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Wednesday, April 17, 2024

The Lee Kaplan Rape Case

     On Thursday June 16, 2016, officers with the Lower Southampton Township Police Department, operating on a children-in-danger tip, visited the home of 51-year-old Lee Kaplan. Mr. Kaplan resided in the eastern Pennsylvania town of Feasterville located in Bucks County twenty miles northeast of Philadelphia. When the police officers entered the Kaplan dwelling they encountered twelve girls, ages six months to eighteen. Several of the children responded by running about the house in panic searching for places to hide.

     When questioned by the police Mr. Kapan explained why the girls were living in his house. In 2012 a former Amish couple from the Lancaster County town of Quarryville named David and Salvilla Stoltzfus, in return for money from Kaplan to help the couple keep their farm, gave him their 14-year-old daughter. Mr. Kaplan and the Stoltzfuses were partners in a metalwork business in Quarryville.

     According to Mr. Kaplan he and the Stoltzfus teenager, since 2012, had produced two children. Their daughters were six-months and three years old. The other nine girls in the house were also Stoltzfus children.

     Mr. Kaplan was the only adult living in the Feasterville house. None of the girls had birth certificates or social security numbers.

     Police officers booked Lee Kaplan into the Bucks County Jail on numerous offenses that included rape, statutory sexual assault, aggravated indecent assault and corruption of minors. The twelve girls were placed into protective custody.

     David and Savilla Stoltzfus were also taken into custody on charges of conspiracy of statutory sexual assault and child endangerment. Mr. Kaplan and the ex-Amish couple were held on $1 million bond. Mr. Stolzfus told the police that when he gave up his children he had no idea he was breaking the law. In fact, after researching the issue online, he was convinced the transfer was legal.

     On Saturday June 18, 2016 one of Kaplan's neighbors told a local reporter that she had complained about Lee Kaplan to the authorities three years earlier. Mr. Kaplan's windows were boarded up and his yard was overgrown with uncut grass and weeds. According to this neighbor, the children were occasionally let out of the house, and when she did see them, "They were so sad and fearful. That's what made me call. I've been telling my husband for years that 'something isn't right.' "

     Another one of Lee Kaplan's neighbors in Feasterville told a reporter that Lee Kaplan seemed "weird" and that the neighbor now wished he had called the police.

     On June 18, 2016 police officers executed a search warrant at the Kaplan house. Officers also searched a greenhouse on the property where the long-haired, bearded resident grew Avocado trees. As officers searched the property, several chickens wandered about the place. Inside the house officers discovered several air mattresses, a large catfish tank and an elaborate and expensive model train layout. Following the search the authorities impounded Lee Kaplan's two vehicles, a blue conversion van and a white sedan.

     According to another neighbor the girls were occasionally seen working in Kaplan's vegetable garden. He also took them to a nearby Dollar Store and a local hotdog restaurant. Kaplan and the oldest Stoltzfus girl, according to this witness, had been seen in public holding hands.

     According to the Lower Southampton Township Public Safety Director, "We don't know if maybe there were babies born that were destroyed or whatever, but that's not the case as far as we can tell."

     An investigation of the Stoltzfuses revealed that in 2001 Mr. Stoltzfus borrowed $300,000 from an Amish run institution called the Old Order Amish Helping Program. At the time Mr. Stoltzfus operated a scrap metal business in the small Lancaster County town of Kirkwood. Eight years after taking out the loan to keep his business going, Mr. Stoltzfus lost the property to foreclosure. At this point he left the Amish faith, became a born again Christian and sued the Old Order Amish Helping program for initiating the foreclosure and forcing him out of business. In his lawsuit Mr. Stoltzfus claimed that the Amish wanted to close him down because they didn't approve of him doing business "with an individual of the Jewish faith named Lee Kaplan." A judge dismissed the Stoltzfus lawsuit a few months later.

     The scrap metal business was sold at a sheriff's auction for $342,000. The Stoltzfuses, in 2011 filed for bankruptcy.

     In digging into Lee Kaplan's past, investigators learned that he had graduated from Cheltenham High School in 1983. In 1994 he and his wife Virginia bought a house in the Melrose Park section of Cheltenham for $110,000, a place they worked hard to refurbish. Kaplan and his wife rented rooms in the house to students at a local university.

     According to a Cheltenham man who had lived next door to the Kaplan and his wife from 1994 to 2003, Kaplan was "born again, but not as a Christian. He was a born again Jew--a Jew for Jesus."

     In 2003 Lee Kaplan sold the house in Cheltenham for $250,000. Around this time he and his wife got divorced. After that Mr. Kaplan drastically changed his looks by letting his hair and his beard grow out.

     On June 6, 2017 a Bucks county jury found Lee Kaplan guilty of 17 counts of rape. According to the prosecutor, Lee Kaplan had "brainwashed the Stoltzfus family seeking "power, manipulation and control." 
     The 47-year-old rapist was sentenced to life in prison.
     A month later the judge sentenced David and Savilla Stoltzfus to seven years behind bars.

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Heather Elvis: Missing and Presumed Murdered

     Heather Elvis, a 20-year-old employee of a bar and restaurant in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, lived with a female roommate at the River Oaks Apartments in the city. Her parents, Terry and Debbie Elvis, lived nearby. At three in the morning of Wednesday, December 18, 2013 Heather called her roommate from her cellphone about 45 minutes after being dropped off at River Oaks by her date. She called to report how the evening with the young man had worked out.

     On December 19, 2013, Heather Elvis' abandoned 2001 Dodge Intrepid was found parked at the Peachtree Landing along the Waccamaw River in the town of Socastee just outside of Myrtle Beach. The dark green vehicle had not been involved in an accident. Parked about nine miles from the River Oak Apartments, the car did not contain Elvis' purse or her cellphone.

     On Friday December 20, after Heather Elvis failed to show up for her scheduled shift at the Tilted Kilt Pub and Eatery, her parents Terry and Debbi Elvis reported their 5-foot-1 inch, 118-pound daughter missing.

     The next day, under the supervision of the Horry County Police Department, 300 people spent ten hours combing the woods and ponds in the vicinity of the abandoned car.

     On January 3, 2014 another search party made up of law enforcement officers and volunteers, aided by several K-9 units and searchers riding horses and ATVs, continued the hunt for the missing young woman.

     Lieutenant Robert Kegler with the Horry County Police Department, on January 6, 2014, told a Fox News reporter that detectives had questioned several people in connection with the disappearance. While the young man who had dropped Heather off at her apartment after the date in the early morning hours of December 18 was not a suspect, some of the uncooperative men interviewed by detectives were being scrutinized.

     At 8 PM on Monday, January 6, 2014, television crime host Nancy Grace devoted a segment of her show to the Heather Elvis missing persons case. A $25,000 reward was posted for information leading to the discovery of the missing young woman.

     At seven o'clock on the morning of Friday February 21, 2014, officers with the Horry County Police Department, South Carolina State Police and the U.S. Marshal's Office executed a search warrant at a house in Myrtle Beach occupied by 37-year-old Sidney Moorer and his 41-year-old wife Tammy. Officers spent eleven hours at the dwelling. Cadaver dogs searched the property without result. Two pickup trucks were taken away from the house and officers were seen placing several boxes into a white police van.

     A prosecutor, following the search of the Moorer house, charged Sidney and Tammy Moorer with indecent exposure and obstruction of justice. It was reported that Tammy Moorer, angry at Heather because she and Sidney had been involved in a sexual relationship, sent her nude pictures of herself and Sidney. In January 2014 Tammy Moorer told a reporter that Sidney had sex with Heather Elvis in his car "a total of three times." According to Tammy, Sidney ended the relationship when he realized that "something wasn't right about her."

     On February 24, 2014 a Horry County prosecutor charged Sidney and Tammy Moorer with Heather Elvis' kidnapping and murder. They were held without bail. Elvis' body had not been found.

