Monday, November 30, 2009

Baby Grace: A Postmortem

by Kathryn Casey

Some news stories touch the heart, staying with us long after they've disappeared from the headlines. The ones that never leave me are those involving children. There's a reason I haven't written about murdered kids. I've considered it off and on, but some crime scene photos I don't want imprinted on my brain, invading my sleep and keeping me awake at four a.m.

Every once in a while, I reconsider my situation, wondering if it's time to make an exception. For instance, when her body was found in July 2007, I thought about writing a book on Houston's Baby Grace case. Something about the original sketch of the two-year-old pulled at me. Those wide set eyes, the baby teeth visible through her smiling lips, the long blond hair that fell in waves. Even after a couple of decades writing about crime, I have a tough time understanding how some murders are possible, why someone would kill a small child.

When Baby Grace was found in Galveston Bay and the drawing of her face proliferated across the nation, I wanted to turn away from the images flashed on television and front-page in the newspapers. It all seemed too awful. Another child brutally murdered, this one beaten to death, then left to rot in a box thrown into the water, callously discarded like so much garbage. More evidence that mankind is capable of the worst acts.

Of course, before long we slowly learned the truth. Sheryl Sawyers from Ohio came forward and claimed Baby Grace, introducing her to us as her granddaughter, little Riley Ann Sawyers. Since that day, Riley Ann's mother, and I do use the word very loosely, Kimberly Dawn Trenor, and her husband, Royce Clyde Zeigler II, have been found guilty of the child's murder. According to a statement by Trenor, Riley Ann died during a day-long session in which Zeigler stayed home from work in order to make sure his stepdaughter was properly disciplined. Throughout that horrific day, Riley Ann was repeatedly beaten with leather belts and her head held underwater. The autopsy pegged the fatal blow as any one of those resulting in three skull fractures.

Once the child was dead, Zeigler and Trenor went to Wal-mart, where they bought the plastic container the body was found in. They then wrapped Riley Ann's small corpse in garbage bags. For the next two months, before throwing it in Galveston Bay, the container with the body inside sat in their garage.

Earlier this month, on November 6th, the Baby Grace case officially ended. That was the day that Zeigler, like Trenor before him, was sentenced to life in a Texas prison. There may be appeals ahead, since Zeigler is maintaining that he's really a nice guy, and it was Trenor who beat her daughter to death, not him. But the likelihood is that the case is over. There seems little left to say, except to trust that Riley Ann is now in a better place. For her, the nightmare has ended.

We now know why and how Riley Ann died, but I'm left wondering if there's anything to be learned from this horrible case. It seems that something good should come from all this, that we should learn something about the human condition, why these horrible tragedies happen and how to prevent them. Yet, as often as I've considered this case, it has given me absolutely no sense of redemption, no hope that it has revealed anything that could save another child's life.

I wonder at times if there's anything to be done, or if we simply have to learn to accept the fact that there will always be those who don't appreciate the great gift of a daughter or son, and a small percentage who will commit the ultimate crime, murdering a vulnerable child who looks at them with love.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Shoe Prints Make Good Impressions

by Andrea

Criminals think they’re clever by not leaving fingerprints, but they may neglect another area: shoe prints. Shoe prints—or footprints, as they’re usually called—are the most common impression left at or near a crime scene.

Stepping Up
Prints are found outside in dirt, mud, clay, and snow. In urban areas they’re left on the rooftops of apartment buildings. Sometimes they are found inside when the perpetrator tracks dirt into the house—or when they have walked through something like paint, dirt, or blood. If investigators can use footwear or tire tread evidence to show that a person was at the crime scene, the suspect will have to have a good explanation for being there. If the impression found is created from blood, the suspect will need a really good explanation!

Comparisons: Start with Characterizing
Since shoe types and styles number in the thousands, comparisons are first narrowed down by size, type, brand, design, and shape. Then individual characteristics are studied such as nicks, cuts, or wear patterns. Perhaps a stone wedged into the tread. Even with flat-bottomed deck shoes, the stitching in soles is unique, and no two will look alike in a print.
When footwear impressions or tire tracks are found at a crime scene, they’re photographed. If a depression is left in mud, for example, a cast or moulage (French for casting/moulding) is made.

How to Make a Plaster Cast
Some special equipment is needed to make a perfect plaster cast. Here’s how the pros do it:
  •  Clean out any loose material without disturbing the impression. 
  •  Spray a fixative onto the surface.
  •  Build a portable frame or wood ledge and place it around the track mark.
  •  Mix plaster of Paris or dental stone casting material and pour it over the marks.  Another product, Snow Print Wax, can be used for impressions found in packed snow.
  •  Place reinforcement sticks or cheesecloth into the mixture.
  •  When casting is hard, carefully lift it out and put it in a cardboard box upside down to dry.
Gait Patterns, Too
Casts are used for identification, and they also provide clues to the movement, direction, and speed of the person who made them. For instance, the cast of a runner’s footprint will differ from that of a walker—a running foot will sink deeper in front, with less weight distributed to the heel upon landing. Analysts can also answer such questions as: Was he was carrying something heavy? Was he wounded? Did he carry soil away on his shoes as he left? (Soil samples are usually taken in case they are needed later, to match such soil.)
Latents (Not Readily Visible)

Latent shoe prints are found on counter tops, staircases, and walls, and footwear impressions can be lifted just like fingerprints using chemicals and powder. One bank robber climbed over the counter during a holdup—and his shoes matched the print made on the surface perfectly.

