Now, I know the producers of the L&O, CSI, Criminal Minds, etc. have to be a bit picky about what is ripped from the headlines. Some of these stories are, quite literally, “stranger than fiction,” so much so even devout watchers of Criminal Minds would say, “Bitch, please.” Others are cases from other countries, so they might as well not exist. And some are interesting not so much for the crime itself, but for what happened in the aftermath.
I’ve limited myself to relatively modern crimes, since TV, as a rule, doesn’t do period true-crime pieces. I’ve also tried to pick crimes that aren’t too obscure (i.e., they were featured in one place or another on Discovery ID.) And, with one exception, I’ve left out any that *I* was in any way involved with–and no, I’m not talking about the crime itself. Ive also left out unsolved crimes, since those are so bloody frustrating. Especially because in a number of cases that are technically unsolved, law enforcement is pretty sure Whodunnit, but the evidence just isn’t there, or the perp is dead by the crime is solved. But these cases would have made excellent episodes (movies, even) but were, for whatever reason, ignored.
7. Liysa Swart: How to Get Battered By Your Spouse, Lawyers, AND Anne “The Queen of Mean” Rule
Liysa Northon Swart and I actually have a lot in common, except for the whole served 12 and a half years in prison for manslaughter thing. She is far more attractive and adventurous than I, but well leave that aside for a minute. Despite being smart, pretty, and amazingly resourceful, she was a battered wife.
Having relocated to Hawaii during her first marriage, she remarried first to a cinematographer, with whom she had one son. When that marriage hit the skids, Liysa married again to a Hawaiian Airlines pilot named Chris Northon, who, like her, hailed from Oregon originally. Unfortunately, she hadn’t known Chris very long when she married him. That is not necessarily always bad–one of my sorority sisters married a man after a two-week courtship (granted, he was Mormon, and they seem to like to close the deal quickly) and they are still happily married, 26 years and 4 kids later. But Chris had kept a lot of very nasty things in check–namely his propensity for booze, drugs, and violence toward women. His family was pretty screwy too–Dad went to rehab, one sister was a boozer, the other a meth-head who had lost even supervised visitation with her kids–I don’t need to tell you how rare that is. And Liysa jumped in without knowing anything about it. (Guess “adventurous” is a double-edged sword.)
They had another son together, but life did not improve. Liysa was battered on regular occasions and needed to call the police. On one occasion, when he pushed her out of a moving car (a real prince, he) she went to a hospital and at first fibbed about the injuries, until the doctor forced it out of her. A case was opened, but her hubby hid the hearing notice when it arrived at the mailbox, so her case was dropped. Finally, one night while she, Chris, and the youngest son were camping in Wallowa County, OR, a fight escalated to the point of Chris trying to drown her and the baby. Liysa had been given a gun by her father, a psychologist, who feared such a situation–and she used it.
She drove to a friend’s house to fetch her oldest son, and went to a hospital, where the cops were called. They took photos of her injuries, which included a horrible black eye, contusions all over her face, arms, etc. Anne Rule, in her book about the case, Heart Full of Lies, includes these graphic photos to prove that Liysa was *not* a battered woman. Wha-what? I mean, sort of looks like a battered woman to me. You don’t get raccoon eyes from surfing. Or camping.
She sold her million-dollar home in Hawaii to pay for her lawyers, who then used up the money (on what is still undetermined), and who then, just prior to trial, threatened to quit if she didn’t take the manslaughter plea the prosecutor was offering. Yes, lawyers can be slimeballs. Really hard to imagine, but true. She then represented herself in her own custody case, kept her parental rights, and got everything else she asked for.
The case wasn’t particularly high-profile until the late Anne Rule rolled into town. Apparently, she was looking to write a book about a female sociopath. How a battered woman defending herself and her kid is a sociopath is beyond me, nor was Liysa ever diagnosed as such, but I guess Anne Rule knew better. After all, this is the woman who had good luck to be working on a suicide hotline with then-unknown Ted Bundy and landed on the bestseller lists with her book The Stranger Beside Me.
And just to give full disclosure: I’m a huge reader of true crime books; I even used to review them back when there were these things called “magazines.” Some of Rules’ books are more readable than others, but I’ve seen more lyrical prose in Guns & Ammo and her black/white thinking is beyond maddening. Also, her over-use of the term “sociopath” in practically every book is not only lazy and usually inaccurate but fucking stupid. I suspect that honest-to-god sociopaths are usually very good at keeping their behavior just-this-side of legal or even respectable. But Rule called Liysa a sociopath, a manipulative liar, and probably several other personality disorders I missed. Anything negative about Northon or his family–and there was a lot–somehow didn’t make it in. She’s no Jack Olsen, nor his his fool son Gregg; shes not even close to Kathryn Casey, Kevin Flynn, Michael Benson, or my personal favourite, M. William Phelps–lousy prose, but at least he tells a good story.
