It was the late Hans Conried who provided the voice of Snidely Whiplash, the main antagonist of the cartoon, Dudley Do-Right of the Mounties.

As a stereotypical villain, much like those portrayed in today’s novels, he wore a tall black top hat and cape and had a long nose and a mustache.

Okay, present day authors may not dress their villains in such attire but the premise is the same … they’re evil, often dark, and they’ll stop at nothing to achieve their goals, even if murder is the only thing standing between them and getting what they want, and, of course, their freedom after the deed is done.

Therefore, it’s up to the hero of the story to save the day.

In Whiplash’s time it was Dudley Do-Right who rescued Nell from oncoming trains and other hazards. Nowadays there’s Reacher, D.D. Warren, Joanna Brady, Ellie Hatcher, Harry Bosch, Lincoln Rhyme, Sam Kovac and Nikki Liska, Dave Robicheaux, Eve Dallas, and, well, the list goes on and on. But in the end, the hero always wins, leaving the villains and/or antagonists to say, as did Whiplash, “Curses, foiled again!”

I imagine that’s what went through the mind of Peggy Jo Tallas, an ex-convict, just prior to being shot and killed by four Tyler, Texas police officers after she pointed a handgun at them. The shooting occurred after Peggy Jo made her escape after robbing the Guaranty Bank shortly after 11 a.m. that morning. Police later identified Tallas’ weapon as a toy gun.

 

“Cowboy Bob”

In the early 90’s, a polite and quiet man with a pot-belly and graying hair, who wore sunglasses to hide his eyes and a ten-gallon hat perched backward on his head, robbed several area banks. The suspect never looked at the security cameras and was careful about checking for dye packs (more on dye packs in a moment).

Nothing the robber did stood out to investigators. No odd manners of speech (he didn’t say a word, making the demands by way of written notes). No fast get-a-aways (no tire tracks or identifying marks on the pavement). Always had stolen plates on the get-a-way car making it difficult to track.

However, when Cowboy Bob robbed the First Interstate Bank in Mesquite, Texas, he’d left on the actual license plates assigned to his Grand Prix. When police tracked down the vehicle belonging to a man named Pete Tallas, a Ford factory worker, Pete told investigators that he’d given the car to his sister, Peggy Jo. So off they go to pay a visit to Peggy Jo Tallas, expecting to find the mysterious pot-bellied, sunglass- and ten-gallon-hat-wearing man with graying hair hiding out in the apartment. Instead, they found Peggy Jo and her mother.

During a look around the apartment, the officers located a mannequin head with a fake beard, and a big ol’ bag of cash. The items had been stashed away in a bedroom closet. They pressed Peggy Jo about the possibility of a boyfriend and his location. She denied knowing either. It was at this point when one of the detectives noticed a bit of dried glue hanging from her lip AND, flecks of gray dye in her hair.

Cowboy Bob was actually Cowgirl Peggy, obviously, and for her crimes she served a whopping three years in prison. When she got out she bought an RV snd robbed another bank. This time, though, and perhaps she wanted to be caught, she wore sunglasses and a big floppy hat—no male disguise—, she spoke to the teller instead of passing a handwritten note, and she didn’t bother to check for dye packs.

Peggy Jo walked across the street to her RV. On the way, a dye pack exploded. She climbed into her RV and drove away. Police were notified and were provided a description of the RV. It was only a matter of minutes before a pursuit began and ended shortly after it started. Peggy Jo emerged from the camper with gun in hand, pointed at the officers and she dared them to shoot her. They granted her request by responding with four rounds fired from the sidearms.

Peggy Jo “Cowboy Bob” was dead.

“Curses, foiled again” ~ Snidely Whiplash, stereotypical villain whose hobbies were tying women to railroad tracks and bank robbery.

 

Dye Packs

Dye packs help officers locate both the robber and the stolen loot.

The packs look like real money, but they’re designed to stain stolen currency by exploding a colored substance, typically red dye 1-methylaminoanthraquinone (MAAQ), that covers the cash and often the robber as well. Depending upon the timing of pack’s explosion, it’s possible that it occurs inside the suspect’s vehicle, which stains the seats and other portions of the interior. It’s messy.

Tear gas is included in some dye packs, making the device doubly effective. Now you have a grown red guy who’s bawling like a baby.

Should the crook successfully make his escape, the dye does not easily come out during even several washings. The same is true when contacted with skin. The stuff is extremely difficult to remove, especially in places such as nail beds and ridge areas of fingerprints.

If a suspect is located, an examination of clothing found would be conducted in a laboratory. The testing is as follows.

Fabrics are examined visually and/or microscopically.

If the telltale red or pink staining is observed, dichloromethane is used extract it from the material.

Red dye 1-methylaminoanthraquinone is soluble in Dichloromethane.

If the tested material is indeed soluble in dichloromethane, it’s then examined by Gas Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry and/or Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy.

A positive result indicates the material was exposed to the red coloring in the bank’s dye pack.

Bingo! You have your bank robber.

Apply cuffs and take the crook directly to jail.

 

How a Dye Pack Works

A dye pack consists of a hollowed-out stack of real bills. Inside the stack are the red dye, tear gas, and and electronics used to activate the explosion.

The dye pack remains in “safe mode” resting on a magnetic plate inside the teller’s cash drawer.

When a robber approaches and demands money, the teller simply slips the dye pack in with the rest of the cash.

When the pack is lifted from the magnetic plate, the pack is “armed,” or activated. It’s then ready to do it’s job.

Somewhere near the exit doors are activation points and, as the robber and his sack of money pass by on his way outside, a timer inside dye pack’s explosive device is automatically activated. It’s set to allow the robber to get a bit of distance away from the bank before going Kaplooey!

I’ve seen this first hand and the results are impressive. The packs basically render the stolen cash useless since it’s all stained a bright reddish-pink color, as is the robber.

