Showing posts with label murders. Show all posts
Showing posts with label murders. Show all posts

19 August 2019

Robert Johnson and the Hell Hound


Last Friday, August 16, was the 42nd anniversary of Elvis Presley's death. It was also the 81st anniversary of the death of an even more important music figure. On the same date in 1938, Robert Johnson, often called the King of the Delta Blues, died after drinking a bottle of poisoned whiskey. The story could become a great true-crime book if I had the bent for the massive research necessary, but I don't. Johnson's saga has already fueled works in various genres anyway.

Born May 8, 1911, Johnson was the guitar hero around the Mississippi Delta, standing on a pinnacle with Charley Patton, Son House, and nobody else. He only recorded 29 songs over the course of two sessions, one in a San Antonio hotel room in November 1936 (22 tracks in two days) and a Dallas hotel room over a weekend the following June (20 more tracks). The recording logs say 17 more tracks were recorded, but nobody knows what happened to them. We have 42 surviving tracks, one or two takes of 29 iconic blues songs.

Columbia released a vinyl LP of 15 songs in 1961, and among the musicians who heard Johnson for the first time were Eric Clapton,
Eric Clapton, circa 1968
Keith Richards, Jimmy Page,
Jimmy Page with the Yardbirds
Brian Jones, and Mike Bloomfield.
Mike Bloomfield
That spark fanned the flame of the American blues revival and the British Invasion. An LP of the remaining songs appeared in 1970 and stoked the earlier frenzy. There have been three remastered CD sets of Johnson's work. The last two went platinum, the latter in less than a week.

What did Johnson give us? Well, Eric Clapton played "Ramblin' on my Mind" with John Mayall's Bluesbreakers after he left the Yardbirds. He still considers "Cross Road Blues" his trademark song since he recorded it live with Cream in 1968. That trio also covered "From Four Until Late." Elmore James had a 1951 hit with his slide version of "I Believe I'll Dust My Broom." Delaney and Bonnie and Johnnie Winter each recorded "Come on in My Kitchen." Led Zeppelin played "Traveling Riverside Blues" in their live sets. I first heard "Walkin' Blues" on a Paul Butterfield album (Mike Bloomfield played guitar), and the Grateful Dead often played it live. The Rolling Stones did a killer version of "Love in Vain," mostly when Mick Taylor was their slide maestro. The Charlatans covered "32-20" on an early LP, and I can't begin to count the artists who have performed "Sweet Home Chicago."

That's a pretty good showing for a man who died three months after turning 27.

We have only two existing photographs of Robert Johnson, and they both show him holding a guitar in his amazingly long fingers, which may account for his virtuosity.
Along with that skill, sometimes attributed to his selling his soul to the Devil at a crossroads, Johnson earned a reputation as a lover of both whiskey and women, not always single. He carried on publicly with ladies who wore another man's ring, and it caught up with him in July of 1937.

He and Dave "Honeyboy" Edwards were performing at the Three Forks Store & Jook House when someone sent up a bottle of scotch for Robert. Edwards noticed that the seal was broken and knocked it out of his friend's hand with the warning "Don't never take a drink when the seal's broke."
The Jook joint where Johnson probably drank the poisoned
bottle of scotch, served by a jealous husband.

Johnson didn't listen. Another bottle appeared shortly and he drank heavily while playing. By late in the evening, he was very ill and showed symptoms of what was probably arsenic poisoning. He was making time with the wife of the man who owned the roadhouse, and since rats were around, so was poison. Johnson suffered for several days and contracted pneumonia, passing away on August 16.

This was in Greenwood, Mississippi. the local white sheriff didn't give two hoots about some dead colored singer, and while there were many witnesses and people who knew the situation, nobody ever followed up. Johnson's death certificate doesn't even give a cause of death.
Johnson's death certificate. Notice that the right side is blank except for the notation "No Doctor."

Months later, John Hammond wanted Johnson to play at his Spirituals to Swing concert (Dedicated to Bessie Smith, who had also died recently) at Carnegie Hall. He sent Don Law, who supervised Johnson's recording sessions, to find him. Law eventually learned of Johnson's death, but found another musician to take Johnson's slot in the show and revive his own flagging career: Big Bill Broonzy.

Johnson's playing was the stuff of legend, and his life and songs have inspired novels, plays and films. Elijah Wald explores Johnson and the Delta blues in Escaping the Delta, which points out that blues wasn't even recognized as a separate genre until the 1930s.

David Sheffield's "Love in Vain" is a short story told from the point of view of the coroner examining the body of a dead blues singer. I first found it in an anthology called, fittingly, Delta Blues.

Sherman Alexie's early novel Reservation Blues is a whimsical tale of a man who picks up a black hitchhiker in Idaho and finds a guitar in his back seat after dropping the guy off. Johnson was the hitchhiker who faked his death to cheat the devil out of his soul. He leaves the guitar behind so he can't be tracked, but the magic instrument enables a group of Indians to form a rock band. I assigned the book as a summer reading text one year and encouraged the students to track down Johnson's recordings. It turned out there were two guitarists in the class. Those young men will never be the same.

Thunder Knocking on the Door, a play by Keith Glover, premiered at Yale Rep in the 1990s with Johnson's music front and center. The script is good and the acting was fine, but the loudest applause went to the blues band that made the songs come to life.

Then there's the forgettable film Crossroads. The premise is that an old black harp player knew Johnson and learned a thirtieth song from him that he never recorded. The script and acting don't do it justice. The best part of the film, no surprise, is the soundtrack, created and performed by Ry Cooder and a host of surviving blues legends including Blind Sonny Terry on harp. Cooder and Albert King performed the title song live on TV at (I think) the Grammies that year.

My own novel Dark Gonna Catch Me Here takes its title from a line in "Cross Road Blues." The whole line is "Sun goin' down, dark goin' catch me here/ I ain't got no woman to love and feel my care." When I heard the line for the first time, my reaction was, "What a great image!" Then I thought it could be a title. My cover designer loved it too, and started working before I even wrote the book. He said, "You better go darker than usual, because I am."

I did. By now, the book has probably sold dozens of copies.

Johnson has been dead three times longer than he lived, and he's still fertile ground for musicians. The songs are haunting and evocative and push guitarists to try the impossible. And his archetypal existence and lifestyle continue to inspire legends and stories. Someday, maybe someone will write the work that does him justice.







10 November 2017

Planning Ahead: True Crime


After I wrote the headline above, I realized that it might suggest something more sinister—that I'm planning some sort of criminal activity of my own.
...which I'm not.

(...or at least I'm smart enough not to write about it publicly if I was.)

What I am planning is the syllabus for my "True Crime" course this spring at George Mason University.

I've taught this course before a few years ago, and it was enlightening to me as well, though I'd actually included several of the books before in other classes not specifically dedicated to this topic: Truman Capote's In Cold Blood and Beverly Lowry's Crossed Over: A Murder, A Memoir, which focuses on Karla Faye Tucker, the pickax murderer, who became the first woman executed in the state of Texas since the mid-1800s. That latter book remains one of my own favorites—such a rich mix or reportage and reflection, of a writer grappling with issues in the wider world (the impact of place on a person, for example, or the workings of the justice system) at the same time she's struggling with more personal issues, about parenting particularly, what it means to be a parent, those roles and responsibilities and the weight of it all. (As a parent now myself, I think about the book in different ways myself, with greater weight.) I'd also included Errol Morris's documentary The Thin Blue Line, which continues to astound me each and every time I've watched it.

