My Friend Cayla is not the typical secret agent. Not even close. In fact, her identity is out there for the world to see and she doesn’t care who knows her capabilities. She’s that good.

Standing at a towering 18 inches and powered by 3AA batteries, Cayla is able to carry on conversations with your children. She can also ramble on and on about herself—likes, dislikes, and even her possible career choices as she grows older.

Yes, Cayla is a doll, a child’s toy labeled as a “mole” and recently banned by the German government because of her ability to spy on the people around her. The country considers the doll to be so harmful that the FNC, Germany’s telecommunications network, issued an order to the public, instructing them to destroy every single Cayla doll in their possession.

My Friend Cayla is NOT Your Friend. She’s a Spy!

The order further instructed parents/Cayla doll owners to fill out a certificate of destruction and have it signed by a legitimate waste-management company official. The signed documents are then to be sent back to the FNA as proof the dolls were indeed destroyed. German law provides for aa potential fine of $26,500 and two years in prison as a general punishment for not following the FNA orders.

Cayla, you see, can be easily hacked by anyone within 30 feet of the dolls transmitting device. And, the Cayla dolls (also included are the i-Q Intelligence Robot) were found to be transmitting audio recordings to a third party specializing in voice recognition for police and military forces.

Ask Cayla if she can be trusted and she responds, “I don’t know.” A future politician, perhaps?

 

Banned in Germany, Cayla dolls are capable of spying on your kids, and you!

The dolls, designed as playmates for children, ask kids for their personal information—name, address, phone number, parent’s names, hometown, names of schools attended, and much more. All this without obtaining parents’ permission to collect the personal data.

The company producing the dolls says there’s nothing shady about the practice of collecting the data, which, they say, is used to enhance the experience of playing with an interactive doll.

Nuance – Dragon Naturally Speaking

Nuance, the company best-known  for Dragon, the speech-to-text dictation software (I used it from time-to-time when writing my book on police procedure and investigation), is also a defense contractor that sells “voice biometric solutions” to the military and to government intelligence and law enforcement agencies. Nuance makes the interactive voice recognition system used in these toys (Cayla dolls, etc.).

Nuance’s privacy policy states “We may use the information that we collect for our internal purposes to develop, tune, enhance, and improve our products and services, and for advertising and marketing consistent with this Privacy Policy.”

It continues, “If you are under 18 or otherwise would be required to have parent or guardian consent to share information with Nuance, you should not send any information about yourself to us.”

How many 6-year-olds will keep that directive in mind when her best friend, Cayla, asks for her mommy’s name and where she works? You’re right – Zero. And, who’s watching for the person who’s truly directing Cayla to ask the questions spouting from her plastic mouth?

After all, it could be the kidnapper/rapist sitting inside the ice cream truck parked at the curb—the creepy guy who just learned from your 9-year-daughter that her mommy will out for a couple of hours, but her 12-year-old sister is babysitting, and sure, they both like ice cream. And, of course she promised her friend Cayla that would not tell mom or dad.

So … as soon as you’re out the door and out of sight, Mr. Stranger arrives at the front door with ice cream, balloons, and candy in hand …

Hackers gain access to these dolls via Bluetooth connection

The dolls are connected to an app (typically a parent sets it up on their phone(s). Once accessed, the dolls are in the control the hacker, and the information received is theirs to do with as they wish.

Voiceprints

Data received and recorded can also be “voiceprint” for future access to “locations” without having to be physically present.

*Source – Consumerist, NPR, Washington Post… and me.

 

Treason is a word we often see in the news and social media and, unfortunately, its use is often, well, absolutely incorrect. Therefore, to save writers the trouble and embarrassment of using the term incorrectly in a work of fiction, here’s the definition of treason, a definition that is quite easily found in the U.S. Constitution.

Treason and Espionage

“Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort. No Person shall be convicted of Treason unless on the Testimony of two Witnesses to the same overt Act, or on Confession in open Court.

The Congress shall have power to declare the Punishment of Treason, but no Attainder of Treason shall work Corruption of Blood, or Forfeiture except during the Life of the Person attainted.”

