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Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Naked Flesh Eater: Police Kill Rudy Eugene

     As a nation of drug addicts and alcoholics, are we creating a class of taser-resistant monsters and flesh-eating zombies?

Excited Delirium Syndrome

     According to  Dr. Deborah Mash, the University of Miami neurologist who coined the term Excited Delirium, men who are high on drugs and/or alcohol, and are mentally ill, can  fly off the handle when placed under stress. Their body temperatures soar to 103-5 degrees, and their hearts race. When in this state, these men also possess supernatural strength, and can be resistant to taser shocks. Many of these men, often overweight and black, die of cardiac or respiratory arrest when fighting with the police. Among forensic pathologists in the United States, Canada, and England, Excited Delirium Syndrome is becoming a recognized cause of death.

Cocaine Psychosis and the Flesh-Eating Man

     At two in the afternoon on Saturday, May 26, 2012, Larry Vegas, while riding his bicycle on the MacArthur off-ramp to Biscayne Boulevard in Miami, saw a naked man on top of another nude man on the pedestrian walkway. The area under the causeway, populated by homeless people, was littered with cardboard mats, personal belongings, syringes, and broken bottles. The person on the pavement wasn't moving as the man on top  chewed away at his face. The witness on the bicycle yelled at the attacker to stop. This man, with pieces of bloody flesh hanging out of his mouth, raised his head, looked at Mr. Vegas, and growled.

     Mr. Vegas, now joined by other horrified witnesses, flagged down a Miami Police officer who ordered the attacker to desist. The attacker, paying no attention to the cop, the rubber-necking motorists, and the witnesses gathering at the scene, continued to tear away his victim's face. Obviously stunned and repelled by what he saw, the officer shot the attacker. When the bullet didn't stop the gruesome assault, the officer fired again, three times, killing the flesh eating predator.

     Paramedics rushed the bloody, badly mauled victim to Jackson Memorial Hospital's Ryder Trauma Center. The homeless victim, whose face had been chewed beyond recognition, was in critical condition.

     The man shot to death by the Miami police officer is a 31-year-old black man named Rudy Eugene. Police theorize Mr. Eugene had been under the influence of "Cocaine Psychosis," a condition which causes the body to heat-up. This might explain why the attacker and his victim were nude.

     Forensic pathologists, police officers, emergency room doctors, EMS personnel, and people who treat drug abusers, have been aware of Cocaine Psychosis since 1987. Cocaine causes dopamine levels in the body to rise, causing euphoria. The dropping of the dopamine level when the drug wears off can cause schizophrenic-like symptoms, and/or extremely violent behavior. Cocaine Psychosis is most common in longtime drug abusers.

     A review of Rudy Eugene's medical background and crime history, as well as a toxicological analysis of his remains, will help determine the source of his wild, animalistic violence.

UPDATE

     At two in the morning on the day of the attack, Rudy Eugene, while at his girlfriend's house, rifled through his clothing and hers, then drove off in his purple Chevy sedan. He told a friend he was going to Miami Beach to attend a Memorial Day party. Later in the day, his car broke down, and as he walked across the 3-mile causeway, stated taking off his clothes. Police found his clothing and his driver's license along the road.

     The ongoing investigation of Rudy Eugene has revealed that he may have been under the influence of a LSD-like synthetic drug called "bath salts." His former wife, Jenny Ductant said this to a reporter: "I wouldn't say he had mental problems but he always felt like people were against him."

     The authorities have identified the victim as 65-year-old Ronald Poppo, a man who lived under the causeway, and has been homeless for 30 years. He is a 1964 graduate of New York City's elite Stuyvesant High School. Before hitting the skids, Poppo had worked in the guidance officer at Stuyvesant. He has lived in Florida 40 years, during which time he has been arrested for petty crimes. Before the Miami police officer shot and killed Rudy Eugene, the attacker had been chewing on Poppo's face for 18 minutes. When the ambulance took the victim from the scene, he had lost 80 percent of his face including his nose, cheeks, lips and an eye.

UPDATE

     Eugene's girlfriend reportedly met him in 2007. Since then, they have had an on-again, off-again relationship. The man she portrays, a guy who read from a Bible he carried everywhere with him, does not comport with the man who ate a stranger's face. While the girlfriend admits that Eugene smoked pot, she believes that on the day he was shot by the police, he was unknowingly drugged. She has also floated the possibility that someone put a Voodoo curse on him.

     In 2004, Eugene was arrested for battery after he threatened his mother and smashed furniture. He also threatened the responding police officer who shot him with a taser device.

UPDATE

     Toxicological tests have revealed that Rudy Eugene, when he attacked the homeless man, was not under the influence of bath salts. He was on marijuana.

      

Monday, May 28, 2012

If Falsely Arrested, Take the Settlement Offer

     At 1:45 in the morning of September 26, 2007, a couple returning to their home in Millcreek, a suburban community adjacent to Erie, Pennsylvania, encountered a pair of burglars. When one of the intruders pointed a gun at the home owners, the husband tried to disarm him. In the scuffle, the burglar fired a shot into the ceiling, then ran out of the house with his partner. The burglars sped from the scene in a white minivan.

     Shortly after the incident in Millcreek, a pair of Erie police officers looking for the fleeing burglars, happened upon Maria Jordan parked in front of her house in a white minivan. Maria was about to pick up her husband, the night shift manager at a local Taco Bell.

     The Erie police officers ordered Maria out of the van at gunpoint, told her to hit the ground, then handcuffed the prone woman behind her back. Once they placed Maria into the patrol car (calling her an "idiot," and "retard"), the officers entered the Jordon house where, at gunpoint, they hauled Maria's 10-year-old stepson out of bed, and arrested her father. After handcuffing the boy and Jose Arenas, the officers searched the dwelling. They found nothing incriminating in the house, removed the handcuffs from the people they had arrested, then took leave of the citizens they had traumatized. (Other than being annoyed they had wasted time on these people, I doubt these officers gave these arrests and intrusions a second thought.)

     In 2009, Maria, her father, and her stepson sued the Erie Police Department in federal court for violating their civil rights. According to the complaint, the false arrests and police manhandling had caused the family "worry, humiliation, and anxiety." In defense of their actions, the officers said they should not be sued for doing their jobs. (Since when is making false arrests part of the job?) The city offered to settle the case out of court for $10,000. The plaintiffs turned down the offer, and the suit moved forward.

     On May 11, 2012, following a 4-day trial in the Erie federal court house, the jury found that the two Erie police officers had in fact violated the plaintiffs' civil rights. While finding that the defendants had acted improperly, these jurors didn't believe the false arrests and house search harmed the family in any way. As a result, in what could be interpreted as an insult, the jury awarded Maria Jordon $2, and her stepson and father $1 each.

     If the plaintiffs were angered and insulted by the token damages, they didn't let on. In fact, Maria's husband told a local reporter the family was pleased by the verdict because they had sought justice, not money.

     On May 26, 2012, the assistant city solicitor, unwilling to leave well enough alone, filed a motion asking the federal judge to order the plaintiffs to pay some of the city's legal costs created by the lawsuit. According to the Erie solicitor, Pennsylvania law "obligated a prevailing plaintiff to pay the defendant's post-offer costs after rejecting an offer more favorable than the judgement." The city wanted the judge to order the Jordons--the wronged parties in the suit--to pay $5,085 of the city's legal expenses.

