6,770,000 pageviews


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. 

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.

Monday, February 12, 2024

Problems in Forensic Science

     Practitioners of forensic science fall generally into three groups: police officers who arrive at the scene of a crime whose job it is to secure the physical evidence; crime scene technicians responsible for finding, photographing and packaging that physical evidence for crime lab submission; and forensic scientists working in public and private crime laboratories who analyze the evidence and, if the occasion arises, testify in court as expert witnesses. While uniformed police officers and detectives may be trained in the recognition and handling of physical evidence, they are not scientists and do not work under laboratory conditions. As a result, a lot can and does go wrong between the crime scene investigation and the courtroom.

     Television series like "CSI" generated public knowledge and interest in forensic science, even ramping up scientific expectations for those involved in real-life criminal investigation and prosecution. Prosecutors called this the "CSI effect," the expectation among jurors that the prosecution will feature physical evidence and expert witnesses. The CSI effect also caused jurors to expect crime lab results far beyond the capacity of forensic science. Some prosecutors either eliminate potential jurors who are fans of "CSI" or downplay the necessity and importance of physical evidence as a method of proving a defendant's guilt. Prosecutors who lost cases have been known to blame their defeats on the CSI effect. Criminal justice scholars who have investigated the CSI effect disagree over whether it had much impact on trial results.

    While public expectations of forensic science are high, persistent problems within the various forensic fields have kept scientific crime detection from living up to its full potential. Because a shortage of qualified personnel caused DNA testing logjams, rapists, pedophiles and serial killers have been given extra time to commit more crimes. The shortage of DNA analysts also placed a heavy burden on crime lab personnel, creating problems of quality control. Over the years dozens of crime lab DNA units were temporarily closed when audits revealed sloppy work, scientific errors, unqualified analysts, weak supervision, poor training and evidence contamination. Even the highly regarded FBI Laboratory experienced problems with DNA analysis and other forms of forensic identification. Crime labs in Detroit, Boston, Raleigh, Houston, New Haven and Los Angeles have had serious quality control problems.

     Ironically, advances in DNA technology exposed problems in other fields of forensic science. For example, DNA analysis revealed that experts overstated the identification value of human hair follicles and bite-mark impressions. Hundreds of criminal defendants, if not thousands, were sent to prison on what many experts considered unreliable forensic evidence.

     A critical shortage of board-certified forensic pathologists has adversely affected the overall quality of homicide investigation. Overworked forensic pathologists are prone to take shortcuts and make mistakes. In many cases of suspicious death, autopsies were not performed.

     The field of latent fingerprint identification, while still considered the gold standard of forensic science, came under attack as a result of a handful of high-profile misidentifications. These cases revealed that not all fingerprint examiners are properly trained and that many have either failed or never taken proficiency tests. Moreover, many fingerprint experts lacked scientific objectivity. This was particularly true of examiners who, as police officers, saw themselves as part of a law enforcement team. Forensic scientists must be loyal to their science even when it displeases the people who employ them. This takes courage and independence.

     There are fakes, incompetents and charlatans in every profession, but over the years a series of high profile cases featured the so-called experts from hell, forensic scientists whose false testimony helped convict innocent people. Many of these experts were hired guns willing to testify for whatever side was willing  to pay for their testimony. It's alarming how long these phony forensic scientists practice before they are exposed and defrocked. Forensic science is also plagued by well-meaning but incompetent practitioners as well as experts who are either blinded by media attention or bow to prosecutorial pressure. Maintaining a firewall between science and criminal prosecution is a constant challenge, one that is not always met.

     Jurors are often called upon to make judgments in trials in which experts representing each side of the case offer contradicting opinions. When jurors are faced with opposing experts they tend to disregard the physical evidence entirely. The dueling expert problem can seriously diminish the credibility of forensic science itself. Judges reluctant to exclude the testimony of witnesses who are not real experts place the problem on the laps of jurors who are not qualified to distinguish the true scientists from the fakes.

