Friday, April 18, 2008

Can Background Checks Prevent Murder?

by Michele McPhee

I have spent two decades covering crime. As a result, I never date a guy without conducting a thorough background check on him. Initially, my research was prompted after a couple of dates with a guy who wrapped his arm around his dinner plate, “Walpole-style’’ as they call it up here in Massachusetts, referring to the state’s super-max prison. Sure enough, that gruff yet buff date had spent a decade at Walpole perfecting his plate protecting. Then there was that swarthy Italian guy in New York I dated while working as the police bureau chief of the New York Daily News. He turned out to be a Gambino crime family associate with a rap sheet.

But it’s not just my own experience that provokes me to pursue criminal histories on potential mates. It’s all the women who didn’t find out who their loves really were, women who ended up dead.

On June 3rd, the same day my book Heartless: The True Story of Neil Entwistle and the Cold-Blooded Murder of his Wife and Baby will be released by St. Martin’s Press true crime division, Neil Entwistle (pictured above) will go on trial for the 2005 assassinations of his infant Lillian Rose and his bride Rachel. The motive that provoked the Brit to allegedly pump a bullet into his baby’s stomach and his wife’s head, prosecutors believe, was money. In his case, the complete lack of any.

Entwistle was one of those guys who could become whoever you wanted him to be; the master con artist. His wife Rachel had no idea that the charming raven-haired genius she met at a rowing club in England, the man who told her he had a top-secret job at an intelligence firm, was actually just an unemployed chump living off credit and trolling Internet sex sites for clandestine hookups. Even her mother and her step-father were snowed by Neil Entwistle. To them he was nothing other than a doting husband and loving dad – that is until that January 2006 day when the bodies of his wife and baby were found under a rumpled comforter in their idyllic New England home. He fled the country after finding their bodies, without calling police, and was arrested for their murders in England months later.

But Entwistle is not the only guy with a shaky past who went on to kill his lover. In fact, Massachusetts has a macabre history of providing the backdrop for infamous crime scenes where women were brutally slain by men they trusted. This week the trial of James Keown--the radio talk-show host who is charged with spiking his wife's Gatorade with anti-freeze, fatally poisoning her in 2004--ended in a mistrial. Keown is accused of killing his wife Julie in an attempt to collect on a $250,000 life insurance policy. Julie, a dedicated nurse who was 31 years old when her kidneys began to fail, had no idea that the love of her life was broke, and desperate enough to kill her - according to Massachusetts prosecutors.

Keown was transmitting his radio show from their Waltham home because he convinced his employer - and his wife - that he had been accepted to Harvard Business School. In fact, he had taken a night course on the Cambridge campus, but had flunked it. Prosecutors said they will retry Keown on June 9, meaning his murder trial will take place down the hall from Neil Entwistle's double homicide trial.

Here are just a few others:

- Christa Worthington - the fashion writer who was found bloodied and stabbed in her Cape Cod cottage with her two-year-old daughter Ava desperately trying to breastfeed from her mother’s dead body. Her alleged sometime lover, the local trash man, was convicted of raping and killing the wealthy, attractive single mom one winter afternoon in 2002. That arrest came after her other lovers' reputations were stained with accusations that they were suspects.

- Carol DiMaiti-Stuart - Carol and her unborn son Christopher were shot dead by her dashing husband Charles Stuart after they attended a Lamaze class together in 1989. Stuart, a greedy Newbury Street furrier, blamed a black man and set off a near-race war in Boston, all motivated by a half-million life insurance policy. He threw himself off the Tobin Bridge when the cops closed in. But was it really suicide? That remains a Boston mystery.

- Laura Jane Rosenthal - Laura was beaten to death with a rock by her financier husband Richard who then impaled her heart and lungs on a stake in the backyard after she burnt the ziti she was cooking for dinner in 1995. The handsome well-to-do businessman is serving life.

- Kenneth Seguin - Kenneth was a handsome, successful businessman who had never been in trouble when he drove an axe into his wife Mary Anne’s head then drugged his two children and hacked them to death in 1992. Currently, he heads a Lifers Group – a union of sorts for convicted killers in Massachusetts jail.

All of these men shared something in common: a hint in their backgrounds that something might snap. The trash man that killed Worthington had a long history of violence. Charles Stuart had taken out a massive life insurance policy on his wife before they married and she got pregnant. Richard Rosenthal had a history of mental illness. Seguin was going broke.

Credit and criminal checks work, as does some old-fashioned shoe leather reporting. Ask about old girlfriends and family trees; snoop just a little bit to make sure there are no prescriptions for psychotic episodes in the medicine cabinet. A little research could have provided that mustard seed of information that would have made these slain women just a little bit more leery.

We do background checks on used cars before we buy them, why not build workups on the men in our lives?


Brian said...

I'm torn on what to think of your article. On one hand, I find it sad that your work with crime has put you in the position where you feel suspicious of any male who wants to be intimate with you. I can understand on an intellectual level, given all those stories you've described... But all these horrific stories are exceptional - it's hardly a common thing.

On the other hand - I'm a guy. I don't have to worry about going home with a date and having her beat me and rape me, so I can't truly put myself in your position. If I did have to really worry about that, I might understand quite a bit better.

What do other women think?

Anonymous said...

Diane Fanning wrote about Richard McFarland, who while having none of the histories you describe brutally murdered his wife because he was unable to hold a job and she was going to divorce him. That kind of alternative to divorce seems to be really increasing.

While there are some genuine nice guys, the bad ones really do know how to camouflage themselves. Two must reads are The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout, Ph.D. and The Gift of Fear by Brian de Becker.

Diane Fanning said...

