been murdered by members of the Russian Foreign Service.

      Gareth Williams' bizarre death received almost no media coverage in the United States and remains a mystery.

Death by Explosion

     If you [a scientist conducting experiments regarding the effects of explosions] want to stay up late worrying about lawsuits and bad publicity, explode a bomb near the body of someone who has willed his remains to science. This is perhaps the most firmly entrenched taboo of the cadaveric research world. Indeed, live, anesthetized animals have generally been considered preferable, as targets of explosions, to dead human beings. In a 1968 Defense Atomic Support Agency paper entitled "Estimates: Man's Tolerance to the Direct Effects of Air Blasts," i.e., from bombs--researchers discussed the effects of experimental explosions upon mice, hamsters, guinea pigs, rabbits, cats, dogs, goats, sheep, steers, pigs, burros, and stump-tailed macaques, but not upon the actual subject of inquiry. No one had ever used a cadaver…to see what might happen…

     Aris Makris, who works for a company in Canada…which engineers protective gear for people who clear land mines…says dead people aren't aways the best models for gauging living people's tolerance to explosive blasts because their lungs, which are deflated and not doing the things that lungs normally do. The shock wave from a bomb wreaks the most havoc on the body's most easily compressed tissue, and that is found in the lungs: specifically, the tiny, delicate air sacs where the blood picks up oxygen and drops off carbon dioxide. An explosion shock wave compresses and ruptures these sacs. Blood then seeps into the lungs and drowns their owner, sometimes quickly, in ten or twenty minutes, sometimes over a span of hours.

Mary Roach, Stiff, 2003

The Quote Editor

One time a newspaper sent us to a morgue to get a story on a woman whose body was being held for identification. A man believed to be her husband was brought in. Somebody pulled the sheet back; the man took one agonizing look, and cried, "My God, it's her!" When we reported this grim incident, the editor diligently changed it to "My God, it's she!"

E. B. White, The Second Tree From the Corner, 1954 

Barry Hannah On Booze

It's unfortunate that I learned something through booze. Everybody does, but ultimately on the level I was using, it was sickness. Jail, hospitals, DUIs. Briefly it worked, to be frank, but that was on three beers. If I were to appear on television today as a spokesperson for anti-alcohol, I'd say: Listen, if you need more than three beers, worry.

Barry Hannah, Paris Review, Winter 2004 

The Writer's Arrogance

The most helpful quality a writer can cultivate is self-confidence--arrogance, if you can manage it. You write to impose yourself on the world, and you have to believe in your own ability when the world shows no sign of agreeing with you.

Hilary Mantel, prize-winning English novelist and short story writer, 2002

Thursday, December 30, 2021

Excited Delirium Syndrome: Cause of Death or Police Cover-Up?

     When people die suddenly and unexpectedly without a clear reason, forensic pathologists, rather than classify them as deaths of undetermined causes, often explain these fatalities as being caused by a syndrome. Attributing a mysterious or suspicious death to a syndrome, while it sounds scientific, isn't always forensically enlightening. Some of the more common causes of death syndromes include the Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), the Shaken Baby Syndrome (SBS), and the more recent, Excited Delirium Syndrome (EDS). As causes of death, syndromes are based less on forensic science than on human behavior and the circumstances surrounding these deaths. These postmortem determinations often leave a lot to interpretation and are therefore controversial and subject to debate.

Excited Delirium Syndrome (EDS)

     Forensic pathologists in the United States, Canada, England, and Wales, in situations involving agitated, violent, incoherent, and erratic male subjects who die suddenly while fighting with police officers or prison personnel trying to subdue them through physical force or taser jolts, often attribute these deaths to EDS. Most of these men are overweight, a high percentage are black, and they are all high on drugs and/or alcohol. Many are also seriously mentally ill. Under intense stress, the hearts of these men race wildly, their body temperatures soar to 103-5 degrees, and they either die of cardiac or respiratory arrest. Dr. Vincent Di Maio, the former medical examiner of Bexar County, Texas, a well known forensic pathologist and textbook author, believes EDS subjects die from overdoses of adrenaline.

Dr. Deborah Mash

     The term "excited delirium" was coined by Dr. Deborah Mash, the neurologist who founded the Excited Delirium Education, Research and Information Center at the University of Miami where she studied the brain tissue of 120 men she believed died of EDS. Called a junk scientist and charlatan by her critics, Dr. Mash appeared as an expert witness on behalf of Taser International, the stun gun company that was sued by families of men who died after being tasered. When asked about her relationship with the firm, Dr. Mash has reportedly said, "I don't care about the taser, and I'll tell you why. Excited delirium was happening before the taser....If it happened with pepper spray, you'd say, 'oh, it's the pepper spray that's killing them.'...We have some cases where there were no police involved, and they still died....Medical examiners have described cases where paramedics got to the scene and the room is trashed, there are ice cubes everywhere, and the subject is dead. That tells me that person was trying to cool down." (Miami-Dade County fire rescue paramedics carry excited delirium survival kits designed to cool overheated brains.)

     Critics of EDS as a cause of death include the ACLU and other civil libertarian organizations. Noting that EDS is not recognized by the American Medical Association, these critics believe the authorities use EDS to cover-up and white-wash the real causes of death--police brutality and excessive force. They see EDS as a forensic device used to excuse and exonerate heavy-handed law enforcement.

Cases

September 5, 2006
Louisville, Kentucky

     The police encountered 52-year-old Larry Noles, an ex-Marine, standing nude in the middle of the street. After failing to subdue Noles by force, officers shot him with a taser three times. The highly agitated subject suddenly stopped breathing and died. The Jefferson County Medical Examiner attributed the death to EDS.

October 29, 2006
Jerseyville, Illinois

     Roger Holyfield, 17, was walking in the middle of the street carrying a phone in one hand and a Bible in the other. He was screaming incoherently when approached by the police. After struggling with the out-of-control man, officers tasered him. Holyfield went into a coma and died the following day. The local medical examiner attributed the death to EDS.

December 17, 2006
Lafayette, Louisiana

     High on cocaine and delirious, 29-year-old Terill Enard, with a broken bone sticking out of his leg, was creating a disturbance at a Waffle House restaurant. The police came, tried to restrain him, then shocked him with a taser. Enard collapsed and died at the scene. The coroner's office listed the death as "cocaine-induced Excited Delirium."

January 2008
Coral Gables, Florida

     At two in the morning, Coral Gables police found ex-con Xavia Jones lying in the middle of a highway screaming "God is coming to take me!" When officers approached him, Jones yelled, "Kill me, shoot me." Instead of shooting him, an officer tasered him four times. When that had no effect, another officer gave Jones five more jolts. The subject sort of locked-up, then died with a white liquid trickling from his mouth. The Miami-Dade County Associate Medical Examiner cited "excited delirium syndrome, associated with cocaine use" as the cause of death.

July 2008
Hanover Township, New Jersey

     A New Jersey State Trooper pulled up to 25-year-old Kenwin Garcia as he walked along Interstate 287. After frisking the unarmed man, the officer put him in the back of his patrol car where the mentally ill subject became agitated and kicked out a window. Zip-tied around his wrists and ankles, the trooper and another officer placed Garcia into a second patrol car where the subject kicked out another window. A third trooper arrived at the scene to help restrain the agitated man. One of the troopers turned off the dashboard camera before he and another officers pulled Garcia out of the car and piled on top of him. Garcia kicked and struggled, said he couldn't breathe, then went limp. He died a week later at a nearby hospital after they took him off life support.

     Although the medical examiner found that Garcia had a broken breastbone, fractured ribs, a torn kidney and internal bleeding, and had not been under the influence of alcohol or drugs, he ruled the cause of death excited delirium syndrome. As a result, none of the troopers in the case were charged with a crime or disciplined.

      Pursuant to an independent investigation of Garcia's death, four forensic pathologists reviewed the autopsy and found that Garcia had died from suffocation while being restrained. Three law enforcement experts opined that the troopers in this case had used excessive force. The dead man's family, based on these findings, filed a wrongful death suit against the township.

     In 2013, attorneys for Hanover Township agreed to pay the Garcia estate $700,000 in an out of court settlement. No criminal charges were filed in this case.

July 22, 2011
Bangor, Maine

     The Bangor police were called at 6:45 P.M. to deal with 32-year-old Ralph E. Willis, a man addicted to a hallucinogenic stimulant called MDPV, the key ingredient in bath salts. Officers found him running wildly around yelling at people on the street. When Willis resisted being taken into custody, several officers had to subdue him. In so doing, they used their nightsticks.

    At the Penobscot County Jail, Willis continued to be agitated and uncooperative. He fought with jail personnel who put him into a holding cell. Thirty minutes later, when they checked on him, Willis appeared unresponsive. When deputy sheriffs entered the cell, Willis began to yell. He then grabbed his testicles, banged his head against the wall, and rolled onto his stomach flailed his arms and legs At that point the inmate stopped breathing. A short time later doctors pronounced Willis dead at a local emergency room. He had died of cardiac arrest and at the time of his death had a body temperature of 103 degrees.

