Wednesday, December 10, 2008

South Carolina Cheerleader Innocent of Raping Teen Girl

South Carolina Cheeleader Innocent of Raping Teen Girl
by Robert A. Waters

This could happen to you or me. One day, you’re leading a normal life. Then it all corkscrews into the abyss of disaster. You’re at work when cops come and arrest you for raping a child. You’re paraded in handcuffs through a gauntlet of reporters with flashing cameras and plastic smiles. The next day your face is on the front page of the papers, on the blogs, on TV. You wonder if the reporters will be there when you’re proven innocent. Or worse yet, will you be railroaded to prison for years to come?

Stephanie Gail Kirkland, 20, lived in Graniteville, South Carolina, near Aiken. She worked two part-time jobs while she attended college. She had a boyfriend, a MySpace page, and a loving, supportive family.

On August 12, 2008, police arrested her at her workplace. It came out of the blue—-they’d never even questioned her. A child at the school where she taught cheerleading had accused Kirkland of rape. She was charged with three counts of criminal sexual conduct in the second degree and four counts of lewd acts on a minor. Two things made this case even more high-voltage than most sexual offenses: Stephanie Kirkland was an attractive blue-eyed blonde and the “victim” was a thirteen-year-old girl.

“I didn’t know what to think,” Kirkland said later. “I mean it was just awful. Handcuffs and shackles, walking in front of my family...I lost nine pounds, I couldn’t eat for a week.”

Once the news got out, the accused lesbian child rapist was inundated with obscene messages on her MySpace page. Much later Kirkland explained that strangers who’d seen her picture in the news threatened “to do sexual things to me because of something I did to a little girl--that I didn’t do.” The menace of stalking and violence seemed very real because the local newspaper had published her home address.

“There was a relationship between Ms. Kirkland and the thirteen-year-old,” Lt. Michael Frank said emphatically. An article in the Aiken Standard expanded on the charges. “Investigators said that between May and December 2007, the subject sexually violated the victim, fondling her and assaulting her at Aiken Cheer Extreme, College Acres locations and several times in the victim’s bedroom.” After being approached by a relative of the girl, the paper reported that investigators “launched an investigation into the matter, which Frank explained can take several months.”

The blogosphere exploded. “Stephanie Gail Kirkland, 20, enjoys the music of Ashley Tisdale and Usher, hanging out with friends, her kitten, Chipper, and having sex with a thirteen-year-old girl,” one blogger wrote. Another assured readers that “local police say that they have enough evidence for the arrest and feel that the charges are valid and are prepared for trial on the charges.”

Then something amazing, something magnificent happened. People who had known Kirkland all her life began posting responses to the story in the online edition of the Standard. All were supportive. (While many online comments to newspapers are obviously from crackpots, a number of these posters published their real names. It was obvious that they knew the situation well.)

Here are a few of their comments:

“I think it is ridiculous that Stephanies (sic) picture is in the paper. This has ruined her reputation.”

“The sensationalized article on Kirkland was the worst thing I’ve seen this horrible, uncaring, clueless newspaper do.”

“Why is it that Stephanie was never interviewed prior to her arrest?”

“Kirkland was arrested on completely frivolous and physically impossible accusations made by a known unreliable source. This is truly scary, so much for presumed innocence.”

Many of the posters knew the accuser. “The 13 yr out of control,” someone wrote. “I have had a chance to view her myspace page and see the things that she post[ed]...which are lewd and disgusting...I know that she has accused other young girls of the same charges and they were untrue also.”

On September 26, 2008, while out on bail, Kirkland got a call from her lawyer informing her that the charges had been dropped. Aiken County Assistant Solicitor Steve Kodman said that there were multiple inconsistencies in the accuser’s statement. Trying to cover his ass, he said, “There are times where law enforcement has enough probable cause to make an arrest, but we have to be able to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt to take it to court.” Even though they dropped the charges, authorities said “they have nothing that leads them to suspect the alleged victim lied.”

“It’s closed,” Lt. Frank said. “That’s the end of it.”

Well, that’s not quite the end of it. What about Stephanie Kirkland’s embarrassment at being hauled off to jail like some serial child molester? What about the statements police and prosecutors made sliming Kirkland? What about the fact that the accuser finally admitted that she made the whole thing up? Why wasn’t the accuser’s background checked in the beginning? Why is she not being charged? Since she’s not being charged, is she receiving counseling or psychiatric help?

Finally, what about the reporting of the story? Articles in newspapers are assumed by many to be the lasting public record of an event. Will the local media subpoena police reports, court documents, and other records from the case? Will they interview all participants to determine why an innocent girl was arrested before she was even questioned? Or why everyone in town seemed to know the accuser was lying except the cops? Or why many in the media blindly accepted the police version as truth? That’s the real story.

Once, after having been acquitted of sham charges of larceny and fraud, Raymond Donovan, Secretary of Labor under President Ronald Reagan, yelled at the prosecutor, “Give me back my reputation.” Later, he stated that when he was reading a newspaper article about his arrest, he thought, That’s what people will read forever.

No doubt, Stephanie Kirkland feels much the same way.

“The way it looks now,” she said, “is [that] I did something but they just can’t prove it. If I go apply for a job and they ask me if I’ve ever been arrested...they won’t ever look past ‘have you ever been arrested?’ and [they’ll] throw that [job application] out the window.”

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Website of a Murderer

Internet Scam
by Robert A. Waters

Like the age-old Internet Nigerian scam, it amazes me that anyone could fall for the messages posted on the anti-death penalty websites of death row inmates. Most are so far from the realm of reality that it makes one question the mental health of those lost souls who take these sites seriously. Take, for example, this ad from an inmate convicted of murdering two innocent teenagers.

For many years, the Canadian Coalition Against the Death Penalty (CCADP) has maintained a website for Randall Scott Jones. Here’s a sampling: “Looking for a friend, any age, male or female, who can look through these bars and see me for who I really am.” Now that’s a loaded statement—-could it be that the person looking through the bars sees a cold-blooded double-murderer?

There’s more. Switching to the third person, Jones writes, “Randy has been described as a ‘bright, caring person,’ who ‘never had a chance.’” He then describes his horrible upbringing and states that his cries for help went “mostly unheeded.” While Jones may have had a lousy childhood, so have millions and millions of others who lived successful lives and never murdered anyone.

“Later that year, Randy went into the US Army as an ear, nose, and throat specialist.” An ear, nose, and throat specialist? Isn’t that a doctor? That is, a physician? Someone who has spent a decade in med school and a few more years in specialized training?

No matter. Jones didn’t last that long in the military. According to his webpage, he was “honorably discharged based on less than satisfactory performance.” Seems he kept oversleeping because he was depressed.

According to court documents, on the night of July 26, 1987, Jones and Chris Reesh were carrying a 30-30 caliber rifle that Jones had stolen from his girl-friend’s father. On that night, they were taking target practice at the Rodman Dam recreation area near Palatka, Florida. When Jones’ truck became stuck in the sand, they walked to a Chevrolet pickup where teenagers Matthew Paul Brock and Kelly Lynn Perry were sleeping in the cab. What followed were two cruel, heartless murders and a perverted sexual assault.

A few weeks later, Jones and Reesh were arrested in Mississippi. Jones was driving the stolen truck belonging to murder victim Matthew Brock. Items from Perry and Brock were found in Jones’ room. He confessed to killing the couple.

An article in the online magazine Forensic Science by Hal Tam reads: “Without waking the couple in the pickup, Jones shot both Perry and Brock in the head at close range. He and Reesh then dragged the bodies into the woods nearby. They towed Jones’ truck from the sand with Brock’s pickup and left with both trucks. Later Jones returned to the crime scene, moved the bodies further into the woods, and raped Perry.”

Semen taken from Perry's body was tested for DNA and matched that of Jones. The jury took only fifteen minutes to find him guilty. Jurors recommended that he be executed, the first time DNA was used in a death penalty case.

For twenty years, Jones has fought his sentence.

For twenty years, his victims have not achieved the justice they deserve.

While there are legitimate reasons to oppose the death penalty just as there are legitimate reasons to favor execution, websites such as Jones’ diminish the victims (who are never mentioned) and cast doubt on CCADP as an advocacy group.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The Murder of Clevie Tedder

“Deland, Fla., April 11, 1910. A jury today brought in a verdict of murder in the first degree against Irving Hanchett, the boy that stabbed Miss Clevie Tedder to death on February 12. The judge immediately pronounced the death sentence. Hanchett met Miss Tedder on the road and made improper proposals and when she refused him and threatened to tell, he set upon her with a knife and stabbed her sixty-three times.” Fort Wayne Sentinel.

Although this murder happened in the backwater town of Glenwood, Florida a hundred years ago, it had all the ingredients of today’s headlines: sexual violence, an incorrigible juvenile, and the age-old question of what to do with a teenaged killer.

On the morning of February 12, 1910, thirteen-year-old Clevie Tedder was riding her bicycle to school when she was attacked. Glenwood, an unincorporated town of 400 souls, was a few miles north of DeLand, home of Stetson University. Most residents worked for Bond Lumber Company.

The Tedder family was well-known and well-liked in the community. Irving Hanchett, on the other hand, was a “juvenile delinquent.” He was currently on parole from the Connecticut State School for Boys in Meriden. The sponsor of his parole, William Woolsey, owned an orange grove near Glenwood and had sent the boy to Florida for a fresh start.

