Category: USA True Crime

Dead Run by Dan Schultz

Dead Run

Dead Run: The Murder of a Lawman and the Greatest Manhunt of the Modern American West is a journey into the modern wild west of America. Author Dan Schultz has written the definitive account of an extraordinary crime and three survivalists fugitives who would not be out of place as outlaws in American frontier times during the 1800s.

I found this book compelling. It’s exhaustively researched and that’s why it took me a while to read. I didn’t want to miss any detail. The backdrop of America’s “west” is fascinating and Schultz’s detailed writing provides social and geographical history as well as the story of the crime – the killing of a policeman in small town Colorado by three “desperados” Jason McVean, Robert Mason and Alan “Monte” Pilon,  which resulted in a manhunt across 10,000 square miles of American wilderness.

The story did not end with the murder of Officer Dale Claxton – the mystery of what happened to his killers spanned a decade and I loved the detail about the workings of the various sheriffs offices and state and federal police and army units. The turf wars and failings of government agencies really add to this tale. The fugitives, all interested in survivalist pursuits, evaded even the most up-to-date technology and investigation techniques. The manhunt made international headlines.

This is one of my top true crime reads of 2013.

Dead Run is published by St Martin’s Press.

Here’s a few other review of Dead Run that are of interest from The Durango Herald and Cortez Journal.

 

House of Horrors by Robert Sberna

House of Horrors

 

Reviewed by Rachel EC

House of Horrors by Robert Sberna is the story of Anthony Sowell ( aka. “The Cleveland Strangler”) who was convicted of 11 murders after a SWAT team investigating a rape found 11 corpses belonging to missing women in his home. This book had me absolutely hooked from the first page. It’s written in a classic true crime format and it’s quite a gruesome read.

Robert Sberna paints an incredibly powerful picture of the area in Cleveland where Sowell lived and killed his victims – a ghetto town infested with poverty and a serious crack cocaine problem. Sowell, an ex-marine slowly became a heavy user of crack cocaine and after a number of failed relationships turned into a real life monster.

Sowell had spent time in prison for rape previously, and it’s difficult to comprehend that how easily got away with further rapes and the murder of 11 women over two years as police failed to follow-up statements from families about missing women and women who were victims of horrific sexual assaults by Sowell.

Sowell charmed his victims. He was well liked by neighbours and locals. He was able to talk his victims (mostly wandering or homeless addicts) easily into his home with promises of food, companionship and most of all drugs. His victims were all crack cocaine users with numerous children they had left behind. The low risk category of his victims enabled him to continue to kill women even while there were many signs that he was, at the very least, assaulting women in his home.

The story sometimes seems a little repetitive at times but the 11 women whose bodies were found at Sowells were all very similar in appearance, circumstance and unsavory habits. Repeated sad stories of broken families, neglected children and desperate women in and out of prison and rehab so much that their missing status was often ignored.

It’s definitely not a story for the feint-hearted. The descriptions of the crime scenes and the rapes and assaults are graphic and the story told of the Cleveland area is bleak. A truly eerie true crime read about a serial killer and his victims that never made their way into the media much at all.

House of Horrors is published by Kent State University Press. More information at the author’s website.

Mafia Summit by Gil Reavill

The prologue for Mafia Summit is so intriguing and sets the scene for a vivid, cracking true tale of a pivotal moment in the history of organised crime in America. Picture a bunch of sharp suits and slick vehicles in the tiny town of Apalachin, New York State. It was a midweek in 1957 and an eagle-eyed local police sergeant was about to rumble a secret meeting of the elusive Mafia.

This book by Gil Reavill is simply a well-paced, fascinating read about the Mafia, the events that led up to the 1957 gathering and what happened after in terms of law enforcements’ efforts to tackle the mobsters.

The detail is exhaustive and those who are familiar with Mafia history will really enjoy this book. The crime details are fascinating but it’s also quite detailed in the quest by the Kennedys to bring the Mafia under control.

There’s a handy map featured that pinpoints where the Apalachin Summit attendees were from and is a great way to do your own further reading about the mob, though Mafia Summit is perfectly good as a stand-alone read.

Highly recommended. I’m not hugely interested in reading about the Mafia but this book ignited my interest in reading more.

Mafia Summit is published by Thomas Dunne Books (a division of St Martin’s Press).

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Untying the Knot: John Mark Byers & the West Memphis Three

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Review by Rachel EC
Untying the knot is a well written, well researched conclusion to the West Memphis Three case by Greg Day. It is overly detailed in regards to the victims, their families and the three accused. It outlines confidently the unsubstantiated (although not completely out of scope) suspicion of John Mark Byers as well as providing details of the evidence against Terry Hobbs and possibly David Jacoby.
The West Memphis Three case is now 20 years old and still remains a detailed mystery. There is plenty of ongoing speculation surrounding this case and it will probably puzzle people for a long time to come. Untangling the knot really highlights the bittersweet victory of the West Memphis Three and their eventual Alford Plea which brought none of the families on either side any closure but did allow the West Memphis Three their eventual freedom after an epic and difficult 18 year legal battle.
Untying The Knot was definitely readable but at times a bit dry. I would not recommend this book to readers who aren’t well informed in the case of the West Memphis Three as it is quite detailed and doesn’t take the usual time to set up a story like a regular true crime book would. Having read hours of internet material on the West Memphis Three and seeing large amounts of the Paradise Lost documentaries I found it easy to follow the stories and the family situations (of which there are many). It’s not a book to begin your reading on West Memphis Three, but a great follow up from Devil’s Knot and the Paradise Lost documentaries.
Untying The Knot really highlighted the issue of justice for the accused overshadowing justice for the victims and their family, especially as the crime and the crime scene grew stale. Apart from the lingering accusations of Byers, Hobbs and perhaps Jacoby there is very little opportunity so long after the crime that anybody else would be investigated or prosecuted for these crimes for a second time.
For more information go to facebook.com/untyingtheknot
Follow Rachel on twitter @crimenerd

Among Murderers and Madness by Sonny Long

 

sonny long book

This book is written by American journalist Sonny Long and is about a triple murder that went unsolved for many years.

Long followed the case from the start – he was the first to report that the bodies of East Texas mum Gerri Faye Butts and her daughters, Jessica, 11 and baby Mackenzie, two,  were found in their trailer home in 1992.

Long details how he has covered the case – and how it unfolded – over the almost 20 years until a man was found guilty of the murder of Gerri Faye. Journalists can get hooked on cold cases (I include myself here!) and Long has certainly never stopped pushing for information or charting the progress of the murders of this family.

Among Murderers and Madness is also autobiographical for Long and he is very candid about his career – he includes editorials he wrote about the case over the years – and details his reporting rivalry with his hometown newspaper Citizens-Journal (he worked for them before setting up his own thrice-weekly newsletter Pine Country Bulletin).

Australia has very strict laws on defamation and contempt of court and I am always fascinated with how different it is in America. Reporters and pundits can freely comment on court cases, while they are happening, going much further than just reporting what is said in open court.

Among Murderers and Madness is interesting. I have a natural interest and felt an affinity with Long as I am also a community newspaper reporter. I like the depth his personal insight gave to this story. He is essentially the main character and the murders of the Butts family drives his obsession with finding justice for them. There is also lots of information about the web community websleuths, people who play amateur detective (with some impressive results) and the part they played in keeping this case alive in the minds of investigators and the public.

There are lots of other twists and turns in the book. I won’t reveal them!

Among Murderers and Madness by Sonny Long is available here. Find out more about Sonny Long at his website sonnylong.com

A Texas Crime Saga: Did Jana Rhea Williams Get Away With Cold-Blooded Murder in Houston’s Third Ward?

This true crime longform article is by Clarence Walker, a Houston, Texas-based true crime writer and Houston’s Cold Case Murder Historian. He can be reached at  cwalkerinvestigate@gmail.com

On a breezy, cool, rainy day in Houston Texas’s “Third Ward” district on January 7, 1974, Albert Johnson, 29, had left work at a construction site where he labored daily to earn a decent living to support his wife and children.  Third Ward, founded in 1836, consists of six historic wards in Houston. Third Ward was located in Houston’s Southeast District. Stephen Fox, a Rice University historian, described Third Ward as “the elite neighborhood comprised of Victorian-era homes. Luxury homes in Third Ward were a stone’s throw from the ghetto – barren, crime and drug-infested place, often refer to where the low-income people lived.

Against the backdrop of war, politics, sports, the hippie and black power culture, plenty of manual labor jobs, as well as oil and rich resources for the wealthy became the anthem for this period in Houston. 1974 was also a year of political scandal in the White House. President Richard Nixon became the first president in U.S. history to resign from office over the Watergate investigation. As Vietnam War gradually wound down in 1974, popular songs like Rock the Boat, Rock Your Baby, Rock Me Gently, Sunshine On My Shoulders, Boogie Down Baby, I shot the Sheriff, The Night Chicago Died, Bennie And the Jets, as well as Time in a Bottle; all these hits fired up the Billboard Charts. A gallon of gas for a car only cost 55 cents in 1974. Average new car cost USD$3500-$5000 dollars.

Back to Mr. Johnson’s leisurely strolling down Blodgett Street. Suddenly, a “white over red” Mustang passed the guy. As the

construction worker continued walking, the shiny Mustang stopped in the street. “Hey come here,” a voice echoed from inside the vehicle. Bewildered, Albert Johnson couldn’t figure out this person, and what they wanted on a day like this. Leaning over into the car he spotted a white lady under the wheel and a black woman sitting on the passenger side.

Suddenly, before the construction worker reacted to what was about to happen, two shots hit him!  With two slugs inside him, Johnson screamed out, “why are you shooting me?”  Unable to run, gripped by excruciating pain, Johnson bled internally as he staggered from the road. Holding his chest the wounded man collapsed into his cousin’s yard at 2012 Blodgett. A police report documented Joyce Hicks as the cousin residing at this address.

Everything happened fast. Joyce Hicks, Thomas Dabney and Margaret Johnson who lived at 2011 Blodgett–rushed outside to where Johnson layed, gasping for breath. “Call an ambulance,” one witness cried out. Paramedics and Houston Police(HPD) patrol officers arrived quickly. But it was too late. Albert Johnson was dead. Witnesses gave a detailed description of the vehicle to HPD officers. “I was in my kitchen and when I heard the shots I looked out the window and saw the man staggering away from a “red and white” Mustang, a female witness told patrol officers. “It looked like two people were inside.” Meanwhile patrol officers issued an alert for a “red and white” Mustang. “The subjects in the vehicle are involved in a shooting that happened in the 2000 block of Blodgett,” an officer announced on the radio.

Shortly, officers at the scene received information that HPD officers M.D. Dean, R.T. Matthews and R.C. Darrow arrested the suspects in the Mustang in the 1800 block of Ruth Street, a location not far from where the shooting took place. Officers reported finding a .380 automatic in between the console and the front seat on the driver’s side. Arrested in the vehicle were:

 

(1) Jana Rhea Williams, white female, age 26.

 

(2) Toni Renee Bratcher, black female, age 23.