     The state's medical examiner ruled the manner of Willis' death accidental. The cause: MDPV toxicity. In her report, the forensic pathologist described Willis as having been in a state of excited delirium. As a result of the Willis case, the Penobscot County Jail no longer accepted prisoners who were under the influence of bath salts.

EDS in England and Wales

     Research by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a not-for-profit organization based at City University in London, disclosed that excited delirium was first used in a British case in 1996. Since then, the condition has been used by coroners in England and Wales to explain 10 police restraint related deaths. In researching EDS, bureau journalists interviewed several forensic pathologists including Dr. Deborah Mash who told an interviewer that,"Just because you die in police custody doesn't mean that what the police were doing at the time you died led to your death. The symptoms of EDS are why the police are called to the scene to begin with."

     In Great Britian, Dr. Mash incurred the wrath of several prominent critics in the field of forensic pathology. Dr. Derrick Pounder, a forensic pathology expert at the University of Dundee said, "Excited delirium is a theory...It has come from the United States, where the science is very politicized, without a robust enough analysis. If you write off a death as excited delirium, then you close the door to guilt being attributed, and more importantly, lessons being learned from the types of [police] restraint used."

     Dr. Richard Shepherd, another English forensic pathologist who spoke to journalists with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, said this: "We know there are a group of people who exhibit this very bizarre behavior. Whether they strictly fall into this group called 'excited delirium' or not, I think will become clearer as more research is done...I think it is a term that should be used with great care..."

     Like its cause of death counterparts, SIDS and SBS, EDS will attract supporters and critics and remain controversial until it is either totally rejected in the medical community or accepted as valid forensic science.

Keith Richards' Problem

I've never had a problem with drugs. I did have a problem with cops.

Keith Richards, 2000

Journalistic Interviewing

The secret to the art of journalistic interviewing--and it is an art--is to let the other person think he's interviewing you. You tell him about yourself, and slowly you spin your web so that he tells you everything.

Truman Capote in Conversations With Capote, edited by Lawrence Grobel, 1985

Dr. Watson

Dr. Watson in the Sherlock Holmes stories is the inviting voice of the entire series. He is intelligent, observant and faithful, the way we want doctors to be. He is also guileless and naive, where Holmes is neither, and that is the ultimate limitation in each mystery. But his lack of cunning is why we trust him--and why Holmes does, too.

Atul Gawande, The New York Times Book Review, October 26, 2014 

Writing For Children

Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down.

E. B. White (1899-1985) American writer who was a longtime contributor to The New Yorker, wrote children's books, and with William Strunk Jr., the classic, The Elements of Style (1959) that is still in print.

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Father Gerald Robinson: Devil Priest or Innocent Man?

     In 1980, 72-year-old Sister Margaret Ann Pahl worked at Mercy Hospital in Toledo, Ohio as the caretaker of the chapel. A strict taskmaster who didn't suffer fools, Sister Margaret worked closely with 42-year-old Father Gerald Robinson, one of the hospital's chaplains. Father Robinson was a popular priest in the heavily Catholic city of 300,000.

     On April 5, 1980, on Holy Saturday, someone found Sister Margaret's bloody body on the chapel floor. She had been choked to near death, then stabbed 31 times in the chest, neck, and face. Some of the stab wounds in her chest formed the pattern of an upside down cross. The killer had also anointed her forehead with a smudge of her own blood. With her habit pulled up to her chest, and her undergarments pulled down around her ankles, the victim had been posed in a position of humiliation. While not raped, the killer had penetrated her with a cross.

     Although detectives on the case immediately suspected Father Robinson of this ritualistic murder, the priest presided over Sister Margaret's funeral Mass four days after her homicide. The principal piece of crime scene evidence detectives believed pointed to his guilt involved a blood stain on the altar cloth consistent with the form of a sword-shaped letter opener in Father Robinson's apartment. The stain bore the vague print of the letter opener's dime-sized medallion bearing the image of the U.S. capitol. However, because the chief detective on the case was a Catholic, and didn't want to scandalize the church, Father Robinson was not arrested. The investigation floundered, and without a suspect, died on the vine.

     In December 2003, a Lucas County cold-case investigative team re-opened the 1980 murder. Father Robinson, over the past 23 years, had served in three Toledo Diocese parishes. The 65-year-old priest, in 2003, was administering to the sick and dying in several area Catholic homes and hospitals. The case came back to life after a woman wrote a letter to the police claiming that Father Robinson had sexually abused her as a child, a molestation that involved Satanic ritualistic behavior that involved human sacrifice. (I don't know if this complainant passed a polygraph test, or made the accusation after some psychologist coaxed the memory out of her. After the Satanic hysteria in the McMartin preschool debacle, and the horrible injustice in the Memphis three case, I'm suspicious of this kind of allegation. Human sacrifice?)

     Following the exhumation of Sister Margaret's body, a forensic pathologist noted that a stab wound in the victim's jaw could have been made by the letter opener found in Father Robinson's apartment. A DNA analysis of the victim's fingernail scrapings, and underwear, excluded the priest. Nevertheless, in April 2006, the police went to Father Robinson's home and arrested him. From the Lucas County Jail where he was held without bail, the priest denied killing Sister Margaret.

     While there was barely enough evidence to legally justify Father Robinson's arrest--no motive, no confession, no eyewitness, and no physical evidence directly linking him to the corpse--the priest went on trial for murder on April 24, 2006. The prosecutor showed the jury a videotape of the defendant's 2004 police interrogation. Father Robinson told his questioners that he had been stunned when one of the other hospital chaplains accused him of murdering Sister Margaret. When left alone for a few minutes in the interrogation room, the priest folded his hands and began to whisper the word "sister," then bowed his head in prayer. At one point he said, "Oh my Jesus." (I don't know how the prosecution interpreted this as incriminating evidence.)

     A prosecution forensic scientist testified that the letter opener "could not be ruled out" as the murder weapon. (The prosecutor, in his closing remarks, told the jury that the letter opener fit one of the victim's stab wounds "like a key in a lock." Instruments used in stabbings cannot be scientifically linked to their wounds this way. That statement alone should have been adequate grounds for a reversal on appeal.) The forensic scientist also testified that the altar cloth bloodstains were "consistent with" the general shape of the letter opener. On cross-examination, this witness conceded that a pair of missing scissors could have left the blood stain on the altar cloth.

     On May 11, 2006, the jury, after 9 days of testimony, and 6 hours of deliberation, found Father Robinson guilty. The 70-year-old priest became the second priest in U.S. history to be convicted of criminal homicide. (The first was a priest named Hans Schmidt.) The judge sentenced Robinson to 15 years to life. Incarcerated at the Hocking Correctional Facility in southern Ohio, the priest was first eligible for parole in 2016.

     Two months after the murder trial, Ohio's 6th District Court of Appeals upheld the conviction. In December 2008, the Ohio Supreme Court declined to hear the case. About a year later, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to entertain the appeal as well.

     While it seemed that Gerald Robinson had run out of legal remedies, his legal team, in 2010, petitioned the state appeals court for post-conviction relief on the grounds that Sister Margaret may have been murdered by a 27-year-old confessed serial killer named Coral Eugene Watts. Watts had stabbed 12 women to death in Texas, and at least one woman in Michigan. Police suspected him of killing another 80 victims. Watts had left many of the women with their blouses pulled up to their necks. He had not sexually molested any of his victims. They had all been posed in humiliating positions.

     On April 11, 2011, the Ohio appeals court denied the Robinson petition. According to the appellate judges, Father Robinson's attorneys, at the time of his 2006 trial, knew of Watts as a possible suspect in Sister Margaret's murder, but chose not to pursue this as a defense strategy. Moreover, there were dissimilarities between the serial killer's modus operandi and Sister Margaret's homicide. For one thing, Coral Eugene Watts had typically stalked young women before he killed them outdoors.

     A year later, the Robinson defense team again petitioned the state court of appeals to toss out the 2006 murder conviction. This time the priest's lawyers accused the prosecution of withholding key documents in the case. Regarding the issue of serial killer Watts, Robinson's trial attorneys didn't pursue that line of defense in 2006 because they mistakingly thought he was serving time when Sister Margaret was murdered. As it turned out, on April 5, 1980, Watts was living in southern Michigan, just 40 miles from Toledo. As for modus operandi, the priest's attorneys found Watts' killings and the death of the nun "eerily similar." (Coral Eugene Watts died in 2007 of prostate cancer. He was 53 and serving time in a Michigan prison.) 

     In June 2014, United States District Court Judge James Guin denied a request for the release of Father Robinson. The priest had been ill and, according to reports, didn't have long to live. The judge said he didn't have the jurisdictional authority to grant the motion.

