Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Puzzle of the Attraction To Mystery Fiction

Scares the shit out of mystery fiction readers
Deeply loved by mystery fiction readers

Mystery fiction as a genre strikes me as a secure way to roll in the crime writing game.  The adage that ‘truth is stranger than fiction’  - actually, it was Lord Byron who said “the truth is always strange, stranger than fiction” – is, conveniently, true, which is what I figure scares the shit out of readers.  It’s one thing to watch or read about a good looking, civilized serial killer like Dexter. But it’s another to read about a slimebag, real deal serial killer like Anthony Sowell or Jeffrey Dahmer.
Fictional detectives like Hercule Poirot, Harry Bosch and Mike Hammer are creative figures, artistically rendered as one would a song or a poem. Some of these characters are based on real people; in the television series Law and Order, detective John Munch is actually Jay Landsman, the real deal homicide detective in David Simon’s Edgar-winning book, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets.
There’s a reason for that; in fiction, a writer can remove anything that might be particularly objectionable about a villain or a protagonist.
I was at an appearance in the fall, sitting at a table next to a well-regarded mystery fiction guy named Steve Hamilton. Nice fellow, suitably humble and he came with a good sense of humor. The housewives trampled me to get his autograph. I was confused on that one, although I was aware that my brand was certainly nothing approaching that of Hamilton. It was the zeal with which these, umm, ladies, disregarded everyone else for a chance to chat with the guy who makes stuff up. Again, my brief interaction with him found him to be a cool enuff guy; it's his craft that I don't get.
Most of these readers would not be caught dead with one of my books, or that of any other true crime author. They watch TV and movies, both fiction by nature. Thankfully, there is an element of reader and person who likes life served straight up, with all the gory details. I consider them more fans of history and journalism, rather than people with a sick voyeuristic nature, as I’ve heard them derided.
This is perhaps why the true crime section in most book stores is hidden away, toward the back or upstairs, akin to a porn section in a video rental joint. Border’s was the worst offender, as you can read here. It refused to allow me an appearance at it's Utica, Mich., store while I was doing press for my first book, which went down in the Utica area. From a story on 2009: 
A Dec. 10 e-mail by a store manager says, “Our communities, on the east side in particular, were hit hard with this case. It was very close to home, and I’m not convinced our customers would react favorably to a booksigning event.”
Borders spokeswoman Mary Davis told The Macomb Daily: “The decision made not to have a book event at the store level was because we wanted to be sensitive to the Utica community.”
Davis, however, said the authors could appear at another Borders store in southeast Michigan if the book’s sales met criteria.
The Utica marketing manager also questioned whether some profits from the book would go to the Grant children.
Miller countered that no one has asked whether NBC, which produced a “Dateline” episode about the case that has been broadcast on MSNBC, donated part of its advertising profits from the show to the children.
“You don’t see  these multibillion-dollar corporations donating money to victims when they do a story on this kind of thing,” he said.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Sarah Pender Escape Co-Conspirator Out of Prison, On Facebook

A fascinating Facebook post from Jamie Long today. Long was the woman who played a primary role in helping convicted murderer Sarah Pender escape from a prison outside Indianapolis in August 2008. Her 136 days on the run is the subject of my book, Girl, Wanted: The Chase for Sarah Pender, which came out last year.
Long’s post reads:
“To all my friends. There has been a book written about Sarah's escape filled with misinformation and misleading information that has hurt me and my family deeply. It is a great work of fiction from my viewpoint, but omits so much of the real truth. Now there is a movie coming out on Lifetime on Dec. 29th, that after reading the reviews, I believe it is even more atrocious and filled with more lies than the book. The production company will not respond to my emails which in itself says they know how much a work of fiction and an overactive imagination and false information it took to create this "real life" drama. If people want to write about me or make a movie, at least get the facts and the story right. The book is called "Girl Wanted; the Chase for Sarah Pender, and the movie is titled "She Made Them Do It". I don't know how the writers of either one can sleep at night with all the lies and BS they spread with their stories.”
Of course I sent a letter to Long when I was writing the book and she never replied. It’s always like that. This is what I sent her in March, 2010, as the final edits were being done:
“Ms. Long –
I am finishing a book on the escape of Sarah Pender and have reviewed your case file, included some things from it, seen the arraignment video, the AMW stuff, and spoken with a number of people about you. The book is mostly written and it is exhaustive. But your input would be a positive thing for yourself. I seek at all times to be fair and in doing so, invite anyone involved in a particular subject I write on to tell their own story. So I ask you for your input and your side of this tale.  It will be a lot more flattering than the information that is out there now, and there is little downside in visiting with me for an hour at your place.
I’d be glad to come to Indiana for a visit. “
She also refers to a Lifetime movie that hits in December, which was done in a particularly unprofessional way; it used the book as a blueprint – there was no other written material – and avoided paying the writer.I recall talking with Adam Parfrey about What We Do is Secret, the movie based on a book he co-wrote, Lexicon Devil: The Fast Times and Short of Life of Darby Crash and the Germs. While they wouldn’t pay Parfrey, who wrote the book with Brendan Mullen and Don Bolles, the book, he told me, was all over the set of the movie. I never checked the movie out, simply because I prefer real life over fiction. More on that at a future date.
There have been a number of television episodes made on the Stephen Grant case without anyone involved ever talking with the authors of A Slaying in the Suburbs; The Tara Grant Murder, nor did anyone interview the prosecutors in the case, who did all of the heavy lifting. There is an episode of A & E's Biography on the Grant case coming up, in which I discuss the case. It's being done by Story House Media Group
I’m sure Gary Tieche, who is credited as the writer of this Pender movie based on the Pender book, has never seen the inside of a court file not has he sat down with inmates or knocked on doors of murder victims in doing a re-creation of an existing work. But the script was sold and money was made, somewhere along the chain. I’d look for another movie based on this book at some point. Only this will be the real deal. 

