Monday, April 23, 2012

Murder in Montgomery County

by Katherine Scardino

Verna McClain is a 30 year old vocational nurse, who lived and worked in Montgomery County, located just north of Houston, Texas. She was engaged to be married and had been pregnant, until she suffered a miscarriage. Then, she set out on a search to "adopt" a baby.

Vera's mother told a Houston Chronicle reporter that she was shocked and in disbelief when she heard of the crime. Verna was not a violent person. A neighbor described her as a great mother, hard worker - even working 60 hours a week at times.

But life as Verna McClain knew it came crashing down last week when she was arrested and subsequently charged with capital murder in connection with the shooting death of Kala Golden (and the kidnapping of Kala's newborn son). This charge places her at risk for a death sentence, and the District Attorney handling her case will more likely than not seek the death penalty due to the extreme facts of this case.

Ms. Kala Golden Schugard gave birth to her baby boy, Keegan, three days prior to the incident. As Kala and Keegan left their pediatrician's office, Verna McClain was waiting for them - and she had a gun. Without much ado, Verna pulled her pistol and shot Kala several times in the chest. Kala fell to the pavement. Verna grabbed the baby, little 3 day old Keegan, out of the carriage and ran with the baby to her sister's Lexus and sped off - with Kala screaming "my baby, my baby!" Kala died there on the hot pavement, alone and the victim of one of the saddest crimes this area has seen for several years.

Verna did not care about Kala - she was on a mission. Apparently, she had been pregnant and had told her boyfriend that she had given birth to his baby. But, the first step occurred in this tragic sequence of events - Verna miscarried. Now, she needs a baby, so her mission began to locate a baby who could be pawned off to boyfriend as his own.

The facts of this tragic crime seem like those of many we have heard before. What makes this case weirdly different is that baby Keegan is white and Verna McClain is black. What in the world made her think she would be able to pass this little white baby as hers and her boyfriend's?

Enter stage right is her defense attorney. What could he say to the prosecutor to mitigate these facts and her confession at the time of her arrest? Two words - Andrea Yates ... remember her? She drowned her five children in the bathtub of their home (also just outside of Houston) back in 2001. Allegedly, unknown to her husband and family, she had been suffering from serious psychological issues that were coupled with a somewhat fanatical religious belief. During the trial jurors heard a lot of testimony both from the Defense and from the State, and from mental health experts. Her case was tried twice with the last one resulting in a verdict of insanity. Remember also that "insanity" means insane at the time of the offense.

Verna McClain's neighbors, friends, family and her fiancé all expressed shock that the woman they knew could possibly commit this murder and kidnapping. There is also the distraught family of this young mother, who are now faced with an incident no one could ever imagine, least of all expect. There is a tiny infant who will never know his biological mother.

We will have to wait for the end result of this case, but regardless of what it is, it will be bad for all concerned.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Death by Bactine?

by Diane Dimond

How did 16 year old honor roll student Annie McCann die? Her parents have been agonizing over that heart wrenching question for too long. Definitive answers have been few but these determined parents refuse to give up asking.

On October 31, 2008 Annie left a note in her bedroom which mentioned suicide but she had also added the hope-filled line, “But I realized I can start over instead. . . . If you really love me, you’ll let me go.” Then, she inexplicably ran away, taking $1,000 in cash, jewelry and the family Volvo. It was a shock to Dan and Mary Jane McCann whose daughter was a devout Catholic, quiet and studious – a child who had never given them any trouble.

Two excruciating days later the McCann’s got a phone call informing them Annie’s body had been found at a housing project in Baltimore, Maryland about seventy miles from their home. They were dumbfounded.

The Maryland medical examiner ultimately declared Annie’s death was due to Lidocaine poisoning and concluded she had ingested the bottle of Bactine she carried to treat her newly pierced ears. The company that makes Bactine, along with a well-known medical examiner, Dr. Michael Baden, would both later declare that drinking one bottle would never be fatal.

After reviewing the autopsy and other reports prominent psychiatrist Dr. Keith Ablow concluded, “It strains the imagination … to believe that a person intent on dying would choose this obscure and extremely uncertain method of attempting to take her life.”

