Friday, October 30, 2009

Funny, Freaky, Freeing, or Just Plain Irresponsible?

by Robin Sax

Marge Simpson’s "Playboy" pictures are out now in the November issue. It's the first time a cartoon character has been featured on the risqué magazine's cover, and I’ve got to admit -- at first I chuckled. Then I started thinking ... Why? Why Marge? Why "Playboy"?

Marge Simpson is a wife and mother of three kids on Fox's long-running series, “The Simpsons.” The "Playboy" pictures feature Marge (remember, she’s an animated character) sitting naked on a bunny chair, wearing nothing but her signature blue hairdo. The spread also features a story inside called, “The Devil in Marge Simpson.”

There has been much banter about this on the blogs, and I really liked what Hollywood Gossip had to say on the matter:

As a housewife and mother of three, we fear that Marge’s pictorial - which includes a three-page spread and interview -- sets a bad example. What will Maggie [her daughter] think when she gets old enough to use Google? How will Bart’s classmates react to these images? It’s really all the fault of Kate Gosselin. Clearly jealous of the attention that famous mom has received -- Marge set out to reclaim the spotlight. Mission (grossly) accomplished.

Of course this is a tongue-in-cheek post, but it raises an important question: How does this affect the children? As a woman, there’s a part of me that thinks it’s refreshing to see a “regular” (if imaginary) mom on the coveted cover of a major magazine. It’s a nice change of pace from the usual image of impossible perfection we see on every other magazine cover. But how about putting Marge on "In Style", "Harpers Bazaar", "The New Yorker," or even "Parents"?

Why did "Playboy" choose Marge Simpson? What about Jessica Rabbit or Lara Croft or even Betty Boop? If we’re talking about sexualizing an animated character, why not choose one that was created to be a sex symbol? In an age when we worry about kids growing up too fast, we want our public figures to be good role models. So why did "Playboy" need to turn Marge into a sexy hottie when there are certainly enough others to go around?

Some argue "The Simpsons" isn’t really for kids. But I don’t care. Every kid knows who
"The Simpsons" are, and most watch it. It appears on regular TV channels, and Marge is a cartoon character with special kid appeal.

The bottom line: I agree with the folks at
MTV who said that "Playboy" is probably trying to attract younger readers. I guess that’s where my problem is. You put Marge on the cover, and all of sudden kids are going to pick up the magazine thinking it’s for kids, unaware of what's inside the covers.

Perhaps what makes this even more troublesome is that the cover appears right before Halloween, when we’re smack in the middle of the new trend of overly sexualized Halloween costumes. Remember the good old days of princesses, bulky coats over costumes, and bunny faces? Gone!

Now we see lacy garters, bustiers, and devils in mini-skirts.
Susan Linn, director of the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood in Boston, says that corporate marketers are increasingly aiming at girls as young as preschool age as if they were teenagers! Linn, who also wrote "The Case for Make Believe" and "Consuming Kids," said much of it is based on a marketing strategy known as CAGOY, or "Children are Getting Older Younger."

"It's a marketi
ng phenomenon, created by marketers, based on an assumption that children are acquiring the trappings of maturity earlier. There is no evidence of that," she says. Linn said there is evidence, however, that the commercialization of childhood intensifies serious issues like childhood obesity, eating disorders, low self-esteem and precocious sexual activity. It also interferes with imagination and creative play.

So if costumes are sending bad messages, and if over-sexualizing leads to a host of sociological and psychological problems, why open that Pandora’s Box? When will the media and marketers err on the side of caution and start thinking about what’s in the best interest of our children? Yes, this is the same media that criticizes parents for not doing their job protecting their kids. So here’s my question: When will society and the media start doing theirs?

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Monster's Wife, Culpable?

by Contributors to Women in Crime Ink

Police have charged Nancy Garrido along with her husband, Phillip, for abducting and imprisoning Jaycee Dugard for the past 18 years. Both are charged with 29 counts each, ranging from kidnapping to rape. Dugard's stepfather has identified Nancy, a nursing assistant believed to have assisted in the delivery of Dugard's two children, as the woman who snatched his stepdaughter off the street, and police say Nancy (left) was home with the then 11-year-old for five months while her husband cooled his heels in jail on a parole violation. Meanwhile, her attorney maintains Nancy's innocence, saying she too was her husband's victim, kept under Garrido's control.

The question for WCI bloggers: If it turns out that Nancy Garrido is involved in this heinous crime, and if it turns out that she's been a victim of prolonged domestic violence, how much weight should this be given, and should it impact guilt/innocence or sentencing?

Pat Brown: Nancy Garrido deserves to accept full responsibility for her actions. Why? Because she wasn't an innocent girl like Jaycee who might have been snared by an older Phillip Garrido and brainwashed. She was a full grown adult who met Garrido when he was already in prison and she knew he was in prison for kidnapping and rape. She chose to
partner with him, and she chose to participate in his criminal activities. She is as guilty as he is for what happened to Jaycee Dugard (left) and her children. I say a life sentence without parole is fully appropriate for Nancy Garrido.

Andrea Campbell: In my opinion, if Nancy Garrido was free to come and go, yet still aided in perpetuating the kidnapping and crime against Jaycee Dugard, and then allowed it to continue with the imprisonment of the children, she should be charged as a co-conspirator. At the very least, it is criminal aiding and abetting.

Kathryn Casey: It appears that Nancy Garrido had every opportunity to turn her husband in and end the nightmare for Jaycee and her family. If that’s true, it’s fitting that she’s held responsible right along with the monster she chose as her husband. What woman marries a man in prison for kidnap and rape, allegedly assists in a kidnapping once he's released, and then sits back and does nothing while he imprisons and violates a child? Should abuse by Garrido against Nancy come in at all? Sure, in sentencing. If Nancy has been victimized by her husband, the jury or judge who hands down the sentence should be able to fully assess the entire picture.

Diane Fanning: Nancy Garrido should be judged solely by her actions in the guilt/innocence phase of the trial. If the state proves--as I believe they will--that she aided and abetted in the crimes committed against Jaycee Dugard and in keeping her captivity a secret for all these years. Then, she should be found guilty of all of that. If there was on-going long-term, verifiable domestic violence perpetrated on Nancy, that should be considered as a mitigating circumstance only during the sentencing phase and weighed against the actions she took or did not take regarding Jaycee.

Susan Murphy-Milano: Nancy Garrido is a full-fledged accomplice and co-conspirator, who in my opinion willingly participated in the crimes against a helpless child. Garrido should receive no mercy and have her lawyer strike from the court record the untruths told about her being a battered woman.

