D.C. Sniper Attacks: One Side Of The Story You’ve Never Heard

Domestic violence is no joke as a crime. This blog entry originally appeared in Tara’s Tales as a way to point out journalists need to make sure they explore every angle of a story.

Courtesy of News One

On Oct. 24, 2002, relief washed over Washington D.C., Virginia, and Maryland after the “D.C. Sniper” John Muhammad’s arrest. For 22 days before his arrest, residents felt danger and fear around every corner; many barely even dared to step outside. In the course of these 22 days, ten random people were killed and six hurt by Muhammad and his accomplice 17-year-old Lee Boyd Malvo. For weeks on end this story plagued the front of newspapers and captured the attention of millions around the nation, but there’s one side of the story you probably never heard.

Sept. 29, 2010 I had the opportunity to hear a lecture from Muhammad’s ex-wife Mildred on domestic violence. The story I heard enthralled me, entranced me, and most of all touched me. It was a story I knew I wouldn’t be able to find anyway in the media, especially in the days following Muhammad’s arrest. Mildred opened up her heart to the audience and let out her emotions. She spoke to us about the beginning of her and John’s relationship, how it began as normal. When John came back from the Gulf War everything changed. He became violent and started seeing other woman. After she demanded a divorce, he was granted visitation times with the kids on weekends. One weekend though, he never brought them back. For 18 months Mildred didn’t hear from her kids, they had been kidnapped and taken to Antigua by John. This is also where John met his accomplice in the shootings Lee Boyd Malvo, taking him in and acting as a father figure to him. Mildred went to the police, but they marked the case as “custodial interference” and told her they couldn’t do anything about it because there was no parenting plan in place. Later John called her and told her, “You are my enemy and as my enemy I will kill you.” “John was a man of his word,” Mildred told us.

This threat caused Mildred, a hardworking woman who owned her own business, into hiding for 8 months. After an emergency custody hearing, Mildred got her children back. But once again she was forced finding a place she hoped John wouldn’t find them. This is when the shootings started. She never believed it could have been John, but she did know he was “the perfect shot”, able to take one shot from afar and kill someone. This is what she feared. Everywhere she went, she looked up and around at the rooftops, waiting to see John standing there with a gun aimed at her. But the shot never came, rather it was the police who came… knocking on her door one day and convincing her to come to the jail for questioning. This is when she found out her ex-husband was the prime suspect in the D.C. shootings. This is also when she found out the main target of the shootings was her. John had planned to carry out random killings, so once he was able to get her everyone would blame it on the “D.C. sniper”. However, no one would know who the sniper really was and he would gain custody of the children.

Since he hadn’t been caught when the police took Mildred in for questioning, they rushed her to a hotel under police protection. Mildred shared with us what exactly happened in that hotel that night… how when his picture popped up on CNN she reached out to the TV and placed her hand over his picture saying “Who have you become?”, how after she tucked her three children into bed for the night she went to the bathroom, turned on the bathtub water, and curled up on the cold floor and cried into a pillow for hours.

She shared with us what she and her children went through the day of his execution on Nov. 10, 2009. How it took her all her strength and will to go against what she believed could be harmful to her children… asking them if they wanted to talk with their father one last time. She believed one sentence from the manipulative man she had once married could ruin the years of counseling her kids went through, but she knew if she didn’t allow them to talk to their dad they would be mad at her forever. They decided yes, they did want to talk to them. At 9 pm though, they turned on the TV and at 9:11 pm the news declared him dead. The last call never came. She was later given a reason by John’s attorney: John, who proclaimed his innocence since his arrest, would have to answer the question “why” to his kids. This would ruin all the years he had spent declaring his innocence.

It hasn’t even been a year yet since his execution, so it surprised me she was able to come out and speak to all of us. But she wanted to share her story of being a survivor of domestic violence; in hopes those being abused all around the country can find ways to survive.

What I also find really interesting about this story is how much coverage the shootings and her husband received, but how I never once found her side of the story. Sometimes, when reading news stories, you forgot about the third party in the story. Mildred mentioned the media never really blamed the shootings on John just wanting to kill her and gain custody of the kids. The media decided John had really committed his acts for other reasons, so Mildred’s story never came out. What we decide to print and broadcast over air is the only story the public will ever know. I think it’s something we as journalists have to remember. We need to investigate all sides of a story.

If you get a chance, I suggest reading her memoir: Scared Silent… When the one you love becomes the one you fear.


Stockholm Syndrome: Learning To Survive

The Shawn Hornbeck Case is one I hold close to my heart. Here’s why:

Friday, July 16, 2004

Daily Herald

After the article was published, the Hornbeck sent me a certificate in the mail and wrote me an email saying:

“Tara, What a neat article!! You are such a wonderful person, if more were as sweet as you the world would be better. You make us remember the good that this world has to offer. We love you for who you are.

Kim, Pam, Craig and the Staff of the Shawn Hornbeck Foundation.

P>S> I hope we meet in person some day.”

I still remember the day he was rescued. My mom and brother came running to me saying, “you’ve got to see the news!”  Silly as it sounds, I remember wanting to cry as soon as I saw it. I had been part of the Shawn Hornbeck Foundation community for years and now, after all the anguish and tears, the Hornbeck family prayers had finally been answered. I remember seeing his face as they led him into the police station and realizing how much he had grown since they had last seen him. I tried imagining what the family was going through, but I knew there was no way any of us could even imagine what it was like. I was just so happy the family who had been so kind to me finally had their son back.

