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Friday, June 30, 2023

The Shannon Kepler Murder Case

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 29, 2023

The Death of Anneka Vasta: Hollywood Noir

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 28, 2023

The Pastor Danny Kirk Murder Case

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 27, 2023

Watery Graves: The Mystery of Foss Lake

     There's no telling how many murder victims lay on the bottom of America's lakes, rivers and ponds. Most people don't realize that these boating, swimming and fishing sites are also the unmarked graves of people who have gone missing and might never be found. It's a sobering thought.

     Whenever a lake goes dry or is drained, law enforcement officers often gather to recover guns, knives, cars, safes, cellphones, computers, wallets and other potential indicia of foul play. Occasionally, the remains of missing persons are exposed as well. When that happens one mystery is solved and another is created.

     On September 10, 2013, Oklahoma Highway Patrol officer George Hoyle, while testing a sonar detection device from a boat on Foss Lake 110 miles west of Oklahoma City, discovered a pair of vehicles sitting under twelve feet of murky water.

     A week after the vehicles were detected, Darrell Splawn, a member of the state's underwater search and rescue team, dove into the lake for a closer look. At this point officers believed they had found a pair of stolen cars.

     When officer Splawn opened the door to one of the vehicles and probed its interior, his hand came in contact with a shoe. He also discovered, near the car, a human skull. The diver surfaced to report his finds. When the diver slipped back into the muddy water to check on the other vehicle he saw skeletal remains inside the second car.

     Once the heavily corroded cars--a 1952 Chevrolet and a 1969 Chevy Camero--were pulled out of the reservoir, they revealed their gruesome secrets. Each vehicle contained the skeletal remains of three people. Officers also recovered, among other items, a muddy wallet and a purse.

     On April 8, 1969, 69-year-old John Alva Porter, the owner of a 1952 green Chevy, went missing. In the car with him that night were his brother Arlie and 58-year-old Nora Marie Duncan. These three residents of nearby Elk City, along with the Chevy, had disappeared without a trace. No one had any idea what had happened to them.

     Jimmy Williams, a 16-year-old from Sayre, Oklahoma, a town of 4,000 a few miles from the lake, owned a 1969 Chevrolet Camero. On the night of November 20, 1970 he and two friends--Thomas Michael Rios and Leah Gail Johnson--both 18, were riding in Williams' car. Instead of going to the high school football game in Elk City, the trio had gone hunting on Turkey Creek Road. The teenagers and the Camero were never seen again.

     While the six skeletal remains were presumed to match the two sets of missing persons, it would take months to scientifically confirm their identities. Forensic scientists in the Oklahoma Medical Examiner's Office compared DNA from the bones with DNA samples from surviving family members. Dr. Angela Berg, the state forensic anthropologist, determined the gender, general stature and approximate ages of the people pulled out of the lake. She did this by analyzing leg and pelvic bones along with the skulls. This data was compared with information contained in the missing person reports.

     What the 44-year-old remains did not reveal was the manner and cause of these deaths. While the six people presumably drowned, they could have been murdered by gun, knife or blunt instrument then dumped into the lake. To rule out foul play, the forensic pathologist and the anthropologist looked for signs of trauma such as bullet holes, knife wounds and smashed or broken bones. The forensic scientists also attempted to determine if the fates of the people inside the two cars were somehow connected.

     Custer County Sheriff Bruce Peoples told an Associated Press reporter that it was possible that these underwater victims had been driven accidentally into the lake where they had drowned. "We know that can happen even if you know your way around," he said. "It can happen that quick." 

     In October 2014, the forensic pathologist officially confirmed the identities of the six sets of remains. Two months later the medical examiner's office ruled out foul play. Some of the victims' family members, however, remained skeptical and suspected otherwise.

Monday, June 26, 2023

Christina Schumacher's Involuntary Commitment

     In 2011, Ludwig "Sonny" Schumacher lived in Essex, Vermont with his wife Christina and their son and daughter. They had been married 17 years and their marriage was falling apart. The couple also had problems with their professional lives.

     After retiring from the Vermont National Guard as a Colonel and a F-16 pilot, Mr. Schumacher accepted an executive position with the Timberiane Dental Company in South Burlington, Vermont. Christina worked as a financial officer with the GE Healthcare Corporation, a company she had been with for more than twenty years.

     In July 2011, Christina petitioned a family court judge for an order of protection against abuse from her husband. In support of her request, she claimed that their 15-year-old daughter was afraid of her father. "My daughter," she wrote, "is fearful and has said if I do not file this petition she will file her own. She is now staying with friends." According to the protection order petition, Mr. Schumacher had struck Christina in the face in front of the girl. He had also abused his wife by grabbing her arm and pulling her hair. The family court judge denied the protection request.

     In 2012, after Christina's job at GE Healthcare was eliminated, she landed a position with an Internet firm called, MyWebGrocer. A few months later she quit that job. Ludwig Schumacher ran into employment problems himself that year. Officials at Timberiane Dental fired him.

     In July 2013, a judge granted Christina a temporary order of protection against her husband after he tipped his 14-year-old son Gunnar's bed upside down with the boy in it. According to the court petition, Mr. Schumacher kept the boy pinned to the floor by pressing his knee against his back. When Gunnar broke free, the father allegedly threw him to the floor. Christina cited this and other incidents of her husband's out-of-control rage to illustrate a "pattern of abuse which causes fear" for her and her son.

     Ludwig Schumacher appealed his wife's protection of abuse order and won. The family court judge ruled that the description of events in Christina's petition did not constitute domestic abuse by a parent as defined by Vermont law.

     Christina, on September 3, 2013, filed for divorce on grounds that her 49-year-old husband had been unfaithful, abusive and mentally ill. Shortly after the divorce filing he moved out of the house and rented an apartment in Essex. In cross-filing for divorce, Mr. Schumacher described Christina as mentally ill, noting that during the summer of 2013 she had received intensive mental health treatment at the Seneca Center at the Fletcher Allen Health facility in Burlington.

     Ludwig Schumacher, on Tuesday, December 17, 3013, called Essex High School stating that his son Gunnar would be absent two days due to "a family situation." A day later, at two in the afternoon, a friend of Gunnar's went to the Schumacher apartment where he found Gunnar and his father dead.

     The 14-year-old boy had been strangled and his father had hanged himself. Mr. Schumacher left behind a long suicide letter explaining why he had murdered his son and killed himself.

     On the day after the discovery of her dead husband and son, a doctor informed Christina that if she didn't check herself into a psychiatric ward at the Fletcher Allen Health Care facility in Burlington she would be taken into custody by the authorities and put into the hospital without her consent. Because Christina had once told her sister that if anything happened to her children she would kill herself, the doctor felt he was acting in her best interest. Christina insisted that she did not need mental health treatment. All she wanted to do was grieve with her 17-year-old daughter. The doctor followed through on his threat by having Christina involuntarily committed to the mental ward.

