Thursday, July 31, 2008

Split Personality? The Stripper and The Soccer Mom.

by Lucy Puryear, M.D.


There is no such thing as a "split personality." I know, most people think it describes someone who has schizophrenia or someone with multiple personalities. Really it's a meaningless term used mostly in the media to describe someone who's generically "crazy." But in the case of Mechele Linehan née Hughes, convicted killer, it may be a term that helps us understand how a seemingly loving doctor's wife and mother of a beautiful little girl could orchestrate the murder of an innocent man who loved her.

Mechele Hughes (pictured right) was a very popular young stripper at The Great Alaskan Bush Co. There she made the acquaintance of several men who became enamored of her and showered her with expensive gifts. She was good at her job. One of her admirers, Scott Hilke, asked her to marry him and she said yes. Another man began to shower her with attention and money and he eventually moved in with her. His name was Kent Lippink. He would be murdered with two bullets to his body and one to his face. He too was engaged to be married to Mechele Hughes.

John Carlin (pictured left) was the third man intimately involved and infatuated with Mechele Hughes. When Mechele's house needed repairs he invited Mechele and Kent Lippink (pictured together, right) to move in with him and his 16-year-old son, John Carlin, IV. Mechele was engaged to Scott Hilke who was now in Washington, engaged to (so he thought and told his family) Kent Lippink, and on occasion travelling to Europe with John Carlin. This was an odd family to say the least, with Mechele, the successful stripper, at the center of it all. And then Kent was found murdered.

Fast forward to today. Mechele is now Mechele Linehan. She married Colin Linehan, a doctor, in 1998, and they had a daughter in 1999. She had friends, volunteered, and according to her husband, is a wonderful wife and mother. She has also been tried, convicted, and sentenced to 99 years in prison for her role in the murder of her "fiance" Kent Lippink. John Carlin, Mechele's former suitor, has been convicted and sentenced to 99 years in prison for pulling the trigger and killing Kent. Both deny any involvement in his death and are filing appeals.

I don't know if they are guilty or not. Both juries believed so. I invite you to review the evidence for yourself; it's fascinating and certainly is incriminating. But what is more fascinating to me is how there seem to be two Mecheles.

There's the Michele who was a professional exotic dancer and could manipulate men to fall in love with her and shower her with money and gifts. This Mechele was even able to entice another man to kill for her. (Kent had a life insurance policy with Mechele as the beneficiary that he changed a few days prior to his death.)

Then there's the respectable, upstanding Mechele, married to a doctor, loved by her friends, a model citizen. Colin, her husband, insists that it is an impossibility that the woman he loves and knows better than anyone in the world is capable of murder. He is fighting to have her released. Her friends say they know it is ridiculous to think of her as a "femme fatale," manipulating men and plotting to have them murdered.

Who is Mechele Linehan? Could she be both dangerous and a wonderful and loving woman? Is it possible that her husband is right; the woman he knows is incapable of murder? Maybe he only knows one side of her, the side she allows him to see. How could he not know he was living with someone who could kill?

In psychological terms there is a phenomena called "vertical splitting." Imagine a vertical line drawn straight down the middle of your body, from the top of your head to your feet. This leaves you with two halves, split vertically, a right and a left side. The sides are both part of you, but because you are split in half, sometimes it's easy to ignore what your left side is doing. And because your two sides aren't fully integrated, it's easy to pretend that the left hand that just stole that apple isn't really you—at least it's not part of the right side of you, the side that would never imagine stealing anything.

People use this way of functioning psychologically everyday. An easy example is the pastor who speaks from the pulpit about the evils of homosexuality but is later caught in a clandestine homosexual affair. In the pulpit he is the man he believes he says he is; righteous, moral, and a zealous follower of the Bible.

But when his desires overtake him he is able to put aside the righteous man (split off that part of himself) and allow the other part of him to be fulfilled. He is able for a moment to not think of himself as the man in the pulpit while he is engaged in activity that is abhorrent in one area of his life, but is fulfilling in another. When he is back in the pulpit he is able to ignore or split off his previous actions. And isn't everyone shocked and surprised when they find out? How did we not know? How were we all so taken in?

This happens when people have affairs, but still believe they are good spouses in good marriages, or when people lie, steal, and cheat others (think of Enron), but still go to their kids' little league games and donate money to charity. And the common denominator is that people who are able to use vertical splitting are very engaging, charming, successful, and able to make the rest of us believe they are who we think they are, or who we need them to be. When they are committing adultery or stealing, or worse, they are able to shut out the other reality of their lives and not think about who they may hurting or disappointing. It's almost as if they can believe it never happened, they never did anything wrong, and they are outraged when caught and continue to deny bad behavior.

It is quite likely that Mechele committed this crime. And it is quite likely she will never admit it, never feel remorse for it, and will continue to believe that she had a good life that never should have been interrupted by a trial.

Her husband (above, with Mechele) will most likely never believe that the woman he so loves was capable of murder and he will continue to believe that she was wrongly convicted. Her daughter will suffer for the rest of her life missing her Mommy. Kent Lippink will never have his life back because he trusted and loved the wrong woman.

Who are these people? They live next door to you and me, we work with them, we go to church with them, and some of us, like Colin Linehan, are married to them.


Wednesday, July 30, 2008

How Can I Talk to My Children About Molesters?

by Robin Sax

I can’t tell you how often I am asked, “What should I say to my kids about keeping their bodies safe—without scaring them to death?”

As a prosecutor and a mom, I struggle with the same questions. But I have an added one: Are my kids going to be forever jaded because I work in the tragically real world of child sexual assault crimes?

Actually, the key to keeping such talks from being scary is for parents to assume that body/personal safety discussions are not scary! Just because we, as adults, are terrified of what we know about “the world out there,” we don’t have to convey our fears to our children.