 

 A Full-Scale Homicide Investigation Gets Underway

Houston P.D. Homicide Detectives Johnny Bonds and Nelson Zoch were assigned to the case. Bonds fondly remembers that when he arrived on the scene and spoke with the witnesses and the officers who arrested the suspects that he felt confident of having a solid case against the shooter Jana Williams. When this author pressed Bonds about the confidence of the case against Williams, he stated, “For one we had a witness who said when they heard the shot they saw the victim standing on the driver’s side of the vehicle and Jana Williams was the driver.”  “And right after the shooting, when the patrol officers stopped the vehicle they saw Jana arm moving as if she was hiding something. So when the officers searched the car they recovered the murder weapon in between the console where Jana was sitting on the driver’s side.”

A crime scene officer recovered two fired shell casings in the road where the shooting took place. The body was taken to the morgue by McCoy and Harrison Funeral Home where an autopsy would be conducted. An autopsy proved the man died of two gunshot wounds, one shot struck the chin, the other shot went into the chest. Albert Johnson was later buried in Freeport Texas under the direction of Lundy Mortuary.

former Houston Texas Homicide Police Detective Johnny Bonds. Bonds worked the Jana Williams case.

Toni Bratcher Identify Jana Williams as a Killer

While Detectives Bonds and Zoch tied up loose ends on the investigation to file formal charges with Harris County District Attorney Office, Detective David Masse took Toni Bratcher’s statement. Potential charges could be filed against Bratcher if Bonds could prove she assisted or aided Jana Williams to shoot the victim. Massey thoroughly explained to Bratcher in cop language that he wanted to hear the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help her God. Toni calmly acknowledged she understood. “About a week ago, While Jana Williams, known as J.J, and I were staying with my mother in Kerrvile Texas, Jana received a call from her father who is a lawyer who said a black man with red hair had cashed checks and been using a credit card that her father had given Jana.  She asked if I did it or if I knew a black dude with red hair and I told her that I didn’t know anything about it.”  “She said ok and then said, “I just don’t like anyone screwing over my father.”

Toni further said in her lengthy statement that Jana had visited a girl named “Jean” on Ruth Street in Houston and Jana thought this “Jean” may have taken her credit cards while she was doped up on pills.  “We drove back to Houston on Saturday and on Monday morning we went to a office building on Texas avenue to see Jana’s father.”  Enraged over this guy who supposedly been freely using the credit card and cashing checks issued to her by her father, Bratcher said that she went to Oshman’s on Main Street with Jana where she purchased a .380 caliber automatic pistol. “After J.J. bought the pistol we went to eat and then drove to her house where Jana who been taking pills began firing the pistol at her garage.”  But police came after neighbors reported the shots. Police warned Jana not to shoot the gun anymore.

Once Jana and Bratcher drove to Third Ward in Jana’s red Mustang they went over to 5216 Austin Street to visit “Mother Dear”, who is Lucille Williams. “I was standing on “Mother Dear’s” front porch when I heard a shot and this is when I saw that J.J. shot at Alfred Ford.”

Ford was “Mother Dear’s” son-in-law.

When Detective Massey asked why Jana shot at Ford, Bratcher mentioned something about Jana had burglarized Ford’s house. Bratcher continued: “After this we drove off and we were going down Blodgett and Jana saw this black dude with red hair crossing the street.”   “She said, ‘hey he’s got red hair!’   “So she stopped the car and backed up to him. “Hey come here,” she told the guy.  “He walked up on my side and he said, “what is it?”   “This is when Jana pulled her pistol, reached across me, and shot the guy two times.”   Bratcher said the man, hollered, “what you shooting me for, and he ran off.”   Bratcher informed Massey that Jana was hyped up on drugs and happen to see this black guy with red hair and thought he was the culprit. “I didn’t know who this man was, neither did Jana,” the woman lamented.

When detectives attempted to question Jana Williams, “she immediately lawyered up,” retired Detective Bonds now recalls. After HPD firearms expert Floyd McDonald conducted a trace metal detection on Jana’s(right) hand the examiner gave Bonds and Zoch the good news. “The trace test revealed that the (right hand) of suspect Williams contained a metallic pattern identical to the pattern left by the .380 automatic.”  A subsequent test of the slugs removed from the victim’s body also proved to have been fired from the .380 purchased by Williams. Plus the firearm examiner matched the fired shell casings found in the street on Blodgett with the same deadly .380 pistol.

Detectives recovered the Oshman’s sales slip showing the accused purchased the .380 just a few hours before she committed murder. “Jana is our shooter,” Bonds told his partner Nelson Zoch. What disturbed both detectives was the reality this woman gunned down an innocent man because he was black with red hair.

 

Retired Lt. Homicide Detective Nelson Zoch.

 

A Texas Legend Defends Jana Williams

Charged with first-degree murder in the 179th District Court, Jana Rhea Williams faced up to life in prison. She was released on a $20,000 cash bail pending trial. John Williams, Jana’s father, was an attorney himself for one of Houston’s prominent law firms.

Mr. Williams knew his daughter was in deep trouble. Murder was far more serious than drug and petty theft charges. Jana was a troubled child with a bad drug habit but she still was daddy’s little girl. The wealthy gentleman hired the toughest and most expensive lawyer that money could buy. He called the “Racehorse”.

Richard “Racehorse” Haynes was a giant among famous lawyers in America.  Born near San Antoino Texas, Haynes served in the U.S.Marines during World War Two. He fought gallantly in the Iwo Jima battle at 17, winning a medal for heroic action. Winning some of the nation’s high-profile criminal trials, Racehorse Haynes, despite his nickname is more of a bulldog than a racehorse.

A pipe-smoking Texas gunslinger who is often attired in dark pin-striped suits and black ostrich-skin cowboy boots, reporters, judges and fellow lawyers describe Haynes as a mixture of folksy charm, tough-as-nails interrogator of witnesses, a silver-tongue orator prone to carrying out mesmerizing theatrics in a courtroom. Time Magazine named Racehorse Haynes as one of the best lawyers in the nation.

Writer Kinky Friedman expressed Haynes superiority. “He’s the most colorful silver-tongue devil to grace Texas since God made trial lawyers.”

“Being a lawyer is a high calling,” Haynes once said during a social function. “I look at it as being a Freedom Trustee.”

Since 1956, Haynes won acquittals for hundreds of clients charged with serious crimes.

 His most notable cases are:

–          Fort Worth’s billionaire T. Cullen Davis, acquitted in the murder of his stepdaughter, the murder of his ex-wife’s new boyfriend, and the shooting of another man. Haynes won another acquittal for Davis when police charged him for allegedly trying to hire a hitman to kill a judge in Cullen’s divorce case. Both cases were the subject of a book titled Will Blood Tell including a television miniseries.

–          Dr. John Hill was charged with poisoning his wife Joan Robinson Hill in Houston’s River Oaks. Racehorse convinced a judge to throw out the case based on prohibited testimony of a vital witness. This high-profile case spawned a best selling book “Blood And Money” including a television movie “Texas Justice.”

–          . Vickie Daniels was acquitted in the murder of her husband Lloyd Price Daniels, a prominent House speaker in the Texas legislature.

–          Won an acquittal in federal court for an international arms dealer.

–          Out of almost 50 women charged with murder, only two were convicted and got probation.

–          A Hell’s Angel motorcyle member charged with crucifying a woman by driving nails into her hands.

–          Fayette County Sheriff T.J. Flourney whose criminal involvement with the infamous “Chicken Ranch” prostitution operation in La Grange Texas. A memorable case among Texans, this true-life drama was made into a popular play and a movie called “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas”.

With all the headline grabbing cases, the most heart touching for Racehorse Haynes is a pro-bono case where he received not one penny. Haynes won an acquittal for a poor hard-working construction laborer accused of stealing from the construction site. “No way he did it. It was someone else.”

Having discovered that a drug-induced Jana Williams previously spent time in a mental facility after using a blade to cut her arms, Racehorse Haynes filed a court motion to have her examined by a psychiatrist.

Legendary Texas Lawyer Richard "Racehorse" Haynes Got Jana Williams Off the Hook for a 1974 Murder in Houston.
Legendary Texas Lawyer Richard “Racehorse” Haynes Got Jana Williams Off the Hook for a 1974 Murder in Houston.

 

A Psychological Insight into Jana Williams’ Life History

Harris County Psychiatrist Dr. Benjamin Sher examined Jana Williams to determine her mental capacity to stand trial as ordered by Judge McMaster.

Sher conducted the examination at the historic Jefferson Davis Hospital on March 13th 1974. Dr. Sher described the defendant appearance: “Miss Williamsis a 26- year-old white female, well developed and well nourished, approximately five-feet three inches tall, about one hundred ten pounds in weight.

Jana Williams stated in vivid details of being born in Grand Island Nebraska on December 13th 1947. Jana explained to Dr. Sher that she had only one brother. This beloved brother was described as a professional cattleman living in Texas. Although born in Nebraska, Jana said she was raised all her life in Houston Texas. “I quit school in the tenth grade at Memorial High School because I was tired and wanted to rebel against my parents who pressured me to do well in my studies.”  Prior to leaving Memorial High School at 16, Jana was sent to a boarding school in Arizona called the Judson School.  Her worried parents sent her there hoping a more strict and structured environment would correct the problems within their youngest child. Yet even this strategy failed because Jana, stubborn and rebellious, defied authorities. She was sent home back to Houston.

Other past history revealed the accused killer was not married but had a six-year-old son by a man she didn’t identify. When Dr. Sher brought up the criminal offense filed against her, Jana stated she “supposed to have murdered someone identified as Albert Johnson.”   In a calm tone, while puffing a cigarette, Jana explained that her lawyer Racehorse Haynes advised her not to talk about the murder, but, she injected, my lawyer said, “if I’m found guilty I could go to the penitentiary. I don’t want to spend all my days in the pen,” ahe stressed. Having left both Memorial and Judson schools, Jana now grown, moved to Chicago Illinois where she dived head-first into the drug scene with female friends. “I began using marijuana, she recalled. Then I began using heroin.”  Heroin was a popular drug for addicts during the 1970s’.  “My heroin habit cost $175.00 a day. I was able to afford it because of my parents’ trust fund.”  Wired up on heroin, the Texas girl met a handsome guy and moved to New York where she stayed awhile. Trouble followed. She was arrested for drug possession, theft, and stealing a car. “I was tired of walking so I stole the car,” Jana said, recalling the incident in a humorous tone.

Returning to Houston in 1969, Jana resumed using heroin. At time of her arrest, Jana attended beauty school. Dr. Sher concluded the defendant suffered no delusions or mental defect and was competent to stand trial.

A Moment of Truth Or Too Much Reasonable Doubt?

A jury trial began in January 1975 for Jana Rhea Williams. Participants like former homicide Detectives Johnny Bonds and Nelson Zoch who investigated the murder including the famous Richard “Racehorse Haynes and co–counsel Ray Bass was interviewed by this author to recap the evidence presented by Assistant District Attorney Andy Tobias. Tobias evidence was straightforward. First, he presented evidence proving that:

(1) Jana Williams purchased the murder weapon.

(2) She was caught with the murder weapon.

(3) She had the motive to shoot a black man with red hair whom she thought had been cashing checks that belonged to her.