     In 2016 the Horry County prosecutor, without Heather Elvis's body, dropped the murder charges against the Moorer couple. That year Sidney Moorer was tried for the kidnapping of Heather Elvis. That trial ended with a hung jury. A few months later a jury found Sidney Moorer guilty of obstructing justice in the Heather Elvis kidnapping case. The judge sentenced him to ten years in prison.

     In October 2018 Tammy Moorer was tried for kidnapping. After testifying on her own behalf the Horry County jury found her guilty. The judge sentenced Tammy Moorer to 30 years in prison.

     In September 2019 Sidney Moorer was retried on the kidnapping charge. The jury found him guilty and the judge sentenced him to 30 years behind bars.

     As of April 2024 the body of Heather Elvis has not been found.

Monday, April 15, 2024

The Colin Abbott Murder Case

     Upon his retirement in 2010 as a New Jersey pharmaceutical company executive, 65-year-old Kenneth Abbott and his second wife Celeste bought a 25-acre estate in Brady Township not far from the town of Slippery Rock, the home of Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania in the western part of the state. Kenneth and his 55-year-old second wife were married in 2007.

     On July 13, 2011, Melissa Elich, Celeste Abbott's daughter, contacted the New Jersey State Police and asked for information about the car accident death of her mother and stepfather. Kenneth Abbott's son Colin had told Elich that Kenneth and Celeste had died in a traffic accident on June 8, 2011. According to Colin the traffic fatality had taken place in Plant City, New Jersey. When Elich couldn't find Plant City on a map she called Colin to confirm the location. This time he told her it had happened in Atlantic City. According to the 42-year-old New Jersey resident, his father and Elich's mother had been burned beyond recognition in the crash.

     After the New Jersey State Police officer informed Melissa Elich that the state had no record of such an incident, the officer called the Pennsylvania State Police in Butler County and requested a welfare check of the Abbotts.

     On the day of Melissa Elich's New Jersey State Police inquiry regarding the traffic accident, Corporal Daniel Herr and another Pennsylvania State Trooper drove out to the West Liberty Road estate. The officers searched the unoccupied house and several out-buildings. Near one of the two ponds on the property the troopers discovered a pair of metal barrels that had been used to burn something. In the vicinity of the barrels, about 200 yards from the house, the officers came across charred human body parts.

     Later on the day of the gruesome discovery on the Abbott estate, Dr. Dennis Dirkmart, a forensic anthropologist with Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pennsylvania, arrived at the scene with his team of graduate students. Dr. Dirkmart and his forensic crew identified a skull containing the upper teeth along with a lower jaw containing additional dentition. The death scene investigators also recovered a female pelvic bone and several larger bones that were male. (The remains were later identified as those of Kenneth and Celeste Abbott.) Further analysis of the dismembered and burned bodies by a forensic pathologist revealed that the couple had been shot. (The police found a spent bullet near one of the ponds.)

     On July 13, 2011 officers with the New Jersey State Police searched Colin Abbott's home in Randolph, New Jersey, a town of 25,000 in the northern section of the state. The search produced incriminating evidence that linked Mr. Abbott to the double murder in Butler County, Pennsylvania.

     From Colin Abbott's house New Jersey investigators recovered Celeste Abbott's red-leather wallet that contained her driver's license and several credit cards. The officers also found a .380-caliber pistol later identified as the murder weapon. In the murder suspect's bank safety deposit box detectives found Kenneth Abbott's will that designated his son the sole beneficiary of the $5 million estate. The will had been changed to that effect in 2010. Investigators believed the suspect had murdered his father and stepmother in order to inherit their wealth.

     In Pennsylvania, State Trooper Chris Birckichler questioned Adam Tower, Celeste Abbott's son. Mr. Tower revealed that in speaking to the suspect on July 12, 2011 Colin Abbott ordered him not to contact his father's life insurance company. The suspect made it clear that he would be handling the disposition of the estate.

     On July 14, 2011, the day detectives interrogated Colin Abbott in Randolph, New Jersey, murder charges were being filed against him in Pennsylvania. Officers in New Jersey arrested Colin Abbott that day on the Pennsylvania homicide charges, and a couple of weeks later the suspect was incarcerated in the Butler County Jail awaiting his trial.

     On the day before the trial, February 26, 2013, the defendant pleaded no contest to two counts of third-degree murder. As part of the plea deal, Mr. Abbott avoided the penalties of death and life in prison without the possibility of parole. Butler County Judge William Shaffer sentenced him to 35 to 80 years in prison. If he served the minimum sentence Abbott could regain his freedom when he was 77-years-old. The cold-blooded killer stood before Judge Shaffer and wept.

     Less than a month after his sentencing, Colin Abbott filed a 5-page handwritten request asking Judge Shaffer to allow him to withdraw his plea in the case. At the plea withdrawal hearing on March 28, 2013, the Butler County prosecutor played recordings of jailhouse phone conversations between the prisoner and Deborah Buchanan, his 64-year-old mother.

     Abbott, pursuant to a discussion of his attempt to take back his plea, said this to his mother: "It's a publicity start in the right direction for you; possibly for a book, possibly for other things, you know?" Abbott's mother, a resident of Rockway, New Jersey, owned Deadly Ink Press, a small publisher of murder mystery books. Buchanan had made it known that she was writing a book about her son's case.

     To an Associated Press reporter following this story, Deborah Buchanan said, "I am talking to people about a book deal. I don't think there's anything wrong with that. I am a writer. That's not why he [her son] wants to change his plea. He was under a lot of pressure."

     On April 12, 2013, Butler County Judge Shaffer denied Colin Abbott's motion to withdraw his no contest plea.

Sunday, April 14, 2024

The Albert Jackson Sterling II Murder-For-Hire Case

      Life had been good to Roxanne Sterling, or so it seemed. She lived in a $400,000 house, was married to an ambitious man who made good money and was eight months pregnant with her second child. Early in the afternoon of November 21, 2006, before leaving the house to go shopping, Roxanne said good-bye to her husband, Albert Jackson Sterling II. In an hour or so Albert would be driving from the couple's home in Allen, Texas to nearby Dallas to catch a flight to his parents' home in Alamogordo, New Mexico.

     At four o'clock that afternoon, with her husband on the plane to New Mexico, Roxanne pulled her car into the garage and entered her house. She walked into the master bedroom and nearly fainted when she came face-to-face with a man wearing gloves and holding a black leather belt. The intruder rose from the edge of the bed and said, "Your husband wants you dead." Keeping his voice calm, the intruder asked the terrified woman not to panic. He had changed his mind. Instead of killing her, he was there to warn her of her husband's intentions. She was free to call the police. Roxanne, moving as fast as she could, ran to a neighbor's house. The neighbor called 911. The emergency operator could hear Roxanne sobbing uncontrollably in the background.

     Officers from the Allen Police Department found the intruder, Jeffrey Boden Thompson, waiting for them at the Sterling house. Thompson told the officers that Albert Sterling had given him the leather belt which he was to use in strangling the victim. Thompson said he had instructions to haul the corpse, in the victim's car, to a predetermined site in Dallas. After dumping the body, Thompson was to abandon the vehicle at another spot in the city. Mr. Sterling, the murder-for-hire mastermind, had designed his plan to fool the police into thinking that Roxanne had been carjacked and murdered in Dallas. For his efforts Mr. Thompson would have earned $2,500.

     Because Jeffrey Thompson was willing to cooperate with investigators, the Collin County district attorney decided not to charge him with burglary. To show his willingness to help, Thompson played detectives a message Albert Sterling had left on his cellphone before flying to New Mexico. "The chicken has flown the coop," Albert said, referring to his wife's leaving the  house. "She will be there [back at the  house] in an hour. Just have patience."

     With detectives listening in, Thompson called Albert Sterling in New Mexico with the message he had been told by the mastermind to leave upon completion of the hit: "The chariot (the victim's car) is in south Dallas and the trash (her body) is in west Dallas."

