You Can Tuna Fish, But You Can’t Rob A House!

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We’ve all seen those scary media reports of people’s home being robbed, right? You know, the stories describing broken windows and doorjambs and missing televisions and jewelry. Security video sometimes captures intruders raiding innocent refrigerators and pantries, and the thugs (thug – noun: a violent person, especially a criminal) even have the nerve to drink straight from cartons of milk and juice.

Indeed, a home break-in and burglary while you’re away or asleep in your bedroom is a traumatic experience. Believe me, I know from both perspectives, as a detective who investigated more B&E’s than I could possibly count, and as someone whose home was burglarized. Yes, a dumb crook actually broke into the property of a police detective and thought they’d get away with it. Puhleeze.

Anyway, it’s time to quash yet another misuse found in many writings, including works of fiction. Yes, this bit of “wrong” is often seen in mysteries, romance, romantic suspense, thrillers, etc.

So what is this terminology faux pas that so boldly stands on equal ground with the horribly inaccurate use of the nonexistent “odor of cordite?”

It is (hang on to your hats) … the ROBBERY of a house.

To illustrate, let’s have a look at this “news” story. Notice the headline.

HOUSE ROBBED WHILE FAMILY AT MOVIE

Cordite, Va – The home of I. Will Fillemfullalead on Glock Circle in Cordite was robbed last night between the hours of 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. The family was away enjoying a movie at a local theater at the time of the atrocious crime.

The robbers left the Fillemfullalead’s with very little. The Red Cross has offered their assistance.

“When we got home, we saw that our house had been robbed. They took everything, right down to to the kid’s handguns and reloading kits. They even took the goldfish and a brand new box of C-4 we’d planned to use for blowing up a few old stumps in the back yard.” said Mrs. Fillemfullalead. “I hope the police catch them before we do, or there’ll never be a trial.”

Police spokesperson, Captain I. M. Overwait, says investigators have no leads at this time. He vows, though, that his department will catch the robbers.

Okay, does this report sound a bit familiar? How many times have you seen headlines similar to the one above? Well, too many times if you ask me, because a house cannot be robbed. No way, no how. The legal definition of a robbery is this: To take something (property) from a person by force, violence, or threat.

From a PERSON. Not an inanimate object. From a PERSON. Not a building. Not a car. Not a boat. Not a plane. Not even a pic-a-nic baskeet.

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So no, Yogi, an inanimate object cannot be robbed. Not even an object as valuable as a picnic baskeet.

A house or business cannot be threatened or intimadated. Nope, there has to be an actual person/human, present. And he/she must have felt threatened and/or intimidated by the robber when the goods were taken.

Therefore, the Fillemfullalead’s home had been burglarized, and their property stolen. Not robbed as the media often mistakenly reports.

Please do keep this in mind when writing your stories.

Many people have asked me to review books on this site, and I’ve resisted for a long time. Well, I finally caved in a while back and agreed to start. Lo and behold, the first book that came my way featured both “the odor of cordite” and a house being robbed. Needless to say, I won’t be reviewing that one.

Now, back to robbery. Here’s a real case that involved, well, see for yourself. It’s tragic to say the least.

In 2012, a Texas teenager, Claudia Hidac, was shot to death during a botched robbery attempt at a local residence. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported that the girl was found face down at the back door after gunfire broke out during the attempted robbery.

Hidac, the apparent “brains” of the operation, had directed two male accomplices to the residence where at least five people were at home at the time of the incident. One of Hidac’s partners was armed.

One of the three robbers kicked in the back door, and that’s when the exchange of gunfire erupted. The two male accomplices fled the scene, leaving 17-year-old Hidac dead from a shot to the head.

Both male accomplices have since been arrested, tried, and convicted for their parts in the robbery and murder. One, Curtis Fortenberry, 23, pled guilty to killing Claudia Hidic and was sentenced to 33 years in prison. The second man, Terrance Crumley, 23, pleaded guilty to tampering with evidence and theft charges and was sentenced to 17 years in prison. Both are eligible for parole, though. Ironically, the man who discovered Hidac’s body was found four months later hogtied and strangled inside a burning car. He’d been murdered, obviously. But that’s a different story.

In the case of Hidac, well, there was clearly a threat to the people inside the home, and force and violence were clearly present at the time the crimes were committed. This was a robbery.

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From Black’s Law Dictionary

No one was at home at the Fillemfullalead household, therefore, their home was burglarized.

Hopefully, I’ve made clear the difference between robbery and burglary.

What’s not clear is what drove Claudia Hidac to plan and commit such a crime.

