24 January 2012

Criminal Fashion

by David Dean

During my years as a policeman I noticed that there appear to be fads, or fashions, if you will, within the criminal world. Not fashion as in clothes (though, now that I think about it, that might be true, as well) but criminal techniques and tactics that flare into life, then fade away with time. It also became apparent to me that many writers incorporate these trends into their books and stories which might make the subject a worthwhile blog. But first let me issue the disclaimer that I am neither a criminologist, nor a historian, though I have slept in a Holiday Inn Express. What follows is strictly opinion.

I doubt that I'm telling you anything, dear readers, that you haven't already noticed, consciously or no; it's actually quite apparent when you consider it. A recent example that leaps to mind is carjacking. Whereas car theft has been with us for almost as long as there have been automobiles, carjacking was a new wrinkle. Here in New Jersey we pride ourselves in always placing at the top, or damn near, of the national car theft and carjacking stats. In fact, carjacking may have been invented in Newark– in your face, New York!

Carjacking didn't appear until the eighties and already shows signs of having run it's course. In many ways it never made a lot of sense to me, as both the theft and the thief's description were almost immediately available to the police unless he decided to up the ante to murder. Even so, the jacker had only made his situation more dire. Once murder enters into it the police are going to devote every effort to apprehending him, and now, if and when he's caught, the stakes are far more serious. Cross state lines with the car and occupants and, God help him, the FBI is now involved– it's kidnapping! All of this for the theft of a car that probably wouldn't fetch more than a few grand at the most. Remember, once the fence or chop shop owner gets wind of the jacker's antics, they have him over a barrel and can set their prices. It just doesn't make sense to me in the grand scheme of things. Yet, people do it. It's a little like the fad of the extremely baggy, low-riding jeans that expose one's lack of taste in underwear, while rendering headlong flight from the police a near impossibility. Why? Fashion, of course.

As a side note, carjacking spawned a curious criminal phenomenon that, thank God, was less wide-spread or utilized– the carjacker alibi. I'm sure that most of you remember the heinous case of Susan Smith of South Carolina. She murdered both her children by allowing her car to roll down a boat ramp and into a lake with her sons. She claimed that a carjacker (a black man) had taken her car at gunpoint, along with her kids. A savvy police investigator blew this story up when he was able to prove that her route and timeline were wholly inconsistent. After that, it was just good interrogation techniques.

She was not the only one– a husband in Boston alleged a carjacker (yet another mysterious black male) had attempted to take his car but only succeeded in shooting his wife to death. This was wholly untrue… he had done it himself. There were others, as well. Sometimes it seems, what is bad spawns what is far worse.

But I digress. I'm not saying that a crime fad can't be profitable or successful, I'm just positing that some fads make a lot of sense to begin with; then, due to technology, societal factors, improved policing techniques, etc… they fall to the wayside; some only to be resurrected when conditions once more become favorable. Take piracy…

The heyday of buccaneering, at least in the Western world, was during the 16 and 1700's. It wasn't really a new idea, even then. Both the ancient Greeks and Romans complained of, and did combat with, pirates. The pirates' goal was simply to remove any and all items of value from one boat, or town, and place them onto another– theirs– a redistribution of wealth, if you will. Naturally this required violence, or the threat of it. The payoff could be quite handsome. Some historians believe that piracy on the high seas was simply a nascent expression of man's desire to be truly free of the strictures of class, poverty, and… let's face it, the law… a floating Utopian republic, if you will. I take a slightly more jaundiced view. I think that they were criminals playing the main chance for the most returns and the least possibility of getting caught. And it worked like gangbusters for a little less than two hundred years (that's not to say piracy died out completely, just that the heyday of sea-thieving had drawn to an end): the rise of more efficient navies and tactics, including improved cooperation between nations, had made it a lot less fashionable to go around saying, "Arrgg." Thank God, as this can really get on your nerves after a while.

It must be pointed out, that while buccaneering went largely the way of the dinosaur in the Western Hemisphere, it has remained for very many centuries a threat in the Eastern one. It was never just a fad there. The Somalis are late-comers when compared to the persistent piracy in the China, Malay, and Philippine Seas. The factors necessary for the cessation of sea-thieving have never arisen in these places, it would seem.

