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Thursday, December 31, 2015

Who Murdered Jessica Chambers?

      Jessica Chambers, an attractive, blond 19-year-old, lived with her family in Courtland, Mississippi, a village of 460 people 50 miles south of Memphis, Tennessee. The recent high school graduate, a former cheerleader and softball player, hoped to start college soon. She had just started working at Goody's Department Store in nearby Batesville.

     At six in the evening of Saturday December 10, 2014, Jessica drove to a gas station and convenience store on Highway 51 not far from her home where she pumped $14 worth of gasoline into her car. Inside the store, a cashier asked Chambers why she had bought more than her usual $5 in gas. Chambers said she was going somewhere and needed the fuel. About that time she called her mother to inform her she was on her way to Batesville to clean her car.

     Before walking out of the convenience store, Chambers purchased a pack of cigarettes and received a call on her cellphone. A few minutes later, just before six-thirty, she climbed into her vehicle and drove off. Surveillance camera footage revealed that she wore a dark sweater and pajama pants that looked like sweats.

     At eight o'clock that night, local firefighters responded to a call regarding a burning vehicle along Herron Road in a remote part of Panola County not far from the gas station. The emergency responders came upon a person walking down the road near the car. Jessica Chambers had been doused with a flammable liquid and set on fire.

     Chambers was airlifted to a hospital in Memphis where, a short time later, she died from burns on 98 percent of her body. Only the bottoms of her feet were not charred.

     At a law enforcement press conference the next day, the local district attorney labeled Chamber's death a criminal homicide. The Panola County sheriff told reporters that before she died, Chambers had spoken to firefighters. "She told them who had done it," he said.

     According to some media reports, the murder victim had also been bludgeoned on the top of her head with a hard object. There were also reports that the killer had squirted lighter fluid down her throat, a detail not confirmed by the authorities.

     While the victim's older sister informed reporters that she didn't know of anyone who had a grudge against Jessica, friends of the murdered girl posted online messages about a former, abusive boyfriend. (Whoever committed this atrocious crime did it out of an uncontrollable rage. This does not look like a murder committed by a stranger.)

     At the press conference, law enforcement authorities said they had questioned several people but didn't have a suspect in the murder.

     The U.S. Marshals Service offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of Chamber's killer. The local Crime Stoppers group posted a separate reward of $1,000.

     As of December 2015, the Chambers case remained unsolved. Investigation had revealed, however, that the victim had been hanging out with a rough crowd that included local drug dealers. Her latest boyfriend, Travis Sanford, had been in jail on a burglary charge at the time of her murder. In the weeks before she died, Jessica Chambers told her father, a mechanic with the sheriff's office, that "Everybody thinks I'm snitching because you work for the police." 

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Richard De Wit Murder Case

     Sarah Groves, a 24-year-old fitness instructor from the English Channel Island of Guernsey, was visiting her boyfriend in India's northwestern region of Kashmir. The boyfriend, Saeed Shoda, had arranged a room for Groves on his father's houseboat "New Beauty" on Dal Lake in Srinagar, Kashmir's capital.

     At two in the morning of April 6, 2013, 43-year-old Richard DeWit, an unemployed Dutch man with a room on the houseboat, broke into Grove's suite and allegedly stabbed her 45 times. At the time of the murder, Mr. Shoda was spending the weekend with his friends. Miss Groves had remained with Shoda's parents who told reporters she had been like a daughter to them.

     Leaving everything behind on the "New Beauty" except for his passport and $2,500 inside his underwear, the barefoot, 7-foot-tall DeWit fled the houseboat in a stolen rowboat that capsized before he reached the shore. Once on land DeWit boarded a taxi.

     Shortly after members of the houseboat staff found Sarah Groves dead in a pool of blood, Kashmir police arrested DeWit on the National Highway 50 miles away in the town of Qazgund.

     Later that day, the murder suspect confessed to the police. He admitted having "violent tendencies" and said he had been under the influence of drugs during the 15-minute knife attack. DeWit explained that he had been overtaken by the devil. "The Devil took over my body," he allegedly said.

     DeWit's 31-year-old wife, Uma Rupanya, informed the authorities that DeWit had left her and their two daughters in November 2012. She said he had become "increasingly paranoid and irrational." According to the murder suspect's wife, "He believed the government was out to get him, that spies were following him, that his house was bugged."