After Shawn was found however, details of the case started emerging. Questions followed.

“If Shawn was allowed computer access, why hadn’t he contacted someone to let them know where he was?”

“If Shawn was picked up by the police after curfew, why hadn’t he told them who he was?”

“If Shawn had sleep-overs and spent vacations at his friend’s house, why hadn’t he told them who he was? Why, when they asked him if he was Shawn Hornbeck, did he say no?”

“If Shawn had all this access to the outside world, why didn’t he tell anyone who he was?”

The apartment where Devlin held Shawn captive for four and a half years.

After seeing multiple interviews with the family and with Shawn, I could tell those questions really get to them. In an interview with 48 Hours, the parents requested the reporter not ask Shawn why he never spoke up. In other interviews, I noticed Shawn usually replies along the lines of, “Nobody but me knows what I went through.”

After hearing the details of the case myself, I can say, although not positively, that Stockholm Syndrome is to blame. In fact, there are many other missing children cases where this syndrome can be applied. Cases such as Jaycee Lee Dugard, Elizabeth Smart, and Natascha Kampusch. The reason I am writing this post is to present an argument on why these people did not escape when they had the chance. It really does anger me when people don’t understand why a missing person doesn’t escape a situation.

Stockholm Syndrome is defined by Med Terms as an extraordinary phenomenon in which a hostage begins to identify with and grow sympathetic to their captor.

In an article written by Dr. Joseph Carver (psychologist in Ohio) on Mental Health Matters, there are four situations that  serve as a foundation for the development of Stockholm Syndrome.

Perceived Threat To One’s Physical/Psychological Survival

  • When Shawn was first captured, Michael Devlin subjected him days of physical, sexual, and mental abuse. Shawn was tied to a futon and his mouth bound with tape while Devlin was away at work. After a month of this, Devlin told Shawn he was taking him home. Instead he took him to a wooded area. Then he tried to strangle and kill him. Shawn pleaded for his life and said he would do anything if Devlin let him live. Devlin told him he wasn’t allowed to tell anyone who was and he wasn’t allowed to contact anyone or else he would be killed. “From day one, he had the gun, he had the power. I was powerless. There’s nothing I could physically do,” Shawn told CBS.
  • Carver writes in his article: “The perception of threat can be formed by direct, indirect, or witnessed methods. Criminal or antisocial partners can directly threaten your life or the life of friends and family. Their history of violence leads us to believe that the captor/controller will carry out the threat in a direct manner if we fail to comply with their demands. The abuser assures us that only our cooperation keeps our loved ones safe.”

The “Small Kindness” Perception

  • Shawn was really good friend’s with his neighbors, the Douglas’. The Douglas’ once asked Shawn about Devlin, and Shawn told them Devlin was his father and his mother was killed by a drunk driver. This was a story scripted by Devlin himself, but according to the Douglas’ Devlin seemed like a good father, maybe even almost too good. “I could tell you that he spoiled him rotten. If he wanted a bike, if he wanted a new game system, a new videogame, anything, he got it,” one of the Douglas’ told CBS. This kindness wasn’t always there. Devlin kept Shawn locked up in a room for a long time. He showed small acts of kindness over time. If Shawn were to expect something bad, but Devlin showed him a small act of kindness, then Shawn probably perceived this as a positive sign.
  • Carver writes: “In threatening and survival situations, we look for evidence of hope – a small sign that the situation may improve. When an abuser/controller shows the victim some small kindness, even though it is to the abusers benefit as well, the victim interprets that small kindness as a positive trait of the captor. In criminal/war hostage situations, letting the victim live is often enough. Small behaviors, such as allowing a bathroom visit or providing food/water, are enough to strengthen the Stockholm Syndrome in criminal hostage events.”

Isolation From Perspectives Other Than Those Of The Captor

  • We don’t really know what Shawn went through, but I’m sure he did all he could to survive and please Devlin.
  • Carver writes, “In abusive and controlling relationships, the victim has the sense they are always “walking on eggshells” – fearful of saying or doing anything that might prompt a violent/intimidating outburst. For their survival, they begin to see theworld through the abuser’s perspective. They begin to fix things that might prompt an outburst, act in ways they know makes the abuser happy, or avoid aspects of their own life that may prompt a problem. In severe cases of Stockholm Syndrome in relationships, the victim may have difficulty leaving the abuser and may actually feel the abusive situation is their fault.”

Perceived Inability to Escape

  • In the 48 Hours episode, CBS talks to a psychologist about why she thinks Shawn may not have escaped when he could have. “We know from people who have had this experience, such as Patty Heart and Elizabeth Smart, that they’re told that if they run, they will be killed or their family will be killed,”  Dr. Marylene Cloitre, a New York University psychologist and trauma specialist told CBS. She called it “control by terror.”  This terror is the frequent physical and sexual violence Shawn endured.  “Whether Shawn went to a pizza parlor, to a friend’s house, the message was still in his head,” Dr. Cloitre told CBS.
  • Carver writes, “As a hostage in a bank robbery, threatened by criminals with guns, it’s easy to understand the perceived inability to escape. In romantic relationships, the belief that one can’t escape is also very common.”

