Thursday, September 30, 2010

A Simple Case of Silver Poisoning

by Deborah Blum

In two earlier posts, I wrote about the possible copper poisoning of the great British poet and artist William Blake and the apparent gold poisoning of the powerful mistress of a French king, Diane de Poitier.

The very simple lesson in both stories seems to be that regular metal exposure will kill you. And certainly there are many other examples to support this. The metal lead is a notorious neurotoxin, and recent news stories link it directly to the poisoning of some 18,000 people in mining regions of Nigeria. The metal mercury is equally dangerous, enough so that all of us are warned against eating too much seafood--especially long-lived fish like salmon and tuna--because of environmental mercury contamination in the oceans.

One could argue, of course, that this is too simple a lesson. As always in toxicology, the dose makes the poison. Health experts today actually recommend regular metal intake, at least in very tiny amounts, for strengthening everything from bones to immune function. My daily multivitamin, for instance, contains 8 milligrams of iron and .5 mg of copper. And also trace amounts of zinc, nickel, manganese, molybdenum and chromium. I occasionally worry that over a lifetime I'll have swallowed a tin can's worth of metal. And some health experts worry that long time, metals like copper and iron in vitamins may bioaccumulate (build up in tissues).

But you might ask, are all metals health risks in larger quantities? An interesting--but definitely peculiar--exception turns out to be silver, one of the precious metals. The following is a story, concerning that point, from my recent book, The Poisoner's Handbook:
In the chilly January of 1924, scientists at the New York City Medical Examiner's office got a chance at a true oddball case, the death of the Famous Blue Man. The man had spent most of his life as one of the human curiosities exhibited at Barnum and Bailey’s, the Greatest Circus on Earth, as it traveled around the country. The Blue Man had recently died at Bellevue; the pathologists said his body was one of the strangest they’d seen stretched on a marble table in the morgue.

The famed human oddity was 68 years old when he checked himself into the hospital, short of breath and complaining that when he lay flat, he couldn’t breathe at all. As his hospital records noted, he was a tall, thin man, with glistening white hair and an equally glossy white mustache. His skin was so deep a blue to appear black at a distance. His lips were blue; his tongue was blue. The scleras--what would usually be called the whites of the eyes--were also blue.
This wasn’t the exhausted bluish patchiness of cyanide poisoning though. The skin was smoothly colored with an almost lustrous look. It was that overall effect of polishing that led the doctors to a diagnosis--the Blue Man was suffering from a disease called argyria (from the Greek word argyros meaning silver). The condition was known to deposit silver through the body, staining the tissues to a deeply polished blue-gray.

The Bellevue doctors suspected that the Blue Man, a former British army officer, had achieved his later fame by dosing himself with silver nitrate. This was a salt made by dissolving silver into nitric acid and evaporating the solution, leaving behind a glossy powder, which could be mixed for other uses. Silver nitrate was easily available;  it was used in photographic processing, by dentists to treat ulcers in the mouth, and blended into drops that went into the eyes of newborn babies to prevent infections.

Their patient firmly denied any silver exposure, denied any self-medication at all. As he’d told his circus admirers, he was a freak of nature, he insisted, and blue at birth. But when he died that fall--from rapidly worsening pneumonia--they decided to take a thorough look at his story. The resulting autopsy showed that he was blue-silver on the inside too, the membranes smooth and glistening, the muscle tissue a dull, reddish brown with a faint silver tint, the spleen colored a bluish red, the liver bluish gray. Even the brain shone silver, its familiar curves and coils slightly reflective in the pale light of the morgue.

Still, how much metal did his body contain? To find out, city toxicologist Alexander Gettler made an acid solution of the organs and cooked it dry, creating a gray ash. He flushed hot water, ammonia and nitric acid through the ashes, washing the silver out of them. He then measured the silver from each organ, totaling up the results to calculate the whole body content. Gettler’s conservative estimate was that the Blue Man’s body contained a good three-and-a-half ounces of solid silver. About half the metal was in the muscle tissue, another fourth in the bones, and the rest mostly concentrated in the liver, kidneys, heart and brain.

But the silver hadn’t killed the Blue Man. He had died of the pneumonia; the only effect that silver doses seemed to have had was to turn him that remarkable deep indigo color. “Among the heavy metals which may become deposited in the human body in relatively large amounts,” Gettler wrote in his report on the case, “silver is of slight and perhaps least toxicity.”

Of course, the toxicology lab was now in possession of a nice quantity of pure silver. His co-workers took the gleaming pellets acquired from the Blue Man’s body, melted them down and shaped them into a bullet. Just in case, his friends assured Gettler, he ever had to analyze a vampire. He carefully placed the bullet on his desk. Just in case, he replied.

