One passenger train leaves Chicago’s Union Station at 12:35 p.m. and travels west at 85 miles per hour. Another passenger train leaves Chicago’s Union Station at 12:35 p.m., merges onto the same track, and travels at an identical speed two minutes behind the first. What happens when the lead train abruptly stops and the second doesn’t?
is the fifth largest city in Illinois, a giant and affluent Chicago suburb voted
five years ago as the second best place to live in the entire country. It’s home to well-performing schools, green space, and plenty of jobs. “It’s a suburb that does all the suburban things,” says
UIC urban planning professor Robert Bruegmann, “but slightly better.”
In the mid-1940s, Naperville was vastly different. Not entirely urban or rural, its 5,000 residents worked primarily on farms or at a factory run by the Kroehler Furniture Company
. There was a college on the edge of town, but no hospital. The city still hadn’t razed the Pre-Emption House
—the oldest continuously operating bar in the state and a vestige of Naperville's pioneer roots. And the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad
operated tracks that ran right along 4th Avenue.
On April 26, 1946, around noon, 150 people boarded Burlington’s Advance Flyer, a nine-car “fast train” heading from downtown Chicago to Omaha and Lincoln, Nebraska. Another 175 hopped on the Oakland-bound Exposition Flyer, advertised
as “The Scenic Way to California—Thru the Colorado Rockies and the Feather River Canyon by Daylight.” (The trip took two days, with stops in Denver and Salt Lake City.) At the helm of the second train was W.W. Blaine, a 68-year-old engineer who had worked 40 years at the railroad and had operated diesel locomotives since 1933, the first year they were put in service on his line. To be sure, Blaine was old for his job; the railroad’s standard retirement age was 70. But he had passed all of his signal tests and the Illinois Interstate Commerce Commission ranked Burlington first in safety every year between 1930 and 1944. The passengers on board expected a smooth, relaxing ride into the western plains.
Burlington operated three tracks just west of Chicago’s city limit; the two outside tracks were reserved for freight and commuter trains, while intercity liners used the center track. Since the pair of Flyers were scheduled to depart Chicago at the exact same time, the railroad decided to treat them as one train, letting the Advance Flyer speed along in the lead at a marginally faster pace. Everything went just as planned for about 25 minutes. And then everything went terribly awry
would call it a “caprice of fate” (April 26, 1946). Nobody ever figured out what actually happened. But something
—a small rock, perhaps, or a piece of metal—shot out from the Advance Flyer’s undercarriage, spooking the engineer enough to force an unscheduled stop near the Naperville station. Slowing down to check the running gear so quickly after taking off was an unusual move, and the crew employed every available safeguard to protect its clients, setting the emergency control system into operation and sending flagman James Tangey out the rear car to, in his words, “try to stop the train behind us.”
That proved impossible. Blaine and his Exposition Flyer blew through both a yellow caution and red stop signal, rounded a curve, and roared past Tagney. Blaine’s fireman, a frightened man named E.H. Crayton, saw the parked train in the distance and leapt from the speeding locomotive, only to hit the ground and die instantly upon contact. Blaine stayed inside and leaned on the brake for as long as he could. A mere 90 seconds after The Advanced Flyer rolled to a stop, The Exposition Flyer—chugging along at 45 miles per hour—barreled into its caboose, tore through its roof, and “plunge[d] down with terrific force upon the very floor and trucks of the car” (Tribune
). Blaine’s front wheels were sheared off by the impact. “I never heard anything like it before or since to compare it to,” Jim Dudley, then an eighth grader at a nearby school, told the Tribune
in a 1988 retrospective
. “It was like an explosion.”
Dust, smoke, and debris scattered across the nearby countryside. The smell of ashes hung in the air. “The scene of the disaster,” the Tribune
noted later that day, “was one of twisted and gnarled confusion, with huge luxury passenger coaches strewn across torn tracks like abandoned toy trains.” For a few seconds after the collision, the passengers on board made little noise. Then the shock wore off. “A moment of tragic silence was broken,” the AP wrote
, “by screams and cries for help from the dying and injured.” The rear of The Advanced Flyer absorbed the bulk of the damage—most of those sitting in the rear coach and diner car were killed straightaway. Those seated further up the train escaped the worst, but were rocked nonetheless. “Things happened so fast,” one passenger said, “that I don’t remember what happened to me. I was doubled up suddenly and my knees were pushed against my chest.”
Startled by the clamor, all 800 employees at the Kroehler Furniture factory ran out to help. So did 50 students studying at North Central College. A police officer nearby made a series of frantic phone calls, recruiting doctors, nurses, and ambulances from neighboring towns. Within a matter of minutes, a full-blown rescue crew was assembled. They worked feverishly, but the task of pulling out bodies from the wreckage proved difficult. To reach the injured and dead, the police were forced to burn through the train plates using acetylene torches; eight hours after the crash, the authorities still hadn’t cut through every upturned car.
Those that were fished out were carried into the Kroehler warehouse—set up as a temporary hospital—on mattresses, because Naperville didn’t even own stretchers at the time. Miraculously, Blaine survived, crawling out through his cab’s window before making his way to first aid, where he was treated for a skull fracture. Others weren’t so lucky. Delbert Boon, a sailor from Missouri, was rushed to a hospital in adjacent Aurora, where he sent a cryptic telegram to his parents: “Come and see me. Was in train accident.” He died 30 minutes later.
It took 27 hours to clear one of Burlington’s three tracks, and three days to remove the entirety of the rubble. Thousands of curious locals jammed Naperville’s highways and streets while crews worked to catch a glimpse of the disaster. In total, 47 people eventually lost their lives in the accident, while another 125 were injured. It was, and still is, one of the worst crashes in state history.
So what the hell happened? Burlington surveyed its automatic signal systems right away and found that their lights had indeed functioned properly. From his hospital bed, Blaine—charged with manslaughter by state’s attorney Lee Daniels* to ensure he appeared at an inquest—insisted he saw the yellow caution and applied his brakes at once, but couldn’t slow the train down in time because he was moving too fast and his train was too light. (The Exposition was pulling nine cars that day, instead of its usual haul of 12.)
