Archive for December, 2009

Wheelchair-Bound Prisoner Overtakes Guards, Flees on Foot

Thursday, December 17th, 2009

A major security breach occurred earlier this week as a Texas prisoner who was being transferred between facilities managed to overtake two armed guards in order to escape.

Arcade Comeaux Jr., 49, had been serving a life sentence for aggravated sexual assault and two counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. On Monday, he was being transported via van, with two correctional officers, between the Estelle prison in Huntsville and the Stiles prison in Beaumont, according to a spokesperson for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice in Huntsville. Comeaux was not only shackled, but also confined to a wheelchair. He had previously alleged that he had experienced a stroke, and was paralyzed as a result.

Less than an hour into the trip, Comeaux revealed a pistol and ordered his guards to drive to Baytown, TX. Once there, he handcuffed the guards together and left them in the back of the van after taking one of the men’s uniforms. One gunshot was fired by the prisoner, but no one was injured. He then left his pistol, but took the officers’ weapons—a 12-gauge shotgun and two semiautomatic pistols, and fled on foot.

Authorities now believe that the entire operation—Comeaux’s claim of a stroke and paralysis, and his engineering a transfer which would allegedly place him nearer a hospital for treatment of that paralysis which in turn led to the escape opportunity—was an elaborate con.

The guards failed to pat down the prisoner before the trip began. It is unclear how Comeaux obtained a firearm while inside the prison.

Comeaux has an extensive criminal record, beginning with three 10-year sentences for rape of a child, aggravated rape of a child and burglary with the intent to commit theft. After being released on mandatory supervision four years later, he was then convicted of indecency with a child and sentenced to 20 years in prison. For the next 14 years, he bounced in and out of prison on parole violations, finally being sentenced to life for aggravated sexual assault in 1998. Just one year later, he attacked his own wife during a contact visit, stabbing her 17 times with a homemade knife. He also stabbed a bystander who tried to intervene. These crimes netted him two counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, and two additional life sentences.

Comeaux is still at large. Over 100 investigators are searching for him, and $16,000 in reward money has been offered for information leading to his arrest.

Twenty-Six Indicted in Scheme to Defraud the Deaf

Wednesday, December 16th, 2009

Washington, DC—Twenty-six suspects in New York, New Jersey, Texas, Florida, Arizona, Nevada, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Maryland have been indicted on charges of defrauding the deaf and hard-of-hearing community.

In a unique investigation that required the help of 20 sign-language interpreters, federal agents uncovered the wide-ranging scheme, which involved the fraudulent use of a Video Relay Service (VRS) system, through which deaf or hard-of-hearing consumers could communicate with hearing people via a sign-language interpreter.

The system allows a deaf person to use a television or computer with a webcam and broadband Internet connection to contact a “communications assistant,” who then places a traditional telephone call to the hearing individual and relays the conversation back and forth between the two parties, using sign language with the VRS user and voice with the called party. The conversation typically flows faster and more easily than using a text-based system such as TTY (teletypewriter) or TDD (telecommunications device for the deaf).

According to an official with the Federal Communications Commission, the indicted suspects, who are owners and employees of seven VRS companies, allegedly falsely billed the government for calls that were purportedly assisting deaf individuals, but which in actuality were not. The government was charged $390 an hour for the service.

The FCC also said that the total amount billed for the Video Relay Service last year was $55 million. Although they are uncertain of the exact value of the fraudulent calls, they said it could be “tens of millions.”

The seven contractors who are allegedly defrauded the system account for approximately 15 percent of its total business.

Prosecutors have said that they will seek unspecified jail time in addition to forfeiture of the contractors’ business.

The FCC was assisted in the investigation by the FBI and the Postal Inspection Service. The cost of the Video Relay Service is funded through fees paid by telephone consumers.

Assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, Lanny Breuer, said in a statement, “The individuals charged in connection with today’s operation are alleged to have stolen tens of millions of dollars from an important government program that is intended to help deaf and hard-of-hearing Americans communicate with hearing persons.”

The companies named in the indictment are located in Rockville, Maryland; Phoenix, Arizona; Austin, Texas; Las Vegas, Nevada; Miami Lakes, Florida; and Huntington Beach, California. One of the firms operates in both New York and New Jersey.

