More than 3,650,000 pageviews from 150 countries


Monday, September 25, 2017

The Julie Schenecker Murder Case

     Parker Schenecker, an Army intelligence officer, met Julie Powers, an Army linguist (Russian) in 1987 when they were deployed in Germany. Shortly after they were married in Louisiana in 1991, a psychologist began treating her for depression. Three years later, she gave birth to Calyx, and in 1997, their son Beau.

     Not long after having Beau, Julie began taking anti-depression medication on a daily basis. In 2001, psychiatrists diagnosed her as suffering from bipolar disorder, schizo-affective disorder, and severe depression. According to these physicians, she had a personality disorder as well. (There is no effective way to treat the latter.) During her nine months of treatment at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Maryland outside of Washington, D.C., she labored under the false belief that a brain tumor was causing her mental illness. Julie held this belief after brain scans proved negative. During this time, Parker Schenecker hired a nanny to take care of the children.

     In 2009, while being treated in south Florida for mental illness, Julie expressed a desire to take her psychiatrist's comb and use his DNA to impregnate herself.

     On November 6, 2010, while residing in an upscale neighborhood in Tampa, Florida, 15-year-old Calyx told a school counselor that her mother had slapped her in the face when they returned from her cross-country practice. The counselor reported the matter to the authorities, and that day, a Tampa police officer, accompanied by a child protection social worker, paid Julie a home visit. Julie admitted hitting Calyx with her open hand during an argument four days earlier. The police officer decided not to make an arrest in the case.

     On January 15, 2011, Colonel Schenecker, while assigned as an intelligence officer with U.S. Central Command in Qatar, wrote a long email to the psychiatrist in Florida treating Julie. The colonel expressed concern about Julie's bellicose relationship with Calyx. It seemed the two of them never stopped fighting.

     Colonel Schenecker wrote: "Julie can no longer control Calyx and Calyx has been disrespectful and verbally abusive toward Julie." Colonel Schenecker also noted that his wife had taken to the bottle. "Drinking starts to affect the kids--they start mentioning it to me." Julie had also, according to the colonel, been driving erratically which had resulted in a traffic accident.

     Julie Schenecker wrote an email addressed to her family on January 27, 2011. The message read: "It's really difficult and I'm so sick mentally. I minimally take care of the kids, sad to say. Beau has also developed Calyx's attitude--makes me cry every evening. Seeing what they've become, I will end this soon. I am at my wits end."

     The day following Julie's email to her family, her mother Nancy called the police to report that she had not been able to reach her daughter. Due to Julie's mental state, Nancy was concerned that something was wrong. In response to the mother's request for a welfare visit, officers were dispatched to the Schenecker house. There, in the garage, they found Beau in Julie's SUV. The boy had been shot twice in the head.

     In Calyx's room, officers discovered the 16-year-old lying on her bed with a fatal bullet wound to the back of her head. Both children had been shot by the .38-caliber revolver found at the scene. The bodies had been covered with blankets. The officers also recovered a journal at the scene in which Julie described her plan to kill her children and herself.

     Police officers found, on the back porch, Julie Schenecker. Wearing a blood-soaked bathrobe, she was asleep and under the influence of prescription pills. She awoke and told the officers why she had shot her children to death. She said she had done this because they had "talked back and were mouthy."

     Officers took Julie into custody at the death scene. At the police station, they continued to question her. Julie said she had shot Beau in the car after they had returned home from his soccer practice. She said she killed Calyx in her room as she did homework on her computer. Julie showed no emotion or remorse as she described killing her children.

     Julie Schenecker informed her interrogators that five days before shooting her children to death, she had driven 27 miles to a small Florida town where she purchased the revolver at a store called Lock N Load. (When buying the weapon, she told the counterman that there had been a rash of burglaries in her neighborhood.)

     After questioning her at the police station, detectives took Julie to a nearby hospital for observation. She told a doctor that she had a "pre-existing" medical condition. Following her discharge from the medical center on January 29, 2011, officers booked the murder suspect into Hillsborough County's Falkenburg Road Jail on two counts of first-degree murder. The judge denied her bond.

