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Friday, March 24, 2017

Writing Quote: The Celebrity Journalist

It takes tremendous craft for a nonfiction writer to dominate his subject. Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote, Norman Mailer and Hunter S. Thompson could pull this off, but once they became celebrities in their own right, it became harder and harder for them to act as reporters. The instant they arrived to cover a story their presence altered it. Other less-gifted writers who tried to copy them often failed when technique overwhelmed or even changed substance.

Peg Taylor in The Writer's Handbook, edited by Elfrieda Abbe, 2003 

The Steven Pratt Murder Cases

     In 1984, 15-year-old Steven L. Pratt lived in an Atlantic City, New Jersey apartment complex with his mother, Gwendolyn Pratt. One night that year, Steven and his friends were hanging out in the hallway outside his apartment when the next-door neighbor, Michael Anderson, complained of the noise. Following an argument between Pratt and his neighbor, Pratt's friends dispersed.

     For Pratt, the dispute remained unresolved. He went into his apartment and came out armed with a lead pipe. When he confronted his neighbor with the weapon, Michael Anderson grabbed the pipe from him and used the weapon to bloody the teen's face.

     The humiliated Pratt borrowed a handgun from an acquaintance and returned to the apartment complex where he shot Michael Anderson twice, killing him on the spot.

     After the crime scene investigators completed their work, Steven Pratt's mother, knowing what her son had done, marched him down to the police station. Under police questioning, the teen confessed.

     An Atlantic County prosecutor charged Pratt with first-degree murder and tried him as an adult. The young defendant took the stand on his own behalf and told the jurors that when he pulled the trigger the gun just clicked and didn't go off. He kept squeezing the trigger until the bullets came out.

      The jury, presented with evidence of a cold-blooded killing, found the boy guilty as charged. The judge sentenced him to thirty years in prison.

     Pratt's attorney appealed the conviction on the ground his client should have been tried as a juvenile. According to the appeal, Pratt had "emotional impairments" that reduced his intellectual age to less than seven years. The appellate judge affirmed the conviction. (Throw a stick in any maximum security prison and it will hit nine people just as stupid as Pratt.)

     On Friday October 10, 2014, after serving most of his thirty-year sentence at the New Jersey State Prison in Trenton, Pratt became a free man. Having no place to stay, he moved in with his 64-year-old mother who lived in a house on the west side of Atlantic City.

     At two o'clock in the morning of October 12, 2014, one of Gwendolyn Pratt's neighbors heard a loud argument coming from her house. The neighbor, having been accused of being too quick to call the police on her neighbors, resisted the urge to call 911. Steven Pratt had been out of prison less than two days.

     At six-thirty that morning, someone, perhaps this neighbor, did call 911 to report a disturbance at the Pratt residence. At the scene, police officers found Gwendolyn Pratt dead from massive blunt force trauma to her head. The officers also found Steven Pratt and took him into custody.

     Later in the day of Gwendolyn Pratt's murder, police officers booked her son into the Atlantic County Justice Facility on the charge of first-degree murder. The judge set Steven Pratt's bail at $1 million.

     In February 2017, Steven Pratt pleaded guilty to manslaughter for killing his mother. A month later, the judge in Atlantic City sentenced Pratt to 25 years in prison. According to the judge, the 48-year-old Pratt would not be eligible for parole until he served 85 percent of his sentence.

     The Stephen Pratt case lends credence to the view that certain criminals are beyond the reach of rehabilitation. While these people should never be given their freedom, there is no way to identify them as hopeless cases before they reoffend. Nothing is less reliable than predicting human behavior. 

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Writing Quote: True Crime as Entertainment

     Occasionally, true crime is where literary writers go to slum and, not coincidentally, make some real money: Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song." It's not the Great American Novel, yet somehow such books have a tendency to end up the most admired works of a celebrated author's career. Is it because better writers tease something out of the genre that pulp peddlers can't, or is it just that their blue-chip names give readers a free pass to indulge a guilty pleasure?…

     True crime labors under the stigma of voyeurism, or worse. It's not just unseemly to linger over the bloodied bodies of the dead and the hideous sufferings inflicted upon them in their final hours, it's also a kind of sickness. Gillian Flynn's novel, Dark Places, describes the wincing interactions between the narrator, a survivor of a notorious multiple murder, and a creepy subculture of murder "fans" and collectors. When she's hard for cash, she's forced to auction off family memorabilia at one of their true crime conventions.

     The very thing that makes true crime compelling also makes it distasteful: the use of human agony for the purposes of entertainment.

Laura Miller, "Sleazy, Bloody and Surprisingly Smart: In Defense of True Crime," salon.com, May 29, 2014

     

The Death Penalty: Execute Them Before They Get Too Fat, Too Good, or Too Stupid

     America's weight problem has changed the way we live and die and has affected how we punish, or can't punish, some of our worst criminals. While the U.S. Supreme Court has not prohibited the execution of certain types of murderers, it has mandated that the state must kill condemned prisoners in a "dignified and humane manner." I would argue that how a prisoner is dispatched is less a matter of dignity and humanity than aesthetics. For this reason, death sentence prisoners no longer end up swinging from the end of a rope, being gunned down by a firing squad, or giving off smoke while twitching in an electric chair. These methods, while effective, look unprofessional and barbaric. In states where certain criminals are still executed, the government has to use methods that do not offend our tender sensitivities. The execution business also has to be politically correct. This is why juries have been reluctant to recommend the death sentence for women, people under 21, and folks with low I.Q.s. Of the 3,322 people currently on death row, only 61 are women. Wives convicted of murdering their husbands spend, on average, 6 years in prison. Men who murder their wives are, on average, sent away for 17 years. (In terms of race, 42 percent of the death row population is black, 12 percent Latino, and 44 percent white.)

     Today, death row inmates are killed by lethal injection. This method of execution fits in nicely with our pharmaceutical culture. We take drugs to get well, to sleep, and to get high, so why not use drugs to execute certain murderers in the 32 states where the death penalty is still legal. But now there is a growing concern about executing people with drugs. Over the past twenty years, several death row prisoners have tried to escape their fates by claiming they are too obese to be humanely injected. In Ohio (one of our fattest states), this has been a recurring correctional issue. (West Virginians are fatter than Ohioans, but in that state they have abolished the death penalty. In the Mountaineer State, convicted, overweight murderers probably don't live much longer than those on Ohio's death row.)

     In May 2007, an executioner in Ohio ran into difficulty when he tried to kill, by injection, 38-year-old Christopher Newton. Six years earlier, while serving time for burglary, Newton murdered his cellmate. Now it was his time to go. Because of his weight,which was 265-pounds, it took the executioner two hours and ten attempts to find a receptive vein for the lethal dose of pentobarbital. During the prolonged execution Newton was actually allowed to go to the bathroom. It would be his last bathroom break, however.

     Nineteen-year-old Richard Cooey, in 1986, threw chunks of concrete off a bridge over Interstate 77 near Akron, Ohio. The act caused the deaths of two University of Akron students. As Cooey's execution date drew near, the 5-foot-7, 267 pound inmate alleged that prison food and lack of exercise had made him too fat to painlessly execute. According to the 41-year-old Ohio prisoner, the executioner's difficulty in finding a friendly vein would cause him stress and discomfort. On October 14, 2008, the Ohio executioner, probably under a little stress himself, had no problem introducing the pentobarbital into Mr. Cooey's system.

     In 1983, Ronald Post murdered Helen Vantz, a hotel desk clerk in Elyria, Ohio. A jury found him guilty and a judge sentenced him to death. There wasn't then, nor now, any question regarding his guilt. Because Post didn't exercise and ate too much, he ballooned-up to 400 pounds. In an effort to get control of his weight, Post asked the government to pay for gastric bypass surgery. (Had he been incarcerated in Massachusetts, Post could have gotten his gastric surgery plus, if he wanted, a sex change operation. Ohio is cruel that way.)

     In 1997, claiming that prison health care providers were having difficulty finding his veins for medication, Ronald Post argued that to execute him this way would amount to a violation of his Eighth Amendment right against cruel and unusual punishment.

     After the federal appellate judge refused to take Ronald Post off death row, prison authorities in Ohio scheduled his execution by lethal injection for January 16, 2013. In November 2012, Mr. Post, claiming to weigh 480 pounds, filed another appeal in which he argued that he had grown so fat his veins were even less accessible. Not only that, the prison didn't own a gurney sturdy enough to roll him into the death chamber. According to Post's attorney, executing his client under those circumstances would comprise "a substantial risk that any attempt to execute him will result in serious physical and psychological pain to him...." The lawyer added that Mr. Post's execution would consist of "a torturous and lingering death."

     State authorities opposing Ronald Post's attempt to see the other side of January 16, 2013, argued that in fact the death row inmate only weighted 396 pounds. In this case it really didn't matter how much this man weighed. The federal appeals court in Cincinnati had already ruled against Mr. Post on the weight issue. Moreover, the state of Ohio, given all of its resources, could probably find a heavy-duty gurney and an executioner who can locate hard-to-find veins. This killer's execution became a moot issue however when, on December 17, 2013, Governor John Kasich granted Ronald Post clemency on the grounds he had poor legal representation at his trial.

     If our procedurally oriented criminal justice system were efficient and reliable enough to dispatch first-degree murderers within two years of their convictions, death row inmates wouldn't have time to get so fat. After ten or twenty years on death row, many of these inmates also find religion and become different people. The person being executed is not the same person who committed the crime. (The Karla Faye Tucker case in Texas is a good example of this. While on death row, Karla found Jesus. To the dismay of protesting evangelicals, Texas went ahead and executed her anyway. I don't think the state has dispatched a female since.)

     There are death row inmates who, while smart enough to have committed first-degree murder, when it comes time to execute them, are too stupid to kill. It seems cruel and unusual to execute slow-witted killers. So, if a death row inmate isn't fat, or hasn't found Jesus, he can pretend to be stupid. (Hell, who can't flunk an I.Q. test? What's tough is pretending to be smart.)