     In March 2013, the judge dismissed the solicitor's case.

     

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Pedro Hernandez's Confession in the Etan Patz Case

The Disappearance

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

     From the beginning, investigators suspected a friend of Etan's babysitter, a man named Jose Antonia Ramos. Ramos was later convicted of child molestation and sent to prison in Pennsylvania. While never prosecuted in the Patz case, the missing boy's family won a $2 million wrongful deal judgment against Ramos in 2004. He is due to be released from prison in November 2012. 

The Cold Case Investigation

     In 2010, Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance reopened the Etan Patz investigation. FBI agents and detectives with the NYPD, in April 2012, interviewed a 75-year-old man named Othniel Miller, a former handyman who, in 1979, had worked in a 13 by 62 foot room in the basement of the family apartment building on Prince Street in the SoHo section of manhattan. Etan did chores for Miller, and on the day before he disappeared, Miller had given the boy a dollar. At the time of the abduction, Miller was not a suspect because he had a solid alibi. However, Jose Ramos, the imprisoned child molester, worked for Mr. Miller, and had access to his basement workshop. 

     After questioning Othniel Miller, FBI crime scene investigators placed "scent pads"--material that can absorb and retain odors--in Miller's old basement workshop. A cadaver dog, upon sniffing the pads, indicated the scene of human remains. (This technique, because it is not reliable, and subject to many variables, should not be confused with forensic science.)

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

     The April questioning of Othniel Miller, and the crime scene investigation of Mr. Miller's former basement workshop, brought the Etan Patz case back into the news as a national, headline story. 

The Hernandez Confession

     After receiving a tip from a family member or friend of 51-year-old Pedro Hernandez, New York City detectives went to Maple Grove, New Jersey to question this potential suspect. According to the tipster, Hernandez, as early as 1981, had told family members he had "done a bad thing and killed a child in New York." At the time, the 18-year-old worked at a convenience store in Etan Patz's neighborhood. Now married with a daughter in college, Hernandez has for years been receiving disability payments for a bad back. He has no criminal record, or history of suspected pedophilia. (It has been reported he has HIV.) 

     On May 16, during a videotaped interview, Hernandez confessed to murdering Etan Patz in the Manhattan convenience store. He said he lured the boy into the basement with a soda, choked him to death, then placed his body into a bag he deposited with a pile of trash a block away. Shortly after the murder, Hernandez left the city. 

     New York City police, on May 24, arrested Hernandez for second degree murder. They took him to the mental ward at Bellevue Hospital where he was kept under lock and key and put under a suicide watch. The next day, via a video link from his hospital room, Hernandez, now represented by court appointed attorney Harvey Fishbein, was arraigned. According to Mr Fishbein, his client was bipolar, schizophrenic, and has a "history of hallucinations, both visual and auditory." At the arraignment, Hernandez did not enter a plea. He is being held without bail. The judge overseeing the case has ordered a psychiatric evaluation of the suspect. 

A Question of Credibility

     It is not unusual, in murder cases that generate a lot of publicity, for people to come forward with false confessions. This happened in the wake of the 1932 Lindbergh kidnapping case, in the JFK assassination, and more recently, in the JonBenet Ramsey case. In 2006, John Mark Karr, an elementary school teacher working in Thailand, confessed to killing 6-year-old JonBenet Ramsey in the basement of her Boulder, Colorado home. Following the 1996 murder, the girl's parents, John and Patsy Ramsey, came under suspicion. Mr. Karr fit the general profile of a pedophile, and was not bipolar or schizophrenic. Moreover, his confession was quite detailed. But in the end, Karr's confession did not comport with the physical evidence in the case. His DNA didn't match crime scene bodily fluids, and forensic document analysis excluded him as the writer of the ransom note found at the Ramsey house. The JonBenet Ramsey case remains unsolved. (In my view, John and Patsy Ramsey, completely innocent, were wrongfully vilified by the police and media.)

     In the Etan Patz case, without a body or a crime scene, there is no physical evidence against which Pedro Hernandez's confession can be tested. There is no way to corroborate or discredit his story. The fact he has a history of serious mental illness increases the chance that his confession is a product of his psychosis. (FBI officials, who still consider Jose Ramos the prime suspect, have serious doubts about Hernandez's confession. Remember, there was enough evidence against Ramos to support a wrongful death suit verdict against him in 2004.) 

Can Pedro Hernandez be found guilty of murder?

     I'm going to stick my neck out here and predict he will not be convicted of murdering Etan Patz. In New York state, by law, a confession without more, is not enough to sustain a conviction. Unless investigators can produce corroborating evidence of this man's guilt, he cannot be prosecuted. In the event detectives can produce circumstantial evidence of his guilt, the case will fall apart if Hernandez recants his confession. 

     Pedro Hernandez's admission of guilt, while providing the New York Police commissioner and the mayor some good public relations, may end up becoming a public relations problem. Now that he has confessed, there is pressure to successfully prosecute him. If the authorities can't do this, they will be criticized, and the case will be stuck in a state of limbo. The confession has also made it virtually impossible to prosecute Jose Ramos who will be getting out of prison in six months.

UPDATE

     James Ramos, the longtime suspect in the Patz murder, after serving 25 years on the child molestation convictions in Pennsylvania, was released from prison on November 7, 2012. So far the investigation of Pedro Hernandez, beyond his confession, has not implicated him in the murder. His attorney claims that he's insane. 

     
     

Friday, May 25, 2012

The Secret Service Scandal: The More We Know, The Worse It Gets

     Dania Londo Suarez, the prostitute who set off the Secret Service scandal in Cartagena, Columbia, in a 90-minute interview broadcast on Columbia radio and TV, said that after spending 5 hours with an agent at the Hotel Caribe, instead of getting $800 for her services, she barely got enough for cab fare. (Had she been paid in stimulus money, the government would have given her the $800, and bought her a car to get home.) According to the hooker, she met the agent in a Cartagena bar where most of the 10 agents with him were drunk. Although the trick (she didn't know his name) who took her back to his room (after making a condom stop) was only moderately intoxicated, the others "...bought alcohol like they were buying water."

     The prostitute told the Columbian interviewer that "If I had wanted to, I could have gone through all his documents, his wallet, his suitcase." She said that had she been so inclined, she could have compromised the security of the President of the United States. She related how the agent had refused to pay up even after she threatened to call the police. Calling these Secret Service Agents "bobos," Spanish for fools and idiots, she said, "Didn't they see the magnitude of the problem?" (No. And they still don't.)

     On May 23, 2012, Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan testified before a senate homeland security committee investigating the prostitution/security scandal. In his opening remarks, Sullivan apologized for the embarrassment, but assured the senators that what had happened last month in Columbia "is not representative of the agency's values, or the high ethical standards we demand from our nearly 7,000 employees." Several of the senators, however, were suspicious that this off-duty activity in Cartagena represented a culture within the secret service that tolerated this sort of behavior.

     In questioning the Secret Service director, Senator Susan Collins of Maine, pointed out that the agents didn't bother to disguise their identities, or the identities of the prostitutes. (They registered them, as required, as "house guests.") This suggested to the senator that the Columbian affair was not an isolated event. Senator Collins noted that "two of the participants were supervisors--one with 22 years of service, and the other with 21--and both were married. That surely sends a message to the rank and file that this kind of activity is tolerated on the road."

