Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Airport Evidence are Heads


by Andrea Campbell

I always hate it when Arkansas has some strange news story ongoing. The state has a not so great redneck stigma to overcome, as many states in the South often do. But this is just, well, darn weird y’all (and I say that with love because I’m not even from here originally). One news story was titled: “Coroner holds on to heads in boxes.” Another was: “Human heads go nowhere for now.” Puleese, there is no grammatically sufficient way to convey this headline (ouch).

Bad Labeling, Strange Cargo

Just recently, a Southwest Airlines employee questioned the freight shipment documents for containers that were being sent from Adams Field in Little Rock and posted for Fort Worth, Texas. Yes, there were human heads in boxes at Little Rock Airport, lots of them. The Associated Press reported: “Officials say a Southwest Airlines worker stumbled across a few boxes of human heads at the Little Rock, Ark., airport.” How on earth do you stumble upon this, you ask?

Apparently the heads were being shipped by JLS Consulting of Conway, Arkansas, and the containers were brought in by General Delivery of Little Rock. But when they reached the Southwest Airlines cargo office, the deliveryman said he didn’t know what they contained. Okay, what do airlines ask you when you check baggage? You know, the “are you traveling with …” questions, and, "... did anyone give you an unknown package” speech. 

So you know this questionable freight answer is not going to fly, literally. And the airline's employees know the drill: in 2009, Southwest Airlines moved 182 million pounds of cargo. So the airline agent did what they're supposed to do and opened the containers. The agent found red bio-hazard bags and heads wrapped in absorbent pads. According to the airline's company spokesperson, Chris Mainz, the company wisely refused to ship them airfreight because they were packaged and labeled incorrectly. And he called the police. Enter one of our state’s coroners, Pulaski County’s Garland Camper.

Over to the Morgue

Camper took possession of the heads and had them transported to the county morgue, where they’ve been since June 9. There are between 40 to 60 whole and partial heads.

The shipment was bound for a Fort Worth medical laboratory that uses them for a continuing education program for doctors, said JLS founder Janice Hepler.

And Camper replied, “I’m not just going to release a bucket of heads to go across the country without verifying that these were indeed lawfully obtained.” The specimens were in three rubber containers.

The hang-up continues because Coroner Camper says he hasn’t been able to verify the information—the company can’t accurately describe the heads and there are inconsistencies. Hepler is cooperating and understands; she says nothing is wrong, that they see the coroner’s point of view, and they'll eventually present proper documentation.

Caution for Good Reason

Camper told reporters that in his 24 years with the coroner’s office, this was the first time he knew of a shipment of bodies being stopped. "We've come to the conclusion that there is a black market out there for human body parts for research or for whatever reason," Camper told NBC. "We just want to make sure these specimens here aren't a part of that black market and underground trade."

While the heads were donated to science by an undisclosed organization—the Medtronic project—their spokesman, Brian Henry, said the company uses the specimens for physician education and training and in the development of new surgical tools. He also talked about a similar holdup a few years ago involving incorrect labeling. He probably shouldn’t have shared that.

Practice Called into Question

Okay, if you’re in the business of shipping body parts, why aren’t you getting it right? The coroner had every reason to be suspicious and was just performing his due diligence. Henry remarked, “We certainly expect our suppliers to adhere to the required processes to safely ship or transport specimens,” adding that the company would “work with our suppliers to make sure that all future orders are properly labeled.”

Ethical Lapses and Administrative Mistakes

It just makes someone reconsider donating their body to science, now doesn’t it? (That and the horrible movie “Pathology,” but let’s not go there.) Still, federal law prohibits buying or selling body parts. Companies can charge for transporting body parts, but people, you must get it right. I mean, there is a certain amount of decorum here. While I'm sure anatomical materials are shipped frequently, I don’t think the public wants to hear about snafus in this regard.


There have always been horror stories and jokes told about human remains, but no one wants their loved one to be the subject of the story, now do they? Mary Roach, author of the book Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, thinks that good science outweighs any taboos we may feel. She writes: “… being carved into bits and chunks and shipped to a dozen different universities and institutions seems no more distasteful than decomposing in the dark underground or being burned to a char in a crematory retort. I'm all for post-mortem adventure and travel. (I'm told that if you donate your brain to the Harvard Brain Bank, for instance, it rides up front in the cockpit on the plane to Boston.)”