Please note the use of the word “only” in the first sentence. It’s there for a reason, to make certain there’s no misunderstanding. The treason law ONLY applies to those individuals who are levying War against them (the U.S.), or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort. That’s specific. Quite specific. There’s no wiggle room whatsoever.

Tried and Convicted

So how does one commit treason against the U.S.? Here are examples:

  • In June 1947, Tomoya Kawakita, a U.S. citizen, was tried and convicted for the mistreatment  and abuse of American POWs held by the Japanese during World War II.
  • Mildred Elizabeth Gillars (aka Axis Sally) was convicted of assisting the Nazis by broadcasting propaganda on her radio show. She was an American employed by the Third Reich in Nazi Germany.
  • Iva Ikuko Toguri D’Aquino (aka Tokyo Rose), was tried and convicted of treason for her propaganda radio broadcasts to American troops where American POWs were forced to participate in on-air propaganda messages.
  • In 1948, Robert Henry Best, an American foreign news correspondent who covered events in Europe, was tried and convicted of treason after it was discovered he was a Nazi supporter and broadcaster of Nazi propaganda during World War II.
  • Aaron Burr, third vice president of the United States, was charged with treason after the discovery of his plan to invade Mexico for the purpose of establishing an empire. Now that was an ambitious plan, for sure. However, Burr was a acquitted by Chief Justice John Marshall. In his ruling, Marshall said that to prove treason, “war must actually be levied against the United States … conspiracy (to levy war) is not treason.”

Spies often commit espionage.

Espionage

Remember Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the couple who were prosecuted for giving atomic secrets to the  Soviet Union? The pair was tried and convicted for their crimes, but they weren’t charged with treason because the U.S. and Russia were not at war when they committed their traitorous acts.

Again, the Rosenburgs were NOT charged with treason because the U.S. was NOT at war with Russia at the time. Sure, this occurred during the Cold War, but that’s not an actual war with bombs and missiles and soldiers fighting the enemy. Therefore, the Rosenburgs were instead charged with espionage (spying and/or transferring state secrets to a foreign government). The Rosenburgs were convicted and executed.

So, without going into a lot of detail (especially since details are not in any way available to any of us) and to help writers avoid a mistake, the charge of treason requires far more than a brief meeting to discuss juicy gossip. On the other hand, if Boris and Natasha were present and the U.S. was at actual war with another country, any country, and IF someone aided that country with their efforts against us in that war, well …

Collusion

To continue today’s lesson, Collusion is … click here to read the details.

*I ask that you please reserve political comments for another website or blog because this article is strictly for informational purposes. This is not an op ed piece about politics or politicians. Actually, I’m sick of seeing even one single word about politics (I avoid it at every turn. I do not read political blogs, articles, social media posts, etc.). I delete political comments, by the way. However, I absolutely welcome and encourage discussion. Just not about politics, religion, race, and any of the other hot button topics du jour.

Spies, they’re everywhere!

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.

Screen Shot 2016-11-16 at 11.43.47 AM

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.

20161116_140411

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

 

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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Cloaking with straw purchases, and teflon

 

Does the hero of your story have a real need to drive an invisible car? How about clothing that protects against a mustard gas attack? Is she an expert in facial recognition? Well…

1. Forensic Facial Examiners (yes, they do exist) have been tested to determine the accuracy of their identification/recognition skills. The results? Darn near perfect (99.7%, to be exact). The high mark indicates that when comparing the accuracy of trained facial examiners to non-experts, well, the trained experts were far better at recognizing, comparing, identifying and matching faces to photos than people who are not trained to do so. Therefore, it’s safe to say the experts are indeed believable and reliable when it comes to courtroom testimony.

2. Scientists have developed a new compound that neutralizes chemical warfare agents such as mustard gas. The compound, a hydrogel coating, can be applied to clothing to help safeguard against the deadly chemicals. Adding the hydrogel to paint can also protect the interior of homes/rooms from chemical hazards.