     In response to Senator Collin's skepticism, Director Sullivan said, "I do not think this is indicative. I just think that between the alcohol and, I don't know, the environment, these individuals did some really dumb things. And I just can't explain why." (That's exactly what we want in presidential protection, agents who do dumb things--bobos in paradise.)

     Director Sullivan, in the course of being grilled by Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, revealed that an internal secret service agency survey found that only 58-60 percent of its employees would report unethical conduct. When asked by the senator why these results were not a matter of grave concern, the director said, "We want to improve that number to 100 percent." (The next time this survey is conducted, secret service employees, pursuant to orders, will give the right answers--they will lie, and not report this unethical conduct.)

     As Director Sullivan struggled to restore the tarnished image of the Secret Service, 4 of the 8 agents fired over the prostitution scandal were fighting to get their jobs back. No kidding. These disgraced agents are not denying they hired hookers in Columbia. They are arguing that because the agency tacitly approved of these road trip antics, they, as scapegoats, have been wrongfully dismissed. This line of reasoning reminds me of cops in the 1960s and 70s fired for taking bribes who didn't understand why, in a department corrupt from the top brass down, they were being selectively sacrificed. To hear them tell it, if they hadn't taken bribes, they would have been drummed out of law enforcement. It was a bogus argument then, and a load of crap now.

     I'm pretty sure these secret service agents will remain fired, and more will follow them into private life, including Director Sullivan.   

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Dr. Steven Hayne Defamation Case

     In 1974, Dr. Steven Hayne graduated from Brown University Medical School. After completing his internship at the Letterman Army Medical Center in San Francisco, he practiced medicine in California, Kentucky, and Alabama. In 1987, Dr. Hayne moved to Mississippi where, as a forensic pathologist (reportedly not board certified), he performed 1,200 to 1,800 forensic autopsies a year. (The National Association of Medical Examiners recommends no more than 250 autopsies a year.) At the height of his activity, Dr. Hayne was conducting 80 to 90 percent of the autopsies in Mississippi.

     During his tenure as Mississippi's most active forensic pathologist, Dr. Hayne testified in several high-profile murder cases resulting in convictions that turned out to be wrongful. Over the years, other forensic pathologists who reviewed Dr. Hayne's work disagreed with his findings that sent murder defendants like Cory Maye, Levon Brooks, Jimmie Duncan, and Tyler Edmonds, to prison. (These defendants were exonerated through DNA analysis.)

     Radley Balko, the libertarian criminal justice journalist with Reason Magazine and the web site "The Agitator," wrote dozens of articles about Dr. Hayne's role in these wrongful convictions. Balko has also written detailed pieces about one of Dr. Hayne's fellow Mississippian forensic scientists, Dr. Michael West. In the Kennedy Brewer case, Dr. Hayne called in Dr. West to analyze a bite mark on the body of a murdered child. Dr. West, who has been essentially thrown out of forensic dentistry by the odontology community, wrongfully identified Kennedy Brewer as the source of the crime scene bite mark. Dr. Hayne's association with the discredited forensic dentist has helped taint his own professional reputation.

     In 2007, The Innocence Project, a nonprofit criminal justice advocacy organization founded by attorneys and DNA experts Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, sent a letter to the Mississippi Department of Public Safety demanding an inquiry into Dr. Hayne's cases.

     In 2008, following an internal investigation by the Department of Public Safety, Dr. Hayne was removed from Mississippi's designated forensic pathologist list. The Innocence Project also filed a complaint against Dr. Hayne with the Mississippi Board of Medical Licensure. The board decided not to lift Dr. Hayne's medical license, or impose any form of discipline on the physician.

     Dr. Hayne's critics have been reluctant to accuse him of incompetence in public out of fear he will sue them for defamation. After losing his right to perform autopsies in Mississippi, Dr. Hayne filed, in federal court, a defamation lawsuit against the New York City based The Innocence Project. In May 2012, the plaintiff and the defendant agreed to an out of court settlement of $100,000. The case was settled because it suited the needs of The Innocence Project's insurance carrier. The settlement, a business rather than a legal decision, was not an admission of defamation.

     Dale Danks, Jr., Dr. Hayne's attorney, characterized the lawsuit settlement as vindication for his client. Peter Neufeld, on the other hand, said he regarded the disposition of this case as nothing more that the cost of getting rid of a frivolous lawsuit.

     Regarding litigation, Dr. Hayne is himself a defendant in lawsuits that have been filed by at least two of the men convicted on the strength of his testimony.

     To date, 300 men wrongfully convicted of murder have been exonerated through the work of The Innocence Project. 

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Unreported Campus Crime: The Clery Act

     Over the years, colleges and universities have overcharged students and underreported crime. While useless courses and academic programs are bad enough (see: "Majoring in Stupid: Ridiculous College Courses," March 29, 2012), sweeping serious campus crime under the rug is even worse. The reportage and publication of campus crime, for any institution of higher learning, is bad for business. No parent wants to send their kid to a college to get raped, robbed, or murdered. These things happen in real life, not in the Disneyesque college experience. These beautiful and expensive institutions, if not sites of great learning, should at least be places where students are relatively safe from violent crime. Over the years, particularly in the big schools, crimes committed by male athletes have not only been suppressed, they've been covered-up.

     The underreporting of serious crime by college and university administrators led to the passage, in 1990, of the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act. Under this federal statute, named after a 19-year-old Lehigh University freshman who was raped and murdered in her dormitory in 1986, requires, among other things, that schools keep and disclose information about crime on and near their campuses. Covered offenses include criminal homicide, sexual offenses, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, arson, motor vehicle theft, and alcohol and drug crimes. Violation of the Clery Act can result in fines up to $27,500 per violation, and exclusion from the federal student aid program.

     In December 2006, Laura Dickinson, a freshman at Eastern Michigan University, was found in her dorm room naked from the waist down with a pillow over her head. The chief of the university police department reported "no reason to suspect foul play," and told the student's parents she had died of natural causes. Two months passed before this death was investigated as a murder. In the meantime, the killer roamed the campus in search of other victims. The president of Eastern Michigan lost his job, and the U.S. Department of Education fined the school $357,500. The university also ended up paying the victim's family $2.5 million.

     In 2006 and 2010, freshmen women at Dominican College in Orangeburg, New York and at Notre Dame, committed suicide after their complaints of sexual assaults against football players were covered-up. After state and federal investigations, both schools agreed to change their crime reporting policies. (Change their policies from what?) The U.S. Department of Education, under the Clery Act, fined Dominican $20,000 for crime underreporting.

     In Texas, the U.S. Department of Education, in 2009, fined Tarleton State University (part of the Texas A&M University system) $137,000 for not accurately reporting its crime statistics. According to the student newspaper, administrators at Tarleton State "underreported the number of forcible sex offenses, drug-law violations, and burglaries between 2003 and 2005." During that period, 10 sex offenses on campus were not reported to the police. The school only reported 29 of more than 60 burglaries.

       In recent years, the Department of Education has accused administrators at Marquette University of mishandling sexual assault accusations against four athletes. Arizona State, in a case involving the rape of a student by a football player with a history of sexual aggression, has been criticized for sweeping this campus crime under the rug.

