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Thursday, February 29, 2024

Chavis Carter's Police Custody Suicide

     On Saturday night July 28, 2012, in Jonesboro, Arkansas, a town of 67,000 in the central part of the state, a home owner in a residential neighborhood called 911 to report a suspicious pickup truck driving up and down the street with its lights off. At 9:50 PM police officers Keith Baggett and Ron Marsh pulled the truck over. When the driver of the vehicle, 21-year-old Chavis Carter and his two passengers alighted from the truck, the officers patted them down for weapons. The frisks suggested that the suspects were unarmed, but officers found, on Carter's person, a small amount of marijuana. The cops placed him, unrestrained, in the back of the patrol car while they questioned his associates. At this point the police learned that Carter had not given them his real name. When they radioed in for possible outstanding warrants they discovered that Carter, from Mississippi, was wanted in his home state in connection with a drug case.

     The officers brought Mr. Carter out of the patrol car, placed him under arrest, searched him again then handcuffed him behind his back. After finding an electronic scale in his pickup they returned him to the back seat of the patrol car. The officers released his friends who drove off in the truck.

     A few minutes later, when a Jonesboro officer checked on Carter, he found him covered in blood and slumped over in the backseat of the police car. Someone called for an ambulance while an officer tried but failed, because of the position of the body, to remove the handcuffs. Later that night Chavis Carter died from a bullet to his temple.

     In the backseat of the patrol car officers found a stolen .380-caliber Cobra semi-automatic handgun, and a spent cartridge. The compact pistol was less than six inches long and was light in weight. Witnesses at the scene said they did not see any of the officers pull their guns. Police video tapes of the arrest also exonerated the officers of any wrongdoing. The two officers were placed on administrative leave pending an internal investigation of Carter's death. At this point in the case all of the preliminary evidence pointed to a suicide.

     Members of the Chavis Carter's family, and the local chapter of the NAACP, called for an independent investigation of the shooting death. The decedent's mother, Teresa Carter, told a reporter that "My son was not suicidal." Russell Marlin, a Memphis lawyer retained by the family said he was conducting his own investigation into the death. "There is no reason to believe," he said, "that he [Carter] would have killed himself." (By the same token, there is no reason to believe that a police officer would shoot a handcuffed man in the backseat of a patrol car with his own gun.)

     On August 14, 2012 the Jonesboro Police Department released a video of their re-enactment of the suicide. An officer of Carter's stature--5 foot 8 and 160 pounds--was able, while handcuffed behind his back, to lift the pistol to his head and pull the trigger.

     Jonesboro Chief of Police Michael Yates, in speaking to the media on the question of how a man frisked and searched still had access to a handgun, said: "It's obvious they did miss the weapon on the first search. It is likely, since he [Carter] was placed into the [patrol] car un-handcuffed the first time that he had an opportunity to stash the weapon in the car. The second search, which was more thorough and inclusive, did not disclose the weapon."

     Due to the unusual circumstances surrounding Chavis Carter's death, and the fact he was black and the officers were white, this case was racially charged. That meant civil rights activists continued to accuse the police of murder. It was true that had the police recovered Carter's stolen handgun pursuant to the initial frisk he would be alive. But this was a long way from murder, or even negligent homicide. In the final analysis it was Chavis Carter who pulled the trigger that ended his life.

     On Monday, August 20, 2012, a panel of three medical examiners officially ruled the manner of Carter's death a suicide. A report from the Arkansas State Crime Lab revealed that at the time of his death Mr. Carter was under the influence of methamphetamine, anti-anxiety medicine and other drugs.

     In March 2017 a local judge dismissed the lawsuit that had been filed by Chavis Carter's family against the Jonesboro Police Department. 

Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Judge G. Todd Baugh

     Police in Billings Montana in 2008 arrested 49-year-old Stacey Dean Rambold, a teacher at the local high school. Rambold stood accused of having a sexual relationship with Cherice Morales, a 14-year-old student. A Yellowstone County prosecutor charged Mr. Rambold with three counts of sexual intercourse without consent. (By law, a person under the age of 16 cannot consent to sex with an adult. In some states the crime is called statutory rape.)

     In 2004, administrators at Billings Senior High School warned Rambold against touching or being alone with female students.

     Cherice Morales, just before her 17th birthday in 2010, committed suicide. At the time of this troubled girl's death the criminal case against her former teacher was pending. The girl's mother, Auliea Halon, sued the the school district for wrongful death. The case was quickly settled for $91,000.

     The Yellowstone County prosecutor, as a result of Morales' suicide, offered Mr. Rambold a deal. If he confessed to one count of sexual intercourse without consent, and promised to enter a sex offender treatment program, the charges would be dropped. Rambold accepted the offer.

     In August 2012, Dean Rambold began skipping meetings with his counselors and didn't tell them about unsupervised visits he was having with girls. In November 2012 the head of the sex treatment facility kicked him out of the program. When Deputy Chief Yellowstone County prosecutor Rod Souza learned that Rambold had violated the terms of their agreement he refiled the original charges against the former teacher.

     Rambold's attorney, Jay Lansing, told reporters that the girls Rambold had visited without supervision were members of his family. Moreover, his client had enrolled in another sex treatment program.

     On August 26, 2013 the Rambold case came before 66-year-old District Court Judge G. Todd Baugh. Before being elected to the bench in 1985, Baugh had served as a federal magistrate. Prior to that he practiced law in Billings. The judge was currently running, unopposed for his fifth term on the bench.

     In September 2011, Judge Baugh had sentenced a 26-year-old defendant to 50 years in prison for the rape on an 11-year-old girl. A year later he sent a man to prison for 25 years for possessing child pornography. Judge Baugh did not have a reputation for going easy on sex offenders.

     At the Rambold hearing, Judge Baugh dismissed the refiled charges against the defendant. The judge said that Mr. Rambold's being kicked out of the sex program did not justify the refiling of the 2008 sexual intercourse without consent charges. The remaining issue before the judge involved Rambold's sentence based upon his 2010 admission of guilt on the single count of sexual intercourse without consent.

     Yellowstone County Chief Deputy prosecutor Rod Souza proposed a 20 year sentence with 10 years suspended. Defense attorney Jay Lansing suggested that because Rambold had lost his job, his license to teach, his house and his wife, he had been punished enough. Attorney Lansing asked Judge Baugh to suspend all but 30 days of a 15-year sentence. The attorney pointed out that Mr. Rambold had continued his sex rehabilitation program with another treatment facility.

     Judge Baugh said that he had reviewed the videotaped police interviews of Cherice Morales. From this he had concluded that even though the victim was 35 years younger than her teacher, she was "as much in control of the situation" as the defendant. Judge Baugh said that the 14-year-old was "older than her chronological age." The judge considered this a major mitigating factor in the case.

     Judge Baugh suspended all but 30 days of Rambold's 15-year sentence. After spending a month in jail the former teacher would be on probation for 15 years. He would also have to register as a sex offender.

     Upon hearing this sentence the dead girl's mother, Auilea Hanlon, stormed out of the courtroom. When she spoke to reporters after the hearing, she said, " I guess somehow it makes a rape more acceptable if you can blame the victim, even if she was only fourteen."

     In a matter of  hours following the sentence, local citizens were signing an online petition that called for Judge Baugh to resign. Marion Bradley, the director of the Montana National Organization for Women, told reporters that "Rape is rape. She was 14-years-old, and she was not an age where she could give consent, and he groomed her like any pedophile. Unless we show our outrage, none of our children are safe."

     On the day following his controversial and unpopular sentencing of the former high school teacher, Judge Baugh, in speaking to reporters, stood by his ruling. "Obviously," he said, "a 14-year-old can't consent. I think that people have in mind that this was some violent, forcible, horrible rape. It was horrible enough as it is, just given her age, but it wasn't this forcible beat-up rape. I think what people are seeing is a sentence for rape of 30 days. Obviously on the face of it, if you look at it that way, it's crazy. No wonder people are upset. I'd be upset, too if that happened."

     The next day Judge Baugh conceded that he deserved to be criticized for his "chronological age" comment. He apologized for that but it was too late for apologies.

     Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito, in responding to Judge Baugh's sentence, said, "I have no legal authority whatsoever to appeal a sentence handed down by a judge."

     As of August 29, 2013, the day hundreds of anti-Baugh demonstrators gathered in Billings to protest the sentence, the online petition calling for the judges' resignation had collected 26,350 signatures.

     Stacey Rambold was released from jail in September 2013. He would be on probation until August 2028.

     In July 2014 the Montana Supreme Court censured Judge Baugh for the remarks he made about the 14-year-old rape victim.

     Having decided not to run for a fifth term, Judge Baugh, at the end of his term in December 2014, retired from the bench. He told a skeptical media that his retirement had nothing to do with the Rambold sentence and the state supreme court censure.

     In April 2015 the former judge's critics, and there were many, were stunned to learn that the Yellowstone Area Bar Association had awarded G. Todd Baugh a lifetime achievement award.

Tuesday, February 27, 2024

The Luka Magnotta Murder Case

     Tenants in a working-class Montreal, Canada neighborhood complained of a bad smell coming from a pile of garbage behind their apartment building. At ten in the morning on May 29, 2012, when the janitor opened a suitcase at the site of the odor, he discovered a man's bloody torso.

     At 11:15 that morning, in Ottawa, at the Conservative Party headquarters, Jenni Bryne, a top political advisor to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, opened a box that had been mailed to that address. As she opened the package Jenni Bryne was hit by a terrible odor and recoiled at the sight of dried blood. She immediately called 911 which brought the Ottawa police, a hazmat unit and officers with the Emergency Special Operations Section. The box contained a human foot and a note indicating that six other human body parts were in the mail.

     At 9:30 that night the Ottawa police announced they had found a second severed body part mailed from Montreal. It was a hand found inside a piece of mail intercepted at the Ottawa Postal Terminal.

     On Wednesday morning, May 30, 2012, crime scene investigators and hazardous materials officers entered an apartment in the building where the janitor had found the suitcase containing the blood splattered torso. The masked searchers were interested in a second-story studio apartment rented by a 29-year-old tenant named Luka Rocco Magnotta.

