Top Ten Crime Stories of 2015

Top Ten Crime Stories of 2015

robert-lewis-dearDeciding which stories to include on my Crime Stories of the Year list was difficult. But the following stories would probably make nearly everyone’s list. The stories are in no particular order.

1. Laquan McDonald is shot sixteen times by a Chicago police officer. When the dashboard video becomes public over a year after the fact, the police chief is fired and officer Jason Van Dyke is charged with 1st degree murder.

2. Bill Cosby, “America’s Dad,” is charged with a 2004 sexual assault. Over 50 women come forward claiming Cosby drugged and raped them.

3. The Baltimore PD arrest Freddie Gray for possessing what they allege is an illegal switchblade. While being transported in a police van, Gray falls into a coma and is taken to a trauma center where he dies. His death is attributed to injuries to his spinal cord and is ruled a homicide. Criminal charges are brought against six Baltimore police officers. The first trial for William Porter, one of the indicted officers, ends in a hung jury.

4. David Sweat and Richard Matt escape from a correctional facility in New York by digging a hole in the wall of their cell and escaping through a pipe just like Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) in the Shawshank Redemption. They are on the run for nearly three weeks before Matt is shot and killed. Sweat is captured two days later.

5. Christopher Harper-Mercer, a 26-year-old enrolled at Umpqua Community College near Roseburg, Oregon, fatally shoots an assistant professor and eight students in a classroom. Nine others are injured. Roseburg police detectives responding to the incident engage Harper-Mercer in a shootout. After being wounded, he commits suicide by shooting himself in the head.

6. Dylann Roof murders nine people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Roof later confesses that he committed the murders in hopes of igniting a race war.

7. Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik murder fourteen people and seriously injure twenty-one others in a terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California before they are shot and killed.

8. Robert Lewis Dear enters a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, Colorado and starts firing, murdering three people before surrendering.

9. Mohammod Youssuf Abdulazeez opens fire on two military centers killing four Marines and a Navy sailor before he is killed.

10. Jared Fogle, the Subway Guy, agrees to plead guilty in federal court to possessing child pornography and traveling to pay for sex with minors. He is sentenced to serve fifteen years and eight months in federal prison with a minimum of thirteen years.

DNA Identifies Remains of Murdered Jane Doe

michelle-yvette-busha-michelle-busha-missing-found-dead-death-cold-case-bay-city-texas-solvedblue-earth-minnesota1-665x385The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension announced yesterday that a woman who was murdered 35 years ago in Blue Earth has finally been identified.

Michelle Yvette Busha of Bay City, Texas, was 18 years old when she was murdered in Minnesota and had been missing ever since.

On May 30, 1980, Busha’s nude and decomposing body was discovered badly beaten in a ravine off Interstate 90, east of Blue Earth, MN, in Faribault County. A cord was wrapped around her neck, indicating that she died of strangulation. Busha was reported missing in Texas on May 9.

Nine years later Robert Leroy Nelson, a former Minnesota State Patrol trooper, confessed to her murder. Authorities say Busha was hitchhiking when Nelson picked her up. Nelson was given a life sentence in Texas for Busha’s murder and for other charges stemming from child molestation.

On Aug. 12, 2014, as part of the BCA’s effort to ID unidentified human remains, “Jane Doe’s” body was exhumed. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children created a new sketch based on a new scull scan and x-rays from the original autopsy. BCA forensic scientists obtained a complete mitochondrial DNA profile and a partial nuclear DNA profile, which led to Busha’s identity.

Credit must also be given to her parents who submitted a DNA sample to the FBI’s National Missing Person DNA database years ago. The program was initiated in 2000 to assist in the identification of missing persons and unidentified remains. Without that sample, a match could not have been made.

The message is clear. Parents who have missing children should submit a DNA sample to the FBI’s national database.

Trail of a Serial Killer

UnknownFBI agents finally arrested Robert Durst last Saturday at a New Orleans hotel for the murder of Susan Berman, which occurred 15 years ago.

Better late than never.

Thanks to the HBO documentary about Durst’s links to three killings, the victims’ families will finally achieve some justice from a system that has utterly failed to do its job.

In 1982, Robert Durst claimed that his wife, Kathleen, had suddenly disappeared from their cottage in South Salem, New York. No one was ever charged and her body has never been found.