Rather than Rule changing her book to fit the facts, she changed the facts to fit the book. And boy, did she change the facts. A reporter named Rick Swart wrote an article about the multiple, and major, inaccuracies in Rule’s book which was featured in Seattle Weekly. The last name is not a coincidence; they’re married now. Anne Rule, not happy about being exposed in her hometown, sued.
Rule lost and had to pay up, probably the last thing the bat had to do before she croaked. Call me bloodthirsty, but that would give the victory an extra sweetness, as far as I’m concerned.
REASON IT WAS NEVER RIPPED? Well, battered women who strike back at their abusers are a dime a dozen on crime shows. Whats interesting about Liysa’s case is the misconduct on both the prosecution and defense sides–fascinating, but not something most cop/lawyer shows like to highlight; I can think of perhaps only a half-dozen Law & Order eps that dealt with this issue. And Anne Rule had a reputation that virtually no one was willing to challenge while she was alive–probably even less so now.
CASTING: Liysa Northon? Kate Bosworth . Rick Swart: Ethan Hawke. Chris Northon: Brad Cooper would do. And Anne Rule? A CGI version of herself, since in life she seemed to be of the all-publicity-is-good-publicity school of thought.
6. Marie Moore: Forget it, Plexico, it’s New Jersey
Marie Moore was, to put it mildly, a strange bird, though it’s hard to imagine circumstances by which she could have turned out “normal.” After a childhood rife with physical and sexual abuse, as a teenager she married a man in his 70s (?) and had a daughter. He turned out to be an abusive jerk too (in NJ, there’s no shortage) and she ditched him when her daughter was small. In 1984, she worked for the telephone company and lived with her daughter in Paterson, New Jersey–a helhole if ever there was one. In her apartment was an odd assortment of characters: a sixtyish woman who enjoyed giving everyone enemas, her imperious teenage daughter Debbie, and several throwaway kids. One was her daughter’s former BF Tony, who soon transferred his affections to middle-aged Marie. How this happened was never clear.
At one point, both a throwaway kid and the Enema Lady went into police station, extremely beat up, telling the blue line that they had been held captive in Marie’s apartment by–a teenage boy. Cops didn’t believe Throwaway Girl, so she was sent to a psych unit and the matter was closed. The very frail Enema Lady seemingly had a bit more cred, and while the cops were a bit incredulous–a 14-year old held an adult woman captive?–they took a report before packing her off to the hospital.
The cops actually followed up on the report–something I didn’t think they did in Paterson unless a body dropped, but they went to Marie Moore’s apartment to check things out. The inhabitants, except for the high-and-mighty Debbie, were in bad shape, including Marie but especially a girl named Belinda, another throwaway kid. Belinda lived with her aged grandmother and the police told her that Marie’s apartment was really not the most wholesome place for her, but Grandma wasn’t in a position to enforce the recommendation.
What happened next is not totally clear, but what is clear is that in the next couple of months, Belinda Weeks lost her life at the hands of Marie and Tony after prolonged torture which included being cuffed and held prisoner, raped, starved, beaten and a lot of other awful things. Marie and her teenage lover inexpertly disposed of the body by duct-taping it into garment bags, shoving it into a crawlspace and then finding a new apartment (as if it wasn’t going to be found eventually. Doh!) By this time, though, Tony, who was all of fourteen, had grown bored with his 35-year-old lover and found someone a bit closer to his age. Marie grew obsessed, calling him constantly and cruising the mean streets of Paterson searching for him. Hell hath no fury like a middle-aged woman scorned by a barely pubescent boy, and she called the cops regarding his involvement in the murder of Belinda Weeks, either not realizing or not caring that the net of vindictiveness would pull her in as well.
The prosecutors offered Tony a sweetheart deal to testify against his ex-lover, one that guaranteed he’d spend virtually no time in juvie. No fool he, he took the offer and was the star witness at her trial. Originally sentenced to death, Marie’s sentence was eventually commuted to life. Prison is probably still better than Paterson.
REASON IT WAS NEVER RIPPED? Well, there’s the whole “Paterson” thing–it would have lost a great deal in translation to urbane Manhattan. I would also suspect the details of Belinda’s captivity and demise were too graphic and disturbing–had she been an adult, okay, but a kid? Too much for TV audiences. All three of the major L&O franchises (the original, SVU, and Criminal Intent) have done stories of middle-aged matrons supposedly in love with boys one-third their age, and at least one L&O ep, “Renunciation,” had the pair conspiring to murder her hubby. Still, there were none where the two conspired to commit kidnapping and murder and *then* had the broad stalking her young lover. Now that may have been interesting.