(4) Right after the shooting, a trace metal test showed she had the same pattern and grooves of the weapon visible on her hand

(5) Toni Bratcher, Williams dope friend, testified it was Jana who called the innocent black guy over to her car and shot him because the man had red hair similar like the guy that Jana’s father had described to her.

Attorney Ray Bass now practicing law in Austin, says the detectives and the district attorney thought they had a clear-cut case against Jana Williams, “but we debunked the trace metal gun test by HPD firearms expert Floyd McDonald.”  “And by the time Racehorse Haynes finished with Toni Bratcher, the state’s star witness, the jury felt that it may have been Bratcher herself who killed Mr. Johnson.”

Johnny Bonds said Racehorse Haynes kept him on the witness stand for hours all because he mistakenly wrote that the suspect’s car headed east towards Almeda road instead of the car being headed westbound. “It was just a typo and he tried to rip me a new butt.”

During Jana’s trial, Racehorse didn’t rely exclusively on calling defense witnesses to rebut the state’s case. He chose to make his case through superb cross examination of the state witnesses. Third Ward witnesses who saw the victim staggering away from Jana’s red Mustang were at times confused and even agreed they wasn’t quite sure if the shooting took place on the passenger side of the car or the driver’s side. One witness insisted the victim was standing on the driver’s side where Jana sat when the shots were fired. Yet no witnesses actually fingered Jana Williams as the shooter except for speculating she was the shooter because she, in fact, was the driver.

Court Charge Read to Jury

Following a brief recess, the court returned to order as Judge I.D. McMaster prepared to read the court’s charge to the jury. Three weeks after the trial had begun, now the state’s witnesses including homicide detectives assembled for the last time, like characters in a mystery play, waiting in suspense for the final drama to play out. In reading the murder charge, Bonds and Zoch were confident that the jury would convict Jana Williams.

“We had the murder weapon, the murder weapon was found between the seat where Jana was sitting, plus the witnesses saw the victim standing on the driver’s side of Jana’s car when he was shot,” Bonds now says, reflecting back thirty-eight years ago. Judge McMaster explained the legal terminology of murder in Texas. McMaster re-emphasized the law surrounding the accomplice-witness testimony of Toni Bratcher.

“A party to an offense may not be prosecuted for any offense in which he/she is required to furnish evidence or testify.,” McMaster explained to the jury.  “In this case, Toni Bratcher is an accomplice-witness as matter of law.  And the evidence and testimony that Miss Bratcher provides in a court of law cannot be used against her.” He cautioned the jury of the importance of the corroboration of an accomplice witness testimony against another defendant.

McMaster further explained to the jury that the testimony of Toni Bratcher was sufficient to convict Jana Williams if Bratcher testimony proved credible. Defense

Attorney Ray Bass told the jury the state failed to prove Jana Williams guilty of murder.  “The state wants you to convict Miss Williams of murder just because a faulty trace metal test showed she supposedly held a gun (right) after the victim in this case was shot.”   “But we brought forth expert evidence that HPD trace metal test was unreliable.”   Bass ridiculed testimony of witness Toni Bratcher who fingered Williams as a killer. “To believe what Miss Bratcher said on that witness stand is incredulous. Homicide officers threatened her into making false allegations against the defendant.”

Bass posed an intricate question:”How can we rely on a trace metal test when there’s evidence to show that nitrate found on a discharged weapon or on a person’s hand can also be found on other types of  metal?” It was high noon when Racehorse Haynes stood before the jury to deliver his argument, a perfect moment for a showdown.

The courtroom master attacked the state’s evidence with a vengeance. Racehorse insisted it was Toni Bratcher, his client’s friend, who most likely shot Albert Johnson to death. “Miss Bratcher is a prostitute, drug user and thief. Can we trust what she says about Jana Williams killing Mr. Johnson in Third Ward on Blodgett Street?”  “I suggest to you, you cannot trust the testimony of Miss Bratcher.”

“You heard the witnesses at the scene testify. One witness said it appeared the white lady (Jana Williams) was driving the car when she heard a shot, looked out the window, and saw Mr. Johnson fall backwards. Then another witness said they were not sure who was driving when the shots were fired when the Mustang drove off.”

Haynes admitted that Jana Williams, in fact, had fired the Oshman purchased weapon at other people in Third Ward– which explained why police found evidence that she’d been holding a weapon based on a trace metal test. He indicated that after Bratcher, not Williams, had shot Albert Johnson, Bratcher (prior to HPD officers arresting her) had washed her hands while using a public restroom.

“This is why police found no trace metal evidence on Bratcher’s hands because she washed the evidence off,” Haynes argued. “Bratcher recalled how “high” she was on pills and could not remember everything that happened that day while she rode with Miss Williams. And the reason she couldn’t remember things because she didn’t want too,” Haynes pointed out. “Because she’s the killer.”

Racehorse reminded the jury to consider the guilt-or-innocence of Jana Williams on its merits, devoid of the emotional impact that murder inflicts upon human emotion.

“Judge McMaster has instructed that Miss Williams cannot be convicted on accomplice-testimony unless the witness testimony corroborate the evidence beyond a shadow of doubt. And there’s too much doubt in this case that my client murdered Albert Johnson on January 7th 1974. My client is not guilty.”

Prosecution Argument

Assistant District Attorney Andy Tobias challenged the jury to look past all the “smoke and mirrors” offered by Racehorse Haynes and Ray Bass. Tobias argued it was no coincident that when Jana Williams purchased the .380 weapon from Oshman that she intended to kill a black guy with red hair, a black guy who she thought had been cashing her father’s checks. “You heard from Toni Bratcher that she  got “high” with Jana before Mr. Johnson was killed– and when they left “Mother Dear’s” house in Third Ward right after Jana shot at Mr. Ford, she spotted a black man with reddish hair and decided to shoot him.”

Tobias appealed to the jury to use their common sense in deciding the evidence against the defendant. Picking up the .380 weapon, Tobias held it up for the jury to see. “Who purchased this gun that killed Albert Johnson?”  “Who had the motive?”

“Who said they didn’t like the idea of someone messing over their father?”  “Who wanted to find a black man with red hair?”

“It was this defendant, Jana Williams, “Tobias said, his voice rising. Tobias reminded jurors not to dismiss the metal trace evidence showing the defendant had held the .380 pistol right after the victim was killed. “When patrol officers stopped the red Mustang that Jana was driving right after the shooting–you heard the officer testify he saw Jana trying to hide the gun where it was found between the driver’s seat and the vehicle’s console. And the gun proved to be the murder weapon.”

Tobias recapped the eyewitness testimonies.  “Witnesses saw the victim standing at the driver’s side of the Mustang when the shots were fired.” Tobias admitted the witnesses occasionally may have appeared a bit confused about the rapid chain of events when the shooting took place but he harped on Jana Williams as the guilty killer with a motive to kill a black man.

“Albert Johnson was an innocent man who had gotten off from work headed to visit relatives on Blodgett–when this defendant,  Jana Williams, saw him. And when she saw him she figured he was the black guy with the red hair who had cashed checks on her father. So she decided to kill him.”   “Toni Bratcher had no motive to kill anyone. But this defendant did.”    “It was tragic for Albert Johnson to get off from work, minding his own business, when this defendant killed him in cold blood.”

“Find this woman guilty of murder,” Tobias said.

Following deliberations the jury rung the buzzer, signaling a verdict.  “We got a verdict,” a spectator called out.   “We were sure the jury found Jana Williams guilty,” retired homicide detective Johnny Bonds told this author during a telephone interview. The jury returned to the courtroom and took a seat. A sheriff baliff passed the verdict slip to Judge McMaster. “Will the defendant please rise,” the judge stated. “We the jury find Jana Rhea Williams not guilty of murder in the first- degree.”

Jana Williams exhaled a relief of happiness upon hearing the verdict. She hugged her attorneys and family members as she left the courtroom. Prosecutor Tobias was stunned. How could the jury find the woman not guilty? Johnny Bonds, Nelson Zoch and other HPD officers were dumbfounded.  “What else the jury needed to convict that old girl of murder,” Zoch now reflects back to the day of the acquittal.

Prosecutor Tobias had never lost a homicide trial and had the “smoking gun” connected to the killer. Detectives and the prosecutors agreed on one thing: Racehorse Haynes had pulled off one of his masterful defense for a guilty woman.

Surprisingly, the Houston Chronicle and Houston Post, both major newspapers in the city, obviously didn’t cover the case. Houston Chronicle only published a small, half inch article about the acquittal. The Post did not publish a word.

Houston Forward Times, a popular black-owned weekly paper published a headline feature titled: “Not Guilty in Slaying of Innocent Man: All-White Jury Did Did Not Believe Her Woman Companion.” Forward Times article stated: “Racehorse Haynes beat all the testimony supplied by District Attorney Office which consisted of police investigators, the Oshman’s salesman who  sold Janice Williams the murder weapon including black people who reportedly seen Williams and Bratcher flee the scene.”

“They let her go,” one detective was quoted in the article. Retired HPD lawman Johnny Bonds who worked the investigation protested the “not guilty”. “I don’t recall having a murder weapon and the jury comes back with a “not guilty.” Bonds liken the thirty-eight year old case to the acquittal of Casey Anthony in Florida. Anthony was acquitted of killing her child in 2011.

Time heals bitter wounds. Nelson Zoch proudly served the Houston Police Department for thirty more years. He served as a Murder Squad Lieutenant fow over twenty-four years, retiring in 2004. Zoch is an author of the book: Fallen Heroes of The Bayou City: Houston Police Department 1860-2006.

Prior to retirement in 1988, as a Houston Police Officer, Johnny Bonds became the most heralded officer in the history of the department by solving, against all odds, the 1979 triple murder of the Wanstrath family. The sensational case was the basis for a bestselling book “The Cop who Wouldn’t Quit”. Meanwhile, at age 85, the legendary Racehorse Haynes still practices law.

When people ask the famous lawyer why he still practicing law, Racehorse, always ready to unload a wisecrack, says: “I’m still learning how to practice!”

An article from Houston Forward Times.

 

A Troubled Life

One ugly truth about the human condition is that a troubled life often leads to more troubles. Trouble hovered over Jana Williams’ life like a dark cloud after she beat the murder rap, a senseless murder that former detectives Bonds and Zoch believe without doubt that she got away with. Racking up arrests on drugs and theft charges, finally in 1977, the once accused murderer luck ran out. While residing in a plush hi-rise condo on Memorial Drive in Houston, police charged Jana Williams with burglarizing an apartment to steal drugs. A jury sentenced her to five years in prison.Williams’ famous lawyer didn’t represent her on the burglary as she was led away in handcuffs.

On December 6th 2012, Nelson Zoch, the detective turned author, who assisted Johnny Bonds with the homicide investigation of Williams back in 1974, reminisced about the acquittal of Williams with this journalist outside the HPOU(Houston Police Officer Union) building.

“I once saw Racehorse Haynes, Jana’s former attorney, at a social event celebrating Confederate soldiers and we spoke briefly about old Jana Williams. Zoch said he told Racehorse, “Jana was guilty of murder, you know”.   “He looked at me and just smiled.”

Jana Williams’ once troubled life came to an end in 2003. She died in Jacksonville Florida.