      A prosecutor in Srinagar has charged DeWit with first-degree murder. (At seven foot tall, people in India must have seen DeWit as some kind of giant. I wouldn't want to be the police official responsible for organizing a line-up in this case.)

     At some point after his arrest, Richard De Wit took back his confession and pleaded not guilty.

     In February 2015, the De Wit murder trial got underway in Srinagar, India. In October 2015, following 29 trial delays, the defendant fired his attorney.

     At this point in the case, Sarah Grove's parents were publicly expressing concerns that the authorities, in going after Mr. De Wit, had targeted the wrong man. They characterized the De Wit trial as a farce, and indicated that they suspected the victim's boyfriend, Saeed Shoda. According to the victim's parents, the police had badly mishandled the murder investigation.

     As of December 2015, the De Wit trial is once again on hold. 

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Amish-Mennonite Pastor Kenneth Miller and His Underground Railroad

     Lisa Miller, as a teenager and young woman in Virginia, struggled with an addiction to pills and alcohol. She also participated in self-mutilation. After a failed marriage, and a suicide attempt, Lisa began dating women.

     In 1997, Lise met Janet Jenkins at an alcoholics anonymous meeting in Falls Church, Virginia. They became a couple, and in 2000, traveled to Vermont, the first state to offer homosexuals civil unions, to get married. The pair, after being civilly united by a judge, adopted the surname Miller-Jenkins, and in 2002, moved to Vermont where they bought a two-story house in a small southern Vermont town called Fair Haven.

     On April 16, 2002, after getting pregnant through in vitro fertilization, Lisa, at age 34, gave birth to Isabella. But in September 2003, when Isabella was 17-months-old, Lisa and Janet split-up. After the break in the relationship, a family court judge in Vermont granted Janet regular child visitation rights.

     In 2008, after trying but failing to end her former partner's visitation rights, Lisa Miller moved to Lynchburg, Virginia where a Christian anti-gay marriage activist named Janet Stasulli befriended her. Lisa, under Stasulli's guidance and influence, became a born-again Christian, and pursuant to her new religious beliefs, denounced homosexuality as a sin. In October 2009, the family court judge in Vermont granted Janet Jenkins primary custody of Isabella.

     Kenneth Miller (no relation to Lisa), a 43-year-old Beachy Amish-Mennonite pastor from Stuarts Draft, Virginia, a town of 9,000 30 miles north of Lynchburg, conceived of a plan to get Lisa and Isabella out of the country to keep the 7-year-old out of the custody of a lesbian parent. On September 21, 2009, Philip Zodhiates, an evangelical leader, and owner of a Lynchburg Christian direct-mail company, drove Lisa and her daughter to Buffalo, New York. Shortly after midnight, mother and daughter crossed the boarder into Canada in a taxi cab. They were met on the other side by a Canadian evangelical pastor named Ervin Horst who drove Lisa and Isabella, disguised in long skirts and head scarves of the type worn by the Amish-Mennonites, to the Toronto airport. Later that day, the fleeing mother and daughter flew to Managua, Nicaragua. (Currently at large, Lisa and Isabella are wanted by the FBI and Interpol. Lisa, now 46, and Isabella 12, have moved from barrio to barrio in Nicaragua to avoid apprehension.)

     Pastor Kenneth Miller, indicted by a federal grand jury sitting in Burlington, Vermont for the offense of abetting an international parental kidnapping, went on trial on August 8, 2012. If convicted, the Amish-Mennonite leader faced up to three years in prison.

     Fifty Amish-Mennonite supporters looked on as the Assistant United States Attorney, Eugenia Cowles, and defense attorney Joshua M. Autry, made their opening remarks to the jury. According to the defense version of the case, Pastor Miller did not know that by leaving the country, Lisa Miller was violating a lawful child visitation order. Defense attorney Autry argued that his client, therefore, did not possess the requisite criminal intent to obstruct the court order giving Janet Jenkins primary custody of the child.

     Federal prosecutor Cowles told the jurors that Pastor Miller had selected Nicaragua as the point of destination because that country and the United States did not have an extradition treaty. Moreover, the preacher made sure to book a flight from Canada to Mexico that didn't touch down in America.