     The next day, in Alamogordo, police officers arrested Albert Sterling on charges of soliciting the murders of his wife and unborn child. The officers booked him into the Otero County Jail where he would await extradition back to Texas. Through his attorney, Mr. Sterling denied having arranged his wife's murder, stating that she had caught Thompson in the act of burglarizing their house. The burglar, according to Sterling, had made up the hit murder business to avoid being charged with the break-in.

     Albert Sterling's family, friends and neighbors were shocked that he had been accused of murder-for-hire. From all appearances he and Roxanne had been happily married and looking forward to the birth of their baby. People who knew Albert refused to believe that a well-educated man with a good job would hire someone to murder his pregnant wife. Albert not only possessed a good job in the computer industry, the 38-year-old worked as a trainer/instructor in a 24-hour fitness club in Dallas. There had been rumors of a girlfriend who was one of his students in his other business, Al's Punch Time, a boxing gym. Still, no one believed he would have his pregnant wife murdered simply because he had found another woman.

     On December 7, 2006 Albert Sterling was brought back to Texas and placed in the Collins County Jail under $500,000 bond. Two weeks later a Collin County grand jury indicted him on two counts of murder solicitation. Late in January 2007 a judge released the suspect on bail on the condition he wear an electric monitoring device and report once a week to the court bailiff. Mr. Sterling also had to relinquished his passport.

     While awaiting his murder trial, Albert admitted to Roxanne that he had been involved in an extramarital affair. She not only forgave him, she told the Collins County prosecutor that despite what she had been told by Jeffrey Thompson, she believed that her husband was an honest, trustworthy man who had never plotted to murder her and their baby. She stunned the prosecutor by saying that she would testify on his behalf at his upcoming trial.

     Albert Sterling, through his attorney, Russell Wilson, denied attempting to hire Jeffrey Thompson, an ex-convict, to kill his wife. According to the defense attorney, his client had been working on a car insurance scam with Mr. Thompson when Thompson chose to burglarize his house. When Roxanne walked in on him the intruder made up the murder-for-hire story.

     On February 13, 2009, a Collin County jury of six men and six women, after a short period of deliberation, found Albert Sterling guilty as charged. The judge sentenced him to two concurrent 30-year prison sentences. Throughout the trial Roxanne remained loyal to her husband. She took the stand for the defense and at the sentencing hearing testified on his behalf.

     Six months after the sentencing of her husband, Roxanne divorced him. When asked by reporters if she still believed in Albert's innocence, she didn't respond. After the sale of the house she and Albert had shared, the 39-year-old moved into a rental house not far from her former residence. 

Saturday, April 13, 2024

The Daniel Sanchez Mass Murder-Suicide Case

     Beatriz "Betty" Silva lived with her sister Maria and Maria's husband Max in a mobile home located among 400 modular dwellings in a subdivision outside of Longmont, a town 35 miles north of Denver, Colorado. The 25-year-old student at Front Range Community College worked at a Chipotle fast-food franchise, and as a sales associate with Marshalls Department Store. On November 22, 2012, Thanksgiving Day, she told her boyfriend, 31-year-old Daniel Sanchez, that she had found someone new. Sanchez, a quick-tempered violent man flew into a rage. He made threats against the new boyfriend and began stalking and harassing Silva.

     When they were going together, Betty Silva had loaned Daniel Sanchez $1,000, money he needed to fix up his truck. He had not paid her back as promised, so on Saturday, December 15, 2012, she arranged to meet him in the parking lot of a Best Buy on the outskirts of Denver where they would discuss how he planned to repay the loan. When the ex-girlfriend climbed into his vehicle Mr. Sanchez called her names, punched her in the face and used her cellphone to text threatening messages to her boyfriend. Against her will, Betty Siva was driven around in Sanchez's truck while he tried to talk her into checking into a hotel where they could resume their relationship. She refused, and after an hour or so, he drove her back to her car and let her out of his truck.

     Betty Silva reported Daniel Sanchez to the Denver police, and on Sunday afternoon, December 16, 2012, officers took him into custody on charges of false imprisonment, second-degree kidnapping, harassment and domestic violence. He spend the night in the Boulder County Jail, and at ten o'clock Monday night posted his $10,000 bond and was released.

     Furious over the fact the woman he loved had turned him in to the police, Daniel Sanchez drove straight from the jail to Silva's mobile home where he parked on the street in front of her dwelling. Armed with a .45-caliber 13-round Glock pistol and an extra magazine, Sanchez entered the Silva dwelling by shooting out the glass panel to the rear sliding glass door. Once inside the home he took Betty, her 22-year-old sister Maria and Maria's husband Max Ojeda hostage.

     At four o'clock the next morning Betty Silva called 911. The dispatcher overheard her say, "No, no, no." The 911 operator next heard gunfire. Following the gun shots, Sanchez came on the phone and informed the dispatcher that he was going to kill himself. Again, the sound of gunfire, then silence. No one else came to the phone.

     Weld County Sheriff's deputies and a SWAT team arrived at the modular home at 4:18 that morning. Officers weren't sure how many people were in the dwelling, or if any of them were alive. At 5:30 AM, after getting no response from inside the hostage site, members of the SWAT unit stormed into the mobile home. Officers found Mr. Sanchez dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. They discovered 29-year-old Max Ojeda and his wife Maria dead in their bedroom. Betty Silva had been shot to death in another part of the house. Officers found 16 spent shell-casings scattered about the murder site.

     In reporting Daniel Sanchez to the Denver police Betty Silva had indicated a reluctance to go forward with the more serious kidnapping related charges. By minimizing the seriousness of Sanchez's crimes against her she may have contributed to her own death and the fate of the other two victims. Had the magistrate been convinced that Sanchez posed a serious threat of life-threatening violence, Sanchez's bail may not have been set so low. There is also the possibility that regardless of the amount of Sanchez's bail, this young woman's fate was sealed once she became this violent, unstable man's girlfriend. 

Friday, April 12, 2024

O. J. Simpson and The Revisionist True Crime Genre

     William C. Dear, the owner of a private investigation agency in Dallas, Texas, had over the years published a handful of nonfiction books featuring his adventures as a larger-than-life PI. A master of self-promotion in the mold of Allan Pinkerton, William Burns and J. J. Arms (remember him?). Mr. Dear was in the news following the release of his 2012 book, O. J. Is Innocent and I Can Prove It. (A bold if not artistic title.)

     As if exonerating one of America's most hated men is not enough, William Dear was accusing O. J.'s son Jason of the June 1994 murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. When revisionist true crime writers exonerate celebrated criminals by incriminating others, they usually accuse dead people who can't sue them for libel. Jason Simpson, who was 24-years-old when the Los Angeles police arrested his father was alive at the time of the accusation.

     In the other twentieth century "crime of the century," the state of New Jersey, on April 3, 1936 electrocuted Bruno Richard Hauptmann for the 1932 murder of 20-month-old Charles Lindbergh, Jr. In the 1980s and 90s a half dozen hack true crime writers produced books that exonerated Hauptmann and incriminated Charles Lindbergh, Al Capone, John F. Condon, Ellis Parker and a host of others. At least three of these books make the case that the Lindbergh baby wasn't even murdered, that the authorities had misidentified the corpse found two miles from the Lindbergh estate. In reality, the evidence against Hauptmann had been substantial while the "proof" against the literary suspects turned out to be flimsy, and in many cases, bogus. Readers familiar with the history of the Lindbergh case, including several serious Lindbergh biographers, saw the revisionist books for what they were--fiction passed off as nonfiction. Nevertheless these "Hauptmann is Innocent and I Can Prove It" books attracted a lot of attention and drew more than a few dedicated followers.

     Unlike real investigative journalists, the authors of revisionist true crime books start with a theory and point of view and ignore or try to explain away any facts that do not support or conflict with their thesis. In making the case against their suspects true crime book revisionists frequently present negative evidence as either incriminating or exonerating. For example, in the Lindbergh case, Hauptmann must be innocent because the police didn't recover his latent fingerprints from the crime scene. In this genre of nonfiction crime writing a revisionist's suspect can be guilty simply because he didn't have an alibi. That's how they do it. When you break these books down there's nothing there but conjecture, speculation, wishful thinking and the authors' beliefs. And quite often, evidence is presented that is simply fiction.

