Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Book Review: The Love Pirate and the Bandit's Son by Laura James

The Love Pirate and the Bandit’s Son: Murder, Sin, and Scandal in the Shadow of Jesse James
Laura James
Union Square Press, 2009

Review by Robert A. Waters

My wife and I recently traveled to Pocahontas, Tennessee (for those who don’t know, that’s half-way between Woodbury and Manchester) to attend her family’s annual reunion. I brought along a book that had been burning a hole in my brain for a couple of months. Entitled The Love Pirate and The Bandit's Son, it was written by Laura James. The author is an attorney, a blogger, and a crime historian extraordinaire. I believe CLEWS (her blog) is the best true crime blog on the Internet. So I knew I wouldn’t be disappointed when I opened her book. I wasn’t, and I recommend it to all true-crimers.

The case is as cold as the long-dead bodies of Zeo Zoe Wilkins and the men she drove to early graves. In 1924, Zeo was murdered. It wasn’t particularly surprising. In fact, Zeo had predicted that she would be dead within the week. When Kansas City, Missouri police entered her blood-soaked rental home they found her safe missing. According to witnesses, it was filled with diamonds and valuable bonds. They were the dead woman’s last remnants of wealth. Sired and raised in poverty, she had accumulated more than three million dollars in her life, but had lost it through lavish spending, hooch, and dope.

What’s surprising is that she wasn’t murdered sooner. Zeo was indeed a love pirate. The brazen beauty married six times (five times to different men)--each time she added to her bank account and left her victims’ hearts, souls, and pocketbooks shattered. One husband was shot by the schemer, another committed suicide, one lost his bank and his fortune and his sanity, one fled the state to be rid of her.

In addition to her marriages, Zeo was a nymphomaniac, as her affairs with hundreds of men would attest. Cops investigating her murder had so many suspects that they could never get a grasp on the case. Three men were arrested but there was never any real evidence against them and they were released. The crime was never solved.

Jesse James, Jr. was six-years-old when his father was murdered by the dirty little coward Robert Ford. Junior heard the gunshot and ran to the living room to find the famous outlaw lying on the floor in a pool of blood. Jesse James, Jr. would be forever scarred by the scene.

Junior went to law school. Like many attorneys of yesteryear and today, slime oozed from his every pore. Junior represented denizens of the underworld. For a while, he prospered, but eventually lost all his money and self-esteem when he invested in a disastrous movie about his father. He was adjudged insane and temporarily admitted to a doctor’s care.

Zeo Zoe Wilkins was unaware of his problems when she came to Junior for legal advice. She wanted someone to fence her diamonds and bonds. Who better than an underworld attorney whose father had “stole from the rich and gave to the poor?” Zeo brought Jesse James, Jr. to her house, bedded him, and showed him the contents of her strong box. Two weeks after they met, Zeo was dead and her last remaining valuables missing. They were never seen again.

Did Junior murder her? He was never considered a suspect by police, but historian James has presented a case against him. Is it compelling? You read the book and decide.

Buy The Love Pirate and the Bandit's Son and add it to your true crime library. It’s well-researched, well-written, well-edited, and will keep your fingers moving. What more can you ask in a book?

Friday, June 26, 2009

Book Review: The Road by Cormac McCarthy

The Road
Cormac McCarthy
Vintage Books, 2006

Reviewed by Robert A. Waters

This is the first fiction book I’ve read in years. I hate the political correctness of most major modern novels--aren’t writers supposed to challenge the norm? Not only that, the plots of today’s books and movies are so predictable that I can always tell what’s going to happen next. It seems as if most of today’s fiction is cut from the same cookie-cutter mentality that authors like to criticize the middle-class for.

Had I known that The Road was a selection of the Oprah Book Club, or that it had won the Pulitzer Prize, I probably would have never even picked it up. My son, however, suggested I try it and once I started reading, I couldn’t put it down.

Post-apocalypse books and movies are a dime a dozen. Zombies, militarists, and super-heroes are the usual fare in such things. Since I like realistic books, these scenarios turn me off.

