Friday, December 13, 2019

Viva la Cuba -- Or maybe not

Anthony Bryant


10 Skyjackers Who Found Life in an American Prison Better Than Life in Cuba
Robert A. Waters

Between 1968 and 1979, one hundred seventy-eight American airplanes were hijacked to Cuba. This was the era of Vietnam war protests, the drug culture, hippies, free love, the civil rights movement, and racial violence.  Some who seized airliners were revolutionaries, while others were fugitives with criminal pasts.

Many skyjackers believed Cuba, ruled by their hero, Fidel Castro, was an egalitarian paradise.  What they found was squalid, overcrowded housing, sub-par transportation, rancid food, and few civil rights.  As soon as the hijacked planes landed on Cuban soil, most freedom-seekers were rounded up and interrogated with a brutality unheard of in the U. S.  Many political prisoners spent years performing back-breaking labor in the “Sugarcane Gulags.”  Michael Newton, in his book, The Encyclopedia of Kidnappings, wrote that “some [skyjackers] found their lot on the island unpleasant, later choosing to face prison in America rather than stay in Cuba.”

A Black Panther’s Nightmare

“Cuba is a nightmare,” Garland Grant told reporters in a phone call from the island nation. “Believe me, I’m all for the United States now.  I’d even wear a Nixon button.”  A member of the Black Panthers, on January 22, 1971, Grant skyjacked Northwest Airlines Flight 433 as it flew from Milwaukee to Washington, D. C.  He landed in Cuba, believing Castro’s claims that everyone there was treated equally, and that no racism existed in the communist country.

He was quickly disabused of those notions, spending five years in a brutal Cuban prison.  There he lost an eye while being beaten by sadistic guards and was stabbed repeatedly with bayonets.  Grant was eventually given a sixteen-square-foot putrid-smelling room in a hotel where he swept floors for a living.  “I just want to get back to the United States,” he whined.  “I’m living like a dog in Cuba.”  He also told reporters that “there are more racism problems here than in the worst part of Mississippi.”  After being sent back to the states, Grant was tried and sentenced to 15 years in prison.  He was released after serving about three-fourths of his sentence.

Ready to go Home

On September 19, 1970, Richard Duwayne Witt boarded Allegheny Airlines Flight 730 in Pittsburgh and hijacked it to Havana.  There he faced the same problems as many American asylum-seekers.  In an interview, he complained about worn-out clothing, inedible food, police harassment, and racial discrimination.  The government even made him shave off his Afro.  He claimed he’d rather face the death penalty in America than stay in Cuba.

“I want to be in the U. S.—even in jail—as long as I can leave here,” Witt said.  “I’m ready to face the music in the United States—whatever the court decides.  I’d rather be in federal prison than this place.”  In 1978, after eight years in Cuba, Witt was allowed to return to the United States.  Convicted of air piracy, he got his wish—15 years in federal prison.

“They still have dungeons down there”

Lewis Cale (also known as Louis Moore) and two companions skyjacked a Southern Airways DC-9 on November 10, 1972, a flight en route from Birmingham to Memphis.  During the 24-hour-long hijacking, the plane made nine stops at different airports across the country.  Finally, authorities had had enough and FBI agents shot out the airliner’s tires.  In retaliation, one of the hijackers shot and wounded a co-pilot.  The long-suffering pilot, forced at gunpoint to fly to Havana on shredded tires, slid the plane along the runway, making a miraculous landing.

The skyjackers were immediately taken into custody by Cuban police.  They were placed in isolation for a month, then beaten nearly to death during a series of bloody interrogations.  Cale’s hair turned prematurely gray from the stress of the torture and a lack of food.  A Cuban guard struck him on the forehead with a machete, leaving a disfiguring scar.  If that was not enough, several of his teeth were pulled out without the use of anesthesia.  “They threw us into dungeons,” Cale said.  “They still have dungeons down there.”  He said he witnessed a prisoner’s ears being cut off, and two prisoners murdered by guards.

Cale had had enough.  When the Castro regime gave him a choice of twenty years in a Cuban prison or release to the United States, he jumped at the chance to return to his home country.  Cale said his release gave him the chance to “spread the evils of communism.”  He later served a 20-year sentence in America’s federal prison system.

Sugarcane Gulag

As National Airlines Flight 97 began its final touchdown for Miami International Airport on March 6, 1969, a small-time crook and communist named Anthony Bryant pulled out a pistol and hijacked the plane.  As the airliner flew toward Havana, Bryant robbed all the passengers, including a Cuban intelligence operative.  Bad mistake.

The skyjacker had dreamed of “a place where everyone was equal.”  Unfortunately, Cuba was not that place.  Bryant was immediately arrested and, without a trial, sentenced to 12 years in the “sugarcane gulag.”  There he labored day in and day out, and endured so many bayonet attacks from guards that he had scars all over his body.  After being released from prison, Bryant subsisted on maggot-filled bread.

Cuba eventually sent Bryant back to the United States.  “Communism is humanity’s vomit,” he said at his first hearing.  Possibly because of the persecution he had endured, Bryant was sentenced to only five years of probation.  He wrote a popular book that detailed his torturous stay in Cuba, and spent the rest of his life condemning totalitarian regimes.

“If I had it to do over, I wouldn’t do it”

On January 29, 1969, Vietnam veteran and Purple Heart recipient Everett White hijacked Eastern Air Lines Flight 121 and took it to Cuba.  He was joined by Larry Brooks and Noble Mason III.  The three were sent to the sugarcane gulags where they languished for five miserable years.  Eventually, White was released and found work in a bakery.