     Philip Zodhiates, Janet Stasulli, and Ervin Horst, the evangelists the defendant had called upon to execute his anti-homosexual underground escape, took the stand as reluctant prosecution witnesses. Isabella's custody parent, Janet Jenkins, testified that she hadn't seen the girl since January 2009, eight months before the evangelists snuck her out of the country. The government rested its case on August 12. 2012.

     Defense attorney Joshua Autry put on a pair of character witnesses, then rested his case without bringing Pastor Miller to the stand to testify on his own behalf. On August 14, 2012, the jury, after deliberating four hours, found the defendant guilty of abetting international parental kidnapping. Outside the federal building, a group of 100 Amish-Mennonite supporters stood around singing gospel hymns. Pastor Miller remained free on bail until his sentencing.

     Just hours after the verdict, Janet Jenkins filed a civil lawsuit against Philip Zodhiates, Ervin Horst, and Janet Stasulli, the people who had helped Pastor Miller kidnap her custody child.

     On March 14, 2013, the federal district judge sentenced Pastor Miller to 27 months in prison. The Paster would not, however, begin his sentence until a federal appeals court reviewed and ruled on the case, a process that could take up to three years.

     On October 8, 2014, federal prosecutors charged Philip Zodhiates with conspiracy and international parental kidnapping for his role in the abduction. Zodhiates pleaded not guilty to the charges.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

The Matthew Hinson Murder Case

     William C. Pettry lived with his wife and three children 50 miles from Chicago in Lake Villa, Illinois. On Friday, October 7, 2012, the 42-year-old self-employed contractor and his best friend, Nick Viverito, flew to Jacksonville, Florida from Milwaukee to attend a Sunday Bears-Jaguar pro football game.

     On Saturday, the night before the game, Pettry and his 42-year-old friend were eating and having drinks at an upscale Irish restaurant called Fionn MacCools located near their hotel. Around midnight, Pettry and Viverito were sitting at a table on an outside patio visiting with other Chicago Bears fans. Matthew Hinson, his wife, and another woman, people who lived in the area, were nearby waiting for inside seating. The two men from Illinois exchanged smalltalk with the 28-year-old Hinson and the two women with him.

     Shortly after Matthew Hinson, his wife, and the other woman walked inside the restaurant to their table, William Pettry walked into the bar to get more drinks. When he didn't return to the patio after twenty minutes, his friend began to wonder where he was. About this time a waitress approached Viverito and said, "Hey, your friend, he's not breathing at the bar. He's full of blood." Viverito ran into the restaurant where he found Pettry on the floor bleeding profusely from his neck. Nurses who happened to be dining at the restaurant were trying to stop the bleeding and resuscitate the seriously wounded man. William Pettry bled to death on the floor of the bar.

     According to witnesses, Hinson, using a small pocketknife, had slit Pettry's throat, then walked out of the restaurant. The two men had been sitting on a bench when Hinson stood up, pulled out his knife, and ran the blade across Pettry's neck. As he left the place, Hinson made a cutting motion across his throat with his finger. Jacksonville police officers stopped his car as he was pulling out of the parking lot. Following a brief scuffle, they took Hinson into custody.

     Matthew Hinson admitted to the arresting officers that he had killed the man in the bar with his pocketknife. Angry words had not been exchanged between the two men. The attack had been entirely by surprise, and unprovoked. While Hinson didn't tell the police why he had murdered a total stranger, witnesses informed the officers that he had attacked Pettry out of jealously and rage. He didn't like the fact the victim had spoken to his wife. The murder had nothing to do with sports rivalry.

     Matthew Hinson, charged with criminal homicide, was held in the Jacksonville County Jail without bond. In speaking to reporters, county police Lieutenant Rob Schoonover said, "Hinson calmly and in cold blood cut the victim's throat and walked out of the restaurant." In 2006, Hinson had pleaded no contest in Florida's Clay County to driving under the influence. Beyond that, he had no criminal record that anyone could find.

     On Saturday, October 13, 2012, current and former Chicago Bears team members held a fundraiser for the Pettry family. The proceeds came from the auctioning of Bear-related sports memorabilia.

