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Sunday, February 28, 2021

Murder in a Small Town: The 1957 Fordney-Barber Case

     In 1957, whenever someone in the United States committed murder, the story almost always made the front page of the local newspaper, and led the news that night on TV. In the past few years there has been an explosion of murder-suicide cases across the nation, but in the 1950s such mayhem, particularly in small town America, was virtually unheard of. But it did happen, and it happened on May 28, 1957 in a small town in western Pennsylvania.

     John D. Barber and his wife Grace, a childless couple, adopted 8-year-old Judy Rose in 1946. The family resided in Grove City, Pennsylvania. In 1953, when Judy turned fifteen, the family moved fifteen miles west to New Wilmington, a quiet borough of 1,800 in Amish country ninety minutes north of Pittsburgh. The Barbers took up residence in a modest home at 256 North Market Street near the center of the one-redlight town.

     Two years after moving to New Wilmington, the home of Westminster College, Mr. and Mrs. Barber separated. Grace moved a few miles north where she took up residence in Blacktown in adjacent Mercer County. At the time, Mr. Barber, a small aircraft pilot and member of the Shenango Valley Flying Club, worked the night shift at a factory twenty miles west in Youngstown, Ohio. Following her parents' separation, Judy elected to remain in New Wilmington with her father.

     In September 1956, at the beginning of her senior year at New Wilmington Area High School, Judy Barber announced her engagement to Homer Miller, a young man from Grove City who had joined the Marine Corps. Notwithstanding her engagement to Miller, Judy continued to see Theodore George Fordney, a 28-year-old postal worker she had been involved with since July 1956. Early in 1957, following Homer Miller's discharge from the Marine Corps, Judy returned his engagement ring. She continued to go out with Ted Fordney, a man ten years her senior.

     On May 21, 1957, Mr. Barber, in anticipation of Judy's graduation from high school the following week, bought her a car. Although she had been a mediocre student with a lot of absences, Judy had lined-up a job as a secretary in a department store in the nearby town of Sharon. Having flown several times in a small plane with her father, Judy aspired to someday become an airline stewardess.

     Ted Fordney, Judy's on and off boyfriend, had, in 1945, quit high school during his senior year. Ted, a slender, clean-cut kid of average height who was known as an excellent swimmer and diver, while no more of a prankster than many students in his class of 33, alway seemed to be the boy who got caught. According to friend Kenny Whitman, Ted was one of those bad luck guys who walked around under a cloud. Before dropping out of school, Fordney and Whitman washed dishes at The Tavern, a New Wilmington restaurant known throughout western Pennsylvania.

     Growing up in New Wilmington, Ted was raised by his mother. No one seemed to know anything about his father, George A. Fordney. After leaving school, Ted joined the Army. He ended up stationed in Fort Lee, Virginia. In May 1947, fresh out of the service, Ted started working at the massive Youngstown Sheet & Tube Company in Youngstown, Ohio. In 1953, he landed a job at the post office in New Wilmington. He also joined the New Wilmington Volunteer Fire Department.

     In 1957, Ted, 29-years-old, still single, and working at the post office, resided in a two-story house at 512 West Neshannock Avenue owned by his mother. His 54-year-old mother, Mary Virginia (Fischer) Fordney, a practical nurse, lived and worked in Florida. For several months, Ted had been living with terrible pain caused by a slipped disc in his spine. Because he couldn't stand for any period of time, he missed a lot of work at the post office.

     On May 21, 1957, Ted underwent an operation at the Jameson Memorial Hospital in New Castle to repair his ruptured disc. Mrs. Fordney returned to New Wilmington from New Orleans to take care of her son as he tried to recover from the operation. Mrs. Fordney had been in New Orleans visiting Madeline, one of Ted's three grown sisters.

      Six days following his hospital stay, Ted ran into his lifelong friend, Kenny Whitman. When Kenny asked Ted why he hadn't been around to visit, Ted said the pain in his back was so intense he couldn't sit very long in a car.

     Judy Barber, although she continued to date Ted Fordney, occasionally entertained younger men at her house. Whenever this happened, a jealous Ted would drive slowly back and forth on North Market Street past her home. On Monday, May 27, 1957, just four days before her high school graduation, Judy and a Westminster College freshman from West Hartford, Connecticut named Warren Howard Weber, watched a late night television movie at her house. At one o'clock that night, the college student left the North Market Street dwelling and walked back to his dormitory.

     The next morning, May 28, at nine o'clock, John Barber returned home after working the night shift at the factory in Youngstown, Ohio. In the front hallway to the house, Mr. Barber discovered his daughter's dead body sprawled out on the floor. She was dressed in a pair of blue polka-dot pajamas and white, knitted socks. An electrical cord from a vacuum cleaner had been wrapped tightly around her neck and knotted. There were no signs of forced entry into the house, and Mr. Barber did not see any indication that his daughter had struggled with her killer.

     Mr. Barber picked up the telephone and reported his daughter's murder to an officer assigned to the Pennsylvania State Police Barracks in New Castle, a town of 50,000 nine miles south of New Wilmington. After speaking with the Troop D officer, Mr. Barber called Ted Fordney's house and spoke to his mother. Mrs. Fordney, immediately following Mr. Barber's call, checked her son's bedroom and saw that his bed had not been slept in the previous night. Where was he? After seeing his car parked near the house, Mrs. Fordney walked into her back yard where she found Ted about five feet from the porch sprawled next to a .12-gauge shotgun. He had blasted himself in the face.

     Back at the Barber house, shortly after officers from the state police arrived at the death scene, Dr. Frank C. McClenahan, a local physician, came to the dwelling to examine Judy Barber's corpse. The doctor, based on the fact that rigor mortis had not set in, estimated that the girl had been murdered sometime between two and four that morning.

     Two state police officers, Sergeant Harold Rise and Corporal William S. O'Brien, were assigned the task of getting to the bottom of the two violent deaths. At the Barber house, Trooper O'Brien noticed that the killer had ripped the vacuum cleaner cord out of the wall so violently, the plug had come off.

     At the Fordney house, investigators found Ted's wallet, watch, and some loose change on his dresser drawer which led them to theorize that before killing himself in the back yard, Ted had emptied his pockets. On his bedroom walls, the officers notices scratch marks that could have been made by the fingernails of a man in severe pain. The investigators did not find a suicide note.

     Later on the morning of Ted Fordney's suicide, after police officers and firemen had left the Neshannock Avenue house, Mrs. Fordney called the Sharp Funeral Home a few blocks away. Bob Brush, a 19-year-old who happened to be visiting his friend Pete Sharp at the funeral home that day, accompanied Pete and his brother Bud to the Fordney residence. Bob, a 1956 high school graduate, lived on North Market Street a few houses from the murder scene. While Bob was acquainted with Judy Barber, he only knew Ted Fordney as the older guy with a bad back who spent every day during the summer at the New Wilmington swimming pool. In the back yard of the Fordney house, Bob took one look at the man lying next to the shotgun and turned away in horror. He had not been prepared for the human carnage.