An article in the Atlanta Constitution relates some of the details of the case. “A bicycle,” the article reads, “which the girl was riding, was found 100 yards from where her body was discovered, indicating that her assailant had struggled with her for this distance after knocking her from her wheel. In the body of the girl sixty-two (sic) knife wounds were counted. She was literally cut to pieces.” It was obvious to observers that Clevie had fought her attacker almost to the end. The blood trail, shoe prints, and ripped clothing strewn along the trail attested to the violence of the attack. In addition to the knife wounds, the girl had been brutally beaten.

Volusia County Sheriff E. L. Smith was called to the scene. He quickly organized a posse to search for the killer. As the searchers fanned out, the Washington Post reported that “the sheriff secured bloodhounds, and followed a trail to the orange grove of William Woolsey, where young Hanchett was employed. In the room of the boy were found bloody clothes and the knife with which the murder is believed to have been committed.” The blade was bent, and Hanchett had cuts on his hands. In addition, his shoes fit the prints of the assailant found in the sand near Tedder’s body.

Hanchett was lucky he wasn’t lynched then and there. As soon as the searchers heard that he’d been arrested, they rushed to the Volusia County jail intent on stringing him up. Sheriff Smith was barely able to avert a lynch party by sneaking the young suspect out the back door to a waiting car. He took the boy to Orlando, fifty miles south. There Hanchett was placed in a more secure jail, as much for his own protection as for that of the community.

Two months later, Hanchett went on trial. Judge Minor S. Jones, a flamboyant Confederate veteran and circuit-riding judge who had once presided over the divorce of Henry Flagler, held court. Hanchett took the stand and confessed in graphic detail to the horrific attack. It was said that he sensationalized his account in order to be found insane.

It didn’t work. Instead, he was found guilty of murder in the first degree.

A few days before Hanchett was to be hanged, the Syracuse New York Post Standard editorialized about the case: “Sentence of death for a boy of 14 (sic) seems like an outrageous working of criminal law. It is revolting to human nature to think of leading a child to the scaffold, no matter how heinous the crime, and for any other crime than that for which Irving Hanchett has been accused the courts of Florida would doubtless have refused to convict him. Concerning that crime law in the South does not claim to be judicial.” The article continues, becoming more condescending and more muddled, eventually concluding that unlike New York, Florida and Connecticut were barbaric – Florida because the state planned to hang the murderer and Connecticut because its juvenile justice system rejected “the teachings of Jacob Riis, Jane Addams, Judge Lindsay, and William R. George.”

The article never mentioned the victim’s name, nor the probability that a few years in prison was unlikely to rehabilitate the killer.

The last chapter was written by the Chicago Daily Herald in a brief, one-sentence squib: “DeLand, Fla., May 7, 1910 – Irving Hanchett, the 15-year-old Connecticut boy who was convicted of the murder of Clevie Tedder, a girl, 13 years old, near this place on the evening of Feb. 12 last, was hanged here.”

Friday, November 28, 2008

Has DNA Solved the Murder of Joanne Lynn?

As she did every weekday morning, Joanne Ena Lynn, 11, left her home at 8:00 on September 19, 1949 to walk to school. Fall had come early that year, and the trees were rust-red along State Road 15-A in Hemlock, New York. Joanne wore a blue and white candy-striped dress, a red sweater, white bobby sox, and tan shoes.

According to local reports, Joanne was described as being five feet two inches tall and weighing 118 pounds. She’d gone barely an eighth of a mile from her home when she disappeared. Two motorists said they saw a girl fitting her description walking toward a 1938-to-1940 gray sedan with Pennsylvania license plates.

The village of Hemlock lies in the Finger Lakes region of New York. Nearby Hemlock Lake is one of the smaller bodies of water in the area, best known for its land-locked salmon. A few miles south of Rochester, in the 1940s the area was mostly rural.

When Joanne didn’t return home from Hemlock Central School that afternoon, her mother contacted police. The child was described as “a normal, happy girl” who looked forward to attending the Hemlock fair on the weekend.

Search teams combed the hills and gullies and dragged the lakes surrounding the area. Spotters from airplanes looked for the girl while police bloodhounds padded through heavy forests. After four days of futility, the National Guard was called in. On September 23, guardsmen searched all day in a driving rainstorm, coming up empty.

The following morning, 14-year-old Norma Marsden was gathering butternuts four miles from Hemlock. Two hundred yards off Route 15-A, she came across the body of Joanne Lynn.

The child lay face-down in a ditch. Lt. William M. Stevenson of the Batavia State Police told reporters that she’d probably been “lured or dragged into an auto, [and] taken out of the car and shot twice as she cringed in a grove of locust trees. One bullet entered her forehead and pierced her arm as she tried to shield her face. The other entered her left breast and emerged from her back.” Both bullets were collected as evidence.

Dr. Herbert R. Brown, Livingston county pathologist, reported that there was “evidence of an attempt to rape” but that the act had not been completed. Fingernail scrapings suggested that Joanne had fought her attacker.

In a bizarre twist, even though she was clothed, Joanne’s sweater and undergarments were missing.

Livingston County Sheriff Donald McColl worked diligently on the case. Many of his efforts to solve it were innovative and forward-looking. Immediately after the abduction, McColl issued a fourteen-state alert for the suspected vehicle. He and his detectives interviewed all known sex offenders but found no suspects.

Forensics experts determined that the gun used to kill Joanne was a German Luger semi-automatic pistol. For years after the murder, every time a German-made gun was found to have been used in a crime in New York or Pennsylvania, Sheriff McColl had it tested to see if it matched the bullets collected from Joanne. None ever did.

McColl also developed a “secret witness plan.” Citizens had gathered $ 4,000 as a reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the murderer. McColl asked anyone with knowledge of the case to write or type that information on a sheet of white paper. Newspapers reported that “McColl suggested tipsters withhold their names but devise a combination of six or more numerals, placing the figure on two corners of a sheet and tearing off one corner, before mailing.” In this way, they could claim the reward anonymously.

Despite the efforts of police, nothing worked. The years went by and no suspect was ever developed. McColl died in 1958, still working to solve his most difficult case. After nearly 60 years, the case still remains on the website of the New York State Police.

Years later, in 1989, William Henry Redmond, a fugitive suspected in the 1951 rape and murder of eight-year-old Jane Marie Althoff was finally tracked down by Pennsylvania police. A twice-convicted child molester, Redmond had worked for much of his life at carnivals and fairs around the country. His fingerprints were found in a pickup near Trainer, Pennsylvania - Althoff’s body was found inside the truck. After he was arrested, police reported that he admitted to her murder. Unfortunately, he died of heart disease before he could be tried.

Redmond was a suspect in the murders of several other girls including Joanne Lynn. An article in the Grand Island Independent reported that “Robert Montgomery, a New York State Police investigator, wrote in an August 1991 affidavit filed in Hall County Court that his agency’s crime laboratory had established a DNA profile of the killer from samples from [Joanne's] clothing.”

The article stated that Redmond had been a suspect in the investigation since 1951. “Redmond worked before and after Joanne Lynn’s death as a ferris wheel operator and truck driver for various traveling carnivals. At the time of her death, the Hemlock Fair and Carnival was in progress six miles south of where her body was found.”

In a chilling revelation, Pennsylvania police reported that when they searched Redmond's home, they found undergarments of pre-teen girls.

Whether Redmond’s DNA matched that of the killer has never been published, as far as I can determine. If anyone has further information about this case, please contact me.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Ruined - The Story of Francis Evelyn

False accusations. Cops and prosecutors using the power of the state to try to break innocent people. A media that won’t ask the tough questions. We’ve seen it all before: Virginia McMartin and her grandson Ray Buckey; Richard Jewel; the Duke “rape” hoax. The Evelyn case cries out for an investigation that will never happen.

On March 23, 2008, Francis Evelyn, 58, was arrested. In the late afternoon, cops arrived at his workplace, New York City’s Public School 91, placed the janitor in handcuffs and “perp walked” him to a squad car.

As he was led away, local news reporters were given a briefing by Commissioner Raymond Kelly. Evelyn, the commish said, had been arrested for the “heinous” rapes of an eight-year-old student. The attacks had occurred numerous times in a rest room in the school’s basement. “I think the [child’s] mother was told and didn’t fully believe the child early on,” Kelly said. “But evidence was developed and when the detective went to the school the other day she [the accuser] actually saw the individual and pointed him out.”

Evelyn later described his arrest: “Before they take me [out of school] I asked them, ‘What are you locking me up for?’ They said they’re taking me in for questioning. I said, ‘For what? I didn’t do nothing wrong. Why are you taking me down for questioning?’ ‘Put your hands behind your back.’ Bam! Handcuffs. That was it. The next thing I know we’re in this place, three officers questioning me, telling me I’m a liar.”

The headlines of the city's newspapers were unanimous: “Brooklyn Janitor Charged with Rape.” Television crews raced to get quotes for the six o’clock news. “How did this happen?” one parent standing outside PS 91 asked. “Where were all the adults when all of this was happening? How was a janitor able to lure this child to a bathroom?” Parents of the mostly black school threatened to pull their kids out.

Evelyn, a native of Trinidad, had no police record. The child who fingered him had initially said her attacker was white and bald. Evelyn is black and generally wears a baseball-style cap.

