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Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Dr. Robert Ferrante Poison Murder Case

     In 2013, Dr. Robert Ferrante and his wife, Dr. Autumn Klein, lived with their 6-year-old daughter in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Dr. Ferrante held the positions of co-director of the Center of ALS Research, and visiting professor of neurology at the University of Pittsburgh Medical School. Dr. Klein, with offices in Magee-Woman's Hospital in the Kaufman Medical Building, was chief of women's neurology at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) and an assistant professor of neurology, obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive services at the University of Pittsburgh.

     Dr. Ferrante, twenty-three years older than his wife, met her in 2000 when they lived in Boston where she was a medical student and he worked at a hospital for veterans. They were married a year later. In 2010, Dr. Ferrante left his job at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital to join the University of Pittsburgh's neurological surgery team. Dr. Klein moved to Pittsburgh with him.

     Dr. Klein, who was forty-one, was having difficulty getting pregnant with her second child. Her 64-year-old husband had been encouraging her to take a nutritional supplement to help her conceive. On April 17, 2013, Dr. Ferrante sent Autumn a text message in which he inquired if she had taken the supplement. She wrote back: "Will it stimulate egg production, too?" Nine hours after Dr. Klein sent that message, she collapsed in the kitchen of the couple's Schenley Farms home.

     Emergency personnel rushed Dr. Klein to the University of Pittsburgh Medial Center (UPMC) in Oakland. On the kitchen floor next to her body, paramedics noticed a bag of white powder later identified as creatine, a nutritional supplement. Shortly after the patient was admitted into the hospital, a UPMC doctor ordered tests of her blood. When a preliminary serological analysis revealed a high level of acid, the doctor ordered toxicolgical tests for cyanide poisoning.

     Dr. Klein died on April 20, 2013. Three days later, at Dr. Ferrante's insistence, her body was cremated. As a result, there was no autopsy.

     Dr. Karl Williams, the Allegheny County Medical Examiner, based on the toxicology reports, determined that Dr. Klein had died of cyanide poisoning. The forensic pathologist ruled her death a homicide.

     Cyanide kills by starving the cells of oxygen. A lethal dose for a human can be as small as 200 milligrams--1/25th the size of a nickel. The poison acts fast and metabolizes quickly. The toxic substance can be undetectable from one minute to three hours after ingestion. Had samples of Dr. Klein's blood not been taken upon her admission to UPMC, there would have been no physical evidence of poisoning beyond the contents of the bag of white powder found lying on the victim's kitchen floor.

     Two weeks after Dr. Klein's death, detectives with the Pittsburgh Police Department launched a homicide investigation with Dr. Ferrante as the prime suspect. Officials at UPMC placed the neurologist on leave and denied him access to his laboratory. A police search of the lab resulted in the discovery that 8.3 grams from a bottle of cyanide was missing. Detectives learned that Dr. Ferrante had purchased a half-pound of the poison on April 15, 2013, two days before his wife collapsed in their home. Dr. Ferrante had used a UPMC credit card to buy the cyanide and had asked the vendor to ship it to his lab overnight. Detectives believed the suspect, in his laboratory, mixed the cyanide--a substance not related to his work--into the dietary supplement.

     According to friends of the victim, Dr. Ferrante had been a controlling husband who was jealous of his wife's fast-rising career. Moreover, he suspected that she was having an affair with a man from Boston. Dr. Klein had told friends she was planning to leave the doctor. Another possible motive involved the fact Dr. Ferrante did not want his wife to have another child.

     On April 13, four days before she fell ill, Dr. Klein sent one of her friends a text message regarding a trip she planned to take to Boston by herself. In that message she wrote: "Change of plans. Husband is coming to Boston. Told me 'to keep me out of trouble.'"

     "Oh, dear," replied the friend. "Did you know you were in trouble?"

     "I feel like I have been in trouble for a long time now," Dr. Klein answered.

     On July 24, 2013, an Allegheny County prosecutor charged Dr. Robert Ferrante with first-degree murder. The next day, as Dr. Ferrante drove back to Pittsburgh from St. Augustine, Florida, a West Virginia state patrol officer arrested him on I-77 near Beckley. According to the doctor's attorney, William Difenderfer, his client was on his way to surrender to the Pittsburgh police.

     Dr. Ferrante's arrest for the murder of his wife caused him serious financial problems. Except for $280,000 the suspect was allowed to use for legal expenses and a possible fine, a judge seized his assets. In August 2013, his 6-year-old daughter's maternal grandmother who was caring for the girl in Maryland, petitioned a family court judge for child support.

     The Ferrante murder trial got underway on October 20, 2014 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Following jury selection, the attorneys for each side presented their opening statements. Assistant Allegheny County District Attorney Lisa Pelligrini asserted that the defendant had murdered his wife because she wanted to have a second child. The prosecutor also said that Dr. Ferrante thought his wife was having an affair.

     Defense attorney William Difenderfer pointed out the circumstantial nature of the prosecution's case, inconsistent crime toxicology reports regarding cyanide in Dr. Klein's blood, and an absence of an autopsy.

     Dr. Christopher Holstege, a University of Virginia professor and the author of the text, Criminal Poisoning, Clinical and Forensic Perspectives, took the stand as the prosecutor's key expert witness. Dr. Holstege testified that the victim's symptoms ruled out everything but cyanide poisoning.

     Defense attorney William Difenderfer put three forensic experts on the stand. Dr. Robert Middleberg, vice president of a private crime lab in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, said tests at his facility of Dr. Klein's blood were inconclusive.

     Dr. Middleberg's testimony was backed up by Dr. Shaun Carstairs of the Naval Medical Center in San Diego and former Allegheny County Coroner Dr. Cyril Wecht. Dr. Wecht, a forensic pathologist, had testified in dozens of celebrated murder cases around the world.

     As his last witness, Diffenderfer, in a surprise and risky move, put the defendant on the stand to testify on his own behalf. As could have been anticipated, the prosecutor's blistering cross examination revealed numerous inconsistencies in Dr. Ferrante's statements to the authorities.

     On Friday November 7, 2014, the jury found Dr. Ferrante guilty of first-degree murder, an offense in Pennsylvania that came with a mandatory sentence of life without parole.

     Through his appellate attorney Chris Eyster, Robert Ferrante appealed his conviction on the ground that the prosecution had not had sufficient probable cause for the search warrant that produced evidence that incriminated his client. The lawyer also raised questions regarding the laboratory that concluded that the victim had been killed by poison.

     In September 2016, Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey Manning upheld the Ferrante conviction.
     

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Did Omar Murray's Wife Alisha Have Him Murdered?

     Omar Murray, a Jamaican-born ironworker resided with his wife Alisha Noel-Murray in a Brooklyn row-house owned by Alisha's mother. The couple, married three years, had moved into the Brownsville neighborhood in early 2012. Omar was thirty-seven. His wife, a home health aide with Visiting Nurse Service of New York, was just twenty-five. A religious man, Omar regularly attended the Full Gospel Assembly of God Church in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn.

     On Sunday, February 24, 2013, as Omar Murray entered his Lott Avenue house at one in the afternoon, he was approached by a man who shot him once in the chest. The victim stumbled into the house and collapsed in the entrance hallway. At the time of the shooting, Alisha was in the house recovering from surgery. She locked herself in her bedroom and called 911. Mr. Murray died a few hours after being rushed by ambulance to the Brookdale University Hospital.

     The next day, New York City Detectives arrested three local men in connection with the murder. Dameon Lovell told interrogators that the dead man's wife had been his lover. Together they had come up with the idea of having Omar murdered in a staged robbery. The 29-year-old murder-for-hire co-mastermind said that Alisha Noel-Murray wanted to cash in on her husband's two life insurance policies.

     In 2009, shortly after they were married, the couple took out a policy with National Benefit for $530,000. Sometime later they insured Mr. Murray's life for another $150,000.

     Kirk Portious, a 25-year-old with a history of violent crime, confessed to being the hit-man. The prosecutor charged Portious and Lovell with first-degree murder. The third man taken into custody, 22-year-old Dion Jack, drove the getaway vehicle. He was charged with hindering prosecution. The judge set his bail at $5,000. Portious and Lovell were held without bond in the jail on Riker's Island.

     Funeral services for the murder victim were held at the Full Gospel Assemble of God Church on Friday night, March 8, 2013. Omar Murray's widow, who had not been charged with a crime, sat in the front pew chewing gum. Omar's uncle, in speaking to a New York Daily News reporter outside the Crown Heights church, said, "To see her [Alisha] sitting there with her crocodile tears makes me sick. We know she killed our Omar. Where is the justice?"

     Alisha Noel-Murray, to the same reporter, said, "I'm not hiding from no one....This is ridiculous."

     As of January 2016, Alisha Noel-Murry had not been charged in connection with Mr. Murray's death. Both life insurance companies refused to pay out the benefits on the ground detectives with the New York City Police Department still considered her a murder-for-hire suspect. In 2015, she sued the National Benefit insurance company for the money.

     Portious and Lovell await their murder trials while incarcerated on Riker's Island. 

Friday, January 29, 2016

Football Coach Philip Foglietta and the Poly Prep Cover-Up

     The Poly Prep Country Day School is an elite, nursery to 12th grade private boy's academy located on two campuses in Brooklyn, New York. Poly Prep's middle and high school buildings are located in the Dyker Heights section of Brooklyn while the lower grades are on the Park Slope campus. As is often the case in schools where the sports program plays an important if not vital role in the institution, faculty member and renowned football coach Philip Foglietta enjoyed icon status during the years 1966 to 1991.

     In 1966, Coach Foglietta's first year at Poly Prep, a male student accused him of sexual molestation. A school administrator informed the boy's parents that an internal investigation revealed the accusation to be false. Moreover, if this student continued to make slanderous claims of this nature, the boy would face "severe consequences." The administration's handling of this case not only silenced the accuser, it became the school's future modus operandi in such matters.