     On December 30, 2013, Christina called the Burlington Free Press and asked the newspaper to investigate her situation, saying that the state had no basis to hold her against her will in the mental facility. While Vermont law did not require a prompt judicial review of involuntary mental health commitments, the publicity Christina received from newspaper stories prompted a judicial hearing.

     On January 22, 2014, after three hours of testimony before a Superior Court judge in Burlington, the judge said he disagreed with Christina's mental illness diagnosis and the assessment that she was a danger to herself and others. The judge ordered her release after five and a half weeks in the psychiatric ward.

Sunday, June 25, 2023

Alexander Edwards: The Babysitter From Hell

     In 2013, Melissa Delp lived in south central Virginia with her two daughters and her boyfriend, Daniel Janney. On December 22, 2013, the couple's friend, 20-year-old Alexander Edwards, came to the Concord, Virginia house to babysit the girls, both of whom were under 13-years-old.

     While the 35-year-old mother and her 32-year-old boyfriend were away from the house their babysitter used a home tattooing kit to ink the girls under his care.

     When Delp and Janney returned home the girls had their names tattooed on their shoulders. Janney, with the help of the girl's mother, tried to remedy the situation by removing the tattoos with a hot razor blade. This extremely painful procedure made matters worse by exposing the youngsters to infection and permanent scarring.

     Beyond being alarmingly stupid, why would these adults maim the girls in a futile attempt to erase the babysitter's unwanted ink? Perhaps Delp and Janney were worried that if the authorities got wind of the forced tattooing they would get in trouble with the law for being negligent parents.

     On January 16, 2014 a teacher noticed, on one of the girls, the inflamed and scabbed aftermath of Janney's botched attempt to remove the unauthorized tattoo. The scarred girl, when pressed by the teacher, spilled the beans regarding the source of her condition. The concerned teacher reported the possible child abuse case to the Campbell County Sheriff's Office. She also called child protection services.

     Two days later, deputies booked the tattooing babysitter, Alexander Edwards, into the Campbell County Adult Detention Center in Rustburg, Virginia. The 20-year-old faced felony charges of malicious wounding, child abuse and abduction. (Abduction includes unlawful confining or restraint.)

     On January 18, 2014, deputies also arrested Melissa Delp and Daniel Janney. Placed into the county jail in Rustburg, the couple faced felony charges of malicious wounding and child abuse.

     Michael Mucklow, owner of the Go! Tattoo removal service in Kutztown, Pennsylvania heard of the involuntary tattooing in Virginia and offered to help. Mucklow believed he could mitigate the damage by removing what was left of the tattoos by using laser technology. There was nothing he could do, however, about the physical and emotional trauma caused by Janney's alleged razor blade removal attempt.

     On August 2014, Melissa Delp pleaded guilty to felony child abuse. The judge sentenced her to eight years in prison.

     On March 2, 2016, following the additional charges of rape and sodomy (of the 12-year-old girl); solicitation to commit a felony (Edwards asked a potential hitman to kill several witnesses against him); conspiracy to commit murder; and attempted murder, the Campbell County judge sentenced Alexander Edwards to two life terms in prison.

     The judge sentenced Daniel Janney to a year and two months in prison after he was convicted of felony wounding. 

Saturday, June 24, 2023

The Execution of Clayton Lockett

     On June 3, 1999 in Perry, Oklahoma, 23-year-old Clayton Lockett, a violent criminal accompanied by a pair of crime associates invaded a home and severely beat the occupant. While Lockett was assaulting 23-year-old Bobby Lee Bornt over a debt, a girl just out of high school knocked on Bornt's front door. Lockett appeared in the doorway and pulled the girl into the house.

     After hitting the stunned visitor in the face with a shotgun, Lockett put the gun to her head and ordered her to invite her 18-year-old friend Stephanie Neiman into the duplex. Neiman had graduated from Perry High School less than a month earlier. She had been a good student and played in the band.

     The nightmare for these girls began with Lockett and his accomplices raping Nieman's friend and beating her with the shotgun. After the rape and beatings Clayton Lockett bound the girls with duct tape and drove them and Bornt in Neiman's pickup truck to a remote area a few miles away. En route he informed his captives that he planned to kill them and bury their bodies in the woods. The terrified girls begged for their lives.
     At the designated spot Lockett made the rape victim dig a hole. When it was big enough he told Neiman to get into the grave. He pointed his shotgun at her and pulled the trigger. The weapon jammed. Lockett walked away, cleared the gun, and returned to the site where he shot and wounded her. He forced the other girl to bury Stephanie Neiman alive. 
     Lockett and his accomplices drove the rape victim and Bornt back to the duplex. Before he and the others drove off he threatened to kill the traumatized survivors if they went to the police.

     One of Lockett's accomplices notified the authorities in the hopes of saving his own neck. A local prosecutor charged Clayton Lockett with first-degree murder, rape, robbery, kidnapping, assault and battery, and burglary. Upon his arrest, the cold-blooded rapist and sadistic killer confessed to shooting Stephanie Neiman and having her friend, the girl he had raped, bury her alive.

     In 2000 a jury found Lockett guilty as charged and sentenced him to death. He ended up on death row at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester.

     After fourteen years of legal appeals and a last minute stay, Governor Mary Fallin ordered Lockett's execution to take place on April 29, 2014. That evening, an hour before his scheduled death, Lockett fought with prison officers and had to be tasered before being strapped onto the gurney. The executioner, after struggling to find a vein, administered the three-drug cocktail made up of midazalam to render Lockett unconscious, vecuronium to stop his breathing and potassium chloride to stop his heart.

     Seven minutes after the drugs were put into Lockett's body he was still conscious. Ten minutes later, after being declared dead, the condemned man moved his head and tried to climb off the gurney. He was also heard muttering the word, "man." At this point, a corrections official lowered the blind to spare witnesses the sight of a slower than planned execution.

     Forty-three minutes after the executioner injected Lockett with the three drugs he died of a heart attack. The potassium chloride had done its job, albeit a bit slowly.

     As could be expected, death house lawyers, anti-capital punishment activists and hand-wringing media types agonized over Lockett's imperfect execution. The death row sob-sisters characterized his death as torture, an ordeal and a nightmare and called for the abolishment of the death penalty.

     The outrage mongers were nowhere in sight when Lockett shot Stephanie Neiman and buried her alive? Who in their right mind would shed a tear for this cruel, cold-blooded killer. So what if Mr. Lockett didn't pass gently and quickly into the night. A lot of people die slow, agonizing deaths, citizens who never committed rape or murder. Clayton Lockett was gone and the world was a better place without him. 
     Over the years state corrections officials have done their best to find more humane ways to put condemned criminals to death. In the 19th and 20th centuries death row inmates were hanged, electrocuted, suffocated in gas chambers and shot. Hanging is still an option in New Hampshire and Washington. In Arizona, Missouri, and Wyoming the gas chamber remains a death penalty choice.

