TRUE CRIME. TOO STRANGE TO BE TRUE?

The hardest thing about writing crime is trying to really get inside the head of a murderer. 

I’m one of those people that catches spiders and puts them outside, rather than kill them.

So I’m always researching true crime stories to try and work out what makes real killers tick. The trouble is, the truth is often so much stranger than fiction. If I wrote a crime story based on some of the homicides I’ve researched, no one would believe it.

This week I came across a real mind bender. It was a documentary about a guy called Matthew Hoffman, who killed three people in Ohio ten years ago.

It all started when a thirty-two-year-old woman called Tina Herrmann didn’t show up at her job for two days in a row. So her employer went to her home to see what was wrong.

What she found when she walked into the house left her an hysterical mess. There was blood everywhere. The bathroom looked like a butcher’s shop. Tina, her two children Sarah and Kody, and her best friend Stephanie, were all missing.

The police went looking for her boyfriend and her ex. This is usual. The fact is, if you ever get murdered – and I’d rather you heard this first from a friend – the killer will almost certainly be someone you know very well.

Not this time. Both had cast iron alibis.

They realised this time they were looking for a stranger. And people don’t come any stranger than Matthew Hoffman …

Investigators finally caught a break when a deputy on a routine patrol found Tina Herrmann’s truck, abandoned in a parking lot. After he called it in, he spotted a man watching him from a parked car. The man said he was waiting to meet his girlfriend.

Meanwhile, detectives searching Tina’s home found a Walmart bag containing tarpaulins and heavy-duty trash bags. Having had some experience in these things, they knew these were just what a killer might use to dispose of bodies.

Now it was all down to good, basic detective work; they traced the bar codes on the trash bags to a local store, matched the purchase transaction to surveillance video, which identified the man who bought them. Video showed him driving away in a Toyota Yaris.

They ran a database search for all Yaris vehicles in the area. One of the names that came up with was Hoffman’s, an unemployed tree trimmer. The photo on his driver’s licence matched footage from the store. He was also the same man police had seen loitering near Tina’s truck.

Ka-ching. They went and arrested him.

But now it gets really weird …

 

When police searched Hoffman’s barely furnished house, they didn’t find Sara Herrmann. What they found was a tarpaulin, fourteen feet square, piled three-feet-high with dead leaves.

The bathroom was lined with hundreds of plastic bags, also filled with leaves.

The freezer? Empty except for some red popsicles and two dead squirrels.

Finally, in the basement, they found a survivor. Bound hand and foot and lying on yet another bed of leaves was thirteen-year old Sarah Herrmann. But there was no sign of the others.

In his confession, Hoffman said that he had only intended to rob Herrmann’s house, but when the two women showed up unexpectedly, he panicked and killed them with a knife.  He was in the middle of  “processing” the bodies in the bathroom when the children returned from school. Hoffman then killed Kody … but not Sarah.

Instead, he tied her up and put a hood over her head.  He drove away with his captive and three dismembered bodies wrapped in plastic.

Where were the bodies now? Hoffman took investigators to a 60-foot-tall hollow tree in the Kokosing Wildlife Area near Fredericktown.

Look in the hole, he said. Up there in the tree.

Hoffman had used a rig-and-pulley system to reach the top of the hollow tree and dropped the bodies inside. Why? He never said. In fact, he never explained his strange obsession with trees, leaves and squirrels to anyone. Did any of it have anything to do with the murders? Your guess is as good as mine.

But if I ever wove that story into a crime novel, I’d sure as hell have to come up with a reasonable explanation. Sheriff Barber, who led the investigation, would have liked one. He visited Hoffman in prison, hoping for some clue. No luck. Hoffman’s last words to him were: “I wish people would just get over this. It is what it is.”

So, I’ve filed the story away and maybe I’ll use it one day. Or maybe not. Because fiction, unlike life, has to make sense.

So enough blood and mayhem for the day. It’s time to take my spaniel Charlie out for a run. He also has an obsession with trees, but in his case, it’s harmless. In fact, Charlie wouldn’t dream of hurting anyone. If only people were more like spaniels, the world would definitely be a better place.

And I’d be out of business.

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ESCAPE FROM THE HOUSE OF HORRORS

It happened in a house only five minutes’ drive from where I’m now sitting.

Late one Sunday night, 17-year-old Kate Moir tried to hitch a ride home. It wasn’t long before a car pulled over to the side of the road. The driver had a woman with him, which Kate found reassuring. She jumped in.

But once in the back of the car, Kate discovered there was no door handle on the inside. Grinning at the woman, the man said: “I’ve got the munchies.”

She smiled back and said: “I’ve got the munchies too.”

It was the cue for the man to pull a knife out of his boot and hold it to her throat. This is it, Kate thought. These people are going to kill me.

Kate didn’t know it then, but the couple in the car had already kidnapped, raped and murdered four other women in the previous month alone. Their killing spree had only whetted their appetite for more.

Kate Moir was meant to be victim number five.

The couple took Kate home and then, in a bizarre twist, made her watch “Rambo” with them on their VCR; the man changed into a mustard-coloured dressing gown and watched from the sofa while his wife made Kate dance to Dire Straits’ “Romeo and Juliet”.

He raped Kate twice on the bed as the woman watched on and took notes. Afterwards, Kate was herself given a pen and paper and told to write “goodbye letters” to her loved ones.

She had to spend a desperate and sleepless night in the couple’s master bedroom, her foot handcuffed to the man’s. It is hard to imagine what must have been going through her head. In an apparent act of kindness, the couple offered her pills to ‘help her sleep’. But Kate knew if she took them, she’d never wake up, so she spat them out and hid them under the mattress.

On the morning of Monday November 10, 1986, Kate watched as the man had breakfast and got ready for work, as if nothing had happened.

Soon after he left, there was a knock at the door. The woman went to answer it, leaving Kate unguarded for a moment – and unchained. Kate knew it was now or never; she forced a lock on a window, threw herself out and ran.

She banged on the doors of three houses and got no reply, jumped a gate and was attacked by a dog. Hysterical and barefoot, she finally ran into the arms of a man standing outside a vacuum cleaner store at the end of the street. She begged him to call the police.

But her troubles still weren’t over.

Senior detectives at the local police station thought her story unbelievable. One of them fetched a rookie policewoman called Laura Hancock, fresh out of police college, and told her to take a statement – the first of her career – with the instruction: “Stitch her up for a false report.”

But though she was just a rookie, Laura wasn’t inclined to do what she had just been told. Her instincts told her this was no hysterical teenager; it seemed to her that Kate gave too many details for this to be a hoax. She listened as Kate told her about hiding the two sleeping pills under the mattress, about watching “Rambo” on the video player, about the chains and handcuffs in the bedroom.

And although her captors used false names in front of her, Kate had had the presence of mind to remember a name she saw on a medicine bottle in the bathroom – David Birnie.

Laura left the interview room several times to plead with the other officers at the station to take the story seriously. Finally, her nagging wore them down. One of them did some checking and discovered that a ‘David Birnie’ had a lengthy criminal record. Major crime detectives, investigating the disappearance of another woman called Denise Brown, were called in.

The next day, police obtained a search warrant and entered Kate’s House of Horrors.

As Kate sat in a police car outside, Laura Hancock accompanied senior detectives into the house and noted that everything was as Kate had described it; the chains and handcuffs in the main bedroom; the Rocky tape was still in the VCR; even the sleeping pills Kate had pretended to swallow there under the mattress.

David Birnie and his wife, Catherine, were interrogated separately. Catherine denied everything but David eventually broke and confessed to abducting Kate Moir. But there was more. He then led police to the graves of four other women – Mary Neilson, 22, Susannah Candy, 15, Noelene Patterson, 31, and Denise Brown, 21.

Thanks to the grit of young Kate Moir, and the persistence of a rookie constable, the killing spree was at an end. Without them, the Birnies may have gone on to rape and murder countless more women.

What is almost impossible to comprehend is that at the time of their killing spree, Catherine Birnie was the mother of six children. Her youngest was a girl of ten, not much younger than Kate herself.

David Birnie was sentenced to four terms of life imprisonment and hanged himself in his cell twenty years later. Catherine Birnie is still in prison, her papers marked: ‘never to be released.’ It is now believed the Birnies were responsible for at least two other murders.

In 2017 her youngest son, Peter, called for her execution. Her daughter, Tanya, has never married and had no children, stating “I don’t want to spawn another David Birnie”.

Their dark legacy continues.