It's a good story--or so I think--but it also makes a case that, among the metals, silver is relatively neutral in effect (as long as one doesn't care, of course, about turning blue or accumulating internal silver deposits). It also led me to consider the possibility that with some effort, one could become the amazing precious metal human, storing wealthyinternally ,so to speak, in which case my choice would be platinum.

But as it turns out, becoming the Famous Platinum Woman,would work only if I was willing to insert the word "Dead" into that description. Platinum turns out not only to be wonderfully valuable but wonderfully poisonous. So, between you and me as concerns metal exposure, I'm hoping to limit myself to those multivitamins.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Who Killed Mob Daughter Susan Berman?

by Cathy Scott

An empty shell casing. That was the hardest evidence police found in the murder of mob daughter Susan Berman.

This is a story that begins in old Las Vegas with gangsters and the boys from the Jewish mob. It moves to San Francisco with the movers and shakers, to New York City and the literati, ending in Beverly Hills with the glitterati. It is a story about a path to murder.

Just before Christmas 2000, Susan, a screenwriter and author, was murdered, shot once in the back of the head with a 9-millimeter handgun. Her body was found a day and a half later, face down in her rundown, rented Benedict Canyon home, after neighbors reported Susan's dogs loose in the wooded area. During Susan’s lifetime, she had amassed a small fortune, only to lose it. She died penniless, a world apart from the one she’d grown up in.

She was the daughter of Davie Berman, Bugsy Siegal’s partner at the Flamingo Hotel. She was reared in the lap of luxury and Las Vegas royalty as the daughter of a notorious casino mogul and mob leader. It wasn't until college that Susan learned what her father really did for a living. The murder of Davie Berman’s only child had all the earmarks of a professional hit aimed at a person borne into the criminal underworld. That theory, however, was one of the first to be ruled out by investigators.

Recently, MSNBC took a close look at Susan’s case, interviewing friends, family and investigators. I, too, was interviewed, first in Las Vegas, then at a studio in Los Angeles. The producer said he based MSNBC's piece upon my book, Murder of a Mafia Daughter.

Los Angeles Police Department lead Detective Paul Coulter, whom I interviewed at length for the book and who chimed in for MSNBC, had a hunch. Whoever shot Susan in cold blood, he said, had done so by going through her front door. If she’d let someone in, that person was no stranger to her. Everyone knew Susan was careful.

Coulter began investigating everyone she had been dealing with. In the process, he discovered that Susan had rubbed some people the wrong way, including her elderly landlord, Dee Schiffer. Coulter also learned that Schiffer had been in the process of evicting Susan, which Susan had been legally fighting, for not paying her rent.

Susan also had a not-so-perfect relationship with her personal manager, Nyle Brenner, whom police also questioned, going so far as to search his house and office. But they stopped just short of calling him a suspect.

And, of course, there was Bobby Durst, Susan’s lifelong friend, who in the months before Susan’s murder had been living in Texas disguised as, of all things, a mute woman. Susan is believed to be the one who provided an alibi years earlier for Bobby after his wife Kathleen disappeared (that case remains unsolved). Susan loved Bobby like a sibling and would have done anything for him. A few months before her own death, Susan had asked Bobby for money to buy a used SUV and to catch her up on her rent. She sent the letter to his family’s business when she couldn’t locate him. Bobby sent Susan two checks, for $25,000 each, and told her the money was a gift. Susan had been unable to find him because Durst had been traveling, including in Texas.

A few months after Susan’s murder, in 2001, after arguing with Morris Black, an older neighbor in Galveston, Durst shot Black, then chopped up his body, wrapped the pieces in plastic bags, and dumped the remains in Galveston Bay. Durts, released on bail, fled the area. When he was later arrested, found in the trunk of Bobby’s car were two guns, one a 9 millimeter, the same caliber Susan was killed with. But, according to Detective Coulter, “The ballistics test was inconclusive.”

Durst pleaded self-defense in the Black case and his powerhouse attorney DeGuerin ultimately landed an acquittal for his client. Today, Bobby Durst is a free man.

As the lead detective on the case, Coulter, a veteran officer, said he would have done things differently in the Susan Berman investigation had homicide investigators been brought in early to handle the case. His office, in the Homicide-Robbery unit at LAPD’s Parker Center, however, was not given the case until 11 long days after Susan’s death.

In December of this year, a decade will have passed, with police no closer to solving the murder than they were in the winter of 2000.