In 2000, Susan Berman, Durst’s spokeswoman, was killed at her home near Beverly Hills with a bullet to the back of her head just before New York investigators prepared to question her in the disappearance of Durst’s wife.

After Berman’s death, Durst moved to Texas, where he lived as a mute woman in a boarding house until his arrest in 2001 after dismembered parts of the body of his elderly neighbor, Morris Black, were found floating in Galveston Bay. Durst claimed he shot Black in self-defense. Despite admitting that he dismembered Black’s body before dumping the remains, Durst was, unbelievably, acquitted of murder.

But the injustice that allowed a sociopath like Robert Durst to remain free for all these years while he continued to murder is not solely the fault of the justice system.

Durst is the oldest son of the late real estate mogul Seymour Durst whose Durst Corporation manages the World Trade Center and is reportedly worth $4 billion. Robert became estranged from his family when his brother Douglas was chosen instead of him to run the family business.

Despite Douglas’ fears that Robert would kill him, and the restraining orders family members took out against Robert, the Durst family spent thousands on high-priced lawyers that allowed Robert to beat the murder charge against him and to remain free.

People can argue all they want about the right to an adequate defense, but while the family’s money and power protected them, their defense of this sociopath ultimately led to the unnecessary deaths of others. For that they should be ashamed.

Best Crime Movies of 2014

Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance as a crazed L.A. crime journalist cements his reputation as one of the best actors working today.

Gone Girl
Based on the best-selling novel by Gillian Flynn, the movie is faithful to the book, including the ending that has enough plot holes to drive a semi through.

Kill The Messenger
Based on the true story of journalist Gary Webb, Jeremy Renner is superb as a reporter who becomes the target of a vicious smear campaign that drives him to the point of suicide after he exposes the CIA’s role in arming Contra rebels in Nicaragua and importing cocaine into California.

In another movie based on a true event, Steve Carell plays against type as disturbed, eccentric, multi-millionaire John du Pont, whose relationship with Olympic Gold Medal winning wrestler Mark Schultz leads to tragic consequences.

The Drop
Based on a screenplay from crime novelist Dennis Lehane, the story follows a bartender through a covert scheme of funneling cash to local gangsters – “money drops” in the underworld of Brooklyn bars. Featuring James Gandolfini in his last role before his sudden death.

The Equalizer
Any movie starring Denzel Washington is worth seeing. Washington stars a man with a mysterious past who helps a young girl under the control of Russian gangsters.

Liam Neeson plays a federal air marshal on a flight from New York to London, who gets a text telling him that unless 150 million dollars is transferred to an offshore account, someone will die every 20 minutes.

John Wick
Keanu Reeves plays an ex-hitman who comes out of retirement to track down the gangsters that took everything from him in this action, revenge thriller.

A Walk Among The Tombstones
Based on the character created by Lawrence Block, Liam Neeson is Matt Scudder, a former cop now a private eye, who is asked by a drug dealer to find the men who kidnapped his wife in this noir mystery thriller.

A Most Wanted Man
In one of his last films, the late Philip Seymore Hoffman gives a wonderful performance in this twisted tale of espionage set in Hamburg, Germany.

la-na-texas-execution-mentally-ill-20141202-001Last Wednesday a federal appeals court stayed the execution of Scott Panetti, 56, a Texas man whose attorneys and supporters have argued is too mentally ill to legally be put to death. Panetti’s attorneys had also appealed to the state district court and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, requesting that they stay or delay his execution so his competency could be assessed, however, both appeals were denied. Their appeal for clemency to the state Board of Pardons and Paroles was also denied.

Prior to the stay, Panetti’s execution was scheduled for this Wednesday.

Diagnosed with schizophrenia 36 years ago, Panetti’s was convicted of murdering his wife’s parents at their Texas home in 1992, shooting them with a deer-hunting rifle in front of his wife and their 3-year-old daughter.

His attorneys claim that he still hears voices and suffers from the delusions that prevent him from understanding why he is being executed, which would violate the 8th Amendment’s protection against cruel and unusual punishment. Prosecutors argue that medical records fail to support the claim that Panetti’s mental health had deteriorated. Prosecutors maintain that his bizarre behavior is deliberate. Court-appointed state medical experts have repeatedly questioned the validity of his symptoms.

In 2002, the US Supreme Court banned the execution of the mentally disabled. In 2007, the court reviewed Panetti’s case and found that inmates must be required to not only know that they are being punished, but to have a “rational understanding” of why.