Jaycee Dugard was locked away like a caged animal from the outside world
behind a series of fences, sheds and tents in the back of a suburban home. She was brainwashed and raped for years and gave birth to two children, the first when Jaycee was about 14. Those children, both girls now 11 and 15, also were kept hidden away in the caged compound.

I am reminded of Michelle Lyn Michaud, also of Sacramento, sentenced to death for her role in the 1997 kidnap, rape and murder of a 22-year-old student. During the trial, defense attorneys also tried to portray Michaud as a battered woman who would do anything to please her boyfriend, James Daveggio, who also was sentenced to death.

Nancy Garrido is a predator, and the battered-women’s theory is a way to mask and not take responsibility for her heinous crimes.

Katherine Scardino: Nancy Garrido should be judged solely on her own actions - if it is proven that she herself committed a direct criminal act - such as kidnapping, assault or some other direct act against another individual, or an act that is a crime by omission - meaning that she should have taken some reasonable action to prevent a criminal act - such as injury to a child by omission - she will be tried for her own crimes.

If her crime is an act by omission, then it is possible that she'd been so brainwashed or assaulted by this man that she could not take any preventative measures to protect or save Ms. Dugard. That may come in during the guilt phase of the trial - but generally, as Diane said, that information would only be admissible during the sentencing phase of a trial as possible mitigating evidence, just like information about a person's background - i.e., child abuse, sexual assault, beatings, etc. The jury can hear and consider this evidence when deliberating her punishment. The jury can give whatever weight they feel is appropriate to this type of information.

Cathy Scott: If Nancy Garrido was involved in the kidnapping and imprisonment of Jaycee Dugard, then, yes, she should pay. But I do believe some consideration -- even compassion -- should be afforded her if it turns out that she too was a victim of Philip Garrido (above right). The control from such a twisted and sociopathic mind reaches beyond prison bars, which may partly explain Garrido's failure to report her husband once he was jailed.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009


by Susan Murphy-Milano

Two years ago today, 23-year-old Stacy Ann Peterson vanished from the house in the Illinois suburb of Bolingbrook that she shared with her police-officer husband Drew Peterson, her two children and his two sons, whom she'd adopted.

After several months of being stalked and living under her husband's tight, controlling reins, Stacy Peterson told her husband the marriage was over. In October 2007, Stacy met and consulted with divorce attorney Harry Smith -- ironically, the same lawyer Kathleen Savio hired to represent her when she decided to divorce Peterson.

When Stacy failed to show up at her brother's house that late-October day, family members were concerned, especially her sister Cassandra Cales. Just two days earlier, after a cozy family night of movie and pizza, Stacy warned Cassandra that she planned to leave Peterson and said: "If something happens to me, I just want you to know it was Drew." When Cassandra couldn't reach her missing sister, she went to Stacy's house and found the four children home alone, with no sign of Peterson's car. At the Bolingbrook Police Department, Cassandra filed a missing-person report.

Within 48 hours, camera crews and journalists besieged the once quiet suburban cul-de-sac. Peterson, then a police sergeant, gave them a show -- a bizarre public display including personal attacks on his wife and her family in the wake of her disappearance. The national media covered Peterson's act like a low-life reality TV show. Each day as Peterson left his house, journalists shoved microphones in his face, hungry for a sound bite for evening crime or news broadcasts. If you were a resident of Illinois during the first three weeks after Stacy vanished, you saw Peterson served up on local, cable and radio programs like a charred chicken flapping its wings almost around the clock.

To me, it seemed Peterson treated Stacy's life like a dirty rag. In his attempts to discredit her, Peterson made comments such as "You know she came from a broken home," or, "Her mother went missing too, so this is not a surprise." Then I heard Peterson say, "Stacy is where she wants to be." My heart sank as I thought of the boys who'd now lost a mother twice.

Seventeen days after Cassandra reported Stacy's disappearance, the Will County State Attorney's Office obtained a court order and exhumed the body of Kathleen Savio. Savio, Peterson's previous wife, was discovered dead in a bathtub in the marital house in 2004. Suddenly, the media and police focus swung from Stacy's disappearance to a new autopsy into the cause of Kathleen's death. The effort to find Stacy lost its momentum. The ground began to freeze, making the search more difficult for family and teams of volunteers. And the media remained hooked on Drew's public displays and his love life, leaving no time to find answers or enlist the public's help in finding Stacy.

In the months that followed, I met with people who knew Stacy personally. From the moment she married Drew, Stacy worked to knit a loving family environment, integrating Drew's then-estranged family into the couple's new life. From all accounts, she had a kind, warm and giving heart. People's eyes sparkled when they spoke of her. She made friends and family feel welcome. When a guest didn't show up for a gathering, Stacy called urged, "Come on," one relative recalled. "We're holding dinner, where are you? We're not starting until you get here."

Another told me: "Stacy was the glue, and that's why her disappearance is so painful to those of us who knew her."

Stacy Peterson's dream was to be a loving wife and mother, an all-around nurturer. She enrolled in nursing classes at a local college. When Stacy could no longer live under Peterson's heavy-handed control and constant watch, she made plans to leave. But like many women in her position, she made a mistake. She told her husband what she planned before she moved to a place where she'd be safe from him.

Stacy was silenced in the prime of her life. But there can be no silencing of family and friends who will continue to search for her until she is found. A grand jury met for 18 months before handing down an indictment against Drew Peterson for the death of Kathleen Savio.

I believe when that trial begins, the long silence about how Kathleen Savio lost her life will be lifted and the truth about how Stacy died will also be revealed. During the trial, thanks to Illinois' new hearsay law, Stacy Peterson's words will finally be heard.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Dittrich's Murder Behind the Badge: True Stories of Cops Who Kill Makes its Debut

by Women in Crime Ink

Most men and women who aspire to be police officers begin their careers with a noble dream of community service, upholding the law, and helping those in need. Yet over time the rigors and emotional strain of dealing with society’s worst element wear on even the most idealistic officers like a sheet of sandpaper, until their compassion is slowly rubbed away.

A few become corrupted and slip into criminal behavior, directly contradicting their oath to guard the public. Even worse, there are some who hide behind their badges to commit the most heinous crimes imaginable.

In a shocking true-crime narrative that reads like a thriller, former police officer, former detective, and mystery writer Stacy Dittrich tells 18 stories about cops who kill. From the brutal to the bizarre, the senseless to the extreme, these men and women abused their power, took human lives, and are now paying the consequences. Line-of-duty shootings aren't featured within the pages of "Murder Behind the Badge: True Stories of Cops Who Kill." Society typically sees these crimes from serial killers, rapists, and other violent criminals.

