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Sunday, August 20, 2017

The Haily Owens Murder Case

     In February 2014, ten-year-old Haily Owens was a fourth grade student at Westport Elementary School in Springfield, Missouri, a town in the southwestern part of the state. At four-thirty on the afternoon of Tuesday, February 18, 2014, Haily, after visiting a school friend, walked along West Lombart Street on her way home. A few blocks from her house on Page Street, a witness saw a man in his forties with long, stringy gray hair, driving a gold 2008 Ford Ranger pickup truck, pull alongside the unaccompanied child.

     When the five-foot tall, ninety-pound grade schooler ignored the man in the truck, he drove away. But minutes later he returned to the girl. This time the man jumped out of the truck, grabbed the child, forced her into the cab through the driver's side door, and sped off. The witness called 911 and provided the dispatcher with the license plate number to the abductor's truck.

     Through the truck's registration information and the witness' description of the driver, investigators identified the kidnapper as 45-year-old Craig Wood. Forty minutes following Haily Owen's abduction, police officers had Wood's house on East Stanford Street under surveillance.

     At seven-thirty that night, the authorities issued an Amber alert for Missouri, Kansas, and Oklahoma.

     Forty-five minutes after the Amber alert, three hours into the police surveillance of the suspect's home, Craig Wood pulled up to the house in the gold 2008 Ford Ranger. Haily Owens was not in the truck. Police seized the vehicle and transported Mr. Wood to the Springfield Police Department. When confronted by detectives, the suspect refused to speak other than to demand an attorney.

     What kind of person would abduct a ten-year-old girl in broad daylight in front of at least one witness? Who is this man? In 1990, Craig Michael Wood pleaded guilty in Springfield to possession of a controlled substance. After he completed a court-ordered drug counseling program, the judge suspended his sentence. In 2001, he was convicted of illegal taking of wildlife, a misdemeanor offense. [I presume he was hunting or fishing without a license.]

     In 1998, the amateur bluegrass musician became a teacher's aide and middle school football coach at the Pleasant View School in Springfield. He also worked as a substitute teacher in the school district. In 2013 he earned a salary of $17,000 a year.

     Wood has no children and has never been married. His parents are wealthy and raise show horses.

     Later on the night of the abduction, police officers executed a search warrant at the suspect's house. Officers worked at the dwelling well into the early morning hours of the next day. During the search they found, in Wood's basement, Haily Owen's body. She had been stuffed into a trash bag and placed into a plastic container.

     The school girl had been shot in the back of the head. Crime scene investigators also noted ligature marks on her wrists that suggest she had been tied up. Wood's basement floor was still damp from bleach used to clean up physical evidence from the murder.

     At the Wood residence police officers found a three-ring binder containing pornographic photographs of young children. From the dwelling, searchers seized cameras, thirty video recordings, a handwritten journal, a spent .22-caliber shell casing, and the hat Haily Owens had been wearing when abducted.

     Charged with first-degree murder, kidnapping, and armed criminal action, officers booked Craig Wood into the Greene County Jail. At the suspect's arraignment, his public defender's office attorney, Chris Hatley, announced that his client intended to plead not guilty to all charges. At the hearing, assistant prosecutor Todd Myers challenged Wood's use of a public defender, noting that police officers  found evidence of a $1 million trust fund in the suspect's name. "I think he can afford his own attorney," Myers said. The judge denied Craig Wood bail.

     In October 2016, Craig Wood, in order to avoid the death penalty, pleaded guilty to murdering Haily Owens. A Greene County judge, in February 2017, sentenced Wood to life in prison without the possibility of parole. 

Just Hooking Your Reader is Not Enough

     Some first lines are so powerful that you absolutely have to keep on reading. This is known as a "hook." Nearly all the great writers employ hooks in one form or another….

     Despite popular misconception, though, the hook is more than a marketing tool. At its best, it can be not only a propellant but also a statement of what you might expect from the text to come. It can establish a character, narrator, or setting, convey a shocking piece of information. The irony is there is only so much you can do with one line; thus it is a game: the less space you have to work with, the more creative you must become. It is not surprising then that hooks comprise some of the most memorable lines in literature.

     What is rarely discussed is the importance of the hook not only as an opening line but as an opening paragraph, not only an opening paragraph but as an opening page, not only as an opening page but as an opening chapter. In other words, the same intensity of thought applied to the opening line should not be confined to the opening line--a common malady--but rather applied to the text in its entirety. This takes endurance, focus and concentration; with this level of intensity, it might take several days to complete even one paragraph.

