Sunday, October 25, 2009

Missing in Missouri by Robert A. Waters

Hero Mitchell Hults

October 21, 2009. As a young girl in Cole County, Missouri walked home from a friend’s house, she vanished. Two days later, Elizabeth Olten, 9, was found dead in a nearby wooded area. A fifteen-year-old acquaintance led cops to her body. He was later arrested and charged with her murder.

In 2002, Shawn Hornbeck, 11, was riding his bicycle one summer afternoon near Richwoods when he was abducted. Four years later, in the same area, thirteen-year-old Ben Ownby was kidnapped. Mitchell Hults, a neighbor of Ben’s, gave police a detailed description of a truck seen in that area. Because of this lead, both Shawn and Ben were rescued. Michael Devlin was convicted of the kidnappings and sentenced to life in prison.

Missouri is similar to many other Midwestern and southern states. Suburbia has crept into many sections, but there are still vast chunks of wilderness. As they’ve always done, children play along forest-lined streets or in isolated fields. The rural settings make perfect trolling grounds for predators.

On July 5, 1991, Charles Arlin Henderson, 11, was riding his bicycle near his Moscow Mills home when he vanished. Rumors and false confessions dogged the case, but the most logical explanation for the disappearance is a Devlin-style abduction. (When Devlin decided he wanted to kidnap a child, he drove to rural areas and stalked young boys. In the case of Shawn Hornbeck, Devlin used his truck to knock the youngster from his bike, then snatched him. Four years later, he used a handgun to force Ben Ownby into his truck.) It seems likely that such an event occurred with Charles Henderson. To this date, no one knows for sure.

Nine-year-old Scott Allen Kleeschulte was seen walking in his St. Charles neighborhood shortly before a tremendous thunderstorm deluged the area. It was June 8, 1988, when the child vanished without a trace. At first, investigators believed he may have drowned in a flash flood, but full-scale searches of nearby rivers and creeks and caves and tunnels never turned up any sign of the missing boy. Police now think that Scott was taken. Eleven years later, he remains missing.

On the night of August 5, 1989, Gina Dawn Brooks, 13, rode her bicycle toward her friend’s home in Fredericktown. At that time, a neighbor claimed to have seen a strange light-blue station wagon in the area. Another neighbor was said to have heard a girl screaming. Gina was never seen again. Her bicycle was found a few blocks away. Three men were eventually charged in her abduction and murder, but were never tried. Even though there is not enough evidence to convict, investigators still believe that some or all of these men are responsible. The truth is that Gina has never been seen since the night she vanished.

Other Missouri abductions are just as baffling. In 1999, Heather Kullorn, 9, was babysitting in Richmond Heights when she disappeared. Blood found on a couch in the home tested positive for Heather, indicating a gruesome end. Heather has never been found. In 1994, in Columbia, thirteen-year-old Kristina Renae Bishop disappeared while walking to school. Bianca Piper, also 13, disappeared near her Foley, Missouri home. It’s been four years since she was last seen.

Into the darkness they went, children as lost as yesterday.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Shooting Back

Sometimes crooks just can’t get it right. Breaking into a stranger’s home can be dangerous, but many thugs seem oblivious to the fact that 80 million Americans own firearms. Those home invaders who survive often seem surprised when they end up being shot by their intended victims. I’ve summarized four recent cases in which intruders had the tables violently turned against them.

At just after five o’clock on the morning of October 15, 2009, Charles Haithcock, 80, dialed 911. “A man broke in on me and pulled a gun,” the Greensboro, North Carolina resident told the dispatcher. “I shot him and he’s laying out in the yard...He broke in [through] the window. He pulled the air conditioning out in the living room. I heard something and he come back to the bedroom. I was in the bed and I opened the door and he had pulled what looked like a shotgun [and] was pointing it at me...” Haithcock fired three rounds from a handgun, killing Michael Lamont Medley, 19. The intruder had a long, violent criminal record. Cops refused to charge the elderly victim, citing self-defense.

On October 13, 81-year-old Ralph Burkett shot and killed a masked home invader who had just been released from prison. The homeowner and his wife were sleeping in their Brewton, Alabama home when Jeremy Paul McCall, 35, kicked in the door, entered Burkett’s bedroom, and demanded money. The homeowner, however, pulled a .357-Magnum from a stand beside his bed. When the intruder threatened Burkett with his own gun, the intended victim shot and killed McCall. No charges were filed. “The man [Burkett] was in his home,” Sheriff Grover Smith said, “[and] in bed with his wife. He acted in self-defense.”

Schroeppel, in Oswego County, New York, is the last town most people would expect a violent home invasion to take place. But on Saturday evening, October 17, Deanna Candee, 48, and her son Adam, 28, returned home from shopping. According to the Syracuse Post-Standard, they found their house “ransacked with doors broken, glass smashed, and pictures and knick-knacks knocked from their walls.” As they entered their home, the residents were attacked by an intruder. Timothy Hartigan, 39, grabbed Deanna by her hair and threatened her. Adam, hearing his mother’s screams, ran to her aid. He pulled Hartigan off his mother and the two men engaged in a horrific knock-down, drag-out fight. During the struggle, Deanna grabbed her handgun and fired once, killing the assailant. According to family members, Hartigan had a history of mental illness. Both Deanna and Adam Candee were transported to the hospital for injuries suffered in the assault. They were expected to recover.

