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Sunday, July 31, 2022

Murdered Over Nothing

     Just because murder is a serious crime does not mean that murderers always have equally serious motives to kill. In the world of criminal homicide the motive does not always match the crime. Authors of detective novels give their fictitious murderers good reasons to kill such as revenge, big money, passionate sex, jealous love and burning hatred. In the victimology of crime fiction the killer and the killed usually know each other well. In novels, murderers are, if not nice people, fascinating folks with interesting reasons to commit the ultimate crime.

     In real life people who commit criminal homicide are often wildly insane, drug-addled or just plain stupid. Nonfiction killers are frequently uninteresting people who kill for trivial idiotic reasons. Quite often in real life the murder victim is as insane, drug-addled or stupid as the person who killed him. In the more tragic cases these mindless murderers take the lives of decent people who simply had the misfortune of being in the wrong place. If there is anything interesting in these under-motivated murder cases it is the fact they are real. The advantage of writing about nonfiction crime is that these cases do not have to make a whole lot of sense. They just have to be true. Fiction on the other hand has to be believable. Fiction has to make sense.

The Trigger-Happy Mr. Dunn

     At 7:40 in the evening of November 20, 2012, Michael D. Dunn and his girlfriend pulled into a service station in Jacksonville Florida. That day the couple had attended the wedding of Mr. Dunn's son. The 45-year-old software developer and his girlfriend were en route to Dunn's home 160 miles away in Satellite Beach Florida. Mr. Dunn parked his vehicle and waited behind the wheel as his girlfriend entered the gas station's convenience store.

     Mr. Dunn had pulled into the service station alongside a SUV occupied by three teenagers who were listening to music Mr. Dunn considered much too loud. He asked the boys to lower the sound level. The kids didn't take kindly to his request which led to an exchange of angry words. Suddenly Michael Dunn picked up a handgun and fired eight shots into the car. Two of the bullets struck 17-year-old Jordan Davis who was sitting in the back seat. The high school junior, who was about to start his first job at McDonald's, died in the SUV.

     The shooter's girlfriend ran out of the convenience store and as she climbed into Dunn's vehicle asked, "What's going on?"

     "I just fired at those kids," Dunn replied as the couple drove away.

     The next day police officers arrested Michael Dunn at his home in Satellite Beach. (A witness had written down his license number.)  Dunn told his police questioners that he had fired his pistol in self-defense after one of the kids in the SUV pointed a shotgun at him. Dunn's self-defense justification suffered a blow when investigators failed to find any weapons in the SUV. (There were no drugs in the car and none of the boys had ever been in trouble with the law.)

     In May 2013 a grand jury sitting in Jacksonville Florida indicted Michael Dunn of first-degree murder and three counts of attempted murder. On October 17, 2014 after a jury found Dunn guilty as charged the judge sentenced him to life without the chance of parole.

James Pak: The Angry Landlord

     In 2006 James Pak sold his Korean Yankee Landscape Company, a Biddeford Maine business he had owned since 1964. In 2012 Mr. Pak was living with his wife in a cape cod-style home in the town of Bedford located 15 miles south of Portland. He rented out an apartment attached to his house to 44-year-old Susan Johnson who lived there with her son, 19-year-old Derrick Thompson. Derrick worked as an auto detailer at a nearby car dealership. His girlfriend, Alivia Welch, worked as a waitress at a local coffee shop. She was eighteen.

     Around six o'clock in the evening of December 29, 2012, Bedford police officers responded to a call to defuse a dispute between Mr. Pak and his tenants. The 74-year-old landlord was upset because Derrick Thompson and his mother had parked their cars in his driveway. (The town had banned overnight parking on the street to clear the way for snow removal crews.) After speaking with Mr. Pak and his renters the officers left the scene without taking anyone into custody.

     At seven that night, shortly after the police thought they had resolved the dispute, they were called back to the Pak house on reports of shots being fired in the rented apartment. Upon their arrival the officers discovered that Mr. Pak had shot Derrick Thompson and his girlfriend Alivia Welch, killing them both. He had also shot and wounded Mr. Thompson's mother, Susan Johnson.

     Following a three-hour police stand-off at his home James Pak surrendered to the authorities. Among other crimes he was charged with two counts of first-degree murder. After pleading guilty on February 3, 2016 the judge sentenced James Pak to two life sentences.

Street Gang Killings

     Drug dealers and members of street gangs regularly murder each other over minor slights, petty arguments and even disrespectful looks. For these habitual criminals it's their chosen way of life. Unless some innocent bystander goes down in the cross-fire the general public couldn't care less about these deaths. One violent crook is dead and his killer is off to prison for life. From a societal standpoint these cases are hardly tragedies.

     Michael Dunn and James Pak were murderers who weren't career criminals or drains on society. Because they were not stupid their homicidal behavior makes even less sense. These men ruined their lives over nothing. And their victims did nothing to deserve their sudden and violent deaths. That is what makes these spontaneous homicides so tragic and hard to understand.

The Darrien Hunt Police-Involved Shooting Case

     Darrien Hunt lived in Saratoga Springs Utah, a tight knit mountain community in the Provo-Orem metropolitan area in the north-central part of the state. The biracial 22-year-old and his white mother were active members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Darrien, an outdoorsman, enjoyed mountain climbing, white water rafting, biking and hiking. His only scrape with the law came in January 2014 when police officers arrested him in connection with a fight he had with a sibling. The Utah County prosecutor charged him with assault and public intoxication. The prosecutor offered Hunt a deal: if he pleaded guilty the arrest would be dropped from his record. He took the deal.

     On Wednesday morning September 10, 2014 someone called 911 to report a "suspicious man" carrying a samurai-type sword outside the closed Panda Express restaurant situated in an outdoor Saratoga Springs shopping mall.

     Corporal Matthew Schauerhamer and rookie officer Nicholas Judson confronted Darrien Hunt outside of the restaurant. According to the police department's account of what happened that morning Mr. Hunt brandished his three-foot sword and lunged toward them. The officers reacted by shooting the charging man several times, killing him on the spot.

     The chief of police placed the Saratoga Springs officers on paid administrative leave pending the results of an investigation by the Utah county attorney's office. A forensic pathologist with the state medical examiner's office performed the autopsy.

     When the medical examiner refused to make the autopsy results available to Randall Edwards, the Hunt family attorney, the lawyer arranged to have an independent forensic pathologist perform an autopsy on Mr. Hunt's remains. (Attorney Edwards did not revealed the identify of this forensic pathologist.)

     Shortly after the second autopsy, attorney Edwards announced that the officers had shot Darrien Hunt six times in the back. According to the lawyer, the autopsy findings confirmed the accounts of eyewitnesses who reported that when he was shot Mr. Hunt was running away from the officers.

     Saratoga Springs Chief of Police Andrew Burton, on the department's Facebook page, wrote this about the Darrien Hunt shooting death: "There is more to this story than meets the eye. Many of the details cannot be shared due to the ongoing investigation."

     On September 20, 2014 at a news conference attorney Randall Edwards said that when the officers shot Darrien Hunt the young man was wearing a Japanese character anime costume (a Japanese film production featuring animated characters) and carrying a fake samurai sword he had purchased at an Asian gift shop. The attorney said Hunt was role-playing and that the sword was a fake.

     According to attorney Edwards, officers Schauerhamer and Judson were not interviewed by investigators with the Utah County attorney's office until more than a week after the shooting. The attorney called for an FBI investigation of this police-involved shooting.

     In July 2017, Utah County Attorney Jeff Buhman ruled that the two officers had been justified in using deadly force in this case. As a result no charges were filed against the officers in connection with Darrien Hunt's death.

Saturday, July 30, 2022

The "Black Madam" Butt Injection Murder Case

     Born in 1970, Padge Victoria Windslowe didn't become a woman until she had a sex change operation in 2006. The aspiring hip-hop singer who billed herself as the "Black Madam" had also gone under the names Victoria Forrest Gordon and Genevieve D'Gordoni. The multi-named Windslowe also had a pair of social security numbers and lived in two places--one with her mother and stepfather in west Philadelphia and the other in an apartment in Narberth Pennsylvania.

     Although Windslowe had no medical training the Black Madam injected silicone into the hips and buttocks of young women who attended her "pumping parties" to acquire larger butts. Windslowe's clients paid between $700 and $2,000 for these cosmetic enhancement procedures carried out in Philadelphia area homes and hotel rooms.

     Melissa Lisath, a 27-year-old account manager for a construction company in the Bronx New York attended a September 2008 pumping party hosted by the Black Madam at a Red Roof Inn in Mount Laurel New Jersey. Lisath, one of several women in the motel room, paid $1,800 for the procedure. Windslowe identified herself as a plastic surgeon's assistant named Lillia.

     Six hours after receiving the painful silicone injections Milissa Lisath, back in the Bronx, started having trouble breathing. She began to sweat profusely then threw up blood. She was rushed to the hospital where she slipped into a coma. The chemicals Windslowe had injected into Lisath's body had migrated into her bloodstream then into her lungs. Three months after the pumping party Milissa Lisath came out of her coma. She weighed 80 pounds, couldn't walk and had a bone condition. Two years would pass before she was well enough to take care of herself.

     No criminal charges were filed against Windslowe in connection with Melissa Lisath's nearly fatal reaction to the Mount Laurel pumping party injections. The Black Madam continued to inject silicone into women who gathered in area homes and motels for the toxic cosmetic procedures.

     In December 2011 Claudia Seye Aderotimi, a 20-year-old college student from London England, flew to Philadelphia where in a nearby hotel room Windslowe administered the butt enlargement shots. Within hours of the injections Aderotimi complained of chest pains, had a heart attack then died suddenly of liver failure. (As reported in the U.K. Seye Aderotimi had been an exotic dancer.)