3. Researchers interviewed 99 inmates, asking where they obtained the firearms used when committing their crimes. They found that very few guns, if any, were obtained by theft. Instead, the bad guys said they obtained their guns through:

a) purchase or trade from friends and family.

b) travel to states with slack gun laws for legal purchases (gun shows, online connections, etc.), but not via traditional gun stores.

c) gangs make bulk purchases from traffickers and then distribute to members.

d) 15% of weapons recovered from the criminals interviewed were purchased for them by women. Third party gun deals are called straw purchases. It is illegal to purchase a gun for someone who cannot legally posses a firearm.

It was discovered that most guns purchased and carried by criminals are older weapons—11 years or older. The inmates also stated that proactive policing once put a damper on carrying weapons they believed to be “hot,” fearing police would connect them to other crimes. Now, however, the move away from police stop and frisk practically eliminates the crooks’ worry about carrying illegal firearms.

4. Engineers have successfully developed a cloaking device that works even on very large objects, including military drones. The new Teflon substrate and ceramic studs scatters electromagnetic waves (light and radar), causing light to bypass the target object…making it “invisible” to detection. The process is basically an alteration of our perceptions.

5. According to Alabama professor and study researcher, Adam Lankford, five percent of the world’s population lives in the U.S. Within that 5% are 31% of world’s mass shooters (based upon 1966-2012 stats). Lankford also found that mass shooters from countries other than the U.S. typically use only one firearm. In the U.S. however, over half of the mass shooters have used at least two firearms when killing.

6. A University of Illinois Chicago study shows that 92% of all police officer line of duty deaths (murders) are by gunfire. 3/4 of those deaths are by handgun. From 1996 – 2010, 782 officers were killed. 716 were killed by gunfire (515 were handguns).

The study produced an unexpected result. The states with the highest numbers of officers murdered were not states with the highest rates of violent crime. Instead, the areas where officers were murdered most frequently were the states with the highest numbers of public-owned firearms, such as Montana, Alabama, Alaska, and Mississippi.

 

*This post is not an open invitation to express opinions about gun control. Instead, the list above is a collection of facts that could add an extra element to a work in progress. 

 

Writers' Police Academy

Is your writers’ toolbox looking a bit tired and used up these days? Do you find yourself recycling stale material no matter how deep you dig for it? Well, if you’ve noticed it, it’s likely your readers are starting to grumble, wishing you’d move on past cordite and terms like flatfoot and gumshoe.

So, here are six brand new and still-shiny facts and ideas you can toss into your toolbox for use in your current work-in-progress. After all, National Novel Writing Month is just around the corner so something new might be just the thing to brighten up a hard to write scene.

Six Facts for Your Writers’ Toolbox

1. Thermal On Demand (TOD) is a new device that allows firefighters to see detailed images—doors, light switches, furniture, victims, etc.—in smoke-filled, pitch-black places.

2. Researchers from Ben-Gurion University have developed a personality profiling technique to assist in identifying potential school shooters. The process uses vector semantics (constructing vectors that represent a variety of known personality disorders and traits) to analyze and gauge the similarities with writings of a suspect/subject. The data analysis is completed automatically via computer.

3. Scientists have discovered a method for dating fingerprints. Using a cumbersome and lab-stationary, imaging mass spectrometer (the device is not a mobile/transportable device), they’ve been able to correctly age prints up to four days. However, the prints tested were single prints deposited on polished silicon surfaces—perfect prints on perfectly-suited surfaces for testing. Experts say their next move is to test over longer periods of time, and to test on more real-life surfaces. But it’s a start. Imagine being able to rule out a suspect because his prints were left at the crime scene two weeks prior to the murder. Or, to arrest a guy because his prints were the only fingerprints left at the scene on the exact day of the homicide.

4. A new device allows the military to better hear incoming radio messages by using bone conduction of vibrations to transport sound, instead of relying on a sound that’s traditionally emitted by speakers. The device is super small, the size of a dime, which is far lighter and less cumbersome than a radio. It’s attached to a wearer’s helmut and transmits messages by turning them into vibrations. The wearer’s skull bones then send those vibrations straight to the inner ear/cochlea, bypassing the ear canal and eardrum entirely. This is an added bonus because the wearer is then free to wear hearing protection and, at the same time, receive important messages.