     The way it's administered, the death penalty isn't worth the effort. If there is anything "torturous and lingering" about the execution process, it's the time and money it takes to dispatch these brutal, inhumane killers. 

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Criminal Justice Quote: What Kids Do in the Woods These Days

     Police in Wylie, Texas, wanted to know what two teenagers were doing in the woods Saturday night, March 8, 2014. "We were burying a body," one of them said. They weren't kidding. When police looked in the woods northeast of Dallas they found the corpse of 17-year-old Ivan Mejia of Wylie. The two 16-year-olds were charged with murder.

     Police first became interested when they checked out a suspicious, unoccupied vehicle backed up to the tree line….Officers went into the woods and saw two suspects running from the area. The police officers returned to the car. The 16-year-olds walked up to the car and answered the question that set off the bells….

     Mejia was killed behind Wylie East High School where all three teenagers were students, and taken to the wooded area….No motive has been released, but police say the killing was planned.

     A school spokesperson said the incident was not connected to a school-sponsored activity. [Like what? A Murder 101 field experiment?]

Ralph Ellis and Joe Sutton, "'We Are Burying a Body,' Teen Suspect Tells Texas Police," CNN, March 10, 2014 

The Laurel Schlemmer Bath Tub Murder Case

     Laurel Michelle Ludwig married Mark Schlemmer in July 2005. In May 2006, the couple purchased a house in McCandless, Pennsylvania, a suburban community north of Pittsburgh.

     By September 2009, the couple had two sons. The youngest was 18-months-old. His brother was three. Mark Schlemmer was 39 and working as an insurance actuary. Laurel, a former teacher, stayed at home to raise the boys. On September 5, 2009, a patron at the nearby Ross Park Mall noticed a parked Honda Odyssey with an unaccompanied toddler inside. Although the van's windows were cracked, the temperature inside the vehicle had risen to 112 degrees. The passerby called 911.

     When Laurel Schlemmer returned to her van she was met by Ross Township police and EMT personnel who had managed to unlock a door and remove the three-year-old boy. Due to the fact the mother was gone from the car twenty minutes, the boy did not require medical treatment.

     An Allegheny County prosecutor charged the 36-year-old mother with the summary offense of leaving a child unattended in a vehicle. Laurel pleaded guilty to the crime and paid a fine. No one read anything into this incident other than a mother's lapse of due care.

     By 2013, Laurel Schlemmer and her husband had three sons. On April 16 of that year, Laurel, when backing her van out of her parents' driveway in Marshall, Pennsylvania, ran over her two and five-year-old boys. One of the children suffered internal injuries while his brother ended up with broken bones. Both boys survived the incident.

     An investigator with the Northern Regional Police Department conducted an inquiry into the driveway collision and concluded that it had been an accident. Personnel with the Allegheny County Office of Children, Youth, and Families conducted an assessment of the Schlemmer family and found no evidence or history of child abuse.

     The pastor of the North Park Church, Reverend Dan Hendley, counseled Laurel in an effort to help her cope with what everybody assumed had been a nearly tragic mishap. Members of the church were supportive of their fellow parishioner.

     At 8:40 on the morning of Tuesday, April 1, 2014, Laurel Schlemmer put her seven-year-old boy on the school bus and waved him goodbye. She returned to her house and told her three and six-year-old boys to take off their pajamas as she filled the bath tub. The fully dressed mother, once the boys were in the tub, held them under water then climbed into the tub and sat on them.

     Laurel pulled the limp bodies out of the water and laid them out on the bathroom floor. She replaced her wet clothes with dry garments. In an effort to hide the wet pieces of clothing, she bagged them up with two soaked towels and placed the container in the garage.

     At 9:40 that morning, Laurel called 911 and reported that her two sons had drowned in the bath tub. Emergency personnel rushed the Schlemmer children to the UPMC Passavant Pediatric Intensive Care Unit. An hour later, three-year-old Luke Schlemmer died. His six-year-old brother remained in critical condition.

     Questioned by detectives, Laurel said she figured she would become a better mother to her oldest son if his younger siblings weren't around. "Crazy voices" had told her the younger ones would be better off in heaven.

     Later that day, detectives booked the mother into the Allegheny County Jail in downtown Pittsburgh. Mrs. Schlemmer faced charges of homicide, attempted homicide, aggravated assault, and tampering with evidence. The judge denied her bond.

     On April 5, 2014, a spokesperson for the Allegheny County Medical Examiner's Office announced that six-year-old Daniel Schlemmer had died. The boy had been on life support at UPMC's Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh.

     At a mental competency hearing on April 7, 2014, Dr. Christine Martone, an Allegheny County psychiatrist, testified that Mrs. Schlemmer was psychotic, suicidal, and suffered from depressive disorder. Judge Jeffrey Manning, based upon this testimony, ruled the defendant mentally incompetent to stand trial.

     Judge Manning ordered the defendant committed to the Torrance State Hospital in Derry Township, a mental health facility 45 miles east of Pittsburgh.

     In Pennsylvania, defendants are considered mentally incompetent to stand trial if due to mental illness they are unable to distinguish right from wrong or cannot assist their attorneys in their defense.

     In January 2015, Judge Manning postponed the murder trial indefinitely. He also imposed a gag order that prohibited the prosecutor and defense attorney from discussing the case publicly.

     On May 5, 2016, Allegheny County Judge Jeffrey Manning, after the prosecution and the defense could not agree on a plea arrangement, set the Schlemmer murder trial for June 21, 2016. According to the defendant's attorney, Schlemmer was pursuing a defense of not guilty by reason of insanity.

     Judge Manning, on June 21, 2016, heard from psychiatrist Dr. Christine Martone who testified that the defendant was still too mentally disturbed to be tried. The judge ordered the defendant to be forcibly medicated until she became mentally competent to stand trial for the murder of her sons.

     On March 16, 2017, following a bench trial featuring psychiatric testimony on both sides, Allegheny County Judge Manning found Schlemmer guilty of two counts of third-degree murder but mentally ill. The prosecution had argued for first-degree murder but the judge, due to the defendant's mental condition, found that she had acted in "diminished capacity." In Pennsylvania, a guilty but mentally ill sentence simply meant that the convicted person would be given the appropriate mental health medication in prison instead of a mental institution. In Schlemmer's case, she will serve ten to twenty years behind bars.

   

 
   

        

Criminal Justice Quote: Remarkable Murder Cases

Of the cases presented here (A Companion to Murder), some have been chosen because the people involved in them are strange and remarkable, passionate, revengeful, avaricious, stupid, ambitious, resourceful, pitiable, tragic, even comic, beyond the ordinary. Others have been chosen because the interplay of motive behind the the crime has some special interest; others for the sake of some brilliant stroke of detection. Other cases are to be valued for their particular atmosphere or mood; others because they illustrate some tenet of the law as it applies to the crime of murder; others, again, because they display the forensic skill of a great advocate.

Spenser Shew, A Companion to Murder, 1961

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Writing Quote: Truman Capote's True Crime Mistake

Put simply, adherence to the truth in nonfiction makes a story feel right. Perhaps the most famous compromise of that standard is Truman Capote's imagined graveyard scene at the end of In Cold Blood, still considered the benchmark for what he called the "non-fiction novel." A brilliant study of a murdered family and the killers who are eventually hanged, there was no happy ending available to the writer. Capote felt a need to resolve that artificially, blighting his immense achievement in synthesizing research with dramatic storytelling with a dreamy and unconvincing denouement he always regretted.

Mark Mordue, The Australian, January 14, 2006 

The Kim Nguyen Police Brutality Case

     At three in the morning, March 17, 2013, 28-year-old Kim Nguyen and two of her male acquaintances were waiting for their designated driver outside a bar in Los Angeles' Koreatown. Police officers David Shin and Jin Oh, in a marked LAPD patrol car, pulled up to the trio. Following a brief questioning of Nguyen and her friends, the young officers drove off.

     For some reason the officers circled back to Nguyen and her companions. As the patrol car approached the bar's parking lot, Nguyen crossed the street to an all-night coffee shop. At this point the officers decided to arrest the Loyola Marymount University graduate student for public intoxication. (This part of LA must be crime-free.) One of the officers handcuffed Nguyen behind her back and placed her into the back of the patrol vehicle.

     The young woman's friends asked the officers where they were taking Nguyen. The officers drove off without answering that question.

     Video footage from a surveillance camera at an intersection not far from Nguyen's arrest showed her lying on her back in the street with a badly bloodied face. The video did not reveal how Nguyen had exited the patrol vehicle. Because she was not moving, it appeared she was either dead or unconscious.

     A patrol car occupied by another set of officers pulled into surveillance camera view. These officers were followed thirty seconds later by the car containing the arresting cops. Officers Shin and Oh were observed standing over Nguyen's body. Finally one of them crouched down next to her and rolled her onto her side. (Perhaps to take off the handcuffs.) Nguyen had regained consciousness and was writhing in pain. Paramedics arrived at the scene, gathered up Nguyen, and took her to a nearby hospital.

     Nguyen's jaw had been shattered and she suffered bleeding on the brain. She had also lost several teeth. Doctors kept her heavily sedated for several days.

     According to the responding paramedics, the LAPD officers told them that Nguyen had fallen out of the patrol car as it accelerated to 10 miles-per-hour from a stop sign. Surveillance camera footage, however, contradicted this account. Video footage showed the patrol car carrying Nguyen traveling through a stop sign at a much higher speed.

     Since Kim Nguyen had no memory of how she got from the patrol vehicle to the street, and patrol cars are equipped with locks that officers can engage when transporting arrestees, how this woman exited the patrol car remained a mystery. Moreover, it was apparently a mystery that no one at the LAPD was interested in solving.

     In September 2013, a reporter with the Los Angeles Times doing a story about Nguyen's lawsuit against the police department asked a police commander if the department had launched an internal investigation into the matter. Commander Andrew Smith said that he didn't know if such an inquiry had been conducted. According to Commander Smith, now that a lawsuit had been filed against the LAPD an investigation would be conducted for sure.

