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Wednesday, December 28, 2022

The Edgar Steele Murder-For-Hire Case

     Edgar J. Steele, in 2009, resided with his wife Cyndi on a horse ranch near the town of Sagle in northern Idaho. Ten years earlier, Steele, a lawyer who billed himself as the "attorney for the damned," represented Aryan Nations founder and leader Richard Butler in a civil suit the white supremacist lost.

     In January 2010, the 65-year-old Steele solicited a man (who was not identified in the media) to kill his 50-year-old wife and her mother by staging a fatal car accident. According to the murder-for-hire plan, Steele would pay the hit man $25,000. If his wife's life insurance paid off, Steele would kick in an additional $100,000 for the double-hit.

     On June 9, 2010, the man Steele had solicited for murder got cold feet and called the FBI. The next time the would-be hit man and the mastermind met, the snitch secretly recorded Steele soliciting the murders of his wife and his mother-in-law.

      Shortly after the recorded meeting with the informant, FBI agents arrested Steele at his home. While the attorney sat in the Kootenai County Jail, FBI agents questioned his wife.

     According to Cyndi Steele, between 2000 and 2010, her husband had sent 14,000 emails to hundreds of Ukrainian women. In 2000, she caught him soliciting relationships with Ukrainian women on Match.com. To lay a trap, Cyndi posted a phony profile of her own on Match.com under a fake name. Steele replied to her posting. Cyndi Steele filed for divorce, but not long after that, the couple reconciled.

     A few days following Steele's arrest, his wife decided to get an oil change before driving to Oregon to visit her mother. When an employee of the oil change service looked under her SUV, he discovered a pipe bomb. ATF agents responded to the scene and disarmed the device.

      Following the car bomb discovery, FBI agents arrested Larry Fairfax, a former Edgar Steele handyman. Fairfax confessed to planting the car bomb on May 20, 2010. According to Fairfax, Edgar Steele had given him $10,000 in silver coins as a downpayment for the murder of Cyndi and her mother. As part of the murder-for-hire plan, Fairfax was supposed to plant another pipe bomb under Edgar Steele's car, a device the murder-for-hire mastermind could detonate to make himself look like an intended victim.

     On June 15, 2010, a grand jury sitting in Coeur d' Arlene indicted Edgar Steele on two counts of using interstate commerce facilities in the commission of murder-for-hire. The grand jury also indicted him for tampering with a federal witness. (From his jail cell, Steele had called his wife to tell her that the voice on the audio tape that contained the murder-for-hire conversation with the FBI snitch was not him.)

     The government provided Steele, who claimed he was broke, with a federal public defender. However, by February 2011, Steele's supporters had raised $120,000 for his defense. That allowed the accused to hire Robert T. McAllister, a prominent trial attorney from Denver.

     In January 2011, Larry Fairfax pleaded guilty to federal charges related to the placing of the pipe bomb on the intended victim's car. In return for his promise to testify against Steele at his upcoming trial, the judge sentenced Fairfax to 27 months in prison.

     The Edgar Steele murder-for-hire trial got underway on April 30, 2011 in Coeur d' Arlene, Idaho before federal judge B. Lynn Winmill. Assistant United States Attorney Traci Jo Whelan, in an effort to establish the defendant's motive in the case, introduced several love letters Steele had written from his jail cell to a Ukrainian woman named Tatyana Loginova.

     Larry Fairfax took the stand and testified that he had placed the pipe bomb under Cyndi Steele's SUV and Edgar Steele's car.

     Defense attorney Robert McAllister portrayed the government's case against his client as a conspiracy based on perjured testimony and FBI wrongdoing. According to McAllister, the federal government objected to Steele's political beliefs and wanted to silence him.

     Cyndi Steele took the stand to testify on her husband's behalf. (This was not the first time in a murder-for-hire case where the targeted wife stood by the husband who had plotted her death.)

     On May 5, 2011, the jury of eleven women and one man found Edgar Steele guilty on all counts. Seven months after this verdict Judge Winmill sentenced the murder-for-hire mastermind to fifty years to be served at the federal corrections facility at Victorville, California.

     Steele, with the help of a new lawyer, appealed his conviction to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. According to the appellant, Judge Winmill had improperly instructed the jury. Steele also claimed that he had been denied adequate counsel. This assertion was based on the fact that one month after the guilty verdict, attorney McAllister was disbarred for stealing money in an unrelated case. As a result, he had been so distracted by his own legal problems that he hadn't performed well for Steele.

     In October 2013, the three-judge panel sitting on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed Steel's murder-for-hire conviction. The decision, however, did not deter Steele's ardent supporters, people who claimed the FBI framed him because of his anti-government politics. They continued, without result, to fight for his freedom.

Tuesday, December 27, 2022

Amish-Mennonite Pastor Kenneth Miller and His Underground Railroad

     Lisa Miller, as a teenager and young woman in Virginia, struggled with an addiction to pills and alcohol. She also participated in self-mutilation. After a failed marriage and a suicide attempt, Lisa began dating women.

     In 1997, Lise met Janet Jenkins at an alcoholics anonymous meeting in Falls Church, Virginia. They became a couple, and in 2000 traveled to Vermont, the first state to offer homosexuals civil unions, to get married. The pair, after being civilly united by a judge, adopted the surname Miller-Jenkins, and in 2002 bought a two-story house in a small southern Vermont town called Fair Haven.

     On April 16, 2002, after getting pregnant through in vitro fertilization, Lisa, at age 34, gave birth to Isabella. But in September 2003, when Isabella was 17-months-old, Lisa and Janet split-up. After the break in the relationship, a family court judge in Vermont granted Janet regular child visitation rights.

     In 2008, after trying but failing to terminate her former partner's visitation rights, Lisa Miller moved to Lynchburg, Virginia where a Christian anti-gay marriage activist named Janet Stasulli befriended her. Lisa, under Stasulli's guidance and influence, became a born-again Christian, and pursuant to her new religious beliefs, denounced homosexuality as a sin. In October 2009 the family court judge in Vermont granted Janet Jenkins primary custody of Isabella.

