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Friday, June 30, 2017

The Philip Chism Murder Case

     Colleen Ritzer, a 2011 magna cum laude graduate of Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts, taught ninth grade math in Danvers, a suburban town of 26,000 20 miles northeast of Boston. The 24-year-old teacher lived in Andover with her siblings and parents. She was working toward a masters degree in school counseling at Salem State University.

     On Tuesday, October 22, 2013, when a Danvers school ninth-grader named Philip D. Chism missed his four o'clock soccer practice, and didn't show up for a junior varsity team dinner, members of the team went looking for him. Philip and his 34-year-old mother Diana moved to the Boston area from Tennessee at the start of the school year. That evening she reported him missing. Investigators learned that at six-thirty that night, Chism was seen leaving the Hollywood Hits movie theater in Danvers.

     That Tuesday night, Colleen Ritzer's parents reported her missing when she didn't return home from school and wasn't answering her cellphone. Danvers police officers, in searching the high school for Ritzer, found splashes of blood in the second-floor student girl's restroom. A short time later, around midnight, officers found Ritzer's body in a patch of woods behind the school's athletic fields. She had been stabbed and slashed to death with a sharp instrument.

     A review of surveillance camera footage showed Philip Chism using what appeared to be a recycling bin--a blue, plastic garbage can on wheels--to move the dead woman into the nearby woods. About the time officers found the body behind the school, police officers in the town of Topsfield just north of Danvers spotted Chism walking along Route 1.

     Chism told his interrogators that he was in Colleen Ritzer's algebra class held during the school's final period. Because he had been doodling instead of paying attention that day, she asked him to stay after class. At 3:30, he followed her into the students' restroom. (The faculty bathroom had been occupied. One of the school's 200 surveillance cameras caught Chism, as he followed the teacher into the restroom. He was seen putting on a pair of white gloves.)

     Inside the girl's restroom, Chism punched the teacher in the face, then slit her throat with a box cutter. After the killing, he used the recycling bin to transport the body outside the building into the woods behind the sprawling campus. Police found the garbage can 100 feet from the corpse. It had been pushed over an embankment.

     After murdering Colleen Ritzer, Chism changed his bloody clothes, ate at a Wendy's restaurant, then walked to the movie theater where he watched the Woody Allen film, "Blue Jasmine." He paid for the fast food and the movie with a credit card.
 
     Classmates described the tall, athletic student as quiet and shy. Some of his classmates labeled him antisocial and strange. He was a good student and the leading scorer on the junior varsity soccer team.

     The district attorney of Essex County charged Philip Chism as an adult with assault and murder. At the boy's October 23, 2013 arraignment in a Salem district court, the student pleaded not guilty.

     According to court documents in Tennessee, Diana, the boy's mother, married Stacy Chism in September 1998 when she was 19 and he was 23. Philip was born four months later. A year later, Diana gave birth to a girl. She filed for divorce in March 2001, but three months later the couple reconciled. Not long after that they separated again.

      On October 26, 2013, through her attorney, Diana Chism issued a statement expressing sorrow for the Ritzer family.

     Philip Chism, as an inmate awaiting his trial at the Department of Youth Services facility in Dorchester, Massachusetts, had trouble conforming to the institutions rules and regulations. For one thing, he refused to attend classes. As a result he spent his mornings and afternoons sitting at a table in the facility's main room. A staff member posted at a station behind a low wall kept an eye on inmates in the large, open room.  Behind the observation station an employee-only hallway led to a locker room that featured a bathroom.

     On June 2, 2014, a 29-year-old female corrections officer, a member of the staff who had known Chism for several months, got up from her post and walked down the hallway to the locker room. The 15-year-old rose to his feet, kicked off his sandals, and in a crouched position to avoid detection, moved  quietly toward the hallway.

     When the staffer came out of the restroom, Chism grabbed her by the neck with both hands and started choking her. She managed to remove his right hand which allowed her to scream for help. Before other members of the staff came to her aid, Chism punched the woman several times in the face.

     Charged with attempted murder by strangulation, Chism, on July 23, 2014, appeared in a Suffolk County Court for his arraignment. The judge set his bail at $250,000. His attorney had nothing to say to reporters.

     On March 3, 2015, following legal arguments pursuant to an evidentiary hearing in Essex County District Court in anticipation of Philip Chism's murder trial, Judge David Lowy ruled that the defendant's confession at the Danvers police station had been coerced and was therefore inadmissible evidence. The judge did allow into evidence the bloody box cutter and other key pieces of physical evidence. Also allowed into evidence were the items seized from Chism's pockets and backpack. This evidence included the murder victim's identification, credit cards, and a pair of her underwear.

     The Coleen Ritzer murder trial, scheduled for October 17, 2015, was delayed after a judge ordered Chism to undergo a mental health evaluation to determine if he was mentally competent to stand trial.

     On November 2, 2015, at the start of his mental competence hearing, Chism refused to enter the courtroom, banged his head against the floor and told a psychologist he heard voices and hoped that someone would shoot him. The next day the judge ruled Chism mentally unfit to stand trial.

     In February 2016, Philip Chism went on trial for the murder, rape, and robbery of Coleen Ritzer. After the jury found him guilty as charged, Superior Court Judge David Lowry sentenced him to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 25 years. He was also sentenced to 40-year prison terms for the rape and robbery. Under the terms of these sentences, Chism will remain behind bars for at least 40 years. He will not be free before he reaches the age of 54.

     In Massachusetts, a juvenile who commits first-degree murder cannot be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. The victim's family in this case criticized that law.
   
     

Believable Fantasy

I learned years ago from Lester del Ray that the secret to writing good fantasy is to make certain it relates to what we know about our own world. Readers must be able to identify with the material in such a way that they recognize and believe the core truths of the storytelling. It doesn't matter if you are writing epic fantasy, contemporary fantasy, dark urban fantasy, comic fantasy, or something else altogether, there has to be truth in the material. Otherwise readers are going to have a tough time suspending disbelief long enough to stay interested.

Terry Brooks, Sometimes The Magic Works, 2003

Memoirists Are Liars

Perhaps all memoirists lie. We alter the truth on paper so as to alter it in fact; we lie about our past and invent surrogate memories the better to make sense of our lives and live the life we know was truly ours. We write about our life, not to see it as it was, but to see it as we wish others might see it, so we may borrow their gaze and begin to see our life through their eyes, not ours.

Andre Acimen in Writers on Writing, edited by John Darnton, 2001 

Mark Twain and His Typewriter

     Mark Twain loved gadgets and would buy the latest thing when it came out. When typewriters hit the market, he was among the first to buy one for the then outrageous price of $125 (more than $2,150 in today's money.) Twain was also the first author ever to submit a typewritten manuscript to a publisher. It was 1833 and the book was Life on the Mississippi. 

     Twain used the "hunt and peck" typing method. He didn't know the touch-typing system of using all the fingers. Nobody did, because it wouldn't be invented for another quarter century. Twain eventually traded his Remington typewriter for a $12 saddle.

Erin Barrett and Jack Mingo, It Takes a Certain Type To Be a Writer, 2003 

Dr. Arthur Waite: The Happy Poisoner

     In 1917, on trial for his life, accused of double murder, Dr. Arthur Warren Waite laughed at the law. It was, he agreed, all true. He had indeed murdered his mother-in-law by mixing germs in her food. He had also killed his wealthy father-in-law, but when germs failed, and arsenic too, Waite had used chloroform, suffocating the old man with a pillow to finish him off. Why? "For the money," said Waite.

     Waite's trial was the New York City sensation of its day. The debonair young dentist cheerfully explained how he had poisoned his mother-in-law mixing pneumonia, diphtheria and influenza germs into her meals.

     Dr. Waite's father-in-law had been a hardier soul, resisting tuberculosis bacteria sprayed up his nose, chlorine gas, and various attempts to give him pneumonia, including dampening his bed sheets. Science caught up with Dr. Waite when arsenic he'd poured into the old man's soup was detected at autopsy. [Waite was found guilty and hanged.]

Roger Wilkes, ed, The Mammoth Book of Murder & Science, 2000

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Helen Pearson's Stalker From Hell

     On October 21, 2013, 33-year-old Helen Pearson, a resident of Exeter, England, while walking in the rain from her flat to a physical fitness class at a nearby gym, was stabbed in the back by an attacker armed with a large pair of scissors. The man dragged Pearson through the entrance gate of St. Bartholomew Cemetery where he pinned her to the ground, punched her, and stabbed her in the face and lower jaw.

     When Sandra Robertson, a passing motorist, heard Pearson's screams, she jumped out of her vehicle and ran into the cemetery, a place known by the locals as the Catacombs, and pushed the assailant off the victim. That gave Pearson the chance to run out of the cemetery, and take refuge at the Fitness First Gym. The attacker fled the scene as well.

     Questioned at the gym by a police officer, the hysterical Pearson cried, "It was my stalker!" An ambulance crew rushed the victim to a nearby hospital. Her wounds, while serious, were not life-threatening.

     Helen Pearson's nightmare began in 2008 when her neighbor, an unemployed mechanic named Joseph Willis, asked if she would accompany him to a local pub to hear a band. She declined his invitation. Her rejection incurred Willis' wrath and turned him into an unrelenting stalker. During the next five years, Willis devoted himself to making Pearson's life a living hell.

     Early on, Willis made his intentions clear. He wrote Pearson a letter that read: "I want to see how you would cope if you were attacked….Would you fight back? Scream? Let the game begin." Willis' "game" included regularly pawing through her trash, visiting her Facebook page, disrupting her eating disorder support group (she suffered from obsessive compulsion disorder), harassing hang-up phone calls, depositing a dead cat on her doorstep, slashing her tires, and vandalizing her flat and her parents' home in Crediton. Willis also continued to send her poison letters in which he called her a "lying evil girl," and warned her to "watch her back."

