Les Edgerton: Accuracy In Crime Novels


 
Les Edgerton served a little over 2 years in Pendleton in the sixties on a 2-5 burglary charge (plea-bargained down from 82 counts of second-degree burglary, a count of armed robbery, a count of strong-armed robbery, and a count of possession with intent to sell). When he was in the joint, then-President Johnson declared Pendleton to be “the single worst prison in the U.S.” Les agrees with that assessment…

Since then, Les has earned a B.A. (With Honors of Distinction) from Indiana University and an MFA in Writing from Vermont College. He has published 18 books, taught creative writing at various universities, including the UCLA Writer’s Program, St. Francis University, and served as Writer-in-Residence at the University of Toledo and at Trine University. His work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, O. Henry Award, Edgar Allan Poe Award (short story category), PEN/Faulkner Award, Jesse Jones Book Award, Violet Crown Book Award (was awarded a Special Citation for his novel The Death of Tarpons), and others. A screenplay of his was a semifinalist in the Nichol’s Foundation Awards. The NY Times review of his story collection, Monday’s Meal, compared him favorably to Raymond Carver.

Currently, he resides in Ft. Wayne, IN with his wife Mary and their son Mike. Les has two daughters-Britney and Sienna-from a previous marriage. He teaches online classes for Writer’s Digest and provides novel coaching services for writers.

Les says, “When President Johnson came on TV to announce the results of his administration’s study that “Pendleton was the single-worst prison,” I was watching over in J Block and everyone stood up and began cheering and waving aloft a single digit. It was like our football team had just been named Number One. Quite a stirring experience. We knew then how Notre Dame fans felt…

ACCURACY IN CRIME NOVELS
(Depicting the criminal’s mind and behavior accurately)

I’d like to address a subject that’s bothered me for many years. I’m speaking of the way authors have routinely depicted the average criminal’s mind and behavior, which, in the main, have been largely inaccurate.

First, to establish my “bona fides” I am both a writer and an ex-con, having served about two years of a two-to-five sentence in the Indiana state prison at Pendleton, Indiana (for second-degree burglary) back in the sixties. I was originally charged with 82 burglaries, one count of armed robbery, one count of strong-arm robbery, and one count of possession with intent to deal. All of the charges were reduced to a single count of second-degree burglary via a plea bargain. I actually committed far more felonies-for instance, I did over 400 burglaries-but 82 was all my rap-partners could remember (or were in on-many I did solo) to roll over on me on-and so that’s the number I was charged with. The statue of limitations has run out on them now, so I can “fess up.”

One of the basic elements of good writing, in my opinion, is veracity. Not only should the author remain true to his personal version of truth, but his reportage should also be accurate. And, in the case of the criminal mindset and normal behavior, I see instance after instance in short stories, novels and movies where an inaccurate portrayal is the rule and not the exception.

Let’s look at three of the most common inaccuracies:

1. Inmates in prison hate child molesters.
Mostly hooey. It seems to be common wisdom these days that people on the bricks (“straights”) believe that inmates in prison hate child molesters and can’t wait to kill them. I disagree… to a point. Back in my time in prison (mid-sixties in a state joint, which is vastly different than a federal prison), nobody much cared about what you were in for. Actually, there weren’t many child molesters back then-child molestations, while they’ve always been around are infinitely more common these days than back then-but as long as they minded their business no one really bothered them or cared what they’d done. I can only remember knowing of one inmate who was a convicted child molester and nobody bothered him or much cared what he was in for. To be honest, a large number of people incarcerated have drinking or drug problems and when they’re on the sauce or high, pretty routinely abuse their own kids.

2. Inmates hate convicted cops.
Again, hooey. The few cops that were in the joint with me had more friends than anyone else, on average. The thing is, cops and outlaws interact with each other all the time on the bricks-at least the professional criminals do-and most of us like and even respect each other. There’s a very fine line between being a cop and a criminal, in my opinion. We’re both adrenaline junkies and is one of the chief reasons we become what we are in these two “career fields.” When I was “in the life” I used to hang out almost every night at a slop shop in downtown South Bend, before I went to “work,” and half the people there were off-duty cops and half were outlaws. We all got along well and if one of those guys got sent up, we were still friends.