     After 25 years as Poly Prep's most successful football coach, Foglietta unexpectedly retired in 1991. In honor of his legendary coaching career and important contributions to the institution, the school hosted a gala celebration held at the Manhattan Athletic Club. Members of the Poly Prep community, and the public at large, were not told of the real reason behind the coach's "retirement." He had been forced to quit as a result of accusations of "sexual misconduct."

     Following Coach Foglietta's death in 1998, Poly Prep established a memorial fund and solicited donations in his name. Four years later, in a letter to all alumni, the Poly Prep administration revealed that for years Coach Foglietta had been suspected of sexually abusing his students. According to this 2002 letter, administrators had "recently received credible allegations that sexual abuse had occurred at Poly Prep more than 20 years ago by a faculty member/coach who is now deceased." Everyone familiar with the school knew that coach was Philip Foglietta. The author of this revealing letter promised a thorough internal investigation of the accusations. (If the school actually conducted such an inquiry, no report of it surfaced. Moreover there was no indication that these "credible" accusations were ever passed on to the police.)

     In 2004, a Poly Prep alumnus named John Paggioli, alleging that as a student he had been sexually molested by Coach Foglietta, filed a lawsuit against the school. A year later, a judge, citing New York State's statute of limitations on such claims, dismissed the action. (In New York, a sexual abuse claimant must file suit within five years of his or her eighteenth birthday.)

     On October 26, 2009, twelve Poly Prep alumni, claiming sexual abuse by Coach Philip Foglietta, filed a Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) suit against the school in the Brooklyn District Federal Court. The plaintiffs alleged a 40-year criminal conspiracy to quash and cover-up student complains of sexual abuse allegedly committed by Poly Prep's greatest football coach.

     According to court documents, current and former Poly Prep headmasters knew that Coach Foglietta had sexually abused "dozens if not hundreds of boys." The plaintiffs alleged "Poly Prep administrators had...knowledge of Foglietta's sexual abuse of numerous boys at or near the school, but condoned and facilitated Foglietta's criminal behavior because he was a highly successful football coach and instrumental in raising substantial revenue for the school."

     In filing a RICO action, a technique the FBI used to cripple the Mafia, the Poly Prep plaintiffs were using this federal law as a way around the statute of limitations. These lawyers were asking the court to consider a sexual abuse defendant's repeated misrepresentations and deceitful conduct as a legal justification to override the application of the statute of limitations. These attorneys were attempting to create a legal exception to the doctrine that bars legal relief in older cases.  

     On August 28, 2012, in a 40-page decision, Judge Frederic Block of the Brooklyn District Federal Court, allowed two of the twelve plaintiffs to go forward with their RICO claims against current and former Poly Prep administrators. If these plaintiffs prevailed under the RICO statute, other institutions like universities and churches could be faced with a flood of sexual abuse lawsuits previously blocked by statutes of limitations. For this reason future sexual abuse plaintiffs and their potential defendants were closely following the the Poly Prep RICO suit.

     On December 26, 2012, the school settled the landmark lawsuit out of court. As a result, there would be no legal precedent for other victims in old cases. In February 2014, the school issued a formal apology to all of the students sexually abused by the iconic coach and serial child molester. 

Thursday, January 28, 2016

The Historic Fingerprint: The Jennings Murder Case

     In Chicago, Illinois, on September 19, 1910, a noise at two in the morning coming from her 15-year-old's bedroom, awoke Mary Hiller. She slipped into her robe and ventured into the hall where she noticed that the gaslight outside her daughter's room had been turned off. Fearing that an intruder had entered the house, Mrs. Hiller returned to the master bedroom and shook her husband awake.

    Clarence Hiller, on the landing en route to his daughter's room, bumped into Thomas Jennings, a 32-year-old paroled burglar in possession of a .38-caliber revolver. The men struggled, then tumbled down the stairway. At the foot of the stairs, Jennings, the bigger man, got to his feet, pulled his gun, and fired two shots. The first bullet entered Hiller's right arm, traveled up through his shoulder, and exited the left side of his neck. The second slug slammed into his chest, piercing his heart and lung before coming out his back. The gunman left the scene through the front door, leaving behind a screaming Mary Hiller, her dead husband, and a terrified 15-year-old girl who had been sexually molested.

     About a mile from the murder house, Jennings, walking with a limp, and bleeding from cuts on his arm, passed four off-duty police officers waiting for a streetcar. When questioned about his injuries, Jennings said he had fallen off a trolley. One of the officers patted him down, and discovered the recently fired handgun. The officers placed Jennings under arrest, and escorted the suspect to the police station.

     A few hours later, detectives at the murder scene found the two .38-caliber bullets that had passed through Clarence Hiller's body. Today, a forensic firearms identification expert would be able to match the crime scene slugs with bullets test-fired through the suspect's gun. But in 1910, this type of forensic identification was 15 year in the future. Investigators also determined that the intruder had entered the Hiller house through a kitchen window. A detective who was ahead of his time, found four fingerprint impressions on a freshly painted porch rail outside the point of entry. (Paint, in those days, dried slowly.) A technician with the police department's two-year-old fingerprint bureau, photographed the the finger marks that had been left in the dark gray paint. (The science of fingerprint identification first came to American from England in 1906 when the St. Louis Police Department started the country's first fingerprint bureau.) Mary Hiller, traumatized by the murder of her husband, failed to pick Thomas Jennings out of a police lineup. While roughed up, and the recipient of a third-degree interrogation, Jennings did not confess.

     At Jennings' May 1911 trial, two Chicago Police Department fingerprint examiners, a fingerprint technician from the police department in Ottawa, Canada, and a private expert who had studied fingerprint science at Scotland Yard, testified that the impressions on the porch rail matched the ridges on four of the defendant's fingers, placing him at the scene of the murder. While the idea that fingerprints were unique had been around for 20 years, this was the first U.S. jury to be presented with this form of impression evidence. The chance of convicting Jennings was not good, because the prosecution's case--the defendant's arrest one mile from the house, his injuries, his possession of a recently fired gun, and his murder scene fingerprints--was based entirely on circumstantial evidence. In those days, and to some extent today, jurors prefer direct evidence in the form of confessions and eyewitness identifications.

     Prior to the testimony of the four fingerprint witnesses, Jennings' attorney had objected to the introduction of this evidence on the grounds that this form of forensic identification had not been scientifically tested, and was therefore unreliable, and inadmissible. The trial judge, in allowing the fingerprint testimony, relied on a 1908 arson case, Carleton v. People, in which the defendant had been linked to the fire scene by impressions left by his shoes.

     The jury, following a short deliberation, found Thomas Jennings guilty of first-degree murder. To arrive at this verdict, the jurors had placed more weight on the physical evidence than on the defendant's claim of innocence. The judge sentenced Jennings to death.

     On appeal, Jennings' lawyer argued that there was no scientific proof that fingerprints were unique. By admitting the testimony of so-called fingerprint experts, the trial court had sentenced a man to the gallows on pseudoscience, and bogus expertise. The Illinois Supreme Court, on December 21, 1911, ruled that the Jennings trial judge had not made a judicial error by admitting the fingerprint testimony. This was good news for forensic science, and bad news for Thomas Jennings who died in 1912 at the end of a rope.

     People v. Jennings laid the groundwork for forensic fingerprint identification in America. By 1925, virtually every court in the United States accepted this form of impression evidence as proof of guilt. In medicine, illness leads to cures, and in law enforcement, murders produce advances in forensic science.  

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The Amy Senser Hit and Run Homicide Case

     Amy Senser and her husband Joe lived in Edina, Minnesota, an upscale Minneapolis suburb. Joe Senser, a NFL tight end with the Minnesota Vikings in the early 1980s, co-owned four Minneapolis-St. Paul area sports bars. A knee injury had ended his 4-year career with the Vikings. The businessman and sports commentator was a well-liked local celebrity. His attractive, 45-year-old wife Amy was also well-inown and popular. But on the night of August 23, 2011, Amy and Joe Senser's successful lives would take a sudden and tragic turn.

     On the night that changed everything for the Senser family, Amy and her daughters were attending a Katy Perry concert at the Xcell Energy Center in St. Paul. Ninety minutes into the show, Amy developed a headache and decided to drive home. She called Joe who agreed to pick up the girls after the concert.

     According to Amy's version of what happened, while driving Joe's Mercedes-Benz SUV on I-94's Riverside exit off-ramp, a poorly lit section of the highway under construction, she felt a jolt and thought she'd hit a pothole or had bumped a construction barrel. In fact, the right front of her vehicle had hit and killed a man from Laos named Anousone Phantauong. The 38-year-old chef at a Thai restaurant was pouring gasoline into his car that had rolled to a stop on the shoulder of the exit ramp.

     After the collision, Amy got lost, and called her husband. At one point, in her confusion, she came full circle and got off the interstate using the same Riverside exit. This time the area was lit up with the flashing lights of emergency vehicles. She did not associate this activity with the earlier jolt she had felt from either a pothole, or a construction barrel.

     The next morning, according to Amy Senser's account, Joe called her outside and asked how the Mercedes' right headlight and fog light had gotten knocked out. By then, they both had seen TV reports of Phantauong's death, and the search for the hit and run driver. Realizing what had happened the previous night, the Sensers called their lawyer, and later that day, surrendered the damaged Mercedes to the police.

     In speaking to the police, Amy admitted that just before the Katy Perry concert, she had gone to a nearby restaurant where she had consumed less than a full glass of wine. She insisted, however, that she had not been intoxicated when her car hit and killed Mr. Phantauong. Investigators believed she had been drunk, and because of that, had not stopped after plowing into the victim. Detectives were convinced she wanted to sober up before reporting the fatal accident.

     In November 2011, the Hennepin County prosecutor, Deborah Russell, charged Amy Senser with three vehicular related felonies: driving in a grossly negligent manner; leaving the scene of an accident; and failure to promptly report an accident. If convicted of all three charges, the defendant could face up to 30 years in prison. Because she hadn't confessed, and no witness to the accident had come forward, the case against Amy Senser was entirely circumstantial. To find her guilty, the jury would have to infer her state of mind that night. If they believed her testimony, they would have to acquit her.