     On April 7, 2014, Willis' attempted murder trial got underway at the Crown Court in Exeter. Crown prosecutor Richard Crabb, in his opening statement to the jury, said, " The defendant was obsessed with Helen Pearson and consumed with hostility for reasons that may never become apparent. Willis was consumed by hatred. He had done his best to make her life a misery and made clear threats against her in two letters." [As a matter of substantive criminal law, motive does not have to be proven, just the intent to commit the crime.]

     Helen Pearson took the stand and described to the jury how the 49-year-old defendant had forced her and her family to live in fear. Her father installed security grilles on her windows and set up a security camera at his house in Crediton. She changed cellphones every month and lived in constant fear of being physically attacked. Pearson also kept a diary in which she documented more than 100 incidents of harassment and vandalism.

     In describing the October 21, 2013 attempted murder, Pearson said, "He came from behind. I did not hear him because it was raining heavily and I had my umbrella up. The first thing I knew was when I was stabbed in the back. I turned and saw it was Joe. I saw his eyes and he looked absolutely furious. The first blow pushed me to the ground, and he kicked me and was dragging me along. It was obvious he was planning to get me into the Catacombs. That was where I was going to end. I tried to get free. I felt another kick and stab from behind. I thought this is going on until I am completely dead."

     Continuing with her account of the vicious attack, Pearson said, "I got my phone and was able to dial two nines but not the third. He got the phone away from me. He was deranged and so evil. He knew full well what he was doing and he was determined I was going to be dead. He was trying to drag me farther and farther from the cemetery entrance gates. I thought this is where he is going to get rid of the body. I thought I would be found and my mum and dad would not know what happened. [I would imagine that Mr. Pearson would have known exactly what had happened to his daughter, and who was responsible.]

     "I had six stab wounds in total in my back. I remember seeing the scissors and turning my head and seeing them come down….I was struggling and screaming and pleading. I remember saying, 'Please, Joe. No!' He never spoke to me throughout the whole thing."

     The victim-witness told the jury about her father's home security camera and her window bars. Because the police were useless and apparently uninterested in protecting this woman, the family hired a private detective in an effort to catch the stalker in the act. (They should have hired a hit man--just kidding--I think.) During Pearson's prolonged ordeal, she filed 125 complaints with the Devon and Cornwall Police Departments.

     On April 15, 2014, the jury found Joseph Willis guilty of attempted murder. Outside the Exeter court house following the verdict, Helen Pearson, in speaking to a reporter with the BBC, said, "Every night you go to bed and you don't know what is going to happen and you constantly live in fear. You see that there's no way the stalking is ever gong to end." Pearson, feeling hopeless and vulnerable, said she had thought many times about ending her misery by killing herself.

     Helen Pearson's father, Bernard Pearson, said this to the BBC: "Nobody with the police could see that the level of violence was rising, rising and rising." Mr. Pearson spoke of the family's intention of filing a formal complaint against the law enforcement agencies that failed to protect his daughter against the obsessed degenerate who had obviously intended at some point to murder her.

     The Exeter Crown Court judge, in appreciation of Sandra Robertson's heroic life saving intervention on Helen Pearson's behalf, granted her a 500 pound reward. Regarding the future of the convicted stalker and attempted murderer, the judge said Mr. Willis could anticipate a "lengthy term of imprisonment."

     In May 2014, Bernard Pearson filed a 48-page complaint against the Devon and Cornwall Police Departments. To a BBC reporter he said, "They failed us terribly. The attacks were getting worse and worse and the police failed to realize this and act."

     On July 17, 2014, the judge sentenced Willis to life in prison, stipulating that the deadly stalker had to serve at least 13 years of his sentence before being eligible for parole.

     Helen Pearson, in speaking to reporters after the sentencing hearing, once again accused the local police of failing to protect her in the face of obvious threats against her life.

     On September 2, 2014, the convicted stalker's attorney filed an appeal to have his client's life sentence reduced. In response to this, Willis' victim said: "I'm not going to let [the appeal] worry me. Willis spent five years making my life a misery. Now he's trying to do it again from behind bars, but he won't succeed."

     An agency in England called The Independent Police Complaints Commission launched an investigation to determine why this woman's plight had been ignored by the Devon and Cornwall Police Departments.

     On March 3, 2015, appellate judges at the Royal Courts of Justice rejected Joseph Willis' sentencing appeal.

     The chiefs of police of the Devon and Cornwall Police Departments apologized to Helen Pearson for the official misconduct and incompetence that led to her victimization. The chiefs promised to take the crime of stalking more seriously in the future. Ms. Pearson called the apologies and promises meaningless.

Say Goodbye to Alaska Serial Killer Robert Hansen

     Convicted Alaska serial killer Robert Hansen, who gained the nickname of "The Butcher Baker" for abducting and hunting down women in the wilderness during the state's oil pipeline construction boom in the 1970s, has died at age 75. Hansen died Thursday August 21, 2014 at  Alaska Regional Hospital after being in declining health for the past year…

     Hansen was convicted in 1984 after confessing to killing 17 women, mostly dancers and prostitutes, during a 12-year span. Hansen was convicted of just four of the murders in a deal that spared him having to go to trial 17 times. The Anchorage baker also confessed to raping another 30 women at that time…

     Hansen was the subject of a 2003 film entitled "The Frozen Ground" that starred Nicolas Cage as an Alaska State Trooper investigating the slayings. Actor John Cusack portrayed Hansen.

     Hansen was serving a 461-year sentence in Alaska at the time of his death. He had been incarcerated at the Seward State Prison and was moved May 11, 2014 to the Anchorage Correctional Center to receive medical attention.

     Hansen owned a bakery in a downtown mini-mall in the 1970s and 1980s. He lived across town with his wife and children who knew nothing of his other life…

     Hansen would abduct the women and take them to remote places outside the city. Sometimes he would drive and other times he would fly his private plane. A licensed pilot, Hansen told investigators that one of his favorite spots to take his victims was the Knik River north of Anchorage. In some instances Hansen would rape the women then return them to Anchorage, warning them not to contact the authorities. Other times he would let the women go free in the wilderness then hunt them down with his rifle. Only 12 bodies of the 17 women Hansen confessed to killing have been found.

Rachel D'Oro, "Alaska Serial Killer Dies, Decades After Murders," Associated Press, August 223, 2014 

Novelists Criticizing The Work of Other Novelists

     Novelists are not remotely wary of criticizing one another's work in private; they do it all the time. Only when they're asked to commit their shoptalk to print do they grow reticent. A hardy few are prepared to engage tough-mindedly with the works of their peers….

     Most fiction writers end up deciding that discretion is the greater part of critical valor. Some recuse themselves from reviewing any contemporary fiction at all. Others review only those novels they can praise in good faith. Still others adopt a tactful, discursive reviewing style that allows them to write about books they don't rate without actually copping to an opinion.

     Before we rebuke these writers for their intellectual cowardice, we ought to acknowledge the genuine difficulty of the task they shirk. The literary world is tiny. The subgroup represented by novelists is even tinier. If you're an author who regularly reviews other authors, the chances of running into a person whose novel you have criticized are fairly high….It may not be the worst thing in the world to find yourself side by side at a cocktail party with the angry man whose work you described as mediocre in last Sunday's paper, but the threat of such encounter is not a great spur to critical honesty. [If you're interested in literary courage, read B. R. Myers' book Reader's Manifesto where he rips apart several so-called literary giants. A great book and a wonderful read.]

Zoe Heller, The New York Times Book Review, September 8, 2013


Novels That Inspired Real-Life Murders

     At his sentencing hearing in 1981, after he was convicted of John Lennon's murder, Mark David Chapman read aloud from J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye: I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over…I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all."

     The Catcher in the Rye was the book Chapman had been reading at the crime scene when he was arrested. It was the book that held, as he claimed, his message for the world. He was standing at the cliff; he was just doing his work.

     A few years later, the serial killers Leonard Lake and Charles Ng embarked on what they called "Operation Miranda," a violent spree of torture, rape and murder named for the woman abducted by a deranged butterfly collector in John Fowles' novel The Collector, which they cited as their inspiration.

Leslie Jamison, The New York Times Book Review, September 14, 2014 

There's No Such Thing as an Evil Gun

The rifle itself has no moral stature, since it has no will of its own. Naturally, it may be used by evil men for evil purposes, but there are more good men than evil, and while the latter cannot be persuaded to the path of righteousness by propaganda, they can certainly be corrected by good men with rifles.

Jeff Cooper, The Art of the Rifle, 1997

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

The John Sexton Murder Case

     Ann Parlato was 94 and lived by herself in a white stucco house in the Regency Park section of New Port Richey, Florida. Just after midnight on September 17, 2010, one of Ann Parlato's neighbors heard a "thump" coming from her house. The next-door neighbor, alerted by the sound, saw, through Parlato's kitchen window, her "lawn man" standing at Parlato's sink. Thinking that the man in the window was doing chores around Parlato's house, the neighbor didn't call the police. He did, however, jot down the license number to the lawn man's pickup truck.

     About eight hours after the next-door neighbor saw the man through Ann Parlato's kitchen window, another neighbor, Dori Cifelli, found Parlato's front door ajar. She entered the dwelling and saw, on the living room floor, a pair of legs sticking out from under a white sheet. This neighbor called 911.