     On February 19, 2012 Padge Victoria Windslowe injected a 23-year-old exotic dancer at a pumping party held in Germantown Pennsylvania. The needle hit a blood vessel which carried the toxic chemicals to the unidentified woman's lungs. Treated for a blocked lung artery, the victim, after seven days in the hospital went home requiring extra oxygen to breathe. As a result of this woman's medical reaction to the Black Madam's injections the local prosecutor charged Windslowe with aggravated assault, simple assault and deceptive practices. Instead of taking Windslowe into custody the Philadelphia police placed her under surveillance.

     Ten days after the Black Madam had injected the 23-year-old exotic dancer the police raided a pumping party attended by five women in another Germantown home. They took Windslowe into custody and seized her equipment which included syringes, needles, chemicals and other butt enlarging paraphernalia such as cotton balls and Super Glue. A magistrate set Windslowe's bail at $10 million but a judge lowered it to $750,000. The Black Madam was confined under house arrest at the west Philadelphia home occupied by her mother and stepfather.

     Investigators linked the Black Madam to 14 pumping parties in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

     On July 23, 2012 the District Attorney's office in Philadelphia charged Padge Windslowe with third- degree murder in connection with the death of London tourist Claudia Aderotimi. The Delaware County Medical Examiner, Dr. Frederic Hellman, following a toxicological analysis of the injected substance found a direct link between the Black Madam's injection and the victim's death. According to the forensic pathologist the industrial grade silicone had traveled through Aderontimi's blood to her liver, lungs and brain. Dr. Hellman listed the victim's cause of death as pulmonary embolism.

     Padge Windslowe's attorney Christopher Mannix told reporters in October 2012 that he would challenge the state's toxicological conclusions at his client's upcoming trial.

      In 2014 Padge Windslowe rejected a plea bargain deal involving a sentence of 15 to 30 years. If convicted as charged she faced up to 40 years in prison.

     On February 17, 2015 in Philadelphia Pennsylvania Padge Windslowe went on trial for third-degree murder involving the death of Claudia Aderotimi of London England. The day before at a pre-trial motion hearing Windslowe informed the judge that her "body sculpting work" was so popular she was dubbed the Michelangelo of buttock injections. "God's blessed my hands with everything I touch," she said. "I make lots of money in lots of ways."

     Assistant District Attorney Carlos Nega in his opening statement to the jury said that the defendant's clients were not millionaires like Kim Kardashian. As a result these women had sought procedures that were cheap and risky.

     Defense attorney David Rudenstein in his opening remarks to the jurors, in referring to the prosecutor's jury presentation, said, "It's a nutso situation. It almost blows your mind listening to it." The lawyer added that his client would not have injected herself over the years if she didn't consider the butt-injection procedure safe.

     On February 19, 2015 two of the defendant's clients took the stand for the prosecution and testified that Windslowe charged $l,000 to $2,000 per injection session. The Black Madam had falsely held herself out as either an experienced nurse or a physician's assistant for a plastic surgeon. Both witnesses said they had endured frequent discomfort and worried they might develop serious health problems.

     On Monday March 2, 2015, after the defendant spent most of the day testifying on her own behalf under her attorney's direct examination, she complained of chest pains. Later that day she checked herself into a Philadelphia hospital where she remained for two days.

     When Padge Windslowe returned to the witness strand she testified that her patient Claudia Aderotimi had consumed alcohol shortly after her procedure in violation of the defendant's post-injection instructions.

     Throughout her testimony the defendant went out of her way to drop the names of famous people she claimed to have treated. She mentioned Kanye West, Nicki Minaj, model Amber Rose and Ed Rendell, the former governor of Pennsylvania. On cross-examination, prosecutor Vega asked the defendant why rich and famous people would choose an unlicensed practitioner over a Los Angeles surgeon. "Because I was the best," she said, "and I don't mean that to be cocky." (The prosecutor might have asked why Mr. Rendell would need a butt injection.)

      Padge Windslowe did not come across as a sympathetic witness. Her testimony did more harm than good. She didn't have a clue why she was on trial for third-degree murder and seemed to enjoy the attention.

     On March 9, 2015 the jury found the defendant guilty as charged. Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Rose Marie DeFino-Nastasi, on June 11, 2015, sentenced Windslowe to ten to twenty years in prison. Upon her release Windslowe would serve six years on probation. At the sentencing hearing the judge called the "Black Madam" a narcissist. 

The Derek Ward Murder-Suicide Case

     Patricia Ward resided in an apartment complex on Secatogue Avenue in Farmingdale, an unincorporated village of 8,000 in the western Long Island town of Oyster Bay New York. The 66-year-old taught English at Farmingdale State College's Long Island Educational Opportunity Center, an institution attended by high school students preparing for college.

     The assistant professor's son, 35-year-old Derek Ward, lived with her in the Farmingdale apartment. The unemployed son, over the past ten years, had experienced problems with the law and mental health. In 2003 the schizophrenic young man was convicted of criminal mischief. In that case the judge fined him and placed him on probation for a year.

     In 2006 police in Nassau County arrested Derek Ward for possession of drugs and a 9 mm handgun. That judge sentenced him to 45 days in jail and three years probation.

     Just before eight o'clock on the night of October 28 2014, Derek Ward attacked his mother with a kitchen knife. After stabbing her several times in their apartment he cut off her head then dragged the headless body down the stairs through the apartment lobby and onto Secatogue Avenue.

     After depositing his decapitated mother on the street in front of their apartment Derek Ward walked about a mile to a set of Long Island Railroad tracks. From there he threw himself in front of a speeding commuter train rolling east from Penn Station in Manhattan. The impact killed him instantly.

     When police officers arrived at the apartment complex they found Patricia Ward lying in the street about ten feet from her head.

     Neighbor Nick Gordon told a reporter with The New York Post that, "I saw the body laying right in front and her head was across the street near the corner. There was blood all over. You can see smears going down the stairs." Other neighbors when they saw Patricia Ward's body thought they were looking at a Halloween prank. 

Friday, July 29, 2022

Raymond Clark: The Panhandler Arsonist

     Thirty-eight-year-old Raymond Sean Clark, a homeless panhandler, regularly loitered outside the 7-eleven store on the Pacific Coast Highway in Long Beach California. Clark made a habit of annoying customers who patronized the convenience store by begging them for money and cigarettes. He had become an unwelcome fixture in the neighborhood. 

     At five in the afternoon of April 12, 2013, as Jerry Payne sat outside the 7-eleven store in his Toyota 4-Runner, the 62-year-old was approached by Clark who asked him for money. 

     When Mr. Payne refused to give Clark a handout the transient poured a bottle of gasoline into the SUV and tossed in a match. The vehicle and its occupant were immediately engulfed in flames. (The fire was so intense customers and employees in the convenience store had to escape through a back door.)

     After Good Samaritans pulled Mr. Payne out of the burning vehicle, paramedics rushed him to Torrance Memorial Hospital, a medical facility that specialized in burn patients. With third-degree burns on his chest and face the victim was in critical condition.

     Police officers arrested Raymond Clark around the corner from the fire. Charged with attempted murder, he was held in the Los Angeles Inmate Reception Center under $502,200 bail. When Mr. Payne died from his burns the prosecutor elevated the charge against Raymond Clark to murder.

     In April 2014, a year after the deadly assault, Jerry Payne's family filed a wrongful death suit against the 7-Eleven convenience store chain and the city of Long Beach. The plaintiffs based the civil action on the theory that the attack had been foreseeable therefore preventable. According to the plaintiffs, both the owner of the store and the police had known that Raymond Clark was aggressive and dangerous.

     Assistant City Attorney Monte H. Machit described Mr. Payne's death as an "absolute tragedy." However, he said, Long Beach could not be held accountable for every "random act of violence that took place in the city."

     In March 2015 the plaintiffs dropped the wrongful death suit against the city of Long Beach.

     Prosecutors, in September 2017, announced they would not seek the death penalty against Raymond Clark.  
     In January 2022 Mr. Clark pleaded guilty to murder and arson. The judge sentenced him to 25 years to life in prison.

Searching Your Kid's Room

     A few years ago in Tempe, Arizona, a cleaning lady discovered what looked like an improvised explosive device (IED) in an 18-year-old boy's bedroom. She took the suspicious-looking object to the local fire station where it was x-rayed and determined to be a live bomb capable of detonation. Members of a bomb squad disabled the device. While not a big IED, the bomb was powerful enough to  destroy property and even kill people.

     The cleaning lady, when questioned by detectives, showed them photographs she had taken of other items in Joshua Prater's room that included bomb-making materials. Police officers, after searching Prater's room took him into custody. He was charged with possession of an explosive device. Bomb making is dangerous business. This kid was lucky he didn't blow up his room and himself.

     According to media reports, the bomb-marker's parents told detectives that their son's friend taught him how to make the IED. While it's hard to imagine parents who would allow their child to build a bomb in his room, it was not clear if these parents knew what their son was up to before the cleaning lady took action.

     Several months after Prater's arrest he pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor count of disorderly conduct. The judge sentenced him to one year probation. 

     Do parents know what their children are up to?  Should parents regularly search their children's rooms? 
     Studies show that most children have high opinions of themselves. They also feel entitled to things they are unwilling to work for. They can also be notorious liars and profoundly ignorant of how things work in real life. They think they know everything because they know so little.

     In a parent's home a child has no legal right to privacy. In the domestic environment, parents are the cops, prosecutors and judges They have a right to know, and the duty to find out, if their kids have drugs, pornography, guns or bombs in their rooms. And the only way to be absolutely certain that they do not possess these things involves periodic searches. Children should not be allowed to lock their doors. If they do have locks parents should have the keys. Kids need to know that privacy is for adults. When they live in their own places mom and dad can be locked out.