     Kenneth Miller (no relation to Lisa), a 43-year-old Beachy Amish-Mennonite pastor from Stuarts Draft, Virginia, a town of 9,000 30 miles north of Lynchburg, conceived of a plan to get Lisa and Isabella out of the country to keep the 7-year-old out of the custody of a lesbian parent. On September 21, 2009, Philip Zodhiates, an evangelical leader, and owner of a Lynchburg Christian direct-mail company, drove Lisa and her daughter to Buffalo, New York. Shortly after midnight mother and daughter crossed the boarder into Canada in a taxi cab. They were met on the other side by a Canadian evangelical pastor named Ervin Horst who drove Lisa and Isabella, disguised in long skirts and head scarves of the type worn by the Amish-Mennonites, to the Toronto airport. Later that day the fleeing mother and daughter flew to Managua, Nicaragua. 

     Pastor Kenneth Miller, indicted by a federal grand jury sitting in Burlington, Vermont for the offense of abetting an international parental kidnapping, went on trial on August 8, 2012. If convicted, the Amish-Mennonite leader faced up to three years in prison.

     Fifty Amish-Mennonite supporters looked on as the Assistant United States Attorney, Eugenia Cowles, and defense attorney Joshua M. Autry, made their opening remarks to the jury. According to the defense version of the case, Pastor Miller did not know that by leaving the country Lisa Miller was violating a lawful child visitation order. Defense attorney Autry argued that his client, therefore, did not possess the requisite criminal intent to obstruct the court order giving Janet Jenkins primary custody of the child.

     Federal prosecutor Cowles told the jurors that Pastor Miller had selected Nicaragua as the point of destination because that country and the United States did not have an extradition treaty. Moreover, the preacher made sure to book a flight from Canada to Mexico that didn't touch down in America.

     Philip Zodhiates, Janet Stasulli and Ervin Horst, the evangelists the defendant had called upon to carry out his anti-homosexual underground escape, took the stand as reluctant prosecution witnesses. Isabella's custody parent, Janet Jenkins, testified that she hadn't seen the girl since January 2009, eight months before the evangelists snuck her out of the country. The government rested its case on August 12. 2012.

     Defense attorney Joshua Autry put on a pair of character witnesses, then rested his case without bringing Pastor Miller to the stand to testify on his own behalf. On August 14, 2012, the jury, after deliberating four hours, found the defendant guilty of abetting international parental kidnapping. Outside the federal building, a group of 100 Amish-Mennonite supporters stood around singing gospel hymns. Pastor Miller remained free on bail until his sentencing.

     Just hours after the verdict, Janet Jenkins filed a civil lawsuit against Philip Zodhiates, Ervin Horst and Janet Stasulli, the people who had helped Pastor Miller kidnap her custody child.

     On March 14, 2013, the federal district judge sentenced Pastor Miller to 27 months in prison. The Paster would not, however, begin his sentence until a federal appeals court reviewed and ruled on the case.

     On October 8, 2014, federal prosecutors charged Philip Zodhiates with conspiracy and international parental kidnapping for his role in the abduction. Zodhiates pleaded not guilty to the charges.

     In March 2017, after being convicted as charged, the federal judge sentenced Zodhiates to 36 months in prison.

     Pastor Kenneth Miller lost his appeal in February 2016 and a month later was sentenced to 27 months in prison. In April 2018, after serving just under two years in federal custody, Miller was released from custody.

Monday, December 26, 2022

The Glen Hochman Murder-Suicide Case

     In January 2015, 52-year-old Glen Hochman took a disability retirement from the White Plains Police Department after missing four months of work due to an ankle injury suffered while helping a motorist. Hochman had been on the suburban New York City force 22 years. He resided in an upper-middle-class home in Harrison, a small town twenty miles northeast of Manhattan with his wife Anamarie DiPietro-Hochman and their three daughters and three dogs. Following his retirement, Glen Hochman and his wife had engaged in a "family discussion" about separating.

     At nine-thirty in the morning of Friday February 20, 2015, Anamarie Hochman visited the Harrison Police Department where she reported that she and her husband had just had an argument over an $80 cellphone bill. Because he hadn't threatened her and didn't became violent, she asked the department not to act on this information. She said she was merely "documenting" the incident.

     Later on the day Anamarie went to the police department, she, her oldest daughter and a friend left Harrison by car on an overnight excursion to an area casino. That left two of her daughters--17-year-old Alissa, a Harrison High School senior and Deanna, a 13-year-old student at the Windward School in White Plains--at home with their father.

     The next day, Saturday February 21, at three-fifty in the afternoon, Alissa's boyfriend, at Anamarie's request went to the Hochman house to check on the girls. In the garage he found Mr. Hochman lying dead on the floor with a pistol in his hand. 

     The stunned boyfriend called Mrs. Hochman who was driving home from the casino. He then dialed 911. Anamarie's friend, a passenger in her car, called 911 as well.

     At the Hochman residence officers with the Harrison Police Department, in addition to Mr. Hochman, discovered the bodies of Alissa and Deanna in their rooms. The girls had been shot in the head at close range. The family pets had been shot to death as well.

     On Sunday February 22, Harrison Police Chief Anthony Marraccina, without saying it directly at the press conference, revealed that Glen Hochman had killed his daughters, shot the dogs then committed suicide. He had left behind a 5-page note that explained why he had "taken his daughters away."

     According to Chief Marraccini, Glen Hochman had no history of mental illness or domestic violence and was not in financial trouble. The chief, however, did not reveal the exact contents of the suicide note. Autopsies were performed by a forensic pathologist with the Westchester County Medical Examiner's Office. Friends and relatives of the family said they had not seen this coming.

Saturday, December 24, 2022

The Itinerate Lab Technician Who Made People Sick

     David Kwiatkowski traveled around the country working as a hospital temp in cardiac catheterization labs as a radiology technician. From January 2007 to September of that year, the 29-year-old worked at the Oakwood Annapolis Hospital in Wayne, Michigan, his home state. From November 2007 to March 2010, Kwiatowski was employed by hospitals in Poughkeepsie, New York, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Baltimore and Clinton, Maryland.

     On April 1, 2010, the itinerate lab technician landed a job in Phoenix at the Arizona Heart Hospital. Eleven days later, a fellow employee found him out cold in the men's locker room. After testing positive for cocaine and marijuana, the hospital fired him. Less than a week later, Kwiakowski was in Philadelphia working at Temple University Hospital. That job lasted less than a month. That May the roving temp was employed at a hospital in Hays, Kansas. A month after taking the job in Kansas, Kwiatkowski's drug usage caught up with him. He was also diagnosed with hepatitis C. After working a month at the Hays Hospital, the infected temp was working in Warner Robins, Georgia at the Houston Medical Center. (There must have been a shortage of radiology technicians. Wasn't anyone keeping track of this man?)

