Announcing My New TV Show!

It’s been a while since I’ve posted; I’ve been super busy. In addition to my full-time day job, I’m still researching and writing a true-crime story every Monday on Medium. And I’ve been up to my ears in a totally new creative project: The Deadly Digest! Yes, I’m hosting a true-crime TV show!

Every Wednesday at 6:30, we air a new episode on Fayetteville Public Television, then we upload it to YouTube Thursday morning. Our first three episodes are focused on the West Memphis 3. Part 1, already up on YouTube, goes into the murders and the investigation. Part 2, airing tomorrow evening, is all about the Satanic Panic and how that affected the trials. Part 3, out next week, will be about the legal fallout and how everything ended up. I want to especially give a big thanks to attorney Kristin Pawlik for being on the show and giving us her legal expertise on such an important case.

Thanks to the wonderful folks at Fayetteville Public Television, I’m able to have access to a full studio, cameras, and editing equipment. It’s a learning process, but our fabulous crew has done amazing work to make it happen.

I hope you’ll check it out. And if you like what you see, please subscribe!

Are there any cases you’d like us to cover on the show? Let me know in the comments!

In Honor of #BourdainDay

I know this has nothing to do with horror, or true crime, or anything else weird or macabre. But Anthony Bourdain was my hero, my idol, my role model. He lived the life I’d always dreamed of – traveling around the world, getting to try lots of good food and learning so much about the history and cultures that make our world so incredibly rich.

But apparently he didn’t think his life was as great as I did, because he ended it June 8 of last year. Many of his friends and admirers have declared today, his birthday, Bourdain Day.

Of all the things he’s said or written that have inspired me, it was hard to pick one thing. So I chose this clip of him eating noodles in Hanoi with then-President Obama because it perfectly encapsulates what I miss so much about both men, and what I miss so much about our country: https://www.cnn.com/videos/travel/2016/09/14/anthony-bourdain-parts-unknown-hanoi-1.cnn

Not that long ago, we had a decent human being in the White House – a Harvard-educated black man who treated his wife and daughters with obvious, authentic love and respect. A man who was not so full of his own self-importance, even as the President of the United States, to sit down at a hole-in-the-wall cafe in Hanoi and eat noodles.

Back then, America participated in the world, and Anthony served as our unofficial ambassador-at-large. He was a foul-mouthed, big-hearted philosopher-chef, equally at home in five-star restaurants in Paris and at street-side taco trucks. He understood the power of food to bring people together. He left us far too soon, because truly, we need him now more than ever.

Rest in Power, brother.

Deathtrip: New Orleans

20190329_112017New Orleans is a city I absolutely love! It’s got my three favorite things: good food, good music, and an unhealthy fascination with death!

I was just there in March for work, so I had to kind of squeeze in my morbid little interests around the conference I was attending. But I think I did a pretty good job of it: for one, I ate me some really good food! I chowed down on fried alligator at Emeril Lagasse’s NOLA, scarfed fried quail and Bananas Foster (prepared tableside!) at The Palace Restaurant, and enjoyed a po’ boy and a locally made Fest soda at NOLA Poboys – not too shabby!

Of course no trip to New Orleans would be complete without visiting the Historic Voodoo Museum and the Voodoo shops in the French Quarter. The Voodoo religion plays a really big part in the culture of New Orleans, and I highly recommend you check them out to educate yourself a little bit about what Voodoo is, what it means, who practices it and why. And if you want to pull a little magic into your life for whatever reason – a lover, a new job, a healing – they’ve got just the candles and soaps you need.

I also love me some good music, and New Orleans does not disappoint. I was able to catch a really good live blues and burlesque show at the AllWays Lounge & Cabaret, which I highly recommend. And by sheer luck, I was able to attend the Congo Square Rhythms Fest at Louis Armstrong Park. It was really a treat – awesome African music performances as well as lots of artists and vendors selling Afrocentric clothing, jewelry, and crafts. I really loved celebrating one of America’s founding cultures, shared with a total spirit of love and peace.

But I know you don’t read my blog to listen to all my Kumbaya – you want to hear about death! And murder! And crime! And so, my little darklings, you shall get what you came for.