Anybody remember train robbing? You can thank those stalwarts the James-Younger gang for the invention of both that and bank robbing. I sometimes wonder where crime would be today without Jesse and crew. These were true innovators. Their kind doesn't often come along… and we should all be glad. They were bloody minded and ruthless disciples of Captain William Quantrill of 'Bloody Kansas' fame during the Civil War. Janice Law recently wrote a very interesting blog on this historical niche.

Quantrill
 In essence, Jesse and friends translated the lessons they had learned as confederate guerrillas and applied them to outlawry. The mounted ambush applying superior and accurate firepower with overwhelming force was their speciality. It was a 'shock and awe' technique that worked quite well on both banks and trains. It also helped that lawmen were pretty thin on the ground in those parts and that the local populace was largely supportive. Those that weren't kept their opinions to themselves. The unsettled atmosphere of Reconstruction provided a perfect breeding ground for crime, just as Prohibition and the Great Depression would in the years ahead.

In fact, it could easily be argued that the roving, and now motorized, desperadoes of the thirties, such as Bonnie and Clyde, John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, etc… simply applied the James Gang's tactics to the age of the automobile. Whereas, Jesse and crew had armed themselves with the best revolvers and lever-action rifles of their day, it was their numbers that was overwhelming both in terms of firepower and intimidation. The Depression-Era gangsters, however, didn't need to spread the loot so widely, as they arrived with fully automatic weapons, such as Clyde Barrow's infamous .30 cal Browning automatic rifle. Local police had nothing to match it… not even close. This was one of the reasons the bad guys chose to shoot their way out of tight spots with the cops so often– the odds were definitely in their favor.
Bonnie and Clyde

I'm not implying that armed robbery is a fad, far from it; it's always been around and is here to stay. It's the techniques and tactics that have changed to suit the times. Today, a bank robber is most likely a single perpetrator wielding a note. It's an effective technique that would not have been very convincing or fashionable amongst the 'Long Riders' of yesteryear– you would have been laughed out of the saloon… or worse. Apparently, bank and railroad employees of their day were made of sterner stuff, and not likely to yield to the power of the written word, however well-crafted. The enforcement of federal statutes across state lines, the creation of the FBI, and improved armament for the police, effectively brought to a close the era of the roving bank and train bandits.

During the sixties and seventies you could hardly pick up a newspaper without reading about another series of gruesome homicides– serial killers appeared to be everywhere and hard at work. Non-fiction writers had a field day with writing biographies of the likes of Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, The Hillside Strangler (there were two of them as it turned out– uncle and nephew), the Night Stalker, and the rest of this particularly repulsive crew. The fiction crowd followed up, and from the eighties on it seemed every other book and film was about a serial killer. Thankfully the torrent appears to have tapered off to more of a trickle these days, and I, for one, am not sorry.

Ted Bundy
 I'm certain that there are still serial killers going about their deadly business, but either the reporting of it has fallen off, or this unique species of crime has slackened. Perhaps there was something about the groovy days of flower power that incensed these creatures. Certainly, law enforcement's tool box, specifically the use of DNA, the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program (a national data base for the collection, collation, and analysis of disparate information concerning criminals, victims, and homicide methods in an effort to discern patterns of violent crimes and their perpetrators), and profiling have impacted the serial murderer's freedom of action to some degree.

Now here's twist on my theory– what about all those Satanic cults of the eighties and early nineties? Remember? Again the media played a big role in this, publicizing what were believed to be cults practicing ritual murder and serial abuse. In one case it was a child care facility believed to be staffed by the devil's spawn. Hell, I was even trained to recognize cult clues at crime scenes. Know what? Almost none of that stuff actually happened. Though perhaps Satanic influence was responsible for the mass hysteria that produced this peculiarly insubstantial crime phenomenon.

As for new trends in crime, I have one word for you, and no, it's not plastics– metal. Metal thieving is rampant and growing. Thieves are stealing everything from the copper plumbing from beneath vacant houses to the grounding wires for utility poles. Some have even been fried while attempting to rip the copper out of power company substations. Manhole covers, lawn ornaments, wind chimes, and, yes lawn lovers, even brass sprinkler heads are fair game. As for this fad… my guess is that it's the economy. But don't go waxing all sentimental about folks stealing to feed their kids; the ones my officers apprehended were mostly feeding their drug habits; kids be damned. Recessions are hard on druggies too. Metal theft doesn't jump out at me as the most fascinating subject for crime fiction, but who knows?

