Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Was the Sheriff MIA?

It took nearly a month for deputies to break into the home. The two women were long dead

Wednesday, September 26, 2007 - 5:00 p

Worst fears: Maurice Dawkins solved his daughter's disappearance alone. (Photo by Orly Olivier)

MAURICE DAWKINS CLUTCHES A PHOTO of his daughter Crystal that reminds him of a promise. During a family gathering last year, the powerfully built former Jamaican police detective made a vow intended to provide a measure of assurance to his four daughters. But in the end it foreshadowed unimaginable tragedy.

“I remember telling [my daughters] if anybody does anything to them, if it takes the breath out of my body, I will be there for them,” Dawkins says in his heavy Jamaican accent.

He was forced to keep that promise after Crystal Danielle Dawkins, his 18-year-old daughter, left the home they shared in Columbia, South Carolina, just before Thanksgiving last year to visit her estranged mother, Christine Bacon, at her Lancaster home near Los Angeles.

It was a trip the elder Dawkins opposed, having learned of it only a day before Crystal left on November 17. Dawkins and Crystal’s stepmother in South Carolina had just separated, and for this young woman who was “gentle and loving,” the emotional yearning to visit her mother in Lancaster had grown strong.

But things began to go awry three days into her trip to Southern California, when Crystal called her stepmother to report that her mom’s ex-boyfriend had been hanging around and had been so verbally abusive to her mother that the two women went to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s station to report him.

Maurice Dawkins believed all was well until November 25, when he got a gut-wrenching call from Crystal’s boss at a Popeye’s, saying his daughter hadn’t returned to her job on the day expected. He was horrified to belatedly learn from Crystal’s stepmother of the incident involving the mother’s boyfriend. And when he tried to reach his daughter by cell phone, he got an uncharacteristic silence — from a girl who was always reachable.

Only much later would he learn that Crystal and her mother were dead — their bodies left to decompose for weeks inside a house that deputies refused to enter. Today, Dawkins is pursuing a lawsuit against the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, saying their actions call into question the manner in which the department handles missing-persons reports, deals with perceived foreigners in trouble and follows up on such complaints.

When Dawkins called the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s station in Lancaster late last November to file a missing-persons report, he tells the L.A. Weekly, his request was denied. Distraught, he called Sheriff’s stations throughout Los Angeles County seeking help before taking matters into his own hands and flying to L.A. on November 27.

Dawkins says nobody answered the door at his ex-wife’s quiet house on Price Lane in Lancaster, and Sheriff’s deputies would not go inside. So he spent days surveilling the house in hopes that Crystal or her mother would show up — so much time, in fact, that neighbors began to befriend him.

“He seemed to really care for his family,” says Sasha Garcia, a neighbor of Bacon’s. “He was distraught. He was frantic, really.”

When Dawkins begged the deputies to break into the Price Lane house to search for clues, he says he was smugly told, “That’s not how we do it here... Who do you think you are?”

Little did the high-desert deputies know that Dawkins was not some helpless immigrant with a thick accent, but had been a celebrated tough-guy New York City whistleblower, who, in 1990, acted as the key courtroom witness against Darryl “God” Whiting, head of a vicious Jamaican crime ring. Dawkins’ own history gave him little patience with cops who didn’t stick out their necks. And as he saw it, the Lancaster Sheriff’s deputies played that role to the hilt.

So Dawkins launched his own probe, ultimately logging 17,330 miles in a desperate search for his daughter, scouring mountains, valleys and gullies throughout the Southland. “It was tormenting, it was frightening in the sense of not knowing what happened,” he says. “My experience in Los Angeles, I wouldn’t wish on anybody — even the guy that killed my daughter.”

His investigation led him to Las Vegas on a second trip last December, where Dawkins showed a picture of his beautiful young daughter to hotel clerks, gas station attendants and even prostitutes — and he began to have his worst fears confirmed. He learned that his ex-wife and her boyfriend, Christopher Anthony Brown, owned two rental properties in Las Vegas, yet one tenant said she hadn’t heard from her landlords in weeks.

When the tenant called Christopher Brown’s number, a male who answered the phone said Brown had changed his number. But, recalls Dawkins, how would a stranger recognize Brown’s name, or know that he changed his number? Says Dawkins, “That’s when I knew he killed my daughter.”

Dawkins immediately called the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s homicide bureau, imploring deputies to go to the home on Price Lane. “Somebody better get there before I get there,” he declared as he drove toward Lancaster.

THREE HOURS LATER, Dawkins was near Barstow when Detective Bill Marsh called him. Dawkins says the veteran detective was crying, and told him both women’s bodies were found in the house. “I was trembling, but I was trained in the police [academy], so that made it a little more easy to take it,” Dawkins says.

Marsh says Dawkins’ demand for action and his citizen’s investigation ultimately led to Brown’s January 18 arrest in Arizona by Pima County police. Dawkins would not give up “in his determination to raise awareness that wasn’t being addressed,” Marsh tells the Weekly. “Most of us as human beings, and particularly as parents — there’s a premonition, there’s a feeling. And he obviously felt it, he addressed it and he worked it hard. Sadly, there was something very wrong.”

Today, Brown faces two counts of first-degree murder in a special-circumstances case that could bring him the death penalty. Brown is known as a bad actor — Arizona’s Pima County Prosecutor Mark Diebolt says he is tied to Jamaican organized crime. He was convicted in Arizona in July for drug trafficking and will be extradited to Los Angeles in a few weeks.

Dawkins’ pursuit of justice has given purpose to a life devastated by grief. He says he sold his landscaping business to pay expenses he incurred searching for his daughter, sleeps two hours a day, has lost 40 pounds and is on the brink of clinical depression.

He has also launched legal action, filing a Notice of Claim — a precursor to a lawsuit — against the Lancaster Sheriff’s Station, alleging racial discrimination and negligence in handling his daughter’s disappearance. (Dawkins, his daughter, Bacon and Brown are all Jamaican-born blacks.) Officials say an internal-affairs investigation is also under way.

One of his attorneys, Abbas Kazerounian, says Dawkins’ legal team has enlisted a high-powered public relations firm, and is trying to involve activist Al Sharpton. Dawkins wants prosecutors to seek the death penalty for the two murders, but says pursuing legal action against the Sheriff’s Department is just as much a part of honoring his daughter’s memory.

Lancaster station commander Captain Carl Deeley defends the actions by deputies, saying that deputies interviewed Bacon and Crystal Dawkins at length before their deaths, after Crystal took her fears about Christopher Brown to them. Deeley says the mother, Bacon, “flat-out said there had been no violence in their relationship.” Moreover, deputies had no choice but to refuse Dawkins’ request that they enter the home on Price Lane, since they lacked any evidence that anyone was in danger, he says.

“I really feel horrible for him,” says Deeley. But “he’s looking for someone to blame, and the person to blame is the person who’s in custody now.”

Dawkins describes the experience as a “living hell” in a life that has seen significant low points. In 1989, he served jail time on drug possession charges and ended up homeless. While living in New York’s subways, he was approached by law enforcement officials seeking a street informant, and Dawkins ultimately infiltrated a Jamaican organized crime ring. Later, he was the star witness in a trial that led to Darryl Whiting’s conviction and life sentence.

Now, Dawkins says, he has to pursue a promise to his daughters that he made in happier times: “I have to live unto my responsibility... I will always be there for my children.”

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Maddie McCann Disappearance

Sometimes I amaze myself. I haven't said anything about the biggest child abduction story in years. 4-year old Maddie McCann disappeared one evening from her parents' rented condo in a Portuguese beach town while they were out to dinner with friends. At first it was treated as a kidnapping, but months later, based on odd DNA evidence in a car rented later among other things, the Portuguese judicial police have now decided that the parents are suspects - that they may have murdered their child, accidentally, and then covered it up. The campaign has produced global coverage, a huge media campaign by the bereaved parents, huge blogging and commentary pro and con, and an audience with the pope, among other things. I've been following the story in the British and French papers.

I've just read the best article so far, by Anne Enright in the London Review of Books. All the big themes are there: love mixed with hate, anger as death wish, parenting and rage, guilt and denial, the eternal presence of Lady Macbeth, our will to kill, our will to be very very normal.
Plus, for English majors, there are great close readings that really get to the social and psychological heart of things.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Phil Noir

A report on the deadlock in the Phil Spector murder trial:

Hanging a jury, listening to Phil Spector’s basement tapes


The air suddenly went out of Department 106 when Judge Larry Paul Fidler told the courtroom Tuesday afternoon that the Phil Spector trial jury was deadlocked. Apprehension had been building with each passing day that the nine men and three women were at an impasse. Then, about 11 a.m. this morning, court media and spectators were jolted by two buzzes from the jury room — indicating the jurors had a question for the judge. (Three buzzes would have meant they had reached a verdict.)