     Dr. Lester Adelson, the forensic pathologist with the Cleveland Crime Laboratory who three years earlier had examined the body of Marilyn Shepard, the murdered wife of  Dr. Sam Shepard, performed the Judy Barber autopsy. Dr. Adelson noticed a fresh abrasion on the victim's left temple that suggested the killer had knocked her out before wrapping and tying the cord around her neck. According to the pathologist's estimation, the five-foot-tall high school senior had died of asphyxiation by ligature sometime between two and four on the morning of Tuesday, May 28, 1957.

     Warren Weber, the Westminster College freshman who had been with Judy just hours before the murder, contacted the state police almost immediately after he got word of her fate. That Tuesday afternoon, Lawrence County District Attorney Perry Reeher and County Detective Russell McConhay questioned the shaken student at the county courthouse in New Castle. Weber informed his interviewers that between ten-thirty and eleven o'clock the previous night, he and Judy had seen a man peeking into one of the living room windows. The only thing Weber recognized about the man was that he had a crew-cut. Judy said she thought the window peeper was Ted Fordney.

     Troopers Rice and O'Brien questioned several witnesses who had seen Ted Fordney, at ten-thirty Monday night, walking toward the Barber house. Witnesses had also seen the victim and Fordney riding around town in her new car in the afternoon and evening of the day before her death. According to some of Judy's girlfriends, she did not want to marry Ted, and was thinking of ending their relationship. Whenever she entertained a boy her age, Ted would pay Judy a visit shortly after her date went home.

   New Wilmington weekend police officer John D. Kyle, questioned Ted Fordney's next-door neighbor, Mrs. Elmer Newton who said that she and her husband, between four and five o'clock Tuesday morning, heard a noise they thought was thunder. Officer Kyle presumed the couple had heard Ted Fordney shoot himself in the head.

     At this point in the investigation, all of the homicide investigators as well as the Lawrence County District Attorney, believed that Ted Fordney had gone to the Barber house an hour or so after the college kid had gone home. Judy let him in, they argued, and he punched her on the side of the head. As she lay unconscious on the hallway floor, he wrapped and tied the electrical cord around her neck. After returning to his house, Ted grabbed his shogun, walked into the back yard, and shot himself in the face.

     On Wednesday morning, May 29, the day after the murder-suicide, the dead girl's father allowed himself to be interviewed by reporter Bryant Artis with The Pittsburgh Press. Artis' comprehensive front-page article about the mayhem in New Wilmington featured a large yearbook photograph of Judy Barber. According to John Barber, just minutes after reporting his daughter's murder to the Pennsylvania State Police, he telephoned Ted Fordney. "I called him simply because he knew everybody in town," the father said. Regarding his daughter's relationship with a man ten years older than her, Mr. Barber said, "He wouldn't show up for a month at a time. But they both loved to dance and off they'd go." Asked about his feelings toward Ted Fordney, Mr. Barber said, "It's not fair to accuse him until we know."

     Lawrence County Coroner John A. Meehan, Jr. held the coroner's inquest in New Castle at the country court house on August 6, 1957. Following the three hour session in which six witnesses testified, the coroner's jury, after deliberating twenty minutes, delivered its verdict. These jurors found that Judy Barber had been strangled to death by Theodore Fordney who committed suicide shortly after the murder. This meant there would be no further investigation into these deaths. The case was closed.

     Because no one saw Ted Fordney murder Judy Barber, and he did not confess, the case against him was entirely circumstantial. Moreover, there was no physical evidence connecting Mr. Fordney to the killing. According to reportage in the weekly New Wilmington Globe, forensic scientists at the state police crime lab in Butler had found hair follicles from the victim on the sweeper cord. Latent fingerprints had been lifted from the ligature, but because they were partials, could not be identified.

     Warren Weber, the Westminster College student from Connecticut, did not return to New Wilmington. And who could blame him? He had come to a small, quiet community to end up having a date murdered just hours after he left her house. It probably dawned on Weber that Ted Fordney could have come to the Barber house that night with his shotgun. Before turning the gun on himself, Fordney could have murdered him along with the girl.

     Ted Fordney's mother, on February 1, 1996, while living in a convalescent home in Hermitage, Pennsylvania, died at the age of 93.

      Ted Fordney did not have a history of criminal violence, and he had never been treated for any kind of mental illness. So what could have driven this ordinary man to commit murder and suicide? Perhaps the answer lies in the fact he was in extreme pain. It is possible he was taking pain-killing drugs that had altered his personality. (In the 1950s, patients suffering from post-surgical pain often took a powerful, over-the-counter drug called Paracetamol. Even in small doses, Paracetamol was known to cause kidney, liver, and brain damage. If combined with even small amounts of alcohol, the drug was especially dangerous.)

      The memories of Judy Barber and Theodore Fordney, today remembered by a handful of people, are intertwined forever as they lay buried in the same cemetery outside of New Wilmington, Pennsylvania.

Frank Costal and the Kadunce Killings: The Satanic High Priest Murder Case

     At ten o'clock on the morning of July 11, 1978, Rose Butera decided to visit her friend Kathleen Kadunce. Rose, accompanied by her daughter Lori and Lori's boyfriend, pulled up to Kathy Kadunce's two-story house on Wilmington  Avenue in New Castle, Pennsylvania, a mill town of 30,000 about an hour north of downtown Pittsburgh. Twenty-five-year-old Kathleen, known to her friends as Kathy, lived in the house with her husband Lawrence and their two children, a four-year-old girl named Dawn and three-month-old Robert Dean Kadunce. (While friends and family called Lawrence Lou or Louie, he will be referred to here as Lawrence.)

     When she approached the Kadunce residence, Rose Butera noticed that the back door stood adjar. From the doorway Rose heard a baby crying. After no one answered her knock, she and the other two visitors entered the dwelling.

     Rose found the Kadunce baby crying in a portable crib on the first floor. Lori climbed the stairs to the second floor where she stumbled upon the mutilated body of the little girl, Dawn Kadunce. Rose, in response to her daughter's screams, found Mrs. Kadunce's nude and bloody body lying on the bathroom floor.

     According to the Lawrence County coroner, Kathy Kadunce and her daughter had been each stabbed 17 times. The mother had also been shot in the head. The victims had been murdered earlier that morning. Dr. William G. Gillespy, a pathologist with St. Francis Hospital in New Castle, performed the autopsies. According to Dr. Gillespy, Mrs. Kadunce had been shot at point blank range before she was stabbed. The pathologist believed the murders took place sometime between seven and eight-forty-five in the morning. In his report, Dr. Gillespy used the words "excessive" and "overkill" in describing the murders.