In the past, the child had also accused her father of sexually assaulting her. An investigation proved she was lying. Then she falsely claimed to have been raped by a classmate. The girl had made so many other unfounded accusations of sexual misconduct that even the school’s principal didn’t take her claims seriously.

In an interview a few days later, Evelyn described his ordeal at the hands of police interrogators. “I said, ‘Officer, these kids come down by twos to go to the bathroom if they get a permit...The bathroom has teachers, kids, it has [staff] from the kitchen, it’s as busy as the lunchroom.’ [Cops told me] it’ll only take you fifteen minutes to do what you have to do.”

In an unusual step, he was taken to Riker’s Island, one of the toughest prisons in the country. Corrections officers cursed him. Other inmates threatened him, calling him a baby-rapist and saying they would shank him. He was continually subjected to verbal abuse by guards and inmates.

The next day, police informed Evelyn that they’d found his DNA on the girl’s panties. They told him he was certain to be convicted and sent to prison for the rest of his life. Detectives stated that they would make sure he’d be thrown in prison with the worst of the worst. He’d be beaten and raped and maybe even murdered. But if he confessed, they’d make him a “deal.”

For two days and nights, police hammered Evelyn. Their continued leaks to the press about his alleged crimes kept the story boiling. A monster was being created by the cops and the media.

Then as suddenly as it began, it was over. Evelyn was hustled into a courtroom late one night and all charges were dropped. There had been no DNA. There was no evidence of any kind. Cops had finally got around to interviewing the accuser and found her wild tales implausible.

The media, lapdogs for a corrupt police department, finally spoke with the accused. Nancy L. Katz, a staff writer for the New York Daily News, reported: “Francis Evelyn looks at the world differently now ever since he was falsely accused of raping an 8-year-old child...[He] once walked proud, worked hard and looked forward to a peaceful retirement. Now he’s too scared to go out his front door. Five months after his face was broadcast worldwide as an accused child rapist, Evelyn, 58, can’t sleep. He can’t stop the tears. He can’t wipe away the nightmare of being arrested, jailed and wrongly accused.”

Since his ordeal, Evelyn has given several interviews to reporters. He comes across as respectful of the law, sensitive, dignified. He wonders why police didn’t investigate the child’s story before arresting him and subjecting him to such a horrendous interrogation. He is currently suing the city for ten million dollars.

Here are a few questions the New York media might ask: how many others in that precinct have been convicted based only on the testimony of one or more eyewitnesses? How many have taken plea bargains merely to stop the questioning by so-called detectives? And finally, how many more people will this little girl falsely accuse as she makes her way through life?

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Body in the Orange Grove

“My name is Micah Nelson and I’m currently serving time on Death Row...Despite all the harsh thing (sic) the Government may have said about Deathrow inmates we’re not all bad...” From the website of the Canadian Coalition Against the Death Penalty.

Avon Park is a small community in Highlands County, Florida. With less than 10,000 residents, the town sits near the center of the state about seventy miles south of Orlando. Many lakes and rivers make the area a sportsman’s paradise and a mild climate is conducive to its major crop: citrus.

There’s an average of only one murder a year in Avon Park.

That’s why investigators on the outskirts of town were shocked at the sight of 78-year-old Virginia Brace’s body. Micah Nelson, the killer, had led them down the sand trail to a grove of orange trees. He’d admitted breaking into Brace’s house and kidnapping and murdering her. He would not admit that he raped her but the evidence was clear as semen was discovered in and around the body. Looking down at the lifeless form, cops saw that the victim had endured a brutal attack during her last hours.

Court documents state that when found “the victim was wearing only a blue nightgown and there was a yellow powdery substance on her body around the face, mouth area, and ground.”

It had begun in the early morning of November 17, 1997. Micah Nelson left his aunt’s home after quarreling with his younger brother. A convicted burglar and sex offender, he was angry at the world. He walked through town until he came to a condominium located at 24 West Palmetto Street. A light was on in the living room and Nelson peered in.

He circled the building. All the doors and windows were locked except the bathroom window, which was cracked open. Nelson forced it all the way and entered the apartment.

Virginia Brace was a snowbird. She lived in her native New York for six months during the summer and in Avon Park for the rest of the year. That Sunday, the night before the murder, her friends Gary and Catherine Vellams had come by. They’d had dinner with their long-time friend and played cards until about nine o’clock. When they unsuccessfully tried to reach Brace the next day, they filed a missing persons report.

Brace was sleeping when Nelson broke in. Her glasses and hearing aids were on the nightstand next to the bed. Money she’d withdrawn from the bank was in her purse.

As he prowled the house, Nelson accidently kicked a table in the bedroom. Brace awoke and screamed.

Nelson pounced on the helpless woman. DNA tests later revealed that he raped her. After the assault, he forced her into the trunk of her car, a blue 1989 Ford Marquis. Nelson drove aimlessly, finally ending up in an orange grove in nearby Polk County. He later told investigators he planned to kill Brace and hide her body there. But while driving down the sand trail he got stuck.

At about 9:30 a.m., Nelson called a towing company. Steven Weir drove to the orange grove with his tow-truck and began to hitch the chains to the car. As he did so, he heard thumping in the trunk. Weir later testified that when he asked Nelson what was in there, he was told it was a dog. Then Nelson quickly turned the radio up. It blasted rap music so loudly that Weir couldn’t hear any other sounds coming from the trunk.

After being pulled out of the sand, Nelson sped off without even thanking Weir. He drove to another orange grove, this one near South Lake Buffam Road. Nelson dragged Brace from the trunk. According to court records, the ex-convict said he “started choking her [but she didn’t] lose consciousness. He became scared and started twisting her neck. She didn’t pass out so he returned to the vehicle and obtained the fire extinguisher. Nelson returned to the victim, stuck the nozzle of the hose in her mouth and sprayed two or three times; then he went back to the car and got the tire iron. He tried to push the tire iron into her mouth [and] she tried to push it out.” Nelson eventually used the tire iron to strangle Brace to death.

The white powdery substance on Brace’s face that investigators saw when they first arrived at the orange grove was the dried foam from the fire extinguisher.

Nelson was quickly arrested. The evidence was overwhelming. Steve Weir and a co-worker identified Nelson as the man whose car they’d pulled out of the orange grove. Numerous fingerprints that were identical to Nelson’s were found in Brace’s house and car. His DNA matched semen stains found on a bedspread in Brace’s bedroom and in her vagina. Shoe prints in the sand matched his shoes. He admitted the crime and led police to Brace’s body.

As a juvenile, Nelson had served time for incest. In 1995, he was sentenced to five years in prison for a series of burglaries. Even though he escaped from the county jail and was convicted of that crime as well as the burglaries, Nelson was released from state prison after serving less than two years of his sentence.

At trial, he was convicted of the first degree murder of Virginia Brace. The jury also tacked on guilty verdicts for kidnapping, grand theft, and burglary.

So far, Micah Nelson’s appeals have been futile. He currently resides at Raiford with all the other nice death row inmates.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Smallest Victims by Robert A. Waters

Here are three unsolved mysteries, three child abductions that brought unimaginable horror to parents, relatives, and communities. As the years pass and merge into decades the murderers may still live among us. Will there ever be justice for the smallest victims?

Amber Hagerman. On Saturday, January 12, 1996, nine-year-old Amber and her brother Ricky rode their bicycles around a quiet neighborhood in Arlington, Texas. As Ricky veered away from Amber to return home, a pickup truck drove up and stopped beside her. A man got out, sprinted directly to Amber, grabbed her, and pushed her into the truck. In seconds, she was gone.

From nearly a football field’s distance away, a neighbor saw it happen. He immediately called 911, then ran to tell Amber’s family. As cops swarmed into the area, her grandfather, Jimmie Whitson, jumped into his car and raced to the spot where the pickup was last seen. The only thing he found was a discarded bicycle, looking oddly out of place with no child around.

Cops and volunteers mounted a massive ground-search while detectives grilled hundreds of workers at a nearby General Motors plant. Known sex offenders were rousted from their homes and jobs and interrogated. Amber’s mother appeared on local television shows to plead for her daughter's safe return. “Please don’t hurt my baby,” Donna Hagerman cried. “She’s just an innocent child. Please, please bring her home safe.”

It was not to be. Four days later, Amber’s body was found in a creek a few miles from her home. Her throat had been slit from ear to ear. Autopsy results indicated that she’d been held captive for two days. The child was a victim of a brutal sexual assault.

Police never developed any real suspects. They believe the abduction was a random, opportunistic crime. The FBI delivered its usual profile that could have fit half the men in Texas. After years of frustration, Amber’s grandmother, Glenda Whitson, told reporters that investigators "really don’t have much to go on. [They just have] a few fibers they found on her body...”

The only good thing to come out the tragedy was the development of the Amber Alert program. Since its inception, the system has been responsible for bringing home nearly 300 abducted children.

Brittany Locklear. On the morning of January 7, 1998, five-year-old Brittany was waiting alone at her school bus stop in rural Hoke County, North Carolina. Her mother usually watched from the porch of her house until her daughter got on the bus. But on this day, she stepped back into the house for a moment. Just that quick, Brittany was gone. Connie Locklear-Chavis will never forget that day. As cops and volunteers launched a desperate search for the girl, Locklear-Chavis fell apart. It got worse the next day when Brittany’s body was found three miles away. She’d been raped, then drowned.