     At Penn State, in 2002, when an assistant football coach reported to coach Joe Paterno that he had seen Jerry Sandusky raping a 10-year-old boy in the locker room showers, coach Paterno, instead of reporting the accusation to the police, passed the information on to a university administrator. The Department of Education is currently investigating Penn State to determine if the school violated the Clery Act. (Jerry Sandusky will be tried on 52 counts of sexual molestation next month.) This month, the school hired an administrator to train and monitor university employees on compliance with the crime reporting law. (How comforting.)

     In May 2012, Department of Education auditors were on the campus of Roxbury Community College in Boston looking into allegations that at least 3 sexual assault cases had not been reported to the police. Since 2008, the college has only reported 6 on-campus crimes: one robbery and 5 aggravated assaults that were characterized as "fist-fights." These crime statistics are extremely low for an urban campus. 

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Stephen Ivens: The Missing FBI Agent

     Stephen Ivens, a 35-year-old FBI agent assigned to the Los Angeles Field Division, has been missing since he walked away from his Burbank home on the morning of May 11, 2012. Blood hounds traced his scent to the Verdugo Mountains where a search party of FBI agents, local police, and volunteers have been looking for him.

     Ivens, a married father of a toddler, has been an FBI agent a little more than 3 years. Before joining the bureau Ivens had been a Los Angeles police officer. The white, 6 foot, 160 pound bespectacled agent worked on counterterrorism cases. According to an FBI spokesperson, Ivens was not having difficulties on the job, or under any kind of disciplinary action. Because his FBI-issued revolver is also missing, Ivens was presumably armed when he left his house that morning.

     According to news reports, Special Agent Ivens had been depressed and distraught. This has led to speculation that he was suicidal, and is probably dead by his own hand. A suicidal person walking into the wilderness to kill himself is not, without more, a national news story. The Stephen Ivens missing persons case has attracted media attention because he's an FBI agent. The fact he worked on cases related to counterterrorism, while in reality is tedious, unglamorous work, adds a hint of intrigue and the potential of foul play.

     Anything is possible. Stephen Ivens could be found alive in the woods, or somewhere else. He might come home on his own. If found dead, chances are Mr. Ivens was killed by the elements, or by suicide. In cases like this, murder is rare. (Ray Gricar, the prosecutor in Pennsylvania related to the Jerry Sandusky pedophile case, has been missing for several years. While Mr. Gricar had been depressed, and probably killed himself, murder has not been ruled out.)

     People who kill themselves, rarely do it because of their job or profession. Suicide is usually the product of loss related to money, health, or family in combination with mental illness. The suicide rates of law enforcement personnel are probably no higher than that of plumbers, accountants, or school teachers. Since 2008, an average of 142 police officers a year have killed themselves. The vast majority of these suicides involved service weapons, occurred off-duty, and were committed by men between the ages 35 to 40. According to the Badge of Life Organization, 64 percent of these suicides came as a surprise.

     Since 1993, 22 FBI agents have committed suicide. In 2005, veteran Los Angeles FBI agent Wendy Woskoff killed herself. She was 54, and married to an FBI agent. In April 2011, an FBI agent assigned to the Boston division killed himself in Portland, Maine. He was in his early 50s.

     If the Stephen Ivens case turns out to be one of suicide, the story will be one of desperation and mental illness. It will have nothing to do with the FBI. 

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Kenneth Jamar: A Near Fatal Wrong House Raid

     During the early morning hours of June 27, 2006, a total of 100 federal, state, and local drug enforcement agents and officers raided 23 homes in Decatur, Huntsville, Madison, and Hartsville, Alabama. The raids culminated a two-year investigation of a Mexican-based cocaine, marijuana, and methamphetamine trafficking operation doing business in the northern part of the state. That morning, officers with the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Task Force arrested 29 people, including Jerome Wallace, a 28-year-old who lived on Honey Way, a dirt road in rural Limestone County. A police Officer arrested Jerome as he stood in his front yard while task force members, in search of him, broke into the wrong house down the road. The wrong house these officers raided belonged to Wallace's uncle, Jerome Jamar.

     Just before daybreak, several vans rolled down Honey Way, and parked across from Kenneth Jamar's house. Agents with the DEA, ATF, FBI, and ICE, and the Alabama Bureau of Investigation, along with Alabama state troopers and SWAT teams from Huntsville and Madison County, alighted from their vehicles. A few seconds after one of the officers yelled, "Open Up! Police!" they broke into the house through the front door. Even if the 51-year-old semi-invalid with severe gout and a pace-maker had heard the officers announce themselves, he could not have made it to the door in time to let them in. Had he tried, Mr. Jamar would have walked into a flashbang grenade explosion.

     Mr. Jamar, in his bedroom when he heard his front door bashed open and the stun grenade go off, picked up his pistol. SWAT team officers, when they kicked open Mr. Jamar's bedroom door, saw him standing next to his bed holding the handgun. Armed with semi-automatic rifles, the officers opened fire. One of the 16 bullets from their rifles hit Mr. Jamar in the hip, another in the groin, and a third in the foot. He went down without firing a shot.

     Paramedics rushed Mr. Jamar, in critical condition, to a hospital in Huntsville where he spent two weeks in the intensive care unit. After searching his house, the police confiscated Mr. Jamar's gun collection. Perhaps because the SWAT team had broken into the wrong house, the Limestone County prosecutor chose not to charge Mr. Jamar with attempted assault.

     In the days and weeks following this police involved shooting, newspaper accounts of the raid were sketchy because Mike Blakely, the sheriff of Limestone County, the official heading up the internal investigation of the incident, did not release much information to the media. According to Sheriff Blakely, the officers had to "neutralize" a man who was "aggressively resisting." When a reporter asked the sheriff to comment on the wrong house aspect of the raid, he said, "I guess you could call it a clerical error over the address, but I don't think Jamar's dwelling even has a street address." This begs the question: if Mr Jamar's house didn't have a street address, how could there have been "a clerical error over the address?" (Either the sheriff is an idiot, or he thinks the residents of Limestone County are idiots.)

     Because the SWAT officers who shot Kenneth Jamar were not personally responsible for the wrong house raid, and had fired their weapons in self defense, they were cleared of criminal wrongdoing. Kenneth Jamar, in June 2008, filed a $7.5 million lawsuit in federal court claiming that the city of Huntsville, and other entities, had violated his civil rights. In April 2011, the Huntsville city council voted to settle Kenneth Jamar's suit for $500,000.

     For the general public, militaristic law enforcement is not only dangerous, it's expensive. 

Thursday, May 17, 2012

George Zimmerman's Injuries: An Inconvenient Truth in the Trayvon Martin Case

     When politics, race-baiting, and biased journalism influence the administration of justice, there is no justice. In the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin case, the narrative, driven by political hacks, civil rights activists, black radicals, and their media accomplices, is this: a white, racist vigilante stalked an unarmed black kid in a hoodie and shot him to death in cold blood. Trayvon Martin's story is presented as a cautionary tale of racism still rampant in America. Young black men in hoodies are, according to these hate-mongers and hacks, an oppressed group. This story, figuratively and literally, is being cast in black and white notwithstanding the fact George Zimmerman is Hispanic.

     On the night of February 26, 2012, after Zimmerman shot the 17-year-old to death in the Sanford, Florida gated community, he claimed self-defense. As time passed, and it appeared that the Seminole County state attorney's office was not going to charge the neighborhood watch volunteer with criminal homicide, all hell broke loose.