Thursday, July 28, 2022

The Tong Shao Murder Case

    Tong Shao grew up as the only child in a middle-class family in Dalian, China, a coastal city of 7 million 300 miles east of Beijing. Her parents saved up $100,000 for her college education in America. In the fall of 2012 she enrolled as a chemical engineering major at Iowa State University in Ames. As one of 5,000 Chinese students in the state, her parents thought she'd be safe living in central Iowa.

      In the summer before she started her junior year Shao completed an internship in Kentucky where she had purchased a gold-colored, four-door 1997 Toyota Camry.

     On September 6, 2014 Shao drove to Iowa City to visit her boyfriend Xiangnan Li. Xiangnan also attended Iowa State University as an international student from China. Shao had met Li in the summer of 2011 in Beijing where they took English prep classes.

     Xiangnan Li was from Wenzhou China, a city of 9 million on the country's east coast 300 miles south of Shanghai. He had transferred to Iowa State University from Rochester Institute of Technology to be closer to Shao.

     In the U.S. Li resided in Iowa City at an apartment complex called Dolphin Lake Point Enclave. He also stayed in the Ames apartment Shao shared with her roommate Jean.

     Two days after Shao left Ames, a message sent from her cellphone to a friend said she was driving to Minnesota to visit someone there. Her college friends didn't hear from her for more than a week after that September 8 text message. On September 17 her roommate Jean reported Tong Shao missing to the Ames Police Department.

     On Friday September 26, 2014 police in Iowa City, at Li's apartment complex along U.S. Highway 6, found Shao's Toyota parked in the parking lot. After smelling the odor of death coming from the trunk area of the vehicle officers acquired a warrant to search the car.

     Inside the trunk of Shao's vehicle, officers found the decomposing body of the 5-foot-2-inch missing college student. Next to her body lay a 15-pound barbell. According to a resident of the Dolphin Lake Point Enclave, the 1997 Toyota with the Kentucky plates had been parked in that spot for a couple of weeks.

     Xiangnan Li's blue 2009 BMW was also parked at the Iowa City apartment complex. On September 8 he had flown back to China. (He had boarded the plane in Cedar Rapids Iowa and had a layover in Chicago.) Iowa City police officers searched his car. Inside the vehicle they found Li's flight information.

     In November 2014 a forensic pathologist with the Johnson County Medical Examiner's Office performed the autopsy on Tong Shao's remains. A medical examiner's office spokesperson, however, didn't announce the postmortem results until January 2015. According the autopsy report the college student had died from asphyxiation and blunt force trauma. The medical examiner ruled the death a homicide. (The dual causes of death was unusual. Was she strangled or bludgeoned to death?)

     According to homicide investigators the text message from Shao's cellphone had been sent on September 8 from O'Hare International Airport in Chicago where Li was laid over en route to his home in China.

     Karen Yang, a friend of Li's, told detectives that he had been jealous over Shao's interest in another man. Li had overheard Shao complain to this man over the phone that she was not happy with her current relationship. This made Li extremely angry.

     Detectives with the Ames Police Department learned that on September 5, 2014, Li and Shao checked into room 218 at the Budget Inn in Nevada Iowa. Hotel surveillance camera footage showed Shao walking alone in the lobby the next afternoon. She was also seen in the town of Nevada driving a gold-colored car believed to be her Toyota. According to hotel records the couple checked out on September 7, 2014. They had stayed at this place in 2013 and earlier in 2014.

     Detectives believed that Shao had been murdered by Li during the early morning hours of September 7 at the hotel. The walls in room 218 were stained with "splatter and drips of various dried liquids." Crime scene investigators also found dried blood behind the headboard of the bed.

     When police discovered Shao's body in the trunk of her car on September 26, 2014 they discovered that her head had been wrapped in a towel with the tag "Premium Quality," the same kind of towel used at the Budget Inn and Suites.

     On March 23, 2016 in eastern China Li Xiangnan pleaded guilty to murdering Shao Tong. Since the Chinese do not extradite its citizens he remained in China where he would spend the rest of his life in prison.    

The Douglas and Kristen Barbour Child Abuse Case

     Douglas B. Barbour was a prosecutor in the Pennsylvania State Attorney's Office headquartered in Harrisburg, the state capital. The 33-year-old attorney was assigned to the district office in Pittsburgh. He and his 30-year-old wife Kristen resided in Franklin Park, a borough of 14,000 just north of the city. In March 2012 the couple, through a religious organization called Bethany Christian Services, adopted a 5-year-old boy and an 11-month-old girl. The children were from Ethiopia.

     On September 14, 2012 Dr. Rachel Berger at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh examined the Barbour children. The 6-year-old boy had been brought to the hospital with hypothermia, rapid breathing and skin lesions caused by prolonged exposure to urine. He weighed 47 pounds and was severely malnourished.

     The girl, 18-months-old, had breathing difficulties, retinal hemorrhaging, brain injury and healing fractures in her femur and a toe. (Kristen Barbour told Dr. Berger that the toddler had suffered several accidental falls.) As a result of the toddler's head trauma she was blind in one eye, perhaps permanently. The little girl was also malnourished. (Tests would later reveal that the healing bone fractures were not the result of disease.)

     Dr. Berger, suspecting child abuse, notified the Allegheny County Police Department. The boy was admitted to the hospital's urgent care center and the girl placed into protective custody. In the doctor's report she wrote this about the 6-year-old boy: "[He is] the victim of significant neglect and possible emotional abuse over a prolonged period of time."

     After spending six days in the hospital the boy gained seven pounds. He was taken to A Child's Place, a children's abuse facility at the Mercy Health Center in Pittsburgh.

     On October 2, 2012 detectives with the Allegheny County Police Department questioned the boy at the Mercy Health Center. According to the child, whenever he soiled his pants, his parents made him eat his meals in the bathroom.

     Two days after speaking to the 6-year-old the police arrested Douglas and Kristen Barbour. They were charged with two counts of endangering the welfare of a child, and in the case of their 18-month-old daughter, aggravated assault. The state attorney general's office suspended Douglas Barbour without pay pending the outcome of the case.

     Detectives searched the couple's suburban home in Franklin Park and found, in the boy's bedroom, nothing but a mattress and a sheet. There were no toys, window coverings, wall decorations or anything else that made the place livable.

     According to an employee of the adoption service, Mrs. Barbour had complained that the boy was "rude, defiant and very difficult." She also complained that both children ate too much.

     On June 23, 2014 Douglas and Kristen Barbour pleaded no contest to two counts each of endangering children. Mr. Barbour pleaded to the misdemeanor counts while his wife pleaded to the felony charges. As part of his plea deal Mr. Barbour received a probated sentence. Although his wife faced three to twelve months in jail, her attorney asked for probation. The couple relinquished their parental rights and the children remained in foster care.

     In September 2014 the judge sentenced Kristen Barbour to six to 12 months to be served at the minimum security prison at Mercer, Pennsylvania. Douglas Barbour, in March of 2015, resigned from the Pennsylvania Bar Association.

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

The Forsythia Owen Murder Case

     On September 25, 2002, 19-year-old Forsythia Owen and her boyfriend of nine months got into an argument in the living room of her Denver Colorado apartment. Before the fight broke out she had impaired him by slipping a drug into his drink. In the course of the dispute Forsythia Owen grabbed a knife from the kitchen and stabbed her boyfriend in the chest.

     Paramedics rushed the victim to a nearby hospital where he survived his puncture wound. (I don't know who called 911.) Owen greeted police officers at the scene by saying, "I'm the one who stabbed him. Arrest me." And that's what the officers did.

     A local prosecutor charged Forsythia Owen with assault with a deadly weapon causing serious bodily harm. Pursuant to a plea deal the assistant district attorney allowed Owen to plead guilty to the lesser offense of felony assault. The prosecutor dropped charges related to Forsythia Owen's assault of police officers while she was in custody.

     In January 2003 the judge sentenced Forsythia Owen to four years probation.

     Owen, a serious abuser of cocaine, alcohol and methamphetamine, had been diagnosed as having a "mood disorder" and "attention-deficit/hyperactivity." Because of her substance abuse, psychiatrists were unable to determine the degree to which she may have been psychotic as well. 

     Ten months into her probation, a drug treatment administrator kicked Forsythia Owen out of the program for "non-compliance" and "minimal progress" for continuing to use cocaine and meth. Rather than send her to prison, probation officials enrolled her in a Denver community corrections program. After refusing to cooperate with the social workers, the judge, in December 2004, sent Owen to prison for three years. If they couldn't fix this woman the authorities could at least get her off the street.

     In 2013 the 30-year-old ex-felon lived in the Denver suburb of Englewood with her 12-year-old daughter. On Sunday morning, September 22, 2013, Englewood police officers responded to a 911 call concerning a badly beaten man lying in an alley. Officers found 42-year-old Denzel Rainey in the alley bleeding from a severe blunt force head wound and other injuries. Paramedics rushed Rainey to the Swedish Medical Center where he died a short time later.

     Mr. Rainey, a married man with three children, had for years struggled with alcohol abuse that led to his homelessness. He had been attacked in the alley where he slept at night.

     According to the forensic pathologist who performed the autopsy Mr. Rainey had a fractured skull, lacerated liver, broken arms, fractured left hand and six broken ribs. The medical examiner's office listed the cause of death as blunt force trauma. The manner of death: homicide.

     On Monday the day after the attack in the Englewood alley detectives spoke to a man who said that one of his neighbors, a woman named Forsythia Owen, had come to his house on Sunday with a story about a man who had inappropriately touched and abused her daughter. The man she accused was the homeless guy who had just been murdered in the alley.

     Later that day, when questioned by detectives, Forsythia Owen admitted beating the man in the alley with a baseball bat. After confronting him about molesting her daughter she started swinging the bat. Advised of her Miranda rights Owen said, "I need a lawyer."

