Friday, January 29, 2010

The Troubling Case of Sarah Widmer

by Laura James

In August 2008, 24-year-old Sarah Widmer, of southwest Ohio, died under mysterious circumstances: she drowned in her own bathtub.

The only other person in the home at the time was her husband of four months, Ryan Widmer.

The coroner ruled it a homicide. Mr. Widmer was charged and convicted of murdering his wife. The trial was taped by Dateline. And yet he has many supporters, among them his family and the Ohio Innocence Project -- which took on the case even though it does not meet their criteria (because there is no exculpatory DNA evidence). With the widespread publicity, an unusual case quickly became a very unusual case.

The conviction was thrown out by a judge concerned with the conduct of jurors who went outside the evidence to create their own theory of the case. (Or at least that was the stated reason. If the judge didn't have his own doubts about the verdict, I doubt he would have issued this ruling.) Now Ryan Widmer is about to be retried.

In the meantime, websites tell the tragic stories of this couple. Remember Sarah Widmer is a heartbreaking tribute to the attractive woman who lost her life in such an inexplicable way. Local station WCPO has put together its voluminous coverage. Mr. Widmer's supporters have created a comprehensive website and organized mass prayers.

Did Ryan Widmer kill his wife? How can the drowning death of a healthy young woman be otherwise explained? But there is no motive to be gleaned from the evidence. Was he wrongfully convicted? Was the coroner's conclusion warranted by the evidence? Did our criminal justice system, as extraordinarily deferential as it is to prosecutors, make a grievous error? Or is a guilty man going to go free?

These are deeply troubling questions. Had I been on the jury, I don't know that I could have voted to convict him, based on what I have read. I can't help but think that jurors in the United States today have completely lost touch with the concept of reasonable doubt.

One thing is for certain, to my mind anyway: widespread publicity in any case is a serious threat to a search for the truth. Is this not apparent to us by now? Be it a case in which the evidence of guilt is overwhelming, yet the defendant walks (O.J. Simpson, Robert Durst), or a case in which the evidence is ridiculously thin but the defendant is convicted anyway (Father Gerald Robinson, and, perhaps, Ryan Widmer), journalists and cameras are more often a problem than anything else.

If I ever had the misfortune to represent an innocent person accused of a crime, and if that case were to be heavily publicized beforehand or broadcast live, I would not stand for it. I'd go on a hunger strike until they removed the camera. If, on the other hand, my client was guilty, I'd welcome the publicity. The cameras are monkey wrenches. They mess with the works.

In the Widmer case, we can only hope that the retrial results in the truth coming out.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Victim or Cold-Blooded Killer?

by Diane Fanning
Under suspicion of first-degree murder, 15-year-old Jordan was arrested on July 13, 2009, by Colorado Springs Police. The lead detective, Lieutenant David Whitlock, described her as "a cold-blooded killer."

More than six months later, she remains in the custody of the state; her mother's rights as a parent have been terminated.  No charges have been filed yet against Jordan because prosecutors do not know what to do with her, even though she admitted to shooting Jon Hazard (below, right) to death.
Although I normally stand with murder victims, this case may be an exception.  Hazard is not a very sympathetic figure.  His wife didn't realize he had an obsession with underage porn until his fascination with their teenage babysitter brought it all out in the open.  She divorced him in 2001.
Hazard's sons lived with their mother in Texas, but traveled to Colorado to visit their dad.  He lived next door to Jordan and her mother.  During the summer of 2006, 11-year-old Jordan became friends with Hazard's 10- and 13-year-old boys.
At one point, when Jordan was in Hazard's home, he surreptitiously videotaped her making out with a boy her age.  He used that tape as blackmail.  He said he'd show it to her mother unless Jordan used her cell phone to take nude photos of herself and send them to him.  Soon pictures of this naked child weren't enough to satisfy Hazard's lust.
He used the images to pressure Jordan to meet him at the Hampton Inn, where he plied her with booze until she passed out.  When she woke up, he was fondling her.  She leaped out of bed and took refuge in the bathroom for the rest of the night.  It wasn't the last time they met in a hotel, though.  On later occasions, he used pills to ensure he got what he wanted.  When Jordan went to Grand Junction with Jon Hazard in July 2008, her mother found out and called the police.
In December of that year, Hazard was arrested on two counts of sexual assault with a pattern of abuse, sexual assault on a child from a person in a position of trust, and contributing to delinquency of a minor.  A forensic analysis of his computer uncovered more than 200 images and videos of Jordan, dating back to when she was 13 years old.
But there was even more evidence stored on his computer.  Analysts uncovered a video of Hazard administering pills to Jordan, a 23-page confession complete with a time-line, and inappropriate images of other underage girls.
You'd think that with all the digital evidence to back up Jordan's story of abuse, police should have confiscated Hazard's hand guns when he was released on bail awaiting trial.  But they didn't. 

