Wednesday, August 31, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: The Crime Buff’s Guide to the Outlaw Rockies

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The Crime Buff’s Guide to the Outlaw Rockies
by Ron Franscell
Globe Pequot Press, 2011

Review by Robert A. Waters

In The Crime Buff’s Guide to the Outlaw Rockies, Ron Franscell writes: “Place matters, even in crime. I grew up in Wyoming, and I understand how it’s possible to drive a long, straight road for hours without ever seeing another human. I know how lofty philosophies about law and justice dissolve in remote places where cries for help will go unheard...” The author then proceeds to take the reader into hundreds of remote outlaw hang-outs.

There’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, who rode those lonesome trails into oblivion. Franscell has devoted an entire chapter to these enigmatic robbers and their Hole-in-the-Wall Gang.

There’s Big-Nose George Parrott, a would-be Wyoming train robber who was lynched after killing two deputies. Local doctors filleted his skin and used it to make shoes and a medical bag. They also made a change purse from his scrotum and fashioned his skull into an ash tray. As a final insult, Big Nose George was buried in a salt-filled whiskey barrel. (Who says doctors don’t have a sense of humor?)

There are tragic tales, too. The Sand Creek Massacre of 1864, in which hundreds of Indians, mostly innocent women and children, were slaughtered by Union Colonel John Chivington and his Colorado Cavalry. The Arapaho, with their chief Black Kettle, had surrendered to the U. S. and were given land near Sand Creek. They lived there peacefully, although other Arapaho still fought the hated whites. In order to show his loyalty to the U. S., Black Kettle flew an American flag over his camp. On November 29, Chivington and hundreds of drunken troops attacked the encampment. As the attack began, Black Kettle raised the white flag of surrender. Chivington ignored it and he and his troops blasted away until the ground ran red with Indian blood. For this atrocity, the colonel got off scot-free. Chivington lived a full life, unlike the women and children he massacred. He died in 1893.

Then there are the modern stories: the Columbine High School massacre; Charlie Starkweather’s merciless rampage; and the Alan Berg murder. You can read about Lisa Kimmel, kidnapped by a suspected serial killer who buried her car in his front yard. If you're interested in true tales of the high and mighty, you can read about the murder of Spider Sabich. His wife, popular singer Claudine Longet, was charged, but, as happens so many times, the beautiful Longet got off after serving a mere thirty days in the county jail. Other less well-known crimes are as intriguing as the sensationalized stories mentioned above.

Part of the fun of this book is that crime buffs can visit the sites where outlaws roamed and madams plied their trade and vigilantes often lynched the baddest of the bad. GPS coordinates are given so the reader can drive straight to the scenes of many famous (and infamous) crimes.

This book is a sequel to Franscell’s earlier tour guide, The Crime Buff’s Guide to Outlaw Texas.

I highly recommend The Crime Buff's Guide to the Outlaw Rockies. Buy it, you’ll love it.

C'mon Ron, I'm ready for the next guide.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: Who Killed Betsy?

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Who Killed Betsy? Uncovering Penn State University’s Most Notorious Unsolved Crime.
by Derek Sherwood
Pine Grove Press, 2011

Book review by Robert A. Waters

For nearly 42 years, the murder of Betsy Aardsma in the Pattee Library at Pennsylvania State University has gone unsolved. Despite decades of investigating the case, cops have been able to find no motive and no viable clues. Although two students witnessed the immediate aftermath, no one except the killer saw the actual slaying.

Over the years, the murder has become the stuff of legend at the university. Incoming students are routinely regaled with horror tales about that afternoon of November 28, 1969.

In Who Killed Betsy?, Sherwood takes readers back to the late 1960s: to war protests; hippies; drug use; and sexual perversion. Like other campuses across the U. S., Pennsylvania State University had its share of those problems. On Thanksgiving Day, Betsy Aardsma, an English major from Holland, Michigan, walked into the library to find a book she needed for her studies. As she stood in the stacks, a man approached and stabbed her through the heart. Betsy sank to the floor, unable to even scream. Within minutes, she was dead.

The killer escaped without being detected.

The police investigation revealed no enemies, no sordid past, no reason for the murder. Betsy seemed to be a slightly liberal young woman with a long-time boyfriend. They had recently decided to marry.

As police dug for clues, they focused on the stacks in the Pattee Library. Lots of weird characters, and some dangerous ones, hung out there. One of the problems seemed to be semi-public homosexual and occasional heterosexual encounters that took place in the back-spaces of the library. Detectives speculated that Betsy may have interrupted a gay liaison involving someone she knew and was murdered so she wouldn’t report the incident.