On the night of October 12, Jorge Guzman of Houston, Texas, awoke to the sound of someone breaking a window in his home. While called 9-1-1, the homeowner grabbed his pistol. As Guzman pleaded for help, he heard the intruder enter his house. The dispatcher urged Guzman to put down his gun, but the homeowner refused. Guzman waited in his bedroom, hoping police would arrive. Suddenly, the invader began kicking the door. “As soon as he put his foot there,” Guzman said, “that’s when I shot because he had a big tattoo on his face...The [dispatcher] was telling me that’s the sheriff’s department [but] when he came [through] that door I said that’s not the sheriff’s department.” The intruder, who had a bullet wound, was later arrested, along with a female accomplice.

Sometimes, crime really doesn’t pay.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Amazing DNA Hits

Susannah Chase

In The Blooding, author Joseph Wambaugh describes the 1987 case of serial murderer Colin Pitchfork. After the rapes and murders of two 15-year-old schoolgirls, Lynda Mann and Dawn Ashworth, police in Leicestershire, England had no leads. They were certain the killer was local, but could find no clues as to his identity. When investigators learned that a local scientist named Alec Jeffreys had developed a method of “fingerprinting” blood, they contacted the mad scientist and he agreed to help them.

After years of intense investigation, police arrested a dim-witted 17-year-old kitchen porter named Richard Buckland. The evidence against him, however, was so weak that detectives decided to ask Jeffreys to use the new science to cement the case. Fortunately for Buckland, his DNA profile did not match the profile Jeffreys had developed from semen collected at the scene of the crimes. Police released Buckland, then took the desperate steps of collecting blood from all 17 to 35-year-old males in the area. Investigators eventually “blooded” 4,500 men and identified the aptly-named Pitchfork as the killer.

So began one of the most amazing breakthroughs in criminal history.

After just two decades, DNA has helped identify thousands of rapists and murderers. In addition, hundreds of accused killers have been exonerated by the same techniques. There is now a national databank of DNA profiles collected from convicted felons. Most states also have databases. Many state and local police departments currently have cold case units that focus on old unsolved cases. DNA gathered from victims and crime scenes by former investigators have contributed to solving many of those cold cases.

For instance, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation has solved more than 1,500 cases, some dating as far back as eighteen years.

On Halloween night, in 2007, a 68-year-old woman was murdered in Jonesboro, Georgia. Geneva Strickland was tied up, beaten, robbed, and her house set afire. Criminalists were able to gather foreign DNA from the scene. Running it through their database, they identified Timothy Alan Booth as the perpetrator. Booth had been in and out of prison for years, and had been forced to submit his saliva for a DNA profile while incarcerated. “I doubt the case would have been solved without DNA,” Jack Ivey said. “They talked to everybody in the family and had no idea who did this to mom.”

Eleven years after University of Colorado student Susannah Chase was abducted, raped, and murdered, DNA tests proved that Diego Olmos-Alcade was responsible for her death. Before murdering Chase, he had been sentenced to 10 years for another kidnapping. While in prison, he was required to give a sample of his DNA. Olmos-Alcade was not even on the radar as a suspect before the DNA hit.

Scientific advances in DNA technology have allowed investigators to test smaller and smaller traces of blood, saliva, or even skin cells. In 1984, Bradley Perry worked the graveyard shift at the Texaco Short Stop convenience store in Brigham City, Utah. At about 4:00 a.m., he was murdered and the store robbed. Police found a dollar bill at the scene and were surprised to discover minute traces of blood on it. In 2005, a lab was able to swab enough blood from the bill to get a DNA profile. Glenn Howard Griffin, a career criminal, was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for Perry’s murder.

DNA also has a history of clearing the innocent. After a woman in a Dallas, Texas suburb was raped, she picked Charles Chatman out of a lineup. Based only on that identification, the 20-year-old was arrested. Convicted of aggravated sexual assault, he was sentenced to life in prison. Twenty-seven years later, a vaginal swab taken from the victim was tested. It didn’t match the DNA profile of Chatman and he was released. More than half his life had been spent behind bars.

Polygraphs can fail. Eyewitnesses are fallible. Cops can make mistakes or worse, frame the innocent. But a science developed only two decades ago is proving to be as reliable as fingerprints.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Pets gone wild

African Death Adder

Pets gone wild
by Robert A. Waters

“These things are not tame animals, they’re wild animals.” Tim Conway, Pennsylvania Game Commission.

In July, 2009, near my hometown of Ocala, Florida, an eight-foot-long Burmese python slithered out of its cage for the second time in one night. While its owners slept, the serpent coiled around the neck of two-year-old Shaiunna Hare. Later that morning, Charles Jason Darnell, 32, awoke to find that the python had killed the child. Darnell and his girlfriend, Jaren Ashley Hare, 21, face numerous charges including third-degree murder, manslaughter, and child neglect.

