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Sunday, February 26, 2017

Shivinder Singh Grover's Triple Murder And Suicide

     A Sikh is a follower of Sikism, a religion that originated in the Punjab region of India in the 1500s. There are about 500,000 Sikhs residing in the United States.

     Shivinder Singh Grover and his family were active members of suburban Atlanta's Sikh community of a thousand worshipers. The 52-year-old father of two had graduated from the University of Michigan, and was an executive with one of the technology companies headquartered in the city's northern suburbs. His 47-year-old wife, Damanjit Kaur Grover, worked for Emory Healthcare in Atlanta. The Grover family resided in a gated apartment community in Johns Creek, Georgia, a town 25 miles northeast of downtown Atlanta.

     One of Mrs. Grover's co-workers, at eleven o'clock in the morning of Monday, February 4, 2013, became concerned when Damanjit, a reliable employee, didn't show up at the office. After her phone calls to the Grover home went unanswered, the co-worker called the Johns Creek Police Department and requested a welfare check at the Grover apartment.

     Later that morning, after breaking into the apartment, Johns Creek officers made a gruesome discovery. Officers found Damanjit dead from head wounds caused by a blunt object. The Grover children, Gurtej, aged 5, and Sartaj, 12, had fatal knife wounds in their necks. Shivinder, the presumed murderer of his family, had hanged himself.

     The Fulton County Medical Examiner's Office labeled these deaths a case of murder-suicide. Investigators looked at computer files for a suicide note or something that suggested a reason behind the killings. They found nothing instructive.

     A friend of Mr. Grover's, in speaking to a reporter with a church-related publication, said, "Shivinder was a very respectful person. He talked respectfully to everybody. He was not a person who had any animosity, anxiety, or depression."

     Shivinder Singh Grover's murder of his family and himself shocked his friends, colleagues, and family. No one saw this coming, and no one had a clue as to what drove this man of quiet intelligence and apparent stability to commit such a violent, unspeakable act. (Some of Mr. Grover's friends wondered if the family had been murdered by an outsider. There was, however, no official investigation into that possibility.) 

Saturday, February 25, 2017

The Nicholas Helman Ricin Case: Beware of the Jilted Nerd

     In 2013, 19-year-old Nicholas Helman lived with his mother in Hatboro, Pennsylvania, a town of 8,000 in Montgomery County within the Philadelphia metropolitan area. One of the young man's neighbors in the Eleanor Courts apartment complex described Nicholas as the kid you went to school with for twelve years but don't remember.

     Helman, a quiet, unassuming Eagle Scout, worked at the Target store in Warrington, Pennsylvania. He also spent a lot of time searching for geocaches--objects that are hidden and can be found through GPS coordinates posted on the Internet. Casual acquaintances thought that Helman was much younger than nineteen.

     In the summer of 2013, Helman met a young woman his age at an Eagle Scout picnic. They began dating and he fell in love. When she left him for another man in November 2013, the devastated Helman began sending threatening emails to the new boyfriend. When the object of his wrath brushed off his threats, Helman decided to poison his competitor to death. This was not behavior befitting an Eagle Scout.

     On March 7, 2014, Helman confided in a fellow Target employee that he had just placed an envelope in his rival's mailbox that contained a scratch-and-sniff birthday card laced with ricin, a deadly poison. (Ricin is a protein found in the caster oil plant. The pulp from just eight caster beans can kill an adult. As little as 500 micrograms of the poison, an amount that would fit on the head of a pin, can be fatal.) Helman bragged to his confidant that anyone who came into contact with his ricin would be dead in a few days.

     Helman identified his poison target as his ex-girlfriend's boyfriend, a guy who lived in Warminster, a Bucks County town 40 miles north of Philadelphia. The shocked employee wasted no time in calling the police.

     Police officers, on the day Helman confided in his fellow worker, went to the Eleanor Courts apartment complex to question the suspect. Upon their arrival they arrested Helman as he tried to sneak off carrying a backpack and a piece of luggage.

     Under police questioning, Helman admitted that he had placed an envelope containing a birthday card in his rival's mailbox. He said his intent was to scare his ex-girlfriend's boyfriend, not to hurt him. He was motivated by the desire to get the girl back. Helman claimed that the birthday card was harmless.

     Police officers found, in Helman's backpack, a white bottle labeled "sodium hydroxide" that contained a crystal-like powder. The suspect also possessed a recipe in a notebook that listed ingredients such as caster beans, sodium hydroxide, mixing materials, and other substances.

     Investigators telephoned the poison target's residence and spoke to his mother who said her daughter had just left the house to fetch the mail. The police caller instructed the mother to put the mail back into the box and wait for the police.

     Nicholas Helman was taken into custody and booked into the Montgomery County Jail on the charge of harassment. Shortly after the hazardous materials team retrieved the plain white envelope without a stamp, address, or return address, Helman posted his $50,000 bond and was released from custody.

     After toxicological testing confirmed that the birthday card contained ricin, a Bucks County prosecutor charged Nicholas Helman with attempted first-degree murder. On March 19, 2014, FBI agents and local police officers, backed up by a SWAT team, surrounded the Helman apartment. Following a two-hour standoff, the suspect surrendered to the authorities. A judge denied Helman bail pending a psychiatric evaluation.

     The next day, police officers found a stash of ricin tucked under a gas manhole cover in Hatboro not far from Helman's apartment.