     In crime fiction, because murder is such a deviant and evil act, murderers are either motivated by extreme hatred, greed, or lust. But in real-life, so-called spontaneous murders--killings without corresponding motivations--are common. They are committed by time-bombs like Matthew Hinson who walk among us unnoticed until they lash out.

     On May 21, 2013, two months before his trial date, Hinson pleaded guilty to second degree-murder. At his sentencing hearing on July 18, 3013, Hinson's attorney, public defender Kate Bedell, told Circuit Judge Suzanne Bass that Henson sufferrd from post-traumatic stress disorder and alcohol abuse. The judge sentenced Hinson to life in prison.


     

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Ethan Couch and the "Affluenza" Defense Mass Manslaughter Case

     On the night of June 15, 2013, in Fort Worth, Texas, 16-year-old Ethan Couch and seven of  his friends stole two cases of beer from a local Walmart store. A few hours later, Couch, behind the wheel of his wealthy family's F-350 pickup, sped down a poorly lit rural road. With his blood-alcohol level three times the legal limit and seven passengers in the cab--two in the back of the truck--he lost control of the vehicle.

     Couch's truck plowed into vehicles parked along the side of the road. The two boys in the bed of the truck were flung out of the pickup and severely injured. Breanna Mitchell, whose SUV had broken down was off the road, was killed. Brian Jennings, Shelby Boyles, and Hollie Boyles, people who had pulled off the road to help Breanna, also died in the crash.

     Ethan Couch, on the advise of his attorneys, pleaded guilty to four counts of intoxication manslaughter. This meant the only issue left to be resolved in the case involved his punishment. Was he a troubled kid who needed psychological treatment, or a spoiled brat who required incarceration? If punishment was appropriate in this case, how severe? Did it matter that he was only sixteen? These were questions that would have to be resolved by juvenile court judge Jean Boyd.

     At Ethan Couch's sentence hearing held in Fort Worth on December 10, 2013, Tarrant County Assistant District Attorney Richard Alpert proposed that the defendant be incarcerated for twenty years. In addressing Judge Boyd, Alpert said, "If the boy, who is from an affluent family, is cushioned by the family's wealth, there can be no doubt that he will be in another courthouse one day blaming the leniency he received here." The prosecutor pointed out that inmates in Texas who needed it received drug and alcohol treatment.

     One of the defendant's attorneys, Scott Brown, argued that his client required rehabilitation more than he needed treatment. (Perhaps, but the families of the victims needed for him to be punished. Sentencing should be more than just about what's good for the defendant.)

     Couch's attorney recommended a two-year treatment program at a $1,200-a-day rehabilitation center near Newport Beach, California followed by a period of probation. The $450,000-a-year program in southern California featured equine sports, yoga, and messages. (It also probably featured rubbing shoulders with a lot of drug-addled Hollywood celebrities.) According to attorney Brown, the boy's parents were willing to pick up the California rehabilitation tab.

     Dr. Dick Miller, a clinical psychologist from Bedford, Texas testified at the sentencing hearing on the defendant's behalf. According to Dr. Miller, Ethan Couch suffered from what he called "affluenza," a syndrome caused by rich parents who didn't set limits and discipline their children. As a result of being spoiled rotten, Ethan didn't know how to behave appropriately. (Dr. Miller's notion of social insanity as a mitigating factor in sentencing is patently absurd.)

     Judge Boyd stunned the prosecutor and friends and families of the four victims when she sentenced the teenager to ten years of probation. The judge said she would find a treatment program for the boy in the state of Texas. If he violated the terms of his probation, he could be sent to a juvenile detection facility.

     Eric Boyles had lost his wife Hollie and his daughter Shelby in Couch's drunken crash. In speaking to a CNN correspondent, he said, "There are absolutely no consequences for what occurred that day….Money always seems to keep you out of trouble. Ultimately today, I feel that money did prevail.

     In responding to Judge Boyd's decision, prosecutor Alpert told a reporter that "We are disappointed by the punishment assessed but we have no power under the law to change or overturn it."

     In horrific homicides like this, when there is no retribution, the public loses confidence in the criminal justice system. While rich people do not always get their way in criminal court, the public perception is that they do.