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THE MURDERED MAN COMES BACK

baffling crimes

It starts with a cold-blooded murder.

It’s followed by bizarre and conflicting confessions.

Then a mother is betrayed by her son, and another man loses his life because of his own brother, both of them executed for a crime they didn’t commit.

It all ends with a final, unbelievable twist.

The latest bestseller from the New York Times top 10 list?

No, this all happened over 300 years ago in a quaint and sleepy English village in the Cotswolds. Criminologists still do not know what to make of it.

It remains, to this day, one of the most tragic and baffling stories in criminal history.

baffling crimes

On a bright summer’s day in 1660, a 70-year-old steward named William Harrison set out from the village of Chipping Camden to collect some rent money owed to his employer, the Viscountess of Campden. He was headed towards Charingworth, about two miles away.

When he had not returned by the end of the day, his wife became worried and sent his servant, John Perry, to search for him.

Next morning, neither man had returned. So then Harrison’s son, Edward, set out himself. He finally found Perry and then, soon afterwards, the two of them came across Harrison’s hat and collar-band on the road. They were torn and blood-stained.

They assumed Harrison had been robbed, and murdered.

A wholesale search was instigated, but there was no further sign of him.

Perry soon came under suspicion. Why did he stay out all night, rather than coming back to Campden when he couldn’t find Harrison?

He knew his employer would be carrying a large sum of rent money. Was he the one who robbed him?

When questioned, Perry said he hadn’t returned to the village because he got lost in the dark and decided to sleep the night under a bridge. At dawn, he had continued his search, without success, and was on his way back to Camden when he met Edward.

No one believed him. He was arrested. A week later, Perry asked to see the local magistrate. He confessed to being party to Harrison’s murder, naming his mother, Joan Perry, and his brother Richard as the instigators of the crime.

He said he’d seen Richard strangle Harrison to death with his own eyes. He said his mother and brother then took the rent money and dumped Harrison’s body in a pond.

The pond was searched, but no body was found.

When Joan and Richard were taken into custody, they vehemently denied any knowledge of the murder, but still John stuck to his story. When the three came to trial, John changed his story again, but by now things had gone too far.

John Perry, his brother and his mother were hanged, still professing their innocence.

Justice had been served.

Or had it?

Two years later, William Harrison came home.

Where had he been? Well, simple: while returning from collecting the rent, two men on horseback waylaid him with swords and kidnapped him. Although he was severely wounded, they put him on a boat and sold him to slavers. These kind slavers nursed him back to health, but their ship was then attacked by Turks. The Turkish pirates in turn sold him to a physician in Izmir. After a year, the physician died, so he made his way to the docks, and sold a silver bowl from his ex-master’s house to buy passage on a ship for Lisbon. There he met a complete stranger who gave him some money and put him on a boat back to England.

Right, that sounds plausible enough. Doesn’t it?

No, you’re right. It sounds like an elaborate practical joke – except that three people died. Where was he – now, come on, really – for two years?

Had he absconded with the rent money? Hardly. Harrison was already a wealthy man in his profession.

And why did John Perry put his own head in the noose for a murder that never happened – and condemn his mother and brother as well?

No one has ever, to this day, come up with a plausible answer.

I’ll leave it with you.

Get back to me, if you ever figure it out.

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A STEN GUN AND BRIGHT RED LIPSTICK

Just after lunchtime on a Wednesday afternoon in the monsoon season of 2001, a member of the Indian parliament arrived back at her bungalow in a leafy suburb of Delhi. As she got out of her car, three masked gunmen jumped out of a green Maruti sedan and opened fire with handguns.

The gunmen sped off, dumped their car in nearby Connaught Place, Delhi’s busy commercial hub and made made their escape in a black and yellow tuk-tuk.

The MP’s bodyguard raced her to the hospital, but she was pronounced dead on arrival.

News of her murder provoked outrage across the country because this was no ordinary politician. She was known across India as a champion of the poor, India’s own Robin Hood, the ‘Bandit Queen’.

She had also been directly responsible for murdering at least twenty-two people.

Who was she?

Phoolan Devi was born in 1963 in Gorha Ka Purwa, a huddle of mud huts on the banks of the Yamuna river; the place doesn’t even feature on the map. When she was 11, her father, who was from one of India’s lower ‘boatmen’ castes, sold her into marriage to a man three times her age. In return he got a bicycle and a cow.

Her new husband forced himself on Phoolan and beat her. In rural India, this is usual. What was not usual was that she wouldn’t tolerate it, and ran back to her family.

While she’d been away, her cousin had stolen her father’s tiny plot of land. When Phoolan confronted him, he knocked her out with a brick and had her arrested by the police, who then took turns to rape her.

When they’d tired of her, they sent her back to her husband, where she endured more beatings. So she ran back to her village again. But a runaway wife is taboo in India, and she became an outcast.

It made her easy prey for local dacoits – bandits – who kidnapped her. They took her back to their hideout and their leader molested her for the next three days. Then his second in command, Vikram Mallah, either out of pity or jealousy, intervened and shot him dead.

It gets worse.

Devi became Vikram’s mistress and the pair became an Indian Bonnie and Clyde. He gave her a rifle and taught her to shoot. Together, they blew up trains, ransacked upper-caste homes, and carried out a series of kidnappings and murders.

But two former gang members, incensed that someone from a lower caste had taken over their gang, shot him dead. Then they took Phoolan to their remote village called Behmai, where they lived. They invited a succession of upper-caste men to take turns with her.

After three weeks, she managed to escape.

Most women would have been broken by now. Not Phoolan. She formed her own gang, this time made up entirely from the lower castes. Legend has it that she and her gang only targeted the rich and shared their loot with the poor, but that’s probably a myth.

What is certain is that on 14 February, 1981, she came back to Behmai, and took a bloody revenge. She walked into the village with a Sten gun over her shoulder, wearing bright lipstick and blue jeans. She and her gang rounded up all the young men, marched them to the river and shot them.

She then hid out for two years in the wild Chambal river valley, a place of giant ravines, twisting fissures, and wild jungle. It took the police two years to bring her in.

Even then, she only agreed to lay down her arms on condition that neither she nor any of her gang would face the death penalty.

On a bitterly cold evening in February 1983, she and the twelve remaining members of her gang emerged from the ravines. Draped with bandoliers, and wearing a red bandanna, she strode into town, ascended a high wooden dais draped in colorful cloth, and laid her rifle before twin portraits of Mahatma Gandhi and the goddess Durga.

Madhya Pradesh’s chief minister was there to greet her in front of a crowd of ten thousand people. He had brought three hundred police with him to arrest her.

Phoolan’s trial was delayed for eleven years. She was finally released on parole after the government withdrew all charges against her. The decision sent shock waves across the country.

But Phoolan was soon part of the government herself. She formed a new party to represent the lower castes, and promised to fight for women’s rights. She was elected in 1996.

To the poor of India, she was the reincarnation of the goddess Durga, an icon of resistance to the ruling castes; Bollywood even made a film about her called ‘The Bandit Queen’. But to the landowners and privileged classes she was scum, a threat to an immutable social order. Was that the reason she had to die?

Only one man was ever jailed for her murder. He told ;police he did it in revenge for the killings of those 22 men in Behmai, but even they didn’t believe him.

More likely she was murdered because she had dared to politicize the ancient caste system and the savage treatment of Indian women. Read the latest international headlines (‘India: woman set on fire on way to testify against alleged rapists’) and it’s clear the outrage and rebellion she embodied within her vast and emerging nation is still very far from over.

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Like stories about women who have changed history?

FIVE HUNDRED MEN AGAINST AN ARMY OF ONE MILLION WARRIORS.
ONE WOMAN THREW THE ODDS IN THEIR FAVOUR

Hernan Cortes is sent with a handful of men to explore the new lands to the west of Cuba. His orders: go no further than the beach and report back.

But though penniless and landless Cortes knew he was destined to be a king. All he needed was a country. He takes prisoner a young Mayan princess, Malinali. Her father was murdered by the country’s overlords, the Aztecs. What she wanted was – revenge.

Their meeting changes the course of Mexican history.

She becomes Cortes’ lover, devoting herself to the man she believes to be a living god. And she shows him how to achieve the impossible – but at what cost?

“A fast-paced read, Aztec fascinated me from start to finish. As with all of Colin Falconer’s novels, his characters have depth and credibility, moving the story forward through their often unpredictable actions. His work takes the reader through a never-ending labyrinth of twists and turns that grips and entertains. Get this book. It is a magnificent piece of work!” History and Women *****

“Once you read Colin Falconer, you’ll want to read everything he has ever written.” Crystal Book Reviews.