Neighbors had seen a pickup truck in the area, but each witness had a different description of it. It was never found. No real leads were ever developed in the case. In fact, an investigator recently said, “I’m not sure if I know of a magic bullet that will solve this case. Time is our enemy.” Another investigator said, “This thing is eating at someone.”

A guilty conscience or a deathbed confession may be the only hope of ever finding out who murdered Brittany. “She loved everyone,” Locklear-Chavis said. “She didn’t have no faults with anyone. And, Lord, she loved going to church.” A local newspaper recently reported that “ceramic angels surround a vase at the end of her family’s driveway [near where Brittany was abducted]. They smile, hands folded in prayer, reminding Brittany’s family of the angel they’ll never see again.”

Tracy Marie Neef. It’s been 24 years since seven-year-old Tracy walked into Bertha Heid Elementary School in Thornton, Colorado and disappeared. Actually, she never made it into the school. She was dropped off by her mother and walked through the gate leading to her classroom. But she was ten minutes late and the doors to the building had been locked. As she wandered around trying to find a way inside, she was kidnapped.

Later that day, Tracy’s body was found near Barker Reservoir in Boulder County. Her books and other items were scattered beside her. According to a recent article in the Denver Post, Tracy “had a scratch on her right cheek and one above her left eye that appeared to be caused by a fingernail. The marks may have been caused as the kidnapper tried to control Tracy after pulling her into his car. [She had] ligature marks on both wrists indicating she’d been tied with a rope or cord.” She was still dressed in jeans and a t-shirt. She’d been molested but not raped.

All signs indicate that this was a spur-of-the-moment abduction that quickly went bad. Investigators believe the kidnapper tied a coat-strap over Tracy's mouth so tight that it accidently suffocated her. After that, he panicked and drove as fast as he could to a secluded area where he quickly dumped her body.

Unfortunately, much of the evidence police gathered has been lost or contaminated over the years. Her frustrated father, Gary Neef, recently said, “Now with no DNA we’ll never know who did it unless the killer confesses.”

Monday, November 10, 2008

An Unnecessary Death

A vibrant, well-loved, hard-working woman goes missing. An ex-con who should have been behind bars is arrested for her abduction and murder. It happens every day. In this case, a convicted killer was released after serving only six years in prison. It was just a matter of time before he killed again.

When Lori McRae walked out of a Jacksonville, Florida Walgreens pharmacy at around 1:00 a.m., on January 31, 1995, she didn’t know that a chance encounter would leave her dead. A postal employee, her shift ended at midnight. McRae was well-liked, dependable, and happily married.

Ex-con David Wyatt Jones had been smoking crack every day for months. He had little interest in anything except the next high. Unlike McRae, he didn’t work. He was a committed burglar, but would shoplift, steal, or even panhandle if necessary.

After work, McRae called her husband and told him she planned to pick up a few items at on her way home. Her first stop was Walgreens.

An employee later testified that David Wyatt Jones came into the store at about the same time as McRae. He was in “total contrast” to her — she wore black jeans, a white blouse, and a forest-green jacket. She was neat and clean with immaculate fingernails.

Jones, on the other hand, had “his shirt opened...and his body [was] full of tattoos.” He had a distinct spider web tattoo on his right elbow. He was dirty and smelled bad.

He followed McRae out of the store. In Jones’ confession, he said, “I saw her in the parking lot and I walked up to her and choked her and threw her in the back seat.” He drove her to a remote area near the town of Callahan fifty miles away. According to the Medical Examiner’s report, McRae was found with her jeans pulled down to her ankles and her shirt pulled up above her breasts. “Ligature strangulation” was ruled as the cause of death.

There was no doubt about Jones’ guilt. He was arrested driving McRae’s Chevy Blazer. Using her stolen ATM card, he’d withdrawn six hundred dollars from her bank account. Bank cameras caught Jones completing the transactions. He knew her PIN number even though she’d memorized it and had never written it down. DNA showed his blood on her clothes and her blood on his clothes. He confessed to the crime and took police to the location of the body.

In 1997, Jones was tried and convicted of the first degree murder, kidnapping, and robbery of Lori McRae.

During the sentencing phase of his trial, prosecutors presented evidence that David Wyatt Jones had previously been convicted of second-degree murder. In 1986, while serving time for burglary, Jones escaped from the Duval County Jail and murdered Jasper Highsmith. The escapee was arrested while driving with his victim’s body in the trunk of a stolen car. Jones was sentenced to 20 years in prison but released after serving only six. (While researching this case, I was unable to determine why a career criminal, prison escapee, and convicted murderer was released before serving his full sentence. One blogger stated that it was because of prison overcrowding and that may have been the reason. One thing is certain: had he served his full term he would never have had the opportunity to murder Lori McRae.)

This time Jones was sentenced to death.

Florida governor Charlie Crist has signed several death warrants. He has stated that he wants to execute “the worst of the worst” first.

David Wyatt Jones certainly qualifies.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Where is Ty Theis?

A few years ago, America’s Most Wanted released a set of playing cards featuring 52 wanted criminals. Most had been profiled on the show many times. Tyrom Walter Theis has been walking free for more than fifteen years. He is accused of murdering three innocent women who worked at a service station. As many readers know from my previous posts, I have an immense sympathy for those souls who toil day in and day out at convenience stores, gas stations, and other jobs that put their lives in danger. The murders of these women cry out for justice.

It was early in the morning of January 17, 1994, when a masked gunman entered the Leather's Oil Company gas station in Gresham, Ore. The three women working that day were well-known in the small community. Mary Beth Garey, 25, and her mother-in-law, Rosalie Girtz, as well as Kay Endicott, were all victims of a robbery gone wrong - a robbery that cops believe was committed by a young man Kay knew all too well: former Leather's employee Tyrom Theis.

Tyrom, or Ty to the locals, worked at the gas station in the months prior to January 17. Described as wholesome, on-time, and conscientious, Theis only had one spot of trouble during the time he worked at Leather's: he took $30 from the till, confessed, and was placed on suspension. During the forced leave, Theis eventually told his boss that he wouldn't be returning to work and that he needed "a change of scenery."

Investigators believe that Theis targeted the gas station that Sunday morning because he knew the cash register would be full with the weekend's receipts. They also think that Theis laid in wait, staking out his former workplace, until he made his move. What he may not have planned on was Kay working on January 17.

Once Theis had the cash, close to $9,000, he herded the three women into the garage workshop at gunpoint and ordered them to lie face-down on the floor. Cops say that's when he opened fire, shooting all three women in the head.

Police tell AMW that Theis didn't skip town right away, staying in town for a few days and going about his usual business. It wasn't until two accomplices cracked and confessed to authorities that Theis fled.

Fifteen years after the horrific triple murder, cops believe that Theis is still in the United States and living under a new identity.

According to the AMW website, Theis is six-feet-four inches tall and at the time of the murders weighed 180 pounds. He has brown hair and brown eyes. His habits at the time of his disappearance included chewing his nails down to the nub, drinking Jack Daniels and Budweiser, and smoking Marlboro Reds.

[This profile was compiled by Robert Brown of the AMW Staff. I have edited it.]

Tuesday, November 4, 2008


My wife and I attend 15-20 movies each year. Some are dreadful. Some are entertaining for the moment but ultimately forgettable. A few are memorable. In the last two years, three stand out: Jodie Foster's "The Brave One"; “Apocalypto,” produced by Mel Gibson; and “Changeling,” produced by Clint Eastwood.

“Changeling” presents the true story of Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie). A few months after her 12-year-old son Walter is kidnapped, the Los Angeles Police Department brings Christine a boy who claims to be Walter. To get favorable publicity for solving the case, they make sure reporters are available to record the homecoming. Even though Christine protests that the boy is not her son, cops coerce her into taking him home for a “tryout.” (In 1928, when this story happened, there were no DNA tests to establish paternity.)

Christine continues to insist to detectives that the changeling is not her son and her protests become more forceful with each meeting. The local newspapers get wind of her doubts about the boy and begin to publish articles heaping derision on police. It is at this time that Reverend Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich) contacts Christine about appearing on his radio broadcast. For several years, Briegleb has used his popular show to expose the rot inside LAPD.

Captain J. J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan) has staked his career on this case. Like he’s done on other occasions, Jones has Christine committed to the psychiatric ward of the Los Angeles General Hospital when she persists in denying that the boy is Walter. While Jones thinks this will sweep the problem under the rug, it in fact does just the opposite. Briegleb goads the media into a long-overdue examination of police practices and thus begins the downfall of Jones and other high-raking police officials.

As the political drama is unfolding, a guilt-racked Canadian teenage boy named Sanford Clark (Eddie Alderson) is picked up by police on illegal immigration charges. The boy tells detectives a horrific story of a madman in the desert town of Wineville who has been kidnapping and murdering young boys for years. According to Clark, one of the victims was Walter Collins. Clark's story is so riveting that the detective questioning the boy ignores pressure from his superiors and takes Clark out to the chicken farm where the killings allegedly occurred. As bodies begin to surface, cops realize that they can no longer cover up the story. At about the time Christine is released from the psycho ward the imposter admits that he lied about being Walter Collins because he wanted to come to California and meet actor Tom Mix.

The man who lived at the chicken farm, Gordon Northcott (Jason Butler Harner), has fled to Canada but is quickly tracked down. A serial killer, he is convicted of murdering three boys and is suspected of more than a dozen others.

