Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Emily Harris
The Unquiet Death of Myrna Opsahl
by Robert A. Waters

At 9:01 A.M. on April 21, 1975, Myrna Opsahl, 42-year-old wife, mother and nurse, walked into the Crocker National Bank in Carmichael, California.  With two other members of her Seventh-day Adventist Church, she planned to deposit the congregation’s weekend collection.  As Opsahl entered, four members of a self-styled leftist militant group called the Symbionese Liberation Army pushed in behind her. 

Emily Harris, her husband William Harris, Michael Bortin, and Kathleen Ann Soliah, wore heavy coats and masks.  Emily, holding a shotgun loaded with buckshot, screamed for patrons to get down on the floor.  “Get your noses on the carpet…noses on the carpet.”

Opsahl, holding the church’s cash-box, didn’t move fast enough.  A blast from Harris’s shotgun ripped open her abdomen.  She fell to the floor, bleeding out.

The robbers ignored the dying woman and continued with their heist.  Cosmo Garvin, of the Sacramento News & Review, wrote: “Bank customers described one of the robbers (Soliah) as a woman in her mid-20s who wore a green bandana over her face, held a pistol in one hand, while keeping an eye on her wristwatch, and periodically shouted out how much time had elapsed.  Another bandit leapt the bank counter and emptied the money from the teller drawers, caching some $15,000.”  The robbers fled the scene of the crime in a Pontiac Firebird.

Meanwhile, Opsahl bled to death.

The SLA was already notorious for kidnapping Patty Hearst and murdering Marcus Foster, superintendent of schools in Oakland.  In her book, Every Secret Thing, Hearst claimed that Emily Harris said she accidently pulled the trigger.  But making light of Opsahl’s murder, Harris said: “Oh, she’s dead, but it really doesn’t matter.  She was a bourgeois pig anyway.  Her husband was a doctor.”

In the mid-1970s, many SLA members went into hiding.  Helped by families, radical friends, and other leftists, they blended into society, eventually becoming bourgeois pigs themselves. 

For nearly three decades, Sacramento prosecutors refused to indict anyone for the murder, claiming there was not enough evidence to convict.

And there the case might have lain dormant.  Except Jon, one of the sons of Myrna Opsahl, refused to let it lie.  People Magazine’s Thomas Fields-Meyer described how Jon learned of his mother’s murder: “A school nurse walked into Jon Opsahl’s Sacramento High School classroom and whispered something to his teacher.  The teacher began to cry.  Then the nurse led Jon in silence to the principal’s office, where he found his brother and sister.  All three were rushed to a local hospital, where Jon’s father, Trygve, eyes red with tears, was waiting.  ‘Mommy has been shot...’ he told them.  ‘She’s dead.’”

As the years passed, Jon became a physician.  He married and had children, but the wound in his gut was still raw.  Why weren’t the killers of his mom in prison instead of living normal, everyday lives?  He began harassing prosecutors with numerous phone calls.  He set up his own web page asking for more information about the murders.  And he began periodically sending postcards with his mother’s picture on it to prosecutors.  Just to remind them that at least her family hadn’t forgotten.

In the meantime, Patty Hearst was convicted of robbing the Hibernia Bank in San Francisco.  President Jimmy Carter soon commuted Hearst’s prison sentence and Bill Clinton pardoned her.  (In the Crocker Bank robbery, Hearst waited in a VW van which served as a switch car.)  Steven Soliah, Kathleen’s brother and allegedly one of the getaway drivers, was tried and acquitted of the Crocker robbery.  Emily Harris served a short prison sentence for helping to abduct Patty Hearst, then became a computer consultant for MGM and other film production companies.  

In the months after the bank robbery, Kathleen Ann Soliah placed two pipe bombs underneath police cars.  Fortunately, the bombs were discovered before they detonated.  Soliah then went underground, moving back to her home state of Minnesota.  There she morphed into Sarah Jane Olson, married, and had three children.  For more than two decades she lived in anonymity, evidently unbothered by her part in the murder of an innocent victim, or her attempts to murder police officers.

Finally, 28 years later, the wheels of justice began moving forward in the Opsahl murder case.  The murderers were tracked down and arrested.  With several of their former terrorist cohorts prepared to testify against them, the four pleaded guilty to second degree murder.  Emily Harris Montague received eight years; Bill Harris got seven years; and Michael Bortin and Sara Jane Olson were sentenced to six in prison.  (In addition, Olson received 14 years for attempting to murder a police officer—for all her crimes, she served only seven before being paroled.)

At the hearing, Jon Opsahl said: “For nearly 28 years, I have lived with the fact that monsters do exist, that hometown terrorism is real, that the incomprehensible happened, and that beyond our family and church, no one else seemed to care, including and especially the defendants.”

