Last week, I reviewed The Skeleton Crew by Deborah Halber. After reading it, Deborah was kind enough to answer some questions that might interest you the reader. Here is the interview and here is the link to the review. ________________________________________________________ Prosecutor's Discretion: In the book you are pretty open in discussing your experience with P. Michael Murphy from Clark County, Nevada's medical examiner's office, which encompasses Las Vegas. You were unable to make it all the way through the maze of deceased humans waiting for autopsies. Did you think you'd have those issues? How do the people who deal with death every day avoid breaking down? Deborah Halber: I--like most of us in modern society--am pretty removed from death, but I didn't anticipate that my reaction of horror and sadness would be as overwhelming as it was. I asked many of the death investigators and coroners how they dealt with being confronted by death on a daily basis, and they all said essentially the same thing: you get used to it. PD: Many of the main characters in your book, like Betty Dalton Brown and Todd Matthews, had traumatic experiences with death in their families. Did that sort of experience generally serve as the motivation for one to join these networks? DH: Feeling that death was not a stranger seemed to make Todd more comfortable with the notion of interconnecting his life with a young woman's death. Betty Brown, Lauran Halleck and Bobby Lingoes had all lost loved ones, which made them perpetual seekers of a sort. Not being able to find closure herself, Betty told me, motivated her to help others find it. PD: After seeing the interaction of the law enforcement and the volunteer community, how do you think it could work better together? DH: I hope this book encourages some in law enforcement to reconsider their relationship with the public. These citizen sleuths have a lot of contribute, and not just in terms of case-solving or online investigation. They could be liaisons with families of the missing, input data, or collect family DNA samples. PD: Will anyone ever solve the Lady of the Dunes?
DH: I might be naive, but I'm holding out the hope that she will be identified within the coming year. Even though the Provincetown police were not happy with my presence at the third exhumation, I was excited to witness it. It felt like an historical occasion, and the latest DNA analysis may come up with something that others missed.
PD: Will you be a contributor to any of the unidentified persons networks?
DH: I did not officially join any of the web sleuthing communities because I wanted to maintain an objective distance.When I did try my hand at it, I came to the conclusion that I would make a lousy web sleuth. It takes a lot more patience than I have.
PD: There seems to be a large amount of infighting between the various networks. What did you see as the motivation for someone to dedicate their time to this cause? The notoriety that came with a discovery, truly the desire to do good, or a mix of both?
DH: I think many people who end up doing this kind of volunteer work start out intrigued by the challenge of a mysterious puzzle, or maybe an interest in the macabre. But I believe for many of those who stick with it, the motivation to provide closure for a family--even the family of a stranger--is a big incentive. The work is just too time-consuming and difficult to be explained away by idle curiosity.
PD: Were you able to gather any opinions/generalizations on law enforcement's view of these web sleuths?
DH: Law enforcement has mixed reactions. Some refer to the "Doe nuts"--as in Jane and John Doe. Others, including a Phoenix cold case detective, regularly enlist the services of the web sleuths and claim they could not have solved cases of lost identity without them. The web sleuths walk a fine line between time-sucking annoyances and essential help mates.
PD: This blog concerns the prosecution of crimes. When unidentified remains become identified, that doesn't always mean there is a suspect or that someone can be prosecuted. Did you find the victims' families were happy enough to know what happened to their loved one or did a desire for justice replace their search for answers?
DH: Learning that a long-missing loved one is deceased kills all hope that the person might one day return, but some have said they preferred knowing where the person was, laying him or her to rest, memorializing him or her. But that relief can quickly turn into anger and, in the case of victims, a desire for justice. I have been amazed that at least a few of these cases of decades-long lost identities have led to prosecutions and convictions. One of the most recent involved a man being sentenced to life in prison three decades after his wife's then-unidentified body was recovered from the Gulf of Mexico. http://www.wptv.com/news/state/william-hurst-gets-ife-in-prison-for-killing-wife-amy-rose-hurst-30-years-ago
PD: What is the main reason so many unidentified remains are discovered each year? Is it a problem with evidence collection at the scene, the inputting of reports so that the information spreads fare enough, or simply not enough identification on the victim?