In my research, I've gotten to know Susan. I walked through the English tudor home on South Sixth Street in downtown Vegas where she'd lived her first 12 years. It was a bright, cheerful house. I imagined her as a child, running down the long hallway into the welcome arms of the father she adored. I drove the route from her Las Vegas home to her Benedict Canyon house in Beverly Hills. I visited the restaurants she frequented in the town she loved and called home during the final 17 years of her life.

I went to the University of California, Berkeley campus where Susan earned her master's degree in journalism and where protests against the war in Vietnam were rampant. Susan made lifelong friends while attending Berkeley--friends in the writing world who later tossed work her way.

I visited her home in Benedict Canyon where she was murdered and found it gloomy and dark. Someone else lives there now.

And, finally, I visited the Home of Peace cemetery in East Los Angeles where Susan’s body is entombed in a marble wall alongside her mother, father, and uncle. A recent visitor had left flowers in bud vases for her mother Gladys, father Davie and her uncle Chickie. Susan's vases, one on either side of her shiny-brass headstone, were empty. I stood there looking at her grave, regretting I had not brought her a flower.

I only wish I could have met Susan face to face. She wanted so much to be famous, to be recognized for her work. Today, long after her death, her work has become well known. There's a long waiting list at public libraries to check out her writings. And her books fetch high prices, in the hundred range, on Internet auction sites. Had she lived to see it, Susan would have been pleased. She no doubt would have chuckled at the irony of it all. She also would have pondered the intrigue of her own murder investigation as it unfolded. That was her forte.

All evidence points to Susan being cut down by someone she not only knew, but who was a trusted friend she welcomed into her home. That irony, too, however tragic, would have piqued Susan's interest. It’s a sad case, and sadder still that Susan’s killer has not been brought to justice. Who, indeed, killed Susan Berman?

Cathy Scott is currently working on a 2nd edition of Murder of a Mafia Daughter, digging deep, seeking answers, to questions still raised in the case.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

A Crime of Passion

by Katherine Scardino

His name was Earl and he was deaf. Completely deaf. Earl Handy, Jr. grew up in the small East Texas town of Nacogdoches, home of Stephen F. Austin University, a four-year, state-supported college. But Earl did not go there. Earl did not go anywhere like that. He went to public school, and it was certainly not the School for the Deaf. He did not understand that being deaf was not his fault. It was a malady that a person can endure, perhaps with great persistence and teaching. Earl could have accepted and learned to live with the circumstances handed to him, but that did not happen for Earl.

Earl worked hard in school when he was there, but he never was good enough for anything he loved doing. He tried to play football, basketball and other sports, but he was deaf and no one knew how to communicate with him. He eventually learned sign language, which was very helpful. Unfortunately, however, not many people in the “hearing” world knew how to sign, including Earl’s family. He was alone, paranoid, and confused. His language learning skills ended at the age of 4. He wrote using personal pronouns, like “me sad,” and “me do not understand.”

Earl eventually married a woman named Donna who learned to sign so she could communicate with Earl. At first, she seemed to truly love him. They even had a child, Jacob, who is now three years old. To everyone on the outside, the family seemed happy. Earl had never been so happy. He had a wife and son whom he loved dearly. Earl had a job and worked every day to provide for the family. Unfortunately, Donna eventually grew tired of a husband who could not talk and (of course) found another man. Donna took Jacob and left Earl one day while he was at work. He came home and his dream was gone. Where was she? Earl looked and looked, but he could not find her. A few days later, he learned where she was. Donna had moved out of their home, rented a mobile home in another part of their small town, and moved another man, Joe, into her home. Donna signed a lease for the mobile home and set up a new life living with Joe. Earl did not understand. "How can she do this?" he said to himself. "Where is Donna? Me sad.”

The situation began swirling inside Earl’s head. He could no longer think sensibly. He felt as if everyone was against him and everyone had left him. He was more alone than any hearing person could imagine. His parents, as bad as they were, were now dead. He had a grandmother, but she was in another city. No one was there to help him or talk/sign with him so that he could understand how to handle his loss.

Early one morning, Earl took a knife from the kitchen, went to Donna’s new mobile home and waited outside. Earl waited until he saw someone had gotten up from bed -- and it happened to be Joe. Joe walked outside the mobile home, and Earl jumped him. Earl beat Joe with his fist and stabbed him with his knife. Earl then ran inside the house with desperate thoughts screaming inside his head, “Where is Donna? I want my wife to come home!” Earl saw Donna, and a struggle between them ensued. During the struggle, Donna was stabbed in the chest. Donna died and Joe lived. Donna’s older son called the police. When officers arrived, Earl was sitting in the kitchen of the mobile home. The officer entered the trailer and Earl saw him. Earl still had the knife in his hand. The officer screamed at him to put down the knife, but Earl could not hear him. Earl held the knife up as if to say to the officer, “Shoot me! Donna is dead. I don’t care what happens to me. Shoot me!!” The officer hesitated, and Earl stabbed himself in the abdomen. Then, the officer tasered him, and Earl fell to the floor. He was then arrested and eventually charged with capital murder.