Stockholm Syndrome doesn’t just apply to missing people cases. It can also be used to describe why these people stay in the situations they’re in:

  • Abused Children
  • Battered/Abused Women
  • Prisoners of War
  • Cult Members
  • Incest Victims
  • Criminal Hostage Situations
  • Concentration Camp Prisoners
  • Controlling/Intimidating Relationships

According to an article about Stockholm Syndrome in Time Magazine however,

No widely accepted diagnostic criteria exist to identify Stockholm syndrome — also known as terror-bonding or traumatic bonding — and critics insist its apparent prevalence is largely a figment of the media’s overactive imagination. One FBI report called such close victim-captor relationships “overemphasized, overanalyzed, overpsychologized and overpublicized.”

Time, although it does present supporters of Stockholm Syndrome, also states many critics believe cases like Shawn’s are exceptions.

According to a 2007 FBI report, 73% of victims displayed no signs of such affection for their abductors. Nonetheless, crisis negotiators often actually try to encourage captor-hostage bonding by telling perpetrators about the victims’ families or personal lives. Being viewed as a fellow human being, the theory goes, may be a victim’s best hope for staying alive.


So whether or not Stockholm Syndrome is real, we can all still remember the words Shawn said, “Nobody but me knows what I went through.” That should be the best reason why we shouldn’t question them about why they didn’t escape when they could have. Along with that, we should just be happy he’s home.

Psychological and Physical Effects Of Sex Trafficking On Its Victims

"I was on the swim team, I was a cheerleader and I was involved in student council," Natasha, a victim of sex trafficking told AMW. "I feel like I lived a picture perfect life."

Natasha was 19-years-old when she was approached by a woman while shopping at the mall. The woman told her she loved her makeup and had been looking for someone to join their makeup team. They did makeup for movies and fashion shows. She told Natasha she thought she would be perfect for the job and gave Natasha her business card in case she was interested. The offer seemed legitimate to Natasha and after a phone interview, filling out some paperwork, and a makeup test she was asked to meet the woman and the woman’s boss at a restaurant to go over some final details. But while she was at the restaurant, something felt wrong.

“I felt like the woman started being short with me, and uncomfortable,” Natasha told America’s Most Wanted. “I felt like she was looking at her boss in a weird way. I started getting a completely different vibe.”

She decided to leave the restaurant and never come back, but the woman and man had different plans for her. As soon as she stepped outside the restaurant, she was forced into a car and kidnapped.  She was taken to a home and left in a room for days without contact to the outside world. Once she was taken out of the room, her life changed forever.


Rosa was just 13-years-old and working as a waitress in a small Mexican village, when a family acquaintance told her about a higher paying waitressing job in the US that could help support her family. It took awhile for Rosa to convince her family to let her take the job, but finally she did. Soon after, she and a few other girls traveled on foot across the border to a rundown trailer where they were told they would be working. But that work, she was told, was not waitressing… it was prostituting.  At that point, Rosa’s life changed forever.

For these two girls, it was a life they never imagined, but once they were in it, it was a life they couldn’t get out of. Both became victims of the sex (human) trafficking industry.

According to AMW,

Rosa was gang-raped and locked up like a prisoner until she agreed to do what she was told. She lived under 24-hour watch and was forced to engage in sexual relations with up to 30 men a day. When she got pregnant, she was forced to have an abortion, then sent back to work the next day.

As for Natasha,

According to Natasha and the police, Spyder had many girls working for him. To control Natasha, police say Spyder threatened to kill her family if she ever tried escape. Natasha told AMW she was also physically beaten when she didn’t comply with his rules.

“The fear was constant,” Natasha said. “It was constant: ‘please don’t hurt my family. I will do whatever you want.'”

For millions of people around the world this fear is real. According to Initiative Against Sexual Trafficking, it is estimated that somewhere between 700,000 and four million women, children and men are trafficked each year, and no region is unaffected. (Numbers are varying however because many organizations report different numbers, as can be seen in the photo below.) UNICEF reports more than one million children enter the sex trade yearly.

The stories you read above about Natasha and Rosa are common in the sex trafficking world, both for men and women. Traffickers typically lure women to the U.S. with false promises of jobs as waitresses, nannies, models, factory workers, and other work. The Department of Health and  Human Services also say traffickers lure people by false marriage proposals turned into bondage situations, parents, husbands, and boyfriends selling the victim into sex trade, and people being kidnapped to be taken into an operation. Men can be forced into working at brothels, sweatshops, construction sites and fields. According to UNFPA, as illegal migrant workers, they may be subjected to sexual violence, horrific living conditions, threats against their families and dangerous workplaces. Once lured, the victims are prevented from leaving by fear and heavy security.  They can also be confined, starved, beaten, raped, and shamed.

Recently I’ve noticed many stories in the news about being people jailed for running these sorts of operations. But what goes unreported is the effects sex trafficking has on the victims. Although the justice of having the traffickers jailed, I’m sure feels good, they still have to live with the psychological and physical trauma.

Photo from East Villagers Non-Profit News

So what does happen to these victims once they go through this horror? Documentation isn’t too in-depth, especially the effects on men, but it is shown that:

women in the sex industry sustain the same kinds of injuries as women who are battered, raped and sexually assaulted. The difference is that when women are subjected to these same injuries in the context of prostitution, the violence is ignored, or redefined as sex. “Rough sex,” sadism, and rape are often accepted as “job liabilities” or “occupational hazards.” When unwanted sexual behavior is perpetrated against non-prostituted women on the job, it is called sexual harassment. When men in a sex club or brothel pay for the same behavior, it is accepted as commercial “sex work.”