First of all, New Orleans is a city that seems to have more of a connection to death then most. In the Voodoo religion, one of the loas (or spirits) who protects and presides over New Orleans is Baron Samedi, who is associated with death (and is often confused with Papa Legba). All over the city, you see his image – that of a skeleton (or a man with his face painted to look like a skull) wearing a top hat, black tailcoat, and dark glasses, with cotton plugs in his nostrils like a corpse done up for burial in the traditional Haitian style.

I think besides the Voodoo influence, this has to do with the Catholic influence on New Orleans. You see this embrace, and even celebration, of death in many Catholic countries, something that most Protestant-influenced Americans are deeply frightened of. There aren’t many cities where images of skeletons playing instruments, dancing, and otherwise being quite lively are found on nearly every street corner and shop sign.

So one of my first forays into the creepy offerings that New Orleans has was to take a true-crime tour. Now there are plenty of these to choose from, and my choice simply came down to price and convenience. I chose the New Orleans True Crime Experience that I booked on Airbnb. They were great! They took a group of about 12 of us to various places around the French Quarter that were scenes of crimes throughout history – and more currently. For example, they featured the gruesome tale of Zack Bowen and Addie Hall that unfurled across two locations. We also got to take a gander at Madame Lalaurie’s mansion on the corner of Royal and Governor Nicholls streets.

The only gripe that I had was something they really have no control over. The fact that we were sharing the street with lots of people – both the pedestrians that you would have on any city street as well as the loads of other tours going on – made it so that sometimes it was a little difficult to hear what the guide was talking about. But overall it was a great tour, really informative and respectful.

But for me the real highlight of my stay was getting to visit the Museum of Death. Now, the original Museum of Death is in Hollywood, so this is a smaller “satellite.” This was a really interesting, weird, creepy attraction. It’s devoted to everything that I find fascinating about death. There are rooms devoted to serial killers: letters and artwork by serial killers, clippings of newspaper articles about serial killers, and other murderabilia. There’s also a room that’s dedicated just to the death industry, featuring a real coffin right in the middle of the room. I don’t think there is an actual dead person in the coffin, but since it is closed, it’s sort of Schrodinger’s corpse, I suppose. It has a lot of things about Dr. Kevorkian (AKA Dr. Death), embalming tools, and all kinds of artwork and memorabilia associated with funerals and funerary traditions.

The only part of the museum that I really didn’t have the stomach for was the theatre of death in the very back. From what I could hear, it sounded like it was playing one of those 1950s cautionary car-wreck videos that shows lots of real-life gory deaths, or it could have been something like Faces of Death. I don’t know, and honestly, that was a bit of a bridge too far for me. I am fascinated by death, and I don’t think I fear death as much as maybe the average American, but I certainly don’t want to see people or animals being killed. Once they’re already dead, it doesn’t bother me; I feel like they aren’t there anymore. There’s no pain or suffering after death; they’re just an inanimate object, essentially. But actually witnessing the pain and the death of a living being, for me, is a little bit much. I know it sounds weird – someone who’s fascinated with murder and death is also so soft-hearted. Sorry-not-sorry.

Their gift shop is also almost as interesting as the rest of the museum. They have some really cool artwork by Madame Talbot, all death and/or Gothic related. I couldn’t buy anything at the time because I was afraid of being able to get it home undamaged. But I liked their artwork so much that I ordered a poster after I got home.

This was my second visit to the Big Easy, and I still feel like I’ve only scratched the surface. I hope I’ll get to visit again before I die. And if not, then send me off with a jazz funeral!20190329_112134

Live at the Library

Hello again, fellow darklings! Sorry about the long wait between posts – I’ve been busy working on new projects and preparing for my upcoming live author talk. If you’re in the Northwest Arkansas area, come on out and see me Sunday, Oct. 14, at 2 p.m. at the Fayetteville Public Library. I’ll be talking about why everything ’80s is hot right now (especially in horror). Afterwards, I’ll have copies of my book available for purchase and signing.

If you can’t make it out to see me in person, you can livestream it. I hope to see you there!