Did DNA Prove Joe Sanders Guilty of Murdering Angela Alex on Rankin Road?

This true crime longform article is by Clarence Walker, a Houston, Texas-based true crime writer and Houston’s Cold Case Murder Historian. He can be reached at  cwalkerinvestigate@gmail.com

Angela dale funeral

 

WHEN murder strikes a person down in the prime of life, all hopes, dreams, the ability to love and make a positive difference in this sin-sick world, and every potential, inside the soul dies.On a crisp, cool morning of November

On a crisp, cool morning of November 8, 2005, a funeral was held for Angela Alex, 30, at New Life Ministries on Englewood Street near Langley Road in Houston Texas. A soulless killer had murdered Angela, and her unborn child a few days earlier on a lonely dark road. Mourners strolled into the mid-size chapel to the soothing sounds of memorial music playing softly in the background. A floral tribute to the befallen mother of four children was arranged neatly on top of the shiny coffin that contained her body. Grieving relatives embraced one another, their voices wracked with sobs. They cried out in unison, “oh no.” “Why lord.” “Why someone took Angela away?”

 

 

A tribute from a relative lamented, “life is a struggle with pain. Can’t see the sunny day for
the rain. In a world filled with trouble and sin, this journey is weary. Sometimes you’re happy. Sometimes you’re sad.”

“Why she had to go and leave us—I guess it was time for her to go home. Rest in peace, Angela.” As the lifeless remains were interred into the soil of planet earth, it would take a symbol of earthly justice to track down and smoke out this killer. Death destroyed this dedicated mother on Tuesday, November 1, 2005. Angela’s body was found a short distance from her SUV Ford Explorer in the 400 block of North Rankin Circle Road near Gillman Park Drive.

Harris County Sheriff Office homicide detective Robert “Bob” Tonry arrived at the scene, shortly after midnight along with fellow detectives Mark Reynolds, Mario Quintanilla and Bill Valerio. Detective Roger Wedgeworth later joined this elite group of officers.

As crime scene officer Glover collected evidence at the scene the investigators spoke with a witness who discovered the woman.”While trying to get back to I-45 North Freeway, the witness recalled, I happen to drive onto Rankin Road when I saw a parked SUV, with it’s park lights on. So as I got closer I saw the body in the road.” Visible blood suggested the victim had suffered a head or neck wound. Identification found in the vehicle officially identified the woman as Angela Alex. Investigators noted the victim was found face-down in the road in an awkward manner, a short distance from where her vehicle was parked, with the driver’s door open. A Harris County Medical Examiner rolled the body over and observed the woman was shot in the back of her head with a small caliber weapon.

Observing the woman’s stomach it appeared she was pregnant! A Harris County Medical Examiner rolled the body over and observed the woman was shot in the back of her head with a small caliber weapon.

This crime scene photo was provided to the author by the victim's family.
This crime scene photo was provided to the author by the victim’s family.

Detectives dispelled robbery as a motive due to finding $500 in cash, two ATM withdrawals totaling $1000, including expensive jewelry found on her body. A closer inspection of the body and the physical evidence found nearby revealed the following: the victim was clad in a gray, warm-up suit, her hands clutched a hairpiece, and the vehicle she drove, the motor was off, keys were in the ignition. Observing driver’s door open it appeared she had exited hurriedly. As a cool breeze stirred the night air, the detectives, using high-beam flashlights, walked towards the eastside of the location where they found a pair of female tennis shoes and a torn sweater scattered in the road. These items had apparently been worn by the victim. “There’s been a struggle,” Tonry suggested to Reynolds and Valerio, as they walked together, illuminating dark areas of the crime scene with flashlights. The Medical Examiner recorded the following evidence on the body. “It

“It appear this woman been shot in the head; there is a large gash on her (right) knee including another deep wound on her back.”

A cell phone was attached to Miss Alex waistband. CSI officer Glover collected the phone and a suspicious, empty “Budweiser can.”Information in the victim’s vehicle listed her address at 2726 Winterpark Court in Houston.

Husband Notified

Arriving at the address the detectives spoke with the dead woman’s common-law husband identified as Steven Green. Tonry broke the sad news to Green that his wife had been found shot to death.

“We’re very sorry for your loss,” Tonry lamented. Visibly grief-stricken, the man blinked back tears. As the shock wore off, the distraught husband, composed himself and began answering questions about his deceased wife. Green told detectives that three of Angela’s boys were his and that she had another child from a previous relationship. Green said Angela was a great mother to her children and that they were expecting another child due to his wife’s pregnancy.

“Any problems between you and your wife–or do you know of anyone she was having problems with?” Tonry asked skeptically. Green told Tonry that he “knew of nobody who may have wanted to kill Angela.” In a more detailed statement, Green said earlier that day that Angela called him on his cell while he was working at the transmission shop. Green said Angela boasted about having another friend because he wasn’t being the man he should be in her life. “When I asked her the friend’s name she said it didn’t matter.” Once Green arrived home around 7:30 P.M., he said that Angela left home between 8:30: and 9:P.M. and that he figured she went Christmas shopping at Walmarts or may have went to Third Ward to check on a second place she had rented at the Cuney Homes Apartments.When Tonry described the deserted location on

When Tonry described the deserted location on Rankin Road where Angela was found her husband said he never knew the woman to travel in that particular area. “I don’t know why she would be over there,” Green stated.

Did Steven Green Murder His Wife?

Bobby Cartwright, a former boyfriend of Angela Alex, accused Steven Green, the woman’s husband of killing her. “I don’t believe Angela would have gone out at night because she had bad eyesight,” Cartwright conferred with detectives. “I believe her husband Steve had sent her out somewhere and someone was hid in Angela’s truck.” Cartwright recalled that when he last spoke with Angela on October 31st, she mentioned leaving her husband because he often yelled at her and physically pushed her around.

Cartwright further recalled Angela’s displeasure over her husband’s sexual prowess. “Angela said her husband Steve Green could not satisify her sexually.”

Cartwright promised detectives that if he heard anything significant that he would contact them. Detectives entertained a titillating thought: Did Steven Green have a plausible motive to kill his wife, particularly since she mentioned to Green that she had another friend. Who was this new friend in her life that she talked about?

And did Angela tell Steve that his sexual performance didn’t measure up in the bedroom? Potential violence was real if Steve Green discovered his wife having sex with another man to fulfilled her sexual needs due to his fading prowess. Detectives needed to find out if Steve Green owned a .22 caliber weapon. Detective Roger Wedgeworth worked this angle. Wedgeworth formerly worked in the cold case unit and he is often seen on The First 48-Hour, a national homicide show on A&E Network. “It was a process of elimination,” Wedgeworth explained to this writer. Green denied owning a .22 weapon and he insisted that he never left the house on the night his wife was killed. When Wedgeworth interviewed the victim’s 14-year-old son named Brandon, the kid said his father left out of the house only one time and that was when he went outside to smoke a cigarette.

Green told Wedgeworth he was alarmed when Angela had not made it home around 11:P.M. “So I called her phone and she never answered,” Green said. “Afterwards I went to sleep and this is when the police woke me up knocking on the door.”

A polygraph test administered to Green that showed he failed the test baffled the detectives. Aware of a polygraph’s inaccuracy the detectives still gave the husband the benefit of doubt. Plus failure to pass a polygraph is inadmissible in court nor sufficient for police to file criminal charges.

Now back to square one.

A search of the vehicle turned up interesting clues. CSI officers discovered a request for child support application sent to Angela Alex from Texas Attorney General Office. The letter was postmarked October 6, 2005. CSI dug up another tantalizing clue: a letter showing that Angela Alex had scheduled an appointment with a downtown clinic to abort the child she was pregnant with, but according to medical assistance Hiawatha Duncan, the victim never showed up. Detectives felt confident that the woman’s death connected with an extra-marital affair. Why she wanted to abort her child? Why she left home without explanation? Why she told her husband she had another friend in her life?

Follow-Up Investigation: Cell Phone Tracking

Checking Angela’s cell phone records, Tonry noticed the numerous times she called phone number# (281-914-1522) throughout the evening before someone gunned her down on November 1st. She made her last call to that same number at 9:13 P.M. The cell number she had repeatedly called, Tonry requested information to identify ownership. Both cell phone numbers were submitted by Tonry to U.S. Marshall Office in Houston, a discreet location on San Jacinto Street confined to a post office building. While analyzing evidence results, Tonry received an emergency call from the mother of the dead woman. In a teary voice, the woman explained to Tonry that she received a letter from another daughter identified as Monica Simon, an inmate serving time in Texas prison for injury to a child. Inmate Monica had written a letter to her mother indicating she received a letter from Angela, three days before she was murdered. Angela’s mother further told Tonry that in the letter that Monica sent to her, Monica said Angela had said that she was pregnant by a guy named Joe Nathan Sanders. Tonry received more interesting news. The mother of the two sisters recalled that Sanders had also fathered a child named “Little Joe” by her daughter Monica.

“We’ll look into it,” the detective assured the grieving mother.

Acting on this information, Tonry contacted officials at Texas Department Corrections, requesting Monica Simon be allowed to speak with him over the phone. Monica gave Tonry a rundown on the guy named Joe. “Before I went to prison in 1999, I had a son by Joe Sanders.

His name is “Little Joe.” “Joe Sanders has been raising our son every since I’ve been locked up.”

Monica recalled receiving a letter from her sister Angela who said in the letter she was pregnant by Sanders. Angela wrote in her letter that she had threatened to file child support against Sanders. This information piqued Tonry because Angela was pregnant when she was killed. Monica voiced suspicion that her sister’s death involved something connected with Joe Sanders.

“Angela said in the letter that Joe coerced her into having sex with him by telling her that he wouldn’t allow her anymore to see her nephew “Little Joe. Describing her sister as a very sweet, easygoing person attached to “Little Joe”, Monica pointed out that Angela was a bit slow, mental wise. And that Joe had taken advantage of her. Monica mailed the secret letter to Tonry. A quick read of the letter convinced the detective of a sexual relationship between Angela and Monica’s ex-boyfriend and Mr. Sanders.

Yet at this stage in the game he wasn’t sure if Sanders was the father of Angela’s unborn child because she also was in a common-law marriage with Steven Green. And she had been seeing another guy periodically. Angela’s letter to her imprisoned sister offered apologies for having sex with Sanders

Police Interview Sanders

Detectives contacted Mr. Sanders for an interview. For Tonry, his objective was to eliminate the young man or keep him tagged as a suspect. On March 21st 2006, Joe Sanders, age 31, accompanied by his fiancee identified as Tameka Green arrived at Harris County Sheriff Homicide Division located on Lockwood street near Navigation.

Exchanging polite greetings, Tonry spoke privately with Sanders while Tameka waited in conference room. Tonry questioned Sanders about the last time that he saw or talked with Angela Alex. Or if he’d been sexually involved with her.

 

Author Clarence Walker said Sgt. Detective Robert “Bob” Tonry was an invaluable help and source of information for this article.