What would really happen if most of humanity were destroyed in some world-wide disaster? The Road probably answers that question as well as it can be answered. The plot is simple: after the earth is visited by some unnamed cataclysm, a man and his young son walk south in an attempt to reach the coast. They push a grocery cart loaded with their few possessions in front of them and carry a pistol for protection. Their two purposes for taking to the road are to escape the brutal cold of the mid-west and to try to find other “good guys.” Maybe a group of survivors who still have some spark of humanity left.

Along the way, the father and his son pass through the burned-out landscape of America and meet ragged, dying people, many of whom have turned to cannibalism. Several times, the father uses his gun to ward off aggressors. In one instance, he shoots and kills a cannibal who has attacked his son. (This alone drew me to the book. How many times have we seen the evil gun taken from the good guy and used for awful purposes? The Tom Cruise remake of War of the Worlds rings that bell.)

But what I really liked was the inter-play between the dad and his son. The old man was hard-souled, the boy idealistic. Between them, they complete their journey, each in his own way.

The Road is being made into a movie. My suggestion to the producers is to write the script directly from the book. Don’t try to make it more exciting. Don’t change it from what it is. Don’t try to insert some political or environmental message. Just go with the masterpiece that this writer has produced.

Oh, and one more thing: don’t use voice-overs--nothing will put your audience to sleep quicker.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Recommended Website: Texas Executions


This informative website is must reading for death penalty advocates and foes alike. The story below is one of hundreds from the site that describes the circumstances of previous executions.

Michael Lynn Riley, 51, was executed by lethal injection on 19 May 2009 in Huntsville, Texas for the murder and robbery of a convenience store clerk.

On 1 February 1986, Riley, then 27, entered a convenience store in Quitman in northeastern Texas, carrying a concealed butcher knife. Riley was a frequent customer in the store. Clerk Wynona Harris, 23, told him to help himself to the ice cream he wanted while she counted some money. While Harris had her back turned to Riley, he came up behind her and stabbed her to death. He left the store with a cloth bag containing $1,110 in cash. A customer came in later and found Harris's body behind the counter. She was stabbed 31 times.

A set of bloody footprints led from the store in the direction of Riley's home a few blocks away. Detectives followed the footprints and found the murder weapon and a money bag. Later that day, Riley, who had several felony and misdemeanor convictions and was well-known to law enforcement authorities in Quitman, went to the Wood County sheriff's office after hearing that authorities were looking for him. Riley indicated that he knew something about the murder, but he denied being at the store that morning. He was allowed to leave the sheriff's office, but after a milk delivery driver informed authorities that he had spotted a man in distinctive coveralls hanging around outside the store that morning, he was brought back in for questioning. Riley then led authorities to a pair of bloodstained coveralls hidden under some brush in a field near his house. In one of the pockets was $970 in cash. He then confessed to the crime.

Riley had prior felony convictions and two prior prison sentences. In March 1977, he was sentenced to 2 years in prison for burglary and larceny. He was discharged in November 1978. In January 1980, he was sentenced to 9 years for burglary of a building. He was paroled in July 1983 and discharged in July 1985. He also had several convictions for forgery and writing bad checks.

A jury convicted Riley of capital murder in November 1986 and sentenced him to death. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturned the conviction in November 1993 on the grounds that a potential juror was improperly struck from the jury. At his second trial, Riley pleaded guilty. A jury then convicted him again of capital murder in September 1995 and resentenced him to death. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the conviction and sentence in May 1997. All of his subsequent appeals in state and federal court were denied.

Several of Riley's appeals asserted that he was mentally retarded and thus ineligible for capital punishment. In 1973, he was evaluated as having an I.Q. of 67, which is considered a borderline retardation level. This evaluation was admitted at his first trial. In preparation for his second trial, his attorney, William Wright, interviewed Riley's family and examined his school, probation, and juvenile records. Based on this evaluation and his own personal observations of his client, Wright concluded that Riley was not retarded, and he decided not to present the 1973 evaluation into evidence, because he believed doing so could be counterproductive to his trial strategy. Wright also consulted with Dr. Patrick Lawrence, a psychologist, about Riley's mental state. Lawrence evaluated Riley and testified at his trial that he did not pose a future danger to society, but he did not testify as to Riley's I.Q. In March 2004, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Wright's actions were reasonable, and did not constitute ineffective assistance of counsel.

