Monthly Archives: March 2010

Jessie and Frank: Myths and Truths

So here I am in my hometown of Huntsville, AL for the launch of STRESS FRACTURE. Today we took our morning walk around Big Spring Park, the birthplace of the city. Big Spring erupts from one of the many limestone caverns that stretch out beneath the city and indeed much of North Alabama. Spelunking is big around here. It was on the banks of this spring that John Hunt settled, laying claim to what would become the Rocket City.

Big Spring Park

When I was kid, the park had a baseball field where I played Little League and streams and ponds where my cousin David and I sank more than a few toy boats. It was also a place where you could pull wads of water cress from the water and safely eat them or take them home for a dinner salad. Huntsville was the world’s water cress capitol.

It’s changed. Gone are the ball fields and the open land. But what remains is beautiful, particularly in the spring when the cherry and pear tress bloom. Like today.

Big Spring Park and the Von Braun Center

While walking, I was reminded of the story of when the James Gang robbed the First National Bank. A shoot out followed and Frank was captured. Jesse dove off the rock wall behind the bank and into Big Spring.

Big Spring origin and what was the First National Bank

He swam through the opening in the rock face where Big Spring originates and into the subterranean caverns, escaping the law and hiding out for a couple of days. Slipping away, he reorganized his gang and threatened to burn the city to the ground unless Frank was set free. Frank was released and he and Jesse headed north to the family farm just over the border in Tennessee. The city was saved.

Subterranean cavern entry beneath the bank

This was one of the great stories of my youth. What an adventure. How I wished I could have been around in the 1880s and witness this amazing event.

Only one problem. It never happened. True the James boys and their long-time accomplices the Youngers robbed banks and trains together and the James clan did indeed have a farm up in Tennessee. The rest? Not true.

Frank was jailed and tried in Huntsville in 1884, not for robbing the First National Bank, but for a 1881 payroll robbery in nearby Muscle Shoals, a city more recently famous for its music studio where artists such as Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Rod Stewart, and the Rolling Stones recorded.

On March 11, 1881, Jesse, Frank, Bill Ryan, and Wood Hite held up a federal paymaster and made off with $5200, no small amount in 1881. Frank and Jesse fled to Missouri, Jesse was killed in 1882, and in 1884 Frank was brought back to Huntsville to stand trial. It attracted media from all over and Frank was treated as a celebrity. He was also acquitted.

A great story, but the myth was better.


Posted by on March 31, 2010 in Interesting Cases


STRESS FRACTURE Launch Party and Crime Writers’ Workshops

STRESS FRACTURE, the first in my new Dub Walker series, is set for release Thursday, April 1st.


To mark the release, I have several events scheduled that might be of interest to any of you in the Huntsville, Alabama area. Why Huntsville? My hometown and the setting for the new series.

The events will be held at the Huntsville-Madison County Public Library on Saturday, April 3rd.

Location:    915 Monroe St.
Huntsville, AL

There will be a Launch Party/Library Fund Raiser from 6:30-9:00 p.m. The talk I will give is titled “Plotting the Perfect Murder: Learning to Think Like a Crime Writer” and there will be a reception, catered party, and book signing. The cost is $25 per person.

Earlier the same day I will give three Crime Writers Workshops. They run from 2-5 p.m. and are free. The classes will be:

The Psychology of Character Motivation

The Autopsy of a Thriller: Deconstructing “The Terminator”

Forensics Q&A: Bring your medical and forensic story questions

I hope to see many of you there. It’ll be a fun day.

An added event will be a Forensic Discussion and signing of my previous book FORENSICS FOR DUMMIES. This will take place at the Bridge Street Barnes & Noble on Thursday, April 1 from 4-6 p.m.
Barnes & Noble

300 Bridge Street Town Center, Suite 100

Huntsville, AL



Posted by on March 28, 2010 in Writing


Vampire Unearthed in Italy–No, Really

Recently, an archaeological dig near Venice, Italy turned up a female skeleton with a brick wedged in the mouth. Forensic archaeologist and anthropologist Matteo Borrini suggested that this unusual finding indicates that her neighbors must have believed she was a vampire since the brick could be part of an ancient vampire-slaying ritual. It was felt that if you forced a an object such as a brick into the mouth of the vampire they could no longer feed on the blood they needed and would therefore starve to death. That makes sense to me. I imagine it’s hard to bite someone’s neck if you have a brick in your mouth.