     To find the defendant guilty of reckless driving, the jury would also have to infer she had been intoxicated at the time of the accident. The fact she had clipped Mr. Phantauong, a man who had placed himself in harm's way by standing just off a poorly lit exit ramp, was not, by itself, enough to establish gross negligence on her part. If the jurors did not find that she was drunk, they would probably not find that the accident was a result of reckless driving.

     The highly anticipated, media intense Amy Senser trial commenced on April 23, 2012. In an effort to prove that the defendant had been driving drunk that night, prosecutor Russell put a motorist on the stand. Shortly after the accident, the witness saw, on I-94, a Mercedes SUV being driven in an erratic manner. The witness passed this vehicle when it slowed to 40 MPH, and when she looked into her rearview mirror, noticed that the car's right front lights were out.

     Defense attorney Eric Nelson put on only one witness, Amy Senser. The defendant denied she had been intoxicated when her car hit what she thought was a pothole or a construction barrel. As for her erratic driving on I-94, she had dropped her cellphone between the seat and the center console, and was trying to fish it out.

     On May 2, 2012, the jury of 7 men and 5 women, after a grueling deliberation period of 19 hours, found Amy Senser guilty of two of the three felonies. Jurors acquitted the defendant of the gross negligent charge. Amy, who faced up to 20 years on prison, showed no emotion as the verdicts were read.

     At a post-trial press conference, attorney Eric Nelson said he would appeal his client's conviction on the grounds she had met the requirements of the state accident notification law. One of the jurors who spoke to reporters said, "It was just a very challenging case for us to come to a consensus."

     On July 10, 2012, the judge sentenced Amy Senser to 41 months in prison.

     Corrections authorities, on April 24, 2014, released Amy Senser from the Shakopee Women's Prison after she had served all but six months of her prison stretch. On October 20, 2014, following the completion of a six-month work release program, Senser, having served her hit-and-run sentence, was free.

   
   

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Travis M. Scott: The Swindler Who Faked a Suicide

     In 2006, Travis Magdalena Scott owned a computer company in Crystal, Minnesota that provided software to the U.S. Military and the private sector. That year, the 29-year-old scam artist filed a false insurance claim with Lloyd's of London based on a phony lightening strike he said had wiped out his computers and ruined his business. The insurance company paid him $3 million.

     Two years later, Scott was living in a 15-room, 5,300-square foot $1 million mansion in the Twin Cities area town of Eden Prairie. He owned a new computer company and had filed another false insurance claim. This time, to indemnify him for another computer destroying lightening strike, the insurer paid him $9.5 million.

     The FBI opened an investigation of Scott in 2010, and in early 2011, a federal grand jury sitting in Minneapolis indicted him for wire fraud, money laundering, and insurance fraud. If convicted of all charged, the crooked businessman faced up to thirty years in prison. FBI agents seized three of Scott's airplanes, a boat, three vehicles, and $5 million from various bank accounts in his name. Scott's mansion, taken over by the bank and put on the market, was now worth $600,000.

     In May 2011, pursuant to a plea deal involving a sentence of between five to ten years in prison, Travis Scott pleaded guilty to all charges. His sentencing hearing before a U.S. District Court judge was scheduled for mid-September 2011.

     A week before his sentencing, Scott staged a suicide by leaving his Kayak on the west shore of Lake Mille Lacs. Inside the overturned Kayak, Scott left a suicide note in which he wrote that he had drowned himself by jumping into the middle of the lake wearing heavy weights. (Had this been true, it would have been one odd suicide.)

     Following the staged suicide, Scott flew his Piper airplane from the Flying Cloud Airport near Eden Prairie Scott to the St. Andrew's Airport in Winnipeg, Canada. The aircraft bore fake Canadian registration decals. Three days later, Mille Lacs County Sheriff's deputies found the Kayak and the phony suicide note. The local authorities listed Scott as a missing person, and various law enforcement agencies in the region searched for his body.

     In Winnipeg, under the name Paul Decker, Scott set up residence in a downtown apartment. He purchased a Jeep, and lived with a cat. Things were going smoothly for the missing businessman until December 22, 2011. The Canadian authorities caught up to him 82 days after his staged suicide when, at a Winnipeg pharmacy, he used a forged prescription slip to acquire pills for his anxiety disorder.

     Police officers searching Scott's apartment seized $35,000 in U.S. and Canadian currency. The Winnipeg officers also recovered $85,000 in gold and silver coins. In Scott's Jeep, searchers found a loaded .45-caliber handgun. The officers also took Scott's Jeep and Piper aircraft.

     On February 11, 2013, Scott, now 37, pleaded guilty in a Winnipeg court to possession of a firearm and a customs act charge for failing to report to border officials. Lest Scott stage a second suicide along the shore of a Canadian lake, the judge sentenced him on the spot to three years and three months in a Canadian prison.

     In Minnesota, on November 19, 2013, a federal judge presided over Scott's sentencing hearing pertaining to his May 2011 guilty plea. At that proceeding, Scott argued that if the judge gave him probation he'd be able to work and pay back the money he had stolen. The federal prosecutor countered that argument by labeling Scott a "manipulative person" who showed no remorse for his crime.

     The U.S. District judge sentenced Travis Scott to 12 years 8 months in prison and held him responsible for more than $11 million in restitution. 

Monday, January 25, 2016

The Execution of Ex-Cop Manuel Pardo After 24 Years on Death Row

     In 1979, after having served four years in the Navy, 22-year-old Manuel Pardo graduated from the Florida Highway Patrol (FHP) academy at the top of his class. Following his involvement in a Miami-Dade County ticket-fixing scandal in 1980, Pardo was kicked out of the FHP. Shortly after his discharge, Pardo secured a job with the police department in the small Miami-Dade County town of Sweetwater. In 1981, Pardo and four other officers faced numerous complains of police brutality, charges that were quickly dismissed by a local prosecutor.

     The following year, Officer Pardo, after saving a two-month-old boy's life by reviving him with CPR, was awarded a public service medal. Manuel Pardo, in the fall of 1983, graduated from a local community college with a two-year associates degree in criminal justice. Just when officer Pardo's future looked the most promising, his career in law enforcement came to an abrupt end when he committed perjury at the 1985 trial of a drug dealer.

     From January to April 1986, the ex-cop embarked on a deadly crime spree in the Miami area. Within a period of three months, in the course of robbing dozens of drug dealers, Pardo murdered six men and three women. He documented his execution-style killings by taking crime scene photographs of his victims, and writing up detailed accounts of the murders in his diary. Pardo also put together a scrapbook comprised of newspaper clippings of his crimes. It was during this period that Pardo collected Nazi memorabilia, and professed a deep respect for Adolph Hitler.

     Because Pardo used his murder victims' credit cards, homicide detectives in Miami-Dade County quickly identified him as the man behind the drug dealer robbery/murders. Pardo's killing spree came to an end with his arrest in 1987. Eager to take credit for, and even brag about his murders, Pardo confessed to nine homicides.

     At Pardo's 1988 trial, his defense attorneys raised the insanity defense which fell apart when the defendant took the strand on his own behalf. Jurors couldn't believe it when he told them that, "I'm ridding the community of this vermin and technically it is not murder because they are not human beings. I am a soldier, I accomplished my mission and I humbly ask you to give me the glory of ending my life and not let me spend the rest of my days in the state prison."

     The jury found Manuel Pardo guilty of nine counts of first-degree murder. The judge then granted the defendant's wish by sentencing him to death. Pardo became a death row inmate at the Florida state prison in the town of Starke.

     Instead of his life ending gloriously with a quick execution, Pardo, thanks to his anti-death penalty attorneys, languished on death row for 24 years. In filing their appeals in state and federal courts, Pardo's lawyers argued that because this killer had not been mentally competent, he should never have been tried in the first place. Over the years, the various appellate court judges rejected this argument and upheld Pardo's conviction and death sentence.

     In 2012, as Pardo's execution date approached, his attorneys, in a last ditch effort to save him, tried a new appellate approach. The state of Florida had recently altered the combination of drugs used by the executioner to dispatch condemned prisoners. The lawyers argued that if prison officials improperly mixed the lethal concoction, the anesthetic effect of the lethal dose might be compromised. If this happened, the execution might be painful, and therefore inhumane and in violation of Mr. Pardon's civil rights. A federal judge rejected the appeal. That meant that Pardo's execution would go forward as scheduled.

     At 7:45 in the evening of Tuesday, December 11, 2012, the executioner at the state prison in Starke, injected the 56-year-old Pardo with the lethal cocktail of drugs. Since the new combination did its job, we will never know if Mr. Pardo felt any pain. But one thing is sure, this sociopathic murderer did not die in glory.

     

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Sandy Ford: The Murder-Suicide Pact That Killed Five

     In 2009, Chris and Mandy Hayes lived with their four children, ages seven, six, three, and two, in Sylvania Township, Ohio, a community of 20,000 ten miles northwest of Toledo not far from the Michigan state line. Because their 6-year-old son had "behavioral problems" and required extra attention, Mandy Hayes' parents, Sandy and Randy Ford, agreed to temporarily care for and house their other three children. The grandparents resided in west Toledo.

     In the fall of 2012, Chris and Mandy Hayes decided it was time to reunite the family under the same roof. Their troubled son had received a lot of help and was now on medication. This decision, however, did not sit well with Sandy Ford, the 56-year-old grandmother who did not want her three grandchildren leaving her home. Mother and daughter quarreled repeatedly over whether it was safe to return 10-year-old Paige, 6-year-old Logan, and 5-year-old Madalyn to their parents' home in Sylvania Township.

