09 February 2012

Right Under Our Noses

by Deborah Elliott-Upton
Mysteries of life surround us. Where there is something evil going on, something good is also flourishing. The idea of seeing what you want to see (half-empty glasses or half-full) has always
been up to the interpreter, but what is going on right under our noses isn’t always so easy to detect.

Sometimes I wonder what’s really going on out there. I know the truth is out there, but am I missing it just because I’m too busy to see? If you haven’t looked through an I SPY book lately, do
yourself a favor and find a kid who owns a copy, or go to a bookstore or library and find one to skim through. Only you won’t skim through. They are quite intoxicating. All those hidden- in- plain-sight things make a mind that enjoys mysteries wander. Considering Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Purloined Letter” suggests there is much to be discovered right under our noses.

Over the years there have been many serial killers who lived seemingly normal lives right under the noses of those around them without any real hint they were committing heinous crimes.

Dennis Lynn Rader murdered ten people in the Wichita, Kansas area between 1974 and 1991.
His modus operandi was to bind, torture, and kill and rendered his nickname as the BTK Killer. Rader was viewed by many as a normal neighbor who ranted about a few things, but who didn’t?
Rader had earned an associate’s degree in Electronics and a bachelor’s degree in Administration of Justice. He’d earned a living as a home security installer, a census field operations supervisor, and a dog
catcher. He had spent four years in the United States Air Force. He was a member of a church and elected president of the Congregation Council, a Cub Scout leader, father of two and married to his wife for 34 years before his arrest.

Right under our noses and yet he murdered ten people before he was discovered.

Is the truth really out and we aren’t paying enough attention to discover it?

The son of one of our neighbors told me he was terrific at snowboarding. Our area isnot known for snow and the child claiming this was five, so I doubted what he said. The truth was he was great at snowboarding on his Wii game. He actually believed he could hit the slopes on a snowboard and be a professional. BUT, he was five years old. As mystery readers and NCIS junkies, we think we could figure out a serial killer before the police and we don't have innocence of youth in our corner as a defense.

One of my writing buddies who is a retired police officer from Colorado said most of us believe because we watch CSI that we know as much as the detectives and could warrant a decision as to who is guilty and why if we were privy to the information found at a crime scene and especially if we’d had the opportunity
to know the profile of the perpetrator. In real life, it doesn’t always work that way. That’s why shocked neighbors living next door to a killer for decades are always remarking to the press, “He seemed like such a nice guy. I had no idea he could do such a thing.”

Being a mystery writer is much easier than being in the trenches catching real killers. In our stories we develop the pace and decide how he will be caught. In the real world, there also is detecting, but often the ego of the killer also plays a hefty part. The BTK killer taunted police with letters which helped lead to
his eventual capture.

Luck sometimes plays a big hand in the apprehension and in those escaping becoming a victim. The
BTK killer had planned to strike again and actually stalked a woman and laid wait for her in her home for hours while she visited with friends. Angered when she didn’t return home on time, he left frustrated. Being with friends and staying late saved the woman’s life.

Dare we pay more attention to our neighbors and new co-workers with an inquiring mind? Perhaps, but maybe catching real criminals should be left in better hands of the professionals.

As for me, I will continue to plot my own fictional crimes and capture the bad guys on paper. I will enjoy reading other’s works and try my hand at mentally figuring out who did it and why. I will pay more attention to those around me in real life. I will probably visit longer with friends because it could someday save someone’s life.

That doesn’t mean to say I am giving up on still-great eye candy Mark Harmon and his exploits via the small screen. I think he’s doing a wonderful job heading up the NCIS due to the writers’ wonderful job tying up all those loose ends right under our noses.


  1. Deborah, I agree with you, but today I can't help but think of the killers like Josh Powell. They are the ones who show lots of signs of NOT being "the nice guy next door," but wind up committing additional crimes because the evidence isn't strong enough to justify taking them to trial in today's CSI world of juries. We spoke not long ago of women who murder their children. Many of us have believed since Susan Powell went missing that Josh disposed of her, but his final acts upon those two little boys exceeded even our worst expectations. It seems we must beware of the "nice guy next door" as well as the obviously psychos loose among us.

