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Monday, February 28, 2022

The Pastor Danny Kirk Murder Case

     At eleven o'clock on Monday morning, October 29, 2012, in Forest Hill, a suburban town outside of Fort Worth, Texas, Derrick Birdow crashed his Ford Crown Victoria into the Greater Sweethome Missionary Baptist Church. The 850-member congregation was founded in 1995 by Reverend Danny Kirk, a former football star at East Texas State University.

     Shortly after the sedan smashed into the brick building, the 53-year-old pastor came out of the church to investigate the source of the commotion. He encountered 33-year-old Birdow who, after plowing into the structure, climbed out of his car apparently unhurt. With no warning, Birdow shoved Pastor Kirk against the car and began punching him in the head.

     John Whitaker, a church maintenance employee, when he saw a man punching the pastor, ran outside to help him. While Whitaker was able to punch the attacker several times, his blows didn't faze Birdow who broke away from the altercation and fled into the church with the pastor and the janitor in pursuit.

     The church secretary, aware that a crazy man had plowed his car into the building, attacked the pastor, and was now inside the church, locked herself in her office and called 911. "My pastor is bleeding, he's been attacked," she said. "I'm not going out there. I need help real fast. Send policemen. I do need an ambulance."

     The 911 dispatcher asked, "Does your pastor know him?"

     "I have no idea," answered the frightened secretary.

     Inside the church, Derrick Birdow ran to the music room where he grabbed an electric guitar. As John Whitaker turned a corner in the hallway, Birdow used the instrument to blindside him with two blows to the head. Seriously injured, Whitaker went down. Birdow then began beating Pastor Kirk with the guitar, turning the scene into a blood-bath.

     When officers with the Forest Hill Police Department burst into the church, they saw Birdow, covered in the minister's blood, beating him to death with the church musical instrument. One of the officers, through the use of a taser gun, subdued the crazed attacker enough to slap on the handcuffs. As the police hauled the violent intruder to a patrol car, he continued to resist. After placing the suspect into the back of the cruiser and returning to the church, the officers realized they had not arrived in time to save Reverend Danny Kirk. Derrick Birdow had beaten the pastor to death.  

     A short time later, a police officer checking on Birdow in the back of the patrol car, found him unresponsive. Paramedics arrived at the scene, couldn't find a pulse, and rushed him to the John Peter Smith Hospital where he was pronounced dead.

     In 2004, a Tarrant County judge had sentenced Derrick Birdow to a five-year prison sentence for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. Birdow had also been convicted in the county for the possession of controlled substances, DUI, and charges related to domestic violence. According to one of this man's relatives, Birdow had been having some "issues," and he hadn't "been himself." Birdow had also "been going through some stuff. He's not a happy dude." Derrick Birdow was not a member of Pastor Kirk's congregation, but his children may have attended the church. It was not known if Reverend Kirk and his killer were acquainted.

      In February 2013, Tarrant County Medical Examiner Dr. Nizam Peerwani ruled that Derrick Birdow had died of PCP ingestion.

     There should be no place more peaceful on a Monday morning in suburban Fort Worth than a Baptist church. But in America, when it comes to mayhem and murder, no place is off-limits. Nevertheless, the beating death of a Baptist minister at his own church by a man wielding an electric guitar, even by U.S. standards of drug-addled crime and mental illness, was more than unusual.

"The Falcon Thief"

     It's not easy to get into the mind of a notorious wild-bird trafficker--the kind of person who smuggles fertile peregrine falcon eggs by strapping them to his body, or dangles from a helicopter 700 feet over the sea so that he can skim an Arctic cliff face to raid white gyrfalcon nests.

     But Joshua Hammer's gripping The Falcon Thief  plunges us into the psyche of the wildlife thief and smuggler Jeffrey Lendrum. Lendrum is a villain who risks death, is repeatedly fined, serves prison time and uses all of his mental, physical and financial resources in pursuit of what the British ornithologist Tim Berkhead calls "the most perfect thing"--the egg--to sell to wealthy clients in the Middle East.

Suzanne Joinson, The New York Times Book Review, March 1, 2020

Police Involved Shootings: Context and perspective

Those who claim there's an epidemic of police involved shootings would be wise to look at the actual statistics. For instance, a five year study of San Francisco officer involved shootings culminating in 2010 found that about one in ten thousand arrests resulted in a police-related shooting. One in ten thousand. It's important to emphasize that we're talking actual arrests here, not mere citizen contacts or even detentions that don't lead to arrest. When you arrest someone, when you're trying to take their liberty away, it always brings with it the prospect of violence. And ask any street cop with some time in and he'll tell you about a host of times he could have justifiably used deadly force but elected not to. That's why cops bristle when they see some protestor screaming that cops are indiscriminately murdering people as he holds up a sign that says It Could be My Son Next. Sir, if your son comes at the police officer with a knife or a gun, then yes, God help him, he could be next. Otherwise, your boy has about as much chance of being murdered by the police as he has of dying while canoeing. The police are to uphold the sanctity of life whenever possible and must justify every bullet we fire. But when the public grossly overstates the problem, we all lose.

Adam Plantinga, Police Craft: What Cops Know About Crime, Community and Violence, 2018. 

Overdose Drugs

     On December 12, 2018, the U. S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), in its "National Vital Statistics Report," revealed that over the past several years, an average of 50,000 Americans die from drug overdoses each year. In 2017, 70,000 Americans died of drug overdose.

     According to the CDC report, the drugs most often listed on death certificates of people who overdosed are fentanyl, heroin, hydrocodine (Vicodin), methadone, morphine, oxycodone (OxyContin), alprazolam (Xanax), diazepam (Valium), cocaine, and methamphetamine.

Today's Mafia

There are about 3,000 Mafia members and affiliates in the U.S., the FBI estimates. In [Gambino family head Paul] Castellano's day there were double that number in the New York City area alone, yet the same five families--Gambino, Bonanno, Columbo, Genovese, and Luchese--have survived since Charles "Lucky" Luciano founded the Commission, the Mafia's governing body, in the early 1930s. Luciano helped establish the family structure, with dons and their captains managing associates who had yet to become "made men." There were 26 families during the mob's heyday in the 1950s, stretching from Boston, Providence, Buffalo, and Philadelphia through Al Capone's Chicago outfit to Hollywood and "Bugsy" Siegel's new frontier in Las Vegas. Today, the mob is concentrated around New York.

Staff, This Week, April 21, 2019

The Guillotine

If the laws are such that a person must die for the crimes he or she has committed, surely the most instantaneous and therefore the most merciful method is death by means of the guillotine. Execution by hanging is always open to doubt, the timespan between initial strangulation and final oblivion is not known. The sword and the axe allow too much leeway for the victim to flinch or the executioner to mis-aim. And even the multi-executioners of a firing squad cannot guarantee that at least one bullet will penetrate the heart. Most other methods are similarly flawed, whether they be by gas poisoning, electric chair or whatever. [Lethal drugs don't always get the job done properly either.] In other words, there is nothing so instantly final as a head severed by a machine.

Geoffrey Abbott, Lords of the Scaffold, 2001 

Sunday, February 27, 2022

The Death of Anneka Vasta: Hollywood Noir

     Anneka Vasta was born Marjorie Lee Thoreson in July 1952 in St. Paul, Minnesota. In 1973, she met and started dating Penthouse Magazine publisher Bob Guccione. Two years later, she became Guccione's Penthouse pet of the year, and in 1979, starred, as Anneka Di Lorenzo, in Guccione's soft-porn film, "Caligula."

     Vasta, in 1988, claiming that Guccione had compelled her to have sex with two of his business associates, sued him for sexual harassment. The jury, in 1990, awarded her $4 million, but an appeals court, on procedural grounds, vacated the award. In retaliation for the suit, Guccione reprinted photographs of Vasta and another woman in a lesbian love scene from "Caligula."

     In 2003, while living in Sherman Oaks, California, Vasta began suffering bouts of paranoia and anxiety. Seven years later, the recently divorced 58-year-old, now having financial problems, still struggled with mental illness.

     A pair of joggers, on January 4, 2011 discovered Vasta's naked body on a Marine training beach at Camp Pendleton in San Diego County. Agents with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) took control of the case. Shortly after the discovery of the corpse, investigators located the 59-year-old's Mazda at a popular scenic overlook along Interstate 5. Because her body could not have reached the water from this point, NCIS agents concluded that Vasta had not jumped off the sixty foot cliff.

     At autopsy, the forensic pathologist determined that while Vasta had a broken neck and back, she had drowned. The pathologist found, on Vasta's wrists, superficial cuts called "hesitation marks" that suggested half-hearted attempts at suicide. The body also revealed two shallow stab wounds to her chest. Vasta's body contained no traces of alcohol or drugs. The autopsy produced no evidence of sexual abuse.

     In the dead woman's car, searchers found blood-stained clothing--a blouse and a sports bra--inside a plastic bag. Investigators also found a steak knife bearing traces of her blood. The Mazda also contained Vasta's cellphone and purse. On the passenger's side floor investigators discovered Lithium and an empty Xanax bottle.

     Two days before the joggers came upon Vasta's body in the sand, she had rented a room at a Motel 6 on Raintree Drive near South Carlsbad State Beach. She had not checked out. Investigators found no evidence of violence or foul play in her motel room.

     Vasta's history of paranoia and anxiety, and the presence of the hesitation marks, suggested that she had killed herself. But, as in most suspicious death cases without eyewitnesses or obvious suspects, questions remained. For example, how did Vasta get from her car to the water? How did she receive the broken neck and back before drowning in the Pacific? Could these injuries been caused by the action of the ocean before her death?

     Anneka Vasta's life and sudden death--the star-struck gal from Minnesota, corrupted and abused by a sleazy Hollywood porn merchant--is the stuff of Los Angeles noir. It brings to mind the famous quote by novelist and screen writer Ben Hecht: "I knew her name--Madam Hollywood. I rose and said good-by to this strumpet in her bespangled red gown; good-by to her lavender-painted cheeks, her coarsened laugh, her straw-dyed hair, her wrinkled fingers bulging with gems. A wench with flaccid tits and a sandpaper skin under her silks; shined up and whistling like a whore in a park; covered with stink like a railroad station pissery and swinging a dead ass in the moonlight."