Why was this woman believed to be a vampire or for that matter why was anyone labeled this way? It’s possible that some of the ancient vampire stories come from the paucity of knowledge about body decomposition. As a body decays, the stomach contents, the lungs and other organs in the body, and the brain tissue begins to break down. This turns into a blackish liquid that will come out the nose and the mouth. We call these purge fluids. These very dark liquids, even today, can be mistaken for old blood and confused with pre-mortem traumatic injuries. Back then, it is easy to see that people might believe this to be evidence that the person had been a blood drinker.

The excavation where this unfortunate woman’s exhumation occurred was a 16th century burial ground where many victims of the black plague that hit Venice in 1576 were laid to rest. As the body count climbed, grave sites would be reopened so that more bodies could be dumped into the same site. Perhaps the burial party saw these purge fluids on some of the corpses and believed that they must have been vampires, who were now, in death, regurgitating their bloody meals.

Somehow this doesn’t conger up images of Sookie Stackhouse or Bella Swan.


Cats, Dogs, and DNA

Some criminal cases are simply cool and this is one of them. Chrisdian Johnson’s dog told on him. Not in a Lassie-goes-and-tells-mom-you’re-in-trouble kind of way but more a Gotcha way.

On March 19th in London, Johnson was sentenced to 24 years in jail for the murder of 16-year-old Seyi Ogunyemi. It seems that Johnson used his pit bull, who he named Tyson, in an attack on Seyi. Once the dog brought Seyi down, Johnson stabbed the young man six times killing him. Johnson, now covered with blood, was arrested as he fled the scene. The blood turned out to be that of Tyson rather than Johnson’s or, more importantly, that of the victim. Apparently the dog had received injuries during the attack. DNA analysis showed that the blood on Johnson’s clothes and the blood found at the scene belonged to Tyson, which put Johnson at the scene of the crime even though he had not left his own DNA there. Sometimes things just work out.

This case reminds me of the famous Snowball the Cat case. In 1994, Shirley Duguay of Prince Edward Island disappeared. A few days later her corpse, along with a blood-soaked leather jacket, was discovered in a shallow grave. The blood turned out to be Duguay’s, but investigators noticed that the jacket also carried white cat hairs. Her estranged husband, Douglas Beamish, owned a white cat named Snowball. Blood taken from Snowball generated a DNA profile that matched that of the cat hairs found on the jacket, placing Beamish at the burial site. The DNA conclusively showed that those hairs didn’t just come from just any white cat, but rather from Snowball. Beamish was convicted in this landmark case, the first that utilized animal DNA to gain a conviction.

University of California, Davis scientists are currently collecting a database of cat hair Mitochondrial DNA so we might see more of this interesting technique in the future.


Posted by on March 22, 2010 in DNA, Interesting Cases


On This Day: Sarin Gas Released in Tokyo Subway

On this day in 1995, the Japanese religious sect Aum Shinrikyo released sarin gas in the Tokyo subway, killing 12 people. The body count could have been much higher but they used a relatively impure form of Sarin. Sarin gas is one of the most toxic substances known. It has its origins in Germany in 1938 when two scientists came up with a formula. Initially developed as a pesticide, its profound toxic effects soon led it being used as a weapon of chemical terrorism. It was used as recently as 2004 by terrorist factions in Iraq. They attempted to make a binary weapon in which two precursor chemicals were placed in artillery shells where the chemicals would mix as the shell spun during flight, creating Sarin gas. It didn’t work very well and only a small amount of gas was released.

Sarin and its close relatives Tabun, Soman, and VX are potent neuromuscular toxins. They belong to the group known as acetylcholinesterase inhibitors. In medicine, there are several useful medications that belong to this family, but these toxic gases represent a serious terrorist threat.

Here’s how they work: Many of the things that go on inside our bodies are the result of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. In the case of something like wiggling your finger, your brain sends an impulse down the nerves. The impulse causes the end of these nerves to release acetylcholine into a synaptic junction between the nerve and muscle. The acetylcholine then stimulates receptors on the muscle side that tell it to contract. Other chemical reactions within the muscle then causes the contraction to occur. The acetylcholine is then rapidly destroyed by an enzyme we call acetylcholinesterase. This removes the acetylcholine from the muscle receptor site and the muscle relaxes. If the acetylcholine is not destroyed in this fashion, the muscle would continue to contract and that is not a desired situation.

These toxic gases interfere with, or inhibit, the acetylcholinesterase enzymes so that indeed the acetylcholine reaction continues. This leads to widespread dysfunctions throughout the body. The muscles can contract in powerful convulsive reactions. The nose and eyes can water severely and drooling is profound. Nausea and vomiting can occur. Constriction of the pupils to pinpoints as well as loss of control of bowel and bladder can follow. Chest pain, shortness of breath, collapse, seizures, and death is the end result. It is an extremely unfortunate way to die.