     The homicide suspect's attorneys, at her February 16, 2011 arraignment, pleaded her not guilty. The lawyers announced they planned to launch an insanity defense on her behalf. Under Florida law, legal insanity is statutorily defined as a mental disease or defect present at the time of the crime that rendered the defendant incapable of appreciating the nature and quality of the criminal act. In other words, the mental illness had destroyed the defendant's ability to distinguish between right and wrong. In Florida, as well as most other states, the so-called "M'Naughten right-wrong test," due to the fact that even seriously mentally ill people are aware of what they are doing when they kill someone, is a difficult defense to prove. Proving that the defendant's actions were driven by the mental illness and nothing else is usually an uphill task. (A defendant must prove legal insanity by a preponderance of the evidence. That means the prosecution does not have the burden of proving the defendant was sane, that is presumed, along with innocence.)

     Colonel Schenecker divorced Julie in May 2011. Following a dispute over the distribution of family assets, he sued her in civil court for the wrongful death of their children. Julie's civil attorneys in the case, countered that the plaintiff was equally responsible for the children's deaths. In support of this argument, they cited the emails the colonel had sent to her psychiatrist less than two weeks before the killings. In these emails he expressed his concern for the well-being of the children.

     The Julie Schenecker double murder trial got underway on April 28, 2014 in Tampa, Florida. Following jury selection and the opening statements from each side, the prosecutor put police officers, detectives, crime scene people, and a forensic pathologist on the stand. On May 5, 2014, crime scene specialist Matthew Evans testified that he had recovered numerous bottles of prescription pills at the murder house that included Lithium and Oxycodone.

     The prosecutor asked crime scene specialist Matthew Evans to read from portions of the journal taken from the house. From this document, Evans read the following to the jury: "The best job I ever had was having/bringing up my babies. This is why I had to bring them with me. It's possible they've inherited my DNA and would live their lives depressed or bipolar! I believe I saved them from the pain. I wouldn't wish this on nobody--ever."

     According to the defendant's journal, she had worried that if she committed suicide, her children would have to live with the stigma associated with their mother's act of self-destruction. "If you're wondering why I decided to take out the kids it was to protect them from embarrassment the rest of their lives."

     The crime scene investigator was followed to the stand by a detective who played an audiotape of the defendant's police station interview. Slurring her words, Schnecker explained in detail how she had shot her children to death and why. She also listed all of the prescription medicine she had been taking.

     The following day, now retired Army Colonel Parker Schenecker, took the stand for the prosecution. The 53-year-old described to the jury the domestic turmoil of living with a mentally disturbed wife. During his testimony, he never referred to her by name, referring to Julie as the "defendant."

     On May 9, 2014, after the prosecution rested its case, The Schenecker defense took center stage. Michelle Frisco, a 43-year-old house cleaner who worked for the defendant, said that Julie had been upset because Beau had become as disrespectful as his older sister. The defendant also told the witness that she drank heavily when her husband was deployed out of the country.

     Dr. Demian Obregon, a University of Southern Florida psychologist, testified that he had treated the defendant for various mental disorders. The medicine she took produced side effects such as "lip-smacking," and "leg-jerking." According to this witness, Julie, in August 2010, had starting expressing suicidal thoughts. In December of that year, she had revealed deep feelings of being both helpless and hopeless.

     Throughout the trial, Julie Schenecker sat passively with her attorneys at the defense table. But that changed suddenly in the middle of Dr. Obergron's testimony. When the psychologist told the jury he had warned her against mixing alcohol with her bipolar medicine, she yelled "Liar! You told me two drinks a day, two Oxys a day!"

     The trial judge responded to the outburst by ordering the jurors out of the courtroom. The judge then issued a strong warning to the defendant. If she engaged in this type of behavior again, there would be serious consequences. Such outbursts would not be tolerated.

     On Monday, May 12, 2014, Dr. Eldra Solomon, another psychologist, took the stand for the defense. Hired by Julie's attorneys to examine and evaluate their client's mental state on the days leading up to the killings, Dr. Solomon testified that Julie, on the day she decided to buy the gun, "had her first clear thought in weeks." And that thought involved killing her children so they could all go to heaven together. "People who are not in a psychotic state," Dr. Solomon said, "do not kill their children."