In an interview from death row the week before his execution, Riley said that he turned to crime to support his gambling habit. "Dice took my life," he said. "It's the worst drug habit you can have."

Riley said he was remorseful for his actions and held no ill will toward the jurors or prosecutors who sent him to death row. He also said that he had asked his friends not to pray for him to receive a reprieve. "They're freeing me from this place," he told a reporter. "I'm in Heaven. I can already feel it. Come May 19th, I'll be free."

"I know I hurt you vary bad," Riley said to his victim's family members who attended his execution. "I truly am sorry for the hurt and pain I caused you." He also apologized to his mother, who did not attend, for not being the son she wanted him to be. He reminded his friends and supporters that he was ready to die. He concluded his last statement by urging this fellow death row inmates to "stay strong". Using his death row nickname, he said, "Fleetwood is out of here." The lethal injection was then started. He was pronounced dead at 6:18 p.m.

By David Carson. Posted on 20 May 2009.
Sources: Texas Attorney General's office, Texas Department of Criminal Justice, court documents, Associated Press.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Body by the River by Robert A. Waters

Nevaeh Buchanan, Roy Smith, George Kennedy

Even though I’ve become jaded to many of the tragedies presented on the crime talk shows, the death of Nevaeh Buchanan strikes home. After watching hundreds of horrific cases unfold over many years, I’ll admit I’ve become desensitized to the reality of it all. Many times I view victims and criminals alike as comic book characters with little real depth. I don’t apologize for it: too many similar images bombarding the brain will do that to you.

On the afternoon of May 24, five-year-old Nevaeh disappeared from outside her apartment in Monroe, Michigan. According to her mother’s account, she was last seen riding her bicycle in the parking lot at around six-thirty. Then she was gone.

Two weeks later, the body of a child was found along the River Raisin, a few miles from Nevaeh’s home. Dumped in a shallow grave and hardened over with a layer of ready-mix concrete, DNA tests confirmed that the remains were those of Nevaeh.

To be honest, I’m unable to muster much sympathy for Jennifer Buchanan. Her daughter had been taken from her by the courts after she was convicted of home invasion. According to a recent article in the Detroit Free Press, “Sherry Buchanan [Nevaeh’s grandmother] was granted custody of Nevaeh after Jennifer Buchanan was convicted in 2006 on a first-degree home invasion charge. She had been breaking into homes to support a drug habit. For the last 2 1/2 months, Sherry, Jennifer and Nevaeh Buchanan have lived together in the two-bedroom apartment.”

Jennifer associated with low-lifes and criminals. When Nevaeh landed with her grandmother, it was undoubtedly the best thing that ever happened to her.

Two registered sex offenders, both having served time in prison, circled the family like hyenas waiting to make a kill. Whether they got to Nevaeh or not, the very fact that Jennifer Buchanan would allow them within shouting distance of her daughter is a crime--maybe not in the legal sense of the word, but at least in the moral sense. George Kennedy and Roy Smith have now been sent back to prison to complete their original sentences because they violated their parole by associating with the child and her mother.

Whether either committed the murder remains to be seen.

The case has even fueled a debate about the death penalty in Michigan. The state abolished the practice in 1846, yet such a monstrous crime as this screams out for more than life in prison.

I guess the reason I’m drawn to this case is that Nevaeh was facing an uphill battle in life almost from the beginning. She had no father-figure (her real father was long-gone). Her mother seemed bent on self-destruction. Her role models (except for her long-suffering grandmother and a few relatives) were criminals.

Yet she should have been given a chance. Millions of people have risen above worse than what Nevaeh faced.

When she was murdered, that chance ended.

And for that I mourn.