Supreme Court To Hear Florida Beach Dispute Case

Tuesday, December 15th, 2009

A property rights case goes before the justices of the United States Supreme Court this week. On one side, the state of Florida; on the other, property owners who object to the state’s plan to preserve the beach by importing sand and making the newly created dry beach public property.

For years, beach preservation projects spearheaded by the state have been popular with officials and property owners alike, as hurricanes and simple erosion have battered the 2,000-plus miles of Florida’s shoreline. New sand is literally added to the beach at the waterline, in order to extend the beach futher out in the ocean. This keeps the water far enough away from homes, as well as adding dry land for recreational purposes.

Yet some owners are beginning to complain that the beach restoration is nothing more than a “land grab” on the part of the state. When the restoration began, the state decided that the property line for private beach-front property lay at the point where the dry sand met the wet sand, and that the line would not change even after more dry sand was added. In other words, the state is creating new public property with the addition of the sand.

Since state law bars the construction of anything that obscures a homeowner’s view of the ocean, and guarantees access to the water, the rights of the private property owners are still protected, even though there is a strip of public land standing between them and the water. Additionally, say advocates for the state, the new strip of beach was created by state-owned sand, and is created over what was submerged state land, which makes it public property.

Six homeowners have challenged the beach restoration project, saying that takes the land without offering just compensation. Their case went to the Florida Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the state, saying that the landowners are not entitled to compensation under state law. In its ruling, the Florida Supreme Court said that the program was intended “to protect Florida’s beaches in a way that reasonably balances public and private interests,” because the homeowner retains access to the water. Florida common law, said the court, does not provide to a landowner the right to own any emerging land.

Now the issue goes before the country’s highest court, in a case which could have implications for many coastal regions. Possibly complicating the matter is the fact that at least one of the justices owns a vacation home on Florida’s shore.

Suspect in Slaying of Tacoma Police Holed Up in Home

Monday, December 14th, 2009

Lakewood, Washington—A man who has recently been named a suspect in the fatal shooting of four police offers on Sunday morning is hiding out in an East Seattle home. Police have blocked off several streets in the neighborhood and cautioned area residents to remain indoors.

Maurice Clemmons, a convicted criminal with an extensive record, is suspected in the “ambush,” which targeted four Lakewood Police Department officers as they sat in a coffee shop working on their laptops. The attack occurred without any warning as the shooter walked past the officers, approaching the counter as if to place an order. He then pulled a gun out of his coat and opened fire on the officers.

Two employees of the coffee shop, as well as its other patrons, were unharmed. The officers were in uniform, and their marked patrol cars were parked outside. A spokesman for the Pierce County sheriff’s department, Ed Troyer, said that only the law enforcement officials were targeted, and that the shooting was an “ambush.”

“What happened in there wasn’t just a shooting,” Troyer told reporters. The four officers were identified as Sgt. Mark Renninger, 39; Officer Tina Griswold, 40; Officer Ronald Owens, 37; and Officer Greg Richards, 42.

Clemmons had a long rap sheet, with convictions for aggravated robbery and theft. He had recently been charged in Pierce County with the assault of a police officer and the rape of a child. In 1989, he had been sentenced to 95 years in prison on a number of charges, including bringing a gun to school, robberies and burglaries. During a pretrial hearing, according to contemporary media reports, he took a padlock from a holding cell and attempted to throw it at a court bailiff, instead hitting his own mother.

After serving 11 years of his sentenced, Clemmons was paroled in August 2000 and his sentence was commuted by then-Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, a 2008 Republican presidential candidate. The commutation was based, according to Huckabee’s office, on the recommendation of the parole board, who has agreed that Clemmons met the conditions for early release, and on the fact that Clemmons was only 17 at the time of his sentencing. Since his release, Clemmons has been in and out of jail. Most recently he was being held on the pending charge of second-degree rape of a child. He was released on bond just six days before Sunday’s shooting.

Family members told law enforcement that Clemmons had exhibited increasingly bizarre behavior in recent months, including expressing the belief that he was Jesus, and that he could fly. He also insisted that relatives undress in order to be “naked for at least five minutes on Sunday,” according to a sheriff’s department report.

Clemmons may have been hurt by a Lakewood officer returning fire, and investigators were checking local hospitals. Additionally, they have offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to an arrest in the case.