     Dr. Michael Malher, a medical doctor and psychiatrist, had also been hired by the defense as an expert insanity defense witness. In his expert opinion, Julie Schenecker, at the time of the killings, was insane pursuant to the criteria of the M'Naughten right-wrong test.

     In cross-examining the defense insanity witnesses, the prosecutor, in an effort to undermine their credibility, implied that they were nothing more than insanity defense hired-guns.

     On May 13, 2014, the defense wound-up its case with another expert who found that the defendant, at the time of the killings, was in a psychotic state. The defense also called Colonel Schenecker to the stand. The witness described his ex-wife as a 50-year-old with the judgment of a 10-year-old, and painted a picture of what it was like for him and his family to live with a person who was seriously mentally ill. Following the colonel's testimony, the defense rested its case.

     The prosecutor, on May 14, 2014, in the rebuttal phase of the trial, pressed the argument that the double murder had been motivated by anger. The three rebuttal witnesses on this day were psychiatrists who testified that the defendant had operated under a clear, calculated plan to kill her children. These prosecution experts explained to the jury why the defendant, under Florida's right-wrong test, had not been legally insane. When shooting her children, she had known exactly what she was doing. The defendant was not acting pursuant to any delusions, or instructions from voices in her head. She had been driven by anger, not mental illness.

     On Thursday morning, May 15, 2014, following the closing arguments and the judge's instructions to the jury, the jurors walked out of the courtroom to deliberate the defendant's fate. Just two hours later, at three o'clock, the jury returned to the courtroom with its verdict: guilty of two counts of first-degree murder. This jury had obviously rejected the Schenecker insanity defense.

     In addressing the judge in advance of the sentence, Julie Schnecker tearfully apologized for killing her children. She said, "They are alive and enjoying everything and anything heaven has to offer. Jesus is protecting them and keeping them safe until we get there." Immediately after this irony-laced statement, the judge handed Schenecker the mandated sentence of two life terms without the possibility of parole.

     

The Role of the Forensic Psychologist in Insanity Defense Cases

My forensic workup is a good deal more intensive than that of most other forensic psychologists, but anything less would not satisfy my standard for formulating an opinion "with a reasonable degree of psychological certainty," which is what New York's insanity defense statute calls for. What goes on in the mind of a murderer at the moment of his crime will always remain unknowable. But I believe it is my professional mandate to make the most thorough, informed, and educated judgment I can. [Critics of this branch of psychology would call it an educated guess.]

Dr. Barbara R. Kirwin, The Mad, The Bad, and the Innocent, 1997

Hillbilly Restroom: A Restaurant Kitchen Sink

     The district manager of a West Virginia Pizza Hut was fired after video of him urinating in a restaurant sink emerged, prompting the location's shut down. Though the incident took place after the store was closed, it's inexplicable, unacceptable and flat out disgusting. On top of that, it's a health code violation….

     In a statement, Pizza Hut was deeply apologetic for the vile actions of the former employee…."We apologize to our customers of Kermit, West Virginia."… Still, the chain insisted that the ex-manager did not tamper with any food….[Did he wash his hands after using the kitchen sink as a toilet?]

Julian Kimble, "West Virginia Pizza Hut Shut Down After Manager is Caught Urinating in Sink," USA Today, February 19, 2014


Sunday, September 24, 2017

The Ralph Wald Murder Case

     In March 2013, Ralph Wald, a 69-year-old retired Army Lieutenant Colonel who fought in Vietnam, lived with his wife Johnna Flores in Brandon, Florida. The couple had been married since October 2012. She was 41.

     On Sunday, March 10, 2013, just before midnight, Wald got out of bed for a drink of water. En route to the kitchen he saw Johnna on the living room floor having sex with a man he didn't recognize. Wald immediately returned to his bedroom where he picked up his .38-caliber revolver. Back in the living room a few moments later, he shot his wife's sex partner in the stomach and head. The man died on the spot.

     After shooting 32-year-old Walter Lee Copley, who turned out to be one of Johnna's old flames from Riverview, Florida, Mr. Wald called the police. To the dispatcher he said that he had just shot a man he caught "fornicating" with his wife in their home. After the call, Mr. Wald laid down his gun and waited for the authorities to arrive at the death scene.