     The so-called "affluenza" case jumped back in the news in December 2015 after a video appeared online featuring Ethan Couch and several other youngsters playing beer pong. This was a clear violation of the terms of Couch's probation. When the kid's probation officer lost touch with him, the authorities in Tarrant County issued a warrant for his arrest. Also missing was Tonya Couch, the boy's mother with whom he had been living.

     Because the local authorities believed the boy and his mother might have fled the country to avoid the possibility of Ethan's incarceration, FBI agents and U. S. Marshal's office investigators were involved in the hunt for the mother and her son.

     On December 29, 2015, Ethan Couch and his mother were arrested in the Mexican resort city of Puerto Vallarta.

        

Friday, December 18, 2015

The Shrien Dewani Murder-For-Hire Case

     On November 13, 2010, 30-year-old Shrien Dewani and Anni, his 28-year-old wife of two weeks, were on their honeymoon in Cape Town, South Africa. The couple, of Indian decent (she was born in Sweden), resided in the southwestern English town of Bristol where he was a businessman.

     Shortly after midnight on November 13, 2010, Shrien Dewani reported to police authorities that a gunman had commandeered the taxi he and his wife were riding in near the Cape Town suburb of Guguiethu. The kidnapper ordered the cab driver and Shrien out of the taxi in the town of Harare then drove off with Anni.

     Later that night, police officers found Anni's dead body in the abandoned taxi in the town of Lingelethu West. She had injuries to her head and chest, and had been shot in the back of the neck at short range. Officers with the Western Cape Town Police Department launched a manhunt for the killer.

     Shrien Dewani returned to England where he was treated for depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

     On November 14, 2010, Western Cape Town officers arrested 26-year-old Xolile Mngeni, the suspected gunman, on the charge of murder. Two days later, police officers arrested a suspected accomplice in the murder named Mziwamadoda Qwabe.

     Detectives arrested the cab driver, Zola Tongo, on November 20, 2010. According to the suspect, Shrien Dewani had offered him 1,400 pounds to find a hit man willing to kill his wife Anni. Tongo reached out to his friend Qwabe who brought Mngeni, the trigger man, into the murder-for-hire scheme.

     On December 8, 2010, at the request of the South African government, police in England arrested Dewani for conspiring to have his wife murdered. Two days after being taken into custody, Dewani posted his bail and was confined to house arrest. He denied any involvement in his wife's murder.

     Zola Tongo, the cab driver, pleaded guilty to his role in the murder-for-hire plot in January 2011. The judge sentenced him to 18 years in prison. A month later, Mziwamadoda Qwabe decided to cooperate with the police. He said that after the kidnapper let Dewani and Tongo out of the taxi that night, Mngeni drove off with the victim. Qwabe admitted that for his role in the murder, he received the victim's jewelry.

     In February 2011, back in England, Dewani swallowed a cocktail of 26 pills that included the drug diazepam that had been prescribed to him for anxiety. Following a period of hospitalization, he returned home to house arrest.

     In November 2011, a TV station in England aired a documentary about the case called, "Murder On Honeymoon." The producers of the segment presented evidence pertaining to Dewani's alleged motive for having his new wife murdered. According to the documentary, investigators were working on the theory that Dewani had been living a secret double life as a gay man. Witnesses stated that he had been a regular visitor to a south London gay fetish sex club. When Anni found out he was gay, she threatened to end the marriage and expose him.

     On March 30, 2012, judges sitting on London's High Court ruled that it would be unjust and oppressive to extradite Dewani to South Africa until he overcame his problem with mental illness. The authorities in South Africa were convinced he was faking mental illness to avoid extradition.

     Miziwamadoda Qwabe pleaded guilty in August 2012 and was sentenced in South Africa to 25 years in prison. Three months later a jury found Xolile Mngeni, the hit man, guilty of premeditated murder. The judge sentenced Mngeni to life behind bars.

     The fourth South African involved in the case, a hotel clerk named Monde Mbolombo, had avoided prosecution by testifying against Qwabe and Mngeni.

     The BBC, in September 2012, aired another documentary about the Dewani case called "The Honeymoon Murder: Who Killed Anni?" Featuring forensic experts and others who had reviewed the evidence, the show cast doubt on Shrien Dewani's guilt.