     In November 2014, Nicholas Helman pleaded guilty to the attempted murder charge as well as the offenses of attempted aggravated assault and risking a catastrophe. In July 2015, Judge Alan Rubenstein sentenced the 21-year-old to twenty to forty years in prison. The judge called Helman's crime "extraordinary" and compared his behavior to that of a terrorist. "You are bright. You are articulate. You are responsive," said the judge. "But I don't think you appreciate the damage you have caused people very close to you."

     As deputies led Helman out of the courtroom in handcuffs, the prisoner wept as he said goodbye to family members.

     

Friday, February 24, 2017

The Ethan Estevez Sexuial Abuse/Murder Solicitation Case

     In August 2012, the Harford County Maryland School District hired 29-year-old Ethan Estevez to teach biology in the town of Aberdeen. The resident of Churchville, Maryland would teach alternative education students at the Center for Educational Opportunity. According to the center's website, "Alternative Education provides a continuation of educational services to students who may have experienced crises. This program also exists to meet the individual needs of those students who have dropped out of school or not have been successful in a traditional school environment."
   
      In February 2014, members of the center's teaching staff came to suspect that Estevez was engaged in a sexual relationship with a female student, a relationship that had been going on since September 2012 when the girl was fifteen. The girl had told some of her friends and her mother that she and the teacher had been involved romantically. The mother, along with teachers from the school, reported Estevez to the Harford County Sheriff's Office. 
     A few days after filing the criminal complaint against the teacher, the alleged victim's mother, with a detective listening in on the call, phoned Estevez and asked him if her daughter's allegations were true. Estevez explained that he and the girl were in love and planned to get married. (Estevez, however, already had a wife.) The teacher denied that he and the girl had engaged in anything beyond kissing.
    On March 7, 2014, a school administrator placed Estevez on administrative leave. A month after that, detectives searching the girl's iPhone came across a February 2014 text message to one of her friends that revealed a murder-for-hire plot involving Estevez as the mastermind and his wife as the target. The girl had written: "Like it has to look like an accident because of life insurance and stuff." In another text message, the girl said she "just needed it to really happen before Sunday." 
     Questioned about the text messages by detectives, the student claimed that the teacher never really intended to have his wife murdered. Yes, they had talked about it but he was just joking around. 
     On June 4, 2014, a Harford County grand jury indicted Ethan Estevez on charges of sexual abuse. On that day the head of the school district fired him. After a few hours in jail Estevez posted his bond and was released to await his trial.
 
     A month after Estevez's sexual abuse arrest, Harford County detectives questioned a girl who had exchanged text messages with the suspect's alleged student victim. According to the ex-teacher's student/girlfriend, he had initially spoke of making his wife's murder look like a hit-and-run accident. Later he changed the murder plan to have the hit man orchestrate a fake drive-by shooting outside of a restaurant. To make the hit look like a random crime and throw suspicion off himself, Estevez wanted the assassin to shoot him in the arm. (That was stupid because hit men are amateurs who don't shoot straight.) This girl also told detectives that her friend said the hit man would kill the teacher's wife for $600. 
     In August 2014, an assistant Harford County state's attorney charged Ethan Estevez with conspiracy to commit first-degree murder. At the defendant's bail hearing, the prosecutor argued that the suspect posed a danger to the community and to his wife. District Court Judge David Carey said he could not ignore the seriousness of the charge. He said, however, that Mr. Estevez was entitled to bail which he set at $75,000. The next day the murder-for-hire and sexual abuse suspect posted his bond and walked out of the Harford County Jail.

     On June 4, 2014, Estevez was fired from his teaching position.

     In February 2015, the prosecutor in charge of the Estevez case dropped the murder solicitation charge in exchange for the former teacher's guilty plea to a fourth-degree sexual offense related to the student. Hartford County Circuit Judge Stephen Waldron sentenced Estevez to one year in the county jail. Pursuant to this lenient sentence, Estevez was deemed eligible for work release. (He had found a job at an insurance company.) The judge also sentenced Estevez to five years probation.   

Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Justin Harris Murder Case

     Justin Ross Harris, a 2012 graduate of the University of Alabama, lived in suburban Cobb County outside of Atlanta, Georgia with his wife Leanna and their 22-month-old son Cooper. On the morning of Wednesday, June 18, 2014, with the toddler strapped into his carseat in the back of his 2011 Hyundai Tucson, Justin Harris drove straight to the administrative offices of Home Depot where he worked. Instead of first dropping Cooper off at the boy's day school, he left his son in the car.

     At noon that day, with the temperature in suburban Atlanta at 92 degrees, Mr. Harris ate lunch at a restaurant not far from Home Depot then returned to work. When he climbed into the sweltering vehicle at four o'clock, the boy was still in the carseat.

     The boy's father drove to a nearby shopping center where, within hearing range of several people, he yelled, "Oh my God, what have I done? My God my son is dead!" Someone at the scene called 911.

     About an hour after responding to the shopping center parking lot, paramedics, unable to revive the boy, pronounced him dead. Officers with the Cobb County Police Department took Justin Harris into custody on suspicion of murder, felony murder and cruelty to a child in the first degree.

     Following an interrogation at police headquarters, a Cobb County prosecutor formally charged Mr. Harris with the above three offenses. At his arraignment, the murder suspect pleaded not guilty. The judge denied him bond.

     According to investigators, the suspect's wife Leanna said this to him at the police station following his interrogation: "Did you say too much?" Employees at Cooper's day school told police officers that when they called the boy's mother to inform her that he had not been delivered to class that morning, she had said, "Ross (Justin) must have left him in the car."