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Tom Waits Waxes Musicians Selling Music for Commercials

This is the car; Clone Defects provide the music for the ad

 I wrote in September about bands selling their music for commercials and it felt good. I said that I was amazed at the eager embrace by musicians at the use of their songs on commercials while writing Detroit Rock City: The Uncensored History of Five Decades of Rock ‘n Roll in America’s Loudest City.
Today I see this note by Tom Waits in response to an article written by Doors drummer John Densmore in 2002.
Waits eloquently speaks of the practice, which he abhors:
   “Songs carry emotional information and some transport us back to a poignant time, place or event in our lives. It’s no wonder a corporation would want to hitch a ride on the spell these songs cast and encourage you to buy soft drinks, underwear or automobiles while you’re in the trance. Artists who take money for ads poison and pervert their songs. It reduces them to the level of a jingle, a word that describes the sound of change in your pocket, which is what your songs become. Remember, when you sell your songs for commercials, you are selling your audience as well.”
Well put. Then there is the case of Timmy Vulgar, the Detroit musician who told me about the time Mitsubishi wanted to use a Clone Defects song for a commercial. The car company called Larry Hardy, who runs In the Red Records, and asked about using a song. Vulgar tells the story better than I could:
“Larry called me and said, ‘Yeah, Mitsubishi wants to use one of your songs in a car commercial.’ I said ‘I don’t know if I want to do that corporate crap, you know? I don’t wanna deal with that shit.’ And I really didn’t want to do it at first, and then I asked Larry, ‘Man, I really need money and I’m really broke.’ So Larry says, ‘They’re gonna pay us $50,000, and we split it down the middle.’ He gets $25,000 and we get $25,000 to split four ways.  I think it was that much.  I’m pretty sure that’s how much it was.  So I thought, “Whoa, that’s a lot of money.  Holy shit.”  So then I asked, ‘what song?’ They wanted “Low Fashion Lovers,’ just the intro, basically; that’s it. Well, that’s kinda cool, it doesn’t really have any singing or anything on it.  I’m just doing some ooooo’s.  So I was like, ‘Yeah, all right.  I think we’ll do that.  Let me talk to the band.’  I didn’t really even have to talk to the band.  Of course we’ll do it."
And it came out good. Sometimes poverty has a funny way of subverting a stand that may not have much to back it up anyway. I heard the Fall’s “Blindness” in a Mitsu commercial.  Made me remember the already great song. 

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

He Ain’t Bullshittin’ - Kid Rock Foundation Has No Costs

Kid Rock was on WJR, Detroit’s major league AM radio station, this morning, talking about his great love for the city and so on, a riff he repeats to anyone who will listen.
He mentioned that his Kid Rock Foundation has zero administrative costs, a claim that can easily be verified. So I did. And outside of legal and accounting costs, he is dead right as I look at the foundation’s 2010 tax form, the last year publicly available. The second notable thing is that the foundation brought in a paltry $51,000, which is simply a fundraising issue in the wake of its $616,000 bank in 2009, when the foundation was founded and seeded.
Among its 2010 benefactors were the Food Bank Council of Michigan, Orchard Lake Schools, Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute, and, inexplicably, the It Takes a Community Foundation in Massachusetts, which is aimed at life in New England.
In 2009, the foundation made great use of its relatively larger coffers, donating to Operation Homefront, the Rainbow Connection, and May We Rest in Peace, a group that helps pay to bury the indigent in Wayne County.
During the course of news investigations I conduct regularly, most non-profits, including foundations, sit on millions of dollars while forking over hundreds of thousands in salaries.  The money someone generously gives in hopes of making things better for folks less fortunate ends up paying for a first class plane ticket and $450 hotel room. I think back to revelations I wrote about last summer of the University of Houston professor with a taste for the finer things that he achieved on the backs of donors to the Cullen Foundation.  Check the comments at the end of this story; people actually support this kind of thing.
That may work in a place like Texas, where greed may as well be part of the state motto. But in Michigan, such flagrant extravagance is frowned upon.  The Kid Rock Foundation for now does the workmanlike thing so many forget about – it just delivers. 