 

Kitty Genovese: the Unluckiest Friday the 13th

Friday the 13th has long been associated with bad luck. No one is really sure why, other than the number 13 and the day Friday are both considered somewhat unlucky, and so Friday the 13th is doubly so. But statistically, it is no more deadly than the other 364 days of the year. Not that it hasn’t had its fair share of catastrophes: freak floods, cyclones, blizzards, and plane crashes – including the infamous 1972 crash of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571.

However, one Friday the 13th tragedy stands out as a legendary perfect storm of murder and apathy: on March 13, 1964, bar manager Catherine “Kitty” Genovese was raped and stabbed to death outside her apartment building in Kew Gardens, Queens, in New York City. According to a New York Times article written soon after the crime, 38 people saw or heard the attack, but did nothing. The nation was rightfully shocked, and the phenomenon was studied intensely by psychologists and sociologists, who coined the term the “bystander effect.” For decades, her case was a staple of psychology classes.

But as the case got more scrutiny, researchers began to see that maybe the story we’d all been told wasn’t quite the whole truth.

Kitty Genovese grew up in an Italian- and Irish-American working-class neighborhood in Brooklyn. She was known by friends and classmates as a “chatterbox,” popular, and charming. After graduation, she worked several jobs before becoming the manager of a bar in Queens. She was reliable and hard-working, often working double shifts to save money for her dream: to open an Italian restaurant.

On March 13, 1963, she met Mary Ann Zielonko, and they quickly fell in love. They moved into a second-floor apartment near the railway station in Kew Gardens.

On their first anniversary, Kitty got off work around 3 a.m. She parked her car at the railway station and began walking home through the frigid winter night. Businesses were closed, streets were empty, and apartment windows dark: the perfect hunting grounds for a killer.

Winston Moseley had snuck out of his home earlier that night, leaving his wife and two sons sleeping while he prowled for his latest victim.

Kitty was close to her apartment when she heard him approach her. She tried to run, but he caught her and stabbed her. She yelled out. A neighbor heard her cries and yelled, “Leave that girl alone!” Frightened, Winston retreated to his car. Kitty, bloody but still alive, limped toward her apartment.

After a few minutes, hearing no sirens, Winston decided to finish what he started. He found Kitty collapsed in the entryway to her apartment building. He stabbed her repeatedly and raped her there, then took the money from her wallet and left her to die (the coroner later found 13 stab wounds and a number of defensive wounds on her body).

Neighbor and friend Sophie Farrar heard the noises and rushed down the stairs to Kitty’s aid, holding her and comforting her. More than a half-hour after the attack, another neighbor finally called the cops. They arrived quickly, along with an ambulance, but she succumbed to her wounds at Queens General Hospital.

Six days later, Winston Moseley confessed to the murder of Kitty Genovese and two other women: Annie Mae Johnson and Barbara Kralik, as well as a number of burglaries and rapes. He was sentenced to death, but later his sentence was commuted to 20 years to life. (An interesting aside is that this did not put an end to his violence. While in prison, he purposefully injured himself in order to get transferred to a hospital. He then escaped transport, found an empty house, and holed up there. When the cleaning lady arrived, he raped her. After escaping, she called the owners of the house, and they called the police. The police told her they were only one and a half hours to shift change, so she should call back later. When the owners came home, Winston tied the man up, raped the woman, then stole their car and went to another house where he held a mother and daughter hostage. Later he released them and was arrested.) He died in prison on March 28, 2016.

The story that was written about the attack made national headlines and sparked a widespread debate about supposed urban apathy and indifference. Kitty Genovese’s case – and the story of the 38 bystanders – helped pass Good Samaritan laws and sparked the creation of the 911 system.

Though the Kitty Genovese murder sparked such debate and ultimately positive changes, after some digging it was shown that the story was not as bad as it had been reported. First of all, the number of witnesses had been inflated, and most of the witnesses only caught brief glimpses of the attack and didn’t realize what they were seeing or hearing.

The fact remains that many people did hear her screaming and did not call the cops. But the neighborhood was near a bar, and residents said that screaming and yelling late at night weren’t uncommon. It is also important to remember that domestic violence was perfectly legal in 1964, so hearing a woman’s screams may have not alerted neighbors to a crime, necessarily – just a husband exercising his God-given right to control his wife.