While the official cause of Annie’s death is still listed as “undetermined” Baltimore P.D. spokesman Anthony Guglielmi (right) told me this week, “Police believe it was a suicide.” Translated: While the case is listed as “pending” it might as well be closed.

The McCann’s hired a private detective to figure out how Annie – who always had a lousy sense of direction and hadn’t been driving that long – got all the way to Baltimore. P.I. Jimmy Kontsis followed the lead of a fingerprint found on the window of the McCann’s recovered car. That led to a group of local teens who admitted one of their group, a kid named D.J., had stolen the McCann’s car. But each of them insisted Annie was already dead in the back seat so they tossed her body and took a joyride. Police said they could find no evidence to charge them in Annie’s death and auto theft charges were never pursued either.

Noting that Annie’s autopsy remarked on, “fresh injuries to her face and head,” Dr. Baden suggested Annie might have died from homicidal suffocation. Was she victimized for the $1,000 she took with her? Police made note of Annie’s clean white socks but could never find her shoes. Might they have been left at the same place she ingested the Lidocaine?

That’s the mystery!” Kontsis told me. “Even the police were, like, Lidocaine? They didn’t get it either.” Drug addicts have been known to try to smoke Lidocaine but Annie never experimented with drugs. Classmates called her sheltered and naïve.

Kontsis canvassed people at spots where Annie had been – her church, a Virginia Costco, even a pastry shop in the Little Italy section of Baltimore. He discovered a consistent description of an older, apparently homeless Hispanic woman (left) seen speaking with Annie at all three locations. A sketch of the mystery woman (who claimed to be from Honduras and was seeking immigration information) brought in no helpful information.

And then, last November the teenager known as D.J. – real name Darnell Kinlaw, now 21, — was arrested in Baltimore for murdering a woman and stealing her car. It was revealed that Kinlaw’s extensive police record lists eight charges of auto theft. Annie’s parents figured it was the perfect time to get more information from Kinlaw about the day their daughter died.

The McCanns travelled to meet Baltimore police and while they were treated politely they feel they have been lied to and ignored. Police say they are sympathetic but maintain they’ve already conducted a thorough investigation.

Look, maybe Annie McCann did manage to get a stash of Lidocaine and poisoned herself. But, that seems unlikely and after researching this case and counting up the loose ends – the odd trip to Baltimore, the missing money, the mystery woman and Kinlaw’s past – I can’t help but feel that in the absence of concrete evidence Annie’s half-used Bactine bottle gave police a convenient reason for her death. Easier to declare it a suicide and move on.

Left in the wake of that decision are Dan and Mary Jane McCann who cannot find peace. They still wonder why they never got Annie’s clothes back and why no one will tell them whether she had been raped the day she died.

The sad fact is there are countless families mourning the loss of their murdered children every day in America. They are Black, Hispanic, Asian and, in the case of Annie McCann – White. Their tears are all the same color.

In the end, it really isn’t race or ethnic background that matters when a child is murdered. It is the feeling families often get that no one cares enough to find the truth – that there will be no justice – that hurts so much.

Maybe our overburdened, understaffed police departments can find some way to work on making families feel more included in the heart-breaking process of homicide investigation.

Friday, April 13, 2012

The Throw Away Child

by Donna Pendergast

It has been often said that a baby is a miracle from heaven. Miracle Jackson was just that. Born in February of 2000, Miracle was a beautiful, healthy baby girl. But there were to be no miracles in the cards in Miracle Jackson's short life. Her young life would be snuffed out after only 7 months by her own father in the most horrific sort of crime imaginable.

Miracle Jackson would die on September 14th, 2000, with a sock stuffed down her throat and duct tape affixed to her tiny face. The tape covering her eyes, nose and mouth working in tandem with the sock depriving her of the oxygen necessary to sustain her life. Her body was found stuffed into a plastic bag which was then discarded like a piece of garbage in a vacant lot in the city of Detroit.

How could this happen? If history was any indicator, how could it not?