According to the Department of Health and Human Services, heath risks include:

  • Drug and alcohol addiction
  • Broken bones, concussions, burns
  • Traumatic brain injury – perhaps resulting in memory loss
  • dizziness, headaches, and numbness
  • Sexually transmitted diseases
  • Sterility
  • Miscarriages or forced abortions
  • Other diseases like TB and hepatitis

According to a study done by Dr. Janice Raymond at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and Donna Hughes at the University of Rhode Island, 35 percent of the US women and 7 percent of international women they interviewed reported major bones, such as ribs and vertebrae, and smaller bones, such as fingers and toes were broken. Eighty percent of the US women and 50 percent of the international women reported bruises. Almost half of the US women reported head injuries that may have caused unconsciousness and required stitches. Sixty-five percent of the US women and 38 percent of international women reported vaginal bleeding. Fifty-three percent of the US women reported other injuries that included sprains and stab wounds.

Even more disturbing is the access… or should I say non-access… these people have to health care when they needed it. Raymond and Hughes write two-thirds of the international women they talked to didn’t have access saying,

“I never ever went to a doctor, even when I was pregnant.”

“I wanted to. There was a local doctor who came to see us, but he couldn’t do much. I couldn’t go there myself, they didn’t let me.”

The study says less than 35 percent of the international and US women reported that they had been seen at a hospital or clinic. All of the US women said the health service was good compared to the 44 percent of international women. About 40 percent for both of these groups said the doctor they saw were aware they were in the sex industry, but only one woman was referred to the social services.  One-fourth of the women even reported doctors were brought into the sex establishments.

While in the industry and even after escaping, the victims face an array of psychological effects:

  • Mind/body separation and disassociated ego states
  • Shame
  • Grief
  • Fear
  • Distrust
  • Self-hatred, suicide and suicidal thoughts
  • At very high risk for Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) which can include anxiety, depression, insomnia, physical hyper-alertness, and self-loathing

Fortunately for Natasha she was rescued and although she lived in horror for 10 months, she has turned that horror into good. Natasha has worked with advocate groups to help other victims and has brought awareness to sex trafficking by speaking out about it at several law enforcement conferences. Now after eight years, Natasha has finally overcome what happened to her. But for many others, they will never be able to say the same.

Sex trafficking can happen anywhere, even in your own neighborhood. Before this past summer I never imagined I would ever come close to seeing a case of human trafficking with my own two eyes. But then a story broke about a man who was accused of raping a 15-year-old girl in the same town where I had my internship. The rape turned into a case of sex trafficking. Watch my story below to see what happened to this girl:

To read more about what sex trafficking is and how authorities are combating it, click on the links below:

Legal Points To Remember About Human Trafficking – St. Louis Today

Arresting Youth In Sex Trafficking Raises Debate – NPR

Sex Slaves For Sale On Craigslist – The Providence

Office To Monitor And Combat Trafficking In Persons – US Department Of State

‘Women For Sale’ Store Highlights Sex Trafficking in Israel – CNN

Did You Know? Crime Facts

Did you know?

Catch Me If You Can! A Look Into The Mind Of A Burglar

Police found this photo Harris-Moore took of himself on a camera he stole. (AP)

Earlier today, 19-year-old Colton Harris-Moore aka the barefoot bandit pleaded innocent to charges of interstate transportation of a stolen plane, boat, and gun. His laywer also entered not guilty pleas to charges of being a fugitive in possession of a firearm and flying a plant without a pilot’s license. All together these five charges can carry up to a 43 year sentence in prison.

Going back to June… I remember writing a national story on him for a newscast. At the time, did I ever believe he was going to be caught? Of course, sooner or later. Everyday that went by though, I wondered what else he might have up his sleeve. I also had maybe an obvious question we all asked: What in the heck is he thinking!?

Before I get started, if you haven’t been in the loop lately, here’s a little profile on the barefoot bandit:

  • Grabbed the world’s attention during his two-year international manhunt.
  • Is accused of committing more than 200 crimes in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Indiana.  These crimes include:
    • stealing more than five planes (without a pilots license, he would just ready the manuals… ended up crashing them), boats, cars, let’s not forget the million dollar yacht
  • According to Herald Net, during the time of his sprees, he met a friend, obtained a fake id and worked at a Reno, Nev. casino doing small jobs.
  • Jumped on rail-way cars to get around the West.
  • According to “The Week” Harris-Moore grew up with his mother, Pam Kohler, on  Camano Island in Washington’s Puget Sound. His father walked out when he was 2-years-old. He had a good relationship with his step-father, until his step-father died when he was 7.
  • Police charged him with his first theft at age 12.
  • When he was younger he would spend days sleeping in a forest if he wasn’t in a juvenile detention center. In 2008, he ran away and spent time in a half-way house where he would break into empty vacation homes.
  • Committed some of his crimes barefoot and when he was finally captured he was barefoot as well… why else would the world name him the “barefoot bandit?”
  • He has more than 70,000 fans on a facebook page created for him. People seemed to love the fact that most of his crimes did not involve physically hurting people. There were times when he would break into people’s houses just to shower and watch TV….Perhaps they loved him because he commited these crimes during a time of a recession. Historically speaking people tend to idolize poor people who steal from rich because they believe it is the rich who started it in the first place. Not everyone agreed though: “People have been making him an idol and a hero when he’s hurt so many hard-working people, broken into homes, stolen property, ripped off businesses,” Seattle FBI agent Steve Dean said. “I think it’s very, very sad.” While many suspect those who were stolen from would be angry, the Seattle Times tells a different story.
  • He was finally arrested in the Bahamas after a high-speed boat chase with a stolen boat. He got stuck in shallow waters and police were able to shoot out the boat’s engine.

