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Thursday, June 29, 2017

Helen Pearson's Stalker From Hell

     On October 21, 2013, 33-year-old Helen Pearson, a resident of Exeter, England, while walking in the rain from her flat to a physical fitness class at a nearby gym, was stabbed in the back by an attacker armed with a large pair of scissors. The man dragged Pearson through the entrance gate of St. Bartholomew Cemetery where he pinned her to the ground, punched her, and stabbed her in the face and lower jaw.

     When Sandra Robertson, a passing motorist, heard Pearson's screams, she jumped out of her vehicle and ran into the cemetery, a place known by the locals as the Catacombs, and pushed the assailant off the victim. That gave Pearson the chance to run out of the cemetery, and take refuge at the Fitness First Gym. The attacker fled the scene as well.

     Questioned at the gym by a police officer, the hysterical Pearson cried, "It was my stalker!" An ambulance crew rushed the victim to a nearby hospital. Her wounds, while serious, were not life-threatening.

     Helen Pearson's nightmare began in 2008 when her neighbor, an unemployed mechanic named Joseph Willis, asked if she would accompany him to a local pub to hear a band. She declined his invitation. Her rejection incurred Willis' wrath and turned him into an unrelenting stalker. During the next five years, Willis devoted himself to making Pearson's life a living hell.

     Early on, Willis made his intentions clear. He wrote Pearson a letter that read: "I want to see how you would cope if you were attacked….Would you fight back? Scream? Let the game begin." Willis' "game" included regularly pawing through her trash, visiting her Facebook page, disrupting her eating disorder support group (she suffered from obsessive compulsion disorder), harassing hang-up phone calls, depositing a dead cat on her doorstep, slashing her tires, and vandalizing her flat and her parents' home in Crediton. Willis also continued to send her poison letters in which he called her a "lying evil girl," and warned her to "watch her back."

     On April 7, 2014, Willis' attempted murder trial got underway at the Crown Court in Exeter. Crown prosecutor Richard Crabb, in his opening statement to the jury, said, " The defendant was obsessed with Helen Pearson and consumed with hostility for reasons that may never become apparent. Willis was consumed by hatred. He had done his best to make her life a misery and made clear threats against her in two letters." [As a matter of substantive criminal law, motive does not have to be proven, just the intent to commit the crime.]

     Helen Pearson took the stand and described to the jury how the 49-year-old defendant had forced her and her family to live in fear. Her father installed security grilles on her windows and set up a security camera at his house in Crediton. She changed cellphones every month and lived in constant fear of being physically attacked. Pearson also kept a diary in which she documented more than 100 incidents of harassment and vandalism.

     In describing the October 21, 2013 attempted murder, Pearson said, "He came from behind. I did not hear him because it was raining heavily and I had my umbrella up. The first thing I knew was when I was stabbed in the back. I turned and saw it was Joe. I saw his eyes and he looked absolutely furious. The first blow pushed me to the ground, and he kicked me and was dragging me along. It was obvious he was planning to get me into the Catacombs. That was where I was going to end. I tried to get free. I felt another kick and stab from behind. I thought this is going on until I am completely dead."

     Continuing with her account of the vicious attack, Pearson said, "I got my phone and was able to dial two nines but not the third. He got the phone away from me. He was deranged and so evil. He knew full well what he was doing and he was determined I was going to be dead. He was trying to drag me farther and farther from the cemetery entrance gates. I thought this is where he is going to get rid of the body. I thought I would be found and my mum and dad would not know what happened. [I would imagine that Mr. Pearson would have known exactly what had happened to his daughter, and who was responsible.]

     "I had six stab wounds in total in my back. I remember seeing the scissors and turning my head and seeing them come down….I was struggling and screaming and pleading. I remember saying, 'Please, Joe. No!' He never spoke to me throughout the whole thing."

     The victim-witness told the jury about her father's home security camera and her window bars. Because the police were useless and apparently uninterested in protecting this woman, the family hired a private detective in an effort to catch the stalker in the act. (They should have hired a hit man--just kidding--I think.) During Pearson's prolonged ordeal, she filed 125 complaints with the Devon and Cornwall Police Departments.

     On April 15, 2014, the jury found Joseph Willis guilty of attempted murder. Outside the Exeter court house following the verdict, Helen Pearson, in speaking to a reporter with the BBC, said, "Every night you go to bed and you don't know what is going to happen and you constantly live in fear. You see that there's no way the stalking is ever gong to end." Pearson, feeling hopeless and vulnerable, said she had thought many times about ending her misery by killing herself.

