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Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Match.Com and the Online Hook-Up From Hell

     In September 2010, Mary Kay Beckman, a 46-year-old mother of two from Las Vegas, met 50-year-old Wade Mitchell Ridley via the online dating service, Match.com. The couple had eight dates before Beckman realized there was something wrong with him and ended the relationship.

     On January 21, 2011, four months after his last date with Beckman, Ridley, armed with a butcher's knife, broke into her garage and waited for her to return home. When Beckman pulled into the garage and got out of her car, Ridley stabbed her ten times. In his attempt to murder his victim, Ridley also stomped her head and neck. Ridley left the garage that night thinking that he had killed Mary Kay Beckman.

     Mary Kay survived the brutal attack, but had to undergo surgeries to repair her jaw, preserve her eyesight, and to have a section of her skull replaced by a synthetic material.

     Shortly after the burglary and attempted murder, Las Vegas police arrested Wade Ridley. While in police custody, he confessed to the Beckman assault. Ridley also informed his interrogators that a few weeks before stabbing and stomping Mary Kay Beckman, he murdered a woman in Phoenix. The suspect said he had used a butcher's knife to stab 62-year-old Anne Simenson to death in her home. Just before murdering Simenson, a woman he had met on Match.Com, Ridley had stolen painkilling drugs from a pharmacist he had robbed at knife-point.

     On February 15, 2011, a prosecutor in Clark County, Nevada charged Wade Mitchell Ridley with the attempted murder of Mary Kay Beckman. In Arizona, a prosecutor charged Ridley with the murder of Anne Simenson.

     In September 2011, Ridley entered an Alford pleas to attempted murder with the use of a deadly weapon and armed robbery. (In so pleading, Ridley didn't admit guilt but acknowledged the state had enough evidence to convict him.) The judge sentenced Ridley to 28 to 70 years in prison.

     On May 17, 2012, a prison guard found Ridley hanging in his cell. The medical examiner ruled his death a suicide.

     Mary Kay Beckman, on January 25, 2013, filed suit against Match.Com in a Las Vegas federal court. Her attorney, Marc Saggese, told reporters that the basis of the $10 million civil action "...is the advertising that is utilized by Match.Com, lulling women and men into a false sense of security." It is the plaintiff's contention that the dating service has a legal duty to warn its online customers that there might be people in the dating pool who are dangerous.

     The lawyer representing Match.Com responded to this assertion by saying the notion his client was liable for the behavior of a Match.Com member was absurd. The attorney for the defendant said the plaintiff was the victim of a "sick, twisted" man.

     If Match.Com lost this lawsuit, owners of bars where men and women meet could be held liable for hook-ups that led to one of the parties being criminally victimized. It would make fixing-up friends a risky proposition for match-makers. Who doesn't know that going out with a stranger met online, in a bar, or at a college fraternity party, isn't risky business? While Mary Kay Beckman was the victim of a terrible crime, she was not a victim of Match.Com.

     On May 29, 2013, a federal judge in Nevada threw out Beckman's case against the online dating service. 

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The Casmine Aska Attempted Murder Case

     At 8:30 Friday night, February 1, 2013, residents of the Morris Heights section of The Bronx discovered a 9-year-old boy named Freddy Martin lying on the sidewalk in front of a 5-story apartment building. En route to the New York Presbyterian/Columbia Hospital, Freddy told paramedics that "Cas dragged me to the roof and threw me off. I don't know why."

     Suffering broken bones, head trauma, and internal bleeding, doctors put the boy into an induced coma, and placed him on life support.

     New York City detectives, later that Friday night, questioned 17-year-old Casmine Aska at the local precinct station. Casmine, a resident of the apartment building, initially denied being on the roof with Freddy. After further interrogation, the suspect admitted being on the roof when the boy fell off the building. "I grabbed Freddy around the legs," Aska said. "His feet were off the ground. I turned around. I slipped and Freddy fell."

     On Sunday, February 3, Casmine Aska was arraigned in a Bronx court on charges of attempted murder, assault, reckless endangerment, and endangering the welfare of a child. Assistant District Attorney Dahlia Olsher Tannen informed Judge Gerald Lebovits that Aska, as a juvenile, had been in trouble with the law. The prosecutor, who didn't elaborate, asked the judge not to grant the suspect bail.

     Kathryn Dyer, Aska's attorney, in making an argument for bail in this case, said, "This is not about attempted murder." Acknowledging that her client possessed a juvenile record, Dyer assured Judge Lebovits that Aska had "taken responsibility for his life." Defense attorney Dyer pointed out that Aska's favorite subject at Harry S. Truman High School was chemistry, that he attended weekly religious classes, and served food to the homeless.

     Judge Lebovits, apparently unimpressed by Aska's academic interests, religious activity, and community service, denied him bail. The judge's rationale: "Extraordinary risk of flight."

     A few weeks later, when questioned by detectives at the Riker's Island Jail, Aska, in explaining why after the boy's fall he went home and took a nap instead of calling 911, said, "I didn't call the NYPD because my brain froze. I was shivering, I was crying, I went to my aunt's..my whole world stopped."

     On February 15, 2013, when doctors took Freddy Martin off life support, the boy began breathing on his own. Questioned by detectives, he accused Aska, a kid who had been bullying him, of intentionally throwing him off the building.

     A month before Aska's September 2014 trial, the defendant agreed to plead guilty in return for a 40 year prison sentence. 