A crime of passion. The words “crime” and “passion” do not seem to go together in the same phrase. In the nonlegal world, the word “passion” is associated with the powerful emotions of either love or hate. But, in my world, a crime of passion is a mind out of control. The penal code says that during the punishment phase, which occurs after a jury has heard all the evidence in a trial and has reached a verdict of guilty, the jury may hear evidence raised by the defendant as to whether “he caused the death under the immediate influence of sudden passion arising from an adequate cause.” If the jury finds in the affirmative, the possible sentence is then lessened.

Can you imagine being poor, uneducated, paranoid, confused, and in a world of total silence? Add being in prison for either the majority of the rest of your life or, alternatively, in prison for absolutely every single day for the rest of your life. Earl never grasped that concept.

I saw Earl last week. My investigator, co-counsel and I, along with an interpreter, went to visit him in prison. He looked bad. His hair had not been combed. He had not bathed with soap or brushed his teeth in so long that his breath and body odor were almost more than we could stand in such a small room. We got the officer on duty there to explain why Earl was in such a condition. The officer said simply, “All he has to do is fill out this form.” I explained to him that “Earl has no hearing. He cannot understand what you are saying to him. You do not know sign language. Can’t you see that? What is wrong with all of you? Can’t you see that he is dirty, unkempt, and smells bad. Why would you let him get to this point?” The officer on duty gave me a small plastic bag containing tiny, thin bars of soap, smaller than the ones you get in cheap hotel rooms. Also in this plastic bag was a tiny toothbrush and a tiny tube of toothpaste. As it was explained, the supplies were supposed to last a week.

Last Friday morning, I received a phone call. " Earl is dead," the caller said.

“Oh, my God! What happened? I just saw him three days ago.”

Earl wrapped a bed sheet tightly around his neck and tied it to a steel bar in his cell. Then, he simply sat down and let himself slowly suffocate. He wrote a suicide note. “Me sad. I don’t know nothing State of Texas. In jail nothing my mind lost.” After eight months behind bars, Earl finally understood.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Human Trafficking on the World Wide Web

This summary is not available. Please click here to view the post.

Friday, September 24, 2010

A Prosecutor Looks Back and Remembers

by Donna Pendergast 

In 2007, the U.S. House and Senate unanimously passed resolutions to establish September 25 as a National Day of Remembrance to provide a way to honor the memory of victims lost to homicide. This week jurisdictions all over the country have scheduled public events to commemorate the occasion and promote public awareness about the impact of violent crime. Amongst others, one such observance is being held tomorrow in our nation's capitol in Washington D.C. Professionals from homicide support groups around the nation will join with those who lost a loved one to homicide at the National Press Club. The event "Supporting Survivors: A Forum for discussion," will explore issues that survivors face. The day will culminate with the unveiling of the ceremonial "Murder Wall," the powerful reminder of loss described in my last blog post.

While pondering my speech for a related speaking engagement tonight, I was thinking about this year's theme for the event--"Remember, Remind and Respect"--and reflecting back on 23 years spent as a prosecutor, much of that time specializing in prosecuting homicide cases. Having recently prosecuted my 100th murder case through verdict, I have a unique perspective. All too often I have looked into the faces and heard the voices of those who suffer every day because someone they love was violently taken from them. So many years, so many terrible cases prosecuted, each and everyone of them a stark symbol of man's inhumanity to man. 


I remember a 7-month-old infant with a sock shoved down her throat and her tiny face and head completely covered in duct tape. She was placed in a plastic bag and thrown away in a west side Detroit field filled with trash. Miracle Jackson never had a chance. She was murdered for no reason other than her mother's boyfriend was angry at her mother and took it out on the baby after her mother left for work. 

Her tiny corpse was found beneath some wood and a tire in that desolate field on September 14, 2000. The next day, the Detroit Free Press chose to run a front-page picture of a worker from the medical examiner's office carrying her body away in a translucent trash bag. The picture generated intense controversy. The Free Press received hundreds of faxes and letters to the editor from readers angered by the horrific photograph and the metaphor of the baby as trash. The executive editor of the paper answered with a front-page response, explaining that it was his job to balance the offense to the audience against telling readers about a horrific story that took place in the community. A later Free Press editorial-page opinion stated, "One must weep for Miracle Jackson and for a world where the innocent die without reason."

Rest assured, I wept. The pictures indelibly etched in my mind continue to haunt me. 