Derek Sherwood has studied this case for decades. In Who Killed Betsy? he focuses several chapters on a possible suspect. I’m usually skeptical of such after-the-fact pronouncements, but I have to say, the author convinced me. Unfortunately, no one will ever know for sure because most of the participants are now dead.

Sherwood’s research included interviews with many of those who were involved in the case, a study of long-withheld police files, and the sourcing of court documents from the many cases his chief suspect was involved in.

Who Killed Betsy? is the kind of book I like. It takes the reader back in time to a unique locale that was populated with weird and intriguing characters. It is well-written and easy to read. Most of all, it opens a window into a long-hidden mystery.

This book was a labor of love for the author. Buy it and read it. You’ll love it.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Who Murdered the “Gay-Hearted” Girls of San Diego?

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Killers got away with murder
by Robert A. Waters

Eighty years later, the murderers of four San Diego girls and women are still unknown. While the media attempted to blame the crimes on a single killer, it’s seems more reasonable to assume that different killers murdered the four victims. There seemed to be little commonality except that the victims were white females, lived in San Diego, and were all murdered within a month of each other. Due to luck, incompetent police work, or the skill of the perpetrators, no one was ever brought to justice. The media then, as now, was anxious to condemn the victims and pronounce all suspects guilty. Except for Virginia Brooks, the press speculated that the murdered women were "modern" girls, meaning that they may have been somehow immoral.

On the morning of February 11, 1931, Virginia Brooks, 10, walked along University Avenue in San Diego. Carrying her schoolbooks as well as a bouquet of flowers for her teacher, she was headed toward Euclid School. Virginia’s older brother rode past her on his bicycle and waved. That was the last known sighting of the schoolgirl until her body was found. A month later and ten miles away, a shepherd’s dog came upon a gunnysack lying under a clump of sagebrush on Camp Kearney mesa. Virginia’s remains were in the bag.

An article from the Sandusky Star Journal described the body and the search for the slayer: “Two strands of matted blonde hair, found in the hand of the dead child, furnished a possible aid in the hunt, but were of no value until suspects were found. The girl's body, decapitated and with the arms removed, was found in a burlap sack on the Mesa Tuesday. She had been missing since Feb. 11. Tracks from a narrow tired automobile led away from the spot. The type of slayer was a matter of conjecture. Opinion among officers was that he was a degenerate with considerable knowledge of surgery.” It was thought that the corpse had been kept for a month, then deposited on the mesa less than twenty-four hours before it was found. Evidence suggested that the child had been raped.

That same week, while the search for Virginia was still going on, one of the most bizarre murders of the era took place. Seventeen-year-old Louise Teuber, the “comely” daughter of a business owner, decided to run away from home. She mailed her father a note that explained her decision: "Dear Dad: I have tried for a long time to be satisfied with the way you are running the house and I can stand it no longer. I am leaving home tonight and I am not coming back."

She was right—she didn’t come back. A family searching for a picnic spot on Black Mountain, near San Diego, came upon the body of a girl hanging from a tree. She wore panties, a bra, and black pumps, but the coroner stated that there was no indication of sexual assault. Investigators determined that the knot used to hang the girl was a double half hitch knot, common among sailors. Her clothes, except for what she was wearing, had been wrapped in an army blanket and discarded nearby. The coroner stated that she had been killed elsewhere, possibly hit in the back of the head with a "blackjack" or something similar. Baffled police stated that the murder may have been a “revenge” killing.

Newspapers reported that Louise had a notebook with the names of twenty men. This, along with an erroneous report that she was secretly married, was used by the media to smear her name. Despite an intense investigation, no one was ever charged.

Just four days after the body of Louise Teuber was found, the remains of Mrs. Dolly Bibbens were discovered in her ransacked home. “Diamond Dolly,” as the newspapers called her, had been strangled and beaten. A ring was torn from her finger, but nothing else was taken. Newspapers reported that Bibbens was a “born gambler” who was “known in the night life circles here and the Agua Caliente race tracks of Tia Juana.” The Hamilton Evening Journal reported: “One of her men friends had been H. C. Yardley, fishing boat cook. To him she had lent money. He also possessed a key to her apartment. Yardley had been in San Diego about the time of the crime. He was accordingly arrested in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, charged with the murder and held for a preliminary hearing. Later he was exonerated and freed.”

The character assassination of this victim may have sold many newspapers but it did nothing to help find her killer.