Christine Collins is vindicated and most of the brass at LAPD are fired or demoted. But Christine refuses to believe that her son is dead since his body was never identified among those found at the chicken farm. She meets with Northcott the day before he is hanged and attempts to get him to tell her whether he killed Walter. Northcott refuses.

In this movie, Jolie is not the hottie that many viewers expect. Instead, she begins the film as a decent-looking working woman but as the stress of her ordeal continues she becomes haggard and plain. In fact, there is absolutely no romance in the movie which is a definite plus.

In an era when serial killers were nowhere to be found on the radar chart of criminalists, Jason Butler Harner steals the show as Gordon Northcott. At times charming, weird, manipulative, psychotic, Harner plays all these roles to perfection. The hanging scene is the most realistic I’ve seen in a movie. Instead of the stoic inmate who quips with guards, Northcott grovels and begs and cries and whines (“You’re going too fast,” he shouts to the guards as he is being dragged up the steps to the gallows.) The warden and guards are grim-faced bureaucrats just doing their job. Even so, the viewer finds no sympathy for the condemned man.

Another sparkling performance is that of Eddie Alderson. His angst at having been forced to participate in the ax-murders and body-burying is palpable. His reason for confessing (“I don’t want to go to Hell”) is a genuine response for a country boy of the era. Unfortunately, he was also convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.

To be honest, I wasn’t sold on John Malkovich as a minister. He’s too intimidating and sinister for a good guy. And some of the scenes in the psycho ward were a little hokie.

But overall, this is one of the best films I’ve seen in several years. The writer, J. Michael Stracynski, has done an admirable job of researching the case and making the era come to life. The depth of character displayed in Christine Collins strikes the viewer as real. She progresses from a typical mom to a formidable yet reluctant fighter.

I generally despise the Hollywood crowd. I think they’re spoiled, incestuous, thoroughly corrupt, arrogant, and out of touch with ordinary people. I also tend to think that many movies are made to indoctrinate the unwashed into believing the warped views of the stars.

Despite this, occasionally a diamond will sparkle in the cesspool.

“Changeling” shines.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

A Train Wreck Called "Fast Eddie"

A Train Wreck Called "Fast Eddie"
by Robert A. Waters

In John Updike’s poem, “Ex-Basketball Player,” Flick never makes it beyond his hometown. Unlike Flick, Edward Lee Johnson, Jr. moved easily from Ocala, Florida to basketball stardom. After four years at Lake Weir High School, he earned a scholarship to Auburn. Johnson had an outstanding career there. Then “Fast Eddie,” as he was called, was drafted into the NBA.

In his rookie year, Johnson shared playing time with Charles Criss of the Atlanta Hawks. The following year, he was a starter. After that, the years piled up, good years mostly. He was an all-star in 1980. By 1981, Fast Eddie was known for his hot-dog style of play. He scored almost 20 points a game that year. In his ten years in the NBA, he averaged 15 points a game.

But by 1987, it was all over.

He returned to his hometown a hero. No one there yet knew of a white powdery cancer eating his soul. By the late 1980s, his hometown of Ocala had shed its long-held Southern heritage. (The powers that be even moved the Confederate statue from the front to the back of the courthouse.) Northerners were moving in by the thousands and were mostly accepted by the locals. The gleam in the eyes of city administrators was green. The more people there are, they reasoned, the more money there is to be had by all. Fast Eddie Johnson was a celebrity. Like other Ocala sports stars, he could easily have turned his good fortune into gold.

But within a year of returning, cocaine had drained the gold from his bank accounts. Although he still had a small stipend from investments, it was never enough to quench the poison thirst.

The inevitable arrests followed. If local newspapers are to be believed, more than a hundred. The charges were endless: burglary, robbery, forgery, theft, battery on a law enforcement officer, resisting arrest, manufacturing drugs, selling drugs. Johnson served time in Florida State Prison. Twice.

Thoughts of a comeback had long-since died. The respect he’d once had from colleagues and hometowners was gone. By 2006, Fast Eddie was a train wreck. And it was only going to get worse.

On August 8, 2006, the mother of an eight-year-old girl called police. She’d come home to find her daughter, shaking and trembling, curled up on the floor in a fetal position. The sobbing child told her mother that Eddie Johnson, an acquaintance of the family, had come to the house, taken her into her bedroom, and raped her.

Johnson was arrested. He was already awaiting trial for the rape of a woman that happened just a few weeks earlier. Although he denied the charges in both cases, Johnson was held for trial.

On October 30, 2008, Eddie Johnson was convicted of, among other charges, “sexual battery on a child under age 12” and “lewd and lascivious molestation of a child under age 12.” The only sentence available for the judge to hand down is life in prison without the possibility of parole.

(In a sad footnote, the coach of the Phoenix Suns is also named Eddie Johnson. Not “Fast Eddie.” Just Eddie. But newspapers around the country mistook him for the other Eddie. Suddenly, Just Eddie was being maligned by the sports world. It took months for him to clear his good name. “I don’t fault the other Eddie Johnson for having that name,” Just Eddie said. “I think it’s a great name. He just doesn’t happen to be a great guy.”)

The train wreck called “Fast Eddie” Johnson had spun off the track and crashed. It’s sad. But what’s even sadder are his victims. Those he robbed and stole from over the years. Those kids who once idolized him. The victims of his physical and sexual assaults. But most pathetic is a child who’ll have to live forever with the fallout from a brutal rape. The horror of that memory will always haunt her, will change her.

As Edward Lee Johnson, Jr. goes off to prison, the wreckage strewn in his wake is the saddest thing of all.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Where is Professor Stees?

Where is Professor Stees?
by Robert A. Waters

On February 21, 1970, Gene Isaac Stees walked away from the state prison in Columbus, Ohio and disappeared. He’d been convicted of bludgeoning his pregnant wife and dumping her body in Dow Lake, near Athens. For 38 years, he’s escaped justice. Today, if he’s still living, he would be 76.

It was a classic love triangle. Gene Stees, 31, a professor at Ohio University, and his wife, Helen, 30, had separated because of his dalliance with a third woman. Patricia Weathers had caught his eye. Married and with three children, local newspapers described Weathers as “svelt,” “doe-eyed,” and “beautiful.”

Gene and Helen had met at Grace College in Indiana where both were students. They married in 1955. A nurse, she worked to put him through school. He obtained his Master’s Degree from the University of Indiana and began working toward his doctorate. During the course of their marriage, Gene and Helen had two children.

While attending classes at the university, Stees met Weathers and they became lovers. She later testified that he told her he was divorcing his wife. After the divorce was legal, he said, they would get married.

A few months before the murder, Stees took a job as an assistant professor at Ohio University in Athens. He rented a small farmhouse and moved in with his lover.

On October 20, 1962, Helen, who was living with her parents in Ashland, Ohio, arranged to meet her husband in Athens. She told them she hoped they could work out their problems and reconcile. (Weathers had flown to Florida to see her husband and children.) The next day, when Helen didn’t come home, her parents called police.

Investigators found a pool of blood on the seat of Stees’ car. An article from the Athens Messenger describes his confession: “Shortly after [Gene and Helen] arrived at the farm, Stees [said he] struck his wife in the head with a crow bar and then pulled a plastic bag over her head. That night, he stuffed her body into a metal drum, placed it in his station wagon and drove to the upper end of Dow Lake. There he carried the barrel to a boat, lifted it into the craft, rowed out into the lake near where the swimming area is located, and dumped the metal coffin with his wife’s body over the side.”

At the trial, prosecutors established two motives for the slaying: the desire to marry his lover and the fact that at their last meeting Helen had informed Stees that she had become pregnant.

The evidence was overwhelming and Stees was convicted of “first degree with mercy.” That meant he wouldn’t face the death penalty, but he would have to serve life without the possibility of parole for twenty years.

Stees entered the Ohio Penitentiary on February 14, 1963. He was a model inmate and was eventually transferred to the records office, where he became a clerk. The job had two major benefits for Stees: first, instead of wearing striped prison clothes, he dressed in khakis, much like blue collar workers on the outside; second, the records section was only a few feet from the door that led outside.

On February 18, 1970, almost exactly seven years after entering prison, Stees simply walked out the door and vanished.

Several glitches in prison protocol gave him a head-start. Although Stees was thought to have left the prison in the morning, a head count wasn’t made until late in the afternoon. Once he was reported missing, the Ohio State Police wasn’t notified until three days later. By that time, the trail had run cold.

Where did he go after his escape? Did he have help? Police interrogated Patricia Weathers but found no sign that she had ever contacted Stees after he was arrested for the murder. In fact, she made up with her husband and had lived in Florida since 1963.

The best guess is that Stees had saved some money from his job. (He made a few cents an hour.) On the day he vanished, he may have taken his money, walked out onto Spring Street, a busy thoroughfare, and blended in with construction workers nearby. Had he boarded a Greyhound bus, he could have been anywhere within a few hours.

Athens County Sheriff Harold Shields, who arrested Stees, often transported prisoners to the penitentiary. While there, he spoke with Stees, who helped with the paperwork for the new inmates, on many occasions. Several times Stees spoke of his interest in Australia. Shields always maintained that Stees could have easily caught a bus to Canada, changed his name, and migrated to Australia.

While it was possible that Stees had outside help, prison officials regularly monitored all inmates’ mail and phone calls. They never got an indication that he had any friends on the outside.