A few months earlier, in Connecticut, Charla Nash, 55, was brutally mauled by a 200 pound chimp called Travis. Nash had been called to the home of her friend Sandra Herold to help round up the chimp and put it back inside the house. Nash was permanently maimed and blinded by the beast. In what many people considered irresponsible behavior, Herold had raised the chimp as if it were her child.

Now I read in the news where a 350 pound black bear killed Kelly Ann Walz, 37, as she was cleaning its cage. According to the Associated Press, Walz “went into the bear’s 15-by-15-foot steel cage about 5 p.m. Sunday, throwing a shovelful of dog food to one side to distract the bear while she cleaned the other side...At some point, the bear attacked her.” A neighbor, who used a handgun to kill the bear, said it was a pet.

There have been hundreds of other cases of serious attacks. One of the most well-known was the mauling of Roy (of the act Siegfried and Roy) in front of hundreds of Las Vegas spectators. A white Bengal tiger used in the show severely injured the entertainer during a performance. Michael Peterman, an Ohio firefighter who collected exotic snakes, was bitten by his pet African rhino viper. He died before anti-venom could arrive. In Australia, a pet Death adder nearly killed its owner after striking him several times.

I’ll admit that I don’t see the joy in keeping wild animals as pets. That doesn’t mean I’m not an animal lover. I like them where they belong: in the wild. I love watching nature shows such as “Animal Kingdom” and “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.” But most of what I see on those shows are animals eating one another. Those violent scenes are not for the faint-hearted. Many animals eat their prey alive, tearing away its flesh bit by bit. Some snakes swallow their victims whole as venom destroys internal organs and causes paralysis. Whatever the case, death is usually prolonged and agonizing.

It stands to reason if beasts are taken out of the wild, they’ll eat whatever is available--including humans. In my opinion, people who attempt to raise animals as surrogate children are close to being clinically insane.

While I’m a live-and-let-live kind of guy, this kind of thing drives me berserk. My mom used to have a yellow and white-striped cat (yep, he looked like a miniature tiger) that wasn’t content with assassinating mice and lizards and murdering fish in the lake behind the house. This thing would climb the huge oaks in my parents’ yard and catch and eat squirrels. There always seemed to be bones and tails of the unfortunate victims of this carnivore scattered about the front yard. I’ve hated cats ever since.

Many pet-owners will no doubt disagree. But I’ve just never understood the need to make wild predatory animals into lovable pets. Get yourself a bred-to-be-a-pet Chihuahua or Boston terrier and let wild animals live in the jungle and kill each other--not humans.

[This is obviously an opinion piece. Regardless of my feelings about this matter, I don’t favor additional laws restricting what a person can and can’t own. In all things, I believe in more freedom, not less.]

Monday, October 5, 2009

Where's Beaner?

Chisolm stands in the heart of the “iron range” in southwestern Minnesota. It’s a relaxed Midwestern town with about 5,000 residents.

On June 14, 2003, Leeanna Warner, 5, was reported missing by her parents. Nicknamed “Beaner,” she walked to a neighbor’s home to play with a friend but never returned. Two neighbors noticed her leaving the home but no one saw what happened after that.

Beaner was wearing a sleeveless blue denim dress and no shoes. Only three-feet-two-inches tall, she weighed 48 pounds. Her mother said that at about 4:45 she asked to go to the neighbor’s home. Thirty minutes later, she was gone.

At first, police thought the child had wandered away. Their immediate efforts were to search nearby lakes and ponds. After finding no evidence that she’d been the victim of an accident, investigators concluded that Beaner had been abducted.

Her father, Chris, and mother, Kaelin, were quickly eliminated from suspicion.

Neighbors claimed that a strange man had been lurking nearby. He was said to be of medium height and weight and had a dark-colored tattoo on his right arm. The tattoo resembled a “star” or maybe the “sun.” Police never identified this man.

A few months later, a local resident, Matthew James Curtis, 24, was arrested when police found child pornography on his computer. Although the charges were unrelated, detectives interrogated Curtis about Beaner’s disappearance. After being released, Curtis drove to a gravel pit and used a plastic bag to suffocate himself. Further investigation concluded that he had no involvement in the case.

The case went stagnant until 2005 when Joseph E. Duncan III was arrested in Couer D’Alene, Idaho. A child predator and serial killer, he was charged with kidnapping nine-year-old Dylan and eight-year-old Shasta Groene after murdering their mother, stepfather, and brother. Duncan later shot-gunned Dylan to death in a remote Montana campground. Shasta survived weeks of horrendous sexual attacks before being rescued. When investigators deciphered an incripted document on Duncan’s computer, they found a reference to Beaner’s disappearance. However, a timeline of the killer's life led police to conclude that he had not been in the Chisolm, Minnesota area at the time of Leeanna Warner’s disappearance. Duncan was later convicted of numerous charges unrelated to Beaner's disappearance.

In truth, police have had no real solid leads in this case.

It’s as if Beaner vanished from the face of the earth. The little girl who loved playing with dolls and riding her bicycle is simply gone. For six years, residents of Chisolm have endured an emptiness that won’t go away.

Where’s Beaner?