However, there are lessons that kids must know if we expect them to delve into the world as functioning independent adults.

As trite and over-used as the expression seems, “Knowledge truly is power.” I am not suggesting that parents need to tell their kids the gruesome details of every case in the news, or pound statistics into their heads. But youngsters need to have a solid understanding of specific safety skills appropriate to their age and their own personal level of understanding.

The California Department of Justice Web site reminds parents that CDJ representatives “provide safety information to our children in a number of other areas that may seem pretty scary, such as 'drop and roll' if your clothes catch on fire, or 'Look both ways when you cross the street so you don’t get run over.' ”

When it’s time to discuss sexual abuse, the best way to combat the fear associated with such talks is to just start the discussion! It’s never too early to begin giving children information that can help them stay safe. However, treat personal safety like any other parenting lesson—find appropriate times, don’t tackle too many lessons at a time, and consider the child’s own level of development and understanding.

The most important quality is directness, from parent to child, and then back again from the child to the parent. When I speak to my kids, here are some principals that I keep in mind:

Always use the anatomically correct body part names: It is very important that children know and use the correct names for their genitals and “private parts.” I had a case where a child referred to her vagina as her “bread.” It took three different disclosures for the girl’s teachers to realize that when she was saying that “someone touched my bread” she meant her vagina, and not the bread on her peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

A conversation should be a two-way dialogue: Parents should begin talking with children to invite a discussion. By beginning the discussion in a dialogue format, it will encourage both children (and parents) to feel comfortable talking, and allow for the discussion to develop naturally, in a free-flowing manner.

If it accomplishes nothing else, the safety conversation should at least cover these points:

If anything makes you or your child feel uncomfortable, it should not be allowed!

If something uncomfortable happens at home, tell a teacher.

If something uncomfortable happens at school, tell a trusted grownup.

And while we’re on the subject of fear, parents should not use fear or scare tactics educate their children on personal safety. Teaching from scare tactics can often backfire because it goes against the objective to empower the child.

By empowering them, we’re helping them handle any situation that arises, while fear tends to make them freeze and may actually inhibit their ability to cope in an emergency.

The bottom line is: The only thing that should scare you is NOT talking to your children about personal safety!


Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Civilization and Its Discontents

by Katherine Scardino


We talk so much at Women in Crime Ink about violent events in our world . . . and how wrong (regardless of which side of the table you are sitting on) our courts are about almost everything . . . and how our country is going to the dogs, etc. etc. . . . that I thought it might be nice to venture in another direction for a change. I don’t know . . . call it my "sensitive side."

Recently I was driving back to Houston from visiting my sister in deep East Texas. That’s the part of Texas where the country roads are "real" country roads—where the trees meet in the middle above your head, where buzzards are eating road kill in the middle of the road and you have to veer your car around them because they do not fly away even when a car drives by.

But I digress. As I was tooling down the road, I just happened to look beyond the first row of trees near the road. I noticed that behind what a driver would ordinarily see was . . . woods. I mean WOODS—like thick trees all growing tight as pick-up sticks without any cute paths or roadways in the middle.

So I started thinking (which is always dangerous), but have you ever just stopped and thought how far our country has come in a mere 150-plus years? There was no machine for cutting trees, paving roads, building houses; gads, there wasn’t even a television to watch CNN on, or "Days of our Lives."

One hundred and fifty years is not even a speck in the timeline of our planet. It is not much of a speck in the timeline of almost every other country, except the United States of America. We are so new and yet we have come so much further in our culture, education, inventions, music, and our laws, especially our laws. With all the advancements in other areas, have we really "advanced" in our legal system?

In our country's infancy all those years ago, we were a rough nation, especially in the area of crime and punishment. We were still having shootings in the middle of the road (you know, in front of the saloon, à la John Wayne), hangings off the old oak tree—and for crimes as awful as horse stealing. Maybe we were just simpler then. Our lives were not so complicated.

I wonder if we have evolved for the better or for the worse? Long before the mid-1800s, we punished people even more severely. I have a book that I frequently refer to: The History of Capital Punishment. It was written by John Laurence in 1960, and has a foreword by Clarence Darrow from Mr. Darrow’s book: Crime, Its Cause and Treatment. In 1922, Darrow wrote: "Frequent executions dull the sensibilities toward the taking of life. This makes it easier for men to kill and increases murders, which in turn increase murders, and so on, around the vicious circle."

So even then, this great lawyer understood that killing people because they kill people does not really get us anywhere. And in closing, Mr. Darrow said the following:

In the end, this question is simply one of the humane feelings against the brutal feelings. One who likes to see suffering, out of what he thinks is a righteous indignation, or any other, will hold fast to capital punishment. One who has sympathy, imagination, kindness and understanding, will hate it and detest it as he hates and detests death.
In my musings driving down the country road, looking at the woodsy backdrop and thinking of what life would have been like "back then," I wondered if we were really better now.

Sure we have all our "toys" and the great mysterious Internet—which in my mind is like the monolith in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. We all worship it as being the greatest thing—ever, but we don’t really know what IT is, right?

But it is part of our new world. Have we done the right thing by "evolving" to a form of capital punishment called lethal injection—instead of the hangings, firing squad, drawing and quartering?

Clarence Darrow seemed to think that by doing something on a regular basis, then it was not a big deal any more—just a regular thing. Is that what we are doing by executing people because they execute someone else?

Have we dulled our sensibilities to the point that it is no longer front page news that we have killed another person? I notice that executions are generally no longer on the front page—but have been relegated to the inside page of a lesser section of our local newspaper.