     Following a search of the suspect's dwelling and office, detectives discovered that Justine and Leanna had conducted Internet searches on the subject of hot car death. One of their inquires read: "how long does it take for an animal to die in a hot car?" When confronted with this incriminating evidence, Mr. Harris explained he had been fearful about his son dying inside a hot car. Detectives didn't buy the suspect's explanation.

     Leanna, in filling out a routine victim's statement form, in the place for the victim's name, wrote "self" rather than Cooper Harris.

     Upon completion of the victim's autopsy, the medical examiner ruled that the boy's cause of death was consistent with dying from heat inside of a vehicle. The forensic pathologist wrote that "investigative information suggests the manner of death as homicide."

     Shortly after police officers took Justin Harris into custody, his family and friends established an online petition calling for the prosecutor to drop the felony murder charge. According to the petition, Cooper Harris' death was "a horrible accident. The father loved his son immensely. They were loving parents who are devastated. Justin already has to live with a punishment worse than death." The Harris support group also created an online fundraising account for the suspect and his wife.

     On August 9, 2014, Leanna Harris' attorney, Lawrence Zimmerman, told reporters that he is concerned that the Cobb County District Attorney's Office will bring homicide and/or child cruelty charges against his client.

     As the January 2015 trial approached, Justin Harris' attorney, Maddox Kilgore, insisted that the child's death was a tragic accident and not an act of criminal homicide. The prosecutor, on the other hand, believed the death had been an intentional killing motivated by the suspect's desire to live a child-free life.

     From Harris' home, detectives acquired 120 computer discs containing videos, photographs, cellphone records, emails, and the contents of other material on the suspect's computer hard drives. From this data investigators learned that on the day of Cooper Harris' death the suspect was sexting with a minor girl and another woman. This evidence led to the additional charge of dissemination of pornography to a minor.

     On November 16, 2016, following a five-week trial featuring Leanna Harris as the defense's chief witness, a jury in Brunswick, Georgia found Justine Harris guilty of first-degree murder. Following the verdict, Assistant District Attorney Chuck Boring told reporters that Harris, in killing his child, "had malice in his heart."

     On December 16, 2016, the judge sentenced the 36-year-old Harris to life in prison without the chance of parole. 

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Serial Killer Paul Dennis Reid

     In 1988 a judge in Texas sent a drifter named Paul Dennis Reid to prison for twenty years. Seven years later a parole board set the 27-year-old serial armed robber free. Reid left the state in 1995 for Nashville, Tennessee in hopes of becoming a country western star. Instead of performing at the Grand Ole Opry, Reid ended up washing dishes at a number of Shoney's restaurants in and around Nashville.

     On February 16, 1997, the day after the manager of a Shoney's fired him, Reid walked into Captain D's restaurant in Nashville and shot, execution style, two employees. The armed robber and cold-blooded killer, on March 23, 1997, murdered three McDonald's workers in Hermitage, Tennessee. A month later, he killed two Baskin-Robbins employees in nearby Clarksville.

     Police officers arrested Reid in June 1997 in Cheatham County, Tennessee. He was taken into custody while trying to kidnap one of his former Shoney's restaurant bosses.

     Convicted of seven first-degree murders in 1999, Paul Dennis Reid landed on death row at the Riverbend Maximum prison in Nashville. He claimed that the "military government" had him under constant surveillance and was the force behind his murder convictions. Reid said his trials had been "scripted" by the government.

     Immediately after the serial killer's convictions, his team of lawyers began appealing his seven death sentences on the grounds he was too mentally ill to execute. By 2002, several execution dates had come and gone. It was around this time that Reid informed his attorneys to stop appealing his case. Arguing that the death row prisoner was not mentally competent, and therefore couldn't determine his own fate, his attorneys ignored his request.

     In 2003, to a newspaper reporter with Clarksville's Leaf-Chronicle, Reid said he had "sincere, profound empathy" for his victims' families. (I'm sure that made them feel better.) "I would say to them that if I have violated you or offended you in any manner, I plead for your forgiveness." (If?)

     A pair of Tennessee courts in 2008 ruled that Reid was mentally sound enough to be executed. Four years later, the state supreme court declared that Reid's attorneys could not continue to appeal against the condemned man's wishes. By now Reid had been on death fourteen years.

     At six o'clock on the evening of Friday, November 1, 2013, after being treated two weeks at a Nashville hospital for an undisclosed illness, Paul Dennis Reid died on his own. He was fifty-five years old.

     Doyle Brown, the father of one of Reid's victims at the McDonald's in Hermitage, said this to an Associated Press reporter who asked him how he felt about the death of the man who had murdered his daughter: "I'm glad he's dead. I wish it happened through the criminal justice system several years ago rather than him just getting sick and dying."

     Members of Reid's family, people who fought for years to keep him from being executed, mourned his death. They didn't view their relative as an evil, cold-blooded serial killer but as a victim of severe mental illness.

     Since sane people can fake mental illness and crazy people can on occasion act perfectly normal, Reid's true nature was a mystery. It's my view, however, that since most mentally ill people are not violent, the fact that some are suggests crazy people can also be evil. Mentally ill or not, Dennis Reid was evil. Therefore the legal effort to save his life was a waste of time and money. Attorneys should have better things to do. 