Monday, November 19, 2012

Email from Inmate Regarding Sarah Pender, Girl Wanted - Yes, Prison is a Bad Place

I received an email over the weekend from a former inmate at Rockville Correctional Facility, a women’s prison in Indiana from which Sarah Pender, the woman at the center Girl, Wanted: The Chase for Sarah Pender, escaped in August 2008.  The email was sent under an obvious pseudonym, although I would never out someone with such a candid and honest delivery.  I’ve edited some of it to avoid personal details about two named officials. Here it is:

I just read your book "Girl, Wanted". It was truly excellent, but fawning isn't my purpose. You were left with some unanswered question for which I feel you deserve straight answers. As you discovered, the Blue Wall is alive and well with the Department of Correction. Although I walked out the gate at Rockville for the last time in 1996, there are things you don't forget, and the DOC's hatred (not exaggerating in the least) of media attention defies understanding even when nothing particularly bad is happening, exponentially more so when it is. First, I have to stand in defense of [prison internal affairs investigator] Jerry Newlin as he is a very decent person who has attained his social position you rightly describe as the 'dean of Rockville' by being honorable and good at what he does. In other words, he is too honest for future promotion yet pragmatic enough about choosing his battles that he has had such remarkable longevity. I have never met [Rockville prison warden] Julie Stout. I can only hope she is less filthy than her predecessors, Gene Martin who was transferred there as an assistant superintendent under then-superintendent Michael Broglin. Broglin. I believe in the shuffling process he had a stint at the Reception Diagnostic Center at Plainfield, which is a 24/7 lockdown facility. (OMITTED)  Significantly, you may notice that sexual indiscretions are handled much different for those in more senior positions than for the hourly staff. In a situation for which a blue-hat correctional officer or a sergeant would be fired, a lieutenant or a captain would be demoted unless he had someone really peeved at him (or her), someone wearing a suit simply gets moved to a different facility. I would have been unaware of this if not for knowing a well-connected captain, a couple of suit and tie people, and a few better connected inmates. Most trafficking happens at the hands of captains, counselors, assistant superintendents, and superintendents.
The staff tend to be an eclectic group. Prisons are often built in economically depressed areas in which they are often the largest employer in the county. Voting with one's feet is often not economically viable, and the job attracts not only people who are there because they need the jog, but also those who see illicit opportunity with being paid hourly and receiving benefits serving as a bonus, and also those who for lack of a better explanation don't have a dog at home to kick and get their gratification from taking to work and taking it out on the inmates.
One critical thing pertaining to finding truth from the outside comes to mind: In a moment of hubris, Gene Martin made a declaration to an assembly of staff to the effect that when dealing with reporters, you make up your mind what you are going to tell them. Regardless of what they ask, you tell them what you decided to tell them.
Hopefully tying together a few loose ends helps, if nothing else, to ease the curiosity left after so much work makes you the owner of questions that are generally unanswerable.

Her email backs up a lot of the criticism I had for the Indiana Department of Correction, which runs on a prayer it seems.
From the book, Girl, Wanted:

Indiana Department of Correction… is an institution that has seen some very poor performances and doesn’t appear to be making any strides toward improving things. Twice in my initial research for this book, an employee of the Indiana DOC hung up on me, literally, when I asked for some help and some access. This is the kind of hostility bred under poor or stressful working conditions. I was hardly discouraged by such conduct; in fact, it created a suspicion that something was very wrong with the inner workings of the system, and they were afraid someone was going to look behind the curtain. That day may yet come.

