Sunday, September 16, 2012

"No Easy Day" Is Easy Read

Mark Owen hasn't written the best SEAL book.

That honor still belongs to Marcus Luttrell's masterful "Lone Survivor," the story of ill-fated SEAL Team 10 in Afghanistan.

But Owen has written the most important SEAL book.

His firsthand account of SEAL Team Six's takeout of Osama Bin Laden in "No Easy Day" -- the book Washington loudmouths condemned for potentially disclosing secret info -- finally sets the record straight on what happened May 1, 2011, when the U.S. Naval Special Warfare Group killed Bin Laden at his $1 million compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, ending the manhunt for America's most infamous wartime enemy since Adolf Hitler.

I call it an important book because many Americans have heard snippets of the story, and some of it inaccurate. The book's important as well because it shows the absolute professionalism and indefatigable dedication of our most elite fighters.

Mark Owen (a pseudonym for obvious security reasons) states at the outset that the account is based on his personal memory. His memory is keen and the narrative style of co-author Kevin Mauer keeps the story moving with the intensity it deserves. And Owen's account rings so much more true than the second-, third- and fourthhand accounts we've gotten from politicians and journalists, and in the 2011 book, "SEAL Target Geronimo," by Chuck Pfarrer. In fact after reading Owen's "eyewitness" account, it becomes clear that at least Pfarrer got the operation's code name for Bin Laden correct, "Geronimo."

Indeed, Owen was right behind the SEAL who killed Bin Laden, with two shots from a suppressed weapon. Shot in the right forehead, part of his skull collapsed. He was still “twitching and convulsing” when SEALs entered the bedroom. Owen and another SEAL “trained our lasers on his chest and fired several rounds.”

Owen doesn’t say, but I doubted it was an act of mercy.

Previous inaccurate accounts had the mastermind of the September 11, 2001 attacks that killed more than three thousand people in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, going for a gun when he was killed. Not so. Owen says Bin Laden was shot after peering out his bedroom door at the top of the stairs and wasn't going for a Makarov pistol. The mater-terrorist's two weapons, the pistol and an AK-47, were stowed on a shelf over his bedroom door -- the pistol holstered.

This is where Owen's book sets the historical record straight. He makes the point that because a Black Hawk crashed at the compound, and because of a brief firefight outside Bin Laden's house with his henchman Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, Bin Laden obviously knew something was up and had time to arm himself. He didn’t put up a fight, and didn't go down like a martyr.

It's a significant fact, and not lost on Owen, who writes: "He asked his followers for decades to wear suicide vests or fly planes into buildings. In all of my deployments, we routinely saw this phenomenon. The higher up the food chain the targeted individual was, the bigger pussy he was. The leaders were less willing to fight. It is always the young and impressionable who strap on the explosives and blow themselves up . . . Bin Laden had more time to prepare than the others, and yet he still didn't do anything. Did he believe his own message? Was he willing to fight the war he asked for? I don't think so. Otherwise, he would have at least gotten his gun and stood up for what he believed. There is no honor in sending people to die for something you won't even fight for yourself."

Even Bin Laden's son, Khalid, who had an AK-47 nearby, didn’t fight.

The 316-page book also provides a plethora of visual images, like when two SEALs dragged Bin Laden's body down from the third floor of the house and his blood mixed on the floor with blood from his son who had been shot on the second floor. And the ride back to Afghanistan in a Black Hawk, with a SEAL sitting on Bin Laden's body (his chest) because there was no room to sit anyplace else.

And, as SEALs rushed to positively identify Bin Laden and his wife kept giving them fake names, a quick-thinking SEAL asked a child in the bedroom who the dead man was, and the kid meekly responded, "Osama Bin Laden."

The book has humorous moments, like when a planner wanted SEALs to move Bin Laden's car outside the compound and put a police light on top to make neighbors believe it was a local police action, and was reminded that the SEALs didn't have the car keys with them.

To be sure the nighttime raid had a narrow window of operation, every minute counting. While the SEALs gathered bagfuls of information on paper and computers from the house, Owen admits they left much behind because they ran out of time. (The Pakistanis scrambled a jet to hunt for them.)

The book also has outrageous moments. One outrage came during a planning session when a lawyer from either the Department of Defense or the White House instructed SEAL Team Six members to spare his life if Bin Laden put up his hands.

In his book Owen didn't say more about it, or even offer a comment on the order.

However, as I read it I screamed, "You've got to be kidding." Take Bin Laden prisoner? The cold-murderer of thousands? Bring him here for bloody trial?

Peter L. Bergen, in his scholarly book on the 10-year hunt for Bin Laden, "Man Hunt," (2012), clearly showed that the last thing President Obama wanted was to capture Bin Laden, given all of the problems it brought home with him, and for years to come.

No, this evil dude is where he belongs thanks to SEAL Team Six.

"No Easy Day" by Mark Owen, (September 2012), is an easy, non-jargonistic and historically significant read, and is highly recommended.

The fact that Owen is "donating most of the proceeds" from book sales to charity "in honor of the men we have lost since September 11" makes it even more appealing.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Yeah, I bribed him but . . .

Let me get this straight.

In 1992, a guy in Colton, California wanted to develop some property but needed a road built to it, and he signed a contract that said he would build the road at his expense if the city let him develop his property.

But, the road was going to cost big bucks and wasn't built.

OK, I get that.

Seven years pass, in 1999 the guy bribed a Colton City Councilman, greasing his palm with $4,986 (these guys get cheaper all the time). As a result, the developer won a new contract that required the city to pay for the road. Yes, the same one he had agreed to build himself in 1992.

In 2003, the FBI nabbed the guy for the 1999 bribe of the council-crook, and the developer pleaded guilty to a federal rap.

Five years later, in 2008, the convicted briber sued Colton to force it to uphold its end of the bribe-tainted 1999 contract, and pay for the road. It didn't matter, to him at least, that the 1999 deal was the fruit of his crime.