The Pro Camp and Cautions 

A website called Donating Your Body to Science has an article called “The Ultimate Donation: How to Give Your Body to Science and Keep It Safe,” by the New York Times' Tara Parker-Pope, and she says that bodies donated to science have helped create crash-test dummies and safer cars, protective gear for soldiers, and a better understanding of numerous diseases.

But she also cautions that: “… potential donors should also ask what happens to a body if a university doesn't need it, and whether auditing systems are in place to track how the body is used. … potential donors and family members should ask what happens to a body when the research is complete? Many medical schools cremate the bodies. Some hold memorial services, and family members may be allowed to attend. A few universities, such as Wayne State, promise to return remains to family members.”

Mr. Henry has since told reporters he believes the heads, which he described as “four cranial samples and 40 temporal lobes,” were mislabeled by the vendor, causing the mix-up.


Notes: Southwest flies to 69 cities in 35 states.
Donating your body to science: http://www.flatrock.org.nz/topics/older_and_under/death_wish.htm
TSA travel info: http://www.tsa.gov/311/index.shtm
Video and update on the Southwest story: http://www.wxii12.com/video/23957372/index.html


Tuesday, June 29, 2010

A Big Day: A New Trial and a New Book

by Kathryn Casey

First the trial: Today begins a new milestone in the bizarre saga of Laura Hall.

In August 2007, Hall, a University of Texas student, was convicted of helping her then-lover, Colton Pitonyak, flee to Mexico to escape prosecution in the 2005 murder of a young woman named Jennifer Cave. But there was something more, something hideous. Hall, who'd hoped law school was in her future, was also found guilty of tampering with evidence, specifically helping to dismember Cave's corpse.

The Pitonyak case, some of you may remember, was the subject of my fifth true crime bookA Descent Into Hell.

Hall appealed her convictions. She failed in the biggest sense: the guilty verdict was upheld. But Hall won on another front: the court ruled that she was entitled to a new sentencing. Why? Early on the one witness put on the stand to testify during the sentencing phase, a cab driver, didn't identify Hall from a police photo lineup. That fact wasn't disclosed to Hall's defense attorney. Looking at the case, I can't disagree with the court. Hall's attorney deserved to know that information while the witness was on the stand.

Still, I'm wondering if this new sentencing trial will turn out to be a win for Laura Hall, or if she'll one day rue her decision to proceed with it.

Why? This is a horrendous murder, a bloody, awful crime scene, sure to raise emotions. On the first go-around, Hall was eligible for up to a ten-year sentence, but the jury only gave her five. She's already served 22 months and is eligible for parole. Why should she be worried? The bottom line is that Hall is unable to keep her mouth shut.

While now behind bars, for months while the case worked its way toward retrial Hall was out of jail, living with her parents in Tarpley, Texas. During that time, she talked openly about her role in the case, even boasting to one man that she "capped the bitch," which could be interpreted as admitting she fired a post-mortem bullet found lodged inside Jennifer Cave's severed head.

So when the trial begins today in Austin, prosecutors have witnesses who can illustrate in gory detail that Laura Hall feels no remorse, and that she, in fact, bragged about defiling another young woman's body.

You never know what will happen in a courtroom, but my prediction is that Laura Hall won't get a sentence reduction this week. In fact, she runs the very real risk of walking away with more time. Perhaps Hall should have been careful what she wished for. Now that she's got it, she may find that this new trial isn't to her liking.

Now let's talk about the second big event of the day, the debut of my new true crime book: Shattered. On Houston's David Temple case, the book brings to life a fascinating real-life tale of love gone wrong, of college sweethearts who end up in a deadly dance of dominance and control that spawns a horrible tragedy.

The 911 call came in from a red brick Colonial in a quiet Houston suburb at 5:36 on January 11, 1999. "Somebody's broken into my house and my wife has been shot," David Temple said, his voice breaking. "Oh, my God.... Oh, Jesus.... She's eight months pregnant."

At the time, three years before Laci Peterson disappeared and her husband Scott became a prime suspect, it seemed impossible that any husband would brutally murder a pregnant wife. In the Temple case, prosecutors wanted more evidence than detectives could provide, more proof. The result: a stalled investigation that left Belinda's family and friends aching for justice.

Shattered dissects an eight-year investigation into the murder of Belinda, a beloved high school teacher. In addition to missing evidence, there were other complications, including that David was a former football hero and a high school coach. In Texas, we admire few more than those who battle for us on the gridiron. Could this small-town hero be a cold-blooded killer?