You’ve most likely read about the shootout I was in with the bankroller, right? Well, the cash he stole was indeed red when we recovered it. He, too, had reddish stain on his face, hands, arms, legs (he wore shorts) and his tennis shoes. The pistol he used to fire at me also had bits of dye on the grips, a transfer from the palms of his hands.

Bank robber after an intense shootout. 68 rounds were were fired during the incident. I fired 5, with all 5 hitting the intended target, once in the head and four in the chest. Yet, he still got up and ran. A sheriff’s captain and I tackled him to apply handcuffs. He died on the way to the hospital. The staining on his legs is the red coloring from the exploding dye pack.

“Shots fired!”

“I’m hit”

“He’s running.”

“I need backup.”

“In the alley behind Joe’s Pawn Shop.”

“He’s shooting again.”

Silence.

Then, “Man down! Send paramedics … NOW!”

And then it starts. The looky-loos come out of the woodwork with cellphones and cameras in hand. The cop-haters who’re looking for an excuse to lob a few rocks and bricks and circle around the officer who’s bleeding, and scared.

The wounded cop’s adrenaline is in crash mode and his emotions are speeding to places they’ve not been before. Time is in full herky-jerky mode, speeding up to catch up to realtime after its abrupt switch to slow motion when the action first fired-up its engines. Sound returns slowly after a bout of “tunnel hearing.”

“If I Only Had a Brain” ~ The Scarecrow, from The Wizard of Oz

Each of us, hopefully, has a functioning brain (there are exceptions for politicians) and it’s that mass that fills the space between our ears that controls everything we do. It’s also in charge of our emotions. More specifically, it’s the amygdala section of the brain that’s assigned charge of emotional responses. The amygdala typically works and plays well with the other parts of the brain, including the prefrontal cortex that, by the way, controls complex decision-making.

However, when the brain perceives danger, the typically smooth-running operation inside our skulls goes a bit wonky because the moment danger is detected a major dam located in the adrenal glands is breached. This sudden discord sends out adrenaline to flood our systems.

Adrenaline, the hormone that boosts  blood circulation, increases breathing rate and metabolism and causes our muscles to rise up and prepare for battle. Then all hell breaks lose.

The amygdala section of the brain decides it wants to be in charge and leads a successful coup against the prefrontal cortex, taking control of the making of decisions. Since the amygdala has not been properly schooled in decision-making skills, the results are kaleidoscopic and slightly out of whack responses to various situations. It distorts and narrows our visual and auditory senses to the point where we often focus our attentions on a single point, skipping over other often important things taking place around us.

Fellow author, friend, and police psychologist Ellen Kirshman summed up the experience as it relates to police officers as, and I don’t recall her exact words, but were something like, “Police officers are called upon to do the unnatural. They run toward danger, not away from it.”  I read her quote in an article a while back about the deputy in Florida who failed to act during the horrific school shooting that occurred there. She also said something similar to what I’ve said here on this blog time and time and time again … no one but the officer who’s at the scene at the precise moment the danger takes place knows exactly what happened. (Ellen, I apologize if I’ve misquoted you, but I couldn’t locate the article).

In other words …

Monday Morning Quarterbacks Lack the Touch, Taste, Smell, and Motion to Know with 100% Certainty What Took Place

It’s easy for the public to render judgement regarding an officer’s actions, or lack of action, by switching on the TV or their computers to view a video recording of an event. Commentators often offer slow-motion replays, rewinds, zoom views, and various angles, and their opinions as to what happened and/or should have or shouldn’t have happened.

The officer on the scene, however, views the situation in real time, within a time period of a split second or two, while their brain is sending adrenaline throughout their system, with parts of the mind taking charge over other parts that typically supply reason based upon well-thought-out decisions, decisions that take time and energy before an action is performed.

The body of an officer involved in an intense shootout is undergoing many changes all at once. There’s the whole adrenaline thing, of course, while the brain is rapidly switching back and forth between tunnel vision to tunnel hearing, meaning that during the times they’re visually surveying a scene the volume of their auditory functions is greatly reduced, or nonexistent. They cannot use both tunnel vision and tunnel hearing at the same time. The brain does not allow it during times of extreme stress.

Furthermore, during times of extreme stress, the brain may completely shut off auditory functions which is the reason that in post shooting interviews some officers report not hearing the sounds of shots being fired.

I, for one, am a perfect example. During a bank robbery shootout, I saw puffs of smoke (in slow motion) rise from the robber’s handgun, but never heard a single sound. Not even when I returned fire. Actually, from the moment the situation turned violent until I chased the wounded man and tackled him, I don’t recall hearing anything until I rolled him over and then heard the “click, click, clicks” as he pointed his gun at me and repeatedly pulled the trigger. I’ll never forget those sounds. Not ever.

Thankfully, he’d fired the last round before making his final charge. But until that point, it’s like we were in a vacuum.

This experience and others like it explain why so often police officers simply do not recall hearing a specific number of shots fired. In the world of neuroscience this total shutdown of hearing is called auditory exclusion.

A police officer’s overall situational awareness can become dulled to the point of totally blocking out things going on in their periphery, which presents a huge problem for them if the field of danger extends beyond the point of their focus/attention, and it often does—more than one attacker, threat, etc.

Filling In the Blanks

Officers are human, a fact which seems to escape some people. And being human prompts the desire for them to believe they “should have” both heard and seen the action as it unfolded. Therefore, their very human minds attempt to supply the missing information—the sound of gunfire or seeing the man with a gun standing to the side.

To fill in these voids the brain creates a memory by drawing on context and even experience (“I know that’s what a gunshot sounds like therefore I must’ve heard that sound today”).

The same is true in reverse. The officer who’s incapable of remembering a crucial bit of information that occurred during a stressful event, while their attention was distracted, actually may not believe it happened, despite clear and concrete evidence to the contrary.

This, the brain creating “fill in the blank” memories is one reason why so many Monday morning quarterbacks immediately jump to the unfounded conclusion that an officer must be lying or attempting to cover up a misdeed. But it’s just not so. Sure, sometimes people lie. I won’t discount that fact. But in the vast majority of stressful encounters, law enforcement or otherwise, the amygdala section of the human brain is the culprit.