What is next? Who wants to see an execution on television? Wendy Lesser explored the societal implications in her book Pictures at an Execution. When the State executes, it does so on behalf of "The People." What's the next step in a world where "virtual reality" too often becomes reality? I think of the recently released movie Untraceable, where real-time online killings become a mania that users participate in by sheer number of hits, making us all "hit"men.

Do "The People" really wish to become a futuristic version of the lynch mob of our primitive years? How can that be considered progress? Anti-death penalty folks say "Nature loves life" and life should be protected and preserved.

Clarence Darrow, again, had a great thought: "The thing that keeps one from killing is the emotion they have against it; and the greater the sanctity that the State pays to life, the greater the feeling of sanctity the individual has for life."

Yet our State does not show us much "sanctity" for life. We do not show much sanctity for life. So where are we going with all this?


Monday, July 28, 2008

No More Sweet Dreams

by Susan Murphy-Milano

Two young boys, ages nine and eleven, lost their loving mother in the winter of 2004. Her death was an accident, they were told.

Never again will their mother greet the boys in the morning when they wake. In the afternoon when they return home from school, Mom will not be waiting for her boys. She will never again ask either of her sons "How was your day at school?" She will not be in the kitchen preparing dinner while they do their homework.

And Mom will no longer kiss them on the cheek, wishing each of her boys sweet dreams, as she had done thousands of nights.

The boys miss their mother, deeply. They are not "allowed" much time to grieve. You see, their father has already made other plans.

The boys I am talking about are the children of Drew Peterson and Kathleen Savio, Peterson's third wife. Their older son, Thomas Peterson, now fifteen, was eleven at the time of his mother's death. Younger son Kristopher, now thirteen, was nine.

Immediately, the boys were whisked into Dad's new home with his teenage pregnant new wife. And Dad's wife is the direct cause of Mommy and Daddy's divorce.

Over time the boys have adjusted. They are excellent students and active in sports. Stacy gave birth to a son. Two years later a daughter was added to the less-than-happy family.

According to sources, the year prior to Stacy Peterson's vanishing, Drew Peterson began to track his child bride's activities. He monitored her cell phone activity via the Web site of the phone company provider. While she was at Dominick's Food Store, her step-sons received calls in fifteen minute intervals as Drew requested an accounting from his boys on "What is Stacy doing? or "Who is she talking to?” This went on until they reached the driveway of their happy home.

Once news of Stacy's untimely disappearance hits the airwaves, the lives of Thomas and Kristopher Peterson were, again, abruptly altered. This time, the pain and humiliation associated with their father's behavior will affect them for the rest of their young lives.

Whatever dark secrets they know, will remain buried deep within the souls of these young men.

Fear of the unknown . . . What will happen if they tell the truth . . . These are not chances they are likely to take any time in the near future.

Any child whose mother is suspected of being murdered by their father is forced to cope with the trauma of violence. The sheer grief associated with the loss of a parent is devastating.

What goes wrong in this type of dysfunctional family?

Parents hurt their children more by omission than by commission. Children often take on adult responsibilities, such as watching and caring for their younger siblings. As an example in this case, both boys have been thrust into the adult world, made to testify before a grand jury. These children have been robbed of their childhood. Not once, but twice in their lives. No doubt their mixed feelings and roller-coaster emotions will continue into adulthood.

Consider for a moment what it must be like for them to attend school. What are other kids saying to the Peterson boys? Whether allegations against Drew Peterson are true or not, his sons must endure and defend the circus-like activity displayed by and surrounding their father on a regular basis.

Please tell me what parent in his or her right mind is going to allow a teenage daughter to go on a friendly date with either of these teenage boys?

These two boys are not at fault. Neither is to blame. But, if they are to have any chance at normal lives, it will be when they each turn eighteen years of age. Hopefully, before going off to college, they will petition the courts for a legal name change.


Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Trophy Exchange

by Diane Fanning

Spending dozens of hours talking with a serial killer has a permanent impact. The experience often pops up in your mind at predictable, as well as, quite unlikely and inappropriate times.

So, of course, when I sat down to write my first police procedural, I just had to put a serial killer in it. Nonetheless, that is not the character in the book that fascinates me the most.

Lieutenant Lucinda Pierce, Homicide Detective, is my real focus. Life's been rough for her lately. She lost an eye and disfigured her face responding to a domestic violence call. She accidentally killed a small child in the middle of a shoot-out with his father.

Now she's up against a serial killer and her main suspect is a highly respected doctor known for his international relief work.

It's a good thing Lucinda doesn't mind bending the rules.

In a starred review, Kirkus wrote: "Fanning has produced an exciting, emotionally intense story with a complex heroine whose future adventures will be widely anticipated."

Library Journal "highly recommended" THE TROPHY EXCHANGE calling it a "near-perfect police procedural." And Booklist chimed in, too: "Fanning's true-crime experience gives the story added verisimilitude and she has made great strides in tightening her storytelling. She is one to watch." Verisimilitude? Now, that's a word you don't see in a sentence too often.

The first chapter is posted on my website so that you can sample the book.

I have a signing in Houston at Murder By the Book on Thursday, August 7 at 6:30pm. Check the calendar on my website for other signings in San Antonio, Austin and Round Rock.

So hurry up and read it. The next Lucinda book is already at the publisher. PUNISH THE DEED is scheduled for release in the UK in December and in the US in March 2009.


Stacy Dittrich on "Geraldo at Large"

Watch Stacy Dittrich this evening on FOX's "Geraldo at Large." Our Policewoman / Novelist will discuss unfolding developments in three high-profile missing persons cases. This past week, some revealing tape-recorded conversations surfaced in the disappearances of missing Illinois mom Stacy Peterson and Florida toddler Caylee Anthony. Both are presumed dead.

