Archive for March, 2010

Death Row Inmate Eats Last Meal, Is Spared

Wednesday, March 31st, 2010

Earlier this week, an eleventh-hour stay of execution was granted by the Supreme Court in the case of Henry “Hank” Skinner. The court will now address the question of Skinner’s appeal, which asks for the DNA testing that he claims will exonerate him.

Skinner heard the news while he was eating what would have been his last meal—two chicken thighs, a double bacon cheeseburger, fried catfish, onion rings, French fries, a salad with ranch dressing and a milkshake.

The 47-year-old, who has been sitting on Texas’s death row since 1995, would have been executed by lethal injection for killing his live-in girlfriend, Twila Busby, and her two mentally disabled sons. Although he had a previous record of assault and car theft, and was an admitted drug user and heavy drinker, Skinner has always maintained his innocence in the violent killings.

Police in the town of Pampa, Texas found Busby and her two sons dead on New Year’s Eve, 1993. Busby had been raped, strangled so forcefully that her larynx and another bone in her throat were broken, and struck on the head 14 times with a wooden axe or pick handle. Her son Edwin Caler, 22, was shown by blood spatter analysis to have been close by at the time of his mother’s beating, before being stabbed himself. Another son, Randy Busby, 20, was stabbed to death in his bedroom.

Defense attorneys have long questioned the ability of Skinner, who was intoxicated on Xanax, codeine and alcohol that evening, to overcome the 6′ 6”, 225-pound Caler—a doubt that was reinforced by expert testimony at trial. They also pointed fingers at Twila Busby’s uncle, Robert Donnell, who had made sexual advances towards Busby at a party earlier that evening, and who had a violent temper and a criminal record to match. Donnell has since died in a car accident.

DNA testing at the time of the killings did show that Skinner, who was found in the closet of an acquaintance’s trailer, had blood from both Twila and Elwin on his clothing, but other pieces of evidence—including fingernail clippings and vaginal swabs from Twila, a bloody dishtowel, knives used in the stabbings, and a windbreaker jacket—have not yet been tested for DNA. It is these items whose testing Skinner is requesting, and that the Supreme Court will rule on.

Skinner’s case was taken up by students involved in Northwestern University’s Medill Innocence Project, which has already helped win stays of execution for 11 death-row inmates, in 2000. After the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles refused to grant a reprieve for Skinner, lawmakers as well as private citizens began lobbying Texas Governor Rick Perry to step in and ensure that Skinner was guilty of the crimes before executing him.

Mystery Surrounds Death of Snack Chip Heir

Tuesday, March 30th, 2010

The grandson of Golden Flake snack chip founder Leo E. Bashinsky has been found dead, and a note taped inside his abandoned vehicle provides no answers as to the cause of his death.

Major Bashinsky, 65, disappeared in early March. His Toyota Camry was found near downtown Birmingham, AL by his adult daughter, but it was another week before his body was discovered in a golf-course pond.

An angry letter was found taped inside Bashinsky’s car, criticizing family members for taking dividends out of the Golden Flake company and putting the companys 800-plus workers at risk. Since the family itself is the largest shareholder through an investment company chaired by Bashinsky’s stepmother, Joann F. Bashinksy, and is entitled to dividends—which would also benefit employees, as they are the second-largest shareholder—the note does not make a lot of sense, say relatives. Additionally, since Major Bashinsky’s mother and father are both deceased, and Joann Bashinsky inherited almost all of her late husband’s stock upon his death, Major Bashinsky might not even have any stock left, according to a family member.

Also found taped inside the car was a bag of Golden Flake chips. The company, which was founded in 1946, makes potato chips, tortilla chips and numerous varieties of pork rinds. The Bashinsky family was close to University of Alabama football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, and sponsored his television football show for years.

Investigators are uncertain what message the letter and snacks were meant to send, nor whether they were placed there by Bashinsky himself or by someone else.

Bashinsky’s body bore some unspecified signs of injury, and detectives searching the pond where golfers found his body did discover evidence, reportedly his wallet. The pond itself is located in a residential area, where authorities say it would be difficult for someone to leave a body without being seen.

