Old Sparky Has Left the Building…sort of

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It was over two decades ago, in this very month, April, when I stood beside my unmarked Crown Vic in the parking lot of the state police area headquarters, waiting for a ride to a state prison. The evening was warm. The sky clear. And the surrounding trees were filled with new spring leaves. Crickets chirped and mosquitos zeroed in on my face and arms.

Knowing rules prevented me from wearing my pistol inside the correctional institution, I’d placed it inside the small lockbox mounted in the trunk and double-checked to be sure the steel container was secure before closing the lid. I had a bit of time to spare so I walked behind the small red brick building to have a look at an armored vehicle parked there out of sight of the public. I’d seen the truck a zillion times before, but it was something I could use to slow the million thoughts zipping about inside my mind.

I’d have gone inside the office to shoot the breeze, but it was after hours and the administrative staff had gone home for the day, and the troopers working the roads were doing just that…patrolling the highways. It was just me and my imagination, hanging out together, waiting to watch a man die.

After a few laps around the headquarters, an unmarked white van arrived to deliver me to the prison. The driver, a corrections lieutenant, told me to hop in and off we went. I’d return a changed man just a few hours later.

Timothy Wilson Spencer began his deadly crime spree in 1984, when he raped and killed a woman named Carol Hamm in Arlington, Virginia. Spencer also killed Dr. Susan Hellams, Debby Davis, and Diane Cho, all of Richmond, Virginia. A month later, Spencer returned to Arlington to rape and murder Susan Tucker.

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Spencer walked into the death chamber on his own that night, unassisted by prison staff. He was shorter and a bit more wiry than most people picture when thinking of a brutal serial killer. His head was shaved and one pant leg of his prison blues was cut short for easy access for attaching one of the connections (the negative post, I surmised). His skin was smooth and was the color of milk chocolate. Dots of perspiration peppered his forehead and bare scalp.

After glancing around the brightly lit surroundings, Spencer took a seat in the oak chair nicknamed “Old Sparky,” as are a few of those instruments of justifiable homicide, and calmly allowed the death squad to carry out their business of fastening straps, belts, and electrodes. His arms and legs were securely fixed to the chair. He looked on, seemingly uninterested in what they were doing, as if he’d just settled in to watch TV, or a movie.

I sat directly in front of the cold-blooded killer, mere feet away, separated only by a partial wall of glass. His gaze met mine and that’s where his focus remained for the next minute or so. His face was expressionless. No sign of sadness, regret, or fear.

I wanted to ask him if he was sorry for what he’d done. I wanted to know why he’d killed those women. What drove him to take human lives so callously?

When asked if he had any final words to say, Spencer opened his mouth to say something, but didn’t. Whatever that thought had been, well, he took it with him to his grave. Officers then placed a leather mask over Spencer’s face.

The squad’s final task was to place a metal, colander-like hat on Spencer’s head. The cap was lined with a brine-soaked sponge that serves as an excellent conductor of electricity.

Seconds later, the lethal dose of electricity was introduced, causing the murderer’s body to swell and lurch forward against the restraints that held him tightly to the chair.

Suddenly, his body slumped into the chair. The burst of electricity was over. However, after a brief pause, a second burst of electricity was delivered to the killer’s body. Again, his body swelled, but this time smoke began to rise from Spencer’s head and leg. A sound similar to bacon frying could be heard over the hum of the electricity. Fluids rushed from behind the leather mask. The unmistakable pungent odor of burning flesh filled the room.

The electricity was again switched off and Spencer’s body relaxed.

He was dead and it was one of the most brutal ways to die one could ever imagine, and believe me I’ve witnessed far more than my than my fair share of death.

Fast forward to April 11, 2016, a date just shy of the twenty-second anniversary of Spencer’s execution. On Monday, Virginia Governor, Terry McAuliffe rejected a bill that would have mandated using the electric chair as the default method of execution in the absence of drugs used for lethal injections.

This is big news since more and more drug companies are refusing to supply states with drugs if their purpose for obtaining them is to kill people.

The Va. governor is Catholic and says he’s against the death penalty, but as governor it’s his duty to set aside personal beliefs and follow the law. So, he has now proposed a bill that would allow drug companies to remain anonymous if they supply the state/Commonwealth with the necessary drugs to carry out state executions. The information would be exempt from the Freedom of Information Act and from discovery in civil proceedings, without a high threshold of just cause.