Monday, August 22, 2016

The Julie Schenecker Murder Case

     Parker Schenecker, an Army intelligence officer, met Julie Powers, an Army linguist (Russian) in 1987 when they were deployed in Germany. Shortly after they were married in Louisiana in 1991, a psychologist began treating her for depression. Three years later, she gave birth to Calyx, and in 1997, their son Beau.

     Not long after having Beau, Julie began taking anti-depression medication on a daily basis. In 2001, psychiatrists diagnosed her as suffering from bipolar disorder, schizo-affective disorder, and severe depression. According to these physicians, she had a personality disorder as well. (There is no effective way to treat the latter.) During her nine months of treatment at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Maryland outside of Washington, D.C., she labored under the false belief that a brain tumor was causing her mental illness. Julie held this belief after brain scans proved negative. During this time, Parker Schenecker hired a nanny to take care of the children.

     In 2009, while being treated in south Florida for mental illness, Julie expressed a desire to take her psychiatrist's comb and use his DNA to impregnate herself.

     On November 6, 2010, while residing in an upscale neighborhood in Tampa, Florida, 15-year-old Calyx told a school counselor that her mother had slapped her in the face when they returned from her cross-country practice. The counselor reported the matter to the authorities, and that day, a Tampa police officer, accompanied by a child protection social worker, paid Julie a home visit. Julie admitted hitting Calyx with her open hand during an argument four days earlier. The police officer decided not to make an arrest in the case.

     On January 15, 2011, Colonel Schenecker, while assigned as an intelligence officer with U.S. Central Command in Qatar, wrote a long email to the psychiatrist in Florida treating Julie. The colonel expressed concern about Julie's bellicose relationship with Calyx. It seemed the two of them never stopped fighting.

     Colonel Schenecker wrote: "Julie can no longer control Calyx and Calyx has been disrespectful and verbally abusive toward Julie." Colonel Schenecker also noted that his wife had taken to the bottle. "Drinking starts to affect the kids--they start mentioning it to me." Julie had also, according to the colonel, been driving erratically which had resulted in a traffic accident.

     Julie Schenecker wrote an email addressed to her family on January 27, 2011. The message read: "It's really difficult and I'm so sick mentally. I minimally take care of the kids, sad to say. Beau has also developed Calyx's attitude--makes me cry every evening. Seeing what they've become, I will end this soon. I am at my wits end."

     The day following Julie's email to her family, her mother Nancy called the police to report that she had not been able to reach her daughter. Due to Julie's mental state, Nancy was concerned that something was wrong. In response to the mother's request for a welfare visit, officers were dispatched to the Schenecker house. There, in the garage, they found Beau in Julie's SUV. The boy had been shot twice in the head.

     In Calyx's room, officers discovered the 16-year-old lying on her bed with a fatal bullet wound to the back of her head. Both children had been shot by the .38-caliber revolver found at the scene. The bodies had been covered with blankets. The officers also recovered a journal at the scene in which Julie described her plan to kill her children and herself.

     Police officers found, on the back porch, Julie Schenecker. Wearing a blood-soaked bathrobe, she was asleep and under the influence of prescription pills. She awoke and told the officers why she had shot her children to death. She said she had done this because they had "talked back and were mouthy."

     Officers took Julie into custody at the death scene. At the police station, they continued to question her. Julie said she had shot Beau in the car after they had returned home from his soccer practice. She said she killed Calyx in her room as she did homework on her computer. Julie showed no emotion or remorse as she described killing her children.

     Julie Schenecker informed her interrogators that five days before shooting her children to death, she had driven 27 miles to a small Florida town where she purchased the revolver at a store called Lock N Load. (When buying the weapon, she told the counterman that there had been a rash of burglaries in her neighborhood.)

     After questioning her at the police station, detectives took Julie to a nearby hospital for observation. She told a doctor that she had a "pre-existing" medical condition. Following her discharge from the medical center on January 29, 2011, officers booked the murder suspect into Hillsborough County's Falkenburg Road Jail on two counts of first-degree murder. The judge denied her bond.

     The homicide suspect's attorneys, at her February 16, 2011 arraignment, pleaded her not guilty. The lawyers announced they planned to launch an insanity defense on her behalf. Under Florida law, legal insanity is statutorily defined as a mental disease or defect present at the time of the crime that rendered the defendant incapable of appreciating the nature and quality of the criminal act. In other words, the mental illness had destroyed the defendant's ability to distinguish between right and wrong. In Florida, as well as most other states, the so-called "M'Naughten right-wrong test," due to the fact that even seriously mentally ill people are aware of what they are doing when they kill someone, is a difficult defense to prove. Proving that the defendant's actions were driven by the mental illness and nothing else is usually an uphill task. (A defendant must prove legal insanity by a preponderance of the evidence. That means the prosecution does not have the burden of proving the defendant was sane, that is presumed, along with innocence.)

     Colonel Schenecker divorced Julie in May 2011. Following a dispute over the distribution of family assets, he sued her in civil court for the wrongful death of their children. Julie's civil attorneys in the case, countered that the plaintiff was equally responsible for the children's deaths. In support of this argument, they cited the emails the colonel had sent to her psychiatrist less than two weeks before the killings. In these emails he expressed his concern for the well-being of the children.