3. Inmates claim to be innocent.
This is probably the biggest myth of all. Nobody claims to be innocent in the joint-even those few who are. If you were innocent and said so to other inmates, they would take that as a sign of weakness and you’d be in trouble. Where that comes from is when a reporter or researcher interviews an inmate, very often they’ll sing him a sad tale of woe about being bumrapped. The reason is, no matter how guilty the person is, once you’re inside, all hope has vanished. To be interviewed, especially by a sympathetic listener, the hope rises that enough bleeding hearts will read the article or see the show and be moved to do something to get the guy liberated. That it doesn’t happen doesn’t destroy the hope-they know it’s a long shot anything like that will happen, but it’s a glimmer of a hope and so they bring their acting chops to the table-probably even claim to have one of those b.s. “jailhouse conversions” and hope somehow their “story” (and that’s usually what it is-a story-will affect the right people’s hearts and a miracle will happen. I only knew one person when I was in who was truly innocent and there’s no way he would have claimed that to other inmates unless he really trusted they wouldn’t tell anyone else. That’d be suicide. In fact, when those who appear in documentaries and TV shows claim their innocence, the instant they’re back in the cellhouse they make sure to let everyone know they were just pulling a shuck.

Another thing they don’t publicize as it would destroy the common misconception. Of all those people who get freed from prison after an investigation or new trial, probably 90-some percent aren’t freed because they were found innocent. They’re freed because of a legal technicality. You can look that up.

For points #1 and #2, what I suspect has happened to lead to the hatred for child molesters and cops inside the walls is what has happened in just about all the instances of misconceptions about convicts. I think what’s happened is that movies romanticized this (inmates hating and killing child molesters) and inmates bought into this image of themselves for a variety of reasons–a typical reason being that people in prison are just plain looking for any kind of excuse to shank someone and this is as good a reason as any and even kind of makes the guy shanking a child molester look like a good or moral guy.

This is exactly what happened with Mario Puzo and his book and subsequent movie “The Godfather.” Puzo admitted he knew nothing at all about the Mafia and made up nearly everything about them that’s in his book. This guy was living in a suburb in Connecticut-sitting in his garage typing on a door laid out over two sawhorses-and had never even seen a mafiosa up close. What he was familiar with were insurance executives and stock brokers. Just about everything in the book was fabricated out of whole cloth.

The truth being, most Mafioso aren’t all that bright and are basically street thugs with fairly low I.Q.’s in general, but the movie glamorized and romanticized them with horse’s heads and “sleeping with the fishes” and “hitting the mattresses” and all the other stuff Puzo made up, so they just adopted the whole thing because it made them look much cooler than they actually were and are. Life imitated art. There’s just an awful lot of that going on in the public’s general
perception of inmates and prisons.

The same thing happened with the cops being in danger in the joint myth. Some individual somewhere told a reporter that and the naive reporter (there’s a lot of those folks!) reported it as gospel and just like the child molester myth, that just gave cons an excuse to shank someone and feel “moral.” Now, of course, thanks to television and the movies, convicted cops are in danger.

The problem is, the vast majority of inmates in state prisons are operating with an average fourth-grade education and so aren’t likely to write screenplays or books (most can barely read), so the public only knows what a reporter or researcher tells them and inmates are almost never straight with them for all the above reasons and more. Ex-cons from federal joints are better-educated and sometimes do write articles and books, but the problem is federal joints are as different from state joints as a rowboat is from the Queen Mary. The next time I do a crime I’m going to do something that qualifies for a federal jolt first and then if I’m busted for something I’d do state time for, I’ll cop a plea on the federal beef and end up going there first, which means I’ll probably die in a federal prison before I do the state bit. Federal time is just a wee bit easier to do…

If you’ll have me back, Lee, I’ll tell the story of the period Charles Manson and his cellmate in Corcoran, Roger Smith (who bills himself as the “Most-Stabbed Inmate in History”-which he probably is-he’s been shanked over 300 times) kept calling me for a month to chat and with Roger begging me to write his autobiography and what happened then.

Thanks for having me!

Blue skies,
Les

P.S. Of the thousands of novels and movies I’ve experienced, the only time I’ve seen the criminal mind portrayed accurately (imo) was in the scene in Pulp Fiction where the guy shoots his best friend in the back seat of the car by accident. His reaction is the only honest depiction of the criminal mind I’ve yet seen.

~

Les Edgerton’s Hooked –The first and only fiction-writing book that focuses exclusively on beginnings–no other book on the market addresses story beginnings in a comprehensive manner.

Visit Les here.

~

One of my favorite Les Egerton quotes:

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“I’ve got an MFA and I’ve also got a barbering certificate from Pendleton where I was in the joint, and of the two the barbering certificate’s made me a lot more money. ~ Les Edgerton”
 
*Note to writers – If you EVER have the opportunity to hear Les speak do yourself a favor and drop what you’re doing and go there as fast as your feet can take you. He’s an incredible (and hilarious) speaker and teacher. He’s also a great guy and I’m proud to call him my friend.