For years, Ohio officials and the FBI searched for Stees. The FBI eventually closed their books on him. However, his 1960s-style mug is still shown on the Ohio cold case website.

Is the deadly professor still alive? Or is he lying in some anonymous grave? It’s a mystery that may never be solved.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

DNA Solves South Daytona Cold Case

The hotels along Atlantic Boulevard are packed to the gills during Bike Week, Spring Break, and the Daytona 500 stock car race. At those events, cops have to deal with drunkenness and disorder on a regular basis. But in 1982, investigators had a bigger problem. On September 23, 66-year-old Bernice Allen [pictured] was found inside her home, raped and murdered.

Allen lived at 102 Blue Skies Drive. When she didn’t show up for her regular shift at Signorelli’s Elderly Care Facility, her employer and neighbors checked her home. Peering through a window, they saw her lying on a blood-soaked bed.

Police arrived and found Allen dead. She still had curlers in her hair and her nightgown was pulled up around her neck. Police reported that “a subsequent autopsy revealed that the death was the result of a homicide, caused by a blow to the head with a blunt object.”

A tiny spot of sperm was found on Allen’s bed-sheet, but at the time, DNA was unknown to investigators. The semen was stored in a police evidence room where it sat for nearly twenty-five years, waiting for science to catch up with a killer.

Police had no suspects in Allen’s murder, and the case eventually faded away. Then, in 1996, almost fifteen years later, five elderly women were attacked and sexually assaulted in their homes. Other homes in South Daytona were burglarized and police staked out the neighborhood. Late one night, an officer on patrol saw a man loitering around an elderly woman’s home in nearby Ormond-by-the-Sea. Thomas Morris Franklin, 53, a well-known petty criminal, was arrested.

Evidence revealed that Morris was guilty of the rapes as well as numerous burglaries. He was tried, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison.

A few years later, South Daytona investigators sent the DNA sample from Bernice Allen’s old bed-sheet to the Florida State Crime Lab. It matched Thomas Franklin. In 2007, he pled guilty to her murder and was sentenced to a second life term.

While this case was finally solved, Volusia County has dozens of cold cases dating back to the 1970s.

A recent series of unsolved murders made national news. In 2005, Laquetta Gunther was raped and shot to death. In 2006, Julie Green and Iwana Patton suffered the same fate. Stacey Gage was murdered in a similar manner in 2007. Gunther, Green, and Patton were known prostitutes and Gage was a recovering drug addict. DNA linked one perpetrator to all four women.

Daytona Beach Police Chief Michael Chitwood offered a warning to the killer. “Every night,” Chitwood said, “what I want him to know is [that] we’re one day closer to getting him. Every single night when he lays his head down, he’s gotta be wondering if the SWAT team is coming through the door. ‘Cause I got one thing that’ll never change and that’s his DNA.”

In another unsolved case, police haven’t announced whether they have DNA evidence. On April 26, 1994, 15-year-old DeLand High School student Laralee Spear was abducted and murdered. Spear, a cheerleader and honor student, stepped off her bus on Deerfoot Road and disappeared. She was found hours later, a quarter of a mile from her house. She was nude and her hands had been tied. Spear had been raped and shot in the head.

Jennifer L. Duffy was attacked in her own bed on September 17, 1991. The New Smyrna Beach resident was sleeping when an intruder broke into her home and stabbed her in the chest. Her roommate, asleep on a couch in the living room, awoke to loud screams and was also stabbed. The assailant fled out the front door. Duffy died but her roommate, who was not seriously injured, was able to provide a description of a blond-haired white man with a thin build. The case remains unsolved.

On December 20, 2001, 78-year-old Leigh Abel went missing. An avid fisherman, he was surf-fishing on the National Seashore in New Smyrna Beach. Friends saw him there at about 2:00 in the afternoon. He was never seen again. A year later, Abel’s 1999 GMA Suburban was found a hundred miles away in Boca Raton. Witnesses saw a young white man exit the car but a police sketch has yielded no clues.

So far, the murderers of these victims have gotten away with it. But, like the Thomas Franklin case, sometimes long-cold cases are solved.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Suicide by Court

The crime was unspeakable. Marco Allen Chapman murdered two children, left a third child for dead, and raped and stabbed the mother of the victims. There is no doubt about his guilt. He wants to die for his crimes and may get his wish. Some people call it “suicide by court.” Others call it justice.

At 4:40 a.m., on August 23, 2002, Marco Chapman knocked on the door of the home of Chuck and Carolyn Marksberry. Chuck was away on business. When Carolyn opened the door, Chapman attacked her. Marksberry, the city clerk of Warsaw, Kentucky, had counseled Chapman’s abused girlfriend, advising her to leave him. The ex-con, who had recently been released from prison, wanted revenge.

An article in the Cincinnati Inquirer explains what happened next. “Once inside the house...Mr. Chapman punched Mrs. Marksberry in the stomach, held a knife to her throat and robbed her of $ 120. Then Mr. Chapman took Mrs. Marksberry to the master bedroom where he restrained her with duct tape and a vacuum cleaner cord before sexually assaulting her.”

When Marksberry’s cries brought her daughters, Courtney, 10, Chelbi, 7, and her son, Cody, 6, to her aid, the assailant turned his attentions to them. He stabbed each child numerous times, and ended the attacks by slitting their throats. Chelbi and Cody bled to death at the scene.

Courtney played dead until Chapman left the room. Then she sprinted to a neighbor’s house to get help. When Chapman heard the outside door slam, he fled. After her assailant left, Carolyn was finally able to break free of her restraints. Bleeding, and with her arms still bound, she crawled over her son’s dead body and ran to safety.

A few hours later, police arrested Chapman in West Virginia. He readily admitted his crimes and asked to die.

Courtney had minor wounds, but her mother hovered between life and death for days. “Her wounds were deep,” Sandra Miller, a University of Cincinnati surgeon, said. “[There were] cuts to her neck and trachea. She had a collapsed lung due to a stab wound to the chest, but the lung has re-expanded now...” There was also “eye trauma.”

From the beginning, Chapman has requested execution. "My life has never really been worth much," he said. "It will never be worthy of the children, but I give it freely to them." He pled guilty to the assaults, robbery, and murders and a judge granted him his wish. Chapman has been on death row since 2004.

Chapman isn’t the only murderer to request execution. In fact, experts say about 11% of inmates who have been executed were willing participants in their own deaths.

While those who favor the death penalty call it justice, opponents say the inmates are mentally ill and call their executions “suicide by court.” Chapman, however, denies this. “I guess it’s kind of my Christian upbringing,” he said. “Suicide is unforgivable. I figure if I’m not doing it to myself, it’s not suicide.”

The real victims in this tragedy are the children who had their lives snuffed out and the living victims who must now suffer the nightmares and remember the dead. After Courtney was attacked, she watched in horror as Chapman knifed Cody.

Courtney recalled what happened after Chapman left the room: “I grabbed my brother’s hand and I said, ‘I gotta go get help.’ He said, ‘No, don’t leave me.’ And I said, ‘I’ll be there in a minute. I’ll be back.’”

Carolyn, in an interview with Primetime, said: “I was terrified, absolutely terrified...[Courtney] keeps me busy. If it weren’t for her, I don’t know that I would get up in the morning. She’s my hero.”

The state of Kentucky has set Marco Allen Chapman’s execution date for November 21, 2008.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Ninja Killer by Robert A. Waters

On the night of November 20, 1989, Louis Gaskin dressed for murder. He planned to kill and pillage. The would-be assassin put on a black ninja costume to blend in with the night. Ninjas are trained assassins, he later told police in a detailed confession. Gaskin’s dream was to be ninja killer. As he walked out the door of his home, he armed himself with a semi-automatic .22-caliber rifle.

The unsuspecting victims of his dark fantasy lounged in the den of their Palm Coast, Florida home watching television. Robert Sturmfels, 56, had settled into his recliner while his wife Georgette, 55, sat on the sofa. They’d never heard of the career criminal who was about to end their lives.

Gaskin drove aimlessly through the darkness, searching for a target. When he passed 10 Ricker Place, he saw a light shining through a patch of woods. Parking his car beneath a grove of trees, he moved silently toward the house. He stood for long moments in silence, watching, scoping it ninja-style. Then he circled the house. Once, twice, six times. Gaskin fancied himself a warrior moving in for the kill. Looking through the den window, he had a clear shot.

He raised the rifle to his shoulder, aimed, and fired. Robert felt the bullet smash into his chest and came up out of his chair. Gaskin fired again. This time, Robert collapsed onto the floor. It took Georgette a few seconds to realize what was happening. She leaped out of her chair and began running toward the hallway. A bullet took her down. Robert somehow stood again and began to stagger away. A third shot hit him in the back and he fell again.

Georgette, bleeding heavily from a back wound, crawled down the hallway, out of Gaskin’s sight. He circled the house until he came to a set of French doors. There he saw Georgette struggling to get to her feet. He fired once more and she crumpled to the floor.

Gaskin inhaled the cool Florida air. Of all the many crimes he’d committed — burglary, robbery, selling and using drugs, sexually assaulting children — this was the most exciting. He pulled a hunting knife and slashed a window screen at the back of the house. Unlatching the window, he entered. He reloaded his gun, walked over to Robert and shot him in the back of the head. Then he placed the barrel of the rifle against the back of Georgette’s head and blew her brains out.