     Father Robinson had a heart attack on Memorial Day 2014 and died on July 4. He passed away in the prison hospital after being told he had 30 to 60 days to live. He was 76.

The Compulsion to Confess

     Daniel Webster once observed that "the guilty soul cannot keep its own secret." Confession is the voice of conscience, and, as any police officer will tell you, men and women generally have a natural compulsion to confess: to tell their misdeeds, to take their punishment, and to move on, even though they may realize it is not in their interest to do so. Dr. Theodor Reik, in a series of lectures given to the Vienna Psychoanalytic Association first published in 1925 and fittingly called The Compulsion to Confess, discusses this special dilemma: "There is the endeavor to deflect any suspicion from himself, to efface all traces of the crime, and an impulse growing more and more intense suddenly to cry out his secret in the street before all people, or in milder cases, to confide it at least to one person, to free himself from the terrible burden."

     Of course, there are exceptions to this inner urge. There are persons without consciences to whom an armed robbery is no more significant than a sneeze or a cough. Hardened criminals and those schooled in the ways of the criminal justice system will usually successfully resist the temptation to bare all to the police although they often relieve their urge to confess by confiding in friends, casual acquaintances they meet in taverns, and cellmates. Indeed, law enforcement investigators are frequently able to solve crimes because they learn of these informal confessions.

Ralph Adam Fine, "The Urge to Confess," in Criminal Justice?, Robert James Bidinotto, ed, 1994 

Truman Capote's Friends

Truman Capote famously said, "Most people who become suddenly famous overnight will find that they lose practically eighty percent of their friends. Your old friends just can't stand it for some reason." It's funny that Mr. Capote thought he had friends.

Narrative History

Historians have always crafted narratives. War. Peace. Political battles. Feuds in the hollers. Floods on the Mississippi. Hurricanes. Strikes. Assassinations. Voyages to known and unknown places. Trials of the century. Personal quests. Leaders with uncommon touches and tragic flaws. This is the stuff of great narrative and the stuff of narrative history, stories about the past told with verve and drama but also with strong arguments and thick footnotes.

Lee Gutkind, Keep it Real, 2009 

Writing About Yourself

Some writers never write about themselves because they are private, or because they do not believe it is possible for one to say anything objectively truthful or valid about oneself.

Deena Metzger, Writing For Your Life, 1992 

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

The Brittany Murphy Case

     In 2003, 26-year-old film actress Brittany Murphy purchased a house in West Hollywood that had been owned by Britney Spears. Four years later, she married a British writer/director named Simon Monjack who moved into the multi-million dollar mansion.

     At eight o'clock Sunday morning on December 20, 2009, Brittany Murphy's mother Sharon called 911 to report that her daughter had collapsed in the shower. Paramedics found the 32-year-old actress unconscious. Two hours later, at a nearby hospital, Brittany Murphy died. 
     Shortly after her death, Murphy's husband Simon Monjack told a People magazine reporter that Brittany had been suffering from laryngitis and flu-like symptoms. He said she had been taking antibiotics and was on herbal remedies that wouldn't speed up her heart. Monjack insisted there were no substances in the house at the time of her death that could have harmed her. "There was prescription medication in the house for her female time and some cough syrup. That was it," he said.
     In February 2010, the Los Angeles County Coroner's Office released Murphy's autopsy report that revealed she had died of "multiple drug intoxication, pneumonia, and iron deficiency anemia." According to a toxicological analysis of her blood, Murphy possessed elevated levels of hydrocodine, acetaminophen, and chloropheniramine, ingredients commonly found in over-the-counter cold medications. 
     As a result of the autopsy and toxicological findings, Murphy's manner of death went into the books as natural, caused by a weakened state of health made worse by an accidental overdose of cold medications. According to the coroner, Brittany Murphy's death could have been prevented by a visit to her doctor. If the Los Angeles Coroner's Office's cause and manner of death determinations were correct, the young actress had contributed to her own demise. 
     In the months following the film star's sudden death, stories appeared in the tabloid press suggesting that she had died from anorexia or from an accidental drug overdose. Rumors were also circulating that she had committed suicide. 
     On May 23, 2010, six months after her death, at nine thirty at night, someone called 911 requesting medical assistance at the West Hollywood home still occupied by Simon Monjack. Emergency responders found the dead body of the 40-year-old once married to Brittany Murphy. He had been scheduled that fall for triple-bypass surgery. 
     According to the forensic pathologist who performed Monjack's autopsy at the Los Angeles Coroner's Office, he had died a natural death caused by pneumonia and anemia. The toxicology report showed he had been taking prescription medication. 
     In response to rumors of foul play in Murphy's and Monjack's deaths, assistant coroner Ed Winter told reporters that "at the time of their deaths both of them were in very poor health. I don't think they ate correctly or took care of themselves. They didn't seek medical attention."
     Brittany Murphy's father, a man named Angelo Bertolotti who had served three stretches in the federal penitentiary in Atlanta for various racketeering offenses, had never been a factor in Murphy's life. But after her death, he became involved by filing a lawsuit against the Los Angeles Coroner's Office and the Los Angeles Police Department. 
     Bertolotti brought the legal action in an effort to force the coroner's office to test his daughter's hair for traces of heavy metal poisons. Bertolotti believed that additional toxicological testing would prove that she had not died from pneumonia, anemia, and a lethal mix of cold medications. 
     The Los Angeles Coroner's Office defended its decision not to test Murphy's hair follicles for traces of heavy metal poison on the grounds there was no indication that she had died from arsenic poisoning. (Professional death investigators, rather than basing their conclusions on personal assumptions, apply forensic science to unravel the mystery of sudden, unexplained deaths.) 
     In July 2012, a judge dismissed Angelo Bertolotti's lawsuit. However, as a consolation, Bertolotti acquired, from the coroner's office, samples of his daughter's hair, blood and tissue for independent toxicological testing. He promptly sent the samples to a private lab in Colorado for analysis. 
     The private laboratory, in November 2013, reported high levels of ten heavy metal poisons in Brittany Murphy's hair samples. According to the toxicological report, Murphy's system contained, among other poisons, aluminum, manganese, and barium, poisons found in rat poison, pesticides, and insecticides. According to the private crime lab, presence of these poisons strongly suggested the possibility of a homicidal poisoning. 
     Armed with the private toxicological findings, Angelo Bertolotti demanded that the Los Angeles Police Department re-open its investigation into Brittany Murphy's death. He also wanted the Los Angeles Coroner's Office to change its manner and cause of death rulings to homicidal poisoning. 
     Speaking to reporters after the release of the private toxicological report, Bertolotti said, "Vicious rumors, spread by tabloids, unfairly smeared Brittany's reputation. My daughter was neither anorexic or a drug addict." 
     A few days after the new revelations in the case, Bertolotti appeared on the TV show "Good Morning America." Bertolotti said, "I have a feeling that there was a definite murder situation here. It's poison, yes, I know that." Bertolotti pointed out that the Colorado forensic lab was an accredited facility that "cannot be ignored."
     Los Angeles Chief Coroner's investigator Craig R. Harvey, in response to the private laboratory's toxicological findings, said this to reporters: "The Los Angeles Coroner's Office has no plans to reopen our inquiry into the [Murphy] death. We stand by our original reports."

     In speaking to a reporter with Fox News on November 20, 2013, addiction specialist Dr. Damon Raskin said the private toxicology results made him suspicious of foul play. Moreover, "other than lab error, there is no other good medical explanation for these abnormal levels of heavy metals. Therefore, some type of poisoning is clearly a possibility."

     Fox reporter Hollie McKay also questioned Dr. Shilpi Agarwal, a Los Angeles based physician who said it was extremely unlikely that Murphy had elevated levels of the heavy metals in her system without being given supplements or unintentionally ingesting them.

     Dr. Michael Baden, the famed forensic pathologist, had a different interpretation of the new toxicological findings. He said this to a Fox News reporter: "The grouping of heavy metals is more suggestive of hair product use--dyes, soaps, heat, etc. than of rat poison…When hair samples are stored for so long, the increased sensitivity of new chemical tests will pick up whatever was in the hair's container. Was the container tested?"
     On Tuesday, May 26, 2020, the Investigation Discovery channel renewed interest in the case by airing a documentary called, "Brittany Murphy: An ID Mystery." HBO Max, in December 2021 aired a two part series on the case called, "What Happened to Brittany Murphy?"