I once sat in Old Sparky and the feeling was surreal, having the same view of the surroundings as did some of the most evil people who ever walked this planet. It was a bizarre experience to say the least. Some things you never, ever forget. Entering the execution chamber to sit in “the chair” was one of those things.

Here’s a brief video that was filmed in the execution chamber in Virginia. This, my friends, is the stuff that could cause Stephen King to wake up screaming. Remember, the video is real, shot in a real place, where real people have been executed. I’ve stood in the same spots as the officers in the film, and I’ve sat in that very chair. But the lights were burning brightly in the chamber and the “juice” was most definitely not connected to the chair when I sat. LIGHTS ON, CHAIR OFF. I made certain that officials understood those two very important details before I took a seat.

 

 

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Howdy Neighbor: When a High-Risk Violent Sexual Predator Moves Next Door

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Fraisure Earl Smith was released from custody this week after serving time for assault with intent to commit rape. Smith, now 51, committed five sexual assaults over a span of 15 years.

In 2007, Smith was convicted for sexually assaulting a 17-year-old girl (Smith claims he’s not a pedophile, but I’m betting he’d have a hard time convincing the mother of the 17-year-old girl that his claim is just). This, the latest case, was the one that finally landed him in a California state prison. And, as a 1996 law provided, Smith was eventually transferred to Coalinga State Hospital for followup care and treatment prior to his release back into society.

Smith’s timetable of repeat offenses—a violent sexual assault every five years during a period of fifteen years, and these are the one’s known to law enforcement—is a strong indicator of serial behavior. In other words, reoffending is definitely an option on his table, and violence and sexual assault are both in his arsenal. Needless to say, this man is dangerous. Although, Smith says he’s not. “I am not presently aroused by deviant sexual fantasies or urges….” Smith wrote in a recent declaration.

As Smith’s release date drew near (he’s now been legally deemed safe for release), officials from Liberty Healthcare, a company hired by the state to handle sex predator releases, agreed to find suitable housing for him. After an exhaustive search for housing in cities in four counties, courts and other officials were unable to secure a permanent residence for Smith. Locations were limited since sexual offenders are not permitted to live near schools, day care facilities, or other places where children may frequent. In all, 4,108 placement possibilities were looked at, but for one reason or another, none were approved.

The latest single family home that was approved but later rejected due to the outrage of nearby residents, was a house with a pool in a well-to-do neighborhood. By the way, since Smith is still under supervision of county and state authorities, his housing costs are covered by taxpayers. The monthly rent on the above-mentioned home was $3,000 per month. But, citizens banded together and forced the courts to reconsider. Now, however, without a home for Smith to, well, call home, he has been released from the mental health facility as a transient and will reside in a local Motel 6, still at taxpayer expense. Rules/law requires that he move every 5 days.

Smith is currently living in a motel where guests and their children stay when passing through the area. And those children, wives, and mothers will walk the hallways and parking lot, and they’ll wear their bathing suits while enjoying the hotel pool. All this while Fraisure Smith, a violent sexual predator, possibly watches and waits to be aroused by, in his own words, “deviant sexual fantasies or urges.”

I know, Smith and other violent sexual predators have to live somewhere when they’re released, but my past experiences with these guys tells me to keep a watchful eye on them. Sorry if this offends anyone, but that’s the way it is. Believe me, I’ve seen what can happen and it’s horrible.

Things you should know about sexual predators.

1. Grooming – Predators often “groom” children and other potential victims in order to gain their trust, hoping for access to alone time with them.

2. Predators also groom others, not just their intended victims. The purpose of this type of grooming is to “prove” they are not a risk. For example, see Smith’s quote above about no longer having urges or fantasies. This is a classic sign of grooming.

3. Signs of grooming

a) the adult shows an exaggerated interest in a child.

b) an adult buys gifts for a child.

c) the adult finds ways to be alone with a child.

d) an adult displays a fixation on a particular child.

e) the adult “accidentally” walks in a child when they’re bathing, using the restroom, or changing.

f) tickling

g) wrestling with children

h) playing “doctor”

i) taking photos of children, especially when they’re in various stages of undress or wearing swim suits, dance costumes, etc.

j) lots of hugging, kissing, and touching.

 

What to do when a sexual offender moves into your neighborhood?

Here’s a handy Tip Sheet from Stop It Now!

 

What are the warnings signs of possible sexual abuse in children?

