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Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Gilbert Collar Police-Involved Shooting Case

     Gilbert Thomas Collar grew up in Wetumpka, Alabama, a town of 6,000 within the Montgomery metropolitan area in the central part of the state. The 135-pound, 5-foot-7 high school wrestling star was enrolled at the University of South Alabama, a 15,000-student university located in Mobile, Alabama. Collar, a social sciences major, wanted to become a high school teacher and a wrestling coach.

     A university police officer named Trevis Austin, at 1:23 in the morning of Saturday, October 6, 2012, heard someone banging loudly on one of the campus police station's windows. Upon investigation of this noise, the officer encountered Gilbert Collar, nude and crouched into a fighting stance. The muscular young man, who challenged the officer to a fight, obviously appeared to be out of his mind. When Collar made an aggressive move toward Trevis Austin, the officer drew his weapon, backed-off, and warned the threatening 18-year-old to settle down. Collar rushed toward the campus cop several times, and each time the retreating officer ordered the man to stop and desist. Collar took a knee, rose, and charged the officer again. This time officer Austin shot Collar once in the chest. The attacking freshman stumbled, regained his footing, rushed toward the officer again, then collapsed and died.

     University police officer Austin was placed on administrative leave pending an investigation to be conducted by the Mobile County District Attorney's Office and the local sheriff's department. An important aspect of the inquiry involved reviewing the surveillance camera footage of the bizarre confrontation. Some of the questions that had to be answered included whether or not the student and the officer who shot him knew each other. Investigators also wanted to determine if Collar had a  history of mental illness and/or drug use. The autopsy and toxicological would answer the question of drugs and or alcohol.

     Jeff Glass, Collar's high school wrestling coach, told a reporter that "He [Collar] was a kind soul. He was never aggressive to anyone off the mat. He was a 'yes sir, no sir' kind of guy." Chis Estes, an 18-year-old who grew up with Collar, reportedly said, "Gil was a very 'chill' guy, mellow and easy-going. That's why I don't understand the story that he attacked the cop."

     According to the toxicology report, Gilbert Collar had gotten high on a laboratory drug that mimics the effects of LSD. He had taken the drug at the BayFest music concert on the night of the deadly encounter. Mobile County Sheriff Sam Cochran, at a press conference, announced that the student had assaulted others prior to his death at the hands of the officer.

     In 2013, a grand jury sitting in Mobile County cleared Trevis Austin of criminal wrongdoing in the shooting.

     In the wake of the grand jury no bill, members of Gilbert Collar's family brought a wrongful death lawsuit in federal court against former officer Austin and the university. In 2015, pursuant to that suit, former Tallahassee police chief Melvin Tucker, on behalf of the plaintiff, rendered an expert opinion regarding whether the officer's use of deadly force in the case was appropriate.

     In his report, made public in May 2015, Mr. Tucker concluded that officer Austin had used excessive force in violation of his department's deadly force policy. Melvin Tucker wrote that the officer should either have retreated or used non-lethal means to subdue the student.

     Mr. Tucker noted in his report that over the past 131 years only three police officers in the state of Alabama had been killed by an unarmed assailant. The use of force expert wrote that in 2012 not a single police officer in the United States had died as a result of being disarmed by an arrestee.

     This is one of those difficult cases that no matter how it is resolved, won't satisfy anyone. From the campus police officer's point of view, he was confronted by an aggressive, muscular young man who was apparently out of his mind and intent on engaging him in a wrestling match. For all the officer knew, he was dealing with a drug-crazed man with supernatural strength. (The officer was 5-foot-eleven and the student 5-foot-seven.) Had these two people gotten into hand-to-hand combat, there was a possibility that the attacker could have ended up with the officer's gun. Even if the officer had been equipped with a taser device, there was no guarantee it would have subdued this aggressive, out-of-control subject, particularly with the LSD type drug in his system.