The following year, in 2009, the city dug up the original 1992 contract. Officials then asked the briber to pay the city $408,398.70 that it had spent on the road. (The city explained it didn’t find the original contract sooner because city staffers "who had been involved with the contract back in 1992 had long since left the employ of the city." You mean, when a Colton city manager leaves he takes the public records with him? Nevermind.)

Anyhow, in 2010, the city counter-sued the developer-briber to stop enforcement of the 1999 contract, which if validated by the court, would end up costing Colton taxpayers about $1 million.

So, today, the suit/counter-suit is winding through the San Bernardino County courts. It's a good bet that a common-sense jury will quickly see that the briber is trying to gain from his crime, and will kick him hard in the butt, and while they're at it, order him to repay the city the $408,398.70 it spent on the road.

As an appellate court which recently ruled on legal issues in the case stated: “Given the amount of evidence related to (the) bribery . . . it is probable that the city will be able to show (the developer) procured the 1999 contract by bribery.”

I think of it this way. It is one thing to murder somebody and get convicted. It is quite another to murder somebody, get convicted and then argue to collect the victim’s life insurance.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Thoughts To Labor Over This Weekend

Take a minute to read this before you load the family in the van this Labor Day Weekend.

In the late-1980s I covered the "road rage" trial of a guy in Southern California who got mad while driving on the 91 Freeway, and fired a shotgun at a passenger van that had flashed its bright lights behind him.

The Mossberg slug pierced the van and killed a woman riding in the back. She was an off-duty police officer, and her husband was driving the van. They were rushing their son to a hospital, and had flashed their lights at night to get the guy to pull into the slower, middle lane and let them pass.

The shooter testified that he had argued with his wife earlier in the day, was still mad, and admitted drinking a six-pack. And, believe it or not, as he fired the 12-gauge, sawed-off shotgun, his toddler son slept on the seat next to him.

The jury was outraged and convicted the shooter of second-degree murder. But, it wasn't the only shocking evidence in the case.

That came when the victim's husband took the stand, and surprised everybody -- even the prosecutor -- by admitting he had tossed an "empty" can of Pepsi out his driver's window as he passed the shooter's car. At the time of shooting, he said he never told police about throwing the can because "it was embarrassing for me."

The shooter said the Pepsi can struck the front grill of his car, and it really pissed him off. That's when he fired at the van, killing the man's wife.

After the husband's damning revelation, he grimly stepped down from the witness box, shaken and embarrassed. His rash act of tossing the Pepsi can from the van had changed his life forever, and would certainly haunt him the rest of his days.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

He Didn't Fudge In This Grudge

This is the story of the ultimate personal grudge.

Sure, Kobe's held grudges on the basketball court, and Hearst begrudgingly hated Pulitzer. But, nobody got shot in the gonads in these grudges, and they didn't last for a quarter century.

Years ago a guy I'll call James, 50, drove to the home of a nationally known dog breeder in Southern California, and shot him dead.

James was arrested soon afterwards, and police learned his motive.

He had a grudge that began in the early 1960s. James had shipped out from Camp Pendleton with his U.S. Marine Corps brigade, leaving his bride to await his return.

Only she didn't wait. Upon his return, she admitted to having a brief affair with a man.

For the next 25 years the couple had a rocky marriage, and invariably during arguments, James dredged up her infidelity while he was a Marine.

Who knows how many times he vowed vengeance, promising to shoot the man in the crotch if he ever caught him.

At some point, James learned the man's name, and using an alias, he wrote to him and asked for a picture, saying he was a "fan" of the well-known dog breeder.

When James and his wife finally landed in divorce court, he bought a handgun.

October 23, 1987, he drove from his house in Northern California to the dog breeder's home, where using a fake name, they talked about dogs. But, the man couldn't talk long because he was leaving alone in his motor home for Arizona.

James followed him, and flagged him down on the freeway. The man stopped, and invited him into the motor home.

The ex-Marine emptied his gun into the man who had sex with his wife a quarter century ago, after disclosing his grudge that had defied decades.

Police discovered the bullet-riddled body of the 59-year-old man in the motor home parked along the interstate, and immediately ruled out suicide.

James had shot him in the crotch.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

From Marysville to Aurora

California's dubious record of taking twenty years to decide death penalty cases is safe.

The most recent decision to uphold a capital punishment sentence took the state Supreme Court just a few months over two decades. Well, nobody's perfect.

Eric Christopher Houston blamed a high school teacher for his miserable life, and paid him back by going on a 12-gauge shotgun rampage at his high school on May 1, 1992, near Marysville in Northern California.

With pockets full of No. 4 "anti-personnel" buckshot, the troubled 20-year-old viciously murdered the teacher, whom he said had flunked him in economics class and led to his dropping out of school, and three students. He wounded ten kids and held 80 in hostage-horror for eight hours while he negotiated surrender with police.

In negotiations, police adroitly lied to him, telling him he hadn't yet killed anyone. They skillfully sent him a "signed contract," saying if he surrendered he wouldn't get more than five years in a country-club-like prison. Who knows how many more people this whacko would have killed had he known he had nothing to lose.

Death penalty advocates won't like this wrinkle in the case because they insist that capital punishment acts as a deterrent: The killer told hostages that "he had studied the Penal Code, so he was aware of the potential sentence he faced." A California Penal Code was later found in his bedroom.

After a sanity hearing found him fit to stand trial, he was convicted of the murders. In the second part of his trial, called the penalty phase, the killer's defense was standard death penalty "mitigation" fare. Every bad thing in his life was paraded before the jury: alcoholic father, abused mother, uncle who killed people, his spinal meningitis and asthma as an infant, problems learning in school, IQ of 84, and according to a psychiatrist, his serious mental illness, brain damage and feelings of homosexuality -- all to help explain why he went on the rampage.