     Most of the problems in forensic science are caused by personnel shortages, poor quality control and the inherent difficulties of crime scene investigation. These are pressures imposed by the adversarial nature of our trial process, the lure of pseudoscience and the evolving character and complexity of science itself. Over the past twenty-five years the emphasis in American law enforcement has been the escalating war on drugs, anti-terrorism and controlling inner city street gangs. Criminal investigation and forensic science took a back seat to these priorities. 

Sunday, February 11, 2024

Rapists With Badges and Guns

     At three in the morning, March 17, 2013, 28-year-old Kim Nguyen and two of her male acquaintances were waiting for their designated driver outside a bar in Los Angeles' Koreatown. Police officers David Shin and Jin Oh, in a marked LAPD patrol car, pulled up to the trio. Following a brief questioning of Nguyen and her friends the young officers drove off.

     For some reason the officers circled back to Nguyen and her companions. As the patrol car approached the bar's parking lot Kim Nguyen crossed the street to an all-night coffee shop. At this point the officers decided to arrest the Loyola Marymount University graduate student for public intoxication. One of the officers handcuffed Nguyen behind her back and placed her into the back of the patrol vehicle.

     The young woman's friends asked the officers where they were taking Nguyen. The officers drove off without answering that question.

     Video footage from a surveillance camera at an intersection not far from Nguyen's arrest showed her lying on her back in the street with a badly bloodied face. The video did not reveal how Nguyen had exited the patrol vehicle. Because she was not moving it appeared she was either dead or unconscious.

     A patrol car occupied by another set of officers pulled into surveillance camera view. These officers were followed thirty seconds later by the car containing the arresting cops. Officers Shin and Oh were observed standing over Nguyen's body. Finally one of them crouched down next to her and rolled her onto her side. (Perhaps to take off the handcuffs.) Nguyen had regained consciousness and was writhing in pain. Paramedics arrived at the scene, gathered up Nguyen, and took her to a nearby hospital.

     Nguyen's jaw had been shattered and she suffered bleeding on the brain. She had also lost several teeth. Doctors kept her heavily sedated for several days.

     According to the responding paramedics, the LAPD officers told them that Nguyen had fallen out of the patrol car as it accelerated to 10 miles-per-hour from a stop sign. Surveillance camera footage, however, contradicted this account. Video footage showed the patrol car carrying Nguyen traveling through a stop sign at a much higher speed.

     Since Kim Nguyen had no memory of how she got from the patrol vehicle to the street, and patrol cars are equipped with locks that officers can engage when transporting arrestees, how this woman exited the patrol car remained a mystery. Moreover, it was apparently a mystery that no one at the LAPD was interested in solving.

     In September 2013 a reporter with the Los Angeles Times doing a story about Nguyen's lawsuit against the police department asked a police commander if the department had launched an internal investigation into the matter. Commander Andrew Smith said that he didn't know if such an inquiry had been conducted. According to Commander Smith, now that a lawsuit had been filed against the LAPD an investigation would be conducted for sure.

     In May 2015 the UCLA graduate, with her state civil lawsuit unresolved, filed a suit against the police department in federal court. Her attorney told reporters that the officers involved had sexually assaulted her. Surveillance camera footage revealed that Nguyen's left bra strap was broken and the top of her dress was pulled down to her waist. According to the lawsuit, when she awoke from the trauma days later she found bruising on the inside of her thighs.

     On February 17, 2016, in a case not directly related to the Kim Nguyen, Los Angeles police officers James Nichols, 43 and Luis Valenzuela, 40, were charged with sexually assaulting four women in their patrol car while the officers were on duty. The alleged rapes occurred at various locations between 2008 and 2011.

     The Los Angeles Police Department, on February 4, 2017, settled Kim Nguyen's lawsuits for $35 million.

     In February 2018 officers Nichols and Valenzuela pleaded no contest to sexually assaulting several women, ages 19 to 34, in the back of their unmarked police car. The judge sentenced the former police officers to 25 years in prison.