By this time, he was ready to go home.  Back in America, he pleaded guilty to hindering a flight crew and was given a ten-year suspended sentence.  After learning that a group of Cuban refugees in America had hijacked a plane back to Cuba, White said, “They don’t even have the right to protest over there.  If they lived in a prison here [in the United States], they’d have it better than they do in the streets over there.”

“I have missed my country”

Raymond Johnson, a well-known Black Panther, hijacked National Airlines Flight 186 to Cuba on November 4, 1968.  Expecting a hero’s welcome, he was surprised to find Jose Marti International Airport surrounded by tanks.  Armed military personnel stormed the plane and arrested Johnson.  After two years in prison, he was released.  Johnson spent the next 16 years in Cuba where he worked, got married, and had four children.

In 1987, he was allowed to return to the United States.  Johnson was a changed man.  “I want to thank God for enabling me to be back in my country after 18 years in exile in communist Cuba,” he said.  “I don’t regret coming back.  I have the consolation of knowing my kids have been saved from a life of communist indoctrination.  I would rather be in jail in America than free in Cuba.”

After pleading guilty to kidnapping, Johnson received 25 years in prison.  The judge said his harsh sentence was meant to be a deterrent to others.  The sentence was overturned on appeal, and Johnson ended up serving only 5 years.  He later earned a law degree.

Lt. Spartacus, the Homesick Hijacker

By the 1980s, stricter security at airports had nearly eliminated skyjackings to Cuba.  But on March 27, 1984, William Potts, who went by the name, “Lt. Spartacus, a soldier of the Black Liberation Army,” told a stewardess on Piedmont Flight 451 from New York to Miami that he had two bombs on board.  His destination, he informed her, was Havana.  Potts later said he thought he would be welcome there.  That didn’t happen.

Lt. Spartacus was tried for air piracy and spent 13 years in a Cuban prison.  After being released, he lived another 17 years as a Cuban citizen.  He married and had children, but he told reporters he was “the homesick hijacker.”  He wished to return to his home country, he said.  Even though he faced decades in American prisons, Potts declared he would take that chance.  After 30 years in Cuba, he was sent back home to America where he was convicted and sentenced to 20 years.  However, the judge said he should be released after serving only seven.

Skyjacker and Young Daughter Return to U. S.

Jobless and estranged from his wife, Thomas George Washington told reporters he grew tired of American racism and capitalism.  On December 19, 1968, he kidnapped his three-year-old daughter, Jennifer, and hijacked Eastern Airlines Flight 47 to Cuba. Washington quickly became disenchanted with communism and begged Castro to let him return to America to face charges.  A year after landing in Cuba, Washington and Jennifer were kicked out.  They arrived in Montreal aboard a Cuban freighter where they were transferred to waiting FBI agents.

Jennifer was reunited with her mother and Washington convicted of interfering with a flight crew.  He was sentenced to two years in prison.

Disillusioned with Paradise

The first hijacker of an American airliner to Cuba was a U. S. citizen born in Puerto Rico named Antulio Ramirez Ortiz.  He had grown tired of life in America and was sympathetic to the Castro regime.  It was May 1, 1961, when Ortiz claimed he had a bomb on board National Airlines Flight 337, bound from Miami to Key West.  The pilots quickly turned the plane toward Havana.

As the Cuban Missile Crisis erupted in 1962, Ortiz became disillusioned with his adopted country.  He repeatedly tried to escape.  On one occasion, he attempted to float a raft to the U. S. but was caught and given six years in a Cuban prison.  Another time, he visited the Swiss Embassy hoping to arrange passage to the U. S.  He was again sentenced to prison.  During the times he wasn’t locked up, Ortiz worked as a general laborer.  Finally, Cuba agreed to send him back to the U. S. where he was arrested by the FBI.  He received a sentence of 20 years.

Dreams of a Worker’s Paradise

Maoist revolutionaries Charles Andrew Tuller, his teenaged sons Jonathan and Bryce, as well as William W. Graham, robbed a bank in Arlington, Virginia.  During the failed heist, they shot and killed the bank manager and a police officer.  With the FBI hot on their trail, the killers decided Castro and his “worker’s paradise” would be more inviting.

On October 30, 1972, as Eastern Airlines Flight 496 was boarding in Houston, Tuller and his gang rushed the plane.  Armed to the teeth, they shot and killed ticket agent Stanley Hubbard when he attempted to stop them. They also wounded a maintenance worker.  Once inside the Boeing 727, they forced the pilot to fly to Havana.

The group quickly grew disillusioned.  For three months, they were held in detention, interrogated endlessly, and accused of being spies.  After their release, Tuller and his sons found Cuba to be “a living hell,” nothing like the Utopia they had imagined.  Three years later, they voluntarily returned to the U. S. to face trial.  Convicted of air piracy and kidnapping, each was sentenced to 50 years in prison.  Graham, the fourth member of their group, remained in Cuba for a while longer, then snuck back into the U. S.  He lived under the law’s radar for 20 years before being caught and handed a life sentence.


If you have any interest in this subject, I recommend the following book: Hijack by Anthony Bryant, published in 1984. It is well-written, describing his life and eventual disillusionment with communism.

For my research into this project, I read hundreds of old newspapers from the 1960s to the 1980s.

I also recommend the following blog: “Skyjacker of the Day” by Brendan I. Koerner.


Friday, December 6, 2019

A Primer on Self-Defense

Self-Defense Tips Most People Forget About
By Jay Chambers

As crime rates increase by the day, you should make sure you are never caught unawares. Whether you are in a safe place or not, it is good to be always prepared for the worst scenarios. Simple self-defense readiness (or lack of it) could determine your staying alive or getting killed.