5. Vienna, Austria is the home of the IMS (International Monitoring System, a first-alert station that monitors nuclear transgressions throughout the world. Receiving daily real-time data from stations in 89 countries, the IMS is able to detect nuclear testing anywhere on the planet. To identify nuclear activity, the IMS analyzes atmospheric gases as well as sensitive seismometers to detect earth movement. Eleven stations monitor underwater sounds and acoustic waveforms. Since sound travels so well underwater, eleven stations are enough to cover the entire world.

6. Smart watches are a source of hacking/mining personal data. For example, a hacker using a camouflaged app could be used to steal information from emails, banking details, passwords, etc. In fact, researchers used motion sensors on smart watches to accurately guess what a user was typing. It was through the use of a homegrown app that caused the data “leaks” produced by the motion sensors.

Getting answers for your WIP

 

As many of you know, I field an awful lot of questions from writers—“What kind of gun does a detective carry?” “What are all those little thingy’s on a cop’s gun belt?” “Do police officers have to take off their gun belts when they use the restroom?” And the ever popular, “Have you ever shot anyone?” But, one of the more consistently asked questions is, “How do I approach a police officer to ask him questions about my work-in-progress?”

Most police officers are actually quite willing to help you out, if you just ask. That’s the key to this whole problem. You’ve got to ask. I promise, the officer will not bite. Well, maybe you shouldn’t try this during the noon buffet at the local Chinese restaurant…but under normal circumstances you’ll be fine. Don’t be shy! And please do use common sense. For example, these are times when you wouldn’t want to approach an officer.

1. While the officer is involved in a shootout with bad guys.

2. When the officer is on the ground wrestling with a 300 lb. suspect who prefers to remain out of jail.

3. On the side of the highway while she’s conducting a traffic stop on a stolen car.

4. At a major intersection while the officer is directing rush hour traffic.

5. While he/she is in the act of breaking up a huge bar fight.

6. While they’re advising someone of Miranda. This would be the perfect time for you to “remain silent.”

7. Public restroom stalls. NO!

8. Any meal time. Officers never know when they’ll have to hop up and rush to save a life. Therefore, their meal times are often precious moments.

Anyway, here’s a great example of how easy it is to have an officer answer your questions. I used to travel a lot, especially between our former home in Georgia and our other house near Mayberry (Hey, Barney!). The drive between the two took approximately six hours, which translates into just over a tank of gas (this was pre-hybrid days). So, during one of my fuel stops I happened to park beside a patrol car. The driver, a sheriff’s lieutenant—I immediately knew he was lieutenant by the gold bars pinned to his collar—, was cleaning the windows and pumping gas into his blue-and-white marked car.

By the way, before heading out to your meet-n-greet with an officer, it’s a good idea to learn the various collar insignias. Officers appreciate being addressed by their rank, especially the officers wearing all that fancy hardware on their collars—gold bars, stripes, stars, and eagles.

The markings on this lieutenant’s patrol vehicle, “Aggressive Criminal Enforcement,” caught my eye since it’s not something you normally see on a police car. In fact, others had noticed it as well. Customers were casually walking past the vehicle, chatting among themselves. I heard one lady say to her companion, “I wonder what that means?” A man walked by, turning his head so hard to the right he looked like an owl that had just spied dinner. Two women walked up and pretended to talk about a business across the street so they could get a better look at the police car. As they walked away one said to the other, “I wish I knew what he did.”

Well, at that point I, too, was wishing I knew the meaning of those three words. So take a guess at what I did? Yep, I went completely crazy and did the unthinkable. I walked over and before I could stop myself, I heard these words fall out of my mouth, “What exactly is Aggressive Criminal Apprehension?” There. I’d done it. I’d gone where no writer dares to go. I asked a cop a question. Right there. Right out in the open where the whole world could see. And an amazing thing happened.

Without blinking an eye, that well-armed, muscular police officer turned to face me. Our eyes locked. A bead of sweat trickled down my back. He took a deep breath. So did I. And then it happened… He answered my question. And he did it with a smile on his face. You see, Lieutenant S. Graham of the Calhoun County S.C. Sheriff’s Office is extremely proud of the work he does.