Saturday, February 10, 2024

The Birth of SWAT Policing

     In 1967, amid a period of civil unrest in the form of anti-Vietman War protests and race riots, the Los Angeles Police Department formed 15 four-man paramilitary units to protect the department's facilities. Members of these Station Defense Teams possessed street-patrol backgrounds and prior military service. These were not, however, full-time assignments. The concept of combat-trained paramilitary police units came from an officer named John Nelson who passed the idea on to Inspector Darryl Gates who in turn presented the idea to the top brass. Gates wanted to call these units Special Weapons and Attack Teams but this was considered a bit too militaristic for a civilian agency. In 1969 these units became known as Special Weapons and Tactical (SWAT) teams.

     On December 9, 1969 when police officers tried to serve search warrants for illegal weapons at the Black Panther headquarters at 41st Street and Central in Los Angeles the occupants fired on the officers with shotguns and automatic rifles. SWAT teams from around the city were called to the scene. Following a four-hour gun battle between six Black Panthers and 200 officers, the shooters in the house surrendered. Three SWAT team members and three Black Panthers had been wounded.

     Following the Black Panther shoot-out police administrators concluded that SWAT team response times would be improved by reassigning the 15 teams dispersed throughout the county to police headquarters in downtown Los Angeles. In 1971 SWAT team assignments became full-time positions. The Los Angeles Police Department, for several years, was the only law enforcement agency in the country with a paramilitary capability.

     Four years after the Black Panther violence the Los Angeles SWAT force consisted of six, ten-man teams. Each team had two five-man units called "elements" with a leader, two "assaulters," a scout and a rearguard officer. SWAT weapons included a .245-caliber bolt-action sniper rifle, two .223-caliber semiautomatic rifles and a pair of shotguns. Officers were also equipped with service revolvers and gas masks. Dressed in helmets, gloves and body armor, they could not be distinguished from combat troops.

     On May 17, 1974 six members of the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) barricaded themselves inside a house on East 54th Street at Compton Avenue and ignored orders from the police to surrender peacefully. The domestic terrorists responded to tear gas canisters lobbed into the premises by opening fire on three SWAT teams and hundreds of regular police officers who had gathered at the scene. The police returned fire, eventually wounding all six occupants.

     When the smoke cleared 3,772 shots had been fired by SLA members. Thousands of bullets had been fired by the police. The shoot-out ended when a fire broke out inside the house, burning the dwelling to the ground. The occupants either died from bullet wounds or from the blaze. Investigators speculated that the fire started when a bullet hit a Molotov cocktail or a tear gas grenade. Millions of people across the country watched as the gun battle unfolded on live television.

     Although there was little sympathy for the terrorists who had fired on the police, the Los Angeles Police Department was criticized for allowing the situation to evolve into a scene of urban warfare. The department responded by tightening SWAT unit admission standards and upgrading the paramilitary training to reduce the occurrence of such spectacular violence.

Friday, February 9, 2024

Arthur Morgan III: A Narcissistic, Remorseless Child Killer

     By November 2011 Imani Benton, a 26-year-old resident of Lakehurst, New Jersey had terminated her relationship with Arthur Morgan III, the father of their two-year-old daughter, Tierra. The couple had fought constantly and on several occasions had taken each other to court. He continued to deny the breakup even after she returned the engagement ring and the other jewelry he had given her. The two of them had also traded accusations of child abuse. Because of Imani Benton's domestic abuse complaints state child protection agents conducted four separate investigations that cleared Arthur Morgan of these accusations. As a result he continued to have access to his daughter.

     On November 15, 2011 Mr. Morgan's boss at Creative Building Supplies Company in Lakewood, New Jersey fired him.

     On November 21, 2011, just eight hours after Morgan called Imani Benton a bad mother and a whore, he made arrangements with her to take Tierra to see a movie about dancing penguins. Four hours after he promised to return the child the girl's mother called the police to report Tierra missing.

     Police officers from thirteen New Jersey law enforcement agencies looked for the girl and her missing father. The search came to an end when searchers found Tierra's body in Shark River Park twenty miles north of her Lakehurst home.

     Homicide investigators believed that Arthur Morgan had dropped the girl's car seat, with her strapped into it, fifteen feet into a creek that ran below an overpass. The partially submerged car seat had been weighed down by a car jack. The drowned girl, still wearing her Pink Hello Kitty hat, had landed in three feet of water. (According to the father who did not deny throwing his daughter off the bridge, he heard her scream as he got back into his car.)

