Tuesday, December 4, 2018

The Crime that Wasn’t

Selfie Clears Suspect
by Robert A. Waters

Cristopher Precopia was arrested on September 22, 2017 by detectives from the Bell County Sheriff's Office in Texas.  When he asked why he was being cuffed, one of the cops said, “You know why.”  Only problem was he didn’t know.

But there was this written statement from his unnamed accuser.

“I had just gotten home from dropping off the kittens I rescued with their new mom.  I was in the kitchen and I heard the door jiggling and then open.  I walked in the room and [Precopia] charged at me knocking down the table and I fell over the vase in the middle and tried to get away.  He then grabbed me and started punching me and said ‘three strikes and this will happen to your sisters’ and cut an X into my chest and then cut lines in my face.”  She told investigators that she could “hear the slices being made.”  According to the alleged victim, the crime happened exactly at 7:20 p.m. on September 20.  A nasty-looking cut, an “X” sliced just beneath her neck, solidified her statement to investigators.

Surly cops transported Precopia to the Bell County jail and charged him with “burglary of a habitation with the intent to commit other crimes.”  He was told he could be sentenced to 99 years in prison.

Now that’s an eye-opener.

Precopia learned that a former girlfriend he'd dated in high school had made the accusations.  Cops told him they had a slam-dunk case with an attractive witness and fresh cut marks to prove their case. 

Precopia said he barely remembered her. 

His frightened parents borrowed $150,000 to pay his bond and hire an attorney, Rick Flores.  Even though Cristopher bonded out of jail, he was forced to wear an ankle monitor.

During all this, cops never even bothered to get Precopia’s side of the story.

Then his mother, Erin Pinkston Precopia, remembered a Facebook post she’d made on September 20.  She and Cristopher had attended a conference in Austin, more than an hour away from Bell County, and she had taken a selfie of herself and her son.  The time stamp on the photo read 7:09 p.m.  The background showed the Renaissance Hotel in Austin.  There was no way Precopia could have been in Bell County at the time of the alleged assault. 

Lawyer Flores hired an expert to document the selfie to determine if it had been faked.  It hadn’t, it was the real deal.  Flores handed the photo over to prosecutors who hired their own forensics expert to confirm dates and times.

When confronted, the alleged victim admitted she made up the story and inflicted the wounds on herself.

After nine months, prosecutors dropped charges.  County DA Henry Garza’s lame response answered no questions as to why an innocent man had been arrested without even so much as a police interview.  “We are always willing to listen and examine new information,” he said, “and that’s exactly what we did in this case.”

The case left some cops shaking their heads.  According to experienced detectives, one of the first things police should do is to interview the suspect to determine whether he or she has an alibi.  That didn’t happen in this case.

Until (and unless) the accuser’s name is released, we’ll never know why she made up her story. 

Before being arrested, Precopia had spoken to a recruiter about enlisting in the U. S. Army, but was turned down after his arrest.  His parents lost thousands of dollars.  And it’s likely Precopia's own concept of truth, justice, and the American way changed.  That might be the saddest part of all.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

The Legacy of Zack Austin Crumpton

Another Place, Another Time
by Robert A. Waters

“In a long and mis-spent life,” my grandfather, Zack Austin Crumpton, would often begin.  Then he would regal his listeners with tall tales and truths.  The ultimate Southern story-teller, he might tell about how he caught the flu in 1918 (the influenza epidemic that year killed 500 million people around the world) while on a ship returning home from World War I.  As he sailed into the harbor in New York City, he thought he would die.  The army placed him in a severely overcrowded hospital where he saw dozens of men shipped out for burial. Finally, he said, one day he spat up a ball of gunk as big as a baseball.  From that time on, he began to recover.  A few days later, he made it home to the peaceful confines of Fellowship, Florida.

My grandfather might recount how he got dysentery in France.  Or of how he found a “Kaiser’s helmet,” but had it confiscated by the Captain of his unit.   He would tell of his truck-driving days during that conflict, of hauling supplies to the front lines and bringing bodies back to the rear.  And of how he went blind in one eye after a sliver of metal pierced it while repairing a truck during the war to end all wars.