And more from the book, regarding my persistent pursuit of public records surrounding the escape of Sarah Pender and the prior record of a guard named Scott Spitler, who helped Pender escape:

The Department of Correction refuses to release any records regarding the escape, including investigations stemming from the breakout or anything the department might have been looking into regarding Spitler’s conduct leading up to the escape. But an arrest affidavit for Spitler filed in Parke County three days after Sarah’s breakout stated that, according to [Jerry] Newlin, the prison’s internal affairs investigator, “Spitler and Pender were already known associates (outside the realm of normal correctional office/offender interactions) prior to this date.” Newlin said that “Spitler was also suspected of trafficking and unprofessional conduct with offenders.”
And yet, despite suspicion that Spitler was engaging in conduct that could be a security risk, nothing was done to monitor his activities. Spitler was allowed to carry out his duties without any supervision, an obvious security breach that allowed Sarah to run.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Ten Minutes With Me Goes by Like Five: Q & A in Plain Dealer

Spending some afternoon time in a bar with journalist par excellence Michael Heaton of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland is just one more great part of this occupation. We sit and talk and drink, he asks some questions and the next thing you know, a beautifully simple blurb like this drops.  Thanks to Heaton, who has his own book, Truth and Justice for Fun and Profit: Collected Reporting, the book, Nobody’s Women: The Crimes and Victims of Anthony Sowell,has moved up in Amazon rank. I check it every few days, just to make sure I’m going to recoup the advance and live to write another day.
I also look at reviews; most every writer does, out of a morbid curiosity. Today, there were a few news ones, including something from a reviewer calling herself Georgia Girl that hit close to my own sentiment: “I hesitate to give the book a 5-star rating because it is a chilling, upsetting book. But, it is an interesting book that was well written and researched.
That’s how I felt as I wrote it – chilled and upset.  Good insight. And thanks to these other folks who handed down some kind reviews. 

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

No Big Deal: Sowell Drawing on Serial Killer Memorabilia Site

It’s never clear enough to folks that convicted criminals cannot profit on any proceeds connected to their crime. This story in Cleveland’s Plain Dealer, which I am now thinking has some of the best reporters in the U.S., notes some drawings of tombstones by Anthony Sowell that are available on a serial killer memorabilia site.
No big deal, really – I still have some serial killer trading cards – and these things appease the wishes of some twisted collectors.
The article notes how stupid it all is, but the serial killer has sadly been built up in our culture to some borderline heroic status.  There’s absolutely nothing interesting or charismatic about Sowell.  While John Wayne Gacy and Charles Manson achieve infamy, most killers, serial or not, are as bland as Sowell. Regardless, some people are  interested in things he touches. This isn’t the first time Sowell has appealed to collectors.

Anthony Sowell spent some time writing letters to a website devoted to selling serial killer memorabilia called Serial Killers Ink. One of his letters went up for sale for $200. He addressed the letter to employees at the California-based outfit. In another letter, he wrote, "I can only get money orders at this time and, yes, I can receive pictures.
On a Christmas card, he wrote to one admirer, “So if you need someone to talk to I am here for you. So tell me what do you want to know about me? I know what I want to know about you, what type of woman are you? Do you have a man in your life?”
Beneath his signature was the Bible verse Matthew 1:23: “Behold the Virgin shall be with child and bear a son and they shall call him Emmanuel, which means ‘God is with us.’”
Still another, to a California woman, read, “Thank you for sending me your support. I hope that you are doing well and in good health. I am in need of just about everything and anything you can do to help out is a blessing . . . never send cash in the mail, you can send me money orders. Just put my name and number on it and put it in with your next letter. OK, I’ve got to close now, I only get 20 min out.”
He signed it “Tony Sowell” and underneath, “Anthony Sowell.”
To a person named Barry, he wrote about his life in jail.
“They are treating me well here, I have my own cell and my own TV so it’s ok for now . . . I was married before, my ex-wife died in an industrial accident back in 1998 in California, her home state. We were married for about three years and had no kids.”
He signed off, “Your pal, Anthony Sowell.”
The letters sold for between $80 and $200.


Saturday, October 27, 2012

Rock and Roll Memoirs You May Have Missed

  The rock and roll autobiography. What a notion, in which an artist attempts to make his or her life sing in real words on paper, rather than relay it on snatches of a tattered loose leaf notebook or scraps of hotel stationary. But these books sell, and can even move the needle on a stalled career. Motives, though, are tricky. What did the Wilson sisters hope to gain with the issue of Kicking & Dreaming: A Story of Heart, Soul and Rock & Roll? (insert joke here) Was Keith Richards bored or was he trying to keep the Stones’ name alive with his book, Life? And then there’s the unpredictable Neil Young – he’s still killing it and he puts out Waging Heavy Peace. Not everyone has the megaphone of fame to pimp a book, but that sure doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of great rock memoir reads under the radar. Consider this the first of a couple installments.