In just a matter of minutes, I learned that Lt. Graham is actually a detective with the sheriff’s office, but he also serves on the Aggressive Criminal Enforcement Team, a team of deputies that was formed in 2005 to combat drug crimes, and to work in areas of Calhoun County that need “extra attention.”

Calhoun County deputy and evidence seized during drug interdiction operation.

For example, you all know that interstate highways are used to transport narcotics. Calhoun’s A.C.E. unit patrols the interstate looking for the indicators of drug trafficking (I can’t tell you what those indicators are…for a cop’s eyes and ears only…or a future blog post :). I’ve worked drug interdiction in the past and the time spent working the highways really pays off. Believe it or not, the simple question, “May I search your car?” yields tons of dope arrests each year. Why people say yes to that question, knowing they have a dozen kilos of coke in the trunk, amazes me.

Each member of the A.C.E. team receives specialized training in the detection of narcotics and the workings of narcotics cases.

A unit such as Calhoun’s A.C.E. is extremely beneficial to a department. I once headed up what we called “Street Crimes Unit,” which functioned basically the same as Lt. Graham’s team. Not only was the unit effective against drug crimes, it allowed patrol officers to devote the majority of their time to answering calls and, well, patrolling.

Anyway, after the lieutenant and I finished chatting, I asked if he’d pose for a photo for my collection. Afterward, we shook hands and promised to stay in touch, and I headed back to my car (the gas pump had long ago clicked off). But, by this time a small crowd had gathered to see what was going on, and as I walked away they moved toward Lt. Graham.

Just as I was was sliding into my driver’s seat I heard a woman ask, “What’s Aggressive Criminal Apprehension?” I saw Lt. Graham turn to face her. The two locked eyes. And that same big smile split the lieutenant’s face as he started the story all over again, this time to a half-dozen people.

So, I have this response to one of the most-popular writer-questions of all time… Just ask and they will answer.

~

*My thanks to Lt. S. Graham for answering my questions. It was 100 degrees in South Carolina that day. And it was even hotter standing on the asphalt. Also, thanks to Calhoun County Sheriff Thomas Summers and his dedicated deputies. The residents of Calhoun County are in good hands.

Imaginary law of fiction

 

I’ve been doing the “help writers get it right” for a long, long time, and during all those years I’ve seen a ton of questions and discussions that would buckle the knees of the even the most seasoned detectives and coroners.

Some of the questions I see from writers are out there. I mean WAAAAYYY out there, and that can be a good thing…or a bad thing. It depends.

I know, it’s tough to come up with new material, ideas, and ways to keep readers interested, but you do it and you do it day-in and day-out, and you do what you do extremely well. I can say this with confidence because I read your books.

But that’s not the point of this post. Instead, I want to remind everyone that you’re writing fiction, which means you’re legally authorized by Chapter 18 Section 12 of Imaginary Law to make up stuff. Really, it’s true. Every single state and country has this law in place. Google it (wink).

Most of you turn to experts who provide factual information as responses to your questions, and those responses aren’t typically an opinion. They’re real, hard fact based on their knowledge and real-life on the job experiences. It’s up to you to transpose, mold, and shape those facts into a fictional story that’s believable. Doesn’t have to be true, just believable make-believe, even if just for a few moments, in the mind of the reader.

If you want your hero’s revolver to have the capability of firing 75 rounds while simultaneously ejecting each spent round, then so be it. But you’ve got to show why that’s possible, because it’s not in the real world. Perhaps your protagonist knows a mad-scientist-guy in Philly who made the gun in his garage workshop.

Or, you insist upon having the odor of cordite spilling from every single page of your book. Well, you know that’s not possible unless you’re writing historical fiction. However, suppose your villain stumbled across a perfectly preserved crate of cordite-stuffed ammunition left over from WWII? That would work, right?