So there you have it, my thesis on crime fads, fashions, and trends. My rundown is by no means comprehensive, as other fads and fashions are occurring to me even now: drive-by shootings and people smuggling to name but two, but I must stop somewhere. Perhaps you've thought of a few yourself.

9 comments:

Leigh Lundin said...

The problem with car-jacking in NYC is that 0.4mph escape velocity.

I first became aware of this crime fad phenomenon during a spate of airline hijackings. Then the popularity died out and a new crime-de-jour began.

Criminals devise some new plan, law enforcement reacts to stamp it out as best they can. I'm not sure new laws are as effective as making crime unprofitable. That said, criminals can be amazingly stupid.

If I recall correctly, Julius Caesar was held for ransom by pirates when he was a young man and they apparently were quite entertained by him. After his release, Caesar returned and slaughtered them.

Fran Rizer said...

David, this was interesting and informative. Unfortunately two of the crimes du jour appear to be men killing their wives instead of divorcing them and someone is either stealing infants/toddlers or their parents are getting away with selling or eliminating their offspring.

janice said...

Good post- certainly horse stealing has dropped off in the modern world and, at least fictionally, jewel thieves are out of fashion.

David Dean said...

Leigh, another famous victim of piracy was St. Patrick. He was kidnapped from Britain by Irish pirates while a youth. After years of slavery, he escaped the pagans and made his way back home. Once he was ordained, he returned to the land of his captivity and converted the heathens (mostly). Talk about your unintended consequences! A happier ending than what Caesar offered however.

Fran, you are quite right. There are far too many crimes involving marriages and children; it almost appears to be an epidemic of late.

Yes, jewel stealing seems to have lost it's fictional appeal. I think it may appear to be too 'civilized' for today's audience. As for horses, Janice, I, for one, wouldn't know how to drive one of the things if I did steal it.

R.T. Lawton said...

The fad of criminals trying to alter their fingerprints appears to be making a small comeback. In the 1930's, John Dillinger used acid in an attempt to burn off his prints. Now, in the last decase, since tightening of security after 911, the Border Patrol is finding illegal immigrants with criminal backgrounds burning off their prints or even having them altered surgically, like a tummy tuck only on a smaller scale. It's always something, but it's all food for writing.

Louis A. Willis said...

The post made me think about crime here in East Tennessee and whether some are rising or fading.

I don’t know if it’s a fad or if it is due to hard times, but city and county officials are getting caught stealing taxpayer money. In one Tennessee town, the city recorder was indicted and charged with stealing $60,000.

Here in Knox county, employees can earn bonuses if they finish a course in government operations. The County trustee gave himself and some of his employees bonuses worth $40,000 even though they had not finished the course. He and the employees decided to give back the money once an investigation began.

I don’t know if it is a fad are just sign of the bad times, over in Putnam County, cattle rustling is a problem because of the high price of cattle.

One crime that seems to be either increasing or fading, I’m not sure: theft of prescription drugs. A criminal court judge caused quite a mess in Knox County after it was discovered he was abusing prescription drugs. One of the most heinous crimes over which he presided started with a carjacking and ended with two young people dead. The case will be retried.

David Dean said...

I knew I could rely on you all to come up with some unusual criminal fads...but cattle rustling, Louis? You may get the prize for today's posting. I don't know why I should be surprised, after all, cattle reiving has been with us, off and on, since recorded history began, but I am, nonetheless.

R.T. you had a interesting wrinkle here, too. Good info on the resurgence of an old method of evasion from law enforcement.

I guess everything old is new again, after all.

Leigh Lundin said...

One odd and terribly sad crime was tree rustling. Many farms in Shelby and Rush counties, Indiana, have been in families a hundred or two hundred or more years.

For example, our land grant was signed by Andrew Jackson. We had two woods on our property with old-growth walnut. About once a generation, owners would sell some of the walnut and thin the woods.

East of Rushville, Indiana, a family's farmhouse was set well back from the road, and two giant walnuts stood sentry by their entry. The family went on vacation and when they returned, they were stunned to discover this pair of walnut trees, perhaps 250 years old, had been sawn to the ground and removed.

The family was devastated as if they'd lost a family member. They never discovered who or where they were milled.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Delightful post, David. Lawn ornaments??? Take my neighbor's gnomes--please!