His crew mates weren’t convinced. At a public hearing set up by Burlington officials (and assailed by Blaine’s lawyer) on April 28, a road foreman testified that he inspected the locomotive shortly after the wreck and found the brake valve in the “service” position, not the “emergency” position. The Exposition’s conductor went so far as to say he noticed “no application of brakes whatsoever.” Brakeman C.W. Norris agreed with the foreman, telling his bosses that “there was never any emergency application the day of the accident.”
To test this hypothesis, the ICC and Burlington ran a series of simulations on the Naperville track a week after the crash, using a diesel train that paralleled The Exposition in length and weight. Speeding along at 85 miles per hour, a different (and younger) engineer applied the brakes immediately when he saw the yellow light and was able to slow his train to a stop 934 feet
from the rear of the standing Advance Flyer. During the final test, in which he applied both service and emergency brakes when he saw the red light, he still nearly avoided contact, stopping with the engine and just one car past the collision point. The evidence did not reflect well on Blaine.
In the end, though, the embattled engineer was absolved of major blame by both the ICC and a DuPage County grand jury. In an October verdict, the latter declined to take action against the Burlington railroad or the crews of either train, instead charging everyone involved with nine “negligent acts,” ranging from improper scheduling to poor intercommunication between conductors. Rule changes followed: the ICC mandated in 1951 that trains were only permitted to exceed 79 miles per hour if automatic train stop equipment
was in place, and most rail agencies still don’t mix cars of different weights on the same train. Blaine retired shortly thereafter.
Cult street photographer Charles Cushman
was on hand to document the grisly scene. His photos, along with the rest of his work, are hosted online
by Indiana University. Also keep an eye out for Naperville resident Chuck Spinner’s upcoming book
, which will detail the stories of the victims.
would later serve as the Speaker of the House in Illinois.
It’s up to Thomas Perez to bring Trayvon Martin’s killer to justice.
Perez runs the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights division, which is leading an inquiry
(in concert with the FBI) into the tragic shooting of the black teen from Miami. If the state attorney's office in Florida declines to file charges
against the gun-wielding George Zimmerman—the beneficiary of questionable police work and broad firearm and self-defense
regulations—Perez and his colleagues in Washington could step in and file any number of charges, including police misconduct or even a hate crime.
It should come as a relief to Martin’s family that Perez is on the case; there are few lawyers in the nation better suited
to manage an investigation of this nature. Since taking over the politicized and demoralized
Civil Rights division in 2009, Perez has reinvigorated what Eric Holder once called the “the conscience of the Justice Department,” enforcing loads of civil rights laws intentionally ignored by the Bush administration. And as a young prosecutor working in the department he now leads, the Buffalo native racked up several high-profile convictions in cases targeting shady cops and white supremacists, including the arrest in 1994 of three Lubbock men
who attempted to launch a “race war” by luring African-American locals to their car and firing a shotgun at them from a short distance, killing one and injuring two others.
Martin’s murder isn’t the only racially-motivated shooting Perez is currently investigating, either. Less than 30 days ago, his staff issued a fresh series of indictments
in a notorious 13-year-old cold case, a double-murder described by a Las Vegas homicide detective at the time as "one of the more heinous crimes” his wicked city had ever experienced (Las Vegas Review-Journal
, January 11, 2001). It’s a heart-wrenching story about skinheads, anti-racist activism, and two charismatic young men taken well before their time. Tabling the obvious fact that the states’ suspects are presumed innocent until proven otherwise, let’s revisit this fascinating and newly-relevant massacre.
To understand the context in which the crime was committed, it helps to detour briefly into the history of skinheads
, a complex and misunderstood British subculture that arose in the late 1960s. A multiracial appendage of the mod scene, the original skinheads were not outwardly racist; in fact, they patterned their style off of Jamaican ska and reggae singers, which many had grown familiar with while working next to Caribbean immigrants on London’s docks. The look was distinctive: shaved heads, piercings, workers' boots (often Doc Martens), suspenders, tight jeans. Unwavering working-class pride, along with a modest disdain for “feminine” hippies, was the only major requirement for joining in.
That all changed in the mid-1970s, when England’s economy stumbled at the same time as immigration from its former colonies intensified. The meager job prospects of young white bulldogs proved a handy recruiting tool for white supremacists, who added a swastika armband to the unofficial skinhead uniform and set about expanding their ranks. "They take our jobs and our homes," one representative neo-Nazi told People
in 1981. "If they went back where they came from, look at the opportunities there would be for us."
Suddenly, skinheads were divided into rival camps — anti-racist and racist, SHARPs
and “boneheads.” When the movement migrated to the United States 30 years ago, the split remained intact. To be sure, only a tiny portion of the population identified with either strand; by 1998, an expert with the Southern Poverty Law Center pegged the total number of racist skinheads in the States at 4,000. (Don Terry, reporting
for the New York Times
in 1998, joked that “there are probably more Elvis impersonators [in Las Vegas] than skinheads.”*) Even fewer took up the anti-racist mantle. Yet the animosity between the two groups was real, and violence —vandalism, bullying, street fights—erupted with troubling frequency. In Las Vegas, young Nazis often congregated outside of Durango High School, where they reportedly beat black and Mexican classmates with bats and screamed "race traitor" at white pupils who didn’t share a similar sensibility about fashion or politics.
In 1998, the city’s most popular skinheads were Daniel Shersty and Lin Newborn, best friends and co-founders of the Las Vegas chapter of Anti-Racist Action
. Neither had a bigoted bone in his body. Shersty was an “All-American” boy; before enlisting in the Air Force to earn money for college, the handsome Floridian played trumpet in the school band and started on the varsity lacrosse team. His true passion, though, was acting, and he broadcast his love of the theater by tattooing on his left shoulder the masks of comedy and tragedy, one black and the other white. Newborn, called “Spit” by just about everyone, was a few years older than Daniel and the father of a two-year-old son. He was also one of the only black skinheads in the country, a man steeped in the history of the movement’s inclusive origins. An employee at a body-piercing shop, he maintained a reputation as a responsible and thoughtful guy. One police officer who patrolled the neighborhood where Newborn worked called Spit “a super-nice kid,'' who was “looked up to by the kids in the area.” That included Shersty, who met Newborn after arriving for duty at the nearby Nellis Air Force Base.