The mood in court quickly changed over the next few hours from one of drowsy tedium to nervous dread as the case’s prosecutors, defense lawyers and, finally, Spector himself arrived at the Criminal Courts Building for the afternoon “proceeding” that had been called by Judge Fidler. Deputy D.A.s Alan Jackson and Pat Dixon looked ashen and showed none of the ambling self-confidence that had marked their many presentations and cross-examinations. Members of Team Spector also looked as though they expected disaster.

The judge then summoned the jurors and asked their foreman, Juror 10, if he thought some rereading of testimony or instructions would help the jury move toward a unanimous decision.

“We discussed that at some length,” the foreman, who is a county civil engineer, said flatly. “At this time, I don’t believe anything else will change.”

Fidler polled all the jurors, finding several who disagreed — three indicated that it might help if the judge would clarify the difference between “doubt” and “reasonable doubt.”

Another bombshell dropped when the foreman revealed a 7-5 schism among the jurors — the deadlock, in other words, was not the result of some 11-1 holdout, but an almost even split. While many assume the 7-5 divide was in favor of conviction, there is no evidence of that. Although the jurors avoided eye contact with media and spectators as they filed into court, this was not a case of jury indecision. Its 12 members were very decisive — so much so that none would change their minds after four ballots.
Keep Reading

After sending the jurors and alternates home for the day, Fidler asked lawyers for both sides to submit arguments to him Wednesday regarding what kind of instructions he will give the jury. He can, as the defense called upon him to do, declare a mistrial. But this is unlikely, given the five months that have gone into the trial. He can read back certain instructions and further explain the intricacies of doubt and reasonable doubt, although, as he said after the jury had been dismissed, this “seldom produces positive effects.” Or he can reverse his own earlier ruling and permit the jury to consider Spector liable for the lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter.

Some might say that Judge Fidler has himself to blame for the deadlock. By insisting on an all-or-nothing decision on second-degree murder, he made it harder for jurors to send an old man to prison for the rest of his life — something they were reluctant to do after his lawyers had planted enough doubt about Spector’s guilt in their minds. The odds are on Fidler now allowing Spector to face this lesser charge, which means the lawyers for both sides would have to present new closing arguments, tailored around involuntary manslaughter, on Thursday morning.

Phil Spector didn’t blink when Fidler announced the impasse, and the defense retinue retained its stony-faced façade all the way to the elevators after court was dismissed. Still, they must have been secretly rejoicing.

“We’re not allowed to speak to the media,” said one member of the entourage. “But if one of us did, it would be to say that the absence of bad news is good news.”

BEFORE TUESDAY’S DEADLOCK, the days had been long ones for Department 106 court watchers. Friday morning arrived with grave disappointment when some panel members filed in wearing jeans and T-shirts — indicating they were more likely to spend the weekend at Lake Havasu than announce a verdict and face the media. In the courtroom, a few journalists read newspapers or whispered comments to each other while trying not to draw reprimands from bailiffs or court media handlers. Occasionally, we’d drift upstairs to the 18th-floor press office next to the D.A.’s office, where there’s a TV and DVD player. Vanity Fair’s Dominick Dunne obtained and donated for viewing a 1967 I Dream of Jeannie episode co-starring Phil Spector as himself. The L.A. Times’ Peter Hong delivered Fast Times at Ridgemont High (Lana Clarkson’s first film) and the Godfather trilogy (intra-oral gunshot homicide in the second film); City News Service’s Ciarán McEvoy brought in Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, which also features a gun-in-mouth murder. More important, the Meyer movie’s freakish, homicidal character, Ronnie “Z-Man” Barzell, was supposedly modeled on Spector.

Dunne caused a stir Friday when a group of TV and radio reporters heard him discuss, outside the courtroom, videotapes made by Spector and his then-assistant, Michelle Blaine, in which Spector walked through possible alibi scenarios. Dunne, in his October Vanity Fair article, wrote about how these tapes were rumored to have been shot at the Beverly Hills Hotel over the course of eight days immediately following Clarkson’s death — but declared the rumor to be untrue. (The tapes were actually made a year later and not at the hotel.) Nevertheless, local media, in the dry white season of waiting, jumped on the news as though it were true.

Friday was also the day O.J. Simpson arose from the ashes of oblivion, when he was accused in Las Vegas of coercing the return of sports memorabilia that he claimed belonged to him but was in the unlawful possession of a collector. The L.A. media went into meltdown mode over this story, which, in an ironic twist, veteran Associated Press reporter Linda Deutsch, who covers Spector’s trial every day, recounted a conversation she’d had with Simpson, in which the Juice told his side of the Las Vegas debacle. Suddenly, Deutsch’s voice was heard every 15 minutes on radio — not about Spector, but Simpson, a specter who still haunts this town.

The instant eclipse of Spector by Simpson demonstrated just how little the music producer’s trial means to the public, and reminds me of the time nearly every reporter covering Robert Blake’s murder trial two years ago fled Blake’s courtroom to watch the arrival of superstar Mel Gibson at another room in the Van Nuys courthouse. There was an attempt by NBC’s Dateline program ( to glam up the Spector case last week with a hilariously cheesy “special.” Tongue-in-cheekily narrated by Keith Morrison, the documentary substituted ironic captions for analysis and video manipulation for intellectual focus.

“She grew up in Northern California,” Morrison’s voice intoned, “tall and pretty and hungry for fame.”

And, if this hoary narrative weren’t enough:

“But Hollywood, as every child should be taught early on, is often a cruel town.”

The big gag, of course, is that Juror No. 2 is himself a Dateline producer and will no doubt be a font of insider knowledge once the program does a post-verdict special.

JUST BEFORE THE JURY began its deliberations, Judge Larry Paul Fidler handed down a gag order against Spector and his wife, Rachelle. The latter had earned the judge’s wrath for going before Court TV cameras almost immediately after an earlier Fidler admonition against speaking to the media about the case. When Fidler brought down the hammer on Rachelle, she spoke up in court.

“And that’s all right for Louis and all the other bad people to go out and say stuff?” Rachelle called out from her seat, referring to one of Spector’s adopted sons.

Fidler, like the suddenly exposed Wizard of Oz, was shocked and angered that anyone in the gallery would even consider speaking to the robe, let alone in this tone. He immediately warned her against repeating such insolence — only to hear Rachelle reply again.

“You’re talking to me,” Rachelle sputtered. “I’m not allowed to respond?”

After giving her a final warning, the judge turned his attention to Phil Spector, ordering him and any “surrogates” from speaking to the press. The source of Fidler’s ire was a long interview with Spector that had appeared the day before in London’s Sunday Mail, in which the Wall of Sound creator accused the judge of not liking him and questioning that his case could be fairly heard “by 12 people who voted for Bush.”

Spector’s lawyers responded that he did not say these things, and, in fact, the interviewer, Vikram Jayanit, who is making a Spector documentary for BBC and often sits in court with Rachelle, claims that what the Mail ran was an unauthorized edit of a pretrial interview with Spector. The damage had been done, however, and Fidler threatened the Spectors with contempt penalties if they opened their mouths again, on the grounds that he would view future interviews as attempts to influence the jury.

However, Fidler’s authority to gag the spouse of a defendant in a criminal trial — a spouse who is not involved with the defense team — seems iffy, at best. One former federal prosecutor I spoke to says she cannot recall any instance in which a judge has barred a spouse from speaking to the press. Both the ACLU attorney Peter Eliasberg and the First Amendment Project’s executive director, David Greene, told me that Fidler’s move raised freedom-of-speech questions and seemed to go beyond what was necessary to protect the jury’s objectivity, especially since it has not been sequestered. Erwin Chemerinsky, Duke University professor and in-out-now-back-in-again dean of UC Irvine’s law school in waiting, went further.

“I think the judge has no jurisdiction to gag Phil Spector’s wife,” Chemerinsky said. “She isn’t a party in his courtroom, and I think it’s unconstitutional to gag her. But the honest answer is that there’s no Supreme Court case and the law is very unsettled about this.”

THERE WILL BE OTHER DIVERSIONS besides old DVDs to turn to as the jury tries to overcome its impasse. Some of these can be found in the transcripts of tapes made at an Alhambra Police Department interrogation room after Spector’s arrest. The give and take between the outraged and confused suspect and Alhambra P.D. Detective Esther Pineda reads like the peripatetic dialogue of a David Mamet play — or the Three Stooges. Most of the pages of conversation consist of Spector claiming he hasn’t made his three allotted phone calls, when the cops say he has. There are also Spector’s requests to see his personal assistant, Michelle Blaine, as well as friends Romy Davis and bodyguard Jay Romaine — seemingly unmindful that as a prisoner he cannot summon and meet with them as though they were guests at his castle. And, of course, there’s Spector’s belligerent denial of wrongdoing in the death of Lana Clarkson, for whom he shows zero pity. Detective Pineda sounds woefully deferential — almost cowed.