     In May 2015, the UCLA graduate, with her state civil lawsuit unresolved, filed a suit against the police department in federal court. Her attorney told reporters that the officers involved had sexually assaulted her. Surveillance camera footage revealed that Nguyen's left bra strap was broken and the top of her dress was pulled down to her waist. According to the lawsuit, when she awoke from the trauma days later, she found bruising on the inside of her thighs.

     On February 17, 2016, in a case not directly related to the Kim Nguyen case, Los Angeles police officers James Nichols, 43 and Luis Valenzuela, 40, were charged with sexually assaulting four women in their patrol car,while the officers were on duty. The alleged rapes occurred at various locations between 2008 and 2011. As of March 2017, the officers involved in Nguyen's arrest had not been criminally charged.

     The Los Angeles Police Department, on February 4, 2017, settled Kim Nguyen's lawsuits for $35 million. In a city that is virtually bankrupt, bad police behavior extracts a high cost on taxpayers.

         

Monday, March 20, 2017

Criminal Justice Quote: Dr. Joseph Bell and The Power of Observation

One of [anatomy professor Dr. Joseph] Bell's favorite tricks [at Edinburgh Medical School circa 1876] was to invite new students to taste an amber liquid in a glass vial. It was, he explained, an extremely potent drug with a vile and bitter taste which they needed to be able to recognize. Since he would not ask students to do anything he would not be willing to do himself, he said that he would be the first. He removed the stopper, immersed a finger into the liquid [his own urine] and then put his hand to his mouth, shuddering as he sucked his finger. The students dutifully followed suit as the vial was passed around, all of them registering disgust. At the end, Bell invariably expressed his disappointment in their poor powers of observation. It was his index finger, he reminded his groaning class, that he had dipped into the noxious brew, but it was his middle finger that he had put into his mouth.

Russell Miller, The Adventures of Arthur Conan Doyle, 2008 [Arthur Conan Doyle attended Dr. Bell's class and used the professor as the model for his fictional protagonist, Sherlock Holmes.] 

Erika Murray's Squalid House of Horrors

     In 2001, 17-year-old Erika Murray met a 25-year-old McDonald's employee from Framingham, Massachusetts named Ramon Rivera. They moved into his parents' home where less than a year later she gave birth to their first child. Three years later, when they were expecting their second child, they moved into a home a few blocks from the police department in Blackstone, Massachusetts, a town of 10,000 on the Rhode Island state line 50 miles southwest of Boston. The dwelling was owned by Rivera's sister who resided there as well. At that time Rivera had a job at a Staples office supply store as a sales clerk.

     In 2006, Rivera's sister moved out of the house. A year after that, a social worker with the Department of Children and Families (DCF) visited the house on St. Paul Street following a complaint of filthy living conditions. The DCF employee recommended some household upgrades. Because the children didn't seem in danger, the social worker closed the case.

     After Ramon Rivera made it clear to Erika Murray that he didn't want any more children, Erika, in 2011, gave birth to a girl. Somehow she had managed to keep the birth a secret. To conceal the true identify of the infant, she told Rivera she was babysitting the child for another woman. In April 2014, Murray, in secret, gave birth to the couple's fourth child. She explained away that baby with the same babysitting story. As a result of the secrecy surrounding the births of her last two children, there are no official records of their existence.

     On August 28, 2014, the second oldest child in the house went to a neighbor and asked, "How do you get a baby to stop crying?"

     The neighbor entered the house on St. Paul Street with the 10-year-old boy and was shocked by what she encountered. The crying 5-month-old was covered in feces. Inside the dwelling there were piles of trash one to two feet deep that included used diapers. The neighbor called the police.

      Police officers and DCF personnel found the interior of the Murray/Rivera house infested with flies, various other bugs, and mice. The four children were immediately removed from the dwelling and placed into temporary foster care.

     Officers also found, in the basement of the house, a marijuana plant beneath a grow-light. Officers also came across jars of marijuana buds and bags of cannabis. Officers booked Rivera into the Worcester County Jail on charges of possession and cultivation of marijuana with the intent to distribute.

     On Wednesday night, September 10, 2014, police officers in Hazmat suits armed with a search warrant returned to the 1,500 square foot house. Amid the squalor they found a dead dog and two dead cats. In a closet they discovered the remains of a baby. The following day, searchers recovered the bodies of two more infants.

     On September 10, at his marijuana charges arraignment, the judge released the 37-year-old Rivera from custody on his own recognizance.
 
     The younger children, the two born in secret, had spent their lives inside that house. The 3-year-old had poor muscle tone and couldn't walk. The baby showed signs of having lived entirely in the dark and had maggots in its ears.

     Murray's court-appointed attorney, Keith Halpern, said this to reporters about his client: "She was frozen in this nightmare. She couldn't get out of it." The attorney telegraphed his defense by suggesting that Murray was mentally ill.

     On Tuesday, October 14, 2014, Worcester County prosecutor John Bradley announced that at least two of the infants whose remains were found in Murray's house had been alive for some period of time. The children were dressed in onesies and diapers. A third infant was found in a backpack.

     The judge, at Murray's October 14 bail hearing set the 31-year-old mother's bond at $1 million. Earlier, at her arraignment, she had pleaded not guilty to all charges.

     Murray's boyfriend and the father of her children, Ramon Rivera III, claimed that he did not know about the dead infants. The authorities did not charge him in connection with the gruesome discoveries inside his house. According to the prosecutor, Murray had instructed her two oldest children to lie to their father about the babies.

     On December 29, 2014, a grand jury sitting in Worcester, Massachusetts indicted Erika Murray on two counts of murder, one count of fetal death concealment related to the remains of the three babies, and two counts of assault and battery in connection with the neglected and abused children. According to prosecutor John Bradley, two of the dead babies had lived from one week to a month.

     In speaking to reporters, the prosecutor said that the defendant had admitted to investigators that knowing that her boyfriend didn't want any more children after the first two, they continued to have unprotected sex. She gave birth to all of the babies in the home's only bathroom, and birthed the children herself. She hid their tiny corpses among the trash in the squalid dwelling.

     At her arraignment hearing, Murray pleaded not guilty to all five of the grand jury charges. Her attorney, Keith Halpern, argued that the prosecution had no physical evidence regarding how long the babies had been alive or how they had died. He said, "The forensic pathologist testified before the grand jury that it was impossible to determine the cause of death of all three dead infants. The evidence of severe harm to the younger children is clear. The issue in this case is Ms. Murray's state of mind. The children were not the only ones that never left that house. She lived in those conditions for years and hardly ever left that house."

     Outside the courthouse, in speaking to reporters, the defense attorney said that his client had laid one of the babies down for a nap, came back an hour or two later and found the infant dead.

     On December 22, 2016, defense attorney Helpern argued at a preliminary hearing that the police search of the defendant's house on September 10, 2014 exceeded the scope of the warrant and was therefore unconstitutional. As a result, according to the attorney, the evidence recovered pursuant to that search was inadmissible

     On March 13, 2017, Judge Janet Kenton-Walker denied the defense motion to suppress the evidence produced by the search in question. That meant that the murder case would proceed to trial. In the meantime, Murray was held, without bond, at the Western Massachusetts Regional Correctional Center in Worcester. 

Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Michael Barbar Murder Case

     On 2009, 51-year-old Michael Barbar, a native of Lebanon, lived with his wife Maysam and their two daughters, ages 10 and 6, in a two-story house in Perris, a Riverside County town of 70,000 in southern California. Michael had a 19-year-old daughter from a former marriage who didn't live with him and Maysam.

     In mid-August 2009, Michael learned that his 43-year-old wife, at the time attending cosmetology school, had not been faithful to him. According to information that had come to his attention, Maysam, over the past six months, had been with three other men. He also learned that the 6-year-old Tamara, the child he had helped raise from birth, had been conceived as a result of Maysam's affair with a man in 2000.

     Some time after receiving this disturbing information, Michael Barbar checked Tamara out of school early one day and took her to a McDonald's where he swabbed the inside of her mouth for a DNA sample. On November 6, 2009, the paternity test revealed that she was not his child.

     On the night of November 13, 2009, after handcuffing Maysom behind her back during sex, he wrapped an electrical cord around her neck and strangled her to death. He then placed her nude body face-down on the master bedroom floor and covered it with a blanket.

     In Tamara's bedroom, Barbar coiled a television cable around her neck as she slept. When the 6-year-old awoke and struggled, he bashed her head against a bedpost twenty times, crushing her skull. In a third bedroom, the 10-year-old sister heard Tamar's cries and the sounds of her violent death. After the murder, she heard her father carrying what sounded like trash bags out of the house. The next morning, Barbar's surviving daughter discovered her sister's body. The door to the master bedroom was locked. She called 911.

     Following the double murder, Michael Barbar drove to nearby Cabazon, California where, at the Morongo Casino, he played the slots. The next morning, he drove east to Deming, New Mexico, a border town 60 miles west of Las Cruces. His plan was to enter Mexico and from there fly to his homeland of Lebanon. On November 15, 2009, the police in Deming interrupted his escape by taking him into custody.

     In early June 2012, Barbar went on trial in a Riverside County Superior Court for the murders of Maysam and Tamara Barbar. Because he was being tried for a double, premeditated murder, the defendant, under California law, was eligible for the death penalty. Barbar's defense attorney, while he didn't deny that his client had committed the homicides, argued that the killings had not been premeditated. According to the defense version of the case, when Michael confronted Maysam with the paternity test results, she had mocked him with a smirk. So enraged by the victim's smirk, Barbar snapped and killed his wife and the 6-year-old who was not his daughter. As a result, this was a crime of involuntary manslaughter. (Sometimes defense attorneys are paid to embarrass themselves. This is one of those cases.)

     Prosecutor John Aki offered the jury of seven women and five men a wealth of evidence that showed the defendant's preparation and planning for the murders. He had acquired a set of fake identification, rented a car, researched flight schedules between Mexico and Lebanon, and had withdrawn $30,000 from his bank account. On July 13, 2012, after only three hours of deliberation, the jury found the 54-year-old defendant guilty of two counts of first-degree murder.