The twosome bonded immediately over music and their attraction to pretty girls with nose rings, and they organized the nascent ARA chapter by appealing to working-class kids in search of a like-minded community of peers. “We pay our bills, and we don't do drugs. We drink, but we don't drink and drive,” one member told the Review-Journal
on July 7, 1998. “We look out for each other." An old friend of Shersty told the Orlando Weekly’s Lynda Edwards
that his activism “filled an intellectual thirst in him, and much more.” It also left the pair vulnerable to abuse. In 1996, Newborn’s house was shot at by unknown assailants after he delivered a speech at a gathering of SHARPs. In June 1998, Shersty’s car windows were smashed and a stack of ARA brochures left inside were “methodically torn to confetti” (Orlando Weekly
). Both received harassing telephone calls. The message was clear: they were being watched.
Neither were too concerned with their personal safety when two blond women walked into Newborn’s parlor on July 3, 1998 and asked for navel piercings. Shersty was coincidentally visiting his friend that day, and the foursome joked and flirted while Newborn completed his work. The ladies, as it turned out, were on their way to a Fourth of July party in the desert and wanted to see if their new friends would accompany them later that night. Newborn and Shersty enthusiastically agreed. Because the route to the gathering was confusing, one of the girls told Newborn to meet them at a highway exit just outside of Las Vegas so they could follow them for the rest of the drive. Mark Isquith, the parlor’s owner, watched as the boys celebrated their good fortune by high-fiving on the sidewalk outside of his shop. A store receipt shows that they purchased six-packs of Newcastle and Beck's shortly after 12:30 a.m. before pulling onto Centennial Parkway
Prepped to party, they drove right into an ambush. Prosecutors and police agreed that Newborn was the primary target. Footprints suggested the black skinhead was grabbed first and dragged from the car. Shersty likely dove after the attacker in an effort to free his friend. He was shot dead on the spot with a shotgun. One of the assailants then lugged Newborn 150 yards away and executed him, too. Neither victim was robbed, nor did either carry a criminal record. Newborn was 24, Shersty was 20.
Three men driving ATVs in the desert the next morning stumbled upon a curious sight. Not only did they find Shersty’s body lying next to a Chevy Cavalier, but they saw two men and a woman emerge from a nearby patch of land—where Newborn’s body was ultimately discovered—and drive away quickly. The ATVers jotted down the license plate of the fleeing car, which police traced back to the parents of Melissa Hack, a girl who happened to be dating John Butler, the leader of a small, local neo-Nazi group called the Independent Nazi Skins. Ten days later, police spotted Butler, carrying a handgun, and took him into custody.
During Butler’s trial, which took 18 months to get underway, his attorneys tried to convince the jury that their client was not present at the time of the murder and only offered to help friends cover up the killing hours after it occurred. "He is guilty of being stupid," his lawyer said during the opening statement, according to the Review-Journal
(December 8, 2000). "But he is not guilty of murder." Joseph Justin, the other man spotted at the crime scene, provided a much different account during his testimony. He contended that on their way to collect stray evidence early that morning, Butler spoke freely of his involvement in the slayings, identifying Melissa’s brother Ross Hack as the mystery co-conspirator. It didn’t help Butler’s case when prosecutors pointed out that Nazi websites commonly promoted Independence Day as an ideal time to kill “race traitors.” After more than three days of deliberation, the jury sentenced the skinhead to two counts of murder. He was initially sent to death row, but his sentence was later reduced to life-without-parole thanks to a technicality during the penalty phase of the trial.
Though pleased with the outcome, it always irked local authorities that Butler was the only person for which there was sufficient evidence to prosecute. It seemed obvious to them that Butler had help pulling off the complex plot. "We have one bird in hand and are watching several in the bushes,” U.S. District Attorney Christopher Laurent told the Orlando Weekly
at the time. “We're collecting the evidence. They're gonna fall."
It took 13 years, but Perez’ Justice Department is finally getting closer
. On February 29, the feds charged both Hacks, as well as a man named Leland Jones, with murder and firearms offenses. According to a statement, “prosecutors expect to introduce evidence at trial that all three defendants were associated with racist neo-Nazi skinhead groups at the time of the slayings.” The Hacks are eligible for the death penalty, so the trial should garner significant headlines. Like the investigation into Martin’s killing, I’ll be keeping a close eye on the proceedings.
*This is certainly true; between 1995 and 1999, the city’s gang unit documented just 132 racist skinheads, according to the Review-Journal.
In 1895, the famed architect Jarvis Hunt
and two fellow cycling enthusiasts opened the Chicago Saddle and Cycle Club.
The men “felt the necessity,” as the Chicago Tribune
would later report (May 14, 1899), “of having some place where they and their friends might be able to rest after a spin without being obliged to patronize the public gardens.” They choose for their clubhouse a small patch of beachfront land near Foster Avenue on the city’s North Side, where it was “no libel to call a club there built on the lake a country club” (June 3, 1945). Four years after opening for business, Hunt designed a beautiful veranda-festooned building, which overlooked a pool, horse stables, a boat house, and a three-hole golf course. The city’s financiers and socialites who could afford memberships joined the exclusive club in droves; like many of the city’s turn-of-the-century athletic associations
, it provided the 1 percent with a relaxed atmosphere for networking and seclusion from the rapidly developing city. (“Tall skyscrapers are so near,” the Tribune
reporter noted in 1945, “that in the future of helicopters, it could probably not even be a landing field.”)
