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Sunday, November 19, 2017

Charles Manson And His Murderous Cult

     In Los Angeles, the murders committed by members of Charles Manson's "family" on August 9 and 10, 1969, marked the beginning of a homicidal crime wave that lasted until the early 1990's. Charles Manson, who is still alive and in prison, became the personification of cold-blooded, ritualistic serial killing. The image of this little man's face has come to symbolize demonic evil. While he was not the first insignificant loser to achieve infamy through sociopathic deviancy, his name and his persona have been etched into the annals of murder. Manson's pot-smoking, LSD-taking, hippie followers are the prototypes of today's bath salt, PCP zombies.

     Manson and his murderous crew, inspired by the Beatle's song "Helter Skelter," slaughtered eight people in a plot to start a race war. The man who successfully prosecuted these degenerate misfits, Vincent Bugliosi, wrote a book (with Curt Gentry) about the case called Helter Skelter. The nonfiction book, published in 1974, became a bestseller, and won several literary awards. Mr. Bugliosi died in June of 2015 at the age of 80.

     In 2011, cold-case investigators with the Los Angeles Police Department were looking into 12 unsolved murders committed in the LA area during the Manson family killing spree. Pursuant to that investigation, the LAPD petitioned a federal judge in Texas for the right to review eight cassette audio-tapes containing hours of conversations between Manson follower Charles "Tex" Watson and his attorney. Investigators believed these tapes contained evidence linking Manson and his people to some or all of the unsolved murders.

     In the spring of 2012, the judge granted the LAPD's request for the audio tapes. Watson's attorney appealed the ruling which delayed the LAPD's access to this information.

     In an effort to get around the legal roadblock, Los Angeles detectives acquired a warrant to search the attorney's office for the cassettes. On October 16, U.S. District Court Judge Richard A. Schell issued an order prohibiting the LA detectives from serving their search warrant. In justifying his ruling, Judge Schell wrote: "This court understands and respects the desire of the LAPD to seek access to the 42-year-old tapes. However, the LAPD has provided no explanation as to why this court should shortcut the usual [appeals] procedure...." In other words, what was the emergency?

     Cold-case detectives, relatives of the victims of the unsolved murders, and people interested in Charles Manson and the history of murder, were frustrated by the delay caused by this judge's ruling. But in May 2013, Judge Richard A. Schell released the Watson tapes to the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office. After the recordings were converted into electronic files, the historic legal conversations were given to the cold case investigators looking into the unsolved Los Angeles murders.

     As it turned out, the Watson tapes did not produce evidence that led to the resolution of the unsolved Los Angeles murders. But in September 2014, an attorney for imprisoned Manson follower Leslie Van Houten, announced that the Watson tapes might benefit his client's bid for parole. In May 2015, the state parole board denied her request.

     Charles "Tex" Watson, serving his time at the Donovan State Prison in San Diego, was denied parole in November 2016.

     In 2016, Leslie Van Houten, in her 21st petition for parole, was recommended for parole by the California Parole Commission. Governor Jerry Brown, however, denied the 68-year-old's release.

     On November 17, 2017, 83-year-old Charles Manson was rushed from his prison cell to Mercy Hospital in Bakersfield, California. While corrections authorities refused to reveal the serial killer's medical condition, he was, according to reports, on death's door. In my opinion, Mr. Mason arrived at that door 45 years late.  

The Hunter and the Hunted in Thrillers and Suspense Novels

Many suspense novels and thrillers are based on the drama of the hunter and the hunted. Often a chase requires a one step forward, two steps backward approach. For example, after chasing down many false leads, a police detective finally discovers the suspect's hideout and hurries to secure a search warrant. The scene could end on his assistant rushing into the room with the warrant, and the detective grabbing his keys and heading for the car. Naturally the reader will be curious about where the villain lives and will keep reading. Or the scene might end with the detective arriving at the hideout to discover that the villain has vanished along with all traces of its illegal operation. The question is not only where he has gone, but who tipped him off.

