By Crime Historian Laura James, Esquire (c) 2005-18 WELCOME to my study of historic true crime, a literary blog where the chairs rest at the intersection of history, journalism, law, and murder, and the shelves are filled with the finest true crime literature. STEAL FROM THIS LIBRARY AND IT'S PISTOLS AT DAWN.
Update, 9/29: My God, the poor woman was lynched, in the broad sense of the term - killed by group hatred. The Grand Rapids Press continues its outstanding coverage of the case with the latest story: Chandler suspect bought silence with saved photos. I hope those photos never see print.
A college project by a group of students helped reinvigorate a very cold murder case and led to the arrest of a suspect last year in an old Michigan mystery.
And in yet another bizarre twist in this case, today it was announced that five -- five -- more people from Wisconsin, West Virginia, Michigan, and Pennsylvania were arrested this week for the murder of Janet Chandler -- in 1979.
Jimmy Carter was president. I was ten.
Goes to show.
Sounds to me like the first canary decided to sing. The five arrested this week are four men and one woman. The female -- Janet's boss at the time -- is accused of deciding to "teach her a lesson" by handing her over to a motley crew of degenerates. According to these early news accounts (which aren't always exactly accurate) the men and woman arrested today are accused of taking young Janet to a "party" and killing her there. The challenge in this case will be to assign blame where it is due.
They say that even of a good thing you can have too much. But I doubt it. True, such good things as sun-bathing, beer, and tobacco may be intemperately pursued to the detriment of their devotees; yet, to my mind, one cannot have too much of a good murder.
--William Roughead, in To Meet Miss Madeline Smith
Your correspondent has come across all sorts of interesting sites that touch on historic true crime. Some are, as my mother used to say, "funny-haha" and others are "funny-strange." Here's the best ones of the week.
Did you hear about the cannibal who loved fast food? He ordered a pizza with everybody on it.
Gina has noticed something funny-strange while pursuing her delightfully morbid hobby: a lot of cannibal stories come out of Germany. Of course, the most awesome German cannibal story of the 21st Century, so far, and let's hope there's no competition, is the tale of Armin Meiwes. Have you heard of the man who got manslaughter for eating a willing victim? Well, Gina has an update in the case, and a whole lot more where that came from.
Must-Hear True Crime Radio
Some past episodes of the radio program American DA - Live can be downloaded from the show's website. "Every Friday morning, the prosecutors of America’s most notorious trials are live guests on American DA - LIVE," says the home page. "Jack Pattie, the long-time Lexington radio morning host on WVLK-590 AM, and Fayette County Commonwealth’s Attorney Ray Larson join forces to discuss these cases with the prosecutor who actually prosecuted these high profile cases."
This show has interviewed prosecutors involved in most every major true crime case that's come down the pike in the last 30 years. Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, Scott Peterson, Susan Smith, Michael Jackson, Dennis Rader, Terry Nichols, Clara Harris, Aileen Wournos, Columbine investigation, Michael Skakel, Andrea Yates, Michael Peterson, Kobe Bryant.
But there are many more lesser known cases besides. Some past guests also include a prosecutor who put away state trooper turned family annihilator David Camm and a prosecutor from Texas who tried the case of Susan Wright, accused of stabbing her husband 193 times and burying him in the back yard.
Not all of them are downloadable yet, but what a treasure trove! I must get a new computer so I can hear them.
Bad, Bad Cop
Anyone who has gotten a jury duty notice lately is not allowed to read Bad Cop News. The rest of us will relish it for you. This vast collection of stories includes funny-haha, funny-strange, and not really very funny at all.
Love triangles turned deadly have been around longer than David and Bathsheba and Uriah, and you know the ending of that story (unless you skipped your true crime lessons from Sunday School). In Michigan in the mid-1950s, the last chapter of a classic love triangle was written in a courthouse, as they so often are these days.
But this case was so sensational that the story achieved national prominence ; thousands of articles delved into the details of the tawdry affair ; the press of the crowd seeking admittance at the trial shattered two glass doors to the courtroom ; and the verdict was a shock only to those who believe in strictly codifying human behavior.
The matter aroused so much interest because the participants were all very beautiful and very wealthy but had the habits and bad taste of the lowest sorts. So many people were touched by this not-all-that-long-ago love disaster that it seems appropriate to change the names. There’s no other mention of the case on the internet.