Claudia Hidac – Facebook photo

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Tips to Help Your Fictional Cop’s World Come Alive

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Does your latest tall tale feature a beginning, middle, and end? How about characters, setting, and dialog? Have you been really creative and inserted lots of sentences composed of various words with various meanings?

If you answered yes to each of the above questions, well,  you’ve taken the appropriate first steps toward accurately writing about cops, crime, and crooks.

Sure, you conduct tons of research by visiting online websites and by participating in your local citizen’s police academy, and those are fantastic resources. But, have you considered going the extra mile by spending a bit of extra research time to develop ways to activate the senses of your readers? After all, using the senses is a huge key to the success of showing, not telling. And the use of the senses creates an emotional connection between the story and the reader.

How does a writer create scenes that ignite a reader’s senses of touch, taste, hearing, smell, and sight? Well, for starters, call on past life experiences.

For example, Patricia Cornwall didn’t invent rain, leaves, or playing fields, but she obviously drew on her memories to create the passage below. It’s a simple scene, but it’s a scene I can picture in my mind as I read. I hear the rain and I feel the cool dampness of the asphalt, grass, and tile roof. The writing also conjures up images of raindrops slaloming down windowpanes, and rushing water sweeping the streets clean of debris. The splashing and buzzing sound of car tires pushing across water-covered roadways.

 “It was raining in Richmond on Friday, June 6. The relentless downpour, which began at dawn, beat the lilies to naked stalks, and blacktop and sidewalks were littered with leaves. There were small rivers in the streets, and newborn ponds on playing fields and lawns. I went to sleep to the sound of water drumming on the slate roof…” ~ Patricia Cornwell, Post Mortem.

Sandra Brown takes us on brief journey through a pasture on a hot day. We know it’s hot because of the insect activity. We also know the heat of the day increases the intensity of the odor of horse manure. And, Brown effectively makes us all want to help Jack watch where he steps.

“Jack crossed the yard and went through a gate, then walked past a large barn and a corral where several horses were eating hay from a trough and whisking flies with their tails. Beyond the corral he opened the gate into a pasture, where he kept on the lookout for cow chips as he moved through the grass.” ~ Sandra Brown, Unspeakable.

Close your eyes for a moment and picture yourself walking into a bar, or restaurant. What do you see? Can you transform those images into a few simple words? How do you choose which words to use? Which words will effectively paint the picture and take the reader with you on your visit to the bar?

Here’s a decent rule of thumb – Write the scene and then remove all of those unnecessary flowery words, especially those that end in “ly.”

Too many “ly” words are often difficult for readers to take in. Besides, they can slow the story and do nothing to further it.

Lee Child is a master when it comes to describing a scene with few words. Here’s a fun exercise. Count the number of times Child uses an “ly” word in the text below. Then consider whether or not you would have used unnecessary “ly” words had you written this scene? Think maybe it’s time to back away from them?

“The bar was a token affair built across the corner of the room. It made a neat sharp triangle about seven or eight feet on a side. It was not really a bar in the sense that anybody was going to sit there and drink anything. It was just a focal point. It was somewhere to keep the liquor bottles. They were crowded three-deep on glass shelves in front of sandblasted mirrors. The register and credit card machine were on the bottom shelf.” ~ Lee Child, Running Blind.

Another example of effectively and masterfully projecting an image into a reader’s mind comes from James Lee Burke. Short. Sweet. And tremendously effective.

“Ida wore a pink skirt and a white blouse with lace on the collar; her arms and the top of her chest were powdered with strawberry freckles.” ~ James Lee Burke, Crusader’s Cross.

Okay, what does all of this have to do with writing about cops, you ask? Well, in the passages above, the authors created a micro world by using a few, but extremely powerful and carefully chosen words. And it’s obvious to the reader that each of the writers has called upon their experiences to write those scenes. They’ve been there and done that, and their imaginations have conjured up memories of things they’ve seen, touched, tasted, heard, and smelled.

Cops live and work in a unique world that’s generally not accessible to the average person, including writers. They experience things that most only, well, read about. And that brings us full circle. How can a writer effectively write, and activate a reader’s senses, about something they’ve only read about?

I think Joseph Wambaugh, one of the best cop-writers of our time, offers a brilliant guideline to follow when writing cops. Wambaugh said, “The best crime stories are not about how cops work on cases. They’re about how cases work on cops.”

Paste Wambaugh’s quote near your computer. Glance it as you write. Keep it in mind while developing law enforcement characters and scenes.

Next, I encourage you to attend local citizen’s police academies and ride-alongs with officers Hang out with cops, interview them, listen to them, watch their mannerisms, etc. Trust me, it’s a world that’s entirely different than the life of someone outside the profession.