Journalism and Dangerous Truth

Amity Schlaes, an editorial writer for the Wall Street Journal, wrote an article in The Spectator in January 1994, describing the white middle class' fear of blacks after Colin Ferguson murdered six whites on a Long Island commuter train, and after a jury in Brooklyn acquitted a young black despite powerful evidence that he had murdered a white. She wrote that whites were frightened because Ferguson's "manic hostility to whites is shared by many of the city's non madmen." When copies of the article were circulated among Schlaes' colleagues at the Journal, she became an outcast. A number of her co-workers would get out of the elevator when she got on. People who had eaten with her in the staff cafeteria refused to sit at the same table. A delegation went to the office of the chairman of the company that owns the Journal. It did not matter that Schlaes had pointed out that minorities were the greatest victims of minority crimes, or that nobody could show that a single element of her article was untrue or inaccurate. "Her crime," wrote the then editor of The Spectator, Dominic Lawson, "was greater than being merely wrong. She had written the truth, regardless of the offense it might cause. And in modern America, or at least in the mainstream media, that is simply not done."

Robert H. Bork, Slouching Towards Gomorrah, 1996

The Spy Novel

     At their core, spy novels are about secrets. Secrets create power. Power determines how we live. That's a formula for fiction that matters--matters to us in this world where making sense of what's really going on turns out to be a lifelong endeavor, one that fiction lets us do from the safety of own sheltered lives.

     Spy novels remind us of our past and reflect our future. Alan Furst's WW II era novels bring to life heroic struggles of the "greatest generation," while novels written long before 9/11 by Tom Harris and Tom Clancy foreshadowed dramatic hijacked aircraft terrorist attacks targeting American civilians.

     In spy novels we are guaranteed a fictional journey in which something happens. A secret will be stolen or protected, a spy will be caught or escape, the conspiracy will triumph or be crushed. A spy novel can be set anywhere with as much action as you want--sabers in the courtyard or switchblades in the alley, snipers, runaway carriages, strangers on a train, parachuting commandos, car chases, kung fu, high-tech weaponry and low-minded thugs.

     Right versus wrong, good versus evil, the essential nature of power and politics, all that and more unfold is a safe, fictional package for us to enjoy.

James Grady, Parade, March 1, 2015 

Tolkien's Fantasy World

So many writers think fantasy is easy. All you have to do is rip off some elves, goblins, and a few other things from Tolkien and spend about 10 minutes making up imaginary words and another 10 minutes working up a rough idea of the country and a little local history and bingo, you're in business. You're a fantasist. It's not like that. What made Tolkien unique is that he spent 50 years building his world, and he built it from the inside out.

Peter S. Beagle in The Writer's Handbook, edited by Alfrieda Abbe, 2004 

Monday, December 27, 2021

The Case of the Sleeping Judge

     On December 29, 2013, 21-year-old Daquantrius Johnson and two of his friends, Keith Hickles and Quanique Thomas-Hammen, pulled into the drive-through lane at a Taco Bell in Wichita, Kansas. As they waited to put in their orders, they witnessed the pickup truck ahead of them suddenly lurch forward and crash into the fast-food speaker.

     The pickup truck's driver, 43-year-old Danielle Zimmerman, had lost consciousness from a ruptured brain aneurism. Daquantrius Johnson and his passengers approached the unconscious woman's vehicle. They had no intention of rendering aid. Instead, they saw an opportunity for theft. While Hickles and Thomas-Hammen rummaged through Zimmerman's purse and grabbed her wallet, Johnson pulled her wedding ring off her finger.

     The next day, Danielle Zimmerman died at a nearby hospital.

     Daquantrius Johnson and his friends, as they stripped the unconscious woman of her valuables, were recorded on a Taco Bell surveillance camera.

     Not long after Johnson, Hickles and Thomas-Hammen picked their victim clean, they were taken into custody. About a year later, Hickles and Thomas-Hammen pleaded guilty to theft and were sentenced to nine and nineteen months respectively.

     In March 2015, Daquantrius Johnson went on trial for aggravated robbery. Following a short deliberation, the jury found him guilty as charged. Sedgwick County Judge Christopher Magana sentenced Johnson, who at the time was on probation for burglary, to eleven years in prison.

     In 2016, while serving time for the Taco Bell depravity, Daquantrius Johnson was in a Sedgwick Country courtroom again, this time as a defendant in an unrelated firearms case. On the first day of the proceeding, trial judge Benjamin Burgess fell asleep on the bench.

     While everyone in court witnessed the judge's nap, the trial went forward, and Daquantrius Johnson was found guilty. Judge Burgess sentenced him to eight months in prison, time to be served after he completed his Taco Bell sentence.

     Attorneys representing Daquantrius Johnson in the firearms case appealed his conviction to the Kansas Court of Appeals on grounds that following his nap, Judge Burgess should have declared a mistrial.

     In 2017, the three-judge appellate panel, in a 2-1 decision, denied Johnson a new trial.

     Johnson's lawyers contested the state appeals court ruling before the Kansas Supreme Court. In November 2019, the state's highest court ruled that while Judge Burgess' courtroom snooze constituted "regrettable misconduct," it did not justify grounds for a new trial. Daquantrius Johnson's firearms conviction would therefore stand.

     While legal scholars argued over the supreme court's decision, very few commentators expressed sympathy for the man who had ripped a wedding ring off a dying woman's finger. There are some crimes that cannot be forgiven, and this was one of them.

Crime and Punishment

If he who breaks the law is not punished, he who obeys it is cheated. This, and this alone, is why lawbreakers ought to be punished: to authenticate as good, and to encourage as useful, law-abiding behavior. The aim of criminal law cannot be correction or deterrence; it can only be the maintenance of legal order.

Thomas Szasz (1920-2012) Hungarian-American academic, psychiatrist, and psychoanalyst. 

The Reality of Fiction and Nonfiction

     I have long been intrigued by how often readers of fiction want to know which parts really happened to the author, whereas readers of nonfiction want to know which parts are made up. In both cases there is a vague implication that the authors are cheating.

     These seemingly paradoxical obsessions, I think, reflect a universal human desire to distinguish what's real, in order to make sense of potentially overwhelming sensory experience. The ultimate reality is that we can't truly distinguish what's "real" in our perceptions, any more than nonfiction authors can avoid shaping "reality" by the way they recount events or fiction writers can avoid drawing on personal experience when ostensibly making up stories.

Deborah Tannen, Professor of Linguistics at Georgetown University, 2013 

Beginning a Novel

     What follows is the process I use when I'm writing a novel. These are the essential steps that I've developed for myself over the creation of twelve books.

     I don't begin until I have an idea. But this idea is more than just a glimmer, more than a potentially evanescent wisp of inspiration. For me, what the idea is is a complete thought that contains one of three elements: the primary event that will get the ball rolling in the novel, the arc of the story containing the beginning, the middle, and the ending or an intriguing situation that immediately suggests a cast of characters in conflict. If I have one of those three elements, I have enough to begin.

Elizabeth George, Write Away, 2004 

Avoiding Writer's Block

I think writer's block is overrated. It is not about the work, but one's own attitude toward it. William Stafford, when asked what his advice was to someone who was blocked, said, "Lower your standards and keep on going." That's the single wisest thing ever said about this subject. And, again, it's why I advise students to learn to think only in terms of this day's work. Every good book, every bad book, and all the great books, too, were all written a little at a time. A day's work, over and over, for a period of months or years. If you concentrate on one day's work, putting in the time, there is no such thing as writer's block.

Richard Bausch in Novel Ideas, Barbara Shoup, editor, 2001 

Sunday, December 26, 2021

Don't Sleep with Your Wife And Your Gun

     William McCollom lived with his wife Margaret in a modest house in Peachtree, Georgia, an upscale town of 35,000 southwest of Atlanta. In October 2014, the major appointed the 58-year-old law enforcement officer to the position of chief of police.

     On Thursday January 1, 2015, at four-fifteen in the morning, Chief McCollom called 911 to report the shooting of his wife at their home. "Gunshot wound," he said. "Accidental, need medical ASAP!"

     The 911 dispatcher asked, "Who shot her?"

     "Me," he replied.

     "How did you shoot her?"

     "The gun (a 9mm Glock) was in the bed, I went to move it, put it to the side. It went off."

     "Is she awake?"

     "No, everybody was sleeping."

     "No," the dispatcher said, "is she awake now?" (A woman could be heard moaning in the background.)

     "Yes," the chief said. Then to his wife he asked, "Are you having trouble breathing, dear?" To the dispatcher he said, "Come on guys, get here. Oh my God, how did this happen?"

     "Is that her crying?" asked the dispatcher.

     "Yes, she's having trouble breathing."

     "Were you asleep also when this happened?"

     "Yes." At this point, about two minutes into the 911 call, Chief McCollom identified himself. "I'm the chief of police," he said.

     "Where is the gun?"

     "The gun is on the dresser."

     "You're the chief of police in Peachtree?"

     "Yeah, unfortunately, yes," he replied.

     Emergency medical personnel flew the 57-year-old shooting victim to the Atlanta Medical Center. According to doctors there, Margaret McCollom was in critical condition. The mayor of Peachtree placed the chief on administrative leave and asked the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) to take over the case.

