Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Close Encounters of the Second Kind

Billy Dean Riley, shot and killed in self-defense by a woman home alone

Many times, criminals attack the most vulnerable among us. A woman home alone, a wheelchair-bound man--these are two recent cases in which the Second Amendment came into play. Or, as I like to call them, Close Encounters of the Second Kind.

At 12:40 a.m., on December 4, 2009, a call came in to the 9-1-1 center in Cushing, Oklahoma. It was 56-year-old Donna Jackson, home alone while her husband was at work.

“There’s a man at my back door,” she said. “He’s trying to get in.”

The stranger, Billy Dean Riley, had a long history of drug and alcohol offenses. The 9-1-1 dispatcher could hear him banging on the backdoor and screaming. She informed Jackson that police were on the way. For ten long, excruciating minutes Jackson spoke with the dispatcher. Eventually, as the situation escalated, the homeowner grabbed a gun and clicked off the safety.

“I have a shotgun and I’ll use it,” Jackson said. “He’s crazy. He’s crazy.”

Jackson described the actions of the stranger as he walked around the house, from front to back, trying to get inside. Finally, the man slammed a patio chair through the screen-glass window on the back porch. A series of loud crashes could be heard on the 9-1-1 audio later released by the police.

“I don’t want to have to kill the man,” Jackson said, “but if I have to, I’ll kill him graveyard dead.”

“Please hurry," Jackson begged the dispatcher. Because the house was in a rural section of the county, deputies were still several minutes away.

Finally, she said, “He’s gotten in the house. I’m going to shoot.”

With that, the blast of a shotgun can be clearly heard on the tape. After a pause, Jackson sobs into the phone: “I shot. I’m going out front. I hit him. God help me. Oh please, dear God. I think I’ve killed him. Please Father in heaven. Please father in heaven...”

An obvious case of self-defense, Donna Jackson was not charged with any crime.


On December 16, 2009, at 10:45 p.m., Gary Wroblewski heard a knock on his door. The wheelchair-bound homeowner lived in Silver Springs Shores, a community not far from Ocala, Florida. A stranger yelled that his car had broken down and he needed to use a telephone. Before cracking the door, Wroblewski grabbed his .45-caliber handgun.

As soon as he nudged the door open so that he could see who was there, a second man rushed from the bushes and knocked the door open. Wroblewski went sprawling. The intruder wore a mask and held what appeared to be a gun. "I was suspicious [and] I didn't really want to open [the door], but I did,” the homeowner said. “He hit [it] and I went tumbling over and just pulled the gun up and started firing. He was laying across the floor."

Jeffrey Alan Kenney, the home invader who died at the scene, was described by his aunt as a “lost soul.” She stated that she knew he would end up dead or in trouble. “He couldn’t deal with life,” she said. “He had to be drinking and doing drugs. He wasn’t capable of living an honest life without drugs and alcohol.”

Two accomplices were quickly arrested.

Wroblewski was not charged.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Three Florida Cold Case Playing Cards

How many unsolved murders are there in America? One source I read estimated the figure to be 200,000 since 1960.

In some states, cold case playing cards have brought attention to a few of those murders. Shown below are three cards disseminated by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Pancho and Lefty

A Review of Pancho and Lefty
by Robert A. Waters

One day, many years ago, a friend of mine named Charlie Robertson came to visit. I can’t remember if it was when I was living in Tennessee or after I moved back down to my home state of Florida. Charlie was a great songwriter, a fine singer, and I always envied his guitar playing--he was a natural musician. Every time he came to my house, he’d play a bunch of outstanding new songs that he’d written. But he also sang and played songs that others, mostly friends of his, had written.

On that day, he opened his hard-shell case and pulled out his Yamaha guitar. Then he proceeded to sing a new song by Townes Van Zandt called “Pancho and Lefty.” The lyrics flowed back in time to a desert somewhere in Mexico, maybe around the turn of the century. People were hard-ass back then, breaking their backs and their lives to dredge a few morsels from those dry-bed sands. Pancho, according to the song, robbed and murdered many of those hardworking farmers and businessmen. Lefty may have been a bounty hunter, or a former friend or even a cohort of Pancho. At any rate, he was hired to put an end to the notorious bandit and killer.

Charlie’s voice broke as he sang that song.

Enter the Federales. As I said, the song is understated, but it’s pretty obvious that the lawmen hired Lefty to kill Pancho. Then they paid the murderer and allowed him to “split.” Lefty ended up in a cold, distant country. Maybe he spent time reflecting on his sins. Or maybe he just felt sorry for himself. Maybe he was paranoid, always looking back.

