Category Archives: crime

They’re Baa-aaaaack!

You fellow crime junkies probably noticed two blast-from-the-past names in last week’s news, Joran Van der Sloot and John Mark Karr.  Turns out the men have more in common than the letter J, extra parts to their names, and oddly doughy skin.

Turns out they might both be as dangerous as we crime junkies first suspected.

Joran Van der Sloot, you’ll recall, was one of the initial suspects in the disappearance and presumed murder of Natalee Holloway, an American high school student who went missing after leaving an Aruba hangout with Van der Sloot and his pals.  Although the men insisted they dropped Natalee off at her hotel, they were arrested multiple times as part of the investigation.  And although they were never charged, a Dutch journalist captured Van der Sloot on film in 2008 claiming that he had Natalee’s body dumped at sea after she collapsed on the beach.  That evidence was deemed insufficient to justify another detention.  Still later, the same journalist unearthed footage of Van der Sloot, then still only 21 years old, boasting of his involvement in sex trafficking.  The family’s lawyer wrote it off as fanciful talk.  Van der Sloot also told Greta van Susteren, only to recant his statement later, that he sold Natalee into slavery.

John Mark Karr’s previous appearance in the headlines was shorter lived than Joran’s, but no less freaky.  He shocked the world four years ago when he falsely confessed to the murder of JonBenet Ramsey.  The only thing the public could understand less than a child’s murder was a voluntary confession to one that the person didn’t actually commit. And the public learned more about Karr than the fact of his confession: his seeming obsession with access to grade schools and day cares, his two prior marriages to thirteen and sixteen year old girls, a prior arrest for child pornography, and his time spent in Thailand, with ready access to young girls in the sex trade.  But then the police debunked Karr’s confession and he, like Van der Sloot, faded from public — and apparently police — view.

Some will question why we ever obsessed over these cases in the first place.  The questioners raise a valid point.  The sad truth is that JonBenet and Natalee are only two among a sea of murder victims whose cases have never been solved.  The fact that they were both blonde, female, and attractive from white, upper-middle-class families is no doubt part (or all) of the answer.

But a separate question is why, once we decided to care about these cases, we ever stopped obsessing over Joran Van der Sloot and John Mark Karr.

Back at the D.A.’s Office, I’d hear cops say they just knew someone was up to no good.  With certain suspects, we’d joke (sorry, folks) that if the defendant didn’t do what we charged him with, he was certainly guilty of something.  The assumption was that our super-honed spidey senses could determine when someone was a dangerous recidivist.

Of course, the empirical research suggests otherwise.  Turns out human beings, even experts, are horribly inaccurate at predicting future dangerousness.  Regardless, we continue to allow testimony about such predictions in court, allowing it to affect, for example, continued detention of sexual predators after they have served their sentences, parole determinations, and the life and death decisions of jurors in capital cases.

Part of the reason we probably continue to allow such evidence into court is because, despite the empirical data, we just cannot set aside our intuitive instinct that sometimes you just know.  And guys like John Mark Karr and Joran Van der Sloot reinforce those intuitions.

Van der Sloot was arrested last week on suspicion of murdering another young woman in Peru, exactly five years to the day that Natalee Holloway was last seen in his presence. Karr finds himself at the center of an investigation into bizarre allegations that he was attempting to start a “sex cult” of young girls resembling JonBenet.  The cult was to be called The Invincibles.

The allegations, by the way, come from Karr’s former sixteen-year-old fiance, whom he met while serving as a teacher’s aide in her fourth grade class.  The former fiance also claims that Karr has been living as a woman under the name Alexis Reich to obtain greater access to young girls.  (Note to self: Has someone already used the gender-transition-but-only-to-be-a-mommy-to-little-girls twist for a book?  Because that’s some deliciously wicked stuff if contained to the fictional world.)

New York Magazine recently observed, with the requisite snark, that the “resurgence of these two scary clowns makes us feel like it’s 2006 all over again.”  The same article also asked more provocatively whether our initial obsession with the men is what made them reoffend, as if we created “the same kind of invincible-feeling, serial attention-seekers that we do with reality stars who continue to appear on show after show and perform stunt after stunt. Were you the best character in your last murder investigation? People are going to love you in this new one! But you’re really going to have to step up your game this time around.”

The notion that serial predators act out for further attention isn’t lost on me.  See, e.g., the Wichita police department’s reason for not immediately reporting the existence of the attention-starved BTK.  But given that neither Van der Sloot nor Karr seemed eager to have their latest deeds known, the magazine’s concerns seem misplaced.