Louis Straub was the Saddle Club’s nighttime bartender. For 12 years, beginning in 1923, Straub would come to work after collecting delinquent bills for Commonwealth Edison during the day and sling drinks to Chicago’s rich and famous. And in the early morning hours of February 3, 1935, having closed up the Saddle Club after another night of revelry, Straub was shot seven times with a .38 caliber pistol and left for dead “crumbled in a basement closet” (UP). He was 46 years old.
Straub’s slaying, “as baffling as a modern detective thriller” (AP, February 3), was never solved. Having read through the Tribune
archives, which included several lengthy front-page stories detailing the crime and subsequent investigation*, here’s what I can piece together about the night in question.
It began routinely enough. Straub left his home, at 901 W. Argyle, at roughly 6:30 p.m. He carried in his wallet $54 dollars. His 34-year-old wife Helen, a former showgirl, went to play bridge at a friend’s house. The Saddle Club’s manager, who happened to be Straub’s brother, left the premises after the departure of Luke Williams, a former college tennis star, around 9 p.m. The other employees followed, entrusting Straub to serve the only remaining party, made up of six Gold Coast residents “well known in the younger social set.” During the course of his shift, Helen called Louis three times to find out when he might finish and if he would like a ride home, a favor she offered two or three times per week. “The last time I called him,” she told police, “he said he would be ready in a few minutes as a party of young people were just leaving.”
After playing bridge and consuming somewhere between three and six bottles of beer, Helen Straub left her card game at 1:30 a.m. and dropped off two friends at their homes. (Ellen Billie Edlin, one of those two women, told police she got home around 2 a.m.) Next, Helen swung by her own apartment to pick up her “white spitz dog” and drove to the club, which was quiet and dark when she arrived. Worried that Louis’ high blood pressure might have caused him trouble, she roused the night watchman on duty, Gus Schwartz, and began searching the campus, a spot “well isolated from the eyes of the curious” by “tall trees, dense shrubbery, and a high wire fence.” At Straub’s suggestion, the pair eventually opened a first-floor door on the north end of the building, one that Schwartz was confident had been locked on his last inspection three hours prior. It wasn’t. At the end of a 25-foot hallway was a lavatory, where Helen discovered her husband's “bullet-torn body” (AP). Said Schwartz: “I felt for Straub’s pulse, but could detect none. Mrs. Straub did not touch the body. She merely looked in the doorway. Then I took her outside.” The watchman called Straub’s brother and then a doctor, who pronounced the bartender dead at the scene. At 3:15 a.m., the quartet finally alerted the police, who held Straub and Edlin in custody as material witnesses.
The cops came to several firm conclusions within the first 24 hours of their investigation. Given his attire, Straub was waiting outside (and probably smoking a cigar) as the assailant approached. Somehow, he was coaxed back into the building’s basement, where he was “sprayed with a withering fire” (February 4). Because of club rules, Straub would not have let a man into the building that late at night, particularly one he didn’t know. And it wasn’t a botched robbery; though his wallet was emptied, the club’s safe and Straub’s watch were not touched. More likely, the murder was committed by a woman who was familiar with the interior of the club and thus knew Straub personally. In other words, it was a crime of passion, or perhaps vengeance.
Helen Straub proclaimed deep love for her slain beau. “Louis was the best husband in the world,” she told police on February 5, as reported by the Atlanta Constitution
. “I knew of no other women in his life. We were very happy.” But detectives unearthed several “clews”** that complicated the picture of their relationship. For starters, Schwartz testified that Straub frequently entertained ladies at the bar “during the midnight hours.” Police corroborated this fact, telling reporters on February 6 that “it was easy to discern that as a husband he may have left something to be desired.” Helen Straub, it seems, found solace among her female friends, especially Mrs. Edlin, to whom she had given a $150 watch for Christmas two months earlier. “It had been no secret among this group [of bridge players],” the state’s attorney’s office learned, “that Straub and his wife had been on the verge of a break since last summer over Mrs. Straub’s affection for Mrs. Edlin.” The Tribune
added its (quaint and homophobic) two cents, writing that “this strange tangle of lives and loves … probably deserves the attention of a neurologist as well as a policeman.” Curiously, the Straubs also lived in a lavish apartment that no bartender could afford even on income from two jobs. And the pair had taken out a $10,000 insurance policy on Louis’ life that contained an indemnity clause doubling Helen’s payout in case of violent death. Obviously, seven slugs to the chest qualified.
The authorities thought, for a fleeting moment, that they had cracked the case wide open on February 7, when a taxi driver named Kenneth Colling came forward and admitted that he picked up a woman closely resembling Edlin and drove her to the Saddle Club about the time of the murder. As Colling described the sequence, he waited outside for 15 minutes as the meter ran before his fare burst out of the building, sprinted into his cab, ordered him to “get the hell out of here,” and asked to be dropped off at a bar somewhere along Argyle Street. He did what he was told. Witnesses at the watering hole Colling chose remember seeing someone purchase a pint of whisky before quickly exiting. Edlin, not-so-coincidentally, went missing the day after she was released from custody. Upon searching her apartment, investigators stumbled upon a dresser drawer that contained “a pair of women’s suede gloves, stained with some dark liquid.” This was suspicious, to say the least. Yet that promising lead, teased out before DNA testing
was available, hit a dead end: when pressed, employees of the liquor store expressed confidence that Edlin was not
the woman who bought their booze, and she was dismissed as a possible suspect.
Stray clues emerged over the next week. The most intriguing was a lidless brown casserole dish, filled with turkey and spaghetti, that was found in the Straubs’ apartment. The club’s chef said he had prepared the concoction so Louis could enjoy a late-night meal, but the coworker could not explain how the dish got back to Louis’ house while the bartender was still on duty. (This fascinated the city’s crime reporters, who peppered their copy with questions about the mysterious casserole, even after one of the partygoers admitted “he could not be positive that the bartender was in the club all of the time during the preceding five hours.”) During a second round of questioning, Helen Straub also divulged that she had bought a .38 caliber pistol from her father several months prior to the murder and sold it for profit to Peter Breckie, a 51-year-old electrician with whom she had carried on a decade-long extramarital relationship. She further contended that Breckie “once threatened to kill Louis so that he and I could be together.” Her suitor admitted “improprieties” but firmly denied that he had purchased any weapon, that he had it in for Louis Straub, or that he was anywhere near the Saddle Club on February 3. Brickie’s wife substantiated his alibi.