So meet “Madame Bovary.” Let’s call her Emma. The press will call her “an oval-faced brunette.” In 1944, she was caught in a whirlwind romance in Ann Arbor, falling in love with Kevin, a dental school student, on the eve of his graduation from the University of Michigan. He was six feet tall, dark-haired, and very handsome. They married soon thereafter, and he joined the Navy. She became a loyal military wife and they had three sons together.
After his military service honorably ended, Kevin settled his family in Detroit near Emma’s parents, who loved them both and lavished them with thousands of dollars, setting up Kevin’s dental practice and buying them a mansion. They had servants and a nurse to care for the boys. Imagine Emma as Mrs. Cleaver, in dress, heels, and pearls, but without the vacuum cleaner.
It was then that Emma grew restless and dissatisfied with her husband. She would later describe the eighth and ninth year of their marriage as a “clash of ideologies.” She wanted Kevin to be a “bigger man,” but his main interests seemed to lie only in his home, his family, and his work. “It isn’t anything tangible and it’s hard to explain,” she would say about her curious abstractions. “Kevin never gave me credit for decisions and we had a lot of arguments. I never cared for money as money. I felt it was to be used for the things one wanted. For instance, if I wanted a stick of bubble gum and it made me happy, it should make him happy too.”
Then Emma’s father died and she inherited a large amount of money. She took to vacationing without her husband and hanging out with divorcees, and sooner rather than later she met Jack, a wealthy industrialist and New York playboy who hung out at the “21 Club” when he was in town and jet-setted across the country. Emma was introduced to him in Florida, and they had three unforgettable dates. On the night she returned to Detroit, Emma told Kevin she wanted a divorce.
The news transformed Kevin in an instant. He turned to drink for the first time in his life and became alternately abusive and pathetic. He hit her once. He threatened suicide. There were scenes featuring a brandished pistol. He pleaded with her. “Even a dog is entitled to another chance,” he told her. But she locked him out of the bedroom. Kevin threatened to knock it down. She called the police from the bedroom phone.
A few days later, she left for New York to be with Jack. When her husband begged for their marriage, she told him to see a psychiatrist. “He told me I should see one,” she said, “that it was I who was all mixed up.” Meanwhile, Kevin moved to a hotel and immersed himself in self-help books like Wake Up And Live.
After Emma filed for divorce, she had a rendezvous with Jack several hours from Detroit in a summer house in Douglas, Michigan. It was no cottage -- there were servants and gardeners and a stunning view of Lake Michigan sunsets. But Emma began to miss her children, or so she said. She phoned home. Kevin happened to answer. An argument followed – “I thought you were in Chicago!” was in the earful Kevin gave her.
The next thing she knew – as she sat on a couch in the summer home, reading a magazine, the lake’s swells singing in the background -- she heard her husband’s voice at the front door, followed by pistol shots. Kevin had tracked them down and promptly shot Jack twice in the chest.
Kevin was imprisoned in the Allegan County jail and put on trial two months later. The case was an exercise in histrionics. Emma bolted from the room several times while others were testifying. Kevin’s father collapsed and had to be carried out. The judge had to hand out tickets in advance after the crowd smashed the glass doors. Journalists came from hundreds of miles around for this one, and each witness was a spectacle.
Kevin’s money bought a good defense – he argued he was not guilty by reason of insanity. Three psychiatrists testified that he was “definitely insane,” in a “post-psychotic stage,’ at the time he killed Jack. The murder was the result of extraordinary events, one expert said; “it’s like striking a match – once you strike it, you don’t strike it again.”
Kevin himself was on the witness stand for less than ten minutes. “I can’t say what I did. I can’t say what I did. I don’t know.”
When the jury retired to deliberate, Kevin spent the night in his jail cell, praying with his cell mate, rereading the many letters sent to him, the only lights he had in the nightmare. Then in the wee hours of Saturday came word that the verdict had been reached. The jury found him not guilty by reason of insanity.
At once, the flash bulbs started popping off, and the expression they caught on Kevin’s face is pure relief. His last words in the courthouse: “I never knew people could be so nice.”
Kevin spent three months at Michigan’s Hospital for the Criminally Insane before the pretense was dropped and he was released. Emma divorced him – he didn’t contest it – and their real names are now quite forgotten.
The legal lesson remains -- statutory prohibitions on murder are sometimes trumped by an older, unwritten law.
The piece is from the New Jersey Star-Ledger. Court TV is about to broadcast the trial of two young men who allegedly got drunk and started a fire in their dorm room at Seton Hall University, which killed three students and hurt 58 others. They face 30-plus years in prison. Court TV agreed not to air crime scene photos or autopsy photos of the students who died (surprisingly, they're being admitted into evidence).
