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Thursday, December 31, 2015

Who Murdered Jessica Chambers?

      Jessica Chambers, an attractive, blond 19-year-old, lived with her family in Courtland, Mississippi, a village of 460 people 50 miles south of Memphis, Tennessee. The recent high school graduate, a former cheerleader and softball player, hoped to start college soon. She had just started working at Goody's Department Store in nearby Batesville.

     At six in the evening of Saturday December 10, 2014, Jessica drove to a gas station and convenience store on Highway 51 not far from her home where she pumped $14 worth of gasoline into her car. Inside the store, a cashier asked Chambers why she had bought more than her usual $5 in gas. Chambers said she was going somewhere and needed the fuel. About that time she called her mother to inform her she was on her way to Batesville to clean her car.

     Before walking out of the convenience store, Chambers purchased a pack of cigarettes and received a call on her cellphone. A few minutes later, just before six-thirty, she climbed into her vehicle and drove off. Surveillance camera footage revealed that she wore a dark sweater and pajama pants that looked like sweats.

     At eight o'clock that night, local firefighters responded to a call regarding a burning vehicle along Herron Road in a remote part of Panola County not far from the gas station. The emergency responders came upon a person walking down the road near the car. Jessica Chambers had been doused with a flammable liquid and set on fire.

     Chambers was airlifted to a hospital in Memphis where, a short time later, she died from burns on 98 percent of her body. Only the bottoms of her feet were not charred.

     At a law enforcement press conference the next day, the local district attorney labeled Chamber's death a criminal homicide. The Panola County sheriff told reporters that before she died, Chambers had spoken to firefighters. "She told them who had done it," he said.

     According to some media reports, the murder victim had also been bludgeoned on the top of her head with a hard object. There were also reports that the killer had squirted lighter fluid down her throat, a detail not confirmed by the authorities.

     While the victim's older sister informed reporters that she didn't know of anyone who had a grudge against Jessica, friends of the murdered girl posted online messages about a former, abusive boyfriend. (Whoever committed this atrocious crime did it out of an uncontrollable rage. This does not look like a murder committed by a stranger.)

     At the press conference, law enforcement authorities said they had questioned several people but didn't have a suspect in the murder.

     The U.S. Marshals Service offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of Chamber's killer. The local Crime Stoppers group posted a separate reward of $1,000.

     As of December 2015, the Chambers case remained unsolved. Investigation had revealed, however, that the victim had been hanging out with a rough crowd that included local drug dealers. Her latest boyfriend, Travis Sanford, had been in jail on a burglary charge at the time of her murder. In the weeks before she died, Jessica Chambers told her father, a mechanic with the sheriff's office, that "Everybody thinks I'm snitching because you work for the police." 

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Richard De Wit Murder Case

     Sarah Groves, a 24-year-old fitness instructor from the English Channel Island of Guernsey, was visiting her boyfriend in India's northwestern region of Kashmir. The boyfriend, Saeed Shoda, had arranged a room for Groves on his father's houseboat "New Beauty" on Dal Lake in Srinagar, Kashmir's capital.

     At two in the morning of April 6, 2013, 43-year-old Richard DeWit, an unemployed Dutch man with a room on the houseboat, broke into Grove's suite and allegedly stabbed her 45 times. At the time of the murder, Mr. Shoda was spending the weekend with his friends. Miss Groves had remained with Shoda's parents who told reporters she had been like a daughter to them.

     Leaving everything behind on the "New Beauty" except for his passport and $2,500 inside his underwear, the barefoot, 7-foot-tall DeWit fled the houseboat in a stolen rowboat that capsized before he reached the shore. Once on land DeWit boarded a taxi.

     Shortly after members of the houseboat staff found Sarah Groves dead in a pool of blood, Kashmir police arrested DeWit on the National Highway 50 miles away in the town of Qazgund.

     Later that day, the murder suspect confessed to the police. He admitted having "violent tendencies" and said he had been under the influence of drugs during the 15-minute knife attack. DeWit explained that he had been overtaken by the devil. "The Devil took over my body," he allegedly said.

     DeWit's 31-year-old wife, Uma Rupanya, informed the authorities that DeWit had left her and their two daughters in November 2012. She said he had become "increasingly paranoid and irrational." According to the murder suspect's wife, "He believed the government was out to get him, that spies were following him, that his house was bugged."

      A prosecutor in Srinagar has charged DeWit with first-degree murder. (At seven foot tall, people in India must have seen DeWit as some kind of giant. I wouldn't want to be the police official responsible for organizing a line-up in this case.)

     At some point after his arrest, Richard De Wit took back his confession and pleaded not guilty.

     In February 2015, the De Wit murder trial got underway in Srinagar, India. In October 2015, following 29 trial delays, the defendant fired his attorney.

     At this point in the case, Sarah Grove's parents were publicly expressing concerns that the authorities, in going after Mr. De Wit, had targeted the wrong man. They characterized the De Wit trial as a farce, and indicated that they suspected the victim's boyfriend, Saeed Shoda. According to the victim's parents, the police had badly mishandled the murder investigation.

     As of December 2015, the De Wit trial is once again on hold. 

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Linsey Attridge's Outrageous Crime and Ridiculous Sentence

     In 2008, Linsey and Gary Attridge were married in the central Scotland town of Grangemouth. The 26-year-old bride had grown up in Grangemouth where her mother worked as a seamstress and her father was a window cleaner. Linsey and her new husband, a financial advisor, honeymooned in Malta.

     Less than two years after the wedding, Linsey was unhappy with her marriage. In August 2010, after meeting kickboxing instructor Nick Smith online, Linsey and her daughter moved into the 32-year-old's house in the northern city of Aberdeen. By the summer of 2011, that relationship had fallen apart after Linsey confessed to having sex with one of Nick Smith's friends while Nick was in the house asleep. Although they were no longer a couple, Nick allowed Linsey and her daughter, to whom he had become a surrogate father, to continue living in his house.

     In August 2011, while browsing through Facebook pages, Linsey came across a photograph of 26-year-old Philip McDonald, a cook at a downtown Aberdeen cafe. He was pictured with his 14-year-old brother James. Philip lived outside of the city in a modest flat with his partner Kelly Fraser and their daughter. To Linsey, Philip and James McDonald were total strangers.

     A few days after stumbling across the Facebook photograph, Linsey Attridge, in a scheme to rekindle her relationship with Nick Smith, decided to falsely report that that Philip and James McDonald had broken into her house and brutally raped her. Before alerting the authorities, she staged the crime by overturning furniture, punching herself in the face, and ripping her clothing.

     Police officers who responded to the false rape report found a woman who looked and acted as thoulgh she had been beaten and sexually assaulted. She submitted herself to various physical examinations including tests for sexually transmitted diseases. In an act of extreme self-centered cruelty, LInsey Attridge identified Philip and James McDonald as her rapists. (Since they were total strangers, I don't know how Linsey explained knowing who her attackers were.)

     Two days after receiving the false crime report, police officers arrested the younger brother at his mother's house. James McDonald was a student at a residential school for teenagers with behavioral problems. (This made him an ideal rape suspect.) Less than a hour after taking James into custody, police officers walked into the cafe where Philip worked as a cook.

     On the worst day of Philip McDonald's life, the detectives who showed up at the cafe told Philip that he and his brother were the prime suspects in a brutal rape case. The officers asked the shocked and frightened young man to accompany them to the police station for questioning. In the police vehicle en route to police headquarters, the officers identified the victim and described the home invasion and crime. Philip broke down and cried. (The officers probably took this as a sign of guilt.)

     At the police station, detectives photographed, fingerprinted, and swabbed the rape suspect for DNA. During the five-hour interrogation, when a detective revealed exactly when the crime had taken place, Philip was relieved. While the two men were supposedly raping Linsey Attridge, Philip was at home putting his daughter to bed. Several members of his family were in the house with him that night. His relatives would vouch for his whereabouts at the time of the rape. He had an alibi.

     The detectives questioning Philip were not interested in his so-called alibi. Everyone had an alibi. Big deal. Philip didn't realize that police investigators, once they have a suspect in their cross-hairs, are extremely reluctant, even in the face of exonerating evidence, to change targets.

     Over the next two months Philip McDonald's life was a living hell. He couldn't be out in public without being harassed, and had to enroll his daughter in another school. By October 2011, Linsey Attridge's story began to unravel. When pressed by detectives who had finally become skeptical, she admitted that she had made the entire story up. She had done it in an effort to attract attention and sympathy from her estranged boyfriend, Nick Smith. In so doing, she had put Philip and his brother through hell, wasted police resources, and made the detectives look like monkeys. Cops hate people who lie to them about as much as they hate rapists.

     Shortly after Linsey Attridge's false report confession, a pair of detectives walked into the cafe to inform Philip that he was in the clear. That was it. Out of the blue he was accused of rape, and out of the blue he was told that his ordeal had ended. The cops left the restaurant without offering even an insincere apology. Like their counterparts in American, and probably throughout the world, police officers never say they are sorry. Why? Because they are not sorry.