     The district attorney of Fayette County told reporters that he would decide if criminal charges were appropriate after the GBI completed its investigation of the shooting. Friends and neighbors questioned by reporters all insisted that the chief and his wife were not experiencing marital problems or any form of domestic discord.

     On Monday January 12, 2015, doctors released Margaret McCollom from the  hospital. The shooting had left her paralyzed from the waist down. She told GBI detectives that she was asleep when shot and that she believed it was an accident. Before submitting a report to the district attorney's office, investigators were awaiting the results of crime lab tests on the gun as well as the chief's blood-alcohol analysis.

     On March 11, 2015, McCollom resigned from the police department. On the city's website he wrote the following: "I have had two families in Peachtree--my police family and my personal family. I need to continue to focus my time and efforts there."

     According to District Attorney Scott Ballard, McCollom had accidentally shot his sleeping wife after he had consumed alcohol and sleep medication. The prosecutor planned to ask a grand jury to indict the former chief of police on the misdemeanor charge of reckless conduct.

     In August 2015, William Mcollom pleaded guilty to the above charge and was sentenced to one year of unsupervised probation.

Courtroom Pseudoscience

The legal establishment has adjusted rules of evidence so that almost any self-styled scientist, no matter how strange or iconoclastic his views, will be welcome to testify in court. Junk science is impelled through the "let-it-all-in" legal theory. The incentive is money: the prospect that the Midas-like touch of a credulous jury will now and again transform scientific dust into gold. Ironically, the law's tolerance for pseudoscientific speculation has been rationalized in the name of science itself. The open-minded tradition of science demands that every claim be taken seriously, or at least that's what many judges have reasoned. Experienced lawyers now recognize that anything is possible in this kind of system.

Peter H. Huber, Galileo's Revenge: Junk Science in the Courtroom, 1991

Magical Thinking and the American Detective

     Successful criminal investigators are intelligent, analytical people who like to solve problems and get to the bottom of mysteries. They are also curious, competitive, and well-organized in their work habits. They are unafraid of complexity, pay attention to detail, are articulate, and can express themselves well on paper. Dedicated crime investigators are lifelong students of their craft, people who embrace new challenges and tough assignments. They are not only intelligent, they train themselves to think clearly, draw relevant conclusions, and keep personal bias out of their calculations. They are people of integrity and intellectual courage.

     The history of American criminal investigation shows that men and women who possess these qualities are few and far between, even in our top investigative agencies. And, unfortunately, there is no indication that this will change any time soon. In fact, criminal investigation, performed at the highest levels, may soon be a lost art, a dead profession. We are now living in a time when what is true and not true, what is fact and not fact, is irrelevant. Moreover, it's not what we know that counts, it's what we believe. America has become a land of magical thinkers, and magical thinking does not solve crimes.

The Fantasy Milieu

At the heart of most traditional fantasy milieu is a culture derived from that of the European Middle Ages, in large part the medieval societies of what are now Great Britain, France and Germany. The culture is a synthesis of both the Roman culture that dominated western Europe for some five centuries and of the Germanic culture that eventually overran and absorbed it. Three major institutions formed the basis of medieval society and dictated how most people lived. These were feudalism, manorialism and Christianity.

Michael J. Varbola in The Writer's Complete Fantasy Reference, edited by the editors of Writer's Digest Books, 1998 

The Invisible Hand

The heroic, rational, problem-solving engineer is a near-religious icon in the tech industry. But...the engineering mind-set led Facebook to develop a powerful surveillance system that tracks users to target them with ads, nudge them to stay online longer, prompt them to share more personal details and prod them to keep compulsively coming back...Evildoers--the dictators, the genocidal generals, the traffickers of political propaganda, the purveyors of false news--did not hijack Facebook. They simply used the platform as it was designed: to try to influence user behavior.

Natasha Singer, The New York Times Book Review, March 15, 2020

Friday, December 24, 2021

Doris Payne: Celebrity Thief

     Slab Fork, West Virginia, a tiny unincorporated community in the southern part of the state, is the birthplace and childhood home of one infamous person. That person, born on October 10, 1930, is Doris Payne.

     In 1950, Doris and her family moved from West Virginia to Cleveland, Ohio where she began her notorious, lifelong career as a retail thief. Over the next 65 years, Doris collected 20 aliases, 10 social security numbers, 9 dates of birth, and dozens of shoplifting arrests in places such as Monaco, Paris, Monte Carlo, and Tokyo. Most of her arrests, however, occurred in the United States.

     Payne's criminal career mainly featured her stealing expensive jewelry from high-end stores like Saks Fifth Avenue. Her modus operandi was simple: she would ask the store clerk to show her so many pieces of jewelry that the sales employee lost track of what was out of the showcase. Payne waited for the clerk to become distracted at which point she would scoop up an item, put it into her pocket, and walk out of the store.

     In 2003, at the age of 73, Payne got caught stealing an expensive ring in Los Angeles. On September 23, 2005, police arrested her for shoplifting at a high-end store in Las Vegas.

     In January 2011, the elderly woman with the sticky fingers was caught stealing a diamond ring from a store in San Diego. That theft brought her a prison sentence of two years.

     In Costa Mesa, California, on January 2013, a Saks Fifth Avenue store detective caught Doris Payne removing the price tag from a $1,300 Burberry trench coat. (She probably planned to walk out of the store wearing the garment.) She pleaded guilty, and was sentenced to two years behind bars. However, because of prison overcrowding in the state, a judge released Payne from custody after she had served only three months of her sentence.

     In 2013, Doris Payne was featured in a television documentary called "The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne." The film included interviews with Payne along with her daughter and son, her best friend, and police officers from around the country. The documentary was marketed as a rags to riches story of how a poor, single, African-American mother from the segregated 1950s wound up as one of the world's most notorious jewel thieves. 

     In July 2015, the 85-year-old retail thief got caught stealing a $32,000 diamond-studded David Yurman engagement ring from a store in the South Park Mall in Charlotte, North Carolina. Following her arrest she made bail and fled the state.

     On October 26, 2015, a loss prevention officer at the Saks Fifth Avenue store in the upscale Buckhead neighborhood in Atlanta, saw Doris Payne pocket a set of Christian Dior earrings and walk out of the store. When police officers ran a crime history check on the suspect, they realized they had nabbed the notorious thief and fugitive who was wanted on a warrant out of Charlotte, North Carolina.

     Shortly after the authorities booked Payne into the Fulton County Jail in Atlanta, she paid her $2,500 bond and was released. Her attorney, Scott McCullers told reporters that Payne planned to plead not guilty to the shoplifting charge. The lawyer said that because of the 2013 TV documentary about his client's life of crime, she was being persecuted.

     In December 2016, the police arrested Payne at a department store outside of Atlanta for stealing diamond necklaces worth $2,000. She made bail and was released on the condition she wear an ankle bracelet.

     On March 6, 2017, when Payne didn't show for a court proceeding, the judge issued a bench warrant for her arrest.

     The 86-year-old thief, on July 18, 2017, was caught stealing merchandise from a Walmart store in Chamblee, Georgia. She had $86.22 in un-purchased items tucked into her handbag. At the time of her apprehension, Payne was wearing her ankle bracelet. Officers booked her into the Fulton County Jail.

     Payne, in September 2017, pleaded guilty to the Chamblee, Georgia Walmart theft. A month later, the judge gave her credit for the 58 days she had spent in the Fulton County Jail. Before she walked out of the courtroom, the judge said, "Don't come back." (The judge had dismissed the charges regarding Payne's 2015 Saks Fifth Avenue theft.)

     In October 2019, the 89-year-old Payne appeared at a book festival in Decatur, Georgia to hawk her memoir, Diamond Doris: The True Story of the World's Most Notorious Jewel Thief.  Books in this genre appeal to readers who find professional thieves romantic figures. Other fans of this kind of book harbor deep resentment for the wealthy, and fantasize about stealing rather than working for a living.

     In Diamond Doris, Payne justified stealing jewelry and other merchandise this way: "[Stealing] beat being a teacher or a maid." This rationale reveals the mind of the sociopath. America has a long tradition of turning criminals like Willie Sutton, John Dillinger, Jesse James and Billy The Kid into criminal legends.  Doris Payne will not, however, go down in history as one of our great anti-heroes. In the end, she was just a serial shoplifter with a sob story.

     One can only guess how many times, in Doris Payne's life of crime, a store detective, after catching her conceal un-purchased merchandise in her purse, let her go after retrieving the stolen items. Many retail security officers were probably reluctant to call the police on an elderly woman. One can also image how many times she walked out of the store undetected. When shoplifters get away with their crimes, honest customers pick up the bill. Where is the glamor in that?