     True crime revisionists get away with their literary tricks because we live in an era where facts and knowledge get little respect, and there is no such thing as objective truth. Today, what one believes is true trumps what one knows is true. People who want criminals like Bruno Richard Hauptmann and O. J. Simpson to be innocent eagerly go along with the joke.

    What was written (or not written) on the dust jacket of William Dear's book revealed it was not a work to be taken seriously. For example: "Once Dear established in his own mind that O. J. Simpson was innocent, he focused his attention on six possible suspects." In all probability, Dear began with a single suspect, then cleared away the debris that conflicted with his theory. If O. J. was in fact innocent, and his son was guilty, then the evidence against Jason Simpson should be much stronger, and more convincing than the evidence that was presented against his father. It was not. Here was William Dear's "startling new evidence that is certain to change everyone's perception of O. J.'s guilt:"

     In Jason's abandoned storage locker, Dear found a hunting knife. (This knife, however did not contain a mixture of Jason's and the victims' DNA or any other evidence to establish it as the murder weapon.)

     After the murders, Jason Simpson retained an attorney.

     Jason Simpson did not have an airtight alibi.

     Jason was depicted in a photograph wearing a knit cap similar to the one discovered at the crime scene. (If the crime scene hat contained hair follicles from Jason's head, and bore traces of the victims' blood, that would be incriminating.)

     Two months before the murders, Jason Simpson allegedly assaulted his girlfriend. According to a criminal profiler, Jason's personality was more homicidal than his father's.

     According to William Dear, while O. J. was present at the crime scene, he did not commit the murders. (This was helpful because it explained away the physical evidence connecting O. J. to the victims.) According to Mr. Dear, O. J.'s only crime was that he took steps to cover-up the fact his son had killed Nicole Simpson and Ronald Goldman. So, why did Jason Simpson kill Nicole? He murdered her because she had decided, at the last moment, not to dine at the restaurant where he worked as a chef. This was, therefore, a double murder motivated by injured pride.

     In reality, William Dear's revisionist version of the O. J. Simpson case didn't offer enough evidence to indict the proverbial ham sandwich. Patterson Smith, the antiquarian bookseller from New Jersey who knows more about the literature of true crime than anyone, wrote the following about the true crime revisionist genre:

     "Of all crime books published, those posing revisionist theories tend to attract the greatest media attention. They are 'news.' Far from merely adding to our knowledge of a past event or re-embellishing a tale previously grown stale in the retelling, they say to us, 'You've been wrong about this case.' And if someone is thought to have been unjustly convicted and executed, the news is all the stronger.

     "It has, after all, been observed that Americans have a greater sense of injustice than of justice. When a revisionist account reaches reviewers, the arguments put forth by its author can seem extraordinarily compelling, for very often the book does not aim for balance but selects only those facts that support its divergent thesis.

     "Moreover--and this is very important--the reviewer of a book on crime written for the general public often has little or no background in the case which could help him weigh the author's novel contentions against countervailing evidence. The reviewer sees only one side of the story, and it usually looks good."

    O. J. Is Innocent and I Can Prove It didn't contained nearly enough evidence to convince many readers that O. J. was innocent and that his son was the guilty party. 
     O. J. Simpson died on April 11, 2024. He was 76. Notwithstanding several more revisionist book accounts of the murders, most people familiar with the case consider Mr. Simpson guilty as charged, and that his murder acquittal was a travesty of justice.

Thursday, April 11, 2024

Lying For Lance

     Racing cyclist Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France every year from 1999 to 2005. He lost all seven of his titles, however, after he admitted using performance enhancing drugs. The truth came out in 2013 after years of lying to racing authorities and to the public.

     The icon in a sport most Americans aren't interested in, as a result of the doping scandal, went from hero to heel. Since his fall from grace, the word frequently associated with Armstrong and his athletic career is "disgraced."

     Disgraced athletes, particularly disgraced celebrity athletes, have been able to at least partially rehabilitate their reputations. If Armstrong's legacy of cheating and lying had been in the process of rehabilitation due to the passage of time, good deeds and fading memories, the possibility of this came to an end after the stunt he and his girlfriend pulled in Aspen, Colorado.

     On December 28, 2015, the 43-year-old Armstrong and his 33-year-old live in girlfriend Anna Hansen were mingling with the rich and beautiful at the St. Regis Resort in Aspen, Colorado. They had been invited to the gala event in honor of the Aspen Art Museum.

     The couple left the party after midnight with Armstrong behind the wheel of his GMC Yukon. As he rounded a corner driving too fast he lost control of his SUV and smashed into two parked vehicles, a Jeep Wrangler and a Toyota Four Runner.

     The collision could be heard from the inside of the homes of the people who owned the damaged cars. Anna Hansen climbed out of the GMC and spoke to a man looking over his crumpled SUV. She identified both herself and Lance, apologized for the accident, left her phone number and promised that Lance Armstrong would pay for the cost of the repairs.

     After speaking to the man whose vehicle Lance Armstrong had damaged, Anna climbed back into the GMC. Not bothering to wait for the authorities, the couple drove off. In Colorado, it's against the law to leave the scene of a traffic accident before the arrival of the police. The man Anna spoke to called 911 and reported the collision.

     When an officer with the Aspen Police Department questioned Anna Hansen the next day she gave an account of the car accident that didn't square with the conversation she had with the man at the scene the previous night. She told the accident investigator that she had been the driver of Armstrong's GMC.

     The investigator took this information with a great deal of skepticism because he had questioned the St. Regis valet who had seen Lance Armstrong climb into the driver's seat when the couple left the party.

     On December 31, 2014, just three days after the accident, Anna Hansen came clean to the police. She admitted that she had lied to protect Lance Armstrong. According to the police report, she explained her fabrication this way: "We've had our family name smeared over every paper in the world in the last couple of years, and honestly, I've got teenagers. I just wanted to protect my family because I thought, 'Gosh, Anna Hansen hit some cars, it's not going to be a national story.' " [Perhaps she should have thought: "Gosh, if Anna Hansen lies to the police and gets caught, it's going to be an even bigger story."]

     When the traffic investigator asked Anna if Lance Armstrong had pressured her into taking the blame for the accident, she said the lie had been a "joint decision." She assured the officer that Lance had not been intoxicated when he plowed into the parked cars.

     The Pitkin County prosecutor's office decided not to charge Anna Hansen with the crime of filing a false report. A prosecutor did, however, charge Lance Armstrong with failing to report a traffic accident, a misdemeanor offense that carried a maximum sentence of 90 days in jail and a $300 fine. Armstrong also received a traffic summons for driving too fast under the conditions, an infraction involving a $15 to $100 fine.

     In January 2015 Lance Armstrong pleaded guilty and was fined $238.50 and court costs.

     For Lance Armstrong, the consequences of this case had less to do with the criminal justice system and more to do with the damage to his already weakened reputation. Traffic accidents happen to everyone, but not everyone lets someone else take the blame.

Wednesday, April 10, 2024

From Hero to Heel

     In September 2007 when Richard De Coatsworth was a 22-year-old rookie on the Philadelphia Police Department, he pulled over a suspicious vehicle occupied by four men. Three of the suspects jumped out of the car and fled. As the young officer alighted from the patrol car to give chase, the fourth suspect blasted him with a shotgun. Notwithstanding the gunshot wound to the lower portion of his face, officer De Coatsworth chased the gunman while calling in for help. Although he eventually collapsed, other officers apprehended the shooter. The assailant was later convicted and sentenced to 36 to 72 years in prison.

     Officer De Coatsworth, following his medical recovery, was promoted to an elite highway patrol unit. In 2008 the National Association of Police Organizations named him that year's "Top Cop."