Much of the reading that was new that first time I taught "True Crime" came from the Library of America's True Crime: An American Anthology—some well-known essays that covered a wider history and also a wider breadth of approaches, from the more strictly journalistic (Meyer Berger's Pulitzer Prize-winning article "Veteran Kills 12 in Mad Rampage on Camden Street") to works that bordered very close to fiction (Jim Thompson's "Ditch of Doom").

The course requires students both to craft analytical essays and try their hand at their own  creative writing—or at least the opportunity to do the latter. The first assignment asks students to choose a crime that's been covered in the class and to research other documents related to it—additional newspaper coverage from the same era as well as (potentially) more recent essays looking back on the crime—and to compare the approach in each, to evaluate which approaches might help reveal more about the "truth" of the crime. The creative writing assignment allows students to craft their own true crime essays, whether as memoir (amazing how many of us have been at least adjacent to crimes if not involved more intricately in them) or as investigative journalism at least at some rudimentary level.

There are several new texts I'm considering for the course—some I know better than others.

I had the great opportunity this summer to meet Thomas Wolfe, the co-author of Midnight Assassin: Murder in America's Heartland, which explores a crime that I've taught many times in the past: The Hossack Murder, in which an Iowa farmer was killed in the middle of the night by his wife. The story was covered in the press by Susan Glaspell, who went on to write both a well-known play, Trifles, and a short story, "A Jury of Her Peers," both based on the crime. Those three sets of documents all by the same author—newspaper reporting, a play, a short story—have always made for good texts to analyze: how they compare with one another, how the story is transmuted from fact into fiction, how themes persist one to another. And I'm looking forward to the opportunity of teaching Midnight Assassin itself—which puts all this into even greater perspective, looking back on it all from the vantage point of today (or 2005, I mean)—and to having Wolf himself visit the class.

I was just recently reading several reviews of a new YA book, The 57 Bus by Dashka Slater, and I think it would be fascinating to teach, both because of the very contemporary themes explored here and because of the opportunity to explore the differences in writing true crime for young adults and for adults—that shift in audience. Here's the review from the Washington Post that first alerted me to the book:
On the afternoon of Nov. 4, 2013, a 16-year-old boy in Oakland, Calif., set fire to another teenager’s thin white skirt. The victim received second- and third-degree burns and spent the next few weeks undergoing multiple surgeries. In The 57 Bus (Farrar Straus Giroux, ages 12 to 18), Dashka Slater examines this horrific incident from several angles, providing a nuanced portrait of the assailant and the victim, a brainy teen who identifies as agender (neither male or female). The book also sensitively explores the hot-button issues of gender nonconformity, bias crimes and juvenile justice. And since the attack occurred at one point along the sprawling route of the 57 bus, the city of Oakland — a diverse community beset by inequalities in income, opportunity and safety — also figures heavily in the narrative. For kids in East Oakland, “life had a way of sticking its foot out, sending you sprawling,” and Slater well describes the bleak and bleaker prospects they face. 

Mason is fortunate to have a true crime writer visiting at the end of next semester: Cutter Wood, author of Love and Death in the Sunshine State: The Story of a Crime, which promises to be a potent mix of investigation and introspection (see Crossed Over above again for the works I'm drawn toward). Here's the promotional copy for the book:
When a stolen car is recovered on the Gulf Coast of Florida, it sets off a search for a missing woman, local motel owner Sabine Musil-Buehler. Three men are named persons of interest—her husband, her boyfriend, and the man who stole the car—and the residents of Anna Maria Island, with few facts to fuel their speculation, begin to fear the worst. Then, with the days passing quickly, her motel is set on fire, her boyfriend flees the county, and detectives begin digging on the beach.

Cutter Wood was a guest at Musil-Buehler’s motel as the search for the missing woman gained momentum, and he found himself drawn steadily deeper into the case. Driven by his own need to understand how a relationship could spin to pieces in such a fatal fashion, he began to meet with the eccentric inhabitants of Anna Maria Island, with the earnest but stymied detectives, and with the affable man soon presumed to be her murderer. But there is only so much that interviews and records can reveal; in trying to understand why we hurt those we love, this book, like Truman Capote’s classic In Cold Blood, tells a story that exists outside of documentary evidence. Wood carries the investigation beyond the facts of the case and into his own life, crafting a tale of misguided love, writerly naiveté, and the dark and often humorous conflicts at the heart of every relationship.

Sounds good? Only trouble is that Love and Death in the Sunshine State doesn't come out until the very end of the semester, so getting it on the syllabus will be a challenge. We'll see what I can do!

And finally, another addition—and a switch in media too—with the podcast series Mared & Karen: The WVU Coed Murders, and I'm hoping to get the man behind the podcast to visit my class as well next semester. As the WV Explorer explains, the podcast "explores the kidnapping, murder, and decapitation of two West Virginia University freshmen in 1970" and "presents the case for a wrongful conviction, offers new evidence about who really killed the coeds, and examines the crime’s social and cultural impacts on West Virginia and Appalachia." This one is a definite, and thanks to English Department chair Debra Lattanzi Shutika both for suggesting the podcast and (in advance!) for helping to set up my guest lecturer too!

Any other suggestions for texts I should consider? I'm still finalizing my plans!

30 October 2017

Odds and Ends


Jan Grape As usual on Sunday morning, afternoon and evening, I'm wracking (or is it racking or wrecking?) my brain for something cogent to write for my blog article. All you other Sleuthsayers, who have two or three articles already scheduled and two or three emergency articles online, are just too good for me. I envy you all. 

As I reject one thought after another it occurred to me that maybe I've just written all that my brain file cabinet holds. If it's true that each of us only have so many cells in our bodies before we die then perhaps my brain only has so many words, I've just used them all up already.

So I decided I'd share the odds and ends of thoughts that came to me today. None of which could possibly be a full length article. 

First I thought about cats and dogs. You can kill off any number of people in a book but heaven help you if you kill a dog or a cat. We are all a bit crazy about our pets. Some folks are total dog people. Others are total cat people. And a huge percent are equally in love with both canines and felines. Personally, I love both dogs and cats although I haven't had a dog is over twenty years. It's just easier for me to have  cats that I don't have to walk. I know it's good exercise but I don't live in a neighborhood with level ground or sidewalks. 

Another thought was reading about how several years ago when the color pink - especially the sickly pink of Pepto-Bismol made men feel weakened. Could this calm prisoners down? A couple of commanding Naval officers at a correctional facility in Seattle painted the holding cells a pink color. The name became Baker/Miller Pink, named after the commanding officers. For five months it did seem to work. 

Soon prisons, visiting teams locker rooms and even housing projects all over the country turned up pink. Did it really work?  Probably not. Maybe people just got ill from the color or decided they didn't like it but it soon disappeared. Have any of you ever used color as a calming effect on your bad guy in your book?

Another idea.  Marriages; is having an affair better than getting a divorce? There are divided thoughts on this from psychologist and psychiatrists. We mystery writers think murder is the quickest solution except the perpetrator must be caught. We all know you just can't GET AWAY with MURDER. 

Of course, you  get away with murder if you come up with a perfect murder plot in your book. I think a few writers have but then along comes, Agatha Christie, or Jack Reacher or Sam Spade who solves the crime.

Please let me know if y'all have any thoughts on these odd subjects. And my apologies to Time magazine for any ideas from their pages.

Happy Spooky Day






13 October 2016

More Updates From South Dakota


One of the fun things about having moved around a lot is that you learn that most places look a whole lot alike any more, from the strip malls to gas stations, from fast-food chains to housing developments.  And don't even get me started on the "industrial parks", where large metal sheds are the new factories (no windows, two doors, completely anonymous).  Even Josiah Bounderby would think they were a little too utilitarian.
On the other hand, the other fun thing you learn is that, underneath all that sameness, there are real differences.