Significantly, in light of the recent murders in the movie theater in Colorado during the new "Batman" film, trial evidence showed that the school killer loved "The Terminator" movies. How is that connected with the Aurora, Colorado murders? A defense psychiatrist testified that during the rampage, school killer Houston was "dissociated, living in an unreal world, and identifying with the self-sacrificing protagonists in his favorite action movies." Because the "Batman" movie theater killer called himself the "Joker" and dyed his hair orange, expect similar testimony from his defense attorneys to try to show he was crazy at the time.

The tesimony about the school killer's mental illness didn't sway jurors, however, because like in the Aurora massacre, jurors heard about the killer's planning, and ruled the school slayings were deliberate and premeditated. Fortunately for prosecutors, the school killer left notes behind, saying, "What I did today at the school . . . my hatred toward humanity forced me." He also drew a school map and titled it, "Mission Profile." In Colorado, the fact that the Aurora killer sent a notebook to his psychiatrist with "scribblings of stick figures being shot and a written description of an upcoming attack," is clear evidence of premeditation.

An astonding thing to emerge at the school killer's trial was that at about two o'clock in the afternoon on the day of the rampage, a teacher at Lindhurst High School saw Houston walking "with a determined stride," wearing a camouflage vest, two bandoliers of ammo, carrying a shotgun and a sawed-off rifle, and asked him "if he had a permit for the shotgun." The soon-to-be-killer who had last attended the school in 1989, didn't respond, and "continued walking toward" the a buidling, where minutes later he coolly walked classroom to classroom murdering people.

A permit? A teacher sees a guy walking toward a school building with a shotgun and wants to know whether it's registered? Well, I understand this was 1992 -- seven years before Columbine -- and Marysville is rural and "hunting" around there is common. But, can you fathom a teacher today seeing a dude with a shotgun on campus and inquiring about his permit. The scream for police would be instantaneous.

After the rampage, the killer told police "he did not decide to commit the shootings until the teacher asked him about having a gun permit." Oh, now I get it. He felt his Second Amendment rights were being questioned, so he shot up the place.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Mongolian Barbecue

Pity the poor Mongols Nation Motorcycle Club, Inc., getting "shanked" that way by a California appeals court wielding corporate law.

You've heard of the Mongols. They've been called "domestic terrorists" in court records. It's a moniker the club rejects, noting that past criminal activity is "behind us."

In 2010, the Mongols sued the Southern California city of Lancaster, an hour north of Los Angeles, after the city learned that the Mongol horde planned to hold its "convention" in the city of 157,000. Citing zoning violations, the city shut the hotel where the club had rented 100 rooms for its weekend bash.

The city's mayor didn't mince words at the time, telling a TV station: "The Mongols are domestic terrorists, and we will treat them accordingly," adding, "anybody wearing Mongol colors will serve as a beacon for law enforcement."

The motorcycle gang sued, saying the city interfered with its contract with the hotel, for which it paid $14,000. More interestingly, however, the Mongols also contended the city violated their civil rights.

In defending the city, officials asked a judge to kill the suit. While the judge dismissed parts of it, he allowed the suit to go forward to trial on the civil rights issue. The city appealed the judge's decision.

That's when the case got interesting -- if you're a legal junkie like me.

A three-judge panel of the Second Appellate District in Los Angeles County took it upon itself to do some investigating, and in April, "notified the parties it had taken judicial notice of the records of the California Secretary of State, which records indicated Mongols Inc. is a dissolved corporation."

In an opinion released August 2, 2012, the justices argued that because the Mongols had stated in their incorporation dissolution papers that they had no assets, the club was barred from claiming the lawsuit was part of the corporate "winding up" process, which is allowed for corporations being dissolved.

The appellate justices knew their "post-judgment" evidence-gathering was unusual, and tried to explain it in an opinion footnote: "While post-judgment evidence is generally not admissible on appeal, it may be considered to determine whether it renders an issue moot on appeal." Then they called their own rules of procedure "somewhat flexible," and hung their collective legal hat on a case in which the "Supreme Court deemed it appropriate to take judicial notice of an insurer's post-judgment insolvency."

The footnote should be required reading for all trial court judges in California, especially those who decry judicial activism.

Sorry, boys: appellate decisions should be based on the case presented at trial, the same evidence the trial judge considered when making his decision, and absolutely not on post-judgment evidence discovered afterwards.

In the end, the appellate court ordered the judge to dismiss the "Mongols Inc.'s action in its entirety," basing it on its own "post-judgment" evidence-gathering.

I am not defending these Mongol miscreants. But, the ruling raises a troubling question: Would the justices have used "post-judgment evidence" to dismiss this case if it had been filed by the Acme Baby Diaper Co. Inc. against Lancaster?

Friday, July 27, 2012

Now That's A Creative Resume

He said he was the trash man for the shah of Iran.

It sounded exotic to city officials, sure, but he knew the city could never check his references.

It was 1980, and the shah -- Mohammad Reza Pahlavi -- had just been run off by the Iranian revolution a year before.

The applicant knew the city of Riverside, California wasn't about to pick up the phone and call Iran's new supreme leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, for a job reference.

So, the city hired him as its superintendent of solid waste on the good faith of his resume.

Within a year, they were wishing they had called the ayatollah.

That's when Riverside officials learned, after he got tangled in a trash equipment fraud, that he was a former associate of a New Jersey mob and was a federally protected witness.

More than a decade earlier he had helped the Justice Department prosecute Campisi mobsters in cases involving murder, gambling and stolen securities. He served a little time, and was freed with a new identity.

After he entered the witness protection program in 1971, he bounced around from city to city and was hired as municipal garbage chief in Illinois, New York and Florida. When he tried to get a job in North Carolina, city officials got wind of who he really was, and the feds had to quickly move him. In some cities where he managed solid waste, he was praised for his work.