His father, a Confederate veteran, became a Baptist preacher.  My grandfather said he had a gift of conciliating conflict.  Over the years, I’ve thought a lot about that, and have worked to emulate my great-grandfather.  Grandfather Crumpton talked about how, as a boy, his father and mother would begin hitching a wagon to horses before daylight for the 12-mile trip to the “big city,” Ocala.  It would be noon before they reached town.  They would shop, then it might be night-fall before they got home.  (Thank God and Mr. Ford for automobiles.)

He worked as a mechanic and farmer before going blind in his good eye.  When we were young, my two brothers and I spent almost as much time with my grandparents as we did with our parents.  As a very young child, one of my fondest memories is of grandfather Crumpton putting me on his knee and bouncing me up and down while he sang in that deep Southern voice.  Some of his favorites were “Hobo Bill’s Last Ride,” “Life is Like a Mountain Railroad,” and “All Around a Water Tank.”  On Saturday nights, he would turn on the radio and we would listen to the Grand Ole Opry.  Because of this, my favorite music is still the old-time country songs.

Grandma Crumpton was a feisty soul.  While in France during World War I, my grandfather learned the French language and got a girlfriend.  After he got home, she would write to him—in French, of course.  Every time a letter would come in, my grandmother, who couldn’t read a word of it, would rant and rave about his French “paramour.”  But neither she, nor any of the rest of us, ever knew what was said in those mysterious letters.  We never saw our grandfather respond to the letters, so they were always a question mark in our minds.

Grandfather Crumpton loved to fish and hunt.  He would tell us tales of catching huge bass, and recount poignant stories about the much-loved hunting dogs he’d owned.  There were guns all over the house and no one ever got harmed by one.  One room in their little “cracker” home was filled with “the best books ever written in the English language,” collected by a great-uncle and inherited by my grandfather.  I remember in my early youth reading many of them, and wanting to become an author, like Arthur Conan Doyle or the enigmatic Edgar Allan Poe.

Near the end of his life, my grandfather owned a beast of a dog he called “Tippy.”  By then grandfather Crumpton’s second eye had developed cataracts and he was blind, or close to it.  Tippy hated everyone but my grandfather.  When my grandmother would go outside to catch a chicken for dinner, he would chase her.  It’s a wonder she didn’t shoot him.  But one day my grandfather stepped out on the back porch and walked down the steps to go into the back yard.  A huge rattlesnake had coiled beneath the steps and likely would have struck him, but Tippy intervened.  The dog attacked the snake, biting its head off and killing it.  Unfortunately, the snake bit Tippy in the mouth and the dog’s head swelled up like a football.  He was never the same.  Tippy lived an invalid's life for a couple of years after the snake bite.  He was buried underneath a pecan tree up on a hillside, “a place of honor,” my grandfather called it.

When grandmother Crumpton died, “Uncle Zack,” as many of his friends called him, was never the same.  He passed on two years later, a sad shell of the man he used to be.

It was another time, another place back then.  Everyone should have grandparents like mine.  If they did, the world might be a better place.  

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

The Story of Tony Cimo

Revenge Tastes Sweet
by Robert A. Waters

“For four years,” wrote Art Harris in the Washington Post, “[Tony Cimo] lay awake nights, haunted by the shotgun murder of his parents, grocery store owners, whose killer, he heard, laughed from Death Row as the courts ordered new trials and appeals dragged on and on.  ‘I dreamed constantly about him laughing while my mother begged for her life,’ he reflects. ‘Plain as the TV, I kept seeing my mother and father lying in a pool of blood.’”

It went down on March 18, 1978 when Rudolph Tyner, holding a shotgun, walked into the store.  Carlton Davis drove the getaway car.  According to Tyner, he asked for money and Bill said, “No.”  Tyner pulled the trigger, killing Bill instantly.  Myrtie began to scream and Tyner blasted her.  Two lives for $200.

For many years, Myrtie and Bill Moon ran the small grocery store near Murrell’s Inlet, South Carolina.  Bill, Tony’s step-father, a retired Air Force master sergeant and Vietnam veteran, was known for his generosity when people couldn’t afford to pay for their items.

