Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Abduction of Cherrie Mahan

“A black hole opened up and she fell in...”
by Robert A. Waters

Twenty-five years. In the span of time, it’s nothing. But to the family of a missing child, it’s a lifetime. On the afternoon of February 22, 1985, eight-year-old Cherrie Ann Mahan (pictured above) stepped off her school bus with several other children. The kids scattered towards home, each going separate ways. When the dust cleared, Cherrie was gone. Vanished. Disappeared into the dark fog of time. The question remains unanswered: who snatched the brown-haired, brown-eyed girl with the beautiful smile?

It was about 4:00 p.m., and Cherrie was slightly more than fifty yards from her family’s mobile home in Winfield, Pennsylvania when she went missing. Due to the cold weather, she wore a gray coat, blue denim skirt, blue leg warmers, beige ankle boots, and brown earmuffs bearing the logo of a Cabbage Patch doll.

An article in the Pittsburgh Tribune Review outlined the events surrounding the disappearance: “Cherrie's stepfather, Leroy McKinney, usually drove her the 50 yards from the bus stop at Cornplanter and Winfield roads in Winfield to the family's mobile home at the end of a steep, wooded driveway. The home was not visible from the road. But that day, [Leroy and his wife Janice] decided to let Cherrie walk [home].”

Leroy heard the bus pull up and leave. But when Cherrie hadn’t arrived within a few minutes, he drove down to the bus stop to check on her. She was nowhere to be found. Leroy raced back home and Janice called police.

The only real clue in two and a half decades was the sighting of a unique-looking van. After interviewing neighbors and the children on the school bus, investigators determined that a bright blue or green 1976 Dodge van had been seen following the bus. It had an unusual mural painted on it that covered the entirety of both sides of the van. The painting showed a snow-capped mountain with a skier headed down the mountain. The skier was dressed in red and yellow clothing.

Now it should have been easy to find that van. But alas, the vehicle was never located. As the years drained away, Pennsylvania State Trooper Frank Jedesky continued to work the case. Commenting on the mysterious van, he recently said, “By now it’s probably in a junkyard or somewhere.”

“It's the not knowing that kills you,” a heart-broken Janice McKinney said. “Every day you wonder and you look at some girl who's 33 and you wonder, ‘Is that her?’ I look at little kids and wonder, ‘Is that my grandchild?’”

Janice speaks of her child today as if Cherrie had fallen into a black hole. The pain never leaves, never goes away.

Who took Cherrie Mahan? Why did no one report that unusual van to police? Today, someone might still remember it. If so, please call the Pennsylvania State Police Missing Persons Unit at 1-412-284-8100.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Convicting on Circumstantial Evidence

The Strange Case of Andre Rand
by Kyle Tuttle

Holly Ann Hughes

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The following guest article by Kyle Tuttle brings to light an issue that has troubled me for many years. It is well-documented that eye-witnesses to a crime can be wrong as often as they are right. Without additional evidence, no one should be tried solely on eye-witness testimony. I have no idea whether Andre "Cropsey" Rand is guilty of kidnapping and murdering Jennifer Schweiger and of kidnapping Holly Ann Hughes. He was convicted of those crimes and will spend the rest of his life in prison. Was the evidence really there? Was Rand proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt? You tell me.

The legend of Cropsey is probably the most easily recognized urban legend you’ve never heard of. Films such as Friday the 13th, Madman, The Burning, and, most recently, Hatchet, have taken their leads from this hulking deformed killer, who lives in the woods and comes out to snatch a child or teenager for his own hideous pleasure. The recent documentary Cropsey from filmmakers Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio explores this legend through the real-life trial of alleged killer Andre Rand.

In 1987, Rand was arrested for the murder of Jennifer Schweiger, a child with Down Syndrome. Once Staten Island police made the arrest, they started connecting Rand to other disappearances, all involving kids with disabilities. Rand was a homeless drifter, who camped in and around the closed state mental facility Willowbrook, where he had once worked as an orderly. Multiple eyewitnesses came forward placing Rand with the missing children shortly before their disappearances. The coincidences piled up, but the evidence did not. Nevertheless, Rand was incarcerated in the penitentiary, where he remains to this day.

Rand has certainly not done himself any favors in the time following his initial arrest. Comments made to other inmates such as “kids entice me”; self-comparisons to serial killer Ted Bundy; and approaching another inmate with a request for child pornography, have all done their part in convicting Rand where hard physical evidence failed.