     In February 2009, Vice President Joe Biden invited Officer De Coatsworth to sit next to Michelle Obama at the President's address to the Joint Session of Congress. The officer was seen on national TV sitting next to the First Lady in his ceremonial police uniform. In his brief law enforcement career, officer Richard De Coatsworth had achieved full hero status. It was at this point that his life and career began to deteriorate.

     Just seven months after appearing with Michelle Obama, De Coatsworth was accused of excessive force after he shot a motorcyclist in the leg. In November 2011 the hero-cop was under investigation by the Internal Affairs Office for fighting with a fellow officer. A month later, after having amassed during his brief tenure as a police officer nine civilian complaints of assault, abuse and misconduct, Mr. De Coatsworth retired from the force on full disability.

     Two months after leaving the police department Richard De Coatsworth was charged with threatening a woman in the Port Richmond section of the city.

     On May 1, 2013, De Coatsworth, after meeting a woman in a downtown bar, allegedly sexually assaulted her at the Day's Inn on Roosevelt Boulevard. At two in the morning of Thursday, May 16, 2013, De Coatsworth showed up at this woman's home in the Fishtown-Kensington section of the city. At her residence Mr. De Coatsworth allegedly forced the 21-year-old and another woman her age to perform oral sex on him at gunpoint. The next day, immediately after the ex-cop departed the house, the woman he allegedly assaulted at the Day's Inn called the authorities.

     On Saturday, May 18, 2013 a prosecutor charged Richard De Coatsworth with rape, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, trafficking in persons, false imprisonment and aggravated assault. At his arraignment the magistrate judge set the defendant's bail at $25 million for each of the women. The judge added another $10 million bond in connection with an unrelated charge involving De Coatsworth's alleged May 9 assault of his live-in girlfriend. In total the ex-police officer was charged with 32 felonies. His bail was the highest in the history of city, and probably the state.
     In January 2015 Richard De Coatsworth pleaded guilty to promoting prostitution, simple assault and drug possession. The judge sentenced him to 18 months probation. 

Tuesday, April 9, 2024

The Sara Kruzan Murder Case

     While the law of murder is quite clear on what behavior constitutes the crime, occasionally there are cases that make the strict enforcement of that law seem unfair. The Sara Kruzan case falls into that category.

     As a child growing up in southern California in the 1980s Sara Kruzan had to be hospitalized several times for severe depression. At age eleven she came under the influence of a Riverside California pimp named George Gilbert Howard. In 1994 Kruzan moved to Rubidoux, an unincorporated community in Riverside County where she took up residence with another pimp, James Earl Hamilton. She was sixteen and working as a prostitute.

     On March 10, 1994 Earl Hamilton arranged to have Sara Kruzan meet George Gilbert Howard at the Dynasty Suites Motel in Riverside. That night in the motel room Kruzan shot Mr. Howard in the neck from close range. He died on the spot. Kruzan took $1,500 from the dead man's wallet and drove off in his Jaguar.

     Homicide detectives found Sara Kruzan's purse in the murder room. Four days later police officers took the teen hooker into custody. When asked about Mr. Howard she confessed to shooting her former pimp.

     The Riverside County district attorney decided to try Sara Kruzan, as an adult, for first-degree murder.

     At Kruzan's May 1995 trial she took the stand and testified that James Earl Hamilton had ordered Howard's murder. The defendant believed that if she didn't carry out the hit Mr. Hamilton would have killed her and her mother. This homicide was, therefore, an offense committed by a young girl under duress. (Earl Hamilton was never charged in connection with Howard's killing.) The jury of seven women and five men found the 17-year-old defendant guilty of first-degree murder.

     Because the pimp had been killed in the commission of a robbery, and the defendant had been "lying in wait" to murder the victim, the judge sentenced Kruzan to life without the possibility of parole. Corrections authorities sent her to the Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla.

     On February 2009 a member of the group Human Rights Watch posted a six-minute interview of Sara Kruzan on YouTube. The inmate described her miserable life as a prostitute and revealed how the pimp she had shot to death had abused her physically.

     In 2010 on his last day in office California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger commuted Kruzan's sentence to 25 years to life with the possibility of parole.

     A Riverside County Judge, in January 2013, reduced Kruzan's first-degree conviction to second-degree murder. This made the now 35-year-old prisoner eligible for immediate parole. Nine months later the state parole board ordered her release pending Governor Jerry Brown's approval. The governor signed off on the parole on October 27, 2013. A few days after that Sara Kruzan walked out of prison a free woman. No one objected to her release.

Monday, April 8, 2024

Pastor John Douglas White: The Devil in Disguise

     In 2012, John Douglas White, the 55-year-old pastor of the Christ Community Fellowship Church located just west of Mount Pleasant, Michigan, lived by himself in a mobile home park in Broomfield Township near the town of Remus. This self-appointed man of the cloth possessed a background more in line with a person serving a life sentence in prison than a preacher of a tiny church in rural central Michigan. Pastor White, a perverted lust killer, had no business living outside prison walls where he could take advantage of women while masquerading as a man of God. He was a predatory sex killer in preacher's clothing.

     In 1981 John White, then 24, choked and stabbed a 17-year-old girl in Battle Creek, Michigan. The victim survived and Mr. White was allowed to plead no contest to assault with intent to do great bodily harm.  The judge sentenced him to five years in prison. Corrections authorities let White out on parole after he had served two years behind bars.

     John White and his wife, in 1994, were living in Comstock Township near Kalamazoo, Michigan. On July 11 of that year, 26-year-old Vicky Sue Wall was seen getting into White's pickup just before she disappeared. Shortly after Wall's relatives reported her missing the 37-year-old violent sex offender checked himself into the Kalamazoo Regional Psychiatric Hospital. In September 1994 police found Vicky Sue Wall's decomposed body in the woods not far from her home. Arrested at the psychiatric facility, John White admitted strangling the victim to death. According to him, he and the victim were having an affair and she had threatened to tell his wife. So he killed her.

     In the Vicky Sue Wall murder case the authorities allowed White to strike a deal with the prosecutor. In return for his guilty plea to the ridiculous charge of involuntary manslaughter, the judge sentenced this degenerate to eight to fifteen years. At his May 1995 sentencing hearing White told the judge that Vicky Sue Wall's death had been a "tragic accident." John White walked out of prison in 2007 after serving twelve years of his sentence. His wife had divorced him.

     In 2012 Pastor John White was engaged to a woman in his congregation whose 24-year-old daughter--Rebekah Gay--lived a few doors from him in the mobile home park. Because White was a preacher engaged to her mother Rebekah allowed him to watch her 3-year-old son. She had no idea her babysitter watched necrophilia pornography and fantasized about having gruesome perverted sex with her.

     On October 31, 2012, at six in the morning, John White entered Rebekah Gay's trailer, struck her in the head with a hard rubber mallet then strangled her to death with a zip tie. After performing perverted sexual acts on the victim's body, he hauled her 5-foot-3, 118 pound corpse in his pickup to a ditch behind a stand of pine trees about a mile from the trailer park. It was there he dumped her body.

     After hiding his victim's corpse White returned to his trailer where he cleaned himself and his truck with paper towels. He walked to Gay's dwelling, stole into her car and drove it to a nearby bar and parked it there. He had also tossed Rebekah Gay's cellphone into a dumpster and threw away the murder weapon. From the bar White walked back to Gay's mobile home, dressed her son in his Halloween costume, then drove the boy to Mount Pleasant where, as prearranged, the boy's father picked him up for the day.

     Crime scene investigators processed the victim's trailer for physical clues and searched White's mobile home where they found the bloody towels and other incriminating evidence. When questioned by detectives with the Michigan State Police John White confessed and led the officers to Rebekah Gay's body.

     On November 1, 2012 John White was arraigned in an Isabella County District Court on the charge of first-degree murder. The judge denied him bail.

     The church member who had hired John White as pastor said this to a reporter with The Detroit News: "He [White] was absolutely contrite. All kinds of people turn around and meet the Lord and they are a different person. He [White] was doing a lot of good in the community...He was doing a lot of good and Satan did not want him doing good, and Satan got to him."