     The Julie Schenecker double murder trial got underway on April 28, 2014 in Tampa, Florida. Following jury selection and the opening statements from each side, the prosecutor put police officers, detectives, crime scene people, and a forensic pathologist on the stand. On May 5, 2014, crime scene specialist Matthew Evans testified that he had recovered numerous bottles of prescription pills at the murder house that included Lithium and Oxycodone.

     The prosecutor asked crime scene specialist Matthew Evans to read from portions of the journal taken from the house. From this document, Evans read the following to the jury: "The best job I ever had was having/bringing up my babies. This is why I had to bring them with me. It's possible they've inherited my DNA and would live their lives depressed or bipolar! I believe I saved them from the pain. I wouldn't wish this on nobody--ever."

     According to the defendant's journal, she had worried that if she committed suicide, her children would have to live with the stigma associated with their mother's act of self-destruction. "If you're wondering why I decided to take out the kids it was to protect them from embarrassment the rest of their lives."

     The crime scene investigator was followed to the stand by a detective who played an audiotape of the defendant's police station interview. Slurring her words, Schnecker explained in detail how she had shot her children to death and why. She also listed all of the prescription medicine she had been taking.

     The following day, now retired Army Colonel Parker Schenecker, took the stand for the prosecution. The 53-year-old described to the jury the domestic turmoil of living with a mentally disturbed wife. During his testimony, he never referred to her by name, referring to Julie as the "defendant."

     On May 9, 2014, after the prosecution rested its case, The Schenecker defense took center stage. Michelle Frisco, a 43-year-old house cleaner who worked for the defendant, said that Julie had been upset because Beau had become as disrespectful as his older sister. The defendant also told the witness that she drank heavily when her husband was deployed out of the country.

     Dr. Demian Obregon, a University of Southern Florida psychologist, testified that he had treated the defendant for various mental disorders. The medicine she took produced side effects such as "lip-smacking," and "leg-jerking." According to this witness, Julie, in August 2010, had starting expressing suicidal thoughts. In December of that year, she had revealed deep feelings of being both helpless and hopeless.

     Throughout the trial, Julie Schenecker sat passively with her attorneys at the defense table. But that changed suddenly in the middle of Dr. Obergron's testimony. When the psychologist told the jury he had warned her against mixing alcohol with her bipolar medicine, she yelled "Liar! You told me two drinks a day, two Oxys a day!"

     The trial judge responded to the outburst by ordering the jurors out of the courtroom. The judge then issued a strong warning to the defendant. If she engaged in this type of behavior again, there would be serious consequences. Such outbursts would not be tolerated.

     On Monday, May 12, 2014, Dr. Eldra Solomon, another psychologist, took the stand for the defense. Hired by Julie's attorneys to examine and evaluate their client's mental state on the days leading up to the killings, Dr. Solomon testified that Julie, on the day she decided to buy the gun, "had her first clear thought in weeks." And that thought involved killing her children so they could all go to heaven together. "People who are not in a psychotic state," Dr. Solomon said, "do not kill their children."

     Dr. Michael Malher, a medical doctor and psychiatrist, had also been hired by the defense as an expert insanity defense witness. In his expert opinion, Julie Schenecker, at the time of the killings, was insane pursuant to the criteria of the M'Naughten right-wrong test.

     In cross-examining the defense insanity witnesses, the prosecutor, in an effort to undermine their credibility, implied that they were nothing more than insanity defense hired-guns.

     On May 13, 2014, the defense wound-up its case with another expert who found that the defendant, at the time of the killings, was in a psychotic state. The defense also called Colonel Schenecker to the stand. The witness described his ex-wife as a 50-year-old with the judgment of a 10-year-old, and painted a picture of what it was like for him and his family to live with a person who was seriously mentally ill. Following the colonel's testimony, the defense rested its case.

     The prosecutor, on May 14, 2014, in the rebuttal phase of the trial, pressed the argument that the double murder had been motivated by anger. The three rebuttal witnesses on this day were psychiatrists who testified that the defendant had operated under a clear, calculated plan to kill her children. These prosecution experts explained to the jury why the defendant, under Florida's right-wrong test, had not been legally insane. When shooting her children, she had known exactly what she was doing. The defendant was not acting pursuant to any delusions, or instructions from voices in her head. She had been driven by anger, not mental illness.

     On Thursday morning, May 15, 2014, following the closing arguments and the judge's instructions to the jury, the jurors walked out of the courtroom to deliberate the defendant's fate. Just two hours later, at three o'clock, the jury returned to the courtroom with its verdict: guilty of two counts of first-degree murder. This jury had obviously rejected the Schenecker insanity defense.

     In addressing the judge in advance of the sentence, Julie Schnecker tearfully apologized for killing her children. She said, "They are alive and enjoying everything and anything heaven has to offer. Jesus is protecting them and keeping them safe until we get there." Immediately after this irony-laced statement, the judge handed Schenecker the mandated sentence of two life terms without the possibility of parole.

     

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Murdering Jocelyn Earnest: A Circumstantial Case

     On December 19, 2007, a friend discovered the body of 38-year-old Jocelyn Earnest just inside the front door of her house in Pine Bluff, Virginia. The victim had been shot in the back of the head. Next to her body lay a .357 magnum revolver and a typewriten suicide note that in part read:

     To Mom
          I'm sorry for what I've done. Please forgive me. Wes [the victim's estranged husband] has put us in such a financial bind--can't recover. My new love will not leave the family.
     Love,
     Jocelyn

     The heat inside Earnest's house had been jacked up to 90 degrees and there were no signs of forced entry. The dead woman's dog, a black Labador, was locked in a crate without food or water in a back bedroom.