     A local prosecutor charged Linsey Attridge with the crime of filing a false report. In June 2013, the defendant pleaded guilty to the charge in an Aberdeen courtroom. The judge shocked everyone by sentencing Attridge to 200 hours of community service and two years probation. Nick Smith, her former boyfriend, was in the courtroom that day. He told reporters outside the court house that he thought the judge's sentence was "ridiculous." He was right.

      

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Amish-Mennonite Pastor Kenneth Miller and His Underground Railroad

     Lisa Miller, as a teenager and young woman in Virginia, struggled with an addiction to pills and alcohol. She also participated in self-mutilation. After a failed marriage, and a suicide attempt, Lisa began dating women.

     In 1997, Lise met Janet Jenkins at an alcoholics anonymous meeting in Falls Church, Virginia. They became a couple, and in 2000, traveled to Vermont, the first state to offer homosexuals civil unions, to get married. The pair, after being civilly united by a judge, adopted the surname Miller-Jenkins, and in 2002, moved to Vermont where they bought a two-story house in a small southern Vermont town called Fair Haven.

     On April 16, 2002, after getting pregnant through in vitro fertilization, Lisa, at age 34, gave birth to Isabella. But in September 2003, when Isabella was 17-months-old, Lisa and Janet split-up. After the break in the relationship, a family court judge in Vermont granted Janet regular child visitation rights.

     In 2008, after trying but failing to end her former partner's visitation rights, Lisa Miller moved to Lynchburg, Virginia where a Christian anti-gay marriage activist named Janet Stasulli befriended her. Lisa, under Stasulli's guidance and influence, became a born-again Christian, and pursuant to her new religious beliefs, denounced homosexuality as a sin. In October 2009, the family court judge in Vermont granted Janet Jenkins primary custody of Isabella.

     Kenneth Miller (no relation to Lisa), a 43-year-old Beachy Amish-Mennonite pastor from Stuarts Draft, Virginia, a town of 9,000 30 miles north of Lynchburg, conceived of a plan to get Lisa and Isabella out of the country to keep the 7-year-old out of the custody of a lesbian parent. On September 21, 2009, Philip Zodhiates, an evangelical leader, and owner of a Lynchburg Christian direct-mail company, drove Lisa and her daughter to Buffalo, New York. Shortly after midnight, mother and daughter crossed the boarder into Canada in a taxi cab. They were met on the other side by a Canadian evangelical pastor named Ervin Horst who drove Lisa and Isabella, disguised in long skirts and head scarves of the type worn by the Amish-Mennonites, to the Toronto airport. Later that day, the fleeing mother and daughter flew to Managua, Nicaragua. (Currently at large, Lisa and Isabella are wanted by the FBI and Interpol. Lisa, now 46, and Isabella 12, have moved from barrio to barrio in Nicaragua to avoid apprehension.)

     Pastor Kenneth Miller, indicted by a federal grand jury sitting in Burlington, Vermont for the offense of abetting an international parental kidnapping, went on trial on August 8, 2012. If convicted, the Amish-Mennonite leader faced up to three years in prison.

     Fifty Amish-Mennonite supporters looked on as the Assistant United States Attorney, Eugenia Cowles, and defense attorney Joshua M. Autry, made their opening remarks to the jury. According to the defense version of the case, Pastor Miller did not know that by leaving the country, Lisa Miller was violating a lawful child visitation order. Defense attorney Autry argued that his client, therefore, did not possess the requisite criminal intent to obstruct the court order giving Janet Jenkins primary custody of the child.

     Federal prosecutor Cowles told the jurors that Pastor Miller had selected Nicaragua as the point of destination because that country and the United States did not have an extradition treaty. Moreover, the preacher made sure to book a flight from Canada to Mexico that didn't touch down in America.

     Philip Zodhiates, Janet Stasulli, and Ervin Horst, the evangelists the defendant had called upon to execute his anti-homosexual underground escape, took the stand as reluctant prosecution witnesses. Isabella's custody parent, Janet Jenkins, testified that she hadn't seen the girl since January 2009, eight months before the evangelists snuck her out of the country. The government rested its case on August 12. 2012.

     Defense attorney Joshua Autry put on a pair of character witnesses, then rested his case without bringing Pastor Miller to the stand to testify on his own behalf. On August 14, 2012, the jury, after deliberating four hours, found the defendant guilty of abetting international parental kidnapping. Outside the federal building, a group of 100 Amish-Mennonite supporters stood around singing gospel hymns. Pastor Miller remained free on bail until his sentencing.

     Just hours after the verdict, Janet Jenkins filed a civil lawsuit against Philip Zodhiates, Ervin Horst, and Janet Stasulli, the people who had helped Pastor Miller kidnap her custody child.

     On March 14, 2013, the federal district judge sentenced Pastor Miller to 27 months in prison. The Paster would not, however, begin his sentence until a federal appeals court reviewed and ruled on the case, a process that could take up to three years.

     On October 8, 2014, federal prosecutors charged Philip Zodhiates with conspiracy and international parental kidnapping for his role in the abduction. Zodhiates pleaded not guilty to the charges.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Dr. Ralph Erdmann: The Forensic Pathologist From Hell

     Most forensic pathologists are hardworking, well intentioned, and competent. Even the best of them make honest mistakes. But over the years there have been several high-profile embarrassments to the profession. These forensic pathologists, because they were careless, incompetent, corrupt, or weak, did great harm to criminal defendants, victims of crime, and forensic science. Dr. Ralph Erdmann, a run-amok forensic pathologist who worked many years in west Texas represents the worst of the worst.

     In 1981, 25 years after acquiring a medical degree in Mexico, Dr. Erdmann moved to Childress in Lubbock County, Texas. He began, on a private contract basis, doing autopsies for five small hospitals in the county. He moved to Amarillo in 1983 and began performing autopsies for hire throughout the Texas panhandle region. Over the next decade, Dr. Erdmann conducted more than 3,000 autopsies in 41 jurisdictions. In 1990, at the height of his activity, he performed 480 autopsies. The following year he did 310, most of which were performed in Lubbock County. For his work in Lubbock County, Dr. Erdmann received an annual fee of $140,000. In the smaller counties Dr. Erdmann charged $650 per autopsy. The forensic pathologist had a large territory to cover and was constantly on the move, performing autopsies on the run.

     Because he covered a rural area Dr. Erdmann did not always work under ideal conditions. In cases of decomposing bodies, many of the smaller hospitals denied him access to autopsy space because of the stink. As a result he performed autopsies in funeral home garages, hospital loading docks, parking lots, and abandoned houses. Dr. Erdmann once performed an autopsy on a door laid across two 55-gallon drums.

     It wasn't just his take-charge work ethic that made Dr. Erdmann so popular with detectives and county prosecutors. What they especially liked about this pathologist was his unabashed eagerness to tailor his autopsy findings to their law enforcement needs. If the prosecution needed a victim or suspect to have alcohol in his or her blood, that was not a problem. It didn't matter that no blood-alcohol test had been administered in the case. If a certain time of death was necessary to incriminate a defendant, Dr. Erdmann would provide it, even if such a precise estimation was scientifically infeasible.

     Because Dr. Erdmann made their jobs so easy, many detectives and prosecutors turned a blind eye to his personal weirdness, sloppy work habits, questionable science, embarrassing omissions, and patent dishonesty. Even with the support of the law enforcement community, Dr. Erdmann was so obviously unfit for the job he was eventually drummed out of the profession.

     By 1992, after a number of defense attorneys began challenging and exposing Dr. Erdmann's methods and findings, the outlandish nature of his malpractice began to catch up to him. That year he was forced to surrender his Texas medical license to the State Board of Medical Examiners. He also pleaded guilty to charging several counties for autopsies he had not conducted. The judge sentenced Erdmann to 10 years of probation and 200 hours of community service. He also had to pay $17,000 in restitution. The following year Dr. Erdmann left Texas for the state of Washington.

     A review of Dr. Erdmann's work explains how he had been able to perform so many autopsies. He cut corners. For example, he didn't bother to weigh the internal organs he removed. And in many cases, he didn't even bother to cut them out of the corpse. He simply estimated their weights. Dr. Erdmann got caught doing this when the family of a man he had autopsied noticed, in the autopsy report, the weight of the dead man's spleen. Years before his death this man's spleen had been surgically removed.

     Even in situations where the cause of death was obviously murder, Dr. Erdmann didn't always get it right. In the case of a body found in a dumpster, Dr. Erdmann reported the cause of death as pneumonia. The police later arrested the suspect who had stolen the dead man's car, shot him in the head, then disposed of his body in that dumpster. Perhaps this man had pneumonia when he was shot to death, but it was the bullet that killed him. In another body-in-the-dumpster case, Dr. Erdmann lost the dead man's head, the body part containing the fatal bullet that would have connected the shooter to the murder. Without the head or the bullet, the suspect could not be prosecuted.