 

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Come Ride the Little Train, So “They” Can Listen to Everything You Say

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All Aboaaarrrd!!

Before we begin, let’s all stand to sing a few verses of  the Anycity Transit Authority’s brand new theme song. Leading us today is train conductor I.M. Listnin.

Is everyone ready? Oh, by the way, it’s to the tune of the theme song of the 60’s TV show Petticoat Junction. In case you’ve never heard the song…

 

 

Okay, let’s count it off!
1.2.3. And off we go…
 
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Come ride the little train,
that is listening to your words,
it’s their function.

Forget about your rights,
it is time to submit,
it’s their function.

Lotsa ears, you bet.
Even more, when you get,
to New Jersey.

There’s a scary old thing,
called the Big Brother,
it’s their function.
Government Function.

It is run by Feds,
come and be their guests,
at the prison.
Government Function.

And that’s Agent Joe,
he’s a listening to your words,
it’s his function.
Government Function.

All right, here’s the scoop. In addition to the video recording devices we’ve all become accustomed to seeing everywhere, and I do mean everywhere, including on public transportation (buses and trains), authorities are stepping up the surveillance game by adding audio recording capabilities.

That’ right, officials are now recording your conversations. In case you didn’t catch that, I’ll repeat it. Government officials could be/are listening to your private conversations.

Those of you in New Jersey who use the light rail to commute between Camden and Trenton…yep, the audio recordings are happening right now.

Actually, New Jersey Transit is just the tip of this audio-spying thing. Maryland Transit Administration also records conversations of their riders. However, they say they rarely listen and most likely delete conversations after holding the recordings for 30 days or so. The purpose of the audio, they say, is in case they need it to investigate specific “incidents.”

Other areas where both audio and video recordings are used on public transportation include California, Virginia, Oregon, Michigan, Ohio, Connecticut, Georgia, and New Hampshire. (1)

In the state of Washington (a beautiful place, by the way), all King County Metro buses equipped with video surveillance are also equipped with audio surveillance.

The recording systems are a step above the typical recording devices in that those who listen in have the capability of filtering out background noises and to zero-in on a specific conversation. The audio and video sync together which enables the technician to watch and listen at the same time. And, all of this could be done in real time since the onboard black box transmits wirelessly to the command center.

The cost to purchase and install the audio surveillance systems is provided by grants via Homeland Security, and this stuff is not cheap. For example, it cost $1.9 million to install them on New Jersey’s Hudson-Bergen and Newark light rail trains. Another $750,000 to install them on River Line trains. (Source – NJ.com)

Add this to the growing list of ways the heroes and villains of your stories can track one another and to listen and watch their foes as they move about between the pages of your latest book.

Or, fictional hackers could alter a recording of your train-riding hero by inserting things she didn’t say, such as making it appear that she confessed to a murder she didn’t commit, or one she was “plotting” with a conspirator. How’s that for a plot twist?

 
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(1): Source – ACLU, Washington, D.C.
Other information – NPR, and my own personal knowledge.

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Toilet Training for Cops: A Top Ten List

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There are many rules in the world of cops and robbers, both written and unwritten. Writers, of course, enjoy the freedom of making things up as their stories progress from one scene to another. However, a touch of authenticity sprinkled throughout the pages adds a nice touch to well-crafted tales.

Here’s a light dusting of reality for the heroes of your twisted tales.

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Toilet Training for Cops

1. Do not cover the body of a murder victim with, well, anything found at the scene. This means NO sheet, NO blanket, etc. And DO NOT use your hero’s personal items (jacket, sweater, etc.) to shield the murder victim’s face from the view of the growing crowd of looky-loos.

Covering the victim with any potentially contaminated item could transfer trace and other evidence from the material to the body, and/or it could transfer evidence from the body to the item. Trace evidence could also be brushed off the body during the placement of a covering.

There are items designed specifically for this situation, including body sheets that can also be used for placement of crime scene investigation tools, kits, etc. Setting these items on a sterile sheet or blanket prevents contamination.

However, if your hero insists upon covering the victim with something found at the scene, have her/him leave it with the body when transporting to the morgue. The M.E. will know what to do with it when it arrives. If the covering is removed prior to transport, package it and send it along to the lab or morgue for trace evidence examination.