All the defendants were released long ago.  Those few years they spent in prison were just a hiccup in the vile lives of Montague, Harris, Bortin, and Olson.

Unfortunately, Myrna Opsahl, a productive, innocent victim, has been dead and largely forgotten for all these decades.

Where did justice go?  

Monday, August 31, 2015

Blog to be Put on Hold

Hiatus for Kidnapping, Murder, and Mayhem

After seven years of averaging more than one story per week, my blog will be put on hold for an indefinite period.  I'm beginning work on a new book and will have little time to research and write stories for Kidnapping, Murder, and Mayhem.  I suspect that the blog will lay dormant for a year or so.

Since 2008, I've published 518 stories.  I've met many readers who have encouraged me with their enthusiasm and kind words.  I've also incurred some criticism, but that is to be expected when an author's viewpoint differs from the mainstream.  Whatever the case, I appreciate all my readers.  The blog will remain viable on the Internet for those who wish to read the older articles.

While there will be no weekly stories, I might occasionally publish reviews of certain books that I've read and enjoyed, and if a case grabs my attention, it may get a write-up. 

Saturday, August 29, 2015

The Sad Death of Opal Sturgell

The “Trysting Oak” Murder
by Robert A. Waters

August, 1937
Berea, Kentucky

“This small college town flamed with excitement today as one of Berea’s pretty co-eds lay dead, victim last night of a mysterious ambush slaying. The murdered girl is Miss Opal Sturgell, 18-year-old sophomore of Berea college, who was shot and fatally wounded while she strolled along a campus walk with William Anderson, a friend.” (From International News Service.)

Anderson informed police that he and Sturgell were walking near what students called the “trysting oak” in a secluded area when George E. Wells, 20, stepped out from behind a clump of bushes and fired three shots from a revolver. Opal fell to the ground, mortally wounded. The teen died at the hospital an hour later. Anderson stated that Wells pointed the gun at him, then stuck it against his own temple. Seconds later, the gunman turned and fled.

Berea police investigators soon learned that Wells had been stalking Sturgell. Just before gunning down the popular co-ed, he had confronted her and Anderson as they walked along. Wells demanded that Opal talk with him privately, but she refused. As Wells moved away, he turned and said, “If that’s the way you feel about it, okay—you may be sorry.”

Opal Sturgell, from Houckville, Kentucky, was described as a “country girl,” possibly because her father was a farmer. In 1936, she graduated from Blaine High School. That September, she enrolled at Berea College. A beautiful girl who made good grades, Opal was a member of the Alpha Phi Sorority and Harmonia, a vocal group.

K. Olivia Meszaros, in her online article, “Murders on Campus,” wrote: “Opal Sturgell had known George E. Wells since they had gone to high school together. He had reportedly asked her to marry him then, but she had refused. When they came to Berea, he continued to pursue her. Wells had come to Berea College as a freshman in 1934, and was a junior when Opal arrived in 1936. According to various interviews, including an account from Opal’s sister who was a teacher in Lawrence County, Wells had been told multiple times to stay away from her, by her and others, including the dean of the school at the time. Although Wells was a good student and active in several campus groups, during the spring term of 1937, his grades began to slip.”

Wells, who wrote for the college newspaper, fancied himself a poet. In fact, when police searched his rented apartment after the shooting, they found a mushy piece of doggerel on his bed. It ended with the following lines:

“Thou are a flower blooming in the spring
Whose loveliness is glorious divine.
Thy radiant glow and cheerful smiles may bring
To someone happiness and joy sublime
And courage great to help him to be true
Along the path made beautiful by you.”

At first, investigators thought Wells would be easy to find. As far as they knew, he left with only the clothes he wore and a few dollars in his pocket. It was likely that he had no escape plan once he murdered Opal. But despite a massive early search by police, he slipped from sight like a vague shadow and was never found.

Within days, the Berea police chief announced that he believed Wells had killed himself.  From then on, except for investigating sporadic and erroneous sightings, police suspended the search.

So did George E. Wells commit suicide? It’s certainly possible, but without proof, other alternatives should have been explored more thoroughly.

One theory holds that Wells hitchhiked out of the area before a full-scale search began. He may have fled to a faraway city and begun a new life. Just four years later, World War II broke out, and Wells might have enlisted under a different name. With an honorable discharge and a new legal identity, after the war he could have continued his deception until he died.

Or he may have been killed during the conflict.

Whatever the case, George E. Wells cheated justice.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Victoria Edwards Missing for 20 Days

Victoria Faith Edwards, 14, has been missing from my hometown of Ocala, Florida for 20 days.

She is 5 feet, 1 inch tall and weighs 119 pounds.  She has dirty blonde hair with brown roots.  She goes by the name of Faith and loves animals.  Faith was last seen in the South Gate area of Ocala. The missing person flyer states that she was last seen in the company of some Hispanic men.