     On July 30, the penalty phase of the trial before the same jury got underway. For Michael Barbar, the two possible outcomes involved life without parole, and state imposed death. On August 10, 2012, the jury recommended that Judge Edward Weber sentence Michael Barbar to death.

     Crime scene investigators, on the morning after the murders, had found, among Michael Barbar's possessions, a copy of Truman Capote's nonfiction novel, In Cold Blood. In that book, the two men who murdered a Kansas farm family in 1959 were hanged. Barbar would not end up dangling at the end of a rope. Because the authorities in California will not execute anyone, Mr. Barbar will avoid the death penalty altogether.
        

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Troy James Knapp: Utah's "Mountain Man Burglar"

     In 1986, when he was 28, Troy James Knapp went to prison in Kalamazoo, Michigan for burglary and related offenses. Knapp pleaded guilty to destroying property in 1994 while living in Salt Lake City. Two years later, police in Seattle arrested him on the charge of stalking and harassment. In 2002, after serving two years in a California prison for burglary, Knapp left the state in violation of his parole.

     In 2007, the wilderness survivalist (he survived on other people's stuff) lived in the mountains of southern Utah. In the summers he stole food and gear from cabins in Iron, Kane, and Garfield Counties, and moved from one campsite to the next. During the winter months Knapp lived in the cabins he burglarized in the summer. The owners would return to their seasonal dwellings to find bullet holes in the walls and doors. Knapp also left notes with messages like: "Pack up and leave. Get off my mountain." (If everyone had packed up and left, Knapp would have starved.)

     Between 2007 and 2013, prosecutors in Iron, Kane, and Garfield Counties charged Knapp with 13 felony burglary crimes and 5 misdemeanor offenses. Because of the remoteness of Knapp's break-ins and the fact he kept on the move, he had eluded capture for more than five years.

     In late February 2013, a man hunting with his son in Sanpete County crossed paths with Knapp about 125 miles southeast of Salt Lake City. Aware they had conversed with the mountain man burglar, the father notified the authorities.

     A few days after speaking with the hunters 9,000 feet up on a mountain near Ferron Reservoir in the central part of the state, forty police officers and a law enforcement helicopter closed in on the fugitive as he trudged through three feet of snow. After firing fifteen rifle shots at the helicopter, Knapp surrendered to the small army of approaching lawmen.

     When taken into custody, Knapp possessed an assault rifle and a handgun. He was booked into the Sanpete County Jail without bond. An Assistant United States Attorney in Utah charged Knapp with several federal firearms offenses.

     In April 2014, pursuant to an arranged plea bargain, Knapp pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court to the use of a firearm during a crime of violence. At his sentence hearing on June 9, 2014, federal court judge Ted Stewart handed down the mandatory minimum sentence of ten years in federal prison.

     Knapp's attorney, in addressing the court, said, "There's an admiration for somebody who chooses to live off the land, because he does it while the rest of us wouldn't. Even if he needs a little help from some cabin owners."

     Sanpete County prosecutor Brody Keisel had a different take on the case. He told reporters after the federal sentencing that Knapp was nothing more than a "common crook." Knapp had agreed to plead guilty to the burglary charges filed against him in the seven Utah counties. According to those plea deals, he faced fifteen years in each county, the sentences to run together.

Friday, March 17, 2017

The Elliot Turner Rich Kid Murder Case

     Emily Longley, at age 9, moved with her family from England to Auckland, New Zealand. By the time she turned 15, Emily, a tall, blonde her friends called "Barbie," had a history of underage drinking and drug use which included Ecstasy. In 2009, Emily's parents sent her back to England where she took up residence with her grandmother in Southbourne.

     In the fall of 2010, Emily started taking business classes at Brockenhurst College in Hampshire. She lived in the southwestern town of Bournemouth where she worked part time at a fashion outlet called Top Shop. She had also signed on with a modeling agency.

     Emily began dating 19-year-old Elliot Vince Turner, a rich kid who worked in his father's jewelry store in Bournemouth. Turner lived in his family's home in Queen's Park, an affluent Bournemouth neighborhood. In April 2011, Elliot became jealous when he came across Facebook photographs of Emily flirting with another man at a bar. After that, the couple started having heated arguments. The fights became so intense, Emily began fearing for her life.

     On May 6, Elliot talked Emily into spending the night with him at his parent's house. That evening, they got into an argument. In the heat of the moment, he called her a whore. At 9:45 the next morning, Anita, Elliot's mother, called 999. (England's 911)

     Upon arriving at the Bournemouth house, paramedics found Emily's lifeless body in Elliot's bed. Questioned by the police, he said he had gotten up for work around 9:15, and when he touched Emily's arm, it was cold. He then notified his parents that something was wrong.

     The police initially thought Emily had overdosed on drugs, but the autopsy revealed otherwise. The forensic pathologist found physical evidence that Emily had been strangled. She had scratches on her arms, and traces of Elliot's blood and tissue were under her fingernails. Investigators learned that 30 minutes had passed between the time Elliot said he had gotten up for work and the 999 call. Detectives believed that during this period, Elliot's parents, Anita and Leigh Turner, had destroyed and removed evidence.

     During the period May 18 to June 14, 2011, through a court sanctioned electronic surveillance of the Turner home, the police listened in on conversations between Elliot and his parents. At one point Elliot said, "I just flipped. I went absolutely nuts...I just lost it. I grabbed her as hard as I could. I pushed her like that." Detectives also seized a computer from the Turner home that revealed Elliot had Googled "death by strangulation," and "how to get out of being charged for murder."

     In July 2011, Elliot and his parents were arrested. Elliot faced a charge of murder and his parents were charged with perverting the course of justice (obstruction of justice). When taken into custody, Elliot said, "I never meant to harm her, I just defended myself." He and his parents pleaded not guilty.

     The three defendants went on trial at the Winchester Crown Court in Bournemouth on April 10, 2012. Crown Court prosecutor Tim Mousley told the jury of eleven men and one woman that Elliot Turner had strangled Emily Longley in a fit of jealous rage, and that his parents had destroyed evidence to cover up the murder. Friends of the defendant testified that Elliot had joked about killing Emily with a hammer, at one point telling one of the witnesses, "I will go to prison for it, and still be a millionaire when I get out." According to one of these witnesses, the defendant had also practiced his strangulation technique on a friend.

     On April 18, 2012, Jasmin Snook, one of Emily's 19-year-old friends, testified that in May 2011 Emily had tried to end the relationship with the defendant. He became "obsessive" and couldn't understand why she was making him look like an idiot. According to Snook, the defendant said he was going to smash Emily's face, and didn't care if he had to serve ten years in prison for the assault.

     The following day, an ambulance technician testified that Elliot's mother Amita, when she called 999, said that a young female was "going blue" and had suffered "cardiac arrest." However, based on signs of post-mortem lividity (a redness of the skin caused by pooled blood in the body), it appeared that the girl had been dead several hours. (There were also signs of rigor mortis.)

     On May 2, 2012, Dr. Huw White, a Home Office forensic pathologist, testified that he had found petechiae hemorrhages in Emily's right eye, and in both of her eyelids. These tiny beads of blood suggested strangulation. The doctor also said the alcohol level in the victim's system was well over the drunk driving limit. According to the witness, Emily had a history of brittle bone disease, asthma, bulimia, and episodes of self-harm. However, none of these maladies had contributed to her death.

     A police officer who had spoken to the defendant on the morning of the 999 call testified that Elliot Turner told him that Emily had gotten upset when he asked her about her self-harming. According to the defendant, when she started kicking and hitting him, he "pushed her on the neck to get her off," and said, "I never meant to harm her. I just defended myself."

     The next day, the Crown presented Darryl Manners, a forensic scientist who said he found mascara marks, make-up, and a pink lipstick stain on a pillowcase taken from Elliot Turner's bedroom. Manners testified that this "face mark" in the pillowcase matched the victim's face and make-up. The expert witness said he had examined the defendant's shirt and found, on its right sleeve, smears similar to samples of foundation taken from the right side of Emily's face.

     Nicholas Oliver, a Crown DNA analyst, found the victim's mucus on the sleeve of the shirt the defendant had been wearing on the night he spent with the victim.

     Prosecutor Mousley played conversations picked up by the electronic surveillance of the Turner family home. In one of the conversations, Leigh Turner, the defendants's 54-year-old father, said, "He strangled her to shut her up, to stop her screaming, making so much noise and then he realized he'd done something terribly wrong, and he should have phoned the ambulance to save her, but he didn't because he was scared....That's what's going on in his mind. He knows he's killed her, not deliberately."

     On May 9, 2012, the defense put on it's case which mostly consisted of Elliot Turner taking the stand on his own behalf. He was asked by his barrister, Anthony Donne, how many times he had told Emily Longley he would kill her. The defendant said 10 to 15 times, but he never really meant it.

     After three days of the defendant's direct testimony, the witness was turned over to prosecutor Mousley for cross-examination. When Mousley asked Turner if he was in any way responsible for Emily Longley's death, he replied, "No, I do not believe so."

     "So the girl you adored died mysteriously?"

     "I don't know. I'm not a psychic."

     "Have you shown any remorse at all for her death? I'm talking about a basic human instinct. What remorse have you shown?"

     "I feel sad," answered the defendant.

     On May 15, 2012, the defense put the defendant's father, Leigh Turner, on the stand. In defending his son, Mr. Turner said, "He does not get angry. He's a gentle clown, a stupid clown." According to the witness, as the ambulance was en route to the house, Elliot told him he had packed a suitcase for Spain. Mr. Turner had said, "Don't be silly, you haven't done anything."

     Following the testimony phase of the Turner trial, Timothy Mousely, in summing up the prosecution's case, said, "We submit the defendant is remorseless, controlling, possessive, and vicious, and that he murdered her."

     In his summation to the jury, Anthony Donne described Elliot Turner as a "loudmouth," and "hot air merchant" who was "all talk, no action." The defense attorney also reminded jurors that the Home Office forensic pathologist, Dr. Huw White, had admitted on cross-examination that it was possible that Emily Longley had died a natural death.