However, he left as Miami's sanitation director after several thousand dollars worth of copper and brass became missing from a city site. He was later found innocent of theft.

"I worked very hard and got him acquitted," his attorney told me at the time, "and he gave me a bad check for part of my fee."

Yes, it is hard to deny where you come from.

Interestingly, Miami officials had tried to check his past and complained they were "hoodwinked" by federal officials about his background.

About the time he was fired from the Riverside job, his colorful background was pieced together by a newspaper -- as much as possible in light of laws forbidding disclosure of information about protected witnesses.

The Riverside police chief at the time was asked whether cops were ever asked to check his resume claims.

"As much trouble as federal officials had in coming up with his background, we may not have come up with anything that would have been useful," he said.

His resume was imaginative -- I mean, really, trash man to the shah? That must have taken more than one meeting of bureaucrats to dream up.

When he applied for the Miami job, he said he had worked for a federal agency that managed solid waste projects. While there, he claimed he was lent to the Justice Department "to head a special task force to prosecute possible infiltration and influence of mob elements into funded federal projects."

Which only tends to show that every phony resume has scraps of truth in it.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Good Deed Doesn't Go Unnoticed By Court

Courts -- appellate courts in particular -- are known for their heads and not their hearts. A California appeals court, however, showed it had a heart recently when it approved unemployment benefits for a man who was fired for trying to do a good deed.

The case involved Jose Robles, 64, a naturalized U.S. citizen from the Phillippines, who was fired from his $20.75-an-hour job of collecting grease at restaurants in the San Francisco Bay area in January 2010.

It seems a friend of his had an accident and needed steel-toed shoes. Robles's employer, Liquid Environmental Solutions of Hayward, allowed its employees to buy work shoes at a Red Wing Shoe Store using a $150 yearly allowance.

Robles went to the store and asked the clerk to measure his friend for the shoes because he was giving them to him. When the clerk refused, Robles didn't argue. But, when his employer found out what he had tried to do, they fired him.

"I asked the lady to have my friend's foot be measured for I had intended to give (the shoes) to him," Robles said in a statement in court papers. "He had a recent home accident and needed safety shoes. I honestly believed I can do the noble gesture and not jeopardize my own safety. I had a reserve pair of shoes at home and fully confident I would be wearing one in good condition for another year..."

When the store clerk refused to let him buy the shoes, Robles didn't argue. But, when his employer found out what he had tried to do, they fired him. "I deeply regret what I attempted to undertake, and firmly swear would not do it again," he said in the statement.

The state Employment Development Department denied him jobless benefits, saying that Mr. Robles "may have had good intentions toward a friend but in his actions he breached a serious obligation he had toward his employer." After a trial court judge upheld the EDD's decision, Robles appealed to the First District Court of Appeal. There, Justice Timothy A. Reardon ruled that Robles's actions did not amount to employee "misconduct," which is required to deny benefits.

His reasoning showed heart: "Robles did not try to hide anything when he went to the shoe store. Next, it is undisputed that he wanted to help his friend who had a recent home accident. Further, Robles had decent safety shoes and did not feel he would jeopardize the safety purpose of the allowance or otherwise injure his employer's interests. ... And, further Robles did not use the shoe allowance for his friend. At most, Robles was guilty of a good faith error in judgment" and not misconduct.

He ordered the state to "award Robles the unemployment insurance benefits withheld, plus interest."

On July 16, the opinion was approved as a legal precedent in California. The attorney for Mr. Robles, who has since moved back to the Phillippines to care for his 95-year-old father, said the case can now be cited by other unemployed people who are "fired for marginal conduct" and fighting for their benefits.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Put This City Out Of Its Misery

Well, this is the city where council members once signed a contract partly written in Japanese and -- you guessed it -- none of them read Japanese. The city even thought about banning tumbleweeds, raising the ire of Roy Rogers, whose "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" put the wind-blown Russian thistle on the map of Americana.

Was I surprised the other day to hear San Bernardino had become the third California city to pursue bankruptcy? I was surprised San Bernardino wasn't first. Go ahead, add up the budget deficits, toss in its public pension liability, and for good measure, calculate its home foreclosures. It still comes down to this simple fact: San Bernardino is a failed American city. The current billion-dollar expansion of the 215 freeway in the heart of the city means only that we will go faster through San Bernardino to Las Vegas.

San Bernardino is a demographic nightmare for city bugeteers. An unfavorable number of its 210,000 residents rely on public handouts, and to add insult, the city makes the list of top 100 cities with the "least educated" populations. The city is unlivable. Many people who do earn a living in San Bernardino choose not to live there. They take their families east to Redlands, a city affluent because of its larger neighbor's failures. To San Bernardino's north, Highland residents incorporated in self-defense, fearing the beast next door would devour them in the jaws of annexation.

For the area newspapers, San Bernardino has always been No.1 for crime news. The city once wore the dubious honor of having more murders than any U.S. city its size. It didn't have to be this way. The National Civic League named San Bernardino an "All-America City" in 1977, but the city has atrophied since, and really never recovered the loss of 10,000 jobs when Norton Air Force Base closed in 1994.

One thing that was suprising -- actually shocking -- was in announcing their decision to head for the cover of bankruptcy, city officials revealed that the city's financial figures haven't been accurate for years. Are they aware that manipulating municipal records is a crime in California? The city's mayor ought to know, he's a former county judge.

I was going to recommend as part of the Chapter 9 bankruptcy settlement, that the city be put out of its misery by de-incorporating. Then I realized it would make the rest of San Bernardino County's taxpayers responsible for this dysfunctional city's problems, and thought better of it.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Hollywood Graffiti

So, Oliver Stone has a new movie, "Savages," about a drug war. The last time I wrote a story with the name Oliver Stone in it, his film crew had just painted the desert, literally.