     Deputies with the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office took Mr. Wald into custody that night. The next day, Hillsborough County Assistant State Attorney Chris Moody charged Ralph Wald with second-degree murder. A judge denied the murder suspect bail.

      The Wald case went to trial in Tampa, Florida just eleven weeks after Mr. Copley's death. Prosecutor Moody, in his opening remarks, told the jury that the defendant, who suffered from erectile dysfunction, killed the victim in a jealous rage.

     Defense attorney Joe Episcopo argued that his client thought Mr. Copley was an intruder raping his wife. Under Florida's stand your ground self-defense doctrine, the defendant had no duty to retreat from his own home.

     On the second day of the three-day trial, Johnna Flores took the stand for the defense. She testified that when her husband shot Mr. Copley she was "black-out" drunk from too much cognac. As a result, she had virtually no memory of the shooting.

     The defendant followed his wife to the stand. According to Ralph Wald, he and Johnna had planned to see a therapist regarding their sexual problem. "In fact," he said, "she would joke a lot with me that we were a perfect couple. She didn't want to do it, and I couldn't do it." The witness said he hoped to salvage his marriage. "I love my wife," he said.

     Prosecutor Moody, in his closing argument to the jury, said this about Mr. Copley: "It's a personal insult to conduct that kind of activity in a man's home, his castle. It cuts to the quick. It's brazen. That kind of deep and personal insult when you find another man having sex in your living room and you can't have sex yourself. This would make you want to lash out--and the defendant did."

     Defense attorney Episcopo, in addressing the jurors, said, "This was a military man trained to know what to do with the enemy. You take your gun and you kill the enemy."

     On May 30, 2013, the jury, after just two hours of deliberation, found the defendant not guilty. Ralph Wald embraced his two lawyers as his wife Johnna cried tears of joy.

     Members of Walter Copley's family who were in the courtroom when the verdict was read were not happy with the outcome of the case. 

Undercover Cops Can Lie

Some folks are under the impression that if you ask an undercover cop if he is, in fact, a cop, he is legally obligated to tell the truth. He isn't. I don't know where this notion came from in the first place. Think about it. How would any undercover law enforcement operation function if this were the case?

Adam Plantinga, 400 Things Cops Know, 2014  

How to Deal With a Bad Review

My favorite Kirkus review labeled my writing as "awkward and repetitious." I framed that one.

Charles Knief, mysterylinkonline.com, August 29, 2001 

The Need for Commas

There are two types of writers who underuse commas: the first is the unsophisticated writer who has not developed an ear for sentence rhythm. He is unable to hear fine distinctions, and thinks writing is solely about conveying information. He will need to spend time reading classic writers and train himself to hear the music of language. The second is the sophisticated writer who has an aversion to commas and underuses them on purpose. There are numerous writers who rebel against the overuse of punctuation, and more often than not they find a target in the poor comma. The danger for these writers is the rare problem of overestimating the reader. Unless a reader is accustomed to reading twelfth-century clerical texts, he will want at least some commas, some pauses laid out for him. There is a need for marks--especially commas--to indicate ebbs and flows, pauses and pitch, division of clauses and meaning. The writer who ignores this is the writer who writes for himself, not with the reader in mind. He will not be a commercial writer, or plot oriented, but prose oriented, interested in nuances of style--but to a fault.

Noah Lukeman, A Dash of Style, 2006

Bank Robbery: The Lost Romance

Today's bank robbers, are, for the most part, crude amateurs possessing little of the romantic aura of yesteryear's brigands. Today, the fine art of illegally removing capital from a financial institution has often been reduced to the practice of crude thuggery or impulsive strong-arm holdups. This is not to say that old-style desperados were invariably suave or elegant; they were not. However, there was something about the old-time robber that captured the American public's attention and, frequently, admiration. The perception begs the question: "How were the old-times different from today's petty thugs?" [What difference? Many of the old-time bank robbers were worse. Billy The Kid was a vicious cretin, and John Dillinger, a generation later, was a cold-blooded killer. Nothing romantic about that.]