Anyway, the only true means to judge any situation is in real time surrounded by all the sights, sounds, tastes, and emotions that come with it, along with access to the officer’s thoughts and emotions as the event unfolded. Attempting to do so on Monday morning while watching a replay of video is not the same.

Not even close.

Nor is it possible.

For the the purpose of this brief peek into the minds of police officers who enter into stressful situations such as a violent riot, or a gun battle with bullets whizzing by their heads, we’ll use Officer Sam as our guinea pig. Joining him in this discussion his partner, Officer Pam.

Sam is a bit of a worrier and, thanks to his parents, his name is coincidentally an acronym for three distinct reasons why officers, as well as other people, perhaps sees things differently when the weight of world seemingly comes crashing down around them. More about the acronym a bit later.

Pam, on the other hand, is a seasoned veteran who’s “been there, done that” a thousand times. She sincerely believes she’s impervious to stress.

Let’s dive right in by first setting the stage. Sam and Pam have been called to the scene of a bank robbery where the masked bandit has decided to not be taken alive. Therefore he begins lobbing .45 caliber rounds at the two responding officers who immediately take cover and immediately return fire.

The intense shootout lasts two minutes before both Pam and Sam fill the desperado full of government-purchased lead. He dies as a result of the aerating of his torso by a baker’s dozen of neat, round puncture wounds delivered by the officers’ sidearms.

The shift commander assigns a pair of internal affairs investigators to take the statements of the two heroes who saved the bank employees from what could have ended up as a mass funeral for the seven cashiers and an elderly security guard named Rufus.

The two IA detectives separate Pam and Sam and then take their statements. Later, the “suits” compare notes and, unbelievably, the officers’ stories vary … a lot. In fact, it’s almost as if Pam and Sam told tales that took place at two different locations and they’d practically described two entirely different events. Yes, they were that far apart.

So how could this happen, you ask? Well, let’s closely examine Sam’s name to see if we can arrive as some sort of answer that makes sense out of the discrepancies/distorted realty.

SAM

“S”, in my own little and limited warped mind, stands for “Secure.”

To start the ball rolling, the brain first must “SECURE” information. However, the human mind can receive only so much at once, so it decides what is important and then discards all of what it deems as unnecessary details.

This is where repetitive training plays a vital role, because repeating the same action over and over again (draw, point, shoot, draw, point, shoot, for example) helps the officer to react instinctively rather than having to rely on a brain that immediately discards some details, such as “the guy has a gun!”

During a stressful event the human mind does strange things

Human brains do not have a far-reaching ability to observe, meaning we see either a forest or we see a group of individual trees, or a lovely meadow or individual grasses. A crowd of people, or individual humans. But not both at the same time (forest AND trees, etc.). The brain focuses on one or the other, making it difficult to process many details. And, when two humans are observing the same grouping of objects, one’s focus may be on the guy with the gun while the other’s is trained on the woman holding a cigar-smoking baby.

“A” = “ABSORB,” meaning the retention of what the brain decides to secure. Unfortunately, our minds operate on a selective basis and we absolutely have no control over this weird phenomena. It is the brain that picks and chooses what it is they want to absorb, and often those human computers focus on one non-essential thing while totally disregarding another more important detail. Again, the woman holding a cigar-smoking baby instead of the far more important and dangerous guy with the gun. This is the reason why Sam may see one thing while Pam’s mind secures and absorbs something entirely different.

The proper terminology for what to pay attention to and what to disregard is “selective attention.”

*For more on selective attention, click here.

“M,” the final letter in Sam’s name, we’ll identify as “MEMORY.”

Memory, simply put, is the brain filing away all of the details about the stressful event that it deemed as unimportant. Then, what’s left are the elements that stood out. The ones that, due to selective attention, seemed vividly specific. However, those details may have been perceived differently than they actually were and that’s because not all surrounding information was retained, which can and often does distort reality.

The latter being the case in situations where officers fail to recognize an object in a fleeing suspect’s hand as a cellphone instead of a firearm. The same is true in reverse, when the officer mistakenly believes an object is a cellphone when in reality it’s clearly a pistol. These false negatives are caused by a human mind rejecting something that should have received and accepted for what it is/was. In the case of officers involved in deadly force scenarios, these mistakes could and often do result in life-ending occurrences.

Training does assist the brain with making these decisions by allowing it do its thing while the officer simply reacts without having to take the time to first SECURE, ABSORB, and then pull the needed information from their MEMORY. Instead, they see a gun and draw, point, and shoot. It’s what they’re trained to do, and during their time in the academy that’s exactly what they do, much like training a dog to sit.

How many times have we all said to little Rover …

“Sit, boy. Sit.” “Sit, boy. Sit.” “Sit, boy. Sit.” “Sit, boy. Sit.”

Well, that’s how cops are trained, and it’s by design to help keep them alive.

 

Murder: Really bugs me

Many useful items fill an investigator’s toolbox—interrogations, fingerprints, footprints, informants, fibers and, well, the list goes on and on. But there’s one group of extremely important tools that are often overlooked—the squiggly and wiggly and fluttering and flittering and sometimes even slimy crime-solving creatures known simply as, well, bugs.

Yes, we step on them and we swat at them and some people even eat them. But as investigators, in spite of the creepy-crawler’s often stomach-churning menu selections, cops must often sign them on as partners when attempting to solve murder cases. Like detectives who specialize in certain areas—rape, robbery, narcotics, and homicide—insects, too, have their own areas of expertise, and they each arrive at various times during the course of the investigations to do what is it they do best. For example …

Maggots are event crashers by nature. They’re clueless when it comes to dinner party etiquette. In fact, they barge right in on unsuspecting hosts, the dead bodies du jour. Their manners are atrocious, actually. They never bother to wait for bacteria to complete the service settings, the breaking down of complex molecules through respiration or fermentation, before storming the scene.