     Helen Pearson's father, Bernard Pearson, said this to the BBC: "Nobody with the police could see that the level of violence was rising, rising and rising." Mr. Pearson spoke of the family's intention of filing a formal complaint against the law enforcement agencies that failed to protect his daughter against the obsessed degenerate who had obviously intended at some point to murder her.

     The Exeter Crown Court judge, in appreciation of Sandra Robertson's heroic life saving intervention on Helen Pearson's behalf, granted her a 500 pound reward. Regarding the future of the convicted stalker and attempted murderer, the judge said Mr. Willis could anticipate a "lengthy term of imprisonment."

     In May 2014, Bernard Pearson filed a 48-page complaint against the Devon and Cornwall Police Departments. To a BBC reporter he said, "They failed us terribly. The attacks were getting worse and worse and the police failed to realize this and act."

     On July 17, 2014, the judge sentenced Willis to life in prison, stipulating that the deadly stalker had to serve at least 13 years of his sentence before being eligible for parole.

     Helen Pearson, in speaking to reporters after the sentencing hearing, once again accused the local police of failing to protect her in the face of obvious threats against her life.

     On September 2, 2014, the convicted stalker's attorney filed an appeal to have his client's life sentence reduced. In response to this, Willis' victim said: "I'm not going to let [the appeal] worry me. Willis spent five years making my life a misery. Now he's trying to do it again from behind bars, but he won't succeed."

     An agency in England called The Independent Police Complaints Commission launched an investigation to determine why this woman's plight had been ignored by the Devon and Cornwall Police Departments.

     On March 3, 2015, appellate judges at the Royal Courts of Justice rejected Joseph Willis' sentencing appeal.

     The chiefs of police of the Devon and Cornwall Police Departments apologized to Helen Pearson for the official misconduct and incompetence that led to her victimization. The chiefs promised to take the crime of stalking more seriously in the future. Ms. Pearson called the apologies and promises meaningless.

Say Goodbye to Alaska Serial Killer Robert Hansen

     Convicted Alaska serial killer Robert Hansen, who gained the nickname of "The Butcher Baker" for abducting and hunting down women in the wilderness during the state's oil pipeline construction boom in the 1970s, has died at age 75. Hansen died Thursday August 21, 2014 at  Alaska Regional Hospital after being in declining health for the past year…

     Hansen was convicted in 1984 after confessing to killing 17 women, mostly dancers and prostitutes, during a 12-year span. Hansen was convicted of just four of the murders in a deal that spared him having to go to trial 17 times. The Anchorage baker also confessed to raping another 30 women at that time…

     Hansen was the subject of a 2003 film entitled "The Frozen Ground" that starred Nicolas Cage as an Alaska State Trooper investigating the slayings. Actor John Cusack portrayed Hansen.

     Hansen was serving a 461-year sentence in Alaska at the time of his death. He had been incarcerated at the Seward State Prison and was moved May 11, 2014 to the Anchorage Correctional Center to receive medical attention.

     Hansen owned a bakery in a downtown mini-mall in the 1970s and 1980s. He lived across town with his wife and children who knew nothing of his other life…

     Hansen would abduct the women and take them to remote places outside the city. Sometimes he would drive and other times he would fly his private plane. A licensed pilot, Hansen told investigators that one of his favorite spots to take his victims was the Knik River north of Anchorage. In some instances Hansen would rape the women then return them to Anchorage, warning them not to contact the authorities. Other times he would let the women go free in the wilderness then hunt them down with his rifle. Only 12 bodies of the 17 women Hansen confessed to killing have been found.

Rachel D'Oro, "Alaska Serial Killer Dies, Decades After Murders," Associated Press, August 223, 2014 

Novelists Criticizing The Work of Other Novelists

     Novelists are not remotely wary of criticizing one another's work in private; they do it all the time. Only when they're asked to commit their shoptalk to print do they grow reticent. A hardy few are prepared to engage tough-mindedly with the works of their peers….

     Most fiction writers end up deciding that discretion is the greater part of critical valor. Some recuse themselves from reviewing any contemporary fiction at all. Others review only those novels they can praise in good faith. Still others adopt a tactful, discursive reviewing style that allows them to write about books they don't rate without actually copping to an opinion.

     Before we rebuke these writers for their intellectual cowardice, we ought to acknowledge the genuine difficulty of the task they shirk. The literary world is tiny. The subgroup represented by novelists is even tinier. If you're an author who regularly reviews other authors, the chances of running into a person whose novel you have criticized are fairly high….It may not be the worst thing in the world to find yourself side by side at a cocktail party with the angry man whose work you described as mediocre in last Sunday's paper, but the threat of such encounter is not a great spur to critical honesty. [If you're interested in literary courage, read B. R. Myers' book Reader's Manifesto where he rips apart several so-called literary giants. A great book and a wonderful read.]