In Bolingbrook, two longtime friends of Drew Peterson have been secretly recording their conversations with the suspected wife killer for several months. According to the friends, a married couple, Peterson made incriminating statements.

And from the Orange County Jail in Orlando, missing child Caylee's mother Casey Anthony was taped in telephone conversations with the little girl's grandmother, Cindy Anthony. The telling exchange between the women is ripe for analysis. Plus, earlier this week, a 911 tape of Cindy was released. On it, Cindy tells the operator that her daughter's car smelled "like there's been a dead body" in it. Prosecutors suspect that the two year old is dead, but so far a body has not been found.

A third disappearance Geraldo will address has officially turned into a murder case. The body of Nancy Cooper was found earlier this month in North Carolina. Her husband skipped the memorial service.

Other guests on Saturday's program include ex-New York D. A. and FOX News analyst Jeanine Pirro. The time to watch tonight is 10:00 ET, when Geraldo and his guests will bring you insightful commentary on "all the news that matters to you, LIVE and 'at large.' "


Friday, July 25, 2008

Homicide: A Career in Death

by Sgt. Eric Mehl

I stood in the hallway of a luxury hotel on the north side of Houston. It was late and I was tired. I carried with me an empty clipboard and I was wearing a ball cap emblazoned with the hotel logo. I knocked on the door directly in front of me.

In a loud and clear voice, I announced, “Engineering!”

I knew the man who would answer my knock had, several hours earlier, beaten an elderly woman to death with an ax. We had come to this particular hotel on a hunch that he might be there. An inquiry made at the front desk confirmed our suspicion. The dead woman was registered at the hotel. In fact, according to the hotel records, she had rented two rooms. After she had been murdered.

Hotel room doors can be difficult to breach. Any delay at the door could give the killer time to arm or barricade himself. Adding to the predicament was that the rooms rented by the killer were first-floor lobby rooms. Hotel patrons would be put at risk if we couldn’t take him quickly and quietly.

A plan was developed for him to open the door for us. The real hotel engineer cut off the electricity to the rooms the killer had rented. We waited for the suspect to call the front desk and lodge a complaint. He didn’t bother. So the front desk clerk called him and told him an “engineer” was on the way to restore the power in his rooms.

Now, standing at the door, I heard the privacy lock being disengaged from the inside. My heart began to pound in anticipation of what was to come. My right elbow rested against my .45 caliber pistol, holstered and hidden from view. It would be of little use this night.

The door swung open and there, standing in front of me, was the man who had taken an ax to an old lady. His size alone was daunting—he stood over six feet and weighed at least 220. Since he thought I was there to restore his electricity, he seemed genuinely happy to see me.

Trust me. In about one second he wouldn’t be quite so pleased.

I charged like an angry linebacker on steroids. At the point of impact, he let out a screech similar to a little girl's upon seeing her first spider. He crumbled when faced with someone comparable in size and strength. An old lady I’m not. It was over in seconds. The murderer was sitting on the floor in handcuffs and no one had been hurt. It was a successful execution of the arrest warrant.

Just Another Day at the Office

This is my world as a homicide detective. I have to admit, I’m addicted to the work.

Nobody enjoys a good murder mystery more than I do. The one where I’m standing among th
e carnage left in the wake of a fresh kill. Making those decisions in the first few critical hours that can mean the difference between bringing a killer to justice and knowing that he's out there unidentified. The stakes are high and the pressure is on. Moving quickly as the leads develop and staying with your case, regardless of fatigue, is mandatory. The work is dirty, demanding, challenging, and frustrating. I’m in my element. I can’t imagine having chosen a better profession.

I was a 28-year-old patrol sergeant when I was asked to apply to the Homicide Division of a large metropolitan police department. Now, more than twenty years later, with more than 500 homicide scenes behind me, I’m still there. I was warned early on not to stay too long.

“Promote out,” I was advised, “and become part of management.”

I didn’t heed the warning.

It might take only one murder case to cement your future. Mine came early in my homicide career. She was a 75-year-old woman who had been at home when she was beaten to death with a brick. Her name was Wilma. The force used against her was so tremendous that the brick broke in half. The killer then tied bound her by the neck, to a support column in her kitchen. Her legs were tied to the refrigerator door. After using her washing machine to clean the blood from his clothing, the killer stole most everything of value she owned. He had a thirty-six hour lead on me.

Two days later, I was in a small police department in Mississippi taking the murderer’s confession. He held nothing back:

There was some bricks on the side of the house and I grabbed one. . . . I walked inside. . . . She had her back to me at the kitchen table. . . . I raised my arm up and struck her on top of the head real hard. . . . She fell forward, toward the window, screaming for help. . . . I hit her so hard with the brick that it broke the brick. . . . She was laying on the ground in the kitchen and I picked up the broken piece of the brick and started pounding her with it. . . . She wasn't really moving at the time. . . . She was breathing a little bit. . . . I searched the area for a rope or something that I could tie around her neck and choke her with it.
Wilma’s murderer was buried with evidence. He had left his finger- and palm-prints at the murder scene. Bloody footprints on the kitchen floor had been made by the shoes he was wearing when he was arrested. I tracked down the stolen items he had pawned or otherwise sold. I had the ribbon of a typewriter found in his possession transcribed to prove it belonged to Wilma.

After both sides had rested their cases at trial, the defense lawyer reminded the jury that he had informed them, in his opening statement, that the evidence against his client would be, “overwhelming.”

It was—and I was hooked.

Priceless Benefits

People will often ask how I can endure the constant barrage of death and tragedy. I’m not sure it’s easily explained. In the end, it’s the murder victims themselves who keep me coming back for more. Especially the most vulnerable among us, the very young and the very old. Someone has to stand and speak for them since they can no longer speak for themselves.

The work can, at times, take a toll. I remember a two-year period when 1,288 people where murdered in Houston during 1990 and 1991. The scenes came so fast I found myself standing in the middle of the next homicide scene before I could complete the last one. Or the one before that.

There was a three-month period during that time that was especially troubling, at least for me. During those three months—April, May, and June—I stood over the bodies of seven murdered children. Six had been shot to death in two separate incidents. The seventh was a 4-year-old girl who had been raped and beaten to death with a tree limb. Her name was Monique. Her killer had left her in a wooded area. It took us five days in the Bayou City's merciless heat and humidity to find her.

Imagine the sight.

Secretly, I hoped people would stop killing children. It was not to be. A little boy named Datrick was beaten to death one night, by his father, because he refused to eat his spinach. He also dared to give his father, a preacher, an evil look. His father told us he refused to have such an undisciplined child. The preacher no longer has that concern.

Then there was Floyd. Floyd was two years old and must have done something incredibly terrible. I say this because his mother decided to punish him by placing him in a bathtub of scalding water. The injuries were textbook. She decided against medical treatment—Children’s Protective Services might take him away. It took Floyd ten days to die. Ten agonizing days.

When I arrived at that scene, Floyd’s mother and her boyfriend were sitting in their living room watching television. A patrol officer motioned me to a bedroom. There was nothing in the bedroom, except Floyd. He was lying on the floor against a wall. His skin, from the waist down, looked like pink, green, and yellow bubbling wax. Infection had set in. It was absolutely horrific. Floyd died in that bare bedroom all alone. I’m sure death was a relief—Floyd didn’t have to hurt anymore.

So there it is. Floyd, Monique, Datrick, Wilma, and the hundreds of other murder victims who came after them have kept me in Homicide for so many years. Though dead, they were provided with a voice and they were heard, albeit in a courtroom. Someone, whom they had never met, was there to say that what they endured was wrong and that the people who hurt them have to be held accountable.

Life After Death

My days as a policeman are now numbered. Death is cruel and plays no favorites. It visited my home twenty-one months ago. Seeing so much death in my life has numbed me to a certain extent. But nothing in my experience prepared me for having to tell my 7-year-old daughter that her mom would never again be coming home.

Today, I try to manage a homicide caseload along with the school and social schedule of my daughter, now nine. Time constraints prevent me from giving either the proper attention. People tell me I’m too young to retire. I disagree. My daughter has already lost her mother to heart disease. She won’t lose me to my job.

The big city police department can make you feel like you’re nothing more than an employee number and a seniority date. I will be easily replaced when I leave. My hope is that the young sergeant who replaces me and walks into the Homicide Division for the first time acquires a pas
sion for the work. A passion I’ve carried with me for the past two decades.

Eric Mehl is a sergeant with the Homicide Division of the Houston Police Department, where he has worked for twenty-seven years. He was one of two detectives asked to form the Cold Case Unit, which he now heads. Sgt. Mehl lives in Houston with his daughter. Read more about his career here.


Thursday, July 24, 2008

Mystery Man - Clue Box

Time for our next Mystery Man. We hope you enjoyed the four-part series we featured over the Fourth of July holiday. Our next guest contributor is a big-city homicide detective from the Death Penalty capital of the nation: Houston, Texas. This investigator was one of two detectives selected to form the department's Cold Case Unit. Since his unit's expansion, he has been able to add detectives like WCI's Connie Park.

Twenty-seven years ago this summer, our Mystery Man joined the Houston Police Department. He was promoted to sergeant in the late 1980s, and has spent most of his career since then in the Homicide Division. When he joined HPD in 1981, the Murder Squad was dealing with the surge of violence of the late '70s, when the team of homicide investigators had more business than they could handle. On the two manual typewriters detectives used to take statements, the rollers only stopped moving for as long as it took for the next in line to sit and load a clean sheet of paper.

Investigators were typing statements on computers by the time this Mystery Man arrived. The most notorious statement he took was on videotape: the confession of Andrea Yates, who drowned her five children in 2001. Though it's difficult to imagine, one desperate parent murdering multiple children would not be the only quintuple homicide he investigated.

Ten years earlier, he stood over the bodies of four children and their father, a distraught man who murdered everyone because his wife had sued for divorce and asked the court to grant him sole custody of the children. What the detective remembered most was this: After purchasing a .45 semiautomatic, the father had driven the kids to K-Mart for new clothes and a Polaroid. At home, he took a photo of the children, wrote a note to his wife that the picture would be the last time she saw them, and fired a bullet into each child's head before ending his own life the same way.

Those mass murders are but two of the several hundred cases he's investigated. Somewhere in there, he met a Harris County prosecutor he wanted to share his life with, and together they had a beautiful daughter. Over the years, his cases have taken him all over the nation, though he's not one to boast. "My killers seldom run to the garden spots of the US," he said. "I've awakened in such places as Hackensack, New Jersey; Pascagoula, Mississippi; Bakersfield, California; and Monroe, Lousiana." Tomorrow, he'll share some of his memorable Houston cases. You shouldn't need any other clues to convince you that this Mystery Man is not to be missed. Check him out here tomorrow.


Unreasonable Doubt?

by Vanessa Leggett


What's a juror supposed to do when common sense says a defendant is guilty, but the law says the prosecution has not proved its case? Before a defendant is brought to trial, the case against him is usually solid enough to secure a conviction. By the time a verdict is read, both sides are primed to hear one word: GUILTY. The evidence should be developed and presented in such a way that even the rare defendant who is actually innocent is mentally prepared to hear that word. That’s why all but the jurors are stunned whenever the verdict read is “Not Guilty.”

I've seen it happen in a Texas courtroom. I'll never forget the experience. My legs went noodly on me. So did the defendant’s, apparently; his attorneys seemed to hold him up. You don't have to be a witness or on trial for your life to appreciate the dramatic effect of those two little words. If you're at least 20, you remember your reaction to the televised verdict in "The Trial of the Century," the O. J. Simpson case. Whether you believed he was guilty or not, your jaw likely dropped. You can see in this video clip an expression of initial disbelief from Simpson himself, who took a moment to absorb the words he had just heard.

I was reminded of this feeling last night. While working on a blog I intended to post on suspected wife killer Drew Peterson, I heard a broadcast announcement that made me change my blog topic:

"We have breaking news to report to you," a talk-radio host announced. "Believe it or not, a jury in St. Paul, Minnesota found Aaron Foster NOT GUILTY for the murder of Barbara Winn. Twenty-seven years after the family fought for justice . . . a murderer, in their mind, Aaron Foster, walked free. . . . A shocking verdict for court watchers."
To my surprise, it was a shocking verdict to me, though I had only a passing knowledge of the case—woman says Get out of my life to abusive partner, who, rather than comply, takes her life. The setup was as familiar as the Simpson and Peterson cases. As was that queasy feeling in my gut that comes when I sense a miscarriage of justice.
Listening to the broadcast announcement of a not-guilty verdict from the other side of the country, I could only imagine the reaction of the victim's family, her children, and others present in the courtroom. No one knows the shock of hearing "Not Guilty" better than surviving family members. They'll tell you the effect is at once as dizzying and as sobering as a slap across the face.
Everyone who witnesses such a verdict is affected on some level. In the Minnesota courtroom, the words "not guilty" created chaos. The FOX affiliate in St. Paul reported that "the verdict left many people in the courtroom upset, swearing and crying." Family members shouted, "Oh my God. Oh my God." Another news source said that several jurors sobbed.

A Single Shot

The first fact I heard—that 39-year-old Barbara Winn had been shot in the chest—had my mind leaning in the direction that the gunshot wound was not self-inflicted. Might seem like jumping the gun, if you'll pardon the pun, but I will explain.

When I taught a course in Homicide Investigation for the Criminal Justice Center at the University of Houston-Downtown, we covered the basics of distinguishing a homicide from a suicide. Cadets are given various handouts (illustrated, incidentally, by the same talented man who designed Women in Crime Ink's Justitia logo—Rex White, Director of the CJC's Police Academy). As I recall, one sketch depicted a woman shot twice in the chest. The caption read: Homicide or Suicide?
Well, the number of shots alone pretty much answers the question. Most people who shoot themselves wouldn’t have the strength to discharge a firearm more than once, even if the first shot was a miss. Still, if the drawing had shown only one gunshot wound, but in the chest, like Barbara Winn's fatal injury, I would still lean toward homicide. Women, vain creatures that we are, rarely mar our faces or breasts.
Too Many Bruises
Barbara's body had been marred before she was shot. She had numerous bruises, some fresh, which prosecutors suggested had been inflicted during the struggle that led to the shooting. Aaron Foster (pictured to right of Barbara) had a pattern of domestic violence with women. His relationship with Barbara had grown increasingly violent, according to the "Justice for Barbara" Web site. Finally, she asked him to move out, told him the relationship was over.
"I'm not your girlfriend anymore,” Barbara wrote to him in a letter. “I will not be abused. I am tired of the bruises. I am somebody and don't have to be treated like a nobody. Strike three you're out."
After Barbara broke up with Aaron, she joined friends and family for a night out. She returned home just after midnight on May 8, 1981. Aaron had not moved out. He was waiting for her.
Later, two of her three children were awakened by a "loud fight." Both heard the gunshot. One son, then 12, testified that he heard his mother utter her last words: "Oh Bubbie, that hurt. . . ." (Aaron Foster's nickname was "Bubbie.") Reading that quote broke my heart. It's so sad, so real, you can almost hear her voice weakened by disbelief.
The boys said they ran to their mother's room just as Bubbie was rushing out. The children found Mama propped in a corner with a hole in her chest. The boys watched their mother die, powerless to keep her alive.
Though Barbara's sons told authorities they saw Aaron Foster running from their mother's room, Aaron's story to police was that at the time of the shooting, he had been downstairs packing his belongings into his car. He admitted he "heard a gunshot." But he said that he'd arrived in the bedroom to find her near death.
According to Aaron's statement to police, Barbara said, "I shot myself. . . . Get rid of the gun." That does not sound real at all. Why would she say, "I shot myself"? . . . Just in case Aaron was wondering who had used his gun to shoot his ex-girlfriend? (The same woman who'd put her feelings about him in writing: "Strike three you're out.") The simplest explanation for what he described as her dying declaration—"I shot myself"—was that he was attempting to clear himself by claiming her death was a suicide.
And he didn't stop there. Looks like he had to create a reason for fleeing with the weapon, so he told police that as Barbara bled to death she supposedly said, "Get rid of the gun."
So that's all it was, Aaron Foster would have us believe—just an unlucky guy trying to fulfill an ex's last request. . . . Come on. A woman is dying, so instead of calling for help, he runs to hide the gun? And what possible reason would Barbara have to tell him to dispose of the weapon? Think about it: Why would a woman who had fatally injured herself be concerned with police finding the weapon she'd used? There is no law against a person taking his or her own life. It's a practical matter. A dead person cannot be prosecuted.
The manner of Barbara’s death was listed as “undetermined,” a finding that did not change for more than a quarter century. Time was not on the side of the State. Over the years, ballistics evidence was misplaced. Surviving family members, understandably, lost hope.
Not Enough Evidence
Law enforcement, as Kelly Siegler noted in yesterday’s post, is routinely frustrated by prosecutors who won’t file charges against suspects who seem guilty to the public. The Barbara Winn case is an instructive example. In a televised press conference last year, the sheriff accused the county prosecutor of “dragging his feet.” Standing with Barbara’s family, he said, “We are befuddled as to why they haven't pressed [charges]. It's either lack of competency, lack of caring, lack of making it a priority . . ."
It had seemed that way until 2006, when a contentious sheriff's election caused prosecutors to lower the bar, indicting Aaron Foster for third-degree murder. According to Minnesota statutes, if Foster, "without intent to effect the death of any person, [did] cause[] the death of another by perpetrating an act eminently dangerous to others and evincing a depraved mind, without regard for human life, [he] is guilty of murder in the third degree."
By charging Foster with third-degree murder, prosecutors had hoped to show that even if Aaron did not mean to murder her, Barbara's death had been brought about during the course of an assault that culminated in a gunshot, killing her. That the manner of her death remained undetermined would not matter with third-degree murder, which can be unintentional or accidental.
The elements of the crime seem to have been satisfied. Barbara had fresh bruises and the couple's scuffle in the bedroom had been heard by the boys (pictured above with sister and mother Barbara). Those facts alone constitute evidence of assault, and exhibiting a deadly weapon (his gun) qualifies as "an act eminently dangerous to others," namely Barbara. An armed man assaulting a defenseless woman seems evidence enough of a "depraved mind." And the essential element, that she died, was indisputable. That's all the jury should need: evidence of a fight and a dead body.
Other circumstantial evidence that was not admitted would have been compelling. She was leaving him, had ordered him out. But the defense was able to suppress her Dear John letter and other evidence taken without a proper search warrant. Nor did the jury hear testimony of Aaron's pattern of violence with other women.
Should prosecutors have waited for more evidence before indicting? Apparently, the county attorney decided it was now or never. Twenty-seven years is a long time, and in all likelihood, prosecutors did not expect evidence would get any better.