     Many correction experts believe the firing squad is the quickest and least painful way to execute a convict. In 1977 Gary Gilmore, at his request, was executed by firing squad in Utah. 

Friday, June 23, 2023

Journalistic Ethics in The Naemm Davis Subway Murder

     At 12:30 PM on Monday, December 3, 2012, 58-year-old Ki-Suck Han stood with other New Yorkers waiting for their trains at the Times Square subway station at 49th Street and Seventh Avenue in Manhattan. Mr. Han, who was currently unemployed, had once owned a midtown dry cleaning business. He had come into Manhattan from his home in Queens to renew his Korean passport. That day, Naemm Davis, a 30-year-old homeless man wandered about the platform above the tracks mumbling to himself and alarming some of the subway travelers. Mr. Han (who reportedly had been drinking), asked Davis to stop bothering the other people. The two men exchanged angry words, and following a brief scuffle, Davis threw Mr. Han off the subway platform onto the tracks below.

     Dozens of subway patron looked on as Mr. Han struggled to pull himself off the tracks and back up to the armpit-high platform. He couldn't make it, and after being on the tracks for about a minute was hit by a southbound train that did not have time to stop. A medical student from the Beth Israel Medical Center went to Mr. Han who was face down on the tracks and still alive. The student rolled him over and tried to save him by beating on his chest. Some of the people standing on the subway platform used  their cellphones to video Mr. Han as he lay on the tracks below. A short time later Ki-Suck Han died at Saint Luke's Hospital.

     The next day police officers arrested Naemm Davis in midtown Manhattan. While being questioned by detectives Davis said, "He [Han] wouldn't leave me alone, so I pushed him. I saw him get hit by the train. I said to him, '[expletive], get out of my face.'"

     On Tuesday, December 4, 2012, the day of Davis' arrest, the New York Post on its front page published a large photograph of Mr. Han standing between the tracks and the platform wall with the back of his head to the camera as he looked toward the oncoming train. The oddly tranquil photograph, taken just moments before impact, featured the headline "DOOMED" and the caption: "Pushed on the subway track, this man is about to die." The photograph had been taken by R. Umar Abbasi, a freelance photo-journalist who just happened to be on the train platform that day. Mr. Umar sold the image to the New York Post for an undisclosed amount.

     The subway station murder, a homicide that in its own right would have created widespread fear and anger, sparked public outrage over the fact no one on the train station platform had reached down and pulled Mr. Han to safety. People also wondered why Mr. Abbasi, instead of getting a dramatic and newsworthy photograph, hadn't dropped his camera to save this man. And editors at the New York Post were under fire for simply publishing Abbasi's picture.

     R. Umar Abbasi, against a tidal wave of criticism, tried to defend his behavior on the New York Post website. The photographer wrote that he had flashed his camera 49 times with the intent of catching the attention of the subway motorman. "I wanted to help the man," he wrote, "but I couldn't figure out how to help. It all happened so fast. I had no idea what I was shooting. I'm not even sure it was registering with me what was happening. I was just looking at that train coming." Abbasi said he didn't understand why others who were closer to the tracks didn't try to save Mr. Han.

     Some media critics took issue with the New York Post for what they considered the unethical journalistic act of buying and publishing Mr. Abbasi's photograph of the doomed Mr. Han. A pundit named Lauren Ashburn called the act "profit-motive journalism at its worst."

     Howard Kurtz, the host of CNN's "Reliable Sources," a weekly TV talk show about the media, in recognizing that Mr. Han's murder comprised every subway traveler's nightmare, was less critical of The New York Post. Mr. Kutz did "wonder why the photographer's first instinct was to take pictures." The answer to that question was perhaps this: Mr. Abbasi was a photo-journalist. He was not a police officer, firefighter or paramedic. Mr. Abbasi was not in the business of saving lives but in the business of taking pictures.

     On Wednesday, December 5, 2012, Charen Kim, a lawyer representing Mr. Han's wife Serim, told reporters that the family had been shocked by the New York Post photograph. The family didn't understand why no one helped Mr. Han. During the the press conference the lawyer didn't mention Naemm Davis, the man responsible for Mr. Han's death.

     Naemm Davis was held without bail on the charge of second-degree murder. He had a history of drug related arrests in Pennsylvania and New York.

     In a December 7, 2012 jailhouse interview with a reporter with the New York Post, Naeem Davis said he had been coaxed into shoving Mr. Han off the platform by voices in his head that he couldn't control.

     At his January 15, 2013 arraignment hearing, Mr. Davis pleaded not guilty to the murder charge. According to police documents, he told investigators that the victim had "rolled like a bowling ball" when he fell onto the subway tracks. Because Davis was seething over a comment an acquaintance had made two days earlier about his Timberland boots, his "head wasn't where it was supposed to be that day. He [Ki-Suck Han] came at the wrong time."

     At the arraignment hearing, Defense attorney Stephen Pokart argued that Han, who had started the fight, was pursuing his client. Prosecutor James Lin countered by pointing out how the defendant's statements revealed that he did not feel threatened and had acted out of anger and malice.

     In 2013, the victim's daughter, Ashley Han, sued the New York City Transit Authority for $30 million.

     In March 2016, Naemm Davis pleaded guilty to the reduced charge of manslaughter. The judge sentenced him to 22 years in prison.

Thursday, June 22, 2023

Writer Gabriel Matzneff: France's Proud Pedophile

     For the past fifty years or so Gabriel Matzneff, now 86, was one of France's most celebrated, renowned and admired writers. He won several prestigious literary awards and state honors for his novels, essays, and nonfiction books. Presidents of France praised Matzneff for his deep, original thought and highly creative writing style. Literary critics in France and throughout Europe agreed.

     What is unusual, indeed shocking, about Matzneff's status as a literary icon is how, in his books and essays, and on his official web site, he flaunts and writes about his adventures as a predatory pedophile. For example, in Matzneff's infamous 1974 essay, Les Moins deSieze Ans (Those Under 16), Matzneff describes in great detail his seduction of pre-adolescent boys and 14-year-old girls. He also chronicles his regular trips to the Philippines to pick up young boys for sex.

     In Matzneff's diaries, published in 1985, he writes: "Sometimes, I'll have as many as four boys--from 8 to 14--in my bed.

     The Paris police, in 1986, launched a half-hearted investigation into anonymous tips that the 50-year-old literary giant was living with a 14-year-old girl named Vanessa Springora. To avoid being questioned about his relationship with the girl, Matzneff and Springora moved into another apartment, a hideout provided by the fashion designer, Yves Saint Laurent.

