Saturday, October 18, 2014

In the Criminal Justice System, 198 Equals 41

Double killer to be freed early…
by Robert A. Waters

David “Stringbean” Akeman was an anachronism.  Born in Kentucky, he grew up destitute during the Depression.  He watched the few people who had money lose it when the banks failed, and that made a lasting impression.  Somewhere along the line, he learned to play the claw-hammer banjo.  He gravitated to Nashville and got a gig with Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys.  Nicknamed Stringbean because of his six-foot five-inch height, Akeman played with Monroe for three years.  As his gig with the notoriously hard-to-get-along-with Monroe was ending, he met his future wife Estelle.

While modern banjo players learned the Earl Scruggs three-finger style of picking, Stringbean continued to use the “frailing” method.  On-stage, he sang old-time songs, and told corny jokes.  To accentuate his height, Akeman began wearing a striped shirt that came to his knees—short pants made him look taller than he was.

By the 1970s, country music had gone “pop,” but Stringbean never left his hillbilly roots.  Inexplicably, at least to the Nashville slicks that ran the country music scene, many people liked his simple corn-ball style.  College students, in particular, many of whom had gravitated to folk music, loved the old-time music.  During the folk revival, Stringbean played college campuses all over the country.  He never learned to drive, so Estelle would chauffeur him around in their brand-new Cadillac.

The Caddy was their only extravagance.  Stringbean detested banks, and stashed currency in and around his cabin.  He always kept cash hidden in his clothing.

Soon, Stringbean became a regular on the popular television show, “Hee Haw.”  By then, he’d been playing on Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry for years.  While he never had a “hit” record, he recorded seven albums, and earned more money than he ever could have imagined.

Along with his best friend and fellow-musician, Louis Marshall “Grandpa” Jones, Akeman bought a 50-acre spread in Ridgefield, near Nashville.  Stringbean and Grandpa hunted or fished together nearly every day.  But that came to an abrupt end on the night of November 10, 1973.

John A. Brown and his brother, Doug, had heard rumors that Stringbean carried wads of cash wherever he went.  Drug-addled losers, they broke into his cabin while he played the Grand Ole Opry.  Waiting for Stringbean and Estelle to return, they ransacked the residence.  In typical fashion, they failed to find any money at all.

Just before midnight, Akeman and Estelle drove up in their 1973 Cadillac.  Stringbean immediately sensed that something was amiss in the house.  He told Estelle to wait in the car, then drew a pistol from his overalls.  Entering his residence with his gun drawn, Stringbean spotted the intruders and opened fire.

John Brown fired back, and Akeman collapsed in the doorway of his home.

Estelle, hearing the gunshots, got out of the car and began running away, possibly to Grandpa Jones’ farmhouse.  Brown chased her down, and as she begged for her life, executed her.

The two brothers searched the bodies of Stringbean and Estelle for cash, but found only $250.  (They missed nearly $5,000 that each had stashed in their clothing.)

When Grandpa Jones found the bodies early the next morning, Nashville’s music establishment reeled with shock.  If there was any innocence left in Nashville, it evaporated on that cold November day.

It took three months, but the Brown brothers were tracked down and arrested.  Turns out they’d been bragging to their loser “street friends” about killing Stringbean and Estelle.  John and Doug Brown were tried and convicted of the murders.  Each brother received 99 years for killing Stringbean and 99 years for the murder of Estelle, adding up to 198 years in prison for each brother.  Doug eventually died in prison, and most people forgot about John Brown.

But after serving 41 years, a “reformed” John A. Brown received word that he would be paroled.  A model prisoner, he stressed to the parole board that he’d rehabilitated himself.  He apologized profusely for murdering the couple.  Brown claimed to have found religion, and received many glowing references about how he had changed.  In short, he did everything that the book says to do in order to gain sympathy.