     Luka Magnotta, a stripper, model and bisexual actor in low-budget adult films who used the names Eric Clinton Newman (his born name) and Vladimir Romanov, had lived in the apartment about four months. Originally from Toronto, Magnotta had an Internet presence that included uploaded videos of animal cruelty. Two years earlier a video appeared on the Web featuring Magnotta placing a pair of kittens inside an airtight bag then using a vacuum cleaner to suck out the air. He also had a blog under his name called "Necrophilia Serial Killer Luka Magnotta" that featured the following quote: "It's not cool to the world being a necrophiliac. It's bloody lonely. But I don't care." Magnotta was also the author of an Internet article titled, "How to Completely Disappear and Never be Found" in which he laid out a six-step program for changing one's identify.

     On May 25, four days before the gruesome discovery at the Montreal apartment, an uploaded 11-minute Internet video on an Alberta-based website called "Best Gore," showed a man being stabbed, his throat slashed and his head cut off by an unidentified killer in a dark hoodie. The man in the video also severed the victim's limbs, then committed sexual and cannibalistic acts on the corpse. A dog in the dimly lit room ate part of the body. The snuff video was called, "1 Lunatic 1 Ice Pick." The Canadian authorities believed the torso found behind Magnotta's apartment building, as well as the mailed body parts, belong to the man seen murdered online. Investigators also theorized that Luka Magnotta was the killer in the video.

     In Apartment 208 crime scene investigators believed they had found the site of the videoed murder/dismemberment. Detectives also thought the torso discovered behind the building originated from this apartment. The walls and floor were splattered in dried blood and in the bedroom they found a blood-soaked mattress.

     A forensic pathologist examined the torso and the two mailed body parts and found that the remains belonged to the same person.

     Luka Magnotta, the subject of a massive international manhunt, was described as a slightly built man who was five-foot-eight with short black hair and blue eyes. The authorities searching for the fugitive believed he was hiding out in Europe under a false identity.

     The man believed to have been killed in the snuff film was identified as a student from China named Jun Lin. The 33-year-old had been attending Concordia University in Montreal. He had been going out with Magnotta and was last seen on May 24, 2012. Lin was an undergraduate in the engineering and computer science department.

     Montreal Police Commander Ian Lafreniere believed that Magnotta was hiding in France. The fugitive was immediately placed on Interpol's equivalent of the FBI's most wanted list. A Toronto transsexual who had a sexual relationship with Magnotta informed the police that the porn actor used drugs and possessed a bad temper.

     In 2010, after Luka Magnotta had posted the disgusting video involving the kittens, a London reporter with The Sun newspaper questioned him for an article. In an email to The Sun, Magnotta warned that his next uploaded snuff video would not involve cats. "Once you kill, and taste blood, it's impossible to stop," he wrote. After the animal cruelty video was published animal rights activists in Canada tried to get the authorities to intervene.

     On Monday, June 4, 2012, seven  police officers in Berlin, Germany acting on a tip from a person who recognized Luka Magnotta arrested him in an internet cafe. At first Magnotta gave the officers a false name, then said, "You got me." Magnotta was in the cafe reading about himself on the Internet.

     On the day following his arrest, as Magnotta appeared before a German judge on the matter of his extradition back to Canada, staff members at two private boy's school in Vancouver, British Columbia each received a package that had been mailed from Montreal. The package to the False Creek Elementary School contained a human foot. The parcel opened at St. George's contained a hand. The body parts belonged to Jun Lin. The authorities were still searching for the victim's head.

     Several months following his extradition back to Canada Mr. Magnotta acquired an attorney named Luc   Leclain who argued that his client should be tried for the lesser homicide offense of second-degree murder because the Crown could not prove premeditation in Jun Lin's killing. In May 2013, following a week-long preliminary hearing involving thirty witnesses for the Crown, the Court of Quebec judge ruled that the prosecution had enough evidence to justify trying Magnotta for first degree-murder.

     In addition to first-degree murder Luka Magnotta was charged with the lesser offenses of causing indignity to Jun Lin's body (in the U. S. it's called abuse of corpse), broadcasting obscene material, using the postal service to send obscene material and the harassment of Prime Minister Stephen Harper and other members of Parliament. The Quebec judge scheduled Magnotta's first-degree murder trial for September 14, 2014.

     Luka Magnotta's murder trial got underway on Monday December 15, 2014 before Justice Guy Cournoyer of the Quebec Superior Court. His attorney Luc Leclair tried to convince the jury that the defendant, a schizophrenic, committed the murder in a psychotic state that had rendered him legally insane and therefore not guilty by reason of insanity.

     The Magnotta jury rejected the insanity defense and found the defendant, on December 23, 2014, guilty of first-degree murder. The jurors also found him guilty of the lesser offenses. Judge Cournoyer sentenced Magnotta to life in prison for first-degree murder and gave him 19 years behind bars for the other offenses.

Monday, February 26, 2024

Jody Lee Hunt's Murderous Rampage

     Jody Lee Hunt was not a stranger to crime and violence. In 1999 a judge in Virginia sentenced the 24-year-old to ten years in prison following a kidnapping conviction, an offense that included the use of a firearm.

     In 2014, the 39-year-old Hunt owned the J & J Towing and Repair company in Morgantown, West Virginia, the home of West Virginia University in the north central part of the state. Hunt lived nearby in the small town of Westover.

     Sharon Kay Berkshire, Hunt's 39-year-old former girlfriend, filed a domestic violence case against him in October 2014. In mid-November, one of Berkshire's new boyfriends, 28-year-old Michael David Frum, a car detailer who also lived in Westover, sent Hunt a text message that taunted him for losing his girlfriend to another man.

     Besides the humiliation of losing his girlfriend to Frum and another Morgantown area man named Jody Taylor, Hunt was battling a business competitor named Doug Brady, the 45-year-old owner of Doug's Towing. Brady's company, located just a quarter of a mile from Hunt's towing business had been publicly accused by Hunt of acquiring towing jobs illegally.

     At eight in the morning of Monday December 1, 2014, Morgantown police officers responded to a call regarding a body found at Doug's Towing company. The dead man, Doug Brady, had been shot in the head. Detectives didn't believe that robbery had been a motive for the murder.

     Police officers, less than an hour later, found two more bodies in a house in Cheat Lake, West Virginia just outside of Morgantown. Sharon Kay Berkshire and her lover Michael David Frum had been shot to death execution style.

     A short time after officers responded to the double murder in Cheat Lake they were called to another murder scene, this one on Sweet Pea Road outside of Morgantown. Jody Taylor, Berkshire's other boyfriend, had been shot in the head.

     Because Jody Lee Hunt had a motive to murder all four victims, he became the immediate suspect in the quadruple murder case. Police were looking for Hunt's black 2011 Ford F-150 pickup truck.

     On Hunt's Facebook page detectives found the following message posted on the day of the murders: "I'm deeply hurt by the events that led up to this day! I poured out my heart to her [presumably Sharon Kay Berkshire] only to be manipulated as to what I could give her. Life is short. It's not all games. Don't play a game with a person's heart."

     Also on his Facebook page that day Mr. Hunt had written: "My actions were not right nor were the actions of those who tried to break me down and take from me. This was not the plan but a struggle to see that those who hurt me received their fair pay of hurt like I received."

     At seven in the evening on the day of the four murders the police received a tip that Jody Hunt was seen in Everettsville, a town seven miles from Morgantown in the southern part of Monongalia County. Police officers, in a power line right-of-way cut through the forrest not far from U.S. Route 119 found Hunt's truck. Inside the vehicle they discovered him dead from a self-inflicted bullet wound to the head. 

Sunday, February 25, 2024

It's Insane to Plead Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity in California

      If you live in California, are seriously mentally ill and have been accused of a violent crime, do not plead not guilty by reason of insanity. If you do, and succeed, you'll end up in a state mental hospital. It's a lot safer in prison, and you'll get better treatment.

     In 2002, in an effort to improve services in California's mental hospitals that treat the criminally insane, the state hired a private consultant to reform the system. The reformer, a professor of psychiatry at Virginia Commonwealth University named Dr. Nirbhay Singh, had come to the United States in 1987 from New Zealand. Having specialized in research on the developmentally disabled, Dr. Singh had no experience treating seriously mentally ill patients with sociopathic and predatory tendencies. He had published articles about Buddhist-inspired mindfulness (whatever that means), and alternative treatments such as the herb kava as a calming agent. Dr. Singh, in reforming California's state mental institutions, among other things, replaced individual therapy with group classes on anger management.

     Notwithstanding Dr. Singh's "reforms," the U.S. Department of Justice stuck it's long nose into the problem by suing California on the grounds the state was violating patients' rights by heavily drugging and improperly restraining these extremely violent and dangerous people. The state, rather than fight the case, agreed to a court-supervised improvement plan at four hospitals with more than 4,000 criminally insane patients. (State hospitals in Norwalk, San Luis Obispo County, San Bernadino and Napa.)

     According to the plan, overseen by Dr. Singh, these four hospitals reduced the use of restraints, isolation rooms and heavy drugs. The reformer dismantled several behavioral programs and placed greater importance on bureaucracy and the production of documentation in support of compliance with the federal mandate. Many health care workers complained that the red tape came at the expense of patient care. Much of the paperwork, according to Dr. Singh's critics, was redundant and clinically useless. Employees, under Dr. Singh's system, had to fill out 300 new forms every month. Staff members said they no longer had time to play cards and chat with patients, activities that the patients missed.

     While he worked as the chief consultant in California, Dr. Singh also worked with mental health systems in Connecticut, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana and Tennessee. In January 2011, two weeks after the Los Angeles Times published an interview with a top State Department of Mental Health official about the effects of Dr. Singh's reforms, Dr. Singh abruptly resigned. Dr. Stuart Bussey, president of the Union of American Physicians and Dentists which represents California's mental hospital's psychiatrists and medical doctors, complained that Dr. Singh's reforms did "very little to create a healthy and safe environment for patients and staff." In fact, according to studies conducted in the four hospitals involved in the federally mandated reforms, three of them had become much more dangerous places for patients and mental health workers. The ban of heavy drugs, restraints and isolation rooms had tripled the incidents of patient-on-patient and patient-on worker assaults in three of the institutions.