     Investigators believed the killer or killers had removed Mrs. Kadunce's wedding ring as well as a blue star sapphire ring. Police officers searched the Kadunce house but did not find the murder weapons.

     New Castle detectives questioned Lawrence Kadunce, Kathy's husband of six years. He said that when he left his house that morning, his wife and daughter were alive. Mr. Kadunce was a student at the New Castle Business College where he took night courses. He worked during the day at V & R Industries on Grove Street. The 30-year-old was not a suspect in the case.

     In January 1979, detectives working on the double murder case caught a break when an anonymous tipster told officers about a man named Michael Atkinson. According to the caller, Atkinson, a 28-year-old drifter from Ellwood City, a town a few miles south of New Castle, had been involved in the Kadunce murders. Detectives launched an investigation of this man, and the more they learned about him the more they were convinced the anonymous caller had been right.

     On February 11, 1980, police officers armed with a warrant for Atkinson's arrest as a suspect in the Kadunce case, interrogated him at the jail in neighboring Butler County. Atkinson had been arrested in connection with the January 1980 shooting death of Rose Puz, his 84-year-old landlady in Ellwood City.

     Atkinson admitted being at the Kadunce house at six o'clock that bloody morning. He said he waited in the car while his companion, Frank Costal, entered the dwelling. When the 50-year-old Costal walked out of the Kadunce house he was, according to Atkinson, covered in the victims' blood.

     Frank G. Costal, after dropping out of New Castle High School in 1950, joined the Army and ended up serving in Korea during the Korean War. After his military service, the veteran with a "confused sexual identify," traveled around the country as a carnival freak known as Frankie Francine, half-man, half-woman.

     In 1970, Costal returned to New Castle where he worked odd jobs and lived off a monthly social security disability benefit of $240. (He claimed to have injured himself while working as a laborer in Pittsburgh. He also told people he had been sexually abused as a child.)

     In February 1980, New Castle police arrested Frank Costal at his apartment at Highland and Leisure Avenues on suspicion of murdering Mrs. Kadunce and her daughter. In his apartment officers discovered plastic skulls hanging from the ceiling, ceremonial candles, inverted crucifixes, and a collection of books on black magic, witchcraft, and devil worship. The suspect's walls were also covered with black curtains to give the place a spooky feel.

     Costal told his police interrogators that he, Atkinson, a man named John Dudoice, and Lawrence Kadunce had gone to the Kadunce house that morning to straighten out a drug deal Mrs. Kadunce had interfered with. According to Costal, Kathy Kadunce had found the drugs he had given to her husband and she had flushed them down the toilet. Costal said that yes, he was in the house at the time of the murders, but he was not the one who did the killing. His companions had killed the little girl because she would have been a witness to her mother's murder. Costal denied the killings had anything to do with his interest in the occult. Four months earlier, John Dudoice had been shot to death in New Castle. While the case went into the books as a suicide, detectives believed that Dudoice had been murdered by Costal who was worried that if questioned by the police, Dudoice would finger him and the others for the Kadunce murders.

     On March 4, 1980, a jury found Michael Atkinson guilty of raping a 17-year-old New Castle girl in 1978.

     On September 15, 1980, Michael Atkinson went on trial for the Kadunce murders. The Lawrence County prosecutor had charged him with the first-degree murder of Kathy Kadunce and the third-degree murder of the victim's daughter. The prosecution theorized that Kathy's murder had been premeditated while her daughter's fatal stabbing had been a spur-of-the-moment killing. (Today, the killing of a potential witness to a crime qualifies the murderer for the death penalty.)

     The trial judge allowed the prosecutor to show the jurors the gory murder scene photographs. Atkinson's attorney objected on the grounds these photos unduly inflamed and prejudiced the jury against the defendant. Following the coroner's testimony, several police officers took the stand. Frank Costal, the prosecution's star witness, climbed into the witness box and placed himself, the defendant, and the others at the murder scene that morning.

     After the prosecution rested its case, Atkinson's attorney put him on the stand to speak on his own behalf. Atkinson continued to insist that he had not left the car that morning while Costal killed Kathy Kadunce for destroying the drugs her husband had been entrusted with.

     On cross-examination, the prosecutor got the defendant to acknowledge several inconsistencies in his written and oral statements to the police. The defendant also admitted that he, Costal, Duodice and Lawrence Kadunce returned to the murder scene an hour after the killings to retrieve physical evidence that might have incriminated them. Atkinson said Dudoice walked out of the Kadunce house carrying a bloody 14-inch butcher knife, the weapon used to stab the victims and dismember the little girl.

     On October 16, 1980, the jury found Michael Atkinson guilty as charged. The judge sentenced him to life in prison for Kathy Kadunce's murder, and ten to twenty years for the slaughter of Dawn Kadunce. Sometime around 2013, Atkinson died while serving time at the state penitentiary in Greene County, Pennsylvania.

     The Frank G. Costal trial got underway on January 5, 1981 in the Lawrence County Courthouse. Because of the regional pre-trial publicity about the murders that extended all the way south to Pittsburgh, the jury had been drawn from the citizens of Crawford County. The prosecutor, in his opening remarks to the jury, argued that the ritualistic killings committed by the defendant had been motived by the thwarted drug deal as well as Costal's desire to kill Kathy because he was having a homosexual affair with Lawrence Kadunce. In other words, the defendant had wanted Mr. Kadunce all to himself.

     Several of the prosecution's witnesses informed the jury of the defendant's participation in satanic rituals held in his apartment. They also described his role as the "High Priest" of a small cult of young, drug-addled, and naive followers who gathered at his place three or four times a week to smoke pot, drink beer, witness animal sacrifices and other satanic rituals. At these occult events, Costal would often conduct marriage ceremonies involving him and a young male lover. (Police found fake marriage certificates in his apartment.)

     According to several witnesses familiar with the defendant's lifestyle, many of Costal's young followers were afraid to cooperate with the police because they believed Costal had the power to walk through the bars of the Lawrence County Jail.

     Another witness who had participated in black magic rituals at the defendant's apartment testified that many of the "High Priest's" followers, in return for access to the beer and marijuana, shoplifted for him. One of the former attendees at Costal's beer and pot-fueled occult affairs told the jury that he once saw the defendant wearing nothing but a pair of woman's red bikini underwear.

     The prosecutor put a jailhouse informant on the stand who said that while serving time with Costal in a Lawrence County Jail cell, Costal boasted about "carving up the Kadunces." The snitch said Costal had been angry at Kathy for interfering with his relationship with her husband.

     A prosecution witness testified that Lawrence Kadunce had been an active member of Costal's satanic group. She said she had seen him several times in the defendant's apartment. According to this witness, Kadunce and the defendant had been involved in a homosexual relationship. Another person took the stand and said that Costal had demanded that Lawrence Kadunce leave his wife Kathy. According to this witness, just before the murders, Costal had confided to her that "something bad was going to happen to Kathy."

