Friday, October 31, 2008

Halloween Movie Picks from Women in Crime Ink

by Vanessa Leggett

It's that time of year. For kids, Halloween night means dressing up and venturing out for candy. For party-pooped adults, it means dressing down, staying in, and watching a scary movie.

If you don't like scary movies, you're not alone. Neither does our Texas prosecutor, Kelly Siegler, who put it more bluntly: "I hate scary shows."

And it's little wonder. Like other criminal justice professionals who write for WCI, Kelly might be one of those who look to movies for escape from the real-life horror she encounters day in and day out. Right now, watching a scary movie would be last on Kelly's to-do list. Our "prosecutor for hire" is in the middle of a capital murder trial, where a film of a game warden's shooting death is wearing like the Zapruder reel.

Sounds Like Halloween

If, like Kelly, you don't spend your free time watching scary movies, but your significant other does . . . don't count on shutting your eyes to keep from jumping out of your skin. Usually it's what we can't see that's more frightening—the closed closet door . . . the lengthening shadow of something around the corner . . . the creaking floorboard. . . . Sounds, in fact, can be more frightening than anything seen or suggested on-screen. It only takes two notes from an oboe in JAWS to send chills along the spine . . . or shower sounds and a few strains from the violins of Psycho . . . or a phone's shrill ring, as in When a Stranger Calls and on the other end of the line the killer breathes "Have you checked the children? . . . "

Most of us here at Women in Crime Ink enjoy scary movies, and we like to watch with our eyes open. For Halloween, we polled our contributors for their favorites.

Our Favorite Classics

Every Halloween, Donna Weaver looks forward to her annual dose of Arsenic and Old Lace. Two of Diane Dimond's favorite classics: What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and Rosemary's Baby. Scary-movie lover Tina Dirmann highlighted Wait Until Dark among several others. And Stacy Dittrich gave Burnt Offerings as her favorite scary movie, while Pat Brown picked The Haunting of Hill House.

"I always thought Shirley Jackson wrote the creepiest stories—more mentally creepy than physically," said profiler Pat, who recalled "the part in The Haunting where the walls are going 'boom, boom' and one woman tells the other to hold her hand until it stops and then, when the noise ceases, she opens her eyes and realizes the other woman is sleeping in a bed all the way across the room . . . eeowww."

No one could argue with Pat that "anything Hitchcock" is scary. Pat liked The Birds while Diane Fanning cited Rear Window as a favorite. Fanning also mentioned "An Unlocked Window," from the TV series "Alfred Hitchcock Presents." That episode is about a killer on the loose, a man who slips into the cellar window of a medical ward and poses as a female nurse. "That still gives me shivers," Diane said. The chill factor might have been spiked by the set, which was the same house used in Psycho. The Master of Suspense enjoyed tapping into the collective unconscious; he understood the timelessness of terror. Tina Dirmann rents Psycho every year.

Scariest of Them All

But the "scariest movie ever," according to Tina, is The Exorcist. I agreed, as did Connie Park and Cynthia Hunt. The film was based on the William Peter Blatty novel of the same title. Blatty wrote the book and Oscar-winning screenplay, drawing inspiration from actual exorcisms he'd studied, especially the documented exorcism of a 14-year-old boy in 1949. Actress Linda Blair was cast at the same age. (She is probably still in therapy from that childhood role from Hell.) Because of death threats after the film's release, the young actress had to hire bodyguards.

What made The Exorcist, so scary? Perhaps surprisingly for a "supernatural movie"—its realism, thus the threats against the life of an actress whose lines came from a script, not from possession.

"Nothing is scarier," said Cynthia, "than the reality that there is a demonic spirit world that exists alongside us and that the enemy, Satan, is constantly trying to defeat, infect, and destroy everything that is good."

Fear Factor

A modernized battle between Good and Evil can be found in the 1991 remake of the '60s Gregory Peck classic Cape Fear, which was Katherine Scardino's favorite. It's no mystery our defense attorney found this film scary, since the movie depicts a realistic nightmare of every criminal advocate: A vengeful client who blames his lawyer for a stiff sentence. In Cape Fear, an attorney breaches professional ethics by purposely offering a less-than-zealous defense to a vicious rapist, who, upon his release from prison, stalks the lawyer and his family, targeting the attorney's teenage daughter. . . . Equally afraid of a predator's release would be the D.A. who put him away, so it's no surprise that Cape Fear was also a top pick of our sex-crimes prosecutor, Robin Sax. The 1991 version of Cape Fear was a popular choice among several contributors, including Kathryn Casey. (Other thriller picks: Jagged Edge from Robin Sax, and Andrea Campbell recommends Fallen.)

A number of us found favorites in movie adaptations of novels by Stephen KingCarrie, Misery, and Michele McPhee's favorite, The Shining. Who can forget Jack Nicholson as a madman driving an ax through a bathroom door, announcing "Heeeeerz Johnny!"

An earlier Jack Nicholson scene our resident psychiatrist would rather forget: When Nicholson's character is lobotomized in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. "I can't watch that part," said Lucy Puryear.

Another hard-to-watch lobotomy is found in Hannibal, the sequel to The Silence of the Lambs. The FBI agent played by Ray Liotta is lobotomized by cannibal psychiatrist Dr. Hannibal Lecter.

The Power of Silence

The majority of our contributors ranked The Silence of the Lambs as their favorite scary movie. Based on Thomas Harris's novel of the same title, the film, like the book, is more thriller than horror flick. While this film is one of my all-time favorite thrillers, I would not classify it as a "scary movie."

That said, out of all the horror films I can conjure, the climax to The Silence of the Lambs contains one of the most frightening scenes ever to flicker across the big screen. You remember the scene, when FBI Agent Clarice Starling faces off with serial killer "Buffalo Bill" in his dungeon-like basement.