Some of the officers killed for love, others for money, and still others because of seemingly trivial personality conflicts. Dittrich profiles, among others:
  • New Orleans cop Antoinette Frank, who brutally murdered four innocent people: her own partner, two restaurant owners, and her own father, whom she buried underneath her home.

  • Canton, Ohio, police officer Bobby Cutts Jr., who murdered his former girlfriend when she was nine-months pregnant.

  • Bollingbrook, Ill., police sergeant Drew Peterson, currently indicted in the death of his second wife, and being investigated for the disappearance of his third.
  • California Highway Patrolman Craig Peyer, who pulled over San Diego State college student Cara Knott over a frivolous traffic violation, then murdered her.
  • Prince George County, Md., officer Keith Washington, who brutally gunned down two furniture delivery men in his own home for simply being late with the delivery.
  • Columbia, Mo., officer Steven Rios, who slit the throat of his gay lover after the man threatened to tell everyone, including Rios’ wife and police chief, of their relationship.
  • Gerard Schaefer, one of Florida’s most notorious serial killers, who found it easiest to commit his crimes while working as a police officer and deputy sheriff.
  • New York City cop Charles Becker, the first police officer ever executed for the crime of murder in 1915.

With a foreword written by WCI’s own Pat Brown, "Murder Behind the Badge: True Stories of Cops Who Kill" is already receiving praise:

“As a crime victim myself who went on to become a felony prosecutor, police have been a constant in my life for many, many years. They are some of the most honorable people I have ever known. Dittrich exposes the dichotomy between police who fight crime every day vs. those who have become criminals themselves…a real mind twister!” -- Nancy Grace, host of HLN’s The Nancy Grace Show

"Murder Behind the Badge" reveals the dark underbelly of the cop-shop, the evil that can lurk within. Some of these cases you may have heard about, many you have not. Now, learn the inside details of how a murderer gets a badge and is sometimes protected by fellow officers. Only another cop could walk the public through how a psycho gets on a police force in the first place. Only another cop could explain how the mindset of the thin blue line is sometimes so similar to the mindset of the truly disturbed. Author Stacy Dittrich is that cop. This is the book. In the realm of true crime this is a must-have!” -- Diane Dimond, Investigative Journalist/Author of "Who You Love: Inside the Michael Jackson Case"

"Murder Behind the Badge: True Stories of Cops Who Kill" is now available for pre-order on line and will be in book stores everywhere Nov. 16, 2009 (Prometheus, Hardcover).

Monday, October 26, 2009

Septic Tank Evidence

by Laura James

Unfortunately, septic tanks sometimes end up holding more than household sewage. Occasionally they have been known to yield the bodies of
women who have been murdered, usually by very foolish men who think that nobody will ever think to look in the septic tank. Sometimes it might take a while, but eventually, both septic and murder will out.

Recently I learned that a more mundane sort of evidence can be found in septic tanks, placed there by those making the same foolish mistake of thinking that a septic tank is a good place to hide evidence.

I had my septic tank pumped out recently. The fellow who did this nasty business for me regaled me with a curious story.

Larry explained that he had been the "star witness" in a few divorce cases. I wondered where he was going with this. This was a surprising thing to say, as Larry fit the image of a man who spent all day with septic tanks, not a star divorce witness. He wore a University of Missouri T-shirt. I had asked him if he was from Missouri, as I've been spending a lot of time there lately. "It's just a shirt," he said sheepishly. He proceeded to tell me how he's come to be subpoenaed for the third time to testify.

Women, it seems, flush things down the toilet that they shouldn't, besides tampons. (Flushed tampons cause no end of trouble to public sewer systems everywhere, because the strings never dissolve and they get entangled in tree roots, causing massive plumbing blockages.) There's something else that shouldn't be flushed -- into a septic tank anyway -- and that's a used condom, particularly one that is being flushed by a woman whose husband has had a vasectomy.

Larry the septic tank hauler has had to testify three times now that condoms, when flushed down a toilet and into a septic tank, will float on top until someone like Larry pries off the lid and reveals more than the usual septic tank contents.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Pounding the Pavement

by Kathryn Casey

We spend so much time talking about forensic science these days because it's hard to overemphasize how much it has changed police work. Rarely do I go to a trial where someone doesn't bring up DNA, trace evidence and the like. It's talked about in hushed tones, like the Holy Grail of justice. And it should be. Good forensic science can free the innocent and bring the guilty to punishment.

But we often forget how much of police work remains logic and legwork, covering the bases, putting in the time, thinking the cases through and coming up with ideas. Case in point: Yesterday's sad discovery of the body of seven-year-old Somer Thompson, the Orange Park, FL, girl who disappeared while walking home from school two days earlier. That's Somer pictured above. As many of you may already know, her remains were found in a Georgia landfill, legs sticking out of a mound of garbage. An autopsy is underway, but authorities have already labeled the manner of death as homicide.

Why were the police in that landfill? Did forensic evidence suggest Somer was somehow connected to the landfill? No. In this case, as in so many others, it was a good investigator thinking through the case and making a suggestion that led to a crucial discovery. Sheriff Rick Beseler credits one of his detectives with suggesting that the landfill should be checked. Orange Park's garbage is routinely hauled to this Georgia dump site. Based on that detective's reasoning, that the body might be among the refuse, Breseler told detectives to go through the debris as the trucks brought it in.

"Had we not done that, tons of garbage would have been distributed over the top of the body, and it likely would have never been found," said Beseler.

This isn't an anomaly. Lots of cases come together because of good old-fashioned police work. One comes to mind: the Piper Rountree case, the subject of my 2007 book, Die, My Love. In that case, prosecutors insisted police didn't have a solid case until they produced witnesses who could place Rountree, a Houston attorney, in Richmond, VA, where her ex-husband was ambushed and gunned down in his driveway there. No forensic evidence, no phone leads, nothing suggested how they might find those crucial witnesses. Instead, gumshoeing, walking the streets and asking questions, led investigators to folks who could point at Rountree in a courtroom and say, "That's her. I saw her in Richmond."

Now that little Somer's body has been found, of course, the forensic folks have moved in, combing the landfill for clues leading to her killer. I'm not suggesting that their role is any less important. But they wouldn't be there if not for the good idea of one cop who thought the case through and made a crucial suggestion.

Let's hope the forensic folks and the detectives working the Thompson case get every break they need to find the scumbag responsible for little Somer's death. Anyone who'd murder a child and throw her body in the trash needs to be found quickly and dealt with severely.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

October: Cybersecurity Awareness Month

by Robin Sax

Did you know October is National Cybersecurity Awareness Month? Although it's intended to teach Internet users about reporting and avoiding crime, I'd never heard about until recently -- and I live in the world of Internet crime and safety! This is actually the sixth year the
Department of Homeland Security has marked Cybersecurity Awareness. They put on events and have lots of information on how to stay safe on the Internet. See for more details. The information on their site is important to review (for those of us who use the Internet – just a few billion of us), and not many of those billion people know where to get the resources or knowledge to implement Internet safety.