The tiny and gross little squirmers who eat with one end of their bodies while breathing through the other, are the Animal House-type partiers of death. As disgusting as they are, however, they are useful as tools for solving homicides because …

When investigators find maggots on a body that are in their early larvae stages, when they’re 5mm in length, well, officers then will have a pretty good idea that the victim has been there for only a day and a half, or so.

Even the mere presence of certain insects is quite telling.

Dermestidae Beetles have better things to do than to show up early at parties. They’re a bit snobbish, preferring to wait until everyone else had had their fill—the time when the body begins to dry out—before making their grand entrance, at which time they’ll gorge themselves on drying skin and tendons.

Green Bottle Fly

These guys are the drunk uncles of the party. They show up to first to begin drinking the fluids found in and on decaying bodies. Then, after they’ve had their thirsts quenched they’ll often dive into a hearty meal of decaying tissue.

Green Bottle Fly ~ Calliphoridae

  • One of the first insects to arrive on the scene/body
  • Lays eggs in wounds or openings such as the eyes, ears, mouth, penis, and vagina

Rove Beetles

Rove beetles are late arrivers to the party and this is so because they’re scavengers whose meal of choice is the larvae of other insects, those who lay their eggs in and on decomposing corpses. They’re one of the “buzzards” of the bug world.

Ham Beetles are also scavengers, but they find the tougher parts of the decaying body to be the tastiest, such as skin and tendons.

Rounding out today’s lunchtime guests are the Carrion Beetles. These gourmet insects absolutely adore dining on the larvae of other insects, but also enjoy a scrumptious appetizer of decaying flesh.

Now, please do enjoy your own dinner!

 

Those of you with medical elements embedded into your twisted tales will perhaps be interested in the following information. For all others, well, break out the gloves and masks and gown-up, because things are about to get ugly.

Did you know:

  • At least five microbes are resistant to nearly all available antibiotics.
  • 1 in 6 Americans—48 million people—get sick from contaminated food each year.
  • The Centers for Disease Control’s AMD program (Advanced Molecular Detection) uses next generation sequencing and bioinformatics, and experts in epidemiology, lab sciences, and bioinformatics to provide new insight into microbes. AMD provides sequencing machines that can read the DNA or RNA code of a microbe as well as supercomputers with the capability, via advanced software, to intelligently detect patterns.
  • CDC’s Advanced Molecular Detection (AMD) program is designed to protect Americans from microbial threats. AMD utilizes microbiology and bioinformatics to assist scientists and health professionals in their quest to find and stop infectious disease outbreaks.
  • During the period of time between 2007-2012, construction occupations, both supervisory and line-level workers, accounted for the highest number heroin and prescription opioid–related overdose deaths. The occupation groups with the highest number of drug-related deaths caused by the use of methadone, natural and semisynthetic opioids, and synthetic opioids other than methadone, were:

  1. construction,
  2. extraction (e.g., mining, oil and gas extraction)
  3. health care practitioners.
  • The three most common methods of committing murder in the U.S., per year, are:

Clearly, firearms, by far, lead the other means of killing.

Zoonotic Diseases

  • Yes, studies indicate that people who have strong bonds with their pets often enjoy increased fitness and lower stress levels. And, the level of happiness achieved by pet owners is high. However, since pets can carry germs known as zoonotic diseases (diseases caused by harmful viruses, bacterial, parasites, and fungi), pet owners should make certain their beloved animals are healthy.
  • Zoonotic diseases cause anything from mild to serious illness and even death.
  • According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) “Zoonotic diseases are very common, both in the United States and around the world. Scientists estimate that more than 6 out of every 10 known infectious diseases in people are spread from animals, and 3 out of every 4 new or emerging infectious diseases in people are spread from animals. Every year, tens of thousands of Americans will get sick from harmful germs spread between animals and people. Because of this, CDC works 24/7 to protect people from zoonotic diseases.”
  • To help fend off zoonotic disease, avoid contact with the saliva, blood, urine, mucous, feces, or other body fluids of an infected animal.

  • Have your pet examined by a veterinarian, regularly.
  • Use caution and wear protective clothing (gloves, face masks, etc.), when in contact with areas where animals are or were at some point. The same is true when handling objects or touching surfaces that have been contaminated with germs—aquarium water, hamster habitats and play areas, dog and cat bedding and litter boxes, chicken coops, plants, and even soil, leftover pet food, and water dishes.

Please wash your hands thoroughly after petting or otherwise contacting animals, including your own pets. You never know what could be hiding in that soft fur and on those adorable faces.

*Source ~ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Since relocating to the upper tip of Delaware, Denene and I are currently residing in an extended stay hotel, where we’ve been since we left the Writers’ Police Academy. We will remain here until closing on the new house.

Yes, we finally found a home this week and made an offer on it, after an exhausting search. We reached an agreement with the sellers just yesterday and we now have signed documents in hand. Unfortunately, the owners are unable to vacate the home until early October. But, the property is extremely nice so it should be worth the wait. In the meantime, though, we’ll remain in the hotel.

Our room here is nice and features a mini kitchen and a large work station that accommodates our computers and other necessities.

Now that we’re here, though, I have no yard work or other home project to occupy the little spare time I have during the evening hours—the time I spent feeding the birds and watering and caring for the plants in our yard. The time that took me away from everything. It was my escape. The time to allow my mind to focus on nothing but the little creatures and flowers and blue skies and the combined scents of eucalyptus and citrus trees and roses … and the smoke from all the wildfires.

Therefore, now that I do have a bit of spare time, I’ve been able to read a bit, mostly at night using my Kindle Paperwhite. I love the device because it’s small and the backlit screen allows me to peruse the “pages” without waking Denene, who, by the way, started her new job last week. She’s still teaching microbiology and cool bioterrorism stuff, but as a professor at another university, in the department of Medical & Molecular Sciences.

Anyway, to get to the point, while reading current novels and blogs and news articles, I’ve run across the misuse of various terms and information. As a result, I decided to compile and post a bit of information to help set things straight.