     An expert on satanism took the stand for the prosecution and said that the defendant's plastic skulls, devil worship posters, robes, and books on the occult were consistent with the ritualistic nature of the Kadunce murders. According to this witness (so-called satanism experts have since been discredited) the fact the victims had been stabbed 17 times had satanic relevance. (Detectives who worked on the case believed the defendant's devil worshiping trappings were nothing more than props in furtherance of his desire to seduce young gay men.)

     Michael Atkinson took the stand as the prosecution's star witness. He testified that Frank Costal, John Dudoice, and Lawrence Kadunce were in the house committing the murders while he sat outside in the car. Atkinson told the jury that Frank Costal wanted to kill Kathy Kadunce in order to have Lawrence for himself. The witness further implicated the husband by claiming that Lawrence had entered the house that morning armed with a pistol.

     On January 25, 1981, the jury found Frank Costal guilty of two counts of first-degree murder. The judge imposed the mandatory life sentence without parole. Costal died in 2001 at age 71 while serving his time at the State Correctional Institute at Laurel Highlands, Pennsylvania.

     A jury in the summer of 1982 found Michael Atkinson guilty of murdering his Ellwood City landlord, Rose Puz. The judge handed him a second life sentence for the January 1980 murder. (There are those who believe that Michael Atkinson and a man named Raymond Tanner murdered 37-year-old Beverly Ann Withers and 4-year-old Melanie Gargacz on November 7, 1975 in New Castle. When the girl's mother, Marilyn Gargacz, came home that afternoon, the school teacher found her daughter and the girl's babysitter dead from small caliber gunshot wounds to the head. No arrests were made, and that case remained unsolved.)

     Lawrence Kadunce, having been implicated in his wife's and daughter's murders, went on trial in January 1982 in Lawrence County with Judge Glenn McCracken presiding. Because of the intense local publicity surrounding the case, a jury from Centre County had been impanelled. Mr. Kadunce had been assigned two defense attorneys, Norman A. Levine and Peter E. Horney.

     District Attorney Norman J. Barilla opened his prosecution by putting Sandra Lee Krosen on the stand. The 39-year-old witness from Edinburg testified that Frank Costal had been a babysitter for one of her friends. In 1977, Mr. Costal had introduced Krosen to his good friend, Lawrence Kadunce.

     New Castle police officer William Carbone testified regarding major inconsistencies in statements the defendant made to him on the day of the murder and the day after. Kathleen Kadunce's mother, brother, and sister testified that the defendant had given them different stories regarding his activities on the night before the murders. The family members also noted that Lawrence, at his dead wife's funeral, had laughed and joked with friends who came to pay their respects.

     Michael Atkinson, the prosecution's star witness took the stand on January 21,1982. According to the convicted murderer and rapist, after the defendant and his wife argued in the bathroom about the drugs---she had been about to take a bath--he shot her in the head. After killing his wife, the defendant sent Frank Costal to silence his daughter, Dawn.

     Atkinson said that after the murders he burned evidence from the crime scene behind his house on South Jefferson Street. He disposed of the murder knife and gun by tossing the weapons into a pond owned by the Medusa Cement plant near Wampum, Pennsylvania.

      According to Atkinson, Frank Costal had introduced him to the defendant and his wife in 1977 at the Towne Mall in downtown New Castle. The witness described Lawrence Kadunce as a vengeful and jealous husband who had accused him (Atkinson) of having an affair with Kathy. Atkinson said he had caught the defendant and Frank Costal, a man he described as a "blood-maddened drug using homosexual," having sex in Costal's apartment.

     Defense attorney Levine, in his cross-examination of the prosecution's star witness, pointed out major discrepancies in Atkinson's testimony at this trial, the Costal trial, and at a March 1981 preliminary hearing before District Justice Howard B. Hanna. In Atkinson's two signed statements given to the New Castle police on February 10 and 11, 1980, Lawrence Kadunce was not mentioned as a participant in the murders.

     Attorney Levine also got the witness to admit that in return for his testimony against Lawrence Kadunce, District Attorney Barilla had promised not to seek the death penalty in the Rose Puz murder case. Moreover, in return for his Kadunce trial testimony, Atkinson would receive major dental work paid by the state.

     Two Lawrence County jailhouse snitches took the stand for the prosecution and testified that the defendant, while incarcerated there, made statements to them that incriminated him in the murders.

     When it came time to present his side of the case, defense attorney Levine put Lawrence County Jail warden Joseph F. Gregg on the stand. The warden's testimony, based on jail records, cast serious doubt regarding the veracity of the jailhouse informants' stories.

     Lawrence Kadunce took the stand on his own behalf and denied ever knowing Frank Costal or Michael Atkinson. He told the jurors that he was at work when the murders took place. The jury, on February 10, 1982, found the defendant not guilty.

     Following his acquittal, Lawrence Kadunce left the New Castle area. He later remarried and had a son with his second wife. According to that son, his father refused to talk about the case. Some members of Kathy's family were not convinced that Mr. Kadunce was innocent.

     In 2004, the murder house at 702 Wilmington Avenue was torn down to make room for a video rental store.

     The Kadunce case is tragic because two innocent victims were drawn into a circle of criminal degenerates who committed a perfectly senseless and horrific crime.

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)

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. 

The Mouthpiece

So you want to do good. Don't we all? But when you become a lawyer, you have to define good differently than you did before. As a lawyer, you're someone else's representative. You're acting on their behalf. You're their spokesperson. You may not like the term, but you're their mouthpiece. You are they, only you are better educated and more articulate. So doing good often means doing good specifically for your client, not the world at large, and certainly not for yourself.

Alan Dershowitz, Letters to a Young Lawyer, 2001

Erle Stanley Gardner: A Writing Machine

Erle Stanley Gardner is credited by the Guinness Book of World Records as being the fastest author of this century. It was his habit to tape 3-by-5 inch index cards around his study. Each index card explained where and when certain key incidents would occur in each detective novel. He then dictated to a crew of secretaries some ten thousand words a day, on up to seven different [mystery] novels at a time.

The Writer's Home Companion (1987) edited by James Charlton and Lisbeth Mark

Writers Are Defined By What Interests Them

Nothing in the world is inherently interesting--that is, immediately interesting, and interesting in the same degree, to all human beings. And nothing can be made to be of interest to the reader that was not first of vital concern to the writer. Each writer's prejudices, tastes, background, and experience tend to limit the kinds of characters, actions, and settings he can honestly care about, since by the nature of our mortality we care about what we know and might possibly lose (or have already lost), dislike that which threatens what we care about, and feel indifferent toward that which has no visible bearing on our safety or the safety of the people and things we love. Thus no two writers get aesthetic interest from exactly the same materials.