CASTING CHOICES: Marie Moore? A drabbed-down Jorja Fox from CSI. Tony? Eh, thats tougher, as I’m not up on teen heartthrobs. However, the prosecutor who decided to give Tony a pass while focusing all his attention on Marie Moore should be played by Rob Lowe. Because the prosecutor should *always* be played by Rob Lowe. Especially on Lifetime.
It’s been long forgotten in the US, even much of the South, but in my neck of the woods, if you say The Great Escape, people don’t think of the WWII movie with Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson–they know you’re talking about the Mecklenburg Six.
Mecklenburg Prison, which in 1984 was the home of Virginia’s largest Death Row (they had two others–the Old Dominion, like Texas, Florida and Oklahoma–just cant kill them fast enough) was at the time the crown jewel of the Virginia prison system. Chuck Robb, son-in-law of LBJ, was governor. I went to M-burg a few times in the late 90s, and it was a fucking pit, though a lot can change in 15 years. It’s closed now, but at the time it was considered state-of-art and, Titanic-style, they bragged about how it was escape-proof. And, indeed, theyd never had one. That is, until six guys from Death Row, their execution dates nearing and deciding they had nothing to lose, tried to get out of Mecklenburg in something other than a box.
Only six men actually escaped, but well over a dozen more sympathizers actually of knew of the plot and helped in the escape (they had various reasons for not escaping themselves.) The leaders were brothers Linwood and James (J.B.) Briley, two brutal spree killers believed to have have killed a combined eleven to twenty over a ten-month period. Certainly they were the most intelligent of the group. The others were the dumb hillbilly Lem Tuggle, a murderer/rapist who served twelve years for one rape/ murder and was sentenced to die for committing a nearly identical crime less than 3 months after being paroled; Willie Jones, petty burglar who murdered an elderly couple who tried to help him; Derek Peterson, a rather slow fellow who robbed and murdered a friend and then turned himself in, saying only he didn’t understand why he’d done it; and Earl Clanton, who was hopelessly crazy and mildly retarded, condemned for the vicious rape/murder of an elderly woman.
The beauty of the escape was, really, in the planning, which took several months. The inmates of Mecklenburgs Row already had a rather amazing amount of freedom, and they used it to their advantage. First the conspirators were on their best behavior to get the guards to relax. Then they chatted up the guards to get radio codes and phone numbers–including the control tower and the SORT team–keeping careful track. Each conspirator and sympathizer had a part to play–weapons making, drawing maps, etc. On the night they escaped, May 31, they held the guards hostage using shivs, made them strip off their uniforms, robbed them, and re-dressed as guards. They sent Peterson to the control tower, where he simply told the guard on duty he was sent to relieve her. They then phoned in a bomb threat, covered a television with a blanket and carried it outside, screaming at the other guards to get back and saying they needed to get the bomb outside prison walls. None of the other “guards” suspected a thing.
And that was that: They got in the van, Peterson opened the gates, joined them, and then the conspirators were outside the Wall. The sympathizers left behind held everyone at bay long enough to give the Six a good head start, and it took hours before anyone at Mecklenburg realized something was up.
Unfortunately for the Mecklenburg Six, they’d put a bit too much planning into the escape itself and not enough into how they were going to get away with it *after*–common enough in the human condition. They didn’t drive the van far enough away, and when they parked it, it was behind an elementary school, guaranteeing itd be found by morning, if not sooner. The Brileys,who besides being brutal killers were also greedy motherfuckers, kept most of the cash (about $800) that they’d stolen from the hostages. They first dumped Clanton & Peterson in a small town in NC, where they were found a mere 19 hours later–in a laundromat, still dressed in the guard uniforms. Brilliant, but then, they were definitely the slow kids in this class.
The Brileys were dropped off in North Philly, and then Tuggle and Jones headed toward the Canadian border. In Vermont, the two stopped to camp, and Tuggle, being a really dumb hillbilly, tried to rob a gift shop,only to be fought off by the 60-something, five-foot lady manager who immediately called 911. After a high-speed chase, he pulled off the road and surrendered himself to the cop, saying jovially, “I think you’ll find I’m wanted pretty bad by some people in Virginia.” Jones, only five miles from the Canadian border, found a house where the family let him use the phone. He called his mother, who convinced him to call the police. He did, thanked the homeowners, and then sat on the curb until the cops came to take him away. The pair had been free seven days.