      In April 2012, David Kwiatkowski began work in the cardiac catheterization unit at the Exeter Hospital in Exeter, New Hampshire. On May 12, 2012, six weeks after the temp started work at Exeter, the hospital experienced a hepatitis C breakout involving 32 patients and former patients.

     Because the infected patients had all received cardiac catheterization procedures at Exeter, David Kwiatkowski came under suspicion. Investigators began looking into his bizarre work history and learned he had been diagnosed with hepatitis C in June 2010. Fellow hospital employees, based on the temp's erratic behavior, and the fresh needle tracks on his arms, suspected he was a drug addict. (Why didn't any of these employees speak up? What kind of people were working in our hospitals?) Kwiatkowski's roommate told investigators that he had found needles in their apartment. When confronted by his roommate, Kwiatkowski said he had cancer. The hospital fired the radiology temp on May 24, 2012.

     Following a month-long investigation FBI agents determined that Kwiatkowski had injected himself with syringes meant for patients. These syringes were filled with Fentanyl, a painkiller more potent than morphine. Patients were then infected with syringes Kwiatkowski had refilled with a saline solution. Patients had not only been denied relief from pain, the temp had given them hepatitis C.

     On July 13, 2012, police in Marlborough, Massachusetts responded to a call from a Holiday Inn regarding a guest who had overdosed on drugs. Officers found David Kwiatkowski in a stupor amid pills scattered about the hotel room. He had also written a suicide note. Medics transported him to a nearby hospital.

     A federal grand jury sitting in New Hampshire, on July 19, 2012 indicted Kwiatkowski for acquiring controlled substances by fraud and for tampering with a consumer product (the hospital syringes). If convicted of these offenses, he faced up to 24 years in prison. On the day of his indictment, FBI agents arrested Kwiatkowski at the Marlborough hospital where he was recovering from his drug and alcohol overdose.

     When interrogated by FBI agents, Kwiatkowski denied stealing the syringes and switching out their contents. Moreover, he said he didn't use drugs. When asked how the 32 patients at the Exeter Hospital had contracted hepatitis C, the suspect said, "You know, I'm more concerned about myself, my own well-being. I've learned here to just worry about myself. And that's all I care about now." Spoken like a true sociopath.

     David Kwiatkowski was held without bail in the Strafford County Jail in New Hampshire. In that state alone he had come into contact with more than 3,000 patients, people who had yet to be tested for hepatitis C.

     In August 2013, Kwiatkowski, pursuant to a plea agreement, admitted that he had been stealing drugs for more than a decade and was "killing a lot of people." After pleading guilty to fourteen federal drug theft and tampering charges, the judge sentenced the 35-year-old to 39 years in prison.

Friday, December 23, 2022

The Juan Rivera False Murder Confession

     Anyone, under the right conditions, can falsely confess to a crime, but those most prone to this are young people, the mentally slow and arrestees terrified of the police. False confessors often think that the investigators will eventually catch the real criminal and everything will be straightened out. These people obviously don't know much about law enforcement and the criminal justice system.

     An interrogator more interested in getting at the truth than acquiring a confession should suspect that something is wrong when the physical evidence contradicts the confessor's account of the crime. Factual inconsistency within the confession is another sign of trouble. To avoid false confessions, interrogators should be careful not to feed details of the crime to suspects. Interrogators should also ask open ended questions. Contradictions in confessions should be resolved before the written statements are signed. To reduce the risk of coercion, prolonged questioning should be avoided, and only one officer should conduct the interrogation in a calm and professional manner. Ideally, an interrogator should only try to acquire a confession when there is substantial evidence of guilt. Interrogation techniques should not be used on weak suspects.

     All interrogations should be video-taped (In some states this is required by law.) and no conviction should be based solely on the strength of a confession.

The Juan Rivera Case

     On the night of August 17, 1992, someone raped and stabbed to death an 11-year-old girl named Holly Staker who was baby-sitting two young children in Waukegan, Illinois. The Lake County police questioned 200 people that included a 19-year-old with a ninth-grade education named Juan Rivera. Rivera said he had attended a party that night not far from the murder house. At the party he had noticed a man who had behaved strangely. Weeks later, on October 27, 1992, the police brought Rivera back to the station for a second interview. Rivera told the same story, but the interrogators didn't believe him.

     Following a psychologically brutal, nonstop 24-hour interrogation, Rivera broke down and confessed to raping and murdering Holly Staker. When asked why his fingerprints were not at the scene of the crime, Rivera provided a helpful explanation. After stabbing the girl 27 times, then raping her, Rivera said he bashed in a door with a mop to simulate a break and entering. Before leaving the house he removed his fingerprints by wiping off the mop handle with a towel. He then broke the murder knife and tossed the pieces in the victim's backyard.

     In 1993 a jury found Rivera guilty and sentenced him to life. In two subsequent trials, the last being in 2009, juries found him guilty again even though DNA testing in 2005 ruled him out as the depositor of the semen inside the victim's body. (The prosecutor wished this exonerating evidence away with the preposterous theory that the 11-year-old had had sex with another man just before being murdered by Rivera.) The fact Rivera had been convicted of such a serious crime without the benefit of physical evidence linking him to the crime scene or the murder weapon revealed the power Rivera's confessions had over the jurors.

     On December 10, 2011, an Illinois appellate court reversed Rivera's murder conviction. The judge also barred Lake County prosecutors from trying Rivera for the fourth time. A week later, the 39-year-old, after 19 years served at the Statesville Correctional Center near Joilet, walked out of prison. Because Rivera's interrogators manufactured a false confession, Holly Staker's killer was not brought to justice.

Wednesday, December 21, 2022

The Chinese Sex Dungeon Murder Case

     In August 2009, 33-year-old Li Hoa and his wife lived in a apartment complex in Luoyang City, a municipality in central China's Henan Province. Li, a former firefighter, worked in the city's Quality and Technical Supervision Bureau. (I have no idea what he did for the city.) That August, Li Hoa finished building, beneath his apartment building's basement, a three-level living space complex that consisted of a flight of stairs that led down to a tunnel/crawl space that dropped to a pair of adjacent rooms four meters beneath the basement floor. (The tunnel dropped a few feet then made a right angle turn into the living quarters.)

     Li Hoa furnished the rooms, each the size of a small jail cell, with a bed, a chair, a toilet and a hot plate for heating food. He also wired these underground boxes for electricity, and supposedly did all of this work in a clandestine fashion. (According to Li, his wife thought he had an extra job working as a night watchman.)