Using The Courtroom As a Forum

The courtroom is an ideal forum in which to radicalize people, to expose the government and so on. It's a battlefield. And it's a good battlefield. And it's one in which we have a forum. My people can't get on the floor of Congress. They can't get on the Supreme Court. They can't get in the oval office. But, by God, they have a spokesperson in that courtroom.

William M. Kunstler (1919-1995). A self-described "radical lawyer." 

Victim Studies

The study of the victim is called victimology because everything sounds better with an ology tacked on the end.

Ben Aaronovitch, 2011

First Drafts: The Ugly Truth

     First drafts, even pretty good ones, can be excruciatingly hard for anyone but their authors to read. What is going on? Is John talking to Mary, or is he talking to Bill? Are we in Iowa or Guatemala? Nothing is so infuriating as not being understood, but if a reader of good basic intelligence does not know what you are talking about, you have a problem. Don't rationalize it by blaming the messenger for the message. Your reader is not stupid. You are not being understood, and it is your problem.

     Sadly, your first readers may be reluctant to tell you the truth about your lack of clarity. It is a fact that many readers (especially in a school) will go to great lengths to conceal their bafflement over a piece of prose they don't understand. Rather than run the risk of being thought dense or uncomprehending or philistine, all too many readers, including many who should know better--editors, teachers, workshop members--would rather skip over an obscurity than admit they just don't get it.

Stephen Koch, Writer's Workshop, 2003

A Novelist's "Desk Job"

I try to work every day. I start around ten in the morning and write until dinnertime, most days. Sometimes it's not productive, and there's a lot of downtime. Sometimes I fall asleep in my chair, but I feel that if I'm in the room all day, something's going to get done. I treat it like a desk job.

Jeffrey Eugenides, Paris Review, Winter 2011 

Thursday, December 23, 2021

Where Is Relisha Rudd?

     In 2014, eight-year-old Relisha Tanau Rudd resided in the D.C. General homeless shelter in Washington with her 27-year old mother, Shamika Young, her stepfather, and her three brothers. The family had lived in the shelter a year when Relisha's mother, on March 1, 2014, arranged to have 51-year-old Kahlil Malik Tatum and his wife Andrea take the girl in and care for her. Kahlil Tatum worked at the homeless shelter as a janitor where he had a reputation of paying a lot of attention to the young girls who lived there.

     On March 19, 2014, after Relisha missed several days of school, the authorities launched a missing persons investigation. Mr. Tatum had also vanished. The janitor and the girl were caught on a D. C. area Holiday Inn Express surveillance camera walking down a hallway on February 26, 2014, a few days before the girl's mother gave her  up.

     Detectives learned that Tatum, on March 2, 2014, had purchased a carton of black, 42 gallon, self-tie contractor trash bags.

     Police officers, on March 20, 2014, found Andrea Denise Tatum's body in a motel room at an Oxon Hill, Maryland Red Roof Inn. She had been killed by a gunshot to the head. Her husband and Relisha Rudd were nowhere to be found. Homicide detectives uncovered evidence linking the dead woman's husband, Kahlil Tatum, to the homicide.

     A Prince George's County prosecutor charged Kahlil Tatum with first-degree murder. On March 26, 2014, the FBI added the fugitive homicide suspect to its "Most Wanted List" and offered a $70,000 reward for information regarding his whereabouts. The Prince George's County Police Department posted a $25,000 reward for information leading to his arrest.

     On March 27, 2014, shortly after a witness reported having seen a man meeting Tatum's description with a girl in Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens in northeast D.C., a party of more than 100 officers searched the 700-acre park. Four days later, a searcher came across Mr. Tatum's body. He had committed suicide by shooting himself in the head with the gun used in the murder his wife. Searchers found no signs of Relisha Rudd. On April 3, 2014, the park search was called off.

     The D.C. City Council Committee of Human Services, in the course of reviewing the hiring policy at D.C. General, found that Kahlil Tatum possessed an extensive criminal record. He had been convicted in 1983, 1986, 1987, 1991, and 1993 of various crimes including breaking and entering and grand larceny. He was last convicted of a crime in 2004. In those days he went under his birth name, Karl Lee Tatum.

     According to the administrator in charge of hiring at the D.C. homeless shelter, Tatum, because his last conviction was ten years old, was eligible for employment at the facility. Had any of his offenses involved children, he would have been automatically excluded regardless of the date of the conviction.

     Social service authorities, following Relisha Rudd's disappearance, took away Shamika Young's three boys and placed them into foster care. The mother, who herself had grown up in the Virginia foster care system, had been shuttled between foster homes, group homes and mental health facilities. Diagnosed in middle school as "mildly retarded," Shamika reported hearing voices telling her to kill her foster family and herself. She also suffered from depression and a variety of other emotional problems.

     After Shamika Young signed herself out of foster care at age 18, she gave birth to four children from two men. She had no training on how to be a good mother and no way to make a living. Prosecutors over the past years, on three occasions, had charged Young with child abuse and neglect. The cases were all dismissed.

      After Relisha Rudd's disappearance, Shamika Young fought to get her three sons out of foster care. This created a heated debate among child protection advocates and Young's extended family, some of whom blamed her for Relisha's disappearance.

    In January 2018, the police received a tip that led to a six hour search for Rudd's body in parts of the Anacostia River. The effort failed to locate the missing girl's remains.
     As of December 2021, Relisha Rudd remained missing. 

Misunderstanding Schizophrenia

The medical community's long misunderstanding of schizophrenia is largely a story of relentless failure, every theory proving more misguided than the last. Some experts championed shock therapy, others called for institutionalization; some psychotherapists saw madness as a metaphor and some doctors prescribed catatonia by tranquilizers. Perhaps most troubling of all, a generation of psychotherapists blamed the mother for causing the disease by either over-parenting or under-parenting.

Sam Dolnick, The New York Times Book Review, April 5, 2020

To Serve and Protect

Americans are accustomed to big government. They have accepted doing business with agencies many times the size of the typical police department. Yet, when it comes to the police, no citizen can accept an impersonal bureaucracy. Whether the officer dispatched on a frantic 911 call is a rural sheriff or a big-city policeman, the citizen in trouble expects effective, courageous, and, above all, human aid. In this, police departments are unique among government agencies. They may be the size of a small army, organized to fulfill many requirements and perform many functions, yet they must consistently present to the public a human face and an individual presence.

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

Fiction Is Art And Craft

There is a strange fallacy among laymen, as well as among writers who have yet not become commercially successful, to the effect that creative writing is an art, pure and simple, that it is in no way dependent upon or subservient to mechanics. By mechanics I mean specific procedures, methods, and acquired skills. Nothing could be further from the truth. Worthwhile writing is produced by an almost equal blend of mechanics and art.

Elwood Maren, Characters Make Your Story, 1942

Short Book, Long Title

Published in 2005, a 208-page collection of short stories edited by Eli Horowitz is entitled, Noisy Outlaws, Unfriendly Blobs, And Some Other Things That Aren't As Scary, Maybe, Depending On How You Feel About Lost Lands, Stray Cellphones, Creatures From the Sky, Parents Who Disappear in Peru, A Man Named Lars Earf, And One Other Story We Couldn't Quite Finish, So Maybe You Could Help Us Out.

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Troy James Knapp: Utah's "Mountain Man Burglar"

     In 1986, when he was 28, Troy James Knapp went to prison in Kalamazoo, Michigan for burglary and related offenses. Knapp pleaded guilty to destroying property in 1994 while living in Salt Lake City. Two years later, police in Seattle arrested him on the charge of stalking and harassment. In 2002, after serving two years in a California prison for burglary, Knapp left the state in violation of his parole.

     In 2007, the wilderness survivalist (he survived on other people's stuff) lived in the mountains of southern Utah. In the summers he stole food and gear from cabins in Iron, Kane, and Garfield Counties, and moved from one campsite to the next. During the winter months Knapp lived in the cabins he burglarized in the summer. The owners would return to their seasonal dwellings to find bullet holes in the walls and doors. Knapp also left notes with messages like: "Pack up and leave. Get off my mountain." (If everyone had packed up and left, Knapp would have starved.)

     Between 2007 and 2013, prosecutors in Iron, Kane, and Garfield Counties charged Knapp with 13 felony burglary crimes and 5 misdemeanor offenses. Because of the remoteness of Knapp's break-ins and the fact he kept on the move, he had eluded capture for more than five years.

     In late February 2013, a man hunting with his son in Sanpete County crossed paths with Knapp about 125 miles southeast of Salt Lake City. Aware they had conversed with the mountain man burglar, the father notified the authorities.

     A few days after speaking with the hunters 9,000 feet up on a mountain near Ferron Reservoir in the central part of the state, forty police officers and a law enforcement helicopter closed in on the fugitive as he trudged through three feet of snow. After firing fifteen rifle shots at the helicopter, Knapp surrendered to the small army of approaching lawmen.