     In accordance with the French acceptance of pedophilia, and the desire to protect the country's most valuable literary treasure, the authorities quickly closed the Matzneff investigation. Everyone knew Matzneff was a pedophile, yet no one cared or had the courage to bring this famous and powerful man to justice.

     Gabriel Matzneff's charmed life of privilege and exemption from criminal prosecution suddenly collapsed in January 2020 with the publication of Vanessa Springora's memoir, Le Consentement (The Consent). The memoir tells the story of her life with the famous pedophile.

     On a French television program featuring her memoir, Springora, a Paris publishing house director, said, "My goal was to lock him [Matzneff] up because that's what he has done to me and that's what he did with many young girls."

     Following the publication of her tell-all memoir, Springora met with a prosecutor in Paris named Remy Heitz who informed her he was interested in prosecuting the famous writer for his crimes against children.

     On February 11, 2020, prosecutor Heitz announced the commencement of an investigation into the alleged sexual crimes of Gabriel Matzneff. Perhaps this meant that in France, law enforcement authorities had finally decided to prosecute pedophiles. However, in the case of an eighty-three-year-old self described sex offender, this new enforcement policy was more than a little late.

     The Paris prosecutor's office, on February 11, issued a summons ordering Mr. Matzneff to appear the following day in court. The great writer, hiding out somewhere in the Italian Riviera, ignored the summons.

     In March 2020, after decades of sexual crimes allegedly involving hundreds of victims, Gabriel Matzneff was charged with sexually abusing an unidentified youth. The prosecutor, in an Europe 1 Radio interview, said, "We will seek to identify other possible victims who could have suffered violations of the same nature, on national territory or abroad."

     In the wake of Vanessa Springora's memoir the French government stripped Matzneff of his state literary awards that included The Order of National Merit, and Officer of Arts and Letters. His publisher of 30 years, Gallimard, after profiting decades on the works of a proud pedophile, stopped selling his books.

     Matzneff, not accustomed to being treated like a sex offender, agreed to an interview with a reporter with The New York Times. In the March 2020 Times piece the French literary great lamented that his former supporters had not come forward on his behalf. He said he felt "like the living dead, a dead man walking." Regarding his former literary colleagues and admirers, Matzneff said, "They're showing their cowardice. We can say caution, but it's more than caution from people I considered friends." 

     The Gabriel Matzneff pedophilia trial was scheduled for September 2020.
     As of this writing, Mr. Matzneff, who is not in custody, has not been tried for the sexual abuse of minors. 

Wednesday, June 21, 2023

Handwriting Evidence in the Lindbergh Case

     On April 3, 1936,  Bruno Richard Hauptmann, an illegal alien from Germany who lived in the Bronx, New York, died in the electric chair for the kidnapping and murder of 20-month-old Charles Lindbergh, Jr. At the 36-year-old unemployed carpenter's trial, held in Flemington, New Jersey in January and February 1935, prosecution handwriting experts took the stand and testified that the defendant had written all of the ransom notes as well as other documents associated with the abduction and murder. It was this forensic document evidence that sent Mr. Hauptmann to the death house in Trenton.

     At the Lindbergh-Hauptmann trial eight nationally known questioned document examiners, from Los Angeles to New York City, both private and government employed, testified that Hauptmann wrote the fifteen ransom letters, including the note left by the kidnapper in the baby's nursery. The Lindbergh crime produced an unusually large quantity of questioned writing. Moreover, the experts had plenty of known handwriting to work with in the form of request writings--a carefully worded paragraph dictated to Hauptmann--and his conceded or "course of business" writings in the form of his personal notebooks and his auto registration, driver's license and insurance applications.

     The prosecution experts testified that Hauptmann's known writing looked like the writing in the ransom documents. They produced dozens of word chart exhibits for the jury that illustrated the similarity in the two sets of cursive writing. Hauptmann and the ransom note writer also misspelled certain words the same way.

     The questioned document testimony phase of the Lindbergh-Hauptmann trial took up four days and produced 800 pages of trial transcript. Besides the eight experts who took the stand, the prosecution had four rebuttal experts who would have testified against Hauptmann had the defense put on a credible battery of their own handwriting witnesses. As it turned out, these rebuttal witnesses were not needed.

     One the the rebuttal witnesses, John Vreeland Haring, later published a heavily illustrated book showing why he believed Hauptmann had written the ransom documents. Mr. Haring made a special effort to illustrate the similarities between the defendant's writing and the ransom note left in the nursery. For comparison purposes, Haring used as known handwriting samples, two post-conviction letters Hauptmann had written in hand to the Governor of New Jersey.

     In addition to the prosecution's eight handwriting witnesses and the four rebuttal experts, Charles A. Appel, Jr., the head of the FBI crime lab, believed Hauptmann was the ransom note writer. While he didn't testify at the trial, the FBI crime lab director testified against Hauptmann before the Bronx Grand Jury months before.

     Hauptmann's defense attorney, Edward J. Reilly, asked seven document examiners to look at the handwriting evidence. Three declared that Hauptmann had written the documents, another three said the ransom notes had been altered after Hauptmann's arrest to look like his known writing--thereby conceding that the known and questioned writings were similar. The seventh examiner asked by the defense to analyze the evidence, a man named John C. Trendley from St. Louis, ended up being the only examiner who actually testified for the defense at the Hauptmann trial.

     A reporter who covered the Lindbergh-Hauptmann trial wrote this about Mr. Trendley: "He was a furtive, musty little codger who had the greatest difficulty establishing his claim to be an expert...And his testimony was really pathetic." Besides his background as a courtroom charlatan, Trendley's testimony was weakened by the fact he had not spent much time with the evidence.

     Hauptmann's defense lawyers--he had five--were never able to counter the prosecution's overwhelming handwriting case against their client. Notwithstanding all of the other physical evidence connecting Hauptmann to the crime, it was his handwriting that sent him to the electric chair.

     To this day the Lindbergh case remains the high water mark in the American history of forensic document examination.

Tuesday, June 20, 2023

The Elliot Gornall Child Pornography Case

     In 2011, after passing a background check, 27-year-old Elliot Gornall began teaching second and third grade at the R. F. McMullen Elementary school in the central Ohio town of Loudonville. In the fall of 2014, Gornall, well-liked by his students, their parents and his fellow teachers, began teaching a class of 25 kindergarten kids.

     Gornall's reputation and teaching career took a major blow on November 18, 2014 when local drug officers raided his home in Loudonville. The drug cops found a quantity of marijuana, illicit prescription drugs and several pairs of children's underwear. The searchers left Mr. Gornall's dwelling that day in possession of his personal computer.