Miracle Jackson was born to a mother, Tracey Swan, who had a history of psychiatric problems and had been diagnosed with manic depressive disorder. Miracle lived with her mother and her father, Shawn Jackson, who was her mother's short term boyfriend.

What is wrong with this picture? Everything!

Four years before Miracle was born Tracey Swan had her parental rights terminated to her other six children. This occurred when then boyfriend, Shawn Pleasant, (note the irony of the names in this case) the father of all six children, brutally beat five-year-old Kenneth Swan with a shovel. Kenneth was left severely brain damaged in a vegetative state where he now requires around-the clock care for the rest of his life. Pleasant was sentenced to a 3-15 year prison sentence on child abuse charges. He remains incarcerated on those charges to this day.

After Pleasant was incarcerated, Tracey became involved with Shawn Jackson and would later become pregnant. Jackson moved to California before Miracle was born but returned to Michigan in April of 2000 and moved in with Tracey. In July, a Child Protective Services worker was sent to the apartment on a complaint that Miracle was abused by being burned and scratched. Despite Tracey's mental instability, despite the prior termination of parental rights and despite the pending complaint, the worker opted to allow Miracle to remain in the home.

It would be a fatal mistake.

On Wednesday, September 14, 2000 around 2:00pm, Ms. Swan received a call from Jackson at her place of employment, Burger King. Jackson advised Ms. Swan that a Child Protective Services worker had come to the apartment and taken Miracle away. A suspicious Swan contacted police who quickly determined that the Family Independence Agency (FIA) had not taken the child. The police immediately began their search for Miracle. Early the next morning Jackson admitted under questioning from homicide detectives that he had murdered the baby because he was mad at something Tracey Swan had said. Jackson then led police to where he had disposed of Miracle's body by wrapping in in a plastic bag and tossing it into the center of an abandoned tire in a vacant field.

The crime scene was horrific. Even hardened police officers blanched at the sight of the tiny baby who had been discarded like a rag doll., her body crumpled, her face completely covered in duct tape.

An odd and misplaced calculation on the part of a major local Detroit newspaper brought the savagery of the crime home to an unprepared audience. On September 15th, the Detroit Free Press carried a picture of a Wayne County Medical Examiner's
worker holding up the plastic bag containing Miracle's body on the front page of the newspaper. The decision to publish the picture at all, no less publish it on the front page, almost universally sparked outrage in the community. The fallout was so severe that the Executive Editor of the Free Press issued an explanation justifying the newspaper's position on the front page of the paper the following day.

Shawn Jackson was tried on First Degree Murder charge before a horrified jury. The pictures of miracle's duct-taped face were hard to stomach even for a hard core prosecutor like myself. The jury very quickly reached a verdict of guilty of First Degree Murder. Jackson will spend the rest of his natural life in prison. with no possibility of parole.

As horrific as the murder of Miracle Jackson was, it can be said that something good came of it. Within a week of her body being found, major institutional changes were initiated in two different State of Michigan agencies. As a result of Miracle's death, computerized records of live births are now cross checked with the FIA's central record of known abusers. this puts the FIA on notice when a child is born to a parent with a history of abuse or neglect. The FIA is now required to assess the risk to those children in an attempt to head off any more tragic stories like that of Miracle Jackson.

Miracle Jackson's sad story can be told in one short sentence: Forgotten in life, remembered in death.

May her legacy be that other children are spared her horrific fate.

Miracles do happen, Hope springs eternal.

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

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The 'Smart' Bullet is on the Horizon

by Andrea Campbell

Look Up in the Sky!

New technology is a slow and steady march no matter who develops it. I am always torn when a new weapon is developed, and the subject of today’s spotlight is no less frightening and anxiety-driven for me because of its dichotomy of being both useful and deadly. We’re talking about a bullet for machine guns—currently—that guides itself to a target more than a mile away, with accuracy to within eight inches.

The Stuff of Movies

This missile-like bullet was the stuff of fiction such as with the futuristic movie Runaway, a 1984 film written by Michael Crichton, a writer who had an uncanny ability to see what’s coming down the pike. The missile of today, however, can really twist and turn its way around objects, making up to 30 corrections per second.

Can You Imagine?