Again we turn to Stop It Now! for a Tip Sheet.

 

Warning Signs That Might Suggest Someone Is Sexually Abusing a Child

To see the list of warning signs, please click here.

So, for now Fraisure Smith is a guest of a California Motel 6 hotel. Next week, well who knows. Maybe he or another just like him will be your new neighbor. Please be mindful of the activities and whereabouts of your children. You never know…

 UPDATE!

Ironically, this announcement came a few hours after I published this article. What a coincidence…or was it?

From KRON news in San Francisco.

“After obtaining further details from Motel 6, it appears that Motel 6 did not know that they had rented a room to Mr. Smith, the recently released sexually violent predator. Once they confirmed that he was staying there, they acted immediately to evict him,” Vallejo City Manager Daniel E. Keen said.

“Details provided by Motel 6 confirm that Liberty Healthcare Corporation, the contractor hired by the State to provide services to Smith, concealed Mr. Smith’s identity in order to obtain two rooms at the motel,” Vallejo police Cpt. John Whitney said in a press release.

Two Liberty employees gave their names and did not disclose the identity of Smith, police said.

Smith has been placed on the no-rent list.

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Total Chaos: 6,000 Drug Offenders Released at Once

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Chaos because 6,000 non-violent drug offenders were released at once from federal prisons? Well, that’s probably a bit extreme considering over 10,000 inmates are already being released back into society each month. That’s over 650,000 former offenders each year who return to walk and talk and work and mingle among us. The horror of it all, right?

Some of that horror is totally justified, and how so you ask? For starters, nearly two-thirds of of those 650,000 former prisoners are rearrested within three years of their release. I know, chances of finding jobs, housing, and education for those folks are slim or none. Still, according to Justice Department stats, 4,000 of the 6,000 newly released federal inmates will most likely wind up back in prison. By the way, this 6,000 is in addition to the 69 men and women granted clemency by the president.

But, 6,000 is not the final total. The Sentencing Commission estimates a second round of releases to take place in the fall of 2016 will set free nearly 9,000 additional federal prisoners.

Police officials are extremely concerned, and most likely at least some of their fears are justified. There are no real programs in place to handle the sudden release of so many prisoners. There’s a significant lack of housing opportunities, job training, and a near absence of medical treatment, including mental health care and access to needed medications. Basically, there is no real safety net in place to catch these people when they fall, and the odds are so heavily stacked against convicted felons that a tumble for most is practically inevitible.

The additional number of inmates is expected to further burden strained probation departments. Officers who supervise the inmates on probation can barely handle the caseloads that are already dumped in their laps by the handfuls (prisoners are typically released under the supervision of a probation officer unless a court order states otherwise). Likewise, police officers will bear the brunt of dealing with those who choose to return to a criminal lifestyle. Add these new crimes and criminals to those already on the streets and, well, there’s just not enough officers to go around. And that’s the concern of many chiefs and sheriffs.

Let’s revisit the opening line of this article. Will this mass release of prisoners cause chaos in our streets? It’s doubtful that the average citizen will notice the effects. Well, unless they happen to be on the receiving end of the B&E’s, robberies, car thefts, etc. committed by the newly-released as they embark on their journeys back through the current catch and release system.

But chaos? Honestly, I can’t imagine things will be any different than what we’re already seeing on the evening news and across various social media sources. If that’s chaos, then it is what it is and will be what it will be. Besides, the situation—prison overcrowding, mass releases, mandatory minimums, etc.—should certainly be of more concern to citizens than, well, #It’sJustACup. But that’s just my opinion, something I rarely offer on this site.

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Investigator G. Nome decides that current clues are not related to the true meaning of Christmas, so he moves on.

 

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Police and the Mentally Ill: He’s Off His Meds and I Need Help!

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In more than half of all instances when a mentally ill person commits a violent crime, the victim is a family member, a friend, or an acquaintance of the mentally ill suspect. And, those family member/victims have no choice, usually, but to call the police for help. Unfortunately, until recently police received very little training when it came to dealing with the mentally ill. In many areas that sort of training is still minimal, if any.

Police officers, especially those working in patrol, are jacks and jills of all trades. They’re expected to quell disturbances, disarm those who intend to harm or kill others, defend the lives and property of citizens, enforce traffic laws, serve arrest warrants, investigate crimes, and much, much more. And they receive a certain amount of basic training that’s required to do all of the above. Of course, more intensive training opportunities are available, if they have the time and the department can spare them from their scheduled duty.