     On Tuesday, May 13, 2014, Anneka Vasta, having quickly faded from public consciousness, briefly surfaced in the media on the occasion of the death of a Swiss artist named H. R. Giger. The 74-year-old was best known for his design of the creature in Ridley Scott's science fiction film, "Alien." Internet articles regarding Giger's death from a fall featured him posing with Anneka Vasta in April 1980 at the opening of an art exhibition in New York City.  

The James Camb "No Body" Murder Case

In October 1947, ship's steward James Camb raped and murdered actress Gay Gibson aboard the Durban Castle out of South Africa. Although Camb disposed of his luckless victim out of one of the liner's portholes and the body was never found, fresh scratches on the suspect's arms and back indicated his involvement in a fierce struggle. Blood-flecked saliva on the pillow cover of Miss Gibson's bed was consistent with manual strangulation, and in situations of abject fear such as that Gay Gibson must have felt at the hands of her attacker, it is common for the bladder to empty--which accounted for the extensive urine staining on the bed. In March 1948, after the ship docked in Southampton, England, Camb was tried, convicted and sentenced to death.

Brian Lane, Chronicle of 20th Century Murder, 1993

The Atrocities of Hanging

Having resolved to be done with the vulgar populist spectacle of the public execution, the British Establishment decided to become demure to the point of obsession. Hangmen became more like anonymous civil servants; secrecy and discretion veiled the proceedings; pious little notes posted on the front gates of prisons where the only public notification that a "working-off" had taken place at all. Yet an assiduous reporter or attorney could compile a whole anthology of atrocity and indecency, lurking shadily behind this pretense. The hangman who took a little too much drink to steady his hand; the plastic underwear proffered to female victims; the rope that slipped and causes slow strangulation; the rope that was poorly judged and caused decapitation; the rope that broke; the second and third attempts to "work off" miscreants who didn't expire the first time.

Christopher Hitchens, Introduction to The Handbook of Hanging (2001 reprint of 1961 edition) by Charles Duff

Celebrity Suicides

At any given moment, thousands of people, perhaps tens of thousands, are contemplating suicide. While the vast majority of these people will not take their own lives, it doesn't help when the media reports a celebrity suicide in gruesome detail. Such reportage undoubtedly encourages some to convert suicidal thoughts into actual self destruction. While news organizations are not known for self-restraint, it would be nice if reporters were a little more sensitive to the negative effects of their coverage of such events.

Rejection

Authors always take rejection badly. They equate it with infanticide.

P. D. James, 2000

Saturday, February 26, 2022

The William Spengler Mass Murder-Suicide Case

     In past years, murder-suicide in the United States has accounted for about five percent of all criminal homicides. In 2011, 1,300 murderers, almost all of them men, took their own lives after killing their victims. A vast majority of murder-suicide victims are ex-girlfriends and estranged wives. These deadly  attacks regularly feature alcohol and drug intoxication, mental illness, depression, and a variety of personality disorders. In terms of motive, none of these killings make any sense to a rational person.

     Nationwide, murder-suicide has been on the rise. In a country steeped in a culture of violence that seems to be populated by a growing number of people who are unable to cope with modern life, this is hardly a surprise. Criminologists, psychologists, psychiatrists, politicians, and police administrators are clueless about how to reverse this trend. That's because nobody knows what's causing the drug addiction and mental instability, or what it is that's making disturbed people so murderous and self-destructive. 

     In the annals of crime, 2012 might be remembered as the beginning of an era of the killing spree culminated with the self-inflicted death of the murderer. That year, eighteen men, after murdering three or more people, killed themselves. The following homicidal rampage took place on December 24, 2012 in upstate New York.

William Spengler: The Suicidal Sniper

     In 1980, 33-year-old William Spengler lived in the suburban Rochester area town of Webster, New York with his mother Arline and his 92-year-old grandmother. They resided in a middle-class home in a neighborhood of seasonal and year-round houses on a narrow Lake Ontario peninsula. Shortly after William's grandmother was found dead at the foot of their basement stairs, the Monroe County district attorney charged Spengler with first-degree murder. William confessed to beating his grandmother to death with a hammer. (Since rational people don't bludgeon their grandmothers to death, the motive behind this murder was pathological, and therefore beyond rational comprehension.)

     Because Spengler agreed to plead guilty, the prosecutor lowered the murder charge to manslaughter. The judge sentenced the defendant to eight to 25 years in prison. (The prosecutor may have been worried about a successful not guilty by reason of insanity defense.)

     In 1997, after serving 16 years behind bars, Spengler attended his first parole hearing. The inmate, when he learned at the proceeding that his presence at the hearing was not mandatory, said this to the parole panel: "Then it's not worth the time and effort." The parole officials denied Spengler his release. Since he hadn't expected to get out of prison, this was no surprise. The surprise came six months later when these same officials granted Spengler his supervised release. The man who had murdered a 92-year-old woman walked out of prison in 1998 after serving two-thirds of his maximum sentence. (In the American system of criminal justice, there are very few crimes that the government doesn't forgive. Judges and penologists seem hostile to the punishment rationale justifying sentencing and incarceration. In cases like this, whether or not the murderer has been rehabilitated should be irrelevant.)

     In 2006, while residing with his mother Arline and his older sister Cheryl in the dwelling next door to the house where he had murdered his grandmother, Spengler's term of supervised parole expired. Because he was a convicted felon, Spengler, under New York law, was not allowed to possess any kind of gun.

     In October 2012, Spengler's mother Arline passed away. Although he hated his 67-year-old sister Cheryl, Spengler had loved and doted on his mother. Since his parole in 1998, the gaunt, bearded loner had lived a quiet, uneventful life in the house across the road from Lake Ontario. Because of his low profile, very few people in the town of 43,000 knew he existed. After Arline's death, William, in possession of a small arsenal that included handguns, rifles, shotguns, and a lot of ammunition, began planning arson, mass murder, and suicide. Spengler's years of living in obscurity would soon come to an end.

     Two hours before dawn on December 24, 2012, the 62-year-old ex-felon torched his house and set fire to his car. In possession of a .223-caliber Bushmaster rifle, a .38-caliber Smith and Wesson revolver, and a Mossberg pump-action 12-gauge shotgun, Spengler took up a position behind a small hill not far from his burning house. It was from here he planned to ambush the first responders to the fires he had started.

     At 5:35 that morning, two members of the West Webster Volunteer Fire Department rolled up to the blaze in a firetruck. Spengler used his .223-caliber semi-automatic Bushmaster to kill 19-year-old Tomasz Kaczowka and his firefighting partner Michael Chiapperini, 43. When John Ritter, an off-duty officer with the Greece, New York Police Department pulled his car alongside the firetruck in an effort to shield the two firefighters, Spengler shot and wounded him. Two firefighters who arrived at the scene in their own vehicles, Joseph Hofstetter and Theodore Scardina, were also wounded by the sniper on the hill.

     An hour or so later, the four firefighters and the wounded police officer where taken out of the line of fire by a SWAT operated armored vehicle. As the Spengler house fire began to spread to other homes, SWAT officers used the armored truck to evacuate 33 residents of the neighborhood. Amid all of the confusion, William Spengler slipped away. Before it was all over, seven homes burned to the ground.

     At eleven o'clock that morning, police officers found William Spengler dead on a nearby beach. He had used one of his guns to shoot himself in the head. From a few feet from his body officers recovered a typed, three-page, rambling suicide note that contained the line: "I still have to get ready to see how much of the neighborhood I can burn down, and do what I like doing best, killing people."

     On Christmas day, arson and homicide investigators found Cheryl Spengler's charred remains in the fire debris. A forensic pathologist determined that Spengler's sister had been killed before the fire.

Hard Cases

When a detective looks back on a life of crime fighting, it is natural that the hard cases, the big mysteries, the complex investigations, are those that are remembered best…Crime is seldom simple and the harder the case, the more impact it makes on your life.

Les Brown and Robert Jeffrey, Real Hard Cases, 2006

The Omnipotent Serial Killer

Many a serial murderer develops a sense that he cannot be caught, especially if the authorities have missed all of the clues he has inadvertently or sometimes even intentionally left behind. This feeling intensifies when he appears to have momentarily triumphed over the authorities. He develops an attitude of personal omnipotence: he has committed the ultimate crime and gotten away with it, and the evidence seems to show him that he can continue to do so. This attitude is critical to his success and to his downfall. It keeps him going for a long time, but eventually it makes him become careless; that is the point at which he is usually caught.

Robert K. Ressler and Tom Shactman, I Have Lived in the Monster, 1997

What's Happening to America's Children?

Children are struggling. Over the past decade, cases of anxiety increased by 20 percent or more. Rates of suicide and suicidal thinking have risen sharply among young people of all ages--including, horrifyingly, children under 11. Scholars debate why this is happening--plausible culprits include social media, video gaming, helicopter parenting, school shootings and lockdown drills, overwhelming college pressure, and both the over-and under-prescribing of medication. [COVID fears, mask wearing, and gender and racial politics have added to the problem.]

Scott Stossell, The New York Times Book Review, October, 6, 2019

Literary Biography

It is no accident that the popularity of literary biography has increased most notably in the past century and a half, a period which has also been marked by a growing sense that the artist as a person is detached from society, indeed a special kind of person quite apart from the common run of men.

Richard D. Altick, Lives and Letters, 1965 

Friday, February 25, 2022

The Shannon Kepler Murder Case

     Shannon Kepler and his wife Gina joined the Tulsa Police Department as patrol officers on August 13, 1990. He was  30-years-old and she was 24. In 2002, the childless couple adopted 6-year-old Lisa.

    Lisa Kepler, diagnosed with a personality disorder called reactive detachment, became a difficult child. Due to her behavioral problems the parents, over the years, spent thousands of dollars on various programs, camps, and therapy. None of this treatment altered the girl's anti-social behavior. By 2014, the parents were at their wit's end. They simply had no control over their 18-year-old daughter.

     On July 30, 2014, the fed-up parents, in hopes that a dose of reality might prompt Lisa to change her ways, kicked her out of the house. They dropped her off at a homeless shelter in downtown Tulsa.