Bashinsky, an attorney who was not involved in the company’s business, had refilled a prescription for cholesterol medication the morning before his disappearance.

The letter found inside Bashinsky’s car said that the dividend paid by the snack food company “force us to act with urgency,” but did not specify any actions that had been taken or make any demands. Similar letters have been sent to other Bashinsky family members in the past.

A coroner’s report is expected later this week, and may help investigators determine whether or not the death was a homicide or suicide.

High-Profile Weapons Traced Back to Memphis P.D.

Monday, March 29th, 2010

Two weapons—one used in a shooting at the Pentagon earlier this month, and another used in a courthouse shooting in Las Vegas—have been traced back to the police department in Memphis, Tennessee.

According to law enforcement officials who spoke to the Associated Press, the guns were once seized in criminal cases. They then made their way into the hands of would-be assassins through gun dealers, as part of a system that is drawing increasing criticism.

Many cities and states put the guns that are confiscated during criminal investigations back into circulation, by either selling or trading them. Not only is this the practice in many areas of the country, but some states even promote it. In Tennessee, a law was signed on March 4—ironically enough, the day of the Pentagon shooting—that says a law enforcement agency can only destroy a gun if it is unsafe or broken.

Gun swaps can be a way to decrease taxpayer costs, because the police department is able to trade guns that aren’t quite right for police work for different guns, bulletproof vests, or other equipment that they need. If the department doesn’t have to buy those items outright, it can save money for the taxpayers. Other weapons are sold outright, generating income for the department, much as any confiscated item would be sold.

The shooter in the Pentagon attack, John Patrick Bedell, had two guns that day—one of them a 9 mm Ruger which he never should have been able to purchase. He had been prohibited from buying a gun because of a history of serious psychiatric problems, but was able to buy the Ruger at a Las Vegas gun show nevertheless. This kind of sale, between individuals instead of between a dealer and an individual, does not require a background check.

Johnny Lee Wicks, who opened fire with a shotgun at a federal courthouse in Las Vegas in January, killed one officer and wounded another. That gun was ordered sold by a judge, as part of a criminal case, and proceeds went to the Memphis-area sheriff’s office. Although it is unclear how Wicks obtained it, the gun seems to have changed hands several times. Wicks, a convicted felon, was also legally barred from owning a gun.

Both men were killed by officers returning fire.

In the past two years, there have been almost 50 new laws passed on the state level that loosen gun restrictions. Most of these have taken place in the South and West, where gun-rights advocates tend to be more prevalent.

Gang Task Force Offers Reward for Info about Recent Attacks

Friday, March 26th, 2010

Riverside, California’s Hemet Gang Task Force has offered up a $200,000 reward for information about a series of booby traps intended to kill its police officer members.

The first incident that drew attention was on December 31, 2009, when someone redirected the natural gas line at the task force’s headquarters, filling the office with natural gas. Two task force members entering the office smelled the gas and alerted authorities, so a potentially fatal explosion was averted. The headquarters of the task force was unmarked.

Another booby trap was discovered on February 23, 2010, when a homemade zip gun attached to the task force headquarters security gate fired, missing a police officer’s head by mere inches. That attack prompted the task force to relocate to a different location, and to institute further security measure.

The increased security, however, did not prevent a third attack, which occurred on March 5, 2010. A task force member found a homemade pipe bomb hidden underneath his unmarked police vehicle while it was parked outside of a convenience store.

Authorities feel that the same perpetrator or perpetrators are involved in all three attacks, because of their similar nature and their close timing.

Hemet is one of eight agencies that comprise the Riverside County Gang Task Force, which was formed four years ago. Its aim is to reduce criminal street gang behavior and to outlaw motorcycle gangs in the county. It has been successful in reducing the number of violent crimes, as well as the size of the gangs themselves. The task force has also seen an increase in the number of warrants served and arrests made.

Experts estimate the total gang membership of Riverside County at over 10,000.

Last week, an initiative called “Operation Everywhere” culminated in the arrest of 31 members of the Vagos motorcycle gang. A spokesperson for the district attorney’s office, John Hall, said that he couldn’t comment on the possibility that the Vagos members were behind the Hemet booby traps, but did say that it was “reasonable to believe that [gang members] are targeting members of the task force specifically.”