Along with a detective who never quit, Shattered features one of the most hard-fought trials I've ever covered. Two Texas legal titans battled it out, one intent on avenging the death of a young mother and her unborn daughter, the other convinced his client wasn't a killer but another victim.

Did David Temple murder his beautiful, pregnant wife, or was he an innocent man, persecuted by an out-of-control prosecutor? Who would the jury believe? Beginning today, Shattered is available in bookstores, at retailers including Walmart, and on the Internet through many sites, including Amazon.com.

Friday, July 2, 2010: As I predicted above, Laura Hall's appeal didn't go as she'd hoped. The jury just gave her the max, 10 years, twice the original sentence. Laura, you should have been careful what you wished for!


Monday, June 28, 2010

Point, Click, Stalk?


By Robin Sax and Guest Contributor Melissa Alonzo Kriz

Ever pass by a building or landmark, wonder what it is, and wish you could find out right on the spot? Now you can -- with the click of your phone's camera and the launch of "Goggles," a new image-recognition technology that instantly provides pictures and information based on a single photo. The beta (still in testing) application was developed by Google to run on the Android operating system, also developed by Google for mobile devices.

This remarkable visual search technology soon will be expanded to allow a user to take a mobile-phone picture of an item (work of art, book, plant, etc.), then instantly search for similar images and information about the object on the Internet. As our technological capabilities increase exponentially, we might all say this was inevitable. We might be comfortable with how we'll use the new programs for fun and for good. 

But a pause is necessary.

Imagine you are at the gym or the grocery store, and a creep sidles up and manages to take a picture of you with his cell phone. Within seconds, using this image-recognition technology, he would have access to your photos on Facebook and find your name, where you work and live, and any other information about you that exists in cyberspace. That's a scary prospect. 

Take it one step further: What happens when predator aims his camera at a child on the playground? The predator would have access to similar images of the child on the web; they could lead to the child's name, school and possibly home address.

Goggles is currently limited to letting users find and learn about inanimate objects. However, technologies (including a yet-unreleased component of Goggles itself) already exist that use similar methods to crawl the web looking for images containing facial characteristics of people. The photos could be culled from your employer's public website, online community newsletters, schools' and universities' sites, Facebook and other social-networking sites, and any other public area on the web where your photo may reside (even without your knowledge).

Google has taken some heat for privacy concerns on some of its services, so for now it is holding off from releasing the facial-recognition aspect of Goggles. However, other software developers are already delivering mobile and web applications containing facial-recognition technology. Just look at your iPhoto if you are a Mac user.

The Swedish company The Astonishing Tribe (TAT) is currently testing a product called Recognizr. The TAT product allows a user to snap a photo of anyone in public, select the "recognize" button, and then receive photos and information about that person from social networking sites. TAT does have privacy policies; they offer an opt-in provision (or permission) from the subject of the photo in order for Recognizr to work. 

But TAT doesn't plan to offer its service directly to consumers. Instead, it will make the technology available to mobile-phone makers and phone-service provides so they can develop their own applications.These companies may or may not choose to follow TAT's privacy standards.

Face.com, an Israeli company, also has developed several products that include facial-recognition technology. Developers will be able to use and expand upon its services. One Face.com product, CelebrityFinder, uses facial recognition technology to pull all photos (and lookalikes) of a celebrity from Twitter feeds. Face.com is in the process of enhancing the face detection function to include profile poses. Face.com privacy policies say the use of its product may not violate user privacy, and that users must inform their subjects that they've been tagged and provide them the ability to remove those tags. I feel safe already.

The bottom line is that the facial recognition technology is already here. We live in a "point, click, and stalk" world. So how can we protect ourselves, and our families, from stalkers who'll use this technology to their criminal advantage? It is unlikely we can pass an enforceable law making it a crime to take a non-celebrity's photo in public, even if the photo taken is of a child.


Perhaps federal legislation could be aimed at the technology companies and mobile phone carriers? We could demand strong, mandatory privacy policies for the facial-recognition software from Face.com, TAT, and other developers as a pre-condition of sale or use. While this type of legislation wouldn't guarantee protection from illicit use of this potentially creepy technology, it would assist in increasing consumer awareness. Most of all, we must hold those who develop, host, and use the technology accountable so we can prevent the next wave of cyber-stalking before it begins.