Sidebar: Buffalo Bill was based on a real serial killer, Edward Gein, a quiet Wisconsin farmer who dressed his victims like deer—using their skins and bones for furnishings (like lamp shades and cereal bowls from skull caps) rather than for actual dresses, or female "body suits," as in Thomas Harris's story.

For both Buffalo Bill and Hannibal Lecter, Harris borrows traits from Gein (pictured above). Like Gein, "Hannibal the Cannibal" ate his victims' body parts. Edward Gein also reportedly served as Hitchcock's inspiration for Psychofilmed a couple of years after Gein's crimes were discovered—as well as "Leatherface" in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which chilled our cold-case detective, Connie Park.

But back to the scene from The Silence of the Lambs. You would be hard-pressed to find an actor who has captured the emotion of fear better than Jodie Foster did as Clarice, when her face is framed in the grainy green light from the killer's night-vision goggles. Again, it's what we can't see that makes the heart pound. Don't take our word for it. Watch for yourselves. (Warning: This scene contains language and violence unsuitable for younger viewers.)

Our True Crime Favorites

While The Silence of the Lambs is loosely based on a real villain, there are a number of other films directly adapted from true stories and true-crime books. Since a number of us write fact-based books, this post would not be complete without mentioning our favorite scary movies based on real stories. Here they are, with contributor nominators in parentheses: The Amityville Horror (Tina Dirmann, Vanessa Leggett, Connie Park, Donna Pendergast); In Cold Blood (Jenna Jackson, Vanessa); Helter Skelter (Tina); The Honeymoon Killers (Susan Murphy-Milano); and The Onion Field (Diane Dimond).

So find yourself a scary movie and enjoy the holiday weekend. Now that you know our favorites, we hope you'll share yours with us. A safe and happy Halloween to everyone.

For best-reviewed scary movies, check Rotten Tomatoes, the definitive movie review site:

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Texas Book Festival and Familiar Faces

by Kathryn Casey

One of the best things writers get to do is go to bookstores, book clubs, and festivals and sign books. Okay, I admit it, it's always fun to see our books slipped into bags and carted out of stores under someone's arm, knowing they'll be read and hoping they'll be enjoyed. But, what's really great is that while we're signing books we get to talk to people, all kinds of folks we wouldn't meet otherwise. Whether it's in a B&N or an independent store, I meet the most interesting folks.

So yesterday, for instance, I went to a book club signing where most of the members were retired teachers. We were there to talk about Singularity, my mystery that came out in June. It was a nice, kind of intimate crowd, maybe fifteen women and two men. (I'm not sure how they got in, but it was nice of the men to come. As usual, it was one of the the men who asked about the sex scene in the book. I think they're more into it than women are. I have this one friend named Jack who said he read it six times. But I digress.) I had a great time comparing notes with all of the book club members. As former teachers, they were happy, I think, when I mentioned that I still organize my true crime books the way one of my English teachers taught me to in junior high, by putting the facts, quotes, etc., on index cards and shuffling them into an outline.

As our time together went on, a healthy sampling of the questions, as always, were about what it's like to be a writer. A lot of folks, I think, do a little writing and wonder what it would be like to support themselves like we do.

So here goes. My take on the writing life:

First: It's kind of lonely. When I'm not attending a trial or interviewing sources, I spend most of my time alone at my computer. Years ago, Ann Rule warned me I'd end up with hip problems someday from the long hours sitting. That hasn't happened yet, but Ann's a very wise woman, and I have noticed I've spread out a bit. My dad says it's middle-age, but I think I've developed computer hips. I walk in the neighborhood to counteract it, but, alas, so far it's not working.

Second: The commute is easy and the wardrobe doesn't cost much. Today and yesterday I worked in my home office in my pajamas. They're my favorite ones, actually. Soft and loose. If I got a real job, I bet they wouldn't let me wear them to the office.

Third: Sometimes it's harder than other times. It's fascinating to go to the trials, but it's tough to talk to families who've lost loved ones. Really hard. And it's painful to talk to families whose loved ones will probably spend the rest of their lives in jail. These crimes we write about, no one wins. Especially the kids. Much too often, it seems to me, there are kids who suffer.

Fourth: I think I write because I have to, because I, for some strange reason, grew up needing to. Otherwise, I'd have to be crazy to lock myself in a converted bedroom staring at a computer screen all day. There's little more frightening than page one. But then, of course, there are few things more satisfying than typing "The End."

Where should someone get started: My favorite book on writing: Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott. Wonderful book if you're considering taking the plunge.

With all the other writers here, I hope one or two will weigh in on their thoughts on the writing life. In the meantime, I'd like to invite all of you in the Austin area to a little gathering that's taking place this weekend, the Texas Book Festival. And while you're there, be on the lookout for familiar faces. My WCI colleague Diane Fanning and I will be there signing our books this coming Saturday afternoon.

For those of you unfamiliar with the festival, it's held on the grounds of the state capitol, in the center of the city, and it attracts a host of authors and thousands of enthusiastic readers. One of the big events is the awarding of the Bookend Award. This year's recipient is long-time LBJ biographer Robert Caro.

This isn't our first year at the festival. Diane and I were both honored to participate in panels at the 2008 event. The photo at the right is of Diane flanked by her fellow panelists: Rick Riordan and Harry Hunsicker. While the festival has opted to forgo a true crime panel this year, they couldn't keep us away. When Mystery Writers of America invited us to sign our books at its booth, we accepted without hesitation.

This Saturday, November 1st, Diane and I will be available at the MWA booth from one to three. In addition, I'll stay for two more hours, until five. (At which point, I'll undoubtedly hit Sixth Street looking for good music and food. Gotta love that along with a lot else about Austin.)

Early reports are that the weather will be fall spectacular, so come on out, check the schedule to find out which of your favorite authors is participating, take in a couple of events, and make sure to say hi to us at the MWA booth.