     On May 21,  2012, the jury found Elliot Turner guilty of murder, and his parents guilty of trying to cover it up. A month later, the judge sentenced Turner to sixteen years to life. Turner's parents were each sentenced to 27 months behind bars.

     In May 2013, three appellate judges ruled that Elliott Turner had been convicted on overwhelming evidence in a "fair and proper trial."        

Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Lyvette Crespo Manslaughter Case

      Daniel Crespo was born in a Brooklyn, New York public housing project in 1969. Lyvette, Crespo's  high school girlfriend, married him in 1986 shortly after graduation. That year they moved to the Los Angeles area and in 1987 had their first child, a baby girl.

     Daniel Crespo earned an associates degree in psychology/family counseling at East Los Angeles College. Two years later he was awarded a bachelor's degree in criminal justice/public administration from Cal State University. The couple's second child, Daniel Jr, was born in 1994.

     After working eight years as a criminal justice youth counselor, Crespo joined the Los Angeles County Probation Department. In 2001, he and his family resided in the Vinos la Campana condominium complex in Bell Gardens, a suburban community of 43,000 18 miles southeast of Los Angeles. That year he was elected to the city council.

     In Bell Gardens, the city counsel is part time and members take turns serving as mayor. In 2014 Daniel Crespo held the office of Bell Gardens mayor. Over the past five years Crespo worked in the probation department's adult supervision gang/narcotics unit. As a criminal justice practitioner and city office holder, Crespo was considered friendly and well-liked. He also had the reputation of being a devoted family man.

     At two-thirty in the afternoon of Tuesday September 30, 2014, paramedics were called to the Crespo dwelling. The emergency crew found Daniel Sr. in the second floor master bedroom with three bullets in his upper torso. He died en route to a nearby hospital. His 19-year-old son, Daniel Jr, was taken to a hospital where a doctor treated him as an outpatient for facial injuries sustained in a fight.

     Later that day, Los Angeles County deputies questioned Lyvette and her son at a sheriff's station. According to Lyvette, she and her husband had been arguing in the master bedroom. When their son tried to intervene on her behalf, he and his father got into a fight. She left the room and returned with the handgun she used to shoot her husband three times.

     Following police interrogations of the mother and son, the two went home. A spokesperson for the sheriff's office announced that investigators would present the results of their investigation of the Crespo shooting case to the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office. Personnel within that office would determine if there was sufficient evidence to charge Lyvette Crespo and/or her son with criminal homicide.
   
     Two days after the shooting, Eber Bayona, Lyvette Crespo's attorney, described her to the media as a devoted wife and mother who had been the victim of "a difficult and intolerable home life." Attorney Bayona said, "I think the evidence will corroborate that she has been a victim of domestic violence for many years."

     William Crespo, the shooting victim's brother, told reporters that the attorney was simply trying to make his brother look bad. "My brother is not a bad man," he said. William went on to say that the Los Angeles District Attorney's Office should prosecute Lyvette Crespo for second-degree murder. When asked by a reporter if it were true that Daniel Crespo was having an affair with a woman who was pregnant, William Crespo did not answer the question. He did say that his brother was considering leaving his wife.

     In December 2016, following an extensive criminal investigation that revealed that Daniel Crespo had for years physically abused his wife and his son, Deputy District Attorney Beth Silverman allowed Lyvette Crespo to plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter.

     On January 20, 2017, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy sentenced Lyvette Crespo to 90 days in jail and five years probation. While the so-called battered wife syndrome is not recognized as an admissible homicide defense, it is relevant in terms of prosecutorial discretion and sentencing.

   

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The Alton Alexander Nolen Beheading Murder Case

     The 911 call came in at four-thirty in the afternoon on Thursday September 25, 2014 from an employee of the Vaughn Foods distribution warehouse in Moore, Oklahoma ten miles south of Oklahoma City. The emergency caller, not speaking to the dispatcher, said, "Shut the doors!" Then to the dispatcher said, "We have someone attacking someone in the building. Can you hear this in the background? That's a gunshot."

     When they entered the Vaughn Foods building, officers with the Moore Police Department encountered a bloody scene of horrific violence. Coleen Hufford, a 54-year-old employee, had been repeatedly stabbed then beheaded. Traci Johnson, a fellow employee, had been stabbed as well but was still alive. Alton Alexander Nolen, the 30-year-old man wielding the knife, had been shot once. He was alive but unconscious.

     Earlier that afternoon, after being fired from the food processing and distribution plant, Alton Nolen left the building in a huff, climbed into his car, and drove erratically around the company parking lot. With a knife in hand, he re-entered the facility through the main entrance. Nolen walked through the front office into the shipping area then into the customer service office. There he encountered Colleen Hufford and Traci Johnson, employees who he had no reason to hate or punish.

     Mark Vaughn, the corporation's chief operating officer, rushed to the scene armed with a rifle. He arrived too late to save Colleen Hufford and almost didn't get there in time for Traci Johnson. Before Nolen had the chance to behead his second victim, Mr. Vaughn shot and wounded him.

     Alton Nolen was not a stranger to the local law enforcement community. In the evening of October 1, 2010, while accompanied by his 29-year-old girlfriend and her 2-year-old son, he was driving his white Chevrolet Impala on Oklahoma Highway 33. State Trooper Betsy Randolph pulled him over after she noticed that Nolen's paper license plate looked like a fake. The officer received confirmation of this after she radioed-in the plate number.

     Nolen, when asked by Trooper Randolph to produce his driver's license, said he didn't have it with him. "Do you have a valid driver's license," she asked.

     "No," he replied.

     Seated next to the trooper in the patrol car parked along the curb on a residential street, Nolen said that he didn't want to go back to jail, and denied having outstanding warrants for his arrest. When the officer entered his name and date of birth into her computer, she knew he had lied. There were several outstanding warrants for Nolen's arrest including one for failing to appear in court on a cocaine charge. The trooper had no choice but to take Nolen into custody.

     Trooper Randolph, after cuffing Nolen's right hand, ran into resistance as he tried to call his girlfriend on his cellphone. As the officer reached for her expandable baton, Nolen pushed her away and jumped out of the police vehicle. The trooper chased Nolen on foot but lost him amid a group of houses in the neighborhood.

     Following a 12-hour manhunt that included a helicopter, police dogs, and officers from four law enforcement agencies, the police took Alton Nolen into custody. A local prosecutor charged him with assault and battery on a police officer and escape from detention.

     Early in 2011, following a plea deal, the judge sentenced Nolen to six years on the cocaine offense, two years for escaping police custody, and two years for assaulting Trooper Randolph. Although he faced up to ten years behind bars, he only served 18 months in prison and six months in a halfway  house.

     While in prison Nolen converted to Islam. In April 2013, a month after leaving the halfway house, he began posting messages on Facebook under the name Jah Keem Yisrael. His postings were clearly anti-American. He ran  photographs of Osama bin Laden and the burning trade towers. He also had several Muslim Facebook friends from the U.S., England, and the Middle East.

     Prior to losing his job at the Moore, Oklahoma food processing plant Nolen tried to covert fellow employees to Islam.

     On Saturday September 27, 2014, detectives questioned Nolen after he had regained consciousness. He was charged with first-degree murder and aggravated assault. Until investigators determined the principal motive for the beheading--anger at being fired or striking a terroristic blow against America--the attacks on these innocent women would be handled as a criminal matter. For many, the fact that Nolen was a militant Muslim who beheaded a woman was enough to justify treating the murder as an act of terrorism.

     In May 2016, Nolen offered to plead guilty to first-degree murder. He said he wanted to be executed by lethal injection. Judge Lori Walkey rejected the defendant's guilty plea and ordered a hearing to determine Nolen's mental competency.

     In August 2016, a prosecution psychologist testified that Alton Nolen had a personality disorder and was therefore not psychotic. A neuropsychologist for the defense testified that Nolen was a schizophrenic with a "thought disorder."

     At the conclusion of the mental competency hearing, Judge Walkey rejected Nolen's guilty plea. This meant that instead of death row, Nolen would be incarcerated in a mental institution.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The Michelle Boyer Double Murder-Suicide Case

     In 2014, 40-year-old Jonathan Masin, an employee of Texas Instruments, broke up with Michaelle Boyer, a fellow employee at the massive corporation. Three years earlier, Boyer and her husband, Charles Hobbs, were divorced. The 45-year-old Boyer lived in a house in Dallas not far from her ex-husband's place.

     Jonathan Masin, a resident of Murphy, a quiet suburban community northeast of Dallas, had left Boyer for a 38-year-old woman named Amy Picchiotti. Amy, a physical trainer, had left Larry Picchiotti, her husband of seven years, in March 2014. Amy, the mother of two young girls, moved in with Masin.

     Michelle Boyer reacted with anger when Masin left her for another woman, a person she had considered a friend. She made her feelings known by sending her former boyfriend threatening emails and text messages.

     At eight in the morning of Saturday, May 10, 2014, Jonathan Masin's father, concerned about his son (for reasons that were not reported), called the local police department and requested a welfare check at his house in Murphy.

     Inside the dwelling, in separate rooms, officers found the bodies of Amy Picchiotti and Jonathan Masin. The partially clothed, barefooted couple had been shot to death with a handgun. Neighbors later told the police they had heard what might have been gunshots at 6:30 that morning.

     In Dallas, thirteen miles from the murder scene, police officers came upon Michelle Boyer's SUV parked on the street in front of her ex-husband's house. They found her slumped behind the wheel with a self-inflicted gunshot to the head. The suicide gun matched the caliber of the firearm used to murder Picchiotti and Masin.

     Inside the vehicle, officers recovered a suicide note that described the double murder in Murphy. According to one of Boyer's friends, she felt that Picchiotti had stolen Masin from her. The jilted woman felt betrayed and extremely angry. While the authorities did not release the text of the suicide note, the motive behind the double murder presumably involved revenge.

     The longtime Murphy city manager, James Fisher, told reporters there hadn't been a criminal homicide in this community as long as he could remember.  