     An Arapahoe County prosecutor charged Forsythia Owen with first-degree murder and assault with a deadly weapon causing serious bodily harm. A magistrate denied her bond after the police booked her into the Arapahoe County Detention Center.

     Denzel Rainey, other than having driving under the influence convictions and an arrest for marijuana possession, did not have a criminal record. Moreover, there was no information on record regarding accusations of sexual offenses. Mr. Rainey's widow, Lisa, told reporters that "I just don't know what caused her to do that to Denzel. If he did anything to provoke the attack I need to know the answers for closure for me and closure for my kids."

     In speaking to a correspondent with a Denver television affiliate, Lisa Rainey said, "I think Owen is covering for somebody and I want to know: what was the real reason why she did that to my husband. He doesn't deserve to be dead. He would never hurt a child."

     At a March 17, 2014 pre-trial hearing Forsythia Owen's attorney Joe Archembault pleaded her not guilty by reason of insanity. Judge Marilyn Antrim ordered the defendant to undergo psychiatric evaluation at the mental health Institute in Pueblo, Colorado.

     The Arapahoe County prosecutor dropped the first-degree murder charge against Owen to second-degree murder and added first-degree assault and the charge of tampering with evidence.

     The Forsythia Owen murder trial got underway on February 4, 2015. Just ten days later the jury, having rejected the insanity defense, found the defendant guilty as charged.

     On May 9, 2015 Judge Marilyn Leonard Antrim sentenced the 32-year-old Owen to 38 years in prison.

What Happened to Shane Montgomery?

     In November 2014, 21-year-old Shane Montgomery, a catholic high school graduate from the Roxborough section of Philadelphia was a senior at nearby West Chester University. On Wednesday night November 26, 2014 Montgomery, his cousin and a couple of friends were barhopping in Philadelphia.

     In the early morning hours of Thanksgiving Day Montgomery and his group were drinking at Kildare's Irish Pub on Main Street in Philadelphia's Manayunk neighborhood. At some point Montgomery got separated from his friends in the crowded bar. At 1:45 AM he accidentally bumped into the DJ's table. The bouncer ordered the student out of the pub. Montgomery apologized and left the premises.

     After he was seen leaving the bar, Shane Montgomery did not return home. Friends and family were unable to get in touch with him by phone and he didn't show up for Thanksgiving dinner. Concerned, his family filed a missing persons report with the Philadelphia Police Department.

     On Friday November 28, 2014, volunteers circulated missing persons notices around the Manayunk neighborhood. The posters featured a photograph of the missing college student along with a picture of the Celtic cross tattooed across his shoulder blades. The 5-foot-11 inch 140-pound Montgomery, when he left the bar, was dressed in jeans and a gray hooded sweatshirt.

     The search for Shane Montgomery included the use of dogs, a helicopter and boats on the Schuylkill River that flows alongside Manayunk's Main Street. Five-hundred volunteers searched the riverbank, the footpath and the railroad tracks that run parallel to the street.

     A cellphone tower in Lower Merion Township picked up a signal from Montgomery's cellphone a little less than an hour after he left Kildare's. The phone itself was not recovered. At the bar there was no video surveillance footage for detectives to review.

     On Sunday November 30, 2014, a FBI task force joined in the hunt for the missing student. A $10,000 reward was posted for information leading to his whereabouts.

     Shortly after noon on Saturday January 4, 2015, a volunteer diver from the Garden State (New Jersey) Underwater Recovery Unit found Shane Montgomery's body in three feet of water near the Schuylkill riverbank not far from the Manayunk bar where he was last seen. Two weeks earlier a diver from the same unit found Montgomery's car keys in the water near the river bank 800 yards upriver from where his body was recovered.

     Shane Montgomery's uncle, on January 5, 2015, told reporters that the medical examiner's office had completed its autopsy and had ruled the young man's drowning death an accident.

     In March 2019, a jury sitting in Philadelphia found that the Kildare Irish Pub owner had to pay $525,000 in damages to the family of Shane Montgomery for serving the student alcohol after the student was manifestly intoxicated.

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

The David Hilder Murder Case

     On July 3, 2012 a group of foreign students on holiday in Southsea England, a resort town on the English Channel, made a gruesome discovery on the rocks at Portsmouth Beach. They stumbled upon what turned out to be a torso wrapped in a pink shower curtain stuffed inside a plastic bin. Three days later police officer found a pair of legs at another spot on the beach.

     While the Home Office forensic pathologist could not determine the exact cause of death in this case, marks on the torso suggested that the male victim had suffered a "sustained and violent assault sometime between June 30 and July 3, 2013." The authorities identified the remains as 30-year-old David Guy, a Southsea man who lived in a camper van and spent a lot of time in the nearby flat of a friend, David Hilder. According to residents of the area, David Guy, when sober, was polite and helpful. When intoxicated he became violent.

     The dismembered man's longtime friend David Hilder collected and sold scrap metal. He rode around on a bicycle equipped with a butcher's box affixed to the handlebars. Witnesses had seen a man on such a bike in the vicinity of the torso dump site.

   On July 5, 2013 David Hilder showed up at the Shoreham police station where he spoke to police constable Stephen Miles. "I need to speak to a copper," Hilder said. "I think I have killed someone." The dirty, disheveled man, known as "Big Dave," seemed confused.

     "What happened," asked PC Miles.

     "I do not know. I'm not sure what I have done." Hilder told the officer he was having flashbacks of the crime he may have committed. "If I have done what I think I've done, then I'm going to kill myself."

     "What do you think you have done?"

     "I don't know," came the reply.

     Police officers conducted a search of David Hilder's flat and didn't find anything suspicious. When advised of this Hilder seemed relieved. Noting that he may have overdosed on the drug Nurofen, Mr. Hilder said, "It must have been all in my head then."

     A police officer drove Mr. Hilder to a nearby hospital where he was examined and discharged. The officer put him on a train back to his apartment on Richmond Road in Southsea.

     Further investigation of the relationship between "Big Dave" Hilder and "Little Dave" Guy revealed a history of violence. Guy frequently accepted food from Hilder and showered in his flat. In return he was supposed to take care of Hilder's cat, Tinker. When Hilder returned home to find his place a mess and Tinker neglected he'd punish Mr. Guy with a beating. In recent weeks the two men had been arguing over Mr. Guy's new relationship with another man.

     Police officers on July 8, 2012 arrested David Hilder for killing David Guy. The suspect denied having anything to do with his friend's death or dismemberment.

     David Hilder's trial got underway in the Winchester Crown Court exactly one year after the discovery of Mr. Guy's torso on the Southsea beach. The defendant stood accused of murder and the lesser offense of manslaughter. In his opening statement to the jury, Nigel Lickley with the Crown Prosecution Service called the murder "painstaking and deliberate." According to the prosecutor, the defendant had used his bicycle to dispose of Mr. Guy's body parts. (The victim's head, arms, several internal organs and his genitals had not been found.) Prosecutor Lickley, in referring to the killing and dismemberment said, "It took time, it took clarity of thought, and it took planning."

     Detective Superintendent Dick Pearson of the Hampshire County Constabulary took the stand for the prosecution and described how he collected cat hair follicles from the pink shower curtain that had been wrapped around Mr. Guy's torso. The Hampshire police sent these samples to the United States where they were visually compared to follicles from 493 American cats. The English samples did not look like any of the hairs from the U.S. cat follicle collection. (The death scene follicle looked like Tinker's hair.)

     Scientists at Leicester University's Department of Genetics compared DNA extracted from Tinker's known hair with the DNA of 152 cats from Southsea and other parts of Hampshire County. Tinker's DNA did not match the DNA from any of the hairs from the 152-cat database. When the DNA from the shower curtain hairs were compared to the DNA of Tinker's known samples, the scientists concluded there was only a one in one-hundred chance that the death scene hairs had not come from the defendant's cat. (DNA in cats is less specific than in humans.)

     Dr. Jon Wetton, the scientist who led the University of Leicester's DNA project took the stand for the prosecution. Dr. Wetton, who had done similar work on dog DNA, said, "This is the first time cat DNA has been used in a criminal trial in the UK. This could be a real boon for forensic science as the 10 million cats in the UK are unwittingly tagging the clothes and furnishings in more than a quarter of households. Animal DNA offers a way of linking people to places and items though the transfer of their pets' hairs."

     David Hilder's attorney, without much to work with emphasized his clients low IQ (63) and his learning disability. The defendant also suffered from severe depression.

     On July 30, 2013 the jury acquitted David Hilder of murder but found him guilty of the lesser crime of manslaughter. Justice David Bean sentenced Hilder to serve a minimum of twelve years in prison.

Murder Most Rare: The Anna Mae Blessing Case

     In January 2018, 92-year-old Anna Mae Blessing moved into a condo in Fountain Hills Arizona with her 72-year-old son Thomas Blessing and his 57-year-old girlfriend who owned the dwelling.

     Around nine-thirty in the morning of July 2, 2018 Thomas Blessing was in his mother's bedroom arguing with her over plans to send the elderly woman to an assisted living facility. She did not want to live in such a place and said so in no uncertain terms as the argument became heated. With her son's girlfriend looking on, Anna Mae Blessing pulled a handgun from the pocket of her robe and shot her son several times at close range. He died on the spot.

     After shooting her son to death the old woman pointed the gun at her dead son's girlfriend who managed, following a brief struggle, to disarm her. At that moment Anna Blessing pulled a second gun from her robe, a weapon the girlfriend knocked out of her hand.

     Once she had separated the elderly shooter from her weapons the girlfriend called 911. At ten that morning members of the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office arrived at the scene. The deputies found the 92-year-old sitting quietly in a reclining chair. As officers led the murder suspect from the condo in handcuffs she said, to no one in particular, "You took my life, so I took yours."