Image result for dry corn in fields south dakotaOne thing that puzzled me when I first moved up here, was why there were so many cornfields standing, unharvested, well into November, December, January, February...  I mean, there's brown corn, with cobs, with snow.  So I asked about that:  "Was there some sort of blight?" And was told that the corn was freeze-drying in the fields, to save the cost of corn dryers.  Who knew?  I'd been living in the South for the last 17 years, where they harvest at harvest time, i.e., the fall, because if they leave the corn in the field, it'll rot with all the rain.  Up here...  well, we're colder than that.

Here's another puzzler:

Image result for signs limousin service

There's lots of signs here in South Dakota for "Limousin Service". As a newcomer, I had two questions:

(1) why were there so many limousine services in rural South Dakota?
(2) why didn't they spell it right?

Later I learned that a Limousin (outside of Sioux Falls) is a cow. French origin, from the Limousin, but all over the place up here, along with Angus, Shorthorn, Simmenthal, etc.   And, of course, Limousin Service is about breeding.  (Which sometimes happens in limousines, too, but we won't get into that.)

BTW, this is NOT a misspelling, but deliberate:

Image result for toe service

There are more than one of these signs along I-29 between Sioux Falls and Mitchell.  Dick knows how to make you look.  Betcha he gets a lot of calls, too.
BTW, this is why I regularly put characters asking stupid questions into my stories.  God knows I've done it often enough.
Thankfully, there are other ways to find out what's going on in a new area than running around asking crazy questions.  For one thing, find out who's the biggest gossip in town and park yourself next to him at the Norseman's Bar or her down at the Laskin Cafe.

Another way is to read the local paper.  And not just the local daily paper, but the local weekly paper, which services the whole county.  We have one, called "The Peach".  If you need field irrigation wells, farm & home wells, high capacity pumps; if you want to buy a limousin 2 year old bull or an Angus yearling; if you need retrenching or a ride to Branson to see Daniel O'Donnell; or any sort of job in the healthcare, farming, or hog confinement industry, the Peach is the place to go.

Did I mention barn straightening?  Seed cleaning?  Bean stubble baling?

Also pork loin feeds, and church suppers, all of which are other places where you can go and get fed while catching up on the news/gossip/weather report.

And then there are the Locals, where we find out what to do with our spare time:
  • Dist. 8 Conservatives Luncheon
  • Laskin Duplicate Bridge
  • Arts Council
  • Alcoholics Anonymous 
  • Sr. Citizens Dance (hugely popular; if you're a guy who loves to dance, you will not sit down for longer than it takes to have a cup of coffee or a highball to pep you up for the next dance.)
  • Christian Motorcyclists Association
  • VFW Auxiliary Sunday Brunch - every Sunday, great pancakes, come on down!
  • The Country Swingers (more dancing; get your mind out of the gutter) 
Now granted, it's not the Agony Column that Sherlock Holmes read every day, but things slip in.

Like what happened to the person who posted "Acres of good used hog equipment for sale"?  What happened to THAT hog containment operation?  And why does s/he say, "Save this ad"?

Or why is someone "looking for used mobile homes, 1995 or older, will pay CASH."  Do they breed? Are they refurbished and sold as new?  Or are they being shipped up to the Bakken for the man-camps?

Or the sale of "Positive Rain Gutters".  (Watch out for negative rain gutters, they will leak and you.)

And there are auctions galore, of course.  These are important, not only because you can bid on everything from TOOLS OF ALL KINDS (and they ain't kidding!) to Antiques, Trucks, Household Goods, Implements, Stationary Engines, Parts & Pieces, and the land itself.  Auctions are where people gather.  They last all day; food (or at least coffee) is often served; and people stand around and catch up on everything, from who's there and who isn't.

And speaking of auctions, we had a humdinger back in September.  You remember the Gear Up! scandal, where, early in the morning of September 17, 2015, a fire destroyed the home of Scott and Nicole Westerhuis and their four children in Platte, South Dakota.  Our Attorney General Marty Jackley determined that Scott Westerhuis shot his entire family, torched the house, and then shot himself, all because he was about to be caught for embezzling enough funds - and no one still knows how much - to build a $1.3 million rural home, a $900,000 gym complete with basketball court, etc., etc., etc., on a combined salary of $130,000.

Well, look to your right, folks.  Yes, they auctioned off what stuff survived the fire that night.  For a detailed look at what was on auction, read Cory Heidelberger's blog HERE.

As you might expect, the auction was a major topic of discussion around town.  Many of us agreed that we would not be anxious to have any item from that property because we are almost all superstitious, and feel like the TVs might go on and off by themselves, or perhaps the desk roller chairs might start swiveling around in the middle of the night, like at, say 2:57 AM when someone used the Westerhuis landline to call Nicole Westerhuis' cell phone...

The land itself was sold at auction to the Platte Area Ministerial Association, who plan to open an interdenominational Christian camp there.  Unfortunately, they only had the $37,000 down payment and are trying to raise the rest of the $370,000 bid.  They've set up a GoFundMe page, which hopefully will work.  (Although I can't but wonder if an exorcism might also help...)

And where did the funds that were raised go?  To pay for the funerals; compensation for estate representatives and attorneys; a dozen credit card companies, banks, and workers.  Meanwhile, Gear Up! will not be reimbursed nor, apparently, the State of South Dakota.

And speaking of Gear Up - Mid Central Educational Co-op Director Dan Guericke is accused of backdating contracts to avoid a government audit, plus sighing at least 17 illegally secret contracts on behalf of Mid Central worth $3.8 million. Where, oh, where did the money go? (see all of Angela Kennecke's report HERE.

Speaking of Guericke and Westerhuis, "Guericke spent more than an hour on the phone with Scott Westerhuis the evening before the tragedy and when the board questioned him about what was said, sources tell me that Guericke told them the two really didn't talk about much at all."  Mm-hmm.

Did I mention that they STILL haven't found Scott Westerhuis safe?

Ah, South Dakota, where we talk like Mayberry, act like Goodfellas, and the crazy just keeps on coming.

 

04 August 2016

Why I Hate Serial Killers


I don't like serial killers.  I know, you're thinking, who does?  Well, a hell of a lot of people, apparently.  Not only do they like stories / movies / TV shows about serial killers, they even like them when the serial killer is the hero.  I don't.  One of my few lines in the sand (along with torture porn and child porn) is this:  if the serial killer is the hero, I won't watch it or support it with my dollars.  I don't want people to think it's "okay", or "justifiable", or "entertaining", because, to me it isn't.  For a number of reasons.  Among them is the fact that I've seen a serial killer and all his fall-out at close hand, and it's probably the most horrific thing I can imagine.

Here in South Dakota, back in the 1990's, Robert Leroy Anderson was tried and convicted for kidnapping, raping, torturing, and killing two women.  I was Circuit Administrator at the time, and he was tried in my circuit.  Twice.

Though no one knew it at the time, it all began when Larisa Dumansky disappeared on August 27, 1994, after working the night shift at John Morrell & Co. meat packing plant in Sioux Falls, SD.  As so often happens, her husband, Bill, was briefly under suspicion, perhaps of an argument, perhaps of more.  The idea was also floated that she might have taken off.  The Dumanskys were both Ukrainian immigrants - maybe she'd gone home? Maybe she'd only come with him to get American citizenship? Maybe...  But her husband denied all of it, and said she'd never have run off, they were perfectly happy, and even more so, because she was pregnant.  But nothing was heard of her for years.