1.    Diary of a Rock and Roll Star by Ian Hunter (1972)  - The frontman of Mott the Hoople writes about the British band’s first breaks in the coveted U.S. market during a 1972 tour. But rather than groping groupies and cocaine-dusted tv tops, Hunter writes about the weather, the airports, the hotels, cab drivers, the trains and, occasionally, the music. The band spends its down days in pawn shops looking to score rare guitars and assorted gear. No one gets arrested or even detained. Sound boring? It’s not. Hunter is an insightful and wry teller of situations and makes it all worth the read.  This book would never find a publisher in these TMZ days that crave “The Dirt.” No matter; a terrific read on the mundane nature of the road.
2.    A Multitude of Sins by Hugh Cornwell (2009) I’m still trying to figure out how Cornwell, the singer/guitarist of the Stranglers, and Charlie Watts from the Stones hit it off. And why were Diana Ross and Gene Simmons backstage at a 1981 Strangers show at Bonds in New York?  Cornwell’s memoir details such things, along with tales of drug enjoyment and later, addiction; the rise and fall of the Stranglers, and his witty take on his five weeks in jail on a drug charge. Cornwell is a bit of a renaissance man, a traveled, well-read gent who idolized Cliff Richard as a boy and grew up to nail down a couple acting roles and even record a solo album with Captain Beefheart’s drummer, Robert Williams. He includes some digs at his former Strangler mates, which reads as more fun that vituperative.
3.    GoTell the Mountain: The Lyrics and Writings of Jeffrey Lee Pierce  (1998) All things musical from Jeffrey Lee Pierce are strong, Gun Club, solo, collaboration,  but this book is a great compliment, succeeding where, say Richard Hell's Hot and Cold failed.Pierce was rarely together enough to write anything past a few sentences, save for his poorly scribed pieces in Slash magazine, but this is a collection of journals and essays, with some bad fiction mixed in.  The insight into Pierce’s creativity and lifestyle is worth getting through that bad fiction, and the collection of lyrics as an appendix serve as autobiographical as well. I’ve got a list of pages for quick referral to passages scribbled in the front cover of my copy; when I check them, most apparent is the poignancy of Pierce’s tellings.
4.    Me, Alice by Alice Cooper and Steven Gaines (1976) – Just before the breakout of “I’m Eighteen,” Cooper in this book claims he and his then-girlfriend, Cindy, were selling Christmas trees on Jefferson Avenue in Detroit to help make ends meet. When I asked Alice about this in an interview last year, he made a stupid face and said “no, I don’t know where you heard that.” So Me, Alice may well be full of bullshit, but it’s pretty good bullshit. My first thought as I recently reread this book for the first time since it came out in 1976 was: “He names names,” right down to some of the groupies. No wonder this book has never been republished, despite Facebook pleas and Alice’s continued hold over the state fair/casino crowd. Most of it is the saga of a band on the brink of breaking, and thanks to some solid guidance by his co-author, the book succeeds.
5.    Knight Moves by KJ Knight (2011) – The sleeper in the bunch, former Amboy Dukes drummer KJ Knight self-published this breezy reader with little fanfare and few sales. But Knight, a reformed petty thief and drug dealer, delivers a gossipy, name-dropping read with tales of living as Ted Nugent’s roommate, failing miserably an audition with Bob Seger, and the definitive version of the death of former Amboy singer Rusty Day, who was gunned down, along with his 12-year-old son, most likely over a rift between drug dealers.  Knight was a player despite his lack of name recognition, the wise guy who got around and was smart enough to use his personality to enter some elite inner sanctums.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Read Anthony Sowell Letter to Author

 Down to journalists who are writing his life story, Anthony Sowell remained a control freak. In a letter written to me in February, Sowell confirmed I was on his visitor list (a taunt), told me he would not come out to see me if I were to drive to see him on Death Row in Chillicothe, Ohio (a threat) and said he didn’t like my first book (disparagement). He ends the note by telling me he has photos of himself as a Marine and a child, “but I don’t think that I want them in your book.” (another taunt) he signs himself “Sowell.” Sowell again proves himself to be a half-man, sentenced to death for the heinous murders of 11 women and still defiant and seeking control. He has none, despite the cadre of defense lawyers who have filed a 379-page appeal, 292 pages of which are media clips. No matter what we think of Sowell and his deeds, this is an important part of the legal process, this repeated round of appeals. We have to believe that Sowell himself is allowing it. He wants to live. Imagine. 

Old, tattered, used, overplayed 7-inch record sells for $3,760

$3,760 for this. A first class ticket to Europe.
I wish I could say I accept this, but I still can’t get over the collectabilityof the first single by the Fix.  Whoever bought this came in at the end of bidding; it wasn’t someone who had been repeatedly trying to get it. Seller is a record store in southern Ohio. It's a good record, yea. Record collectors are interesting to me in that I love what they collect, although I am a spectator, not a participant. I don’t like stuff, and am able to live for long periods of time in a small room. I have all my music in iTunes Match, have a Jawbone speaker for my MacBook Pro or my iPad or iPhone. And I like to travel, so my spare change goes to that. So it’s especially stunning when people shell out this kinda cash for a record. I’m honored, but perplexed. 