Zoe Heller, The New York Times Book Review, September 8, 2013


Novels That Inspired Real-Life Murders

     At his sentencing hearing in 1981, after he was convicted of John Lennon's murder, Mark David Chapman read aloud from J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye: I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over…I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all."

     The Catcher in the Rye was the book Chapman had been reading at the crime scene when he was arrested. It was the book that held, as he claimed, his message for the world. He was standing at the cliff; he was just doing his work.

     A few years later, the serial killers Leonard Lake and Charles Ng embarked on what they called "Operation Miranda," a violent spree of torture, rape and murder named for the woman abducted by a deranged butterfly collector in John Fowles' novel The Collector, which they cited as their inspiration.

Leslie Jamison, The New York Times Book Review, September 14, 2014 

There's No Such Thing as an Evil Gun

The rifle itself has no moral stature, since it has no will of its own. Naturally, it may be used by evil men for evil purposes, but there are more good men than evil, and while the latter cannot be persuaded to the path of righteousness by propaganda, they can certainly be corrected by good men with rifles.

Jeff Cooper, The Art of the Rifle, 1997

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

The John Sexton Murder Case

     Ann Parlato was 94 and lived by herself in a white stucco house in the Regency Park section of New Port Richey, Florida. Just after midnight on September 17, 2010, one of Ann Parlato's neighbors heard a "thump" coming from her house. The next-door neighbor, alerted by the sound, saw, through Parlato's kitchen window, her "lawn man" standing at Parlato's sink. Thinking that the man in the window was doing chores around Parlato's house, the neighbor didn't call the police. He did, however, jot down the license number to the lawn man's pickup truck.

     About eight hours after the next-door neighbor saw the man through Ann Parlato's kitchen window, another neighbor, Dori Cifelli, found Parlato's front door ajar. She entered the dwelling and saw, on the living room floor, a pair of legs sticking out from under a white sheet. This neighbor called 911.

     Police officers found a bludgeoned and stabbed elderly woman beneath the sheet. Ann Parlato's upper torso had been burned, she had defense wounds on her arms and hands, and her fingernails were broken. Crime scene investigators encountered blood throughout the house. There were spatter patterns and stains on carpeting, walls, the ceiling fan, and in the bathroom sink and shower stall. Officers recovered the cap from a bottle of bleach, and in a sink, found cigarette butts and a pair of women's underwear. The victim's master bedroom had been ransacked, and the killer had used Parlato's washing machine. Scattered throughout the dwelling were clippings from the dead woman's freshly mowed lawn.

     The next day, homicide detectives, after speaking to the next-door neighbor who had seen the lawn man through the kitchen window and jotted down the license number to his truck, questioned John Sexton at his Pasco, Florida home about a mile from the murder scene. When told that Ann Parlato had been murdered, the 49-year-old suspect said, "Oh, wow, that's horrible. I kind of liked her." Sexton said he had befriended the elderly woman by mowing her yard.

     When asked where he was at midnight, September 27, Sexton yelled to his third wife Catherine, "What time did I get home, about 10:30?"

     Catherine yelled back, "He's lying. He got home about 2 AM."

     During the interview, Sexton's hands and legs were shaking. He had a fresh cut on his middle finger, and the officers noticed what looked like a blood stain on his pants. The detectives asked the suspect to accompany them to the police station where he would be asked to provide a formal statement. Sexton said he had no problem doing that.

     At police headquarters, after being warned of his Miranda rights, an interrogator pressed Sexton regarding his whereabouts at midnight on the night of the murder. "I couldn't have been there at midnight," he answered.

     "A neighbor saw you in the kitchen."

     "I wasn't in the kitchen," Sexton insisted.

     "So the neighbor next door is absolutely lying? Seeing mirages or something? When he writes down your tag number?"

     "I guess so," came the reply.

     Following the interrogation, the officers informed John Sexton that he was under arrest for the murder of Ann Parlato. Charged with first degree-murder, he faced a mandatory life sentence. He was also eligible for the death penalty. Mr. Sexton would not be returning home that day to his third wife Catherine.

     According to Catherine Sexton, she had met John at a swingers club. As a husband he had cheated on her regularly. (Big surprise from a guy you meet at a swingers club.) In May 2010, the couple moved to Pasco where they took up residence in a house with Catherine's mother and her mom's boyfriend. Catherine described her husband as an atheist who drank heavily, photographed naked women, and occasionally took antidepressant medication that had been prescribed to her. Catherine informed detectives that John, a habitual liar, sociopath, and sex addict, was also an erotic fire-setter. His second wife left him after he threw their 6-week-old daughter across the room. Catherine, in a bit of an understatement, used the term  "deviant" in describing her husband.