     On November 6, 2012, at 5:50 in the evening, officers with the Toledo Police Department responded to a domestic disturbance call at the Ford residence. Mandy Hayes and her mother had gotten into a fight over the children that led to the grandmother being taken to the hospital for injuries to her shoulder and eye. According to the police report, Sandy Ford told officers that the "family crisis is continuing while the children are at the mother's home in Sylvania Township."

     The Hayes children were scheduled to move back into their parents' home on November 7, 2012, but when it was time for the switch, the police were summoned when another fight broke out between the children's mother and grandmother. The next day, under police escort, the three children were transferred back to the family home in Sylvania Township. This did not, however, end the domestic feud.

     On November 8, the day she lost physical custody of her three grandchildren, Sandy Ford and her 32-year-old live-in son Andy, began preparing for mass murder and suicide. Early on Monday morning, November 12, 2012, Sandy and her adult son boarded up the doors and windows to the Ford's unattached, double garage. Later that morning, at twenty after eight, Mandy Hayes delivered her three children to Whiteford Elementary. Sandy Ford, who had been waiting for them in the school lobby, intercepted the children and escorted them out of the building and into her car. Sandy transported her grandchildren from Sylvlania Township to her home in west Toledo.

     The grandmother drove her blue Honda Civic into the garage next to the family pickup. She (or Andy) unplugged the overhead garage door operating system, and threw the manual locking latch. The children, carrying snacks and coloring books, and accompanied by two dogs and a cat, climbed into the back seat of the car. Sandy, or her son, ran a hose from the pickup truck's exhaust into the Honda via a back seat window. After someone started the pickup, Andy and his mother joined the children and the pets in the back seat of the Honda.

     That morning, at ten o'clock, officials from the Whiteford Elementary School in Sylvania Township called Mandy Hayes to report that her children were not in class. At the mother's request, a police officer drove to the Ford residence in west Toledo. He knocked on the door, and when no one answered, he left the scene. (The officer must not have heard the truck running in the unattached garage.) The police returned to the Ford home several times that morning and early afternoon, but did not enter the dwelling.

     Randy Ford, the 60-year-old grandfather, spoke to a police officer stationed outside the house when he arrived home from work at 2:30 that afternoon. Mr. Ford entered the dwelling, and inside found "suspicious" notes from his wife and the grandchildren that suggested murder-suicide.

     At 3:30 that afternoon, a member of the fire department broke into the garage with a sledgehammer. The emergency responder discovered Sandy Ford, Andy Ford, and the three Hayes children. They had died from carbon monoxide poisoning. The pets were dead as well.

     On November 15, Mandy Hayes told a local television correspondent that "I don't know what happened. They [her mother and brother] weren't in their right minds. That's all I can say. Something snapped...I just can't explain it, really." To the same TV reporter, the children's father said, "I think she [Sandy Ford] really did not want those kids to ever come home, is what the deal was there. She felt she was their mother." 

Saturday, January 23, 2016

James Wolcott aka James St. James: Mass Killer to Professor

     In 1967 when he was fifteen, James Gordon Wolcott lived in the central Texas town of Georgetown, the home of Southwestern University. His father, Dr. Gordon Wolcott, headed up the university's Biology Department. His mother Elizabeth, an outgoing woman, was active in the religious community. James and his 17-year-old sister Libby attended Georgetown High School.

     At ten on the night of August 4, 1967, James and Libby returned home after attending a rock concert with friends in nearby Austin. Just after midnight, James sniffed model airplane glue to give himself a "boost." Armed with a .22 rifle, he walked into the living room and shot his father to death by plugging him twice in the chest. In Libby's room, James killed his sister by shooting her in the chest and in the face. The teenager found his mother in her bedroom where he shot her twice in the head and once in the chest.

     With his father and sister dead, and his mother in her room dying, James hid the rifle in the attic crawlspace above his bedroom closet. After he disposed of the weapon, James ran out of the house and flagged down a car occupied by three college students. After telling these students that someone had killed his family, they returned with him to the house. Inside the dwelling, the students found Mrs. Wolcott hanging onto her life in her bedroom. One of the young men called for an ambulance and the police. (This was pre-911.)

     On the front porch of the Wolcott house, James kept yelling, "How could this happen!" He, of course, knew exactly how it happened. When it occurred to the college kids that the killer could still be in the dwelling, they fled the scene.

     Later that morning, Elizabeth Wolcott died at the hospital. A minister who happened to be a Wolcott neighbor took James to his parsonage. A few hours later, when a Texas Ranger asked James if he had killed his family, the youngster said, "Yes, sir." At that point James had the presence of mind to describe in detail what he had done. At the killing site, he showed police officers where he hid the rifle.

     When asked the obvious question of why, James said he hated his family. He later told psychiatrists that his mother chewed her food so loudly he had to leave the room. His sister had an annoying Texas accent, and his father made him cut his hippie hair and wouldn't allow him to wear anti-Vietman war buttons or attend peace rallies.

     Several psychiatrist interviewed James at the Williamson County Jail. From the young mass killer they learned that he had been sniffing glue for several months. James also told the shrinks that he had contemplated suicide. He said that his parents and sister had tried to drive him insane. He killed them before they had a chance to murder him.

     Although James and members of his family did not have histories of mental illness, the psychiatrists concluded that the boy suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. (There may have been doctors who disagreed with this conclusion.) One thing was certain, with an I Q of 134, the kid was no dummy. Notwithstanding the diagnosis of schizophrenia, the psychiatrists declared the defendant mentally competent to stand trial as an adult.

     As could be expected, the murder defendant's attorney, Will Kelly McClain, set up a defense based on legal insanity. In October 1967, following a short trial, the all-male jury found James Wolcott not guilty by reason of insanity. The jurors believed that James had been so mentally impaired he had no idea that killing his family was wrong. (Since the Wolcott verdict, only a handful of Texas murder defendants have been declared not guilty by reason of insanity. This rarely happens because there is no such thing as a mental illness so severe that it completely destroys a killer's appreciation of what he is doing. In the history of Texas jurisprudence, the James Wolcott case is an anomaly.)

     In February 1968, the trial judge sent James Wolcott to the Rusk State Hospital in Nacodoches, Texas. He was to be incarcerated there until he regained his sanity. That sentence placed his fate in the hands of psychiatrists.

     In 1974, seven years after the mass killing in the Texas college town, Rusk State Hospital psychiatrists declared the 21-year-old killer sane. The young man had made a remarkable recovery for someone who had been so mentally ill that he didn't realize that shooting his family to death was wrong.

     As the only surviving child of his deceased parents, James Wolcott inherited their estate, and started receiving a monthly stipend from his father's university pension fund.

     Upon his departure from Rusk State Hospital, James took up residence in Austin, Texas where he enrolled at Stephen F. Austin University. Just two years later, he had a Bachelor's Degree in psychology.

     At some point in the late 1970s, James Wolcott changed his name to James David St. James. In 1980, Mr. St. James, having acquired his Master's Degree, began his doctoral work in psychology at the University of Illinois. In 1988, Dr. St. James began teaching psychology at Millikin University, a Presbyterian liberal arts institution in Decatur, Illinois. No one at the school knew that the psychology professor had shot three members of his family to death twenty years earlier. Had he included this relevant background information on his job application, it is doubtful the university would have hired him. Having been declared criminally insane, even in the field of academic psychology, is not a job-hunting selling point.

     In July 2013, a Texas journalist named Ann Marie Gardner published an article that revealed Dr. St. James' homicidal past. When the story broke, the academic, who did not have a family of his own, headed the Behavioral Sciences Department at Millikin University. While the secretive professor's colleagues and students were probably shocked, no one at the school voiced disapproval. In fact, at least in academic circles, Dr. St. James emerged from his exposure as a hero, a poster-boy for the power and glory of the behavioral sciences. (Had he been working for a plumbing company, he would have been fired.) If the professor's colleagues and students were stunned by the creepy irony of Dr. St. James' story, no one has said so. (University campuses, ground zero of extreme political correctness, are not places where students and professors can speak freely.)

     There are probably members of the Wolcott family who are still psychologically scarred by James Wolcott's killing spree. There was no indication, however, that what took place that night in 1967 had any lingering affect on the killer himself. And there was no evidence that Dr. St. James is still schizophrenic. This was interesting because the disease is incurable. (All of the homicidal schizophrenics I have written about--including the subject of a book--struggled with the malady their entire lives. One of these men who couldn't take living with the illness eventually killed himself.)

     One possible explanation for James Wolcott's rapid and apparent total recovery from this devastating disease is that he wasn't insane in the first place. Following his arrest, James told his interrogators that he had been thinking about killing his family for a week. Moreover, if he wasn't aware that what he had done was wrong, why did he hide the gun? Is it possible we was a brilliant sociopath who pulled one over on the psychiatrists, the criminal justice system, and academia?
   

       

Thursday, January 21, 2016

The Sierra "CeCe" Sims Kidnapping Hoax

     High school basketball standout Sierra "CeCe" Sims, in August 2008, arrived at Alabama's Auburn University with a full athletic scholarship. As a high school player in Brentwood, Tennessee, CeCe had led her team to three regional titles. The five-foot-seven inch point guard, a former Teen pageant contestant, also played the guitar. (Her father, Tommy Sims co-wrote the Grammy-winning Eric Clapton hit, "Change the World.")

     The 18-year-old college freshman, once a member of the Auburn Tiger's women's basketball team, a powerhouse in the Southeastern Conference, had to deal with being away from home, academic life on the university level, and living up to expectations on the basketball court.

     Shortly after arriving at the university, CeCe began drinking heavily every night. In late September 2008 she called her mother Kathie and said she wanted to come home. Kathie told her distraught daughter to talk to coach Nell Fortner. Taking her mother's advice, CeCe called the coach. When CeCe hung up the phone after their chat, the coach felt that everything would be fine for the freshman prospect.

     The next morning, when CeCe failed to show up for the six o'clock practice, Fortner became concerned. When the coach made inquiries regarding CeCe's whereabouts, her roommate said at 2:30 that morning she had stormed out of the dormitory and rode off into the night on her bicycle. None of her acquaintances had seen her since.