I remember two 12-year-old girls who would never live to see their 13th birthdays. Casey Fiolek and Jennifer Wicks were two young girls trying desperately hard to be grown up. They were too young to foresee that the adult males who had made their acquaintance at a park earlier in the day were monsters of the night who wore human faces to mask an evil beyond comprehension. When the girls snuck away from a sleep-over in the middle of the night, lured by the promise of alcohol, they never dreamed that those monsters waiting in the park would soon show their true faces. Casey and Jennifer were sexually assaulted and brutally murdered. Their bodies were stuffed in a culvert where they would be found several days later. The horror of their final moments was laid out in great detail in self-serving statements by the respective defendants. The common thread in those two statements painted a picture horrific enough to make one's blood go cold.

Rest assured, I wept. The horror of Casey and Jennifer's last moments is almost too horrible to think about, no less comprehend. 


I remember a 15-year-old chronic runaway lost by the system who found what she thought was a home with a 24 year old. Heather Kish was a troubled teen who taunted her controlling boyfriend with threats of turning him in for statutory rape. She was overpowered in death, strangled with a dog leash by her boyfriend and his father. Her body was wrapped in a carpet and dumped in a field. To its credit, the Michigan Supreme Court via Chief Justice Maura Corrigan responded immediately. The state family courts were ordered to work with child welfare agencies to find children missing from the system and report to the Supreme Court on the results of their investigations.

Rest assured, I wept for the girl who had no chance in life and no chance in death. I am thankful that measures have been taken to avoid similar disastrous results. 


I remember a serial murderer who killed at least 13 women (self admittedly) and may be the most prolific murderer in the history of the United States. Coral Eugene Watts is probably responsible for as many as 100 murders of women who were allegedly killed because they had "evil eyes." In reality in most circumstances, he first spotted his victims when he had no opportunity to see their eyes; his motive was pure blood lust.

Rest assured, I wept for the all of the lost lives--so many talented women with so much potential, murdered for no reason other than the sick satisfaction of a deviant and diabolical serial murderer.


I remember two separate police officers who made the ultimate sacrifice. Detroit police officer Michael Scanlon (right) was stabbed to death by a punk while doing nothing more than making a traffic stop. He died alone on a cold driveway in a puddle of blood. He left behind a wife and two small children, one just 1 month old. Officer Scott Stewart, another of Detroit's finest, was killed by a contact wound to the back of his head while investigating a block party in the city of Detroit. His heartsick partners who were off chasing people who fled the party heard the shot from afar and raced back to the scene. They found their colleague and friend lifeless and crumpled in a heap on the front lawn.

Rest assured, I wept over the deaths of two police officers murdered while doing their jobs. Rest in peace, officers Scanlon and Stewart. Your work has spoken for you.

There are 95 more stories. Tonight, tomorrow and always I remember. And still I weep. 

Statements made in this post are my own and are not intended to reflect the views, opinion or position of the Michigan Attorney General or the Michigan Department of Attorney General.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Banking on Murder

By Susan Murphy Milano

On May 10, 2010, Tim Lowrey begged the Mobile, Alabama, city and district attorneys to help his girlfriend, Wendy Stevens, and for them to arrest her estranged husband, Michael Berry. Lowrey asked, “Why hasn’t the judge signed the order on the felony charge so your guys can arrest Berry?” The district attorney responded, “Not to worry. They have it under control, and he will be taken into custody on Wednesday when he shows up for his court date regarding visitation for the kids.”

Lowrey persisted. “He is going to kill her, he is obsessed with Wendy," he pleaded with the D.A. "You have to do something now. If you don’t, she will die.” He continued with the city and state for another three hours, going through the lengthy documentation of almost daily police reports, stalking, prior documented and sustained injuries, hospital reports, hundreds of threatening text messages, e-mails, and the permanent order of protection. But it was useless. The state felt that Michael Berry, a part-time postal worker, "didn’t pose that much of a danger.” Lowrey was relentless and would not back down -- until he was finally asked to leave.

Tim was preparing to leave early the next morning for a job assignment out of state and wouldn’t be back until the weekend. He did not want to leave Wendy and her children, now under his roof, knowing that Michael Berry was a ticking time bomb. He asked Wendy to be careful, thinking that the daily calls for help and police reports were only flaming Michael Berry’s violent temper.

The next day Tim left and Wendy Stevens cautiously went about her day. After work, she picked up her kids and at 6:45 p.m. was at a drive-thru ATM, with her four children in the car, when five rounds of gunfire blasted into the SUV, killing the 36-year-old mother from Mobile. Immediately after the shooting, an all-points bulletin was issued for the now-armed and dangerous Berry. He was apprehended and charged the following day with Wendy's murder and held on $500,000 bond.