On July 29, 1996, Piper Streyle was getting her children (2 year old son, 3 year old daughter) ready to go to their daycare center.  They lived in Canistota, and she worked at Southeastern Children's Center in Sioux Falls. Her husband Vance, had already gone to work. Piper never made it to work; the children never made it to daycare.  Instead, one of Piper's co-workers called that afternoon, and was stunned when the daughter answered, weeping, saying that she and her little brother were alone in the house and that her parents were dead.

The daycare worker got on the phone to Vance and the Sheriff.  They found the children alone in a trashed living room, with Piper's purse emptied on the floor.  The sheriff asked what had happened, and the daughter told him, "Mommy's going to die."  A"mean man" had come into the trailer, argued with their mother, and taken her away at gunpoint.  Vance Streyle remembered a balding man, in his twenties, named Rob Anderson who'd come to their trailer 3 days before, at 7:30 a.m., to ask about enrolling his kids in the Streyle's bible camp for children.  Piper told Anderson the camp was over for the year, but to sign up for next year.  Anderson left his name and telephone number.

Robert Leroy Anderson was 26 years old, and had already been married twice, with 4 children.  He was a maintenance man at John Morrell & Co. meat packing plant.  Witnesses remembered seeing his truck parked up the way from Streyle's on the 26th and the 29th.

The police searched his truck, and found (among other things) receipts for duct tape, and a wooden platform with holes drilled into it with Piper's hairs on it, a dirty shovel, furniture moving straps, weeds, a toolbox and other evidence.  At his home, the police found a pain of jeans stained with blood and semen.  Also, handcuff keys.

Two days later, the little daughter ID'd Anderson's photo as the man who took her mother. He was arrested on two counts of kidnapping, but not murder, because there was no body. In fact, they never found a body, despite a massive search that went on for days all around the Big Sioux River.  They eventually found half of her shirt; later a farmer picked up the other half on the side of the road.  They also found a roll of duct tape with human hairs attached to it that matched Piper's DNA, as well as rope and chains, eyebolts, a vibrator and a half- burned candle.

In May 1997, Anderson was tried and found guilty of kidnapping Piper, and sentenced to life imprisonment in the South Dakota State Penitentiary.

Well, after that, a buddy of Anderson, Jamie Hammer, said that Anderson had been obsessed with torturing and murdering women ever since high school.  Hammer was kind of into it himself.  They used to sit around and plan the perfect crime.  In 1994 they tried it.  They got "wheel poppers" and put them on the road and were almost successful, except the poor woman whose wheel got flatted managed to break free.  She was one of those who testified against Anderson.

There was another friend who was in on that attempted kidnapping:  Glen Walker.  In 1997, after Anderson's conviction of kidnapping Piper Streyle, Walker confessed to participating in the kidnapping (at knifepoint) of Larisa Dumansky, as she left work on August 26th, 1994.  The two men drove her out to Lake Vermillion, where Anderson raped, tortured, and killed her.  (If you want the details, look them up yourself - they are horrific.)  Walker always claimed that he just watched.  That was how he knew that she pleaded desperately for her life (remember, she was pregnant).

Walker was the one who showed them where Larisa was buried, under a chokecherry bush.  Only part of her skeleton was still there, but they found enough to identify her.

Meanwhile, Anderson was in prison, and his one-time cellmate, Jeremy Brunner, contacted the attorney general's office in August 1997. He told them that Anderson bragged in great detail about the murders of Piper Streyle and Larisa Dumansky.  That Anderson admitted he was a serial killer; that he kept souvenirs or trophies of his victims at his grandmother's house. That he had moved Larisa's skull to prevent them from IDing the body.  And he asked Brunner to kill Walker, his old friend, because he knew Walker would turn him in.  Anderson drew up maps for him, and told him where he had a gun stashed - again, in his grandmother's house.

The police searched his grandmother's house and found jewelry belonging to Piper Streyle and Larisa Dumansky, as well as Anderson's gun, all exactly where Brunner had said they would be.

September 4, 1997, Anderson was finally charged with murdering Larisa Dumansky, and with the rape and murder of Piper Streyle (remember, he'd just been convicted of kidnapping her before).  The trial began in March, 1999, and he was convicted on April 6th on all counts.  Three days later, he was sentenced to death.  Walker was tried in March, 2000 and pled guilty to attempted kidnapping, and accessory to kidnapping and first-degree murder and conspiracy to kidnap Larisa Dumansky.  He received a total of 30 consecutive years.  He just got out on parole this year... (believe me, I feel your horror.)

Anderson appealed his death sentence in 2002 - which here in South Dakota was a non-starter - but on March 30th, he was found dead by hanging. The interesting part of this was that he was in a segregation cell, not his death-row cell, because he'd been found in possession of a razor blade. (There's been some unofficial debate about that...)

Reactions were universally, grimly positive:
Robert Leroy Anderson
Prosecutor:  "There's a lot of women who will sleep better knowing that this guy is deceased."
Vance Streyle:  "This is what we were after anyway. It just saved some time and effort."

I remember going to the last day of Anderson's trial - Anderson sat like a big fat white slug and smirked through the whole thing.

Did I mention that, back at Morrell's, a lot of coworkers admitted that they'd heard Anderson talk about kidnapping, raping, torturing, killing women, but couldn't believe that he meant it?  That he was serious?  So they never said a word to anyone, because they didn't want to look ridiculous...  Two women dead, another woman terrorized, and hints, rumors, of other women who might have disappeared, back where he used to live...

As I used to tell my classes, if anyone starts talking about how much fun it would be to do the things that Robert Leroy Anderson did, the hell with ridicule, I'm going to turn them in.

A serial killer as the hero?  Not in my fictional universe.  Not now, not ever.

26 April 2016

House for Sale! Not Haunted!


2475 Glendower Place, Los Feliz (Los Angeles), CA 90027

Los Feliz Murder House
“First time on the market in over 50 years! Perched on a hill up a long drive way with sweeping views sits this 4 bedroom 3 bath Spanish Revival home on a large lot. Features include grand entrance with a step down living room with serene views, formal dining room, library/study, large kitchen, and a ballroom with bar on the third floor. Three car garage at street level and two car garage at the end of the driveway. Waiting for that special person looking for a wonderful opportunity to remodel or develop,” says the agent’s listing, which you can find at: http://www.bhhscalifornia.com/listing-detail/2475-glendower-place-los-angeles-ca-90027_1843846

All of this for only 2.7 mil (and change). Spare change, for some.

The one thing that the agent forgot to mention in her description is the murder-suicide and attempted murder committed here on December 6, 1959. No biggie. So it definitely might take a “special person” to buy this joint.

According to CA law, I believe the crimes committed in this house need to be disclosed. When my wife and I were looking for our current house several years ago, one of the houses we liked a lot had had a suicide in it and that was disclosed to us. It wasn’t a deal breaker – no, that was the fact that the house needed work and the seller wouldn’t come down, considering the amount of work needed. But one does think about how it would be cozying up in the family room, watching The Haunting and knowing that someone had shot themselves right there. So when that popcorn you were eating is suddenly all gone you might wonder “who” ate it…

But this Los Feliz house (a really great neighborhood by the way) has something on the house we were looking at, a murder and a suicide instead of just a mere suicide. And an attempted murder. I guess today we’d call the killer a family annihilator or at least a family annihilator wanna-be, though I don’t know if the term was in use in 1959.