Naturally, I highly recommend attending the Writers’ Police Academy. The WPA is carefully and meticulously designed to offer writers the inside experience of what it’s like to be a police officer, investigator, firefighter, EMS personnel, K-9 handler, etc. We do not mix writing craft with hands-on experiences. We feel you can attend any number of excellent writers conferences to get that sort of information. Instead, our focus is on providing writers with the best hands-on academy training available anywhere.

We burn things so you can experience the heat and smoke of structure and car fires. We put you, the writer, in positions where you must make the life and death decisions faced by officers. You’ll feel the rush of adrenaline that comes with car chases and shootouts (you’ll participate in both). You’ll see and experience the emotions felt by officers during stressful situations.

You’ll smell the gunpowder and gun oil. You’ll feel the texture, weight, and recoil of an AR-15 as you fire one at the range. You’ll hear, see, and smell the inside of a state prison in the section that houses the worst of the worst inmates. You’ll see the flashing police lights, hear the sirens, see and hear helicopters landing. The yells of entry teams (you’re a member of the team, by the way) as they storm a building to search for an armed bad guy. You’ll feel your heart thumping against the inside of your chests when you’re placed in a situation where you must instantly decide whether or not to use deadly force.

This, using a real-life experience such as the WPA, or walking through a cow-chip-spattered pasture, is what breathes life into a story.

To sum up:

– Use your experiences to activate the senses of your readers. Let them enjoy tasting, touching, seeing, smelling, and hearing the words on each of your pages.

– Attend the Writers’ Police Academy. It’s the gold standard of providing writers with the absolute best hands-on training available. If attending the WPA is not possible, consider participating in a local citizen’s police academy and/or ride-alongs with on-duty police officers.

– Read books by established authors who write about police officers and investigations. See how they do it.

– Take advantage of your personal life experiences to help transform flat text into a vivid 3D picture or painting.

– Avoid the use of too many “ly” words. Editor Jodie Renner addressed this and other problem areas in an article she wrote for Doug Lyle’s blog. Jodie’s article is titled, Style Blunders in Fiction. By the way, you should follow D.P. Lyle and Jodie Renner.

– Interview and/or chat with cops. Listen to what they have to say and watch their mannerisms. Does Officer G. R. Done hitch up his pants each time he stands? Ask him if the habit is due to gravity tugging on the weight of his gun belt? Does his wince when he slides into his car seat? The slight moment of pain could be caused by a bit of skin caught between the bottom of his vest and gun belt. Yes, it happens and it hurts. But you have to watch for the little things and you have to ask. Those sorts of things are second nature to cops, so they won’t think to tell you about them.

– Finally, remember to refer to Joseph Wambaugh’s words of wisdom.

“The best crime stories are not about how cops work on cases. They’re about how cases work on cops.”

 

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Katherine Ramsland: Interviews with a Serial Killer

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I’ve been speaking and teaching at the Writers Police Academy for six years. Those who’ve come regularly heard me announce the sale of Confession of a Serial Killer: The Untold Story of Dennis Rader, the BTK Killer. Last year at WPA, I was proofing the manuscript. This year, it’s ready, and I’ve asked my publisher to do a special pre-publication launch at WPA. Some attendees have shared in my journey. In fact, I first met WPA organizer Lee Lofland in Wichita, the town that BTK terrorized. So, this is a full-circle experience.

I got involved with this book serendipitously. Someone else had started it, collecting letters from Rader for five years. I saw her on Facebook in 2010, so I asked her about it. She had one of my books and knew who I was. She told me she needed a writer to take over and invited me to submit a proposal to the victims’ family trust, which owned the rights. She also introduced me to Rader. I did not go looking for this project, but when it was offered, I jumped in.

I had just published a book, The Mind of a Murderer, which describes a dozen cases from the past century of mental health experts who took the extra time needed to learn about an extreme offender from the offender’s point of view. So, I had role models.

Confession is what I call a guided autobiography, structured with what we know from criminological research. Rader pondered the things I showed him and selected the factors that he believed weighed most heavily in his violence. He provides a rare opportunity to get inside the mind of an organized, predatory serial killer who designed his killing career on specific role models. He confided the details about his compulsion to kill and how he successfully kept his secrets while living as an ordinary family man. Within steps of his wife and children were “hidey holes” filled with numerous incriminating items.

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I open the book with the most challenging thing: figuring out Rader’s code system, which was also a test for me. The introduction shows my early first steps. Finally, collecting all the information into an accessible yet educational structure required intense focus and a lot of uninterrupted time. Rader wrote long letters about his life, experiences, and fantasies. We read a few books and articles, and discussed how the concepts applied to him. In the end, I summarized our enterprise, but the content is primarily from him.