     While living at the homeless shelter, Lisa met 19-year-old Jeremey Lake. Shortly thereafter, Lisa moved into Lake's parents' house in north Tulsa. On August 5, 2014, Lisa and Jeremy announced their romantic relationship on Facebook.

     That Tuesday night, August 5, 2014, at nine-fifteen, Shannon Kepler pulled up in front of Jeremy Lake's house where he encountered Lisa and her boyfriend walking along the street. Following an exchange of angry words the police officer shot at Lake three times then allegedly turned his gun on his daughter and fired three more times. Lisa escaped injury, but the boy died on the spot. After the shooting, Officer Kepler drove off in his SUV.

     Not long after the shooting, a Tulsa police officer spoke on the phone to Gina Kepler who said that she and her husband planned to turn themselves in. She said she'd leave the gun in the trunk of her car.

     Accompanied by an attorney, Shannon Kepler and his 48-year-old wife surrendered at police headquarters. (Mrs. Kepler had been charged with accessory to murder after the fact.) On the advice of their lawyer, the couple did not agree to interrogations.

     Officers booked the Keplers into the Tulsa County Jail. The 54-year-old police officer and instructor at the Tulsa Police Academy faced charges of first-degree murder and shooting with intent to kill.

     The judge denied the suspects bond, and the chief of police suspended the couple with pay. Mr. Kepler entered a plea of not guilty based on a claim of self defense.

     A few days after the arrests of her parents, Lisa Kepler spoke to a local television reporter. Regarding her dead boyfriend she said, "He was just really sweet and caring and he didn't pretend. I've known him a week. He was everything. He gave me a place to stay, food to eat, and a bed to sleep in. He meant a lot to me and dad came and took him away."

     On August 22, 2014, the defendants made bail and were released from custody. They had both been fired from the Tulsa Police Department.

     The Kepler murder trial was delayed several times due to a series of procedural motions filed by the defense involving claims that the judge and the case prosecutor were biased against the defendant. The motions were denied.

     In 2015, 2016, and 2017, Shannon Kepler went on trial for murder three times, and three times the juries were deadlocked on a verdict.

     A fourth jury, on October 19, 2017, found Shannon Kepler guilty of first-degree manslaughter. On November 20, 2017, Tulsa County District Judge Sharon Holmes sentenced him to 15 years in prison. 

     In 2017, the Tulsa County prosecutor dropped the accessory after the fact charge against Gina Kepler, and in December 2019, following arbitration, she was re-instated as a Tulsa police officer.

The Burned Out Social Worker

The greatest occupational hazard to people working with criminals [counselors, social workers, and parole agents] is not physical attack. More serious is a rapid burnout of enthusiasm, commitment, and interest. Mention the word "burnout" to people in corrections, and they will solemnly nod. Increasing numbers of idealistic, genuinely concerned young Americans are entering corrections, eager to do a good job. Almost immediately, they confront a huge array of obstacles for which they are poorly prepared. Despite the fact that their clients are difficult people, they [the social workers] think they are expected to accomplish what parents, teachers, employers, clergymen, and others failed at for years.

Dr. Stanton E. Sanenow, Inside the Criminal Mind, 1984

Manner of Death Mistakes

    Death cases aren't always what they appear to be. A recent American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology article analyzed a decade's worth of death investigations in Fulton County [Atlanta], Georgia. The researchers found that death investigators and forensic pathologists disagreed on the manner of death in 12 percent of those cases. Twenty times, death investigators overlooked evidence such as strangulation marks, bullet wounds, and knife wounds and recorded those cases as natural or accidental deaths, only to have the pathologists conduct autopsies and discover that they were homicides. In one case, a driver inadvertently struck a pedestrian. The collision was tying up traffic and it was raining, so the investigator did a perfunctory examination before removing the body and classifying it as an accident. Pathologists later identified multiple gunshot wounds to the victim's head. By then, valuable time and evidence were lost.

     Alternately, in twenty-one cases, death investigators reported homicides that proved to be accidents, suicides, or natural deaths.

John Temple, Deathhouse, 2005

The Smell of Death

If you've ever caught the scent of decaying flesh, you haven't forgotten it. The thickly sweet odor of decay is almost overwhelming, especially on a hot day, even to someone accustomed to it. It makes you salivate, and your mouth takes on the sour, metallic taste you'd get from sucking on a copper penny. People sometimes try to use another scent to mask the stench. I tried to mask the odor with skin lotion that I applied to the inside of my mask, but it didn't work. The result was worse than its failure to work; I came to associate the pleasant scent of the lotion with the awful odor of death. Olfactory memory is said to be the strongest of all sensual memories.

Robert Mann, Ph.D. and Miryam Ehrlich Williamson, Forensic Detective, 2006      

Mental Illness Memoirs

The memoirs of the mentally ill are full of confused action, failed promise, and grinding pain; they do not tend to make good narratives.

Dr. Alice W. Flaherty, The Midnight Disease, 2004 

Thursday, February 24, 2022

Darren Deon Vann: Serial Prostitute Killer

     In 2005, Darren Deon Vann, a registered sex offender in Indiana, moved to Austin, Texas. Two years later a prosecutor in Texas charged Vann with aggravated rape. After pleading guilty to that charge in 2009, the judge sent the rapist to prison where he served five years. Upon his release from the Texas penitentiary in June 2013, the 42-year-old sex offender returned to northern Indiana. At some point the ex-Marine acquired a wife.

     On Friday October 17, 2014, through a website that served the Chicago area called backpage.com, Vann arranged to meet a prostitute at a Motel 6 in Hammond, Indiana, a town ten miles west of Gary. The website "facilitator" sent 19-year-old Afrika Hardy to the motel to meet the john. Hardy had recently moved to Indiana from Aurora, Colorado where she had recently graduated from high school.

     When the prostitution facilitator texted Hardy to check on the progress of the trick, the message that came back caused the facilitator to believe that it hadn't been sent by Hardy. The facilitator and another woman went to the motel to check on the prostitute. In the motel room they found signs of a struggle, and in the bathtub, Hardy's dead body.

     Officers with the Hammond Police Department responded to the murder scene. (The Lake County coroner would later report that Hardy had been strangled to death.) Using a phone number provided by the website facilitator, detectives tracked down the john, Darren Deon Vann.

     On Friday October 17, 2014, in Gary, Indiana, police officers arrested Vann who said he wanted to cooperate with the authorities in hopes of making a deal. In the early morning hours of the next day, Vann led detectives to three abandoned houses in Gary where they found the bodies of three women. Vann said he had strangled these prostitutes to death.

     Anith Jones, 35, from Merrillville, Indiana, was the only Gary murder victim who had been reported missing. She had disappeared on October 8, 2014. Jones had moved to Indiana from Chicago ten years earlier and had operated a stand at a Gary flea market. It would later be determined that Jones had been murdered by ligature strangulation.

     The other two murder victims discovered on Saturday October 18, 2014--Teaira Batey, 28 and 36-year-old Christine Williams--had also been strangled to death and found in abandoned houses in the blighted Gary neighborhood. Vann had killed his victims elsewhere and deposed of their bodies in the vacant, sometimes fire-damaged homes.

     Later that Saturday night, Darren Vann led Gary police detectives to three more female bodies left to decompose in vacant houses.

     A local Indiana prosecutor, on October 20, 2014, charged Darren Vann with the murder of Afrika Hardy at the Motel 6 in Hammond. In his on-going discussions with homicide investigators, Vann confessed to the murders of women that went back twenty years. At this point in the case, it was anybody's guess how many women this man has murdered. Vann's wife told detectives that she had no idea she was married to a serial killer.

    The prosecutor in charge of the Vann murder case announced that he would seek the death penalty.

     Due to Darren Vann's legal challenge of Indiana's death penalty law, his trial was postponed four times. By 2017, he had been charged with killing and beheading seven women. The Indiana prosecutor hoped to bring the serial killer to trial sometime in 2018.

     On May 25, 2018, to avoid the death sentence, Darren Vann pleaded guilty to murdering seven women. The judge sentenced him to life without parole. Investigators believed that Vann had murdered at least another eleven women.

The Film "Natural Born Killers"

     In the movie, "Natural Born Killers," Mickey (Woody Harrelson) and Mallory (Juliette Lewis)--fall in love, engage in a bloody killing spree in public places like convenience stores and restaurants, and gain fame as a result. The film garnered international attention because of its excessively graphic and violent content. Director Oliver Stone stated in a New York Times article on April 14, 1996, "The most pacifistic people in the world said they came out of this movie and wanted to kill somebody."

     To date, the most deadly school shooting in America by a teen was influenced by "Natural Born Killers." Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed thirteen people and wounded twenty-four others on April 20, 1999, in Littleton, Colorado. The two disturbed teens were fascinated with Nazi beliefs, weapons, and pipe bombs, and were heavily involved in violent video games such as "Doom" and music like KMFDM. They watched "Natural Born Killers" more than fifty times and even named their killing spree in the film's honor--"the holy April morning of NBK" [Natural Born Killers].

Phil Chalmers, Inside the Mind of a Teen Killer, 2009 

The Lizzie Borden House

      The house at 230 Second Street in Fall River, Massachusetts, the place where, in 1892, Lizzie Borden was accused of using a hatchet to murder her father Andrew and her stepmother Abby, is one of America's most infamous and historic crime scenes. In 1893, against strong evidence to the contrary, a jury of twelve men found Lizzie Borden not guilty of the double murder. Since then, true crime buffs have argued over this result as well as the identity of the killer. The case has been the subject of dozens of books and countless articles and scholarly papers. 

     Lizzie Borden died in 1927. From 1948 to 2018, the famous house on Second Street, owned by Martha McGinn who inherited it from her grandparents, operated as a museum and bed and breakfast. In 2018, the house was purchased by Donald Woods and Lee Ann Wilber.

     In September 2020, the Borden house was put up for sale. The asking price: $890,000.