But for the flimsiest of all evidence, shoe prints found in dust, another system is needed. The best way is to turn out the lights and shine a light—a flashlight will do—against the hard, dusty surface and document that with a photograph. In order to preserve these footprints, analysts use an electrostatic dust lifter. A sheet of black lifting material, like foil, is laid over the surface. A high-voltage charge is run through the material. The electricity makes the dust stick to the sheer, and voilà—an image! The process is nondestructive and works on just about any surface.

Unusual Prints: A Case Story
A state trooper in Alaska was called in to investigate several cases of moose poaching. (Bet you didn’t know that moose poaching is a crime.) Some earlier cases had been solved due to the carelessness of the criminals, who had left behind incriminating evidence such as a boot print and, in one memorable case, a wallet complete with the poacher’s driver’s license! One culprit, though, seemed to have left no clues at all—until police discovered a clear print of his license-plate number where he had backed his vehicle up against a snow bank. 

Photo courtesy of ©Ron Roberts 

 Excerpt from Andrea's Detective Notebook: Crime Scene Science (available on CD)

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Giving Thanks in an Imperfect World

by Pat Brown

I am alone tonight (with my four cats) in the suburbs of Washington DC. I have a chance to reflect about my life, about all of our lives on this planet, to think back on a year of communal struggle with recession, fear, crime, and war. I think of what I have to give thanks for. I wonder what victims of crime and families who have suffered loss of loved ones can give thanks for. And I find there is always something if we break down our lives into moments instead of results.

I met a woman the other day at the movie theatre and we chatted for a while as we walked toward our cars in the parking lot. She told me how she felt life and the people she loved had let her down; that her life seemed a failure. I asked her how she would describe a vacation where she saw the most beautiful sunset on the beach, had a delightful picnic in a butterfly reserve, attended a fabulous musical show during the first half of the trip but during the second half it rained every day, the people at the hotel were rude, the dinner at the restaurant was horrible and then she fell down the steps while sightseeing and broke her foot.

When she told me she would view the vacation as a terrible one. I asked why she discounted the worth of the wonderful experiences she had during the first half? She smiled and said, "Well, I guess because the trip wasn't perfect and it didn't end well." Welcome to life.

We can all makes lists of bad things and good things that happen to us on our journey through the years. Some of us will have longer good lists, and some longer bad lists, but most of us will have a fair amount on both sides. And in those lists, we will have different qualities of experience, some mildly pleasant and some magnificant, some slighty disappointing and some devastating. Sometimes a bad experience will lead to a good one and vice versa. Isn't life fascinating?

I had a tubal pregnancy and infertility that led to the adoption of my third child. I had a difficult divorce that led me to a wonderfully close relationship with my sister and her husband and a whole new set of friends. Each door that closed was painful, but each door that opened was an adventure.

If we view life as a series of short stories instead of a novel, we can expect to have some chapters that are humorous, some romantic, some challenging, some exciting, some tragic, some spiritual, and some bittersweet. And we never know when one chapter will end and another will begin.

Today, as we spend time with friends and family or find ourselves alone with God, please let us remember to be thankful for each chapter of our lives and grateful for the people who have shared our stories with us for whatever time we had together.

Crime will return to Women in Crime Ink tomorrow, but for now, I wish you all a great Thanksgiving with your loved ones, and for those who are suffering the absence of a loved one, may your memories be comforting.

Happy Thanksgiving from Women in Crime Ink

From all of us at Women in Crime Ink to all of you and your families: Happy Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Our Hysterical Media

By Laura James

I have three theories on why the mass media hypes certain types of true crime stories. First, certain kinds of cases hit our buttons and drive up viewership. Second, exaggerating a case to "historic" proportions makes the journalist feel more important, since it strokes the ego to think one is reporting on a history-shattering event. Third, whatever drives up ratings is likely to have a divisive political angle worth exploring for ratings the next day.

Every media outlet in the country is guilty of these sins. I can prove that. Outrageous sensationalism is most often associated with mass murders, especially those committed with a "semi-automatic weapon" (news flash: most guns are "semi-automatic"). Another kind of case that attracts a lot of hype, over-analysis and speculation is the family annihilator.

There are dozens of workplace shootings every year. We'll hear about one and only one, I'd guess, this year. Sadly, that recent massacre took place in a city that had experienced just such a madman's rampage decades ago. Very few news outlets bothered to mention that earlier incident. Why? They prefer to think of every story they cover as unprecedented and unique. Precedents spoil hype.

Here is more proof. The most respected media outlets in the United States sensationalize true crime stories to the point of making blatantly false statements for the sake of a great opening sentence.

The mass shooting at Virginia Tech was not even close to being the worst massacre in US history, or even the worst school massacre in US history. But it was hyped exactly as such by none other than these outlets. (I noted the exact quote in case the links expired, and many did.)

On the Virginia Tech massacre, every single statement a false one:

MSNBC - "the worst school massacre in US history"
ABC - George Stephanopoulos: "The worst campus massacre before Virginia Tech was back in the University of Texas in 1966."
Newsweek - "worst massacre in U.S. history"
Time - "the worst massacre in US history"
Baltimore Sun - "the worst school massacre in US history"
Los Angeles Times - "the worst school massacre in history"
Court TV Crime Library "the worst mass murder in American history," indeed! This is a particularly egregious and unforgivable error on a website that purports to offer encyclopedic treatment of historic crimes, including articles on the Bath massacre and Mountain Meadows.
New Jersey Star-Ledger - "America's worst campus massacre"
Atlanta Journal-Constitution - "worst campus massacre in US history"
New York Daily News - "the worst campus massacre in American history"
Troy Record - "the nation's worst massacre"
WorldNetDaily - "America's worst school massacre"
Campus Times - "worst school massacre in United States history"
Shreveport Times - "worst massacre in American history"
Asheville Citizen-Times "The worst massacre in U.S. history"
Janesville Gazette - "the worst massacre in US history"
Roanoke Times - "worst school massacre in US history"
Daily Titan - "worst massacre in US history"
Bakersfield Californian - "the worst massacre in the country's history."

