Category Archives: On This Day

On This Day in Criminal History: The Manson Family

I stood at the end of the road, beneath a clear blue LA sky, fingers gripping the lattice of the 10-foot high chain-link gate. A loose padlocked chain prevented the gate from swinging open and allowing access to the property beyond.

It was May, 1975. I was nearing completion of the first year of my Cardiology Fellowship at the Texas Heart Institute in Houston. This was my first trip to California. I had first gone to San Francisco to run in the Bay To Breakers race and had then flown down to LA to see my friend Ben. He lived in Marina del Rey. I had gotten in late the night before so I had seen little of LA.

The next morning, Ben asked, “So this is your first day in LA. What do you want to see?”
“Do you know where Benedict Canyon is?”
“That’s where I want to go.”
“You’ll see.”

So off we went. Once onto Benedict Canyon Drive, we quickly found Cielo Drive and turned up the hill. Isolated, quite, tree-shaded. My heart rate amped up, palms moistened. This was the road the killer’s walked up. I could almost hear their footsteps, their laughter. For them, this was a party. This was for Charlie. Then there it was. The gate the killer’s had climbed. 10050. End of the road.

Tate Gate

Why were we there?

It was so quite, one of the killers would later say, you could almost hear the sound of ice rattling in cocktail shakers in the homes way down the canyon.

And later on Page 1:

Cielo Drive is a narrow street that abruptly winds upward from Benedict Canyon Road. One of its cul-de-sacs, easily missed though directly opposite Bella Drive, comes to a dead end at the high gate of 10050.

This from Vincent Bugliosi’s 1974 masterpiece Helter Skelter. I had just finished reading it, one of the most disturbing books I’ve ever encountered. As someone who grew up in the quiet and safe South of the 1950s, where we didn’t even have a house key, this story was like cold water in the face. Or maybe battery acid. While reading, I would often put the book down, take a few breaths and try to envision this being true. It simply read like crime fiction. It read like something generated in a creative, if sick, mind. But this was not fiction. This was very real.

So, here I stood, at the end of Cielo Drive, looking through that gate, searching for something, anything, that would attach a physical anchor to this story. I needed proof, concrete evidence.

Tate House

Of course, nothing was as it had been that hot August night in 1969.

There was no Steve Parent sitting in his car, slashed by Tex Watson’s knife and shot four times. No Wojciech Frykowski sprawled in the front yard punctured by two bullets and 51 stab wounds. No Abigail Folger in the back yard, white dress crimson from 28 stab wounds. Inside, things had been worse. Sharon Tate and Jay Sebring, a rope that stretched up and over a ceiling beam around their necks, waited for a similar fate. When Sharon begged for them to save her baby, Susan Atkins, aka Sexy Sadie, aka Sadie Mae Glutz, said, “I don’t care about you or your baby.” She then stabbed Sharon 16 times and used her blood to scribble the word “PIG” on a door.

Tate, Sharon

Charlie had told them where to go and what to do. Though he wasn’t present, Tex Watson, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Linda Kasabian followed his orders to the letter. After all, he was Charlie. Jesus to them.


Hard to believe it’s been 40 years.

The next night, Leno and Rosemary LaBianca fell victim to Charlie’s madness. This time, Charlie was there. He entered the home and tied up the couple. Then the same cast of characters plus Leslie Van Houten brutally murdered the LaBianca’s. More blood messages: Death To Pigs, Rise, and Healter Skelter. The misspelling of Helter would play a role in the trial.

Why? What was Charlie’s deal? Helter Skelter. Something Charlie supposedly dreamed up while listening to The Beatles’ White Album. I listened to that album hundreds of times. Guess I didn’t get the message. Helter Skelter was Charlie’s vision of a coming race war. One he would ignite with these murders. One where the blacks would win but would not have the skills to run the world and would come to him and ask him to take over. Really?

To quote the late great Sam Kinison: It’s a f__king album! You were on acid, Manson! It’s a f__king album! You’d have gotten the same message out of the Monkees, you f__kin’ d_ckhead.

I miss Sam.

Kinison, Sam

Charles Manson Wikipedia

Sharon Tate Wikipedia

Six Degrees of Helter Skelter


On This Day in Criminal History: William Kemmler & the Electric Chair

On this day in 1890, convicted murderer William Kemmler became the first person executed by the use of electricity. It didn’t go well. Kemmler required two shocks, the initial was 1000 V, which did not kill him, and the second was 2000 V, which might have set him on fire, according to some witnesses.