Jack Abbott On Prison Violence

I know how to live through anything they could possibly dish up for me. I've been subjected to strip-cells, blackout cells, been chained to the floor and wall; I've lived through the beatings, of course; every drug science has invented to "modify" my behavior--I have endured. Starvation was once natural to me; I have no qualms about eating insects in my cell or living in my body wastes if it means survival. They've even armed psychopaths and put them in punishment cells with me to kill me, but I can control that. When they say "what doesn't destroy me makes me stronger," that is what they mean. But it's a mistake to equate the results with being strong. I'm extremely flexible, but I'm not strong. I'm weakened, in fact. I'm tenuous, shy, introspective, and suspicious of everyone. A loud noise or a false movement registers like a four-alarm fire in me. But I am not afraid--and that is strange, because I care very much about someday being set free. I want to cry when I think that I'll never be free. I want to cry for my brothers I've spent a lifetime with. Someday I will leave them and never return. [After the publication of his prison memoir, Abbott was paroled. Not long after he got out, this psychopathic time-bomb murdered a waiter in New York City. So Abbott did leave his prison brothers for awhile, but he came back to them after a short period of freedom. Assuming that his prison memoir is true, Abbott, though his violent behavior, invited the institutional violence directed against him. He couldn't live without violence in prison or out.]

Jack Henry Abbott, In The Belly of the Beast, 1981  

Charles Bukowski On His Legacy

I was thinking about the world without me. There is the world going on doing what it does. And I'm not there. Very odd. Think of the garbage truck coming by and picking up the garbage and I'm not there. Or the newspaper sits in the drive and I'm not there to pick it up. Impossible. And worse, some time after I'm dead, I'm going to be truly discovered. All those who were afraid of me or hated me when I was alive will suddenly embrace me. My words will be everywhere. Clubs and societies will be formed. It will be sickening. A movie will be made of my life. I will be made a much more courageous and talented man than I am. Much more. It will be enough to make the gods puke. The human race exaggerates everything: its heroes, its enemies, its importance.

Charles Bukowski, The Captain Is Out To Lunch And The Sailors Have Taken Over The Ship

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

The Crystal Mangum Murder Case

      In 2006, 27-year-old Crystal Mangum claimed that three Duke University lacrosse players gang-raped her at a team party. The students had hired her as a stripper. The case grabbed national headlines because the accused were privileged young white men and the victim was working-class black.

     When it became obvious that Mangum had fabricated her story of rape, North Carolina's attorney general declared the three Duke students innocent. The case ruined the career of Mike Nifong, the politically ambitious Durham County prosecutor who had championed Mangum's false allegations. The state bar association disbarred Nifong for his bad faith and overzealous prosecution of the innocent college students. The Duke Lacrosse case represented what can happen when politics and race override the pursuit of justice.

     Another Durham County prosecutor, in February 2010, charged Crystal Mangum with attempted murder in connection with a row she had with her live-in boyfriend. According to the victim, she trashed his car then set fire to a pile of his clothes. At the time of the fire, children were in the apartment.

     Just before the trial, the prosecutor replaced the attempted murder charge with felony-arson and contributing to the abuse of minors. In December 2010, a jury found Mangum guilty of the child abuse charge after failing to reach a consensus on the felony-arson count. The judge sentenced Mangum to the amount of time she had served in jail awaiting trial.

   A 911 operator in Durham, North Carolina, on April 3, 2011, received an emergency call from the nephew of a 46-year-old man named Reginald Daye. Mr. Daye, Mangum's boyfriend, shared an apartment with her. The 911 caller said, "It's Crystal Mangum. The Crystal Mangum! I told him [Daye] she was trouble from the damn beginning!"

    According to this 911 caller, Mr. Daye needed emergency medical assistance. Crystal Mangum had stabbed him with a kitchen knife.

     Paramedics rushed Reginald Daye to Duke University Hospital where he underwent emergency surgery to repair the knife wound. Police officers arrested Mangum that day at a nearby apartment. Charged with assault with a deadly weapon with the intent to kill, the police booked Mangum into the Durham County Jail. The magistrate set her bond at $300,000.

     Ten days after his surgery Reginald Daye died from the knife attack. The prosecutor immediately upgraded the charge against Mangum to first-degree murder.

     In February 2013, Mangum gained temporary freedom after someone posted her bond. Acting as her own attorney, she claimed she had killed Reginald Daye in self defense.

     By the time the Mangum murder case went to trial on November 11, 2013, the accused had acquired the services of two defense attorneys. Assistant District Attorney Charlene Franks, in her opening remarks before the jury, said that the defendant, armed with a kitchen knife, had chased the victim down. Ten days later he died from his wounds.

     According to the defense version of the case, Mangum, to protect herself against an enraged and jealous boyfriend, locked herself in the bathroom. When Daye kicked down the door and started beating her, she used the kitchen knife to "poke him in the side." According to the defense, Daye had died not from the stabbing but from complications arising from his surgery.

     On November 22, 2013, the jury, after a six-hour deliberation, rejected Mangum's version of the events leading up to Reginald Daye's violent death. The panel found the defendant guilty of second-degree murder. The judge sentenced Mangum to a minimum 14 years in prison. At maximum, she could spend 18 years behind bars.

     If Crystal Mangum is released after serving her minimum sentence, she will walk out of prison in 2027 at age 48. If she conducts herself behind bars like she has lived her life on the outside, she's in for a difficult 14 years.

The O.J. Simpson Jury

The makeup of the Simpson jury kept changing. Three jurors were gone, replaced by alternates. A sixty-three-year old white woman was replaced by a fifty-four-year-old black man after she allegedly became involved in a shoving match with another juror, and accused several black jurors of being pro-O.J. Despite subsequent denials by the court and the white juror concerning the event, the daily admonishment of Judge Ito to the jury not to discuss the case among themselves seemed not to be very effective. The resulting jury consisted of nine blacks, one white, one Hispanic, and one person of mixed race. [As they say, the rest is history.]

Dominick Dunne, Justice, 2001

Dealing In Stolen Goods

     The fence conveys the thief's stolen goods beyond the reach of the long arms of the law and into the hands of the more or less--and usually less--legitimate businessmen. He sells the merchandise to the businessman at a price less than the businessman can obtain elsewhere, and returns to the thief a percentage of the take in a shorter period of time than the thief could unload the goods. The fence's role is to serve two different masters; the key to his success is that he comes out on top of them both.

     The fence is the underworld's indispensable man. The businessman can purchase the hot goods without ever having to confront on a face-to-face basis the thief or hijacker; and the thief never has to expose himself to the businessman, who in the event of a police investigation might be the first to break down.

     The good fence is a man of a thousand connections.

Thomas Plate, Crime Pays! 1975 

Forensic Botany

One thing I tell police frequently is this: If you get a call of somebody breaking into a house, and you see somebody walking down the street as you pull up, as you question him, ask to see the cuffs of his pants. If he's climbed through a hedge or walked through a yard--most people have weeds around. Weeds get around in lots of clever ways; they often have little sticky parts that adhere to you shoes, or your shoelaces, or your pants cuffs, or they land in a pants cuff. If the suspect says, "Oh, I got those in my grandmother's yard," those particular weeds may not be there. So we've hooked people to certain crime sites though what kind of weeds have gotten stuck to them. Almost no one can lie about plant evidence.

Forensic botanist, in Crime Scene by Connie Fletcher, 2006 

Selecting a Genre

 I think a lot of aspiring writers get misdirected; they think "I ought to write this even though I enjoy reading that." What you have to do is write what you enjoy reading. 

Jeffrey Deaver, American crime novelist, 1998

Tuesday, February 22, 2022

The Darrin Campbell Triple-Murder-Suicide

     In the mid-1980s, Darrin Campbell, a business major at the University of Michigan, met his future wife Kimberly, a student at Central Michigan University. They both worked in Lansing as aides in the Michigan state legislature. She graduated from college, and he went on to earn a master's degree in business administration.

     In 2004, the couple and their son Colin and daughter Megan moved from San Antonio, Texas to Tampa, Florida where Darrin had an executive position in finance with a large corporation. In 2012, Darrin and Kimberly sold their house for $750,000. They moved into a $1 million rental mansion owned by a former professional tennis player named James Blake.

     The Blake-owned estate featured a 6,000-square foot, five-bedroom house, a swimming pool and spa, and several tall palm trees. Located in Avila, a gated community known for its resident sports figures and CEO's, the mansion rented for $5,000 a month. At this point in his career, Darrin Campbell worked as a business executive for VASTEC, a Tampa based digital records company.

     Darrin and his family settled into the lavish lifestyle expected of residents of this exclusive community. They drove fancy cars, the children attended an expensive private school, they bought all-year passes to Disney World, and spent a lot of money decorating their home for Christmas.

     While on the surface, the Campbell family represented prosperity and the American dream come true, Darrin had plunged them deep into debt. He owed back taxes on a vacant lot in Odessa, Texas that he had purchased for $294,000 in 2006. The tuition cost of sending Colin and Megan to the Carrollwood Day School amounted to $37,000 a year. Darrin had maximized his credit card limits, and couldn't see a way out of the financial hole. The stress of living a lie broke him down. His American dream had become a nightmare.

     In July 2013, Darrin purchased a .40-caliber Sig Sauer handgun from Shooters World, a gun store and shooting range in Tampa. Less than a year later, on May 4, 2014, he purchased $650 worth of fireworks at a Tampa area Phantom Fireworks outlet. He told the fireworks clerk he was filling out his Fourth of July shopping list. Shortly after picking up the fireworks, Darrin bought several gasoline containers.

     At five-forty-five on the morning of Wednesday, May 7, 2014, a resident of the Avila community called 911 to report a fire and explosion at the Campbell home. The fire and subsequent explosion almost completely demolished the structure. In the course of determining the cause and origin of the blaze, investigators discovered the charred remains of two adults and two children. The bodies were presumed to be Darrin and Kimberly Campbell and their 18-year-old son Colin, and their 15-year-old daughter, Megan.

     The Hillsborough County medical examiner, a few days after the fire, confirmed the identifies of the victims. According to the forensic pathologist who performed the autopsies, all of the victims had been shot to death.