Judging from what you have just read, I’m sure you think Harris-Moore is your atypical burglar. How many burglars do you know who can get away with that many thefts? Although Harris-Moore may have an intelligent mind (of course some will disagree with that statement), it’s very interesting to take a look at how your typical everyday burglars think… or at least what most researchers and psychologists believe burglars think. What’s different in their minds compared to yours and mine?

The Independent Study published an article about research done on burglars and they said most burglars return to a home they had broken into before. Only a few believe they are likely to be caught and only a few were deterred by alarms and window locks. Dogs, however, did prove to be a good way to deter them. Researchers found most targeted specific and known homes, as well as “relied on tip-offs from contacts in the insurance industry to alert them to a new source of freshly bought goods.” The homes they burglarized were mostly near home because they felt safe and not out of place in the area. Two-thirds of the burglars interviewed returned to the same home to steal again, and half returned within a month.

The Independent also described three types of burglars:

David Canter, the director of the Centre of Investigative Psychology at Liverpool University, said there are three categories of burglars. “Chancers” are unarmed, unskilled opportunists who only turn violent if provoked. “Creepers” are highly skilled burglars who go to great lengths to avoid confrontation. “Confronters” do not care if a house is occupied, and will use violence.

The also listed the reasons for common motivations:

  • The main reasons given by interviewees for becoming burglars were the influence of friends, boredom and the need to fund drug habits.
  • 57 offenders asked, 34 said that, at its height, their drug use was costing more than $130 per day.
  • Some cited a limited criminal justice system or what is perceived as excessive protection for the offender as a contributing factor behind the motivation for burglars.
  • Another survey of burglars by the Home Office revealed 70 percent of those interviewed were unemployed at the time of the offence, with 41 per cent owing money – most often for rent and electricity and gas.

Claire Nee and Amy Meenaghan from the Research Digest Blog interviewed 50 jailed burglars, all of whom had committed at least 20 burglaries in the last three years; half had committed more than 100.

More than 3/4 of those they interviewed said they felt like the searching was routine. Fifteen of the burglars described their actions as “automatic” and “distinctive.”

“People leave things in the same basic locations…could have done it with my eyes shut”, said one burglar. “…got to be totally focused on outside noises, sometimes sixth sense, the search is automatic”, said another. Two thirds of the burglars described the same search pattern, beginning with the master bedroom and finishing with the kitchen.

There was also evidence of expertise in the stereotyped way the burglars reported checking for relative wealth, occupancy, access and security when selecting houses to target.

From this research we can tell burglars seem to be pretty calculated people and driven either by habit or to feed an addiction. As for the barefoot bandit not much has been put out about his personality, except his troubled childhood, and how he justifies his thefts.

Some speculate he could have antisocial personality disorder or even a more severe disorder. However, the complexities of his personality makes it hard to tell by someone who hasn’t been in direct contact with him. There are a few who have examined how he led his crime spree and what that says about his personality. Many answered if they believed he would grow up/or already is a violent individual.

According to AOL news, Shauna Sndyer, a private investigator and paralegal in Washington State, has helped Harris-Moore as his defense in the past. She doesn’t believe he will grow up to be violent at all. Rumors had flown around that Harris-Moore has stolen an AK-47 from a police car. Snyder put that rumor to rest.

“There have never been, to date, any charges filed on any crime like that,” Snyder said. “So, if they had evidence of that they would have filed it. Those kinds of rumors and rhetoric have made him sound more dangerous than he is. He’s been accused of about every crime this side of the Mississippi now.”

She’s isn’t the only one to believe this. Harold Copus is a former FBI agent who has worked hundreds of violent crimes over the years.

“This is not a guy who will turn to violence,” said Copus, who heads up Copus Security Consultants in Atlanta. “This is a guy who loves thumbing his nose at authorities. He’s not really done anything that is more than just the average garden-variety crime. If I was a victim of that, I would probably take offense to it, but really that’s what you get down to.

Harris-Moore after his arrest. (AP)

(AP Photo/Tim Aylen)

One last interesting aspect to look at is how he appears hunched over in the pictures after he was caught. KIRO Radio’s Linda Thomas spoke with a body language expert.

“You’ll see in most of those photos his hands are cuffed behind his back, and we just naturally when we’re under stress or feel threatened protect the heart – what I call the heart window of the body,” says Patti Wood a body language expert. “He’s protecting himself with the all he has left to use and that’s his head and his shoulders hunched over in that protective mode.”

Wood says you can read an “incredible amount” about someone’s personality based on a still photo. She points out Harris-Moore also has a lack of eye contact, which indicates he’s ashamed of his crimes.

Before I go, just in case you were wondering… here’s a look at statisics so you can get an idea of how often burglaries occur in the U.S.

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation earlier this year:

Property crimes — like larcenies, burglaries and auto thefts — declined broadly across the country in 2009, headlined by a 17.2 percent fall in reported motor vehicle thefts. Other major categories were down much less sharply, with a 4.2 percent fall in larceny-thefts and 1.7 percent fewer burglaries reported.