Monday, March 13, 2017

Nutty Professors, Academic Publishing, and Tenure: Welcome to Whackadamia

Hug a Tree, Punch a Student

     Upon earning her Ph.D from Kansas State University in 2008, Meghan Buckley began teaching in the Soil and Waste Resources program at the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point. She had earned a B.S. degree in agronomy and international agriculture at Iowa State University. In July 2011, the assistant professor led students on a field trip to a forest in Lincoln County. After it was time for the kids to get back on the bus, Dr. Buckley got off the vehicle to round-up a few no-shows. When the professor returned to the bus with the straglers, a 23-year-old student named Wesley Shaw sarcastically clapped for them. Angered by this, Dr. Buckley walked over to Shaw and punched him several times in the face as he sat in his seat. The punched-out student filed a complaint.

     Following the results of an internal investigation conducted by the university (this was hardly a case for Sherlock Holmes), Dr. Buckley resigned from the school effective at the end of the school year. In the meantime, although out of the classroom, the professor would perform research duties. Dr. Buckley subsequently filed a lawsuit to block the public release of the contents of her personnel file.

UCLA Lab Fire: Accident or Crime?

     In December 2008, in a UCLA chemistry lab, a fire broke out when air-sensitive chemicals burst into flames during an experiment. The fire ignited the clothing of a 23-year-old research assistant. Sherarbano Sangji, who was not wearing a protective lab coat, died eighteen days after the accident. The synthetic sweater she wore caught fire and melted onto her skin, causing second and thirt-degree burns over half of her body.

     The Los Angeles County district attorney's office, on December 27, 2011, charged 42-year-old chemistry professor Patrick Harran with three counts of willfully violating occupational health and safety standards that resulted in the lab assistant's death. If convicted, the professor could be sentenced up to four and a half years in prison. The university could be fined up to $1.5 million on each of the three counts.

     UCLA's vice chancellor for legal affairs called the criminal charges unwarranted, outrageous and appalling. To a reporter with the Los Angeles Times, he said, "What happened in December 2008 was a tragedy, an unfathomable tragedy. It was not a crime."

     In June 2014, Professor Harran pleaded guilty to lesser offenses in return for a $10,000 fine and 800 hours of community service. In December 2015, Harran was dropped as a fellow in the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The professor, however, did not lose his teaching position.

It's Not Booze, It's My Heart Medicine

     Between 2005 and 2011, Dipak Das, the director of the University of Connecticut's Health Center's Cardiovascular Research Center, published the results of his research in dozens of scientific journals. Dr. Das was known for his findings that red wine is good for the heart. In 2008, the university initiated an internal review of the doctor's work after an anonymous complaint of irregularities in his research.

     In January 2012, the university reported that its investigators had uncovered 145 instances, over a seven year period, in which Dr. Das fabricated, falsified, and manipulated data. As a result, the U.S. Office of Research Integrity (do these people carry guns?) opened an independent investigation of his work. Journals that published his articles were notified.

     In May 2012, Dipak Das was fired from the University of Connecticut. Following his $35 million libel suit against the school, he died in September 2013 at the age of 64.

     Other scientific studies, ones not involving Dr. Das, suggest that red wine is in fact good for some people. It's the ingredient resveratrol.

The Book Professors Would Like to Burn

     Higher Education?, a 2012 book by Andrew Hacker, a retired Queens College professor, and Claudia Dreifus, a New York Times journalist, is based on the idea that what takes place on campus isn't education, high or low. The authors blame our failed higher education system on, among other things, the emphasis on research and publishing over classroom teaching. And these authors don't like tenure.

     In a 2012 article about Higher Education? in The Atlantic, Jennie Rothenberg Gritz interviewed Professor Emeritus Hacker. The following are excerpts of the professor's responses to her questions:

"There are two ways to pick a college. One is to go to a prestigious college, and when you graduate the world will know you went to Princeton or Stanford. It dosen't matter what happened in the classroom as long as you have that brand behind you....The second reason to go to college is to get a good liberal arts education. We argue that you can get a better education at second or third tier colleges."

According to Professor Emeritus Hacker, "The problem is that there are just too many [academic] publications and too many [professors] publishing...and many of the publications are too long. A book on Virginia Woolf could be a 30-page article. Somebody did a count on how many publications had been written on Virginia Woolf in the past 15 years. The answer is several thousand. Really? Who needs this?"

"Academics," said Hacker, "typically don't get tenured until the age of 40. This means that from their years as graduate students and then assistant professors, from ages 25 through 38 or 39, they have to toe the line....So tenure is, in fact, the enemy of spontaneity, the enemy of intellectual freedom....And even people who get tenure really don't change....What bothers us, too, is that over 300,000 professors have tenure....What that means is these people never leave. There's hardly any turnover in the senior ranks....You go to a campus and over two thirds of the faculty have been there at least 25 years. They begin to stagnate....They become  infantilized, embroiled in ideological issues like faculty parking."

More on Tenure and Academic Publishing

     For more than 30 years, Martin Russ taught creative writing in several college and university English Departments. A published novelist, he wrote, in 1980, Showdown Semester: Advice From a Writing Professor. This is one of the most entertaining, informative, and helpful books I have ever read on the subject of teaching people how to write. In his book, Professor Russ also provides a professor's take on college administrators (they are mostly idiots) and gives the reader a peek inside the ivory tower. Professor Russ says this about tenure: "I have the impression...that it is the untenured in most English departments who are the most effective teachers. This is largely due to the anxiety arising from job insecurity, which forces them to work at full capacity....The tenured professor is never forced to justify his classroom work to his students, and can go on year after year in a take-it-or-leave-it way in which arrogance overrides the kind of teaching that has to do with helping, sharing, giving."

     Professor Russ, back in 1980, realized that too many professors were taking time away from their teaching to write books nobody reads: "English professors are always turning out extraneous 'textbooks'....or else collecting other people's writing and publishing them as anthologies."  

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Psychic Sylvia Mitchell: Cleansing Spirits and Cleaning Out Bank Accounts

     In October 2007, 33-year-old Lee Choong, a native of Singapore who worked 80 hours a week at a Manhattan investment-banking firm, walked into the Zena Clairvoyant Psychic parlor on Seventh Avenue South in Greenwich Village. Ms. Choong had sought help from psychics before. In 2006, she had paid $10,000 to a fortune teller doing business in New York's SoHo district. Choong came away from that experience feeling cheated. This distraught and lonely woman had obviously not learned the obvious truth that psychics are not only fakes, they are thieves who prey mostly on gullible, desperate women.

     In her opulent Greenwich Village storefront parlor, 34-year-old Sylvia Mitchell, a resident of Mystic, Connecticut (no kidding) offered to give people who walked into her cheesy shop an introductory "reading" for the bargain price of $75. The first session was in reality a combination sales pitch and hook designed to sucker the customer into subsequent psychic sessions that cost $1,000 each. Since only believers availed themselves of psychics, it didn't take much for one of these phony practitioners to close the deal. If these naive and troubled women had any money when they walked into Zena Clairvoyant's shop of financial horrors, they eventually walked out broke and broken. (It's amazing that cops raid whore houses but let these joints operate.)

     As a prologue to Lee Choong's first reading, she unburdened herself to the psychic. Choong said she had fallen in love with a co-worker at the investment-banking firm who did not feel the same way about her. Could Zena help? Of course Zena could help. Here was the problem: in one of Choong's past lives a member of her family had hurt the co-worker. This had created "bad spirits" that had carried forward to the present. But not to worry. Because Choong and this man at the investment-banking firm were meant for each other, psychic Mitchell would bring them together by ridding Choong of the bad spirits that had kept him away.

     During their first meeting, psychic Mitchell cautioned Lee Choong that cleansing her of those evil spirits would not be easy. It would take a lot of time, and as we all know, time is money.

     Over the next year and a half, Lee Choong paid Sylvia Mitchell more than $120,000. The psychic said she needed the money to pay for evil spirit removal supplies. (Apparently you can't get this stuff at Home Depot.) If the bad spirits were not vanquished, and Choong's life didn't get better, Michell promised to return the money. (One didn't have to be a psychic to predict that Choong's life would not improve, and that she would not get her money back.)

     In 2008, notwithstanding psychic Mitchell's efforts, Lee Choong lost her job at the investment-banking firm. When the unemployed woman, in April 2009, asked for a psychic refund, Sylvia Mitchell told her that within a period of four months Choong would get a new job, one that paid $95,000 a year. That, of course, didn't happen. Choong did not get her refund, either.

     In September 2012, Lee Choong went to the police.

     In August 2008, while Sylvia Mitchell was separating Lee Choong from her savings, Debra Saalfield, a single mother of three entered the psychic shop on Seventh Avenue South. The former competitive ballroom dancer from Naples, Florida, an employee of a Manhattan dance company, had lived in the West Village with her boyfriend, a man she wanted to marry. They broke up, she moved out, and a short time later, she lost her job at the dance company. With her life in shambles, Debra experienced what she called an emotional "meltdown." Rather than seek professional help, and perhaps medication, Saalfield turned to a psychic.

     From psychic Mitchell, Debra Saalfield learned that in one of her past lives she had been an Egyptian princess. (Haven't we all.) As part of the ruling class, Saalfield had enjoyed great wealth. As a result, in her present life, she had become too attached to money. Yes, it was that filthy lucre that was ruining her life. To prove her diagnosis, Mitchell asked Saalfield to write her a check for $27,000. Without that wealth, Saafield's life would improve. If it didn't, Mitchell would return every penny. Saafield took out a loan on her house.

     After Saalfield realized she had been the victim of a confidence scam, she asked the psychic to return the $27,000. Mitchel, over a period of months, gave back about half of what she had taken.

     In 2011, while running a psychic shop in her hometown, Mystic, Connecticut, the authorities accused Mitchell of bilking a Catskills woman out of $9,000. This prompted Zena Clairvoyant to leave the state. A short time later, while running a game in Florida, the police arrested her for stealing $27,000 from a woman who had paid for "consultations" by Zena Clairvoyant.