     Investigators immediately suspected that Jocelyn Earnest had been murdered, and the scene staged to look like a suicide. Detectives knew that people who kill themselves and leave notes rarely type them. In searching Jocelyn's two home computers, investigators did not find drafts of this document. And the word choice and syntax of the note was inconsistent with the writing style found in the victim's handwritten journals. The police suspected that the furnace had been turned up to alter the body's decomposition rate to throw off the biological time of death determination. Apparently the killer had wanted the police to believe Jocelyn had been killed earlier in the day, perhaps to support an alibi.

     Suspicion immediately fell on the victim's estranged husband, Wesley Earnest who had moved out of the house a year earlier. As an assistant high school principal, he lived and worked 200 miles away in Chesapeake, Virginia. Jocelyn had been employed as a financial services manager in Lynchburgh, Virginia. Although together they had been earning $200,000 a year, they were deeply in debt. Wesley, over Jocelyn's objection, had built a three million dollar, seven thousand square foot mansion on nearby lake property. The $6,000 a month mortgage on this second home they couldn't sell because it was financially under water, had put them $1 million in debt. On top of this, Wesley found himself faced with the disasterous financial consequences of divorce.

     Wesley Earnest claimed he hadn't been to the Pine Bluff house for at least a year. After he had moved out, Jocelyn had changed the locks. Investigators, however, could connect him to the crime scene in two ways: he had purchased the .357 magnum, and two of his latent fingerprints were on the typewritten note next to the body. Two days before his estranged wife's death, the suspect had borrowed a pickup truck from a friend. When he returned the vehicle two weeks later, it had new tires. Detectives believed Wesley had changed out the tires to avoid a crime scene tire track match-up.

     Investigators also read the victim's journal, handwritten in seventeen notebooks. Several of the entries, however, written from Jocelyn's point of view, were in Wesley Earnest's hand. These forged additions portrayed the suspect in a favorable light. However, in one of the notebooks the victim had written: "If I die, Wesley killed me and he probably shot me."

     Wesley admitted to detectives that he had girlfriends, but claimed that  his wife had known about these affairs and approved of them. At his place of employment in Chesapeake, however, he told co-workers he was single.

     In May 2009, the $3 million house on the lake burned to the ground. Cause and origin fire investigators ruled the cause "undetermined." Because the place was heavily insured, the fire accrued to Wesley's financial benefit.

     Wesley Earnest went on trial in March 2010 for the murder of his wife. His attorney, in an effort to uncouple the defendant from the typewritten crime scene note, contested the forensic reliability of latent fingerprint identification. (Perhaps the defendant would have better served by offering an innocent explanation for the presence of his prints.) The defense attorney also put his client on the stand to testify on his own behalf. The defendant told the jurors that he had purchased the .357 revolver as a gift for his wife so she could protect herself. He portrayed Jocelyn as having been distraught over their financial problems. He also said she was having trouble with the woman who was her new lover.

     The jury, a few days after listening to the defendant, after deliberating less than four hours, found him guilty of murdering his wife.

     A month following the conviction, before Earnest was sentenced, a posting on a newspaper web site revealed that the jurors had read Jocelyn's journal. The trial judge had not wanted the jury to see this evidence. The notebooks had been inadvertantly put into a box that found its way into the jury room. In July 2010, the judge declared a mistrial.

     In November 2010, in Amherst, Virginia, Earnest went on trial again for the murder of his wife. His attorney, once again, put him on the stand to claim his innocence. On cross-examination, the prosecutor got Earnest to admit that in 2006 he had forged entries into his wife's journal. When asked how he had gotten into the Pine Bluff house he had been locked out of, Earnest said he had climbed through an unlocked window. In so doing, the defendant revealed to the jury how he may have entered the house to murder his wife. The second jury found the defendant guilty of first-degree murder. He was subsequently sentenced to life in prison.

     In December 2012, a three-judge panel of the Virginia Court of Appeals upheld the murder conviction and life sentence for Wesley Earnest.

     No one saw Wesley Earnest enter the Pine Bluff house and shoot his wife. No one claimed he had confided to them he had commited the crime. And he never confessed to the police. All the prosecutor had was what looked like a staged suicide, a motive, and a pair of latent prints on a suspect suicide note. But, with these two juries, the prosecution had enough evidence to convict. By comparison, the circumstantial cases against Casey Anthony and O.J. Simpson were much stronger than the case against Wesley Earnest. But Anthony and Simpson got off, and Earnest didn't. While I believe the two juries in the Earnest case returned the correct verdicts, uniformity of results is not a characteristic of the American system of justice.         

Saturday, August 20, 2016

The Michael Kane Murder Case

     In 2002, Michael Rodney Kane, an elementary school teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District, married Michelle, a paralegal and notary public. That year the couple purchased a house in Canoga Park they couldn't afford. In September 2012, the parents of a one-year-old boy and a five-year-old girl got out from under their staggering debt through chapter 7 bankruptcy. Among other creditors they stiffed, the couple owed $166,000 to credit card companies. At the time, Michael taught at the Nestle Avenue Charter School in Tarzana.