The fourth and final victim of the “series” was twenty-year-old Hazel Bradshaw. Described as a “beautiful switchboard operator,” her corpse was found in Balboa Park. She’d been stabbed seventeen times. Her fiance, Moss E. Garrison, was questioned by police. They’d been to a movie, he said, and he walked her back to her apartment at about midnight. Police wasted no time arresting him. Though the boyfriend strongly denied his guilt, cops developed a very loose circumstantial case against him and he was convicted in the press. Three months later, Garrison, who worked for the San Diego and Arizona Railway Company, was tried and acquitted by a jury. His attorney asserted that police arrested him only because they were desperate to finally solve a case.

The murders stopped as suddenly as they began, leaving a mystery behind: who murdered the "modern" girls of San Diego?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

New Mexico Girl Saved from Kidnapper

Martha Diaz and Antonio Diaz Chacon
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Heroes and Predators
by Robert A. Waters

I don’t really know what to add to this story since it's been in the news quite a bit. But I wanted to write about some good news for a change so here goes. As a true crime writer, most news turns out the other way. Sex predators often get away with their despicable crimes, sometimes for decades if not forever. At least one third of all murders in the U. S. are never solved, even with the latest advances in forensics. Those that are solved leave victims strewn across the landscape, from dead bodies to scarred families and communities. That’s why it’s nice to be able to write about Antonio Diaz Chacon.

A couple of days ago, the twenty-four-year-old Albuquerque, New Mexico auto mechanic saved a six-year-old girl from certain rape and probable murder. An article in the Albuquerque News described what happened: “Antonio and his wife Martha....were loading up his truck when he said he heard another neighbor yelling at a man, who police later identified as Phil Garcia, to let go of a 6-year-old girl, who was walking home from a neighbor's house in a south valley mobile home park.”

As his wife called 911, Chacon jumped in his pickup, giving chase to the van identified by the neighbor as the kidnapper’s getaway car. Through a winding maze of roads, the mechanic followed as the driver desperately attempted to lose him.

Inside the van, the girl, who hasn’t been identified, had been pushed to the floor and told to remain there. While being snatched, she had courageously fought her abductor, alleged to be Phillip Garcia. The spunky child had bitten his fingers, but was now at his mercy.

As the chase continued, Garcia headed toward a deserted mesa. Still trying to elude his follower, the driver panicked and wrecked his van. Garcia then jumped out and fled.

Chacon pulled the child from the van and took her back to his mother’s home. Speaking to the media in Spanish (interpreted by his wife), Chacon said, “The way [the kidnapper] grabbed her and threw her into the van, I knew it wasn't right. I knew I had to catch him. I had to get the girl back from him and take her home, back where she belongs.”

Once Garcia was caught, police found a plethora of incriminating items. According to the Albuquerque News, "Detectives said Garcia tried to ditch a roll of tape and straps near the van. They found more inside the van. Cops said Garcia [had] removed the backseats from the van before taking the girl." In the back, they also found tostadas that the girl had been carrying.

There was bruising on the child's chest and back, indicating a violent abduction.

“This little girl was very lucky,” police Sgt. Tricia Hoffman said. “We can only guess what would have happened to this child. Throughout the country we see situations like this and they do not end typically well.”

Yes, they typically do not end well. According to experts, most child abductions by strangers end in murder, usually within three hours of the kidnapping.

Because of the quick-thinking auto mechanic, one child did not meet this fate.

Who can put a value on a human life? Antonio Diaz Chacon deserves every accolade he gets.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Little Unit and the Baby Bombers Go Down in Infamy

Danny Almonte

Fourteen-Year-Old Superstar Was, uh, Too Old For Little League
by Robert A. Waters

For the next two weeks, the Little League World Series will dominate ESPN’s wall-to-wall 24/7 coverage. As a former Little Leaguer, I watch as many of the games as possible. After hearing that the Ugandan team was disqualified from the 2011 games because the birth certificates of most of their players had been altered, I thought about Danny Almonte. His story is often listed as one of the top ten sports cheating scandals of all time.

He stood a head above the rest of the players. Long, thin, mound-savvy, the left-hander would rock back, lift his right leg almost to his chin, kick forward, and burn his speedball past a stunned opponent. Batter after batter, some half his size, would freeze as the ball cometed by. Danny Almonte’s fastball was clocked at 75 miles per hour, the equivalent of a 98 mile per hour pitch in the Major Leagues.

In fact, in three games he pitched in the 2001 Little League World Series, Almonte gave up only three hits. He struck out 62 of the 72 batters he faced. His was the most dominating performance in the history of Little League baseball.

While many American television viewers questioned his size and age, league administrators vouched for the kid. His Bronx, New York team seemed to be average at best, but their star pitcher made up for it. When he pitched a perfect game against the Apopka, Florida club that would go on to become runner-up to the champion Japanese team, Almonte’s legend grew. He was nick-named the “Little Unit” after tall, rangy Major League fast-baller Randy “Big Unit” Johnson. His Bronx team became the “Baby Bombers” after the legendary Yankees from New York.

Once the 2001 Little League World Series was over, Danny Almonte was wined and dined all over NYC. He met mayor Rudy Giuliani and even shook hands with President George Bush.

Sportscasters speculated on a future career in the big leagues. He’s a natural, they said. A sure thing. In a few years, he would dominate the big show like he dominated the little show. He’ll make millions, they said. Danny Almonte had the world at his finger-tips.

But others continued to speculate on how a twelve-year-old could be so much taller than others his age. It was startling to see that this twelve-year-old was even bigger than his coach. Was it the natural course of things? After all, kids seem to be getting larger these days. Was it a genetic fluke? Or was it something else?

Soon after the 2001 series ended, reporters discovered that Danny and his father were in the country illegally and that Danny hadn’t gone to school all year. In fact, he’d never even registered.

The whole situation just had that bad smell, so much so that Sports Illustrated decided to send a reporter to Almonte’s birthplace, the Dominican Republic, to investigate. When they checked his birth records, they found that the kid was actually fourteen. His birth certificate had been doctored and names of officials forged, presumably by his father.

Little League officials, basking in the positive PR from the series, were livid that the good times were gone. They angrily stripped the Baby Bombers of their victories and the Little Unit became a pariah in the baseball world. He would play high school and college baseball but would never have a chance to make it to the bigs. He played independent ball for a while, then moved back to the Bronx.

His father was banned for life from anything having to do with Little League baseball, including being a coach. He was deported to the Dominican Republic where he faced charges in the case. In fact, many still blame the father, not the son.

Today, Danny Almonte is said to be an unpaid coach for his former high school team, the James Monroe High School Eagles. It’s likely that sometimes when he stands on the baseball diamond, Almonte glances past the current players and remembers those glory days when he hurled his speedball by awe-struck twelve-year-olds. He might remember opponents sobbing in frustration after yet another humiliating strikeout. He might wonder how a young Dominican who spoke little English could hob-knob for a few brief moments with the rich and famous of America. And he might wonder, how could it all have gone so wrong?

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Day Lynch Mobs Roamed the Streets of the Big Apple

Child’s rape and murder brings out primal instincts
by Robert A. Waters

The corpse looked like a rag doll splayed across a filthy bed. On the floor were pyramids of empty beer cans, hundreds of cigarette butts, rotting pizzas, a child’s purple snowsuit, underpants, and shoes.

It was February 22, 1961, and the frigid streets outside teemed with blue-suited cops. They were searching for hazel-eyed, golden-haired Edith Kiecorius (see picture above). The Chelsea section of Manhattan from which she’d vanished seemed to consist of endless rows of tenements. Beat-cops trudged down dark corridors, knocking on door after door of the depressing $8.00-a-week rooms. One had a locked steel door. It was on the second floor of a row house at 307 West Twentieth Street. Police officers periodically rapped on the door, but no one answered.

Police cruisers and “sound trucks” with microphones crept up and down the streets blaring descriptions of the missing girl. Helicopters flew low over roof-tops and police dragged the nearby Hudson River. A special team searched cellars of every apartment and business in the area.

A few hours before, Edith had been playing outside, just two blocks away from where her now-lifeless body lay. Manuel Duclet, her uncle, had watched as she skipped and hopped along the sidewalk. After a while, he stepped across the street to buy a pack of cigarettes. When he came back, Edith was gone.

One day passed, then two, then three as the media ratcheted up its coverage to a fever pitch. Where was the little girl they called “Googie?” Had she been snatched by a mother who wanted a child? Had she wandered away and been lost? Or had something more sinister befallen the child?

Her mother, a widow, could barely speak through her grief, although she made one poignant statement to the press: “Only a mother can understand the way I feel...” She couldn’t finish her thoughts without bursting into a torrent of tears. Edith’s uncle was said to be in shock.

On the fourth day, a tenant told police of a suspicious character who lived in one of the apartments on 307 West Twentieth Street. Officers crashed down the steel door and rushed into a nightmare.

Interviewing the landlord and the tenant, investigators learned that a man named Fred J. Thompson had rented the room. He was a short, toothless derelict with red hair and a British accent. He’d left his room shortly after Edith disappeared and hadn’t returned.