     When taken into custody, Knapp possessed an assault rifle and a handgun. He was booked into the Sanpete County Jail without bond. An Assistant United States Attorney in Utah charged Knapp with several federal firearms offenses.

     In April 2014, pursuant to an arranged plea bargain, Knapp pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court to the use of a firearm during a crime of violence. At his sentence hearing on June 9, 2014, federal court judge Ted Stewart handed down the mandatory minimum sentence of ten years in federal prison.

     Knapp's attorney, in addressing the court, said, "There's an admiration for somebody who chooses to live off the land, because he does it while the rest of us wouldn't. Even if he needs a little help from some cabin owners."

     Sanpete County prosecutor Brody Keisel had a different take on the case. He told reporters after the federal sentencing that Knapp was nothing more than a "common crook." 

Don't Flip the Judge

     Your fingers can get you into a lot of trouble. Citizens who flip-off police officers are often arrested for disorderly conduct. School kids who make firearms gestures with their hands are suspended. And if you raise your middle finger while standing before an arraignment judge, they will haul you off to jail. If you don't believe this, ask Penelope Soto.
     On February 4, 2013, 18-year-old Penelope Soto, having been charged with the illegal possession of Xanax, stood before Miami-Dade County Judge Jorge Rodriguez-Chomat. Pursuant to the judge's decision regarding the amount of Soto's bail, he inquired about her assets. When the judge asked Soto specifically how much her jewelry was worth, she laughed.
     Visibly annoyed by Soto's casual attitude in his court room, the judge said, "It's not a joke, you know. We're not in a club, be serious about it."
     "I'm serious about it," Soto replied. "You just made me laugh. I apologize. It's worth a lot of money."
     "Like what?" the judge asked.
     "Like Rick Ross. It's worth money."
     Judge Rodriguez-Chomat, who had no idea who Rick Ross was [a south Florida rapper], again became annoyed. He asked Soto if she had taken any drugs in the past 24 hours.
     "Actually, no," she replied.
     Judge Rodriguez-Chomat set Soto's bail at a very low $5,000. Moving onto the next case, he said, "Bye, bye."
     Instead of thanking the judge for his leniency, Soto replied, "Adios."
    Obviously irritated by Soto's flippant response and dismissive attitude, the judge summoned her back to the bench and upped her bail to $10,000. Still a relatively low amount.
     Now it was Soto's turn to be angry. "Are you serious?" she exclaimed.
     "I am serious," he replied.
     As she was being escorted out of the court room, Soto turned back to the judge, blurted "F-you," and flipped him the finger.
     Shocked and obviously angered by this prisoner's disrespect, Judge Rodriguez-Chomat cited Soto for contempt of court. He sentenced her on the spot to thirty days in jail.

Burglars

     Burglars are the cowards of the underworld. They sneak around hotels, apartment houses and homes in the suburbs like cockroaches in the night, nibbling quietly at private wealth, and scattering into the dark at the slightest disturbance. They are the bugs of the underworld, ever fearful of being snuffed out by the police officer's service pistol or the homeowner's unregistered shotgun.

     But this cowardice pays off. It puts the criminal on the very cautious side of the crime business and reduces the possibility of eyewitnesses to the crime. The one drawback is that the burglar must later deal with a fence, since most burglaries yield merchandise rather than currency. But it is a price that burglars are prepared to pay in return for the practice of what they regard as a trade considerably less risky than armed robbery, where the yield is usually cash. Most burglars do not carry a dangerous weapon.

Thomas Plate, Crime Pays, 1975

No Light at the End of the Tunnel

That's the thing about depression: a human being can survive almost anything, as long as she sees the end in sight. But depression is so insidious, and it compounds daily, that it's impossible to even see the end.

Elizabeth Wurtzel (1968-2020), Prozac Nation, 1994. 

Stephen King Doesn't Plot

     In my view, stories and novels consist of three parts: narration, which moves the story from point A to point B and finally to point Z; description, which creates a sensory reality for the reader; and dialogue, which brings characters to life through their speech.

     You may wonder where plot is in all of this. The answer--my answer, anyway--is nowhere. I won't try to convince you that I've never plotted any more than I'd try to convince you that I've never told a lie, but I do both as infrequently as possible. I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless, even when you add in all our reasonable precautions and careful planning; and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren't compatible. It's best that I be as clear about this as I can--I want you to understand that my basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much make themselves.

Stephen King, On Writing, 2000

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Pornography at Pasadena City College

     In 2013, Dr. Hugo Schwyzer was history and gender studies professor at Pasadena City College (PCC) in Pasadena, California, the nation's third largest community college. The 44-year-old professor had a Ph.D. in church history from UCLA. The so-called "male feminist," offered courses with titles like Men and Masculinity, Navigating Pornography, and Gay and Lesbian American History. 

     In 2005, the Internet professor review site Rate My Professor named Dr. Schwyzer one of the nation's top 50 "hottest professors." 

     A prolific blogger, Schwyzer in 2006, claiming expertise in "body image, sexuality, and gender justice," wrote that he'd like to open a summer camp for teens and adults where he could teach "fitness, basic life skills, spirituality, the whole thing." 

     New York Magazine, in 2009, published an article about Professor Schwyzer's decision in 2005, when he was 37, to undergo circumcision. 

     In a tell-all confessional blog entry published in 2011, Dr. Schwyzer informed his readers (I presume mainly his students) of "a binge episode that ended with my attempt to kill myself and my ex-girlfriend with gas." According to the professor's detailed account of the 1998 incident (which has since been taken off the Internet), his former lover came to him for help after she had been tied and and raped by her drug dealer.

     In Schwyzer's Pasadena apartment, he and the woman took drugs and had "desperately hot, desperately heartbreaking sex." Following the desperate, heartbreaking sex, the professor described what took place when the drunk and drug addled woman passed out: "I looked at her emaciated, broken body that I loved so much. I looked at my own, studying some of my more recent scars. (I'd had a binge of self-mutilation earlier in the week, and had cigarette burns on both arms and my torso.) " 

     Schwyzer continued: "And then it came to me: I needed to do for her and for myself the one thing I was strong enough still to do. I couldn't save her. I couldn't save me, but I could bring an end to our pain. My poor fragile ex would never have to wake up again, and we could be at peace in the next life. As drunk and high as I was, the thought came with incredible clarity. I remember it perfectly now."

     According to Schwyzer's story, he turned on the gas in his oven, aimed the toxic flow at his unconscious ex-girlfriend, drank more alcohol, swallowed more pills, then stretched out next to her body expecting to accompany the poor woman into eternity. Because the gas fumes failed to do the job, the ex-girlfriend survived the attempted mercy killing. 

     One of Dr. Schwyzer's students, in a 2012 Rate My Professor review, wrote: "If you get a chance to take his Navigating Pornography class (he was teaching it in 2013), you must! Hugo doesn't tell you what to think but helps you find yourself. Lectures and discussions handle even touchy subjects like sexuality with comfort and clarity.  He's a stickler for attendance and grammar, but grades fair. Great guest speakers, too!"

     Another Dr. Schwyzer Rate My Professor reviewer wrote: "....the stories he tells is like incredibly fascinating...."

     Under the auspices of his spring 2013 class, Navigating Pornography, Dr. Schwyzer invited the "award-winning" porn actor, James Deen to speak to PCC students and members of the general public. Deen, a PCC alumnus had 1,300 porn flick performances under his belt including hits like "Atomic Vixens," and "Batman XXX." Deen's February 26, 2013 appearance at the college would, according to the actor, educate students about human sexuality and portray porn acting as a legitimate profession. 

     James Deen hoped that his presentation would empower students to make their own decisions. "This is an opportunity for people who want to ask questions and talk openly about sexuality." 

     When word got out about Dr. Schwyzer's porn star guest speaker, school administrators (Schwyzer referred to them as "suits"), informed the professor that the presentation would have to be a classroom visit rather than a public speaking event. Schwyzer had failed to obtain a facilities use permit required for on-campus public events.

     In responding to his diminished role as a classroom lecturer, James Deen told reporters that "sex is not a dirty, disgusting thing. I feel a little persecuted and singled out." 

     On his blog site, the PCC pornography navigator addressed the Deen flap this way: "I am deeply disappointed that all those who were eager to hear James will be unable to do so. I am grateful that my students will still be able to hear him. And I look forward to welcoming other porn performers (and public critics of porn) to my class in the future. I remain proud to teach at Pasadena City College."

     In September 2013, Dr. Schwyzer's academic career came to an end when he admitted that he had been involved in many sexual affairs with his young female students. Moreover, he had recently been charged with DUI pursuant to a traffic accident that caused the serious injury of his female passenger. At this point, Dr. Schwyzer took the opportunity to reveal that for decades he had suffered from "borderline personality disorder and bipolar depression." He said he had been divorced four times.

     In October 2018, Dr. Schwyzer was working at a Trader Joe's grocery store in southern California.