READ MORE ABOUT ‘AZTEC’

Colin Falconer

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UNMURDERABLE MIKE

unmurderable mike

In the winter of 1933, in a ragtag little speakeasy in the Bronx, four guys were playing cards. The boss of the joint, Tony Marino, was telling his friends how he barely made enough to stay open. This was the Depression, and times were tough.

Tony and his buddies – the barman, “Red” Murphy, a cash-strapped funeral director called Frank Pasqua, and a fruit seller called Dan Kriesberg – got to talking about money. If only one of them had a wealthy relative with a good insurance policy. One good pay-out could get them all out of the hole.

There was a loud snore from the end of the bar. They all turned and looked at the no-good drunk sleeping off another bender on the plywood bar.

“If we don’t have a sick relative,” Frank said, “maybe we could make one.”

“It’s not like anyone’s going to miss that guy,” Tony said. “He’s just a bum. He doesn’t even pay his tab.”

And the plan was set in motion …

unmurderable mike
Tony Marino

The bum’s name was Mike Malloy. A former firefighter, now pushing sixty, he lived on the streets. When he sobered up, Tony and the guys persuaded him to pose as Red’s brother and take out two life insurance policies worth $1800 – a tidy sum in today’s money. In exchange, Tony promised him free booze.

Surely, the guy would just do them all a favour and drink himself to death. After all, it was Prohibition and the city was awash with shoddy home brews, as well as whisky that had been deliberately poisoned by government agencies as part of the enforcement effort, and other equally lethal bootlegged concoctions.

Mike duly drank himself into oblivion every night, and kept coming back for more the next day. Tony couldn’t believe it. How could anyone drink that much moonshine? Tony starting replacing the liquor with anti-freeze; Mike got a taste for that as well. So Tony tried turpentine, then horse liniment mixed with rat poison.

Mike slammed his glass on the bar and asked for another.

The boys took up the challenge, feeding Mike poisonous bar snacks to wash down the poisonous liquor – bad oysters, rotten sardines mixed with carpet tacks, then sandwiches laced with metal shavings and glass.

Mike couldn’t get enough. Rediscovered his appetite, in fact.

A month later, he was still standing. They couldn’t believe it. One freezing February night, in pure desperation, the four of them waited until he passed out, then carried him to a local park. They laid him out in the snow, soaked him in ice water and left him to do the right thing and die.

That, they thought, was surely the end of Unmurderable Mike.

Nope. He didn’t even get a cold. The next night he was back at the bar, throwing back glass after glass of the moonshine that had put much younger men in the cemetery.

What to do? They hired a cab driver called Hershy Green and had him run Malloy down in the street. Green was moving at 45 mph when he hit him. A policeman found Mike lying on the road and got him to a hospital. Three weeks later, he was discharged and back in Tony’s bar, demanding more whisky on his open tab.

Enough was enough. On February 23, 1933, after he had again passed out on the bar, the guys carried him to Red’s room, put a hose in his mouth and connected it to the gas jet.

This finally did the trick.

A corrupt local doctor called Frank Manzella signed the death certificate, attributing Mike’s death to bad alcohol, and they quickly buried him and collected their windfall from the insurance company.

But rumours of the plot to murder the Unmurderable Mike had already spread through the Bronx. It was a great story, after all, and inevitably, the cops got wind of it.

They had Mike exhumed. Even back then, before CSI, forensic physicians could detect lethal levels of carbon monoxide. The cabbie and the doctor turned state’s witness to save themselves and Tony and the rest of his friends were convicted on murder one.

The four buddies went down to Sing Sing and the electric chair while their victim went down in history – as Unmurderable Mike.

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THE MAN WHO DISAPPEARED TWICE

mystery.jpeg

On 22 March, 1977, Ruth Morgan’s husband disappeared.

Charles ‘Chuck’ Morgan lived a seemingly ordinary life as an escrow agent in Tucson, Arizona. He went to work one morning and never came home.

Ruth and her four daughters did not hear anything from him for three days. Then, at around two o’clock on the third morning, she heard the dog barking. She opened the back door and there was her husband, missing a shoe and with a plastic handcuff around one ankle and another set dangling from each wrist.

He motioned to his throat, miming that he couldn’t talk. She fetched him paper and a pen. He wrote that his throat had been painted with a hallucinogenic drug and that he had been kidnapped and tortured but had managed to escape.

Naturally, Ruth urged him to go to the police, but he said that would “sign a death warrant for the entire family.” He wouldn’t tell her who had kidnapped him, or why, saying only that the less she knew, the better.

In the following weeks he grew a beard and wouldn’t let his daughters leave the house alone; he arranged for them to be driven to school and picked up each day.

But then, two months later, he disappeared again.

mystery.jpeg

This time Ruth received a phone call from a woman who referred to herself as “Green Eyes.” She told Ruth: “Chuck is all right and everything will be all right.” She said “Ecclesiastes 12:1-8,” and hung up.

But he wasn’t alright.

On the 18th of June, Morgan’s body was discovered near his car on a dirt road in Sells, around 40 miles west of Tucson. He had been shot in the back of his head with his own .357-caliber magnum which was found nearby, wiped clean.  He was wearing a bulletproof vest and was armed with a knife.

Inside his car, Pima County sheriff’s investigators found a cache of ammunition as well as several other weapons and several sets of handcuffs. They also found one of Morgan’s teeth, wrapped up in a tissue, and a pair of sunglasses that didn’t belong to him. Investigators also found that his car had been modified so that it could be unlocked from the fender.

Pinned to his underwear, was a map with directions of how to get to the murder site as well as a $2 bill.

Written on the bill were seven Spanish names, beginning with the letters A through G. Above them was the notation, “Ecclesiastes 12,” with the verses one through eight marked by arrows drawn on the bill’s serial number.

Shortly after Morgan’s body was found, his impounded car was broken into while in police possession. His office was ransacked as well and several weeks later, two men claiming to be FBI agents showed up at Ruth’s home, tore it apart looking for something, and left empty-handed.

His attorney, Ronald J. Newman, revealed that Morgan was a key witness into a Treasury Department investigation into Tucson’s Banco International de Arizona.

In the seventies, Arizona was the only state in the Union that allowed individuals to buy property through numbered blind trust accounts. It was ideal for money laundering and only the escrow agent – people such as Morgan – would know the owner’s true identity.

At the time of his disappearance, Morgan was involved in real estate work for two alleged organised crime groups – the Ned Warren family and the Joe Bonanno family.

So, you won’t be astonished to learn that Morgan’s death was ruled a suicide and the case was closed less than two months later.

Because it’s obvious what happened: Charles Morgan, in utter fear for his life, put on a bulletproof vest, loaded his car with ammunition, pulled one of his teeth out, then drove to an isolated spot, took out his gun and somehow twisted it around to the back of his head and shot himself with it.

It was the logical thing to do.

If you agree, then you missed your calling. You could have had a long and illustrious career in law enforcement in Arizona…

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Colin Falconer

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THE REAL LIFE SHAWSHANK

Ask anyone their favourite movie and The Shawshank Redemption is nearly always mentioned. People remember that final scene with the Shawshank tree, and Morgan Freeman reuniting with his friend Andy on the beach in Mexico.

Couldn’t happen in real life, right?

The movie was based on Stephen King’s novella, Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption. So, it’s all pure fiction…

Except.

There’s a famous island in the San Francisco Bay called Alcatraz. During its almost thirty years of service as a federal penitentiary, it housed some of the country’s most ruthless criminals, including Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly and Whitey Bulger.

It was said to be escape-proof. On the official figures, 41 inmates tried to get out: 26 were recaptured, 7 were shot dead, 5 drowned. That’s 38.

So… what happened to the other three?

They were Frank Morris and the Anglin brothers.

Frank was an orphan who had spent most of his childhood in foster homes and got his first conviction at 13. By the time he got to Alcatraz, he had spent most of his life in and out of jail. Which was a pity, as Frank had an IQ of 133, which put him in the top 2% of the population.

The Anglin brothers had been raised by inveterate farm workers and had a history of armed robbery – though they only ever used a toy gun. They were also expert cold water swimmers.

By chance, Frank and the Anglins were assigned adjacent cells in Block D.

On the night of June 11, 1962, the three convicts were locked down as usual. Guards checked on them regularly and saw them fast asleep in their cells.

Next morning, they were gone.

But how?