What could be more fun on a Saturday afternoon?

For those of you we'll meet, remember Diane and I both write fiction along with true crime. We can't promise, but we're always looking for good characters. There is the possibility that you just might recognize someone a tiny bit like you in a novel sometime in the not too distant future!

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

YOUR TURN: When a Convicted Killer's Wrong Makes a School Teacher Write

by Narelle Bitunjac

When I open the mailbox and see another letter from John, I always feel lucky. Aside from the fact that his letters are intriguing, there’s something special about someone taking the time to hand write a message and send it by post. Of course, e-mail isn’t an option for John—he’s housed in a prison.

I’m usually terrible at correspondence and rarely remember to send birthday cards. So it was out of character for me, an Australian school teacher, to initiate a "pen pal" relationship with anyone, never mind a complete stranger who resides in an American prison, convicted of murdering his wife.

My interest in John began after I watched a documentary about his trial. His case seemed extraordinary and I couldn’t get him or his situation out of my mind.

I had conversations with friends about John and the fact that he was an intelligent, articulate man who had no history of violence. We analyzed testimony that supported John’s assertion that he loved his wife. We tried to figure out why he’d been convicted given that the physical evidence was inconclusive and the prosecution’s case seemed patchy.

It wasn’t long before I began to feel uncomfortable that I’d become emotionally invested in John’s life and he didn’t know anything about mine. I'd hoped that writing a letter of introduction would balance the scales. It did.

Over the last two and a half years, our correspondence has grown into a friendship. We discovered early on that we were both working in a teaching capacity. He was teaching basic literacy and numeracy skills to inmates and I was teaching much the same thing to my second-graders.

Our early conversations about teaching slowly moved onto more personal subjects. I wrote to him about life as a newlywed and he wrote back about his adult children and the realities of prison life.

The prison stories were usually shocking, sometimes frightening but occasionally funny. I remember that I burst out laughing when he revealed that "chick lit" and romance novels were the most popular books in the prison library. “Closest thing the inmates can get to porn,” he explained.

As interesting as writing to John was, it wasn’t bringing me any closer to understanding how he ended up convicted of domestic homicide. If anything, our friendship made his conviction more difficult to comprehend.

To learn more about domestic homicide and the men who commit it, I began reading court transcripts, academic papers and media reports. In observance of Domestic Violence month, I will share some tips on how women in abusive relationships can lower the risk of homicide:

· Don’t live with an abuse partner. Refusing to live with an abuser significantly lowers the risk of abuse becoming fatal;

· Treat any abuse during pregnancy as an absolute deal breaker;

· Report domestic violence. The incidence of domestic homicide is lower in men who have been charged with abuse;

· Take death threats seriously;

· Hide or remove all guns and ammunition from the home;

· Keep your plan to leave a secret and leave when your partner is not home;

· Take extra care for the first 12 months after separation, especially if the abuser is controlling;

· Take action: speak out and seek help from friends, family, police, and local domestic violence agencies.

I soon discovered that the crime John was convicted of was intimate partner homicide, not domestic homicide. Intimate partner homicide and domestic homicide are erroneously thought to be the same.

Intimate partner homicide involves killing a spouse, ex-spouse, boyfriend or girlfriend and happens at a rate of more than three per day in the United States.

Domestic homicide is a broader term and refers to the killing of children, extended family, current partners, and suicide.

I expected to see a history of controlling and violent behavior in relationships ending in homicides. However, I was surprised to learn how often abuse during pregnancy preceded homicide. In fact, recent studies have revealed that homicide is the number one cause of death for pregnant women.

Having never been a victim of abuse, I've found it difficult to understand why women in abusive relationships don’t just leave. Yet statistics confirm what victims know instinctively–the risk of homicide spikes significantly when a woman leaves an abuser. Violent men don’t step aside and let their partners walk out.

Although this information provided me with some insight into intimate partner homicide, I didn’t feel any closer to understanding why John had been convicted as none of the predictors of homicide applied to his relationship.

I kept reading and eventually found a flip side to the crime lurking in the details of the high-profile cases, those cases which attracted major media attention because the accused wasn’t a serial abuser who’d gone too far. Without a history of violence, the flip-side murders initially seemed random and unbelievable. But there was a common thread, and while it wasn’t as blatant as bruises and broken bones, it was there.

In every case, the accused could be described as: a habitual liar, narcissistic, unfaithful, materialistic, egocentric, charming and manipulative with absolutely no regard for anyone else.

Who doesn’t tell the occasional white lie, flirt every once in a while and think of themselves first? That’s not the same as being a pathological liar, an unrelenting cheat and narcissistic beyond what could be considered a normal level of self interest.

In contrast to the serial abuser, who seeks complete control over his wife, it seems these men wanted to be rid of their wives. They used murder as a cheaper and more permanent alternative to divorce. Most stood to gain financially via life insurance, avoiding costly property settlements, or sidestepping alimony and child support. The "cheaper than divorce" theory is strengthened when you consider that the victims either had children or were pregnant at the time they were of murdered.

I’m still writing to John and given our friendship, I have lost my perspective in terms of his guilt or innocence. A friend asked me recently what I’d do if John told me he was guilty.

I said that John and I rarely discuss his case but if he did confide in me, I would continue writing.

Apart from my friendship with John, which I consider genuine, any details he shared would help me realize my goal of fully understanding this complex crime and sharing that understanding with other women.

Narelle Bitunjac is a 41-year-old elementary school teacher from Sydney, Australia. She is a member of the Domestic Violence Coalition Committee and actively supports its campaign for the introduction of Domestic Violence Fatality Review teams in Australia. This is Narelle's first published piece, written for Women in Crime Ink and subsequently accepted for publication with a quarterly women's journal, Honestly Woman, "an Australian magazine for enterprising women."