SPECTOR: This is nonsense. You people have had me here for six fucking hours, maybe nine hours. And you have me locked up like some goddamn fucking turd in some fucking piece of shit. And you treat me — and then while this person eats and shits and farts — and you have me jerking around. And when somebody comes over to my fucking house who pretends to be security at the House of Blues and comes over to my house — remember, I own the House of Blues. Where this lady pretended to work, okay? And then just blows her fucking head open in my fucking house and then comes and — and then — and then you people come around and — and arrest me and bang the shit out of my fucking ass and beat the shit out of me and then you pretend and arrest me and then pretend like you’re fucking Alhambra.

And the — the Mayor of Alhambra wants me to have Bono come and sing at the anniversary of — bullshit. This is nonsense. This is absolute fucking nonsense.

I don’t know what the fucking lady — what her problem is, but she wasn’t a security at the House of Blues and she’s a piece of shit. And I don’t know what her fucking problem was, but she certainly had no right to come to my fucking castle, blow her fucking head open, and [unintelligible] a murder. What the fuck is wrong with you people?

Return to Gender

PINEDA: Hold on. Okay. All right. Just a minute. Let’s slow things down. He wants to speak to the people that are here. Now, Michelle Blaine is unavailable, but the Romaine guy — or Romy?

UV2 [Unidentified Voice 2]: Uh-huh.

PINEDA: He is at the front counter.

UV2: Female.


UV2: Uh-huh.

PINEDA: Okay . . . because Jay Romy, or Romaine, is at the front counter.

UV2: That’s a male.

PINEDA: That’s a male?

UV2: Uh-huh.

PINEDA: Now, this Romy person is a female?

UV2: Uh-huh.

PINEDA: Okay. Let me . . .

UV2: Sounds like a girl.

PINEDA: Okay. Let me — well, the guy that I spoke to doesn’t really sound like a guy.

UV2: [Laughs.]

You’re Kiddin’ Me, Right?

SPECTOR: I’m being charged with murder?

PINEDA: Yes. That’s one of the things that [unintelligible] . . .

SPECTOR: Of whom?

PINEDA: Okay. Well, I — I don’t have her name yet, but, um, have you contacted your attorney?

SPECTOR: No. I haven’t been allowed to do a damn thing. That’s why I wanted to talk to . . .


SPECTOR: . . . uh, Jay and Michelle.


SPECTOR: Can’t I talk to Jay and Michelle . . .

PINEDA: I . . .

SPECTOR: . . . first?

PINEDA: Umm, Michelle — you can’t talk to ’cause she’s talking to somebody else right now. And Jay — I’ll — I’ll see what I can arrange with the jail because the law says . . .

SPECTOR: Can I just talk to Jay and Michelle, um, in — in . . .

PINEDA: You can’t.

SPECTOR: . . . in a room?

PINEDA: We can’t bring them inside the jail. But . . .

SPECTOR: Oh, I can go out.

The Art of Compromise

PINEDA: Tell you what I’m going to do. I . . .


PINEDA: I said, “Tell you what I’m going to do.” I . . .

SPECTOR: Yeah. I’ll tell you what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna be fucking — somebody’s gonna pay for the fucking — I have been locked up for the fucking last twelve fucking hours. And you fucking people come in my house and rummage through my fucking house, and you ties me down like a fucking pig and, you know, while somebody’s dying there. And, you know, and — and — and — and — and it scared the shit out of everybody — while somebody commits suicide.

PINEDA: Mr. Spector, go ahead and have a seat. I am going to call Ms. Davis back. You can talk to her on this phone when the phone rings.

SPECTOR: I just wanna get the fuck outta here.

What Is to Be Done?

SPECTOR: Charge me with murder. Fuck this.

PINEDA: Hand me the phone. Hi, Ms. Davis. This is Detective Pineda with the Alhambra Police Department. Um, Mr. Spector is a little bit agitated with, uh, us being here. And he didn’t answer my question as to whether...

SPECTOR: [unintelligible]

PINEDA: . . . he would accept the call from you. So I thought out of courtesy, since you were gonna be able to get a hold of Mr. Shapiro, that I’m gonna put the call through. I told him he needs to pick up the phone if — when it rings. So if it just keeps ringing and ringing, it’s because he’s not picking it up, and you can disconnect the phone and then call us back. Now, hold — let me put you on hold to figure out exactly what needs to be done.

Talk to Her

PINEDA: Mr. Spector, come on over. Mr. Spector, do you wanna talk to a detective? I’m a detective. I understand you wanna speak to a detective.

SPECTOR: I would like to have my phone call first.

PINEDA: Oh, you don’t wanna speak to a detective?

SPECTOR: No. I want . . .

PINEDA: Okay. Then I’m gonna go . . . It’s almost 12:00. It’s a quarter to 12:00. Okay. I thought you wanted to speak to a detective.

SPECTOR: Oh, I was — no. I thought they wanted to talk to me, but I would like to make a . . .

PINEDA: Oh, I do want to talk to you.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

If James Bond Had Been a Double Agent

I've posted a entertaining review of what sounds like a good page-turner about the life and antics of Eddie Chapman, World War II double agent, career criminal, famous seducer, film extra, adventurer, celebrity, and the subject of more than one movie in his time. He came from the Depression-era coalfields of the English midlands, was trained by both British and German intelligence, spoke many languages, had a photographic memory, and was rich and poor by turns. Quite a mid-century life of the man who described himself as always an "honest villain."

Iain Banks's "Complicity"

This is a novel I picked up when I was in Edinburgh in July. I've always liked Banks, who's part of a wave of Scottish and UK writers who are verbally more headlong, inventive, and crazy than their more decorous American counterparts (e.g. the eloquent but oddly confined Jonathan Franzen). Complicity came out in 1993, and tells the story of a group of college friends who came of age under Margaret Thatcher: by the time the book's action begins, they are in their mid-30s. The main character, Cameron, is a slightly crank-addicted whisky swilling investigative journalist who's trying to quit smoking and not O.D. on Intel 486-era video games. He works for a newspaper much like The Scotsman, headquartered in Edinburgh. He's having a hot and twisted, long-term affair with a college friend's wife. His closest childhood friend, Andy, joined the military, served in the Falklands War against Argentina (HMS Antelope sinks in the picture), became a start-up millionaire back in London, but has sold everything and is living as a recluse in a deteriorating former hotel in the Western Highlands.

The book is a thriller: Cameron the journalist is getting calls from a military "Deep Throat" source who claims that a series of suicides in the intelligence community were actually murders. He is getting burnt out by various wild-goose chases and goes to visit Andy in his gloomy, cavernous ruin somewhere near the Isle of Skye. The chapters describing his various sex, drugs, and reporter escapes are interspersed with scenes in which an unknown assailant kills one wealthy creep after another, though in a couple of cases stopping with mere humiliation. The killer's chapters are told in the second person: the book's first sentence is, "You hear the car after an hour and a half."

This continues through the first half of the novel. Around that time, the cops come to question Cameron in their investigation of the murders. The reason: a while earlier, Cameron had written a guest column in a magazine in which he named several right-wing powerbrokers who deserved worse than they got. The column was called "Radical Equaliser." And every name Cameron mentioned had been either beaten or killed.

Cameron is superpissed at Thatcherite parasites - speculators, arms dealers, the billionaire pillagers of the villagers. His column read like this (the cop quoting it to back to him in the police station):
Perhaps somebody should make one of these programmes for those of us who're fed up seeing the usual suspects get theirs (corrupt landlords, substance-abusing youths and of course the inevitable drug dealers; reprehensible villains all, no doubt, but too predictable, too safe) and introduce a Real Avenger, a Radical Equaliser who'll take on some alternative hate-figures. Somebody who'll give people like James Anderton, Judge Jamieson and Sir Toby Bissett a taste of their own medicine, somebody who'll attack the asset strippers and the arms smugglers (ministers of HMG included - listening, Mr Persimmon?); somebody who'll stand up against the tycoons who put their profits before others' safety, like Sir Rufus Carter; somebody who'll punish the captains of industry who parrot that time-honoured phrase about their shareholders' interests coming first as they close down profitable factories and throw thousands out of work, just so that their already comfortable investors in the Home Countries and Marbella can make that little bit extra that always comes in so handy darling when you're thinking about trading up to a 7-series Beamer or moving the gin-palace to a more expensive mooring.
Did Cameron actually kill them? Unlikely, of course: he does enough speed to do it, but he lives too much in his head. Someone who knows him well did do these crimes. If it's not actually Cameron himself, then who? As his relations with the cops take a sudden bad turn, Cameron has to solve their cases for them, which he does in a long series of flashbacks that take him back to his childhood, other parts of Scotland, other conversations about the undercurrents of Thatcherite England.