Friday, June 25, 2010

Mystery Man Tracks Murder in the Himalayas

by Jonathan Green

I’m not sure whether my epiphany dawned on a remote, snowy mountainside - in the shadow of Mount Everest on the Tibet border at 14 feet above sea level - one of the most hostile environments on the face of the earth. Or if it was simply sitting in my basement office making calls over several months to reluctant interviewees that were never returned.

Either way, a few months after starting my investigation into the murder of 17-year-old Tibetan Buddhist nun, Kelsang Namtso, by Chinese paramilitary soldiers – a killing witnessed by at least 100 Western mountain climbers, many of whom refused to bear witness to what they had seen – I began to think I had set myself an impossible task.

Conventional wisdom is that writing a book is like climbing a mountain. I had to do both, but even that wasn’t the hard part.

As an investigative journalist it’s easy to take for granted that, although the job is not without it’s challenges in the US, at least freedom of speech is enshrined in the constitution and is upheld in daily life. You don’t get 15 years for speaking to a journalist in, say, Wisconsin.

But I was investigating a state-sanctioned murder in modern-day Tibet, one of the repressed places on the face of the earth. Tibetans face 15 years in prison just for talking to a Westerner, over e-mail or the phone, about the political situation in their country. Let alone talking to a Western reporter about a murder by the Chinese police.

And therein were the first of many problems of reporting a narrative set in three countries separated by the highest mountain range in the world in regions were free speech is criminalized.

At the heart of my story are two girls from remotest Tibet, best friends, who nursed a dream to escape Tibet, cross the high Himalaya, all in the hope of a few seconds with the Dalai Lama. They joined 75 other refugees before tragedy struck. Kelsang was murdered in front of Western climbers. Many didn’t want to talk about what they had seen lest they upset the Chinese authorities and were refused entry back to climb in Tibet again.

But, I persevered, and therein I found a redemption of sorts.

Because, in stark contrast to these obstacles, a few extraordinarily brave people stood up against the might of modern-day China to help me bring the injustice of the murder of an amazing young woman to light.

The first was her best friend, Dolma Palkyi (right), whom I spent weeks interviewing and who gave selflessly in talking about the killing of her friend, which she witnessed first hand. She did so because of her conviction that, simply, people needed to know the circumstances of Kelsang’s murder.

And secondly, a very brave Romanian climber Sergiu Matei, who risked his life to film the murder, saved a Tibetan refugee and then smuggled footage of the murder out to the world. Today, the loop of the shooting plays all over the globe on Youtube and other outlets as a permanent memorial to the bravery of a young woman who was murdered while trying to escape to a better life of religious freedom and for a brief meeting with the Dalai Lama.


After many years of struggle, my book slowly evolved and so did a truth and realization in my work, and perhaps a valuable life lesson too. It was that, no matter how hard things appear, there will always be the brave, the few, who will help us whether we are journalists, police officers, attorneys or anyone else who works in the field of justice. And that despite an army of uncaring, or unhelpful or plain obstructive, if just one person stands up to speak out against injustice it can, and does, make all the difference in the world.

Murder in the High Himalaya by Jonathan Green is available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble and in all good bookstores. Jonathan Green is an award-winning journalist and author. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Men's Journal, the Financial Times Magazine, British GQ and Esquire and the Mail on Sunday's Live magazine among many other publications.


Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Unexpected Knight


by Pat Brown

I know Father's Day has passed, but I want to tell you a story about a knight in shining armor. Well, okay, tarnished armor, and he came riding a Metrobus, had trouble staying gainfully employed, and had a few minor scrapes with the law. When I first met him, I thought he was an opportunist, a petty criminal who was taking advantage of a beautiful, naive woman. I will call him "Charles" and the lady, "Diana."

I interpreted for Diana for quite a few years at the hospital. She was a sweet, African-American deaf woman who had a difficult childhood growing up in foster homes. It wasn't that she was a problem child; she was simply abandoned to the system. When she became an adult, she lacked education and job skills, and she struggled to survive, living in less than great circumstances. And then, as happens far too often to women, especially those who are targeted because they can't hear you coming, she was raped.

But Diana kept her head up. She believed in God and in good, and she didn't let what had happened to her destroy her soul. Then she met Charles. A hearing man who knew no sign language, he still managed to woo her and within a short period of time, he married her.