Yet many people are mystified at how 198 years suddenly becomes 41 years.  Jan Howard, a Grand Ole Opry regular and a friend of Stringbean and Estelle, said: “This is a miscarriage of justice.  He was tried, convicted and sentenced to 198 years in prison.  Why bother if they're not going to carry it out?”

Monday, October 13, 2014

Kelli O’Laughlin’s Killer is Sentenced

Is it enough?
by Robert A. Waters

In March, 2011, Governor Pat Quinn signed legislation to abolish the death penalty in Illinois.  Six months later, 14-year-old Kelli O’Laughlin was executed at the hands of a sadistic burglar. Many in the Land of Lincoln felt her killer deserved death, and that Quinn’s actions betrayed Kelli and other innocent victims.

John Wilson, Jr. had served 17 of the past 20 years in prison.  His lengthy record included convictions for robbery, burglary, assault, drug charges, and other crimes.  Unlike many prisoners, he had no redeeming qualities.

Kelli came home from school at around 3:30 p.m. on October 27, 2011.  The LaGrange Patch reported that “Wilson broke into the rear of the home on the 6300 block of Keokuk Avenue by putting a rock in a knit cap and hurling it through the dining room window.  After he was confronted by O’Laughlin, authorities say Wilson used a butcher knife from a cutlery block in the family’s kitchen to stab her repeatedly in the back, neck and chest.  He then dragged her body from the family room into the kitchen.”

Kelli died a horrific, bloody death.  After Wilson stole Kelli’s smartphone and a coin collection, he called a cab to take him home.  He used some of the stolen coins to pay for his ride.

Not content to kill an innocent child, Wilson used Kelli’s cell phone to taunt the O’Laughlin family.  “Next time the bitch will do as she’s told,” he wrote.

Lawmen used that very phone to track Wilson’s whereabouts, and the career criminal was quickly apprehended.  Among other items of evidence, investigators found his DNA on the knitted cap left at the scene.

With no doubt of his guilt, Wilson should have faced the death penalty.  But a storm of protest from various groups who demanded the return of execution did no good.  Instead, the unrepentant killer received 160 years in prison.  As Wilson left the courtroom, he loudly derided the O’Laughlin family.

For many, there is still a place for the death penalty in Illinois.

Few would argue that John Wayne Gacy, who tortured and murdered 38 men and boys in Chicago, should not have been put to death.  Had he not been caught, Gacy would no doubt have continued to kill.

Andrew Kokoraleis, executed for the 1987 ritualistic murder of Chicagoan Lorraine Borowski, certainly deserved the ultimate punishment.  Kokoraleis and a small cult-like group are suspected of kidnapping up to 17 women and girls, brutally torturing them before taking their lives.

Instead of dying for his crimes, John Wilson, Jr. will live his life.

Instead of living her life, Kelli O’Laughlin lies in her grave.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Cold Cases that Haunt the Soul