     On Friday, May 9, 2014, Hillsborough County Sheriff's Colonel Donna Lusczynski held a press conference in which she characterized the four Campbell deaths as a case of murder-suicide. According to officer Lusczynski, Darrin Campbell, after murdering his wife and two children with the Sig Sauer handgun, had placed fireworks around the house, poured gasoline on the bodies, then lit a match. At that point he shot himself to death. 

The Lufthansa Heist

     On December 11, 1978, armed mobsters stole $5 million in cash and nearly $1 million in jewels from a Lufthansa airlines vault at JFK Airport [Queens, New York] in what would be for decades the biggest-ever heist on U.S. soil. And until the arrest of Vincent Asaro on January 23, 2014, the crime went without a single wiseguy criminally charged.

     The theft became legendary after mastermind James "Jimmy the Gent" Burke killed off one crew member after another to avoid being ratted out to the cops. Martin Scorsese immortalized the theft in his 1990 film "Goodfellas," based on Nicholas Pileggi's book, Wiseguy. Burke, who died of cancer in prison in 1996, was the inspiration for Robert DeNiro's character, Jimmy Conway.

Larry Celono and Bob Fredericks, New York Post, January 24, 2014

The Presumption of Innocence

     Probably the least questioned and most believed government lie is also the most famous maxim of the American judicial system: that all persons are presumed "innocent until proven guilty" beyond a reasonable doubt. This presumption of innocence is a standard taught to the youngest of school children and which the government hails as a founding principle of justice because it presumes that, like the oft-repeated Lord Justice William Blackstone ratio, "Better that ten guilty persons escape than one innocent suffer."

     Of course, "innocent until proven guilty" has been at the core of Western judicial systems since biblical times. We are indoctrinated so thoroughly that the average person rarely considers whether the phrase is true or not. Yet when we carefully examine the system, we find that it does not function as the government would like us to believe. Beneath the surface of various platitudes, the falsity of the presumption of innocence becomes readily apparent.

Judge Andrew P. Napolitano, Lies The Government Tells You, 2010

Forensic Anthropology

     A forensic anthropologist is not a medical doctor, though he has a Ph.D. and has studied anthropology in college. We specialize in the human skeletal system, its changes through life, its changes across many lifetimes, and its variations around the world. We are part of the larger field of physical anthropology, or biological anthropology as it is known today, which is concerned overall with the human body and all its variations. My specialty, physical anthropology, is distinct from other fields such as cultural anthropology and archaeology.

     My field of expertise is the human skeleton. Though some pathologists insist on doing their own skeletal examinations along with autopsies, I can confidently say that there are very few cases in which a forensic anthropologist--someone like me--could not add a great deal of useful information to what a pathologist can discover. I have had pathologists exclaim frankly in my hearing, when confronted with a skeleton: "Gee, I'm not used to looking at these without the meat on them!"

Dr. William R. Maples, Dead Men Do Tell Tales, 1994

Harry Potter

Harry Potter, like many heroes of fantasy, is endearing because he is rather ordinary. Surrounded by magic, he is the quintessential young, insecure schoolboy, seeking friendship from peers and respect from adults, learning to trust others, trying to stand up for what he thinks is right. While engaging in ongoing struggles with evil creatures of darkness, he is also fond of sports, wizard trading cards, and jelly beans. In the best of fantasy, the world is infused with magic--but victory comes in the end, after all is said and done, from very human values of faith, courage and perseverance.

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

Monday, February 21, 2022

Murder Ink: The Incriminating Tattoo

     Street gang members love their tattoos, and criminal investigators, because these tattoos help identify perpetrators and solve crimes, love them, too. As an extreme example of how a gangster's tattoos led to his arrest and conviction, consider the historic Anthony Garcia murder case.

     On January 23, 2004, Anthony Garcia, a member of the Rivera-13 gang with the street name "Chopper," shot to death John Juarez, a member of a rival gang. The murder took place in Ed's Liquor Store in Pico Rivera, a city eleven miles southeast of Los Angeles. The case remained unsolved until 2008.

     In September 2008, Anthony Garcia was picked up for driving with a suspended driver's license. Because he was a known gang member, a police photograph took pictures of the tattoos on Garcia's chest and neck.

     Not long after Garcia's traffic arrest, Pico Rivera detective Kevin Lloyd, while looking through books of gang tattoo photographs in the course of investigating an unrelated case, came upon the photographs of the Garcia tattoos. What the detective saw triggered his memory of the 2004 liquor store murder of John Juarez.

     Anthony Garcia had, tattooed on his chest and neck, a tableau of the Juarez murder. The inked depiction included the front of Ed's Liquor Store, the bent light post in the parking lot, a man identified as "Chopper" shooting bullets into a Mr. Peanut figure (the gangland symbol of a rival gang member), and a dead body on the floor. "Rivera Kills" was inked into the side of Garcia's neck.

     Detective Lloyd considered Anthony Garcia's tattoos a "crime scene sketch and a confession."

     In 2009, a Los Angeles County prosecutor, based on the incriminating tattoo and other evidence, charged Anthony Garcia with the first-degree murder of rival gang member John Juarez. Officers also arrested Rivera-13 gang member Robert Armijo as Garcia's getaway driver.

     In 2010, Robert Armijo pleaded guilty to a lesser homicide offense, and in April 2011, testified against Garcia at his murder trial. The jury found Garcia guilty as charged. The judge sentenced him to life in prison without the possibility of parole. 

Al Capone's Mansion

     The home of the most notorious gangster in American history could be yours--provided you can meet the asking price of more than $8 million. The Miami Beach waterfront home of Al Capone is back on the market, approximately six months after it was purchased for $7.4 million.

     Capone bought the home for $40,000 in 1928 after being forced to leave his former stomping grounds of Chicago and Los Angeles. He is said to have plotted the 1929 St. Valentine's Day Massacre, in which seven members of a rival Chicago gang were murdered after being lured into an ambush disguised as a liquor [delivery at a Chicago gangster's garage].

     Capone spent his final years at the Palm Island mansion after serving eight years in federal prison for tax evasion. He died in 1947. After extensive restoration work, the house was put back on the market in 2011. [In October 2021, Capone's 6,077 square foot home sold for $15.5 million.]

"Make an Offer: Al Capone's Miami Mansion Goes on the Market," Fox News, February 9, 2014 

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

     The post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a fairly recent entry in psychiatric terminology; in fact, it was only officially recognized with the publication of the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Disorders in 1980, known as DSM-III. In World Wars I and II, there had been what was known to laymen as "shell shock" and to mental health professions as "combat neurosis," a battlefield condition in which men become too traumatized to function properly. A fairly large proportion of discharges from the army were due to this condition, and the problem remains a serious one for all those who participate in combat, with its attendant horrors and stresses.

     During the 1950s when DSM-I was published, there was a condition referred to as "transient situational disorder," which was sometimes used to encompass battlefield stress. It was the initials TSD that were lifted from this previous neurosis and made to fit a condition that seemed to have sprung up in American survivors of the war in Vietnam, and which became known as PTSD--or, in layman's terms, "the Vietnam syndrome."

     I had discovered, over the years, that while there were people who really did suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder--had difficulty in living normal lives after returning from the brink of death experienced either in war or as a result of some other traumatic event--many other claims of PTSD were just a lot of poppycock, a form of malingering. The diagnosis of PTSD had become fashionable in certain psychiatric circles, mainly those that dealt with people in and out of veterans' hospitals. Other psychiatrists, just as well qualified, who also dealt with veterans had not seen many genuine cases. Also, the United States had been involved in several traumatic wars earlier in this century, and while there had been a few diagnosed cases of what was then called battlefield shock, most of the people who did experience these sort of shocks recovered and went on to lead normal lives. Could the experience of fighting in Vietnam have been worse than the experience of fighting in Korea? Or in Europe or the Pacific Islands during World War II? Were American servicemen of the 1960s and 1970s so much more emotionally fragile that those who served in earlier conflicts?

Robert K. Ressler and Tom Schachtman, I Have Lived in the Monster, 1997    

History of the Gas Chamber

     The earliest gas chamber for execution purposes was constructed in the Nevada State Penitentiary at Carson City and first employed on February 8, 1924, with the legislatively sanctioned and court-ordered punishment of Gee Jon, a Chinese immigrant, amid a wave of anti-immigrant and racist hysteria that gripped the country at that time.

     America's and the world's first execution by gas arose as a byproduct to chemical warfare research conducted by the U.S. Army's Chemical Warfare Service and a chemical industry during the First World War. Embraced by both Democrats and Republicans, including many progressives, and touted by both the scientific and legal establishments as a "humane" improvement over hanging and electrocution, the gas chamber was also considered a matter of practical social reform Its adherents claimed that the gas chamber would kill quickly and painlessly, without the horrors of the noose or the electric chair, and in a much more orderly and peaceful fashion. But they were quickly proven wrong. Technocrats nevertheless kept tinkering with its workings for seventy-five years in a vain attempt to overcome the imperfections of lethal gas.

     Eventually adopted by eleven states as the official method of execution, lethal gas claimed 594 lives in the United States from 1924 to 1999 until it was gradually replaced by another supposedly more humane method of capital punishment, lethal injection.

Scott Christianson, The Last Gasp, 2010

Charles Bukowski's Autobiographical Fiction

Bukowski claimed the majority of what he wrote was literally what happened in his life. Essentially that is what his books are all about--an honest representation of himself and his experiences at the bottom of American society. He even went so far as to put a figure on it: ninety-three percent of his work was autobiography, he said, and the remaining seven percent was "improved upon." Yet while he could be extraordinarily honest as a writer, a close examination of the facts of Bukowski's life leads one to question whether, to make himself more picaresque for the reader, he didn't "improve upon" a great deal more of his life story than he said.

Howard Sounes, Charles Bukowski: Locked In The Arms Of A Crazy Life, 1998

Sunday, February 20, 2022

The Donald Greenslit Arson Dismemberment Case

     Prior to his domestic assault conviction in October 2011, Donald Greenslit lived with his common-law wife Stacie Dorego and their two young children in a two-story house in Johnston, Rhode Island. Following Greenslit's conviction, probated sentence, and no-contact court order, he moved out. The couple's relationship had been a tumultuous one, marred by numerous arrests for domestic violence. He beat Stacie Dorego, and beat her often.