Life moves on, as the song indicates. Things change, friends come and go, and mothers grieve for the lost souls of their children. Some of those children die in a blaze of headlines. Others die in prisons or stinking nursing homes or on the streets or in lonely rooms God knows where. Do their lives matter? As long as a poet like Townes Van Zandt could write about them, these empty lives mattered.

Below are the lyrics.

Pancho and Lefty
By Townes Van Zandt

Livin’ on the road, my friend,
What’s gonna keep you free and clean?
Now you wear your skin like iron
And your breath's as hard as kerosene.
You weren't your mama's only boy
But her favorite one it seems.
She began to cry when you said goodbye
And sank into your dreams.

Pancho, he was a bandit, boys.
His horse was fast as polished steel.
Wore his gun outside his pants
For all the honest world to feel.
Pancho met his match, you know,
On the deserts down in Mexico.
Nobody heard his dying words,
But that's the way it goes.

CHORUS: All the Federales say
They could have had him any day.
They only let him hang around
Out of kindness I suppose.

Now Lefty, he can't sing the blues
All night long like he used to.
The dust that Pancho bit down south
Ended up in Lefty's mouth.
The day they laid poor Pancho low,
Lefty split for Ohio.
Where he got the bread to go
There ain't nobody knows.

CHORUS: All the Federales say
They could have had him any day.
They only let him slip away
Out of kindness I suppose.

Now the poets tell how Pancho fell
And Lefty's livin' in a cheap hotel.
The desert's hot and Cleveland's cold
And so the story ends we're told
Pancho needs your prayers, it's true,
But save a few for Lefty, too.
He only did what he had to do
And now he's growing old

CHORUS: All the Federales say
they could have had ‘em any day.
They only let ‘em go so wrong
Out of kindness I suppose...

CHORUS: A few gray Federales say
They could have had him any day.
They only let him slip away
Out of kindness I suppose.

Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson had a number one hit with the song. They did a good job, but it was a little too slick for my tastes. Many other singers have recorded it, but none got the feel of it like my old buddy Charlie or its author, Townes Van Zandt.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Piltdown Hoax

Science is one of man’s greatest tools--as long as scientists maintain objectivity. When they attempt to cook the books, everyone loses. Man-made global warming, for instance, seems to be an unquestionable tenet among some researchers. At the University of East Anglia, home of England’s Climate Research Unit, purloined emails suggest that climatologists will brook no dissent from their view that man is destroying the planet. Recently, while reading about their heavy-handed attempts to destroy scientists who question man-made global warming, the Piltdown Hoax came to mind.

In 1908, Piltdown, a small village near Lickfield in East Sussex, England, had a few pubs and churches and not much else. It also had a pit where workers sometimes extracted gravel. In their excavations, they would occasionally discover flint carved into tools by early man.

Charles Dawson, a collector of ancient relics, happened by the pit one day. He asked the workers if they had ever found any old bones or skulls. When they told him they hadn’t, he implored them to look out for such things and save them for him. A few months later, Dawson claimed that a worker had indeed found part of a skull. The relic hunter took possession of it, estimating its age at 300,000-years-old.

After several searches of the gravel pit, Dawson gathered a small team of well-known scientists and began to assemble the fragments of bone he claimed to have found there. In 1912, he announced to the world that he had found the skull of a human fused with the jaw of an ape. This, Dawson asserted, was the “missing link.”

The announcement was a sensation. The printed press couldn’t get enough of the story. The skull was called Piltdown Man, and trumpeted as proof that the evolutionists were right.

Since Charles Darwin had published The Origin of Species in 1859, a battle to the death had been raging over the origins of man. Christians believed in the literal accuracy of the Bible while evolutionists declared that humans evolved from apes or ape-like creatures. The debate struck at the core of religion: if man evolved, then the Biblical version of creation was wrong.

The press continued to be giddy with excitement. The missing link had been found--Darwin was right all along. But some scientists who had seen the skull complained that the jaw and cranium didn’t match. They couldn’t belong to the same “person.” These skeptics, however, were soon silenced by the outrage of the reputable scientific community. The authenticity of the Piltdown Man could not be challenged.

The skull was donated to the British Museum. Plaster casts were sent to museums and scientists all around the world, but the original skull was placed under lock and key. Scientists who wanted to study the phenomenon could only view the plaster casts.

Between 1920 and 1950, textbooks were re-written. Generations of school-children were taught that man had evolved from apes, and that Piltdown Man provided the proof. Dawson and his fellow-scientists were knighted. As the years rolled by, Piltdown Man became accepted as scientific gospel. Any scientist who dared to raise questions about its authenticity was quickly silenced.

