Thursday, December 28, 2017

Book Review

A Matter of Record: The Commonwealth vs. Richard Charles Haefner  
Derek J. Sherwood 

Review by Robert A. Waters 

Derek J. Sherwood is the author of the successful true crime book, Who Killed Betsy?: Uncovering Penn State University's Most Notorious Unsolved Crime.  Like that book, A Matter of Record is meticulously researched and written in a readable and dramatic styleRichard Haefner, who had a Ph.D. in Geology from Penn State University, was later fingered as the probable killer of Betsy Aardsma, but never charged.    

Haefner, a former professor at several universities, bounced from job to job.  Everywhere he worked, valuable rocks would disappear.  Eventually, he drifted back home and worked in his family's rock shop which had a large contract to provide samples to the Smithsonian InstituteHaefner, a genius when it came to identifying rock specimens, even identified a once-undiscovered stone.  He was known to be socially awkward, vindictive toward perceived enemies, and had a history of abusing women. 
While still a doctoral student, Haefner was questioned by police about the stabbing death of Aardsma in Penn State's Pattee Library, but was never considered a suspect. 

The family's rock shop hired young teenaged boys to help collect rocks.  When two young teens accused Haefner of molesting them, he was hauled to the police station and interrogated for five hours.  Although he admitted nothing, and the young men could offer no tangible proof that the sexual encounters had occurred, Haefner was arrested and brought to trial.   

A Matter of Record describes this case, which, according to the author, "had set a precedent in [Pennsylvania] law and after I uncovered the related items mentioned in the book, I was able to write a story about police incompetence, prosecutorial misconduct, judicial prejudice, and the ultimate vindication of a man who should have gone to jail, but didn't." 

Sherwood located thousands of file documents related to the case, including formerly expunged transcripts of the trialHaefner filed a complaint against the Lancaster Police Department alleging civil rights violations for their treatment of him, and Sherwood found these documents as well.  Along with interviews with many of the participants, A Matter of Record is well-researched. 

The book is at once the record of a major criminal trial, an exploration of local history, and the continued documentation of Richard Haefner's sordid past.  It should be added to your true crime book collection.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Who Murdered the California Schoolgirls?

Karen Lynn Tomkins

More than 50 years later, the cases are unsolved…
by Robert A. Waters

On July 3, 1962, eleven-year-old Dorothy Gale Brown (called Gale) was reported missing from Torrance, California. Her bicycle lay on the sidewalk a block from her home, but the girl was nowhere to be found.

Police immediately suspected she’d been kidnapped because of a previous abduction. Karen Lynn Tompkins, also 11, had disappeared from almost the exact same spot a year before. Karen’s case was still unsolved.

A massive search for Gale turned up nothing until July 6 when the Torrance Herald reported that “the nude body of the girl was discovered by skin divers near Corona del Mar about noon Wednesday. It was floating in a kelp bed about 150 yards off shore.”

The article continued, “About an hour and a half before the body was discovered, the 12-year-old daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Richard Shanklin, Long Beach, found the girl’s white dress stuffed in a beer can in the water at Tin Can Beach. The dress was taken home and laundered by Mrs. Shanklin, who said she knew nothing about Gale’s disappearance at the time. After reading about the disappearance in the newspapers, Mrs. Shanklin turned the dress over to police. Mr. and Mrs. Brown identified it here Friday morning. A pink plastic hair band was discovered later. It was also in a beer can near Tin Can Beach. Police have questioned several known sex offend- ers in the area…”

The coroner stated that Gale had been in the water for six to eight hours, and that she’d drowned.

Gale’s parents, William and Charlene Brown, were so distraught that they offered to give their daughter’s clothes to a needy child. Gale was buried, but not before the pastor prayed for her killer to be caught and “punished as he ought to be.”

In the first two years after Gale’s murder, the Torrance Police Department interviewed thousands of people. All known sex offenders in the area were grilled—several were given lie detector tests and “truth serum.” All were eliminated as suspects.

Karen Lynn Tomkins was never found, and is still missing today. Dorothy Gale Brown’s murder remains unsolved.