Despite the Supreme Court’s 2002 ruling on the mentally disabled, Texas executed Marvin Wilson in 2012. Wilson’s IQ had been measured at 61. He was the 484th person executed in Texas since the death penalty was reinstated in 1977. Texas Governor Rick Perry has presided over more executions than any other governor in American history.

Whether you’re a death penalty supporter or not, the Supreme Court clearly drew a line in the sand regarding the execution of mentally handicapped individuals. So the key question here is not just whether Scott Panetti has been faking his schizophrenia for nearly four decades––but whether Governor Perry and the state of Texas are subject to rulings established by the Supreme Court.

The Terror Gap

The Terror Gap

UnknownAs the citizens of Canada mourn the murders of Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent and Cpl. Nathan Cirillo by terrorists, it’s important to note that in the U.S., a suspect on the FBI’s Terrorist Watch List is considered too dangerous to fly on an airplane, but he or she can still buy guns freely.

The Gun Control Act of 1968 prohibits certain people from possessing a firearm. The possession of any firearm by one of these “prohibited persons” is a felony offense. It is also a felony for any person, including a registered Federal Firearms Licensee to sell or otherwise transfer any firearm to a person knowing or having “reasonable cause” to believe that the person receiving the firearm is prohibited from firearm possession.

There are nine categories of persons prohibited from possessing firearms under the Gun Control Act. According to government data, however, many suspected terrorists have legally bought weapons since 2004, thanks to the “terror gap” in federal law.

Under current laws, if a background check reveals that your name is on the national terrorism watch list, you’re still free to walk out of a gun dealership with a firearm in your hands — as long as you don’t have a criminal or mental health record.

The terrorist watch list of about 450,000 people includes suspected members of al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations, terror financiers, terror recruiters and people who attended training camps. People’s names are added to and removed from the watch list every day, and most people never know whether they’re on it.

Data from the Government Accountability Office show that between 2004 and 2010, people on terrorism watch lists tried to buy guns and explosives more than 1,400 times. They succeeded in more than 90 percent of those cases, or 1,321 times.

In 2013, 247 people who were allowed to buy weapons did so after going through required background checks as required by federal law.

Anyone with a brain and an ounce of common sense could not possibly understand why those on the terrorist watch list can still legally purchase firearms. Yet, for years, our politicians have done nothing to remedy this unbelievable situation, while giving lip service to the phrase “protecting the Homeland.”

A Death In Louisiana

UnknownWhile much of the media is focused on the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the March shooting death of 22-year-old African-American Victor White III in Iberia Parish, Louisiana should receive more coverage.

The shooting occurred in the backseat of a Louisiana state police patrol car after White was arrested for drug possession. White’s hands were cuffed behind his back as he was transported to jail. Once there, he reportedly did not want to get out of the patrol car. At some point, a gun that he was allegedly hiding in his pants appeared, and he shot himself in the back, according to police reports.

However, the autopsy report, finally released two days ago by the Iberia Parish Coroner’s Office, details how White was shot in the chest, completely contradicting earlier police reports made after the fateful night in early March.

The bullet entered the young man’s chest and pierced his left lung and his heart before exiting around his armpit, according to the autopsy, which also called White’s death a “suicide.”

How exactly does a man with his hands cuffed behind his back produce a gun and shoot himself in the chest? Also, how is it that officers, who searched White twice, did not find the gun? The first time they found a small amount of marijuana. A second search produced cigars and a small amount of cocaine, which White admitted, were his.

Readers familiar with James Lee Burke’s iconic Iberia Parish Detective Dave Robicheaux might be familiar with the setting of this tragic, real-life case. But the plot and denouement read more like Burke’s fiction than fact.

Saint Death

Death's-Way Large_72-DPI-web-optimizedHaving written about Santa Muerte and the saint’s popularity with Mexican drug traffickers in my last John Santana novel, Death’s Way, it was fascinating to read that the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has overturned the firearms and drug-trafficking convictions of two Tulsa, Oklahoma residents, Rafael Goxcon-Chagal, 53, and Maria Vianey Medina-Copete, 38, ruling that a prosecution witness tainted their convictions by testifying that the skeleton saint known as La Santa Muerte, or the Death Saint, was good indicator of possible criminal activity.

Goxcon-Chagal and Medina-Copete were convicted in August 2012 of trafficking methamphetamine. Along with illegal drugs, a Santa Muerte prayer card was found on them during a traffic stop that led to their 2011 arrests. Both were sentenced to 15 years in prison.