Court TV was also asked not to broadcast video of the badly burned victims -- but the network refused requests not to show one victim at all as she testified and also refused a request not to show close-ups of another victim's hands. Said the producer: "[We] are not going to compromise our coverage."
Then again, we'll probably get a peek, even if the judge rules against the network. During coverage for Father Robinson's case, Court TV wasn't supposed to show photos of the victim, but it did anyway. I saw crime scene photos with the victim's body twice, including a close-up of the nun's battered, bloody face. I wasn't quite sure what to think, but it was no surprise, "coverage agreement" or no.
"Nancy Grace, the host of a self-titled legal show on CNN Headline News, "played fast and loose" with her ethical duties as a Fulton County, Ga., prosecutor in 1990, a federal appeals panel has declared."
Nope, it's true. That living icon of prosecutorial zeal withheld evidence from the defense and jury and is accused of suborning perjury.
Not cool, friend.
Especially from a federal appeals court. Ouch. In my experience, federal judges are carefully selected and tend to be very experienced and appellate judges in particular are generally small c-conservative, if not also big-C-Conservative. For an ethical violation to rise to the level of being addressed in a published opinion written by such a panel is surprising.
I know this subject is slightly off-topic, but my blood was boiling while watching the Court TV coverage of Father Robinson. (I know, I know... some folks probably wonder how long I plan to ride that horse. Answer: until he's out of prison.) A lawyer in Florida handling a death penalty case was also appalled at the Court TV crime coverage, which broadcast a lot of material that was ruled inadmissible at the trial and was biased in favor of the prosecution, which made the lawyer worry that the jurors were watching Court TV. I can't help but think that out of 12 people, somebody tuned in, but this lawyer is trying to do something about it.
If those folks on that network don't get it together and stop it already with the deeply biased coverage, Nancy Grace is going to become a verb.
Although I don't think they need to fire her, for crying out loud. Balance her. Hire a real good defense lawyer like Mickey Sherman or Mark Geragos or Geoffrey Fieger and let them debate. Some better preparation, a strong voice for the defense, and a firm code of ethics for tv coverage could solve some of the problems on Court TV and CNN.
Note to self -- add to Christmas List:
Copy of every shred of paper in the Toledo Police Department about the murder of Sister Margaret Pahl / Father Gerald Robinson.
It has been observed, with some truth, that everyone loves a good murder. The class of persons to whom the very word does not give a certain not unpleasing thrill is so small that it may be ruled out for the purposes of discussion, and the rest of the world may be divided into two classes -- that in which people frankly admit a vivid interest in murder as the most curious of the phenomena of human nature, and that in which are those who, while secretly thrilled, disclaim any such interest and condemn it as "morbid." To the true student of the ways of humanity nothing is morbid, as long as due balance and proportion be kept in the sudying of it, and anyone who eliminates as an object of interest the most strange of all the phenomena of social life, is ruling out his chance of developing a comprehensive view of that life.
--F. Tennyson Jesse, the English queen of early 20th century true crime, in Murder and Its Motives, 1924
A Woman Scorned -- and Now In Print
Besides Jack, there's one other infamous Ripper that still captivates imaginations. He's the Yorkshire Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe. There's a new book in the works about him. It's Sandra Lester's The Ripper Unmasked: Confessions from Sutcliffe to a Hypnotist. The letters here include his "pen-affair" with the attractive author, who was "badly hurt" by the curious relationship when she learned that he had a harem of women. Having emerged from her self-hypnosis, she's campaigning to restrict men like Sutcliffe from victimizing women from prison. For details, you can email her at sndr_lester AT yahoo.co.uk or check out this website.
Skirting the Scaffold
Cheating the hangman hasn't gone out of fashion. The punishments for drug trafficking in Asia are strict, and yet some Australians have dared the rope for profit and pleasure, and it's amazing that anyone lives to tell the tale -- or will admit to it. One of them, Wade Agnew, recently released an autobiography with the intriguing title Cheating the Hangman: True Confessions of a Heroin Trafficker.
Umm... a bit too much, even for me
The Nashville Knife Shop, which offers self-evident retail services, recently offered me a sum of money to place an ad on one of my true crime stories about a woman who slashed another woman to death with a straight razor. I have to turn it down; the juxtaposition is just a wee bit... well....
For the Free Father Robinson Club
Word on the street is that some organizations dedicated to freeing innocent men might be taking a look at Father Robinson's case.