DH: People simply turn up without IDs. They're not all victims of crimes in which a CSI-viewing murderer tries to render his victims unidentifiable; they could be accident victims or suicides. But what keeps them unidentified can often be traced back to the medico legal community: a lack of resources, such as the services of a forensic anthropologist in the case of skeletonized remains; a half-hearted or nonexistent effort to collect biometrics and input them into databases such as NCIC or NAMus; the reluctance of law enforcement to share information or to ask questions of colleagues in other jurisdictions.
PD: Tell us about your next project.
DH: I'm fleshing out some ideas for magazine pieces and perhaps another book. I'm interested in offbeat people who are passionate about quirky ideas, so even if my next project isn't true crime, it will probably have at least that theme in common with THE SKELETON CREW.
Thank you Deborah for joining us and we look forward to your next project. I love discovering little known stories, especially when it has such significance in our society.
Deborah Halber gives us The Skeleton Crew, which is actually a number of nonfiction crime stories in one book. The twist is that the book chronicles anonymous do-gooders who spend virtually every minute of their free time scouring databases for unidentified human remains and trying to match them to a missing person case. As Halber says, "The web sleuths are all around you. Your coworker with the bowl of saltwater taffy on her desk, the guy who swipes your card for a latte, the high school teacher who kept the ball python in the glass tank . . . " In cold cases, we most often read about the hunt for the killer. The Skeleton Crew takes us on the hunt to identify the victim.
Halber shows us the web sleuths are a macabre group, who don't have any issue wading through gory photographs and digging into graphic police reports. They are a mostly volunteer community whose motives begin with altruism. But even the best intentions lead to infighting between various groups and various websites. Do they seek the attention that comes from news stories once they connect the dots or are they doing this truly for altruistic reasons? Maybe it's a combination of both.
Halber's excellent writing style lets her describe the cases in such detail that you feel you are doing a little web sleuthing yourself as you work towards solving the case with her and one of the sleuths she profiles. Halber makes you feel like you solved many of the cases just by reading the book, but gives you a glimpse of the frustration that comes with the tens of thousands of remains looking for a name.
The book mainly follows the exploits of Todd Matthews, who solved one of the coldest and most famous cases in web sleuth history, Tent Girl. Tent Girl was killed in Kentucky in 1968 and left to rot on the side of a highway until a passerby happened upon her remains wrapped in a tent. Her body created a local news story for decades while the case sat without an identity for the victim. That was until 1998, when Todd Matthews used the internet to scour postings about missing persons and matched Barbara Ann Hackman-Taylor who had been missing since 1967 with Tent Girl's remains. He sent the lead to law enforcement and it was confirmed through DNA testing. The national attention of the case helped serve as the catalyst for many different unidentified remains websites that exist today and the beginning of a national database to counter the problem. Many other web sleuths are profiled like Bobby Lingoes, Betty Dalton Brown, Chip Glass, and Ellen Leach.
The Skeleton Crew reminds us too that these sensational stories are more than just a pile of bones along a highway. The deceased was a member of someone's family; a family that is desperately trying to find out the fate of their loved one. When you put the book down, it is likely you will hop online and check out the various sites like NamUs or The Doe Network to see what a web sleuth does. At the very least, you'll be a little more careful when you stop at a roadside rest stop and see something unusual (that's right, someone found a human head in a bucket of concrete at a truck stop).
Click this link to pick up a copy of the book. And no I do not receive anything for this review or the referral, other than spreading the word about a great book.
In all of the cold cases I deal with, the victims are identified. There is no arrest, no prosecution, no suspect, until the victim is known. I never once thought about a case where someone stumbles upon a pile of human bones in their backyard and the victim needs to be identified. The book opened up a new world to me, someone who thought they had seen it all. I look forward to more from Deborah Halber.
And you should look forward to an interview with her later this week!
I return to the office this week after a two and a half week leave for the birth of my child. I did my best to leave all of July open from court appearances so that no one would have to cover any cases for me.