     On March 13, a spokesperson for the New Black Liberation Militia said that members of the group were going to Florida to arrest Zimmerman. (Talk about vigilantism.) Feeling pressure from the national media, the U. S. Department of Justice announced it would open a  hate crime investigation against Mr. Zimmerman. The Seminole County prosecutor raised the possibility of convening a grand jury to hear the case.

     A day after the Sanford City Council voted "no confidence" in police chief Bill Lee, Jr., he resigned "temporarily." (Whatever that means.) It was now March 23, and across the country, rallies calling for Zimmerman's arrest led by Al Sharpton (of Tawana Brawley fame) and NAACP president Ben Jealous, were held. Hundreds of protesters were wearing T-shirts that read, "I am Trayvon Martin." In New York City, a few hundred Trayvon Martin supporters attended a "Million Hoodie March."

     In Washington, D.C., a black congressman appeared on the floor of the House of Representatives wearing a hoodie. President Obama, with nothing better to do, stirred the pot by announcing to the world that the Trayvon Martin case should be investigated. (It was being investigated, and as a former law professor, he should have known that.) The president didn't stop there. "If I had a son," he said, "he'd look like Trayvon." (Oh boy. George Zimmerman had shot a kid who looked like the son the president would have had had he not had girls. Maybe we should make shooting a young man who resembles the president of the United States a federal crime?)

     Amid all of this hate-talk and race-baiting, George Zimmerman, fearing for his life, had been in hiding since shortly after the shooting. In April, Seminole County Special Prosecutor Angela Corey, perhaps worried that a grand jury would refuse to indict Zimmerman, charged him with second degree murder. He was taken into custody and held on $150,000 bond. Several days later he posted his bail and went back into hiding. At this time, pandering politicians, the media, and millions of Americans, presumed Zimmerman's guilt.

     On May 15, the medical records pertaining to George Zimmerman's examination by his family physician on the day after the shooting were made public. According to the doctor's report, he had treated the patient for a "closed fracture of his nose, black eyes, two lacerations to the back of his head, and a minor back injury." The doctor also noted bruising on Zimmerman's upper lip and cheek.

     While Zimmerman's injuries alone do not exonerate him, they contradict the narrative of the case pushed by most of the media and Trayvon Martin's supporters. Moreover, this evidence will make it more difficult for the Zimmerman prosecution to carry its burden of proof.

     More information on the case came out on May 16 when a TV station in Orlando reported that according to Martin's autopsy report, his knuckles were banged up in a way consistent with injuries cases by punching someone.

     Biased journalism in service to Al Sharpton-style race-baiting has put enormous pressure on Special Prosecutor Angela Corey to acquire Zimmerman's conviction. An acquittal, given all the agitating, could cause civil unrest. In all probability, Corey will be pressing Zimmerman for a negotiated guilty plea. Because the case has produced so much negative publicity for this suspect, there is absolutely no way he can get a fair trial anywhere in the country. The well has been poisoned, and poisoned for good. This is not how our criminal justice system is supposed to work. (See: "George Zimmerman: Watchman or Vigilante?" April 4, 2012)

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Officer Jerad Wheeler: Kicking Stomach in Dekalb County

     In response to a child custody dispute, Dekalb County police officer Jerad Wheeler, at 6:30 PM on December 12, 2011, pulled up to Darrius Usher's house in Tucker, Georgia. Kiera Wade and Usher were fighting over their son, Jamal. The mother had come to the house to take the boy home, but Usher wasn't cooperating. The cursing and shouting father, instead of calming down and speaking to officer Wheeler, walked away from him toward the back of the dwelling. As a second police officer rolled up to the scene, the father's aunt entered the house, fetched the boy, and carried him to his mother's car. This infuriated Usher who stormed out of the house onto the front porch. He was carrying, in his right hand, a length of metal pipe. "You're gonna have to take me to jail," he shouted.

     Reaching for his sidearm, officer Wheeler instructed Usher to drop the weapon. The angry father released the pipe, then charged toward the car occupied by Kiera and his son. Wheeler fired two taser prongs into Usher's back, causing him to collapse before reaching the vehicle.

     The subduing of the out-of-control father should have ended this disturbance. But as is often the case in situations like this, a family member couldn't leave well enough alone. As the second officer placed Mr. Usher into handcuffs, the arrestee's sister, Raven Dozier, got into the act by screaming at officer Wheeler. As the big woman moved toward him, the young officer, on three occasions, told her to "get back." She ignored his commands, and when Dozier got within three feet of him, he employed a so-called front push kick to her stomach.

     In Wheeler's incident report, he wrote: "The kick was a front push kick to the abdomen as I was taught to do in the [police] academy. After this, she stayed back." Dozier returned to the house.

     Wheeler placed Mr. Usher into his patrol car, and accompanied by his partner, walked into the dwelling to arrest Raven Dozier. At this point, another member of the family told Wheeler that he had kicked the stomach of a woman who was more than 8 months pregnant. According to Wheeler's report: "At the time of the alteration it was very dark and Ms. Dozier had a large shirt on. I could not tell by the sight of her at the time that she was pregnant."

     Complaining of stomach pains, Dozier asked to see a doctor. Officer Wheeler called for an ambulance, and followed the emergency vehicle to the hospital where a physician noted a contusion and some spotting on her abdomen. From the hospital, Wheeler transported Dozier to the Dekalb County Jail. When personnel at the lockup refused to take this prisoner into custody due to medical concerns, Wheeler informed Dozier that she would be charged with obstruction and disorderly conduct. She could expect to receive her court date in the mail. In the meantime, her brother had been booked into the Dekalb County Jail on the charge of disorderly conduct.

     Shortly after the domestic disturbance, Raven Dozier filed a complaint with the police department's internal affairs office. Four of officer Wheeler's supervisors, and an internal affairs detective, reviewed the case, and concluded that Wheeler's front push kick fell within the agency's use of force policy.

     Two weeks after being kicked in the stomach, Dozier, following an emergency c-section, gave birth to a healthy baby. The criminal charges against Dozier were dropped.

     In May 2012, Raven Dozier's attorney, Marr Bullman, filed a civil suit against Jared Wheeler and the Dekalb County Police Department. In speaking to a reporter, attorney Bullman said, "This officer is just another loose cannon. And I don't know how a 180-pound pregnant woman comes at you 'aggressively.'" (A description Wheeler used in his incident report.) Bullman claimed that Wheeler had arrested his client out of a need to establish justification for the stomach kick in the event something happened to the baby.

     If Raven Dozier's lawsuit ever goes to trial, Wheeler's short history as a police officer might become an issue. Reportedly, in September 2011, a 53-year-old woman complained that Wheeler had twisted her arm while shoving her into a patrol car. A few months later, pursuant to a 911 call, Wheeler allegedly went to the wrong address where he shot a leashed dog.

     While a 9 month pregnant woman has no business confronting a police officer in a domestic dispute involving someone else, officer Wheeler should not have kicked a woman, pregnant or not, in the stomach. I'm guessing that the law suit will be settled for a relatively small amount, and that Wheeler will be fired. All the characters in this story are either villains or fools. 

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Easy Money: Cop Kickbacks in Baltimore

     The Baltimore Police Department, with 3,100 sworn officers, is the nation's eighth largest city police force. Like all big city police departments, Baltimore has had its history of scandals, embarrassments, and graft. (Last year, dozens of officers with the New York City Police Department, involved in a massive ticket-fixing racket, were convicted of public corruption offenses.) This year, in Baltimore, 17 officers have been arrested by the FBI on charges of extortion.