     Between August 2009 and September 2011, Li Hoa kidnaped six women in their twenties from area nightclubs, karaoke bars and salons and held them captive in his underground rooms. Li raped his prisoners, forced them to perform in pornographic web videos that viewers could upload for a fee, and escorted the women into the city where they worked for him as prostitutes.

     In 2010, Li forced three of his sex slaves to help him beat one of their fellow captives to death. He did this to instill fear and discipline into them. He buried the victim's body beneath one of the cells. Less that a year later Li and three of his women murdered a second prisoner. They buried her body near the first murder victim.

     Li Hoa's sex dungeon operation came to an end in September 2011. One of his unsupervised prostitutes, instead of returning to the underground prison with his money, went to the police. When the captive didn't return to her subterranean quarters as scheduled, Li realized that she had escaped and that his days as a sex slave master were over. He borrowed 1,000 yuan from his sister to help finance his flee from the police, but got caught before leaving the city. (The sister later pleaded guilty to harboring a criminal in return for a probated sentence.)

     Li Hoa faced charges of murder, rape, kidnapping, running a prostitution enterprise and the distribution of pornography for profit. The three women he had coerced into helping him commit the two murders were convicted of criminal homicide. The judge sentenced two of these defendants to probation, and the third to three years in prison.

     On November 3, 2012, a judge in Luoyang City sentenced Li Hoa to death. Unlike in America where death row inmates often live decades beyond their convictions, Li Hoa died by firing squad on January 21, 2013.

     Although there is much that is unknown about this case, it's hard to believe that Li Hoa's wife wasn't aware of what he was doing beneath the apartment building. Moreover, it's hard to believe that Li built his underground dungeon in secret. The case reeks of official corruption. In the cases of the missing bar girls, the police were probably not working that hard to find them.      

Tuesday, December 20, 2022

The Cecilia Chang Murder-For-Hire Case

     In 1975, a 22-year-old student from Taiwan (an island 200 miles off the coast of mainland China) named Cecilia Chang, enrolled in the Asian Studies Master's Degree program at St. John's University in Queens, New York. After Chang acquired the degree in 1977, the university hired her as an Asian Studies professor. Three years later, university administrators promoted Chang to the position of Dean of the Institute For Asian Studies. Having exhibited the ability to raise money for the program from the Taiwanese and other Asian governments, Chang's job as dean involved fund-raising. She spent the next decade traveling the world, living high on donor contributions to the school and her university expense account.

     In October 1986, Cecilia Chang's husband, Ruey Fung, filed for divorce and sought custody of the couples's toddler son. Four years later, in the midst of a contentious domestic struggle over money and child custody, Ruey Fung was shot outside a warehouse in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn.

     Ruey Fung died from his wounds eleven days after the shooting. But before he passed away, homicide detectives were able to question him at the hospital. Unable to speak, Mr. Fung wrote: "I know the man who shot me, but I do not know his name. Cecilia Chang was the person who paid the guy to shoot me." Ruey Fung claimed that his wife wanted him dead so she wouldn't have to split their estate which included a hosiery business. With his death she would also gain custody of the boy.

     Because NYC homicide detectives were unable to identity the man who shot and killed Mr. Fung, the investigation died on the vine. Notwithstanding her husband's deathbed murder accusation and police suspicion that Chang had engaged the services of a hit man, her fund-raising career at St. John's University continued to flourish.

     In 2001, Cecilia Chang began spending an inordinate amount of time in Connecticut at the Foxwoods Casino where she lost tens of thousands of dollars playing high-stakes baccarat. Her wagering strategy of doubling her bet each time she lost compounded her casino losses.

     A grand jury sitting in Queens, New York, in 2010, indicted Chang on 205 counts of fraud and embezzlement. She stood accused of stealing huge amounts of money from St. John's University. In addition to embezzling $1 million from the institution, Chang was accused of using her $350,000 a year expense account, and donor money, to finance skiing and surfing trips for her son, fund his law school tuition and even pay for his dog's veterinary bills.

     Dean Chang also faced charges of theft, fraud, and corruption in federal court. In 2011, after being charged federally, the judge placed her under house arrest. In the fall of 2012, the federal case against Chang went to trial in Brooklyn, New York. When the Assistant United States Attorney rested the government's case, it was clear to people following the trial that the defendant was guilty.

     On November 5, 2012, believing that she could convince the jury that she was innocent of all charges, Chang took the stand on her own behalf. It quickly became obvious that the jurors not only didn't like her, they didn't believe her testimony. At one point jurors actually laughed loudly at something she said. At this point in the trial, Cecilia Chang realized that in all probability she would be spending the next twenty years in federal prison.

     On Tuesday, the day after her devastatingly bad afternoon on the stand, Chang, in her $1.7 million home in the Jamaica section of Queens, committed suicide. The 59-year-old was found hanging from a ladder that folded down from her attic. Chang had also slit her wrists. She left behind several suicide notes, written in Mandarin, in which, in true sociopathic fashion, she blamed St. John's University for her problems and her suicide.

     Cecilia Chang had gotten accustomed to having all the money she needed to lavishly entertain herself, her son and all of her friends in high places. She felt entitled to use university and donor money to live extravagantly and to cover her gambling loses. The university had some responsibility for Chang's financial excesses. No university employee should be allowed a $350,000 a year expense account. It seemed that at St. John's University no one was watching the store while an employee lived high on other people's money.     

Monday, December 19, 2022

The Jason Young Murder Trials

     In November 2006, 29-year-old Jason Young and his 26-year-old wife Michelle lived in a suburban home outside of Raleigh, North Carolina. They had a two-year-old daughter named Cassidy and Michelle was five months pregnant with their second child. It was not a happy marriage. Jason had several girlfriends, and as a salesman for a medical software company, spent a lot of time on the road. Michelle told friends and relatives that she hated her life.

     On the morning of November 3, 2006, Jason Young was out of town. The previous night he had checked into a Hampton Inn in Huntsville, Virginia 169 miles from Raleigh. At nine that morning he left a voicemail for Michelle's younger sister, Meredith Fisher. Jason asked Meredith to stop by his house and retrieve some papers for him. (Presumably, he told Meredith he had called home and didn't get an answer.)