     Michelle, after Michael's behavior became erratic and violent, obtained a restraining order and kicked him out of the house. But in June 2013, he returned to the Canoga Park home and smashed the windows to the front door and garage. Michelle reported the incident to personnel at the Los Angeles Police Department's Topanga Station. She informed the officer that Michael had been acting irrationally and had been taking drugs. She and the children, fearing what he might do, had moved in with a family she knew in West Hills. The couple who resided in this residential community of well-kept 1960s tract homes had two children of their own.

     On Saturday, June 15, 2013, at 7:50 in the morning, Michael Kane, armed with a knife, forced his way into the West Hills residence. As the man of the house fought the intruder, he told Michelle to get out of the dwelling and run for her life. The homeowner's wife, his children, and the Kane siblings, hid in the bathroom during the home invasion assault. The scuffle ended when Michael cut his adversary's hand.

     Following the assault of the West Hills resident, Michael ran out of the house in pursuit of his estranged wife. With neighbors looking on in horror, Michael, with Michelle begging him to stop, repeatedly stabbed her. With his wife lying dead in the street, Michael got into his 1999 Chrysler 300M and drove off.

     After a two-day manhunt, police officers, just after midnight on Monday, June 17, 2013, arrested the school teacher at a motel in the San Bernardino County town of Joshua Tree. Officers had to knock down the metal door to the motel room. Kane was taken to the Desert High Medical Center with several minor injuries. He was treated, and shortly thereafter released. One of the arresting officers told reporters that the police didn't know if Kane had hurt himself in the fight with the West Hills home owner, or when he stabbed his wife to death. Officers booked him into the jail in Van Nuys on suspicion of murder.

     A Los Angeles County prosecutor charged Michael Kane with first-degree murder, burglary with a person present, assault with a deadly weapon, and making criminal threats. On June 20, 2013, the suspect, accompanied by his defense attorney, made his first court appearance. Sitting in a wheelchair, Kane pleaded not guilty to murder and the other charges. He waived his right to a formal arraignment. The judge denied him bail.

     When reporters asked attorney Stewart Farber why his client was in a wheelchair, the lawyer said the reason would be made clear at a later time. In response to a question regarding how his client was holding up, Farber said, "Well obviously he's quite distraught, and that's all I can tell you. The facts as they occurred on that date, unfortunate as they were, when they're presented in court, will be substantially different than some of the things that were mentioned in the newspapers and said on television."

     On March 30, 2015, following a one-month trial, the jury, after deliberating just two hours, found Michael Kane guilty as charged. Before the foreman of the jury read the verdict, Kane disrupted the proceeding with an incoherent rant against his dead wife's family. Bailiffs had to removed him from the court room.

     The judge, on April 20, 2015, sentenced Kane to life in prison without the possibility of parole. 

Friday, August 19, 2016

The Butt-Fired Bottle Rocket Case

     The fireworks began at one-thirty in the morning of May 1, 2011 at the Alpha Tau Omega (ATO) fraternity house not far from the campus of Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia. During the house party, Travis Hughes launched, from the frat house deck, a bottle rocket (a fireworks product on the end of a stick) out of his ass. (If I had to guess, I'd peg this kid as a criminal justice or elementary education major.) The rocket man's startled fraternity brother, Louis Helmburg III, jumped back and fell off the frat house deck. According to Helmburg's account of the incident, he ended up lodged between the deck and an air conditioning unit. Both students had been drinking.

     Not long after the fireworks display, the injured student's attorney filed a personal injury lawsuit against the university, the fraternity, the Marshall University inter-fraternity council, the company that owns the fraternity property, and Travis Hughes, the human rocket launcher. The plaintiff asserts that the ATO fraternity was negligent in failing to install a deck railing. As for defendant Hughes, his consumption of alcohol had led to "stupid and dangerous activities." (Hey, don't blame the booze. How many drunks can fire rockets out of their butts? Someday this skill could become an Olympic sport. It certainly would be more exciting than the shot put and could take place at night.)

     In June 2013, a judge dismissed the suit against Marshall University on grounds the plaintiff failed to follow in-house procedures for bringing such an action. The rest of the case, however, stood.

     Given the humorous facts underlying this suit, it appeared frivolous. The outcome, however, would depend on whether or not the fraternity house deck, because it didn't have a railing, was unsafe. Assuming that it was safe, there was still the question of whether the frat boy's ass-launch made him civilly liable for the student's tumble off the platform.

     On November 4, 2013, the plaintiff, through Huntington attorney Thomas P. Rosinsky, a slip-and-fall lawyer who also handled dog bite, DUI, car repossession and drug cases, settled the case with the company that owned the fraternity house. The amount of the settlement was not disclosed. If Louis Helmberg III paid a price for winning his case, it was that he would become the butt of every butt joke known to man.

     Travis Hughes, the bottle rocket butt-launcher, now works for NASA. (Just kidding.)

     

Thursday, August 18, 2016

The Woman in the Freezer: Who Killed Maria Arroyo?

     In July 2010, a family member found 80-year-old Maria de Jesus Arroyo unconscious in her Boyle Heights home in Los Angeles. At the White Memorial Medical Centre, an emergency room doctor declared Arroyo dead from a heart attack.