You'd think the press would've remembered having to correct their reporting when they erroneously fluffed the Columbine massacre as the "worst ever." Oops - I assume too much - did they correct themselves?

For the record, the worst school massacre in U.S. history took place in Michigan. The worst massacre ever is more difficult to discern because of all of the horrific examples. There was never a need to exaggerate any of them.

* * *

Once a newspaper touches a story, the facts are lost forever, even to the protagonists.

--Norman Mailer

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

'A Death in the Desert'

by Cathy Scott 

The Las Vegas homicide investigation into casino heir Ted Binion's death culminated in not just one trial, but two. The case, which attracted a media herd, became known as Las Vegas's biggest trial, surpassing even the storied mob trials from the 1980s. 

The case has also been called a "murder mystery." But Binion's death was hardly a mystery -- a point hammered home in a documentary recently aired on Investigation Discovery Channel's "On the case with Paula Zahn." In "A Death in the Desert," Zahn carefully laid out the discrepancies in the case. 

Binion died sometime in the late morning hours of Sept.17, 1998. It was no secret he'd struggled with drugs for years. The day before his death, Binion bought tar heroin from his drug dealer. His next-door neighbor, a physician, filled a Xanax prescription for him. So Binion's stately home wasn't treated as a crime scene after his body was discovered. The casual police behavior, compounded by people walking in and out removing valuables such as expensive fine art and silver coins, would come back to haunt the prosecution team: There was no smoking gun, and police gathered no hard evidence from the scene.

But in the days following Binion's death, Sandy Murphy, his live-in girlfriend of three years, became a suspect, as did Rick Tabish. Tabish, Binion's friend, would eventually be linked romantically with Sandy. 

Spurred largely by Binion's baby sister, Becky Behnen, the district attorney indicted Murphy and Tabish in Binion's death. Becky had a bitter falling out with her brother before his death. The two hadn't spoken in months, and they were rumored to have taken out contracts on each other's lives. The rumors never substantiated, but to put it mildly, Ted and Becky didn't like each other. 

Many things struck me as odd while I covered the case as a journalist. For one, Las Vegas police allowed private detective Tom Dillard to take over and lead the police investigation. Granted, he was a retired homicide detective from the Las Vegas police department. Still, it was unprecedented. 

Add to that the fact that Dillard was paid a whopping $400,000 by Binion's estate to investigate the case, a point confirmed by Murphy's defense attorney Michael Cristalli in the documentary. Despite the odd involvement of the highly paid outside investigator, the case moved forward through the judicial system. I was fascinated by red flags in the case; I started writing a book about it while covering it for Reuters news service and the now-defunct It had the makings of a made-for-TV movie (which, ultimately, it became).

The Binion family had a Wild West reputation, starting with Ted's father, Benny, (left) who once served prison time for killing a man in Texas. The younger Binion was also known for wild behavior. He also was accused of killing a man, but, unlike his father, he was never charged. So it came as no surprise when the media covered Ted Binion's death intensely. Court TV aired the first trial gavel-to-gavel. National and international TV and print reporters, along with a courtroom artist, filled the courtroom each day.

At the end of that trial, in 2000, Murphy and Tabish were each convicted of murder and of burglarizing Binion's underground vault to unearth his buried silver, which was worth millions (the Binions were known for burying their fortunes on family owned property). 

Murphy and Tabish appealed their convictions and, on a technicality, were granted a new trial by the Nevada Supreme Court. Once again, they were tried together. It was during the second trial, with Tabish represented by radical civil rights attorney J. Tony Serra, that the prosecution's case against the pair unraveled. 

During the first trial, circumstantial evidence presented by star expert witness Michael Baden all but sealed Murphy and Tabish's fate--that is, until Serra came along for the second trial. Serra questioned Baden at length about a so-called button mark left on Binion's chest. Baden testified during the first trial that the mark was made by someone sitting on Binion, compressing his chest, while simultaneously holding a hand over Binion's nose and mouth to suffocate him. In May 2000, Murphy and Tabish were each convicted of murder and of burglary of Binion's buried silver cache. Jurors interviewed afterward said Baden's testimony swayed them toward guilty verdicts.

During the second trial, however, attorneys Serra and Cristalli used enlarged photos to prove that the button mark on Binion's chest was actually a blister. In November 2004, the jury returned not-guilty verdicts on the murder charges but let stand the burglary convictions.
Today, Sandy Murphy lives in Southern California. After the second trial, she was granted time served for the burglary charge and released. Rick Tabish remains in a Nevada prison and is expected to be released sometime in 2010. Sandy continues, through the court system, to clear her name in the burglary case.

As I said during my interview with the Investigation Discovery Channel, I'm certain there was no murder, that Ted Binion instead died from a self-induced drug overdose. It was, as Tony Serra observed, "casino royalty" and the "Binion money machine" who convicted the pair.

The second edition of my book, Death in the Desert: The Ted Binion Homicide Case, will be released in the spring of 2010. 

Photos of the Binions courtesy of the Binion Collection.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Texas and Rick Perry - Another Execution

by Katherine Scardino

I am so angry over the execution of Robert Lee Thompson. At 6:00 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 19, 2009, Rick Perry presided over his 207th execution in the nine years since he became governor of Texas. That's more executions during his tenure than the 152 the illustrious George W. Bush managed. It's a record Perry will have the honor of living with for the rest of his life.