The house’s architecture is Spanish Revival, similar to the house used in Double Indemnity and the house I grew up in. And my favorite style of home architecture.

Los Feliz Murder House
Apparently the house is frozen in time, a relic of 1959, when Dr. Harold Perelson hit his sleeping wife with a ball-peen hammer till she was dead. He then attacked his daughter Judye, but his bad aim caused her to wake up and run into her parents’ bedroom. Finding her mother dead, she ran out of the house screaming, until the neighbors called the police. The commotion caused the Perelson’s two younger sons to wake up but the good doctor gently told them they were having a nightmare and to go back to bed... but not as bad a nightmare as they probably had when they woke up and found their mother bludgeoned to death.

A neighbor entered the house to see Perelson taking a handful of sleeping pills, lay down on Judye’s bed and count sheep – or maybe dead bodies – while waiting for death, which came before the police. Nobody knows what motivated the good doctor to do what he did. People speculate that he was depressed or had business setbacks, but no one knows for sure.

The house was sold in a 1960 probate sale and the son of the buyer died just this last year. Supposedly another family rented the house right after the sale, adding a Christmas tree and presents, but fled a year later. Since then, no one lived in it except maybe a squatter here or there. But word is, because of the murders, they never stayed long. And the Christmas tree, old and untouched, and presents are still there and supposedly have been all this time.

Rudy Enriquez, the recently deceased son of the home’s buyer, said he used the house for storage but not much else. He could have given it to me, I would have loved it.

Word is that the house is a teardown, both because of its history and because it’s falling apart and in such great disrepair after so many decades. But one has to wonder, does the bad energy of that fateful night linger? And will it linger on this spot if the house is torn down? Oooooh!

Curious Lookie-Loos come up the narrow street and bother the neighbors, parking in their driveways or just using them to turn around. They park and get over the chain-link fence and look around. The gawkers would bother me more than the “ghosts”.

Some people think haunted houses increase a home’s value. Others wouldn’t’ touch them. But as silly as it may sound to some, even “haunted” houses have to be disclosed these days.

Personally, I love Los Feliz. It’s a beautiful neighborhood filled with tons of gorgeous Spanish Revival homes, where my cousins and aunt and uncle lived in a cool Spanish style house, pretty close to this murder house. So, we’d hear stories…about the bogeyman and worse! And when my wife and I were looking for our current house we looked in Los Feliz, but ultimately decided we wanted to be farther out of the city, so where we live now the local little paper has things like saddle stolen on their crime blotter page instead of family bludgeoned to death every other day. Los Feliz is where the main characters in my novel Vortex live. And there’s a really cool bridge there, the Shakespeare Bridge, that is part of a very intense scene.

SHAKESPEARE BRIDGE, LOS FELIZ (LOS ANGELES)
So, if you happen to have 2.7 mil handy, make an offer. If I could afford it I’d put a down payment down right now. And I wouldn’t tear the house down either.

And here’s how the ad should read if there really was truth in advertising:

“Planning that perfect murder? Don’t mess up a virgin house. Famous Murder-Suicide house on the market for first time in over 50 years. Haunted by ghosts of past murders. Perfect for you: Features soundproof walls. Large kitchen with butcher block, perfect for chopping. Formal dining room with wood beams for hanging things from. Ball-peen hammer room on the third floor. Stainmaster carpet throughout. Only two people died here. Three got away. You might too...”

(Hat Tip to Leigh Lundin for suggesting this piece, though not the tone of it. And I hope I haven’t offended anyone with my gallows humor. ’Cause so many are offended so easily these days…)

***


15 January 2016

The Murder of Reporter Don Bolles


For about 14 years, reporter Don Bolles had worked at the Arizona Republic newspaper as an investigative journalist. Those who knew him agree that he was cautious -- often placing a strip of Scotch tape between the hood of his car and the fender, to ensure no one had tampered with the engine compartment. Given that he wrote investigative stories in which he, at one point, even listed 200 mafia members's names, however, he was neither seen as paranoid, nor deemed overly cautious.

Evidently disappointed that few people seemed to care about the corruption he unearthed, he began petitioning his editors for a different assignment around 1975.  By 1976 he was covering the state legislature instead.

But, perhaps his investigative skills just couldn't be resisted.

On June 2, 1976, he typed a note that he left behind in his office. According to that note, he would be meeting an informant, then going to a luncheon meeting, with plans to return  around 1:30 that afternoon.  That evening, he and his wife were planning to see a movie as part of their wedding anniversary.

He never made it to his luncheon, however, nor did he ever return to his office or see that movie with his wife.

Police examining Bolles' car after the blast.
(Parking space is now part of covered parking)
That day, Bolles drove his 1976 Datsun 710 to the Hotel Clarendon (then also known as the Clarendon House, now called the Clarendon Hotel and Spa), located at 401 W. Clarendon Dr. in Phoenix.

After waiting in the lobby for several minutes, Bolles got a call at the front desk.  He reportedly spoke on the phone for only a minute or two, then left the lobby and returned to his car.  While backing his Datsun out of its parking space, he was gravely injured by a remotely detonated bomb hidden beneath the car under his seat area.  The bomb blew his car door open and left him hanging part-way out of the vehicle.  According to some reports, when found, he uttered, "They finally got me.  The Mafia.  Emprise.  Find John."

Though Bolles' left arm and both legs were amputated in the hospital, he died eleven days later.

At his funeral, local citizens turned out en-masse to participate in the procession, as a form of protest against the mafia, which was largely perceived to have perpetrated the killing.

Interior of his car.
Emprise, one of the names reportedly mentioned by Bolles after the blast, was a private company that operated several dog and horse race tracks, and was a major food vendor for sports arenas.  Emprise had been investigated for ties to organized crime in 1972, and six members were later convicted of concealing ownership of a Las Vegas casino.  No specific connection was found, however, between Bolles' death and the Emprise company.

Bolles had not only investigated mafia-related criminal actions around Arizona, he had also written investigative stories about land fraud that led the state legislature to open blind trusts to public scrutiny, a move that was not wholly welcomed by powerful high-rollers in the state.

The question was: Who actually killed him and why?

The then-newly formed organization Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE), sent a group of volunteer investigative reporters from around the nation to dig into the case.  According to the IRE,  Bolles had gone to the Clarendon to meet John Adamson.  Adamson had called Bolles saying he had information that linked Barry Goldwater and at least one other prominent state GOP member to land fraud perpetrated by organized crime.  On June 2nd, on the desk phone at the Clarendon, Adamson told Bolles his informant couldn't make the meeting.

Thus, the "John" reportedly mentioned by Bolles may have been John Adamson.  Bolles may have been concerned for his informant's safety.

Unfortunately for Don Bolles, John Adamson was evidently not an informer, but was instead luring him into a trap.  Later trial testimony revealed that Adamson had purchased two sets of electronics, similar to those found in the bomb, while on vacation in San Diego.  Adamson, early on that fateful June 2nd, asked the parking garage attendant at the Arizona Republic which vehicle belonged to Bolles, and police later found only one set of electronics in his home.

In 1977 Adamson agreed to a plea bargain, accepting a sentence for 2nd Degree Murder for building and planting the bomb that killed Bolles, while accusing Max Dunlap, a Phoenix contractor associated with wealthy rancher and liquor wholesaler Kemper Marley, of ordering the hit.  (The idea here is that Dunlap targeted Bolles in retaliation for negative news stories he had written about Kemper Marley, which kept Kemper Marley from getting a seat on the Arizona Racing Commission.)

Adamson further accused James Robison, a plumber in Chandler, of triggering the explosive device that killed Bolles.