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The Kornegay Murder and Child Abuse Case

     Keith Kornegay, 37 and his 33-year-old wife Misty lived in a small white house off a dirt road in northern Florida's Columbia County located between Jacksonville and Tallahassee. Mr. Kornegay drove a truck and on occasion his wife traveled with him. On Sunday January 4, 2015, the couple left the house on a three-day trucking job. They left their 16-year-old son Damien in charge of his three sisters, ages three to fifteen.

     On Monday night January 6, 2015, 11-year-old Nicole Kornegay called the home of a friend and spoke to the girl's mother. According to Nicole, she and her 15-year-old sister Ariel had run away from home. They had walked four miles to the town of White Springs and wanted to be picked up at the Dollar General store.

     When asked why she and her sister had run off, Nicole said that someone at their house may have been shot. The mother called 911 then drove to the Dollar General store to fetch the girls.

     At ten that night, deputies with the Columbia County Sheriff's Office entered the Kornegay house to find Damien Kornegay lying beneath a blanket near the living room fireplace with his head on a pillow. He had been shot to death. His 3-year-old sister was in the house by herself.

     When questioned about the shooting at the sheriff's office, 15-year-old Ariel said she didn't know anything about her brother's death. However, after a few follow-up questions, she broke into tears and confessed to shooting her brother.

     Ariel said that when she misbehaved her parents routinely locked her into her bedroom (they must have had an exterior lock installed), sometimes for days at a time. Shortly after her parents left the  house on the trucking job, her brother Damien, who regularly beat her, locked her into her bedroom. That's when she decided to kill him.

     Ariel talked Nicole into unlocking her door. She knew that her father kept a handgun (a 9mm pistol) in his room. Because the bedroom was locked, Ariel managed to remove an air-conditioner from the window and climb into the room where she found the weapon. She loaded the gun and walked into the living room and shot Damien as he slept near the fireplace. A few minutes later, when she re-entered the living room, Ariel saw her 3-year-old sister trying to wake up their dead brother.

     Following the shooting, Ariel and Nicole headed for the Dollar General store in White Springs, leaving the 3-year-old at home with the corpse.

     After learning that their 16-year-old son had been shot to death by his 15-year-old sister, Keith and Misty Kornegay cut their trip short and returned home where they were met by sheriff's deputies.

     Misty Kornegay told the deputies that she and her husband had frequently locked Ariel into her bedroom. Mr. Kornegay admitted that he had once kept her locked up for 21 consecutive days. (Deputies, in Ariel's bedroom closet, had found a bucket of urine.) When the girl recently tried to kill herself, the parents did not notify the authorities.

     Deputies booked Mr. and Mrs. Kornegay into the Columbia County Jail on charges of child neglect causing great bodily harm. If convicted of this second-degree felony, they faced up to fifteen years in prison. The judge set their bonds at $20,000.

     In 2010, when Ariel was ten, her uncle went to prison for sexually molesting her. Deputies also learned that Misty Kornegay had once caught Ariel and Damien having sex.

     At a news conference on January 7, 2015, State Attorney Jeff Siegmeister told reporters that 11-year-old Nicole and her older sister were being held in separate juvenile detention centers in Ocala and Gainesville. The prosecutor said he had 21 days to decide whether to charge the girls with premeditated murder as adults or juveniles.

     The prosecutor decided not to charge Ariel Kornegay with criminal homicide. In March 2015, the girl pleaded guilty to burglary, a second-degree felony. The judge placed the 15-year-old on probabion with the Department of Juvenile Justice until her 19th birthday.

     In November 2015, Misty and Keith Kornegay, pursuant to a plea deal, pleaded guilty to the crimes of intentional child abuse and child neglect. The judge sentenced the parents to ten years probation that included two years of house arrest. The judge also ordered the couple to pay fines and court costs.

     In my opinion, the judge in this case let these parents off light.

     

Monday, February 20, 2017

Hit-And-Run: America's Silent Crime Wave

     People who accidentally injure or kill pedestrians and others with their vehicles then leave the scene of the accident, come from all walks of life. Most of them are ordinary people who do not live lives of crime. They flee the site of the mishap for different reasons. Hit-and-run drivers don't stop because they are intoxicated, driving on suspended driver's licenses, don't have insurance, are accompanied by someone they shouldn't be with, or are being sought by the authorities. Hit-and-run victims also represent a cross-section of American society.

     Hit-and-run cases are difficult to solve because so many of them occur at night with no witnesses. Even if investigators link a particular car or truck to the victim through hair follicle, textile, or DNA evidence, the prosecutor still has to place the defendant in that vehicle. Judges in hit-and-run cases resulting in injury or death are often reluctant to send convicted defendants to prison. These are not intentional crimes, and those convicted are usually not hardened criminals. Families of hit-and-run victims believe these defendants get off light.

     Nationwide, there about about 6 million traffic accidents a year. At least ten percent of these crashes involve hit-and-run drivers. Of the 600,000 or so hit-and-run cases every year, about a third result in injury or death. Los Angeles, according to a recent journalistic study by L. A. Weekly, has been in the midst of a hit-and-run epidemic since 2011. Every year, more than 4,000 people in the city of 3.8 million are hurt or killed by hit-and-run drivers. Almost half of the city's traffic accidents are hit-and-run cases. The staggering rate of this crime has overwhelmed the Los Angeles police.

    Because the hit-and-run accident has become such a commonplace event, these cases do not attract a lot of coverage in the media. Exceptions involve drivers who are professional athletes, TV actors, politicians, or anyone remotely famous. A hit-and-run case made national news in 1999 when 43-year-old Bryon Smith ran over the horror novelist, Stephen King. King was jogging on a remote road near North Lovell, Maine when Smith plowed into him. The writer nearly lost a leg, and Smith lost his driver's license. A year after the judge gave Smith a suspended sentence, the hit-and-run driver committed suicide.

