Trials and Tribulations

Saint Louis County Courthouse

In December of 2012 I served on a jury. The case was statutory rape. Other than the defendant and the victim, everyone else in the courtroom was white. The prosecution could not narrow down when this rape occurred any closer than the 5-10 years, between when the defendant first turned 18 and his niece, the victim, eventually turned 18. The definition of statutory rape. Fuzzy timeline and he said, she said case aside, his case boiled down to a confession. This confession had been videotaped. I’m sure that the prosecutor had intended that the jury only watch the last half-hour of this interrogation, but the defendant had hired one of those high-priced TV advertising lawyers and I’m sure that before we were seated this attorney had got the judge to rule that we had to watch the full four and a half hours. Enduring this interrogation, we came to reasonably doubt the state’s case. We unanimously acquitted. A year and a half later Ferguson exploded, exposing the racist corruption that was prevalent in Saint Louis County government. At the next election, I helped to vote out the old prosecutor and his staff.

This is a story that I have told before and is preamble here, because at the time, I was working with Chris. Chris and I were a bit of oil and water. He knew more about our assignment than I, but I was at least nominally in charge. At least my work retelling of my case got him to open up about his own life altering event.

In 1987 the worse mass murder that has happened in Saint Louis occurred on a Friday in June. A National grocery store on Natural Bridge had just closed for the night. The store was already locked, but the security guard unlocked the door to allow the two-man night cleaning crew to enter. They were not the normal cleaning crew, but heck it was Friday. These two men drew guns, overcame the guard and quickly ushered most of the staff into a side aisle, away from the windows, where they were forced to lie in a row, face down. These men then began to execution style kill the grocery store workers.

Five people were killed and two more wounded. At the time, Chris was a young stock boy and had been in the storeroom at the back when the gunshots began to ring out. Reacting, he and another guy in the backroom went right, climbed a ladder to the roof and were eventually able to get people on the street to call the police. A third guy went left and became one of the seven victims. The two perps were captured, convicted and are still serving time. Chris testified at their trial. The prosecutor told him that by testifying, he would never serve on a jury. 

Murder She Wrote

Stock Photo by JJ Jordan on Unsplash¹

In 2004, I was sitting next to John in our weekly staff meeting. I presented some of my work and he was rather complementary of it. He was a respected retiree who had come back to work as a consultant. The next day he was poisoned.

Even though he presented to the ER that night and claimed he had been poisoned and had purportedly implicated his girlfriend, Tamara—for more than sixteen months, the local Chesterfield police struggled to unravel the mystery surrounding his death. I think that the Keystone cops could have done a better job of detecting than these guys did.

I worked with John, but really only interacted with him in those staff meeting, which were real three-hour tours. I met Tamara only once at an office Christmas party. She was thin, blonde and a little wild. I later learned that she was also the owner-operator of Metro Pawn on the Rock Road. It was also alleged that her family was the same organized crime family that had been involved with a series of car bombs here in Saint Louis during the early eighties, but that’s only gossip.

John’s son kept pushing the police to do their job. I heard thirdhand that while at his father’s house, months after his death, a detective noticed a tall glass with dried residue in it. The detective asked John’s son, “Do you think that that was the glass that poisoned him?” Certainly not CSI—more Keystone. Eventually though, they put two-and-two together and issued a murder arrest warrant for her. She must have know that they were closing in, because when they went to her home to serve the warrant, they found her dead by her own hand.

Why did she do it? Police theorized that she killed him, because John wanted to breakup and was going cut her off financially. Arsenic was used as the poison, but instead of poisoning him gradually, the way it is usually done with this poison, she chose to do it all at once. Two more “health shakes” were later found in his fridge, in case the first one didn’t do the job. But why did she kill herself. Nothing up until then would have indicated that the police would have secured a conviction. They even opted to only charge her with murder in the second degree, because they couldn’t even convince themselves that she wanted to kill him and not just scare him, but how “scaring” John by nearly poisoning him would have had any desirable effect beats me. John’s son thought that she took her own life to protect her daughter, who was also living with John and could have had some involvement. I guess we’ll never know.

  1. This is a stock photo, using a model and has only visual relevance.

Bombs Away

Barge Traffic on the Mississippi River

Here in Saint Louis, Robert Wilson paid cash for his ticket and carried a trombone case onto his American airlines Boeing 727 flight to Tulsa. As the plane approached its destination, he showed a flight attendant the machine gun he was carrying. It was June 23, 1972, well before Lambert began using metal detectors. Wilson demanded half-a-million dollars and five parachutes. He was the ninth copycat of D.B. Cooper, who had bailed out of a 727 the year before, never to be seen again. Thieves liked this three-engine airliner because its rear staircase could be opened in flight for a bail-out.