From simple to more aggressive self-defense techniques, none is too little or too much when it comes to staying safe before and during an attack. Keep reading to learn about great self-defense tips you probably don’t pay attention to.

Tip #1: Fight Back – Do So Only If You Can Handle the Situation

Learning to fight back during an attack is one of the techniques for self-defense. However, you must assess the situation and be very sure your attacker does not have a life-threatening device that would give him or her an upper hand over you.

So, once you have assessed the situation and determined it’s okay to fight back in physical combat, go ahead and scratch or jab the attacker in the eyes without delay. The essence is to weaken their vision so that you can take advantage of the situation to escape. 

Tip #2: Apply Head-butt when Necessary

Head-butting is especially helpful when an attacker grabs a victim from behind. Do not delay in head-butting backward, which will direct a blow from the back of your head to the assailant's nose. Make sure you apply the most force in head-butting your attacker. The culprit is very likely to let go of you as the pain from the head-butt weakens him.

Tip #3: Destabilize Your Attacker with a Pepper Spray

Having pepper spray with you most times when you are outdoors can be quite helpful in a life-threatening situation. It’s a great way to destabilize your opponent so that you can escape or use the opportunity to fish out a stronger weapon.

When you use pepper spray on an attacker, you should focus on the face and particularly the eyes. Remember, this is a matter of life and death, so you should be very swift in taking action. Once you have succeeded in destabilizing the assailant, escape as fast as possible, bearing in mind that the pepper spray effect would usually wear off after about 15 minutes or slightly more.

Tip #4: Learn to Exhibit Confidence and Awareness

When you notice a potential attack, exhibiting confidence and awareness is a great self-defense technique that can make your attacker think twice. Often, violent criminals such as muggers usually focus on easy targets – people who appear fearful and unaware of the potential danger in their environment.

So, don’t look down as you’re walking and being distracted by your mobile phone. Exhibit confidence and awareness by standing straight as you walk briskly, with your back, chin, and shoulders up.

Try not to make it obvious that you know someone is following you – so, don’t make eye contact with a suspect. But, ensure you are at alert, looking around intermittently for signs that may confirm your suspicion. Sometimes, a potential assailant would walk away if the person suspects you will be a difficult target.

Tip #5: Shout

In a potential attack situation, shouting at the aggressor can be a helpful self-defense technique. It can help prevent the assailant from attacking you. Knowing that your shout will attract the attention of people nearby, the assailant would hurry to leave the environment.

Usually, attackers do not want victims who draw attention and would take advantage of the situation to subdue them quietly. The majority of the attackers will hurry away from loud situations and shouts, knowing that could alert people nearby or even the police.

So, don’t hesitate to shout “back off!” when someone is suspiciously coming towards you. Don’t stop screaming and yelling until they back off. Also, it would be helpful to bring out your cell phone immediately and let them know you are dialing 911 since they’ve refused to back off.

Tip #6: Get Away from the Scene as Fast as You Can

Remember, a potential attack is a life-threatening situation and any quick action can help save your life. So, if there’s an opportunity to escape from a potential attacker, do it as fast as you can. If your vehicle is parked close by, quickly duck into it as a way of escape, and don’t hesitate to drive off.

You can also escape into any business outfit nearby such as a mall or restaurant. Look for a way to blend with the crowd so that the attacker can lose track of you. You don't always have to fight back when you have the opportunity to escape.

Escaping from potential harm includes letting go of your precious belongings such as your wallet, money or credit cards, especially if they ask for those items in a life-threatening situation. You can always bounce back from such losses, but may never bounce back from a life-threatening attack.

Tip #7: Be Armed

You should be ready for worst-case scenarios at all times by arming yourself. It is common for many people to use concealed handguns, including higher caliber options as a way of being armed and getting ready for the worst situations. Other self-defense devices that people adopt include mace and knives.

However, you should bear in mind that if you are unprepared to use dangerous weapons such as guns and knives, your attacker may deploy them against you. As a result, many people consider these self-defense devices carefully.

So, if you decide to adopt a proper weapon such as a pistol for self-defense, endeavor to be smart and very cautious. You should ensure you go through proper training on how to use such weapons safely. Also, you must carry a gun legally.

Finally, it is helpful to take self-defense lessons, especially if your neighborhood is a dangerous one and you are concerned about your life and that of your loved ones.

Jay is a pro free speech business owner based in Austin, Texas.  Jay writes over at Minuteman Review.


Monday, November 11, 2019

Veteran's Day, 2019.  Today, I'm remembering Zack A. Crumpton, my grandfather on my mother's side of the family.  One hundred years ago (July, 1919), he came home from France.  He landed in New York blind in one eye and suffering from influenza.  After recovering from the flu, Grandfather Crumpton came back to Fellowship, Florida, the little farming community where he was born and raised.  My grandfather never received a penny from the government for the life-altering injury he suffered during WWI.  He never asked for any money.  He considered it his duty to serve his country.


I would encourage everyone who reads this to click into the following link and check out "The Heroes of an Ancient War," written by my brother Zack.  It is a moving tribute to Grandfather Crumpton and others who fought to keep our country free.
   

Monday, November 4, 2019

The Story of Sam Davis

"I would die a thousand deaths..."
Written by Robert A. Waters

The following true, much-documented tale portrays the humanity of Civil War soldiers on both sides.  The storyline is somewhat similar to the famous story by Ambrose Bierce entitled "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," which Kurt Vonnegut called the "greatest American short story." 