The Brileys went to Northern Philadelphia — then, as now, much like Escape from New York without the charm or Kurt Russell. It wasn’t that hard to find them: once Tuggle had been captured, he spilled that the Brileys had gotten off in Philly, and from there it was a simple matter to trace their calls from Mecklenburg to an uncle who lived in the neighborhood. The FBI sent in an undercover and eventually discovered the Brileys working at an auto-body shop. Despite their insistence that they wouldn’t be taken alive, they surrendered without a fight. They had been free nineteen days, and, as Linwood Briley said shortly before he was executed: “I had my nineteen days. They cant take that away from me.”
All of the Mecklenburg Six eventually walked the green mile: first Linwood Briley, then his brother, Peterson, Jones, Clanton and lastly Tuggle. Most of the sympathizers, like Willie Lloyd Turner (nicknamed “The Genius of Death Row” in a New Yorker article), Eddie Fitzgerald, and Dennis Stockton also got the needle. One condemned man, Wilbur Evans, who had personally saved two nurses from being raped as well as preventing harm to several of the guards, was recommended for a commutation by prison personnel and even the warden, on the grounds that it might influence the future behavior of inmates in hostage or riot situations, but then-governor Douglas Wilder denied it and Wilbur Evans got the hot squat. Wilder did commute the sentences of two other participants: Joe Giarrantano and Earl Washington. Giarrantano, of Virginia Beach, was convicted of a double murder he may or may not have committed; Washington, of the murder of a woman in a very shitty (and very violent) little town called Culpeper, despite the fact that every detail in the confession that the retarded Washington gave was wrong (including the race of the victim–he said she was black; she was in fact white.) DNA evidence eventually exonerated Washington and he is free today; Giarrantano will likely never be exonerated, whether he deserves it or not, but at least he no longer faces lethal injection.
There are two excellent books on the case: Dead Run by Joe Jackson, a journalists retelling through the diaries of a sympathizer, Dennis Stockton, and a more academic work, Long Gone: The Mecklenburg Six and the Theme of Escape in Slave Narratives, by by Daryl Cumber Dance.
Mecklenburg eventually fell into disrepair and closed in 2012; most of the prisoners were transferred to Virginia’s new Supermax, Red Onion.
REASON IT WAS NEVER RIPPED? Since the planning took several months, it would be difficult to condense all of it into an hour-long show (indeed, even into a miniseries.) A hunt for the fugitives would be easy to dramatise (and indeed, its been done on L&O, Criminal Minds, CSI, the awful Canook show Flashpoint, and probably every other cop show back to the 70s) but it’d be hard to capture the planning and sheer audacity that went into The Great Escape.
CASTING CHOICES: The Briley brothers? 50 Cent as JB and Ice-T as Linwood. Bodhi Elfman as Dennis Stockton; Larry the Cable Guy as Lem Tuggle; Ted Danson as Chuck Robb.
4. Billy Milligan, We Hardly Knew Ye
I’m often asked if the insanity defense is a crock. The answer is no, it isn’t: if anything, I think it needs to be expanded. Too often, a defendant who is completely bonkers will have to stand trial for crimes they may have committed, but they have no concept of their motives, actions and are in no meaningful way able to aid in their own defense. Fun fact: Most successful NGBRI pleas are the result of an agreement between the prosecutor and the defense that the defendant belongs in the nuthatch, or a judge rules the defendant is too incompetent to even stand trial–but if it’s a high-profile crime, well, forget it, you’ll go go on trial-and most likely to prison–anyway. (Andrea Yates, John Salvi, and James Holmes being good examples.)
Which needs to stop, though I doubt I’ll see it in my lifetime. Neurology, especially technology such as functional MRIs, PET scans, etc. tells us that yes, there are real, major serious brain injuries, defects, and illnesses that can either take away a person’s ability to tell right from wrong, or their ability to understand their actions or modify their behavior. (The ability to tell right from wrong–the famous M’Naghten rule–isn’t a measure of one’s sanity anyway, but that’s a separate issue.) I once tried to point out the contradiction to a prosecutor with regard to an obviously desperately ill defendant. The prosecutor maintained it was okay because, while the prosecutor agreed with me that he was certainly “crazy now,” they were sending him to a psychiatric ward where they would presumably nurse him back to mental health. Then, at the trial, the jury could determine whether he was cuckoo or not when he actually committed his crimes. “So,” I said, “you’re going to put a heavily medicated man on trial, with complete confidence that he, or some shrinks, will be able to tell you whether or not he was sane then?” And the lawyer looked at me as if I were the crazy one.
(Another Fun Fact: Contrary to public opinion that a defendant “walks” if found insane, they end up in very nasty mental hospitals and frequently serve as much as two to three times as long as sentence than if they’d simply plead guilty. I’ve visited all kinds of prisons and mental hospitals, and I can vouch for the fact that I’d far rather serve time in prison than a mental hospital.)