     Not long after campus searchers couldn't find CeCe, university officials asked the authorities to issue an Amber Alert. Eighteen hours later, a parol officer looking for the missing student almost hit CeCe with his patrol car. When the officer approached the girl, she said, "I'm CeCe Sims."

     Questioned at the local police department, CeCe told detectives she had been kidnapped by a man and a woman who pulled up alongside her in a pickup truck. After being dragged into the vehicle, the abductors forced her to drink alcohol and take pills. As a result of being drugged, she couldn't recall in detail what had happened to her.

     Under close questioning by detectives, CeCe's story didn't hold up. In an effort to get the student to reveal where she had been since leaving the dorm at 2:30 the previous morning, officers threatened her with the possibility of being charged with a crime. Notwithstanding that threat, she stuck to her highly implausible story.    

     The police did not open a kidnapping investigation, and CeCe was not charged with false reporting. She dropped out of school and returned home to Brentwood, Tennessee.

     In 2014, CeCe Sims, now 23, posted a video on the Internet acknowledging that she had indeed made up the kidnapping story in September of 2008. When she left the dormitory that night she had ridden her bike to a nearby Walmart where she hid for almost eighteen hours.

     According to CeCe Sims, the pressure at Auburn had been too much for her. "I didn't want to disappoint my parents," she said, "so I thought, what better way to say I was kidnapped? That way I wouldn't have to quit and be known as a quitter."

     When the story broke regarding CeCe and the kidnapping hoax, former Auburn coach Nell Fortner described to an ABC reporter the pressure student/athletes are under at schools like Auburn. "Your schedule might take you to the Bahamas or to Hawaii. They are going to get a great education….But they pay heavily for that because working out is tough. They are up at five in the morning, and they don't get to bed until eleven at night."

     Following the scandal, Sierra CeCe Sims moved in with her parents while she pursued a career in the music business. 

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Gregory Graf Murder Case

     Jessica Padgett, a 33-year-old mother of three, was last seen at 12:45 in the afternoon of Friday November 21, 2014 by fellow employees at the Duck Duck Goose Daycare Center in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Surveillance camera footage revealed that 15 minutes after she left the the center, her car was returned to the daycare parking lot by a man whose face was not caught on camera.

     Police and volunteers in the eastern Pennsylvania community searched several days without finding a trace of the missing woman. Investigators feared foul play.

     On Wednesday November 26, five days after Padgett went missing, police officers executing a search warrant in and around the house in Allen Township where her mother and stepfather resided, found her remains buried behind a shed on the 7-acre plot of land.

     On the day of the body recovery, police officers took the victim's stepfather, 53-year-old Gregory R. Graf, into custody on suspicion of murder. At the time Jessica Padgett went missing her mother was in Florida.

     Graf, a dedicated hunter who grew marijuana on his property, owned a local fencing company. Under police questioning, he initially denied any knowledge of his stepdaughter's disappearance and murder. He said he had no idea how her body ended up in the ground on his property. But when detectives pressed Graf with inconsistencies in his story and confronted him with physical evidence that linked him to the disappearance and murder, he broke down and confessed.

     Graf admitted shooting Padgett in the back of the head shortly after she left the daycare center that day. He was vague, however, regarding his motive. Investigators believed Graf had raped the victim before he killed her. As it turned out, detectives had the order of these acts reversed.

     Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli charged Gregory Graf with first-degree murder. The judge denied the suspect bail.

     On December 5, 2014, a search of Graf's computer revealed a video of the suspect having sex with his stepdaughter's corpse. This act of necrophilia on the remains of a woman he had murdered for that purpose made Graf, under Pennsylvania law, eligible for the death penalty.

     Following the discovery of the postmortem sex video the prosecutor added the charge of abuse of corpse.

     At his arraignment, Graf asked the judge to appoint him a free defense attorney. The defendant said he didn't want to take resources from his family to pay for a lawyer. The judge denied this request on the grounds the suspect had enough money to pay for his own attorney.

     On November 13, 2015, following Graf's four-day trial, the jury found him guilty of first-degree murder. In arriving at this verdict, jurors deliberated less than ten minutes. The conviction brought a mandatory life sentence without the possibility of parole.

     Graf's attorney, in his closing argument, had told jurors that while his client was guilty of third-degree murder and deserved to be punished, the killing hadn't been premeditated. According to the defense attorney, "Something snapped." The jury obviously didn't buy this line of defense. They wanted this sexually perverted killer to spend the rest of his life in prison.

     

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Charles "Chase" Merritt and the McStay Family Murder Case

     Joseph McStay, a 40-year-old owner of a company that installed home water fountains, resided with his wife Summer and their two boys in Fallbrook, a suburban community 55 miles north of San Diego, California. On Monday, February 8, 2010, the McStays were reported missing after a security guard in Ysidro, a town across the border from Tijuana, Mexico, discovered the family's locked and apparently abandoned Isuzu Trooper parked in a mini-mall parking lot two blocks from the border.

     A surveillance camera on a neighbor's house in Fallbrook showed the couple and their boys, ages three and four, pulling out of their driveway in their SUV at 7:45 in the morning of February 4, 2010.

     Poor quality surveillance camera footage on the Ysidro/Tijuana border revealed a family resembling the McStays walking into Mexico four days after they were video-recorded leaving their home in Fallbrook.

     On February 14, 2010, police officers entered the McStay's cul-de-sac home in Fallbrook. The house had not been forcibly entered. Moreover, officers found no evidence of a struggle or the theft of household property. Police officers found bowls of popcorn in the living room and eggs on the kitchen counter. The family's two dogs were in the backyard, an indication the McStays hadn't planned for an extended trip.

     Investigators found no recent activity on the McStay's credit cards or bank account. An examination of their home computer revealed an Internet search that read: "What documents do children need for traveling to Mexico." Friends and relatives, however, had no knowledge that the McStays had planned a short trip into Mexico. After leaving Fallbrook that morning, the family simply disappeared.

     At ten in the morning of November 11, 2013, an off-road motorcyclist near a dirt road in the desert outside the San Bernardino County town of Victorville, came across what appeared to be human bones. At that location, 100 miles north of Fallbrook, detectives discovered two shallow graves each containing two sets of skeletal remains. A few of the bones had been scattered by animals. Items of clothing were also recovered from the scene. The remains were not far from Interstate 15 that connects that part of California to Las Vegas.

     Forensic scientists, through dental records, identified Joseph McStay and his 43-year-old wife Summer as being the two adults found in one of the desert graves. The other two sets of skeletons belonged to their children. According to San Bernardino County Sheriff John McMahon, the McStays and their children had been murdered. The Sheriff, at that time, did not reveal how they had been killed. There were no suspects.

     In speaking to reporters, Joseph McStay's father said he did not believe the people in the Ysidro surveillance footage seen walking into Mexico depicted his son and his family. "My son doesn't walk that way," he said. "They didn't walk into Mexico. They would never do that." The father explained that his son and his wife were aware of the Mexican drug gangs and would not have exposed the children to that risk.

     On November 5, 2014, deputies with the San Bernardino Sheriff's Office arrested Charles "Chase" Merritt at his  home in Chatsworth, California for the murder of the McStay family. The 57-year-old and Joseph McStay had been business partners. The authorities did not reveal a motive for the mass murder.

     Investigators believed the victims had been bludgeoned to death in their Fallbrook home. They had not traveled to Mexico after all. Apparently the murder suspect had disposed of their bodies in the desert outside of Victorville. Deputies booked Merritt into the West Valley Detention Center on four counts of murder. The judge denied the suspect bail.

     In the wake of Chase Merritt's arrest, Patrick McStay, Joseph McStay's father, criticized the San Diego County Sheriff's Office. According to the father, the agency that initially took control of the case didn't actively investigate it. Detectives in San Diego were operating on the theory that the family had traveled to Mexico where they were killed.

     "I know they screwed this thing up," Mr. McStay said. "All the rest was just sugar coating to make it look like they really were interested in solving the case, doing something. They did virtually nothing."

     Regarding the quadruple murder suspect, Mr. McShay said, "Chase was always somebody chasing the dollar. I think that's what it was. It was all about the money."

     On January 30, 2015, Chase Merritt told a judge that he wanted to represent himself at his upcoming murder trial. He said he only had six to eight months to live and wanted to move the process along as quickly as he could. In November 2014, he had been diagnosed with congestive heart failure. Merritt's attorney, Robert Ponce, despite his client's health problems and lack of legal background, informed the judge that Merritt had the intellect to adequately defend himself. The judge scheduled a hearing on the issue for February 20, 2015.

     The judge denied Merritt's request to represent himself, and scheduled the murder trial for July 2015. In July, the judge moved the trial date to September. On September 4, 2015, the same judge postponed the trial to allow Merritt's attorneys to request funds for an expert witness. The Merritt defense hoped to find a forensic scientist to contest the prosecution's key piece of physical evidence: the defendant's DNA inside the victim family's vehicle.

     As of January 2016, the case had not come to trial.


Monday, January 18, 2016

The Kayleigh Slusher Murder Case

     In 2014, three-year-old Kayleigh Slusher lived with her mother, Sara Krueger, 23, and Krueger's 26-year-old boyfriend, Ryan Scott Warner. The couple and the toddler resided in Unit 7 at the Royal Garden apartment complex in east Napa, California.

     Over the past five years, Warner had been in and out of bay area jails for a variety of crimes including assault and possession of drugs. When his former girlfriend, Ashley Owens, refused to abort their child, Warner had sent her a series of threatening text messages that read: "I hope the kid dies," "I will scalp you," and "I will bust out your teeth with a pipe." Warner was obviously a violent man who didn't like children, or women.