     While according to his critics Dr. Singh didn't know beans about how to run a place for the criminally insane, he did know how to make a buck. During his nine year tenure as a California mental health consultant, he charged the state $2,500 a day. His total bill came to $4.4 million. No wonder California was broke.

     Dr. Mubashir Farooqi, a psychiatrist at one of the pilot hospitals called the reform program a "huge, very expensive, very idiotic experiment that failed badly." But in December 2011, notwithstanding the increased violence in the three California mental hospitals, the Department of Justice asked a federal court to extend the oversight, and continue along the same reform path. According to an assistant in the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, California's reforms had not succeeded in improving mental health "outcomes" (bureaucrats love that word) at the four institutions. "Are we where we need to be? Absolutely not," he said in an interview. In the meantime, while the federal government dabbled in the care and treatment of California's criminally insane, mental hospitals in the state were dangerous places for patients and the people trying to help them.

     In California, the treatment of the criminally insane has not improved. And the treatment of mentally ill people generally has gotten worse as evidenced by the homeless problems in Los Angeles and San Francisco. As of 2019, notwithstanding billions of taxpayer money, 25 of the state's 58 counties have no impatient psychiatric system.

Saturday, February 24, 2024

Psychic Detectives: False Leads, Wasted Time and Investigative Nonsense

      People believe in such things as ghosts, witches, Big-Foot,  alien abductions, spontaneous human combustion and the Loch Ness Monster. Many believe in fortune tellers, soothsayers and so-called psychic detectives who inject themselves into missing person and murder cases. The words "detective" and "psychic" do not belong together. Police detectives who consult these fakes and run down their leads should be put back on patrol. It's all a load of crap.

      In an era of marginal thinking and outlandish beliefs, millions of people buy into paranormal nonsense. The media, particularly television, with supposedly serious shows about ghosts and psychics, adds credibility to this nonsense. Print and TV journalists who know better pretend to take this hogwash seriously because they are popular subjects that attract readers and viewers. These media hacks are part of the problem. Too many Americans have lost the ability to think straight, reason clearly and draw logical conclusions.

     If psychic detectives could do what they claim there would be no such thing as missing children ex-girlfriends and estranged wives. There would be no unsolved murders. No one without inside knowledge of a case, can, by holding a missing murder victim's garment lead the detectives to the body. Harry Houdini escaped locked boxes because he had the keys and psychic detectives claim credit for locating missing persons by embellishing and changing--after the fact--their initial predictions. They get away with it because gullible people want to believe in them.

Psychics Teresa Nicholas and Tiffany Smith: The Costly Curse

     Psychics Teresa Nicholas and Tiffany Smith, "Psychic Readers & Advisors" doing business in Hingham, Massachusetts, if they could have foreseen their own futures wouldn't have bilked a 69-year-old woman who had stupidly availed herself of their fortune telling services.

     On April 6, 2012, when the victim came to Tiffany Smith for a "psychic reading," Tiffany Smith informed her she was under a "curse and a black cloud." More specifically, the psychic reader told the victim that if she didn't fork over $7,000 to lift the curse the victim's daughter, within a week, would commit suicide. The poor woman wrote a check payable to Teresa Nicholas for that amount. The next day, the victim either came to her senses or spoke to someone with common sense. Either way, the police were notified. Teresa Nicholas, however, had already deposited the check.

     A week later the two psychics were charged with a variety of theft offenses related to swindling and fraud.

Psychic Detectives in the Disappearance of Etan Patz

     On May 25, 1979 the parents of 6-year-old Etan Patz allowed the boy to make his first unaccompanied trip to the Manhattan bus stop two blocks from his apartment building. They never saw him again. The missing boy was one of the first to have his photograph printed on milk cartons. His case helped fuel the national missing persons campaign that took root in the 1980s. The boy was formally declared dead in 2001.

     From the beginning investigators suspected a friend of Etan's babysitter, a man named Jose Antonia Ramos. Ramos was later convicted of child molestation and sent to prison in Pennsylvania. While never prosecuted in the Patz case, the missing boy's family won a $2 million wrongful death judgement against Ramos in 2004.

     In 2010 Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance reopened the Etan Patz investigation.

     In April, 2012, FBI agents and detectives with the New York City Police Department interviewed a 75-year-old man named Othniel Miller, a former handyman who in 1979 had worked in a small workshop in the basement of the Patz family apartment building on Prince Street in the SoHo section of Manhattan. Etan Patz did chores for Mr. Miller, and on the day before he disappeared Mr. Miller had given the boy a dollar. At the time of the boy's disappearance Othniel Miller was not a suspect because he had a solid alibi. 

     After questioning Othniel Miller FBI agents placed "scent pads"--material that can absorb and retain odors--in Miller's old basement workshop. A cadaver dog, upon sniffing the pad indicated the scent of human remains. (This technique is not accepted forensic science.)

     Under the supervision of the FBI and New York City Police workers dug up the workshop's concrete floor and screened the dirt beneath it for signs of Etan's remains. At one point investigators thought they had discovered a suspicious stain on a chunk of cinder block, but further analysis determined it was not blood. After four days of excavating the authorities shut down the operation and began cleaning up the mess. The Etan Patz case remained a mystery.

     In 1979, five days after Ethan Patz left home for the bus stop and never came back, a psychic named Carrie Leight told Etan's father that the first-grader was being cared for in a "blue hospital" that employed a nurse named Mrs. Keanne. Another psychic, under hypnosis, said the boy was "living safely" with a dark-haired woman with a Spanish or Cuban accent who lived on the second floor of a tenement building bearing the number 29. New York City detectives ran down these leads that led them nowhere. They wasted their time. 

     On May 6, 2012 Pedro Hernandez, a 51-year-old from Maple Shade, New Jersey confessed to choking Etan Patz to death and leaving his body in a bag in a Manhattan trash can. Hernandez, an employee of a convenience store in the victim's neighborhood had moved to New Jersey shortly after Etan's disappearance and murder.

     In February 2017 a jury in Manhattan found Pedro Hernandez guilty of murder and kidnapping. The judge sentenced him to 25 years to life in prison.

Psychic Nancy L. Fox and the Christine Ann Jarrett Murder Case

     On the night of January 3, 1991, Christine Ann Jarrett, the mother of two young boys, disappeared from her home in Elkridge, Maryland. Shortly thereafter a local psychic named Nancy Fox, who performed "readings, healings and spiritual coaching," was taken to the Jarrett house where she "immediately had a feeling." Psychic Fox informed those present that the missing woman was dead.

     This psychic from Linthicum, Maryland said she had an image of Christine Jarrett getting into a blue car with a man and that the dead woman would be found within 50 miles of her home. The police, according to Fox, would find clues to her disappearance in southern Pennsylvania.

     Even if this rubbish were true the information was so general it was useless. A blue car? Some man? Southern Pennsylvania? The body somewhere within a 50 mile radius of the house? 

     On April 21, 2012, 21 years later, Christine Jarrett's remains were found a few yards from her residence in Elkridge, Maryland, buried under the floorboards of a backyard shed. Her remarried husband, 57-year-old Robert Jarrett, was charged then convicted of her murder.

     When psychic Nancy Fox had her "feeling" she was sitting a few yards from Christine Jarrett's dead body. There was no man in a blue car or clues in southern Pennsylvania. 

Friday, February 23, 2024

The O. J. Simpson Murders: A "Crime of the Century"

     In America, the combination of celebrity worship and the fascination with violent crime has produced a dozen or so "crimes of the century." Obscure people, by virtue of their willingness to commit outrageous mayhem can become instant celebrities. In the 20th century, unknown people like Bruno Richard Hauptmann, Mark Chapman, David Berkowitz, Jeffrey Dahmer and Ted Kaczinski, because of who or how many people they murdered, propelled themselves into the history books. Assassins Lee Harvey Oswald, James Earl Ray and Sirhan Sirhan committed acts of violence that changed the direction of history.

     In Kansas the 1959 Clutter family killers Richard Hickok and Perry Smith destined to remain relatively obscure despite their mass murder, were immortalized by celebrity author Truman Capote whose book In Cold Blood became a bestseller, a movie, and as a "nonfiction novel," a literary classic. Charles Manson, Erik and Lyle Menendez, Ted Bundy and other convicted killers of the 20th Century were regularly seen on TV as celebrity criminals being interviewed by celebrity reporters.

     The 20th century saw three "crimes of the century": The Lindbergh Kidnapping; The John F. Kennedy Assassination; and the O. J. Simpson case. Charles A. Lindbergh was brought down by an unemployed illegal alien who abducted and murdered his 20-month-old son; President Kennedy by a deranged lone wolf; and O. J. Simpson by himself. These three cases rose above the rest because they involved two famous victims and a famous defendant, all of whom were heroes to millions of people.

     There have been dozens of books written about the Lindbergh and Simpson crimes and more than 500 books on the Kennedy assassination. In the Lindbergh and Kennedy cases many of these works feature revisionist history by crime writing hacks. Notwithstanding the overwhelming evidence of his guilt, there have been authors who have made literary cases for O. J. Simpson's innocence.

The O. J. Simpson Case and its Aftermath

     From the June 1994 day in Los Angeles when Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman were viciously stabbed and slashed to death outside of O. J. Simpson's ex-wife's condo, to Simpson's October 1995 murder acquittal, the O. J. Simpson case dominated the news in the United States and abroad. His acquittal at the hands of a stupid or biased jury shocked the nation. In February 1997 a civil jury found Simpson liable for the wrongful deaths of his ex-wife and her friend, awarding the plaintiffs $8.5 million in compensatory damages. The civil court judge also ordered Simpson to turn over his 1968 Heisman Trophy, an Andy Warhol painting, his golf clubs and other personal assets.

     In September 2007 O. J. and a group of his associates entered a room at the Palace Station hotel-casino in Las Vegas where they stole, at gunpoint, sports memorabilia from a dealer. O. J.'s accomplices, upon arrest quickly agreed to plead guilty and testify against Simpson. A year later, after being found guilty of robbery, assault and kidnapping, Simpson was on his way to prison where he would have to serve at least nine years before being eligible for parole. He was now 67 and serving his time at the Lovelock Correctional Center in Nevada.