Although not infallible, there is a red flag I've noticed in most of these men. Secrets. They all were hiding something from their spouses. Richard McFarland tried to hide his weird shopping habits and towards the end put a padlock on his home office door.
Michael Peterson had a home office that was off limits. In fact, until the night of her death, his wife Kathleen had never used his computer. It was on the computer and in his desk that Michael stashed the evidence of his secret bisexuality.
Richard Marc Evonitz had a footlocker. He forbid both wives from looking inside of it. When police opened it, it was filled with women's underwear and clippings about a double homicide--one he committed.

As Michelle said, a background check sure wouldn't hurt. And guys might consider taking that step with women, too. Lisa Montgomery pops right into my mind wth that suggestion. She didn't kill her spouse but she sure made a mess of his life when she killed Bobbi Jo Stinnett.

Anonymous said...

Excellent point and observation Diane. Thanks for posting that.

Rae said...

"where you feel suspicious of any male who wants to be intimate with you."

I don't think it's a matter of regarding all men with suspicion, as much as being cautious-which is far better than becoming a true crime statistic.

Just curious, but would you say the same thing if a man posted saying that he did background checks on the women he dated?

Leah said...

How do you legally obtain a credit check on someone with them knowing ??

Brian said...

Rae - you ask an interesting question... If the genders in the post had been reversed, I would not have made the same comment. Rather, I would have posted that this man has some significant issues. I don't see how you can go through your life assuming that every person of the opposite sex you meet is potentially a violent sadist.

I'm not espousing that one should naively trust strangers. There's many people who would be happy to screw you over. However, in general, before I "date" someone I'll get to know them. Sure, I've gone on dates with girls I just met, but it's in a public place. Before I'm alone with them in a place where they could do me harm, I've gotten to know them somewhat well.

A requirement to do a background check implies one of two things - you're either putting yourself in a silly situation with someone you barely know, or else you don't trust your ability to judge characters. How can you interact with people and form new, intimate relationships, if you can't trust your own judgement? Can you ever have true intimacy if you implicitly can't take what they tell you at face value?

If there's warning signs, I can understand doing a little digging. But the poster said she would never date a man without a background check, period. That smells of paranoia.

However - I just don't know what it's like to have the tables turned on me. The odds are that a woman I become intimate with is not going to be able to physically dominate me if I'm alert and aware of any sort of threat. That gives me a degree of safety that might not be there if the opposite were true. I don't know if it's simply some form of chauvinistic ignorance that's making me think this, hence I'd like to know if my viewpoint is universally rejected. ;)

Perhaps we can take gender completely out of the issue. A question to the poster - would you do a background check on a new friend with whom you were becoming very close? If not, why do you limit yourself only to men you might date? What's the difference, outside of gender? (I've had friends alone with me in my home late at night many times, giving them every opportunity to do something horrific...)

Leah said...

Brian, I think you are correct about taking gender out of the issue. There are a plethora of TC books written about women who have killed their husbands as well. A background check might have saved many of these men. I think the post was written as it was because Michele doesn't date women.

You made another good point. I think we choose our "friends" differently, with different qualifications, than we do in choosing someone who is a potential mate.

Rae said...

I'd agree with taking gender out of the issue...that there are women who have killed men...that perhaps a woman doing a background check on every man she dates smacks of paranoia, except, and it's a big except, women are in a more vulnerable position than men. No, we are not the weaker sex intellectually or capably...but we are physically, for the most part. We are more likely to be raped, beaten, physically overcome by a man than vice versa.

I could hit my husband pretty hard, and it would hurt him, but he'd probably still be standing. If he did the same to me, it could knock me out cold.

Like you, Brian, I would think that meeting the first few times in a public place and watching for warning signs might suffice...but I also would never fault any woman for being overly cautious. After those few dates, if all is going well, then it is likely that the woman will be putting herself in a position where she is physically vulnerable. It can't hurt to have some background knowledge while she can still safely back off from the developing relationship and prevent her from putting herself in possibly dangerous situation.

A. said...

In addition to what everyone else has said, part of the point made is that there are often NO warning signs.

In hindsight, yes, of course some things can be analyzed and point to something being off. But more often than not, these men (or women) are described as ideal companions. They present themselves to be successful, goal-oriented, romantic, caring individuals. Which obviously parallels the very thing most women (or men) are attracted too.
Attributes of an ideal mate.

Anonymous said...

It still comes down to that these woman obviously thought they knew their man very well and of course as we know in tc books they didn't. I'm not talking about the women who had the warning signs, but choose to ignore them, but like the case in question, she had no clue.

Rob said...

How do you put out a book before the trial has concluded?

Diane Fanning said...

As a true crime writer, I know I would prefer finishing a book after the trial but the bottom line is that it is not the writer's call.
If the publisher tells you they have to have a manuscript by a certain date, you have to comply because you are legally obligated to do so.
You hae a legitimate gripe with the publishers but this is something that is out of the writers' control.

Rob said...

Thanks for the reply... I figured this was the publisher's doing.

That's too bad because people will naturally blame the person whose name appears largest on the front of the book.

Anonymous said...


There is reason to believe it wasn't the black trashman. Many believe it was a cover up. Those of us who have lived in Massachusetts and those around the country know of the corruption in this state. Just look at the past few years within our law enforcement. Maybe you should dig a bit deeper, then again, you may not want to. I enjoyed reading your article, "Murder She Wrought", Boston Magazine. You may just find the three murders on the Cape may have something in common.

Kara said...

Way back when I would have said that background checks were silly and not necessary. It's really sad that these days it's safer to run them for numerous reasons.

James said...

Doing an instant background check can help to protect your family members. Some of the sites out there might offer that service for free but you'll probably have to wait for several days for the result. I don't see anything wrong with investing a few dollars for the safety of my family.