The FBI looked at cities with populations over a million people. These cities reported the largest decline in property crime. There was a 7.9 percent drop overall, including a 21.1 percent falloff in reported motor vehicle thefts.

If you are interested more in this subject, read “13 Things A Burglar Won’t Tell You” from the Reader’s Digest. Or click on over to the blog that was dedicated to catching Harris-Moore.

Smiley Face Killers: Is The Theory True?

What would you think if over the past few decades more than 80 people were found dead? Not much right?

Well, what if those found dead had eerily similar consistencies in life and in death?

  • Athletic, white, college males
  • All were last seen leaving a party or bar with alcohol in their systems
  • All found dead in rivers or streams. Many were missing for a long time and were finally found in an area where searchers had already combed.
  • Many attended the same college:
    • According to CNN,  many attended colleges along the Interstate 94 corridor in the Midwest — in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa. The deaths took place at colleges near big rivers. Nine of the deceased attended the University of LaCrosse, in Wisconsin. Three attended college in New York.
  • Police rule almost all the drownings as accidental due to the alcohol and rule out any foul play… even though some of the positions the bodies were found do not indicate their deaths were accidental. One example, from The National Terror Alert Response Center, was University of Minnesota student Chris Jenkins. “His body was found encased in ice in the Mississippi, his hands folded across his chest in an odd pose that was inconsistent with a chance drowning.”

Ask retired NYC detectives Kevin Gannon and Anthony Duarte and they’ll tell you they know exactly who’s behind it. The “Smiley Face Killers”. It’s a theory that would send chills up anybody’s spine.

Smiley Face Murders

The Smiley Face Killer theory: Gannon and Duarte claim the drownings of these men in 25 cities in 11 states since 1997 were not accidental, but murders done by one person or a gang called the “Smiley Face Killers.”  The name “Smiley Face Killers” came about when Gannon and Duarte discovered more than 12 smiley faces near the area where they believed the victims had entered the water. The Associated Press also printed there was an occasional discovery of the word “Sinsiniwa” near the drowning sites. Many investigators say these graffiti signs are to taunt the police. Since many of the deaths happened on the same night Gannon and Duarte believe it is a gang committing the murders.

Smiley Face Murder Investigations

According to the Smiley Face Murder Investigation, “The above map pattern was discovered by (private investigator) Mike Flaherty and shows the image that appears when you connect the dots between the towns where suspected Smiley Face murder victims have died or went missing. The yellow dots are the suspected victim locations. The red is the basic shape of the mouth complete with a uvula. The white areas appear to be fangs and the towns of Moorhead and Beverly appear to be dimples. The evil look of the face matches a clue that was left at a death location in Ames, Iowa which said, “Evil Happy Smiley Face Man”. This clue used backwards letters which was something often done by the Zodiac killer.” To view the list of towns on the map visit click here.

Since 1999, when the theory became widely publicized, there have been many for and against the theory. It’s always interesting to see opposing viewpoints, here are a few experts and non-experts and why they are for or against the theory (all quoted directly from the sources listed):

St. Cloud State University criminal justice faculty member Lee Gilbertson on Larry King Live:

If you actually look at the statistics on drownings, most drownings occur during the summer and they’re related to water activities like boating and water skiing and things like that. Very few drownings actually occur during the winter. And those are generally associated with ice fishing and snow- mobiling and things like that, up in our northern region. When I looked at these cases, the first thing that jumped out at me was the victimological profile. It’s not a normal distribution. You don’t have tall, fat people or tall, skinny people, and short fat or skinny people. They’re all right in the middle. The profile is very, very thin. The standard deviation is only 0.4 on their weight and height.  As I started working on this more and more, I found that there were six distinct patterns that told me that these cases were linked. Now, if you’re going to do — all of my careers, whether I was a signal intelligence analyst in the Army and now I teach crime mapping to my students. So I look for patterns. I use criminology and victimology. If you’re going to look for serial crimes, the first thing you have to do is determine which of these events that you’re looking at are crimes, in fact, and then look for the patterns.

Duarte explained to CNN some of his theories:

The effect of water on evidence makes for an almost perfect crime, Duarte said. Not only does it make it appear like an accidental drowning instead of a murder, but the water frequently washes away key pieces of evidence such as fingerprints and fibers, so the killer can’t be identified.

CNN also quoted the FBI, who have its doubts:

“To date, we have not developed any evidence to support links between these tragic deaths or any evidence substantiating the theory that these deaths are the work of a serial killer or killers. The vast majority of these instances appear to be alcohol-related drowning,” the bureau said in a statement.

Ames Tribune Journalist Luke Jennet writes in his blog:

I don’t believe in the Smiley Face Killers, or in any of the variations that have been forwarded to avoid using the phrase “Smiley Face”. I don’t believe in it because as of yet there is no proof of it being accurate, merely some space between the known facts where some suppositions can be wedged in. However, I will not say that it is not true. Because that’s the nature of critical thinking; to reserve judgment until all the facts are known and evaluated.