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Check it Out: The Rock HOF LIbrary is Actually Good

Rock HOF Library Card
It’s easy to beat up on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a beacon of many things that went wrong with the money grab that continually assaults the music industry.
I’ve written before about it; the RRHOF is run by 1 percenters, doesn’t pay taxes and has generally played personal politics with what was once the essence of a loud middle finger to The Establishment.
It’s easy to bitch about those excluded and included – really, Herb Alpert, Madonna in, Grand Funk not? – but that’s just about the tastes of a meager few, the nominating committee.
The hall sits on a waterfront piece of land worth $42 million, with net assets of $93 million, according to its most recently available tax return. To some people, nothing says rebellion like a fat bank account.
On a visit to Cleveland this week, though, I discovered the redeeming element of the HOF: It’s newly opened library and archive collection.
The book collection alone is worth a stop – of course it has both the Touch and Go book and the Johnny Ramone autobio, but the best stuff is in the archives. For that, you get a library card and hit the database.  In an hour, I found the lawyer letter from the Carbona company to Sire asking that the Ramones song, “Carbona Not Glue”not be included on any more records – so far, Sire said, it had sold 45,000 of the 60,000 pressed. I also found a letter from Iggy Pop to Guns and Roses thanking them – profusely, handwritten, on yellow legal paper – for covering “Raw Power” on the Spaghetti Incident.  Iggy said it gave him a “huge boost.” I found it in the voluminous collection of materials from Art Collins.
There was more and more and more.  While the RRHOF is an irritating bit of organization to a format that should defy organization, the library is a blessing for those of us who are interested in how it all happened.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Cleveland: Sowell Contacts Everywhere

I keep running into Sowell people here in Cleveland. Today, a friend here who does home renovation called me about something and mentioned that he was working with a guy who did time with Sowell. He said Sowell would be elbowed and pushed around in prison and never did anything, a sign of weakness among inmates.
At the West End Tavern, where I was meeting the esteemed Plain Dealer columnist Michael Heaton for drinks, a gentleman came up after learning I was the author of the new book on Anthony Sowell and said he went to junior high and high school with Sowell.
“Tony was a nice guy, he wasn’t really quiet or anything, he was one of us,” the guy told me.  He said he saw him later on outside a grocery store – around the same time Sowell was arrested in 2009 – and Sowell ht him up for change.
“He was a regular guy, he was friendly,” this fellow told me. “He went in the service and was never the same.”
As the book notes, Sowell shined in the Marines and also confirms what Sowell’s former classmate said.
From the book:
Sowell reported for boot camp on January 24, 1978, at Parris Island, South Carolina before being dispatched for basic training at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.
It was the smartest thing Sowell would ever do, and his time in the Marines was marked with success, at least professionally.
He finished first in his basic training class of 40. Soon he would find that he could hit a target with a rifle from 600 yards. Like all Marines, Anthony Sowell was taught how to defend himself and emerge victorious from battlefield conflicts, how to hurt an enemy by hand, using choke holds, punches and weapons in hand-to-hand combat. These are special fighting skills, similar to those taught and embraced by the vaunted Navy Seals. 
In May 1978, Sowell began his military career as an electrician at Camp Lejeune first obtaining his high school equivalency and then studying electrical wiring before moving up the coast to Cherry Point, where he stayed until March 1980 with the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing, an aviation unit supporting Marine ground operations in wartime. A solid Marine, Sowell moved around a lot, adapting anywhere he went He even boxed in the camp boxing clubs, again showing he had something to prove.
He next moved on to Camp Smedley Butler with the 3rd Force Service Support Group, Fleet Marine Force Pacific in Okinawa, Japan for a year.
Sowell served the last of his tour of duty at Camp Pendleton, California.
His military stint was marked by his good performance; Sowell received awards during his seven-year Marine Corps career, including a Good Conduct Medal with one star, a Meritorious Mast certificate, Sea Service Deployment ribbon, Certificate of Commendation and two Letters of Appreciation.
“He did exceptionally well . . . Mr. Sowell was promoted meritoriously to private first class at the end of recruit training, which is an extreme distinction,” said Walter Bansley III, a military lawyer who analyzed Sowell’s military records.
Unfortunately, then he came home. And was never quite the same.

Monday, October 8, 2012

WMMS, WJW, Cleveland Appearances

From the 70s: Was it W "Magic MushroomsS"?