     In New York City, detectives working out of the 6th precinct arrested Sylvia Mitchell in February 2013 on charges of fortune telling, scheme to defraud, and grand larceny. On the grand larceny charge alone Mitchell faced up to 15 years in prison. The psychic made bail and went back to work in Greenwich Village as Zena Clairvoyant. No doubt she was predicting an acquittal.
   
     The Mitchell trial commenced on September 30, 2013 in a Manhattan criminal courtroom. During the jury selection process, Assistant District Attorney James Bergamo asked members of the panel this question: "Does anyone believe that psychics are real?" (I'm not sure, from the prosecutor's point of view, if you want believers or nonbelievers on the jury. Nonbelievers might condemn the victims as willing suckers who got what they deserved. Believers might see the case as nothing more that a consumer's rights conflict.) In response to Bergamo's question, several members of the jury panel raised their hands as believers. One of these prospective jurors said, "I'm curious about the future." Another said she had a friend who visited a psychic as "a happy-hour thing." A third member of the panel said she had a friend who read palms.

     In his opening statement to the twelve people who ended up on the jury, prosecutor Bergamo revealed his strategy of portraying Choong and Saalfield as vulnerable women taken advange of by a cold-blooded con artist. "The defendant," he said, "is not in the business of cleansing spirits. She's in the business of cleaning out bank accounts."

     When it came time for defense attorney William I. Aronwald to address the jury, he said, "You will not hear any evidence in this case that she [Sylvia Mitchell] did not provide the services that she was contracted to provide them." In other words, Choong and Saalfield had gotten what they had paid for--they paid for nonsense and that's what they got.

     On Thursday, October 3, 2013, following the direct testimony of prosecution witnesses Saalfield and Choong, defense attorney Aronwald, carefully trying not to come off as a bully, put these pathetic women under cross-examination. Regarding the psychic's so-called "readings," Aronwald asked Debra Saalfield to explain what a reading was. "A reading of what?" he asked. "Palms? Tarrot cards? You paid $75 for a reading, but what was read?"

     "I don't know," replied the witness.

     "When she told you that you had been an Egyptian princess, did you believe her?"

     "No."

     "Did you laugh?"

     "No."

     To Lee Choong, attorney Aronwald asked, "What led you to see a psychic instead of a licensed therapist?"

     "I needed answers," Choong replied.

     "In the eighteen months you were involved with Sylvia, there was no improvement in any of these areas, correct?"

     "Yes."

     "You continued to give her this money?"

     "Yes."

     On Monday, October 7, 2013, a prosecution witness named Rob Millet took the stand and testified that he sought the defendant's help after he learned that his boyfriend was moving back to Texas. To make matters worse, Millet's mother took ill. The psychic, after gaining Millet's confidence, said she had to have $10,000 to give him the quality of help he required. Millet, after borrowing $7,000 from his father,  paid Mitchell her fee. He got nothing in return.

     Attorney Aronwald, after resting his case without putting his client on the stand, gave his closing statement to the jury. He said that Sylvia Mitchell had done what her clients had paid her to do--try to help them. Yes, her methods were "unconventional," but so what?

     Prosecutor Bergamo, in his final statement to the jury, said, "The defendant finds people's weaknesses and she exploits them to her advantage."

     On Friday, October 11, 2013, the jury found Sylvia Mitchell guilty as charged. On November 14, 2013, the judge sentenced Mitchell to five to fifteen years in prison. (She already knew that, of course.)

     What this case and others like it reveal about modern society is disturbing. In an era in which we are overwhelmed with information, Americans are losing the ability to draw logical conclusions, apply common sense, and distinguish what is real from what isn't. We live in a culture of magical thinking devoid of objective truth. The loss of common sense and logic to irrational, magical thinking is perhaps one the the greatest dangers facing our country. A nation that can't think straight, make rational decisions, and apply common sense solutions to its problems, is doomed.


     

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Miranda and Elytte Barbour: The Craigslist Killers

     Of all the motives behind premeditated murder, killing for the fun of watching someone die reflects a degree of evil that's inhuman. People who kill for the thrill of it are as dangerous as they are diabolical. Because these murderers are incapable of comprehending why normal people consider them monsters, they are beyond the reach of psychology, psychiatry, and anger management. To not execute these murderers constitutes, in itself, a crime against civilization. For born killers, there should be no mercy.

     Elytte Barbour and his 18-year-old wife Miranda resided in Selingsgrove, an eastern Pennsylvania town 100 miles northwest of Philadelphia. On October 22, 2013, after moving to Pennsylvania from North Carolina, the couple got married. Through various Internet sites, Miranda offered her services to lonely men looking for female companionship. For fees that ranged from $50 to $850, she would make herself available for conversation over dinner or during a walk around a shopping mall. Sex was not part of the deal. (Her claim.)

     On November 11, 2013, Miranda, through one of her escort postings on Craigslist, offered to meet Troy LaFerrara at the Susquehanna Valley Mall in Selingsgrove. That night, the 42-year-old from Port Trevorton parked his Chevy S-10 pickup in the mall lot and got into a 2001 Honda driven by Miranda Barbour. Unbeknownst to Mr. LaFerrara, Miranda's 22-year-old husband Elytte was hidden in the SUV behind the front seat.

     Miranda drove from Selinsgrove toward the nearby town of Sunbury. At some point she pulled off the road and came to a stop. Elytte rose up from behind the seat and wrapped a cord around Mr. LaFerrara's neck. With her passenger choking and grasping for air, Miranda got back onto the road and continued driving toward Sunbury.

     In Sunbury, Miranda pulled to a stop and grabbed a knife from between the front seats. With Mr. LaFerrara still being strangled by Elytte, Miranda stabbed the dying man twenty times. After taking the dead man's wallet (but not his cellphone), the lethal couple dumped his corpse in a residential alley.

     From the dump site, the Barbours drove to a department store where they purchased cleaning supplies. Once they had removed the victim's blood from the Honda, Miranda and Elytte drove to a strip club in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania where they celebrated his birthday.

     The day following the LaFerrara murder, November 12, 2013, the occupant of a house whose backyard reached out to the alley, discovered Troy LaFerrara's body. Investigators, from the victim's cellphone, acquired the lead that eventually led them to the married killers.

     On Friday, December 6, 2013, police officers took the couple into custody for the LaFerrara murder. According to Miranda, she had stabbed her passenger after he groped her. She claimed that after she had stabbed LeFerrara four times she "blacked out." As a result, she had no memory of what took place in the immediate aftermath of the killing. (Psychopaths, because they lack insight and empathy, are lousy liars.)

     Elytte Barbour confessed fully to the cold-blooded murder of a complete stranger. He told his interrogators that he and Miranda had planned to "murder someone together."

     Dr. Rameen Starling-Romey performed the LaFerrara autopsy at the Lehigh Valley Hospital in Allentown. According to the forensic pathologist, LaFerrara had died from multiple sharp force trauma.

     While the Barbours were in custody without bail, investigators were looking into the possibility that Mr. LaFerrara was not their first murder victim.

     In February 2014, Miranda Barbour, in an interview with a reporter with the Daily Item, a newspaper in Sunbury, Pennsylvania, claimed to have murdered at least 22 people in Alaska, Texas, North Carolina, and California over the past six years. That meant she started killing when when she was thirteen. According to Barbour, the killing started when she joined a satanic cult in Alaska before moving to North Carolina.

     Sunbury police chief Steve Mazzeo told reporters that his detectives had been in contact with the FBI and other law enforcement agencies in those states.

     A judge, in February 2014, granted the defense attorney's request to have Miranda Barbour evaluated by a forensic psychiatrist. Her husband Elytte had already been examined by a court-appointed mental health expert. Investigators were skeptical regarding Miranda Barbour's claim to be a teenage serial killer. Why didn't she tell her police interrogators about these murders? If she was lying about this, she was either delusional or perhaps setting up an insanity defense. Where were the bodies?

     In a second, March 2014 interview with the reporter with The Daily Item, Miranda Barbour claimed that before the murder of Troy LaFerrara, two other targeted victims escaped death when they failed to respond to her offer of female companionship.

     In May 2014, Northumberland County Judge Charles H. Saylor ruled that prosecutors could seek the death penalty in this case. Miranda Barbour's court appointed attorney, Ed Greco, had asked the judge to take the death penalty off the table.

     In August 2014, to avoid the death penalty, the Barbours pleaded guilty to second-degree murder for the killing of Troy LaFerrara. In September, Judge Saylor sentenced the couple to life in prison without parole.

     Holly LaFerrara, in her victim impact statement after the judge handed down the sentences, said, "If it was up to me you would each be strapped to a lethal injection gurney or seated in an electric chair. I say you both got off lucky today…You were bad enough to do the crime. Now let's see how you like doing the time. Lots and lots of time. There aren't many guarantees in life, but you can take this one to the bank. My family and I will make sure you stay in jail, right where you belong."

     The authorities came to the conclusion that Miranda Barbour had lied about the other killings. 

Friday, March 10, 2017

Al Capone Was a Nice Guy?

     Except for books about writers and the writing life, the memoir has become my least favorite literary genre. I'm sick of manufactured sob stories; celebrity drivel you can get from "People" magazine; fiction passed off as fact; revisionist, self-serving history; autobiographical narcissism; and memorists trying to create something out of nothing. While there are very few of us worthy of a memoir (myself included), everybody seems to be writing one, including people with relatives who were once famous, or better yet, infamous. A memoir published in 2010 by Deirdre Marie Capone, the grandniece of the prohibition ganster Al Capone, represents this form of literary exploitation.

     When Al Capone died on Jaunuary 25, 1947, the author of "Uncle Al Capone: The Untold Story From Inside His Family," was 7-years-old. During the first six years of her life, uncle Al was doing time at Alcatraz for the least of his crimes, tax evasion. When they released him in November 1939, Capone's brain was partially destroyed by untreated syphillis. He spent his last months on earth in a bath robe fishing in his swimming pool on Palm Island in Biscayne Bay, Florida.