Cortney Clayton

 Stefanie Hill was a “righteous victim.”  She did nothing to bring on her murder.  A teenage student at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, she was savagely beaten to death in the early morning of May 29, 2000.  Stefanie arrived at her apartment after leaving work at a nearby Outback Steakhouse.  At about 12:50 a.m., EMTs responded to reports of a fire at the Indiana Village Apartment Complex.  There they discovered Stefanie’s body, but the fire had destroyed any evidence that might have been left by the killer.  According to reports, Stefanie had never had a serious boyfriend, so police had few suspects.  Was the murder the result of a robbery gone bad?  Or a stalker that no one knew about?  Or was it just a random crime of opportunity?  No one knows except killer.  Stefanie had few destructive habits—she wasn’t a drug user, drinker, or carouser.  She had a strong Christian faith, and remained close to her family and many friends.  After 14 years, Stefanie’s killer is still at large.
The Kingfish Boat Ramp Murders occurred in the City of Holmes Beach, Florida.  On August 1, 1980, forty-seven-year-old Dr. Juan Dumois, Eric Dumois, 13, Mark Dumois, 9, and Dumois’s brother-in-law, Raymond Barrows, returned from a fishing trip in the Gulf of Mexico and loaded their boat at the Kingfish Boat Ramp.  As they began to drive away, a white male approached them and stated that he had hurt his ankle and needed a ride.  Dr. Dumois agreed, and the stranger placed a bicycle he’d been riding in the boat.  He climbed into the back seat and asked to be taken to a nearby apartment.  About a minute later, gunshots rang out.  Dr. Dumois, Eric, Mark, and Raymond were shot in the head with a .22-caliber revolver.  Raymond survived, but the others died.  According to a police report, after the shooting, “the vehicle then jackknifed on the north shoulder of Manatee Avenue just west of the boat ramp. The subject then got out of the vehicle and rode westbound on Manatee Avenue on his bicycle.  [Robert] Matzke, working in his yard at a nearby condominium, observed what had taken place and pursued the subject to the parking lot of a nearby grocery store.  Matzke and the subject exchanged words, and [Matzke] was shot in the head by the subject.  Witnesses then observed the subject load his bicycle in a tan colored vehicle at the grocery store and leave eastbound on Manatee Avenue.”  Robert Matzke died of his wounds.  The motive has never been determined, and the assassin never caught.
On September 2, 1988, at around 7:30 p.m., seven-year-old Cortney Clayton disappeared from a store parking lot in Stamford, Texas.  She had walked from her home, less than a block away, to buy a soda.  Cortney came out of the store and vanished.  Her soft drink was found on the bumper of a pickup in the parking lot.  There was little evidence.   A witness described seeing a suspicious male standing by a white car next to the pickup.  She helped police make a composite sketch, but no suspects were ever found.  Six months later, hunters discovered the skeletonized remains of Cortney in Shackleton County, near Baird.  The killer of Cortney Clayton has remained under the radar of police for more than 25 years.  The Texas Rangers currently list the Cortney Clayton abduction and murder in their “Top Twelve Cold Case Investigations.”

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Just Get a Job

Shawn Custis Mugshot
Life’s a lot easier that way…
by Robert A. Waters

If 82-year-old Doris Thompson had worked a steady job, she might have retired decades ago.  Instead, she’s back in the slammer.  For fifty years, Thompson has been burglarizing homes and businesses.  “She’s not really apologetic about it,” a Torrance, California prosecutor said.  “This is her thing.”  She’s served at least 9 stints in prison, and it looks like she’s got more time coming her way.  Her latest crimes were, if nothing else, creative. reports: “In the latest incident, Thompson is accused of targeting doctors’ offices.  Torrance Police Sgt. Robert Watt tells KTLA she allegedly would enter an office, hide until closing and search for keys to the cash box.  She is accused of stealing about $17,000, and allegedly was identified by security footage.”  In addition to burglary, Thompson has used at least 25 different aliases.

The nanny cam shows it all: a mother and child sitting on a couch watching television.  Suddenly, a man bursts into the room and beats the woman to the floor.  Punch after punch rains down on her as her daughter watches in horror.  Shawn Custis, the suspect, has a criminal record dating back to the 1980s.  I counted 21 arrests for crimes such as burglary, unlawful possession of a handgun, robbery, assault, forgery, and resisting arrest.  In each case, Custis plea bargained his sentences to minimal time in prison, even though he repeatedly violated probation once released.  Because his alleged assault was caught on film and released to the public, millions viewed the horrible attack.  Now prosecutors are finally ready to charge Custis with crimes such as attempted murder and home invasion.  If convicted, he might serve some real time, like maybe life in prison.

His lawyer called William Sheppard “likable, loyal, kind and considerate.”  Except when he was high or robbing people to obtain money for cocaine.  Then he became violent and uncontrollable.  Sheppard’s criminal record dates back to 1989.  Finally, after committing his latest robbery, he was sentenced to 15 years, plus five years’ probation.  After Sheppard’s girlfriend lured a man to Indian Leap Bridge in Norwich, Connecticut, the career criminal robbed his victim at knifepoint.  The duo came away with $150, just enough for another round of dope.  Now Sheppard has until 2027 to think about how he might have avoided incarceration.  The judge who sentenced him said: “You’ve robbed people for the last 20 years.  All you do is scare people and take their money.”  (Sheppard was already on probation for armed robbery.)  Now, at least society will be protected from the crack-head.