     Police officers found a bludgeoned and stabbed elderly woman beneath the sheet. Ann Parlato's upper torso had been burned, she had defense wounds on her arms and hands, and her fingernails were broken. Crime scene investigators encountered blood throughout the house. There were spatter patterns and stains on carpeting, walls, the ceiling fan, and in the bathroom sink and shower stall. Officers recovered the cap from a bottle of bleach, and in a sink, found cigarette butts and a pair of women's underwear. The victim's master bedroom had been ransacked, and the killer had used Parlato's washing machine. Scattered throughout the dwelling were clippings from the dead woman's freshly mowed lawn.

     The next day, homicide detectives, after speaking to the next-door neighbor who had seen the lawn man through the kitchen window and jotted down the license number to his truck, questioned John Sexton at his Pasco, Florida home about a mile from the murder scene. When told that Ann Parlato had been murdered, the 49-year-old suspect said, "Oh, wow, that's horrible. I kind of liked her." Sexton said he had befriended the elderly woman by mowing her yard.

     When asked where he was at midnight, September 27, Sexton yelled to his third wife Catherine, "What time did I get home, about 10:30?"

     Catherine yelled back, "He's lying. He got home about 2 AM."

     During the interview, Sexton's hands and legs were shaking. He had a fresh cut on his middle finger, and the officers noticed what looked like a blood stain on his pants. The detectives asked the suspect to accompany them to the police station where he would be asked to provide a formal statement. Sexton said he had no problem doing that.

     At police headquarters, after being warned of his Miranda rights, an interrogator pressed Sexton regarding his whereabouts at midnight on the night of the murder. "I couldn't have been there at midnight," he answered.

     "A neighbor saw you in the kitchen."

     "I wasn't in the kitchen," Sexton insisted.

     "So the neighbor next door is absolutely lying? Seeing mirages or something? When he writes down your tag number?"

     "I guess so," came the reply.

     Following the interrogation, the officers informed John Sexton that he was under arrest for the murder of Ann Parlato. Charged with first degree-murder, he faced a mandatory life sentence. He was also eligible for the death penalty. Mr. Sexton would not be returning home that day to his third wife Catherine.

     According to Catherine Sexton, she had met John at a swingers club. As a husband he had cheated on her regularly. (Big surprise from a guy you meet at a swingers club.) In May 2010, the couple moved to Pasco where they took up residence in a house with Catherine's mother and her mom's boyfriend. Catherine described her husband as an atheist who drank heavily, photographed naked women, and occasionally took antidepressant medication that had been prescribed to her. Catherine informed detectives that John, a habitual liar, sociopath, and sex addict, was also an erotic fire-setter. His second wife left him after he threw their 6-week-old daughter across the room. Catherine, in a bit of an understatement, used the term  "deviant" in describing her husband.

     John Sexton's murder trial got underway on April 16, 2013. The next day, following the opening statements, the prosecution put two DNA experts on the stand who linked the defendant to the murder scene in a variety of ways. Blood on Sexton's clothing and under his fingernails had come from the victim. According to one of the DNA analysts, Sexton's saliva connected him to a crime scene cigarette butt.

     A prosecution criminalist testified that bloody shoe impression on the victim's linoleum floor "showed the same class characteristics" as the defendant's boots.

     On April 18, Dr. Jonathan Thogmartin, the Pasco County Medical Examiner who had visited the murder scene and performed the autopsy, testified that Ann Parlato had died from blunt force trauma to the head. The killer had crushed Palato's face, dislocated her upper spine, and fractured her ribs. He also stabbed the victim, had postmortem sex with the corpse, then tried to destroy the body by setting it on fire.

     After the prosecution rested its case on April 18, the defense called the next-door neighbor to the stand who had seen the lawn man through the victim's kitchen window. The witness testified that he had failed to pick the defendant out of a police photograph line-up.

     Sexton's third wife Catherine took the stand as a character witness. "I believe in his innocence," she said.

     At the close of the testimony phase of the trial, the opposing attorneys presented their closing arguments. The defense attorney talked about a crime scene knife that contained someone else's DNA. The judge issued her instructions to the jurors, and on April 19, the case went to the jury. Following a short deliberation, the jury found John Sexton guilty of first degree-murder.

     On Friday, December 13, 2013, Judge Mary Handsel sentenced John Sexton to death. The condemned man, aware that it took decades to execute people like him, told reporters that he had hoped for the death penalty. He said it meant that his appeals would proceed more quickly than if he had been sentenced to life. 

The Serial Killer Hysteria of the 1980s

     Psychiatry is not to blame for the emergence of the late-twentieth-century fictional monster known as the serial killer, but the psychiatric concept of criminal violence as an unconsciously motivated explosion of rage bolsters the credibility of what is in fact a bureaucratic invention....

     Ultraviolent criminals sometimes commit a series of murders....Such serial homicides are enacted most commonly by violent drug dealers, professional murderers and armed robbers in the course of doing business....The notion of an irrational, predatory "serial killer" emerged in the early 1980s amid widespread hysteria about dangers to children from pornographers, satanic cults, lethal day-care centers and kidnappers....The 1983 [Senate] hearings on child kidnapping and serial homicide by the Juvenile Justice Subcommitee, chaired by Senator Arlen Spector, [was] the public forum from which emerged the popular notion of a multitude of predatory serial killers scourging the land....

     Specter's subcommittee estimated that there had been as many as 3,600 "random and senseless [serial] murders" in 1981; by the time that number had whispered its way around the circle of public discussion, it was inflated to estimates of 4,000 or 5,000 serial-killer victims per year ( out of about 23,000 total U. S. homicides)....The actual number of [serial killer] victims is closer to two hundred a year. [That may have been true in the 80s and 90s, but the number of yearly victims is now much lower than 200.]

Richard Rhodes, Why They Kill: The Discoveries of a Maverick Criminologist, 1999 

The Unreliability of Memory

     Think of your mind as a bowl filled with clear water. Now imagine each memory as a teaspoon of milk stirred into the water. Every adult mind holds thousands of these murky memories....Who among us would dare to disentangle the water from the milk?...Memories don't sit in once place, waiting patiently to be retrieved; they drift through the brain, more like clouds or vapor than something we can put our hands around....

     This view of memory has been a hard sell. Human beings feel attached to their remembered past, for the people, places and events we enshrine in memory give structure and definition to the person we think of as our "self." If we accept the fact that our memories are milky molecules, spilling into dream and imagination, then how can we pretend to know what is real and what is not? Who among us wants to believe that our grasp on reality is so provisional, that reality in fact is impenetrable and unfathomable because it is only what we remember, and what we remember is rarely the literal truth?

Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, The Myth of Repressed Memory, 1994

Procrastination Versus Writer's Block

A blocked writer has the discipline to stay at his desk but cannot write. A procrastinator, on the other hand, cannot bring himself to sit down at the desk; yet if something forces him to sit down he may write quite fluently.

Alice W. Flaherty, The Midnight Disease, 2004

     

O.J. Simpson: Do As I Say, Not As I Do

Some writers of letters and a lot of kids don't seem to care if I'm guilty or innocent. They just want to believe in me….When I speak to kids, I say that you have to accept responsibility for your own actions…I say to everybody that if I had committed this crime, I would have had to take responsibility for my actions….

O.J. Simpson, I Want to Tell You, 1994 [Letter to a young fan following his arrest for double murder.]

Forensic Pathologists: Who Are They?

There is a stereotype of the forensic pathologist as a foreigner, relegated to this area of medicine because he or she did not attend medical school in the United States. In fact, in recent decades a third to a half of all pathology residents in the United States have been graduates of foreign medical schools, which are generally considered inferior to those in the Unties States. Too few American medical school students view the field as attractive, in part because of the lack of patient contact.

John Temple, Death House, 2005 

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

The Naemm Davis Subway Station Murder Case

     At 12:30 PM on Monday, December 3, 2012, 58-year-old Ki-Suck Han stood with other New Yorkers waiting for their trains at the Times Square subway station at 49th Street and Seventh Avenue in Manhattan. Mr. Han, who was currently unemployed, had once owned a midtown dry cleaning business. He had come into Manhattan from his home in Queens to renew his Korean passport. That day, Naemm Davis, a 30-year-old homeless man wandered about the platform above the tracks mumbling to himself,and alarming some of the subway travelers. Mr. Han (who reportedly had been drinking), asked Davis to stop bothering the other people. The two men exchanged angry words, and following a brief scuffle, Davis threw Mr. Han off the subway platform onto the tracks below.

     Dozens of subway patron looked on as Mr. Han struggled to pull himself off the tracks and back up to the armpit-high platform. He couldn't make it, and after being on the tracks for about a minute, was hit by a southbound train that did not have time to stop. A medical student from the Beth Israel Medical Center went to Mr. Han who was face down on the tracks, and still alive. The student rolled him over and tried to save him by beating on his chest. Some of the people standing on the subway platform used  their cellphones to video Mr. Han as he lay on the tracks below. A short time later, Ki-Suck Han died at Saint Luke's Hospital.

     The next day, police officers arrested Naemm Davis in midtown Manhattan. While being questioned by detectives, Davis said, "He [Han] wouldn't leave me alone, so I pushed him. I saw him get hit by the train. I said to him, '[expletive], get out of my face.'"

     On Tuesday, December 4, 2012, the day of Davis' arrest, the New York Post, on its front page, published a large photograph of Mr. Han standing between the tracks and the platform wall with the back of his head to the camera as he looked toward the oncoming train. The oddly tranquil photograph, taken just moments before impact, featured the headline "DOOMED" and the caption: "Pushed on the subway track, this man is about to die." The photograph had been taken by R. Umar Abbasi, a freelance photo-journalist who just happened to be on the train platform that day. Mr. Umar sold the image to the New York Post for an undisclosed amount.