     Officers booked the suspect into the Maricopa County Jail on charges of first-degree murder and aggravated assault. A magistrate set her bail at $50,000. At one point during her booking the murder suspect said, "Put me to sleep." An official close to the case speculated that after murdering her son Mrs. Blessing had planned to take her own life.

      In January 2019 Anna Mae Blessing, while awaiting her murder trial, died in the Maricopa County Jail.

Monday, July 25, 2022

Failed Policing Leads to Vigilantism

     In the summer of 2013, Mary (not her real name), a 15-year-old with Down Syndrome worked a few hours a week at a coffee shop in southwest Detroit called Cafe Con Leche. On July 17 Mary did not show up for her two-hour shift that began at 3:30 PM. The shop's owner, Jordi Carbonell, called Mary's legal guardian who lived a few blocks away. (Mary's mother had died of cancer in 2006.)  The legal guardian informed Mr. Carbonell that Mary had left the house on time for her four-block walk through the Hubbard Farms neighborhood. Shortly after Mr. Carbonell's call, Mary walked into the shop. When asked why she was late Mary said she had been with a friend.

     That evening, Mary shocked her legal guardian by telling her that she had been raped that afternoon by a neighborhood man named Bill (not his real name) who invited her to his apartment. According to Mary, Bill had kissed her, told her to undress then raped her. She said he used his cellphone to take photographs of her in the nude.
     Bill, who referred to himself as Super Fly and an Aztec Warrior, was known in the neighborhood for his strange and often confrontational behavior. The 43-year-old was generally disliked by residents of the area who considered him an oddball. He had big, puffy hair and walked around in shorts and high socks. In January 2012 a judge had committed Bill to a mental health facility. According to a psychiatrist who treated him there, Bill was severely depressed. The doctor had written: "He feels hopeless and helpless. He plans to kill himself by hanging."
     Mary's guardian reported Mary's claim of rape to the Detroit Police Department on the day the girl reported the crime to her, July 17, 2013. A member of the sex crimes unit asked a medical technician to gather physical evidence from Mary for possible DNA analysis.  Because of the complainant's limited communication skills, a detective,  five days after the complaint, brought in a specialist to question her. 
     Mary's guardian became concerned when twelve days passed without anything happening in the case. On July 29, twelve days following the alleged crime, police officers took Bill into custody. When detectives questioned him he refused to cooperate. Before booking him into the Wayne County Jail an officer swabbed his cheek for a DNA sample. 
     The lead investigator on Mary's case asked the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office to charge Bill with rape. An assistant prosecutor in the office, in denying the request, asked for more evidence. The prosecutor recommended that detectives search Bill's apartment. (Apparently the police didn't search the apartment when they took Bill into custody.) 
     On July 31, 48 hours after taking the rape suspect into custody, the police, without a criminal charge had no choice but to release Bill back into the community. Two days later, 16 days after the rape report, police officers searched Bill's apartment. They seized a bed sheet, a blanket and a cellphone. 
     On August 5, 2013, Mary's guardian and members of the community who were following the case with great interest were surprised to learn that the officer in charge of the investigation, 19 days after the rape report, had just sent Mary's rape kit to the Michigan State Police Laboratory for analysis. At this point in the investigation detectives couldn't even prove that the complainant had engaged in sex. 
     In response to criticism and neighborhood outrage over the way the case was being handled, a Detroit police administrator blamed the rape kit submission delay on the fact that during this crucial period in the case the sex crime unit moved its offices to a new headquarters. When it became obvious that this excuse only created more anger and frustration in the community, the police administrator promised an internal investigation. This did not silence the critics. As far as neighborhood residents were concerned a rapist lived among them under the nose of the police. Instead of handling a rape case properly, investigators were focused on moving their offices. In the Detroit Police Department the crime of rape was obviously low priority. 
     On August 11, 2013, 24 days after Mary's rape report, a man on a bicycle carrying a baseball bat rode up to Bill as he walked along the street not far from his apartment building. "You like raping little girls?" the man asked as he began whacking Bill in the legs with the bat. A witness to the assault called 911. After the beating, as he limped along the sidewalk back to his apartment, Bill was attacked by five men who as a group punched and kicked him. By the time Detroit Police officers arrived at the scene Bill was on the ground and his assailants were gone. An ambulance took Bill to a nearby hospital.
      When released from the hospital Bill did not return to his dwelling. On the night of his beatings someone broke into his apartment and spray-painted "rapist" on the outside wall near the windows to his residence. The next day the building owner hired an armed security guard to make nervous tenants feel safer. 
    No arrests were made in connection with the assaults on the neighborhood rape suspect.

     This Detroit rape case split the neighborhood into two camps. One group was in support of the vigilantism while others deplored the idea of citizens taking the law into their own hands. One thing they all agreed on was this: the Detroit Police Department, by bungling the investigation, had created the environment for vigilantism. 
     Bill was never charged with rape.

Ice Cream Truck Wars: Sno Cone Joe Versus Mr. Ding-A-Ling

     When imagining men who sell ice cream products out of good humor trucks one envisions jolly Mr. Rogers types dressed in white. But why would mobile ice cream vendors be any different than people who drive taxi cabs, UPS trucks and buses. Not that there's anything wrong with those folks.

     In the 1970s and 80s Robert Pronge, the driver of a New Jersey Mister Softee's Truck moonlighted as a contract killer. Pronge became known for his use of cyanide to complete many of his assignments. (He dropped the poison in his targets' whiskey and beer, not their Mister Softee cones.) On occasion, however, he'd keep his victims cooling in his Mr. Softee truck until he could permanently dispose of their corpses. The hit man, referred to in certain circles as "Mr. Softee", ended up being murdered by Richard Kuklnski, the prolific Gambino family contract killer known as the "Ice Man." Mr. Kuklnski had introduced "Mr. Softee" to the idea of using cyanide as a murder weapon. In all probability Robert Pronge is the only hit man in history who hauled his dead bodies around in an ice cream truck. But compared to Richard Kuklnski who killed more than 200 men for money, "Mr. Softee" was an amateur. "Ice Man" Kuklinki was a cold-blooded sociopath while "Mr. Softee" was just crazy. He did, however, sell a lot of ice cream and from all accounts loved children.

The Ice Cream Truck War

     In Gloversville New Jersey 34-year-old Joshua Malatino, the owner of the local Sno Cone Joe franchise, also sold a lot of ice cream. His 21-year-old girlfriend, Amanda Scott, helped him operate his good humor truck. Business was good in Gloversville until a rival good humor man rolled into town in his Mr. Ding-A-Ling truck.

     Mr. Malatino, aka Sno Cone Joe, decided to harass his business rival, 53-year-old Brian Collis aka Mr. Ding-A-Ling. On April 16, 19 and 28, 2013, Joshua Malatino, with his Sno Cone Joe jingles blaring from his truck tailgated Mr. Ding-A-Ling around town. Whenever Mr. Collis stopped to service a customer Sno Cone Joe would pull up behind Mr. Ding-A-Ling and offer the consumer free ice cream. At one point Mr. Malatino allegedly phoned Mr. Ding-A-Ling headquarters in Latham New Jersey and said, "I own this town!"

     On May 3, 2013 a local prosecutor charged  Joshua Malatino and Amanda Scott with harassment and misdemeanor stalking. If convicted, Sno Cone Joe and Sno Cone Jane (just kidding) faced up to three months in jail. According to Gloversville Police Captain John Sira, Mr. Malatino had forced a different ice cream truck operator out of town the previous summer.

     In April 2015 a Fulton County judge dismissed the charges against Joshua Malatino and Amanda Scott. 

Sunday, July 24, 2022

The Dr. Melvin Morse Child Abuse Case

     Dr. Melvin L. Morse, after earning his medical degree in 1980 from George Washington University, interned in pediatrics at the University of California at San Francisco. Dr. Morse completed his residency in pediatrics at Children's Hospital in Seattle and set up a private practice in the city. The young doctor also held the position of Clinical Associate Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Washington.

     In the late 1980s, through his nonprofit organization called The Institute for the Scientific Study of Consciousness, Dr. Morse interviewed hundreds of children who had been declared clinically dead. These interviews led him to believe that children, too young to have been indoctrinated in religion and the belief in an afterlife, experienced near-death telepathic conversations and encounters with dead friends and relatives. 

      In 1991 Dr. Morse used his child interviews to publish his first book. Co-authored by a writer named Paul Perry it was called Closer to the Light. The book made The New York Times bestseller's list for three months and was eventually published in 19 languages in 38 countries. An accomplished self-promoter with a good publicist, the new-age guru appeared on the Larry King and Oprah Winfrey shows.

     During the height of his fame the pseudoscientist appeared on ABC's "20-20," NBC's "Unsolved Mysteries" and "Dateline" as well as "Good Morning America" and the "Tom Snyder Show." Dr. Morse was also the subject of dozens of uncritical articles in major newspapers and serious magazines.

     In 1992, in the midst of his fame, Dr. Morse and his co-author cranked out a follow-up book called Transformed by the Light. The second work didn't do nearly as well as Closer to the Light. The doctor and his co-author's last book, Where God Lives: The Science of the Paranormal and How Our Brains Are Linked to the Universe came out in 2001. (The science of the Paranormal?)

     In 2012 the 58-year-old celebrity feel-good doctor lived with his second wife Pauline in Sussex Delaware along with his five and eleven-year-old daughters. (Dr. Morse had gone through a contentious divorce from his first wife.) A look at his bizarre website ramblings about the "big ideas" that had drawn people to him from all over the world suggested that he had lost contact with reality. (How does a highly educated pediatrician go from physician to the publisher of junk science in the first place?)