For me, it was the chance to immerse in the mind of an extreme offender. Whenever he named other serial killers or described movies or books that had an effect on him, I researched the subjects and watched the movies. If he described places that had meaning for him, I visited them. Together, we expanded the story from mere memoir to experiential narrative. We also watched some television shows, like The Americans and Bates Motel, and discussed them by phone each week. This, too, gave me information about Rader’s perception.

I was most fascinated with Rader’s description of  “cubing” (his word for the more clumsy academic phrase, compartmentalization). He talks about how he developed “life frames,” but more interesting for me was bumping up against these boundaries whenever I asked difficult questions. Rader, I found, is unique even in the world of serial killers. Many people have assumptions about serial killers and they expected Rader to fit the mold. In some ways he did, but in other ways he’s an outlier.

When I entered into this project, I knew it would deepen my awareness of what I write about, research, and teach. I did not know that I would be heavily immersed for five years, but I expected that working so closely with someone like Rader would affect my thinking and theorizing. It did. I see better how he experiences the world and I have deepened my description of certain aspects of the criminal mind. I view Confession as a significant complement to the work I have done, especially to The Mind of a Murderer.

I look forward to sharing with the WPA attendees.

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*  Dr. Katherine Ramsland, director of the Master of Arts in Criminal Justice program at DeSales University, also teaches the forensic psychology track. She has published over 1,000 articles, stories, and reviews, and 59 books, including The Mind of a Murderer, The Forensic Science of CSI, Inside the Minds of Serial Killers, The Human Predator: A Historical Chronicle of Serial Murder and Forensic Investigation, The Ivy League Killer, and The Murder Game. Her book, Psychopath, was a #1 bestseller on the Wall Street Journal’s list. She presents workshops to law enforcement, psychologists, coroners, judges, and attorneys, and has consulted for several television series, including CSI andBones.  She also writes a regular blog for Psychology Today called “Shadow-boxing” and consults for numerous crime documentary production companies. Her most recent book is with serial killer, Dennis Rader, called Confessions of a Serial Killer: The Untold Story of Dennis Rader, the BTK Killer. She will also publish The Ripper Letter, a supernatural thriller based on Jack the Ripper lore.

Dennis Rader is currently serving several life sentences in a Kansas prison.

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Killing Your Readers with Bad “Stuff”

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I’ve been writing this blog for over eight years and I admit that it’s sometimes tough to come up with a new topic each and every day. However, I suppose there’ll always be questions that need answering as long as writers continue to write stories about cops and crime. So … here are a few responses to recent inquiries.

(By the way, I’ve seen each of these used incorrectly in at least one book, or on someone’s blog).

1. Do revolvers eject spent brass with each pull of the trigger?

Answer – No, they do not. Spent brass must be manually ejected. Semi-autos, however, do indeed eject individual empty brass casings each time a round is fired.

2. I heard a stupid thing the other day. Someone told me that thermal imagers can “see” through black garbage bags, allowing officers to identify the contents without opening the bag. This is not true, right? 

Answer – This is true.
 

3. How many locks are on a pair of handcuffs? One or two?

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Answer – Two.

4. Speed Loaders are competition shooters who are extremely skilled at loading their weapons in a very short amount of time, right?

Answer – Read about speed loaders here –  http://www.leelofland.com/wordpress/dump-pouches-v-speed-loaders/

5. Isn’t it true that cars almost always explode when hit by gunfire.

Answer – No. In fact, the opposite is more likely to happen … no explosion at all.

6. A writer friend told me that DNA evidence is used to convict defendants in nearly every case. Is she correct?

Answer – DNA is rarely the deciding factor in a criminal case. Sure, it’s nice to have, but it’s not always available.

7. The FBI can take over any case, any time, from local police, so why do the locals bother?

Answer – This couldn’t be further from the truth. The FBI does not have the authority to take over a criminal case. Besides, they have a ton of their own cases to work, which, by the way, does not include murder (as a rule).

8. Do the Kevlar vests worn by officers (or similar types) also stop punctures from knives and other sharp objects.

Answer – No, they’re not designed to stop punctures from knives and other edged weapons. There are, however, vests that do guard against stabbing-type weapons, but they are typically worn by officers who work in prisons and jails.

9. Do cops have to release bad guys if they forget to read them their rights the moment they arrest them?

Answer – No, Miranda is required to be read/recited only when suspects are in custody AND prior to questioning. No questioning = no advisement of Miranda. Some departments may have policies that require Miranda advisement at the time of arrest, but it’s not mandated by law.