Clearly there are some pistons not firing in Rand’s head, but given the nature of his conviction, can a country that purports to convict “beyond a reasonable doubt” keep this guy locked up with a straight face? Just because someone is crazy, that doesn’t mean they’re guilty. While it feels better to have Rand locked up from a societal point of view, the implication that comes with his innocence is far more disturbing. A desire for justice could mean the real killer walks free, and that doesn’t do favors for anyone.

The eyewitness testimonies used to convict Rand ranged from compelling (for a few) to insane (for most). Somewhere in between were those citizens who seemed like they just wanted their names fit neatly into the emerging folklore of this real-life Cropsey.

That leaves one overpowering question: Should circumstantial evidence alone be admissible in court? If eyewitness testimony is all the prosecution can muster, how is convicting beyond a reasonable doubt even possible? If the legal system actually practiced what it preached, what would that mean for the thousands of Death Row inmates all over the country? And if you were forced to overturn those convictions, how many more innocent people would die outside the prison walls compared to those wrongfully executed? These are all studies that are impossible to perform. That’s why Lady Justice prefers proof. But if the Rand case is any indication, she doesn’t require it.

This post was contributed by Kyle Tuttle, a freelance writer who focuses his work on helping students find the right psychology degree. He can be reached at tuttletr33 at gmail dot com.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Grandmother Dies in Kidnap Attempt

Cassidy and Sharrel Blankenbaker

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Sharrel Blankenbaker Saves Granddaughter
by Robert A. Waters

On the outskirts of Amarillo, Texas, a sad, violent scene played itself out on the evening of August 3, 2010. It happened in nano-second time, almost before the victims could react. Yet, in the midst of chaos and terror, a heroine emerged. But the alleged killer’s motives posed troubling questions.

At around 8:45 p.m., Sharrel Blankenbaker pulled into Love’s Country Store near I-40 in Amarillo. The sixty-two-year-old had three grandchildren in tow and they needed a bathroom break. While inside, twelve-year-old Cassidy Blankenbaker noticed a heavy-set man with a black cowboy hat smiling at her. He seemed kind of creepy. “I just got this weird feeling around him,” Cassidy said later. “It just felt odd. He was right next to us in the convenience store.”

It had been a busy day for the family. Sharrel had left her home in Felt, Oklahoma at around noon and had driven two hours to Amarillo. At three-thirty, she picked up two of her grandchildren, Cassidy, and her brother Dylan, 16, from the Rick Husband Amarillo International Airport. The siblings had flown in from Dan Diego for their annual two-week summer visit to grandma’s farm. Sharrel had brought along another grandchild, five-year-old Justin Blankenbaker. After leaving the airport, the family did some shopping, had dinner at a restaurant, and decided to head back to Felt.

After purchasing soft drinks at Love’s, Sharrel and her grandchildren walked out the front door. The black-hatted stranger, later identified as Gary Don Carner, 58, was waiting for them. He’d parked his white four-door pickup truck in the handicapped parking space directly in front of the door.

As Cassidy walked out, Carner grabbed her wrist and began trying to pull her toward the truck. “He jumped out of the car with a gun and pointed it at me,” Cassidy said. “[He] said, ‘Get in my truck or I’ll shoot.’ And he grabbed my arm and started pulling me. I kept saying, ‘No, I’m not going to get in your truck. Leave me alone. Get away from me.’”

As soon as the struggle began, Dylan grabbed Justin and pulled him back into the store.

Without hesitation, Sharrel placed herself between Cassidy and the gunman. “My Grandma tried to pull [Carner] off me,” Cassidy said. “‘Get off her’ [she said]. He was pointing the gun at me and then he shot her. I just kept hearing my Grandma screaming, ‘He shot me. He shot me. Somebody help me.’”

Sharrel fell to the ground but the distraction caused Carner to loosen his grip on Cassidy and she was able to wrench free. She ran behind the pickup truck. Carner came after her, his gun still in his hand. Cassidy stayed behind the truck, keeping it between herself and her assailant. Suddenly, Dylan opened the door of the store, grabbed Cassidy’s hand, and pulled her inside.

Cassidy, Dylan, and Justin ducked behind the counter. As the frightened girl grabbed her cell phone to dial 911, Carner jumped back into his truck and sped away.