In April 1990 the Academy Award-winning director was filming the life of 1960s rock nasty-boy Jim Morrison of The Doors at Mitchell Caverns Natural Preserve in California's Mojave Desert.

For a scene in which a drugged-up Morrison played by Val Kilmer walks around the cave, mesmerized by the drawings because he believes he is spiritually connected to a medicine man, a crew member painted 100 phony Indian pictographs on the walls of a pristine and historially and geologically significant cave.

Mitchell Caverns, used for half a millennium by the desert Chemehuevi Indians for religious purposes, were forged millions of years ago. It was a state-protected site, with stalactites, stalagmites, limestone columns and some simple, authentic pictographs. "This whole cave site was part of the initiation process for the shamans," a Sierra Club official said at the time. "This is like taking a can of spray paint into a cathedral."

The filming was approved by the state film commission and parks service. But, the problem was, movie artists broke the rules by using water in the red, yellow, white and black poster paint instead of dry, powdered pigments that could have been more easily removed. A ranger described the fake pictographs as "kindergarten art," which included a Zuni sun shield, a three-foot-tall dancing pottery figure, a stick-like figure with a penis and Indians with spiked hair. (Photo credit, Nick Souza.)

"Someone broke the rules," said a spokesman for the film company at the time. "It was a terrible mistake." He noted the company was insured for the clean-up.

The worst was yet to come.

Sadly, Mitchell Caverns Natural Preserve has since been closed by the state because of budget woes. Vandals have ruined the 80-year-old visitors center, smashing display cases, and even ripping the wiring out of the walls.

Looking back now, the Hollywood graffiti left by Stone's crew proved to be simply the writing on the wall.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Paranoia, Bugs and Courtroom Rituals

I have attended thousands of criminal proceedings, including a hanging, but let me tell you about the case of a man who was arrested for shoplifting and turned around and sued police for false arrest, and won.

The man had bought a skirt at one store in a mall and carried it into another shop, unbagged. When a clerk saw him she immediately called police to say he had stolen the garment. Unfortunately, police handcuffed and arrested him for shoplifting, without asking any questions.

Yes, he was later released. But, as he figured it, the damage had been done.

So, with a sharp lawyer of record and a valid receipt for the skirt firmly in hand, the man, who was mentally ill, sued. A jury agreed with him, awarding him $41,000 in damages.

After the verdict the jury foreman told me: "We believe if there would have been an investigation, there would not have been an arrest at all."

The man's case included his assertion that the arrest worsened his paranoia, and in testimony, a psychiatrist backed him up, saying that the arrest led to new delusions that police were out to get him.

After the verdict I asked the man why he had worn a bulletproof vest (the jury saw it) to court. "I don't feel safe with law enforcement in California. That is the reason I am leaving. I'll find some place nobody knows me . . . Hopefully no one will come to my back door."

I distinctly remember the headline on another story I will tell you about here: "Inmate's note fails to bug judge." (If you think writing headlines on a newspaper's tight deadline is easy, you're buggy.) Anyhow, the story reported that a county jail prisoner had sent the judge an envelope with three huge cockroaches inside, and the inmate was hauled into the judge's courtroom to explain why.

The judge had been hearing evidence about unsanitary jail conditions, and the inmate testified that "I decided to show the judge that these cockroaches do exist and are a nuisance."

For his part, the judge said he didn't open the letter because of "evidentiary" reasons, and turned it over to the county's attorneys. But, the judge couldn't help finding some humor in the incident, and jokingly questioned whether the "insects were properly booked."

In the end, the judge ruled that the county's jail was a hive of vermin, and within several years the county built a new detention facility.

Years ago a local bar association published a sampling of "rituals" that lawyers go through before or during trials. In it a county prosecutor revealed that "For final argument I always wore a particular suit that deflects bad luck. Unfortunately, in one case the defendant wore an identical suit at the preliminary hearing, and it didn't prove to be very lucky for him." Still, he explained, "I switched to a different lucky suit." I was there that day when the prosecutor and murder defendant both wore cream-colored suits. I always wondered whether the defendant's very skillful public defender had arranged it that way, knowing it would pique the prosecutor -- and obviously it did. Anyway, the defendant was Kevin Cooper, who was later convicted and sentenced to death for the hatchet-knife murders of a Southern California family, and is the subject of a new book by Pat O'Connor, "Scapegoat: The Chino Hills Murders and the Framing of Kevin Cooper."

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Maggie's Farm

There wasn't a happier or more pleasant friend to have around the house than "Maggie."

For the past 13 years she never barked in anger and always cuddled up to you, and all she required was the gentle pet of her black and white coat, maybe an additional scratch behind an ear for good measure, and to hear you say, "Maggie is a good girl." You'd live in her good graces forever if you slipped her a secret Milk Bone.

This natural lovingness showed itself early. We'd often stroll with Puppy Maggie on her pink leash along the harbor walk at Dana Point, and when a stranger approached, she'd drop like a penitent prostrated before the pope onto her stomach, her legs out sideways, and invite a little friend-making. Few could resist this fuzzy little Shih Tzu temptress, and there where always lots of "oohs and aahs" from the children and adults as they petted her or tickled her ears, her tongue wriggling about in a big thank-you smile.

Maggie had unusual eyes, one brown and the other blue. This likeness was captured perfectly in Maggie's portrait painted by Hollywood artist and filmmaker Eric Minh Swenson, who filmed our dogs and later painted their portraits as a Christmas gift. (I have included his portrait of Maggie.)