     In a fatal hit-and-run case, Dr. Erdmann testified that the victim had died instantly of a broken neck. He based this finding on his examination of the 14-year-old victim's brain. But when the body was exhumed, another forensic pathologist found that Erdmann had not even bothered to open the boy's skull.

     In the case of an infant who died in a bathtub, Dr. Erdmann determined that the baby had been killed by a blow to the stomach. This led to the arrest of the man who was in the house when the infant died. After a second forensic pathologist examined the body, the prosecutor had to drop the murder charge. The baby had drowned accidentally. The cause of death: asphyxia.

     As reported in the ABA Journal, as a result of Ralph Erdmann's bungled and incomplete autopsies, the defendants in 20 murder cases had grounds to appeal their convictions. The panel of experts who looked at 300 of his autopsy reports--a relatively small sampling--found that 1/3 of the bodies had not even been cut open. When confronted with this evidence, Dr. Erdmann explained it away as clerical errors. He never admitted wrongdoing and would continue to insist that he was not dishonest or incompetent. Yes, he had made a few mistakes, but he had been forced to work under unfavorable conditions. The forensic pathologist accused his critics of being revenge-minded defense attorneys and characterized the investigation of his work and career as a witch hunt.

     On July 23, 2010, in Dallas, Texas, Dr. Erdmann died at the age of 83.

    

Thursday, December 24, 2015

The Matthew Hinson Murder Case

     William C. Pettry lived with his wife and three children 50 miles from Chicago in Lake Villa, Illinois. On Friday, October 7, 2012, the 42-year-old self-employed contractor and his best friend, Nick Viverito, flew to Jacksonville, Florida from Milwaukee to attend a Sunday Bears-Jaguar pro football game.

     On Saturday, the night before the game, Pettry and his 42-year-old friend were eating and having drinks at an upscale Irish restaurant called Fionn MacCools located near their hotel. Around midnight, Pettry and Viverito were sitting at a table on an outside patio visiting with other Chicago Bears fans. Matthew Hinson, his wife, and another woman, people who lived in the area, were nearby waiting for inside seating. The two men from Illinois exchanged smalltalk with the 28-year-old Hinson and the two women with him.

     Shortly after Matthew Hinson, his wife, and the other woman walked inside the restaurant to their table, William Pettry walked into the bar to get more drinks. When he didn't return to the patio after twenty minutes, his friend began to wonder where he was. About this time a waitress approached Viverito and said, "Hey, your friend, he's not breathing at the bar. He's full of blood." Viverito ran into the restaurant where he found Pettry on the floor bleeding profusely from his neck. Nurses who happened to be dining at the restaurant were trying to stop the bleeding and resuscitate the seriously wounded man. William Pettry bled to death on the floor of the bar.

     According to witnesses, Hinson, using a small pocketknife, had slit Pettry's throat, then walked out of the restaurant. The two men had been sitting on a bench when Hinson stood up, pulled out his knife, and ran the blade across Pettry's neck. As he left the place, Hinson made a cutting motion across his throat with his finger. Jacksonville police officers stopped his car as he was pulling out of the parking lot. Following a brief scuffle, they took Hinson into custody.

     Matthew Hinson admitted to the arresting officers that he had killed the man in the bar with his pocketknife. Angry words had not been exchanged between the two men. The attack had been entirely by surprise, and unprovoked. While Hinson didn't tell the police why he had murdered a total stranger, witnesses informed the officers that he had attacked Pettry out of jealously and rage. He didn't like the fact the victim had spoken to his wife. The murder had nothing to do with sports rivalry.

     Matthew Hinson, charged with criminal homicide, was held in the Jacksonville County Jail without bond. In speaking to reporters, county police Lieutenant Rob Schoonover said, "Hinson calmly and in cold blood cut the victim's throat and walked out of the restaurant." In 2006, Hinson had pleaded no contest in Florida's Clay County to driving under the influence. Beyond that, he had no criminal record that anyone could find.

     On Saturday, October 13, 2012, current and former Chicago Bears team members held a fundraiser for the Pettry family. The proceeds came from the auctioning of Bear-related sports memorabilia.

     In crime fiction, because murder is such a deviant and evil act, murderers are either motivated by extreme hatred, greed, or lust. But in real-life, so-called spontaneous murders--killings without corresponding motivations--are common. They are committed by time-bombs like Matthew Hinson who walk among us unnoticed until they lash out.

     On May 21, 2013, two months before his trial date, Hinson pleaded guilty to second degree-murder. At his sentencing hearing on July 18, 3013, Hinson's attorney, public defender Kate Bedell, told Circuit Judge Suzanne Bass that Henson sufferrd from post-traumatic stress disorder and alcohol abuse. The judge sentenced Hinson to life in prison.


     

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Ethan Couch and the "Affluenza" Defense Mass Manslaughter Case

     On the night of June 15, 2013, in Fort Worth, Texas, 16-year-old Ethan Couch and seven of  his friends stole two cases of beer from a local Walmart store. A few hours later, Couch, behind the wheel of his wealthy family's F-350 pickup, sped down a poorly lit rural road. With his blood-alcohol level three times the legal limit and seven passengers in the cab--two in the back of the truck--he lost control of the vehicle.

     Couch's truck plowed into vehicles parked along the side of the road. The two boys in the bed of the truck were flung out of the pickup and severely injured. Breanna Mitchell, whose SUV had broken down was off the road, was killed. Brian Jennings, Shelby Boyles, and Hollie Boyles, people who had pulled off the road to help Breanna, also died in the crash.

     Ethan Couch, on the advise of his attorneys, pleaded guilty to four counts of intoxication manslaughter. This meant the only issue left to be resolved in the case involved his punishment. Was he a troubled kid who needed psychological treatment, or a spoiled brat who required incarceration? If punishment was appropriate in this case, how severe? Did it matter that he was only sixteen? These were questions that would have to be resolved by juvenile court judge Jean Boyd.

     At Ethan Couch's sentence hearing held in Fort Worth on December 10, 2013, Tarrant County Assistant District Attorney Richard Alpert proposed that the defendant be incarcerated for twenty years. In addressing Judge Boyd, Alpert said, "If the boy, who is from an affluent family, is cushioned by the family's wealth, there can be no doubt that he will be in another courthouse one day blaming the leniency he received here." The prosecutor pointed out that inmates in Texas who needed it received drug and alcohol treatment.

     One of the defendant's attorneys, Scott Brown, argued that his client required rehabilitation more than he needed treatment. (Perhaps, but the families of the victims needed for him to be punished. Sentencing should be more than just about what's good for the defendant.)

     Couch's attorney recommended a two-year treatment program at a $1,200-a-day rehabilitation center near Newport Beach, California followed by a period of probation. The $450,000-a-year program in southern California featured equine sports, yoga, and messages. (It also probably featured rubbing shoulders with a lot of drug-addled Hollywood celebrities.) According to attorney Brown, the boy's parents were willing to pick up the California rehabilitation tab.

     Dr. Dick Miller, a clinical psychologist from Bedford, Texas testified at the sentencing hearing on the defendant's behalf. According to Dr. Miller, Ethan Couch suffered from what he called "affluenza," a syndrome caused by rich parents who didn't set limits and discipline their children. As a result of being spoiled rotten, Ethan didn't know how to behave appropriately. (Dr. Miller's notion of social insanity as a mitigating factor in sentencing is patently absurd.)

     Judge Boyd stunned the prosecutor and friends and families of the four victims when she sentenced the teenager to ten years of probation. The judge said she would find a treatment program for the boy in the state of Texas. If he violated the terms of his probation, he could be sent to a juvenile detection facility.

     Eric Boyles had lost his wife Hollie and his daughter Shelby in Couch's drunken crash. In speaking to a CNN correspondent, he said, "There are absolutely no consequences for what occurred that day….Money always seems to keep you out of trouble. Ultimately today, I feel that money did prevail.

     In responding to Judge Boyd's decision, prosecutor Alpert told a reporter that "We are disappointed by the punishment assessed but we have no power under the law to change or overturn it."

     In horrific homicides like this, when there is no retribution, the public loses confidence in the criminal justice system. While rich people do not always get their way in criminal court, the public perception is that they do.

     The so-called "affluenza" case jumped back in the news in December 2015 after a video appeared online featuring Ethan Couch and several other youngsters playing beer pong. This was a clear violation of the terms of Couch's probation. When the kid's probation officer lost touch with him, the authorities in Tarrant County issued a warrant for his arrest. Also missing was Tonya Couch, the boy's mother with whom he had been living.

     Because the local authorities believed the boy and his mother might have fled the country to avoid the possibility of Ethan's incarceration, FBI agents and U. S. Marshal's office investigators were involved in the hunt for the mother and her son.

     On December 29, 2015, Ethan Couch and his mother were arrested in the Mexican resort city of Puerto Vallarta.

        

Friday, December 18, 2015

The Shrien Dewani Murder-For-Hire Case

     On November 13, 2010, 30-year-old Shrien Dewani and Anni, his 28-year-old wife of two weeks, were on their honeymoon in Cape Town, South Africa. The couple, of Indian decent (she was born in Sweden), resided in the southwestern English town of Bristol where he was a businessman.