Turning over their bunks, guards found lifelike papier-mâché heads on their pillows. The alarm was raised and what followed was the largest manhunt since the Lindbergh kidnapping.

Like Andy in Shawshank, the three prisoners had planned their escape over many months, with meticulous attention to detail. Frank had discovered that behind their cells was an unguarded utility corridor. Using spoons stolen from the dining hall, and a drill “borrowed” from a vacuum cleaner, he and the Anglins chiselled through some crumbling air vents to get to it. Frank Morris played the accordion every night to hide the noise of the digging from the guards.

Once they’d gained access, they used it to get to a duct shaft leading to the roof, where they built a workshop on top of their cell block. They went up there every night for weeks, making what they needed for their escape; they built a raft, made from stolen rubber raincoats, and sealed the seams with heat from nearby steam pipes.

They created the dummy heads from plaster and toilet paper, even using hair clippings from the barbershop to make them more realistic.

On the night of the escape, the three men shimmied down a smokestack to the shoreline, taking their raft with them. They climbed two 12-foot, barbed-wire perimeter fences to reach a spot out of range of the searchlights and inflated their raft with a stolen concertina.

They then disappeared into a dense fog.

PIX

The police, FBI and the military combed San Francisco Bay and much of Northern California looking for them, in the following days. But all they found was some shreds of the raft, washed up on nearby Angel Island and a wallet they believed belonged to one of the Anglin brothers.

The bay is notorious for its swirling currents and frigid temperatures at that time of year. Federal officials concluded the three had certainly drowned, their bodies swept out to sea.

Or did they?

The US Marshall’s case file remains open on the case and will remain so, until all three escapees reach their 100th birthdays, in a few years’ time.

Because doubts remain.

Robert Checchi, a San Francisco police officer, said that he saw a boat in the bay near Alcatraz at one o’clock that morning. A few minutes later the boat departed, under the Golden Gate bridge. Could the three have had outside help?

What if there was a cover-up, not only to save Alcatraz’s reputation as an “escape-proof” prison, but to hope the escapees would relax and then become easier targets to find?

And what if the debris found on Angel Island was released deliberately to float with the tide and throw the authorities off their trail?

You’d have to have an IQ of 133 to think of doing something as ingenious as that.

The Anglins’ mother received flowers anonymously every Mother’s Day until her death. Two unusually tall women in heavy makeup were seen at her funeral.

And a photograph of two men resembling John and Clarence Anglin surfaced in 1975. The picture was taken in Brazil.

Taken not too far, perhaps, from their own Shawshank tree?

Nah. It couldn’t happen. It’s all fiction.

Right?

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When a priest is found crucified in a derelict North London chapel, it makes a dramatic change for DI Charlie George and his squad at Essex Road. The brutal murder could not be further from their routine of domestic violence and stabbings on the estates.

And that’s only the beginning . . .

On Christmas Eve, a police officer goes missing and his colleagues can’t help but anticipate the worst. It turns out they’re right to when eventually the body is found and they discover he’s been stoned to death.

As tensions rise, it’s up to Charlie and his team to venture into the city’s cold underbelly to try and find an answer to the madness . . . before anyone else dies a martyr’s death.

‘Dripping with authenticity. Packed full of characters you genuinely care about . . . An absolute triumph’ M. W. Craven

CLICK HERE TO FIND OUT MORE

Colin Falconer

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THE GANGSTER’S SON WHO BECAME AN AIRPORT

On Wednesday, November 8, 1939, a 46 year old man left his office at Sportsman’s Park in Cicero, Chicago and drove away in a black 1939 Lincoln Zephyr coupe. At the intersection of Ogden and Rockwell, a dark sedan roared up beside him and two men opened fire with shotguns.

He died instantly.

The dead man was Edward Joseph O’Hare: “Easy Eddie” “Easy” had once been attorney and business partner to the notorious Al Capone, and he had built a huge fortune on the association.

But in 1931 he decided to co-operate with the authorities at Capone’s trial for tax evasion. 

At the time, there was a fanciful theory doing the rounds that by turning informer he hoped to teach his son “Butch” a lesson in morality; or did he do it to save his own skin?

A week after Easy Eddie’s murder, Capone was released from Alcatraz; soon after, Frank Nitti, his second in command, married Ursula Sue Granata, “Easy’s” fiancée.

Did his son learn his lesson in personal morality?

Decide for yourself …

Edward “Butch” O’Hare was 25 years old when his father was killed. ‘Easy Eddie’ had divorced Butch’s mother when the boy was thirteen, and Butch stayed behind in St Louis with her when his father moved to Chicago.

About the time his father was being slaughtered in the street, Butch was graduating from the US Naval Academy at Annapolis. He started flight training soon afterwards, and in 1940 he was assigned to the USS Lexington.

 On February 20, 1942, O’Hare and his wingman were the only U.S. Navy fighters in the air when a wave of Japanese bombers flew towards the Lexington in enemy-held waters north of New Ireland. 

 His wingman’s guns jammed so Butch became the aircraft carrier’s only protection. He attacked nine Japanese Betty heavy bombers with just enough ammunition for 34 seconds of firing.

 In the words of his citation: ‘…alone and unaided he repeatedly attacked this enemy formation, at close range in the face of intense combined machine gun and cannon fire … by his gallant and courageous action, his extremely skilful marksmanship in making the most of every shot of his limited amount of ammunition, he shot down 5 enemy bombers and severely damaged a sixth before they reached the bomb release point. As a result of his gallant action—one of the most daring, if not the most daring, single action in the history of combat aviation—he undoubtedly saved his carrier from serious damage or even loss.’

For this action, O’Hare became the first naval aviator to receive the Medal of Honor. A welcome parade in his hometown of St Louis was attended by 60,000 people.

He received further decorations in 1943 for his actions in battles near Marcus Island and Wake Island. Sadly, Butch did not survive the war; he was shot down on a night mission on November 26, 1943, near Tarawa. Neither his body nor his aircraft were ever found. 

He was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross.

Four years after the war Chicago’s Orchard Depot Airport was renamed O’Hare International Airport in his honour. (A training F4F Wildcat similar to the one flown by Butch is currently on display in Terminal 2.)

What was the lesson? It seems we all have a choice who we’re going to be. It’s not all down to genetics.

We can get dirty rich by becoming some thug’s right hand man, or we can be the guy who puts his life on the line for his country and is remembered every time someone lands at O’Hare international airport. 

That man or woman we see in the mirror every morning is our creation, and no one else is responsible.

Perhaps think of that the next time your pilot says: “Welcome ladies and gentleman to Chicago …”

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Colin Falconer

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A HOFFA HE COULDN’T REFUSE

At around quarter to three in the afternoon, on July 30, 1975, a man was seen pacing the parking lot outside the Machus Red Fox Restaurant in Bloomfield Township, just outside Detroit. 

According to the official FBI report, a maroon Mercury Marquis then drove into the lot and he was seen arguing with the two men in the front. Finally, he jumped in and the car sped away.

The man was Jimmy Hoffa. He was never seen again.

Martin Scorcese has released a new blockbuster movie about those events called The Irishman. It stars Al Pacino, Robert de Niro, Joe Pesci and Harvey Keitel.

Such a line-up seems fitting; Hoffa’s own life certainly featured its own array of celebrities, including Bobby Kennedy, President Richard Nixon and the Detroit Mafia.

But who was Hoffa? And what is the truth behind the most enduring and tantalising mystery in US criminal history?

And is it true that his middle name really was – Riddle?

 

“The Irishman” the 2019 Netflix movie about Hoffa’s murder

Yes, it is.

James Riddle Hoffa was born on Valentine’s Day in 1913. He rose from humble beginnings in Indiana to become head of the Teamsters Union in 1957, a position which made him one of the most powerful men in the country. But trucking unions were mostly controlled by organized crime; to rise that high you had to get into bed with the Mob.

His dealings naturally made him a target for the FBI, and particularly the President’s brother, Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, who organized his own version of The Untouchables – the ‘Get Hoffa’ squad.

And he did get him. Hoffa was jailed for bribery and jury tampering in 1967.

But four years into his sentence, Hoffa was pardoned by then President Richard Nixon. A condition of his release was that Hoffa would refrain from all union-related activity until 1980.

The deal was brokered by acting Teamsters boss Frank Fitzsimmons – “Fitz”. It wasn’t a favour. Having Hoffa banned from holding any top union post played right into his hands. He was now able to consolidate his own power within the Teamsters without his former boss’s interference.