     Since June 2012, Napa police officers had been called to the Krueger apartment more than a dozen times on reports of domestic disturbance, theft, vandalism, and unwanted persons. By any standard, Unit 7 at the Royal Garden complex was a dangerous place to raise a child. And a lot of relatives and neighbors knew this. The only people who seemed oblivious to the situation were the police and the child welfare authorities. Unfortunately, these were the only people with the power to protect Kayleigh Slusher.

     On January 27, 2014, a neighbor called the Napa police and requested a welfare check at Unit 7. According to the caller, Krueger and her boyfriend were using drugs and not feeding the little girl. They were also making a commotion and fighting with each other. Police officers visited the apartment that day and didn't find drugs or evidence of narcotics use. The officers also observed Kayleigh who seemed okay. The officers did not notify child protective services. They left things as they found them.

     A Krueger relative, worried about the little girl, called the authorities two days later. On January 29, police officers returned to the apartment, examined the girl, and left. This would be the last day of Kayleigh's short life.

     At 11:50 AM on Saturday, February 1, 2014, a police dispatcher in the bay area city of Richmond received an anonymous call from a man who had "something to get off his chest" about Sara Kreuger and her boyfriend. According to the tipster, the boyfriend, a guy named Brian or Ryan, had done something bad to Krueger's daughter.

     That day, two police officers arrived at Unit 7, knocked on the door, and didn't get a response. A neighbor informed the officers that the day before, January 31, 2014, a man and woman, presumably the occupants of the unit, left the apartment. The little girl was not with them. Using a key they had acquired from the apartment complex manager, the officers entered the dwelling.

     In one of the bedrooms the officers found Kayleigh in bed covered in blankets up to her neck. Next to her body lay a doll. She was dead, and cold to the touch. She also had bruises around her eyes and blood in her nostrils. (A forensic pathologist would determine the cause of death to be "multiple blunt impact injuries to the head, torso, and extremities." The pathologist also found evidence of prior child abuse and neglect. Manner of death: Homicide.)

     The following day, February 2, police arrested Krueger and Warner at a BART station in El Cerrito, California. According to the murdered girl's mother, she found Kayleigh dead when she returned to the apartment on the afternoon of January 30, 2014. Krueger said she placed the body into a plastic bag and stored it for awhile in a freezer before tucking the little corpse into the bed.

     Sara Krueger and Ryan Warner were booked into the Napa County Jail on charges of murder and felony assault of a child causing death. If convicted as charged, they faced up to 25 years to life in prison.

     On February 25, 2014, at the murder suspects' arraignment before Napa Superior Court Judge Mark Boessenecker, the couple pleaded not guilty. The judge denied both suspects bail.

     In June 2015, the dead child's father, grandmother and grandfather filed a lawsuit in a San Francisco federal court against the Napa Police Department and Napa County Child Welfare Services for failing to investigate reports of child abuse.

     As of January 2016, Sara Krueger and Ryan Warner were still waiting to be tried for murder. 

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Reshad Riddle, in The Name of Allah, Murdered His Father in Church

     Reverend David Howard had just finished his Easter service on Sunday, March 31, 2013 at the Hiawatha Church of God in Christ in the northeastern Ohio town of Ashtabula. As congregants began to file out of the church, Reshad Riddle entered the building carrying a handgun and yelling something about God and Allah. A couple of church members grabbed the minister and ushered him to safety inside an office in the back of the building. Other congregants hit the floor and dialed 911 on their cellphones.

     The 25-year-old gunman walked up to Richard Riddle, his 52-year-old father, and shot him in the head. The victim died on the spot. Waving the gun in the air, Reshad Riddle screamed that the murder had been "the will of Allah. This is the will of God," he yelled.

     Police officers stormed into the church and took the killer into custody before he shot anyone else.

     In 2006, Reshad, then 18, was charged with felonious assault and kidnapping in connection with his attempt to cut his girlfriend's throat. A year later he was arrested for another felonious assault. Riddle was charged again in 2009 for possession of cocaine and tampering with evidence.

     Ashtabula Chief of Police Robert Stell told an Associated Press reporter that "There was no indication that the father and son had a bad relationship. Everyone thinks this was very surprising," he said. Really? Why wasn't this man in prison? Are they putting anyone away these days?

     After a local prosecutor charged Riddle with aggravated murder, officers booked him into the Ashtabula County Jail. The judge set his bond at $1 million.

     On December 20, 2013, a judge declared Reshad Riddle incompetent to stand trial. In this ruling, the judge relied on the testimony of two psychiatrists who had examined the defendant.

     In December 2014, Ashtabula County Judge Ronald Vettel, based upon the findings of psychologist Thomas Gazely, officially declared Riddle legally insane. On January 15, 2015, the judge sentenced Reshad Riddle to life at the Northeast Behavioral Health Care System in Cleveland, Ohio.

     The lifelong incarceration reflected the belief that Riddle's mental illness was not manageable and that he would remain a danger to society as long as he lived.  

Saturday, January 16, 2016

The Debra Milke Murder-For-Hire Case

     In December 1989, 25-year-old Debra Milke lived in Phoenix, Arizona with her 4-year-old son Christopher and James Styers. Milke rented a room in Styers' house. A few days before Christmas, Milke asked Styers to drive Christopher to the mall so he could visit Santa Claus. Instead of taking the boy to the shopping mall, Styers and a friend drove him to a secluded ravine outside of town where Styers shot the boy three times in the head. Detectives and prosecutors believed that Debra Milke had arranged the murder of her son for a $50,000 insurance payout. (The insurance policy, part of her employment package, amounted to $5,000.)

     Styers confessed to the homicide and was convicted of first degree-murder. At his trial, neither he nor his friend implicated Milke in the alleged murder-for-hire plot. No other witnesses came forward with incriminating evidence against the mother.

     Evidence that Debra Milke had plotted the murder came from a Phoenix detective named Armando Saldate. According to the detective, Milke told him that her role in the conspiracy to murder her son had been "a bad judgment call." Milke's interrogation had not been recorded and Saldate was the only officer involved in her questioning. Milke proclaimed her innocence from the beginning and denied making any kind of confession to Detective Saldate or anyone else. A local prosecutor, relying on the detective's credibility, charged Milke with murder, conspiracy to commit murder, child abuse, and kidnapping.

     Detective Saldate, at Milke's October 1990 murder trial, testified that the mother had confessed to him regarding her role in her son's homicide. The defendant took the stand, professed her innocence, and called the detective a liar. As is often the case, jurors believed the police officer over the defendant. The jury returned a guilty verdict. A few months later, the judge sentenced Debra Milke to death.

     As it turned out, Detective Armando Saldate was in fact a notorious liar. Prior to his interrogation of Milke he had been caught committing perjury in four criminal trials. His credibility was so comprised judges refused to accept into evidence confessions this detective had acquired.

     On March 14, 2013, Chief Federal Judge Alex Kozinski of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, overturned Milke's conviction and vacated her sentence. The 49-year-old had been on Arizona's death row for 22 years. Based on Detective Saldate's history of perjury and other incidents of police misconduct, Judge Kozinski ruled that Milke's confession should have been excluded from her trial. Without this dishonest detective's tainted testimony, the prosecution had no case. In rationalizing his decision, Judge Kozinski wrote: "No civilized system of justice should have to depend on such flimsy evidence, quite possibly tainted by dishonesty or overzealousness, to decide whether to take someone's life or liberty."

     On September 6, 2013, Judge Rosa Mroz of the Maricopa County Superior Court set the 49-year-old prisoner free on $250,000 bond. County prosecutors said they planned to bring Milke back to trial by the end of that month. Once again, the prosecution would seek the death penalty. The defendant's attorneys petitioned the Arizona Court of Appeals to throw out the first-degree murder charge.

     On December 12, 2014, a three-judge panel on the state appeals court ruled that a retrial in the Milke case would amount to double jeopardy. According to the court, "The failure to disclose evidence calls into question the integrity of the system and was highly prejudicial to this defendant." The appellate court ordered the dismissal of all charges against Debra Milke.

    

Friday, January 15, 2016

The Camia Gamet Murder Case: Marcel Hill's Violent Life and Brutal Death

     In 2013, 30-year-old Marcel Hill and Camia Gamet, 38, shared an apartment in Jackson, Michigan, a town of 34,000 in the south central part of the state. She had been raised in foster homes and claimed to have been raped by a foster dad. People who knew Gamet were aware of her violent streak and abuse of drugs, a combination that made her unpredictable and dangerous.

     Marcel Hill, a high school graduate and fast food worker, was by contrast friendly and child-like. According to members of his family, he suffered "cognitive limitations" that made it difficult for him to handle simple everyday tasks like paying his bills. Unlike Gamet, he didn't have a violent bone in his body. This odd couple relationship would cost Mr. Hill his life.

     A year or so earlier, Camia Gamet, in a fit of rage, stabbed Marcel Hill with a knife, then stitched up his wound herself. Neither one of them reported the assault to the authorities. On another occasion, she sent Marcel to the hospital with a punctured lung. That assault did not lead to her arrest. But in March 2013, a Jackson County prosecutor charged Gamet with domestic violence and felonious assault after she pounded Marcel on the head with a hammer. Because he was afraid to press the matter, and refused to cooperate with law enforcement personnel, the prosecutor had no choice but to close the case.

     In the early morning hours of Saturday, May 18, 2013, a neighbor called 911 to report domestic violence at the odd couple's dwelling. Responding police officers found a blood-covered Gamet staggering around and slurring her words outside the apartment. Inside, officers found smashed furniture, a broken floor lamp, a bloody filet knife, and a damaged frying pan covered in blood.

     Amid all of the destruction and gore, officers discovered Marcel Hill. He had been repeatedly bludgeoned with hard objects--presumably the broken lamp and the frying pan--stabbed eleven times, and cut wide open in the torso with the knife.

     Police officers arrested Gamet that night. On Wednesday, May 20, 2013, a Jackson County prosecutor charged Camia Camet with open criminal homicide. (This meant a jury or a judge could determine the appropriate degree of murder in the event of a conviction.)