Stupid Criminals: Jennifer Mercado

Here’s a suggestion: If you’re sitting on a jury, don’t commit the crime that you’ve been charged with passing judgment on. Unfortunately, Jennifer Mercado didn’t get the message.

Allegedly, while sitting on credit card theft case in a Bronx courtroom, Mercado lifted an American Express card from fellow juror John Postrk’s coat and went on a three-day shopping spree, during the trial’s lunch breaks. Apparently American Express noticed the unusual activity and notified Mr. Postrk. Once the police became involved one store’s security tapes revealed the shopping spree.

When charged with grand larceny, stolen property, identity theft, and unlawful use of a credit card and confronted with the evidence, Mercado confessed to using the card. Her defense now seems to be that Mr. Postrk was hitting on her and allowed her to use his credit card. More to follow.

Does this sound like a Carl Hiaasen novel to anyone else?

New York Daily News Story

Leave a comment

Posted by on March 19, 2010 in Stupid Criminals


Brain Chemicals and Psychopathic Pleasure

Psychopath, sociopath, borderline personality disorder, choose your terminology but it is often felt that these coldhearted individuals are driven more by a lack of empathy and concern than anything else. They are often self-centered narcissist who want what they want, when they want it, and to hell with everyone else. They are often impulsive, callous, and completely unafraid of consequences.

They are portrayed in movies by such characters as Hannibal Lecter, who move through life taking what they want and caring little about others. In Hannibal’s case there is the possible exception of Clarice Starling, who I think he had a thing for. So he wasn’t completely socially un-redeemable and did have at least this one saving grace, as good literary villains should. Hannibal could be charming and gracious when it served his purposes and I suspect he would make a great dinner companion, unless you’re on the menu.

Previous research into psychopathy has suggested that psychopaths showed less activity in the areas of the brain involved in emotional responses and therefore they were considered to be less emotional and more impulsive. It was also known that psychopaths tend to abuse drugs and alcohol more frequently than the general population and that the abuse of these drugs stimulates certain areas of the brain, particularly the nucleus accumbens, an area that seems to be important in reward processing and drug addiction.

New research now suggests that there might be another driving force behind psychopathic behavior. Rather than being devoid of feelings it just might turn out that they are seeking a chemical high. Joshua Buckholtz, a Neuroscientist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, has conducted an interesting study in which he examined brain dopamine levels in persons with sociopathic tendencies. He gathered 30 volunteers who scored toward the sociopathic end of the spectrum in personality testing. He avoided complete sociopaths since they often abused drugs and this could have altered his study, which employed an amphetamine-like drug that attached to dopamine producing neurons. The drug was radioactively labeled so that the amount that attached to certain areas of the test subjects’ brains could be analyzed.

What he found was that those that scored the highest for antisocial impulsivity produced more dopamine than did those who scored lower for the straight. Dopamine is considered a reward chemical in that things that give us pleasure tend to increase the amount of dopamine within certain areas of the brain. It seems that dopamine similarly served as a “reward chemical” in these individuals, suggesting that those with sociopathic tendencies are rewarded for their abnormal behavior by having high levels of dopamine within the brain.

So rather than being completely devoid of emotion and feeling, it might be that some sociopaths are driven by a chemical need. I am reminded of the wonderful Michael Crichton book and movie The Terminal Man.

In this story, Harry Benson was afflicted with temporal lobe epilepsy, also called psychomotor epilepsy. This is seizure activity that occurs in the area of the temporal lobe, amygdala, and limbic system, areas that are associated with emotion and sometimes violent behavior and personality disorders. Harry indeed was bothered by this and had violent outburst. To prevent his violent behavior, a brain pacemaker was placed so that when it sensed the onset of a seizure fired a small electrical impulse that shut down the seizure.

Unfortunately, Harry’s brain started to like the electrical jolt and therefore learned to create more of these temporal lobe seizures in order to receive the reward. It became a vicious circle. A great book and a very good movie so if you haven’t read the book or seen the movie do so.

All this raises the question as to whether psychopaths are following the same path. Maybe their antisocial behavior leads to a chemical reward and in turn the reward stimulates more antisocial behavior. The cat keeps chasing his tail. It’ll be interesting to see how future research in this area turns out.

Regardless of where future research takes us, this is good stuff for fiction.

%d bloggers like this: