Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Crimes and Misdemeanors -- and Murder

by Cathy Scott

Journalists by nature are nosy -- and we're chameleons, fading into the background as we observe the happenings around us. I've been to more homicide scenes than I care to count. But once there, I'm all about the details. So, as I've put together a book this past year about the Barbara Kogan case (scheduled for publication in spring 2011), I've been all about the details.

On a rainy October morning in 1990, Kogan's husband George was gunned down by an unknown assailant. From the start, Barbara was a suspect. For nearly two decades, she adamantly denied any involvement. Now 67 years old, she has admitted to playing a part in hiring a hit man to shoot three slugs into George Kogan's back. She said, through her attorney, that she didn't want to put her two sons through the stress of a lengthy trial. She is about to be moved from the Riker's Island jail to a New York prison upstate to serve out a 12-to-36-year sentence.

But the first criminal case I was involved in -- and the reason I became a crime reporter -- wasn't a murder. It was a misdemeanor crime against two friends, my sister and me. As a teenager, I regularly followed crime stories in the local newspaper, and I always was interested in TV news reports, although during that era growing up in San Diego County, there wasn't much crime to speak of.

I lived in La Mesa, a suburb east of San Diego known as the "Jewel of the Hills" with its near-perfect weather and safe neighborhoods, which still have walkable, tree-lined streets. It was a quiet, middle-class, crime-free 'burb -- and a nice place to raise children.

And so it was shocking on one spring night in that same neighborhood when I became a victim along with my sister and two of our friends. And while we were the ones victimized, it was so absurd to us at the time that we laughed -- mostly out of embarrassment.

It happened as we jogged in preparation for a 30-mile benefit walk for hunger -- plus my sister and I were getting swimsuit-ready for Spring Break in Palm Springs. So we took a week-night run as we had dozens of times before. We never felt at risk -- until that night.

We started our run from a cul-de-sac at the end of our block. About two blocks later, a man sitting in a dark-colored Volkswagen Bug stepped out of his car just as we jogged by. The four of us were chatting it up as usual, but it creeped us out enough that we stepped up our pace.

Our route took us a few blocks before turning right, running a few more long blocks, and turning right again to make for a run of a few miles. The last stretch was past a church, then up a hill toward home.

But halfway up the hill, the same man we'd seen blocks earlier stepped out of the darkness and under the light of a street lamp. He was naked from the waist down, with his trousers around his ankles.

It was startling. but we moved so quickly that the man was as shocked as we were. He started running too, away from us, stumbling because his pants were still wrapped around his ankles. He hobbled away while we crossed the street and ran to the home of a neighbor, Mrs. Harris, to call the police. One of my friends, in the meantime, screamed at the top of her lungs, so much so that my sister afterward described it as "screaming and waving her arms hysterically, a la Blanche in Bonnie and Clyde."

It was no exaggeration. And perhaps that was what we all wanted to do that night -- scream -- but didn't. Instead, we giggled. Before that, as a group, we had felt pretty fearless.

When police arrived, two officers asked us direct questions about what we saw, where the man was standing when he dropped his pants, and a good description of the suspect and his car. Then we all went to our respective homes. Within 30 minutes, an officer called and said they had located a suspect and his car. As it turned out, the man lived around the corner from us -- which creeped us out even more -- and his VW was parked in his driveway.

Police needed the four of us to meet them on the street in front of the man's house. So we drove there. Sure enough, standing with the officers was the same man who had earlier exposed himself to us. The man was arrested, and later we were summoned to court for a trial. Outside the courtroom with our mothers, we met the deputy district attorney prosecuting the case. He informed us that the suspect had just pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of lewd conduct.

Thus ended my first involvement with a criminal case. I've been fascinated with criminal law ever since, not as a victim but as a journalist and author. I wouldn't write about that night until many years later; it was hardly a crime worthy of a news story. But for four young women, it was a pivotal moment in time. It stripped away our sense of safety and security in the neighborhood where we'd grown up.

When I eventually became a crime reporter, my habit was to write about the underdog. And for many of their families, what we as reporters put on paper is the last time their loved ones will be written about, so I've always felt it's important to do right by them.

That has been my goal with the George Kogan murder, to tell it like it is and get to the bottom of the story. In a murder-for-hire homicide like his, which has been anything but open-and-shut, sometimes it's tough getting to those crucial details. But in the end, dogged determination usually gets us the facts, documents and interviews we need. 

George Kogan's family, as well as his estranged wife Barbara, the accused and now convicted, should expect nothing less -- the good, the bad and the ugly. Joseph Pulitzer once wrote that journalism is "a noble profession" he'd spent his life doing. While not all would agree with him 100 percent, it's our responsibility, as writers and journalists, to get the story right. George Kogan, shot in the back in broad daylight in October 1990, deserves as much.

Photo of Barbara Kogan courtesy of the New York Post.


Story Teller said...

Great post! I'm a journalist and fan of true crime as well, and it's very interesting how you weave your own experience into the story of poor George.

I look forward to reading your book!


Cathy Scott said...

Thanks so much for your kind words, Story Teller. Writing is such an arduous process, and those of us who love it despite that began writing for one reason or another. For me, I'm hooked on crime. And George Kogan's story happens to be the one I'm hooked on right now. You said it right -- poor George. It's quite a story. Thanks again. --Cathy

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