For example, do you know where to file a complaint about a crime that involved the Internet? If you answered law enforcement or the
FBI, you get partial credit. The actual answer is much more complicated, an entire protocol for where and how to report crimes related to the ever-growing World Wide Web.

To determine some of the federal investigative law enforcement agencies that may be appropriate for reporting certain kinds of Internet crime, please refer to the following table:

As you can see, the
Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) noted quite a lot on this chart. So what is the IC3? I bet you didn’t even know that it existed. In their own words, The Internet Crime Complaint Center “is a partnership between the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National White Collar Crime Center (NW3C). IC3’s mission is to serve as a vehicle to receive, develop, and refer criminal complaints regarding the rapidly expanding arena of cybercrime. The IC3 gives the victims of cybercrime a convenient and easy-to-use reporting mechanism that alerts authorities of suspected criminal or civil violations. For law enforcement and regulatory agencies at the federal, state, and local level, IC3 provides a central referral mechanism for complaints involving Internet related crimes.”

IC3 seems to give an appearance of some sort of coordinated effort between agencies - at least in the reporting of Internet crime. That is a good thing. But what about before the crime occurs – is there a coordinated effort to prevent the crime. In other words, if someone is reporting a crime it means that most likely someone was already victimized. Is after the fact reporting enough? OR do we need to figure out how to police the Web prior to victimization?

The Internet is the largest city in the world. It literally has portals and accessibility to everyone—adults, children, young, old, thieves, pervs, predators, and hundreds of millions of others. While there may be individual rules and regulations for specific sites, or in specific countries, there is very little “law of the land” -- other than the concept of what is illegal in real life is illegal online as well.

There are many Internet crimes that are readily known due to effective media, astute educators - who take the time to bring information to their school communities, successful public relations campaigns, or from the unfortunate victimization of people we hear about or even our own family and friends.

Most people have heard of -or use- social networking sites such as
Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and My Space and also know some online lingo (such as LOL, TTYS, etc.). Many people have heard of concepts such as texting, tweeting, sexting, and cyber-bullying. But there are literally of hundreds of aspects of the Internet that we don’t know about…and we may never know about. There is an underground to the Internet, and it can be very scary.

So what do we do? Bury our heads? Pretend it is not happening? Just complain about it? How about we learn about what we don’t know. Staying current with technology is a must our world today. Figuring out what things are worthy of fear and what things are not can save us from a lot of anxiety. It is critical that we keep our knowledge current about Internet “threats” and can be prepared to face them.

And even though I am going to give you some simple steps you take today to be safer on the Internet, the best way to even know what we are worried about is to peruse, search, and click through the Internet. You can't fear something that you don't know about. Don't simply trust the hype, check it out for yourself. For example, many parents fear "Facebook" but I happen to think that
Facebook is among the safer social networking sites out there. They actually have a protocol for dealing with hate crimes, pervs, and bullies. They have security and privacy measures and work diligently to address the issues as the site grows. Is every social networking site that way? No way!! And our social networking sites the only place where trouble lurks? No way. There are websites, ad-sites, instant messaging services, and many more avenues where trouble can surface.

So what's the answer? Know what you don't know. I know it seems daunting and time consuming and it can be. But don't let it!!! Chip away with a places, click through, check it out, and if you need help ASK!!! Want to know what your kids are doing online and can't bear checking yourself? There are sources and resources for help. But if nothing else, keep these tips in mind:

For Your Computer

• Make sure that you have anti-virus software and firewalls installed, properly configured, and up-to-date. New threats are discovered every day, and keeping your software updated is one of the easier ways to protect yourself from an attack. Set your computer to automatically update for you.
• Update your operating system and critical program software. Software updates offer the latest protection against malicious activities. Turn on automatic updating if that feature is available.
• Back up key files. If you have important files stored on your computer, copy them onto a removable disc and store it in a safe place.

For Yourself (Habits To Adopt)

• If you get deceptive spam, including email “phishing” for your information (that means a scam site that is looking for you to input your personal information for the purpose of stealing it), forward it immediately to Be sure to include the full Internet header of the email. Also forward the email to the company, bank, or organization that is impersonated in the phishing email.
• Use strong passwords or strong authentication technology to help protect your personal information.
• If your computer gets hacked or infected by a virus immediately unplug the phone or cable line from your machine. Then scan your entire computer with fully updated anti-virus software, and update your firewall.
• If a scammer takes advantage of you through an Internet auction, when you're shopping online, or in any other way, report it to the Federal Trade Commission, at

For Your Friends, Family, Colleagues

• Use regular communications in your business (newsletters, e-mail alerts, etc.) and in your home (conversations with your partner and children) to increase awareness on Internet safety issues.
• Set up household and workplace rules on issues such as updating software processes, protecting personal information, securing your wireless network, software downloads, spyware, email attachments.
• Make your preferences clear to your friends regarding email “Forwards” and suspicious attachments.

For more tips, visit:

Bottom line: educate yourself, be smart, be safe online! Treat the online community like a city street – walk where there are lights, don’t travel in a back ally, keep your senses alert, don’t trust strangers, etc. A small amount of preparation will go a long way in protecting yourself and your family!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Crime Clutter

by Kathryn Casey

Ever wonder what a crime writer keeps in her office? Awhile back, I spent the day going through piles of books and stacks of files, trying to whittle down. My husband constructed four sturdy wire shelves in my office closet – a converted bedroom – and I was determined to stow what I need and get rid of the clutter covering every possible surface, including the upright piano I had to have and still don’t know how to play. (It is a great place for stacking books though. The keyboard is just the right width. And maybe someday, if I retire…)

Anyway, all went well until I dug into the wire mesh office organizer I bought at The Container Store about 12 years ago. The theory at the time was that this would help clear up the debris by allowing me to categorize everything in hanging folders. Instead, it’s beneath three feet of newspaper clippings. At one point or another, it seems, I thought knowing about Stonehenge, jet propulsion and tooth bacteria would all help me write mysteries and true crime. Don’t ask. I haven’t the foggiest.

Those were quick throw-outs.

The harder articles to part with are those that offer intriguing theories. For instance, there’s an August 2, 2002 Chicago Tribune article by Ronald Kotulak with the headline: “Scientists ID gene linked to violence.” (A later study at Florida State labeled it the Warrior Gene and linked it to gang membership.) The Chicago Tribune article quoted a report published in the journal Science citing evidence that both genetic and environmental factors influence human behavior. We already suspected this, right? It’s that old thing about how our urges or tendencies are hard-wired, but we may or may not act on them depending on whether or not experience flips the switch, like the serial killer who’s abused as a child. (Of course, then how do we explain serial killers who aren’t abused as children?)