Adamson would eventually serve 20 years in prison.

Dunlap and Robison were both convicted of 1st Degree Murder in 1977, but their convictions were overturned a year later.

When Adamson refused to testify in the retrial of Dunlap and Robison, he was convicted of 1st Degree Murder and sentenced to death.  The Arizona Supreme Court later overturned this verdict.

In a lengthy procedure that evidently concluded in 1993, Robison was recharged and retried, but acquitted -- though he did plead guilty to soliciting an act of criminal violence against Adamson!  (Gee!  Maybe that's why Adamson refused to testify that second time!)

Dunlap was recharged, and retried, in 1990, when Adamson finally agreed to testify again.  Dunlap was found guilty of 1st Degree Murder.  He died in prison in 2009.

Adamson died in the witness protection program in 2002, after serving a 20-year sentence.

Hmmm.....

Let's see.  We have a reporter who dug up and printed secrets about organized crime and a company involved in dog and horse racing.  But, when it comes time for trial, we have one guy who is "associated" with someone possibly prevented from getting onto the Racing Commission by Bolles's stories.  Plus a plumber who admitted he threatened the witness who said he pulled the trigger.  And a guy who wound up in the witness protection program.

Nope!  No mafia connection with this crime, is there?

See you in two weeks!
— Dixon

30 December 2014

The Ponsonby Post Office Murder


On the evening of Saturday, March 13, a person or persons unknown entered the house of Mr. Augustus Braithwaite, the postmaster of Ponsonby. Braithwaite was shot dead and the keys to his post office stolen from his pocket.

Ponsonby is a central city neighborhood in Auckland, and the post office (built in the Edwardian era and featuring a clock tower) has long been a focal point and landmark in the neighborhood.

The postmaster's inert body was discovered by his wife. He was still warm, and a doctor was telephoned for. The attending doctor immediately recognized that he was looking at bullet wounds (one to the abdomen and a second to the throat), that Braithwaite had been murdered, and a police constable was summoned.

It quickly became apparent that the postmaster's keys were missing. Within an hour, the police constable, together with officers from the detective branch of the Auckland police, made their way to the Ponsonby post office...  It had been robbed. The strong room had been unlocked and the cashboxes inside jimmied open. Clear fingerprints were evident on three of the boxes.

On March 15, the cashboxes, together with a list of the usual suspects (24 known criminals thought to be in Auckland on the night) were sent by train down to the CRB (Criminal Registration Branch) at the headquarters of the New Zealand police in Wellington. They arrived on the desk of the nation's fingerprint expert: Senior Sergeant E. W. Dinnie (ex Scotland Yard and 17 years of fingerprint investigative work to his name).

No fingerprint match was found.

Three days after the murder, which had gripped the nation and had taken up residence on the front page of every daily newspaper, a retired prison warder thought he might drop by the Auckland police headquarters. The retired warder had seen a man by the name of Dennis Gunn in the vicinity of the Ponsonby post office. In fact, he had seen Gunn loitering several times near the building on the day of the murder/robbery.

Dennis Gunn wasn't a known criminal, but he had two years earlier served a two week sentence in jail for the conviction of evading military service, and the retired warder had recognized him. Subsequent to the criminal conviction, Gunn's fingerprints were on file.

A telephone call was put into the CRB in Wellington. Within hours, they had a fingerprint match, and four days after the robbery, Dennis Gunn was arrested and charged with the postmaster's murder.

Gunn is on record as having smugly remarked to the arresting detective: "You'll have the devil of a job to prove it."

Three days after Gunn's arrest, a recently-fired revolver was located in a canvas bag in the bush down a steep gully near his mother's house (where he lived), together with the stolen post office keys, a jimmy, and a bag containing 229 pennies. A fingerprint matching Gunn's was taken from the revolver.

Gunn was still confidently smug.

A ballistics match was quickly made with the revolver: Grooves were matched. There was little doubt the gun (a .38) had fired the two bullets that had killed Braithwaite.

Gunn was still confidently smug. He was probably sitting in his police cell, clipping his fingernails, and thinking about hopping aboard a steamer bound for the islands for his summer vacation.

Gunn was smug because this was 1920, forensic science was still in its infancy, and no New Zealand citizen (in fact, no citizen in the entire British Empire) had ever been convicted of murder based solely on the evidence of fingerprints.

And there was no other evidence. The two gunshots had been heard, but in 1920, it wasn't an uncommon occurrence to hear a gun being fired (it was only two years after the Great War, and many a man still had his service revolver tucked away in his sock drawer).

There were no eyewitnesses, no convenient boot impressions left in the mud, no left-behind telltale strands of hair or threads of fabric. Nothing (not even the gun proved traceable). All there was were sets of damp little etchings, where a man's hands had touched several metal surfaces and had left behind little impressions of whorls and ridges.

Gunn had no alibi. He had no plausible explanation as to why he had hung around the post office that day, and he couldn't account for his whereabouts at the time of the murder. His trial began on Monday, May 24 at the Auckland Supreme Court, and quickly became a test case.

The matching fingerprints were the only things that tied Gunn to the gun and to the cashboxes; and the reliability of fingerprints as evidence was furiously argued against and discredited by his lawyer. As Gunn's lawyer correctly pointed out, there was simply no precedent for such a serious conviction based on such evidence.

After five days of heated courtroom debate, the jury retired for deliberation. Given that this was only two years after the First World War, when New Zealand's population was around 1.2 million, and that the country had recently lost more than 17000 men in the fighting; and given the fact that Gunn's earlier conviction was for desertion (a fact known to the jury); they'd have probably hung him for jaywalking.

A verdict of Guilty was returned for the robbery (the takings from the post office had amounted to 67 pounds, 14 shillings, and 5 pence), and a verdict of guilty was returned for the murder of Augustus Braithwaite. Gunn was promptly sentenced to death.

On that afternoon, Friday 28 May, 1920, a legal precedent was set for New Zealand and the British Commonwealth. As Sir Samuel Griffith, Chief Justice of Australia, concisely remarked at the time: "He who leaves a finger-print behind him, leaves an unforgettable signature".

Gunn was hung in Auckland on the grounds of Mt Eden prison, on Tuesday June 22, 1920. He was 25.

Gunn never confessed to the murder and had remained largely quiet throughout his trial. After the verdict was returned and the death sentence passed, he immediately attempted to blame two others: He confessed to the robbery, but claimed he hadn't pulled the trigger. The two others he fingered (a brother-in-law and an associate) both had alibis and neither of their fingerprints had been found on the gun or at the post office.

It should be noted that there were two other .38 revolvers found in that canvas bag retrieved from the gully, together with 30-odd rounds of ammunition. Neither of the other two guns was traced to an owner and neither held any fingerprints.

I've once or twice wondered if Gunn's keeping his mouth shut during the trial was some kind of thieve's code of silence (he clearly thought he would get away with it), and that once the verdict came in, all bets were off... It's unlikely we'll ever know.

Gunn is buried in Waikumete Cemetery: A vast cemetery in West Auckland that I often rode past on my bicycle as a kid. Gunn's mother never believed in her son's guilt. The epitaph on his gravestone reads: In loving memory of Dennis Gunn. Sadly wronged.


Be seeing you!


Newspaper Clippings form the National Library of NZ:
Dennis Gunn :  Auckland Star, Volume LI, Issue 67, 18 March 1920
Fingerprints : Observer, Volume XL, Issue 40, 5 June 1920
Death notice : Auckland Star, Volume LI, Issue 145, 18 June 1920

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19 December 2014

The Cell Phone as Murder Weapon


Melodie Campbell's post on December 6th gave me the idea for this post, so if you don't like it complain to her.  Because it's her fault!  (Just kidding of course.)