Tim Lowrey was in Michigan when Wendy’s stepfather called with the news that she was dead, immediately followed with, “Why the hell didn’t you protect her?” Her immediate family was angry with Tim for not doing more to keep her alive. I have a news flash for Wendy’s family; the system failed her, not Tim Lowrey. The children have all been separated and are living with relatives in various parts of the county. They will be forever scarred by this single, life-altering event. Four children witnessed the cold-blooded murder of their mother, and that vision is literally tattooed inside of them for the remainder of their days on earth. The repeated memory of these children will be of being helpless and watching as Mommy is shot, bullets entering her body with lightning speed, while buckled-up in her seat, slumped over the steering wheel. It is the last picture and memory they will have of their Mother.

In my opinion, no amount of therapy will prepare them for their life's journey. The months ahead will be cruel as they attempt to get through a single day without reliving this nightmare. The news coverage of this case will go on for months and perhaps years.

We don’t often hear, after the fact, when someone is killed as a result of intimate partner homicide, about those who did everything in their power, almost getting themselves arrested, to help save a life. After personally reviewing copies of the original case file, I am outraged! The blood of Wendy Stevens is literally dripping from the chairs onto the floors of both the city and state attorney’s desk. They killed her as sure as Michael Berry emptied his illegal firearm into her that day.

This is not the last you will hear of this case, nor of Tim Lowery. Tune in at 9 p.m. EST, Monday, September 27, 2010 to Intimate Partner Homicide for the rest of the facts about this case.

Case Overview: Wendy Stevens filed for divorce in January 2010 and had gotten a court order of protection against her estranged husband who was, according to the judge's order, violent and stalking her. On Tuesday, May 11, 2010, after he allegedly killed Wendy, Berry fled the crime scene. On Wednesday, he was arrested and charged with her murder. That same morning, he had been scheduled to appear in court for violating the protective order.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Many Faces of Joran van der Sloot

By Dr. Lillian Glass

Joran van der Sloot’s body language does not match his words or voice pattern. His voice pattern is a one-note monotone, devoid of emotion. It is the voice pattern that one usually hears when listening to a sociopath. It is understandable to hear a monotonous voice among sociopaths because they have no emotions. They merely mimic the emotions of others. That is why you will often see fake crying as suspects wipe away non-tears.

One of the most disturbing aspects of watching Joran’s jail-house interview, from the Castro Castro prison in Peru, was to see the flash of coldness in his eyes from time to time as he spoke. It was chilling. They were eyes devoid of compassion and humanity.

In one photo, you see an example of Joran’s inappropriate emotion. When stating that he was angry after he was arrested because "things happened that shouldn’t have happened," you do not see the emotion or facial expression of anger in his face. Instead, you see a half smirk with down-turned lips on one side and a cold icy stare. The fact that his head is cocked to the side is indicative of deception. His voice and body language are not reflecting the emotion -- anger -- that he felt at the time.

When discussing Stephany Flores Ramirez, you see how detached Joran is from both the event and from any emotion. He speaks of Stephany in the third person. He says, “I feel bad that her family had to lose a daughter that way.” He immediately shrugs a shoulder after he speaks those words, verifying that he did not feel badly at all for her family.

Joran is the main suspect in the Natalee Holloway disappearance five years ago in Aruba and has been charged with the murder of Stephany found dead in May 2010 in a hotel room Joran had taken her to. Stephany was murdered on the fifth anniversary of Holloway's disappearance.

Even though Joran’s words most likely speak the truth when he says that he was scared when he was arrested for the murder of Stephanie, you would never know it from his voice or body language. He juts his jaw forward in arrogance. He raises his eyebrows as though he were relaying an amusing story. He does not express the emotion of fear as he describes what happened. Again, Joran van der Sloot’s words do not match his body language.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Does Teresa Lewis Deserve to Die?

FINAL UPDATE:  Teresa Lewis received an injection of lethal chemicals last night at 9 eastern in the Greenville Correctional Center in Jarrat, Virginia.  She was prounounced dead at 9:13 pm. (September 24) 

UPDATE: The U.S. Supreme Court blocked the final appeal made on behalf of Teresa Lewis today (Sept. 22).

by Diane Fanning

On Thursday, the State of Virginia plans to execute a woman for the first time in 98 years. In 2002, Teresa Lewis, who was married and living near Danville, Virginia, in rural Pittsylvania County, had an affair with Matthew Shallenberger. On the night of October 30, Teresa intentionally left a door unlocked when she got into bed with her husband.