     During the early morning hours of Monday, January 22, 2012, Johnston firefighters and rescue personnel were dispatched to the Pershing Road home after receiving a call regarding smoke coming from the house. Greenslit met the responders at the front door of the smoke-filled dwelling. The 52-year-old, after assuring the firefighters that all was well, ordered them to leave his property. Police officers pushed Greenslit aside so the emergency personnel could extinguish the fire and check on the children.

     Greenslit's children, found in their second-story bedroom, were rushed to the Hasbro Children's Hospital where they were treated for smoke inhalation. Firefighters quickly got control of the fire, but in the process, made a gruesome discovery.

     In the fireplace, the emergency responders found the dismembered and smoldering remains of a woman wrapped in a blanket. At the Johnston Police Department later that morning, Greenslit admitted dismembering his wife with a power saw and setting fire to her mutilated corpse. Yes, he had stabbed Stacie Dorego to death, but in self-defense after she had attacked him with a knife.

     According to Dr. Christina Stanley, the Chief Medical Examiner for Rhode Island, the 39-year-old victim had died from multiple stab wounds. The forensic pathologist ruled the death a criminal homicide.

     On January 23, 2012, a Providence County prosecutor charged Greenslit with domestic murder, two counts of child abuse, the obstruction of fire officers, disorderly conduct, and the violation of a non-contact order. Two months later, a grand jury sitting in Providence indicted Greenslit on all charges. In April, at his preliminary hearing, Greenslit pleaded not guilty to domestic murder and the other offenses. He recanted his statement to the police that he had killed Dorego in self-defense.

     The Donald Greenslit murder trial got underway on March 1, 2013 in a Providence Superior Court. Following the selection of the jury and the opening statements, the prosecution, on March 4, 2012, put two firefighters on the stand who testified that the defendant had tried to deny them entry into the smokey house. A Johnston detective described what he had found in the basement after the fire had been extinguished. The officer recovered a piece of flesh that bore Stacie Dorego's tattoo of a butterfly.

     Special Assistant Attorney General Sara Tindall-Woodman, on March 6, put a jailhouse snitch named Alex Boisclair on the stand. This witness said that he had shared a cell with the defendant, and after being cellmates for one day, Greenslit confided in him that he had stabbed his common-law wife five times. According to the police informant, Greenslit said he had burned Dorego's body parts because he knew she had, upon her death, wished to be cremated. 

     Defense attorney Mark Dana, on cross-examination, accused this witness of incriminating Greenslit in return for prosecutorial leniency on his own behalf. Boisclair, in denying a prosecution deal, said he was simply doing what he thought was the right thing.

     On March 7, 2013, a DNA analyst testified that blood found on a circular saw recovered from the defendant's basement had come from Stacie Dorego. The DNA expert was followed to the stand by the state's chief medical examiner who said that Stacie Dorego's heart had been pierced three times by "something with a single edge." Following Dr. Christina Stanley's testimony, the prosecution rested its case. 

     On Friday, March 8, 2013, defense attorney Mark Dana rested his case without putting the defendant on the stand. (While jurors are not supposed to take this as evidence of guilt, they usually do.) Dana, in his jury summation, told the jurors that the police didn't test for DNA at the death scene because they didn't want to discover that someone else had committed the murder. He pointed out that without a confession, eyewitness, or physical evidence linking his client to the crime scene, the prosecution's case was weak, and circumstantial. The defense attorney also attacked the credibility of the jailhouse snitch.

     On March 11, 2013, the jury of ten women and two men found Donald Greenslit guilty of murder.

     On May 15, 2013, Judge Susan McGuirl sentenced Greenslit to life in prison without the chance of parole.

"Running With The Wrong Crowd" Myth

     If parents of criminals were asked what went wrong in their children's lives, many would reply, "My child ran with the wrong crowd." They would maintain that their son was a good boy at heart but that he was corrupted by others. The belief is widespread that youngsters turn to crime, alcohol, and drugs because they succumb to the pressures of their peer group.

     Peer pressure is a force that we all have to contend with from the time we are in nursery school until the time we die. But we choose which peer group or groups to belong to. As is the case with nearly all children, the criminal as a child chooses his friends. No criminal I have evaluated or counseled was forced into crime. He chose to associate with risk-taking youngsters who were doing what was forbidden.

Dr. Stanton E. Samenow, Inside the Mind of the Criminal, 1984

The History of infanticide

     Infanticide has been committed throughout human history for a multiplicity of reasons--personal, political, superstitious, and strategic. Whether or not a culture supports the perpetrators of infanticide, it is, like other forms of violence, highly mutable [subject to change]. In many cultures, offspring weren't considered to be fully human until they reached a certain age, one or two, sometimes three years old. Perhaps the most common cause of violence against infants arose from the need to space children in the absence of birth control. The Japanese word for infanticide means, "weeding," as in the thinning of rice saplings. Today, in some of the poorest communities in the world, infanticide as birth control takes a passive-aggressive form: babies are given birth to, then simply not fed.

     Cultures have also engaged in crude forms of eugenics, turning against twins, against girls, against deformities--as some societies continue to do, now, through selective abortion. Infants have been killed, as well, during famine, or in the midst of war, or as an offering in ritual sacrifice.

Patricia Pearson, When She Was Bad, 1998

Paper Crime

In Mario Puzo's book The Godfather, Don Corleone observed that a dozen men with machine guns are no match for a single lawyer with a briefcase, and he had a point. Far more crimes in America are committed with paper than with guns, and many more times the amount of money and power change hands illegally through a stroke of the pen than through physical violence. Frequently a degree in accounting can be important in becoming an agent of the FBI, and being able to hit a moving target with a pistol or machine gun is far less of a factor in the solution of most crimes than the ability to follow a complex paper trail through to the crooked bottom line. [Today its computer crime.]

Dr. Douglas Ubelaker and Henry Scammell, Bones, 1992 

Hypergraphia

Neurologists have found that changes in a specific area of the brain can produce hypergraphia--the medical term for an overpowering desire to write. Thinking in a counterintuitive, neurological way about what drives and frustrates literary creation can suggest new treatments for hypergraphia's more common and tormenting opposite, writer's block. Both conditions arise from complicated abnormalities of the basic biological drive to communicate.

Dr. Alice W. Flaherty, The Midnight Disease, 2004 

Saturday, February 19, 2022

The Debacle at Sparkman Middle School

     On January 14, 2010, Jeanne Dunaway and Teresa Terrell, vice principals at Sparkman Middle School near Huntsville, Alabama, received a complaint that a male student had touched a girl inappropriately. The subject of the complaint was no stranger to this kind of allegation. He had been accused of predatory sexual advances fifteen times in the recent past. The latest complaint resulted in the boy being placed on "in-school suspension."

     A couple of days later, teacher's aide June Simpson spoke to principal Ronnie Blair about the boy. According to Simpson, he had "repeatedly tried to convince girls to have sex with him in the boy's bathroom on the special needs students' corridor. The teacher's aide reported that the young predator had actually engaged in sex with one of the girls.

     Because the boy and the female special needs student denied having sex in the boy's restroom, the principal informed the teacher's aide that because the kids had not been caught in the act, his hands were tied. The concerned teacher's aide recommended that school officials keep a close eye on this boy.

     On January 22, 2010, a 14-year-old girl who wasn't physically or mentally handicapped but took special education classes, told teacher's aide Simpson that the alleged schoolboy sex fiend had been pestering her to have restroom sex with him. Simpson asked the girl if she'd be willing to act as bait in a plan to catch the sexual predator. The girl refused to participate in the sting, then changed her mind.

     The teacher's aide, accompanied by the girl, laid out her plan to vice principal Dunaway who didn't endorse or approve of it. The vice principal didn't forbid the execution of the scheme either. The plan was this: the girl would agree to have sex with the boy in the special needs bathroom where teachers would be hiding to confront the kid before things got out of hand.

     Shortly after leaving the vice principal's office, the girl encountered the young predator in the hallway. She agreed to have sex with him. But instead of getting together in the special needs restroom, he told her to meet him in the sixth-grade boy's bathroom in another part of the school. The girl did not have time to alert the teacher's aide of the change in plans.

     In the sixth-grade boy's restroom, with no teachers hiding nearby to intervene, the girl rejected the boy's advances. Unable to fight him off, he raped her.

     After the victim reported the crime to a teacher, police officers were summoned to the school. They took the girl to the National Children's Advocacy Center in Huntsville where medical personnel used a rape kit to gather physical evidence. Hospital personnel also photographed signs of trauma consistent with the girl's rape allegation.

     The young suspect, when confronted with the accusation, claimed he had only kissed the girl.

     After the alleged rape victim refused to cooperate with detectives, the police department turned the case over to the Madison County District Attorney's Office. Without the victim's testimony, an eyewitness, or the boy's confession, prosecutors closed the case for lack of evidence.

     Pursuant to an internal, administrative inquiry into the incident, vice principal Terrell testified that after seeing photographs of the girl's injuries, she didn't know whether or not the sex had been consensual. Vice Principal Dunaway testified that when the girl willingly entered the sixth-grade restroom with the boy, she was on her own.

     In the school's final disciplinary report on the matter, the incident in the school restroom was described as the "inappropriate touching of a female." The principal suspended the boy for five days. Following the suspension, the kid spent fifteen days at an alternative institution before returning to the Sparkman Middle School.

     The 14-year-old girl withdrew from the Sparkman Middle School. After extensive counseling, she ended up in North Carolina with her mother. Upon her mother's death shortly thereafter, the girl and her brother were placed in Child Protection Services.

     June Simpson, the Sparkman teacher's aide, resigned not long after the incident. Her attorney described her as a scapegoat in the case.

      In October 2010, the girl's father filed a Title IX "Jane Doe" lawsuit in federal court against the boy, school administrators, the teacher's aide, and the Madison County School Board. Title IX is a federal law aimed at ending gender discrimination in public education.

     A few months after the filing of the lawsuit, a U.S. District Court Judge tossed out the claim against the boy because he was a minor. The judge also threw out the Title IX portion of the action. He did allow, however, the claim of negligence against the teacher's aide and the school administrators. Attorney Eric Artrip appealed the lower court ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit in Atlanta.