     The subway station murder, a homicide that in its own right would have created widespread fear and anger, sparked public outrage over the fact no one on the train station platform had reached down and pulled Mr. Han to safety. People also wondered why Mr. Abbasi, instead of getting a dramatic and newsworthy photograph, hadn't dropped his camera to save this man. And editors at the New York Post were under fire for simply publishing Abbasi's picture.

     R. Umar Abbasi, against a tidal wave of criticism, tried to defend his behavior on the New York Post website. The photographer wrote that he had flashed his camera 49 times with the intent of catching the attention of the subway motorman. "I wanted to help the man," he wrote, "but I couldn't figure out how to help. It all happened so fast. I had no idea what I was shooting. I'm not even sure it was registering with me what was happening. I was just looking at that train coming." Abbasi said he didn't understand why others who were closer to the tracks didn't try to save Mr. Han.

     Some media critics took issue with the New York Post for what they considered the unethical journalistic act of buying and publishing Mr. Abbasi's photograph of the doomed Mr. Han. A pundit named Lauren Ashburn called the act "profit-motive journalism at its worst."

     Howard Kurtz, the host of CNN's "Reliable Sources," a weekly TV talk show about the media, in recognizing that Mr. Han's murder comprised every subway traveler's nightmare, was less critical of The New York Post. Mr. Kutz did "wonder why the photographer's first instinct was to take pictures." To me, the answer to that question was obvious: Mr. Abbasi was a photo-journalist. He was not a police officer, firefighter, or paramedic. Mr. Abbasi was not in the business of saving lives but in the business of taking pictures.

     On Wednesday, December 5, 2012, Charen Kim, a lawyer representing Mr. Han's wife Serim, told reporters that the family had been shocked by the New York Post photograph. The family didn't understand why no one helped Mr. Han. During the the press conference, the lawyer didn't mention Naemm Davis, the man responsible for Mr. Han's death.

     Naemm Davis was being held without bail on the charge of second-degree murder. He had a history of drug related arrests in Pennsylvania and New York.

     In a December 7, 2012 jailhouse interview with a reporter with the New York Post, Naeem Davis said he had been coaxed into shoving Mr. Han off the platform by voices in his head that he couldn't control.

     At his January 15, 2013 arraignment hearing Davis pleaded not guilty to the murder charge. According to police documents, Davis told investigators that the victim had "rolled like a bowling ball" when he fell onto the subway tracks. Because Davis was seething over a comment an acquaintance had made two days earlier about his Timberland boots, his "head wasn't where it was supposed to be that day. He [Ki-Suck Han] came at the wrong time."

     At the arraignment hearing, Defense attorney Stephen Pokart argued that Han, who had started the fight, was pursing his client. Prosecutor James Lin countered by pointing out how the defendant's statements revealed that he did not feel threatened and had acted out of anger and malice.

     In 2013, the victim's daughter, Ashley Han, sued the New York City Transit Authority for $30 million. (As of this writing, that case has not been resolved.)

     In March 2016, Naemm Davis pleaded guilty to the reduced charge of manslaughter. The judge sentenced him to 22 years in prison.

     

Stephen King on Fear

How many things are we afraid of? We're afraid to turn off the lights when our hands are wet. We're afraid to stick a knife into the toaster to get the stuck English muffin without unplugging it first. We're afraid of what the doctor may tell us when the physical exam is over; when the airplane suddenly takes a great unearthly lurch in midair. We're afraid that the oil may run out, that the good air will run out, the good water, the good life. When the daughter promised to be in by eleven and it's now quarter past twelve and sleet is spatting against the window like dry sand, we sit and pretend to watch Johnny Carson and look occasionally at the mute telephone and we feel the emotion...that makes a stealthy ruin of the thinking process.

Stephen King, Secret Windows: Essays and Fiction on the Craft of Writing, 2000

Scared Straight

     Ross Wilson, a man in his mid-forties with six children who didn't live with him, resided in a rental house in a crime-ridden neighborhood in Fairfield, a suburb of Hamilton on New Zealand's Northern Island. Mr. Wilson, who worked at a sales job in Hamilton, had, within the past year, moved to Fairfield from Porirua, Wellington, New Zealand. He recently told his relatives that he hated living among drug dealers and other criminals but couldn't afford a safer neighborhood.

     In March 2013, after someone broke into his house, Mr. Wilson posted the following on his Facebook page: "To the scumbag who burgled my house--I hope I'm there to watch when Karma comes and screws you up."

     Just after midnight on June 19, 2013, Tom Smith [not his real name], broke into Ross Wilson's house. As the 21-year-old burglar crept through the dark, he bumped into Mr. Wilson's corpse as it hung from the end of a rope. The thief screamed so loud, several of Mr. Wilson's neighbors called 911 to report a domestic disturbance. The terrified burglar ran out of the house. When he arrived at his own place of residence, Smith called the police and reported what he had encountered at the scene of his crime.

     The Hamilton County police believed that Mr. Wilson had hanged himself a couple of days before Smith's criminal intrusion. A few of Mr. Wilson's relatives urged the local prosecutor to charge Smith with burglary. Because Smith had been scared witless, the authorities decided not to bring charges against him even though he had been in trouble with the law. The local police hoped that this burglar has been scared straight by his deceased burglary victim. 

According to Criminologist Dr. Lonnie Athens, Violent Behavior is Not a Psychological Trait

[Criminologist Dr. Lonnie] Athens emphasizes and reemphasizes that violentization is a social process, requiring interaction with others, and that as such it changes over time. Psychological processes are obviously involved in the conversion of a brutalized novice into a dangerous violent criminal, but these do not harden into enduring psychological traits: "Psychologists have been caught up for over a half a century in a rather vain quest to discover the psychological traits which distinguish violent and nascent violent criminals from ordinary people. This quest has been stymied in no small part because the psychological traits, or more precisely, psychological processes, which violent criminals manifest do not remain constant, but change as they undergo new social experiences over the course of their violence development."

Richard Rhodes, Why They Kill: The Discoveries of a Maverick Criminologist, 1999

Monday, June 26, 2017

Spontaneous Human Combustion: A Myth

     Soak a rag in linseed oil, ball it up and throw it into a bucket. This rag, as a result of a chemical reaction that creates heat, will eventually catch on fire and burn. Fire scientists call this reaction spontaneous combustion. Under the right conditions, all kinds of material will self-combust. So, can the human body, under the right conditions, catch on fire from within? People who believe that a body can self-generate ignition temperature heat, call this phenomenon human spontaneous combustion.

     For decades, fire investigators around the world have been baffled by fire death scenes involving a badly burned corpse lying in bed or sitting in a stuffed chair. In these cases the middle section of the body has been almost completely consumed by fire suggesting high, localized temperatures. In the immediate vicinity of the body, and in the room, there is very little burning. This fire pattern seems out of joint with normal fire spreading behavior. To add to this cause of origin mystery, investigators at these sites--encountered mostly in Great Britain--find no traces of fire accelerants such as gasoline. Are these fires accidental, arson/murder, or something else altogether?

     In December 2010, fire fighters in Ireland discovered a 76-year-old man dead in his sitting room. It looked as though someone had lit him up, but there seemed to be no source of heat other than the blaze in the fireplace. Except for some charring on the ceiling above his chair, the room did not burn. Although the man's body was almost completely consumed by the fire, investigators found no evidence that an accelerant had been used to jack-up the heat.

      The Irish coroner, having ruled out accident and arson as the manner of death, declared the cause as spontaneous human combustion.

     In the 1980s, the American fire scientist, Dr. John de Haan, conducted an experiment in which he set fire to a pig wrapped in cloth. The low-heat, long-burning fire almost completely consumed the hog without creating high ambient temperatures. Dr. de Haan called this the "wick effect." The cloth held the flame like a wick while vapors from the pig's heated fat slowly burned like candle wax.

     As it turns out, most so-called spontaneous human combustion fire scenes have involved people who had been drinking in bed or in their chairs while smoking. They fell asleep and their clothing catches on fire. In the Irish case, a spark from the fireplace had probably ignited the man's clothing.

The Baby Rahul Case

     In May 2012, Rajeshawri Kamen, a 23-year-old farm worker, gave birth to a son named Rahul. The mother and her 26-year-old husband, Karnan Perumal, already had a 2-year-old girl. The couple resided in a village in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

     The baby was a month old when his parents rushed him to the hospital. According to their account of what happened, they were outside their hut when they heard Rahul scream. They ran to him and found the baby on fire. They saw flames on his belly and right knee. The father put out the fire with a towel.

     After being treated at the local hospital and released, Baby Rahul, during the next two months, caught on fire at least three more times. The child was badly burned but survived. The couple's neighbors, believing that the baby was haunted by an evil spirit that caused the combustion, and that the fire could spread to their huts, forced Rajeshwari and her husband to move to a nearby village where Rahul caught on fire again.

     Dr. Naarayan Babu, the head of pediatrics at the Kilpaul Medical Hospital in the city of Chennai, told a reporter with The New York Times that "We are in a dilemma and haven't come to any conclusion [regarding the cause of the fires]. The parents have said that the child burned instantaneously without any provocation. We are carrying out numerous tests. We are not saying it was spontaneous human combustion until all investigations are complete."

     On August 20, 2013, the Times of India reported that upon completion of the hospital tests, doctors found no evidence of spontaneous human combustion in Baby Rahul's case. Dr. Jagan Mohan, head of the burn unit at the Kilpauk Hospital, told reporters that "There is no such thing as spontaneous human combustion. The possibility of child abuse exists and needs to be explored."

     Baby Rahul's parents denied setting fire to their baby. The boy's father, in speaking to a reporter with The New York Times, said, "Some people don't believe us, and I am scared to return to my village and am hoping for some government protection. There is also the fear that our child could burn once again."