A child-rapist and serial killer named Mack Ray Edwards roamed California in the 1950s and 1960s raping and murdering children. He confessed to killing six children and was convicted of the murders of Stella Darlene Nolan, 8, Gary Rochet, 16, and Donald Allen Todd, 13.

Edwards also confessed to killing Donald Lee Baker, 15, and Brenda Jo Howell, 12, who were kidnapped from Azusa in 1956. He was not charged because their bodies were never found. He claimed to have killed one other victim, fifteen-year-old Roger Dale Madison.

Did Edwards also murder Dorothy Gale Brown and Karen Lynn Tomkins?  Police suspected as much, but were never able to prove a connection.

Sentenced to death, Edwards hung himself in San Quentin Prison in 1971.

His many sordid secrets were buried with him.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Self-Defense in Knightdale, North Carolina 

Woman "reasonably believed her life to be in danger" 
by Robert A. Waters 

When violent felon Deondrea Allen Branch broke into the office of accountant Connie Wells, she shot him.  A clear case of self-defense, it seems.   

Branch, who was on probation when he was shot, had just shoplifted 10 bras from Walmart, and was running from police.  Some of his previous arrests included drug charges, assault on a female, injury to personal property, resisting a public officer, obtaining property under false pretenses, failure to appear, and DWIPublic records indicate that Branch started his criminal activity in his mid-teenage years. 

His father, Willie Mitchener, Jr., took issue with the shooting.  Mitchener told reporters that Branch "is still over here (in the hospital) with no options. [I'm] not really understanding where...he was a threat to someone in order for him to get shot." 

"A crime is a crime, but there are levels to everything.  Shoplifting is not right by no means, but that is in no fashion in comparison to your life." 

"He was a great kid In life you make bad choices." 

"The more I learned about the whole situation, the madder I got," Mitchener said.  "You're holding a firearm, so where is the danger at when, you know, you don't see a weapon on him, so you feel like you would have the upper hand anyway But more or less, you didn't give him a chance to respond anyway.  This is a scared kid looking to hide somewhere." 

Damon Cheston, attorney for Connie Wells, replied in a public letter, quoted here in full: 

"It is a tragedy any time a person is seriously injured. 

"While Connie Wells and her family understand the Branch family’s concern, the events of September 18, 2017 in Knightdale are entirely a consequence of Deondrea Branch’s own actions that day. 
"North Carolina recognizes a right of self-defense, enshrined in part in common law that dates back hundreds of years and in the Castle Doctrine which allows a person to defend themselves from attack in a person’s home or business. 
"54-year-old Connie Wells, 5 feet 2 inches tall, alone and cowering in her closed, locked, and secured office, was in fear for her life as Branch broke into the office.  Branch repeatedly slammed against a 150-lb solid core door, bent the deadbolt securing it, and stormed into Ms. Wells’ office suite. 
"He rushed at her as she was trapped in her personal office within the office suite.  Branch ignored Ms. Wells when she screamed at him to 'STOP!' 
"Ms. Wells had no idea at the time of the incident that Branch had allegedly stolen items from a nearby Wal-Mart or that he was fleeing from police.  Nor did she know that Branch has a criminal record, an extensive arrest record, and is on probation for a prior drug conviction. 
"Surveillance footage is clear.  The incident referred to in press reports occurred just 11 feet from Ms. Wells.  She lawfully exercised her right to self-defense with her legally-possessed firearm.  Ms. Wells fired a single shot because she feared Branch would assault, kill, or do her other harm. Another step and Branch would have been on top of her. 
"From the start, Ms. Wells has cooperated fully with authorities.  She and her family appreciate the quick response from the Knightdale Police Department and understand, as is true any time a person exercises the right of self-defense, that responsible authorities must conduct a thorough investigation." 

Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman said Wells will not be charged.  "It has been determined," she wrote, "that Mr. Branch was engaging in the offense of breaking and entering, and that Mrs. Wells reasonably believed her life to be in danger and therefore was justified in using force in self-defense." 

The father of Deondrea Branch indicated that his son was shot in the neck, is partially paralyzed, and will have to learn to walk again.