     The O. J. Simpson murder case, involving DNA analysis, blood spatter interpretation, shoe print identification and forensic pathology, popularized forensic science. The not guilty verdict also introduced the public to the concept of jury nullification.

     The infamous double murder turned police detectives, defense attorneys, prosecutors and the trial judge into instant celebrities. Several of the major players in the case cashed-in with lucrative book deals. A few became television personalities. The case put CNN on the map and elevated the careers of more than a few talking-heads. In that respect the effects of the Simpson case are still visible.

The Post-Conviction Lives of Key Simpson Figures

     The chief prosecutor, Marcia Clark, left the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office in 1997 just before the publication of her book (with Teresa Carpenter) Without a Doubt. Clark received a publisher's advance of $4.2 million. (An insane amount for a true crime book, and a much better deal for Clark than the publisher.) Clark, although criticized by many legal scholars and commentators for her handling of the case, parlayed it into a media career. A special correspondent for "Entertainment Tonight," Clark commented on the Casey Anthony trial for Headline News. She was then 65.

     Johnny Cochran, the chief defense attorney, was already known as a celebrity trial attorney before taking on O. J. Simpson as a client. In 1993 he had defended Michael Jackson against accusations of child molestation. At the Simpson trial, regarding the bloody crime scene glove, Cochran issued the now famous quote: "If it doesn't fit, you must acquit." He retired from his legal practice in 2002 and on March 29, 2005 died of a brain tumor. He was 67.

     Judge Lance Ito, the man who presided over the 9-month trial, was severely criticized by legal scholars for letting the proceeding degenerate into a media circus and television soap opera. In his book, Outrage, Vincent Bugliosi, the man who prosecuted Charles Manson and his crew (Helter Skelter) accused Ito of judicial incompetence in the case. Ito retired in 2018 as a Los Angeles Superior Court judge.

     After the Simpson trial Marcia Clark's assistant, Christopher Darden, worked as a legal commentator for CNN, Court TV and NBC. His book on the case is called In Contempt. Darden later wrote several other books, including a crime thriller with writer Dick Lochte.

     If the Simpson case produced a law enforcement villain it was Mark Fuhrman. The Los Angeles police detective was accused of planting the bloody crime scene glove. Convicted of perjury, Mr. Fuhrman was sentenced to three years probation. (There was never solid proof that Detective Fuhrman planted any evidence in the case.) The former Marine, in the years since the Simpson trial, rehabilitated his image by becoming a successful author of nonfiction crime books. In addition to his book on the Simpson case, Murder in Brentwood, Fuhrman wrote Murder in Greenwich, a bestseller about the Martha Moxley case. He was also a crime commentator on Fox News. 

     In May 2016 O. J. Simpson came up for parole in the Las Vegas robbery/kidnapping case. The parole board denied his request for early release. On July 21, 2017 the parole board paroled Simpson and allowed him to live in Miami, Florida. 
     O. J. Simpson died on April 11, 2024. He was 76.

Thursday, February 22, 2024

The Mary Rogers Murder Case: The Homicide That Launched Crime Journalism and Modern Policing

     In America, police didn't get around to systematically investigating crime until well into the twentieth century. There were no police, at least as we know them today, until the mid-l800s, about the time the word "detective" first appeared in the Oxford Dictionary. Charles Dickens, in his 1853 novel Bleak House used the word for the first time in a book.

     From Colonial America to the mid and late 1800s most cities were "policed" by bands of politically appointed, unsalaried watchmen and constables who were compensated through a system of fees, rewards and bribes. If a thief had more money than his victim he could avoid jail by paying off the constable or local justice of the peace. Watchmen and thieves commonly operated as teams wherein the thief would steal the property then turn it over to the watchman who would solicit a reward from the victim. The thief and the cop would split the money. At best watchmen were nothing more than middlemen in the ransoming back of loot.

     In 1840, New York City had a population of a half million and a growing crime problem, particularly in the Five Points area, a south Manhattan slum. In addition to gangs of young thugs the area was being overtaken by a small army of safe-crackers, lock-picks, pickpockets and shoplifters. The neighborhood also featured gambling, prostitution and public drunkiness. While homicide was still rare, more and more people were being raped and assaulted.

     During the day, so-called "roundsmen," a group of inept and corrupt watchmen who existed off fees and rewards patroled the city. At night, watchmen called "leatherheads," equally ineffective and corrupt, took over. The watchmen ignored crimes against persons such as assault and rape because these cases rarely involved monetary incentives from victims. Even in cases of violent crime where victims could afford rewards few arrests were made because no one in law enforcement knew how to conduct a criminal investigation. Moreover, forensic science and the technology to identify offenders beyond their names--bodily measurements then later fingerprints--didn't exist. As a result there were no criminal record archives, and because photography was a relatively new technology, rogues' galleries--collections of offender mugshots--didn't exist. It would be decades before the police in the U.S. routinely photographed arrestees.

     In 1841 a notorious murder case highlighted the sorry state of law enforcement and criminal investigation in New York City and the rest of the country. As is often the case a celebrated crime would serve as a catalyst for change--and in this instance--progress.

The Mary Rogers Murder Case

     Three men, late in the afternoon of July 28, 1841, while fishing from a boat on the Hudson River just off the Hoboken, New Jersey shore, spotted the bloated body of a woman floating in the water. The partially clothed corpse was identified that evening as 20-year-old Mary Rogers, the former employee of a popular Manhattan cigar store. She had gone missing three days earlier. The once attractive woman had been badly beaten in the face and strangled by a length of muslin found wrapped around her neck that had been tied with a slip knot. Her hands and feet had been bound, and according to the coroner who ruled her cause of death as drowning, she had been raped.

     Mary Rogers had lived with her mother Phoebe who owned a boarding house on Nassau Street in Hoboken. On the day after the fishermen found the body a lawyer named Alfred Crommelin, a boarding house resident who at one time had been the victim's suitor, asked the authorities not to make inquiries into the death. Because there had been rumors that Mary's last absence from work involved acquiring an abortion, Crommelin based his request on the need to protect the family from embarrassment. The watchmen he spoke to, a man ill equipped to conduct an investigation of any kind, readily agreed to drop the case. Had it not been for a reporter for The New York Evening Mercury writing a scathing editorial criticising this official inaction, the case would have sllipped into obscurity.

     When the other newspapers in town picked up the story of Mary Rogers' death the authorities had no choice but to conduct a token investigation. Most of the information gathered on the case--Mary's background, associations and activities before her most recent disappearance--would be developed by newspaper reporters rather than the constables and watchmen responsible for looking into the homicide.

     Mary Rogers began working at John Anderson's Cigar Store, on Broadway near Thomas Street, in the spring of 1840. During her ten months of employment there, more and more men dazzled by her beauty and charm flocked to the store. One day, in January 1841, Mary didn't show up for work and remained missing for six days during which time her absence was reported in several newspapers as the "mysterious disappearnce of the cigar girl." When she returned to the store her admiring customers noticed her despondency and were skeptical of her story that she had been in the country visiting a relative. The rumor spread that she had undergone an abortion, a legal procedure at the time.

     Shortly after her return to work Mary broke off her engagement to Daniel Payne, a heavy-drinking cork cutter of whom her mother strongly disapproved. She then quit her job. On July 25, the day she
disappeared for the second time, Mary told Mr. Payne she was spending the day at her aunt's house on Bleecker Street. Three days later the fishermen found her floating in the Hudson River.

     Failing to acquire confessions from their only suspects--John Anderson, Alfred Crommelin and Daniel Payne--the police published a reward for information leading to the killer's arrest. That resulted in an anonymous letter from a man who said he had seen Mary, on the day of her disappearance, with six rough looking men at a summer retreat near Hoboken. From the beach Mary and the men were seen disappearing into a wooded area. The letter, published in several newspapers, brought forward two men who were on the beach that day, men who remembered seeing an attractive young woman in the company of several men. As far as these witnesses could tell, Mary was with these men voluntarily.

     Shortly after the publication of the anonymous letter a stage driver came forward and said he had seen Mary, on the day of her disappearance with a young naval officer. They were at a roadhouse near the Hoboken summer retreat. Mary's companion turned out to be a sailor named William Adam. Taken into custody, watchmen, after grilling him for two days released him back to his ship.

     On September 25, 1841, two months after the murder, children playing in the woods near Elysian Fields in Hoboken found a white petticoat, a silk scarf, a parasol and a linen handkerchief bearing the initials "M. R." This area was near where Mary Rogers had been seen entering the woods with the six rough looking men, the probable place of her killing. No one in authority had thought to search this site for clues related to her violent assault. Without the ability to connect a suspect to the scene of a crime through fingerprints or various forms of trace evidence, the investigation came to an abrupt end. A few weeks later, at this very spot, Daniel Payne killed himself by drinking a bottle of laudanum, a particularly painful and unhurried mode of poison-suicide. Because Payne had an air-tight alibi for July 25, the day of the murder, he was never considered as a serous suspect.

     No one was ever arrested for the murder of Mary Rogers. Edgar Allan Poe, however, used the case as the basis of his story, "The Mystery of Marie Roget," a crime he set in Paris. The short story reflected Poe's contempt for New York's law enforcement establishment, men he portrayed as bungling the murder investigation. The story first appeared in the November 1842 issue of Snowden's Ladies' Companion. Two installments followed.

     The Mary Rogers case, through Edgar Allan Poe, led to the formation of a new literary genre and sparked the beginning of crime journalism. Poe's fictionalization of the case produced early anti-abortion legislation and kick-started the formation, in 1845, of the New York City Police Department, the nation's first modern law enforcement agency.

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

School Teacher By Day, Porn Star By Night

     In 2000, Stacie Halas, who lived as a child in Florida, graduated from Newbury Park High School in Thousand Oaks, California. Four years later, with a degree in education, she graduated from California State University at Monterey Bay located on the Monterey Peninsula. In February 2005 Stacie worked in four Ventura County school districts as a substitute teacher. Ten months later she began moonlighting as an actress in explicit hardcore porn films.

     Between December 2005 and June 2006, Stacie Halas, under the stage name Tiffany Six, appeared in dozens of porn videos for which she was paid $1,500 per sex scene. In a film in which she engaged in group sex with four men, she was interviewed in a behind-the-scenes clip at the end of the video. When asked by the interviewer if being a porn actor was for her a risky career choice, she said, "It is risky, very risky for me because I am a teacher." The interviewer asked Tiffany Six if she'd get fired if caught. "Questionable, probably," she answered. If this was such a risky business for her why was she doing sex scenes on film? "Money and it's fun, it's exciting," she replied. "It's just the excitement, doing something different that you're not supposed to do."

     In June 2006 when Halas began teaching science at Ventura County's Simi Valley High School, she quit the porn industry. In the fall of 2009 she started teaching 7th and 8th grade biology at the Richard B. Haydock Intermediate School in Oxnard, a coastal city of 200,000 in the greater Los Angeles area. 

     Stacie Halas' past came back to haunt her in March 2012 when students discovered her pornographic body of work on the Internet. The school placed her on administrative leave pending an internal investigation.  After school officials watched her videos the Oxnard School District Board of Trustees did something extremely rare in California--they fired a teacher. Stacie Halas appealed her termination to the California Commission on Profession Competence. 

      Represented by Attorney Richard Schwab, Halas presented her case before the commission at a hearing that got underway on October 22, 2012. In an emotional plea to the Commissioners of Competence she admitted she let herself down by performing in porn films. But she had been desperate in 2005 when her boyfriend abandoned her. At that time she owed $100,000 in student loans and credit card debt. Attorney Schwab, while conceding that the porn industry is not well respected, reminded the commissioners that it was not against the law to have sex on film for money. 

     Attorney Natasha Sawhney, in representing the Ventura School District, argued that Halas would become a distraction if let back into the classroom. Six days after the hearing commenced, following the testimony of twenty witnesses and some erotic exhibits, the commission ruled unanimously to uphold Halas' termination. Her attorney announced that he planned to appeal the competence commissioners' decision to the State Office of Administrative Hearings. In speaking to a TV report after the hearing Stacie Halas said, "I think most of us have something in our backgrounds. And I ask anybody to cast the first stone." 

     On January 11, 2013 the panel of three administrative law judges with the State Office of Administrative Hearings issued a 47-page report justifying the panel's unanimous decision that Stacie Halas was unfit to teach in the California school system. In the opinion of the judges, because the videos showcasing Halas' work in porn continued to be available online, she could never be an effective teacher. According to the lead judge, Halas had "...failed to establish that she can be trusted as a role model for children." The judges, by setting this administrative law precedent, hoped it would deter other California teachers from moonlighting in the porn industry.

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Serial Killers Who Murdered Prostitutes

     The term "serial killing," coined by FBI profilers in the 1980s, pertains to two or more unrelated murders in distinctly separate incidents. In other words, killings with "cooling off" periods in between. At any given time, according to FBI experts, there are between twenty and fifty serial killers going about their deadly business. [Based on current homicide statistics, it's probably more like twenty.] Statistics also show that America produces 85 percent of the world's serial killers. While these murderers fall into several groups according to their motives, MO and psychological profiles, all serial killers are sociopaths who feel no guilt or remorse.

     Serial killers who rape, torment and kill women--often runaways, prostitutes and others who live transient lives--are called lust killers. (In England they call them "recreational killers.") These men are primarily motivated by sex and sadism and have nothing but disdain for their victims. Before they actually kill anyone, most of these sociopaths fantasize about violent sex. At some point these fantasies turn into reality. Serial killers prey on prostitutes because they are easy targets. A street walker will go missing and no one will report it for days or weeks, if at all. Moreover, the police are not likely to give such cases much attention. As criminal homicides these cases are difficult to solve because many of the bodies cannot be identified and there is no substantial relationship between the victims and their killers.  

     What follows are the broad profiles of nine lust killers. Two are black and all of them murdered prostitutes. In no particular order, they are:

Garry Ridgway
Seattle, Washington
white male; born 1949; 90 victims (1982-2000)

     Ridgway, known as the Green River Killer, is America's most prolific lust murderer. This childhood bed-wetter with a low IQ grew into a religious fanatic fixated on prostitutes. A loner and an outdoorsman, Ridgway, divorced three times, had a son by his second wife. He targeted street walkers who worked in Seattle and dumped their bodies on the banks of the Green River. He painted trucks for a living. Garry Ridgway is serving a life sentence at the Washington State Penitentiary at Walla Walla, Washington.

Arthur Shawcross
Rochester, New York
white male; born 1945; 12 victims (1988-1989)

     In 1972, before Shawcross started killing prostitutes, he raped and murdered two children in Watertown, New York. After serving fourteen years in prison he began targeting street walkers in Rochester, dumping their bodies in the Genesse River. Although he had a low IQ, he had served in the U.S. Army. He confessed to his murders before dying in 2008.

Bobby Joe Long
Tampa Bay, Florida
white male; born 1953; 10 victims (1984)

     As a child growing up in Kenova, West Virginia, kids teased Long because he had an extra X chromosome that caused him to grow breasts. As a child he suffered several head injuries and slept in his mother's bed until he was a teenager. Prior to killing women in the Tampa Bay area, Long raped at least fifty women in Fort Lauderdale, Ocala and Miami where he was known in the press as the "Classified Ad Rapist." In 1974 he married his high school girlfriend with whom he fathered two children. They divorced in 1980. Three years later, Bobby Joe Long moved to Tampa Bay and in 1984 began abducting, raping and murdering women, most of whom were prostitutes. He took his victims to his apartment where he either strangled or bludgeoned them, or cut their throats. One of his victims escaped which led to his arrest and conviction. Long confessed to deriving sadistic pleasure from his crimes. He is on death row.

Maury Travis
St. Louis, Missouri
black male; born 1965; 12-20 victims (2000-2002)

     This hotel worker from Ferguson, Missouri outside of St. Louis took prostitutes to his home where, in a basement torture chamber he raped, tortured and strangled his victims. He video-taped many of his atrocities. When investigators searched Travis' house they found bondage equipment, a stun gun and newspaper clippings featuring news of his murders. In 2002 he committed suicide in his St. Louis jail cell. In a letter to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Travis boasted that he had killed seventeen prostitutes.

Kendall Francois
Poughkeepsie, New York
black male; born 1971; 8 victims (1996-1998)

     This necrophiliac high school hall monitor took prostitutes to his home where he killed them by strangulation. His hatred of street walkers stemmed from the fact one of them had infected him with HIV. When the police searched his home they found the decomposing bodies of several victims. He is serving a life sentence at the Attica Correctional Facility.

Robert Lee Yates
Spokane, Washington
white male; born 1952; 16 victims (1986-1988)

     After working as a prison guard Mr. Yates embarked on a medal-winning, nineteen year career in the U.S. Army where he flew cargo planes and helicopters. All of his victims worked the streets in the skid row section of Spokane. He's on death row at the Washington State Prison.

Robert Hansen
Anchorage, Alaska
white male; born 1939; 21 victims (1980-1983)

     This bipolar baker and police academy drill instructor came from a dysfunctional family and was bullied at school. Before he began killing prostitutes he burned down a school bus garage in Pocahontas, Iowa. Known as a quiet loner, Hansen fathered two children. He kidnapped his victims in Anchorage then released them into the Alaskan wilderness where he hunted them down like animals. Hansen died in 2014 while serving a life sentence in the state prison at Seward, Alaska.

Doug Clark
Los Angeles, California
white male; born 1948; 8 victims (1980)

     Along with his accomplice Carol M. Bundy, Clark became known as one of the "Sunset Strip Killers." The boiler operator at a Jergens Soap Factory fantasized about killing women during sex then, with the help of Carol Bundy, graduated to the real thing. He shot his victims in the back of the head. At his trial he represented himself. He's now on death row. Carol Bundy, pursuant to a plea bargain, is serving a life sentence.

Dayton Leroy Rogers
Portland Oregon
white male; born 1953; 6 victims (1983-1987)

     A mechanic who fixed small engines and was deeply in debt, Dayton Rogers took his victims into the woods where he raped and stabbed them to death. All of his victims were runaways hooked on dope. He's a death row inmate in Oregon.

     The disturbing thing about all of these men is that they did not stand out in any way. They did not look like monsters, and in their daily lives did nothing that revealed who they really were. Notwithstanding their homicidal activities, they seemed ordinary. That's what made them so dangerous. And it also made them difficult to catch.

Monday, February 19, 2024

Pastor Joaquin Garcia: The Sex Offending Megachurch Leader

     In 2019, 50-year-old Joaquin Garcia headed up a Mexican based megachurch with branches in the United States and 56 other countries. The La Lux del Mundo (The Light of the World) christian fundamentalist church claimed on its website to have 5 million followers worldwide. Before becoming leader of La Luz del Mundo, Joaquin Garcia had been a minister in Los Angeles and other places in southern California. Members of the megachurch who followed its teachings were promised eternal salvation.

     Over a period of several years Pastor Garcia and members of the church were accused of child sexual abuse and rape. None of the allegations, however, led to serious investigations or criminal prosecution.

     In June 2019 a California Attorney General's Office prosecutor charged Joaquin Garcia and four of his female followers with the production of child pornography, rape of a minor and human trafficking. The 29 felony counts involved three girls and an adult female, and covered the period 2015 to 2018. The alleged offenses took place in Los Angeles County.

     The megachurch leader, among other crimes, stood accused of coercing girls into having sex with him by telling his victims if they refused they would offend God and go to hell.

     On June 4, 2019  Mr. Garcia and 24-year-old Susana Medina Oaxaca were taken into custody after deplaning at the Los Angeles International Airport. At his arraignment the religious leader pleaded not guilty to all of the charges. The magistrate set his bail at $25 million.

     The day after officers booked Joaquin Garcia into the Los Angeles County Jail 1,000 of his followers gathered at La Luz del Mundo headquarters in Guadalajara, Mexico to pray for his release.

     A spokesperson for the church proclaimed Pastor Garcia innocent and described the criminal charges against him as false.

     On April 7, 2020 a California appeals court ordered the dismissal of all the charges against the church leader. The dismissal, based upon a procedural issue, pertained to the state's failure to hold a preliminary hearing on the case in a timely manner.