Money for the reward was put up by multiple local, state and federal agencies, including the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

“We urge anyone with information on the attacks to come forward immediately,” said California Attorney General Jerry Brown.

Fugitive Returns From Cuba, Pleads Guilty in 1968 Hijacking

Thursday, March 25th, 2010

A man who took part in a decades-old airplane hijacking, and who has been living as a fugitive in Cuba ever since, has returned to the United States to plead guilty in the matter.

Luis Armando Pena Soltren is a U.S. resident who was indicted in December 1968 on charges related to the skyjacking of Pan American Flight 281, which he allegedly committed in order to gain passage to Cuba, where his father was hospitalized. Three others involved in the incident were motivated by political reasons related to the independence of Puerto Rico, which was the plane’s destination. It had originated in New York.

Pena Soltren and two other men forced the pilot to divert the plane, which carried 103 passengers and crew, by first threatening to cut a flight attendant’s throat and then gaining access to the cockpit. They also allegedly brandished pistols and held the copilot at gunpoint. They had used a diaper to conceal the gun when boarding the plane.

The two onboard accomplices were arrested in the mid-1970s and pleaded not guilty, receiving 12 and 15 years in prison, respectively. The man given the lesser sentence received parole after about four years. A third man, who was not aboard the Pan Am flight, was also indicted and found not guilty on all charges.

Pena Soltren remained a fugitive in Cuba, where he was protected from prosecution. According to his lawyer, he wanted to return to the United States as early as 1979, but United States authorities either ignored or dismissed his requests until last year. He returned to the country in October.

Pena Soltren, his attorney also says, is “sincerely and profoundly remorseful.” The judge in the case, U.S. District Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein, ordered Pena Soltren to describe details of the attack, in order to emphasize the violence that occurred that day.

The 67-year-old Pena Soltren is charged with conspiracy to commit air piracy, interfering with a flight crew and kidnapping. He entered a plea of guilty in federal court in Manhattan and has been given a sentencing date of June 29. Although he is eligible to receive a life sentence, prosecutors have indicated that the probable sentence would be closer to between 22 and 30 years.

At the time, hijackings were much more common, with several such attacks occurring in the skyways each year. In fact, the hijacking of Pan Am Flight 281 was not the only one that occurred that day, November 24, 1968. Today, however, the actions of Pena Soltren and the other men would be considered an act of terrorism.

Doctor Convicted of Poisoning Wife Gets Life Sentence

Wednesday, March 24th, 2010

A former doctor who sought to escape his marriage by poisoning his wife with a cyanide-laced calcium pill was sentenced recently to life in prison.

After a lurid six-weel trial, in which over 60 witnesses testified to Yazeed Essa’s habitual philandering, a jury found the 41-year-old Ohio man guilty of aggravated murder for giving Rosemarie Essa a supplement which killed her.

Rosemarie Essa died in February 2005, while driving to the movies. She telephoned a friend from her car, saying that she felt nauseated, and that her husband had given her a pill which she suspected might have been laced with poison. Shortly thereafter, she passed out, impacted another vehicle and then hit the curb.

The friend, Eva Gardner, testified during Essa’s trial. Also testifying were two of Essa’s mistresses and his own brother, who told jurors that Essa had admitted that he killed his wife. Others took the stand to talk about Essa’s many mistresses and playboy lifestyle, which prosecutors used to demonstrate that Essa wished to rid himself of his wife.

After being brought in for questioning by police, in March 2005, Essa fled the country and managed to evade capture until October 2006, when he was arrested in Cyprus for using fake travel documents. He was extradited to Cuyahoga County, Ohio in January 2009 for the murder trial.

Attorneys for the defense cited the lack of any physical evidence tying Essa to the poisoned calcium supplements, and attempted to point fingers at some of the mistresses, one of whom said that Essa had promised to be her soul mate.

The former doctor will be eligible for parole in 20 years. Had his crime occurred earlier, before Ohio sentencing laws were changed, Judge Deena Calabrese would have had more discretion in setting his parole eligibility.