Cimo’s sister alerted him of the robbery and he raced to the store.  “I looked over the counter and my mother and father were laying in a pool of blood,” he said.  “My mother had a hole in her chest big enough to stick my fist through.  I felt her pulse, but she didn’t have any.  Neither did my dad.  All I could feel was my own heart pounding.  The cash register was open.”

The distraught son picked up a spent shotgun shell that lay on the floor, and vowed vengeance then and there.

Vengeance, he thought, would come in the courts.  Sure enough, Tyner and Davis were quickly caught.  They were tried and Davis sentenced to life in prison while Tyner got the death penalty.  The killer went to death row and Myrtie and Bill’s children awaited his execution.

It didn’t happen.  A year after he was convicted, the South Carolina Supreme Court reversed the decision on a technicality.  It was then that Cimo realized that the state had not executed anyone since 1962, and even if Tyner received the death penalty again, it would be decades before he would be put to death.

Cimo then began looking for a prison hit-man.  He found South Carolina’s worst serial killer, five-foot-two-inch Donald “Pee Wee” Gaskins, who was serving 900 years for 8 murders.  The two began to plot Tyner’s murder in long distance phone calls, some secretly recorded by Gaskins.

After a couple of misfires (poisoning Tyner didn’t work), Gaskins told Cimo to send him three sticks of dynamite and it would be done.

Harris wrote that Gaskins “[rigged] explosives to a cup, topping it with a radio speaker and telling Tyner he would be able to talk through it if he plugged it into an extension cord beneath their cells.  Tyner put his cup up to listen.  Gaskins plugged in the cord and virtually blew Tyner’s head off.”

Cimo was quickly caught.  In his confession, he stated he had no remorse for what he had done, and would do it again.  He pleaded guilty to conspiring to commit murder and was sentenced to eight years in prison.  He was released on parole after serving two-and-a-half years.

As he left prison, he told reporters, “I don’t feel the good Lord holds nothing against me for this.”

Cimo died in 2001, at age 54.

Pee Wee Gaskins was tried, convicted, and received the death penalty for Tyner's murder.  In an irony of ironies, South Carolina started executing people again and in 1991, Gaskins went to the chair.  Like Cimo, he never expressed any remorse for killing Tyner.  

Sunday, September 30, 2018

"Where I come from, it's kill or be killed"

Permit Holders Stop Crimes
by Robert A. Waters

“In all honesty, if he didn’t die this way, he would have ended up dying.  He would have ended up killing himself on drugs.”  These heartbreaking words were spoken by the sister of William Smith, 29.  Smith had attempted to rob the Prime Food Store in Orange Park, Florida when he was shot by a clerk.  Cops said the robber staggered outside and died in the parking lot, his hand next to a pistol he’d been carrying.  The family member’s reaction uncovers a lifetime of pain and dashed hopes that their loved one might someday kick his addiction and go straight.  The clerk, who had a permit to carry a concealed weapon, was not charged.

Sixty-three-year-old Bennie Sideboard grew up on the dangerous streets of New Orleans.  He joined the navy, became a merchant marine, and later moved back to his hometown.  One evening, as he and a friend got out of his car to enter his home, two armed teenagers attempted to rob them.  Sideboard, a permit holder, shoved the assailant’s gun away, then drew his own firearm and opened fire.  A few minutes later, Andrew Spikes turned up at a New Orleans hospital with a bullet in his belly.  Spikes and his accomplice were arrested and the shooting was ruled self-defense.  “It happened so fast,” Sideboard said, “but I’m used to bad stuff going down.  Where I’m from, it’s kill or be killed.”

Andres Herrera died in a blaze of gunfire while attempting to rob customers at a San Antonio, Texas Popeyes Restaurant.  KOAT News reported that “Herrera, 19, approached Carlos Molina, 32, who was eating with his family.  Herrera demanded money, but Molina said he didn't have any because he spent it on dinner…Molina asked if Herrera would let his family go, and the gunman agreed.  Molina's wife and two of his children left the restaurant, but two more of his children were still in the bathroom.  Herrera spotted the remaining children walking out of the bathroom and pointed his gun in their direction.”  At that point, Molina drew his firearm and killed the robber.  Police found items stolen from a pawn shop in Herrera’s motel room, and identified him as the suspect who had recently robbed a Dollar General store.  Molina was not charged with any crime.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Review: In the Name of the Children

In the Name of the Children: An FBI Agent’s Relentless Pursuit of the Nation’s Worst Predators by Jeffrey L. Rinek and Marilee Strong.

Review by Robert A. Waters

I’ll admit it—I have a case of serial killer fatigue.  Serial murderers seem to be deeply disturbed and conscienceless individuals, yet much of film, fiction, and even non-fiction portray them as fascinating and romantic rebels.  Sometime ago, I grew tired of reading about such characters, particularly when their victims, many of whom came off as far more interesting, were given short shrift.

Then I picked up In the Name of the Children and couldn’t put it down.  One of the reasons I liked this book is that the authors give the victims as much attention as they give the killers.  Jeffrey Rinek is a retired FBI agent who specialized in obtaining confessions from some of the nation’s worst predators.  His most sensational case was the Yosemite murders.  Cary Stayner kidnapped and murdered four innocent women: Carole Sund, Juli Sund, Sylvina Pelosso, and Joie Armstrong.  The murders of these women were brutal, heartless, and random.

Stayner, whose younger brother had been kidnapped and held as a sex slave for seven years, nearly got away with it.  The killer’s surprise confessions to Rinek and his partner revealed a warped, twisted soul.  Did the ordeal of his brother play a role in developing his psyche?  Read the book and find out.  There’s little doubt, however, that Stayner would have killed again and again had he not been caught.  The authors delve deep into the case to flesh out a sometimes flawed investigation.

Other cases the authors describe include the kidnapping and torture of an eight-year-old boy, a throwaway child, and a group of children used as sex objects by a notorious cult.  These cases, as would be expected, took a toll on the author.

The book is well-written and I found no typos, the sign of a well-constructed package.

If you have any interest in true crime at its finest, read In the Name of the Children.  The authors have done a good job of bringing each case to life.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Morphing into Bridey Murphy
by Robert A. Waters

On February 9, 1956, nineteen-year-old William Dean Swink shot himself to death.  His stated reason was to test the theory of reincarnation.  Swink’s suicide note read: “They say curiosity kills the cat.  Well, I’m a cat and I’m very curious.  I am curious about the Bridey Murphy story, so I’m going to test this theory in person.”

A month earlier, amateur hypnotist Morey Bernstein had published a book entitled, The Search for Bridey Murphy.  It became a sensation, selling 200,000 copies within a few months.  Later that year, a successful movie brought the story to the big screen.

The tale began in 1952 at a party in Pueblo, Colorado.  Bernstein asked for volunteers who wished to be hypnotized and housewife Virginia Tighe stepped forward.  What started as a lark soon became the backdrop for controversy.  Under hypnosis, Tighe (called Ruth Simmons in the book) claimed she had lived a past life in Ireland.

For the next few months, with Tighe’s husband always present, Bernstein conducted a series of hypnoses.  While under hypnotic regression, Tighe allegedly traveled back in time to 1806 in Cork, Ireland where her name was Bridgett “Bridey” Murphy.  According to the story, at 17, Murphy married a barrister and moved to Belfast.

The Long Beach Independent Press Telegram reported that “she told of falling down a flight of stairs, of dying, of living in a spirit world for fifty years, where she never ate, never slept.  In 1923, she was reborn in the U.S.A.”  During the hypnotic sessions, Tighe “became” Bridey, even speaking with an authentic-sounding Irish accent.

With the wild popularity of The Search for Bridey Murphy, reporters flew to Ireland in an attempt to check the facts of the story.  It turned out there was no record of the birth or death of Bridey Murphy.  (There was, however, an Irish immigrant named Bridey Murphy Corkell who lived across the street from Tighe’s childhood home in Chicago.)  While some details of Murphy’s tale were accurate, most reporters did not believe the story.

True believers in reincarnation, however, were unfazed.

To others, the story was ripe for laughs.  “Come as you were” parties became popular.  New parents would sometimes joke about reincarnation, telling their newborn infants, “Welcome back.”

Virginia Tighe, now Virginia Mae Morrow, died in 1995.  She never tried to cash in on her fame, and, in fact, said, “If I had known what was going to happen, I would never have lain down on that couch.”

As for Morey Bernstein, he managed a business founded by his grandfather, father, and uncle.  A generous man, Bernstein gave millions to organizations and universities in the Pueblo area.  The former hypnotist died in 1999.

William Dean Swink never came back in a different body—or at least, no one ever knew it if he did.  His grieving family buried him, and he became a footnote in history.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

The Dead Souls at Windover Bog
by Robert A. Waters

It’s five thousand years before the birth of Christ.  A small band of men, women, and children subsist in a hard land of scrub pines, saw palmettoes, and hickory trees.  Each year, the group arrives in the Fall and moves on in the Spring.  While here, they breed and live and die.

They bury their dead in a small peat-filled pond.

The forests and swamps surrounding the pond are unforgiving.  It's sizzling hot, humid, and crawling with killer insects, bugs, and spiders.  Poisonous snakes, bears, alligators, panthers, and bobcats hunt in these forests, feeding on prey such as deer, raccoons, rabbits, squirrels, and turtles—or humans.

Fast-forward seven thousand years.  In 1982, a Titusville, Florida backhoe operator named Steve Vanderjagt digs a trench through the mucky soil of Windover Bog.  After a few scoops, he notices what he thinks is a stone in the bucket.  Inspecting it, he sees two hollow eyes staring back at him.  A few more scoops, and he unearths more human skulls.  Could this be the graveyard of a serial killer?  Vanderjagt knows he needs help.  He contacts his employer, developer Jim Swann.

Thus begins a saga unlike any known in Florida.

Cops quickly determine this is not the gravesite of a serial killer.

Archaeologists are called to the scene and are stunned when they learn that the Windover Bog contains 167 skeletons from the Archaic Age.  Many are in excellent condition, even their brains are preserved.  This is unheard of in Florida, or for that matter, in most of the world.  With financial backing from Swann and the state of Florida, archaeologists begin to peel layer after layer from the mystery of the Bog People, offering intriguing glimpses into the state’s past.

According to archeologist and author Rachel K. Wentz, the group had no metal tools or weapons, no modern medicine, no transportation (except their feet), yet the group and their descendants survived for about a thousand years.  They were peaceful, with almost no deaths from interpersonal violence.  They died of illnesses not unlike those we face today.  Most adults suffered from arthritis.  Some had broken bones, tooth abscesses and gumline erosion, internal parasites, and other maladies.  At least one had cancer.  They had a life-span of about 40 years.

They valued each member of their group, even infants who died shortly after childbirth.  We know this because they buried their dead in the bog facing west toward the setting sun.

Wentz writes that “bodies were carried into the shallow margins of the pond, beyond the thick tangle of tree roots.  Once the body was pushed into the soft soils of the pond, a small tipi-like construction of branches was erected over the body.  The wood used for these shelters was primarily ash.  Ash does not naturally occur near the pond and appears to have been chosen specifically for this purpose.  Perhaps this type of wood held ceremonial significance.  Singular wooden stakes possibly marked the location of individual graves or family units.”

Tools, weapons, toys, fabric, ropes, food, and other items were often buried with a corpse.

As in life, care was taken in death.  A teenage boy with spina bifida had been buried in a loving manner.  The boy couldn’t have cared for himself.  With one deformed ankle and another missing foot, he couldn’t walk, much less work.  Yet someone carried him from place to place for 14-18 years, providing food and water.  The group, or at least someone in the group, loved this crippled child enough to help him through his challenging life.  Like the others, he was buried facing west.

In another instance, a middle-aged woman was afflicted with fused spinal disks and severe arthritis, making it unlikely that she could work.  But she lived for a decade or more with these conditions, meaning that the group must have helped her.

In yet another case, a two-year-old girl was buried with a bone toy in her hand and a tortoise shell bowl beside her.