Even those with the best intentions and planning fail sometimes though. Inevitably, courts schedule cases when I was not available and new cases come in all the time. What that means for the ADA who wants to take time off from work is that we need to rely on our colleagues.
The people are one the great advantages to working in a District Attorney's Office. Everyone is willing to help each other when the need arises. My colleagues made it easy to take the time off and rarely called or emailed for advice or questions. Whenever anyone asks what I love most about my job, I answer the people I work with.
Another installment where you get to decide the sentence of a person who committed a crime.
Ready for the facts?
Three 25 year old defendants get together and form a plan to make some money. They decide to break into stores after they are closed and steal cash and property. They wear hooded sweatshirts, masks, and gloves, then throw a brick through a window. Once the window is down, they pilfer the interior and steal everything that's not bolted down.
The devastation to these stores gets so bad that the police put a detail on this crew and they are finally stopped because they are caught in the act of a burglary. We can tie about twenty store burglaries to this crew, but we are not sure which of the group are responsible for most of them. They use different combinations of persons every time and with the masks, lack of prints, and lack of DNA it is hard to prove. We have solid video evidence of their faces at some of the locations, and have other videos of these gentlemen cashing in winning lottery tickets that they stole (no one ever said criminals were smart).
We know they did more, but feel confident we can prove three burglaries for each defendant. They plead guilty before indictment to two of the burglaries. So the sentence range for all three of them is anywhere from probation to 15 years in jail.
Here's the break down. Defendant 1 has a prior felony conviction for a burglary. Defendant 2 has a pending case for the same type of crime, but it is in a different county. Defendant 3 has no prior record.
What should happen to them? The same sentence? Different sentences? No one is hurt in any of these crimes, but the store owners' business is affected due to the damage and stolen property. Leave comments or send emails with your thoughts and I'll post what the judge does after all three men are sentenced.
This is the most frequent question I hear. It comes from victims, witnesses, and yes police officers. It's on my voicemail, it's over the phone, and it's in person.
This question is especially pervasive in the teenage population, which has become my specialty in recent years. Here's how it normally goes after I answer the phone:
Me: District Attorney's Office
Witness: Someone dropped some paper at my house, telling me to call [the name of the big boss because his name appears on the subpoena].
Me: What's your name?
W: I ain't comin' to court.
Me: Okay, but what's your name?
W: I'm not testifyin' against no one.
Me: Okay, but who are you?
W: Why you want to know?
Me: I need to know who I'm speaking with so I can tell you what is going on.
A long pause.
W: John Smith. I ain't comin to no court.
Me: John Smith. What you have in your hands is called a subpoena. It is the court telling you that you must come. If you don't show up when it tells you, the court will issue a warrant for your arrest.
Me: You still there.
W: Why do I gotta come? Don't you have my statement?
W: Why can't you use that? Why did I give that statement?
Me: Why don't you want to come?
W: I've got school (or work, or childcare, or they inform me I don't know what it's like on the streets).
Me: Okay. Well, tell you what. Why don't you come down and see me tomorrow. There won't be any testifying. You're just going to meet me in my office and we'll talk about the entire process. You can tell me what I can do to help you then.
W: Tomorrow. What time? I've got school (or work, childcare, etc.)
Me: Whatever time works for you.
W: Okay. I'll be there tomorrow at 2.
I've found that there are two keys to convincing someone to testify: 1) Face to face conversations, and 2) listening to their problems and finding solutions. It is the social work part of the job, and one that becomes more necessary every year. Attorneys must be able to ask questions, but we must be able to listen too.
Two posts in a week after intermittently updating for the last month or so?
In the busy cycle that is a DA's office and the time I like to spend with my family, I neglected to inform you that Prosecutor's Discretion was selected as one of the Top 50 Criminal Law Blogs of the past year. Here's the link to the rankings.
I didn't ask what they are based on, as I was just glad someone reads this once in awhile. There are some fantastic blogs on this list so check them all out, after you come to see us here first of course.