     The widely viewed BBC documentary portrayed Monde Mbolombo, the hotel clerk who was granted immunity for his prosecution testimony, as the true mastermind behind the murder. According to the documentary, Mbolombo put the cab driver in touch with Mngeni, the trigger man. The motive was theft.

     About the time the BBC broadcast the documentary, the English tabloid Daily Mail published text messages the victim had sent to family members shortly before her big wedding. "I'm going to be unhappy for the rest of my life," she had written. "I hate him. I want to cry myself to death."

     On January 2014, a panel of three judges sitting on England's Supreme Court ruled that Shrien Dewani could be extradited to South Africa to be tried for his wife's murder. The extradition, however, was conditioned on the promise that if the defendant were adjudicated mentally unfit for trial, South African authorities would send him back to England. Dewani was expected to arrive in Cape Town in April 2014.

     South African Judge Jeanette Traverso, on December 8, 2014, dismissed the case against Dewni on the ground that no court would convict him unless he took the stand and incriminated himself. The judge noted that the prosecution witnesses against the accused murder-for-hire mastermind were not credible because they had been involved in the killing themselves. The judge's decision ended the case against Dewani because prosecutors in South Africa can only appeal a case when the judge had made a mistake in applying the law. This case, however, was dismissed based upon what this judge considered the crown's lack of evidence to support a conviction. The decision meant that Shrien Dewani was a free man and could not be charged again.

     A spokesperson for the prosecutor's office, in response to the dismissal, told reporters that the judge misunderstood the case.

     In the United States, many murder-for-hire cases are predicated upon the prosecution testimony of the hit man and various accomplices. Getting a conviction pursuant to this South African judge's standards would be, in the United States, almost impossible.

    

Friday, December 4, 2015

Savannah Dietrich Outed the Two Juveniles Who Raped Her

     In August 2011, in Louisville, Kentucky, 16-year-old Savannah Dietrich, while drinking with two teenage boys she knew, passed out drunk. The boys took advantage of her condition by having sex with her. This, in most states, including Kentucky, is rape. If that wasn't bad enough, the rapists photographed each other committing the crime, and put the photographs on the Internet.

     When Dietrich learned of the humiliating photographs, and the fact they had been published, she and her parents reported the crime to the Louisville Metro Police Department. The two minors were then charged with first-degree sexual abuse, a felony. Since the juveniles had photographed each other in the act, they had no choice to plead guilty. But for some reason, the prosecutor, in return for the pleas, promised a lenient sentence.

     Following the defendant's June 26, 2012 plea hearing before Jefferson County District Judge Dee McDonald, Savannah Dietrich posted several tweets on her Twitter account in which she named the two boys who had pleaded guilty to her sexual assaults. By doing this, she had violated the judges's order not to reveal information about the case, especially the identities of the assaulting juveniles.

     The attorneys representing the two minors, asked Judge McDonald to hold Dietrich in contempt of court. If found in contempt, Dietrich could face up to 180 days in jail, and a $500 fine. (Much more time behind bars than the boys who had assaulted her would spend.)

     Dietrich, in speaking to a Louisville reporter with The Courier-Journal, said, "So many of my rights have been taken away by these boys. I'm at the the point that if I have to go to jail for my rights, I will do it. If they really feel it's necessary to throw me in jail for talking about what happened to me--then I don't understand justice."

     On Monday, July 23, 2012, the lawyers representing the juveniles awaiting their sentences, withdrew their motion to have Dietrich held in contempt of court. In a single day, an online petition on change.org had brought 62,000 signatures in support of Dietrich's decision to publicize the identities of her assaulters. It was obvious that members of the public believed these boys, so afraid of being publicly embarrassed and humiliated by their cruelty and criminality, deserved to be exposed by their victim.

     In September 2012, a judge ruled that documents pertaining to the Dietrich case had to be released to the public. According to the publication of this material, a prosecutor told the victim to "Get over it and see a therapist." The documents also revealed that the victim's 16-year-old attackers had committed the assault because they believed it would be "funny."

     The sex offenders, in October 2012, were sentenced to 50 hours of community service. The boys also were ordered to undergo sex-offender counseling. When these boys reached the age of 19, they could file motions to have their guilty pleas withdrawn and the case dismissed. If granted that request, their criminal records would be expunged. As for the victim, where could she go to have her memory of the crime expunged?