This story occurred eight years before I moved to Saint Louis. I heard about it as an aside of another story that I was told. When I first moved to town, I worked at McDonnell Douglas in their flight simulation department. Because we routinely dealt with military pilots, kept on staff was own cadre of flyers. To stay current most of these men also flew for the Guard out of neighboring Lambert. On this fateful day one of these coworkers, Dave, was flying for the Guard.

He took off in his F-4 Phantom, heading for a practice range in Illinois. Crossing the Mississippi, he decided to make a practice bombing run on one of the river barges. While not permitted, this was apparently a common practice. He dove on the boat, but when he went to pull up, one of his external fuel tanks came loose and headed for the barge. The way I was told this story, the fuel tank struck the lead barge. This seems improbable, since it was still full of gas. Likewise the account of crewmembers diving off the barge and into the river, when Dave came around again to see what he had done. He knew he was in trouble, not only for doing the bombing run and for what had occurred, but also for not catching the faulty mounting of the fuel tank during his preflight check.

Tail between his legs, he turned back home. By then though Wilson and his hijacked jet had already landed there and was attracting a crowd. While Wilson dispatched a hostage to get his loot, Dave was directed to land at the far end of the runway and wait there. Negotiations with the hijacker dragged on for hours, all the while Dave was sitting out in the hot sun in his un-air-conditioned plane, on a late June, Saint Louis summer day. But wait there’s more. A David Hanley had been following the course of the high-jacking on TV. Angry at what he was seeing, after midnight, he crashed his Cadillac convertible through the airport fence and at 80 MPH smashed into Wilson’s jet, disabling it.

A second plane was eventually procured and Wilson finally took off. He jumped out over Indiana. In the jump, he lost the money and his gun, which were later recovered in a cornfield. Three days afterwards Wilson was captured, with $13 in his pocket. Hanley survived his car crash, but had no memory of it and suffered little if any legal repercussions. As for Dave, he too overcame his difficulties and eventually rose to become the squadron’s commander.

Das Boot Reboot

The 1981 war movie by this name once made quite the splash, with its gritty tale of forty men in a can sharing one toilet. Das Boot has recently enjoyed a reboot. A new TV series shares the movie’s name and the original book author too. This German-British project revels in the cramped claustrophobia of its predecessor, but also goes far beyond it too. In addition to the the standard undersea storyline of U-boats versus destroyers and depth-bombs versus torpedoes, there is also an on land one too. One for the men and one for the women. Here the story centers on a brother and a sister, both from Alsace, not truly French or trusted German.

I’ve already watched the first season on Hulu. A second season has already been produced and is now showing in the UK. It will eventually find its way here. I have always had a fascination with all things WW II. Combine that with an attraction for submarines. At Disneyland, my favorite ride was the Submarine Voyage, a real E-ticket ride. My dad once took me on a tour of a vintage US sub in San Francisco. My most vivid memory was of walking the gang plank from the quay to the sub. The plank was narrow and its rope railing was no comfort. I was terrified, but I made it onboard. This sub featured the twin comfort of two toilets. Heads up! Above, pictured in Chicago is the captured U-505.

Anyway, the plotting of this Das Boot reboot gets preposterous, but one can only tolerate so many depth charges, before you have to come up for air. The show’s initial sequence features the watery demise of one unfortunate U-boat. In truth, it was a fate that most U-boats received. The mortality rate within this service was astronomical. The Germans billed their submarine fleet as the wolves of the sea, but they were less like wolves than crocodiles. Lurking below, ready to catch the unwary straggler, but once revealed they became easy prey, like sitting ducks. 

There is another season of this show out there and it will likely make it here by next year. I’ll watch it when it arrives. I just hope that its writing is a little more believable than the last. Otherwise, it will be another exercise of Dive! Dive! Dive! to the bottom. Oh wait, they already did that in the first season, when the second sub was spared the fate of the first by a strategically placed undersea mount. Flush the ballast tanks, but not the toilet, please. It’s backed up.

Shine On

Moonshine

A hundred years ago, in 1920, Prohibition was passed and 87 years ago today, it was repealed. One of our greatest constitutional follies was reversed. So, raise a glass to progress! But the march for progress must keep moving. This week the US House approved the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, marking for the first time that this institution has voted to end the prohibition of marijuana. While this bill’s prospects in the Senate look dim right now, the upcoming races in Georgia could change that. Even if that is not to be, the House’s action marks an important milestone. Neither the passage or repeal of Prohibition occurred without setbacks and the same is to be expected with marijuana. Today, most states permit the medical use of marijuana and many allow its recreational use too. The tide is changing, slowly, but inextricably. Change will come. It is now only a matter of time.