According to a source close to the case, when Hazard went to Palmer Park on the evening of May 31, he took two of his guns with him.  Was it mere happenstance that those weapons were in his car when he went to meet the young girl?  Or did he intend to use them to intimidate Jordan?  Or did he bring the weapons because he planned to take his victim's life to prevent her from testifying against him at his trial on June 9?
Whatever his intentions, Hazard died that night from multiple gunshot wounds.  His body was found near the picnic area in the park.

If he threatened Jordan that night, and she managed to get the gun away and turn it on her attacker, it is clearly self-defense.  But even in the worst-case scenario for Jordan -- if she took the gun from the car and shot Hazard dead without immediate provocation -- is a first-degree murder charge appropriate?

Opinions run the gamut.  On one side: Hazard deserved it, let the girl go.  On the other: victims can't take the law into their own hands; she took a life, her own was forfeit.  I think truth and justice lies somewhere in between those two extremes.
If Jordan saw her situation as one of perpetual victimization, a nightmare with no end, isn't it understandable that she would take action to end it?
The state finally moved her to a treatment facility last week.  But since she's being held on suspicion of first-degree murder, is she really there for psychological help for her past trauma? Or is the state using that methodology to build a first-degree murder case against her?
Hazard stole this child's dignity and destroyed her childhood. Now the state is holding the threat of lifetime incarceration over her head. Prosecutors need to file charges against this girl or set her free. The limbo Jordan is living in now adds to the trauma of her short and difficult life and prevents her from getting the help she needs to rebuild her life and heal her soul.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Lovely Bones: Read it Before You See it

by Stacy Dittrich

In August 2009, I was vacationing on the beautiful Cape Fear coast of North Carolina. I'd sworn a personal oath that I'd simply enjoy the time with my family and do absolutely no work. I had just completed a more difficult than usual manuscript and found myself wandering around our rented condo, scanning the book shelves in search of the perfect book to read on the beach. An avid reader, I couldn’t remember the last time I actually curled up and read a book instead of writing one. Glimpsing the back covers, I came across one book in particular that caught my attention: the story of a young girl who was murdered and watches her family from heaven. In my own twisted mind, the novel seemed right up my alley. I flipped it open to the first page and read the first line:

"My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973."

I was hooked immediately, (The first line is a publisher’s dream). In fact, I walked away continuing to read, and spent the next two days so engrossed in the novel, I lost precious vacation time. While the kids and my husband played in the sand and water, I holed up under the umbrella with my big floppy hat on and my nose stuck in Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones. In fact, even when I wasn’t reading it in the evening, the storyline continued to linger in the back of my mind. Yes, it’s one of those books that will stay with you for weeks after you’ve read the last page. If an author can accomplish this, it's the sign of a true literary genius. 

In my normal behind-the-eight-ball life, I'd never heard of The Lovely Bones and had no clue what a huge success it was. Now I understand why. Writing a dark storyline like the murder of a teenage girl, Sebold uses a matter-of-fact voice. Even when Susie (actress Saoirse Ronan, pictured right) describes her detailed, disturbing, and gruesome rape and murder, the reader gets through it easily. Why? Because Susie tells it simply; she is, after all, dead. There's a lack of emotion and grief, since she's had no choice but to come to terms with her fate. 

However, the reader (at least I did) feels a continuous sense of sadness as we follow Susie through her “personal heaven,” a heaven she describes as less than pleasurable. We follow her as she watches her family fall apart after the news of her death, as they grow up, and as she eventually watches the man responsible for her murder, George Harvey, who got away with it, spoiler alert! die by an icicle to the head. Susie’s own redemption.