     On September 17, 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Education filed amicus briefs (friend of the court arguments) in support of attorney Artrip's appeal of the Title IX rejection.

     The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, in August 2015, overturned the district court ruling against the student used as sexual assault bait. That meant that "Jane Doe" could proceed with a lawsuit against the school system

     In March 2016, the Madison County School System settled the "Jane Doe" suit for an undisclosed amount.

Cops And Snitches

You stop the cops from using informants and the only crimes they'd ever solve would be those by deranged postal workers who come to work once too often.

Andrew Vachss, 2000

Lock Picking

Lock picking involves opening a lock without a key, and without physically destroying or abusing the lock mechanism. There is probably no such thing as a totally pick-proof lock, but very few criminal intruders possess the skill, tools, time, and good fortune to manipulate the internal parts of a high-security lock in such a way to produce a key-like effect on the mechanism. Lock picking depicted on film and TV looks easy. Even with low security locks, it is not.

The Tenured Professor

Creative writing professor Martin Russ, in his 1980 classic, Showdown Semester, wrote: "The tenured professor is never forced to justify his classroom work to his students, and can go on for year after year in a take-it-or-leave-it way in which, arrogance overrides the kind of teaching that has to do with helping, sharing, giving." 

The Culture of Public Confession

Memoirs are no longer reserved for those who have climbed the Himalayas or swum the Atlantic. On the contrary, what is valued are the ordinary accounts of ordinary people about ordinary things. The market is swamped with products which claim reality--from [TV] soap operas, which people believe more than life itself, to real-life stories, which people believe as much as soap operas. In the culture of public confession, everyone has acquired the right to his personal fifteen minutes, just as Andy Warhol predicted.

Dubravka Ugresic, Thank You For Not Reading This, 2003

Friday, February 18, 2022

The Shrien Dewani Murder-For-Hire Case

     On November 13, 2010, 30-year-old Shrien Dewani and Anni, his 28-year-old wife of two weeks, were on their honeymoon in Cape Town, South Africa. The couple, of Indian decent (she was born in Sweden), resided in the southwestern English town of Bristol where he was a businessman.

     Shortly after midnight on November 13, 2010, Shrien Dewani reported to police authorities that a gunman had commandeered the taxi he and his wife were riding in the nearby Cape Town suburb of Guguiethu. The kidnapper ordered the cab driver and Shrien out of the taxi in the town of Harare then drove off in the cab with Anni.

     Later that night, police officers found Anni's dead body in the abandoned taxi in the town of Lingelethu West. She had injuries to her head and chest and had been shot in the back of the neck at short range. Officers with the Western Cape Town Police Department launched a manhunt for the killer.

     Shrien Dewani returned to England where he was treated for depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

     On November 14, 2010, Western Cape Town officers arrested 26-year-old Xolile Mngeni, the suspected gunman, on the charge of murder. Two days later, police officers arrested a suspected accomplice in the murder named Mziwamadoda Qwabe.

     Detectives arrested the cab driver, Zola Tongo, on November 20, 2010. According to the suspect, Shrien Dewani had offered him 1,400 pounds to find a hit man willing to kill his wife Anni. Tongo reached out to his friend Qwabe who brought Mngeni, the trigger man, into the murder-for-hire scheme.

     On December 8, 2010, at the request of the South African government, police in England arrested Dewani for conspiring to have his wife murdered. Two days after being taken into custody, Dewani posted his bail and was confined to house arrest. He denied any involvement in his wife's murder.

     Zola Tongo, the cab driver, pleaded guilty to his role in the murder-for-hire plot in January 2011. The judge sentenced him to 18 years in prison. A month later, Mziwamadoda Qwabe decided to cooperate with the police. He said that after the kidnapper let Dewani and Tongo out of the taxi that night, Mngeni drove off with the victim. Qwabe admitted that for his role in the murder, he received the victim's jewelry.

     In February 2011, back in England, Shrien Dewani swallowed a cocktail of 26 pills that included the drug diazepam that had been prescribed to him for anxiety. Following a period of hospitalization, he returned home to house arrest.

     In November 2011, a TV station in England aired a documentary about the case called, "Murder On Honeymoon." The producers of the segment presented evidence pertaining to Dewani's alleged motive for having his new wife murdered. According to the documentary, investigators were working on the theory that Dewani had been living a secret double life as a gay man. Witnesses stated that he had been a regular visitor to a south London gay fetish sex club. When Anni found out he was gay, she threatened to end the marriage and expose him.

     On March 30, 2012, judges sitting on London's High Court ruled that it would be unjust and oppressive to extradite Dewani to South Africa until he overcame his problem with mental illness. The authorities in South Africa were convinced he was faking mental illness to avoid extradition.

     Mziwamadoda Qwabe pleaded guilty in August 2012 and was sentenced in South Africa to 25 years in prison. Three months later a jury found Xolile Mngeni, the hit man, guilty of premeditated murder. The judge sentenced Mngeni to life behind bars.

     The fourth South African involved in the case, a hotel clerk named Monde Mbolombo, had avoided prosecution by testifying against Qwabe and Mngeni.

     The BBC, in September 2012, aired another documentary about the Dewani case called "The Honeymoon Murder: Who Killed Anni?" Featuring forensic experts and others who had reviewed the evidence, the show cast doubt on Shrien Dewani's guilt.

     The widely viewed BBC documentary portrayed Monde Mbolombo, the hotel clerk who was granted immunity for his prosecution testimony, as the true mastermind behind the murder. According to the documentary, Mbolombo put the cab driver in touch with Mngeni, the trigger man. The motive was theft.

     About the time the BBC broadcast the documentary, the English tabloid Daily Mail published text messages the victim had sent to family members shortly before her big wedding. "I'm going to be unhappy for the rest of my life," she had written. "I hate him. I want to cry myself to death."

     On January 2014, a panel of three judges sitting on England's Supreme Court ruled that Shrien Dewani could be extradited to South Africa to be tried for his wife's murder. The extradition, however, was conditioned on the promise that if the defendant were adjudicated mentally unfit for trial, South African authorities would send him back to England. Dewani was expected to arrive in Cape Town in April 2014.

     South African Judge Jeanette Traverso, on December 8, 2014, dismissed the case against Dewani on the ground that no court would convict him unless he took the stand and incriminated himself. The judge noted that the prosecution witnesses against the accused murder-for-hire mastermind were not credible because they had been involved in the killing themselves. The judge's decision ended the case against Dewani because prosecutors in South Africa could only appeal a case when the judge had made a mistake in applying the law. This case, however, was dismissed based upon what this judge considered the crown's lack of evidence to support a conviction. The decision meant that Shrien Dewani was a free man and could not be charged again.

     A spokesperson for the prosecutor's office, in response to the dismissal, told reporters that the judge misunderstood the case.

     In the United States, many murder-for-hire cases are predicated upon the prosecution testimony of the hit man and various accomplices. Getting a conviction pursuant to this South African judge's standards would be, in the United States, almost impossible.

Violence and Mental Illness

It is possible to argue that some people are violent and mentally ill, but it is no longer defensible to argue that people are violent because they are mentally ill.

Richard Rhodes, Why They Kill, 1998

Guillotine Chic

Almost from its first victim on April 25, 1792, the guillotine became a fetishistic object for the French during their revolution. Men had it tattooed on their bodies; women wore dangling guillotine earrings and brooches; the design was incorporated into plates, cups, snuffboxes; children played with toy versions, decapitating mice; elegant ladies lopped off the heads of dolls and out squirted a red perfume, in which they soaked their handkerchiefs.

Richard Zacks, An Underground Eduction, 1997

Humorless Fiction

Many works of "literary" fiction are often touted on the dust jacket as "laugh-out-loud funny." What a lie. Nothing is more humorless than a "literary" novel. My advise to anyone who enjoys humor in fiction is to avoid any novel that has won some kind of literary reward and is advertised as funny. This is no joke. These works are places where humor and interesting prose go to die. The chance of finding anything funny in one of these books is less than finding a detailed discussion of syphilis in a romance novel.

Reviewing a Children's Book

In essence, a children's book reviewer reads and writes with two audiences in mind: (1) adults who read reviews to help them select books for children and (2) the children themselves. It is important to remember that most books for children are created with the best intentions in mind. No one sets out to produce a crummy book that kids will hate. If this is your initial assessment of a book you're reviewing, it would be unfair and unwise to let it stand as your final assessment without a great deal of further consideration.

Kathleen T. Horning, From Cover to Cover, 1997 

Thursday, February 17, 2022

The Kornegay Murder and Child Abuse Case

     Keith Kornegay, 37 and his 33-year-old wife Misty lived in a small white house off a dirt road in northern Florida's Columbia County located between Jacksonville and Tallahassee. Mr. Kornegay drove a truck and on occasion his wife traveled with him. On Sunday January 4, 2015, the couple left the house on a three-day trucking job. They left their 16-year-old son Damien in charge of his three sisters, ages three to fifteen.

     On Monday night January 6, 2015, 11-year-old Nicole Kornegay called the home of a friend and spoke to the girl's mother. According to Nicole, she and her 15-year-old sister Ariel had run away from home. They had walked four miles to the town of White Springs and wanted to be picked up at the Dollar General store.

     When asked why she and her sister had run off, Nicole said that someone at their house may have been shot. The mother called 911 then drove to the Dollar General store to fetch the girls.

     At ten that night, deputies with the Columbia County Sheriff's Office entered the Kornegay house to find 16-year-old Damien Kornegay lying beneath a blanket near the living room fireplace with his head on a pillow. He had been shot to death. His 3-year-old sister was in the house by herself.

     When questioned about the shooting at the sheriff's office, 15-year-old Ariel said she didn't know anything about her brother's death. However, after a few follow-up questions, she broke into tears and confessed to shooting her brother.

     Ariel said that when she misbehaved her parents routinely locked her into her bedroom (they must have had an exterior lock installed), sometimes for days at a time. Shortly after her parents left the house on the trucking job, her brother Damien, who regularly beat her, locked her into her bedroom. That's when she decided to kill him.