Monday, October 27, 2008

A Criminal Choice

by Pat Brown

Until the horrific news of the murders on the South Side of Chicago hit the airwaves, Jennifer Hudson's life was many a girl's dream. Ms. Hudson, American Idol contestant and Dreamgirls star, had made it; well, more than made it. She had risen from the streets of Chicago and made the type of choices that eventually brought her fame and fortune.

However, Ms. Hudson couldn't choose which family to be born into, and
even though she loves her mother and siblings, she can't force them to make smart choices for themselves. Sadly, each one of her family members appears to have played with fire and ended up getting burnt by it. Mom Darnell Donerson and brother Jason Hudson ended up being shot in their home. Sister Julia lost her son Julian King (pictured right), found dead the back of his uncle's stolen and abandoned SUV; someone had no problem pumping a number of bullets into a seven-year-old boy. All totalled, this horrific crime left in its wake three homicide victims and two grieving sisters. In my opinion, however, the only truly innocent victims were the little boy himself and Jennifer Hudson. The rest aided and abetted the alleged killer.

alleged killer is William Balfour (pictured below left), estranged husband of Julia and stepfather to little Julian. He is in custody on a parole violation. But give the police a few days and I am guessing he will be charged with a lot more than that. Balfour, a felon with a long rap sheet, is a carjacker and a murderer. (Okay, he only attempted to murder someone but I never have understood how being a failure to succeed allows a criminal to get a lesser sentence and nicer label.) Balfour's past was no secret from the Hudsons but, instead of refusing to allow such garbage into their lives and that of little Julian, they made lethally bad choices.

What bad choices did the Hudson clan make? While Jennifer Hudson became a star and moved away from the streets of her Chicago neighborhood, the rest of her family chose to stay put. The less-than-moral streets continued to influence the family. Brother Jason, who had been living in the family home for the last two years, was recovering from a gunshot injury he received during a home invasion at "another location." One of his friends says he is trying to straighten out his life which makes me theorize that maybe that home invasion was a crime he was actually involved in. If this is true, then Jason was involved in crime and most likely had criminals as friends.

Julia, Jennifer's sister—who wailed at the press conference that "Julian didn't deserve this"—apparently thought he did deserve a violent psychopathic criminal for a stepfather and had no problem moving the man into her son's life. So Julia didn't object to criminal behavior as long as it wasn't directed at her.

And what of Jennifer's mom? She is guilty as well. She let Balfour move into her home while she was taking care of Julian. This was not a reformed man, a man who had been away from a life of crime for a long time and proven himself to be an upstanding citizen. This was a thug right out of prison and still behaving like a thug. No surprise Ms. Donerson finally kicked him out. But yet, until he did something to tick her off, she allowed this creep to be around her beloved grandson.

Some people will get upset with this post and say I am blaming the victims—that the only one I should be angry with is the killer. But, quite frankly, I am fed up with people supporting crime and criminals and then expecting sympathy when they get burned. Did they care about what those criminals were doing to others? Did they speak out then? Did they fight against it? Or did they welcome the criminals into their lives, give them love and support, and enable them to continue in their abuse of the community?

Maybe I am just tired and cranky tonight, but I am fed up with feeling sorry for people who sympathize with the enemy—criminals. I would rather save my tears for those who have clearly stood on the side of good or who are too young yet to make such a miserable choice. I think I will feel sorry for Jennifer Hudson and shed my tears for Julian.

Home Invasions: Coming to a scream near you

by Stacy Dittrich

In true Halloween fashion, my friends and I gathered together recently for our annual fright night. Since we’re grown-ups, this mainly consists of a few horror movies, our favorite bottles of wine, and a warm fire in the fireplace to illuminate the darkened room ever so slightly. I had my “movie-selecting” privileges revoked awhile back (after I chose a recent horror movie that was subsequently in subtitles), so I was anxious to see what terrifying and ghostly presence would emerge on the screen.

Looking at the DVD cover of the movie we were about to watch, The Strangers, I thought it was a good choice: “Oooh, ghosts wearing masks! This looks pretty cool!” I voiced loudly (missing the wry smiles that appeared on my friends’ faces since they knew what was coming).

Needless to say, it was one of the most disturbing movies I have ever seen. In fact, the “ghosts” were real people. The movie takes place in a remote home where an attractive young couple (Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman) decides to spend the night. After receiving a knock on their door, they are terrorized, tortured, brutalized, and, eventually, murdered over the next several hours by a man and two women wearing creepy masks; a genuine home invasion at its worst. If I didn’t have my eyes covered (the masks, truly, horrified me), I was yelling at the screen at the lack of common sense exhibited by the victims, “What are you doing? Run for the woods, you idiot!”

Clearly, I wasn’t entertained. When I sit down to watch a movie, I want to be catapulted from reality with no reminder of what can actually happen. I don’t need to be reminded; I saw it every day as a police officer. And, little did my friends know, that home invasions rank right up there as a crime that continuously turns my stomach.

Imagine sitting down at your dinner table with your family, talking about the day’s events, or doing your laundry in the security of your own home watching soap operas when your door is kicked in and you are surrounded by vicious mask-wearing criminals who point a gun at you and your children before ordering all of you to the floor.

For the victims, it’s an indescribable horror. They have been invaded: their home, their lives, and their security. They don’t know if the invaders simply want money, or if they are there for the sole purpose of terrorizing the family. If it’s the latter, that is much, much, worse.

Before I retired, my jurisdiction was suffering a rash of home invasions. Some of the victims were beaten mercifully, while others were terrorized for hours. To look at their faces after something like this shows the depth of horror they went through—it wasn’t a movie, and it certainly wasn’t entertaining.

Apparently, Hollywood thinks it is.