Sanders acknowledged that Angela may have called him on the day that he last heard from her,  though he explained he couldn’t remember the exact day or time. He added the woman usually called him asking for gas money because Angela baby-sat his son “Little Joe” after picking him up from school. And that his fiancee Tameka would later visit Angela’s home to pick up the child at Angela’s place and bring him home.

Joe Sanders recalled to Tonry that when he heard about Angela’s murder that he was working with a construction clean up crew in Port Arthur Texas, and that he drove from Houston each day to Port Arthur with co-workers riding in his SUV Ford. Sanders provided a list of co-worker names to verify that he usually dropped them off at home upon arrival in Houston from Port Arthur including the name of the foreman who supervised the crew.

Tonry questioned Sanders about having a sexual relationship with Angela Alex. “Whatever you say about it, stays here in this room,” Tonry coaxed the man. “But we need to know the truth if you been involved with this woman.” Sanders admitted that he had a child with Angela’s sister but that he would never involve himself sexually with Angela. Sanders said he usually made it home around 10pm or shortly before.

“So if we contact these people you mentioned they can corroborate what you told us already?” Tonry quizzed Sanders. “Yeah, Sanders answered. But Sanders reminded Tonry that the job he

Tonry quizzed Sanders. “Yeah, Sanders answered. But Sanders reminded Tonry that the job he had been working on in Port Arthur–no longer existed due to the job being a temporary contract by a larger company. Tonry had Sanders to provide the names of the co-workers who worked with him in Port Arthur during the month of November in 2005. Names provided by Sanders were nicknames without verifiable addresses, and he only provided possible locations where the former co-workers once lived.

Tameka Stevens, Sanders fiancee, assured Tonry that her future husband usually made it home around 10:P.M. or no later than 11:P.M., when he was working construction cleanup in Port Arthur during the month of November 2005.

Though Tameka admitted she occasionally picked “Little Joe” up from Angela’s home after school but she said she didn’t realize Angela was dead until she heard about it from Joe Sanders or one of the victim’s relatives.

To prove himself innocent, Sanders voluntarily agreed to provide a DNA sample. Tonry used a q-tip to swab Sanders mouth to retrieve a saliva sample.

Joe Sanders left the homicide division in pretty good spirits. If police actually knew he was the killer, then why wait four long months before contacting him. But DNA evidence would make or break the case. A swift return proved the ultimate truth: DNA testing of the “beer can” found at the murder scene matched Sanders DNA profile! DNA testing of the unborn child also proved Sanders as the father. Detective Tonry was excited. “What about the cell phone records?” Detective Reynolds asked Tonry?

“All of Angela’s calls to Sanders phone on the night she was killed started at 7:P.M., and the last call that went from Angela’s phone to Sanders phone was logged at 9:13 P.M. Yet another questionable number (281-209-1720), a number that was listed on Angela’s cell log, this call number was made to her phone close to 9:P.M. Comparing numbers, the detectives acknowledged this particular number didn’t belong to Sanders. A follow-up traced the call to a pay phone located outside a SunMart store at 702 Rankin Road near where Angela was found murdered. Detectives were unable to retrieve surveillance tapes of the area where the payphone was located. Who made this suspicious call to Angela’s phone from a payphone?

More evidence followed. A configuration of tower signals capable of tracking the approximate location of cell phones in use, gave detectives more ammunition to target Sanders. “The mobile tracking of both cells when Angela first started calling Sanders, Tonry stated to fellow detectives, shows Mr. Sanders phone within the vicinity of Rankin Road where she was killed.”

Cell evidence showed that when Angela started calling Sanders cell around 7:P.M.—the tracking of his cell showed him near Baytown Texas. And from 9:P.M. until 9:13 P.M., Sanders phone signal was located in the I-45 Rankin Road area.Joe Sanders appeared guilty the detectives speculated.

Joe Sanders appeared guilty the detectives speculated.

DNA evidence on the “beer can” placed him at the crime scene. Detectives pegged him as a liar when he denied being in contact with Angela Alex, and that he lied about having sexual relationship with her.Plus the cell records tracked his calls from Angela’s phone to within two miles where she was found. Detectives were convinced that Sanders had motive and opportunity.

Plus the cell records tracked his calls from Angela’s phone to within two miles where she was found. Detectives were convinced that Sanders had motive and opportunity.

What detectives needed to cinch the case was a confession. Sanders met with Tonry again on May 24th 2006. Tonry confronted the construction worker with cell phone records. Sanders denied talking with the woman but admitted she may have called his phone to ask for gas money because she usually picked up his son from school. Tonry informed Sanders of DNA proving he was the father of the victim’s unborn child, and the fact that his DNA was found on the beer can found near Angela’s body. “Your DNA was on the can,” Tonry said, in a heavy tone. “You wasn’t truthful when you previously said you had had no contact with Angela but now your DNA found at the scene and you are the father of her child.” “DNA don’t lie,” Sanders held steadfast to his story denying he killed the woman and that there must have been a mistake with all the evidence.

Determined to break Sanders, Tonry tried emotional manipulation. Like a patient mentor, Tonry reminded how men cheat on their wives and girlfriend and how things can spin out of control. “Listen Joe, you got Angela pregnant. She wanted child support and probably wanted you to leave Tameka. But you didn’t want to jeopardize Tameka.” “So things got out of hands and something bad happen out on Rankin Road.” “Tell us what happen.” Sanders was on the “hot seat” but he refused to budge. He repeatedly denied committing murder. Unable to break this guy, Tonry released Sanders. But with a warning: that the District Attorney would review the case and decide whether to file capital murder charges. Joe Sanders left the homicide office a bit nervous but he assured his fiancee Tameka Stevens that if Tonry had an airtight case with DNA evidence, then why didn’t he arrest him on the spot. He figured no such evidence existed.Fate proved Sanders wrong. A few days later sheriff detectives arrested him at home. Joe Nathan

Fate proved Sanders wrong. A few days later sheriff detectives arrested him at home. Joe Nathan Sanders was officially charged with the capital murder of Angela Alex and her unborn child.

Convicted killer Joe Sanders.

Jury Trial

After numerous delays and pretrial hearings, (ADA) Assistance District Attorneys Sunny Mitchell and Kristen Guiney began jury selection in Joe Sanders case on August 27th 2007, at Harris County Criminal Justice Center located downtown Houston on Franklin Street.

In 2012, ADA Guiney was elected as judge of the 179th criminal district court. Defense Don Becker represented Sanders. ADA Sunni opened the state’s case by rehashing intimate details surrounding the victim’s life and how homicide detectives unraveled a mesh of clues connecting the defendant with the crime. ADA Mitchell faced the jury, then pointed at Sanders, and said, “what you all will learn is, this man’s face was the last face that Angela Alex, saw on a dark, secluded road before she was murdered.”

Becker referred to Sander’s innocene, implying there were other suspects due to the victim’s questionable lifestyle with other men. Detective Bob Tonry gave lengthy testimony explaining to jurors how Sanders became a suspect when he obtained a letter that Angela had wrote before she was murdered, a letter she had sent to her sister in prison. According to Tonry, “Angela told her sister, she had been in a sexual relationship with the defendant and that he was the father of her unborn child.” Under careful questioning by ADA Mitchell, Tonry said, “When Mr. Sanders came in to talk with me on March 21st 2006, he immediately denied having any sexual relationship with Angela Alex, and he denied being near the area where she was killed.”

Tonry further mentioned that he was unable to follow-up on the whereabouts of Sanders co-workers, that Sanders said could have corroborated his story that he dropped them off at home on the night the victim was killed. A list of co-workers nicknames provided to Tonry by Sanders was introduced into trial to show Sanders lack of sincerity to help investigators officially identify the young men.”What about cell phone calls that Angela made to Mr. Sander’s phone on the night she was

“What about cell phone calls that Angela made to Mr. Sander’s phone on the night she was killed?” Mitchell queried.”

“Although Sanders said he spoke with Angela on the phone, either a day before or on the date she was killed, concerning her need for $40 to buy gas, he maintained that he had not seen the woman in over a week.”

DA Mitchell zeroed in on Sanders’s alibi. “What Mr. Sanders told you when you asked him about his where-bouts on the night Ms.Alex was found murdered?” Tonry responded, “he said he usually left home for work every morning around 6:a.m to travel to Port Arthur, Texas, where he worked at a construction company.” Tonry recalled the defendant said that on the night the woman was shot to death that he did not return home until around 10:P.M. Investigation showed the deceased woman was discovered on Rankin Road between 10:15 and 10:30 P.M.

Defense Becker questioned Tonry.. He intended to show just because his client had a faulty memory it didn’t prove guilt.

He insisted when Tonry allowed a lenghty delay to pass after the murder occured that Sanders may have forgot specific details, as to exact time when he made it home on November 1, or, forgot, “he was either here or there–or who he was with–nor could he not remember the exact last time of the date that he spoke with Angela Alex over the phone.” Becker made a good point, that Tonry did not question Sanders until four months later after Angela was murdered. This delay created a memory lapse that only confused the sequence of events connected with the murder.

Harris County Medical Examiner Marissa Feeney said the (two) gunshots fired into the back of the victim’s head immediately caused her death.

Mark Powell, a DNA expert with Harris County Medical Examiner Office, said the male fetus taken from the body of the victim, proved with 99.99 probability that Sanders was the father, and that three other tested men, including the dead woman’s husband had been excluded as the father of the unborn child. Powell amplified the circumstantial evidence by testifying that the beer can found at the murder scene matched the DNA profile of the defendant through saliva. A surprising discovery of additional DNA testing of the evidence alarmed the prosecutors. At the morgue, the analyst discovered DNA under the fingernails of Angela Alex that failed to match the DNA profile of the same men that were previously tested to prove paternity of the fetus in the woman’s body. Nor did the DNA match Joe Sanders! What worried the prosecutors was the possibility the jury could get confused over the DNA controversy and decide to acquit Sanders.

If Sanders was the killer, then who did the unknown DNA belong to, found under Angela’s fingernails? Was there an unknown person the police didn’t know about? Prosecutors sought to explain the mysterious DNA.

DA Kristen Guiney led the expert through a series of questions of the four men that tested negative for the unknown DNA.

(Q) “Was you able to exclude the woman’s husband Steven Green and three other men?”

(A) “Yes”

(Q) “Is it common for people to have unknown DNA underneath their fingernails?”

(A) “That’s possible.” Powell explained the dynamics behind the mystery DNA. “There’s been a lab study where only lab members were tested, and in many cases the DNA of a relative or a child was found under the fingernails of those tested. Defense Becker took Powell on cross-examination. Becker emphasized the importance of DNA that did not match his client, and he attempted to cast doubt about the DNA that tied his client to the crime.

(Q) “You say the defendant’s DNA was found on the “Budweiser can” correct?”

(A) “That’s correct.”

(Q) “Does that tell you when the DNA was put on the “beer can” ?

(A)”No, we could not determine when any DNA was left on the “can.”

(Q) “Could the DNA have been put there the day before–or a week before the evidence was collected and tested?”

(A) “Yes” that’s possible, Powell shot back.