Fitz and the Teamsters Union went on to endorse Richard Nixon’s successful re-election campaign in 1972, and the Mafia kept their unfettered access to the Teamsters pension fund, which even back then was worth a staggering one billion dollars.

Everyone was happy.

Except Hoffa.

He didn’t like being cut out of his own union and he wasn’t ready to retire. He reneged on the deal and threatened to name names if he didn’t get his way. It was rumoured that he had started to write a book about how the East Coast Mafia had killed JFK.

But in that world, autobiographies and autopsies go hand in hand.

The Mob didn’t want Hoffa cruelling their deal with the Teamsters or attracting heat with his book. They gave him a Hoffa he couldn’t refuse.

Unfortunately for Jimmy, he refused it.

So, what happened to Hoffa? He was declared dead by the courts in absentia in 1982, but his body has never been found. Where is it?

So-called tips from aging mobsters and anonymous sources have created all sorts of urban legends.

 

He was shot, dismembered, frozen and buried in cement at the old NY Giants stadium in New Jersey.

He was thrown alive out of an airplane over the Great Lakes by a couple of federal agents.

He was shot with a stun gun, ground up at an ironworks, placed into a steel drum, and shipped to the Everglades where he was fed to the alligators.

His remains were shredded at a Mob-run New Jersey chicken farm and then dumped in the ocean miles from shore.

He was stabbed in the head with a hunting knife, placed in a steel drum, set on fire, buried, then dug up and compacted inside a car and shipped to Japan as recycled scrap metal for use in new cars.  

He is still hiding out as R2D2 in Star Wars.

 

As entertaining as some of these theories are, the most likely explanation actually is that he was taken to a local mobster’s house, summarily executed and his body cremated in an incinerator at a local Mafia-owned funeral home. Just like in the movie.

Footnote: who had he arranged to meet that afternoon at the Red Fox? A local Mob boss called Tony ‘Tony Pro’ Provenzano. Ten weeks after Hoffa’s disappearance, President Nixon made his first public appearance since his resignation, during which he golfed with … Frank Fitzsimmons and Provenzano.

I’ll let you do the math.

As one of the most famous missing people in history, Jimmy Hoffa has written himself into legend. His disappearance means that for many people, he hasn’t really died. Like the urban myths still surrounding Hitler and Elvis and TuPac, people wonder … could he still be out there?

And so the Riddle goes on.

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When a priest is found crucified in a derelict North London chapel, it makes a dramatic change for DI Charlie George and his squad at Essex Road. The brutal murder could not be further from their routine of domestic violence and stabbings on the estates.

And that’s only the beginning . . .

On Christmas Eve, a police officer goes missing and his colleagues can’t help but anticipate the worst. It turns out they’re right to when eventually the body is found and they discover he’s been stoned to death.

As tensions rise, it’s up to Charlie and his team to venture into the city’s cold underbelly to try and find an answer to the madness . . . before anyone else dies a martyr’s death.

‘Dripping with authenticity. Packed full of characters you genuinely care about . . . An absolute triumph’ M. W. Craven

READ MORE ABOUT ‘LUCIFER FALLS’ HERE 

Colin Falconer

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THE STRANGEST UNSOLVED CRIME OF THE 20TH CENTURY

It is still the strangest – and most mysterious – crime in US aviation history.

On Thanksgiving Eve, November 24, 1971, a middle-aged man by the name of “Dan Cooper”, settled himself into seat 18C of flight 305, a North West Orient Airlines flight from Portland Oregon to Seattle.

He lit a cigarette – you could do that in those days – and ordered a bourbon and soda.

Shortly after take-off, he handed a note to Florence Schaffner, the flight attendant. He whispered, “Miss, you’d better look at that note. I have a bomb.”

To make his point, he opened the black attaché case on his lap and showed her what appeared to be eight red cylinders attached to wires coated with red insulation.

He told her his demands; $200,000 –about one and a quarter million dollars in today’s money – and four parachutes.

The stewardess told the pilot in the cockpit; he, in turn, talked to the control tower in Seattle.

Schaffner later described “Dan Cooper” as calm, polite, and well-spoken; in fact, she said, he seemed rather nice. He ordered a second bourbon, paid for his drink (and attempted to give Schaffner the change). He even offered to make a meal request for the flight crew part of his demands.

When the flight finally landed in Seattle, FBI agents had assembled the ransom money from several Seattle-area banks – 10,000 unmarked 20-dollar bills– having first recorded them on microfilm.

The cash-filled knapsack and parachutes were delivered to the plane. Cooper ordered all the passengers off and told the crew to plot a southeast course towards Mexico City at minimum airspeed and a maximum 3000 metres altitude.

Two hours later the Boeing 727 took off again, with only five people onboard: Cooper, the flight crew and one flight attendant. Meanwhile, two fighter aircraft were scrambled from nearby McChord Air Force Base and tracked the airliner, out of Cooper’s view.

He told the attendant to join the rest of the crew in the cockpit and to remain there with the door closed. Shortly afterwards, a warning light flashed in the cockpit, indicating that the aft air stair apparatus had been activated.

FBI wanted poster

“Dan Cooper” had strapped on one of the parachutes, secured the ransom money to his person and jumped into the cold, night sky over the Cascade Mountains.

The airstair was still deployed when the 727 landed at Reno Airport. FBI agents stormed the plane, but Cooper was gone.

Neither of the Air Force fighter pilots had seen a parachute open, but the extremely poor weather that night made it unlikely that they would have done.

A massive air and ground was ordered, and focused on Cooper’s supposed landing area in a wilderness area a few miles southeast of Ariel, Washington.

But no trace of Cooper or the money was ever found.

So who was the mysterious hijacker? It turned out “Dan Cooper” was the hero of a popular Belgian comic book series of the 1970s, who had many daring adventures, including parachuting out of planes.

Whoever he was, he knew something about aircraft. The 727 was ideal for such a bail-out escape, because of its ability (unusual for a commercial jet airliner) to remain in slow, low-altitude flight without stalling; he also knew that the aft airstair could be lowered during flight—a fact never disclosed to civilian flight crews, since there was no situation on a passenger flight that would make it necessary. He also knew that its operation, by a single switch in the rear of the cabin, could not be overridden from the cockpit.

Who was this knowledge unique to? CIA paramilitary units.

What happened to him? The FBI never found out.  

But they were convinced he did not survive. He jumped from 10,000 feet without proper protection against the extreme wind chill.

Even if he survived the jump, his survival in mountainous terrain at night during the onset of winter would surely have been impossible

Why do it at all? He must have known the bills would be traceable, and that he could never spend the money anyway.

The hijacking marked the end of unscrutinized commercial airline travel. In 1973, luggage searches were instigated on all commercial flights, and the FAA also required that all Boeing 727 aircraft be fitted with a so-called “Cooper vane” that prevented the lowering of the aft airstair during flight.

It didn’t stop other would-be hijackers from committing copycat crimes during the seventies – fifteen in all, none of them successful. My favourite is a desperado called Glenn Tripp,

On July 11, 1980, Tripp seized Northwest flight 608 at Seattle-Tacoma Airport, demanding $600,000, two parachutes … oh, and somebody to top his boss – please. After a 10-hour standoff, Tripp reduced his demands to three cheeseburgers and count to ten while I get away. He was apprehended. But two years later, while still on probation, he hijacked the same Northwest flight and demanded to be flown to Afghanistan. When the plane landed in Portland, he was shot and killed by FBI agents.

The Dan Cooper story has one further footnote.

In 1980, eight-year-old Brian Ingram was holidaying with his family on the Columbia River 20 miles southwest of Ariel. He uncovered three packets of the ransom cash as he raked the sandy riverbank to build a campfire. The bills were significantly disintegrated, but still bundled in rubber bands.

It was assumed the bills had floated there. But if they had, why were ten bills missing from one packet, and how did the three packets remain together after separating from the rest of the haul?

The case remains the one of the most enduring mysteries in criminal history.

What did happen to Dan Cooper and the $200,000?

Unlike fiction, it’s a story without a satisfying ending. The truth is – we’ll probably never know.

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“Lucifer Falls effortlessly merges a shocking serial murderer novel with a police procedural dripping with authenticity.

Packed full of characters you genuinely care about, when DI Charlie George, a richly drawn North London cop, goes toe-to-toe with the deranged killer I didn’t read the last few chapters, I devoured them.

An absolute triumph.”

M.W. Craven, bestselling author of ‘The Puppet Show’ and ‘Body Breaker’ … continue reading

 

 

Colin Falconer

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THE TOWN THAT GOT AWAY WITH MURDER

When the police find a body, they usually have a main suspect.