In 1953, a paleontologist and anthropologist who worked at the British Museum was allowed to study the original Piltdown skull. Kenneth Oakley, along with anthropologist Joseph Weiner and anatomy professor Le Gros Clark, tested the fragments with a fluorine solution designed to determine the age of bones. After their tests were run, they concluded that the bones were recent.

On further examination, it turned out that the bone fragments had been deliberately stained with bichromate (a photographic printing ink) so they would appear ancient. Additional testing proved that Piltdown had been faked from top to bottom. In fact, later radiocarbon tests revealed that the cranium was human, and about 600-years-old. The jaw was that of a 500-year-old orangutan.

According to scientists who investigated the affair, all of the bone fragments found at the gravel pit had likely been planted. The whole Piltdown Man episode was a 40-year-old hoax.

Charles Dawson was almost certainly the hoaxer, although some of the scientists who worked with him may have been complicit. All went to their graves praised and acclaimed.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

32-Year-Old Murder of Mary Pierce Solved by DNA

For more than two decades, the green smock with the 7-Eleven logo lay in a box inside the Greeley Police Department evidence room. It was one of the remaining pieces of a puzzle that had haunted the town for all those years. Little did cops know that one day the smock would help them solve the murder of Mary Elizabeth Pierce.

Pierce, 22, had recently graduated from the University of Northern Colorado. She had joined the U. S. Navy and would have been inducted within a few weeks.

On the evening of August 25, 1977, a customer entered the 7-Eleven Store at 11th Avenue and 9th Street. Finding no one there, she called police. Investigators contacted the store’s manager and Pierce was identified as the missing clerk.

Even though a witness reported seeing a suspicious man loitering near the telephone outside the store, investigators assumed that Pierce had left on her own. Maybe she decided to abandon ship and meet up with a boyfriend, they reasoned. Or maybe she hated her job. The cops were wrong.

Four days later, Pierce’s body was found in a cornfield a few miles outside of Greeley. She’d been sexually assaulted and stabbed numerous times. Just another in a string of abductions and murders of female convenience store workers across the country.

When she was found, Pierce was still wearing her 7-Eleven smock. Now the green was splashed with red, causing police to revise their original “runaway” theory.

Two convenient suspects lived nearby. Brothers Juan and Jesus Bautista had served hard time in Utah for a similar crime. Their alibis were shaky, and police honed in on the pair. Cops wouldn’t know it for years, but again they were wrong.

As time ticked away, detectives continued to investigate the crime. In a sure sign of desperation, they hired a psychic. Three men were involved, the seer said. One man alone committed the murder, but look for three. Police already had two suspects--now they wondered who the third man might be.

In 1981, the Bautista brothers were charged with Mary Pierce’s murder. At the time, their residence was a Texas prison. Seven years later, the two were brought back to Greeley to face trial. But even though the prosecutor was convinced that they were the killers, he had no real evidence. As that fact became evident, the brothers were quietly released and remanded back to the Lone Star State to complete their sentences.

The years continued to creep along like a slow-moving stream. But the world was changing. Science had dropped a gift into the lap of law enforcement: DNA. A nearly fool-proof way to identify killers and exonerate the wrongly accused.

At some point during those years, the Mary Pierce case was removed from the Greeley Police Department and placed in the hands of the Weld County Sheriff’s Office.

In 2003, sheriff’s investigator Jan Lemay dug into the evidence box and pulled out Pierce’s smock. The specialist packed off the blood-stained vest to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation for testing. Sure enough, several splotches of blood were identified as belonging to someone other than Pierce. Detectives raced to obtain a DNA sample from the Bautistas, who were still being housed by the Texas Department of Corrections. But there was no match.

Someone else had committed the murder.

A glass slide containing semen from Mary Pierce’s body was found later and also submitted to CBI. It was identified as coming from the same person whose blood was found on the victim’s smock. Cops entered the unidentified DNA into a nationwide database and waited.

In 2009, thirty-two years after the murder of Mary Pierce, a cold hit shocked investigators. The DNA of long-time criminal Marcello Maldonado-Perez matched that found on Pierce’s smock and the semen recovered from her body. Maldonado-Perez had been released in 2008 after serving a long prison sentence in Texas. While there, his DNA had been entered into the FBI’s database. (In addition to the DNA, investigators discovered a fingerprint from Maldonado-Perez on a soda can that had been found at the store.)

As is so often the case, little is known about Mary Pierce. In the criminal justice system, the victim is almost always short-changed. As the case rocks along, we’ll hear more than we ever want to know about Maldonado-Perez. It’s doubtful that true justice will ever be served since only one inmate has been executed by the state since 1976 and Coloradans seem reluctant to pull the plug on any of the three prisoners currently on death row.

Mary Pierce deserves better.