It would be interesting to know whether Banks saw the unknown Canadian masterpiece Clearcut (1991), which came out two years before his novel. In that film, a progressive city lawyer is offered a chance to move from complaint to direct action, and the film is brilliantly ruthless in showing just how unwilling he is to turn words to deeds. A pairing is set up between a main figure who thinks, writes, and rages, and an alterego who acts on the thought, and who may or may not be the main figure himself.

Both film and book are great at showing what the deeds actually look like. They look like what we now call terrorism. They create terror. And, unlike newspaper columns, terrorism makes an immediate difference.

Here's the voice of the (affluent, well-educated, Scottish) terrorist:
You know the evidence: the world already produces . . . we already produce enough food to feed every starving child on earth, but still a third of them go to bed hungry. And it is our fault; that starvation's caused by debtor countries having to abandon their indigenous foods to grow cash crops to keep the World Bank or the IMF or Barclays happy, or to service debts run up by murdering thugs who slaughtered their way into power and slaughtered their way through it, usually with the connivance and help of one part of the developed world or another.

We could have something perfectly decent right now - not Utopia, but a fairly equitable world state where there was no malnutrition and no terminal diarrhoea and nobody died of silly wee diseases like measles - if we all really wanted it, if we weren't so greedy, so racist, so bigoted, so basically self-centered. Fucking hell, even that self-centeredness is farcically stupid; we know smoking kills people but we still let the drug barons of BAT and Philip Morris and Imperial Tobacco kill their millions and make their billions; smart, educated people like us know smoking kills but we still smoke ourselves!

. . . The point is, there's no feasible excuse for what we are, for what we have made of ourselves. We have chosen to put profits before people, money before morality, dividends before decency, fanaticism before fairness, and our own trivial comforts before the unspeakable agonies of others.
Complicity asks the classic Noir questions:

  • Are you OK with the law of the Strong ruling and destroying the Weak?
  • If not, what are you going to do?
  • Will anything you do work against the Strong - anything except violence?
Or in Clearcut's formulation: you dreamed anger, and your anger is real.

The Tragic Intersection of Two Families

I've posted a piece from the LA Times about a "gang killing" in Pico Rivera - a piece with unusual depth and decent sympathy for both of the two main families involved, including the one from which the most recent shooters came. The victim, Maria Elena Hicks, is shown at left. R.I.P. for a woman who worked endlessly and looked out for her town all of her life.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Mafia Erupts Again

On August 15, 2007, a machine gun assault killed six Italian mobsters in an Italian restaurant in the western German city of Duisburg. Germany was alarmed, to put it mildly. The story got coverage all over the world, and included this summary from Japan Today:

German and Italian authorities say the gangland killing was a vendetta against a 25-year-old man identified as Marco Marmo who was suspected of shooting the wife of a crime family boss on Christmas Day 2006.

Her death heated up a bloody quarrel between the rival Nirta-Strangio and Vottari-Pelle clans based in the southern region of Calabria, who have been feuding since a 1991 Valentine's Day brawl.

However, the Italian newspaper La Repubblica reported that the massacre was actually linked to a battle for control of the market for Colombian narcotics.

The deputy prosecutor in Reggio di Calabria, Nicola Gratteri, warned that more bloodshed was likely still to come.
All the classic elements are here: the eternal cycle of kill and be killed and kill again, the permanence of the vedentas, the tangle of money and sociopathic rage. The deeper money story is probably arms trafficking, a competitive but lucrative business in a world awash in arms of every kind and endlessly at war.

The LA Times ran a backgrounder today, with a familiar but well-done storyline of towns both complicit and held hostage by interlocking tribes of warring men. Note the crucial subtheme: mafias and poverty go hand in hand. The law of the gun blocks social development, period - always and forever.

Reminds me of my favorite obscure book title: "Men are Not Cost Effective."

the backgrounder follows below. Noir: the kernel of the Real.


Killings cast light on an Italian mob
The residents of San Luca bury five young men killed in a feud as the 'Ndrangheta drug cartel gets unwanted scrutiny.

By Tracy Wilkinson and Maria De Cristofaro
Los Angeles Times Staff Writers

August 24, 2007

SAN LUCA, ITALY — Three coffins were delivered to a waiting town just before dusk. Old men and women, their tough-looking sons and their grieving neighbors filled the main square and stood in near silence as church bells tolled and a police helicopter hovered above.

Then the people of San Luca, home to a raging mob feud, broke into steady and loud applause as each coffin was carried into the Santa Maria della Pieta church and laid on an altar awash in white roses and lilies.

Funerals were held Thursday here and in a nearby town for five of the six Italian men killed last week in a machine-gun ambush in Germany, part of what authorities said was a battle involving factions of one of Italy's least known but most powerful criminal gangs, the 'Ndrangheta. The group, which has grown stronger and wealthier in recent years as it shifted from kidnappings to drug and weapons trafficking, is said to take in tens of billions of dollars in illicit revenue annually.

Fearing reprisal killings, police inspected cars arriving at the funerals Thursday and banned the traditional procession from the church to the cemetery. But some relatives vowed not to avenge but to forgive -- wearing white instead of black.

The slayings outside a pizzeria in Duisburg, Germany, cast a spotlight on the highly secretive drug cartel that is based here in the Calabria region of southern Italy. They also stunned Italians because of the level of brutality (one of the dead was just 16) and the way in which the violence had spilled onto foreign soil.

"We have hit bottom," Father Giuseppe Strangio said as he prepared to eulogize Francesco Giorgi, the 16-year-old, and two others. "Something has got to change."

Choosing unusually blunt language, the priest, who shares a last name with one of the feuding clans, implored his congregation to choose justice and "not the weapons of hatred and vendetta."

"My request -- my appeal -- is that we condemn energetically any type of Mafia," he said. "We must condemn and rebel against this evil that perverts the good in each one of us. . . . We are all responsible."

Some in the congregation cast their eyes downward as the priest spoke. Most of the mourners filling the pews were women, with a few rows of men in the back. Several hundred grim-faced men, and more women, stood outside through the hour-long service.

In the 'Ndrangheta's tight-knit and insular culture, it is often said that the women determine the spilling of blood and the waging of vendettas. At the funeral here, both Francesco's mother, Teresa, and the mother of another of the dead men, Marco Marmo, said they were prepared to forgive the killers.

If that proves sincere, another bloodbath that many officials fear might be averted. But some authorities remained convinced that the rancor would continue to fester and eventually explode again.

Police believe Marmo was the intended target of the Aug. 15 hit, with the other five victims becoming collateral damage when the group left the pizzeria together after a birthday party. Marmo had fled to Germany a few days before the ambush purportedly to escape threatened retaliation.

The San Luca feud, as it is known, began 16 years ago when families fought over something involving carnival celebrations. Roughly one person a year was killed until 2000, when something of a truce took effect.

But last Christmas, the feud erupted anew when a gunman (possibly Marmo, according to police) attempted to kill the leader of one clan over disputes in the drug business. The gunman failed, but killed the man's wife, unleashing another spasm of violence.

This kind of internecine killing is, in a way, a mere sideshow to the gigantic business that the 'Ndrangheta manages.

Authorities say the 'Ndrangheta (pronounced en-DRAHN-geh-tah) controls an illicit empire that hauls in an estimated $50 billion annually from drug and weapons trafficking, extortion and counterfeiting. By dealing directly with Colombian cartels and nudging out other competitors, the 'Ndrangheta now has a near monopoly on the cocaine trade in Europe, according to Nicola Gratteri, lead anti-mob prosecutor in Calabria.

Though the Sicily-based Cosa Nostra has dominated the headlines and popular culture for a generation, it has in reality been eclipsed by its Calabrian counterpart in terms of power and wealth, Gratteri said.

Like other crime syndicates, the 'Ndrangheta emerged two centuries ago and evolved after World War II, in part as a protection racket in sorely neglected southern Italy. Its name derives from a Greek word meaning heroism or virtue. It also made big scores by kidnapping the children of Italian industrialists and other wealthy families.

(One of the most notorious cases was the 1973 abduction in Rome of the grandson of J. Paul Getty. His kidnappers cut off his ears and mailed them to a newspaper before a ransom eventually won his release.)

Eventually the 'Ndrangheta halted the kidnappings, which brought undesired police scrutiny, and shifted to drugs and smuggling. A key to its success has been its ability to maintain a low profile and to co-opt local politicians, even as it spread its criminal branches beyond southern Italy to the rest of Europe and to Australia and Latin America.