     Later that morning, Meredith Fisher entered the Young house on Jason's behalf. When she climbed the stairs to the second floor she was shocked by the sight of bloody footprints. In the master bedroom she discovered her sister lying facedown in a pool of blood. The victim, wearing a white sweatshirt and black sweatpants, had been bludgeoned to death beyond recognition. Meredith found Cassidy hiding under the covers of her parents' bed. She had not been harmed, but her socks were saturated in her mother's blood. Meredith Fisher called 911.

     According to the forensic pathologist who performed the autopsy, the assailant had struck Michelle Young at least thirty times in the head. The attacker had tried to kill the victim by manual strangulation before beating her to death. The extent of the head wounds suggested an attack by an enraged, out-of-control killer who hated the victim.

     The authorities, from the beginning, suspected that Jason Young had snuck back to North Carolina from Virginia, murdered his wife, then returned to the Hampton Inn. The killer had entered the house without force, nothing had been taken and the little girl's life had been spared. At the time of the murder, Jason was having an affair with one of his wife's friends. The couple had been fighting and Jason had made no secret of the fact he wanted out of the marriage.

     From a prosecutor's point of view there were serious holes in the Jason Young case. The suspect had an alibi 169 miles from the murder scene and there was no physical evidence linking him to the carnage. Moreover, no one had seen him at the house on the night of the murder. Even worse, investigators had not identified the murder weapon. As a result of these prosecutorial weaknesses, the Wake County District Attorney's Office did not charge Jason with the murder of his wife.

     Michelle Young's parents were convinced that Jason Young had murdered their daughter. When it became apparent that the authorities were not taking action they filed a wrongful death suit against him. In March 2009, two years and four months after the homicide, the civil court jury, applying a standard of proof that is less demanding than a criminal trial's proof beyond a reasonable doubt, found the defendant responsible for Michelle's brutal killing. The jurors awarded the plaintiffs $15.5 million in damages.

     Eight months after the civil court verdict, a Wake County prosecutor, based on a three-year homicide investigation conducted by the City-County Bureau of Investigation, charged Jason Young with first-degree murder. Police officers, on the afternoon of December 15, 2009 arrested Young after pulling over his car in Brevard, a town in southwest North Carolina. The local magistrate denied him bail.

     The Jason Young murder case went to trial in Raleigh in June 2011. The prosecutor, following his opening statement in which he alleged that the defendant had drugged his daughter that night with adult-strength Tylenol and a prescription sedative, put on an entirely circumstantial case that relied heavily on motive.

     The defense attorney hammered home the fact the prosecution could not place the defendant at the scene of the murder. The state did not have a confession, an eyewitness or even the murder weapon. Jason took the stand on his own behalf and told the jurors that when his wife was murdered he was sleeping in a hotel 169 miles away. He said he had loved his wife and their unborn child.

     On Monday morning, June 27, 2011, the foreman of the jury of seven men and five women told the judge that the jurors were "immovably hung" on the verdict. "We currently sit," he said, "at a six to six ration and do not appear to be able to make any further movement. Where do we go from here?"

     The trial judge instructed the jurors to return to the jury room and try to reach a verdict. But later in the day, after deliberating a total of twelve hours, the foreman announced that they were deadlocked in an eight to four vote in favor of acquittal. The judge declared a mistrial.

     The Wake County District Attorney, determined to bring Jason Young to justice, announced that he would try him again. Jason, who had been incarcerated in the Wake County Jail since his arrest in December 2009, went on trial for the second time on February 10, 2012.

     The prosecutor, in his opening statement, alleged that the defendant had checked into the Hillsville Hampton Inn just before eleven on the night of November 2, 2006. An hour later, he left the building through an emergency exit he had propped open with a rock to avoid using his computer card key to re-enter the hotel. According to the prosecutor, the defendant arrived at his Birchleaf Drive home at around three in the morning. Shortly after his arrival, he drugged his daughter and murdered his wife. After cleaning up and disposing of his bloody shirt, shoes and trousers, and ditching or cleaning off the murder weapon, he returned to the hotel, arriving there around seven in the morning.

     Following the testimony of the victim's sister, Meredith Fisher, and the testimony of several other prosecution witnesses, a Hampton Inn hotel clerk took the stand. According to this witness, he had found the emergency door on the first-floor stairwell propped open with a rock. He also noticed that in the same stairwell someone had unplugged the security camera and turned its lens toward the ceiling.

     One of the City-County Bureau of Investigation crime scene officers testified that it appeared that someone had moved the victim's body to get into the defendant's closet. The detective said that despite all of the blood on the upstairs floor, certain items such as the sink drain had been sanitized by the killer. The investigator said he did find traces of blood on the knob to the door leading from the house to the garage. The detective said he had been present when, on the day after the murder, the suspect's body was checked for signs of trauma related to the killing. No injuries were found.

      A second detective testified that the dark shirt the defendant was seen wearing on hotel surveillance video footage was not in the suitcase he had used on that trip. The implication was that the defendant had disposed of the bloody garment.

     Included among the prosecution witnesses who took the stand over the next two weeks were two daycare employees who said they had seen Cassidy Young acting out her mother's beating. The girl was using a doll to demonstrate the attack. A therapist took the stand and testified that a week before her death, the victim had come to her seeking counseling to cope with her unhappy marriage. In the therapist's opinion Michelle Young had been verbally abused by her husband.

     Jason Young's mother and father took the stand for the defense. On November 3, 2006 Jason had driven from the Hampton Inn in Virginia to his parents's home in Brevard, North Carolina. His mother testified that when they broke the news to him that Michelle had been murdered, "you saw the color just drain from his face."

     On February 29, 2012, the defense rested its case without calling Jason Young to the stand. (The defense attorney was probably worried that the prosecutor, having studied Jason's direct testimony from the first trial, would rip him apart on cross-examination.)

     The prosecutor, in his closing argument to the jury, said, "This woman wasn't just murdered, she suffered a beating the likes of which we seldom see. This woman was punished. The assailant struck her over thirty times with a weapon of some sort, and she was undoubtedly unconscious after the second or third blow." In speaking to jurors, the prosecutor mentioned the 2009 wrongful death verdict against the defendant.

     The defense attorney during his final jury presentation pointed out the weaknesses in the prosecution's case, talked about reasonable doubt, and reminded the jury that being a bad husband did not make his client a murderer.

     On March 5, 2012, after the jury of eight women and four men deliberated eight hours, the judge, before a packed courtroom, read the verdict: guilty of first-degree murder. The 38-year-old defendant, after the judge announced the verdict, showed no emotion. Facing a mandatory life sentence without the chance of parole, Jason Young was escorted out of the room in handcuffs.