When the police commissioner informed Edith’s mother they'd found the child's body, she began screaming.

Fred J. Thompson had a minor arrest record and police quickly obtained his fingerprints. They matched the prints found on the beer cans in the room where they’d found the girl. Police now began a manhunt unlike anything ever seen in New York City.

Newspapers reported the suspect’s name and published a bio of sorts. It was reported that Thompson was indeed from England and had abandoned his family fifteen years before. He’d migrated to America where he worked menial jobs, none of which lasted for more than a few days. As soon as he had enough money to go on a drinking spree, he would abandon his employers like he abandoned his family. A photograph of Fred J. Thompson headlined every newspaper in the northeast.

When it was learned that Edith had been raped and savagely beaten from head-to-toe, a primal shock stunned New Yorkers. Vengeance hung in the air like poison.

One week after the girl vanished, a man applied for a job at a chicken farm in Manchester Township, New Jersey. Max Pesko, the farmer who hired the stranger, recognized him as the wanted man even though he called himself “John Andrews.” After consulting a newspaper photograph to make sure, Pesko called police. Soon Thompson was in custody.

He quickly confessed. “It was the worst crime I’ve ever heard of,” Thompson told cops. “And I committed it.” He said he saw the girl playing alone and approached her. Smiling at her, he said, "I have a little girl like you, but she's sick at home. Would you like to come and visit her?" Once he got Edith into his room, he said, he couldn’t control himself.

An article in the Red Bank (NJ) Register described lynch mobs forming in Manhattan. It read: “Thompson spent last night in a cell at the Beach Street police station, far from the scene of the crime, where he was booked on a homicide charge. He was taken there by police to ‘avoid trouble’ after a surging, chanting crowd of about 500 appeared at the West 20th Street station near the murder scene. ‘We want the murderer,’ [they shouted]. ‘Hang him like an animal. Hang him.’”

On that same day, little Edith Kiecorius was laid to rest at the St. Rose of Lima Church. A spokesman for the congregation told the press that “in the eyes of the church she is equivalent to an angel, being an innocent child.”

At trial, Fred J. Thompson received the death penalty. A year later, however, he was committed to a mental institution.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Falling Off the Face of the Earth

by Robert A. Waters

Lindsey Baum
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It’s been more than two years since Lindsey Jo Baum vanished. On June 26, 2009, at about 9:30 p.m., the ten-year-old began walking home from a friend’s house in McCleary, Washington. It was still daylight and only a short walk through the quiet residential neighborhood where she lived. But during that brief window of time, she disappeared. A desperate search yielded no real leads. There were no descriptions of an automobile that might have picked Lindsey up, no eye-witness to the abduction. The story went national for a time but soon reporters found new cases and vanished just like Lindsey. A $35,000 reward is in place. A website has been formed to disseminate information about the case. And while a mother waits, hoping for an Elizabeth Smart-type rescue, a monster roams the country trolling for new victims. If you have any information, please contact Grays Harbor County Information Tip-line (866) 915-8299.

Holly Bobo
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It’s been going on four months since Holly Bobo walked into a dense forest near her home and vanished. It is believed that Holly was forced or coerced to go with a kidnapper dressed in camouflage. John Mehr, a detective with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, explained, “[Her abductor] actually had an arm holding her, so we feel she knew she was in fear of her life, so she was compliant with his commands." The twenty-year-old nursing student lived in Parsons, Tennessee when she went missing. Her brother, Clint Bobo, said he saw Holly walking from her home into the woods with an unknown man. A massive search was launched immediately. It has been reported that blood was found in the woods, and that other items belonging to Holly were located--none of that, however, has been confirmed by tight-lipped investigators. There is an $85,000 reward. If you have any information, call the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation at 800-824-3463.

Michael Wayne Dunahee
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On March 24, 1991, four-year-old Michael Wayne Dunahee was kidnapped from a playground in Vancouver, British Columbia. Michael's mother was playing a flag football game while his father watched from the stands. In the crowds of people, the boy vanished. For twenty years, the family has kept his room the same as it was when Michael went missing. Police obtained his DNA and have checked it against several look-alikes, but none have turned out to be Michael. In one case, a suspected child-killer was found to have had a collection of missing persons posters of children, including one of Michael. He died before police were able to determine his whereabouts on the day of the abduction. Was the boy snatched so his abductor could have a child? Or was there a more sinister motive? Anyone who has information about the case should call The Royal Canadian Mounted Police at 877-318-3576. You may remain anonymous.