On April 11, 1981, the Sharp family was brutally murdered and terrorized in a remote cabin of the Keddie Resort (pictured left). Known since as the “Keddie Murders,” some argue the case inspired the Friday the 13th movies—teens alone in a cabin being stalked and killed by an unknown killer. However, the first Friday the 13th movie was filmed in 1980, a year before the Keddie murders. Is this a case of life imitating art or vice versa? Or, did the movies really have anything to do with the murders at all?

Of course, there are the Manson Murders. No one really knows for sure just how long Sharon Tate begged for her life and the life of her unborn child’s. And, like the Manson home invasions, another famed example of a murdered family was the Clutter family, gruesomely depicted in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.

One of the most recent cases of a home invasion—the Connecticut case of Dr. William A. Petit, Jr. had some of us considering bars on our home windows; a day-long terror that resulted in two thugs beating and raping the doctor’s wife and daughters before setting the house on fire. There is also the case of the Groene family murders by serial killer Joseph Edward Duncan, another family terrorized in their own home before being murdered.

I don’t think any of us could sit back and begin to imagine the sheer terror all of these people above felt before they died. Frankly, I don’t want to nor do I want to be reminded of it on my television.

In breaking news, as I was writing this post Sunday afternoon, various news stations began to broadcast the untimely death of Arkansas news anchor, Anne Pressly (seen below), 26. Pressly, the victim of a brutal home invasion had every bone in her face broken during the savage beating. Although she held out for several days, she finally succumbed to her injuries on Saturday. The suspects are still at large and the police maintain that Pressly was chosen randomly.

Some feel that as the economy continues its downward spiral, these types of crimes will escalate. It is much easier to invade and rob a home than a bank or convenience store. I can only hope that the persons responsible for Pressly's murder will be brought to justice.

I doubt that friends and family of Anne Pressly will look warmly to movies portraying her death for entertainment.

The Strangers was supposedly inspired by a true story, but I couldn’t find one fact to back that up. The blogs and reviews say it was a compilation of the Keddie murders and the Manson murders but, it’s just another movie depicting the real-life violence that plagues our society daily. And, again, it was very realistic.

I’ve had the experience of interviewing burglars/home invaders and their MO is usually standard. For burglars, they find it best to commit their crimes during the day when the homeowners are at work. For the home invaders—anything goes.

One suspect told me that he and his cohorts would purposely drive around remote areas looking for homes that “stood alone.” One of them would knock on the door and ask to use a phone as their car broke down, all the while scanning the interior, counting the number of people inside, etc. He would go back to the other waiting crooks and relay the information. They may hit the house at that moment, or return later.

This is also one of those crimes where I see just as many women partake as men. Never the brains behind the crime, they usually tag along and quite enjoy tormenting families.

Prevention, although never guaranteed, can be a simple integration into your daily lives.

1. During the day make sure your doors are locked. If you have a security system, have it on while you’re inside as well.

2. You teach it to your kids—never open the door to strangers. You can easily be overpowered. If someone comes to your door you can always crack a window nearby and yell out.

3. Keep a fully charged, emergency cell phone within reach. One of the cheap, convenient store track phones will do. On the flipside, keep a landline if possible. A lot of people are ridding their landlines for their cell phones. As long as landlines are available, I’ll keep one. In some rural areas, 911 have yet to obtain the capacity to pinpoint cell phone signals.

4. Dogs. Criminals are terrified of them. But, then again, so are the cops (my confrontation with a 150-lb Pit Bull will never be forgotten). Chihuahuas and Rat Terriers don’t apply here.

5. Trust your instincts. If a shady character comes to your door and leaves, call the police anyway. Don’t ask for a “drive-by,” insist they come to your door to contact you personally. That’s their job and if you’re worried about looking “too paranoid,” who cares. If you get a good look at the shady character, try to look for personal characteristics like scars, marks, tattoos, clothing, beards, mustaches, hats, etc. Don’t be dissuaded by stereotypes! I’ve seen some female suspects involved in home invasions that are attractive, young, and well dressed—they are the bait.

6. Guns. Some may or may not agree with this, but I have quite an arsenal in my home that I can access from any room within seconds. Should I be confronted with a home invader, he or she will be confronted by the end of my .45.

7. If you have an elderly relative that lives alone and has no immediate medical needs, think about getting them a medical alert necklace anyway—if possible.

With the exception of the dogs (my yellow lab would just as soon lick a criminal to death) I practice the above safety in my own home. Keep in mind, my husband and I have had our lives threatened for years as police officers and need to play it safe. For those who find the above too intense for their own lifestyles, I completely understand. But, you can always keep the tips in the back of your mind for safekeeping.

When someone (to classify them as a human being doesn’t apply) enters a family dwelling for the sole purpose of terrorizing and viciously murdering them, this portrays one of the most dangerous individuals in our society. These types of people were summarized well at the end of “The Strangers” when Liv Tyler’s character was pleading for her life and asking, “Why are you doing this to us?”

Their response?

“Because you were home.”

Sorry, ladies; I think I’m going back to my subtitles. . . .

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Where it all began . . .

by Kathryn Casey

Have you ever noticed how chance encounters can change your life? You walk down one street instead of another, happen upon an old friend, and rekindle a precious relationship, or you drive down the highway and miss your exit, take the next instead, and get hit by a car driving 60 miles-an-hour on the feeder road. Obviously, the first is a good thing. The second? Wouldn't we all prefer to know so we can make sure we get off at the right exit?

Sometimes the encounters are not completely by chance. That happened to me back in 1992. I was working as a contributing editor for Ladies' Home Journal magazine. I loved my job. I spent eighteen years with the Journal, and had incredible experiences, from interviewing presidents and first ladies to meeting the McCaughey septuplets, when there were just three-month-old little pink bundles. I enjoyed a day on a ranch with Patrick Swayze and his Arabian horses (all of them gorgeous), and I once took Marina Oswald, the widow of presidential assassin Lee Harvey, into the Dallas book depository, where decades earlier her dead husband stood aiming out a window at Kennedy's motorcade. It was her first time inside the old building, and I watched, overcome by the painful reality of what had happened in that place, as she gazed sadly out the window at the site where a president was mortally wounded.