On November 27, 1863, an exhausted man dozed beneath the wintry skeleton of a live oak tree.  A thick tangle of brush surrounded him, making this spot a natural hiding place.  Below him, the icy Tennessee River gurgled and cracked.  The man intended to cross that river, but decided to rest for a while.  With a cold rain battering him and his worn-out horse, the man never heard the small group of Kansas Jayhawkers (7th Kansas Cavalry) circling his make-shift camp.

Sam Davis, a twenty-year-old scout, or courier, for the Confederate army, awoke to dozens of carbines trained on him.  The Union troops unceremoniously arrested Davis.

In her research paper, "The Coleman Scouts," Mabel Baxter Pittard wrote that Civil War-era "spies and scouts [were] sent into enemy territory to gather news concerning movements of troops, to secure newspapers, and to obtain any vital information about enemy resources."  Confederate scouts were used in Tennessee to send intelligence about USA General Ulysses Grant's military activities to CSA General Braxton Bragg, currently headquartered in Decatur, Alabama.

Sam Davis had been caught red-handed.

Davis grew up in Rutherford County, Tennessee and attended West Military Institute in Nashville.  Only 18 when the Union army invaded his Southern homeland, Davis joined the First Tennessee Volunteer Infantry.  "In the ensuing year," newspaperman James Cameron Phifer wrote in American Heritage magazine, "[Davis] served under Robert E. Lee, under Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah valley, under Albert Sidney Johnston and P.G.T. Beauregard in Mississippi.  In August of 1862, Sam, now battle-hardened and battle-scarred--he had been wounded at Shiloh--marched over the mountains into Kentucky, as General Braxton Bragg's army of Tennessee launched the invasion that was to end in disastrous defeat at Perryville on October 8."  At Perryville, Sam was wounded again, this time his injuries much more severe.

While recovering, the call went out from Coleman's Scouts for volunteers, led by Captain Henry B. Shaw, AKA "Dr. E. Coleman."  Davis applied and was accepted.

The Jayhawkers, sloshing through the rain, hurried Davis to Union General Grenville M. Dodge's headquarters in Pulaski, Tennessee.  There, searchers located a group of incriminating documents sewn into one of his boots.  Davis's saddle was then examined and soldiers located additional papers, including chillingly accurate maps of Grant's encampment.

To Dodge, Sam was small-fry.  He wanted to learn the identity of the elusive "Captain Coleman," not Davis.  Dodge met with his captive and informed him that if he (Davis) would reveal the name of the much-hated leader of the spy ring, he would be set free.  Davis adamantly refused.  Dodge, who spent hours interrogating Davis and was said to have developed a liking for the young man, begged him to spare his own life and give up his superior.  Davis replied, "The man who gave me the information is more important to the Confederacy than I."

Davis was then court-martialed and sentenced to death.

Phifer wrote that "Chaplain James Young of the 81st Ohio Infantry, the unit detailed to carry out the execution, spent much time with the doomed youngster."  They spoke of their homes and their experiences in the war and prayed together.  Young allowed the prisoner to write a note home.  Sam wrote: "Mother, do not grieve for me, I must bid you good-bye forevermore.  Mother--I do not hate to die."

The next morning dawned cold, with a heavy rain soaking the hanging ground.  As Davis sat on his coffin in a wagon awaiting execution, he was again reminded that he would be given a horse, a gun, and transferred safely by Union soldiers to Confederate lines in Alabama if he would identify the chief spy.  Davis responded, "I will not tell.  I would die a thousand deaths before I would betray a friend."

With that, he was led to the gallows.  Union troops later said that many soldiers turned their heads away so they wouldn't have to witness the well-liked prisoner's death.  After a final prayer by the chaplain, the trap was sprung and the rope snapped taut.  It took three minutes for Davis to die.

Captain W. F. Armstrong, the provost marshal who had also spent hours attempting to get Davis to reveal his secrets, wrote to Sam's parents.  "Tell them for me," the note read, "that he died the bravest of the brave, an honor to them, and with the respect of every man in this command."

After the war, General Dodge wrote about Davis: "I pleaded with him with all the power I possessed to give me some chance to save his life.  I discovered that he was a most admirable young fellow, with highest character and strictest integrity.  He replied, 'I know, General, I will have to die, but I cannot tell you where I got the information and there is no power on earth that can make me tell.  You are doing your duty as a soldier, and if I have to die, I shall be doing my duty to God and my country.'"

A statue of Sam Davis now sits outside his former home in Smyrna, Tennessee.  As you would expect in this era, its future is precarious.  Here's hoping it lasts another hundred years, a tribute to courage and honor. 

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Rights Reversal for Guns Save Lives
Written by Robert A. Waters

In 2002, my second book, Guns Save Lives, was published.  I hated the title, and still do.  My original working title was Shooting Back—I still like that title.  The publisher, Loompanics Unlimited, changed it.  I also didn’t much like the original cover either, but you go with the flow sometimes.  (Like my first book, this one described two dozen dramatic stories of people who used firearms to survive encounters with violent criminals.)

Now I’m not ripping on Loompanics.  They gave me a very nice advance and paid me royalties for years.  The publisher specialized in controversial “soldier-of-fortune” type books, as well as prepper titles and other politically incorrect subjects.  They had a humongous mailing list that paid off for me.

Ten or twelve years later, Loompanics went out of business.  They sold my book to Paladin Press.  Paladin was similar to Loompanics in its subject matter, but much more hardcore libertarian.  Paladin also had a great mailing list and I received royalty payments from them for a decade.