The appeal’s court wrote that the testimony of prosecution witness U.S. Marshal Robert Almonte, who has trained law enforcement agents and written about Santa Muerte, “substantially influenced the outcome of the trial and was highly prejudicial to the defendants,” even though Almonte indicated that not all worshippers of the saint were involved in criminal activity.

Santa Muerte has been used as evidence and as probable cause in previous cases, but this is the first time that a conviction has been overturned because the saint was used in a trial.

Despite the fact that the Catholic Church does not recognize Santa Muerte, the saint’s many worshippers often pray to the black-robed, scythe-carrying saint for help in carrying out vengeance or to stop lovers from cheating.

The appeals court has ordered a new trial for the couple.

Guilty or Innocent

UnknownIn 1989, drifter Billy Glaze was convicted of killing three Native American women, nineteen year-old Kathy Bullman, twenty-one year-old Angela Green, and twenty-six year-old Angeline Whitebird-Sweet. The murders took place between July 1986 and April 1987. All three women were found nude with their bodies positioned in ways that suggested a serial killer was on the loose. Glaze’s conviction was based primarily on testimony from witnesses and jail inmates along with a note that Glaze had allegedly written confessing to the crimes.

However, after reviewing the case and evidence, attorneys for the Minnesota Innocence Project concluded that no biological evidence linked Glaze to the crimes and that witness testimony was unreliable.

One witness has recanted his testimony that he saw Glaze with Bullman. Others who testified that they saw Glaze near the Green crime scene were relatives or close friends of Green, who had been raped and strangled six weeks before Bullman’s murder. The transient who testified that he had witnessed Bullman’s murder claimed to have witnessed sixty murders. And the jail inmate who produced Glaze’s note admitting that he had killed the women because he was angry, later admitted he was looking for a deal.

In 2009 DNA testing of sperm collected from a vaginal swab of Green excluded Glaze but matched another Minnesota man in the FBI database. DNA testing of a cigarette butt collected a few feet from Whitebird-Sweet’s body also excluded Glaze and matched the same Minnesota man. This suspect had been in and out of jail and was out at the same established times as the victims and is still alive.

Billy Glaze is now seventy years old and suffering from mental illness. He has spent more than twenty-five years behind bars, having been found guilty of first and second-degree murder in the deaths of the three women. Not exactly a choirboy, Glaze confessed ten years ago to a number of murders in California, though he was never prosecuted because his details didn’t match the crimes. His attorneys believe the confessions were false. Also, at the time of his conviction, Glaze adamantly denied he had anything to do with the murders and never wrote the note.

Whatever one might think of Billy Glaze, if he is truly innocent, then he should be freed and compensated for a terrible miscarriage of justice––and the true killer found and prosecuted for these horrific crimes.

Crime and Punishment

prison-mainAccording to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Using the most recent data available, in the U.S. 753 of every 100, 000 people are in prison or jail. This rate is 20% higher than Russia, the second place country and more than 25% higher than Rwanda, the third place country. The U.S. rate is over seven times higher than the median rate for the OECD countries and about 17 times higher than the rate in Iceland, the country with the lowest incarceration rate.

With the high incarceration rate comes additional problems. The U.S. prison system costs taxpayers over $75 billion, a figure that is larger than the GDP of 133 nations. Our prison population has grown by 800% since 1980. Seventy percent of the prison population is black or Hispanic and half of those imprisoned today were sentenced for drug infractions.

Given our exploding prison population and its unsustainable costs, it was welcome news to hear that Attorney General Eric Holder plans to allow thousands of prisoners to apply for reduced sentences. The Justice Department also will expand the pool of eligibility for presidential clemency for non-violent drug offenders serving long sentences due, primarily, to mandatory federal drug laws.

In 2010, President Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act reducing unfair disparities in sentences imposed on people for offenses involving different forms of cocaine. But there’s still far too many people in federal prison who were sentenced under the previous administration and who, as a result, will have to spend far more time in prison than they would if sentenced today for exactly the same crime.

As more states legalize small amounts of pot, it makes sense both economically and morally to review the cases of those currently incarcerated for drug offenses. There is no justifiable reason that our prison population should be so significantly higher than Russia or third world countries like Rwanda, or that the system should be filled with so many non-violent drug offenders.