     Look at your first or last line and think of the agonizing effort you put into it. You knew you were in the spotlight, that it had to be good. How many times did you rewrite that one line? What would the rest of your manuscript be like if you agonized over each line the same way? It would take forever is probably your first thought….

     I am often amazed by how many manuscripts begin with good first lines--and good openings in general--and then fall apart; it is actually rare to see the intensity found in a first line (or last) maintained throughout a manuscript.

Noah Lukeman, The First Five Pages, 2000

Writing While Intoxicated

Writers have always used drugs and drink to disinhibit themselves. In the beginning, the intoxicating effects of alcohol and drugs can prove prodigious. But once the tail is wagging the dog, the effects are generally deleterious.

Betsy Lerner in The Writer's Mentor by Ian Jackman, editor, 2004

Serial Killer Belle Gunness

     She was never arrested or charged with a single crime, but Belle Gunness is recognized as one of the deadliest serial killers in criminal history. Born in Norway in 1859 to a family always teetering on the brink of ruin, she immigrated to the United States at age twenty-one, married, and seemed to be content. In 1896, her husband's confectionary business was failing when two disasters struck the family: their oldest child died suddenly and mysteriously, and the sweet shop was destroyed in a fire. Both were insured.

    Two years later, the family's new home burned to the ground and another child died mysteriously. In 1890, Belle's husband died. She collected benefits on all three occasions. Belle moved her children to an Indiana farm, where she continued her murders for money. Her second husband met with a fatal accident, and many of the farm workers who answered Belle's advertisements were never seen again.

     In 1908 the Gunness farmhouse was destroyed by fire. The bodies of Belle's three children and the decapitated corpse of a woman were found in the basement. Within a month, investigators had started digging up the remains of at least sixteen people and possibly twelve more. Most of the females had been buried, but some of the males had been fed to the hogs.

The Monday Murder Club, A Miscellany of Murder, 2011

The "Refreshed" Memory of a Trial Witness

The common doctrine of what is known as "refreshing the memory" in actual practice is notoriously absurd. Witnesses who have made memoranda as to certain facts, or even, in certain cases, of conversations, and who have no independent recollection thereof, are permitted to read them for the purpose of "refreshing" their memories. Having done so, they are then asked if they now have, independently of the paper, any recollection of them. In ninety-nine cases out of a hundred it would be absolutely impossible for them really to remember anything of the sort. They read the entry, know it is probably accurate, and are morally convinced that the fact is as thereon stated. They answer yes, that their recollection has been refreshed and that they now do remember, and are allowed to testify to the fact as of their own knowledge.

Arthur Train (author and practicing attorney), The Prisoner at the Bar, 1926

Saturday, August 19, 2017

The Confessions of Reverend Juan D. McFarland

     The Reverend Juan D. McFarland became pastor of the Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church in 1990. Three years later, he oversaw the construction of a new church complex near Alabama State University in Montgomery. While the 47-year-old minister was still behind the Shiloh Missionary pulpit in 2014, he was no longer married. He had married twice, but both of his wives had divorced him.

     On August 31, 2014, while delivering a Sunday morning sermon, Reverend McFarland told the congregation that God had directed him to reveal a secret. He said he suffered from full-blown AIDS. Two weeks later, on Sunday September 14, 2014, the Baptist pastor confessed to having had adulterous sexual encounters with female members of the congregation. The trysts, he said, took place in the church. He also informed those seated before him that he had used illicit drugs and had misappropriated church funds.

     The confessing minister dropped the big bombshell on Sunday September 21, 2014 when he revealed that he had not told his sexual partners that he had AIDS. (In Alabama, knowingly spreading a sexually transmitted disease is a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail.)

     The Shiloh Missionary Baptist Board of Deacons, on October 5, 2014, voted 80 to 1 to fire Pastor McFarland. The embattled preacher, however, made it clear that notwithstanding the deacons' desire to remove him from his position, he was not leaving his flock. He and a church member changed the locks on the church building to keep the deacons and other intruders out. Reverend McFarland also altered the number of the church's bank account. The church had $56,000 in the Well's Fargo bank.

     On Sunday October 12, 2014, Pastor McFarland was again standing behind the pulpit preaching to his most loyal parishioners. He had posted guards at the church's doors to keep out detractors. To the fifty or so seated in the pews, the preacher said, "Sometimes the worst times in our lives are when we have a midnight situation. When you pray, you've got to forgive. You can't go down on your knees hating somebody, wishing something bad will happen to somebody."