So a couple of years ago, the founder of Paladin died and the company went out of business.  My son Sim and I decided to attempt to get the rights reverted to me.  In that way, we could publish it on Kindle.  We contacted Paladin’s representative and they graciously gave us the full rights to the book.  The Kindle edition has done very well, so we decided to republish it in paperback as well.  That paperback edition is now available on Amazon.

Below, you can read the complete Chapter 1 of Guns Save Lives.  If you like it, I’d encourage you to buy the paperback edition.  Put it on your bookshelf and it can be a permanent reminder to you that heroic people do exist in America, and that firearms are often used to save lives.

Chapter 1 - Point Blank
http://kidnappingmurderandmayhem.blogspot.com/2019/05/guns-save-lives-chapter-1-point-blank_40.html

Guns Save Lives – Kindle eBook is $2.99.

Guns Save Lives – Paperback edition is $9.99.


Thursday, September 19, 2019

Backstory
Written by Robert A. Waters

“It is [the] fact behind the facts that determines the meaning of all the other facts, creates a context for interpreting what our eyes are seeing and what our informants are telling us, and dictates the true syntax of a story.” Phillip Gerard (“The Facts Behind the Facts”).

All literature has backstory, in one form or another.  There can be one backstory, or many.

In Guns and Self-Defense: 23 Inspirational True Crime Stories of Survival with Firearms, by myself and my son, Sim Waters, a chapter called “Demise of the Cutthroat Committee” has an intriguing backstory.  This chapter describes a violent home invasion that was stopped by the residents, Foster Coker III, and his wife, Pamela.  After being nearly murdered, both Foster and Pam shot the home invader, killing him.

Here is a hint of the backstory from this chapter: the Coker family are Christians.  They attend church, and regularly have members of their congregation over to visit.  Because of this, several cars might be parked in their yard on various evenings.  (The relevance of their strong belief in God becomes evident near the end of the chapter.)

Now to the main story.  The “Cutthroat Committee” was a makeshift gang of about 15 convicted felons.  They lived near the neighborhood where Foster and Pam lived.  At some point, they began to case the Coker residence.  Having a totally different mindset than the average person, several of the gang members decided the home they passed with all the cars must be a drug house.  Because of that, three gang members and a girlfriend decided to rob the residents.  Being convicted felons, none of the gang members could legally own guns.  Yet all of them did.  Members of the gang made their living by selling drugs, committing thefts and robberies, and prostituting out their “girlfriends.”  Few, if any, of the gang had ever worked a steady job.

The grandson of Foster and Pam would often spend the night with them.  He was seven-years-old at the time and slept in a bedroom adjacent to his grandparents.  He was spending the night when the home invasion occurred.  One of the things most remembered (and appreciated) by Pam was a police officer shielding their grandson’s eyes from the bloody mess as he carried their grandson from the home.

There was no warning when one of the conspirators kicked in the back door.  One second, things were normal in the household, the next second Pam was being brutally assaulted.  She was knocked to the floor, incurring multiple long-term injuries.

Foster, sound asleep when he heard his wife scream, jumped out of bed and raced to her aid.  From there, a horrific fight ensued.  (Fortunately, the second gang member who was supposed to help with the robbery became frightened and ran away when he heard—on his cellphone—Foster and Pam fighting back.  More of the backstory, by the way.)

The local media documented the sensational aspects of the story: the gunfight that erupted inside the home; the victims being transported to the hospital and the gang member to the morgue; and later, the investigation.  The trials of the surviving conspirators provided reporters with concrete details of the events that occurred.

But the unreported backstory was there, always simmering in the background.

I won’t spoil the ending in this article, though it has to do with a world-view that gave strength to those fighting for their lives.

I guess this blog article is like a film trailer—the ghost of a story emerges, then vanishes.  But deep inside the chapter, “Demise of the Cutthroat Committee,” you’ll find two distinctly different perspectives on life that shaped the story.

Guns and Self-Defense: 23 Inspirational True Crime Stories of Survival with Firearms by Robert A. Waters and Sim Waters is available at Amazon.com. 

Monday, September 9, 2019

Wannabe Kidnappers Routed
Written by Robert A. Waters

On November 8, 2017, the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office released the following statement: “Four teens armed with a knife, guns and a roll of tape planned to kidnap and rob members of a Baker family last night, but their plot didn’t go as planned and now all four are in custody.  Inside their SUV deputies also found latex gloves, facial masks and dark clothing.”

The town of Baker, with a population of around 7,000, sits near the edge of Florida’s Panhandle.  Located between the Blackwater River and the Yellow River, the area offers a natural environment for those who favor country-style living.  Terry Brackney resided near Baker with his 17-year-old daughter, Amber.  The 51-year-old father owned a funeral home and clothing store in Crestview, ten miles away.

At 10:30 P.M. on November 7, Amber drove home from her job at a local restaurant.  As she pulled up to the gated entrance to her home, her headlights shone on four 55-gallon drum barrels that blocked the road.  Immediately suspicious, Amber used her cell phone to inform her father.

Terry told her to drive around the barrels and Amber did just that.

When she arrived home, she briefly discussed the incident with her father, then went to bed.

The sheriff’s statement described what happened next: “A short time later [Terry] heard his dogs barking and saw his motion-activated flood lights come on.  After spotting some individuals trying to force their way into his garage, he fired three shots and the intruders fled into the woods.  He later learned they had unscrewed some of his security lights.”

Terry quickly called 9-1-1 and alerted the sheriff’s office.

While interviewing nearby homeowners, detectives got a break.  A neighbor had seen a suspicious vehicle near her house.  She described it as a white 2016 Jeep Liberty.  Deputies spotted the SUV on Highway 4 and made a felony traffic stop.