Those experiences aside, what I wrote about the most for the Journal was crime. You might not think that a women's magazine would cover crime, but we did. Over the years, I wrote articles on murderers, serial killers and pedophiles. One article took me to Utah for a report on juvenile sex offenders and their young victims. The research absolutely broke my heart. I will always remember a five-year-old girl who'd been raped by a fourteen-year-old cousin participating in an exercise designed to give her a sense of control over her life. The youngster resolutely held up her hand and shouted, "Stop!"

I left hoping that little girl and the other children in the program would never need to defend themselves from another attacker, and I wondered if anything they learned would truly help if they did.

The article that changed my life, however, was on a Houston woman who'd married a shy young factory worker, so outwardly timid his coworkers at the paint factory showed him Playboy magazines to watch him blush. The young man, James Bergstrom, is pictured to the left, holding their daughter, Ashley. The woman in the photograph above is his ex-wife, Linda. For more than two years, Linda knew she was married to a dangerous psychopath. She called police and tried repeatedly to stop him. Her warnings went unheeded and James continued to add to his toll of victims.

Amazed at the courage of this woman, who suffered through terrifying abuse yet remained intent to save her daughter and other women, I wrote my first book, The Rapist's Wife. It came out in 1995, sold well, but due to a publishing glitch, went out of print a year later. It's the book that began my career as a true-crime author, and it's always been very special to me. I was disappointed when it was taken out of print. I can't tell you how pleased I am that HarperCollins is reissuing the book this coming week, with a new title, cover, photos and author's note, updating the case.

Evil Beside Her is available on Amazon for preorder now and in bookstores on October 28th. It's an amazing story of one woman's bravery in the face of utter depravity. Linda Bergstrom slept with the devil and lived to not only tell about it, but to stop him.

Friday, October 24, 2008

A "Well Deserved" Guilty Verdict

by Tina Dirmann

When the guilty verdict finally came for Skylar Deleon, he didn't weep. He didn't sigh. He didn't blink.

Skylar just stood there, staring blankly, with the same cold expression I imagine he wore when he callously took the lives of three people whose biggest failing in life was to trust him.

On Monday, an Orange County jury took just two hours to deliberate before announcing that Deleon was guilty in the murders of a retired couple, Tom and Jackie Hawks, and the slaying of a former pilot, Jon Peter Jarvi. The details of the crimes, which I recounted in the book Vanished At Sea, are chilling, to say the least.

I remember, when doing press for the book, I often told interviewers that in all my 15 years as a crime reporter, I'd never covered anyone so bereft of humanity as 27-year-old Skylar Deleon. This is a man who, minutes after slitting the throat of one victim, boasted to a relative, "You're dealing with the devil now."

Indeed, if evil does exist in this world, it is embodied within the skin of Skylar Deleon and his wife, Jennifer Deleon, 25, who was convicted for her part in the murder in late 2006. The case that got the most attention from the media involved Tom and Jackie Hawks, who turned up missing in November 2004, shortly after posting an ad to sell their home, a 55-foot yacht they called Well Deserved.

Skylar and his young, pregnant wife, posing as buyers, answered the ad. After gaining their trust, Skylar arranged to return to the boat with a few associates to take the Well Deserved for a test ride.

But while at sea, Skylar used a taser to overpower the couple, then handcuffed them and held them at gun point while forcing them to sign a document transferring the boat title and power of attorney to Skylar.

With the help of associates Alonso Machain and John Kennedy, Skylar then tied the couple to one of the boat's anchors and, while Jackie tearfully begged for their lives, dropped the anchor overboard. The couple was hurled overboard and sank to their deaths.

Skylar, an unemployed bit-part actor, and his wife, a hair dresser, insisted they bought the boat and the Hawks drove off to Mexico. The Hawks' loving family knew their relatives—responsible, respectable, outgoing people—would never drop out of touch. They assumed the worst. And that worst was confirmed when accomplice McCain, a guy more dumb and naive than evil, confessed to police.

No less horrific was the death of Jon Jarvi, whom Skylar befriended only to swindle him out of $50,000 in a bogus real-estate deal. Skylar lured Jarvi to Mexico, supposedly to surf and talk over this "deal of a lifetime." But once there, Skylar drove Jarvi down an isolated dirt road, calmly slit his throat, then left him to bleed out, alone, on a deserted roadway.

It took nothing short of heroic investigative efforts on the part of the Newport Beach Police Department to tie the murders back to Skylar and his main accomplice, the innocent-looking Jennifer Deleon, who, at every turn, covered for her husband and lied to the police.

In the end, Skylar and all of his accomplices landed in jail. Jennifer is serving life behind bars. Alonso and another accomplice will probably get reduced sentences for cooperating in the investigation.

But death will surely come for Skylar, and, likely, John Kennedy, who notably kicked Tom off his feet so he would more easily slide off the boat and into the frigid waters that tragic night—then grabbed a rod onboard and fished all the way home. Kennedy, a known Long Beach gang member, will face trial next year.

Skylar's death penalty case begins on Wednesday. You can bet his attorneys will drag out all the details of Skylar's terrible childhood. Basically, his dad was a drug dealer who verbally abused his son. Yeah, his tender years were rough. But I can't imagine that's going to be enough to excuse his sins.

This jury already got it right once. I'm sure they will again.

And I know, no one is more anxious to see the ultimate penalty pronounced than the Hawks' son, Ryan, who is the spitting image of his deceased father. "Let's just get on with it," Ryan said simply after the verdict was announced.

I couldn't agree more. . . .