Meanwhile, his case is about to go before the Ohio Court of Appeals, District 6. This court is located in Toledo -- so undoubtedly the judges already know something about the case from the media. Three of the district's five appellate judges are former prosecutors; only three will be assigned to hear his appeal. From the looks of it, the oral arguments have not yet been scheduled.
It was a "one-man crusade" by a retired detective in Toledo that was, in part, to blame for the eventual (and in my opinion wrongful) conviction of Father Robinson. Harry Smith of the Early Show interviewed that detective, Dave Davison, and the video from that appearance can be found here (look on the right side of the page for "Cop On Nun Murder Case"). (Harry Smith is very sharp and one of the nicest people I have ever met. He interviewed me on the show in 1989. But that's a story for another day.)
The Wikipedia entry on the case was full of factual errors, which I've taken the liberty of correcting, trying very hard not to introduce my own opinions but to accurately and fairly summarize the case. We'll see how long that lasts.
Court TV was strongly in favor of the prosecution "satanic abuse" theory while it was covering this trial. Indeed, while the trial was underway, Court TV brought in an "expert" who believes that satanic abuse exists and is characterized by "(1) sadistic sexual abuse by multiple perpetrators, (2) international organizations of pedophiles/ pornographers/traffickers, (3) desecration of religious institutions, (4) electroshock, (5) mind control, (6) bestiality, (7) sensory deprivation, (8) forced drugging, (9) human and animal mutilations/sacrifices . . . even cannibalism."
Ritual cannibalism? Organized human sacrifice? In America? In the late 20th, 21st century? Hm. You'd think that a journalist would be skeptical. Yet this "expert" was given what she herself calls the "unique opportunity to speak on live TV about the reality of ritual abuse without being discredited, demeaned, or disbelieved by Court TV anchors Lisa Bloom and Vinnie Politan" (emphasis added). From what I could determine, it was her first and only mainstream media interview.
The transcript of the Court TV interview of "our ritual expert" (Vinnie Politan) affirms that Court TV made no attempt to look at the issue objectively. Some of the comments included these:
Lisa Bloom: "Frankly, I never knew what to believe. What I did know was these cases would be very, very hard to prove because people just don’t want to believe it."
Me again: Ms. Bloom, maybe they don't want to believe it because there's no objective evidence to support it.
Vinnie Politan: "Either someone’s trying to make it look like a ritualistic killing or [it] actually was."
Expert: "And of course it could be a coincidence that Sister Margaret, - this woman who was married to Christ was . . . brutally murdered on this, I think what is – Called a Holy Saturday –"
Vinnie Politan: "That, that would be a – HUGE coincidence."
Me again: Come on, Mr. Politan. How many holy days are there in the Catholic calendar?
What's next on "Court" TV -- a show about astrologers and psychics solving crimes with ESP? Oh yeah.... that show started a few months ago. Maybe that "mainstream" in "mainstream media" needs qualification.
About a year ago, four people called themselves "true crime bloggers." The list has grown more diverse by the week, and now the blogroll is so large that it trails right off my front page. Here's the 40th collection of the most interesting posts of the past week or so from ever-expanding True Crimedom.
One-Man Jury A New England murder case that's wagging a lot of tongues is the killing of Barry James by patent attorney John Edington, who stabbed James to death after learning that James may have molested his two-year-old. Stephen McCaskill of the Crime Scene Blog is following the story in CT Father Kills Suspected Molester. I suspect we'll hear a lot more surprising news about this case before it all shakes out.
Ice for Blood Trench continues his intrepid blogging on troubled teens and the amazingly cruel things they do to themselves, their families, and their schools. This week, he's following the case of Alvaro Castillo, who murdered his father -- and then got out the video camera. Home Sweet Home reminds us that a bad boyfriend can be a danger to the entire family in Four Generations Present, Three Shot. Steve Huff is covering a breaking story from New England about a murder spree that took four lives in Murder on Sunday River Road.
From Filthy to Fatal The duo behind Southern Sass on Criminal Activity Today report that the interest in the case of Isaac Lethbridge has been almost overwhelming. Payned's heartbreaking tale of a child removed from his home because it was filthy -- only to die in a foster home, the apparent victim of severe abuse -- is unfortunately not the only example of late.
Ontario's Heavenly Creatures "The simplest method of obtaining a university degree in Canada? Kill your mother." That's the lead on Harding's best piece of the week; read the rest of this head-shaker at Magna Cum Laude.
