Monthly Archives: September 2014

Death Grip – Season 4, Show 4, 2014

Lt. Joe begins this episode with the line:  “Love is blind, but it can also be dangerous.”  What I see in this case is not blind love but blind rage.

The attention-getting issue in this show is the question of temporary insanity.  Should a mentally ill killer be incarcerated in a special facility?  Or for the safety of the public, should a killer be locked up despite mental illness?

And then there’s the concept of “temporary”?  Was this jury a bunch of patsies?

Most Quoted Line:   “Sympathy is just a word in the dictionary between ‘s..t’ (bleeped out in the show, but not so you don’t know what it means) & ‘syphilis’.”

Summary:  Scene is an apartment building, Colorado Springs, on an evening in February, 1979.  A mother & infant are sleeping in one of the apartments.  She awakens to loud noises–& the crash of a vehicle through the wall, dangerously close by.  She grabs her baby & runs outside.   What she finds is blood.  The windshield of the truck is covered with blood.  A woman, covered with blood, sits on the ground.  Inside the pick-up truck is a the bloody body of a man.

Lt. Joe is working the night shift.  He arrives at the apartment building to find a crowd of spectators, along with the level of confusion that he has come to expect.  The woman on the ground is too traumatized to respond or speak.  An ambulance takes her away to a hospital.

Lt. Joe soon discovers that this was murder.  “This [death] is not from running into a building. This is from running into a bullet.”

What appears to have happened is that the driver of the truck rolled down the window while the truck was still in gear.  Perhaps he was talking with the shooter.  The bullet hit through the open window & into the man’s head.  A spasm of death locked him into position, with his foot still on the gas pedal & his hands on the steering wheel.  The truck lurched forward, crashed into the building, & then almost bounced backward before it came to rest.

At that point, the traumatized passenger in the truck fell or leapt to the ground.  She is Lori Alice Firth, age 23.   The murdered man is Michael Lyle Faast, a furniture salesman, married, with two small sons.

Lt. Joe looks for witnesses.  One of the spectators is Warren Anderson, who announces he is a witness, but then becomes agitated & attempts to run away.  Of course, Lt. Joe is suspicious.  He takes him in for questioning.  Warren is lying, but what he’s lying about turns out to be personal.  He was on the scene that night to pursue an extra-marital affair that he wants to keep secret.  He pleads for sympathy, thus eliciting the now-much-quoted line about sympathy.  He goes so far as to offer a $500 bribe, a first for Lt. Joe.  Lt. Joe threatens to hold a press conference that will reveal all.  Under this sort of pressure, Warren talks, but as far as the murder goes, “he really doesn’t see a lot.”  Lt. Joe accurately decides, “I have better things to do than talk to you.”

A more useful witness is the owner of the truck.  Lt. Joe tracks him down.  Michael is a friend, who borrowed the truck in order to help his sister move.  His idea is that Michael & Lori are just friends.  But Lori is a close enough friend that she goes along to help with the move.

Clearly, the question now is whether Michael was having an affair with Lori.  Reportedly, he was unhappily married to Claudia.  Is this a love triangle?  Is someone jealous?

Lt. Joe goes to inform Claudia of Michael’s death.  Michael’s mother & father are there, & they react with horror & devastation.  But Claudia, interviewed for this show, displays a cold, calm demeanor.  She goes about her house tidying & cleaning.  She tells the suspicious Lt. Joe that Michael owned a rifle & a gun.  Did she have both motive & means to commit murder?  Of course, Lt. Joe orders a ballistic comparison to see if the fatal bullet could have come from Michael’s gun. (It didn’t.)

Claudia also knows about Lori.  She says that Michael had been working on a book about his father’s experiences in World War II.  Lori had been working for him as a part time stenographer, doing organizing & typing–& apparently, moving work.

What Claudia says in the interview is that she did feel the pain of the loss of her husband but couldn’t show her emotions.  She couldn’t stop moving.  That was agitation & distress, not a steely temper.  She was left as the single mother of two children, Mark, then age six, & Patrick, age one.