Maggie was our second family dog, following "Jake" the Yorkie, who thought he was a Doberman perhaps because he was similarly colored, and, who had won my eternal respect as a judge of character when he lifted his leg and peed all over the new and expsensive tennis shoes worn by a lawyer who visited our house. After Jake died and we had had Maggie for two years, we acquired another Shih Tzu, this one mostly white, so Maggie would have a friend while we were at work. From the beginning Maggie mothered Puppy "Chloe" by licking her eyes and ears clean, and by herding her around the yard, even keeping her away from the swimming pool. They grew to be great friends, and although Chloe turned into the "alpha" member of this two-dog pack, I always sensed that she appreciated the upbringing Maggie gave her -- perhaps not unlike a child who, as an adult, actually tells her friends how happy her childhood was. When I'd feed Chloe first, with the idea of feeding Maggie on the same plate afterwards, Chloe always ate only half of the food, leaving the rest on the plate for her motherly friend.

Maggie died Friday.

For several years she was being treated for hypothyroidism, which causes dementia symptoms. When we took her for a check up at the vet's a month ago, he as much as forewarned us that Maggie was at the upper age limit of her breed. In the end, Maggie succumbed to congestive heart failure. On her last night my wife put a little pillow under her front paws to elevate her, making it easier for her to breathe. She seemed to understand we were trying to help her. (Our attempt was to make her as comfortable as possible; certainly what we ourselves would hope for from our family.) She died a few hours later, painlessly it seemed because she never whimpered.

"Don't let Chloe near her," I told my wife, after Maggie passed.

I had done the same thing with my daughter when she was four. After her kitten had climbed into the engine compartment of my car -- unbeknowst to me -- and I had backed out of the driveway only to see in the rearview mirror the little critter writhing on the ground, I instructed a friend who was in the car with us not to let my daughter see the suffering kitten. Should I have let Chloe see her lifeless friend Maggie? That might be one for the "Dog Whisperer."

A call to county authorities confirmed that we could bury our pet on our property. We selected a spot near a peach tree that Maggie used to visit on her daily rounds of the back yard. As I put her in the deep grave, I felt a small knot in her tail, and remembered something. Years ago a coyote had gotten into our yard and was carting Maggie off by the tail when I heard her yelp and grabbed her from the clutches of the hungry coyote. She had a knot in her tail ever since.

Today in our garden area there is a patch of fresh earth where we planted Johnny-jump-ups, dainty flowers as gentle, kind and loving as Maggie herself. I'll just call it "Maggie's Farm," after the old Bob Dylan song.

We miss Maggie dearly.

And, we aren't alone.

At bedtime on the first night by herself, I saw Chloe walk to the spot near our bed where maggie slept. She looked for her friend, sniffing, and then backed slowly away from the empty space. I have since observed her searching rooms where Maggie used to lie. Maybe I should have allowed Chloe to say her good-byes that awful night. Maybe animals need "closure," too.

This morning after her walk -- unusual because her walkmate wasn't on a leash by her side -- I fed Chloe in the family room. I then sat down in the office to write this. A half hour later I returned to the family room, and it caught my eye right away. Chloe's dish. She left Maggie's share uneaten, waiting for her.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

An Unforgettable Picture

Thirty-seven years ago this month I was in Boston and bought a 20-cent copy of the Boston Herald Amerian -- Wednesday, July 23, 1975 -- from a vendor. The front page was nearly taken up by one picture, under the headline: "Safety So Near . . . Then A Death Fall."

While at the top of the front page national news was bannered: "House Keeps Oil Price Controls," at the bottom of the page there was a story by John McGinn and Arsene Davignon on the fire that led to the photo. The lede said: "A young woman fell to her death, a small girl was injured and a firefighter was saved by a chance hand-hold yesterday when a fire escape collapsed at the height of a suspicious blaze in the Back Bay."

Herald American Staff Photographer Stanley Forman took the photo showing the woman and child falling. As the story reported the woman was killed, but anyone who saw the front-page photo that day must have been shocked to learn the 2-year-old had survived.

Inside the newspaper, the Herald American published five more dramatic fire photos by Forman, whose front page picture won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for spot news -- he won another Pulitzer in 1977. Years later, I learned, the photo had prompted Boston to tighten its fire escape safety regulations.

Here is a link to this remarkable photo:

Along with the photo spread on page 3, the paper's editors ran a brief account of how he got the pictures, in Forman's own words. "I kept having to move around because of the light situation. The sky was bright and they were in deep shadow. I wouldn't have had any detail. I was making pictures with a motor drive and he, the fire-fighter was reaching up and then I don't know, everything started falling. I followed the girl down, taking pictures . . . I made three or four frames. I realized what was going on and I completely turned around, because I didn't want to see her hit."

He turned away. It reminds me of what I once told a young reporter: "First you're a human being. Then you're a journalist."

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Always Check Their Medical License

With the Supreme Court's affirmative ruling on the Affordable Care Act, or as others call it Obamacare, I searched for a crime story on a medical topic. My files bulge with stories I wrote on medical malpractice lawsuits, pill-pushing doctors who harmed, a son who had his mother's head cut off and frozen, and a serial-killer RN, whom I bought a steak dinner in efforts to get him to unwittingly admit his murders. Catching my eye, however, was a strange medical story I wrote in 1981 in Southern California, which appears below, with names of victims redacted.

A 15-year-old girl has been arrested for impersonating a doctor and telling a man his wife might die in surgery, police reported.

The girl, who police say could pass for a 26-year-old, allegedly donned a lab coat and stethoscope and introduced herself as a physician to the husband of a patient who was in surgery.

"I just about collapsed," recalled the husband, whose wife of four months had been rushed to the hospital for tubal pregnancy that required surgery.

The husband said his wife's parents were with him in the hospital's lobby when a person in a lab coat walked up.

She identified herself as a doctor and talked to the family about medicine and religion. The husband told her that his wife was in surgery and the girl said she knew, that she was one of the surgeons involved.

"Everything was going fine," she told him.

Minutes later the girl made a phony telephone call to check on the wife's condition. "Give her three units of blood and get five doctors over here right now," she said loudly into the phone.

The family overhead it, and the husband raced over to see what had happened.
"Just pray, just pray," the girl told him. "There is something wrong with her heart." Then she left.