Robert Lee Thompson was executed by lethal injection despite the extremely rare recommendation by the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles that his sentence be commuted to life. Mr. Thompson was executed even though he didn't kill anyone. In this case, the shooter was his co-defendant, Sammy Butler, who is now serving a life sentence. But the kicker is even worse: The jury sentenced the co-defendant to life in prison after the prosecutors failed to prove he intended to kill the victim. So, let’s see -- the actual shooter got life because the prosecutor couldn't prove intent, so the guy standing next to him, who wasn't the killer, got a death sentence.

Mr. Thompson died because Rick Perry decided the State of Texas should continue killing people despite the objection of a growing number of local voters and world governments. Texas is the laughing stock of most other countries. I've heard Canada calls us the hind end of the United States.

Mr. Thompson was convicted and sentenced to death legally. It's legal in Texas to charge an individual with capital murder if he's a “party” to the offense. He was present, and he knew the murder would or could happen. In law school, we were given the example of the guy waiting in the car outside the bank while his armed buddy goes inside to rob the teller. In the process of the robbery, a shooting occurs, and the teller is dead. The guy in the car knew his cohort had a gun. So the driver is just as guilty as the person who actually went inside the bank and pulled the trigger.

Over the years, there have been many debates over the death penalty for a “non-shooter.” Some jurisdictions have refused to execute a person if they are a party, as opposed to being the person who fired the fatal shot. Texas has no such compunction. We kill everyone.

In this case, Robert Lee Thompson, 34, was a party to a murder. The Board of Pardons and Paroles sent a letter to Gov. Perry requesting he commute the death sentence to life without parole. Mr. Perry refused to commute the sentence. Mr. Thompson was injected with a three-drug combination that even veterinarians won’t use on animals, and he is no longer breathing our air. Aren’t we lucky, and don’t we feel so much better? This man wasn't a threat to anyone anymore. He was behind bars in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. He wasn't going to ever, I repeat, ever see the light of a free day for the rest of his natural life. He was living in a little box with no human contact; food was served to him through a hole in his cell door. What did we gain by executing him? Oh, I know. We maintained our reputation as the biggest bunch of idiots this side of Pluto.

Another death penalty case our governor controlled was Napoleon Beazley. Mr. Beazley was 17 years old at the time he killed a man during a robbery. He had a perfect disciplinary record while he was in jail and subsequently in prison. He was remorseful and stated so at every opportunity. He was a young man who had not yet grown to adulthood. Gov. Perry refused to commute his sentence to life, despite the many letters in support of a life sentence. Mr. Beazley was executed in May 2002. Three years later, the U.S. Supreme Court decided the case of Roper v. Simmons, ruling that the great United States could not execute convicts who were younger than 18 when they committed a capital crime. Too bad it wasn't any help to the late Mr. Beazley.

I've heard all the arguments in favor of the death penalty. I understand that grieving families want to see the sentence carried out. But adding another killing is not justice; it's vengeance. As a Texan, I feel that my state killing a man who didn't fire a fatal shot is unjust and wrong. The recommendation that Mr. Thompson’s death sentence be commuted to life in prison was one of only two written by the Board of Pardons and Paroles in the past two years -- during which Texas executed 41 people. I would hope that when such a recommendation is made, our governor would, at the minimum, pay some respect to the judgment of people he appointed to that board and consider what they have to say.

Come on, Texas. Make the rest of us proud. Let’s not be the “hind end” of the United States anymore.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Murder of 'Mob Princess' Susan Berman Remains A Mystery

The following is an excerpt from Cathy Scott's latest book, The Rough Guide to True Crime, released by Penguin Books in August. Susan Berman is the subject of an earlier book by Scott titled Murder of a Mafia Daughter: The Life and Tragic Death of Susan Berman (Barricade Books), due out in a second edition early next year.

by Cathy Scott

The life of a journalist and author who spent her adult years writing about her mob roots ended dramatically, like a character in one of her books. Susan Berman, 55, was murdered in her
Beverly Hills, California, home. She was shot execution-style by an unknown assailant just as New York state police were scheduling an interview about a decades-old unsolved missing-person's case.

Berman’s body was found on December 24, 2000, inside her rundown rented house in the woodsy
Benedict Canyon neighborhood, where she lived with her three dogs. The front door had been left wide open – there were no signs of a forced entry or struggle, no signs of a sexual assault, and no items had been stolen from the house.

Susan had lived what she once described as a perfect childhood, despite being the daughter of a Jewish mobster. In the 1930s and '40s, her father,
Davie Berman, was part of the same crime syndicate as Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel and mob kingpin Meyer Lansky. Working with Lansky, considered one of the shrewdest gangsters to ever walk the streets of 20th-century New York, gave Davie the opportunity to learn from the mob's top echelon. After all, Lansky was known as Lucky Luciano’s right-hand man and the mob’s financial mastermind.

As a trio, Berman, Siegel and Lansky pioneered the development of Las Vegas from a sleepy desert cow town to a thriving gambling Mecca. Nevertheless, the gangsters soon found themselves in an uneasy alliance with the Italian Mafia, who moved in on the Jewish mob’s territory. Davie, who co-owned the famous Flamingo Hotel and Casino with Siegel and Lansky, ran the place after Siegel was murdered in 1947 (in the Beverly Hills home of his mistress, Virginia Hill). Only in 1951, after the highly publicized and televised Kefauver Committee hearings of the US Senate’s investigation into organized crime, did the public become aware of the extent of Jewish involvement in the underworld.