They arrested Keilon Johnson, 19, Austin French, 17, Tyree Johnson, 16, and Kamauri Horn, 15.  While none of the suspects had been struck by Terry’s gunfire, they were so terrified that they all quickly confessed to a sinister plot.

Keilon Johnson, the oldest suspect, set the plan in motion.  All the teens attended Crestview High School with Amber and knew her.  Keilon had studied her movements and knew she returned home from work every night at the same time. 

Keilon convinced his cohorts that her father was wealthy and kept lots of money in the home.  They came up with a plan to rob the house.  When she came home after work, the gang planned to “make Amber Brackney exit [her] vehicle at the barricade where she would be taken by force, made to enter the gate code to enter the curtilage and coerce Terry Brackney to exit the residence.  Terry would then be subdued by chemicals and/or force and the defendants would then enter the home and commit the robbery.”

What went without saying is that, even wearing masks, there was a good chance the conspirators would be recognized.  In fact, Amber had once been close friends with at least one of the suspects and could easily identify his voice and mannerisms.  Because of that, had their plan succeeded, there was a good possibility the suspects would have murdered Terry and Amber to keep them quiet.

As the attempted robbery played itself out that night, Ervin Johnson drove the getaway vehicle and communicated with Kielon Johnson by cell phone.  Once Amber foiled their plan by driving around the barricade, Kielon called Ervin and told him they were going “straight for the house.”  Austin French was armed with a knife, while Keilon and Kamurai Horn had pistols.

As they began to unscrew the lights, their plan went awry.  The dogs began barking and Terry came out of the house with his semiautomatic handgun.  When he opened fire, the suspects panicked and fled into the dense woods surrounding the house.  While making their escape, they dropped one of the firearms, the knife, and other identifying items.

The conspirators, each charged as adults, pleaded guilty to attempted armed kidnapping and attempted home invasion.  Horn received 15 years in prison.  Ervin Johnson was sentenced to seven years, followed by fifteen years of probation.  Keilon Johnson has not yet been sentenced but faces up to 45 years in prison, while Austin French is also looking at a possible 45 years.

Terry and Amber Brackney appeared on ABC’s “Good Morning America” to discuss the crime and its aftermath.

“I’ve searched and I’ve prayed for peace of mind over this situation and to get my sense of security back in my home,” Terry said.  “Had these individuals made it inside our house…today would have probably been our funerals.”

“I’m really grateful for my dad,” Amber said.  “I really don’t have a mom in my life, so my dad is my hero…I saw these kids every day walking down the hallway [in my school].  I never expected them to try to kidnap me and harm me and do such a thing to my family.”

Since I started my blog in 2008, I’ve written hundreds of stories about Americans who used guns to defend their own lives, or the lives of others.  (Check out my latest book, co-written with Sim Waters, entitled Guns andSelf-Defense: 23 Inspirational True Crime Stories of Survival with Firearms.) 

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

The Hurricane that Sank Spain
by Robert A. Waters

On the white-hot afternoon of July 24, 1715, a Spanish flotilla of eleven ships sailed out of Havana.  A small French warship, the Grifon, tagged along.  General Juan Esteban de Ubilla commanded six of the Spanish vessels while General Don Antonio de Echeverz y Zubiza was in charge of the remaining ships.  Bound for Spain, the fleet carried nearly a thousand crew members and passengers, as well as a staggering 14 million pesos worth of treasure.  Much of the plunder, taken from Mexico and South America, consisted of gold and silver coinage and bars.

General Ubilla was furious that it had taken two months longer than usual to transport the vast treasure from the mines to the ships.  He knew the chances of encountering a hurricane had increased dramatically.  For 50 years, Spanish treasure galleons had made the passage across the Atlantic, and dozens had been lost to the dreaded storms.

Spain’s life’s-blood depended on the success of these ships.  According to Robert F. Burgess and Carl J. Clausen in their book, Florida’s Golden Galleons, “Spain’s economy was almost totally dependent on these treasure shipments from the New World.  Since she manufactured nothing that was needed by other countries, the wealth received from her New World colonies merely passed through her economy into the economies of other European nations…”  (In 1712, the country had finally ended the costly 13-year War of the Spanish Succession, another of the endless conflicts Spain fought that kept its treasury drained.)

The treasure ships, six in all and crucial to the financial stability of the nation, were stuffed with produce, meat, and all manner of cargo, as well as the treasure chests.  The rest were warships, tasked with beating off pirates or privateers.  Cannons lined their decks, making the ships an overloaded yet dangerous foe. 

After passing Punto Ycaco, an island near the outer edge of Cuba, the majestic armada headed north.  They would hug the Florida coast until they reached San Augustin when they would turn east.  With flags flying in the breeze, none of those aboard knew a hurricane was headed straight toward them.

On July 29, sailors began to notice that the sea in the distance looked like lead.  A gray, milky haze obscured the sun as the fleet, one by one, sailed between the Florida coastline and the Bahama islands.  General Ubilla and General Echerverz, already nervous, had become alarmed at the signs of bad weather.

Burgess and Clausen described the following day: “On Tuesday, July 20, dawn broke on an oppressively hot, humid day.  People’s hands felt clammy; their clothes stuck to their bodies.  The fleet had made little progress during the night.  Winds were erratic, often changing directions, sometimes ceasing to blow at all.”  Swells increased, causing the ships to roll and pitch.  By noon, everyone on board sensed what was coming.