The state’s attorney didn’t know where else to look. The last Tribune
story filed about the high-profile saga, datelined February 18, described how “police met blank walls at every turn in the investigation of the mysterious murder.” They couldn’t figure out who hopped into Colling’s cab, what substance was splattered on Edlin’s glove, why Straub might have allowed a woman to enter the building late at night, or how the victim maintained such an expensive home in the first place. And just like that, two weeks after the grisly crime was perpetrated, the Saddle and Cycle Club murder went cold.
There is a brief coda to the story. In September of 1936, Helen Straub and Louis’ brother Ernest entered into a civil proceeding to determine who should receive the $20,410 life insurance payout for Louis’ violent death. Attorneys representing the bartenders’ sibling set out to prove that Helen herself was the killer, calling 50 witnesses to testify. They included a neighbor who remembered seeing Helen cut Louis with a butcher knife and strike him in the head with a vase at different points in their marriage as well as a night clerk at the hotel Louis lived in as a bachelor, who said Straub told him he had survived another
late-night shooting attempt at the Saddle and Cycle Club sometime in 1926. Helen even took the stand; 20 pounds heavier than when Louis died, a court reporter described her as “nervous,” adding that she “became more petulant during cross examination.” Still, in a lengthy ruling, the presiding judge freed the widow of any blame and awarded her the cash. Then, three years later, taxi driver Kenneth Colling was arrested as a co-conspirator in a robbery, having arranged the hold-up of an auditor for the Sievert Electric Company. His connection to the Straub case was never fully explored, which to these untrained eyes seems like a giant missed opportunity.
The Saddle and Cycle Club, 77 years after its veteran bartender was shot, continues to operate along Lake Michigan. In 1996, the Tribune called it
“the city's last true upscale country club.” If you’ve got the money, join at your own risk.
*Every citation in this piece comes from the Chicago Tribune
, between February 3 and February 18, unless otherwise noted.
**How the Tribune spelled “clues,” hilariously, in the mid-1930s.
It sounds like a pitch for a big-budget screenplay: over four tense days, a series of fires rip through chic West Hollywood, engulfing a random assortment of vehicles and apartment complexes, forcing frantic law enforcement officials to hunt for the angry young pyromaniac responsible. For L.A. residents this New Year’s, that cinematic scenario was all too real. On Monday morning, police apprehended
suspected arsonist Harry Burkhart, a 24-year-old German national accused of setting 52 separate fires and destroying $3 million in property during the holiday weekend. Two weeks before his arrest, Burkhart allegedly uncorked
an anti-American tirade in an L.A. County immigration court following deportation hearings for his mother. Her forced relocation, it appears, set the man off.
A desire for retribution (in some broad form) often compels potential pyros to reach for flammable objects. In the mid-1990s, a team of psychiatrists in England surveyed
153 adult arsonists, most of them young, white, and male, a segment of the Western population generally associated
with that type of crime. According to the research, one-third of the criminals described “revenge” as their primary motivation, the most common inducement mentioned. Burkhart and his mother also battle severe mental illnesses
, which is the central attribute police look for when tracking arsonists. Indeed, nearly every person the English doctors evaluated suffered from at least one mental disorder, including half who were afflicted with personality disorders.
Such was the case with Paul Kenneth Keller
, one of the most famous and destructive serial arsonists in American history. Born in 1966 and raised in the Pacific Northwest, Keller lived, by all outside accounts, a stable middle-class life. By the time he turned 27, he’d secured a well-paying job selling advertisement space door-to-door, sang gospel music in his church choir, and was described by neighbors in one newspaper report as “lanky, enthusiastic, [and] well-groomed.” But Keller also endured concomitant brain damage as an infant, the result of his umbilical cord detaching prematurely during childbirth, and that damage manifested itself in the form of hyperactivity. When his personal life took a brief nosedive in the early 1990s -- Keller and his wife divorced, then he declared personal bankruptcy -- he couldn’t deal with the stress adequately. Self-esteem shattered, he started boozing and using drugs. His defense attorney at the time described
his client as having “disintegrated.” And then he turned to his matchbook.
Keller had always been fascinated by fires and the men and women who put them out for a living. “Though he was not a firefighter, he had intimate knowledge of every fire department in the state,” Snohomish County Fire Chief Bob Merritt told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer
on February 15, 1993. “He knew the equipment, every radio frequency, how we responded, what people were on shift and the knowledge of what would make a spectacular fire.” Beginning on August 6, 1992, he put that amateur expertise to use, setting dozens of individual fires during a five-month stretch. In line with most pathological arsonists
(PDF), Keller started by igniting unoccupied buildings and homes under construction, usually burning whatever flammable materials he could find at the site. Dawn, after the bars had closed, was his preferred
time to attack. Sometimes he’d even play games with himself, like setting a building ablaze and then timing how long it would take for the fire department to arrive. “He'd go right in the middle of two fire districts and see who got there first,'' a clinical psychologist who studied arsonists told
the New York Times
in 2002, ''He knew all about engines and water capacity.''
Over time, the intensity of Keller’s crimes increased. Several of the buildings he lit up contained families with small children. He torched his own church, just months after designing a pro-bono advertising brochure for the congregation. And on Sept. 22, 1992, he cracked open a window
screen at a retirement home in north Seattle, held a lighter to the empty bed of an 82-year-old resident, and watched as the building crumbled to the ground, killing three elderly denizens who had been inside. His rampage eventually caused more than $25 million in property damage and sent the Seattle region into existential panic.