By the time Diana introduced me to Charles, she was working a steady job and he was getting into trouble here and there, landing himself in jail on occasion. I wondered whether he saw this Deaf woman as a good mark, someone to take advantage of. He moved into her apartment, and I thought he might be mooching off of her, using her income which included disability checks. I wondered how well he treated Diana, if he abused her or cheated on her. Finally, one day, I found out just what kind of man Charles really was.

Diana was pregnant with their first child. Together they came in for her appointment and to get results from the various tests run on pregnant women. The two were waiting in the room with me when the doctor walked in. He sat down and started reading the results from the paper in front of him; he didn't raise his head to make eye contact. As soon as I saw his demeanor, I knew what was coming.

I interpreted. "I am sorry to tell you that your HIV test came back positive."

I will never forget what happened next. Shock registered on both their faces, and Charles's hands flew up to the side of his head, framing his horrified expression. Then he stood up and abruptly walked out of the room, leaving his wife alone with me.

Tears started sliding down Diana's cheeks and she asked, "Why? Why me? Why now?" I had no answer for her. I moved over next to her and put my arm around her, and she cried quietly onto my shoulder. Minutes passed and I wondered what this poor woman was going to do.

Then the door opened and Charles came back in and sat back down in his chair, grim-faced.

I moved away from Diana and sat down in my seat again.

Diana turned to look at Charles and started signing. I interpreted because, while Charles had learned a little sign language, he would not be able to understand what Diana was saying at a time like this.

"Charles," she signed, "if you want to leave me, I understand." She looked resigned already, simply waiting for confirmation.

Charles looked at her and shook his head and as he spoke, Diana turned to watch my hands to see his answer.

"Diana," he said quietly and strongly. "You are my wife. I love you. I will never leave you."

The look on Diana's face, the astonishment, the happiness, overcame the cruel sentence of the test results. Her knight in shining armor had shown up, even though he had been there all along.

Ten years have passed since that day and just a couple of months ago, a car drove up to my house and Charles and Diana got out, along with their daughter and son. We spent a wonderful evening together. The children were lovely, well-behaved kids, and their parents clearly adored them. Diana looked healthy and happy. Both Charles and Diana are gainfully employed and while they aren't rich by any means, they have a home full of love.

When they left, Charles helped Diana and the children into the car and then ran back to me.

"Those kids don't know how lucky they are," he said to me. "And you know what I mean," And then he winked at me, ran back to his waiting family, jumped in the car and drove off.

Victims of crimes often suffer financial, physical and emotional loss. But the worst of these three is the pain of destroyed relationships, of spouses and significant others bailing out because they don't want to deal with their mates' issues or their own issues. Diana suffered loss after her rape, but she was blessed with the kind of man every woman hopes will be there when the chips are down and the road ahead is going to be tough.

I wish every other woman in this world who ends up a victim of a sexual assault would get her own knight in shining armor; one special loving man, just like Charles.


Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Death of a Wonder Horse

by Deborah Blum

The name Phar Lap comes from an Asian word for lightning; a sky flash. A passing dazzle of light, a spark in the night.

And so he was, the big copper racehorse from Australia, his dazzling speed making him one of those unexpected beacons of hope during the Great Depression who, according to a report published in an international chemistry journal in April, was killed by a massive dose of arsenic.

Of course, no one who follows race horse history could be entirely surprised by that finding. For one thing, it built on preliminary results from 2006. But from the day Phar Lap died in California on April 5, 1932, rumors have circulated and suspicion simmered that he was killed by someone from the gambling syndicates who had invested in other horses.

After all, gamblers in Australia had earlier tried to shoot the big horse.

The Wonder Horse -- one of his many nicknames, along with the Red Terror -- was born in October 1926 in New Zealand and thought to have so little promise that he was purchased as a two-year-old by American businessman David J. Davis for about $130 (US). As the story goes, when the gangly youngster shambled into sight, the new owner was so horrified, he refused to pay to train him. The Australian trainer, Harry Telford, offered to train the colt for free in exchange for eventual part ownership of the horse.

Phar Lap won his first race a year later and, as they say, didn't look back. He'd matured into a beautiful, powerful chestnut with a cheerful disposition and a drive to win. Too much of a winner, some thought. On November 1, 1930, the day of the prestigous Melbourne Stakes, a car started following him on the way back from morning practice and shots -- apparently ordered by a rival owner -- were fired at the big horse. They missed, and no one was ever caught although a furious Davis offered a $100 reward, huge for the time. Phar Lap, though, remained unfazed. And won the race.