Probably nowhere is the debate greater than the whole issue of so-called multiple personalities, formally known as dissociative identity disorder (DID). In fairness, there are plenty of criminals who tried to fake it–Kenneth Bianchi, one of the Hillside Stranglers, came close to getting away with it–but was found out. It is very, very rare, and most people with DID have never hurt anybody. But there have been some genuine cases: Johnny Frank Garrett, a Texas juvenile executed for the rape/murder of an elderly nun; and quite possibly Marie Moore; but the first of these was the late Billy Milligan.
DID is almost always the result of severe childhood abuse, usually physical or sexual. Frequently the splitting begins when these individuals are pre-verbal. Garrett and Moore both fell into the horrible physical/sexual category.
Suffice it to say so did Billy, and while people noticed he was a bit off–and everyone who knew him seemed to know a different Billy–he went pretty much under the radar until he was arrested in a series of rapes that happened on the Ohio State campus in the late 70s. Once he was examined by shrinks, though–and how I wish I were making this up–it turned out the the rapist was really Adalana, a lesbian personality within Milligan that committed the rapes for closeness. (Yeah, tell me about it.) His other personalities were even stranger.
He was the first person found NGBRI due to a DID defense in the country, ever. He went to the squirrel farm for the next decade, where he finally got some treatment for his illness. Daniel Keyes, the author of Flowers for Algernon, wrote a book about him in the 80s, The Minds of Billy Milligan. Milligan’s personalities were never “integrated,” as was the popular treatment for DID in the day–rather, the doctors managed to keep his “system” in control. Kind of like co-op housing in your brain.
He lived a reclusive but law-abiding life until he died of liver cancer in 2014, at the age of 59. I believe the book is out of print, but you can get secondhand copies on amazon or half.com pretty cheap, and it’s a fascinating read.
WHY IT WAS NEVER RIPPED: Actually, it might be; supposedly there’s a film in the works starring Leonardo de Caprio (ugh) as Billy. But I suspect that, much like the Great Escape, the details of Milligan’s personalities and the treatment would simply be too wearying for an hour-long TV audience. Law & Order did one show where a patient claimed to have have DID but it was implied that the condition was therapist-induced, as many supposed cases in the 80s were; SVU did one, “Alternate,” where Cynthia Nixon starred as a supposed multiple who turned out to have elaborately faked the condition in order to kill her parents. Yeah, I know. Criminal Minds has done a couple of episodes with criminals who supposedly had genuine cases: a two-parter with James Van der Beek as the split villain, and another one, “Conflicted,” featuring Twilight survivor Jackson Rathbone as a transexual multiple who, in his female persona lured alpha men to their death. Sure, happens every day.
CASTING CHOICES: Leonardo de Caprio? Argh. Since I’ve always wanted to see him in a really good role, given my druthers I’d pick Jimmi Simpson. Hell, playing a crazy dude? Oscar gold, baby, unless there’s a Holocaust movie that year. Assuming Simpson’s schedule wasn’t open (*cough*), Desmond Harrington would be a good backup.
3. Cody “This Serial Killing Has Been Brought to You By the Letters X, Y, and Z” Legebokoff
Canadians have neither the death penalty nor (officially) life in prison without parole; sentences max out at 25 years no matter what you did, unless it was a monstrous serial killing or mass murder. If your sentence is 25 years, you are eligible for parole after 15 years under what is called the “faint hope clause,” although many are eligible for parole long before that. That is, unless you achieve what is known as dangerous offender status, but these are very few: you have to be the worst of serial killers to get this (Paul Bernardo, Robert Pickton, Clifford Olson). At that point, parole does not apply to you.
By now even a fair number of Americans have heard of the so-called “Highway of Tears,” a stretch of highway about 720 km (447 miles) in British Columbia. At least two serial killers have been caught operating there (Legebokoff and an American, the late Bobby Jack Fowler) but many more women than can be attributed to those two have gone missing along the Highway. There’s a good reason for this: this happens to be a very poor area of British Columbia where many residents lack transportation, the towns and villages are far apart, and hitchhiking is common. Meaning that every time you stick out your thumb, you’re risking getting into the car with the wrong dude.