     Following the trial, several of the jurors spoke to reporters. Two members of the jury said that the lack of physical evidence in the case pointed more to the defendant's guilt than his innocence. For example, what happened to the shirt and shoes he was seen wearing on the hotel surveillance footage? A third juror found it incriminating that Cassidy had not been murdered and possibly cleaned-up after the attack.

     The prosecutor in the Jason Young murder trial, the second time around, turned a weakness--a lack of physical evidence--into a strength. In the era of the "CSI" television shows, advanced DNA technology, and high forensic expectations on the part of juries, this was an unusual case.

     Shortly after the murder conviction, Jason Young's attorney filed an appeal raising, among other procedural issues, the fact the jury had been improperly prejudiced by the prosecutor's mention of the 2009 verdict in the wrongful death case.

     On April 1, 2014, a North Carolina panel of three appellate judges unanimously set aside the Jason Young murder conviction and ordered a new trial. In the 58-page opinion, the justices ruled that the prosecutor's reference to the wrongful death verdict had seriously diminished the defendant's presumption of innocence. He had thus been denied a fair trial.

     On August 21, 2015, the North Carolina Supreme Court reversed the state appeals court's new trial ruling. The Jason Young murder conviction would stand. 

Sunday, December 18, 2022

The Kyle Dube Murder Case

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 17, 2022

Travis M. Scott: The Swindler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 15, 2022

The Deadly Bay Area Limousine Fire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 13, 2022

What Happened To David Bird?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 9, 2022

Collateral Damage in a Botched SWAT Raid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     In September 2014, due to public criticism of the raid, a state grand jury began hearing testimony regarding the incident. A month later the grand jurors voted not to bring any criminal charges against the officers involved in the no-knock predawn SWAT raid. 

Thursday, December 8, 2022

The College Student From Hell

     In 2009, Megan Thode, a graduate student at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, looked forward to earning her master's degree in counseling and human services. To acquire the degree which she would need to qualify for a state counseling license, Thode had to earn at least a B grade in her fieldwork class taught by Professor Amanda Eckhardt. Professor Eckhardt, however, upset the applecart when she issued Thode a C-plus. That's when all hell broke out at Lehigh University. 

     While colleges and universities have established procedures for student grade appeals, unless a disgruntled student can prove that the professor made an error in calculating the grade, the student doesn't have a chance. (Some students, notwithstanding these policies, get their grades changed by becoming such pains-in-the-neck they wear their professors down. In our sob-story culture everyone has a gut-wrenching tale of woe. Kids who brown-nosed their way through high school are the best at this. Megan Thode and her father, a Lehigh professor, met with Professor Eckhardt who explained that the C-plus was based on the fact Thode's score for the class participation phase of the course was a zero out of a possible twenty-five. Ouch. The goose-egg bumped her down a full letter grade. (In the old days, parents of college kids didn't get involved in their academic affairs. Back then, college-aged people were supposed to be entering adulthood.)

     When Professor Eckhardt said she would not change Thode's fieldwork grade, the frustrated student filed an internal grievance against her. Thode not only demanded that her grade be changed to a B, she expected the professor to apologize to her in writing for the C-plus, and to compensate her for the adverse financial consequences of being an unlicensed counselor. Thode did not get her grade bumped up, there was no apology and no compensation. Having exhausted her in-house administrative remedies the disgruntled student got herself a lawyer. 

     Through her attorney, Richard J. Orloski, Megan Thode filed a $1.3 million lawsuit against Lehigh University and Professor Eckhardt in which the plaintiff alleged breach of contract and sexual discrimination. (Exactly what contract the school and professor violated was unclear.) As to the sexual discrimination charge, Thode claimed that she had been punished by her professor because she, Thode, was a strong supporter of gay and lesbian rights. (It would be almost impossible to find a college professor anywhere who didn't strongly support gay and lesbian rights. If Thode had supported free speech and gun rights the lawyer may have had a discrimination case.)

     Thode's suit came to trial in February 2013 before Northhampton County Judge Emil Giordano. The plaintiff's attorney, in addressing the bench, said that as a result of the defendant professor's low grade, his client had "literally lost a career." 

     Neil Hamburg, the attorney representing Professor Eckhardt and Lehigh University, in making the case that this lawsuit was absurd, said, "I think if your honor changed the grade you'd be the first court in the history of jurisprudence to change an academic grade"

     Judge Giordano indicated his agreement with the defendant's attorney when he said, "I've practiced law for longer than I'd like to admit and I've never seen anything like this."

     Attorney Hamburg, in defending Professor Eckhardt's evaluation of the plaintiff's academic performance, acknowledged that on paper Thode had been an excellent student. But regarding her classroom participation, Hamburg said that the student "showed unprofessional behavior that included swearing in class, and, on one occasion, having an outburst in which she began crying. She has to get through the program," the defense attorney said. "She has to meet the academic standards."

     Since there is nothing in the professor-student relationship that guarantees the student a good grade, or even a passing grade, there was no breach of contract in this case. And without solid proof of the defendant's sexual discrimination based on a dislike of people who supported gay and lesbian rights, the suit failed on that rationale as well.

     If the plaintiff prevailed in her case it would create an employment boom in the legal profession, at least until college grades became a thing of the past. In time, students would be able to acquire degrees without any proof they had learned anything. Eventually, there would be no need for classrooms or campuses. (We are approaching that now.) This would lower the cost of a college education and career fast-food servers would all have Ph.Ds. Students could simply buy diplomas online and colleges professors across the nation would lose their ivory tower jobs and end up flipping burgers with everyone else.

     On February 14, 2013, Judge Giordano ruled in favor of Professor Eckhardt and Lehigh University. He wrote: "Plaintiff has failed to establish that the university based the awarded grade of a C-plus on anything other than purely academic reasons. With this decision, Judge Giordano dealt a blow to the legal profession, but saved higher education. 

Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Can A Liar Beat the Polygraph?

     In order for a polygraph (lie detection) test result to be accurate, the instrument must be in good working order; the polygraph examiner must be properly trained and experienced in question formation and line-chart interpretation; and the subject of the test--the examinee--must be a willing participant in the process. Not  everyone is suited for polygraph testing, including people who are ill, on drugs, under the influence of alcohol, extremely obese, retarded or mentally unbalanced. (In America that's a lot of people.) Criminal suspects who are emotionally exhausted from a police interrogation do not make good polygraph subjects. Children and very old people should not be placed on the lie detector either.