Catching Keller was no easy task. In fact, it took what one reporter for the Post-Intelligencer
(May 27, 1993) called “an international model of sleuthing, inventiveness and cooperation.” Over 130 members from federal, state, county, and city fire and law-enforcement agencies joined forces under the moniker of the Sno-King Response Team and slowly built a profile of the target, talking with hundreds of witnesses and victims and conducting laborious research into canceled checks, cell phone records, and fingerprints. When the coalition felt confident in its legwork, they went public with their portrait. Keller’s father and two other relatives, upon learning that the suspected terrorist was often well-dressed and had a fixation with firefighting, immediately contacted the authorities. A fleet of cops stormed into Keller’s apartment shortly thereafter and took the troubled ad-man into custody, thus ending the Queen City nightmare.
Although Keller’s dad blew the whistle on Paul, he worked vigorously to minimize his son's sentence, organizing
a letter writing campaign with family and friends to “portray Paul Keller in a sympathetic light.” It wasn’t successful; the arsonist earned a 75-year prison stay after pleading guilty to setting 32 fires and admitting he set 44 more, then was sentenced
to an additional
99 years (the maximum allowed under state sentencing guidelines) for his role in the retirement home disaster. His father, meanwhile, received a $25,000 reward for delivering information to the Sno-King Response Team, which he subsequently donated to social-service agencies and to churches burned by Keller's fires.
For more on this story, you might want to track down the 1995 Lifetime Original movie “Not Our Son.” I’ve never seen it, but it stars Neil Patrick Harris
, so it’s probably tolerable. Or at the very least, unintentionally funny.
Ed. note: I'm tied up this week, so Jonathan Doster -- clean air advocate, grad student, purveyor of On the Records -- chipped in with a guest post about crime laws. Enjoy! And be sure to subscribe to his OtR twitter feed for fun articles and jams.
Starting in the 1990s, sex offenders have been targeted by some of the more boneheaded crime laws the country has ever produced. Take the combination of registration and notification laws. The former requires convicted sex offenders to provide valid contact information to law enforcement authorities, and the latter forces corrections officials to post information on sex offenders publicly. The policies seem reasonable enough on their face, but a new study
by University of Michigan's J.J. Prescott and Columbia University’s Jonah Rockoff found that notification might actually increase
recidivism rates by imposing “social and financial costs on registered sex offenders” and making “non-criminal activity relatively less attractive." Like a scarlet letter, publishing details of past behavior can complicate the process of finding work and reintegrating into community life for those who have already served their sentence.
Inconsistencies in registration and notification programs haven't stopped punitive legislators and policymakers from passing further, unproven regulations of sex offenders, either. Civil commitment is another striking example. Similar to the “sex psychopath” laws
of yesteryear, these statutes force the state to retain custody of an individual found by a judge or jury to be a “sexually dangerous person.”* We've witnessed a staggering growth in the use of these draconian laws; according to U.S. Justice Department statistics, 20 states currently employ civil confinement, involving near 4,000 rapists, pedophiles, and other sex offenders nationwide. Yet comprehensive data documenting their effectiveness has never been produced. Indeed, it's not even clear that courts are capable of determining who among us is "sexually dangerous."
That very question has confounded criminal justice experts for decades. Our earliest sexual psychopath policies
(PDF) were crafted with four basic assumptions in mind: sexual psychopaths are distinguishable from generic sex offenders; individuals commit sexual offenses because of a mental disease; mental diseases are treatable and curable; and mental health professionals can successfully predict which sex offenders are likely to reoffend in the future. Critics, however, said the labeling of offenders as sexual psychopaths lacked scientific merit and the prediction of future offending was suspect. Law professor Deborah Denno points out that “dangerous offender” is not a psychiatric diagnosis at all but a legal term, and is thus “overinclusive, misleading, and confusing.”
Recently, courts have started to use more advanced tools for assessing the dangerousness of individual offenders. In Washington State, the End of Sentence Review Committee, which makes recommendations regarding sex and kidnapping offenders prior to their release from the Department of Corrections and Department of Social and Health Services, requires a forensic psychological evaluation to conclude whether those offenders who appear to meet the definition of a sexually violent predator do in fact warrant civil commitment. According to their state statute, the evaluation is completed by a member of the Joint Forensic Unit (JFU), a pre-selected group of expert forensic psychologists who specialize in sexually violent predator and sex offense risk evaluations. If a JFU evaluator decides that an offender qualifies, he is referred to the appropriate prosecutor’s office for civil commitment consideration. Then, civil commitment referrals are reviewed and processed by the King County Prosecutor’s Office Sexually Violent Predator Unit or the Washington State Office of the Attorney General SVP Unit.
This particular system provides several levels of bureaucratic accountability, limiting the likelihood of subjectivity in the sentencing process. Still, members have questioned how lawmakers defined "mental abnormality" in the text of the law. This problem is not new; even in 1950, E.H. Sutherland argued the concept of the "sexual psychopath" was so vague that it could not be used for “judicial and administrative purposes without the danger that the law may injure the society more than do the sex crimes which it is designed to correct.”Actuarial formulas
-- akin to the tables used for life insurance -- play another central role in deciding who is menacing enough to be committed. By looking at factors such as the number of prior sex offenses and the sex of the victims, judges will calculate someone’s risk of offending again. Men with male victims are graded as a higher risk, for example, because statistics show they are more likely to repeat their offenses.
Actuarial advocates profess that their formulas outperform clinical judgments when utilized at a civil commitment hearing. Although actuarial data can be used to identify a group of persons to be considered for possible civil commitment, it cannot predict accurately the likelihood of future acts of sexual violence for any specific offender within such a group. And by introducing actuarial data at the commitment hearing itself, courts run the risk of committing offenders inappropriately
. As Eric Janus puts it, “the danger is that these numbers will blind people.”
Before states build more $388 million facilities
to house former sex offenders, it might behoove policy makers to figure out whether or not it’s even possible to identify future transgressors.
*Offenders are involuntarily and indefinitely committed to a secure rehabilitation facility after his or her prison sentence is complete.