Instead, I’m left wondering how many other nutjobs are wandering around as law enforcement waits for the inevitable phone call.  I just had the pleasure of reading Michael Connelly’s forthcoming book, The Reversal.  I don’t think I’ll spoil too much by saying that the book involves a suspected murderer who is released pending re-trial after his conviction is reversed.  The LAPD assigns an entire team to watch the defendant, knowing he’ll eventually cross a line that will get his release revoked.

But a suspect under a court’s jurisdiction can have limited rights, and a trial has a natural end date.  In most cases, law enforcement can’t track the folks who set their spider senses atingle, either because of concerns about harassment complaints, a lack of resources, or both.  They eventually let the suspect go, despite the bad feeling in their stomachs, and move on to the next case.  Until five years later, when he kills a woman in Peru.  Or four years later, when one of his young girlfriends realizes he’s a monster and runs to the police for protection.  Or never, because the spidey senses were wrong, or because the suspect never reoffended, or because he never got caught.

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Reading: Finished Michael Connelly’s The Reversal; back onto Lee Child’s 61 Hours (I’m a happy reader!)

Watching: Get Him to the Greek; The Good Wife

Listening to: Psychedelic Furs

Creating a Culture of Innocence: Lessons from Hofstra and Duke

Today I blog at Huffington Post about the false rape allegations against five men on the Hofstra campus and contrast the case to the charges against Duke lacrosse players in 2006. An excerpt:

“Both accusations turned out to be false. Both cases were eventually dismissed. The Hofstra defendants spent three nights in jail before prosecutors dismissed charges. The Duke defendants spent nearly a year under indictment and reportedly millions of dollars in legal fees before charges were dismissed.

“Why the difference? The apparent credibility of the accusers? The relative strength of the exculpatory evidence? I doubt it. The difference between three days and twelve months lived under the long shadow of accusation was simply luck of the draw. The Hofstra defendants drew one set of prosecutors, and the Duke defendants got Mike Nifong.”

I should disclose that I am on the faculty of Hofstra Law School, but have no personal knowledge of any of the people involved. Instead, I write about the case from the perspective of a former prosecutor and argue that prosecutors should create a culture of innocence. Read the complete piece here. I’m still earning Huffington Post’s love, so I hope you’ll take the time to click on the story, become a fan of my blogs for them, or post a comment in response.

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Murder on the Yale Campus

Today I blog at Huffington Post about the murder of Annie Le on the Yale campus. As sensational as the reporting is likely to get, the case is actually a reminder that most crimes don’t stem from the random violence we fear most. Crime hits close to home… and work.

The piece compares and contrasts Le’s murder with other high-profile crimes, such as the kidnappings of Jaycee Dugard and Elizabeth Smart and the murder of actress Adrienne Shelly.

This is my first time blogging for Huffington Post, so I hope you’ll take the time to click on the story or even post a comment in response. I don’t want them to regret making space for a law professor-slash-novelist who thinks she has something important to say. (That’s right, I’m begging for blog hits so I can continue to write for free. Nuts, I know!)

Danger Behind the Velvet Rope

This summer, former bouncer Darryl Littlejohn was sentenced to life without parole for the brutal murder of 24-year-old graduate student Imette St. Guillen. Imposed consecutively to a separate 25-year-to-life sentence for kidnapping a Queens woman, the judgment guarantees that Littlejohn will never be free to victimize another woman again. But behind the evolution of one criminal case, and even beyond the life of the beautiful young woman whose face temporarily emblazoned the front pages of newspapers and the sides of light poles in New York City, is a cautionary tale for all women.

Today’s women have learned lessons from the crime victims of previous decades. No hitchhiking. No late-night shortcuts through darkened alleys. Check the peephole if you’re going to open the front door. Walk through the parking lot with alarm key in hand. And no rides from strangers, even ones as handsome as Ted Bundy.

But then that photograph of another missing woman reminds us: Despite the usual precautions, sometimes we allow ourselves to be vulnerable. Imette St. Guillen found herself in a predator’s path when closing time came at the Falls Bar, an upscale Soho tavern with brown leather banquettes, dark wood accents, and a menu featuring Kobe-beef and lobster burgers. She’d celebrated her birthday with a girlfriend, but when her friend headed home, she remained behind alone.