*Writers – using something from the scene, a jacket, a beach towel, etc., could definitely wind up implicating the wrong person as the murder suspect. The innocent party could have used the towel which, in turn, caused their DNA to transfer (tertiary transfer) to the victim’s body. Red herring #1.

2. It IS possible for DNA evidence to transfer from one article of clothing to another when washed together in the same machine. Avoid tunnel-vision and consider the possibility that the DNA evidence could be pointing to the wrong person. So have your heroes build their cases with multiple bits of evidence, not just DNA found on freshly washed clothing in an apartment shared by six roommates. Besides, the DNA testing process is not 100% foolproof.

3. Broken glass at the scene of the crime? Have your hero check the soles of the suspect’s shoes for tiny bits of glass. It’s possible to match them to glass found at the scene.

4. Did you watch the Jack Reacher movie? If so, you saw the investigator straighten a portion of a paperclip and use it to pick up a spent bullet casing (brass). This is a great way to collect brass without destroying fingerprints. After all, the shooter had to use his/her fingers to load the rounds, right?

5. I’ve been known to preach, “Do not use TV as a research tool! The job is not accurately portrayed on the small screen.” Well, there is one instance where TV works to an officer’s advantage. Almost always, TV traffic cops approach a stopped vehicle from/on the driver’s side. This, like the CSI effect has people believing what they see on episodes of CSI Wherever, has the majority of TV watchers expecting what they see on their favorite television shows—officers coming to them on the driver’s side of the car. Therefore, when officers approach from the passenger side, the occupants of a vehicle are caught off guard. I highly recommend the passenger side approach for two reasons, the aforementioned element of surprise, and the officer stands a better chance of not being struck by passing motorists.

6. Don’t use bare fingers on light switches and other on/off buttons, knobs, toggles, etc. Likewise for their protective plates. These are prime spots for the retrieval of fingerprints. In fact, before touching a switch your hero should make a note regarding whether or not the lights were on or off when police arrived. If they arrive during daylight hours and the lights were found on, well, it’s likely the crime occurred during the dark of night, an important detail.

7. When searching a building for small, but important evidence (thumb drives, etc.) have your hero remove light switch and receptacle covers. Residential switches and receptacles attach/screw to plastic boxes, and the space inside is large enough to hide a variety of items. Chipped paint on the screw heads is a good indicator of the plates having been previously removed (good painters remove the covers before painting walls).

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Space behind wall plate covering light switches

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Thumb drive (flash drive) concealed beside light switch.

When inspecting the space behind wall plates, the investigator must use caution to avoid touching bare wires and/or the screws on the sides of the switches and receptacles, because they’re as hot as a two-dollar pistol!

8. Don’t overlook the obvious locations for fingerprints—the wall behind the toilet, for example. Some men tend to place a hand there while tending to their business. This is especially true for hard-partiers whose balance may be impaired from having too much to drink.

9. Suspects have been known to tape items to the underside of a toilet tank lid (the tank is the tall part at the “rear” of the toilet). In real life, this is one of the first places cops look, but not so much in books. I’ve also found goodies taped to the rear of the water tanks, including a .380 that had been used in a robbery.

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Evidence is often found taped to the backs and underside of the toilet tank.

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It’s common to find drugs and other evidence taped to the underside of the toilet tank lid, or in waterproof containers submerged in the water. The submerged containers are often weighted to prevent floating.

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Containers submerged inside toilet tanks, such as the one pictured above, serve a dual purpose—to hide evidence, and they reduce water usage. Nothing like an environment-conconsious drug dealer, right?

10. Another handy-dandy and sometimes overlooked location for small evidence is inside the handlebars of bicycles, tricycles, strollers, and wheelchairs (remove the hand grips to peek inside the hollow tubes).

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And, speaking of wheelchairs, do not let your hero be surprised/shot/killed/maimed by the “crook in the wheelchair.”

Remember, desperate bad guys will try anything, including faking a handicap, or a clever disguise. Whatever helps them escape from the police.

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Cop-ronyms: Say…WHAT?

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I know, talking shop with cops can be confusing. So here’s a handy Cop-To-English guide for writers.