Surely everyone has read about cell phones being used to detonate improvised explosives, but I'm not going to address that issue in this post.  Clearly, too many bad guys already know how to set up such triggers, and -- though I think I have a pretty good idea how to rig one up -- I am not going to propagate such knowledge among more of them.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      

There is an aspect about cell phones, however, that some mystery writers may be unaware of, which could potentially render them highly useful as items involved in fictional extortion plots, arson plots, and even potential murder plots.

I don't feel I'm letting anything out of the bag by writing this, because:

  1. This aspect is widely reported on the internet, complete with accompanying photos.
  2. Recent television newscasts have covered this aspect, and its associated potential for downing aircraft.  
  3. I have certainly never been trained in using a cell phone as an explosive device, as this aspect did not exist -- or, at least, was not nearly as wide-spread -- during my military career.
  4. Having a certain rudimentary knowledge that something is possible, is a far cry (imho) from having the technical expertise and equipment to successfully execute that thing.


The aspect of cell phones that I'm addressing is:  Exploding Batteries.

Now, you may have just scoffed, and asked, "How much damage could one little battery do?"
Below is a photo of a house reportedly gutted by the fire an exploding cell phone battery started:


Is there any question in your mind, now, that a cell phone battery could figure prominently in the plot of a mystery concerning arson?





These two photos show folks who have survived phone battery explosions or fires:

I recall being told of a case, in which terrorists set up a booby trap, which fired a small explosive device mounted behind the mirror on a car's sun visor.  The daughter of a man, whom the terrorists were trying to influence, owned the car and often used the flip-down mirror (which had lights on either side, that came on when it was flipped open) to do her makeup.  The idea behind the attack, was not to kill the daughter, but to maim her.  To mar her face.


This is a horrible thing to do to someone, but since we write about horrible people perpetrating crimes, consider:  Imagine how organized crime members might use a cell battery to carry out their threat to maim family members of someone they were trying to extort into doing something illegal.

Sound like part of a plot?

What if the explosion that hurt the man's ear, in the photo above, were amped-up to be more powerful?  The target gets a call, and when he answer it -- WHAM!  Of course, the device would probably be more effective if the battery detonated five to ten seconds after the target answered, increasing the likelihood that the phone was tucked tight to the target's head (Charge-to-target contact -- remember?).  Now, we could be talking about fictional murder.


To watch a BBC clip concerning exploding cell batteries (along with some interesting demonstrations) CLICK HERE

CLICK HERE to read about ways to prevent cell phone batteries from exploding.  The idea here is: Learning what prevents them from exploding, might help you get started, when it comes to plotting techniques that your fictional character can use to make his/her targeted cell phone battery explode, wreaking fictional havoc upon the opposition.

CLICK HERE for Times of India information about "call bombing" and how this might help a cell phone to cause damage.  Scroll down to "How and why do mobile phone blasts happen?" for the requisite information.

Now: Let's be frank.  If you've read through some of the links above, then you know that most phones and batteries are well designed and manufactured, and very seldom explode.  Further, even if a battery were to explode, I think it would be quite difficult to rig up a system that would make it explode at a specific time -- which is an important consideration when working with explosive or assassination devices.  After all, if the thing blows up when it's nowhere near the targeted individual or structure, the blast will not accomplish the desired results.

On the other hand, we're writing fiction here.  So . . . maybe -- using the links above, and possibly others -- you might figure out a way to sell such an exciting plot, in a way that's convincing to readers.  If so, I hope you "Have at it!"

See you in two weeks,
--Dixon

09 May 2014

Crime Cruise-Ocho Rios


Everybody dreams about going to Jamaica on holiday. It's tropical breezes, sandy beaches, clear ocean water, dark rum, exotic flowers and coconuts. Tourists of one type or another have been coming to this island since Christopher Columbus discovered it on one of his voyages. Even the pirates of centuries ago enjoyed this paradise on earth until an earthquake destroyed their town and harbor of Port Royal. A later fire finished the destruction. Survivors moved over a few miles to establish the town of Kingston, destined to become the capital of Jamaica after the Governor moved the government offices out of Spanish Town due to the scandal of brothels in said community.
Ian Fleming's house, now a resort hotel
No doubt, many of you original James Bond fans will remember scenes of Jamaica from the movie Doctor No.If you don't remember the scenery and you are a guy, you were probably distracted by the sight of Honey Rider coming out of the ocean in her white bikini, a daring piece of swimwear in those days. In any case, the scenery was beautiful. Ian Fleming, author of the Bond series, liked the place so much he kept a house, Goldeneye, in Jamaica.


The Tour
Dunn's River Falls


After four previous ports of call, we were pretty well toured out for scheduled land excursions, so we went ashore on our own. Plus, Kiti and I had been to Ocho Rios some thirty-two years before, at which time we toured Fern Gully. (Them crazy bus drivers insist on driving on the wrong side of the road, which is slightly unnerving when you're sitting in the forward part of the bus and see oncoming fast vehicles also driving on the wrong side. What were the British thinking when they came up with that system?). During that earlier trip, we went on to climb Dunn's River Falls in swimsuits and tennis shoes, wet but refreshing in the heat of day. Of course, when our cruise ship ported thirty-two years ago, Ocho Rios didn't have the nice new dock it now has. Instead, we docked at the wharf for the local bauxite mine shipping point. Way back then when I got off the tour bus at the mandatory shopping site, a local Rastafarian sidled up beside me and in a whispered voice offered to sell me some "bud." I told him I couldn't because I was on vacation. He had a very confused look on his face as I walked away.

New cruise ship dock in Ocho Rios
For our 2014 port of call, our group of four went down the gang plank, up the new winding dock, through Jamaican Customs and into the new construction of the town of Ocho Rios. Incidentally, there are no eight rivers here. It is speculated that the British corrupted the Spanish words "Las Chorreras," which means the waterfalls, a name given to the village because of the nearby Dunn's River Falls. (As writers, we all know what a problem language can be.)

Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville on the beach
After running the gauntlet of vendors and taxi drivers (it's only a three block walk to town and the price decreases considerably the further you walk), we went through the usual tourist shops, Blue Mountain coffee stores and jewelry establishments (the latter maintained armed guards out front). Then it was time to head for Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville on a nearby beach. Here we whiled away the hours with Jamaican nachos, the local Red Stripe beer, rum drinks and one free margarita for every customer. Thank you Jimmy Buffet.

The Crime

According to United Nations estimates, Jamaica has had one of the highest murder rates in the world. Kingston, Montego Bay and Spanish Town were cursed with high incidents of crime and violence over the years. In 2005, Jamaica had a murder rate of 58 for every 100,000 people, the highest in the world for that year. Three years later, the Jamaican Parliament voted to retain the death penalty by hanging. Due to subsequent increases in police patrols, curfews and more effective anti-gang activities, that high murder rate fell and continued to fall. Many of the murders were reported to have been committed by organized crime involved in the illegal drug trade.

In 1976, Bob Marley, the famous reggae singer, and two others were wounded in an assault by unknown gunmen in his Kingston home. This murder attempt was thought to have been politically motivated by one of two warring political groups, since Marley's then upcoming free concert was seen by some as backing one particular politician.