“I regret that you have the benefit of committing this crime under the old law,” said Calabrese. “You took an oath to preserve life and you destroyed your family. I cannot imagine the evil that you have done to these people, especially your children. It is my great hope and the only that I can think of at this moment that they forget you … and that whatever legacy you had is wiped away.”

Conviction in Mississippi KKK Case Upheld By Appeals Court

Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

A federal appeals court has upheld the conviction of James Ford Seale, a suspected former KKK member who abducted and killed two black teenagers over four decades ago.

The cold case dates back to 1964, when Charles Eddie Moore and Henry Hezekiah Dee, both 19, were kidnapped in a rural area near Natchez, Mississippi. They were beaten by Ku Klux Klansmen, after being asked about a rumor that local blacks were planning an uprising. They were then put in the trunk of a car and driven to the banks of the Mississippi River near Vicksburg, where the assailants weighted them down and threw them into the water. The teens may have been alive at the time. Their bodies were not found until several weeks later.

Seale was arrested on a state murder charge that same year, but it was later dropped—possibly because the local law enforcement was in cahoots with the Klan. The case was revived by federal prosecutors in 2005, and Seale was convicted in 2007 on one count of conspiracy to commit kidnapping and two counts of kidnapping. He was given three life sentences.

In 2008, the conviction was thrown out by a three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, which cited the statute of limitations and said that two much time had elapsed between the commission of the crime and the filing of the federal charges. Yet that ruling was vacated after the entire appeals court looked at the case, and it was returned to the three-member panel so that they could rule on separate issues raised by Seale on appeal.

This time, the panel ruled 2 to 1 that the evidence upon which Seale was convicted was sufficient. The dissenting judge cited not only the statute of limitations, but also certain incriminating statements made by Seale that should have been barred from his trial.

Seale’s attorney says that they will take the statute of limitations issue to the Supreme Court. The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, which is located in New Orleans, had previously asked the high court to rule on that question, in July 2009, but the Supreme Court refused. Justices John Paul Stevens and Antonin Scalia were the only two who would have agreed to hear the case, saying that similar cold cases from the civil rights era could be potentially affected by a ruling about statutes of limitations.

Brother Goes to Bat for Detective Held On $10 Million Bail

Monday, March 22nd, 2010

Los Angeles—Last December, a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge set bail for Stephanie Lazarus at $10 million. Now her brother, Steven Lazarus, has broken the family’s months-long silence by calling this amount “way unreasonable” and claiming that his sister is not receiving the proper care for her health while in jail.

Stephanie Lazarus, a 26-year veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department, is accused of having bludgeoned and shot to death a romantic rival in 1986. She was arrested in June, after DNA evidence in the cold case linked her to the death of Sherri Rae Rasmussen.

Rasmussen had married John Ruetten, who had dated Stephanie Lazarus for years, just months before the attack in which she was bound and shot in the torso three times, at close range. Investigators initially believed that she was killed by two men during an attempted burglary, despite the fact that Ruetten and Rasmussen’s father both suspected Lazarus. After detectives reopened the case last year, they were able to test a preserved saliva sample which had been collected from a bite mark on Rasmussen’s arm.

The judge at Lazarus’s bail hearing, Robert J. Perry, set her bail at the unusually high amount of $10 million because he deemed her such a high flight risk. Prosecutors had asked for only half that.

After another hearing, held Friday, Steven Lazarus spoke to the media, breaking the silence that the family had maintained since late last year. He argued that, despite having the obvious means to flee, celebrity defendants such as Phil Spector and Robert Blake were set free on $1-million bail amounts during their murder trials, and that his sister’s exorbitant bail was unreasonable.

“The concept of innocent until proven guilty doesn’t seem to prevail anymore,” he said. He also said that Stephanie Lazarus is suffering from cancer, and is not receiving the testing and medication adjustments which her condition requires.

Yet counsel for the Rasmussen family, John C. Taylor, said that since such strong DNA evidence linked Lazarus to the crime, and since she would face life in prison if convicted, the bail amount was justified.