In a time when society is plagued by true stories of murdered children shown on TVs, in newspapers, and in books, Sebold flips the coin to the child’s point of view.

Her storyline is absolutely brilliant.

Yes, it's fiction, but it deals with a horrific crime that we are all too used to hearing about. I was shocked when I Googled the book to find it was currently being made into a major motion picture with bigwig director Peter Jackson at the helm. I’ve read many books that have been made into movies, and many of them I’ve wrinkled my nose at — the book and movie both. With other books I’ve enjoyed, I found myself shaking my head that no one picked it up to make it into a movie. This time, I found myself cheering at the prospect: Finally, someone appreciates a true literary creation!

The Lovely Bones didn’t start off as a smash. In fact, it took some time to get off the ground -- until Anna Quindlen, a Book of the Month Club judge, endorsed the book on NBC's Today Show. In the weeks that followed, it became a bestseller. I love this story; I’m all for the underdog author and, frankly, it gives me hope. No one deserved this success more than Alice Sebold.

Since the announcement of the movie, the book has attracted a new, teenage audience. I was shocked when my 13-year old daughter told me everyone at school was reading it; she wanted to read the book and see the movie. I had some reservations, only because if I'd read this book when I was 13, I'd probably have had nightmares for a month. Parents, I leave it up to you to decide if it's appropriate for your teen. In my case, I finally relented and told her she could see the movie -- but only if she read the book first.

I believe that pertains to everyone, actually. The movie looks amazing, but you’ll never really get the true emotions, sadness, grief and acceptance from the movie that you get from the book. I believe reading the book first will make the movie that much better.

The Lovely Bones” is now in theaters and the book, of course, is on bookshelves and on line everywhere. Read it first!

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Lawsuits Don't Have to be So Painful

 by Diane Dimond

Lots of lawyers aren’t going to like this column. It’s about a new way for the rest of us to think about legal representation.

 Up front let me say, there’s always going to be conflict. People disagree over business, property, divorce or next-door neighbor stuff. But what if, rather than hire high-priced lawyers to duke it out in court over months or even years, conflict was solved in a better, faster, more productive way? It would still be legally binding – it just wouldn’t necessarily take so long or be so expensive. It definitely wouldn’t be so gut-wrenching.

Enter the idea called “collaborative law.” Here’s how it works:

The guiding principal of lawyers who practice collaborative law is that everyone agrees upfront to work together in a respectful way to reach a settlement. No pit bull lawyer tactics are allowed. No promising to wring dry the opposition, filing mounds of paperwork or hiring private detectives to dig up dirt.

And clients of collaborative-law counselors sign an agreement promising there will be no yelling, name-calling or bickering about the past. Let’s face it, when you’re getting a divorce, suing your business partner, or fighting with your family over an estate, it’s human nature to want to lash out with personal insults. That’s really counterproductive behavior. In collaborative-law cases, clients know that if the process becomes too combative, both the lawyers will resign rather than participate in the ugliness. And both lawyers promise not to be involved in any litigation that might result.

 Agree to Agree - The New Lawsuit Tactic

Collaborative law is all about the gentle compromise, the smoothest and quickest route to get clients out of unworkable situations. If your case needs special expertise in a particular area – maybe a financial, labor law or even medical malpractice expert – the collaborative lawyer has a team of like-minded associates who will join the process.

The only time you go to court is at the end of the process, simply to get the state’s approval of your agreement.

In the past, professional mediators have tried to fill this role, but many aren’t lawyers and mediation sessions are often structured so the complaining parties sit in different rooms. Meanwhile, the professional runs back and forth delivering messages and trying to make progress toward a solution. No doubt mediation has proved to be extremely useful, but it can be a cumbersome process.

Now, with the collaborative-law movement taking hold in states across the country, even top-notch mediators, like Lee Jay Berman (below right), president of the American Institute of Mediation in Los Angeles, are embracing the trend and calling it a breath of fresh air for those in the conflict resolution business.

“It brings lawyers back to being Counselors at Law and putting their clients’ needs first – by its very definition,” Berman told me. “And it brings outside consultants (therapists,    accountants, etc.) into the issue in the way that they were  intended – not as competing experts, paid to say the opposite, but as expert consultants assisting the team in reaching a mutually agreeable resolution.”