     The Gamet murder trial got underway in late February 2014. In her opening statement to the jury, Chief Assistant Prosecutor Kati Rezmierski portrayed the defendant as a violent person and a proven liar. According to the prosecutor, Gamet had deliberately and knowingly beaten, stabbed and slashed the victim to death.

     Defense attorney Anthony Raduazo told the jury that his client woke up from a drug-induced stupor that night to the sound of shattering glass. Believing that she was being attacked by an intruder, Gamet grabbed the lamp and the knife and used these objects to defend herself. Attorney Raduazo said the defendant had acted out of a "fear-driven rage," noting that in the encounter she had herself received cuts and bruises.

     After six days of prosecution testimony, the defense attorney put Gamet on the stand to testify on her own behalf. In telling her story of self-defense, Gamet did not come off as a very credible or sympathetic witness.

     In his closing remarks to the jury, attorney Raduazo said, "She is a woman and she is asleep and she is full of drugs and she is full of liquor. Did she react in a thoughtful manner? Or did she jump up and try to defend herself?" Raduazo pointed out that Gamet had not tried to dispose of Hill's body or clean up the death scene. "If this was preplanned and premeditated," he said, "it was a heck of a bad plan."

     Prosecutor Rezmierski, when it came her turn to address the jurors for the last time, said, "The victim did not die quickly. He knew his death was coming. The victim tried to protect himself and flee, but he was no match for the defendant. He never was a match." As to Gamet's supposed injuries, the prosecutor said, "She has barely a scratch, and he's eviscerated."

     On March 5, 2014, following a short period of deliberation, the jury returned a verdict of first-degree murder.

     At Camia Gamet's sentencing hearing on April 16, 2014, County Circuit Court Judge John McBain saw the convicted murderer roll her eyes and snicker during a court presentation by one of Marcel Hill's aunts. The sight infuriated the judge who, in speaking directly to Gamet said, "You gutted him like a fish in the apartment! You were relentless! You stabbed, you stabbed, you stabbed, you stabbed, you stabbed until he was dead! I agree with the family, I hope you die in prison! You know, if this was a death penalty state, you'd be getting the chair!"

     Judge McBain sentenced Camia Gamet to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Afterward, defense attorney Raduazo told reporters he would appeal his client's verdict and the sentence. That appeal is pending. 

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Christopher Hubbart: The Pillowcase Rapist

     In 1969, when Christopher Hubbart attended high school in Los Angeles, he reached out and touched a woman's breast as she walked by him on the street. He touched several woman this way until he quickly evolved into a rapist. In the early 1970s, the sexual predator drove around Los Angeles in the morning hours looking for women to rape.

     Hubbart had a simple criminal modus operandi:  in residential neighborhoods he'd look for open garage doors that revealed that the man of the house had left for work. If Hubbart saw toys in the yard or in the garage he knew children were in the house. Hubbart believed that mothers protective of their children were more likely to submit to him without a struggle. As a calculating sexual predator, Christopher Hubbart represented one of society's worst nightmares.

     Once inside his carefully chosen victim's home, Hubbart bound the woman's hands, and while he raped her, held a pillow over her face. In 1972, the so-called "pillowcase rapist" sexually assaulted 26 women in Los Angeles County.

     Detectives identified and arrested Hubbart in 1973. He pleaded guilty, and instead of being sent to prison for at least fifty years, the judge sent him for sex offender treatment at the Atascadero State Hospital. At that time, criminal justice practitioners in California thought they could rehabilitate anyone. As a result, the state became a haven for sex offenders. (It still is.)

     In 1979, after a team of therapists, counselors, psychologists, and psychiatrists proudly proclaimed that the pillowcase rapist had been cured and was no longer a danger to society, these mental health experts decided to treat him as an outpatient. Hubbart must have been grateful for his clean bill of health and the chance to continue his career as a serial rapist.

     Within months of walking out of the state hospital, Hubbart raped several women in northern California. Convicted in 1980, the judge sentenced him to prison instead of putting him back into the hands of counselors and therapists. But this was California, and in 1990, corrections experts released him on parole. As could be expected by anyone who knows anything about serial sex offenders, Hubbart re-offended. He raped a female jogger shortly after his release from prison.

      The authorities sent the pillowcase rapist back to prison. One would think that as a habitual rapist, Mr. Hubbart was finally in prison for good. The parole authorities, obviously with warm spots in their hearts for rapists, released him back into society after three years behind bars.

     In 1996, while living in the Los Angeles County town of Claremont, California, Hubbart told his parole officer that he felt he was losing control of himself. Later that year, pursuant to a new California law called the Sexual Predator Act, a judge committed Hubbart to the Coalinga State Hospital. The new law applied to serial sex offenders like Hubbart who were likely to re-offend. (I guess politicians in the state had grown tired of correction officials and mental health experts putting serial sex offenders back into society.)

     In May 2013, history repeated itself when a judge in Los Angeles County ordered Christopher Hubbart released from the state hospital. Once free, he would come under the supervision of bureaucrats running the Forensic Conditional Release Program. Under this program, administered by the California Department of State Hospitals, Hubbart would receive free housing, continued psychological assessment, group and individual therapy, and regular home visits. (Wouldn't it be nice if military veterans in California received care and treatment half this good?)

     Serial rapist Hubbart, under the release program, would be required to wear a GPS monitoring device. He would also be subjected to random drug testing, regular polygraph examinations, and house searches. He was also prohibited from watching television shows and digital media that "acted as a stimulus to arousal." Under this program, a security guard would be posted at his place of residence and he would not be allowed outside by himself at night. (No wonder the state is on the verge of bankruptcy.)

     In July 2013, District Attorney Jackie Lacey petitioned a state judge to block Hubbart's release on the grounds of public safety. The judge denied the request and the government appealed that decision. On August 25, 2013, the California Supreme Court affirmed the lower court's denial of the prosecutor's motion. The high court justices did not accompany their ruling with a written decision.

     Prosecutor Lacey, in speaking to reporters after losing the appeal, said, "We are now committed to working with law enforcement partners to ensure that all terms of conditions of release are strictly enforced. We will do everything in our power to keep all members of our community safe from harm."

     In July 2014, mental health authorities released the pillowcase rapist to his new home in Palmdale, California. Residents of this desert community northeast of Los Angeles were up in arms. A group of activists formed an organization called Ladies of Lake LA committed to getting Hubbart back into custody. Members of the group held daily demonstrations in front of the rapist's house.

     The obvious problem with Hubbart's release was this: prosecutor Lacey could not guarantee that this serial rapist would not take off his GPS ankle bracelet and slip into the night and rape more women. The prosecutor knew this, the police knew it, and so did the bureaucrats in charge of Hubbart's supervision.

    Sixty-three-year-old Christopher Hubbart had been kicked out of the state hospital to make room for younger rapists. The state was simply overrun with sexual predators. Christopher Hubbart's release had nothing to do with rehabilitation. Even the bureaucrats in California realized these people cannot be fixed.

     In September and October 2014, Hubbart violated the conditions of his release by letting the power in his ankle monitor run low. Prosecutor Jackie Lacey charged Hubbart with parole violation and petitioned Judge Richard Loftus to send Hubbart back to the Coalinga State Hospital. Hubbart's attorney, public defender Christopher Yuen, argued that his client had not re-offended and that parolees routinely let their monitor batteries run down.

    At the parole revocation hearing on May 11, 2015, Judge Loftus ruled that Christopher Hubbart "was not a danger to the health and safety of others." As a result, the rapist would remain free. The decision did not go down well with the citizens of Hubbart's neighborhood in Palmdale, California.

     On August 9, 2016, a Santa Clara County spokesperson announced that Hubbart had "failed to meet the terms of his release." As a result, he had been returned to the Coalinga State Hospital. The county official did not reveal how the serial rapist had violated the terms of his release. Hubbart's Palmdale neighbors were jubilant.

   

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The Sherri Lynn Wilkins Vehicular Murder Case: Fatal Hypocrisy

     Nobody likes a hypocrite. We are particularly offended (and intrigued) when people we generally admire such as physicians, professors, clergymen, law enforcement officers, generals, teachers, certain celebrities, and counselors commit crimes or behave badly. However, because of low expectations, we are less shocked when politicians, bureaucrats, lawyers, and Wall Street types break the law or act like jerks. In terms of what we expect from people, there are different standards of behavior. For example, in murder-for-hire cases, the upper-middle class mastermind is almost always considered more immoral, and criminally culpable, than the lower-class hitman. This is true even when the contract killer has murdered a complete stranger simply for the money.

     Years ago, when the head mistress of an elite New England girl's school shot and killed her lover in a fit of jealousy, this otherwise ordinary criminal homicide became a celebrated case. Ministers have gone to prison to having their wives killed, and FBI agents have been convicted of first-degree murder. On a smaller criminological scale, the public is shocked when female public school teachers are caught having affairs with their male students. I remember a case involving a high-profile gun control advocate who shot an intruder with an unregistered firearm. These cases attract media attention because they feature hypocrisy.

     In October 2012, Colin McGrattan, an anger management counselor in Stockton, California, murdered his ex-wife, her sister, and the victim's aunt before killing himself. McGrattan had recently lost a legal dispute with his former spouse. Unable to control his anger, he killed three people and himself. On matters of anger management, this man obviously wasn't able to take his own advice.

     Even though we have low expectations for politicians and bureaucrats, cases occasionally pop up that are egregious enough to, if not shock us, grab our attention. In 2007, Sheila Burgess, a Massachusetts political fund-raiser for democrat candidates, collected her reward when Governor Deval Patrick appointed her to the position of State Highway Safety Director. Since this was a political appointment, it's not surprising that Burgess didn't have experience in the fields of public safety, transportation, or public administration.

     On August 24, 2012, Burgess, while driving her state-issued vehicle on a sunny, Sunday afternoon near Milton, Massachusetts, drove off the road, wrecked the car, and injured herself in the head. Although she told the police she had swerved off the highway to avoid an oncoming vehicle, she may have been texting.