In fact, it was one of 14 straight victories that year, followed by 14 straight victories in 1931. In his four-year racing career, Phar Lap ran hard and often and fast. He won 37 of 51 races, and that would include his last.

Davis, by now enamoured of his bargain colt, decided to enter him in an international big prize race, the Agua Caliente Handicap, at a track near Tijuana, Mexico. The purse for the winner of that race would be more than $11,000 (comparable to about $100,000 today). Although Telford was reluctant, Phar Lap was shipped by boat to Mexico. In a hard-fought race, he once again triumphed in a flying finish, still watchable, in fact, in a YouTube video.

Three days later he was dying.

Davis had moved him to a private ranch near Menlo Park, California, while he negotiated for entrance into other lucrative private races. On that morning of April 5, 1932, one of the stablehands found the big horse convulsing in agony. Phar Lap died several hours later. Speculation of deliberate poisoning has followed his story ever since, although alternative theories have been offered -- from severe gastroenteritis to accidental poisoning from the use of pesticides on the ranch.

Phar Lap was such a sweet-natured horse that those who knew him mourned not only the loss of a champion athlete but the loss of a friend. Telford said, "A human being couldn't have had more sense. He was almost human, could do anything but talk ... I loved that horse."

The racehorse was such a hero -- and a martyr -- to fans in Australia and New Zealand that museums from both countries telegraphed to ask for the chance to display the horse. Davis, after consulting with Telford, decided to send Phar Lap's "great" heart to Australia's National Institute of Anatomy in Canberra. The skeleton went to the Dominion Museum in New Zealand. And the hide was sent to the National Museum of Victoria, in Melbourne, where taxidermists labored for four months to create a life-like replica of the Wonder Horse, from his shining red coat to his tousled mane.

In the years since his death, songs have been written to the horse, movies been made about his life story. But it's that mane that eventually solved the mystery of what -- if not who -- killed Phar Lap. Australian researchers removed six hairs and then used a highly specialized x-ray microsope to bombard them with intense radiation, illuminating the chemical makeup of the hair. The analysis (done at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois) is so precise that it allows scientists to tell whether material was absorbed from the blood or introduced after death, such as through embalming processes.

In the case of Phar Lap, researchers were able to determine that arsenic had been metabolized: the horse had been given a massive dose of arsenic one to two days before he died. Those preliminary results were released a couple years ago. The final report, the official conclusion, was published in April under the title Determination of Arsenic Poisoning and Metabolism in Hair by Synchrotron Radiation: The Case of Phar Lap.

A tidy, scientific way of describing a shameful episode and an example of epically bad sportsmanship. I'm glad that researchers in Australia were so determined to find some answers about the death of Phar Lap, even if it serves only to remind us of the realities of the American horse racing business of the 1930s, with its underpinnings of crooked money and sweaty desperation.

It's not justice, of course. Because Phar Lap deserved so much better. The big copper horse deserved to be more than a fleeting star, a flash in the sky. He deserved a chance to finish his glorious career with a much-petted old age in one of those fabled green pastures ... I hope that whoever came bearing arsenic to the stable in those soft April days of 1932 didn't finish out his own days happy and healthy. The man -- whoever he was -- deserves so much worse.


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.


Monday, June 21, 2010

Sandra Cantu: Closure, But Many Unanswered Questions

by Stacy Dittrich

Sandra Cantu (left) died a horrific, slow, agonizing death, according to San Joaquin County Coroner Dr. Bennet Omalu. Melissa Huckaby’s shocking guilty plea on May 10th, and her sentencing on June 14th, finally ended the battle over a gag order that had been in place for more than a year. I felt somewhat relieved; I could resume writing my book on the case, tentatively titled Searching for Sandra. Actually, I've been on a brief hiatus from Women in Crime Ink, working furiously on this book. Immediately after Huckaby’s sentencing, the excruciating details of Sandra Cantu's death, which would nauseate any human being with a soul, were revealed in the almost 2,000-page grand jury transcripts.

On March 27, 2009, Sandra Cantu, eight years old, was last seen on surveillance video, skipping toward her home in Tracy, California. For the next 10 days, an exhaustive search ensued; national media captured every minute of it. On April 6, 2009, Sandra's body was found inside an Eddie Bauer suitcase in an irrigation pond just two miles from her home. On April 10, 2009, police arrested Santu's 28-year-old neighbor, Melissa Huckaby. Huckaby, a Sunday school teacher, was charged with murder, kidnapping, and sexual assault with a foreign object. News analysts worldwide were mystified. Huckaby was a statistical anomaly.