My question: If they found this d**n gene in 2002, why haven’t they found a way to fix it and rewired all of the monsters for us?

Then there's the April, 22, 2007 article "Study of brain may show link to violent acts," by Houston Chronicle reporter Todd Ackerman. Charles Whitman (photo right), the University of Texas UT Tower sniper, had a brain tumor, and, according to the article, Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech killer, showed evidence of a brain-abnormality-induced psychosis. The theory is that when the frontal lobe is damaged it can disconnect the part of the brain that censors impulses. A March 2007 study published in Nature suggests that injuries and abnormalities behind the forehead, two inches into the brain, affect moral judgment in life or death situations, and that those who suffer this type of injury can be more inclined to kill or harm one person to save the life of another. One Houston doc, Pamela Blake, a Memorial Hermann neurologist, released a study in 2004 of Death Row inmates that concluded 40 percent had a frontal lobe injury or impairment. Hmmm. Makes you think, doesn't it? I've got to admit, however, that whenever theories like these pop up I recall the double Y chromosome theory.

You know the one: about four decades ago they tested a sample of the male prison population and found a percentage with an extra Y chromosome, XYY instead of XY. It was suspected at the time that the extra male chromosome increased testosterone levels and made these men more prone to violence, landing them in the slammer. The theory fell apart when other studies discovered XYYers have normal testosterone levels and that men in the general population have approximately the same instance of the XYY pattern. Ah, well.

Okay, back to my stash of articles going into the to-be-kept file.

This final article I couldn’t throw out simply because of the title: “Local ‘Polka King’ goes missing.” The Polka King is 48-year-old Bobby Jones, who was last seen on the night of June 22, 2007. He didn’t show up in El Campo, Texas, for a radio station emcee gig. He’d been acting unusually sad and, according to the article, no foul play was suspected, so maybe there’s no crime to write about. A while later, his car's license plate was found in the Colorado River. But the guy left his accordion behind. Would a Polka King do that? Sounds fishy to me

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

What About the Crime Post-Blast?

by Andrea Campbell

The government defines a bombing as an incident in which an explosive or incendiary device has actually functioned. There are attempted bombings, of course, and premature explosions. The center of a bombing is referred to as the “seat.” (That's a historic photo of the Los Angeles Times bombing—October 1, 1910—at left.)

I started reading up on what it takes to work a post-blast crime scene, and though I found a lot of good information, I know it didn’t begin to scrape the surface. I guess that’s the wrong metaphor to use, because after a bomb goes off, there isn’t much surface left. Can you imagine going to the scene? There are tons of material called gross physical evidence. Most of the time you don’t know what you’re looking at, even though nearly everything is potential evidence. The debris is shredded, cut, spun, blended, burned, ruffled and any other adjective describing destruction like nothing you’ve ever seen.

Classifying and Typing

A bombing is deliberate or accidental. There are instances where these can be confused. Story has it that a man was charged with causing an explosion; he was in the business of running a grain silo. Anyone who knew anything about volatility should have known that grain dust explosions are common in silos. But back to business. There are three types of explosions: mechanical, nuclear and chemical. An example of a mechanical explosion might be a vessel -- such as a boiler or a propane tank -- under great pressure that gives at its weakest spot, dispersing its contents. Nuclear explosions are created by fission or fusion of unstable atoms, and chemical explosions are the result of either low or high explosives triggered by shock or heat.

A low explosive is typically heat-sensitive material that burns rapidly, about 1,000 feet per second. High explosives, on the other hand, are considered detonations — decomposition of molecules that are forced through a shock wave at about 10,000 feet per second. The difference between the two is significant in helping to understand what has happened; low explosives are more likely to cause a fire than the shorter impulse time associated with high explosives.

Explosives Differ in Other Ways Too

The chemicals needed for low explosions are generally substances such as black powder, pyrotechnic powders, and other fuels. High explosives include materials like dynamite, TNT, and RDX components such as C-4, those usually used by the military and for commercial applications such as imploding old buildings.

Low explosives need a housing or container, because burning produces the gases needed for expansion. High explosives give off their energy as the result of a detonation or shock wave and can be out in the open.

Bombing Materials

Bombs in criminal investigations are often called IEDs, short for improvised explosive devices. The explosive material can be commercially created or homemade. To initiate an explosion the material needs an igniter, which can be as simple as a burning fuse or as sophisticated as a complex electronic device. (The Oklahoma City bombing is pictured at right.)

The activator of the fusing system is put into three basic categories: 1.) time-activated, 2.) victim-activated, and 3.) command-activated. The first uses a time delay, the second is similar to a booby trap, and the third is set off manually, often using a remote-control device. According to, a person-borne suicide bomb usually employs a high-explosive/fragmentary effect and a command-detonation firing system -- a switch or button the suicide-bomber pushes to set off the blast.

Dr. Kirk Yeager, an explosives forensic scientist at the Federal Bureau of Investigation explainsit quite simply: A bomb consists of an oxidizer and a fuel. An explosion requires oxygen, provided by the oxidizer, and a fuel source, which can be as basic as sugar. A common oxidizer is ammonium nitrate, a primary ingredient of fertilizer. While bombs made with sugar and ammonium nitrate may be less potent than more advanced fuel sources, like TNT, the ingredients are easy to buy and legal to own. It’s interesting to note that the rapid oxidation in a bombing changes the colors of materials such as pipe or steel. (The 2004 Madrid train bombing is pictured above left.)

Working the Scene

A team will have a leader, a bomb technician, a photographer and sketch artist, and an evidence custodian. Depending on the size of the blast area, the team may be augmented by additional investigators.

The borders of a post-blast scene can be tremendous in size. Paul R. Laska, a retired crime scene investigator, says the lead investigator generally looks for the furthest item that can be identified as having originated at the point of the blast. A radius is established based on the distance of that item plus half again.

Search Methodology

Generally, the physical search and evidence collection are organized like a field search, with participants walking an approximate arm’s length (or wing span) apart in a grid, strip or even in a spiral pattern. Most common is the strip-style search, broken down into sectors.
Investigators don’t touch or collect the materials, but mark them out; the object is photographed where it lies. Everything is sketched, and an evidence custodian wearing gloves collects the items and often puts them into clean, unused paint cans, nylon bags, glass vials or sturdy cardboard boxes. The idea is to preserve DNA, fingerprints and explosive residue.

