Sunday, June 29, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: The Skeleton Crew by Deborah Halber

The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths are Solving America’s Coldest Cases
Deborah Halber
Simon & Schuster, 2014

Book review by Robert A. Waters

The Skeleton Crew is both a history and a compilation of intriguing stories.  By history, I don’t mean boring, academic stuff.  Instead, Deborah Halber has used her many skills to scour the dark corners of the Internet from its beginnings to track down the earliest web-sleuths.  She discovered a sub-culture of obsessed souls who live to give names to unidentified corpses.

One of those restless souls happens to be my good friend, Todd Matthews.  If Todd wasn’t the first to solve an Internet cold case, he was certainly the first to get media attention for his cause.  After using the Web to identify Kentucky’s long-lost Tent Girl, he was featured on the “Paula Zahn Show,” and written up in People Magazine.  Todd’s dedication to learning the identity of the 40,000 nameless dead in America, his vast knowledge of Internet sleuthing, and his communication skills eventually landed him a job with the Department of Justice.  Now he’s able to spend his life doing what he loves to do: solving the coldest of cases.

There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of other cold case junkies feeding their addictions on Internet sites that may—just may—have a tidbit of information about someone’s remains that washed up in some over-worked detective’s back yard.  Halber tells the stories of the web-sleuths, and those of the long-lost dead whose families finally gained a bit of closure from learning where a missing son or daughter ended up.

I applaud author Deborah Halber for her tenacity and skill in negotiating agents, publishers, and editors in order to get this book published.  As a first-time author, Halber has produced a masterpiece in the odd and sometimes macabre world of online sleuthing.  I highly recommend The Skeleton Crew.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Interview with Clint Richmond, Author of Fetch the Devil

I recently conducted an online interview with Texas author Clint Richmond about his compelling book, Fetch the Devil.  Years of obsessive research has culminated in a break-through theory of what really happened to Hazel and Nancy Frome in 1938, when they disappeared while traveling.  One of the most infamous unsolved cases in Southwest history, Richmond used information unavailable to lawmen at the time to reignite this long-cold case.  Fetch the Devil is a must-read.

Fetch the Devil: The Sierra Diablo Murders and Nazi Espionage in America
Clint Richmond
ForeEdge (An Imprint of University Press of New England), 2014

Why did you choose to write about the Frome case?
When I covered the criminal courts beat for the old Dallas Times Herald in the early 1960s, I was privy to some of the storytelling sessions about the lawless 1930s conducted by legendary sheriff Bill Decker. He described working on the unsolved murders of the Bay Area socialites during his early law enforcement career. Unsolved murder cases—particularly the infamous ones that are investigated for years—always pose a challenge to journalists. Decades later, as a freelance writer, I decided to delve into the murders to see where the case stood, and if it had book potential. During a hiatus between other projects in the 1990s, I began poring over newspaper stories on the Frome murders in the archives of the University of Texas history library. The more I read, the more intrigued I became.
When did you first become aware of the Nazi connection in what may, at first glance, have seemed like a robbery gone bad?

In doing background reading on the period and location of the Frome murders, I ran across material on the little known, but prolific, pre-World War II Axis espionage activities on the U.S.-Mexico border. With further research, I discovered that a West Coast spy cell, operating out of the San Francisco German consulate, had a major conduit to South America through El Paso.  Although Hazel and Nancy Frome were from the Bay Area, I did not immediately make the connection. At that point I thought I had another potential book about Nazi espionage in the American West.

Over a period of years I was able to get FBI and military intelligence files declassified under the Freedom of Information Act. I triangulated this information with material from other archives, including a massive cold-case file I discovered at the El Paso Sheriff’s Office, on a Texas Open Records Act request. It eventually became clear to me that there were just too many people, places, and things in common to be coincidental. I realized I was in an evidentiary labyrinth—the espionage activity and the murder were not two stories but one very big, overlapping story!  This case involved blackmail, kidnapping, torture and execution-style murder, Nazi espionage, Texas Rangers, a larger-than-life borderland sheriff,  movie stars, and big-shot business executives in a potential crossover true crime/espionage book.

Do you think that if all the law enforcement agencies had worked cohesively together that this case might have been solved?

As is still too frequently true—in small crime cases and big ones—local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies are reluctant to give up their turf.  This was especially true in the Frome murder case, which was hamstrung by rivalries between individual West Texas sheriffs, between El Paso sheriff Chris Fox and the Texas Rangers, and between Chris Fox and the Frome family’s hometown police force. The lack of cooperation and information-sharing in the Frome case was further exacerbated by the fact that much of the FBI’s concurrent investigation of Nazi espionage--wiretaps, mail surveillance, break-ins of suspected subversives’ offices and homes--prior to World War II was not authorized under U.S. law.  There was no way FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was going to risk revealing the bureau’s extralegal activities, even if it would help solve a local murder case.

Nevertheless, even closer cooperation between the Texas Rangers and the El Paso sheriff may not have produced better results, since the two sides were holding so firmly to their theories of the crime. The Rangers were adamant that it was a simple case of highway robbery, while Sheriff Fox believed—correctly—that the motive for the crime originated in the Bay Area, not in Texas where the murders took place. What did probably prevent solving this case was the attack on Pearl Harbor. The investigation was simply subsumed in the fog of war and never again allocated the necessary law enforcement resources.