In my latest effort
to complicate Robert Putnam’s theory about America’s social capital crisis, a few friends and I are trying to organize a monthly poker game here in Chicago. Though it’s been a while since I played regularly, I’m excited to sidle up to the table. The odds of taking home a big pot aren’t fantastic, but neither are the chances that my fantasy football
team will break .500 this season. And a big hand could give this freelancer some modest financial flexibility.
If we lived in the Old West and frequented establishments like Al Swearengen’s Gem Theater
, our game of choice wouldn’t be Texas Hold-Em or Seven-card Stud. Instead, we’d play faro
, a French creation that found fans in New Orleans and was eventually championed by riverboat gamblers on the Mississippi and new inhabitants of the American frontier. Lost to history now, faro was considered our national card game in the late 19th century, occupying what two historians once called
“the summit of professional gambling.” Its appeal was obvious; faro is fast, simple to learn, and can be played by as many card sharks as can squeeze into a gambling hall.
Here’s how it works. Images of one full suit -- Ace through King -- are painted on a felt table, otherwise known as the Faro Bank. Similar to roulette, players place bets on any of the 13 cards available, trying to predict which cards will appear in a given round. After burning the lead card, the dealer flips over the second card in his deck, known as the “banker’s card,” and places it on the right side of the table. Next, he flips over the third card in the deck and tosses it to the left. This is the “player's card.” If the face value of the banker’s card matches the card a gambler bet on, he forfeits his wager to the house. If the player’s card matches it, he wins even money. And if the banker’s card and player’s card are equal, the house wins half the chips that are placed on that corresponding value. That’s essentially the entire game
Aside from the splits, a faro banker has no consistent advantage over the players he lures to his table. Honest faro, in other words, makes virtually no money for the house in the long run. To compensate, Western casino owners and their dealers employed any number of tricks to swindle eager customers. Crooked dealing boxes were common, as were specially-designed cards. John R. Sanders described some of these inventions in his 1996 piece
for Wild West
:“Sanded” cards, roughened on one side, would cling together, and were used with “two-card” boxes that allowed the dealer to slide out more than one card at a time. “Strippers” were narrower on one end, or had curved sides, so a dealer could manipulate them during the shuffle to 'put up' splits. Since splits occurred naturally only about three times in two deals, there was an obvious house advantage in increasing the number dealt. [...]Crooked games were called brace games, defined by Indiana gambler Mason Long as those “in which a man has no chance of winning unless the dealer breaks his finger, and that he never does.” Brace houses sprang up nationwide, where “cappers” posed as players and “steerers” lured in unwary “gulls.” Such organized and widespread cheating led reformed gambler Jonathan Green to write in 1853, “A man would act more rationally and correctly to burn his money than to bet it on faro.”
By the time Nevada legalized gambling
in 1931, faro had lost much of its popularity, tainted by rampant cheating and eclipsed by table games (craps, roulette) that offered both larger payouts and better house odds. In 2000, one former dealer tried to launch a revival
in Reno, but it didn’t take hold. The best faro enthusiasts can do now is play the game online
And who knows? Now that Congress is cracking down
on poker websites, an Internet comeback may just be in the cards.
In Mentor, Minnesota, a town from which a portion of my family hails
, there stands a white cottage. It’s tucked away on the tree-lined shores of Maple Lake
, connected to the highway that runs through town by just a slim, winding road. And for years, it housed the area’s most unlikely and infamous resident, Texas-bred Bascom Giles
From 1938 through the mid-1950s, Giles was elected eight times to lead the Texas General Land Office, a powerful agency with the sole responsibility
of managing the public domain. For most of his tenure, the entrepreneurial Democrat and Grand Master
mason served with distinction. Texans were not surprised, then, when Giles wrote and lobbied for an amendment to the state constitution that promised to authorize $100 million in public bonds ($800 million today) to buy land that would be resold to returning war veterans at low interest rates (3 percent) and with a marginal down payment (5 percent). The plan seemed both patriotic and beneficial to the state’s growing economy, and voters approved the measure in 1946 by a wide margin.
Their trust in Giles and his colleagues in Austin was misguided. The big pot of money set aside for the GI program attracted the attention of grafters, who in turn convinced officials inside Gov. Allan Shivers’ administration that there was cash to be made off hoopleheads returning from war. Some despicable predatory behavior ensued
Soon, land promoters and dishonest public servants were waxing fat at the expense of the veterans and the taxpayers, with an ingenious racket. The racketeers 1) got options on land at market prices, 2) duped veterans into signing the necessary papers, 3) with the aid of crooked officials, got the land appraised at several times its actual worth, 4) put on pressure to get state loans on it, in the names of the bamboozled veterans, and 5) pocketed the profits made in the jacked-up prices for the land.The Veterans Land Board, composed of Giles, Governor Allan Shivers and Attorney General John Ben Shepperd, eased the way by hastening its approval of the hot transactions, often acted so expeditiously that the promoters were able to pick up the options with the state's money. The fact that Shivers and Shepperd rarely attended board meetings undoubtedly helped Giles work out his plan. Usually the ex-servicemen had no idea what they were signing. Many thought the papers were some sort of application for a cash bonus.
An estimated $10 million in state money was siphoned off to thieves before a cub reporter named Ken Towery, working on his first real story for the tiny Cuero Record
, unraveled the entire scheme. Towery received a tip that several prominent businessmen in his county were entertaining black and Mexican laborers at a private bottle club, a curious occurrence in the segregated south. “Down in this country,” he later told Time
, “white people just don't set up big parties for colored field hands.” The reporter subsequently interviewed dozens of vets and figured out that land owners were rounding up former troops, some of them functionally illiterate, and tricking them into “applying” for land grants without their knowledge. Towery published his explosive findings on November 14, 1954, which set off an intensive statewide probe the following year, resulting in 20 indictments in nine different counties. The “Veterans Land Board scandal” rocked the state; Giles was convicted on charges of bribery, theft, and conspiracy and served three years in Texas lock-up, the highest-ranking pol to go down in the case. His boss, weakened by the scandal, did not seek a fourth term in 1956.