     On January 14, 2013, a "hit-and-run" Google search covering a period of 24 hours, revealed more than thirty cases across America, a fraction of the actual number. In Los Angeles County, 31-year-old twin sisters Tanisha and Tamaya Davis were killed by a hit-and-run driver as they brawled in the middle of the street at three in the morning. The driver has not been identified.

     In the early morning hours of January 14, 2013, sheriff's deputies found a hit-and-run victim lying dead on the road in North Charleston, North Carolina. In Framingham, Oregon, a 58-year-old man was seriously injured at 7:30 in the evening when a motorist ran over him as he crossed the street. The police were looking for a blue Toyota sedan. A hit-and-run driver on the south side of Indianapolis killed a female pedestrian at eleven-thrity in the morning. In Houston, Texas, at ten-thirty at night, a 64-year-old man was killed when he tried to cross a busy road that had no crosswalk. He was hit by a gray Toyota pickup. A man in Brooklyn, New York was injured by a motorist while riding a bicycle at four in the morning. A driver on a road in Poulsbo, Washington hit two female pedestrians from behind. The injured women ended up in a roadside ditch.

The Facebook Case

     On New Year's eve, 2012, 18-year-old Jacob Cox-Brown, while driving home from a party drunk, hit two other cars and kept on going. The next day, the Astoria, Washington resident wrote the following on his Facebook page: "Drivin drunk...classic ;) but to whoever's vehicle I hit, I am sorry." A reader notified the police who examined Cox-Brown's car to find damage that linked his vehicle to one of the sideswiped cars. Following his arrest, Cox-Brown admitted leaving the scene of the collisions. He was charged with two counts of failing to perform the duties of a driver. (As of February 20, 2017, I can find no disposition of this case recorded on the Internet.)

The Motorist with the Bad DMV Record

     On Saturday, January 13, 2013, a hit-and-run driver struck 28-year-old Catherine Calalang and her 20-year-old cousin Laurene Jiminez as they walked along a road in Camden County, New Jersey. Calalang had five teeth kocked out, and suffered facial injuries. Jiminez suffered serious head injuries. The next day, Voorhees Township police received an anonymous tip that led them to Magnolia, New Jersey where they found a damaged Ford Fusion parked on the street. The vehicle, registered to 44-year-old Michele Toussaint of Berlin, New Jersey, contained physical evidence linking it to the hit-and-run.

     Michele Toussaint, since 1991, had 52 driver's license arrests and 16 moving traffic violations. (Toussaint's husband had been killed in a traffic accident.) She was charged with leaving the scene of an accident, endangering an injured victim, and causing injury while driving on a suspended license. Toussaint was taken into custody on January 13, 2013 and placed into the Camden County Correctional Facility under $62,500 bail. Toussaint told the arresting officers that she was about to turn herself in.

     The defendant pleaded guilty in December 2013. The judge, at her sentencing hearing, sentenced Toussaint to a two-year electronic monitoring home detention program.

No Prison for Helen Fettes

     In October 2011, 80-year-old Helen Fettes, while driving on a road in Olmsted, Ohio in the Cleveland area, killed 13-year-old Charlie Kho. After running the boy over, Fettes drove away. In November 2012, after pleading no contest to aggravated vehicular homicide, the judge sentenced Fettes to five years of house arrest. The judge also suspended Fettes' driving privileges for life, and ordered her to pay $125,000 in restitution. 

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Steven Powell And His Son Josh: Cases Of Voyeurism, Arson, and Murder-Suicide

     On December 6, 2009, Josh Powell reported his 28-year-old wife, Susan Cox Powell, missing. He said she had disappeared while he and his two sons were on a camping trip. The family lived in West Valley, a suburb of Salt Lake City. The story didn't make any sense, and the police didn't believe him. As time passed, and Susan Cox remained missing, the authorities suspected that Josh Powell had murdered his wife for her life insurance. But without the body, the case stalled.

     In January 2010, after losing his job, Josh Powell and his boys moved into his father Steven Powell's house in South Hill, an unincorporated community in the Puyallup, Washington area. Investigators, in August 2011, pursuant to the ongoing investigation of Susan Powell's disappearance and presumed murder, searched Steven Powell's house, and were shocked by what they found.

     On videotapes, computer discs, and in Steven Powell's diaries, detectives found evidence that Josh's father had been sexually obsessed with Susan, and had secretly videotaped and photographed, in 2006 and 2007, two girls who lived in the house next door. The girls were age 8 and 10.

     In seven entries in his dairies, Steven Powell had documented his bizarre fixation on his daughter-in-law. He wrote: "Susan likes to be admired, and I'm a voyeur...I'm a voyeur and Susan is an exhibitionist." In a series of videos of himself ruminating about his daughter-in-law, the senior Powell said he "...would give anything to be with her." In various self-videoed scenes, Steven Powell is kissing a pair of her underwear, standing nude with a photograph of her, and recalling how giving her a foot rub was "...the most erotic experience of my life." Detectives also found clandestinely taken photographs of Susan in various stages of undress.

     Even more disturbing, were the thousands of photographs Powell had secretly taken of the girls next door. The pictures, taken 40 feet away through a window and an open bathroom door, depicted the youngsters getting dressed and undressed, taking baths, washing and drying their hair, and other thing people do in the privacy of their homes. On his computer, Steven Powell had hundreds of photographs he had covertly taken of other girls who had passed in front of his house. Searchers also found hundreds of photographs, taken by other people, of naked women and girls.