     In Baltimore, and other cities, the towing and repair of vehicles involved in traffic accidents is a big business. To regulate this enterprise, the city of Baltimore authorizes a number of so-called medallion tow trucks. (This is probably a racket as well.) Police officers at accident sites are not allowed to call in unauthorized towing vehicles. So, in  Baltimore, if you are in the towing and auto repair business, and don't have the approval of the city, if you are not a medallion company, you're frozen out of a lucrative source of income. 

     In 2009, an employee of a medallion towing firm who was also vice president of the association representing medallion tow operators, filed a complaint with the Baltimore Police Department. According to the complainant, certain Baltimore police officers were calling unauthorized tow trucks to the scenes of accidents. The tow trucks were operated by Hernan Mejia and his brother Edwin, owners of the Majestic Body Shop. In return for this unauthorized business, the brothers were paying kickbacks to traffic site cops who summoned their trucks. (Once the damaged vehicles were brought to the shop, employees allegedly banged them up some more to rip off insurance companies. Who knows how common a practice this is around the country.) Authorities with the Baltimore Police Department turned the Majestic Body Shop complaint over to the FBI. 

     After a series of phone taps, FBI agents identified 17 city officers who had received Majestic Body Shop bribes totaling $1 million. In 2011, the kickback suspects were lured to the Baltimore police academy where they were confronted by police brass and FBI agents. Stripped of their guns and badges, the suspects were arrested, and hauled off to jail. By May 2012, 14 Baltimore officers had pleaded guilty to federal charges of extortion. Ten cops have been convicted and sentenced to prison. The owners of the Majestic Body Shop have also pleaded guilty to the federal racketeering offenses. 

     In the 1960s and 70s, America's big city police departments were thoroughly corrupt. Graft was the rule, not the exception. Cops on the take justified this behavior by telling each other they risked their lives every day for low pay and lousy benefits. Today, big city police officers are well-paid, and enjoy benefits envied by most private sector employees. And with lower violent crime rates, and more militarized policing, the job is a lot safer. 

     Police corruption, then and now, is simply a matter of dishonesty and greed. Some cops simply can't resist the opportunity to pocket easy money. If we paid these crooks more, and let them retire at 40 instead of 55, they would still be corrupt. The good news in the Majestic Body Shop case involves the fact the Baltimore Police Department, instead of covering up this graft, called in the FBI.   

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Jerry Sandusky's Defense: Digging Up Dirt on Accusers

     Former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, facing 52 counts of sexual molestation allegedly committed between 1994 and 2008, is scheduled to go on trial June 5, 2012. (He has requested a delay.) Defense attorney Joe Amendola, in a flurry of discovery requests, has sought detailed background information on 10 of the 68-year-old defendant's alleged victims. (So far, Sandusky has spent $200,000 on his defense. Compared to his final bill, this will be a drop in the bucket. I wouldn't be surprised if a group of rich football fans help pay his bill, even if he's convicted.)

     So, what kind of information is the Sandusky defense fishing for? And what do they hope to do with it? Basically, Amendola wants to know everything there is to know about his client's accusers. He's asking for, among other things, school transcripts, general medical data, psychiatric diagnoses, psychological reports, the accuser's IQs, SAT scores, Internet search histories, Facebook account details, employment records, financial data, and cellphone and Twitter information. This massive invasion of privacy would have impressed J. Edgar Hoover. (All of this private information will be available to Sandusky as well.)

     Attorney Amendola, in justifying his voracious hunger for all of this personal data, cites his client's right to paint his accusers as liars. (He doesn't say it like that, but that is what this is all about.) It's not clear to me how any of this information sheds light on an accuser's credibility on the specific issue of whether or not he was molested by the coach. Attorneys representing Sandusky's accusers believe that Amendola is abusing his subpoena power. They believe Amendola's intent is to intimidate, embarrass, discourage, humiliate, and otherwise punish Sandusky's accusers.

     Michael J. Boni, an attorney representing one of the alleged victims, has called Amendola's discovery methodology "a despicable act of cowardice." Boni told reporters that "The evidence he [Amendola] seeks from school records, labor records, etc., all inarguably go to reputation, which is not relevant or admissible in rape cases. Talk about adding insult to injury. First the boy was raped, now Amendola seeks to besmirch [his] character in the press, no doubt to taint the jury pool. It's all so wrong."

     Our criminal justice system, because it's adversarial, and focused on defendant rights, is hard on victims generally, and is particularly brutal on people who file allegations of sexual abuse. These cases often boil down to who jurors believe, the accuser or the defendant. Since the defendant is presumed innocent, the accuser has the burden of proving guilt. In this system, even the slightest bit of information that might cast doubt on the accuser's reputation, motive, or credibility, can destroy a prosecutor's case.

     Victims of sexual abuse, unlike people who have been robbed or have had their cars stolen, are often embarrassed by the crime. This is particularly true in pedophile cases where, under the best of circumstances, it is difficult for victims to come forward. The added potential of having one's personal life opened up like a book, makes coming forward even more difficult.

     In the Sandusky case, in my opinion, the defense attorney is saying this to the ex-coach's accusers: You can accuse my client, but if you do, you will pay a price.

     No matter how much dirt Amendola digs up, there is strength in numbers. All of these accusers can't be lying, and if the jury believes just one of them, Sandusky will be off to prison.   

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Daniel Chong: The DEA's Lost Prisoner

     This has not been a good year for federal law enforcement. The AFT has been embarrassed by the Fast and Furious debacle; an ICE agent shot his supervisor, then was shot and killed by another agent; an ICE officer was convicted of embezzling a huge sum of government money; TSA screeners have been accused of taking bribes from drug smugglers; and Secret Service agents were caught partying with prostitutes in Columbia. Just when you think it couldn't get worse, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) pulls one of the most bone-headed blunders in the history of the federal government's war on drugs.

     On Saturday, April 21, 23-year-old University of California at San Diego engineering student Daniel Chong was smoking pot in a house in University City with eight of his friends. That day, DEA agents raided the place as a suspected Ecstasy pill distribution center. The agents recovered 18,000 Ecstasy pills, several guns, ammunition, and other drugs, and took Chong and the other eight suspects into custody.

     After the 9 arrestees were fingerprinted, photographed, and questioned at the DEA office in Kearny Mesa, agents released one suspect, took seven to a detention facility, and placed the handcuffed Daniel Chong into a holding cell in the DEA office complex. Although being swept up in a federal drug raid was bad enough, Daniel Chong's ordeal had just begun.

     Because Chong was placed into a windowless 5 by 10 foot room with no sink or toilet, he didn't expect to be there very long. But as the hours dragged on, and no one came to release him, or take him elsewhere, Chong began to worry. To call attention to his isolation, he screamed for help and frantically kicked at the door. Still, no response. Hungry, in need of a bathroom, scared, and in a state of panic, Chong began to lose control of his body, and his emotions.

     A day or so into his confinement, Chong found a plastic bag containing white powder a previous detainee had hidden inside a folded blanket. Chong ingested the powdery stuff which turned out to be methamphetamine. (You can be cavity-searched at the airport, but apparently not in a DEA office.) The abandoned office prisoner drank his own urine, and by his third day in captivity, began hallucinating. In an effort to kill himself, Chong used his teeth to break out the glass in his eyewear, then swallowed the shards. As DEA personnel went about their business just yards from him, Chong, locked into his private hell, completely lost his mind.