     So, according to one of Pastor White's congregants, White's cold-blooded lust murder of Rebekah Gay was the devil's wrongdoing.

     In April 2013, White pleaded guilty to second-degree murder for killing Rebekah Gay. The judge sentenced him to prison for 56 years and three months.

     On August 28, 2013 a prison guard at the Michigan Reformatory Correctional Institution in Ionia, found John White dead in his cell. He had hanged himself.

Sunday, April 7, 2024

Dining With Hitler

     In 2012 Morris Berger graduated from Drury University in Springfield, Missouri with a Bachelor's Degree in History. After his college graduation he taught history at a Missouri high school where he was also on the football coaching staff. Mr. Berger, more interested in coaching than history, took an assistant coaching position at Missouri Western State University in St. Josephs. He next joined the coaching staff at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater before moving on to Texas State University in San Marcos.

     In January 2020 Morris Berger was named the offensive coordinator at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan. Shortly after the 29-year-old joined the coaching staff, Kellen Voss, the sports editor of the college newspaper The Grand Valley Lanthorn interviewed him. The question-and-answer article, entitled "Inside the Mind of GVSU's Newest Offensive Coordinator" and published on January 23, 2020 was intended as the typical mindless sports piece. It didn't turn out that way.

     Kellen Voss, knowing that the new coach had an undergraduate degree in history, asked him to name a historical figure with whom he'd like to have dinner. Instead of responding to this puff-piece question with a typically safe answer like Jesus, Martin Luther King or Abraham Lincoln, Coach Berger stepped on a public relations landmine by saying he'd like to dine with, of all people, Adolph Hitler.

     Before justifying why he had picked the fascist who started World War Two and oversaw the murder of six million Jews as a dinner date, Coach acknowledged that his selection may not get "a good review" from readers. Talk about understatement.

     In reference to Hitler's legacy of massive world-wide death and destruction, Coach Berger the historian said, "It was obviously very sad and he had bad motives, but the way he was able to lead was second-to-none. How he rallied a group and a following, I want to know how he did that. Bad intentions of course, but you can't deny he was a great leader."

    One might argue that Hitler, who led his country to devastating and total defeat before killing himself, was not a good leader nor an appropriate role model for the profession of coaching. And when a football team has a bad season the head coach doesn't kill himself. They just fire him. 

     Coach Morris Berger probably meant no harm in hypothetically asking Adolph Hitler to dinner for advice on leadership. He did, however, manage to do something that was almost impossible: He turned a sports piece in an obscure college newspaper into a national news item.

     Four days after Coach Berger's public relations fiasco the school suspended him. On January 30, 2020 he "resigned." In a prepared statement released by the school, Morris Berger wrote: "In the past 11 years I have taken great pride in the responsibility and privilege of being a teacher, coach, mentor and valued member of the community. I was excited and proud to be at Grand Valley, and am disappointed that I will not get the opportunity to help these players in 2020. However, I do not want to be a distraction to these kids, this great university or Coach Mitchell as they begin preparation for the upcoming season."

Saturday, April 6, 2024

The Tong Shao Murder Case

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 5, 2024

The Shelia Von Wiese-Mack Murder Case

     In 2006, 76-year-old James L. Mack, a well-known composer of jazz and classical music died at his home in Chicago. The black musician left behind his 53-year-old wife Shelia Von Wiese-Mack and their 10-year-old daughter Heather Mack. Mr. Mack also left, for his daughter, a $1.5 million trust fund managed by her mother.

     A few years before his death James Mack while on a Royal Caribbean cruise with his wife cut his foot in the ship's swimming pool area. He sued the cruise line for negligence for not keeping the ship safe and for improper onboard medical care. In 2011 his widow received a $800,000 settlement from the company.

     On August 4, 2014, Shelia, now 62, and her 19-year-old daughter checked into the 5-star St. Regis Bali Resort in Bali, Indonesia. Heather Mack and her mother hadn't been getting along for years. More recently they had fought over Heather's relationship with her boyfriend, Tommy Schaefer. Shelia, who was white, didn't approve of her daughter's relationship with the black 21-year-old. (This was according to Tommy Schaefer. It's possible the mother's objections had nothing to do with race.)

     On August 12, 2014, eight days after Heather and her mother arrived in Bali, Tommy Schaefer checked into the same hotel. Later that afternoon he and Heather were outside the hotel with a large suitcase that a cab driver helped place into the taxi's trunk. As the couple headed back into the hotel lobby they told the cab driver to wait while they checked out. They did not return.

     A few hours after Heather and her boyfriend abandoned the heavy suitcase in the taxi cab, police officers opened it up to find the body of Shelia Von Wiese-Mack. She had been bludgeoned to death.

     Detectives, after viewing hotel surveillance camera footage, saw that in the hours surrounding the victim's murder Heather and her boyfriend were the only people who had entered and exited the victim's room, the scene of the murder.

     Homicide investigators determined that the victim had been struck several times in the head with the iron grip to a hotel fruit bowl from Mr. Schaefer's room. Surveillance footage showed Schaefer leaving his room just before the bludgeoning, carrying the murder weapon partially hidden inside his shirt. Moreover, a jacket that he owned bore traces of Von Wiese-Mack's blood.

     Detectives arrested the couple the following day. Tommy Schaefer admitted killing the victim but claimed self defense. According to the suspect, when he informed Shelia that Heather was two-months pregnant with his child, she flew into a rage and tried to strangle him. Detectives didn't buy his story. A local prosecutor charged Schaefer with premeditated murder.

     Heather Mack told investigators that beyond helping her boyfriend get her mother's body out of the hotel, she had nothing to do with the murder. Detectives didn't buy that story either. The prosecutor charged her as an accomplice to criminal homicide.

     On January 14, 2015, the murder defendants went on trial in the Denpasar District courthouse in Bali. Heather Mack's defense was paid for out of her father's trust fund. A judge had denied Schaefer access to this money. If convicted as charged, both defendants faced the maximum sentence of death by firing squad.

     Following the prosecution's case, Mr. Schaefer's attorney put the defendant on the stand to testify on his own behalf. The defendant presented his story of self defense to a jury that was skeptical.

     On April 21, 2015 the jury found Tommy Schaefer and Heather Mack guilty as charged. Judge Made Suweda sentenced Schaefer to 18 years in prison. In justifying this lenient sentence for premeditated murder, the judge noted that the defendant had expressed remorse for the killing. 

     Judge Suweda, ignoring the prosecutor's request that Heather Mack be sentenced to 15 years, sentenced her to ten. The judge said he wanted to go easy on Heather because she had recently given birth to her baby. "In my decision," the judge said, "I have made a special judgment because Heather has a baby who needs a mother." (I'm not sure any baby needs a mother who helped her boyfriend murder her mother for the money.)

     After the verdicts and sentencing, Tommy Schaefer, in talking to reporters said, "Although I do take full responsibility for my actions, I am not a murderer." 

Thursday, April 4, 2024

The Corriann Cervantes Murder Case

     Jose Reyes and Corriann Cervantes, 17 and 15 respectively, attended the Clear Path alternative school in Clear Lake, Texas, a Greater Houston community in southeast Harris County. (Kids enrolled in the school had learning disabilities, low I.Q.s and/or personality disorders.)

     A passerby at four in the morning on Saturday February 8, 2014 noticed an open door at the El Camino Real apartment complex in Clear Lake. When the man entered the abandoned apartment he saw a half-nude woman with her head bashed in. The victim turned out to be Corriann Cervantes.

     At the murder scene detectives determined that Cervantes had been bludgeoned to death with a toilet tank lid and an ashtray. According to a Harris County forensic pathologist the victim had been raped before her assailant or assailants murdered her. On her abdomen someone had carved an upside-down cross. The killer or killers had placed various religious trinkets around her bloody corpse.

     The day following the gruesome discovery, police received a call from one of Jose Reyes' relatives who reported that the teenager admitted that he and a 16-year-old classmate named Victor Alas had raped and murdered the girl in the abandoned apartment.