Seven thousand years ago, in the hard wilderness of Florida, the human species developed compassion, empathy, kindness, and mercy.  When the group died off, did those traits die with them?

NOTE: Much of this information came from the excellent book, Life and Death at Windover: Excavations of a 7,000-Year-Old Pond Cemetery, by Rachel K. Wentz.  If you’re interested in this subject, I recommend this book.  I also recommend that you purchase books directly from the author, cutting out the profiteers at Amazon and eBay.  You can contact Wentz at rachelwentzbooks.com.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Hanging at Four Pole Creek

The First (and Last) Execution in Cabell County, West Virginia 
by Robert A. Waters 

For several days before the scheduled hanging of Allen Harrison, overloaded trains chugged into Huntington, West Virginia.  Hotel rooms sold out, and restaurants stayed open late to feed the crowds.  On November 17, 1892, Harrison, a 26-year-old ne’er-do-well and convicted killer, would walk up the gallows to meet his fate.

Newspapers of the day described Harrison as handsome, but odd, having “peculiar habits and strong likes and dislikes.”  According to legal reports, he couldn’t get along with his father, so he left home while still a teen.  Wandering about, Harrison wound up homeless before Frank Adams, a prosperous farmer living near Big Cabell Creek, fifteen miles from Huntington, took pity on him and let the wayward stranger live in his home.

Adams’s beautiful daughter, Bettie, was 16-years-old and Harrison quickly fell in love. 

Although Frank Adams and his wife treated Harrison kindly, he did little to reciprocate those good deeds.  He rarely worked, and never contributed much to the arrangement. 

Bettie ignored Harrison’s constant advances, which grew more passionate as time passed.  After a year, Frank Adams asked his nuisance boarder to leave.  Adams explained to Harrison that he made life uncomfortable for his family by constantly pressing Bettie to become his paramour and that Harrison’s jealousy and continued quarreling with Bettie made life in the family untenable. 

Harrison moved out and into a neighbor’s home.  For the next few weeks, he stalked Bettie.  Hiding in bushes outside her home day and night, he spied on her.  When she left her residence, he followed her, sometimes approaching her with passionate protestations of love.  Each time he was rejected, his anger boiled higher.  In addition to his constant stalking, Harrison wrote hundreds of letters to her, professing his continuing adoration.

Finally, his “love” turned to hate.

A day before the murder, he stole a pistol from the neighbor he was staying with, then purchased two two-ounce vials of laudanum, an opioid sold by prescription at the turn of the century.

On April 20, 1892, Harrison went to the Adams home, walked through the front door, and found Bettie Adams removing ashes from the fireplace.  He fired, hitting Bettie in the chest.  She collapsed onto the floor and screamed, “Oh Ma, Allen has shot me.”  Her mother ran into the room and held Bettie in her arms, attempting to shield her daughter from the murderous madman.  Harrison tried to shoot her again, but the pistol misfired.  Finally, he got it working.  Placing the barrel against the unfortunate girl’s back, he fired again.  Bettie’s sister also witnessed the shooting. 

Bettie bled out before help could arrive. 

Harrison ran into some nearby woods and hid the gun.  He then swallowed the laudanum and lay down, using his coat for a pillow.  Searchers quickly located the killer.  Still in a stupor, he was transported to the Cabell County Jail.  While there, he vomited several times, likely because of the drug he had taken. 

Later, when asked by reporters if he would do it again, Harrison replied, “Yes, I would.” 

At trial, Harrison’s lawyer declared he was insane.  However, because of the obvious planning of the murder, his insanity defense fell apart.  Harrison was convicted and sentenced to death. 

On November 17, men, women, and children began gathering in the field near Four Pole Creek.  By nine o’clock, nearly 5,000 people surrounded the “hanging tree.”  Unlike many hangings, the crowd seemed solemn.

At eleven, Harrison issued a statement claiming to have no knowledge of the crime.  He did, however, admit he may have done it.     

At two-fifteen, Harrison walked up the gallows.  Within minutes, he was dead. 

Seven years later, West Virginia abolished public executions.