There was also another factor at work: back then, being gay was illegal. Kitty and many of her neighbors feared police persecution daily, and so would not have seen the police as a force for help. In fact, her partner, Mary, was grilled extensively about her sexuality after Kitty’s death and was herself accused of killing her.

But most importantly, several people actually did call the cops. Her friend Sophie took a great risk to come to Kitty’s aid, and held her in her arms while she breathed her last. She showed great courage and kindness, and I think that story deserves as much attention as the false claim that “no one wanted to get involved.”

“I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” Shines a Light on the Golden State Killer

The incredible backstory of I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer is well-known: Michelle McNamara spent years researching and tracking down a serial rapist and murderer, but died suddenly (from a combination of prescription drugs and an undiagnosed heart condition) without ever having found him. Later, using her notes and research materials, her lead researcher, Paul Haynes, and an investigative journalist friend, Billy Jensen, finished the manuscript for her.

The book is about her search for the criminal, still as yet unknown, that McNamara dubs the Golden State Killer, a man responsible for 50 rapes and at least 10 murders in Central and Southern California in the 1970s and 80s. He was known previously by different monikers in different jurisdictions: the East Area Rapist, the Visalia Ransacker, the Original Night Stalker.

The book itself, with a forward by the amazing thriller author Gillian Flynn, jumps right into it, describing the crime scene of Manuela Witthuhn’s rape and murder from the point of view of her brother-in-law, Drew. But this is no tedious catalog of gore. McNamara only features the cases that provide some vital clue or context to the case, always paying attention to the details – the crime scene details, of course, but also the human details: the responses of the friends and family who found the bodies, the thoughts of the investigators. Each scene is so rich in detail, it reads like a novel.

She also gives us glimpses into her own thoughts and motivations, like how she became obsessed with true crime at age 14, after learning of an unsolved murder where the young woman’s body was dumped mere blocks from her home.

The overall structure of the book is non-chronological, jumping back and forth in time from the crime scenes to the investigations to the present day. But it works, mostly, to build the narrative. Which brings me to my only (very mild) criticism: some of the chapters that are adapted or excerpts from previously published articles repeated some things, so it seemed like you were going over ground already covered.

The biggest thing about this book is, unlike most true-crime books, the killer is never identified. She does look into a trio of likely suspects, but all are excluded by the evidence. Profiles are built, but with no workable pool of suspects, they are as insubstantial as tissue paper. There is DNA evidence, but no suspect to match it to.

And with his last murder committed in 1986, this case may indeed stay cold. Cold cases involving serial killers are rarely solved after so many years. The longest a serial killer has gotten away with his crimes was 48 years: in 2016, Edwin Dean Richardson was identified through DNA as the murderer of Wendy Jo Halison in 1968. By then, Richardson was four years in his grave. But in the Golden State Killer case, all relevant police departments have had his DNA for years, and it has been run through CODIS multiple times without a hit. Until he messes up and gets arrested, it won’t do them any good.

Odds are, by now the Golden State Killer is dead. Brutal sexual attackers don’t stop until they are stopped. But even that theory isn’t iron-clad. The suspect called one of his victims in 2001, asking, “Remember when we played?” This suggests that he may indeed have enough self-control to quit for 30 years.

There a numerous theories floating around about the Golden State Killer. In addition to law enforcement, regular citizens discuss and research his crimes and try to find that crucial lead. This just shows the strength of this book: it takes a decades-old, little-known cold case and brings it to life. Hopefully it will bring it to justice as well.

Accessories to Murder

If studying killers has taught us anything, it’s that there are a lot of ways to kill people. Sure, there are the reliable standards: shooting, strangling, stabbing, bludgeoning, poisoning, and pushing (as in, off a cliff or down a flight of stairs).

But in the name of self-defense, people have invented some very creative ways to commit each of those. Mostly, they come in the form of jewelry or other accessories for women, the thinking being that packing heat was just unbecoming for a lady. So we’ll begin with the oldest, and probably still most popular, accessory to murder:

The Poison Ring

Poison Ring

One of the oldest and most recognizable accessories to murder, the poison ring.