Shallenberger and his partner-in-crime Rodney Fuller used that door to enter the trailer, where Teresa lived with her 51-year-old husband Julian and 25-year-old stepson Charles. Shallenberger went to one end of the home and shot the sleeping Julian in the back. At the other end of the trailer, Fuller killed Charles. The motive was $350,000 in insurance money.

After the shooting, Teresa took money from her dying husband's wallet and waited 45 minutes to call police. Despite the delay, Julian was still alive when the deputies arrived and told them, "My wife knows who done this to me." He died moments later.

Shooting men in their sleep is a horrible act. Nonetheless, I am disturbed by the imminent execution of Teresa Lewis. I am not bothered because she's female. After all, although 10 to 12 percent of all homicides are committed by women, they comprise just 2 percent of the population on death row. I believe strongly in equity in the justice system. Justice demands that there should be no gender bias just as there should be no racial bias.

There are three different issues that do trouble me:

1. Teresa Lewis didn't fight the charges; she pleaded guilty before the judge.

It seems illogical to me that someone who admitted guilt would be given a death sentence. It seems the state would want to encourage perpetrators to acknowledge their responsibility. It saves taxpayers money, it saves victims' family members from the anguish of a trial, and it settles the issue in a speedier manner. But when someone does plead guilty and still gets the maximum penalty, it discourages every other killer from making an honest plea.

2. Teresa Lewis did not pull the trigger

Fuller appeared first before the judge. He pleaded guilty and agreed to testify against his two co-conspirators. He was given a life sentence. Shallenberger decided to go to trial, but in the middle of the proceedings, he changed his plea to guilty. The same judge said that it wouldn't be fair to give Shallenberger a death sentence when the other killer received life. He gave the second trigger-man the same sentence as the first.

The same judge decided the fate of Teresa Lewis. She pleaded guilty, taking her chances with the judge. Unlike the two men, she had no criminal record, no history of violence and had cooperated with authorities. Nonetheless, the judge sent her to death row saying that she was more culpable because she was the mastermind.

But was she? Before committing suicide, Shallenberger cast doubt on her dominant role in the crime. In an editorial in the Washington Post, author John Grisham wrote that in the sworn affidavit from a private investigator, "Shallenberger described Lewis as not very bright and as someone who could easily be duped into a scheme to kill her husband and stepson for money. According to the investigator, Shallenberger said, 'From the moment I met her, I knew she was someone who could be easily manipulated. From the moment I met her I had a plan for how I could use her to get some money.'"

Shallenberger wanted cash to set up a drug distribution ring and become an accomplished hitman. In a 2003 letter, he wrote: "I met Teresa in a Walmart in Danville, Virginia. From the moment I met her I knew she was someone who could be easily manipulated. Killing Julian and Charles Lewis was entirely my idea. I needed money and Teresa was an easy target."

In a 2004 affidavit, Fuller corroborated that statement: "As between Mrs. Lewis and Shallenberger, Shallenberger was definitely the one in charge of things, not Mrs. Lewis."

3. Teresa Lewis is borderline for mental retardation

Her IQ, tested once at 73 and a second time of 70, places her just above the threshold where the 2002 U.S. Supreme Court decision would have prohibited her execution. Nonetheless, it is still low enough to indicate that she did not have the mental capacity to plan and execute the scheme. "She does not have the basic skills necessary to organize and lead a conspiracy to commit murder for hire," Grisham wrote.

In addition to her intellectual limitations, three different psychology experts have declared Lewis suffers from "dependent personality disorder," making it difficult for her to carry out even the simplest daily tasks without help. On top of that, Grisham added, a long list of physical ailments, enabled her to develop "an addiction to pain medications and this adversely affected her judgment."

No one is advocating for Teresa's release for prison. They are calling for the commutation of her sentence from death to life. In addition to John Grisham, her clemency plea is supported by Amnesty International, Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights and a number of Christian groups, including the one led by long-time prison chaplain the Reverend Lynn Litchfield.

Governor Bob McDonnell recently refused to give Teresa a stay of execution. All that stands between her and death is a last-minute appeal to the Supreme Court.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Palmdale Cult

by Stacy Dittrich

I’d like to clarify. They are not “cult-like.” They are a cult. Reyna Marisol Chicas, 32, (left) is not normal, despite what her neighbors say. They also say she was devout and not a fanatic. Fact check, people: If she is leading her flock of followers to a prophetic mass suicide not only is she a fanatic, she is completely insane.

On Saturday, September 18, 2010, Chicas led a group of five adults and eight children from their homes in Palmdale, California, to an unknown location. Chicas left behind a purse filled with cell phones, property deeds, good-bye letters, and identifications. The letters clearly explained that the group had left to await the Rapture -- a Christian term for the second coming of Christ. The letters also said they would be reunited with dead relatives soon (there’s a clue). Similar events in history have proven fatal with horrific results, and law enforcement officials have been extremely concerned about the fate of these individuals.