     Looking at this case through the eyes of Gilbert Collar's friends and relatives, it's easy to understand why they have questions regarding this student's sudden and violent death. His mother Bonnie said this to a reporter: "Freshmen kids do stupid things, and campus police should be equipped to handle activity like that without having to use lethal force." Although Gilbert Collar was not a kid, college freshmen are known to do stupid things. But taking off your clothes in the middle of the night, and without provocation or notice, attacking a police officer, goes beyond youthful stupidity.


Saturday, August 8, 2015

Donald Eugene Borders and the "Three Women" Murder Case

     In 2003, 85-year-old Lottie Ledford lived by herself in a low-income neighborhood in Shelby, North Carolina, a town of 20,000 fifty miles west of Charlotte. As a younger woman, Lottie had worked in the region's textile mills. On August 23, 2003, a relative discovered Lottie lying dead on her bed. Because of her age, the police didn't suspect foul play. The Cleveland County Coroner ruled that Lottie Ledford had died of an heart attack.

     Bobby Fisher, Ledford's nephew, believed that his aunt had been murdered. Based upon his own observations, and what the funeral director had seen and noted, Fisher knew that Ledford's face and arms had been covered in bruises. (In January 2013, Bobby Fisher's widow, Barbara Ann, in speaking to a reporter, said, "It looked as if someone had taken two fingers and pinched her nose and held her across the mouth.") The fact that someone had cut Ledford's telephone line also suggested homicide. Bobby Fisher pleaded with the Shelby police to launch a murder investigation, but they ignored his request.

     On September 20, 2003, six weeks after Lottie Ledford's death, in the same neighborhood, Margaret Tessneer's daughter and son-in-law went by her (Margaret's) house at ten that morning. The couple had brought Tessneer a biscuit from Hardee's. The visitors found Tessneer's front door ajar, and inside the dwelling, the 79-year-old lying face-up on her rumpled bed. The dead woman had bruises on her face, arms, and legs. Someone had pulled the telephone drop-line away from her house.

     The forensic pathologist who performed the autopsy noted the bruises, and concluded that Margaret Tessneer had been raped. While he ruled the manner of death in this case homicide, the pathologist classified Tessneer's cause of death, "undetermined."

     On November 10, 2003, in the same part  of town, a neighbor discovered Lillian Mullinax lying dead in her own bed. The 87-year-old's body was covered in bruises, her front door had been left ajar, and someone had cut her phone line. Following the autopsy, Mullinax's cause of death went into the books as "undetermined."

     One didn't have to be Sherlock Holmes to conclude that these three elderly women had been raped and murdered in their homes by the same man.

     In early 2004, Shelby detectives investigating Margaret Tessneer's September 20, 2003 death, became interested in a 53-year-old man named Donald Eugene Borders. After graduating from high school in 1977, Borders got married, worked in the region's textile mills, and fathered two children. But in the 1990s he turned to crime and was arrested dozens of times for robbery, burglary, and assault. In 2001, Borders was sent to state prison on a conviction for breaking and entering a home. After his release from custody in January 2003, Borders lived as a homeless man on the streets of Shelby.

     On March 20, 2004, detectives, after publicly asking for help in locating Borders, found him living in a homeless shelter in Charlotte. Armed with an arrest warrant pertaining to a matter unrelated to the so-called "three women" murder case, Shelby officer James Brienza took Donald Borders into custody. Before hauiling him to jail, Brienza let the prisoner have a cigarette. When Borders finished his smoke, Brienza saved the butt for DNA analysis.

     A state forensic scientist, in August 2004, found trace evidence from Margaret Tessneer's underwear that revealed she had been raped. Following the passage of more than five years (I have no idea what caused this delay) a DNA analyst matched the Tessneer murder scene evidence with the saliva on Border's cigarette butt.

     A Cleveland County Grand Jury, on December 28, 2009, more that six years after Margaret Tessneer's rape and killing, indicted Donald Eugene Borders for first-degree murder. He was taken into custody and held in the Cleveland County Jail without bond.

     Border's trial got underway in Cleveland on January 5, 2013. On January 28, the jury, after deliberating three hours, found the defendant guilty as charged. The judge sentenced Donald Eugene Borders to life in prison without the chance of parole.