Susan was unaware of her father’s underworld dealings until she became an adult, but her Las Vegas childhood was not exactly normal. Her father had slot machines installed in Flamingo Hotel rooms so his daughter could pass the time gambling and ordering room service. Susan enjoyed the life of a spoiled, indulged child. She wanted for nothing. Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra and Liberace performed at her birthday parties. Davie drove fancy new Cadillacs. To his Susie, he was the world. What Susan did not know then was that when mob families were feuding, her family was in danger. During times of mob unrest, Davie piloted Susan away to Los Angeles, flying out of McCarran Field to the Los Angeles airport, and then to the Beverly Wilshire Hotel for two or three days. He told Susan they were short vacations. Bodyguard Lou Raskin, a mountain of a man, lived with the Bermans so he could watch over Davie’s precious daughter. Susie remembered the trips as wonderful outings. She fell in love with Los Angeles.

The high-society lifestyle of the “Mafia Princess”, as the media called her, came to an abrupt end in 1957, when she was twelve. That year her father died during intestinal surgery. Only a few months later her mother Gladys committed suicide by taking a barbiturate overdose. Her Nevada childhood would haunt Susan for the rest of her life. In the ensuing years, what Berman wanted most was for her father to be remembered for his contributions to the development of Las Vegas. She wrote about Davie in two memoirs, 1981’s critically acclaimed Easy Street and 1996’s Lady Las Vegas. There was speculation after Susan's death that perhaps digging into Davie’s mob past was what got Susan killed. When police, responding to reports of dogs running loose, found Susan’s lifeless body on the floor of her rented house, they also noticed a 1920s Chicago Police “WANTED” poster for her father. Combined with the cause of death – a single gunshot wound to the back of the head – it was not surprising that detectives wondered if Susan had been whacked by the Mafia. That notion was soon debunked when they realized the mobsters of her father’s era would be between 90 and 100 years old. Moreover, nothing Susan was working on was anything she would be killed over.

One person of interest to the police was Berman’s
University of California classmate Bobby Durst. She regularly referred to him as her brother and her best friend. They had much in common. Durst was a multimillionaire and the eldest son of a rich New York real-estate tycoon family. Like Berman, Durst’s mother committed suicide when he was a child, falling from the roof of the family mansion while her son watched.

Durst’s wife,
Kathleen McCormack, went missing in 1982; he was questioned about the disappearance but never charged with any crime. In 1999, Kathleen’s parents went to court and had their daughter declared dead, even though no body was ever found. It cleared the way for them to settle her estate. But it also cleared the path for Durst to remarry, which he did.

Questioned about Susan’s killing, Durst told investigators he’d spent the holidays in the Hamptons with his second wife at the time Berman was gunned down. But Durst’s wife, Debra Lee Charatan, did not corroborate her husband’s claim. Durst’s celebrity lawyer, Dick DeGuerin, offered up a different alibi: Durst, he said, was on a plane Christmas Eve day – headed from San Francisco, where Durst owned a home, to New York - when Berman’s body was discovered. About the same time police were arriving at Berman’s home, DeGuerin said, Durst was on a plane. The problem with that alibi was that police said Berman had been dead for two days when her body was discovered, which meant Durst was not off the hook. Instead of providing an alibi for his client, DeGuerin unwittingly placed Durst in California at the time of Berman’s murder, just up the coast from the crime scene. Durst, 57 at the time of Susan’s death, was not charged in connection with her murder.

Three years later he was, however, tried for killing
Morris Black, an elderly neighbor of his in Galveston, Texas. Durst had moved to that state for fear of being indicted in New York by the Westchester County district attorney, who had reopened the investigation into Durst's first wife’s disappearance. He lived in disguise, masquerading as a mute woman and renting a $300-a-month apartment. Morris Black, 71, a bad-tempered former seaman, lived across the hall.

Black’s body was butchered and stuffed into garbage bags that were found floating in
Galveston Bay. Durst was arrested and charged with murder. He posted a $300,000 bond and then jumped bail, leaving the state and thus becoming a fugitive. He was found six weeks later in Pennsylvania, when – despite having $500 in his pocket – he was caught shoplifting a chicken sandwich, a Band-Aid and a newspaper. At trial, Durst admitted the killing, but claimed self defense.

In a shock verdict, the jury acquitted him.

If Durst had admitted to killing Morris Black, then what about Susan Berman, her friends asked. Could he have killed Susan … and his first wife, Kathleen, too? Medical student Kathleen, 29, was last seen on Jan. 31, 1982. Durst told police he’d put her on a Manhattan-bound train at a Katonah, N.Y., station so she could return to classes in the city the next day. He remained at their cottage near South Salem, Westchester County. Five days later, he reported his wife missing.

At the time, Susan Berman acted as Durst’s unofficial spokeswoman, fielding telephone calls from the media so Bobby did not have to deal with them. The dean of Kathleen Durst’s college told investigators that a woman identifying herself as Kathleen called in sick to school around the time of her disappearance. Friends and family believe Susan in fact made that call; they believe Susan knew too much about Kathleen Durst’s disappearance – and that’s what got her killed. Susan, so her confidants said, could be pushy. Perhaps, they surmised, Susan had pushed too far. After all, she’d contacted Bobby and asked for a loan so she could buy a used SUV. Instead, Bobby Durst sent her two separate checks for $25,000, telling her in a note that they were gifts, not loans. Still, the investigation of Durst by Los Angeles police detectives went cold. Authorities named a second man, Nyle Brenner, Susan’s manager, as a person of interest in the case. That probe too went nowhere.

No eyewitnesses to Susan’s murder ever came forward. Susan’s killer simply escaped into the night. At the scene, investigators found the casing of a spent bullet used in a 9mm handgun. It was the best evidence they had. After Durst was arrested in the Black case and police found a 9mm handgun in the trunk of his car, LAPD investigators traveled to Texas and did ballistics tests on the gun to see if it matched the casing found at Berman’s house. The tests were inconclusive.