It was after his release that Giles moved up north, presumably for a fresh start in a town that knew little about his Lone Star improprieties. He never served in public office again and was eventually killed in an auto accident in Florida. Towery came away from the affair with a Pulitzer Prize for local affairs reporting. Not bad for your first journalism assignment.
There’s more on the scandal here
. And here’s a recent (infuriating) example
of predatory lenders taking advantage of American service members and their families, shenanigans that Holly Petraeus will try to prevent
if and when the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau ever gets off the ground.
Do yourself a favor and leaf through rockstar neurologist
David Eagleman’s fascinating cover story
in The Atlantic
this month. The premise of the piece is fairly straightforward: while our criminal justice system presupposes that all humans are equally capable of using reason
to decide whether or not to commit a crime (and therefore equal before the law), advances in science are teaching us that factors both genetic and social can warp the neural networks in the brain that control impulses
, make decisions, and comprehend consequences. There is no “neural equality,” as Eagleman puts it, but we still treat criminals of every stripe as if their brains are identical, missing the opportunity to hand down customized punishments and rehabilitation strategies that take into account the differences in how each criminal mind (literally) operates.
One of the more extreme examples Eagleman uses to illustrate the interplay between neural activity and villainous intent is the case of Kenneth Parks. In 1987, this young Ontario resident and new father lost a considerable sum of cash gambling at the race track, forcing him to embezzle money from his employer and crack open his family’s savings account without his wife’s knowledge. Unfortunately for Parks, his boss caught wind of the scheme and fired him.* With few options left, he and his wife subsequently put their house up for sale, a decision that surely would have saddened and embarrassed Parks’ in-laws, with whom the couple was close.
That’s when tragedy struck. One May evening, in what seemed like a desperate attempt to steal money or keep hidden his humiliating financial secrets, Parks drove
14 miles to the in-laws’ townhouse, parked his car in a basement garage, entered their house with a key they'd given him, and using a tire iron he brought with and a knife he stole from their kitchen, attacked the couple in their bedroom, killing his mother-in-law and choking his father-in-law nearly to death. Drenched in blood, he then hopped back into his car and drove to a nearby police station to confess.
An open and shut murder case, right? Not quite. Parks and his family had a long history of sleep disorders, and the night before his fateful drive, he had slept poorly. The following morning, Parks also received a small blow to his right temple during a friendly rugby match. Katherine Ramsland offers more context
in her summary of the court proceedings: The experts described Parks's actions as the result of many circumstances converging: he had plans to fix his in-laws' furnace, he was used to the route he would take to get to their house, and he was restless from stress and anxious about his upcoming embezzlement trial. In his sleep, something spurred him to take care of the favor, and when he went in to fix the furnace, he was startled by his in-laws. He attacked both without knowing what he was doing. To strengthen the defense, his family's history of sleep disorders was submitted.
When he couldn’t recall one single moment of the event during months of testimony, and eventually expressed extreme remorse over the death of his wife’s mom, a jury determined that Parks was the victim of homicidal somnambulism
(sleepwalking) and his actions were totally involuntary
. The decision was eventually upheld
by Canada’s Supreme Court, and Parks left court with a minor prescription
and a new lease on life.
If you have some beef you want squashed and think this unique defense may work for you, don’t get your hopes up. Last year, in a blog post for the New York Times
about the intersection of sleep violence and the law, Virginia Tech historian A. Roger Ekirch points out
that “courts were less lenient in the event of ill will between a defendant and his victim.” These days, a little therapy and/or some meds can placate the afflicted, too. Feigning parasomnia, in other words, is a strategy best left inside one's dreams.
* I picture Parks as William H. Macy in "Fargo," frantically stammering
inside some huge parka.
American ranchers are having a hell of a time keeping track of their cows. Cattle rustling
-- a staple of the Old West -- is back in style
, and these modern outlaws are frustrating the cowboys and cowgirls who contribute to the country’s multi-billion dollar ranching industry. Most raiders, law enforcement officials say, lure the productive animals into a trailer late at night and then drive the bounty straight to another working farm or a stockyard auction, where the cattle is sold off before their owners can track them down. When asked
by a reporter from the New York Times
about this criminal behavior, a 30-year-old rancher from East Texas, which has experienced a rash of raids in 2011, “spat into the dirt, said that hanging was proper punishment, and gave no facial indication that he might be kidding.” Reactions like his explain why the Lone Start State recently increased penalties
for stealing livestock.
Yet cattle rustling in the States is a trivial problem when compared to the South Sudan, which is scheduled
to secure its official independence next month. As both a store of wealth (since functioning banks are rare) and a prerequisite for marriage
, the possession of bovines plays an integral role in the economic life of the Sudanese. Not surprisingly, herders have guarded livestock fiercely for generations. But since President Omar Hassan al-Bashir’s intelligence service began flooding
the region with automatic weapons in an effort to create havoc and stave off southern secession, armed militias have made that practice much more dangerous
:Panyang used to be a cattle camp in the scrub of Southern Sudan. In early January, 500 tribesmen came with AK-47s and just shot the place up. Between this camp and another one, they took about 5,000 head of cattle, killed a dozen people and wounded another 24. Skeletons still lie in a dry riverbed nearby, bits of clothing still clinging to the bones. [...]People used to steal cattle with spears, but now they use AK-47s left over from the war. The result is carnage. In 2009, the United Nations estimated that 2,500 people died in tribal violence in Sudan's southern region, much of it from cattle raids.
This year’s death toll
already eclipsed 1,000 by the beginning of May, prompting the new government to unveil
(about six weeks ago) a Livestock Patrol Unit tasked with “reducing tensions within and between pastoralist communities and their neighbours.” Using foreign aid, Southern officials are also launching a series of public works programs to provide new agricultural and commerce jobs. Here’s hoping both are effective. That part of the globe needs some good news.