     The Highway Safety Director's traffic accident prompted a newspaper inquiry into Burgess' driving history. On November 18, 2012, the day after the paper revealed that Sheila Burgess had a record of 34  traffic violations, the governor removed her from office. (Because she's a government employee, full dismissal was out of the question.) Instead of firing this woman, the governor assigned Burgess to a "different role" within the same department. As director of the agency, Burgess' annual salary had been $87,000.

Sherri Lynn Wilkins

     In the fall of 2010, 50-year-old Sherri Lynn Wilkins began counseling substance abusers at the Twin Town Treatment Center in Torrance, California. In charge of the evening group sessions, she counseled up to 50 drug and alcohol abusers at a time. It was her job to help these people either get sober or stay off drugs. While Wilkins had earned a degree in drug counseling from Loyola Marymount University, it was her background as an alcoholic and heroin addict that in the bizarre world of substance abuse counseling that qualified her for the position. While giving her street credibility, the fact she "had been there" also meant she might relapse, an event that, in my opinion, would not be in the best interests of the people she was being paid to help. (I've often wondered if it might be a better idea to employ counselors who have managed to get through life without getting hooked on drugs or booze. Maybe this would give them a different kind of credibility. But I don't know the first thing about counseling, and the only thing I'm hooked on is coffee and sugar.)

     Sherri Lynn Watkin's background, before she began her counseling career, is as follows: In 1992, a Los Angeles County judge sentenced her to 16 months in jail for petty theft. Two years later, another judge sent her away for nine years for burglary. All of her crimes were related to her substance addiction. In May 2010, the Los Angeles police arrested Wilkins for hit and run in Torrance. Because she had not been driving under the influence, the case against her was dropped. But in July 2010, the authorities in Los Angeles charged Wilkins with leaving the scene of an accident and driving under the influence of a controlled substance. For some reason this case was also dismissed.

     At eleven-thirty on the night of November 24, 2012, Sherri Wilkins, while speeding west on Torrance Boulevard, slammed into 31-year-old Phillip Moreno who was crossing the street near his home. The impact knocked Moreno out of his shoes and threw him up on the hood of Wilkins' car. Wilkins continued driving with the dying man lying on her hood, his body lodged into her windshield.

     At a traffic light two miles from where Moreno had been struck and thrown up onto the car, several motorists swarmed Wilkins' vehicle and grabbed her ignition key. An ambulance rushed Mr. Moreno to a local hospital where, a few hours later, he died. Los Angeles police officers took the substance abuse counselor into custody. Watkins' blood-alcohol content registered twice the legal limit for driving.

     On November 27, a Los Angeles County prosecutor charged Sherri Wilkins with vehicular manslaughter and driving under the influence. She was booked into the Los Angeles County Jail under $2.25 million bond.

     In April 2014, a jury in Terrance found Sherri Wilkins guilty of second-degree murder as well as several lesser offenses including hit-and-run. Two months later, Superior Court Judge Henry Hall sentenced the 54-year-old to 55 years to life in prison. The judge said, "Ms. Wilkins demonstrated an extraordinary callousness in fleeing the scene and trying to shake Mr. Moreno's body off her car. Ms. Wilkins is not what we normally see. She's not a classic violent criminal. But you have to evaluate her history. (According to her own testimony, Wilkins' drug addiction started after she was involved in a traffic accident at the age of fifteen. Her back had been broken, and she suffered shattered bones in her ankles and legs. She began medicating herself with heroin because it was "cheaper than going to the doctor.") In justifying the stiff sentence, Judge Hall added, "She had an insatiable desire to become intoxicated."

     Wilkins' attorney, Deputy Public Defender Nan Whitfield, said she would appeal the sentence. To reporters outside the courthouse, Whitfield said, "Nobody likes a drunk driver. Because she was a drug and alcohol counselor, she's held to a higher standard."

     


Monday, January 11, 2016

Who Killed the Barajas Children and Murdered Jose Banda?

     On the night of December 7, 2012, the pickup truck carrying the Barajas family--David and Cindy and their four children--ran out of gas on a dark, narrow country road near Alvin, Texas thirty miles southeast of Houston. Because they were 100 yards or so from their home, Mr. Barajas asked his boys, David who was 12, and 11-year-old Caleb, to push the truck the rest of the way. At eleven o'clock, when they were within 50 yards of their house, another vehicle plowed into the back of the pickup. The crash killed David instantly, and seriously injured his brother who died later that night in the hospital. Mr. Barajas suffered minor injuries. His wife Cindy and their two daughters were not hurt in the accident.

     Deputies with the Brazoria County Sheriff's Office, when they looked inside the vehicle that slammed into the Barajas pickup, found 20-year-old Jose Banda. Having been shot once in the head, Banda was breathing but unresponsive. (I don't know if he had been shot from the passenger's or driver's side of the car.) The officers found him slumped over in the front passenger's seat. He died in the hospital a few hours later. Deputies searched both vehicles and the area surround the accident without finding a gun. There were indications that Mr. Banda had been drinking, a fact that has not yet been confirmed through an analysis of his blood.

     While the county coroner ruled Jose Banda's death a homicide, the person who shot him is a mystery. If David Barajas or his wife had shot Banda for killing their two boys, where was the gun? Could someone besides Banda have been behind the wheel of vehicle that crashed into the pickup? Could that person have shot Banda and fled the scene with the murder weapon before being spotted by members of the Barajas family? This would explain why the deputies did not find the murder weapon.

     In speaking to a reporter, Brazoria sheriff's deputy Dominick Sanders said, "We are not sure if Banda was shot before or after the wreck." (If shot before the wreck, the murder might have caused the accident. If this is what happened, was the shooter inside the car or along the road?)

     Deputy Sander did not say if David Barajas and his wife had been subjected to gunshot residue tests to determine if they had recently discharged a firearm. Moreover, the sheriff's office did not indicate if Banda had been shot at close range, or if a shell-casing has been recovered from the scene. (If the area around Banda's entrance bullet wound featured gunpowder staining, he had been shot from a distance no farther than eighteen inches. The more powder staining, the closer the range.)

     A week after the fatal accident and criminal homicide, the deceased boys' parents, in hiding following Facebook threats, had not been questioned by the police. (This was not good investigative technique.) According to the boys' uncle, Gabriel Barajas, his brother remembered the accident in a "blur."

    Tests revealed that Jose Banda had twice the legal limit of alcohol in his blood at the time of his death. Forensic gunshot residue tests showed that Mr. Barajas had not fired a gun that night.

     On February 10, 2013, notwithstanding a lack of evidence in the case, a Brazoria County grand jury indicted David Barajas, Jr. for murder of Jose Banda. If found guilty, Barajas faced up to life in prison. Upon his arrest Mr. Barajas maintained his innocence.

     On August 27, 2014, after a one-week trial, the jury found David Barajas not guilty. Without a murder weapon, an eyewitness or a confession, the prosecutor simply did not prove his case beyond a reasonable doubt. Moreover, the community supported and had sympathy for the defendant from the start.
     

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Fingerprint Misidentification in the Madrid Bombing Case

     On March 11, 2004, terrorists in Madrid Spain bombed a passenger train, killing 191 people. The Spanish National Police sent the FBI digital images of eight latent prints found at the bomb site. These images were fed into the FBI's Integrated Automatic Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS), a $640 million supercomputer housed in Clarksburg, West Virginia. The computer selected from its collection of 48 million fingerprints sets, 15 digital latent images as possible matches. Three FBI examiners matched one of the 15 possibles to a latent from Spain that had been left on a plastic bag containing bomb detonators. The FBI experts believed this print belonged to a 37-year-old lawyer from Portland, Oregon named Brandon Mayfield.

     If the FBI fingerprint experts were correct, Brandon Mayfield had been at the scene of the Madrid bombing. The fact that Mayfield, a former army lieutenant, had converted to Islam, heightened the FBI's suspicion that he had been involved in the deadly bombing.

     Fingerprint examiners in Spain agreed that Mayfield's print and the crime scene latent shared eight points of similarity, but the numerous dissimilarities kept them from declaring a match. The FBI responded by having a fourth bureau expert look at the evidence, and he too, declared a match. Shortly thereafter, FBI agents arrested Brandon Mayfield. In the meantime, the police in Spain announced that the crime scene latent belonged to an Algerian suspect, Ouhane Daoud.

     A team of FBI fingerprint experts traveled to Madrid, and when they compared Mayfield's fingerprint to the actual latent, realized their mistake. Blaming the misidentification on the low-resolution image of the digital print, the FBI apologized to Mayfield. However, when a panel of fingerprint experts reviewed the evidence, they found that the misidentification had nothing to do with the quality of the digitized latent. The four FBI experts had simply overlooked easily observed dissimilarities between the two prints.They had allowed their eagerness to identify a terrorist override their scientific objectivity. There may also have been an element of groupthink in the misidentification.

     Brandon Mayfield filed a lawsuit, and in November 2006, the federal government agreed to pay him $2 million in damages. The Justice Department augmented the settlement with an official apology, stating that misidentifications of this nature were rare. University of California at Irvine professor Simon Cole, disagreed. Responding to news of the settlement, he told a Los Angeles Times journalist that "this is a tip-of-the-iceberg phenomenon. The argument has always been that no two people have fingerprints exactly alike. But that's not what you need to have an error. What you need is for two people to have very similar fingerprints, and that's what happened here."

    For years, when FBI experts testified in criminal trials, they claimed that in the history of the bureau there had never been a fingerprint misidentification. They could no longer make this claim which wasn't true then, and isn't true now. Moreover, in the wake of the Madrid bombing case embarrassment, the FBI fingerprint examiner proficiency test came under attack. According to a FBI whistleblower, if the test was not so ridiculously easy, cheating would be commonplace.

     While juries and the American public believe deeply in the reliability of fingerprint identification, it is not hard science, and there will be mistakes.