     On July 12, 2012 an incident involving Dr. Morse and his 11-year-old daughter marked the end of his credibility and the loss of his new-age followers. After pulling into his driveway that day his daughter refused to get out of the vehicle. The doctor pulled her out of the car by the ankles and dragged her across the gravel into the house where he gave her a spanking. Later that day the daughter informed a neighbor of what happened to her. The neighbor reported the girl's story to the police.

     The following day local police officers arrested Dr. Morse. State child protection agents got involved in the case and took his daughters into protective custody.

     On Monday August 6, 2012 Dr. Morse's 11-year-old daughter, while being questioned by officers with the Delaware State Police at the Child Advocacy Center, accused her father of subjecting her to what he called "water boarding." On at least four occasions, beginning in May 2009, Dr. Morse held her face under running faucets in the kitchen and the bathroom causing tap water to shoot up her nose. The abuse replicated the feeling of drowning. While Dr. Morse tortured the girl her 40-year-old mother Pauline looked on. The accuser's five-year-old sister reportedly informed police officers that she had witnessed the water boarding as well.

     A local prosecutor charged Dr. Melvin Morse and his wife Pauline with felony counts of reckless endangerment, endangering the welfare of a child and conspiracy to commit assault. Police officers took them into custody on August 7, 2012. After brief stints in the Sussex Correctional Institution the couple made bail ($14,500 each) and was released.

      Defense Attorney Joe Hurley publicly questioned the credibility of his client's 11-year-old daughter, suggesting that she might have made false accusations to get attention.

     Two days after the water boarding arrests Secretary of State Jeffrey Bullock announced that Dr. Morse presented a "clear and immediate danger to public health" if permitted to continue practicing medicine. The state official ordered the emergency suspension of his Delaware medical license.

     On April 11, 2014 Superior Court Judge Richard F. Stokes, following Dr. Morse's conviction, sentenced him to three to five years in prison. The judge denied a motion by Melvin Morse to remain free on bail while his attorney appealed his case. According to attorney Hurley his client was undergoing treatment for prostate cancer.

     Following her conviction, the judge sentenced Pauline Morse to probation. 

     Dr. Morse was released from the Sussex County Correctional Institution in 2016. According to a corrections official he had undergone a transformation in prison. Following his release Dr. Morse co-founded The Recidivism Prevention Program, a company dedicated to assisting addicts and former inmates in the development of spiritual awareness to facilitate their re-entry into society. 

Free Speech Versus the Right Not To Be Threatened

     Anthony Elonis, an employee at an amusement park in Allentown Pennsylvania was upset when his wife Tara left him in May 2010. The couple had two children.

     In October 2010, fuming over his wife's departure, Elonis posted the following message on Facebook: "If I only knew then what I know now…I would have smothered your [his wife's] ass with a pillow, dumped your body in the back seat, dropped you off in Toad Creek and made it look like rape and murder." Later he wrote: "There's one way to love ya but a thousand ways to kill ya. I'm not gonna rest until your body is a mess, soaked in blood and dying from all the little cuts."

     On November 4, 2010 Tara Elonis, fearful of what her estranged husband might do to her, convinced a judge to issue a protection order against him. Three days later on Facebook he responded with more threats. In the context of discussing the federal law that makes it a crime to threaten the president of the United States, Anthony Elonis wrote: "I also found out that it's incredibly illegal…to go on Facebook and say something like the best place to fire a mortar launcher at a house would be from the cornfield behind it because of easy access to a getaway road and you'd have a clear line of sight through the sunroom."

     Elonis illustrated his Facebook posting with a map of the proposed mortar assault and his estranged wife's house. "Art," he wrote, "is about pushing the limits. I'm willing to go to jail for my constitutional rights. Are You?"

     About this time Elonis also used Facebook to threaten his fellow employees at the amusement park. He published a Halloween photograph of himself holding a fake knife to a co-worker's throat. He captioned the image: "I wish."

     Elonis' boss, after seeing the Facebook post, fired Elonis and reported him to the FBI.

     A federal prosecutor charged Elonis under a law that makes using the Internet to threaten another person with harm a crime. The case went to trial in 2011 and resulted in Elonis' conviction.

     During Elonis' three year stretch in federal prison his attorney filed a First Amendment appeal arguing that the federal government had violated his client's right to free speech.

     The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear Elonis' First Amendment challenge. Under federal case law so-called "true threats" are not protected as free speech. To constitute a criminal act such a threat does not have to be carried out. Moreover, prosecutors do not have to prove even an intent to carry out the threat. 

     In a 2003 Supreme Court decision Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote that the law was intended to protect people "from the fear of violence and from the disruption that fear engenders."

     At his criminal trial in 2011 Elonis' attorney argued that threats alone are not harmful and that they therefore come under the protection of the First Amendment. Elonis took the stand on his own behalf and testified that he had not made a "true threat" against his estranged wife because he didn't have any intention of hurting her. In justifying his Facebook threats he said, "This was for me therapeutic." He said it helped him deal with the pain of losing his wife.

     The victim, Tara Elonis, took the stand for the prosecution and said, "I felt like I was being stalked. I felt extremely afraid for me, my children, and the lives of other family members."

     The principal constitutional issue before the Supreme Court involved who's rights should be protected--the people who issued the threats or the people who were threatened. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) weighed in on Elonis' behalf. Attorneys for the activist group wanted a higher legal standard for the criminalization of speech to avoid sending people to prison over misunderstandings. The ACLU asked the court to make speech a crime only when the prosecutor could establish a clear intent to carry out the threat.

     On June 1, 2015 the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 7-2 decision, reversed the Elonis conviction. 

Saturday, July 23, 2022

Psychic Detective Sylvia Browne

     While some people believe in fortune tellers, soothsayers, spoon benders, people who communicate with the dead and so-called psychic detectives, the pairing of the words "psychic" and "detective" is beyond ridiculous. Nevertheless there are criminal investigators who take psychic detectives seriously and confer with them. One of the most famous psychic detectives was a woman named Sylvia Brown who died in 2011 at the age of 77.

      Sylvia Browne grew up in Kansas City Missouri. In 1964 she moved to southern California where she set up shop as a psychic. Ten years later, perhaps in an effort to create the indicia of legitimacy, she founded the Nirvana Foundation for Psychic Research.

     During her career Browne wrote 50 "nonfiction" books of which 22 appeared on The New York Times bestsellers list. 

     Sylvia Browne achieved fame and fortune through her regular appearances on the TV shows "Unsolved Mysteries" and "Montel." Her television exposure also helped her promote her books.

     While the psychic detective offered her services in dozens of celebrated crimes her predictions never resulted directly in the solution of a murder or the location of a missing body. (For example, in a missing persons/murder case Sylvia Browne told Montel Williams that the body was on the bottom of a small lake in Connecticut. The woman's remains were later found several hundred miles away.)

     One of Sylvia Browne's high-profile goofs involved the Cleveland kidnapping case featuring Amanda Berry. Browne told the victim's mother that her daughter was dead when in fact she was being held prisoner in Cleveland Ohio by Ariel Castro.

     Psychic detectives wouldn't exist if producers stopped putting them on television. While it is doubtful that any person smart enough to be a TV producer actually believes in psychics, a large segment of the TV-watching public does believe in them. That's why psychic detectives are on TV. Moreover, if you're on the tube you are perceived as legit. Media exposure can be a phony stamp of approval.

     For millions of Americans living in a land of magical thinking, psychic detectives are perceived as visionaries who can see and know things ordinary people can't. In reality, psychic detectives give false hope, create investigative wild-goose-chases and make TV hosts look foolish in the eyes of people who can think straight.

Homeless Crime Victims

     During the early morning hours of July 3, 17 and 19 in 2012 someone in downtown Los Angeles, Santa Monica and Hollywood, stabbed two homeless men and a women while they slept outdoors. The attacker fled the scenes leaving the wounded victims, all in their 50s, with large hunting knives stuck in their backs. None of the street people were robbed and they all survived their wounds. Beyond the similar MOs the assaults were linked by so-called "death warrant" notices left at each stabbing site. The typewritten documents were signed by a person using the name David Ben Keyes.

     Los Angeles detectives found a Facebook entry under the above name which included a photograph of a black man in his mid-30s. Police officers distributed copies of this photograph around the skid row neighborhoods where the homeless lived. Street people were advised to spend their nights in shelters until the stabber himself was identified and taken into custody. 

     At 8:40 in the evening on Friday July 20, 2012 a man who identified himself as Courtney Anthony Robinson called 911 and claimed responsibility for the three stabbings. The 37-year-old said he would surrender to the police at the Hong Kong Express Eatery in downtown Hollywood. When officers took Robinson into custody they noticed that he matched the Facebook photograph of David Ben Keyes. When asked why he had stabbed the sleeping street people the arrestee assured his captors that this information would "come out in the court proceedings." There was no indication that Robinson knew his victims.

     According to David Ben Keyes' Facebook page he was a musician and writer from Santa Barbara California. In his Facebook profile, laden with schizophrenic sounding nonsense about his intent to restructure the "Holy Roman Catholic Church and Empire," Keyes-Robinson claimed to be the CEO of a $250 billion Beverly Hills entertainment corporation. In reality he was homeless like the people he had stabbed.

     On the day of his arrest Mr. Robinson was charged with three counts of attempted murder. He was held under $500,000 bond at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Los Angeles.

     In February 2015 a jury found Robinson guilty as charged. In the second phase of the trial to determine if the stabber had been sane at the time of the attacks the same jury found the defendant legally insane and therefore not criminally culpable for the crimes. The judge ordered that he be sent to the Patton State Hospital where he would stay until the psychiatrists deemed him sane enough to be released back to the streets.

     Most crimes against the homeless are committed by mentally ill street people off their anti-psychotic medication. At one time insane people who were dangerous were held in mental institutions. Thanks to do-gooders who fought to set them free they now live on the streets. Some spend their nights in shelters but many prefer to remain outdoors around the clock. These are the people most vulnerable to assault and murder committed by offenders like Robinson.   