     On April 15, 2015, Baby Rahul was discharged from the hospital and sent home to his parents. Police and child welfare authorities were told to monitor the child's health. After that, this mysterious case dropped out of the news.

     Since Baby Rahul was not the victim of spontaneous human combustion, he was either burned accidentally or on purpose. It's hard to image how a baby could be accidentally burned on four or more occasions. Moreover, it there was something in the home that caused the fires, why wasn't the baby's sister also burned?

     Notwithstanding forensic evidence to the contrary, there are those who still believe spontaneous human combustion is real. This is not surprising since strong opinions are not always based on what people know, but what they want to believe.

Crime in England

Only one Western country can say today that it doesn't have organized crime and that's England. They have crime there, spectacular crimes like bank holdups, train robberies, stuff like that. Gambling has been knocked off by being legalized, prostitution has been knocked-off--it's not legal but they don't bother you--and the government's narcotics program has taken most of the profit out of that. England has a very tough legal system to beat. They have uniformity of laws. There is no such thing as a law in London and another law in Manchester--each law is for the entire country. And finally, over there, from the time you are arrested to the day you go to trial, it's never more than three or four weeks.

Joey (with Dave Fisher), Joey The Hitman, 2002

A Mobster's Regrets

How I could have put Cosa Nostra ahead of loyalty to my wife and my kids is something I will always have to live with. All my life, growing up, I thought that people who went to school and put their noses to the grindstone were nerds, taking the easy way out. I know now that I was the one who took the easy way that I didn't have the guts to stay in school and try. That was the tough road, which I didn't take.

Sammy Bull Gravano in Jerry Capeci, Wiseguys Say the Darndest Things, 2004

The Problem With Young Writers

     Though everybody is talented and original, often it does not break through for a long time. People are too scared, too self-conscious, too proud, too shy. They have been taught too many things about construction, plot, unity, mass and coherence….

     Another trouble with writers in the first twenty years is an anxiety to be effective, to impress people. They write pretentiously. It is so hard not to do this. That was my trouble.

     For many years it puzzled me why so many things I wrote were pretentious, high-sounding, and in consequence utterly dull and uninteresting. It was a regular horror to read them again. Of course they did not sell either, not one of them.

Brenda Ueland, If You Want to Write, originally published in 1938 

Sunday, June 25, 2017

The Fear of Kids: Are Teachers Losing Their Minds?

Marie Waltherr-Willard's Fear of Kids

     Marie Waltherr-Willard, a Spanish/French teacher, began teaching French in 1976 at Mariemont High School in Cincinnati, Ohio. In 2009, after 33 years at the high school, the language teacher was transferred against her wishes to a middle-school where she had to teach 7th and 8th graders Spanish. The move took place after the high school French program went online.

     In the middle of the 2010-2011 school year, Waltherr-Willard abruptly retired and began receiving her monthly pension payments based on an annual retirement income of $70,000. In June 2012, the retired teacher filed a federal lawsuit against the school district under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Her disability: a pathological fear of young children, a phobia she said had been diagnosed in 1991.  The former teacher claimed that by forcing her to teach middle-schoolers, her employers had discriminated against her by refusing to recognize and take into consideration her disability. The plaintiff's attorney claimed that, as a result of her forced early retirement, his client lost $100,000 in potential income.

     According to the plaintiff, being around middle-school school kids had shot her blood pressure up to stroke levels. Moreover, the little buggers pushed her into a state of general anxiety, mental anguish, and gastrointestinal illness. The civil trial was scheduled for February 2014.

     A U.S. District Court judge dismissed Waltherr-Willard's ridiculous lawsuit in June 2014. In February 2015, the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals upheld that decision. (Lawsuits like this remind us there are too many lawyers.)

The Red Pen Alert: Abusive Grading

     The idea that marking up a student's test or homework with red ink upsets kids who don't appreciate criticism, isn't new. (Ever since Mister Rogers started telling children that they were all extremely special, most of them can't handle the sad truth that 90 percent of us, on a good day, are ordinary.) Since 2008, hundreds of schools across the country have replaced the insidious red grading pencils and pens with writing instruments that produce colors that are less aggressive and mean. (I can't imagine a kid who got an F on a test feeling better about himself because the F is written in a nice shade of blue.)

     Education researchers at the University of Colorado published a study that confirmed the theory that marking up a kid's work in red as opposed to more neutral colors caused unnecessary anger and embarrassment. Red ink splashed all over a paper supposedly makes the lousy student feel more harshly criticized. Assuming this is true, so what? What's wrong with criticism with a little zip? If students are offended by red ink, they can solve the problem by doing better work. (Maybe the geniuses at the University of Colorado should come up with strategies for that.) I'd like to get my hands on that study, and in red ink, write: "You people are idiots?" (Is that too harsh?)

Radical Anti-Bullying Advice From a Knucklehead

     Gabrielle Jackson was a sixth grader at the Central Middle School in Moline Acres not far from St. Louis, Missouri. Gabrielle complained to her mother, Tammie Jackson, that bullies at school were making lewd and insensitive comments regarding her large bust. Tammie called the school district to report the sexual harassment of her daughter and was not pleased with the response to her complaint. Over the phone, an unidentified employee of the school district suggested that the 13-year-old student have her breasts surgically reduced. Presumably the anti-bullying expert didn't provide this mother specifics regarding just how small the breasts would have to be to disinterest bullies. Moreover, if the plastic surgeon got carried away and made them too small, kids might bully her for being flat chested.

Zero Tolerance for Paper Guns

     On January 22, 2013, Melody Valentin, a fifth grader in a Philadelphia elementary school, inadvertently took a folded piece of paper to school that roughly resembled a handgun. Her grandfather had fashioned the toy weapon. When Melody realized what she had brought to school, she threw the paper gun into a classroom trash can. A fellow student who witnessed Melody's attempt to ditch the contraband, squealed. The teacher seized the evidence, hauled the offender to the front of the class, and gave her hell for being so reckless with all of their lives. Later that night, the distraught girl's mother found her daughter in the bathroom crying. As a result of the negative attention, some of her classmates were calling her a murderer.

     This example of schoolhouse hysteria came on the heels of an incident in Mount Carmel, Pennsylvania involving a pre-schooler suspended for threatening to shoot a playmate with her pink Hello Kitty soap bubble gun. School officers called the incident a "terroristic threat." (See: "The Kindergarten Terrorist: The Hello Kitty Soap Bubble Conspiracy," January 22, 2013.)

     I'm afraid these school employees are so stupid they are immune from ridicule and embarrassment. (Still, I try.) Obviously there are bright, competent elementary and middle-school teachers and administrators, but just how outnumbered are they by all the fools and idiots?

     

Can Problems in Forensic Science Be Fixed?

     The nature of science itself, and the fact that forensic science is a service mainly delivered by the government, makes solving its problems a real challenge. Science is complex, constantly in flux, and often subject to disagreement. Government is slow, resistant to change, and difficult to hold accountable. The difficulty in dealing with the government generally is exacerbated by the convoluted structure of our criminal justice system, and the adversarial nature of the trial process. Today, trials are more about winning and losing than achieving truth and justice.

     Most problems in forensic science can be placed into one of three categories: personnel, jurisprudence (courts and law), and science itself. Many of these problems--cuts in governmental funding, the quality of law enforcement personnel, and what legislators and judges do and don't do--are beyond the control of forensic scientists. For these and other reasons, forensic science in America will continue to perform well below its potential. This arm of the criminal justice system therefore represents a failed promise. The gap between reality, and what television viewers see on the CSI shows, is widening.  

The "Mainstream" Novel

Authors often believe that if a novel can only be categorized "mainstream" that it will automatically ship to stores in large quantities and sell to customers in big numbers. That belief is naive. So-called mainstream novels can sell in tiny numbers. That is even more true in the category of literary fiction. Authors with such labels face a double struggle in building their audience. For one thing, they cannot tap into the popularity of an existing genre. They must build from the ground up, creating a category where none existed before--their own. It can be a tough job.

Donald Maass, The Career Novelist, 2001 

The Immigrant as a Literary Protagonist

During the late 1990s, we saw the rise of a new literary subject: the postcolonial immigrant. In the metropoles of the North Atlantic--in London and New York, Paris and Toronto--the protagonist emerged: a parvenu, an outsider with a sturdy work ethic, a grocer or taxi driver seeking to make it in his or her new home. There were geographical variations, but central to these narratives was the direction of movement. The postcolonial subject moved from the outside in, from the former colony to the metropole, from beyond to the imperial center. Gatsby-like, he or she often tested the outer limits of the American dream--that still regnant myth about capitalist self-making. The narrative arc was that of the arriviste: a story not only of assimilation and the arduous passage toward citizenship but also of accumulation and the trials of "making it."

David Marcus, "Dangling Man," Bookforum, Dec/Jan, 2015 

Saturday, June 24, 2017

The Death Penalty in China

     In China, the Chengguan are municipal law enforcement officers considered a notch below regular cops. As enforcers of city ordinances, these low-level officers have a national reputation for over-enforcement and brutality. This is particularly true in the way these enforcers handle unlicensed street vendors.

     Over the years members of the Chengguan have been accused of physically abusing hundreds of street vendors. Since 2001, sixteen of these licensing offenders have been beaten to death. In July 2013, in Hunan Province, the government paid $150,000 to the family of a watermelon vendor killed by a Chengguan officer. In China, these ordinance enforcers are extremely unpopular, feared, and even hated by millions of chinese citizens.