It seems that Kemmler was a hard drinker and filled with jealous rage. When he became angry with his wife, arguing that she was planning to leave him for another man, he went to the barn, grabbed an ax, and hacked her to death. He freely admitted what he had done and at his trial was easily convicted and sentenced to death. Arguments followed that electrocution was cruel and inhumane, but in the end the courts decided that the newly devised electric chair could be used.

Kemmler and the Electric Chair

Excerpt from “Far Worse Than Hanging”


Posted by on August 6, 2009 in Interesting Cases, On This Day


On This Day in Criminal History: Wild Bill Hickok

Aces and Eights. The “Dead Man’s Hand.”

Few people in American History have been as popular as William “Wild Bill” Hickok. He served as a Constable, a Sheriff, a Marshall, a Union scout during the Civil War, a scout for George Armstrong Custer during the Indian Wars, a stage actor, and a gunfighter. Folklore and movies tend to highlight this last “occupation.” It helped that Bill was famous for carrying a pair of silver-plated, ivory-handled Colts. He wore one on each hip, stuffed backwards beneath his belt or sash, where they could be easily snatched with a cross-draw. Way cool.


Bill even had a groupie. Calamity Jane (Martha Jane Cannary-Burke) followed him for years and even claimed they had once married. Not true, but she is buried next to him at the Mount Moriah Cemetery in Deadwood.


The Hollywood cliche of two men standing in the middle of the street, facing one another, guns on hip, each waiting for the other to make a move. Then the quick draw, one goes down, the other walks away. Remember the great Gary Cooper in 1952’s High Noon? This happened only rarely in the old west, most law men and bad guys preferring an ambush over possibly getting shot themselves.

But on July 21, 1865, Wild Bill just might have been involved in the very first such showdown. He and Davis Tutt apparently had a disagreement over whether Tutt could wear Hickok’s watch, which he was holding as collateral on a $35 gambling debt. Tutt wore the watch, Hickok took offense, and the two met in the street to settle the dispute. It is believed they stood about 75 yards apart, and given the inaccuracy of handguns at that time it is a minor miracle either hit the other. Turns out they shot at about the same time and indeed Tutt missed. Wild Bill didn’t. Tutt died in the street.

Hickok was arrested for murder. The charges were reduced to manslaughter and Bill was eventually tried but acquitted, mainly because it was deem to be a “fair fight.”

On August 2, 1876, Hickok played poker at Nuttal & Mann’s Saloon in Deadwood, a mining town in the Black Hills of the Dakota Territory (now South Dakota). Hickok’s habit was to sit in a corner chair, facing the door so that no one could sneak up on him. This day there was no seat available so he sat with his back to the door. A fatal error.

Though no one is exactly sure what the motive was, the fact is that Jack McCall walked in, aimed his .45 caliber revolver at the back of Bill’s head, and pulled the trigger. Bill fell dead. He held a pair of aces and a pair of eights. The fifth card of his hand is still debated.

McCall was tried for murder and acquitted, but he made the mistake of bragging about what he had done. He was retried, convicted, and hanged. The US Constitutional protection against double jeopardy did not apply since the Dakota Territory was not part of the US, but rather was still Indian Territory.

Wild Bill Hickok


Posted by on August 2, 2009 in Interesting Cases, On This Day


On This Day in Criminal History: Charles Whitman

I do not quite understand what it is that compels me to type this letter. Perhaps it is to leave some vague reason for the actions I have recently performed. I do not really understand myself these days. I am supposed to be an average reasonable and intelligent young man. However, lately (I cannot recall when it started) I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts.

So wrote Charles Whitman shortly before he walked into the annals of criminal history.


The year was 1966. It was a clean, clear summer day in Austin, TX when ex-Marine Charles Joseph Whitman dragged a heavy footlocker to the 28th Floor Observation Deck of the tower on the campus at the University of Texas. Earlier, just after midnight, he had stabbed his mother to death at her home and then in the early morning hours did the same to his sleeping wife. He then headed to the UT campus.


The footlocker contained an M1 carbine, a shotgun, a Remington 700 Bolt-action rifle, a Remington .35 caliber pump-action rifle, a .357 Magnum revolver, a 9 mm German Luger, and enough ammo to start a small war. Which is exactly what Whitman did.

Whitman fired his first shot at 11:48 a.m. Shooting at any target in sight, he killed 14 and wound another 32 from his perch on the 300-foot tower. Besides his amazingly accurate sniping, he exchanged gunfire with locals for what seemed an eternity before Austin PD officers Ramiro Martinez and Houston McCoy made their way to the observation deck. Confronting Whitman, Martinez emptied his .38 caliber revolver and McCoy fired two loads of 00 buckshot into Whitman, ending one of the largest and most famous episodes of mass murder in US history.