     After leaving his daughter to drown in the creek beneath the overpass, Arthur Morgan drove to a friend's house where he had a few drinks. The next day he boarded a train for San Diego, California.

     At four in the afternoon on November 29, 2011 agents with the U.S. Marshals Service arrested Mr. Morgan at a house in San Diego. (He was arrested on a federal unlawful flight to avoid prosecution warrant. These UFAP warrants are dismissed after the fugitive is returned to the local jurisdiction.)

     Back in New Jersey a few days after his apprehension Arthur Morgan faced the charge of first-degree murder. Over the objection of his court-appointed lawyer the arraignment judge set Morgan's bond at $10 million. Peter J. Warshaw Jr., the Monmouth County prosecutor in charge of the case said he would seek the maximum penalty of life without parole. (New Jersey abolished the death penalty several years earlier.)

     The Arthur Morgan child murder trial got underway in a Freehold, New Jersey Superior Court on March 12, 2014. In his opening remarks to the jury prosecutor Peter J. Warshaw Jr. accused the defendant of killing his daughter simply because he was angry that Imani Benton had ended their relationship. According to the prosecutor Mr. Morgan killed Tierra to get back at his former girlfriend. Mr. Warshaw called the killing a "knowing and purposeful murder" motivated by pride and revenge.

     The public defender told the jurors that her client was merely guilty of reckless manslaughter, a lesser degree of criminal homicide that carried a maximum sentence of five years in prison. Given the undisputed facts of this case that would turn out to be a hard sell.

     The murdered girl's mother, Imani Benton, took the stand as the prosecution's star witness. To the jury Benton read a letter the defendant had sent her from the San Diego jail shortly after his arrest. In that letter, Morgan, in justifying the murder, accused members of Benton's family of abusing Tierra. He referred to their behavior as "heinous and depraved." Morgan also blamed the girl's mother for her death: "You should have come with us to the movie. It would have been so different, I'm sure. That was the plan, to go as a family."

     Regarding the defendant's self-serving letter, Imani Benton testified that, "If I would have gone to the movie, we wouldn't have gone to the movie. We all would be dead."

     One of the defendant's co-workers at the Lakewood lumber yard testified that Morgan had been paid every Tuesday, and by Friday he was broke. According to Tulio Bazan the defendant spent a lot of money on clothes and accessories. "He showed me the Gucci sunglasses, a Gucci wallet and the Gucci shoes." Morgan told the witness that the wallet itself cost him $400.

     In mid-April 2014 the jury in Freehold, New Jersey, following a short period of deliberation, found Arthur Morgan guilty as charged.

     Six weeks after the guilty verdict, at his May 28, 2014 sentence hearing, the convicted murderer apologized to Imani Benton for the breakdown of their relationship. (He didn't apologize for killing their daughter.) "I want to say I'm sorry for the deterioration of what I thought was a beautiful friendship between the two of us that blossomed into a daughter. For anybody that was truly affected by this, I hope we can all heal from the situation, knowing that Tierra is in a better place." (In other words, he was the victim in this story.)

     As one might expect from a narcissistic sociopath with a god-complex, the convicted murderer whined about the media coverage of the trial. He said he didn't like newspaper photographs that depicted him as either angry or inappropriately jolly. He informed the court that had he known that reporters would make negative comments about his designer courtroom attire he would have dressed more modestly.

     The complaining sociopath also rambled on about how badly his murder victim had been treated by members of Benton's family. He contrasted that behavior to how, before he murdered his daughter out of wounded pride, he had been such an excellent father.

     Judge Anthony Mellaci, Jr., before handing down Morgan's sentence, lamented that New Jersey no longer imposed the death penalty. "You'd be candidate number one for its imposition," he said. "Your actions were horrific, unthinkable and appalling. This child was alive when she was placed in the water in pitch darkness. She had to suffer the unthinkable action of having water rush in and fill her lungs while strapped into that car seat. This child suffered before she died."

     Judge Mellaci sentenced the remorseless sociopath to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Thursday, February 8, 2024

Murder-For-Hire: The Crime and Its Cast of Characters

     Murder-for-hire cases fall generally into one of two categories: homicides in which the contract for the killing is carried out and crimes in which, due to law enforcement intervention in the form of an undercover operative playing the role of the assassin, no one is killed. The latter offense is one of criminal solicitation.

     The cast of a murder-for-hire plot features three principal characters: the instigator/mastermind who solicits/contracts the homicide, the hit man (or undercover agent playing the triggerman's role) and the victim, the person targeted for death. Supporting players might include a cast of go-betweens and accomplices such as people who put the mastermind in touch with the hit man or undercover cop and helpers brought into the scheme by the triggerman. Murder-for-hire cases frequently include potential assassins the mastermind initially reaches out to but who rejected the assignment. These would-be hit men, often the mastermind's friends, casual acquaintances, relatives or co-workers, after declining to participate in the plot either remain silent or go to the police. Many of the ones who remain silent do so because they didn't take the mastermind seriously.

     While murder-for-hire stories, in terms of the characters involved have a somewhat common anatomy, they differ widely according to the social and economic status of the participants, the nature of their relationships to each other and the specific motive behind the murder.

     Unlike rapists, sex murderers, pathological fire setters and pedophiles, murder-for-hire masterminds do not conform to a general psychological profile. They are men and women of various ages and backgrounds who solicit their murders pursuant to a diverse range of motives. Murder plotters, compared to the murderers themselves, tend to be older, more commonly female and less likely to have histories of crime or violence. Given the pre-meditated nature of a murder-for-hire plot, masterminds, while either sociopathic, desperate, depressed, angry, drug-addled or simply not very bright, are not psychotic and therefore not mentally ill enough to be found legally insane. Without the benefit of the insanity defense, masterminds, when their backs are against the criminal justice wall, tend to throw themselves on the mercy of the court. They often cite, as justification for their murderous acts or homicidal intentions, abuse, depression and addiction to drugs and/or alcohol. Generally these pleas for mercy and understanding fall on deaf judicial ears, particularly when the mastermind was obviously motivated by greed such as avoiding the cost of divorce, benefiting from a life insurance policy or inheriting the victim's estate.

     Masterminds labor under the rather stupid belief that the best way to get away with murder is to pay someone else to do it. They think that having an alibi is their ticket to avoiding arrest and prosecution. These homicide plotters underestimate the reach of federal conspiracy laws, as well as the incriminating power of motive. Moreover, while masterminds do not pull the trigger, wield the bat or sink the knife, they do participate in the crime beyond simply asking someone to commit murder on their behalf. Although detectives won't find their bloody latents at the scene of the crime, masterminds can't help leaving their figurative fingerprints all over the conspiracy. Masterminds also leave behind witnesses in the form of hit men, go-betweens, confidants and accomplices.

     Most murder-for-hire masterminds, before the homicide, make no secret of the fact they want to eliminate the object of their greed or the source of their frustration and anger. To facilitate the murder they pay the the hit men cash upfront and promise the balance following the target's death. The mastermind commonly provides the assassin with a hand-drawn map pinpointing the proposed murder site, a photograph of the victim, the license plate number to the target's vehicle and an outline that details the future victim's daily routine. Masterminds also leave behind records of cellphone calls that can be quite incriminating.

     Some masterminds leave the murder methodology, the modus operandi, to the hit man, while other plotters actively participate in the planning stage. Masterminds who are engaged in the killing process usually want the homicide to look like an accident, a carjacking, rape, mugging or deadly home invasion. What they don't realize is that making a murder look like something else is easier said than done. Besides, the people masterminds hire to do the job are commonly incompetent, indifferent, drug-addled or dimwitted. 