I hope this helps somewhat in your quest to …

Write Believable Make-Believe

Defendant: Someone who’s been accused of a crime and is involved in a court proceeding.

Defense Attorney: A lawyer who represents a defendant throughout their criminal proceedings.

Departure: A sentence that’s outside the typical guideline range. Departures can be above or below the standard range; however, the most common departure is a downward departure, a sentence reduction solely based on the defendant’s substantial assistance to the government. For example, a defendant who spills the beans to law enforcement about the criminal activity of someone else for the sole purpose of obtaining a lesser sentence. In jailhouse/layman’s terms, “a snitch.”

Diminished Capacity: A defendant is eligible for a downward departure (reduction of sentence) if they can successfully prove they suffer from a significantly reduced mental capacity, a condition that contributed substantially to the commission of the offense of which they’re charged with committing. Merely having been under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time of the offense is typically not considered grounds for diminished capacity.

* This applies to the defendant only, not the defendant’s attorney, judges, or police officers. Their sometimes reduction in mental capacities is fodder for another article.

Duress: The federal sentencing guidelines allow for a downward departure if the defendant committed the offense because of serious threats, coercion, or pressure. An example is the person who’s been forced to commit a bank robbery by crooks who’re holding his family hostage until/unless he carries out the crime. The courts could/would show leniency by granting a downward departure (or complete dismissal) based upon the fact he was under severe duress at the time of the robbery.

Extreme Conduct: Here, an upward departure from the guidelines range may be appropriate if the defendant’s conduct during the commission of a crime was unusually heinous, cruel, and/or brutal. Even degrading the victim of the crime in some way may apply and earn the defendant a longer sentence that’s typically called for within the sentencing guidelines.

Brutally maiming and murdering federal agents simply because they dared to ask questions (revenge), well, that may be a crime that warrants an upward departure from the typical sentence.

 

Felony: An offense punishable by a term of imprisonment of one year or longer.

Felony Murder: A killing that takes place during the commission of another dangerous felony, such as robbery.

To get everyone’s attention, a bank robber fires his weapon at the ceiling. A stray bullet hits a customer and she dies as a result of her injury. The robber has committed felony murder, a killing, however unintentional, that occurred during the commission of a felony. The shooter’s accomplices could also be charged with the murder even if they were not in possession of a weapon or took no part in the death of the victim.

Hate Crime Motivation: An increase of sentence if the court determines that the defendant intentionally targeted a victim because of their race, religion, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, disability or even due to their sexual orientation.

Indictment: An indictment is the formal, written accusation of a crime. They’re issued by a grand jury and are presented to a court with the intention of prosecution of the individual named in the indictment.

Misdemeanor: A crime that’s punishable by one year of imprisonment, or less.

Obstruction of Justice: Obstruction of Justice is a very broad term that simply boils down to charging an individual for knowingly lying to law enforcement in order to change to course/outcome of a case, or lying to protect another person. The charge may also be brought against the person who destroys, hides, or alters evidence.

For more about obstruction, see When Lying Becomes A Crime: Obstruction Of Justice

Offense Level: The severity level of an offense as determined by the Federal Sentencing Guidelines.

Federal Sentencing Guidelines are rules that determine how much or how little prison time a federal judge may impose on a defendant who has been found guilty of committing a federal crime.

To learn more about these guidelines, go here … So, You’ve Committed a Federal Offense: How Much Time Will You Serve?

Parole: The early and conditional release from prison. Should the parolee violate those conditions, he/she could be returned to prison to complete the remainder of their sentence. Parole, however, was abolished in the federal prison system in 1984. In lieu of parole, federal inmates earn good time credits based on their behavior during incarceration. Federal inmates may earn a sentence reduction of up to 54 days per year. Good time credits are often reduced when prisoners break the rules, especially when the rules broken are serious offenses—fighting, stealing, possession of contraband such as drugs, weapons, or other prohibited material.

Federal prisoners who play nice during the course of their time behind bar typically see a substantial accumulation of good time credit and will subsequently hit the streets much sooner than those who repeatedly act like idiots.

Due to earned good time credit, federal prisoners who follow the rules are typically released after serving approximately 85% of their sentence.

* Writers, please remember this one. There is no parole in the federal system. People incarcerated in federal prison after 1984 are not eligible for parole because is does not exist. I see this all the time in works of fiction.

By the way, this regularly occurring faux pas (incorrect use of parole in novels) brings to mind the dreaded “C” word … cordite. I still see this in current books. Your characters, unless in works of historical fiction, cannot smell the odor of cordite at crime scenes because the stuff is no longer manufactured. In fact, production of cordite ended at the end of WWII. Please, please, please stop using the stuff in your books.

Please read this:

Once Again – Cordite: Putting This Garbage In The Grave!

 

Cop, crook

The world of cops and robbers is an entity all its own. It’s a culture that lives and breathes in every neighborhood of every city. And, within each individual subgroup comes a separate set of traditions, rules, regulations, and even their own language(s).

To survive in these various social orders, members and visitors must walk the walk and talk the talk that’s associated with each group. For example, to you the word cop might conjure up images of a burly police officer. However, to many criminals cop means to take plea agreement offered by the DA. “I’m not going to take a chance with a jury trial. I’m going to cop a plea.”

Let’s take a peek at a few more of the slang terms used by cops and robbers.

1. Sagging/Jailing (jailin”) – Wearing pants with the waistband so low that the underwear/boxer shorts are exposed. This style actually began in prisons and jails because inmates are often issued ill-fitting clothing. Their jail-issued pants are sometimes much too big which causes them to ride low on the hips.

Some say inmates who wear their pants “low” (saggers) are advertising that they’re available for sex.