When a "Celebrity" Dies

     In California, by law, any time a "celebrity" dies suddenly and unexpectedly the body must undergo an autopsy. This is because of the media and the disturbing fact that in America celebrities are more important than the rest of us. (There are thousands of suspicious deaths every year that should but do not receive autopsies because of the shortage of forensic pathologists.) In Hollywood, to die suddenly without an autopsy is a posthumous insult.

     It's easy to understand, for example, why Natalie Wood's sudden and unexpected drowning death in 1981 made headlines. She was a beautiful and famous Hollywood actress, and her husband, a potential suspect in the case, was also a star. This celebrity death had all the makings of an O.J. like media spectacle. But when "Coroner to the Stars" Dr. Thomas Noguchi ruled the death an accident he killed the story. Decades later the Natalie Wood case regularly raises its head in the tabloids as a potential murder.

     If a wife from Buffalo New York fell off a boat into Lake Erie after arguing with her accountant husband only a handful of people would have heard about the death in the local media. At best this death would engender a cursory investigation then slip into permanent oblivion.

     The regular re-opening of the Natalie Wood case has been more of a tabloid media event than a serious cold case homicide investigation. It's more about entertainment than the administration of justice.

Friday, July 22, 2022

Japan's Black Widow

     Japan is home to one of the fastest aging populations in the world. Japanese people are living longer and fewer of them live with their adult children. 

     Japanese men and women in their 70s whose spouses have died are lonely and vulnerable to a variety of crimes that includes murder. Many of them, desperate for companionship in their so-called golden years, access online dating services that cater to lonely senior citizens,

The Black Widow

     In 1964 18-year-old Chisako a bright, ambitious high school graduate from Muko, a small industrial suburb of the city of Kyoto, married a truck driver who later started a small printing company. Although Chisako had the intelligence and desire to attend college her conservative parents, not wanting to waste a higher education on a woman, denied her that opportunity. She ended up working as a bank clerk, a job she felt was beneath her.

     In 1994 Chisako's husband suddenly fell ill and died at the age of 54. The authorities determined his death to be natural, and pursuant to custom in Japan, his body was cremated.,

     In 2004 the 48-year-old Chisako married the 67-year-old president of a small drug company. Two years later he got sick and died. With no reason to suspect foul play the authorities listed his death as natural. His remains were also cremated.

     In May 2008, after being married to Chisako for less than two months, a 75-year-old landowner became ill and suddenly died. Two months after that the 73-year-old clothing boutique owner Chisako was dating suddenly dropped dead. Although this was the fourth man connected to Chisako by marriage or romance to die suddenly, this man's passing did not catch the attention of law enforcement. As a result it was labeled a natural death. It seemed that when it came to partners this woman had a lot of bad luck. She was, however, becoming rich.

     In 2012, after Chisako's 71-year-old fiancee fell off his motorcycle and died, the police, now suspicious, ordered a blood test that revealed the presence of the poison cyanide. This man had been murdered and Chisako became the prime suspect in the case.

     While under investigation for the poisoning murder of her fiancee, Chisako married again, this time to a 75-year-old man named Isao Kakehi. Mr. Kakehi, a longtime widower, had a substantial savings account and owned his own home. One month after marrying Chisako he ended up dead on the floor of his dwelling. Following the initial cause of death ruling of heart failure, a test of Isao Kakehi's blood revealed a lethal dose of cyanide.

     In November 2014 detectives with the Kyoto Prefectural Police arrested Chisako Kahehi on suspicion of murder in the death of Mr. Kakehi and the death of the poisoned fiancee who fell off his motorcycle in 2012. When the fiancee died from cyanide poisoning Chisako was dating at least two other elderly men. Chisako's arrest probably saved their lives.

     Detectives in December 2014 recovered a small bag of cyanide that had been hidden in a plant pot Chisako Kakehi had thrown away.

     According to investigators the suspected serial killer's M.O. had been simple and direct. She used the online dating services to find lonely and moderately wealthy men whom she showered with romantic emails professing her undying love. Shortly after she married these men she pressured them to change their wills to make her the sole beneficiary of their estates.

     Chisako Kakahi, dubbed by Japan's tabloid media as the "Black Widow," had amassed $8 million of her victims' money. Since she was richer than her last two or three victims, money may not have been her primary motive. She may have killed these men out of anger and resentment against a male-dominated society that did not recognize her worth.

     During her November 2017 murder trial Kakehi confessed to murdering three of her husbands and attempting to kill a fourth. The judge sentenced Chisako Kakehi to death.

    This serial murder case highlighted a problem in Japan's criminal justice system. Because of a critical shortage of forensic pathologists in Japan, autopsies were not conducted on six of Kakehi's suspected eight victims. In 2014 only 11.7 percent of Japan's so-called "unusual deaths" resulted in autopsies. In England that percentage was 40 percent. In Sweden, 95 percent. In the United States, with so many drug overdoses, suicides and murder, while no statistics are available regarding this percentage, it is probably lower than Japan's.

How Did Avonte Oquendo Die?

     Avonte Oquendo, an autistic 14-year-old who didn't speak attended school in Long Island City, Queens New York. The black, five-foot-three, 120 pound student was enrolled in the school's special needs program. He lived with his mother, Vanessa Fontaine, a social services case manager and his four older brothers aged 19 to 29. Avonte's school sat on a busy street across from a playground, a dog run and a jogging path that overlooked the East River.

     At 12:40 PM on October 4, 2013 a school surveillance camera caught Avonte coming out of the building with other school kids. That was the last time anyone saw him. Reacting to the missing persons report filed by his mother, dozens of New York City police officers from the 102 Precinct, aided by two helicopters, conducted a thorough search of the neighborhood.

     Following the initial surge of police activity on the case Avonte's mother Vanessa, working out of a donated recreational vehicle parked in front of the school, oversaw the deployment of volunteer searchers and the distribution of missing person fliers.

     Vanessa Fontaine also organized candlelight vigils and rallies, raised $95,000 in reward money from anonymous donors and appeared on several nationally broadcast television programs. While the police received hundreds of tips, nothing panned out.

     Two months after her son's disappearance Vanessa Fontaine moved her operation out of the RV and set up shop in a rented office. Thirty days after that, with still no leads on Avonte's whereabouts, activity on the case waned. There were fewer tips coming in and only a handful of volunteers showed up each day at Vanessa's missing persons headquarters.

     The missing boy's mother filed a $25 million lawsuit against New York City's Board of Education. The plaintiff accused the staff at Avonte's school of failing to protect him.

     On Thursday night January 16, 2014, body parts and items of clothing were found near the Queens shoreline. The remains were later identified as the missing boy's. The search was over and a new phase of the case, determining Oquendo's cause and manner of death, was underway.

     In March 2014, Richard Condon, the school system's "Special Commissioner of Investigation" sent a 12-page report regarding the Oquendo case to the Queen's District Attorney's Office. The report did not allege that any crime had occurred and did not recommend that any school employee should be disciplined.

     As a criminal matter the Oquendo case was closed. The official manner of the boy's drowning went into the books as "undermined". 
     In July 2018 the city settled a wrongful death suit filed by the family for $2.7 million.

Thursday, July 21, 2022

Inside Jobs: Four Embezzlement Cases

     While it's impossible for a normal person to understand why, for example, a 14-year-old boy sets a building on fire for a sexual thrill, we all know why people steal. We understand because either as children, adolescents or adults we have taken something that didn't belong to us. The motive for theft is simple and direct: to get something for nothing. The more one steals the more serious the crime.

     In criminal law there are several forms of theft. Customers who steal merchandise from stores are retail thieves. People who slip out of restaurants without paying their bills commit theft of service. Employees who steal from their employers are offenders security professionals call internal thieves. Criminals who threaten to expose victims' secrets if not paid money to remain silent are blackmailers. A thug threatening future physical harm if the victim doesn't pay up is called an extortionist. Robbers are thieves who take money and valuables through the use of force or threat of immediate physical force, and burglars steal by unlawful intrusion into homes and buildings. Swindlers and con artists acquire their loot through deception and fraud. And don't forget the passers of bad checks, forged money orders and stolen and fake credit cards. 

     Except for major armored truck heists, big time jewelry thefts and massive credit card cases, the thieves who hit their victims the hardest financially are the embezzlers. (The average bank robbery haul, for example, is just a few thousand dollars.) An embezzler is a person who's in a fiduciary relationship with the victim, a position of trust. The embezzler--accountants, company and organization treasurers, financial managers and various financial institution employees--steal from private and government employers and clients who have entrusted them with their money. While an embezzler can make a big one-time haul, most steal smaller amounts over extended periods of time. To accomplish these illegal diversions of funds embezzlers often alter financial documents and commit the separate crimes of forgery and false swearing. Quite often embezzlers, to get away with their thefts, have accomplices within the victim companies and organizations. Detectives and federal agents who investigate these cases (particularly when they involve sophisticated computer crimes) should be specialists in the investigation of financial offenses and criminal conspiracies.

Ligonier Township Pennsylvania

     An audit of the personal finances of 95-year-old Dr. Robert Monsour led to criminal charges against 58-year-old Maureen A. Becker who was hired in 2000 to take around-the-clock care of the doctor, and to look after his money. Becker has been charged with diverting to her own use, between January 2008 and March 2010, $340,000 of the victim's money. Maureen Becker stood accused of depositing into her own bank account $167,000 from the sale of 67 acres of the doctor's estate. When asked why she had diverted these funds to her own bank account the suspect claimed the money had been a gift from her employer. Becker also told investigators that the doctor had raised her salary from $300 a week to $800. Detectives also found that the suspect deposited a number of her employer's CDs into her account, money she claimed the doctor wanted her to have.