At the end of your book, you write a detailed and compelling account of what you think happened to the Fromes.  Are there any other scenarios that could possibly fit the known facts?

Short of a written confession surfacing in a trunk in a dusty attic, with some contrary evidence to support it, I don’t believe another more plausible solution will be discovered in the Frome murder case. The fact that the women were held for days and tortured and some of their most valuable jewelry was left on their bodies, seems to preclude simple robbery as a motive. The fact that neither woman was raped or otherwise sexually abused eliminates sadistic sex as a motive.  The victims’ apparent dearth of enemies and the innocence of their social associations would seem to eliminate revenge or risky behavior as scenarios for murder. However, as with any officially unsolved true crime mystery, we can never be completely satisfied that the Frome murders are now a closed case. I certainly invite readers to ponder the evidence presented and reach their own conclusions.

Romano Trotsky, the man with 36 aliases and who was likely involved in the kidnapping, scammed hundreds of people.  His career of crime was never stopped for long.  He was a loathsome character, and the fact that he found his “wealthy widow” and lived happily ever after is disgusting.  Who do you think this man really was?

Like the case itself, the man called Trotsky will always remain at least somewhat mysterious. Judging from his approximate age and the fact that his native languages were Eastern European, I think we can safely assume he was a part of the Slavic diaspora of White Russians and Ukrainians or Romanians that flocked to North America as a result of the Bolshevik purges and massacres. Most likely, he was a brigand before he left the Russian environs and continued to live by his criminal wits after arriving in North America.  What little medical skill he had was probably gained as a military medical corpsman during the Russian Revolution or World War I.  While he was a glib liar, his other mannerisms suggested he did not have much formal higher education. I think we can be certain he was not a nephew of the exiled Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky, and he was certainly not an heir to the deposed tsar Nicholas. His true name may have been none of three dozen aliases whose identity and personae he assumed.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Self-Defense Files 9

Views from the other side…
by Robert A. Waters

Just to make it fair, I'm listing a few self-defense stories that were never reported in the national news.  There are thousands more, but they remain invisible to most reporters.  This is why many of us think the news media is biased.  In order to make rational decisions on any issue, both sides of the story should be reported.

In St. Louis, two ex-cons added a new twist to home invasions.  When a teenage girl walked outside her home to retrieve an item from her car, they placed a gun to her head and forced her back inside.  Bad move for Terrell Johnson who was shot dead after the girl’s father retrieved his own weapon and opened fire.  The second suspect, Cortez McClinton, was wounded.  (He is now charged with several crimes, including second-degree murder.)  None of the family members were injured, and the father was not charged.

In Phoenix, a woman shot Michael Lewis after he used a gardening tool to break into her home.  When she heard glass breaking, the homeowner called 911, grabbed a handgun, and fled into her bathroom.  Lewis followed and began punching the victim.  As she was being beaten, the woman fired two shots, incapacitating her attacker.  While in the hospital, prosecutors charged Lewis with aggravated assault and residential burglary.  The homeowner was not charged.

A serial thief who was shot by an Escambia County, Florida homeowner pleaded no contest to burglary and grand theft.  Ricky DeWayne Taylor and Teresa Sunday broke into the occupant's house while he was gone.  Soon the resident arrived back home and found the intruders.  Holding the two at gunpoint, the homeowner called 911. Taylor suddenly lunged at him and the victim then shot Taylor.  Sunday, his accomplice, fled but was soon captured by police.  The homeowner was not charged.

When Jessica McDonald opened the Fort Dodge, Iowa bookstore where she worked, a man with his face covered by a bandana entered and demanded money.  McDonald held up the register tray, showing him that it was empty.  But the robber was undeterred and moved around behind the counter.  “We were face to face,” she said.  “Then he, like, put the mace right in my face and said, ‘Give me all the money out of your register.’”  McDonald then opened the store safe, retrieved a handgun, and pointed it at the robber.  The assailant fled.  Paul Tigges, owner of the store, summed it up best: “Anything could have happened had we not had that firearm in that store and she did not have access to it,” he said. “We’ll never know what might have happened.”

When Christopher Shockley attempted to rob a Stop & Go convenience store in Toledo, Ohio, he ended up in a body bag.  Entering the store, Shockley encountered the clerk, December Long.  He fired, striking her in the abdomen.  But Long grabbed her own pistol and dropped the ex-con with a fatal shot.  It turned out that Shockley lived in a nearby half-way house after having been released from prison.  Long recovered from her wound and was not charged.  In fact, a police officer who worked the case praised the clerk, saying, “I think it's wise to carry a gun behind the counter, because you just never know.”