The Center For Homicide Research came out with some research they conducted which indicated the “Smiley Face Killers” theory isn’t possible. Here are a few points they made (quoted directly):

  • Problem of time order: In science we have to show that the two correlated factors occur in the correct sequence (Babbie, 1998). Smiley proven to have been painted at or immediately after the time of the killing. Some of the photographs of the graffiti show faded worn years earlier. In other cases the graffiti was found months afterward. There is no proof of when any of them were painted. Could have been coincidence they were found near the men.
  • Graffiti is omnipresent: Smiley faces were invented in 1964 and now people can find them all over the world. They are the easiest forms of graffiti to paint.
  • The smiley faces don’t match each other.
  • No evidence of victim trauma: There is no sign on the vast majority of these recovered remains that they were the recipient of trauma.
  • The idea that water washes away all the evidence is a myth. To the contrary, water that is cold (as in many of these northern cases) acts as a deterrent to decomposition, thereby preserving the wound patterns.
  • Drownings don’t fit a serial killer motive. The occurrence of serial homicide is a manifestation of a syndrome of behavior  (Block & Block, 1992; Block & Christakos, 1995) based on psychological motivations. These were not thrill killings, because they require long drawn include bondage, strangulation, sexual activity, and physical torture of a victim who is “alive and aware of what is happening” and able to feel pain (Holmes & Holmes, 1998, p.114; Vronsky, 2004). None of that is in evidence in these victims [except possibly McNeill].
  • The supposition that only males are drowning does not necessarily support a serial killer theory.  Males are more likely than females to die or be hospitalized from drowning.

Whether or not there really is a “smiley face killer” or a “smiley face gang” it looks like, for now, the case has been halted. According to an article published in the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram on March 7, 2010, Gannon keeps promising the public a “big lead” in this case, yet each time he appears on television it’s a huge letdown. The newspaper states he appeared on “Geraldo Live” and a promo said he would introduce an “exclusive” break in the case. But no exclusive stemmed from that interview. The Leader-Telegram writes,

And now a growing number of family members who once considered Gannon “a knight in shining armor,” as the father of one victim described the ex-cop to me, believe it’s time for him to put up or shut up.

“I still believe my son was murdered, but I also think it’s time that (Gannon) stop going on TV and come out and show some proof,” said Kathy Geib, mother of a Michigan drowning victim. “I have not heard from him in a year and a half.”

“I, frankly, never bought into it,” added Carol Noll, the mother of Michael Noll. The body of the Rochester, Minn., teen and former UW-Eau Claire student was found in Half Moon Lake five months after his disappearance more than seven years ago. Noll and her husband, Jeff, resent that their son’s name still shows up in numerous articles and Web sites promoting the serial-killer theory.

And whether or not the theory is true, it just pains me every time I see a new young face in the paper. So as the media continues to pour over this theory, or perhaps not pouring over the theory now that Gannon is so keen on keeping to himself, I think we should not forget the lives of these men. We should remember each of them have parents, siblings, relatives and friends who care deeply about them. To keep grouping them as victims of “the smiley face killers”, when we don’t truly know if the theory is correct, can start to wear down on the families. So remember them as the young men they were, not as victims of the “smiley face killers.”

Conflicts In Eyewitness Testimonies And False Memories

Chuck Erickson - CBS News

Ryan Ferguson- CBS News

Kent Heitholt - CBS News

On the chilly dark night of Oct. 22, 2001, Columbia Tribune Sports Editor Kent Heitholt from Columbia, Mo. was murdered in the parking lot of the newspaper’s building. By whom? For two years the police had no solid leads, until January 2004 when Chuck Erickson, a high school junior at the time of the killing, told friends he had a dream he did it.With him, he claimed, was his friend Ryan Ferguson.

Since this case began, Columbia has gotten to know what it’s like to be under the microscope of the nation. America watched in curiosity when the dead-end case took an usual turn. Erickson came foward saying he “dreamed he did it.” Police, eager to solve this case, convicted Erickson and Ferguson fairly quickly. But the taped confession, video evidence, and witness testimony has some unconvinced. How could two men, who barely had any criminal records whatsoever, decide to go out and kill someone, just for a little bit of cash?

According to a CBS 48-Hour Special titled “Dream Killer, Erickson told police the attack was Feruson’s idea. He said after he and Ferguson ran out of money to buy drinks, Ferguson suggested robbing someone. Erickson said they ended up in the Tribune parking lot and after choosing their victim, things got “quickly out of hand.”

The case is a long drawn out one, but definitely something to look at if you have some spare time. I would like to examine how eyewitness testimony played a part in this case and whether eyewitness testimony is really valued by researchers as good evidence. In conjunction with Erickson coming forward saying he dreamt it, I would also like to point out a few facts on how false memories are constructed.

Since Erickson came forward claiming he had a “dream he did it”, many remain skeptical he actually had anything to do with it. In the CBS Special, video is shown of police leading a wide-eyed Erickson around the crime scene showing and telling him where everything happened. They even had to point out where Heitholt’s car was parked. When asked about certain things that happened, such as how Heitholt was strangled with his own belt, Erickson seemed to have very little knowledge about what happened the night of Heitholt’s murder.

Time and again studies have shown false memories can be implanted. Take for example the results of one study done by Loftus and Pickrell in 1995. Their study tested a group of people on events they had experienced in their pasts, true and false memories. They found the participants in their study recalled 68 percent of the true events. They also found 7 out of 24 people, 29 percent, recalled the false event.

In a Columbia Missourian article, facts suggest Erickson provided a false confession due to false memories:

At a July 2008 evidentiary hearing in Ferguson’s post-conviction case, false confessions expert Richard Leo testified that Erickson’s statements bore many of the hallmarks of a persuaded false confession, one in which an innocent person becomes convinced he committed a crime.