Another key is its structure, which is almost completely based on family. Couples are generally encouraged to have five or more children to give the syndicate an ample pool of trusted foot soldiers. Families often intermarry, as well, to maintain the networks. This makes the 'Ndrangheta far more impenetrable than other crime syndicates, authorities say. Several years ago when the government offered reduced sentences to those who would turn state's evidence, more than 1,000 Cosa Nostra members accepted. But fewer than 50 turncoats have presented themselves from the 'Ndrangheta, Gratteri said.

"To say anything, a turncoat from the 'Ndrangheta would have to talk about 300 relatives," Gratteri, a prosecutor for 18 years, said during an interview in his armored BMW as he drove to an appointment. His bodyguards followed in two police cars.

"They are harder than granite. They are the most compact and the less visible, but by far the most dangerous."

Whatever great fortunes the Calabrian mob is amassing, they are not visible here in its homeland, where Calabria's spectacular if shoddily developed coast gives way just a few miles inland to jagged mountains covered with olive trees and cactus.

San Luca, a town that could not be called pretty, sits haphazardly along these ridges at the edge of the Aspromonte range. Its roads are rutted, its trash uncollected. Some houses that started to fall down were left that way; others were halted in mid-construction. There are scores of cars with German license plates, and no outward signs of wealth or even prosperity.

Authorities say the riches are invested elsewhere, in affluent northern Italy and other parts of Europe. It leaves this area as desolate as ever, fertile ground for criminal organizations and despair.

"Young people especially are forced to leave. There is no work and no education," said a 20-year-old bartender named Giuseppe.

The day before the funerals, the people of San Luca eyed visitors with angry suspicion. They were fed up with prying journalists, resentful of being portrayed as a nest of gangsters and, presumably, were on the lookout for any stranger who might try to carry out the revenge that most people were predicting.

San Luca, like a few rural Italian communities, clings to traditions. Knots of men sat outside cafes, played cards, drank beer and swapped stories in the town's unkempt plazas. Nary a woman was in sight.

"We are honest people," a shopkeeper in her 40s said as she scolded a journalist to "write the truth."

Like everyone spoken to, she would not give her name and mentioned being terrified no fewer than three times in a 20-minute conversation. "Just because there are four or five jerks," she said, "the whole town is criminalized."

But when asked about the upcoming funeral, she said she would be there. Out of "solidarity," she confided.

Monday, August 06, 2007

King of Noir

That would be this man, John Le Carre, who defined the Cold War thriller with The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and who has never let up. His last books have focused on Africa - in this case, the eastern Congo where it borders on Rwanda. The forces at work there are the same as those he found underlying the Cold War, the ones we've been calling "noir."

My friend Elizabeth Robinson gave me Le Carre's new book, The Mission Song, for my birthday last September, but I didn't have time to read it until last week when I was in Vienna, where Hapsburg imperial history has been lovingly preserved and traces of the Cold War completely erased. This is a appropriate enough, since for Le Carre postcolonial African history is an extension of both the colonial period and the Cold War overlay.

The novel is told in the first person by a professional interpreter who is called in to work at a secret summit among rival leaders of an area in the eastern Congo that has been plundered by Rwandans to the east and the Congolese capital "fatcats" in Kinshasa 2000 kilometers to the west. The point of the summit is for the rival parties to come together under a new leader and create the conditions for peaceful trade and prosperous development. The sponsor is, importantly, not the British government acting openly, but a nameless business consortium run by apparently realistic idealists who, aware of the facts on the ground, will do well by doing good - well by minerals, good by a new elder statesman come to unite.

I had trouble getting through the first 50 pages because the narrator is such a prat (the Britishism means ass, but, at least in my mind, an ass who binds with elites and looks down on regular people). He is of mixed race, cultures, and nationalities, and in part because he grew up in an interesting crossroads in Central Africa speaks maybe a dozen languages with a perfect ear. But then, as in all Le Carre novels, and in life, the trap door opens and the ride begins.

I won't say more about the plot, which has Le Carre's trademark of multiple reversals. The book is quite good at laying out the standard rules of noir, which came originally as much from Le Carre as from Hammett or Chandler or anyone else:
Rule 1: the official story is a cover story.
Rule 2: to understand anything, you have to stop hearing only what you want to hear.
Rule 3: rulers seek only money and power
Rule 4: rulers admire coercive force, believe in it, and will always use it.
Rule 5: your opposition to any of this, when it becomes effective, will put you in mortal danger.

One of the leaders being forced to the table by the syndicate spells all this out in a compact way. He is being coerced into saying who his contacts in Kinshasa are, and he replies like this:

You want to know who they are, these wise guys in Kinshasa I spoke to? Your fucking friends! . . . the fatcats [your guy] won't have anything to do with till he's built Jerusalem in Kivu! [eastern Congo] You know what they call themselves, this band of altruistic public servants when they're swilling beer and screwing whores and deciding which kind of Mercedes to buy? - the Thirty Per Cent Club. What's thirty per cent? Thirty per cent is the People's Portion that they propose to award themselves in exchange for favours they are granting to the Middle Path. It's the piece of this crappy operation that persuades arseholes like my father that they can build schools and roads and hospitals while they line their fucking pockets. What do these fatcats have to do to earn themselves the People's Portion? What they like to do best: nothing. Look the other way. Tell their troops to stay in their barracks and stop raping people for a few days.

[Now pretending to speak to the new hero-leader backed by the corporation: "No problem. . . You want to stage a couple of riots in Bukavu and Goma, take the place over ahead of the elections, kick out the Rwandans and start a little war? No problem! You want to grab Kavumu airport, play the minerals game, steal the stockpiles, take them to Europe and depress the world market with a short-sell? Do it! One small detail. We distribute the People's Portion, not you. And how we distribute it is our fucking business. You want your [guy] to be Governor of South Kivu? He has our total, selfless support. Because every fucking building contract he awards, every road he thinks he's going to build and every fucking flower he plants along the Avenue Patrice Lumumba, we take one-third. And if you shit on us, we'll throw the constitutional book at you, we'll run you out of the country in your fucking underwear. Thank you for your time.
Le Carre has always excelled at setting up the binary oppositions by which we order our world: capitalist vs. communist, freedom vs. tyranny, civilized vs. savage. But with him it's always a set up. He gets us to ask the question, are we really the opposite of our enemy? Or do we resemble each other in some ways. We aren't the same as our enemy, or our appointed "other." But aren't we closer than we think? So here the question is, isn't London (or Washington DC) more like Kinshasa than we think?

Noir Rule 6: fighting the corruption of your enemy means first fighting it in yourself.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

The Cloud of Unknowing

I had a great time reading Elmore Leonard's Killshot from 1989, which I had somehow missed. It's fabulous formula work, with great dialogue and inner thinking seen in predators and heroes alike. The story is primal American frontier: wandering lunatic killers, whom Leonard makes vivid and coherent, are defeated by ordinary blue-collar folks, whom Leonard makes vivid and funny.

"America" is left entirely to one side, partly becasue it's mostly set in Canada and also because society is never really the issue for Leonard. Not so for lots of other crime writers, and Donna Leon is one of them. I just finished Uniform Justice (2003), which is both gripping and sad. "Italy" is absolutely at the center, and particularly the Italy of profoundly and apparently hopelessly bought-off government.

We find passages like this:
Brunetti thought of Parliament in the way most Italians thought of their mothers-in-law. Not due the loyalties created by ties of blood, a mother-in-law still demanded obedience and reverence while never behaving in a manner that would merit either. This alien presence, imposed upon a person's life by sheerest chance, made ever-increasing demands in return for the vain promise of domestic harmony. Resistance was futile, for opposition inevitably led to repercussions too devious to be foreseen.
The government is not there to help, develop, and support, but to skim and control. This fact about Italian government becomes a fact about the psychology of all the actors in the story. The mystery is about a particular act of corruption, but corruption itself, at the heart of Italian public life, chews away at everyone's soul.

In the end we do know "what happened" but we also see that no one can or will do anything about it. This is a more or less unacceptable attitude in the U.S. But what if we are just repressing it here? What if Americans actually feel the same way deep down - that the country has become essentially corrupt, and there is nothing to be done? Public figures, even the more pissed off among them, aren't there yet, but they are always behind. For anyone who is already there, better to read Leon than Leonard.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Better than Hiaasen

A Defendant for the Defense, Following His Own Rules

June 2, 2007

An unwritten playbook seems to guide jailhouse lawyers: bring a dramatic flair, rant and rave, put the whole system on trial. Point your fingers. Wave your arms around. Grow a catawampus mane of wild-man hair if at all possible. Call out the police for laziness, the prosecutors for zealousness and the whole establishment for racism, sexism, ageism, xenophobia, catatonia and misanthropy. If all else fails, refuse to appear in the courtroom.