Cody Legebokoff, who at 21 is likely one of the youngest serial killers on the books, looked like the high-school jock next door and worked at a car dealership in Prince George, B.C. Prince George is a transportation hub (trains, buses) and the largest city (pop. about 70,000, or one-tenth of Indianapolis) in that area of B.C. It’s also, per capita, one of the most violent cities in Canada (and for the record, me and Prince George go way back and the memories ain’t good.) He had a fiancee who was a schoolteacher, lived in a house with three female roomies, and had lots of folks who thought he was just great. Apparently they didn’t look too closely, as Cody had an insatiable appetite for both crack cocaine and prostitutes. Oh, and murdering said prostitutes when he was done–we know of at least three. What got him caught was when he hooked up online with a rather naive 16-year-old, Loren Leslie, who hitchhiked down to PG to hang out with him. It would turn out to be a bad decision on her end, but then, there’s not much to do in those parts.
In 2010, by purest chance, a dedicated conservation officer noticed Cody speeding off of a deserted logging road. Suspecting poaching, he stopped him and noticed that Cody had blood all over his face and shirt; in addition, there were pools of blood in his car–as well as wrenches and pipes. The officer followed the tracks back to where he had left Loren Leslie in a wretched mess of bones and flesh–they had to ID her by a tattoo on her wrist.
Fairly quickly, they tied him to the murders of three other women, all sex workers who disappeared on the HoT. So far, nothing terribly interesting–serial killers are often yawningly similar, and Cody, except for his very young age and the HoT angle, was another yawn. It wasn’t until his trial that the story got a dose of Ritalin, in the persons of X, Y, and Z.
Cody had always maintained that while he did dump Leslie’s body, he didn’t kill her–he was driving her home when she suddenly went bonkers on him, started screaming about suicide, and beating herself with a wrench that (I guess) was just handy, and that he’d only slit her throat to put poor Loren out of her misery. Nice to see chivalry isn’t dead. But when it came to the sex workers, Cody insisted he’d had nothing to do with it–no, the killers were three crack dealers whom he would identify only as X, Y, and Z because, Cody said, “I’m not a rat!” Apparently on three separate occasions, he was partying with his dealers when they brought the hookers over and–oops–murdered them, leaving the hapless Cody to clean up.
Yes, that’s right. This serial killing has been brought to you by X, Y and Z. As one writer pointed out, it was like a demented Sesame street sketch. Personally, I’m thinking the guy must’ve been one helluva housekeeper, if his three female roomies noticed nothing while he was using their home as an abattoir.
Not surprisingly, the jury didn’t buy it. Cody was sentenced to four life terms.
REASON IT WAS NEVER RIPPED? Canada, baby. Look up some other criminals from the Great White North: Col. Russell Williams (warning: any article that contains pics is definitely NSFW), Clifford Olson, Robert Pickton (which was ripped in a two-part Criminal Minds ep, “To Hell.and Back”), Mark Twitchell (the so-called Dexter Killer), the Sharia honour killings, Guy Turcotte, the infamous Winnipeg bus beheading, Luka Maganotta–with the exception of Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka, I bet you’ve never heard of most Canadian creepers.
CASTING CHOICES? Too old now, but he looked a bit like Justin Timberlake.
Doug and Faylene Grant were a well-to-do Mormon couple who had their own successful business, several great kids and lived a Brady Bunch life in a lovely house in Maricopa County, Arizona. (This will be important later.)
First of all, I’ll state that this is the one case on the list where I’m not convinced the accused is actually guilty. (Obviously Billy Milligan and Liysa Northon committed the “acts” they were accused of; what their “crime” consisted of was a matter for the courts. Important difference.) But this story is so bloody strange that the “truth” could be almost anything.
Faylene was a very devout Mormon who believed she had the gift of prophecy, or something like it. She would often go to the Mormon temple, sit quietly, and get messages which she wrote in her voluminous journals. At one point she received a message that her husband, a known horndog, was cheating on her with one of his young employees, a friend of hers named Hillary. How much of this message came from God and how much of it came from the fact that everyone in Maricopa knew that Doug was a notorious cheat is debatable, but Faylene got a message to divorce Doug, so she got a quickie divorce.
Apparently they both regretted it almost instantly,and the extent to which they ever even separated is debatable. They decided to remarry. In the meantime, Faylene started getting messages that she didn’t have long to live, despite being barely middle-aged and in good health. Now, if you or I, regardless of whether we were sitting in a Mormon temple, starting thinking we were getting messages we were going to die soon, we might go see a shrink, or at least the family GP. Not Faylene, who was a bit more–proactive? Rather, knowing that Hillary was Doug’s mistress, she went to the young lady, announced her news, and told Hillary that since she was wasn’t going to be around, she was going to groom Hillary to be the mother of her children once she died. She even left a letter that began by stating that she wanted nothing more than, at her funeral, to be able to look down from heaven and see Doug and Hilary married, with the children. Together. At…her…funeral.