Developed for the military or law enforcement by Sandia labs, Red Jones, one of the researchers who worked on the laser-guided bullet says, “Where we’re headed, we’re going to be limited only by our imagination.”

Throughout history under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Defense, tens of millions of contract dollars went to companies for just such a weapon. Previously, engineers discovered that the M2, a belt-fed machine gun and standard issue in the U.S. Army 80 years ago, when fired at a distance of 1,000 meters—more than half a mile—would often miss the target by as much as roughly 10 meters.

Small but Smart

Only three years in the making, the prototype bullet is amazingly small—only four inches long and, at an inch-and-a-half in diameter, is a 50 caliber bullet. It operates using an optical sensor, which seeks and stays with a laser beam focused on a target. It also creates outputs from the optical sensors in order to steer the projectile to the target.

“The sensor,” according to Sandia labs, “sends information to guidance and control electronics that use an algorithm in an 8-bit central processing unit to command electromagnetic actuators. The actuators steer the fins that guide the bullet.” This would be similar to a miniaturized guidance system, normally utilized by actual missiles.

Adam Firestone, an army veteran, claims that: “All of a sudden now you’ve got a way to eliminate the collateral damage issue.”

Will we see a form of these miniature “smart bullets” on the streets for criminal purposes? It’s highly likely but only initially used by the upper most, financially-able suspects like drug runners or pirates. Of course now there are still engineering problems Red Jones explains, that will need to be overcome and certain practical considerations such as: can it be tossed or fall off the back of a truck and still function?

Sandia is looking for investors but from all accounts, expect to see this in an action movie in the near future, and heaven forbid, in the far horizon, hear about it in a criminal justice context.

As seen on the Sandia website: Various licensing and partnering options are available. Please contact the Intellectual Property Department to discuss.

For more information, you can download this PDF from Sandia

Photo images: Sandia labs

Monday, April 9, 2012

Did Blood Curdling Screams of Fear Belong To Treyvon Martin or George Zimmerman?

by Dr. Lillian Glass

The only encouraging thing to come out the terrible incident where Treyvon Martin was killed is that it showed us that people are indeed compassionate and people do get got involved. People saw something. They heard something and they said something. They called 911. They got involved. They gave information. They all said they heard screaming and they all said they heard it.

One of the callers actually was able to capture the screaming as he called 911 as you can hear it on the tape. In listening to the blood curdling screams, it is very hard to tell who’s voice it is.

George Zimmerman has a higher pitched voice so it may have been his. There is also a deep guttural primitive sounds of the voice which may sound like someone’s life was as stake. The tone at the beginning of the tape was different front he one at the end of the tape. At one point the pitch was high and at the other point it was a raw and guttural voice, which was painful to listen to.

Personally, I believe that it was fear on the part of both of these men which caused this tragic incident - fear of one another.

In listening to George speak to police it seems like he was out for vigilante justice when he says "...they always get away with it." Who is they? Is he referring to kids, thieves and thugs, or black people by his use of the term they.


If it is the latter, then yes, it is a racist indication. If he is referring to thugs or kids, then it is not a racist comment. In listening to George’s tape to the 911 dispatcher, I didn’t hear any specific racial comment. But what I did hear was a fearful and frustrated George Zimmerman. His pitch was raised at the end of sentences and he spoke in a softer tone which often indicates fear.

George was following Treyvon and continued to do so even after he was told not to follow him by the police dispatcher. But George, due to his own fear that a robbery would take place continued to follow him anyway. He also reported to the dispatcher on the tape that Treyvon had his hand in his waistband. He was in fear that Treyvon had a gun on him.

Trevyon on the other hand was also in fear. He was afraid of a strange man following him. He had no idea why he was being followed. He was talking to his girlfriend on his cell phone when he noticed he was being followed and told his girlfriend that someone was following him. She relayed this information to police.

As Trevyon may have feared George was out to harm him, he responded by beating George up. As an eyewitness said on the 911 tape, the one on top was wearing a white shirt. That means that the one on top was Treyvon and he was beating up George, whom he thought was following him. Apparently this is how George got his broken nose and bloodied head.