     Not long after the drug raid, an Ashland County grand jury indicted the kindergarten teacher on several counts of prescription drug abuse, marijuana possession and theft related to the underwear. He pleaded not guilty to all charges, posted bail and was released from custody.

     Following the indictments that shocked the community, school district officials placed the 32-year-old teacher on administrative leave. On December 8, 2014, Elliot Gornall tendered his resignation from the R. F. McMullen Elementary School. He moved out of his place in Loudonville and took up residence in Lorain, Ohio.

     The big shock in the case came on March 6, 2015 when police officers arrested Gornall and booked him into the Ashland County Jail on 23 counts of illegal use of a minor in nudity-oriented material. If convicted as charged he faced up to 184 years in prison.

     A couple of months after the drug and theft indictments detectives with the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation discovered child pornography and videotaped images of R. F. McMullen Elementary school kids using the kindergarten bathroom. Investigators searched the restroom and found, hidden in a white plastic hook stuck to the wall, a pinhole video camera. Detectives believed Gornall had installed the secret camera in August 2014.

     At his March 9, 2015 arraignment, Elliot Gornall pleaded not guilty to the charges related to the spy camera in the children's restroom. Ashland County prosecutor Chris Turnell informed the judge that detectives had found 63 videos of 25 kindergarten students plus more than 100 downloaded images of child pornography on the ex-teacher's computer. Judge Ronald Forsthoefel set Gornall's bail at $500,000.

     In October 2015, Elliot Gornall pleaded no contest to 181 charges related to his videotaping activities and other charges. Judge Ronald Forsthoefel sentenced him to 99 years in prison.

Monday, June 19, 2023

The Ka Pasasouk: Quadruple Murder Case

     In Los Angeles, Ka Pasasouk began using drugs, assaulting people and stealing things years before his first criminal conviction as a 23-year-old in 2004. The husky, heavily tattooed street criminal was sent to state prison that year for auto-theft. After serving a few months behind bars, Pasasouk, in 2006, was back in prison after being convicted of robbery and the crime of assault likely to produce great bodily injury. In 2010, after being out of prison for more than a year, a judge sentenced Pasasouk to three years for stealing cars. On January 18, 2012, after being placed under the supervision of the Los Angeles Probation Department, Mr. Pasasouk was back on the street living his life of methamphetamine, violence and theft.

     On September 19, 2012 Ka Pasasouk pleaded no contest to the possession of meth in a Van Nuys Superior Court before Judge Jessica Silvers. Fateema Johnson, a prosecutor in the Los Angeles District Attorney's Office had accepted the plea in return for Pasasouk's promise to enter a county drug rehabilitation program pursuant to a recent voter approved ballot measure called Proposition 36. The goal of this program involved sending nonviolent drug offenders into rehab instead of prison. Since Pasasouk was a violent, habitual criminal, he was not the kind of person California voters had in mind when they approved this measure.

     At the September 2012 hearing in Van Nuys, a member of the Los Angeles County Probation Department objected strongly to the terms of Pasasouk's plea arrangement. The probation officer pointed out that Pasasouk had not checked in with his probation agent since January. Moreover, according to a report submitted to Judge Silvers by the probation department: "The defendant is an ineligible and unsuitable candidate for continued community supervision. It is recommended that probation be denied, and that the defendant be sentenced to state prison."

     Judge Jessica Silvers, on the recommendation of the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office, handed down suspended sentence on the meth possession case, placed Ka Pasasouk back under the supervision of the Los Angeles County Probation Department and ordered him to enter the drug rehabilitation program.

      Ka Pasasouk, who had no intention of entering a drug program, didn't even bother to check in with his probation agent. In November 2012, when Pasasouk failed to appear in her courtroom to show proof that he was making drug rehabilitation progress, Judge Silvers issued a bench warrant for his arrest.

     At four-thirty Sunday morning, December 2, 2012, Ka Pasasouk and three associates--two women and one man--were outside a rundown unlicensed boarding house in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Northridge in the San Fernando Valley. Pasasouk and his companions were yelling at four people--two men and two women--with whom they had some kind of property dispute. Pasasouk, who was holding these people at gunpoint, suddenly shot and killed all four of them.

     Following the quadruple murder, Pasasouk and his accomplices drove to Las Vegas in a black Audi. That night the police in Las Vegas spotted the car parked at the Silverton Hotel & Casino. Following an all-night surveillance while arrest warrants were being prepared in Los Angeles, the police took Pasasouk and the others into custody. They were held in the Clark County Jail.

     A week after the arrests in Las Vegas, a spokesperson with the Los Angeles District Attorney's Office admitted that Ka Pasasouk should not have been placed on probation following his meth arrest. In recommending the drug rehabilitation program instead of prison, the DA's office had made a terrible mistake.

     In November 2015, a jury sitting in Los Angeles found Ka Pasasouk guilty of four counts of first-degree murder. In February 2016 the judge sentenced him to death by lethal injection.

     Had Pasasouk been sentenced to prison in January 2012 instead of being placed on probation he would have served his sentence and been out on the street prior to December 1, the date of the murders. However, had the judge in 2010 given him a stiffer sentence Pasasouk would not have murdered the four people in Northridge. 

Sunday, June 18, 2023

Ahmed Elgaafary: The Uber Driver From Hell

     In February 2018, Uber driver Ahmed Elgaafary, an Egyptian citizen, picked up a heavily intoxicated young woman at the Valley Forge Casino Resort in eastern Pennsylvania's Chester County. At two-thirty that morning, the 27-year-old driver from Lansdale, Pennsylvania, instead of directly delivering his alcohol impaired passenger to her home fifteen minutes away, detoured to a dimly lit road in Charlestown Township. At that remote spot Mr. Elgaafary climbed into the back seat of his GMC Yukon and raped the unconscious woman.

     While sexually assaulting his victim the Uber driver kept the meter running.

     Fifty-three minutes after the rape Ahmed Elgaafary dropped the woman off at her residence. In addition to the taxi fare the driver charged her $150 for vomiting in his SUV.

     When she awoke later that day, the Uber rape victim discovered bruises on her thighs. She didn't remember what happened in the SUV but suspected the driver had violated her sexually.  For that reason she went to a hospital where a nurse used a rape kit to gather and preserve the physical evidence of sexual intercourse. The kit was submitted to the authorities for forensic analysis.

     When questioned by detectives, Ahmed Elgaafary denied any sexual contact with his accuser. However, when confronted with physical evidence that contradicted his denial, he changed his story. Elgaafary said that while he had sex with the passenger it had been consensual.

     Charged with sexual assault, indecent assault and the rape of an unconscious woman, Mr. Elgaafary went on trial in August 2019. The prosecution's case rested primarily on the testimony of the victim and the rape kit evidence connecting him to the act.

     Ahmed Elgaafary took the stand on his own behalf and claimed that he had been seduced by the accuser. He said the sex had been consensual. He did acknowledge, however, that his passenger had been intoxicated at the time.