The History Of Private Security

Although America inherited the historic English tradition of citizens individually and collectively protecting self and neighborhood, this concept slowly moved to the background in the nineteenth century with the formation of public police departments. But when crime rates were rising in America during the late 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, citizens and commerce tried once again to develop their own ways to feel safer and protect their assets. Institutions created internal security measures or hired outside personnel and consultants. Individuals, organizations, and business proprietors spent money on a wide variety of security products and services. 

Henry Ruth and Kevin R. Reitz, The Challenge of Crime, 2003

"To Kill a Mockingbird"

The story of an innocent black man bravely defended by a white lawyer in the 1930's fascinated millions of readers, despite its uncomfortable exploration of false accusations of rape involving a white woman. Harper Lee's endearing characters, Atticus Finch and his precocious daughter, Scout, captivated readers while confronting them with some of the realities of race and justice in the south. A generation of future lawyers grew up hoping to become the courageous Atticus, who at one point arms himself to protect the defenseless black suspect from an angry mob of white men looking to lynch him.

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

Horror Fiction Transcending Genre

It seems to me that horror, as I'm trying to write it, actually encompasses everything I want to write. But on the other hand, if a theme comes along and takes the book in a different direction that turns out not to be horror, then that's fine. Horror fiction, particularly supernatural horror fiction, came out of the mainstream. There's hardly a major writer of short fiction who hasn't written a ghost story at some stage, and often that may be what they are mostly remembered for…What has happened is that books have been packaged by publishers into genres and it is this which has caused the split between mainstream and horror fiction. Obviously there is some fiction which is pure horror, and there's nothing wrong with a story that sets out to do nothing but frighten the reader any more than there's nothing wrong with a comedy which sets out to be nothing but funny or a romance that sets out to do nothing but make you take out your box of tissue. At the same time, I think that horror fiction is often much more than that, and that's certainly the kind I've always tried to write.

Ramsey Campbell in How to Write Tales of Horror, Fantasy & Science Fiction, edited by J. N. Williamson, 1991 

Monday, December 20, 2021

Serial Killer And Rapist Joseph Naso

     On April 11, 2011, police officers in Reno, Nevada arrested 77-year-old Joseph Naso on four first-degree murder charges filed against him in Marin County California. The former commercial photographer stood accused of raping and murdering four Bay Area prostitutes between 1977 and 1994. The victims, Roxene Roggasch, Carmen Colen, Pamela Parsons, and Tracy Tafoya ranged in age from 18 to 38, and each had first and last names that began with the same letter.

     Forensic scientists had connected Naso to two of the victims through DNA. A search of his house produced several nude photographs of women who appeared unconscious or dead. Police officers also found a so-called "rape diary" containing narrative accounts of women and girls who had been picked up and raped. The murder suspect's house was also littered with female mannequin parts and women's lingerie. In Naso's safety deposit box, searchers found a passport bearing the name Sara Dylan. (A skull, found years earlier in Nevada, matched Dylan's mother's DNA.) Naso's safety deposit box also contained $152,400 in cash.

     The Joseph Naso serial murder trial got underway in San Rafael California in June 2013. The prosecutor, in her opening statement to the jury, said the state would prove that Naso had drugged, raped, and photographed the four victims. He strangled them to death, then dumped their nude bodies in remote areas in northern California.

     Naso, who represented himself at the trial, told the jury that he was not the monster the prosecution was trying to make him out to be. The defendant said the nude women he had photographed had been willing models. "I don't kill people, and there's no evidence of that in my writings and photography."

     Following two months of evidence that featured the defendant's rape diary, the nude photographs, and the DNA evidence linking Naso to two of the murder victims, the case went to the jury. During the trial, Naso, as his own attorney, made a courtroom fool of himself and tried the patience of the judge. On August 19, 2013, after deliberating seven hours over a period of two days, the jury found the defendant guilty of the four counts of first-degree murder. The verdict also included a finding of special circumstances that made Naso eligible for the death penalty.

     While the jury recommended the death penalty in the Naso case, there was no chance the state would put him to death. In 2006 a federal judge had put California's executions on hold until the state modified its execution protocols. That has not been done. Naso would join 725 inmates on California's death row. While some politicians and judges threw roadblocks in the path of the state's death penalty procedure, juries in California continue to imposed the death sentence.

     Homicide investigators believed that Naso had raped and murdered three 11-year-old girls between 1971 and 1973 in Rochester, New York. Naso had been living in the city when these murders occurred. These victims also had first and last names that began with the same letter. One of the girls, Carmen Colon, had the same name of one of the women Naso killed in California. Detectives also believed that Joseph Naso had murdered at least ten other women. Naso, following the verdict, insisted that he had not raped or killed anyone.

Mass Murderers

     There are two kinds of mass murderers. There are the kind who go to a public or semipublic place (like a business or a school) and open fire, for example. These types are making a statement, a statement that is so important to them, has taken on such significance in their lives to get the point across...

     If the crime is committed in private, or away from witnesses, on the other hand, there is more chance the killer is thinking about getting away...

John Douglas and Mark Olshaker, The Anatomy of Motive, 1999

Throwing In The Towel

Nothing more horrible, no failure of nerve more acute, than to be a novelist and not write, to never write, perhaps to stop, to decide to stop, not to hope for writing or want it, to let go of writing, to swear it off like drugs or sex with the wrong person, or some other terrible compulsion that will finally tear one apart. The writer not writing is a wholly guilty party, like someone who through anger or neglect has killed off his own life's mate, counterpart, reason to live.

Jayne Anne Phillips in Eleventh Draft, edited by Frank Conroy, 1999

Creating Characters Through Dialogue

We introduce our characters to our readers through dialogue. Dialogue combined with facial expression and body language indicates to readers who our characters are. In real life, this is how we get to know one another. We start interacting. Sometimes this goes well, sometimes it doesn't. Through dialogue, we decide if we like someone or not. This is also how our readers decide if they like our characters. As they listen to them and watch them interact with each other, they decide if these are good guys or bad guys or a combination. It's in our power to evoke positive or negative feelings in our readers for our characters through the dialogue we create for them.

Gloria Kempton, Dialogue, 2004 

True Crime Writing

True crime stories must be post-trial, with the perpetrators convicted and sentenced at the conclusion…Use active writing, avoid passive constructions. Remember that detectives probe, dig up, determine, deduce, seek out, ascertain, discover, hunt, root out, delve, uncover, track, trace, and inspect. They also canvass, inquire, question, and quiz.

Jim Thompson in Savage Art by Robert Polito, 1995

Sunday, December 19, 2021

A Senseless Murder And Double Suicide

     Nickie Ann Circelli and her husband Sal were divorced in 2010. Due to years of drug abuse, the 36-year-old lifelong resident of Suffern, New York, lost custody of her four children. That year, police in the town of 12,000 in the foothills of Ramapo Mountains, arrested Nickie and a man named Michael Chase in connection with the theft of $4,800 worth of power tools from trucks in a Home Depot parking lot. She pleaded guilty and spent a few months in jail.

     Nickie Circelli moved in with her mother when released from jail.  But when her mother died in 2013, Nickie took up residence with her 70-year-old uncle, William Valenti. Mr. Valenti owned a house in Suffern.

     Another local drug addict, 40-year-old Gary Crockett, had also moved into "Uncle Bill's" house. For 19 years, Gary had worked at the Mahwah Warehouse and Delivery Company in Mahwah, New Jersey. But a year earlier he quit his job after having an argument with the co-owner. Crockett didn't like being criticized for "moving too slowly." At the time, Crockett was living in an apartment above the Suffern Furniture Gallery.

     Circelli and Crockett, while residing under Mr. Valenti's roof, had been passing forged checks to withdraw small sums of money from his bank account. Mr. Valenti gave the couple a deadline to pay back the $1,500 they had stolen. If they didn't return his money, he threatened to report them to the police.

     On Monday morning, April 28, 2014, during an argument over the stolen money, Gary Crockett murdered William Valenti. The Rockland County Medical Examiner determined that the victim had died of suffocation. His body was discovered in his bed.

     Following the murder, the couple took the dead man's Chevrolet Malibu and drove it to the Bronx, New York. They parked the vehicle and walked to the George Washington Bridge. Just before noon, about half way across the span, Nickie Circelli and Gary Crockett jumped to their deaths.

     At the Suffern murder scene, investigators found two suicide notes signed by Circelli under her maiden name, Hunt. In the note addressed to her family, Circelli wrote: "To the four most amazing kids who the world has ever seen and ever will. I beg you to remember the Nickie that I used to be, before I was introduced to heroin."

     The second suicide note read: "I know that I'm taking the cowardly way out. I just don't want to hurt people anymore. Anything that goes into the paper, please make sure my last name is Hunt; I don't want to hurt my kids anymore than I already have."