     The polygraph instrument measures and records the examinee's involuntary, physiological (bodily) responses to a set of ten yes or no questions. The examinee should know in advance what he will be asked. Based upon changes in the examinee's blood pressure, heart rate, breathing patterns and galvanic skin response, the examiner will draw conclusions on whether the subject told the truth or lied. Polygraph examiners are not recognized in the criminal court system as expert witnesses, therefore polygraph results are not admissible as evidence of guilt in criminal cases.

     Congress passed a federal law in 1988 that prohibited the use of the polygraph as a private sector pre-employment screening measure. It is widely used, however, in law enforcement as an investigative tool and as a way to screen job applicants.

     Over the years, more and more local, state and federal law enforcement agencies have required job applicants to submit to polygraph tests. These law enforcement job candidates are typically asked if they've ever sold drugs, stolen significant amounts of money or merchandise from their employers or are in serious debt. Employment candidates may also be asked if they have omitted anything important from their resumes or job applications.

     In 2013, more than 73,000 Americans were either given polygraph tests as part of the federal job application process or were tested to determine if they should be allowed to keep their jobs. Federal agencies involved in national security such as the National Security Administration, the FBI and the CIA, periodically put employees on the polygraph to make sure they haven't gone rogue. Other federal agencies that require periodic screening tests include the DEA, ICE, the Secret Service, ATF and the Postal Inspection Service.

     Not everyone is a fan of the polygraph technique. Generally, there are two kinds of polygraph critic. There are the anti-polygraph people who object to this form of lie detection because they believe the instrument and the technique is junk science and therefore no more reliable than a flip of a coin. The other group objects to polygraph use because they believe the instrument is utilized to violate the privacy of those tested. Critics in this camp accuse polygraph examiners, and the people who hire them, of abusing the process by digging for dirt that is unrelated to the job application process.

     Over the years there have been numerous high-profile examples of FBI and CIA spies who avoided detection for years even though they were subjected to regular polygraph testing. Aldrich Ames, the counterintelligence CIA officer convicted of spying in 1994, must have found a way to beat the polygraph screening test. (I do not believe that suspects in criminal cases can lie to competent examiners and get away with it.) This was also true of FBI agent Robert Hanssen who was convicted of thirteen counts of espionage in 2001.

     Russell Tice, the National Security Administration whistleblower who was one of the first to leak evidence of the NSA's spying on U.S. citizens, revealed that during his 20-year career in counterintelligence, he beat the polygraph a dozen times. Mr. Tice believed that due to political correctness and lawsuits, polygraph tests have become easier to manipulate. He has said that beating the employment screening examination had actually become easy. Over the years, Mr. Tice and others have published, in print and online, instructions on how to mislead polygraph examiners.

     Polygraph examiners ask what they call relevant, irrelevant and control questions. Irrelevant questions such as "Have you ever eaten pasta?" are intended to set the baseline of a truthful response. Control questions are designed to create a baseline or point of reference for deceptive responses. To do that, polygraph examiners ask subjects questions likely to produce deceptive answers. In other words they want the subject to lie. For example: "Have you ever lied to your parents?" or "Have you ever cheated on a test?" Most subjects, when they answer "no" to these questions are lying. Relevant questions are ones that directly address the point of the polygraph examination. In a national security employee screening test an employee with access to classified information might be asked if he or she has leaked classified documents to a journalist. To determine if the subject is telling the truth about not leaking information, the polygraph examiner compares the physiological responses to the relevant query with the subject's responses to the control and irrelevant questions.

     According to those who have made it their mission to teach people how to beat the polygraph, manipulation techniques, or so-called "countermeasures," center around how the examinee should respond to the control and relevant questions. In answering a control question designed to produce a deceitful physiological baseline, the subject, while telling the expected lie, should bite his tongue. The idea here is to cause the polygraph instrument to record a strong physiological reaction to the subject's lying. When asked a relevant question the answer to which will be a lie, the subject is instructed to find a way to distance himself from the question by daydreaming, counting backward or slowing down his breathing.

     If this countermeasure works, the relatively mild responses to the relevant questions, when compared to the wild reactions to the control questions, might lead the polygraph examiner to conclude that the examinee told the truth.

     Law enforcement job applicants are better off simply telling the truth and hoping for the best. Very few people have the presence of mind and discipline to successfully employ these polygraph manipulation tricks. As for national security employees who are either spies or future whistleblowers, they have nothing to lose by trying these techniques. Notwithstanding Aldrich Ames, Robert Hanssen and Russell Tice, fooling a competent polygraph examiner is a lot easier said than done. And that is no lie.

Saturday, December 3, 2022

Dr. Ana Maria Gonzalez-Angulo: The Case of the Poisoned Coffee

     Dr. Ana Maria Gonzales-Angulo and her colleague (and lover) Dr. George Blumenschein were on the staff at the University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas. Dr. Gonzales-Angulo, a breast cancer oncologist had attended medical school at the University of Cauca in Colombia, completed her residency in Internal Medicine at the Mount Sinai Medical center in Miami, then finished her training at the University of Texas Medical School. She had been with the M. D. Anderson Cancer Center since 2003. Dr. Blumenschein graduated from Vanderbilt University and the University of Texas Medical School. As a specialist in lung, heart and neck cancers, he had been on the cancer center staff since 2000.

     On May 29, 2013 a prosecutor in the Harris County District Attorney's Office, based upon information received from investigators with the University of Texas Police Department, charged Dr. Gonzales-Angulo with aggravated assault. The doctor stood accused of poisoning Dr. Blumenschein's coffee with ethylene glycol, a chemical used in antifreeze and medical research.

     According to the criminal complaint, the poisoning took place in Dr. Gonzales-Angulo's Houston apartment. Dr. Blumenschein, after sipping a cup of coffee made by Dr. Gonzales-Angulo, complained of its sweet taste. Dr. Gonzales-Angulo allegedly informed him that she had added Splenda to his drink and urged him to finish it. After drinking a second cup of Dr. Gonzales-Angulo's coffee that evening, Dr. Blumenschein began slurring his speech.

     Sixteen hours after drinking the two cups of coffee, paramedics rushed Dr. Blumenschein to a nearby emergency room where doctors diagnosed him with central nervous system damage, cardiopulmonary problems and renal (kidney) failure. (The doctor would subsequently undergo dialysis treatment.)