     The jury of eight men and four women didn't accept the Elgaafary defense, and after three hours of deliberation found the defendant guilty as charged.

     The judge sentenced Ahmed Elgaafary to 7 to 20 years in prison. Upon completion of his sentence he would be deported to Egypt.

Friday, June 16, 2023

Don't Sleep with Your Wife And Your Gun

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

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

     The 911 dispatcher asked, "Who shot her?"

     "Me," he replied.

     "How did you shoot her?"

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

     "Is she awake?"

     "No, everybody was sleeping."

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

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

     "Is that her crying?" asked the dispatcher.

     "Yes, she's having trouble breathing."

     "Were you asleep also when this happened?"

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

     "Where is the gun?"

     "The gun is on the dresser."

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

     "Yeah, unfortunately, yes," he replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 15, 2023

The Case of the Sleeping Judge

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

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

     The next day Danielle Zimmerman died at a nearby hospital.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 14, 2023

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

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

Excited Delirium Syndrome (EDS)

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

Dr. Deborah Mash

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

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

Cases

September 5, 2006
Louisville, Kentucky

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

October 29, 2006
Jerseyville, Illinois

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

December 17, 2006
Lafayette, Louisiana

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

January 2008
Coral Gables, Florida

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

July 2008
Hanover Township, New Jersey

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

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

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

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

July 22, 2011
Bangor, Maine

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

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

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

EDS in England and Wales

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 13, 2023

Father Gerald Robinson: Devil Priest or Innocent Man?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 12, 2023

"Evil Evan" Ebel: The Violent Death Of A Murderous Parolee

     In February 2011 the governor of Colorado appointed Tom Clements to the position of Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Corrections. Clements left his job as Director of Operations for Adult Correctional Facilities in Missouri to head up the 6,000-employee department. The 58-year-old corrections administrator, his wife and two daughters resided in Monument, Colorado, a rural, upscale community in El Paso County 45 miles south of Denver.

     At 8:37 in the evening of Tuesday, March 19, 2013, a member of the Clements family called 911 to report a shooting at the Monument Colorado home. Deputies with the El Paso County Sheriff's Office found Tom Clements lying dead in his front doorway. According to the family member he had been shot when he answered the doorbell.

     Sheriff's lieutenant Jeff Kramer told reporters that the Clements murder didn't appear to be the result of an attempted robbery. Moreover, it didn't have the markings of a random act of violence.

     On Thursday night, March 21, 2013, a Montague County Sheriff's deputy in northeast Texas near the Oklahoma line pulled over a black Cadillac with Colorado plates. It was a routine traffic stop that turned into a violent crime. The driver of the vehicle, a 28-year-old paroled Colorado gang member and white supremacist named Evan Spencer Ebel, shot the deputy twice in the chest, and with a third bullet grazed the officer's head. The downed deputy, wearing a bullet-proof vest, was able to call for help and describe Ebel's car.

     Following a high-speed police chase, Evan Ebel slammed his Cadillac into an eighteen-wheeler in Decatur, Texas thirty miles south of the traffic stop and shooting. The Colorado parolee, bearing the tattoos "hopeless" and "Evil Evan," climbed out of his damaged car firing at the police. The officers gunned him down on the spot. He died at a hospital in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

     Homicide detectives in Colorado believed that Evan Ebel had murdered Tom Clements. Inside the wrecked Cadillac police found a Domino's Pizza uniform jacket and a cardboard pizza box. This discovery suggested that Ebel had murdered a 27-year-old pizza delivery man named Nathan Leon in Denver on March 17, 2013.

     Evan Ebel, a member of the Aryan Brotherhood, was scheduled for parole on April 13, 2013 but was released early to the custody of his father, Jack Ebel, a Denver area lawyer. The parolee's violent crime history dated back to 2003 when he was convicted of robbery. In 2008 he was found guilty of assaulting a prison guard. 

Sunday, June 11, 2023

The New York City Bread Truck Heist

     The act of taking something that isn't yours, while against the law and anti-social, is not highly deviant behavior, nor is it commonly driven by mental illness. (For years psychologists and criminologists have been debating among themselves over whether so-called kleptomaniacs are sick or simply criminal.) Theft is a specific intent crime committed in cold-blood, as it were. Schizophrenics don't go around swindling people or stealing cars for chop shops. In court, accused thieves don't plead not guilty by reason of insanity. But in the case of a 30-year-old New York City man named David Bastar, that would change.

     On Monday, May 19, 2014, at three in the morning on Second Avenue near East 99th Street on Manhattan's Upper East Side, the driver of a Grimaldi's Home of Bread truck left the vehicle running in front of a pizzeria. When the delivery man exited the pizza joint, his truck was gone.

     David Bastar, dressed only in a pair of briefs, had jumped into the $60,000 truck and drove off with $8,000 worth of baguettes, whole wheat rolls, loaves of sourdough and other baked products. Instead of meeting up with a baked goods fence, Bastar, working off a set of instructions and a map left on the truck's front seat, delivered product to at least three restaurants.

     Later that morning, while driving the bread truck south on Lexington Avenue, Bastar began throwing loaves of bread out the window. As he crossed the 59th Street Bridge into Queens Bastar became fixated on a Cadillac Escalade limousine driven by 43-year-old Armondo Sigcha. Sigcha was headed to La Guardia Airport to pick up customers.

     Once the stolen bread truck and the limo crossed the bridge, Sigcha realized that some nut in a delivery truck was following him too closely. The limo driver made several quick evasive turns but couldn't get the truck off his tail. At this point Sagcha asked his dispatcher to arrange to have an officer with the Port Authority meet him at the airport.

     When Bastar pulled the bread truck to a stop behind the limousine near La Guardia's Central Terminal he was greeted by a Port Authority officer. The cop took one look at the underwear-clad bread truck driver and called for an ambulance to deliver him to a mental ward.

     After being evaluated at Elmhurst Hospital's Psychiatric Ward officers escorted Mr. Bastar to the Queens Criminal Court where he was charged with criminal possession of a stolen vehicle and driving without a license. The judge released the suspect to the custody of his baffled parents.

     Diana Bastar's, the accused truck thief's mother, told a reporter with The New York Post that she had no idea why her son had been bent on delivering bread. "I'm speechless," she said. "He's been estranged from us, so I really can't tell you what's going on."

     Following his arrest Mr. Bastar told police officers that he had tailed the limousine into Queens because, "I thought I had to follow him to make the deliveries."

     According to an Internet search it appears that Mr. Bastar was not prosecuted for stealing the truck. In all probability he received medical attention instead.