Searches are thought of as being three-dimensional because exploding bits can be lodged into walls, thrown onto roofs — don't forget people tossed into trees — and items driven into the ground. Yeager recalls a car whose pieces landed as high as 75 feet at a U.S. Embassy bombing.

Often investigators will suit up in protective gear including shoe covers to avoid blood-borne pathogens. The scene is monitored for hazardous materials as well.

Collecting and Preserving
Oftentimes the debris will be trucked to another area for examination. It’s taken to a secure facility where pieces can be sifted, examined for potential evidence, segregated, identified and put back together. Dr. Yeager said that he has spent a lot of his time going between different hardware stores, comparing their inventories to bomb components.

General Facts
  • The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) has been collecting, storing and analyzing records on explosives and arson incidents since 1976.
  • The FBI works on bombings related to terrorism.
  • 1997 Omnibus Consolidated Appropriations Act, 18 U.S.C. 846(b), established a national repository for incidents involving arson and the criminal misuse of explosives.
  • The U.S. Bomb Data Center (USBDC) is the sole repository and contains information on more than 180,000 arson and explosives incidents investigated by ATF and other federal, state and local law enforcement and fire investigation agencies.
    According to the US Bomb Data Fact Sheet, which provides overall statistics and information such as event locations, bomb types used, and regional maps, contains the figures listed below. Explosives Incidents in the United States: In 2007: 2,772 explosives incidents, 60 people injured, 15 killed, and 633 referred for prosecution. In 2006: 3,445 explosives incidents, 135 people injured, 14 killed, and 745 referred for prosecution.

Monday, October 19, 2009

How to Become a Suspect 101

by Pat Brown

When a cable-news show host asks whether a particular character should be a suspect in a crime we're discussing, I talk about behavior, traits, or circumstances that might draw the attention of police. Sometimes I get mail from people who believe someone I or the police have named as a possible suspect is being unfairly targeted. Others want to know why I don't jump to name someone they're sure committed the crime. And sometimes I'm just playing devil's advocate when I see red flags being ignored or getting too much attention.

Red flags -- certain behaviors or traits of a person or the circumstances surrounding them, are just that: indicators that the person should be looked at more carefully as a potential suspect in a crime, but not considered guilty unless other evidence supports the accusation and the accusation is proven in court.

Four cases come to mind as examples in this class of How to Become a Suspect 101: The Quantico Marine case of 1983, the bizarre Madeline McCann case, the Haleigh Cummings saga, and the recent Balloon Boy case.

Bad Luck:

This is the No. 1 issue that will get you in trouble and connect you to a crime, whether the bad luck just happened to you or you created it by actually being the perpetrator. Richard and Miyumi Heene called 911 in a panic because their six-year-old son, Falcon, was supposedly aloft in a balloon Richard made, drifting across the skies in a silvery flying saucer-shaped airship. Later, the child was found to be hiding in the house and ignoring the shouts of searchers. The police say they are filing charges because the spectacle was a publicity stunt and the child was never in the balloon.

The incident occurred at the Heene residence. There was no one around but the family, and the balloon belonged to them. Either the kid was being a naughty boy and the parents got in trouble because of him, or the parents are lying.

Cpl. Lindsey Scott was in investigations at Quantico Marine Base (book about his ordeal available at Amazon) at the time a young woman was raped and her throat cut. His bad luck: the victim described her attacker to a sketch artist and when the drawing was complete, Lindsey Scott's workmates said, "Wow! That looks just like Scotty!" Scott also drove a gold Buick; although it didn't have the white top the girl saw on her attacker's car, it was still the color and make she described.

When Haleigh Cummings (on left below with the various suspects) and Madelaine McCann went missing, they disappeared from locations where their parents were supposed to be. Misty Croslin, Ronald Cummings's underage girlfriend who watched his kids while he worked, claims she was asleep when someone came into the house and snatched the child from the bedroom she shared with the children. Maddy McCann supposedly was taken while her parents left the child alone with her younger siblings and went off drinking at the resort restaurant.

In all these cases, particular individuals are now linked with each crime. These persons-of-interest could have been involved.


Okay, so they could have done it, but did they? Do they have alibis which will clear them? Lindsey Scott admits he wasn't at home when the victim linked to him was attacked. Scott was out and about, going back to his recently vacated apartment to clean an oven (no one saw him) and looking for a foot bath to buy for his pregnant wife (no one really remembers seeing him in the store).

Misty Croslin claims she was sleeping, which isn't much of an alibi; Ronald Cummings claims he was at work, but there is no proof the crime couldn't have been committed before he went to work.

The McCanns (pictured left with Madelaine in the red circle) were the last people to be with their daughter before they supposedly left her unattended and available to be taken from their room at the resort. The Heenes were home with their children when the boy supposedly climbed into the balloon, or the boy pretended he went up in a balloon and hid in the house. No one has a particularly good alibi.

Past behaviors:

The Heenes are publicity seekers who have already done one reality-TV show: an episode of "Wife Swap." Richard Heene, who met his wife in acting school, was pitching producers for a new show for his family just before the balloon incident, suggesting he might have been trying to get attention. But Heene has behaved so bizarrely in raising his children -- chasing tornadoes with them and letting them be extremely adventurous and curious -- that on this particular day maybe the kids just outdid themselves.

Misty likes to use drugs and party. She hooks up with an older man, Ronald Cummings, and plays Mommy to his two little children. Cummings has a questionable history of drug involvement and a controlling nature. So it's easy to think Misty may have been out partying, the child ingested drugs, or Misty might be covering for Ronald if he beat the child to death before he went to work.

The McCanns left their three children alone in a hotel room so the couple could have fun. Automatically this awakens suspicious of what else they would do, such as give the kids prescription medicine (both parents are physicians) to make them sleep while the parents were away.

Lindsey Scott is the only one who doesn't have any questionable past behaviors.

Post-Crime Behaviors:

The Heenes were more than eager to do television appearances. Richard Heene said, "Wow!" and then hung his head when his son Falcon blurted out on "The Today Show" that he hid because "They were doing a show." No longer so hungry for the public eye, Heene became angry at the cable networks for asking questions and insisted all future questions be in writing.

The McCanns never showed remorse for leaving their children unattended. They dressed nicely every day and continued normal routines such as jogging. Kate McCann said she never had problems sleeping after Maddy "was taken."

Misty Croslin couldn't keep her story straight about the night Haleigh went missing. Ronald Cummings boldly told reporters he has never been involved in drugs despite his long list of drug arrests. Ron and Misty married soon after Haleigh went missing, as if this were a time to celebrate. No one can tell me they had to get married at that time: they were already living together, so the sanctity of marriage doesn't seem to be an issue.