Soon the afternoon sky had turned so black sailors lit lanterns so they could see.  Winds more than 100 miles per hour lashed the fleet.  As the ships were tossed about, children cried and strong men prayed.  The flotilla, so magnificent when it had left Cuba, became uncontrollable.  Cargo shifted dangerously on the ships as the pitching and rolling increased.  A survivor later said that “the sea came like arrows.”  Torrents of rain, shrieking winds, and waves higher than the ships themselves pummeled the fleet.

Near midnight, the fury of the storm increased.  Ships plunged down into the dark depths, then struggled up again.  Over and over and over.  Trunks, cargo, cattle, horses, even the big guns on the warships, ricocheted across the decks.  Back and forth they went.  The ships moaned as if dying, then let out ear-splitting booms as if the cannons had been fired.

Stuck between the Florida coast and the Bahamas, the fleet could not escape.  The boats wallowed, becoming waterlogged and weary.  Sailors, having worked in life-or-death desperation for twenty-four hours, were exhausted.  The unending storm, which seemed determined to punish the ships, only increased in its fury.

Finally, the once-proud flotilla could take no more.

The first to go was the Capitana, a 471-ton ship.  Its bottom was sheared off when it struck a reef.  The ship sank almost immediately.  General Ubilla, along with 200 sailors, drowned.  One by one, the other ships followed.  Sailors and passengers died as each ship plunged into the seas.  General Echeverz’s flagship, the Nuestra Senora del Carmen, dumped enough cargo to lighten its load and limp onto the Florida shore.  The general and most of his men survived.

Only the French ship that had been forced by the Spanish into becoming part of the flotilla (Ubilla and Echeverz didn’t want the captain of the Grifon to warn others that a flotilla loaded with treasure was coming across the sea) escaped because it had pulled far enough away from the Spanish fleet to miss the storm.

Much of the wrecked flotilla came to rest a few hundred yards off the shore of what is now Cape Canaveral.   More than seven hundred souls perished in the storm, and all the Spanish treasure was lost.  Dazed survivors launched longboats to San Augustin to inform officials of the disaster.  In time, the survivors were rescued and some of the treasure salvaged.

The following letter describing the hurricane was written by a survivor: "The sun disappeared and the wind increased in velocity coming from the east and the east northeast.  The seas became very giant in size, the wind continued blowing us toward shore, pushing us into the shallow water.  It soon happened that we were unable to use any sail at all...and we were at the mercy of the wind and water, always driven closer to shore.  Having lost all our masts, all of the ships were wrecked..."

The wreck of the 1715 flotilla was a disaster for the Spanish government.  During that year, Austria expropriated the Netherlands from Spain, which had little money left to finance another war.  As the British and other European nations became stronger, Spain’s influence and power dwindled.

Storms continued to wreak havoc on the Spanish.  In 1733, a flotilla of 21 treasure ships was decimated by a hurricane near Key West.        

In the 1950s and 1960s, treasure hunters located the 1715 flotilla and recovered treasure worth millions of dollars.
NOTE: Much of the information in this story came from Florida’s Golden Galleons: The Search for the 1715 Spanish Treasure Fleet by Robert F. Burgess and Carl J. Clausen.  If you have any interest in the subject, I highly recommend this book.   


Wednesday, August 21, 2019


The Man Without a Heart
by Robert A. Waters

The Blackwater River flows through the wilds of Alabama into Florida’s Panhandle.  Its ink-black water meanders along, lapping sugar-white sand beaches while centuries-old cypress trees line the banks.

On May 1, 1956, three young boys played along the water’s edge.  They were David Earl Wilson, 7, his younger brother Douglas Cecil, 4, and a friend, seven-year-old Michael McCauley.  The Wilson family’s mobile house trailer sat back on a hill, looking down over the shirtless boys as they yelled and romped.

The playmates parted as their neighbor, thirty-three-year-old Dallas E. Withers, approached a motorboat tethered to a nearby tree.  While climbing in, the unemployed electrician turned to the boys and asked, “You want to go for a short ride?”

The excited youngsters hesitated briefly, then crowded into the boat.  But McCauley, fearful that his father would be angry, jumped out and waded back to shore.

A sudden roar of the engine alerted Mary Alice Wilson, the brothers’ mother.  She sprinted from the house down to the river’s bank, screaming for her neighbor to return with her boys.  Withers never looked back.  The distraught woman watched in horror as the boat motored into the fog and disappeared around a bend.

Since she didn’t have a telephone, Mrs. Wilson rushed to a neighbor’s home and called the Bay County Sheriff’s Department.

Sheriff M. J. “Doc” Daffin and his lead investigator, Floyd D. Saxon, raced to the residence at 414 Second Court in Millville.  The unincorporated community sat on a spit of land between Watson Bayou and St. Andrews Bay in Panama City.  After Mrs. Wilson and Michael McCauley breathlessly described the events of the afternoon, Daffin quickly organized teams of deputies to search the shoreline.

News of the abduction spread quickly.  With a population of around 50,000 residents, Bay County was home to several military installations, including Tyndall Air Force Base.  In addition to law enforcement officials, local fishermen and servicemen soon joined the hunt for the missing brothers.

*******

Three hours after casting off with the youngsters, Withers docked his boat at Polecat Bayou, fifteen miles from the Wilson home.

He was alone.

Waiting deputies arrested him on the spot.

Lawmen transported Withers to an undisclosed jail for his own safety.  Weather-hard, with dark eyes, the suspect said little.  When asked where the boys were, he feigned surprise and denied taking them.