2. Chicken head – Someone who gives oral sex in exchange for drugs.

3. Shorty – a nickname for girls/women. “Shorty sure looked fine last night.”

4. Bullet – A one year prison sentence.

5. Ink – Tattoo

6. Pruno – Alcohol made in jail or prison by inmates. Also known as hooch.

7. Five-O – The police. AKA: Po-Po, Barney, Bacon, Bear, Laws, Pig.

8. Lot Lizard – Prostitute who works the parking lots at truck stops.

9.. Catch a ride – Share someone’s drugs. “Hey, Dude. Can I catch a ride?”

10. Lampin’ – Hanging out under a street light. Those who do consider that spot as their turf.

Now, what are some of your favorite slang terms?

 

Writers of various genres are forever devising clever ways to send murder victims to their graves with undetected causes of death. One such favored method, poisoning, has proven quite reliable on the written page. Here are a few of the deadly toxins that thrive naturally. Why, even your spouses could get their hands on them. Yeah, keep that in mind the next time you decide to argue when you know you’re absolutely wrong.

Belladonna, often called nightshade, is a popular ornamental plant. It’s name means “beautiful woman” in Italian. A single six or seven drop dose of the plant’s toxic parts (roots, leaves, and berries) can cause death within a few hours. Victims could also suffer miserably for a few days before succumbing to the plant. Symptoms include, increased heart rate, rapid pulse and respiration, a loud heartbeat that can be heard from several feet away, fever, convulsions, and coma.

Jimsonweed, also known as thorn apple (pictured above), is a very deadly plant that’s sometimes abused as a hallucinogen. In fact, prison inmates working on roadside cleanup crews often harvest the plant’s tiny black seeds that, when consumed, produce the unusual high that’s associated with this prickly plant.

For example …

Once, while working as a corrections officer inside a maximum security facility, I overheard a young inmate who was vocally imitating the sounds of a motorcycle engine. And, amid the vrooms, zooms, growls, roars, and revving and snarling motor noises, were brief chuckles, giggles, and an imaginary argument with an imaginary fellow biker the man referred to as Buck. Buck, however, was, as I later understood, was fully-clothed, including  a helmet. And, I also learned that Buck was quit the acrobat and trick-rider.

Obviously, one of the major side effects of Jimsonweed consumption is delirium, and this guy’s hallucinations were working overtime as I rounded the corner of the open-stalled bathroom area.

The incarcerated man was totally nude and seated (you know where). Apparently the seed-induced trip caused him to perch his naked bottom atop an imaginary big old Harley, because he held his hands as if they were gripping handlebars, throttle, and brake controls, and he was pushing his fictitious bike to its limits. His body leaned forward over “the handlebars” to reduce wind friction, I supposed, and he did so while laughing like a madman, in short bursts of chimp-like squeals and screeches.

When he saw me his lips split into a tight grin as he wiggled his stubby and grubby fingers in my direction. The gesture was a childlike bye-bye wave aimed at me just before throttling the steel toilet into high gear. He shouted a few words to Buck (above the engine sounds) and he leaned further toward the front tire, crouching low while turning the throttle as far as mechanically possible. I assumed that he and Buck were riding off toward the horizon to avoid capture. They were doing 180 mph, or more. A guess, of course, because I didn’t have a radar unit handy. Not much need for one inside a prison, you know.

Their speed didn’t work, though. No match for my shiny, black fake leather shoes. Yes, miraculously, I was able to catch up to the pair—the inmate and Buck—on foot.

I easily apprehended the desperados and carted both to the medical department. Buck was released and soon disappeared. The prisoner, after a short stay in the infirmary, spent a few weeks in “the hole.”

In addition to delirium, other jimsonweed side effects are blurred vision vertigo, blindness, involuntary movements, convulsions, coma, and death.

Lilly of the Valley, aka Our Lady’s Tears, is found throughout the United States and Canada. The plants toxicity level is quite high, a level six, and causes an immediate reaction to the unsuspecting victim. Even the water in which the plant’s cut flowers is kept is deadly. Symptoms include, hallucinations, vomiting, clammy skin, hot flashes, coma, and death.

There are street gangs and there are street gangs, but the violent, international MS13 gang takes a backseat to no other when it comes to cruelty to other humans. In fact, to join MS13, prospective gang members must endure a brutal 13-second beating (a “beat-in”) by other gang members. Females are fortunate. They have the option of being beaten or gang-raped. Another step in the initiation is to kill a rival gang member or someone randomly selected by the gang.

Mara Salvatrucha (MS13)

The gang name is derived from La Mara, a street gang in San Salvador.  The word “Mara” translates as “gang” in English. Salvatrucha comes from the Salvatrucha guerrillas who fought in the Salvadoran Civil War.

To become full-fledged members and to earn the title of “homeboys” (after a “probationary period of sorts), “chequos,” or mid-level MS13 members are “jumped in.”

Jumping in is a two-step process—chequos must commit at least one murder of a rival gang member. Afterward, they’re voted in, if approved, and this is when gang leaders would very slowly count to thirteen while other gang members beat the chequos. This, the beat-in, is not a fraternity hazing. Instead, the beatings are often extremely severe.

When the beat-in is complete, members often display the familiar devil horn hand sign, a gesture they borrowed from fans of heavy metal music.

MS13 clique leaders are known as “palabreros.” Loosely translated, the word means “those who have the word.”

As a full-fledged member, the new homeboys join the other gang members during their everyday routines of selling drugs, smuggling weapons and people, prostitution, car theft, extortion, armed robbery, and murder. Lots of murder.

MS13 has attempted to get a foot in the drug-dealing business but they’ve faile to do so on a large scale. The gang has no formal leader and operates in pockets within Mexico, the U.S., Canada, and Central America.

Members of those pockets (cliques, or “clicas” in Spanish) tend to show their loyalty to those smaller groups rather than the overall “organization,” which translates into enough disorganization to make organized drug-dealing nearly impossible. Therefore, they stick to more localized crime. However, the gang is very large and extremely deadly. Murder is a priority.

There is an attempt at organization, though, between the leaders who’re currently incarcerated and those on the street. Together, they try to control the major “hits,” such as the orders to kill police officers and other officials. Still, they are not formally organized, with most activity occurring within the smaller clicas.