     Pursuant to the procedural laws of every state and federal government, the prosecution must, within a stated period of time following the defendant's arrest, present sufficient evidence of the defendant's guilt to convince a judge to allow the case to move forward to a trial. The state's evidence does not have to be strong enough to convict, but enough to establish a prima facie case. This requirement is one of the underpinnings of American due process. In American jurisprudence a criminal suspect cannot be locked up and forgotten.

     In the Garcia prosecution the defendant's preliminary hearing had been postponed several times because the state had failed to turn over evidence to the defense.

     Joaquin Garcia's attorney, Alan Jackson, said the following to reporters at a press conference: "In their zeal to secure a conviction at any cost, the attorney general sought to strip Mr. Garcia of his freedom without due process by locking him up on the basis of unsubstantiated accusations by unnamed accusers, and by denying him his day in court."

     While the appeals court justices did not dismiss the charges against Garcia's four co-defendants, the charges against them were dropped. 
     The investigation into the pastor's sex crimes continued, and in June 2022 Pastor Joaquin Garcia pleaded guilty to abusing several young girls. The judge sentenced him to 16 years in a Los Angeles prison. Following his sentencing a large group of his religious followers gathered at the church's main temple in Guadalajra, Mexico to pray for their absent leader and to express their dying loyalty.
     In October 2023 a federal grand jury sitting in Los Angeles indicted Pastor Garcia on two child pornography charges. 

Sunday, February 18, 2024

Truman Capote Was Not a True Crime Writer

     In a somewhat critical New Yorker article on the true crime genre (August 19, 1996) Alex Ross, regarding the history of nonfiction crime writing wrote: " 'True crime' is the name that has attached itself to journalistic and literary accounts of exceptional human ghastliness. The term became a standard publishing category in the 1980s, distinct from long-standing genres of mystery and crime literature.The name is new, the genre is not. Readers have been devouring hastily printed accounts of mayhem and disaster since the invention of the popular press."

     Writing about murder and mayhem--interviewing victims' loved ones and the people who commit these brutal crimes--is not for everyone. Living day to day with violent death and human suffering can take its toll on a writer. Truman Capote, while writing his 1966 true crime masterpiece, In Cold Blood, the story of the 1959 murder of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas, said that the subject matter "leaves me increasingly limp and numb and, well, horrified--I have such awful dreams every night. I don't know how I could ever have felt so callous and objective as I did in the beginning." (In Capote: A Biography (1988) by Gerald Clarke)

     It should be noted that Capote was a literary novelist and not a true crime writer. He knew very little about criminal investigation, policing, forensic science, criminology, criminal law, the trial process, or corrections. And this lack of knowledge in these fields shows in his novelistic account of the Clutter family murders. The fact that his literary involvement in the Clutter case affected him the way it did primarily had to do with his love affair with one of the murderers and the fact he was an emotional wreck to begin with.

Saturday, February 17, 2024

The Richard Kirk Murder Case

     In 2014, Richard Kirk, 47, resided in Denver's Observatory Park neighborhood not far from the University of Denver. Richard and his wife Kristine purchased the upscale Tudor style home in 2005. The couple had three soccer-playing grade school boys. Richard's friends described him as a religious happy-go-lucky man devoted to his family.

     On December 23, 1993, while living in Dallas, Texas, Richard, then single, was charged with felony assault. The prosecutor dropped the charge to a misdemeanor offense then eventually dismissed the case altogether. At the time his future wife Kristine resided five miles away in a Dallas apartment. (Richard Kirk's alleged victim was not identified in the media.)

     In 2000 a police officer in Douglas County, Colorado arrested Richard for driving under the influence. (The disposition of this case is unknown.) These two incidents comprised the extent of Kirk's arrest record.

     At 9:32 on the night of Monday, April 14, 2014, 44-year-old Kristine A. Kirk called a 911 dispatcher in Denver to report a domestic disturbance at her residence. She said her husband had been smoking marijuana and Richard was frightening their three young sons. According to Kristine he was hallucinating and talking about the end of the world. Most disturbingly he said he wanted her to shoot him to death.

     The dispatcher asked Kristine if there was a gun in the dwelling. The caller said yes, but it was locked inside a safe. The 911 call suddenly turned ominous when Kristine informed the dispatcher that her husband had gotten the handgun out of the safe and was holding it in his hand.

     About thirteen minutes into the 911 call the dispatcher heard a scream and then a gunshot. At that point the line went dead. The dispatcher immediately upgraded the 911 call from a domestic disturbance case to a "code 10"--a possible shooting.

     That night two Denver police officers rolled up to the Kirk house on South St. Paul Street. Three minutes later one of the officers called for an ambulance and advised the 911 dispatcher that they "were going to need homicide."

     An officer put Richard Kirk into handcuffs and escorted him to the patrol car. From the backseat of the police vehicle, without prompting, the suspect admitted shooting his wife to death.

     The next day a local prosecutor charged Richard Kirk with first-degree murder. At his arraignment on Wednesday, April 16, 2014 the judge advised the suspect of the charge against him, assigned him a public defender and ordered him held without bail. Kirk showed no emotion as he stood before the magistrate.

     The media, as it often does in high-profile crimes, began assessing blame. In this case reporters were quick to note that since 2008, 911 response time at the Denver Police Department had grown longer. According to a police spokesperson, budget cuts and fewer officers on patrol had adversely affected police response time to domestic calls.

     Notwithstanding the 15 minute lapse between the victim's 911 call and the arrival of the officers, there was no way to know for sure if a faster police response would have saved Kristine Kirk's life.

     Because marijuana was legal in Colorado the media made a big deal over the fact that before allegedly murdering his wife Richard Kirk had smoked pot.

     In February 2017, blaming marijuana for the killing, Richard Kirk pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. On April 8, 2017 the judge sentenced him to 30 years in prison. Mr. Kirk relinquished custody of his three sons to his dead wife's parents.

Friday, February 16, 2024

True Crime Censorship In China

     At 7:15 in the morning of Monday, March 4, 2013, Mr. Xu parked his gray Toyota RAV 4 near the supermarket where he worked. He ran into the building, turned on the heat and returned to the parking lot. To his horror Mr. Xu discovered that someone had stolen his SUV along with his two-month-old baby who was in the backseat. The car thief probably didn't know the vehicle was occupied.

     The distraught father called the police department in Changchun City, a sprawling megalopolis of 8 million people in northeast China's Jilin Province. Mr. Xu also called a local radio station which broadcast periodic bulletins that included descriptions of the stolen car and the missing baby. Eight thousand police officers were alerted as well as thousands of taxi cab drivers. All of these people, including listeners of the radio station were on the lookout for the stolen Toyota and its infant passenger, a baby named Xu Haobo.

     Almost immediately a variety of Internet social media sites picked up on the ongoing story. Most people following the case assumed that once the car thief realized he had inadvertently abducted the car owner's child would deposit the infant in front of a hospital or some other public place.

     The next day the car had not been recovered and the baby was still missing. Perhaps the car thief was also a kidnapper seeking a ransom. At five in the afternoon of Tuesday, March 5 a man named Zhou Xijun turned himself in to the Changchun police. According to the 48-year-old resident of Gongzhuling City, about an hour after he took Mr. Xu's car he strangled the baby to death. Mr. Xijun said he buried the corpse in the snow alongside a country road.

     While the Xu Haobo story was widely circulated in China's Internet social media, Xinwenhua News, the official Jilin Province newspaper, did not report the murder. According to an independent journalist who uses the name "Yingshidian," the Communist run Provincial Propaganda Department had censored reportage of the case. The story was suppressed because it lent credence to concerns that criminals in China were losing all respect for human life. Stories like this were bad for tourism as well.

     A relative of the murdered baby, on a Chinese web site similar to YouTube, criticized the police for not finding the car thief before he murdered Xu Haobo. The relative accused the police of gross negligence in the case.  (Reportedly, the baby was killed an hour after the car theft which rendered this criticism unreasonable.)

     Like all high-profile murders, the Xu Haobo case spawned a lot of rumors. One story that went around was that Zhou Xijun, the man who confessed to the car theft and murder, was covering for his son, Zhou Lei. Rumor had it that the son murdered the baby and was on the run from the police.

     The senseless murder of the baby in the stolen car became one of the most talked about crimes in China's recent history. The murdered infant's mother was treated for a mental breakdown.

     Public outrage led for calls that the baby's killer be punished with "lingchi"--the slow dismemberment of the prisoner's body.

     In May 2013 a judge in Changchun, China found Zhou Xijun guilty of murder. The convicted man was hanged six months later. 

Thursday, February 15, 2024

The Curtis Bonnell Murder Case

     Fourteen-year-old Hilary Bonnell, in 2007, resided with her mother Pam Fillier on the Esgenoopetitj Fist Nation Indian Reservation in northeastern Canada's New Brunswick Province. In 2008 the girl and her mother moved to Miramichi, New Brunswick, the largest town in the province. The teen had behavioral problems that included drinking alcohol, smoking marijuana and running away from home. Her mother, in an effort to help her daughter get control of her drinking and drug use, put Hilary into a group home for two months in the fall of 2008. Because Hilary Bonnell missed her old friends the girl's mother, in 2009, allowed the strong-willed teen to spend the summer on the reservation with her aunt.

     On September 5, 2009, at 3:11 in the morning, Pam Fillier received a call from her daughter who sounded like she had been drinking. Hilary said she was at a party and having fun. Mother and daughter agreed to go shopping the next day. They would meet at the aunt's place on the reservation. Later that morning and throughout the day Hilary Bonnell did not show up at her aunt's house. Because of her history of running away and staying for days at the homes of friends, Hilary's mother didn't report her missing until September 7, two days after she went missing.

     The missing persons case came under the jurisdiction of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) in Tracadie-Shelia, Canada. Sergeant Greg Lupson took charge of the investigation.

     As time passed and the 16-year-old remained missing, the RCMP began considering the possibility of foul play. On September 19, 2009 Sergeant Lupson questioned the missing girl's 32-year-old first cousin, Curtis Bonnell as a person of interest. Curtis and Hilary had been captured on a 4D Convenience Store surveillance camera on the morning she disappeared. (They were not together, but in the store between 7 and 8 AM.) Curtis Bonnell denied any knowledge of his first cousin's disappearance.