     On Saturday, April 25, someone in the DEA office discovered Mr. Chong. They had simply forgotten about him. (I'm not sure why the people Chong had been arrested with didn't alert someone, or make inquires with the DEA. It's really hard to believe that someone can go missing inside a law enforcement facility.) When the bureaucrat discovered the incoherent, waste-covered, raving mad drug detainee, he weighed 15 pounds less than when they had placed him into the room. Had he been there much longer, the DEA people would have discovered a corpse.

     Rushed to Sharp Memorial Hospital, Chong, suffering from a failing kidney, a perforated lung, severe dehydration, and numerous other ailments, was placed into an intensive care unit. He left the hospital four days later.

     On May 2, Chong's attorney announced his plan to file a $20 million lawsuit against the DEA.

     On August 1, 2013, the DEA settled the Chong case out of court for $4.1 million.
          

Friday, May 4, 2012

Sheriff Joe Arpaio and the Botched SWAT Raid

     Joe Arpaio, the sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona since 1993, has become a TV and news celebrity. The controversial, combative, and flamboyant 79-year-old law enforcement officer, billed as America's toughest cop, has been the subject of a Department of Justice civil rights investigation since 2009. He is accused of practicing systematic discrimination against Hispanics. Arpaio has called this investigation a political witch hunt. On the local level, he has feuded with other sheriffs, police chiefs, and state law enforcement administrators. The highly political sheriff has also been accused of public corruption, selective law enforcement, and poor job performance. Over the years, the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office, and Arpaio, have been involved in numerous controversial cases and law enforcement scandals. (While I don't necessarily disagree with the Sheriff's politics, I am not a fan of his heavy-handed, politically motivated style of law enforcement. I present examples of the sheriff's failings in my book, SWAT Madness.)

     In March 2012, Sheriff Arpaio announced that his posse of volunteer cold-case investigators have uncovered evidence that President Obama's birth certificate, the one made public in 2011, is a computer-generated fake. Several of Arpaio's former supporters have asked him not to seek re-election. Although America's toughest cop has lost a lot of political support, he has shrugged off demands that he resign from office, and insists he is ready to do battle in court with the federal government. (On this issue, I'm pulling for the sheriff. Still, I would prefer that he didn't run for re-election.)

The Bungled SWAT Raid

     In July 2004, Sheriff Arpaio's detectives suspected that Gabrial Gordon, a 28-year-old ex-felon on probation for armed robbery, had stolen a cache of automatic weapons and armor-piercing bullets from a gun dealer in Las Vegas. Gordon lived with 26-year-old Eric Kush, and 22-year-old Andrea Barber in a house in Ahwatukee, an upscale bedroom community that had been annexed by the city of Phoenix. Barber's daughter and Kush's 10-month-old puppy also lived in the $250,000 home nestled in the quiet, gated neighborhood called Fairway Hills. Neither Barber nor Kush had criminal records.

     Maricopa County detectives arranged to have Gordon's probation officer lure him to his office, where, on July 23, 2004, they took him into custody. According to Gordon, Kush was the one who possessed the weapons cache. According the a version of the story told by the police, Kush warned them that Mr. Gordon had been acting in an erratic way, and always carried a gun.

     Just before noon on the day of Gordon's arrest, a SWAT tank and an unmarked white GMC Suburban van full of county SWAT officers rolled into the neighborhood and parked on the street in front of the house rented by Gordon and the others. Outfitted in full battle gear, five officers approached the front of the house while another contingent took positions in the back yard. Andrea Barber, at the sound of loud banging coming from the main entrance, started down the stairway to answer the door. But before she got there, officers kicked it open. As they rushed inside, other SWAT officers launched canisters of white tear gas through second-story windows in the front and rear of the house. A few minutes later, a fire broke out in the master bedroom which quickly enveloped the place.

     Eric Kush, who had fled to the attic at the inception of the raid, ran out of the house to escape the fire. A police officer threw him to the ground, and another officer sprayed a fire extinguisher into the face of his dog, driving the pet back into the house. The puppy perished in the fire, which completely destroyed the dwelling. An officer, in pulling the SWAT tank away from the house fire, lost control when the electric brakes disengaged. The massive vehicle rolled down an incline and smashed into a parked car.

      Investigators with the Phoenix Fire Department concluded that a lit candle knocked over in the confusion of the raid had caused the fire. Andrea Barber, however, insisted that a tear gas canister had set the bed ablaze. Either way, had there not been a SWAT raid, there would have not been a fire, and Kush's dog would not have suffered an agonizing death.

     The Maricopa County SWAT team raid that destroyed an expensive home, killed a pet, and traumatized a quiet neighborhood, resulted in the seizure of an antique shotgun and a 9-mm pistol. The police arrested Kush on a misdemeanor warrant for failure to appear in a Tempe municipal court on two traffic tickets. He paid the $1,000 bond and was released from custody. In the week following the botched raid, the neighborhood stank of the fire debris, and the rotting puppy.            

     


Thursday, May 3, 2012

Samuel Cohen: The Unrepentant Con Man

     In 2002, Samuel Cohen, a 44-year-old San Francisco con man, talked the founders of a nonprofit foundation called Vanguard into investing millions into his company, Ecast. Vanguard, created in 1972 by actors Danny Glover and Harry Belafonte, issued grants that helped support environmental, anti-war, and other liberal causes.

     Cohen told his investors that Ecast, the manufacturer of electronic jukeboxes for bars, was about to be acquired by Micosoft, and that the acquisition would make Vanguard and its donors a lot of money. Relying on Cohen's word, the foundation's founders, and a hundred other investors, gave Cohen, over a six year period, more than $30 million. Cohen kept the scam going by telling his marks that regulators in the U.S. and Europe were holding up the acquisition. He needed the money to pay the fees and bonds needed to get the deal approved. His victims bought his spiel, and the money kept rolling in. In typical con man fashion, the product Cohen was selling was himself. And the marks went along because they thought they were going to make a killing.

    Confidence games cannot go on forever, and in 2008, Cohen's swindle fell apart. A federal prosecutor in San Francisco charged him with wire fraud, money laundering, and tax evasion. His victims were devastated, and the Vanguard Foundation collapsed.

     Samuel Cohen had pulled off what criminologists call the "long con" by using his ill-gotten money to create a facade of enormous wealth that impressed and influenced his marks. He rented a $50,000 a month mansion in Belvedere, the exclusive enclave just north of San Francisco. The fake financier hung fake art on the walls of his rented palace, and bought his wife a $1.4 million diamond ring with money he had lifted from his investors. In his rented garage sat a $372,000 Rolls Royce, and a $260,000 Aston Martin. Cohen spent $6 million flying around in a rented jet he boasted that he owned. (Two of his celebrity passengers were Elton John and Jennifer Lopez. While they were not marks, they were props.)

     Con man Cohen lured his victims to the mansion where he held lavish parties in their honor while separating them from their money. It was easy. The scam artist even bilked his father-in-law out of his retirement savings. For the con man, it's not the money so much as the thrill of making suckers out of trusting people. It's economic lust killing.  