George then told police Trevyon was reaching for George’s gun and that is when George shot him in self defense.

Since George was the one being pummeled by Trevyon, being on top as an eyewitness reported, it was most likely it was George’s screams for help, but we will not know for sure until the FBI does their analysis in isolating the sounds of the tapes so the specific voices can be discerned.

From Treyvon’s point of view, he was doing nothing wrong. He had visited his father’s girlfriend and had every right to be in the neighborhood. It didn’t matter if he was suspended from school for having marijuana in his bag as was reported. What mattered is that he had every right as a free citizen to walk the streets no matter how late or dark it was . The fact that he was speaking to his girlfriend may be further evidence that he did not have wrongdoing on his mind and had no intention of committing a robbery. When he noticed someone was following him he told his girlfriend he was afraid. He evidently confronted George out of fear.

From George’s point of view he was a neighborhood watchman. He wanted to protect his neighborhood against the rash of robberies which occurred. He noticed a young man walking alone. He was in fear so he called 911. His voice indicated tones of fear as he described the young man whom he was following

It was a case of both men fearing one another, hurting and killing one another because of that unfounded fear. Yes, they killed one another. Even though George is technically alive and breathing, this fear based event has killed his reputation and his future as he will never be the same with mobs of people calling for his arrest and for the President to even weigh in.


To Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson who call this a racial hate crime, it is essential to note that these two civil rights leaders grew up at a time where racially motivated killings of young Black men were not uncommon. Thus it is understandable why they have reacted so vehemently against the killing of teenager Trevyon and have rallied for other to get behind their views.

To law enforcement who saw George bloodied with a broken nose and wounds consistent with being attacked and analyzing eyewitness reports that the man in the white shirt was on top may have indicated to them that it was a matter of self defense. That is why they didn’t arrest him.

As all the facts come out. we will eventually learn what really happened . We have to take heed from the Duke lacrosse player’s experience where several White men were falsely accused of molesting a Black woman. It became a racially charged issue as we see here.

Was George afraid of a young black man walking alone in a neighborhood? The answer is yes. Was Trevyon afraid of an older White man following him? The answer is yes. Did they both react out of their respective fear? The answer is yes. This was a no win situation that would only end in someone’s death.

It is terrible that an innocent man, no mater what color he is, is dead because of that fear. It is also terrible that a man, no mater what color he is has to live with the fact that whether it was self defense or not, that he is technically responsible for ending another human being’s life.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Cough Syrup, Dead Children, and the Case for Regulation

By Deborah Blum

Kathleen Hobson was eight years old when her mother unknowingly dosed her with poisonous cough syrup. She’d only taken a couple spoonfuls but when investigators came round, they still found nothing left to test. After the little girl died, her mother had set the bottle on fire and then thrown it into the trash.

Charlene Canady was just four when she died from the same medication. Her father had carefully packed the cough syrup bottle, waiting for justice to come calling. I always imagine him silent when he handed the bottle over, grief and his daughter’s name caught like a kind of suffocation in his throat.

Both little girls lived in Tulsa, Oklahoma, both came down with nasty little colds in the fall of 1937, and both died because they were dosed with a brand new medication, a popular, raspberry-flavored cough syrup. In all, the syrup would kill 11 people in Oklahoma, within a few weeks. Ten in Alabama. Ten in Georgia. Twenty-three in Mississippi. Nine in South Carolina. Seven in Texas. More in California, Ohio, Illinois, Missouri, Virginia, Louisiana, and more.

More than one hundred dead nationwide, in fact, and most of them children, Charlenes and Kathleens scattered across the United States like so much storm wreckage. “Nobody but Almighty God and I can know what I have been through these past few days,” a Louisiana doctor later wrote to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, after six of his patients died in one week.

As FDA scientists would quickly realize, the syrup was lethal because it was sweetened by a compound known as diethylene glycol which kills by causing acute kidney damage. Both diethylene glycol and the obviously closely related compound, ethylene glycol (even more toxic) are best known today for their use as antifreeze agents and homicidal weapons on more than one occasion.

But at the time that Elixir Sulfanilamide came to be, produced by the S.E. Massengill Company of Bristol, Tennessee, that wasn’t well understood. There was actually no legal requirement that companies understand their products, much less safety test them.