But in the case of Kenneth Rex McElroy the suspected murderer was … an entire town.

source:: americasroof

McElroy’s murder on July 10, 1981, is one of the most bizarre cases in US criminal history. It should have been straightforward – he was shot in broad daylight in front of dozens of witnesses – but not a single resident of Skidmore was willing to talk.

How could that happen?

The victim had quite a history. He was born the 15th of 16 children to a poor, migrant tenant-farming couple from the Ozarks. He dropped out of school when he was 15, unable to read or write.

Despite his lack of education, McElroy was never short of either cash– or notoriety. The local attorney, Richard McFadin, routinely defended McElroy in three or four felonies a year. During his life McElroy was variously accused of assault, child molestation, statutory rape, arson, hog stealing, cattle rustling and burglary.

In all, he was indicted 21 times on various charges – including shooting a farmer called Romaine Henry – but escaped conviction each time. Witnesses would suddenly refuse to testify, lawyers would balk at prosecuting him, even judges were frightened of him. He was the archetype of the small-town bully. His strong-arm tactics had all of Skidmore living in fear of him.

When the parents of a fourteen-year-old girl, over twenty years his junior, refused to let him marry her, he shot their dog and burned their house down. He got off the charges – and got the wedding done, to avoid further charges of engaging with a minor.

He went on to father eleven children by a number of women.

Then in 1980, one of his daughters was caught stealing candy from the Skidmore town grocery, owned by 70-year-old Ernest “Bo” Bowenkamp. McElroy’s responded with a campaign of intimidation against Bowencamp that ended a few months later when he shot the grocer in the neck.

Bowencamp survived, and McElroy was arrested and charged with attempted murder, but the jury set a maximum sentence of two years, and the judge released McElroy on bond pending appeal.

McElroy was quickly re-arrested after he appeared in the D&G tavern the next day with a Garand M1 rifle and a bayonet, threatening to finish Bowencamp off.

Skidmore had had enough. On the morning of Friday, July 10, 1981, the townspeople held a meeting at the Legion Hall to discuss McElroy. No one knows what was decided.

McElroy’s lawyer advised his client to stay out of town for a while, but of course he ignored that kind of advice. Later that morning, he was parked in the main street in his pickup, with his wife. A group of over thirty townspeople surrounded his ride.

Moments later, several shots rang out.

McElroy was hit twice, in the head and neck. The townspeople wandered off, leaving his wife, Trena, screaming in the front seat. No one troubled themselves to call an ambulance.

Skidmore had no police force. Finally, when County deputies and Highway Patrol troopers arrived on the scene, McElroy was dead. They later found shell casings from a .22-caliber Magnum and an 8 mm Mauser, a German World War I-era long-range rifle.

In all, there were 46 potential witnesses to the shooting, but no one in Skidmore would admit to seeing anything.

McElroy’s wife, Trena, accused Del Clement, a local rancher and business owner, but not a single person would corroborate her story. The FBI got involved. They held over a hundred interviews but were unable to find enough evidence for an arrest warrant.

The county prosecutor, David A. Baird, was fresh out of law school and this was his first major case. He said he was confident that the case would finally be solved, and that justice would be served.

But for almost forty years the people of Skidmore have kept their silence.

But what is justice? Is it the system of trial and jury that so monumentally failed the people of Skidmore – or is it what happened that morning in the main street?

What do you think?

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Lucifer Falls effortlessly merges a shocking serial murderer novel with a police procedural dripping with authenticity.

Packed full of characters you genuinely care about, when DI Charlie George, a richly drawn North London cop, goes toe-to-toe with the deranged killer I didn’t read the last few chapters, I devoured them.

An absolute triumph.” – M.W. Craven, bestselling author of ‘The Puppet Show’ and ‘Body Breaker’ … continue reading

 

 

Colin Falconer

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ROCK MUSIC’S GREATEST MURDER MYSTERY

It’s fifty years since the death of one of rock music’s true icons; yet what really happened to him remains one of the greatest mysteries of the twentieth century.

For crime authors like me, it remains a lesson in itself; what happens in real life can never happen in fiction. Fiction, unlike real life, has to make sense.

So who killed the Rolling Stone? 

Brian Jones was the founding member of supergroup, the Rolling Stones. Bass player Bill Wyman summed up his importance: ‘No Jones, no Stones. He formed the band. He chose the members. He named the band. He chose the music we played. He got us gigs.’

His long, floppy hair, fur coats and jewellery defined the sixties counter culture. But his charisma hid a darker side. ‘I always felt sorry for Brian,’ drummer Charlie Watts said. ‘He was two things: he was not very nice, and he upset people very easily. He wasn’t very pleasant.’

A lot of women didn’t agree. Jones fathered six children with six different women, though he became increasingly violent and unstable as time went on.

He died forty years ago this week at just 27 years old, drowning in his own swimming pool after a cocktail of alcohol and drugs.

Or did he?

photo: Steve Denenberg

By 1969 Jones had been eclipsed by the swagger of Mick Jagger and the song-writing of Keith Richards and his performances in the studio were dulled by the prodigious quantities of drugs and alcohol he was taking.

His relationship with Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham also deteriorated as the band was steered away from its blues roots. In June, he was fired from the band he founded.

Three weeks later, Jones was found at the bottom of his swimming pool at his 11-acre estate at Cotchford farm in East Sussex.

The official version says there were just three guests that night; one was Jones’s girlfriend Anna Wohlin; the second was Janet Lawson, the girlfriend of Jones’s minder, an ex-paratrooper called Tom Keylock who had spent years clearing up Jones’s various drug-induced messes.

The third person was his builder, Frank Thorogood.

Thorogood, and mates Mo Tucker and Johnny Betsworth, had been hired to renovate Jones’s new home, which had once belonged to A.A. Milne, author of Winne the Pooh. Over the previous eight months Jones had paid Thorogood £18,000 (equivalent to almost £300,000 today) – an astonishing amount, when £60 a month was the going rate for a builder.

Thorogood abused his hospitality — ordering steaks from his butcher and charging them to Jones, even making hash brownies in his kitchen.

A carpet fitter called David Gibson, who visited the house just before Jones’s death said the musician wandered about the house drinking vodka, complaining that he was ‘a prisoner in his own home’ and expressing fears he would be killed.

The day he died, Jones had just sacked Thorogood, who still believed he was owed £6,000.   Wohlin said that Thorogood was ‘furious’.

That night, around 11pm, a socialite friend of Jones, Nicholas Fitzgerald, arrived at the house ‘for a party’ and saw ‘at least three men and a woman’ looking at a body floating in the pool.

He said another man, he thought it was Jones’s minder, Keylock, told him to leave – or he’d be next.

Keylock, however, maintained he wasn’t there.

Wohlin, Lawson and Thorogood later said that Jones was alone in the pool when he died. Lawson claimed she had gone off to play guitar, Thorogood said he was smoking a cigarette and Wohlin was answering the phone.

By the time medical help arrived, Jones was dead.

Oddly, Thorogood was, the first person taken away in an ambulance — to be treated for an injured wrist. It was never explained how he had come by the injury and it seemed not to raise any suspicions.

The senior investigating officer, DCI Bob Marshall, later stated there were ‘six or so’ friends of Jones with him that night. But police never established who the other three were.

They wouldn’t miss that on Law and Order.

An inquest recorded a verdict of death by misadventure, ‘drowning while under the influence of drink and drugs’ at some point over the night of July 2.

But was it an accident?

Lawson said she saw Thorogood come into the kitchen that night, just before she found Jones in the pool, shaking and ‘in a terrible state.’ 

Anna Wohlin moved back to Sweden directly after Jones’s death and later told a Swedish newspaper: ‘I don’t know if Frank meant to kill Brian. Maybe it was horseplay in the pool that went wrong. But I knew all along he did not die a natural death. I’m still sure of it.’

Was there a cover-up? It later transpired that Thorogood’s builder mate Tucker was a police informant and Keylock’s brother was a senior policeman – which gave credence to theories of a conspiracy.

There are also claims that on his deathbed in November 1993, Thorogood told Keylock he had murdered Jones. Keylock later denied this.

He also denied he was present that night at Cotchford, yet before his death in 2009 he changed his mind, telling film-maker Terry Rawlings: ‘Of course I was there. Where else would I have been? I had a job to do, and I did it.’

What is the truth?