While all this might sound like a great new idea, the fact is it was conceived 20 years ago by a Minnesota divorce lawyer named Stuart Webb.  He was frustrated with the constant adversarial approach to legal problem-solving, so he started a new practice seeped in the idea of cooperative compromise.  His web site's opening line says it all:  “Resolving divorce issues with dignity and support.”

Webb’s revolutionary idea of everyone joining hands for the client’s sake has already taken off. There are about 22,000 lawyers trained in collaborative law worldwide.  “I just heard there are lawyers now practicing collaborative divorce law in Iran,” he told me in an astonished voice.

When I told Webb my theory that many lawyers might not embrace his idea for fear it would limit their billing hours, he gently said, “The lawyer will still be making an hourly fee. They’d just be filling up their day with collaborative-law cases. And they’d feel better about it at the end of the day.”

Webb was calling me during a break in a meeting of about 30 lawyers.  “We were just talking inside about how we all got into collaborative law … how it re-energized those of us near burnout. I guarantee litigation lawyers don’t sit around and do that!”

In this financial day and age, anything that can resolve disputes outside the court system will help ease the burden of ballooning dockets and save taxpayers money. As citizens first, I’d think even the American Bar Association could get behind that.

I say let the collaborative movement spread! The next time you need a lawyer, look for one in your state who practices this type law.  I think you’ll find a lawyer who’s more interested in achieving a just settlement than watching the meter run.

Monday, January 25, 2010

A Credible Motive

by Lisa R. Cohen

I missed my slot on this blog in the last cycle because I was away in the slammer. Don't get me wrong -- I was comfortably ensconced in a two bedroom guest cottage with wood burning fireplace and fully stocked frig.

But the cottage was high atop a hill inside Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, aka "the Alcatraz of the South." A former plantation worked by slaves imported from the country it's named for, Angola holds some 5,000 maximum security inmates and spans 22 miles - "bigger than all of Manhattan," as the warden likes to say.

There were four of us packed into the two bedrooms, and the southern heating system couldn't compete with record freezing temperatures, but still, the housing was certainly bigger than the cells some Angola inmates inhabit, and much more private than the sweeping double-bunked dorms most of them sleep in at night. I am always cognizant and grateful when I go there that I can drive out whenever I want.

After our first night, I arrived at the Treatment Center, home to the hospice patients whose lives and deaths I'm here to chronicle. I was sad to see the Christmas lights that had twinkled around the guard shack when I visited in December were being packed up. The candy cane and Santa Claus-patterned gift wrap that had papered the infirmary office doors was gone, as the New Year ushered in a return to institutional white.

I was there with a film production crew to watch as the prison hospice staff selected a new crop of inmate volunteers. Executive Producer Molly Fowler (who took the photos of our trip); DP Tom Mason; Producer Jeca Taudte, and I were following the inmates for our new documentary-in-progress, ONE LAST SHOT: A Story of Redemption, see more info and trailer here.

One at a time, the applicants sat in the infirmary chapel, facing a security warden, the hospice co-ordinator, two mental health specialists and a classifications officer. One of the men considered each question intently as he sweated so profusely, it beaded up and rolled down his face. One was bowed over with the weight of decades spent at Angola. Several were still young, but they knew they were going to grow old and die there. Many are murderers.

"Why do you want to be a hospice volunteer?" asked Stacye, the hospice co-ordinator with a healthy bullshit detector. "I want to help in time of suffering," said one, in biblical tones. He'd watched his mother die of cancer, he informed the room. He probably had, and he seemed very sincere. Later Stacye told us she'd believe it when she saw it. "You have to prove it to me," she said, in tones that brooked no nonsense.

"I'd like to think someone will be here for me one day, when I need looking after," said another, enlightened self-interest at its most pointed. "I want to learn about life," said a third, a little cryptically, or profoundly, depending on the interpretation. He almost sounded like he was looking for an adventure - which didn't bode well for his chances.

I find all these answers somewhat unsatisfying. Mainly this is because I haven't yet heard one that works for me. "Why the hell would anyone want to volunteer to work in hospice?" is the more apt question I find myself thinking. I just can't fathom it.

Taking a dying stranger into your heart, watching him shrivel and weaken as he strikes out against death -- futilely -- and often against you, holds little appeal. Feeding him, bathing him, holding his hand as he slips away; who would step forward to embrace such a task? And yet scores of these inmates do.