This morning I did the morning show on WJW, the local Fox affiliate in Cleveland and Rover’s show on WMMS. It’s a little easier this time around, and I find myself enjoying talking to these folks, who, although it’s a job, seem interested. Rover was especially smart, and his morning zoo format was on hold while we talked. It was free and easy and he was up on the whole story, leading the listeners through a story that many of them may not have been all that familiar with.
We got done and we talked about the history of WMMS, which approached Detroit’s gold standard WABX in the early 70s as far as progressive programming. It broke Ziggy-era David Bowie in the Midwest, and also tried mightily to support Roxy Music, even though the local flavor was more James Gang, Michael Stanley’s Silk and Rasberries.
The station is now owned by Clear Channel, housed in a faceless office building in a generic office park, with a day care and gym in the building for all the corporate drones.
Clear Channel just can’t keep itself for getting rid of people, it seems, and I looked at the folks that were part of Rover’s show and was happy they were there. At least for a while. You never know when a company’s top dogs are paid salaries ranging from $3.4 million to $658,000.
Corporate America: What a scumbag, greedy way to roll.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Anthony Sowell Psyche Exam, Prison Records

If you haven’t read the psychological report on Anthony Sowell, it’s here.  Completed in September 2005, it finds Sowell has a low chance of recidivism, or committing another crime.
As I point out, Sowell lied to the government analyst, something s a trained professional might have wanted to ponder.  Sowell was also a guy who was refused release on a 5 to 15 year sentence for rape based on the severity and violence of his crime.  Check out some of Sowell’s parole considerations here.
From the book:
In August 2005, Sowell received a notice in the mail from the Cuyahoga County Court Psychiatric Clinic. As part of his sex-offender monitoring, he was required to undergo a sexual-predator evaluation.
On September 1, 2005, Sowell showed up an hour early to the county Justice Center, a little put out by the obligation. After all, he felt, he had served his complete sentence, he wasn’t on parole or probation, and he was working twelve-hour days at a good job, one with community standing. The Indians, like the football Browns and the basketball Cavaliers, were religion among many Clevelanders.
Straight away, Sowell was told that there could be some negative impacts from the evaluation. It was a public record.
“I know, I know,” he said, his initial irritation dissipating. He had no choice, and over the course of the next hour and a half, Sowell talked, listened, and talked some more. In some cases, he told the truth. In others, he covered up.
He reported that his upbringing was in a single-parent home in an urban area, and he added that his home “was crowded.”
He told the analyst that he had a lot of friends while growing up but added that he was bullied and teased as well. He neglected to tell of the sexual abuse he both witnessed and partook in. In fact, whether it was a case of covering up or of being completely oblivious, he told the analyst that his childhood was good.
The report also notes that Sowell claimed that “he was not exposed to violence in his home, school, or community” and that “he does not have a strong temper.”
In doing background work on Sowell, the analyst later wrote in a report that “Mr. Sowell’s grades [in high school] were average; he was never in special education classes nor did he receive tutoring or medicine for attention problems. His school attendance was generally good and he was never suspended or expelled.”
Sowell said he’d never been suspended from school or fired from a job, and he had never received any government assistance of any kind, for any reasons.
Asked about the attack on Melvette Sockwell, he claimed to have known her for about eighteen months at the time of the incident, an assertion Melvette denies and was never verified by the state.
“He stated that he paid her money to engage in consensual sex,” according to the report. “He stated that he had used alcohol prior to the . . . offense but was not ‘falling down drunk.’ He indicated that he pled guilty to the charge because he was having difficulty mounting a ‘good defense.’”
His attorney in that case—the one who Sowell implied was ineffective—was Jim McDonnell, who, many years later, would run for Cuyahoga County prosecutor.
“All I can tell you is that I remember nothing about representing him,” McDonnell says now.
Sowell talked about his drinking and confided that he may well have a drinking problem although, because of his incarceration, he hadn’t been drunk in sixteen years, since he was thirty.
Questioned about sex, Sowell simply lied. He said he learned about sex through talking with his friends at school and sex-ed classes and that his first sexual experience came at age seventeen with his high school girlfriend, who would have been Twyla Austin.
He admitted that he bought hookers while he was in the marines and hit the occasional strip joint. He said that like most men, he had checked out pornography, some hard-core, but never had any violent sexual fantasies. In fact, he came off as a guy who caught a bad break on the rape charge.
To the nameless analyst, who would file this report for public consumption as well as for judges and lawyers and law-enforcement agents who look to these professional assessments for guidance in determining a suspect’s possible guilt, Anthony Sowell seemed like a pretty okay guy. In the report, the analyst wrote that Sowell was “attentive throughout the interview. He demonstrated a full range of emotional expression. His speech was appropriate for rate, tone and volume. He was generally cooperative and polite. His thoughts were organized and logical. His responses were clear and understandable. He described his general mood as ‘good.’ The defendant’s hazard recognition skills and social judgment were good.” The analyst’s report went on to say, “It is my opinion that with reasonable professional certainty that Mr. Sowell does not currently present with the following risk factors most significantly correlated with sexual offense recidivism.”
The factors that the analyst indicated included age (at forty-six, Anthony Sowell was statistically less a risk to reoffend), gender of victim (a male victim typically indicates a higher risk), and, notably, failure to complete treatment (in Sowell’s case, he had never had treatment; therefore, this factor was ignored—he could not be said to have “failed” to complete something he’s never even begun). Also considered were prior sexual offenses (of which Sowell had none) and deviant sexual preferences (which he denied).
Sowell was given a low probability rating to reoffend. Years later, when the report was revealed to have been flawed, the county refused to divulge who the analyst was. But as a result of that county employee’s poor judgment, Sowell was classified as a “sexually oriented offender” based on his attempted rape conviction, but not a “sexual predator,” which would have placed him under more scrutiny when a sex crime was reported in the area around him.
The system was not working.