Yes, it's true that there is no statute of limitation on murder. But there is a Constitutional limitation on how many times any state can try someone for the same crime. The State of Minnesota had one shot. The government missed. Maybe prosecutors had rolled the dice, taking the "he might beat the rap" tack—prepared to be pacified by taking Foster on the hellacious ride of a murder trial.
This jury's verdict showed that the county prosecutor had not been "dragging his feet," as the sheriff charged. Nor was the State's reluctance to go to trial a sign of incompetence, indifference, or failure to make this case a priority. If prosecutors lacked anything, it was admissible evidence sufficient to convict.
With the trial behind, two things appear clear: The defendant's rights were protected, but justice seems to have been undermined. I believe in safeguarding our civil rights. Yet I also believe in securing justice for victims. One should not have to come at the expense of the other.
Fewer Solutions
So what is a juror supposed to do when guilt is obvious but the evidence is insufficient to convict? Follow the law, as each man and woman on a jury panel must—however onerous and uncomfortable that can sometimes be . . . their internal conflict evident when jurors, as in the Foster case, must read their verdict and weep.
And what are victims supposed to do when they feel justice has not been served? Make their voices heard. Use the power of the pen (or the Internet) to send a message to those who can make a difference. Victims can also write to the jury, as did the family of Barbara Winn, in a letter that states in the opening paragraph, "We are not angry with you, the jurors. . . ."
Members of the jury actually posted written responses. Most agreed with this juror's statement: "[W]e couldn't prove guilt by the information we had at the time." Another juror's comment captured the essence of the conflict: "If you had looked over at the jury box as the verdict was read you would have seen many of us in tears because we so badly wanted to put it to rest. I am sorry for the way it ended but we had to follow the law and not our hearts."
Just Enough Courage
It's sad that after high-profile not-guilty verdicts, the public accuses juries of lacking common sense. I say such juries possess an abundance of courage, sending a message to prosecutors: Don't ask us to find someone guilty unless you plan to put on enough evidence to convict. In more acquittals than not, a jury's doubt was not unreasonable. What might have been unreasonable was the prosecution's decision to put the defendant on trial without having a strong case or a compelling argument.

When a case is weak or a prosecution is made in bad faith, the Constitution is there to shield the individual whose life and/or liberty is at stake. It might not seem right or fair that criminals are sometimes insulated from accountability by laws that occasionally leave victims hanging.
The truth is, the Bill of Rights isn't reserved for the accused. Law-abiding folks can take advantage of other entitlements. Barbara Winn's family members have exercised their First Amendment right to free speech. A scrolling marquee on Justice for Barbara reads: "AARON FOSTER IS A MURDERER." Can they say that? I think so. A defense to accusations can be found in more civil statutes than in criminal courtrooms: Truth.


Wednesday, July 23, 2008

WIN AT ALL COSTS? NOT REALLY

by Kelly Siegler

Why is it that the media and Hollywood seem to be obsessed with the idea that prosecutors are always after the "win," the "scalp," the conviction? How many times have we read a book or watched a movie that was all about some unethical prosecutor seeking to advance his or her career by convicting an innocent citizen? Not just about blurring the lines and disregarding the rules of evidence but flat out doing their utmost to convict someone who the make-believe prosecutor knows full well is innocent of any crime.

Oh, it all makes for a very touching and absorbing story. As well as feeding into the kinds of tales that Hollywood likes to tell.

The only problem with such stories is that nothing could be further from the truth. Quite the opposite, in fact, from the standard, typical everyday problem that truly exists with prosecutors. Ask any veteran police officer or detective. Ask any long-time crime victim advocate. Ask any respected judge. They know what the true problem is with way too many prosecutors. And it has nothing to do with trying to convict innocent citizens.