     A few days later, Arroyo's body was taken out of the hospital freezer and transported to a funeral home where it would be on display. When the mortician zipped open the body bag, he found the corpse uncharacteristically face down in the postmortem container. Moreover, the frozen woman's nose had been broken, and her face was covered in cuts and bruises. Family members who had seen Mrs. Arroyo just before the ambulance rushed her to the hospital hadn't noticed any injuries. They assumed that hospital personnel had in some way mishandled the body.

     Mrs. Arroyo's husband and eight of their children filed a lawsuit against the White Memorial Medical Centre alleging abuse of corpse. In December 2011, at a hearing pertaining to the suit, Dr. William Manion, a forensic pathologist hired by the family, testified that Mrs. Arroyo had not died of a heart attack.

     It was Dr. Manion's opinion that Mrs. Arroyo had died from asphyxiation and hypothermia. In other words, hospital personnel had put a body bag containing a live person into the hospital freezer. Mrs. Arroyo had regained consciousness inside the bag and struggled to get out. In so doing, she broke her nose and cut and bruised her face. If this were true, this woman had undergone a terrifying death. Instead of saving her life, hospital personnel had killed her in a most horrible way.

     In May 2012, the Arroyo family attorney, Scott Schutzman, upgraded the lawsuit against the hospital to medical malpractice. (If Mrs. Arroyo had in fact died in the hospital morgue freezer, some of the people responsible for her ending up there could also face charges of negligent homicide. According to Dr. Manion, this had not been a natural death.

     In 2013, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge threw out the Arroyo lawsuit because the one year statute of limitations for malpractice suits had run out before the case had been filed. The Arroyo family appealed that decision.

     In March 2014, justices sitting on the California 2nd District Court of Appeal overturned the lower court ruling. The one year statute of limitations did not start running in this case until the plaintiffs learned that Mrs. Arroyo might have gone into the hospital freezer alive. According to the appellate judges, the family had no reason to suspect Mrs. Arroyo had died after being placed into the body bag. The Arroyo lawsuit, therefore, could move forward.

     As of August 2016, the Arroyo medical practice lawsuit remained unresolved. No criminal charges have been filed in connection with the 80-year-old woman's unexplained, mysterious, and suspicious death. 

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The Emmanuel Rangel-Hernandez Murder Case

     In 2001, 5-year-old Mirjana Puhar and her family, in the midst of the Kosovo War, fled to the United States from their home in Stremska Mitrovica, Serbia. The family settled in Charlotte, North Carolina where Mr. Puhar worked as an electrician.

     Mirjana, in the middle of her sophomore year in high school, dropped out. She had been hanging around with the wrong crowd and had gotten involved with drugs.

     At eighteen, Mirjana started to turn her life around by enrolling in a GED program at Central Piedmont Community College. Around this time she became seriously interested in starting a modeling career. She acquired local modeling jobs and worked part time jobs at McDonald's. She also worked in several retail clothing stores as a sales clerk. In the fall of 2013, she earned her high school degree.

     Puhar's first big break in modeling came when she was selected as one of 14 contestants on the television reality show "America's Next Top Model" hosted by Tyra Banks. The 21st cycle of the show premiered on August 18, 2014. (It had been filmed in March and April of that year.)

     Before Mirjana Puhar was eliminated from the TV modeling contest on October 21, 2014, she had an on-screen romantic relationship with a fellow contestant named Denzel Wells. The show featured the fact she, at that time, had a boyfriend back home. That situation defined her character on the program. She finished eighth in the competition.

     On Tuesday February 24, 2015, in a one-story house on Norris Avenue in Charlotte, police officers discovered the bodies of three people who had been shot to death. Mirjana Puhar was one of the murder victims. The other corpses belonged to Jonathan Cosme Alvardado and Jusmar Isiah Gonzaga-Garcia. Investigators believed the triple murder was drug related.

     Police officers, on Friday February 27, 2015, arrested 19-year-old Emmanuel Jesus Rangel-Hernandez and booked him into the Mecklenburg County Jail on three counts of first-degree murder in the case. According to the authorities, Rangel-Hernandez was a known gang member with a history of violent crime.

     It also appeared that Rangel-Hernandez, as an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, had applied for and had been granted immunity in 2012 under President Obama's executive order-created program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Under this program, children brought to the U.S. by illegal alien parents can not be deported. Moreover, they are entitled to government benefits.

     The triple murder in Charlotte involving the aspiring model and the gang member who had been granted DACA status raised the obvious question of why this man, instead of gaining amnesty, hadn't been deported.

     On the day of the murder suspect's arrest, U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley, the head of the Senate Judiciary Committee, wrote a letter to the secretary of the Homeland Security Department asking for documents related to Rangel-Hernandez's immigration status and his application for DACA immunity from deportation.

     On April 28, 2015, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeb Johnson admitted to members of Senator Grassley's Homeland Security Committee that Rangel-Hernandez "should not have received DACA." The head of Homeland Security also said that notwithstanding this "tragic case," DACA was a good program. Pressed by Senator Grassley who wanted to know how Rangel-Hernandez acquired immunity under Obama's program, Secretary Johnson said, "the entire workforce that deals with these cases has been re-trained to make sure they identify trouble signs, such as suspected membership in criminal gangs."

     The Rangel-Hernandez case is yet another example of why most Americans no longer trust that government bureaucrats will protect them.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Steven L. Nelson: Born to be Executed

     When he was 3-years-old, Steven L. Nelson set fire to his mother's bed. His father abused the boy, and by the time he was ten, Steven was being medicated for attention deficit disorder. But the child's emotional and personality problems were deeper than that, and the drugs only made him more hyperactive, and impossible to control.