You absolutely must have the FBI solve every single murder that occurs in the country, even though we all know the FBI does not work local murder cases. It’s just not what they do. Nor do they work all kidnapping cases. But this is an easy fix. Simply have the small town local cops ring up the nearest FBI field office and ask for help, or ask them to handle the case. Remember, though, you’d need to have an explanation as to why the county sheriff or state police wouldn’t/couldn’t help, because that’s the typical route taken when assistance is needed. Rarely do locals call on the FBI for local stuff. But you’re the master of dreams and ideas, so coming up with reasons why things happen the way they do in your mind is what you do best.

So please do feel free to use your imaginations to write fiction, even when the story is about cops. However, if you’re going for accuracy stick to what the experts tell you. And please, whatever you do, don’t argue with a professional when the fact she provides doesn’t fit with what you wanted to happen in your story. Asking the same question over and over again, hoping they’ll finally say what you want them to say, is not going to change the facts. Simply take the information and make it fit into the tale. If that won’t work, figure a way to show why it didn’t. If readers wanted a strictly factual accounting of a story they’d watch the news or read true crime. Well, maybe watching the news was a bad example of factual information, but you know what I meant.

So, by the power granted to you by Chapter 18 Section 12 of Imaginary Law, have at it!

 

Things you'll want in your next book

 

1. Scientists have developed a new sophisticated fluorescent ink that can be used as a multicolored barcode, a tool that will aid consumers with identifying and verifying authentic products. A quick scan with a cell phone and you’ll instantly know if what you’re buying is the real thing, or a cheap imitation.

2. FINDER (Finding Individuals for Disaster and Emergency Response), a new device used for locating buried victims, is now available for the commercial market. FINDER uses radar to locate and pinpoint heartbeats.

3. Hybridsil, a new Kevlar-based material used to manufacture firefighters’ gloves, offers enhanced dexterity, and much-improved heat and water resistance. The new material also provides an added protection against punctures and lacerations.

4. The Office of Naval Research (ONR) is now using functional MRI machines to determine how well working canines respond to verbal praise, petting, and snack treats. The purpose of the fMRI testing is to measure brain activity by detecting changes in blood flow caused by the animals’ responses to the stimuli. The ONR is also studying how long canines remember certain odors and how they process them.

5. Presumptive drug test kits used in the field by law enforcement have been found to give false positive results when used to test common household items, such as coffee, aspirin, and chocolate. Even soap has been “positively” identified as the date-rape drug GHB. Candy showed up as meth. And mints were identified as crack cocaine. Of course, in criminal cases laboratory tests performed by forensic scientists are always conducted to confirm field results.

The problem with the false positives, if negated by lab tests, is that innocent people have been detained and even jailed due to faulty test kit results. Remember, though, convictions for illegal drug possession are not based on presumptive drug testing conducted street-side by cops. Instead, officers use the field tests/kits only to help determine probable cause for arrest.

6. Human microbial signatures—skin-associated bacteria—can be identified on various surfaces, such as computers, shoes, clothing, cell phones, flooring, etc. Therefore, it is possible that law enforcement may pinpoint a suspect’s previous whereabouts by examining bacteria found at crime scenes.

7. Altering fingerprints CAN beat the system. Yes, criminals have escaped producing a “match” by altering their print patterns in some way. The most common and effective means of changing print patterns is to cut a straight vertical line through the print(s). The method can prevent an automatic hit returned by an automated ID system. Sanding, burning, biting, and other methods of cutting are far less effective.

The men who kill their families

 

It was a beautiful day—Easter Sunday—and the family had just concluded their annual Easter egg hunt on the front lawn of Charity Ruppert’s home on Minor Ave. Charity was mother, grandmother, and mother-in-law to the entire clan.

James Ruppert, Charity’s 41-year-old unemployed son, didn’t join the others in the festivities. Instead, he remained in his upstairs bedroom until his family came inside to prepare the evening meal.

 

635 Minor Ave. Home of Charity and James Ruppert

James still lived at home with his mother. He was a small, quiet, geeky sort of man who loved to shoot guns, and he was quite good at it. Actually, he liked firearms a lot, and he collected them. On this particular Easter Sunday, while his mother puttered about in the kitchen, James was probably choosing a few favorite firearms from his collection—a rifle, a couple of .22’s, and a .357 revolver.