Much of the argument in favor of the gag order was essentially that the gruesome details of the crime are unnecessary for public consumption. I agree with that—to an extent--and I'll refrain from writing about them here. However, I warn you, there are many aspects of this case that raised my eyebrows more than once, and some of it needs to be discussed. Therefore, continue reading at your own discretion, with warning of some graphic content.

I am simply going to break it down into key points and let you, the readers, formulate your own conclusions. I expect to take a significant amount of criticism for my points, but I'm writing what was factual testimony. Period. Let me stress, no matter how families conduct themselves, there is no parent on this earth who should have to endure the emotional trauma of losing a child. What I touch on below is sure to be controversial, but it needs to be addressed:

*Melissa Huckaby asked Sandra’s sister, 11-year-old Miranda, to babysit Huckaby's five-year-old daughter Madison while Huckaby took some items to the Clover Road Baptist Church. So Miranda actually stood by and unknowingly watched Huckaby load the suitcase containing Sandra into her SUV.

*On the night of Sandra’s disappearance, as police were searching, Huckaby sent Maria Chavez (Sandra's mother) a text message, asking her to tell police that Huckaby's suitcase had been stolen. Huckaby had already reported this to the park manager as she drove away from her trailer with Sandra. Maria Chavez had never received a text from Huckaby before and found it odd.

*The day after Sandra’s disappearance, Huckaby handed investigators a note that read: “Cantu locked in stolin (sic) suitcase. Thrown in water on Whitehall and Bachchetti. (signed) Witness.”

*Twenty-four hours after Sandra’s disappearance, Huckaby sent Maria another text, asking if Miranda could spend the night with her. Maria allowed this. During her testimony, Maria testified that Miranda had stayed at Huckaby’s trailer before, so she didn’t find the offer unusual. But when Miranda testified, she said she had never once spent the night at Huckaby’s, and found the request odd. Miranda testified that Huckaby asked if the police had any “evidence or leads.” Huckaby (right) left that night and was not seen until the next afternoon; she claimed she had stomach pains and went to the hospital. It would clearly appear that Maria gave false testimony during grand jury testimony. Why?

*During the autopsy, Dr. Bennet Omalu said that it was likely that Sandra Cantu may have endured prior sexual abuse (Grand Jury Testimony_Page 363.) Family members claimed they were unaware of this.

*Sandra had been suffocated, strangled and sexually assaulted with a rolling pin. One end of the rolling pin held Sandra’s DNA, the other end mixed. Just assume Huckaby didn’t hold the rolling pin in her hands while she was holding Sandra down—that’s my opinion. (I added this so that if you haven’t by now, you can clearly see Huckaby as the sick and evil entity that she is.) Sandra had bruising on her back, indicative of being hit in the back—or held down.

*Dr. Omalu also testified that two puncture wounds on the left side of her head could have either been due to blunt force (her head hitting something) or, possibly, a kitchen fork police found. He couldn’t confirm this. Needless to say, one true fact he could confirm was that Sandra was alive when all these injuries occurred. We can only hope that the generic Valium (a benzodiazepine) in her system, or the rubbing alcohol that had been placed over her mouth, rendered her semi-conscious while she was enduring this horror. Mercifully, Sandra Cantu was not conscious, and most likely not alive, when she was placed in the water.

Now, on to the police investigation…

On January 17, 2009, a mother reported that Huckaby had taken her seven-year old without permission. After the child began acting “drunk,” she was taken to the hospital, where toxicology testing found a benzodiazepine (anti-anxiety medication) in her system.

According to San Joaquin County Prosecutor Tom Testa, “…mother is really upset and wants something done. But the police don't do anything because the mother is into drugs and she's from the wrong side of the tracks and Melissa speaks really well, Sunday school teacher, so on, so forth. And the officer, the detective who was investigating it, decides not to do anything about it, which still burns up the mother to this day. She is still upset that they didn't do anything about it. Well, the detective said, 'Well, we can't prove it,' so it never went anywhere, no one was ever arrested. The mother just made sure her daughter never hung out with Melissa again or Melissa's children."

On March 2, 2009, Huckaby provides her ex-boyfriend, Daniel Plowman, with “vitamin water.” He is conscious of the fact that it tastes like aspirin. Known to all as a non-drinker and non-drug user, the next thing Plowman recalls is waking up in jail for DUI after passing out at a fast food drive-through. All he can utter is, “I was with Melissa Huckaby.” He tested positive for benzodiazepines. Same as the case in January, same as Sandra Cantu.