  • AKA – Also Known As
  • APB -All Points Bulletin. STOP using this one. It went out with the T-Rex, sometime around the time when Betty White was born.
  • ATL – Attempt to Locate. “ATL for Betty White’s birth certificate was negative. No paper back then.”
  • B&E – Break and Enter
  • BOLO – Be On The Lookout – Replaced APB the day Betty White first walked among the dinosuars.
  • Civies – Non-uniform clothing, such as jeans and t-shirt, a coat and tie and, well, anything other than a police uniform.
  • CHP – California Highway Patrol (No, they aren’t called CHIPS. You watch too much classic TV. The locals say C.H.P., as in, “Did you notify C.H.P.?”).
  • DB – Dead Body
  • DL – Drivers License
  • DOA – Dead on Arrival (Not to be confused with the idea of a season 9 of Castle).
  • DOB – Date of Birth. “What’s Betty White’s DOB? Give me a hint. Are the numbers followed by BC or AD?”
  • DOC – Department of Corrections
  • DOJ – Department of Justice
  • DV – Domestic Violence
  • DIP – Drunk in Public. “I aressted Betty White for DIP. Yeah, Mary Tyler Moore called it in. Said she was swinging from the chandelier.”
  • EC – Emergency Contact. “Yes, the boat is sinking and the animals are bailing out. Who’s the EC, Betty White, or Noah?
  • FTA – Failure to Appear (in court)
  • FTO – Field Training Officer
  • GSW – Gunshot Wound (for more on gunshot wounds go here).
  • HBO – Handled by Officer (There is no reference to Showtime, sorry).
  • HP – Highway Patrol
  • KA – Known Associate
  • MDT – Mobile Date Terminal – In-car computer
  • MUTT – A shady bad guy. “Did you see the mutt hanging out behind the Pebbly Wiggly? I’ll bet he’s going to hit it tonight. Let’s go have a chat with him.”
  • Narc – Officer working a narcotics assignment. “Looks like heroin. Call the narcs and see if they want to talk to this guy.”
  • NCIC – National Crime Information Center. “I think he stole the boat. Run it through NCIC and let’s see what comes back.”
  • NOK – Next of Kin. “Who’s…never mind. Betty White has no living relatives.”
  • OL – Operators License (AKA = Drivers License)
  • PC – Probable Cause

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  • PD – Police Department
  • POV – Privately Owned Vehicle. “Yes, I checked. The brontosaurus actually IS Betty White’s POV.”
  • Social – Social Security Number. Yep, hers is…1.
  • Station – Police Department
  • Unauthorized Use – Using/driving/borrowing a vehicle without permission. A charge that’s typically associated with someone who took a vehicle but knows the owner and would most likely bring it back. The probability of bringing it back is what separates this violation from it’s cousin…THEFT.

In Virginia, unauthorized use also extends to aircraft, boats, and even animals. Therefore, if you plan travel to Richmond for the purpose of borrowing someone’s $300 chicken, well, you should consider doing your poultry-borrowing in a different state. The Richmond city jail is no joke.

§ 18.2-102Unauthorized use of animal, aircraft, vehicle or boat; consent; accessories or accomplices.

Any person who shall take, drive or use any animal, aircraft, vehicle, boat or vessel, not his own, without the consent of the owner thereof and in the absence of the owner, and with intent temporarily to deprive the owner thereof of his possession thereof, without intent to steal the same, shall be guilty of a Class 6 felony; provided, however, that if the value of such animal, aircraft, vehicle, boat or vessel shall be less than $200, such person shall be guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor. The consent of the owner of an animal, aircraft, vehicle, boat or vessel to its taking, driving or using shall not in any case be presumed or implied because of such owner’s consent on a previous occasion to the taking, driving or using of such animal, aircraft, vehicle, boat or vessel by the same or a different person. Any person who assists in, or is a party or accessory to, or an accomplice in, any such unauthorized taking, driving or using shall be subject to the same punishment as if he were the principal offender.
  • UNSUB – Unidentified Subject/Suspect
  • UTL – Unable to Locate
  • VIN – Vehicle Identification Number. VIN’s are located in a few places throughout a vehicle. The one most obvious is on the driver’s side where the windshield meets the dashboard, in front of the steering wheel. Other locations may include the front of the engine block (you should be able to see the plate by opening the hood and having a peek among all the goodies packed in there), front of the car frame, and inside the driver’s door jamb.
  • WMI – World-Make Identifier – The first three characters of a VIN number that tell us the where the vehicle was assembled, manufacturer, and make (Ford, Chevrolet, etc.). The characters that follow provide more details about the vehicle such as engine size, safety features, and more.

To help you better understand VIN numbers, here’s a brief video.

*Remember, as always, terms, slang, procedure, etc. may vary from one location to another. And, the above could have different meanings in other lines of work, other agencies, etc. These, however, are related to law enforcement. Still, no matter where you go, Betty White is a hoot…

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