     Paid assassins are almost always men who are younger than their masterminds. They are also more likely to have criminal backgrounds. Because of who they are, hit men do not plan the hit carefully or take steps not to leave behind physical evidence. After the murder they seldom keep their mouths shut about what they have done and who they have committed the murder for. If paid a lot of money hit men usually spend it on drugs or lose it gambling. While hit men are cold-blooded killers, they are nothing like the cool-headed professional assassins seen on television and in the movies. The are disorganized amateurs and bunglers who are easy to catch. Once they are caught they are quick to spill their guts.

     Murder-for-hire targets are not random victims of crime. They are people with whom the mastermind has had some kind of relationship. People targeted for death can be current and former spouses, estranged lovers or the mastermind's parents, children or business associates. Targets can include people the mastermind has previously victimized who are marked for elimination as crime accusers and potential trial witnesses. In cases of revenge involving masterminds who have scores to settle, victims can be judges, prosecutors and police informants. Men who batter woman also become murder-for-hire victims at the hands of the women they have beaten.

     The crime solution rate for murder-for-hire offenses is relatively high, particularly when the defendant ends up negotiating with an undercover cop brought into the case by the person the mastermind either recruited for the job or asked to find a hit man. Undercover operatives and masterminds meet, often in Walmart and shopping mall parking lots, where the conversations are audio and video-taped. Once the mastermind makes clear his or her homicidal intention, perhaps by supplying the upfront money, a weapon or a photograph of the target, the unsuspecting plotter is arrested on the spot. These arrestees are charged with crimes that include solicitation of murder, attempted murder and conspiracy to commit murder.

     Occasionally, masterminds caught red-handed in undercover sting operations plead not guilty by reason of insanity, claim they have been entrapped by the police or raise defenses based on the battered spouse syndrome. But most of the time they confess and hope for leniency.

     Murder solicitation cases, while incomplete in nature, are fascinating because the police-recorded conversations between the undercover cops and the masterminds provides a window into the minds of people with sociopathic personalities intent on having assorted targets murdered. These cases reveal, in the extreme, how badly a marriage or romantic relationship can deteriorate. One gets the sense, after reviewing hundreds of murder-for-hire cases, that America has become a society of depressed, drug-addled sociopaths who will stop at nothing to get what they want.

     Murder-for-hire crimes that result in actual killings are more challenging for investigators. This is because these offenses include crime scenes, physical evidence, autopsies, witnesses and suspected masterminds with alibis they can establish. However, compared to drive-by shootings, drug and gang-related murders and criminal homicides without obvious suspects, murder-for-hire crimes are relatively easy to solve.

     Masterminds generally make it easy for homicide detectives by hiring hit men who are incompetent fools. Murder-for-hire plotters also create future witnesses by casting a wide net in their search for a contract killer. Because hit men are usually careless and have big mouths, these amateur assassins are almost always caught. And when they are arrested, hit men regularly inform on the mastermind in return for a lighter sentence. Murder-for-hire dramas are less about police work, forensic science and criminal justice than they are about sociology, criminal psychology and American culture.

     From a criminal justice point of view, murder-for-hire cases raise interesting questions associated with the comparative sentencing of masterminds and their hit men. Because both the mastermind and the hired killer can be found guilty of first-degree murder, they are eligible, in 32 states, for the death penalty. In most cases, however, the triggerman receives a much lighter sentence that the person who hired him. This is because hit men usually confess first and agree to testify against the mastermind.

     In the recent history of murder-for-hire crime there have been cold-blooded killers who, in return for their cooperation with law enforcement, have been awarded sentences as light as seventeen years in prison while the mastermind was sentenced to death. Although these sentencing disparities have a lot to do with the practicalities of plea bargaining, there may be more to it than that.

     Masterminding a contract murder is generally perceived as more evil than actually pulling the trigger. The particular loathing of murder-for-hire masterminds is reflected in the fact that homicide investigators and prosecutors target the instigator more than the hit man. Amateurs who kill for money, usually petty criminals who do it for peanuts, don't shock us because they are young, male criminals doing what society expects them to do. When middle and upper-middle class people exploit these desperate and pathetic losers by hiring them to do their dirty work, we hold them more responsible for the murder. For masterminds, it's who they are that makes their behavior so repugnant and evil. This is interesting because a nation full of masterminds would be a lot safer than a country full of hit men.