These have been around since at least the 1400s, and the infamous poisoner and aristocrat Lucrezia Borgia is rumored to have had one. Their use is simple: a hinged lid hides a small compartment to store poison, preferably in powder form. The wearer can surreptitiously open the compartment and dump the poison into their victim’s (or their own) food or drink.

To be fair, most poison rings were actually more like lockets, designed to hold small portraits or locks of hair. However, this medieval poison ring unearthed in Bulgaria leaves no doubt what its intended use was: the tiny hole was meant to be hidden by the wearer’s finger, and the deadly dose simply tipped into the victim’s drink. In fact, archaeologists believe the ring belonged to the nobleman Dobrotitsa, and would explain the rash of mysterious deaths of other nobles close to him.

Hatpins of Peril

Hatpin-733x1024In the early 20th Century, women were subjected to much the same kinds of street harassment and groping that we’re still dealing with. Then as now, many women began to fight back, using a makeshift weapon most of them had on hand, er, head: the humble hatpin.

The style at the time was for women to wear huge, elaborate hats perched atop equally huge hairstyles. In order to hold all this construction in place, women used hatpins made of sturdy metal and 9 inches long – or longer. News stories began to appear featuring plucky women stabbing and slashing at “mashers,” or in modern terms, creeps, who attempted to grope or otherwise harrass women in public. At first the tone seemed to be positive.

But it wasn’t long before stories began to be told about innocent men being victimized by crazed, hatpin-wielding women. In fact, in Connecticut in 1906, one woman murdered her husband by drugging him, then piercing his skull through the corner of his eye orbit with her hatpin – a stealthy wound that was difficult for the medical examiner to find.

By 1909, hatpins were considered enough of a threat that the Chicago city council voted to ban hatpins longer than 9 inches. Violators faced arrest and a $50 fine. Soon other cities like Kansas City, Hamburg, Paris, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, and New Orleans all passed ordinances that limited hatpins’ length and/or required the pointed ends to be sheathed in public.

Women were outraged, and many refused to obey the law or pay the fines. It was quite the international controversy for a while…until the big gaudy hats went out of style, making the hatpin obsolete – at least for fashion purposes.

The Ring Gun

indexApparently these “little protectors” were primarily sold to gamblers in the 1800s. Not much is known about them, but according to Guns.com, they started appearing around the same time as other types of creative firearms like the pen gun and the cane gun. The French-made Le Petit Protector was the first documented example of this type of firearm, a tiny six-shooter mounted on a ring.

Typically, a ring gun would be worn on the index finger and the thumb used to fire the hammer. There was no barrel; each round fired simply from its individual cylinder. The revolver had to be manually rotated, and to load, unload, or reload, the wearer had to take a small, slotted jeweler’s screwdriver and remove the cylinder from the ring base.

They were sold with five-, six-, or seven-round cylinders in either 2mm or 4mm pinfire. The 4mm guns had a cylinder about as wide as a nickel, while the 2mm had one closer in size to a dime. The 2mm guns were typically marked “Femme Fatal” and sold in small, oval-shaped jewelry boxes, while the larger 4mm guns were more likely meant for men. You could also buy them as a matching his and hers set.

Despite how cool they might look, they weren’t very effective as a murder weapon. The tiny rounds, propelled by minuscule amounts of gunpowder, packed less force than a pellet gun. At best, they served at a deterrent. However, due to their rarity, they are quite collectible, with one set fetching $13,000 at auction.

Pepper Spray Sparkles

3978dcf8-52cc-4eae-b90f-d93e135cba95_1.719226c6f82f1d6c70e14c0ab2a6f74dOK, so it probably can’t kill anyone (unless they’ve got a condition like asthma), but I couldn’t leave out this newest fashion/self-defense accessory: glitter pepper spray. It’s just like regular pepper spray, but with glitter. And that’s pretty much it.

The company that sells it, blingsting, also makes bedazzled tazers and shiny personal alarms. So you can look cute while fending off a rapist, or something.

I don’t mean to hate on blingsting. Their cutsey self-defense products aren’t so different than those fancy hatpins our great-grandmothers used to fend off creepers. And that’s the really sad part – that it’s been over a century, and we’re still having to carry ever-more creative weapons just to go out in public.