     On November 13, 2009 officers with the RCMP arrested Curtis Bonnell on the charge he had murdered Hilary Bonnell. When questioned in police custody the suspect admitted picking Hilary up in his truck as she walked along Micmac Road en route to her aunt's house. Curtis told the officers that he wanted to have sex with his cousin but when she demanded $100 for the act he got angry and sexually assaulted her. According to his account of her death, she died when he covered her mouth to keep her from screaming. He said he didn't intend to kill her.

     After killing Hilary, the suspect, in a state of panic, drove her body to a remote area near the town of Tracadie-Sheila where he buried her corpse in the woods. Curtis Bonnell returned to his home (he lived with his father) and burned some of Hilary's personal items in his backyard. Following the confession Bonnell led officers to his cousin's remains.

     On November 14, 2009, Dr. Ken Obenson performed the autopsy. The forensic pathologist identified the victim's cause of death as asphyxia. In Dr. Obenson's opinion the victim had either been strangled or smothered. The pathologist didn't find any fractures or injuries other than two cuts--one on Hilary Bonnell's hand and the other on her head near her eyebrow.

     According to a toxicologist who worked on the case, the victim had evidence of cannabis and alcohol in her system.

     The Curtis Bonnell first-degree murder case went to trial on September 17, 2012 in Miramichi, New Brunswick before a jury of six men and six women. The prosecutor for the Crown showed the jury a video of the defendant's police station confession. On October 22, Dr. Graham Bishop, a respiratory physician, took the stand and testified that it was plausible that Hilary Bonnell had died from someone sitting on her chest with his hands covering her nose and mouth. The witness said it was his expert opinion the victim had died the way the Crown believed she had been killed.

     On cross-examination by defense attorney Gilles Lemieux, Dr. Bishop said it was also possible that the victim had somehow "self-smothered" under the effects of alcohol and drugs. The witness conceded that without "definitive proof" such as handprints or video surveillance, it was impossible to say for sure exactly how Hilary Bonnell had died.

     The Crown rested its case on October 24, 2012, and five days later, the defense put Curtis Bonnell, its chief witness, on the stand. Dressed in a dark suit and a blue tie, the witness gave the jury a different story than the one he had given the RCMP. Mr. Bonnell said that on the morning of September 5, 2009 he woke up in his truck that was parked in his father's garage. Next to him in the front seat was slumped the body of a woman. At first he didn't know who she was so he climbed out of the vehicle and opened the passenger's side door. The woman, who he recognized as his cousin, started to fall out of the truck. Thinking that she was passed out from a night of drinking he grabbed her body that was cold and rigid. He panicked when he realized that Hilary Bonnell was dead. "What am I going to do?" he thought. "Nobody is going to believe me. I just got out of jail. Nobody's going to believe an Indian."

     The defendant testified that he put Hilary's body into the bed of his truck, drove to the wooded area near Tracadie-Sheila and laid her on the ground with her sandals beside her. He drove back to his home to look for physical evidence that might link him to his dead cousin.

     That night, according to Mr. Bonnell, he couldn't sleep because he was worried that animals might get to Hilary's body. The next day he took a shovel from his father's garage and drove to Tracadie-Sheila and the spot where he had placed her corpse. He put the body back into his truck and drove it to a different spot where he dug a shallow grave. He tossed the victim into the hole, shoveled in the dirt and drove home. (There had been prosecution testimony that the victim may have been buried alive.) Throughout his testimony the defendant denied having sex with his cousin or doing anything to cause her death.

     On cross-examination Crown prosecutor Bill Richards challenged the defendant over numerous discrepancies between his police statements and his courtroom testimony. The blistering cross-examination lasted two days and at one point the defendant broke down in tears.

     On re-direct, defense attorney Gilles Lemieux asked Curtis Bonnell why he had confessed to a crime he didn't commit. The defendant replied that he felt pressured and just wanted the interrogation to end. He told the RCMP officers what he figured they wanted to hear. The defendant also accused his interrogators of putting ideas into his head, suggesting incriminating details for him to include in his confession. According to Curtis Bonnell his police station confessions reflected the police theory of the case rather than what really happened that night in his pickup truck.

     On October 31, 2012 the Bonnell defense put a forensic pathologist on the stand named Dr. David Chiasson. Dr. Chiasson, a pathologist with the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, said, "I don't think we have enough information [in this case] to make a homicide determination. You have a young woman buried in clandestine circumstances. I believe that is why a homicide determination was made." Under defense attorney Lemieux's guidance Dr. Chiasson said that Hilary Bonnell did not have any of the physical injuries he would expect to find had she been smothered by a hand forcibly held over her nose and mouth.

     On cross-examination Dr. Chiasoon agreed with the prosecutor that if someone sat on the victim's chest while covering her nose and mouth it would have taken less force to smother her. The prosecutor also got the forensic pathologist to concede that the circumstances of this girl's death were, at the very least, "criminally suspicious."

     On November 3, 2012 the Bonnell case jurors, after deliberating six hours, found the defendant guilty of first degree-murder. The Miramichi courtroom erupted in cheers. Curtis Bonnell's conviction carried with it an automatic sentence of life in prison with no chance of parole.

      Mr. Bonnell's attorney appealed his client's conviction to the New Brunswick Court of Appeals. Defense attorney Peter Corey argued that the trial judge should have given the jury the option of finding the defendant guilty of manslaughter. He asked the appellate justices to overturn the conviction.

     Lawyers for the Crown and Curtis Bonnell presented their oral arguments before the appellate judges in April 2014.

     On January 29, 2015, in a written decision, the New Brunswick appellate court declined to reverse the murder conviction. "There was no error," wrote Justice Kathleen Quigg, adding that the trial judge's instructions to the jury "were more than adequate."

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Police Impersonators

     Naftali Berrill, the director of a private consulting firm called New York Forensics believes that police impersonators come in two flavors and that both types pose a danger to themselves and to others. One group consists of criminal predators who employ the ruse to gain entry into a house or a car with the intent of robbery, rape or murder. (Serial killer Ted Bundy lured some of his victims into his Volkswagen by impersonating a police detective.) Many of these predator impersonators are violent sociopaths.

     According to Mr. Berrill the second group of impersonators are men who are mentally or emotionally disturbed. Many of these people deal with feelings of inadequacy by using the indicia of law enforcement to expert power over others. Many of them are also depressed and lonely. Some are suicidal while a few might be capable of much worse. Police impersonators, as the cases below reveal, come from all walks of life. And not all of them are losers in their real lives.

Rabbi Alfredo Borodowski

     Raised in Argentina, Alfredo Borodowski earned his degree in law in 1996 at the University of Buenos Aires. After immigrating to the U.S. he became an ordained rabbi. In 2013 Rabbi Borodowski lived in the Westchester County community of Larchmont, New York where he presided as rabbi of the Sulam Yaakov Congregation.

     In 2013, in the Westchester towns of White Plains Yonkers, Greenburgh and Mamaroneck, Rabbi Borodowski began impersonating a police officer by flashing a fake badge at motorists who annoyed him by either driving too slowly or erratically. In one case a 26-year-old driver told police officers that a man (Borodowski) chased him down and as a police officer scolded him for swerving in front of him.  

     Borodowski yelled at a 24-year-old woman for driving too slowly in a school zone. In White Plains, the rabbi tailgated a man then ordered him off the road by flashing a badge. The motorist's offense: Driving too slowly. The rabbi cop impersonator, on the Sprain Brook Parkway, chased a 30-year-old woman three miles then banged on her widow as she waited at a traffic light. According to this motorist, "He pulled out a badge and told me that he's going to have me arrested. First he said it was for slow driving. Then he said, 'no, I'm going to lock you up for erratic driving.' When the light turned green he jumped into his car and peeled off."

     When real police officers took Rabbi Borodowski into custody he denied impersonating a police officer. "What happened," he said, "was that the girl was driving too slow, and I hate it when people do this because it causes traffic backups. She must have been going 15 miles per hour so I told her, 'police! I am calling the police.'"

     In February 2014 Rabbi Borodowski, the self-appointed crusader against slow driving, pleaded guilty in exchange for a fine instead of time in jail. The police impersonator also promised to seek psychiatric counseling.

Bruce W. Browne

     On August 9, 2013 a police officer in Old Lyme Connecticut, in response to a call from a citizen who spotted a man walking along a beach road with a handgun holstered at his side, came upon a blue 2004 Ford Crown Victoria that looked like a police car. The officer took note of the two-way radio and police-style emergency lights. The Ford's license plate revealed that the vehicle was registered to Bruce W. Browne, a resident of Wolcott Connecticut. The officer learned that the owner of the police-style car was the estranged half-brother of Scott Brown, a former U.S. Senator from Massachusetts. (Senator Brown does not spell his last name with the silent e.)

     Earlier that day Mr. Browne had approached three boaters as a law enforcement officer. (Browne had served a stint with the U.S. Coast Guard Reserves.)

     Inside Bruce Browne's Ford Crown Victoria police officers discovered a cache of police related equipment that included three loaded 9 mm pistols, a black nylon duty belt with two sets of handcuffs, an expandable baton and twelve loaded pistol magazines. Mr. Browne also possessed a bulletproof vest with "POLICE" embroidered on the front and back. A silver TSA (Transportation Security Administration) badge was attached to the police vest.

     A local Connecticut prosecutor charged Bruce Browne with impersonating a police officer, breach of peace, interfering with a police officer and possession of a dangerous weapon in a vehicle. The suspect posted his $50,000 bail.

     In February 2014 the 49-year-old Browne pleaded guilty to impersonating a police officer and falsifying a military discharge certificate. Two months later in Bridgeport Connecticut the judge sentenced Browne to a prison term of one year and a day. (Without the extra day the crime would have been a misdemeanor offense served in a local jail. By adding the day the case became a felony that involved a stretch in prison.)