     The deacons of the church, obviously not in a forgiving mood, filed a court petition on October 14, 2014 asking the judge to order Reverend McFarland to return control of the church building as well as the bank account. The deacons also wanted the judge to force McFarland to give up his church-owned Mercedes Benz.

     In support of the motion to remove this pastor from the church, the deacons accused him of "debauchery, sinfulness, hedonism, sexual misconduct, dishonesty, thievery, and refection of the Ten Commandments."

     According to the deacons' petition, the pastor and church member Marc Anthoni Peacock had changed the church locks. Mr. Peacock had allegedly threatened to use "castle law" (deadly force in defense of one's home) to keep intruders out of the building. Julian McPhillips, an attorney for the church, wrote, "McFarland needs to get the message that he needs to be gone."

     On October 16, 2014, at a hearing on the deacons' petition attended by Reverend McFarland, Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Charles Price issued a preliminary ruling against the preacher that required him to turn over the keys to the church, give back the Mercedes, and release information regarding the bank account. The judge also banned McFarland from the church property.

     

Another Example of Stupidity in Lower Education

     A Missouri mother is furious about how she was treated by school administrators and police officers who had her arrested for trespassing because she failed to sign a guestbook when she came to the elementary school to assist her special needs son. The mother, Niakea Williams, received a call from her son's teacher that he was having a medical episode. William's son, Michael, suffers from Asperger's Syndrome.

     Williams rushed over to Walnut Groves Elementary School in St. Louis County, Missouri, to help her son. School officers promptly let her inside….Williams provided assistance to her son, calming him down. Soon after, the principal came to the classroom and informed Williams that she violated school policy by failing to sign the guestbook. Williams replied that she was perfectly willing to sign the book. It was too late, the principal said….

     Police responded to the scene as if there had been a reported unauthorized entry into the school--even though staff had let Williams inside. Officers with the Calverton Park Police Department arrested Williams and took her to the station. The school was on lockdown for 12 minutes, and a letter was sent out to parents explaining what happened….[What happened is this: an idiot has been put in charge of the Walnut Groves Elementary School. Moreover, we now know that officers with the local police department are not very bright either.]

Robby Soave, "Parent Comes to School to Help Son, Principal Calls Cops and She's Arrested," The Daily Caller, March 25, 2014



     

Science Fiction as Realistic Fiction

Years ago Sir Arthur C. Clarke commented that he preferred reading science fiction because it's the only realistic fiction--by which he meant that it's the only one that incorporates the concept that the world is changing and being changed by human activities.

James Gunn, LJworld.com, 2006 

NSA Spying and the Fourth Amendment

The Fourth Amendment typically require's "a neutral and detached authority be interposed between the police and public," and it is offended by "general warrants" and laws that allow searches to be conducted "indiscriminately" and without regard to their connections with a crime under investigation. I cannot imagine a more "indiscriminate" and arbitrary invasion than this systematic and high-tech collection and retention of personal data on virtually every single citizen for purposes of querying and analyzing it without prior judicial approval. Surely such a program infringes on "that degree of privacy" that the founders enshrined in the Fourth Amendment.

U. S. District Court Judge Richard Leon, December 16, 2013 

Serial Killers and Mass Murderers are Different

     In both mass and serial murder cases, victims die as the offender momentarily gains control of his or her life.... But the differences between these two types of offenders outweigh the similarities. First, mass murderers are generally apprehended or killed by the police, commit suicide, or turn themselves in to the authorities. Serial killers, by contrast, usually make special efforts to elude detection. Indeed, they may continue to kill for weeks, months, and often years before they are found and stopped--if they are found at all.....

     People generally perceive the mass killer as one suffering from mental illness. This immediately creates a "they versus us" dichotomy in which "they" are different from "us" because of mental problems. We can somehow accept the fact that a few people go "crazy" sometimes and start shooting others. However, it is more disconcerting to learn that some of the "nicest" people one meets lead Jekyll-and-Hyde lives: a student by day, a killer of coeds by night [Ted Bundy]; a caring, attentive nurse who secretly murders sick children, the handicapped, or the elderly [Donald Harvey]; a building contractor and politician who enjoys sexually torturing and killing young men and burying them under his home [Wayne Gacy]. When we discover that people exist who are not considered to be insane or crazy but who enjoy killing others for "recreation," this indeed gives new meaning to the word "stranger."

Eric W. Hickey, Serial Murderers and Their Victims, Fourth Edition, 2006