Saturday, June 10, 2023

The Blake Wardell Manslaughter Case

     Blake Randell Wardell resided in Honea Path, South Carolina, a town in the northeast part of the state. In the early morning hours of Wednesday, May 14, 2014, the 26-year-old Wardell, a man his age named Timothy Fisher, Taylor Ann Kelly and eight or nine others, were hanging out at a house in Honea Path. (The reporting on this case was so weak there was no information regarding who owned or lived in that house.)

     At 2:45 that morning, someone in the group (presumably) called 911 to report a shooting. Deputies with the Anderson County Sheriff's office, upon arrival at the house, found Wardell unresponsive and bleeding from the chest as he lay in a pool of blood on the garage floor. Paramedics arrived but were unable to revive Mr. Wardell who they pronounced dead at the scene.

     According to those questioned at the death site, Mr. Wardell had found, in the house, an old bullet-proof Kevlar flak-jacket. He put on the vest and asked someone to test it out by shooting him.

     Taylor Ann Kelly, a recent graduate of Belton-Honea Path High School took responsibility for the shooting death. She told the police that she had fired the small-caliber bullet that passed through the lining on the edge of the bullet-proof vest into Wardell's heart. (I presume detectives questioned the others at the scene who confirmed that Kelly was the one who had fired the fatal bullet.)

     Officers took the 18-year-girl into custody and booked her into the Anderson County Detention Center on the charge of involuntary manslaughter.

     In South Carolina, as in most states, the homicide offense of involuntary manslaughter involved, as criminal intent, the reckless disregard for human life. The fact the victim in this case had supposedly consented to being recklessly shot would not comprise a legal defense to this charge. According to the law, there are certain things people cannot legally consent to. Being shot is one of them. In South Carolina, involuntary manslaughter carried a maximum penalty of five years in prison. The judge set the 18-year-old suspect's bail at $10,000.

     On May 16, 2014 an Anderson County prosecutor reduced the charge against Taylor Kelly to accessory after the fact of a felony. According to investigators she had lied to police officers about shooting the victim. She had apparently confessed to protect the real shooter in the case--25-year-old Timothy Fisher.

     The Anderson County prosecutor charged Fisher with involuntary manslaughter. Officers booked him into the county detention center. The authorities did not reveal exactly why the girl had lied for this man. Did she do it voluntarily? Were Kelly and Fisher in some kind of relationship? Did Fisher have a criminal record? What was his relationship to Blake Wardell? The police did say that neither alcohol nor drugs played a role in the shooting. 

     This was a case that called for a careful and professional investigation to uncover possible motives for murder. The criminal investigation should have included a thorough forensic ballistics analysis which would include determining if the fatal bullet had actually passed through a bullet-proof vest. And finally, all witnesses to the shooting should have been asked to take polygraph tests.

     In 2015 Timmothy Fisher was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter. The judge sentenced him to five years probation. 

Friday, June 9, 2023

The Elementary School Murder Conspiracy

     Our criminal justice system isn't equipped or designed to deal with kids who haven't reached the ninth grade. This is particularly true when pint-sized offenders commit felonies. In the good old days, students got in trouble for chewing gum in class. Today, they're hauled out of school in handcuffs for assault, resisting arrest, drug possession, sexual crimes and the possession of firearms. But up until a case in Colville, Washington, no elementary school child had been arrested for conspiracy to commit first-degree murder.

     On February 7, 2013, kids on a school bus saw a 10-year-old boy playing with a knife. The bus was en route to the Fort Colville Elementary School in Colville, Washington 75 miles north of Spokane. A search of this boy's backpack at the school produced the knife and a weapon even more shocking--a .45-caliber fully loaded pistol.

     When asked by a police officer what he was doing with the gun, the kid said that he and his 11-year-old buddy were going to "get" one of the girls in their class. Pressed for details, the boy revealed what they had intended to accomplish. According to the plan, the 11-year-old friend would stab the girl to death while the 10-year-old would use the gun to hold-off other kids and any interfering teachers.

     The Stevens County prosecutor, presented with the unusual and difficult facts of this case, decided to charge the fourth graders with conspiracy to commit first-degree murder, tampering with a witness (holding off the crowd) and conspiracy to possess a firearm.

     In the state of Washington, individuals under the age of twelve are presumed incapable of distinguishing right from wrong. Under the law they are essentially insane. This meant that the state not only had to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, the prosecutor had to establish the capacity to form specific criminal intent. If convicted, the young defendants in this case faced incarceration at a juvenile facility until they reached the age of eighteen.

     In speaking to the press, prosecutor Tim Rasmussen, in referring to what these boys had been thinking, said, "It's the kind of thing everyone would know is wrong. It gives me no pleasure to prosecute a kid."

     In May 2013 the younger defendant pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit first-degree murder. The judge sentenced him to three to five years in juvenile detention.

     On October 16, 2013, following a bench trial (no jury), Judge Allen Nielson found the 11-year-old defendant guilty of the same offense. On November 20, 2013 Judge Nielson sentenced him to three to four years detention in a juvenile facility.

     Judge Neilson called the older boy's actions a "brazen crime." According to the judge, the kid had made a "shrewd effort" to pin the entire plot on his co-defendant, the 10-year-old who had earlier pleaded guilty.

Thursday, June 8, 2023

The Lisa McPherson Scientology Case: A Medical Examiner's Meltdown

      On March 29, 2015, HBO aired a documentary about the Church of Scientology called "Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief." The expose was based on Lawrence Wright's book of the same title. At that time The Church of Scientology consisted of 11,000 churches, missions and affiliated groups around the world. In 2019 A&E's documentary series, "Leah Remini: Scientology and The Aftermath," completed its third season.

      For a criminal justice system to work, the major law enforcement players--the police, prosecutors and forensic scientists--have to be hardworking, competent and honest. In Florida's Pinellas and Pasco Counties between 1997 and 2000, the medical examiner's office was not up to par and the effect on local criminal justice was disastrous. Dr. Joan E. Wood, the head of the Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner's Office was the principal source of the problem.

     A graduate of the University of South Florida Medical School, Dr. Wood began her career as a forensic pathologist in 1975 as an associate in the Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner's Office. She became the chief medical examiner in 1982, and for six years was the chairperson of Florida's Medical Examiners Commission, the body that regulates the state's forensic pathologists. Her career seemed to be on track until the mid-1990s when she became involved in a high-profile and controversial homicide case. This case, the 1995 death of a 36-year-old Scientologist named Lisa McPherson, marked the beginning of the end of Dr. Wood's career.

     As revealed in court documents and reported in the St. Petersburg Times, the sequence of events began at 5:50 in the evening of November 18, 1995 when paramedics responded to a minor traffic accident in downtown Clearwater involving McPherson's sports utility van. She was not injured but took off her clothes and walked down the middle of the street telling paramedics, "I need help. I need to talk to someone." The distraught woman said she had been doing things that were wrong but didn't know what they were.