We’ll probably never know. It’s impossible to get all the suspects in the room for a final denouement – all the main players  are now dead including Thorogood, Lawson, Tucker, Betsworth – and Keylock – who died forty years to the day after Jones.

So let’s show some sympathy for the devil – he’s the one who has to sort it out now.

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Lucifer Falls effortlessly merges a shocking serial murderer novel with a police procedural dripping with authenticity.

Packed full of characters you genuinely care about, when DI Charlie George, a richly drawn North London cop, goes toe-to-toe with the deranged killer I didn’t read the last few chapters, I devoured them.

An absolute triumph.” – M.W. Craven, bestselling author of ‘The Puppet Show’ and ‘Body Breaker’ … continue reading

 

 

Colin Falconer

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PETER PAN AND THE WORLD OF CRIME

You might not think that researching a crime novel would lead a writer to Peter Pan.

But while researching my new crime novel, LUCIFER FALLS,  the trail definitively ended with the boy who never grew up.

A crucial scene of my novel takes place in Saint Christopher’s Chapel in the Great Ormond Street Hospital and, once I was there, well – his fingerprints were all over it.

The Great Ormond Street Hospital is the largest centre for child heart surgery in Britain. It has been a trail-blazer in many areas of paediatric medicine – in 1962, staff there developed the first heart and lung bypass machine for children, and with the help of popular children’s author, Roald Dahl, they also developed an improved shunt valve for children with hydrocephalus.

The hospital itself was founded in 1852, with just ten beds, and was the first to provide in-hospital care just for children in England. Since then, patrons have included Queen Victoria, Charles Dickens and Princess Diana.

copyright: colin falconer

But it was the astonishing St Christopher’s Chapel that caught my eye.

It was designed by Edward Barry, son of the man who designed the Houses of Parliament. He donated his services to the project in memory of one of his own children, who had died in infancy.

It was built in an elaborate Franco-Italianate style, with a terrazzo floor designed by Antonio Salviati, who used the pavement in St Mark’s Basilica in Venice as his inspiration.

As it was intended to provide a place of prayer for the families of sick children, many of its details keep to that theme. The stained glass in the chapel, for instance, depicts the Nativity and Jesus’s childhood.

But what really sets the chapel apart is the row of teddy bears and other soft toys on a ledge behind the altar, left behind by families of sick children, and known as the “Teddy Bear Choir”. Unfortunately, the day we visited, the teddy bears had been removed for cleaning. I guess some of them have been cuddling up there for a very long time.

There is also a prayer tree where prayers can be left for sick children at the hospital.

The chapel is both moving and astonishing at the same time.

And the connection to Peter Pan?

John Barrie, the author of the book and the play, had supported the hospital for many years. In 1929 he was asked to sit on a committee to help raise much-needed funds. He declined, but said he might be able to help in another way. Two months later, the board was stunned to discover that Barrie had donated the royalties from his Peter Pan works to Great Ormond Street.

His only caveat was that the amount raised for the hospital never be revealed. The Board has honoured that promise.

Whatever the final figure, it was an extravagant gift.

The House of Lords sprinkled more fairy dust on it in 1988, when it voted for a special clause to be inserted in the Copyright Designs & Patents Act, that would allow the hospital the right to those royalties in perpetuity.

And the connection to the crime world? The chapel figures in a keynote scene in my new novel, LUCIFER FALLS, which has just been published in London by Little, Brown.

You can get it in your local bookstore anywhere in the UK and Commonwealth. In the US you can order online or get a Kindle copy from Amazon.

Until then, stay young.

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Lucifer Falls effortlessly merges a shocking serial murderer novel with a police procedural dripping with authenticity.

Packed full of characters you genuinely care about, when DI Charlie George, a richly drawn North London cop, goes toe-to-toe with the deranged killer I didn’t read the last few chapters, I devoured them.

An absolute triumph.” – M.W. Craven, bestselling author of ‘The Puppet Show’ and ‘Body Breaker’ continue reading

 

 

Colin Falconer

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THE FIRST FEMALE SLEUTH IN HISTORY

Imagine, if you can, a time before Miss Marple, before Kay Scarpetta, before Prime Suspect and Jane Tennison; before Jodie Foster earned her stripes at the FBI by finding the Buffalo Bill killer.

Before women’s suffrage and the right to vote.

That time is August 22, 1856, and the day Allan Pinkerton hired the first-ever female sleuth. Her name was Kate Warne.

Kate, then just twenty-three years old, came to Pinkerton’s Chicago office one afternoon and said she was a widow, and that she needed a job. No, she didn’t want to be a secretary, thanks very much.

She wanted to be a detective, like Pinkerton.

A female detective? This was unheard of in those days but Pinkerton heard her out.

She persuaded him that a woman “could go and worm out secrets in many places to which it is impossible for male detectives to gain access.” Men become braggarts when they are around women, she said, they tell them things they would never tell another man.

That made sense to him, so he decided to give her a chance.

He never regretted his decision. Under Pinkerton, she became the world’s first female detective – and one of the best.

Two years after she was hired, Kate scored her first major case. She was sent to investigate reports of embezzlement at the Adams Express Company. The loss was fifty thousand dollars, a massive sum in those days.

Kate went undercover and befriended the wife of an expressman called Nathan Maroney who was believed to be the culprit. Mrs. Maroney’s whispered confidences to her new friend led to Kate tracking down almost all of the stolen money, which was hidden in a boarding house cellar.

Nathan Maroney got ten years in prison.

By 1860, Pinkerton was so impressed with her work that he opened a Female Detective Bureau – putting her in charge of trailblazing women such as Hattie Lawton and Elizabeth H. Baker.

The following year she repaid his faith in her by saving the life of the President-elect. A man named Abraham Lincoln.

Pinkerton had received a tip-off about a plot to assassinate the new president as he passed through Baltimore on his way to Washington, DC, to take office. Kate, dressed as a Southern belle, and adopting an accent thicker than Scarlett O’Hara, infiltrated Confederate social circles in Baltimore to gather details on the whispered plan.

It seemed Lincoln was to be ambushed at Baltimore’s Calvert Street railroad station. While a mock brawl distracted police officers and railroad guards, Lincoln would be left at the mercy of a conveniently-placed secessionist mob.

Kate helped Pinkerton devise and carry out a scheme to get Lincoln safely to Washington. Being the tall and distinct man that he was, Lincoln stood out in a crowd. So they disguised him as an invalid and Kate played the role of his sister. They boarded the night train without incident and Lincoln arrived unharmed in the capital.

It is said that Kate did not sleep a wink on the overnight trip from Pennsylvania to Washington D.C. and that was how Pinkerton came up with his agency’s slogan: “We never sleep”.

During the Civil War Pinkerton placed her in charge of the Union Intelligence Service, a forerunner of the Secret Service, in order to obtain information about the Confederacy’s resources and plans.

Kate again used her Scarlett O’Hara routine to penetrate Confederate social gatherings, providing information for the Army of the Potomac under General George McClellan. She was lucky, but another of Pinkerton’s agents, Timothy Webster, wasn’t. Unmasked as a Union agent he was hanged in Richmond on April 29, 1862.

Back home in Washington, DC, Kate helped break up a spy ring run by Confederate sympathizer Rose O’Neal Greenhow, rewriting Greenhow’s ciphered dispatches to Southern leaders with useless or false information.

After the war, Kate continued to work on various high-profile cases, such as the murder of bank teller George Gordon who was bludgeoned to death with a hammer while carrying the astronomical sum of $130,000.

Going undercover as “Mrs. Potter”, she again befriended the wife of the chief suspect, who inadvertently led her to where her husband had hidden the money.

Allan Pinkerton named Kate one of the five best detectives he ever had. Her employment by Pinkerton was a significant moment in the history of policing. She was a true pioneer; no woman was commissioned into the uniformed police either in the United States or Europe until Marie Owens in Chicago, in 1891.

Kate seemed set for a long, high-flying career with Pinkerton’s. 

But sadly, in January of 1868, Kate contracted a lung infection, possibly pneumonia. Antibiotics were not yet available, and she died a few weeks later. Pinkerton, now her lover, stayed by her side until the end. She was just thirty-five years old.

She was buried in the Pinkerton family plot in Chicago’s Graceland Cemetery, directly beside the spot reserved for Pinkerton himself.

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“Lucifer Falls effortlessly merges a shocking serial murderer novel with a police procedural dripping with authenticity.

Packed full of characters you genuinely care about, when DI Charlie George, a richly drawn North London cop, goes toe-to-toe with the deranged killer I didn’t read the last few chapters, I devoured them.