     The federal prosecutor, after a San Francisco jury found Samuel Cohen guilty in November 2011 of 15 counts of wire fraud, 11 counts of money laundering, and 3 counts of tax evasion, asked Judge Charles Breyer to send this con artist to prison for 30 years, order him to pay $60 million in restitution, and fine him $250,000. In justifying what would be the stiffest penalty in the history of white collar crime (Jeff Skilling at Enron got 24 years, 4 months), the prosecutor pointed out that Cohen, instead of experiencing remorse for his on-going, cold-blooded swindle, has blamed everyone but himself for the harm he has caused so many victims. (When con men are caught, in their minds, they are the victims.)

     Cohen's attorney, in arguing for a more lenient penalty, requested a prison sentence of under 7 years. The defense lawyer told the judge that 30 years behind bars is excessive punishment for a 53-year-old first time offender. Moreover, Mr. Cohen had given $2 million to charity. (Yes, but with stolen money. Samuel Cohen as Robin Hood.)

     Judge Breyer, in May 2012, sentenced Cohen to 22 years in prison, and ordered him to pay $31.4 in restitution. Calling the con man "nearly sociopathic," (nearly?) the judge said the sentence would have been more severe had there not been sentencing guidelines holding him back. If Cohen serves his full sentence, he'll be 75 when he gets out. Many of his victims will be dead, and the ones who are not, might still be broke.

     Samuel Cohen, of course, is appealing his conviction.     

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Majoring in Arson at West Virginia University

     At West Virginia University (WVU), a well-known party school, there is a really stupid and dangerous student tradition that dates back to the late 1970s. When the football team, the Mountaineers, win or lose a big game, students either celebrate, or vent their anger, by getting drunk, and setting what the local authorities call "street fires." The boozed-up kids pour gasoline into dumpsters, onto stuffed furniture (sometimes purchased for that purpose), and onto piles of rubbish, then set these highly flammable combustibles on fire. Most of the arson (legally called malicious burning because structures are not involved) takes place in the student-dominated, low-rent part of town called Sunnyside, or as the students refer to the neighborhood, "Scummyside."

     Between 1997 and 2003, Morgantown, the site of more than 1,200 street fires, had the highest per capita incendiary fire rate in the country. After the Mountaineer's win in November 2002 over Virginia Tech, celebrating WVU students set 90 large street fires, and dozens of less spectacular blazes. The police charged 20 students with malicious burning, a misdemeanor that usually involves a fine of up to $1,000. A few of the fire setters were expelled, but most were merely disciplined. In this fire setting spree, a police officer was punched, and a car went up in flames. This was just another big weekend in Fire City, West Virginia.

     In 2005, city officials, in anticipation of another flame-filled football weekend, ordered Sunnyside residents to remove all stuffed chairs, couches, and flammable debris from their porches and yards. (This is asking a lot from a West Virginian.) There were street fires that weekend, but no one's house burned to the ground.

     In May 2011, WVU students, celebrating the completion of exam week, blew off steam by getting drunk and lighting-up 18 dumpsters and 11 couches. One of the drunken idiots received facial burns after pouring two gallons of gasoline into a dumpster then hanging around to admire his work. The low-grade explosion took off his eyebrows and knocked him on his butt. (I hope he wasn't a criminal justice major, or a future TSA screener.) A week earlier, WVU students, drinking to the death of Osama Bin Laden, set 22 more dumpsters and sofas on fire.  By the end of 2011, Morgantown was the site of more than 200 street fires. Drunken fire setting, a college tradition.

     After WVU defeated the Clemson Tigers in the Discovery Orange Bowl in January 2012, the streets of Morgantown were once again lit up by dumpster, furniture and loose rubbish fires. A couple months later, over the St. Patrick's Day weekend (a big holiday of booze on campuses across the country), the West Virginia kids really got fired-up. They ignited 35 dumpster and couch fires, then outdid themselves by torching a semi. The police arrested five students for malicious burning. On April 2 of this year, several more Morgantown dumpsters and pieces of overstuffed furniture went up in flames. (I'm sure there was an appropriate occasion for the fire setting, I just don't know what it was.)

     If U.S. News & World Report ever publishes a list of the nation's top ten universities where students are most likely to get busted for public intoxication, disorderly conduct, and criminal fire setting, West Virginia University will be number one. That, of course, will give the young scholars at WVU another excuse to break out the booze, and the $4 a gallon gas.     


Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The TSA: The Nation's Pain in the Neck

     Civilian government workers didn't always have the image of mindless, indifferent, and/or incompetent bureaucrats sucking the life out of a struggling economy. They were mainly seen as unambitious, cautious types who opted for job security in exchange for lower pay; or as dedicated public servants devoted to teaching or law enforcement. Today, the image of the civilian government employee is much different. Instead as being generally regarded as public servants, they are viewed as overpaid, underworked bureaucrats who put in their twenty years, then live the rest of their lives on the public dime. The massive government work force, comprised of stupendous waste, fraud, and incompetence, has put a enormous strain on the nation's economy. If a government worker is too lazy or incompetent to do the job, instead of being fired and replaced with someone who can do the work, the agency simply hires more people to take on the task. Now government employees enjoy high pay, great benefits, and job security. In the private sector, if the job goes away, the employee goes with it. In government, if the job goes away, the employee stays.

The TSA

     The Transportation Security Administration has become one of the most reviled agencies within the federal government. It's right up there with the IRS, and lately the GSA (General Services Administration), and the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency). Out west a lot of people hate the BLM, the Bureau of Land Management. Created in 2001, the TSA employs 65,000 screeners who work at 450 airports around the country. The agency is also made up of 14,000 administrators who sit in Washington, D.C. shuffling paper. In 2003, the agency became part of the Department of Homeland Security, itself an added layer of bureaucracy placed over several federal law enforcement agencies that are themselves grossly overstaffed with pencil-pushing bureaucrats. A detailed organizational chart of the federal government would cover the District of Columbia.

     When something goes wrong in federal law enforcement, there are so many administrators and levels of bureaucracy, it's impossible even for Congress to find out who was responsible for the fiasco. The Fast and Furious scandal is a good example of this. In airport security, whoever is responsible for the way the TSA screens airline passengers should be replaced with--here comes a subversive concept--an expert in airport security. TSA screeners should be replaced with a smaller private sector force of security experts who, instead of groping, searching, and inconveniencing everyone, would profile and target certain passengers. This is how they do it in other countries where babies, children, old ladies, and regular flyers are spared these mindless, heavy-handed security procedures.

     It has recently been revealed that TSA screeners have to be recruited through ads posted on gasoline pumps and pizza cartons. Moreover, they are being put on the job before their background investigations (using that word loosely here) are completed. This would never happen in the private sector out of fear of lawsuits and legal liability. Government agencies, because of sovereign immunity, don't have to worry about this kind of thing. This lapse in security has resulted in the hiring of TSA people with criminal backgrounds. As airline passengers, police officers have reported being patted down by people they have arrested, and frisked.

     On April 24, 2012, two current and a couple of former TSA screeners were arrested for accepting bribes from drug dealers attempting to get cocaine and meth onto plaines at the Los Angeles International Airport. The scheme was exposed when a drug trafficker inadvertently got into the wrong checkout line, and was caught by a TSA employee who had not been bribed.

     If TSA agents can be bought by drug merchants, they can be bribed by terrorists intent on getting on planes with explosives and guns. Instead of reforming the entire airport security program, TSA will probably deal with the problem by establishing another layer of TSA supervisors to keep an eye on the existing screeners. In government, bigger is always better.