The company chemist who designed the cough syrup by mixing a sulfa drug into the poisonous sweetener claimed to have no such knowledge. And as the company president, Samuel Massengill responded: “We have been supplying a legitimate professional demand and not once could have foreseen the unlooked-for results. I do not feel that there was any responsibility on our part.”

The resulting Elixir Sulfanilamide scandal – and it was, indeed, an incendiary, nation-rocking scandal at the time - is mostly forgotten today. But it shouldn’t be. Those rippling deaths, the feeble government response, the indifference of the manufacturer and its big business allies - provoked such a passionate outcry that a year later, the long-delayed U.S. Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act was signed by President Franklin Roosevelt.

The 1938 law was first major upgrade of 1906 legislation. The earlier law established the U.S. government as a guardian of the American people’s safety, set precedents in regulating toxic chemicals in food and drugs. But that turn-of-the century law was in many ways a piece of regulatory lace, full of exceptions and exemptions. The new law filled many of those holes, gave power to protective rules.

Now, for the first time, manufacturers were required to safety test their wares and could be held responsible for consumer death and injury. In the case of Elixir Sulfanilamide, the company could not be held liable for a single death. It could only be charged with mislabeling – elixirs were supposed to contain alcohol and the cough syrup contained none.

The 1938 law also required manufacturers to list ingredients on their labels in some detail – another first. One of my favorite books of the 1930s, 100,000,000 Guinea Pigs, by Arthur Kallet and F.J. Schlink, is basically a litany of the hidden dangers that preceded that rule: the toothpaste that contained so much potassium chlorate that it was possible to commit suicide by eating a single tube; the high levels of lead in hair dye,;and the use of the toxic element thallium in depilatory creams. One of the side effects of thallium poisoning is that hair falls out. Cosmetic manufacturers of the 1930s thus found it handy in hair-removal products. They expressed surprise at the small epidemic of baldness, paralysis and occasional death that resulted. But, as they reminded irate physicians, they could not be held responsible for that.

But although advocates like Kallet and Schlink spent years marshaling such evidence in an effort to persuade the government to give the FDA actual enforcement powers, they were stymied by business opposition until the Elixir Sulfanilamide scandal galvanized the country. In an essay for the Annals of Internal Medicine, toxicologist Paul M. Wax called it “one of the most consequential mass-poisonings of the twentieth century.”

And it’s that case that always comes to mind when I hear politicians trumpeting the wonders of an unregulated marketplace, as with the current Republican party mantra that we don’t need strong environmental protections or – at the most extreme vantage point – even a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency at all. Last year, along the same lines, conservative legislators were busily trying to defund the FDA as well.

The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein points out that Americans tend to sound anti-regulation when queried. But, he adds, if you press them on which oversight they’d like to give up, the picture becomes more complicated. Klein cites a Pew Research survey done in February which found that 53 percent of respondents wanted food and food product regulation increased – only seven percent thought it should be reduced. For environmental regulation, slightly more – a full 17 percent – argued for relaxing the rules. The survey was, actually, unable to locate a majority of American citizens seeking to be less well protected.

We hear legislators suggest that hard economic times demand the loosening of regulations. But don’t forget that our country was still mired in the long-reach of the Great Depression when that 1938 law was passed. The government recognized, even then, that protection of American citizens meant more than policing our cities and defending our borders. It meant dedicated protection of public health.

Do we sometimes wish that such protection was smarter, moved faster, was more richly knowledge-based? Less influenced by politics, on occasion, by corporate lobbyists? Of course, we do. But I see that as a call to keep the process as politics free as possible (dreaming, I know), to invest more in good risk research and to use that knowledge to improve protection against everything from food poisoning to chemical contamination.

We may not remember by name the Kathleen Hobsons and Charlene Canadays of our past. And as I said, the Elixir Sulfanilamide story, is mostly forgotten as well. But we should be grateful for the way it changed our lives. And we should occasionally acknowledge those lost children; whether we recognize it or not, their ghosts still walk among us today, reminding us of what is right.