Monday, October 1, 2012

It's On: Review of Sowell Book, Radio Appearance

The early stages of press for  Nobody’s Women: The Crimes and Victims of Anthony Sowell, the Cleveland Serial Killerare beginning, and as usual, I look at the situation as a necessary evil. It’s great meeting both the fans and detractors of a work but by the time this point comes, my head on onto forward things, new stuff.
Then a good review pops in a well-read true crime pub and I’m back in the PR game.
“…The writing is smooth; bringing together a group of the downtrodden without losing their individuality then on to the judicial proceedings (with an interesting twist, by the way) with flawlessness. Readers will be pleased to find the trial portion is not a repeat but rather unweighted with information not mentioned in the first 200+ pages.”
The bad ones come as well, but it’s cool that anyone is reading, still amazes me every time.
Last week I did Dan Zupansky’s excellent radio show, and he never disappoints as a no-bullshit guy who knows the material and comes with a straightforward deal for his listeners – hear the show and you’ll know what the book is like. I did the show for Girl, Wanted and it was the same smooth ride.
Next week, I’m in Cleveland hitting WMMS and the local Fox-TV affiliate while also attending the staging of “Violence of One” at Baldwin Wallace University, a play about Sowell and fellow Cleveland native Jeffrey Dahmer. After the play, we’ll have a Q & A and a discussion.  It sounds pretty good, actually, but I’m always thinking about what is on the horizon. 

Friday, September 21, 2012

Explode the Myth: Black Serial Killer is not Rare

My new book, Nobody’s Women: The Crimes and Victims of Anthony Sowell, the Cleveland Serial Killer, is about a black man, who kills in a pattern, making him, yes, a serial killer.
I realized after the book was written that there is some debate as to the prevalence of black serial killers; some contend the number is commensurate with the overall black population on the U.S., about 13 percent, while the popular belief seems to that whites are more likely to engage in serial killing.
This is often the stuff of geeky, headline-seeking shrinks and so-called crime experts. I don’t care much for statistical breakdowns, so I called Louis Schlesinger, professor of forensic psychology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, who has studied mass killers since the 1970s.
“It’s a myth that that there are few black serial killers,” Schlesinger said. “People in the 80s started this, people who had no knowledge of it.”
Media drives the myth, he said, because an “evil genius” is much more scary and interesting than a regular person, black or white, killing off people seemingly at random and in a pattern.
“I heard from a book editor that black serial killers aren’t marketable,” Schlesinger said. “People want Hannibal Lecter.”
There are a number of studies on serial killers that include race that put black serial killers at a little over 25 percent of the total in the U.S., such as this one
“You see this a lot, this thing about the ‘rare black serial killer,” said  Mike Aamodt, a psychology professor at Radford University in Virginia who through his comprehensive research has made himself the go-to guy when it comes to serial killers. He operates the Serial Killer Information Center.
The black serial killer is not rare at all, he said, and in fact you often see them killing prostitutes in bad neighborhoods, like Sowell did.
“The crime rate is about the same for African-Americans as it is for serial killers, though” Aamodt explained. Again, the media perpetuates the false perception of the ‘rare’ black serial killer by not paying as much attention to crimes in lower income areas where people go missing and murdered frequently.
The FBI in 2005 changed its definition of serial killers, from three killings in different locations separated by a cooling-off period to two killings.
“Which meant that gang members are getting thrown in as serial killers,” Aamodt said, explaining in part the statistical leap for blacks and other minorities.
Sowell was a classic serial killer, committing his crimes intermittently and with a pattern. He was a remorseless murderer, and it still shakes me up to think real hard about it. The book is a straight-on tale of darkness. The Cleveland media did a great job of coverage, but the book ties it all together with original reporting and interviews. I often wonder what is redeeming about these books, and I realize that we learn so much from crime and from the procedure of detection and prosecution. We ignore stories like this, in an ignorance in bliss shelter, at great peril.