     John Sexton's murder trial got underway on April 16, 2013. The next day, following the opening statements, the prosecution put two DNA experts on the stand who linked the defendant to the murder scene in a variety of ways. Blood on Sexton's clothing and under his fingernails had come from the victim. According to one of the DNA analysts, Sexton's saliva connected him to a crime scene cigarette butt.

     A prosecution criminalist testified that bloody shoe impression on the victim's linoleum floor "showed the same class characteristics" as the defendant's boots.

     On April 18, Dr. Jonathan Thogmartin, the Pasco County Medical Examiner who had visited the murder scene and performed the autopsy, testified that Ann Parlato had died from blunt force trauma to the head. The killer had crushed Palato's face, dislocated her upper spine, and fractured her ribs. He also stabbed the victim, had postmortem sex with the corpse, then tried to destroy the body by setting it on fire.

     After the prosecution rested its case on April 18, the defense called the next-door neighbor to the stand who had seen the lawn man through the victim's kitchen window. The witness testified that he had failed to pick the defendant out of a police photograph line-up.

     Sexton's third wife Catherine took the stand as a character witness. "I believe in his innocence," she said.

     At the close of the testimony phase of the trial, the opposing attorneys presented their closing arguments. The defense attorney talked about a crime scene knife that contained someone else's DNA. The judge issued her instructions to the jurors, and on April 19, the case went to the jury. Following a short deliberation, the jury found John Sexton guilty of first degree-murder.

     On Friday, December 13, 2013, Judge Mary Handsel sentenced John Sexton to death. The condemned man, aware that it took decades to execute people like him, told reporters that he had hoped for the death penalty. He said it meant that his appeals would proceed more quickly than if he had been sentenced to life. 

The Serial Killer Hysteria of the 1980s

     Psychiatry is not to blame for the emergence of the late-twentieth-century fictional monster known as the serial killer, but the psychiatric concept of criminal violence as an unconsciously motivated explosion of rage bolsters the credibility of what is in fact a bureaucratic invention....

     Ultraviolent criminals sometimes commit a series of murders....Such serial homicides are enacted most commonly by violent drug dealers, professional murderers and armed robbers in the course of doing business....The notion of an irrational, predatory "serial killer" emerged in the early 1980s amid widespread hysteria about dangers to children from pornographers, satanic cults, lethal day-care centers and kidnappers....The 1983 [Senate] hearings on child kidnapping and serial homicide by the Juvenile Justice Subcommitee, chaired by Senator Arlen Spector, [was] the public forum from which emerged the popular notion of a multitude of predatory serial killers scourging the land....

     Specter's subcommittee estimated that there had been as many as 3,600 "random and senseless [serial] murders" in 1981; by the time that number had whispered its way around the circle of public discussion, it was inflated to estimates of 4,000 or 5,000 serial-killer victims per year ( out of about 23,000 total U. S. homicides)....The actual number of [serial killer] victims is closer to two hundred a year. [That may have been true in the 80s and 90s, but the number of yearly victims is now much lower than 200.]

Richard Rhodes, Why They Kill: The Discoveries of a Maverick Criminologist, 1999 

The Unreliability of Memory

     Think of your mind as a bowl filled with clear water. Now imagine each memory as a teaspoon of milk stirred into the water. Every adult mind holds thousands of these murky memories....Who among us would dare to disentangle the water from the milk?...Memories don't sit in once place, waiting patiently to be retrieved; they drift through the brain, more like clouds or vapor than something we can put our hands around....

     This view of memory has been a hard sell. Human beings feel attached to their remembered past, for the people, places and events we enshrine in memory give structure and definition to the person we think of as our "self." If we accept the fact that our memories are milky molecules, spilling into dream and imagination, then how can we pretend to know what is real and what is not? Who among us wants to believe that our grasp on reality is so provisional, that reality in fact is impenetrable and unfathomable because it is only what we remember, and what we remember is rarely the literal truth?

Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, The Myth of Repressed Memory, 1994

Procrastination Versus Writer's Block

A blocked writer has the discipline to stay at his desk but cannot write. A procrastinator, on the other hand, cannot bring himself to sit down at the desk; yet if something forces him to sit down he may write quite fluently.

Alice W. Flaherty, The Midnight Disease, 2004

     

O.J. Simpson: Do As I Say, Not As I Do

Some writers of letters and a lot of kids don't seem to care if I'm guilty or innocent. They just want to believe in me….When I speak to kids, I say that you have to accept responsibility for your own actions…I say to everybody that if I had committed this crime, I would have had to take responsibility for my actions….

O.J. Simpson, I Want to Tell You, 1994 [Letter to a young fan following his arrest for double murder.]