The real problem is that far too many prosecutors are worried about taking on a difficult case, a case that is not a slam-dunk or a whale ("as easy as harpooning a whale in a barrel," as we say in Harris County, Texas). Too many prosecutors demand that the cases presented to them for the filing of charges come to them with all the questions answered and wrapped in a pretty, little bow. What prosecutors seem to forget is that the question they need to be asking is whether a jury of twelve, ordinary, normal, non-lawyer citizens would convict on the evidence presented to them or evidence easily developed by the prosecutor after the filing of charges.

Evidence easily developed after the filing of charges. Maybe it's laziness that's the problem. Or maybe prosecutors get away with rejecting charges because everyone forgets that a lawyer can work up a case and investigate it further just like the police officer who initially worked on the case can. There is absolutely no reason for someone preparing to go to trial to not try to make the evidence stronger. The truth is the truth and a prosecutor can find that one additional witness or one little piece of evidence just as easily as a cop can.

I betcha if you could interview a group of experienced detectives and ask them what their number one pet peeve about their job was, the answer you would get would be having to present their cases to prosecutors who have no guts. As a prosecutor with over twenty years of experience, I can't count the number of times I have heard well-respected police officers vent about this problem.

So why is this "chicken" attitude such an unknown problem? Simple. Primarily because prosecutors don't usually talk about it. And those same righteously upset cops don't typically tattle about it; they just try to figure out a way to work around the problem. So instead of officers being able to go to a prosecutor to seek advice on an investigation, what happens more often than you would ever expect is that the officers find the prosecutors they are forced to deal with to be an obstacle in their investigations.

And that is a tragedy.

What is even more tragic is the number of victims in our society who have been made to believe that the crime committed against them or against their loved one is a crime that does not merit the prosecution or filing of charges. It would be a rare case for a police officer to say to a grieving family member that he believed that there was enough evidence to file a charge and convict a guilty defendant BUT the PROSECUTOR he went to decided there was not enough evidence. Cops don't do that because all that does is cause a victim more pain. So in effect what happens is a cowardly prosecutor is shielded from having to make a tough call or take on a difficult prosecution. And a hurt or grieving family is left to suffer even more.

So let this serve as a wake-up call or a call to arms to victims. If you have a true understanding and appreciation of the evidence in a case that concerns you, ask your detective what he thinks about the state of the evidence. If necessary, complain. To the police officer's supervisor, perhaps more importantly to the prosecutor's supervisor. What if the prosecutor is the elected DA who has no boss? Then complain to your local media; that's a story they would love to jump all over. They would get a twofer: the ability to investigate a REAL crime and criticize the local prosecutor's office while showing them up. Besides, what do you have to lose by complaining?

What seems to get lost in all of this is the fact that prosecutors are like any other professionals. By that I mean that no two are alike. Do you think every teacher handles her classroom the same? Or every orthopedic surgeon agrees on when surgery is necessary? Is there a difference in attitude between NFL quarterbacks Brett Favre and David Carr? Or between Diane Sawyer and Nancy Grace? Same thinking applies to prosecutors and how they do their jobs. It's just that we don't seem to appreciate that personalities do affect their decisions, such as what constitutes enough evidence to file charges.

Prosecutors' differences are more apparent in the courtroom during trial. We need to realize that those same differences apply to their decision-making, especially when it comes to that initial decision on whether to take on a case that might well be more difficult than most.

In contrast to the very rare, despicable prosecutor like Mike Nifong (below), how many more are out there handling cases but refusing to accept charges when the evidence seems more than sufficient to you? Nobody truly knows ALL of the evidence in any case but the investigating officers. Do we really know ALL of the evidence in the JonBenét Ramsey case? (See Stacy Dittrich's blog for an update.) Or Natalee Holloway's case? Or even in a case that concerns you?

Win at all costs? Funny. Unfortunately, the truth is, all too often, prosecutors won't even get in the game.


KELLY SIEGLER ON INTERNET RADIO TONIGHT!

Tonight at 10:00 ET, tune in to "War on Crime Radio" to hear Kelly Siegler discuss a murder case that took prosecutors 27 years to make.

Today, jurors began deliberating the fate of Aaron Foster, on trial in Minnesota for the shooting death of his girlfriend Barbara Winn in 1981. Last year, when Foster was finally charged, the victim's family stood beside the sheriff who accused the county prosecutor of "dragging his feet":

"We are befuddled as to why they haven't pressed [charges]," the sheriff said at a televised press conference. "It's either lack of competency, lack of caring, lack of making it a priority. . . ."

Kelly will also discuss the worldwide controversy surrounding the upcoming execution of José Medellin for the sadistic slayings of Elizabeth Peña and Jennifer Ertman. Kelly was a prosecutor in the multiple gang-rape murder case.

Listen to the live broadcast tonight at 10:00. Kelly will be taking callers' questions and will be joined by WCI's Policewoman / Novelist Stacy Dittrich along with Crime Victims Advocate Andy Kahan.

War on Crime Radio
10:00 p.m. ET / 9:00 p.m. CT
Wednesday, July 23
Call-in number: 347/838-9781


Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Outlaw Casey on the Radio! Tune in!

by Kathryn Casey

Mark your calendars! This coming Saturday, July 26th, at 4 p.m. CT, I'll join bestselling true-crime author Burl Barer and his fun-loving cohost, attorney Don Woldman on their outlaw radio true crime show. Tune in to hear us discuss the crazy world of crime along with my two new books, A Descent into Hell, on Austin's bizarre Colton Pitonyak case, and my debut novel, Singularity, the first in the Sarah Armstrong series. Barer says the show is "guaranteed to keep you drop-jawed, stunned, amazed, amused, aghast and agog! And that's an understatement."

Now that I'm reading this, I'm wondering: should I be afraid? Very afraid? Uh, oh. Anyway, I'm committed. (I may have to be after the show.) Hope you tune in!