Are they looking for special privileges? A sympathetic ear from the mostly female nursing staff? Some face-time on our air? Or, like Stacye says, will they show better than tell their genuine intent?

We arrived on a Sunday night. Executions in Louisiana have been all but put on hold, as post-conviction appeals wend their way endlessly through the courts. But that Thursday an execution was scheduled, the first in eight years. Gerald Bordelon (seen at right), convicted of raping and murdering his 12-year-old stepdaughter, was to be put to death at sundown that day. He had waived all his appeals; there was no paper trail to slow him down.

So on Monday, before the hospice job interviews, we watched from inside the execution chamber as the prison "strap-down" team held its final rehearsal for the big show. They practiced over and over cinching the buckles for each arm and leg, monitoring the heart rate, taping the IV line securely. Someone positioned a plastic trash can under the end of the drip, to keep the floor free of the saline which dribbled harmlessly out of the plastic tubing instead of feeding into the arm of the assistant warden standing in for Bordelon.

By Wednesday afternoon, the hospice folks had finished making their candidate picks -- eight new recruits made the cut. Wednesday night, my small production crew and I went back to the execution chamber building to talk to Bordelon. He was awaiting his death the next day in a cell just 62 steps away from the lethal injection table.

"What will God think about all this?" I asked him, as I faced him through the horizontal meal slot in the barred door. Our hospice film is about men who seek redemption, and we'd wondered if that's why Bordelon had chosen to waive his chance to hang on to life at least a little longer, possibly for decades.

"I'm not doing it so God will grant me forgiveness," he replied, "or for redemption, but if He's the God I believe in, maybe He will." Bordelon said he wanted to do it sooner rather than later to atone for what he'd done, to bring -- if possible -- some peace to his ex-wife and her family. Like the prison volunteer candidate, he seemed sincere, too.

There were more practical reasons, of course. The appeals process extends your life, but it doesn't extend the square footage of your floor plan, and an 8x6 cell is a rough place to spend years waiting. And Bordelon had been clear about one other thing. If he ever got out, he'd said, he would probably do it again. Better not to take any chances.

The next day it all went off without a hitch, and Gerald Bordelon showed rather than told his good intentions. And in the days that followed we went on with the rest of our shoot, interviewing our new hospice volunteers. Not all of the eight will make it through the next step -- a three-week training course, one week of class and then two tougher weeks on the job before graduating.

The inmates who've been doing this work for years will be putting the new guys through their paces and looking over their shoulders every step of the way. My film crew and I will be looking over theirs, to see who's "gaming" as the old hands call it, and who's got the real, credible motives.

All photos of One Last Shot production by Molly Fowler.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Diane Fanning and True Crime Facts

by Andrea Campbell
Sometimes the best things are right in front of us. Today I am sharing an interview with our own WCI writer, Diane Fanning. There are some forensic science details, but I thought you might be interested in how a true crime book is created (I know I have always been). Diane is a good friend of mine as well as an interesting writer and person.

Q.: Diane, for WCI readers who don’t know you, please tell us a little about your background.

A.: I’m the author of 10 true crime books and three mystery novels and the editor of an anthology of Texas women writers. One of my true crime books, Written in Blood, was a finalist for an Edgar Allen Poe Award.

I was born and raised in the Baltimore, Maryland, area, moving to Virginia for college. I never left that state until I moved to Texas. I now live in New Braunfels, situated in between Austin and San Antonio, Texas.

Q.: Is it unusual to go to press even if the case has not come to resolution? I thought publishers preferred to go to print after the sentencing phase of the trial.

 A.: It depends on the publisher. Some do, some don’t. Often the verdict or sentencing can be anti-climactic, causing a lower volume of sales. This happens often when the case actually does not go to trial because of a plea bargain. While the story is still on-going, it grabs far more media attention which churns up more interest in a case. But, essentially, it’s the publisher who calls the shots here, not the writer.

Q.: You’ve written quite a few true crime books now. How did you first find the genre as a viable category?

A.: Not until after I got my first contract. I didn’t go after the first true crime book thinking of it as viable or sensible or a good thing for my writing career. I went after that story because I was passionate about it. Ten-year-old Krystal Surles was my new hero, and I simply had to write her story of survival and courage. 
Q.: Does it take a lot of gumption to write about crimes that affect many people’s lives, especially the victim’s family? Do you ever get emotionally involved?