Thursday, October 23, 2008

"Donnie Brasco" Refuses to Testify at Murder Trial

by Donna Weaver

Last month
I wrote about the start of the murder trial of former FBI agent John Connolly, Jr. The prosecution has rested and this week the defense began calling its witnesses. One of those witnesses is perhaps one of the FBI's most famous agents, Joseph D. Pistone, AKA Donnie Brasco (pictured left). You'll notice Mr. Pistone is standing at a podium, speaking into a microphone, and is not attempting to disguise his appearance in any way. There are several such photographs available on the Internet. So why did Pistone refuse to testify in defense of his old friend John Connolly unless Judge Blake granted his request for an order allowing no photographs or filming of Pistone on the witness stand?

If you are not already familiar with former agent Pistone's legendary undercover work for the FBI, you may recognize the name Donnie Brasco from the 1997 film of the same name starring Johnny Depp and Al Pacino. The movie depicts the six years of Pistone's life spent undercover as jewel thief Donnie Brasco. Pistone claims that as a result of his infiltration of the Bonanno crime family a $500,000 hit was put out on him for his perceived betrayal when it was discovered he was an FBI agent just doing his job.

Judge Stanford Blake offered to let Pistone take the stand wearing a hat and sunglasses, but defense attorney Manuel L. Casabielle said that wasn't good enough because Pistone had told them that his wife didn't want him to be photographed at all.

Casabielle explained that after Pistone infiltrated New York's Bonanno family in 1976 and helped put away numerous mobsters, the five New York Mafia families had allegedly put a contract on his life.

"He's not in witness protection,'' said Blake, noting that in the decades since he went undercover Pistone has been a very public figure, promoting his two books, appearing on television, and all over the Internet -- his face clearly recognizable.

Holding a recent photograph of Pistone that had been pulled from a website, Blake said, "Unless his disguise was combed back thinning hair and glasses that were so crystal clear you couldn't see them, there does not appear to be any disguise.''

Blake said he just couldn't justify an order barring photographs of Pistone. However, the judge said he would find Pistone in contempt if he refused to comply with a subpoena from the defense seeking his testimony. But, Connolly told the court he didn't want to force Pistone to take the stand.

"He's a friend of mine,'' Connolly told the judge. "His wife is a friend of mine. I know his children. If something happened to him I couldn't live with myself.''

Years ago during the course of a missing person investigation, I received some personal photos from one of the "bad guys" involved in another undercover FBI operation. I was astonished when I was told the identity of one of the persons in two of the photographs—Joe Pistone. After I received the photos, I set out to find the famous former agent. I have to tell you it wasn't that difficult. I was certain I had the right guy, went to his house, and walked right up and knocked on his door using a pretext in an attempt to obtain an ID photo of him—pretty standard stuff. A rather nervous, confused-looking woman answered the door. It appeared no one else was at home. I waited, watching the house for a while, but he never showed. I did not have the time to put any more effort into the surveillance then. Of course, if I am ever again ready to interview Pistone regarding my case, all I have to do now is show up at one of his book signings or some other public appearance.

The old contract-out-on-my-life-for-over-a-quarter-century excuse for not testifying in defense of his long-time pal (Connolly and Pistone pictured left at Connolly's retirement in 1990) seems pretty lame to me. Could this just be a ploy by the defense to cast doubt on Connolly's guilt by implying his actions in handling his confidential informants could be likened to the undercover work of Pistone/Brasco? If so, this ploy may well backfire for the defense. By not putting Pistone on the stand, it gives the impression of more smoke and mirrors attempting to cover up FBI arrogance and possible wrongdoing.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Cindy Anthony: "Nothing in this world"

by Kathryn Casey

“I know Caylee is alive,” Cindy Anthony said. “I know my daughter. There is nothing in this world that could make me believe that Casey did anything to Caylee. There has never been any child neglect, child abuse or anything. This young lady loves her child, more than I love Casey.”

I saw that interview on the Today Show last week, and I've been thinking about it ever since, wondering about Cindy Anthony, the woman who began the search for little Caylee by calling 911 with the words: "It smells like there's been a dead body in the damn car."

Considering the forensic evidence made public in the Anthony case (and assuming it is reliable and correct, which isn't always the case), it does seem most likely that little Caylee is indeed dead. And certainly Casey Anthony's behavior, especially misleading authorities and not reporting her daughter's disappearance for an entire month, suggests Casey is somehow involved. So my question is, for those of us who have followed the case including the pending murder charges, what do we make of Cindy? Do you believe she's legitimately convinced her granddaughter is still alive? Is she hanging onto the last shreds of hope? Or does it appear that Cindy is instead continuing a long-standing pattern of being unwilling or unable to hold Casey responsible?

I read WCI's post by Lucy Puryear last week, Is Casey Anthony Another Susan Smith?, and was impressed with her analysis of Casey Anthony. Admittedly, I am not, as Lucy is, a psychiatrist. Yet I've written about strange folks, many of them murderers, long enough to have covered a variety of types. And I found nothing to quibble with in Lucy's opinion that Casey Anthony's actions suggest she may be a narcissist. Lucy wrote: "I don't know Casey Anthony's history, but her behavior certainly fits one who has little regard for others, is primarily interested in her own welfare and happiness, and will go to great lengths to escape consequences or punishment. Susan Smith confessed to what she had done and felt remorse. Casey Anthony continues to lie and deceive."

So, what does that make Cindy Anthony? I believe there's a clue in her own words above: "There is nothing in this world that could make me believe that Casey did anything to Caylee."

Cindy isn't saying she'd have to hear Casey confess or see her granddaughter's decomposing body with Casey's fingerprints all over it. She is saying "nothing in this world" would convince her that her daughter played any part in injuring her granddaughter.

The prevailing theory is that narcissists don't just happen. As Lucy again so eloquently put it: "The causes for it are not entirely clear, but often there is a childhood history of being highly adulated by parents, not made to take responsibility for mistakes with parents often helping to cover-up or fix problems, and having things given without having to learn the value of hard work and disappointment."