Sergeant Breck McDaniel, a 12-year veteran with Houston Police Department including eight years in the homicide division, testified to show the tracking of Sander’s cell phone. McDaniel had been assigned to local U.S. Marshal Office where he served as a technical analyst assisting law enforcement agencies to track cell phone calls to pinpoint approximate location of a phone once a call is logged. Like a professor preparing students for an exam, ADA Mitchell asked McDaniel to technically explain how a tower system monitor the location of a cell phone when someone make a call or when a cell is turned off.

“When we experience dropped calls it is called a “hand-off” because the system keeps track of where your phone is going.” “The system is like a recorder, it constantly caculate which tower it needs to connect with, to allow a user to make a call.” DA Mitchell placed Sanders cell number (281-914-1522), and Angela Alex number (713)-922-4577) on a wide-screen projector for the jury to view. State’s exhibit# 42 identified as Sanders number.

Mitchell pressed on. “On November 1st 2005, from 7:P.M til 9::34 P.M.—can you tell the jury how many documented phone calls came from the outgoing calls of phone number, 713-922-4577, to phone number, 281-914-1522?” McDaniel replied, “twenty-two in all.” Mitchell moved forward with McDaniel to connect the evidence tying Sanders phone within the area where the victim was killed.

“So there were approximately twenty-two calls within two hours?” McDaniel answered, “yes.”

At this point, DA Mitchell was showing the jury that shortly before the victim was murdered she made twenty-two calls from her cell to Sanders phone. Yet, according to Detective Tonry, when he questioned Sanders if Angela had called him anytime on that day or night on November 1st, he had said there were possibly one call during the day when she called him for gas money.

McDaniel said the evidence also showed that around 7:P.M. on November 1st, Sanders cell phone was in use in the Baytown area. At 7:45 P.M., the cell was in Houston’s Acres Home area.And from 9:P.M til 9:13 P.M., Sanders cell phone signal showed he was near I-45 at Rankin

And from 9:P.M til 9:13 P.M., Sanders cell phone signal showed he was near I-45 at Rankin Road, approximately 2.5 miles north of the murder scene. The last cell track of Sanders phone was logged the next morning around 6:A.M. near his home. To clarify, wireless experts have said the tower signal that picks up a phone’s location has proved, at times, unconclusive to show which direction a person might be traveling. But the signal can accurately pinpoint approximate location which includes estimated mile range, from one distance to another.

Defense Becker’s cross examination of the cell phone evidence neutralized the effectiveness of tower signals capable of tracking location of a phone when a call is made or intercepted. Becker had noted that the officer’s findings left a “time gap” because he testified that Sanders phone, at 9:13 P.M., was detected near I-45 and Rankin Road. But the officer offered no exact location around 10:P.M. or shortly thereafter. Angela Alex’s body was found approximately 10:15P.M., and 10:30 P.M., according to witnesses. Becker went on the attack, questioning Sergeant McDaniel about his high-tech findings.

(Q) “Can you, please tell us where Mr.Sanders phone number#(281-914-1522), was located around 9:45 P.M. on November 1st?”

(A) “At 9:45 P.M.?” “Yes sir”, Becker shot back

.(A) “I don’t know.”

(Q) “Where was the phone at 10:P.M.

(A) “Don’t know.”

(Q) “The person who had that phone(281-914-1522), was they out of town at that time?” Surprisingly, McDaniel repeated, “don’t know.”

“Isn’t it true when a person makes a call and if the closest tower don’t intercept the call, the call is re-routed to another tower that could be located miles away in a different direction?”

McDaniel, said, “that’s true.”

Becker tried another tactic to undermine the cell evidence. “Sergeant McDaniel, do you agree there’s no evidence the defendant’s phone was ever at the murder scene on Rankin Road on November 1st?

“I cannot gurantee that–no other than the calls documented on Mr. Sander’s phone is consistent with the calls made from Mrs. Alex phone in the same area where she was found murdered.”

Tameka Stevens, Sanders fiancee, confirmed his alibi that he was home during time the murder happened. Stevens said her husband had worked in Port Arthur that day on November 1st. She explained that the last time she saw the victim alive was on November 1st, when she picked up “Little Joe”, from the woman’s house. Little Joe was the son of Sanders. Defense Becker asked Stevens,

“When Mr. Sanders made it home did he have any scratches or bruises on his body?” “No, he did not. She confirmed that he made it home around 10:P.M. On cross exam by ADA Mitchell, Tameka denied that she told Detective Tonry that Sanders didn’t make it home until 11:P.M. on the night the murder went down.

Joe Sanders Testified

When Joe Sanders mounted the stand, suspense filled the air. Courtroom spectators were eerily quiet as defense Becker, bluntly asked the well-dressed, meek-looking, articulate defendant.

(Q) “Did you kill Angela Alex?”

(A) “No sir, I did not.”

(Q) “Have you ever fought with Mrs. Alex on Rankin Road? And did you own a .22 caliber
back on November 1st 2005?”

(A) “No, I have not…and I do not own a weapon.”

Sanders recalled how he began having a discreet sexual relationship with the dead woman, who was the sister of his son’s mother, and how they occasionally met at different places to talk and have sex. He further stated he knew the woman was pregnant but that Angela had not told him the child was his. he insisted if he’d known the child was his that he would have took responsibility.

Becker continued with questioning:

(Q) “Why you lied to Detective Tonry on both occasions about not having a sexual relationship with Angela even when he told you the DNA test showed the baby she was carrying was yours?”

(A) “I didn’t want to reveal the affair and I didn’t want to jeopardize my relationship with my girlfriend Tameka. I didn’t want to hurt her.”

(Q) “Did Detective Tonry ever ask you if you owned a .22 weapon?” “Or did he ask to search your house for a weapon?”

(A) “No, he did not.”

Sanders testified that he had provided Tonry with the names of the former co-workers that he had been working with in the month of November 2005, co-workers that could have
corroborated his story that he didn’t go near Rankin Road because he had to drop them off.  At trial the names of Cornel Clay, “Joe Joe”, Francis, Alex, Matt, Roy and Derrick were mentioned by Sanders as the guys who could have backed up his story. Sanders was reminded by ADA that the names mentioned during trial differed from the names he had given Tonry back in March 2006.

Referring to his client’s discreet relationship with the dead woman, knowing that he had already fathered a child by the dead woman’s sister, Becker asked in a stern voice, “Joe, why you do this?”

(A) ” I don’t know. I love women.”

“I pass the witness.” Becker said.

ADA Mitchell ripped into Sanders on cross-examination to destroy what she perceived as a total fabrication to hoodwink the jury into setting him free.

“Mr. Sanders, you have admitted lying to Detective Tonry about your sexual relation-ship with Angela. “Right?” “And you lied about the last time you saw her before she was murdered; you lied to Tonry when he showed you the cell phone records that Angela had made calls to your phone shortly before she was murdered—and you also lied even when Tonry told you the DNA test proved you to be the father of Angela’s unborn child.”

“That’s true,” Sanders answered in a calm tone.

“Previously you testified Angela would meet you at different places. Is that correct?”

“Yes, that’s correct, the defendant answered. The jury and spectators were captivated as ADA Mitchell bored in to unravel what she characterized as “a web of deceit.”

(Q) “You know Angela had told her sister that you forced her to have sex with you.”

(A) “I didn’t know that.”

DA Mitchell honed in on the “beer can” containing Sanders DNA.

“When you met with Tonry twice, you never mentioned having a beer standing outside Angela’s SUV truck on October 30th 2005, nor did you mention that when you gave her back the “empty can” she had put it into her truck.” “No, I did not.” Sanders replied.

“No, I did not.” Sanders replied. ADA Mitchell zoomed in on the important cell calls. “The last of many calls that Angela made

ADA Mitchell zoomed in on the important cell calls. “The last of many calls that Angela made to your phone on November 1st, the times were 9:01 P.M., 9:04 P.M., and 9:13 P.M.

“Did you receive those calls?”

“Yes I received those calls,” Sanders admitted. Still the defendant insisted that he didn’t kill the woman and that he was at home with Tameka Stevens.

Closing Arguments

After both sides rested, Judge Jeanine Barr optioned the jury to vote not guilty, if the state’s evidence failed to prove guilt, or, to convict the defendant if the evidence proved beyond reasonable doubt that the defendant murdered Angela Alex. Defense Don Becker faced the jury and said, “Joe Sanders is guilty!”

Becker’s blunt statement stunned the audience. Sanders even looked bewildered. A moment of intrigue filled the air. Finally Becker broke the suspense. “He’s guilty of lying to the police, cheating on Tameka and lying that he never been involved with Angela Alex.” “But he’s not guilty of capital murder.”

Becker downplayed the state’s evidence; cell phone records, the “beer can”, found at the murder scene, including two inconsistent statements the defendant gave to Detective Tonry. “There’s not a scintilla of evidence that Joe Sanders was near Rankin Road on Novemeber 1, 2005.” “They say, well, he was close in the area, about a mile or so away where the body was found. Becker attacked what prosecutors considered incriminating statements made by a guilty killer.

“Detective Tonry ambushed Joe Sanders.” “He calls him up and, say, ‘hey Joe, where was you on a particular day, four months ago?”

“And Sanders would say, ‘well, I usually go to work at 5:a.m., arriving back home between 10:P.M and 10:30 P.M. “Then Tonry responds, that’s fine, I just wanted to know.” Next the attorney recalled Sanders version about the incriminating “beer can” found at the scene. Becker admitted that Sanders DNA was found on the container. He explained why. “Defendant testified of meeting Angela, two days before her death at Cuney Homes Apartments where he stood outside her SUV, sipping a can of Budweiser beer. Once Sanders finished sipping the beer, Becker argued, “he placed the “empty can” back into her truck.”

“How can you, the attorney implored the jury, convict a person of capital murder if evidence cannot prove how long the “beer can” had been inside Angela’s SUV?” Leaving no stones unturned, Becker characterized Angela Alex promisicous lifestyle. “Angela was married and we know she was a cheater on her husband Mr. Green.” “And we know she fought with her murderer, and if Sanders had killed her, then why the DNA found under Angela’s fingernails did not match Sanders DNA?”

Becker concluded, “if police would further investigate to determine the identity of the unknown DNA found under Angela’s fingernails, they will find the true killer.” Pausing for effect, the attorney exhorted, “Joe Sanders did not kill Angela Alex. Find him not guilty of capital murder.”

DA Argument

DA Mitchell offered gratitude to the rapt jury, thanking them for their time and patience to hear a tragic story of a sweet, loving, easygoing, innocent pregnant woman, who would have given life to a “baby boy” fathered by Joe Sanders, but in cold blood the child’s father killed him and his mother. Pointing directly at Sanders, the DA went straight for the kill. “This defendant thought he got away with murder. What he didn’t count on was a hard-working detective refusing to quit.” “It wasn’t until Detective Tonry discovered the letter Angela wrote to her sister in prison, indicating she was pregnant by Sanders that anyone knew a relationship existed.” DA Mitchell recited the defendant’s motive to kill. “When Sanders impregnated Angela, she threatened to expose the affair if he refused to pay child support. And if this had happened it would have jeopardized Sanders relationship with Tameka Green.”