     In May 2009, in the city of Shenyang in northeast China, Chengguan officers arrested a 33-year-old street vendor named Xia Junfeng. Xia, a laid-off factory worker who sold sausages and kabobs from an unlicensed street cart, dreamed of sending his son to art school in Beijing. His wife held two jobs as a cleaning lady and baker at a school.

     While being given the third-degree in a police interrogation room, Xia, with a knife he used to slice meat, stabbed two Chengguan cops to death. A local prosecutor charged Xia with two counts of first-degree murder.

     One of the Chengguan officers Xia stabbed had a long history of police brutality. In 2008, the officer broke the arm of a woman he had arrested for selling umbrellas without a license.

     At his murder trial in November 2009, Xia pleaded not guilty on grounds of self-defense. The prosecution asserted that Xia's repeated stabbing of the officers went beyond what was necessary to defend himself. According to the defendant, had he not used deadly force, the officers would have beaten him to death. Xia's attorney put six witnesses on the stand who testified to Xia's beating at the hands of these officers.

     Testifying on his own behalf, Xia said, "He [one of the arresting officers] began to beat me as soon as I entered the [interrogation] room. His fists pounded my head and ears. As I tried to run outside, I came face-to-face with another officer. Right away he grabbed my collar to stop me. He also struck me with his fist...and kicked at my thighs." When Xia put his hand down to protect his groin area, he felt the knife he kept in his pocket. This was the instrument he used to stab both of the officers to death. (Why wasn't Xia searched pursuant to his arrest? Do these officers receive any training?)

     The trial judge found Xia Junfeng guilty of two counts of first-degree murder and sentenced him to death. Xia's wife, Zhang Jing, took up her husband's crusade by publishing a blog. As a result, both she and the condemned man became famous as his case worked its way through the appellate process. Because there had been prosecutorial improprieties at the trial, Xia's supporters were confident his conviction would be overturned.

     In 2011, while millions of Chinese citizens were expressing online sympathy for the street vendor convicted of killing two Chengguan officers, justices on the nation's supreme court upheld his conviction and sentence. "The crime he committed was heinous," wrote one of the justices. "The method he used was extremely cruel and the results serious. He should be punished to the full extent of the law."

     On September 25, 3013, millions of Chinese citizens were outraged by Xia Jonfeng's execution by lethal injection. On the popular website Sina.com, 28 million people had posted messages of support for the man who had killed two members of the hated Chengguan police. Following Xia's execution, Chinese censors were busy scrubbing commentary on dozens of blogs protesting the death of the man who had come to represent resistance against oppressive Chinese law enforcement.

     In China, public support for capital punishment has diminished over the years. Ten years ago the authorities were executing 12,000 prisoners a year. In 2012, 3000 Chinese prisoners died by firing squad or lethal injection.

     

Isaac Asimov on Writing Science Fiction

I can write nonfiction science without thinking because it requires no thought. I already know it. Science fiction, however, is far more delicate a job and requires the deeper and most prolonged thought.

Isaac Asimov, I Asimov, 1996 

The Sins of Book Reviewers

There is the critical sin of covetousness, which may cause the book critic to seek fame at the expense of the author whose work he exploits. The closely associated sin of envy leads to the denigration of the work of others for the hidden purpose of self-aggrandizement. To indulge the sin of gluttony is to bite off more than one is prepared to digest, denying others the right to partake. To be lustful is to indulge an inordinate desire for the gratification of one's sense of power. The deadly sin of anger leads to the loss of one's composure and sense of balance during the inevitable exchanges of differing opinion. The deadly sin of sloth is to repeat accepted lies about an author or body of work because the critic is too lazy to dig out the truth.

Carlos Baker in Opinions and Perspectives From "The New York Times Book Review," edited by Francis Brown, 1964 

The Locard Exchange Principle in Forensic Science

     The theory that a criminal perpetrator leaves part of himself at the scene of a crime, and takes a piece of the crime site with him, was postulated in 1911 by Dr. Edmund Locard in Lyon, France. Referred to as the Locard Exchange Principle, this concept, along with the idea of interpreting physical evidence to reconstruct what took place at the site of a criminal act, is the basic rationale behind crime scene investigation. The term "associative evidence" describes items that, pursuant to the Locard Principle, can connect a suspect to the scene of an offense. 

America's First Bomb Murder Case

The earliest case which I have found of the use of a bomb to commit murder was in 1854, when William Arrison sent one to the head of an asylum where he had been confined.

Thomas M. McDade, The Annals of Murder, 1961

Friday, June 23, 2017

The Constitutional Right to Give Your Kid a Stupid Name

     Generally, because of the First Amendment right of free speech, there is nothing the government can do to stop a parent from giving a kid a weird and arguably stupid name. The only remedy for victims of bad names is to legally correct the problem when they become adults. Recent examples of ridiculous names include Ruger, Irelynd, Blaze, Cinsere, D'Artagnan, Abeus, Troolio, and Dusk. (I once had a student named Misty Dawn. For some reason, movie stars have a tendency to to burden their children with bad names.)

     Several years ago in New Jersey, the parents of a 3-year-old they had named Adolph Hitler Campbell, sued a bakery for refusing to write that name on the boy's birthday cake. While the bakery won the suit, the state of New Jersey did not have the authority to have little Adolph Hitler re-named.

     If you can name an innocent child Adolph Hitler, you can pretty much name a kid anything you want. There are, however, a few limitations to this right. In most states a name cannot be an Arabic number, an obscenity, or a symbol. Names that are extremely long are also forbidden. So, could a mother lawfully name her kid Promiscuous or Fecal? I don't know, probably.

     Jaleesa Martin, a resident of Newport, Tennessee, a town of 7,000 in the rural foothills of the Great Smokey Mountains, gave birth to a boy in January 2013. The boy's father, a man named McCullough, wanted his son to have his last name. The mother wanted to give the child her last name. The couple did agree, however, on the baby's first name--Messiah. (Good heavens.)

     To settle this domestic dispute, Jaleesa Martin, in the summer of 2013, asked child support magistrate Lu Anna Ballew to approve the name Messiah DeShawn Martin. Following the hearing in August 2013, Magistrate Ballew ordered the parents to name their child Martin DeShawn McCullough.

     The magistrate said she disapproved of the child's first name because "the word 'messiah' is a title and it's a title that has been earned by one person and that person is Jesus Christ." Moreover, Ballew reasoned, that first name "could put him [the boy] at odds with a lot of people, and at this point he has no choice in what his name is. (What kid does have a choice in this matter?)

     In announcing that she was appealing the magistrate's decision, Jaleesa Martin told reporters that "I was shocked. I never intended on naming my son Messiah because it means God, and I didn't think a judge could make me change my boy's name because of her religious beliefs." (The mother could have pointed out that in 2012, more babies were named Messiah than Donald, Philip, Bruce, or Gary.)

     On September 18, 2013, Judge Satan Forgety (just kidding, his first name is Telford), overturned the magistrate's ruling. Pursuant to an agreement reached by the parents, the kid's name was changed to Messiah DeShawn McCullough. (The boy had siblings named Micah and Mason.)

     While Judge Forgety's ruling was a good day for the First Amendment, I'm not sure it was a good day for little Messiah.  

Story Versus Plot

Let us define a plot. We have defined a story as a narrative of events arranged in their time-sequence. A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality. "The king died and then the queen died" is a story. "The king died, and then the queen died of grief" is a plot. The time-sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it. Or again: The queen died, no one knew why, until it was discovered that it was through grief at the death of the king." This is a plot with a mystery in it, a form capable of high development. It suspends the time-sequence, it moves as far away from the story as its limitations will allow. Consider the death of the queen. If it is a story we say, "and then?" If it is a plot we ask "why?" That is the fundamental difference between these to aspects of the novel.

E. M. Forster (1879-1970) Aspects of the Novel, 1927

Discussing Writing Works-in-Progress

I find it helps a lot to talk to friends or editors immediately after I return from a reporting trip. It puts me in a storytelling mode. Even though I'm less preoccupied with producing a seamless narrative then I used to be, I do feel that narrative energy is crucial to distinguishing a story from a research report. When you are telling a story to a live human being [as apposed to a reader] you get a sense, immediately, of what people respond to. It gets you outside of your own head. And often people ask questions that I haven't thought of--questions that force me to look at the reporting in a new way.

Ron Rosenbaum, in Robert S. Boynton's The New Journalism, 2005 [Most writers of fiction do not discuss works-in-progress.] 

A Stupid College Course

Lady Gaga may not have much class but now there is a class on her. The University of South Carolina is offering a class called Lady Gaga and the Sociology of Fame. Mathieu Deflem, the professor teaching the course describes it as aiming to "unravel some of the sociologically relevant dimensions of the fame of Lady Gaga with respect to her music, videos, fashion, and other endeavors." [No wonder sociology majors end up working at Walmart or in the mall.]

Michael Snyder, "20 Completely Ridiculous College Courses Offered at U. S. Universities," theeconomiccollapseblog.com, June 5, 2013 

Who Cares About Black Murderers?

Are you white? Do you pay attention to black murderers? It must be because you're a racist. Wait, you don't pay attention to black murderers? It's because you are a racist. Why aren't you paying attention to black murderers? You racist.

Daniel Greenfield, "Washington Post Claims White People are Racist for Not Caring About Motives of Black Murderers," frontpagemag.com, September 22, 2013

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Killer Boobs: Criminal Suffocation by Breasts

     In April 2010, Claire Smedley from Blackpool, England told a British newspaper reporter that she had nearly killed her boyfriend with her size 40LL breasts. (While I know bullet calibers, I have no idea what 40LLs look like other than they are big.) With her boyfriend Steven's face buried in her super-bust, Claire misinterpreted his flailing for oxygen as sexual excitement. After barely escaping breast asphyxiation, Steven ended the relationship and vowed only to date flat-chested woman. (Just kidding.)