According to the lead detective, Paul Coulter, he would have done things differently had homicide investigators been called in to handle the case from the start. His office, however, was not given the case until a few days after a news release was issued – eleven long days after the murder. As a result, reporters across the globe began calling the LAPD for information. That was when higher-ups handed off the case to the Robbery-Homicide unit.

“It’s very difficult, because we weren’t there from the get-go,” Detective Coulter said in a telephone interview. Jerry Stephens, Coulter’s partner on the case, retired in mid-2003. Another detective, Jesse Linn, replaced Stephens and paired up with Coulter in the investigation. Later, however, no one seemed to be investigating the murder. There were no new clues or leads.

The Berman investigation, Case No. 000825485, is now a cold one at Parker Center on North Los Angeles Street, where the LAPD's Robbery–Homicide Division is housed. Berman’s murder was one of 548 committed within LAPD’s jurisdiction in 2000.

When she came of age, Susan was given a trust of $5.25 million – which, over the years, she squandered on overspending and bad investments. She purchased three homes and lost them all to foreclosure. Still, for years she kept up a facade and wanted to be treated as if she had money. She was a wealthy Mafia daughter and a respected writer – but she ended up struggling and penniless, living in squalor while she waited for a big movie deal, until she was shot to death in the back of the head, her murderer never apprehended.

Photos courtesy of CourtTV.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Thin Line Between Life and Death

by Donna Pendergast

It's been more than 20 years since Joseph Passeno (left) and Bruce (Christopher) Michaels (below right) stunned the suburban Detroit community of Rochester Hills with a gruesome crime that defied comprehension and shocked the public.

After finishing dinner at home on Nov. 9, 1989, Wanda Tarr, 58, was headed out in her Chevrolet Cavalier to meet an insurance client when she was forced out of the car at gunpoint by Passeno, then 17, and Michaels, then 16. They took her to Hawthorne Park in nearby Pontiac, where they robbed her and shot her to death. Passeno and Michaels then used her personal identification to find her home, where they told her husband, Glenn Tarr, that they had abducted his wife. The pair then abducted Tarr and forced him to withdraw money from an ATM. Then they took him to Hawthorne park and murdered him next to his wife's body by shooting Tarr six times.

Passeno and Michaels were arrested shortly after their crimes, when they bragged about their thrill kill to schoolmates. They were found guilty of first-degree murder and multiple other charges in a March 1990 jury trial. They were sentenced as adults to life in prison without parole.

After nearly two decades in separate Michigan prisons, Passeno and Michaels bear little resemblance to the fresh-faced teens they were when they went in. His entire face covered in tattoos, Passeno now looks like a mutant from a carnival midway. Michaels lost the baby face once so at odds with his horrific crimes.

Last week, two companion cases argued before the U.S. Supreme Court could have implications for the mandatory life sentences imposed on Passeno and Michaels. The court was asked to consider whether life sentences for juvenile defendants constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, prohibited by the Eight Amendment.

The cases before the court involve two Florida residents, Terrance Graham and Joseph Sullivan. Graham, now 22, was 16 when he robbed a restaurant at gunpoint. After serving a year behind bars, he violated the terms of his probation by committing another armed burglary, breaking into a man's house and robbing him at gunpoint. Sullivan was 13 in 1989 when he sexually assaulted a 72-year-old woman in her home during a burglary. It was the eighteenth crime committed by Sullivan, who is mentally disabled, during just two years. Both defendants were sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Arguing before the court, petitioners in the current case cited the 2005 Supreme Court ruling in Roper v. Simmons, which banned executing people who commit capital murder before they reach the age of 18, on Eighth Amendment grounds. Lawyers argued that the logic of that ruling should be extended to life sentences, the equivalent of a slow death in prison for an adolescent. As in the Roper case, lawyers highlighted adolescents' limited cognitive capacities to assess and manage impulses because their pre-frontal cortex, which controls them and recognizes consequences, isn't fully developed.

The court could rule in a number of ways. One key point in the pending cases: neither defendant had committed a homicide. The court's opinion could differentiate between juvenile offenders who kill and those who commit lesser crimes. It also could uphold the two defendants' current sentences or set an age limit for when such punishment is inhumane. It could ban life without parole for all juvenile offenders, affecting thousands of cases like those of Michaels and Passeno.

Robust policy discussions have sprung up debating the potential for rehabilitation and reform of juvenile offenders after maturation of the brain. But what about the cold-blooded sociopath who kills with extraordinary brutality and without remorse? What about when the crime is so serious and vile that denying the offender freedom for the rest of his life is the most appropriate response? An antisocial predator who has spent years or decades in prison is extremely unlikely to be able to reintegrate into society. There is no proven treatment for antisocial personality disorders that will drive an inmate to rape or kill if released. Prisons serve not only to rehabilitate and punish but also to prevent those who are a threat to society from harming others.

As a prosecutor, I have seen the bad and the worst for well over two decades. Yet I'm reluctant to dismiss the possibility of reform. I'm more reluctant, though, to release someone who will create more victims if returned to society. Out of 100 murder trials I have prosecuted, only three involved 16-year old-defendants sentenced to life without parole. All three cases involved chronically violent youthful offenders who committed heinous acts beyond comprehension.

Charging a juvenile with an offense carrying the possibility of life without parole is a decision that should not be made lightly. But as a prosecutor, I want that tool in my arsenal.

Statements made in this post are my own and are not intended to reflect the views opinion or position of the Michigan Attorney General or the Michigan Department of Attorney General.

Monday, November 16, 2009

What About the Victim?

by Diane Fanning

Just after 3 AM, on February 6, 2007, United States Air Force Captain Colleen Shipman (right) rolled her luggage behind her as she walked in a light drizzle across the C section of the Blue Satellite parking area at Orlando International Airport. It was the last leg of her journey. All she wanted was to go home. As she reached row 33, the sense of relief she expected to feel at this point in her travels shattered when she realized that the strange woman from the shuttle was following her.