A view of the old bauxite mine and wharf from the other side of ship
During the mid-1980's, I flew into Kingston to follow the paper trail of one of our fugitives. Parts of Kingston that we drove through were burned out buildings with political slogans painted on the walls still standing. That night, the other agent and I stayed at a hotel which was surrounded by cyclone fence with concertina wire on top. We were advised not to go outside the compound at night. It was explained to us that there were two political parties in the country and that a different criminal gang had attached itself to each of the parties. Kingston being on the opposite end of the island from the tourist resorts, we were assured the resort areas were kept safe because no one wanted to scare away the tourist money. The two Jamaican feds we worked with, and who escorted us everywhere, informed us to stay out of the mountain country at night and not to run any army checkpoints in the middle of the country. Those guys will machine gun you, we were told. But that was back then.

For our 2014 walk into the resort area of Ocho Rios, I was entirely comfortable with our environment. Our worst problem was saying "No" to vendors and taxi drivers. My only regret was not having the gear and time to go snorkeling on my own. Seems I should have signed up for the snorkeling excursion. Still had a great time at a beachside bar in a warm sun with balmy breezes...and out of the Colorado snow and cold. Sure, we'd go again sometime.

That was our last port of call before heading back to Ft. Lauderdale, disembarkation, U.S. Customs and the airport for home. It was a fun trip, seeing the tourist side, yet knowing what was or had been lurking in the past of each city and/or country we had visited.

21 April 2014

Shameless Promotions


Jan Grape A few years ago, the Sisters In Crime organization published a little booklet titled, "Shameless Promotion For Brazen Hussies."  I don't know if they still have it in their publications. I couldn't find it listed on their website publications but I'll briefly talk a bit about promotions.

This will have to be a short article because I'm dealing with vertigo and don't know how long I can last here. Most of my problem is what I've discovered on google. It does have a name, Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo. It mainly happens for only seconds when I lay down or get up from that position. And it's an inner ear problem.  Okay class, back to promotions.

Some of the information in the booklet will more or less be out of date now, however, there are a few ideas that might help. If you can come up with a clever idea to give to bookstores, book buyers and fans that promotes your book and you have a little money to spend on your book, then by all means do it.

For example: a few years ago, Dean James and I co-edited a book titled DEADLY WOMEN. It had interviews, articles and histories about, written by, for and featuring women mystery authors. For some reason I came up with the idea of a pink record using the known duo of surfer singers Jan and Dean. I mean Dean and I just happened to have the perfect names for that. We had a jar gripper opener made (you know those little rubber thingies that help you grip the lid of a jar to open it.) Any way it was a pink square with black lettering. I found a company that made promotional ideas for companies. The middle of the gripper had what looked like a black 45 rpm (anyone remember those) record. Around the center hole of the record was printed "The best of Jan & Dean. '97" In tiny font on one side of the middle hole of the record was printed Published by Carroll & Graf.  Opposite that was printed Due Date, November '97. At the bottom of the record and underneath the center hole was printed DEADLY WOMEN and under that in smaller font it said, with Ellen Nehr. (Ellen had originally been scheduled to edit with me, but she passed away and we tagged Dr. Dean James, who at that time was a co-manager of Murder By The Book bookstore in Houston, TX. My husband and I owned Mysteries & More bookstore in Austin. Outside the printed black record in one diagonal corner of the gripper was printed "Get A Grip" with the ISBN number of the book. Again the book title, DEADLY WOMEN in a larger font than on the record was on the opposite corner. And underneath that in smaller font, Edited by Dean James and Jan Grape with Ellen Nehr. Across the bottom of the gripper, again in smaller font was printed: The Major Surfers and not "a little ole lady among them." Underneath that still in the small font but in all caps: Mary Higgins Clark, Elizabeth Peters, Margaret Maron, Marcia Muller, Nancy Pickard, Minette Walters, Joan Hess and many more of today's top mystery authors. We ordered 500 I think, because it was cheaper. We mailed them to bookstores, took them to conventions and handed them out handed them out at book signings. I still run into someone who says they still have their jar gripper. I still have mine and would show you a picture of it if I knew how to scan with this computer. I can't even get it to print.  I love to hate technology.

Alright you say, but that was years ago. What about nowadays? Two items I got recently that had nothing to do with books but were items that are quite useful and there's no reason you couldn't come up with something similar. First I have a little fan that is shaped like a Frisbee but is flexible. It's metal edges twist into a little round thing about the size of a drink coaster and now fits into a little bag to be slipped in your purse or shirt pocket. When needed you pull it out of the bag and it pops open. It's an advertisement for a legal document website. It came in green and in purple. I have one of each. It's probably more useful for a female than a male yet it's very handy. The other useful item (and from two different advertisers) is those little microfiber type cloth glasses lens cleaners. One is from the same legal document website and the other is from a bank where I have an account. All you have to do is go online and look for promotional items online and come up with a useful item and have your book cover printed on it along with due date, ordering information, etc.

When we had our bookstore we got author postcards, bookmarks, pens, pencils, drink cozies, key rings, a couple of ball caps, T-shirts, pins with book covers and a huge assortment of promotional materials. I can say without a doubt, booksellers are thrilled to have little promo items like this. And so are your readers. You can give away a smaller item like a No. 2 pencil or an emery board to everyone who drops by your signing and save your larger items like caps, cozies and such for the people who actually buy your books. Is it worth spending money on items like this? I think so if you really want to have your name and your book title to get word of mouth recognition. And bookmarks are still useful items.

If you're doing a signing at a book store or an event, it's especially nice if you have a poster made they can put on display prior to your signing. Be sure to add the day and time and location of your signing. Even during the signing, if the store will put the poster on an easel or close to the signing table. Most print shops will do those large blow-up picture sizes for you and you can attach to a poster board.  Often the best thing is to ask your publisher to do some blow-ups for you. It doesn't really cost them that much to do it.

Now the other main thing in my opinion is to do something especially nice for the book store where you are signing. If there's is a female you have been dealing with, how about taking her a rosebud or two?  If it's a man who is the signing coordinator, how about some fresh baked cookies or candy?
You really want your bookstore to be happy you were there, especially if it's your local bookstore and even more especially if it's an independent bookstore. At least two months before the signing, send a press kit to the store with a recent photo of yourself and either an ARC or if the book is out, a copy of the book. If possible send a press kit to your local newspaper. I know newspapers are slowly dying out but most cities and towns still have one. They might do a write up on you. To increase your chances, tell them a little something about your book so they might find a hook and do a story. If your character is a lawyer or a doctor find something different to make your book more interesting than others. Like if your character has a memory problem, send some memory tags that the character uses to help. Or if your character is a jazz lover, you're probably already a minor expert on jazz and can write a paragraph or two to send with your press kit.

Use your imagination. You're a creative person. I know an author who had baked goods or cookies to all her bookstore signings. She shipped them to the stores who were out of town. Her main character was a caterer and she generally had recipes in her book. The first time Mysteries and More had Sue Grafton sign at our store, she suggested we advertise a peanut butter and pickle sandwich contest for fans and she would taste, declare a winner and then our store gave an autographed copy of the book. I think it was for L. For those of you who are not Grafton fans, her character Kinsey Millhone LOVES peanut butter and pickle sandwiches and often eats them. It was a big success. We probably had a dozen or so entrants, Sue dutifully tasted each one and found her winner. People called and asked if they should use smooth or crunchy PB and what kind of pickle, sweet or dill or what. She had said to tell them to use whatever they liked or what appealed to them.

And last, but not least, if you have a bookstore signing, don't forget to write a thank you note. Same with a newspaper or magazine reporter. Do whatever you can to get word of mouth going about your book. I think you can get more sales from that than from all the social media. But of course, do the social media too.