In an earlier post, I discussed the differences among mass, spree, and serial killers. Whitman is the classic mass murderer. As I said then, most mass killers have a grudge or a deep seated anger against society or some group or organization. Whitman had such issues but his story has an odd twist.

His autopsy, which he requested be done in the letters and notes he left behind, revealed that he had a glioblastoma, a nasty and malignant brain tumor. Did Whitman sense something was wrong within? His notes would suggest so.

The debate over what pushed Charles Whitman off the mental rails remains until today. Did his court martial from the Marines provoke his anger? Did the amphetamines he reputedly used cause his angry and apparently psychotic behavior? Did his brain tumor turn him into Mr. Hyde?

The brain is a complex and poorly understood organ. Tumors in or near the brain can cause a multitude of problems, such as paralysis, blindness, the inability to speak or understand speech, loss of memory, seizures, confusion, disorientation, and altered behavior, which can be aggressive, delusional, and even psychotic. The defect produced by a tumor depends upon what area of the brain is damaged or placed under pressure by the growing malignancy. For example, a tumor that involves the occipital area (the back of the brain), where the visual cortex resides, can lead to blindness. One that effects what is known as Broca’s area–the speech area–can lead to the inability to speak intelligibly or to understand the spoken word.

The glioblastoma found in Whitman’s brain sat in the base of the brain in an area known as the hypothalmus. The amygdala lies nearby. This is important since the amygdala, which is part of the larger limbic system, is involved in emotional modulation and reaction. Damage to the is area can easily cause emotional and behavioral alterations. Whitman’s tumor was small, but it remains possible that it, at least partially, accounted for his dramatic change in behavior.

We will never know the real reason Whitman went on his rampage, but we will remember his actions forever.



On This Day in Criminal History: The Atlanta Olympic Bombing and the Birth of VISAR

I’m sure you all remember the bombing at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, GA. What you might not know is that this event gave birth to the Video Image Stabilization and Registration (VISAR) system. This is the system law enforcement uses to clear up, stabilize, and enhance video images to help read licenses plates, ID convenience store robbers, and close in on abductors caught in security cameras.

As part of the investigation into the Olympic bombing, the Southest Bomb Task Force of the FBI approached Dr. David Hathaway and Paul Mayer at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL, my home town. I had the pleasure of meeting and talking with Dr. Hathaway as part of my research for my upcoming medical thriller, Stress Fracture, due in April, 2010. He shared with me the VISAR process, how he developed it as part of this investigation, and how he has used it in other famous cases.

Dr. Hathaway, Marshall’s Solar Physics Group Director, had been using advanced video techniques as part of his solar research. The FBI brought him 13 seconds of very dark film, made at night by a news reporter with a handheld camera. It showed the silhouette a large backpack, sitting on the ground near a park bench. Hathaway and Meyer went to work and step by step, through trial and error, stabilized, sharpened, and brightened the image. Dr. Hathaway showed me the step by step process and the results were amazing. What had been mere shadows soon became a back pack, top flap open, explosive device inside, thick wires hanging over the lip. VISAR was born.

Subsequently, Dr. Hathaway became involved in several other famous cases: the Mike Bell murder, the Katie Poirer and the Carlie Brucia abductions, the Elizabeth Smart case, and the Columbia accident to name a few.

So much of our daily life is touched by NASA spin-offs, including this computer, the GPS in your car, and all those indispensable things your iPhone does.

NASA 1999 Article

Dr. Hathaway and Paul Meyer: Who’s Who at NASA


On This Day in Criminal History: Andrew Cunanan

On this day in 1997, the body of Andrew Cunanan was found in a Miami boathouse, where he had taken his own life. This was eight days after he gunned down famed fashion designer Gianni Versace.


Cunanan was often described as a “high-class male prostitute,” who catered to wealthy older men. He lived and played in a world of wealth and hedonism until late 1996 when his world began to unravel. In mid-April, 1997, he threw himself a going away party in San Diego, telling most people that he was moving to San Francisco, while telling others that he was going to Minnesota to “settle some business.” He then bought a one-way, first-class ticket to Minneapolis.

On the night of April 27, 1997, he used a hammer to beat 28-year-old Jeffrey Trail to death in the Minneapolis apartment of Cunanan’s lover David Madson. The spree had begun. Five days later at a lake some 50 miles away, he shot Madson in the head and fled in the red Jeep the two had taken from Trail’s home.