     Shortly after midnight on November 13, 2010, Shrien Dewani reported to police authorities that a gunman had commandeered the taxi he and his wife were riding in near the Cape Town suburb of Guguiethu. The kidnapper ordered the cab driver and Shrien out of the taxi in the town of Harare then drove off with Anni.

     Later that night, police officers found Anni's dead body in the abandoned taxi in the town of Lingelethu West. She had injuries to her head and chest, and had been shot in the back of the neck at short range. Officers with the Western Cape Town Police Department launched a manhunt for the killer.

     Shrien Dewani returned to England where he was treated for depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

     On November 14, 2010, Western Cape Town officers arrested 26-year-old Xolile Mngeni, the suspected gunman, on the charge of murder. Two days later, police officers arrested a suspected accomplice in the murder named Mziwamadoda Qwabe.

     Detectives arrested the cab driver, Zola Tongo, on November 20, 2010. According to the suspect, Shrien Dewani had offered him 1,400 pounds to find a hit man willing to kill his wife Anni. Tongo reached out to his friend Qwabe who brought Mngeni, the trigger man, into the murder-for-hire scheme.

     On December 8, 2010, at the request of the South African government, police in England arrested Dewani for conspiring to have his wife murdered. Two days after being taken into custody, Dewani posted his bail and was confined to house arrest. He denied any involvement in his wife's murder.

     Zola Tongo, the cab driver, pleaded guilty to his role in the murder-for-hire plot in January 2011. The judge sentenced him to 18 years in prison. A month later, Mziwamadoda Qwabe decided to cooperate with the police. He said that after the kidnapper let Dewani and Tongo out of the taxi that night, Mngeni drove off with the victim. Qwabe admitted that for his role in the murder, he received the victim's jewelry.

     In February 2011, back in England, Dewani swallowed a cocktail of 26 pills that included the drug diazepam that had been prescribed to him for anxiety. Following a period of hospitalization, he returned home to house arrest.

     In November 2011, a TV station in England aired a documentary about the case called, "Murder On Honeymoon." The producers of the segment presented evidence pertaining to Dewani's alleged motive for having his new wife murdered. According to the documentary, investigators were working on the theory that Dewani had been living a secret double life as a gay man. Witnesses stated that he had been a regular visitor to a south London gay fetish sex club. When Anni found out he was gay, she threatened to end the marriage and expose him.

     On March 30, 2012, judges sitting on London's High Court ruled that it would be unjust and oppressive to extradite Dewani to South Africa until he overcame his problem with mental illness. The authorities in South Africa were convinced he was faking mental illness to avoid extradition.

     Miziwamadoda Qwabe pleaded guilty in August 2012 and was sentenced in South Africa to 25 years in prison. Three months later a jury found Xolile Mngeni, the hit man, guilty of premeditated murder. The judge sentenced Mngeni to life behind bars.

     The fourth South African involved in the case, a hotel clerk named Monde Mbolombo, had avoided prosecution by testifying against Qwabe and Mngeni.

     The BBC, in September 2012, aired another documentary about the Dewani case called "The Honeymoon Murder: Who Killed Anni?" Featuring forensic experts and others who had reviewed the evidence, the show cast doubt on Shrien Dewani's guilt.

     The widely viewed BBC documentary portrayed Monde Mbolombo, the hotel clerk who was granted immunity for his prosecution testimony, as the true mastermind behind the murder. According to the documentary, Mbolombo put the cab driver in touch with Mngeni, the trigger man. The motive was theft.

     About the time the BBC broadcast the documentary, the English tabloid Daily Mail published text messages the victim had sent to family members shortly before her big wedding. "I'm going to be unhappy for the rest of my life," she had written. "I hate him. I want to cry myself to death."

     On January 2014, a panel of three judges sitting on England's Supreme Court ruled that Shrien Dewani could be extradited to South Africa to be tried for his wife's murder. The extradition, however, was conditioned on the promise that if the defendant were adjudicated mentally unfit for trial, South African authorities would send him back to England. Dewani was expected to arrive in Cape Town in April 2014.

     South African Judge Jeanette Traverso, on December 8, 2014, dismissed the case against Dewni on the ground that no court would convict him unless he took the stand and incriminated himself. The judge noted that the prosecution witnesses against the accused murder-for-hire mastermind were not credible because they had been involved in the killing themselves. The judge's decision ended the case against Dewani because prosecutors in South Africa can only appeal a case when the judge had made a mistake in applying the law. This case, however, was dismissed based upon what this judge considered the crown's lack of evidence to support a conviction. The decision meant that Shrien Dewani was a free man and could not be charged again.

     A spokesperson for the prosecutor's office, in response to the dismissal, told reporters that the judge misunderstood the case.

     In the United States, many murder-for-hire cases are predicated upon the prosecution testimony of the hit man and various accomplices. Getting a conviction pursuant to this South African judge's standards would be, in the United States, almost impossible.

    

Friday, December 11, 2015

The John Sexton Murder Case

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     "A neighbor saw you in the kitchen."

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

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

     "I guess so," came the reply.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Bite Mark Identification: A Forensic Science Losing Its Credibility

     The identification of a series of bruises or abrasions, usually in the shape of two semi-circles or brackets, as a human bite mark made by a particular set of teeth is a function of forensic dentistry referred to a bite mark identification. This form of impression identification, also called forensic odontology, is based on the assumption that no two people in the world have front teeth that are identical in thickness, shape, relationship to each other, and patterns of wear.

     The process of comparing a bite mark to a known set of teeth is not unlike the identification of latent fingerprints, footwear, and tire track impressions. Bite mark wounds are found on victims of murder, rape, and child molestation. This type of crime scene evidence is preserved by life-size photography, tooth mark tracings onto transparent sheets, and dental casts of the impressions themselves. A suspect might be asked to bite down on a pliable surface for an impression sample, have a cast made of his teeth, or both. Usually, connecting a suspect to a victim through expert bite mark testimony will be enough evidence, by itself, to sustain a criminal conviction.

     The field of bite mark identification exploded in the 1980s, and hundreds, if not thousands of defendants between 1983 and 2002 were sent to prison on the strength of bite mark testimony. Although bite mark identification had been a recognized branch of forensic science since 1970, it was the 1979 trial of serial killer Ted Bundy in south Florida that put this form of identification on the map the way the O. J. Simpson case, in the mid-1990s, popularized DNA profiling.

     At the peak of bite mark evidence credibility among forensic scientists, detectives, prosecutors, and judges, this form of impression identification was put on the level with the matching of fingerprints. However, by 2003, forensic scientists were seriously questioning the assumption that bite marks were as unique and identifiable as latent fingerprints.

     Over the years several leaders in the bite mark field oversold the reliability of this form of identification. For example, in 1977, Dr. Lowell J. Levine, a forensic dentistry consultant to the New York City Medical Examiner's Office, wrote: "Since every person's teeth are unique in respect to spacing, twisting, turning, shapes, tipping toward the tongue or lips, wear patterns, breakage, fillings, caps, loss and the like, all of which occur in limitless combinations, it is possible for them to leave a pattern which for identification purposes is as good as a fingerprint."

     In 1996, Dr. C. Michael Bowers, a prominent southern California odontologist, was one of the first forensic scientists to raise doubts about the credibility of bite make identification when he wrote: "Physical matching of bite marks is a non-science which was developed with little testing and no published error rate....An opinion is worth nothing unless the supportive data is clearly describable and can be demonstrated in court. How does one weight the importance of a single rotated tooth in a bite mark when the suspect has a similar tooth? The value judgments range widely on the value of this feature. This is not science. Instead, statistical levels of confidence must be included in the process."

     In a bite mark identification exercise Dr. Bowers conducted in a workshop at the 1999 American Academy of Forensic Science conference, 63 percent of the odontologists who participated made an incorrect identification, findings that displeased many in the field when Dr. Bowers published the results of his experiment. In an article published in 2003 in the British Dental Journal, Dr. D. K. Whittaker, a forensic dentistry professor at the University of Wales, explained why bite mark evidence is so difficult to identify, particularly bite marks on skin:

     "Human bites on skin are difficult to interpret because skin is not good 'impression' material. Moreover, victims may struggle and movement will distort the image of the bite. Skin surfaces are not flat and visual distortion may be present, often heightened by photographic distortion caused by inadequate imaging techniques. Human dentitions, whilst possibly being unique in the small nuances of tooth size, shape, angulation and texture may not inflict unique bite marks which can only record gross and not fine detail. If the victim survives, the injury may change due to infection or subsequent healing and if the victim is deceased, putrefaction may introduce distortion."

     Before odontologists in Great Britain can testify in court as bite mark experts, they must have made a minimum of twenty such identifications in other cases. In the United States, an odontologist can be certified by the American Board of Forensic Odontology after two bite mark identifications. As a result, being certified in this forensic field in the United States shouldn't carry much weight. (In fact, two of America's most notorious charlatans in the field were both board certified bite mark experts.)