A.: Any time you write about real people, you are treading on potentially treacherous ground. I approach each member of a family with respect and assure them that, to me, the victim is the most important person in the story. I ask them to help me to allow my readers to understand the great loss suffered when this person’s life was stolen in an act of violence.

I love it when they share their happy memories with me — the simple stories told with love. But this is the worst time in the life of this family and they cannot always be positive. At those times, I sometimes find myself crying with them.

Q.: How do you begin a true crime book? Please share some of your methodology.

A.: The first thing I do is scan through all the media I can find, looking for the names of the players in the case. Then I plan my approach based on the individual dynamics of each story.

Q.: Your book, Mommy’s Little Girl, is a true crime about what event?

A.: The book concerns the death of little Caylee Anthony shortly before her third birthday, and her mother, Casey Anthony, now charged with her murder.

Q.: In Mommy’s Little Girl, you didn't have access to the principle characters, Casey, Cindy, George or Lee Anthony, yet fully two-thirds of the book is dialogue between these people. Can you speak to that?

A.: The dialogue of these four people is taken directly from official documents or tape recordings or is a re-creation given to me by another person who was present during the conversation. None of it was a product of my imagination. Even when you read what one of them was thinking at a particular point in time, that information was provided by the subject to another person in the story.

 Q.: How did you find out about the forensic science evidence in Florida, and can you tell us what that is for this particular case?

A.: An extensive amount of documents have been released prior to trial because of the Sunshine Law in the state of Florida. More than 9,000 pages have been made public by the State Attorney.

There are items at the location where Caylee’s body was found that link to the Anthony home. Cadaver dogs hit on spots in the family’s back yard and in the car that Casey drove. Air analysis of the car indicated the presence of decomposition and chloroform. Coffin flies were found in the trunk of the car. A forensic analysis of Casey’s computer uncovered suspicious searches.

Q.: When you begin to examine a true crime, how do you approach the various people? Do you try to enter the case without any bias? Is that even possible?  

A.: Essentially, I approach them honestly, telling them upfront that I am writing a book about the case. The approach then differs depending on the individual. Victims’ family members, perpetrators’ family members, law enforcement, attorneys and others all require a different approach that reflects their reason for involvement in the case. I try to enter each and every case without bias because I know that what I read and what the general public believes is not always objective, evidence-based fact — sometimes even the jury can get it wrong.

I have started on some projects thinking the defendant was innocent and changing my mind mid-stream, as I did with the Michael Peterson case when I wrote Written in Blood. I have seen a crime as justifiable until I learned more. Mary Winkler, The Pastor’s Wife, was a case in point there. I thought that she was driven to her acts by brutal abuse by her husband. I came to the conclusion that the abuse was exaggerated and some fabricated after the fact. Matthew was a controlling spouse, but nothing he did was to an extreme that warranted the death penalty. 

Q.: If law enforcement has made mistakes, or even the prosecution for that matter, do you write about that as well? How do you feel about exposing that?

A.: Yes, if I am aware of errors in the investigation or the prosecution, I do point them out. No case is handled perfectly. Some are botched on the law enforcement or prosecution side resulting in an inadequate presentation leading to a lower sentence that is deserved; others result in wrongful convictions. Then there are some errors that are simply mistakes that are insignificant when you view the totality of the evidence.

Q.: Have the people involved ever harassed you? What about readers?

A.: It comes with the territory. Some people are not happy with the verdict in a case and take it out on me. Other readers feel I was too harsh in my portrayal of someone in the book—usually, but not always the perpetrator. But, this is offset by the thank-you notes and pleased e-mails I have received from many members of victims’ families. I also have a copy of one of my books, hand-delivered to me, that contains the signatures of every Texas Ranger in the state.

Q.: You have also written fictional mystery novels. How have you found crossing over genres? Please give a brief synopsis of the titles.

A.: Writing true crime has informed my fiction. Authoring fiction has improved my non-fiction writing. My current fiction focus is on the novels featuring Homicide Detective Lucinda Pierce and is based in Virginia. Pierce faces challenges in her professional and personal lives because of physical and emotional scars. She is tough and self-aware as she fights through the battles of her present and her past.