Gregory Zalevsky is not following the playbook. He plays for sympathy, not outrage, as both defendant and defense lawyer at his murder trial, which continues next week in state Supreme Court in Brooklyn.

“This case is very emotional, very personal, very sad,” Mr. Zalevsky told potential jurors on Wednesday, drawing one of many objections from the prosecutor. “The only other time I’ve felt similar pain is when my mother died in 1993.”

With an arsenal of bad posture and loud sighs, soft paunch and hushed, almost groveling tones, Mr. Zalevsky, 57, has turned his trial into something of a humility contest.

The case centers on the death of Irina Ilyina, 34, who prosecutors say was smothered and strangled inside Mr. Zalevsky’s apartment in Brighton Beach on July 4, 2004. Ms. Ilyina, a mother of two young girls, was dating Mr. Zalevsky while pursuing a divorce against Igor Orak, 36, the father of her two young daughters.

Mr. Orak, a real estate lawyer from New Jersey, had left his wife 12 days after their second child was born to take up with a woman he described in his testimony as “a stripper at a go-go bar in New Jersey.” Suggesting that Mr. Orak was the real killer, Mr. Zalevsky has portrayed himself as a wrongly accused lover, his grief compounded by the prosecution.

In court, his main adversary is Jonathan S. Kaye, an assistant district attorney with a jarhead haircut and the blocky features of a man who plainly knows how it feels to be punched in the face. Mr. Kaye has matched the defendant’s demeanor with a choice of soothing, schoolmasterly tones over harsh rhetoric.

“Does everybody think they’re able to focus on the issues of this case and not get distracted by extraneous things, such as the defendant representing himself?” he asked potential jurors. Later, he put his concern more bluntly: “I may come across as — not a bully, but — if he doesn’t follow the rules of evidence, it’s my obligation to object.”

At the defense table, Mr. Zalevsky sits beside Terence J. Sweeney, the third defense lawyer assigned to the case. In a series of open letters before the trial, Mr. Zalevsky accused Mr. Sweeney of anti-Semitism and insanity, asked to be addressed as “detainee” rather than inmate and called for the recusal of the judge, Justice Matthew J. D’Emic.

“The defendant further expresses a great disappointment with All Three of the former Attorneys appointed by the court,” Mr. Zalevsky wrote.

To Mr. Sweeney, who has maintained a sort of amused patience through it all, he signed off: “I wish you the best in the rest of your Fruitful career.”

But their engagement was not through. Justice D’Emic declined to recuse himself and assigned Mr. Sweeney to serve as a legal adviser, an arrangement the defendant seems to have accepted with a wary sort of resignation.

For jury selection, Mr. Zalevsky arrived from jail in striped slacks, tan socks, stitched shoes, tortoiseshell glasses and an aging sweater, all variants of blue or brown but none quite matching. He rubbed his lip idly, scanned the panel, scribbled notes and seemed to try to ignore Mr. Sweeney out of existence.

In quick succession, Justice D’Emic eliminated from the panel two victims of domestic violence, a man whose friend was murdered, a woman who proclaimed herself unable to accept the concept of reasonable doubt and another who claimed to be scared of Russian men. Mr. Zalevsky questioned the candidates, mostly about their marriages.

“Good job,” Mr. Sweeney told him, in a tone of proud surprise.

The chosen panel included 11 women and one man, at their fore a young nanny who said she skipped crime articles in newspapers to “try to limit my intake of, I guess, more tragic stories.”

As the trial began on Thursday, Mr. Zalevsky seemed edgy. He objected to the testing of a video screen, then interrupted the prosecutor’s opening statement eight times, once by objecting to being called the victim’s “boyfriend.”

After the sixth objection, Justice D’Emic told him, “I can’t really have you making speeches here in front of the jury.”

In his own opening statement, Mr. Zalevsky warned jurors that the trial would be emotional, offered condolences to the victim’s family and suggested that her husband “should be the one on trial here, instead of the defendant.”

As Mr. Kaye called his witnesses, Mr. Zalevsky conducted cross-examination from his seat. After the victim’s father, Arkady Ilyin, recounted searching for his daughter, Mr. Zalevsky opened his inquiry with, “I’d like to ask if he permits me to ask questions.”

Then the victim’s husband, Mr. Orak, took the stand. Mr. Zalevsky displayed similar deference, even while accusing him of abusing his wife, endangering his unborn child and standing to profit financially from the killing.

“Good morning,” Mr. Zalevsky began, eliciting little more than a glare. His questions explored love and death, the terms of divorce, the significance of Independence Day, the Russian cultural symbolism of certain colors in floral arrangements sent to Ms. Ilyina and a bizarre meeting on an airplane, where Mr. Zalevsky and Ms. Ilyina were seated across from Mr. Orak and his new companion, the stripper.

At the end of the day’s testimony, he stood, submitted to a pair of handcuffs and returned to jail, where he signs his legal correspondence, “Respectfully, Gregory Zalevsky, defendant.”

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

A Paradise for Opium

A couple of weeks ago, the New York Times had a good piece on the return of Afghanistan to its globally dominant position in opium production. The article is about the somewhat pathetic attempt on the part of the US to train local counternarcotic police - pathetic because opium production stems from the economic and political structure of the post-Taliban state of the country and not from the absence of an Afghani DEA. "Structure" is a euphemism for "chaos," a gangland warlord country created by the U.S. invasion and not fixed by it. Under the Taliban, Afghanistan's poppy cultivation was about 20% of the world total. Last year, the country's share was 92%.

It's more and redundant evidence of the pointlessness of replacing law enforcement with military invasion. Law only works with a strong civil society and governing structure, plus the full and even enthusiastic cooperation of the population on the ground. War destroys all this. You don't get to law through war.

Monday, May 28, 2007

And Then There's the Ones Dead in No War

Grisly crimes alarming Japan
A series of killings in which the bodies were dismembered has unleashed a frenzy of self-examination.

By Bruce Wallace

TOKYO — It's not so much the news of a 17-year-old boy stabbing his mother to death that has shocked Japan, dominating chatter on tabloid TV for the last two weeks and sending shudders through a nation that prides itself on a low homicide rate.

The greater horror lies with what he did afterward. Having killed his mother as she slept, police say, the boy cut off her arm and head with a saw. Spray-painted her arm white and stuck it in a potted plant. Put her head in a sports bag and carried it with him to an Internet cafe, where he spent two hours watching rap music videos in a private booth.

He then took a taxi to a police station in his town in northern Japan, where he surrendered the head and told the officers, "It didn't matter who I killed."

Step by gruesome step, it's hard to imagine a more grisly crime.

Yet what unsettles many Japanese is that dismembering the body of a slaying victim, known here as barabara jiken or "scattered pieces incidents," no longer seems like such an aberration. Over the last several months, there has been a series of killings in which the bodies have been cut up or disposed of in sickening ways.

The disturbing crimes have unleashed a national frenzy of self-examination, with criminologists, politicians and anyone else with an opinion asking whether some macabre virus has infected contemporary Japanese society. It has given rise to suggestions that the killers were mimicking dismemberment scenes in best-selling novels and that the cause is the increasing divide between rich and poor in a society that once prided itself on egalitarianism.

These theories, based on little more than speculation but amplified by entranced media, have contributed to a sense that a country once bound by tight family and community ties is splintering into something alien.

"These recent murders are about self-validation: people murdering someone in order to fulfill an 'empty self,' " said Jinsuke Kageyama, a criminal psychologist. "The murderers recover their lost power by killing."

The recent savagery began in December, when a Tokyo woman confessed to killing her allegedly adulterous husband with a blow from a wine bottle and then cutting his body into pieces. The parts were found scattered across two city wards; his head was buried in a suburban park.

Less than a month later, a 21-year-old Tokyo man was accused of killing his younger sister. He claimed he lashed out violently after she belittled him for his failure to win acceptance to dental school. Police said he hacked her body into pieces and stuffed the parts into four garbage bags.

In March, the strangled body of a young, female English-language teacher from Britain was discovered buried in a sand-filled bathtub in a university student's Tokyo apartment. The suspect eluded a police raid and is still on the run.

The incident occurred around the time a verdict was reached in the trial of another Japanese man in the slaying of Lucie Blackman. The British woman, who was working as a Tokyo bar hostess, disappeared in July 2000. Authorities found her remains in 2001. The body had been dismembered and the head encased in concrete. Judges acquitted real estate developer Joji Obara in her death and dismemberment, saying there was no physical evidence linking him to Blackman's body.

And these aren't the only stories dominating media coverage. They have been accompanied by what seems to some a deluge of shocking crimes, from the random stabbing of a 2-year-old child by a woman in a Yokohama shopping mall, to a couple accused of dumping their toddler son's body on a mountainside after he suffocated in the helmet compartment of their motorcycle.