     In 2004, as part of a journalistic series on forensic science, the Chicago Tribune examined 154 state and federal trials involving bite mark identification testimony. In more than a quarter of these cases the prosecution and the defense produced forensic odontologists whose expert opinions were diametrically opposed. If bite mark identification is an exact science practiced by highly qualified experts, this many odontologists should not have been testifying against each other.


Friday, December 4, 2015

Savannah Dietrich Outed the Two Juveniles Who Raped Her

     In August 2011, in Louisville, Kentucky, 16-year-old Savannah Dietrich, while drinking with two teenage boys she knew, passed out drunk. The boys took advantage of her condition by having sex with her. This, in most states, including Kentucky, is rape. If that wasn't bad enough, the rapists photographed each other committing the crime, and put the photographs on the Internet.

     When Dietrich learned of the humiliating photographs, and the fact they had been published, she and her parents reported the crime to the Louisville Metro Police Department. The two minors were then charged with first-degree sexual abuse, a felony. Since the juveniles had photographed each other in the act, they had no choice to plead guilty. But for some reason, the prosecutor, in return for the pleas, promised a lenient sentence.

     Following the defendant's June 26, 2012 plea hearing before Jefferson County District Judge Dee McDonald, Savannah Dietrich posted several tweets on her Twitter account in which she named the two boys who had pleaded guilty to her sexual assaults. By doing this, she had violated the judges's order not to reveal information about the case, especially the identities of the assaulting juveniles.

     The attorneys representing the two minors, asked Judge McDonald to hold Dietrich in contempt of court. If found in contempt, Dietrich could face up to 180 days in jail, and a $500 fine. (Much more time behind bars than the boys who had assaulted her would spend.)

     Dietrich, in speaking to a Louisville reporter with The Courier-Journal, said, "So many of my rights have been taken away by these boys. I'm at the the point that if I have to go to jail for my rights, I will do it. If they really feel it's necessary to throw me in jail for talking about what happened to me--then I don't understand justice."

     On Monday, July 23, 2012, the lawyers representing the juveniles awaiting their sentences, withdrew their motion to have Dietrich held in contempt of court. In a single day, an online petition on change.org had brought 62,000 signatures in support of Dietrich's decision to publicize the identities of her assaulters. It was obvious that members of the public believed these boys, so afraid of being publicly embarrassed and humiliated by their cruelty and criminality, deserved to be exposed by their victim.

     In September 2012, a judge ruled that documents pertaining to the Dietrich case had to be released to the public. According to the publication of this material, a prosecutor told the victim to "Get over it and see a therapist." The documents also revealed that the victim's 16-year-old attackers had committed the assault because they believed it would be "funny."

     The sex offenders, in October 2012, were sentenced to 50 hours of community service. The boys also were ordered to undergo sex-offender counseling. When these boys reached the age of 19, they could file motions to have their guilty pleas withdrawn and the case dismissed. If granted that request, their criminal records would be expunged. As for the victim, where could she go to have her memory of the crime expunged?

   

     

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The Narcy Novack Murder-For-Hire Case

     In Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on April 6, 2009, a neighbor discovered the body of 86-year-old Bernice Novack in the laundry room of her house. Lying in a pool of blood, the widow of Ben Novack Sr., the man who owned the famous Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach, had a cracked skull, a broken front tooth, and a fractured finger. Notwithstanding blood droplets throughout the dwelling, the Broward County Medical Examiner ruled her manner of death as accidental. Fort Lauderdale detectives concluded that the elderly woman had slipped and fell to her death.

     About three months after Bernice Novack's "accident," her son, Ben Novack, Jr., the heir to the family fortune, was found bludgeoned to death in a Rye Brook, New York hotel room. This death was not an accident. The victim's wife, Narcy Novack, a 52-year-old former Hialeah, Florida stripper originally from Ecuador, told police she discovered her murdered husband when she returned to the Rye Town Hilton suite after having breakfast downstairs. Mr. Novack, a successful convention planner, was in the suburban New York City community managing an Amway convention.

     The Novack marriage had been stormy. According to reports, Ben Novack enjoyed a variety of bizarre sexual fetishes, and was having an affair with a porn actress named Rebecca Bliss. (No doubt her real name.)

     The FBI took charge of the investigation (murder-for-hire is a federal crime), and from the beginning suspected a contract killing orchestrated by Narcy Novack, the dead man's wife. One lead led to another, and on February 2010, a pair of Miami hoods, Alejandro Garcia and Joel Gonzales confessed to being paid $15,000 to murder Bernice and Ben Novack. According to the hit men, Narcy Novack and her 58-year-old brother Cristobal Veliz, were the murder-for-hire masterminds. (The confessions caused the Broward County Medical Examiner to change the manner of death ruling for Bernice Novack from accidental to homicidal.)

     In April 2010, the assistant United States Attorney for the southern district of New York charged Narcy Novack and Cristobal Veliz with racketeering, money laundering, and two counts of first-degree murder. Under the federal statute, if convicted of murder for hire, the brother and sister defendants faced mandatory life sentences. Prosecutor Andrew Dember believed Narcy, fearing that her husband was going to leave her for the porn actress, instigated the double murder in order to inherit the estate.

     The Novack/Veliz trial commenced in White Plains, New York on April 23, 2012. While cell phone records implicated both defendants along with other pieces of circumstantial evidence, the heart of the government's case consisted of the testimony of the two hit men who had agreed to plead guilty and cooperate with the prosecution.

     According to these cold-blooded killers, Narcy Novack told them that her husband was a pedophile who engaged in weird sexual acts. At 7 o'clock on the morning of her husband's murder, Narcy let Garcia and Gonzales into the fourth floor suite as Mr. Novack slept. The executioners began beating the victim with hand-held dumbbells. At one point during the 17-minute beating, Narcy handed the hitmen a pillow to stifle the dying man's screams.

     After Garcia and Gonzales cleaned-up in the dead man's bathroom, they left the hotel. (Gonzales had broken his sunglasses in the attack, and had left pieces in the room. Contract killers almost always leave incriminating evidence behind.) After the killers exited the scene, Narcy went to the convention site to have breakfast. She returned to the suite at 7:45 AM, "discovered" her husband's blood-soaked body, and called 911. (The hit men also told the jury how they had murdered Mrs. Novack in Fort Lauderdale.)

     On June 8, 2012, the prosecution rested its case. Defense attorney Howard Tanner did his best to discredit Gonzales and Garcia as a couple of mobsters who would say anything to get lighter sentences for the murders of Ben Novack and his mother. He also tried to cast suspicion on Narcy Novack's 36-year-old daugher May Abad who, upon her mother's conviction, would inherit the family fortune. In describing the prosecution's case, attorney Tanner called it "flimsy and weak."

     The murder-for-hire case went to the jury on Monday, June 18, 2012. Two days later, the jury found Narcy Novack and Cristobal Veliz guilty of orchestrating the killings. By law, both would spend the rest of their lives in prison. 

Friday, November 27, 2015

Pastor-Involved Shooting in a Detroit Church

     Detroit is a violent and dangerous place. Law abiding citizens who can afford to, leave the city for the suburbs. Nowhere is safe, and no one in this dysfunctional city is immune from crime and violence. Even pastors in their churches are vulnerable. It's been this way for quite some time and there's no indication that change is in the air.

     In 2012, criminals attached Pastor Marvin Williams at a downtown Detroit intersection. At gunpoint they took his wallet and stole his car. In July 2014, a man wielding an ax attacked and killed an off-duty police officer working as a church security guard. The fact that churches in the city employ security guards says it all.

     In july 2015, following a wave of general shootings in Detroit, several leaders in the religious community issued a public plea for citizens to take action to stop gun violence. (The only way to control gun violence is through aggressive law enforcement, ambitions prosecutors, and hanging judges. Citizens, for the most part, are helpless.)

     On October 18, 2015, a 36-year-old Detroit pastor named Keon Allison shot and killed 26-year-old Deante Smith during religious services at the City of God nondenominational church on Grand River Avenue on the city's north side. Pastor Allison shot Deante Smith, a member of his congregation, several times with his Glock pistol. Smith was shot when he charged the preacher wielding a brick and a hammer.

     Paramedics rushed Mr. Smith to the Botsford Hospital where he died of his gunshot wounds. Pastor Allison, after being questioned at a nearby police station, was released without being charged with a crime.

     Deante Smith had worked for a manufacturing company in Troy, Michigan. In 2012, he got married, and for a period of time he and his wife lived with Pastor Allison, a man Smith considered a mentor and father figure. The relationship went sour when Smith, a player for the semi-professional Michigan Lightening football team, suspected that his minister was sleeping with his wife. In addition to that suspicion, Smith came to believe that the baby his wife had given birth to was the pastor's child.

     Deante Smith's employer in Troy had placed him on suspension after he and Pastor Allison had a loud argument outside the manufacturing facility. The company offered Smith anger management classes.