Uniformed officers respond to numerous calls during their 8-12 hours shifts, and these calls range from barking dog complaints to murder and everything you can imagine in between—domestic troubles, bad checks, fights, stabbings, shots-fired, B&E, trespassing, shoplifting, robbery, car crashes, lost children, abduction, arson, assault, theft, drunk driving and, well, you name it and they’ve responded to it…over and over, time after time.

Each call, no matter how it’s labeled, is different. The people are rarely the same as those they encountered on similar calls (with the exception of the repeat “customers”), settings vary, weather differs, and the actions of witnesses and suspects are often unfamiliar or uncommon. In other words, patrol officers never know what to expect when they arrive on-scene. Even a repeat offender could act differently each time he interacts with law enforcement. Drugs and alcohol are factors that definitely come into play in many of these situations.

Add all of these uncertainties to an encounter with a mentally ill person who decides to attack someone, and the situation takes on an entirely new perspective. Violence can escalate in the blink of an eye, even during encounters with people who are healthy in both mind and body, and officers are used to dealing with that sort of instant violence. They do what they have to do to keep people safe and to make an arrest, but they do not possess the psychic ability of being able to instantly diagnose mental illnesses.

The Police Chief magazine reports that 7-10% of all police encounters involve someone with a mental illness.

Even when officers do recognize that someone is mentally ill their options for helping that person at that precise moment are slim. In fact, their alternatives when responding to a call where an act of violence was committed by a person with a mental illness are basically to either let the suspect go or arrest them and take them to jail. Obviously, like the call I once responded to where a mentally ill man hacked and chopped his sister-in-law with an ax because she wouldn’t stop cleaning the house long enough to go to the store to buy him a pack of cigarettes, cannot be allowed to go free. Nor can police turn loose a suspect who attacks or shoots at them.

Officers often have to use force when arresting mentally ill subjects and doing so increases the risk of injury to both the officer and the suspect. But they simply cannot stand there idle while the mentally ill person continues to harm himself and/or others.

Responding officers are obviously not trained psychologists or psychiatrists, therefore an on the spot diagnosis is not available. Neither is the option of taking someone who’s accused of a violent crime straight from the street to a mental institution. So jail it is. Keep in mind, too, that not all mental illnesses are easily recognizable in the few minutes or seconds officers have when assessing and reacting to various situations.

To help with the problems associated with police response to incidents involving mentally ill persons, agencies are now employing new tactics, such as forming crisis intervention teams consisting of specially-trained officers who can facilitate emergency mental health assessments along with transportation to a mental health treatment facility, if that’s an option. Remember, though, that many treatment facilities will not accept those who have pending charges for violent offenses, and that leaves those individuals to make their way through jail, court proceedings, and finally prison.

In 2006, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) estimated there were 705,600 mentally ill people in state prisons, 78,800 in federal prison, and 479,900 in local jails.

I’ve seen first-hand what the mentally ill population looks like in state, federal, and local facilities, and it’s not a pretty sight. Have you watched the hit TV show The Walking Dead? Well, that’s a fine example of what evening pill call looks like at a low custody federal prison, where highly-medicated prisoners stand in long lines outside the medical department waiting to receive their next dose of zombie-inducing medications.

Keeping these inmates “doped-up” and “calmed-down” until their release back into society where they’ll no longer have access to those medicines is indeed the norm. And, without a means of generating income (it’s difficult enough for a former inmate who’s healthy to find a job and housing) these recently released felons will go without their much-needed medication (some become addicts while in prison), and the process begins once again.

“Nine-one-one, do you have an emergency?”

“Yes, my son just got out of prison and he’s trying to kill me with a butcher knife. He’s off his meds and he’s acting all crazy. Help me, please!”

And so it goes.

*By the way, the mentally ill man I mentioned above, the one who hacked his sister-in-law with an ax, was released from prison a short time prior to the incident and no longer had access to the medications he’d received while incarcerated. It was only a few days after his release when he brutally attacked the woman, completely chopping off her right hand and repeatedly hacked at her head and back until small bone fragments and blood and spatter painted the floor and nearby walls, lamps, and furniture. Her three small children were in the room at the time and witnessed the violent and bloody attack. They were hiding under the bed, five- or six-feet away from their mother’s body, when I arrived. They, too, were covered from head to toe with smears and splatters of, well, you know.

 

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