In her interview, linked above, Cindy Anthony blames others for the current state of affairs, most notably the sheriff's department for not following leads, but never Casey. (Is anyone else having O. J. flashbacks?) Certainly mothers can be forgiven for believing in their children, for having difficulty embracing the possibility that their child has committed a heinous act. Yet isn't there something incredibly strange about a woman who can seemingly ignore all evidence to the contrary and declare her daughter absolutely blameless?

As Lucy mentions above, it's been my experience with narcissists that they assume their families, usually a mom and/or dad, sometimes a sibling, has the power to explain away any problem, to cover up for offending acts and make repercussions go away. The current glitch for Casey is that this time around she's facing a murder charge, and mom and dad can't say a few magic words and make everything all right.

Sometime next year, Casey Anthony is headed into a courtroom, where she won't be treated as if she's beyond reproach. Instead, she'll be a defendant on trial, perhaps with her very life hanging in the balance.

Update: A trial date is now set for this case: January 5, 2009.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

That Murky Question: Time of Death

by Andrea Campbell

You would think time of death would be something rather elementary. But it's actually a complicated concept and there are a lot of variables. The legal time of death is what appears on the death certificate. When you watch those hospital shows and they look at the clock and announce the time, that's a legal death notification.

Estimated Time of Death

This is what you're going to get from the medical examiner and it is his/her best guess for the present situation.


This marks the time when the victim's vital organs for sustaining life cease to function.

The basic time of death estimation should be given when and where the body is discovered, before it gets photographed, moved, and transported. A medical examiner (or coroner, depending on your jurisdiction) will try to “guesstimate” the approximate time the person died based on several factors. In her article for Crime Library, Katherine Ramsland tells us that time of death is one of the central factors in any murder case because it can eliminate suspects, break alibis, or place victims clearly with the suspect. That's a given. Not to mention that it helps to form a timeline, giving detectives important clues as to what could have happened when. Time as an element in an investigation has the greatest potential for leads, other than a confession of course. People usually run their lives on routine, so by figuring out how long they've been dead, helps an investigator to question friends and family; in essence, he asks: Where should they have been? Doing what? Why? With who else?

Here is a short descriptive list of what is looked at in part or in whole to help determine time of death:

1. Body temperature, also called algor mortis—a body cools when oxygen no longer is being pumped through to help keep a normal body temp of 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. The rate is approximate, but a rectal temperature reading is divided by 1.5, which is equal to one to one and a half degrees per hour since death, when the body takes on the temperature of its surroundings.

2. Discoloration from livor mortis, also referred to as lividity or hypostasis—in a dead body the fluids settle, and a dark purple color is found on the lower side where it is lying. It happens because the white and red blood cells don’t mix anymore and the reds are settling. If part of the body is lying on a grate, that pattern will be repeated on the tissues because the contact makes pressure and keeps the blood from pooling there. A phenomenon called “blanching” (press your finger to your skin, it leaves a white trail) can indicate that lividity is not permanent, and that death is probably more than two hours old but not as long as ten. Two factors may change blood color, carbon monoxide poisoning (presents a bright red color) and extreme loss of blood (no discoloring at all).

3. Food digestion—examination of stomach contents can time date when someone has eaten their last meal, and the death estimation is based on the fact that the stomach breaks down food and empties it into the intestines at a fairly predictable rate. There are many factors that can play into this determination, however, including metabolism, drugs, medication, presence of disease, and the person’s emotional demeanor.

4. Rigor mortis—this action is due to muscles stiffening on account of accumulating waste products. It generally begins a couple to three hours after death and seems to start in the face, lower jaw and neck, and then spreads over the next twelve-plus-hours up to about eighteen hours to the larger muscles in the body. The rigidity can last up to thirty-six hours after which it then begins to disappear, starting at the head and face again. This process too, is affected by temperature (heat speeds the process) and differences in musculature (if not much muscle, less stiff).

5. Decomposition and decay—a dead body builds up fluids and gas due to the microorganisms that live inside. Liquids can emanate from the mouth and nose, the tongue swells, and the abdomen turns a greenish-yellow color. Over time, the skin will blister and fill with fluid. The decomposition process is sped up by heat and slowed under colder conditions. "Decomp" attracts insects as well and they set about the body to feed and lay eggs (usually in the bloody areas first). Their larval stages are what help to predict death. Bare in mind, Dear Reader, that forensic entomologists are a rare species themselves because there are probably no more than seventy certified forensic professionals in the whole of the country.

6. Ocular—eyes that are left open after death will develop a film on the surface. The red blood cells break down here too (in the “vitreous humor”), and the eyes after two or three hours will appear cloudy. Cloudiness shows in closed eyes as well, but much more slowly.

7. Personal factors—people are a great source of time death estimation as in “the last time I saw so-and-so . . .” ; those missing an appointment help to pinpoint time, a broken watch or timepiece will help, or a time-date from a camera are other considerations.

8. Other scientists—a forensic botanist may be able to give time-date clues based on the presence of pollen, pods or whatever vegetation growth or stunting may have occurred beneath or around the body; forensic anthropologists can help add notes after skeletonization, and toxicologists will have something to say about the fluids and blood.

Further Reading:

Time of Death, Decomposition and Identification: An Atlas by Jay Dix, M.D. and Michael Graham, M.D., CRC Press, January 2000. ISBN: 0-8493-2367-3

Forensic Pathology by Dominick J. DiMaio, M.D. and Vincent J.M. DiMaio, M.D., CRC Press, June 2001, ISBN: 0-8493-0072-X

Corpse: Nature, Forensics, and the Struggle to Pinpoint Time of Death by Jessica Snyder Sachs, Perseus Publishing. (Have not reviewed as yet.)