 Q.: What are your plans for the future?
A.: In general, I would like to continue writing both fiction and true crime. Both satisfy different needs for me. In particular, I am currently under contract to write a true crime book about Betty Neumar, the elderly woman arrested for the murder of the fourth of her five dead husbands. I also have a contract from my fiction publisher to write a fourth book in the Lucinda Pierce series.
Q.: Is there anything else you would like to tell WCI readers?

A.: On my web site, I have a page called the “Reading Room.” On it, there are links to a sample chapter from each one of my published books. It’s a great way to determine which one of them you would like to read. I just started a blog: Writing is a Crime,, and would love to read your comments.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010


by Pat Brown

  Once upon a time when someone went missing, posters with their faces (example left) were stuck in store windows, and that was about it. Times have changed and missing people, at least those who can pull heartstrings on television for a large enough portion of the viewing population, become stars (usually their final role). The supporting cast, on the other hand, may go on to book contracts and movie options. Even if no other projects are in their future, they get to be stars of a reality show. Some get a kick out of this, but others suffer painfully in the limelight, desperately giving interview after interview in hopes of finding their loved one.

Add to this mix news hosts and talking heads, all in there for their own variety of reasons. They may wish to keep the public informed, help save a life, promote a cause, sway viewpoints, and make a buck. In truth, it is likely a combination of all of these motives.

Law enforcement also uses this platform to learn more about the victim and the suspects, disseminate information, and hopefully, find the missing person. Their presence in the media can bring positive or negative attention to their department. Some cops just like being on air.

And let’s not forget the audience. They play a part as well. They bring ratings, public opinion, and sometimes tips that actually help solve a case. This media bonanza brings understanding and confusion, facts and misinformation. It is a volatile mix.

Now, the stage is set. Enter the actors. This week’s drama involves missing eight-month-old Gabriel Johnson of Tempe, Arizona. He is the perfect missing baby: white, blonde hair, impish smile. Enter the mother. In her good pictures, she has the look of an angel: soft golden hair surrounding a heart shaped face, a dimple in her chin. But Elizabeth Johnson has added just the right spice to the sweetness. She is a femme fatale with a dangerous streak lurking beneath her innocent looks, and she delivered the best line of the show when she, while on the run in Texas with the child to avoid the custody battle, told the father of the baby: “I killed him.” She went on to give a horrifying description of a cold deceased baby stuffed into a diaper bag and tossed in a dumpster.

The law caught up with Elizabeth in Florida. Gabriel was nowhere in sight. Her grandpa’s car, which she “borrowed” to make her escape from Arizona, was found in San Antonio. One day after the baby was last seen by video camera, Mom jumps a bus, backpack over the shoulder, leaving the vehicle, the baby clothes, and the baby car seat behind in the motel room.

But, now, when the police asked her where Gabriel is, Elizabeth had a new story. She was magically approached by a couple wanting a baby in a San Antonio park and so she gave the child over to them. Abysmally ridiculous story, but apparently believed by a great many people. Why? Second Act! Enter the Smiths.

 A more brilliant twist couldn’t have been thought of in a fictionalized story of a missing baby (and I would have liked to written it and sold the movie rights). The focus, once strictly upon the mentally disturbed protagonist, suddenly shifts to Jack and Tammi Smith, an Arizona couple who met Elizabeth in the airport and quickly became aggressive prospective adoptive parents of Gabriel Johnson. They took Elizabeth under their wing, working with the disturbed mother to hand over custody to them, in spite of the fact that the father of the baby, Logan McQueary, wasn’t willing to go along with the plan. After the baby went missing, the Smiths showed up continuously on television show after television show -- The Today Show, The Early Show, Nancy Grace, Geraldo, Dr. Phil, etc. -- showing little sadness and appearing extremely nervous. They both twiddled their thumbs as they talked, and many viewers commented that Mrs. Smith often nudged her husband or grabbed his leg. They thought she was trying to stop him from spilling some beans. A common feeling among the television audience is that there was something not quite right about the couple. They thought the Smiths had helped hide Gabriel or adopt him out to another couple in some “underground” baby railroad. The police apparently agreed, because they kept saying there were “indications” the baby was alive.