     As a teen, Steven continued to be a disciplinary problem in school and got into trouble with the law. He seemed to enjoy disturbing the peace, causing trouble, and inflicting pain on others. He ended up in juvenile detention centers in Oklahoma and Texas. One didn't have to be an expert in deviant behavior to predict bad things for this young man as well as the people unfortunate enough to cross his path. Had he been accidentally run over and killed by a bus, it would have been a gift to society.

     On March 3, 2011 in North Arlington, Texas, the 25-year-old sadistic sociopath, in the course of robbing a Baptist church, murdered the pastor, 28-year-old Clint Dobson. He beat, bound, then with a plastic bag, suffocated his victim. Nelson also viciously assaulted Judy Elliott, the church secretary. Left for dead, she survived the attack.

     A week after the murder of Pastor Dobson and the attempted murder of his secretary, the police arrested Nelson. Although this cold-blooded killer was off the street, he was still an extremely dangerous man. While incarcerated in the Tarrant County Jail in Fort Worth, Texas, Nelson, while in the recreation area of the lockup, attacked another inmate. Nelson beat 30-year-old Jonathan Holden with a broom handle, then strangled the mentally retarded man to death with a blanket. (Why was this killing machine not confined around the clock to a cell by himself?) After murdering Holden, Nelson showed-off to inmates who had witnessed the homicide by doing the Chuck Berry hop, using the broomstick as his guitar.

     Knowing that he was going to be convicted for murdering Pastor Dobson, Nelson, with nothing to lose, killed another man just for the thrill of it.

     On October 8, 2012, after a week-long trial, a jury in Fort Worth, Texas found Steven Nelson guilty of capital murder in the brutal, sadistic killing of Pastor Dobson. Following the verdict, the penalty phase of the murder trial got underway before the same jurors. The jury would have to decide whether to sentence this man to life in prison without parole or condemn him to die by lethal injection.

     After a week of testimony from prosecution witnesses, Nelson's defense attorneys put experts on the stand in a futile attempt to make their client slightly more sympathetic than the vicious, recreational murderer that he was.

     Dr. Antoinette McGarrahan, a psychiatrist with the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, labeled Nelson a violent psychopath and said he will pose a danger to people exposed to him in prison. This prosecution witness also debunked Nelson's claim that he had multiple personalities. On October 16, 2012, the jury, after deliberating Nelson's fate for 90 minutes, issued their sentence verdict: death by lethal injection.

     Nelson, true to form, was not done creating havoc. After sheriff deputies placed him into a courthouse holding pen, he flooded the cell, and the courtroom, with black, fire-retardant infused water from the sprinkler head he had broken. Courthouse personnel scrambled to save boxes of evidence from being ruined by the foul-smelling liquid. As the courthouse people rushed to save the evidence, they could hear Nelson howling like a wolf in his cell. Firefighters who responded to the scene shut off the water to the sprinkler system.

     It's not difficult to imagine how much trouble Steven Nelson will cause prison personnel and his fellow inmates until the executioner kills this killer.
     

Monday, August 15, 2016

Ridiculous College Courses: Majoring in Stupid

     Recent polls indicate that most Americans believe that acquiring a higher education isn't worth the time or the money. Having a college degree once meant something, and provided the graduate with at least the opportunity to get a decent job. Modern employers are not so impressed. The job market is flooded with degree holders who are unfit for the higher paying positions. That people with bachelor degrees are smarter than people who haven't graduated from a four-year college is no longer a safe assumption.

     On average, students in public supported colleges and universities spend $20,000 a year. (This includes room and board.) Private schools cost twice as much. This means that a college education costs between $80,000 and $160,000. How many parents with more than one child can afford this? Not many. The average college graduate enters the job market owing, for his or her education alone, $24,000. They also have to pay off credit card debt, and car loans. No wonder they are so disappointed when they can't land the high-paying jobs. With the cost of higher education so high, and so many graduates unemployed or under-employed, it's no longer a given that a college education, as a business proposition, is a wise investment. 
       Studies have shown that college and university services are less geared for student needs than for the needs of administrators and professors. Too many college courses reflect the interests of the people who teach them rather than the interests of the students who take them. Many courses are products of the professors' pet interests, or are designed, not for the teaching of useful and demanding subjects, but to draw students.

     One way to fill up a classroom is to create a course about sex. This is one subject college graduates are well versed in. If the professor is a historian, he can offer a course called The History of Sex. There's also the Sociology of Sex; The Philosophy of Sex; The Physiology of Sex; the Psychology of Sex; and The Politics of Sex. Some actual course titles include: Sex in Ancient Rome; The Adultery Novel; Those Sexy Victorians; The Phallus; Sex, Rugs, Salt, and Coal (I have no idea what that one is about); Purity and Porn in America; Cyberporn and Society; FemSex; God, Sex, Chocolate: Desire and the Spiritual Path; and Dirty Pictures.