Gaskin knew that the nearest house was a quarter of a mile away so he relaxed as he gathered up items he could sell: jewelry, VCRs, lamps, a clock, an iron, household appliances. He looked for guns and drugs but found none. He checked Georgette’s purse but found only credit cards. Robert’s wallet contained $ 300 and more cards so he took it. Gaskin placed the items in the victims’ truck. He then drove through the woods to his own car where he transferred his loot.

As he drove away, he left the bodies of two innocent victims inside the silent house.

But Gaskin wasn’t done. He’d spied a second secluded house just down the road. Joseph and Mary Rector had watched the eleven o’clock news and were on their way to bed when they heard a thump outside. Joseph investigated but saw nothing. The noises continued. Court documents state that “after hearing a similar noise for the third time, Rector told his wife to call the sheriff. Mrs. Rector soon discovered that their phone was not working. They took the phone into bedroom where they tried plugging it into another jack without success. As he stood in the dark bedroom, Rector saw his window shade appear to explode. He looked down, saw blood, and realized he had been shot.”

The ninja killer had thrown rocks and logs against the house to get his victims to come into view so he could shoot them.

Robert and Mary rushed out of the house and climbed into their car. Robert needed to get to the hospital. As they screeched out of the driveway, more shots rang out and the Rectors heard bullets thudding into the car. With Mary driving, they were able to reach the hospital and call police.

Detectives arrived at the Rector home. It had been ransacked. As they continued their investigation, a postal carrier noticed a broken window at the Sturmfels home and reported it. There cops found the bodies of Robert and Georgette.

After burglarizing the Rector home, Gaskin drove to Alfonso Golden’s home. He asked his cousin to store the stolen items for him. Golden agreed. Gaskin volunteered that he’d “jacked” the loot and told Golden that the victims are “stiff.” “If you don’t believe it,” Gaskin bragged, “watch the news.”

Golden, who also had a police record, waited a few days but eventually contacted police. Gaskin was arrested and quickly gave a detailed confession. He led authorities to a canal where he’d hidden the credit cards, wallet, and other items.

When asked why he’d done it, Gaskin replied, “God said, ‘No.’ The devil said, ‘Yes’...The devil had more of a hold [on me] than God did.”

Joseph Rector recovered from his wounds.

Louis Bernard Gaskin was tried and convicted of two counts of first degree murder. He was given two death sentences.

He claims to have has found religion. “I think of God,” he said. “I play checkers and read the Bible.”

His victims, Robert and Georgette Sturmfels, have been dead for nearly twenty years.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The South Florida Sod Farm Murders

Charlotte County, situated on the Gulf of Mexico, has one incorporated city: Punta Gorda. Most of the county is rural and many jobs in the area are agricultural. James Dennis “Jimbo” Ford worked at the South Florida Sod Farm in Charlotte County. The 7,000 acre business was located in the most remote region of the county.

Ford was a trackhoe and heavy equipment operator. He fancied himself an outdoorsman and had a campsite on the company’s property. He hunted for wild boar and fished the many lakes and ponds there.

Greg Malnory was a “fuel man” at the farm. His job was to keep all company vehicles gassed up. He and his attractive wife Kimberly had a 22-month-old daughter named Maranda. Malnory and Ford worked closely together and were, if not friends, familiar acquaintances.

On the afternoon of April 5, 1997, Malnory obtained permission from the general manager for him and his wife to go fishing on company property. Later, Ford met up with Greg, Kimberly, and Maranda. At about 1:30, they all drove down to the pond, Ford driving a red pickup and Malnory a blue truck.

When Greg didn’t show up for work the following morning, his employer became concerned. He’d worked for the company for two years and was known for being a dedicated worker. At around ten o’clock, a farm manager noticed his pickup on the dike road above the pond a few hundred yards from the company office. Several employees went to investigate. According to court documents, “they found Kim Malnory lying next to the truck, face down, and Greg Malnory in a field some distance from the truck; both people appeared to be dead. The baby was alive in the truck...the doors to the pickup were open, and the girl had mosquito bites all over her.”

Deputies from the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office were called and took the child from the truck. She’d been strapped into a car seat. Maranda was dehydrated, and had welts all over her body from insect bites. She was taken by ambulance to nearby St. Joseph’s Hospital where she eventually made a full recovery. (Maranda was later adopted by relatives.)

Dr. Rosa Robison, assistant medical examiner, arrived and inspected both bodies. She testified that she saw “oval-shaped discolorations on both sides of [Kim’s] thighs” and that the one-piece swim-suit she was wearing “was cut or ripped at the crotch.” Kim had nine “chopping” wounds to the head, as well as a gunshot wound to the upper palate of her mouth. Medical Examiner Dr. Manfred Clark Borges ruled that death occurred due to a combination of the gunshot to the mouth and the “sharp force injuries.” Semen was found inside her body.

Greg had been shot in the back of the head. His throat had been cut and he too had chopping wounds to his head and face. No drugs and no alcohol were detected in either victim.

Farm employees explained to cops that Jimbo Ford had been with the victims the previous afternoon. After leaving the farm, he appeared at a friend’s house wearing bloody clothes. He explained to the friend that the blood was from a hog he’d killed.

Investigators searched his house and truck. In the house, they found a pocket-knife.

Court records established Ford’s guilt. It read: “Ford was seen with the victims in the area of the crime just prior to the killings; Ford was seen in a distracted state with blood on his face, hands, and clothes; he was observed the next day, Monday, with scratches on his body; the rifle stock of a .22-caliber single-shot Remington rifle that belonged to Ford was found in a drainage ditch in the area where Ford’s truck ran out of gas Sunday evening; DNA from human debris found inside an Old Timer’s folding knife recovered from Ford’s bedroom matched Greg Malnory’s DNA type; DNA from a stain in Ford’s truck matched Kim Malnory’s type; DNA from a stain on the seat cover in Ford’s truck matched Kim’s type; DNA from semen found on the shirt Kim was wearing when murdered matched Ford’s type. DNA from vaginal swabs taken from Kim matched Ford’s type.”

At trial, prosecutors laid out the following timeline of events in the murders of Greg and Kim. After they arrived, Greg left his truck and began to walk toward the pond. Ford followed behind and shot him in the back of the head. He then chopped his face and head with an ax-type tool and used his pocket-knife to cut the victim’s throat, severing the jugular vein.

Kim saw the attack and attempted to protect her daughter. But Ford ran back to the truck and assaulted her. He raped Kim, using his knife to cut the crotch of her swimsuit. Defensive wounds showed she fought hard but was overpowered. She was then chopped and stabbed, but still didn’t die. To finish the job, Ford stuck the barrel of his rifle in her mouth and pulled the trigger, finally killing Kim. At some point, it is thought she tried to grab her daughter and run away because her blood was found on Maranda.

Two years later, Ford was tried and convicted of armed sexual battery, aggravated child abuse, and two counts of first degree murder. He was sentenced to death.

Ford’s appeals have all been denied.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008


It’s a defense attorney’s worst nightmare when DNA from his client is found on the victim. In this article, I’ll describe four cases in which the so-called genetic fingerprint identified and helped convict murderers. In a future article, I’ll write about some of the many innocent inmates DNA has helped exonerate.

William Morrisette. On July 25, 1980, 47-year-old Dorothy White didn’t show up for work and didn’t call in sick. The Hampton, Virginia woman was always reliable so co-workers drove to her home to check on her. There they found White’s body lying on the kitchen floor. Blood seemed to be everywhere, and she was nude except for her blouse which had been pulled up above her breasts.

Investigators determined that White had been raped and stabbed repeatedly. According to a court document, the fatal injury was “a slash wound across her throat, which totally severed the trachea, the right carotid artery, [and] the jugular vein...” Police technicians extracted semen from White’s body. Cops interviewed hundreds of suspects, but the murder remained unsolved for nineteen years.

Between 1980 and 1999, a new technology came onto the stage. DNA. In 1988, Virginia had used genetic markers left on the bodies of several murder victims to convict a serial killer named Timothy Spencer. The sister-in-law of Dorothy White heard about the so-called Southside Strangler and the miracle DNA that had sent him to death row. She contacted the Hampton Police Department and asked them to take another look at the long-cold case of Dorothy White.

By this time, Virginia had created a databank that contained DNA profiles of all convicted felons in the state. The semen from White’s body was tested and entered into the system. A hit confirmed that William Wilton Morrisette had left the DNA. Morrisette had been an employee of White’s boyfriend and had done yard work for the victim. His DNA was in the databank because he’d been convicted of an “abduction and maiming” and burglary. It is believed that he used an offer to do additional yard work as a ruse to get inside the victim’s home. He was convicted of sexual assault and murder and sentenced to death.

Diego Olmos-Alcade. In the early morning, three nights before Christmas, 1997, Colorado University student Susannah Chase [pictured above] quarreled with her boyfriend. She left his house and began walking to her apartment in Boulder. She never made it. She was abducted, raped, beaten with a baseball bat, and left for dead. Semen was recovered from Chase’s body and the DNA placed in the national registry.

It took ten years, but investigators finally got a cold hit on a serial sex offender named Diego Olmos-Alcade. When he was convicted of abducting and raping a woman in Wyoming, his DNA was submitted to the national databank. Olmos-Alcade had an extensive arrest record for sexual offenses. In addition to spending seven years in a Wyoming prison, he was suspected of sexual assaults in Colorado and New Jersey.