For the next half hour family members were in anguish. The husband said that only his father-in-law was skeptical because the girl had also mentioned "a car wreck," and a "man was decapitated and his head landed in the back seat."

Later, the husband said he saw the girl in the lobby and asked about his wife's condition. When the girl acted as if she didn't know him, he called security.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

War Room Reading

While recently (hand) transcribing hours of taped interviews I did with combat veterans of the Army and Marines right after they returned to "the world" from Vietnam about forty years ago for my new book, "Back In Saigon," I got to wondering what I might include on an all-time favorite list of war books.

Because when I am not writing I'm reading, I thought I might share this list with readers of No Shilly-Shally. I've limited the list to a maximum of three titles from a war, which means some great books have been left off, like Joachim C. Fest's "Hitler" and Patton's biography by Ladislas Farago, and William L. Shirer's remarkable "The Nightmare Years" (leading up to WWII). Also I have not ranked them in any order, say best, next best and so on.

Hope you like these reads.

Civil War:

"Cold Mountain" by Charles Frazier (1997), Shelby Foote, "Shiloh," (1952), and Michael Shaara, "The Killer Angels," (1974).

First World War:

Erich Maria Remarque, "All Quiet On The Western Front" (1928), Ernest Hemingway, "A Farewell To Arms," (1929), and "Silent Night," by Stanley Weintraub (2002).

Second World War:

John Toland, "The Last 100 Days," (1965), Rick Atkinson, "An Army At Dawn," (2002), and "From Here To Eternity" by James Jones, (1951).

Korean War:

David Halberstam,"The Coldest Winter," (2007).

Vietnam War:

Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried," (1990), Rick Atkinson, "The Long Gray Line," (1989), and "Perfect Spy" by Larry Berman, (2007).

If you want an authoritative work on the hunt for Osama bin Laden, I recommend Peter L. Bergen's "Man Hunt," (2012). For dramatic details of the killing of bin Laden by members of SEAL Team Six, see Chuck Pfarrer's book, "Seal Target Geronimo," (2011). (While it presents the most vivid account of what happened inside the bin Laden compound, much of Pfarrer's account must be taken on faith because as he explains his sources are inside the black ops establishment. I also noted with interest that Bergen did not cite Pfarrer's book in his eleven-page bibliography of secondary sources and interviews. Perhaps it was simply a timing issue, with the books coming out so close together. Although, Bergen does cite other works published in 2011 in the bibliography. Was Bergen making a statement on the Pfarrer book by not mentioning it? A close reading of Bergen's details on what happened inside the compound appear not to have relied at all on Pfarrer's book, so that might explain the ommission. In any event, I recommend both books for anyone wanting the inside story on America's greatest search and destroy mission.

Now for my three favorite war books:

Ernest Hemingway's "For Whom The Bell Tolls," "All Quiet On The Western Front," and "The Long Grey Line." All riveting, as they say.

What's on your list?

Friday, June 22, 2012

Nothing Amusing At This Park

In the 1980s Disneyland, the land of fun, magic and enchantment in Anaheim, California experienced the park's first murder. I covered it as a newspaper reporter and followed the case for years. A second-degree murder conviction was won by Orange County prosecutors against the killer, who had stabbed a young man during a fight in Tomorrowland.

What follows is a section of a fictional account I wrote of the incident, which I set at Marineland in the 1970s. For background, the main character, a retired coroner's investigator, is trying to find out why a young man named Joey had killed himself years after the murder. The main character has gone to Los Angeles to read a court transcript of Joey's testimony at the killer's trial.

(From "The Collector" by R.D. Byron-Smith, available at; Barnes & Noble; Apple and Sony books and others (c) 2012.)

Suicide. And, Joey’s over a girl. Lost young love, and then death.

I had seen it often enough over the years at the coroner’s office. And, you know what was common? Once a youth made his mind up to take his own life, he enjoyed an inner peace. He gifted personal items to his best friends: a favorite music compact disc here, a jersey he had worn to baseball games there; things he loved, he could no longer love, so someone else should. I saw it time after time. Yet, Joey’s story gnawed at me, kept me awake, tossing in bed nights, wanting to know what had happened. Finally, Agnes told me that either I had to sleep in the guest room or she would because I was spoiling her nightly rest. We hadn’t slept but a few nights apart in fifty years. I had to lay this thing to rest.

That is when I found myself one morning on the Los Angeles Freeway driving west from Palm Springs. I had found the criminal case number in the Los Angeles County Superior Court index for 1972. I had called the clerk in the court’s archives and had asked that the file be located for my review.

“Your in luck,” said the clerk, an African-American wearing a T-shirt with a hip-hop star emblazed on it. “Here’s the disc and there is a note that it includes the trial transcript. Most don’t. It’s your lucky day, Pop.”

I took the disc to a seating area where you can review court records on a computer and looked through them, carefully. I found the trial transcript and the testimony I wanted: “Examination of Joey Maxwell, Los Angeles County Superior Court, June 10, 1973,” his questioning by a Mr. Gibson of the Los Angeles County D.A.’s office.

Mr. Gibson: “How long had you known the deceased?”

Mr. Maxwell: “All of my life. We went through school together.”

Mr. Gibson: “Would you say that Daniel Darrow was your best friend?”

Mr. Maxwell: “I would.”

Mrs. Dallas: “Objection your honor; relevance.”

Court: “Mr. Gibson, I don’t see what relevance his friendship has. Motion by the defense, sustained.”

Mr. Gibson: “Thank you, your honor. Now, Mr. Maxwell. Did you and Mr. Darrow go to Marineland on February 2 of last year?”

Mr. Maxwell: “Yeah, sir.”

Mr. Gibson: “May I approach the witness, your honor?”

Court: “Yes.”