     At the police station Jose Reyes told detectives that he and Victor Atlas had taken Corriann Cervantes to the vacant apartment where they raped her. When she tried to leave they beat her to death with the toilet tank lid and ashtray, then carved the cross into her body. They placed the religious items around her body. Reyes told his interrogators he sold his soul to the devil. He and his friend had raped, murdered and mutilated the girl so they could sell their soul to the devil.

     Police officers booked Reyes into the Harris County Jail on the charge of capital murder. Because of his age he was not eligible for the death penalty. However, if convicted as an adult he could be sentenced up to life in prison without parole.

     On Monday, February 10, 2014 police officers took 16-year-old Victor Alas into custody. Charged with capital murder as well, the prosecutor referred Alas to the Harris County Juvenile Probation Authority. If convicted as a juvenile offender the teen faced a maximum prison sentence of 40 years.

    At his first court appearance Jose Reyes was all smiles. He obviously enjoyed the media attention--a nobody who was suddenly a somebody. The judge set his bail at $1 million.

     The Jose Reyes murder trial began on Monday December 8, 2014 in the Harris County Courthouse before District Judge Brook Thomas. In his opening remarks to the jury prosecutor John Jordan said the defendant, his accomplice Victor Alas and Corriann Cervantes went to the vacant apartment that night after consuming alcohol and smoking marijuana at a friend's house. While the sex was initially consensual the encounter degenerated into a brutal beating, repeated stabbings, torture, disfigurement and murder.

     Reyes and Alas, according to prosecutor Jordan, gouged out Cervantes' eyes as she begged for her life. The forensic pathologist who performed the autopsy found pieces of porcelain embedded in her face. "What happened in that apartment," Jordan said, "was sadistic."

     Defense attorney Jerald Graber, in his address to the jurors, argued that his client should have been charged with a lesser form of criminal homicide than capital murder. Mr. Graber said the state could not prove that the defendant had committed an intentional homicide in the commission of an underlying felony such as kidnapping or sexual assault, the legal requirements of a capital murder conviction. (This was an absurd argument. The second Reyes and his friend kept Cervantes from leaving the apartment they committed the crime of kidnapping. Moreover, the consensual sex had quickly turned to rape.)

     On December 9, 2014, the second day of the trial, prosecutor Jordan put 19-year-old Miranda Leal on the stand. Leal was one of two people the defendant had bragged to about the Cervantes murder. According to this witness Jose Reyes told her he stabbed the victim while having sex with her. He said the Devil ordered him to do what he had done to the girl. While providing her details of the horrific crime Reyes laughed and smiled as he talked about it.

     According to Miranda Leal, Reyes, in bragging about the murder, performed a freestyle rap about a threesome with a girl that led to torture and murder. To prove that he wasn't making any of this up, Reyes showed Leal a cellphone photograph of himself, his friend Victor and a girl having sex.

     Miranda Leal testified that the defendant revealed to her how he had choked, bludgeoned then stabbed the victim in the face and torso with a screwdriver. When Cervantes tried to escape the attack he "clotheslined" her then hit her in the head with the porcelain toilet tank lid, breaking it in half. The witness said the defendant's story was so bizarre and sick she didn't believe it until she learned that Cervantes' body had been found in the vacant apartment.

      Miranda Leal was followed to the stand by Agapita Gonzales, the second person Reyes had confided in. According to this witness, "he said somebody wanted his soul." Gonzales revealed that the defendant's account of his activities that night caused her to fear for her own life. At times during her testimony she broke into tears.

     On the third day of the Reyes murder trial prosecutor Jordan introduced letters the defendant had written from the Harris County Jail in which he claimed the Devil watched him that night and directed his activities. Reyes had written, "He [the Devil] was standing there, watching me and Victor. It's all good. It's what the Devil asked for."

     After the prosecution rested its case defense attorney Graber did not put his client on the stand. In his closing remarks to the jury the defense lawyer assured the jurors that finding the defendant guilty of a lesser homicide offense would not mean that Corriann Cervantes was denied justice.

     On December 11, 2014 the jury, after deliberating just one hour, found the defendant guilty of capital murder, a crime that carried a mandatory life sentence without parole.

     Victor Alas went on trial as an adult in May 2015. On June 18, 2015 the Harris County jury found the defendant guilty of capital murder. Like Jose Reyes Victor Alas would spend the rest of his life behind bars. 

Wednesday, April 3, 2024

The Rafael Robb Murder Case

     In 1972 Rafael Robb graduated from Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Israel with a bachelor's degree in economics. A few years later he immigrated to the United States where, in 1981, he earned a Ph.D. in economics from UCLA. In 1984, now a U.S. citizen, Dr. Robb joined the teaching staff at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1990 he married Ellen Gregory, a woman seven years younger than him. Four years later the couple had a daughter, Olivia.

     As Rafael Robb's marriage fell apart his career at the University of Pennsylvania flourished. In 2004, after having published dozens of important papers on game theory, a mathematical discipline used to analyze political, economic and military strategies, the professor was granted tenure. He also became a Fellow of the Economics Society, one of the highest honors in the discipline.

     In the afternoon of December 22, 2006 Professor Robb, using the non-emergency phone number rather than 911, reported that he had just discovered, upon returning home from work, that an intruder had beaten his wife to death in the kitchen of their Upper Merion, Pennsylvania home. Because Ellen Robb had been beaten beyond recognition the responding police officers thought she had been murdered by a close-range shotgun blast to the face.

     From Ellen Robb's relatives and friends homicide detectives learned that the victim, after years of marital abuse, had recently hired a divorce attorney who planned to demand $4,000 a month in spousal support. Ellen, after living with the professor for the sake of their 12-year-old daughter, had finally decided to move out of the house.

     Montgomery County District Attorney Bruce L. Castor, Jr., on January 9, 2007, charged Rafael Robb with first-degree murder. Homicide detectives considered Robb's attempt to cover his tracks by staging a home invasion quite amateurish. They believed that Professor Robb had murdered his wife to avoid the financial consequences of the upcoming divorce. Robb's attorney announced that he would produce, at the upcoming trial, security-camera footage what would prove that his client had not been home when his wife was murdered. Homicide investigators, however, found numerous holes in Mr. Robb's so-called alibi.

     On November 27, 2007, on the day Rafael Robb's trial was scheduled to begin, the defendant, pursuant to a plea bargain arrangement, took the opportunity to plead guilty to voluntary manslaughter, a lesser homicide offense. Standing before Common Pleas Court Judge Paul W. Tressler, the defendant said that he and Ellen, on the morning of her death, had been arguing over a trip she planned to take with their daughter Olivia. "The discussion," Robb said, "was very tense. We were both anxious." According to the defendant's version of the killing, when Ellen pushed him, he "just lost it." By losing it, Robb meant that he walked into the living room, grabbed an exercise bar used to do chin-ups and used the blunt object to beat his wife's head into pulp. "I just kept flailing it," he said.

     Judge Tressler, after calling the Robb homicide "the worst physical bludgeoning" he had ever seen, sentenced Rafael Robb to a five-to-ten-year prison term. The light sentence for such a brutal killing committed by an abusive husband who had tried to stage a fake burglary shocked the victim's family. 

     In March 2012, after serving less than five years of his lenient sentence at a minimum security prison near Mercer, Pennsylvania, Rafael Robb filed a request to serve the remainder of his sentence in a Philadelphia halfway house. The goal behind the rehabilitation program involved allowing model prisoners to work at jobs during the day. The Montgomery County prosecutor strenuously opposed Robb's attempt to get into a halfway house.

     Notwithstanding objections from the prosecutor and members of Ellen Robb's family still upset about the light sentence, the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole, in October 2012, shocked everyone by granting Rafael Robb early parole. (If the Robb murder case were a game theory exercise the ex-professor won.) The 62-year-old convicted wife killer was scheduled for release on January 28, 2013.

     On January 29, 2013, the Pennsylvania Parole Board, after meeting with Ellen Robb's family, reversed its decision to grant the ex-professor's release.