An absolute triumph.”

M.W. Craven, bestselling author of ‘The Puppet Show’ and ‘Body Breaker’ … continue reading

 

Colin Falconer

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SERIAL KILLING – FOR SCIENCE

This is the story of two men who murdered almost thirty people – for a good cause.

Back in 1823, the British Parliament’s Judgement of Death Act saw capital punishment figures drop dramatically.

Good news for criminals; bad news for science.

At the time, the only bodies legally approved for dissection were criminals, suicide victims and unclaimed orphans – so the medical profession found itself facing a cadaver shortage for anatomical research.

Medical schools began offering serious money for fresh corpses. As a consequence, grave-robbing became a very lucrative criminal enterprise. So lucrative that watch towers were constructed inside cemeteries, iron cages were installed over graves and armed guards were even hired to patrol cemeteries at night.

Two notorious Irishmen solved this problem; they stole the bodies before they were dead.

William Burke and William Hare were navvies who originally came to Edinburgh in Scotland to work on the Union Canal. They met when Burke and his mistress Helen McDougal moved into lodgings in Tanner’s Close. Hare lived on the same street, where he ran a boarding house with a woman called Margaret Laird.

When one of Hare’s tenants, an elderly pensioner called ‘Old Donald’, died owing £4.00 in rent, Hare decided to recover the debt by selling the corpse to Professor Robert Knox, an anatomy lecturer at Edinburgh University. He got seven pounds and ten shillings, thus turning a handy profit.

It might have ended there, and no one would have known. But of course, it didn’t.

Instead, it gave Hare an idea …

When another tenant named Joseph took ill, but selfishly refused to die, Hare suggested to his new friend Burke that they could help Nature along and also make some easy money for themselves. One of them held Joseph down while the other suffocated him with a pillow. This method left the body unblemished for anatomical study. (The practice later became known as ‘Burking’.)

Joseph’s remains proved to be another nice earner.

Burke and Hare’s lodgers came and went quickly. Knox was offering between seven to ten pounds for a good corpse.

But soon the pair became careless.

They started to look elsewhere for prospective corpses. A poor fellow known as ‘Daft Jamie’ might have been an easy mark, but he was also a well-known character around the city. When Knox pulled back the sheet covering his latest cadaver, several of the students recognized him.

Knox said no, this can’t be Jamie, and quickly removed the young man’s head and feet. Jamie’s feet were deformed and caused him to walk with a distinctive limp. Knox thus rendered the remains unidentifiable.

But the story got around and people began to gossip.

The pair’s final victim was one of Burke’s tenants, a woman called Marjory Docherty. Two of his other lodgers became suspicious when they discovered her body stuffed under a bed. This, as they say, was a vital clue.

They called the police but by the time they arrived, Marjory’s body had already been sold to Knox. But Burke and Hare, and their mistresses, Helen McDougal and Margaret Laird, were arrested. They gave conflicting accounts of what had happened, with Burke and Hare each blaming each other.

The police finally discovered Marjory’s body in Knox’s lecture hall, and another tenant identified clothes found at Hare’s lodging house as those belonging to another missing woman, Mary Patterson. But police still did not have enough hard evidence to secure a murder conviction, so Hare was offered immunity in return for testifying against the others.

Based on his testimony, Burke was convicted of murder and sentenced to death by hanging. The complicity of the two women was deemed ‘not proven’ under Scottish Law. They fled and were never heard from again.

Burke’s skeleton: Kim Traynor

But the public didn’t approve of Hare’s immunity deal. He was described at the time as “evidently the greatest villain of the two”.

On his release, he had to be rescued from an angry mob. The police spirited him to safety across the border using decoy coaches and disguises. It is said that he lived out the rest of his days as a blind beggar in London, but that might just be wishful thinking.

Knox was cleared of his involvement in the murders, but his reputation was ruined, and he fled Edinburgh.

And William Burke?

He was hanged at Lawnmarket in front of a boisterous, cheering crowd of over 25,000 on 28 January 1829. After being put on public display, his body was … donated to medical science.

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Colin Falconer

If you like crime stories and crime fiction as much as I do, then you might like my new detective series with Di Charlie George. It’s published by Little, Brown in London. Here’s a short two minute video I produced for the Australian sales team – starring Charlie and George …

 

 

 

THE SERIAL KILLER WHO WON A TV DATING SHOW

I’ve just started work on the next Charlie George novel (I’ve just signed with Little, Brown in London to write the third and fourth books in the series.)

While researching it continues to astonish me the kind of real life crime stories that are out there.

Like the serial killer who won a TV dating show.

Back in the seventies, long before reality TV like The Bachelorette, Americans watched a different kind of dating show: The Dating Game. It featured a woman asking three men – who sat unseen on the other side of a screen – questions about themselves.

It was outrageously popular – Steve Martin, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ron Howard, Sally Field and even a young Michael Jackson all appeared on the show.

Then, on September 13, 1978, host Jim Lange introduced that day’s Contestant Number One, “a successful photographer, who got his start when his father found him in the darkroom at the age of 13, fully developed.”

He was good-looking with long dark hair, and in his mid-thirties. He was also supremely sure of himself. Before the show he told another contestant: “I always get the girl.’”

This show’s “girl”, Cheryl Bradshaw, asked him on camera: “I am serving you for dinner—what are you called, and what do you look like?”.

His answer: “I’m called the banana and I look really good … peel me.”

It might make you cringe now, but TV was different in those days. Cheryl thought his replies were funny and she chose him as her date.

What she didn’t know then was that her date’s name was Rodney Alcala – and he had just got out of prison following an horrific attack on an eight-year old girl.

For Cheryl, reality TV was about to become a little too real.

 

In 1968, ten years before appearing on The Dating Game, Alcala had lured eight-year-old Tali Shapiro into his Hollywood apartment. But luckily for her, someone saw him and called the police. By the time they arrived she was still alive – but only just.

Alcala fled to New York. Authorities finally tracked him down and extradited him to California to face court. But Tali’s parents, concerned for their daughter’s state of mind, refused to allow her to testify. Unable to convict him without their primary witness, prosecutors had to let Alcala to plead guilty to the lesser charge of assault.

After serving just thirteen months in jail, he was released and went on a killing spree that would make him one of the worst serial killers in US history.

It was nine months after his appearance on The Dating Game that he was finally caught. A pair of earrings found among Alcala’s possessions tied him to the murder of Robin Samsoe, a 12-year-old girl from Huntingdon Beach who had disappeared on her way to ballet class. 

Alcala was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death, but the verdict was overturned on a technicality. It took 6 years to put him back on trial. He was convicted again but in 2001 an appeals court once more overturned the conviction on a further technicality.

Before a third trial could get under way, cold case investigations led to Alcala’s indictment for the murders of four other women in the late nineteen seventies. In February 2010, Alcala stood trial on the five joined charges.

In this third trial, Alcala elected to act as his own attorney, even questioning himself in a bizarre five-hour testimony in which he addressed himself as “Mr. Alcala” in a baritone, and then answered himself in a normal voice.

His theatrics couldn’t save him. In March 2010, Alcala was sentenced to death for a third time.

A year later, a Manhattan grand jury indicted him for the murders of Cornelia Crilley, a TWA flight attendant, in 1971 and Ellen Hover, the daughter of a popular nightclub owner and goddaughter of both Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin.

Seattle police had already named Alcala as a “person of interest” in the unsolved murders of two other teenagers in the same period.

Other cold cases were reportedly targeted for re-investigation in California, New York, New Hampshire and Arizona.

Prosecutors now believe his actual number of victims – including young children – could exceed that of Ted Bundy.

And Cheryl Bradshaw?

After the show he promised her a date “she would never forget.” But something about him set alarm bells ringing. She changed her mind about her choice and later said she left the studio convinced she never wanted to see him again.

The decision almost certainly saved her life.

As for Alcala, he remains in California State Prison to this day awaiting yet further appeals of his death sentences.

If you enjoyed this post, get one just like it straight to your email every week. Subscribe here.

Love great crime stories?

 

 

Lucifer Falls effortlessly merges a shocking serial murderer novel with a police procedural dripping with authenticity.

Packed full of characters you genuinely care about, when DI Charlie George, a richly drawn North London cop, goes toe-to-toe with the deranged killer I didn’t read the last few chapters, I devoured them.

An absolute triumph.” – M.W. Craven, bestselling author of ‘The Puppet Show’ and ‘Body Breaker’ continue reading

 

 

Colin Falconer

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