     In his diary entries, Powell discussed his voyeurism generally, noting that he enjoyed taking video shots of pretty girls in shorts and skirts. In 2010, he recorded himself saying,  "I've been going nuts and nearly out of control sexually my entire life."

     Charged by the Pierce County prosecutor with 24 counts of voyeurism, and one count of possession of materials of minors engaged in explicit conduct, police arrested Steven Powell on September 12, 2011. Each count carried a maximum sentence of five years in prison. He pleaded not guilty to all charges.

     About a month after his father's arrest, Josh Powell lost custody of his two boys and moved into a rented house in Graham, Washington. On February 6, 2012, his sons' made a visit to his home accompanied by a supervising social worker. Powell, with the boys in the house, locked the social worker out of the dwelling. With the social worker locked outside of the house, Josh Powell murdered the boys with a hatchet. He poured several gallons of gasoline around the dwelling then set it on fire. He died in the blaze.

     Steven Powell, with his daughter-in-law missing and presumed dead, two of his grandsons murdered, and his son, the killer of all three, dead by his own hand, went on trial May 7, 2012 in Tacoma, Washington. In a series of pre-trial hearings, Pierce County Judge Ronald Culpepper had ruled that the prosecution could not introduce any of the evidence pertaining to Powell's obsession with Susan Powell. Moreover, the government could only present 20 of the photographs the defendant had allegedly taken of the girls next door.

     On May 9, the girls Powell had allegedly photographed and videotaped in 2006 and 2007, now 13 and 15, took the stand for the prosecution. When asked why they had not kept the bathroom door closed, one of the witnesses said she felt safer with the door open, and had no idea anyone outside the house could see her. In the summer, because the home didn't have air conditioning, it got hot on the second floor. That explained why all of the upstairs windows had been open during the night. The family had moved to Puyalllup in 2006 from Arizona, and in 2008, left the neighborhood. The girls and their mother had no memory of Steven Powell, and were unable to identify him in the court room.

     Defense attorney Mark Quigley did not put any witnesses on the stand. His defense, which revealed itself through his cross-examination of prosecution witnesses, consisted of suggesting that someone else in the Powell house had spied on the girls. At the time, Steven Powell's two sons, and one of his daughters, lived with him.

     Attorney Quigley, in his closing argument to the jury, pointed out that the state, with no direct proof the defendant had photographed and videotaped the neighbor girls, had not carried its burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

     Prosecutor Grand Blinn, characterized the state's case as one involving "overwhelming circumstantial evidence." Blinn told the jury of six men and six women that the defendant had essentially confessed to being a voyeur. "It's difficult to imagine," he said, "anything more disturbing to teenage girls to know that a middle age man next door was taking pictures of them."

     On May 16, 2012, the jury, following just three hours of deliberation, found Steven Powell guilty of all 14 counts of voyeurism. They acquitted him of the possession of child pornography charges.

     The judge, on July 15, 2012, sentenced Steven Powell to 30 months in prison for the voyeurism offenses.

     On October 27, 2014, the prosecutor re-charged Powell on the pornography allegations. A judge later dismissed that case.

     The Washington State Court of Appeals, on March 13, 2016, set aside Powell's voyeurism conviction on procedural grounds related to the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

     As of February 2017, Susan Cox Powell's body had not been found.
       

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Angels of Death: Homicidal Poisoning


Murder by Poison

     Most people who die from poisoning do so accidentally. As a mode of criminal homicide, poisoning, compared to guns, knives, blunt objects, and ligatures, is rare. According to FBI statistics, out of the 187,000 criminal homicides committed from 1990 to 2000, only 346 involved poison. During the period 2001 to 2006 the figure rose to 523. But forensic toxicologists, the experts educated and trained to detect and identify substances harmful to the human body, believe that homicidal poisoning is more common than crime statistics suggest. For example, in 2002, 26,435 people died of poisoning. While only 63 of these deaths were ruled as murder, 3,336 were listed under manner of death as "undetermined." In other words, forensic pathologists considered these poisoning deaths as suspicious.

     Nobody knows how many people are being murdered by poison because most of these deaths are classified as naturally caused fatalities. In most of these cases, there are no outward signs of homicide. There are no bullet holes, stab wounds, cuts, bruises, or marks around the neck that signify that these deaths were not natural. In most instances, because these deaths are not outwardly suspicious, no autopsies are conducted. These victims are embalmed, buried, or cremated. End of story. Occasionally, suspicions may arise when, say, an estranged spouse receives a large life insurance payment, and a week later, remarries. Money and sex are common motives for murder, but motive is not evidence. The evidence of a homicidal poisoning is the poison. If the toxic substance is not detected and identified in the course of an autopsy, the killer will get away with murder. Exhumations are rare.