In Bedford, Ohio, escaped convict Rodney Eugene Long invaded a home and held an elderly couple hostage.  (Long was suspected of shooting a sheriff’s deputy the day before.)  After several hours of being held captive, Jerome Mauderly was able to retrieve his shotgun.  A single blast ended the invader’s criminal career once and for all.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

The Missing and the Unknown

What happened to the girls in the Killing Fields?
Guest post by Deborah Halber

Ella Rae Beason was last seen alive leaving a League City, Texas nightclub on July 29, 1984.  A year would go by before her body was found hidden under a trashed couch in a field just north of Galveston Causeway.

Not far away, earlier that year, the body of 25-year-old Heidi Fye had been discovered in a League City vacant lot that became known as “the Killing Fields.”  That same year, 16-year-old Laura Miller was abducted and murdered, and her body found there in 1986.  Fye and Miller are among 19 unsolved cases of missing and murdered girls and women in North Galveston County since 1971.  Two victims are unidentified.  In posters, the Jane Does are depicted as young women with long, straight hair, one with a gap between her front teeth.

Jane and John Does such as these nameless victims consumed me in the years I spent researching and writing THE SKELETON CREW: How Amateur Sleuths are Solving America’s Coldest Cases.  In my book, to be released next month by Simon and Schuster, I describe how ordinary citizens are using Internet resources to identify nameless victims, including some of those tied to the Killing Fields.
Author Deborah Halber
 After Laura Miller was found, the murders continued.  Her father, Tim Miller, would go to the spots where the girls and young women had been found to see if there were any similarities to his daughter’s case.  Then he started meeting with the families.  The search for answers was “pretty painful,” he recalled, but in 2000, Miller pulled himself back from the depths of alcoholism and depression to create Texas Equusearch, through which horse owners and experienced riders volunteer to seek out the lost and missing.

(For the full story behind Miller’s work, see author Katherine Ramsland’s comprehensive profile in Crime Library.)

In March, 2014, Clyde Edwin Hedrick, 60, was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter in Beason’s death.  The San Leon man had been questioned and released after Beason’s body was found where he admitted dumping it in 1985, but recent forensic techniques showed that Beason’s skull had been bashed in, and she had not accidentally drowned, as Hedrick claimed.

Since 2000, Texas Equusearch has been involved in more than 1,300 searches in 42 states, as well as Aruba, Sri Lanka, Mexico, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua.  The organization has returned more than 300 missing people to their families and recovered the remains of 140 missing loved ones, bringing closure to many families.

Miller himself still lacks closure in his daughter’s murder, but he said Hedrick’s conviction is a step in the right direction.  Investigators hinted at ties to the deaths of Fye and Laura Miller.  No connections were elucidated during the trial, but Miller told reporters that he had long suspected that Hedrick killed his daughter.  “I'm optimistic,” Miller told a reporter in March.  “This is far from over.  This is just the beginning.”

NOTE: Deborah Halber has worked as a daily newspaper reporter, as a writer and editor for Tufts, and as a science writer for MIT.  A freelance journalist since 2004, her writing has appeared in The Boston Globe, MIT Technology Review, the graphic news magazine Symbolia, and many university publications. Her narrative nonfiction book, The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths Are Solving America’s Coldest Cases, will be published next month by Simon & Schuster.  She lives near Boston.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Book Review: Crime Buff’s Guide to Outlaw New Mexico

Crime Buff’s Guide to Outlaw New Mexico
Ron Franscell
Angel Fire Press: 2014

Review by Robert A. Waters

Ron Franscell is on a mission to catalog the criminal history of America.  He’s off to a roaring start, having chronicled villainous deeds from Texas, the Rocky Mountain regions, Washington, D.C., Pennsylvania, and now New Mexico.  And I hear Outlaw Arizona won’t be far behind.  (In each story, Ron provides GPS coordinates so crime buffs can visit the sites of the mayhem.)

New Mexico was where “wild” met “west.”  In addition to an entire section dedicated to Billy the Kid, the author introduces his readers to an assortment of killers, rustlers, prostitutes, bank robbers, con-men, and some just plain mean hombres.  Many are legends, others not so much.  What they all have in common are intriguing back-stories.

No book about New Mexico would be complete without a UFO tale, and Outlaw New Mexico has one I had never heard of.  Shortly after the Roswell episode in 1948, a fraudster named Silas Newton convinced investors to give him millions of dollars for a “new device that could find oil and natural reserves miles below ground.”  This device, he claimed, had been designed by a government agent who used advanced alien technology from the Roswell crash.  Newton and a cohort were soon arrested, convicted, and sentenced to prison.

Several cold cases may never be solved.  A mysterious West Mesa serial killer left a graveyard of ten victims (including an unborn child).  There seem to be no clues in the 1961 slayings of teenagers Mattie Restine and Patty Sue Pritz.  And the 1949 murder of party-girl Cricket Coogler is colder than a New Mexico winter.

Then, of course, there’s the Kid, whose legend blew through New Mexico like the wind.  There are many Billy the Kid sites to visit, including the trail where John Tunstall was bushwhacked.  This murder ignited the Lincoln County war, and helped put the Kid on the map.  There’s the spot where Pat Garrett was killed—the sheriff is best known for tracking down Billy and shooting him on sight.  And there’s so much more.

Spend a few bucks and buy the book.  You’ll love it.

Can’t wait for Outlaw Arizona.