I’ve often thought it might be easier just to work for a living.    

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Short Family Murders Still Unsolved

Twelve years and counting…
by Robert A. Waters

On September 25, 2002, Jennifer Short’s sad remains were located beside a stream in Rockingham County, North Carolina.  After twelve years, lawmen are still stumped: was her killer someone known to the family, a hit-man, or a pedophile?  Or was there some vast conspiracy surrounding the non-descript family?

M. S. Mobile Home Movers operated out of Henry County, Virginia, in the rural community of Oak Level.  The “M. S.” stood for Michael Short.  His wife, Mary, helped run the business from their home.  By all accounts, Michael and Mary scraped out a meager living.  The light of their life was a daughter, nine-year-old Jennifer.

At 9:00 a.m., on August 15, 2002, an employee arrived at the Short home and discovered Michael lying dead on a couch inside an attached garage.  Investigators soon found Mary Short lifeless in her bed.  Each victim had been shot in the head.  Jennifer was nowhere to be seen.

After six weeks, Jennifer’s remains were discovered fifty miles from her home. An autopsy revealed that the nine-year-old’s death was caused by a gunshot wound to the head, just like her parents.  Her body was too decomposed for lawmen to tell if she’d been sexually assaulted.

An FBI summary of the case reported that “Mary was described as a shy, neat and extremely focused individual, who was actively involved in the family business.  Jennifer appeared to be a happy little girl experiencing a normal childhood.  She was an excellent student and actively involved in organized sports.”

I noticed that the FBI report contained no description of Michael Short’s characteristics.

That’s a bare-bones synopsis of what has been published about the mysterious murders of the Short family.  For more than a decade, the killer (or killers) has walked free.  Because of the on-going investigation, little information has been released to the public.

In this blog, I’ll explore several possible explanations for why the family was targeted.  (Admittedly, much of this is speculation and certainly doesn’t cover the full spectrum of what may have happened.)

Who could have wanted Michael, Mary, and Jennifer Short dead?

(1) Business associate or employee.  Moving mobile homes is a tough way to make a living.  Michael Short hired laborers when he needed to move a trailer, and it is thought that he paid them in cash.  This could have been dangerous.  Some day laborers have criminal backgrounds, addictions, and mental illnesses.  The employee who found the bodies was thoroughly investigated as a suspect. It’s likely that he’s been eliminated since he was never charged.  Did a worker or former worker snap and murder the entire family?  If so, why take Jennifer out of the home and kill her fifty miles away?  No evidence has been presented to the public to confirm that a business associate or employee murdered the family.

(2) Neighbor/Friend/Acquaintance.  Were the murders due to a grudge someone held against the family, or one of its members?  Since we can never really know our neighbors, it’s certainly possible.  However, there has been no indication that lawmen suspect a neighbor or friend.

(3) Gary “Storm” Bowman.  The first and only known suspect was a retired carpenter from Mayodan, North Carolina.  The FBI became suspicious when agents discovered that Gary Bowman had moved to Canada the day after Michael and Mary were killed.  Later, Bowman’s landlord claimed to have heard Bowman threaten to “kill a mobile home mover in Virginia.”  Then, according to news reports, two men stated that they saw Bowman carrying a young girl from the Short home on the night of the murders.  Bowman was deported from Canada and held in custody (without being charged) for a month.  Lawmen processed hundreds of items from the home of their suspect in an attempt to link him to the crime, but were unsuccessful in their efforts.  Then, Timothy Fennon Sampson and Jerry Riley Mills were indicted for lying to federal officials.  Court documents alleged that they had made up the story of Bowman carrying a girl from the Short home in order to obtain the reward money. Eventually, Bowman was released.  He has never been officially cleared, but it seems investigators moved on to other leads.