Incarcerated “Pulp Fiction” Screenwriter Tweeting from Behind Bars

Friday, December 11th, 2009

Los Angeles, CA—An Oscar-winning screenwriter who is currently serving time in jail for vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated appears to be sending “tweets,” or messages on the popular social networking platform Twitter, from behind bars.

The inmate whose tweets are gaining a following among the Twitterati – and attention from law enforcement officials – is thought to be Roger Avary, who co-wrote the popular movie Pulp Fiction with Quentin Tarantino. The posts on Twitter began around September 26, which is when Avary began serving a year-long sentence at the Ventura County Jail in California.

According to police, Avary had been driving more than 100mph on a January night in 2008, in Ojai, when his car hit a telephone pole. His passenger, Andres Zini, 34, an Italian who was honeymooning with his wife, was killed. Avary’s wife, Gretchen, was injured when she was ejected from the vehicle. Avary pleaded guilty to a charge of gross vehicular manslaughter and was sentenced to one year in jail.

Tweets are brief, 140-character messages which are transmitted via the Internet. The Twitter feed of a user named @Avary describes life in jail, from the monotony to the lack of privacy and rest he receives at night. There has been some speculation that the tweets are originating from an imposter, but the account is linked to Avary’s personal website, and many friends, including writer Neil Gaiman, who worked with Avary on the film Beowulf, have confirmed that the tweets are authentic.

Under California law, inmates are prohibited from accessing the Internet while in state custody. Avary, however, is part of a furlough program, in which he may leave jail in order to work during the week, but must spend his nights and weekends incarcerated. This may have explained previous tweets, but the screenwriter was recently transferred from the work-release program back into regular confinement. Several days later, a post appeared on the Twitter feed saying that Avary was “’rolled up’ to a higher security facility for exercising his first amendment rights. The truth he has discovered is too dangerous.” By Monday, that post appeared to have been deleted.

Another explanation as to why the tweets are still appearing on @Avary’s account is that he is conveying them to a friend on the outside via letters or telephone calls, which authorities say is within the bounds of acceptable inmate behavior.

Twitter accounts can gain “followers” — people who subscribe to the feed of posts – and as of late last week, the account believed to be Roger Avary’s had garnered over 13,000 followers.

Horrified Passengers Watch as Man is Stabbed, Killed on NY Subway

Thursday, December 10th, 2009

NEW YORK CITY – A late night train ride turned into a murder scene as passengers witnessed a passenger stab another passenger over a seat on the subway train.

Witnesses told police that the victim, later identified as Dwight Johnson, was sitting down with his belongings beside him. The accused, Gerardo Sanchez, approached Johnson and demanded he move his belongings so he could sit down. Johnson responded saying there were plenty of empty seats on the train, however it was not the response Sanchez was looking for. The passengers say that Sanchez then brought out a knife and stabbed the victim in the neck and hands.

As soon as the incident happened, a passenger pulled the emergency cord signaling the train to stop. However, because the train was underground where it would be hard for emergency responders to reach, the train continued for several minutes until its next stop, at Rockefeller Center. Meanwhile, all the passengers who had just witnessed the murder were forced to remain in the subway car with Sanchez, who opened a window to dispose of the knife while the train was still in motion. His attempt was in vain, however, as police were later able to locate and identify the weapon.

The murder took place on the uptown bound D train around 2 a.m. on Saturday Nov. 21st. The victim was a homeless vagrant man, and little is known about him or his family.

Sanchez plead not guilty at an arraignment held shortly after the incident. Family and friends say that he is not a violent person, and they are trying to understand why he would do such a thing. Sanchez’s brother Luis told investigators that his brother had recently been injured on the job and had been taking pain medication for his condition.

Defending the charges against Sanchez, prosecutor Eric Kratville said in court, “This is a completely unprovoked attack on an unarmed stranger in front of 20 to 30 witnesses on the subway.”

The incident has raised concerns over the decision for the train to continue moving until the next stop instead of stopping right away to address the problem, and keeping passengers inside once again as the train was waiting at its stop. Mayor Bloomberg defended the Metro Transit Authority’s decision saying, “Letting everybody run in every direction and have a murderer back on the streets doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.”