  2. So true, Fran. That story breaks my heart on so many levels.

  3. I used to envy the British police system, where they are able to arrest on 'reasonable suspicion' as opposed to 'probable cause'. Of course, they could not charge the person until they had the actual PC. However, this allowed the police to not only hold a suspect for several days while attempting to gather perishable evidence, but sometimes took a very dangerous person off the streets. If he was released without charges this did not bar them for re-arresting him as new information came to light. The bar for American police, while certainly favoring the truly innocent, also provides a wide range of play for the criminal. That being said, if I were the innocent suspect, and most assuredly if I were not, I know which system I would prefer then.

  4. Fran's comments are along the lines of thoughts I have been having lately about the criminal justice system. I made my living as an attorney (though, thankfully, not in criminal law) as did my wife. We are both slack-jawed at some of the innocent verdicts that have been coming in lately. We both have a theory that CSI-type crime shows are, in effect, polluting the jury pool. Juries seem to be rebelling at cases built solely (or largely) on circumstantial evidence, expecting (instead) a full-blown explanation of precisely how and why a crime was committed before voting to convict. I suppose the same goes for decisions to arrest (though I defer in that respect to my Tuesday colleague David who has more experience on that side of the ledger). Everyone watching the Powell case could tell at least circumstantially what must have happened. And our inability to act on the obvious left those kids dead.

    I know that our system of justice is premised on presumed innocent until proven guilty. But I can't help thinking that we are swinging the pendulum a little more than it needs to be swung of late. The inability to convict on circumstantial evidence (see, e.g., Casey Anthony's Florida acquittal) has an inexorable effect on police and prosecutors who become less likely to arrest on circumstantial evidence.

  5. Wonderfully put, Dale. And you are certainly right about the dampening effect it is having. Prosecutors are becoming very reluctant to go forth with circumstanial evidence cases due to the CSI effect, while the police are beat up by the media when they make arrests without direct evidence; especially DNA. As a people, it seems, we are demanding that science relieve of us of the hard decisions involved in being members of the jury, or the criminal justice system. To often, it is simply an excuse for avoiding any responsibility.

  6. Great post, Deborah!

    ". . . often, it is simply an excuse for avoiding any responsibility."

    I think you hit the nail right on the head, David. And, I suspect this may be linked with the truth that Deborah writes she feels may be out there but not understood.

    My experience sitting on a jury, is that I suddenly felt the heavy weight of justice descend crushingly onto my own shoulders. We often feel as if Judges have a heavy duty, but when push comes to shove, it’s JURY MEMBERS who actually decide whether or not to send a person to prison. They’re the true final arbiters who can’t “pass the buck.” Speaking with fellow jury members, the two times I’ve participated, I’ve never found one who disagreed (though I’ve encountered some who didn’t feel comfortable discussing it).

    My father used to say that he felt too much weight was placed on developing a sense of personal responsibility, when he was a kid in the 30’s. But, today, the pendulum seems to have swung the other direction: most folks seem to look for outside influences that “caused” them to act in certain ways, or think certain things. Consequently, it seems to me that many people no longer accept personal responsibility for their actions.

    On a jury, where one can’t escape personal responsibility, I suspect this creates a conflict many members of society can no longer handle. Sending someone to prison, or letting a criminal back on the streets is a particularly heavy responsibility, and I suspect many people’s decision does not concern: “Did this person commit this crime?” But is rather: “Which way can I vote, in order to lessen my guilt if I am wrong?” In an increasingly media-centric society like ours, I think this tends to push the verdict toward not-guilty, because jurors may escape learning whether or not a criminal breaks the law again – but they KNOW if they have sent someone strait to prison. Voting “Guilty” creates an immediate result they can’t ignore. Voting “Not-Guilty” may be a way of psychologically “passing the buck.”

  7. Interesting point, Dixon about a non-guilty verdict as way of passing the buck. I was on a jury recently and was also the one holding up the verdict. It is a lot of pressure and stress to make the "right" decission.

    Deborah, as always fantastic post! I need to keep a closer eye on my neighbors, they too, seem nice enough...


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