(4) The man in the truck.  A witness reported seeing an unusual truck parked near the Short residence on the night of the murder.  (See photo above.)  It was described as being a 1998-2002 white single-cab flat-bed with wooden rails.  The vehicle resembled a 4500 Series International Truck.  The man driving it had a “weathered expression,” according to the FBI.  The truck should have been easy to find, but lawmen never located it.  

(5) Conspiracy of cops?  In 2006, four years after the Short family murders, the sheriff of Henry County, Virginia and 12 of his deputies were arrested for drug trafficking.  Federal prosecutors called Sheriff Harold Cassell “corrupt to the core.”  The lawmen were accused of filling out paperwork attesting that they had destroyed confiscated drugs, but then sold the marijuana, cocaine, and ketamine to dope dealers in the area.  Local deputies were also accused of laundering money.  Many of the lawmen, including Sheriff Cassell, ended up serving prison terms.  Did Federal investigators ever determine whether the corrupt department had any hand in the Short family murders?  In his myriad travels across the area, could Michael Short have seen suspicious activity and reported it to police?  Could he and his entire family have been eliminated to cover up the sheriff department’s criminal enterprises?  Or was Michael Short himself involved in the drug trade in some way?  These questions need to be answered.

(6) The Joseph E. Duncan scenario.  One of the most pressing questions of this case is why Jennifer was taken from the residence and dumped fifty miles away.  It’s not too far-fetched to envision a sexual predator killing Michael and Mary to get to Jennifer.  It’s happened before.  In 2005, serial killer Joseph E. Duncan stalked a Coeur d’Alene, Idaho family before breaking into their home and murdering Mark McKenzie, his girlfriend, Brenda Groene, and her son, Slade Groene.  Duncan then kidnapped pre-teens Dylan and Shasta Groene for the purpose of raping them.  The sadistic psychopath tortured his victims for more than a month before shot-gunning Dylan to death.  Shasta survived and was eventually rescued.  Could a similar crime have occurred in Virginia?

Somewhere, one or more killers are walking free.

For more information, check out the FBI summary of the case:

If you know anything about this case, please call the FBI at 1-800-225-5324. 

Sunday, September 14, 2014

My Favorite Books
by Robert A. Waters

Several friends have asked me to list my favorite books.  I hesitated for several reasons.  One problem is that there are so many great books, it’s almost impossible to slim down to ten.  Also, if I pick out ten today, I might change them tomorrow.  However, I’ve read each of these books more than once, and in some way, each has influenced my life.  So, for what it’s worth, here goes.

(1) The Holy Bible – The greatest book ever published is going out of style in America.  Like it or not, when we no longer use Biblical principles as our moral guide, this once-great civilization built by our Founding Fathers will fall.

(2) Hound of the Baskervilles and all Sherlock Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle.

(3) 1984 and Animal Farm by George Orwell – 1984 frightened me into hating communism and totalitarian governments of all stripes.

(4) In Cold Blood by Truman Capote.

(5) Hank Williams: The Biography by Colin Escot.

(6) The Blooding by Joseph Wambaugh.

(7) Digging Up the Bible: The Stories Behind the Great Archaeological Discoveries in the Holy Land by Moshe Pearlman.  I love books about archaeology, and this is one of the best.

(8) Lords of Sipan: A True Story of Pre-Inca Tombs, Archaeology, and Crime by Sidney Kirkpatrick.

(9) The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitzyn.  The author once said:  “A great writer is, so to speak, a second government in his country.  And for that reason no regime has ever loved great writers, only minor ones.”  Gulag destroyed the New York Times-sanctioned liberal version of Soviet history by detailing Russia’s concentration camps from 1918 to 1956.

(10)   Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak-Catchers by Tom Wolfe.  Published in 1970 during the height of the black power movement, this is one of the great politically incorrect books of our day.  (I always wondered how he even got it published.)