     There are entire academic departments devoted to gay studies. Swarthmore students are offered a course called Interrogating Gender: Centuries of Dramatic Cross-Dressing. At the University of South Carolina one can take a course entitled GaGa for Gaga: Sex, Gender, and Identify. Not to be outdone, the University of California, Los Angeles, offers a course called Queer Musicology. At Oberlin College, students on the hook for the $66,000 a year to go there, are rewarded with a Contemporary American Studies gem called "How to Win a Beauty Pageant: Race, Gender, Culture, and U. S. National Identify." How about being stupid and in debt as a national identity? 
     Look through any college catalogue and you'll find courses on UFO's, ghosts, vampires, zombies, and witchcraft. College kids can enroll in courses devoted to the study of people such as David Becham, Lady Gaga, Oprah Winfrey, Tupac, and dozens of other sports and entertainment "icons." College students today take courses called The Art of Walking; Tree Climbing; Whitewater Skills; Golf, Knitting for Noobs; Finding Dates Worth Keeping; Getting Dressed; How to Watch Television; and my favorite--Underwater Basket Weaving. (In the old days, if you were weaving baskets, you were in a mental institution. Now, you are in college.) At the University of Pennsylvania, the English Department offers a course called, "Wasting Time On The Internet." What kind of idiot needs to be taught how to waste time on the Internet? Perhaps the advanced version of this class could be called, "Wasting Time And Money On Stupid College Courses?" 
     Several universities, including Georgetown, offer courses featuring the old TV series "Star Trek." Students at the University of Texas can sigh up for a course called Invented Languages: Klingon and Beyond. Language students at the University of Wisconsin can take Elvish (a language spoken in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.) Many of these Klingon and Elvish speaking students can barely handle English.

     Physics students at Frostburg University can study the magic featured in Harry Potter books. Inquiring minds at Occidental College can earn credits by taking a course called, The Unbearable Whiteness of Barbie. Students at the University of Iowa can avail themselves of a course called Elvis As Anthology. The University of California Irvine offers a course called The Science of Superheroes.

     At Alfred University, some professor teaches a course called Nip, Tuck, Perm, Pierce, and Tattoo: Adventures with Embodied Culture. According to the course description: "Students are encouraged to think about teeth whitening, tanning, shaving, and hair-dying." Since kids think about this stuff anyway, perhaps this professor could encourage students to think about things that are at least academic. But wait--there's more: class projects include a visit to a tattoo-and-piercing studio. (Maybe owned by the professor's spouse.) University of California Berkeley students can avail themselves of Joy of Garbage. 
     At the University of Minnesota, if you're a numbskull who's worried about satisfying the physical science requirement, there is a course for you. It's called Geology and Cinema (Professors use the word "cinema" instead of "movie" because "cinema" sounds so academic.) where students sit in class and watch movies that feature geological subject matter as in "Tremors," and "Journey to the Center of the Earth." (If I were this professor, I'd include a field trip to Disneyworld.) At Pitzer College there's a course called Learning from YouTube. According to the catalogue, "YouTube is a phenomenon that should be studied." (Any referred to as a "phenomenon" must be important.)

     For Ohio State students who don't know how to watch a football game, there's a course called Sport For The Spectator. (Again, notice the word "Spectator." How many people who attend sporting events think of themselves as "spectators?") Hopefully this professor gives several lectures that deal with the technique, and meaning, of face-painting, or "facial art." Temple University has a course called UFOs in American Society. At Brown University, the English Department proudly offers a course called, "On Being Bored." According to the class description, "This course explores (there is a lot of "exploring" in academia, it's a favorite word) texts/films that represent and formally express states of non-productivity or non-desire. Beginning with the Enlightenment and Romanic periods, we will reflect (another favorite) on narratives with neither progress or plot, characters that resist characterization, and poems that deny assertion and revelation." What? Other than some future English professor, who would pay good money for a boring class about boring books, movies, and poems, probably taught by a boring professor who wrote a boring book on the subject?

     For pre-law students at the University of California at Berkeley, there's Arguing with Judge Judy: Popular "Logic" on TV Judge Shows. This course is of particular value to students who would rather play a judge on television than be one in real life. For students who want to be TV lawyers, I recommend the Perry Mason series. There is probably a college course around called: The Jurisprudence of Perry Mason.

     Appalachian State University offers a history course called What if Harry Potter is Real? Students who take this course will explore questions such as "who decides what history is, and who decides how it is used or misused. How can fantasy reshape how we look at history. (I would rename this course Advanced Load of Crap.) 
     Students lucky enough to attend the University of Wisconsin at Madison can avail themselves of Theatrical Fencing. This offering from the Department of Kinesiology provides the student with this pearl of wisdom: "Good theatrical fencing is distinct from the art of sword craft, and is worthy of study." Indeed. What value is an academic program without at least one course on theatrical sword craft? And finally, at New York University, students can earn four college credits by taking a course called Disc Jockey: History, Culture, and Technique. (The technique part suggests a big lab fee.) Many college graduates don't know what came first, World War I or World War II, but they all know the history of the D J. At the University of Pennsylvania one can take a course called The Feminist Critique of Christianity. 
     It's no wonder that if you throw a stick in your local shopping mall it'll hit nine retail employees with college degrees. And all of them are in debt and quite a few can speak Klingon.

     In his 2013 book, The New School, University of Tennessee law professor Glenn H. Reynolds makes the case that college graduates can't find good jobs and pay off their huge debts because colleges and universities overcharge and underperform. One way to quickly improve the quality of higher education would be to replace stupid courses like the ones above. Better yet, entire academic departments should be eliminated.