Wal-Mart Scuffle Leads to Arrest for Missouri Woman

Wednesday, December 9th, 2009

Kennett, Missouri – A heated, racially charged argument at a Missouri Wal-Mart in January 2007 turned into a legal nightmare for Heather Ellis, now 24, who pled guilty to resisting arrest and disturbing the peace – both misdemeanors – at a court date earlier this week.

Witnesses say that Ellis, then a college student, cut in front of other customers in line and shoved aside another customer’s merchandise to make room for her own. Prosecutors allege that Ellis “went ballistic in a profane tirade” when police were called to mediate, and that she kicked an officer’s shin and split open another officer’s lip. Ellis has denied all of these allegations, but said in court that she did touch another customer’s items.

Ellis’s story of the events is much different than what witnesses recount, and claims she was the victim in the situation. In her testimony of Nov. 20th, Ellis said the situation started when she switched checkout lines to be with a family member, but was then ignored by the cashier and was refused change. She also testified that customers yelled racial slurs at her when she attempted to change lines. When exiting the store, Ellis claims a police officer approached her and make racially charged comments, then grabbed her in an attempt to handcuff her, but made no statement telling her what he was doing. She claims she was then “flung around” and choked, while making attempts to scream for help.

Family members who were with Ellis at the time of the incident back up her story, but surveillance videos in and around the story were unable to catch all points of the incident. Ellis sought medical attention at the emergency room following her arrest, where she said her wrists were cut and bruised due to the handcuffs, and that she was also suffering from neck pains.

Following her court appearance, Ellis told reporters that she was “taking responsibility for her actions and [hopes] that everyone else involved in the case will take responsibility for theirs.” The charges in which she is accused of carry fines and long prison sentences. However, as part of a plea agreement, Ellis will only serve four days in jail, with one year of unsupervised probation, and will attend an anger management course. If she stays out of trouble for one year, her record will be sealed and no charges will appear on her permanent record.

The incident has raised concerns about the treatment of minorities by the police in the surrounding area. Residents have long been complaining about treatment during routine traffic stops and other encounters with the police. However, Ellis’s lawyers have not brought up race as a contributing factor in the incident.

American Student Amanda Knox Found Guilty of Murder in Italy

Tuesday, December 8th, 2009

Perugia, Italy—After a sensationalistic, nearly year-long trial that made headlines around the world, University of Washington student Amanda Knox, 22, has been found guilty by two judges and eight jurors.

Knox was accused of being the mastermind behind the brutal murder of her British roommate Meredith Kercher, with whom she was living while studying in Perugia. According to prosecutors, Knox and her then-boyfriend, Italian Raffaele Sollecito, along with another man who was infatuated with Kercher, Rudy Guede, were involved in an episode of sexual violence that culminated in Kercher’s killing. Knox, said prosecutors, ordered the two men to hold the victim down while Knox slashed her throat.

Guede was convicted in a separate trial in October 2008. Both Knox and Sollecito, 25, have been imprisoned for over two years, as the investigation and then the trial have been ongoing.

DNA evidence linked the accused to the victim. A clasp on Kercher’s bra had Sollecito’s DNA on it, although defense claimed that the clasp had been left at the crime scene for weeks and so the evidence was contaminated. Similarly, a knife that prosecutors contended was the murder weapon, and which had both Knox’s DNA on the handle and Kercher’s on the blade, has come under scrutiny by the defense, who claim that it does not match the wounds and that it did not have any blood on it.

Knox and Kercher had initially been friends, but had grown apart and then shared a troubled history. Some say that Knox was angry with Kercher; others claimed that she and her boyfriend had gotten into aberrant sexual practices which spilled over and involved the roommate and other friends.

Knox and Sollecito had been charged with theft in addition to the charges of murder and sexual violence, as $444 had been found missing from Kercher’s wallet. The theft charge was the only one for which the Italian jury did not find them guilty.

Knox was sentenced to 26 years in prison; Sollecito was given 25 years. Together, they must pay 5 million euros ($7.4 million USD) to the victim’s family. Additionally, Knox will be required to pay reparations in the amount of 40,000 euros ($60,000) to a man she had falsely accused of the murder, her former boss at an Italian bar.