On the asphalt outside the store, Sharrel’s life was draining away. She’d been shot through the lungs, and her breath came ragged and hard. A bystander went to her aid. The Texas Globe News reported that “Angel Quezada, who witnessed the shooting and the struggle that led up to it, held Blankenbaker's hand and prayed for her as she lost consciousness. He said the woman's last words were about her grandchildren and protecting them from harm.”

Within thirty minutes, Carner was also dead. After leaving the convenience store, he encountered two eleven-year-old girls walking toward their homes. Investigators said he kidnapped one of the girls at gunpoint. Shortly after abducting her, Potter County Deputy Steve White spied Carner's truck at the corner of Jim Line Road and Blessen Road. As the deputy approached in his police cruiser, the kidnapped girl leaped out of the passenger door and landed in a ditch. A police report stated that Carner “attempted to flee, shots were fired and the deputy returned fire. The suspect was struck and did die at the scene. The girl suffered scrapes and abrasions from the fall and was taken to a local hospital. She was treated and released.”

Who was Gary Don Carner?

Unlike so many suspects in these kinds of cases, he’d never been charged with a violent crime. He lived in a comfortable home and had a loving family. Carner had been arrested twice: once for a DUI and once for writing a bad check. However, he seemed an unusual suspect for such a violent rampage. (In addition to the crimes mentioned above, police allege that he attempted to abduct a woman outside another convenience store just before his attack on Cassidy Blankenbaker.)

Potter-Randall Special Crimes Sgt. Kevin Dockery spoke to reporters about Carner. “I’m not sure what he was thinking and what was going on,” he said. “We don’t know. The family I don’t think has a clue either. I don’t know if we’re ever going to really know.”

At another press conference, Dockery said, “I just got done visiting with his family. They have no idea why [Carner] did what he did. There’s no history of things like this. His family is shocked, too.”

Who was Sharrel Blankenbaker?

According to newspaper reports, Sharrel was a farm girl from Oklahoma. “She loved her garden,” her son Justin said. “[She and her husband Dale] produced all their own fruits and vegetables. They canned. They survive off that. They put it all up and eat off that all winter.”

Sharrel and Dale had three sons and eight grandchildren.

At her funeral, Cassidy spoke to the audience: “She was the kind of woman I think everyone should be. She would be there for you no matter what.”

Sharrel Blankenbaker proved that in her last dying act.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Double-Murder in North Carolina

Murder victim Jenna Nielsen, pregnant with Ethen

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Who Murdered Jenna and Ethen Nielsen?
by Robert A. Waters

It’s been more than three years since Jennifer “Jenna” Kathleen Nielsen was murdered. At about four-thirty on the morning of June 14, 2007, two officers from the Raleigh Police Department responded to a report of an abandoned vehicle on Lake Wheeler Road. They found the car in the parking lot of Ameriking Foodmart. Newspapers were strewn across the ground and the doors to the car were wide open.

Jim Sughrue, spokesman for the police department, described the scene to reporters. “As [police] investigated the area,” he said, “they located a female behind the building who is a homicide victim.” Robbery seemed an unlikely motive since Jenna Nielsen’s purse and other personal belongings were found in the vehicle. The victim’s pants were pulled down to her knees, causing investigators to theorize that she may have been murdered while fighting off a sexual attack.

When she died, Jenna was eight-and-a-half months pregnant with a boy already named Ethen. She’d been going about her job restocking newspaper boxes for USA Today. Jenna was married and the mother to two children. Her husband Tim worked during the day and kept the children at night while Jenna delivered papers.

An autopsy revealed that a single stab wound to the neck had slashed her carotid artery and her jugular vein, causing her to bleed to death. There were abrasions on Jenna’s arms and legs, as if she’d been dragged or had fallen. The autopsy also showed that Ethen was 39-40 weeks old, weighed 6.35 pounds, and was 19.9 inches long. He was healthy and normal in every way.

Detectives interviewed area residents and business owners. A sketch was released of a “person of interest” who had been seen in the area at the time of the murder. According to police, that neighborhood is usually deserted at four-thirty in the morning.

From the start, leads were few. The murder made national headlines for a few weeks, and some of the high-profile television crime shows picked up the case. USA Today published ads calling for information about the case. The double-murder was heavily publicized not only in North Carolina but across the nation, in part because the state had no fetal victim law. For that reason, the killer, if caught, can only be charged with one murder.