If you have any knowledge about this missing child, contact the Marion County Sheriff's Office at 352-732-9111.  

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Winning the Death Row Lottery

Murder Victim Julia Ashe
Connecticut Supreme Court outlaws executions
by Robert A. Waters

Sedrick “Ricky” Cobb’s murder of Julia Ashe never made national headlines.  Even when a Connecticut jury convicted Cobb and a three-judge panel sentenced him to death, the case flew under the radar.

On December 16, 1989, Ashe walked out of Bradlees department store in Waterbury where the temperature had plummeted to 18 degrees.  Toting bags filled with Christmas gifts, she discovered that her car had a flat tire.  Cobb, a well-dressed stranger, stepped up and offered to change it.

Little did Ashe know that he was awaiting trial for raping a woman in Naugatuck, and that police suspected him in several other sexual assaults.  She also didn’t know that he’d been stalking women in the Bradlees parking lot.  When Ashe had gone into the store, Cobb used a valve stem remover to deflate her tire.  Then he waited for her.

After changing the tire, Cobb requested that Ashe drive him to his own vehicle.  It was parked about a mile away, he said.  The na├»ve young college student agreed, thereby sealing her fate.

She drove him to a secluded area near City Mills Pond where he informed her they would find his car.  There Cobb attacked his victim, raping her.  After robbing Ashe of $300, he used fiberglass reinforced tape to bind her mouth, hands, and feet.  Then he dragged her to a nearby dam and threw her over the wall.

Ashe fell 23 feet into the icy water.  Although she was severely injured and suffering from hypothermia, the plucky student fought for her life.

Thrashing about, she found a jagged metal wire sticking out of the concrete wall.  Ashe used the wire to cut the tape from her wrists and feet—while attempting unsuccessfully to cut the heavy-duty tape from her mouth, she lacerated her face.  Near death from the vicious assault and the elements, and bleeding heavily from gashes to her body and face, Ashe staggered to shore.

Cobb, however, was waiting for her.  Determined to leave no witnesses, he forced her face beneath the surface of the water until she drowned.

Cobb then stole the Christmas gifts Ashe had bought, and walked back to Bradlees where his car was parked.

On Christmas day, teenagers discovered the ice-crusted body of Julia Ashe floating in the pond.

Police tracked down Cobb and arrested him.  In his car, investigators discovered the gifts, as well as the valve stem remover and other evidence.  Cobb, trapped by his own incompetence, confessed to the co-ed’s murder.

The brutality of the crime, as well as the premeditated nature of it, convinced three normally reluctant New England judges to sentence Cobb to death.

But now the Connecticut Supreme Court has ruled that no more executions will be carried out in the state.  Cobb, a winner of the death row lottery, will supposedly spend the rest of his life in prison.

Unless he escapes.

Or unless the courts decide that life in prison, like the death penalty, is also cruel and unusual punishment.

Meanwhile, except for family and friends who still mourn her loss, Julia Ashe’s brutal death is now just a footnote in Connecticut criminal history.   

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Review of Desolation Sound

Desolation Sound
By Fraser C. Heston and Heather J. McAdams
Agamemnon Films, 2015

Review by Robert A. Waters

Severed feet in running shoes keep washing up on Canadian shores, arousing the media and bringing online detectives out of the woodwork.  Public opinion around Vancouver is that a serial killer is loose.  Top brass from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, however, just want the problem to go away.  They hold numerous press briefings, assuring everyone that the feet are natural occurrences, likely victims of accidents or maybe suicides.

Thus begins Desolation Sound, a new novel by Fraser C. Heston and Heather J. McAdams.  From there the screws start turning.  Each page ratchets up the suspense as three RCMP detectives and a disgraced former American cop attempt to determine the reason more than a dozen feet have swept up on lonely beaches in the area.

As the shoes and severed feet keep popping up, women keep disappearing.  Twenty-two in all.  Blond, beautiful joggers.  Are they connected?

Little do the investigators know that the cold, fog-bound islands around Vancouver harbor dark secrets.  While clues are difficult to come by, the gut instinct of the cops tells them a predator is on the loose.  And DNA finally confirms it.  But while searching for a random killer who leaves little evidence, the cops also have to fight their own worst fears.  Could someone be stalking them?

The setting, dialog, and characterization are all just right.  And the ending will satisfy even the most jaded reader of detective fiction.

This page-turner will grip you in its clutches and never let you go.  Snatched from the pages of real-life drama, Desolation Sound is guaranteed to keep you awake at night.

Buy it, read it, and enjoy it. 

Monday, August 10, 2015

New England’s Greatest “Kidnap Hunt”

The bizarre disappearance of six-month-old Ronald Carlan
by Robert A. Waters

In the last two months of 1945, several Nazi war criminals were hanged.  General George Patton, lying in an Army hospital, was slowly dying.  Closer to home, the “lost squadron” of five World War II Avenger torpedo bombers disappeared off Florida’s coast in the Bermuda Triangle.  Those planes, on a training mission, have never been found, and the case remains one of America’s great unexplained mysteries.