     Poisons are seldom detected where clinical (rather than criminal) autopsies are performed by regular hospital pathologists. This is because the pathologist is not thinking homicide, or looking for poison. Unless a specific poison is suspected, the chance of random discovery is unlikely. Arsenic, because it is readily available, tasteless, and can be administered in a series of small doses that causes a period of illness before death, is the weapon of choice among those who murder by poison. Within 24 hours of ingestion, arsenic moves from the blood into the victim's liver, kidneys, spleen, lungs and GI tract. In two to four weeks traces can be found in the victim's hair, nails, and skin. From there, traces of the poison settle in the bone. Thirty minutes after ingesting a small dose of arsenic, the victim will experience a metallic taste, garlic smelling breath, headaches, muscle cramping, vertigo, vomiting, abdominal pain, and diarrhea. If the victim doesn't die within a few hours from shock the poisoned person may die a few days later from kidney problems. If the victim survives two to four weeks, in addition to horrible suffering, he will start losing his hair. When death finally comes, the likely cause will be identified as renal failure. Other common poisons used in the commission of homicide include strychnine (rat poison), morphine, and Demerol. Antifreeze (ethyzene glycol) has become a relatively popular weapon in murder-by-poison cases.

Angel of Death Cases

     Deaths by homicidal poisonings that commonly do not raise suspicion, and are therefore misdiagnosed as natural fatalities, involve hospital patients who are elderly, or already ill. The death of an old or gravely ill patient, almost by definition, is a natural death. This is why physicians, nurses, and other healthcare workers who kill--so-called "angels of death"--have gotten away will murdering so many people.

     Normally, homicide by poison is not an impulsive crime. But in the hospital, or home for the elderly, it is a crime of opportunity. The angel of death has easy access to the poison and to the victim. There is no need for extensive preparation and planning. Moreover, there is no apparent or obvious motive for the homicide because these killers do not receive any direct personal gain out of the crime. The homicidal motives associated with angels of death are therefore pathological, and hidden. This type of serial killer is difficult to spot because angels of death are not manifestly insane. They possess personality disorders that compel them to murder out of generalized rage, boredom, or the impulse to play God.

     As murderers, angels of death are cold-blooded, careful, and vain. This makes them hard to catch. Quite often in their employment histories they have been terminated from previous healthcare jobs. When too many patients die on a nurse's or orderly's watch, and the employee comes under suspicion, he or she is fired. Healthcare workers suspected of murdering patients often quit, and get a similar job somewhere else. The tendency, among healthcare administrators, is to deny the obvious, and pass the problem on to the next employer. Over the years, dozens of angels of death have been caught but only after large numbers of patients have been murdered. Given the nature of the crime and the limited role forensic science plays in these cases, it is reasonable to assume that the small number of angel of death convictions represents the mere tip of a rather large homicidal iceberg.

Angel of Death Donald Harvey

     In 1975, after working briefly as a hospital orderly in London, Kentucky, 23-year-old Donald Harvey took a job with the Veteran's Hospital in Cincinnati, Ohio. As the years passed, a pattern emerged. When Harvey was on duty, patients died. Finally, after ten years, and the deaths of more than 100 patients on his watch, the orderly was fired. He was terminated because several hospital workers suspected he was poisoning his patients. After Harvey left the facility, the death rate plummeted. Terminating Donald Harvey turned out to be good medicine, at least at the VA hospital.

     Shortly after his firing, Harvey was hired across town at Drake Memorial Hospital where the death rate began to soar. As he had done at the VA facility, Harvey was murdering patients by either lacing their food with arsenic, or injecting cyanide into their gastric tubes. The deaths at Drake, like those at the VA hospital, were ruled as naturally caused fatalities. While suspicions were aroused it was hard to imagine that this friendly, helpful little man who was so charming and popular with members of his victims' families, could be a stone-cold serial killer.

     As clever and careful as Harvey was, he made a mistake when he poisoned John Powell, a patient recovering from a motorcycle accident. Under Ohio law, victims of fatal traffic accidents must be autopsied. At Powell's autopsy, an assistant detected the odor of almonds, the telltale sign of cyanide. This was fortunate because most people are unable to detect this scent. The forensic pathologist ordered toxicological tests that revealed that John Powell had died from a lethal dose of cyanide. Harvey had been the last person to see Mr. Powell alive, and John Powell would be the last person he would kill.

     The Cincinnati police arrested Harvey, and searched his apartment where they found jars filled with arsenic and cyanide, and books on poisoning. However, the Hamilton County prosecutor believed that without a confession, there might not be enough evidence to convince a jury of Harvey's guilt. The suspect, on the other hand, was worried that if convicted, he would be sentenced to death. So Harvey and the prosecutor struck a deal. In return for a life sentence, Donald Harvey would confess to all of the murders he could remember. Over a period of several days, he confessed to killing, in Kentucky and Ohio, 130 patients. When asked why he had killed all of those helpless victims, the best answer Harvey could muster was that he must have a "screw loose." Forensic pathologists familiar with the case speculated that the murders had given Harvey, an otherwise ordinary and insignificant person, a sense of power over the lives of others. Harvey pleaded guilty to several murders and was sentenced to life in prison.

     The old saying that "murder will out" does not always apply when the weapon of choice is poison.       

Friday, February 17, 2017

Dr. Jon Norberg's Nightmare: The False Rape Accusations of a Mentally Disturbed Wife

    Dr. Jon Norberg, an orthopedic surgeon in Fargo, North Dakota who specialized in hands, elbows, and upper extremities, was estranged from his wife Alonna, a former pediatrician who suffered from Sjogren's Syndrome, a rare immune system disorder. In 2011, the couple, in their early 40s, were in the midst of a contentious divorce and child custody battle. In June of that year, Dr. Alonna Norberg filed a complaint with the Fargo Police Department in which she accused her estranged husband of endangering her life by repeatedly, and without her consent, injecting her with the powerful anesthetic drug propofol. (This drug gained notoriety after Michael Jackson overdosed on it in 2009.) According to Alonna, Dr. Norberg had injected her with the drug thirty times between September 2010 and June 2011. The complainant also accused her husband of rape. She told detectives that on the morning of June 17, 2011, she awoke to discover physical evidence that her husband, while she was under the influence of the drug, had forced her to have oral sex. She found, on the nightstand next to the bed, a bottle of Diprivan (a propofol brand).