Colleen picked up her pace. The footsteps behind her slapped the wet pavement at an increased speed. She cut across to row 31, moving even faster toward her car. Now the sound of the pursuer's running footsteps echoed in her ears. Don't be paranoid, she thought as she tried to calm herself. The woman is probably just going to her own car and is in a hurry.

Despite the self-assurances, anxiety clutched Colleen's body in its tight grip. Relieved to reach her car, she jerked open the rear door and tossed her bag onto the back seat. She slammed it shut and opened the one in front. Sliding behind the steering wheel, Collen pulled the door shut and locked the doors in one swift move.

Two hands slapped on the window beside her. She flinched. Hearing a jerk on the door handle, she jabbed her key into the ignition.

The sight of the woman outside of her car did nothing to still Colleen's fears. Beneath the raised hood of a khaki trench coat, bushy black hair framed a pinched face. The dark glasses the woman wore in the dead of night obscured her eyes. She looked so much like an inept spy from a low-budget film that it would have been laughable if it wasn't so frightening. Colleen's fear for her personal safety ratcheted up yet another notch.
--excerpt from Out There: The In-depth story of the astronaut love-triangle case that shocked America

When her pursuer (right) was arrested, Colleen's fear was justified. In addition to her disguise, the stalker carried pepper spray, a two-pound drilling hammer, a black buck knife, and several feet of rubber tubing. Initially, police charged her with attempted murder and abduction.

The woman who chased Colleen through the airport parking lot wasn't a crazed nobody but Lisa Nowak, an astronaut who'd flown on a mission into space and was obsessed with Colleen's boyfriend, astronaut Billy Oefelein.

Nearly three years after Nowak -- wearing an astronaut diaper to keep stops to a minimum -- drove from Texas to Florida to stalk and terrorize her love rival, a court has finally decided her fate. Instead of the original felonies, Lisa Nowak plead guilty to third-degree burglary of a conveyance and misdemeanor battery.

Colleen Shipman suffered that night -- and continues to suffer -- from extreme trauma brought on by the attack. She pleaded to the judge: "Please don't be fooled. Lisa Nowak is a very good actress. She turned on her charm and spun a pitiful story. Almost three years later, I'm still reeling from her vicious attack. I know in my heart when Lisa Nowak attacked me, she was going to kill me. I believe I escaped a horrible death that night. The world as I knew it before Lisa Nowak attacked me is gone. I constantly look over my shoulder when I go outside so I can't be a victim to a surprise attack again."

She also told the judge that she suffers from migraines and high blood pressure and can no longer sleep without a light on. She's purchased a shotgun and obtained a concealed-weapons permit. "I have horrible anxiety --especially at night. I have terrifying nightmares of being cut into little pieces. I have barricaded my doors."

The judge seemed unmoved. Although he spoke harshly to Nowak -- "You are to stay totally away from her and have absolutely no contact of any sort. You brought this on yourself. I don't have any sympathy for you in that respect" -- he gave her a light sentence: one year probation, two days already served in jail, a mandated eight-hour anger management class, and fifty hours of community service.

On the one hand, Nowak (right) had no criminal record, led an exemplary life before and after the attempted attack, and lost her hard-earned position as a shuttle astronaut at NASA. She was certainly an unusual and unlikely perpetrator.

On the other hand, did that light sentence devalue Colleen by minimizing the trauma she experienced? The woman who stole her peace of mind and sense of security is free to continue her life without any incarceration. Yes, Lisa Nowak had been an outstanding role model most of her life. She lost the career of her dreams. And she still faces possible military charges by the Navy, her home base since she entered the United States Naval Academy in July 1981.

But Nowak isn't haunted by the image of an attacker coming out of the night to end her life. She is not living in fear of a repeat performance.

I can see both viewpoints on this outcome, but one thing still bothers me. If Colleen Shipman had stalked and launched the same attack on famous and lauded astronaut Lisa Nowak, would she have been sentenced so lightly? Shipman also led a model life and also had no prior criminal record. But she wasn't a celebrity. If, under those circumstances, Colleen would have gotten a more severe sentence -- which I think likely -- then justice has not been served.

What do you think?

Friday, November 13, 2009

Here a Gotti, There a Gotti, Everywhere a Gotti: Fourth Time a Charm for Prosecutors?

by Stacy Dittrich

We’ll see if the fourth time is a charm for second-generation mobster
John Gotti Jr., 45. As the jury began its deliberation Thursday on racketeering charges against the Gambino Family crime boss, the same circus-like atmosphere and fears of mob retaliation hung like a thick fog in the courtroom, as it had during the three previous trials involving the high-profile gangster -- trials that all resulted in a hung jury. Like his famed father before him, Gotti Jr. has managed to skirt a judicial system that has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to lock him up for the rest of his life. Facing the same fate as his father, John “Dapper Don” Gotti Sr., who died in prison in 2002, Gotti Jr. now waits quietly to see if this particular jury will convict him of racketeering or on two murder charges.

The trial to date has already shown signs of an outcome in Gotti Jr.’s favor, the same problems that plagued the previous trials. Some jurors, fearful of
mob retaliation and claims of anonymous threats, have requested to be dismissed, while others are clearly staging their support for the defendant — an act that caused presiding judge Kevin Castel to send two of them packing. His decision caused Gotti Jr.’s mother, Victoria, to have a complete meltdown inside the courtroom, one of many bizarre outbursts and displays by the Gotti family.

“F****** animals!” she screamed at the judge after the jurors were dismissed.