Santa Monica Sushi Restaurant Charged With Selling Whale

Friday, March 19th, 2010

According to federal authorities, a trendy sushi restaurant in Santa Monica has been serving its customers whale and horse meat. After being exposed by the filmmakers of an Oscar-winning documentary, the restaurant’s parent company and one of its chefs will face charges.

Two women involved with the making of “The Cove,” a documentary about the annual dolphin killings that take place in a fishing village in Japan, armed themselves with hidden cameras and visited The Hump, a restaurant in the Santa Monica Airport. They ordered “kujira”–Japanese for whale meat, which is considered a delicacy in that country but which is illegal to serve in the United States. After taping the waitress identifying the whale meat, as well as horse meat, the women snuck samples out in their napkins and had them tested by a researcher at Oregon State University. He confirmed that the food was, indeed, whale.

Two more undercover sting operations took place, one in February and one in March. At one of the visits, the chef left the restaurant and retrieved a package from a Mercedes in the parking lot, later telling a customer that it was whale meat.

Authorities raided the restaurant the next day. The chef, Kiyoshiro Yamamoto, 45, admitted that he had been serving whale meat, although it was unclear where he had obtained it from.

Yamamoto and Typhoon Restaurant Inc., the parent company of The Hump, are charged with the illegal sale of a marine mammal product for an unauthorized purpose. The charge is a misdemeanor, and carries a sentence of up to one year in federal prison and a potential fine of $200,000 for the company.

Whale is an endangered species, and Japan has come under fire for its hunting of whales. The International Whaling Commission issued a moratorium on commercial whale hunting, in 1980, in order to help rebuild the species’ population. Yet exceptions are made by the international law community for whales that are hunted and killed for scientific purposes, and Japan claims that this exemption applies to its hunts. Conservationists, however, say that this is a ruse to obtain whale meat for sale in restaurants and markets.

Japan is estimated to kill up to 1,000 whales each year.

A spokesperson for The Hump has said that the restaurant accepts responsibility for the crime and will pay the fine.

“The Cove” won the 2010 Academy Award for Best Documentary.

Dating Game Killer’s Photo Stash Released

Thursday, March 18th, 2010

Police are asking for help in identifying the subjects of photographs which were found stashed in a storage unit used by the so-called “Dating Game Killer.”

Rodney Alcala, 66, was convicted last month of murdering one young girl and four women between 1977 and 1979. He appeared on the television show “The Dating Game,” as Bachelor No. 1 in 1978. Now hundreds of photographs, mostly of women and children, have been released in the hopes that some of them will be identified and used to solve cold cases of other murders.

The Seattle, Washington-area storage unit also held earrings that belonged to Alcala’s youngest victim, 12-year-old Robin Samsoe, and which helped link him to the crime. Officials believe that items like the earrings and the pictures may have been trophies to Alcala.

Alcala has a history of using photography as a ruse to approach his victims. Upon seeing Samsoe at the beach, he asked if he could take some pictures of her. She refused and tried to ride her bicycle away, but she never made it to the dance class that was her destination. Instead, her body was found in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, where Alcala dumped it.

In 1980, Alcala was convicted of murdering Samsoe, but the conviction was overturned by the California Supreme Court. Another trial, six years later, also ended with a death sentence, but again the conviction was overturned. Evidence linked Alcala to four other murders while he was awaiting a third trial, but it was not until February 2010 that he was convicted of killing all the woman.

Besides Samsoe, the other victims were Jill Barcomb, 18; Georgia Wixted, 27; Jill Parenteau, 21; and Charlotte Lamb, 18. In each case, the victim was raped and strangled. In some cases Alcala beat them with various blunt objects as well.

Alcala had kidnapped and molested a child in Los Angeles in 1968. Convicted for the crimes in 1972, he served a 34-month sentence and was released. Authorities also believe that he may be linked to rapes and murders in New York.

Only a few pictures of men were found in the collection of photographs found in Alcala’s storage locker.

Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas issued a statement describing his office’s struggle in determining whether to release the photographs or not. “Although we hope that the people depicted are not victims,” the statement said in part, “we believe the release may help solve some cold cases and bring closure to victims’ families.”

A jury has recommended that Alcala, once again, be sentenced to death for his crimes.