Lindsey Scott's behavior remained credible after the crime.

The Suspects:

The Heenes will most likely be charged with more than one crime, possibly including contributing to the delinquency of a minor and making a false police report. I will be curious what actual proof police have that the balloon episode was a hoax. Richard Heene's behavior sure looks squirrelly, and the kid rather outed him (As Art Linkletter said, "Kids say the darndest things."), but Falcon may not have meant what he said exactly as it sounded. That's why police must have more evidence: conflicting stories, something on the computer, maybe even notes detailing a "story" of a little boy going off in a flying saucer balloon.

Neither the McCanns nor the Croslin/Cummings duo have been charged with any crimes, yet no evidence in either case points to abduction by a stranger. Because the parents have no alibis and their behavior is questionable, both in the past and after the crime, they remain suspects to some degree. So until evidence shows up to convict them or someone else, we will have to continue to wonder about their guilt.

Poor Lindsey Scott. He got convicted of the crime and spent four years in Fort Leavenworth until he got an appeal and was freed for lack of evidence. Truly, he got a bad deal. He became a suspect because the victim's info matched him and his car and because he couldn't account for his time. Nothing was questionable about his behavior and no physical evidence linked him to the crime. Since his release, another suspect has come into view: he is a drop dead look-alike to Scott, he was driving a gold Buick with a white top during the time of the crime, and he had a cousin who maintained the usually locked area on the base where the victim was taken.

I don't have a problem with the Heenes, the McCanns, or Misty Croslin and Ronald Cummings being suspects; they should be. However, the investigation of Lindsey Scott should have been downplayed until there was more evidence that made him look a whole lot worse. Of course, none should be convicted without substantial evidence proving that they, and only they, could have committed the crime.

Some say the possible involvement of these people shouldn't even be discussed, because we are in effect convicting them without a trial in the court of public opinion. This is ridiculous; we can't convict someone with an opinion or a speculation. Of course, we must be careful not to slander or libel someone by making claims about the person (creating "facts" that do not exist based on guesswork) or stating they are guilty instead of hypothesizing that they might be guilty. People are responsible for their behavior, and it's not illegal for someone to discuss it in public, (even if it is somewhat gossipy). We all make choices in our lives, and our choices follow us. If they lead the public and the police into suspecting we are involved in a crime, we are responsible.

Good behavior won't always protect us (look at Lindsey Scott's unfortunate incarceration), but it should give us better odds of avoiding becoming a criminal suspect -- and the talk of cable television.

Friday, October 16, 2009

That Damn Death Penalty - Again

by Katherine Scardino

I have posted many articles on Women in Crime Ink about the death penalty, especially in the State of Texas. There have been several incidences recently which scream out for a revisit of this unpopular and hateful subject.

I read an article yesterday in the local Houston paper that our Supreme Court refused to give Linda Carty a new trial - even though her trial lawyers did not put on any mitigating evidence and only met her two weeks before jury selection. Linda Carty did a terrible thing. She kidnapped a woman and her four-day-old baby, and killed the mother. Do not misunderstand - I, of all people, am well aware of the horrible acts that one person can commit against another. It is sickening and disgusting. That doesn't change the fact that we must have rules and laws that we all obey we're going to take a person’s life in the name of our law.

I admit I don't know all the facts of the Linda Carty case. Thank goodness I wasn't involved in it -- and I hope that if I had been, no one could say she had an incompetent defense. But the two failures in her defense are enough in my mind to give pause to the Supreme Court’s decision.

A defense attorney has a duty to “know” his client -- especially one who may die as a result of the attorney’s laxity or ineptness. It is indefensible for a lawyer to not meet his client until two weeks prior to trial. It is indefensible for a lawyer to know so little about his client that he has no witnesses and records to present to the jury during the punishment phase of a capital case. How can any attorney convince a jury that mercy -- life in prison instead of execution -- is appropriate without a complete picture of the defendant's background? What kind of life did this person live? What negative influences may have changed his life? 

This attorney is not arguing guilt or innocence. If he convinces the jury, it won't mean the defendant will walk out of the courtroom and down the elevator with you.

Then, there is the arson murder case of Cameron Todd Willingham. Willingham was convicted of setting a fire that killed his three children. I don't have the words to express my outrage at how ignorant and uninformed Gov. Rick Perry sounded when he said the there was other evidence besides the state's arson experts to prove the cause of the fire. The State of Texas had to prove arson if the jury were to reach a capital murder verdict. The problem is that fire experts, not just someone the post-conviction lawyers pulled off the streets, but individuals renowned in the field, now condemn the state’s arson testimony as bogus and unscientific. Oh, did I forget to mention - Texas has already executed Cameron Todd Willingham.
He was most certainly an innocent person. At least, Perry must be afraid he was. In October, Perry abruptly replaced the chairman and two members of the state's Forensic Science Commission -- two days before they were to hear the evidence of the arson expert. 

Rick Perry doesn't like the idea that while he sat on his ass and refused to look at the reputable fire scientists' evidence, Cameron Todd Willingham died.
Is there one person out there who can state that Cameron Todd Willingham is the only innocent person Texas has executed? I dare you to make that statement. You would have to ignore the evidence related to the cases of Carlos DeLuna and Ruben Cantu, just to name two. There are many more. But, the issue is - even if there is one, just one - that is one too many. Killing another human being, through an act of violence or an act of the supposed legal system of Texas our State, is final. We can't bring that person back to life. We took that away from him or her, and we did it wrongly.

Our capital punishment system in Texas -- and elsewhere -- is flawed. It is not dispensed fairly. It is not certain. Arrogant, self-centered, unqualified politicians decide whether new evidence is sufficient to stop an execution. These same arrogant, self-centered politicians -- so-called judges -- tell us that “actual innocence” is not enough to warrant a new trial, let alone stop an execution.

What in the hell are we doing?

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Accused Killers Catch a Break

by Cathy Scott

Two murder cases with women as the accused killers have taken similar -- and unusual -- turns. Each was instantly labeled the “Black Widow.” And both women stood to gain millions should their husbands die.

In the first case, San Juan and Manhattan socialite
Barbara Kogan was indicted late last year for the 1990 murder of her millionaire husband George. She stood accused of convincing her attorney to hire a hitman to kill George. Kogan’s estranged husband, with whom she was in the middle of a nasty divorce, was shot to death in broad daylight while George was walking from a neighborhood market to his live-in girlfriend’s high-rise apartment on Manhattan's Upper East Side.

Joel Seidemann, the Manhattan assistant district attorney who has been on the case for nearly two decades, is expected to refile a fresh charge against Kogan by the end of this year. During Kogan's arraignment in November 2008, Seidemann described the suspect as "a very angry woman."