The recent mayhem in a country with a low homicide rate, which has been falling, has commentators scrambling for explanations. Some criminologists argue that socially dysfunctional students go unnoticed in a school system in which docility and acute shyness are regarded as normal.

Others see a copycat syndrome, pointing to novels such as the 1998 bestseller "Out," in which a wife kills her abusive husband and then conscripts three female co-workers to help dismember the body for easier disposal.

Corporate restructuring that ended the jobs-for-life era also has been cited as a possible cause. So too the tunnel vision produced by playing violent video games. Some ruling party politicians said the burst of gore underscored the legitimacy of their campaign to restore what they say are lost Japanese values: love of family and love of country.

"We are witnessing the deterioration of Japanese society," lawmaker Tsuneo Suzuki told parliament. "We must stem this appalling destruction of family and community morals."

Yet the record shows that dismembering bodies is neither unique to Japan nor a newly arrived phenomenon. Dismemberment took place in the Edo period (1603-1868), said Mark Schreiber, an American who is a longtime resident of Japan and the author of two books on the history of sensational crime in the country. He said random slashings of innocent passersby occurred regularly during the Showa era (1926-89) and that the Taisho period (1912-26) had its record of sadistic, gory crimes.

Even the national tabloid-induced panic is nothing new. Ten years ago, a 14-year-old killer deposited the severed head of an 11-year-old child at the gates of an elementary school in Kobe, and taunted police and citizens with threats to kill again before he was finally caught.

Nor is dismemberment unknown outside Japan. The savage 1947 slaying of Elizabeth Short in Los Angeles, the Black Dahlia case, remains one of America's most infamous, and both Canada and Britain were scandalized by multiple dismemberment killings in the 1990s.

The conflict in the Middle East also has produced a numbing abundance of political and religiously inspired beheadings, many recorded and available for viewing on the Internet.

"There's a lot of mindless mayhem out there all over the world, and I don't know what you can really read into it," Schreiber said. "People are just freaking out. And they are using whatever they can get their hands on that's lethal."

Individual motives in the recent Japanese killings vary widely. The British teacher appears to have been stalked and her killer was trying to hide the evidence of his crime. The 17-year-old who killed his mother allegedly claimed any victim would do, and made no attempt to evade capture. The Tokyo wife told police that her husband was abusing her; she cut up his body, the media reported, because she simply couldn't physically dispose of him all at once.

Even if culture was the cause, the fault may not rest solely with Japan. Violence and sadism are not unique to this nation: American pop culture, from Bret Easton Ellis to "The Sopranos," also includes scenes of dismemberment.

"Sure you have Japanese kids who pour themselves into the fantasies of their computers," said Jimmy Sakoda, 71, a former Los Angeles Police Department homicide investigator who had close ties to Japanese police during his career. "But because of the Internet, these kids are just as likely to be influenced by American movies or rap lyrics as by homegrown stuff."

That's why many observers are reluctant to lay blame for such extreme cases on Japan's social ills.

"When someone dismembers a body, that's total hatred," Sakoda said. "That's when killing's not enough. It's hate beyond reason."


Hisako Ueno of The Times' Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.,1,755679.story

Saturday, May 26, 2007

The Princess of Burundi

This is a crime novel by Kjell Eriksson that appeared in Sweden in 2006. There are lots of good things to say about it, starting with its great psychology of everyday life. At one point the cops are sitting around trying to figure out of two murder cases are actually connected, and one of them, named Berglund, says this about an older working-class guy, Oskar Pettersson, he's just been talking with:
"There is a kind of culturedness that exists apart from the kind transmitted by schools and universities, and Oskar Pettersson represents this educated culture. Once upon a time I think this kind of culture flourished in the neighborhood where Little John grew up, and it helped to stem the flow of today's lawlessness. Of course, there were scum in the fifties and sixties, but there was also a social resistance that is lacking today."
"What kind of resistance?" Sammy asked.
"Something upheld by normal people, but also by the authorities."
"Sweden isn't how it was," Riis agreed. "There's a lot of new folk now, that's bound to lead to trouble."
Berglund turned his head and looked at Riis.
"I know you don't like immigrants, but both Little John and Vincent Hahn are products of Swedish social democratic policy, our so-called People's Home. I think it is the isolation of individuals in our country that breaks them. The gap between people's dreams and the potential to get off track is too large. What was it we once dreamed of, what did Oskar Petterson dream of?"

Good questions.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Dead Boyfriend from Hell

From today's Los Angeles Times:

A man tried to kill his girlfriend Monday by parking their car in front of a speeding Metrolink commuter train, but instead died when debris from the crash struck him after he had been ejected from the car, police said.

His girlfriend, who was in the car when the train slammed into the vehicle's passenger side, was seriously injured but is expected to survive.

Homicide detectives said they were trying to determine the motive of the man, who was identified late Monday as Brandon Julius Funches, 21, of South Los Angeles. They said they believe he was trying to kill the 23-year-old woman, whose name was not released, and they were unsure whether he also intended to commit suicide.

Los Angeles Police Department officers and Metrolink officials said they were amazed that no one else was hurt in the crash, which occurred at a crossing in Pacoima.

The incident began just after noon as the gate arm dropped at the rail crossing at San Fernando Road and Branford Street, Los Angeles Police Sgt. Lee Sands said.

Witnesses told police that they saw the couple shouting at each other inside a 2005 Dodge Magnum that was waiting at the crossing for the oncoming Lancaster-bound train, which was filled with about 125 passengers, to pass. Suddenly, Sands said, the man pulled his car into the opposing lane of traffic, sped past two other waiting cars and the crossing gate, and parked on the tracks.

Some witnesses told police that Funches appeared to have jumped out of the Dodge just as the train hit the vehicle. But police believe that he was ejected from the car when the train hit it — perhaps while trying to leave the vehicle. The impact sent metal debris flying, with some of the pieces fatally wounding Funches as he was running away, Sands said.

Detectives believe that Funches placed the car on the tracks with the passenger side facing the train in hopes of killing his girlfriend.

The train did not derail, and no one on board was injured, authorities said.

But the Dodge was so mangled, they said, that they could not immediately determine the make or model.

Officials said the force of the crash sent pieces of metal flying as far as a block away. Pieces penetrated cars and disabled a truck by tearing through the engine, LAPD officials said.

Denise Tyrell, a Metrolink spokeswoman, said its trains in that area go through crossings at up to 79 mph. She said the agency was treating the case as a "deliberate act" and was checking the train's black box recording device for data.

"It is very rare for you to survive being hit by a train in your car," she said. "A train is massive — 450 tons. Your car is to a train what a soda can is to your car."

The crash occurred about 15 miles from where a man deliberately parked in front of an oncoming Metrolink train two years earlier near Glendale. Eleven people died and nearly 200 others were injured Jan. 26, 2005, when the train smashed into the man's SUV, setting off a violent chain reaction that caused a commuter train coming from the opposite direction to crash and derail. One train also smashed into a freight train parked on adjacent tracks.

After that crash, Metrolink and other agencies looked at ways to better protect passengers. Among the measures was the removal of some tables on the trains that studies showed could cause injuries.

Little is known about the couple involved in Monday's incident.

Firefighters used special rescue equipment to extract the woman from the car. She was taken to Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in Mission Hills, where she was listed in serious condition.

"We wish the woman the best and hope for her recovery," Tyrrell said.,1,7878135.story

Monday, May 21, 2007

Gangsters and Reformed Gangbangers

A couple of interesting crime bits today:

  • the best overview of Hollywood's "Mr. Fix-It" in trouble with the law, complete with an excellent chart of the relationships
  • a good story about gang members joining construction unions, reminding you of the great social function well-paid blue-collar work used to play and perhaps still could

Monday, May 14, 2007

Pretty Goddam Sad

Lots of bad stories in the heartless city. Here's one of the worst. It's from the LA Times Homicide blog, which tries to tell the story of every single murder victim in LA. Check out who they actually are.

The Right will focus on the victim's pregnant girlfriend, Latreyna Jones, having a 5 dollar car wash to pay for the burial. The Right should go to more of their own funerals.

I'd like to live in an America where the paper didn't feature weeping and bereft black folks every damn day of the week.,1,6804322.story

Siblings torn apart by gunfire

Lavonne and Eric Mandeville, raised in foster care, couldn't have tried any harder to beat the odds and start a new life. And still Eric is dead.
By Jill Leovy
Times Staff Writer

May 13, 2007

This dispatch is adapted from The Homicide Report, an online project by Times staff writer Jill Leovy to report on every homicide victim in Los Angeles County, including the many whose deaths go unmarked in any other public forum or medium.


"Soft-spoken and quiet-like," is how a friend described Eric Omar Mandeville, 20, killed April 22 in Long Beach. At his funeral last week, a scattered family reunited to mourn the young man, who was shot to death late one night on his way to the local grocery mart.