John Gardner, The Art of Fiction, 1984

Nothing Has Changed in Journalism

Why are there so many black sheep in journalism? Why so many fakes? Why is the epidemic of "yellow journalism" so prevalent? This phrase is applied to newspapers which delight in sensations, crime, scandal, smut, funny pictures, caricatures and malicious or frivolous gossip about persons and things of no public concern.

Horace White, 1904

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

The Dino Gugglielmelli Murder-For-Hire Case

     In 2001, Dino Gugglielmelli, the owner of Creations Garden, a $48 million natural cream and nutritional supplement business, met Monica Olsen, a Romanian-born model twenty years younger than him. The 39-year-old tycoon had been married twice. Both of those marriages had been brief.

     Not long after the two met, Monica moved into Gugglielmelli's six-bedroom, 7,000-square foot mansion on three acres north of Los Angeles. The couple married in April 2003, and by 2008, had two daughters. They also possessed a Maserati, a Porsche, and a BMW.

     The Food and Drug Administration, in 2009, tightened the federal regulations regarding the manufacture and marketing of nutritional supplements. This, along with the economic recession, took its toll on Gugglielmelli's business. By 2011, the company, along with his marriage, had collapsed.

     Dino Gugglielmelli, in October 2012, in filing for divorce, described Monica as a bad mother who "never made dinner for the children." According to court documents, Gugglielmelli complained that nannies had raised the children, and domestic employees cleaned the house.

     In January 2013, after Mr. Gugglielmelli accused Monica of attacking him with a kitchen knife, she lost custody of the children and moved out of the mansion. Shortly after her departure, Gugglielmelli acquired a young girlfriend. Although he was facing bankruptcy, he lavished this woman with $200.000 in gifts. He used other people's money to impress his young lover.

     In the spring of 2013, investigators exonerated Monica in the domestic knife assault case. A family court judge, in August of that year, was about to award her $300,000 in back alimony payments. The federal government, the economy, and his pending divorce had put an end to Gugglielmelli's lavish style of living. He did not like what the future held for him.

     On October 1, 2013, Gugglielmelli and 47-year-old Richard Euhrmann met in a Los Angeles restaurant. Euhrmann, a short time before this meeting had gone to the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Office with information that Gugglielmelli had asked him to murder his estranged wife, Monica. For that reason, Euhrmann showed up at the restaurant wired for sound.

     During that meeting, Gugglielmelli allegedly offered his friend $80,000 to pull off the hit. "I'll be happy when it's over," he reportedly said. As the two men walked out of the restaurant, deputies took Gugglielmelli into custody.

     A Los Angeles County prosecutor charged the former millionaire with attempted murder and solicitation of murder. After being booked into the county's Men's Central Jail, the judge set Gugglielmelli's bond at $10 million.

     At a pre-trial hearing in late 2013, Gugglielmelli's attorney Anthony Brooklier described Richard Euhrmann, the man Guggliemelli had allegedly asked to kill his estranged wife, as an opportunist and liar who had set up his client. (If this were true, I don't know what Euhrmann had gained from setting up his friend.)

     With her estranged husband behind bars for plotting to kill her, Monica moved back into the Gugglielmelli mansion.

     In May 2014, county jail officials moved the high-profile inmate into solitary confinement at the notorious Twin Towers correctional facility. The 9,500-prisoner complex, in 2011, was named one of the ten worst jails in the world.  

     After receiving word that several of Gugglielmell's fellow inmates had approached him with offers to kill Richard Euhrmann, the principal witness against Gugglielmelli, corrections officials isolated him from the jail population. Gugglielmelli was also denied the privilege of seeing visitors. Richard Euhrmann, fearing for his life, went into hiding.

     Monica, the alleged target of the murder-for-hire plot, said she also worried about being killed by a hit man. Traumatized by the case, she put the mansion up for sale. She asked $3.5 million for the house. Monica was also trying to breathe new life back into her beauty cream and baby skin care business.

    On June 13, 2014 in San Fernando Superior Court, Gugglielmelli pleaded guilty to one count of attempted murder. The judge sentenced him to nine years in prison.

Oxygen TV: The True Crime Channel

Until a few years ago, Oxygen was a cable TV channel that targeted a young, female demographic with forgettable high-drama shows with names like Last Squad Standing and Bad Girls Club. According to network executives, the millennial women they were hoping to capture craved "freshness" and "authenticity," "high emotional stakes and optimism." It didn't take long for the executives to figure out that what young women actually wanted was more shows about murder. When the struggling network began airing a dedicated true crime block in 2015, viewership increased by 42 percent. In 2017, the network rebranded and adopted revised programming priorities: all crime, all the time.

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

Your Novel is Out: The Fleeting Thrill

Examining the first copy of your novel is a mixed experience. On the one hand, proof now rests in your hand that you indeed wrote a book. This exciting thought lasts for about six seconds then the mind turns elsewhere: couldn't my publisher have found a better typeface for the jacket? Next time, I'm going to hire a professional photographer to take a good author picture. I wonder how long it will take before my novel shows up on remainder tables. I wonder if it's going to get panned. I wonder if anyone will read it at all.

Ralph Keyes, The Courage to Write, 1995 

The Talented But Obnoxious Writer

Like many, I've often been disappointed when meeting a writer whose work I admire, only to find that person off-putting. Some are downright obnoxious. How could such an unpleasant human being write with such sensitivity, such insight and candor? Or are the two connected? Perhaps rudeness and the courage to put your work on public display are symbiotic. An ability to reveal unattractive parts of yourself on the page and in person dips from the same well. That's why it's not necessarily a bad thing for a writer to lack social grace.

Ralph Keyes, The Courage to Write, 1995 

Charles Bukowski: Easy Writer

Writing was never hard work for me. It had been the same for as long as I could remember: turn on the radio to a classical music station, light a cigarette or a cigar, open the bottle. The typer did the rest. All I had to do was be there. The whole process allowed me to continue when life itself offered very little, when life itself was a horror show. There was always the typer to soothe me, to talk to me, to entertain me.

Charles Bukowski, Hollywood, 1989

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Emily Creno's Self-Serving Hoax

     On the surface there was nothing exceptional about Emily J. Creno. In 2012, the mother of an 8-year-old girl and a boy who was four lived in Utica, a central Ohio town not far from Columbus. After the 31-year-old's marriage had gone sour, her husband John moved out of the house.

     In December 2012, Emily took her son J. J. to a hospital emergency room in Columbus. She told medical personnel that he had suffered a series of seizures. Following blood tests, X-rays, and EEG monitoring, the physician told Emily that her son was in good health.