As the investigation continued, the family released a statement to the press. “Jenna was a loving mother, wife and daughter,” the statement said. “She had a very outgoing personality, [and] was everyone’s friend. Jenna and her Husband Tim had 2 wonderful sons: Schyler, 3, and Kaiden, 11 months. They were expecting their third son Ethen on July 8th. Jenna’s family recently relocated to the area from Utah when her father and husband’s jobs were relocated. She enjoyed living in the Raleigh area for the warm weather and the friendly people. She fit right in.”

Three years later, the family is still waiting for an arrest. The news crews are long-gone, and stories about their beloved wife and daughter only seem to come on anniversaries.

The family has a website, justice4jenna.

Tim and Jenna's father Kevin Blaine have worked to pass the Unborn Victims of Violence Act in North Carolina. The proposed law reads: “AN ACT TO PROVIDE THAT A PERSON WHO commits the crime of murder or manslaughter OF A PREGNANT WOMAN is GUILTY OF A SEPARATE OFFENSE for THE RESULTING DEATH OF THE unborn child and to provide that a person who commits a felony or a misdemeanor that is an act of domestic violence and injures a pregnant woman that results in a miscarriage or stillbirth by the woman is guilty of a separate offense that is punishable at the same class and level as the underlying offense.”

Investigators are still searching for the person of interest noticed by witnesses in the area of the murder. He is thought to be in his late teens or early twenties and is about five-feet-three-inches tall, weighing 120 pounds. At the time of the murder, he wore a dark-colored sleeveless shirt and baggy denim shorts. His most noticeable characteristic was black hair pulled into a long pony-tail.

Police have one major clue that could lead to the killer’s capture. Family members recently informed reporters that police have DNA thought to be from the killer. With the many DNA databanks and the penchant for most murderers to commit other crimes, odds are good that the killer will eventually be caught.

Meanwhile, a murderer lives and breathes free air. Justice has not been served.

If you have any information about this case, please contact the Raleigh Police Department at 919-227-6220.

Composite sketch of person of interest
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Thursday, August 5, 2010

Pulp Detective Magazines

Wild Bride Gets Her Fill...of Murder
by Robert A. Waters

About a year ago, I found a box of 50 pulp magazines at a yard sale. The seller was asking only $ 4.00 for the whole box so I paid her and rushed away before she could change her mind. In the 1970s and 1980s, I would sometimes buy True Detective, Detective Dragnet, Inside Detective, and Official Detective. Because of the racy pictures and the screaming titles, I always felt a little sleazy going to the counter to pay--it didn’t help when my wife would whisper, “The cashier’s going to think you’re a serial killer.” But there really were some great true crime stories inside those blood-drenched covers.

From the time the first pulps were published in the 1890s, they were among the most popular form of entertainment in America. For ten cents (and later, two bits), readers could escape from world wars and a Depression and lose themselves in romance, adventure, science fiction, crime, fantasy, and horror. The magazines were popular in hobo jungles and homeless camps and among blue collar workers. No member of the reigning literati would be caught dead with a copy, of course, but the pulps and their authors are remembered today while many of the best-sellers of the time are well-forgotten.

Some of the world's finest writers worked for the pulps. Ray Bradbury, Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan), Isaac Asimov, Robert Bloch (Psycho), Zane Grey, Louis L’Amour, Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes), and Tennessee Williams were just a few of the authors who used the pulps to survive the hard years.

After decades of languishing as a red-haired step-child in the world of literature and art, the magazines have come into their own. Now they’re studied in universities and collectors pay high prices for rare issues.

The true detective magazines were known for their colorful titles: “Bedsheet Strangling of the Nude Nymph”, “Who Deep-Sixed the Naked Blonde?”, and “Hooker Was Butchered Like a Pig” are just three examples.

Unfortunately, the detective pulps no longer exist. I bought my last copy sometime in the mid-1990s (much to the relief of my wife), although they may have staggered along for a few more years. Television and the Internet and rising costs dealt the death-knell to the pulps.

Here are a few of my favorite titles from the world of pulp.

“The Pretty Farm Girl Practiced Pest Control by Plugging Her Lover.”

“Tale of the Ozark Maniacs.”

“A Gloved Rapist Stalked the Streets of ‘Strangle Town’.”

“Strangled Nude on the Ninth Green.”

“15 Minutes of Murder Cooled Mr. Hormones.”