The slaying is one of more than 335 in Los Angeles County since Jan. 1, a rate of a little less than three a day.

By an overwhelming margin, the victims, like Eric, were black or Latino young men.

Eric had tried hard to beat these statistics.

He earned $6.80 an hour working part time at a McDonald's in Long Beach. He and his sister Lavonne lived off his paychecks and the wages she earned as a nursing assistant.

The siblings had been raised in foster care. They didn't know where their father was, said Lavonne, Eric's elder by five years. Their mother had drug problems, and they grew up without her; for years, Lavonne thought she was dead.

As soon as Lavonne was emancipated from foster care, at age 18, she took her brother out of the system. The two survived however they could, sometimes relying on motel vouchers from homeless shelters to stay off the streets.

They went to school. They worked. Eventually, they were able to afford a small apartment off an alley in North Long Beach. In front, men drank out of cans in paper bags and music boomed from car stereos. But it was an improvement on where they'd been.

Eric would start getting ready for work two hours before he had to leave. He shaved so closely that his neck was peppered with little nicks. He toiled over his shirts, which always looked crisply ironed. He put on his McDonald's apron and his hat. His sister marveled that he wasn't embarrassed to wear them on the bus.

"Am I down?" he would ask her, worried that some part of him still did not look groomed. Then he set off, always forgetting to turn off the iron.

His co-workers and bosses knew nothing of his history. He was a well-liked employee — quiet, earnest, clean-cut. He greeted an older Latina at the restaurant every day in Spanish — he had learned a few phrases just for her.

He would often ask his bosses how he was doing, how he could get better, said McDonald's supervisor Don Cunnane. "I still can't believe it. Such a good kid," he said.

He and Lavonne had plans. They were going to move out of the county and open a group home for foster children like themselves.

He was shot at 1872 Locust Ave. about 2 a.m. Later that morning, bosses at McDonald's noticed Eric hadn't shown up for work. Cunnane was so concerned that he came out to the crime scene when he heard. The killing is still under investigation.

In the days after, Lavonne cried on the floor and had visions of Eric. She thought he was trying to tell her who had killed him.

It took her three days to track down their mother out of state. Lavonne, over the years, had managed to reassemble somewhat the family she and Eric had lost in childhood. By the time the funeral was held, she was surrounded by relatives and friends, including a brother who had been raised separately. But Eric remained the core.

"It was just me and him," she said. "He was all I had left."

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Iraq as PTSD Factory

For everyone, particularly the entire population of Iraq itself. But the Pentagon has done a study of the effects of extended and repeated tours in Iraq. As reported in the LA Times for May 5th, their report "found that 28% of those involved in high levels of combat experienced acute stress, compared with 6% involved in low levels of combat." In addition, "the new report showed that 27% of soldiers who had been on multiple tours experienced mental health problems, compared with 17% who were serving in Iraq for the first time. I would say those numbers are low, but at least the effects of combat are being studied. This is in fact the fourth Pentagon survey of mental health since the Iraq war began four years ago.

PTSD might take forms other than stress - hostility towards others, for example. "Fewer than half of the service members questioned agreed with the statement 'All noncombatants should be treated with dignity and respect.' Forty-four percent of Marines and 41% of soldiers said torture should be allowed if it would save the life of a fellow service member."

To cheer yourself up, check out the daily coverage of the Phil Specter murder trial, or coverage of Paris Hilton being denied the glamour slammer and going to jail for 45 days for drunk driving.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

California Prison Deal

The Schwarzenegger Administration has struck a deal for resolving the prison "crisis" that includes a great deal of borrowing for prison construction, forced shipment of 8,000 prisoners out of state, and nothing to reduce the highest recidivism rate in the United States. Read all about another step down the long road from golden to gulag California.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Death Comes to Class

Going on ten days later we still don't have much insight into the Virgina Tech gunman's actual motives. There's the familiar mix of isolation, misery, rejection, and rage, but the actual triggering event, and the ability to punish random strangers - and so many of them - is still not understood. The Los Angeles Times did have a sad story today about his path through a morning French class and the death he left in his wake.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Day 6: "That Haunted Face"

The backgrounders on Virginia Tech killer Seung-Hui Cho are starting to appear. The Los Angeles Times and the New York Times have long front page reportage based on family interviews. We do need to figure this out, but we're not getting anywhere so far. Cho's sister summed it up in her apology on Friday: “This is someone that I grew up with and loved,” she said. “Now I feel like I didn’t know this person.”

The stories are still doing a lot of recycling. Non-malignant shunning remains a theme: "His junior-year roommates mostly ignored him because he was so withdrawn. If he said something, it was weird."

One story has some info about what the cops were doing between 7:15, when the first two killings occurred at the dorm, and 9:15, when the bloodbath in the engineering building began:

The campus police received a 911 call at 7:15, when the rest of the campus was still opening its eyes, the thousands of students who commuted to school not yet on the grounds.

Classes had not begun, and the campus was not alerted to the dormitory killings. The university police quickly picked up some information, and the nature of it led them to make a decision and follow a trail. Ms. Hilscher’s roommate, Heather Haughn, had shown up at 7:30 to meet her and accompany her to class. Instead, she encountered the campus police.

One of the things she told them was that Ms. Hilscher [Cho's first victim] had a boyfriend, Karl D. Thornhill, a senior at nearby Radford University; Ms. Hilscher had spent the weekend with him at his off-campus townhouse, and he had dropped her off at her dorm that morning. Ms. Haughn also told them that Mr. Thornhill had guns and had been shooting them at a range two weeks earlier.

Based on what she said, the police concluded that they had the most clichéd script of all — the lovers’ quarrel. They went looking for Mr. Thornhill, and found him on the highway, driving home from a class. They pulled him over and started interrogating him.

But he was the wrong man, and the police were at the wrong place.

That gave Mr. Cho time, and he had uses for it.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

"I Will No Longer Run"

See some good overviews (NYT and LAT) today. We have a little progress on Cho Seung-Hui's state of mind :

- he's not a traumatized war vet but he turns himself into one: the manifesto. A decent commentary

- warning signs appeared in the Fall 2005: In October 2005, his creative writing professor kicked him out of class because his writing was 'intimidating" and frightening other students. The department chair found Cho's response "arrogant" with an "underlying tone of anger." In November 2005, a female student complained of "annoying" contact with Cho but did not press charges. In December 2005, a second female student complained to campus police about Cho's instant messages. Police told Cho to stop contacting her. Acquaintances of Cho said he may be suicidal and he was referred to a mental health facility. A counsellor recommended involuntary commitment to a mental health facility; a judge signed an order saying that Cho "presents an imminent threat to self or others." There, a doctor determined that he was mentally ill but not a threat - which was apparently true at the time. In Fall 2006, in another creative writing class, Cho's fellow students refused to analyze his work, one of his English professors contacts a dean of students about his behavior. She gets no usable information, and deals with Cho in her own way - "Cho was allowed to remain in the seminar but was placed off to the side, where . . . he did not speak."

- Cho was "shunned" more than he was treated, even in class. He was one of those informal social pariah at whose cafeteria table dormmates won't sit - the classic "loser" whose misery and isolation produces even more pathetic attempts to make contact and even more aversion. Cho's roommate remarked that in the video Cho is a "totally different person. He was staring straight at the camera, and he never stared into our eyes or even looked at us." Cho's parents put him in the dorm in order to help him make these contacts. But Cho's life became defined by repeated failures to do exactly this.

- The pain of this kind of repeated, general rejection is excruciating. It can lead to the disintegration of the ego that is one of the standard sources of psychosis.

- "Psychosis" - what do we mean by this word? At first, Freud thought it could be traced to a "defensive conflict against sexuality," and Cho did lash out against alleged debaucheries at Virginia Tech. Then it seemed that psychosis takes over from mere neurosis when the ego loses contact with reality and lives entirely in a world of fantasies. These fantasies may compensate for the ego's crushed state, and we could cite the fabricated omnipotence of the gun-wielding campus commando that Cho became in his movie.

- Psychosis II: we could instead see psychosis not as the break with reality but as a final solution to a break that has already been established. The solution is a forced reestablishing of contact with those whom the subject feels have rejected contact. Strangers are included since the prior pattern of rejection is so complete and generalizable to anybody. The renewed contact is psychotic because it is willing to establish contact even at the price of destroying the contacted object.

- Murder is the final contact. And suicide is completely consistent with it.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Rampage Aftermath Day 2

A victim's list with information. Unbelievably sad.
Hey, if you'd brought your piece to class, you'd be alive right now
Belaboring the obvious ("Gunman Showed Signs of Anger"!)
In the rampage classroom
Our classic theme: suicide by homicide
In general, the chasm between being shunned and killing everyone is stumping the country.