Mr. Gibson: “I am handing the witness a photograph marked prosecution exhibit No. 27. Mr. Maxwell, have you ever seen this picture before?”

Mr. Maxwell: “Yeah, Danny and me at Marineland. A man took it for me with my camera. The big whale sign’s over us.”

Mr. Gibson: “It shows you and the deceased at the entrance of Marineland, is that correct?”

Mr. Maxwell: “Yeah.”

Mr. Gibson: “Does the photo have a date on it?”

Mr. Maxwell: “2-2-72.”

I skimmed twenty more pages, scrolling the computer screen. Then I found what I wanted.

Mr. Gibson: “What happened when you got to the dolphin show amphitheater?”

Mr. Maxwell: “Danny and me was moving along and there was lots of people jammed up-like, going in. And we was all pushed together.”

Mr. Gibson: “Just to be clear, Mr. Maxwell, are you saying people were bunched together closely like you might be in a crowded elevator?”

Mr. Maxwell: “That’s a good way to say it.”

Mrs. Dallas: “Objection, your honor, the defense would like the witness to testify, not the prosecution.”

Court: “Mr. Gibson please restrict your leading.”

Mr. Gibson: “Yes, your honor. Mr. Maxwell, what happened next?”

Mr. Maxwell: “This girl started screaming.”

Mr. Gibson: “What was she screaming?”

Mr. Maxwell: “She was pointing at Danny and yelling he touched her.”

Mr. Gibson: “What exactly did she yell?”

Mr. Maxwell: (Long pause). “You grabbed my ass, you shit!”

Mr. Gibson: “Then what happened?”

Mr. Maxwell: “He came running at Danny and pushed him and . . .”

Mr. Gibson: “Let me stop you there. You say ‘He.’ Do you see this person in the courtroom?”

Mr. Maxwell: “Him.”

Mr. Gibson: “Your honor the record should reflect that the witness has identified the defendant as the person who pushed Danny.”

Court: “So it will, proceed.”

Mr. Gibson: “Did you hear the defendant, Mr. Drexler, say anything when you saw him push Danny.”

Mr. Maxwell: “Yeah.” (Pause.)

Mr. Gibson: “What did he say?”

Mr. Maxwell: (Pause). “You m...f... you touched my woman’s ass. You m... f...! Like that. He shouted it mad-like.”

Mr. Gibson: “Then what happened?”

Mr. Maxwell: “Danny fell backwards on the cement. And I pushed him.”

Mr. Gibson: “You pushed who, Danny?”

Mr. Maxwell: “No, I pushed that guy back from Danny. And Danny says, ‘Stay out of it, Joey. I’ll beat him by myself and he got up. And he could of, if he didn’t have a knife.”

Mrs. Dallas: “Objection. Your honor, I doubt whether the jury is getting a clear picture here of this witness’s testimony. I know I don’t know if the victim had a knife or who had a knife.”

Mr. Maxwell: “Your guy had the knife!”

Court: “Please, Mr. Maxwell. Speak only in answering a question. The jury will disregard that last statement. Mr. Gibson the court is going to rely on you to clear up any confusion. Please continue your examination.”

Mr. Gibson. “OK, Mr. Maxwell, you have testified that the defendant pushed the victim and Danny fell to the ground and then you pushed the defendant, correct?”

Mr. Maxwell: “Yeah, that’s how it all happened.”

Mr. Gibson: “You testified that Danny then told you to stay out of it, right?”

Mr. Maxwell: “Yeah.”

Mr. Gibson: “Then what happened.”

Mr. Maxwell: “Danny jumps up and slugs this guy in the face and he falls back against people. And Danny jumps on him and hit him in the head two, three times. Danny was a good fighter. Next thing I knows Danny is yelling that he has a knife and is cut. Danny turns ’round and looks at me and his white T-shirt is all bloody on his chest and he falls over on the ground. And this guy and his girl run away.”

Mr. Gibson: “Just so that we are clear, are you testifying that Danny said the defendant, here, Mr. Drexler, had a knife?”

Mr. Maxwell: “That is what he said and was stabbed.”

Mr. Gibson: “Your honor, this might be a good time for our afternoon break.”

I stopped reading the trial transcript. It was two-thirty in the afternoon and I had to get back to Palm Springs. Driving home I thought how wastefully tragic: a young man had been murdered for touching a girl’s tushie. I had two hours to concoct a cover story about why I had gone into Los Angeles.

Agnes already thought I had gone batty over this “Joey thing,” as she called it.
Later at home, I looked hard at the photo of Joey and Danny under the fluke of the Marineland whale, the photo that had fallen out of the scrapbook. Danny smiling broadly in his still-clean, white T-shirt, and Joey, the skinnier kid whose red, short-cropped hair clashed with the hippies of the seventies, both standing in the sunlight, warmed by it, neither knowing their fate hours ahead inside that celebrated park. And, I thought of the storm, and of Jonah.

Reach the author at

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Back In Saigon is my latest book, a novella of 35,000 words, and available at Amazon; later at Barnes & Noble and the Apple store, and other booksellers. The story was inspired by a journalist friend of mine who returned to Vietnam in seach of his birth mother. He had been airlifted out forty years ago as Saigon fell to the Vietcong. Readers might be interested to know that the battlefield scenes are from real firefights told to me four decades ago by American troops, returning from Vietnam. Their accounts have never been published before. Readers generally expect to find supernatural forces at work in my novels and this one shouldn't disappoint them.

Nota bene: Watch my booklist on Amazon (and on because from time to time I give my novels away for zip. Though I certainly don't mind pocketing a little cash for all this mind-wrenching work, what's most important is that the books get read by you.

In the days ahead check back here because I plan to write about the law and crime, and some fascinating cases you have never heard of before. Believe me, after listening to pompous judges, bloviating lawyers, good and bad cops and mindless criminals for more than forty years, there is plenty I want to say.

R.D. Byron-Smith