“They’re railroading you! They’re doing to you what you did to your father!”

Even though her embarrassed son tried to calm her down, she continued.

“They’re the gangsters! Right there!” she yelled, pointing at the judge and prosecutors. “The ****** gangsters! You sons of bitches! Put your own sons in there! You ********!”

She was quickly removed from the courtroom but could still be heard yelling in the hallway. Earlier in the trial, Gotti Jr. referred loudly to a prosecution witness as a “dog” and a “punk.” Prosecutors also alleged Gotti Jr. mouthed the words “I’ll kill you” to another witness. However, prosecutors are confident that their star witness, former Gotti Jr. best friend, mobster, and recent rat, John Alite, 47, will be their smoking gun. Unfortunately,
Alite’s testimony sounded like it came directly from the "Goodfellas" screenplay.

“When I went to restaurants, I didn’t wait. When I went to shows, I got the best seats,” he testified. “When we went to stores, we got suits custom-made. We got treated like celebrities.

“People looked at me differently and they knew I was somebody. I didn’t have to wait in line at the bakery.”

Alite said he bought “the best of everything,” including $500 Bruno Magli shoes, Rolex watches, gold bars, diamonds, and 24 cars.

Quite frankly, his testimony may be just slightly unbelievable, as the non-Italian son of a taxi cab driver testified in a dirty, gray, sweatshirt and looked like a two-bit street thug. Not to mention, he never testified in the prior trials because he was on the run from his own charges. He only agreed to testify against Gotti Jr. (pictured left) under promises of a lesser sentence from the prosecution.

It will be interesting to see if Gotti Jr. inherits his
father’s Teflon. If so, it will even be more interesting to see just how federal prosecutors get a conviction. No matter the outcome, it’s pretty obvious that the theories of mob extinction are debunked. They’re clearly as strong and powerful as ever.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

How Crime Victims Become Crime Survivors

by Diane Dimond

It was an overcast October Saturday at the
Joint Forces Training Base at Los Alamitos, California. The 7 am start time was daunting, but I’d promised to go. I’m glad I did. It was the annual “Survive and Thrive” 5K run/walk event put on by a group called Crime Survivors. Note that it’s not crime victims – it’s crime survivors. And before you ask, no, I didn’t run, but I did walk.

The woman who started Crime Survivors is Patricia Wenskunas, my hero.

She is a blond dynamo, a catering event planner by trade and a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and attempted murder. She speaks gently, but her message packs a wallop: Crime victims deserve consideration, at least as much consideration as the criminal gets. It was a point I heard repeatedly from the crowds who attended this annual event, all touched in life-changing ways. Several participants wore T-shirts with the image of their dead loved one, taken away in a sudden spurt of violence.

Many told me what they’d endured: childhood rapes, adult sexual assaults, domestic violence deaths, or family who were killed by repeat drunk drivers. Several spoke of senseless murder. Every single person said after police arrived to tell them the awful news they were left in a foggy swirl of loneliness. They spoke of how hard it was to heal and discover the pathway to their own recoveries.

“Hi, I’m Diane Dimond. May I ask what brought you here today?”

Juenenne, a woman about my age, silently pointed to the picture of her handsome son, Jake Eric Jackson, on her shirt. Her chin quavered, her eyes brimmed and suddenly there we were – two total strangers standing on a parade field on a distant military base full of victims' rights advocates – hugging each other.

“He was at a club one night. There were a couple of guys disrespecting a young lady, and Jake stepped in to help. One hit him in the face and wrestled with him. One took out a gun and shot Jake in the chest. As he lay dying, the other man kicked him and stomped on him.”

Juenenne had driven nearly two hours that morning from her home in Phelan, California, as a step along her path to recovery. She hoped mixing with others who shared similar pain might ease her sorrow.

Doves Mean Hope

Doves Mean HopeAfter the speeches, Patricia invited a few family members up to the front to hold and then release beautiful white doves into the overcast sky. As touching music played, Patricia gave a lingering hug to each survivor, and then the doves flew off, one by one, instinctively circling overhead, waiting for the others so they could fly off in unison. Their unity in the dreary sky was inspiring. That’s when I first noticed Mary Ann, who was certainly thinking of her dead son, Jonathan Muse, as she released her dove.

On the walking path lined with three-foot-tall pictures of lost loved ones, Mary Ann and I talked. She’d been angry at her 17-year-old son for getting his 16-year-old girlfriend pregnant. In a huff, he’d jumped on a bike at midnight and ridden off down the street. A carload of gang members happened by and inexplicably shot Jonathan dead. Mary Ann, a nurse who is married to a police officer, was pushing a baby carriage as we talked. Inside was little Shayla (photo below right), the new grandbaby who will never know her father.

“I don’t know what I’d do without this child,” Mary Anne said as she clenched her teeth against the tears.
Shayla Muse, Crime Survivor
Juenenne got justice. The two men who killed her son are in prison. Mary Ann has not, and that's part of the problem so many victims of crime face. Their terrible loss is made more burdensome as they try to navigate the justice system. Police are too busy to deliver updates on their cases, court proceedings are confusing, and the parole system is frightening. On this staggeringly long journey to justice, these folks feel victimized again and again.

I wish we could clone Patricia’s Crime Survivors group nationwide. They help educate the public and police about victim’s rights. They push to change laws and attitudes. Crime Survivors donates thousands of adult and child emergency victim bags to law enforcement every year so officers can offer a victim something. The bag contains a list of vital phone numbers, toiletries including a toothbrush, first aid kit and a journal with a pen so victims can write down their thoughts on the road to survival.

Our system simply doesn’t help crime victims. I hope you never have to experience what they’ve gone through, but odds are you might.

For more information on Crime Survivors visit