L. R. Kirchner, Robbing Banks, 2003

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Robert Van Handel: The Profile Of A Pedophile

     In 1994, Robert Van Handel, a 48-year-old Franciscan priest and former rector at St. Anthony's Seminary School in Santa Barbara, California, pleaded guilty to sexually molesting an 8-year-old student. He had been accused of molesting fifteen other boys between the ages 8 to 11, but those cases were too old to prosecute. In preparation for his sentencing hearing, the psychiatrist who evaluated Van Handel at the Pacific Treatment Associates in Santa Cruz, asked him to write a history of his sexual life. Van Handel complied, producing a detailed, 27-page memoir of a life devoted to sexually abusing boys.

     Van Handel's revealing description of his perverted thoughts and behavior provided a rare look into the twisted mind and life of a sexual predator. The document didn't come to light until 2006, the year the Franciscans, in a civil court settlement, paid twenty-five clergy abuse victims $28 million in damages. The church, in an attempt to keep Van Handel's revelations from the public, fought several newspaper organizations all the way to the California Supreme Court. The church lost. What follows is Van Handel's account of his life as a priest, teacher, and pedophile.

     In 1956, at age 10, Van Hendel and his family of seven settled in Orange County, California. Three years later, the 13-year-old, to escape his strict, demanding father who forced him to read a sex education manual that scared the hell out of  him, enrolled in the Franciscan run St. Anthony's Seminary School in Santa Barbara. Two years later, while in the infirmary with a fever, a priest sexually molested him. According to the seminarian pedophile who attacked him, this activity would, by making the sick boy sweat, draw the fever out of him.

     Over the next nine years, while at St Anthony's, Van Handel collected magazines featuring child pornography, and used a telephoto lens to take clandestine photographs of children. While he fantasized about having sex with young boys, Van Handel did not actually molest anyone during this period.

     In 1970, at age 24, Van Handel moved to Berkeley, California to pursue his master's degree at the University of California. While there, he formed a neighborhood boy's choir and molested a 7-year-old choir member. He also, during this period, raped his 5-year-old nephew.

     Robert Van Handel, as an ordained Franciscan priest, returned to St. Anthony's in 1975 where he taught English. He also became the director of the school choir. In his sexual memoir, the priest acknowledged that the school choir provided him with a steady supply of victims. An 11-year-old boy, a student he had been abusing since the child was 7, resisted for the first time after four years of molestation. In his memoir, Van Handel said that he was shocked by the rejection. He wrote, "He started to cry and that snapped something in my head. For the first time, I was seeing signs that he really did not like this." In another passage, the priest wrote: "There is something about me that is happier when accompanied by a small boy. Perhaps besides the sexual element, the child in me wants a playmate."

     Van Handel's relationships with his students and choir boys exemplified typical pedophile behavior. The priest rubbed their backs, photographed them tied-up in ropes, wrestled with them, and invented tickling games. (The Penn State pedophile, coach Jerry Sandusky, called himself the "tickle monster.") In his memoir of perversion, Van Handel, noted that the fact the boys couldn't stop him from doing what he wanted, turned him on. He wrote, "It was though I could do anything with them that I wanted."

     In 1983, Robert Van Handel became rector of St. Anthony's. As head of this enclave of pedophilia, he was asked to investigate another priest who had been accused of molesting two boys who were brothers. As it turned out, Van Handel had also sexually assaulted these students.

     Van Handel's tenure at St. Anthony's came to an end in 1992 when the parents of one of his victims wrote a letter to the head of the Franciscan order. Within months of this letter, Van Handel was removed from the ministry.

     After the defrocked pedophile's guilty plea in 1994, the judge sentenced him to eight years in prison.  (Eight years? This serial sex offender should have been sentenced to life without parole.)

Framing Your Estranged Husband

     On August 11, 2014, a jury in Indiana, Pennsylvania found 43-year-old Meri Jane Woods guilty of trying to frame her estranged husband of a crime. According to the district attorney, in August 2013, the  Clymer, Pennsylvania defendant downloaded 40 images of child pornography onto the family computer and took the photographs to the police. She accused her estranged husband, Matthew Woods, of downloading the pornographic contraband.

     When investigators examined the time stamps on the images, they determined they had been downloaded more than two weeks after Meri Woods had kicked her husband out of the house pursuant to a protection from abuse order. Since he didn't have access to the dwelling or the computer, he couldn't have downloaded the incriminating material.

     In December 2014, the Indiana County judge sentenced Woods to six months to two years in prison.