Coincidentally, my fourth book in the CeeCee Gallagher series, “The Rapture of Omega,” (debuts May 2011) became available as an e-book this month. The plot revolves around an apocalyptic doomsday cult led by a self-proclaimed female prophet, Illeana Barron. Illeana believes that the biblical character Eve is the true God -- the Omega -- and that the hysteria of global warming is punishment by her. With each catastrophic weather event, Barron delves deeper into her beliefs, bringing her hundreds of followers down with her. They believe that they will only be saved when they offer themselves to Eve. Illeana Barron follows the two-seed line doctrine, a biblical justification for hatred:

Eve was seduced by the snake (Satan) and gave birth to two seed lines: Cain, the direct descendent of Satan and Eve, and Abel, who was of good Aryan stock through Adam. Cain became the progenitor of the Jews in his subsequent matings with non-Adamic races.
The two-seed line doctrine is explained extensively in the FBI report, Project Meggido. Project Megiddo is a comprehensive and detailed report that looks at potential threats against the United States—including apocalyptic cults. The report begins with this:

For over four thousand years, MEGIDDO, a hill in northern Israel, has been the site of many battles. Ancient cities were established there to serve as a fortress on the plain of Jezreel to guard a mountain pass. As Megiddo was built and rebuilt, one city upon the other, a mound or hill was formed. The Hebrew word 'Armageddon' means 'hill of Megiddo.' In English, the word has come to represent battle itself. The last book in the New Testament of the Bible designates Armageddon as the assembly point in the apocalyptic setting of God's final and conclusive battle against evil. The name 'Megiddo' is an apt title for a project that analyzes those who believe the year 2000 will usher in the end of the world and who are willing to perpetrate acts of violence to bring that end about.
The project was aimed at those Y2K doomsday people, but it really pinpoints the danger of the thousand or so active cults currently in the US. Not to mention, with the upcoming “2012” hype, people better start paying attention.

I’ll explain why Chicas is a bona fide cult leader in every sense of the word. In Project Meggido, the report distinctly lays out the components that must be met to form “The Lethal Triad.” If the cult or its leader meets all three components, they are considered extremely dangerous. The components are isolation, projection, and anger.
... isolation causes a reduction of critical thinking on the part of group members who become entrenched in the belief proposed by the group leadership. As a result, group members relinquish all responsibility for group decision making to their leader and blame the cause of all group grievances on some outside entity or force, a process known as projection. Finally, isolation and projection combine to produce pathological anger, the final component of the triad.
Maybe I’m missing the boat here, but leading five adults and eight innocent children to, by all indications, commit mass suicide and and murder -- the children clearly aren’t going to kill themselves — nails all three components of the Lethal Triad. Frankly, I thought I was ahead of the game making the cult leader female in my book. Throughout my research I couldn’t find any. Leave it to society to one-up me on the horrors of crime and disturbing behavior.

I can’t begin to know why Chicas believes the Rapture is going to occur soon. Even the Doomsday Clock has been turned back one minute, placing us further away from destruction (although, with the state of the world today, I have to admit I don’t understand the clock keeper’s logic). In fact, according to the Doomsday Clock, the closest to the end of humanity was 1953. It didn’t even move for 9/11 -- another decision by the clock keepers that I don’t understand. Furthermore, I can’t begin to know why some media outlets are stopping short of calling Chicas’ group a cult and her the leader.

Some sources close to Chicas claim that she was normal and got overly religious after her divorce. I got overly religious after my divorce too -- I danced, celebrated and drank a lot of wine -- just like Jesus told me to when he whispered in my ear at the liquor store.

Now, before I get eviscerated for cracking a joke about a serious issue, I am merely making a point. I’m Catholic, and I’m waiting to hear the perpetual, “See! Them Christians are crazy!” But the point is this: No religion calls for murder or suicide (Jihaddists not included). Clearly, Chicas is using religion as a cover for her own deep rooted insanity like many others has before her -- David Koresh, Charles Manson, Tom Cruise. People of all religions need to pay attention when someone like Chicas pops up. She is volatile, she is dangerous, and most importantly, she took young, innocent children with her.

Good news. As I was writing this, I had to frequently check back to the news to see if there were any updates. The cult has been found alive in a Los Angeles County park praying against school violence and premarital sex. The massive media exposure and search clearly helped. Regardless, law enforcement better hone in on Chicas (I think a criminal charge of inducing panic would fit), because, if they don’t, she will most likely try again. I don't believe the letters and personal items were left for giggles.

And she just might succeed.