     Notwithstanding her son's clean bill of health, confirmed by subsequent hospital visits and various screening tests, Emily Creno told friends and family that J. J. had been diagnosed with cancer. She said J. J.  didn't have long to live. The child, thinking that he was terminally ill, basically shut down. When John Creno visited his son, the boy couldn't speak or get off the couch. (Emily regularly shaved J. J.'s head to give him the appearance of someone being treated with chemotherapy.) Her estranged husband had no idea his son's illness was a hoax orchestrated by his wife. (The couple later divorced.)

     One of Emily's sympathetic friends created a Facebook page for the purpose of soliciting donations for the distraught mother and her dying son. About twenty people sent the family clothes, toys, and money. One Facebook reader drove 500 miles to console Emily and the stricken boy.

     In May 2013, a Columbus woman with a daughter suffering from leukemia visited the Creno Facebook page where she read postings about J. J.'s illness and symptoms that didn't make sense. Thinking that Emily Creno was possibly soliciting money and goods on a false pretense, this woman reported her suspicion to an officer with the Utica Police Department.

     Utica detective Damian Smith, in response to the tipster's call, got in touch with the Columbus oncologist who was supposedly treating the Creno boy. The physician said he did not know Emily or her son. Further investigation, which presumably included Creno's interrogation and perhaps a polygraph test, established the fact that her son's terminal illness was nothing more that a product of her imagination and deception.

     Licking County prosecutor Tracy Van Winkle, in September 2013, charged Emily Creno with one count of third-degree child endangerment. Shortly thereafter, police officers took the suspect into custody on the felony charge. A local magistrate set her bail at $50,000. According to the prosecutor, she would present the case to a grand jury which could result in additional charges related to fraud and theft by deception.

     As the criminal case moved forward, J. J. Creno and his sister were residing with a distant relative. It was not clear if the boy's physical incapacity was entirely psychological, or the result of being poisoned by his mother. In either case, the effects of his ordeal would probably be long-lasting.

     On May 7, 2014, Emily Creno, after pleading no contest to charges of theft and endangering a child, was sentenced to 18 months in prison by Judge Thomas Marcelain. The judge also ordered Creno to pay back the money donated to her phony cause. At the sentence hearing, Judge Marcelain said that Creno's ploy had been intended to get her husband back, a scheme that got out of hand.

     In terms of motive, this could have been a Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy (MSBP) case. Mothers with this disorder make their children ill to gain sympathy and attention from friends, family, and hospital personnel. Quite often the MSBP subject is trying to attract the attention of an indifferent or estranged spouse. Even if Emily Creno didn't poison her son to make him ill, her cancer hoax could be explained in the context of this disorder. In other words, the motive behind this dreadful case may have been pathological rather than theft by deception. It should be noted, however, that Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy does not constitute a recognized legal defense. It is not the same as legal insanity because MSBP mothers are fully aware of what they are doing, and that it is wrong. 

Sherlock Holmes on Criminal Investigation

The creator of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, said that a first-class investigator had to have a good mind, exact knowledge, and the powers of observation and deduction. That's true, as far as it goes, but he forgot to mention persistence, audacity, objectivity, and above all, integrity. And a little luck never hurt anyone.

A Writer's Progression

When I was young, the main struggle was to be a "good writer." Now I more or less take my writing abilities for granted, although this doesn't mean I always write well.

Jonathan Franzen, The Paris Review, Winter 2010

The Fear of Writing

Whenever I start writing a book, my fears follow a predictable path. First I'm scared that I won't finish it; that I'll be exposed as a fraud who conned a publisher into thinking he could write a book. When I do complete the manuscript, I'm afraid my editor won't accept it. If my editor does accept the manuscript, I'm worried that critics will hate it. If critics don't hate it, I'm sure no one will buy my book. And even if readers do buy my book, there's a danger that they won't like what they read. They might find it laughable. Worst of all, someone I know may ridicule my efforts. These are the types of fears that keep me, and anyone who presumes to write for public consumption, awake at night.

Ralph Keyes, The Courage to Write, 1995 

Margaret Mitchell's Manuscript

     Legend has it that, when Margaret Mitchell contacted a publisher about Gone With the Wind, she hauled two stacks of manuscript pages as tall as she was into the publisher's hotel room and said, "Here it is." Part of the manuscript was typed, part was handwritten, some pages were drenched in spilled coffee, and some chapters were included in multiple versions.

     Today, she'd be asked to haul it all home, boil it down to a two-page query letter, and get an agent.

Leigh Michaels, On Writing Romance, 2007 

Monday, February 22, 2021

The Deadly Bay Area Limousine Fire

     On Saturday, May 4, 2013, Nerizo Fojas, a recently married 31-year-old registered nurse from Fresno, California entertained eight of her friends and fellow nurses at a bachelorette party in Oakland. At nine that night, the newlywed and her guests climbed into a white, 1999 Lincoln stretch limousine en route to the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Foster City, the site of her bridal shower. Orville Brown, the 46-year-old who had been driving as a chauffeur for two months, picked up the nine women for the 40-mile trip from Oakland to Foster City.

     At ten o'clock, as the limousine crossed the San Mateo Bridge on Highway 92 about 20 miles southeast of San Francisco, one of the passengers tapped on the partition that separates the driver from the passengers. At first Orville Brown couldn't hear what this passenger was saying over the car music. When he heard others in the back yelling, "smoke, smoke!" he pulled out of the westbound lane and brought the Town Car to a stop at the side of the bridge.

     In a matter of seconds after Brown exited the limo, the rear passenger and trunk areas of the vehicle burst into flames, engulfing the passengers. Four of the women managed to escape the sudden inferno by crawling through the 3 foot by18 inch driver's partition opening. Five of the nurses, including Nerizo Fojas, were burned to death as they waited to squeeze through the partition opening.

     The dead women were so badly burned they had to be officially identified through dental records. Two of the women who survived the fire were in critical condition.

     Nerizo Fojas had been working at the Community Regional Medical Center in Fresno for two years. Prior to living in Fresno she had resided in Oakland. She and her husband had planned to travel to her native Philippines in June for a second wedding ceremony.

     San Mateo County Coroner Robert Foucrault told reporters that "it was almost impossible for [the victims] to get out as the fire was moving so fast." Cause and origin experts investigated the fire scene while forensic pathologists performed the autopsies and ordered toxicology tests.

     It is rare for a motor vehicle not involved in an accident to burst into flames. The fact the fire spread so fast suggested that something highly flammable had been near its origin. (A good many car fires that are not incendiary are electrical in nature.) According to the chauffeur, he had informed his passengers that smoking in the vehicle was prohibited. Orville Brown and other witnesses reported that the fire was not accompanied by an explosion.

     On May 7, 2013, Nelia Arelllano, one of the passengers, told a television reporter from San Francisco that the driver of the limo ignored her when she first yelled at him to stop. By the time Mr. Brown pulled over, the fire had engulfed the rear area of the vehicle. (Stretch limousines have doors at the front and back but not along the elongated section of the car.) The San Jose company that operated the limousine, Limo Stop, was licensed and insured.