“Of the 506 gang members arrested or charged in connection with crimes, 207 were charged with murder and 100 others were accused of conspiracy or racketeering, and “dozens of others” were accused of sex trafficking, attempted murder, sexual assault, extortion, and drug trafficking.” ~ from a report by Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies. (February 28, 2018). The report was based on a study of just over 500 MS13 gang members arrested since 2012.


The extreme activities of MS13 have helped make what some call the Northern Triangle—Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras—the most violent place in the world that’s not currently at war.

Leaving the gang, for whatever reason, proves to be impossible in some cliques because the penalty for desertions is immediate death.

MS13 has between 50,000 and 70,000 members

 

To name only a scant few of the MS13 horrors, in 2017, MS13 gang members were responsible for:

  • Venus Romero Iraheta, 17, tortured and killed a 15-year-old girl because he didn’t approve of her boyfriend, also an MS-13 gang member. Gang members filmed the torture and stabbing death.
  • Two MS-13 gang members (Miguel Alvarez-Flores and Diego Hernandez-Rivera) who, by the way, were illegally staying in the U.S., were charged with kidnapping, torturing and shooting a teenage girl. According to court records, the gang members killed the girl because she insulted their satanic rituals and a shrine.
  • Three MS-13 gang members were charged with the murder of 17-year-old Raymond Wood, who’s body was been mutilated by the gang members. They stabbed Wood sixteen times, ran over his body, and then removed his hands.

*Please don’t be alarmed. The following image is not of a real hand. It’s a staged photo. But please do imagine the very real fear experienced by those who’ve faced death, torture, and dismemberment at the hands of MS13 gang members.

  • Hector Lazo, 18, and Pedro Rivera, 23 were arrested for the murder of 37-year-old Nelson Rodriguez. Officers said Rivera shot Rodriguez in the back of the head while simply walking in the street.
  • Two teenage boys and an 11-year-old girl were shot at an apartment complex by two MS13 gang members. The shooting of the two boys was gang-related. The shooting of the girl was accidental.
  • MS13 gang members are responsible for the deaths of eleven people on Long Island. The victims were hacked to death with machetes. Their bodies were then horribly mutilated by gang members using those same edged weapons.
  • Best friends Nisa Mickens and Kayla Cuevas were brutally murdered by MS13 gang members. It was the day before her 16th birthday when Nisa Mickens’ brutally beaten body was found in Brentwood, N.Y. The badly beaten body of 16-year-old Kayla Cuevas was discovered in a nearby wooded backyard.

To kill the two girls, MS-13 gang members used bats and machetes. Cuevas was the target of the hit because she had apparently feuded with some gang members on social media. Mickens, who was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, was so badly beaten around her head and face that she was barely recognizable.

Machetes are often used to kill because laws aren’t as strict as those governing firearms. And, because of the massive damage they’re able to inflict when used against a human body.

  • Three Long Island MS-13 gang members were arrested for the attempted murder of a 19-year man. During the attack, the gang members used a machete to slash the victim’s stomach. Then they shot him.
  • New York Police charged three MS-13 gang members with the assault and attempted murder of a rival gang member. The victim was brutally beaten and shot in the head. The victim is now a paraplegic as a result of the attack.
  • MS13 gang member Carlos Gonzalez is wanted in connection to the death of his 25-year-old girlfriend Maritza Lopez. Police found Lopez dead in her bedroom closet with gunshot wounds to the chest and head.
  • MS-13 has directed its members to “take out a cop.” The gang member suspected of putting out the hit order is a tall, light-skinned Hispanic man with a thin build and a tattoo of three dots next to one of his eyes. The order is the assignment of any and all members. They simply want a cop, any cop, to die. The purpose of murdering a law enforcement officer is to send a signal to police, telling them to back away from arresting gang members. Killing cops is what they do in other countries when they feel police are closing in.

*Top photo – FBI

Prisoners are constantly scheming and devising ways to beat the system, and death row inmates in South Carolina found a way to essentially put the brakes on executions. How’s that for ingenuity?

Officials in South Carolina, bless their hearts, believed condemned killers should have the option as to how they’d die—lethal injection or electric chair. Well, it goes without saying that given the choice of being fried like a chicken for a Sunday dinner or to lie down on a padded gurney where a medical person injects enough drugs to initiate a very long nap in the great beyond, the folks residing on death row picked the injection over the suped-up jumper-cable-powered chair. A no-brainer.

No Access to Drugs

Unfortunately for the state but a stroke of good fortune for the prisoners, in 2011, South Carolina was permanently denied access to the drugs to perform lethal injections. Therefore, by opting for lethal injection, a process inmates knew could not be carried out, those prisoners prolonged their lives for eternity. They were condemned to die but the state had no means to make it happen. Until …

State officials recently held a vote to eliminate lethal injection as an option for execution, making the use of the electric chair mandatory. The results of the vote … Yes=26. No=12. The proposal now goes to the House where it expected to pass easily, meaning it will soon be time to fire up Old Sparky. The prisoners will no longer have a choice. They will be electrocuted until dead.

South Carolina is one of only nine states that allow electrocutions. A couple of states have ruled the use of the electric chair is unconstitutionally cruel. I’ve witnessed an execution by electrocution. It’s not pretty, but it works.

Execution: It was April 27, 1994 at 11:13 pm. when I looked into the eyes of a serial killer and then watched him die.

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.

spencer.jpg

Timothy W. Spencer, The Southside Strangler

Other women in the area were killed by someone who committed those murders in a very similar manner. Was there a copycat killer who was never caught? Or, did Spencer kill those women too? We’ll probably never learn the truth.

Spencer was, however, later tried, convicted, and sentenced to die for the aforementioned murders. I requested to serve as a witness to his execution. I figured if I had the power to arrest and charge someone with capital murder, then I needed to see a death penalty case through to the end.