Soho’s Falls Bar, where Imette St. Guillen came across killer Darryl Littlejohn

Nine months earlier, eighteen-year-old Alabama high school student Natalee Holloway disappeared near the pristine white sand beaches of Aruba. She’d been celebrating spring break with her classmates at Carlos’n Charlie’s, a Caribbean Vegas-Meets-Disney hotspot, before leaving alone with three young men she’d just met.

Four months after St. Guillen’s murder, eighteen-year-old New Jersey student Jennifer Moore was abducted from the West Side Highway. She’d been drinking with a friend at Guest House, a Chelsea club described by New York Magazine as an “intimate” and “posh boite,” where a patron sporting “sunglasses and stilettos (and exhibiting a good deal of flesh)” might “step out of a canary-yellow Lamborghini” and “snag a reserved table for bottle service.” But Jennifer Moore had neither a Lamborghini nor a driver to meet her at the curb. She was a passenger in her girlfriend’s illegally parked car, which the city first ticketed, then towed, and then refused to release to the girls because of their intoxication. When her friend passed out at the impound lot, Moore walked off alone. Her accused killer, drifter Draymond Coleman, still awaits trial three years later.

Guest House offers private bottle service. Grey Goose goes for $350.

Currently the search continues for missing 25-year-old Laura Garza, who was last seen leaving the club Marquee at 4 am on December 3 with a convicted sex offender named Michael Mele. The New York Daily News described Marquee as “ritzy” and Mele as “flashy, often decked out in expensive clothes and driving a sports car.” Prosecutors are considering indicting Mele for murder, even if Garza’s body is never found.

Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Ashlee Simpson, and Pete Wentz have all been spotted at club Marquee

I can’t be the only one who sees a trend.

In the opening scene of my novel, Angel’s Tip, Indiana college student Chelsea Hart is celebrating the final night of spring break at Pulse, a hot-ticket club in the Meatpacking District. A few hours and several drinks later, her friends are ready to call it quits, but Chelsea stays behind to have one last drink. Joggers find her body near the East River the next morning.

The media widely reported that Angel’s Tip was based on the murder of Imette St. Guillen. However, that opening scene could have been based on any one of the same scenes I see repeating every weekend in my neighborhood in lower Manhattan: some young woman — dressed to kill, drunk out of her mind – splitting off from her friends. The friends looking back with a worried expression. The girl assuring them she’ll be fine.

It’s easy for me now – married, in my late thirties – to shake my head with wisdom. To dole out advice to my female students. To write about this.

But I remember. I remember being those girls. Sometimes I was the one begging my friend to come home because I couldn’t hold myself upright anymore but couldn’t stand the thought of leaving her alone. And sometimes I was the stumbling drunk, so sure I could look after myself, so certain the guy I’d just met was worth the late night.

I was lucky. So were most of my friends – not all of them, to be sure, but even those survived. And then there are the women like Imette St. Guillen, Jennifer Moore, and most likely Natalee Holloway and Laura Garza, who don’t.

I want to be absolutely clear here. This isn’t about blame. No one asks to be victimized, and women don’t bring this onto themselves. This summer’s murder of Eridania Rodriguez demonstrates that we can only control so much. The working mother disappeared not from an A-list nightclub, but from the eighth floor of the secured skyscraper she was cleaning. Her body was found in an air duct four floors up. An elevator operator has been charged with her murder. Predators exist. Like bolts of lightning, they will occasionally strike.

But although lightning may be hard to predict, it is not random. Neither is crime. Why does a generation of women who lock their doors, check peepholes, and carry alarm keys continue to wander off alone at closing time?

Because we feel safe. In a darkened alley or an empty parking lot, we know to put our guard up. We know to be street smart. But our preferred nightlife spots change all that. The red velvet rope. The discerning doorman perusing the waiting crowd, selecting those fortunate enough to enter. The so-called VIP lounges that provide yet another layer to the selection process. The eighteen-dollar martinis. Bottle service for the truly pampered. The alcohol allows us to fall further into the fantasy. And in the fantasy, everyone in the club is “in the club” – beautiful, upscale, safe.

But that bouncer doing the screening could be Darryl Littlejohn. The cute guy you’re dancing with could be Michael Mele. The man who helps you hail a cab at 4 am could be Draymond Coleman.

If you’re like me — if you’re a woman who has ever let her guard down — don’t wait until the next missing woman’s photograph is on the front page to feel lucky. And the next time you go out, don’t press your luck. Drink in moderation. Stay with your friends. And don’t fall for the hype.