    In 2014, fire scene investigators from San Mateo and Alameda Counties determined that the fire was started by a "catastrophic failure" of the 1999 converted Lincoln Town Car's suspension system that caused the drive shaft to rub on the vehicle's undercarriage, producing friction and sparks that started the fire in the rear passenger section.

     The California Public Utilities Commission fined Limo Stop $20,000 for having nine passengers in the vehicle, one over the limit. On appeal, the fine was reduced to $5,000.

     In 2014 and 2015, families of four of the five women who died in the limo settled lawsuits with numerous companies associated with the vehicle fire. In May 2016, the husband of the fifth victim, Aldrin Geronga, filed a wrongful death suit against the Ford Motor company. According to this plaintiff's attorney, "Ford knew there were problems fifteen years ago."

     The jury considering the Geronga $37 million wrongful death suit against the Ford Motor Company deliberated four days before finding for the defendant. Jurors determined that the Ford Motor Company had not been responsible for the vehicle defect that had caused the deadly fire.

Law in Authoritarian Countries

The law is an adroit mixture of customs that are beneficial to society, and could be followed even if no law existed. And others that are of advantage to a ruling minority, but harmful to the masses of men, and can be enforced only by terror.

Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921) Russian anarchist, writer

Novelist John Gardner On Editors

One should fight like the devil to think well of [book] editors. They are, without exception--at least some of the time--incompetent or crazy.

John Gardner (1933-1982)

Agatha Christie's Hoax

Agatha Christie nearly pulled off a real-life hoax worthy of her mystery novels. Upset that her husband was leaving her for another woman, she set up an incriminating scene that almost got him arrested for her "murder." Luckily for him, an employee at a distant seaside hotel saw news photos of Christie and recognized her as the woman who had slipped into the hotel under an assumed name. Although Christie claimed amnesia, the police were not amused after having wasted a week of searching rivers and bogs.

Erin Barrett and Jack Mingo, It Takes a Certain Type To Be A Writer, 2003 

Ben Hecht In Hollywood

I'm a Hollywood writer, so I put on my sports jacket and take off my brain.

Ben Hecht (1893-1964)

You Can't Write If You Don't Know Anything

I always tell writers that it's good to have an area of expertise. It's a really practical answer, I know, but know about science or about sports or about medicine, so you can work as a science writer or a sports writer. Don't just know about yourself.

Meghan Daum, essayist, journalist, 2008

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Travis M. Scott: The Swindler

     In 2006, Travis Magdalena Scott owned a computer company in Crystal, Minnesota that provided software to the U.S. Military and the private sector. That year, the 29-year-old filed a false insurance claim with Lloyd's of London based on a phony lightening strike he said had wiped out his computers and ruined his business. The insurance company paid him $3 million.

     Two years later, Scott was living in a 15-room, 5,300-square foot $1 million mansion in the Twin Cities area town of Eden Prairie. He owned a new computer company, and had filed another false insurance claim. This time, to indemnify him for another computer destroying lightening strike, the insurer paid him $9.5 million.

     The FBI opened an investigation of Scott in 2010, and in early 2011, a federal grand jury sitting in Minneapolis indicted him for wire fraud, money laundering, and insurance fraud. If convicted of all charges, the crooked businessman faced up to thirty years in prison. FBI agents seized three of Scott's airplanes, a boat, three vehicles, and $5 million from various bank accounts in his name. Scott's mansion, taken over by the bank and put on the market, was now worth $600,000.

     In May 2011, pursuant to a plea deal involving a sentence of between five to ten years in prison, Travis Scott pleaded guilty to all charges. His sentencing hearing before a U.S. District Court judge was scheduled for mid-September 2011.

     A week before his sentencing, Scott staged a suicide by leaving his Kayak on the west shore of Lake Mille Lacs. Inside the overturned Kayak, Scott left a suicide note in which he wrote that he had drowned himself by jumping into the middle of the lake wearing heavy weights. (Had this been true, it would have been one odd suicide.)

     Following the staged suicide, Scott flew his Piper airplane from the Flying Cloud Airport near Eden Prairie to the St. Andrew's Airport in Winnipeg, Canada. The aircraft bore fake Canadian registration decals. Three days later, Mille Lacs County Sheriff's deputies found the Kayak and the phony suicide note. The local authorities listed Scott as a missing person, and various law enforcement agencies in the region searched for his body.

     In Winnipeg, under the name Paul Decker, Scott set up residence in a downtown apartment. He purchased a Jeep, and lived with a cat. Things were going smoothly for the missing businessman until December 22, 2011. The Canadian authorities caught up to him 82 days after his staged suicide when, at a Winnipeg pharmacy, he used a forged prescription slip to acquire pills for his anxiety disorder.

     Police officers searching Scott's apartment seized $35,000 in U.S. and Canadian currency. The Winnipeg officers also recovered $85,000 in gold and silver coins. In Scott's Jeep, searchers found a loaded .45-caliber handgun. The officers seized Scott's Jeep and Piper aircraft.

     On February 11, 2013, Scott, now 37, pleaded guilty in a Winnipeg court to possession of a firearm and a customs act charge for failing to report to border officials. Lest Scott stage a second suicide along the shore of a Canadian lake, the judge sentenced him on the spot to three years and three months in a Canadian prison.

     In Minnesota, on November 19, 2013, a federal judge presided over Scott's sentencing hearing pertaining to his May 2011 guilty plea. At that proceeding, Scott argued that if the judge gave him probation he'd be able to work and pay back the money he had stolen. The federal prosecutor countered that argument by labeling Scott a "manipulative person" who showed no remorse for his crime.

     The U.S. District judge sentenced Travis Scott to 12 years 8 months in prison and held him responsible for more than $11 million in restitution. 

The Heroin High

     The nearest I can come to explaining to someone who doesn't take illegal drugs the un-recapturable [I don't think this is a word] specialness of your first heroin high is to invoke the deep satisfaction of your first cup of coffee in the morning. Your subsequent coffees may be pleasant enough, but they're all marred by not being the first. And heroin use is one of the indisputable cases where the good old days really were the good old days. The initial highs did feel better than the drug will ever make you feel again.

     The chemistry of the drug is ruthless: it is designed to disappoint you. Yes, once in a while there's a night when you get exactly where you're trying to go. Magic. Then you chase that memory for a month. But precisely because you so want to get there it becomes harder and harder. Your mind starts playing tricks on you. Scrutinizing the high, it weakens. You wonder if you're quite as high as you should be. Ah for the good old days when heroin felt wonderful. If I had to offer up a one sentence definition of addiction, I'd call it a form of mourning for the irrecoverable glories of the first time.