On the evening of Spencer’s execution, corrections officials met me at a state police area headquarters. I left my unmarked Chevrolet Caprice there and they drove me to the prison. We passed through the sally port and then through a couple of interior gates, stopping outside the building where death row inmates await their turn to die.

Once inside, I was led to a room where other witnesses waited for a briefing about what to expect. Then we, in single file, were led to where we’d soon watch a condemned man be put to death.

The room where I and other witnesses sat waiting was inside the death house at Virginia’s Greensville Correctional Center. At the time, the execution chamber was pretty much a bare room, with the exception of Old Sparky, the state’s electric chair, an instrument of death that, ironically, was built by prison inmates.

Old Sparky, Virginia’s electric chair, was built by inmates.

State executions in Virginia are carried out at Greensville Correctional Center.

The atmosphere that night was nothing short of surreal. No one spoke. No one coughed. Nothing. Not a sound as we waited for the door at the rear of “the chamber” to open. After an eternity passed, it did. A couple of prison officials entered first, and then Spencer walked into the chamber surrounded by members of the prison’s death squad (specially trained corrections officers).

I later learned that Spencer had walked the eight short steps to the chamber from a death watch cell, and he’d done so on his own without assistance from members of the squad. Sometimes the squad is forced to physically deliver the condemned prisoner to the execution chamber. I cannot fathom what sort mindset it takes to make that short and very final walk. Spencer seemed prepared for what was to come, and he’d made his peace with it.

Spencer 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 were scattered across his forehead and bare scalp.

Spencer scanned the brightly lit room, looking from side to side, taking in the faces of the witnesses. I wondered if the blonde woman beside me reminded him of either of his victims. Perhaps, the lady in the back row who sat glaring at the condemned killer was the mother of one of the women Spencer had so brutally raped and murdered.

After glancing around the brightly lit surroundings, Spencer took a seat in the oak chair 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.

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.

I wondered if Spencer felt the presence of the former killers who’d died in the chair before him—Morris Mason, Michael Smith, Ricky Boggs, Alton Wayne, Albert Clozza, Derrick Peterson, Willie Jones, Wilbert Evans, Charles Stamper, and Roger Coleman, to name a few.

Morris Mason had raped his 71-year-old neighbor. Then he’d hit her in the head with an ax, nailed her to a chair, set her house on fire, and then left her to die.

Alton Wayne stabbed an elderly woman with a butcher knife, bit her repeatedly, and then dragged her nude body to a bathtub where he doused it with bleach.

A prison chaplain once described Wilbert Evans’ execution as brutal. “Blood was pouring down onto his shirt and his body was making the sound of a pressure cooker ready to blow.” The preacher had also said, “I detest what goes on here.”

I wondered if Spencer felt any of those vibes coming from the chair. And I wondered if he’d heard that his muscles would contract, causing his body to lunge forward. That the heat would literally make his blood boil. That the electrode contact points were going to burn his skin. Did he know that his joints were going to fuse, leaving him in a sitting position? Had anyone told him that later someone would have to use sandbags to straighten out his body? Had he wondered why they’d replaced the metal buttons buttons on his clothes with Velcro? Did they tell him that the buttons would have melted?

For the previous twenty-four hours, Spencer had seen the flurry of activity inside the death house. He’d heard the death squad practicing and testing the chair. He’d seen them rehearsing their take-down techniques in case he decided to resist while they escorted him to the chamber. He watched them swing their batons at a make-believe prisoner. He saw their glances and he heard their mutterings.

Was he thinking about what he’d done?

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?

The warden asked Spencer if he cared to say any final words—a time when many condemned murderers ask for forgiveness and offer an apology to family members of the people they’d murdered. Spencer opened his mouth to say something, but stopped, offering no apology and showing no remorse. Whatever he’d been about to say, well, he took it with him to his grave.

He made eye contact with me again. And believe me, this time it was a chilling experience to look into the eyes of a serial killer just mere seconds before he himself was killed. All the way to the end, he kept his gaze on me.

In those remaining seconds everyone’s thoughts were on the red telephone hanging on the wall at the rear of the chamber—the direct line to the governor. Spencer’s last hope to live beyond the next few seconds. It did not ring.

The warden nodded to the executioner, who, by the way, remained behind a wall inside the chamber and out of our view. Spencer must have sensed what was coming and, while looking directly into my eyes, turned both thumbs upward. A last second display of his arrogance. A death squad member placed a leather mask over Spencer’s face, then he and the rest of the team left the room. The remaining officials stepped back, away from the chair.

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, the executioner sent a second burst 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.

It was over and an eerie calm filled the chamber. The woman beside me cried softly. I realized that I’d been holding my breath and exhaled, slowly. No one moved for five long minutes. I later learned that this wait-time was to allow the body to cool down. The hot flesh would have burned anyone who touched it.

The prison doctor slowly walked to the chair where he placed a stethoscope against Spencer’s chest, listening for a heartbeat. A few seconds passed before the doctor looked up and said, “Warden, this man has expired.”

That was it. Timothy Spencer, one of the worse serial killers in America was dead, finally.

Timothy Spencer was put to death on April 27, 1994 at 11:13 pm.

 

Unusual facts about Spencer’s case:

– Spencer raped and killed all five of his victims while living at a Richmond, Virginia halfway house after his release from a three-year prison sentence for burglary. He committed the murders on the weekends during times when he had signed out of the facility.

– Spencer was the first person in the U.S. executed for a conviction based on DNA evidence.

– David Vasquez, a mentally handicapped man, falsely confessed to murdering one of the victims in the Spencer case after intense interrogation by police detectives. He was later convicted of the crime and served five years in prison before DNA testing proved his innocence. It was learned that Vasquez didn’t understand the questions he’d been asked and merely told the officers what he thought they wanted to hear.

– Spencer used neck ligatures to strangle each of the victims to death, fashioning them in such a way that the more the victims struggled, the more they choked.

– Patricia Cornwell’s first book, Post Mortem, was based on the Spencer murders.