     Three toxicological tests of Dr. Blumenschein's urine revealed the presence of crystals consistent with ethylene glycol poisoning. (By the time the toxicological analysis took place the ethylene glycol had been metabolized.)

     Police officers booked Dr. Gonzales-Angulo into the Harris County Jail on May 30, 2013. Shortly thereafter she posted her $50,000 bond and was released. Officials at the M. D. Anderson Cancer Center placed the doctor on administrative leave. Her attorney, Derek Hollingsworth, told reporters that his client "is completely innocent. She is a distinguished citizen and scientist," he said, "and these allegations are totally inconsistent with her personal and professional life."

     In September 2013 a Harris County Grand Jury indicted Dr. Gonzales-Angulo on one count of aggravated assault.

     At the September 2014 Gonzales-Angulo trial the assistant district attorney put on 22 witnesses. One of these witnesses included a man who said the defendant, just weeks before Dr. Blumenschein's poisoning, had boasted of having killed others in her native Colombia. The prosecutor, in referring to Dr. Gonzales-Angulo in his closing argument, said, "You can't fix evil.

     The Gonzales-Angulo defense consisted mainly of the argument that the prosecution, in this circumstantial case, had not carried its burden of proof.

     On September 26, 2014, a jury in a Houston, Texas courtroom took less than six hours to find Dr. Gonzalez-Angulo guilty as charged. The judge sentenced her to ten years in prison.

     Gonzales-Angulo could have been sentenced up to 99 years in prison but instead was eligible for parole in 2019. 

Friday, December 2, 2022

The Suge Knight Hit-And-Run Murder Case

     Marion "Suge" Knight was born and raised in the Los Angeles suburb of Compton. In 1984 he enrolled at the University of Nevada on a football scholarship. Following college he played briefly for the Los Angeles Rams as a defensive lineman. His stint as a bodyguard for singer Bobby Brown provided him an inside look at the music industry that led to his co-founding, in 1991, of Death Row Records. His roster of performers included Snoop Dogg and Tupac Shakur.

     In 1995 one of Knight's employees, Jake Robles, was shot to death at a party in Atlanta, Georgia. Knight, who attended the event, blamed the murder on rapper P. Diddy's bodyguard. The shooting marked the beginning of the so-called east coast/west coast rap war.

     In 1996 Mr. Knight was behind the wheel of a vehicle in Las Vegas with rapper Tupac Shakur in the passenger's seat. An assailant fired a bullet into the car killing Shakur. On the night of Shakur's murder police officers arrested Suge Knight for assaulting a man in a Las Vegas hotel room. That lead to a five-year stretch in prison.

     Knight returned to prison in 2002 after violating the terms of his parole by associating with a known gang member. The following year police officers arrested him for punching a parking lot attendant outside a Hollywood, California nightclub.

     In 2005, Mr. Knight became the victim of a crime himself when, while attending a party in Miami in honor of Kanye West's appearance at the MTV Video Music Awards, a gunman shot him in the right leg. The following year his legal problems and the departure of his top rapper forced him to file for bankruptcy.

     At one-thirty on the morning of August 25, 2014, while attending a MTV Video Music Awards party in West Hollywood hosted by singer Chris Brown, a gunman shot Knight six times. Two other partygoers were wounded in the shooting spree. No arrests were made in that case.

     In October 2014, Beverly Hills police arrested Knight and comedian Micah "Katt" Williams for allegedly stealing a camera that belonged to a female celebrity photographer. The men pleaded not guilty to the charge.

     On January 29, 2015, Suge Knight's association with crime and violence came to a head in his hometown of Compton, California when he showed up on a movie set where rappers Ice Cube and Dr. Dre were working. The intruder ignored security personnel who asked him to leave. After fighting with two members of the film crew, Knight drove off in his red F-150 Ford Raptor pickup truck.

     Not long after leaving the movie set, at three that afternoon, Knight got into another fight with two men in the parking lot of a fast-food restaurant called Tam's Burgers. The fight ended with Knight running over the men with his truck. He killed 55-year-old Terry Carter, a man he knew, and injured "Training Day" actor Cle "Bone" Sloane, 51.

     Police later found Mr. Knight's truck in a West Los Angeles parking lot.

     According to Lieutenant John Corina with the Los Angeles Sheriff's Office, "It looked like Mr. Knight drove backwards into the victims then lurched forward and hit them again. The people we talked to say it looked like it was an intentional act."

     A Los Angeles County prosecutor charged Knight with criminal homicide and hit and run. On Friday night January 30, 2015, Knight, accompanied by his lawyer, turned himself to the sheriff's office. He smoked a cigar and smiled at photographers as though this was not a big deal. Later that night, after questioning him, Officers booked Knight into the Los Angeles County jail. The judge set his bond at $2 million.

     James Blatt, Knight's attorney, told reporters that his client had accidentally killed a friend and injured another man as he fled from being attacked. The lawyer did not explain the hit-and-run aspect of his client's behavior. "We are confident," he said, "that once the police investigation is completed Mr. Knight will be totally exonerated."

     On March 20, 2015, after the prosecutor upped the charge against Knight to first-degree murder, the judge raised the defendant's bond to $25 million. Upon hearing this, Knight fainted, hit his head on the defense table and knocked himself out. Paramedics rushed him to a nearby hospital where he recovered quickly and was sent back to jail. (The bail was later reduced to $10 million.)

     Because Knight fired his first four lawyers, his murder trail remained on hold and he remained in jail. At one point, he claimed that he was being tortured in jail by inmates. In January 2016, Knight's fifth lawyer, former prosecutor Stephen L. Schwartz, announced that the boxing champion Floyd "Money" Mayweather had agreed to post his client's $10 million bond. If this were true, Mayweather did not come through on the promise and Knight remained behind bars.

    Suge Knight's murder trial, set for January 8, 2018, was again postponed after members of his legal team--Thaddeus Culpepper and Mathew Fletcher--were indicted for attempting to bribe witnesses. The next trial date, April 2018, was delayed when the defendant was hospitalized for eye surgery. On April 25, 2018, a Los Angeles County judge set the new murder trial date for September 24, 2018.

    On September 20, 2018, just days before his murder trial in Los Angeles Superior Court, Suge Knight pleaded no contest to the reduced charge of voluntary manslaughter. In return for his plea, the judge sentenced him to 28 years in prison.