     In Germany, a lawyer named Tim Schmidt claimed that his girlfriend, a woman armed with a pair of 38DDs attempted to suffocate him by breast. Mr. Schmidt described his near-death experience to a German newspaper reporter: "I asked her why she wanted to smother me to death with her breasts. She told me: 'Pleasure--I wanted your death to be as pleasurable as possible.' " (Really? I can't image, as I'm fighting for my last breath, thinking, these babies are nice.)

     Ambulance personnel and Snohomish County sheriff's deputies, shortly after midnight on Saturday, January 12, 2013, responded to a 911 domestic disturbance call from a mobile home in the Airport Inn Trailer Park outside Everett, Washington. Residents Donna Lange and her boyfriend (who was not named) had been drinking alcohol and smoking pot all night with a man and two other women. The 51-year-old Lange and her boyfriend had gotten into a fight. The fight escalated and moved to the back of the trailer house. At some point, Lange allegedly threw the 5-foot, 7-inch, 175 pound man to the floor. The 5-foot, 6-inch, 195 pound Lange then climbed on top of the downed drunk and passed out. The victim lay trapped under her body with his face buried in her breasts. (I'm not making this up.)

     When the police and the medics stormed into the trailer, they found the boyfriend still lying on the floor. He was not breathing. In his hands were clumps of Lange's hair. CPR didn't help, and upon arrival at the Swedish Hospital in Edmonds, medical personnel pronounced the 50-year-old boyfriend dead. Cause of death: suffocation.

     Questioned at the hospital, Donna Lange told police officers that she had no knowledge how her boyfriend had died. A few days later, a Snohomish County prosecutor charged Donna Lange with second-degree manslaughter. (A lesser homicide charge involving an accidental death caused by reckless behavior, or during the commission of a crime that was not a felony.) If convicted, Lange could be sentenced to a maximum five years in prison. (I can find no record that the prosecution went through with this case. I suppose the charges were dropped or Lange pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and was fined or put on probation. Any update would be appreciated.)

     Just when you think there is nothing new in the world of deviant behavior or unnatural death, a case like this comes along. 

Good Interview Subjects

I hate writing about anyone who is familiar with the press or has a "story." I like to write about people who don't necessarily see what their story is, or what my interest might be. I like subjects who really know how to enjoy life or are immersed in whatever they are doing fully.

Adrian Nicole Leblanc in Robert S. Boynton's The New Journalism, 2005

Writing as a Process of Discovery

Many people think that writers are wise men who can impart to them the truth or some profound philosophy of life. It is not so. A writer is a skilled craftsman who discovers things along with the reader, and what you do with a good writer is you share the search; you are not being imparted wisdom, or if you are being imparted wisdom, it's a wisdom that came to him just as it came to you reading it.

Shelby Foote in Conversations with Shelby Foote (1989) by William C. Carter 

The Intimidation Effect of Gratuitous Violence

     Demonstrations of the ability to kill, including killing innocent people, is a common entry test in criminal or violent illegal organizations....It is also used to induce fear. Members of the Aryan Brotherhood, an infamous U. S. prison gang, when entering a new prison would often carry out a demonstration killing or stabbing in order to terrorize the inmate population....

     Going from fact to fiction, in The Long Goodbye, a film by the late Robert Altman based on Raymond Chandler's novel, a gangster hits his girlfriend with a soda bottle and then snarls at Philip Marlowe: "Now that's someone I love. Think what could happen to you."

Diego Gambetta, Codes of the Underworld, 2009

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Pastor Danny Kirk Murder Case

     At eleven o'clock on Monday morning, October 29, 2012, in Forest Hill, a suburban town outside of Fort Worth, Texas, Derrick Birdow crashed his Ford Crown Victoria into the Greater Sweethome Missionary Baptist Church. The 850-member congregation was founded in 1995 by Reverend Danny Kirk, a former football star at East Texas State University.

     Shortly after the sedan smashed into the brick building, the 53-year-old pastor came out of the church to investigate the source of the commotion. He encountered 33-year-old Birdow who, after plowing into the structure, climbed out of his car apparently unhurt. With no warning, Birdow shoved Pastor Kirk against the car and began punching him in the head.

     John Whitaker, a church maintenance employee, when he saw a man punching the pastor, ran outside to help him. While Whitaker was able to punch the attacker several times, his blows didn't faze Birdow who broke away from the altercation and fled into the church with the pastor and the janiter in pursuit.

     The church secretary, aware that a crazy man had plowed his car into the building, had attacked the pastor, and was now inside the church, locked herself in her office and called 911. "My pastor is bleeding, he's been attacked," she said. "I'm not going out there. I need help real fast. Send policemen. I do need an ambulance."

     The 911 dispatcher asked, "Does your pastor know him?"

     "I have no idea," answered the frightened secretary.

     Inside the church, Derrick Birdow ran to the music room where he grabbed an electric guitar. As John Whitaker turned a corner in the hallway, Birdow used the instrument to blindside him with two blows to the head. Seriously injured, Whitaker went down. Birdow then began beating Pastor Kirk with the guitar, turning the scene into a blood-bath.

     When officers with the Forest Hill Police Department burst into the church, they saw Birdow, covered in the minister's blood, beating him to death with the church musical instrument. One of the officers, through the use of a taser gun, subdued the crazed attacker enough to slap on the handcuffs. As the police hauled the violent intruder to a patrol car, he continued to resist. After placing the suspect into the back of the cruiser and returning to the church, the officers realized they had not arrived in time to save Reverend Danny Kirk. Derrick Birdow had beaten the pastor to death.  

     A short time later, a police officer checking on Birdow in the back of the patrol car, found him unresponsive. Paramedics arrived at the scene, couldn't find a pulse, and rushed him to the John Peter Smith Hospital where he was pronounced dead.

     In 2004,  a Tarrant County judge sentenced Derrick Birdow to a five-year prison sentence for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. Birdow had also been convicted in the county for the possession of controlled substances, DUI, and charges related to domestic violence. According to one of this man's relatives, Birdow had been having some "issues," and he hadn't "been himself." Birdow had also "been going through some stuff. He's not a happy dude." (Well, that explains everything.) Derrick Birdow was not a member of Pastor Kirk's congregation, but his children may have attended the church. It is not known if Reverend Kirk and his killer were acquainted.

      In February 2013, Tarrant County Medical Examiner Dr. Nizam Peerwani ruled that Derrick Birdow had died of PCP ingestion.

     There should be no place more peaceful on a Monday morning in suburban Fort Worth than a Baptist church. But in America, when it comes to mayhem and murder, no place is off-limits. Nevertheless, the beating death of a Baptist minister at his own church by a man wielding an electric guitar, even by U.S. standards of drug-addled crime and mental illness, is more than unusual.


Science and Technical Writing

     Take a class of writing students in a liberal arts college and assign them to write about some aspect of science, and a pitiful moan will go around the room. "No! Not science!" the moan says. The students have a common affliction: fear of science. They were told at an early age by a chemistry or a physics teacher that they don't have "a head for science."

     Take an adult chemist or physicist or engineer and ask him or her to write a report, and you'll see something close to panic. "No! Don't make us write!" they say. They also have a common affliction: fear of writing. They were told at an early age by an English teacher that they don't have "a gift or words."

William Zinsser, On Writing Well, originally published in 1976 

Joseph Wambaugh on Writing Narrative Nonfiction

When I write nonfiction, obviously I was not there when the events occurred. I write in a dramatic style--that is, I employ lots of dialogue. I describe feelings. I describe how the events must have taken place. I invent probable dialogue or a least possible dialogue based upon all of the research that I do.

Joseph Wambaugh in Janet Malcolm's The Journalist and the Murderer, 1990

Signs a Suspect is Lying

     A lying suspect [under interrogation] will speak in fragmented or incomplete sentences such as "It's important that...." He also may feign a memory failure when confronted with a probing question or in responding to a direct accusation of lying. The person will respond with a half-lie, such as "I don't remember," "As far as I know," or "I don't recall;" or, the person my try to bolster his answer with such phrases as "To be perfectly honest with you," or "To be quite frank." [When politicians speak, they are always being "frank."]

     The more sophisticated liars may use the same type of evasions, but they usually plan beforehand so that their answers include a protective verbal coating, such as: "At this point in time," If I recall correctly," "It is my understanding," " If my memory serves me right," or "I may be mistaken but...." By using these tactics, lying suspects seek to establish an "escape hatch" rather than risk telling an outright lie.

Fred E. Inbau, Criminal Interrogation and Confessions, 1986

Challenging Fingerprint Experts

     During the first ninety years of fingerprint history, defense attorneys whose clients' latent fingerprints were found as the scenes of crimes had one option--plead them guilty in return for a lighter sentence. No one considered questioning the credibility or competence of a fingerprint expert, and no one dared challenge the scientific reliability of fingerprint identification. Fingerprints either matched or they didn't. There was nothing to challenge.

     Those days are over. Since 2000, there have been numerous cases of latent fingerprint misidentification in the United States and Europe. As it turns out, many fingerprint experts in the United States are undertrained, dishonest, and biased in favor of the police. Most of the nation's competent examiners are overworked due to crime lab budget cuts. Today, it is not unusual for a criminal trial to feature dueling fingerprint experts. This is not good for forensic science, or the criminal justice system.   