Ann Marlowe, How To Stop Time, 1999

The "Saved By The Love Of A Good Woman" Theme in Romance Fiction

The theme of the man who is "saved by the love of a good woman" is common in both life and romance. In reality, savior complexes are dangerous because they encourage women to stay with abusive mates, but that is another story, one that belongs in "woman's fiction" rather than "romance." What matters in a romance context is that healing the wounded hero is a fantasy of incredible potency.

Mary Jo Putney in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, edited by Jayne Ann Krenz, 1992 

L. Frank Baum On Literary Fame

When I was young I longed to write a great novel that would win me fame. My first book, Mother Goose in Prose (1914) was written to amuse children. For, aside from my evident inability to do anything "great," I have learned to regard fame as the will-o-the-wisp which, when caught, is not worth the possession. But to please a child is a sweet and lovely thing that warms one's heart and brings it own reward.

L. Frank Baum in L. Frank Baum by Katharine M. Rogers, 2002 

Biographers And Their Subjects

Picasso was an awful man. I don't think you have to love your subject--initially you shouldn't--but writing a biography is like picking a roommate. After all you're going to be with that person every day, maybe for years, and why subject yourself to someone you have no respect for, or outright don't like?

David McCullough, The Paris Review, Fall 1999

Saturday, February 20, 2021

The Kyle Dube Murder Case

     On the night of May 12, 2013, in Glenburn, Maine, 15-year-old Nichole Cable left her parents' home to meet a friend down the road from her house. She was under the false belief that the message she had received on her Facebook page was from Bryan Butterfield. The high school sophomore did not return home. The morning following her disappearance, Nichole's mother reported her missing to the police.

     At the request of investigators, officials at Facebook traced the message ostensibly from Bryan Butterfield to a 20-year-old man named Kyle Dube who lived in his parents house in Orono, Maine. Detectives questioned Dube's girlfriend Sarah Mersinger who revealed that Dube had used the fake Facebook account to lure Nichole out of the house that night so that he could kidnap her.

     According to Kyle Dube's brother, the idea behind the abduction involved the kidnapper's plan to abduct the girl wearing a ski mask, then later play the hero by rescuing her. But something went wrong, and the victim ended up dead. Dube's brother told detectives that Kyle had dumped the body in the woods near the community of Old Town, Maine. The brother said that Kyle's sexual advances toward the 15-year-old had been rejected. Dube's harebrained kidnapping plot and phony rescue scheme was motivated by his desire to have sex with the girl.

     Police officers from a dozen police agencies, with the aid of cadaver dogs and hundreds of civilian volunteers, searched the woods near Old Town for Nichole's body. In the evening of May 20, 2013, one of the searchers came across the corpse.

     The next day, police officers arrested Kyle Dube on the charge of murder. In confessing to his interrogators, Dube said he had used the phony Facebook account to lure Nichole out of her parents' house. As she walked down the road to meet her friend Byran Butterfield, Dube hid in the woods wearing a ski mask. After ambushing the victim, Dube covered her mouth with tape and put her in the back of his father's pickup truck. When he checked on Nichole after driving to a remote spot near Old Town, Kyle discovered that she had died from suffocation. He left her body in the forest covered in branches.

     On May 22, 2013, a Penobscot County grand jury indicted Kyle Dube on the charge of murder. He was held in the county lock-up without bail.

     A trial jury, in March 2015, found Kyle Dube guilty of murder. Two months later, the judge sentenced him to sixty years in prison.

The Meaning of "Prima Facie"

Prima Facie is a Latin word that means "on its face," referring to a lawsuit or criminal prosecution in which the evidence before trial is sufficient to prove the case unless there is substantial contradictory evidence presented at trial. A prima facie case presented to a grand jury by the prosecution will result in an indictment. Example: in a charge of bad check writing, evidence of a half dozen checks written on a non-existent bank account makes it a prima facie case. However, proof that the bank had misprinted the account number on the checks might disprove the prosecution's apparent "open and shut" case.

law.com Legal Dictionary 

Michelle Obama's Bestseller

     If you want to work hard and make very little money, become a writer. For the vast majority of writers, even very good ones, that is the reality of book publishing and authorship. Another reality is this: in terms of income inequity, nothing tops the profession of book writing where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

     In America, while 95 percent of writers make far below the minimum wage, the top five percent--mostly celebrity memoirists--make the good money. And because they are not real writers, celebrities don't even have to write their own books. Most celebrity-"authored" memoirs are written by ghostwriters. (Believe it or not, celebrities have even published ghostwritten fiction.) This is not to say that all celebrity memoirs are bestsellers, but on the whole, compared to their no-name counterparts, they do quite well. Is this the way book publishing should work? No, but this is how things work in a capitalistic nation where celebrities are worshipped. (For example, while traditional journalism is dead, celebrity "journalism" flourishes.)

      In 2019, 27 percent of the adult population did not open one book. Although America is not a book reading country, it is a book writing country. Every year about 800,000 books are published, half of which are self-published. The average book, in its lifetime, sells less than 250 copies. A hardback book that sells 30.000 copies is considered a publishing success. In 2017, not one hardback book sold more than a million copies.

     And now, the unreality of book publishing. On November 13, 2018, Bertelsmann's Penguin Random House Division published Michelle Obama's memoir, Becoming: A Guided Journal For Discovering Your Voice. Written "with the help" of a ghostwriter, the 448-page celebrity memoir was released in 24 languages. For her efforts, Michelle Obama received a staggering $65 million advance. (The average commercial hardback book advance in the United States is a paltry $5,000. And these people write their own books. Talk about income inequality.) In publishing, the bigger the advance, the more the publisher has to spend promoting the book and its author. For this reason, the vast majority of writers have to promote their books themselves, and never experience a book tour.

     On the first day of its publication, Becoming, in the United States and Canada, sold 725,000 copies. Those sales shot the book to the top of every bestseller list in the country with a half a million copies to spare. Obama's was the second best first-day book launch in U.S. publishing history. (Bob Woodward's 2015 Fear: Trump in the White House, sold 900,000 on its first day.) In reality, there are not enough individual book buyers in the world to bring a publisher enough royalty money to cover a $65 million advance. 

     In America, if you want to become a bestselling memoirist without actually writing the book, become a celebrity loved by the masses and adored by the media. It's especially important to be adored by a media eager to promote you and your ghost-written memoir.

Truman Capote's Workday

I'm always quite nervous at the beginning of my workday. It takes me a great deal of time to get started. Once I get started, it gradually calms down a bit, but I'll do anything to keep postponing…Anyway, one way or another, I manage to write about four hours a day.

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

Romance Novels Written in The First Person

Many romance readers won't try a novel written in first-person, single person point of view. As romances go, it can be a challenge to reveal enough about the main character's love interest to make the romance seem convincing. In other words, to understand what that other person sees in the main character. What do you do to reveal these emotions to the reader?

Holly Cook, likesbooks.com, 2013