The time comes when Lt. Joe can interview the traumatized Lori.  “This is it,” he says.  “This is the moment.”  He finds Lori still an emotional mess, but able to talk.  She identifies the perpetrator as her former boy friend, Ron Ball.  He is an Air Force officer, who once had everything going for him, a “golden boy,” as Lt. Joe describes him.  Lori fell in love with him.  He did not return her affection, although he grudgingly allowed her to follow him as the Air Force posted him to Colorado Springs.  After three years, though, Lori breaks up with him.  Ron does not like rejection.  At once, he wants her back.  He proposes marriage.  He sends disturbing letters.  Lori becomes frightened of him.  To try to get rid of these unwanted attentions, Lori may have told him she had a new boy friend.

That boy friend, however, was not Michael.  She says she was not romantically involved with Michael.

But that’s not what Ron thought.  Ron became ferociously jealous.

Now Lt. Joe knows who the killer is.

Look at the fate in the minute-by-minute timing of all this:  Michael is a furniture salesman, off work when the store closes at 9:00.  He plans to spend the rest of the evening helping his sister move.  It takes him about 45 minutes to leave work, borrow the truck, & go to pick up Lori.  Meanwhile, Ron visits Lori at about 9:35.  Within just minutes, she has brushed him off, & he storms out to his car to retrieve his already loaded pistol.  (Does this look like pre meditation?) When Michael arrives a few minutes later, about 9:45, Ron is in the parking lot, gun in hand.  His emotions are at a boil.  Michael sees Ron.  He rolls down the window to try to speak to him.  Ron fires the shot.  The truck lurches forward in the “death grip.”  The truck breaks a window & comes all too close to hitting the mother & baby asleep in the lower level apartment.  Lori witnesses all this.

Patrol officers find Ron’s car parked outside a bar.  A plainclothesman enters the bar as if he were a customer.  Sure enough, he finds Ron there, dressed in his Air Force uniform.  Plan is that to arrest Ron right then & there, with other police ready to storm in & take him a gunpoint, if necessary.  Suddenly, the bar stool is empty.  Ron is in the men’s room.  The arrest does not quite go according to plan, but it does happen.

Police search Ron’s car.  They do not find a gun.  Lt. Joe needs a confession from Ron.  Under questioning, Ron requests legal counsel.  But, despite that moment of lucidity, he is in general not acting in a sane manner.  He talks to himself, on & on.  He displays, Lt. Joe says, “extremely bizarre behavior.”

In due course, three Air Force officers arrive to demand their colleague’s immediate release.  They act as if Lt. Joe were their not too bright subordinate.  He explains what Ron has done.  Suddenly, their arrogance turns to shock.  What follows, Lt. Joe says, must be the “fastest discharge in military history.”

Ron is acquitted by reason of temporary insanity.  He is sent not to a prison but to a hospital.

Michael’s wife Claudia, speaking over thirty years later, says that she still feels the pain of her great loss.  Lt. Joe comments, “What a waste of a life.”

Unusual Emotional Reaction:  In a portion of the interview not aired, Claudia says that she can see why Lt. Joe might have interpreted her flat reaction as suspicious.  She was candid in the interview that she has difficulty expressing herself.  A reaction like hers is rare, but it does happen.  Lt. Joe has often approached killers to tell them of a death that is not news to them.  Sometimes, they can’t even pretend to be surprised, much less sorry or sad.  A few recognize that it would be in their best interest to put on a pretense of grief or shock.  But generally, people are not good at lying, & an experienced detective like Lt. Joe can tell the difference.  Claudia, it turns out, was not good at displaying the truth of her own deep emotions.

Motives for Murder:  Wouldn’t you think Ron might have done a bit of research before he selected a murder target who was not, in fact, competition for Lori’s affections?  Again, as so often in Lt. Joe’s cases, there’s no logical motive.  There is not literary–no Dorothy Sayers, Agatha Christie, or P. D. James for us.  This is life & death, real & messy.

But if the motive is missing, replaced by anger & rage, does that mean the killer is insane?

Temporary Insanity:  Ron’s parents hired the best defense attorneys.  They reportedly spent a full $500,000.

During a jury trial, expert psychiatric experts argued that Ron was insane at the time of the murder.  Ron claimed not even to remember his actions that night.  Lt. Joe believes Ron spent about ten years in a state psychiatric facility.  He does not know what happened to him after that.  His personal belief is that Ron was sane.