Darkness fell, and the long night passed with no word from the missing brothers.  The next morning, Mrs. Wilson, sobbing, released a tape-recorded statement: “Please, Mr. Withers,” she said, “Tell me where you left my sons.  I want them back dead or alive.”  The Fort Pierce News Tribune reported that “the boys’ father, Willard E. Wilson, was taken to a veteran’s hospital in Birmingham for treatment of shock.”

The Wilson family had lived in Panama City for only three weeks.  Originally from Mississippi, Willard worked as a civilian employee at Tyndall Air Force Base.

Shortly after noon, searchers in a military helicopter spotted four-year-old Douglas.

Floating face-down in the murky waters, his remains were located about 300 yards from the mouth of Cook’s Bayou.  Lawmen grimly pulled Douglas from the river and transported him to Smith Funeral Home in Panama City.  Soon the coroner arrived.  After conducting an autopsy, he announced the cause of death was drowning.

Though searchers combed the river all day, David was not found.

On the second day, after hearing Mrs. Wilson’s taped appeal and learning that Douglas had been found, Withers confessed to killing the boys.  Sheriff Daffin told reporters that in his first confession, Withers claimed that while making a sharp turn around a bend, David fell out of the boat.  Withers stated that after David drowned, he panicked and tossed Douglas into the water.

The next day Withers admitted his sordid reason for the abduction and murders.  He informed investigators that he had molested young boys for years, but had never been caught.  When he saw the children playing on the bank outside their home, he immediately felt drawn to the older Wilson boy.

Withers stated that after finding an isolated spot, he forced David to commit “indecent acts.”  He described how he flung the child into the dark water and watched him flounder until he slowly sank out of sight.  The boy had cried out just before disappearing.  Detectives noted that Withers was matter-of-fact when describing what happened.  In order to cover his crime, the killer said he also tossed four-year-old Douglas into the river.  Like David, the youngster quickly drowned.

Investigators believed Withers had stopped at a sand-bank to molest David, though for some reason he never admitted it.  Tracks on one of the sandbars in the river contained footprints of a man and two young children.  After the assault, Withers likely forced the brothers back into the boat and tossed them out.

For the next three days, hundreds of searchers scoured the river and its banks for the older boy.  During this time, women of the community grouped together in local churches to make sandwiches and iced tea for the men.  Finally, four days after having been snatched from the shoreline in broad daylight, two local fishermen radioed that they had located the remains of a young boy.

David’s body had floated up only a few feet from where his brother had been found.

**********



Dallas Withers had spent time in a reform school before joining the U. S. Army in 1943.

Trained as a machine gunner, Withers was assigned to Company D, 304th Infantry Regiment, 76th Infantry Division.  As he spoke to investigators, the suspect made a shocking claim.  He stated that in 1945, during a night bombardment near Oberinheim, Germany, while supporting a squad of riflemen from the rear, he lowered his machine gun and turned it on his fellow GIs.

He informed detectives that he and another soldier were having “sexual relations,” and he was afraid of being found out.  Withers said casualties from the enemy bombardment were so horrific that no one realized some soldiers had been shot from behind.

Sheriff Daffin reported that Withers passed a lie detector test about the episode.  However, Detective Saxon told reporters that he didn’t believe the suspect’s claims.  (The army never fully investigated the incident, evidently writing the “confession” off as an attention-seeking ploy—or perhaps they were unwilling to open up a can of worms that could destroy many lives.)

Sheriff Daffin told reporters that Withers “showed absolutely no remorse or emotion in answering my questions.  He is a man without a heart.”

At ten o’clock on the morning of May 7, hundreds of mourners attended funeral services for Douglas and David Wilson.  A local newspaper reported that after the services in Panama City, “the two were taken to Louisville, Miss., by a [Smith Funeral Home] hearse for services at the Middleton Methodist Church there.”

***********



The trial of Dallas E. Withers, scheduled for January 7, 1959, promised to be a sensation.  It did not disappoint.


The Panama City courtroom was packed to capacity with 250 spectators.  Willard and Mary Alice Wilson sat behind prosecutors while Withers’ aged mother took a seat behind her son and the defense team.  (His wife and seven children were nowhere to be seen.)

Thomas Beasley, a former state representative from DeFuniak Springs, represented Withers.  (He was known for having tried 30 death penalty cases in which not one of his defendants was sent to the chair.)  But in this case, the attorney had little to work with.  Withers had confessed twice.  In addition, witnesses had seen him leave with the children.  Finally, physical evidence found in his boat proved the brothers had been there.

At first, Beasley made a half-hearted attempt to show that Withers was insane.  But the defendant’s obvious planning and confessions shot down that argument.

Beasley then claimed that Withers had been “drunk and unaccountable” for his actions.  But while he had been drinking, witnesses testified that he was not drunk.  (An appeals court later wrote that “there was ample competent substantial evidence to support the jury’s conclusion that Withers was not so intoxicated at the time of the commission of the crime as to be incapable of premeditation.”)

Finally, in desperation, the defense argued that Withers had suffered a work-related accident that may have damaged his brain and made him impulsive.  This could have caused him to “snap” and perform an act he couldn’t control.

Prosecutor J. Frank Adams told jurors that the crime Withers committed was the worst ever recorded in Bay County.  He stated that it was obvious from his confession that Withers knew right from wrong.

Four hours after receiving instructions, jurors returned with their verdict.

Guilty.

Circuit Judge E. Clay Lewis, Jr. immediately sentenced Dallas E. Withers to death in the electric chair.

Mary Alice Wilson agreed with the verdict.  “He had a trial,” she said.  “My boys did not.”

On February 2, 1959, nearly three years after the heinous murders of two innocent boys, Withers walked solemnly to Florida’s Old Sparky.  Reporters said he remained calm to the very end.