"But when that anger became so overwhelming," he told the judge, "she decided to litigate the divorce through the bullets of a gun."

The second defendant is
Margaret Rudin, charged and convicted of killing her husband, wealthy real estate investor Ronald Rudin, then driving the body to a remote area on the shore of Lake Mojave 45 miles outside of Las Vegas, stuffing him inside an antique truck and setting it on fire.

The commonalities with the two women, both of whom are now 65 years old, are many. Rudin, who was convicted of murder, has been granted a new trial. Rudin’s conviction was overturned in December 2008 by Clark County District Court
Judge Sally Loehrer, who ruled that Rudin, who has spent the last nine years in a Nevada state prison, had “ineffective counsel” during her first trial.

And Barbara Kogan, accused of second-degree murder in the contract killing of her estranged husband, has had the charge dismissed on a technicality. In July, State Supreme Court Justice Michael Obus ruled that because another grand jury had failed to indict Kogan in the 1990s, prosecutors needed judicial permission to empanel a new grand jury that handed down the indictment against Kogan last year. The prosecution, he said, failed to get that permission.

Both women are expected to be in their respective courtrooms on opposite ends of the country sometime next year. Rudin’s first trial, which was much publicized and lasted 10 weeks, was one of Las Vegas's highest profile murder cases. For Kogan, “48 Hours” and “Dateline” have already made arrangements to be in the courtroom for the trial, which is expected to last eight weeks.

While prosecutors in both crimes claim greed as the motive, in the Kogan case, the only evidence against her is circumstantial at best -- unless, by trial time, the prosecution comes up with more.

As for Rudin, it's mostly circumstantial as well, with hard evidence against her shaky. Her husband was missing in 1994, his car found at a strip club. Later, a boy and his father, out fishing together, discovered the burnt trunk and body near the shore of Lake Mojave on the Nevada side of the water. A gun, said to be the murder weapon, found months later in the lake, was not registered to Rudin or her husband, so that connection was never made, just conjectured.

After Rudin was granted a new trial, her new attorney, Christopher Oram, told reporters, "Obviously, we're very happy with the judge's ruling and look forward to going to trial.”

Kogan’s new counsel, high-profile criminal defense lawyer Barry Levin, said he’s looking forward to going to trial as well. “I intend to represent her zealously. I think she will be acquitted,” Levin said.

It all will unfold in their respective courtrooms. For the prosecution, both cases at this juncture appear to be uphill battles. But you never know what might happen as both sides sides duke it out in court.

Photo of Barbara Kogan in court (top) courtesy of the New York Daily News and photo of Margaret Rudin courtesy of TruTV.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Prescription For Trouble

by Diane Dimond

We are a pill-popping culture. We take pills to sleep, wake up, get happy, keep our children less hyper. And while people might not realize it, sharing prescription drugs, using false names to get prescription drugs or shopping around to get more than one doctor to prescribe extra prescription drugs are all against the law.

It used to be that law enforcement worried only about illegal drugs like marijuana, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamines. Now they’re dealing with the criminal aftermath of a record number of people getting high on prescription drugs: Deadly car accidents, domestic abuse, sex offenses -- all committed by people too impaired to control themselves. Addicts of prescription drugs have been known to commit crimes to pay for their pills once their insurance runs out.

Health-care providers and law enforcement will tell you prescription-drug abuse results in the same problems as street drugs: addiction, crime and broken families.

So how bad is the problem? Hold on to your hats for some brand new, jaw-dropping statistics from the Drug Enforcement Administration: seven million Americans are regularly abusing prescription drugs – not just taking them, abusing them. The drugs of choice are powerful pain killers like oxycodone (the generic name for an opiate-type drug sold under three different brand names), Percocet (known as Tylenol 3; brand name for acetaminophen with oxycodone) and Vicodin (acetaminophen with hydrocodone, another opiate-type drug).

The DEA has been studying this for years, so comparisons are easy. In the year 2000, 3.8 million Americans abused painkillers. The latest figure of seven million marks an 80 percent increase!

Prescription medications now cause more overdose deaths than cocaine and heroin combined.

If that stuns you – and I hope it does – get this: It’s not just painkillers Americans depend on to get through the day. There has also been a massive jump in anti-depressant prescriptions. It seems inconceivable, but 27 million people are currently taking anti-depressants like Paxil and Prozac, according to a new report in the Archives of General Psychiatry.

There seems to be the feeling that if a doctor prescribes it, it‘s okay to take, that prescription meds are somehow safer than street drugs. It isn’t true. Many prescription drugs have a high potential for abuse, and patients can get hooked before they realize what’s happening. Some people get so used to taking a drug their bodies begin to crave more and more of it, and they die of a self-induced overdose.

Look, lots of patients have pain and depression and truly need these drugs, there is no denying that. Probably a lot of the increase in the skyrocketing number of prescriptions can be traced to the stress of life in the United States post September 11th, 2001; to the miserable state of the economy we’ve all had to deal with; and a decline in psychotherapy sessions after many insurance companies restricted payments.

But there’s also real criminality involved here. There are doctors who act illegally when they continue to prescribe or over-prescribe to someone they believe is an addict. There are pharmacies dispensing far too many pills to one household and ignoring the red flag of possible addiction. And there are scads of rogue “pharmacy” Internet sites illegally selling controlled substances. If they run out of doctors to write scrips, addicts often turn to these cyber-drug dealers. The web sites rake in profits -- millions of dollars per month.

Lawmakers have been talking about the potential for a prescription-drug abuse epidemic in America for more than a decade. Now, with a total of 34 million patients currently taking painkillers or anti-depressants, I think we’ve hit the epidemic level. As fast as authorities shut down careless pharmacies and illegal Internet sites, or strip offending doctors of their prescription privileges, others step in to take their place. In the last three years, tens of millions of doses of prescription drugs, and tens of millions of dollars in assets have been seized. But the seizures have done nothing to stem the growth of the problem.

The most depressing part of this mess is that it’s destined to get worse. Our children are learning awful lessons from our pill-popping behavior. And it’s easy for them to simply slip a few of their parents' prescription drugs out of the medicine cabinet. Don’t imagine your kids wouldn’t think about it. The DEA reports nearly one in 10 high school seniors admit to abusing drugs that weren’t prescribed to them.

I’ve got no brilliant idea for solving this problem. It just seems that we spend so much time, effort and money fighting illegal drugs while overlooking the scourge of prescription drugs. If we’re going to crusade against one, shouldn’t we include the other?

Our kids aren’t stupid. They see the campaign against hard street drugs and then watch us down all sorts of prescription drugs as though nothing bad can happen.

Bad happens. And we should all spread the word.