Yeah. She wrote: “This desire for you to be married immediately and to see you sitting together as husband and wife at my funeral has been so strong.” She even included a note to her kids: “I have asked Hilary to sit at the table as your mother while I’m away. Treat Hilary with the utmost love and respect, and you will always make me very happy.”
Now, if you were actually suffering from a terminal illness, this behavior might all be reasonable. Admirable, even. But that’s not the case here. Faylene just got a message. From God. I hate to offend anyone, but I’ll say it now: Messages from God have been known to be wrong.
She and Doug decided to take a second honeymoon to visit some sacred Mormon…whatever. At one point, they were on a hike when she took a violent tumble off of a hill; Faylene’s family believed Doug was responsible. To me it seems more likely, with her certainty of impending death, that she got deliberately careless. There’s a phenomenon that some psychologists call “subintentional death:” to put it bluntly, it’s when you go more than halfway to meet your maker. At any rate, Faylene didn’t die from her fall, but she was in pain. Once safely home, a buddy of Doug’s who was a physician’s assistant prescribed painkillers and Ambien to relieve it.
You can probably guess what happened next: Faylene, getting ready for bed, took a few too many Ambien and went to soak in the tub, where Doug claimed he found her, drowned. It was first ruled an accident, and it might have ended there had not Doug went ahead with his wife’s instructions and married Hillary. Faylene’s family was pretty ticked and began lobbying the cops and the district attorney to rule it a homicide and arrest Doug.
Now this particular District Attorney could never be played by Rob Lowe. Hint: A braying jackass of a man who resembles the Taco Bell chihuahua and became really famous on HLN for prosecuting a woman who killed her ex-BF. Yes, that’s right: Juan Martinez.
Suffice it to say Faylene’s family and Martinez eventually got their way and Doug Grant was put on trial. Despite Martinez’s trademark nastiness, the jury deliberated for three weeks before reaching a compromise verdict of manslaughter, the lowest charge Grant faced. The judge was also lenient, sentencing Doug to five years–meaning with good behavior, he could be out in three. It also allowed Martinez to bark, “He was found guilty in a court of law–justice was served!”
WHY IT WAS NEVER RIPPED: I suspect it was the religious angle more than anything, together with the fact that the Grants were a wealthy, respected couple. It might be acceptable to mock a poor person getting messages from God or from pole lamps, but not a well-to-do suburban matron with good hair. Also, the whole “grooming your replacement” thing would be weird enough if it were someone dying of say, cancer, but uh…message from God? There’s really.just.. nothing…to….say.
CASTING CHOICES: Doug the Dawg: Chris Meloni. Faylene: Rachel MacAdams. Hilary: Any dewy-eyed ingenue. Juan Martinez: Tom Cruise would be just perfect.
Long before Ferguson and all the recent scandals, there was Joseph Kenton Kent McGowen.
In 1992, McGowen was a sheriff’s deputy in an upper-class subdivision of Houston called Olde Oaks, but though he was only 27, it was hardly his first law-enforcement job. He’d started out as a volunteer officer; then had a disastrous two and a half year stint at Houston Police Department, basically resigning before he could be fired; then he tried community college (another failure); went to work again as a reserve (volunteer) deputy with a small-town police department, got fired from that; and a couple more before landing a job with the Houston Sheriff’s Department (HCSD). Everywhere he went, McGowen was hated by civilians and fellow cops alike—nobody liked his misogynistic attitudes, which included sexual harassment on the job; his constant bragging about a supposed huge trust fund he was due to receive and his parents’ supposed close ties with Bush I; and the fact that he was basically just a real jerk.
Living in Olde Oaks at the time was a lovely middle-aged woman named Susan White, 42, thrice-married and on the verge of her third divorce. White had made some mistakes with her life–she had issues with pills, was known to get around, and was always making excuses for her 17-year-old son Jason, who was a pothead and bit of a local hellraiser, though he’d never been in any serious trouble. At the time of her death things were looking up for Susan White: She was taking acting lessons and doing some modeling and acting jobs in the Houston area, and was engaged to a well-to-do circus (!) promoter. It’s believed, though not proven,thatWhite and McGowen may have once had a very casual, consensual, affair; but what is clear is that by the time of her death, it had degenerated into serious sexual harassment and Susan White was living in–retrospectively justified–mortal fear of Kent McGowen. As Susan told her fiance when he was tired of hearing about it: “One day you’ll believe me, but then it’ll be too late.”