     The judge, following Becker's guilty plea, sentenced her in June 2012 to three years in prison.

New York City

     Anita Collins in 1986 and 1999 pleaded guilty to fraud in connection with the theft of funds from a pair of her New York City employers. In return for her pleas she avoided prison. In 2010, Collins, at age 65, worked in the finance office of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York. She had been hired without a background investigation. In an article published in the archdiocese newspaper, Catholic New York, she received praise for volunteering at St. Patrick's Cathedral when Archbishop Timothy Dolan presided over a mass welcoming 600 people to Catholicism. Described as an "unassuming" person, Collins told the author of the piece that "My faith has always been a steadfast part of my life."

     An outside auditor in November 2011 discovered $350,000 of the church's money missing. Following a criminal investigation by the Manhattan District Attorney's Office Anita Collins was charged with siphoning $1 million in church donations. Over a period of seven years she sent fake invoices to the archdiocese then issued some 450 checks to accounts she controlled. All of the transactions were in sums just under the $2,500 threshold that required a supervisor's approval.

     The church fired Anita Collins in December 2011. According to the chief investigator on the case the suspect spent the $1 million on mortgage payments and on "a lifestyle that was not extravagant but was far from her lawful means."

     Collins pleaded guilty to grand larceny in the first degree in September 2012. In October 2012 the Manhattan judge sentenced her to 4 to 9 years in prison. The judge also ordered her to pay back the church.

Belgrade, Montana

      In November 2010 police were called in when members of the Belgrade Little League Baseball Association couldn't figure out why outstanding bills for uniforms and supplies had not been paid. During a period of four years league board members had signed blank checks and gave them to the treasurer, Amy Jo Erickson. She was supposed to use the checks to pay the bills.

     In January 2011 after the police discovered that $92,000 from the organization had vanished, they confronted Erickson. The little league treasurer admitted that she had made the blank checks out to herself in "cash" and to her husband's plumbing company. She started embezzling in 2007 because she "needed help financially."

     Anita Collins took money from the church and Amy Jo Erickson stole from the parents and sponsors of little league baseball players. They weren't starving, they didn't use the money for life saving surgery, and they didn't play Robin Hood by giving it to the poor. They simply redistributed someone else's money to themselves.

     In October 2012 after Amy Joe Erickson pleaded guilty the judge sentenced her to 180 days in the Gallatin County Jail. The judge ordered her to pay full restitution.

Lakewood, Washington

     On November 29, 2009 a police assassin named Maurice Clemmons walked into a coffee shop in Parkland, Washington and shot four Lakewood police officers to death. Two days later a police officer in Seattle killed Mr. Clemmons in a gun battle. Following the mass murder the police department formed a charity to help the families of the slain officers called the Lakewood Police Independent Guild (LPIG). Officer Timothy Manos became the treasurer of the fund.

     Although the 34-year-old treasurer received a police salary of $93,347 a year, Mr. Manos had serious financial problems. In June 2006, Ford Motor Credit Company sued him for the $12,000 he owned in car payments. He was also being sued for unpaid medical expenses and owed a lot of money to credit card companies. He and his wife enjoyed what many would consider an extravagant lifestyle.

     In 2010 and 2011 citizens in the Lakewood community donated $3.2 million to the fund from which officer Timothy Manos skimmed $150,000. During the period the FBI believed he was embezzling the money the debt-ridden cop took his wife to Las Vegas to enjoy the Cirque du Soleil and several nights of gambling. Also during this period officer Manos spent $1,700 on snowboarding and other outdoor gear. He bought a high-definition video camera, a computer, a stainless-steel refrigerator and a high-definition television set. Between February 12, 2010 and February 20, 2011 Timothy Manos withdrew $50,000 from ATMs.

     In March 2011 FBI agents arrested officer Manos on 10 counts of wire fraud. A LPIG official placed Manos on paid administrative leave pending the completion of the federal investigation.

     A federal judge in Tacoma, following Timmothy Manos' guilty plea, sentenced him to 33 months in prison and ordered him to pay $159,000 in restitution.

     Stealing from the Catholic church and the little league is bad enough, but the ripping-off of a charity for the families of slain police officers by a fellow officer is as bad as it gets.            

Home Alone in Manchester

     In July 2014, a man named Jerusalem Monday, his wife and three of their children left their apartment in Manchester, New Hampshire for a one-month visit to Nigeria Africa. They left their twin 9-year-old boys in the care of Jerusalem's 25-year-old brother Giobari Atura who, according to the plan, had agreed to temporarily move into the apartment with the boys.

     Giobari Atura, instead of taking up residence with his charges, told his nephews that he'd stop by their apartment three times a week to bring them food and see how they were doing. As it turned out the uncle didn't even keep that promise. This became a real problem when the parents didn't come home in a month as planned. By November 2014, five months after they left the U.S., they were still in Nigeria.

     The boys took care of themselves. On school days they got up in time to get on the bus. They ate breakfast and lunch at the school. The kids had no food in the apartment and didn't have access to a phone.

     Someone at the boys' elementary school got wind of their plight and called the State Division of Children, Youth and Families. After a social worker with the agency spoke with the twins she notified the Manchester Police Department and took the twins into protective custody.

     Detectives reached out to the parents in Nigeria who said they had been delayed in Africa due to illness and passport problems. They promised to return home within a couple of weeks. Mr. Monday said that his brother had been assuring him telephonically that the boys were fine. The father said he had no idea his sons had been living alone in the apartment.

     The abandoned boys told detectives how they had managed to get by on their own. They said they had been lonely and missed their family.

     In December 2014 Hillsborough County prosecutor Michael Valentine charged Giobari Atura with the misdemeanor offense of endangering the welfare of a child. The judge set his bail at $500. (I could not find a disposition of the Atura case. He had been scheduled for trial in August 2015.)

     Upon the parents return to the U.S. in December 2014 they gained custody of the twins. The local prosecutor decided not to charge them with a crime.

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

NFL Players, Their Crimes, The Media and The Law

    The number of people killed by intoxicated drivers has been on the decline for a decade. Since the FBI doesn't keep track of this kind of killing specifically, no one knows how many drunk drivers are convicted of homicide. 

     Under state law an intoxicated driver who causes a fatal traffic accident is guilty of an unintentional criminal homicide called, depending on the jurisdiction, involuntary manslaughter, vehicular homicide or vehicular manslaughter. Defendants convicted of this lesser degree of homicide usually receive sentences that range from five to fifteen years in prison. The severity of punishment in these cases depends upon the driver's DUI history, the degree of intoxication and the recklessness of the driving. Over the years, however, judges have become increasingly less lenient in vehicular homicide convictions.

     Every year police in the United States make about 1.5 million DUI arrests, and unless they pull over someone famous, these events are not newsworthy. The same is true for the vast majority of vehicular homicide cases which do not receive much media notice. However, when a drunk driving fatality involves several children, an entire family or a car full of teenagers, the media pays more attention. But these cases are still treated as local or regional news stories.

     In the early morning hours of December 8, 2012, near the southern California town of Victorville, a man named Ilich Ernesto Vargas, while driving the wrong way on I-15, crashed head-on into another vehicle. The 28-year-old driver of the other car, David Ahmed of Fort Irwin, received minor injuries. But the accident took the life of Vargas' passenger, 50-year-old Kellie Sue Hughes. The California Highway Patrol officer who took the drug-crazed Vargas into custody at the scene had to employ his taser. Vargas had broken a leg in the crash.

     This fatal traffic accident on I-15 generated two paragraphs in the Los Angeles Times and a mention the next day on local television news. There was no follow-up by the Los Angeles media.

     On the morning Ilich Vargas crashed his car and killed his passenger in southern California, Josh Brent flipped his Mercedes and killed his passenger in Dallas, Texas. While the police in both fatal traffic accidents suspected that the drivers were intoxicated, and therefore potential vehicular homicide defendants, the crash in Dallas attracted the attention of the national media. The Dallas case was big news because the driver, Josh Brent, played football for the Dallas Cowboys. The fact that his 25-year-old passenger, Jerry Brown, was a teammate, made the story even more media significant, particularly in the wake of the recent murder-suicide involving Jovan Belcher, an NFL player for the Kansas City Chiefs.

     As a potential vehicular homicide case there was nothing in the Josh Brent accident that set it apart from all the other fatalities beyond the identities of the driver and his dead passenger. From the standpoint of the victims' families in these cases all of these accidents were tragic. And to varying degrees, these fatalities ruined the lives of the intoxicated drivers. But this wasn't enough by itself to make these cases newsworthy. In the Josh Brent case the added ingredient was sports. It was mainly a sports story.

     It should come as no surprise that in a country where a single NFL football game generates three times more media attention than the typical crime, weather, political, war or business related story, that Josh Brent's status as a professional football player made his case so important. Print journalists and cable TV correspondents, as well as sports broadcasters and pundits babbled on and on about the effect of the tragedy on the other players, and of course the team. 

     Correspondents and reporters in the news and sports media used the Josh Brent case and the Jovan Belcher murder-suicide as a jumping off point for discussions on the possible effects of head trauma in the NFL. Had the sport of football become too violent?  Was football responsible for player depression, off-the-field domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, suicide and murder? 

     In American culture professional athletes are special people and as such are treated differently than ordinary citizens. Their problems are our problems, indeed, our responsibility. Prior to the intense media coverage of their tragedies most people never heard of Josh Brent, Jerry Brown or Jovan Belcher. Had these men not been professional football players most people still wouldn't know their names.

     While we are in theory all equal under the law, we are not equal under the glare of the media. This may not have been a good thing for Josh Brent. The magistrate set his bail at $500,000.

     In January 2014 a jury found Josh Brent guilty of manslaughter. The judge sentenced him to 180 days in jail and ten years of probation. The fact he played professional football probably explains the light sentence.