Mitchell, emboldened by the evidence, challenged the jury to use common sense to convict Sanders. “He lied to Detective Tonry about not having a sexual relationship with Angela Alex; he lied about not talking with her on the cell phone on the night she was killed; he lied to Tonry on two occasions that he had not seen Angela for a while prior to her death.” Yet, Mitchell pointed out, when Sanders testified he suddenly remembered meeting her two days before she was murdered.” Using a power-point to zero in on Sanders surprised admission to explain his DNA on the “beer can” found near the body, the DA mimicked his words. “I met Angela two days before she was murdered and while standing outside her truck she gave me a beer to drink. And once I finished the beer, I gave Angela the “empty can” back, and she put it in her truck.” “Ladies and gentlemen, that story is a cover-up. He had to explain his DNA at the scene,” DA Mitchell argued. Explaining the mystery of the unknown DNA found under Angela’s hands the DA reminded the jury not to be misled and that there was only one killer involved with killing Angela Alex, and the killer was in the courtroom.

“The expert testified it’s not unusual for people to have unknown DNA on their body.” “You heard Sanders testify that in the past he had met Angela at discreet locations. He fooled her into meeting him at an isolated area on Rankin Road, they had argument, and he brutally murdered her. Find him guilty of capital murder.” Following a short deliberation the jury convicted the defendant of capital murder. As Judge Barr imposed life in prison without parole, the family of Joe Sanders sobbed as he was led away to Texas Department of Corrections in Beaumont Texas.

As Judge Barr imposed life in prison without parole, the family of Joe Sanders sobbed as he was led away to Texas Department of Corrections in Beaumont Texas.

Epilogue

On April 2, 2009, Texas Criminal Appeals Court affirmed Joe Sanders’s conviction. Meanwhile, last year, the Innocence Project took on Sanders case to find the identity of the unknown DNA

Meanwhile, last year, the Innocence Project took on Sanders case to find the identity of the unknown DNA found on Angela Alex body. At this writing the Innocence Project still investigating the totality of evidence against the defendant.

Killer Show by John Barylick

Killer Show: The Station Nightclub Fire, America’s Deadliest Rock Concert is the story of America’s deadliest ever rock concert where 100 people died.

On February 20, 2003, In a Rhode Island roadhouse club called The Station, 1980s heavy metal band Great White were playing to an over-capacity audience of over 450 patrons. One of the band’s gimmicks was on-stage pyrotechnics and on this night the stage show went horrifically wrong. Flammable foam sound insulation on the walls caught fire and in less than 10 minutes, 96 people perished and 200 more were injured.

 

The Station nightclub where 100 people died in a fire.

This book, by John Barylick, a Providence lawyer who represented families of those who died or were injured in the fire, is a very detailed account of this tragedy and the reasons why it happened – the nightclub owners seriously cut corners with safety and there seemed to be a very lax approach to business. Barylick, one of the lead trial lawyers in the case, tells the stories of the people who lost their lives at the concert, the ones who survived and all the players in the tragedy – safety wardens, the band Great White, their crew and the owners of the club Jeffrey and Michael Derderian.

I was gripped by Killer Show. It had the perfect blend of true crime storytelling, history (about fires, safety, Rhode Island) and legal procedures. Barylick is the person who is so intimately acquainted with this tragedy and the people who were affected. What I found most profound and heart-wrenching was the fact the the people at the show that night were hard-working, “blue-collar” citizens for whom the prospect of seeing a has-been 1980s band was a highlight from their day-to-day life full of work, bills, family and monotony (like most of us “working Joes and Janes”). The lack of care for safety and the people in the club was also terrifying.

The pyrotechnics at the Great White show that started the blaze in the Station that killed 100 people. This photo is moments before the sparks and flames caused foam insulation on the walls to catch alight.

I read Killer Show as an ebook (available in Apple’s iBook store) but it is also available in hardcover and for  Kindle and Nook. You can find purchase information here.

This is a must-read for fans of true crime and also a really interesting and accessible read for people who may not usually read the genre.

For more on Killer Show go to killershowbook.com

LAPD turns to Facebook to find other victims of “Grim Sleeper”

Los Angeles Police have turned to social media juggernaut Facebook to identify more potential victims of the city’s serial killer dubbed the   “Grim Sleeper”.

The LAPD posted its first appeal on the dedicated Facebook page on October 18 with photographs of yet-unidentified women whose photos were found among thousands in the possession of serial murder suspect Lonnie David Franklin Jr. Franklin (pictured below) was arrested in July 2010 and is accused of killing women ranging from ages 14 to 36 between August 1985 and January 2007.

 

The Grim Sleeper

The photographs were taken between 1976 and 2010.

Police dubbed the killer the “Grim Sleeper” because of the long gaps – often years – in between murders.

Facebook: facebook.com/pages/LAPD-Grim-Sleeper

Twitter: @LAPDGrimSleeper

 

Other articles on the “Grim Sleeper” case:

The Case of the Grim Sleeper (TIME)

A fascinating map of serial killers who operated in South LA (Los Angeles Times)

160 pictures of women may be serial killer’s victims, say police (The Guardian)

True True Blood by Megan Norris

Melbourne author Megan Norris goes to the dark, dark side of human nature with her latest book True True Blood.

 

Billed as “The sickening truth behind our most grisly vampire slayings”, Norris details nine vampire killing cases – including two from Australia.

The  case I remember most (and was keen to read more about)  is that of Brisbane lesbian vampire killer Tracey Wiggington who made world headlines in 1989 when she was arrested for the brutal murder of a man whom she lured, along with her band of lesbian devotees, under the pretext of sex but slayed him and drank his blood from a stab wound in his neck.

Wiggington was quietly released from prison early in 2012 after almost 23 years in jail.

Another chapter in the book is dedicated to Perth killers Jessica Stasinowsky, 20, and Valerie Parashumti, 19, wo murdered their 16-year-old housemate Stacey Mitchell in 2006. The girls killed their housemate for no other reason that she was “annoying” them and attacked her after after giving her alcohol containing a sleeping pill. The pair then bashed the teenager with a concrete block. Parashumti was discovered to have drank blood as part of a vampire subculture that she was obsessed with.

Their trial caused shock around Australia  as details emerged that the pair shared a passionate kiss over the dying teenager and giggled through their pre-sentence hearing. They were jailed for life in 2008 with a minimum of 24 years.

True True Blood also includes the story of Sacramento vampire killer Richard Chase who killed six people in just one month and the Kentucky Vampire Clan killer Rod Ferrell who was under the delusion that he was a 500-year-old vampire.

Norris is a journalist with over 30 years who has covered some of the biggest crime cases for Australian magazines and newspapers. Her passion is true crime writing and true crime readers will appreciate her enthusiastic, detailed work.

True True Blood is available now in bookstores and online and is published by The Five Mile Press.

The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule

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I re-read The Stranger Beside Me by true crime queen Ann Rule, last week. I hadn’t read it for almost 20 years and it was like I was reading it for the first time.

The Stranger Beside Me is about serial killer Ted Bundy. What makes this book stand out from the rest is that Ann Rule actually knew Bundy. She worked with him on a suicide prevention line in the 1970s and she got to know him quite well. Rule injects the story of Bundy’s life and crimes with the fascinating insights and experiences she shared with the psychology graduate and aspiring lawyer. Little did she know Bundy was a mass murderer.

Bundy is infamous for his intelligence, good looks and charm. This is how he lured so many young, smart, beautiful young women to their deaths.

Re-reading about Bundy’s crimes has left me thinking so much about personal safety and how a criminally intelligent and sexually psychopathic Bundy was able to kill women so easily. So many of his victims went missing literally hundreds of metres from their destinations. One victim, who was vacationing at an Aspen lodge with her boyfriend and his children, simply walked from the lodge’s communal lounge to her room to fetch a magazine and she was never seen again.

Bundy lured many of his victims with the ruse of being a police officer or wearing a fake leg cast or arm sling. He asked women to help him carry things to his car. Bundy seemed “normal” and polite and he picked his victims carefully.

Bundy was put to death in 1989. In his last interview, the day before his execution, Bundy told interviewer Dr James Dobson (Dobson a psychologist and founder of the Christian ministry Focus on the Family) that he blamed his crimes on exposure to hardcore pornography. The interview is available to watch on YouTube and well worth a look.

In my mind he is one of the most chilling serial killers ever (I mean all serial killers are disturbing in the extreme) because he was able to fit into society so easily. I constantly asked myself whether I would have gone to help Bundy had he asked me? The women and girls he murdered were smart, caring women who had the world at their feet. It also made me ponder how I will balance teaching my daughters to be safe and wary of potentially dangerous situations but also letting them enjoy life.

I love Ann Rule’s work. She is one of my true crime favourites and deserves her reputation as a queen of true crime writing.

This is a true crime classic. An absolute must-read if you are into true crime. It has sold more than two million copies.

Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills

I finally got around to seeing this 1996 HBO documentary Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills and I haven’t been able to think of much else since.

In 1993  three eight-year-old boys  – Chris Byers, Michael Moore and Steve Branch – were found mutilated and murdered in West Memphis, Arkansas. Three teens were arrested shortly after and they are known as the “West Mephis Three”. Jessie Misskelley, Jason Baldwin and Damien Echols were convicted in 1994 of murdering the boys, and as you will see from the documentary footage that covers the trial, the evidence was very shaky.

 

The arrest of the three was prompted by the statement of Misskelley, an intellectually disabled youth whose confession was allegedly coerced.

This documentary by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky started the movement to free the “West Memphis Three” and it had the support – both vocal and financial – of celebrities including Eddie Vedder from Pearl Jam, Johnny Depp, Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks and director  Peter Jackson.

A website was created called wm3.org that rallied support and finances for a defence fund for the trio.

This documentary is gripping and disturbing. A WARNING – there is graphic crime scene footage at the beginning that shows the bodies of the dead little boys (there is a warning at the start of the doco but I wasn’t quite prepared for the sight of the boys).

This doco is also a statement of life in a small Arkansas town. The boys all came from low socio-economic backgrounds. The parents of the murdered boys and the families of the accused all feature prominently and it is painful to watch their anger, disbelief and handling by the media. It is obvious too from the testimonies of law enforcement in the case that the investigation was shabby. I mean, I’m no expert but it appeared that the small town cop stereotype was really true in this case. In one shocking moment, a detective testified that he lost blood scrapings before they could be sent for testing – these came from a black man who was seen dishevelled and covered in blood at a local restaurant on the evening the boys went missing.

The documentary ends with Echols and Baldwin being taken to prison – Echols was sentenced to death and Baldwin, life. Misskelley was tried separately and received life plus 40 years and did not testify at the trial of his  friends.

It is a terrifying story.

Two more documentaries followed with the third installment Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, a further investigation into the case. It ends with the three men being released after almost 20 years in prison because DNA evidence (testing was financed by the defence fund), which indicated they may be innocent.

The Charmer by Richard Muti and Charles Buckley

The Charmer is as frightening a true crime book as I have ever read. In particular, the subject of this book, Robert Reldan, was handsome, extremely dangerous and totally terrifying.

From the start of the book, the scene is set to show how Reldan, despite getting into quite serious legal strife as a teen and in his 20s, was dealt with leniently by the courts and could have been prevented from going on to murder two women in 1975. The other disturbing and baffling aspect to this story is that Reldan’s very, very rich aunt Lillian continued to support him – even testifying for her nephew amid evidence that he planned to have her killed – and she left around $9 million to Reldan in her will. Reldan became known as the “richest prisoner in America”.