     In the days leading up to the church shooting, Smith posted several messages on his Facebook page that foreshadowed the deadly Sunday confrontation. 

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Three-Way Sex, An Unhealthy Cop, and a Ridiculous Lawsuit

     William Martinez, an Atlanta police officer who lived in Lawrenceville, Georgia with his wife Sugeidy and their 7 and 9-year-old sons, wasn't feeling well. While only 31, Martinez had a history of high blood pressure, and had been told by doctors he was at risk for clogged arteries. After experiencing shortness of breath and chest pains that radiated into his arms, Martinez, on March 5, 2009, made an appointment with Dr. Sreenivasulu Gangasani at the Cardiovascular Group in Lawrenceville. The physician examined Martinez, and scheduled a stress test to be conducted eight days later.

     At three in the morning of March 12, 2009, the day before his stress test, Martinez and a male friend were in an Atlanta airport motel having a threesome with a woman. When, in the throes of this activity, Martinez rolled off the bed and became unresponsive, one of his sex partners called 911.

     EMT responders failed to revive Martinez at the motel. A short time later he was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital. The officer had died of atheroschlerotic coronary artery disease (hardening of the arteries).

     A few months after Mr. Martinez died from sexual exertion at the Atlanta motel, his widow sued Dr. Gangasani and the Cardiovascular Group for malpractice. According to the plaintiff, the heart doctor had failed to warn Martinez that strenuous physical activity might kill him.

     The defendant's attorney, Gary Lovell Jr., argued that Mr. Martinez, a man who knew he had a bad heart, and had a history of ignoring doctors' orders, was solely responsible for his own death. Instead of administering his own stress test in the motel room, Mr. Martinez should have waited for the treadmill version at the cardiovascular facility. While walking on a treadmill at the medical center might not have been as exciting as 3-way sex, it was less stressful, and a lot safer. If Mr. Martinez was smart enough to be an Atlanta police officer, he should have known this. (With his bad ticker, I'm surprised he was in law enforcement. He must have had a desk job.)

     The Martinez malpractice case went to trial on May 21, 2012. Eight days later, the Gwinnett County jury awarded the widow $3 million. The damages would have been $5 million had the jury not found Mr. Martinez 40 percent liable for  his own demise. Apportioning personal responsibility in this case involved an interesting calculation that begged the question: exactly how did the jury come up with that percentage?  Dr. Gangasani did not cause Mr. Martinez's heart condition, nor did he give the patient permission to have a middle-of-the-night sex orgy. Dr. Gangasani was a heart specialist, not a life coach. 

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Luka Magnotta Cannibal Killer Case

     Tenants in a working-class Montreal, Canada neighborhood complained of a bad smell coming from a pile of garbage behind their apartment building. At ten in the morning on May 29, 2012, when the janitor opened a suitcase at the site of the odor, he discovered a man's bloody torso.

     At 11:15 that morning, in Ottawa, at the Conservative Party headquarters, Jenni Bryne, a top political advisor to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, opened a box that had been mailed to that address. As she opened the package, Bryne was hit by a terrible odor and recoiled at the sight of dried blood. She immediately called 911 which brought the Ottawa police, a hazmat unit, and officers with the Emergency Special Operations Section. The box contained a human foot and a note indicating that six other human body parts were in the mail.

     At 9:30 that night, the Ottawa police announced they had found a second severed body part mailed from Montreal. It was a hand found inside a piece of mail intercepted at the Ottawa Postal Terminal.

     On Wednesday morning, May 30, crime scene investigators and hazardous materials officers entered an apartment in the building where the janitor had found the suitcase containing the blood splattered torso. The masked searchers were interested in a second-story studio apartment rented by a 29-year-old tenant named Luka Rocco Magnotta.

     Luka Magnotta, a stripper, model, and bisexual actor in low-budget adult films who used the names Eric Clinton Newman (his born name) and Vladimir Romanov, had lived in the apartment about four months. Originally from Toronto, Magnotta had an Internet presence that included uploaded videos of animal cruelty. Two years earlier, a video appeared on the Web featuring Magnotta placing a pair of kittens inside an airtight bag then using a vacuum cleaner to suck out the air. He also had a blog under his name called "Necrophilia Serial Killer Luka Magnotta" that featured the following quote: "It's not cool to the world being a necrophiliac. It's bloody lonely. But I don't care." Magnotta was also the author of an Internet article titled, "How to Completely Disappear and Never be Found" in which he laid out a six-step program for changing one's identify.

     On May 25, four days before the gruesome discovery at the Montreal apartment, an uploaded 11-minute Internet video on an Alberta-based website called "Best Gore," showed a man being stabbed, his throat slashed, and his head cut off by an unidentified killer in a dark hoodie. The man in the video also severed the victim's limbs, then committed sexual and cannibalistic acts on the corpse. A dog in the dimly lit room ate part of the body. The snuff video was called, "1 Lunatic 1 Ice Pick." The Canadian authorities believed the torso found behind Magnotta's apartment building, as well as the mailed body parts, belong to the man seen murdered online. Investigators also theorized that Luka Magnotta was the killer/cannibal in the video.

     In Apartment 208, crime scene investigators believed they were at the site of the videoed murder/dismemberment. Detectives also thought the torso found behind the building came from this apartment. The walls and floor were splattered in dried blood and in the bedroom they found a blood-soaked mattress.

     A forensic pathologist examined the torso and the two mailed body parts and found that the remains belonged to the same person.

     Luka Magnotta, the subject of a massive international manhunt, was described as a slightly built man who was five-foot-eight with short black hair and blue eyes. The authorities searching for the fugitive believed he was hiding out in Europe under a false identity.

     The man believed to have been killed in the snuff film was identified as a student from China named Jun Lin. The 33-year-old had been attending Concordia University in Montreal. He had been going out with Magnotta and was last seen on May 24, 2012. Lin was an undergraduate in the engineering and computer science department.

     Montreal Police Commander Ian Lafreniere believed that Magnotta was hiding in France. The fugitive was immediately placed on Interpol's equivalent of the FBI's most wanted list. A Toronto transsexual who had a sexual relationship with Magnotta, informed the police that the porn actor used drugs and possessed a bad temper.

     In 2010, after Luka Magnotta posted the disgusting video involving the kittens, a London reporter with The Sun newspaper questioned him for an article. In an email to The Sun, Magnotta warned that his next uploaded snuff video would not involve cats. "Once you kill, and taste blood, it's impossible to stop," he wrote. After the animal cruelty video was published, animal rights activists in Canada tried to get the authorities to intervene.

     On Monday, June 4, 2012, seven  police officers in Berlin, Germany, acting on a tip from a person who recognized Magnotta, arrested him in an internet cafe. At first Magnotta gave the officers a false name, then said, "You got me." Magnotta was in the cafe reading about himself on the Internet.

     On the day following his arrest, as Magnotta appeared before a German judge on the matter of his extradition back to Canada, staff members at two private boy's school in Vancouver, British Columbia, each received a package that had been mailed from Montreal. The package to the False Creek Elementary school contained a human foot. The parcel opened at St. George's contained a hand. The body parts belonged to Jun Lin. The authorities were still searching for the victim's head.

     Several months following his extradition back to Canada, Magnotta acquired an attorney named Luc   Leclain who argued that his client should be tried for the lesser homicide offense of second-degree murder because the Crown could not prove premeditation in Jun Lin's killing. In May 2013, following a week-long preliminary hearing involving thirty witnesses for the Crown, the Court of Quebec judge ruled that the prosecution had enough evidence to justify trying Magnotta for first degree-murder.

     In addition to first-degree murder, Luka Magnotta stood charged with the lesser offenses of causing indignity to Jun Lin's body (in the U. S. it's called abuse of corpse), broadcasting obscene material, using the postal service to send obscene material, and the harassment of Prime Minister Stephen Harper and other members of Parliament. The Quebec judge scheduled Magnotta's first-degree murder trial for September 14, 2014.

     Luka Magnotta's murder trial got underway on Monday December 15, 2014 before Justice Guy Cournoyer of the Quebec Superior Court. His attorney, Luc Leclair, tried to convince the jury that the defendant, a schizophrenic, committed the murder is a psychotic state that had rendered him legally insane and therefore not guilty by reason of insanity.

     The Magnotta jury did not buy the insanity defense and found the defendant, on December 23, 2014, guilty of first-degree murder. The jurors also found him guilty of the lesser offenses. Judge Cournoyer sentenced Magnotta to life in prison for first-degree murder and gave him 19 years behind bars for the other offenses.

     

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Paul Tarver and The Unknown Hitman

     In September 2001, when Keisha Lewis of Canton, Ohio informed her former boyfriend, Paul Tarver, that she was three months pregnant with his baby, he was not happy. He made it clear that he did not want to be a father. Tarver told Keisha to get an abortion, and if she didn't, he would not support the kid. Keisha said she had no intention of aborting the pregnancy, and would have the child with or without his support.