At the same time those momentous deeds were taking place, another mystery seemed destined to go unsolved.

On November 28, 1945, the Associated Press reported that “a six months old baby was snatched from his carriage early tonight a short time after his mother placed him within 50 yards of her home.  The baby is the son of Mrs. Rose Carlan, 23, and MM 1-C James J. Carlan, serving with the Navy in Oakland, Calif.

“Police said the entire night force and all available inspectors, in addition to hundreds of neighbors, were rallied in the hunt for the missing child.  [The] only clue to the child’s disappearance was furnished by [a] seven-year-old…neighbor, who told police she saw an elderly woman, dressed in a black coat and hat, stoop over the carriage and dash off with the baby, Ronald Carlan.  The mother told police she discovered the child missing shortly after she placed him in the carriage.”

James, a U. S. Navy machinist’s mate, had been scheduled to ship out to Japan but quickly returned home to help hunt for the son he’d never seen.

By the end of the day, the Chelsea Police Department had checked every vacant house in the city, as well as nearby homes, cellars, and alleyways.  Next day, schools released students to help with the search, which soon branched out to include not only Chelsea, but surrounding towns and villages.

Rose, described by newspapers as “distraught,” pleaded with the kidnapper to “keep on giving [Ronald] cough medicine because he has a bad cold and I think it may turn to whooping cough.”  Interviewed by several local radio stations, she pleaded for her son’s return.

Soon Rose began receiving calls for ransom.  Before the search reached its macabre end, Ronald’s mother would claim to have taken a dozen calls demanding anywhere from $1,000 to $30,000.  Police spent hundreds of hours chasing down these leads, eventually arresting two hoaxers.

James, back home in Chelsea, was placed under a doctor’s care, suffering from shock.  At times, he seemed disoriented, as if he could not believe what was happening.

For sixteen long days, the search continued.  Its net widened to Boston, with cops raiding several “underworld” haunts.  Newspaper headlines across the country trumpeted the widening mystery.

Then, on December 2, a detective who had long been suspicious of Rose Carlan’s story made a shocking discovery.  Special Officer Matthew J. Flaherty found the body of Ronald stuffed in the bottom of a built-in China cabinet in the Carlan’s bedroom.  The United Press described this scene:  “The baby, wrapped in his bright blue bunting, was crammed under the bottom drawer of the closet, less than arm’s reach from the bed where for 14 nights James Carlan comforted his ‘distraught’ wife, his vows of love assuring her the child would be found alive.

“Flaherty, a father himself, had become suspicious of the story told by Mrs. Carlan—the high ransom and varying tales about the baby’s milk bottles.  He began a search of the home, smiling, and attempting to put the Carlans at ease with his good humor.  Flaherty strode into the bedroom of the four-room flat.  A smile that had flickered across Mrs. Carlan’s face froze as he walked to the closet against which a bureau had been moved.  He pushed the bureau aside.  Flaherty yanked out one drawer.  Then another.  Mrs. Carlan gasped as he pulled the bottom drawer free.  It stuck for an instant, then slid out, revealing the edge of the blue bunting in which the baby had been wrapped. Flaherty pushed aside a shawl and some household tools.

“Carlan and his wife screamed simultaneously when the baby’s body was uncovered.  ‘I did not murder my baby,’ sobbed Mrs. Carlan, and fainted.

“‘My God,’ Carlan said, ‘There’s the baby.’

“He turned and started toward his wife. ‘I’ll kill you,’ he shouted.

“Two policemen grabbed the stunned sailor, and led him from the room.”

The child’s body was in good condition considering that he’d been dead for more than two weeks.

Police arrested Rose and charged her with murder.  A judge ordered that she be admitted to a psychiatric hospital for an evaluation.  James, after first threatening to kill his wife, now promised to stand by her.

The Associated Press reported that Rose “had admitted she invented the kidnap story because she did not want anyone to think she had neglected the baby who Medical Examiner William J. Brickley reported died of asphyxiation following a fourth attack of pneumonia.  She said she found the baby dead when she came downstairs to her flat from a party in her mother-in-law’s apartment.”  Instead of calling for help, she went back to the party and acted as if nothing happened.  Two days later, she placed his carriage outside her home and concocted the kidnap story.

The case was referred to a grand jury.  On February 19, 1946, newspapers reported that jurors refused to indict Rose when it was determined that Ronald had died of pneumonia.

James and Rose exited the courthouse, strolling through a gauntlet of reporters.  In a bizarre twist, the two held hands and beamed with delight.

After the hearing, Rose and James Carlan disappeared from the news, their fate swallowed up by history.