Cunanan drove to Chicago where he took up with 72-year-old real-estate mogul Lee Miglin. After torturing and killing Miglin with pruning shears and a garden saw, Cunanan headed east in Miglin’s Lexus. On May 9th, he shot and killed William Reese in Pennsville, New Jersey, stole the dead man’s red Chevrolet pick-up, and headed south. Cunanan was now on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list.

He reached Miami, Florida, where on the morning of July 15th, he shot Gianni Versace twice in the head in front of Versace’s residence, Casa Casuarina.

Versace 2 copy

On July 23rd, police were summoned to a boathouse, where Cunanan was hiding, by its caretaker, Fernando Carreira. As with many spree killers, Cunanan took his own life before police could apprehend him.

Multiple murderers are those that have killed more than one person. They are classified according to the location and sequence of the killings into Mass, Spree, and Serial types. The exact definitions of these types varies from expert to expert and from time to time, but the below definitions are as good as any.

Mass Murderers: Kill more than 4 people in one place at one time. These killers often have a clear agenda and want to send a message. This is the killer that walks into his workplace and shoots several people in a rapid-fire assault. The attack often ends with the killer taking his own life or in a “blaze of glory” with the police killing him in a shoot out. The motive is often some perceived wrong by his co-workers or employer. Examples would be Charles Whitman and the Columbine killers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.

Spree Killers: Kill several people at two or more locations with the killings linked by motive and with no “cooling off” period between. The spree killer goes on a rampage, moving from place to place, city to city, even state to state, leaving bodies in his wake. It’s as if an underlying rage pushes him to act and once he begins, he doesn’t stop or deviate from his goal. As with mass murders, the spree often ends in suicide or a confrontation with law enforcement. Andrew Cunanan is the poster boy of spree killers.

Serial Killers: Kill several people at different times and locations with a “cooling off” period between the killings. The cooling off period, which may be days, weeks, months, even years, in duration, distinguishes serial from spree killers. In serials, the murders seem to relieve some internal stress, at least temporarily, and they “cool off” for a period of time until the demons awaken once again, while in spree killers, the fires continue to burn. The catalog of serial killers includes some very famous names: Bundy, Gacy, Lucas, Ridgeway, Dahlmer, Kraft, Rader, and the list goes on.

Andrew Cunanan: TruTV Crime Library


On This Day in Criminal History: Monkey Trial Ends

The Scopes Monkey Trial ended on this date in 1925 with the conviction of Dayton, TN teacher John Scopes, who was found guilty of teaching evolutionary theory in violation of a Tennessee State Law known as the Butler Act. The trial attracted world-wide attention, even H. L. Mencken of the Baltimore Sun, and pitted two American giants against one another: three-time presidential candidate, Congressman, and former Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan for the prosecution and Clarence Darrow for the defense. The trial was a major milestone in the controversy between creationists and evolutionists, a debate that continues today.


Darrow and Bryan

In what the state believed was a violation of the Butler Act, Scopes used a textbook that contained the concepts laid out by Charles Darwin in his seminal On the Origin of Species. Scopes was charged for this violation. The eight-day trial played out in the sweltering summer heat and at one point was moved outdoors because the courtroom became too hot. Once the closing arguments were completed, it took the jury only nine minutes to convict Scopes. He was fined $100. Two years later the Tennessee Supreme Court overturned the conviction and Scopes was never retired.

I first learned of and became fascinated with the trial in the 7th grade. This led me to my local Carnegie Library where I found a wonderful, just published book: Six Days or Forever by Ray Ginger. Loaded with quotes from the trial transcript, the battle between Bryan and Darrow is laid out in great detail. What did an impressionable 12 year old take from this book? That science and religion need not be mutually exclusive. That whether creation took 6 days or billions of years is irrelevant and isn’t the issue anyway. It’s what drove evolution that counts. And that, despite what many profess, no one knows the answer to.

Proverbs 11:29: He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind.


Tracy and March

Two years later in 1960, along came my all-time favorite movie: Inherit the Wind. Though it took liberties with the facts, with Spencer Tracy, Frederick March, Gene Kelly, Dick York, Claude Akins, Harry Morgan, director Stanley Kramer, and a screenplay ripped right from the trial, what’s not to love? Seen it 100 times, at least.


A few years ago, I visited Dayton and the Rhea County Courthouse where the trial took place. It was like walking into history, like walking on to the set of Inherit the Wind. The echoes of Bryan, Darrow, Tracy, and March can still be heard. If you ever find yourself in eastern Tennessee, visit Dayton. It’s a beautiful small town and a slice of American history.