Follow closely here: Susan White started making noise about reporting McGowen for sexual harassment. McGowen attempted to get an informant of his, Jason’s former best friend Mike, to set up Jason in a gun bust, in order to discredit White as a hysterical mother who would do anything to save her son. The bust went down, but at first the Houston DA’s office refused to file charges against Jason–he hadn’t stolen the gun, nor had he been in possession of it. McGowen called the DAs intake office four or five times in about an hour, just after the bust, demanding that they charge Jason with everything from “transferring a stolen weapon” (an offense that didn’t exist) to “major organized crime activity (?).” He did have a stolen credit card on him when he was arrested, but again, without evidence that he’d actually stolen or used it, the DA was reluctant to press charges for that either. Finally, mostly just to get rid of him, the DA reluctantly agreed to file charges for possession of stolen property. Jason spent a weekend in jail and his mother bailed him out on Monday. Perhaps foolishly, however, she had called Mike’s mother to commiserate and made the remark, “Being a snitch is a dangerous business in Houston. They get killed.” Mike’s mother didn’t take it seriously, but when McGowen called her looking for smack on Susan White, she repeated it. McGowen chastised her for, in effect, being a lousy mother and went about getting a warrant.
A silly remark made by a woman who was terrified that McGowen would hurt her son while he was in police custody, but to McGowan it was the ammunition he needed to shut Susan White up once and for all. He convinced a DA (after embellishing the facts to insist that Susan and Jason were operating a major gun running operation, including automatics, out of their home) to give him a warrant for Susan White for “retaliation”–making threats toward his informant. Oddly, he did nothing to actually protect the informant himself. And while the previous day he’d insisted to the DA that Mike would be dead by sunset if he didn’t get the warrant that very minute, he waited nearly a day, until he was back on duty, to serve the warrant himself after the judge signed it. And just before he served the warrant, he told another deputy: “If I get a chance, I oughta kill that bitch.”
That night, he went with two other cops to Olde Oaks to serve the warrant on Susan White. Scared witless (not unjustifiably)when she heard what she thought was McGowen trying to break in, she called 911, begging the dispatcher to connect her with McGowen’s supervisor. She then trieddesperately to get McGowan to leave and repeating her allegations of harassment. She refused to open the door to the cops unless McGowen left. The other cops were suspicious about why McGowen was serving a warrant on a woman who knew him and suggested he step back, but McGowen refused to leave. He went around to the back door, kicked it in, and six seconds later Susan White was shot in her bed–in the head, arm, and chest. It was later determined that she had been replacing the phone from the 911 call. The only gun found in the house, despite McGowen’s allegations of a major gunrunning scheme, was a .25 pistol that was strategically placed on the floor. When the two other cops who were with McGowen that night got to the bedroom, he told them that Susan White had pointed the gun at him and since she refused to put it down, he had to kill her. Remember: Six seconds.
Not that pretty much everyone, from his fellow cops to Internal Affairs to the DA’s office, didn’t smell something immediately. McGowen couldn’t stop bragging about how he’d popped the bitch and telling various contradictory tales of his heroism in killing Susan White. The problem, as the DA’s office saw it, was that he did have a valid warrants–and since Susan White hadn’t opened the door to allow the deputies to arrest her, they were within their rights to kick in the door.
Except, as the DA would later argue in court, the warrant was completely bogus and invalid on its face. McGowen had lied repeatedly to obtain it, from the fact that Susan White’s remarks did not qualify as threats of retaliation to the wild stories about the mother-son gunrunning operation. McGowen went on trial for the first time in 1994. Although the prosecution was limited in the evidence it could present, McGowen was quickly convicted. However, he was sentenced to fifteen years–meaning, due to a quirk in Texas law, that he was free to go on bail, pending appeals.
One of his appeals won him a new trial, and eight years later, McGowen was tried again. This time the prosecution had a bit more latitude, and of course, McGowen hadn’t kept his mouth shut in the interim. This time he was sentenced to twenty-four years in prison.
Maybe he should have quit while he was ahead–as more than one wag pointed out, had he simply done the fifteen years, he almost definitely would have been paroled by the time the second trial rolled around. Oh well–I’m not going to cry over it.
REASON IT WAS NEVER RIPPED?: The Law & Order franchises actually did a number of killer cop episodes, but generally the cops were killing drug dealers, dirty cops, blah blah. But the sordid tale of a cop (well, at that point, little more than a glorified security guard) who deliberately lied to get a warrant, thinking it would in effect give him a license to kill–not the kind of thing any cop show wants to highlight.
CASTING CHOICES: Kent McGowen: Tough one…a guy who projects both stupidity and evil? Keanu Reeves would work. Susan White: Sharon Stone. Jason: DJ Qualls.
As I’ve always said, sometimes the most interesting cases are ones you’ve never heard of.for whatever reason, they just didn’t get on Law & Order, or even a Lifetime movie. And of course, as seen in the Liysa Swat case–publicity can be a mixed blessing.