Act Three: The pressure heats up and the Smiths, now still to an extent enjoying the thrill of television stardom, are seeing the other, not-so-pleasant side of fame -- a thing called scrutiny with the surfacing of facts one might wish remained hidden. The police get a search warrant and dig their way through the Smiths' home and computers. Tammi  finally has to admit to everyone that she has not actually been totally honest -- that she helped Elizabeth deceive the courts with false information, including naming her own cousin as the father of Gabriel, even though he never met Ms. Johnson. Then it surfaced that Ms. Smith has a criminal record for forging checks back in Tennessee, and now her tarnished image makes people even more suspicious of her. If she will lie and cheat, how far will she go to hide Gabriel?

All the players are now out in front of the audience, at least most of them, as the father of Gabriel Johnson has kept a low profile. He has done only a few minutes of television, telling his side of the story as to how Elizabeth hurt and neglected the baby, went into violent rages, and how she and the Smiths tried to take his baby away. He was the perfect innocent in the story, and the media purposely kept any negative information about him as quiet as possible. Slowly, some less flattering facts began to leak out, that Logan McQueary is a repeat felon, a burglar, and a parole breaker, and he was still violating the law after Gabriel was born. Still he continues to be cast as the tragic hero who has innocently fallen victim to evil-doers.

Act Four: All show hosts, commentators, and television viewers on board! The discussion is at times somber, outraged, questioning, analytical, and, occasionally, amused. Behaviors and personalities are dissected and clashing conclusions argued. I did my bit, except I got booted off a number of shows because of my early harsh take that Elizabeth killed the baby and no mysterious couple or hiding place existed. I never bought Elizabeth’s story that she made up the baby homicide because she wanted to hurt Logan; I believed she offed the baby and then bragged about it. In spite of the fact the Elizabeth was willing to give the baby to the Smiths (to get rid of it and piss off Logan) and, although I believe she is perfectly capable of giving the baby to a stranger in the park, the likelihood of her finding a sterile young white couple almost immediately upon her arrival in Texas strains credibility. Even more so, this couple would have to be willing to break the law and continue to hide the baby in the face of a massive law enforcement baby hunt.

The Smiths did love doing television. As a regular commentator who spends a lot of time in green rooms, I can tell you their behavior really wasn’t that odd. People love doing television, getting to be in the national media on the shows they have always watched and never imagined being a part of, and to be treated like a Hollywood celebrity. The Smiths, even if they were concerned for the well-being of Gabriel, are likely not able to resist the pull of fame. As to Mrs. Smith’s nudges and grabs, also not so strange when you are on television with someone else and both of you have been told to keep it short. Do I think they gave some assistance to Elizabeth that was not so kosher? Yes. Do I think they hid Gabriel? No. It serves little purpose for them and would require finding other people willing to go to a federal penitentiary for kidnapping. 

What about Logan? Do I think he cares about his baby? Sure, possibly, to some extent. Do I think he would be a good father? No. Do I think Logan is telling the truth about Elizabeth and the Smiths? Possibly, but probably with a version that benefits his image.

And then we have Elizabeth. Here is a person I have no if, ands, or buts about. Her absolutely cold demeanor in discussing how she dumped her baby on complete strangers and her calm in the midst of this storm shows me a person with no conscience, no empathy, no sense of right and wrong. She is a psychopath. She is capable of dumping or killing her child as the mood suits her. I think the baby became an annoyance in San Antonio when she had to pay someone to leave him with while she went out, as her CraigsList babysitter stated, “In club clothes” for two hours during the day. In other words, she had to give up money to make money. Maybe she decided it was cheaper to medicate Gabriel while she was off doing her thing, or maybe she simply got angry at having to care for him and ended her bout with motherhood through foul play. The biggest truth told by any of  the actors in this drama is likely Elizabeth’s coldblooded statement to Logan of the blue baby in the bin.

What will be the conclusion of this sad reality show? It remains to be seen. The police are finally admitting the baby is not likely alive. Elizabeth Johnson hopefully will spend the rest of her life in jail and spare us all a long trial. Logan will have to deal with the results of careless mating, criminal behavior of both himself and his girlfriend, and the loss of a son. The Smiths will get a book deal, which will prove that persistence and petty criminal acts pay off.

The trend in reality crime drama is probably here to stay, for good or bad. I just wish it would have a happy ending more often.