     The paramedics transported McPherson to the Morton Plant Hospital for psychiatric evaluation. Following her examination, a group of Scientologists from her church came to the emergency room and escorted her away, promising that she would be cared for by the church, a decision grounded in their distrust of psychiatric medicine. The disturbed woman was taken to the church-owned Fort Harrison Hotel in downtown Clearwater where troubled Scientologists were taken for rest and relaxation.

     On December 5, 1995, Lisa's caretakers at the hotel rushed her to a hospital in New Port Richey, a 45-minute drive, to see an emergency room physician who was a Scientologist. McPherson had been at the Fort Harrison Hotel 17 days and when she arrived in New Port Richey the five-foot-nine-inch patient weighed 108 pounds and was covered in bruises. McPherson was also unkempt in appearance and pale. She was either dead on arrival at the hospital or pronounced dead shortly thereafter.

     At eleven o'clock the next morning, Dr. Robert Davis, a forensic pathologist in the Pinellas-Pasco County Medical Examiner's Office performed the autopsy with Dr. Joan Wood looking on. According to Dr. Davis, Lisa McPherson's death had been caused by an embolism of the left pulmonary artery which had partially obstructed the blood flow that carried oxygen from her heart to her left lung. She had therefore died of asphyxia. A thrombus (blood clot) located behind her left knee had traveled from her leg to her heart and into the lung. At the time of her death Lisa was severely dehydrated, a factor that contributed to her demise. In Dr. Davis's opinion, her dehydration was so pronounced she would have been unresponsive for more than 24 hours before her death. The forensic pathologist believed that the blood clot behind her left leg was caused by a combination of dehydration and bed-ridden immobility. Dr. Wood, instead of ruling McPherson's manner of death natural or accidental, labeled it undetermined, a manner of death that did not preclude a later finding of criminal homicide.

     Because of the condition of Lisa McPherson's body following her 17-day stay at the Fort Harrison Hotel, the Clearwater police quietly began looking into the case. Detectives determined that Lisa had been a Scientologist for 18 years, and during the past two years, had spent about $70,000 on church-related counseling. Before the traffic accident she had spent relaxation time at the Fort Harrison Hotel. McPherson had worked for a Dallas publishing company that mostly employed Scientologists. She had moved to Clearwater when the company relocated about a year earlier. McPherson had weighed between 140 and 150 pounds when taken to the Fort Harrison Hotel following the traffic accident.

     Curious about just what kind of medical care one received at the Scientologist owned hotel, investigators learned that only a few of Lisa's caretakers had medical training, including one person who had been an anesthesiologist. That caregiver, however, had lost her license because of a drug problem. As far as detectives could determine, no one at the hotel had been a licensed physician. The police also discovered that during her stay Lisa had been physically restrained. She had been tied to her bed and given injections of muscle relaxants and other chemicals.

     When word got out that the authorities were looking into Lisa McPherson's death, church officials accused the Clearwater police of religious harassment. In January 1997, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office joined the investigation. The following month, Lisa McPherson's family filed a wrongful death suit against the church.

     Looking for a second opinion regarding the cause and manner of Lisa McPherson's death, Wayne Andrews of the Clearwater Police Department and Agent A. L. Sroope of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, in November 1997, traveled to Winston-Salem, North Carolina to consult with Dr. George Podgorny, the Forsythe County medical examiner. Dr. Podgorny had reviewed medical records from from the Morton Plant and New Port Richey hospitals; pharmacy records of drugs that had been administered to McPherson; and the Pinellas-Pasco autopsy report that chief medical examiner Joan Wood had approved.

     According to police and court documents, after reviewing this material, Dr. Podgorny opined that the blood clot that had killed Lisa McPherson had been caused by her extreme dehydration and immobility. The forensic pathologist told the investigators that if McPherson had received proper medical treatment and had been taken to a hospital when she first became ill she might not have died. What this patient needed and did not get was water, salt, vitamins and extra oxygen. Moreover, her blood-cell count and kidney function should have been closely monitored. When asked if the blood clot in her leg could have been caused by the traffic accident, Dr. Podgorny responded emphatically that such an occurrence would be extremely rare, especially in a 36-year-old woman. He pointed out that people bruise their legs all the time without getting blood clots. In the pathologist's opinion the manner of Lisa McPherson's death boiled down to improper medical care following the traffic accident.

     A Pinellas County grand jury, on November 13, 1998, returned a two-count indictment charging the Church of Scientology with practicing medicine without a license and abusing or neglecting an adult. In response to these charges the church asserted that the Lisa McPherson case was being exploited by forces out to destroy the institution. Accustomed to fighting for its survival, the church hit back hard. One of those on the receiving end of the attack was Dr. Joan Wood, the forensic pathologist who had opened the door to the grand jury indictment with her ruling of an undetermined manner of death.

     In the months that followed the indictment, defense attorneys representing the church deluged Dr. Wood with subpoenas that demanded all sorts of information. These lawyers wanted her to change the manner of death ruling to "accidental" on the theory the blood clot that had killed Lisa McPherson was the result of her traffic mishap. The church also denied practicing medicine at the Fort Harrison Hotel and insisted that Lisa had been properly cared for at the Scientology retreat.

     In February 2000, more than four years after the autopsy in the McPherson case, Dr. Wood, while insisting that she had not broken under pressure from the Church of Scientology, changed the McPherson manner of death to accidental. Her decision outraged the county prosecutor and the police agencies involved in the case. As far as the prosecutor was concerned, Dr. Wood had folded under pressure. Some of the journalists following the case speculated that pressure and stress had caused the forensic pathologist to come emotionally unglued. Whether she had been bullied into her reversal or not, her new manner of death ruling destroyed her relationship with the local law enforcement community. The prosecutor had no choice but to drop the case against the Church of Scientology. Dr. Wood resigned her position in September 2000.

     After leaving the medical examiner's office Dr. Wood disappeared for two years, eventually showing up at a conference of state medical examiners in Gainesville, Florida. A reporter with the St. Petersburg Times asked her if her disappearance had anything to do with the McPherson case and if she planned to get back into forensic science. Dr. Wood denied that her reversal in the McPherson case had anything to do with pressure from the Church of Scientology, but she did admit that after 25 years as a forensic pathologist the stress of the job had finally caught up with her. She said she still had panic attacks when she walked into a courtroom.

     Lisa McPherson's estate, in May 2004, settled the wrongful death suit for an undisclosed amount. In July 2005, Dr. Wood voluntarily relinquished her medical license following a state health department declaration that in the McPherson case she had become "an advocate for the Church of Scientology." After that she lived in obscurity, hardly ever leaving her townhouse in Tampa. On July 8, 2011 she had a stroke, and eight days later died in the hospital. At the time of her death the former medical examiner was 67.