Ninh Nguyen

     In September 2013 an officer with the Indianapolis Indiana Police Department spotted, along a funeral procession route for a police officer killed in the line of duty, 38-year-old Ninh Nguyen. Mr. Nguyen wore a police uniform that included a duty belt with a holstered gun, two sets of handcuffs and a Taser. The Indianapolis officer, from past experience with Ninh Nguyen knew he was a police impersonator. The officers saw the fake cop taking photographs of the funeral procession from his black 2012 Dodge Charger. Nguyen had equipped the vehicle with a siren, flashing lights and a two-way radio.

     Following Mr. Nguyen's arrest a Marion County prosecutor charged him with impersonating a public servant, a felony that carried a sentence in Indiana of six months to three years in prison. The prosecutor also charged Nguyen with theft of city property. The suspect pleaded not guilty to all charges, posted his bond and was released from jail.

     In the trunk of Nguyen's phony police car officers found an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle and police equipment that had been stolen from the Indianapolis Police Department. A search of his house produced a 37-millimeter grenade launcher, more assault rifles, shotguns, handguns and several thousand rounds of ammunition.

     This was not the first time Mr. Nguyen had been in trouble with the law for this type of behavior. In 2004, while driving a white Ford Crown Victoria with strobe lights, Ninh Nguyen pulled over a motorist for speeding. The cop impersonator wore a security officer's uniform. Two years later the authorities charged Nguyen with the unlawful use of a police radio, a misdemeanor offense. A local prosecutor dismissed that offense. In 2012 police were investigating Nguyen in connection with a peeping Tom accusation. That case did not lead to an arrest.
   
Matthew Michael Lee McMahon

     On Monday evening June 2, 2014, in St. Augustine, Florida, a St. Johns County detective behind the wheel of an unmarked police car on the International Golf Parkway passed a 1999 Ford Crown Victoria. Matthew Michael Lee McMahon, the driver of the car, turned on his red and blue emergency lights, pulled up alongside the police officer, and with a stern look on his face, gave him the slow-down hand gesture. The real officer pulled out of traffic and came to a stop on the shoulder of the highway. When McMahon didn't take the bait the St. Johns County officer pursued McMahon and pulled him over.

     That night Mr. McMahon found himself sitting in the county jail. The next morning a local prosecutor charged him with the improper display of blue lights. The accused impersonator paid his $5,500 bond and walked out of the St. Johns County Detention Facility. Mr. McMahon later pleaded guilty, was fined and given a short period of probation. 

     Note to police impersonators: It's never a good idea to enforce the law on a cop. If you do, the real cop will return the favor.

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Psychic Sylvia Mitchell

     In October 2007, 33-year-old Lee Choong, a native of Singapore who worked 80 hours a week at a Manhattan investment-banking firm, walked into the Zena Clairvoyant Psychic parlor on Seventh Avenue South in Greenwich Village. Ms. Choong had sought help from psychics before. In 2006 she had paid $10,000 to a fortune teller doing business in New York's SoHo district. Choong came away from that experience feeling cheated. This distraught and lonely woman had obviously not learned the obvious truth that psychics are not only fakes, they are thieves who prey mostly on gullible, desperate women.

     In her opulent Greenwich Village storefront parlor, 34-year-old Sylvia Mitchell, a resident of Mystic, Connecticut (no kidding) offered to give people who walked into her cheesy shop an introductory "reading" for the bargain price of $75. The first session was in reality a combination sales pitch and hook designed to sucker the customer into subsequent psychic sessions that cost $1,000 each. Since only believers availed themselves of psychics, it didn't take much for one of these phony practitioners to close the deal. If these naive and troubled women had any money when they walked into Zena Clairvoyant's shop of financial horrors, they eventually walked out broke and broken.

     As a prologue to Lee Choong's first reading, the victim unburdened herself to the psychic. Choong said she had fallen in love with a co-worker at the investment-banking firm who did not feel the same way about her. Could Zena help? Of course Zena could help. Here was the problem: in one of Choong's past lives a member of her family had hurt the co-worker. This had created "bad spirits" that had carried forward to the present. But not to worry. Because Choong and this man at the investment-banking firm were meant for each other, psychic Mitchell would bring them together by ridding Choong of the bad spirits that had kept him away.

     During their first meeting, psychic Mitchell cautioned Lee Choong that cleansing her of those evil spirits would not be easy. It would take a lot of time, and as we all know, time is money.

     Over the next year and a half, Lee Choong paid Sylvia Mitchell more than $120,000. The psychic said she needed the money to pay for evil spirit removal supplies. (Apparently you can't get this stuff at Home Depot.) If the bad spirits were not vanquished, and Choong's life didn't get better, Michell promised to return the money. (One didn't have to be a psychic to predict that Choong's life would not improve, and that she would not get her money back.)

     In 2008, notwithstanding psychic Mitchell's efforts, Lee Choong lost her job at the investment-banking firm. When the unemployed woman, in April 2009, asked for a psychic refund, Sylvia Mitchell told her that within a period of four months Choong would get a new job, one that paid $95,000 a year. That, of course, didn't happen. And Choong did not get her refund, either.

     In September 2012 Lee Choong went to the police.

     In August 2008, while Sylvia Mitchell was separating Lee Choong from her savings, Debra Saalfield, a single mother of three entered the psychic shop on Seventh Avenue South. The former competitive ballroom dancer from Naples, Florida, an employee of a Manhattan dance company, had lived in the West Village with her boyfriend, a man she wanted to marry. They broke up, she moved out, and a short time later she lost her job at the dance company. With her life in shambles Debra experienced what she called an emotional "meltdown." Rather than seek professional help, and perhaps medication, Saalfield turned to a psychic.

     From psychic Mitchell, Debra Saalfield learned that in one of her past lives she had been an Egyptian princess. As part of the ruling class, Saalfield had enjoyed great wealth. As a result, in her present life, she had become too attached to money. Yes, it was that filthy lucre that was ruining her life. To prove her diagnosis, Mitchell asked Saalfield to write her a check for $27,000. Without that wealth Saafield's life would improve. If it didn't, Mitchell would return every penny. Saafield took out a loan on her house.

     After Saalfield realized she had been the victim of a confidence scam, she asked the psychic to return the $27,000. Mitchel, over a period of months, gave back about half of what she had taken.

     In 2011, while running a psychic shop in her hometown, Mystic, Connecticut, the authorities accused Mitchell of bilking a Catskills woman out of $9,000. This prompted Zena Clairvoyant to leave the state. A short time later, while running a game in Florida, the police arrested her for stealing $27,000 from a woman who had paid for "consultations" by Zena Clairvoyant.

     In New York City, detectives working out of the 6th precinct arrested Sylvia Mitchell in February 2013 on charges of fortune telling, scheme to defraud, and grand larceny. On the grand larceny charge alone Mitchell faced up to 15 years in prison. The psychic made bail and went back to work in Greenwich Village as Zena Clairvoyant. No doubt she was predicting an acquittal.
   
     The Mitchell trial commenced on September 30, 2013 in a Manhattan criminal courtroom. During the jury selection process, Assistant District Attorney James Bergamo asked members of the panel this question: "Does anyone believe that psychics are real?" (I'm not sure, from the prosecutor's point of view, if you want believers or nonbelievers on the jury. Nonbelievers might condemn the victims as willing suckers who got what they deserved. Believers might see the case as nothing more that a consumer's rights conflict.) In response to Bergamo's question, several members of the jury panel raised their hands as believers. One of these prospective jurors said, "I'm curious about the future." Another said she had a friend who visited a psychic as "a happy-hour thing." A third member of the panel said she had a friend who read palms.

     In his opening statement to the twelve people who ended up on the jury, prosecutor Bergamo revealed his strategy of portraying Choong and Saalfield as vulnerable women taken advantage of by a cold-blooded con artist. "The defendant," he said, "is not in the business of cleansing spirits. She's in the business of cleaning out bank accounts."

     When it came time for defense attorney William I. Aronwald to address the jury, he said, "You will not hear any evidence in this case that she [Sylvia Mitchell] did not provide the services that she was contracted to provide them." In other words, Choong and Saalfield had gotten what they had paid for--they paid for nonsense and that's what they got.

     On Thursday, October 3, 2013, following the direct testimony of prosecution witnesses Saalfield and Choong, defense attorney Aronwald, carefully trying not to come off as a bully, put these pathetic women under cross-examination. Regarding the psychic's so-called "readings," Aronwald asked Debra Saalfield to explain what a reading was. "A reading of what?" he asked. "Palms? Tarrot cards? You paid $75 for a reading, but what was read?"

     "I don't know," replied the witness.

     "When she told you that you had been an Egyptian princess, did you believe her?"

     "No."

     "Did you laugh?"

     "No."

     To Lee Choong, attorney Aronwald asked, "What led you to see a psychic instead of a licensed therapist?"

     "I needed answers," Choong replied.

     "In the eighteen months you were involved with Sylvia, there was no improvement in any of these areas, correct?"

     "Yes."

     "You continued to give her this money?"

     "Yes."

     On Monday, October 7, 2013, a prosecution witness named Rob Millet took the stand and testified that he sought the defendant's help after he learned that his boyfriend was moving back to Texas. To make matters worse, Millet's mother took ill. The psychic, after gaining Millet's confidence, said she had to have $10,000 to give him the quality of help he required. Millet, after borrowing $7,000 from his father,  paid Mitchell her fee. He got nothing in return.

     Defense attorney Aronwald, after resting his case without putting his client on the stand, gave his closing statement to the jury. He said that Sylvia Mitchell had done what her clients had paid her to do--try to help them. Yes, her methods were "unconventional," but so what?

     Prosecutor Bergamo, in his final statement to the jury, said, "The defendant finds people's weaknesses and she exploits them to her advantage."

     On Friday, October 11, 2013, the jury found Sylvia Mitchell guilty as charged. On November 14, 2013 the judge sentenced Mitchell to five to fifteen years in prison. (She already knew that, of course.)

     What this case and others like it reveal about modern society is disturbing. In an era in which we are overwhelmed with information, Americans are losing the ability to draw logical conclusions, apply common sense and distinguish what is real from what isn't. We live in a culture of magical thinking devoid of objective truth. The loss of common sense and logic to irrational, magical thinking is perhaps one the the greatest dangers facing our country. A nation that can't think straight, make rational decisions and apply common sense solutions to its problems is doomed.