     In 2013, Rafael Robb's daughter Olivia Robb brought a personal injury suit against her father in state court. At the time of the civil action the defendant had assets worth more than three million dollars. Following the three-day trial in a Montgomery County court, the jury, on November 6, 2014, awarded the 20-year-old plaintiff $124 million in compensatory and punitive damages. This was the largest contested personal injury verdict in Pennsylvania history. During the course of the trial Rafael Robb took the stand and admitted killing his wife then lying to the police by claiming she had been murdered by an intruder.

     In May 2016 the Pennsylvania Parole Board denied Rafael Robb's second petition for early release. That meant he would serve his full sentence and remain behind bars until December 2016.

     Rafael Robb should have been found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to life without parole. Just because this brutal killer was a prominent scholar did not justify the authorities letting him get away with murdering his estranged wife in order to save the cost of a divorce. The prosecutor, in negotiating Robb's guilty plea, gave away the store. This case, on so many levels, was an outrage.

     On January 10, 2017 a paroled Rafael Robb walked out of prison. Members of Ellen Robb's family protested outside the Upper Merion home where the former professor had murdered his wife. To reporters the victim's brother said, "He can't simply go back into society unfettered while the memory of my sister fades into the distance."  

     In August 2019, to settle the civil suit judgement against him, Rafael Robb agreed to relinquish 75 percent of his $3 million in investments and pension assets. 

Tuesday, April 2, 2024

The Christian Jose Gomez Murder Case

      Marua Suarez Cassange, 48, lived with her two sons in a house in Oldsmar, Florida, a town of 13,000 not far from Tampa Bay on the Gulf Coast. At seven-thirty on New Year's Eve 2014, Cassange's older son, Mario Gomez, called 911 after the 26-year-old made a shocking and gruesome discovery in the yard outside his house.

     Lying near the trash can in the side yard, Mario Gomez discovered his mother's decapitated body. Inside the trash can, in a garbage bag, he found her head. Mr. Gomez informed the 911 dispatcher that his younger mentally ill brother, 23-year-old Christian Jose Gomez, had murdered their mother just a few minutes earlier. He had left the house on his bicycle.

     That evening, a few blocks from the murder scene police officers, after a brief foot-chase, took Christian Gomez into custody. This arrest was not the suspect's first contact with the police. In 2013 officers took Gomez into custody for a variety of minor offenses such as loitering, prowling, resisting arrest without violence and disorderly conduct.

     In addition to his troubles with the law, Christian Gomez had recently been committed for psychiatric evaluation. The psychiatrist who diagnosed him as a schizophrenic prescribed anti-psychotic medication. Mr. Gomez had quit taking his medication.

     At the police station Christian Gomez calmly and matter-of-factly told his interrogators that he had been planning to kill his mother for two days. Why? asked one of the detectives. The suspect explained that the victim had infuriated him with her constant nagging about putting some boxes away in the attic. He said he just couldn't take it anymore.

     That evening, in the garage, Gomez used an axe to behead his mother then dispose of her head in the trash can. Because she was too heavy for him to lift he dragged her torso into the side yard. After a futile effort to scrub up the blood in the garage he rode off on his bicycle. His brother was in the house at the time of the murder but had no idea what was going on.

     A local prosecutor charged Christian Gomez with first-degree murder. After officers booked the mentally disturbed man into the Pinellas County Jail the judge denied him bond.

     Gomez, after being incarcerated in a state mental hospital for three years was declared mentally competent to stand trial. In July 2018, facing life in prison, he pleaded guilty in return for a sentence of 25 years behind bars.

Monday, April 1, 2024

The Stephen Cooke Jr. Murder-For-Hire Case

     In 2000 Heidi Louise Bernadzikowski, a 24-year-old employee of a health insurance company, lived in a Dundalk, Maryland townhouse with her boyfriend, 29-year-old Stephen Michael Cooke Jr. Baltimore County police officers on April 20, 2000 responded to a 911 call made from the townhouse by Mr. Cooke. Upon arrival officers found Stephen Cooke sitting on the living floor holding his girlfriend in his arms. They were both covered in blood.

     Heidi Bernadzikowski had been murdered. The killer had strangled the victim then slashed her throat. There were no signs of forced entry into the dwelling and no evidence that anything had been stolen. The victim had not been sexually assaulted.

     Detectives in search of a motive for the brutal murder became suspicious of the victim's boyfriend when they learned that a month before her death he had purchased a $700,000 insurance policy on her life. Because Mr. Cooke had an alibi that eliminated him as the killer, detectives suspected that he had hired a hit man to do the job. But without proof they could not arrest him.

     Heidi Bernadzikowski's parents, in 2004, sued Stephen Cooke Jr. under the so-called "slayer's rule" for the $700,000 life insurance payout. The slayer's rule prohibits anyone who intentionally caused the death of the insured to collect life insurance benefits. The civil action was settled out of court when Mr. Cooke agreed to pay the plaintiffs $575,000. Detectives working on the murder case considered the settlement a tacit admission of guilt.

     In January 2012 a Baltimore County prosecutor charged Alexander Charles Bennett, a 32-year-old resident of Greeley, Colorado, with the murder of Heidi Bernadzikowski. Three months earlier investigators had connected him to the Bernadzikowski murder scene through a DNA match. Moreover, detectives had placed Bennett, a man with a history of burglary and car theft, in Baltimore the month before the murder.

     While homicide detectives theorized that Mr. Bennett had been hired by Cooke to kill the victim, the investigators had no evidence linking the hit man to the suspected murder plot's mastermind. In January 2012 police officers booked Mr. Bennett into the Baltimore County Detention Center on the charge of first-degree murder. The judge denied the suspected hit man bail.

     Early in March 2014, just hours before the commencement of his murder trial, Bennett, pursuant to a plea deal, confessed to murdering Heidi Bernadzikowski. According to the hit man, he and a friend from Denver, Colorado named Grant A. Lewis had been hired over the Internet by Stephen Cooke Jr. who wanted someone to murder his girlfriend. Bennett said he flew to Baltimore in March 2000 to meet the murder-for-hire mastermind during which time Cooke offered Bennett and his accomplice a piece of the life insurance payout.

     According to the murder-for-hire plan, Grant Lewis would play the role of intermediary between Cooke and the trigger man. That March 2000 meeting would be the last time Bennett and Cooke communicated with each other directly.

     Alexander Bennett's version of the murder went like this: On April 20, 2000, the day of the killing, Bennett let himself into the Dundalk townhouse with a key left for him by Cooke. On that day, Cooke dropped Heidi off at the townhouse knowing that the killer was inside waiting for her. The moment Bernadzikowski walked into the dwelling, Bennett ambushed and choked the victim until she either passed out or died. To make sure she was dead, Bennett slashed her throat with a knife.

     A Baltimore County prosecutor charged Stephen Cooke Jr. with conspiracy to commit murder. On March 20, 2014, fourteen years after Bernadzikowski's violent death, detectives booked the Pasadena, Maryland suspect into the Baltimore County Detention Center. At his arraignment hearing, Cooke's attorney urged the judge to grant his client bail. The judge denied the request.

     On March 20, Baltimore homicide detectives arrested Grant A. Lewis, the 35-year-old murder-for-hire middle-man. Officers booked Lewis into the county jail on the charge of first-degree murder. Although Lewis had not bloodied his hands in the case, the judge denied him bail.

     On October 30, 2014, a jury found Grant A. Lewis guilty as charged. Baltimore County Court Judge Kathleen Gallogly-Cox, on February 2, 2015, sentenced him to life in prison.

     On June 18, 2015, a Baltimore County jury, after hearing the testimony of hit man Alexander Charles Bennett, found Stephen Cooke Jr. guilty of first-degree murder, solicitation of murder and conspiracy to commit murder. The judge sentenced him to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

     In August 2015 the judge sentenced Alexander Charles Bennett to 30 years. Had the hit man not testified for the prosecution against Cooke he would have been sentenced to life.