The murder, which took place in November 2007, has been the subject of intense media scrutiny and public speculation. Perugia is a university town located approximately 115 miles north of Rome.

Both Knox and Sollecito plan to appeal their convictions.

Federal Lawsuit Filed By Nineteen Patrons of Gay Club in Atlanta

Monday, December 7th, 2009

Atlanta, GA—Nineteen patrons of a gay club who claim that they were forcibly searched, detained, and forced to lie down in spilled beer and broken glass, have filed a federal lawsuit against Atlanta police.

The allegations stem from a September 10 raid at the Atlanta Eagle, in which the Atlanta Police Department dispatched 20 to 30 officers, including a SWAT team in full gear, according to a statement made by Lambda Legal Defense Fund, the gay-rights group that filed the suit on behalf of the patrons. “But inside the bar, the APD found no public sex, no drugs or illegal weapons.”

Additionally, none of the club’s patrons were charged with any crime.

Yet authorities searched everyone on the property, seized their driver’s licenses or other identification, and ran background checks on them. Some patrons were restrained with handcuffs. Others were the victims of excessive force, as police officers shoved them to the floor and kicked them while the lay on the floor. The patrons were forced to lie on the floor while the background checks were conducted, despite there being broken glass and spilled beer on the floor. One of the patrons, a former Iraq War veteran who had injured his back during service, protested being made to lie down but was forced to regardless.

Others asked permission of the police to move away from the broken glass, but were told to “stay down and shut the [expletive] up,” according to the lawsuit. Patrons who asked questions were told to shut up, threatened with arrest for disorderly conduct, or threatened with physical harm. They were made to lie on the floor between 30 minutes and two hours, as they were released either in small groups or individually.

The SWAT-style team, a special force unit called the “Red Dog Unit” provides “aggressive police presence” in areas with high drug traffic, according to the Atlanta Police Department’s Web site. The officers in that unit were wearing paramilitary-style black clothing and were therefore not immediately recognizable as law enforcement officers. Prior to their arrival, undercover officers had entered the bar and ordered drinks, before “screaming at patrons and employees to ‘hit the floor’ and get down on the ground,” said the lawsuit, which was filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia.

The suit names Atlanta Police Chief Richard Pennington and 48 officers who were at the bar on the night of the raid. It also alleges that the patrons at the Eagle that night heard anti-gay slurs.

Sport Reporter Stalked, Videotaped in More than One Location

Friday, December 4th, 2009

Los Angeles, CA—According to recently filed court documents, a man who is accused of stalking a sports reporter may have made more nude videotapes of her than previously known.

Michael David Barrett allegedly videotaped ESPN reporter Erin Andrews through peepholes in hotel room doors. Barrett, 48, is also accused of posting the videos, which authorities believe were taken with a cell phone, on online video sharing sites.

Andrews, 31, is a sideline reporter for the television sports network ESPN. She travels around the country reporting from college football games. In a criminal complaint filed this week, Andrews said that she became aware that some videos had been made of her in July and that this knowledge has caused her anxiety and distress in addition to insomnia.

Many of the videos had been made at a Nashville, TN hotel in September 2008. New information, however, also says that Barrett allegedly also videotaped Andrews through an altered peephole in the door of a hotel room in Columbus, OH. Investigators also found that Barrett had reserved a room at a Milwaukee, WI hotel where Andrews was also booked, but did not check in.

The peephole in the door of Andrews’s room in the Nashville hotel had been altered with a hacksaw, according to the complaint. The peephole in her door in Milwaukee was similarly altered, as well.

Barrett was arrested in Illlinois, but is scheduled to appear in a Los Angeles federal court later this week. He will be arraigned on November 23, and will be asked to submit a plea. Last month, an Illinois judge released Barrett on bail.

He waived his right to be indicted by a grand jury, and so in lieu of an indictment, authorities filed a criminal information against him. He is charged with interstate stalking, which ha a potential sentence of five years in prison, said a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Central District of California.

Barrett also allegedly tried to sell the videos to the celebrity gossip Web site TMZ, in January 2009. Although the site did not purchase the videos, some of its employees did provide information to Andrews’s attorneys and therefore assisted the investigation.

Barrett himself posted the videos to other Web sites, tagging some of them things like “sexy and hot blonde sports celebrity shows us her all.”