On March 27, 2009, Sandra Cantu disappears. Huckaby sends Maria Chavez a text about the missing suitcase. Surveillance shows Sandra headed towards the trailer of Huckaby, who has been accused twice in police reports of drugging people—including a child--within the last three months.

The next day, Huckaby hands officials a “note” she claimed she found (on a very, very windy day) that said Sandra Cantu was in a suitcase in a pond off Bachetti and Whitehall Roads. Investigators looked at the pond, but dive teams never searched it. Media rumors said police wrote her off as “an attention seeker.”

I am going to stop here, because it gets much worse. Needless to say, Huckaby’s criminal record and activities were blatantly thrown into investigators' faces from Day One. Though investigators deny it, they never looked at her. They claim they began considering her as a suspect when she "found" the note. Documents prove their claim, but still, they made no arrest until the day a local reporter posted an online article about an interview with Huckaby. The article said that during the interview, Huckaby admitted the suitcase containing Sandra's body was hers. Power of the press -- or coincidence?

I interviewed this reporter, former Tracy Press journalist
Jennifer Wadsworth—for hours, and she offered her take:

Jennifer spoke with Melissa Huckaby for upwards of an hour, then quickly wrote an article about the conversation and posted it online. It was breaking news, and other media outlets had the story within hours. Tracy police held twice-daily news conferences, morning and afternoon. On the afternoon of April 10, investigators had wrapped up their search warrants and cleared the area. As Jennifer arrived at the mobile home park for the 3 p.m. press conference, crime-scene trucks and law enforcement personnel came rushing back into the park and to the church, putting crime-scene tape back up and blocking off the area.

Jennifer’s article had only been online for two hours. This led her to believe police saw it and realized they’d erred. Until then, rumor was that investigators were looking into Huckaby’s grandfather, Lane Lawless. No one had mentioned Huckaby’s name until Wadsworth’s article appeared. Law enforcement had, in fact, focused on Huckaby for days. It could be that her admission that she owned the suitcase was the break they'd been waiting for.

There is a spectrum of reasons police might commit such an oversight. I will stop short of shouting out any wrongdoings. Why? I have spoken to them, and they put their heart and souls into this case. Not to mention the Tracy Police Department is rather large. It wouldn’t be uncommon for lines of communication to cross. I stand firm in my opinion that Huckaby should have been criminally charged in the January case, but hindsight is 20/20. Monday morning quarter-backing will do absolutely no good. The men and women in this department took this case home every night—and it ate them whole. They are parents too.

As for Maria Chavez’s testimony, she was probably scared—understandably. Seated before a table of strangers, a prosecutor, and others can be intimidating. She let her other daughter spend the night at the home of the woman responsible for her youngest daughter’s murder. She couldn’t have possibly known, and most likely was embarrassed by her decision. Her inconsistencies should be ignored. I have spoken to the Chavez family (and those close to them), and can assure you, their lives will never be the same. They aren’t doing well at all. I implore you to keep this family in your prayers.

I planted the earlier question in your minds only so I could give you a solution. I am confident other news media will raise these questions, if only to create controversy. I wanted to beat them to the punch and offer the answers most so desperately seek. The only person to blame here is the modern-day daughter of Satan himself—Melissa Huckaby. I can only hope that her time in prison is as horrific as the final moments of Sandra Cantu’s life. Based on my law enforcement experience, I don’t think she will last that long…

But I could be wrong. The murdering mother of two, Susan Smith, happily married her cell mate and is reportedly enjoying her incarceration. I just don’t see the same for Huckaby; she’s weak and unstable. If you think I was contradictory in adding some of the content in this post, believe me, this was light compared to what is actually in the transcripts.

There’s so much in the case of Sandra Cantu it will make your head spin. I couldn’t possibly include it in a blog, but I also have decided not to include graphic, irrelevant details in my book. I want Sandra’s life to be remembered with dignity, and those of the community of Tracy, California, who searched so tirelessly for her. Yes, many, many, questions remain, and I am seeking the answers. Searching for Sandra is currently slated for an early 2011 debut.

I acknowledge one thing: We may never get the answers in this case, especially to the question of why? Regardless, the citizens of San Joaquin County can rest easy now, knowing another monster is off their streets.