Olmos-Alcade faces the death penalty when he is brought to trial, probably sometime next year.

Gerald Abernathy. On April 10, 1982, Wendy Stark stopped at the Hillandale Shopping Center in Rockville, Maryland. Stark, a former cheerleader and a student at the University of Maryland, planned to shop at Zayre’s department store before continuing to her job as a waitress. She was tall and blonde, just the type of victim Gerald Abernathy was searching for.

Five months earlier, Abernathy had escaped from the Prince William County Jail. He’d spent most of his life in prison for numerous sexual assaults and at least one other murder.

Abernathy kidnapped Stark at gunpoint. He drove her to a secluded area and raped her. At some point, Stark bolted out of the car and ran toward a house. She made it to the front porch and tried to open the door while Abernathy followed behind her. Once Stark reached the porch, he caught up to her and fired four slugs into her body. She died a few hours later.

The case was a mystery from the beginning. The killer had fled and, because it was a random attack, could not be identified.

In 2007, a cold case detective accidentally found a box containing a cotton swab and hair samples from the case. He submitted the evidence to the lab for testing. According to an article in the Washington Post, “investigators linked the genetic fingerprint through a nationwide database to Gerald A. Abernathy, who died of lung cancer last year at age 66 in a North Carolina prison. He had been serving a life sentence for an unrelated kidnapping and murder since 1994.”

While Abernathy escaped justice, Stark’s mother was pleased just to know the name of the killer. “I’m glad he’s dead,” she said, explaining that she wouldn’t have to “hear any terrible details of what happened to her” at a trial.

Robert Rhoades. Rhoades was a sexual predator and serial murderer who was already on California’s death row when a DNA cold hit linked him to the torture murder of 18-year-old Julie Connell. He’d previously been convicted of the kidnapping, torture, rape, and murder of 8-year-old Michael Lyons of Yuba City.

Julie Connell was a studious straight “A” student who attended Arroyo High School in San Leandro. On the afternoon of April 20, 1984, she was abducted from Kennedy Park in Hayward. Five days later, her body was found in an animal corral near Castro Valley. She’d been raped and her wrists tied with green twine. One of her wrists had been slashed as if the killer wanted to “bleed her out.” When that didn’t work, he cut her throat.

The case went cold and was unsolved for fourteen years. In 1998, investigators submitted foreign DNA recovered from Connell’s body to the California databank. It matched the death row inmate. At his trial, the prosecutor said, “[Rhoades] silenced the only witness to these atrocities by slitting her throat – not once, not twice, but three times. The jury took an hour to convict him and he was again sentenced to death.

In addition to Lyons and Connell, Rhoades had been convicted of sexually molesting his 4-year-old stepdaughter and kidnapping and sexually assaulting yet another victim. She survived only because she jumped out of his truck and escaped.

Robert Rhoades is currently on death row at San Quentin.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

The Unsolved Murder of Alexander Winspeare

The Unsolved Murder of Alexander Winspeare
by Robert A. Waters

Alexander Anthony Winspeare had been a widower for twenty years. On October 26, 1987, the 93-year-old army veteran was found dead inside his small mobile home in Largo, Florida. He’d been murdered. For 21 years, his killer has gone free.

Winspeare spent every day including weekends at a down-home restaurant called the Fireplace. His friend, Walter Francisco, would pick him up and they would eat breakfast together. Then Winspeare hung around, eating lunch and dinner. The lonely man would chat up the waitresses and patrons, occasionally even doing a two-step to the music. Sometimes he fed the birds outside. Other times he would show off his old army medals.

He was well-liked. The owner of the Fireplace, Thomas Spiradakos, said, “[Winspeare] would come in about nine in the morning and stay until four or five in the afternoon. He [felt it was] home here. He was lonesome so we all talked to him.”

At night, Winspeare would have a few beers, then go to bed. His small lonely life flowed to the same beat every day.

On the morning of October 26, 1987, Francisco drove up to the trailer and blew his horn. When Winspeare didn’t answer, his friend went inside and found him dead. Although cops have never released the cause of death, they did acknowledge blunt trauma to the head.

Investigators learned that Winspeare’s trailer had been burglarized five weeks earlier. While the old man slept, an intruder broke in and stole $ 250. Winspeare, fearing retaliation from the burglar, didn’t report it. Cops suspect the burglar may have returned for a second helping of his money. “Maybe [Winspeare] woke up and recognized them,” said Cold Case detective Keith Barton. “I don’t have any reason to think they had any intention of [killing him].”

No real leads were ever developed. A group of teenagers who lived nearby were suspected of committing a series of similar burglaries. But they were never connected to Winspeare’s murder.

Alexander Winspeare was born in England in 1894. He migrated to Michigan in his teens. After serving in the army during World War I, he worked for many years as a machinist for Pontiac Motors. He retired in 1962 and moved to Florida. Four years later, his wife died.

A lonely, gentle man died twenty-one years ago. There has been no justice for him. Alexander Winspeare is the Joker in the Third Edition of Florida’s cold case playing cards. Here’s hoping Detective Barton finds an Ace among the inmates inside Florida’s prisons.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The Tamiami Strangler

The southernmost tip of U. S. Highway 41 runs from Tampa, Florida to Naples, then across the Everglades to Miami. Along most of its 250 miles, travelers might catch a glimpse of deer, alligators, snakes, even an occasional Florida panther. It’s a scenic route long known as the Tamiami Trail.

Once Highway 41 reaches Miami, it runs into Little Havana. The road is no longer scenic: it’s flanked by low-rent motels, porno shops, strip joints, abandoned buildings, and desperate souls who sell their bodies for one more high. In the mid-1990s, it was along this street that a monster lurked.

On June 26, 1995, neighbors at a small apartment complex heard a woman screaming and banging the walls inside an apartment. Police were called and quickly broke into the unit. There they found a woman bound with duct tape. She was a prostitute, she admitted, and she’d willingly accompanied a man there for sex. Once inside, her john, identified as Rory Conde, had repeatedly raped her. When he left, she used the opportunity to create such a ruckus that she was rescued.

In the apartment, a detective noticed a green beeper similar to one stolen from a prostitute who’d been murdered. In fact, a series of at least six murders had been linked by DNA to one killer. The press, never at a loss for a phrase, had dubbed him the “Tamiami Strangler.” Conde was taken into custody and held as a possible suspect. After his DNA matched samples taken from the bodies of all six victims, he confessed.

For many years, Conde had been addicted to prostitutes. Even after he married and had two children, he continued indulging his habit. One day, he picked up a girl and brought her home. While there, Conde dressed her in his wife’s lingerie and had sex with her. He filmed the episode and his wife later found it. She immediately left him, taking the children with her.

Instead of blaming himself for the breakup of his marriage, Conde blamed prostitutes.

On September 15, 1994, he picked up a prostitute along the Tamiami Trail in Little Havana. While having oral sex, Conde discovered the prostitute was actually a man. Enraged, he strangled the transvestite, Lazaro Comesana. Court documents described what Conde did after the murder: “Rory explained that he killed Comesana out of his anger about Comesana’s deception and his belief that [his wife] and children had left him because of his use of prostitutes. He described kneeling over Comesana’s body for 10 minutes while he blamed him for the loss of his wife and children. He then made the sign of the cross over Comesana’s body.”

He then redressed the body, placed it in his car, and drove to a middle-class neighborhood. There he dumped the corpse in an area where it would be quickly discovered the following morning.

The same routine would be followed with each victim until Conde was caught.

Detectives recovered DNA from the body of Comesana but had no real clues to follow. When the next victim, Eliza Martinez, was also strangled, redressed, and dumped in a middle-class neighborhood, police suspected a serial killer was on the loose. They retrieved DNA from Martinez and matched it to the same person who had left semen on Lazaro Comesana, confirming their suspicions.

Conde stated that after the first murder, he became paranoid. He thought he would be arrested at any moment and even missed work the next day. Eventually, he convinced himself that police had no evidence. After the murders, his rage would subside but would eventually boil up inside him again until he was ready to explode.

His next victim was Charity Nava. After murdering her, he decided to leave police a message. “Rory decided to write on Nava’s back with black magic marker,” court documents read. “He wrote ‘Third’ because this was his third murder. Under this he wrote: ‘I will call Dwight [a well-known local T. V. news anchorperson] C.H.A.N. 10.’ Under this he wrote ‘See If You Can Catch Me.’ Under this he wrote ‘N y R,’ meaning his mother, Nadia, and him.”

Nava was also dumped in a residential area along the Tamiami Trail. Although Conde never called the television station, by now the local media was agog with its new serial killer. The pathetic prostitutes who’d been murdered were even graced with “sweetheart” stories sympathizing with their plight.

Wanda Crawford was the next victim. She, too, was dumped alongside the Trail. Necole Schneider was next. She was strangled and dumped within a block of Conde’s wife’s house.

His final victim was Rhonda Dunn. She struggled mightily but was overpowered and strangled. While most of his victims were chosen because they happened to be available, Dunn was taken because she was a look-alike for his wife.

Conde’s confessions to the murders put to rest any lingering doubts that he was the killer. His DNA matched all the victims, making his trial a foregone conclusion. The beeper found in his apartment proved to be that of Charity Nava.

Conde was sentenced to death for the murder of Rhonda Dunn and to life in prison for the other murders. He currently resides on Florida’s death row. His appeals have consistently been denied.