     It's safe to say that the author of this memoir had no direct contact with her great uncle. And even if she had, she was 7-years-old. This book was obviously not written from her journal entries. Nevertheless, Deirdre Capone wants us to believe that Al Capone was the victim of heavy-handed law enforcers who exaggerated the extent of his criminality. The author is telling us that Capone was nothing more than a successful businessman giving the American public what it wanted--illegal booze. Moreover, the man loved his family and liked to cook. What a load of crap. If half of what has been written and said about Al Copone is false, he is still one of the most violent and evil criminals in American history.

       As a "businessman," Capone killed his competitors, and anyone who refused to buy his alcohol. Sure, people wanted their prohibition era booze, but they didn't bargain for the extortion, arson, kidnapping, aggravated assault, and first-degree murder that went with doing business with a man who employed more than 600 thugs and gangsters. Having paid-off most of the cops and federal prohibition agents in Chicago, Capone had a license to kill, and he used it. Calling Al Capone a "businessman" is like calling Adolph Hitler a statesman with a softspot for his German Sherpard.

     Like most mob leaders, Capone moved up the gangster career ladder by murdering people who stood in his way. He killed several men over petty arguments and barroom insults. Those he didn't murder ended up with broken arms, legs, and skulls. At an organized crime banquet he once hosted, Capone beat an associate to death with a baseball bat as he sat over his pasta. And on February 14, 1929, he masterminded the execution style mass murder of seven members of a rival gang in the so-called St. Valentine's Day Massacre. Some businessman, this Capone.

     I wonder how many of the grandnieces and grandnephews of the gangsters, killers, booze industry workers, and bystanders killed directly or indirectly by Al Capone are writing their I-was-related-to memoirs? I hope not many. Too many innocent trees have already died for dreadful books like this.

    

Thursday, March 9, 2017

The Joseph Oberhansley Murder Case

     On Wednesday night September 10, 2014, Tammy Jo Blanton, following an argument with her boyfriend Joseph Oberhansley, threw him and his belongings out of her house. A few hours later Blanton's father changed the locks on her Jeffersonville, Indiana dwelling.

     The next day at three in the morning, Blanton called 911. Her 33-year-old ex-boyfriend had returned and was trying to break into her house by kicking in the back door. Police in the southern Indiana town confronted Oberhansley at the Locus Street residence.

     Instead of taking Oberhansley into custody for attempted burglary and threats, officers ordered him off the property and told him to stay away from his former girlfriend. Oberhansley, just before he drove off in his 2002 Chevrolet Blazer, complained to the officers that the police aways favored the woman in domestic disputes.

     From his 46-year-old ex-girlfriend's home, Oberhansley drove to his mother's place. He got her out of bed and complained about his mistreatment at the hands of Blanton and the police officers his ex-girlfriend had summoned. He left his mother's home at three-thirty that morning.

     The Jeffersonville police must have known that Joseph A. Oberhansley was an unstable and dangerous man. (I don't know how much Tammy Jo Blanton knew about him.) In 1998, outside of Salt Lake City, Utah, shortly after Sabrina Elder, his 17-year-old girlfriend, gave birth to their child, he shot her to death. He shot the victim's mother in the back and in the arm when she tried to protect her daughter. The mother survived her wounds.

     After shooting his girlfriend and her mother, Oberhansley put the gun to his head and pulled the trigger. The bullet entered his frontal lobe and damaged his brain. A year later he pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sent to prison. He got out of prison in 2012 after spending eleven years behind bars.

     In March 2013, after putting a man into a chokehold and fighting the Jeffersonville police when they broke up the fight, a Clark County prosecutor charged Oberhansley with assault and resisting arrest. He posted his bail and was released from the county jail.

     In July 2014, Oberhansley led Jeffersonville police officers on a vehicle chase that ended up with his arrest in Louisville, Kentucky. Due to a bureaucratic screwup, the judge set Oberhansley's bail at $500. Once again Oberhansley walked out of jail a free man.

     On Friday September 11, 2014, when Tammy Jo Blanton did not show up for work, the police, at ten o'clock that morning, returned to her house. They were met at the door by Oberhansley who had a fresh cut across the knuckles of his right hand. Officers searching him incident to his arrest found a bloody folding knife in his back pocket.

     Officers discovered Tammy Jo Blanton's body beneath a vinyl camping tent draped over the bathtub. She had been stabbed numerous times in the chest and head. Her killer had also slashed her throat. Her torso had been cut open and several of her internal organs were missing.

     Officers at the murder scene found a piece of skull sitting on a bloody dinner plate. A kitchen skillet contained traces of blood as did the handle to a pair of tongs. Searchers found hunks of human flesh in the victim's garbage can.

     Confronted with this physical evidence of horrific violence, Oberhansley confessed that he had stabbed and slashed his ex-girlfriend. He cut out her heart, her lungs, and other internal organs that he said he had eaten. Some of the body parts he cooked, others he consumed raw.

      Charged with murder, abuse of corpse, and breaking and entering, Oberhansley appeared before Clark County Judge Vickie Carmichael on September 15, 2014. At the arraignment hearing, the defendant took back his confession. "Obviously you've got the wrong guy," he told the judge. Moreover, he claimed that he was not Joseph Oberhansley but a man named Zeus Brown. The suspect also asserted that he didn't know how old he was or if he were a U.S. citizen. The judge denied him bail.

     To reporters after the arraignment, Clark County prosecutor Jeremy Mull said, "There's a motive and a reason behind Oberhansley's denial of guilt. There's no doubt in my mind he is responsible for Tammy Jo Blanton's murder."

     On March 8, 2017, Clark County Circuit Judge Vicki Carmichael, pursuant to a defense motion declaring the defendant mentally incompetent to stand trial, ordered additional psychiatric examinations of the accused killer. These examinations were to be conducted by mental health experts selected by the court, not by parties to the case.

     

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

The Pallavi Dhawan Double Murder-Suicide Case

     Sumeet and Pallavi Dhawan, before becoming naturalized U.S. citizens, were married by arrangement in their native home country, India. In 2014, the couple and their 10-year-old son Arnav resided in Frisco, a suburban community north of Dallas, Texas. A computer programmer, Sumeet spent a lot of time away from home. Pallavi had worked in the computer field as well but quit her job to care full time for their special-needs son.

     Arnav, a fifth grade student at Isbell Elementary School was born with a brain cyst and microcephaly, a condition characterized by a smaller than normal head. Pallavi often found herself alone in the house caring for the boy during her husband's extended absences. Recently she had been coping with mental problems and a marriage that was falling apart.

     On Wednesday, January 29, 2014, Sumeet, while on a three week business trip, received an email from Arnav's school informing him that the boy had been absent several days. At 4:30 PM that afternoon, as he was about to arrive home, Sumeet called Pallavi who said she was just leaving the house to pick up Arnav at his after-school tutoring center.

     At 6:30 PM that evening, when Pallavi and the boy had yet to arrive home from the school, Sumeet, concerned about their welfare, called the police.

     Pallavi arrived home, without the boy, while police officers were questioning Sumeet. An officer speaking to the mother asked about Arnav. Where is he? Instead of answering the officer, Pallavi asked if she could speak to her husband privately. The officers backed away.

     Sumeet became visibly upset when Pallavi, referring to their son, said: "He is no more." The distraught father informed the officers that Arnav was in the locked bathroom.

     Inside the dry bathtub officers found the dead boy wrapped up to his neck in a cloth. His body was surrounded by several empty plastic bags.

     The day after the discovery of the dead child, the Collin County medical examiner, without issuing a statement regarding the specific cause of death, ruled the case a homicide. The cause of death was being withheld pending the results of toxicological tests. According to the forensic pathologist, the boy had been dead two days.

     On Thursday, January 30, 2014, police officers booked Pallavi Dhawan into the Frisco City Jail on the charge of capital murder. According to the police, before officers entered the bathroom, one of them asked Pallavi if she had killed her son. She responded by nodding her head in the affirmative. When asked if the body was in the bathroom, she also nodded her head yes.

     On Friday, January 31, 2014, just after midnight, Pallavi's attorney, David Finn, posted her $50,000 bail. Later that day, in speaking to reporters, the Dallas based defense attorney insisted that his client, when she nodded her head in the affirmative, had responded to the question regarding her son's whereabouts, not to the question about whether she had killed him. The police simply misunderstood and misinterpreted what they saw.

     Pointing out that the boy's body showed no signs of physical trauma, and that his lungs did not contain water, attorney Finn announced that he would ask Dr. Nizam Peerwani, the Fort Worth based chief medical examiner of Tarrant County, to conduct his own postmortem inquiry.

     Attorney Finn said that his client had doted on her son, a happy, fun-loving kid. He also claimed that Sumeet Dhawan did not believe his wife had killed their son, and that he stood by her. A reporter asked the attorney why the mother didn't notify the authorities after her son's death. "That's the million-dollar question," Finn replied. Pallavi, he speculated, was probably in a state of shock after Arnav's death. She may have been waiting for her husband to come home.

     In August 2014, Pallavi and Sumeet Dhawan testified before a Collin County Grand Jury looking into the death of their son. In January, the couple had petitioned the authorities to return their car, fax machine and passports, items seized pursuant to the investigation of Arnav's death. The Dhawans had been forced to rent a car and needed their passports to travel back to India.

     On September 3, 2014, police officers arrived at the Dhawan residence at three in the afternoon in response to a 911 call regarding a body floating in the home swimming pool. Inside the house, lying on a bed, searchers discovered a man's body. The dead adults were presumed to be Pallavi and Sumeet Dhawan.

     The medical examiner, on September 6, 2014, confirmed the identities of the deceased couple. Sumeet had suffered blunt force trauma to his head. One of his hands had been fractured, probably as he raised that hand in defense.

     In October 2014, a spokesperson for the Collin County Medical Examiner's Office announced that Pallavi Dhawan had killed herself. She had drowned under the influence of the common antihistamine diphenhydramine. Sumeet Dhawan, according to the medical examiner's office, had been murdered by his wife. He had died from a combination of blunt force head injures and a toxic dose of several over-the-counter medications.