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Brinda Sue McCoy Attempted Suicide By Cop Case

     Brinda Sue McCoy, a 48-year-old registered nurse, lived with her husband Frank and their 5 children in Cypress, California, a suburban town of 47,000 in Orange County. Frank McCoy, a former Cypress Councilman and commander with the Long Beach Police Department, was chief of police in Oceanside, a southern California city of 174,000. Frank McCoy had been chief of the 260-member department since 2006. His wife Brinda worked at Hoag Hospital in the Orange county town of Newport.

     At seven in the evening of December 16, 2010, Brinda, while alone in her house and feeling "overwhelmed and distraught," called friends and relatives to inform them of what songs to play at her funeral. Earlier in the day she had argued with her husband and her son.

     Under the influence of prescription medicine to calm her down, and a few martinis, Brinda called 911 for "police assistance." She had recently read a news account about police in another town killing a man wielding a garden hose nozzle. She thought she might be able to get the local police to kill her. Since this would end her suffering, she thought her death would be a relief to friends and family.

     When members of the Cypress Police Department responded to the call, Brinda refused to come out of the house. During the standoff, the distraught woman appeared at a window with a pistol in her hand. She pointed the gun at her head, at the ceiling, then at the police outside. After being warned that if she discharged the gun police officers could get hurt, Brinda fired a shot out the window in the direction of police officers positioned behind a parked pickup truck. The police did not respond in kind. Twenty minutes later, she fired again.

     About an hour after the shootings, the police talked Brinda out of her house. As she crawled out the front door, members of a SWAT team subdued her with a beanbag gun.

     Following 72 hours of observation at a local hospital, police took Brinda McCoy into custody. She posted her $250,000 bail and was released.

     Charged with five counts of police assault with a firearm, felonies that could send her to prison for 30 years, McCoy went on trial in an Orange County court on May 24, 2012. Twenty-five days later, after the defendant testified on her own behalf for two days, the jury, after deliberating 5 hours, found Brinda McCoy guilty on all counts. She would await her September 10 sentencing under house arrest.

     In 2011, the police in the United States shot 50 women, killing about half of them. Most of these women were armed with knives, and had histories of mental illness. Most of them, like Brinda McCoy, did not have criminal records. Many of these police involved shootings were "suicide-by-cop" cases.

     Had Brinda McCoy been a mental case or a drug addict in Philadelphia, Chicago, or Miami, she would have been shot. But in Orange County, California, where the officers knew they were dealing with the disturbed wife of a police chief, they were patient and used nonlethal force.

     Four days after she was released on bail to await her sentencing, police officers found Brinda bleeding in her back yard following an attempted suicide. Judge Francisco Briseno ordered the police to take the suicidal woman into custody for her own protection.

     Prior to Brinda McCoy's sentencing date, Deputy District Attorney Rebecca Olivier, in a rare legal action, agreed to retroactively modify the charges against the defendant by removing the firearm discharge count, the conviction of which carried a mandatory 20-year sentence. In return, defense attorney Lew Rosenblum withdrew his motion for a new trial.

     On September 7, 2012, Judge Briseno sentenced Brinda McCoy to fifteen years in prison. Had the charges against her not been modified after the fact, she would have been sentenced to 30 years behind bars.

     As deputy sheriffs escorted McCoy out of the courtroom in handcuffs, she spoke to her husband, relatives and others there to support her. "Thank you guys," she said. "Everyone, I love you."

     Justice was not done in this case. Fifteen years in prison for a mentally ill woman who tried to use the police to commit suicide was way too harsh.

The Wiseguy Persona

The wiseguy does not see himself as a criminal or even a bad person; he sees himself as a businessman, a shrewd hustler, one step ahead of ordinary suckers. The wiseguy lives by a vastly different set of rules than those observed by regular people, rules that were fashioned by their criminal forefathers and proven to work by generations of mobsters before them. Wiseguys exist in a bizarre parallel universe, a world where avarice and violence and corruption are the norm, and where the routines of most ordinary people hold dear--working good jobs, being with family, living an honest life--are seen as the curse of the weak and stupid. Wiseguys resemble us in many ways, but make no mistake: they might as well be from another planet, so alien and abnormal are their thoughts and habits.

Joseph D. Pistone, The Way of the Wiseguy, 2004

Science Fiction Novelist Philip K. Dick

As a result of our media's obsession with the alleged connection between artistic genius and madness, Phil Dick was introduced to mainstream America as a caricature: a disheveled prophet, a hack churning out boilerplate genre fiction, a speed-freak. None of these impressions of Phil, taken without awareness of the sensationalism that generated them, advances our understanding of his life and work. Today the myth of Philip K. Dick threatens to drown out what evidence remains of his turbulent life.

David Gill in Anne R. Dick's The Search for Philip K. Dick, 1995

The Appeal of Whodunits and Thrillers

The whodunit and the thriller are in their most typical manifestations deeply conventional and ideologically conservative literary forms, in which good triumphs over evil, law over anarchy, truth over lies.

David Lodge, The Practice of Writing, 1996

Monday, June 19, 2017

Rapist Lee Kaplan And His Amish Victims

     On Thursday, June 16, 2016, officers with the Lower Southampton Township Police Department, operating on a children-in-danger tip, visited the home of 51-year-old Lee Kaplan. Mr. Kaplan resided in the eastern Pennsylvania town of Feasterville located in Bucks County twenty miles northeast of Philadelphia. When the police officers entered the Kaplan dwelling they encountered twelve girls, ages six months to eighteen. Several of the children responded by running about the house in panic searching for places to hide.

     When questioned by the police, Lee Kapan explained why the girls were living in his house. In 2012, a former Amish couple from the Lancaster County town of Quarryville named David and Salvilla Stoltzfus, in return for money from Kaplan to help the couple keep their farm, gave him their 14-year-old daughter. Mr. Kaplan and the Stoltzfuses were partners in a metalwork business in Quarryville.

     According to Mr. Kaplan, since 2012, he and the Stoltzfus teenager had produced two children. Their daughters were six-months and three years old. The other nine girls in the house were also Stoltzfuses.

     Mr. Kaplan was the only adult living in the Feasterville house. None of the girls had birth certificates or social security numbers.

     Police officers booked Lee Kaplan into the Bucks County Jail on numerous offenses that included rape, statutory sexual assault, aggravated indecent assault, and corruption of minors. The twelve girls were placed into protective custody.

     David and Savilla Stoltzfus were also taken into custody on charges of conspiracy of statutory sexual assault and child endangerment. Kaplan and the ex-Amish couple were all held on $1 million bond. Mr. Stolzfus told the police that when he gave up his children, he had no idea he was breaking the law. In fact, after researching the issue online, he was convinced the transfer was legal.

     On Saturday, June 18, 2016, one of Kaplan's neighbors told a local reporter that she had complained about Lee Kaplan to the authorities three years ago. Kaplan's windows were boarded up and his yard was overgrown with uncut grass and weeds. According to this neighbor, the children were occasionally let out of the house, and when she did see them, "They were so sad and fearful. That's what made me call. I've been telling my husband for years that 'something isn't right.' " (This neighbor saw something, said something, and nothing happened.)

     Another one of Lee Kaplan's neighbors in Feasterville told a reporter that Kaplan seemed "weird" and that the neighbor now wished he had called the police.

     On June 18, 2016, police officers executed a search warrant at the Kaplan house. Officers also searched a greenhouse on the property where the long-haired, bearded resident grew Avocado trees. As officers searched the property, several chickens wandered about the place. Inside the house, officers discovered several air mattresses, a large catfish tank, and an elaborate and expensive model train layout. Following the search, the authorities impounded Lee Kaplan's two vehicles, a blue conversion van and a white sedan.

     According to another neighbor, the girls were occasionally seen working in Kaplan's vegetable garden. He also took them to a nearby Dollar Store and a local hotdog restaurant. Kaplan and the oldest Stoltzfus girl, according to this witness, had been seen in public holding hands.

     According to the Lower Southampton Township Public Safety Director, "We don't know if maybe there were babies born that were destroyed or whatever, but that's not the case as far as we can tell."

     An investigation of the Stoltzfuses revealed that in 2001 Mr. Stoltzfus borrowed $300,000 from an Amish run institution called the Old Order Amish Helping Program. At the time, Mr. Stoltzfus operated a scrap metal business in the small Lancaster County town of Kirkwood. Eight years after taking out the loan to keep his business going, Stoltzfus lost the property to foreclosure. At this point he left the Amish faith, became a born again Christian, and sued the Old Order Amish Helping program for initiating the foreclosure and forcing him out of business. In his lawsuit, Mr. Stoltzfus claimed that the Amish wanted to close him down because they didn't approve of him doing business "with an individual of the Jewish faith named Lee Kaplan." A judge dismissed the Stoltzfus lawsuit a few months later.

     The scrap metal business was sold at a sheriff's auction for $342,000. The Stoltzfuses, in 2011, filed for bankruptcy.

     In digging into Lee Kaplan's past, investigators learned that he had graduated from Cheltenham High School in 1983. In 1994, he and his wife Virginia bought a house in the Melrose Park section of Cheltenham for $110,000, a place they worked hard to refurbish. Kaplan and his wife rented rooms in the house to students at a local university.

     According to a Cheltenham man who had lived next door to the Kaplan and his wife from 1994 to 2003, Kaplan was "born again, but not as a Christian. He was a born again Jew--a Jew for Jesus."

     In 2003, Lee Kaplan sold the house in Cheltenham for $250,000. Around this time he and his wife got divorced. After that, Kaplan drastically changed his looks by letting his hair and his beard grow out.

     On June 6, 2017, a Bucks county jury found Lee Kaplan guilty of 17 counts of rape. According to the prosecutor, Kaplan had "brainwashed the Stoltzfus family, seeking "power, manipulation and control." The 47-year-old rapist will spend the rest of his life behind bars.