     Two months later, Keisha and Paul were still fighting over whether she should get an abortion. When Tarver realized she was not going to changer her mind, he threatened to kill her if she didn't end the pregnancy. Keisha said she was reporting him to the police, but didn't follow through on her threat. Perhaps he was just bluffing. After the arguing and threats, Paul Tarver suddenly stopped coming around. Keisha figured he had moved out of her life for good.

     On March 7, 2002, a week before the baby was due, Paul Tarver popped back into Keisha's life, and seemed to be a different man. He apologized for the fighting and the threats, and offered to make amends. He said he wanted to remain friends--for the baby's sake--and in the spirit of good will, he offered to take her out to dinner. Relieved that her baby's father was no longer an enemy, she accepted his invitation.

     A few days later, Paul and Keisha, in the cab of his Ford Ranger pickup, pulled into the spacious parking lot surrounding Canton's Country Kitchen restaurant. Although Keisha was nine months pregnant and had trouble walking, Paul parked the truck in a remote section of the lot far from the restaurant. Keisha had just opened the passenger's door and was about to alight from the vehicle when a man wearing a hooded sweatshirt and gloves stuck a gun in her face and ordered her to slide across the seat so he could squeeze into the truck.

     The armed kidnapper ordered Tarver to drive to a chicken hatchery a few miles from the restaurant where the gunman ordered him to hand over his ring, watch, and wallet. The kidnapper shot Keisha in the abdomen, Tarver in the foot, then jumped out of the truck and ran into the nearby woods. Using his cellphone, Tarver called 911.

     Surgeons, although able to save Keisha's life, could not save the fetus. Doctors treated Tarver's wound which was minor. Keisha suffered major nerve damage that would leave her with a permanent limp.

     Detectives with the Canton Police Department trying to identify the kidnapper didn't have much to go on. Keisha could only provide a general description of the assailant, and Tarver wasn't much help either. Investigators did recover the three shell cases from the shooting scene. A forensic firearms identification expert matched the crime scene firing pin impressions to a .380 Carpati pistol recovered from the site of another Canton shooting. In tracing the history of the gun, police learned that one of the owners was a man who had once worked with Paul Tarver. Detectives also questioned a man from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania Tarver had called several times just prior to the assault. During the interrogation, the Pittsburgh man broke down and cried, then terminated the questioning.

     In October 2002, a Stark County prosecutor at Paul Tarver's murder-for-hire trial presented a weak, circumstantial case against him. The police had still not identified the triggerman. The defendant's attorney did not put his client on the stand in own defense. If he had done so, the jury would have learned about Tarver's long history of drug trafficking and robbery. Perhaps because the defendant did not take the stand to deny that he had paid someone to end his girlfriend's pregnancy, the jury found him guilty.

     The judge sentenced Paul Tarver to 31 years to life. Paul Tarver continued to maintain his innocence, and the triggerman was never identified. This was one of a handful of murder-for-hire cases in which the mastermind was convicted without the testimony or even the identify of the hitman.
      

Friday, November 20, 2015

The Diana Costarakis Murder-For-Hire Case: The Mother-in-Law From Hell

     Diana Reaves Costarakis lived on Buggy Whip Drive in Middleburg, an unincorporated community in northern Florida thirty miles southwest of downtown Jacksonville. The 70-year-old grandmother, in September 2013, asked an unidentified intermediary for advice on how to find a hit man to murder her daughter-in-law, Angela Costarakis. The person the elderly murder-for-hire mastermind reached out to took the request seriously enough to report Costarakis to the Duval County Sheriff's Office in Jacksonville.

     As the standard investigative protocol in murder solicitation cases, murder mastermind Costarakis received a call from an undercover officer who offered to do the job. But first, they would have to meet in person in order for the first installment of the hit money to exchange hands. If the suspect agreed to a face-to-face meeting with the phony contract killer, a videotaped event that normally took place in a box store parking lot, the case would proceed.

     Diana Costarakis told the man on the phone that she would like to meet with him. She agreed to bring with her $500 in cash, the first downpayment for the hit. (It's amazing that almost every murder-for-hire mastermind falls for this trap. These people are so desperate to have someone killed they lose the ability to think straight.)

     Diana Costarakis, on Wednesday, October 9, 2013, met with the undercover cop in the parking lot of a Home Depot store in Jacksonville. With this meeting, she believed she was moving forward in her scheme to have Angela Costarakis murdered. She handed the phony hit man $500 in cash, and promised a second downpayment of $1,000 the next time they met. Upon completion of the job, Costarakis said she would  come up with an additional $3,500. Having someone killed, while a fairly simple, straightforward task, didn't come cheap.

     As a further incentive for the contract killer, the mastermind informed him that the murder target usually wore expensive jewelry, untraceable diamonds that could be fenced without risk. To facilitate the successful completion of the hit man's assignment, Costarakis provided the undercover cop with a photograph of her daughter-in-law, a description of her car, and her home address.

     The next day, in the same Home Depot parking lot, the homicidal grandmother handed the undercover cop the $1,000 in cash. In response to the question of why she wanted Angela Costarakis taken out, the mastermind described her daughter-in-law as a drunk who drove around intoxicated with her 6-year-old daughter in the car. Not only that, the murder-for-hire target, who was in the process of divorcing the mastermind's son, was moving to Denver with her boyfriend. According to the suspect, the couple planned to take the little girl with them. (Most real hit men don't care why the mastermind wants the target murdered.)

     When asked if she was sure she wanted to go ahead with the murder plot, Costarakis replied, "If you don't kill her, I will."

     Having acquired all the evidence he needed, the undercover cop flashed his badge and arrested the suspect on the spot. After reading Costarakis her Miranda rights, she asked to consult with an attorney before speaking to the police. As a result, there was no interrogation and forthcoming confession.

     Charged with criminal solicitation and criminal conspiracy, Diana Costarakis was placed in the Duval County jail where she was incarcerated without bond. She was arraigned on October 31, 2013.

     The day following the murder-for-hire arrest, Angela Costarakis, the target of her mother-in-law's wrath, told a local television reporter that "I am beyond sad and it breaks my heart because it messes up the family. I have compassion. I don't want to see anyone spend the rest of their life in jail. However, I am still just not dealing with it. I just found out. I have not wrapped my head around it." The murder target said she did not have plans to move to Denver with her daughter.

     On August 27, 2014, Diana Costarakis pleaded guilty to solicitation to commit a capital felony. In October 2014 the judge sentenced the 71-year-old murder-for-hire mastermind to seven years in prison

     

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Driving While Stupid

     On October 13, 2015, 23-year-old Whitney Beall, while driving from one bar to another in her 2015 Toyota Corolla in Lakeland, Florida, recorded her alcohol intoxication by video on the social media app Periscope. "Let's have fun! Let's have fun!" she repeatedly exclaimed into the little camera. Also: "Hi everybody in different countries. I really hope you don't mind that I drive, because in the USA it is really important."

     Beall declared herself unfit to drive when she said, " I'm driving drunk and this is not cool. I haven't been arrested yet, and I really don't hope so." A few minutes later she announced this into the video camera: "I'm driving home drunk, let's see if I get a DUI."

     Several people watching the live-steamed video called 911 to report the drunken driver who was exhibiting her condition to the world.

     Lakeland patrol officer Mike Kellner spotted a 2015 Toyota Corolla being driven on the wrong side of the road. He pulled the car over and encountered the social media sensation, Whitney Beall.

     Beall and her car reeked of alcohol, and her eyes were bloodshot and glassy. In addressing the officer, Beall made a series of slurred, rambling statements that included the claim she was lost and driving on a flat tire.

     After failing the field sobriety test, Officer Kellner took the suspect into custody. After refusing to take a breathalyzer test, officers booked Beall into the Polk County Jail on the charge of driving under the influence.

     The day following her DUI charge, Beall made bond and was released from custody. To a reporter she said, "It was a big mistake and I'm learning my lesson." Fortunately, this idiot's "big mistake" and learning experience didn't cost someone his or her life.

     

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Steven L. Robbins: The Convicted Murderer Who Walked Out of the Cook County Jail

     On May 12, 2002, 34-year-old Steven L. Robbins got into a fight at a party in Indianapolis with a man from Kentucky. During the altercation, Robbins shot 24-year-old Richard Melton to death. Eighteen months later, the Gary, Indiana native was found guilty of first-degree murder. The judge sentenced him to sixty years in prison. (Robbins wasn't eligible for parole until 2029.)

     On Tuesday, January 29, 2013, Robbins, now 44, was transported from the state prison in Michigan City, an Indiana town 50 miles east of Chicago, to the Cook County Jail. Robbins had a court hearing the next day pertaining to a 1992 Illinois felony charge.

     On Wednesday, after the judge informed Robbins that the old charge against him had been dismissed in 2007 (why did they summon him to Illinois to tell him that?), the prisoner was returned to the Cook County Jail.