No Body Blog And I thought Clews was a tightly focused blog. No Body Cases is devoted strictly to murder cases that were prosecuted despite the fact that the body was never found. From the first post:
I'm a total newbie to the blogosphere but I thought I'd give it a shot. My chosen hobby is quite odd. I collect information about trials, cases and investigations into murders where the victim's body has never been recovered. Quaint, eh? Not exactly quilting but hey, everyone's gotta' have a hobby right? My interest in the topic began about 18 months ago when I began investigating a "no body" case myself. I am a prosecutor in DC and was always fascinated by these cases. (Famous "no body" murderers include Thomas Capano and Charles Manson.) As I did the research for my own case (which went to trial this past January) I was astonished to find how many "no body" cases exist. I'm currently compiling a table of cases from throughout the U.S. (I'll post that soon.) I hope to track current cases, comment on pending cases and investigations and look at the history and the legal implications of "no body" cases. If you know of cases, let me know by leaving a comment. No Body Guy.
So far, the prosecutor behind the blog has found dozens of examples, both recent and historic -- more than a hundred in the United States alone.
Pseudologia Fantastica We can't close this True Crime Carnival without some references to the most infamous name in true crime today. Something is obviously wrong with John Mark Carr. Dr. Deborah Serani explains the pathology that was displayed on our TV sets for days on end in Factitious Disorder: John Mark Karr and the Ramsey Case.
Meanwhile, there's a lot more to the story of the professor who was in the middle of all the curious events in Colorado. A shocking guest post on the Crime Rant blog takes on Tranny and the Professor: Money and Lies in Boulder. Be sure to read the comments, too.
And on a related note, I have to mention a post by ShadoWraiths, who remarks on those who have "made an enterprise out of putting forth their particular hypothesis."
Though if any of us are going to continue to write about John You-Know-Who, we've got to reach a consensus on how his last name is spelled. His false confession might end up being the most infamous of our century -- or one would hope.
Pembroke, New Hampshire farmer Chauncey Cochran was a true crime buff. In 1833, this meant he liked to read "broadsides." On a bright June morning of that year, his wife asked him to accompany her and their young farmhand on a strawberry-picking expedition. Too wrapped up in his murder story to oblige her, he stayed home.
He should have thought twice.
Only six months earlier, the moody, odd 15-year-old who lived with them, Abraham Prescott, attacked them in their sleep with an axe, wounding them slightly. There was no hint of malice in the boy before, so everyone chalked it up to Abraham's constant sleepwalking.
But on June 23, Abraham came back from berry-picking alone.
When Chauncey Cochran put down his murder story and asked for the whereabouts of his wife, he grew alarmed at Abraham's response. "I ordered him," Cochran would later say, "to run and show me where she was. He was loth to go, but finally started and on the way stated that he had a toothache, sat down by a stump, fell asleep, and that was the last I knew, until I found that he had killed Sally."
While Mr. Cochran was enjoying his broadside, his 28-year-old wife was sexually assaulted and murdered.
Abraham was arrested and confessed at once to the coroner. His (undoubtedly sanitized) account was that he made Sally Cochran a "proposal," which she rebuffed, calling him a rascal. He grew frightened of the punishment that Chauncey Cochran would inflict. Then he sat down on a stump, thought about his plight, and decided to kill her. He came upon her unawares, he claimed, and beat her to death. Afterward, he dragged her body into some brush.
In Prescott's 1834 murder trial, the boy's lawyers put on an insanity defense. There was ample evidence to support the argument; 17 witnesses testified on the question. His grandfather and two granduncles had shown signs of derangement. His father was "crazy at times." His nephew was "crazy a number of times." A cousin "is not in his right mind, but not so crazy as his father: the more cider he got, the more crazy he grew." His parents testified that Abraham was only six weeks old when his skull began to grow very quickly until, at age three, his head was as big as his father's. They also testified to his constant sleepwalking and the strange sores he suffered in infancy. But the defense was rejected. Prescott was hanged on June 1, 1836, shortly after turning eighteen.
Two broadsides were written about the murder of Sally Cochran (both now in the Library of Congress), and the story stayed in print for at least forty years. Chauncey Cochran remarried, moved to Corinth, Maine, had several children, and lived to a ripe old age. The records don't say if he gave up reading broadsides.
NewspaperArchive My most very favorite site on the internet. Millions of digitized, text-searchable newspapers from across the U.S. and the world. If my computer somehow froze up and I had access to only one website, this would be it.
Paper of Record Another pay-to-play website that features searchable historic newspapers. Canada is particularly well represented in its collection.