Murder trails often revolve around issues of mental illness. Ordinarily, juries are reluctant to say the word “acquit” when a defendant is clearly guilty, even if mentally ill by all medical definition.  Some jurisdictions allow a verdict of “guilty but mentally ill.”

But a jury can be manipulated.  Jurors can react with emotion rather than logic.

Does that mean the defendant gets off easy?  Sometimes, at least, it does not.  Certainly, ten years in a state psychiatric prison would be unpleasant, not to say punitive.  But most of us will think that Ron got off easy, considering his violence left behind a man horribly dead, two small children fatherless, a devastated wife & parents, & a severely traumatized young woman.  Add that his actions nearly killed a young mother & infant.

Justice for Dollars:  Contrast Ron’s fate to the outcome for murderer Rickie Dillon, in “Blood Innocence,” the sixth show of this fourth season.  Rickie is one of four men bent on stealing whatever valuables they can from an unsecured truck.  Unknown to him, there are no valuables, & a man is sleeping in the back of the truck–Carl Taylor, a veteran & war hero.  Within seconds of breaking into the truck, Rickie decides–abruptly & for no discernible reason–to beat this poor man to death.  Like Ron, Rickie may (or may not) have suffered from temporary (or permanent) insanity.  But the two killers, Rickie & Ron, differ in race, socio-economic status, criminal history, & financial resources.  Rickie had a public defender–no half million dollar defense for him.  Rickie’s sentence was life in prison, no chance of parole.

Does money make all the difference?  Does this case give us blind love, blind rage–but not blind justice?

Jury versus Judge:  Here is Lt. Joe’s maxim.  If you’re guilty, ask for a jury to decide your fate.  If you’re innocent, request a judge.

Bad Things Come in Threes – Season 4, Show 3, 2014

If there’s one truth a homicide detective learns quickly, it’s to pay attention to seeming coincidence.  In this case, three women are killed within one general geographic area & within a short period of time.

Lt. Joe tells me he used to be squeamish.  But he overcame it by the time he finished his first year as a homicide detective.  I may never overcome the vision of the peanut butter in this story.

Most Quoted Line:  “I always think there’s no such thing as coincidence.  Coincidences are always suspicious.  If they happen more than once, they become evidence.”

Summary:  It’s January 8, 1995 at the Lair Lounge in Colorado Springs.  A bartender passing by the back door hears a disturbing sound, human moaning.  Two women lie in the front seat of a car.  One is dead.  The other dies later in the hospital.

When his pager goes off, Lt. Joe is practicing with his highly accurate .45 automatic.  As he approaches the death scene, he sees a red mist.  That’s high velocity blood splatter.  That’s only from bullets.  So he already knows this is murder.  Even though it is a winter night, the car windows are rolled down.  That indicates the victims knew the killer.  He finds 9 mm. casings.

The victims are two women.  Shirley Harper Swalley, age 30, was an unemployed teacher, divorced, with two daughters.  Her former husband & a daughter, now grown, appear in interviews.  Michelle Vigil, known as Mickey, age 29, was an elementary school teacher, married, with two sons, ages two & four.  Her stepmother appears in interviews.

A man of interest appears on the scene.  He is Valentino, very distraught.  He says he was a would-be boy friend of Shirley’s.  But, he says, Shirley worried about taking on a new boy friend.  Her old boy friend, Gino, was jealous, controlling, & dangerous.  “I like that,” Lt. Joe comments drily.  “Pay attention to this guy.”

Sure enough, Gino shows up in a van.  “He had The Look,” Lt. Joe notes.  Everything about him adds up to “suspect.”  Gino knows that.  “Good,” Lt. Joe says.  “You have frightening grasp of the obvious.”  Gino says he had been at a party.  He came over to the Lair Lounge because he was supposed to meet Shirley that evening, then heard rumors of the murder.  Unfortunately for the investigation, Gino’s alibi checks out.

Next Lt. Joe goes to tell Michelle’s family.  They are devastated.  Michelle’s husband says that she was with Shirley just to cheer her up–& also to give her a ride since Shirley’s car had been stolen recently.  He reveals that Shirley was addicted to cocaine.  That news puts the investigation into new territory.  “Murder cases become enormously complicated when drugs are involved.”