     Ariel talked 11-year-old Nicole into unlocking her door. She knew that her father kept a handgun (a 9mm pistol) in his room. Because his bedroom was locked, Ariel managed to remove an air-conditioner from the window and climb into his room where she found the weapon. She loaded the gun and walked into the living room and shot Damien as he slept near the fireplace. A few minutes later, when Ariel re-entered the living room, she saw her 3-year-old sister trying to wake up their dead brother.

     Following the shooting, Ariel and Nicole headed for the Dollar General store in White Springs, leaving the 3-year-old at home with the corpse.

     After learning that their 16-year-old son had been shot to death by his 15-year-old sister, Keith and Misty Kornegay cut their trip short and returned home where they were met by sheriff's deputies.

     Misty Kornegay told the deputies that she and her husband had frequently locked Ariel into her bedroom. Mr. Kornegay admitted that he had once kept her locked up for 21 consecutive days. (Deputies, in Ariel's bedroom closet, had found a bucket of urine.) When the girl recently tried to kill herself, the parents did not notify the authorities.

     Deputies booked Mr. and Mrs. Kornegay into the Columbia County Jail on charges of child neglect causing great bodily harm. If convicted of this second-degree felony, they faced up to fifteen years in prison. The judge set their bonds at $20,000.

     In 2010, when Ariel was ten, her uncle went to prison for sexually molesting her. Deputies also learned that Misty Kornegay had once caught Ariel and Damien having sex.

     At a news conference on January 7, 2015, State Attorney Jeff Siegmeister told reporters that 11-year-old Nicole and her older sister were being held in separate juvenile detention centers in Ocala and Gainesville. The prosecutor said he had 21 days to decide whether to charge the girls with premeditated murder as adults or juveniles.

     The prosecutor decided not to charge Ariel Kornegay with criminal homicide. In March 2015, the girl pleaded guilty to burglary, a second-degree felony. The judge placed the 15-year-old to probation until her 19th birthday.

     In November 2015, Misty and Keith Kornegay, pursuant to a plea deal, pleaded guilty to the crimes of intentional child abuse and child neglect. The judge sentenced the parents to ten years probation that included two years of house arrest. The judge also ordered the couple to pay fines and court costs.

Don't Rock the Boat Syndrome

Collegiality and collaboration are considered the keys to success in most communal ventures, but in the practice of criminal justice they are in fact the cause of system failure. When professional alliances trump adversarialism, ordinary injustice predominates. Judges, defense lawyers, and prosecutors, but also local government, police, and even trial clerks who process the paperwork, decide the way a case moves through the system, thereby determining what gets treated like a criminal matter and what does not. Through their subtle personal associations, legal players often recast the law to serve what they perceive to be the interest of their wider community or to perpetrate a "we've-always-done-it-this-way" mind-set. Whether through friendship, mutual interest, indifference, incompetence, or willful neglect the players end up on not checking each other and thus not doing the job the system needs them to do if justice is to be achieved.

Amy Bach, Ordinary Justice, 2009

The JonBenet Ramsey Case Detectives

      The Boulder police union's contract requires that police officers regularly and frequently rotate through the various units--traffic, patrol, and investigations--rather than developing extensive experience in a particular area. Thus, Boulder police rotate in and out of detective duty, which is highly desirable for the officers because they don't have to work weekends or wear uniforms, but also means that relatively untrained detectives have to handle criminal cases. This is a major difference from employment contracts in other Colorado cities.

     Imagine how we [John and Patsy Ramsey] felt when we learned that an officer who had only been a detective for several months was one of the major police investigators on the case.

     Our friends began telling us that the Boulder police detectives were contacting them and saying things like, "The Ramseys think you may have something to do with the death of their daughter. Would you like to tell us anything about the Ramseys?" A standard interrogation technique. Bias the witness against a suspect and let them spill their guts out. We also heard the police made comments like, "The Ramseys refuse to talk with us. Will you help us?"

John and Patsy Ramsey, The Death of Innocence, 2000

Thin Skinned Novelists

Novelists can take offense when someone asks what's real or autobiographical in our work, because to us, that's not what counts. The bits taken from real life are tiny scales on the dragon's tail--what about the whole beautiful writhing fire-breathing dragon?

Michelle Huneuen, The Paris Review, July 28, 2014 

Born to Write

I cannot remember a time when I didn't want to be a writer, and specifically a novelist; I can't remember ever wanting to do anything else. I never wanted to be a sportsman, I never wanted to be a musician. I never had the slightest bit of interest in music. When other boys had pictures of footballers [soccer players] on their walls or they had pictures of musicians on their walls, I had pictures of Jane Austen and Ben Johnson. I only wanted to be a writer and I only ever valued writers. And it hasn't changed; I only value writers.

Howard Jacobson, "On Writing: Authors Reveal the Secrets of Their Craft," theguardian.com, March 25, 2011 

Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Police Sexual Misconduct: The Adam Skweres Case

     Let's say two women, in separate cases, accused a police officer of sexual misconduct. Should that cop, while these allegations are being investigated, remain on duty, or be placed on administrative leave? According to Ocean City (Maryland) Police Chief Bernadette Di Pino, a member of the executive committee of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), there were no national guidelines or policies dealing with this question. In Maryland, an uncharged officer could be taken off the street if the allegations seemed credible. In most jurisdictions, however, accused officers stay on the job until they are charged with a crime. That's how a case like this was handled in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

     Adam Skweres, after graduating from Pittsburgh Allderdice High School, joined the U.S. Army Reserves and served a tour of duty in Iraq. In 2005, after taking a few college courses, the 29-year-old applied for a job with the Pittsburgh Police Department. As part of the hiring process, city psychologist Dr. Irvin P. R. Guyett, in determining if Skweres was psychologically fit for police duty, reviewed the results of the candidate's background investigation. Based on polygraph test results, what neighbors and others said about the applicant, his financial history, and the psychologist's interview of the candidate, Dr. Guyett concluded that Skweres was "not psychologically fit for police work." (Dr. Guyett had been evaluating police candidates for 20 years.)

     Unwilling to take no for an answer, Skweres appealed Dr. Guyett's findings and the rejection of his application to the civil service commission. In 2006, the city appointed another psychologist, Dr. Alexander Levy, to re-evaluate the candidate. Dr. Levy, after presumably looking at the same data available to Dr. Guyett, found Skweres "psychologically suited for police work." Based on this second expert opinion, the city allowed Skweres to join the next available police academy class. Upon graduation from the police academy the new officer was assigned to the Zone 3 station on Pittsburgh's south side.

     In June 2008, a woman filed a sexual misconduct complaint against Officer Skweres. After this woman testified as a victim in one of officer Skweres' cases, Skweres, as he escorted her out of the courtroom, asked to speak to her privately. Skweres said he knew that this woman and her husband were dealing with the county office of Children, Youth and Families (CYF). If she agreed to give him oral sex, Skweres would write the CYF a positive letter on their behalf. If she refused, he would write the agency a negative letter. He allegedly said that he just needed 30 minutes of her time. The woman refused, and filed a complaint with the Pittsburgh Police Department.

     Two weeks later, Officer Skweres told a woman who had been in a minor traffic accident that he was writing her up, but the ticket would disappear if she gave him oral sex. According to this woman's complaint, Skweres looked at his sidearm and told her that if she told anyone about his proposal, he'd make sure she never spoke to anyone again.

     Although presented with two credible citizen complaints of coercion and sexual misconduct against one of its officers, supervisors at the Pittsburgh Police Department, because they didn't have sufficient cause, did not remove Officer Skweres from active duty. Pursuant to regulations enforced by the local Fraternal Order of the Police, this officer, until charged with a crime, would stay on the job.

     In December 2011, Officer Skweres entered a home in the Belthoover section of the city where the girlfriend of a man he had recently arrested lived. After asking her how much she loved the arrestee, Skweres allegedly offered to help the boyfriend if she stripped and performed oral sex on him. In making the proposal, which was more of a demand, he unclipped his holster to intimidate her. This woman filed a complaint with the Pittsburgh Police Department. Officer Skweres remained on duty.

     Officer Skweres, on February 11, 2012, showed up at the home of a girlfriend of another man he had arrested. Indicating that he knew he was being surveilled, and didn't want to be recorded, Skweres communicated with the woman by writing messages on a notepad. He instructed her not to talk, and told her to lift her skirt to show she wasn't wearing a wire. (He was not being watched.) When Skweres did speak, he did so in the kitchen where he had water running in the sink to cover his voice.

     After offering to help this woman's incarcerated boyfriend, Skweres allegedly forced the victim to give him oral sex. He cleaned himself off with a towel, put it into his pocket, and left the house. This victim reported the crime to the FBI.

     Five days later officers with the Pittsburgh Police Department arrested Officer Skweres at his home. Charged with official oppression, indecent assault, rape, and criminal coercion, Skweres was placed into the Allegheny County Jail where for his protection he was isolated from the other inmates. A judge set his bond at $300,000. The department suspended Skweres without pay.

     On February 21, 2012, detectives searching Officer Adam Skweres's house and SUV found marijuana and crack cocaine. His lawyer told reporters that his client would be pleading not guilty to the sexual misconduct and criminal coercion charges.

     In defending the police department's decision not to remove Officer Skweres from active duty after the 2008 complaints, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl told a reporter with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that it wasn't until the fourth alleged victim filed her complaint with the FBI that the department had the "hard evidence" they needed to make the arrest and take this officer off the street. The head of the police union told the same reporter that officers couldn't be taken off duty simply because a civilian made a complaint. "If we remove someone every time an accusation was thrown at an officer, we wouldn't have any officers on the street who are hardworking and aggressive." 

     Samuel Walker, professor emeritus at the University of Nebraska, a nationally known author and scholar on the subject of policing, said the following to a reporter with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review: "Common sense would say if you have suspicions about this person's conduct, you take [him] off the street, period. If there were two [complaints] back in 2008, that raises the significance of it even further. There should have been something done."

     On March 11, 2013, Adam Skeweres pleaded guilty to 26 counts of sexually assaulting five women he encountered while on duty. The judge sentenced him to three to eight years in prison followed by ten years of probation. The judge also ordered the former police officer to register as a sex offender.