10. Are police officers required by law to wear seat belts while operating a police car?

Answer – No, not in all states. In fact, some state laws also allow certain delivery drivers to skip buckling up (USPS letter carriers, for example).

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11. Are all deputy sheriffs sworn police officers?

Answer – No. Normally deputies who work in the jails are not police officers. On the other hand, sheriff’s deputies have far more responsibilities than you may be aware of, such as (click the link below to read about the duties of deputy sheriffs):

DEPUTY SHERIFFS: THEY’RE JUST COPS, RIGHT?

12. Coroners have to be medical doctors, don’t they?

Answer – No, in many areas corners are elected officials who have absolutely no medical training whatsoever. Actually, some California sheriffs also serve as county coroner.

13. Isn’t it true that small town police departments never investigate murder cases?

Answer – All police officers are trained to investigate crimes, and small town officers investigate homicides all the time.

14. Robbery and burglary are synonymous. I mean, they’re the same, right?

Answer – No, robbery and burglary are two entirely different crimes.

Robbery occurs when a crook uses physical force, threat, or intimidation to steal someone’s property. If the robber uses a weapon the crime becomes armed robbery, or aggravated robbery, depending on local law. There is always a victim present during a robbery.

For example, you are walking down the street and a guy brandishes a handgun and demands your money. That’s robbery.

Burglary is an unlawful entry into any building with the intent to commit a crime. Normally, there is no one inside the building when a burglary occurs. No physical breaking and entering is required to commit a burglary. A simple trespass through an open door or window, and the theft of an item or items, is all that’s necessary to meet the requirements to be charged with burglary.

For example, you are out for the night and someone breaks into your home and steals your television. That’s a burglary. Even if you are at home asleep in your bed when the same crime occurs, it’s a burglary because you weren’t actually threatened by anyone.

15. I once read that narcotics dogs are fed small amounts of cocaine at an early age to get them used to the drug. This is cruelty to animals and cops should be arrested for doing it.

Answer – This couldn’t be more false. Dogs are never, not ever, given narcotics of any type. Instead, they’re trained to locate drugs by their scents.

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16. Shotguns and rifles are basically synonymous. I know this because my grandfather had both and used both to hunt wild game.

Answer – False. To read about and see the differences, please go HERE.

17. Has there ever been an escape death row?

Yes, and a great example is the escape of the Briley brothers from Virginia’s death row at the Mecklenburg Correctional Center.

18. Is there a gun that allows officers to shoot around corners?

Answer – Yes, and you can read about CornerShot here http://www.leelofland.com/wordpress/corner-shot-who-says-bullets-dont-bend/

19. Cops are definitely trained to aim for arms, legs, and/or to shoot a knife or gun from a suspect’s hand. This I know because I read it on a blog written by a popular activist and she should know.

Answer – Officers are taught to shoot center mass of their target. It is extremely difficult to hit small, moving targets while under duress. Therefore, officers DO NOT shoot hands, legs, elbows, or weapons (well, not on purpose). Your friend’s statement is totally incorrect.

20. Why do officers always shoot to kill? Couldn’t they shoot an arm or leg, or something?

Answer – See #19 above, and … Police officers are NEVER trained to “shoot to kill.” Instead, they’re taught to stop the threat. When the threat no longer exists the shooting stops, if it ever starts. Often, the threat ceases before shots are fired.

Shoot to Kill or to Wound? Here’s the Answer

 

 

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Revolver v. Pistol: Do You Know the Difference?

Pistol (semi-automatic)

The term “Pistol” means a weapon originally designed, made, and intended to fire a projectile (bullet) from one or more barrels when held in one hand, and having:

  • a chamber(s) as an integral part(s) of, or permanently aligned with, the bore(s);
  • and a short stock designed to be gripped by one hand at an angle to and extending below the line of the bore(s).

Pistol nomenclature (below)

Revolver

The term “Revolver” means a projectile weapon of the pistol type, having a breechloading chambered cylinder so arranged that the cocking of the hammer or movement of the trigger rotates it and brings the next cartridge in line with the barrel for firing.

Revolver nomenclature (below)

*All of the above (text and images) are from ATF (Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives). Thanks to the folks at ATF for allowing the reproduction and use.

For Writers: Semi-autos and fully automatic (machine guns) automatically eject spent cartridges. Revolvers DO NOT. Therefore, writers, chances are slim and mostly none of finding empty revolver cartridges at a crime scene. Please remember this when writing the “aha” moment in your WIP.

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