     Corrections officers responsible for hauling Robbins back to Indiana, on Thursday, January 31, called the Cook County Jail to alert officials that they would pick up Robbins for his trip back to prison. That's when the Indiana authorities learned that Robbins had been released from custody the previous evening at seven o'clock. Because no one at the Cook County Jail knew that Robbins was serving a sentence in Indiana for murder, he simply walked out of the massive lock-up through the main door.

     The fact that Steven Robbins had been transported to Chicago to face charges that were dismissed five years ago, suggested there was something profoundly wrong with the corrections bureaucracy in both states. It went without saying that some major corrections SNAFU led to Robbins' easy escape from the Cook County Jail.

     On February 1, 2013, police in the southern Illinois town of Kankakee arrested Robbins at the home of a friend. He was watching TV. The Cook County Sheriff, in an unusual move, took responsibility for the foul-up. "We let people down, no mistake about it." Fortunately, while loose, Robbins did not commit any serious crimes.  For Robbins, the easy part was getting out of the Cook County Jail. Staying out proved more difficult. 

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The Rashad Owens Murder Case

     At midnight on March 13, 2014, a patrol officer in Austin, Texas tried to pull over a vehicle without its headlights on that made an illegal left turn onto an I-35 frontage road. The driver of the car, a 21-year-old rapper from Killeen, Texas named Rashad Owens, refused to stop for the officer. A short time later, in the process of avoiding arrest, Owens drove through a barricade on Red River Street. The street had been blocked off for the South by Southwest film, media, and music festival.

     An intoxicated Owens, at a top speed of 55 miles per hour, plowed his car into thirty festival goers, killing four of them and injuring the others. After driving into the crowd with his headlights off, Owens led police officers on a chase that culminated in his arrested after he fled his vehicle on foot.

     A Travis County prosecutor charged Owens with two counts of capital murder (in some jurisdictions called first-degree murder) and 24 counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. He was held in the Travis County Jail without bond.

     The Owens murder trial got underway in Austin on November 2, 2015. In her opening remarks to the jury, prosecutor Amy Meredith told the jury that because the defendant knew his action put the people on Red River Street in mortal danger, the charges of capital murder in this case were appropriate. The prosecutor argued that Owens had acted with intent and malice, key elements in the offense of capital murder. While the prosecution was not seeking the death penalty, if convicted, Owens would be sent to prison for life without the chance of parole.

     Rick Jones, Owens' attorney, argued that capital murder was not an appropriate charge in the case because his client, while intending to flee the police, did not intend to kill anyone. The defense attorney pointed out that the defendant did not know Red River Street had been closed to traffic. (What did he think the barricade was for?)

     The prosecution began its case with a police dash cam video showing Owens failing to stop for the patrol officer.

     The case went to the jury of seven women and five men on November 6, 2015. The defendant did not take the stand on his own behalf. After just three hours of deliberation, the jurors found Rashad Owens guilty as charged.

     This case will be appealed, and one of the legal points will probably include the issue of criminal intent, or lack thereof, to commit capital murder. 

Monday, November 9, 2015

The Charles D. Young Murder-For-Hire Case

     In May 2005, high school senior Charles D. Young met 17-year-old Wendy Smith (not her real name) at a military ball in Spokane, Washington. He asked her out, and after a month of dating, they began to fight. Typically, after one of their arguments, Charles would stand all night beneath her window, or the next day, follow her around after school. When Wendy tried to end the relationship, he threatened to kill himself. After ten months of enduring Young's weird and obsessive behavior, Wendy told him that she had found someone else. This was not true, but she wanted this strange kid out of her life. Charles refused to take no for an answer, and became Wendy's full time stalker.

     Three months after the breakup, Charles suddenly lost interest in Wendy and slipped out of her life. A few weeks after that, in July 2006, Wendy's parents got in touch with Charles and gave him news he didn't like. Their daughter was pregnant with his child. Charles angrily insisted that the baby couldn't be his, and said that a paternity test would prove it.

     After his initial reaction to the news that he would soon become a father, Charles changed his tone. Following a series of meetings with Wendy and her parents, Charles expressed a desire to help raise the child. But when he stopped communicating with his ex-girlfiend and her parents, they figured they had seen the last of him. They were wrong.

     Back home in Colville, Washington, Charles asked a friend if he knew how much it would cost to have someone killed. A few days later, Charles offered this person $3,000 to either murder or seriously injure his former girlfriend. The main idea, Charles said, was to kill the fetus. If the mother survived, that would be okay with him. The friend, convinced that Charles was serious, contacted the Stevens County Sheriff's Office.

     On October 11, 2006, a few days before Wendy's due date, Charles met an undercover officer in the  town of Suncrest a few miles north of Spokane. With the tape recorder running in the officer's car, Charles said he would pay $3,250 to have the problem with his ex-girlfriend "disappear." Charles said he didn't care if the girl lived or died as long as the fetus was destroyed. The murder-for-hire mastermind handed the officer a photograph of Wendy and a handmade street map showing where she lived. Charles then took out $1,620 in twenty-dollar bills and handed it to the undercover officer. He promised to pay the balance of the hit money when the job was done. After pocketing the money, the officer placed the 18-year-old under arrest. That evening, Charles D. Young found himself inside the Stevens County Jail. The next day the magistrate set his bond at $1 million.

     The Stevens County prosecutor charged Young with solicitation to commit first-degree murder and solicitation to commit first degree-murder of a fetus. A conviction on either charge qualified him for life behind bars.

     In April 2007, Charles Young was allowed to plead guilty to the solicitation of manslaughter. His lawyer described his client to the court as an intelligent young man who had received bad advice regarding his responsibilities as a father. The defense attorney said that his client had apologized to Wendy and her parents.

     The Stevens County judge, in February 2009, sentenced Charles D. Young to six years in prison. The judge justified his extreme leniency on the grounds that this murder-for-hire mastermind had only intended to have the unborn child murdered. The sentencing judge must have forgotten about Young's indifference to whether or not his hit man also murdered or seriously injured the child's mother.

     It's cases like this that undermine one's faith in our criminal justice system. 

Friday, November 6, 2015

The Chinese Sex Dungeon Murder Case

     In August 2009, 33-yeear-old Li Hoa and his wife lived in a apartment complex in Luoyang City, a municipality in central China's Henan Province. Li, a former firefighter, worked in the city's Quality and Technical Supervision Bureau. (I have no idea what he did for the city.) That August, Li Hoa finished building, beneath his apartment building's basement, a three-level living space complex that consisted of a flight of stairs that led down to a tunnel/crawl space that dropped to a pair of adjacent rooms four meters beneath the basement floor. (The tunnel dropped a few feet then made a right angle turn into the living quarters.)

     Li Hoa furnished the rooms, each the size of a small jail cell, with a bed, a chair, a toilet, and a hot plate for heating food. He also wired these underground boxes for electricity, and supposedly did all of this work in a clandestine fashion. (According to Li, his wife thought he had an extra job working as a night watchman.)

     Between August 2009 and September 2011, Li Hoa kidnaped six women in their twenties from area nightclubs, karaoke bars, and salons, and held them captive in his underground rooms. Li raped his prisoners, forced them to perform in pornographic web videos that viewers could upload for a fee, and escorted the women into the city where they worked for him as prostitutes.

     In 2010, Li forced three of his sex slaves to help him beat one of their fellow captives to death. He did this to instill fear and discipline into his sex slaves. He buried the victim's body beneath one of the cells. Less that a year later, Li and three of his women murdered a second prisoner. They buried her body near the first murder victim.

     Li Hoa's sex dungeon operation came to an end in September 2011. One of his unsupervised prostitutes, instead of returning to the underground prison with his money, went to the police. When the captive didn't return to her subterranean quarters as scheduled, Li realized that she had escaped and that his days as a sex slave master were over. He borrowed 1,000 yuan from his sister to help finance his flee from the police, but got caught before leaving the city. (The sister later pleaded guilty to harboring a criminal in return for a probated sentence.)

     Li Hoa faced charges of murder, rape, kidnapping, running a prostitution enterprise, and the distribution of pornography for profit. The three women he had coerced into helping him commit the two murders were convicted of criminal homicide. The judge sentenced two of these defendants to probation, and the third to three years in prison.

     On November 3, 2012, a judge in Luoyang City sentenced Li Hoa to death. Unlike in America where death row inmates often live decades beyond their convictions, Li Hoa died by firing squad on January 21, 2012.

     Although there is much I don't know about this case, I find it hard to believe that Li Hoa's wife didn't know what he was doing beneath the apartment building. Moreover, it's hard to believe that Li built his  underground dungeon in secret. The case reeks of official corruption. I also suspect that in the cases of the missing bar girls, the police were not working that hard to find them.      

Thursday, November 5, 2015

The Philip Chism Murder Case

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     On November 2, 2015, at the start of his mental competence hearing, Chism refused to enter the courtroom, banged his head against the floor and told a psychologist he heard voices and hoped that someone would shoot him. The next day the judge ruled Chism mentally unfit to stand trial. Whether he is eventually convicted of murder or not, Philip Chism will probably spend the rest of his life in a mental institution.