In a victory of sorts (though for the families of murder victims is there really any kind of justice?) the family of one of the women Reldan murdered – Susan Reeve – fought for the money Reldan inherited to be given to them in the guise of a wrongful death action on behalf of their daughter. Even more tragic is that Reldan was only just out of prison on parole when he spotted Susan and zeroed in. The Reeves were awarded money – to be distributed annually from income from Reldan’s trust – to the value of $10million or until Reldan died. Reldan is now in his seventies. The money all goes into a scholarship fund set up in Susan’s name at the college she graduated from not long before she was killed.

The Charmer is a recommended read. Very detailed yet easy to follow. The authors are authoritative too – Richard Muti and Charles Buckley are both experienced prosecutors and their backgrounds lend a real “weight” (in a good way) to this book. Their knowledge and experience of criminals and the legal system is obvious in the pages of The Charmer.

The Charmer is published by TitleTown and available in book or ebook form.

 

The Accidental Terrorist by Adam Piore

As I have written before here, I am a big fan of The Atavist – publisher of longform, non-fiction journalism and features.

The Accidental Terrorist is a quirky story, and ultimately, quite sad. It is about Yasith Chhun, a 42-year-old, Cambodian-born accountant living in California. He tries to overthrow the Cambodian government in the late 1990s from his little office in Long Beach, enlisting an almost rag-tag bunch of “freedom fighters” for “Operation Volcano”. Former Newsweek editor and freelance journalist Adam Piore brings this espionage, action story to life for readers.

With the added features of The Atavist like photos, timelines, supporting and complementary news articles, history explanations etc, the reader really gets the sense of the complicated and brutal politics and history of Cambodia.

On one hand, it is entirely understandable that this type of thing could happen – many Cambodians experienced unspeakable brutality at the hands of Pol Pot. Also interwoven in the story is the events of September 11, 2001 that changed the world.

It poses the question as well, what is a terrorist? Are there degrees of terrorism?

I was also really inspired to learn more about Cambodian politics from this piece but the timeline and information in it give a great background and overview.

The Accidental Terrorist by Adam Piore is available for iThings, nook, Kindle. The version with the full suite of features is $2.99.

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The Jeffrey Dahmer Story: An American Nightmare

Serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer was terrifying.  This book is a well-paced detailing of Dahmer’s life and horrific crimes. It also features a lot of historic background about Milwaukee – the city where Dahmer stalked,  murdered and in some cases ate, his victims.

Dahmer could be seen as the worst case scenario of scores of young, aimless men with substance abuse problems (he was a chronic alcoholic) who drift through life having brushes with the law. Dahmer was a convicted pedophile and from an early age a

In 1991, when 31-year-old Dahmer was arrested he had killed at least 17 young men (there is some concern that he may be responsible for several missing persons cases in Germany where he was stationed for two years) and that  this was done with such ease is truly terrifying, He preyed on young, vulnerable men on the streets or in gay bars.

Dahmer could have been stopped earlier. One of his victims – a 14-year-old Laotian boy with limited English – escaped Dahmer’s flat dazed and bleeding but the killer convinced police they they were having a lover’s quarrel. He was escorted back to the flat by police and Dahmer went on to kill several more men.

Interestingly last week the man who beat Dahmer to death in prison in 1994 has been reported as looking for a book deal.

There are a lot of books written about Jeffrey Dahmer, including an excellent one I read years ago by his father Lionel however The Jeffrey Dahmer Story: An American Nightmare is considered one of the best and was a New York Times bestseller.

Precious Victims

 

Your newborn babies are each kidnapped in separate incidents, three years apart…what are the odds?

Fairly bloody unlikely.

Precious Victims by Don W Weber and Charles Bosworth Jr (published in 1991)  is the story of Paula Sims, an Illinois mother who claimed her newborn daughters were kidnapped in 1986 and then 1989. Immediately you know it couldn’t be possible. That it is a fantasy concocted by the mother to hide something far more sinister.

I picked up this cop at an Op Shop in Melbourne last month (I find a lot of my true crime books in charity shops). I had never heard of this case before but certainly there have been cases I recall of mothers murdering their children – Andrea Yates in Texas who drowned her five children 2001 and in Melbourne, nurse Donna Fitchett who killed her two sons in 2005.

This book – co-written by the prosecution lawyer and journalist who followed the story from the start – is an exhaustive account of the strange world of Paula Sims and her husband Robert and the dogged police investigation into the babies’ murders. The reader always has the sense that the stories of kidnappings can’t be right. It is angering to keep reading about the couple sticking to the stories of gun-wielding kidnappers bursting in and taking their babies. And nothing else in the home was disturbed…

This was a difficult read – I guess because I am a mum of two girls and it appears that Sims murdered her own baby girls because she preferred male children. As shocking as that is in this modern day, it seemed to be her motive. The fact that a son – who was born in between babies Loralei and Heather – survived, makes this all the more upsetting. I cannot understand how someone could murder their babies.

The defence of post-partum depression and psychosis was offered up by Sims’s legal team. I absolutely believe that this condition can have dreadful and fatal effects on a mother but in Sims’s case you get the sense that this was used as an attempt to garner leniency from the judge.I won’t spoil any more of the story (though I’m guessing you can work out what happens).

(In the case of Andrea Yates I have no doubt that  her severe post-partum psychosis and mental state was the reason she killed her children. I have linked to a very good paper in The Lancet about mental health and justice in relation to Yates. I think that things should have been done much earlier to help her and protect her children before she got to the point where she a) had five children after repeated bouts of severe psychosis and b) was left alone with them. Those children were also victims of inaction and poor choices on the part of Yates’s family and the medical profession.)

Precious Victims is an excellent read though beware if you have children. You can reliably buy used copies from Amazon and eBay.

POSTSCRIPT: Robert Sims and Randy, 27, the sole surviving child of Paula Sims died in a car crash in June, 2015. Robert Sims, 63 and Randy died when their sport-utility vehicle was forced off the road.  The person in the other vehicle was charged with two counts of Aggravated DUI and one count of Leaving the Scene of an Accident.

According to an article from the Belleville-News Democrat, Randy Sims was a respected teacher and church member in his town of Edwardsville, Illinois. the young man had blossomed, despite being the son of the notorious murderer and was close with his father.

 

 

“Lipstick Killer” William Heirens dead

Picture: nydailynews.com

 

One of Chicago’s most infamous killers has died in prison, aged 83 on March 5.

William Heirens was arrested in 1946 and confessed to the murders of three females, including a six-year-old.

Heirens, then-17, was dubbed the “Lipstick Killer” after investigators found a message  on a mirror with lipstick at one of the women’s homes that read: “For heaven’s sake, catch me before I kill more. I cannot control myself.”

FBI profiler Rober K Ressler writes about Heirens and delves into a criminal profile of the teen killer in his book Whoever Fights Monsters.
Read more about Heirens at the Charlotte Observer.

Walking Among the Dead by Ken Lang

Ken Lang was a Maryland detective for over 23 years – a considerable chunk of that time was investigating rapes, robberies and homicides –  and he has now turned his experiences of gritty crime scenes to true crime books.

Walking Among the Dead is non-fiction based on Lang’s actual working experiences but he has written it in a way that makes it read like a fiction novel. I liked the style. The writing was clean but not clinical and Lang came to life as the central character of the book. The crimes Lang recounts and the characters involved – criminals, police, lawyers and medical examiners, witnesses, families – are dealt with in a well-paced and sensitive way.

Far from being the stereotypical tortured, flawed and downright messy-personal-life detective, Lang makes reference, appropriately, to his Christian faith (not too much so it is off-putting) and how it works in his daily dealings with the underbelly of life.

I really enjoyed  Walking Among the Dead. The detail was sufficient enough to give the reader a thorough insight into police procedures and how an investigation plays out, without it being boring. Interestingly,  Lang is also a forensic artist, providing Maryland police agencies with composite sketches, post-mortem and age-enhancement drawings and skull reconstructions.

Lang wasn’t wrong when he titled his book Walking Among the Dead.

Walking Among the Dead is availeble from Smashwords

 

 

The Trash Bag Murderer by Tony Stewart

 

 

When true crime author Tony Stewart contacted me to review his book THE TRASH BAG MURDERER I was intrigued. Not only had I never heard of the “Trash Bag Killer” Patrick Kearney but there was also the added intrigue that the author was a survivor of this serial killer.

As a child and youth, Tony Stewart lived in the same Californian neighbourhood as Kearney (he even did odd jobs for the serial killer) and he and his brother Ron separately had encounters with him that, unbelievably, did not end in their grisly deaths. (When you read the book you will discover the horrific manner in which Kearney killed his victims. In short, Kearney preyed on young men, teens and even children.).

“…Personally, I did not perceive any abnormal or peculiar characteristics in his persona; he appeared to be a calm, soft-spoken considerate man, but this compassion turned out to be pure deception to lure victims to their deaths. My brother and I were fortunate, we escaped…” author Tony Stewart, The Trash Bag Murderer.

Kearney, an engineer with an IQ of 180 (genius territory) turned himself in to authorities in 1977 (along with his lover and room mate David Hill) and confessed to the murders of over 32 males (the true number is thought to me up to 43). Hill was never convicted for lack of evidence. The details of Kearney’s crimes are very tough to read but Stewart has been thorough in his detailing of the victims’ lives and how they came to be killed.

What I liked about this book is the personal element of Stewart’s knowledge of Kearney and also the extensive research that the author has put into the story. As a working  journalist I appreciated the research and determination Stewart has communicated in his work. A quest for the truth and also a respect for the victims and their families is at the heart of the book and Stewart has been dogged in chasing up case files and details of Kearney and the police investigation into his crimes that span the 1960s and 1970s in California and even Mexico.

There is plenty of extra content in this book beside the story – transcripts of interviews, a summary of Kearney’s crimes and letters from relatives of the victims. There’s also the extra-fascinating chapter where Stewart ponders whether Kearney could be the infamous Zodiac Killer who has never been found.

Verdict: Definitely worth a read.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

No Mercy by John Walsh

 

I picked up this book at an op shop and it’s a pacey, interesting read about the cases that drive John Walsh, the host of America’s Most Wanted, in his quest to catch criminals.

For those who don’t know, John Walsh’s six-year-old son Adam was abducted and murdered in Florida in 1981. Walsh has dedicated his life ever since to the pursuit of justice for victims and their families and started hosting America’s Most Wanted in 1988. (The show has been scaled back by Fox to quarterly specials.)

In No Mercy, cases that have been cracked by AMW (through tip-offs by the public) are featured including its most high profile – the capture of family annihilator John List. List murdered his wife, three children and mother in 1971 and went on the run for 18 years until AMW aired the case in 1989 and a tip-off led to his arrest.

One of the most shocking and heartbreaking parts of this book is the list and photos of children still missing (AMW had, by 1998, reunited 23 missing children with their families). There are A LOT of children who are missing in the United States.

You can pick up a copy of No Mercy through eBay or Amazon and other used book sites on the internet. It’s worth a read.