     On August 2, 2011, a prosecutor with the Cass County State Attorney's Office charged Dr. Jon Norberg with gross sexual imposition, a class AA felony that carried a maximum sentence of life. For injecting his wife with propofol, the surgeon was also charged with reckless endangerment, a class C felony that could put him in prison for up to five years. As a result of these criminal charges, Dr. Norberg took a leave of absence from his medical practice. (The State Board of Medical Examiners would later suspend his medical license indefinitely.) Following his arrest, arraignment, and release from custody on bail, Dr. Norberg pleaded not guilty to both charges.

     On November 7, 2012, Cass County prosecutor Reid Brady, in his opening remarks to the jury, said, "At the end of this case you will know that the defendant defied dangerous risks by unsafely using propopol on his wife. You will know that he obsessed with sex so much that he perpetrated sex acts on her when he knew she was unaware."

     Defense attorney Robert Hoy, in his opening address to the jury, said that Alonna Norberg had concocted the drug and rape allegations to get the upper hand in the couple's divorce and child custody battles. The defendant had injected his wife with the drug three times to alleviate her pain from Sjogren's Syndrome, and to help her sleep.

     Two days into the trial, Dr. Alonna Norberg took the stand as the prosecution's principal witness. For two days she gave, in a breathless manner, graphic and dramatic testimony of being constantly drugged, and on the one occasion, raped under its influence. "I remember," she said, "looking around thinking I've got to get up and I got to get away....It was just true true horror because I was choking and I couldn't get his mouth away, I couldn't get my body away."

     Following her testimony, Alonna Norberg walked out of the courtroom and did not return to the trial. On November 14, Robert Knorr, Alonna's father, took the stand and testified regarding an October 28, 2012 meeting he had with Dr. Norberg, at the defendant's request. At this meeting in a Fargo restaurant, Dr. Norberg suggested, for the benefit of all parties, that his estranged wife recant her accusations. According to this witness, the defendant had said, "She could either say that it was a dream, or that she was lying, or that she didn't remember." Mr. Knorr believed the defendant thought it would be in the best interest of the entire family if this matter did not go to trial. The witness said, "I told him there was no way that was going to happen." Following Robert Knorr's testimony, the state rested its case.

     Under defense attorney Robert Hoy's direct questioning, Dr. Harjinder Virdee, a Fargo psychiagtrist with 35 years experience, painted a psychiatric portrait of the defendant's accuser that undermined her credibility. Dr. Virdee had spent more than 100 hours reviewing Alonna Norberg's extensive medical history comprised of hundreds of documents. The psychiatrist had also conducted a five-hour interview with the former pediatrician. According to the witness, Alonna was a compulsive, nonstop talker who dominated the session.

     Regarding Alonna Norberg's accusations against her husband, it was Dr. Virdee's expert opinion that they were false. The accuser's description of what happened to her was simply too detailed and graphic to ring true. A person under the influence of the drug propofol could not recall what had happened to them is such detail.

     According to Alonna Norberg's medical file, she had been diagnosed with more than fifteen mental illnesses and disorders including obsessive-compulsive disorder; anxiety; histronic and narcissistic personality traits; depression; violent mood swings; and chemical dependency. At no time in the past decade had Alonna Norberg been taking fewer than twenty medications. Occasionally during this period she was ingesting more than fifty different drugs at one time. Many of these prescriptions involved opioid medication such as the addictive oxycodone. "She's got everything," Dr. Virdee said. "If you go through her medical notes there are umpteen diagnoses in the records. It jumps from one thing to another, one [doctor's] visit to the next. She is ill, she is psychiatrically ill."

     Based upon her review of Alonna Norberg's vast psychiatric history, Dr. Virdee added a new diagnosis. In Dr. Virdee's medical opinion, Alonna Norberg suffered from what the psychiatrist called fictitious disorder, a condition or personality trait in which people either fabricate symptoms or intentionally produce symptoms to gain attention and sympathy. (This sounds a lot like the Munchausen Syndrome Disorder.)

     On cross-examination, prosecutor Reid Brady pointed out that Dr. Virdee was the first doctor to diagnose Alonna Norberg with the syndrome called fictitious disorder. "I'm the only doctor," she replied, "that has reviewed all the records as well. It's hard to wonder how she became a physician if she can't tell the difference between all these drugs. Her credibility is very low."

     Kori Norborg, the defendant's sister-in-law, took the stand and testified that Alonna's accusations were motivated by her fear that because of her drug addiction, she would lose custody of the couple's two children.

     In his closing argument to the jury, defense attorney Hoy said, "There is not one shred of physical evidence to support their [the state's] case. Everything else...originates with Alonna Norberg. Desperate people do desperate things."

     On November 21, 2012, the day before Thanksgiving, the jury, after a quick deliberation, found Dr. Jon Norberg not guilty of both charges. Given the circumstances surrounding these accusations, the charges should never have been filed in the first place. This case, in my view, reflects a gross lack of prosecutorial discretion.

     In March 2013, a Fargo judge granted Norberg primary custody of his children. Five months later an official with the North Dakota Board of Medical Examiners reinstated Dr. Norborg's medical license.