Leo testified that, in his initial videotaped police interrogations, Erickson appeared to be attempting to guess the correct answer to the detectives’ questions, rather than stating facts he truly remembered.

In his most recent statement, Erickson said: “I made a lot of assumptions and turned them into facts to satisfy the police. When I did that, I used the opportunity to move the blame onto Ryan and off of myself.”

He continued, “I could not accept in my conscious mind that I was the sole perpetrator and aggressor, so I put a lot of the blame on Ryan. …I don’t think that much of it was even consciously done. It was just too hard to admit to myself and others that I killed someone. I could not even accept the possibility of it.”

But later in the statement, he seemed to say that passing the blame to Ferguson was a conscious attempt to minimize his own punishment. “I was worried about survival,” he said, referencing the interrogation videos, in which one detective told Erickson that “it’s you that is on this chopping block.”

Watch the video below to see the police interrogation:

According to CBS, police found very little evidence at the scene of the crime. They found a piece of hair, bloody footprints, and Heitholt’s wallet. They also noticed Heitholt’s keys and watch were missing from the scene.  The main source of evidence was from a janitor at the building who said he caught a glimpse the suspects. At the time of the murder, he said he saw two white men running away from Kent’s car. But the problem was the janitor said he couldn’t provide a description of the men.

Later on this would change when the judge called the janitor to the stand as a witness. When asked at the trial if he saw the individual or individuals from that night, he pointed at Ferguson. CBS states in their special:

Trump (the janitor) has had his own problems with the law. He was in prison when he saw the arrest photos of Ryan and Chuck in the newspaper — and, like Chuck, says the paper jolted his memory.

At trial, Trump was far more confident about the killers’ identities than even the victim’s daughter, Kali Heitholt.

Asked if she was troubled by the lack of physical evidence linking the suspects to the crime, Kali (Heitholt’s daughter) says, “Yeah, it does a lot. I mean you’d think that they would have left physical evidence, like being so young and stupid. They would have missed something.”

So how can we interpret the janitor’s testimony? Eyewitnesses use schematic information to assist themselves in their recall of information. Schemas are well-integrated chunks of knowledge about the world, events, people, or actions. You use schemas to form expectations about things. You use these schemas to reconstruct memories. Eyewitnesses tend to piece together the details of an event in terms of “what must have been true.” In a study done by Brewer and Treyens in 1981, they left subjects in a room for a few minutes. They then led them out of the room and had them recall and recognize the objects they had seen in the room. Brewer and Treyens found objects not presented at a scene, but were wrongly recognized with high confidence, tended to be schema-consistent. Was it possible the janitor either reconstructed his memories wrong or since he had been told they were there at the time of the event felt strongly they were there because it was schema-consistent?

Another aspect to look at is how well a person can recognize a suspect’s face.

According to Memory by Alan Baddeley, a normal person’s face recognition is poorer than we think. Bruce conducted a study in 1999 to find out how well people remember faces.  In his study, he presented his subjects with a target face taken from a circuit television video. The video had 10 photographs. There were three levels of target pose. Faces smiling, neutral and 30 degrees neutral. Subjects were asked to match the target face with one of the 10 photographs or to indicate if there was no match or the target face.

What he found was his subjects were only 65 percent accurate in identifying the right face from the 10 when the correct face was present. Thirty-five percent of subjects still picked a face even when the correct face wasn’t present. Even video, in conjunction with the photographs, did not improve their recognitions. People often confused one’s face with a similar face.

Researchers also discovered holistic face processing has something to do with it. When looking at other’s faces people tend to pay very little attention to details. They process faces after examining the overall structure of the face. Take a look at this example of the “Thatcher Illusion”: Michael Thompson’s “Thatcher Illusion”. So what do these things tell you about eyewitness testimonies?

Just another little fact in this case… in the CBS Special the private investigator spoke about what police found (or did not find) to connect the two men to the crime:

Private investigator Jim Miller, hired by Ryan Ferguson’s family, has been to the crime scene numerous times.

“There was no evidence that linked Ryan or Chuck to this crime — DNA evidence, blood evidence, hair, fiber, fingerprints — nothing,” says Miller.

(Prosecutor Kevin) Crane admits it’s a tough case to prove. Asked if a murder weapon was ever found, Crane says, “No.”

So what do you think? Are Erickson and Ferguson guilty? Should police base a lot of their evidence on memories and eyewitness testimonies?

Click on the links below to read more stories involving false memories and eyewitness testimonies:

Creating False Memories by Elizabeth Loftus

Families are still living the nightmare of false memories of sexual abuse by Chris French

Suddenly, a big impact on criminal justice by Kathryn Foxhall

More to come in this blog:

The chilling disappearance of 11-year-old boy Jacob Wetterling and how 21 years later the police still have no solid leads on what happened to him. How often do these types of cases happen, with no sign of evidence left behind? How often to children really go missing by strangers?

How do police use suspect’s facial reactions and body movement to detect deception? Fox Television’s show “Lie To Me” may be a fiction show, but is it based on true evidence of body language?

Also an interview with my brother who served five years in the Marine Corps. How does he view crime in the military and what has his experience been? Everyday news outlets splash headlines across the internet claiming soldiers are killing civilians overseas or subjecting them to torture, but does one former military serviceman’s say those headlines are blown out of proportion?