Lt. Joe looks into a similar drug-related murder that happened four days earlier, in Elbert County, Colorado, not his jurisdiction.  A UPS driver had come upon the body of Sherry Holmes, age 24.  Sherry, like Shirley, was a drug addict.  Could this be the same killer?  That crime had what to Lt. Joe is the distinguishing mark of a Mexican drug cartel.  The body, killed with six gunshot wounds, is heavily covered with peanut butter.  The pounds of peanut butter are to make the body attractive to predators, wolves or coyotes, who might, Lt. Joe says, be counted on to dispose of the body or at least to drag it off “into the sunset.”

Lt. Joe interviews Gino again.  Gino says that Shirley & Sherry were acquaintances.  He brings in the name of James Palecek, a former boy friend & drug dealer.  Shirley supposedly owed James $2,500 in drug debt.  James is the one who stole her car.  Was he settling the score?

Shawn, Shirley’s former husband, says that Shirley had once been a good woman & a devoted mother.  But drugs had overtaken her life.  Her children saw her less & less.  “Everything you’ve ever been,” Lt. Joe says about drug addiction, “fades into the past.”

Witnesses at the Lair Lounge that night remember Shirley quarreling with two men over money.  One is James’ brother Paul Palecek.  The other is Filippi.  A bartender remembers seeing Paul go out back to the men’s room.  Meanwhile, Filippi goes out the front door.  The top part door is covered with signs & posters, but she remembers seeing his legs through the unobstructed bottom part of the door.

Now police pick up Jason, a drug addict who claims to have information.  He says he saw a hit list of drug buyers who owned debts to the “Mexican mafia.”  He thinks he read the names of all three of these women on the hit list.  Jason rambles on in a drug-induced paranoia.  This is a dead end.

Lt. Joe looks at the evidence so far.  In addition to the 9 mm casings, police discover 25 mm casings.  Conclusion is that two shooters used two guns in a simultaneous shooting.  Police also find blood-stained paper towels in the trash can of the men’s room.  The door of the men’s room is directly next to the back door.  Neither are visible from the bar.  So Paul could have gone out the back door, shot the victims, then returned to clean up.  As far as Filippi is concerned, Lt. Joe is no longer convinced that the bartender observed his legs through the front door.  As the second shooter, he could have gone out the front door, around to the back, shot the victims, then returned again through the front door.

Who is Filippi?  He’s a middle-level drug dealer connected with James & Paul.

Police find Paul’s car at a motel.  They approach cautiously.  It’s all too obvious Paul could kill again.  “Once you kill,” Lt. Joe remarks, “it’s just numbers after that.”

Police succeed in arresting Paul.

Paul is convicted of first-degree murder with two consecutive life sentences, without possibility of parole.  Filippi escapes to Mexico, where as far as we know, he lives a free man, without consequences for murder.  James is convicted on other drug-related charges.

It turned out Lt. Joe was right about Gino having The Look that goes along with the “willingness to kill.”  Gino was eventually convicted of killing Sherry Holmes.  He is serving life in prison.

What is especially poignant about this case is that Shirley had plans to go to a drug rehab center.  She was scheduled to depart the very next day.

The Back Story:  Shirley & Michelle met as teachers at an elementary school in Colorado Springs.  Shirley became addicted to drugs, divorced, & dropped out of teaching.  She was in a bad way.  Michelle went out with her that night to console & comfort a friend in trouble.  Michelle had nothing to do with the drugs or drug dealers.  She was in the wrong place, at the wrong time, with the wrong people.  Four small children were left without their mothers.

Coincidences:  The seeming coincidences of this case are not really coincidence but inter-connection.  The criminals in the world of drugs have a survival reason to stay well acquainted with one another–& with the addicts who buy from them.  Lt. Joe says the peanut butter is not unique.  At least two of the killers received sentences of first degree murder.  But one walked free, & the Mexican drug cartels continue in the news.

Sick Joke:  An unfortunate UPS driver, driving around lost, came upon the body of Sherry Holmes, just hours after (human) predators took her life & before the peanut butter drew in (animal) predators.  Lt. Joe reminds me of the advertising slogan, “What Can Brown Do For You?”