 

Ruppert crime scene photo

As the bells tolled in a nearby church tower, James made his way down the narrow stairs. The youngest child, James’ nephew, was in the bathroom washing up. His sister waited at the door for her turn at the sink. Other members of the family were in the living room watching children play on the floral print area rug. The youngsters had to be mindful of the potted plants, the tabletop radio beside the couch, the figurines on the end tables, and of the portable television sitting on the rolling cart. The TV’s left-leaning rabbit-ear antenna pointed away from a leather recliner. Two coffee tables were positioned near the center of the room. The glass-topped table, the more ornate of the two, held paper plates filled with snacks. The other table was covered with a white, lace-trimmed doily.

James first entered the kitchen, where he shot his brother to death. Then he turned the gun on his sister-in-law and his mother. Next were the children at the bathroom, followed by the remaining family members in the living room. James had moved so quickly that only a small wastepaper basket was disturbed during the shootings.

 

Back door of Ruppert house

The only sign that anyone had tried to escape was that the back door was open just a crack. A girl’s body lay near it.

 

Ruppert family

James Ruppert knew what he was doing, first firing a shot to disable each of his victims, then firing the killing rounds to the head or heart.

As his family lay dead before him, James calmly called the police and reported the shooting. Then he waited for them to arrive. An investigator present at the scene stated that there was so much blood around the bodies it had started to drip through the floorboards into the basement.

 

Ruppert crime scene photo

Why did James Ruppert kill all 11 members of his family—the largest family mass murder in the history of the U.S.? The reason he gave police was that his mother had accused him of being a homosexual. He’d also hoped to cash in on the family’s life insurance policies and other assets, which totaled somewhere around $300,000.

Why have others killed their families? What were their motives?

Well, a little background first. According to the National Institute of Justice, the people who kill their families are statistically white males (91%). Over 3/4 of them used a gun to commit the act. And there was normally some sort of domestic-type violence in their history—the number 1 risk factor in all cases. Interestingly, a stepchild in the home is also a common element. Financial troubles also come into play, but only when there has been a history of domestic violence. 92% of ALL cases involved a gun.

Among the cases of murder-suicide, including the murder of their own children, jealousy was found to be a key factor. David Adams, author of Why Do They Kill? Men Who Murder Their Intimate Partners, as research for the book, interviewed several men who’d killed their family members. During those interviews he asked the killers if they’d not had access to a gun would they have still committed the murder. Most said no.

In a sort of strange twist, several years after the Ruppert murders, several knives and other edged instruments were used to brutally kill and dismember a young woman—Tina Mott—in the house across the street from the Ruppert house. This was also a case of familicide.

 

The house where Tina Mott was murdered is across the street from the Ruppert house. I was standing in the front yard of the Ruppert house when I took this photo.

The sheer horror associated with these two cases has people speculating that Minor Ave. is cursed. Others say the place is haunted. Are either of those theories even remotely possible? Personally, I can’t say either way, but I wanted to explore the ideas. So off I went to Minor Ave. to start exploring and knocking on doors. My daughter, fascinated by these cases, wanted to tag along for the interviews and to see where “it” happened. Together, we wound up spending several hours chatting with residents and witnesses and visiting the crime scenes. (I know, it wasn’t the typical “parent-of-the-year” type of father-daughter outing, but we had a great day).

After interviewing several residents we discovered a theme common to both crime scenes…the neighbors all say the spirits of the dead still visit the two murder houses. Their proof? They’ve seen them.

*You can read about both Minor Ave. cases in a true crime tale I wrote for the anthology Masters of True Crime: Chilling Stories of Murder and the Macabre (edited by R. Barri Flowers). You’ll also find a true crime story there written by Dr. Katherine Ramsland.

Masters of True Crime will soon be available as an audio book.

Copy of MASTERS OF TRUE CRIME Chilling Stories of Murder and the Macabre - Copy

Click here

*Crime scene photos and other images on today’s blog are the property of Lee Lofland and may not be reproduced or used in any manner. Some of the images have been edited to preserve the dignity of the victims. James Ruppert’s photo – West Virginia News