UMKC School of Law



Posted by on July 21, 2009 in Interesting Cases, On This Day


More Billy the Kid

Pat Browning asked about Billy the Kid’s body, DNA, and a possible exhumation. A lawsuit was filed a year or so ago because apparently evidence that Dr. Henry Lee collected—blood from the bench where Billy bled to death–wasn’t made public. Also there are ongoing arguments over whether Billy’s body could be exhumed–to see if it really is Billy’s body. The legend remains cloudy. Here are a few articles on this case:

Santa Fe New Mexican


Tucson Weekly


Posted by on July 14, 2009 in On This Day


On This Day in Criminal History: Billy the Kid

Today is Bastille Day, marking the day in 1789 when French citizens stormed the Paris prison, a structure synonymous with the abusive monarchy and a place where horrible torture occurred. Though it housed only seven prisoners at the time, it’s destruction opened the way to the French Revolution.

This is also the day that Sheriff Pat Garrett shot dead Billy the Kid. The Kid went by various names, William H. Bonney, Henry Antrim, Henry McCarty, and many others, and is much more famous in death than he ever was in life. By most accounts he was a pleasant and friendly young man, a bit buck-toothed, with cat-like reflexes, and very skilled with a gun. He rose to contemporary fame for his part in the famous Lincoln County War, a bloody spat between ranchers and the owners of Murphy & Dolan Mercantile and Banking in Lincoln County, NM. The beef–pun intended since the war was mostly over who could raise and sell cattle in the county–resulted in 22 deaths and another 9 wounded.

Folklore says Billy killed 21 men, one for each year of his life, and that he was left-handed. He probably killed fewer than that and might have been right-handed. One of the very few, and some say only, authenticated pictures of him shows a gun on his left hip, but the photo is actually a mirror-image ferrotype. Some believe that he was ambidextrous but naturally right-handed.


In April of 1881 he was convicted of murder and sentenced to hang by Judge Warren Bristol. He escaped, overpowering and killing two of Sheriff Pat Garret’s guards, one with the guard’s own gun, the other with a 10-gauge double-barrel shotgun. Billy was off and running. Garrett organized a posse and gave chase, finally confronting and killing Billy on July 14, 1881. Even the story of this final act has remained controversial and clouded in myth.

Regardless, Billy the Kid is part of American folklore and in many respects truly bigger than life. He has been the subject of numerous books and movies. The great Paul Newman played him in the 1958 production The Left Handed Gun, but my favorite is Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid, with Kris Kristofferson as Billy, James Coburn as Garrett, and a sound track to die for from Bob Dylan, who also played a memorable character named only Alias.

About Billy The Kid



Posted by on July 14, 2009 in On This Day


On This Day in Criminal History: Garfield, Bell, and the Lost Bullet

On this day in 1881, US President James A. Garfield was shot while waiting to a board a train at the Baltimore & Potomac Railroad Passenger Terminal in Washington DC. The shooter was identified as Charles Guiteau and he was later convicted of this murder. Garfield did not die immediately but rather lingered for over two months before finally succumbing on September 19, 1881.

Garfield, James

Apparently two shots were fired during the assassination attempt, the first grazing Garfield’s arm, and the second, the killing bullet, striking him near the spine in his mid-back. It was reported that the bullet lay near the first lumbar vertebrae. It did not apparently damaged his spinal cord, did not enter the lung, and caused no major organ injury. Gunshots kill instantly only if a vital structure is damaged, structures such as the brain, the heart, or the upper portions of the spinal cord. If these are not damaged, then death can come fairly quickly from severe bleeding, or much more slowly, over days, or weeks, or months, from infection.

With modern treatment President Garfield would have survived with little if any disability. Surgery to remove a bullet, repair of the damage done, and a course of antibiotics would have restored him to health and to the presidency. But in 1881 things were a bit different.

The first order of business was to locate the bullet and this was not apparent from the injury. Fearful of digging around in the president’s back with surgical instruments, the physicians that took care of him were unsure what to do. Enter Alexander Graham Bell. Bell stated that certain characteristics of his telephone could be used to manufacture a metal detector and this is exactly what he did. The hope was that the detector would locate the bullet, which could then be removed without harming Mr. Garfield. The problem was that Garfield lay on the bed with a metal frame and this apparently interfered with the functioning of the metal detector, though it seems that they did not exactly understand that and were unsure why the detector behaved so erratically. In the end, Bell’s invention failed to save the day.

Read the rest of this entry »

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