Jessica Page Morrell, Between the Lines, 2006 

Criminalizing Certain Drugs, Regulating Alcohol and Tobacco

     In trying to confront crime and health problems caused by alcohol, tobacco and drugs, American legislatures over time have enacted various laws ranging from criminalization to regulation to revenue-raising. The governmental efforts to eliminate or at least control these quests for pleasure engender intense reactions of approval and disapproval, ideology and rhetoric, culture and religion, and in some cases, racial and ethnic effects.

     But for the past seventy years, the basic response structure has endured intact. Using alcohol and tobacco for pleasure is legal; using drugs for pleasure is illegal. To justify this radical contrast, government asserts a need to control crime and public health problems by criminalizing drug sale and use, with no need to control such problems through a criminal ban on the adult sale and use of tobacco. But when the government punishes Americans for engaging in conduct they want or feel a need to pursue, it needs to have a compelling reason or such action will eventually falter. The political failure of alcohol prohibition, for example, led to its repeal in 1933. [Since the above was written, several states have adopted medical marijuana. Two states have legalized it altogether.]

Henry Ruth and Kevin R. Reitz, The Challenge of Crime, 2003

Thornton P. Knowles On Achieving Literary Fame

Becoming a famous author today is about as likely as becoming a famous plumber. And that's the way it should be. In fact, it's more important to know who can fix your plumbing than who wrote a particular book.

Thornton P. Knowles

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Killing John Adams: Another Wrong House Drug Raid

     Sixty-four-year-old John Adams and his wife Loraine lived in Lebanon, Tennessee, a town of 20,000, 14 miles east of Nashville. John, suffering from arthritis, had retired after working 37 years for the Precision Rubber Company. With his lump-sum disability payment, John had purchased a new Cadillac and a double-wide trailer on Joseph Street, a short, dead-end road on the eastern side of town. His place and the house next door were the only dwellings on the block.

     At 10 o'clock Wednesday night, October 4, 2000, John and Loraine were watching television in their living room when someone pounded loudly on their front door. Loranine got out of her chair, "Who is it?" she asked. Whoever it was didn't respond. The pounding grew more intense. Realizing that someone was breaking down the door, Loraine, thinking that criminals were invading their house, yelled to John, "Baby, get your gun!"

     John Adams grabbed the cane next to his easy chair and hobbled out of the room. Seconds later, five men, wearing helmets and ski masks and dressed in black combat fatigues, burst into the house. They shoved Loraine against a wall and forced her to her knees. Handcuffed and terrified, she said, "Y'all have got the wrong place! What are you looking for?"

     Officers Greg Day and Kyle Shedron, rookies in their mid-twenties, encountered John standing in the hallway holding a sawed-off shotgun. Mr. Adams fired one shot, and the officers returned fire, hitting him in three places. Mr. Adams crumbled to the floor, and died four hours later on the operating table at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville.

     At a news conference the following day, Lebanon chief of police Billy Weeks admitted that his officers had raided the wrong house. He acknowledged that because there were only two residences on that block, and one was a house trailer, people had a right to know how this could have happened. Chief Weeks said that the narcotics officer in charge of the case, a person he would not identify, had written the correct address on the search warrant. This address belonged to the drug suspect's house located next door to the Adams dwelling. The narcotics officer, in directing the SWAT team to the place to be entered, relied on the description of the raid target rather than the address written on the warrant. Nobody could figure out what the hell that meant.

     According to Chief Weeks, the narcotics officer who had acquired the search warrant had been watching the drug suspect's house for more than a month. The judge had issued the warrant after this officer had sworn to him that an informant had purchased drugs at this house. The drug suspect's car had been parked in the Adams's driveway, which may have caused the mix-up. Although this explained how the narcotics cop might have incorrectly assigned the drug suspect's address to the Adams trailer, it also suggested that the officer had not actually witnessed the snitch enter the suspect's place to make the buy. If he had, the wrong description would not have ended up on the search warrant. Nevertheless, Chief Weeks said, "We did the best surveillance we could do, and a mistake was made. It's a very sincere mistake (what does that mean?), a costly mistake. They [Mr. and Mrs. Adams] were not the target of our investigation. [Mr. Adams was, unfortunately, the target of the shooters.] It makes us look at our own policies and procedures to make sure this never occurs again." Mr. Adams had been shot, the chief went on to say, because he fired a shotgun at officers Shedron and Day. The incident (the homicide) was being looked into by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI).

     Chief of Police Weeks called a second news conference on October 19 to update the media on the status of the case. Having earlier assured the public that "We did the best surveillance we could do," he now revealed that "We lost sight of our informant, and that never should occur." It seemed the head of the narcotics unit who had watched the suspect's house, and acquired the search warrant, had not actually witnessed him enter the dwelling for drugs. "What we think happened is that we have a particular [narcotics] supervisor who made a very unwise decision." The "unwise decision" presumably, was to lie to the magistrate who had issued the search warrant.

     Chief Weeks placed this officer on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of the TBI investigation. "We are not trying to make excuses for what happened. But I can tell you that we did identifiy ourselves [before breaking into the wrong house], and maybe they [the occupants] got confused. [Mr. and Mrs. Adams were not confused. They were in the right house.] And I know we were reacting to him [Mr. Adams] shooting at us. But obviously, this wouldn't have happened if we had not been in the man's house.

     John Fox, the mayor of Lebanon, also appearing before reporters that day, made the point that, wrong house or not, Mr. Adams would be alive had the SWAT team not been deployed in the first place. "We're going to back off this knocking down doors," he said. "There's going to have to be some really strong evidence that something life-threatening is actually there. I told him [Chief Weeks] to get rid of those damn black uniforms, get rid of them!" [The Lebanon SWAT team had been trained by DEA agents who recommend that officers dress in the "narco ninja" style which consists of all-black outfits and ski masks.] When we go up to knock on a door, we're going to have our suit and tie, or our [regular] police uniform, and that's it. And when they open the door, a citizen is going to be a citizen until there is actually proof of guilt."

    Mayor Fox also provided information that possibly explained how the narcotics supervisor had confused the suspect's residence with the Adams trailer. According to the mayor, the confidential informant was merely an anonymous tipster. Moreover, the so-called surveillance was nothing more than a "drive-by" scan of the neighborhood. If this were true, it's hard to imagine how the narcotics officer could have acquired the search warrant without fudging the facts.

     The TBI completed its investigation, and on November 3, 2000, a Wison County grand jury indicted Lieutenant Steve Nokes, the head of the Lebanon narcotics unit. Lieutenant Nokes stood accused of criminal responsibility for reckless homicide, tampering or fabricating evidence, and aggravated perjury, all felony offenses. At his trial, Nokes pleaded not guilty, and in June 2001, the jury acquitted him of all charges.

     The city of Lebanon, in May 2002, agreed to pay Loraine Adams the lump sum of $200,000. Pursuant to the court settlement, she would also receive $1,675 a month for the rest of her life. The city also paid Mr. Adams' $45,000 hospital bill, and his $5,804 funeral expenses.

      

Donald Harvey: America's Worst Angel of Death



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

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

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

     The Cincinnati police arrested Harvey, and searched his apartment where they found jars filled with arsenic and cyanide, and books on poisoning. Notwithstanding this evidence, the Hamilton County prosecutor believed that without a confession there might not be enough evidence to convince a jury of Harvey's guilt. The suspect, on the other hand, was worried that if convicted, he would be sentenced to death. So Harvey and the prosecutor struck a deal. In return for a life sentence, Donald Harvey would confess to all of the murders he could remember. Over a period of several days, he confessed to killing, in Kentucky and Ohio, 130 patients.

     When asked why had he murdered all of those helpless victims, the best answer Harvey could muster was that he must have a "screw loose." Forensic psychologists familiar with the case speculated that the murders had given Harvey, an otherwise ordinary and insignificant person, a sense of power over the lives of others. Harvey pleaded guilty to several murders and was sentenced to life. 

The Science in Science Fiction

There's a great deal of evidence that the laws of nature are the same throughout the universe. This fact enables us to make reasonable guesses about what sorts of things might exist in other parts of it. We would not expect, for example, to find civilizations growing in atmospheres consisting principally of hydrogen and oxygen. The laws of chemistry make such an atmosphere too unstable to exist, on Earth or anywhere else. Nor would we expect to find real counterparts of that hoary old cliche of monster movies, giant spiders exactly like Earthly tarantulas but a hundred times larger. A really determined science fiction writer could concoct plausible aliens that superficially looked somewhat like big spiders, but inside, they would have to be very different.

Stanley Schmidt, Aliens and Alien Societies, 1995 

Friday, November 17, 2017

Father Gerald Robinson: Devil Priest or Innocent Man?

     In 1980, 72-year-old Sister Margaret Ann Pahl worked at Mercy Hospital in Toledo, Ohio as the caretaker of the chapel. A strict taskmaster who didn't suffer fools, Sister Margaret worked closely with 42-year-old Father Gerald Robinson, one of the hospital's chaplains. Father Robinson was a popular priest in the heavily Catholic city of 300,000.

     On April 5, 1980, on Holy Saturday, someone found Sister Margaret's bloody body on the chapel floor. She had been choked to near death, then stabbed 31 times in the chest, neck, and face. Some of the stab wounds in her chest formed the pattern of an upside down cross. The killer had also anointed her forehead with a smudge of her own blood. With her habit pulled up to her chest, and her undergarments pulled down around her ankles, the victim had been posed in a position of humiliation. While not raped, the killer had penetrated her with a cross.

     Although detectives on the case immediately suspected Father Robinson of this ritualistic murder, he presided over Sister Margaret's funeral Mass four days after her homicide. The principal piece of crime scene evidence involved a blood stain on the altar cloth consistent with the form of a sword-shaped letter opener in Father Robinson's apartment. The stain bore the vague print of the letter opener's dime-sized medallion bearing the image of the U.S. capitol. However, because the chief detective on the case was a Catholic, and didn't want to scandalize the church, Father Robinson was not arrested. The investigation floundered, and without a suspect, died on the vine.

     In December 2003, a Lucas County cold-case investigative team re-opened the 1980 murder. Father Robinson, over the past 23 years, had served in three Toledo Diocese parishes. The 65-year-old priest, in 2003, was administering to the sick and dying in several area Catholic homes and hospitals. The case came back to life after a woman wrote a letter to the police claiming that Father Robinson had sexually abused her as a child, molestation that involved Satanic ritualistic behavior that involved human sacrifice. (I don't know if this complainant passed a polygraph test, or made the accusation after some psychologist coaxed the memory out of her. After the Satanic hysteria in the McMartin preschool debacle, and the horrible injustice in the Memphis three case, I'm suspicious of this kind of allegation. Human sacrifice? What did that refer to?)

     Following the exhumation of Sister Margaret's body, a forensic pathologist noted that a stab wound in the victim's jaw could have been made by the letter opener found in Father Robinson's apartment. A DNA analysis of the victim's fingernail scrapings, and underwear, excluded the priest. Nevertheless, in April 2006, the police went to Father Robinson's home and arrested him. From the Lucas County Jail where he was held without bail, the priest denied killing Sister Margaret.

     While there was barely enough evidence to legally justify Father Robinson's arrest--no motive, no confession, no eyewitness, and no physical evidence directly linking him to the corpse--the priest went on trial for murder on April 24, 2006. The prosecutor showed the jury a videotape of the defendant's 2004 police interrogation. Father Robinson told his questioners that he had been stunned when one of the other hospital chaplains accused him of murdering Sister Margaret. When left alone for a few minutes in the interrogation room, the priest folded his hands and began to whisper the word "sister," then bowed his head in prayer. At one point he said, "Oh my Jesus." (I don't know exactly how the prosecution interpreted this as incriminating evidence.)

     A prosecution forensic scientist testified that the letter opener "could not be ruled out" as the murder weapon. (The prosecutor, in his closing remarks, told the jury that the letter opener fit one of the victim's stab wounds "like a key in a lock." Instruments used in stabbings cannot be scientifically linked to their wounds this way. In my view, that statement alone should have been adequate grounds for a reversal on appeal.) The forensic scientist also testified that the altar cloth bloodstains were "consistent with" the general shape of the letter opener. On cross-examination, this witness conceded that a pair of missing scissors could have left the blood stain on the altar cloth.

     On May 11, 2006, the jury, after 9 days of testimony, and 6 hours of deliberation, found Father Robinson guilty. The 70-year-old priest became the second priest in U.S. history to be convicted of criminal homicide. (The first was a priest named Hans Schmidt.) The judge sentenced Robinson to 15 years to life. Incarcerated at the Hocking Correctional Facility in southern Ohio, the priest was first eligible for parole in 2016.

     Two months after the murder trial, Ohio's 6th District Court of Appeals upheld the conviction. In December 2008, the Ohio Supreme Court declined to hear the case. About a year later, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to entertain the appeal as well.

     While it seemed that Gerald Robinson had run out of legal remedies, his legal team, in 2010, petitioned the state appeals court for post-conviction relief on the grounds that Sister Margaret may have been murdered by a 27-year-old confessed serial killer named Coral Eugene Watts. Watts, a black man, had stabbed 12 women to death in Texas, and at least one woman in Michigan. Police suspected him of killing another 80 victims. Watts had left many of the women with their blouses pulled up to their necks. He had not sexually molested any of his victims. They had all been posed in humiliating positions.

     On April 11, 2011, the Ohio appeals court denied the Robinson petition. According to the appellate judges, Father Robinson's attorneys, at the time of his 2006 trial, knew of Watts as a possible suspect in Sister Margaret's murder, but chose not to pursue this as a defense strategy. Moreover, there were dissimilarities between the serial killer's modus operandi and Sister Margaret's homicide. For one thing, Coral Eugene Watts had typically stalked young women before he killed them outdoors.

     A year later, the Robinson defense team again petitioned the state court of appeals to toss out the 2006 murder conviction. This time the priest's lawyers accused the prosecution of withholding key documents in the case. Regarding the issue of serial killer Watts, Robinson's trial attorneys didn't pursue that line of defense in 2006 because they mistakingly thought he was serving time when Sister Margaret was murdered. As it turned out, on April 5, 1980, Watts was living in southern Michigan, just 40 miles from Toledo. As for modus operandi, the priest's attorneys found Watts' killings and the death of the nun "eerily similar." (Coral Eugene Watts died in 2007 of prostate cancer. He was 53 and serving time in a Michigan prison.)

     Father Gerald Robinson's latest appeal was pending before the Ohio court. While the priest had many supporters who believed in his innocence following his 2006 conviction, it's not clear how many people were still with him and closely following his bid to clear his name and get out of prison. (I don't know who murdered Sister Margaret Ann Pahl in the hospital chapel back in 1980, but from what I know of the case against Gerald Robinson, I don't think the prosecution's evidence supported his conviction.)

     In June 2014, United States District Court Judge James Guin denied a request for the release of Father Robinson. The priest had been ill and, according to reports, didn't have long to live. The judge said he didn't have the jurisdictional authority to grant the motion.

     Father Robinson had a heart attack on Memorial Day 2014 and died on July 4. He passed away in the prison hospital after being told he had 30 to 60 days to live. He was 76,

     

Thornton P. Knowles On Authorship

There should be no such thing as a ghost writer or an as-told-to author. If you didn't write the book, you should not be allowed to claim its authorship. Literature's great benefit from this rule would be the elimination of the so-called "celebrity memoir" genre.

Thornton P. Knowles

Intramural Sex at a Texas High School

     Saralyn Gayle Portwood was arrested on April 17, 2014 for suspicion of having an inappropriate relationship with a student. She's been suspended from Princeton High School [Texas] pending the outcome of the investigation.

     In an interview with authorities, the teacher's 17-year-old alleged victim, who is not enrolled in Portwood's special education classes, said that the 30-year-old teacher began harassing him at school earlier this year. She would compliment his appearance and inappropriately brush against him and touch him, he said. The student claimed that he told Portwood several times that he wasn't interested in a relationship with her, but she persisted, and he did not know how or who to tell….

     One day, the student said, he was called into Portwood's office. Once he was there, she pushed him against a desk, pulled down his shorts and performed oral sex….

     Portwood is married to another teacher in the Princeton School District, and they have a son. School district officials said the allegations surfaced after teachers overheard some disturbing rumors…."It was just rumors by some kids talking, and some teachers overheard. So, when we found out that there truly was an allegation, we immediately called our local law enforcement," Superintendent Philip Anthony said.

     If convicted, Portwood could face up to 20 years in prison.

Andres Jaurequi, "Special Ed Teacher Accused of Forcibly Performing Oral Sex on Student," The Huffington Post, April 22, 2014